Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Fight of Fancey



I’ve wanted to see all of 1957’s FIGHTING MAD ever since its last television screening on the Movies4men channel back in 2011. I only caught the tail end of the film then, and couldn’t for the life of me work out what lonely, dark alleyway of cinema I’d chanced upon here or indeed what time or place this film had been made in. A disorienting, but alluring experience that- let’s face it- is a rarity given the bland and predictable nature of TV these days, where few films make it onto the box that haven’t already been well documented or released onto DVD. Had I caught the film in the middle of the night, rather than the early morning, I would have given serious consideration to the idea that I’d dreamt seeing it. My initial impression was that Fighting Mad was a poverty row Western made in Hollywood at some point in the 1930s, an assumption formed on the basis that Movies4men were quite partial to screening that type of fare. 1933’s Jaws of Justice – in which a heroic canine battles gold rustlers- seemed to be on the channel at least twice a week back then.

As Fighting Mad went on though tiny details began to poke holes into that thinking, if this was a product of 1930s Hollywood why did the two leads have extremely well educated British accents? However the unnaturally post synched dialogue meant it couldn’t also be ruled out that this was the badly dubbed version of a foreign language film. And what was I to make of all of the film’s heavy handed attempts to establish Canada as being its setting?

It was only by the time I made it to the closing credits that Fighting Mad began to give up some of its secrets and the pieces of this puzzle finally started to slide into place. The end credit acknowledgment that Fighting Mad was ‘photographed entirely on location in Scotland’ sure shattered any thought that this was an American or even Canadian production, and understandably came as a huge surprise to me. The biggest clue as to who was responsible for the journey to planet obscuro I’d just taken was the listing of ‘Adrienne Scott’ in the end credits. Adrienne Scott being the acting name of Adrienne Fancey, the daughter of the infamous film producer and distributor E.J. Fancey. Her presence quickly giving the game away about Fighting Mad being one of E.J.’s own productions, as Adrienne rarely -if ever- acted outside of her father’s films.

Edwin John Fancey was the crooked grandfather of British exploitation cinema. In the business since the early forties, Fancey’s busiest period would be the 1950s. While his output largely consisted of crime films –in keeping with that of close competitors Butchers Films and the Danziger Brothers- Fancey’s opportunistic eye for pop culture trends would also see him producing a cinematic cash in on radio’s The Goon Show called Down Among the Z Men, and the first British Rock and Roll film in 1957’s Rock You Sinners. In that typical exploitation film huckster manner Fancey displayed little care, insight or understanding for whatever subject he had in his sights. A cynical attitude to the material permeates Rock You Sinners, whose onscreen turns are for the most part jazz musicians attempting to adapt to rock and roll whilst no doubt quietly hoping the new music will turn out to be just a passing phase. One of the film’s songs “You Can’t say I Love you to a Rock and Roll tune” even openly puts down the very music the film is meant to be championing.

Fighting Mad falls well outside of E.J.’s usual remit, for what we are dealing with here is a British Western, filmed as already noted in Scotland, that for reasons now likely lost to time went to considerable lengths to pretend that it is set in Canada. A premise that is surely worth 50 minutes of anyone’s time.



Several Fancey productions showed up on Movies4men around 2011, although by that time these films had fallen into such obscurity that not even the channel itself appeared to have much of a clue about them, and had a habit of confusing them with better known films with the same titles. Fighting Mad was advertised as being the 1976 Jonathan Demme film of that name, while a few minutes into “Fools Rush In” –a b/w Fancey presented NYC thriller co-starring a young Betsy ‘Friday the 13th’ Palmer-should have tipped off viewers that they weren’t watching a 1997 romcom starring Matthew Perry and Salma Hayek.

The only way to rout out the Fancey films in Movies4men’s schedule tended to be their timeslots, E.J.’s productions rarely troubling their audience for over an hour. Even applying that line of detective work didn’t stop Fighting Mad from falling through my hands though, and naturally the screening that I only caught the last twenty minutes or so of turned out to be its final airing on Movies4men. Thankfully the film turned up again last month on the fledgling Talking Pictures TV channel, the television arm of Renown Pictures who now appear to own the vast majority of the Fancey back catalogue. Something which would explain why not only have Fancey’s own productions been turning up on the channel, but also later films made by his children and/or common law wife Olive Negus-Fancey (Legend of the Witches, A Little of What You Fancy, White Cargo).

