Archive for Wolf Rilla

The Milkman Always Rings Twice

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 12, 2018 by dcairns

I’ve been hoping to see a good Wolf Rilla film for ages: his work on VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED is so smart, and yet everything else I’ve been able to see was a letdown. THE BLACK RIDER was the one that used to turn up on UK TV, and it’s really pathetic — a crummy motorcycle film with a Scooby Doo plot. I wasn’t looking for the amusingly bad, but the unexpectedly good. Fiona and I once bumped into the Great Man’s son, Nico, at Edinburgh Film Fest, and he suggested THE WORLD TEN TIMES OLDER was a cult item that might be worth checking out, but I couldn’t get interested. But MARILYN — know in the US as ROADHOUSE GIRL, which sets you up for all manner of disappointment — has been gathering quite a strong reputation.

I guess the setting is, technically, a roadhouse of sorts, but we’d call it a greasy spoon cafe (pronounced “caff”) or maybe a tea-room. It’s that exciting. Vamped up to project class and glamour mid-film, it acquires the name Marilyn, after its owner, an impossible development — a cafe could be called Marilyn’s, conceivably, but not Marilyn. Snack-bars with human names? What’s next, a brasserie called Derek? Perhaps this is a case of the Berlin-born Rilla not being quite familiar enough with British idioms. Certainly the dialogue in his self-penned script is strangely flat and repetitive, and his cast are not resourceful enough to repeat a line two different ways, so whenever they echo themselves it sounds like they’re practicing their lines, or like multiple takes have been spliced together by an experimentally-inclined cutter.

The actors include Maxwell Reed (Mr. Joan Collins), who’s tall, and Sandra Dorne, who’s blonde (they were made for each other!), and Leslie Dwyer, the Punch and Judy man from TV’s Hi-De-Hi! It’s basically James M. Cain at a garage in the Home Counties. Also featuring Count Von Krolock and Hengist Pod. But the movie belongs to Ealing stalwart Vida Hope.

Reed gets a job as garage hand and spends time posing erotically under a sign reading LUBRICATION SERVICE. Dorne falls for him, they bump off the jealous husband more or less by accident, and then she starts pursuing more promising romantic prospects in the form of suave Ferdy Mayne, who must have played suave in a hundred quote quickies of this kind, filmed in a week or two and released to deafening silence in possibly-empty auditoria. Hope plays the waitress/confidante who’s obviously in love with Marilyn, the only daring aspect of a movie that bowdlerizes Cain’s “love rack” narrative at every turn. Even at the end, when the cops turn up, I was racking my brains to figure out if anything seriously criminal has actually been done. It would be a good Cain-style narrative if they ended up being done for murder, when WE saw it was an accident, and insurance fraud when it was basically on the level. But the movie ends, or runs out, before that can be dealt with.

But Rilla directs with admirable intensity — his angles are good, and he cuts to juicy close-ups at the most effective moments. And, As Matthew Sweet has argued, there’s something appealing about the sheer drabness of it all. Even the romantic music is lugubrious, despondent, like the rubber band’s gone on the gramophone. The actors are all road-company versions of the bare archetypes they’re attempting to evoke. The whole affair has a real post-war misery. This is to IT ALWAYS RAINS ON SUNDAY as DETOUR is to THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE. To quote Errol Morris’s best line, “Despair enacted on cheap sets.”

Inventive and lively direction keeps us engaged with a production that’s totally “from poverty,” and the script engages with the lack of glamour. Best line is when Dwyer rants about how his wife should show more gratitude: “I work my fingers to the bone so you can have all the comforts. Look around you: a gas fire in every room. Electric light!”

Wow. This is living.

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Crossing the Line

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on July 11, 2018 by dcairns

It’s not worth getting into any lengthy comparison of John Carpenter’s VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED with Wolf Rilla’s. Why kick a film when it’s down? “It’s not his worst film,” observed Fiona, kindly, but the only response to that one are not kind, so I’ll refrain. Although writer David Gerrold did come up with a put-down that’s so acid and perfect I can’t not quote him.

“Carpenter (n): one who works with wood.”

It was Ambrose “Bitter” Bierce who remarked that for each of us there exists an insult so apposite that, once applied, it will stick forever. “Our enemies have but to find it.”

In fact, the film has numerous nice touches, it’s just that whenever you look at the way the original movie (or the book) handled things, the nice touches aren’t as nice as the earlier ones.

A key moment early on illustrates the weaknesses running through Carpenter’s vision. The town of Midwich has been knocked unconscious by some mysterious force. The authorities, headed by Kirstie Alley, determine the perimeter of the strange knockout bubble, and draw a line on the rad marking the border. A bold soldier in gas mask steps forward, with a rope around him so he can be dragged back to safety if overcome.

