Wednesday 28 September 2011

Blood On Satan's Claw - But Where Are Satan's Legs?

After the huge success of 1967’s WITCHFINDER GENERAL it was unsurprising that both companies involved in its production were keen to cash in on the success of that movie, as well as copycat efforts like Michael Armstrong’s MARK OF THE DEVIL. Both follow-ups materialised around the same time. AIP’s CRY OF THE BANSHEE was an incoherent sadistic British horror picture filled with unnecessary nudity and scenes of violence that as a whole didn’t really work. Oddly enough, Tigon’s BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW could be described in exactly the same way, but somehow it managed to be a completely different, far more unsettling affair.
       We’re in freezing gloomy seventeenth century England, with none of the fake charm, cosiness or glamour redolent of Hollywood’s depiction of the period. Ralph Gower’s plough turns up something nasty in a field – bits of bones, fur and a skull with one very blue eye (and attached worm). It disappears, leaving Patrick Wymark’s Judge (a finely balanced performance with just the right amount of veiled drunken threat behind a scary headmasterly authoritiveness) to doubt its existence. Sexy Angel Blake (Linda Hayden) finds the claw of the title and soon the children of the community are growing bits of nasty-looking fur on them as the thing (it’s never made clear exactly what it is) tries to resurrect itself.  Other odd things happen too – young Peter brings his new bride Rosalind back to his aunt’s farmhouse only for her to be driven insane in the attic by something we never get to see. When Peter goes up there he falls asleep only to be attacked by his own hand, now covered with the same fur, which he hacks off. Peter’s aunt disappears halfway through the film never to be seen again, and as the film becomes increasingly nasty and outrageous (the seduction of the village priest in his church by a naked Hayden, the horrifying rape and murder of Wendy Padbury) a relentless sense of downbeat dread drives the film towards it conclusion, where the creature is finally vanquished by Wymark’s sword.
            A fascinating mixture of the diabolically nasty and the diabolically daft, some of BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW’s lapses in logic can be attributed to the fact that it was originally planned as a three part anthology movie, and vestiges of all three stories remain in the final script. The fact that it still works can be put down to the conviction with which the movie’s properly unpleasant central conceit is played out. The idea of some horrible rotting thing regrowing parts of itself on children who are then willing to have them hacked off to allow it to be put back together is brilliantly horrible and the gloominess and isolation evinced by the landscape and period are just perfect for such a story. Attempted solutions are as unpleasant as the evil itself. Cutting the skin from a girl’s leg is considered pointless as it will just regrow but the local doctor goes ahead and does it anyway, without any anaesthetic. Wymark’s judge explains that the evil has to be allowed to take hold and possess enough children before he will be able to destroy it – a remarkable position for the ‘force for good’ to take in any horror film, and perhaps one we might only ever see in a film from the early 1970s. It’s very easy to pull BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW to pieces and make fun of it, not least because one can see the hand of producer Tony Tenser in some of the more exploitation-orientated scenes – indeed, towards the end of the film a girl is thrown in the river to be ‘swum’ on suspicion of being a witch apparently because a similar scene in WITCHFINDER GENERAL had gone down well with audiences. It doesn't make an awful lot of sense that Satan (or whatever it is) would grow its legs last, but the image (and sound) of the 'hopping fiend' is very scary indeed. In fact no matter how cobbled together, random and inexplicable much of the film is, there’s no doubt that it’s disturbing, unsettling and at times properly horrifying. Well done Tigon – I still can't quite work out how you managed it.

