Sunday 28 July 2013

Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (1972)

The vogue for horror movies featuring great female Hollywood stars of advancing years that started with Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? was almost played out by 1972 when Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? appeared. This late British-made entry  (actually a co-production between American International and Hemdale Productions) in the cycle is not without interest.

In this case the ageing star was Shelley Winters. She was an actress who, even when young, was perfectly happy to accept unglamorous and even grotesque roles. As such she was ideal for a movie of this type. With the rather underrated but talented Curtis Harrington directing the result should have been a wondrously entertaining over-the-top high camp romp. Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? does not quite live up to these expectations.

Winters plays Mrs Forrest, generally regarded as an eccentric but warm-hearted American ex-vaudeville star living in England in the 1920s. She is a widow, her husband (a famous stage magician) having passed away a few years earlier. Every Christmas she invites ten children from the local orphanage to spend Christmas night in her large and rather baroque house. This year she finds herself hosting two additional children, a rather strange brother and sister named Christopher and Katy Coombs, who stowed away in the trunk of the car bringing the children to the house.

Mrs Forrest, who insists that the children call her Auntie Roo, takes rather a shine to Katy. This is because Katy reminds her of her own daughter Katherine. So what happened to Katherine, you might ask? As the local police inspector explains to someone who does ask, the child simply vanished some years earlier. In fact the audience already has a fair idea what happened to Katherine. That’s actually the biggest problem with this movie - it gives away too much information too soon. The clue that the movie is a kind of retelling of the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale is revealed very early, and the movie’s title is itself an egregious example of telling the audience too much right from the very start. To be fair to Curtis Harrington the title may not have been his fault, it may have been imposed on him by the producers.

Mrs Forrest has been trying to make contact with her departed daughter through the auspices of a rather dotty medium, Mr Benton (Ralph Richardson). Mr Benton is alas rather less than honest and is motivated mostly by the knowledge that Mrs Forrest is extremely wealthy.

It’s soon obvious that Mrs Forrest’s interest in Katy is in the nature of a rather unhealthy obsession, and that Mrs Forrest is a long way from being sane. She decides she wants to adopt Katy and she puts her plan into operation by the rather drastic means of kidnapping the children. Christopher has gained an unfortunate reputation at the orphanage by being rather too imaginative and for having an imagination that tends rather too much towards the dark side for the liking of the orphanage’s director. His vivid imagination soon takes hold of him and he convinces himself (and his sister) that Auntie Roo is a witch and that they are likely to meet the fate that the witch in the fairy tale had in mind for Hansel and Gretel.

The principal interest of the movie (and one that is often overlooked by its detractors) is that the events as they unfold are the result of the interactions of two people who are very much out of touch with reality - Mrs Forrest and Christopher. Unlike Mrs Forrest Christopher is not actually insane but he is only a child and he is a child whose exceptionally vivid imagination leads him to mistake a fairy tale for reality.

Shelley Winters hams it up to the best of her very considerable abilities in that direction. Ralph Richardson is as always a delight as the outwardly kindly but totally unscrupulous medium. There’s a fine supporting cast of reliable British charactor actors.

The temptation with such a horror movie is to make the setting a gloomy gothic house and to make copious use of shadows and darkness. Harrington does quite the opposite in this movie. Mrs Forrest’s house is certainly baroque but it’s anything but gloomy. It looks more like a house from a fairy tale, which of course it is. It looks just like a gingerbread house. Most scenes are brightly lit and everything is colourful and rather jolly-looking. It’s a legitimate approach and Harrington uses it quite skillfully to counterpoint the more grisly scenes.

Even among fans of the Grand Guignol Dames cycle of the 60s Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? has a rather poor reputation. That may well be because they misunderstand the film’s intentions. It doesn’t work as a full-blooded horror film because that’s not what it’s trying to be. It’s the fairy tale element that is the the core of the film, and fairy tales both horrify and delight children. That appears to be the intention here. We’re supposed to be both amused and horrified. The real horror comes from the fact that Christopher really believes that he and his sister have become fairy tale characters, and this belief proves to be every bit as dangerous as Auntie’s Roo’s delusions.

