Bradford Fantastic Films Weekend 2007 : Soylent Green, Basket Case, Twins of Evil, Suspiria
SOYLENT GREEN : [7/10]
USA 1973 : Richard Fleischer : 93m (timed) : seen at Cubby Broccoli cinema, National Media Museum, Bradford (UK), 15th June 2007 : public show (paid £5.00)
Alarmingly prescient (in the current – ahem – climate, very nearly topical) in certain aspects, cringe-inducingly dated in others (decor), Soylent Green stands up as something of a missing link between Kiss Me Deadly and Blade Runner, while its influence can also be found at certain key moments of The Parallax View.
It's 2022, and in a world ruined by pollution and the greenhouse effect, the population has skyrocketed to the extent that New York City is a teeming cauldron of 40 million souls - more than half of whom are without work. One of the lucky few with a job is boorishly macho cop Thorn (Charlton Heston), who can afford the "luxury" of a cramped garret flat which he shares with his elderly researcher/assistant Sol (Edward G Robinson, touchingly feisty in his final screen appearance.)
The murder rate is astronomical, but Thorn is motivated to devote particular time and effort to the apparently random slaying of Simonson (Joseph Cotten) – not least because he's instantly smitten by Simonson's live-in lover/companion, the shapely, innocent Shirl (Leigh Taylor-Young). The victim, it turns out, was a patrician lawyer-cum-businessman who happened to be a member of the board of Soylent, the shadowy megacorporation whose bland, mass-produced synthetic foodstuffs (apparently made from such resources as soya beans and plankton) have become mankind's principal source of nourishment. But there's much more to Simonson's death than immediately meets the eye – and Thorn gradually realises he's on the verge of uncovering an unthinkably terrible secret…
Soylent Green takes a little while to find its feet – Heston's Thorn is initially an eminently unlikeable, out-for-himself bully; Taylor-Young comes across like a junior Stepford wife; the murder investigation plot lumbers along in fits and starts. But from the very first scenes, the atmosphere of this dystopian-futuristic New York is powerfully evoked – this is a city envleoped in a permanent, grimy heatwave, and the sweat drips off everyone except the most privileged citizens. Soap and hot water are a rare luxury in an environment where the chasm between the haves and have-nots is cruelly vast. A caricature of runaway capitalism? A mildly exaggerated vision of an overcrowded early-seventies Manhattan? Perhaps, but the Mao-style uniforms worn by many of the characters, and the 'Soviet-style' queueing for meagre food rations, muddies the allegorical waters somewhat.
Around the half-way mark, however, things start really clicking into place: Heston becomes more of a 'Deckard' than a 'Mike Hammer', Taylor-Young's doe-eyed sensitivity comes across as more poignant than annoying, and the Great Big Dirty Secret is slowly unveiled thanks to Sol's self-euthanasing self-sacrifice – a scene which provides both character and actor with a memorable send-off (and includes a 'projected images' sequence which, taken in conjunction with the passage-of-time opening titles, eerily prefigures the Parallax Test from The Parallax View.)
The ensuing climax is a little rushed and truncated, but does feature a no-holds barred knockdown barney between Heston and fellow real-life Republican Chuck Connors (who gets to show off his martial-arts prowess at one startling juncture) and concludes with a terrific, extremely "seventies" freeze-frame - followed by end-titles which are, in the context of what's gone before, genuinely witty in their execution and implications – though you'll have to watch the picture yourself to discover exactly why and how…
BASKET CASE : [8/10]
USA 1981* : Frank Henenlotter : 87m (timed) : seen at Cubby Broccoli cinema, National Media Museum, Bradford (UK), 16th June 2007 : public show (paid £5.00)
One of those cult movies that everybody's heard of – partly thanks to its catchy title – but surprisingly few people have actually seen. That's a shame: this is the very rare horror comedy that is both scary and funny, though to what extent the laughs are intentional has to be taken on trust. Director Henenlotter was clearly operating on a very low budget, pretty much all of which seems to have been lavished on "special makeup effects" and the creation and animation of the picture's monster – this is a very cheap-looking picture, shot on 16mm with scratchy visuals and an even scratchier soundtrack, mostly made in scuzzy Manhattan locales during an especially scuzzy period of New York history.
But necessity once again proves the mother of invention: the seediness, griminess and cheapness of the film is all part of its perverse charm: this is the cinematic equivalent of the post-punk "No-Wave" music which was in vogue in NYC around 1980-82, unashamedly extreme, unapologetically bizarre and brazenly in-your-face.
New York has famously long been a magnet for misfits and outsiders, but even by the city's standards Duane Bradley (Kevin Van Hentenryck) is decidedly outre. Though "normal" looking (he's like a cross between a young Timothy Hutton and a peak-period Leo Sayer, complete with tumbling curly-perm) and unassuming in character, he's carrying a nightmarish secret with him. "Carrying" in the literal sense: he's seldom without a large wicker basket, which turns out to be the residence of his brother Belial – the deformed Siamese twin (Duane describes him as resembling a "squashed octopus" at one point) who was separated from Duane when the pair were in early adolescence.
Neither brother was best pleased about this enforced separation, and they're now on a mission of vengeance, tracking down the surgeons who carried out the operation. Hence Duane's arrival in Manhattan – the first time, we deduce, that he's been outside his upstate home town. It doesn't take long, of course, for the innocent youth to encounter temptation – but when he tries to act upon his sexual urges, he finds that Belial (with whom he has a telepathic link) isn't best pleased…
Basket Case is an undeniably rickety affair, with variable performances and special effects, several repetitive sequences, and uneven pacing that makes it feel a little longer than its seemingly brisk running-time. But none of this matters very much, so wild is the humour and horror on display – often the two combining in the same scene.
What really lifts the picture out of the ordinary, however, is Belial's transition from homicidal monster to a figure eminently deserving our pity and sympathy. The flashback sequence in which he's cut away from Duane's side is genuinely disturbing, and there's genuine pathos in the way Duane discovers Belial, somehow still alive, dumped in a black plastic bin-liner along with the other "rubbish." From this point on, we're pretty much rooting for the pair in their murderous quest – especially as the two Manhattan-based surgeons they're tracking down are both rather loathsome: much more monstrous, in their way, than the hapless Belial.
Henenlotter's control of tone – never very certain at the best of times – deserts him completely in the closing reel, as Belial really tests our sympathies by turning his bloodthirsty attentions on Duane's ditzy love-interest (with messy but somewhat confusingly-presented results), before a climax whose tragic elements are somewhat undercut by larkish humour. In retrospect, however, even this is all of a piece with Basket Case's anything-goes, gleefully transgressive, make-em-laugh-make-em-cry-make-em-hurl approach.
TWINS OF EVIL : [6/10]
UK 1973 : John Hough : 87m (timed) : seen at Cubby Broccoli cinema, National Media Museum, Bradford (UK), 16th June 2007 : public show (complimentary ticket)
Middling Hammer fare from the period when the once-great studio was heading into terminal decline: only five years were to elapse before the organisation's last proper made-for-cinema feature, To the Devil a Daughter (1976). At this point the signs of crisis were already evident: TV was eating into the box-office receipts, and punters who could drag themselves away from the box were hungry for sensation, nudity and sex. A further complication was the fact that Christopher Lee was proving increasingly fed up with playing Dracula. The result: a series of Dracula-less pictures, many of them inspired not by Bram Stoker but by Stoker's direct literary antecedent (and fellow Dubliner) Sheridan Le Fanu – in which buxom female vampires were front and centre, often in various stages of undress.
After The Vampire Lovers (October 1970), Lust For a Vampire followed in January 1971, with Twins of Evil appearing in October of that year – all of them featuring representatives of the depraved, aristocratic Karnstein family. Countess Dracula, also from January 1971, is a Karnstein-free variation on similar themes. Of the four, Twins of Evil is the only one to eschew a lesbian angle – the fact that the leads were played by real-life identical twins (Maltese-born Mary and Madelaine Collinson), who had just recently posed nude in Playboy, presumably providing sufficient novelty.
Though dubbed into English, and clearly hired for their model looks than their Thespian skills, the Collinsons do a pretty decent job as Maria and Frieda, orphaned twentyish sisters sent from their native Venice to reside with their stern uncle Gustav (Peter Cushing) and his kindly wife Katy (Kathleen Byron) in an unspecified, but clearly Germanic, village, in what looks like the late 18th or very early 19th century.
The girls struggle to adapt to their new environment - especially free-willed 'bad girl' Frieda, who's intrigued by the rumours of decadent debauchery going on in the village's hilltop castle. This is the lair of Count Karnstein (Damien Thomas), a well-connected nobleman – he's reportedly pally with the Hapsburg emperor – whose thrill-seeking depravity outrages the ultra-puritan Weil and his fellow witch-burners in 'The Brotherhood'…
Twins of Evil is a rather awkward mixture of horror sub-genres, combining Hammer's usual vampire tropes with the puritan/witch-hunting angle familiar from Michael Reeves' superb Tigon/AIP production Witchfinder General (1968). In the wake of that classic, Twins looks decidedly old-fashioned and even, in terms of politics and psychology, somewhat anaemic - although this is not in any way to disparage Cushing, who's on particularly strong form as the tormented Weil - a character who, in lesser hands, could easily have been a two-dimensional villain. The star – who in real life had only just suffered the shattering trauma of losing his much-loved wife - is even more hollow-cheeked and severe-looking than usual, and manages to bring genuine pathos to his characterisation of a fundamentally decent and good man who, almost too late, realises just how misguided his (homicidal) actions have been.
While Cushing significantly elevates proceedings whenever he's on screen, there's strong support from Byron and Thomas – the latter clearly unfazed by effectively stepping into Lee's shoes, and whose vaguely exotic give Karnstein the air of a rock-star avant la lettre (in his extravagant get-ups, he even resembles Freddy Mercury at certain junctures.) It was Thomas's bad luck to arrive on the scene just as the vampire picture was going out of fashion – though it perhaps didn't help his career that, at a shade below six foot, he was never going to command the screen like the significantly-taller Lee.
Tudor Gates' screenplay is largely content to tick off the standard Hammer boxes, and the 'appearances are deceptive' subtext (which underpins the whole twins gimmick - they look the same, but have diametrically opposing natures) is left largely unexplored. Both the church and the aristocracy seem respectable pillars of society, but both are revealed to be very severely flawed - it's the representatives of the middle class who represent the closest sanity and decency: namely the picture's rugged hero, choirmaster Anton (David Warbeck) and his schoolteacher sister Ingrid (Isobel Black, making the most of a nothing role.) Not that Anton is entirely 'modern' in his beliefs – he takes the existence of vampires as a given, although, given the context of the picture as a whole, this can hardly be cited as a particularly foolish stance.
SUSPIRIA : [10/10]
Italy 1977** : Dario ARGENTO : 97m (approx) : seen at Pictureville cinema, National Media Museum, Bradford (UK), 15th June 2007 : public show (paid £5.00)
First time I've seen this on the big screen – with the volume cranked up to eleven, suitably enough, and there's not that much I can add to what I wrote about it in 2001:
However: the first fifteen minutes or so must be among the most cacophonously deafening ever committed to celluloid, Argento and his band The "Goblins" (as they're billed in the opening credits) filling the soundtrack will all manner of ultra-loud music, effects, wailing and clattering. The result is to totally unsettle the viewer, and we're never really allowed to relax for the rest of the picture, so utterly does Argento immerse us in an atmosphere where nightmare (il-)logic prevails: when our ears aren't being assailed, our visual sense is affronted by the hideous decor of the film's interiors (which must have seemed extreme and overbearing even during the seventies.)
What story there is (and it's a wisp of a thing) makes very little "sense" – God help the poor souls who've just been hired to remake it – and it's evident from very early on that Argento has very little interest in following the usual "rules" of cinematic storytelling. He also seems not to have given his actors much in the way of direction, as they all seem to be playing at different pitches: Jessica Harper is conventional enough as the beleaguered heroine, whereas the shrieking, wild-eyed Alida Valli seems permanently on the brink of homicidal psychosis, and Joan Bennett mellifluously delivers her lines as if under a mild trance.
These contrasts are humorous in their extremity, and there is a constant, nagging undertow of comedy – despite the gory and graphically unpleasant nature of the numerous murders which punctuate the narrative. For instance watch how, in the final moments, our heroine walks off smiling to herself as if the extreme trauma she's just survived was really nothing more than a minor, transient inconvenience. Or perhaps Harper was simply relieved to have gotten through a movie which seems to have been both written and directed by a man experiencing an extreme fugue state…
16th-19th June 2007
* Basket Case : copyright-dated 1981, released 1982
** Suspiria : there's some very intriguing "trivia" listed about the making of the film here, though nothing about this picture could ever really be dismissed as 'trivial'.