All posts by Matt West

‘Shock Treatment’ (Jim Sharman, 1981)

ST poster

Having been a victim of ‘that difficult second album’ syndrome myself I can more than empathise with the myriad talents that fell on swords when they made ‘Shock Treatment’.

‘The Rocky Horror Show’ had been a terrific success on stage, but the film, ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ (Jim Sharman, 1975) had been something of a disaster on release. It’s not a particularly good film and lacks the vibrancy and fun of the theatrical experience. But lucky for the makers, Americans loved it! That is to say, some people up very late at midnight screenings with nothing better to do than dress up and throw stuff around the cinema loved it. While this obsessive behaviour never really penetrated the UK on the same level, it’s fair to say ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ was a cult success.

Cosmo & SchnickThat a sequel was even considered is remarkable enough, that it ever got made is a near miracle, especially given the pig of a script they ended up with. Probably the guiding light that got it made was the fact that they had Richard O’Brien’s talent on hand. Why would you throw that away? As bad a film as ‘Shock Treatment’ is, and it is a bad film, but with many saving graces we’ll go over momentarily, there’s so much about it to enjoy. The songs are great, the performances are strong, the cast is an incredible snapshot of early 80s talent – there’s even Sinitta! So what went wrong?

First and foremost, the script is a problem. I’m fortunate to have an early draft of ‘The Brad and Janet Show’ by Richard O’Brien. It’s a wonderful satire on middle-America and a heartbreaking tale of a marriage gone stale. All that’s still in the songs, but it’s not really in the plot anymore. It feels like a producer’s script. Someone thought they could do it better and ballsed the whole thing up. I contacted O’Brien a couple of years back to look into publishing that original script in order to benefit a charity. He seemed open to the idea, but knew we’d have problems with 20th Century Fox which we did. That he replied at all told me that he still believed in that original idea.

What we’re left with instead purports to be a satire on American game shows and daytime television. It can certainly be read that way, but this would seem to be a retrospect description rather than the musical comedy they were aiming to make. Certainly it’s a very anti-American film which is possible why it failed to latch on to the success that ‘Rocky Horror’ enjoyed over there.

Janet & Brad

So our story centres on Brad (Cliff de Young) and Janet (Jessica Harper) Majors, the two spunky heroes from ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ who have no settled down and married. However it’s not the two leads from said film because they had excuses not to be involved. In many ways this is the viewer’s gain since both Jessica Harper and Cliff de Young had terrific singing voices and in the case of Cliff de Young, is able to pull off the dual role of Brad and Farley with considerable ease.

Brad and Janet find themselves on a game show where Brad is left medicated and Janet is groomed for stardom, apparently with a view to making her sexually desirable again to Brad but in truth to allow his evil twin brother to seduce her for himself. Are you paying attention at the back there? There are other subplots but they’re not particularly thought-out so for me to go over them would achieve nothing. Suffice to say we have a number of peripheral characters who act almost like a Greek chorus (especially in the case of Betty (Ruby Wax) and Judge Oliver Wright (Charles Gray)) and are really only there to link the disparate scenes together.

To call this a sequel to ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ is a mistake and was certainly the producers’ mistake. The leads could’ve been renamed and then all links to the previous production would’ve been discarded. Calling it a sequel pre-release lead to too many expectations. If ‘Rocky Horror’ had any success then it was due to Riff-Raff, Frank N Furter et al – with them out of the picture all you have is a knowing B-Movie.

Danube at DawnWhat the film does have going for it is a monster of a soundtrack with some of the best songs O’Brien has ever written. There’s a subtext to the majority of the songs which is a leftover from the original draft which makes them all the more tragic. Janet’s song ‘In My Own Way’ for example is, one assumes, O’Brien attempting to explain to his wife that his sexual interests extend further afield than just her. He quite literally comes out with the less subtle ‘Breakin’ Out’ and one day I’d love to hear O’Brien himself sing the narcissistic anthem that is ‘Me of Me’. The title track has a pounding drum line which is surely inspired by that years’ number one from Adam Ant, ‘Stand and Deliver’.

Then there’s the cast. Aside from the two leads there’s O’Brien and Patricia Quinn together again, camping it up in an incestuous duo. Charles Gray is back and partnered with Ruby Wax. Why this works is anyone’s guess but they compliment each other rather well and even sing a duet at one point. Think on that. A young Rik Mayall is making an early film appearance and Little Nell is back, this time playing a mini-skirted nurse.

The main draw though is Barry Humphries as Bert Schnick. Originally written for Jonathan Adams as the character was meant to be Dr Scott from ‘Rocky Horror’, Humphries more than makes the part his own, but perhaps lacked a firmer directorial hand. He clearly seems to be doing it with too much freedom, but the more fun he has is reflected on the viewer’s enjoyment.