One of Curtis Harrington’s major problems as a director is that he never quite achieved enough success to be in a position to choose his own projects. On his first and best film, Night Tide, he was both writer and director but in most of his later movies he found himself filming someone else’s screenplay, and without enough clout as director to be able to make these movies truly his own. As a result he was never again able to do anything as subtle and quirky as the superb Night Tide. With Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? he comes close to achieving something similar, a story that blurs the lines between dream and reality. Had he had greater creative control the movie may have been more successful.

This movie is paired with Harrington’s 1971 horror flick What’s the Matter with Helen? on a double-sided DVD in MGM’s Midnite Movies series. It’s a good transfer and the modest price is certainly an added inducement.

Despite not being a complete success Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? is better than its reputation suggests and it’s definitely worth a look. If you approach it the right way it is rather fun.

Thursday 25 July 2013

World Without End (1956)

World Without End is a movie that combines time travel and post-apocalyptic themes in a rather clichéd manner, but fortunately it does have other things going for it.

This 1956 US feature is clearly a very low-budget offering but in this case the paucity of the budget is not a great problem.

The first manned mission to Mars seems to be going well until suddenly contact is lost with the spacecraft. The spacecraft has been sucked into one of those mysterious time-space vortex thingies that science fiction movies would be lost without. Eventually the astronauts bring their ship down on the surface of a planet, but what planet? Their instruments had told them that they had reached a truly incredible speed so they could be just about anywhere.

It doesn’t take long for them to suspect that the planet is not Mars. In fact it looks a lot like Earth. Not surprisingly they soon find that it is Earth, but not the Earth they knew. There are no cities and no signs of civilisation. When they are attacked by strange human-like creatures they know that something is very wrong.

They are on Earth, but more than five centuries into their ow future. Civilisation has been devastated by one of those nuclear wars that were such a tedious feature of science fiction films from the 50s right up to the 70s.

They do eventually find civilisation. The survivors of the war took refuge underground and that’s where they have remained, even though radiation levels on the surface have now fallen to perfectly safe levels. The fact that they have refused to return to the surface is the first indication to our space travellers that perhaps all is not quite right with this civilisation. That first impression turns out to be all too accurate.

This underground city is dying. And it is dying from a lack of confidence. Or as the commander of the astronaut crew puts it more bluntly, from a lack of guts. They were so traumatised by the war that they have become overly inward-looking, excessively timid, excessively cautious and very pessimistic. They have also become so peace-loving that it threatens their very survival. They will not use weapons, even to defend themselves. Although they could easily overcome the feeble resistance of the sad pathetic mutants who now rule the planet’s surface they are afraid to do so.

They are ruled by a council of old men led by Timmek. Timmek is well-meaning but he’s as negative as the rest of them.

More fatally, this population has become so pessimistic and so enfeebled that they are no longer reproducing themselves. The women seem healthy and cheerful, but the men are sallow, craven and ineffectual. Their fear and their obsessive desire for peace at all costs has emasculated them. It’s no wonder the women of this subterranean city are fascinated by the 20th century astronauts - they’re the first real men they’ve seen in centuries.

The astronauts are grateful enough for having been given shelter but they have no intention of spending the rest of their lives cowering beneath the earth. If they can’t get back to the 20th century they would at least like to see the sunlight occasionally. They make the Council an offer - if they can be provided with weapons for self-defence they will help to rebuild a civilisation on the surface. Their offer is flatly rejected. Even using weapons for self-defence is forbidden.

There are some romantic complications, caused by the fact that the women of the 26th century are very attracted to the men of the 20th century. These romanic entanglements will combine with the jealousies of Mories, the most dogmatic of the Council members, to bring matters to a head with profound consequences for the future of humanity.

The acting is generally reasonable, with a pre-stardom Rod Taylor (as astronaut Herb Ellis) being perhaps the standout. Writer-director Edward Bernds was responsible for a number of highly entertaining 50s cult movies and he does a solid job. Having a sci-fi set on Earth obviates the need for elaborate special effects. Visually the movie looks quite good for a low-budget movie. It was shot in Technicolor and Cinemascope so clearly the budget wasn’t rock-bottom.

