Archive for The Abominable Dr Phibes

Ready…Steady…

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 9, 2009 by dcairns

Jenny Agutter, as 15-yr-old Wynne Kinch (great name!), starts to suspect that her foster brother, with whom she’s in love, may be the local serial killer.

“Is this bringing your childhood back in a sudden Proustian rush?” I asked Fiona after five minutes of I START COUNTING. It was. Maybe the most personally evocative seventies childhood movie I’ve seen, (although it’s from 1969, when I was two) apart from things I actually saw during my own seventies childhood, which evoke feelings of nostalgia and terror due to their precise connection to my memory of seeing them then. This was my first time watching START COUNTING, as my badly cropped copy seems to be called (starring “Jenny Agutt”), so the resonance was more with the precise details of design, social behaviour, and evocation of early-mid teenagerhood.

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Design — this was by the brilliant Brian Eatwell, whose biggest job in the 70s was Richard Lester’s THE THREE MUSKETEERS and sequel (attach wooden scaffolding to ruins, make them look like they’re under constrcution!), but he also designed several of Greene’s films: MADAME SIN, a failed TV pilot with Bette Davis as a sort of female Fu Manchu — if only this had been picked up!) THE STRANGE AFFAIR, which I have a ratty copy of, unwatched, and GODSPELL. Here he makes a church look like a space station, but still keeps it believable. He also did those amazing art-deco sets for the DR PHIBES films —

— which leads us to jazz genius Basil Kirchin, who scored this with its haunting theme song, and also wrote the music played by Dr. Phibes’ clockwork orchestra. Kirchin’s stuff always makes me think of drifting downstream in a punt, trailing my fingers in the water, probably in soft focus. But in a good way.

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Social observation — START COUNTING was filmed in the same Berkshire new town where Sidney Lumet made THE OFFENCE. Greene, a Canadian, and Lumet, an Unistater, find cinematic values in these drab UK surroundings that seem to elude most of out homegrown filmmakers: it’s striking how many of the great images of Britain were directed by outsiders. A bit more recently, I was struck by the epic sweep Atom Egoyan brought to our motorways in FELICIA’S JOURNEY. The film’s flawed, but he really got a look going in it, using precisely the kind of places we Brits might dismiss as unphotogenic, or else use only for their grimness.

Apart from the very particular sense of suburban-village-sprawl nowhere, there’s the dialogue, which is peppered with teenage fantasy and blunt period tastelessness: reflecting on the recent spate of murders, Agutter’s brother muses, “He might at least rape them, it seems such a waste.” Whereas in an Italiasn giallo this unbelievably crass remark might be part of an overall seediness and misogyny, here it just seems the kind of thing an insensitive young man in that environment might say, with a slight “Tsk,” from his mum the only rebuttal.

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Jenny Agutter: astonishing. I mean, astonishing.

There is an ever-present risk of exploitation and tackiness, since this is about  burgeoning teen sexuality and all, and Greene does originate that shot where the camera follows Agutter’s knickers as she pulls them up her legs, but he doesn’t linger on the action as Nic Roeg would in WALKABOUT, two years later: nothing to see here. On the whole, I thought the film managed to be interested in its subject without leering at it. And some of the teen girlspeak is very funny, especially when Agutter and her best friend exchange confidences in church by speaking their lines with the same rhythm and stress as the catholic liturgy being recited by the rest of the congregation: “What’s he like?” “Tasty.”

Elsewhere in the cast, lovely old Fay Compton from Welles’ OTHELLO and Wise’s THE HAUNTING, unrecognisable in an old bag role, played to the hilt, and by contrast, Simon Ward as a randy bus conductor, who’s very very young indeed. He’s practically an ante-natal Ward, in fact. And Jenny Agutter, who makes everything work. She gets a drunk scene, she gets to behave in slightly random ways, she’s an authentic teen to the hilt, but a very specific, English, Jenny Agutterized teen. We will not see a performance like this again. Makes me realise what an underexploited national resource she is. Remember how there was a Jenny Agutter film or two every year, in which she would be duly nude, and then suddenly she did a clothed cameo in DARKMAN and disappeared? And now you only see her in bit parts on TV? Shocking.

Ou sont les Jenny Agutters d’antan?

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Primitive London Taxi Driver

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 1, 2008 by dcairns

Thanks to film academic and author Benjamin Halligan for sending me the British “Mondo” movie PRIMITIVE LONDON. Made in 1965, what’s jaw-dropping about this film, “directed” by Arnold L. Miller (SEX FARM) and produced by Michael Klinger and Tony Tenser, is how decidedly un-shocking it is. From childbirth to chicken-packing, the grab-bag of sinsational subjects is lame, tame and bewilderingly scatter-shot. SEE — the mods! SEE — the kendo school! SEE — The hatter’s head-measuring instrument!

Shocking.

