Saturday, 8 December 2012

Tales of future past… The Final Programme (1973)

Michael Moorcock is one of the pre-eminent figures in science fantasy of the last half century. His work has been arguably as influential as Philip K Dick in this country at least and, from the underground he has crossed over to many areas of popular culture from music (Hawkwind) to Doctor Who. He was also a major influence on Brits who revolutionised comics (and everything else thereafter...),  including Alan More, Neil Gaiman and Bryan Talbot who’s Luther Arkwright paid tribute to one of Moorcock’s greatest creations, Jerry Cornelius.

Cornelius is a recurring character for Moorcock but one who grew out of sixties counter-culture, a super-intelligent master of all trades who travels through time and parallel universes with bewildering ease. The first Cornelius novel was The Final Programme published in 1969 and was followed by three others and recurring appearences in various guises for decades to come.

Trafalgar Square...
This 1973 film attempted to capture the essence of the character and metaphysical tom-foolery and, to an extent it succeeded. Jon Finch makes for a gritty Cornelius, genius-level IQ not tempering his aggression or fondness for chocolate digestive biscuits. Dressed like a younger, more misanthropic Jon Pertwee, he swaggers and staggers through the film taking all in his measured stride.

Jon Finch
He arrives at his father’s funeral in Lapland where he encounters Dr Smiles (Graham Crowden) one of a group of scientists intent on using his father’s scientific secrets to transform mankind. Unimpressed Jerry decides it’s time to burn down the family house, all of its secrets and his younger brother, the psychotic Frank (Derrick O’Connor) who is holding their sister Catherine (Sarah Douglas) captive in a drug-induced haze.

Jerry, no stranger to various narcotics resolves to rescue Catherine and to deal with Frank once and for all. He works his various contacts to obtain the necessary equipment in the form of a Phantom jet from from a mad US general Major Wrongway (Sterling Hayden in a what’s *he* doing in this film moment!).

He then meets the sleazy Shades (Ronald Lacey) in a London nightclub where he encounters old friend “Little Miss Dazzle” (the appropriately dazzling Julie Edge) and various other notables.

“Little Miss Dazzle” -  Julie Edge
Jerry is persuaded to help the scientists recover a strip of micro-film and they are now accompanied by the mysterious Miss Brunner (an ice-cool Jenny Runacre) who has reasons of her own to recover this item.

Jenny Runacre
The attack on the family home goes wrong though and Jerry ends up shooting Catherine by mistake after being drugged by Frank. Miss Brunner is too quick and strong for Frank and persuades him to give her the film, but he manages snatch it away and escape…

Jerry recuperates in a nursing home and is picked up by Miss Brunner with her new friend Jenny (Sandy Ratcliffe). They head off to another bizarre club - slime-wrestling a speciality - and are served by Sandra Dickenson (ex-wife of Dr Who 5 and now mother-in-law of Dr Who no. 11…fact fans!)

Jon Finch and Sandra Dickenson
All retire back to Jerry’s pad where Jerry learns of Miss B’s strange habit of absorbing her lovers when Jenny disappears leaving her clothes on the couch and her piano-playing ability with Brunner…

They set off in search of Frank and track him down to Turkey where he is trying to sell the microfilm to Dr Baxter (Patrick Magee) a former colleague of their father. Miss Brunner absorbs the bad Doctor whilst Jerry finally chases down and disposes of his brother.

Jon Finch, Jenny Runacre and Graham Crowden
They head off to Dr Cornelius former “summer resort” back in Lapland where they will attempt to run his Final Programme: an attempt to create a new form of humanity, an hermaphrodite that will move mankind into a new era.

Miss Brunner has decided that Jerry should be the new messiah but there is trouble from the man already ear-marked for the job. After the inevitable fight, Jerry and Bruner get set in the huge solar-powered machine for their transformation.

Whether Miss Brunner expected to emerge the dominant force in the new meld is unclear but after long psychedelic minutes the creature that emerges from the debris is very much like our Jerry, regressed in form to a caveman but with his intellect in tact. The scientists lie amongst the shattered equipment and he heads off into the new word which he describes as “tasty!”.

