Monthly Archives: February 2013

‘All these children out on the streets at night’ – The Sorcerers

Director Michael Reeves* is best known for Witchfinder General, one of those legendary films which comes to the viewer ready wrapped in myth, infamy and a big pile of anecdotes. In places, Witchfinder is as disturbing and brilliant as its reputation suggests. In others, it’s a tad hokey.

Anyway, that’s Witchfinder General. But also worthy of note is Reeves’s earlier film The Sorcerers (1967), a weird and fascinating horror/sci-fi tale weaving in and out of Swinging 60s London. The story concerns an elderly couple who happen to be ‘brilliant’ hypnotists:  Professor Morris Monserrat (Boris Karloff) and his wife Estelle (Catherine Lacey). Morris has built a mind control machine and they’re looking for a test subject. After unsuccessfully advertising in a newsagent’s window, Estelle suggests that they try and persuade one of the young people they’re seen swaggering around town. They can offer it as ‘an experience’ she says. Something new.

Meanwhile, in a dingy nightclub, we find Mike** (Ian Oglivy – a childhood friend of Reeves who also starred in Witchfinder General) with his beautiful girlfriend Nicole and awkward Dad-dancing buddy, Alan. Mike is restless. ‘How long do you think all this can last?’ he asks.

A bit later, Mike abandons his friends for a solo wander through the dark streets.   Morris (on a groovy young person hunt) spots him and follows him into a Wimpy Bar.  The London of this film is full of grubby cafes, dingy alleyways and shadowy interiors. A grimy, lonely place.

Mike is sceptical about Monserrat’s offer of mind-bending groovy funtimes, but agrees to come along and give it a go anyway. And so he’s taken to their flowery wallpapered home and escorted into the laboratory. Which looks like some kind of stark pop-arty recording studio, a mass of dials and wires against white walls.

Monserrat’s marvellous mind control machine is pretty lo-fi – just a chair and some headphones. Somehow, it’s powered by Morris and Estelle’s thought waves. Plus a swirly lightshow. The couple are thrilled to discover that their experiment has worked. Mike is completely in their control and they can both feel what he feels. He’s somewhat befuddled but they send him on his way, to find out if their powers still work at a distance. It turns out that they do and Mike finds Nicole and takes her for a beautifully photographed late night swim in a hotel pool.

The Monserrats discuss how they are going to use their power. Morris wants to ‘help people’ but Estelle has other ideas. Their lives have been hard, she reasons, so why not have a bit of fun getting Mike to do things on their behalf? The things they’ve never been able to do.

What follows could be described as an interesting meditation on power and responsibility. Or a Frankenstein style tale about science and morality. Or, as someone on IMDB puts it, ‘a film in which Ian Oglivy listens to Cliff Richard*** and stabs Susan George with a pair of scissors.’ Whatever approach suits, it’s certainly an unusual tale which avoids camp silliness for the most part. The performances are relatively naturalistic. Karloff brings gravitas. Lacey is extraordinarily scary and tragic.

Estelle is frighteningly happy about getting Mike to speed madly on Alan’s motorbike. Her pleasure increases as she gets him to steal, fight and eventually kill. Morris is terrified, but he can’t stop her.

Their psychic powers give the Monserrats a chance to hang around the youth-centric world of the nightclub, an experience from which would people of their age would normally be excluded. This makes it sound a bit like ‘one way Freaky Friday, plus spooky murders’, but honestly – it’s better than that.

Would things have been different if they’d chosen a young woman instead of a young man for their experiment?  A lot of the ladies in this film wear gorgeous mini-dresses without hosiery, so presumably the film would have involved Karloff constantly saying things like, ‘My knees – they are so cold.’

Morris wants to stop Estelle from sending Mike out on a crime spree, but find that he is unable to do so. She smashes up the machine (so Mike can never be ‘deprogrammed’) and her hypnotic powers beat down her husband’s. ‘My will is stronger,’ she proclaims triumphantly.

It is her ‘will’ which makes Mike commit violent acts. He’s a young man callously killing young women, because an old woman made him do it. Is this because she resents their youth or because she’s doing it just because she can? A bit of both, possibly. And it’s either misogynistic (women despise other women) or a bit feminist (the women Mike kills are seen as disposable, Estelle is limited in her choices and relishes the chance to take on a male role).

