Archive for The Wicker Man

Ballads Ancient and Modern; Tam Lin (1971)

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 29, 2019 by dcairns

Our first guest writer at Project Fear is film afficianado Mark Fuller, who (or whom? is this a whom?) I met in Bologna, and then introduced Fiona to the following year. It’s hard to describe how excellent he is if you haven’t had the experience. Mark is a proud Remoaner and music is another passion of his and so in a way this piece combines all three passions — though in fact his terrific essay focusses on an Anglo-US production. Well, Britain is still in Europe, and seems set to continue to be so until at least January…

“There is a story in verse, that belongs to this country, the border of England and Scotland. It is hundreds of years old. It tells the adventures of a young man held in thrall by The Queen of The Faeries, who, in the centuries before Pantomime, was reckoned a dangerous lady. It is called The Ballad Of Tam Lin.”

So intones an uncredited Scottish voice seven minutes into this film; he is not wrong.

The first known reference to the Scots Ballad dates from 1549, but it may well be centuries older; in the way of folklore things, the tale within has many close parallels to other ancient European folk tales, and a few elements common to the better-known Beauty and The Beast, and back to Cupid and Psyche. A tale as old as time, indeed…

Tam Lin came down the centuries in various forms via oral tradition before being picked up and straightened out or adapted by folklorists and writers, the most prominent being Robert Burns; he published his own take in the 1780s.

With the late 60s counterculture, interest in things pagan and folk revived; the first version thence to achieve prominence was Fairport Convention’s take, released in 1969 on their album Liege and Lief, a concept album of horror folk, as opposed to folk horror, albeit played by a rock band with folk leanings. This is the version I’ll mostly be quoting… because I love it, so there… whether it had any influence on the making of the film I have no idea, but it is not an impossibility. Many, many versions by various artists followed. In the film there are snippets by the more jazz-folk combo Pentangle, but it was recorded for the film, and they didn’t record a version for their own purposes until many years later.

          Anyway, the film. We have already had an introductory prologue; through an etched-glass window showing scenes from the tale in an Arthur Rackham style, we meet the main protagonists in their luxurious bed. Or rather, her bed. It’s the bed of Mrs Cazaret, with her latest lover Tom Lynn (see what they did there??) in the luminous soft-focused forms of Ava Gardner and Ian McShane. He professes his love; she bemoans the ageing process; he demurs…she whispers….”I love you, I love you, I’ll love you and leave you for dead” Spoilers !!!

We meet a cool sax-playing dude who helps the exposition along by being zonked out by Ava’s yellow-tinted glasses – magical ??- and having the set-up explained to him; this is Ava’s harem-cum-gang of beautiful people, and she is rich, people stay for as long as they want, or she wants. He stays. But it’s road-trip time, and the Beautiful People decamp into a fleet of exotic expensive cars, from Swinging London, North up the A1.

As this happens, we get introduced to the Beautiful People through a cine-camera viewfinder, Peeping Tom style… and they are indeed Beautiful People…including Joanna Lumley, Madeleine Smith, Sinead Cusack, Jenny Hanley, and a needy wheedling young Bruce Robinson. The rest seem like and are as disposable as knitting pattern models. A credit sequence plays over the convoy heading North until we hit the Scottish border, night falls (properly, not day-for-night, thanks for that, Roddy) and our narrator makes his only sonic appearance.

           I forbid you maidens all, who wear gold in your hair; to travel to Carterhaugh, for young Tam Lin is there

     Enter the third corner of the love triangle, cycling down a country lane; it is Janet, an auburn Stephanie Beacham sunlit from behind to give her, indeed, gold in her hair. She stops at the ancient manor house, Carterhaugh, to be entranced by the spectacle of…Beautiful People playing frisbee rather badly. She is delivering a puppy and wends her way through the Beautiful People doing what was done in the 60s…al fresco Tarot readings and vibrophone recitals, apparently. She alights on Madeleine Smith; playing a lass either drug-addled, or really simple, perhaps both; and Ava Gardner takes control, smiles kindly, and hands her over to her factotum Elroy; a delightfully sinster and reptilian Richard Wattis, in possibly the performance of his career. All through this, McShane snaps away in true David Bailey fashion. Janet, it transpires is the local vicar’s daughter; said vicar is Cyril Cusack, as if the cast could get any better.
           