Saturday 24 September 2011

Psychomania - "The Word, Mother, Is Daft"

With a Region 1 DVD release out from Severin Films a little while back, with plenty of extras and struck from the best print available, what better film to launch the BritHorror Dungeon part of this blog with than PSYCHOMANIA, a horror film made in 1972 by British film company Benmar productions, whose only other foray into things cinematic was the equally daft and no less enjoyable HORROR EXPRESS. Known everywhere as ‘that zombie biker movie where Beryl Reid gets turned into a frog’ I couldn’t let another viewing of this particular film at Probert Towers pass without writing a few well-chosen words about it, the title of which makes no sense, but then neither does anything else.
            ‘The Living Dead’ motorcycle gang consists of a group of young RADA-trained actors with beautiful speaking voices trying to act evil. They are aided in this endeavour by the names given them by the script which include ‘Hatchet’ (played by the chubby little ginger chap from BLOOD ON SATAN'S CLAW, ‘Chopped Meat’ (who ends up a singing one of the strangest songs in popular horror film history but more on that in a minute) and ‘Jane’ (Ann Michelle, keeping her clothes on this time after the copious nudity of Tigon’s THE VIRGIN WITCH a couple of years previous and soon to appear in Pete Walker’s HOUSE OF WHIPCORD). Each member of the gang has their name written on their leathers, presumably in case they (or indeed the actors playing them) forget who they are. It also makes it very handy later on for the police to be able to identify the various perpetrators of any ensuing miscreant behaviour.
            The leader is Tom, played by Nicky Henson (Ian Ogilvy’s friend from WITCHFINDER GENERAL), whose girlfriend Abby is played by Mary Larkin. Despite being pretty much the only one left alive at the end of this as far as I’m aware Ms Larkin never went on to do anything of any significance afterwards.   
            The opening title sequence of this film is wonderful. John Cameron’s music theme is very seventies but it’s the right kind of seventies and when this sequence is watched now it lends an even more haunting otherworldly atmosphere to the proceedings. The incongruous image of motorcycles riding around fog-wreathed standing stones in slow motion is at once outlandish and engaging, and is almost perfect in its atmospheric scene setting. The movie which follows is also going to be filled with standout moments, albeit on the whole for reasons other than what one could hesitatingly call quality.
           After a little bit of road-based violence to get the film started (and to demonstrate just how nasty the bike gang is) Tom and Abby pop off to the nearest graveyard where their canoodling is interrupted by Tom’s interest in a frog who has been thrown onto the set. Popping his new ‘little green friend’ into his pocket he leaves Abby to probably seriously reconsider her position in a relationship where amphibians seem to take precedence, and drives back to the manor house where he lives with mum Beryl Reid, butler Shadwell (George Sanders) and some of the most hideous seventies wall-sculptures you will ever see. While Shadwell admires the frog (now housed beneath a transparent cover probably last used for a sponge cake) Tom brings us up to speed on how Shadwell never gets older, that the butler knows the secret of the living dead, and that the house has a room that’s been locked for eighteen years. Needless to say, Tom’s soon in the mysteriously dust-free and highly polished forbidden chamber, finding his dead dad’s NHS spectacles and having visions of a big frog and then Beryl doing something suspiciously like signing Tom’s soul away when he was a baby to a man with a frog ring. Tom should be okay, apparently, because he’s wearing a frog pendant, which leads one to wonder if the producers spent a day in 1971 at World of Frogs buying up their unsold stock, and then got screenwriters Arnaud D’Usseau and Julian Halevy to follow-up their previous movie hit HORROR EXPRESS with “anything (and we mean literally anything) involving frogs and motorbikes”.
