7th FANTASTIC FILMS WEEKEND, Bradford, June 2008
seen Friday 13th June
Acknowledged as the forerunner of the "stalk and slash" genre, Black Christmas now looks like a rather rough sketch for ideas later refined and improved in the likes of John Carpenter's Halloween. The oddly laborious, slow-moving story of a maniac terrorising the inhabitants of a small-town campus 'sorority house' one chilly Christmas, the picture is often strikingly atmospheric but is let down by an uneven script that features numerous illogical and/or unlikely developments.
For what's supposedly something of a teasing whodunnit, meanwhile, there's a distinct lack of potential suspects on view. Indeed, pretty much the sole plausible culprit is Peter (Keir Dullea), the sinister/volatile ("an artist – he's very high-strung!") piano-student boyfriend of sorority-sister Jess (top-billed Olivia Hussey).
A major subplot, involving the death of a young teenage girl from a nearby town, is very clumsily integrated - indeed, it's never clear whether this murder is connected with the exploits of the heavy-breathing killer whose first-person perspective the camera often adopts. Likewise, the influential "twist" ending doesn't make a great deal of sense and may well leave viewers feeling cheated rather than unnerved.
Writer-director Bob Clark doesn't show any great affinity for the horror genre, punctuating the tension with some awkward stabs at comic relief, and elsewhere taking a deliberate, "classy" approach to material which needs much tighter pacing -editor Stan Cole can't prevent the film feeling considerably longer than its 90-odd minutes.
Sound-editor Ken Heeley-Ray, however, does consistently sterling work, providing the Altman-esque overlapping dialogue and creating eerie soundscapes in a movie which is unusually reliant on off-screen voices and sound-effects. Listen out for the gently-whistling winter wind which is pretty much omnipresent throughout - even in the confines of the town's bustling cop-shop – providing a much-needed boost to the picture's fluctuating "chill factor."
I first saw Black Christmas when I was about 10 or 11, and I remember it having quite an effect on my young, impressionable mind. It's par for the course, however, for one's childhood favourites to come up short if they're revisited later in life. So I approached the screening of An American Werewolf In London – which I remember considering a real knockout "back in the day" with some measure of trepidation. I needn't have worried: John Landis's smash-hit comedy horror remains terrific entertainment, a proper crowd-pleaser which went down a storm with the near sell-out crowd in Bradford's Cubby Broccoli cinema.
Many films attempt to combine horror and humour, but the vast majority come a cropper. American Werewolf, in which a pair of backpacking Yankee twentysomethings fall foul of a lycanthrope on the "Yorkshire" moors (location-shooting was actuallly done in Wales), pulls it off pretty much perfectly. But that's not all: the film also manages to work as an unlikely but persuasive romance, as the eponymous lycanthrope (David Naughton, who, though he's never stopped working, soon after faded into inexplicable near-obscurity) falls in love with his nurse (a particularly lovely Jenny Agutter).
While the Oscar-winning make-up and special-effects remain impressive over 25 years later, especially as the picture was made without the benefit of now-ubiquitous CGI, it's the comic aspects of the movie which steel feel remarkably fresh. At its heart, this is a wonderfully well-observed culture-clash story (Mark Twain's Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur's Court is referenced at one pivotal moment) about a wide-eyed American discovering the delights and oddities of multi-cultural, class-ridden Blighty a couple of years into the Thatcher era.
Namely, the NHS, the police, the pub, the fleapit porn-cinema (featuring Landis's hilariously pitch-perfect movie-within-the-movie, "non-stop orgy" See You Next Wednesday) and the charms of three-channel mid-afternoon TV: The Muppets, Cliff Lazarenko vs Rab Smith ("… neat, dapper little character. There's a lot said about big, gross darts players… ") and, best of all, a breathlessly titillating advert for the News of the Worl, hyping the upcoming confessions of "Naughty" Nina Carter ("Read about her nude pictures: 'The only ones I regret were among the first'.")
seen Saturday 14th June
After the superb Daughters of Darkness, director Harry Kûmel had much more scope and a bigger budget with his next film, an adaptation of Jean Ray's 1943 novel Malpertuis (here pronounced "Mal-per-twiss"). The result was an exquisitely bonkers folly of the highest order – seemingly intended to be a kind of Bunuelian version of Gormenghast, but too often ending up more like a over-egged cod-surrealist panto.