You could view The Sorcerers as a meditation on the nature of cinema and violence, dressed up in a funky sixties sci-fi/horror cape. Whether the films motives really run this deep or whether it’s simply (as my Dad would say) ‘a good yarn’, it’s certainly 81 minutes of fascinating oddness.

*Tragically, the extremely talented Mr Reeves passed away in 1969 when he was just 25. Witchfinder General was his last film.

**Hmm – Reeves co-wrote this (with someone called Tom Baker. No, not that Tom Baker) Was he getting his friend to do an impression of him?

***’Go Wild in the Country’ is on the soundtrack.

E.M.

 

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Video Nasty: Playground nightmare fuel

When I was very young, a trip to the video shop was like a trip to Narnia. A somewhat dingy Narnia with no snow, no fauns and a strong smell of plastic, but an exciting place to visit all the same.

I’d peruse the children’s films, looking for some Disney or a compilation of Bugs Bunny cartoons. When I’d picked out something suitable and whichever parent I was with queued up to take it out (along with their own choice) I liked to sneak over into the grown-ups’ section and examine the covers of films that I’d never be allowed to watch.

The horror films had an appalling fascination. I’d look at the covers of films such as Children of the Corn (an artsy cover rather than an icky one, but I knew it involved decapitation and thanks to Alice in Wonderland and various junior history books the idea was very much in my mind. And nightmares.), Creepshow (a campy looking skeleton), Vamp (glamourous lips with vampire fangs) and Basket Case (Eww). I’d look at those, feel a bit weird and then go home and wash my brain out by going home, eating fishfingers and watching Disney’s Robin Hood for the fifth time.

Long before I ever saw any scary movies, I formed some clear ideas in my mind of what such films would be like based a mixture of the video covers, descriptions in film reviews in the newspapers and playground hearsay.

As I’ m sure was the case for a lot of children back in the 80s, my Primary School class contained several kids who liked to claim that they’d seen films on holidays to America that were a long way off being released in the UK. They’d claim to have seen ‘Jaws 6’, thus implying that we were so behind in our cinematic releases that ‘Jaws 5’ hadn’t even made it over yet. And what did the shark in ‘Jaws 6’ get up to? Horrible things, involving heads and guts and eyes. Things that made events in the original Jaws (which most of us hadn’t been allowed to watch yet) seem fluffy and innocent.

There was also one boy in my class who claimed to have seen all of the big horror films because his parents were happy to let him. I’m not sure if this was actually the case or if he’d just done the same as the rest of us and made up his own versions of these films. Certainly, his version of A Nightmare on Elm Street sounded far more frightening than the actual film possibly could be. His versions would go something along the lines of, ‘And then Freddie rips out this girl’s eyes and there’s ALL BLOOD and then he turns into a tongue and comes out of the phone and squashes someone’s guts and then he eats a dog and turns into a robot and eats another girl and there’s ALL BLOOD everywhere.’

Years later, when I saw A Nightmare on Elm Street, I wasn’t too surprised to find that nothing in it was quite as icky as it had seemed when it was described (and embellished) by an over-imaginative eight year old.  

There were some supposed grown-up films that kids were drawn to despite the ominous circled ‘18’ on the covers. In 1988, Robocop became a classic example of this. One lunchtime, one of my classmates proclaimed, ‘If I was Prime Minister, I’d have Robocop as my bodyguard.’

This prompted me to write a ‘satirical’ newspaper story describing the shock appointment of  Robocop as the PM’s personal security. Strangely, it didn’t really go on to explain why a ten year old lad from Hertfordshire came to be the Prime Minister. I think I was assuming that all of this was happening in a world in which the appointment of children to public office was fairly commonplace.

I don’t remember too much of what I wrote, aside from the quote from The Blob (a remake had recently been released) who in the world of the story was Chancellor of the Exchequer (his comment was something insightful along the lines of, ‘Blobba blobba blob blob’. The inventors of Mr Blobby must owe me a lot of money in royalties.) was the final sentence, which was as follows: ‘The Home Secretary Freddie Krueger was unavailable for comment, as he had to go and kill Kylie and Jason.’

I showed the story to our would-be PM and he told me to ‘Shut Up.’ So he must have liked it.

E.M.

