Thursday 23 February 2017

Fu Manchu - the early years

Watching the early Warner Oland Fu Manchus with Anna May Wong as Fah Lo Suee, in sound but still early enough to be rooted in the silent era. Fresh from A Study In Scarlet with Reginald Owen as some blandly English bloke in a fedora called Sherlock Holmes who doesn't really act like Sherlock Holmes, Wong is rather theatrical and goes from bland glamourpuss to angry proto-Rita Repulsa from Power Rangers. Oland's Fu surely the inspiration for Hnup Wan in One Of Our Dinosaurs is Missing, coming across as a headmaster in a school pantomime, less sinister than Karloff's freakish Carmen Miranda-hatted mutant and Christopher Lee's sinister mastermind. Some of the Chinese characters resemble Irish priests more than actual Asian people, such is the film's strange depiction of the Orient. The films, though pre-code feel less grand than Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) with Karloff and lack that film's weird sexual undertones and excitement in torture (and the ending that fifty years later was stolen by a certain Spielberg and Lucas for their own pulp adventure, Raiders of the Lost Ark). Being backlot-bound and grainy,  rather pedestrian productions, they even lack the perilous setpieces (with cameos by my grandad) of the Harry Alan Towers-Lee series (in such exotic locales as Hong Kong, Turkey, Spain and the Powerscourt Arms, Enniskerry) and the psychotronic travelogue tat-glamour of Jess Franco's sequels. The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu (1929), directed by Son of Frankenstein's Rowland V. Lee has more adventure and excitement (well more exciting than say, the Bulldog Drummond films of the same era and the aforementioned bloody Reginald Owen Sherlock), looks quite exotic and expensive and feels at times like some weird propaganda film from Shang-Ri-La. They are quite ropey,  with characters at one point I swear saying things like a "great big chink" and camp chatter about bloodhounds. The Lee helmed-Return Of Fu Manchu I haven't found, and is apparently more of the same again helmed by Lee, but less.  Petrie is played in the first two of the films by Neil Hamilton after his work with D.W. Griffith and before his roles in the Tarzan movies as Jane's other bloke, and long before he played Comm. Gordon in Batman, his voice unchanged forty years later, and my Wold Newton-ish tendency to connect pulp heroes makes me wonder what if Gordon is actually an old Petrie, who moved to the US, changed his name to get shat of the Si-Fan and then found himself tackling weirder baddies. The last of the trilogy,Daughter of the Dragon (1931) is more like  a parlour room drama with odd moments of pulpish peril than pure pulp adventure, ie there's just Petrie (now Bramwell Fletcher), no Nayland Smith (played by O.P. "the blind hermit" Heggie in the first two) and Sessue Hayakawa appears as some sort of vague love interest.

The films are ropey and not very good, to be honest, unlike Mask and the Lee films, even the beguiling messes of Franco's duo. I haven't seen Paramount on Parade, the 1933 revue/proto-Comic Relief with Oland's Fu facing off among a cabal of 'tecs, including Clive Brook's fedora-hatted Third Doctor-ish gadget man Sherlock (this time, not sided by his regular sidekick, Watson, in the 1933 Brook Sherlock Holmes, incarnated in the form of Reginald Owen).

But these three Paramount-Oland ones are interesting for showing the debt Hollywood paid to British genre/pulp fiction in its early years, with this and the various HG Wells adaptations and British-based horrors. Though even in the UK, they were making the gloriously visual but rather staid likes of Things to Come, the lost-up-its-own-whimsy The Man Who Could Work Miracles and the Tunnel and myriad identical quickies based on Wallace or Sexton Blake, Hollywood were churning out rival productions, i.e. see the two Gaslights, the competing runs of Sherlock Holmes and Bulldog Drummond mysteries. After all, technically King Kong is an Edgar Wallace mystery...

