The Blood Beast Terror 1968 ***

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Also known as The Vampire Beast Craves Blood, Blood Beast From Hell and Deathshead Vampire, Vernon Sewell’s horror/thriller really couldn’t find the right title for this novel twist on traditional themes. But any film that features both Peter Cushing and special effects by a pre-Alien Roger Dicken deserves a fresh appraisal, and there’s quite a lot to suggest that Sewell’s film is a neglected genre piece.

This is a Tony Tenser/Tigon production, made during the peak of Hammer’s success, and it’s clear that they hoped to find a few franchise-friendly monsters to rival the other studio. So what is the blood beast? Well, it’s a kind of moth, or perhaps a were-moth might be more accurate, since it can take human form; Curse of the Were-Moth presumably tested badly, so Blood Beast Terror it was.

Tigon also took cues from Hammer in terms of casting and approach. Peter Cushing is a name that will always draw genre fans. He was a distinguished and gentle soul who seems to glide around in these films, always polite, even when playing madmen; during the heat-wave scenes here, he never loosens his cravat. He’s ideally suited to Sewell’s production, which is big on drawing room conversations, entomology lectures and the details of coach and horse travel; the setting is the 19th century, but it could easily be the 14th. Cushing plays Detective Inspector Quennell of Scotland Yard, who is trying to solve the murders of several young men. Could Carl Mallinger (Robert Flemyng) and his daughter hold the secret?

There’s some British comedy stalwarts in supporting roles, including Minder’s Glynn Edwards as a cop and Roy Hudd re-invigorating the cliché of the post-mortem medic who loves to eat on the job. An additional point of interest in the female were-moth, played by Benedict Cumberbatch’s mother, Wanda Ventham. It’s not easy for an actress playing a were-moth, but she gives it a good shot.

Cushing reputedly wasn’t wowed by the result, but there’s quite a lot of fun here, notably the beast in a chrysalis form thanks to Dicken. And there’s also an extended theatre-play within a film that features medical students performing a version of Burke and Hare. It seems pointedly aimed at making fun of the Hammer brand, and stops the action in its tracks for a good ten minutes. But the cardboard set, unconscious humour and stilted acting are all on-message with The Blood Beast Terror’s playful genre reconstruction; its another nice find on the impressive Flick Vault channel.

The Magnificent Seven Deadly Sins 1971 ***

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British comedy is well represented in Graham Stark’s debut film as director, a portmanteau of comedy sketches which fuse the old-school comedy of the early sixties with the surreal edge of the late sixties; it’s not exactly consistent, but it is interesting because of the talent involved. Original Goons Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe are here, although working separately, Monty Python’s Graham Chapman contributes two sketches, but with Barry Cryer as his writing partner rather than John Cleese, and there’s three Bond girls to add glamour. Add cod-Python animated inserts, plus a role call of comedy names from Bruce Forsyth to Leslie Phillips, and you’ve got an interesting evening viewing, even if there’s precious few actual laughs.

Starting with the good stuff, Spike Milligan’s brand of humour did not translate to the big screen in the way that fellow Goon Peter Sellers did; The Great McGonagall, Puckoon and The Bed Sitting Room are all hard going and for completists only. But his short on the subject of Sloth is pretty good, and has the crazy energy of his written successes; it’s really just a series of silent jokes, with director Graham Stark in a bathtub, lots of discussion of walnuts, and a genuine anarchic tone. It’s worth seeking out, even if the rest of the sins leave you cold.

Elsewhere, there’s Harry Secombe in blackface, which is something of a low-point in a silly story about house Envy, while for Lust, Harry H Corbett does a strange melancholy routine about trying to chat up ‘dolly birds’ in subway stations; Marty Feldman is a credited writer here. And say what you want about Bruce Forsyth’s efforts to rescue a 50p coin from a drain in the Avarice sketch, it’s a sketch that sticks in your mind despite being, well, not particularly funny.

With Bob Guccione, Roy Hudd, Ronnie Barker, June Whitfield, Julie Ege, Ian Carmichael, Alfie Bass, Bill Pertwee and more making appearances, The Magnificent Seven Deadly Sins should have been a comedy monument; instead, it’s an oddity, but one that’s fun in terms of spotting cameos and reflecting on a way of life in 1971 that seems like a long time ago; the 5p Subway-ticket vending machines and the tiny packets of crisps may interest future cultural anthropologists.

Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion 1997 ****

romyPower sucks, or certainly the abuse of it does; whether convictions are the result of the on-going MeToo revolution or not, it’s to be hoped that the film industry will no longer be a place where one man can successfully blacklist a wronged woman. Mira Sorvino has made accusations of exactly that nature, and it’s pretty much apparent that her career took a nose-dive from Oscar winner for Mighty Aphrodite to Hallmark tv movie queen. Two years after her Academy Award, she did some of her best work in this delightfully feather-weight Touchstone Pictures comedy which pairs her with Friends star Lisa Kudrow. While everything from Bill and Ted to Dumb and Dumber gets prequels, sequels and reboots, Romy and Michelle has been left on the shelf, and that’s a real shame, because it’s a funny, likable film with strong female characters.

The point of origin is a play, Ladies Room by Robin Shiff; one that gave birth to the characters of Romy and Michelle, played by Sorvino and Kudrow respectively. The tagline, The Blonde leading the Blonde, reflects the fun that’s had with the heroines being somewhat gauche; the gag is that Romy and Michelle are losers, but they resolve to fake it until they make it, specifically because they’re headed home from LA for a high-school reunion which they hope won’t reflect their penury. A chance encounter with Heather Mooney (Janeanne Garofalo) in a Jaguar repair-shop inspires the girls to deceive their old friends and foes alike by pretending to have invented Post-It stickers and other white lies. Of course, the internet hasn’t happened yet, so it’s quite possible to get away with such untruths, since fact-checking seems to have been an unknown art in 1997.

There’s lots of fun to be with David Mirkin’s film; early roles for Justin Theroux and Alan Cumming, who has a wild dance scene set to Cyndi Lauper’s Time After Time in the film’s celebratory climax. But Sorvino and Kudrow are a revelation, with great comic timing, just enough pathos, and two characters who should have spawned a franchise for sure. And this is a story where the girls kick ass, take on the bullies and braggarts, and win in a most satisfactory way. There’s no way to accurately assess the injustice done to actresses like Sorvino, but giving Romy and Michelle a dust down, or even a sequel, might be a tiny step in the right direction.

Clive James

This blog is about celebrating, and occasionally eviscerating the world of cinema and television; it’s not the place for obituary notices. But for Clive James, the clown prince of critics, it’s worth making an exception. As a television critic, he was peerless, a genuine wit who watched the medium because he loved it.

In those days, critics didn’t wrestle access from PR companies, then write a review in the hope of a pull quote for a poster. James wrote what he saw, and then what happened  after he switched channels because the first show bored him. He wrote about sporting events like Eurovision or Wimbledon or the endless movable feasts that were David Coleman, ITV telethons or disco competitions or even Ski Sunday. He wrote about the continuity announcements, on drab current affairs like Nationwide; one festive column saw him switching between BBC films Where Eagles Dare and The Sound of Music, with the triumphant von Trapp family eventually invading Germany and accepting the surrender of General von Paulus.

James has a way with prose which captured the best possible kind of commentary, adding an idiosyncratic series of observations on whatever he reviewed. He was an intellectual who enjoyed mass entertainment. He would write passionately on Shakespeare or Jack Rosenthal, decry what he perceived as laziness in the work of Pinter and Lindsay Anderson, yet get sucked into the schlock of The Poseidon Adventure or Martin Sheen’s performance as a ‘drug-addicted, plague-carrying gigolo’ in The Cassandra Crossing. He was sensitive to the gift for individual detail he saw in the work of Victoria Wood, but also find the space for a boyish snigger at the eroticism he happened upon in the innuendos of hapless BBC sports commentators. ‘He’s pulling the big one out now,’ was a well-caught slip describing the athlete Brendan Foster.

And James did pull the big one out. Time and again, he captured moments in prose that endure. There was terse disapproval on observing Princess Anne at a rugby match, visible chatting away during the national anthem and offering up ‘an uninterrupted stream of chat.’ He aptly described the It’s A Knockout judge Eddie Waring’s rocking on-camera movements as ‘cogitations’, and accused the Germans of preparing for some ludicrous slippery-pole game ‘since the end of World War Two’. He fearlessly pilloried Rupert Murdoch, specifically because he percieved him to be a snob about he arts. He noted a worthy tv drama that finished with a sudden scream, then wearily confessed ‘It was mine.’ He banqueted on drama, from The Borgias to Dallas, making pithy observations about Sue Ellen’s mouth or the Poisoned Dwarf that made the tiresome programmes more fun to watch. He railed at variety shows, and domestic tv figures like Max Bygraves or Dick Emery, but was more than happy to launch into withering descriptions of the on-stage indulgences of big international stars like Liza Minnelli or Frank Sinatra.

James went on to interview Sinatra as part of his tv work; like Terry Wogan, his wit seemed to be gradually blunted by his proximity to his subjects, and absorbed into his understandable desire to be part of the continuing cultural soap-opera he wrote about. He was a tv natural, with a sing-song delivery and a genuine desire to amuse; the clip below comes from his Clive James At the Movies single show for ITV, in which he examined risible clips from old movies; his joy is evident, and the sound of his laughter will be missed.

(Some of the quotes above may be inaccurate, I didn’t check them, they are as I remember then forty years after reading them.)

Hussy 1980 ****

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Post Star Wars, there was a brief period where there remained a vogue for adult film; not pornography, but serious-minded dramas which reflected the seedy side of life. Saint Jack, Atlantic City, Tales of Ordinary Madness are all quality films that followed on from the mainstream success of Emmanuelle, and reflected a desire to see believable characters on the screen depicted with a new sexual frankness. Matthew Chapman’s debut film Hussy, like most of the above mentioned films, was rapidly forgotten about post 1980, but now resurfaces to demonstrate that it’s something of a neglected classic, not least because it features brilliant performances, not just from Helen Mirren in the titular role, but from the whole ensemble cast.

Mirren plays Beaty Simons, a call girl who hangs around a bin-juice encrusted urban nightclub with other prostitutes, oblivious to regular, grand performances by disco pioneer Patti Boulaye, who seems to be previewing material for the Royal Variety Performance. Beaty has a past and a child, but still finds idealism enough to fall for chauffeur Emory (John Shea), who seeks to take her away from the squalor she lives in and share the similar squalor that he lives in. After some fairly raunchy sex scenes, the plot takes over as Emory fends off Max (Murray Salem) an outrageous gay criminal with a plan, while she bristles at the intrusion of her old pimp Alex (Paul Angelis) who moves in with them. Both Salem and Angelis give extraordinary, larger-than-life performances here, barely giving the leads any space to work. Indeed, the second half of the film hardly features Mirren at all, but focuses on a deal gone wrong that leads Max and Alex into a bloody mess.

Hussy is something of a blot in Mirren’s esteemed copybook, regarded by many as a crummy sex-movie that’s borderline exploitation. And yet, if you’re broadminded enough, it’s also a very good film indeed, and catching Chapman on his way up (a descendent of Charles Darwin, he later wrote Color of Night and Runaway Jury) while also giving Salem something substantial to do; he later wrote the screenplay for Kindergarten Cop. Shea has proved to be a dependable actor as well, making Hussy something of a hothouse for talent. If you can ignore the hideous 70’s décor, music and attitudes, it’s a powerful little B movie that’s worth braving the ignominy of having Hussy on your search history.

Knives Out 2019 ****

knives-out-1200-1200-675-675-crop-000000Rian Johnson’s Knives Out is an old-fashioned whodunit that runs very much against the popular tide; such tried and tested entertainments are rarely in vogue. Exhuming Murder on the Orient Express didn’t breathe much life into the Agatha Christie stakes, and drawing rooms, insurance policies and old-school detection are hardly the ingredients for box-office success. It’s surprising, then, that despite trailers that indicate a camp-as-Clue pastiche, Knives Out is an engrossing puzzle that constitutes that rarest of commodities, a good story well told.

With no real need for spoilers, Knives Out begins with a death, and immediately tips the audience off to the guilty party. It reverses the expectations of a whodunit, and leaves us guessing where the story will go next. Of course, there’s plenty of suspects who look guilty as sin when it comes to having motives against author Harlan Thronbey (Christopher Plummer); practically his entire family have their knives out for him, providing juicy roles for stars such as Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans, Michael Shannon and Don Johnson. Meanwhile Thronbey’s nurse Marta (Ana de Armas) has her own secrets to hide, and there’s knowing cameos from Frank Oz and M Emmett Walsh to keep cineastes happy. And leading the way is Benoit Blanc, a detective played by Daniel Craig with a deft comic touch. It’s not been easy finding vehicles for an actor of Craig’s charisma, but Blanc makes an ideal focal point here, playing off his Bond image with an eccentric, slightly incompetent investigator.

Knives Out brings something fresh to the genre; the artwork of antique knives in the living room of Thronbey’s house matches up nicely with the broken spirals of shattered glass on Marta’s phone. There are wheels within wheels in the convoluted narrative, and red herrings often merge with the plot-points; there a charming conceit whereby clues are deliberately obscured under the noses of the detectives, and a cheerful dog unknowingly retrieves items of potential value.

The clichés that Knives Out turns inside out have been dormant so long that younger audiences might not realise they exist; it’s hard to imagine the Joker generation being familiar with such musty enterprises as 1961’s What A Carve Up! But that’s exactly where Knives Out goes, and hopefully the fresh take on the country-house murder will spark joy in amateur detectives worldwide.

Little Women 2019 *****

greta-gerwig-little-womenGreta Gerwig is a talented woman in a field where women are rarely listened to or valued, but she’s earned her place at the front rank of Hollywood creatives. Louisa May Alcott’s venerable property is one which Sony have been keen to develop for a while, and with Gerwig as writer/director, the resulting rich slice of period drama is something of a triumph for all concerned. For Gerwig, it proves beyond any doubt that her directorial debut, Lady Bird, was no fluke; for Amy Pascal and Sony, it’s a strong return on their faith in a fresh and radical female director, handling a big-name cast and a lush studio production. And for audiences, it’s a chance to return to a classic, often filmed text, and find something new and exciting through the eyes of a genuine auteur.

The bildungsroman is an ideal target for a 2019 do-over; today’s youth chronicle their coming of age in lugubrious detail, so it’s something of a breath of fresh air to find Alcott’s character brought to life with such brief but incisive strokes. Gerwig puts Jo (Saoirse Ronan) and her development centre-stage, opening with the author nervously awaiting the opinion of a publisher of her early work. His understanding, that a story about a woman must end with her either married, or dead, is one that Jo wants to question, but she’s also savvy and prepared to negotiate, on art, on commerce, on all terms. The question is, how did she get so smart?

From here, the narrative fractures, as we travel back seven years to see the formative experiences which have inspired Jo’s work, namely her sisters Margaret (Emma Watson), Amy (Florence Pugh) and Elizabeth (Eliza Scanlen), and also remain in the present to get acquainted with how things work out for the sisters. There is an eccentric aunt (Meryl Streep, giving it some Maggie Smith in the dowager stakes), and a handsome suitor Laurie (the more-than-personable Timothy Chalamet), while the stern but loving hand of mother Marmee (Laura Dern) is there to steady the ship when the girls’ youthful enthusiasm threatens to put things out of kilter. The way the narrative jumps backwards and forwards in time may dissuade those have come just for the classic text and chocolate-box visuals, but it revitalises the narrative in a satisfying way, and makes familiar events more surprising as they play out. As a director, Gerwig plays down the potential for sentiment, while retaining the caustic wit of her script work on Lady Bird and Frances Ha; these Little Women feel like real people, with Ronan’s sparring with Pugh a particular highlight.

Little Women is an unexpected delight, a period film that feels relevant, a woman’s picture that should have a universal appeal. It’s easy to cheer Jo as she rises above her difficulties, and Gerwig is always firmly plugged into her heroine’s psyche. The ending, while clever, is unashamedly romantic; Gerwig’s sumptuous film shows a modern audience that feminism and romance can fit together nicely.