But some of the desperate measures deployed to liven it up / tie it together are pretty interesting. Here’s the best example of postmodern deconstruction you’re likely to find in a British film of the era:

And what about that music? Esteemed Jazz-man Basil (DR PHIBES) Kirchin and John A. Coleman (apparently still working today, on KUNG FU PANDA no less, if the IMDb hasn’t gene-spliced him with a namesake) seem to have hit upon the main theme of TAXI DRIVER eleven years early. Here’s another, clearer instance:

Can’t you just feel all hope and life ebbing from your body as that sequence goes on? It’s the PRIMITIVE LONDON effect. All British “sex” films were really part of a secret government plan to combat overpopulation by mentally sterilising the populace with desultory erotica. The pornography of despair. And it worked. Anyone who saw THE AMOROUS MILKMAN would be unable to have a sexual thought for months without wanting to run out for a free N.H.S. penectomy. 

Operation Prole-Wipe was so successful that by the 1980s, British cinema was producing non-sex films actively designed to promote a desire for early, childless death. How else to explain REVOLUTION?

Meanwhile, here’s the moral of the story from PRIMITIVE LONDON:

It’s easy to see what happened. Bernard Herrmann was living in England at the time he was approached to do TAXI DRIVER, and must have encountered the P.L. theme during an elicit trip to a Soho sex cinema, or possibly the Eros in Leicester Square (immortalised in AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON). As the great composer of CITIZEN KANE and PSYCHO, hidden in the darkest recesses of the smoky auditorium, reached a shivering climax at his own hands, the music oozing from the cinema speakers crept into the similarly shady recesses of his mind, forming an unconscious association, just as it does to Alex in CLOCKWORK ORANGE. When Herrmann was asked, eleven years later, to score a film about a character who frequents porno houses, it all clicked into place.

Dirty Bernard!

Six Degrees of Murder

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 9, 2008 by dcairns

This weirded me out a bit, in a number of ways. I have this flaking paperback called The Secret Life of a Satanist, The authorised biography of Anton Lavey, by Blanche Barton. It is by no means terrific. But it’s an interesting thing to have.

First, this creepy photograph.

Bob and Anton

Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan, enjoys a drink with Robert Fuest, director of his favourite film, THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES. You will notice that despite styling himself like a Hollywood baddie, with the full “upside-down head” look, old Anton is much less frightening than Fuest, who looks a bit like Hugh Griffith in TOM JONES, i.e. a ruddy-faced maniac. Recent pics of Fuest are much easier on the mind — that kind of appearance is less alarming in an older gent.

The Abominable Mr Fuest

Fuest’s films consitute a unique and remarkable body of work — unlike practically every other British horror film director, Fuest utilised the conventions of the genre to create exercises in pure style, like Bava or Argento in Italy. Never very interested in making points, or even in narrative, Fuest’s films are strings of glorious set-pieces, beautifully designed and stuffed to the gills with scintillating walk-ons.

Back to this book: a page or two later, I was startled by this image:

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Well, not the image, as such. They’re called breasts, and all ladies have them. No, it was the text beneath that flipped what’s left of my lid. I’ve read and heard quite a bit about the Manson murders, but never knew that much about the various “family members”. I had heard the story that LaVey was a technical advisor on ROSEMARY’S BABY and played the role of devil in it. So I was be-goggled to find this other connection between LaVey and Polanski. But of course, as Wikipedia tells me, LaVey was notinvolved in ROSEMARY’S BABY at all, so the story that he was probably came out of media speculation/invention from the time of the Manson trial. LaVey was happy to hype himself up at all times, but appears never to have claimed any role in the production.

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The Manson killings do have a weird network of movie connections, though. Victim Sharon Tate was a movie star and wife of Polanski, of course, and appeared in J. Lee Thompson’s EYE OF THE DEVIL, a somewhat jinxed production, as well as Polanski’s THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS. The first victim of the Mansonites was the Polanski family dog, Dr. Sapperstein, named after Ralph Bellamy’s character in ROSEMARY’S BABY, a satanic gynecologist.

One of Atkins’ fellow killers, Bobby Beausoleil, had appeared in a Kenneth Anger film (Anger was chums with LaVey) and subsequently provided a score for Anger’s LUCIFER RISING — the only movie soundtrack ever recorded inside prison. The soundtrack followed an unsuccessful attempt by Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page to provide Anger with a satisfactory score. Intriguingly, an earlier version of the film which STARRED Beausoleil was abandoned after Anger quarrelled with the future killer (always a risky thing to do) and much of the footage was supposedly taken by Beasoleil and buried at one of the Manson’s H.Q.s. One of those hideaways was in fact a ranch containing an old movie backlot complete with fake western town. The ranch was once owned by cowboy star William S. Hart.

Combine all this with LaVey’s connection to Jayne Mansfield, rumours tying Manson to the Monkees, Dennis Wilson, and his obsession with Beatles lyrics, and the Manson affair seems like one of the most filmic murder cases ever. And Manson did show some cinematic acumen by knowing exactly who should play him in the movie of his life:

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Dennis Hopper.