Archive for Horror Hospital

Bats

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 3, 2008 by dcairns

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My Mad Scheme to see all the films pictured in Dennis Gifford’s Pictorial History of Horror Movies — a scheme also known as See REPTILICUS and die! — continues apace with the last of the book’s frontispieces, which depicts Vincent Price in THE BAT. This movie is easily available on cheapskate DVDs, but I’d always resisted because I’d been reliably told it sucked, and hard. Still, it’s an excuse to revisit the previous films of this particular play, Roland West’s THE BAT and THE BAT WHISPERS.

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Scandal first, movies later. West, who had a busy career directing Lon Chaney thrillers and the like, was married to Thelma Todd, a comedienne who co-starred with Laurel & Hardy (numerous times) and the Marx Brothers (twice). One day she was found gassed in the garage. The rumour-mill has ground out theories about mob hits, spousal homicide, suicide and accident. At one point a servant surfaced with the story that the whole tragic affair had been triggered by a badly botched blow job in the West car (I’m picturing, no doubt erroniously, a Laurel & Hardy Model T Ford) — after the drunken Todd inadvertently bit down, West stormed off and slammed the door, forgetting that the engine was running, and Todd fell asleep. Putting aside the unlikeliness of the scenario (it requires more explaining than drunken suicide, anyway), I have to ask, bearing in mind Kenneth Anger’s description of the death of Murnau, why is it that when anyone dies in the western United States, it’s always due to oral sex? I guess this firm mental marriage of b.j. + mortal peril maybe stems from the fact that, as Chaplin discovered, it was illegal in California back then (I believe it’s compulsory now).

Anyway, asides from maybe killing his wife, West directed a silent and a talking version of a somewhat creaky comedy-thriller called The Bat. His first go-round, titled simply THE BAT, is super-stylish, with amazing camera moves across a miniature city and up a skyscraper, which seem to have inspired Tim Burton’s similar views of Jack Palance’s penthouse in his BATMAN. It’s an erudite piece of homage, since West’s films apparently inspired the creation of the caped crusader by Bob Kane. Another movie, THE MAN WHO LAUGHS, was a major influence on the creation of Batman’s nemesis, the Joker. The twist being that West’s Bat is a criminal, not a crimefighter, and Conrad Veidt’s anguished grinner is a hero, not a villain.

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West’s remake is even better, for THE BAT WHISPERS has not only sound but w i d e s c r e e n  — an early process which didn’t catch on at the time: the talkies were still relatively novel and a further gimmick was surplus to audience requirements. The elongated frame shows off West’s expressionistic sets and lighting admirably, and a slow, silent moment when the bat crouches and unfurls his wings benefits enormously from the extended frame. Unlike the only other ’30s W.S. epic I’ve seen, THE BIG TRAIL, the effect is mesmeric, enchanting — as if 1930s filmmakers had travelled forward thirty years and come back with scope technology. (Raoul Walsh in THE BIG TRAIL seems somewhat paralysed by the additional width — he holds the camera as far back as possible then, when the shot can’t possibly be sustained any longer and a closeup seems essential, he cuts to even further back. I kind of feel that widescreen, when it finally caught on in the ’50s, had a similarly disabling effect on Walsh.)

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And then there’s the wild and crazy performance of Chester Morris. Unmasked as the titular fliedermaus, he hisses and grimaces, lit from below like a Halloween kid with a flashlight, hamming up a storm. Why was Chester Morris never ever interesting apart from this scene? He had entire decades before and behind him of failing to elicit the slightest moment of surprise or curiosity in an audience, but here he’s electrifying: that crackling sound you hear is NOT the old soundtrack, it’s the sparks flying from Chester’s tingling skin! “The Bat always flies at night… and always… in a straight line!” What does that even mean? It doesn’t seem to matter.

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Flash-forward to 1959 — never mind World War Two, you can go back for that later — and we find Vincent Price and (joy!) Agnes Moorehead in a remake helmed by screenwriter Crane Wilbur, who has some pretty good credits as scribe. I’m very fond of his B-thriller THE AMAZING MR. X, directed by Bernard “Mad” Vorhaus, and one sees that he also wrote the story for SOLOMON AND SHEBA (didn’t that already exist?) and was one of a small army deployed on André DeToth’s CRIME WAVE (more writers than actors, nearly). Intriguingly, he also collaborated with Roland West on a Lon Chaney vehicle called THE MONSTER. It’s not terribly good, but its weird mismatch of surgical horror and daft comedy anticipates Antony Balch’s grim-n-sick HORROR HOSPITAL.

