Frightmare 1974 ***

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More Tony Tenser movies on Flick Vault, the HD You Tube channel for off-the-wall movies; this one is from Pete Walker, the British film-maker who single-handedly created his own distinct horror imprint in the 1970’s. Frightmare has probably never looked as good as this; a tricky little tale of cannibals at work in the SW10 area of London, Frightmare is worth a look for genre aficionados by dint of a patient script and a remarkably over-qualified cast.

A mom-and–pop cannibal couple go to jail in 1957 for unspeakable acts; in 1974, Edmund (Rupert Davies) and Dorothy (Sheila Keith) may well be up to their old tricks now that they’ve done their time. Edmund’s daughter Jackie (Deborah Fairfax) suspects that her dad isn’t keeping to a strict vegan diet and smuggles animal brains to them, pretending to be feeding their cannibal impulse. Jackie’s step-sister Debbie (Kim Butcher) is a rebellious teen pushing to get out from under her wing, while psychologist Graham (Paul Greenwood) in romantically interested in Jackie, but realises that there’s something strange in her family life.

For British movie fans, there’s more than a few attractive names here; Rupert Davies was known for his Inspector Maigret, while Paul Greenwood was a household name in the early eighties for his portrayal of whimsical copper Rosie. Keith was also a regular in Walker’s films, and the level of acting seen here is impressive, particularly given the potential for low-brow sleaze in the subject matter. There’s a couple of excellent scenes, notably a tense tarot card reading during which Graham’s attempt to deceive the suspicious Dorothy begins to fragment under pressure. Oscar nominee Leo Genn also has a role, although the square stylings of Graham’s old man specs and retro sports–jacket combination are the real stars here.

Walker’s films have been somewhat neglected by tv programmers, but have gained a cult following, and Frightmare is a prime facie example of why is work is worth exhuming. Sure, some of the detail is rather nasty, but this kind of realistic horror was non-recurring phenomenon, and horror completists will want to seek out and savour this pungent sample of British kitchen-sink gruesomeness.

Martha Meet Frank,Daniel and Lawrence 1998 ****

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Peter Biskind’s book on the Miramax era, and specifically the reign of Harvey Weinstein, has lots of remarkable asides about the maverick producer’s behaviour, even if it skirts the issues that are central to the 2020 court-case. Down and Dirty Pictures is more concerned with the cultural vandalism that Weinstein did, but it’s probably worth balancing out with Miramax’s undeniable success in terms in acquiring and distributing low-budget film. Nick Hamm’s Martha Meet Frank Daniel and Lawrence was recently thrust into he news cycle when star Monica Potter claimed that her refusal of Weinstein’s advances damaged her career; with only two films in the last 15 years, the numbers would appear to bear her story out.

If such black-balling took place, it’s a real shame, because Potter was a personable female lead who might have had a different career if Weinstein had not agreed to pick up this British rom-com with an imported star, cut all the swearing and half-heartedly released it as The Very Thought of You. Potter plays Martha, a car-rental clerk from Minneapolis who travels to the UK with $35 in her pocket and promptly meets three men, Frank (Rufus Sewell) , Daniel (Tom Hallander) and Lawrence (Joseph Fiennes). These men are friends, but they’re unaware that each of them are romancing the same woman, and she’s equally unaware that the three men are rivals for her affection.

This convoluted story is told by Lawrence to Pedersen (Ray Winstone); Lawrence feels that the confidence of a psychiatrist will help him straighten out the issues, lthough the punch-line for this sub-plot is unexpectedly great. London circa 1998 looks green, lush and warm, and there’s a slather of indie music on the soundtrack.

And best of all is how woke Peter Morag’s script is; Daniel and Frank both adore Martha, but can’t stop talking about their own successes and failures for long enough to listen to her. Lawrence passes the test by listening and understanding; the grand gestures of many rom-coms are revealed as male vanity here. And unlike most rom-coms, the climax does not involve some grand and public gesture by a man, but rather Martha takes things into her own hands and sorts it out. ‘It’s the best rom-com ever…’ screeches the pull-quote of the poster, which might be overstating the case; it’s certainly one of the most under-rated. Every so often romantically-minded heterosexual men have to pull a rom-com out from somewhere for shared viewing; Martha Meets Frank, Daniel and Lawrence might be the best option in terms of springing a surprise.