‘Is E.T. dead, Daddy?’ – My first ever trip to the cinema

The first film I saw in the cinema was E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial*. E.T. was the ‘my first movie’ for a lot of people my age.

I distinctly remember my parents preparing me for the experience by sitting me down in front of our TV set and my Mum saying, ‘It’ll be like this, only the screen will be much much bigger. It’ll be dark, there will be lots of other people there and you musn’t talk.’ Of course, as the title of this post indicates, I broke the ‘no talking’ rule when I became distressed at the alien’s onscreen suffering. My Dad’s response to my question was ‘I hope not’.

A friend of mine went even further in her E.T. related distress. Her concern wasn’t with the ‘going all flaky and nearly dying’ bit but with the end of the film in which Elliott and E.T. have to part. As the spaceship took flight onscreen she stood up and ran through the cinema yelling, ‘Come back!’

Aside from the trauma of alien Jesus resurrection, I loved going to the cinema. I liked the darkness. I loved the darkness. And the sense of sharing a story with strangers. During the Reece’s Pieces scene, I looked down and noticed that someone had split some Smarties on the floor. I considered the possibility that the careless confectionary eater had done this for my benefit.

Of course, I wasn’t tempted to eat the dropped sweets off the floor. It was true that it might lead me to having an adventure with an alien friend. But then I might also get swept off to a lab by scary grown-ups with guns (these being the guns that Spielberg removed via CGI in the 2000s Special Edition) or wearing protective suits. I left the Smarties alone and enjoyed the film.

Emerging from the darkened Odeon into daylight, I proclaimed the film to be ‘excellent’. And when I got home, I stared at my toys for a long time, just in case I caught anything moving amongst them. To this day, I keep an eye out for cross-dressing alien beings whenever I open a cupboard.

*Interesting E.T. trivia: E.T.’s voice was partly done by an elderly lady who smoked a lot of ciggies. Some of the other sounds he made were based on recordings of various animals, including sea otters. To my knowledge, sea otters are not in the habit of telling children to ‘be good’. Which makes them rubbish babysitters.

E.M.

Grease 2: Part 3 – Make My Stamen Go Beserk!

Not so very long ago, The Great Escape would regularly turn up in the Bank Holiday TV schedules. It was often screened over Christmas, joining the likes of The Sound of Music or the film of Dad’s Army in an unofficial line-up of WW2 themed festive jollity.

It seems to be on less these days, but whenever The Great Escape pops up on telly I like to carry on my traditional viewing of the Steve McQueen motorbike escape chase towards the end of the film. Just to see if he makes it this time. Just to see if once, just once, I’ll be watching a special version in which he gives the Nazis the slip. Of course, he never does. But that doesn’t stop me from shouting ‘Go on Steve…go on Steve…go on Steve…Oh, Damn!’ until whoever I’m watching TV with backs slowly out of the room and comes back with a Calippo and some bourbon to soothe my anger.

Similarly, whenever I watch Grease 2, I find myself hoping* that one of the characters will work out that the Cool Rider who Stephanie gets all excited by is just Michael in some large googles. For after Steph dances away at the end of Cool Rider, one of the T-Birds (T is for Tossmonkey) approaches Michael with a business proposition: they want to pay Michael to do their homework for them. And Michael agrees. Pretty soon, he’s doing homework for all of the T-Birds (How come none of the teachers notice? I’m guessing that pre-Michael the T-Birds either did no homework at all or handed in poorly rendered drawings of ‘lady parts’) so that he can buy himself a motorbike.

So he gets a crappy bike, learns to ride it in about 2 scenes and suddenly the vehicle’s all shiny. You’d think that the bike would get a musical tribute (‘Greased Lightin’ style) but strangely it doesn’t.

Instead, Michael slaps on his biker gear and rides around a bit in front of his classmates, miraculously knocking over baddies (the gang of hoodlums led by Crater Face, the sneery meany from Grease 1) without actually touching them. Stephanie is smitten. People sing ‘Who’s That Guy?’ And then…

Well…Stephanie has a dangerous (but sexy) bike ride with the Cool Rider. Johnny gets jealous. Stephanie gets close to google-free Michael (who has started doing her homework too and has also inexplicably started talking like Michael Caine). Michael can’t handle the deception and sings about it**. The Cool Rider makes a dangerous jump on his bike and goes missing (presumed squished). And then…well…at the end of year luau (yes) Cool Rider turns up, unmasks and everyone sings a sing called ‘We’ll be Together’. (This song is not as good as the song with the same name at the end of the original Grease.) Fin.

