Thursday, 6 July 2017

Now Voyager (1942)

Now Voyager appeared as part of the first wave of Hollywood's brief love affair with psychoanalysis, along with the likes of Hitchcock's Spellbound. This Freudian undertone sets it apart from standard Hollywood romantic melodramas, and the plot of a person forced to repress their true personality by an overbearing family figure seems to have struck a chord with gay film fans, amongst whom it has a fanbase to this day.

Bette Davis plays Boston heiress Charlotte Vale, a neurotic mess, largely due to her domineering mother (Gladys Cooper). After coming under the care of psychiatrist Dr. Jasquith (Claude Rains), Charlotte reinvents herself, going from frumpy introvert to glamorous woman about town. While on a cruise she meets and fall in love with a married man, Jerry (Paul Henreid). How will her mother react to the newly independent Charlotte? And can she ever find happiness with Jerry?

Drama is based around conflict and there is no shortage of that in this film, with Charlotte clashing with her mother, Charlotte's sister clashing with her mother, her mother clashing with Dr Jasquith, and Charlotte clashing with her feelings for Jerry. What makes the drama seem so fresh is the liberal attitude of Jasquith. He is more interested in Charlotte being happy, rather than have her conform to the stuffy morality of her background, or, indeed, of the wider society of the day, something that makes the appeal to the film's gay fanbase obvious. In addition, the script goes against the grain of contemporary romantic films by not going for an obvious path to true love, and seeming to accept that relationships are often complicated and happiness not always conventional.

There is plenty of fun to be had watching Bette Davis playing against type as the monobrowed dowdy Charlotte we see at the beginning of the film, emerging from her chrysalis into the polar opposite, glamorous, adventurous, and fun loving, not giving a damn for the stifling world of upper middle class Boston and the sense of duty and obligation that comes with it.

Film and psychoanalysis are the around the same age, as the Lumiere brothers started screenings of moving pictures in 1895, the same year that Freud published Studies in Hysteria, his first foray into what would become psychoanalysis. If anything it is the depiction of psychoanalysis itself, or at least the Hollywood version of Freud's work that dates Now Voyager. It portrays the mystery of the human psyche as being like a whodunnit, one that can be unravelled with the aid of the right clues, an approach that now seems a little unsophisticated.

Friday, 23 June 2017

Gonks Go Beat (1965)

Knocked out cheaply and quickly to cash in the youth culture and music of the day, Gonks Go Beat is by turn astonishing, excruciating and deathly dull.

In the not too distant future, Earth is split into two opposing factions, Hip, hairy, and cool Beat Land versus neat, tidy, crooner loving Ballad Isle. Every year they have a musical competition to decide who is best, with the judge being the subtly named Mr. A&R (Frank Thornton). Meanwhile the galactic overlords who rule over everything have for some reason decided to put an end to the squabbling, so send their worst agent, the ever bungling Wilco Roger (Kenneth Connor) to sort the situation out and bring the two sides together.

Having first about this many years ago, I was hoping for an unhinged lost classic, with a rip roaring sixties soundtrack, shoddy sets, a baffling plot, and genuine talents such as Connor, Thornton and Terry Scott degrading themselves, but the reality is a curate's egg. The songs play like promo videos, and music wise, Beat Land wins hands down, with the likes of Lulu, the Graham Bond Organisation (with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker), leaving Ballad Isle with some insipid, coma inducing tripe.

The story is baffling, the characters unengaging, and the comedy is painful to watch, and having seen some of the things Connor and Scott appeared in, I know they can make the corniest of gags work, but this is beyond even their talents.

I was hoping for a British version of Plan 9 From Outer Space, at least in terms of jaw dropping weirdness, but it lacks the truly deranged vision and energy of Ed Wood's work, and what should be a brain rotting piece of fun soon becomes a slog. If you're a fan of 60s Beat / Blues music, it is worth a watch, but it has little to recommend for anyone else.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Rear Window (1954)

One of Hitchcock greatest films, Rear Window is an ode to voyeurism that effortlessly combines mystery, wit, and romance, and has some interesting things to say about both the movies and moviegoers. Hitchcock is at the height of his powers, and his complete control of the film means there is not a wasted scene or line.