Clive Brook's Sherlock Holmes (1932) is actually much more interesting. It has a creepy carnival setting, feels quite modern in style, has Holmes disguised as an old dear who smokes a pipe, and a Cockernew-Yorker Billy the Pageboy.

Monday 20 February 2017

My Ken Russell problem

I am not much of a fan of Ken Russell. His early movies are visual eye candy, filled with British character actors. I'm not really a classical music fan, it's pleasant enough but I don't get off it the way he did, so his biopics don't really interest me much. The Devils has Ollie Reed at his finest, a man presumably a regular in Russell's films because of their resemblance to each other.  Tommy sort of works, and it sort of resembles at times a really twisted episode of Hi-De-Hi, down to that scene of Ben Aris outside a holiday camp. By the time of the 80s, they get rather close to erotic Skinemax territory, eg Crimes of Passion and his Vestron era is rather pretty and vapid, again filled with people off the telly. Even putting Stratford Johns in the middle of a carnival of debauchery is not enough to sate this viewer's boredom.  And Gothic has Julian Sands AND Gabriel Byrne, who somehow broke out of Irish soap stardom via Excalibur, and he wasn't the only Irish soap actor in Excalibur. His Excalibur/Glenroe costar Emmett Bergin's a better actor, but it was his brother Patrick who got the chance to hit the big time, sorry for going off-topic, this is going to not make a
Back to Ken, The Lair of the White Worm (19888) is different, because it is a sort of straightforward horror, and it's set in Derby. And it has Morris dancing and the words "special appearance by Stratford Johns" and Peter Capaldi in the first of several audition piece roles for a certain Time Lord. I had seen clips, but didn't realise it was set in the present (well, sort of, the cars are all 50s and so is Hugh 'effin Grant's uniform), and because there were so few British horrors made in the 80s and fewer set concurrently in modern Britain, and I've always preferred those set near enough to the present than those set in period.
Catherine Oxenberg, professional Princess Diana impersonator, real-life Yugoslavian royalty and fictional Princess Consort of Moldavia is slightly too polished, too Transatlantic for the role of a working class Derby farmgirl, so Ken tries to get away with this by dressing her up as skanky as possible in some scenes. She also sounds like she's trying to do a Brian Glover impression. Her on-screen sister, Sammi Davis comes across like the hero of a children's drama serial, and it begins okay with Capaldi, but the whole Amanda Donohoe/Hugh Grant stuff is miserable, resembling a big ad campaign for a foreign holiday company. I prefer the whole archaeological stuff. It feels more typical "British horror" and Capaldi doing his best Cushing-ish "making of the most of exposition" turn, which of course is something you need when you get to be the Doctor. And Stratford Johns' good as the "balding fright-wigged" butler, and Paul Brooke almost steals the show as the jaded PC who when bitten is attacked by Capaldi with bagpipes. And the Lambton worm resembles a phallic Sarlacc pit-ish thing (incidentally, Brooke was the Rancor keeper in Return of the Jedi).
White Worm is enjoyable at times, when it most resembles a normal horror film.

