In the early 70s Hammer Films attempted to expand their horizons, deciding that the usual formula of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee Frankenstein and Dracula vehicles was becoming somewhat tired. One of the solutions was to produce features set in the present day and to introduce younger stars. In 1972 the double bill of Fear in the Night and Straight on Till Morning was released. The latter film starred Rita Tushingham and newcomer Shane Briant, who despite going on to star in several Hammer features is now sadly little remembered. The move to replace Cushing and Lee mostly failed, with Hammer becoming increasingly directionless. The studio lost their appeal as the 70s trudged on, with Straight on Till Morning being one of only a few artistic triumphs.
Along with Ralph Bates, Shane Briant was groomed as Hammer’s new leading man at the time, and although leading rather well in Captain Cronos – Vampire Hunter he is possibly most effective in Straight on Till Morning. Here he plays a rather deranged young man (Peter) who is slowly revealed as a very dangerous killer. Both Briant and Tushingham are excellent in this film.
Brenda (Tushingham) is a northern girl who tells her mother she is pregnant (although she isn’t) and leaves Liverpool for London intent on finding a partner to father a child. An odd decision, but she’s an odd character and let’s be frank here; this is a weird film. Brenda decides to engineer an encounter with Peter by the impulsive means of stealing his dog one evening and then returning it to him the next day. It works. The two embark on a rather offbeat relationship, based partly on some kind of homage to Peter and Wendy in Peter Pan, although this is never explored thoroughly.
Peter Collinson (The Italian Job) directs his only film for Hammer, and the approach comes across at times as an attempt to emulate the Roeg/Cammell partnership of Performance in the film’s erratic and jarring editing technique. Attempts at being art cinema largely fail, although Collinson proves himself as the most versatile of directors. Along with Fear in the Night, Straight on Till Morning was first considered as a tv movie and it does pre-empt the later Hammer House of Horror series for ITV which also effectively used a modern setting for its small screen chillers.
Striaght on Till Morning also reminds of both the films of Pete Walker and of Alfred Hitchcock’s London set Frenzy. But unlike Walker (and even the 1972 Hitchcock) Collinson doesn’t rely on the permissiveness of 70s cinema to sneak in an extra does of sex and violence. Straight on Till Morning plays by the rulebook of suggestion – there is next to no blood spilt on camera although this still results in one of the most shocking films of that decade. This is partly due to the excellent acting and the dark ending, which is one of the tensest on camera.
James Bolam and Tom Bell appear in supporting roles, but their presence is so slight it seems their careers were at a low ebb at the time. It’s Briant and Tushingham’s film. Indeed, Hammer appear to be deliberately avoiding the inclusion of the recognisable supporting cast that usually kept their features bouyant. But never mind, the leads are enough to keep this one afloat. Rita Tushingham is a performer I’ve always felt uncomfortable with but in this film she is superb, almost parodying her ugly duckling persona of the previous decade. I last saw her in the Joe Meek biopic Telstar. Shane Briant still works consistently, although its tricky to name anything notable he’s done in recent years. Peter Collinson didn’t really direct anything more of worth and died in 1980. Straight on Till Morning is glaringly 70s British cinema, and the disturbingly frank shock factor of this film has undoubtedly kept it from television showings and let it sink into undeserved obscurity. A pity.
There’s something unsettling about London on film in the 1970s. Streets appear a little too empty. What traffic there is flows freely, with cars slowing down to park easily so their drivers can reveal what’s concealed inside the boot. Police come across as particularly inept, and allow teenage gangs to run riot on their motorcycles. Teenagers in general tend to fall into two general camps in 70s horrors; the easy victims or the out and out nasties. It’s a bleak and creepy 70s landscape.
Creepier still if it’s a Pete Walker film. Frightmare was directed by Walker in 1974 and follows his similarly gruesome offering from the same year House of Whipcord. Like the earlier film, Frightmare leads the viewer down an increasingly dark and narrowing path, where no-one is saved and the viewer is left particularly aghast. Or all the 70s horror films, it is one of the most shocking.