 

He walks slowly forward. Topples. Is dragged back to the point of safety, and revives.

In terms of incident, this is much like what happens in the Wolf Rilla show. But Rilla keeps his camera on the safe side of the line. With the observers, we watch the pointman proceed forward, our anxiety synchronised with theirs. By respecting the line, Rilla makes the threat seem more real. We feel, in a way, that if he tried to film from OVER THERE, the operator and focus puller would collapse into coma, the lens tilting slowly down to gaze at the road surface until the magazine ran out. Even though in other scenes he’s swooped all over Midwich in a camera crane, recording the plague of narcolepsy. For THIS scene, the line matters.

And of course, Carpenter is all over the place, following the lone soldier as he walks into danger, as if he were a character or something, jumping back to the actual characters, just shooting the shit out of the scene but without the strong focus that comes from a strong idea, or from asking (drum roll) Mike Nichols’ Three Questions.

What are the Three Questions? Any of you know?

Tomorrowsday #3: We’re the start of the coming race

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 10, 2018 by dcairns

Returning to our Tuesday sci-fi season. VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED was an atypical British entry in the series, an adaptation of John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos, a title which was never going to fly in the movies, though one might regret the hysteria of the alternative chosen. Especially given the film’s muted, low-key approach to much of the action, some of which can be credited to George Sanders’ quiet central performance.

Sheep! The first accidental echo of THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL. Nothing says “sleepy English village” like sheep, and they serve as maybe a metaphor for humanity’s potential fate, though watching the pale, placid things flocking along is oddly reminiscent of the alien kids when they appear, always traveling in a group.

Looks like Rilla got a camera crane into the village location for one day and shot the hell out of everything. The best bits of the remake are the quick cuts of unconscious Midwichers, but Rilla’s sweeping moves are better, the gliding camera contrasting with the static bodies and emphasising their inactivity. And playing the credits over the clock tower is terrific — it’s 11am, not time to sleep — and also, it rhymes with the prominent role played by clocks at the film’s climax.

This part of the film has a real EXTERMINATING ANGEL vibe about it, particularly when they send a man in with a rope tied to him. (Surrealist logic is allowed to be bendy, as in Tex Avery. Bunuel has his houseguests simply unable to try to leave, whereas the people on the outside CAN try to get in, but then they go wobbly and fall over.) In a way lots of the film is like Bunuelian sci-fi. A village falling asleep all at once is a surreal idea — a variant on Rene Clair’s PARIS QUI DORT, perhaps. Every woman of childbearing age becoming pregnant is equally bizarre. And, rather than relying on special effects (most of them fairly shaky when they do appear), the film prefers to keep the truly alien and uncanny stuff offscreen and therefore abstract, unknowable.

Peter Vaughan! A great psychotronic actor — two Gilliams, two Ken Russells and one Peckinpah to his name, but not yet. His P.C. Gobby here is one of a raft of early copper roles he was lumbered with before his greatness became apparent.

Wyndham offers a glimpse of something round in the village square, seen from the air. We obviously imagine a flying saucer. This could have been replicated in the movie, perhaps as a doctored aerial photograph, but they prefer to leave everything, but everything, to our imaginations. Perhaps this is due to censorship/taste concerns also: they don’t want anyone to imagine Little Green Men roving the village with turkey basters, impregnating every female in their path. By making the invasion invisible, we’re free to picture these conceptions as immaculate, with the alien sperm passing through the women like tiny ghosts, as a beam of light passes through a stained glass window, without breaking it. The alien fertilisation is an abstract force, just like the bubble of unconsciousness enveloping Midwich.

Another thing left out of the film is the attempts by various village women to lose their unwanted foetuses, taking long bicycle rides or hot baths, or throwing themselves downstairs a la LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN. Couldn’t deal with THAT in a film of the period.

Fiona was reminded of WENT THE DAY WELL?, another tale in which an alien force occupies a sleepy (!) English village. In both stories, the angry resistance by Britishers sometimes seems too brutal, unsympathetic.

“So cold…” says the soldier recovering from his unconsciousness. And it is! You can see the actors’ breath in the air.

There sure are a lot of Argonauts in this film. Well, Laurence Naismith and Michael Gwynn both appear.

Mobile X-ray unit! That was the answer to everything in those days. If it moves, X-ray it. If it continues to move, keep X-raying it until it stops.

The glowing eyes effect, which always seemed questionable, is even more flawed now that I see the film on DVD. I doubt that the BBC1 screening of my childhood was sharp enough to make it easil discernible that the glowing eyes have been painted onto still images of the kids, sometimes uneasily splitscreened with moving shots. It’s arguable that every effect you DON’T see in this film is preferable to everything we DO see. Partly because it’s a low-budget film and what it can afford to show us is limited. Mostly because the unseen enlists the imagination.

