Sunday, July 31, 2011


A quick search on the Waterstones website before I sat down to write this article showed very few of Dennis Wheatley’s books still available. Two or three out of the 70 odd titles he published during a five-decade literary career. As such, it’s easy to forget just how popular Dennis Wheatley was; how prolific; and how varied an output.

As well as the occult novels for which he is chiefly remembered, he wrote historical fiction, espionage dramas and a series of novels set in World War II. His debut novel sold so fast it was being reprinted once a week! During the ’60s, it’s estimated that his titles were shifting a million units each year.

In terms of prolificity and variety of subject matter, Dennis Wheatley was kind of like Stephen King, Bernard Cornwell, Len Deighton and James Jones rolled into one. With the sales figures to prove it. And yet only a handful of his works were adapted for cinema: ‘Forbidden Territory’ is largely forgotten, so too the creaky but enjoyable ‘Secret of Stamboul’ with James Mason and Valerie Hobson; which leaves the three Hammer adaptations: ‘The Lost Continent’ (from the novel ‘Unchartered Seas’, ‘The Devil Rides Out’ and ‘To the Devil – a Daughter’.

‘The Lost Continent’ is arguably the most oddball title in Hammer’s vaults, and definitely needs sail the choppy waters of The Agitation of the Mind at some point. ‘To the Devil – a Daughter’ bears little resemblance to Wheatley’s novel beyond the title and caused controversy over a nude scene by Nastassja Kinski (15 at the time of filming).

‘The Devil Rides Out’ also caused controversy when it was released, though not for jailbait reasons. While it was no surprise that Hammer would make a film about the dark arts – particularly with a Wheatley novel as source material – the depiction of the occult in their productions prior to ‘The Devil Rides Out’ had been firmly routed in the Gothic tradition, both in terms of imagery and historical setting. When the occult is allayed with vertiginous castles, black carriages drawn by snorting horses, and poor folk trembling in nearby taverns and warning travellers to stay away, it’s comfortingly easy to file the whole experience under “superstition” and happily munch your popcorn.

‘The Devil Rides Out’, set in 1930s England, brought Satan into the twentieth century. It’s some measure of the film’s controversy at the time that censorship issues were prevalent even before a single frame was shot. Originally slated as a Hammer project in 1963, filming didn’t start till four years later when the studio were more confident that certification would not be withheld.

Adapted by Richard Matheson and directed by Hammer stalwart Terence Fisher, ‘The Devil Rides Out’ begins with the Duc de Richlieu (Christopher Lee) and Rex van Ryn (Leon Greene) concerned for the welfare of their friend Simon Aron (Patrick Mower). Simon has come under the influence of the darkly charismatic Mocata (Charles Gray). Interrupting a gathering of thirteen at Simon’s house – he tries to pass it off as a meeting of an astronomical society, but some decidedly non-planetary charts in the observatory not to mention a pentagram inlaid on the flooring give the lie – de Richlieu immediately recognizes the cabal as Satanic. Using the simple expedient of slugging the lad unconscious and heaving him over van Ryn’s shoulder, they rescue Simon and make a hasty exit.

What follows is basically a battle of wits between de Richlieu and Mocata with the souls of Simon and Tanith (Niké Arrighi), a fellow neophyte as yet uncorrupted but still powerfully swayed by Mocata’s devilry, at stake.

Pulled into “the battle” (de Richlieu’s words) are his friends Richard (Paul Eddington) and Marie Eaton (Sarah Lawson) to whom he entrusts the care of Simon and Tanith. In one of the film’s most quietly chilling scenes, Mocata comes calling and almost manages to exert his influence over Marie. The unexpected appearance of the Eaton’s young daughter Peggy breaks the spell and Marie recovers fast enough to order Mocata out. “I’m leaving,” Mocata assures her; “I will not be back. But something will. Tonight, something will come for Simon and the girl.”

Charles Gray – a natural to play Blofeld a few year’s later in ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ – is the film’s ace in the hole. With Christopher Lee, so often an embodiment of the dark side in Hammer films (and in a couple of George Lucas films, come to think of it!), on good guy duties, it was essential that ‘The Devil Rides Out’ have a villain of real gravitas. Charles Gray delivers, projecting suavity, menace, authority and stone cold evil with just a look from those piercing eyes. And the voice. In the black mass scenes, he speaks as if each word is a slab of granite inscribed with something deliciously unholy. He poses a genuine threat to de Richlieu and his friends, so much so that there are no foregone conclusions here and even the redoubtable Duc seems almost powerless in the final confrontation.

There is very little to criticize in ‘The Devil Rides Out’ – the effects show their age in places and Arrighi’s performance is stilted (she disappeared from sight after a career lasting less than a decade) – and much to admire. I’m hard-pressed to choose between this, ‘The Wicker Man’ and the original ‘Dracula’ as my favourite Christopher Lee performance. It’s certainly Charles Gray’s finest hour. The pace is unflagging. The set-pieces – particularly de Richlieu and van Ryk’s desperate invasion of an outdoor ritual to rescue Simon and Tanith; and, later, de Richlieu and the Eaton’s invocation of the powers of good within a chalk circle as they weather a night of diabolical attacks conjured by Mocata – are among the most iconic moments Hammer created. ‘The Devil Rides Out’ takes its Satanism seriously and it lingers shadow-like in the mind.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

HAMMER HORROR WEEKEND: Quatermass and the Pit

In his own quiet way, Professor Bernard Quatermass has proved as durable and reliable a British hero as Sherlock Holmes or James Bond. Created by Nigel Kneale for the BBC drama series ‘The Quatermass Experiment’ in 1953 and played by Reginald Tate, the show was a precursor of ‘Dr Who’ and proved so popular (‘Quatermass’ was to audiences in the ’50s what ‘The X Files’ was in the ’90s) that ‘Quatermass II’ made debuted on television in 1955, the same year that Hammer remade the original series for the big screen – titled ‘The Quatermass Xperiment’ (the misspelling drawing attention to its “adults only” rating) – and this is where the whole issue of casting gets a bit murky.

Tate died a month before ‘Quatermass II’, transmitted like its predecessor as a series of live weekly episodes augmented with pre-recorded footage, was due to air. John Robinson was cast at the last minute, even though he had doubts about filling the shoes of the much-loved Tate. ‘The Quatermass Xperiment’, meanwhile, featured Brian Donlevy in a less-than-charismatic performance as Quatermass. Kneale was scornful of both the actor and the production. Nevertheless, he contributed towards the screenplay of ‘Quatermass 2’, the big-screen adaptation, in 1957. Donlevy reprised the role, again blandly.

Between December 1958 and January 1959, BBC transmitted ‘Quatermass and the Pit’, one of the watershed moments in British television. This time, the lead role was essayed by Andre Morrell, who remains the definitive Quatermass for many viewers. A film version was inevitable, although it didn’t appear until 1967. Andrew Keir was cast, and gives arguably the best characterization of Quatermass after Morrell.

(If five actors over three shows and three filmic remakes isn’t scattershot enough, consider that Kneale resurrected Quatermass in the late ’70s, this time produced by Euston Films – the production company behind ‘The Sweeney’ and shown on rival channel ITV – called simply ‘Quatermass’ and starring John Mills; while ‘The Quatermass Experiment’ was remade for television, and again transmitted live, in 2005 with Jason Flemyng as the professor. Not to mention the theatrical production of ‘Quatermass and the Pit’ staged in a Nottinghamshire quarry in 1997 and starring David Longford.)

Hammer’s ‘Quatermass and the Pit’ is a reasonably faithful take on the series, truncating the original’s three hour running time to 95 minutes, excising an entire subplot and ramping up the apocalyptic finale. It also dispenses with the series’ coda in which the steadfast Quatermass makes an appeal to humankind about … (ah, but that would be telling!) … ending instead on a more ambivalent note.

