Archive for Boris Karloff

Year of the Rat

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 16, 2022 by dcairns

It wasn’t much commented upon back in 1984 but the advent of breakfast television in the UK — incredible to think we were so late in adopting it, but also incredible that anyone would want to watch television while getting ready for work — and if you were going to watch television, why would you watch GARISH and NOISY television full of IDIOTS?

Hang on, I’ve gone off the rails.

Start again: 1984, the year Orwell wrote about, was marked in the UK by the advent of breakfast television, and two of the stars of that new phenomenon were the Green Goddess, an exercise instructor straight out of Orwell’s book, and Roland Rat, a puppet rodent straight out of Orwell’s book. And it was the Chinese year of the rat. Not that Roland R actually ate anyone’s face off. THAT WE KNOW OF. But as O’Brien might have said, it’s the thought that counts.

I was at school. Thatcher was in power. I kept thinking, Why does nobody else see this?

Thirty-eight my god years later, the BFI has a Blu-ray out of Nigel Kneale and Rudolph Cartier’s teleplay NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR (no numerals for the BBC), which should have been out eight years ago but the Orwell estate is rather funny, which is why we never got a Bowie musical version of the book (but we did get Diamond Dogs so on the whole we won that round).

Trailers for this release made it seem like the greatest feat of restoration in human history, but inspection of the actual article clarifies the achievement: the play went out live but bridging sections had been shot on film to enable scene changes. It’s these bits that look as if they could have been shot yesterday. The live portions are your typical kinescope haze, but looking about as good as they ever could. It feels like we’re watching the action from inside Winston Smith’s little snowglobe.

Film and tube camera, side by side.

The double aesthetic is fascinating — both styles work in their distinct ways. The locations for filming are mostly BBC buildings so, like in The Goon Show‘s parody, 1985, Airstrip One and the British Broadcasting Corporation are conflated. The stark lighting of BBC corridors and post-WWII London makes for bold and striking imagery. Only the addition of Orwellian signposts makes it science fiction. Whereas Mike Radford’s film version, made in 1984, strove for the look of 1948, the year the book was written, this version is perfectly clear that 1984 is RIGHT NOW. Mainly I suppose because they couldn’t afford to make it anything fancier.

The one big special effect is an unfortunate affair. The painting — not a matte, not a backdrop, just a static painting — is technically decent enough to pass under the circumstances, but why does the Ministry of Truth have windows the size of office blocks, and why, when we see Winston Smith looking out one of them, is it suddenly a tiny porthole.

But that’s the only stupid bit.

The interior sets are strictly from poverty, and this works nicely. “Despair enacted on cheap sets,” as Errol Morris is always saying. The Ministry of Truth canteen is a bit of backcloth. The walls of Winston’s flat don’t even meet, so that the most felicitous nook in all English literature is compiled of a series of flimsy-looking flats you could post a letter between.

The show is so cheap it had Kneale himself as the voice of the televisor and production designer Roy Oxley is Big Brother. And a very effective BB he is too: he looks stern and noble, rather than shifty and sinister which is the dumb way of portraying him. Obviously BB would be from Central Casting and would look like an inspiring leader. Or, I suppose, like a cuddly clown. That could work…

In the leads we have Peter Cushing and Yvonne Mitchell — a few years later he would inaugurate Hammer Horror while she introduced kitchen sink drama with WOMAN IN A DRESSING GOWN. Cushing is amazing in this — like Karloff, he exploits a physical advantage, removing a dental plate to portray Smith in his final decrepitude.

“So much face-crime!” Fiona enthused. Cushing just can’t help showing us what he’s thinking.

As O’Brien we have the excellent Andre Morell, who was also a Quatermass for Kneale, also a Watson for Cushing’s Holmes, and his tormentor (again) in CASH ON DEMAND. Morell has a bluff, matey quality that works nicely in counterpoint to O’Brien’s more obviously vicious aspect. He’s cold, but superficially clubby, chummy. Affable. When the Thought Police come for us, they will be wreathed in smiles.

Donald Pleasence is Syme, and I don’t have to tell you how much entertainment HE brings — a warm-up for similar turns in the CIA-backed 1956 version (where he plays Parsons) and THX 1138. Parsons is an extraordinary gremlin called Campbell Gray, who looks, sounds and acts just like A CLOCKWORK ORANGE’s P.R. Deltoid, Aubrey Morris, so much so that I thought it could be him under an assumed name. Which would make this some kind of dystopian trifecta.

