Archive for The Screwfly Solution

Spouse Invaders

Posted in FILM, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 30, 2014 by dcairns

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THE NIGHT CALLER

I wasn’t aware of UNEARTHLY STRANGER (1964) but I had seen THE NIGHT CALLER made the following year. Both are British sci-fi movies, both feature stand-out turns from Warren Mitchell, and both are weirdly, creepily misogynistic.

MARS NEEDS DUMB WOMEN

Briefly, in THE NIGHT CALLER, someone is advertising for models and when the swinging London dolly-birds turn up to audition, they get disappeared. A female scientist investigates, using herself as bait, and is murdered. Finally, the intrepid John Saxon confronts the extraterrestrial responsible, who confesses that his dying planet, devastated by war, desperately needs nubile young women, so he’s been advertising for them and whisking them off to Mars or wherever. He also reveals that Martian men are hideously disfigured by radiation but that using mind control he can prevent the dolly birds from realizing this. Saxon and the rest of the representatives of Earth are touched by his plight and agree that what he’s been doing is basically fine. Then they remember about the murder and ask about that. “She was a threat to us — she was too intelligent!” says the space chappie, and everybody agrees that, though it’s of course regrettable that she had to die, it was probably for the best. Too intelligent. Can’t have that.

Very disturbing viewing, and a commercially released genre picture, albeit a low-budget one. John Gilling of Hammer fame directed it. It’s actually like a film made by the warped-by-aliens men in Joe Dante’s alarming Masters of Horror episode, The Screwfly Solution.

Warren Mitchell, famous as TV’s Alf Garnett (comedy sitcom bigot, prototype of Archie Bunker), has a moving bit as father of one of the missing girls — so real and human he blows the doors off the film, and all the more disturbing when it gets to the end and his loss is swept under the rug.

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SEX IS A VIRUS FROM OUTER SPACE

Now. UNEARTHLY STRANGER, like TNC, starts smoothly and doesn’t reveal its bizarre sexual politics until quite late, but when it does the effect is striking.

Good cast! John Neville, who was about to be Sherlock Holmes in A STUDY IN TERROR, and would play Baron Munchausen for Terry Gilliam and have another run-in with aliens in The X-Files as The Well-Manicured Man, is a scientist working on a scheme of astral projection to enable mankind to travel into space by will alone. Philip Stone, the sinister waiter in THE SHINING, is his head of department. (Oddly, THE NIGHT CALLER features two Kubrick stars too, Marianne Stone who dances with Peter Sellers in LOLITA, and Aubrey Morris, the camp social worker in CLOCKWORK ORANGE. I really do think Kubrick did all his casting from British B-movies.) And Patrick Newell, Mother in The Avengers, plays the security man whose job is to find out why Britain’s top scientists keep having their brains incinerated from within.

(“The brain drain” — a newspaper scare story about British talent being stolen away by countries with higher salaries and lower tax, was very much in the media at this time.)

(The movie is produced by Avengers head man Albert Fennell and directed by documentarist John Krish who also filmed that show’s credits.)

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Suspicion eventually falls on Neville’s wife, “an alien” — meaning she’s Swiss — or is she? Sympathetically played by Gabriella Licudi, she sometime forgets to blink, takes the casserole out the oven without gloves, has no pulse, and weeps acid tears. It seems the aliens have invented astral projection first, and they’re here. And they’re all women.

Nicely shot but confined to a couple of offices, the Neville family home, and a car — apart from an effective bit of Licudi wandering suburban streets and upsetting the children she meets, who all instinctively know she’s Not Right — the film suffers from an excess of wordiness and a lack of action and visual variety. But it’s short and somewhat original. Then the big reveal happens, and the further twist comes that secretary Miss Ballard (Jean Marsh) is also an alien. A struggle ensues with Neville and Stone trying to chloroform her — like the vampire-stakings in Hammer flicks, it’s filmed like a rape. She goes out the window, but by the time our panting heroes have descended the loooong flight of stairs, she’s vanished like Michael Myers. But just to drive its non-point home, onlookers start turning to the camera. Women onlookers. Staring with sinister womanly eyes. You’re next! You’re next! Watch the skies. God help us in the future.

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MOTHER, JEEVES AND BOSIE

Where does this fear and loathing come from? Sexual liberation may have stirred up some anxieties, I guess. The makers of The Avengers were an odd lot — celebrating kinks and campery, but treating Linda Thorson shabbily and establishing a “no-blacks” rule because “the show has got to have class.” A good part of UNEARTHLY STRANGER’s unease feels curiously homonormative (now there’s a word you really don’t get to use much). All the women are aliens and all the men are a bit fruity. Warren Mitchell’s cameo involves a PERFECT Scottish accent, the kind of posh one that’s slightly camp. John Neville had been Bosey to  Robert Morley’s OSCAR WILDE, and has a neurasthenic, dandified quality that’s pleasantly un-macho. “Mother” describes himself as a confirmed bachelor and is of course camp as knickers: this may be the best movie role he ever had, and he chews it up greedily, joyously. And Philip Stone, with his prissily plummy, theatrical diction… well, he doesn’t conform to any notion of sexuality, really: his characters always seem scarily inward. He’s magnificent, though: one can see why Kubrick loved using him. With Neville he forms a kind of cut-rate Richardson/Gielgud double-act. I wish they’d done a whole series of movies together.