The plot has the extension to a London Underground line halted at Hobbs End station (John Carpenter used the name as homage in ‘In the Mouth of Madness’) when fossils are discovered. Dr Roney (James Donald) and his team of palaeontologists, including Barbara Judd (Barbara Shelley) work to recover as much as possible despite mounting pressure to get the civil engineering works underway again. When they happen upon something they believe to be an unexpected incendiary device from the war, the bomb disposal squad are deployed. Concerned that the object is formed from a substance that doesn’t correlate to any known German bomb, munitions expert Colonel Breen (Julian Glover) is called in. Breen has just got the nod from the corridors of power to take the reins at Quatermass’s rocket project, the military muscling in on scientific research and pissing the professor off no end in the process.

Tagging along while Breen conducts a reconnaissance, Quatermass bears witness to unusual phenomena at the site. As the bullish Breen goes about his business in clipped military fashion, Quatermass, Roney and Barbara uncover a history of unexplained sightings and superstitions based around Hobbs Lane (from Hob’s, an old English term for the devil). When the hull of the object – now revealed to be a craft – is breached, evidence of extraterrestrial life is recovered. Quatermass makes the find public, much to the approbation of the Prime Minister’s office. The government are quick to issue a rebuttal, preferring Breen’s theory of Nazi propaganda. The site is opened to public viewing, and by the time Quatermass puts the pieces together and realizes how dangerous the implications are, London is plunged into chaos.

Working from Kneale’s screenplay, director Roy Ward Baker builds towards the apocalyptic finale without a wasted line of dialogue of frame of film. ‘Quatermass and the Pit’ is one of the fastest paced Hammer productions I’ve seen. Even scenes consisting solely of expositional dialogue are delivered with palpable intensity. The script juggles superstition, religious hysteria, poltergeist activity, mind control and mob violence and bundles them together in an explanation which is still being used in tentpole sci-fi actioners to this day. (No spoilers, but imagine if the aliens in ‘Independence Day’ had been really cynical about it …)

Hammer’s first two Quatermass films were miscast cash-ins on the show’s popularity. The decade-delayed ‘Quatermass and the Pit’ – benefiting from a low-key directorial approach which makes the apocalyptic finale much more effective (and it’s worth mentioning how much apocalypse Baker gets for his limited budget), as well as a solid cast – is the real deal. The TV incarnation remains the best Quatermass outing (the character has also appeared in radio productions and novelizations), but this is a damn good take on the material.

Friday, July 29, 2011

HAMMER HORROR WEEKEND: Frankenstein Created Woman

The fourth of Hammer’s seven Frankstein films, ‘Frankenstein Created Woman’ follows on from ‘The Evil of Frankstein’ (the odd-film-out in the series, with its awkward flashbacks which contradict the continuity of the earlier movies) and gets the franchise back on track.

As with the final entry, ‘Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell’, a lurid title gives the lie to a script that engages with metaphysical considerations. Perhaps the film’s greatest success is that it develops Victor Frankenstein (Peter Cushing)’s experiments in revivification beyond straightforward scientific enquiry and questions the existence of the soul.

It’s telling that the film opens – after a grisly prologue depicting the Baron’s assistant Hans (Robert Morris) witnessing his father’s execution as a child – with Frankenstein himself being brought back to life by village physician Dr Hertz (Thorley Walters) after being clinically dead for an hour. Frankenstein takes the fact that he is still in possession of his faculties and memories – his animus – as proof that the soul remains in the body after death.

He begins working on a means of isolating the soul in an electro-magnetic field (look, I said the film had metaphysical considerations, okay; I didn’t say the science wasn’t bunkum), i.e. holding the essence of a personality in storage while its dead or worn out body is surgically repaired.

In the meantime, Hans is bunking off assistant duties to pay court to innkeeper’s daughter Christina (Susan Denberg). Facially disfigured and lame, Christina is self-conscious. Her stern but well-meaning father Kleve (Alan McNaughton) spends most of his earnings sending her to specialists. He’s unhappy at Hans’s attentions towards Christina, even though the lad plainly loves her for who she is, yet he doesn’t intervene when a trio of upper class wastrels – Anton (Peter Blythe), Karl (Barry Warren) and Johann (Derek Fowlds) – make her into a laughing stock. Hans does intervene, however, and bests them. He’s arrested, but slips away and returns to Christina’s room. Anton and his buddies, disgruntled, break into Kleve’s tavern and start drinking his stock of wine like it’s going out of style. Kleve returns unexpectedly and they set on him. Next day, after Christina leaves by an early coach for another appointment, Hans is arrested for the crime.

You can see where this is going, can’t you?

Long story short, Hans refuses to compromise Christina and is therefore unable to provide an alibi. Frankenstein and Hertz testify on his behalf, but the stigma of Hans’s executed father sways the jury. He’s taken to the guillotine just as Christina returns. Distraught, she drowns herself.

Frankenstein deals with his inability to save Hans by having Hertz obtain the body, from which he isolates the soul. At the same time, a group of villagers, having fished Christina’s corpse out of the river, bring it to Dr Hertz on the slim chance that he can do something. Frankenstein is only too happy to relieve them of the cadaver.

I don’t really need to tell you what happens next, do I?

‘Frankenstein Created Woman’ succeeds in ticking all the boxes required of a Frankenstein movie – esoteric experiments, nefariously obtained corpses, reanimation, a horde of angry villagers (no burning torches this time round, but – hey! – you can’t have everything) – as well as bringing some new material to the table. The revenge element imbues the first hour with a slow-burn tension as director Terence Fisher and scripter John Elder put all the pieces in place. The youths’ harassment of Christina makes for an extended and uncomfortable set-piece. Their subsequent attack on Kleve, all top hats and brass-topped walking canes as they set about him, prefigures the imagery of ‘A Clockwork Orange’ by several years. Kleve’s earlier cowerings – the middle class business-owned toadying to the aristocracy – says something about the British class system, particularly when compared to the gruff, working class bartender who takes over the establishment after Kleve’s death; this guy has none of it, and physically throws Anton out over a spilled glass.

Elsewhere, the trapping of the soul by scientific means, notwithstanding some slightly cheesy effects work, demonstrates more chillingly than in any of the earlier films that Frankenstein is essentially playing God. There’s an interesting contrast to the youths’ louche amorality in Cushing’s portrayal of the Baron as, although charismatic, an aloof and patriarchal aristocrat, a man used to giving orders and having them obeyed. On a trip to the tavern he barely acknowledges Kleve except to demand champagne and a menu, he casually expects Hertz to foot his bills, and – having failed to sway the jury as to Hans’s innocence – delights in the research opportunities presented by his imminent demise. There’s almost a swagger about him, except that he’s too wrapped up in his work to play cock of the walk.

Cushing’s performance is absolutely pitch perfect, and the key reason for the success of even the lesser Frankenstein titles. He treats the character completely seriously. There’s never a self-knowing nod or wink to the gallery. Cushing plays Frankenstein as meticulously as, say, Dirk Bogarde played Aschenbach in ‘Death in Venice’. And no matter how ropy or bereft of budget some of the Hammer Frankenstein titles are, a performance of Cushing’s calibre is what gives them their longevity.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Cars 2

When ‘Cars’ opened in 2006, the critics were lukewarm. The main bone of contention seemed to be that it wasn’t as good as ‘The Incredibles’. Which it wasn’t. That said, I preferred it to ‘A Bug’s Life’ and ‘Finding Nemo’, the brilliance of which is punctured, in scene after scene, by the irritant that is Dory (the second most annoying character in the Pixar canon; we’ll come to the first in a minute).