Also: Wilfred Brambell (in two small roles) and a pre-beard Sydney Bromley.

Highly recommended. I find the desaturated eighties version drab and dull, whereas this one delivers its moments of horror with a lipsmacking relish more in keeping with Orwell’s grand guignol tendencies. Instead of speeding up at the end, it slows down, delivering a series of grisly blackout sketches whose recurrent punchline is the death of hope.

Almost the best thing on the disc, however, is the original continuity announcer, a plummy gent (unidentified) who welcomes the people of Aberdeen to the BBC, regrets that the Scottish comedy they’d hoped to present has been postponed, worries a bit about what they’ll make of this offering, muses aloud that perhaps the people of Aberdeen have never SEEN a play, and sums up the thematic concerns of the work in a remarkably sophisticated manner. There we have it: the Reithian vision of the Beeb, to inform and educate as well as entertain, coupled with a good dose of condescension. It’s real time travel, quite a fitting epitaph for the British Broadcasting Corporation now that the government has finally decided to destroy it.

Meanwhile, actor Dan Stevens has appeared on the BBC’s The One Show (a wonderfully Orwellian name) and shocked the nation by uttering an actual political THOUGHT not sanctioned by universal consensus. The palpable terror in the room!

Ned Land Ahoy

Posted in FILM, literature, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 5, 2021 by dcairns

So, first Lana Wood finally confirms the rumours of her sister Natalie’s account of being raped by Kirk Douglas. I’d long been inclined to believe this rumour, not religiously or anything, it just seemed likely to be true based on Douglas’ character as he presented it himself. “I didn’t become a nice guy until after my stroke,” he said. His memoir is a saga of sexual conquests, with a meaningless anecdote about Wood as a young girl dropped in for no comprehensible reason, right before he tells us about his affair with Evelyn Keyes, a married woman at the time. So, even though Dennis Hopper was one source for this story (“Not a reliable witness” according to a judge who heard his testimony in an unrelated case), I found it credible. There didn’t seem any reason for inventing it.

It was, however, a coincidence that led us to watch the 1916 version of 20, 000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, in whose remake Douglas would star forty-eight years later. And we didn’t know, going in, that the film’s plot would eerily turn on a whole succession of fate-worse-than-death tropes. Kind of strange.

The film is available — FINALLY! — from Masters of Cinema as centrepiece of their Early Universal Vol. 2 box set. As one might expect from its being a very early feature film, it’s a mixture of the surprisingly skilled and the clunkingly naive. The blame for the bad and the credit for the good belongs to the film’s director and writer, Glaswegian Stuart Paton. His script is pretty terrible — he mashes up Verne’s novel with its sequel, Mysterious Island, resulting in two lots of heroes who never interact, dividing the action between them, slowing narrative development to a crablike sidewise crawl and depriving most of his multitudinous heroes of anything dramatic to do. Ned Land, “prince of harpooners,” the Kirk Douglas character, ricochets a single spear off the Nautilus’ hull and then troubles us no more, except as a face in the crowd. When things get too slow, Paton adds an attempted sexual assault or three to spice things up. While the Kirk Douglas news story may have subconsciously inspired our viewing of the film, only the long arm of coincidence or synchronicity can account for this persistent theme of toxic masculinity.

On the other hand, his filming is often quite sophisticated for the period. The Williamson Brothers provided the production with special reverse periscopes for filming underwater, the full-sized Nautilus upper portions, and the biggish miniature for subsurface action, are impressive. As are some of his angles, such as a startling top-shot of Indians playing their tom-toms (!).

The only cast members to make much of an impression are Allen Holubar as Nemo, and Jane Gail as A Child of Nature, both in brownface, both fairly terrible. Gail goes Cavorting around the woodlands in a permanent state of pixilation: “Being a child of nature seems a lot like just being drunk,” Fiona observed. Nemo, coated in shoe polish with vivid white eyelashes, looks simultaneously exactly like Santa Claus and exactly like a Woodsman from Twin Peaks season 3. Never not disturbing. The idea of either figure being in charge of a submarine is somehow deeply wrong. In fairness to Holubar, one never suspects him of being in his early thirties, or of being about to drop dead, both of which he was. One never suspects him of being an Indian submariner either.

