A Million Eyes 2019 ****

a-million-eyesAfter some persuasion, this blog is starting to review the occasional, exceptional short film, and British film-maker Richard Raymond’s A Million Eyes seems like a good place to start. This blog has been dedicated to giving old, rare, independent and original work a place alongside multiplex blockbusters, and there’s every reason for including shorts under the broad church of cinema.

At 24 minutes long, A Million Eyes doesn’t feel like a short, in that it has a confident, gentle pace and a patient eye for character and setting; it doesn’t feel like a foot-in-the door show-reel, but a story hard won from experience of life. Written by Curt Zacharias Jr, it’s the story of Leroy (Elijah M Cooper), a young man who is struggling to balance his interest in photography with domestic responsibilities, specifically to his alcoholic mother Amber (Katie Lowes).

It’ll play well to a film-making audience that Leroy finds it easier to understand the world through a lens, and when an elderly neighbour (Joe Morton) provides advice on light and stock, there’s a nostalgia for older filming techniques that will strike a chord with many. Raymond has a light touch with scenes that might have seemed didactic in other hands; all the characters are easy to sympathise with and relate to, an uncommon gift in cinema circa 2019.

A Million Eyes is the kind of simple, effective short that’s easy to recommend; played by established actors who get the material, it makes a passionate plea for the next generation to be given a chance, and sets up the idea of older people as role models who have an important job to impart knowledge. For Raymond, early in his career, it’s a work of rare sensitivity that should attract awards, and more importantly, an audience.

Hawk The Slayer 1980 ***

HawkTheSlayer_quad_UK-2

There must be something about the worthy quality of film-watching during awards season that makes it so appealing to file copy on so-bad-it’s-good entries. And so we return to the sacred text of Hawk the Slayer, a bizarre fantasy film by Terry Marcel which featured briefly in Netflix’s recent Maniac tv show. Why would a hot director like Cary Joji Fukunaga be a fan? Well, because Hawk the Slayer is one of the cheesiest films ever made, and that’s the appeal; if you’re looking for production values, imaginative plotting and social relevance, stay away. If venerable British character actors, Morricone-goes-disco music cues and shonky dialogue are palatable to you then Hawk slays over and over again, much like an automatic crossbow.

Yes, automatic cross-bows are a big thing in this film, but then, so is dialogue like ‘The hunchback will have something to say about this!’ Hawk the Slayer is set, according to the poster, in a word of sword and sorcery, one where Voltar (Jack Palance) reigns supreme. His brother is Hawk (John Terry), and a flashback reveals that Voltar tied Hawk to a tree and tried to make things happen romantically with Hawk’s wife (Catriona MacColl), a plan which ended badly. The two bothers are sworn enemies, and things get worse when a survivor of one of Voltan’s massacres seeks sanctuary in a monastery, encouraging Voltan to kidnap the Abbess (Annette Crosbie). Hawk sets out to rescue her, with the help of a merry band including a dwarf, a sorceress (Patricia Quinn), a giant (Bernard Bresslaw) and a quick-firing elf.

There’s some familiar names in there, and even more further down the cast list; Roy Kinnear, Harry Andrews, Patrick Macgee, Ferdy Marne, Warren Clarke, Graham Stark and more all appear as Hawk gets bogged down in all kind of inessential sub-plots. But things are pulled along by a weird production design that features lots of fog and lots of Star Wars-lazer effects, plus a rousing score by Harry Robinson hiding under the name Robertson; imagine Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds and you’ll have a handle on the epic disco sound featured here.

Hawk the Slayer wears various Star Wars influences with pride; Voltan’s helmet is much like Darth Vader’s, and the explanation for why he wears it is familiar. It’s worth remembering that one of the appealing elements for children seeing Star Wars back in 1977/8 was that it was never revealed what was under Darth Vader’s mask, and a sequel seemed inevitable for that purpose. That sense of mystery arguably created today’s franchise cinema.

Hawk The Slayer might be a rip-off, but it’s a fun, idiosyncratic film that’s gaining momentum as a cult item; if Fukunaga has James Bond watching this is No Time To Die, it would make some kind of sense, although you’d have to use the same goofy logic as an automatic crossbow requires.