‘Cars’, ultimately, is a decent film with a terrific ending. Aesthetically, its anthropomorphism of human traits, personalities and nationalities into automobiles throws up illogicalities left, right and centre – as Bryce muses in his excellent review on Things That Don’t Suck, “I wouldn’t be the first to wonder if there are not piles of human corpses just offscreen” – but once one rationalizes this in the context of John Lasseter’s love of ’50s Americana, a time as much defined by the fins, gleaming chrome and whitewall tyres of its cars as by its music or its fashions, then one can settle back and enjoy a homely tale of a race car who learns to slow down. ‘Cars’ has plenty to offer: incredibly beautiful visuals, some great supporting characters (the banter between Sarge, a 1940s US Army jeep, and Fillmore, a hippie VW Microbus, is priceless), a finale that tells the kids that, actually, winning isn’t all that important, and an end-credits sequence that transposes the film’s anthropomorphism to Pixar’s previous outings in a montage that’s arguably wittier and more inventive than anything else in ‘Cars’.

I can understand the hesitation to embrace ‘Cars’ as wholly as the ‘Toy Story’ trilogy, ‘The Incredibles’ or ‘Ratatouille’ – but it’s still a film I have a lot of time for.

When ‘Cars 2’ opened last month, it was to the absolute all-time worst reviews in Pixar’s history. Which is kind of understandable given that a whole lot of folks were ambivalent about the first one. The question of why Lasseter was so committed to the project when, say, ‘The Incredibles 2’ or even ‘Ratatouille Part Deux: The Masterchef Years’ would have been a far safer option.

But commit to it Lasseter did and, for all that I enjoyed the manic energy of the film’s last half hour, it was in many ways a bad decision. Don’t get me wrong: I wish I could thumb my nose at the naysayers and declare ‘Cars 2’ a jewel in Pixar’s crown; I wish that all the things I enjoyed about it (Pixar just keep raising the bar visually; there are some inspired in-jokes; it’s a U-rated film that has a “your mother” moment) outweighed the faults. Hell, I’d consider it acceptable if the fun and flaws simply balanced each other out on the scales of critical analysis.

Unfortunately, there are two things about ‘Cars 2’ – and they are inextricably interlinked – that present an almost insurmountable problem:

1. Fucking Mater.

2. It’s a Bond movie. With talking cars.

Or, tying those to together in one unholy bundle the way the script does: it’s a Bond movie with talking cars in which Mater gets his secret agent funk on.

I could end this review right here and I think we’d all be au fait as to what’s wrong with this movie.

For the defence, the fact that it’s a Bond movie doesn’t bother me all that much. Bond movies lend themselves well to satire, particularly the Roger Moore entries which about one micrometer from being cartoons anyway. The mild controversy about the amount of shoot-outs doesn’t bother me either: there were men with guns providing a threat to the protagonists of ‘The Incredibles’ and nobody whinged about that. It does bother me that ‘The Incredibles’ has already ticked the Pixar-spoofs-Bond box and that the material mined by ‘Cars 2’ would have worked a lot better as an ‘Incredibles’ sequel. (Seriously, Mr Lasseter: ‘Incredibles 2’, any time you’re ready. I really want to know what the deal is with the Underminer.)

It also bothers me that the set-pieces ram home the illogicalities of the anthropomorphism more gratingly than anything in the original. Talking cars in a roadside diner I can just about get my head round. Talking cars getting fitted with new tyres by another talking car assisted by a talking forklift truck that uses its blades to operate air-tools …. okayyyyyy. Talking fucking cars on a fucking oil rig being spied on by another talking car which is balanced on a fucking tightrope - that’s pushing it!

The overall aesthetic of ’50s small town America was the key to the first film. It’s what allows everything else to cohere. ‘Cars’ only functions as movie because of Radiator Springs. Location defines many films; with ‘Cars’, it permits the film. ‘Cars 2’ removes the action from Radiator Springs, and in doing so replaces the peaceable and harmonious values of its predecessor with raucous, over the top action. Yes, it’s called ‘Cars 2’; yes, it features Lightning McQueen and Tow Mater and Sarge and Fillmore and the rest of the gang (except for Paul Newman’s Hornet Hudson, whose absence is, credit where due, sensitively acknowledged in an early scene); yes, they’re all demonstrably the same characters. But ‘Cars 2’ exists in an entirely different fictive universe to ‘Cars’ and it’s this as much as anything that makes it such an awkward, unsatisfying viewing experience.

The second problem, as mentioned several hundred words ago, is Mater.

I will not speak of Mater.

I will give the nod to the entertaining and likeable new characters – the suave Finn McMissile (voiced by Michael Caine) and the elegant, albeit inelegantly named Holly Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer). I will mention the nifty portrayal of the villains (the monocled Professor Zundapp is spot on). I will high-five anybody involved in the production for the last act piss-take of the Royal Family and the unmitigated chaos the protagonists wreak through the centre of London.

But I will not speak of Mater. I owe it to my blood pressure not to.

Monday, July 25, 2011

SUMMER OF SATAN: Hard Ride to Hell

In what is basically ‘Ride with the Devil’ for the torture porn generation, a group of twenty-somethings are heading through Texas in an RV and make an ill-advised overnight stop in a remote location. After an evening of drinking, one of their number heads into the woods to take a leak. He stumbles upon a group of Satanists engaged in a ritual that involves naked women and flesh-eating. Next thing he’s running pell-mell back to the RV shouting at his pals to get the hell out of there.

So effectively does director Penelope Buitenhuis evoke the narrative beats of Jack Starrett’s B-movie classic that it comes as a shock that the gang don’t simply pile into the RV and head for the highway with their devil-worshipping nemeses in hot pursuit, setting the scene for an extended chase culminating in a high-speed battle with the forces of darkness.

Instead they react in a more or less realistic manner (ie. with drunken stupefaction), the Satanists ruthlessly exploit the element of surprise and their superior numbers, and things take a different turn. Elements of ‘The Devil’s Rain’ are discernible in the ghost town where the final act plays out, there’s more than a hint of ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, and the Satanists’ taste for human flesh during their rituals (a scene Buitenhuis sets up as an orgy takes a sudden swerve into cannibalism) is redolent of ‘The Hills Have Eyes’.

Although ‘Hard Ride to Hell’ has no real original ideas (how many films of its ilk do?), the chief pleasure is watching Buitenhuis shuffle and reshuffle a bunch of done-to-death tropes and still keep the pace sprightly, the tension simmering (despite some hamfisted stunt work and fight choreography) and the characters worth investing an hour and a half of your time in.

Eschewing the douchebag protagonists of, say, ‘Frozen’ – who are so far up themselves they put your average ouroborus to shame – ‘Hard Ride to Hell’ gives us a handful of twenty-somethings who are, by and large, okay types that it’s possible to route for instead of inspiring the audience fantasy stalk ‘n’ slash league (although Buitenhuis and her scriptwriters fail to avoid the cringe-worthy token-black-character-who-meets-a-bad-end cliché).

[Fantasy stalk ‘n’ slash league, if you’ve never played it, is the equivalent of the ‘Withnail’ drinking game but with more (onscreen) blood-letting and less (offscreen) chance of liver failure. An aggregate win requires correct prediction of the order of the characters’ deaths, who the final girl will be, who (if anyone) will make the heroic act of self-sacrifice, and whether the antagonist carks it in the final reel or survives/disappears in sequel-friendly stylee.]

