Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Butcher Baker Nightmare Maker (1982)

The British Government Video Nasties list is as eclectic and perplexing in its make up today as it was 30 years ago. While there are some undisputed and famous classics (Evil Dead, Tenebrae) and some bona fide stinkers (Don't Go Near the Park, Cannibal Terror), there are also some flawed and fascinating gems, such as Butcher Baker Nightmare Maker (aka Nightmare Maker, Night Warning, The Evil Protégé). Despite the flat made-for-TV look, the oppressive atmosphere, transgressive subject matter and flashes of violence make for compulsive viewing

Orphaned as a boy, high school basketball star Billy Lynch (Jimmy McNichol) has been raised by his aunt Cheryl (Susan Tyrell). When Cheryl kills a TV repairman who spurns her advances, bigoted police detective Joe Carlson (Bo Svenson), tries to frame Billy, convinced that the killing was the result of a homosexual love triangle involving Billy's basketball coach. However, Aunt Cheryl has been growing increasingly enamoured with Billy - and she is not going to let him go without a fight.

This is a real stand out both from the Video Nasties list and the slasher film genre more generally. Even though it has some of the ingredients of the latter (knives, blood and teenagers), it also has elements of a teenage coming-of-age story, and hints of Southern Gothic Melodrama. With a few tweaks to the script, toning down the violence and making the sexual subject matter less explicit, you could almost imagine Joan Crawford and Montgomery Clift starring in a version of this story, and certainly Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Crawford’s performance in that has to be one of the influences.

Rather than suspense or cheap shocks, the focus here is more on the characters. Genre favourite Svenson plays Detective Carlson as an obnoxious, pig headed, testosterone filled tower of hate, while Tyrell gives a performance so unhinged and disturbing that it is sometimes easy to forget that you are watching a performance.

Against this Billy is always going make a bit less of an impression as a character, but interestingly the script focusses more on the torment that he goes through, both from his harassment at the hands of the law, and harassment at the hands of his aunt, as well as the normal pressures of teenage life.

Butcher Baker Nightmare Maker is also unusual for the genre in the fact that it explores rather than exploits the issue of teenage homosexuality. Granted this is more based around Billy being wrongly thought of as gay, but the bigotry Carlson represents is chilling enough, and anyone who has any experience of growing up in the slightest bit different from the norm in a small town will identify with Billy and his situation.

Director William Asher had a day job making TV shows such as Bewitched, and The Dukes of Hazzard, and it unfortunately shows in the direction that is a bit flat and pedestrian. That said he does create a suitably oppressive gloomy atmosphere that matches the oppressive small town life.

Despite being a lot less gory than other horror films of the time, Butcher Baker Nightmare Maker still ended up labelled a Video Nasty. I can only assume the government looked at the subject matter not the film in this case, but perhaps at least the notoriety has saved it from total obscurity, as it is an unsettling piece of work and well worth a look.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Escape from Tomorrow (2013)

With its imagery, venerated figures, scores of devoted followers, and huge financial resources, you could probably make a case for The Walt Disney Company being a sort of secular religious organisation. Perhaps therefore it is not that surprising that there are those who would like to blaspheme against it and what they feel it stands for, and Escape from Tomorrow is just such a piece of work. As claustrophobic, hallucinatory and unnerving as some of Polanksi’s earlier efforts, it also completely a film of its time, as the technology involved in the covert filming, complex editing, and word-of-mouth marketing and distribution, did not exist ten years ago, never mind twenty or thirty.

Jim White (played by Roy Abramsohn) is at the end of a family holiday at Disney World when he gets a phone call from his boss telling him he is being laid off (we don't know what his job is, which perhaps makes him more identifiable for the audience, more of an everyman). Keeping the information from his wife (Elena Schuber) and two children, Jim sets off for a final day of fun. However, the shock of unemployment, the pressures of family life and the enforced jollity of the theme park all start to get to him, and as his paranoia spirals out of control, the line between reality and fantasy start to blur horribly. Is Jim heading for a breakdown or has he really uncovered a horrible secret at the heart of the happiest place on earth?

Escape from Tomorrow is a film where what happened off screen is just as fascinating as what happened on, and directly fed into the look and feel of the film. Director Randy Moore and his cast went undercover over a four week period, split between Disney World and Disney Land, reading their lines from their mobiles, speaking these lines into hidden cameras, while incognito crew members videoed the whole thing on the same sorts of digital SLR cameras that actual tourists were using. The end result is a thrilling and wonderful cognitive dissonance which tells you that are watching a film definitely shot on Disney property, even though there is no way that should have happened.