Little Black DressThe choreography deserves a special mention too. These are not big dance numbers, but they are clearly intricately pieced together. From the opening sequence where the show is frantically preparing to go on-air, through to Janet’s endless wandering of corridors during ‘In My Own Way’, the garish Soho sleaze of ‘Looking for Trade’ and the outright headache that must’ve been ‘Look What I Did to My Id’ (where the cast dance with full-length dress mirrors) these sequences are natural and rarely seem stagey. Even ‘Lookin’ at an Ace’ doesn’t strictly feel like a song and dance number as Farley’s already established himself as a showman.

And what of those mirrors? There’s a lot of self-reflection in this film. Cosmo confronting Janet with a full-length dress mirror and explaining to her that she’s still a desirable woman, even though her self-confidence has taken a hit. The established celebration of self in ‘Me of Me’ and of course Brad and Farley’s slanging match at the end of the film, two sides of the psyche fighting each other. O’Brien’s duality is never more evident in this film, itself a far more honest example of the man behind the music than the more campy, friendly ‘Rocky Horror’. We know O’Brien is a transvestite and we know he’s a very camp bisexual man, but only when he turns the camp on. Off-screen he can be really quite rugged – he was a stuntman for some time after all! His duality is on screen here and perhaps the schizophrenic mess of a script is a result of that and not a producer’s intervention? Either way it would be a joy one day to see the original script produced into either a stage play or a film.

So we have to make do with second best. It’s not a good film, but it’s a fascinating film and that makes it highly watchable, as does the soundtrack and general glee on display. This was the last film O’Brien wrote, indeed it’s the last musical too. He contributed a song or two to ‘The Return of Captain Invincible’ (Phillipe Mora, 1983) but otherwise continued to let slip little hints at a ‘Rocky Horror’ sequel that never happened, often titled: ‘The Return of the Old Queen’. It’s probably the bad experiences on this film that caused that, but it would be a terrible shame if we’d heard the last of him.

In closing, what follows is a a track O’Brien recorded for that Rocky Horror sequel that never happened. David Bowie would be proud. Go on, Dicky – finish it.

Big AND clever.

Swearing in films hit something of a peak in the early-to-mid nineties where it became virtually impossible to watch a film without a ‘fuck’ or a ‘motherfucker’ every five minutes. While not in itself offensive, the laziness of the writing and often reliance on the actor’s part for a bit of improv swearing just became too much. We hit a point where suddenly big action films that once relied on continuous ‘fuck’-streams were suddenly well-spoken and with not much of a dip in quality.

hughfuckSuch happy, friendly, chirpy fodder like ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ (Mike Newell, 1994) is awash with comedy ‘fucks’ right from the start. A few years earlier an equally popular British film, ‘A Fish Called Wanda’ (Charles Crichton, 1988) had also employed a good ‘fuck’ as a joke. Even earlier still, the esteemed (though not in the cinema) ‘Withnail & I’ (Bruce Robinson, 1987) had some amazing ‘fucks’ on offer.

Modern films have employed a new method of swearing. One won’t do, it has to be a string of swearwords, often some made up, delivered with the sole intention of making an hilarious bleeped soundbite at the MTV Awards. Kevin Smith’s films, once original and fun, got tired very quickly. Jason Lee’s lines in ‘Mallrats’ (1995) are smoothly delivered and character-driven. His brilliant inappropriate “What? Like fucking?” during the gameshow is delivered with a massive smile. But flash-forward to 2006 and nothing’s changed. A row in a diner about someone using the phrase ‘porch monkey’ feels ten years old and wholly inappropriate to the film playing out (mind you, this is also a film with donkey sex as a plot point!).

One of the earliest shocks I had watching a film was ‘Christine’ (John Carpenter, 1983) where a character called someone a ‘cunt’. Never heard it in a film before. My parents were livid and turned it off. They did the same several years later when they overheard me watching ‘Street Trash’ (J. Michael Muro, 1987). Now it’s commonplace in not just most films, but also TV series. Fair enough it’s HBO, but ‘Californication’ has more ‘cunts’ in it than ‘EastEnders’ has ‘slags’. Compare this to the days of ‘Cagney and Lacey’ where Christine’s outburst: “Sweet Jesus, Mary-Beth” was censored.

And on the subject of censorship, the exciting and intricate, almost seamless methods employed by ITV in the UK to censor some films, or at least lessen their offense is admirable. Here’s a deft piece of work – I bet you can’t spot the join:

That said, ‘piss’ and ‘shit are commonplace on ITV and Channel 5 in the afternoons now. Just as they crept into children’s films in the eighties, ‘The Goonies’ (Robert Donner, 1985) and ‘The Monster Squad’ (Fred Dekker, 1987) both had prepubescents swearing away throughout.

pescifuckThe aforementioned improv problem is one that troubles me though. Poor actors like Joe Pesci are given to believing that improvising around a character requires the repeated insertion of  ‘fuck’ between words in order to be in some way convincing and this technique continues right up to ‘Reservoir Dogs’ (Quentin Tarantino, 1992) and beyond into the ‘noughties’ with those endless bloody awful British gangster films which generally consist of gravel-voiced hard-men or well-spoken softies swearing like dockers for 90 minutes.

