Archive for Michael Gwynn

Own Ghoul

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 27, 2018 by dcairns

Starring Hengist Pod, the Rumpo Kid, Jill Masterson, Louis D’Ascoygne, Dr. Crippen, Emeric Belasco (pictured) and Budgie.

More Pat Jackson (if you’re nasty). I was impressed by the camera direction in WHAT A CARVE UP!, which is not, otherwise, a distinguished work. Let me explain.

The movie is kind of a remake of THE GHOUL, supposedly, later re-remade by Amicus, I believe. But the three films have little in common. In this one, cowardly proofreader Kenneth Connor is summoned to an Old Dark House in Yorkshire for the reading of an eccentric uncle’s will. Being a coward, he brings his flatmate Sid James along. Some brief intrigue is managed by bringing two Carry On film regulars into a spookshow populated by horror icons Michael Gough, Michael Gwynn (REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN, very funny here) and an unblinking Donald Pleasence. His character name is Everett Sloane, but this is not an in-joke, so far as I can see, just laziness. Murders ensue.

There are very few good jokes, but here is one. It’s so gloriously stupid it achieves a kind of glory.

The script is a pile of old tosh by Ray Cooney & Tony Hilton, who also wrote one or two serious thrillers like THE HAND around this time. Cooney, of course, is an unbelievably persistent and diabolical scourge on the British cinema: everything he touches would turn to shit except it already IS shit. He has some kind of reverse Midas touch, though, which allows him to turn shit into much, much worse shit. This is a unique gift to have, though not in any way a useful one… except in Britain, it seems, where it can get you a 58-year-and-counting screenwriting career. You also get to direct, because hey, how much worse can shit get? See NOT NOW, DARLING and find out.

I do honestly like the moose joke though. It’s the only good Cooney joke I know.

The early scenes showing Connor and James’ home life have a very Hancock feel, and I wonder if the movie were actually intended for the great Tony H.

Cooney & Hilton are, God knows, no Galton & Simpson (RIP), so I can easily imagine Hancock turning his nose up at this sub-CAT AND THE CANARY tosh. Sid James, of course, would say yes to anything, which is why we have BLESS THIS HOUSE: THE MOTION PICTURE. His eternal, dogged professionalism and scrotumnal fizzog carry us through the dross.

 

Connor is a perfectly OK supporting player but becomes irritating over the long haul of a leading role, and his vulnerability is undercut by the script, which makes everyone an asshole. The best perfs come from the straight actors — Pleasence plays it eerily still, Gough lopes crookedly, and Michael Gwynn is a delight, all pixilated stare and rigid arms, a man unable to awaken from a dream. Really eccentric, something you haven’t seen before in the world of acting. It is worth sitting through this muck for him, Esma Cannon, and the previously mentioned.

Then there’s Jackson’s choice of angles, which show an imagination and cheek not so evident in his other works. I get the feeling he’s taking the mickey, trying to liven up tired material, and he probably thought this kind of showmanship beneath him, normally. A shame, because if he’d gone all out on his other dramas, he might have built up a rep as a minor Hitchcockian.

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Tomorrowsday #3: We’re the start of the coming race

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 10, 2018 by dcairns

Returning to our Tuesday sci-fi season. VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED was an atypical British entry in the series, an adaptation of John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos, a title which was never going to fly in the movies, though one might regret the hysteria of the alternative chosen. Especially given the film’s muted, low-key approach to much of the action, some of which can be credited to George Sanders’ quiet central performance.

Sheep! The first accidental echo of THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL. Nothing says “sleepy English village” like sheep, and they serve as maybe a metaphor for humanity’s potential fate, though watching the pale, placid things flocking along is oddly reminiscent of the alien kids when they appear, always traveling in a group.

Looks like Rilla got a camera crane into the village location for one day and shot the hell out of everything. The best bits of the remake are the quick cuts of unconscious Midwichers, but Rilla’s sweeping moves are better, the gliding camera contrasting with the static bodies and emphasising their inactivity. And playing the credits over the clock tower is terrific — it’s 11am, not time to sleep — and also, it rhymes with the prominent role played by clocks at the film’s climax.