Saturday 18 February 2017

St. Trinian's - 5, 6 inc. Conspiracy of Silence

Image result for belles of st trinians
Watched the Belles of St. Trinians  - Alistair Sim and George Cole save it, the former's scenes with himself in female drag brilliantly done, Sim convincing so much as Miss Fritton that one forgets it is Sim in drag. I find the titular overaged schoolgirls a load of insufferable bints, especially the actual child ones, awfully precocious child actresses. Even my dad's idol, George Cole can't seem to find his niche. He's good as always, but at times, you think he's just doing it as a nice little earner.
 The other films I remember being pants, mainly an excuse for cheesecake with top British comic talent shoehorned in, basically a PG-rated precursor to the 70s sex comedy boom, though 1966's The Great St. Trinian's Train Robbery has some quirks, including the characters reading a "now a major film" tie-in copy of Harold Robbins' Carpetbaggers, Cole seems slightly more engaged, there seems to be an enthusiasm about the production and it has Frankie Howerd playing a dad who's a hairdresser, but still a working dad, which he almost manages to convince as. And it is, unlike the others in the proper canon in colour, which lends it a zip and a bright visual flourish not unlike the Carry Ons for the same period, and replacing Beryl Reid and Hermione Baddeley with Dora Bryan is a masterstroke, because Bryan is at times like a Fly-like teleportation accident melding of the former two.
The later films are muck. The 1980 film The Wildcats of St. Trinian's I have seen clips of, I couldn't stand it. Joe Melia replaces Cole, now in his "Minder" phase of his career, and Sheila Hancock's headmistress, even though it does have the likes of Maureen Lipman and Julia McKenzie as teachers plus Rodney Bewes in a turban and dear old Michael Hordern and future reality TV staple Lisa Vanderpump and Alex Kingston (before her presence turned  "Doctor Who: the Welsh Series" from a US syndicated-style bit of sometimes pleasing, sometimes excruciating telepap to an even slushier romcommish mess) as some of the titular Wildcats. But it is one of those forgotten films of that overlooked period of shoddy British genre films, e.g. the era of Sir Henry at Rawlinson End, the Monster Club, Silver Dream Racer, The Boys in Blue, Who Dares Wins, Bullshot, Bloodbath at the House of Death, Don't Open Till Christmas, The Wild Geese II, Water, Morons From Outer Space, Jane And The Lost City, Whoops Apocalypse, all those Michael Caine Thatcherite thrillers, the load of bull that were the starring vehicles of Julie Walters, possibly Slayground...
And as for the NuTrinian's with Rupert Everett as Camilla Parker Bowles, time will tell. It will fit into that 2000s era of "shoddy British movies", you know, amidst the work of Edgar Wright, there was still this shite being produced - not just Richard Curtis' Guest House Paradiso, Kevin and Perry Go Large, The Martins (that one with Lee Evans and Kathy Burke in the Isle of Man, used to appear on Sky Movies Max a lot, remember Sky Movies Max?), Conspiracy of Silence*, The League of Gentlemen's Apocalypse, The Dark Is Rising, I Love Candy (another Nu-Ealing joint), Mitchell and Webb's Magicians, Lesbian Vampire Killers, Demons Never Die, all those post-Ritchie, post-Dyer gangster-themed Poundland filler e.g. the oeuvre of Jonathan Sothcott, Richard Driscoll's all-star vanity tax cheats, Simoncowellsploitation eg Pudsey the Dog's movie and that Paul Potts movie with James Corden, etc.

*Too much for a bracket, Conspiracy of Silence features an all-star Irish and British cast in a tale of suicidal AIDS-ridden priests and a war against celibacy, featuring Brenda Fricker as an Irish mammy, Harry Towb and Jimmy Ellis as Galwegian Belfastmen, Hugh Bonneville struggling with an Irish accent, Jim Norton reprising his role from Bishop Brennan from Father Ted, Gaybo as himself presenting the sort of Daily Politics-y hard-hitting current affairs-themed afternoon discussion program that RTE would never make and Cornwall playing Galway. And Chris O'Dowd, a Roscommon man doing an Oirish culchie accent as a Galway-based seminary student. Surely, his own accent would be suffice. A Roscommon priest studying in Galway is normal, the counties are beside each other, for christ's sake.  It's basically a sort of Irish equivalent of a Larry Buchanan exposé movie or Larry Cohen's J. Edgar Hoover film. It's so gloriously awful that I do try to recommend it to people. It's a sort of Irish tabloid exposé with blood, sex, it's a proper Irish exploitation film.

