Archive for Milton Subotsky

Ulterior Designs and Interior Design

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 25, 2015 by dcairns

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The true monstrosity in TALES FROM THE CRYPT is the decor, with Joan Collins’ suburban house of horrors taking the less-than-ideal home prize.

Joan bludgeons her husband to death with a poker on Christmas Eve, causing him to spurt poster paint onto his Burley Observer, but she’s had the misfortune to do this as another burly observer is on the loose, a hulking escaped lunatic dressed as Santa.

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Robert Zemeckis remade this for the TFTC TV series, and his version had a lot of kinetic running about and a certain amount of padding. Freddie Francis directs the original with nicely judged compositions and one genuine shock. Plus the hilarious gag of the blood-soaked bubbles going down the drain, which form the colours of a Santa suit and beard.

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Freddie Francis, appearing at the Edinburgh Film Festival some years back (when he was alive), said that in his horror films he had always tried to splash the blood on extravagantly until it got silly, because he didn’t think these things should be taken seriously. Nowadays, the dribbling grue looks positively underdone, apart from its lurid hue.

Suddenly one realizes that the entire visual plan of the movie is riffing, Snow White style, on the Coke-colours of Santa’s costume, and the movie comes to seem far wittier than it had been. The humour is DARK, certainly…

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(Some limericks on this episode are known to exist,,, here and here and here and here and here and here  and here…)

Not an obvious choice for producer Milton Subotsky, one would have thought — a horror producer who disliked gore makes two compendium movies (this and VAULT OF HORROR) based on notoriously bloody American horror comics which had been banned in the UK fifteen years before. But of course they were very successful — following the earlier DR TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORROR they exploited the marquee value of a dozen or so name actors, each of whom only had to do a couple of days’ work.

Second victim Ian Hendry notices the bad set dressing too — “The furniture… I don’t understand!”

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Unlike most Amicus films, TFTC is a bit depressing, as every story takes place in a world of horrible people and cruelty. The innocents are there to be tormented, until they too turn vicious. It’s disturbing not just because it’s a darker vision of humanity, but because it has more in common with reality than the typical horror world-view of easily-recognized goodies and baddies. The theme is most powerfully illustrated in the Peter Cushing episode. This already has a creepy reality, since Cushing plays a windower and performs to a portrait of his real late wife, who is given her real name, Helen. His character is persecuted to suicide by a nasty neighbour, and Cushing revels in portraying uncomprehending agony. Freddie Francis, who up till now has seemed excited only by gliding his camera elegantly through awful rooms, and jibbing precisely across macro-details, is hypnotized by Cushing, lingering on his suffering face as if suddenly discovering a human connection.

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The final episode reprises the dynamic of FREAKS — disabled people take a horrific revenge on a persecutor. Francis was a fan of Whale and Browning, and was disturbed by the fact that many horror fans didn’t know anything about them — they’re interest was purely in horror, in representations of violence. Nigel Patrick being made to run a razor-blade maze in the dark brings the movie’s fascination with horrible furnishings to a crescendo, centering as it does on the creation of one living hell (the unsympathetic asylum for the blind), then another (the maze). Francis pushes in on eyes and razors, a Bunuel by implication.

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At the end of the movie, everyone’s in hell, especially Donald Sinden, who didn’t really do anything to deserve it and who didn’t actually die in his episode. You want logic? Go next door, they’re showing Rossellini’s SOCRATES.

Happy Holidays!

Dream Repairman

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 18, 2012 by dcairns

I’m a sucker for memoirs by cinematographers and editors — perhaps especially the latter. Sometimes these books can be frustrating because the authors are not experienced writers or may not understand what the reader would like to hear about — or maybe what I want to hear about is too arcane.

The best book by an editor I know is Ralph Rosenblum’s When the Shooting Stops… The Cutting Begins: A Film Editor’s Story, which covers work with Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, William Friedkin… all very interesting personalities, and a lot of films which required really inventive work in the cutting room.

