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.
Thrill-seekers need not apply to Tinto Brass’s adaptation of Junichiro Tanizaki’s novel Kagi, which he’s revised in terms of setting and time. The place is Venice, and the time is the rise of Fascism in Italy under Il Duce; as always with Brass, the text is very much directed towards lust, but it’s remarkable how little sex there is in The Key. Frank Finlay plays older man Nino who has lost the spark of his relationship with Theresa (Stefania Sandrelli), but writing their desires in a locked diary offers a route towards fulfilment, or possibly towards death. With an Ennio Morricone score, production values are high, and Finlay gives a game performance. The Key probably doesn’t offer enough flesh to satisfy, but it’s remarkably cerebral for a story intended to get the pulses racing, and the ending is remarkably bleak. With Nico photographing his wife while asleep, then asking a friend to develop them, there’s some kind of consideration of the function of the voyeur here, and the political trappings suggest that Brass is aiming for a Last Tango In Paris/The Night Porter level of rigour. The Key has been largely forgotten since it appeared in 1983; a fresh looking print on Amazon may well frustrate those expecting the lewdness of Brass’s later work, but there’s something more sophisticated than might be expected here. This 2019 version also appears to be cut; understandable in 1983, less comprehensible now; anyone who clicks on a Tinto Brass film surely deserves all they get.
‘Even the police know I’m an incredible nymphomaniac!’ is a good sample line from Emilio Miraglia’s wonderfully overcooked giallo, which keeps one guessing by being so nutty that placing a bet on who-dunnit is all but impossible. Barbara Bouchet is Kitty, one of two sisters (Marina Malfatti is the other, Franziska) who have been brought up to fear a family curse that may lead to murder; a flashback reveals that Kitty already has reasons to feel guilt. The death of their grandfather promises a liquidation of finances and potential windfalls for all of the Wildenbrück family, but his will proves inconclusive. The action shifts to a successful fashion house which seems to be called Springe; Kitty is having an affair with the company’s boss Martin (Ugo Pagliali) whose wife is mentally ill. With various murders taking place, could the supernatural Red Queen be taking her revenge on the family, or is the solution something more practical? The real solution is so complicated that even several readings of the Wikipedia page fail to clarify exactly what happened, but it’s fun getting there; the costumes and décor are super-stylish, as are the Bavarian locations. This is a lively giallo, full of twists and turns, never boring and often intriguing; the great Sybill Danning also appears as a windfall bonus.
It’s the answer to the trivia question; what connects family favourite Back to the Future to the notorious video nasties, films banned by the UK government as potentially morally corruptive influences back in 1984? Cinematographer Dean Cundey warmed up for Marty McFly with this bleak, hard and for-sure nasty female killer drama, but it’s one that deserves a different kind of reputation. Actress Millie Perkins had once played the lead in Diary of Anne Frank; here she’s Molly, a troubled abuse victim who descends into madness, seducing, castrating and murdering men she sees on television while working in a seafront bar in Santa Monica. Despite the title, there’s no supernatural content; the title of this sleazy, yet erudite film relates to Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, which is discussed in some detail. The murder scenes are deeply unpleasant and it’s tempting to look away, but the rest of Matt Cimber’s film is no easier to watch, with a frank and unsparing treatment of the incest that Molly suffered, seen here in flashback. Written by Perkins’ husband Robert Thom, The Witch is more character study that exploitation film; almost like a female version of Taxi Driver from the same year. Perkins throws herself into a deep, troubling role, and Lonny Chapman, from Hitchcock’s The Birds, is support. This has, for obvious reasons, been a film that’s been put well out of reach of the public; this Arrow Films release may well generate a cult audience. Cimber went on to make the Pia Zadora vehicles Butterfly and Fake Out, but it’s arguable whether he, Thom or Perkins is the real author of this powerful, upsetting portrait of a wronged and sympathetic woman.