Check it!

what’s inside a girl? from David Cairns on Vimeo.

I told you: this movie is just bizarre about sexual relations and society and everything.

The Avengers: The Complete Emma Peel Megaset

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The Screwfly Letter

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on September 7, 2009 by dcairns

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Dear Joe,

When you said you were sort of glad you didn’t get James Tiptree’s story The Screwfly Solution made into a film in the ’80s because it’s so depressing it might have killed your career, you weren’t kidding!

Yours sincerely

David Cairns

In 2006, courtesy of Masters of Horror, Dante got to make his film as a one-hour TV special. Returning to the more explicit gore and nudity of THE HOWLING, while abandoning the jocularity that undercuts Dante’s usual genre mode, the movie is a real departure. Nothing about it is “fun.” Although it could still be said to deploy a form of sociopolitical satire…

Due to circumstances not immediately made clear, an airborne virus spreads through the human male population, triggering fits of religious mania and physical violence as a response to sexual arousal. Soon the homicide rate is out of control, as men start killing women in response to a mutated sexual instinct. “Male sexual urges are very closely linked with aggression,” explains scientist Matthew Perry Jason Priestley, “Now, somehow, someone has figured out a way to erase the difference.”

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It starts nasty and gets worse. Mostly, the idea is developed with the kind of frightening logic that makes a fantastical idea scary, which is similar to the logic that allows a satirical conceit to reduce a scenario to the absurd (really, we should talk about EXPANDING something to absurdity). There are a couple of flaws, which are in themselves interesting.

Elliott Gould plays one of the few dependable males in the story. “The young men I’m attracted to are more than capable of defending themselves,” he says. But we never see him affected by the virus at all. Are gay men immune? That doesn’t make sense to me, since whatever the essence of male homosexuality may be said to be, and whether we consider it genetic or conditioned or learned or a combination (I think a very complex combination is likely), it’s definitely male.

There’s also a line where Gould suggests putting women in camps for their protection. This is a pretty flawed idea, but I can accept it because it’s the kind of flawed idea somebody might have. Obviously, putting the men in camps would make a lot more sense. They’re the dangerous ones. As usual, the authorities are useless at taking action (in the most amusing scene, a general rejects the idea of chemically castrating the entire army, demanding an alternative: Gould suggests actual physical castration).

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Flawed thinking turns up again in the DVD extras, where we learn that concern was expressed about a scene where the patrons of a strip bar run amok and glass the strippers. The offending shot showed one man punching himself in the groin with a barbed-wire-wrapped fist. Unpleasant, yes, but if I was going to pick something to be offended by, I’m fairly sure I’d focus on the women being brutally murdered, not on the act of probably-non-fatal self-mutilation which is at least, by its very nature, consensual. Not that I am offended. Shocked, yes. All in all, the film managed to draw stunned expletives from Fiona and I once every five to ten minutes.

The story spans a couple of months during which the misogynist plague spreads across the Earth. It’s an epic tale to realize on a modest TV budget, made possible in part by speedy filming (a handicam mounted inside a steering wheel allowed for an extremely swift, dynamic shooting style). What’s most intriguing is the difficulty in figuring out what appealed to Dante in this story. It shouldn’t be a problem, because the story is obviously powerful and original, but since it’s so different from everything else in the Dante oeuvre, it does present a puzzle. Elsewhere, he hasn’t seemed like a feminist filmmaker in any sense, indeed his films are populated with satirically sketched frustrated/frigid career women, in everything from GREMLINS II: THE NEW BATCH to LOONY TOONS: BACK ON ACTION and SMALL SOLDIERS (the memorably named Dr. Kiegel). And HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD features some dubious rape jokes which turn out particularly unpleasant due to a lack of any real humorous point — it’s as if the filmmakers assume sexual violence is  inherently hilarious. “Hey, it’s the seventies!” Fortunately, Dante has not only matured since then, he’s become far more skilled at comedy, so that even on a technical level such gags wouldn’t pass muster in a modern Dante screenplay.

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The humour in Screwfly is grim and unfunny too, but the filmmaker is in control of it. When an air steward snaps a screaming female passenger’s neck, another male passenger pointedly remarks “Thank you!”  as if a nuisance had been quietened in a more conventional way. The vision of a world where male-on-female violence is seen as completely normal by the men is a frightening exaggeration of attitudes that do exist, rather than an invention out of whole cloth.

What’s so commendable about Dante is that he used the format provided by Mick Garris’s Masters of Horror to make two films he could never otherwise have gotten made: Homecoming, which addressed the Iraq war back when no fiction filmmaker was going near it, and did so in a scathingly scabrous and bitter satiric fashion — like Michael Moore with FAHRENHEIT 9:11, Dante found a way to make a polemic entertaining; and this film, which nobody would have allowed Dante to make as a standalone feature, since it’s so far from his usual style.