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(More) Cult Obscurities on Amazon Prime (UK)

Following on from the titles I reported on a few weeks ago, I’m pleased to report that a whole new batch of obscure delights have been released onto Amazon’s subscription Prime Video service in the UK.

fearlessFirst up, the range of Italian cop thrillers of the 60s & 70s – known as Poliziotteschi – has been extended: Il giorno della civetta (1969, here under the title “Day of the Owl”), Poliziotto senza paura (1978, as “Fearless Fuzz”), Colpo in Canna (1975, as “Loaded Guns”), La polizia è sconfitta (1977, as “Stunt Squad”), Vai Gorilla (1975, as “Hired Gun”), Il poliziotto è marcio (1974, as “Shoot First, Die Later”) and many more. Many titles are amongst the best the genre has to offer, with top talent such as directors Fernando di Leo, Sergio Martino and Umberto Lenzi and actors including Maurizio Merli, Luc Meranda, Fabio Testi, Claudia Cardinale and Joan Collins(!).

watchoutAlso added is what appears to be the almost complete filmography of Bud Spencer and Terence Hill – both together, as in classics such as Watch Out, We’re Mad (1974) and Miami Supercops (1985) – and in a number of individual films.

I’m assuming that Amazon is picking these obscure titles up in batches offered by rights holders who are trying to maximise returns on select titles they have released on disc (or plan to), given that the prints are generally decent and in some cases, actually in HD.

kittenSome evidence for this is the number of exploitation titles which appear to have been licensed from Vineger Syndrome – a US based DVD/Bluray company. Included in this group of titles are 60s & 70s softcore/roughy/exploitation films such as Diamond Stud (1970), Kitten in a Cage (1968), Sometimes Aunt Martha Does Dreadful Things (1971), Supersoul Brother (1978), Fleshpot on 42nd Street (1972), Damaged Goods (1961) and Girl in Trouble (1968). A number of these titles were previously released by Something Weird and I assume these are the same transfers. Andy Milligan on Amazon Prime, who could’ve dreamed that up!

A couple of giallos have also been added: Sergio Pastore’s Crimes of the Black Cat(1972) and Duccio Tessari’s The Bloodstained Butterfly(1971)bloodstained

And finally, to wrap up with some various other “gems” I noticed while browsing the “recently released” lists (the only way to find these things, good luck finding them in the top menus of on any of the apps): Albert Pyun’s cyperpunk thriller Nemesis, Ruggero Deodato’s Raiders of Atlantis, the HK Moon Lee-led all-female actioner Avenging Quartet and the modern day Mondo film The Killing of America.

All-in-all a pretty amazing bunch of films for lovers of the bizarre and obscure. Long may this continue.

Cult Obscurities on Amazon Prime (UK)

amazonprimeIf you are an Amazon Prime subscriber you are automatically able to stream thousands of films through Amazon Prime Video. A number of apps are available on mobile devices, game consoles and set-top boxes – or you can directly stream from Amazon’s website. What is common to all these options is a menu system which offers a series of recommendations based on your watch history and other categories such as genre. When searching, titles are listed based on a default “recommended” category, which tends to favour popular films – you will see fairly mainstream fare.

However, browsing using the website and using other options such as the ability to order by “latest arrivals” – or just scrolling through the thousands of results leads to some treats hidden away from the casual viewer. Those interested in more obscure, cult, exploitation and world cinema would be recommended to spend some time in the lower reaches of the menus – there are some surprising, strange and delightful rewards in store. Here are a few of my discoveries.

[Note: this is the UK store – other stores may differ and the US store, for example, has many more titles. Also, titles come and go as and when streaming rights expire or are renewed.]

dead-man-1995A number of titles from art-house darling Jim Jarmusch are available, including Dead Man, Down by Law, Stranger than Paradise, Only Lovers Left Alive and Mystery Train.

There are a large number of Spaghetti Westerns, including titles from respected directors such as Sergio Martino, Sergio Garrone and Duccio Tessari, starring the likes of Giuliano Gemma, Klaus Kinski and Anthony Steffen. A whole host of Django and Ringo sequels!

Cult horrors including Jim Wynorski’s Chopping Mall, Bob Clark’s Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, Don Dohler’s Nightbeast and a whole host of films from Troma.

killer9seatsHorror and exploitation from around the world: Mystics in Bali (Indonesia), The Killer Reserved Nine Seats (Italian giallo), Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch (Japan), Bedevilled (South Korea), El Camino de los Espantos (Mexico) and World of Crooked Mirrors (Russia).

Also heavily represented is the Italian cop movie genre of the 1970s, known as Poliziotteschi, with a number of classic titles featuring Maurizio Merli, John Saxon and Henry Silva, from directors Umberto Lenzi and Fernando di Leo. Accompanying these is the feature documentary Eurocrime! which does a great job of explaining the genre and interviewing surviving participants. Highly recommended.

blue-paradise-posterAnd there’s more: lots of obscure martial arts films, weird curios such as the Italian Blue Lagoon/cannibal film mashup Blue Paradise, Errol Morris’ documentary Tabloid, Hong Kong action and horror such as City on Fire, Black Magic and Hex, not to mention the astounding Mighty Peking Man.

Though some of these films may be available on youtube a large number appear to have been properly mastered – with some even in HD. I suspect that a number of these have been licensed from companies which have bought packages for future release on DVD and bluray (indeed a number of the HK horrors have recently been released by 88Films here in the UK), but a large amount of the above are not currently available on any home format in the UK.

samuraicopFor some reason, Amazon Video have acquired a package of streaming rights which include the complete American films of Iranian film-maker Amir Shervan. A director in his home country since the late 60s, Shervan moved to the US after the revolution of 1979 and latterly became a director of low-budget action films. These have developed a sizeable cult following due to recent DVD releases, and their further dissemination in HD on streaming platforms will surely only increase their notoriety.

Shervan’s films are appalling. His direction is slapdash and his editing incompetent. Even the bare minimum requirements of a feature film such as scene continuity and synchronous dialogue and sound effects are casually dispensed with. The dialogue is terrible and borderline offensive when it handles race or gender. They’re also a lot of fun to certain kinds of modern audiences, as examples of a kind of kitsch and campy 80s aesthetic. Even though they do share certain similarities with late 80s action movies, the films they more closely resemble are the modern works which seek to emulate the look and feel of “bad” 80s action cinema – Kung Fury (2015) and the films made the “Astron-6” collective, such as Manborg and Father’s Day (both 2011).

Given that such retro-cinema efforts are designed to parody a genre, rather than individual films for the most part, it’s curious that one film-maker so embodied the tropes and foibles which became the hooks on which future homages were hung. If we’re looking for reasons beyond the limitations of budget (for example, Shervan doesn’t shoot at night – no lighting; doesn’t record sync sound – no equipment), we may be tempted to assign credit for these qualities to cultural differences. As a middle-eastern emigree with apparently limited English, Shervan may have had difficulty working with cast and crew, but also in understanding the demands of contemporary US action cinema. Shervan’s films are extremely reductive – they feature a dumb lunk battling racial stereotypes, killing them all and remaining bafflingly attractive to a collection of blonde, Playboy-esque female characters. While Shervan can’t afford stunts or spfx his films are extremely violent and his cop heroes display a casual disregard of life and law which would have made Dirty Harry gag.

