Monday, 29 September 2014

Polyester (1981)

Polyester sees John Waters send up and celebrate suburban life, as well as taking barbed swipes at religious extremists, soap operas, Alcoholics Anonymous and foot fetishists. It also features one of the most memorable cinematic gimmicks since the glory days of über huckster William Castle.

Housewife Francine Fishpaw is watching her life crumble around her. Husband Elmer is having an affair with his secretary, her promiscuous daughter is two months pregnant, her son is a juvenile delinquent, she feels like she is a bad daughter to her own mother, and the only way she can cope with all of this is by hitting the bottle. So far, so standard melodrama. But scratch beneath the surface of that synopsis and a completely different world appears, twisted and rebuilt through the combination of a low budget and a uniquely camp and warped sensibility. Francine is played by mega sized drag queen Divine, her husband is owner of the local X-rated cinema, her daughter is a perpetual motion go-go dancing machine, her son is a foot fetish freak known as the Baltimore Stomper, and her mom is a coke sniffing bully and thief.

The core of the film is a parody of melodramatic soap operas, and many of the plot twists and turns are not much more convoluted than appear in those. As well as mocking the sort of problems that characters in soap operas face, Waters also mocks the simplistic solutions of the genre. The son comes straight out of a few months’ probation, as a clean, sober and law abiding citizen, channelling his foot fetish into his art, while the daughter discovers macramé and becomes a mellow peace loving hippy – all of which is interesting, considering that Waters has long had a second career teaching in prison.

Unlike the subject matter, the cinematography and shot composition is often quite flat, which may be a consequence of the low budget, but it may also be a deliberate choice, as a counterpoint to the outré subject matter. There is also a wonderful eye for detail, such as the importance of the home or the obsession with brand names.

On it’s release Polyester came to cinemas with the added bonus of ODORAMA. 

This has roots in the eye catching audience enticing novelties of the likes of William Castle and his penchant for getting the audience to experience to some extent what is going on in the film, as well as a short lived gimmick called Smell-O-Vision. Smell-O-Vision was a system that released smells during the showing of the one film associated with it, a crime flick called Scent of Mystery. With ODORAMA (as explained by a Dr Quackenshaw during an hilarious short prologue) audiences are given a scratch-and-sniff card with ten distinct numbered odours. When the appropriate number is displayed on screen, you scratch the matching one on the card and get a nose full of whatever Francine is inhaling at that time. However it is not just an empty ploy as smells are a recurring theme throughout Polyester, at times driving the plot and the shock revelations, as well as some of the gags.

Even without ODORAMA the film is never dull, with some great throwaway gags (my favourite: the Drive-In cinema showing nothing but art house films, with Champagne and Caviar on sale in the lobby), references to Waters' cultural obsessions such as Patty Hearst and the Manson Family, and a soundtrack by the likes of Debbie Harry and Michael Kamen.

The star of the show is, of course, Divine, who pulls off the rare trick of making an unbelievable character seem, if not totally believable, then largely sympathetic. Along with the star, the supporting roles are played by members of the "Dreamlanders", the troupe of oddballs, misfits and actors used by Waters for as long as he has been making films. Edith Massey holds her own amongst the histrionics as Cuddles Kovinsky, the wealthy, simple minded, eternally cheerful best friend of Francine, while Mink Stole puts in a striking turn as the adulterous secretary. Outside of the regulars, 50’s heartthrob Tab Hunter makes a noteworthy appearance as Todd Tomorrow, the too-good-to-be-true beau who appears in Francine’s life, just when she needs him most.

More than three decades after its release, Polyester, still manages to be hilarious and transgressive, and, like Dr Quackenshaw says, “…some odours may shock you, but […] some things in life just plain stink”

Monday, 22 September 2014

The Falcon in Hollywood (1944)

The Falcon in Hollywood is one of the best of the original RKO Falcon series, with the hackneyed plot more than compensated for with the breezy script, debonair star, and his sassy sidekick. In addition, we also get a fascinating behind the scenes tour of the RKO backlot.

This time the Falcon is on vacation, in Tinseltown, enjoying a relaxing day at the races. However, within minutes of the opening credits he is being questioned by police detectives and approached by beautiful women. Before you can say "how does he do that?", he is embroiled in a murder mystery involving a shady businessman, a neurotic, superstitious Shakespeare quoting movie producer and film that seems to be cursed.