            The ‘big secret’ is that if you kill yourself but believe you’ll come back then you will, which if it were actually true would mean a world full of the buggers. There’s probably more to it than that but I suspect the film-makers thought it would be irresponsible to divulge anything else, although somehow I suspect it involves more frog-based shenanigans.
            After some very poor shopping-centre antics and a road chase, Tom drives off a bridge and into the local river, killing himself. “We’d like to bury him out way if that’s ok” says Abby when she visits Beryl’s house. Trusting Beryl agrees without asking any more, so it’s a bit of a relief when it turns out that the gang’s ‘way’ involves burying Tom in his leathers and sitting on his motorbike in the stone circle. Lucky for Tom as well that ‘their way’ doesn’t involve jamming something sizeable up his bottom, covering him in treacle and placing him upside down on the town merry-go-round or he’d have some explaining to do when he came back to life.
            Which he does, in another impressive screen moment. “Do you want him back?” says George Sanders beforehand. “Yes,” says Beryl. “Yes, God help me I do.” Which is the cue, ladies and gentlemen for you to either hit the fast forward button, go and make a cup of tea, or brace yourselves for one of the most incongruous moments in movie history as this zombie biker horror picture grinds to a halt so that the gang, dressed in hippy gear, can make wreaths and other flower-based items of mourning while the song ‘Riding Free’ is mercilessly etched into your subconscious. Tom may indeed have ‘really got it on’ and may well have ‘rode that sweet machine just like a bomb’ but I am going to stop before I tell you the full horror of these lyrics in case there’s any risk of copyright infringement.
            Tom comes back and looks remarkably clean for a man who’s been buried under a grave full of earth. He gets some free petrol and then proceeds to murder a pub full of people. Police inspector Robert Hardy, looking unsure as to how he’s meant to be playing this, keeps a straight face as the bodies start to pile up, especially when the gang cotton on and proceed to kill themselves in a montage of suicides so ridiculously over the top that the comic moments of the film so far are in serious danger of being topped by this single three minute sequence.
            Scarcely has the pathologist time to answer a call from his wife than the gang are up and about again, including Abby, who’s not actually dead as her overdose failed, but not before giving her a slightly trippy dream sequence where her nightmare becomes so extreme and unpleasant that she envisions herself wearing something approaching a gaily coloured African tablecloth.
            Beryl finds out from the police that Tom’s told his gang the Family Secret and tell Shadwell she wishes to break her bargain. “And you know what you will be become for all eternity?” he says and she nods, figuring she might always be able to get a job presenting The Muppet Show in a couple of years.
            Tom finds out Abby is still living and in a showdown with the gang back at the stone circle attempts to kill her. Fortunately Beryl has completed the ritual, acquiring a distinctly croaky voice and a Kermit-like appearance in the process, and as a result Tom and his gang turn to stone. The End. Apart from black-cloaked Shadwell approaching distraught Abby in the stone circle as John Cameron’s music plays us out in another haunting moment that almost makes up for what’s gone before.
            There is nothing quite like PSYCHOMANIA and there never will be again. The film could not have been made at any other time or in any other country, and it still manages to achieve an open-mouthed response of ‘what on earth were they thinking when they made this?’ on viewing that, coupled with some memorable scenes and a haunting score, means it shouldn’t be allowed to fade into obscurity.

