Saturday, 29 October 2022

Herk Harvey's Hauntology… Carnival of Souls (1962), Criterion Blu-ray


We all come across cult films in our own time and place and for me, before the days of the internet and social media, I was staying in New York City in Autumn ’89, closer to this film’s release than now, when I came across an ad – possibly in The Village Voice or a flyer in Bleecker Bob’s record shop in the Village – promoting a screening of this film at the Bleecker Street Cinema. This was one of the great arthouse cinemas of old New York having been set up in 1960 in two townhouses dating back to the 1830s.

 

As director Herk Harvey and writer John Clifford say in their commentary, this film is best viewed in cinema and that Thursday matinee was indeed a strange and memorable experience. The film’s style had already “dated” by the cynical post-punk, indie late 80s but there was clearly something special about the atmosphere created by the film and the theatre as we watched a dreamy nightmare of dislocation set against that most haunting of all locations; an abandoned fun fair… all laughter, and life long departed and yet with some kind of evil presence drawing the film’s main character back again and again to an unreality unknown.

 

This was Harvey’s only feature film having made his career in industrial and instructional documentary film making and it was after shooting one such film that he was driving home through Salk Lake City and went past the abandoned Saltair Pavilion, standing regal and threatening in the starkness of the southern shore of the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Inspired he began imagining a ghoulish dance of the dead inside the great hall and on his return asked his friend and co-worker at Centron Films, John Clifford, who was a writer there, how he'd like to write a feature which he duly did in three weeks.

 

The Saltair Pavillion

It may have been their only feature but there’s a lifetime of creepy ideas put into play from men who no doubt grew up on horror films, weird science fiction and EC Comics. They were also trained film makers which partly explains how they were able to make $33,000 last over 80 minutes of narrative! It’s a miracle of budgetary constrained innovation!

 

On first sight, I had assumed that most of the cast were amateurs, but watching the film on the Criterion Blu-ray, I can see that most were pros especially the ethereal Candace Hilligoss, as Mary Henry, the woman who came to haunt herself and an actress of the Lee Strasberg School alongside Marylin Monroe and Roy Schieder. She carries the whole film and has to as she is in virtually every scene… Harvey recalled being disappointed when she first arrived and was on the point of telling her that she wasn’t right for the role until the next day when she turned up for shooting and was transformed into Mary. As he said, “an actress” and she is able to convey absence as well as intimacy in a performance that is so well centred and yet so odd that we try to second guess her responses in vain... as with her character we have to let the life she has play itself out.

 

It's Mary’s incredible journey from a friendly car chase between her and two female pals and two guys on the outskirts of a town called Lawrence in Kansas. The girl’s car crashes off a bridge and whilst her friends are killed outright, somehow Mary makes it out alive and struggles onto shore. She takes a room in the town in a house run by a Mrs Thomas (Frances Feist) and we learn that she’s an organist who has come to take up a job at a church in nearby Salt Lake City. Here again the location made the story with Lawrence’s Reuter Organ Company providing a suitably atmospheric setting and dictating that Mary would be an organist.

 

Candace Hilligoss energes from the cold, damp mud

Hilligoss got paid $2,000, so needs must as the remainder of that micro-budget drives was the order of the day and the remarkable thing is how many of these calls Harvey and Clifford got right, especially to the extent they wanted atmosphere to create the unease and not gore or specific violence. They chose well for their cinematographer with the experienced Maurice Prather not only capturing eeriness day and night but also using speeded up film, just like FW Murnau in Nosferatu, to add an uncanny edge to the movements of the ghouls in the Saltair ballroom, and the relentless pursuit if Mary. The music was also perfectly creepy, with Gene Moore hitting the right tones on an instrument that is so very specific in its sound and often jars – trust me, I worked in a Butlins holiday camp in the early 80s, organs were very much a part of weird seaside entertainments for a live or an undead audience.

 

The film shows Mary on the edge, surrounded by normal life whilst increasingly seeing strange visions, and feeling displaced. The moment she is in a clothes store when the sound suddenly stops and she experiences an ominous silence is another masterstroke from Harvey… sitting in Bleeker Street in 1989, in a sunny late Autumn, it still sent shivers up the spine.