Friday 10 February 2017

Non-British Rubbish - 2

I was going to write a review of Frank Sinatra heist movie "Assault On A Queen" (1964), a doomed Hollywood effort for Black British actor Errol John (Rudolph Walker's mentor), but nah, I'm not really into heist movies bar The Italian Job. They are formulaic and similar (even look at the posters for the attractive and rather more likeable Gambit (1966) and the style-no substance How To Steal a Million and Arabesque) and this case the difference is it is set on the Queen Mary, filled with Hollywood-based Brits.

The Worzel book has come out and I get thanked for contributing research -

I've been watching bits and bobs of US soaps for influence. I had an idea for a sort of spoof serial, a sort of Two Ronnies-ish soap opera.
I was watching Dark Shadows, only bits. The idea of watching a thousand episodes of cheap 1960s shot on video TV is slightly intimidating, because it's a series that spends fifty episodes on one very crazy plotline. Shot on videotape TV is odd. I grew up in Ireland on British/Irish TV, which was mostly shot on video until the late 1980s. But Dark Shadows is American, and it is NTSC videotape, which looks cheaper and shoddier, and hence why all late 1980s TV shows now look ropey as string because they were edited on NTSC tape, hence why Victory at Entebbe despite its colossal cast looks even worse than a Play for Today, and looks like... well an episode of Dark Shadows.
But Dark Shadows in the brief form I have seen it has sort of enthralled me. People have called it a sort of US equivalent of Doctor Who in its shoddy ambitiousness, though like Who, people started on it, e.g. Dick Smith before his job on The Exorcist. Barnabas sort of leaves me cold. Jonathan Frid's style is slightly too mannered (although I recently discovered he was in the 1961 US TVM of Dorian Gray with John Fraser's Dick Smith makeup, George C. Scott, Star Trek green girl Susan Oliver, Louis Hayward, Robert Walker Jr, Paxton Whitehead and future Emmerdale's Frank Tate, Norman Bowler)). Thayer David, though I find entrancing in all his Charles Gray-esque glory. David I knew from his roles in The Eiger Sanction as albino Nazi "Dragon" and as Sacknussem in the 50s Journey To The Centre Of The Earth. He's quite Doctorish as Prof. Stokes (he in real life shared a wife with Jon's brother Michael Pertwee) and pantorific magnificence as Count Petofi whose hand gets revived by mad gypsy Magda played by Grayson Hall (alias regular Dr. Julia Hoffman). If I ever get into Irish soap writing, I'll try to make it more ridiculous and introduce the supernatural slowly. Dan Curtis is a god, not just for DS but for the commitment that he placed on the transatlantic bonkbusting destruction-porn of The Winds of War/War and Remembrance.
Here's a good beginner's guide.

And Yes, I did see the Tim Burton film. It was enjoyable but I resented its snotty-nosed tone, looking down on the series. Yes, the original series was a soap opera that could at times be torture, but there was an invention to it,  a nuttiness that few US TV shows have. Dan Curtis was a maverick visionary, in other words a mad genius of television. The Burton film was also quite boastful, especially in the "Nights in White Satin" train shot. And tonally, I felt Depp-Barnabas was at odds with the rest of the cast, which probably was intentional to show his outsider position, but it just didn't work. I feel that a more Frid-ish performance would have worked better to offset it.

I was also watching Falcon Crest, which like DS features David Selby. Unlike DS, FC is a primetime serial drama not a daytime soap, and unlike DS, was shown in Britain and Ireland. Some of my earliest memories involve FC, watching the titles in delight, and the music, but not much else. Created by Earl Hamner as a modern equivalent to his The Waltons, production company Lorimar changed it to something like their Dallas but with wine not oil and then became a parade of faded Hollywood stars coming and going and occasionally marrying leading lady/then Presidential ex Jane Wyman, the proto-Nancy Reagan whose casting suggested some kind of Reaganite undercurrent that I'm not fit to elaborate upon. I gave up after a while, as though some of the stories were ridiculous, e.g. Paul "Belloq" Freeman as a wine-making member of a Nazi dynasty obsessed with finding gold, and the whole "dressing up as a nun to kill your mum" storyline, it didn't go batty enough.

