Wednesday, August 17, 2016

THE COLLECTOR

William Wyler, 1965
Starring: Terence Stamp, Samantha Eggar

Freddie, a lonely young lepidopterist, finally decides to pursue the distance object of his affections, an art student named Miranda, after winning a sizable lottery pool at work, which allows him to retire and purchase a home in country. Courting Miranda involves stalking her, memorizing her schedule, and then kidnapping her with the use of chloroform. She wakes up in a basement shelter hidden behind Freddie’s home to find that he is in love with her and hopes she will come to return his affections. Freddie is not violent with her and she hopes to gain his trust in order to escape, faking an illness, and later attempting to seduce him, though all of it is in vain. Miranda begins to realize that he will never allow her to escape and she will probably die in captivity…

Based on John Fowles’ novel of the same name, this is technically an American-British coproduction, but I’ve included it as part of my lengthy British horror series, because it was shot in England and with English actors. Famously, the wonderful William Wyler gave up The Sound of Music for the chance to direct this film, his only title that could really be described as a horror film or thriller, and it is certainly a masterpiece in an already rich and dazzling career. With The Collector, Wyler actually subverted the very romantic tropes — which he used in a variety of flexible ways — that made him famous in films like Jezebel, Wuthering Heights, Roman Holiday, How to Steal a Million, and even Funny Girl.

As Hannibal Lector would tell Clarice Starling decades later in The Silence of the Lambs, “We begin by coveting what we see every day.” And though The Collector exists seemingly on a different planet than the British horror films produced by Hammer, Amicus, or Tigon — it has far more in common with Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom — it is still rife with subtle themes of class division and cultural tension that appears as a subtext in many of the country’s genre films of the late ‘60s and ‘70s. There is the sense that Freddie wants to possess Miranda — who he watched grow up, as they are from the same home town — because she represents all the things he did not have. Strangely, he never attempts any sexual violence and her attempts to seduce him are met with outright disgust; her value seems to be more as a social and economic possession.

There is also a connection to Lolita (published in 1955, just eight years before Fowles’ novel) in the sense that The Collector is all about a man preserving and sustaining an impossible romantic fantasy; he’s not consumed by remembering a love lost, but a love that never really existed in the first place. Like Humbert Humbert, Freddie is perhaps monstrous and is certainly strange, but he’s fundamentally sympathetic, even likable. Lepidoptery is of course another connection between Nabokov, Lolita, and The Collector; like one of Freddie’s butterflies pinned in a glass case, he can only truly appreciate beauty in a fixed form, as an immobile object over which he has absolute control.

This is not to say that Wyler devalues Freddie’s love for Miranda in any way, despite his strangeness. Stamp, who didn’t think he was right for the role, but who was eager to work with Wyler nonetheless, is perfectly cast against type as the sensitive, if disturbed romantic hero. His unusual handsomeness and often dreamy expression work far more effectively than someone like Anthony Perkins — who Stamp apparently thought was going to win the role — though of course I’m biased. I would watch Terence Stamp watching paint dry and be riveted. The more disturbing aspects of Freddie’s character are established early on, thanks to a lengthy stalking ritual that takes up much of the first part of the film and a very subtle performance from Stamp. Additionally, Wyler’s refuses to share Freddie’s backstory, making him something of a figure of mystery and unpredictability.

Admittedly, I find Eggar repellent as an actress, though this works dramatically in Wyler’s favor; my dream script change of a happy ending — where Miranda realizes she does love Freddie and doesn’t want to return to her mundane normal life — would only have worked with Julie Christie, who was originally considered a shoo-in for the role. Stamp was ordered to remain cold and aloof from the actress throughout the shooting schedule and her sense of unease and distrust is palpable. To make matters worse for Eggar, she had rejected Stamp’s romantic overtures in the past and was fired immediately after production on The Collector began; she was only rehired and allowed to return, apparently, after agreeing to work with an acting coach.