Frightmare begins in the 1950s, where a lone figure (Andrew Sachs) is murdered at a run down funfair. Jumping to the present day, Edmund and Dorothy Yates (Rupert Davies and House of Whipcord’s Sheila Keith) are released from a mental institution. Apparently they are now cured of their irritating cannibal tendencies. So we can all rest peacefully. No, hang on a minute, this is a Pete Walker film…
If you’ve dared to watch the trailer, the film provides reassuringly melodramatic music to its horror, and as well as the London setting Walker uses a desolate but far from comfy farmhouse, where open fires provide easy access to red hot pokers. The nastiness of Frightmare will be no surprise for anyone familiar with Walker’s work. The director kept British cinema alive in the 1970s, although perhaps alive is the wrong word to use for a series of films generally dealing with some degree of bloodbath. Walker directed a series of successful films before retiring in the early 1980s. Rumour has it that he became a property developer. As well as horror films, Walker knocked out a series of mild sex comedies, the most well known probably being Tiffany Jones in 1973. He almost directed a movie starring The Sex Pistols, possibly more interesting than Julien Temple’s limp Great Rock and Roll Swindle. But we’ll never know. Walker’s final film was a brilliant swansong. The House of Long Shadows brought together Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, John Carradine and Christopher Lee.
Pete Walker creates an absurd world that is really beyond criticism, and his recent appearance at the BFI easily proves this. An amiable and eloquent gentleman, he comes across as something of an English Roger Corman. An exceedingly nice man who just happened to make horror films, there’s little point in digging too deeply into the meaning behind the flicks. The films, if you like this sort of thing, are just fun, and Walker is happy to admit that he stopped directing at a relatively early age simply because he’d run his course as a filmmaker. And, more to the point, how could you possibly top The House of the Long Shadows?
Walker’s cinema remains elusive and obscure, making him the truest cult filmmaker. His movies rarery, perhaps never, appear on television and are difficult to track down on DVD. So sadly many of his feature have escaped my attention, such as this intriguing looking film with the bizarre casting of the singer Jack Jones and the future Mrs Connolly Pamela Stephenson:
The Comeback looks fantastic, but I’ll have to make do with the trailer for now – that familiar deep voice telling me
Perhaps he is going mad. Or perhaps there is someone there…
After two decades I’ve finally done it. One of the most obscure movies ever made has finally dropped into my hands. In 1970 Amicus films made The Mind of Mr Soames starring Terence Stamp. Some background: Amicus are best remembered for their series of portmanteau horror films in the 60s and 70s. Stamp is best known for playing wide eyed innocence combined with a forgivable cockney charm, most movingly in Billy Budd (1962), chillingly in The Collector (1965) and, much later, with a lot of humour and gravitas in The Hit (1984). The Mind of Mr Soames brings together the very 70s contemporary look of the Amicus fantasy film with Stamp at his childlike best.
Stamp plays John Soames, a 30 year old man waking from a lifelong coma. He rises from his marathon sleep as essentially a baby in a man’s body, and it’s the duty of a stiffly military type (played by Nigel Davenport) to apply a programme of education to bring Mr Soames up to speed. It’s not easy, and anyone having ever dealt with babies and toddlers will quickly concur that a grown man throwing a tantrum might not be one of life’s pleasures. And where a film featuring an actor faking the mannerisms of a baby could go horribly wrong, it’s a credit to Stamp that he manages to pull it off so well with great wit and a dash of menace. And incidentally, this is the last of the modest run of films that featured the youthful Stamp; when he re-emerged in 1978 as General Zod in the Superman films he really had grown up.
The ever-reliable Robert Vaughn also stars as an American surgeon, initially called in to revive Soames but who then stays on to criticise Davenport’s archaic teaching methodology. Bearded and experimenting with 70s cashmere, it could be argued that Vaughn is attempting to shrug off his Man From Uncle image. Whatever his success rate, he’s still reliably good. His character argues that Soames should be allowed to play and be given a break from the strict regime of mathematics and vocabulary (and I suppose they were still using the term the three rs in 1970; and there were no league tables at the time although Davenport would surely be in favour of them). Vaughn showers Soames with exciting toys and secretly allows him free reign of the institution gardens, infuriating Davenport and inadvertently leading to the patient’s escape. This, I suppose, is what we have been waiting for.