Sphinx (1981)

Lesley Anne Down goes off to Egypt playing a character clearly written as American (refs to Boston, Thanksgiving) but plays it with her own accent and refs to tea are inserted to make it clear she is British. While in Cairo, she meets Frank Langella as a Typhoo-drinking Egyptian playboy UN antique dealer (a role offered to the couldn't be less Egyptian Rutger Hauer!), Sir John Gielgud doing his Egyptian shopkeeper routine, Eileen Way as a mad Eileen Way-y Egyptian woman, John Rhys-Davies in proto-Sallah mode as a Greek, both Nadim Sawalha and Saeed Jaffrey and about half the cast of Raiders of the Last Ark after exploring the curse of King Tut. Filmed in Egypt. Enjoyable potboiler. Almost horror but not quite, (Gielgud gets semi-beheaded by a beturbanned Martin Benson - and Down is the witness - thus kicking off the spiralling plot) it revolves around a cursed statue relating to Howard Carter's expedition (with James Cossins and future Mrs. Steve Martin Victoria "William and Kate: The Movie/Inseminoid" Tennant as the Carnarvons in a flashback).
Down plays it as if she constantly feels sorry for herself. Langella's Egyptian sounds more Sean Connery (maybe he's a cousin of his character in Highlander) esp. in the line "Am I the rudest sonabitch you've ever met?" which he says to Sawalha's private eye wearing the same suit he did in The Spy Who Loved Me, before a quick cut to Down being picked up by Sawalha's arch-rival in the "dodgy middle-Eastern/Asian sort in British TV", Saeed Jaffrey, as an extremely Indian Egyptian guide who can't tell the difference between Ramses and Ramses I. On the tour, we meet William Hootkins giving it his all as a US tourist guide (I long thought this was made in Britain - look at the cast! But surprisingly the studio stuff shot in Hungary). Down is arrested and given some sub-Midnight Express brutality by the Egyptian cops, before Langella rescues her, as she is pursued by various dodgy sorts including Vik Tablian (the sinister Monkeyman in Raiders), Kevork "Mind Your Language!" Malikyan as a bellboy (he was in Midnight Express and Indiana Jones And His Dad, too) and Maurice Ronet as sinister Frenchman Yvon. Tutte Lemkow (no, Gatiss, he's not a woman!*) plays Gielgud's son who turns Down down. Down then has a romantic tourist-footage montage with Langella and then meets Eileen Way, as the mad bitey old bag widow of one of Howard Carter's Egyptian builders who provides the exposition of the curse.  Martin Benson disguises himself as Tutte Lemkow (almost as good as the twist in the not very good Brass Target where we learn that for half the film, Max von Sydow is posing as Bernard Horsfall)  and kidnaps Down who gets lost in the tomb, almost attacked by bats and then finds the hoarded treasure of Seti, from a tomb located beneath King Tut. She then is found out, sprains her ankle Doctor Who-companion style in a chase with Rhys-Davies, and we meet Yvon who slaps Rhys-Davies as they try to find who wants the statue. There's a chase through the streets and then we discover Frank Langella is Martin Benson's nephew and that Benson believes his nephew will ruin the family's name. They visit the tomb and get trapped within. Langella is flattened. Down escapes and feels sorry for herself.
Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner of Planet of the Apes fame. Some of his films can be great (Planet of the Apes, The Boys from Brazil) and sometimes they can be bloated (Patton, The War Lord). Sphinx lies somewhere between. As a friend noted on twitter, it's sort of like a US miniseries from the period. Based on a Robin Cook novel, it has that airport novel feel, and is not very cinematic despite the location shooting. The ending needed more surprise, and the lead character a lot more spunk so she wouldn't spend all day feeling sorry for herself in a jumpsuit with eternally flawless makeup. Nice score by Michael J. Lewis.