The best (or worst, depending on your perspective) thing about this film — at least from where I’m sitting — is that the combined talents of Wyler and Stamp make it seem feasible that Miranda will come to return his love. Of course, this would be difficult at best, but something similar happens in films with complicated issues of consent like Kidnapped Coed, The Night Porter, Straight on Till Morning, and to a different degree, some of Walerian Borowczyk’s efforts like The Beast, where a victim falls for a perpetrator, or a rape turns into an act of mutual pleasure. In some ways, this is the ultimate expression of romantic fantasy taken to a particular extreme, and it’s easy to read it as a darker evolution of fairy tale themes, where a prince bestows a lifesaving kiss on a cursed, sleeping princess (obviously without her knowledge or consent), and this act alone ensures her love and devotion. Personally, I much prefer The Collector to Sleeping Beauty or Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

Of course, The Collector comes with the highest possible recommendation, thanks to the combined talents of Wyler, Stamp, and Fowles. Pick it up on Blu-ray, though I’m desperately hoping it will get the special edition restoration treatment it so richly deserves. The film was supposed to be shot in black and white, but Wyler changed to an oddly dark, subdued use of Technicolor, allegedly because of Eggar’s red hair, which means someone should really pull out all the stops for a high definition restoration. While this fictional person is at it, I’m also dying to see the original three-hour cut, which Wyler was forced to slim down for the theatrical release. I’m sure this additional footage is lost, but a girl can hope.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

THE HAND (1960)

Henry Cass, 1960
Starring: Derek Bond, Reed De Rouen, Bryan Coleman, Walter Randall

“Blast everybody and everything.”

The film opens with a division of the British Royal Army trapped in Burma, where they are threatened by hostile Japanese forces. During an interrogation, several of the men have their hands chopped off with a machete when they refuse to reveal the location of their base. Fast forward to postwar London, where an old, alcoholic bum is found with a stack of money, but missing in a hand, and Scotland Yard begins to investigate. But soon, the bum turns up dead, the doctor who performs the operation was first missing and then commits suicide, and it becomes clear that they’re dealing with something quite unusual: wartime secrets, a seemingly illicit marriage, blackmail, and much more.

For whatever reason, this film is generally regarded as a horror movie — which is why I’ve included it in my British horror series — but I have to admit that it was not at all what I was expecting. Coincidentally, I watched it at the same time that we did an episode on Mad Love (1935) over at Daughters of Darkness (which also coincidentally went live today), and I do have a fondness for horror films about transplanted parts and missings limbs, particularly those with humor (intentional or otherwise). Beginning roughly with Weine’s Hands of Orlac (1924) and continuing through Karl Freund’s great Mad Love and Robert Florey’s The Beast with Five Fingers (1946) — both of which featured the great Peter Lorre — to French films like Le main du diable (1943) and The Hands of Orlac (1960), the old severed hand is, or at least was, fertile ground for genre cinema. And yet, The Hand is not really a horror film at all, despite treading tentatively on horror ground.

Though director Henry Cass proved his genre chops when he made the fun, albeit very schlocky Blood of the Vampire (1958), The Hand is a cross between revenge film, lurid crime story, and detective tale; it is essentially a British version of the West German krimi genre that was popular during the ‘60s. Borrowing elements from earlier crime serials and ‘30s features — everything from Fantomas to Fu Manchu — the krimi films were actually primarily based on the novels of British writer Edgar Wallace. Essentially kicking off with The Fellowship of the Frog (1959), the subgenre ran for over a decade and generally follow a Scotland Yard detective investigating a series of incredible, strange crimes; the colorful roster of suspects and victims allows him to eventually close in on a killer, usually masked or costumed, and themes include sex, drugs, blackmail, organized crime, revenge, and a slew of red herrings.

And while The Hand initially seems like a war thriller — astoundingly, the opening has WWII continuing into 1946, which you can take as a grievous historical error or a sign that events are unfolding in some parallel universe — the WWII subplot is little more than a backdrop and makes no actual sense when connected to the crimes at hand. Like the krimi films, the plot practically gallops towards its nonsensical conclusion and seems more concerned with maintaining a brisk pace than making a whole lot of rational sense. And like the krimi films, there’s some stodgy if tolerant moralizing in the film’s closing scenes. But sadly, unlike the krimi, it contains very few lurid elements — just a doctor’s suicide, a severed hand that turns up in a dresser drawer, and so on — and lacks the lineup of familiar faces favored by both the krimi and horror genres, though diehard genre fans might recognize Harold Scott (The Brides of Dracula) as the homeless man or Garard Green (The Flesh and the Fiends) as the unfortunate surgeon.