The characters here are Danny (Brendan Perry), a new-man type riddled with worry over his wife Tessa (Laura Mennell) who has recently miscarried and been informed she’ll never be able to have children again. Joining them on a trip designed to take Tessa’s mind of things are Danny’s younger brother Jason (Sebastian Backi), their friend Dirk (Brandon Jay MacLaren) and his moody girlfriend Kerry (Katharine Isabelle). With the exception of Kerry and her amazing performing sulk, these are a likeable – if somewhat too nicey nicey – group of people, and thus ill-equipped to deal with the diabolical and dacryopyostic devilry of Jefe (Miguel Ferrer) and his lethiferous and Lucifer-loving legions.

It’s Dirk who espies Jefe and co. engaged in a sacrament dedicated to impregnating some poor unfortunate with Jefe’s heir. Jefe, we discover, is a Satanist of such sybaritic commitment to evil that (a) he’s conquered his own mortality, and (b) he was expelled from Aleister Crowley’s cabal (this is kind of like not being allowed to go down the pub with Oliver Reed and Keith Moon anymore because you drink too much). Dirk, it should be mentioned, is the token black character, which doesn’t bode well for his life expectancy. Incipient racism apart, it’s a pisser because MacLaren – a regular on ‘Being Erica’ – has an easy charisma and I’d have been quite happy with vanilla protagonist Danny given the boot and Dirk upgraded to leading man status.

All things not being equal, however, and the politics of low-budget filmmaking being about as discriminatory as any other social stricture in these supposedly free and democratic times, the cool black character is quickly sidelined. So, by default, Miguel Ferrer gets to walk away with the film as the steely-eyed Jefe. Carping aside, it’s a good turn. There are two pitfalls with such a character: cartoon villainy that plays to the gallery (Peter Stormare as the comedy Satan in ‘Constantine’ comes to mind), or bug-eyed overacting. Ferrer goes for a more classical approach, something akin to Jack Palance in ‘Shane’: supremely self-confident and authentically dangerous.

His immortality – and that, it is suggested in the predictability with which they pick themselves up and return to the fray, of his bike-riding henchmen – leads to a slew of unanswered questions: (a) if you’ve remained essentially undead for the better part of a century, during which technology has changed, why not just use the internet to hook with a chick who’s into the whole devil-worship scene and wants to make out with you?; (b) if you’re an immortal Satanic biker, why bother wearing a helmet – doesn’t it just make you look like a pussy?; and (c) why resort to crude and hands-on methods of pursuing and/or subduing your prey when you can call upon all manner of supernatural interventions?

All of which are just evidence of me being picky. Ultimately, low-budget cannibalistic devil-worshipping biker movies are spawned as delivery systems for gore, violence, nudity and hex-heavy imagery. ‘Hard Ride to Hell’ ticks all the boxes and throws in a bit of good old-fashioned cheesy bullshit as well. Hard not to like.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Silent Movie

If it was a medical condition, you’d call it John Carpenter Syndrome. A run of great movies – fucking great movies – almost back-to-back within a very specific timeframe. Then an incremental quality department decrease from the merely decent to the average to the mediocre culminating in the type of product we’d rather not talk about (in medical terms ‘Ghosts of Mars’ by proxy).

Let us consider Mel Brooks. 1968 – 1974, the classics: ‘The Producers’, ‘The Twelve Chairs’, ‘Blazing Saddles’, ‘Young Frankenstein’. Then we get the second tier movies: ‘Silent Movie’, ‘High Anxiety’, ‘History of the World Part 1’. Marking the drop from average to mediocre: ‘Spaceballs’. Finally, the unholy trinity of ‘Life Stinks’, ‘Robin Hood: Men in Tights’ and ‘Dracula: Dead and Loving It’.

The problem with the Mel Brooks filmography is that when he hit it out of the ballpark, he hit it so far that even a really good second tier Brooks film (such as, I would argue, ‘Silent Movie’) is put so deeply in the shade by ‘Blazing Saddles’ (a film I’ve probably seen three dozens times and which still makes me laugh out loud) or ‘Young Frankenstein’ that it’s all too easy to overlook its merits.

‘Silent Movie’, let’s face it, is often funny as hell. True, there are a couple of scenes that don’t work (the Hollywood star’s trailer with a broken spring, everyone sliding this way then that during a negotiation, unfolds laboriously) and Brooks tries to get too much mileage out of speeded-up footage, but the film hits more often than it misses.

In a narrative that would be unbelievably meta if the term had actually been invented back then, ‘Silent Movie’ is a silent movie about a director trying to make a silent movie. The director in question is Mel Funn (Brooks), a recovering alcoholic keen to re-establish his career. With his associates Marty Eggs (Marty Feldman) and Dom Bell (Dom DeLuise), Funn approaches the studio chief (Sid Caesar) at Big Picture Studios.

Unimpressed, but desperate for a project with which to fend off a hostile takeover bid by heartless conglomerate Engulf & Devour, he agrees on the condition that Funn gets the biggest names in Hollywood to star in it. This being 1976, Funn and his associates target Burt Reynolds, James Caan, Liza Minnelli, Anne Bancroft and Paul Newman. Meanwhile, the Engulf & Devour bigwigs set out to bring the production to a halt.

At its best, ‘Silent Movie’ has the sharply satirical edge that makes Brooks’ top flight works so effective, particularly in the portrayal of Engulf & Devour (a not-so-veiled reference to Gulf & Western). The boardroom meeting where executives are slapped at the CEO’s behest and prayers are offered to a huge illuminated dollar sign is one of the highlights – a scene that flips the big fungoo to corporate America.

As a satire of Hollywood, it’s not quite as excoriating as it could have been, although Reynolds, Caan, Bancroft and particularly Newman – sending up his love of motor racing in a wheelchair chase through a hospital (with all the bad taste slapstick comedy you’d imagine) – are good sports in being the butt of so many jokes. (Minnelli, however, just looks stoned.) A running gag that has Reynolds as a mirror-obsessed narcissist works well, as does a scene where Bancroft spoofs her Mrs Robinson persona, vamping it up to the nines and surrounded by gigolos in a nightclub.

It’s when Brooks leaps from the successful recruitment of the big names to the premiere without mining the potential comedic gold of the filmmaking process itself that it feels like not only has an opportunity has been squandered, but Brooks is holding back when you’re itching for the take-no-prisoners non-PC brilliance of ‘Blazing Saddles’ to erupt in all its piss-taking glory.

Still, the belly laughs are plentiful, some of the sight gags are priceless, Bernadette Peters (in what is essentially a reprise of Madeline Kahn’s turn in ‘Blazing Saddles’) rocks the hell out of her handful of scenes, and Marcel Marceau gets the Man of the Match award for his emphatic delivery of the film’s only line of dialogue.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Confession is good for the soul

“Forgive me, blog, for I have sinned.”

“When was your last confession?”

“Er, dunno. I only confess when I think I’m not going to get away with it.”

“Fair enough. What is your confession?”

“Well, I coveted my wife.”

“That’s allowed. It’s your neighbour’s wife you can’t covet.”

“Oh, got you. What about the guy three doors down; can I covet his wife?”

“No. Just your own. Now what’s your confession?”

“I kind of haven’t watched any movies for a couple of days.”

“Get the fuck out of my confessional!”

“But, blog, I was reading. And … and … I was working on a short story.”

“Hmmmmm. But I’m going to get some reviews out of you pretty damn soon, right?”

“Yeah, blog, sure thing, whatever you say.”

“And you’ll do me a nice little Hammer horror mini-season, won’t you? Between the 29th and 31st of this month. To tie in with this.”

“I sure will, blog, wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

“Good. Now get out of my confessional.”

“But what’s my penance?”

“Say five Hail Marys, ten Take Him To The Trees, and post something film-related this evening. Even if it just a blatant plug for the new Shane Briant book.”

“Consider it done.”