Blue Story 2019 ****

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On the basis of Blue Story, Paramount awarded British writer/director Rapman a chance to remake a hot property, A Prophet. That’s quite a prospect, given that Jacques Audiard’s jail and gangsters tale has been one of the most notable entries in the cycle over the last decade. Blue Story has had a number of difficulties to overcome, notably release date changes in the US (March 20th 2020 is the latest) and a truncated release in the UK that muted a potentially strong box-office performance.

Blue Story is a considerably superior product to Noel Clarke’s lamentable wannabe Kidulthood trilogy, and also looks good in comparison with Saul Dibb’s benchmark Bulletboy; this is a modern gangland culture film without Scorsese’s nostalgic touch, based around the on-going postcode wars. Two friends Marco (Michael Ward) and Timmy (Stephen Odubola) find their friends and families have to take a side in the turf-wars, but their best efforts can’t preserve them from the on-going cycle of violence.

Showcase Cinemas in the UK pulled the film after 25 separate incidents were reported at 15 screenings, but that ban was later revoked; given that the film steps nimbly away from issues of glamorisation, it’s hard to see why the film-makers should pay a penalty. Those growing up in Peckham and Deptford, the areas described here, probably have enough problems to be going on with without being demonised in the media; perhaps the white-heat anger of Blue Story will be best appreciated as a home-entertainment event, but losing the opportunity to be a community event is detrimental to this kind of hearthelt production.

Rapman narrates the story here, and while his commentary removes much of the nuance from his film, it also makes sure the message lands. Britain, or at least the inner cities, faces a real challenge through the gentrification and ghetto-isation of their inhabitants, and Blue Story’s slick production marks a rare departure by the BBC into tricky real-world issues. Ward is a stand-out in a uniformly strong cast, and while such grim realities might put some viewers off, Blue Story is to be commended for standing up for the dispossessed and telling things as they are, circa 2020.

Horror Hospital 1973 NA (No Award)

horrorhospital25To cap off the busiest week to date on this blog, it’s customary to try and separate the sheep from the goats and weed out the fair-weather friends by reviewing something awful. And 1973’s Horror Hospital is truly awful, a grotty pot-boiler obsessed with crude medical procedures and resistible sexual scenes. And yet any film that features that emblem of Britishness, a Rolls Royce, kitted out with retractable decapitation blades can only have some kind of satirical nous, and so Horror Hospital is today’s film under review.

Once, viewing a HD print of Horror Hospital would be the preserve of millionaires or madmen; the internet, You Tube and specifically online library FlickVault are responsible for putting this obscure film within a click of your viewing pleasure. Confessions star Robin Asquith plays pop-star Jason Jones, who is so exhausted by his twin vices of music and cocaine that he signs up for a break with the Hairy Holidays company; ‘Maybe there’ll be some birds there,’ Jones muses distantly in a moment that displays a dismaying lack of wokeness. On the train to his vacation, Jones meets the attractive Judy (Vanessa Shaw), and the two of them quickly check into the one remaining room at the Horror Hospital, which looks more like a Horror Gymnasium, or possible Horror Country Estate, since it’s recognisably Knebworth House. Within these walls, Dr Christian Storm (Michael Gough) is conducting experiments, with his dictatorial role enforced by zombie motorcyclists Storm 1 and Storm 2, as well as the weaponised motor mentioned above.

Directed by Anthony Balch and produced by horror specialist Richard Gordon, Horror Hospital has never looked so sharp, with crisp, clean images replacing the murk that made it un-viewable. But now that the veil is lifted, there sights are hardly cherishable, including Dennis Price as a lavacious travel agent and an opening psychedelic wig-out from the band Mystic. There’s some vague sense of morality in that Horror Hospital rejects the Doctor’s obscene brand of human experimentation, although the endorsement of 1970’s youth culture seems like a less-than-palatable alternative.

A number of films in the FlickVault archive have been removed for copyright reasons, but Horror Hospital seems to be finding an audience, no doubt attracted by garish clothes, hideous attitudes and childish glee in horror. Those seeking non-PC entertainment may well find nuggets of interest, but those feeling nostalgia for such arcane entries in the horror canon may well find their enthusiasm misplaced. This film is also known as Computer Killers, but makes no more sense under that title.