The movie makes its points quite effectively, those points being that civilisation is something you have to be prepared to fight to defend and that an excessive desire for peace can be as fatal as an excessive fondness for war. A culture composed entirely of Neville Chamberlains is unlikely to have much of a future. This theme is actually more relevant today than it was in 1956 given that our civilisation today is showing many of the same symptoms that threaten the survival of the movie’s underground civilisation, especially its deadly lack of self-confidence and optimism.

MGM released this movie on a Midnite Movies double-bill, paired with Satellite in the Sky. World Without End is presented in a superb anamorphic transfer.

World Without End is good 1950s sci-fi, combining ideas with entertainment (which is after all what sci-fi should be all about). Recommended.

Monday 22 July 2013

A Place of One's Own (1945)

A Place of One's Own, made by Gainsborough Pictures in Britain in 1945, is a classic English ghost story. This is low-key horror but it works rather well.

Mr Smedhurst (James Mason) is an elderly man who has made his fortune in the drapery business. Now he hankers after the life of a country gentleman. Bellingham House seems like the ideal place to pursue such a vocation and he is able to purchase for a very cheap price. The price is, perhaps, suspiciously low. Nonetheless he and his wife move into the house full of hopes.

Mrs Smedhurst (Barbara Mullen) has engaged young Annette Allenby (Margaret Lockwood) as a companion. The truth is that Mr and Mrs Smedhurst, having lost both their own children, are rather lonely people. They soon become very fond of Annette and in fact come to think of her almost as their own daughter.

The Smedhursts are a rather charming old couple and despite having been in trade they are soon accepted by the local gentry. They become quite friendly with Major and Mrs Manning Tutthorn, and Annette becomes very friendly indeed with the Manning Tutthorn’s nephew Dr Robert Selbie (Dennis Price). Before very long Annette and Dr Selbie are engaged to be married.

By this time the Smedhursts have discovered why Bellingham House was so cheap. The house is haunted. It is, according to local legend, haunted by the daughter of the previous owner who had died under somewhat suspicious circumstances. After her death the house remained empty for forty years.

This is not the sort of ghost that manifests itself as a spectral figure on the staircase or goes about rattling chains. There are no moanings in the night or strange noises of any kind. Odd things do start to happen, but they all seem to involve Annette. She does things of which she has no memory afterwards. Her behaviour is disturbing and her health begins to suffer. Mr Smedhurst does not believe in ghosts - he thinks they’re all poppycock. Mrs Smedhurst on the other hand is certainly a believer and she has no doubt that Annette’s erratic behaviour and declining health are connected somehow with the ghost.

James Mason plays a man thirty years older than the actor’s age at the time. He manages to be convincingly elderly as well as possessing considerable charm. Mr Smedhurst is a crusty old fellow but basically warm-hearted. Mason was an actor who could be very sinister indeed but he could also be very sympathetic and he has no difficulty in making us very fond of Mr Smedhurst. 

Margaret Lockwood was a very big star in Britain at this time and she demonstrates her star quality here. Dr Selbie is played by Dennis Price, later to become a familiar and very entertainingly over-the-top character actor. At this early stage of his career he was still trying to make it as a romantic lead, with reasonable success in this film at least.

The decision not to make Mason the romantic lead was an odd one. Mason was a rising star and was certainly quite capable of such roles, in fact probably more capable of such roles than Dennis Price, but he does such a fine job in what is really a character part that Smedhurst ends up being by far the most memorable character in the movie.

This was Bernard Knowles’ first movie as director and he acquits himself well. He avoids gothic clichés, which is perhaps a mistake as the movie could have used a little bit more atmosphere. The screenplay by Brock Williams is based on a story by Osbert Sitwell who is credited as having collaborated in the screenplay, which may mean a lot or it may simply mean that he approved the script.

The Region 4 DVD lack extras but it’s a generally very good transfer.

If you enjoy subtle horror and if you’re fond of the classic English ghost story then this movie should prove to be quite satisfactory entertainment. While it’s not one of the great British horror movies it’s still a well-crafted and thoroughly enjoyable little movie. Recommended.