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

SUMMER OF SATAN: Asylum of Satan

There’s a scene about half an hour into ‘Asylum of Satan’ that’s been done a million times before – a big fat movie cliché, but something that’s generally effective if staged by a filmmaker with even the vaguest sliver of talent. This is the set-up: the heroine, Lucina (Carla Borelli) wakes up after being hospitalized and finds herself in an asylum. The doctor is not her usual practitioner. The nurses and orderlies are vaguely threatening. She’s denied contact with the outside world. Her fiancé, Chris (Nick Jolley), sets out to find her. In the scene in question, he visits the asylum but is turned away. Lucina appears at an upstairs window as he shuffles morosely back to his car and drives away. Lucina hammers on the window, screaming her head off, desperately trying to attract his attention. But the glazing is evidently soundproof and her cries are mute.

The key phrase in the above paragraph was “if staged by a filmmaker with even the vaguest sliver of talent”. William Girdler, who made his debut with ‘Asylum of Satan’ at just 24 (and went on to make such schlock staples as ‘Three on a Meathook’, ‘Sheba Baby’ and ‘Day of the Animals’ before dying in a helicopter accident, at the age of 30, having wrapped his swansong ‘The Manitou’), demonstrates very little filmmaking capacity. Instead of positioning his lead actress behind an authentically heavy duty double-glazed window and equally authentically yell her head without the vaguest sound escaping – or, failing this, simply erase the sound for this scene – it’s painfully obvious that Borelli is hoarsely whispering while trying to convince that she’s shouting. The result is one of the most hilarious pieces of bad acting outside of an Ed Wood production. Moreover, it’s plain to see that Borelli isn’t actually beating her fists against the window but stopping short of the actual glass (the girl’s no Marcel Marceau!) – and at one point she fails to pull her punch, strikes the glass for real and the windowframe shudders fit to break.

Awful, awful, awful stuff. One viewing of the rushes should have been enough to tell Girdler that the scene simply didn’t work. But rather than omit it or edit around the deficiencies, he restages it – at excruciating length – twice more.

A few days ago, posting on Facebook, I wondered how I could possibly write a 400 word review of ‘Asylum of Satan’ without simply repeating the phrase “abject piece of shit” one hundred times. Astoundingly, according to the word count, I’m already there simply by writing about one scene.

Let’s consider another scene. Chris, a man who drives a nasty yellow Porsche and sports really bad wardrobe …

… goes to see Lucina’s doctor, who says that he was overruled in transferring Lucina to the asylum when her father insisted on the arrangements. Chris says something along the lines of, “But her father’s been dead twelve years,” and hastens off to the nearest precinct to get the cops involved. The lackadaisical detective he talks to doesn’t buy his story, and asks him what evidence he has. Instead of saying, “The transfer was arranged by a guy who’s been dead twelve years – there’s your suspicious circumstances”, he hems and haws and mumbles something about the asylum not feeling right, at which point the detective is about ready to kick him out of his office. I face-palmed the whole scene thinking: dude, you have incontrovertible evidence – what the fuck!?!

“What the fuck” is a question I kept repeating throughout the film, from the Scooby-Doo narrative developments to the bargain basement set-pieces in which Lucina’s fellow “patients” are variously bumped off (the deaths are later revealed as sacrifices, but they all occur in a solitary, non-ceremonial context) to the incredibly badly stage dream sequences to the finale, which features the most unthreatening vision of the Antichrist ever committed to celluloid.

‘Asylum of Satan’ is a shoddy, unscary, half-arsed piece of work from start to finish, so tediously padded in places that its meagre 78 minutes seems twice as long. Script and direction battle it out for title of “most incompetent”. The acting is so bad that I can only assume the jury who award the Razzies watch it every year as their yardstick against which to determine the truly fuck-awful as opposed to the merely crap.

I have now reached over 700 words. I should have stopped at 666. At least the film would have had some Satanic connotation.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Elizabeth McGovern

The very lovely and always excellent Elizabeth McGovern - pictured in the TV drama series 'Downtown Abbey' - celebrates her 50th birthday today.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Irene Jacob

A glass is being raised at chez Agitation to the very lovely Irene Jacob - pictured in her most famous (dual) role in Kieslowski's hauntingly beautiful 'The Double Life of Veronique' - who is 45 today.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

SUMMER OF SATAN: Race with the Devil

Rounding out an unofficial “six Satanic degrees of Sam Peckinpah” trilogy, ‘Race with the Devil’ – starring Peckinpah alumni Warren Oates and R.G. Armstrong – is pretty much the ne plus ultra of backwoods 70s devil-worship movies … even if the devil-worship itself is restricted to one scene and what follows is more in the nature of a chase movie informed by a city-types/rednecks mutual antipathy dynamic.

In other words, it’s more like ‘Vanishing Point’ (only with an RV instead of a muscle car) meets ‘Deliverance’ (sans riverside sodomy) with just a soupcon of Satanism thrown in to get the narrative underway.

Said narrative is simplicity itself: bike shop owner Frank Stewart (Oates) and his best buddy, dirt-track racer Roger Marsh (Peter Fonda), head off on a cross-country trip with their respective womenfolk – Alice (Loretta Swit) and Kelly (Lara Parker) – but make the mistake of spending the first night out in the wilds instead of at an RV park. They witness a Satanic ritual in which a girl is sacrificed. The Satanists twigged on that they’ve been spotted. Roger and Kelly and Frank and Alice (which sounds like a movie in its own right!) hightail it out of their. The local sheriff (Armstrong) undertakes a cursory investigation but tries to convince Frank and Roger they were mistaken. Our heroes get back on the road, but it soon becomes apparent they’re being followed. Not only followed, but targeted.

Jack Starrett – an always dependable director of unpretentious low-budget fare (‘Cleopatra Jones’, ‘The Gravy Train’, ‘A Small Town in Texas’) – judges the material perfectly. He spends no more than fifteen minutes setting up the characters and their cross-country drive, then cuts to the chase. Quite literally. With only two stops – the first, ill-advisedly, to inform the law; the second, before they full realize the extent of the Satanists’ influence, at an RV park – Starrett keeps his protagonists in the RV and on the move for most of the running time.

He also ups the ante on their paranoia. After Frank and Roger have their story pooh-poohed by the sheriff, and Alice and Kelly find a rune that’s been left on the RV as a warning, a two-book heist from the ‘occult’ section of the nearest library gives them implications a-plenty to ponder. What started out as a spot of schoolboy voyeurism – Frank and Roger watching exchanging magnifying glasses as they watch the ceremony from the opposite bank of a river and whoop it up when the female participants cast their robes off – darkens as they realize what they’re dealing with.

What gives the movie its crawling, nasty tension is that they’re never quite sure who they’re dealing with. Kelly in particular gets a bad case of the heebie-jeebies, imagining the minions of Satan at every twist and turn. Hatchet-faced old librarian? Satanist. The overbearing couple next mobile home along at the RV park? Satanist. Bunch of weirdos around the swimming pool checking out Kelly and Alice in their cozzies? Satanists. The ornery fella at the gas station (played by Starrett himself)? Satanist. The drivers of the various cars and pick-up trucks who try to run the RV off the road in the smash-’em-up finale? Definitely Satanists!

The idea that so many people are involved (the revellers at the ceremony probably number a couple of dozen, tops) is almost a flaw. So is the fact that for all of their communing with the Bad Dude, these backwoods Luciferians seem to rely on entirely earthly means of stopping Frank and Rog and the gals.

Or do they? The final scene, often written off as way too coincidental, actually suggests a late in the day manipulation of the protagonists’ actions by occult means. There’s a revelation that legitimizes Kelly’s concerns, then Starrett wraps things up with an image that’s as bluntly and abruptly effective as that of ‘The Devil’s Rain’. And equally contentious.