But it’s the British film industry (Gawd bless yer, ma’am!) that’s spawned something rather unique in cinema: Professional swearers. Three spring to mind who do it better than anyone else in the world: Richard E Grant, Rupert Everett and the legend that is Sean Pertwee. They can make any swearing fit classy, funny and dignified. Everett even pulled it off in Europe in the likes of ‘Dellamorte Dellamore’ (Michele Soavi, 1994) and bought some chums along with him to the UK to give a terrific tumbling of ‘fucks’ in ‘B. Monkey’ (Michael Radford, 1998).

Richard E Grant we all know from ‘Withnail & I’, a film which is positively punctuated with profanity – and not once is it offensive, right down to its majestic but terrible ‘cunt’. He can sneer a ‘fuck’ out like no other and always sound like he means it.

pertweeSean Pertwee on the other hand never sounds like he meant to swear. His ‘fucks’ seem to be overflowing from his mouth. His early ‘fuck’-drops in ‘Event Horizon’ (Paul Anderson, 1997) are nothing compared to his full-on rages in the likes of ‘Dog Soldiers’ (Neil Marshall, 2002) and ’51st State’ (Ronny Yu, 2001). He carved a niche for himself as the UK’s proudest swearing export.

But is all this swearing really necessary to deliver plot or could a film with no swearing in it reach a wider audience without harming its message? ‘The Breakfast Club’ (John Hughes, 1985) tells the story of high school kids who want to fit in but don’t want to fit a mould. A vital message to most kids, but it’s never going to be heard by the age group it’s aimed at because the word ‘fuck’ crops up so often in the script.

Would John Bender’s impersonation of life in his own home be equally emphatic if his father was yelling back “Shut up” instead of “Fuck you!”? Probably not.

By the same token, wouldn’t intergalactic hard man Han Solo be a bit more convincing if instead of calling Jabba the Hutt a “… slimy, worm-ridden piece of filth” he just called him a ‘fat cunt’?

Perhaps the most obscure case of a film rendered virtually incomprehensible by going out of its way not to swear would be the Charles Bronson film ‘Murphy’s Law’ (J. Lee Thompson, 1986).

Excuse the bloody awful intro to this one, the compilation more than illustrates the point that sometimes, swearing IS necessary in a film:

Legends of the 24hr Film Session: Franco Nero

Sling a poison-tipped dart into a dung pile of seventies Italian ephemera and you’re guaranteed it’ll plonk itself into either one of Franco Nero’s handsome buttock cheeks, but don’t mistake his prolificacy for being a disposable background name.

franco1A well-built man’s man with piercing blue eyes and pubic hair spilling out from his underwear like angry ants carrying whips, Nero is a solid lead in many films; both tough and vulnerable, romantic, comic, violent and suave. His career is long and varied, but here we’ll be concentrating on the films which are fully deserving of a place in any 24hr film session.

In 1966 he lucked into the lead in Sergio Corbucci’s ‘Django’. In a way this proved to be the template for most of his coming performances – a loner seeking revenge. But prior to this would be his dalliance with Hollywood in major studio films such as ‘The Bible’  (John Huston, 1966) and ‘Camelot’ (Joshua Logan, 1967).

But we don’t care about that stuff because we’re cinematic rogues on a dirty and mysterious path; we have little or no time for Hollywood and its painted cows.

So let us skip forward a little to 1971 and Luigi Bazzoni’s spiralling (the pun’s wasted on you if you’ve not seen the film) giallo ‘The Fifth Cord’. Here Nero’s masculinity is proven as he butches around the franco2place with the character name of Andrea.  It’s a beautiful film, sumptuously shot with a confident plot which succeeds in spite of its absurdities, much like any good giallo. Andrea’s duality is clearly relished by Nero as he plays an investigative reporter looking into a killer who only kills on Tuesdays. That in itself is mysterious. If I were to kill people I’d do it on a Friday so as to maximise the impact on their family’s lives by ruining a weekend, or on a Sunday to emphasise the ungodliness of my act.