James Stewart plays L.B. Jeffries, a globe-trotting, thrill-seeking news photographer whose last assignment left him with a broken leg. Apart from visits from his socialite girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly), and his insurance company nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter), he is forced to spend the summer cooped up in his apartment, passing the time by taking an interest in the lives of his neighbours in the courtyard opposite. There is the beautiful ballet dancer, the newly married couple, Miss Lonely Hearts, a composer struggling with writer's block - and a salesman, Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) and his bedridden wife. When the wife mysteriously disappears, Jeffries begins to think there is something sinister going on.

The whole story takes place in one room, something Hitchcock had attempted before with the flawed but interesting Rope, but here there are two important differences. Firstly, while Rope was set in real time, Rear Window takes place over a week or so, giving more time to introduce the characters and build up the storyline. Secondly, in Rear Window, the location is used to provide a portal into a much larger world.

The window itself becomes a metaphor for the screen that we watch the film on. What he is seeing is just like a movie. The characters and story form, he gets gripped by this, but at tense heart stopping moments, he is almost always as powerless to intervene as we are, and like us, is reduced to the role of passive voyeur.

The theme even extends beyond the on screen characters, to take in our viewing of the relationship between the two leads. There is great chemistry between the leads, and several times Hitchcock shoots passionate scenes between Stewart and Kelly in such an extreme close manner that we begin to feel like voyeurs.

However, in a further twist, Jeffries goes beyond the role of passive voyeur, when he tries to intervene in the plot of the unfolding story. After antagonising his chief suspect, said suspect performs the equivalent of the movie monster coming out of the cinema screen and into his real life, threatening him physically.

Hitchcock's genius is to set all this within a tense, witty suspense thriller with two gorgeous likeable and charismatic stars, and a great supporting cast, particularly the sinister Burr, and Thelma Ritter as Jeffries' droll nurse Stella, whose disapproving attitude towards the sleuthing soon morphs into morbid fascination.

Monday, 12 June 2017

The Night Caller (1965)

After a meteorite crashes into the English countryside, scientist Jack Costain (John Saxon) and his team set out to investigate. They discover it is actually an alien device from one of Jupiter's moons used to transfer matter to Earth. But what is the connection between the visitor from outer space, a mystery man placing ads in the back pages of bikini magazines and the disappearance of anyone who answers them.

At times this feels like two different films thrown together lurching between Quatermass style extra terrestrial mystery and sleazy Soho-based whodunnit. What should have been either a creepy atmospheric chiller or a campy piece of fun is sunk by the script, which is both confusing and relentlessly talky, and the finished product is teeth-grindingly dull.

John Saxon does his best, heroically managing to sustain an English accent for the duration, and there is some fun to be had watching for cameos from Warren Mitchell as a father of a missing girl, Aubrey Morris as a squalid bookstore owner, and Ballard Berkeley, best known as the Major in Fawlty Towers.


Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Tarzan's Secret Treasure (1941)

Tarzan's Secret Treasure is the fifth in the MGM series of films starring the Olympic Gold medal winning swimmer Johnny Weissmuller as the definitive depiction of the vine swinger. It has all the expected elements to be expected, both positive and negative, as well as some surprisingly physical love scenes, and an approach to racial themes that is not as straightforward as it may first appear.

Tarzan is enjoying a life of splendid isolation in the African jungle, with wife Jane, adopted son Boy, a pet chimp called Cheetah, and a menagerie of all creatures great and small. An expedition team arrives on the hunt for a lost tribe, but when Boy inadvertently reveals the presence of gold, two of the party get greedy and kidnap Boy and Jane.

The film moves at an unhurried pace to begin with and we get plenty of scenes showing the home life of the Tarzans, as well as some comedy relief bickering among the non-human inhabitants that would not pass animal welfare regulations today.

After about twenty minutes the actual plot kicks in when the expedition team appear, rescuing Boy from a crowd of angry natives. Head villain Medford is played in suitably oily fashion by Tom Conway, (the brother of George Sanders, from whom he took over the role of debonair detective The Falcon), while Barry Fitzgerald as his dogsbody O'Doul is such as broad Irish stereotype that his main purpose seems to be to distract from the stereotyping of the Africans. Also, look fast for a cameo from Johnny Eck of Freaks fame, here in full costume, playing a bizarre looking jungle bird.

The pace picks up once Tarzan leaps to the rescue, and from then on, the action doesn't let up, thanks largely to the astonishing physical presence of Weissmuller, particularly when he is in or under the water.