Whilst this is a suitably disorientating ending but one that can only really be placed in context by reading the rest of the original Cornelius Quartet? That said, The Final Programme is an entertaining film and it is great to see the character and so many counter-cultural aspects on screen… if you can’t beat them, confuse them!

This was the spirit that infused so much of the science fiction I was obsessed with in my early teens and it went well and truly mainstream over ensuing years through Moorcock himself as well as Alan Moore, Talbot, Grant Morrison and the rest who wove alternative fiction into mainstream media.

Directed at pace by Robert Fuest, who also blew his budget on those impressive locations, The Final Programme has narrative flaws and being of its time is undoubtedly still of its time… (how else could it be?). It serves as a reminder of the style and substance of the early 70s speculative fantasy and the fact that even the most fatalistic fiction had optimism at its heart.

Finch and Runacre are standouts in a strong cast that also includes Hugh Griffith and Harry Andrews.

Dusty Verdict: Well worth watching and on DVD…. Available here although it seems to have become expensively "collectable".

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

School for scoundrels... Pretty Maids all in a Row (1971)

A film directed by the man who made Bardot a star, written by the man who devised Star Trek and which deals with inappropriate sexual relationships between teachers and pupils. Oh, and it features a theme song performed by the Osmonds too.

This is a seemingly typical early 70’s American movie featuring many actors who were the mainstay of 70’s TV dramas… Keenan Wynn, Roddy McDowall, Telly Savalas…  Rock Hudson. It even feels like a made for TV movie in all but one very significant respect: there’s a little too much nudity. Naturally it’s pretty much all female and, with the notable exception of Angie Dickinson, all are supposed to be senior students at Oceanfront High School.

John David Carson, the greats Roddy McDowall and Keenan Wynne,
All of the “pretty maids” were aged between 19 and 25 when the film was made and yet they're meant to be a little bit younger – around 18. They were a roll-call of the hottest young actresses of the day (see what I did there?) including future Isis Joanna Cameron, Brenda Sykes, Gram Parson's squeeze, Gretchen Burrell and the always smiling June Fairchild.

Joanna Cameron
June Fairchild

They are all preyed upon by Rock Hudson’s manipulative alpha male coach, who also has a beautiful wife back home (Barbara Leigh). The film never really explains why it is that he feels the need to dominate and exploit these women… only a half-coherent murmur about wanting to connect with them in the only way they would understand… He related to the boys through sports and the girls through sex: an arch comment on contemporary sexual stereotyping?

Now, I’m no expert on early 70’s sexuality and I appreciate that there’s humorous intent here, but this feels wrong-headed: I'm not entirely sure of the film's sincerity...

Rock and Telly
There’s no doubt the cast is excellent and that the film is genuinely funny in parts but the story’s too slight to get away with any high-minded attempt at sophisticated social commentary. It’s very uneven suggesting, at various points, a Dickinson/Hudson rom-com in the making, a murder mystery with slap-dash cops, a coming of age story and an attempt at a socio-political statement.

Angie Dickinson and Rock try a little rom-com
Gene Roddenbury (who also produced) based on the screenplay on a novel by Francis Pollini, yet, whilst he made  plenty of statements through science fiction you feel here he’s missed the point(s). Vadim, from the modern perspective, just appears to be interested in showing off female flesh (as previous wives, Bardot and Jane Fonda could attest…).

Maybe there was less of a hang up about this in 1970 -  but then we’re hardly living in more enlightened times these days... Perhaps the shock come from those of us old enough to remember (or at least be aware of in my case) the feminist movement at the time.

Yet these women are not just exploited, some of them are killed and by an almost mindless and motiveless self-serving psychotic. One who may or may not escape to Rio in the end…

John David Carson
It all swings into action with the sexually-frustrated cycle into college of Ponce (John David Carson ) who’s eye is tortuously drawn to the hemlines of his fellow students as he passes. He’s at a difficult age but doesn’t know how to get on with the opposite sex.