A few years later though and we get a film which impacts enormously on Nero’s future career. In 1974 he made his first film with writer/director Enzo G Castellari in ‘Il cittadino si ribella’, or to you and I: ‘Street Law. In fact from now on I shall refer to it as ‘Street Law’ simply so this doesn’t appear too obnoxious or “filmy”. In this ‘Death Wish’ inspired vigilante thriller (though Castellari insists both were in production at the same time) Nero plays a man pushed to the edge by hoodlums and ne’er-do-wells.  While Nero’s made better films, I don’t think he’s bettered this performance. From the start as he surreptitiously tries to secrete his cash in the bank during a robbery he plays a complete fish-out-of-water. This single act leads him to be kidnapped, beaten some more and generally exposed to a pretty shitty time of it. What’s great about Castellari’s film is that in fact his first act at vigilantism actually sees him getting the shit kicked out of him. It goes stupidly wrong. This in turn allows Nero’s Caro Antonelli to come back harder than ever before, and this time with a plan. He manages to overthrow the dirty crime gang and win the day, albeit with substantial blood loss. It’s clear throughout that here we have a director and actor working perfectly in tandem, no less obvious than in the scenes where Antonelli is repeatedly knocked down by a car and then driven over the edge of a cliff. That’s not a stuntman, my friend. That’s Franco Nero.

Here’s a magnificent compilation from said film:

nero3Any discussion of Nero can’t avoid the magnificent ‘Keoma’ (Enzo G Castellari, 1976). Again something of a vigilante film, but with a slightly more supernatural edge. It’s clear that Nero and Castellari were just peas and carrots. Nero has to carry the entire film as pretty much everything is told from Keoma’s point of view. He’s in every scene.

These films will all be covered individually later on this blog and in the book as there’s so much to say about each one. But Franco Nero was and always will be a cinematic legend. He even turned up in ‘Letters to Juliet’ (Gary Winick, 2010) with his wife Vanessa Redgrave. A film I was dying in front of, but his lively performance perked me up no end.

Franco Nero: We salute you.

‘Heart and Souls’ (Ron Underwood, 1993)

Heart & Souls

If you love film, then you must love the creation of a film. The intricacies and ephemera of film production, script processes, scoring, editing – all that ‘Movie Magic’. I used to watch a programme on TV in the early nineties called ‘Movie Magic’. It was incredible. Mainly it concerned miniature model effects, usually for sci-fi. You’d get Deep Space Nine or Aliens or something. You’d watch as a few guys would spend weeks and weeks preparing for a single shot which would last just a few seconds on screen.

One edition featured a bus flying off a bridge and crashing. Once it’s crashed, four of the occupants rise up like spirits. The latter recollection, the four spirits, doesn’t seem evident in this video (approx 15m in):

So it was either another example of the memory cheating, or the film was covered later in the series as well. But the image stuck with me and although I never saw the film on release or indeed near release, I did catch it around 2001 with my soon-to-be wife. Our music tastes couldn’t differ more strongly so it’s with some pride that while other couple’s have ‘our song’, my wife and I have ‘our film’.

Despite being a cynical, miserable, cantankerous old sod, I love a good romantic film. I enjoy a decent blub. This doesn’t happen often, and when it does it’s a credit to the film you’re watching that it can provoke such a strong emotional reaction.

‘Heart and Souls’ isn’t a great film and it’s not trying to be (these words become something of a mantra here at the 24hr Film Session HQ). It’s a piece of entertainment designed to not waste ninety minutes of your life and instead leave you satisfied that you weren’t cheated out of your cinema ticket price or the cost of a DVD (or whatever medium we’ve moved on to by the time I’ve finished this post).

SoulsOur story concerns four people who die simultaneously in a bus crash and a baby boy born within a few moments of said crash. The four people, whose lives we briefly glimpse, find themselves forever visible and connected to the boy, Thomas with no known reason why. As Thomas grows up they are like guardian angels to him, playing, singing, dancing and guiding him through his early years. But his belief in them is damaging and they make the decision to disappear physically from his life, and stay with him invisibly. For young Thomas this is devastating and the effects of their decision can be seen once he’s fully grown.

Here Robert Downey Jnr takes over and is slowly ruining his own life with bad decisions and a ruthless independent streak. Things come to a head when the bus that crashed at the start of the film reappears and the four ghosts learn that they were attached to Thomas to complete their unfinished business. Their time is now up. Given a few extra days extension they must reappear to Thomas and convince him, not only that they were real all along, but that he must help them complete their lives and settle their affairs.

It may all seem far-fetched, but this isn’t a film which strives for realism! It’s a modern fairytale which benefits from a terrific ensemble cast. There are some mawkish moments but they’re offset by the light comedy. There are some almost farcical sequences too, but never at the expense of the script and as ever with Downey Jnr, very well judged so as never to be silly.

Ooo-ah-oooDowney Jnr carries the film, presumably around this time off his face on all manner of chemicals. It doesn’t show, though the energy is certainly there in ever scene. The supporting cast are mainly playing to type, specifically the four ghosts. Charles Grodin and Tom Sizemore are just Charles Grodin and Tom Sizemore. But Alfre Woodard, who’s seemingly forever young in every film she’s in, plays the matriarchal Penny to a tee.