In Electric Boogaloo (2014), Mark Hartley’s excellent documentary on the rise and demise of the Cannon film group, the point is made on several occasions that the Israeli duo of Golan and Globus continually misjudged the audience. Despite initially thriving in a market set afloat by demand in the early days of home video, these Hollywood outsiders misread the appeal, approach and market for genre cinema – leading to expensive decisions such as paying Stallone $13m to appear in a film about arm-wrestling. There’s something implicitly racist in these kinds of accusations – that foreigners are incapable of understanding the cultural works and practises of indigent film-makers. However, perhaps it’s instead the case – as Clive James has claimed – that foreigners can better read foreign cultures. The likes of Cannon and Shervan just took at face-value the ridiculous excesses of US action cinema. Their crime was to replicate it without any of the hypocritical neutering of the hard ages of racism, sexism and jingoism demanded by Hollywood, the MPAA and, ultimately, audiences. Shervan’s further crime was that he, unlike Golan and Globus, couldn’t afford explosions.

pensionepauraThe second and final theatrical feature from Barilli, this is often referred to as a “giallo”, alongside his first effort, Il Profumo della Signora in Nero (1974). Despite containing a scene which features a figure in disguise killing one of the characters, it is, however, more of a thriller and a character study, as well as a handsomely-staged period piece. It also shares much with Barilli’s first feature (also, arguably, not a traditional giallo) in focusing on a psychologically-damaged female character, battling an obsession with a departed parent, and an ominous cabal which is slowly closing in on her.

Set in a lakeside Italian hotel towards the end of WWII, the film follows Rosa (Leonora Fani) who daydreams about the return of her idealised father, who has joined the partizans in the battle against the Nazis. In the meantime, she works alongside her mother to meet the largely unreasonable demands of a small group of hotel guests, including a man creepily obsessed with his dead family, a mature woman and her younger lover (the splendid Luc Merenda) and various spivs, collaborators and their molls. Also hidden away in the attic is a man on the run from unspecified forces (Francisco Rabal), who is having an affair with Rosa’s mother, much to her disgust.

Rosa is harassed by the guests on a seemingly daily basis – particularly by Merenda’s sleazy gigolo character. Her only respite, beyond dreams of her father, is the occasional trips to town where she meets with a young boy with whom she is starting a tentative relationship.

Following Il Profumo… Barilli shows great skill in exploiting location and the faded glamour of the lakeside hotel is exploited for maximum effect. The horror of the cumulative privations endured by even the comfortably-off during wartime are skillfully portrayed. The hotel is hit by power cuts which prompt a number of nighttime scenes shot by candlelight which give a great sense of the threat under which Rosa moves through its corridors.

The cast are uniformly excellent – Barilli extracts powerful performances from veterans Merenda and Rabal – but it is the central performance from Fani around which everything else turns. Concerns may be raised about the way in which Barilli (and Italian thrillers from the period in general) seem to delight in subjecting woman to an escalating series of trials and humiliations, but taken at face-value in this instance, the events befalling Rosa can be seen as just part of the dreadful collateral damage of war. Unfortunately, Fani did not seem to profit to any great extent from her excellent performance here and a few years later was – like many of the surviving actors of Italy’s last great period of film production – appearing low-rent gialli such as Giallo a Venezia (1979).

Though the plot does share many similarities with Il Profuma…, Rosa is spared the fate Mimsy Farmer endures in that film. Though her father does not return a proxy figure does make a late entrance to effect some vengeance for the indignities she has been subjected to, but in a pleasing coda she rejects the request to leave the hotel – opting to remain and await the never-returning father figure. It could be argued that she remains wedded to the patriarchal ideal, but it is made clear that she is beholden only to promise she made to her father – a promise that survives his death and is only more important to her, surrounded as she is by so many who are willing to immediately abandon all principle and humanity in the face of tyranny and war.

p9505920_p_v8_aaThis late-period de Palma film is something of an anomaly in that it is a remake of a successful foreign language film released only a couple of years earlier. This would place it within the small sub-genre of such efforts from the period, where a recurring crisis of lack of imagination seemed to result in a casting of the net to foreign shores in search of stories to recast in the Hollywood mould. From the slew of remakes of Japanese and European horror (Ju-on, Ringu, Martyrs, etc.) to curious efforts such as Michael Haneke’s remake of his own Funny Games (2007), the period from the turn of the century until the recent mini-renaissance of Hollywood was peppered with remakes of foreign films in a variety of genres.

De Palma, of course, is no stranger to the lure of commerce. Starting out as a quirky independent voice before graduating to the status of something of a Hollywood auteur – albeit one constantly under attack for a supposed slavish devotion to the cinematic tricks of major figures such as Hitchcock and Antonioni – the director suffered an eventual slide into sometimes bland, occasionally disastrous, major picture assignments. At the time of this film’s production he was stung by the negative reaction to his recent staging of the Black Dahlia murder and the rather more positive – albeit politically controversial – response to his digital war polemic, Redacted (2007).

It’s interesting to consider whether his decision to venture into the euro-remake was influenced in any way by David Fincher’s remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) – an effort by a  similarly auteur-ist filmmaker, which had received positive critical and audience response. Crime d’Amour (2010) may have seemed the perfect property to allow de Palma to ride the coattails of a recent trend while accommodating just enough of his trademark concerns for it to bear the stamp of his authorship.

I have to point out that I haven’t seen Crime d’Amour, so will have to take Passion on its own merits and as nothing other than a Brian de Palma film, which it certainly is. In fact, and this is something which I’m sure is familiar to many observers of his work, the indelible stamp of the de Palma hand is – as in so many of his minor works – its greatest virtue and its greatest fault.

First of all, some of the details of the production have an impact on the overall experience. This is a European co-production, shot in Germany, with a smattering of European actors supporting a (at the time) emerging Hollywood talent in Rachel McAdams. The production has a cold, clinical look which is familiar from the tropes of the then-emerging field of “skandi-noir”, reinforced by the presence of Noomi Rapace. A number of the minor European players appear to have been dubbed, or at least somewhat carelessly looped, given some of the dialogue an airless, unreal feel. In addition, some of the dialogue, especially anything associated with the office machinations of the advertising agency, seems divorced from anything any actual office workers may have experienced. The film strains against the mundanity inherent in daily concerns and strives instead for high-melodrama, something which is underscored by a typically melodious and mischievous score from de Palma’s regular composer Pino Donaggio.

These scenes and others constantly reminded me of the late-period, rather down-at-heel work of de Palma’s fellow-traveller in the world of the violent, misogynist-tinged, thriller genre, Dario Argento. De Palma’s discomfort and impatience with the details of office politics are similar to Argento’s handling of police procedural scenes in films such as The Card Player (2004) and Giallo (2009). The mangling of accepted norms and patterns of storytelling through the quirks and obsessions of these auteur figures are similarly mirrored in stark, medium-budget limitations of the kind of fluid, mobile and sometimes flat-out overwrought camera techniques which are signatures of both.

