Saturday 28 January 2017

Pier pressure… The Flesh and Blood Show (1972)

There is something of the plot structure of early period Scooby Doo in Peter Walker’s pier-bound whodunit save for the talking dog, the Mystery Machine and copious amounts of blood and naked flesh: it does what it says on the tin in this respect. Walker’s stock in trade was oppressive horror featuring pretty young things in peril as in The House of Whipcord and Frightmare and here he takes a decent cast and makes a stab at a more considered tale.

In spite of some slow pacing and a perp so obvious even Scrappy Doo would have spotted him (although there is a twist…) The Flesh and Blood Show is redeemed by good performances and superb atmospherics. Any film with Ray Brooks, Luan Peters, Jenny Hanley and Patrick Barr can’t be all bad and they have plenty to get their teeth into.

The film opens with a comic foretaste of what is to come, as the boorish John (David Howey) knocks on the door of two female friends and pretends to have been knifed. It’s an ostensibly gory start and one that also provides an opportunity to marvel at the quite exceptional physical attributes of Luan Peters as she dashes naked from bed to help her idiot pal. You know where you are with this film but not necessarily right away…

Only joking! David Howey makes sure Judy Matheson and Luan Peters get the point.
Walker plays with expectations not just with the first scene but when are travelling band arrives at a seaside pier theatre – Cromer’s Pavilion Theatre - to find what looks like two dead bodies: a man head thrown back and a nude woman seemingly despatched where they sat in the stalls. But it’s only Robin Asquith taking a nap along with his inexplicably nude partner, Angela (Penny Meredith).

Asquith’s Simon and Angela are among the early arrivals at this mysterious gig which has pulled together an eclectic bunch of actors and a director, Mike (Ray Brooks) in order to work up a production before transfer to London. The Agents involved are mysterious and, as in an Agatha Christie novel, the ten little actors (not a miss-count…) gradually realise how little they know.

Seven characters in search of an author...
Yet it takes a while for things to get dark. The troop get to know each other quickly enough – very quickly in the case of dashing Australian Tony (Tristan Rogers) who gets to share a changing room with curvaceous Carol (Luan Peters) much to John’s disgust although things look up as he spies Carol’s pal Jane (Judy Matheson) being seduced by Angela (clearly fully rested after her nap with Simon…).

Ah, free love and those innocent times… but this was 1972 and the tide was definitely turning on carefree expression. In the middle of the night a scream rings out and no one can find Angela. Mike sets off torch in hand – it’s all a bad dream surely she’s just gone off to find a proper bed? But, passing a row of wax heads he is shocked to find that one of them is blonde and covered in blood; she’s been decapitated in the surprisingly-functional guillotine back stage.

Ray Brooks gets a shock
The police are called in but there’s no sign… and a note explaining that she’s gone back to London… odd timing but the gang mostly accept it especially as they are soon joined by a glamorous stranger, Julia (played by Magpie’s very own sex siren Jenny Hanley). We’ve previously seen Julia at a playback of a period film – which also features the ubiquitous Jess Conrad. She’s a future star and has been sent to gain stage experience.

Jenny Hanley
The others are impressed, especially Tony who casts appreciative glances as Julia undresses in the changing room much to Carol’s disgust – out-blonded (although it is a matter of taste…). This instant triangle distracts the audience once again from any seeming inevitability in the horror narrative and we’re soon lost in the day-to-day as the actors start working on their routine.

Another actress joins them, and our cup over-floweth as the raven-haired loveliness of Candace Glendenning arrives as local thesp Sarah.

Candace Glendenning, Judy Matheson and Tristan Rogers
Now quorate again, the real story can kick on but… strangely, it doesn’t. Yes there is a mysterious gloved figure watching the rehearsals from the gods but we still have some way to go before normal horrific service can be resumed.

The actors head into town for a laugh at a café where they meet friendly old Major Bell (Patrick Barr) and his dog. They meet him again when staying over at Sarah’s aunt’s for a shower and tea (Elizabeth Bradley) and it’s here that they learn of an enduring mystery connected to the wartime disappearance of three actors from the theatre.

Julia heads off to the library to investigate and finds old newspaper reports of the last performance of Sir Arnold Gates whose Othello disappeared along with his wife, Lady Pamela’s Desdemona and their Iago.

All will be revealed in time but in 1972 more actors start going missing and soon the body count has included Sarah and even the lovely Carol (on “principle” I almost stopped watching at this point: let Luan live!!). Is it the creepy John or something else entirely?

The tension mounts but then we get a black and white flashback – one of the 3D sequences in the original screenings – that explains (almost) all as the loony tune toys in the attic are revealed… It’s not quite a tale of the unexpected but there’s more in store as a further twist is added at the death…

In the spotlight
Dusty verdict: The Flesh and Blood Show doesn’t disappoint on its title until a patchy ending but it is an enjoyable romp with top notch cinematography from Peter Jessop and a good build up of tension from Peter Walker.

There are good performances and Ray Brooks is excellent as always – such a fine actor from The Knack to Walford. There’s also a completely beguiling line up of seventies beauty from lovely Luan to the frankly flawless Miss Hanley not to mention Hammer regular Judy Matheson and Candace Glendenning: this is premier league pulchritude and Walker doesn’t hold back in maximising the presentation of their secondary sexual characteristics…

If that appeals and you like creepy stories set in run-down piers then this film is for you even if you may fast forward near the end.

The Flesh and Blood Show is now available in Blu-ray – as if to underline the enduring allure of period sexuality – but it’s also a proper film the appreciation of which should not be undermined too much by its sensationalism.


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