Archive for Larry Blamire

Contenders

Posted in FILM with tags , on April 10, 2014 by dcairns

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A batch of screeners on a distressed floor.

Just finishing, belatedly, my spring job — as submissions editors for Edinburgh International Film Festival. There’s a bunch of us, and what we do is, we look at the films submitted and classify them from A to D, A being something that should definitely be considered higher up, D being something that’s been considered enough, and B and C being in between, worthy of being seen by another submissions editor for a second opinion. No system is perfect, but this one seems fairly fair. I hope we catch all the masterpieces and reject all the disasterpieces.

Of course, most of the films shown are ones that the EIFF has chased down, rather than ones that have come chasing after us. So even after I recommend not accepting 90% of the films I see, a good 50% AT LEAST of the films I do recommend don’t get accepted either.

We submissions editors like to moan, but the truth is, the job has major perks. Working for the Film Fest gets you a pass to the Film Fest, and working before the Fest is on means you have free time to USE that pass. You might also say that the job itself consists of watching lots of films, which is a perk, but you would mostly be wrong. I would have failed as a regular film reviewer, gone catatonic down the back of a chair with the chewing gum and popcorn crumbs, since being compelled to watch any one film cuts off most of my pleasure receptors. Fortunately I always have a stack of screeners when I’m submissions editing, so the illusion of choice is there — an 85 minute Turkish film or a 123 minute Canadian film? That’s typically all the info I have to make a choice on, and so there’s a pleasurable element of pot luck that holds good until the first image actually appears on the Toshiba.

A fellow SubEd told me, “It’s the middling ones that get you down,” and she was bang on. A really putrid film evokes a kind of awe, and you can kick back, giving it a fair shake while also basking in its dreadfulness. A great film, or a really nice one let’s say, shines out and is an obvious pleasure I needn’t attempt to explain. The tiresome stuff is the films which seem like they have a shot at being OK, so you give them your best attention all the way through, and are rewarded with a squib fizzle thin beer long sigh. And such films constitute the majority of films submitted to film festivals.

(The majority of films programmed at film festivals are not submitted at all, but headhunted by programmers who find them at other film festivals [where maybe they were submitted] or via sales agents, distributors, whatever. I have no role in that side of the Fest.)

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Our judging panel.

Maybe it’s worth me putting down some thoughts about what might help a submitted film stand the best chance of acceptance, or at least further consideration.

1) Sound design. Almost nothing I see has imaginative, rich, interesting sound. The ones that do generally have other virtues, which is the reason I give them As and Bs. Having good sound design — sound that enriches the film and goes beyond what we’re seeing –isn’t enough by itself, but it would totally make your film stand out from the crowd.

2) Duration. A film should be the length it wants to be to be effective, so there are no rules. I see a lot of films that are 75, 85 minutes long, and I sort of like them because I can watch more in a day. Maybe have time left for a J. Lee Thompson flick at the end. But when I get a really slow 75 minute film I may suspect that it’s a padded short, that the filmmaker was fearful of cutting more lest the film not qualify, however tentatively, as a feature at all. As the co-creator of a 66-minute “feature” I sympathise. But I gave an A to a 45 minute film recently — it might not get programmed, being a really awkward run-time, but it’ll get considered, and it certainly wouldn’t have been if the filmmaker had padded it to 90.

3) Pace. I see a lot of slow films, many of them good. I see very few fast films, most of them bad. But I still think that some strategy that allows you to hit the ground running would make you stand out from 90% of your competitors. We love slow films when they’re good, but it is still notable that “slow” can be used as an insult for movies, whereas “fast”, by itself, never is.

4) Tone. I nearly always stay tuned to something that’s intended to be funny, because it’s quite a rare thing. Most submissions I would characterise as sombre. My tolerance for terrible comedy may be higher than some, mind you — it fascinates me. The one tone/genre I would counsel against is parody. It’s unlikely you have the budget to successfully parody a Hollywood genre, unless it’s a 50s B-movie, and why would you be parodying a 50s B-movie in the twenty-first century? The only guy who can do 50s Bs and make it seem reasonable is Larry Blamire. You are not him, unless he’s reading this in which case he is. But not the rest of you.