Peculiar to de Palma and here in spades is the director’s mischievousness (as opposed to Argento, a filmmaker who – when forced to watch his own films – admits to doing so through his fingers). At points where the film quotes his own work (which often quotes others’ work of course) or gleefully departs from reality, such as the extended dream sequence which ends the film, I could almost feel de Palma in the room with me – watching for a reaction, waiting for the moments of recognition that I was being pranked. Similarities to Dressed to Kill (1980) abound – psychiatry, showers, lifts, costumes, etc. – to the extent that the shell of the plot becomes more of a anecdote which allows de Palma to free-associate through his usual concerns, or at least those of previous high-points in his career.

As a fan of the early work, you would find it hard not to be amused. As a general viewer, you would probably just be frustrated, as would appear to have been the case, given the lacklustre box-office returns. It would have been interesting to hear the response from de Palma’s investors and producers. It would be another long wait for a new film – we wait to see what this year’s Lights Out brings – more of the same smart-alec self-referentiality, or a return to form?

The Humanoid (Aldo Lado, 1979)

Aldo Lado is best known in cult movie circles as a director of giallo films – the particular strain of violent Italian thriller popularised by bravura technicians such as Mario Bava, Dario Argento and Sergio Martino – so, quite frankly, WTF was he doing directing this Star Wars rip-off? Couldn’t they afford Antonio Margheriti? Did Luigi Cozzi want to avoid getting type-cast, so soon after the amazing Star Crash (1978)? Whatever the reason, given that Lado also co-wrote the script, he has to take the lion’s share of the blame for turning out such a maddeningly frustrating film – a potentially great science fiction romp, utterly ruined by a single, stupid idea.

So, let’s look at the potential – go on, scan those credits: Aldo Lado, himself – director of greats such as Who Saw her Die? and The Short Night of the Glass Dolls; a score by Ennio Morricone, no less; Silvano Ippoliti, Tinto Brass’ talented DoP; makeup by Gianetto de Rossi; Enzo Castellari on 2nd unit duties; special effects by a team including the aforementioned Margheriti, something of an Italian sci-fi specialist; a cast including Corrine Clery, Barbara Bach, Arthur Kennedy, Ivan Rassimov and … wait a second… Richard Kiel? Yep, there we have it – the proverbial fly in the ointment. It’s Jaws from those Bond movies – something of a comic relief villain, who was, the same year, to be turned into a comic relief sidekick in Moonraker. Kiel’s inability to act may not have proved terminal in a Italian sci-fi knock off, but in a role which both plays off his supposedly threatening demeanor and bulk and encourages pathos in his plight, it blows what might otherwise have been an entertaining enterprise out of the sky.

The ‘Great Brother’ rules the former planet Earth – now renamed Metropolis, which makes about as much sense as renaming it, I dunno, ’roundabout’ or ‘suburban allotment’. His brother – the evil Lord Graal (Rassimov), who controls an army of soldiers in lawsuit-baiting black leather and buckethead costumes – launches an attack to capture a chemical element which can turn men into indestructible monsters. During the attack, virtuous scientist Barbara Gibson (Clery) receives a telepathic warning from Tom Tom, her ward (I guess?) – an Asian boy who possesses mystical powers and is protected at all times by a pair of light-bow wielding, teleporting guardians. She escapes the carnage, but the chemical is stolen and transported to Graal’s home planet, where insane scientist Dr. Kraspin (Kennedy) uses it to transmute the kindly Golob into an UNSTOPPABLE KILLING MACHINE to be unleashed on the people of ‘Out-of-town Car-park’, sorry – Metropolis.

Right off the bat, let me draw your attention to an innovation. Lucas is sometimes mocked for the silly names with which he saddles his one-dimensional characters – Leia, Solo, Skywalker, Obi-wan Kenobi, etc. Lado, perhaps foreseeing this, perhaps suffering some sort of brain aneurism, gives his characters names which make them seem like they work in real estate. Barbara Gibson? The universe’s only hope, apparently. Especially so when she teams up with the head of the Imperial guard, who is called Nick. I personally think Nick is too heroic and Lado should have gone with Brian, which to my mind expresses a kind of quiet dignity. Seriously though, lines like “And remember to kill that Barbara Gibson” had me smiling from the start – not since ‘Dan the antichrist’ (see earlier review of Nero Veneziano) has Italian cinema so tickled my funny bone with the stupidity of its character names.

Until this point, translation quirks aside, The Humanoid is a solid romp, with some surprisingly good model effects and sets – certainly not in Star Wars’ league but not an embarrassment in comparison either. What tips the whole shebang over the edge is the UNSTOPPABLE KILLING MACHINE. When Golob is hit by a missile containing the chemical he undergoes a profound change – physically and mentally. Physically, he loses his beard and a tiny green dot appears on his forehead. Mentally, his prior big, dumb, lunk persona is utterly transformed to big, dumb lunk who talks a bit less and occasionally throws people around. Presumably unable to afford additional action scenes, Lado appears to have concocted a plot device which allows his central ‘battle’ to involve Richard Keil marching into the Metropolis’ capital single-handed, while laser beams bounce off him from every angle. They can’t even afford to establish his status as the UNSTOPPABLE KILLING MACHINE, as an attack using “micro-nuclear” shells occurs off-screen, leaving the viewer instead with endless scenes of redshirts running up to Kiel and being tossed aside in a decidedly PG manner, while the womenfolk (all of whom sport a range of Leia-approved braids) run around in panic. You really do wonder if this film is a remake of Eegah! rather than Star Wars.

It’s not all bad though. The film does rally for a fairly rousing shoot out on the enemy planet, although this does require a scene where Kiel is un-Humanoid-ed, turning back into the kind of good-humoured brute soon to appear in Moonraker. As I said, some of the sets are very good – the matte paintings which depict the desert landscape of Metropolis in particular are lovely. Clery and Bach are beautiful and the latter actually puts in a decent performance as the evil queen who preserves her youthly beauty with Bathory-style transfusions. And the whole high-camp sci-fi knockabout antics are no more offensive than in Flash Gordon or modern day pap which mines the same territory, such Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. It’s just a shame about Keil. They should’ve left the humanoid out of The Humanoid.

Films from the British Satire Boom

The “satire boom” of the early 1960s refers to the plays, television shows and literature of a group of connected individuals. Figures such as Peter Cook, John Bird, Jonathan Miller and David Frost were among a collection of mainly upper-middle-class men active in the early years of the decade and responsible for work such as the TV programme That Was the Week that Was and the theatrical review Beyond the Fringe, which poked fun at the institutions, public figures and morality of British life. Hugely successful and seen as part of a general renaissance in the cultural life of the country, this loose movement is now seen as an integral part of the so-called “swinging London” scene and a component of the anti-authority reaction to conservatism, which lead to the Wilson government of the mid to late 60s. It is interesting to note, however, both the class backgrounds of the major figures and the extent to which their work draws on established British cultural forms, such as the comedy of the musical hall. Such a perspective suggests a less radical departure from the culture of the preceding years and may perhaps hint at an in-built conservatism at the heart of the movement itself. Michael Frayn, an integral figure in the satire movement describes the conservative nature of the audience and describes the appeal of satire as a kind of expiation:

Conceivably, after ten years of stable Conservative governement, with no prospect in 1961 of its ever ending, the middle classes felt some vague guilt accumulating for the discrepancy between their prosperous security and the continuing misery of those who persisted in failing to conform, by being black, or mad, or old. Conceivably, they felt the need to disclaim with laughter any responsibility for this situation, and so relieve their consciences without actually voting for anything which might have reduced their privileges.[1]

This posits a view of the satirical movement as, less a clarion call for change, rather a kind of cultural pressure valve – suppressing true rebellion through a toleration of limited and measured criticism.