Click the link below to see if the film can be viewed in your territory…

Incense for the Damned 1970 ***

1970 - Bloodsuckers DVD - PDVD_001

Aka Bloodsuckers aka Freedom Seekers. Another titling disaster, Robert Hartford-Davis’s obscure horror film doesn’t seem to know how to describe itself; none of these titles work better than the name of the book that provided the inspiration here, Simon Raven’s Doctors Wear Scarlet. That’s not a great title either, although it does slip in as a line of dialogue here, as Richard Fountain (Patrick Mower) prepares to address an Oxford college dinner. There is some kind of critique going on of establishment corruption, but Incense for the Damned is so scrambled, it’s a constant battle to get a handle on what’s happening.

Raven’s substantial body of work seems to have been consigned to the dustbin of history, but his narrative here seems to have borrowed heavily from the adventure stories of Dennis Wheatley. Fountain is a talented young man who has gone off the rails with drugs while ‘searching for his manhood’ in Greece; a group of friends enlist the help of a resourceful British consul (Patrick Mcnee) to rescue him, only to find that dark forces are at work. It’s a haggard structure that recalls The Devil Rides Out, but retooled with 1970’s hippy trappings.

It’s understood that the film has been re-edited and re-worked to the point the director disowned it; there’s plenty of evidence of two different films happening here, and neither of them working. Fortunately Edward Woodward turns up to deliver a half-time pep-talk about how ‘vampirism is a sexual perversion’ in a desperate attempt to connect the two separate narratives. Woodward’s character also jabbers on about men who can only make love with statues, which he says is called Pygmalion Syndrome, so it’s hard to know if he can be trusted or not.

The perennially august Peter Cushing turns up for a few scenes, but he’s literally in the wrong movie here; if Cushing thought the Blood Beast Terror was his worst movie, then one presumes he didn’t see this one because it’s absolutely awful, one that gets it’s seven-minute psychedelic orgy scene in early to fend of unwary viewers. And yet the influences (John Fowles’ The Magus), the photography of the Greek island of Hydra, and the subversive intent are all in place; there’s a decent film buried somewhere in there for genre specialists to exhume.

 

 

 

The Magnificent Seven Deadly Sins 1971 ***

stark 9

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.

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 ****

hussy

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.

The Wicker Man 1973 *****

wicker-man-the-1973-009-flower-maiden-and-hunchback-jester

The resounding flop of Midsommar should send horror fans back to a rather more effective treatment of similar ideas in the form of Anthony Shaffer’s The Wicker Man, generally voted to be one of the best, if not the very best, of tBritish horror films . That’s quite an accolade, because Robin Hardy’s thriller is quite an odd proposition for any number of reasons. Largely shot in daylight, there’s no violence until the final scenes, the main character is devoutly religious, and the stakes are deliberately low; the failure of the story to work for sequels or reboots indicates what a unique proposition this singular film is.

The expanded cut fleshes out Sgt Howie (Edward Woodward) in more detail that the more widely seen version; arriving in a small village, he disparages graffiti saying “Jesus saves’; ‘ There’s a time and a place for it,’ he says, indicating that his beliefs are best kept private. Although in a relationship, Howie is a virgin, and does not suspect that he may be the victim of entrapment when an anonymous letter reaches him telling of a young girl’s disappearance.

Standing between Howie and the truth is a village of pagan-worshippers who openly fornicate outside the pub, worship phallic symbols, and allow their children to understand the world in sexualised terms. Howie is shocked, and his attempts to assert himself over his environment are blocked by Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) in tweed jacket and elbow pads. Ingrid Pitt and a dubbed (and body-doubled) Britt Ekland also make an impression, as does Lindsay Kemp as the pub’s landlord; there’s a gallery of strange locals for the honest copper to deal with.

The Wicker Man’s true horror is that of dying for nothing; Howie realises too late that his faith is no protection against unbelievers, and that his death will do nothing to alleviate their plight. In an original twist, the hunter becomes the hunted, and Howie’s investigation is turned on its head, revealing that he, in his hubris, is the real victim. Locating a beating pagan heart behind Scottish superstitions, The Wicker Man shows civilised man at a loss, out of his depth and helpless in the face of a fervent radicalism he thought had long-since vanished.