The film almost sinks into absurdity the moment she hears ‘Hug a Bug’ being sung by the police officer. This should be a coincidence too far, but it really isn’t and if you don’t choke back a tear at this point then you may as well switch the film off and return to uploading songs on your iPod and straightening your Ikea book shelves because your soul is moribund.

As Thomas struggles in vein to fulfil his friends’ individual needs, he seemingly neglects his own life and his impending marriage to Anne (Elisabeth Shue) who instead, again by chance and a 1000:1 coincidence, sees her fiance indulging in the most peculiar behaviour, not least his strident rendition of the Star Spangled Banner with BB King to a stadium packed with, among others, her parents. With each story he completes, he becomes a little stronger and there’s nothing subtle about the script here.

Wet DowneyThe film seemingly bombed at the box office and has had pretty shoddy treatment on home video and DVD with a Bluray release yet to happen – though this may be due to the large number of optical effects in the film. It’s worth tracking down. It doesn’t ask much of the viewer and you’ll at least have fun while you watch it.

For a 24hr Film Session it’s probably one for either the ‘evening wildcard’ or afternoon ‘accepted classic’. It’s probably not dynamic enough to substitute for the final ‘documentary’ period.

Open with a song!

Not enough films these days have a decent song and dance number. Balls to your musicals, your MTV generation video-cack and your Kevin Smith post-ironic Clerks II embarrassment … sometimes you just need an unashamed, cards on the table dance number.

No film does it better than ‘Adventures in Babysitting’ (Chris Colombus, 1987) which wonderfully does it not once but twice. Midway through the film we’re treated to the oddest gang-survival tip: sing your way out of the rough house. But it’s the opening where the magic happens:

It’s vibrant, joyous, face-slappingly attention-grabbing and performed with absolute gusto by brief screen-bother Elisabeth Shue.

A couple of years earlier, Steven ‘I still make films’ Spielberg pulled off the same trick with ‘Temple of Doom’. A weird, full-on dance number which drifts into Busby Berkeley territory emphasising the fantasy nature of the film and no doubt going part of the way to justifying an inexplicable PG certificate in the UK.

Another nod has to go to ‘Heart and Souls’ (Ron Underwood, 1993) which I intend to wax lyrical about later this week. It’s perhaps too brief to be counted as a musical number, but it retains that joyous, celebratory feeling that I’m banging on about. Unashamed pleasure which the aforementioned ‘Clerks II’ simply doesn’t have. It’s a clumsy, awkward, crow-barred musical number which seems as shallow as the sequel itself. This is how you do it, Kev:

Our final nod will go to wheelchair/alien McDonalds fun fest ‘Mac and Me’ (Stewart Raffill, 1988). It defies explanation.

Bring back this unashamed joy to your films. It doesn’t require a musical for a character to burst into song. Just judge it right, gauge your audience and don’t do what Kevin Smith did with ‘Clerks II’.

‘The Face Behind the Mask’ (Robert Florey, 1941)

Face Behind the Mask

If Hollywood has taught us anything over the years then it’s that a person’s face, if not adhering to the aesthetics of Hollywood’s ideals, must be inherently evil.

You have the occasional blip in their ‘Jesus! Look a that guy’s face!’ radar such as Cher-fest ‘Mask’ (1985) or Gibson Oscar-fodder ‘Man Without a Face’ (1993) but typically mainstream Hollywood insists that ‘ugly’ (ugly = any deformity ranging from injuries incurred through birth, violence or accident) means evil. Even modern fayre such as ‘Vanilla Sky’ (2001) or ‘Shrek’ (2001) hammer home the need for all of us to be ‘Hollywood-Beautiful’.

Peter Lorre

Back in 1941 a film was made which blurs these ideas. ‘The Face Behind the Mask’ is essentially a B-movie. But it’s the A-movie of B-movies. Its biggest asset is its star, Peter Lorre. His performance here, as always, is spot on. Even when he’s gone bad, he’s good.

The story tells the tale of an innocent, hopeful immigrant, Janos Szabo,  arriving in America to start a new life. He’s perhaps a little too innocent, but this is a B-movie and we can excuse that. Poor Janos gets caught in a fire and suffers terrible burns, mainly to his face. Janos tries in vain to find work but people are fearful of him. After he accidentally robs someone he elects to turn to a life of crime to teach those who knocked him back a lesson. And he’s bloody good at it. He swiftly becomes a crime boss and earns enough money to get himself a life-life mask to wear.

1z32xvq.jpgOnce he’s able to go out again without people running away screaming he meets a girl and as always with these tales, is smitten enough to want to leave his life of crime.