Wilbur’s BAT entry starts off with a title ZOOMING at us, accompanied by blaring stripper music, a wildly inappropriate and therefor quite welcome choice. Such dynamism lasts only as far as the first 30 frames of the titles, however, and we soon settle down to the plodding exposition of your standard Saturday-night comedy thriller play. Enlivened, it must be said, but the presence of not one but two GAY COUPLES.

The first G.C. we meet is Agnes Moorehead and her Comic Maid, Lenita Lane. Agnes is Cornelia van Gorder, crime writer, “Please don’t call me ‘Corny’ when referring to my books,” and she’s just moved into a dark, scary, mysterious model shot. The model shot is a welcome point of connection with the previous versions, but sadly no stylistic unity is achieved, since all the other exteriors are life-sized, including the log cabin where we meet this delightful pair:

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They’ve gone out “hunting” “deep in the woods” we’re told. The bank manager is cleaning the guns while the doctor, Vincent Price, does the dishes in a fetching mini-apron. The scene takes a surreal turn when the bank manager confesses, casually, to embezzling a million bucks from his own bank. He needs the doc to certify him dead so he can abscond, or something. The doc obliges, shooting his pal dead on the spot so he can pocket the cash. Now he has to collect the money from a hidden vault in the dark, scary, mysterious model shot. Cue plot.

At this point, any residual interest wanes. The comings and goings are rather flatly written and directed, although veteran Joseph Biroc lights it all elegantly and atmospherically, and whenever master-criminal The Bat shows up, in his featureless black mask, things have an additional creep factor. With his no-face look and snazzy hat, he’s a clear precursor to the masked murderer of Bava’s BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, and his Freddy Krueger finger-blades are a welcome touch, though I miss the unfurling black cape of earlier bats.

The film’s biggest drawback, as well as its most interesting trait — in theory — is its old-fashioned air of pre-Scooby Doo bogus mystery. By 1959 audiences were ready for stronger meat, and were starting to get it…

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The Sexy Sex Secrets of Sexy Sex

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 25, 2008 by dcairns

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Not, it’s not Sexy Week again, but it IS Antony Balch’s lamentable masterpiece SECRETS OF SEX, which I received through the generosity of cartoonist Douglas Noble. I am forever indebted!

Balch, a William Burroughs associate and cinema owner, collaborated with Burroughs on THE CUT-UPS and later made HORROR HOSPITAL, a deranged Brit-horror comedy thing, which has to be seen to be belittled/bemoaned/befouled. “Starring” Robin Askwith and Michael Gough and a dwarf, with a magnificently inebriated guest appearance by Dennis Price (one might call it a “walk-on” except he doesn’t walk and probably couldn’t) as a talent agent who leers at Askwith’s denim-swathed bulge, and featuring a Rolls Royce with DEATH RACE blades for decapitating fugitives from the titular place of healing, it’s not exactly good but it’s far far more imaginative than most British horror films, bearing comparison with the likes of SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN (whose writer, Christopher Wicking, just died, all too prematurely).

But SECRETS OF SEX is something else again. A little closer to Balch’s Burroughsian side, it’s a scrapbook of ideas strung together by the narration of Valentine Dyall as an Egyptian mummy. Because naturally, when you make a sex film, you want it narrated by an animate corpse, don’t you?

It may be time to re-alert Shadowplayers to Operation Prole-Wipe, the initiative put in place by the Heath government to reverse the postwar population explosion by putting the British public off sex. While America and Europe bathed in a fountain of hardcore filth, some of which, by virtue of it’s sheer gynaecological explicitness, could be seen as vaguely instructional, plebeian Britain was subjected to an endless and debilitating stream of softcore “comedies”, designed to make sexual activity of any kind seem off-puttingly ridiculous, undignified and ugly. While the ruling classes continued to yank their planks to yellow-sleeved volumes or erotica with Aubrey Beardsley illustrations, the proletariat were suddenly exposed to the sight of Robin Askwith’s heaving bum working away like an oil derrick amid the soap-spew of a malfunctioning washing machine, Liz Fraser as a character called Miss Slenderpants, and graphic shots of the face of Bill Maynard, a gifted comic whose “distinctive” appearance radiates anti-orgone, the sex-destroying energy, causing him to spend his life within a force field of celibacy, a walking bubble of not-getting-any.

