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Satan's Slave

Friday November 18, 2016 in 70s cinema | horror

Thanks to the Horror Channel for reviving interest in the hugely enjoyable 1976 film Satan’s Slave.

Theatrical poster for Satan's SlaveSo. Catherine Yorke (Candace Glendenning) leaves London with her parents to visit her mysterious uncle Alexander (Michael Gough) in his large country house. But the drive ends in tragedy when Catherine’s parents appear to die in a freak car accident just as they’ve turned into Alexander’s drive.

She’s then taken in by Alexander, his son Stephen (Martin Potter, seen up to no good in the opening scene of the film, in a sort of Ralph Bates role) and a woman called Frances (Barbara Kellerman). Catherine recovers from her ordeal and begins to take an unwise shine to Stephen, but also starts to have terrible hallucinations. If this wasn’t enough, Frances tells of a plan to sacrifice her in order to avenge an ancient ancestor called Camilla who was said to possess evil powers. Indeed, they plan to use Camilla’s powers for Alexander’s own evil, a sacrificial surprise planned for her 20th birthday. Meanwhile, Catherine’s boyfriend in London (played by Ben from Doctor Who Michael Craze) is plagued by spells and leaps to his death from a tower block.

Stephen finds out of course and kills Frances; when Catherine discovers her dead body Stephen locks her away until the morning of the ritual. When they take her in the woods and prepare her, Catherine kills Stephen by stabbing him in the eye with a blade. She gets away but is then is tricked back into the clutches of her insane uncle by suddenly running into her father who leads her back into the evil…

You stabbed him right in the eye which went right through into his brain you clearly have some of Camilla in you already.

For a British horror film made in the 1970s and rarely seen on television, there’s a high level of blood and nudity. The IMDB provide a list plot keywords, including altar, reference to satan, cult, visions, exploding car, whipping and sex between cousins to help colour it in a bit more. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 7 featured fairly regularly in many British horror films of the 60s and 70s.

Satan’s Slave, also known as Evil Heritage, is reminiscent of Pete Walker’s British horror films of the 1970s, and that’s because it’s written by David McGillivray, who worked with Walker on four films including House of Whipcord (1974). It’s directed by Norman J. Warren, and I intend to seek out his films Prey (1977) and his other McGillivray collaboration, Terror (1978).

Michael Gough, who appeared in so many genre films it’s impossible to begin listing them, actually appears very little in Satan’s Slave, and it’s a shame especially as he’s groomed an excellent moustache for proceedings. Nevertheless, it joins the other top Gough films Trog (1970) and Horror Hospital (1973) for sheer camp. Candace Glendenning also has a Walker connection, appearing in the Flesh and Blood Show (1972). Curiously, she appeared in an episode of the children’s show Rainbow a year after Satan’s Slave was released.

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Symptoms

Sunday November 13, 2016 in 70s cinema | horror

Theatrical poster for SymptomsDirected in 1974 by José Ramón Larraz, Symptoms disappeared for years after the prints went missing, but it’s recently been discovered as part of the BFI’s most wanted project and now released in a stunning looking restored version.

Symptoms has been compared to Polanski’s Repulsion and there are many similarities, although I think Symptoms is the better film due to the incredible central performance from Angela Pleasence. She’s also ably supported by a wild eyed Peter Vaughan and an urbane Raymond Huntley.

The film is set in a quiet house in the English countryside where Helen (Pleasence) invites her friend Anne (Lorna Heilbron) to stay. Brady (Vaughan) is a sinister groundsman, creeping around in the woods, not really adding to a hospitable setting. Helen, is has to be said, also isn’t the most comfortable person to be around, speaking in flat, emotionless tones and ever complaining of a headache. It’s slowly revealed that she’s had a previous “illness” and a mysterious former friend, Cora, is brought to our attention when she visits a chemist (Huntley) for a prescription.

Anne takes it all in her stride, and is visited by a persistent boyfriend, and both really should have done the sensible thing and stayed away. Very creepy, Symptoms is a real slow burner. Mostly it relies on the the excellent Pleasence. Conventional horror, when it comes, is short, effective and sweet. There’s some slashing, but more disturbingly, Cora comes to visit. And it has the best “mirror trick”, now the most cliched of horror techniques, I have ever seen in a film. The music is by Bristol’s John Scott, who also worked on Satan’s Slave (1976). An alternative title for the film is Blood Virgin and it’s been bracketed with the so called “lesbian horrors” of the early 70s. I think this is unfair, if there is such a genre, and Symptoms is far subtler than say Lust for a Vampire or even Larraz’s own Vampyres.

Angela Pleasence was also memorable, although in a much smaller role, in From Beyond the Grave (1974) where she appeared with her father Donald in the segment An Act of Kindness. Also make an effort to catch the underrated TV series Whitechapel from 2013 for more Angela Pleasence creepiness. Vaughan is also still going strong, most recently cast in Game of Thrones.

