Tuesday 25 January 2011

Corruption / Laser Killer

[Note that this review contains spoilers]

After his fiance Linda Nolan (Sue Lloyd), a model, suffers horrible facial burns in an accident, respected surgeon Sir John Rowan (Peter Cushing) vows to restore her beauty.

The generation gap

This leads him to study Ancient Egyptian texts, which he uses in conjunction with pituitary glands and a laser to effect a remarkable transformation.

Linda after the accident, but before the operation

Its effectiveness proves transitory, however, prompting John into a succession of murders in a bid to meet Linda’s ever more desperate demands...

Scripted by John and Derek Ford and directed by Robert Hartford-Davis, this 1968 British horror obscurity is best known today for presenting Peter Cushing in some of the most extreme situations of his career.

But unlike Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, where Cushing, co-star Veronica Carlson and director Terence Fisher were taken by surprise by Hammer boss James Carreras’s demand they film a rape scene to spice the film up, we may surmise that Cushing knew from the outset what he was letting himself in for.

The script, after all, was by Donald and Derek Ford. Admittedly, the latter hadn’t yet sunk to the levels of the likes of the softcore Sexplorer and hardcore Sex Express AKA Diversions. Nonetheless, a filmography that had already included the likes of Primitive London and The Yellow Teddy Bears hardly pointed to the likelihood of Corruption being restrained, tasteful, well-made horror in the by then classic (if also thereby arguably aging) Fisher manner.

Moreover, the writers obvious source of inspiration was Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, a film whose unflinchingly rendered real life surgical horrors made the Hammer Frankenstein films look tame by comparison.

As such, I’m tempted to think that there is a hint of Cushing’s wariness coming through in the scene in which Sir John wanders through Soho at night looking for a likely victim. For, rather than being shown on location, we get what look like studio shots of Cushing superimposed over stock or second unit footage.

Cushing superimposed over Nudist Paradise at the Jacey

An uncut version of the film, which included Sir John’s picking up and killing a prostitute, whose head he takes, would probably help clear things up here.

The superimposition is also, however, very much of a piece with Robert Hartford-Davis’s showy direction, in which rack focus, hand-held camera, distorting lenses, shock zooms and rapid-fire editing are the order of the day in a Repulsion / Blow-Up / The Sorcerers type manner.

Cushing in full-on maniac mode

As the synopsis suggest, the story is replete with non-sequiturs: Where did the Egyptians learn about laser beams and the endocrine system, exactly?!

It also suffers from inconsistent characterisation: One minute Linda is expressing horror that John has experimented upon a guinea pig, the next encouraging him to cold-bloodedly murder the seeming innocent who has wandered into their orbit.

In retrospect, however, it all makes sense. The clue here is in the ending, in which it is suggested that most of what we have just seen, from the point of Linda’s injury onwards, has taken place in Sir John’s head.

Yes, it’s a projection of his subconscious...

If this seems fanciful, an excuse for weak writing, consider the aforementioned Diversions: While that film explicitly presents its vignettes as (sexual) fantasies, we are surprised at the end to learn that, rather than being a convicted prisoner she is in fact one of the police officers escorting the prisoner.

Put another way, there is a consistency of theme here, of Derek Ford looking to challenge middle-class respectability in his images.

More coincidentally, there are also thematic links to Fisher’s pre-Frankenstein film The Stolen Face, in which a surgeon believes a young woman’s malignancy is down to her facial deformity, cures her and then discovers that her ugliness was more a manifestation of an evil soul, with this in turn prefiguring Frankenstein Created Woman’s Christina.

All told, then, Corruption is not a good film in and of itself, but it is one that is certainly of interest to the British trash fan for various reasons.

Thursday 20 January 2011

Some good films

Not necessarily Eurotrash, but in that marginal, littoral zone between art and non-art...

Malpertuis (Kumel)
Beatrice Cenci (Fulci)
Closed Circuit (Montaldo)
Fear in the City (Vernueil)
Unman, Wittering, Zigo (Mackenzie)
The Offence (Lumet)
Ganga and Hess (Gunn)
Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One (Greaves)
Cutter and Bone (Ivan Passer)

Wednesday 19 January 2011

Il Prefeto di ferro / The Iron Prefect

To some extent the Italian crime cinema divides into two.