This part of the film has a real EXTERMINATING ANGEL vibe about it, particularly when they send a man in with a rope tied to him. (Surrealist logic is allowed to be bendy, as in Tex Avery. Bunuel has his houseguests simply unable to try to leave, whereas the people on the outside CAN try to get in, but then they go wobbly and fall over.) In a way lots of the film is like Bunuelian sci-fi. A village falling asleep all at once is a surreal idea — a variant on Rene Clair’s PARIS QUI DORT, perhaps. Every woman of childbearing age becoming pregnant is equally bizarre. And, rather than relying on special effects (most of them fairly shaky when they do appear), the film prefers to keep the truly alien and uncanny stuff offscreen and therefore abstract, unknowable.

Peter Vaughan! A great psychotronic actor — two Gilliams, two Ken Russells and one Peckinpah to his name, but not yet. His P.C. Gobby here is one of a raft of early copper roles he was lumbered with before his greatness became apparent.

Wyndham offers a glimpse of something round in the village square, seen from the air. We obviously imagine a flying saucer. This could have been replicated in the movie, perhaps as a doctored aerial photograph, but they prefer to leave everything, but everything, to our imaginations. Perhaps this is due to censorship/taste concerns also: they don’t want anyone to imagine Little Green Men roving the village with turkey basters, impregnating every female in their path. By making the invasion invisible, we’re free to picture these conceptions as immaculate, with the alien sperm passing through the women like tiny ghosts, as a beam of light passes through a stained glass window, without breaking it. The alien fertilisation is an abstract force, just like the bubble of unconsciousness enveloping Midwich.

Another thing left out of the film is the attempts by various village women to lose their unwanted foetuses, taking long bicycle rides or hot baths, or throwing themselves downstairs a la LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN. Couldn’t deal with THAT in a film of the period.

Fiona was reminded of WENT THE DAY WELL?, another tale in which an alien force occupies a sleepy (!) English village. In both stories, the angry resistance by Britishers sometimes seems too brutal, unsympathetic.

“So cold…” says the soldier recovering from his unconsciousness. And it is! You can see the actors’ breath in the air.

There sure are a lot of Argonauts in this film. Well, Laurence Naismith and Michael Gwynn both appear.

Mobile X-ray unit! That was the answer to everything in those days. If it moves, X-ray it. If it continues to move, keep X-raying it until it stops.

The glowing eyes effect, which always seemed questionable, is even more flawed now that I see the film on DVD. I doubt that the BBC1 screening of my childhood was sharp enough to make it easil discernible that the glowing eyes have been painted onto still images of the kids, sometimes uneasily splitscreened with moving shots. It’s arguable that every effect you DON’T see in this film is preferable to everything we DO see. Partly because it’s a low-budget film and what it can afford to show us is limited. Mostly because the unseen enlists the imagination.

   

Fiona likes the crazy Herrmannesque harp glissandi — reminiscent of the shimmering, dreamy stuff in FAHRENHEIT 451. Composer Ron Goodwin maybe deserves more attention — certainly he wrote a joyous thing when he created Miss Marple’s theme tune for the Margaret Rutherford films, and of course there’s 633 SQUADRON.

George Sanders’s contractual piano, which he insisted had to be on the set of every film, is actually part of the set here, and he tickles its ivories a little. George is great. Around this time he made THE REBEL and writers Galton & Simpson asked him about his many conquests. Had he really…? “Oh yes. But I am now of an age when a satisfactory bowel movement far exceeds the pleasure of a good fuck.” You can, perhaps, see in his restraint and melancholy here foreshadowing of the despair which would kill him (“I’m very, very bored,” he famously recorded in his suicide note). But he’s also just being true to the role: as a clever bit of plot-character confluence, the elderly Gordon Zellaby is the only villager who’s really happy about parenthood coming so suddenly, as he’d lost hope of it ever coming. And he’s going to be the one who has to take final, fatal action against his own (sort-of) offspring.

Of course we all know it’s PSYCHOMANIA that really did for him.

