‘Where ARE my doggie-woggies?’: Theatre of Blood

1973’s Theatre of Blood is the prince of horror-comedies. And if it actually was a prince it would be an indecisive Danish one. The ‘haha’/’erk’ balance is a difficult one to get right, but this film manages it splendidly. The splendid story-telling helps – Vincent Price is prime ham Edward Lionheart, back from a faced suicide to take his blood vengeance on the pompous theatre critics who denied him a ‘Best Actor’ award.
The critics are offed in series of Grand Guinol Shakespeare homages. George Maxwell (Michael Horden) is stabbed like Julius Caesar. The fantastically named Horace Sprout (Arthur Lowe)* loses his head, Cymbeline style. There’s death by wine barrel, death by hairdo** and death by poodle pie***. And for all of the horrible things that Lionheart and his daughter Edwina (Diana Rigg) get up to, you can’t help but enjoy their villainous crusade.
Vincent Price seems to be enjoying himself so much that you can see the glee beneath his theatrical pan-stick. There’s a flashback sequence in which he recites the ‘To be or not to be’ speech whilst the Critic’s Circle sneer and applaud sarcastically. You can’t help but feel sorry for poor old over-acting Lionheart. Price’s version of the speech manages to be both suitably OTT and strangely moving. Prior to a bonkers fencing match (with trampolines) he sneers at the one vaguely decent critic Devlin (Ian Hendry), ‘What do you know of the blood, sweat and toil of a theatrical production?’
Early on in the film, Devlin receives a beautifully wrapped package apparently from his fellow critic, Dickman****. The attached note reads, ‘I am sorry to miss the meeting, but my heart is with you.’ Of course, the package is really from Lionheart and it contains – well, Dickman’s heart. It’s not subtle, but it is funny. And genuinely icky.
Director Douglas Hickox gets the right balance of camp and darkness, which fits Anthony Granville-Bell’s wonderfully. This film is a genuine one-off. ‘Lionheart is immortal!’ Price proclaims. It’s hard to disagree.
*Poor Devlin opens his front door the morning after to find poor Sprout’s head perched on top of a milk bottle. I felt a bit sorry for Sprout. He is Captain Mainwaring, after all. And in Theatre of Blood, he’s married to the 80s BBC incarnation of Miss Marple (Joan Hickson).
**Miss Chloe Moon (Coral Browne) gets electrocuted by a booby-trapped hairdryer, in homage to Joan of Arc’s death in Henry VI: Part One. Browne and Price later married. Insert ‘sparks fly’ gag here.
***Robert Morley’s character, Merridew, unwittingly eats his beloved poodles.
****Yes, Dickman. And guess what? The character’s a big old letch and is easily lured to his Merchant of Venice inspired doom by Edwina and her go-go boots.

E.M.

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Under Siege!

What follows is a very silly thing I wrote some years ago. It was tempting to put it elsewhere on the internet and claim it was the first few pages of the original shooting script for Under Siege.

    Under Siege! (Or Under Siege 1: Siege Siege-ier)

ON BOARD THE BATTLESHIP UNCONVINCING, SHOUTY GARY BUSEY IS GIVING THE CREW THEIR ORDERS

Shouty Gary Busey: Hey! I want everything to be right for the Captain’s birthday party. I don’t want us to be UNDER SIEGE or anything.

Steven Seagal: I am a totally a chef. I worry about the pies I am cooking to hilarious comic effect. Plus, I am great at kicking ass. If we were ever UNDER SIEGE I would save us all.

Shouty Gary Busey: Right, that’s it. I’m locking the chef in the meat locker. Hey, Rooky cannon fodder sailor?

Rooky Cannon Fodder Sailor: Sir, yes sir!

Shouty Gary Busey: Lock him away away. And don’t let him out. Not if the pies are burning. Not if the ship’s UNDER SIEGE. You got it?

Rooky Cannon Fodder Sailor: Sir, yes sir!

Steven Seagal (From inside the cupboard): Grrr. What about the pies? They will soon be UNDER SIEGE from the heat in the oven.

LATER. TOMMY LEE JONES AND BAYWATCH LADY ARE ON BOARD THE UNCONVINCING.

Baywatch Lady: I hate boats! I only like kittens! Why have you brought me here? Why am I in this film?

Tommy Lee Jones: You’re here to flash your nips and shriek.

Baywatch Lady: Cool – I can totally do that. My body will be like, UNDER SIEGE from the eyes of the sex starved seamen.

