Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Christmas Evil (1980)

As a counterpoint to more wholesome festive film fare comes Christmas Evil, a camp and entertaining effort from the glory days of the Slasher movie.

The plot centres on Harry Stadling, a boy who had his childhood illusions about Christmas shattered while watching his dad dressed in a Santa suit, groping his mom. Cut to thirty odd years later, and Harry now works in a toy factory, desperately trying to recreate those illusions for a new generation of kids. However, after a series of humiliations at work, Harry suffers a breakdown and starts to think that he is Father Christmas - although this Santa seems just as interested in punishing the naughty as rewarding the good.

Christmas Evil came out during the height of the Slasher film boom (He Knows You're Alone, Maniac, Terror Train, Don't Answer the Phone, and of course, Friday The 13th all hit cinemas in the same year), helping to kick-start a sub-genre of Santa themed killers (To All a Goodnight, Silent Night Deadly Night etc.), but is distinct from many of these. Firstly, although it is a sexual incident that drives the plot, and the killer is acting as a punisher (two staple tropes of these sort of films), the killings are not carried out as punishment for sex. Rather, they are done as a vengeance for the humiliation that Harry suffers, and his anger at people exploiting Christmas for commercial gain at the expense of goodwill.

Christmas Evil lacks the high level of grubby sleaze of others in the genre, instead going for a lurid (in a camp way), and exaggerated, almost dreamlike feel. This can be seen in the use of juxtaposition of jolly Christmas songs in the overall context of a slasher film, the portentous dialogue, odd camera angles, and sometimes ludicrous plot twists (such as the idea that a man dressed in a Santa costume could stab three people outside a busy church, drive off in a van with reindeer painted on the side, and the authorities would have trouble finding him.) Granted, the sight of Harry obsessively spying on young children through binoculars looks possibly more unnerving nowadays than on the time of release, but there is no suggestion that he is deriving any sexual gratification from this.

As a contrast to the fanciful, disorienting, illusion that Harry increasingly sees the world as, is the grimy reality of life in a small industrial town, with the small minded people who live and work there. The best of them are, at heart, good people who just want to work and provide for their families, while the worst would rather exploit the goodwill of someone like Harry, an oddball dreamer, who will never fit into the hard-drinking macho world of his colleagues.

Of course, in many ways this is still a traditional slasher, with many of the familiar tropes such as bloody killings with sharp objects and a grating wonky synth soundtrack. However these both work perfectly well within the overall over-the-top feel of the film.

Christmas Evil ends with a classic horror archetype, the tragic monster hounded by a torch wielding mob – a mob that seems to have their flaming torches suspiciously close to hand, suggesting this may not be the first time they have behaved like this. The pursuit takes place through increasingly surreal looking streets lined with white snow and glowing Christmas decorations, and it is ambiguous as to how much of this is in Harry’s imagination. There is a wonderful slightly expressionistic touch in the final shot, with Harry’s van flying off a bridge, but the angle hinting it could be heading into the sky, suggesting that, in his mind at least, Harry may finally get his wish to be Santa Claus.

Monday, 21 July 2014

A Hard Day's Night (1964)

A Hard Day’s Night is a film that rewrote the rules for how cinema and popular music work together and 50 years on the energy, wit and sheer joy of the film are undiminished. However, the template that it set was one that few if any have worked to the same level since, including the director and stars.  

The loose plot simply follows a fictional day in the life of The Beatles (John, Paul, George and Ringo all play fictional versions of themselves), as they travel by train to London to perform on a TV show. Along the way they are mobbed by fans, arrested by the police, separated, reunited and introduced to Paul’s mysterious, trouble causing, grandfather (played by Wilfrid Brambell of Steptoe fame) 

Alun Owen was brought in to put the script together, as the Beatles were fans of his Liverpool based play No Trams to Lime Street, and, having grown up in the area, he had an ear for Scouse dialect and dialogue. While never meant to be anything other than two-dimensional comic characters, the four Beatles that he creates each have distinctive personalities, while also having a definite group identity. It's almost a shame to think that much of this wonderful wordplay would have been lost on the films initial Beatlemania audience, who would have been too busy screaming the house down. 