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Deadly Strangers

Friday November 11, 2016 in 70s cinema |

By 1976 Hayley Mills had travelled far since 1961 and The Parent Trap. After her contract with Disney ended, she was eager to explore more challenging film roles to escape, or at least contrast to, her girl next door image. She turned down Stanley Kubrick’s version of Lolita in 1962, which is unfortunate as she would have been great, but the interesting parts eventually began with Sky West and Crooked (1965), known as Gypsy Girl in the US. It was directed by her father John and she played a troubled girl who is taken in by a band of gypsies.

The Family Way (1966) followed, where she starred together with Hywel Bennett as a young couple unable to consummate their marriage. Roy Boulting directed, who would later marry Mills. She also paired with Bennett in Twisted Nerve (1968), a psychological thriller about a man who pretends to be something he’s not; an often used theme in literature and film. They also both appeared in an adaption of Agatha Christie’s Endless Night (1972) as a young couple who build their dream home on cursed land; a film with an excellent twist and an effectively subtle supernatural element.

In Deadly Strangers (1976) Hayley Mills was paired with a similar actor to Hywel Bennett who was skilled in feckless roles, Simon Ward. Deadly Strangers was regular Saturday night TV viewing during the early 1980s. It was always on, in my rose-tinted memory usually following the latest episode of Hammer House of Horror on ITV.

Theatrical poster for Deadly StrangersDeadly Strangers has an almost brutally frank premise and follows the escaped maniac on the loose film blueprint, playing out across cold and bleak British A-roads. Naturally, the identity of the escapee is not revealed, with the audience left to decide between the two leads who it might be.

Steven Slade (Ward) picks up Belle Adams (Mills), a hitchhiker abandoned at the roadside by a lecherous lorry driver. Although Steven is very odd, possibly drunk and not sure where he’s heading, Belle still goes with him. He deliberately allows Belle to miss a train so they can stay together.

Steven and Belle have several edgy encounters, including a run-in with two motorcyclists, and a petrol station assistant is brutally attacked by another unseen assailant. There are flashback scenes setting out both their backgrounds, giving the viewer just enough clues. They become separated and Belle briefly travels with a romantic older American gentleman, wonderfully played by Sterling Hayden. The Hayden character is pivotal to the film, providing a comic book foil to Belle.

The quality of Deadly Strangers feels low budget and drab, as if the colour has been drained from it. It’s raining throughout most of the film and 1976 Britain looks grim; all greasy cafes before the dawn of the motorway service station. Deadly Strangers features no motorways at all, the smaller roads menaced by dangerous lorry drivers and cocky bikers, and cars held up at roadblocks and quaint railway crossings. Shooting was in the Bristol area, although the only recognisable location used is the Weston-super-Mare pier. The music is by Ron Goodwin. Although excellent, it feels like it belongs to a different type of suspense film from an earlier era.

Deadly Strangers isn’t subtle in suggesting that Steven is the maniac on the loose; to the point when it really can’t be him and it can only be Belle. So the eventual twist ending might appear obvious to today’s seasoned viewer, although it is still expertly done and the revelation hangs on an unwittingly folded newspaper headline. A clever Hitchcockian touch in the final act.

But the strength of the film is in its performances. Mills and Ward are both brilliant and make it such an endearing watch. Smoking constantly throughout, Mills is seen briefly topless in one scene, doing all she can to shed her goody-goody image. Time Out described her best quality in this role as “an insolent, slightly offhand sex appeal”. Reading insolent as bold, disrespectful, barefaced or shameless – this is a fair description of Belle Adams, although she still remains likeable. And disturbingly the viewer does turn in to something of a voyeur when it comes to Belle. In the unsettling scene where Steven watches her undress through a hole in the wall, we watch with him.

Simon Ward convinces in the tricky role of Steven Slade and is a worthy successor to Hywel Bennett as Mills’ screen partner, but it’s difficult to find him cast as imaginatively elsewhere. There is no pattern to his career choices and his only later film of note was The Monster Club (1980).

Strangely, Hayley Mills dipped out of cinema for a few years following the release of Deadly Strangers. She was on the brink of even more interesting roles, but perhaps she was satisfied that she’d done her job in reinventing herself. The girl next door had gone. It might not have been a good move to push things any further anyway, at a point where we could still appreciate the contrast of her earlier films and keep enjoying Whistle Down the Wind from 1961.

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The Haunting of Julia

Saturday November 5, 2016 in 70s cinema | horror

Theatrical poster for The Haunting of JuliaWe all know Rosemary’s Baby, but a Pointless answer to the category Mia Farrow horror films would definitely be The Haunting of Julia. This 1977 film was recently listed in the BFI’s 10 great overlooked British horror films of the 1970s. Admittedly I had never heard of the film until now. Typical of the horror genre of the time which cast American stars in a London setting, maybe it was simply pushed aside by bigger and louder releases of the time such as The Omen.

Tragic really, as I would agree with the BFI and think that this is one of the best horror films of the late 70s. If you’re looking it up, there is an alternative, and better because it’s very smart, title which is Full Circle. If you’re feeling smart yourself you could also call it Le Cercle Infernal which is good too.