Stamp’s flight inevitably causes consternation for the folks he runs into on the outside. First he upsets a playground game of football and then a lunchtime drinking session in a smoky pub. People appear disturbed by Mr Soames’ peculiar garb, although this may not appear odd to the modern audience as he is wearing a now obvious hoodie. Times really do change, and the final scenes of the film begin to reveal its age. On the run, Soames boards a train full of quaint compartments, where he accidentally menaces a young girl to hysteria. Odder still, as I’ve been led to believe that Stamp was considered quite a catch in his prime and many a young lady would have jumped at the chance of some railway intimacy.
Joking aside, The Mind of Mr Soames does offer a lot of serious food for thought although many of its themes have a tendency to pop in, say hello but then not proceed to go anywhere. For example, it’s suggested that the Vaughn character has an alcohol problem, possibly related to his own family issues, but this isn’t properly followed up. Similarly, Big Brother rears its ugly head several decades too soon as a camera crew roll up to film every second of Soames’ development. Possibly seeming too far fetched for a fantasy film, the idea of filming a subject’s every waking moment must have been dismissed as spoiling an otherwise intelligent film as it isn’t fully pursued.
But so, after two decades of searching I was not disappointed by The Mind of Mr Soames. It’s an understated film that begs more than one viewing. It’s certainly deeper than the usual Amicus fare. The director is Alan Cooke, who sadly became a hack director for tv, and is based on a novel by the science fiction writer Charles Eric Maine. The guitarist John Williams supplies an odd yet effective soundtrack. Donal Donnelly is effective in a supporting role, and a keen eye might also spot Tony Caunter (Roy Evans in Eastenders) as a disgruntled teacher and Joe Gladwin (Wally in Last of the Summer Wine) as a friendly driver. Vaughn is very good, Davenport perfect for his role but Stamp, as ever when cast wisely, is outstanding. There’s a forgivable quality about his unsullied presence that is particularly effective here.
The Mind of Mr Soames is a sadly ignored and underrated film. Although in some ways its obscurity is a blessing, as there is the danger that the still interesting theme might be picked up by the Hollywood remake brigade. I can see Jim Carrey really going for it, and possibly Daniel Day Lewis if he got to it earlier in his career. If it happens, and whoever takes the lead, I’d like to see Terence Stamp reappear in a remake in the Nigel Davenport role. Why not? Michael Caine has been allowed to indulge in the remakes of some of his classics so why not Stamp? Although, like Amicus films and the early 1970s, the childlike charm of cinema is a thing of the past.
During the Star Wars frenzy of 1978 I became enamoured with an entirely different film. One no less successful but one that spoke to me more with its intelligent themes, craftsmanship and ambiguity. Although still in short trousers, I was fascinated that such a weird, meandering but ultimately beautiful film could be audacious enough to market itself as a commercial feature – and yet still succeed. Whilst George Lucas’ epics have remained for me shallowly juvenile, Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third kind has stayed in my memory reel for reel. Discovering it again thirty years on, I’ve found its impact no less dimmed than when I first saw it.
On its release Star Wars brought science fiction back into the mainstream, although over the next few years I was already savouring things more cerebral. Re-released in the late 70s, Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey took my imagination to task. But whilst this has remained another enduring favourite the film has dated quite considerably, mostly in its obviously 60s ethos. 2001 is barely 10 years older than Close Encounters but it belongs to a different era entirely, left behind by Spielberg’s film as much as the fighting apemen were by HAL. Perhaps Kubrick’s mistake was in attempting to create a future that is no longer futuristic because it’s already passing us by; Spielberg settles with examining the present. Where sci fi usually suffers by the effect of time, Close Encounters manages to bypass this failing.