It is better than The Awakening, Orion's other Egyptian-shot curse-codswallop from the same period.

*Mark Gatiss on the League of Gents' commentary of Theatre of Blood thinks that Lemkow was a lady.

The Little Drummer Girl (1984)

The Little Drummer Girl (1984) - Directed by George Roy Hill. Diane Keaton plays Charlotte Cornwell off Rock Follies, sort of, as the character in the original book (by John LeCarre aka Cornwell's brother David). Watch out for a young Bill Nighy playing a jobbing actor alongside Fred Elliot's bigamist wife from Coronation Street. Diane plays a British-based American actress (presumably, she's done a Tales of the Unexpected) who goes to Greece for a job, gets caught up with Greek-Israeli Joseph (played by Yorgo Voyagis, best known for his role in Jesus of Nazareth where he was... Joseph) via a staged wine commercial. Klaus Kinski plays an Istaeli spymaster/nutter (it's Kinski, he's always nuts because he was more than nuts in real life) who employs among his men one of the kids from Lemon Popsicle. It gets rather slow and becomes more of a romance. David Suchet appears in his Middle Eastern mode. We get to see 1980s Fulham, including a "P*ki shop" run by Albert Moses from Mind Your Language in a flat cap and Leisure Video (which presumably like every good 80s video shop has An American Werewolf in London, Annie Hall, Lemon Popsicle and plenty of Kinski's oeuvre in stock). Le Carre himself turns up as a copper, and tonally, it's asll over the place - it ever so often feels like it will go into action-thriller mode and then dives into slushy romance. Yes, I know it's LeCarre not Jack Higgins, but LeCarre doesn't really work when it's not about middle-aged blokes challenging each other and talking in riddles.

Review - Black Sunday (1977)

Black Sunday (1977) - Kind of flat thriller - Bruce Dern is mad 'Nam vet/Goodyear blimp vet who joins Black September to become a suicide bomber and blow up his beloved airship on SuperBowl day. Marthe Keller is unconvincing as Palestinian, and Robert Shaw and Fritz Weaver as Mossad/FBI agents are sent to stop him. The climax is well-staged (they airlift the blimp away in front of panicked crowds) though Shaw's character's sacrifice-suicide is replaced by him hanging onto the helicopter, waving to the crowds as he flies away to safety. Walter Gotell appears in one of his myriad ethnicities as an Israeli. At least by having a non-American lead, it gets away with explaining what the Super Bowl is those not into American football. But its attempts to make the terrorists into sort of protagonists fail. Dern's too crazy and Keller is too cold. The barn explosion theme is good, esp. with the hard-helmet shaking on the unfortunate victim's head. But it's a film that thinks we want to spend time with a crazy man (then again, director John Frankenheimer was a bit of a crazy man, too) and a suicide bomber and not Shaw's cool, calculated Kosher calculator.

Review - The Thing with Two Heads

The Thing with Two Heads - Roosevelt Grier again, with Ray Milland's racist head grafted beside him (well sometimes, mostly its a Louis Tussaud's head of Milland). Kind of turgid - occasionally springs to life, eg with a motorbike race. The end theme is "Oh Happy Day", and Rick Baker appears as a two-headed gorilla.

Review - Skyjacked.

Skyjacked (1972) - James Brolin holds a plane full of Walter Pidgeon (as an old coot who goes "boating" with the POTUS), NFL legend/needlepointist/actor/Rev. Rosey Grier, Yvette Mimieux and Susan Dey hostage and only captain Chuck Heston can stop him. Rather slipshod, TV movie-alike semi-disaster plodder, a sort of bastard cousin of the Airport series - but John Guillermin adds some touches e.g. Brolin constantly having fantasies of being a hero to the Soviets, hallucinating medal ceremonies.  The end - set in a convincingly freezing-looking Soviet wasteland (supposedly Moscow Airport, actually Mojave, convincingly doubled via tons of realistically sludgy fake snow).