On the one hand there are the art house films of directors like Francesco Rosi. These giallo-politico films emphasise dietrology. This means the study of looking behind events, or what lies beneath, hidden from all but the investigator. As such, these films have what Burch and Deleuze term a small form structure, in which an action, A, is required to disclose a situation, S, leading to a new action. The narrative revolves around what Deleuze terms the index, the small but revealing detail – in other words, the clue. In films like The Mattei Affair and Lucky Luciano politics is also a key concern, with the stance taken invariably an oppositional, anti-establishment, left-wing one. In these films architecture is often used symbolically, with a constrast being drawn between the clean, angular lines of modernist and brutalist styles and the hidden of the baroque.

On the other hand there are the vernacular films of directors like Umberto Lenzi. These poliziotteschi emphasise action. They have a large form structure, in which an initial situation, leads to an action, leading to a new situation. The narrative revolves around the binominal or duel – in other words, the protagonist’s need to catch his enemy in the act of committing a crime and then bring him to justice. In these films politics is less important, with the stance taken also being more ambivalent in critiquing left and/or right alike. In these films architecture is used more as something that is there to provide a backdrop for chases and shootouts.

But if we then place these two approaches as opposite ends of a continuum rather than as opposites, we come to films like this one.

The first issue for such films is whether they can manage to produce a satisfying cocktail out of their arthouse and grindhouse type ingredients.

The Iron Prefect succeeds here, such that it should have something to offer all but the most narrow-minded of enthusiasts in either camp.

The title refers to its protagonist, Cesare Moro. He was the police chief who was appointed to bring down the Mafia by Mussolini himself, using whatever means necessary.

The notable thing about Moro was that he himself was not a Fascist. Rather he was a pre-Fascist who implicitly agreed with both Liberal and Fascist Italy (and political theorists) that the state should have the monopoly on the legitimate use of violence.

What this meant, as portrayed here, is a blurring of the boundaries over what counts as acceptable and unacceptable violence. A potential model here – or at least a film that came to mind – is Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, specifically the sequence in which the new French commander outlines the options (as he understands them) to critical and even hostile French journalists: Do you want Algeria to remain part of France? If so, then this follows.

Here this translates, without the need for a wider national appeal, as: Do you (the good Italian) want to defeat the, the Mafia (the bad Sicilian)? If so, then cutting off the water supply to a Mafia stronghold village until the women are compelled to respond – albeit after a show of piety and/or (misplaced) faith – follows logically.

Moro is played by Giuliano Gemma. His scar makes him recognisable, although he is otherwise obscured beneath a severe haircut and grey dye job.

Gemma’s heritage in the Italian western is however also invoked in a number of tropes – Moro as the Sheriff riding into the corrupt town to bring law and/or order; the Mafia as the figures of campanelosimo, or Bell Tower Loyalty over any wider, more abstract notions of nation state or party; through the set pieces of men on horseback riding across the rugged countryside; and through some man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do duels – this as one facet of the code of honour, of respect, that Moro and his enemies endorse.

Claudia Cardinale plays the Sicilian woman whom Moro tries to help. While her presence isn’t really necessary and was probably down more to the fact that she is Squitieri’s partner than anything else, her role is suitably unglamorous. It’s also refreshing that her character, a widow, doesn’t become Moro’s love interest, as one imagines would have been the case in a more Hollywood-like version of the story. Rather, we see Moro’s wife arrive with him in Sicily, but soon after being forced to leave for her own safety as she is attacked by the local / native women (where is feminism, that all women are in this together...)?

Some of the dialogue also nicely point to misunderstandings: To the Sicilians Moro is a Piedmontese, but Moro asks why when he is not from that province.

Ennio Morricone contributes a fine soundtrack, with his compositions sounding suitably like Mafia songs.

If all of this, making a quality film that is potentially acceptable to both audiences, is accomplished – as I hope has been conveyed is the case here – then the second issue is then one of finding an audience.

That The Iron Prefect was only recently released on DVD, after a large number of other Italian crime productions seems to further testify to its awkward position; it’s worth noting here that whereas Rosi films like Salvatore Guiliano and Hands Over the City are on the prestigious Criterion label, the likes of Lenzi’s Almost Human and Violent Naples are on cult labels.

Give it a go; you won’t be disappointed. Or, put another way: Why is The Godfather so successful? In part as it has an easy to follow narrative, with violent set pieces? In part because it is The Leopard meets King Lear?

Monday 17 January 2011

Stop, Look, Listen!

The PIF (Public Information Film) is one of my favourite types of paracinema. These were films made in the UK between the 1940s and the present, whose purpose is to inform and educate the public, or specific sections of it, on what to do and not do. Many PIF’s were made by the Central Office of Information (COI) although others were made by industrial and other bodies. They would be shown in classrooms, workplaces and on television. The approach was basically do what you are told or you will suffer and/or die.