I do have to admit to finding the banter banter between the inspector (Ronald Leigh-Hunt) and his second-in-command (Ray Cooney) delightful — most of their jokes focus on the latter wanting to get off early to see his apparently very demanding girlfriend — though I also have a wide tolerance for police procedurals and, admittedly, it made me wish I was watching Clouzot’s L’assassin habite... au 21 (1942) instead. There is something about the film that seems a little off; I’ve read other reviews guessing that some of the film was cut and this seems like the most rational explanation for why the ending is so choppy, nonsensical, and abruptly concluded.

Despite the fact that I have absolutely no sense of what anything happened the way it did, it didn’t prevent me from enjoying The Hand far more than I expected to. Still, it’s not really something I can defend. If you’ve seen a lot of krimi films, then you’ll know exactly what you’re getting into it and probably have a good time with the film. As far as I can tell, it isn’t available on home release, but you can find it streaming on Youtube and other places online.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

PEEPING TOM

Michael Powell, 1960
Starring: Karlheinz Boehm, Moira Shearer, Anna Massey, Maxine Audley Photographer and aspiring filmmaker Mark Lewis (Karlheinz Boehm) has a secret: he murders women and films their deaths, hoping to soon assemble his very own movie. During the day, he works on a film crew and at night he photographs women for softcore pornography stills sold illegally. He lives in his childhood home, which he has turned into a series of apartments, and seemingly can’t — or won’t — escape the bad memories of abuse suffered at the hands of his sadistic father, a scientist doing experiments on human fear. When he reluctantly befriends a young tenant, Helen (Anna Massey), a romantic relationship begins to blossom, which spells doom... One of the greatest films ever made, Peeping Tom has somewhat of a troubled history, as it was critically panned upon its release, ruined the career of director Michael Powell, and was then forgotten about for decades, until its reputation was eventually redeemed. Peeping Tom was partially financed by the British studio Anglo-Amalgamated, who were responsible for a number of the country’s horror films over the years, but lacked the genre emphasis to really make them competitive with Hammer, Amicus, or Tigon. In terms of the annals of genre cinema, it is difficult to imagine that this film, released just a few months ahead of Psycho, was bitterly hated when Hitchcock’s was so beloved and considered so influential. Peeping Tom generated a ridiculous amount of baseless critical vitriol; for example, Derek Hill’s oft quoted review, which declared, "The only really satisfactory way to dispose of Peeping Tom would be to shovel it up and flush it down the nearest sewer. Even then the stench would remain." Really the only garbage here is Hill himself, and the similar-minded critics from the period, the majority of whom are an embarrassment to writers everywhere. For my money, Peeping Tom is superior to Psycho in every way and it is actually far more like Hitchcock’s Frenzy (1972) — another film panned upon its release and one that I consider to be among Hitchcock’s best — but notably predates that film by more than a decade. Unlike Peeping Tom’s anxiety-inducing use of Technicolor — predating other horror directors like Roger Corman and Mario Bava’s use of it — and uneasy relationship to its protagonist, Hitchcock played it relatively safe with Psycho. He refused to land on any particular protagonist (famously killing off Marion Crane halfway through the film’s running time) and made his antagonist (Norman Bates) both sympathetic and pathetic, but ultimately mad and therefore essentially not responsible for his actions. Powell, on the other hand, made his film’s sympathetic and strangely likable protagonist also its killer; one who is also haunted by past parental trauma, but who is also in possession of his mental faculties and fully aware of his actions. For Criterion, feminist theorist Laura Mulvey explained that the film was so hated because of its unrestrained uses of sadism and voyeurism. She said, “Peeping Tom, as its title implies, is overtly about voyeuristic sadism. Its central character is a young