What A Girl Wants 2003 ***

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‘I won’t make a scene… I’ll make a Broadway musical,’ is one of a number of strange lines in Dennie Gordon’s 2003 teen movie vehicle for Amanda Bynes. Somehow based on a 1955 play called The Reluctant Debutante, this fish-out-of-water comedy enjoyed ‘mixed’ reviews and ‘moderate’ success according to Wikipedia, but resurfaces in the streaming age as a gawp-fest for those interested in slumming acting talent and off-kilter observations about Britishness.

Lord Dashwood (Colin Firth) is a British politician who is likely to become Prime Minister, even though he’s not actually a member of the House of Commons. His surprisingly vague campaign comprises of large bill-hoardings with a picture of him smiling, with the words “Lord Dashwood’ written underneath, although a late details reveals that he’s standing for the “Constituency’ party, in case you thought he was running for the BNP. Dashwood’s campaign is thrown into disarray when his long lost daughter Daphne (Bynes) turns up on the doorstep of his palatial home, a jolt in particular for Dashwood’s fiancée (Anna Chancellor). Does Dashwood’s spin-doctor and manager Alistair Payne (2020 Oscar nominee Jonathan Pryce) know anything about where Daphne has sprung from?

What A Girl Wants takes place in the kind of Merrie England that’s familiar from rich texts like Garfield 2; A Tale of Two Kitties, where the royal family, or at least lookalikes, are everywhere, and staid, stuffy Brits just can’t wait for American teenagers to crash their parties and show them how to dance; Holly Valance’s forgotten hit Kiss Kiss gets a brief outing on a very random soundtrack here. There’s also an extended and somewhat shoe-horned-in product-placement for breakfast cereal Coco Pops which the main characters are seen consuming, enjoying, and discussing their consumption of at several junctures.

What A Girl Wants is, as the title suggests, wish–fulfilment, and not to be taken seriously or internally. Yet there’s something engaging about the clueless portraying of British politics and class-snobbery, particularly given that the original play was written by a Prime Minister’s brother ; for a film that gets so much wrong, and the New York locations must be the most fancifully pathetic in any major studio film, it’s clear that the film-makers’ hearts are in the right place, even if every single detail of the film is notably wide of the mark.

Not Now Darling 1973 NA (no award)

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Without fail, the least poplar items on this blog are the assessments of withered 1970’s sexless British sex comedies; no matter how many customers show on the previous day, my readership can be reduced to a trickle by writing about some tatty, end-of-the-pier innuendo-laden sexist tat, from That’s My Funeral to The Magnificent Seven Deadly Sins. What can I say in my defence? These films used to be part of the BBC’s film package when I was growing up, and were as much a part of a daily diet of cinema as Truffaut or Peckinpah. And now, viewed from the opposite end of the time-telescope, they still exert a certain power to horrify and yet amuse by their wrong-headed presumption.

Not Now, Darling was adapted by playwright Ray Cooney from his own hugely popular farce, and must have seemed like something of a sure-fire hit. Co-written by John Champman, another graduate of the august ‘Whoops Vicar, where’s my trousers?’ school of comic confusion, Not Now Darling is primarily a vehicle for the robust talents of Leslie Phillips, who went on to co-star with Angelina Jolie in the Tomb Raider films. Phillips plays Gilbert Bodley, a lothario-about-town who concocts a confusing scheme in which he sells a fur coat to his mistress’s husband Harry (Derren Nisbet) to make some easy cash. The story unfolds almost entirely on one stagey-set, the shop of Arnold Crouch (Cooney himself), where moll Janine (Julie Ege) is caught in various stages of undress.

Sex is an odd thing in British comedies; to be desired, certainly, but also a prospect which makes men go weak at the knees and generally collapse into some kind of moral panic. There’s more nudity in a perfume advert that 90 minutes of Not Now Darling, but there are occasional glimpses of the quick-fire verbal gags which must have wowed stage audiences. Barbara Windsor appears to double-down on the ditz, while old stagers Cicely Courtneidge and Jack Hulbert wander around the set in a reasonably spry fashion. They were pretty much the Kardashians ie celebrity couple of the 1930’s, and at least are treated with some dignity here.