Director Richard Lester was born in the USA but moved to London in the 1950s, working on commercials and TV shows, before making the 11-minute short The Running Jumping Standing Still film with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan. The film became a firm favourite of the Beatles and led to Lester getting the job directing A Hard Day’s Night, and it is easy to see its influence on the innovative montage sequences of this film, with the sped up footage and radical idea of cutting the film to the rhythms of the music. A less obvious influence is the French New Wave, which can be seen with the handheld camera shots and use of real locations and people, as well as a casual disregard for rules and the "proper" way of making a film. 

The final element that makes this film so good is The Beatles themselves. They are not trained actors, and some lines fall flat, but generally they give a very good account of themselves. It does not surprise me that musicians can sometimes make a go of acting, as they are still used to performing, and in some respects, playing a role on stage. Plus, there is their wonderful music, with no hint of psychedelia or the complex studio experiments that would follow later in their career, just breathless exuberant 2 minute pop classics. 

A Hard Day's Night is one link in a fairly long cultural chain, one which spans a generation and an ocean. Lester clearly likes the energy of American silent trailblazers like Buster Keaton, and surreal invention of the Marx Brothers, the latter being a big influence on The Goon Show, two members of which (Milligan and Sellers) Lester worked with on The Running Jumping Standing Still film. The Goon Show had a fanatical fan in the shape of one John Lennon, and he would talk enthusiastically of the influence it had on both his work and his outlook on life. And, let’s not forget that the Goons also influenced Monty Python, whose Life of Brian was rescued at the last minute with a large cheque from George Harrison. 

Few groups or directors have managed to recreate the magic or energy of A Hard Day's Night, including Lester and the Beatles themselves. The following year they would team up again to make Help, but the end product feels lethargic and sloppy, straining too hard for laughs, with a general feeling of nobody caring as much this time around.

Friday, 11 July 2014

The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue (1974)

The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue may have a Spanish director and largely Italian cast and crew, but the settings and wonderfully creepy atmosphere put it closer to English horror films and TV shows of the same time. In addition, buried in the slightly schlocky script are some interesting themes about the abuse of power and abuse of the environment.

George (Ray Lovelock) is taking a break from his Manchester antique shop to meet up with friends in the scenic beauty of the Lake District. When Edna (Christina Galbo) accidentally trashes his motorbike, she offers to drive him to his destination. After getting lost, George comes across a remote farm where government scientists are trying a new form of pest control, using ultrasonic radiation, while a lumbering mad man who emerges from a river attacks Edna. Are the two things connected? Moreover, as more and more residents of the local churchyard rise to attack them, can George and Edna get to safety and stop the source of the zombies?

The story is in the realm of George Romero zombie films, with its non-supernatural premise and contemporary setting, as well as scenes of people being stalked in a cemetery and barricaded inside a building. However, unlike Romero's zombie films, Grau makes the reason the dead are coming back to life a central part of the story and the search for the cause of the zombies, and the efforts to get that cause shut down do provide a good “McGuffin”, making for a slightly more coherent and plot heavy film than others of the era. However, this is unnecessarily muddied by throwing in further plot points in order to bring in to get the requisite gore. We are told that the ultrasonic machine excites primitive nervous systems, hence the dead come back to life and attack anything that moves, but about half way through the film, they start to eat the flesh and organs of their victims. Then we get an unsatisfactory explanation about the zombies using the blood of the living to bring others to life for some unspecified reason. There are also some baffling lapses in logic at times (how does the fire in the church put itself out? If the ultrasonic radiation has a range of 1 mile, why are the scientists pointing a machine at a small spot on the ground?)