Equally as disconcerting as the crowd scenes are those that give us a glimpse of life back stage at the park, such as the eerie shots of the deserted park early in the morning, and the signs showing areas reserved “For Performers Only”. This brings to mind the JG Ballard quote about seeing reality itself as 'a stage set that could be dismantled at any moment”

The film is further enhanced by sparing but clever use of digital special effects. I am not personally a fan of CGI, although that is mostly down to how it is used to overkill in big budget spectacles, to make slick but empty worlds. However, these technological advances have also given low budget film makers opportunities to produce spectacular and creative visuals, such as here where it distorts and manipulates the onscreen world, rather than creating it.

The score by Abel Korzeniowski is a pastiche of the upbeat old fashioned music you might associate not just with Disney, but plenty of films from the Golden Age of Cinema. It acts as a counterpoint to the darker moments on screen, but with its warmth and analogue old fashioned feel, also provides a contrast to the sanitised, slick corporate vision of joy that Disney World represents.

The throwback subtly continues in the rather obviously superimposed backgrounds in some scenes, which are, presumably, a necessity, either through budgetary limitations or through not being able to shoot a particular scene in a particular place. Nevertheless, they are also reminiscent of the crude and obvious backdrops of films of the 1940s and 50s, as well as adding to the uncertain hallucinatory feel, and Jim’s instability seems to spill over into the real world.

None of the clever filmmaking or special effects would be enough without the excellent performances from all the main cast members, who give us the complicated and believable love/hate chemistry and dynamics of a real family, especially the classic Freudian tensions between father and son.

The deep dark secret is a little confusing, involving Asian businessmen, two teenage French girls, princess hookers, an outbreak of cat flu and mysterious labs underneath the Epcot centre, but the narrative confusion mirrors Jim’s mental collapse.

Many of the most shocking moments in the film come from iconoclastically tearing into the Disney symbols and imagery held so dear by so many. This is not the first example of blasphemy against Disney, as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck were amongst those who appeared in pornographic underground comics known as Tijuana Bibles, in the 1920s and 30s. The 60s and 70s counterculture gave us The Disneyland Memorial Orgy, as well as the notorious Mickey meets The Air Pirates strip described by Disney in a long running law suit as befouling an "image of innocent delight".

The sight of Mickey Mouse having sex in a comic strip is shocking, but aside from the medium, the main difference between that Escape from Tomorrow is that Moore does not just appropriate and distort the imagery and corporate ideals, he has the chutzpah to do all of this in their own back yard.

Desecrating images of religious and political figures no longer seems to hold quite the same shock value, in the west at least, and outside of a hardcore of followers, so perhaps Disney and other media and entertainment giants to some extent have replaced these as untouchable icons, with threats of crippling legal action replacing threats of eternal damnation. Escape from Tomorrow seems to have somehow dodged all of this, perhaps due to the Disney lawyers realising that dragging the film into court will only ever end in bad publicity for them and free publicity for the filmmakers.

Escape from Tomorrow manages to avoid any heavy handed moralising or lecturing both in the script and imagery, (although the sight of the family in a car that follows strict predetermined tracks felt like a perfect metaphor for the Disney idea of carefully controlled fun). Maybe the real message of rebellion comes from the simple fact of the films existence, and by not only giving Disney a sly and symbolic two fingers, but also getting away with it, they show that there is hope for those who wish to live outside of a mainstream culture that they find cloying.


Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Christmas Evil (1980)

As a counterpoint to more wholesome festive film fare comes Christmas Evil, a camp and entertaining effort from the glory days of the Slasher movie.

The plot centres on Harry Stadling, a boy who had his childhood illusions about Christmas shattered while watching his dad dressed in a Santa suit, groping his mom. Cut to thirty odd years later, and Harry now works in a toy factory, desperately trying to recreate those illusions for a new generation of kids. However, after a series of humiliations at work, Harry suffers a breakdown and starts to think that he is Father Christmas - although this Santa seems just as interested in punishing the naughty as rewarding the good.

Christmas Evil came out during the height of the Slasher film boom (He Knows You're Alone, Maniac, Terror Train, Don't Answer the Phone, and of course, Friday The 13th all hit cinemas in the same year), helping to kick-start a sub-genre of Santa themed killers (To All a Goodnight, Silent Night Deadly Night etc.), but is distinct from many of these. Firstly, although it is a sexual incident that drives the plot, and the killer is acting as a punisher (two staple tropes of these sort of films), the killings are not carried out as punishment for sex. Rather, they are done as a vengeance for the humiliation that Harry suffers, and his anger at people exploiting Christmas for commercial gain at the expense of goodwill.