LATER STILL. A CRAZY PARTY OF CRAZINESS IS HAPPENING WITH BEER AND EVERYTHING

Shouty Gary Busey (Who is in drag): Look! I am in lady clothes How hilarious!

Sailors: What fun! He is dressed as a woman, but is actually a man! Woo! I am so not attracted to him at all.

Tommy Lee Jones: (Playing the harmonica). Hey fellas! I love music! Soon you will all be UNDER SIEGE from my music.

Sailors: Yeah!

(ROCKING OUT COMMENCES).

Tommy Lee Jones: Hey. Who’s the most senior officer here apart from Shouty Gary Busey.

Unfortunate Extra: Yeah. That’d be me. If we were UNDER SIEGE I’d be in charge.

(Tommy Lee Jones shoots the Unfortunate Extra in the face).

Everyone: Oh fuck! We’re UNDER SIEGE!

Shouty Gary Busey: (Removing his wig) You’re UNDER SIEGE. I am not UNDER SIEGE. Cos I’m in on the whole thing! I am a baddie! And I’m still wearing a skirt. And bad lipstick. But now I have removed my wig. Cos it was making me look ridiculous. Therefore, might lead you to forget that you are UNDER SIEGE!

(MEANWHILE)

Steven Seagal (Having just escaped from the cupboard using the twin powers of Buddhism and being fighty): My pies are burning!!! Damn you Shouty Gary Busey! What’s all that noise…surely we’re not…UNDER SIEGE!

E.M.

‘Once a week’s enough for any man!’* – Sex Education via the Carry On films

The Carry On films. Classic rainy Sunday viewing since forever. All PG rated family fun. I certainly saw enough of them when I was very young indeed.  I will occasionally re-watch some of the better ones (especially ‘Khyber’ and ‘Screaming*’) when they’re on ITV3. Actually, to be honest, I’ll re-watch some of the rubbish ones too, even though I’ll probably wince until my face hurts.

Growing up in the 80s, the media’s messages about sex were somewhat confused. You catch watch a Hollywood film, which implied it was a sort of secret sport with bragging rights and then cut to an ad break where a John Hurt voiceover would tell you that you could ‘die of ignorance’ or images of grey ice bergs. The Carry On films suggest that sex is can be dangerous too, but only if your wife, Joan Sims (or Hattie Jacques), finds out that you’ve been thinking about having it with a glamorous young lady who isn’t her.

There’s a lot of innuendo in the Carry Ons. Certainly far more thinking about shagging, than actual shagging. And of course, they didn’t show any actual rumpy-pumpy (I haven’t seen Carry On, Emmanuelle – yes, a parody of the kind of softcore film in which everybody is an ambassador of some kind – it was a certificate ‘15’ so there might have been some actual rudery there) – instead, sex would usually involve a man making a growling noise and advancing rapidly towards the lady. The scene would then cut to something unrelated or might stay in the same scene just to show a man hiding in a bush and saying something like, ‘Corrrrr!’

Oh and another important lesson from Carry On films and indeed lots of comedy is that bosoms are always hilarious. Like having a mini-bouncy castle with man luring abilities strapped to your chest at all times. Penises, however, are something which can only ever be alluded to, usually with a comedy sound effect to suggest their presence.

A lot of the characters in Carry-On are very interested sex (even though ones who didn’t seem to like it), but very few of them would actually get any. The act of ‘How’s Your Father’ was something that happened once in a while with a big old build-up***.  Like a bank holiday trip to the seaside, but with more gurning and less ice cream.

I’m surely someone’s probably done it, but I reckon there’s an interesting study to be made in the representation of British culture in the Carry On films. The franchise ran between the fifties and the seventies (and, yes, there was Carry on Columbus in 1992, but that was just…well, have you seen it?) a long enough period of take in a lot of social change. When it gets to the later period Carry Ons, it becomes obvious that the writers are from a previous generation. Hence the dismissal of hippies in Carry On Camping, feminists in Carry On Girls*** and unions in Carry On At Your Convenience. And the odd depiction of sex fits in with all of this. It sort of slips in. Round the back. *Cue jaunty tuba music.*

*This is Hattie Jacques’s lovely response to Kenneth Williams confessing that he was ‘once a weak man’ in Carry On Doctor.

*Carry on Screaming is ace. An affectionate Hammer Horror parody, which take place in a parallel universe in which Kenneth Williams is Peter Cushing.

** (Insert Sid James guffaw or Barbara Windsor giggle here).

***In which June Whitfield plays a formidable lady called ‘Mrs Prodworthy’.

E.M.

‘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.

 

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.