Wednesday 21 September 2011

Fear Itself - Or Is It?

Horror on television has always been considered difficult to do, but one can always argue that horror on the big screen doesn’t exactly have a 100% track record of success either. Therefore perhaps it’s not surprising that horror anthology TV shows can be patchy affairs. Patchy, however, does mean good as well as bad, and shows like NIGHT GALLERY (Camera Obscura), HAMMER HOUSE OF HORROR (The Two Faces of Evil) and MASTERS OF HORROR (Cigarette Burns) have all had their moments of glory, even if those of us who stuck with the entire run of all of those shows were also left with the feeling that perhaps overall they could have done better. That feeling was no more in evidence for me with the last series on that list, which used the fact that each episode would be directed by an acclaimed ‘master’ of the form as an expectation setter that had little hope of succeeding, and indeed it was only John Carpenter’s episode that emerged as the kind of thing one was hoping every episode would be. Another series followed, with some of the directors boasting rather questionable cinematic qualifications for them to be considered a ‘Master’ and that series was similarly hit and mostly miss.
            In most walks of life, the more practice one has at something the better one tends to get – playing the piano, transplanting kidneys, and (one hopes) producing horror television series. Sadly sometimes the more one does something the more it becomes apparent that one isn’t suited to it at all and that one should probably be doing something else. It was therefore with some trepidation after the two ‘Masters’ series that I approached producer / creator Mick Garris’ third attempt at the form.
            The first couple of seconds of the first episode of FEAR ITSELF are promising. The opening titles consist of a series of well-photographed unsettling images. A shame, then, that these are accompanied by a quite terrible (and terribly annoying) theme tune reminiscent of a particularly bad 1970s Eurovision Song Contest entry. It’s with that ringing in our ears that we are introduced to the first episode. I’m aware that the running order on US television may have been a little different (and somewhat non-existent as the show was pulled after eight of its thirteen episode run) so the rest of this column makes recourse to the running order of the DVD box set that’s now available
            Side one of disk one kicks off with Brad Anderson’s ‘Spooked’. Eric Roberts plays a cop whose unorthodox methods get him fired when he goes a little too far with one of the suspects he’s torturing and the young man dies. The fact that Roberts’ actions enable a senator’s son to be saved means that Eric gets away with sacking and loss of pension rather than anything more severe. Years later he’s changed his surname and is now running a private detective agency called ‘Bender Investigations’ (someone really has to tell US TV people that that word has entirely different connotations in the UK). Employed to prove that a woman’s husband is having an affair he finds himself setting up his surveillance cameras in The House Across The Street, which just happens to be Anderson’s version of a suburban haunted house, and a very good one it is too. Graffiti on the walls incorporates images that with a bit of CGI animation lead to the creepiest and most effective moments in the episode. Saying any more would spoil the story but suffice to say this is yet another Brad Anderson project where the male central character has to undergo psychological torment for some terrible act he has committed in his past. So far so good.
            The second episode is ‘Eater’, directed by Stuart Gordon. This is the second time that Pete Crowther’s short story, originally published in Cemetery Dance magazine, has been adapted for television. The first was as part of the UK Channel Five series URBAN GOTHIC where the story was told in half the time, had a more effective villain and a better ending. Here the cannibalistic body-switching killer of the title is a singing Cajun who is seen far too much and despite giving the villain a set of scary teeth Gordon keeps everything too well lit and that, coupled with a silly and impractical ending, makes this one a disappointment.
            Flipping the disk over we are treated to Mary Harron’s 'Community', a surprisingly effective little piece about the age-old (but always relevant) theme of gated privileged communities that have a Deep Dark Secret. Brandon Routh (Bryan Singer’s Superman) and Shiri Appleby (from ROSWELL) can’t afford to move out of their grim little apartment. However the news that they are trying for a baby results in them being welcomed with open arms (and a ridiculously low mortgage rate) into an exclusive suburban residential community. Discovering that one of their neighbours only has one leg is just the start of their problems as they realise they really should have read the small print on the paperwork, especially the bit about the consequences if they don’t actually have a baby within six months. It’s a fine little piece of TV horror and more than makes up for the slightly lacking 'The Sacrifice', which completes disc one. Breck Eisner’s direction delivers a nicely atmospheric tale with some great sets but the story about a gang of utterly unlikeable villains coming across a group of gorgeous young girls living in what looks like a concentration camp in the middle of nowhere doesn’t really work.
            Onto disk two and John Landis’ 'In Sickness and In Health', which in better days and another country would have made a very enjoyable giallo. As it is people who are in the habit of looking for twists will see this one coming a mile off as a bride receives a note on the day of her wedding that suggests all may not be as it seems with her intended. William B Davis (of X FILES Smoking Man fame) does a nice turn as a deaf priest but it’s not enough to make this episode special.
            In fact that’s the problem with the series overall, and what dogged MASTERS OF HORROR, the series this is heir to – there aren’t enough strong episodes to justify watching the entire series. Anyone who wants to dip in, however, should be directed with all speed towards Larry Fessenden’s ‘Skin & Bones’, which continues the director’s obsession with the wendigo myth. This time it’s thinner than thin itself actor Doug Jones who gets possessed by the wandering evil spirit and develops a taste for his own family in their remote farm in the woods. Jones is properly scary as the possessed creature and any familiar with Fessenden’s work will be pleased to hear this story doesn’t disappoint. Another honourable mention deserves to go to Ronny Yu (director of BRIDE OF CHUCKY and FREDDY Vs. JASON) whose ‘Family Man’ is an entertaining body swap horror in which loving husband and father Colin Ferguson finding himself in the body of a serial killer facing a death sentence, who is now free to prey on Ferguson’s family. A cracking ending makes this a decent little slice of TV horror in a series that sadly doesn’t deliver on its title promise anywhere near as often as it should, but hopefully anyone picking up the box set now has a few pointers on what might be worth watching first.