Friday 19 July 2013

Confessions of an Opium Eater (1962)

Adapting Thomas De Quincey’s 1821 Confessions of an Opium Eater for the screen would have presented considerable challenges, to say the least. Perhaps wisely the makers of the 1962 film Confessions of an Opium Eater made no attempt to do so. What they did instead was to make a movie very loosely inspired by De Quincey’s classic. It really has very little to do with De Quincey’s book although it does also involve opium. The results are bizarre but fascinating.

A hundred years after the publication of the famous book Gilbert De Quincey (Vincent Price), a descendant of Thomas De Quincey, arrives in San Francisco’s Chinatown. He has lived a life of adventure in China and other parts of the East but he is still searching. What he’s searching for he has no idea. What he finds is the strangest adventure of his life.

A tong war has broken out. At issue is the auction of girls for wives. The girls are kidnapped in China and then sent to San Francisco where they are destined to be married to the highest bidder. A Chinese-American journalist, George Wah, has been campaigning against the auctions and has been killed for his troubles. Gilbert De Quincey bears a tattoo identifying him as belonging to the tong responsible for the auctions but whether his loyalties lie with the tong is a matter of some doubt, not least to Gilbert De Quincey.

Whatever his loyalties De Quincey does not like the idea of the auctions. He finds himself becoming more deeply embroiled than he intended in the conflict over the auctions. After meeting the beautiful, enigmatic and quite possibly evil Ruby Low (Linda Ho) who appears to be the effective leader of the tong he decides to investigate the activities of the late George Wah. He breaks into George Wah’s office by means of a kite (yes, really). He finds an unfortunate Chinese girl destined for the auction that night and then he and the girl are forced to take refuge in a secret compartment, a secret compartment that leads to a hidden elevator that leads in turn into the city’s sewers.

After various further adventures involving girls in suspended cages and a meeting with an ageing Chinese midget who claims to be a prized sing-song girl he finds himself in an opium den. After he samples the merchandise we are treated to a delightfully strange opium dream sequence.

Of course there are times when we can’t help wondering if the entire movie is an opium dream. Only Gilbert De Quincey could tell us if this is so or not. Or perhaps even he could not answer that question. The strength of the movie is that it manages subtly to suggest such a possibility without ever giving us any clear indication if we are on the right track or not. Perhaps none of us can truly say if our lives are reality or illusion?

The events in which De Quincey gets caught up are certainly strange enough to be a dream, although once the viewer accepts this world as real they do follow with a certain logic.

This movie overall is a crazy mixture of action, drug dreams and general weirdness. The whole movie, not just the opium dream sequences, has the feeling of a drug-induced fantasy. Albert Zugsmith had the kind of varied career that made him the ideal director for such a strange film (he worked as a lawyer, a newspaper publisher and a band publicist as well as producing and directing exploitation movies). We’re never entirely sure whether we’re meant to believe anything that is happening, which presumably was Zugsmith’s intention. Robert Hill wrote the screenplay and can therefore take some of the credit for the film’s oddness.

While it’s unlikely that star Vincent Price had any more idea than anybody else what this movie was about he adapts extremely well and his unique screen presence is well-suited to such odd material. Linda Ho makes a deliciously over-the-top villainess.

This movie is available on DVD in the Warner Archive made-on-demand series. It’s an excellent anamorphic print. Picture quality (the movie was shot in black-and-white) is exceptional.

Confessions of an Opium Eater is a truly bizarre but undeniably intriguing and totally unclassifiable movie. Cult movie fans will certainly want to check his one out, especially given the fact that it has apparently never been released on home video before. A highly recommended slice of cinematic weirdness.

Monday 15 July 2013

The Black Hole (1979)

It wasn’t surprising that everybody wanted to jump aboard the science fiction bandwagon in the late 1970s after the massive 1977 success of George Lucas's Star Wars. It was perhaps a little surprising though that one of the companies that did so was Walt Disney productions. Their 1979 contribution was The Black Hole.

As you might expect from Disney this is a fairly lavish production and visually it certainly impresses.

The Palomino is a deep space exploration vessel. The crew comprises a couple of astronauts (Captain Holland and Lieutenant Pizer), two scientists named Dr Alex Durant (Anthony Perkins) and Dr Kate McCrae (Yvette Mimieux), a guy called Harry (Ernest Borgnine) whose function is never made clear and a robot known as Vincent.