Bruce Robinson’s character is no longer wanted; despite his protestations, he is to be driven away, literally, from this slightly sinister commune; exteriors filmed on location at Traquaire House, the oldest inhabited house in Scotland says its website; it does BnB bookings; I think I’ll give it a miss…. the days of Beautiful People, Ava admiring Ian McShane’s arse amid impeccably laundered satin are probably long gone. I don’t think I could keep pace with the drinking going on, either.


         None that go by Carterhaugh but they leave him a pledge,
         Either their mantles of green or else their maidenheads.
         Janet tied her kirtle green a bit above her knee,
         And she’s gone to Carterhaugh as fast as go can she.

In fairness to our Janet, she hasn’t been warned or forbidden from doing so, but true to form she dons an all-green ensemble and walks cross-country to Carterhaugh, to the first appearance of Pentangle’s rather limp version of the song. En route she meets Tom Lynn, wearing those glasses, at a bridge over a stream, one of many bridges we see throughout the film; those liminal places…..and we go into a strange sequence of still shots that gives the effect of fast-forwarding a DVD, which seems to portray a meet-cute, nothing much more. A minute later, closer to the house, they walk to another bridge, and Tom stops her from going further. “Why did you let me do IT ??” he asks… it’s an odd choice, a moment of coyness both for the time, and within the film. We’ve already seen him in the buff, Miss Beacham doesn’t undo a blouse button. This latter moment is witnessed by the shadowy Richard Wattis. No good will come of this…

           Later, Tom caddishly proclaims his undying love to Mrs Cazaret once more, to the sounds of soft sax in soft grass… and back to parlour games in the old manor. Tarot cards, divination through objects… the usual stuff. There turns out to be something very wrong about the glasses… moodily shot, the first hint of eerie music, and the emergence of Oliver, one of the Beautiful People as more sinister than first suspected.

Tom pays a return visit to Janet during her father’s sermon, which is on the topic “We must love one another or die, or rather love one another AND die” and thus on point. The bad omens are racking up. If there was a Cyril Cusack in every pulpit there would be a greater Sunday attendance, I would say. Tom gets invited to a Vicarage lunch… word gets shipped back to the Manor. Ava has a rival.

In all the film, this is the only sequence where the commune, in the shape of Tom, and Oliver to an extent, interacts with the local community in the shape of the congregation and its vicar. Throughout, they are seemingly self-sufficient, isolated, Other. Which of course works perfectly with the theme of the Ballad; there, the Faeries are about as Other as you can get. Here, the commune are the interlopers, the second-homers, the invaders; a lot less tonally deaf than in, say, The Wicker Man, where English rural traditions have been imported to a Scottish Isle by its laird, the locals inculcated, the Scottish traditions repressed and we all know what happens to the representative of Scotland’s society when he turns up…….. this may not be the reading intended by Robin Hardy, but it is there. The ‘Tradition’ he falls foul of is a cuckoo in the nest. Here, the interlopers are acting out a genuinely local piece of folklore.

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The Torpid Collection, as the Beautiful People have become to Ava, are dragged into a party game where Tom and Oliver end up in a fight. Elroy – Elroy “doesn’t play with the children” we are told – takes Tom aside to warn him what might happen; with an exchange of pleasantries – “Rancid old Queen,” “Don’t you dare touch me”- poor Richard – Elroy recounts two fatal car accidents, in 1955 and 1962, and insinuates…. and the song restarts;

        And at the end of seven years, she pays a tithe to hell………..

Whether through love of Janet or through Elroy putting the wind up him, Tom tells Mrs Cazaret he wants to go; she pretty much begs him not to. Then back to Janet. He really has got the wind up. Fabia Drake turns up as the least likely procurer of abortions/provider of advice I can imagine; the final conclusion being

           I think you go with child…
           Well if that be so, Janet said,

           Myself shall bear the blame

 but she will also bear the address of an abortionist. A bit too radical four hundred years earlier, one assumes. Tom and Mrs. Cazaret strike a deal, she will let him go… after a date. Boy, is this the date from Hell. The cabaret singer sings about death, the couple don’t exchange a word… until she lets him know he has a week. Until she hunts him down and kills him, said to a jazz funk backing. Well, we’ve all had bad nights…Tom flees. Janet arrives and questions Mrs C, who can’t help her find Tom, so she heads to the abortionist as Ava turns monochrome.