Sunday 18 September 2011

Julia's Eyes - More Spanish Horror Worth Seeing

In recent years one country more than any other has given hope to Euro-horror fans everywhere. Atmospheric ghost stories, the kinetic zombie antics of the excellent [REC] and even a splendid series of television ‘FILMS TO KEEP YOU AWAKE’ (PELICULAS PARA NO DORMIR -which I’ll be covering on here in due course) have put Spain on the map as a leading producer of quality screen terror. JULIA’S EYES, which has just come out on UK Region 2 DVD & Blu-Ray after a limited independent cinema run here, is another one to look out for, although how much you will enjoy it will depend on your tastes.
Inappropriately marketed in some territories as a subtle psychological chiller, anyone going to see JULIA'S EYES  because of its implied links to quiet Spanish horror hits like THE ORPHANAGE or some of Guillermo del Toro’s own projects may well find themselves getting rather more in the way of outrageous incident than they bargained for. The rest of us can sit back and relax, safe in the knowledge that the spirit of the giallo seems to be well and alive and making a comeback from Spain.
            Julia suffers from Made-Up-Movie-Optic-Nerve-Degeneration, one of those plot devices that allows her to lose and regain sight whenever it becomes necessary to the plot or to aid in the construction of an atmospheric scene. Her sister has the same condition at the beginning but is swiftly put out of the picture (literally) because she appears to be another one of those movie characters who can tie an expert noose to hang themselves with (or do they sell them in ‘specialist’ shops nowadays?). Julia’s convinced her sister was murdered and that the girl’s mysterious new boyfriend is to blame and so the hunt is on, taking her to the hotel where they stayed just before her death by way of a changing room full of naked blind women who sniff out Julia’s presence, and the man who is now stalking her, in one of the set pieces that, along with what is actually a very well developed, tense and mysterious first forty five minutes, certainly endeared this writer to this particular picture.
            It’s in the movie’s second half that the audience is going to be divided, when the movie enters seriously silly giallo territory, with the requisite One Daft Thing After Another taking place. However, and where the film scores big points, all these daft things are perfectly executed, the performances are spot on and some of the shocks are so well choreographed that I jumped and cringed along with everybody else. Two of the murders later on suggest that, rather than studying the likes of Del Toro’s PAN’S LABYRINTH and THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE, director Guillem Morales has been rather more influenced by some of the murders in Norman J Warren’s SATAN’S SLAVE and Pete Walker’s SCHIZO. The climactic turning out of the lights has been used in many a picture but there’s no reason why it shouldn’t work again here and in a way it would be disappointing if it wasn’t.
            Definitely designed as a crowd pleaser, JULIA’S EYES is delicious entertainment. It’s scary, well paced, and when it realises it’s going to go over the top it does so with verve and enthusiasm, embracing its clich├ęs with gusto and is a much better film for it. It also happens to be a film with a more mature central female character than we get to see from Hollywood, someone who is in a loving relationship, which the film manages to express on several levels and at several points in the movie without interfering with the pacing. Actually it’s a refreshing change to see a modern horror film without a teenager in sight. Lady P and I really loved it. Cracking job, Guillem – we’ll be first in line for your next one.