The main characters a little one dimensional, as is often the case in these sorts of films, and George's “Gor Blimey” accent soon gets a bit grating, while Edna seems to serve little purpose other than screaming and being rescued. The police sergeant also seems both clich├ęd, with his gruff and loud manner, Irish accent and trench coat, and wildly out of place in the Lake District. Of more interest, are her sister, Katie and Katie's husband Martin, with dark hints at the relationship they have, a junkie being exploited and abused by a manipulative pervert. While it might have been worth developing that story further, it may have proved to be too much of a distraction from the core plotline.

However, these minor niggles are more than made up for by the films strengths, such as the excellent gory make up, with some nice details such as stitches on the chest of one walking corpse.  This film first came to my attention as part of the British Government's notorious "video nasty" list, and while it does not skimp on the gore, the real success comes from the creepy atmospherics. Director Jorge Grau shows genuine talent and imagination in places, with some prowling, restless camerawork, giving a palpable sense of unease at times. Setting the film not only in England, but, just as importantly, far outside of London is a stroke of genius. The hills and valleys of the countryside, along with tropes such as the 1970s haircuts, the cheap looking ultrasonic machine, the pseudoscientific dialogue and white antiseptic hospital make me think of British sci-fi and horror such as Dr Who, Quatermass, Hammer House of Horror, and Doomwatch. Sound design plays a large part in this sense of unease, with throbbing bleeping machine sounds throughout.

Despite some, at times, slightly silly plot elements, Living Dead at Manchester Morgue has some interesting and intelligent things going on thematically. I would not pretend for one minute that this film is a preachy “message” film, but it was made not long after the rise of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, so may have been the case of exploitation filmmakers responding to what their audience would be seeing in the news. Nevertheless, the environmental undertones are there within the opening credits montage, and as George heads out of the city, we see industrial wasteland, dead wildlife, power stations belching smoke into the sky, and a population who already look like dead-eyed zombies.

Beyond that, rather than go for a straightforward "progressive v reactionary" subtext, the scenario presented is more complex. On the one hand, we have the aggressive and high-handed side of science and on the other we have a reactionary almost fascistic section of society, as represented by the police sergeant with his disgust at "long hair and faggot clothes" and "permissive rot", and his wish that the police could have "a free hand". The former causes the problem through arrogance, the latter fails to solve it through a blinkered and bigoted worldview, and caught in the middle, is George, who, despite his hippy appearance, is seemingly not engaged with subversive political or social activity. He carries pagan antiques that the police assume are for satanic rituals, but are in fact purely for business. Nobody in authority listens so nothing is learnt and the, perhaps unlikely, combination of progressive and reactionary thinking actually prevents the problem being solved.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Alibi Bye Bye (1935)

Despite making films at the same time as The Marx Brothers and WC Fields, the comedy duo of Bobby Clark and Paul McCullough seem to have faded into obscurity, and on the strength of Alibi Bye Bye, it might not be too hard to see why.

The story, set in “America's Favourite Playground”, Atlantic City sees the duo play Flash and Blodgett, photographers who specialise in faking pictures so that people can convince their spouses that they have been on a business/hunting/sightseeing trip, rather than a hedonistic weekend of gambling, booze and adultery. Things get complicated when they find themselves with two particular clients – Mr Nimrod, who is supposed to chasing moose in the woods and Mrs Nimrod who told hubby she would be in Washington.

To call Clark and McCullough a duo is to imply that there is a level of equality in their act, but this is not the case, and is at the root of the main failing of the film. Clark does not just steal the show; he practically is the show, hardly letting McCullough get a scene or word in. Not a good choice, as Clark's persona is weird mix of Groucho Mark (lecherous one liners, lurching gait, but painted on glasses instead of moustache) and Harpo Marx (horny energy and a honking horn to punctuate sentences), but nowhere near as inventive or unhinged as either.

His other problem is that, like The Marx Brothers, or other contemporaries such as Laurel and Hardy, Chaplin, or Keaton, Clark came from a theatrical background, but unlike them, he did not seem to adapt to the medium of cinema and the idea of playing to the camera. His voice seems like it is still trying to reach the back rows, and his acting style is too theatrical and exaggerated, giving the gags a slightly strained feel, as though he is trying just a bit too hard.