I read somewhere that Grease 2 started shooting without a finished script. This would certainly explain the weird patchwork quilt of subplots that don’t quite hold together. In an effort to distract from the wonky story telling, the second half of the film is padded out with a lot of slightly ropey songs about shagging. These songs are not really connected to the plot, but that’s ok as the songs which are connected to the plot (‘Charades’, ‘Love Will Turn Back the Hands of Time’) are even worse.

On the sex song front there’s ‘Let’s Do It For Our Country’ (T-Bird Goose almost convinces his Pink Lady lady friend that nuclear war has started and therefore they must shag. This is all sorts of wrong. And was kind of the inspiration for a terrible Pepsi advert a couple of years ago.), ‘Prowlin’ (all of the T-Birds sing about picking up sexy ladies on their blokey trips around town, even though said trips probably more likely to involve spitting and making rude armpit noises) and then there’s ‘Reproduction’. Oh. Dear. God.

I was going to include a link to the YouTube clip for this song here, but it’s probably not a good idea. That thing is ear-wormy. Do a search for ‘Reproduction Grease 2’ if you like, but please be warned that you may find yourself singing about stamens, pollen tubes and ‘sexual occasions’ (presumably these include Sexual Birthdays, Sexual Christmas and Sexual Pentecost) for the next three weeks or so.

Something I’ve noticed in re-watching Grease 2 is the weird to-do with Caufield’s eyebrows midway through the film. From some (but not all – Grease 2 might look like they made it up as they went along but it probably wasn’t like that.) scenes midway through the film they start to look a bit, well, drawn on. Like he shaved them off and they were painted back on by someone who had never seen eyebrows before. Someone needs to re-edit the film so his brows make sense. Grease 2: The Eyebrow Cut. I’d watch.

Anyway, Grease 2 – no, it’s not as good as Grease 1. They didn’t put enough thought into the story. Or the songs. The characters are pretty unlikeable and unmemorable. But I find that I can’t dislike Grease 2. That’d be like laughing at a puppy that’s just been kicked. Plus, it’s watchable. Watchable in the way that a lot of bad films aren’t.

Also, here’s a thing, there are people who like Grease 2 more than Grease 1. I’ve met them. And somewhere, possibly, perhaps one of them is probably writing a thing about how lame they think the original Grease was.

*Presumably some part of me thinks that films with motorbikes in them are magical and therefore interactive. One day, if I’m feeling especially masochistic, I might try watching I Bought A Vampire Motorcycle*** sometime to see if I can make it into some kind of cinematic ‘Choose your own adventure’ book.

**Because the important thing is to always be yourself. Though in order to persuade the person you are in love/lust with to get off with you, you might have to pretend to be someone else for a bit. So, be yourself even when you’re except when you’re not being yourself. Be yourself even when you’re not being yourself in sexy trousers. That’s the important message of both Greases.

**Late 80s British horror comedy starring Neil Morrissey. I haven’t seen it, but a friend with an even greater fondness for peculiar films than my own watched it on YouTube and sagely described it as ‘a bit bollocky.’

E.M.

Now Zydrate comes in a little glass vial

The not too distant future. The coastline is choked with corpses and nine-tenths of the island on which our main city’s based is given over to a gigantic graveyard. A plague of mysterious organ failures looked set to wipe out the human race, until the company Geneco invented a quick, foolproof way of transplanting organs. Almost everyone in this society is now in heavy debt, with surgery being pushed as the solution to all life’s ills, and all money flowing towards GeneCo. Default on your payments, and the Repo Man will come to take back the organs you can no longer pay for.

