Archive for The Medusa Touch

Night Sweats

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 12, 2015 by dcairns

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A Phantasmagoria of Fright! bawled the posters. FRAGMENT OF FEAR (1970) just about lives up to that, but it’s a more subtle, creeping paranoiac fear that you’d think. Richard Sarafian directs, right before he made VANISHING POINT, and David Hemmings stars, accompanied by wife Gayle Hunnicutt and every familiar face that could be collected into a British/European feature at the time — Philip Stone and Dave Prowse are about to do CLOCKWORK ORANGE, Arthur Lowe and Mona Washbourne are both fresh from THE BED SITTING ROOM, Wilfred Hyde-White is fresh from everything else, and Flora Robson, Yootha Joyce and Roland Culver may not be exactly fresh but they’re certainly familiar.

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Hemmings, who was yet to put on the pounds and develop his eyebrows into great cavorting caterpillars, is at his height as a leading man, looking as he always did, like a cross between Michelangelo’s David and a waxwork rabbit. He plays — with consummate skill — a recovered addict and author whose beloved aunt (Robson) is murdered in Italy. As Hemmings investigates the murder, a conspiracy is uncovered which seeks to discredit him and drive him mad — or is it all in his mind? Unlike in BLOW-UP, there definitely, definitely is a body, definitely dead, but everything else falls into doubt. Hemmings receives a threatening letter typed on his own typewriter and hears a menacing laugh recorded on his own tape deck. The criminal organisation which offed auntie has tentacles everywhere, and has a very nasty way of dealing with those who attack it.

Starting off like weak Agatha Christie — I was never convinced anyone concerned knew anything about drugs or the drug scene (Hemmings may have, but he didn’t tell the writers) — this gets better and better, reaching its crescendo at the point where you really believe there’s a massive international criminal organisation masquerading as a charity and behaving exactly like an acute case of paranoid schizophrenia. It’s good on the vertigo of the London underground escalators and the sarcasm of the British policeman (see also DEATH LINE).

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Ultimately, the story doesn’t amount to that much — but the journey is engaging. It should have been as creepy as THE TENANT, but doesn’t have the grungy visual originality. Serafian’s fish-eye lenses, used to suggest disorientation and dissociation are a rather kitsch trick, and the hallucinations, consisting mainly of substituting one character for another, aren’t that scary. It’s the slowly building sense of reality disintegrating that disturbs, aided immeasurably by Hemmings’ committed perf. The coziness of all those beloved character players crowding in from all sides, like in THE MEDUSA TOUCH or LIFEFORCE, actually blends nicely with the persecution and perspiration.

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The Sunday Intertitle: Interzone

Posted in FILM, Politics, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 23, 2015 by dcairns

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I was almost despairing of finding an intertitle in a seventies sci-fi film — because that’s the kind of thing I spend my time worrying about (as opposed to, say nuclear war, overpopulation or the collapse of social order) but then I found Elio Petri’s TODO MODO, a vaguely science-fictional doomsday wallow from 1976. Petri’s THE TENTH VICTIM is a hip and zippy pop-art spree of a film, but this one, despite being set in a reinforced concrete bunker designed by the great Dante Ferreti, or perhaps partly because of that, is a bit turgid and airless. Even exciting actors (Mastroianni, Volonte, Melato) and Petri’s snaky camera moves can’t quite bring it to life. But it earns its place in a mini-entry about the various films I’ve looked at but am not devoting big pieces to.

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Dante Ferretti and Mariangela Melato remind us of the Mike Hodges FLASH GORDON, of course, a film which, like THE BED SITTING ROOM, could be said to sum up everything about the preceding decade while also anticipating everything about the decade to come.

In TODO MODO, officials from church and state are gathered underground as an epidemic begins to spread across the country — we could situate this in our future history books between THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN and TWELVE MONKEYS. Funny how these films can link up.

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This setting in Tarkovsky’s STALKER suggests some connection with PHASE VI — Lynn Frederick must be lurking just under that powdery sand, wearing an enticingly thin top. The heroines in both STALKER and SOLARIS freak out on the floor while wearing similarly revealing garb.

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Bra-less-ness, of course, was a big seventies phenomenon, and it’s understandable that science fiction filmmakers assumed that things would carry on in that general direction. John Boorman, in ZARDOZ, went as far as to imagine Future Man clad in only bandoliers, thigh boots and nappies, a natural extrapolation of seventies fashion.

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Here’s Nigel Davenport, more sensibly dressed. Why is he concealing his hand? It must surely be crawling with ants, as in PHASE IV, but this is THE MIND OF MR SOAMES, made four years earlier. Terence Stamp plays a man whose been in a coma since birth but is brought to consciousness by Robert Vaughan and then educated by the unsympathetic Davenport. Quite an interesting piece, despite its basic impossibility. Stamp’s child-like performance is affecting, and it’s a very unusual piece to have come out of Amicus Productions. A predatory TV camera crew hang around filming the unfolding tragedy (and contributing to it) — reminiscent of Peter Watkins’ glum futuristic mockumentaries THE WAR GAME, PRIVILEGE, THE GLADIATORS and PUNISHMENT PARK, but TV director Alan Cooke doesn’t use them as a narrative device in that way.

