Archive for Peter Sasdy

Reincarnate

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 6, 2019 by dcairns

In Peter Sasdy’s NOTHING BUT THE NIGHT, Christopher Lee is stuffy, Peter Cushing is snippy, Diana Dors is stroppy and Georgia Brown is chippy, lippy and slutty. And little Gwyneth Strong is absolutely brilliant. Everyone is intense, fervid, all the time, like they were all fathered by Charles McGraw when no one was looking, which seems to be a Sasdy characteristic (see also The Stone Tape).

It’s Christopher Lee’s only film as producer, adapted from a novel by John Blackburn, a quite interesting genre writer though a very reactionary one. Reaching the screen, some of these attitudes are softened or switched, but some remain, so you don’t quite know what to think.

The plot centres on an orphan (Strong), seemingly traumatized in a bus crash, but there’s something sinister afoot with the foundation caring for her (Kathleen Byron is involved so it can’t be a purely charitable institution, can it?). Dors is a red herring in a red shiny coat, seen trudging through the Scottish heather for reels on end, the least inconspicuous person ever. She’s a fortune teller with a black cat decal on her Hillman Imp and she’s trying to get her daughter back. Tabloid hack Brown tells her, “You must admit she’d be better of with them than here,” which seems a bit unsympathetic. There’s nothing wrong with Dors’ clairvoyance pad: she has a phrenology head and an Emmanuelle chair, what more could any child ask?

Apart from class horror at Dors’ raging slattern, the film seems to share Lee and Cushing’s distaste for the pushy journo, yet she’s the one who sets them on the right trail. The great duo are at everyone’s throats all the way through, with Cushing in particular JUST VERY CROSS in every scene. It’s the Hammer films trope of the authority figures being righteous, correct, our only hope, yet deeply dislikeable. Only with the pitch turned up and a bit of a headache.

Gwyneth Strong can dislocate her jaw in order to swallow whole goats.

We enjoyed the Scottish locations — Edinburgh airport looks unchanged to me — the evil scheme is an intriguing one and the climax gets some real moral horror going, aided by Lee waking up and doing some proper acting as he faces a kind of payback for his role in THE WICKER MAN. He could really rise to the occasion, that man, and at six foot ninety he had a head start.

It all falls apart in the closing shots, where the script can’t come up with a good finish, calls for some effects that don’t quite make it, and the staging falls apart accompanied by mismatched dusk/dawn-for-night and night-for-night shots (NOTHING LIKE THE NIGHT, you could call it), and it looks as though Sasdy just ran out of time on top of everything else.

Night shoots are a bitch.

The music — a lush rephrasing of Nine Green Bottles — is extremely poor. A death-by-hatpin recalls Sasdy’s HANDS OF THE RIPPER. Strong’s performance is one for the ages — authentically terrifying.

NOTHING BUT THE NIGHT stars the Grand Moff Tarkin; Mycroft Holmes; Frau Poppendick; Frau Freud; Nigel Barton; Mackay; Albus Dumbledore; Aunt Beru; Victor Carroon; and Sister Ruth.

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Ripping Yarns

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 27, 2017 by dcairns

MAN IN THE ATTIC is something I meant to see years ago, as part of research for a Jack the Ripper project I was writing with Fiona. But no copy was to hand, and anyway, we’d found that all JTR films are historical travesties, usually disrespectful to the victims and usually with nothing to say on the many interesting subjects that naturally fall into the story.

MITA turns out not to be as offensive as most movies on this theme (part of the impetus for the script was Fiona’s horror at the 1998 “celebrations” or the centenary of the Autumn of Terror). And one moment, the reading of George Bernard Shaw’s letter to The Times about the case, actually shows a little erudition. But this is a dull remake of THE LODGER, only recently made with Laird Cregar far more memorable in the role than Jack Palance here.

I’ve had a bit of a down on director Hugo Fregonese, despite loving his Val Lewton western APACHE DRUMS. The script of that one is so spooky that old Hugo’s prosaic direction really irks me. The Apaches are described in supernatural terms by a dying Clarence Muse, setting us up for real terror — and then our director blithely plonks his first redskin into shot like a milkman or janitor. In fact, I’ve seen janitors given far more dramatic presentation.

Hugo displays the same flat-footed lack of flare here in what should be a stand-out scene — the lodger’s first arrival. Hitchcock, you will recall, presented an eerily still Ivor Novello, his face swathed in a scarf, with one pallid hand at his chest, looking like a wax sculpture. John Brahm pulled out all the stops with a gliding camera, dry ice, and a looming Cregar. Hugo gives us a plain shot/reverse shot of Palance and the landlady-to-be, not even bothering to hold back the first view of our Ripper’s scary face (Palance is not too bad, but never memorable).

The film’s atmospherics only come into play with the night scenes of the back lot, using a bunch of standing sets — effective London streets rubbing stony shoulders with what look to be the battlements of a castle and a medieval Scottish village (I think I recognize it from Laurel & Hardy’s BONNIE SCOTLAND).