She stops at a flowerseller outside, where she

       pulled a double rose, a rose but only two

and she is spotted by Tom. There’s magic in those double roses… ask Belle.

Tom is hiding out in a caravan parked on the riverbank between the old and new Firth Of Forth bridges…. a bit of a comedown frankly, but if they are on the South bank, safe… because Scottish witches can’t cross rivers. Elroy, however can. And Tom has blown that week…Tom is kidnapped, back to Carterhaugh, and the horror finally, finally begins; Tom will die; Mrs. Cazaret, it seems cannot. Tom is drugged before being given a Hobson’s Choice opportunity to escape pursued by the new Less-Beautiful-More-Sinister People recruited by Elroy.

Much of this seen in a pretty effective POV sequence, as seen through the drugged haze, hallucinatory versions of what is apparently there; Ava Gardner is at last The Queen of The Faeries, her minions the Faery Folk of myth, not pantomime. These are “Creatures; they’ll tear you to pieces” He takes the white Aston Martin to find Janet waiting. Unfortunately, Tom is driving….

         But tonight [ ] the fairy folk ride, those that would their true love win

         At Mile’s cross they must hide. [ ]

         Quickly run to the white steed 

   And pull the rider down

         For I’ll ride on the white steed, the nearest to the town,

          For I was an earthly knight, they give me that renown.

So the car gets wrapped around the border scenery, and hallucinating Tom runs off… again, we see both his hallucinations as he becomes a bear, fights a snake, catches fire, and the reality, as the creatures hunt… and Janet stays with him to keep him alive in the marsh; him semi-naked, Janet hugs him as Mrs C., Elroy, Oliver and the creatures arrive; Tom has sobered up; Janet and he have beaten the Faeries.

       Oh they will turn me in your arms, to a newt, or a snake

         But hold me tight and fear not, I am your baby’s father

         And they will turn me in your arms into a naked knight,

         But cloak me in your mantle and keep me out of sight

        [ ] She heeded what he did say and young Tam Lin did win

We are spared the parting curse of the ballad;

     Had I known, Tam Lin, she said,

     This night I did see,

     I ‘d have looked him in the eyes

     And turned him to a tree

Other versions have the threat of his eyes being removed and being hung from said tree. Here, we see Mrs C., Elroy and Oliver heading stateside in Business Class. “I have money everywhere” she says, handing Oliver those glasses.

It really is both an interesting film and a bit of a misfire; I can find no online-published memoirs or accounts of the making of it, the thought processes, the inspirations. We just seem to have the film to go on.

So many questions; it has to have been a personal project for debutant director Roddy McDowall; but why so ambitious (and it had to have been expensive) and it isn’t so bad that it deserved to end his directorial career.

The script; it is a pretty clever adaptation of an ancient tale, one set in a mediaeval age of witchcraft and Faerie Folk, and brought roaring into a contemporary Britain in a surprisingly faithful-to-the-original manner; so had McDowall commissioned it from William Spier, had it been on a Hollywood shelf for a decade, or had it taken a decade to get the finance together ??  Because William Spier had received no writing credits for a decade prior to this, and only TV credits at that. It’s odd.

And then the piecemeal release; what happened ?? It didn’t get out in the US for a couple of years, and then under the nonsensical title The Devil’s Widow. It sank pretty much without trace, and despite Martin Scorsese restoring it and giving it a Bluray release a decade ago, (US only, annoyingly) still very few people have heard of it. At least a very good copy is on YouTube.

The film has style and intelligence; the symbolism of the bridges, a staple of European folklore for millennia; the use of lemon tints for the POV shots of the glasses-wearers; the fade to monochrome of Ava Gardner chills the screen at the right point; the still-frame sequence is a little odd, and coy, but it isn’t ordinary.

The cinematography is sumptuous throughout, interiors carefully lit and matching the mood as the film darkens; Ava Gardner is shot lovingly, and moves through the gears from vulnerable to spiteful to evil while remaining as glamorous as only she could, even nudging fifty. Opposite her McShane acquits himself well, going from cocksure to terrified; Stephanie Beacham too, in an underwritten role. Apart from Cyril Cusack and Fabia Drake, given delicate cameo parts, the rest are pretty much cyphers, as intended; a torpid collection of Beautiful People.