That’s the setting for Repo: the Genetic Opera, a rock opera that was made into a movie in 2008. The plot has several strands, which is honestly part of the problem with the film. There’s Rotti Largo, the CEO of GeneCo, who is a cheerfully unrepentant murderer and torturer and sends his Repo Men out to butcher those who owe him money. He killed a lady because she left him for another man. There’s the other man, Nathan, who used to be a doctor but fell apart after his wife died, and now works as a Repo Man. He keeps his sixteen-year-old daughter prisoner in a room of their house, claiming she has a ‘blood disease’. There’s Blind Mag, a singer with GeneCo eyes who’s hoping to escape her contract. And there are a small host of minor characters, of whom the least annoying is probably the Graverobber, played cool and sexy by one of the creators of the musical, Terence Zdunich. He extracts a substance from dead bodies that acts as the perfect anaesthetic, enabling the surgery addiction of the rest of the populace. So he’s a drug pusher, basically, but a cool and sexy one.

The girl, Shilo, wants freedom and a normal life and to exchange words with someone other than her dad. Nathan is getting tired of murder, and Rotti is dying, trying to decide whom he should bequeath GeneCo – and thus, the world – to after he goes. His three children are collectively the biggest issue with this movie. Paris Hilton actually does a decent job with surgery addict Amber Sweet, but the boys are both dreadful, overplayed and shallow as puddles.

The rest of the cast do a pretty good job, on the whole. Alexa Vega doesn’t really have a rock voice, but she snarls out a few good tunes and fits in well with heavyweights Anthony Head and Paul Sorvino. Zdunich is a lot of fun to watch. The weaknesses of this film are mostly to do with story. It feels as if a lot was left on the cutting room floor. Moments of reaction that aren’t explained, fuzzy motivations – it just doesn’t quite convince.

Having said that, for an audience that likes musicals in general and rock in particular, there’s a lot of fun to be had here. Sarah Brightman gives a remarkable turn as the blind singer and the setting is at least original, the visual style of the movie striking, if sometimes a little messy. And though the film that has no compunction about showing off scantily-clad babes heaving and panting at the least provocation, the themes of its story seem to be, at least in part, about the women of the film shrugging off the expectations and assumptions of their paternalistic caregivers to break free, in their own way. That alone is refreshing.

I actually adore this film, but my goodness, I’d be picky about whom I showed it to. A lot of people will bounce right off.

Grease 2: Part 2: Think Pink!

A confused poster on the IMDB message boards for Grease 2 has a probing question, ‘Is “We’re Gonna Score Tonight” a sexual song?’ Either they’re taking the piss or they’ve gone through their life taking the words of every single pop song ever at face value. If that’s the case, they must think that 60% of pop songs are about babies and the rest about food.

The plot of Grease 2 is a gender switched version of the original Grease*. Instead of an innocent young lady falling for a faux hoodlum T-Bird, we have a preppy young gentleman falling for a cool girl who wears sunglasses and is basically a teenage Debbie Harry. In Grease 1, they got a whole song about the fact that Danny and Sandy got together over the summer, when the Rydell High jacket-based social hierarchy did not apply. Grease 2, however has Michael (Sandy’s English cousin) expressing an interest in Stephanie on the first day of school. And Frenchie (back at school for ‘extra credit’) has to explain to him that Stephanie is a Pink Lady. And Pink Ladies have to go out with T-Birds. Or else the universe implodes, or something.

During the film’s opening number (aka ‘Back to School again’ aka ‘decent song number one’) the Pink Ladies say their pledge:
‘The Pink Ladies Pledge to act cool, to look cool and to be cool, till death do us part, Think Pink!’
(If you want to see an animated gif of Michelle Pfeiffer reciting this bit in slo-mo, it’s on tumblr somewhere.)

There’s nothing in the pledge about having to go out with T-Birds, no matter how what massive cockbiscuits they happen to be. And the Grease 2 T-Birds certainly are cockbiscuits. The ones in the first film were twatty enough, but the 1961 vintage are something else. Later on in the film, Principal McGee introduces them at the talent show as ‘The T-Bones’, much to their annoyance. I’m not sure if this is meant to be a ‘Haha – old ladies don’t know what’s going on’ moment or just McGee enjoying winding them up because they’re gits.

Throughout Grease 2, the T-Birds mispronounce the word ‘albums’ as ‘albumens’. They mispronounce lots of other words too, but this one particularly bothers me. How do they know that word? It’s not as if they read books or anything like that. They appear to be the sort of gang whose Mums do their hair for them. Maybe Johnny’s Mum treats his DA ‘do’ to a nice egg wash to make it extra shiny. Unless they mean ‘albumins’, which would suggest that some of them have being paying attention in biology classes which don’t involve singing about flower sex.