Many of the figures of the “satire boom” and the individuals who began their careers in its wake (including future ‘Pythons’ such as Graham Chapman and John Cleese) gravitated to the cinema in the mid-60s, where they joined established British comedic talents such as Norman Wisdom, Terry-Thomas and the cast members of the Carry On film series and the Goons radio show. The rise of UK cinema in this period, as American studios clamoured to set up British offices and money poured into film production[2], gave ample opportunity for performers attracted to the money, cache and international exposure that film work could provide. At the same time, as a mainstream art-form, film was seen as an area to develop and exploit counter-cultural and satirical strands which had emerged in the UK in other artistic spheres such as music, fashion, theatre, photography and literature. The films which emerged in the period from 1967 to 1973 would, then, include some of the most ambitious, controversial, eclectic and excoriating works in British cinema history. The extent to which this brief flowering of experimentation would successfully satirise the institutions and people of the time, would depend on a number of factors.

            In order to focus on some key themes and suggest where these films succeed in their particular aims, this essay will focus on a number of films which are broadly representative of the species of comedic, satirical film which developed from the movements sketched above. These films are: Lindsay Anderson’s If (1968) and its loose sequel O Lucky Man! (1973); Stanley Donen’s Bedazzled (1967); Peter Medak’s The Ruling Class (1972); Kevin Billington’s The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer (1970); Ralph Thomas’ Percy (1971); Philip Saville’s The Best House in London (1969) and Joseph McGrath’s The Magic Christian (1969). These are films with casts drawn from the satire boom, Monty Python and the Goons, but also the long-running TV and film comedies of the day. Each of them in some way targets one or more aspects of British life, whether an institution, or a social or moral issue of the day. These are films which embrace the look and sound of the period, employing artists from other disciplines in front of and behind the camera[3], sometimes in a way which badly dates them. Each of them is a blend of pop-art and traditional art, which dramatizes the cultural clash of period and illustrates ultimately, I will argue, the innately conservative nature of British life and the self-destructive and doomed nature of swinging 60s and a number of its key players.

            Adapted from Peter Barnes’ satirical play, first performed in 1968, Peter Medak’s film of The Ruling Class follows the events in a aristocratic family when the death of a patriarch leads to the return of his heir from a home for the mentally ill, where he has been treated for paranoid schizophrenia. The 14th Earl of Gurney, as he becomes, is convinced that he is in fact God and a number of plots are put in place by his conniving relatives to ensure control of the estate. The film dramatises, in a baroque, anti-naturalistic style, the emerging disdain for the upper classes in 1960s Britain. A number of political crises, culminating in the Suez affair of 1956, had led to a lessening of respect for the ruling class, in particular the aristocratic, upper-class from which most politicians (especially within the Conservative party) emerged. The ridicule heaped on the Conservative Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home (the hereditary Earl of Home) was largely focussed on perceived upper-class aloofness and his failure to communicate on television was contrasted sharply with the studied down-to-earth, middle-class affectations of Labour’s Harold Wilson: “Although Home disclaimed his peerage and took office as Sir Alec Douglas-Home, it was hard for him to shake off the label of ‘the fourteenth Earl of Home’”[4]. The film opens with a scene which exploits the long-held perception of the sexual perversion of the upper-classes, as the 13th Earl of Gurney is accidentally killed while engaging in an act of self-hanging while wearing a tutu. The paraphernalia of the act is assembled by the Earl’s butler, Tucker, with a nonchalance that suggests not only an acceptance of the act but deference due between the classes and between master and servant. This is later undercut as Tucker presents himself as the only ally to the paranoid Jack Gurney, warning him that the family is out to get him. The butler is revealed as a Communist party member who drunkenly sings The Red Flag in the basement of the manor house. This attitude of rebellion is contrasted with Tucker’s seeming inability to leave his position, even when he is given financial independence under the terms of the Earl’s will. He remains in position, serving the family, although in an increasingly drunken and abusive manner.

            The position of the Church is also attacked, as the Bishop – another family relative who has been disadvantaged by the return of Jack and the terms of the will – is persuaded, against his convictions, to marry Jack and the mistress of his uncle, Grace Shelley. Grace has been introduced by the family to engineer an heir which will allow them to have Jack committed. The Bishop’s motive is the funding he has been promised by the dead Earl for missionary work, but Alistair Sim’s seedy portrayal hints and at a more personal gain. The established church is contrasted with the personal belief in the form of Jack’s delusion, as his belief that he is God is manifested in a number of largely-positive ways. Jack’s God is a God of love. He presents flowers to Grace with a comment that they “agreed to be picked” and his affection for her, although based on a deception, appears genuine. Grace herself, later in the film, seems to have fallen in love with Jack and is turned against the rest of the family, although it could be argued that she is merely protecting her position as the Earl’s wife and mother of the heir. Jack professes himself uninterested in “worldly goods”, argues for the protection of “all God’s creatures” and generally behaves in the manner of the more liberal clergy who were emerging at the end of the 1960s. The Ruling Class does not, then, argue against religion per se, but merely a kind of established church, yoked to the state and the ruling classes, of the type in place until the beginning of the 1960s in Britain.

            In the 1960s, faced with falling church attendances and a wide-ranging questioning of religious belief and traditional forms of worship, figures with the Church of England took steps to reconnect with the people, especially the young:

In the popular press much publicity was given to “go-ahead” young vicars who thought to win themselves larger congregations by experiments with “rock ‘n’ roll masses” or coffee bars in the crypt, and in the East End, a Rev. Shergold set up a youth club for “Rockers,” under the auspices of the Eton College mission, joining his members in wearing black leather jackets and riding powerful motorcycles.[5]

The willingness of liberal clergy to abandon traditional aspects of the church is mocked in The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer when the Bishop of Cowley is advised by the popular polling expert how the church can improve attendances:

Priest: Have you been able to find time for the survey in regard to the declining attendance in England’s churches?

Michael Rimmer: Yes, we have.

Priest: We’ve tried everything, you know… cutthroat bingo, hallucinogens in the wafers, neon lights for the graveyards, chapels on wheels, fifty-fifty drawings after communion…

Michael Rimmer: Really?

Priest: [grabbing hold of his vestments] And these clothes are a bit out-of-date for the 1960s.

Michael Rimmer: Yes, well, we’ve done a great deal of research on the results of our religious polls and I believe we have discovered the true root of the problem.

Priest: What would that be?

Michael Rimmer: God.

Priest: I had a nasty suspicion it was that.

Michael Rimmer: It’s just that people have a hard time believing in Him. So, get rid of the God and you’ll do just fine.