Barbara Shelley, an actress unaccountably bundled into horror films more often than not (well, she was a good screamer), is also very good, though all Wyndham’s women are a little underdeveloped. Fiona has long felt that a version of the story focussing on the women’s side would be worthwhile — they have, after all, been raped and impregnated, and it takes a somewhat paternalistic view (which Wyndham had) to view this as a story in which the menfolk have the more dramatic role.

Throughout the film, director Wolf Rilla’s shots have a modest intensity, a slightly noirish sense of emphasis, so we always sense the drama beneath the serene surface of this “typical” village. There are beautiful shots of the kids that remind me of the “children of rage” in Cronenberg’s THE BROOD, in those shots where we see them walking in their parkas in longshot, images that are outwardly normal except for what we know about what’s REALLY going on.

The script here is credited to American TV and movie writer Sterling Silliphant and Rilla himself and producer/Scotsman Ronald Kinnoch, which Silliphant always saw as a deplorable bit of credit-stealing. He evidently felt his script was filmed quite faithfully and so those two didn’t deserve their names on it.

Little Martin Stephens, the lead space-hellion, becomes the prototype for all scary kids — the cool, calm, Spock-like approach is far more chilling than any Linda Blair snarling. It’s tempting to believe that the little girls in THE SHINING are English not because daddy Phillip Stone is English, but because the Diane Arbus photo that inspired Kubrick then reminded him of the cuckoos, and he had to hear them talk in clipped English accents.

Stephens, of course, is also fantastic in THE INNOCENTS, and turns in THE HELLFIRE CLUB and THE WITCHES, though less interesting, cement his rep as the ultimate scary kid. He’s the fulcrum of the whole gaggle.

I’m obsessed with the ending of this movie because it resorts to a kind of silent movie metaphor technique to make the invisible visible — to perceive the kids’ telepathic intrusion on Sanders’ thoughts we need to see what they see. So first they see the brick wall he’s trying to think of. Then, under their literally penetrating gaze, the wall begins to crumble — if they were really smart they’d figure out that if he’s concealing his thoughts there must be something he’s trying to hide, something therefore not in their interests… they know what happened to their OTHER colonies.

(A Wyndham novel never filmed, and unlikely to be filmed, is The Chrysalids, which also has psychic kids who can communicate across continents. But in this book, the coming race are the heroes and the puritans who seek to preserve unmutated genetic normality at all costs are the true monsters. And there are traces of his divided sympathies in this one.)

But this is a GREAT THING. The bomb concealed behind the wall fills the shot, just as the wall does, so they’re surreally out of scale. One thought superimposed on another. And I remember, after seeing the film, trying to conceal my thoughts in this manner, placing a surface idea over a secret one. And finding it impossible not to think of an elephant.

Cunning editing avoids the worst effects of an unconvincing miniature explosion — this being a British picture, it’s unnecessary to invoke the deity at the end (might be seen as poor taste, don’t you know?) but amid the reaction shots, the village vicar is prominently placed — then there’s another superimposition, suggesting the alien souls departing for space — it may be cheesy, but I rather love it. The movie NEEDS some kind of summative moment that takes us beyond a simple victory by dynamite. Watch the John Carpenter remake and see if you don’t agree.

“The world shall hear of us again!” they don’t say. But you know that’s what they mean. And they’re right. To be continued…

Frankenstein Must be Enjoyed

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 15, 2008 by dcairns

We have been watching…

Well, the second Terence Fisher / Jimmy Sangster / Hammer Frankenstein film, REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN (there’s no revenge) was one I was curious to see again, mainly because I had terrible memories of it. It’s without any real monster, which put me off as a kid. I guess the point is, Cushing IS the monster.

One of the nice things about the Hammer Franks is their continuity, and this one certainly plays fair, beginning exactly at the end of CURSE OF, with Peter Cushing’s Baron being led to his appointment with Madame Guillotine. But with the aid of a hunchbacked assistant (where did he come from? well, the continuity isn’t perfect) Cushing escapes, decapitating the priest instead. Good! He was an officious jerk in the first film, that priest.