‘Race with the Devil’ is a terrific little B-movie. Tense when it needs to be, nasty when it wants to be. Worth watching, and one to make up your own mind about. It is pure coincidence that they make a certain stop in the almost sigh-of-relief finale, or has a higher, darker and gleefully sadistic power guided them there?

Sunday, July 10, 2011


Sillitoe’s first novel of real length (its word count arguably exceeds that of his first three books put together), ‘Key to the Door’ is an epic and assiduously observed family saga. And if the expression “family saga” makes you want to run screaming from the room, stick with me for a few paragraphs. This novel is the family saga as it should be written.

The protagonist is Brian Seaton, elder brother of the hell-raising Arthur from ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’. The four sections of the book – titled ‘Prologue’, ‘Nimrod’, ‘The Ropewalk’ and ‘The Jungle’ – deal with his childhood, adolescence, young adulthood and national service in Malaya. Parts one and two are structured in an explicitly linear fashion. Parts three and four juxtapose Brian’s early working life at a factory and his courtship of Pauline, who he marries after she gets pregnant, with his experiences overseas and his dalliance with an exotic Chinese dancer (and sometime hooker).

Brian’s character and outlook are formed by his iron-willed grandfather, Merton, and his erratic father, Harold. Harold Seaton reminds me of the line in Larkin’s ‘This be the Verse’ about ancestors who “half the time were soppy-stern / and half at one another’s throats”. Both Merton and Harold Seaton have argumentative relationships with their wives, and can often be petulant bullies towards their kids. Thus a certain aspect of Brian: a break-up with Pauline is documented in painfully accurate terms; his enforced marriage (“you’d better tell him and sort something out” as Pauline’s mother pragmatically puts it) is entered into with reluctance.

There are scenes in which Brian is painted as big a bastard as Arthur. Elsewhere, though, Sillitoe realistically depicts his burgeoning intellectualism (though Brian himself, certainly until the very last stages of the novel, would no doubt scoff at the word), his love of the written word and his struggle to express himself beyond the immediate confines of his first two decades’ experience. Nowhere does Sillitoe communicate this better than in a scene where Brian, in the depths of Malaya, sends morse code out into the night:

In his work, his bitterness was forgotten and after the plane landed he amused himself by sending poetry from the Pelican book by his set, each letter going out at fast speed, hot sparks burning the brain of anyone who could read its symbols. Word by word, line by rhythmical line, the whole of ‘Kubla Khan’ found its way from his key, and he felt exhilarated in knowing that such a poem was filling the jungles and oceans of the far east, coming, if anyone heard it, from an unknown and answerable hand … ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ also went singing hundreds of miles out into the darkness, perhaps reaching the soul of the man who wrote it and maybe also touching the source of the golden fire that sent down these words to him in the first place. Dots and dashes went out at a steady workmanlike speed, all poetic rhythms contained, even in the sending of one word. The mast top of the transmitter high above the trees outside propagated the chirping noises of his morse, as if releasing cages of birds into freedom.

Fucking great writing!

In a review for The Daily Herald, Dennis Potter said of ‘Key to the Door’ “this novel is a great achievement. There has been nothing better published this year - nor is there likely to be.” He was absolutely spot on.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

SUMMER OF SATAN: The Devil’s Rain

Following on from ‘The Brotherhood of Satan’, here’s another slice of low-budget 70s small town gothic starring a couple of Peckinpah alumni, this time Ernest Borgnine and Ida Lupino. I’m thinking I might make ‘Race with the Devil’ – featuring Peckinpah alumnus Warren Oates – my next Summer of Satan pick and consider it a trilogy of sorts. The “What I Did in Backwoods America with a Bunch of Satanists When I Wasn’t Making Movies with Sam” Trilogy.

‘The Devil’s Rain’ opens with the elderly Mrs Preston (Lupino) awaiting the return, in a howling storm, of her son Mark (William Shatner). There is a lot of portentous dialogue about the missing patriarch of the household, a book and the diabolical John Corbus (Borgnine), a Satanist who has set up shop in a deserted mining town nearby and who wants the book back. (There is so much blether about the book during the first half of the film, with the reason for its importance not revealed until a good 50 minutes in, that I was wondering why Corbus didn’t just go to a freakin’ library. Or, y’know, join a mail order book club.)

Then things turn nasty at the Preston household, some supernatural business occurs, and Mrs P is kidnapped. This pisses Mark right off and he heads for the mining town intent on confronting Corbus, kicking ass, and getting his dear ol’ ma back.

He finds himself up against more than he bargained for, and an abrupt segue thirty minutes into the proceedings hands over protagonist duties to his brother Tom (Tom Skerritt). Tom is introduced in a scientifically unsound vignette where he and his colleague Dr Sam Richards (Eddie Albert) are conducting an ESP experiment on Tom’s wife Julie (Joan Prather). Julie has a horrifying premonition – one that seems to involve her, in a way that never quite makes sense until the very end of the movie – at the same time that Tom receives news that his ma and his brother are missing.

With local lawman Sheriff Owens (Keenan Wynn) too busy with a recent flood to offer much assistance, Tom picks up the trail and heads off to the mining town. Pretty soon, he discovers that Corbus has as much interest in him as the rest of his family. It’s when he finds out why – and what the importance of the book is – that he is forced into a confrontation with the Satanists.

On the whole, ‘The Devil’s Rain’ is a much better production than ‘The Brotherhood of Satan’. Cinematographer Alex Phillips Jr – who also lensed Peckinpah’s whacked-out black valentine to Mexico, ‘Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia’ – exploits the deserted mining town to magnificently moody effect. Imagine if the red-masked bad dudes in Sergio Corbucci’s ‘Django’ had been card-carrying Lucifer lovers instead of casually racist gunslingers and you’re halfway there.

Robert Fuest’s direction is focused: the film is tight, pacy and decently structured. The face-melting effects have aged somewhat (although you can see where Spielberg got the final sequence of ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ from), but the only bit of FX that’s truly embarrassing is the firecracker transition of Ernest-Borgnine-as-Satanist-in-a-jump-suit to Ernest-Borgnine-in-a-goat-mask.

Where ‘The Devil’s Rain’ really achieves its quota of what-the-fuckery, however, is not in the effects, or the revelation of what the Devil’s Rain actually is, or the incomprehensibility of how the Satanists managed to install a full-scale fucking pipe-organ in the mouth of a cave, but in its casting. The full import is probably diluted by the fact that I’ve scattered the principles’ names parenthetically across three or four paragraphs, so let me line them up next to each other. ‘The Devil’s Rain’, ladies and gentleman, gives you the opportunity to experience Ernest Borgnine, Ida Lupino, Eddie Albert, Keenan Wynn, Tom Skerritt and The Shat in the same movie. Oh yeah, and if you scrutinize the ranks of the Satanists carefully, you’ll see a young John Travolta floating around in the background.

Effective little chiller it may be, but there are plenty of instances where ‘The Devil’s Rain’ verges on camp. The sight, just minutes in, of Lupino wringing her hands and projecting wide-eyed sincerity and trying to pretend that she’s not in a B-movie horror outing while The Shat gives it the thousand yard stare to a point just off camera (I began to suspect that he was locked in a stare-it-out contest with the dude holding the boom) while DELIVERING all-his-dialogue IN A MANNER that-randomly-alternates … between … STENTORIAN ENUNCIATION and rat-a-tat-speed … with … more … pregnant pauses … than … a … Harold Pinter play. But. At. The. Wrong. Moments. I can only assume that when the man read a script, his brain automatically Tippexed out all the punctuation and he paused and stopped and raised his voiced and then spokerealfast at what he thought were the right moments. (They weren’t.)