 

Sidney Berger plays John Linden, her neighbour who has the everyday hots for Mary and Harvey uses him as another point to which reflect the abnormality slowly engulfing her. He’s a nice enough guy, and in the 1989 reunion featured on one of the Criterion Blu-ray’s extras, the actor remembers the critic Roger Ebert as describing him as the definition of a “horny geek”. By then an acting teacher Berger clearly relished the film’s long-tailed cache, they all did and it’s a treat to see them relish the moment 27 years after the film stumbled onto the market after its distributors went bust (another long story).

 

Candace and Sidney Berger, living up to Ebert's description

Back on screen, Harvey cast himself as “The Man”, the leader of the pack of ghouls, who are seen in Mary’s dreams of the Saltair Pavilion and who keeps on popping up, haunting her waking moments and looking at her with hungry eyes. This intrusions on the everyday we all take for granted are increasingly effective and used sparingly by Harvey, who paces most of his film to perfection. It is the Pavilion itself that provides the most disturbance as the director felt when he first encountered it. He had a long career in film making but if you only had one feature film to your name, this is the one you’d chose. Once seen never forgotten.

 

I watched the Criterion edition which gives the film it’s UK Blu-ray debut and Harvey would have loved it, with so many extras celebrating his work on the film and elsewhere. Perfect or Halloween but really anytime… normal life is not as secure as it seems after all.




Friday, 30 September 2022

Stormzy… Maniacal Mayhem, Boris Karloff Universal Box Set, Eureka Blu-ray, Out 17th October!


It was a dark and stormy night… or, in point of fact, it was a succession of dark and stormy nights, weeks of charcoal wet, with nothing quite so black as the dark heart of man and there was one who strode through the wind and rain, each time convincing his audience that evil not only existed but that it could overwhelm even the most rational of minds. These three films may spread from 1936 to 1951 and yet all have the trademark qualities not only of Boris Karloff but also Universal Pictures, purveyors of the finest horror films at budget prices.

As with the Hammer series and others, they key to these film’s success, in addition to tight fiscal control, was the ability of the leads to deliver convincingly, given tight production schedules and the most improbable of stories. As with Hammer they mostly succeed on some level and all three of these films are highly entertaining, with solid support in two from Béla Lugosi, a fine actor it turns out, even without the fangs, who was so also unfairly maligned for Plan Nine, and in one the deliciously over-playing Charles Laughton who is worth the price of admission alone! You might not run from the room screaming but you will be unsettled, shaken and stirred to find out more.

The films in Maniacal Mayhem are all on Blu-ray for the first time ever in the UK as a part of the Eureka Classics range, and all presented from 2K scans of the original film elements. Available from 17 October 2022, the first print-run of 2000 copies will feature a Limited-Edition O-card Slipcase & Collector’s Booklet and is not to be missed!

 

 

The Strange Door (1951)

My favourite of the three is The Strange Door (1951) directed by Joseph Pevney at the tale end of Universal’s classic horror period and very much a companion piece of sorts to the following year’s The Black Castle with Karloff having returned to horror after a few years in broader roles and, erm Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff (1949). He had a lot more range than lazy history might recall and here he manages to convey those dark elements whilst also being loyal and emotionally fragile, sure he can kill if required but those he serves and those he loves, always come first. This is not so easy to pull off as witnessed by so many unsympathetic henchmen through the cinematic ages; Karloff knew the difference between man and monster.

Talking of which, so did the peerless Charles Laughton who genuinely was one of the finest actors of his generation and was here taking a lesser role than his overall career might suggest. Needless to say, Laughton gives it his all as the sadistic Sire Alain de Maletroit, a performance full of casually-revealed cruelties and pure arrogance. His brother deprived him of his one true love and so he has decided to imprison him and make sure that his daughter suffers the same heartache as he.