5) Gloss. This year there was a lot of stunning photography. Not always attached to stunning films, but it never hurts. What hurts is those middling films that have smooth tracking shots and a lot of elegantly-composed medium shots and long shots and no life at all and no focus, no awareness of where the drama is or who the main character is. Those films I guess are doomed anyway because they’re dramas without drama, but the last thing they need is a smooth finish. “Quality” is nearly always a byword for boredom, and these legless wonders could only be rescued, if at all, by stylistic excess and joie de vivre. Try to *have fun*.

6) Lack of tension. See above — it’s probably the one fatal thing. It’s a cliché to say that a good script is one thing a cheap film can afford (and most submissions are low-to-very-low budget) but it is of course true, except that such films usually start by exploiting the writer… Anyway, viewing a bunch of screeners gives you new respect for the screenplay gurus, even if the majority of them are full of themselves, have achieved nothing, and use examples like THE KARATE KID to demonstrate the value of great screenwriting. Here are the “rules” from that camp that might actually be useful —

a) Quickly establish a protagonist with a goal and show her/him struggling to get it. (Exception: DOCTOR ZHIVAGO, a huge commercial hit with an almost totally passive lead character.) As Jeffrey Katzenberg would say, “Where’s the ‘I WANT’ song?”

b) All interpersonal  scenes must hinge upon an immediate source of tension such as a conflict around a goal or some problem that must be urgently addressed. (Exception: 2001, a huge commercial hit.) Because films are not plays, we find many exceptions where the purpose of the sequence is just to wallow in an environment or feel time passing or whatever — but some ticking clock probably still needs to be running in the audience’s mind to keep them seated.)

c) Who the film is about, what their struggle is, and what kind of film it is, and what kind of tone it has, should all be established as quickly as possible and certainly within the first half hour. (Exception: PSYCHO, a huge commercial hit.) If you have a brilliant idea for how to fool with us, fine, but it had better BE brilliant.

Lots of filmmakers are secretly more interested in other stuff that has nothing to do with the above. The successful ones tend to smuggle it in while making sure that the crude, almost barbaric demands of the audience for plot (set-up, development, complication, resolution) are satisfied. The frustrating thing is that plot, that crude, barbaric thing, is very tricky to pull off. The high-brow screenwriter can take satisfaction in the undoubted truth that a film which gets plot right and nothing else will have tricked the audience in to sitting through the whole thing, but leave them, along with the disgruntled submissions editor, feeling totally cheated.

7) Theme. In fact, most of the films submitted are about something. Some idea or emotion or truth motivated the filmmaker, and you can at least get a sense of what it is. The film has, somewhere, some reason to exist. But if this isn’t expressed through the film’s form — its story, if it is a story, and its technique in presenting itself on the screen, then this is nothing more than a platitude. A good film makes us feel what it is about poetically, by the beauty of its form. (Exception: none, I think.) You can’t really separate form and content, and THE WIZARD OF OZ isn’t *about* “There’s no place like home.” It’s about everything you saw and heard while experiencing it.

That’s all for now. Break legs!

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Bad to the Bone

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 10, 2009 by dcairns

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THE SKULL, directed by ace cinematographer (and not-quite-so-ace director) Freddie Francis, will live in infamy as the film in which Peter Cushing plays Christopher Maitland and Christopher Lee plays Sir Matthew Phillips. The lovely, unusual, imaginative names (sarcasm alert) indicate precisely the kind of plywood bore Milton Subotsky’s script, from a story by Robert Bloch, is.

(That “is” doesn’t look right, all at the end there, does it?)

Through involved circumstances, Peter Cushing acquires the skull of the Marquis de Sade, which is apparently still animated by a malign intelligence. Cushing’s friendly rival, Lee, believes that the Marquis was “something worse than mad.” Hmm, worse than mad, you say? What would that be, Sir Matthew Phillips? Sane?

The titular head-bone has turned up in the possession of shady curio-hawker Patrick Wymark, an ambulatory Toby jug who guested in a number of ’60s horrorshows — REPULSION, BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW, WITCHFINDER GENERAL — and he would have undoubtedly done more save for his tragic implosion in 1970.  Wymark narrates the cranium’s tragic history, which allows the canny producer (Subotsky again) to slip in another guest star, George Coulouris. It becomes clear that Subotsky has written this thing with the sole purpose of shoehorning in as many guest stars as the screen’s fabric can contain without splitting like P.J. Proby’s trousers.