Friday 16 September 2011

Lady Frankenstein - Eurotrash Corner No.1

So to launch the Eurotrash Corner of this blog (you knew there had to be one) here’s an enjoyably tatty slice of Gothic Euro-daftness. Joseph Cotton stars as a very American Baron Frankenstein who together with his dubbed colleague Dr Marshall makes one of the poorer monsters to grace our screens, with a head that’s too bulbous and one wobbly fake eye that keeps threatening to fall off. The monster escapes but not before killing the Baron, to the distress of  his daughter (Rosalba Neri) who’s just back from medical school as a fully qualified surgeon. “I could never love you,” says Neri to Dr Marshall, “unless of course your brain was in the body of that hunky but brain dead farmhand who works here”. Dr Marshall doesn’t take much persuading which, despite that fact that Ms Neri really is a very attractive Lady Frankenstein, suggests he really hasn’t had all that much experience with women. She does of course have another reason for the operation, namely that the only thing that can kill her father’s rampaging monster is another monster, apparently. Meanwhile uncharismatic policeman and traumatic haircut victim Mickey Hargitay is on the case, punching innocent villagers, barging in when he’s not wanted, and shouting a lot.
            Lady Frankenstein’s surgery goes as planned. The monster, who has been out for a little walk mainly to kill a few villagers and molest a couple of naked ladies, returns to the castle. It was during his little sojourn that I stopped to wonder why the Frankenstein monster never seems to need to eat or have a cup of tea, much less go to the toilet. Indeed, the grunts and groans elicited by the creature here may suggest an altogether more bowel-orientated cause for his anger and distress. Anyway, the scene is set for a showdown between Lady Frankenstein’s brain-transplanted boyfriend (who now also possesses super-strength) and her father’s constipated creation, who dies with a monkey wrench in the back of his skull after an enjoyably choreographed fight where his arm gets chopped off. Numerous members of get to fulfil their contracts and storm the castle while the Lady and her creation get to have sex in front of a roaring fireplace and a massive pool of blood. The End.
           Director Mel Welles does a reasonable job of keeping everything moving, and the only other thing I’m going to mention is that the music (by Alessandro Alessandroni) really isn’t very good, the main part being carried by a very disinterested-sounding (or possibly drunk) flautist. I’m not quite sure why but somehow the soundtrack album for this has found its way into the Probert Towers collection. I suspect the temptation of having that, THE MAD BUTCHER and KILLER NUN all on one CD was too great a temptation to resist.

Wednesday 14 September 2011

Never Mind Kevin, We Need To Talk About The Children!

The term handmade can mean many things, from something lovingly and carefully put together by someone with years of experience, to a hastily cobbled together load of old rubbish that you wouldn’t let your children near for fear it might damage them for life.
            Which brings us nicely if admittedly in the most contrived way possible to Carton J Albright’s 1980 production THE CHILDREN, which feels very handmade indeed, right down to the main title art that seems to have been drawn more or less freehand by someone who might benefit from a couple of years at art school. Or any school. While throughout much of the movie’s running time one might tend to favour my former definition of the word ‘handmade’ rather than the latter, that doesn’t mean that the movie is without merit. Indeed, in terms of tiny no-budget backwoods efforts this is never less than entertaining, and boasts a few surprises along the way.