His torture is made even sweeter by the arrival of an attractive older teacher, Miss Betty Smith (played by the aforementioned Angie) who can’t help but add to his virgin woes. He escapes to the bathroom only to find the dead body of one of his fellow students… the murderer has left a cheery message on her panties…it’s not funny.

Roddy McDowall and Telly Savalas
The police are called as the school principal, Roddy McDowall ineffectually tries to keep order.  Keenan Wynne plays comedy cop Poldaski until the real police arrive in the form of homicide specialist Captain Sam Surcher (Telly Savalas) and his lieutenant  Follo (James Doohan… almost a shock to hear his natural accent!). You feel sure they’ll get to the bottom of things...

Suspect number one rapidly emerges as “Tiger” McDrew (Rock Hudson) who seems to be systematically working his way through the female students under the guise of providing counselling and guidance.  He coaches the football team as well as the young women: he seems to be in complete control of his environment and the people in it.

Angie Dickinson and John David Carson
He directs the new teacher Betty towards young Ponce in an attempt to give his “protégé” a sexual kick start, playing both along he succeeds in melting the ice between them – Angie Dickson was just 40 at the time whilst Carson was almost 19… here’s to you Mrs Robinson.

Meanwhile young girls keep on being killed and stickered with off-hand messages. The detectives interview the senior pupils and they all seem sexualised, not that this cuts any ice with Surcher who has his eyes on the job. But there’s an implication that these young women are anxious for experience.

Gradually things unravel for Tiger as Ponce discovers a tape recording from one of his “maids”. Tiger would seem to have only one option and takes Ponce to a secluded part of the docks… he drives his car into the water and, in a last act of nobility appears to save the young man he had earmarked as his successor…

There’s a funeral but we’re left in no doubt that Tiger has flown and, from the look of his wife’s air ticket, they will be re-united in Brazil. But the ever vigilant Surcher spots the ticket and we know he will follow.

Why Miss Smith...
Meanwhile Miss Smith looks to have overcome her reservations about staff-pupils relations and Ponce appears to have gained the confidence to start providing a broader base of guidance to the female students.

It’s an interesting film in spite of my reservations and very well acted by Dickinson - arguably the prettiest maid of them all and Savalas who is assured and just darned cool - Kojak was only a few years away. Savalas' believability contrasts sharply with the humour provided by Wynne and McDowall.

Cool before Kojak...
Hudson, who was a powerhouse of US cinema at this stage, is also excellent. His motivations may be unclear but he portrays them with conviction… you can believe in his need to control but are none-the-wiser about why it exists - he's effortlessly psychotic: cuddling his wife and daughter one minute and killing the next. 
Tiger explains his peculiar mentoring techniques...
Perhaps he’s just the big bad wolf, the reality of sexual violence that can await the unwary. Perhaps the film’s more moral than it looks and maybe Vadim’s European sensibilities are ill-matched with US innocence and ultra-violence?

Dusty verdict: Back in the video box. If you must have the DVD it's available here.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Tales of the Expected 2 – Tales of the Unexpected 1… Histoires Extraordinaires (1968)

When I was a teen I picked up a darkly-intriguing book about the influence of Edgar Allen Poe on film: Cinema of Mystery by Rose London*. It featured the illustrations of Aubrey Beardsley and Arthur Rackham along with stills from numerous films that left their mark on my impressionable mind.
I was already familiar with the Hammer horrors but less so with Roger Corman and a whole host of others alongside a film that featured Jane Fonda, a horse and her brother Peter, in what looked like a fairly saucy tale of debauchery…

Years later I followed these images up by recording Histoires Extraordinaires (aka Spirits of the Dead) a selection of three Poe stories filmed by some of the leading European directors of the late 60’s. The Fonda story was Metzengerstein, directed by Jane’s then husband, Roger Vadim, followed by William Wilson (Louis Malle) and Toby Dammit (Federico Fellini).

Now I’ve finally watched it and the film that interested me then is not the film that interests me now.