Final mention must go to Richard Wattis; as Private Secretary/Chief Eunuch/Familiar Elroy to Ava’s Queen, he hovers at the corners of frames, in the shadows, coolly mysterious, frightened almost as much as frightening, and camply malevolent. It’s a great part, and he comes close to stealing a film he actually has very little screen time in. If he gave a finer film performance, I haven’t seen it. Had the film got a proper, timely release would we have been celebrating Richard Wattis as the actor who had a late blossoming in Giallo rather than walk-on parts in Sykes???

But it doesn’t entirely work. Is it TOO faithful to the source ?? That could be argued. Does the slightly underwhelming version of the song used, help, especially compared to the dramatics of, for instance, the Fairport Convention version?? Possibly not.

Is it merely enough to be sinister when you’re over half-way through a film?? Is there enough genuine horror at the climax?? Probably not. The original ballad is more horrific, and McShane (or his stunt double) in a bear suit is pretty risible, as is the fake snake. The fiery special effect is pretty good… but the climax of the chase does end weakly and inexplicably (If you don’t know the ballad).

The film does end in a way that suggests the further adventures of Mrs. Cazaret and Elroy in the United States. Sadly, there was to be no sequel to this fascinating, flawed, forgotten entry into the folk horror genre.

Thanks are due to Amy Harris for prompting me to look into the film, and Melanie Selfe for the discussions thereafter, and David Cairns for his patient editing.

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.

The Sunday Intertitle: Wolfdunnit?

Posted in Fashion, FILM, literature, Mythology, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 3, 2018 by dcairns

Today, for the Hammer & AMicus Blogathon, I’m looking at THE BEAST MUST DIE. No, not this one —

I haven’t seen the 1952 version of Nicholas Blake’s novel, but I have read the novel. Blake was the pen-name of Poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis, father of Daniel, who moonlighted as a crime novelist. This his only book to have been adapted for the cinema, but his The Smiler With the Knife NEARLY became Orson Welles’ first film.

Not this one either ~

Claude Chabrol’s version of the same book is pretty good. Going by the cast list of the Argentinian version, it shares with Chabrol the unusual feature of eliminating the character of the detective. Blake/Day-Lewis created such a compelling pair of opposing characters in this story that his usual toff detective, Nigel Strangeways, just gets in the way. And in Smiler, he’s almost completely sidelined, his adventurous wife taking centre stage (Welles hoped to cast Lucille Ball, with himself as homegrown fascist villain).

But no, Amicus head Milton Subotsky chose to adapt a short story by Star Trek writer James Blish and give it Blake’s title (a biblical quotation) — but it’s STILL a country house detective story, with a slight twist. There will be spoilers ahead.

Taking this challenge seriously, I’m basically live-blogging this so you can see if I’m able to ID the skin-changer. Who’s hairy on the inside at this weekend party?

In my experience, seventies werewolves tend to wear plaid shirts, like lumberjacks (perhaps harking back to WOLFBLOOD, the silent movie combining lycanthropy and lumberjacking which I wrote about here. The first lumberthrope movie? So I’ll be watching this one waiting for someone to turn up in an ugly shirt, My money’s on Michael Gambon as the cast member likeliest to display hideous fashion sense. But I am aware of a complicating factor: the movie was also released, in an attempt to cash in on the blacksploitation craze, as BLACK WEREWOLF, which would seem to narrow the choices down to Calvin Lockhart and Marlene Clark. And is, quite frankly, a terrible title for a whodunnit.

We begin with a freeze-fame of our werewolf — ALSO a terrible spoiler — and the insinuating tones of Valentine Dyall, purring a redundant VO which is also spelled out in superimposed titles.

Helicopter shot over what looks like Scottish heather, but may in fact be the grounds of Shepperton, and Calvin Coolidge Lockhart is being hunted by a private army and a helicopter, through a wood wired for sound by Anton Diffring who sits aloof in a control room with a video wall.

This movie is THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND avant la lettre, isn’t it? Which is to say, Ten Little Indians with a video wall. I wonder if Robert Ludlum saw it and thought, “Needs a better title!”

The cast contains Dumbledore II, Ernst Stavros Blofeld (again), Ganja Meda, Irving Amadeus, the Grand Moff Tarkin and Reinhard Heydrich, so it’s quite a house party.