As for McCullough, there is very little you can say about him. With his negligible screentime, he barely registers, but what impression he does make is largely that of an affable roly poly man, who appears to have wandered onto a movie set by mistake.

However, while not side-splittingly funny Alibi Bye Bye has a brevity and manic energy, as well as enough of a (for the time) ribald story that watching it once, as a historical obscurity, is not that much of a chore.

There is a grisly and bizarre coda to Alibi Bye Bye, which became the final film the duo made. Just a year after its release, McCullough checked himself out of a sanatorium, paid a visit to a barber, and, after getting a shave, grabbed the razor and slashed his throat and wrists, dying two days later in hospital.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Lucky Jim (1957)

Adapted for the screen by the producer director team of (respectively) Roy and John Boulting, and starring Ian Carmichael, Lucky Jim is a minor forgettable piece of 1950s British comedy, and a disappointment considering the talent involved.

The story, based on the Kingsley Amis novel of the same name, follows the misadventures of Jim Dixon, a young history lecturer at a “redbrick” English university. Along the way he manages to unintentionally offend his colleagues and sabotage his career – but always comes out okay in the end, because, after all, he is “Lucky” Jim.

The film is hampered by an indecisiveness of what tone to take with the material, something that spills over into both the script and the casting. At times Dixon is shown as an “angry young man”, shaking up the stuffy world of academia with his unpretentious teaching style, and love of women and booze; at others he simply looks like a hapless boob, blundering around from mishap to mishap.

Ian Carmichael was an excellent comic actor, especially playing affable but clueless upper class types, such as in the far superior I’m Alright Jack (also made with John and Roy Boulting) or as Bertie Wooster in the 1960s BBC TV series World of Wooster. Here though, he seems uncertain what to do with Dixon, his vague generic northern accent hinting at lower middle-class provincial roots without ever convincing us.

In addition, wasting the talents of Terry Thomas is simply unforgivable. Thomas, like Carmichael, worked best within a limited range, but also had charisma and comic timing in abundance. Here he looks and acts like a sleazy middle-aged weirdo rather than the hip young sophisticated bohemian type his character is supposed to be.

The subject matter is also a problem. There is nothing wrong with satire aimed at a very specific set of people, but the satirists have to accept that it may not stretch to a wider audience. To do that you have to find a way to make the subject relevant to the wider world, and this, ultimately, is what Lucky Jim fails to do. The world of 1950s English academia, at least as presented here, is just too rarefied and obscure to make sense to anyone not familiar with its people and customs.

Friday, 20 June 2014

On The Loose (1931)

A minor and not very funny Hal Roach short, On The Loose would more than likely have been forgotten completely were it not for a cameo appearance in the dying moments by Laurel and Hardy.

Zasu Pitts and Thelma Todd play two young housemates, who are sat at home, complaining that their boyfriends never take them anywhere other than Coney Island. The next day the pair are walking down the street when a car goes by, splashing them with mud. The driver stops and offers to buy them some new clothes, and take them, along with his friend on a date  - to Coney Island. Things do not go well, with badly aimed darts, angry husbands, and assorted other mishaps.

As well as Roach behind the camera, Laurel and Hardy stalwart H.M Walker is credited with the script, which initially left me wondering whether Roach was trying to create a female version of Stan and Olly, especially when Pitts and Todd climb into bed together. However, the similarities stop there and it soon becomes apparent that the jokes and the performers are not in the same league.

Five minutes in (a quarter of the film) and there has been some movement forward with the plot, but not much has actually happened, whereas by now Stan and Olly would have at least torn some clothes, banged their heads or poked an eye out. Certainly nothing makes you more appreciate their timing and chemistry, than the all too brief appearance they make in the closing minutes, which is much funnier than anything that has gone on previously. Stopping by the ladies house to ask them on a date, they beat a hasty retreat under a hail of cheap fairground ornaments, after revealing they want to take Pitts and Todd to, where else, but Coney Island.