Priest: Interesting. Sort of an “Our Father who might be in heaven”…

Michael Rimmer: Yes, very good.

The “church on wheels” is seen elsewhere in the film – a kind of mobile library with a ridiculous steeple on top. Scenes such as this, which satirise attempts by institutions to change with the tastes and attitudes of new generations, point to one aspect of the satire of the period – that it is only interested in mocking the establishment to certain point. Long-held beliefs, behaviours and institutions are seen as fair game for comedy, but so are attempts to modernise. This is one aspect of what I refer to as the inherently conservative nature of satire and satirical works of the period.

            The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer is a cautionary tale on the subject of media influence in politics. Michael Rimmer is a time-and-motion consultant who inveigles himself into a run-down polling company and rapidly rises through society to become Prime Minister. Rimmer’s primary method is to exploit other people’s fears, particularly of their self-image and how they appear to others. Rimmer is presented as amoral, unethical and ruthless – he murders the prime minister, takes a wife as a necessary part of entering politics and then keeps her locked-up at home and sabotages appearances by his political opponents. The film could be seen as prescient of later developments in the media presentation of and influence on politics (particularly in the modern activities of political “spin doctors”) but it is also of its time. The incumbent prime minister is a barely-disguised caricature of Howard Wilson, down to his pipe and obsession with self-image and public and press perception. The film was produced as Wilson’s government was preparing for the 1970 general election defeat to the Conservatives – something which was blamed to a very large part on the public’s personal dissatisfaction with Wilson – and the film accurately portrays his paranoia and how political decisions were directly influenced by coverage in the media. Though there was widespread unease regarding the impact media was having on politics, the film’s almost satanic portrayal of Rimmer[6] could be argued to be somewhat Luddite in its suspicion of the effects of a new self-awareness and media sophistication into the traditionally class-based and patrician world of politics.

            If Rimmer’s rise is seen as the result of exploitation and amorality then the system that rewards it can only be corrupt and unjust. In Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man!, Michael Travis is young man who has several attempts to find success and advancement in a world which subjects him to cruel and, often, arbitrary justice. Business is presented as corrupt, with politicians and policemen abetting malpractice for money, or through murky association. When the fraud squad descend on the home of a corrupt industrialist Sir James Burgess celebrating a deal with an African dictator, he comments, “Don’t worry, I know Superintendent Barlow, he won’t hurt us.” It is his assistant, Travis, who is arrested and blamed for the deal to send a napalm-style substance to the brutal African regime. Burgess’ comment to Travis that he will “be taken care of” as he is lead away is misinterpreted as implying an interjection on his behalf. In fact, he is expendable – another exploited employee sacrificed in the pursuit of profit. Travis’ eager enthusiasm and honesty as he faces several such situations –  Anderson stresses the repetitive nature of these encounters by casting the same actors in a number of roles – and his continued lack of success present a highly cynical view of the operation of business and, by extension, the system of government and legislation in which it operates. This was becoming a fashionable view in late 60s Britain as the earlier optimism of the “white heat” of technological revolution gave way to a number of high-profile industrial and medical accidents, examples of business exploitation and economic decline: “Fears of technological idealism had always been present in British popular culture, but they gathered momentum from the mid-sixties onwards.”[7]

             Anderson’s approach to recasting actors in multiple parts also extends to retaining them from film-to-film and roles in his films often gain resonance through the casting of an actor playing similar roles in earlier films:

They are Brechtian ‘social types’ or ‘humours’ as Anderson himself preferred to call them. The style is caricature rather than psychological realism. Peter Jeffrey’s director and prison warden are clearly reminiscent of his headmaster in If…, and Mary McLeod’s lovesick landlady is similarly based on the matron in that film.[8]

Arthur Lowe, an actor now most famous for playing Captain Mainwaring in the television sitcom Dad’s Army, plays so many roles in the satirical comedies of this period that it is easy to confuse parts and films. In O Lucky Man! he plays the factory trainer who first prepares Travis for his career as a coffee salesman, the hotel manager he meets (and who introduces him to the club where the local great and good meet to party and arrange mutually-beneficial deals) and – most controversially, in black face – an African dictator. His character’s have a trajectory from well-meaning teacher to corrupt and corrupting to outright venality. It’s likely that one aspect of Lowe’s casting is the resonance of his association with Mainwaring and the aspects of self-importance, class-consciousness and deference to authority that the role carries. In If…, Rowe plays a house master in a private boy’s boarding school (perhaps the one which his Dr Munda character mentions in O Lucky Man!) where the pupils are taught amidst a highly regimented and structured hierarchy of masters, head boys and whips. Anderson intended his film to be a comment on the state of British society as a whole at the time and the school can therefore be viewed as a microcosm. As the headmaster says near the film’s beginning, “Britain today is a powerhouse”, before going on to describe the coming technological revolution and the needs this will place on the education of the young. In the film itself the lessons are shown to be dry and meaningless, with the boys responding in apathetic silence to the history master’s questions regarding the individual’s place in history. The implication must be that the education system is unsuited to preparing young boys for the demands of the country and, by extension, that the country is unprepared for the demands of the age – a fact that was keenly felt in the late 60s as the government frantically tried to encourage exports to prop up sterling. The film ends in a small-scale revolution as Travis and a number of the boys (and, tellingly, one young girl) open fire on a school service. This act and the other references to revolution (the photos on the wall of the common room) pertain to the spirit of the times, but it is noticeable that the large-scale student-led revolts of the year of the film’s release happened elsewhere (Paris, Prague, the United States). In Britain, as so often, consensus and conformity remained.

            That cultural and political change had greater impact in other parts of the world could perhaps be attributed to the rigidity of the British class system. In The Magic Christian, Sir Guy Grand plays a number of elaborate practical jokes on people, usually on the theme of what people will do for money. The title is taken for a state-of-the-art cruise liner, a technological wonder whose maiden voyage is pitched as the hottest ticket in town, advertised as £5000 per-person with the management reserving the right to refuse persons at their own discretion – “those denied passage on The Magic Christian need not take offence – remember our criteria may not be yours”. This caveat is explained by one upper-class character as protecting against people who are not “quite top drawer”. In fact, the ship is a mock-up which doesn’t actually go anywhere. Although sporadically amusing, many of the film’s jokes fall flat and the film is fatally hamstrung by one detail of its relocation from the United States in Terry Southern’s source novel to the UK. In Southern’s novel Grand is a billionaire industrialist; in McGrath’s film, Grand is a knight of the realm and a conspicuously aristocratic figure. This has the effect of making scenes where Grand exploits the greed of middle or lower-class people seem like exploitation and mean-mindedness. For example, in the scene where Grand buys a hot dog from a vendor on a train platform and hands him a five pound note as the train is departing, we are encouraged to laugh at the desperate attempt by the vendor to catch up with the train and give Grand his change (Grand subsequently gives him a ten pound note instead). This scene may be intended to mock the deference of the lower classes to the moneyed classes and question their sense of fairness towards those who exploit their labour, but as Grand is a wealthy upper-class industrialist, the wheeze seems cruel rather than cutting. This is also the case in the scene where Grand receives a parking ticket and bribes the attendant into eating the ticket for one hundred pounds. The film does pick targets among the aristocracy and upper class which mock their sense of entitlement but as the focus is on money and what people will do to obtain it, these targets are often the nouveau riche or foreigners, such as the Americans who Grand tries to outbid at the auction in Sotheby’s. The landed, hereditary classes escape much of the satire because they are not traditionally associated with consumerism and obsession with money and materialism. In this sense, as a parody on class, The Ruling Class is more successful as it focuses on succession, inheritance and land rights – concepts at the root of the British aristocracy.