As a sex-comedy, Not Now Darling is something of a farce, remarkable for it’s tameness and a dry, interior quality. A sequel, Not Now Comrade, followed in 1976, but by then, sex had found more direct routes onto the screen, and the idea of a woman hiding in a closet wearing nothing but a fur coat was no longer considered the ultimate in outre behaviour. Guilty of reflecting sexist, out-of-date tropes, films like Not Now Darling have gained in interest over the decades by becoming museum pieces of what audiences once found funny, but is now more peculiar than ha-ha.

 

Callan 1974 ****

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One piece of intellectual property that’s positively begging for rediscovery is Callan, a tv show, a book, a franchise beloved in the UK in the 1970’s, and the jumping-off point for Edward Woodward’s starring role in The Equaliser, which has become a Denzel Washington signature role. Each of these off-shoots is more ridiculous than the next, but boiled down to its origin story, James Mitchell’s kitchen sink spy-craft has a studious zing that would be well-worth recapturing.

Having already launched a popular tv show, Mitchell had adapted the pilot into a novel, A Red File for Callan, and this provides the basis for this 1974 film by Don Sharp. David Callan (Woodward) is a polite and friendly man who has violent tenancies, some of which seem to link to his service in the Malayan war. His handler, Hunter (Eric Porter) offers Callan a wet job, to murder a prominent businessman, but Callan takes his time about this to an almost existential degree, frustrating his bosses as he sources a gun and prepares himself by thrusting his hands into bowls of hot, wet sand.

Callan took The Ipcress File’s drab riposte to James Bond and took it a stage further; although there’s a Range-Rover chase and some cinematic action, it’s the tiny details of trade-craft that work best here, like the casual way the government sweeper-ups are disguised as ambulance-men. If you’re expecting Mission Impossible-style stunts, look elsewhere; Callan stealing a postman’s bicycle outside a High Street John Menzies is the limit of the athleticism here. And fans of 70’s dowdiness will enjoy the large cardboard boxes of Ryvita that form a backdrop to a dramatic scene.

Marked by an excellent performance by Woodward, no brooding Rambo but a well-disciplined man with still waters running deep in his psyche. The way his shunning of alcohol hardens his resolve is one of the details that give Callan such strength; espionage rarely goes out of fashion, but Callan is one forgotten name that really deserves to be brought back from the dead. And Dave Prowse, sporting an unfamiliar moustache, has a brief but memorable bit as a heavy who is no match for our hero’s dour strength.

 

The Gentlemen 2020 *****

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As a critic, it’s always a surprise when the class clown turns good; Guy Ritchie has so far only troubled this blog in terms of the so-bad-it’s-good file of awful films, where King Arthur: Legend of the Sword sits proudly. Otherwise, there’s little to say about his dated brand of mockney gangster rubbish; Lock Stock and Snatch both had energy and style but haven’t stood the test of time since the Britpop era, while pastiches Rocknrolla and Revolver are beneath contempt. Otherwise, it’s anonymous journeyman stuff like Sherlock Holmes and Aladdin, so a new Guy Ritchie film is simply not an event for me.

Except The Gentlemen is Guy Ritchie’s best film by a long chalk. Perhaps the world has caught up with him; gentrification is very much a central theme here, and the flat-cap wearing new aristocrats featured are a far more convincing milieu that the jolly Dickensian street-urchins previously favoured. Crime, and knife-crime in particular, became part of British life as society has stratified along the fissures of class division, and The Gentleman manages to evoke both ghetto-ised council estates and posho country-house crims with some success.

Casting-wise, The Gentleman also sees Ritchie step up a few leagues. Mickey Pearson is the protagonist, attempting to sell off his cannabis-farming operation before it becomes legal under changing British law, and he’s played with genuine verve by Matthew McConaughey. As friends and enemies are drawn to Pearson’s attempted metamorphosis, his right-hand man Raymond (Charlie Hunnam) finds himself blackmailed by tabloid hack Fletcher (Hugh Grant, no fan of the tabloid himself). Fletcher presents his proposition in the form of a film-screenplay, and this elegant device provides Ritchie with prime real estate in terms of switching the narrative goal-posts in an amusingly meta way. Henry Golding also makes an impression as Dry-Eye, and Colin Farrell brings in 50 shades of Martin McDonagh as a boy’s club mentor with a violent side. These are big name turns, introduced with some neat soundtrack flourishes, and pretty much all of them hit the mark, especially Grant’s funny, funny riff on Pinter-esque threat.