Then Sangster’s script provides one of its better moments of humour, as two grave robbers (Hammer stalwart Michael Ripper, and Britain’s greatest expressionist, Lionel Jeffries) dig up the Baron’s coffin and find a headless priest. As Cushing steps from the shadows, Ripper flees and Jeffries suffers a heart attack. Cushing’s contemptuous shrug in response to the stranger collapsed in his grave is pure comedy gold.

Banned in Sweden!

We next encounter Cushing operating (wantonly) under the pseudonym of Dr. Stein. He’s got a thriving medical practice, and also runs the poor hospital, where he’s merrily harvesting healthy limbs from the poor of the parish in order to create a substantially improved monster (Michael Gwynn). This one, a departure from Christopher Lee’s “road accident” look, just has a few facial scars. The new body is to be repository for the hunchback’s brain — the Baron has found a happy volunteer, for once.

Sangster smartly plants the hunchback’s infatuation with socialite Eunice Gayson (who would go on to appear in the first two Bond films as Sylvia Trench: the Bond girl with the least sexy name) before the brain transplant, and develops it further post-op.

Hammer solemnly swore to the British censor that they would cut this shot — and then didn’t!

Cushing has enlisted a new assistant, Francis Matthews, who proves less scrupulous than his first, effectively blackmailing the baron into teaching him his advanced scientific knowledge — which, as always with Jimmy Sangster, consists of complete nonsense. In the first film we’re told that a brilliant mind will transform the scarred-up visage of Christopher Lee into a handsome and noble countenance. In this one we learn that a chimpanzee transplanted with the brain of an orang-utan suffered a “burst brain cell” and became a cannibal. This is to have dire consequences for our poor hunchback.

But not too dire: probably for censorship reasons, when Gwynn goes berserk after being punched about by a sadistic janitor (inefficiently, Sangster gives much screen time to one janitor, then gives the plot point to someone we’ve barely seen) he’s allowed to look at the beefy corpse and salivate, but then he gets himself under control and runs off, his hunched back reasserting itself in some completely spurious way, defying even the tenuous “logic” of Sangster’s script.

“It’s a shame, because he’s quite good, and he’s doing the best he can…with what they’ve given him,” said Fiona of Gwynn’s performance. He does that John Barrymore thing of trying to suggest a monstrous transformation just by pulling faces — always dicey. I liked him as a character, and he’s a good contrast with Christopher Lee’s mute lunk, but he needed more of a decline into savagery.

As always with Sangster, there’s a bit of wholly inappropriate comedy relief right towards the end. Here it’s a courting couple — he’s more interested in ants than making out, so she storms off and gets mauled and possibly slightly eaten by Gwynn, who then dies of natural causes — but not before accidentally exposing Dr. F.’s true identity. A nice scene, with the shabby monster invading a swank concert party. Death as social embarrassment and vice versa.

All the brains are REALLY SMALL — even Frankenstein’s.

Then Frankenstein is “ripped to pieces” by his impoverished victims (they ARE victims, but Sangster portrays them consistently as vile, verminous and criminal — they could have hobbled out of VIRIDIANA). This would feel more like a climax if it had followed directly on from the “monster’s” death, without a bunch of boring piffle with the medical council in between. 

Fortunately for the franchise (hereafter to be referred to as the “Frankenchise”) he’s prepared a duplicate body. HOW??? I refuse to believe you can make a Peter Cushing from bits of corpses: you wouldn’t find cheekbones like that if you searched for years. Nevertheless, this allows Cushing to fake his own death more convincingly than the last time, and we end with him set up in practice in London, name changed from “Dr. Stein” to “Dr. Franck”. At this rate he’s going to wind up calling himself “Dr. En.”

“He burned his own body.” ~ Not a line every actor gets to say.

Freeze frame and roll credits, with a fairly obvious invitation to another sequel. Hammer being the kind of clunky outfit it was, they didn’t manage one for six years, and then it was the non-canonical EVIL OF. So our next visit to Frankenstein’s surgery will be for FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN, in the year of my birth, 1967.