Mark’s verbal stand-off with Corbus is hilarious, The Shat pulling out a frown/pointy figure combo as it a stiff talking to is all it takes for a 300-year-old devil worshipper to repent his ways and ask forgiveness. It says something that, in this scene, that Borgnine (an inveterate scenery chewer except when he had the guidance of a director of Peckinpah’s stature) comes off as understated!

Robert Fuest spent much of his career in TV (in particular directing some cracking episodes of ‘The Avengers’), but the handful of feature films he helmed make it lamentable that his talent wasn’t deployed on the big screen more often. ‘The Abominable Dr Phibes’ and its sequel are genre favourites, ‘And Soon the Darkness’ is a slow-burn exercise in Hitchcockian suspense, and his adaptation of ‘Wuthering Heights’ with Anna Calder-Marshall and Timothy Dalton captures the viciousness of Cathy and Heathcliffe’s turbulent romance better than any other version.

In ‘The Devil’s Rain’, Fuest conflates the horror film and the western, without sacrificing or bastardizing the imagery of either. He pitches the old guard against young turks. He creates atmosphere (the storm that batters the Prestons’ homestead in the opening scene; the dusty avenues of the abandoned town; the out-of-place church and its unholy interior) on a nothing budget. Sure, some of it’s wonky (the very last shot, while brutally effective as a closer, actually doesn’t make sense once you think about it for longer than, say, 30 seconds) and it was never going to be anything more than a B-movie, but it’s a pisser to note that ‘The Devil’s Rain’ was his last big screen outing.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Warren Oates

It would have been Warren Oates's 83rd birthday today.

If there is an afterlife, I'd like to think he's doing tequila shots with the ghost of Sam Peckinpah at the Alfredo Garcia Bar & Grill right now.

There's sure as hell a few glasses being raised at chez Agitation tonight!

Monday, July 04, 2011


Reposted from 8 February 2008 as a tribute to Anna Massey, who died yesterday.

'Frenzy', Hitchcock's penultimate film, is often dismissed as one of his lesser works, a violent and misanthropic little number, a disappointment that was mercifully superceded by the playful plotting and 'Trouble With Harry'-style humour of his swansong,'Family Plot'.

It's also cited for its controversial aspects. 'Frenzy' contains what no Hitchcock film that came before it had (but which some of his best had strived for, albeit working around the edges due the social, and censorial, mores of the time): graphic violence (sexual assault, strangulation), nudity (body doubles ahoy!) and profanity - the script, by Anthony ('The Wicker Man') Shaffer, uses the word "bastard" with the same liberality as'Goodfellas' uses "fuck". Indeed, one of the numerous anti-social pleasures of 'Frenzy' is the vehemence with which Jon Finch, playing down-on-his-luck former squadron leader Richard Blaney, spits it out.

Blaney is the ... no, not hero. He's quarrelsome, obstreperous, self-pitying and loud-mouthed. Okay; start over: Blaney is the ... no, not protagonist either. The suffix "pro-", as in "pro-active" doesn't suit him. For most of the film he's completely in the dark, unaware that his sometime friend Robert Rusk (Barry Foster) is behind the killings that he finds himself in the frame for.

If you've never seen 'Frenzy' and you're cursing me for not putting "spoiler alert" in capital letters before that last paragraph, pray desist with the Blaney-like "you bastard" and be assured that I'm not giving anything away. Hitchcock reveals Rusk's guilt early on. It's not a whodunnit, after all. It's about how Blaney, through his own bullishness, paints himself as fitting the murderer's profile, how Rusk capitalises on it, and how Blaney, with the full force of the law against him, tries to clear his name.

Which brings me back to something I was debating earlier. We've pegged Rusk as the villain of the piece. But Blaney - let's just call him the main character - isn't much of a hero. So who's our main man? Who do we root for? There's Inspector Oxford (Alec McCowan), the journeyman copper socially embarrassed by his wife's pretentions to nouvelle cuisine (Oxford's dinner table expositional dialogue, delivered while he queasily faces up to a succession of repulsive-looking meals, are a comedic highpoint). But he's only in the film for the second half and, apart from twigging late in the game that Blaney might be innocent, he doesn't exactly do much.

There are two sympathetic female roles - Blaney's ex-wife Blenda (Barbara Leigh-Hunt) and his current girlfriend Babs (Anna Massey), but with the murderer targetting women ... well, you can pretty much guess the rest.

The most frequently levelled criticism is the film's treatment of women. There's no way around it, so here goes: the necktie murderer (so named for the apparel he leaves around their neck, post-strangulation) rapes his victims first. While nowhere near as explicit as that in, say, 'Straw Dogs' (made a year before in 1971), the rape scene in 'Frenzy' is easily the most disturbing thing Hitchcock ever filmed, Rusk murmuring "lovely ... lovely" as he forces himself on his victim.

Rusk's luring of his next victim into his apartment is handled a lot more subtly, and with a moment of technical bravura: as Rusk closes the door behind them, the camera floats back down the stairs in complete silence, out through the lobby and, with the first tinges of traffic noise impeding once more on the soundtrack, into the street and away from the building. The effect, particularly the use of silence, is powerful. A pity Hitchcock couldn't have thought his way around the earlier scene with such finesse and technical aplomb.

The Argento-like camerawork in this scene makes it one of two genuinely memorable sequences in the film. The second, involving Rusk's dumping of a body in the back of a truck - and his desparate attempts to recover a piece of evidence he realises he's left on the corpse - spins out into a blackly comic extended set-piece. Claustrophobic, grotesque and a damn sight funnier than it ought to be, Rusk's tussle with a body stiff with rigor mortis in the back of potato lorry is pure Hitch. And if it doesn't quite the achieve the level you'll-never-look-at-a-King-Edward-in-the-same-way-again greatness that 'Psycho' does with shower curtains, it’s still an effective signifier of Hitchcock’s streak of the perverse.

i.m. Anna Massey (11 August 1937 – 3 July 2011)

Sunday, July 03, 2011


The Alan Sillitoe website has undergone a major overhaul today: plenty of new content, including the winning stories from the recent short fiction competition.

There's now also a PayPal "donate" button for anyone who would like to make a contribution to the statue fund.

Stealing an idea from Tim at Antagony and Ecstasy, who raised over $1,100 towards cancer research by taking requests for reviews in return for a minimum $15 donation, I'm throwing it open to anyone who reads these pages: hit up the "donate" button at (you'll find it at the top of the "Statue Fund" page) - I'll leave it up to you how much you want to contribute - then email me at and let me know what film you'd like me to review.

Thanks for your support.

(PS. Tim - sorry for being an unoriginal bugger. And respect for what you achieved through the Carry On Campaign.)

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Lindsay Lohan

Celebrating The Agitation of the Mind's banner girl du jour's 25th birthday with some top notch cheesecake shots. A glass is being raised here at chez Agitation, but I'm throwing in the towel if it comes down to a drinking contest...

SUMMER OF SATAN: The Brotherhood of Satan

Until I settled down to watch it last night, I didn’t know much about ‘The Brotherhood of Satan’ other than it was co-written and produced by Peckinpah alumnus L.Q. Jones, co-starred fellow Peckinpah alumnus Strother Martin, and had what a friend of mine described as “a bit of a crazy ending”. Turns out my friend is a master of understatement.

The film opens with a toy tank clacking away on a hillside while the real thing crushes a station wagon. Then a young boy scoops up the tank (its life-size counterpart seems to have disappeared) and goes running off. We cut to a noisy children’s party hosted by Ben (Charles Bateman) and Nicki (Ahna Capri) in honour of Ben’s daughter from a previous marriage, the eight-year old K.T. (Geri Reischl). They then set off to drive across country to visit K.T.’s grandmother, stopping off en route so that Ben and Nicki can make out at the riverside while K.T. wanders about on her on. It’s not the last lousy parenting decision they’ll make.

