Sunday, 2 October 2016

Primal small screen… The Horror at 37,000 Feet (1973)

Brenda Benet and Chuck Connors
Back in the seventies there were only three channels on UK TV and you pretty much had to watch what you were given. Was it a co-incidence that families watched TV more as one and that there were many successes in appealing to their common tastes? Content was targeted at this mass demographic and was designed to appeal and not challenge… With our modern array of styles and genres – yet still an amorphous mass of the similar and the same on the hundreds of available channels – it’s hard to be measured about the output of the time. A little tame, a bit tame… obvious and predictable… really? So, not as cutting edge as XFactor or Bake Off then? How we’ve changed…

Movies began being made just for TV, spearheaded by CBS and ABC in the US, who were committed to producing family fare much removed from an increasingly explicit mainstream cinema. Probably it was a more cost-effective way of exploiting the newer medium – a low-cost ad-revenue-based model.

Buddy Ebsen, Lynn Loring, France Nuyen and Paul Winfield are shocked!
So it was that films like The Horror at 37,000 Feet were unleashed on the Saturday night public with special effects strictly limited to a not too convincing model 747, moody gurgling carpets and the odd flash of light.

This may have been the first time I’ve seen this film in over forty years (yikes!) and it still projects a residual impact: Shatner’s acting, David Lowell Rich’s well-disciplined direction and what I can now see as more than just fresh-faced charm from the lovely and then ubiquitous Darleen Carr… This is a visit to my primal televisual state when that tiny curved screen in the living room opened up the World to my pre-teen eyes.

Darleen Carr
It’s impossible to view on its own terms anymore and yet you can catch admirable glimpses of fine acting – it is a strong cast - and appreciate the construction of genuine suspense aboard that generic platform for so much dramatic tension: the jet plane. Where once people of different backgrounds convened at country mansions for murder and self-realisation, then as now the venue is likely to be a Boeing jet: shakes on a plane. Shivers too.

The flight is captained by Captain Ernie Slade (chiselled Chuck Connors) a man of heroic bearing who you’d trust to ride any horse and fly any plane… he’s aided by second-in-command Jim Hawley (Russell Johnson) and navigator Frank Driscoll (H.M. Wynant).

Darleen and Buddy
Naturally, there are two pretty stewardesses, super Sally (Brenda Benet) and the lithe Margot (Miss Carr) whose short skirt and tight-fitting, leg-revealing stewardess uniform provokes that instant connection with youthful response: topped off with her regular open-featured prettiness and you have the epitome of the American TV girl of the period. It may be just me but… I remember you well Darleen.

Of course she’s also a fine actress and she’s going need to be if we’re to survive the next 73 minutes…

Jane Merrow and Roy Thinnes
Other good actors with sometimes difficult words to say include Roy Thinnes (remember The Invaders?) as devil-may-care architect, Alan O'Neill and playing his long-suffering wife, Sheila, English export Jane Merrow – she of the ace-face and doe-eyed delivery. Sheila is from old money and has allowed marital loyalty to override her inherited duty: mad Al has uprooted the remains of a druid grave and is transporting it, lock, stock and headstone to top off a new apartment he’s building – oh, how the godless rich spend their money…

Objecting to all this, in the weirdest-possible terms, is the earnest Mrs. Pinder (Tammy Grimes) a woman from Sheila’s parish who understands far more about the true significance of the remains… she makes one last plea for O’Neill to abandon his plan before promising that he will regret it… In practical terms her intervention is a little late as the relic is all packed up in the hold and they are about to take off but… you know. Mrs Pinder has brought her dog along which is odd especially given the British control on animal movement… she must be thinking of more than a short stay in America as these things take so long to sort out…

Mrs Pinder issues a grave warning...
Anyway… Mrs Pinder is in first class with a second class ticket and is encouraged back to her seat allowing Sheila and Alan to continue an ongoing spat – his infidelity, lack of empathy, regard for tradition and so on… He leaves to go find a drink in the upstairs lounge bar.

Sheila tries to distract herself with music but her headphones don’t work allowing garish ageing cowboy actor, Steve Holcomb (Will Hutchins – an ageing cowboy actor…) to try it on… he strikes out but those headphones… there’s an other-worldly noise coming through… it’s chilling, she can’t listen and pulls the phones off: it’s been a stressful few days but she ain’t seen nothing yet.

Jane Merrow
Meanwhile, Mrs P’s fellow passengers are revealed: there’s a short-haired red-head with a guitar, Manya (Lynn Loring – Mrs Thinnes as it happens) whose long-suffering alongside a smart-looking man constantly topping up his alcohol level – it’s Paul Kovalik (William Shatner in one of his greatest/worst post-Trek appearances depending on who you read… it’s way more complex than that!).

There’s kindly Doctor Enkalla (Paul Winfield) and a young girl Jodi (Mia Bendixsen) who is travelling alone – why is there always a young girl travelling alone? All part of the arcane conventions of the airplane movie…

Bill is always brilliant!
Meanwhile in the lounge… Alan meets grizzled industrialist Glenn Farlee (Buddy Ebsen – a long way from the Texas Tea) who interrupts his chatting up of model Annalik (France Nuyen) to berate his profession and question his business sense in shipping such a commercially-irrelevant object across the Atlantic.

All is now in place for the demonic dance to begin…the mysterious object in the hold gets cold and freezes Mrs Pinder’s dog in an instant, as the cold mist spreads it’s also clear that the plane simply isn’t moving… almost as if something didn’t want to be flown from England to America… The emanating evil spreads and soon the body count begins: as the passengers become more revolting is there any way out that avoids human sacrifice and their reversion to savages?!

Can anyone step forward and save the day in as dramatically efficient way as possible?

Dusty verdict:  In truth it’s hard not to enjoy this film. The story may be as thin as Gaelic mist but the cast certainly believe in it and give their all with some fine character work. Of course no harm is done by the frequent deployment of Darleen Carr’s legs in key shots but she also acts up a storm as do Jane Merrow, Chuck Connors and Tammy Grimes in particular. Bill Shatner? He does very well – yes there’s the occasional mad-eyed glint, like Kirk under alien influence, but he’s having a ball and hasn’t overlooked the fact that this stuff needs to be fun.

Jane M
For some this is the epitome of Saturday night TV movies for others it may be more dated and televisual than cinematic but that’s not for want of trying.

Well worth seeking out on DVD from Amazon and elsewhere…

This ain't Texas Tea...
Not a real plane
Darleen again

Let's take a look around the Boeing 747...

Here's the holding bay
More storage over here.
Wide aisles for passenger comfort
Exceptional all round.

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Deeley depraved… Diversions (1976)

Heather Deeley
This is a bloody strange film - a mid-seventies porno devised for the "export" market and ranging wildly in tone and content. The production values are pretty decent and it does feature the lovely Heather Deeley who could so easily have been a mainstream star.

Written and directed by Derek Ford the film is trying to make more of a statement than it’s “cinema club” origins and is a mix of vignettes aimed at disrupting the attention span of the average blue film aficionado with comedy, drama and sexual shock tactics. Is it to be taken seriously? Deeley didn’t think so and disliked its extremes, but it’s an interesting diversion… even if you occasionally have to hide behind the sofa..

Genuine 70's grainy film-stock!
It starts at a railway station as a convicted woman is escorted handcuffed to a WPC and accompanied by another office – Derek Martin (later of The Bill and Eastenders) – there’s a mix of professional actors and, er, the other performers.

Sat in the old-style six seat carriage, Deeley’s character, Imogene, stares blankly out of the train window before casting glances at her fellow travellers: a man reading a Vampirella comic – how promising those always looked on the higher shelves… and a student played by another pro actor, Jeffrey Morgan.

The student offers her an apple and she daydreams them both onto a farm where they play a grown-up version of hide and seek. In her dream he recites an ode to apples comparing them favourable to a woman and even constructing a replica woman from the fruit. It’s daft but creates at least an interesting diversion (see what I did…) from the expected business they are about to get down to.

Sure enough Heather comes down from her hide-away in the loft to kick her lover’s apples away. The two embrace and get down to bruising the bramleys until another, more-fleshy, and badly-lit couple, takes over the close-quarters work. It’s pretty jarring after the film’s carefully established atmospherics and feels totally unnecessary: animalistic and basic at every level and clearly not the two actors. We see enough of Heather D later on to know that this quota-filling bonk-double is not her.

Back to the carriage and Imogene begins another fantasy, less romantic and much darker… At first it seems she merely wants to be in control, arching her back impressively astride her well-heeled lover– the man with the horror mag (Timothy Blackstone). Yes, you can clearly see why Deeley was in so much demand for this kind of work, dimensionally very-pleasing with a lovely face and acting ability to lift her above most contemporaries: she could easily have had a mainstream career?

War torn
Things turn dark as Imogene, bored of her unimaginative partner, fantasizes about being a nurse in a war zone: a dream within a dream in which she is brutalised by enemy soldiers. Waking from this she stabs her man and then proceeds to bath herself in his blood before taking her knife to his still-functioning appendage. It is very shocking indeed and somewhere between art, absurdist humour and your worst nightmare. If anyone is turned on by this display, then not only was the filmmakers’ joke in vain but they probably ought to see someone… and quick.

Her ladyship goes cruising the streets of London for more victims only to encounter a vampire impervious to her golden blade… No doubt more analysis is possible but, she is on a train and she is really bored.

The power of advertising
Next we have a section closer to the Robin Asquith model of mistaken sexual-identity as Deeley moves into a flat previously owned by a sex worker and, after taking a number of nuisance calls from former customers, decides to accept the offer of a good-looking guy who comes calling (Tim Burr).

For once the intercourse is sensitively handled – especially when compared to the first gratuitous insert – and the punch line is genuinely likeable.

What's for sale?
Let’s see, who else is left in the carriage?  Surely not the granite-faced cop, oh, yes, how about the other woman? Big box left to tick… and the film takes its time as Imogene is imagined back in Nazi Germany, tied up and abused by soldiers before their superior officer (Jacqui Rigby) takes over and does things properly.

Jacqui Rigby and Heather Deeley
But as with another naughty flick I've seen with Heather Deeley and Mary Millington Erotic Inferno,  this coupling between the women is far more tender than the other scenes, straight sex – at least in these films – is more aggressive and domineering. Then even this pretty scene is perverted when the two male guards join in for a blurred confusion of limbs and the final – inevitable – climax. that was the seventies... but it's not really entertainment.

Curiosity shop
Still time left on the journey for one last episode, this time involving a haunted camera and some Victorian high jinks in which a man with expressive whiskers and his chamber maid haunt a modern-day Heather in soft-porn, comedy-sex ways.
Then… we’re back in the train at the end of the journey as the police and their prisoner leave the train and the surprising truth of their relationship is finally revealed…
Dusty verdict: Diversions is an uneven film with some touching moments, good performances – acting! – and some actual erotica. The good is outweighed by the sexual violence of the bad and you wonder what more could have been achieved had a firmer line been held.
It’s pretty hard to find now but is worth seeking out for those lighter moments and for Deeley’s overall loveliness for which I make no apology. The rest… just fast-forward or close your eyes and think of the British Board of Film Classification!

There's an interesting post on Gav Crimson's blog about  Heather's short career and what little is known about her life afterwards. She was only 19 when this film was made and you hope she made it free to a settled life outside of skin flicks: naughty nostalgia for some of us but exploitative and dangerous for the participants.