            The Magic Christian ends with its most notorious scene, as Grand encourages a group of city workers to wade into a vat of slaughterhouse effluent to fish out money he has placed there. The general sense of futility and purposelessness seems to have had an effect on him, however, and he ends the film sleeping in the park in which he found his adopted son sleeping rough in the opening scene. “You’re right Youngman”, he declares, “There must be a simpler way.” In common with many British films of the period, there is no resolution and in the end there is a sense of resignation to events. In Bedazzled, a film made towards the end of the “swinging sixties”, Dudley Moore’s Wimpy Bar cook, Stanley Moon, is granted seven wishes by the devil and uses them to try to realise his fantasy of a life with waitress Margaret. Moon imagines alternate lives where he is variously a sophisticated aesthete, a rich industrialist and a rock star, but at each stage is frustrated by the devil’s use of loop-holes in his scenarios. In the end, Moon returns to his previous existence and rebuffs a further attempt by the devil to help him woo Margaret, instead simply asking her to dinner himself. The dream of the sixties: that a wave of opportunity would allow individuals to succeed regardless of their background appears to be over. Indeed, the film seems to be ultimately celebrating a lowering of sights and parodying figures, such as pop stars, which had been deified throughout the decade.

            Similarly, O Lucky Man! ends with Travis a broken man – his various attempts to “get on in life” have failed, he has been jailed in place of the corrupt industrialist he served and even his conversion to religion and love for his fellow man has lead to him being assaulted by a group of homeless people. In the final scene he wanders of the streets into an audition where he is berated by the director – Anderson himself – for his inability to smile. As he says, “What is there to smile about?”, Anderson hits him over the head with the script. There is an abrupt cut, followed by a brief period of black screen – a device used at several points in the film – and then Travis looks at the camera and smiles. Alexander Walker quotes from a “serial version of the story prepared for a newspaper”:

… For a second there was a blackout. And in that second a state of waking alertness seized me… And I saw that the world I travelled through was incomprehensible, that I would never understand it, that I wouldn’t ever understand its secrets, that things people did in it or had done to them would never be more important than the fact of the world … it was wrong to think of changing the forces of the world. One must use them to re-direct oneself, to bend to their bidding.[9]

Anderson’s viewpoint seems to have changed markedly since the revolutionary ending of If… In its place the concept of rebellion has been replaced with a form of Zen Bhuddism – that successfully navigating the world involves a submission of the self. Earlier in the film, as Travis waits outside the secret military installation, his car radio plays a radio programmer discussing Zen and the concept of “living now” or living in the present. The Marxist concept of the individual’s place in a historical struggle for control of destiny and resources seems to have been abandoned, perhaps as the idealism of the sixties gave way to the narcissism of the seventies.

            If the abandonment of the concept of rebellion and societal change seems to leave the individual exposed to the whim of church and state, the pace of technological change in the 1960s in Britain had significant impact on moral and sexual issues: particularly the development of the Pill and greater availability of other forms of contraception (often through government-sponsored agencies)[10]. In tandem with technological changes, reform of the law, including the relaxation of the laws on homosexuality and the legalization of abortion, led to a significant alteration of traditional concepts such as the family and women’s place within it. The British film industry’s reaction to such developments has to be seen as, at best, as tentative. For example, The Best House in London, written by That Was the Week that Was and The Frost Report veteran Dennis Norden, is set in Victorian London and focuses on the rise of the women’s movement and the government’s attempts to respond to the problem of street prostitution by establishing the first state-sponsored brothel. Given a cast including several figures from the British satire boom movement, such as John Bird and Willie Rushton, the viewer would be justified in expecting an incisive critique of the women’s movement or conservative society’s response to it. The film instead, functions more like a traditional sex farce – of the kind popular in the British theatre of the same period. The film dramatizes the conflict between Josephine Pacefoot – a kind of suffragette figure, who leads a movement to establish a house to prepare working girls for actual work in industry – and Babette, a high-class Parisian prostitute and mistress to the government minister responsible for establishing the titular house. There may have been some scope for drawing parallels between the suffragette movement and contemporary movements to emancipate women from enforced childbirth, but the film is content to trade in the racial stereotypes, double entendres, mistaken identity and innocuous titillation common to the form. The film, in this way, illustrates the tension in the work of figures from the “satire boom” and other comedians of the time, between earnest targeting of hypocrisy and prejudice and a cozy reliance on the conventions of variety and music hall from which much of British theatrical comedy is drawn.

            The tepid response to issues of female emancipation could perhaps be attributed to male dominance of the film industry. One film which does, at least, touch on male fears regarding the realignment of the sexes and the technological basis of this change is Percy, where Edwin Anthony, recently abandoned by his wife, is hit by a man falling from an adulterous escape in a high-rise flat and is recipient of the dead man’s penis in a worlds-first operation. That Anthony’s operation is part of the overall technological miracle of the age is emphasised by the continual shots of the phallic Post Office tower, which can be seen through the window of his hospital room. Completed in 1965, the tower was emblematic of Wilson’s “white heat” of technological revolution, although it was commissioned by the Macmillan government:

At more than six hundred feet tall, the narrow, piercing cylinder of glass and steel was at once the capital’s tallest building, the centrepiece of Britain’s brand-new telecommunications network, and an uncompromising statement of technological optimism. [11]

Once Anthony’s operation has been declared a success he becomes a reluctant celebrity and has to go into hiding, while Denholm Elliott’s smooth surgeon exploits the publicity and demand for his own gain. The technological achievement is equated with the sky-piercing P.O. Tower but it’s ironic that the cause of the accident – the high-rise flat – was as much as technological development of the time and had a poorer reputation as a number of failures and the lonely, alienating experience of tenants rapidly took the gloss from the notorious slum-clearing initiative. Anthony has inherited what is described as “an impressive specimen” from his donor, who turns out to have a notorious ladies man, whose various lovers attest to his prowess, but Percy does not follow the expected sex-comedy path that such a scenario suggests. Instead the film centers on the dead man’s wife, who he could never be faithful to, and Anthony’s emerging relationship with her. In the end the film is a touching, rather conservative story and not one would expect of a penis-transplant sex comedy from the 60s. If anything it perhaps reflects an in-built dishonesty and reticence when discussing sex in British film and, by extension, society that had not been fully exorcised by the sexual revolution of the “swinging” sixties.