This BFI collection focuses on safety-based COI productions. It includes some of the longer versions of the form, running to around 25-30 minutes, as well as some shorter examples in the 40 second or minute long range. What it lacks in numerical quantity compared to the two Charley Says volumes it thereby gains in focus. On balance the quality of the PIFs presented is probably higher as well. Certainly the quality of the presentations is an improvement, with the films having been extensively restored. It could also be said, however, that this might not reflect the way in which many will have experienced these films in the classroom, with a scratchy, beat-up 16mm print.

Besides their kitsch, camp and nostalgia values for those of a certain age – you know who you are – the films are of interest for the talent involved and, of course, as sources of socio-cultural insight into the past.

Three of the filmmakers stand out: John Mackenzie, Robert Young and John Krish. Interestingly they came at the PIF from opposite directions. Mackenzie and Young were fiction filmmakers in the first instance. Mackenzie, most famous for The Long Good Friday, had shot various television dramas, while Young helmed Vampire Circus. (A British-horror connection is also present on Never Go with Strangers, with Elizabeth Luytens scoring and Philip Martell conducting; whether coincidentally or otherwise Luytens also scored the similarly themed Hammer production Never Take Sweets from a Stranger) Krish, by contrast, was a veteran documentarian.

Mackenzie’s contribution is Apaches, a notorious 1977 entry about the dangers of playing on a farm. Six children play at being Apaches and die off one by one in an And Then There Were None crossed with the Gashleycrumb Tinies sort of way: One falls under the wheels of a tractor, another drowns in a slurry pit, a third unwisely drinks poison and so on. After the last child – the narrator – has died, the credits give a roll-call of real children who had died down on the farm in the past year – a device that is also used in another of the featured PIF’s, Building Sites Bite.

Horror film dynamics in Apaches

Sadly, however, the compilation doesn’t include Mackenzie’s early 1980s stranger danger PIF Say No to Strangers.

Young is represented via 20 Times More Likely, whose title comes from the fact that motorcyclists are 20 times more likely to be killed in an accident than a car driver. Aimed at young learner motorcyclists, the film features Gillian “Eastenders” Tayforth (she had earlier appeared in another PIF about the dangers of messing about with fireworks) and a with-it punk soundtrack.

Krish contributes another road safety entry with Drive Safely Darling, featuring a young Colin “Sixth Dr Who” Baker and a suitably disturbing ending that plays a bit like HAL’s death in 2001 (“Brain to eyes... brain to eyes!”) and the fire safety Searching, in which the camera disturbingly prowls through the remnants of a burnt-out house.

Krish’s masterpiece The Finishing Line is, however, not included, on account of its being a British Transport Films rather than COI production.

Other high points include the Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water, in which Donald Pleasance provides the voice of the titular spirit who drowns unaware and foolish children, and the self-explanatory and aforementioned and equally nightmare-inducing Never Go with Strangers.

Shock animation to convey some nonce-sense to children in Never Go with Strangers

Highly recommended

Friday 14 January 2011

Love Thy Neighbour

If you ever want to annoy a Hammer fan, one of the surest ways to do so is draw attention to their comedy product from the early 1970s and the fact that it was these films, more than the better known Gothics, which sustained the company for a few more years thanks to their box office success.

The horror, the horror...

This, moreover, was despite attracting absolutely no positive critical attention and an inherently smaller market due to UK television sitcom spin-offs having absolutely no prospect of US distribution.

Seen today, however, there is an obvious difference between Hammer’s horror output, especially in the Bray Studios period, and their comedy work. For while the best of the horror films manage to be both aesthetic and sociologically interesting, the comedies are only worth looking at symptomatically for what they reveal about British culture and society of the time. They are visually flat and largely devoid of style. As 90 minute films based on 30 minute sitcoms they also tend to be quite weak at the structural and narrative levels.

The themes of gender, class, race, and sexuality are however much the same across the generic divide, although the specifics obviously vary film by film. In this instance race is primary and class secondary with the other two hardly featuring at all.

This is a reflection of the source material. For the situation in Love thy Neighbour is one of two couples, one black and the other white, living next door to one another. While the two women, Barbie and Joan, get on well enough, their respective husbands, Bill and Eddie, are at loggerheads.