cameraman and thus the story of voyeuristic perversion is, equally overtly, set within the film industry and the cinema itself, foregrounding its mechanisms of looking, and the gender divide that separates the secret observer (male) from the object of his gaze (female). The cinema spectator’s own voyeurism is made shockingly obvious and even more shockingly, the spectator identifies with the perverted protagonist.” A deeply angry and bitter film, Peeping Tom is as much about Powell’s personal frustration (with the film industry) as it is about perverse psychological and murderous sexual impulses. I first saw the film when I was about 19 or 20 and, even more so than the film’s visual or technical brilliance, I was attracted by Mark’s rage, inherently a transformative, creative force, something I have always been able to identify with far more than any quality possessed by Norman Bates. (Discomfitingly, in the flashbacks where Mark’s father performs experiments on him, the actors in these father-son flashbacks are Powell himself and his real-life son, Columba.) This film was also my introduction to Powell, though I have come to be a huge fan of the director and his partner, Emeric Pressburger; together, they worked under the umbrella name of The Archers, refusing to clearly delineate directing, producing, writing, or editing responsibilities, a partnership that not only resulted in some of the greatest films made in British cinema, but some of the greatest films, period. Though Peeping Tom was a solo effort for Powell, the streak of perversion, violence, and sexual repression that culminated in Mark’s character wound its way through many of his films with Pressburger: the plot of A Canterbury Tale (1944) revolves around a serial “glueman” who pours paste on women’s hair at night; Black Narcissus (1947) is about the psychosis that results in English nuns attempting to adjust to life in a Tibetan convent; a young ballerina is driven to mania and death in The Red Shoes (1948); during WWII, an alcoholic bomb-diffuser nearly succumbs to madness in The Small Back Room (1949); Gone to Earth (1950) follows an uncontrollable young woman who gives in to lust and paganism; and so on. Mark, of course — brilliantly portrayed by the sensitive, but somehow sinister Karlheinz Boehm — is a far less subtle interpretation of these themes and he’s an obvious influence on the numerous films from the ‘70s with young psychopaths, like Maniac, Don’t Go in the House, Bad Lieutenant, and, certainly, Taxi Driver. Scorsese was actually among Peeping Tom’s staunchest supporters and said that part of the film’s brilliance is that it shows “how the camera violates.” I suspect that what makes it such a groundbreaking work — depicting cinema as a violent act, one that is inherently and unapologetically voyeuristic and penetrative — is also what made it so shocking upon its release. It is, ultimately, a film about old wounds that never heal, but fester and bubble over. Connected to these themes of old trauma and memories of violence is, curiously, the film’s screenwriter, Leo Marks, a WWII cryptographer (whose memoir Between Silk and Cyanide: A Codemaker's War, 1941-1945 comes highly recommended). Marks’ success as a cryptographer had its roots in his abilities as a writer — he penned a few film scripts over the years, including Roy Boulting’s somewhat similar Twisted Nerve (1968), which I will write about in a few weeks — particularly as a poet. While poems were often used to encrypt messages during the war, Marks often wrote his own. I will leave you, then, with his most famous and most devastating, “The Life That I Have.” Written for his recently deceased girlfriend, the poem has become associated with French SOE agent Violette Szabo. Marks gave her the (encrypted) poem just before she was dropped into France, where she was soon after arrested by the Gestapo, who tortured and executed her. Like the general themes of Peeping Tom, it is concerned with death, longing, and grief and, above all, is incredibly beautiful: “The life that I have / Is all that I have / And the life that I have / Is yours. / The love that I have / Of the life that I have / Is yours and yours and yours. / A sleep I shall have / A rest I shall have / Yet death will be but a pause. / For the peace of my years / In the long green grass / Will be yours and yours and yours.”