Metzengerstein (Roger Vadim)

Kinky boots...
Metzengerstein, was made directly after Barbarella and appears to feature some of the same costumes! It certainly shares Vadim’s passion for showing off his beautiful wife as he makes Fonda wear a series of barely there dresses, sky-high, thigh boots and low-cut everything.. . It’s not done as well as their space pop-opera but there’s no denying that Jane could carry the looks off.

In spite of her apparent wealth Countess Federica insisted on sharing the bath...
She plays the young Countess Federica, who inherits the family fortune in her 22nd year and proceeds on a path of spiralling debauchery, ruling over her subjects with cruel disdaine and bending all to her will. We see one maid servant being turned towards this life and scene by scene her initial disgust is replaced by acceptance and then relish… very Vadim.

Federica’s 24 hour non-stop party people laugh at her dignified cousin Baron Wilhelm (Peter Fonda…see what they did there?) as he stays in his manor, minding his beloved horses. But after he saves her from a wolf trap on the estate she becomes entranced by his stillness. He’s a pure being amongst all the partied out detritus of her entourage.

When do I get the motorbike?
But he won’t bend to the Countess’ will and wants only to be left alone even though he seems to return her interest he will not meet her on anything other than equal terms. In anger she orders her servants to burn down his stables and his horses with it. But Wilhelm plunges into the flames and sacrifices his own life in trying to save his animals.

Federica realises that there's something familiar about Wilhelm
Federica is horrified and sees the black horse on her tapestry vanish in flames at the same time that a wild black stallion arrives. Only she can tame the horse and they begin to spend more and more time together as she abandons her wayward existence.

She orders the tapestry re-woven and, a sit takes shape, gradually realises who the horse is and what she has to do to atone for all her crimes. In the closing segment she rides headlong into a bush fire near her castle…riding to her death in the flames along with her lover.

Only Federica can tame the black horse
It’s a well-groomed tale but lacks real suspense especially as Jane F’s multiple costume changes don’t quite mask the static nature of the scenes in the castle. It feels a bit rushed in spite of some excellent camera work and the acting talent on show.

William Wilson (Louis Malle)
Alain Delon
William Wilson is less stylish but more straightforwardly unsettling.  Alain Delon stars as the titular Wilson and is at his detached best dispensing cruelty to all around him but still terrified by his nemesis, a man who shares not only his name but his face.

Wilson insists on seeing a priest to confess to having murdered a man, he needs to share a secret and in is not seeking forgiveness just validation. We see his cruelty emerging early on at school as he bullies his weaker classmates.

Only BB could smoke a cigar like this!
But then, one arrives who is more than his equal, even down to sharing the same name. He tries to kill his doppelgänger then but only succeeds in getting them both expelled. The story shifts forward to when he is a medical student who’s cruel tortures are again cut short by his other self.

Finally, Wilson, by now in the army, engages in a sado-masochistic game of cards with the Lady Giuseppina (strikingly played by Brigitte Bardot in raven-haired wig). Having cheated her he then proceeds to beat her, humiliating her in public in a gratuitous scene I could have done without. But, again, the other Wilson arrives to expose him as a cheat and save the lady.

Wilson is himself humiliated and his career is over. In a rage he flies at the other Wilson and finally succeeds in slaying him but, as one Wilson dies, he says to the other, that he cannot exist by himself… and so it proves.

Malle does very well with the card scene (apart from the violence) but, in spite of the leads’ excellence, they cannot elevate this section to “mysterious” it’s just “uncomfortable”, from the schoolyard torture, the attempted live dissection of a young blonde to the violence towards Giuseppina.

Toby Dammit ( Federico Fellini)

Totally cool Terence
Toby Dammit was (very) loosely based on Poe’s Never Bet the Devil Your Head and is not only the best of the three but bears comparison with some of Fellini’s best work. His first film following Juliet of the Spirits in 1965, it carries some of the displaced mysticism of that film whilst also pre-figuring the atmospheres of David Lynch: dislocated and disorientating.