Richard Dreyfuss is the star of Close Encounters and delivers one of the all time 70s lead roles. Allegedly Dreyfuss actively pursued Spielberg for the part, and it is unlikely that the original actors courted for the role (who included Steve McQueen, Dustin Hoffman and Jack Nicholson) would have been as good. Hoffman would have been too offbeat, Jack too crazy and McQueen I can’t imagine playing a character with any failings at all. Richard Dreyfuss is driven, manic and, for his family, terrifyingly obsessed after a UFO sighting. However he reigns in his performance enough to keep it subtle and compelling.
Dreyfuss plays Roy Neary, an ordinary guy who, for reasons remaining mostly obscure, becomes a chosen one. His mounting mania is focused on a mountain-shaped object he cannot erase from his consciousness, manifested in every day objects and eventually engulfing him and isolating him from his family forever. François Truffaut plays Claude Lacombe, a French scientist also preoccupied with the UFO phenomenon. Whilst an odd choice for a major role in a Hollywood movie, Truffaut’s casting speaks volumes for a film exploring the failings of human communication.
The communication theme is one that works on a subtle level, giving this film a very literary quality. Close Encounters forever invites the viewer to make a connection between its various threads. The need for Lacombe to use a translator as he slips between English and French, Neary’s inability to communicate or be communicated with (his employers call to relay the message that he has lost his job, although they don’t want to speak to him directly), and the long journey to the solution of using music instead of language to talk to the aliens. Many of these ideas suggest that Man might need to get to grips with talking to himself before he turns to alien life.
Technology has an odd place in this film too. Neary unsuccessfully attempts to help his son with his homework by demonstrating with a train set (neatly foreshadowing the train wreck the authorities later use as a cover up), and toys play a big part throughout; in a key scene a five year old child is memorably mesmerised by his toys coming alive at night. But whilst they toy with it, the aliens often eschew technology, attempting to arrange a rendezvous by relying largely on good old fashioned map coordinates and the even more impressive technique of thought transference.
Spielberg’s genius, however, is not too make this incredibly deep film too taxing for the younger audience. The scene where the child is abducted is one of the best sequences he has ever directed, which simply and perfectly contrasts the awe, excitement and wonder of an extra terrestrial encounter with the equally tangible fear of what it might bring. As young Barry (Cary Guffey) wants to open every door and stare at the bright lights outside, his mother is desperate to slam them and lock them both tight inside the house. Neary’s first encounter with the aliens is also memorable, which builds up perfectly to a police car chase. The special effects haven’t aged in the slightest, and the famous end sequence with the alien “mothership” has lost none of its brilliance and, like most of the film, is effective on an emotional as well as intellectual level.
Close Encounters is full of Spielberg motifs. Neary is the driven man who isolates his wife (played by Teri Garr) from his world, recalling the similarly narrowly focused Chief Brody in Jaws. Noisy families compete to be heard amongst the domestic chaos, explored even more fully in the later ET; as always Spielberg proves to be an excellent director of children. There’s also a couple of subtle visual nods to George Pal’s War of the Worlds throughout the film, and years later he couldn’t resist going the whole hog and remaking the whole thing entirely. But Close Encounters remains one of Spielberg’s most personal and accomplished films.
Footnote: Steven Spielberg messed around with his masterpiece somewhat. A few years later he released a Special Edition showing the interior of the alien “mothership”. He later decided this was a mistake, and removed the new scenes for a later definitive Collector’s Edition. This is very much the director’s cut that Spielberg now wants us to enjoy.
In 1972 Alfred Hitchcock returned to London to make his penultimate film Frenzy. After a few lacklustre years which produced the below average Torn Curtain and Topaz, this was his last great movie. A return to form, and a return to his best and most recurring theme, the wrong man. Hitchcock had been away in Hollywood for a long time, and Frenzy fondly went back to his roots for what I’ve always thought was a very accomplished swansong. Looking at it again, I believe that Frenzy is a true classic of British cinema.
In Frenzy Jon Finch plays Richard Blaney, our man wrongly accused of being the necktie murderer, a quaint term for what films would be calling serial killers two decades later. Despite the subject, Frenzy is at times quaint. The Covent Garden setting reveals a bygone time, both in the styles and locations of 70s London and in the fact that sometimes Hitchcock appears to treat his capital as if he has never left it, and that it hadn’t altered in the intervening years. Characters appear to talk in an almost 30s twang, interiors of cars have a suspiciously fake backdrop, truck drivers still whistle, people still say “pleased to meet you, I’m sure!” And so on. Hitchcock also however takes advantage of a more permissive age of cinema; there’s nudity, nastiness and swearing in this strange 30s/70s world.