One of the TV crew is played by Christopher Timothy, famed for seventies vet show All Creatures Great and Small. His co-star in that, Carol Drinkwater, plays a nurse in CLOCKWORK ORANGE, another film about Bad Education.

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Note also the b&w production design, even in the nursery set — Mike Hodges must have liked this, as he appropriated the look for the haunting THE TERMINAL MAN, a ruthlessly colour-coordinated vision of Los Angeles. Even the operating room looks similar, with its hexagonal viewing gallery. I’d always assumed that, like Boorman, he was under the influence of inveterate park-painter Antonioni. While SOAMES is an intriguing curate’s egg, TERMINAL MAN is a despairing masterwork, and a far more interesting take on Michael Crichton than the JURASSIC PARK series we’re all assailed with today.

(Remember when JP first came out — weren’t we all struck by the fact that the author of WESTWORLD had done it all again only with dinosaurs? Had he lived longer, surely he’d have gotten around to writing a botanical garden where the monkey puzzle trees go on a rampage.)

We watched Red Shift, a TV play written by novelist Alan Garner and directed by Edinburgh man John MacKenzie. A very odd piece of work, shifting about over a thousand years of history in one small geographical spot in Cheshire, and hinting at psychic links across the centuries. And there’s James Hazeldine, star of BBC Scotland’s The Omega Factor, which dealt with psychic phenomena and freaked me out as a kid — saw it again years back, and it’s very disappointing — and there’s Hazeldine again in THE MEDUSA TOUCH, being defended in court by Richard Burton.

Red Shift’s best bit is the first shift, when an oddly-written but basically social-realist family drama is abruptly interrupted by a savage battle between Romans and Britons, the most startling transition I’ve ever seen in a TV play. We were also pleased to see Leslie Dunlop (that nice nurse in THE ELEPHANT MAN) and Stella Tanner, who also turned up in sci-fi kids’ series The Changes, and in Spike Milligan’s unique take on the Daleks ~

The Changes manages a more nuanced take on multicultural Britain, featuring an extended family of Sikhs as major characters. The concept freely adapted from novels by Peter Dickinson, is unique and wondrous — one day, the whole population of Britain starts smashing their machinery, driven by a sudden conviction that the stuff is evil. As if a Luddite meme had been downloaded into every brain. The series then follows the adventures of a teenage girl in an England that’s been sent back to medieval standards.

I watched this show religiously as a seven-year-old, though it strikes me that the rioting, madness and so on must have been a little disturbing. But somehow I missed the final episode. So I had to ask a friend at school what happened, and this is what he said: “There was a big stone that had been asleep for hundreds of years and then it woke up and there hadn’t been any machines when it went to sleep so it didn’t like them so it told everybody to smash them.”

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I liked the Big Stone Explanation of Everything but was never sure it was true — I also kind of liked the idea that he had just made it up. But it turns out to be EXACTLY TRUE (the BFI have kindly re-released the series). And here I am, forty years later, having entirely forgotten the kid who told me the story, but remembering the story he told. Says something about my priorities.

If women burned their bras in the seventies (which they didn’t — but in the mostly magnificent SLEEPER Woody Allen makes the worst joke of his career on this subject: “As you can see, it’s a very small fire,” a kind of perfect own-goal of a joke, proving that anti-feminist attitudes make you smug, stupid and obnoxious) the men really let it all hang out. Rip Torn allows little Rip to be fondled and addressed in THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (more on that tomorrow), Terence Stamp is seen full-frontal in his coma in MR. SOAMES, and in SHOCK TREATMENT, a sort of Twilight Zone narrative about a predatory health farm, unsustainably extended to feature length, Alain Delon enjoys a nude romp in the sea. A cheerful note to end on.

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Gone for a Burton

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 18, 2015 by dcairns

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RIP Jack Gold. In a twist of fate the protagonist of THE MEDUSA TOUCH would have mordantly approved of, the veteran director’s passing was completely drowned out by the posthumous panegyrics in praise of Uggie, the dog from THE ARTIST, whose euthanizing was announced the same day. I suspect film history will eventually balance itself and the director of THE BOFORS GUN will come to be regarded again as a more significant figure than the one-hit Jack Russell Terrier.

I was wary of approaching THE MEDUSA TOUCH as, though undeniably a piece of seventies sci-fi, I recalled it also being a piece of crap, and perhaps unsuitable viewing if I wanted to say nice things about Gold. (I met Gold, only last year, when Edinburgh Film Fest screened THE RECKONING. He was very sweet, very sharp, and seemingly in the best of health.) Fiona, on the other hand, DID deny it was science fiction (I guess because either telekinesis isn’t real, in which case it’s fantasy, or it is real, in which case it’s social realism) and at any rate its status as crap outweighed any genre attributes. She never met the lovely Mr. Gold.

BUT! I am delighted to report that the movie is a lot less crap than I remember it. It has two really weak moments that had coloured my recollections, plus another one I’d forgotten, but it also has a lot to enjoy, in a modest, unpretentious, daft way.