Hammer’s more nakedly exploitative HANDS OF THE RIPPER is a good deal better, oddly enough. The plot is silly, and the portrayal of the Ripper as hideously disfigured by burns makes little sense and is there for no reason other to provide an added grisly image. This movie is offensive to burned people, among others. But it benefits from serious, committed work from Angharad Rees as the Ripper’s daughter, and especially Eric Porter as the shrink who tries to cure her. For much of its runtime it’s basically a Victorian MARNIE, only with multiple gory murders.

Director Peter Sasdy applies a lot of vulgar panache (I’m beginning to think I prefer the messier Hammer directors to the staid Terence Fishers and Freddie Francises) and gets to use more standing sets, this time Alexander Trauner’s forced perspective Baker Street and environs from THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES. Even the gratuitous Hammer nudity kind of works here — Porter loitering on the threshold while his patient bathes is decidedly un-Victorian, but it exposes his unacknowledged sexual interest in his attractive charge, which is presumably what causes him to embark on a course of treatment that ultimately proves fatal — to a number of people. It’s also really terrific that Porter, being a Victorian doctor, looks strikingly like the popular fantasy image of the Ripper himself.

When it’s clearly stated that our young heroine is not, in fact, traumatized by repressed memories from infancy, but POSSESSED BY THE GHOST OF A SERIAL KILLER, it’s kind of too late for us to scoff — we’re all set for the climax at St. Paul’s Whispering Gallery, probably the most poetic, beautiful, tense and unusual conclusion to any Hammer horror film. It even gets away with the typical Hammer hasty credits roll — no coda, no summary, no reaction from the characters left alive and grieving. It’s OK, I don’t like my films to hang around after their business is concluded, like tiresome guests or ’90s Spielberg films. But when something like THE REPTILE abruptly announces it’s leaving right after its titular lizard-girl has caught a chill and died, it feels like the filmmakers are saying “This film explores the universal theme of There was a Bad Thing but we killed it.” Sort of lacking in the layered approach.

Maybe HOTR succeeds better because — spoiler alert — it kills its “hero” as well as its “villain.” Since Porter is a strange mixture of Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing (tackling the unholy) and Peter Cushing’s Frankenstein (meddling with the unholy), he has to die, but we feel a bit sad about it. And maybe the muddle of the film’s central idea leaves intriguing space for imagination — after all, the movie establishes that our Jill the Ripper does what she does because her late father takes control — but it never remotely shows any interest in why HE does what HE does. The film’s rather horrified view of its prostitutes kind of suggests that we’re meant to think his violence is, at some fundamental level, a reaction we all understand and share.

Fascinatingly, nobody seems to know who this actor is. So the unknown murderer is played by an authentic unknown.

Mum’s the word

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on March 19, 2011 by dcairns

Fiona and I are in this picture… somewhere.

The Edinburgh Secret Society is… wait, no, I can’t tell you about that.

However, at their most recent monthly gathering, the ESS showed Nigel Kneale’s TV play/ghost story THE STONE TAPE, directed by Peter Sasdy, and Fiona and I attended. The Society meets at different, specially selected venues each time, and for this filmshow Edinburgh Filmhouse was chosen — a cinema which happens to be haunted (just ask Diane Ladd!).

At terrible personal risk, I can exclusively reveal that this was no ordinary screening, but a highly scientific investigation into the nature of fear itself. This deeply psychological and technically unexplainable inquiry was — but I’ve said too much.

What I can talk about is the film itself. I’d seen it before (for all host Professor Richard Wiseman’s protestations as to the film’s obscurity and rarity — it was judged so terrifying in 1972 that it was never shown again — it was released on DVD and is on YouTube), and had found it a little slow and not very scary. What always impressed was the idea — Kneale postulated an explanation for hauntings that has been taken up by the parapsychologists and used as a genuine theory. Briefly, Kneale suggested that buildings can, in certain undefined circumstances, act as recording devices, preserving a record of moments of high emotional trauma. Something like this theory informs Scatman Crothers’ explanation of the Overlook Hotel’s phantom populace in THE SHINING… an explanation which proves, at the very least, incomplete.

The other impressive thing in the show is Michael Bryant, as a pig-headed, macho businessman who latches on to a haunting in his new lab as the possible key to a new recording medium — “Tape is dead!” — “Something to beat Nippon!” The dated racism and casual sexism of the character provoked a certain amount of embarrassed laughter from the sophisticates in the audience, but it struck me as an astute and probably accurate skewering of the awfulness of the unreformed 1970s British male. The true theme of the story emerges through heroine Jane Asher, who’s more “sensitive” to ghosts than those around her, and so sensitive to the obnoxiousness of Bryant and the other swinging dicks of big business as to eventually find life almost unsupportable.

Jane Asher appeared in the first QUATERMASS film as little girl, so it’s especially nice to find her here.

The Stone Tape [DVD] [1972]