Saturday, 25 April 2015

Psych fiction... Unearthly Stranger (1964)

In these austere times it’s good to watch a film that has made the absolute most of its limited budget and Unearthly Stranger epitomises the cut-priced have-a-go heroes of early sixties British cinema.

Director John Krish manages to generate a genuinely-oppressive atmosphere throughout the film as he uses every trick in the book to convince the viewer that aliens might well be amongst us. There are no special effects, no flying spaceships or explosions and, amazingly, there are no alien-looking aliens just one scene involving minimal make-up. Somehow – in spite of a story so full of holes you could strain boiled vegetables through it – he puts the strange and the unearthly into the mix.

The film also benefits from a super cast who put their all into animating what could have been a very dull affair; from Warren Mitchell’s exploding brain to Jean Marsh’s properly prim secretary and Patrick Newell’s boiled sweet addicted spook: if James Bond ate nothing but Fox’s Glacier Mints for forty years, that’d be him!

John Neville
The film starts as it means to go on with a terrified Dr. Mark Davidson (John Neville who later went on to play the Well-Manicured Man in The X-Files) racing over Westminster Bridge away from some unknown terror. He careers across the darkened West End somehow ending at a sleek art deco building housing the Royal Space Research Institute. There’s a great shot downwards as he runs up the circular stairway inside before pausing at the top to check for any pursuers.

Soaked in sweat and exhausted he staggers into his office and starts talking into his reel-to-reel… he doesn’t think he has long as he tries to warn his colleague of a truth they have both suspected. The highest stakes are involved and it’s all a lot worse than they ever imagined…

Warren Mitchell
Cue the flashback as we see the Institute in calmer circumstances as an unexpectedly Scottish Warren Mitchell arrives in the guise of one Professor Geoffrey D. Munro. He greets his secretary Miss Ballard (Jean Marsh) and enters his office. As he reads some papers in front of a giant image of the Moon he convulses in pain and slumps dead on his desk.

Switch to the aftermath as the institute’s head, Professor John Lancaster (Philip Stone) discusses the case with the sweet-munching secret service man, Major Clarke (Patrick Newell). There’s a marvellously English interplay between the men, respect, rank and duty defining their relationship: Lancaster would rather do without the man from the ministry but he knows he has no option.

Philip Stone and Patrick Newell
Davidson arrives back form holiday – his honeymoon as it turns out – and we find out more about this special project as he is offered Munro’s job as its lead… The Institute is experimenting with projecting thought into space. Rather than rockets, flesh and blood, its aim is to send our consciousness across space to unknown worlds: to boldly know where no man has thought before (sorry).

They’re not alone in this cerebral space race with the Americans and the Russians also experimenting. Both, like the British, have suffered similarly-harrowing deaths. Davidson senses something is up and the polite pressure of the munching Major does little to allay his fears.

John Neville, Jean Marsh and Philip Stone
Looking for answers he goes to look at Munro’s corpse only to file his coffin full of bricks… his body has been taken for secret tests? But whilst his own people are against him, Davidson may also have strange issues at home. For such an intuitive man it seems odd that he hasn’t really considered his own situation: he met and married his wife Julie (Gabriella Licudi) in a matter of weeks, running into her in Swizterland when his car temporarily lost power. Their relationship proceeded at pace and before he returned they were married.

All is perfectly in love but there’s just one thing… Julie doesn’t blink.

Gabriella Licudi, John Neville and Philip Stone
Davidson invites Lancaster to dinner and whilst Julie is perfectly charming, the Professor is alarmed to see her handling hot dishes in the oven without using gloves and then he too notices that she doesn’t blink before Julie laughs it off and starts forcing her eyelids down.

One of the best sequences in the film sees Julie enjoying a carefree walk – smiling at a baby in a pram before the poor thing cries in terror – before coming to a junior school. She stands at the fence admiring the children at play until gradually, one by one, they stop staring at her in fear and, as one, edging back step-by-step.
Julie realises that the children can see what the adults cannot...
Julie flees home in tears but as she throws herself in misery on the bed, the door rings and she’s goes down stairs to see the suspiciously avuncular Major Clarke waiting… her face has two trials cut into her face as if her tears had been of acid.

Meanwhile Clarke spots Davidson and Lancaster rooting around for Munro and warns them off. But the mystery is too great now to be ignored and it seems quite clear that they need to talk about Julie…
The Major...
No spoilers… The tension mounts as the realisation dawns that Man is not alone in thinking his way into the future. Davidson has his run and there’s a most impressive twist at the end… about which I will say nothing…

The idea of mind projection is a pretty one to take but as with a lot of science fiction, it is merely a device to reflect contemporary concerns about the collapse of society from within: a home counties version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers?

Julie relishes the streets of London
Of the performers, the lovely Gabriella Licudi deserves special mention for a) holding her eyes open for so long and b) investing her character with so much other-worldly longing.

Dusty verdict: Well worth watching for the dynamic atmospherics and the unflinching early-sixties belief in the power of science!

Unearthly Stranger is available at budget price direct from Network as either a Blu-ray or DVD.