1970 saw two movies in competition; not competing submarine dramas, not even competing competing magician dramas, but competing ‘search for a penis’ comedies. David Niven’s The Statue has already been covered in this blog; this entry deals with the rather more successful Percy, which was eighth in Britain’s top ten box office attractions. A quick cross-check with 2018’s top ten suggests that, in like for like terms, a cool £35 million would be the kind of sum earned. This Ralph Thomas film makes some fuss about being the first to deal with the presumably hot topic of penis transplants; the eternally put-upon Hywel Bennett plays Percy, an antique dealer who receives another man’s member after an accident and sets out on a quest to find out who it belonged to; a ‘genital mystery tour’ as Percy wryly suggests. This quest involves meeting a number of comely women, including Britt Ekland, Elke Sommer, Adrianna Posta and Sheila Steafel, and a surprising amount of introspective soul-searching, accompanied by a soundtrack by Ray Davies and The Kinks. Despite a couple of brief lewd moments, including a striptease to a xylophone instrumental of Lola, this isn’t a typical British sex-comedy, but seems to be leaning into some kind of existential angst. Things get a bit lost in the second half, but the cameos keep things moving, with Denholm Elliot on top for as Percy’s doctor, Are You Being Served? star Arthur English doing a comic routine in a pub, and Patrick Mower makes a personable playboy. Percy is best seen as a repository of dated fashions and dialogue; Percy’s Mini-Moke is something to behold, as are his garish outfits. Meanwhile various actresses try their best to set pulses racing with such unwieldy chat-up lines as ‘If I want to discuss dogs, I call a vet’ and ‘What do you think of my reproduction Welsh dresser?’
Why do some truly great films fall into neglect? Reuben, Reuben is a perfect case in point. Tom Conti won an Oscar nomination for best actor in 1983 for his performance as a drunken poet, with Dylan Thomas a clear inspiration. The screenplay, adapted from a novel by noted humourist Peter De Vries and then a play called Spofford, is by Julius J Epstein, who wrote everything from Casablanca to Cross of Iron, and that was also Oscar nominated as one of the five best adapted scripts of the year. It was the first film of Top Gun star Kelly McGillis. And it’s a funny, sweet and yet harsh and original story about excess and survival that’s not dated in any way. And yet there’s no Criterion Collection revival, nor even a spot on Amazon or iTunes, just a rare DVD or Blu Ray that, at twenty bucks a piece, won’t ensnare many casual viewers. The reputation of Robert Ellis Miller, director of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and this, was practically zero when he died in 2017, and that’s a shame for anyone with career highlights like this. Conti is ideal as Gowan McGland, a Scottish poet in suburban American, seducing women, drinking excessively, generally mooching off everyone and unaware that his behaviour is leading to a sticky end, and not one that he can possibly imagine. The problem is more than sex or alcohol addiction. Like Ray Milland in The Man With X Ray Eyes, McGland’s problem is that he sees too much; his wit pulls people towards him, but then pushes them away. It’s a tragic-comedy of the highest order, and it’s well-past high time something was done about restoring the reputation of Reuben, Reuben, which takes its title from the old song, and from the last line of dialogue in a devastating, surprising final scene.
There’s been a couple of flickers of interest from people about the ‘why can’t I see this film?’ category; this tag gets added if a film isn’t on any of the main streaming services, and occasionally a link is provided if the film is on You Tube or Daily Motion. This is tough on film-makers, who presumably are losing out financially by not having their film behind a pay-wall, but the thinking is that the exposure, temporary as it might be, might at least engender enough interest for a re-release or even a restoration. Both would be desirable for Peter Bogdanovich’s best film, 1979’s adaption of the novel Saint Jack. Reputedly, Orson Welles gave the book to Cybill Shepherd, who got the rights as part of a legal win over Playboy magazine; Hugh M. Hefner produces. In the late seventies, an adult-themed film like Saint Jack was still deemed to have potential at the box-office, although poor distribution kept Paul Theroux’s adaptation of his own book out of mainstream theatres. Ben Gazzara gives a huge performance as Jack Flowers, an ex-pat who runs a Singapore brothel, and turns to an auditor (the great Denholm Elliot) for help, only to find himself out of his depth when the CIA get involved. Saint Jack is a brilliant character study of a reprehensible man who is also a decent human being; this is a story where the moral messages are not cut and dried. George Lazenby, Rodney Bewes and Joss Ackland round out the cast as ex-pats; Saint Jack dares to point the finger at American and British behaviour abroad, and comes to unsavoury conclusions about human nature. The gap between the public perception of this film and it’s quality is remarkable; a portrait of a hustler’s hustle, it’s every bit as good as Mean Streets or Taxi Driver, but the lack of violent catharsis seems to have relegated it to the dustiest drawer in film history. See it while you can.