The Palomino locates a massive black hole. That’s not the real surprise though - the real surprise is that there’s a spacecraft poised right at the event horizon. Even more surprising is that this ship is the Cygnus, a ship that had left Earth twenty years earlier. Included among the Cygnus’s crew was Dr Kate McCrae’s father. The Cygnus had been commanded by a brilliant scientist, Dr Hans Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell).

Kate McCrae has telepathic powers that enable her to communicate with Vincent over long distances, and these powers tell her that there are living people on board the Cygnus. And indeed there are. Well at least there’s one - Dr Reinhardt himself.  Twenty year earlier he had ignored orders to return to Earth. He informs the Palomino’s crew that all of the Cygnus’s crew apart from him are dead. He has since equipped himself with a robot crew. Curiously enough his crew includes a very large number of very well-armed roots.

Vincent is immediately suspicious of Reinhardt (Vincent of course has telepathic powers so he can communicate with Dr McCrae). Vincent’s human crewmates are inclined to share his suspicions to some degree. Dr Reinhardt has spent two decades performing experiments, but with what objective? Our heroes will find that Reinhardt’s objective is both extraordinary and perilous. Possibly dangerous to them as well. In fact almost certainly dangerous to them.

Despite the black hole this movie does not delve too deeply into scientific matters. There’s just enough science to qualify it as science fiction rather than mere space adventure. There's a definite 2001: A Space Odyssey influence here, as well as the expected Star Wars influence. But there’s  plenty of adventure as well. There’s as much action as anybody could reasonably want. The bad guys, just like the bad guys in so many westerns, can’t shoot for nuts but there are an awful lot of them. Enough to make survival quite a challenge for the Palomino’s crew (needless to say they end up having to fight Dr Reinhardt’s robot army).

There are a couple of things about this movie that I really love. One is that it’s set aboard a spaceship and the crew members are actually weightless! Aside from 2001: A Space Odyssey there aren’t too many science fiction movies that realise that the only way you’re going to have gravity on a spacecraft is by simulating it artificially by spinning the ship. If the ship doesn’t spin (and the ship in The Black Hole doesn’t) then you’re going to be weightless. Of course the weightless thing is abandoned once they reach the Cygnus but it will recur later in the movie.

The second thing I love is that space exploration in the fairly distant future is still carried out by national governments - there’s none of this world government nonsense. That also means that the crew doesn’t have to include token members from other countries. This is an American ship and it’s crewed by Americans.

Director Gary Nelson worked mostly in television. Given the chance to do a feature film on an epic scale he acquits himself creditably enough.

The special effects are quite good. Production values are high and the spaceship models and the spaceship interiors look terrific. The Cygnus is particularly impressive, looking not just very big but very open - the stars seem to be visible from just about everywhere on the ship, emphasising the terrifying vastness of space. The only minor annoyance is that the obligatory robot looks very silly even by science fiction movie standards. But at least he doesn’t have an irritating voice and he isn’t used to provide too much annoying and unnecessary comic relief. The voice of the robot is in fact provided by an uncredited Roddy McDowell.

This is a reasonably well acted movie. Maximilian Schell does the visionary mad scientist bit well enough. Robert Forster and Joseph Bottoms are adequate as Captain Holland and Lieutenant Pizer. Yvette Mimieux manages not to be irritating as the telepathic Dr Kate McCrae. Ernest Borgnine is hammy as always but not too bad. Tony Perkins as Dr Alex Durant relishes the opportunity to play a non-psycho and he’s the best of the actors. Dr Durant is something of a visionary himself and he’s in danger of falling under Dr Reinhardt’s spell.

Disney’s Region 4 DVD is widescreen and anamorphic. The picture is rather grainy but it’s generally acceptable if not quite up to the highest standards.

Don’t expect too much in the way of profound speculations about the nature of the cosmos and our part in it, but The Black Hole succeeds well as action-filled entertainment. Recommended.

Friday 12 July 2013

Sweeney Todd (1970, TV)

Sweeney Todd was screened on British television in 1970 as part of the final season of the Mystery and Imagination series.