Where in The 39 Steps Robert Donat ran across the British Isles with the police in hot pursuit, which involved train journeys, noisy flocks of sheep (and a memorable meeting with John Laurie’s stern crofter), Jon Finch in Frenzy is content to dash around the nooks and crannies of Covent Garden. This is a London film, through and through. And although most of it is filmed on location, there is the tell tale sign of carefully orchestrated extras carrying sacks of vegetables, and the sometimes obvious jump between outside and studio scenes. Visually, it’s London as Hitchcock wanted it.
Frenzy opens somewhat grandly, the camera sweeping majestically across London from a great height above. Seeing the film again, I was reminded of the magnificent crane shot in Young and Innocent, where the camera slowly moves across a ballroom, then towards the band playing and finally at the drummer and the drummer’s eyes; the drummer’s twitching eye revealing that this is our man. This is our murderer. As Frenzy opens with the camera flying past Tower Bridge it settles on a crowd at the riverside, who are about to discover a murder (“it’s another one of those necktie murders!” they excitedly cry). The film thus starts very quickly, no time for preamble and straight into an almost textbook murder plot. Although this turns out to be the manual of suspense films; it is the textbook.
With the idea of the necktie murderer firmly in the mind of the audience Hitchcock delivers the first of his many deft touches throughout this film. The scene quickly cuts to the first sight of Blaney as he is fastening his tie. Surely not – no? So soon we see the murderer? But this is a double bluff; we know, we really know, that this is not going to be our villain, and we sink into the comfort of the wrong man plot. Hitchcock further fleshes things out for us; Blaney is down on his luck, an ex squadron leader now working as a Covent Garden barman. He’s sacked by his landlord (a very nasty Bernard Cribbins) who accuses him of fingering the till. Blaney wanders into another pub, arguing with the barman as two respectable gents also walk in and discuss their thoughts on the “necktie murders”. Is this tipsy and aggressive man the villain? No, of course he isn’t. But we can see why he will get the blame.
Blaney runs into an acquaintance called Bob Rusk, a cockney wideboy played by Barry Foster. He is also on fairly amicable terms with his posh ex-wife Brenda, Barbara Leigh-Hunt, who runs a “marriage bureau” (common in 30s/70s London). He also has a girlfriend in the more down to earth Babs (Anna Massey). It’s all fairly jolly really, until Hitchcock does a really terrible thing. In a truly chilling, chilling, scene, Rusk is unmasked as the real necktie murderer and kills Brenda. Hitchcock doesn’t rely too much in the permissiveness of 70s cinema, he just uses his genius as a film maker in the same way he does in his other great murder movie Psycho. He also adds the uncomfortable air of the voyeur in a far superior, and far more disturbing way, than the similar (and much overrated) Peeping Tom. Studies of Hitchcock consider his voyeuristic fetish as a director. By 1972, I think his genius was on autopilot. Perhaps it is odd that he could by now be brilliant without even thinking about it.
As Rusk slips away from his crime, and we remember to take a breath, the scene is set for our first Great Hitchcock Moment. Brenda has been killed in her office; now her absent secretary inevitibly returns to find her. As she disappears inside the building the camera stops to watch from the outside. We realise, so used to film that we are, that it will be only a few moments before she goes upstairs, discovers the murder and we hear her scream. We wait, but it doesn’t happen. The camera stays where it is. We keep waiting. Hitchcock manages to delay the scream as long as possible, playing with our expectations. He only delivers the scream when he can’t stretch things out any more. Until we can’t hold our breath any longer. And then we breath again. He’s laughing at us; but we forgive him and we laugh with him.