Friday, August 5, 2016

Monthly Round Up: July 2016

Time for another monthly round-up! Over at Satanic Pandemonium I've been continuing my British horror series and I just wrapped up an in-depth look at the genre films of the studio Tigon British Film Productions. This month I'm going to move on to British horror films made in the '60s not under the particular umbrella of Hammer, Amicus, or Tigon. 

Over at Diabolique, we've continued our American Gothic-themed summer season. My essays for it have included:

Moral Degenerates: Rediscovering Leslie Stevens' Private Property (1960)
Gothic Madmen: John Brahm's Forgotten Horror Trilogy
The Mausoleum of All Hope and Desire: Southern Gothic Cinema, Part Two
Much of Madness, More of Sin: Edgar Allen Poe's "The Black Cat" on Screen
Gothic Film in the '40s: Doomed Romance and Murderous Melodrama
Gothic Film in the '40s: Domestic Terror and Supernatural Drama
I also reviewed Mondo Macabro's special edition Symptoms (1974) Blu-ray release, even though I wrote the liner essay. I couldn't help myself. 

I spent the last few months doing an in-depth series
 on the complete filmography of Polish director Andrzej Żuławski. With lots of emotion -- and wishing I could continue it forever -- I finished up the series with an essay on La fidélité (2000), his penultimate film. And even though I was supposed to take a few months off, I immediately began a new series on the completely filmography of British director Ken Russell with a look at some of his early Monitor episodes for the BBC, Elgar (1962) and Béla Bartók (1964)

For the podcast I co-host, Daughters of Darknesswe finished up our two-part look at independent American horror films inspired by Stephen Thrower's Nightmare USA. We did two American Gothic-themed double features: one on Roger Corman's The Raven & Masque of the Red Death, and another, All of the Them Witches: Superstition, Eyes of Fire, and the Calvinist Gothic


I also made a guest appearance over at 
Werewolf Ambulance, a horror-comedy podcast, where the hosts Alan and Katie were kind enough to endure me talking about my extreme love for Amityville II: The Possession for almost an hour. Incest, possession, a shit room, etc.

THE CREEPING FLESH

Freddie Francis, 1973
Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Lorna Heilbron In Victorian England, Professor Hildern (Peter Cushing) uncovered a very strange humanoid skeleton while on an expedition to New Guinea. It is very old and oddly developed, so he begins studying it. Meanwhile, his psychiatrist brother, James (Christopher Lee), runs an asylum where Hildern’s wife has been a patient for many years; James informs his brother that she has recently passed away and that Hildern will now have to fund his own research. The despairing Hildern begins to recklessly experiment with the skeleton, which responds strongly to water, allowing Hildern to develop a serum. He tests it on his own daughter, Penelope (Lorna Heilbron), hoping to find a way to prevent her from inheriting her mother’s madness, which sets in motion a violent chain of events... Tragically, The Creeping Flesh represented the death knell for Tigon. Producer and studio head Tony Tenser sold the studio not long after and though I believe they made a few more sex films, this was their last genre film. But at least they went out on a high note. Throughout the last few weeks, I’ve written a lot about my love for Tigon’s films; many of which defiantly bucked the more conservative, traditional paths Hammer and Amicus wandered down and, even at their worst, are always interesting. This one in particular benefits from two strong performances (as always) from Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. I can’t help but wonder if the studio knew it would be their final horror film, as the script really went all out and combined a lot themes popular in British horror at the time: mad science, madness and/or someone being driven insane, a killer on the loose, and supernatural evil. The Creeping Flesh is definitely among the series of great Lee and Cushing collaborations made in the early ‘70s, which, for a variety of reasons, amount to some of my favorite British horror films: Scream and Scream Again (1970, with Vincent Price), Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972), Horror Express (1972), Nothing But the Night (1973), and even The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973). Though the script has its fair share of issue and it can’t quite top the fun quotient of something like Dracula A.D. 1972 or the sheer gumption of Horror Express, this one is thick with atmosphere, there’s also loads of delightful scenery chewing, and Cushing, in particular, is obviously having a great time as the over-the-top doctor. It was really in these later roles that he pulled out all the stops and really stepped away from the grim, measured performances of the early Frankenstein and Dracula films for Hammer to churn out the kinds of dazzling roles that made films like Corruption (1968), Twins of Evil (1971), and Fear in the Night (1972) stand out so vividly. In the case of this film, both Cushing and Lee are bolstered by competent handling from director Freddie Francis. He’s one of my favorites in British horror and he’s one of the few who worked prolifically for all three of the major genre studios. Even though his name is sometimes overshadowed by people like Terence Fisher, he has left an indelible stamp on English horror. For Hammer, he made films like early black and white suspense outings Paranoiac (1963) and Nightmare (1964), as well as helming later entries in their franchises like Dracula Has Risen From the Grave (1968). For Amicus, he not only worked on some of their anthology films, such as Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965), but directed the more interesting single-plot efforts like my favorite, The Skull (1965), and The Psychopath (1966). He even had his hand in later horror from miscellaneous studios and ranged from the serious — such as Girly (1970) — to the patently absurd, like Trog (1970). This film was his only Tigon outing and though it’s their last, it’s definitely one of their best. The Creeping Flesh is one of those films that I just have to recommend, because I can’t imagine anyone being disappointed by the Cushing-Lee combo. And if you are, please don’t tell me about it. The film is available on DVD and I think at this point, I need hardly say how enthusiastic I am about the majority of these underrated Tigon films. I wish the studio had an opportunity to make more and, in a way, I feel like they’re poking fun at Hammer and Amicus a little bit with titles like The Creeping Flesh and some of their wilder, more out there films. The conclusion of this one in particular seems to acknowledge that: after spending the running time mashing together everything from mad science (I will never understand why he injects his daughter with the serum) to the dangers of arrogant British colonialism, Francis and company leave you wondering whether the events happened at all — as Hildern has presented them throughout via narration — or if he’s just totally barking mad and his brother (played with sublime disdain by Lee, who is a real cold bastard here) has been in the right all along.