It was based on a short story The Sire de Maletroit's Door by Robert Louis Stevenson who had clearly been reading Edgar Allen Poe given this level of elaborate cruelty – brother Edmond (Paul Cavanagh) has been locked up for twenty years and his daughter Blanche (Sally Forrest) has been told he’s dead. As it is Edmond pretends to have gone mad so that Alain thinks he’s winning with his only friend the loyal Voltan (Karloff).

The final part of Alain’s evil plot is to marry off Blanche to a man who will be totally unsuited and who she will hate. He selects Denis de Beaulieu (Richard Stapley) as the kind of amoral waster, out for himself and whatever cheap thrill alcohol and wenching can provide… he seems to have every angle covered but, not everyone is as bad as they seem, although some are worse!

Joseph Pevney directs very effectively and whilst things are mostly studio-bound the atmosphere is terrific and the actors rise to the challenge of being in company with Karloff and Laughton!

 


The Invisible Ray (1936)

It’s back to the future for the next film with Karloff playing Dr Janos Rukh, a scientist who develops a, for want of a better phrase, space-telescope that is so powerful it can see far out into space and into our own past. Using this machine, he is able to identify a meteorite composed of an element known as "Radium X" which crashed on Earth hundreds of thousands of years ago in Africa. I love the setup, the telescope is just a feint and allows a set-piece opening in which Rukh, nearing the end of his credibility, invites sceptical scientists to come and see his machine at work.

These include Dr Benet (Béla Lugosi) and Sir Francis Stevens (Walter Kingsford) with his wife Lady Arabella (Beulah Bondi) and their young friend, adventurer Ronald Drake (Frank Lawton). Janos lives with his mother (Violet Kemble Cooper) who was blinded by one of his experiments and his much younger wife, Diana (Frances Drake) who soon catches the eye of Ronald and vice-versa. Benet and Stevens are excited by the revelation and invite Janos to Africa on an expedition to find the meteorite which will be a great boon for civilisation.

As is always the case though, there’s a down-side to mysterious unknown elements and the very unmysterious known elements of human behaviour will also come into play. Janos, obsessional by nature but with a good heart, duly finds his Radium X but he is irradiated and can kill anyone by the merest touch. Dr Benet gives him a means of suppressing the affect but soon, driven to distraction by jealousy of the rest of the team as they roll out his discovery to the World as well as of his young wife, he begins to succumb to the dark side…

Directed by Lambert Hillyer, it's another well-made film, and I was especially impressed with Lugosi who has a natural command as the well-intentioned good Doctor. Good turns also from Violet Kemble Cooper and the eye-catching Frances Drake who was not caught out playing bowls when the action heats up!

 


 

Black Friday (1940)

More dark science in this more straightforward horror film with Karloff playing an amoral brain surgeon, Dr Ernest Sovac, who, to save the life of his friend, Professor George Kingsley (Stanley Ridges) who has been injured in a car accident, transplants part of the brain of the man driving the car, a gangster called Red Cannon. The results in the well-known Man With Two Brains scenario and thus begins a fight for dominance between Red and the Professor… shades of another Robert Louis Stevenson tale…

Karloff is nuanced again as his Dr Sovac becomes intrigued by the half-million dollars the semi-ex-con has hidden in New York. With this the Professor could do so much good but the danger is he keeps on having to let so much of Red into his friend’s headspace. “Red” starts to revenge himself on his former comrades, including Eric Marnay (another excellent turn from Bela Lugosi) and the closer to the money he gets the more the risks move closer to home; the Professor’s life begins to merge with the criminal life and when his daughter, Jean (Anne Gwynne), is threatened he must decide on which side (of his friend’s brain) he’s on.

The New York Times wasn’t impressed "Lugosi's terrifying talents are wasted... but Karloff is in exquisite artistic form... good holiday fun." I’d say both are eminently watchable and that this is a strong hattrick of engaging, fun horror.