A lot of this is down to cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno, who captures an extraordinary consistency of light in the opening sequences in particular… it’s as if the airport was being bathed in Hellish glow and as Toby travels towards an icy cool television interview the streets reflect unsettling scene in the red light of his car window…

You have to assume that Toby is already in Hell as surely as he is already damned…

Fellini apparently asked for the most debauched actors in Britain and chose Terence Stamp ahead of Edward Fox, to play Dammit. And what a superb choice it was a Stamp agonises and twists his way through the roll… remembering that this was before the deaths of many key 60’s icons he looks set on a path of self-destruction - no one gets out of here alive.

Toby is promised a Ferrari and taken to the Italian Oscars, the “She Wolf Awards”. This is where the Lynch comparisons really kick in as various and sundry odd-balls give and receive awards. It’s surreal and unsettling echoing Toby’s inner state.

Antonia Pietrosi
He meets one sympathetic character, played by the amazing Antonia Pietrosi, who assures him that he is in safe hands and will be looked after… Is it the cocktail of drink and drugs or is this Old Nicola herself coming to claim his soul? Hard to know but whatever you want.

Toby gets up to deliver his guest speech but breaks down amidst the Shakespeare and runs off. Outside he encounters the Ferrari, his reward… he climbs in and speeds off through the bewildering foggy darkness…  Racing on with scant consideration for his own safety, he eventually skids to a halt near a fallen bridge.

"Old Nicola" doesn't always play ball...
He seems relieved at the narrow escape but then sees a young girl on the other side, the same one he had seen at the airport. She smiles at him and he knows he must try and cross over to meet her. Reversing the car he revs the engine and prepares to drive on to his destiny.

None of the other stories is as genuinely chilling as Fellini’s and it fits in enough imagery and ideas to fuel and entire film. All of this is as jarringly disconcerting as the best of Poe. The story may be further from EAP’s original but the spirit is there.

Terence Stamp plays a blinder and takes the best actor award for the triptych: it may have been close to his existence at the time but he plays the character as a man run out of ideas and time… betrayed by all of those around him including the little girl who finally claims his soul.

Dusty verdict: Buy the DVD – it’s worth it for Toby Dammit alone: Fellini on form.

*Rose London's Cinema of Mystery is still to be found on Amazon and elsewhere.

Nuns, in sunglasses

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Echoes… The Stone Tape (1972)

The Stone Tape is a made for TV play broadcast as a Christmas ghost story in 1972. It was written by Nigel Kneale who specialised in macabre tales mixing the supernatural with the scientific most famously in Quatermass and a host of other plays.

Filmed largely in studio it still packs an uncanny punch to this day as it shows men pitting technology against ancient “evil”… attempting to control and to commercialise that which they barely comprehend. Directed with superb timing and economy by Peter Sasdy, it featured some of the leading British actors of the time all of whom act their collective socks off in service to Kneale’s excellent script… you really wouldn’t expect a studio play to be so affecting but it’s unsettling in spite and because of the location.

Jill, Brock and the boys...
Ace computer analyst, Jill Greeley (Jane Asher) arrives at Ryan Electronics' new research facility “Taskerlands”. It’s an old Victorian property about to be transformed into a research hot-house to help the electronics firm keep pace with the Japanese competition. As she pulls up two Ryan lorries apparently start reversing into Jill’s car… she reverses away in panic into a pile of sand: it’s a foretaste of the ordeal to come.

Peter Brock (Michael Bryant) is the head of a research team and he is a natural leader, decisive, aggressive and always with an eye for the main chance. He’s married with children (and a horse) but has been having an affair with his computer prodigy.
Iain Cuthbertson and Michael Bryant
There’s something very strange about their new base and foreman Roy Collinson (Iain Cuthbertson), reveals that the builders have refused to work on one room saying that it’s haunted. Naturally Brock dismisses this but Jill is shaken to the core as she sees an apparition of a woman in Victorian dress, screaming in terror…

The sightings continue until even Brock is convinced there’s something awry… boldly he decides that this is something worth investigating: “… a mass of data... waiting for a correct interpretation.” He marshals his team and they move their kit and computers into the room to analyse and nail the phenomenon.