The film is very worth seeing — “dated,” lavish, loopy, sophisticated and primitive. If Paton had any idea of narrative structure it would be a lot more watchable than it is, but it piles on enough spectacle and absurdity and innovation — there are flashbacks and dream sequences and giant sets as well as the aquatic footage — to be consistently surprising.

I may have to see more work from my crazy countryman — Kim Newman in the extra features suggests THE HOPE DIAMOND MYSTERY, another Indian-themed epic with Boris Karloff in one of his early Asian roles.

Brainswapping

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 25, 2021 by dcairns
Bryan Powley relaxes between takes

THE MAN WHO CHANGED HIS MIND turns out to be really good — thanks to Joe Dante for bigging it up at Trailers From Hell. He points out that this little (61 minute) British sci-fi shocker is the role model for all of Boris Karloff’s later Columbia mad scientist flicks, and better than all of them (and I like those films, as I suspect does Joe).

Director is Robert Stevenson, far from his Disney doldrums — his late British films are huge fun, those I’ve seen — NON-STOP NEW YORK and KING SOLOMON’S MINES. Does this mean I have to watch his Jack Hulbert comedies? I suppose it does.

Karloff essays one of his usual turn-on-a-dime plunges into insanity from kindliness, but he’s never THAT kindly — the seeds are sewn in the first act. Anna Lee is smiley again, perhaps a little TOO smiley, and John Loder is a fast-talking newspaperman. But the film’s real treat comes from Donald Calthrop as the disabled assistant/co-conspirator, and the great Frank Cellier, the newspaper tycoon who funds Boris’ experiments in mind transference.

Karloff’s Dr. Laurience has found a way to extract the information — memories and personality — from one brain and transfer them to another. He’s proven this with a placid and an irate chimp, played, I think, by the same ape — the IMDb lists one Bryan Powley as “undetermined role (uncredited)” so I’m going to call the chimp Brian Powley from here on in. Cellier at first backs Karloff, but withdraws support after Karloff, a genius as a brain scientist but a lousy salesman, gives an unsuccessful presentation to the media. So Karloff transplants Calthrop’s mind into Cellier’s body, so his underling can keep the funds flowing in Cellier’s guise.

And, it turns out, Cellier can do a terrific impression of Calthrop’s wheedling delivery. While it’s weird that Karloff doesn’t get to transplant his own mind at this point, our reward is more Cellier and more Karloff. We get less Calthrop but we get enough of him.

It’s also weird that no human character changes bodies with Bryan Powley the chimp of a thousand faces, since he appears in the movie’s most famous still. I’m sure HE could have put on a very convincing and accurate Donald Calthrop act as well.

Boris DOES get to try his invention on himself in the third act, and John Loder, who one never particularly admires, pulls off a striking (and cruel) imitation of Karloff’s stance, which is an assumed old-man gait at this point, but uncannily like the bow-legged hobble Karloff will acquire for real by the 1960s, so I’m assuming he was already suffering it a bit here.

The clever script is by John L. Balderston, a regular writer on Universal’s horror cycle (DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN, THE MUMMY, BRIDE OF) and Sidney Gilliat, a regular writer on just about every entertaining British film of the period, and one L. Du Garde Peach, who certainly has a good name.

There are very few British horror films from the thirties — THE GHOUL and MOTHER RILEY MEETS THE VAMPIRE — they’re all of interest. This one is perhaps trying to have plausible deniability since the BBFC really didn’t like the “H” Certificate films… so it’s funny and fantastical too. Worth your time.

Costumes by Molyneux

THE MAN WHO CHANGED HIS MIND stars ????; Ianto; Bronwyn; Bob Cratchit; Wright; Mr. Todhunter; Dr. Grimesby Rylott; Herbert Ponting F.R.P.S.; Joshua Trimble; and Dr. Gribble.

PS The fact that Bryan Powley’s other IMDb roles include Dr. Gribble, Cmmdr Mannering, Capt. Hardy, single gentleman, Col. Burgoyne of the French Secret Service and Sir Isaac Newton may be thought to argue strongly against his being a chimpanzee. But by careful study of his features I’m convinced he is one, albeit a particularly versatile one.