I won’t spoil the ending for you as it’s worth tracking this one down. Some copyright-resenting rogue has already upped the whole thing to YouTube! It’s a sweet tale which nearly goes against the grain of that Hollywood ideal detailed above, but what makes the mere 69 minute running time an absolute joy is Peter Lorre and easily one of his best performances. Give it a whirl.

Who? What? Who?

As a child I was plagued with tonsillitis. I’d get it pretty much bi-monthly but for some reason my GP said I mustn’t have my tonsils out, even when friends at school were getting theirs removed when they hadn’t even had tonsillitis.

One of the symptoms of this illness is a 24hr fevered, sweaty, hallucinatory dream-state. It’s pretty damned nightmarish and I found, with my parents’ blessing, that it was better for me to sit downstairs in front of the telly than lay up in my room. A consequence of this is that the majority of my early film viewing was ruled by what was on TV late at night. This being England, the channels were often in close-down by 2am, but as I got older they eventually switched to a full night of, sometimes signed for the hard-of-hearing, filler-films.

I discovered a lot of films this way and also developed a hatred for one or two of them owing to the state I was in and always connecting the film to the state of mind. Two films from these sessions stuck in my head, mainly because I had so much trouble tracking them down. The first was ‘The Medusa Touch’ – more about that some later day, but the other film I simply couldn’t identify.

Not wishing to dredge up a tired and irksome cliché commonly found in DVD commentaries, but this was before the internet. All I had back then was the indispensable and soon to be made utterly obsolete overnight by IMDB: Halliwell’s Film Guide. This would’ve been around 1985/1986 and the copy we had was a nice big hardback. I loved this book. But when you only have plot to go on and a few half-remembered images it’s more than useless.

I could remember the main thrust of the story being a man returned to the US from Russia with a metal face/head. No-one that used to know him really recognised him and they needed to be sure he wasn’t a spy in disguise. I remembered the final shot and not much else in the way of specifics. I couldn’t even recall the cast.

Who?

Now it’s a doddle. I can look it up and find that it’s called ‘Who?’, starred Trevor Howard and Elliot Gould and was directed by Jack Gould (Shit?! Really? The guy who did ‘The Medusa Touch’? What are the odds?) and made in 1973.

Prior to this I thought I’d nailed it when I found a film called ‘Robo Man’ in the very early internet days. I ordered it from Amazon in the US (there wasn’t an Amazon in the UK then) and after a while the sleeve arrived, the videotape didn’t. I’d paid $16 for a video sleeve because that’s what the internet used to be like. The sleeve’s cover image simply didn’t match the film I remembered. Roboman-BIt looked like a sub-Corman nasty eighties straight-to-video effort. I kept that sleeve for far too long until it eventually perished in a fire.

As the internet evolved my first victory on IMDB was discovering that the film I was after was indeed ‘Robo Man’. It took me a couple more years still to get hold of a copy and it’s still a fairly affecting drama. Joseph Bova puts in such a good performance which is probably what hung in my mind. Gould on the other hand seems bored throughout, but then that’s often been his style.

I wouldn’t say it was a great film, in fact it’s probably not even worth tracking down unless you’re a Gould-completist, but it was the journey that’s always stayed with me. Trying to find that elusive half-remembered image can be a real challenge because the memory frequently cheats and the longer you ponder on something, the more it develops in your head and morphs into something it isn’t.

b5e I remember when ‘Phibes Rises Again’ was shown late night on ITV. I definitely remember the title caption appeared in big purple letters next to Phibes when the organ had risen up into the rubble of his old house. It’s always possible ITV had a special print, though rather unlikely.

Sometimes you just have to accept that even though you remember something a certain way, you can’t rely on your brain to tell you the truth about it. With a film, sometimes it’s better not to go looking for it at all as you’ll only be disappointed that it doesn’t live up to your remembrances.

Who?

Nice music video compilation.

‘Weekend at Bernie’s’ (Ted Kotcheff, 1989)

Weekend at Bernie's

There are some films which exist purely by reputation alone, and those reputations are often poor. There is a blanket policy now to give ‘hip’ indie films a long and preposterous title such as ‘Hobo with a Shotgun’ or ‘Zach and Miri Make a Porno’. They are titles designed to provoke a response and with ‘Weekend at Bernie’s’ it’s not so much the title that provokes the response but the very basic premise: Two men carrying around a corpse.

‘Weekend at Bernie’s’ is a great film. Not great as in ‘Citizen Kane’, but then it’s not trying to be. It’s a comedy and you’re meant to laugh and if you kick off your stroppy socks and give it ninety minutes of your time you’ll be rewarded.

weekatbernies1989720p-1If the film has a failing then it’s the opening thirty minutes. It takes a surprising amount of time for Bernie (Terry Kaiser) to die. During this time we’re introduced to Richard and Larry (Jonathan Silverman and Andrew McCarthy), two bottom-of-the-rung employees in an insurance company who, while working overtime, discover fraud on a grand scale within the company. Expecting to be rewarded they approach their boss Bernie who invites them up to his holiday home to celebrate.