Monday, July 25, 2016

NEITHER THE SEA NOR THE SAND

Fred Burnley, 1972
Starring: Susan Hampshire, Frank Finlay, Michael Petrovitch

An unhappily married woman, Anna (Susan Hampshire of Malpertuis), is taking some time alone to sort out her thoughts about her husband on the isle of Jersey, when she meets the brooding, handsome Hugh (Michael Petrovich of Tales That Witness Madness). They are drawn together and begin an affair, to the dismay of Hugh’s controlling brother George (Frank Findlay of Twisted Nerve and Lifeforce). To get some time alone, they take a short, romantic trip to Scotland, where Hugh suddenly falls dead of a heart attack on the beach. Anna is distraught, but it seems there was some medical mistake, as Hugh returns to her the next day, though he doesn’t seem quite right. As he becomes increasingly distant and strange, Anna begins to wonder if maybe he didn’t really die after all…

Essentially “The Monkey’s Paw” reimagined as a Gothic romance — though it is based on a novel by Gordon Honeycombe — Neither the Sea Nor the Sand once again belongs on the list of films from Tigon that everyone seems to hate but that I really love. It was also sadly one of their last, and is obviously representative of the kind of genre-bending weirdness that is impossible to sell to any kind of mass audience. Much like Doomwatch, it was unfairly marketed as a horror film and I think that’s the cause of much of the vitriol directed at it. For example, in the United States, it was renamed The Exorcism of Hugh and, though there is a scene where his brother declares that exorcism is the only cure for Hugh’s condition and they must go see a priest, throwing that in the title is grossly misleading.

The sole directorial effort from editor Fred Burnley, this strange romance has plenty of horror genre undertones — including some poetic but laughable philosophical musings between the two lovers, a first date in a tomb, and some Gothic trappings surrounding Hugh’s ancient family that are never fully addressed — and while I’ve seen it described as dull or slow-moving, it merely takes its time to develop a story that is at once simple and complex. In general, I dislike films that trip over themselves to deliver an abundance of exposition and explain away every element of the action. Neither the Sea Nor the Sand is absolutely not in any hurry to make rational sense, particularly when it comes to Hugh’s undead state. Burnley and company don’t bother to define or even explain the cause of this state, though it’s hinted that his obsessive love for Anna acts as sort of a supernatural force, one which has compelled him to resist the finality of death.

While I could see some viewers being frustrated with these nonsensical elements, I found them to be oddly satisfying in a dreamy, poetic sort of way, but then I do have a wide berth of tolerance for utter nonsense. There are some genuinely eerie scenes, such as one where the undead Hugh violently does away with someone who attempts to come between he and Anna. The moment is both sudden and unexpected, and does mark a change in Hugh, one where his humanity truly begins to fade and he is introduced to the idea of violence to achieve his sole purpose: to be with Anna. To my dismay, the film sort of skirts around the issue of necrophilia, though there is a scene where a lingerie-clad Anna clearly has sex with a hollow-eyed, mute Hugh.

Granted, the film isn’t perfect. It goes on a bit too long in some parts and would probably have done better as a fifty to sixty-minute made-for-TV film or BBC teleplay. There is some genuinely laughable dialogue, particularly where it concerns Hugh’s brother. In an absolutely hilarious scene (unintentionally so), upon first seeing Hugh, he immediately jumps to the conclusion that Hugh has returned from the dead, explains the whole thing to Anna, blames her in the bitchiest way possible, and then demands that they go see a priest for an exorcism. The only plot element that genuinely bugs me is that fact that the couple travels from a foreboding beach in Jersey to a different foreboding beach in Scotland… and then back.