            Though it’s difficult to argue that the myriad changes of the 1960s did not have an impact on British society and that the “satire boom” did not reflect this and contribute to the way that individuals felt about issues and institutions, an examination of the filmic output of many of the major figures in the late 60s and early 70s reveals a gradual retrenchment to a cultural conservatism. There are a number of factors which may explain this: a general sense of decline as the nation experienced a reduction in world status and economic turmoil; a sense of disappointment with the, perhaps inevitably over-stated, aims of the mid-60s cultural and artistic revolution; the withdrawal of American finance from the British film industry; an in-built conservatism in British comedy film, drawn from the music-hall and variety traditions. It’s conspicuous to note that, following the departure of American film studios and finance the British comedy film became dominated by low-farce and nudity. Although some would argue that the rise of the sex comedy in the 1970s could be seen as the result of sexual frankness and permissiveness of the 1960s, any examination of the films themselves reveals them to be culturally conservative, highly derivative of earlier theatrical forms and, ultimately, extremely parochial. The ambitious, international, progressive film movement heralded by the successes of the British new wave seems to have, at least in the comedy genre, have reverted to the archetypes of the seaside postcard and the conventions of the British class system.

Filmography

Bedazzled (1967), dir. Stanley Donen

If (1968), dir. Lindsay Anderson

The Best House in London (1969), dir. Philip Saville

The Magic Christian (1969), dir. Joseph McGrath

The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer (1970), dir. Kevin Billington

Percy (1971), dir. Ralph Thomas

The Ruling Class (1972), dir. Peter Medak

O Lucky Man! (1973), dir. Lindsay Anderson

Bibliography

Beyond the Fringe, ed. Roger Wilmut (London: Methuen, 2003)

Alexander Walker, Hollywood, England (London: Harrap 1974)

Alexander Walker, National Heroes (London: Harrap 1985)

Dominic Sandbrook, White Heat (London: Abacus, 2007)

Christopher Brooker, The Neophiliacs (Boston: Gambit 1970)

Julian Upton, Fallen Stars (London: Headpress, 2004)

Robert Murphy (ed.), The British Cinema Book (London: BFI, 2009)


[1] Michael Frayn, in Introduction to Beyond the Fringe, ed. Roger Wilmut (London: Methuen, 2003), p. 1

[2] Alexander Walker, Hollywood, England (London: Harrap 1974), p. 287

[3] Principally musicians – Ringo Starr stars in The Magic Christian, for which Paul McCartney wrote the theme song, The Kinks scored Percy and Alan Price wrote and performed the songs in O Lucky Man!

[4] Dominic Sandbrook, White Heat (London: Abacus, 2007), p. 8

[5] Christopher Brooker, The Neophiliacs (Boston: Gambit 1970), p.144

[6] Some critics argue that Rimmer is an extension of Cook’s devil character from Bedazzled, while Cook’s limitations as a dramatic lead actor has been cited as the root cause of the film’s lack of box office success. See, Julian Upton, Fallen Stars (London: Headpress, 2004), p. 91

[7] Dominic Sandbrook, White Heat, p. 636

[8] Erik Hedling, ‘Lindsay Anderson and the Development of British Art Cinema’ in Robert Murphy (ed.), The British Cinema Book (London: BFI, 2009), p. 42

[9] Alexander Walker, National Heroes (London: Harrap 1985), p. 51

[10] Dominic Sandbrook, White Heat, p.489

[11] Dominic Sandbrook, White Heat, p.44

An undeservably obscure late entry in the line of medical-themed horror films common in the late 70s and early 80s, this is the only genre entry from hardworking TV director Sheldon Larry – a name more familiar from shows such as Knot’s Landing. Occasionally cited as a slasher film, the high-tech medical background, strong female characters and conspiracy elements place it more strongly in the tradition of films such as Coma and The Stepford Wives, where intelligent, spunky women confront out-of-control science. The slasher comparison probably derives from the sometimes bloody death scenes and pacing which spreads these out in the first half of the films, which is very similar to slasher film mechanics and is probably the contribution of co-writer Peter Lawrence – who worked on the screenplay for the slasher movie The Burning (1981).

The horrific result of the wrong dosage

Set in the kind of sterile, high-tech clinic familiar from the early films of David Cronenberg, Terminal Choice follows the story of Dr. Frank Holt (Hill Street Blue’s Joe Spano) and clinic computer technician Anna Lang (The Insider’s Diane Venora) as they investigate several suspicious deaths at the institution. Holt is an alcoholic with a history of malpractise and is smarting from the collapse of his relationship with Lang. After one of his patients bleeds to death, alledgedly because of a misdiagnosis, he becomes the subject of an internal investigation and, following other incidents involving suspected malfunction of the computer systems, teams up with Lang to clear their names and track down the real culprit.

Defibbed to death

This is a skillfully directed thriller, something that is remarkable when you consider that most of the victims are unconcious and confined to hospital beds. Many of the deaths result from supposed computer malfunctions, with intravenous drips, artificial respirators and mechanised defibrillators turning deadly in a manner which simultaneously exploits the viewer’s fear of both hospitals and technology. The impersonal, mechanised manner of much of the violence and the harrowing, extended and – frankly, sadistic – staging predates the modern-day Saw series. Witness the scene near the end of the film, where Lang has to frantically try to shut down the system, as the computer slowly twists the prostate Holt’s broken leg in traction, before administering an attempted lethal dose through his drip and then trying to shock him to death with the defibrillator. The soundtrack also works to ramp up the threatening nature of the computer as synthisised drones are combined with crys and moans and Larry’s camera prowls behind the blinking lights of the banks of computer circuitry.

Doctors - place your bets!

The film begins with a view of a monitor as an off-screen voice negotiates a series of bets with the HAL-like computer. It is revealed that several of the hospital staff are placing bets on the medical outcomes of patients. Though the film tries to have its cake and eat it by initially suggesting that the computer itself could be acting as bookie and murderer, Holt and Lang’s investigation uncovers Dr Rimmer as the ringleader of the betting activity. It’s still unclear whether he is involved in the actual murders or whether the head of the clinic – played by David McCallum – is using the activity as a cover to conduct further research into his failed anti-stroke drug. As the hospital is shut down and the patients are moved out, the leads become trapped in the building as the killer tries to clear up any remaining evidence.

Ellen Barkin undercooks some sausages

It’s possible the film has simply fallen into obscurity (it’s not available anywhere on DVD, to my knowledge) due to the fact that it falls between two stools – being neither an out-and-out slasher horror film nor a medical conspiracy thriller. Though Larry’s background in television leads to consistently good performances from the cast (which includes a very early role for Ellen Barkin), the cruel and explicit death scenes were probably a turn-off for casual viewers first time around. However, for those who have a soft-spot for hospital themed horror (Halloween 2, Visiting Hours, etc.) and a nostalgic love of the 70s-era conspiracy thrilers from the likes of Michael Crichton, I’d urge them to seek out this curio.

Jean Rollin (1938-2010)

It’s been reported by various web sites that French film director Jean Rollin died within the last week. This is very sad news as not only was Rollin a major figure in European fantastic cinema, but he was still working and had only recently completed a new feature – as yet unreleased – The Mask of the Medusa.