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Gold co-produced the film with his editor. the great Anne V. Coates (LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, THE ELEPHANT MAN, OUT OF SIGHT, and Gold’s THE BOFORS GUN…and, at ninety, FIFTY SHADES OF GRAY if you can believe that) and it’s an editor’s film — one of its pleasures is the way it enfolds flashbacks within flashbacks, interviews within interviews. I’m imagining Gold and Coates meticulously plotting this all out in advance. French flic on exchange in London investigates the bludgeoning of Richard Burton, prophet of doom, by talking to his shrink, Lee Remick. She introduces flashbacks in which Burton tells her he can cause disasters with the power of his mind (case in point: STAIRCASE), and he thus leads into deeper flashbacks where we see this happening.

Coates sticks to the principles of Direct Cutting which serves her so well when T.H. Lawrence blew his match out and made the sun rise in the desert. frequently she cuts to a reverse angle in mid-conversation to reveal that the person looking back is a different one from who we expected, and we’ve now shifted time zones. Gold will even pan 180º back in time without a cut. For a legendary bad movie, it’s stuffed full of intelligent and elegant film storytelling.

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These reminiscences lead to Bad Moment Number One, the death of young Burton’s parents, nudged off a White Cliff of Dover by a runaway jalopy. This wasn’t as terribly directed as I remembered it — in fact, it’s served up fairly convincingly. The problem may be that such a scene cannot be rendered horrifying (especially when the parents are horrible caricatures out of Roald Dahl — they might as well get trundled flat by an outsize peach). To make it dramatic, Gold gives us Staring Boy, Low Angle of Car Slipping its Brakes, POV of Car pushing in on Parents, POV of Parents Staring at Looming Car… it all feels overdone, and goofy, because it’s a silly accident, without even the dignity of a FINAL DESTINATION atrocity pile-up. I tried imagining it all played in long shot over the boy’s shoulder, but that seemed comical too, like one of those AIRPLANE comedy-business-in-background routines.

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Meanwhile the film moves on, with Burton exterminating all and sundry with his gloomy gaze, and the cast list heaps up enjoyable hams. Michael Hordern has a great bit as seedy medium, Alan Badel is a silky lawyer, Philip Stone a bashed bishop, getting punished for his poor parenting skills in Kubrick’s films. Harry Andrews and Gordon Jackson compete with Burton and Ventura for the coveted Big Face Award. Derek Jacobi turns up to report a mysterious anecdote about Burton and a tramp which is never bloody well explained. I’m quite cross about that.

But the next really bad bit is a plane crash — the film has received a fair bit of stick for Brian Johnson’s special effects, but I’m inclined to blame Gold and Coates a bit here. the key with special effects is not just to get great material, obviously, but to exercise judicious quality control so no bad material slips in to spoil the effect. With Coates’ crosscutting, the jumbo jet striking a tower block yields some very effective pyrotechnics. But the early shots simply showing the plane flying over London are pathetic. Making the toy plane fly straight across frame from screen right to screen left is a terrible bit of staging, exposing the artifice as surely as if they’d spotlit the wires holding it up. It could be argued that, with slow seventies film stock and airspace safety regulations, they couldn’t simply film a real plane. But what does a real plane at night look like? Like a blinking tail-light! A cheaper, more convincing special effect could not be imagined.

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Oh, and this is supposed to be Burton’s POV. He must live in a very hi-rise indeed.

I had forgotten the plane, but I vividly remembered the crumbling of Westminster Cathedral. As a boy, I laughed hysterically as a church bell bounced off a church official. Not because I was naturally evil-minded, although that is a possibility, but because I knew even then that the physics were all wrong. A bell that size wouldn’t be remotely deflected by a chap standing under it, even if he were Lino Ventura. The chap would simply fold up and the bell would continue on into the flagstones and then maybe a bit further.

It’s a real shame, because that one shot spoils a thoroughly convincing housequake, seamlessly blending location, set and miniature. Admittedly, it’s the worst kind of movie disaster, the kind you CHEER ON, rather that saying “Oh the humanity!” (as in A NIGHT TO REMEMBER and even bits of TITANIC). We were sincerely regretful that Harry Andrews managed to stop the Queen entering the Abbey in time to get a bell dropped on her. This nihilistic glee is made OK by Burton’s philosophising, a bunch of anti-establishment rants which are all, broadly speaking, on the money, if a little jejeune.

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The script is by Jack Briley who also penned CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED and thus knew a thing or two about giving someone a very hard stare indeed — the plot is all business, with little time for characterisation but the starry cast seize any moments they can.

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Jack Gold directed another 70s sci-fi opus, WHO? in which a scientist loses his face and fingerprints in an accident in Russia, and when he’s returned with a new, cybernetic face, the US authorities can’t decide if it’s really him. But, on the plus side, he can store food in his cheeks.

I’d like to see WHO? again sometime — it’s based on a proper sci-fi book by Algis Budrys (great name!) and has an affecting performance from Joe Bova as Chubby-Cheeks the Tin Woodsman.