Saturday, 7 April 2012

Straight On Till Morning (1972)

One thing you have to say about Michael Carreras - he didn’t believe in playing it safe. Of course if he had believed in playing it safe Hammer Films might have had a better chance of survival but we wouldn’t have had bizarre little offerings like Straight On Till Morning.

When Michael Carreras took over the reins of Hammer from his father Sir James Carreras he wanted to take the studio in a more adventurous and more arty direction. What the horror audience wanted was boobs and gore. He wanted to give them art, combined with boobs and gore. Even for horror film-makers in Europe, where they have more tolerance for perversities such as art, that’s never been a guaranteed money-making formula.

In 1971 Carreras got the idea of making a movie starring Rita Tushingham. Now if you can think of a more unlikely actress to star in a Hammer film then you’re cleverer than I am. She’s a fine actress but she’s pretty much the antithesis of a Hammer scream queen. John Peacock would write the script, and in fact he wrote it specifically as a starring vehicle for Tushingham. Peter Collinson was signed as director. He’d made a pretty reasonable horror flick called Fright a year earlier but a quick check of his filmography would have revealed a disturbing taste for dreary socially conscious kitchen sink dramas like Up the Junction.

Not surprisingly Straight On Till Morning is all over the place. Is it a psychological horror film, an art film, a socially conscious comment on the decadence of Swinging London or a fairy tale? It’s all of those things, in a rather uneasy mix.

Brenda (Rita Tushingham) is a painfully shy socially awkward fashion-challenged young woman who announces to he mother that she’s leaving Liverpool to head for London to find a father for her baby. In fact she’s not pregnant, but that’s because she hasn’t found a father for the baby yet. She is clearly a virgin. She arrives in London and despite being the last person you’d expect to land a job in an ultra-trendy boutique she immediately lands a job in an ultra-trendy boutique. And she finds a place to live, sharing a flat with blonde dollybird Caroline (Katya Wyeth). Brenda meets a nice young man named Joey (James Bolam) but having no social skills she doesn’t get the message that he’s not interested. When she walks into Caroline’s bedroom to find Caroline and Joey having sex she gets the message.

What does our heroine do now? She spots an amazingly beautiful young man. She figures the best way to meet a man is to kidnap his dog. I guess it’s one way of doing it. And it works. The young man, Peter (Shane Briant), tells her she can live in his flat and keep house for him on the condition that he can call her Wendy. His dog’s name is Tinker. Even though the rather child-like Brenda loves children’s stories and writes them in her spare time she doesn’t pick up the fact that this young man actually think he’s Peter Pan. Or if she does realise it, she doesn’t mind. That’s a big mistake. Young men with a Peter Pan fixation may have other issues as well.

And Peter has lots of issues. He hates beauty, although he makes his living from his own beauty, picking up middle-aged women with a thing for beautiful boys. He gets lots of money this way. He also kills people. But he is very handsome and he tells Brenda/Wendy they will stay together forever and ever. They’re both people who have never grown up and they’re drifting into a dangerous folie à deux. You know this is going to end very badly.

Collinson’s direction is very self-consciously arty with lots of cross-cutting and mini-flashbacks and other tricks to break up the linear narrative. You’ll either enjoy this or you’ll find it irritating. I think it works, mostly.

Much the same can be said for Tushingham’s performance, which is either touchingly vulnerable or annoyingly overdone depending on your point of view. The best thing about the movie is Shane Briant. He is both convincingly child-like and almost angelic and at the same time chillingly psychotic. James Bolam and Katya Wyeth are both excellent.

Visually it’s very much of its time. The feel is very 60s but the look is very early 70s.

While there’s no gore at all the film has some truly horrifying moments. It tries too hard to be clever and it can be irritating but if you accept it as a kind of twisted fairy tale is an interesting if strange movie. Worth a look.

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