The script keeps our hero busy locking horns with the police, the criminals, the filmmakers and the actresses. Helping and hindering in equal measure in the faithful sidekick role is cabbie Billie (Veda Ann Borg).Although the part is played by a woman, the character is pretty gender neutral and, refreshingly, she is not presented as merely a love interest who occasionally screams, but as great comic relief. 

Given the subject matter and setting, The Falcon in Hollywood qualifies as a film about filmmaking, with the focus on the behind-the-scenes drama as much as any taking place in front of the camera. With the ruthless scheming producer, autocratic director and pompous diva actors, it is fascinating to see how the movie world sees itself.

Friday, 19 September 2014

The Falcon in Mexico (1944)

The Falcon in Mexico is the ninth entry in RKO's Falcon series and sees a change of location/stock footage/backdrops, with pleasantly entertaining results.

As usual, our freelance crime-fighting mystery solving hero Tom Lawrence aka The Falcon (played for the sixth time by Tom Conway) gets dragged into the mystery in an amusingly implausible manner, one that us mere mortals can only dream of. Within seconds of kissing his girlfriend goodnight at her apartment, he finds himself lip-locked with a mysterious woman named Dolores in order to shield her from a passing police officer, then helping her break into an art gallery, to recover a painting that she has recently modeled for – even though the artist, Humphrey Wade, has supposedly been dead for over a decade. Dolores promptly disappears just as the Falcon finds the body of the gallery owner. Now wanted for murder, Lawrence teams up with Wade's daughter Barbara and travels to Mexico to clear his name and find out whether reports of Wade's death have been greatly exaggerated.

Conway is a suave as ever, playing the Falcon as seeming amused and bemused by events, but never fazed by them. As usual, he has a sidekick, Manuel, a stereotypical laid-back Mexican, who helps Lawrence negotiate the mean streets of a strange country, and who may not be all he seems, as his character takes on more significance later in the story (the sidekick also has a sidekick, in the shape of his son, basically a mini-Manuel)

The script saunters along at an appropriately relaxed pace, but does stick to the plot without getting sidetracked, with the exception of a few weak musical numbers. Given the brief running time of these sort of films (typically 65-70 minutes), it does leave the denouement feeling rushed, and the killer almost arbitrary. Nevertheless, there is enough entertainment along the way to make that not too much of a problem.

Interestingly, an oft repeated – and never confirmed – legend about this film concerns the stock footage, which is supposedly taken from Orson Welles' unfinished documentary about Brazil, It's All True. Whether this is true or not, what we see is very well shot and certainly a step above the usual stock footage standards.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

The Falcon in Danger (1943)

The Falcon in Danger, the sixth of RKO's Falcon films, is an unremarkable affair, where an annoying sidekick, a dull script and flat direction undo the charming lead.

The story starts intriguingly, with freelance crime solver the Falcon, aka Tom Lawrence (played by Tom Conway) somehow getting roped into investigating a plane crash at an airport in New York. Missing from the wreckage is the pilot, two wealthy businessmen and $100,000 in securities.

Sadly instead of spending time developing this mystery properly, there is instead too much attention given to the Falcon's grating fiancée Bonnie Caldwell, and her, ultimately unsuccessful, attempts to keep Lawrence out of crime fighting. It is not that a character like the Falcon cannot work with a female sidekick; it is more that, whoever that sidekick is, they need to serve a function in the storytelling, whether that is getting the hero into or out of scrapes, or providing somebody for the hero to explain plot points to, for the benefit of the audience. Given that the film only has just over an hour to tell the story, the fiancé diversions are a mistake, and when we do return to characters and elements related to the crash, they feel rushed or poorly thought out.

Tom Conway took over the character of the Falcon from the original star, his brother, George Sanders, and while Conway is no George Sanders – who could be? – he still manages to be suave, (even when on roller skates) and entertaining enough to keep us watching, and make for mostly pleasant, if unessential viewing.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Zoltan, Hound of Dracula (1978)

Zoltan, Hound of Dracula may have one of the goofiest premises for a vampire film, but it deserves credit on three points. Firstly, for trying something different with the mythology, secondly, for a couple of interesting cast choices, and thirdly, for being great trashy entertainment.

