Ken Russell’s name remains a byword for excess, and few who see The Devils, Tommy or Crimes of Passion are likely to argue. But his desire to shock audiences was only part of his repertoire, and the skills he developed as a film-maker for the BBC’s Omnibus documentary series are exemplified by this untypically retrained biopic of composer Gustav Mahler. Played in stern fashion by Robert Powell, Mahler’s life is explored in flashback structure, with emphasis on religion and family. There’s also a strong pictorial sense of landscape; Russell often complained about the lack of countryside in British films, with the Lake District making a picturesque background. Sure, there’s an Oliver Reed cameo and an anachronistic dream sequence featuring Nazis, but Russell keeps the bit between his teeth and delivers an austere, dignified picture of musical genius that, shorn of any of the sensationalism Russell was regularly criticised for, almost no-one saw in 1975.
After the huge success of The Sting, neither Paul Newman, or Robert Redford fancied another, so this sequel represents a mighty downgrade on most aspects of the package. Who better to step into the shoes of Newman than Jackie Gleason? Almost anyone. And if Mac Davis is a like-for-like substitute for Redford, it’s a strange equation indeed. It’s another con-man story, with rollercoasters, boxing and all kinds of period attractions thrown in. But despite the lack of star-power, there’s much to enjoy here, with a super script by the same author, David S Ward, more wonderful soundtrack work from Lalo Schifrin, and some neat support from Karl Marlden, Oliver Reed and Teri Garr. Forever in the shadow of the original film, The Sting II is actually a pretty good film in its own right, and worth checking out for curiosity’s sake.
Dan Curtis’s horror film has become something of a seminal work, influencing Stephen King’s various descriptions of houses as killers, or as King deems it in his excellent book Dance Macabre, ‘the bad place’. Adapted from Robert Masasco’s novel, Burnt Offerings sees couple Marian and Ben (Karen Black and Oliver Reed) moving into a remote summer-house which seems to have a mind of its own. Bette Davis is on hand as Aunt Elizabeth to add warnings about the crushing weight of the past, with Burgess Meredith and Eileen Heckart on hand. Not a haunted house movie, Burnt Offerings offers something fresh in a direct physical conflict between an inanimate object and humans. Much like Black’s battle with the Zuni doll in Trilogy of Terror, these practical threats have more impact than any amount of spiritual mumbo-jumbo.
The opening credits of Mr Heckyl and Mr Hype offer ‘apologies to Robert Louis Stevenson’; it’s fair to say that writer/director Charles B Griffith has some apologising to do. This astonishing in all the wrong ways comedy sees a game Oliver Reed in a modern reworking on the old story; Dr Heckyl is a podiatrist who is thwarted in romance by his hideous looks. A potion offers him a chance at the different life, but his appearance, as the saturnine Mr Hype doesn’t make life much easier. Not a straight horror, Griffith’s film has a wildly uncertain tone, aiming for some kind of Mel Brooks chaos but falling on the wrong side of Jerry Lewis’s The Nutty Professor; in a career of butch, taciturn performances, Reed’s comic turns are an unfortunate departure; the imdb notes that he won best actor at the 1983 Fantafest, which makes you wonder what the competition was like.
A typically chilly Canadian venture from writer/director David Cronenberg, The Brood is a thought-provoking horror film that deals specifically with psychiatry and therapy. At the Summerfree institute, Dr Raglan (Oliver Reed) is experimenting with his patients; one, Nola (Samantha Eggar) is able to produce dwarf-like figures that act on her vengeful impulses. The dwarves resemble the haunting figure from the end of Don’t Look Now, and set about their victims in highly disturbing set-pieces. The Brood deals overtly with divorce and custody issues, as well as offering a withering critique of psychological experimentation techniques in a vivid, gory thriller.
Piers Haggard’s 1981 thriller is notable for the combination of two of cinema’s most notorious hell-raisers, Oliver Reed and Klaus Kinski. From all accounts, they hated each other, and it’s remarkable that Haggard kept the film on track. They play two terrorists who attempt to take a child and his grandfather hostage in a London flat, only to find themselves trapped in a siege situation and a deadly black mamba snake loose in the building, picking off the bad-guys one by one. Although Venom failed to do for snakes was jaws did for sharks, venom is quite an engagingly trashy thriller, with the Black Mamba, Kinski and Reed all giving uniformly strong and rather similar performances. Kinski turned down Raiders of the Lost Ark to make this forgotten often amusing film, notable for a scene in which the snake enters Oliver Reed’s trousers.
One of Ennio Morricone’s greatest themes, lifted by Tarantino for his Inglorious Bastards film, and some sumptuous photography set a classy mood for this terse thriller from Sergio Sollima, also known by the more lurid title Blood In The Streets. Oliver Reed plays Vito, a prison warden whose wife is kidnapped. The deal is for Vito to exchange criminal Milo (Fabio Testi) for his wife, but Vito strikes back by kidnapping Milo for himself. Revolver is an original plot idea and lots of sweaty tension; the action is sparse, but the plotting and two muscular central performances make this a minor classic.