What makes things interesting here, however, is the way in which race and class intersect. Bill is more (aspiring to become) middle class and a Conservative supporter, while Eddie is working class and a Labour supporter. From a present-day perspective, however, his politics, as expressed in language – lots of use of racist epithets like Sambo and Nig-Nog – and deeds – including painting racist graffiti on Bill and Barbie’s front door and windows – seem more like the things an extreme right-winger would get up to.

Simultaneously, however, the film also significantly indicates that racial prejudice is not exclusively confined to whites, albeit generally with Bill responding to Eddie rather than initiating things. The film also clearly raises the subject in order to attempt at least some sort of critique, however unsatisfactory it may be to today’s sensibilities. In this regard it’s also worth noting that Eddie clearly has designs on Barbie. Love – or at least lust – see no colour, indeed.

The male gaze #271

Given all of this, the most awkward aspect of Love thy Neighbour is probably one of the incidental details, in the form of a white man in brownface wearing a towel-type turban and affecting an 'Indian' accent.

It ain't half racist mum

Fans of Hammer’s horror output might just about justify a viewing on the basis of a scene in which Bill and some of the other black workers make it look like they are going to cook and eat Eddie.

What's cooking?

I Malamondo

Having collaborated with Prosperi and Jacopetti on Mondo Cane and Women of the World, Paolo Cavara here struck out on his own with another entry in the then-popular mondo filone.

It is hard to accurately compare the film with his previous work on account of the Something Weird version under review running 80 minutes against the IMDB’s listed runtime of 100.

What is clear, however, is that at this stage Cavara was still playing it comparatively straight and concentrating on delivering the generic goods.

He was not interested in giving the kind of self-referential critique of the genre and its ethics – or rather lack thereof – that would form the core of The Savage Eye three years later.

Stylistically the film emphasises a formalist rather than a realist approach. Rather than the use of the long take and the camera as a device to record reality, it is all about fast cutting, extreme close ups, crash zooms, whip pans, hand-held work and, above all, near constant music and/or commentary.

The last is designed more to entertain than edify, of course, expressing a supercilious superiority alongside opinions and facts that sometimes manage to be near laughable a half-century or so on, as when we visit a club catering to “The Third Sex” – i.e. homosexuals.

Thematically the film is closest to Women of the World, except that its focus is upon Baby Boom-era youth rather than women. This partially explains the relatively narrow geographical focus, with all the segments coming from western Europe – Italy itself, France, the Netherlands, West Germany, Switzerland, Norway, Sweden, and the UK.

Budget probably also played a role, however, in that there is nothing comparable depicting US youth. Nor is there the kind of modern/primitive juxtaposition that is otherwise a staple of the filone.

We do however get a repeated contrasting of contemporary and traditional values and practices.

For example, with ‘Prussian’ students having been banned from duelling we are told that they now have their Mensur scar, or schmiss, inflicted by a razor.

Or, in Leicester, England, a mod and a rocker race around town on their motorbikes to see who will win the hand of the women they both court. This becomes moot when the rocker ‘accidentally’ crashes into a delivery lorry with ‘fatal’ results, all this ‘coincidentally’ recorded by a camera that ‘just happened’ to be there at the right moment.

No, not a Black Flag gig circa 1981 but a Dutch student hazing ritual

The shock aspect of the film’s images is relatively muted. There’s a segment early on where a group of bored Italian ‘hippies’ decide to kill and roast a pig. As one of them kills it a young woman ‘faints’ at the shock whilst more generally “no one feels like eating any more”. What we do not see, however, is anything to convincingly demonstrate that the pig has indeed been killed. (Coincidentally or otherwise, the butchering of a pig had also been the subject of a short actuality by the young Bernardo Bertolucci. There, however, the animal's death had a purpose inasmuch as it was consumed.)

Elsewhere another segment shows German youth visiting Dachau. Apparently unsure that mere black and white stills of the camp’s victims will have the desired impact, Cavara repeatedly frames their emaciated and decaying faces of these victims with those of the well-fed sons and daughters (as the voice-off identifies them) of those responsible for their deaths and uses a crash zoom for good measure. Nothing succeeds like excess.

Given what Cahiers du Cinema's critics said about Pontecorvo's Kapo, wonder what they would have made of this segment?

Ennio Morricone provides the score, a mixture of spaghetti western, jazz, experimental classical and Euro-pop cues (one sung by Catherine Spaak). How far these were composed especially for the film or just culled from library and other pre-existing sources is debatable. That the soundtrack ‘works’ is not.

Worth a look for fans of the form.