Anyway, Michael tries to talk to Stephanie. Who has previously told Johnny the head T-Bird that she doesn’t want to go out with him anymore as she’s outgrown him over the summer. And what kind of man is the new mature Stephanie after? Um, well she explains in ‘Cool Rider’ that she wants ‘A devil in skintight leather.’ Which is a freaky image – would he have leather on his horns? Is he in a gimp suit? Hey, I’m used to all kinds of imagery in songs (lately I’ve been listening to splendid Edinburgh songmeister Withered Hand who sings about pleasuring himself on a friend’s futon and then wondering what what happen if he died immediately afterwards) but…well, she’s only going to grow-up to be disappointed. Or kinky.

Anyway, ‘Cool Rider’ is decent song number two. And soon it’s off to the bowling alley for ‘We’re Gonna Score’, where the lovely Lorna Luft sings a bit like a lady version of Meatloaf, Johnny lipsyncs very badly and then..eep…well, it looks like the decent songs have been used up. And there’s still a lot of movie left. It’s usually at this point that I start to wonder if re-watching Grease 2 is a good idea. And then I carry on watching it, just in case it’s better than I remember. And it isn’t.

Next time: Cool Rider’s mad fighting skillz, the balled of Maxwell’s eyebrows, Where DOES the pollen go?

*Where could Grease 3 have gone with it? Talking dogs?

E.M.

Grease 2: Part 1 or Strange How Potent Cheap Music Is*

Citizen Kane. An excellent film by all accounts. Almost perfect, some critics would say. A landmark in Hollywood cinema. No argument there.

I’ve seen Kane quite a few times. A couple of years ago, I badgered my family into sitting down and watching it during a Boxing Day Quality Street comedown. We all agreed it was a splendid piece of work.
The thing is, though I’ve sat through and enjoyed Citizen Kane a few times, I haven’t seen it as many times as I’ve seen Grease 2 . I’m not sure what that says about me. Here follows the first part of a far-too in-depth analysis of the Cool Ridin’, rock n’rolling, occasionally cushion-chewingly bad Grease 2. ‘Strange how potent cheap music is.’ Truly the words of a man who never sat through a bad musical sequel. (As an aside, I would have really really liked to hear dear old Noel singing ‘Reproduction.’)

Grease 2, then. The original Grease was so popular that someone thought a sequel would be a good idea. Fair enough. The audience get to re-live their love for the original. The filmmakers get to make some more money. It’s a winner, surely. In fact, there were originally meant to be several sequels to Grease, including one set in the late sixties counterculture. Yes, because that would have been a good idea, wouldn’t it?

(Let’s just imagine what Grease 3/Whatever would have been like for a moment. Superannuated T-Birds trying to sculpt quiffs out of their hip-length hippie locks, Pink Ladies ceremonially burning their bullet bras, Principle McGee of looking on aghast as Rydell High descends into a balls-out full-on freakout and Frenchie is still there trying to be, I dunno, a podiatrist or something.)

Grease 2 is supposed to take place in 1961, though the movie’s version of 1961 is pretty much the same as the 1950-something of the original Grease. Though there are a few 80s haircuts and Michelle Pfeiffer’s dress in the final scene resembles one of the sparkly disco frocks she later wore in Scarface.

Famously, Ms Pfeiffer was one of the few Grease 2 alumni to go on to have a ‘proper’ Hollywood. Which is kind of a shame, really. Lorna Luft does splendidly as a proper song and dance person amongst all the monkey arm moves and terrifying lip synching of the rest of the main cast.

And then there’s poor Maxwell Caulfield. Had he been of age in the actual sixties, he might have done a good line in tortured pretty boys, but instead he gets to sing ‘Charades’, possibly the worst song on the soundtrack. He doesn’t even get to sing it on camera – the song is some kind of internal monologue that plays whilst he emos his way around the canteen. Poor Maxwell.

Next time: America’s dumbest T-Bones, The Pink Ladies pledge and the film-makers get rid of the best songs in the first half of the movie…

*This famous quote comes from Private Lives by Noel Coward. Truly the words of a man who never sat through a bad musical sequel. As an aside, I would have really really liked to hear dear old Noel covering ‘Reproduction.’ That’s almost worth building a time machine for.

E.M.