Britain’s acting establishment threw themselves into the proud task of sterilising the nation’s manhood, and renowned thespians such as John LeMesurier, James Robertson Justice, Irene Handl and future prime minister Tony Blair’s father-in-law Tony Booth, rushed to wallow in the steaming tide of buttock-thrusting pantomime. While low-grade pornographers like Derek Ford found themselves elevated to near-mainstream status, with actual budgets and actors to contend with, respected filmmakers like Val Guest enthusiastically mutilated their own reputations with tosh like CONFESSIONS OF A WINDOW CLEANER and AU PAIR GIRLS, films whose existence can only be accounted for by their makers’ fierce dedication to the production of widespread erectile dysfunction.

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Into this realm of conspiracy comes Antony Balch, with a project boldly conceived to rip the lid off this covert sex/class war. SECRETS OF SEX renders the anti-erotic propaganda overt, so that it can no longer be hidden. What other excuse for the repeated ECUs of an eye with a loose contact lens; the man terrifying a Hill’s Angel with his pet lizard; the male homosexuality, which in 1970 would have struck terror into hetero wankers; the glove puppet deformed baby; the closeups of puckered and wrinkled derrieres; the castration/disembowelment by guillotine blade; and that damned mummy?

Just as Goebbels reckoned Leni Riefenstahl’s TRIUMPH OF THE WILL was too overtly propagandistic to be effective, Balch’s overseers in Whitehall blanched at his deliberate flaunting of their anti-erotic mission, and effectively blacklisted him from their 1984-like plan to pacify the masses with porn. But what remains is a truly demented Odyssey through the sick, the strange and the transweirdening. The only thing that really gets fucked is your head.

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Like Jerry Lewis’s SMORGASBORD/CRACKING UP, Balch conceives his film in the loosest terms, then violates those terms wantonly. A highly colour-coordinated spy spoof starring Maria Frost (Lindsay Shonteff’s PERMISSIVE, but she’s — incredibly — not good enough for a starring part there) stops dead while the characters watch a silent porno where everybody is in drag and nearly everybody is a violent rapist. Storylines are introduced (by the nodding mummy) to illustrate some philosophical point, but never do. The battle of the sexes is introduced as a theme, and Balch seems to take this VERY seriously, seemingly longing for the day when it becomes a shooting war, but no theme could truly account for the souls reincarnated as flowers skit, the bit with the lizard, or the grand fireworks display at the end.

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Whaaa?

SECRETS OF SEX may actually be the weirdest film I’ve reviewed here — the weirdest thing about it being that it’s seemingly intended to fulfill some sort of commercial purpose. Antony Balch is hereby inducted posthumously into Shadowplay’s LEGION OF UBER-HEROES.

The Amazing Adventures of Dwarf

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 27, 2008 by dcairns

This is from HORROR HOSPITAL.

I can’t, somehow, quite love this film. It’s maybe too cold and nasty. But I definitely admire it. When you consider how lacklustre and free of imagination most British horror movies always were (I still dig them though), this movie offers a real plethora of tawdry delights. It’s made by Anthony Balch, an associate of Kenneth Anger and William Burroughs, and while it’s mild fayre compared to the mind-bending squalor found within the pages of The Naked Lunch, there’s still much in the way of weirdness and unpleasantries.

I love the anecdote from Hammer scribe Christopher Wicking, quoted on Wikipedia: “I had a crazy meeting with him, when he wanted to do some picture or other. He spent most of the time walking across the furniture. Languorously, he would walk across three or four chairs. He went into another little world. He was a sad figure in a way, because he was well before his time.”

After a bizarro softcore sex film, SECRETS OF SEX, Balch launched his assault on the mainstream with HORROR HOSPITAL, in which Robin Askwith, the enthusiastically pumping buttocks in nine billion soft-porn comedies of depressing aspect (he redeems himself with a spirited turn in BRITANNIA HOSPITAL, which is almost a sequel to this one) plays, well, himself, a jobbing young actor, sent by his deeply queer agent (a dissipated Dennis Price, phoning it in via three camera set-ups stretched out to last five minutes of screen-time) to a country house clinic where mutilated nazi Michael Gough is attempting to create a lobotomised sex army for reasons we needn’t go into. Seriously, I’m refusing to go into his reasons. Don’t push me. I don’t want to talk about it.

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He also rides the countryside in a swank Roller with DEATH RACE 2000 modifications — blades shoot out to decapitate stray ramblers. I bet if Rolls Royce manufactured those they’d sell like hot cakes. The limo plus motorcycle outriders (the guys in this clip) are a nod to Cocteau’s ORPHEE.

The great scene above comes near the end, where tradition and reason dictate that horror thrillers should accelerate their pace and head for some kind of climax. The generous Mr. Balch offers us an alternative to that trusted formula, paralysing his film for minutes on end while a small man tries to open a door.

Brilliant.