            In an opening worthy of the worst of Bruno Mattei or Umberto Lenzi, both of whom may have seen this picture and then ‘pinched’ the idea to get the ball rolling on their own ‘perils of technological advancement’ epics HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD (ZOMBIE CREEPING FLESH in the UK) and NIGHTMARE CITY, two workers end a busy day discussing who’s going to buy the beer as they make their way out of the local nuclear power plant. But oh no! What’s that? It’s a leaky pipe they haven’t noticed that’s discharging a yellow gas. And Oh My Goodness the local school bus just happens to be driving past. A shot of the young passengers within reveals two things about the town in which our story is about to unfold. First, there appear to be very few children living there and second, they all seem to have been heavily tranquilised by the local doctor as none of them are fighting, distracting the driver, smoking, vandalising the seats or drawing pictures of genitalia on the seats in marker pen. Perhaps this is to provide a contrast to the evil beings they are about to become or perhaps the properly naughty child actors didn’t turn up for filming that day.
            The kids get turned radioactive (I think) which in this film means that they acquire black fingernails and an ability to turn the skin of whomever they hug into burned and bloody scar tissue with the aid of some genuinely unsettling and really rather good makeup effects. The action kicks off with the sheriff finding the school bus abandoned. One of the missing children belongs to the local doctor who, when she isn’t presumably dosing the kids with ketamine seems to spend her time sitting in the garden wearing a bikini that’s too tight while her blind lesbian lover does her best to impersonate LeFanu's Carmilla playing the piano. The doctor gets dressed and heads off to the local graveyard where junior gives her a lovely big hug and a case of skin irritation that not even the biggest tube of eczema cream she can prescribe will cure.
            Next it’s time to set up some more victims, which is the cue for the usual collection of walk on character roles by Anyone The Director Could Find to pad out the running time. These include a topless lady and her seriously steroid-overdosed weightlifting husband, a couple of rednecks who are introduced doing their best to sell the old lady who answers the police radio at the local store (?) a couple of dead chickens they haven’t bitten the heads off, a porn-star wannabe with a big cowboy hat who turns up in a car with a telephone and electric windows the up-and-down motion of which gets demonstrated three time in the space of a minute, and the hot pant wearing girlfriend of the local deputy, all of whom get offed by the killer kiddies.
            As is often the case in films like this the children give the best performances. Admittedly all they really have to do is hold out their arms, grin and look creepy, but they do it really well. They also react well to the violence that gets meted out to them, including being chopped up into pieces and shot at, in one case with such force that the boy in question gets thrown off a staircase. There’s even a so-daft-it’s-good twist ending involving the annoying pregnant wife of our utterly unendearing hero that leaves you wondering quite why they did that when the film could have merely ended on a heap of dismembered dead little darlings awaiting the inevitable ‘outside world’ to intrude and announce the arrival of paedogeddon.  
            THE CHILDREN is silly, poorly acted, cobbled together and has a music score that was subsequently lifted pretty much note-for-note by its composer Harry Manfredini for Sean Cunningham’s FRIDAY THE 13TH (which used many of the members of THE CHILDREN's crew, including director of photography Barry Abrams). It’s also a movie that’s never boring, in fact the running time flies by. Fun, creepy, weird, and ever-so-slightly disturbing, it’s an excellent companion piece to Narciso Ibanez Serrador’s WHO WOULD KILL A CHILD?  for when you’re feeling in the mood for a double bill of tiny terrors.