Parenthetically, extraneous details such as Ben and Nicki not being married and K.T.’s mother having died a few years ago are made much of early on in the film, as if some vital importance will hinge upon them, but are never mentioned again.

Getting lost en route to Grandma’s house (which I can only assume is a metaphorical fairy-tale reference, because for fuck’s sake Ben’s a grown man and you’d think he’d remember where his mother lives), our luckless protagonists come across a small town. They pass the mangled wreckage of the station wagon from the credit sequence and Ben decides to report it at the Sheriff’s office. The Sheriff (Jones) immediately hauls a gun and has him over the hood of his car (although I might want to rephrase that sentence); an angry mob of townsfolk gather and an obviously bereaved parent comes charging through the crowd hefting an axe and screaming, “You took her from me!” Ben makes his only wise decision in the entire film, wrests free of the Sheriff, jumps in the car and floors it.

An accident just outside of town, however, leaves them stranded. The accident is hilarious. The car goes off the road, drops down into a culvert and slams into a tree. Instead of front end being stoved inwards, trapping the hood release mechanism, and the hood buckling and rising at its opposite end (ie. closer to the windscreen), the front end remains intact, the hood flies open from the front and a large spring boings out to symbolize the damage done to the engine block. Okay, I’m no mechanic, but where the fuck is there a spring in an engine block?

Now, having deconstructed the accident, let’s do the same for the logicality of Ben’s decision. You are off-roaded near a small town populated by an edgy Sheriff and an angry mob. You have your partner and a young child with you. Do you: (a) stay where you are, wait for the first passing vehicle and hitch a lift; (b) start walking away from the town and flag down the first passing vehicle; or (c) walk back into town, confident in the delusion that someone will help you?

Hands up if you said (a). Hands up if you said (b). Hands up if you said anything in the name of all that’s holy except (c). Good; that’s all of us, then.

Except Ben. He goes for (c), ignoring Nicki’s protestations and dragging K.T. along. The first house they come to, the adult occupants are dead – having been slaughtered in gruesome and supernatural stylee in an earlier scene – and the children taken. Ben and co. soon find themselves holed up with their pistol hauling buddy from earlier, Sheriff L.Q., along with Deputy Tobey (Alvy Moore), retired medic Doc Duncan (Martin), and the local priest (Charles Robinson). Ben and Nicki soon discover that several families have been murdered: all had children; said children are now missing.

‘The Brotherhood of Satan’ doesn’t generate much tension re: the children’s disappearance. At roughly the halfway mark, it’s revealed that they’ve been bewitched by a coven of scary old people …

… who intend to use them as receptacles for their souls so they can “live another lifetime in the Brotherhood of Satan”. The Sheriff, quick as his is at pulling his pistol, isn’t much of a deductive talent and our beleaguered heroes spend much of the movie sitting around talking over each other (huge and unnecessary amounts of exposition are noisily delivered in this manner) while the priest finally figures it out by looking at the pictures in a book on witchcraft.

Parenthetically, why do movie characters always find the answer in arcane books that have no prose content but page after page of pictures? At what point in their lives prior the current scenario do they say to themselves, “Hmmmm, this weird old book containing nothing but woodcuts of demons doing unspeakable things looks like it might be a fun bedtime read. I think I’ll buy it”?

‘The Brotherhood of Satan’ is an odd little movie. Given that L.Q. Jones later wrote, produced and directed the magnificently unnerving post-apocalypse fable ‘A Boy and His Dog’, it shouldn’t be a surprise that he’d lend his talents to the horror genre. Beyond co-writing and producing ‘The Brotherhood of Satan’, he apparently went on to adapt it as a novel. His obvious passion for the material is strangely at odds with his nothing role as the Sheriff.

If we credit the film’s conception to Jones, there are enough plus points – the use of the children’s toys against their parents (either suggested or anthropomorphosized; never as crassly done as in, say, ‘Child’s Play’); the ‘Village of the Damned’-like depiction of the children themselves; the dual role that one of the characters plays – to counterbalance the frequent contrivances. Examining the film’s execution (dir. Bernard McEveety), the flaws start floating to the surface.

Much of the staging is static, from the coven’s ritual (although the final scene, played out in front of a huge ankh cross, symbolic of immortality, is terrific) to the protagonists standing around in the Sheriff’s office for long periods. Compositions are often awkward and needlessly cluttered, although a feverish dream sequence hits the required note of what-the-fuckery. The performances are all over the place, with Bateman and Capri so wooden that all they’re lacking is a coat of varnish. More could have been done to create atmosphere, rather than just crank up the smoke machine every time there’s a nocturnal scene. The aforementioned accident scene is incredibly badly effected.

‘The Brotherhood of Satan’, while a perfectly cynical movie to kick off Summer of Satan with, never quite moves and grooves as nastily as it could have. Jones and Martin were definitely more dangerous when they hung out with Bloody Sam.

Friday, July 01, 2011

Coming attractions / devilish delights

Last year, in a moment of midsummer madness, I threw open a poll on the sidebar and asked the good and great (ie. my readers) what they’d like to see in terms of a big 2011 retrospective on The Agitation of the Mind. There were five alliterative options:

Summer of Song: anything with a musical connotation, from classic Hollywood musicals to biopics of composers or musicians and documentaries about same.

Summer of Sin: anything seedy, sexy, sultry or seductive; anything torrid, tempting, tantilizing or titillating; anything nasty, naughty, nubile or nefarious; anything lustful, lewd, licentious or lascivious; anything rude, rampant, rapacious or recalcitrant. (Mucky movies, in other words.)

Summer of Sarcasm: satire of the most scathing ilk; anything that royally and unrepentantly rips the piss.

Summer of Sci-Fi: the clue’s in the title.

Summer of Satan: anything dark, devilish and diabolical. Anything with Satan in the title or ol’ Scratch as a character, icon or narrative influence.

When the votes were tallied at the end of the year, Summer of Satan was the outright winner, with Summer of Sci-Fi. Poor old Summer of Song was the Billy-no-mates of the bunch, probably because the thought of unleashing yours truly on the ‘High School Musical’ franchise was more than anybody’s sanity could cope with.

So, with Shots on the Blog back inside and doing time till next year, and no obstructions till 13 for Halloween in October and the second (possibly annual) Winter of Discontent in November and December, ladies and gentleman, please be upstanding for the Prince of Darkness, the Adversary, the Antichrist (Lucifer to his pals): let’s have a great big round of Agitation applause for the Devil.

Over the next three months – although, if I can take a moment to reassure any readers of a nervous disposition, Summer of Satan won’t be the entire focus of this period – I’ll be looking at anything, as previously stated, with “Devil” or “Satan” in the title, or where the Bad Dude provides the principle thematic or narrative focus. However, there are any number of movies out there where Beelzebub is mentioned in name only, therefore the likes of ‘The Satan Bug’, ‘The Devil’s Own’, ‘The Devil’s Arithmetic’ and ‘Shout at the Devil’ are excluded from the par-tay.

In terms of quality control … there is none. Expect acknowledged classics, Hammer favourites, foreign obscurities and low budget sleaze. Expect a lot of sleaze. I’ve had more than enough time to recover from last year’s Winter of Discontent and watch some proper movies. I feel the need for some crass exploitation.

And that’s exactly what we’ll be kicking off with tomorrow.

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On the subject of Hammer, Robert Kenchington’s updated hardback edition of ‘Shane Briant: the Biography’ is now available. Go here to purchase, or check out the preview below: