Puppet on a Chain 1971 ****

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There’s a whole lot of puppets and a whole lot of chains in Puppet on a Chain, a tight little thriller based on a novel by Alistair MacLean. MacLean was the kind of writer who, like Ian Fleming, wrote about what he knew, and when that ran out, just about managed to write about more fanciful worlds he was less familiar with. Thus, MacLean became something of a magnet for zeitgeist, and this 1971 thriller has a whiff of The French Connection and other, more reactionary drug-fuelled dramas of the time.

Puppet on a Chain’s reputation is largely based on an extended chase sequence in which speedboats navigate the canals of Amsterdam in a deadly cat and mouse game; functioning much like the car chase in Friedkin’s film, it’s a late-in-the-game show-down between the hero Paul Sherman (Sven-Bertril Taube) and his quarry Meegeren (Vladek Sheybal, from From Russia With Love and The Apple). With his pure white suit and cowboy hat, Meegeren is anything but a low-key dealer, and it’s easy to see why large crowds of gawping spectators are visible as the action unfolds. This hugely impressive stunt-show led directly to the boat chase in Live and Let Die, and a general vogue for extended action that infused both Bond and 70’s cinema.

The always impressive Dan Sharp contributed the sequence to Geoffrey Reeve’s film, and while it’s a stand-out, the location work, atmosphere and generally attitude of Puppet on a Chain are all to be commended. The view of drugs in Amsterdam is somewhat alarmist, but backed up by a rather squalid plotline, complete with children’s dolls used to smuggle heroin, and the same dolls being symbolically hung with chains as a threat.

Sure, the leads are rather anonymous, although Patrick Allen does a nice supporting turn, but that anonymity works for the film; Puppet on a Chain feels both generic and authentic, written while MacLean still had a knack for story and theme, but hadn’t yet diluted his own experience with silly and extravagant plots. Even if you’re only there for the action, Puppet on A Chain delivers genuine thrills when it comes to the big aquatic showdown.

Terror Train 1981 ***

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The Shining is such a one-off, a scary film that takes place largely in brightly lit interiors, that features few deaths and no explanation; there’s literally nothing quite like it. Kubrick’s cinematographer, John Alcott, was quite a talent, and his gifts were immediately put to good use in this unassuming little slasher movie which did no harm at all to the reputation of director Roger Spottiswoode (Under Fire, Tomorrow Never Dies) star (Jamie Lee Curtis) or even the budding career of a young magician named David Copperfield.

Terror Train also has a very clever idea that makes it somewhat unique. Yes, it’s Halloween on a train, in which a maniac boards a booze-cruise-on-rails full of partying medical students, including Curtis. The killer is wearing a disguise, and seeking revenge for a prank played many moons ago. But each victim he kills leads to a costume change, making it quite a tricky business to keep track of his movements; the audience is constantly looking for a man in a mask, but it’s the mask of the last victim you’re searching for.

Alcott goes to town on the train, framed by a beautiful exterior shot in the opening credits, and then with each compartment framed in very different light; Alcott’s use of colour certainly evokes memories of the Overlook’s past glories, and his use of diffuse lighting is very Eyes Wide Shut. And there’s lots of action on the train, including a very odd house band who conjure up a number of moods, and the novelty of several routines from Copperfield which derail the film’s momentum with their variety-show pacing.

Overall, Terror Train is something of a curiosity; back in 1981, it must have seemed like the slasher movie fad would never end, but Terror Train now appears to be one of the best of a rather tatty bunch. Cast, technical aspects and conception are all first rate; horror fans used to scraping the bottom of barrels may well find that Terror Train is worthy of a return ticket.

The Ghost Train 1941 ***

GHOST TRAIN (1941)

Rey (Daisy Ridley) and the identity of her grandfather has been the worldwide hot topic of the last month, so it comes as a relief to identify the star’s actual grandfather as Dad’s Army star Arnold Ridley, the author of the play that this 1941 comedy-chiller was based on. Ridley wrote his play in 1923, and took inspiration from his overnight stay in a now-defunct station, where the echoes of other trains created an eerie atmosphere. Many, many film versions followed, with this particular one forming a vehicle for the familiar talents of Arthur Askey.

Askey’s trademark catch-phrase ‘Ay Thank Yow’ was appropriated by Mike Meyers for his Austin Powers films, but there’s a fair range of Askey call-backs and references here, as well as a full-blown song and dance number. Askey plays Tommy Gander, a music-hall comic who provides a perfect chance to play himself. Gander is one of a merry band of travellers who miss their connection when he pulls the emergency cord on their train in order to retrieve his missing hat. Forced to spend the night as Fal Vel junction in Cornwall, the group are warned by a gloomy Great Western Railways employee of the ghost that inhabits the station, and the ghost train which passes through…

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Ridley himself (above) played the station master in his play, Herbert Lomas takes the role of Hodgin here, and there’s also a few substantial changes in the plot, with machine-gun smuggling communists replaced by Nazi Fifth-columnists as the villains. There’s jokes about Hitler, providing it’s really not too soon for JoJo Rabbit, and also some fun at the expense of such recent public figures as Napoleon. Ridley served in both world wars, so it’s fair to give him some extra lee-way when it comes to cultural sensitivity.

The Ghost Train actually stands up pretty well as a film seen from nearly eighty years later; the comedy is sharp, the mystery is neat and the suspense elements elaborate; there’s a long set-up involving how the ghost operates that actually does pay off. What a genuine war veteran like Arnold Ridley might have made of Star Wars and The Rise of Skywalker is anyone’s guess; expectations of a night at the flicks have changed somewhat since this quaint little film-of-a-play packed them in.

 

The Hound of the Baskervilles 1959 ****

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Any vaguely annoying dog still gets referred to as the Hound of the Baskervilles to this day; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel is a cultural touch-stone as popular as Sherlock Holmes himself. Film and tv version of this celebrated story are rarely up to snuff; this Hammer production, directed by Terence Fisher, plays down the hound itself in favour of a meticulous attempt to nail the original narrative; with strong atmosphere and a perfect cast, it’s a welcome addition to the Holmesian canon.

Who better to play the great detective that Peter Cushing? The length of Cushing’s career, and the number of films he made in old age, might blind us to what a vigorous and dashing figure he cuts here, quite literally bouncing of the scenery at some points. But there’s also method in his madness; Cushing nails the mood-changes in his first dialogue scene as he considers the request of Sir Hugo Baskerville (David Oxley), seeming to dismiss, then engage with his client. Holmes is a spikey wit here, while Watson (Andre Morell) is anything but a buffoon. Fisher even keeps with the source by having Holmes off-stage at key moments, but with Christopher Lee a saturnine Henry Baskerville, and John Le Mesurier as the butler, there’s no lack of good manners on show.

What really works here is the deductions; what Holmes sees, and how he puts it all together, perhaps because for once, this is not pastiche Conan Doyle, but a fair reworking of his actual plot-lines. Flickering lights on the moor, strange paintings, ravenous devil dogs; all the elements are in place, and although the final masked pooch effect is rather underwhelming, the conclusion still packs a punch.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is perhaps too violent to be a tv staple, and yet too cerebral to appeal to horror fans; either way, it’s a real genre classic that deserves to be exhumed and enjoyed. Cushing and Lee are both in strident form here, and Fisher displays the kind of barn-storming style that made him the pick of the Hammer House of directorial excellence.

 

All You Need is Cash 1978 *****

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The lowest-rated show of the week when it premiered on tv in 1978, Eric Idle and Gary Weis’s mockumentry about popular British band The Rutles has gained a cult following. This is due in part to the stellar reputations of pretty much everyone involved, but also to the song-writing gifts of Neil Innes, who sadly in no longer with us as of December 2019.

All You Need is Cash is a satirical variety show in which members of the Beatles, Monty Python and Saturday Night Live combine to poke fun at the way the Fab Four’s exploits were reported. Innes contributed 20 songs to the soundtrack, charting the rise of Ron, Dirk, Stig and Barry, the Pre-Fab Four. It’s impossible to write about them without hearing the voice of avuncular narrator and presenter Eric Idle, who contributes a peerless set of gags here, from the rat-cellar the band played in (‘”Rat Keller” means, literally in German, “Cellar of rats”. That’s not “Seller of rats”, a seller of rats, a person who sells rats for a living to another man as it were, of course not.’) to the band’s huge concert at Che Stadium (‘named after the Cuban guerrilla leader Che Stadium’). Idle also surfaces as such august experts as Stanley J. Krammerhead III, Jr., occasional visiting professor of applied narcotics at the University of Please Yourself, California.  

Mockumentaries usually have a higher number of celebrity cameos than jokes, but this early entry has tonnes of both, with comic talents like Dan Ackroyd, Michael Palin, Bill Murray and Barry Cryer all contributing brief but amusing scenes, and there’s also a hesitant Paul Simon and a strident Mick Jagger, who seems to find it remarkably in-his-wheelhouse to lie convincingly about his rivalry with the Rutles. George Harrison exec-produces and turns up, investigating the theft of pretty much everything from the band’s business address. Paul and Ringo reputedly weren’t amused by the film, but seem to have come round to it; it’s a loving tribute to the Beatles, even if it doesn’t pull many punches in making fun of them.

Best of all are Innes’s pitch-perfect parody songs, so good they’re fun to listen to in their own right. Ouch perfectly mimics Help’s simplicity, Get Up and Go sends-up Get Back, and Cheese and Onions perfectly nails the languid epiphanies of the Yellow Submarine/Magical Mystery Tour period. Before Spinal Tap, All You Need Is Cash is the original mockumentry, a delightful, funny feature-length comedy that features both subject and parodists in perfect harmony. Innes’ reward was a massive law-suit from ATV Music, but our improved laws on parody circa 2019 should ensure that his music will last a for a lunchtime and beyond.

Scrooge 1970 ***

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Christmas films are a mixed bag, reliant on tapping into pre-existing sentiment and beliefs. The best of them, like It’s A Wonderful Life or Love Actually, cast a wide net and hope to engage us with a developed sense of community, raising awareness of the world around us during a time of celebration. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is arguably the most loved and remade Christmas Story that is not overtly religious; instead, there’s a supernatural theme cannily used to uncover a simple but effective sense of well-being.

Coming hot on the heels of Oliver!, Scrooge was expected to cement a new genre of all-singing, all dancing literary adaptations; it did not. Part of that failure was ascribed to Albert Finney’s miscasting as Ebenezer Scrooge, but in truth, he’s offers exactly the kind of weighty, self-important character that a self-absorbed miser might require, and makes his conversion all the sweeter. Less effective is Alex Guinness as proto Force Ghost Jacob Marley, looking something of a sight in chains; even Kenneth More’s Ghost of Christmas Present is somewhat grotesque, and songs like I Like Life are less than classics.

But where Ronald Neame’s film hits the mark is with the song Thank You Very Much, performed twice in the film, once by Tom Jenkins (Anton Rodgers) and then again by Finney, capering down the sets of London streets in his nightgown. Both versions see the inhabitants of London joining in the throng, with street-urchins dancing away their poverty in a way that Monty Python would later parody. Rogers, looking bizarrely like former PM David Cameron, delivers the song with perfect timing, and the artificial sets give it the feel of The Muppets’ Christmas Carol. It’s a show-stopper par excellence.

Scrooge is also a story that works well for various religions in that it depicts a man literally throwing off the restraints of his material possessions in favour of attaining a more developed sense of enlightenment. Scrooge uses his wealth to gratify, not himself, but those who share his universe, and it’s a lesson that he is glad to learn. He recants his errors of judgement, and that ability to see beyond what’s good for ones-self is what makes Scrooge a classic Christmas movie. If you’re reading this review, then all I can say is, Thank You Very Much!

Car Trouble 1986 NA (no award)

car troubleConnoisseurs of utter tat will be drawn to FlickVaults’s recent revival of David Green’s Car Trouble, a British film from 1986 which offers all the crudeness of a Confessions of a Window Cleaner film but without any of the voyeuristic attractions. This is an entire feature film based around one unfunny joke; how it got made, with a reputable cast, is anyone’s guess, but after a spotty history on VHS and DVD, Car Trouble pops up on YouTube to horrify the unwary.

Taking the key role of Gerald Spong, Ian Charleston of Chariots of Fire fame is matched up with Jacqueline Spong (a post Educating Rita Julie Walters) as a British couple who seem to be in the throes of a loveless marriage. He thumbs through copies of Razzle (50p each) and fantasises about owning an E-Type Jaguar, while she fancies the salesman who is keen to sell it to him. Spong has got a 2CV which he sells to a crooked mechanic (Stratford Johns); money isn’t really an issue, since Spong has a job as an air-traffic controller at the fictional Stanwick Airport, but he’s also something of a tight-fisted miser. To add insult to injury, Jacqueline borrows his prize Jag and gets stuck inside during the act of coitus with her foreign lover, and local police/ fire-fighters have to carve them out.

And that, indeed, is the action of Car Trouble, which seems to be an unwanted vehicle for John Cleese; Spong is all moustache and marital angst, while another scene sees a car attacked with a tree-branch as in Fawlty Towers. Such eighties ephemera such as Jacqueline’s Relax T-shirt and the use of Billy Idol’s Mony Mony on the soundtrack date the film specifically, as do barely single entendres such as ‘It’s only an old knob’, uttered when part of Spong’s car falls off.

A final scene in which, vague spoilers, Spong engineers for his wife’s holiday to be ruined by arranging for the jet to collide with another plane, with up to 1000 casualties, suggests that black humour was the intention here, but since practically none of the jokes land, it’s hard to tell. This is Michael Winner-level British comedy, where the entertainment value lies in viewing the whole topsy-turvy enterprise and wondering how this, or indeed any film could be this awful.