Friday 9 September 2011

Eyes Without Faces, or What To Do If You’re A Brilliant Surgeon And Your Daughter’s Had A Bit of an Accident

This week Lady P and I have had the good fortune to see two films on the big screen about brilliant-but-mad plastic surgeons doing terrible things to people because of family misdemeanours. Both of these movies, made more than fifty years apart, are the creations of highly respected ‘art house’ movie directors, and they currently bookend a horror movie subgenre that has otherwise been characterised by projects that can only be described as being of a rather lesser quality, even though they can provide their own rewards if viewed in the right mood.
            Georges Franju’s classic LES YEUX SANS VISAGE is currently enjoying a big screen revival in various art house cinemas across the country. The print is tatty and scratched and the sound didn’t work on the first attempt to thread it through the projector in our local cinema, but that was all part of the fun to be had, as was watching it with those lured in by the prospect of an 1950s art film who weren’t  expecting to see gory face transplants carried out in sparkling black and white or Alida Valli stabbed in the throat.
            I would always argue that Franju’s film is a genre picture more than anything else. The tale of the surgeon responsible for destroying his own daughter’s face and willing to do anything to repair his actions is the stuff of pulp paperback luridness, and Franju certainly elevates it way above its penny dreadful potential, making as fine a horror film as one could hope for with the material. Apart from the nasty bits there’s a pervasive gloom to the film that serves to augment the desperate situation of its central character, wandering her father’s isolated country mansion, a literally faceless wraith assumed dead by the rest of the world. One imagines the city-set scenes at the police station and its environs would be grey even if the picture were in colour, and it never seems to stop raining. Almost from the beginning there is no suggestion that the film is going to end anything other than badly, which is possibly why the final scene is all the more moving, simultaneously suggesting hope and hopelessness, freedom and utter loneliness.  The film was made in 1959 but it’s best viewed out of context with contemporary horror cinema of the time – Hammer were well on their way to becoming the most successful producers of horror films in the world, Hitchcock was about to make PSYCHO, and British company Anglo Amalgamated had just released Michael Powell’s PEEPING TOM. Compared with these slicker movies the Franju film seems very creaky indeed – no less effective, but nevertheless it feels as if it belongs to a different age, making the surgical scenes and the deaths at the climax possibly even more shocking and unexpected. Definitely worth catching if you get the chance.
            Pedro Almodovar’s THE SKIN I LIVE IN is also on release at the moment and is the latest take on the theme popularised and elevated to art form by Franju. Antonio Banderas plays another brilliant plastic surgeon, one who has invented a new form of artificial skin. He also has more than his fair share of secrets as well as a beautiful girl locked up in his remote country clinic-cum-home complete with operating theatre, but then don’t we all? To say much more would spoil the surprises Almodovar has in store, suffice to say that this is as much a horror film as the Franju picture, and walks the narrow line between EuroTrash and EuroArt – and I mean that in a very, very good way.
            Of course to get from Franju to Almodovar fans of this particular subgenre of movie have had to endure a number of efforts which could be considered at best sub-par and at worst sleazy and incomprehensible. First off the English language speaking mark was probably Robert Hartford-Davis’ CORRUPTION, a nasty British version of the story with Peter Cushing causing the burning of his beautiful model girlfriend’s face at a party and spending the rest of the film trying to make it all better. Unfortunately ‘making it all better’ in Corruption-land means hacking girls’ heads off in gruesome detail, extracting pituitary glands the size of a small root vegetable and using a private laser that’s massive but somehow easily transportable from a London townhouse to a country cottage near the sea.. Unfortunately Mr Cushing obviously hasn’t done his laser safety training and everything goes completely bonkers at the end but it’s all ok because not satisfied with one daft ending Hartford-Davis et al have tacked on another one as well that makes everything out to be a dream. I think. Still difficult to get hold of in its country of origin anyone willing to brave this will need to do a bit of searching to find the uncut version, horrible inappropriate incessant jazz music score and all.
            Not to be outdone by the Europeans, the US came up with its own unpleasant variation on this theme with 1976’s MANSION OF THE DOOMED. Richard Basehart is the doctor with the accident-prone daughter. She loses her eyes in an auto wreck, resulting in dad popping eyeballs out of other people’s skulls and into hers willy nilly with such abandon it’s a good thing he’s got a great big cage in the cellar to put all the ‘donors’ in. Quite why he locks them up and treats them like stray dogs is a bit of a mystery until we realise this is an early Charles Band production and consequently have to adjust our tasteometer settings to a few notches below zero. Michael Pataki was responsible for directing this one just before starring in perennial TV favourite of our youth ZOLTAN, HOUND OF DRACULA (as Dracula just to avoid any confusion), and after this and appearing in The Bat People he probably deserved it.
            And then of course there’s Jess Franco. Usually mentioned only to be condemned, I have a sneaking liking for some of his more art house pieces (stop sniggering at the back there). His 1988 production FACELESS was intended as a much higher quality movie than much of his work of the two previous decades, which admittedly wouldn’t be difficult as anyone who has seen more than a couple of his efforts can testify. Helmut Berger’s the doctor in this one and it’s his sister that gets the hideous facial rearrangement which comes about because one of Helmut’s old patients isn’t happy with his work and rather than complain to her local MP she lobs a bottle of acid at him one evening in a car park. Unfortunately it misses and sister Ingrid gets it instead. Off goes Helmut to his chum Dr Orloff (Howard Vernon) for advice and he suggests old Nazi plastic surgery colleague Anton Diffring. They kidnap model Caroline Munro, causing her wealthy father Telly Savalas to hire private detective Chris Mitchum to find her. A lot of daftness takes place before – surprise! – the face transplant is performed and is a success! The doctors toast their success while leaving Chris and Caroline to die – the end. Well, pretty much. Of course Franco had tackled the subject before in 1961’s AWFUL DR ORLOFF, another one of the director’s films that’s actually worth watching. I do realise that if I recommend any more Franco I shall have to have some plastic surgery of my own to escape irate movie fans who may not be as kindly disposed to the director’s work as I am, so for now I shall leave it at that.