This feature-length production starts out as a rather promising version of the classic tale (which had been published in 1850 as a  “penny dreadful”). Like most British of this period it’s very studio-bound but that’s more of an asset than a liability - creating a gothic kind of atmosphere tends to be easier in a studio. And given that the budget was obviously much smaller than would be usual for a feature film it’s a reasonably handsome production.

The tale of course involves a barber who murders his customers whose bodies then end up being served to the patrons of Mrs Lovett’s pie shop. The barber, Sweeney Todd, steals an extremely valuable string of pearls from one of his unfortunate customers. This will eventually be his undoing.

Sweeney Todd has a young apprentice named Tobias. Sweeney’s apprentices also tend to meet with unfortunate fates, ending up in a lunatic asylum which is in reality a death factory. Tobias will not last long. He will be succeeded by another apprentice named Charlie, who will play a key role in the plot.

Freddie Jones makes a suitably sinister Sweeney Tood. Russell Hunter (best known to fans of British television of this era as Lonely in the excellent Callan series) steals the picture, playing several very creepy doctors including the villainous director of the previously mentioned asylum. Sweeney Todd is classic melodrama and melodrama requires a larger-than-life villain. Russell Hunter is so good that he actually outshines the star.

The rest of the supporting cast do reasonably well, although Mel Martin isn’t going to fool anybody into thinking she’s a boy, which rather weakens the plot.

Compared to other screen versions of the story this one adds some very blatant sexual perversity. I’m not really sure this element is entirely appropriate to this type of melodrama.

Things go reasonably well until the ending, which I found to be very unsatisfactory indeed. I won’t give any hints as to what happens but it is the kind of ending that I always find to be irritating to an extreme.

On the plus side this production does deliver some real chills, although these are mostly provided by Dr Fogg’s lunatic asylum rather than Sweeney Todd himself.

Sweeney Todd is worth seeing for the performances of Freddie Jones and Russell Hunter, but apart from that it’s difficult to recommend this one.

The definitive screen version of the story of Sweeney Todd the Demon Barber remains the 1936 British movie with Tod Slaughter in the title role.

Monday 8 July 2013

Mystery and Imagination (1966 TV series)

I’ve now watched the two surviving episodes of the original run of the Mystery and Imagination series made by ABC Television in Britain between 1966 and 1968.

The six episodes made by Thames TV from late 1968 to 1970 all survive but sadly most of the ABC episodes perished in the great British videotape holocaust of the early 70s when just about everything that had been made in black-and-white was destroyed.

The two surviving ABC episodes both date from 1966 - The Open Door (based on a story by Mrs Oliphant) and The Fall of the House of Usher (based rather loosely on the Edgar Allan Poe story).

For some unknown reason the producers at ABC decided to have a continuing character in the first three seasons, a young man by the name of Richard Beckett (played by David Buck). He seems to me to serve little purpose but he also seems to do little harm. It appears that in some episodes he became directly involved in the story (as he does in The Fall of the House of Usher) while in others he acted as little more than an introducer (as he does in The Open Door).

The Open Door is a classic ghost story with a Scottish setting. A young boy is disturbed at night by the sound of a child wailing and screaming to be let in. But of course no such child can be found. The father of the boy who hears the screaming ventures into the old ruined house nearby and hears the voice as well. Even the sceptical local doctor hears the voice.

Jack Hawkins plays the father. By this time he could no longer speak and all his dialogue had to be dubbed. The wonderful Scottish character actor John Laurie is delightful as the local minister who is called upon to exorcise the presumed ghost.

The Fall of the House of Usher takes some liberties with Poe’s story although it’s reasonably faithful to the spirit of his writing. Richard Beckett, who is about to be married, meets a young woman, the sister of an old college chum. Madeleine Usher is beautiful, a fact he notices at once. She is also clearly quite quite mad, a fact he singularly fails to notice.

Richard persuades his wife-to-be, Lucy, to befriend Madeleine. This proves to be a slightly unfortunate decision. Richard arrives at Roderick Usher’s house to find that his old friend is scarcely recognisable, his hair turned completely white. The atmosphere of the house is ominous indeed, the house itself making ghastly creaking noises as the unstable foundation settles. The behaviour of Madeleine and Roderick is not reassuring. Roderick tells Richard that neither he nor his sister may ever marry, madness being the sure inheritance of the Usher family. We are inclined to believe Roderick on this point. Roderick is worrying enough but Madeleine seems like she might be the more dangerous of the two.