The story starts in 1970s Romania, where a group of Russian soldiers are carrying out excavation and demolition work. But despite their best efforts, they only succeed in unearthing and reviving two of Count Dracula's faithful and long dead servants, one two legged (Veidt Smith, played by the wonderfully sinister looking Reggie Nalder) and one four legged (Zoltan, the count's faithful mutt, played by, well, a dog). However, servants are no good without a master, so the pair set off to track down the only surviving member of the Dracula bloodline, a man living in Los Angeles, under the cleverly disguised name of Michael Drake. Can the enigmatic Inspector Branco (Jose Ferrer) get to him first? Moreover, can Drake trust his own four-legged friends to protect himself and his family?

The central premise, the idea of man’s best friend turning into man's worst enemy is actually a good one, and screenwriter Frank Ray Perrili, a veteran of low budget exploitation films has some fun with transferring human vampire behaviour to animals. Granted, the results, such as scenes of Zoltan biting other dogs to turn them into his vampire slaves are impossible to take seriously. However, there are two set pieces with Drake trapped in a house and a car respectively, under siege from the canines, desperately trying to hold out until sunrise, which are suspenseful.

The (human) star of the show is definitely Reggie Nalder, whose distinctive scarred face had helped him get work with the likes of Dario Argento (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage) and Hitchcock (The Man Who Knew Too Much). Despite often doing nothing more than staring at the camera, he still manages to imbue the role with an unsettling, creepy quality.

Kudos too for casting Jose Ferrer as Inspector Branco, the Van Helsing type character tasked with explaining the back-story to the audience and characters. In a similar way that Peter Cushing does, he manages to bring a bit of gravitas to patently stupid situations and dialogue.

The film only really flags during the frequent, unnecessary and interminable scenes of people driving, scenes that last beyond the time needed to establish that people are going somewhere and quickly feel like the padding that they are. However, they are usually accompanied by a distinctive musical theme, so at least when you hear it start, you can go to the fridge and get a beer.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Take Me High (1974)

How could a film that stars Cliff Richard as a merchant banker in 1970s Birmingham, a former Dr Who companion as his love interest, has a plot that revolves around a burger that represents the city, and features random shots of people machine-gunning televisions fail? Sadly, Take Me High is nowhere near as interesting as that synopsis may make it appear, a musical drama with no drama and boring, forgettable music.

Cliff plays Tim Matthews, a high flying, (he keeps a half bottle of champagne in the glove box of his Mini Clubman) go-getter in the world of international finance. All set for a promotion and transfer to New York, he is instead sent to Birmingham to turn the screws on a failing restaurant and the owner, Sarah Jones (played by Deborah Watling, perhaps best known for playing Victoria Waterfield, one of the assistants of the second Dr Who, Patrick Troughton). However once there, he finds himself helping relaunch the business as a glamorous burger bar, with the Brum Burger - a product designed to sum up the city in meat form - but also finds himself falling in love with Sarah.

Sadly, Cliff is utterly unconvincing as a smarmy charmless banker, although he gets no help from the script, which has no believable character development, and little in the way of dramatic tension. The musical numbers do actually serve as the internal monologue of Matthews, expressing what is going on in his head, although they are boring and undistinguished.

Deborah Watling makes the character of Sarah Jones likeable and sympathetic and the ever-reliable George Cole does his best as the hard-bitten socialist politician Bert Jackson. However, again, poor scripting makes them both largely dull characters, especially the underwritten part of Jackson, too much even for Cole's talents to breathe life into

The only beacon of interest character-wise is Hugh Griffith as Sir Harry Cunningham, the socialist hating millionaire, who seems to own most of Birmingham. We are first introduced to him at a dinner party, raging at a TV interview with Jackson, before picking up a machine gun and urging his guests join him in blowing the set to pieces. His all too brief and infrequent scenes are so entertainingly bizarre and surreal that they breathe some much-needed life into proceedings, even if those scenes are so jarringly off-the-wall.

The other star of the show is Birmingham itself, and credit to the director David Askey for actually shooting on location, rather than go for the stock footage option. Much is made of the famed canals of the city, fascinating for somebody like me who used to live around that way, perhaps less so for anyone who did not. It certainly does not capture the feel of the people of the city, showing little of the racial and cultural diversity present even 40 years ago, and without the recognisable locations, could actually have been set anywhere outside of London.

As a side note, the Brum burger itself is remarkably prescient, being handmade, and using all locally sourced ingredients, something that every Gastro pub in the country seems to offer nowadays.