However Bernie is in with the mob and is the one embezzling the money. He arranges to have Richard and Larry killed during the holiday, however because Bernie’s been dallying with the local mobster’s wife, it’s Bernie who is killed instead.

Richard and Larry, assuming they’re safe if Bernie is alive (following a misunderstanding with a telephone message) realise their best bet is to pretend Bernie is alive and well and they should be able to find a safe route off the island.

All is complicated however with the arrival of Gwen (Catherine Mary Stewart). Richard has fallen for her and Larry, being a shallow kind of guy, has decided they should just stay and enjoy the holiday, dragging Bernie’s corpse around with them wherever they go. Meanwhile the enraged assassin is continually trying to kill Bernie who still seems to be alive.

Okay, on paper that sounds rubbish. vlcsnap-2013-06-10-16h37m00s119But stick with it. Aside from the energetic and sometimes annoyingly over-the-top performances, especially from the two leads, you have to admire Terry Kaiser’s dead acting throughout the film. In my opinion it’s bloody nearly Oscar worthy. Daniel Day Lewis may well be able to sit still for a long time, but at least he could move his foot around. Kaiser has to be dead for almost the entire film, often in ridiculous circumstances. But even when he’s alive he steals the show.

Filled with some bizarrely delivered lines (‘That’s illegal. What you’re doing is illegal’) it’s actually a very complicated script with some brave set-pieces. Take for example the evening when Bernie manages to sexual satisfy the mobster’s wife for several hours, long after he’s dead. Necrophilia in a mainstream PG comedy? Apparently the BBFC are fine with it.

este_muerto_esta_muy_vivo_1989_1Sadly part of the reason the film is so poorly regarded is that it was followed by a sequel in 1993 which takes absurd and makes it ridiculous, something this first film never quite does. I defy anyone not to be reduced to tears of laughter when Bernie is being dragged behind the speedboat hitting the buoys as he goes. Daft, yes. But there’s still a minute degree of believability in there.

It’s a product of the eighties, albeit the dag-end of the eighties. The plot and characters are driven by eighties greed and money=success. That our two heroes will go to such lengths just to stay in a nice house for a weekend is a real sign of the times.

This is without doubt an essential ingredient for a successful 24hr Film Session.

Ti piace Argento?

Dracula 3DI can remember a time when I used to love the films of Dario Argento.

Recently a friend had the opportunity to see ‘Giallo’, one of Argento’s recent films, at a film festival. He didn’t like it. It was the first Argento film he’d ever seen and he wasn’t likely to watch any others.

All directors seem to go off the boil, some more than others. More mainstream directors like Ridley Scott or Martin Scorsese seem immune to the punishments imposed on the often more creative, risky directors of ‘specialist’ cinema. Rather than go into budgetary exile they’re given token Oscar nods and warm, glowing reviews often ones which hark back to earlier work to draw a comparison of a ‘developing’ film-maker.

But then they’re in Hollywood and poor Dario never broke through to the US audience. Instead he’s in Italy, a country in a far worse economical state than ours. But those conditions are identical to the ones he was working in in his prime. Italian cinema was born out of minimal budgets. De Sica made ‘Bicycle Thieves’ on a shoestring and it’s widely lauded as one of the all-time cinema greats.

Deep RedDario Argento, in the seventies, was a director who seemed to care so much about the visuals, often to the detriment of the plot and even the performances. ‘Inferno’ may be totally nonsensical but it looks and sounds terrific! Equally ‘Suspiria’ has only a very basic fairytale plot but it’s all about the visuals and build up. He didn’t even need a good script to make an effective film.

So why is ‘Dracula 3D” so awful? Because it really is virtually unwatchable. This was Argento, finally, with a modest budget. His big chance to make a comeback and he just blew it. Why rely on CG if it doesn’t look good? Why kid yourself that it does look good?

He seems to be a director now who’s going through the motions and it’s a sad sight to take in. He has the directorial equivalent of Alzheimer’s. It’s still him physically but the personality of his films has long since gone away. There was a brief return to form with ‘Do You Like Hitchcock?” and even his Masters of Horror segment ‘Jenifer’ but for every one of those there was a ‘Card Player’ and ‘Pelts’ right on their coat tails.

This is of course not unique to Argento. Enzo Castellari recently released the abominable ‘Carribean Basterds’ on the back of his Tarantino-influenced new wave. It’s shot on mini DV (seemingly) and shows no sign at all of being the same man who gave us ‘Keoma’ or ‘Street Law’.