I’m not sure whether to recommend Neither the Sea Nor the Sand. Anyone who has read Wuthering Heights as many times as I have will probably want to check it out immediately (thank god Anna is not nearly as much of a bitch as Cathy). It’s available on DVD, and I suspect you’re either going to love this film or be totally bored by it. There are elements of Deathdream, Bob Clark’s masterpiece that I deeply love, and the ending — spoiler alert — involves the lovers giving themselves to the sea, sort of like Zuławski’s Mes nuits sont plus belles que vos jours, though admittedly the power of nature is depicted more violently here.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

DOOMWATCH

Peter Sasdy, 1972
Starring: Ian Bannen, Judy Geeson, John Paul, George Sanders

Dr. Dell Shaw, a member of the environmental agency Doomwatch, travels to a remote Cornish Island known as Balfe to take some wildlife samples in the wake of an oil spill. But the secretive, sometimes violently unwelcoming locals accidentally reveal to Shaw that something is going on with their community and he soon recognizes signs of a hormonal disease, acromegaly, which causes pronounced deformities (and here, violent behavior). Despite their resistance — and with the reluctant assistance of a young schoolteacher who is also a newcomer to the island — he begins collecting research. He sends this back to Doomwatch and the teams learns that there may be a connection between the islanders’ deformities and an unauthorized chemical dump that may have spread to the local fish population…

One of the last films made by Tigon Pictures, Doomwatch was based on, and is sort of a spinoff of, a British TV show with the same name. I’ve never seen the show, which is perhaps why I was able to enjoy this strange and unfairly maligned little film that is compellingly made but straddles a number of genres, which made it difficult to market upon its release (and makes it somewhat difficult to recommend now). Much like the two Doctor Who films produced by Amicus, this is a baffling departure from the show and probably frustrated loyal fans. Not only are the show’s main characters relegated to supporting roles, but Doomwatch was misguidedly marketed as a horror film, whereas it’s better described as sci fi-tinged, ecological suspense.

Doomwatch is a bit of a mixed bag, because it’s roughly split into two parts. The first half is a bit reminiscent of The Wicker Man, in the sense that an investigator (in this case a doctor and not a police inspector) arrives on a strange, insular island and is instantly struck by a sense of claustrophobia, even paranoia, as the islanders manipulate him into ignoring their true purpose. And like The Wicker Man, events revolve around a dead or missing body; in this case, Shaw finds the body of a young girl or a child in the woods, but as soon as he draws the island’s lone police officer back to investigate, it is gone and has been reburied elsewhere.

The second half is a completely different beast. Shaw returns to the mainland to brainstorm with the rest of Doomwatch and they confront a naval commander, played by the always magical George Sanders, here in one of his last roles. This wasn’t the first time he appeared in a Tigon film, though I have to say that Doomwatch is a marked improvement over The Body Stealers (1969). But not even Sanders is given the screen time to do much to spice up the conclusion, most of which is largely concerned with three different kinds of conversations: either Doomwatch is wrapped up in scientific investigation (they’re trying to find who dumped some experimental growth hormones into the sea); Shaw is trying to convince the islanders that their problem is medical and not divine retribution/inbreeding; and there are many shots of British people shouting at each other over the telephone, as should be expected.

And yet, despite its sort of glum reputation, I really have a soft spot for Doomwatch. No, it’s not a horror film, though it does have some delightfully Lovecraftian touches and plenty of atmosphere. It’s not even really a sci-fi film, but straddles a pleasant line between the two genres, adding in a hefty dose of what I would describe as moral responsibility drama. And the cinematography from Ken Talbot — shot on actual Cornish locations and not on a soundstage — goes quite a long way, as does the moody score from John Scott. 

Finally, I have to admit my real, abiding love for director Peter Sasdy, who was an undeniably bright note in British horror with enjoyable titles like Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970), the mediocre but lovely Countess Dracula (1970), sleazy cheese-fest The Devil Within Her (1971) — about a bitchy exotic dancer who is being stalked by a Satanic dwarf, who may have possessed her unborn child (I could not make this shit up) — and classics like his masterpiece, Hands of the Ripper (1971), The Stone Tape (1972), and so on. I’m a little reluctant to recommend this, based on the rather intense hatred it seems to have experienced critically, but I really think you’ll be pleasantly surprised if you give it a shot and don’t expect The Wicker Man, Dunwich-style. Pick it up on DVD here.