The first and most striking thing that occurred to me while watching this film was how, on one level, the Tarzan clan is very much you average nuclear family, with Dad going out to work (gather food) while Mom stays at home to cook, clean, and raise the child.

But the Tarzan family is also a little more unconventional than that. The love scene between Tarzan and Jane is surprisingly sensual and physical for the time, with little separating the husband and wife (who presumably did not marry in a Christian church) other than a skimpy dress and a loincloth. The depiction of the Africans as backwards, superstitious, and communicating in a gibberish language is unflattering, if standard for the time, but I think sufficient time has gone past that we can recognise it as no more realistic than the depiction of Indians in Western films. Moreover, the focus is on Tarzan, a man who has turned his back on his own society and culture, and refuses to integrate with those of the country he now calls home, putting him more in line with the ideals of the pioneer spirit. Lastly, don't forget, this is an idyllic situation that he has made, learning to live alongside the natives, and things only go wrong in this world when white people turn up.

Tarzan's Secret Treasure Trailer by trailerapi

Thursday, 20 April 2017

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)

Over a decade after his nightmarish original director Tobe Hooper returned to make a sequel to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. This time however, instead of a minuscule budget and a skeleton cast and crew, Hooper had the big bucks of Cannon films behind him, something that proved to be a mixed blessing.

When radio DJ Vanita 'Stretch' Brock accidentally captures on tape the Chainsaw murder of two obnoxious callers, she seeks out the help of former Texas Marshall 'Lefty' Enright (a post rehab Dennis Hopper). Enright is on a vigilante quest to track down the cannibal family from the first film, who he blames for the murder of his nephew.

This film is definitely a curate's egg. On one hand, the script has some interesting ideas about family and social status, and there is a great darkly comic turn from Jim Siedow as Drayton the cook (reprising his role from the first film), whose award-winning chilli has some rather unsavoury ingredients.

On the other hand, much of the film feels like an empty, noisy, overblown derivative 80s slasher, the comedy is strained and the horror isn't that scary. The first film was as ground-breaking stylistically as it was with subject matter, but here Hooper follows where he used to lead, although I suppose this may have been down to demands from the money men at Cannon films. It feels like there is a good movie buried in there somewhere and from what I've read Cannon cut out a lot of the class war satire.

My recent viewing was my first watch in about 20 years and back then it was still banned in the UK. So, the thrill of watching something legendary (with Dennis Hopper in) on a third generation dub of a Japanese laser-disc perhaps made me gloss over the flaws. Watching a digitally remastered copy on TV, the context is more mundane, and the flaws more obvious.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 - Trailer by bulldog_mini

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Phantasm (1979)

Phantasm is a delirious mix of gore and laughs shot through with the claustrophobic lack of logic of a child's dream. Topped with a Goblin-esque synth based soundtrack, the end result is pitched somewhere between American suburban horror and baffling Euro weirdness, and is a unique and original effort in both subject matter and execution.

Still reeling from the death of his parents, Jody is a troubled teen who is being raised by his older brother in a small Oregon town. While spying on the local funeral home he begins to get suspicious of what is going on there, particularly the hooded dwarves who keep attacking him, and the mysterious Tall Man (played by the brilliantly chilling Angus Scrimm), who can lift a full coffin as though it were a surf board. Who is he and what are his plans for the funeral home residents? And will Jody end up joining them?

Phantasm is chaotic and not always entirely coherent, with some scenes seemingly cutting short or baring no relation to what has gone on before or since. Some of this may be down to time and money, as writer/director Don Coscarelli shot the film at weekends for a few hundred thousand dollars. But this lack of logic often works well, giving the feel of a child trapped in a nightmare, which contributes to the tension. With all the normal rules suspended, anything could happen, and you genuinely don't know what will crop up next.

This sense of being in a child's dream is heightened by the fact that Jody doesn't seem to go to school and during the course of the film gets to do the sorts of things that an adolescent boy would fantasise about, such as shoot guns, drive fast cars, and drink beer. The dream feeling is further enhanced by frequent scenes of characters being chased, something that Jungian therapists consider both common to the human experience and symbolic of someone avoiding confronting some painful emotion or feeling.

Phantasm has more than enough blood for the average gore hound, especially in scenes involving the iconic flying sphere. However, much of the horror comes from the discomfort and unpleasantness of the thought of the remains of the dead, especially those of loved ones being violated and exploited.