The special features are also horrifically good:

  • Limited Edition O-Card Slipcase
  • 1080p presentation of all three films across two Blu-ray discs 
  • All films presented from 2K scans of the original film elements
  • Optional English SDH
  • Brand new audio commentary tracks on The Invisible Ray and The Strange Door with author Stephen Jones and author / critic Kim Newman
  • New audio commentary track on Black Friday with Kevin Lyons and Jonathan Rigby
  • “The Sire de Maletroit’s Door” radio adaptations
  • Stills Galleries
  • Trailers

Plus A Limited Edition Collector’s Booklet* featuring new writing on all three films by film writers Andrew Graves, Rich Johnson, and Craig Ian Mann

 

*The booklet is available on the First Print Run of 2000 copies only so you’d be well-advised to head over to the Eureka site and pre-order as soon as you can!

 


 

Monday, 29 August 2022

Plenty of filling… The Sandwich Man (1966), Network Blu-ray out now

 

This is something of a city symphony from the fourth Goon and full of gentle charm to match the multiple locations across the capital, some of which have hardly changed, with others long since gone leaving no trace of “Swinging” London left. As a story the narrative is very thin and essentially just an excuse to see those sights as well as to allow dozens of guest stars to performing skits of varying levels of humour. The commentary from Producer/Cinematographer Peter Newbrook confirms that the entire picture was shot on location and that whilst they hit all their main targets, subterfuge was required to film certain scenes in the West End, given the unhelpful attitude of the authorities. This is a great advert for the vibrancy of the dirty old town and is a quirky near-classic!

Written by Michael Bentine together with Robert Hartford-Davis who also directs, great credit should also go to Newbrook’s cinematography and Peter Taylor’s editing. If it were nothing else, The Sandwich Man would stand as eloquent testimony to the time and place but it’s the guest stars that make it and only someone with Bentine’s address book could have pulled this off: Norman Wisdom, Diana Dors, Harry H. Corbett, Dora Bryan, Bernard Cribbins and Terry-Thomas… even Brian Cant pops up in a cameo. Delays also pushed them into the late summer/early autumn and the weather then became an issue. So, light comedy it may be, but we shouldn’t doubt the determination to get it made and it’s hard to keep sunny smiling when the cool wind come off the Thames…

It begins and ends with a street and some pigeons as the camera swoops down from the foggy East End sun to a row of colourful Victorian cottages. Out of the first comes Da Sikhars, two Indian jazz musicians played by Leon Thau (Ram) and Hugh Futcher (Gogi) in now-jarring brown-face – what was it about the Goons and playing Indians? Thau worked with Bentine in It’s a Square World before producing and directing Michael Bentine's Potty Time complete with legendary ant circus!

Dora and Michael

Next door along sees Roger Delgado emerge as Abdul, the carpet seller, followed by Burt Kwouk who defies racial stereotyping by jumping into an Italian ice cream van… just as cringeworthy today but in the context of 1966 all of a piece with a warm comment on the emerging diversity.

Next door to Burt is Horace Quilby (Bentine) pigeon fancier and sandwich man employed, for those of you from the 21st Century, to walk the streets of central London advertising services on cardboard signs slung over his shoulders, in this case Finklebaum & O’Casey Gents Bespoke Overcoats & West End Suits. His neighbour is played by the legendary Dora O’Brien, who takes a break from beating her carpet to inquire about his racing pigeon, Esmerelda, who is involved in a major race from Bordeaux to London. There’s a frisson between the two… the promise of more just as Horace’s feathered friend might bring him greater success in the sporting world of Columba livia domestica. 

Horace is a man of small pleasures, always looking on the bright side and enjoying people watching during his endless days of mobile advertising. He greats his neighbours and talks to a stunning young woman, Sue (Suzy Kendall, one of the faces of the era, star of Up the Junction and, in the seventies, many a Giallo film) who is having a falling out with her luxury car salesman boyfriend, Steven (David Buck). Steven arrives in one of many lovely period cars and there’s a great reaction shot from the bus queue as they look from side to side as the couple argue.

