Fright 1971 ****

The perennially knowledgeable Kim Newman makes a great point in the DVD extras for Fright; that British critics have been quick to seek out examples of Italian horror movie, specifically giallo, and yet the reputations of strong British films of the period have been allowed to fall into disrepair.  This week’s release of restored Blu-ray versions of Fight and And Soon The Darkness should help restore the position of both films in British film history.

Fright is quite a trip; a pre-Straw Dogs Susan George plays Amanda, a young girl who takes a baby-sitting job that’s weird from the get-go; the child’s parents (Honor Blackman and George Cole) seem strangely on edge, and after they depart, Amanda flirts with being a bad babysitter when an old flame Chris (Dennis Waterman) turns up in the hope of a quick fumble.  Chris is something of a pest, and Amanda throws him out, but when she detects a presence loitering outside, she wrongly assumes that Chris has returned.

Fright seems to be modelled somewhat on Psycho; there’s a Hitchcockian feel to the parlour games here with John Gregson and Ian Bannen amongst those under suspicion. The menaced baby-sitter wasn’t yet a trope in 1971, and there’s a neat splintering of the focus between Amanda’s fortified position and the activities of the parents in a busy dance-club. A dance club in 1971 British cinema really is something to behold, with gyrating figures amongst those enjoying an evening meal. In such an odd world, it’s hardly a surprise when it turns out that there’s a maniac on the loose…

With a script by horror specialist Tudor Gates (Lust for a Vampire) and direction by the underrated Peter Collinson (The Italian Job), there’s plenty to engage horror and British movie fans here. A new interview with Susan George, looking pretty fantastic, reminds how young she was at the time; probably still best known for Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, she’s a classic 70’s star, and gives a big, empathetic performance here that drives the film.

Fright is a neat, effective shocker that went down well at the time; with a spanking new restoration, Fright should set the shivers down the spines of new viewers and nostalgia freaks alike; as a bonus, Clements and Fuest have a commentary track here, and UK viewers will be amused to see Cole and Waterman in the same film, albeit briefly, before they became housefold names as Arthur and Terry in tv institution Minder.

FRIGHT is released on DVD and Blu Ray courtesy of Studiocanal’s Vintage Classics Collection on 14TH October 2019 and can be streamed below.

 

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The Kiss of The Vampire 1963 ***

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Don Sharp’ 1963 vampire movie for Hammer was one of the first horror films this critic saw, and probably gave an unrepresentative sample for what was to come next. While most horror films go for the jugular, Sharp wasn’t a genre fan, and he constructs his film very differently from the Hammer norm. The story is fairly familiar; a young couple Gerald and Marienne (Edward De Souza and Jennifer Daniel) find their car has broken down in turn of the century Bavaria, and happen on a vampire cult led by the sinister Dr Ravna (Noel Willman). Van Helsing-lite Professor Zimmer (Clifford Evans) is on the case, staking out a coffin-bound vampire in the bloody opening sequence, and not afraid to use black magic against the vampire hoards in a dramatic finale. Between these two set pieces, there’s a very slow burn as letters are delivered by carriage, cars take weeks to repair, and proceedings generally unfold at the speed of a rain-interrupted test match. The Kiss of the Vampire is in colour, which is notable in that it looks fantastic with all manners of greens and golds, and the genteel pace gives it a unique flavour; it’s rare to praise a horror for earnestness and conviction, but that’s what Sharp’s film has. An ideal ‘first horror movie’ for curious children, The Kiss of the Vampire may be tame by today’s standards, but it’s also a fun example of a template that got bogged down in sex, violence and derivative ideas. It’s also clearly the template for Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers; the richly-textured  masked ball scene in particular.

Downton Abbey *** 2019

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Downton Abbey wasn’t press-screened in my country; perhaps understandably, because it’s hard to imagine anyone mistaking this greatest hits package of tv faces for an actual movie. It’s a television special, hitting cinemas in September, to enable raking in the grey pound in three months time for thoughtlessly gifted Xmas DVD’s to fill the shelves of tomorrows charity shops. The plot is; Downton Abbey receives a royal visit. Creator Julian Fellowes has made no effort whatsoever to broaden the programme’s substantial nostalgic appeal; if you’re not a fan of the series, it’s taken as read that you already know everyone involved, so no new audience is possible or welcome. The only thing that’s big screen here, in this Upstairs Downstairs-lite battle of the geezer Downton regulars with the posho royal staff, is star Maggie Smith, who takes every opportunity to wring every ounce of wit out of Violet Crawley, master of the bon mot. She’s one of a number of plot-lines converging on a royal visit, with a touch of Gosford Park-style intrigue, some contrived confusions, and a ball that drags the story on for one hurdle too many. Fellowes clearly envisages this as a curtain call, and indulges himself with a few sub-plots; there’s a plea for gay rights which fell flat with the elderly audience on opening day, who tutt-ed and murmured disapproval at a man-on-man kiss. It feels like Fellowes has misjudged his audience in this instance, yet it’s one of the few moments where any kind of drama surfaces. Fellowes clearly wants to make fun of people todying to the monarchy, yet his whole film is an act of todying. Equally, he wants to point out how the Establishment sideline homosexuals, and yet his writing is in thrall to the Establishment that oppress gay people. It’s a permanent contradication in Fellowes’ writing that, Gosford Park aside, has kept him in televsion and out of cinemas. Downton Abbey is a well-upholstered, well-cast and generally pleasant way to spend an afternoon in the cinema with elderly relatives, but it’s absolutely not a film, a motion picture event, or any reason for non-adherents to enter a cinema.