They’re a mix of sceptics covering the full gamut of 70’s TV scientists from rough and ready (Peter Angelis) to bearded and contemplative (Michael Bates).  But, not only do they not believe some, literally, cannot see of hear the apparition… there are sensitives like Jill who perceive the sound and vision and others who cannot.

Jill sees the image of a terrified Victorian servant girl who is running away from what she describes as the “others”… she trips and falls to her death. Jill and Brock investigate and find that this reflects and actual event form the 1890s… There were even several attempts to exorcise the ground although the local vicar is too disorganised to find the records.

But some of the locals have also had experience of the house and one reveals a deeply scaring event in which his friend was left alone locked in the room… he lost his mind surrounded by what seem to be darker apparitions than the girl…

After failing to record the images and sounds of the “ghost” they attempt to record temperature changes as there is always a perceived drop when the manifestations occur… this fails again but the scientists plough on in an attempt to rationalise. This is intelligent scripting form Kneale, a story that could so easily drift into melodrama is kept taught and suspenseful as scientific method is applied.

All are driven on by Brock and his authoritarian leadership… a peculiarly British type of anti-hero in the post-war years when our scientific ingenuity generated world-leading engineering. Science was clearly the way forward but the costs were only beginning to be counted.

Brock decides that the event has been imprinted in the ancient stone of the room… the stone “tape”.  The group celebrates thinking it has found a potentially ground-breaking storage device that would generate 3D sound and vision – “the big one” …their fortunes secured.

In typical fashion Brock aims to exert control and to trigger the manifestation through sound. He drives his team to the brink of exhaustion in his increasingly desperate attempts and only succeeds in erasing the “tape” – blasting the residual energies creating the apparition from the stone.

This failure is swiftly followed by head office running out of patience and curtailing his funding and control in favour of a washing machine project run by Brock’s rival Crawshaw (Reginald Marsh). The game is up and in spite of Jill’s gnawing feeling that there’s more as she tries to unravel the computer analysis, Brock has to move on and dismantle the project.

Jane Asher
Spoilers ahead: As Crawshaw’s team arrives, the local vicar arrives confirming the story of exorcism, but it’s much earlier than the death of the maid… Now convinced that the maid was merely the latest in a long line of incidents, Jill enters the new data onto her computer model and discovers that the energies creating the phenomenon date back thousands of years and not just hundreds…

She returns to the room and is overcome by the full force of the others as the room seemingly connects with the ancient world…following in the footsteps of the maid she ascends the stairs and is overwhelmed. After her funeral Brock goes back to the room and to his horror now hears Jill’s voice screaming in terror, calling out to him for help…she has become imprinted in the stone.

The Stone Tape stands up very well and is rightly regarded as a classic of the era. Maybe that’s partly down to the imprints left on our televisual memory of the style and substance of dramas of the time… Kneale’s other ghost stories, Quatermass, Doctor Who. But even as retro-science-horror it works and yet the writing is sophisticated and the direction from Peter Sasdy is superb with the enclosed sets adding to the claustrophobic feeling: they knew how to use such limitations as a source of strength!

And the actors carry the story well with Bryant being superbly convincing as the careerist wiling to sacrifice almost all before his ambitions… he lets enough through to show he has a caring side and this sets us up for the shocking ending when, finally he becomes the haunted man.

Brock learns the truth...
Jane Asher is also superb, carrying the mystery with her for long portions of the film and being the sensitive human anchor amongst all the testosterone and scientific posturing… The men want to control but she wants to genuinely understand. Brock’s casual in-bred – “bloody women!” – rebounds emphatically on him in the end.

A genuinely moving and affecting story that stays with you for days afterwards, this has to be one of the strangest plays ever shown on mainstream British television. After even being reported lost at one stage, The Stone Tape has recently been re-released by the BFI complete with extras and commentary.

Dusty box rating: Ditch the VHS and buy the DVD