So I was excited to find a copy of Jim Clark’s memoir (written with John H Myers), Dream Repairman, Adventures in Film Editing. Like Rosenblum’s book, this covers its author and subject’s entire career up until retirement, only Clark is a Brit who has worked in America and Europe, his career only ending relatively recently due to health troubles (he was to have cut Rob Marshall’s Nine).

By his own account, Clark is quite an outspoken man (at one point he describes meeting Sean Penn, who asks him what he thought of INTO THE WILD. “It’s too long,” says Clark) so the fact that I don’t like a lot of the films he cut isn’t a problem. He doesn’t like them either. But he did cut a slew of films for John Schlesinger, some of which I like a lot, plus a few for Stanley Donen and a couple for Jack Clayton. His portrait of Clayton’s temperament enhances my understanding of this complex and not always pleasant man, adding to the raging furies I already knew about (you can’t really resent a man for throwing a chair through Barry Diller’s office window) a prodigious appetite for brandy and sodas and a penchant for sadistic practical jokes perhaps inherited from his time with John Huston.

Schlesinger could be equally explosive, but emerges as a lot more lovable (and one waits in vain for thunderbolts to strike down Madonna and Rupert Everett for humiliating him and practically killing him while making the wretched THE NEXT BEST THING. It’s very silly, but I do like Schlesinger’s nickname for his over-budget comedy disaster HONKY TONK FREEWAY, which he only ever referred to as WANKY WANK BUMHOLE.

(The book abounds in nicknames: we learn that Zeffirelli called C. Thomas Howell “Tea Towel” and Liz Taylor “thee beetch,” [which is, in fact, his name for all women], while the labs referred to Martha Fienne’s ONEGIN as “ONE GIN,” and Schlesinger’s affectionate/elitist name for the general public: “the sillies.”)

There’s not a huge amount about the craft of editing, which is admittedly difficult to illustrate on the page, though we do learn a lot about how at least a few of Robert DeNiro’s performances have been hewn together out of miles of wildly uneven material, since the actor often doesn’t learn his lines and feels his way through his scenes trying a wide variety of approaches, so that the editor makes most of the choices for him.

But Clark is an amiable host, and fabulously indiscrete: he prints a full-frontal picture of Marty Feldman, something I didn’t expect to see as I turned the page, lists the guests at a Hollywood party and then remarks that he was the only straight man present (the company included at least one major producer who has been known to get shirty when his personal life comes under the spotlight), and carelessly tosses off the following —

“It was known that Jimmy Woolf was homosexual, though just how active he was I never knew. He had a long liason with Laurence Harvey, now married, and was currently escorting Terence Stamp who was also in TERM OF TRIAL.”

I *think* the story is that Woolf liked nothing more than a handsome young man who would treat him very badly, so I don’t think this necessarily means what it seems to mean. But who knows? the charm of Clark’s book is that he’s out of that world now so he can more or less say anything he likes. Though increasingly tetchy about the levels of productorial interference in modern filmmaking, made possible by digital editing, he’s generally fair and affectionate to nearly all his collaborators, even when he’s mercilessly rubbishing the end product of some of these jobs.

Clark’s short stint as director is also covered — he did well to concentrate on editing, as these include the lamentable RENTADICK, which he still thinks is funny, and MADHOUSE, which was butchered by Milton Subotsky but is actually a bit better than he gives it credit for. It did result in a lifelong friendship with star Vincent Price, and through him to Coral Browne, who provides some good vulgar fun. I’ve long admired the anecdote about her rehearsing a play wearing a huge fur hat. When the director asked her if she was uncomfortable, she said “Yes, I feel as though I’m looking out of a yak’s arsehole.”

But Clark provides a story that’s positively heroic in its use of bawdiness in the face of death. Browne is dying of cancer and on a morphine drip. She’s asked if she’s hungry.

“Yes.”

“What would you like to eat.”

“A big cock.”

It’s not witty, exactly. But it somehow strikes me as encapsulating humanity at its finest.

Dream Repairman: Adventures in Film Editing

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.

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