Parting Shots 1999 ***

Michael Winner was something of a tricky figure to sum up; he made a number of films in different modes, from swinging 60’s comedies to hard, violent dramas in the 70’s, notably Death Wish and a series of dour collaborations with Charles Bronson. His later films switch between horror (The Sentinel, Scream for Help), period (The Wicked Lady, Appointment with Death) and any other genre that took his fancy, including a failed attempt to make Captain America with Stan Lee. For his final film, Winner brought together a selection of his favourite actors and friends including Oliver Reed, Bob Hoskins, Ben Kingsley and John Cleese. Cult fans will appreciate the combination of Dr Who stars Peter Davidson and Nicola Bryant, or a New Avengers reunion in the form of Gareth Hunt and Joanna Lumley, alongside fellow Bond girl Diana Rigg. The only problem with this star-studded line-up is the material, a script written by Winner from his own idea revisits Death Wish but as a comedy. It’s about a man called Harry who finds out he has inoperable cancer, and decides to buy a gun and kill everyone who he perceives as having wronged him. For reasons which can only be explained by the director’s vanity, AOR rocker Chris Rea, with no acting experience, plays Harry, and his presence not only jars every scene he’s in, but his music doesn’t fit the film’s themes at all. That’s Winner’s fault rather than Rea’s, but the rest of the score doesn’t help; it feels lifted from a Carry-On film. Parting Shots was derided on release as being in dubious taste, but there’s no sex, bad language or grossness, the whole notion of the film seems like a terrible idea and the execution is bland. Winner was trying to pull off a black comedy he doesn’t have the chops for, but there is something vaguely interesting about his inversion of the vigilante theme for comic effect. Fans of the considerable cast have been disappointed in Parting Shots, which has a reputation as one of the worst films ever made, but as a snapshot of a cross-section of resistible London media glitterati circa 1999, including BBC political commentator Andrew Neil in an inessential cameo, it’s not without sociological value.

The Lair of the White Worm 1988 ***

The decline and fall of Ken Russell would make a film in itself; once the enfant terrible of British cinema, he ended up making films in his nursing home. The Lair of the White Worm is a very strange late entry from the end of his peak; the 80’s saw him venture across the pond of the excellent Altered States and the oddball Crimes of Passion; returning to Blighty saw him head back to the literary path with Frankenstein creation story Gothic and this adaptation of Bram Stoker’s The Lair of the White Worm. Both film have enough baroque imagery to qualify as horror films, although the sight of Peter Capaldi pacifying the giant worm with his bagpipes is likely to create sleepless nights with mirth. Capaldi’s Angus Flint is one of a ground of excavators who come across a giant skull on an archaeological dig; could the mysterious Lady Sylvia Marsh (Amanda Donohoe), who seduces boy scouts in her spare time, know anything about the giant worm it suggests? And does Lord James D’Ampton (Hugh Grant) realise that his family have a history of slaying giant beasts? Russell’s use of chroma-key effects to create weird hallucinogenic montages of Bacchanalian tableau is hit or miss, but the cast all seem game for a ludicrous adventure that’s part Dr Who, part Nigel Kneale, and mainly Ken Russell, having fun with the production design by finding worms, snakes and all kinds of visual motifs for his story. The Lair of the White Worm was less than popular on release, but it’s gained a deserved cult following; the star names involved should draw a crowd to streaming services, and even if they don’t want to remember this film, it’s use of classic British mythology gives it a unique, decadent tone.

The City of the Dead 1960 ***

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Also known as Horror Hotel, The City of the Dead is a rather staid but also rather unnerving black and white horror that makes up for in atmosphere what it lacks in pizazz. Christopher Lee is top billed in John Moxey’s chiller, but he’s a minor player here. He plays university professor Alan Driscol, who directs a young witchcraft student Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson) to the Massachusetts town of Whitewood, where she stays in an inn recommended by Driscol, The Raven’s Inn. Whitewood offers more fog that a Carl Dreyer smoke machine testing, and the local minister has long gone without a congregation. The reason is witchcraft; a prologue establishes that the town is cursed, and a witch is amongst the residents who wish Nan ill-fortune…The City of the Dead is often mentioned alongside Carnival of Souls or Night of the Eagle; it’s got a similar low-fi evocation of witchcraft, and a strange mood; the sombre nightly dances at The Raven’s Inn seem beyond improbable. There’s also a plot-twist that predates Psycho and some very crisp photography; Desmond Dickinson’s lensing comes up sharply in a new print which does the film justice. If there’s a lack of surprises here, there’s also a British restraint that, despite the rather fancifully realised US setting, creates a genuinely eerie atmosphere that few genre films can match.

The Charge of the Light Brigade 1968 ****

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Having won an Oscar for his previous period piece Tom Jones, expectations were high for Tony Richardson’s take on the famous British military catastrophe; so much so that it was the most expensive British film ever made when released in 1968. It’s clear where the cheques were cashed; there’s an all-star cast including David Hemmings, John Gielgud, Trevor Howard and Vanessa Redgrave, plus notable cameo roles for Peter Bowles and even Donald Wolfit in a walk-on as Macbeth. The battle-scenes are also striking in that the use of special effects to create large armies had yet to be invented back in 1968; the action involves large groups of extras, and somehow their plainness is more suggestive of the drabness of failure than the more vivid pictures which might created today. The script, written by John Osborne and Charles Wood, plays fast and loose with history, but it does relate to real incidents, like the infamous black bottle affair. The mood changes once the action moves oversees, although it was apparently the result of budget restrictions that Richard Williams was pressed into service to create animated bridges to inform the action; using political cartoons of the time, Williams creates wonderfully vivid tableaux that say just as much about the vain-glorious mind-set of those involved that rest of the the film itself. Made at a time when the Vietnam war was raging, this version of The Charge of the Light Brigade is a politically astute look at failure and blame, and deserves better than a rather musty reputation suggests.