The only version of the film I’ve had access to is “R” rated, meaning that some of the less tasteful scenes have been cut, including an infamous “tortoise” segment. This also means that the opening of the film is slightly confusing. It begins with a no nonsense start when daughter Kate of Julia and Marcus Lofting (Farrow and Keir Dullea) chokes over breakfast. Farrow resorts, ultimately unwisely, to performing a tracheotomy. Following Kate’s death (although it isn’t that clear what’s happened in the cut version) Julia spend some time in hospital before avoiding Marcus to live in a house in London on her own.

The Haunting of Julia is subtle and there are few shocks and surprises. And it has the best “mirror trick”, now the most cliched of horror techniques, I have ever seen in a film. It’s good because it’s just eerie, and things get weird when a medium (brilliantly played by Anna Wing, Lou Beale in Eastenders) turns up to hold a seance at the house. Farrow is excellent throughout and very watchable as always, following a strange thread when she discovers that her house is haunted by the ghost of a little boy; the stories are linked, in a way, and events loop around to rather a nasty end. This film reminded me of this year’s The Conjuring 2, keeping the tradition going by also being set in London with American stars, and another rather good film.

The performances are all good. Tom Conti floats around as a long haired love interest and other Brit supporting actors include Jill Bennett as Julia’s sister, Nigel Havers as an estate agent and Peter Sallis as a nosy neighbour. Also look out for Julian Fellowes as a librarian. Best of all are actors I’m not familiar with: Robin Gammell as Swift and Samantha gates as Mrs Rudge. It’s directed by Richard Locraine, who’s had a varied career, his other films including Brimstone and Treacle (1982) and Richard III (1995). The writer Harry Bromley Davenport has very much stayed in the genre, making the Xtro films.

Incidentally, other Pointless answers to the category Mia Farrow horror films that would score highly are Secret Ceremony (1968), See No Evil (1971) and, going full circle perhaps, the 2006 remake of The Omen.

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Fragment of Fear

Wednesday October 8, 2014 in 70s cinema | david hemmings

Fragment of Fear is a psychological thriller starring David Hemmings. Made in 1970 and directed by Richard C. Sarafian (see also Vanishing Point) the film had all but disappeared from memory until recently resurfacing for online rental. What at first looks to be a quaint period piece with an endearing supporting cast (Arthur Lowe, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Daniel Massey and Patricia Hayes) surprisingly turns out be be a very effective and tense ride.

David Hemmings was always one for getting himself into a psychological pickle in the early 1970s. He followed Fragment of Fear with Unman, Wittering and Zigo (1971) and Voices (1973). The films tend to share a common thread, with an individual tormented by unseen menaces (a teacher troubled seemingly by his pupils in Unman, Wittering and Zigo) and slowly losing a grip on reality which generally leads to a shocking ending (Voices has an added supernatural element). Both are worth checking out, as is Hemmings’ lead in Dario Argento’s Deep Red (1975).

Tim Brett (Hemmings) is a writer and recovering drug addict who takes it upon himself to solve the murder of his aunt Lucy (Flora Robson). Although it happens in Italy he’s soon dashing back to London – obviously keen to interact with Lowe, Hyde-White et al. What follows is an intriguing flow of events where Brett slowly sinks into paranoia. He meets a woman on a train who hands him a letter, which is later revealed as a threatening warning mysteriously typed up in his own flat which he is later unable to clearly articulate. He’s subsequently plagued by menacing phone calls. Of course, nobody believes him. Policemen and officials all appear as ambiguous in identity, including Arthur Lowe and Daniel Massey giving excellent and effortless turns. Yootha Joyce and Kenneth Cranham (miles from their respective early 80s George and Mildred and Shine on Harvey Moon comedy roles) also turn up to hang around on the fringes of Brett’s increasing madness. It’s all quite magnificent and Hemmings in particular is very good, breaking out into a visibly uncomfortable sweat as things begin to fall apart for him.

By the way, the Aunt Lucy plot isn’t particularly interesting, and she is revealed as a do-gooder of ex-offenders turned blackmailer. It might be difficult to imagine Flora Robson capable of this. The ex-offenders form the background of the mysterious group called the “Stepping Stones” who cause havoc for Hemmings. What’s more interesting is the dark ending of the film, which leaves Brett in a very bad place and also leaves it open as to whether his girlfriend Juliet (Gayle Hunnicutt) has anything to do with it all.

There’s minimal location shooting and the film relies mostly on interiors but this works in its favour, especially the scenes inside Brett’s flat, with the dark corners and creaky furniture. The music by Johnny Harris is very of its time but still apt. Ah, and I’ve forgotten to say very much about Gayle Hunnicutt, Hemmings’ wife who often co-starred with him. To be honest, she’s unmemorable in Fragment of Fear, although watch out for her Nana Mouskouri style glasses. They have an important part to play in the growing paranoia.

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