Although going on the run with Blaney, Babs is obviously next in line for the necktie murderer (poor Anna Massey, only just getting over her role in, coincidentally, Peeping Tom ). After all, Babs is no Madeleine Carroll in the 39 Steps. And although Blaney checks them both into a hotel as a married couple (“Mr and Mrs Oscar Wilde”), he’s no Robert Donat either. They intend to sleep together and don’t need a pair of handcuffs to draw attention to their chastity; Hitchcock even allows himself a brief glimpse of a naked Babs. Perhaps, deep down, he has no respect for such a girl. Perhaps this is why Hitchcock seals her fate so soon after, although he does it with a piece of subtle genius that becomes our second Great Hitchcock Moment. As she steps out from Cribbins’ pub into a London street the sound around her is cut; just a short burst of total silence and a close up of her face. The next thing we hear is Rusk’s voice beside her and then the sound is revived; somehow we know she is doomed.
Throughout the film Hitchcock toys with sound. With his background in silent films he’s always done it, but it’s odd that after more than 40 years of sound he’s still fascinated by the use of, or lack of, sound in cinema. Paul Merton has discussed this probably much more articulartly in his recent documentary on Hitchcock. One example is where Rusk wrestles with Babs’s corpse in the back of a potato truck (he needs to recover some incriminating evidence). Where a lesser director would flood the scene with dramatic music, Hitchcock just uses the crunching and wheezing sound of the truck’s gears, even the noise of the spilling spuds. Later, when Blaney is in court, a glass door shuts and numbs the sound for us. We can see, but not hear, what is going on. The scene is just silent until a young PC, curious to hear what is happening, edges the door open for us.
Frenzy was adapted by Anthony Shaffer from Arthur La Bern’s novel Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square. With such an impressive track record (including Sleuth and The Wicker Man), you may ask why Shaffer’s dialogue in this film is so ropey. Again, we go back to the 30s/70s dilemma and I think the antiquated script of this film is possibly deliberate in a, possibly misjudged, tribute to the director (although, for once, this may be a joke that Hitchcock wasn’t in on).
And as you might expect, there is some odd Hitchcock humour throughout. The mismatched couple briefly glimpsed at the marriage bureau are, again, straight out of 30s cinema. More successful is the camp hotel porter who gets the scoop of a lifetime (played by the great Jimmy Gardner), and most odd is the domestic scenes of Inspector Oxford (Alec McCowen) and his wife, played by Vivien Merchant, who dishes him up some awful examples of kitchen cuisine as he explains the details of the plot to her. It’s almost as if Hitchcock, forever bored with the tedium of dialogue, just has to give his characters something visual and amusing to do.
The supporting cast are very good. The nasty Cribbins, and – another recent friend of Doctor Who’s – the excellent Clive Swift add a further level of quality. Billie Whitelaw makes an appearance, and there’s also Michael Bates (from It Ain’t Half Hot Mum) and Jean Marsh (as the stuck up secretary). Oh yes, and a bowler hatted Alfred Hitchcock – making the last of his cameos in a crowd scene. Jon Finch (fresh from playing Polanski’s Macbeth and no doubt hot property at the time) is okay in the lead, although somewhat wooden. Barry Foster is brilliant as Rusk. This is a role that Michael Caine turned down, perhaps not wanting to do another dark character so soon after Get Carter. Caine may well have ruined it if he’d taken the part; there’s just a certain creepiness that Foster gets over rather well. But sadly, like Jon Finch, this was his last important role.
So I come away from Frenzy realising that is a forgotten gem. There’s a perfectly precise closing scene which, although probably daft if you analyse it, works brilliantly in the context of the film. Should you ever need it proved, this film is a reminder that Hitchcock was a fantastic film maker. As they might have said in 30s London, he was the salt of the earth – and they broke the mould when he was born.
Oh, and a final Great Hitchcock Moment, which is another favourite of Merton’s. I’ve mentioned the chilling scene where we see the horrible and explicit murder of Barbara Blaney. Even more chilling is the murder of Babs, where we don’t see anything. Hitchcock simply closes the door on her and pulls the camera away, down the stairs and away. We see nothing and hear nothing, not even a scream. But he makes it most unsettling because we want to see. I’m sorry, but we really do. We’re the voyeurs. Very unsettling indeed.