Super Suzy Kendall
Sue and Steven form the main thread with a running argument throughout the film exacerbated by the former’s job as a model being photographed by Bernard Cribbins who is, as always, a joy with more than a few improvised lines as he, literally, falls dahn an ‘ole in the grahnd being dug by David Lodge and his men. Da Sikhars also spend most of the film, erm, seeking to get to an Indian jazz festival and, Horace sees it all.

But the biggest hits come from the incredible list of stars. At the time they didn’t come much bigger than Norman Wisdom who plays a boxing vicar at a boys’ club near St Pauls. He has an “oirish” accent and does all his own stunts some of which are quite remarkable for a 51-year old. He’s positively Chaplinesque as indeed is Charlie’s son from his marriage to Oona, Michael J Chaplin, who plays a pavement artist during the Cribbins-Kendall-working men sequence. As with all of Chaplin’s kids, the most famous face in the world gives them a familiarity. Striking that we’re further away from this film than it was from The Great Dictator, Modern Times and even his classic period with Keystone, Mutual and Essanay.

Elsewhere we’re gifted with Terry Thomas as a scout leader trying to give Da Sikhars a lift before falling foul of a traffic policeman played by Ian Hendry, who shows his range as the comedically-tense copper on a bad day which culminates in his packing it all in when two cars collide (near Tolworth Tower on the A3, not central London) and the drivers are men in costume, a Kangaroo – who possibly jumped a red light – and a Polar Bear. Many of these sketches were drawn from Bentine’s It’s a Square World, they can be hit and miss but everyone contains those guest stars.

Norman nurses his bruises...

There’s a lovely sequence in Billingsgate Fish Market with Diana Dors debating the relative values of Doctor Kildare with Anna Quayle, and the camera keeps cutting to fish getting gutted, by Frank Findlay no less, as the women discuss TV operations… it’s well observed. We also get Abdul haggling with Sydney Tafler over exchanging one of his carpets for 30 pounds… of fish.

Sometimes the stars are in extended skits, Harry H. Corbett as a Stage-Door Keeper amidst a West-End chorus line rehearsal – lots of legs in that one – then Stanley Holloway as Park Gardener engaged in a running battle with Alfie Bass’ model yachtsman. Other times you blink and you miss them, and I was pleased with myself for spotting a young Georgina Hale as the motorcycle pillion rider who loses the bottom half of her leathers in Soho.

Still they keep on coming, Wilfrid Hyde-White as a rather confused Lord Uffingham, confusing pigeon owner Horace with a horse owner at the Hilton, Warren Mitchell as Gypsy Sid, reading tea leaves in a café and John Le Mesurier as the Senior Sandwich Man, Zebadiah, the almost mystical head of this peculiar group of workers.

Terry Thomas, what an absolutely spiffing idea!
There’s too many to mention and you’ll just have to make like Horace when he hits the tope of the stairs between Pall Mall and the Mall and stretches out his arms in appreciation of the Sun’s strengthening rays. I worked two summer seasons at a Butlins in North Wales and one of the comics there used to travel the whole north west coast and beyond. I asked him how he put up with so much travelling and he said just by enjoying the journey, people watching and making the most of each day.

I reckon Michael Bentine, and so many of his co-stars, knew that feeling all too well and there’s a Zen-like quality to this film. All will be well, just keep o keeping on and hope for the best… it’s the best you can hope for.

A quick tip of the hat to composer Mike Vickers whose music plays such a part in the film’s coherence and mood. The Sandwich man was well liked by those who saw it according to Peter Newbrook but it wasn’t the commercial success they hoped. Maybe the style was already slightly behind the times for the younger audience but this excellent transfer from Network brings to life again those locations and those ace faces.


The film comes with a host of special features:

·         Brand-new interviews with composer Mike Vickers, production accountant Maureen Newman, actor Hugh Futcher and draughtsman Alan Cassie

·         Archive interview with Michael Medwin

·         Archive commentary with producer/cinematographer Peter Newbrook

·         Theatrical Trailers

·         Soho Bites podcast with image gallery

·         Limited edition booklet written by Melanie Williams

It’s out now and you can order direct from Network – another hugely enjoyable winner and at a very reasonable price too!