The story defies synopsis, but basically boils down to the misadventures of young, fresh-faced sailor Jan (androgynous Mathieu Carriere, something of a blond plank of wood) in an unspecified port (looks very much like Ghent) in an unspecified time (chronological signifiers are jumbled, but the safest bet would be the late 19th century.) After receiving a blow to the head in a lurid nightclub, he wakes up in Malpertuis – a rambling, sinister mansion presided over by the bedbound, dying, ogre/paterfamilias Cassavius (top-billed Orson Welles, who exits the scene before the hour-mark).
As Jan navigates the house's endless corridors, staircases and rooms, he edges closer and closer to discovering the mindblowing "secret of Malpertuis" – about which we tire of hearing long before the final-act denouement. The secret itself does prove worth the wait, but reaching the point where it is divulged requires considerable patience and even more indulgence on the audience's part: often it feels like we're trapped within the baroque further reaches of the director's vivid imagination, just as the protagonist is imprisoned behind Malpertuis's near-impenetrable walls (the production-design of this enigmatic edifice is by far the picture's strongest suit.)
Kûmel spins an over-egged fable of a yarn, occasionally coming up with moments of genuine transcendence – his use of freeze-frames to end scenes is particularly effective – but all too often stumbling into ill-advised blind alleys of pretentiousness and excessive symbolism.
I'm not sure what clunky revenge-thriller Savage Streets was doing in a weekend of "fantastic" cinema: though wildly implausible, it's neither horror, sci-fi, nor fantastic in the general sense. That said, it was bizarre to see what looks very much like early-80s straight-to-video fare projected on a big screen in glorious 35mm.
Story about feuding high-schoolers (who nearly all look at least 25) in Los Angeles is essentially a pretext for yet another Death Wish rip-off, as "bad-girl" Brenda (a pudgy-faced Linda Blair) tracks down the nogoodnik hoodlums who raped her deaf-mute, virginal young sister and – as if that wasn't enough to be going on with - callously threw her pregnant, about-to-be-married best friend off a bridge to her death.
Direction is functional at best, relying for atmosphere on a series of anthemic John Farnham compositions, while performances range from the vaguely serviceable to the thuddingly wooden. Nonsensical and idiotic by any objective criteria, but yielding plenty of camp-value humour along the way – and, as a shamelessly sleazy time-capsule of American popular-culture in the middle of the Reagan years (including eye-popping amounts of violence, nudity and salty language) pretty hard to beat.*
As you can tell by the fragmentary "comments" I jotted down following my last viewing, I don't find it easy to write about The Thing, a film I've watched at least seven or eight times over the last 25 years or so: first on VHS, and most recently in cinemas on 35mm and now on 70mm. In my early teens, I was dazzled by the still-startling, elaborately grotesque and inventive special effects which punctuate this claustrophobic tale about scientists on a remote Antarctic base discovering that a lethal, shapeshifting alien has infiltrated their midst.
It took a while for me to appreciate how unusual and vivid an (all-male) ensemble – Kurt Russell first among equals – had been created by Carpenter, and just how much of the film's impact was down to Ennio Morricone's brilliant, subdued score. This really is one of those movies where each viewing yields further details and rewards, and it should be seen with a large audience on a large screen, so as to fully appreciate Carpenter's inventive mastery of framing.
The screenplay isn't without its deficiencies, especially in the latter sections when numerous loose ends are left trailing, but this is nevertheless a masterpiece which, among Carpenter's oeuvre, I'd put second behind The Fog, just ahead of Assault On Precinct 13, Halloween and the perpetually-underrated Prince of Darkness. 26.6.08
seen Sunday 15th June
First (and perhaps still the best known) of the 1940s low-budget chillers produced by Val Lewton for RKO, Cat People certainly doesn't look cheap, thanks largely to Nicholas Musuraca's terrific cinematography. It's a masterclass in black-and-white chiaroscuro and the skilful manipulation of shadow – very appropriate for a film, although it contains a lot of humour (the witty dialogue and characterisations of the bit-parts provide consistent delight), deals with some very dark subjects and passions.