The Gentleman has been derided as Guy-Ritchie-by-numbers, but it’s anything but. For the first time, Ritchie has convincingly evoked several different echelons in the class system, and his ear for vernacular doesn’t let him down. This is a mature, amusing, deftly plotted and politically subversive film that has the narrative nous to have its cake and eat it. There are a few moments where Ritchie pushes the outrageous tone too far, but such gambles can be forgiven when the film just works, and The Gentleman purrs long like a vintage Jag on a crisp, asphalt driveway.

 

 

The Ghost Train 1941 ***

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Rey (Daisy Ridley) and the identity of her grandfather has been the worldwide hot topic of the last month, so it comes as a relief to identify the star’s actual grandfather as Dad’s Army star Arnold Ridley, the author of the play that this 1941 comedy-chiller was based on. Ridley wrote his play in 1923, and took inspiration from his overnight stay in a now-defunct station, where the echoes of other trains created an eerie atmosphere. Many, many film versions followed, with this particular one forming a vehicle for the familiar talents of Arthur Askey.

Askey’s trademark catch-phrase ‘Ay Thank Yow’ was appropriated by Mike Meyers for his Austin Powers films, but there’s a fair range of Askey call-backs and references here, as well as a full-blown song and dance number. Askey plays Tommy Gander, a music-hall comic who provides a perfect chance to play himself. Gander is one of a merry band of travellers who miss their connection when he pulls the emergency cord on their train in order to retrieve his missing hat. Forced to spend the night as Fal Vel junction in Cornwall, the group are warned by a gloomy Great Western Railways employee of the ghost that inhabits the station, and the ghost train which passes through…

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Ridley himself (above) played the station master in his play, Herbert Lomas takes the role of Hodgin here, and there’s also a few substantial changes in the plot, with machine-gun smuggling communists replaced by Nazi Fifth-columnists as the villains. There’s jokes about Hitler, providing it’s really not too soon for JoJo Rabbit, and also some fun at the expense of such recent public figures as Napoleon. Ridley served in both world wars, so it’s fair to give him some extra lee-way when it comes to cultural sensitivity.

The Ghost Train actually stands up pretty well as a film seen from nearly eighty years later; the comedy is sharp, the mystery is neat and the suspense elements elaborate; there’s a long set-up involving how the ghost operates that actually does pay off. What a genuine war veteran like Arnold Ridley might have made of Star Wars and The Rise of Skywalker is anyone’s guess; expectations of a night at the flicks have changed somewhat since this quaint little film-of-a-play packed them in.

 

The Hound of the Baskervilles 1959 ****

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Any vaguely annoying dog still gets referred to as the Hound of the Baskervilles to this day; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel is a cultural touch-stone as popular as Sherlock Holmes himself. Film and tv version of this celebrated story are rarely up to snuff; this Hammer production, directed by Terence Fisher, plays down the hound itself in favour of a meticulous attempt to nail the original narrative; with strong atmosphere and a perfect cast, it’s a welcome addition to the Holmesian canon.

Who better to play the great detective that Peter Cushing? The length of Cushing’s career, and the number of films he made in old age, might blind us to what a vigorous and dashing figure he cuts here, quite literally bouncing of the scenery at some points. But there’s also method in his madness; Cushing nails the mood-changes in his first dialogue scene as he considers the request of Sir Hugo Baskerville (David Oxley), seeming to dismiss, then engage with his client. Holmes is a spikey wit here, while Watson (Andre Morell) is anything but a buffoon. Fisher even keeps with the source by having Holmes off-stage at key moments, but with Christopher Lee a saturnine Henry Baskerville, and John Le Mesurier as the butler, there’s no lack of good manners on show.

What really works here is the deductions; what Holmes sees, and how he puts it all together, perhaps because for once, this is not pastiche Conan Doyle, but a fair reworking of his actual plot-lines. Flickering lights on the moor, strange paintings, ravenous devil dogs; all the elements are in place, and although the final masked pooch effect is rather underwhelming, the conclusion still packs a punch.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is perhaps too violent to be a tv staple, and yet too cerebral to appeal to horror fans; either way, it’s a real genre classic that deserves to be exhumed and enjoyed. Cushing and Lee are both in strident form here, and Fisher displays the kind of barn-storming style that made him the pick of the Hammer House of directorial excellence.