The school kids retreat

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Highway to hell… Death Race 2000 (1975)

One of the ultimate cult movies of the seventies and one I’ve never seen before in spite of my young teenage self being fascinated with the promise of so many posters and adverts extolling the value of a film fueled by fast cars, reckless driving and care-free violence…  So, how does the viewing experience match up to three decades of what was less studious self-denial and more just a “failure to see”? Turns out Death Race has something to say and is not just a more dastardly Wacky Races, although the comparisons are clear on that score.

Produced by Roger Corman and directed by Paul Bartel, Death Race 2000 is a vision of a near future not much removed from the here and now. Reality TV may be more pervasive now than in 1975 but it was still an accident waiting to happen and to be viewed. The film features a trio of only slightly over-the-top TV commentators who use prosaic sports rhetoric which somehow makes the nature of the event even more shocking. The national sport of death racing across the USA is a distraction welcomed across the country and aficionados are so swept up with the game they are even willing to be killed by their heroes.

Mildly OTT TV
Clearly something is wrong with a world in which murderous motorists can accumulate points by running down civilians – high scores for children and old people in particular – but we’re never really told how this came to be. There’s a mysterious President manipulating event behind the scenes for what is clearly a Romanesque distraction for the crowds: what’s he got to hide?

Calamity Jane and Matlida the Hun
The gladiators of the road are all caricatures: there’s “Calamity” Jane (Mary Woronov) an all-American cow-girl who skewers her victims with two massive bull-horns attached to her car versus Ray “Nero the Hero” Lonagan (Martin Kove) – a modern gladiator with Cleopatra (Leslie McRay) as his navigator.

Nero the Hero and Machine Gun" Joe Viterbo
Up against them is Matlida the Hun (Roberta Collins) and her navigator, “Herman the German” (Fred Grandy) whose car, "The Buzz-Bomb",  carries swastikas and heavy artillery and the highly strung Italian stallion himself, Sylvester Stallone as the impossibly angry, "Machine Gun" Joe Viterbo accompanied by his very own blonde moll-shell Myra (Louisa Moritz). Joe drives an equally vexed car which has two machine guns and a bayonet attached to its front.

Finally there’s the reigning champion, the President’s favourite and everyone else’s, Frankenstein (David Carradine – who was on 10% of the take for the movie…not many get to out earn Roger Corman on one of his films!) a man who has supposedly been injured and repaired so many times that he is barely human: as much of a machine as his car, cold unknowable and with only one thing on his mind.

Simone Griffeth
For this race he is to have a new navigator Annie (Simone Griffeth), a wholesome-looking girl who, frankly, Frankie doesn’t look your type… 

Mr President
The global/political backdrop is gradually revealed as what looks like an almost all-powerful president pulls the strings. At some point the American “empire” won and it rules the majority of the World. To the victor the spoils of… boredom and to creeping entropy of “nowhere left to go”… the Race is a big part of state entertainment and arouses an almost religious fervour amongst it’s young pop fans… as if Justin and One Direction could drive?

Where's the Buzz Bomb?
Against all this is a resistance movement led by one Thomasina Paine – yes really – played by Harriet Medin. Thomasina wants to, no doubt, exert the rights of man, woman and child to not be killed in the name of entertainment and to overthrow a regime aimed at, literally, amusing its populace to death.       

Her group’s aim is also to destroy drivers along with the race and they begin to succeed with first Nero the Hero succumbing to one of their traps. But Frankenstein is too clever to fall for their traps especially when he realises that his new co-driver might be involved…

Thrills and spills
But everyone has a secret in this film and even Frankenstein is not quite as he seems.

The characterization is of rich comic book textures and the plot proceeds with unlikely scenarios such as the drivers all lined up for a relaxing sensual massage after one stage – allowing Roberta Collins and Mary Woronov to show us a little bit more as they carry their competition a little too far.

Roberta Collins and Mary Woronov "relax"
Frankenstein sees Annie talking to Joe and wonders what on earth she could be telling him… Sure enough he’s been led along a rough garden path into the middle of a valley of slow return… is she trying to help or just sabotage the race? But he seems willing to overlook his suspicions about her motives as the two develop the understanding both on and off road.

As with Wacky Races, the fun is in the telling and not necessarily the result and the sports commentary keeps things fresh as the real battle becomes clearer.

Dusty verdict: In a world in which human life has become so devalued, there has to be hope for a better future – or not - depending on your mood. I’ll let you find out for yourself with the comment that, as Spock once said to his captain: “sometimes it is better to travel than arrive…” or something like that.

Carradine conveys that laid back, carefully tutored threat he managed in Kung Fu and other works and is always watchable: it’s as if he knows what’s going on and is letting the audience in on things.

The others pantomime very well and, arguably Simone Griffeth has the only characterization that rings true as the reluctant revolutionary who falls for the man she thought she’d have to kill.

It’s not great art but it’s still fun with enough humour to prevent it becoming over-bearing and a story that likes itself enough to make the effort to have a point: and if all that sounds a bit convoluted then I would refer you to any number of other Corman and Corman-esque episodes.  

Death Race 2000 is available from Amazon – it’s a future firmly rooted in the brash, four-colour comic book world of the mid-seventies and that’s no bad thing.