Soon, swivel-eyed detective Nigel Green and police surgeon Patrick Magee are on hand, Jill Bennett is wasted as Cushing’s dull wife (her impressive scream of horror is the only moment when the film reaps any benefit from her unique gifts) and the guy who did the voice of Pigsy in the dubbed Japanese TV show Monkeyturns up. Fiona felt this was the film’s only interest — “Seeing Pigsy’s body at last… perambulating about under its own will.”

I admired the way Francis generated visual interest even when there was zero dramatic interest. He’s aided by rich set decoration, which he foregrounds at every opportunity, padding out the film’s slender running time by filming Cushing as he reads a bio of Sade (bound in human skin, naturally) from every conceivable angle and from behind every bit of bric-a-brac in the room, sneaking from one occluding prop to another like a cautious Rodent Of Unusual Size.

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Having narcolysed the audience with this display of silent book-reading (although the attractive visuals prevent total somnolence), Francis then delivers a pointless-but-wonderful dream sequence in which Cushing is taken away by sinister “policemen” and driven towards an unknown destination.

Anxiously, Pete looks out the car window.

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Shops.

He tries the other side.

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Shops.

“We’ve had props, now we’re having shops,” observed Fiona.

“Next it’ll be cops,” I hazarded.

It was.

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The car stopped.

“And stops,” I concluded.

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Handsome in its widescreen colour cinematographer, and graced with the screwy “skull-cam” POV shots, the film nevertheless struggles to create any interest in any of its sluggish meanderings, and made us both nostalgic for Larry Blamire’s spoof THE LOST SKELETON OF CADAVRA, which has better, badder bad dialogue, and a talking skeleton. If Sade’s skull had spoken like the one in Blamire’s film, we might have had something. “Hi, Betty, it’s me — the skeleton!”

However, a lot of people enjoy this film, for its bountiful cast of supporting players (Subotsky often made compendium films, because with five or six stories there was more opportunity to grab a movie star like Chris Lee or Sylvia Sims or Herbert Lom for a day or two and bolster the marquee value — THE SKULL is like a compendium film with no story instead of five) and sumptuous visuals. The lack of forward momentum forces Francis to noodle inventively, coming up with crazy angles, sinuous camera moves, and lurid colours. Even at 82 minutes, the film feels heavily padded, but the padding is quality stuff.

(When Richard Lester accepted the job of directing his first feature, IT’S TRAD, DAD, for Subotsky, he was handed 23 typed pages, which he took to be a synopsis. It was the final draft script. Those were the days!)

Finally seeing this allowed me to tick off another film illustrated in Denis Gifford’s seminal A Pictorial History of Horror Movies. I’ve vowed to see every film depicted in this book before the end of the century.

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This is the still Gifford uses, although his is b&w. I think Cushing actually spent more time behind a magnifying glass than any other thespian — his various appearances as Sherlock Holmes aren’t the half of it. The gag in TOP SECRET! where he removes the magnifying glass to reveal that he really has one enormous eye makes more sense (although it’s still vaguely upsetting) when one bears this in mind.

“You don’t explore on people.”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on January 17, 2009 by dcairns

Well, folks were telling me THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE was a monsterpiece, and now we can see they were right. (Too bad this is the cut version though.)

With lines like the above-quoted, and “Very well, the corpse is yours,” and “The line between scientific genius and obsessive fanatacism is a thin one — I want you on the right side of it!” — all in the opening scene alone, the film has an Ed Wood feeling for demented speechifying that anticipates the current comedy work of Larry Blamire and more than justifies the credit for “Additional dialogue by Doris Brent.” (Doris also plays the terrifying whispery nurse in scene one.)

(Did I imagine it or does THE SOUND OF MUSIC feature an all-time classic grudging credit, something like, “With partial use of ideas by -“? It’s been a long time since I looked at it, so I can’t be sure I’m not making it up.)

THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T, as I’m now calling it (for short), is one of those B-films where there’s a perfect balance of defects — lack of funds, lack of talent, lack of experience, lack of good sense — so that a kind of cockamamie artistic harmony is engendered, and everything seems VERY GOOD INDEED. The car crash is a perfectly fine no-budget smash-up, but what lifts it into the paranormally brilliant  is the way the arrogant doc then gets lingered over by the rubbernecking camera as he apparently suffers a painful attack of trapped wind, and by the time he gets through with that the stock music has run out of cacophonous melodrama and segued into a cavorting faun theme, which plays, with a sort of helpless shrug, as the heroine is incinerated in the wrecked vehicle. Just beautiful.

Moments later and our man is climbing a narrow flight of exterior stairs with his fiancee’s severed head wrapped in his jacket, and he takes a very long time to do it (be fair, he’s tired). It’s like the horror movie version of Laurel & Hardy’s THE MUSIC BOX. If he had dropped the head when he got to the top, and it rolled all the way back down, I believe I would have died a happy man.

I don’t intend in any way to be disparaging about TBTWD, because it can’t be easy to make a compulsively watchable film on a micro-budget without access to top-tier talent and without a lot of practice. The IMDb notes of writer-director Joseph Green, “Owned a small (he answered the phone himself) distribution company which distributed an eclectic mix of minor foreign films (such as Chabrol’s Une Partie de Plaisir) and kung fu/exploitation pictures.” So I picture him as a guy who was in it for the love. He only made one other picture — twenty four years after this one. That makes me sad.

What makes me happy? The line “How can you make of her an experiment of horror?” The gibbering THING IN THE CLOSET (you know you’re in zero-budget land when they can’t even afford an attic or cellar to imprison their failed experiments). When our obsessive fanatic scientific genius goes trolling for bodies we’re obviously looking at the inspiration for THE MAN WITH TWO BRAINS, only we’re looking at it for far longer than expected.

“You’re a freak of life — and of death!”

Where the film betrays some weak-mindedness is an eagerness to get to the point with Jan-in-the-pan, the severed head character. Somehow she KNOWS she’s a severed head, which robs us of a potentially very dramatic scene of her finding out, (reflection in shiny surface?) and somehow she knows that she now has a tremendous new power, without ever actually learning this, which again could have made for a good strong scene. However, as the story goes on and it becomes clear that she doesn’t have any tremendous new power at all, I came to appreciate the inverted wisdom of Green’s forbearance.

Instead we get many many shots of the withered hand guy looking pensive, which don’t achieve much since we don’t really know what he’s worried about — his shrivelled arm? The guy in the closet? The severed head lady? The fact that he’s missing the strip-shows? All good reasons for concern, but as Alexander Mackendrick says, ambiguity is a choice between two possible meanings, not countless.

“My hopes — shattering with each severed arm he grafted to me!”

Interesting how the scientific genius obsessed fanatic, having decided he needs a new body for his fiancee’s head, immediately decides that abduction and murder is the only possible course of action, and immediately resorts to visiting strip-shows and kerb-crawling and going to “body beautiful” contests. It’s hard not to form the conviction that he’d be doing all this anyway, even if he didn’t have his girlfriend’s cranium waiting in a dish.

“Posing bare for a bunch of neurotics.”

I liked the magnificent man-hating life-model with the scar — shades of PEEPING TOM. The movie’s assumption that being a man-hater with a scarred face makes you a prime full-body donor is bordering on the offensive, but the powerfully-built vixen is so impressive as she forcefully stresses every single syllable of dialogue, one can’t help but admire her magnificent froideur and hauteur. It’s kind of a shame when she mellows out.

“This kind of thing must be done.”

That’s a BIG HAND that reaches through the hatch from the evil closet. And it’s no fake monster hand, just a really enormous meaty man-paw. The mutant it’s attached to may be a bit overdone, but he’s still rather disturbing, and well worth the wait. It’s a shame he doesn’t get more to do — his gibbering was fun, but he falls curiously silent when he emerges from his prison-cupboard. A monologue about the dangers of science run amok would have been nice — everyone else has one. But fighting the mad scientist with his arm stuck through a door makes for an agreeably different action sequence. Perhaps if the monster had got a foot jammed in a waste-paper basket, that would have raised things to the next level.

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“When she does come to, it will be your head consciously awakening for her.”

Wait — the monster gets the girl? Is that a first?