The focus is on Irina (a suitably feline Simone Simon), a young Serbian fashion-artist in New York who harbours a bizarre secret connected with her distant ancestry. She knows that, when aroused (either sexually or via extreme emotion), she will transform into a murderous black panther - a situation which causes major problems after she falls in love with, and then marries, nice-guy draughtsman Oliver (two-dimensional Kent Smith).
It's refreshing to find a film of this period that's relatively frank about sexual and marital problems, but the picture could easily be interpreted as suggesting Americans should be very wary about becoming emotionally entangled with tricky, unusual foreigners… much safer to stick with the 'normal', sensible, sexually straightforward girl-next-door (Jane Randolph as Oliver's straight-talking colleague Alice.)
'Xenophobia' is putting it too strongly - but it's a nagging distraction that, despite Irina's Serbian background playing such a major part in the story, Simon makes no attempt to hide or alter her own French accent (as though all Europeans are somehow interchangeable). This is especially odd given the fact that Lewton and director Tourneur were themselves immigrants from Europe – the Crimea and Paris respectively.
In addition, DeWitt Bodeen's script is rather flippant in its attitude to psychiatry – the 'shrink' Irina consults isn't only (fatally) ineffectual, he's also a louche sexual predator. Dismissing rational explanations for Irina's plight (it might have been preferable for the truth about Irina's "transformations" to have remained ambiguous), the film explicitly endorses atavistic superstition (both pagan and Christian) – most overtly when panther-Irina is repelled by a crucifix-like shadow and an exhortation to depart 'in the name of God'. One can also take issue with the way the film presents powerful female sexuality as something intrinsically deviant and dangerous.
So while Cat People still works well in terms of its atmospheric individual episodes – the scene in which Alice is terrorised by Irina in a deserted indoor swimming pool is especially well-done - it's perhaps not such a great idea to dwell too intently on its tricky underlying themes. And that is, ironically, the one area where budgetary limitations can't be cited as a defence or an excuse.
14th/18th June, 2008 (apart from The Thing as noted)
* [a reader writes…]
Jack Stevenson : "Wow – did you get Savage Streets completely wrong … or what! Awesome…"
NY : "Hey, 'wrong' is a bit of a heavy word in this context, surely?! I just speak as I find. I don't pretend to be King Solomon!"
JS : "Conceded, 'wrong' is simply inoperative in this case. And indeed you were dead right on some points: Savage Streets is totally out of character for a fantastic film festival, and is of course predictable, etc., and some dislike it for these reasons. But it is genuinely nasty slab of pulsating grindhouse gristle with a great male gang (and ludicrously exaggerated male bonding), one of the more brutal rape scenes ever shot starring an against-type Lianna Quigley, and a true "film" (not video shot) look. Of course it can be dismissed on various counts but I just don't think you didn't get at the core of what was exceptional about it."
AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON : [9/10] : US/UK 1981 : John Landis : 97m (BBFC timing) : seen 13/6, B
CAT PEOPLE : [6/10] : US 1942 : Jacques Tourneur : 98m (BBFC timing) : seen 15/6, B
BLACK CHRISTMAS : [6/10] : Canada 1974 : Bob Clark : 98m (BBFC timing) : seen 13/6, P
MALPERTUIS : [4/10] : Belgium (Bel/Fr/WG) 1972** : Harry Kûmel : 122m (Flemish-dubbed version; timed) : seen 14/6, P
SAVAGE STREETS : [5/10] : US 1984 : Danny Steinmann : 91m (timed) : seen 14/6, P
THE THING : [9/10] : aka John Carpenter's The Thing : US 1982 : John Carpenter : 109m (BBFC timing) : seen 14/6, P
all films : public shows seen at the National Media Museum, Bradford (P = Pictureville cinema; B = Cubby Broccoli cinema) – complimentary tickets (except Black Christmas – paid £5.50)
** Malpertuis is reportedly copyright-dated 1971, though on the print I saw the only such dates I could spot were, confusingly "1972/3"