My first contact with the cinema of Jean Rollin was through the editions of his films released in the UK via cult video company Salvation, who released a number of early efforts such as La Vampire Nue and Requiem pour un Vampire in the early 90s, alongside contemporary efforts from Jess Franco and Mario Bava. What impressed me in these films was the poetry of the imagery and the consistency and uniqueness of the world Rollin had created. Though there are stylistic differences in the early vampire cycle, there is a consistency of tone and an obsessive quality to the mise-en-scene which, combined with Rollin’s recurring cast, results in a blurring of the boundaries between individual features. I often find it difficult to remember which films contain certain scenes, though I have watched each of his films dozens of times. What is memorable is a certain longing, a sense that Rollin was continually striving to impress on us the experience of a under appreciated, idealistic artist who had glimpsed a beauty and a peace that was destined to remain just out of reach.

Rollin’s films are constantly staged on the boundaries – the recurring use of the beach at Dieppe, as characters rise out of or sink into the sea; the graveyards which give up their dead; the hours of dusk and dawn where vampires can emerge from grandfather clocks or slink back to their crypts. They use generic tropes to populate cast and setting and then abandon or subvert expectation. The vampires, dead girls, pirates and corrupt industrialists are often as hunted and haunted as the lost girls and boys they prey upon, their ends as tragic and gruesome. Death is often seen as something to be embraced – a means of crossing the boundary from the staid material world to the world of the eternal and the beautific. Other recurring themes such as the fragility of identity and memory reinforce this impatience and sense of frustration with the limitations of mortality.

Though Rollin was often crticised for his direction of actors, or at least for the ‘somnambulant’ performances to be found in his films, it cannot be doubted that some of his casting was inspired. Though many of his regular cast were drawn from a group of close friends and relatives, the contribution of female performers such as Brigitte Lahaie, Sandra Julien, Joelle Coeur, Francoise Blanchard, Francoise Pascal, Caroline Cartier and the Castel twins is immense and makes a real contribution to the success of films which are, often refreshingly, female-centric. The mischeviousness of the Castels, the icy beauty of Lahaie, the cruelty of Coeur or the vulnerability of Blanchard – all fit the parts they were chosen to play as if born for them – and for this credit must be given equally to Rollin’s eye, given the relative lack of success these actresses achieved.

Also contributing to the success of Rollin’s films were impeccable technicians such as DoP Jean-Jacques Renon, who gave many of Rollin’s films an extraordinarily colourful and vibrant look. The use of coloured gels in Les Frissons des Vampires approaches the intensity of Dario Argento’s supernatural work. Rollin’s films have often had soundtracks which matched the beauty of their visuals, with the incredible prog-rock score for Frissons an early example and later efforts from Phillipe d’Aram admirably enhancing the emotional impact of what might otherwise have proven overwhelmingly static visual tableau. The constant presence of Rollin regulars such as Lionel Wallmann and Sam Selsky undoubtedly also contributed to the consistency and sucess of the productions, from behind the scenes.

Ultimately though, these films are the true work of one man and his undiluted vision. As has been said of many an auteur, one knows from a handful of frames that a film is his. Despite the efforts of a few admirers and contemporaries (see Girls Slaves of Morgana le Fay for a alternative Rollinade) there has been truly nothing like the work of Jean Rollin and I imagine that the current cinematic climate means that we will sadly not see his like again.

We are left with his work. And, for that, merci beaucoup, Monsieur Rollin.

OMG!!!

An absolute supernova of a bad film, this Filmirage production manages to top the company’s usual output (including, lest we forget, Troll 2) by roping in the dubious talents of Linda Blair and David Hasslehoff. Giving the former an obligatory possession scene and allowing the latter to adlib to embarrassing effect, the usual delights of Aristide Massacessi’s horror productions – overlit studio interiors, bewildered no-name American actors, badly-translated Italian dialogue, gloopy effects – are here dunked in an enormous vat of fondue designed to delight lovers of 80s cheese.

The Hoff!

Filmirage – an Italian production company usually associated with low-rent erotic thrillers, terrible horror films and gob-smackingly awful dramas – here jumps on the Evil Dead bandwagon. Raimi’s films were released in Italy under the titles La Casa 1 & 2 and the company follows in the grand tradition of Italian exploitation by simply appropriating the title for some unrelated sequels. Hence Umberto Lenzi’s Ghosthouse (1988) became La Casa 3 and this film – released in international territories as Witchcraft became La Casa 4. Aside from a residential setting – something that could be said to be true of the majority of features – and plots which revolve around demonic forces and bodily possession, the films bear no similarity with the hyperkinetic Evil Dead franchise, but Laurenti’s film has a manic charm of its own.

Pea soup alert!

The film’s bears a script credit forAmerican screenwriter Harry Spaulding – who, curiously, penned a 1964 film entitled Witchcraft – but the dialogue and story bears all the hallmarks of a cheap Italian genre production, with the frequently confused-looking US cast spouting inane, nonsensical lines while a series of barely-connected events move the plot from one bizarre set-piece to another. The story isolates three groups of people on a Pacific island during a storm: a young woman studying witchcraft and the origins of a house on the island and her photographer boyfriend (the Hoff himself); a dysfunctional family, including a pregnant Linda Blair and a precocious young boy, who are interested in buying the property; and the estate agents, including a woman played by the then Mrs Hasslehoff – Catherine Hickland – who would in future go on to marry a man called, I kid you not, Michael Knight.  Over the course of the evening, the assembled cast are sprited away by the spirit of the previous owner – a Garbo-like foreign actress – to a cut-price Hades where they are subjected to a variety of latex-rupturing effects. Blair is possessed so she can redo her Exorcist role, the Hoff gets his shirt off and his girlfriend wanders the house reading random passages from a supposedly ancient German text which may hold the key to foiling the resurrection of the witch-actress via Blair’s baby.

Going to hell

Apart from the sheer joy of watching Hasslehoff and Blair on screen together (for trash-mavens, a pairing suerly on a par with De Niro and Pacino), the film delivers the cracked goods in spades. Witness, for example, the majesty of the scenes where characters are transported to the evil dimension by standing still and waving their arms while a swirling red graphic is overlayed on their screaming mugs. Or the evil dimension itself, which appears to have been built by an Italian set designed in around 3 mins out of some 2-by-4 and some black bin bags. Some of the special effects are pleasingly gloopy, especially the demise of the father, as the stabbing of a voodoo doll causes ruptures in a series of vains. The film bears Filmirage’s usual cruel sense of black humour, with the mother with her mouth sewn shut, hung in the chimney to be burned alive by her family.

Elsewhere budget restrictions mean that a plot which requires its cast to be stranded by a ferocious storm, has no actual shots of said weather – with a placidly undulating sea hardly justifying the lack of rescue. The father of the young estate agent spends much of the film arguing with local law enforcement to stage a recovery attempt, which finally pays off when a helicopter is procured. The subsequent scene, where the father who has been passionately arguing that his son may be in danger, meekly gives up the chase when the house shows no sign of occupation, is just one of the examples of the twisted logic of Filmirage’s output. The actor – one timer Frank Cammarato – is one of the badly-dubbed non-US cast members. It’s unfortunate that heroine Leslie Cumming is not also dubbed, as her mumbling, incoherent delivery renders much of her dialogue unintelligible and makes her scenes with Hasslehoff even more one-sided. Perhaps she was intimidated.