Christmas Evil lacks the high level of grubby sleaze of others in the genre, instead going for a lurid (in a camp way), and exaggerated, almost dreamlike feel. This can be seen in the use of juxtaposition of jolly Christmas songs in the overall context of a slasher film, the portentous dialogue, odd camera angles, and sometimes ludicrous plot twists (such as the idea that a man dressed in a Santa costume could stab three people outside a busy church, drive off in a van with reindeer painted on the side, and the authorities would have trouble finding him.) Granted, the sight of Harry obsessively spying on young children through binoculars looks possibly more unnerving nowadays than on the time of release, but there is no suggestion that he is deriving any sexual gratification from this.

As a contrast to the fanciful, disorienting, illusion that Harry increasingly sees the world as, is the grimy reality of life in a small industrial town, with the small minded people who live and work there. The best of them are, at heart, good people who just want to work and provide for their families, while the worst would rather exploit the goodwill of someone like Harry, an oddball dreamer, who will never fit into the hard-drinking macho world of his colleagues.

Of course, in many ways this is still a traditional slasher, with many of the familiar tropes such as bloody killings with sharp objects and a grating wonky synth soundtrack. However these both work perfectly well within the overall over-the-top feel of the film.

Christmas Evil ends with a classic horror archetype, the tragic monster hounded by a torch wielding mob – a mob that seems to have their flaming torches suspiciously close to hand, suggesting this may not be the first time they have behaved like this. The pursuit takes place through increasingly surreal looking streets lined with white snow and glowing Christmas decorations, and it is ambiguous as to how much of this is in Harry’s imagination. There is a wonderful slightly expressionistic touch in the final shot, with Harry’s van flying off a bridge, but the angle hinting it could be heading into the sky, suggesting that, in his mind at least, Harry may finally get his wish to be Santa Claus.

Monday, 21 July 2014

A Hard Day's Night (1964)

A Hard Day’s Night is a film that rewrote the rules for how cinema and popular music work together and 50 years on the energy, wit and sheer joy of the film are undiminished. However, the template that it set was one that few if any have worked to the same level since, including the director and stars.  

The loose plot simply follows a fictional day in the life of The Beatles (John, Paul, George and Ringo all play fictional versions of themselves), as they travel by train to London to perform on a TV show. Along the way they are mobbed by fans, arrested by the police, separated, reunited and introduced to Paul’s mysterious, trouble causing, grandfather (played by Wilfrid Brambell of Steptoe fame) 

Alun Owen was brought in to put the script together, as the Beatles were fans of his Liverpool based play No Trams to Lime Street, and, having grown up in the area, he had an ear for Scouse dialect and dialogue. While never meant to be anything other than two-dimensional comic characters, the four Beatles that he creates each have distinctive personalities, while also having a definite group identity. It's almost a shame to think that much of this wonderful wordplay would have been lost on the films initial Beatlemania audience, who would have been too busy screaming the house down. 

Director Richard Lester was born in the USA but moved to London in the 1950s, working on commercials and TV shows, before making the 11-minute short The Running Jumping Standing Still film with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan. The film became a firm favourite of the Beatles and led to Lester getting the job directing A Hard Day’s Night, and it is easy to see its influence on the innovative montage sequences of this film, with the sped up footage and radical idea of cutting the film to the rhythms of the music. A less obvious influence is the French New Wave, which can be seen with the handheld camera shots and use of real locations and people, as well as a casual disregard for rules and the "proper" way of making a film. 

The final element that makes this film so good is The Beatles themselves. They are not trained actors, and some lines fall flat, but generally they give a very good account of themselves. It does not surprise me that musicians can sometimes make a go of acting, as they are still used to performing, and in some respects, playing a role on stage. Plus, there is their wonderful music, with no hint of psychedelia or the complex studio experiments that would follow later in their career, just breathless exuberant 2 minute pop classics. 

A Hard Day's Night is one link in a fairly long cultural chain, one which spans a generation and an ocean. Lester clearly likes the energy of American silent trailblazers like Buster Keaton, and surreal invention of the Marx Brothers, the latter being a big influence on The Goon Show, two members of which (Milligan and Sellers) Lester worked with on The Running Jumping Standing Still film. The Goon Show had a fanatical fan in the shape of one John Lennon, and he would talk enthusiastically of the influence it had on both his work and his outlook on life. And, let’s not forget that the Goons also influenced Monty Python, whose Life of Brian was rescued at the last minute with a large cheque from George Harrison. 