But with Dario Argento there was such a consistent string of excellence for so long. Even his mediocre eighties with something like ‘Phenomena’ – a screamingly diabolical script and plot – is a joy to behold if only for some incredible visuals and set-pieces, and one almighty ending that no viewer could soon forget.

Probably his last big flourish was that shot in ‘Opera’:

Other than that one shot it’s not a terribly memorable film and certainly not his best work, but if anything highlights the effort he used to go to then it’s that single shot.

As we drift from the DVD age into the Bluray age and beyond, directors are being called upon to provide commentaries and interviews for their past works. Surely he can see that the films he’s making now are nowhere close to the quality they once were? These digital domestic retail formats are of course part of the problem too. The distribution is digital and so is the shooting now. Why should he shoot in 35mm with a decent lens when he can borrow his mate’s camcorder and knock out a film? Because that seems to be the case with ‘Giallo’!

Cat O'Nine Tails

It would be nice to see a return to form from Argento, but at present each new film diminishes the last. He struggles to find finance for a script, and with good reason. They’ve seen what he does with the money! Like a glutton for punishment I keep watching the new ones because one day we might just get another ‘Deep Red’. It really could happen. In the meantime a director should be judged on their successes and not their failures. We might even be able to let George Lucas off the hook with that ruling. Seems unlikely though.

 

“… All the Marbles” (Robert Aldrich, 1981)

As you approach the dead zone of a 24 hour film session (the final six hours) you need a film that ticks a few boxes. We’re not ashamed to say that nudity will help, as will violence, comedy, and if possible the golden combination of all three: all-female mud wrestling.

“… All the Marbles”, aka ‘The California Dolls’, is the story of Harry (Peter Falk), a hustler and loyal manager of two female wrestlers, Iris and Molly (Vicki Frederick, Laurene Landon) known as The Calfiornia Dolls. They travel the USA taking part in local wrestling contests while Falk gambles their winnings and genuinely tries to do what’s best for the girls. Their journey culminates in an epic grudge match which has to be seen to be believed.

Wrestling generally has been cheapened by the likes of WWF and even the UK antics of Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks with their pantomime action and scripted routines. Now fair enough, this is a film, but the fights within the film are real. Aldrich doesn’t shy away from the violence and what helps more than anything is that both his female leads seem to be performing the majority of the action themselves with no stunt-double backup. This lends the film a realism which means, even in the mud-wrestling scenes, it never appears to be your eighties ‘goofball’ or ‘zany’ titty-fest. This realism in turn also gives the film the necessary sleazy edge so it never sits straight as a comedy, though the poster on the left may have you believe otherwise. It’s a drama all the way and ultimately an incredibly touching story.

I’ll come back to the Dolls themselves in a moment, but of course here we also have Peter Falk’s wonderfully likeable Harry. One can empathise with the Dolls as he frustrates the viewer just as much as he frustrates them. Poor decisions, always the underdog. As a viewer you will always fight for the underdog provided you like them and in Harry’s case there’s so much charm there. This is entirely down to Falk’s seemingly effortless ability to play such bloody nice guys. But here he’s complimented by the aforementioned Dolls.

Vicki Frederick and Laurene Landon are utterly convincing as their wrestling double-act. I can’t think of anyone else who could’ve played this and it was a risk on Aldrich’s part to give with two relatively unknowns for this. That he was fortunate enough to find two leads who could do the wrestling and handle the gravitas of the script is an absolute wonder. More to the point, why didn’t they both go on to bigger, better things. In fact more to the point, why is this film not better known or more respected by its studio and given a decent DVD or Bluray release?

The answer probably lies in the violence. It’s perhaps a little too violent for comfort. While we’d gladly sit and watch any film in which two guys beat the hell out of each other, suddenly when it’s the turn of the ladies it doesn’t feel quite right. And this really is full-on vicious wrestling. By the time we get to the final big fight we’ve already seen these ladies beaten senseless. Should this really be sold as entertainment? Well why not? If this were a film about two male wrestlers would it be any different? Yes. Because we’re bombarded by the media to see women as victims of violence because they frequently are. ‘…All the Marbles’ doesn’t exactly offer up an argument for female empowerment though, nor does it really do much for the protagonists. Their actions are guided purely on gaining the respect of men and being accepted as equals. On the fact of it this is ‘right-on’ but in fact were it not for the men out there they wouldn’t have to put themselves through this. And they still rely on Harry to handle their business and protect them.

Putting the serious points aside for a moment and returning to the question of entertainment – yes this bloody well is entertaining! It’s terrific fun and a perfect ‘pick me up’ for when you’re flagging at 4am. Not since Rocky II have I so rooted for someone in a film to win a fight. You get mud wrestling, you get Peter Falk, you get some great one-liners and you get a decent road movie as well. It’s not a 24 Hour Film Session opener, but it’s a terrific penultimate film to restore your energy and remind you how involving a film can be.

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