Two cast members lack iconic signature roles — but Ciaran Madden would reunite with Dumbledore Michael Gambon in 1992 when she played Mm. Maigret to his titular sleuth, and Tom Chadbon has a memorable bit part in JUGGERNAUT (“I’d spent it, hadn’t I?”) though of course I find all the bit parts memorable in that one.

Chadbon, whose voice here fluctuates between early Malcolm McDowell and anorak on the bus man, is an absolute joy in his puffy shirts.

The dialogue is a hoot — “One of our guests is a werewolf: I know it,” intones Lockhart. “Then why did you INVITE them?” asks his wife, quite reasonably. What adds to the strangeness is that most of the cast are either playing the wrong nationality — Anton Diffring is being Polish, Peter Cushing German — or are dubbed — Marlene Clark has been revoiced by Scottish jazz singer and actress Annie Ross, who performed the same service for Britt Ekland in THE WICKER MAN — or just have naturally amusing voices, like Chadbon and Gray (whose voice we’re used to hearing come out of Jack Hawkins’ mouth).

Anton sips his Bailey’s and gazes at his video wall like a kind of Thomas Jerome Teuton.

Director Paul Annett was an experienced second unit man for TV, shooting the location action sequences on film for British shows that would revert to video as soon as the characters moved indoors. For his sins, he does provide an endless car chase between Lockhart and Gambon that saps my will to live whenever I try to watch this movie. Maybe that’s why I don’t remember who the werewolf is — the car chase always defeats me. Well, this time, I’m as obsessed as Lockhart to get to the bottom of this, lacking only the attractive high cheekbones (with Lockhart and Cushing and Diffring and even Gray, this film sports perhaps the finest assemblage of cheekbones ever captured on celluloid — a thespic Himalayan range of facial promontories).

“Lost in time… and lost in space… and meaning…”

When the movie isn’t doing helicopter chases and such, Annett and ace cameraman Jack Hildyard (BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI) manage a lot of stylish and dynamic shooting, prone to zoom abuse, it’s true, but it’s 1973 after all… it’s fair to say the movie does resemble a glossy TV thriller of the period (e.g. The Persuaders) more than a horror movie. Well Subotsky liked monsters but not gore or sex or violence or anything too disturbing…

Much of the film consists of Lockhart and Diffring spying on the guest bedrooms, searching for signs of incipient werewolfism in the invitees. As Anton watches Chadbon strip to the waist, he muses, “Lots of men have hair on their chests,” projecting the suave confidence of a man who knows whereof he speaks. “And on the backs of their hands?” objects Lockhart, as if this were the unlikeliest thing on earth. He’s never met Len Deighton.

The eyes, quite apart from being the windows of the soul, are the tasty bit.

After the first killing — offscreen, but leaving a gory aftermath — we see all their guests in their PJs — Charles Gray sports a vivid paisley dressing gown, and Gambon once again goes for a subtle but distinct check. The rules of fashion dictate he MUST be the wolfman in their midst!

But at dinner, he wears a brown velvet smoking jacket and a shirt with a collar of startling wingspan. Not a check in sight.

Gambon is definitely soft on werewolves, though — his first act as Dumbledore was to hire a lycan schoolmaster.

I bloody hate day for night photography, personally.

Like THE DEVIL RIDES OUT, this movie shares cast members with the almighty INCENSE FOR THE DAMNED, two of them this time (Lockhart & Cushing).

The Sunday Intertitle this week is from The Werewolf Break, where Valentine Dyall — The Man in Black — returns on the soundtrack to invite us to guess who the shaggy killer is.

 

It’s twenty past werewolf.

And in fact the ending pulls off quite a few cunning twists — I wasn’t emotionally engaged enough to really care who’s wolfie, but the reversals and revelations pile on top of one another turn it into quite a nice conclusion. Here comes the spoilers — first hairy hand is spotted on Marlene Clark, so that her hubbie has to administer the silver bullet, and then it turns out she’s been cross-infected by a golden retriever who’d been gored by the ORIGINAL werewolf —

— an Alsatian in a woolly waistcoat, finally revealed as —

 
 

BLOODY MICHAEL GAMBON! I KNEW IT!

This has been an entry in the Hammer Amicus Blogathon run by Cinematic Catharsis and  Real Weegie Midget Reviews.