Few groups or directors have managed to recreate the magic or energy of A Hard Day's Night, including Lester and the Beatles themselves. The following year they would team up again to make Help, but the end product feels lethargic and sloppy, straining too hard for laughs, with a general feeling of nobody caring as much this time around.

Friday, 11 July 2014

The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue (1974)

The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue may have a Spanish director and largely Italian cast and crew, but the settings and wonderfully creepy atmosphere put it closer to English horror films and TV shows of the same time. In addition, buried in the slightly schlocky script are some interesting themes about the abuse of power and abuse of the environment.

George (Ray Lovelock) is taking a break from his Manchester antique shop to meet up with friends in the scenic beauty of the Lake District. When Edna (Christina Galbo) accidentally trashes his motorbike, she offers to drive him to his destination. After getting lost, George comes across a remote farm where government scientists are trying a new form of pest control, using ultrasonic radiation, while a lumbering mad man who emerges from a river attacks Edna. Are the two things connected? Moreover, as more and more residents of the local churchyard rise to attack them, can George and Edna get to safety and stop the source of the zombies?

The story is in the realm of George Romero zombie films, with its non-supernatural premise and contemporary setting, as well as scenes of people being stalked in a cemetery and barricaded inside a building. However, unlike Romero's zombie films, Grau makes the reason the dead are coming back to life a central part of the story and the search for the cause of the zombies, and the efforts to get that cause shut down do provide a good “McGuffin”, making for a slightly more coherent and plot heavy film than others of the era. However, this is unnecessarily muddied by throwing in further plot points in order to bring in to get the requisite gore. We are told that the ultrasonic machine excites primitive nervous systems, hence the dead come back to life and attack anything that moves, but about half way through the film, they start to eat the flesh and organs of their victims. Then we get an unsatisfactory explanation about the zombies using the blood of the living to bring others to life for some unspecified reason. There are also some baffling lapses in logic at times (how does the fire in the church put itself out? If the ultrasonic radiation has a range of 1 mile, why are the scientists pointing a machine at a small spot on the ground?)

The main characters a little one dimensional, as is often the case in these sorts of films, and George's “Gor Blimey” accent soon gets a bit grating, while Edna seems to serve little purpose other than screaming and being rescued. The police sergeant also seems both clichéd, with his gruff and loud manner, Irish accent and trench coat, and wildly out of place in the Lake District. Of more interest, are her sister, Katie and Katie's husband Martin, with dark hints at the relationship they have, a junkie being exploited and abused by a manipulative pervert. While it might have been worth developing that story further, it may have proved to be too much of a distraction from the core plotline.

However, these minor niggles are more than made up for by the films strengths, such as the excellent gory make up, with some nice details such as stitches on the chest of one walking corpse.  This film first came to my attention as part of the British Government's notorious "video nasty" list, and while it does not skimp on the gore, the real success comes from the creepy atmospherics. Director Jorge Grau shows genuine talent and imagination in places, with some prowling, restless camerawork, giving a palpable sense of unease at times. Setting the film not only in England, but, just as importantly, far outside of London is a stroke of genius. The hills and valleys of the countryside, along with tropes such as the 1970s haircuts, the cheap looking ultrasonic machine, the pseudoscientific dialogue and white antiseptic hospital make me think of British sci-fi and horror such as Dr Who, Quatermass, Hammer House of Horror, and Doomwatch. Sound design plays a large part in this sense of unease, with throbbing bleeping machine sounds throughout.

Despite some, at times, slightly silly plot elements, Living Dead at Manchester Morgue has some interesting and intelligent things going on thematically. I would not pretend for one minute that this film is a preachy “message” film, but it was made not long after the rise of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, so may have been the case of exploitation filmmakers responding to what their audience would be seeing in the news. Nevertheless, the environmental undertones are there within the opening credits montage, and as George heads out of the city, we see industrial wasteland, dead wildlife, power stations belching smoke into the sky, and a population who already look like dead-eyed zombies.

Beyond that, rather than go for a straightforward "progressive v reactionary" subtext, the scenario presented is more complex. On the one hand, we have the aggressive and high-handed side of science and on the other we have a reactionary almost fascistic section of society, as represented by the police sergeant with his disgust at "long hair and faggot clothes" and "permissive rot", and his wish that the police could have "a free hand". The former causes the problem through arrogance, the latter fails to solve it through a blinkered and bigoted worldview, and caught in the middle, is George, who, despite his hippy appearance, is seemingly not engaged with subversive political or social activity. He carries pagan antiques that the police assume are for satanic rituals, but are in fact purely for business. Nobody in authority listens so nothing is learnt and the, perhaps unlikely, combination of progressive and reactionary thinking actually prevents the problem being solved.