   

Fiona likes the crazy Herrmannesque harp glissandi — reminiscent of the shimmering, dreamy stuff in FAHRENHEIT 451. Composer Ron Goodwin maybe deserves more attention — certainly he wrote a joyous thing when he created Miss Marple’s theme tune for the Margaret Rutherford films, and of course there’s 633 SQUADRON.

George Sanders’s contractual piano, which he insisted had to be on the set of every film, is actually part of the set here, and he tickles its ivories a little. George is great. Around this time he made THE REBEL and writers Galton & Simpson asked him about his many conquests. Had he really…? “Oh yes. But I am now of an age when a satisfactory bowel movement far exceeds the pleasure of a good fuck.” You can, perhaps, see in his restraint and melancholy here foreshadowing of the despair which would kill him (“I’m very, very bored,” he famously recorded in his suicide note). But he’s also just being true to the role: as a clever bit of plot-character confluence, the elderly Gordon Zellaby is the only villager who’s really happy about parenthood coming so suddenly, as he’d lost hope of it ever coming. And he’s going to be the one who has to take final, fatal action against his own (sort-of) offspring.

Of course we all know it’s PSYCHOMANIA that really did for him.

Barbara Shelley, an actress unaccountably bundled into horror films more often than not (well, she was a good screamer), is also very good, though all Wyndham’s women are a little underdeveloped. Fiona has long felt that a version of the story focussing on the women’s side would be worthwhile — they have, after all, been raped and impregnated, and it takes a somewhat paternalistic view (which Wyndham had) to view this as a story in which the menfolk have the more dramatic role.

Throughout the film, director Wolf Rilla’s shots have a modest intensity, a slightly noirish sense of emphasis, so we always sense the drama beneath the serene surface of this “typical” village. There are beautiful shots of the kids that remind me of the “children of rage” in Cronenberg’s THE BROOD, in those shots where we see them walking in their parkas in longshot, images that are outwardly normal except for what we know about what’s REALLY going on.

The script here is credited to American TV and movie writer Sterling Silliphant and Rilla himself and producer/Scotsman Ronald Kinnoch, which Silliphant always saw as a deplorable bit of credit-stealing. He evidently felt his script was filmed quite faithfully and so those two didn’t deserve their names on it.

Little Martin Stephens, the lead space-hellion, becomes the prototype for all scary kids — the cool, calm, Spock-like approach is far more chilling than any Linda Blair snarling. It’s tempting to believe that the little girls in THE SHINING are English not because daddy Phillip Stone is English, but because the Diane Arbus photo that inspired Kubrick then reminded him of the cuckoos, and he had to hear them talk in clipped English accents.

Stephens, of course, is also fantastic in THE INNOCENTS, and turns in THE HELLFIRE CLUB and THE WITCHES, though less interesting, cement his rep as the ultimate scary kid. He’s the fulcrum of the whole gaggle.

I’m obsessed with the ending of this movie because it resorts to a kind of silent movie metaphor technique to make the invisible visible — to perceive the kids’ telepathic intrusion on Sanders’ thoughts we need to see what they see. So first they see the brick wall he’s trying to think of. Then, under their literally penetrating gaze, the wall begins to crumble — if they were really smart they’d figure out that if he’s concealing his thoughts there must be something he’s trying to hide, something therefore not in their interests… they know what happened to their OTHER colonies.

(A Wyndham novel never filmed, and unlikely to be filmed, is The Chrysalids, which also has psychic kids who can communicate across continents. But in this book, the coming race are the heroes and the puritans who seek to preserve unmutated genetic normality at all costs are the true monsters. And there are traces of his divided sympathies in this one.)

But this is a GREAT THING. The bomb concealed behind the wall fills the shot, just as the wall does, so they’re surreally out of scale. One thought superimposed on another. And I remember, after seeing the film, trying to conceal my thoughts in this manner, placing a surface idea over a secret one. And finding it impossible not to think of an elephant.

Cunning editing avoids the worst effects of an unconvincing miniature explosion — this being a British picture, it’s unnecessary to invoke the deity at the end (might be seen as poor taste, don’t you know?) but amid the reaction shots, the village vicar is prominently placed — then there’s another superimposition, suggesting the alien souls departing for space — it may be cheesy, but I rather love it. The movie NEEDS some kind of summative moment that takes us beyond a simple victory by dynamite. Watch the John Carpenter remake and see if you don’t agree.

“The world shall hear of us again!” they don’t say. But you know that’s what they mean. And they’re right. To be continued…