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Dead of Night

Saturday December 24, 2016 in 40s cinema | horror

I wish it were as easy as that. But trying to remember a dream is like, how shall I put it, being out at night in a thunder-storm. There’s a flash of lightning and, for one brief moment, everything stands out: vivid and startling.

Theatrical poster for Dead of Night An architect drives to a country house to consult on some renovations. Upon arrival he meets a number of guests, and despite never having met any of them he reveals that he has seen them all in a recurring dream and is able to predict spontaneous events in the house before they happen, such as another guest turning up late and a pair of glasses breaking. He also partially recalls with some apprehension that something awful will later occur, and becomes increasingly disturbed.

Dead of Night is the legendary 1945 British anthology horror film made by Ealing Studios. The individual stories were directed by Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden and Robert Hamer, wrapped in a framing story that explores the recursive nature of dreams. It stars Mervyn Johns (as the architect Walter Craig), Googie Withers and Michael Redgrave and stands out from British film of the 1940s, when very few horror films were being made. It had an influence on subsequent films in the genre when horror later regained popularity. The Amicus portmanteau films of the 60s and 70s were directly inspired by Dead of Night (characters recount their dreams in The Vault of Horror (1973) and a haunted mirror sequence appears in 1974’s From Beyond the Grave). There’s Creepshow (1982) as well. The recurring nightmare theme was also used to good effect in a 1980 episode of Hammer House of Horror and a good chunk of Twilight Zone stories. The idea of various characters recounting supernatural tales remains an enduring plot device to this day, used most recently in Neil Gaiman’s Unlikely Stories, and the circular narrative has been well employed too; I recall the 1970s children’s TV series Children of the Stones applying it for good effect.

Although regarded as a horror classic (regularly cited so by Martin Scorsese), none of the Dead of Night directors were subsequently linked to the genre, with Basil Dearden only ever really coming close; their work staying more aligned to traditional Ealing comedy fare.

The framing story is directed by Dearden and is effective thanks to Johns’ wonderful performance as the increasingly disturbed Craig. The house guests attempt to test his foresight and set him at ease, while entertaining each other with various uncanny tales:

A racing car driver sees a hearse outside his house, realises a premonition and later avoids a fatal bus crash. This is also directed by Dearden and based on The Bus-Conductor, a short story by E. F. Benson which has also become something of an urban myth story with its catchphrase “room for one more”, with the bus being substituted for a lift or an aeroplane in some stories. Dearden went on to make countless British films including The Blue Lamp (1950). I have previously reviewed his final film The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970) starring Roger Moore as a man who meets his own double, which plays out not unlike an extended Dead of Night segment.

A ghostly encounter during a children’s Christmas party. Directed by Alberto Cavalcanti; story by Angus MacPhail. I know Cavalcanti best for the excellent wartime drama Went the Day Well? (1942). Unfortunately this is one of the less effective parts of Dead of Night, although helps to nicely place it as a Christmas film and hence this posting.

A haunted antique mirror. This one is quite creepy, directed by Robert Hamer, probably most famous for Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), and written by John Baines. Baines also wrote the screenplay for the 1960 horror The Hands of Orlac, where a famous pianist inherits the hands of a murderer.

A comic tale of two rival golfers, one of whom becomes haunted by the other’s ghost. Directed by Charles Crichton and based on a story by H.G. Wells. Another Ealing perennial, Crichton made The Lavender Hill Mob (1951). Too light for the genre and over long, the golfing sequence is another weak part, although serves to set things up appropriately for what is to come.

The film is best-remembered for the final story told by psychiatrist Dr. Van Straaten of an unbalanced ventriloquist (Michael Redgrave) who believes his amoral dummy Hugo is alive, leading to murder and madness. Directed by Cavalcanti, story by Baines, Redgrave is excellent and, next to Johns, his performance is the most memorable in the film. The theme of the troublesome ventriloquist dummy is echoed in William Goldman’s novel Magic, but the Redgrave sequence also reminded me of the psychological theme of Psycho, mostly notable the ending of Hitchcock’s film.

The framing story completes when Dr. Van Straaten accidentally breaks his glasses and the power goes out, the nightmare continuing with Craig escaping into a montage of scenes and characters from the house guests’ tales. The dummy Hugo is seen strangling him when he wakes up to the sound of a telephone ringing. It is an invite to the country to consult on some renovations. As the film ends, he is again seen driving up to his host’s house as he did in the opening scene…

Dead of Night is at times an uneven film, a symptom of multi-director anthologies. A touch overlong, the party and golf sequences were cut for the US release. It cleverest aspect is the Chinese Box plotting and circular narrative, and whilst some of the performances appear dated, the script is very well written. And the effectively odd ending must have been quite a shock for the immediate post-war audience, who perhaps left the cinema not sure if they were coming or going.

Why did you have to break your glasses..?

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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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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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Robin Redbreast

Thursday December 24, 2015 in horror | forgotten cinema

What use would a woman’s blood be to the soil? It needs a man.

What if there was a precursor to such rural British horrors as The Wicker Man, Eden Lake and Sightseers ?

Robin Redbreast was broadcast as a BBC Play for Today in December 1970. Due to a power cut that evening, many viewers missed the full transmission and so it was rebroadcast a few months later. This was the first time a Play for Today had ever earned a repeat showing. It hasn’t been shown since however, and the recent DVD release only features a surviving black and white copy. Writer John Bowen was also responsible for the Ghost Story for Christmas in 1978 The Ice House.

Script editor Norah Palmer (Anna Cropper) leaves her friends in London, Jake (Julian Holloway) and Madge (Amanda Walker), seeking for “clearer thought” and rents a cottage in a remote rural area of southern England. Jake and Madge are sceptical of her departure – perhaps she’ll take to drink out there all alone (although they are never seen without a wine glass in hand)

Norah quickly meets a series of odd characters: Mrs Vigo, her intimidating housekeeper; Mr Fisher (Bernard hepton), a local amateur archaeologist; Rob a young man who practices karate in his underpants the woods; Mr Wellbeloved, the butcher; Peter an old man, constantly chopping wood. An eye-shaped marble is placed outside her window.

During the night a bird is put down the chimney into the cottage and Rob comes to Nora’s rescue. She allows him to seduce her, despite finding her contraceptive cap missing. She falls pregnant and the villagers contrive that she does not leave before Easter. Her car will not start, buses will not stop for her, and phone calls are cut off at the “exchange”.

Rob returns to discuss it all. They realise villagers surround the house and an eye appears at the keyhole. Two villagers enter, including Peter with his axe and Nora faints. She does not hear Rob’s screams. She awakes to find Mrs Vigo and Mr Fisher in the house. She is told that Rob has left to go to Canada.

Mr Fisher explains the cultural importance of the name Robin in British folklore: Robin Hood, Robin redbreast etc. We have already been told that Rob had been called “Robin” only by the villagers, and his real name was Edgar. He has played a sacrificial role, and will be replaced by a new “Robin”…

Robin Redbreast has a very matter of fact strangeness about it, helped by the lack of any soundtrack music. Bernard Hepton is superb as Fisher, a man you wouldn’t really want to let into your home. Cropper is pretty good too, and also worth looking for is the 1972 Dead of Night episode she appeared in called The Exorcism.

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