Susannah York, one of my favourite actresses, plays Madeleine Usher. Roderick Usher is played by Denholm Elliott. With these two fine performers cheerfully and enthusiastically chewing the scenery poor David Buck is rather overwhelmed. He’s distinctly out of their league.

Despite the studio-bound feel that is common to most classic 1960s British television these two episodes manage to conjure up a fairly impressive gothic atmosphere. In fact, as was often the case with the best British television of that era, the studio-bound feel becomes more of an asset than a liability. It presented a challenge to everyone involved, from the set designers to the directors, and it was a challenge that often brought out the best in people. The gothic is particularly suited to black-and-white productions shot entirely in the studio, lending such productions a decidedly other-worldly feel.

With great stories to work with and some truly superb actors the results are impressive, making the loss of the other sixteen episodes even more of a tragedy.

Wednesday 3 July 2013

Night Watch (1973)

Night Watch has the distinction of being the only horror movie Elizabeth Taylor made. And this 1973 British production is a reasonably successful effort.

It follows the psychological horror formula that had become familiar in the early 60s, in movies like Hammer’s psycho-thrillers of that era. But Night Watch adds a few new twists of its own.

Elizabeth Taylor is Ellen Wheeler. She is married to investment consultant John Wheeler (Laurence Harvey) although she is apparently wealthy in her own right. The marriage seems happy enough. John works fairly long hours but Ellen has her friend Sarah Cooke (Billie Whitelaw) to keep her company. Ellen is somewhat disapproving of Sarah’s mysterious affair with a married man. on the whole these seem like reasonably normal upper middle-class people. Until one night, in the middle of a severe storm, Ellen sees something in the window of the deserted house next door.

Ellen is sure she saw a murdered man with his throat cut. It was jut a glimpse as the shutters briefly blew open before blowing closed again but Ellen is convinced that she did indeed see a murdered man. The police are called but a search of the deserted house reveals nothing unusual or sinister. John is inclined to think that Ellen let her imagination play tricks on her, and the police share his view.

Ellen lost her first husband Carl in a car accident some years earlier. We do not find out the circumstances of the accident until late in the picture but Ellen has clearly never quite recovered from this tragedy.

Shortly afterwards Ellen sees another body in the derelict house, this time a woman’s body. The police are called again and again they find nothing. Ellen becomes increasingly distraught and John, by this time very concerned, calls in his psychiatrist friend tony (Tony Britton) to take a look at Ellen.

Ellen refuses to be shaken in her belief that she really did see those bodies. She is so persistent that they even dig up her neighbour Mr Appleby’s flower beds but they can still find absolutely no evidence to support Ellen’s story. Ellen rings Inspector Walker (Bill Dean) so many times that the police dismiss her as a harmless crank and no longer bother to respond to her phone calls. On Tony’s advice Ellen eventually agrees to admit herself to a private clinic in Switzerland but before she takes that plane flight the story reaches its climax.

As you might expect Elizabeth Taylor gives a wonderfully over-the-top performance. Taylor was never afraid to push her acting to extremes that would have been ridiculously histrionic in any other actress, but she was always able to get away with it. And she gets away with it here. Her performance is the key to the film’s success and she delivers the goods.

Laurence Harvey and Billie Whitelaw provide fine support. Robert Lang is amusing as Mr Appleby, a man who seems both absurd and vaguely sinister.

Brian G. Hutton directed only a handful of movies although these included another rather outrageous and very entertaining Elizabeth Taylor vehicle, Zee and Co  (released in the US as X, Y and Zee). He does a very capable job with Night Watch. Screenwriter Tony Williamson had a prolific carer in British television, writing episodes for just about every crime/adventure series of the 60s and 70s. Twisted little stories were something he was very good at and his screenplay is economical and effective.

This movie has been released in the Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD series, in an excellent anamorphic transfer.

Night Watch is a fine example of the British psychological horror thriller and Elizabeth Taylor’s performance in her only horror outing is certainly an added inducement. Taylor proves that she can do horror very well indeed.