Fighting Mad focuses on Mike ‘Muscles’ Tanner (Joe Robinson), a boxer who is left traumatised after his latest two matches cause both his opponents to die in the ring. Guilt ridden, unpopular with the fans and incapable of continuing his career, Muscles and his wife Paula (Adrienne Fancey) decide to relocate from Scotland to Canada and live with Muscles’ uncle Jake (Beckett Bould). Neither appears to be deterred by the fact that his uncle lives a hermit’s existence high up in the Canadian wilderness, where he has earned the uninviting nickname of ‘Mad Jake’.

Unbeknownst to Muscles, surprises of both the pleasant and unpleasant variety await him and Paula in Canada. The good news is that there be oil in them there Scotland highlands…sorry Canadian mountains, and Mad Jake has discovered oil on his land. The bad news is that news of Mad Jake’s good fortune has already reached the villain of the piece, Walkers (Jack Taylor) a logging yard owner who has designs on stealing the oil and claiming the land as his own. Walkers’ scheme involves sending one of his heavies to prevent Mad Jake from registering his claim on the land, namely by shooting at Mad Jake whenever he attempts to leave his cabin. The presence of Muscles however means Walkers’ plan isn’t going to be an easy as he thought, and after an attempt to kill Muscles and his wife whilst they’re en route to Mad Jake’s place fails, all-out war is declared between the ex-boxer and the malicious lumberjacks that Walkers has sent to finish off Muscles and Mad Jake.




Although I was completely bamboozled by Fighting Mad the first time I saw it, looking at it again from the perspective of someone who has managed to catch several other Fancey films in the interim, and become wise to how he operated, it is now highly recognisable as one of his productions. The E.J. Fancey hallmarks come into play almost instantly here. Fancey was quite the fan of using second hand stock footage and merciless padding in his films, to an extreme degree, and the Fancey love affair with both shows no signs of abating with Fighting Mad. The utterly meticulous manner in which Fighting Mad documents Muscles and Paula’s journey from Glasgow to Canada can be judged by the fact that Muscles’ idea to travel to Canada occurs five minutes into the film, yet the couple don’t arrive at Mad Jake’s cabin until just after the half-hour mark of a film that only lasts 50 minutes.

Of course you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to deduct that the reason why we linger so greatly over their journey is that it was so inexpensive to film. Thus we get Paula and Muscles walking around Glasgow for a few scenes, Paula and Muscles getting on board a cruise ship, Paula and Muscles walking around on the deck of a cruise ship, a shot of a seagull. Stock footage of a train, Paula eating a sandwich and looking out of the window of a train, a panning shot over a map of Canada, more stock footage of a train, Paula and Muscles getting off a train. Paula and Muscles getting a lift in the back of a jeep, Paula and Muscles walking around a forest, and finally Paula hitching a ride on Muscles’ back. As the Mummy narrator says at the end of Antony Balch’s Secrets of Sex “so it goes on…and on…and on….and on…..and on”. A journey that in a typical film would be a 30 second montage, Fancey manages to stretch out to about 20 minutes of screen time.

When Fancey isn’t exhausting his leading man and own daughter to the extent that the latter has to ride on the back of the former, he is falling back on that other trusted Fancey standby, scratchy rat eaten stock footage. In this instance E.J. has gotten his hands on documentary footage of the Canadian logging industry, and this pre-existing footage of trees being felled by lumberjacks, timber being transported downstream and cable logging techniques acts as Fighting Mad’s main source of excitement while tensions between Walkers and Mad Jake are still only at simmering point.

In light of the fact that nearly everyone involved with the film is now dead, I can only speculate here, but I’d wager that certain elements to the film, the sudden availability of two Mountie outfits, the stock footage of a boxing match and the logging industry, and the use of a lumberyard location in Scotland all came together prior to the plot of the film. Resulting in some poor Fancey underling being handed the job of writing a script that incorporated a boxer, a pair of Mounties, the logging industry and a lumberyard setting. Given how inconsequential that setting and the fact that the bad guys are all lumberjacks are in the grand scheme of all things Fighting Mad, it is unlikely a person of E.J. Fancey’s character would have gone the extra mile of seeking out that particular type of stock footage and a lumberyard in Scotland purely to satisfy the whim of a scriptwriter. The bad guys might as well have been gynaecologists or firemen for all the bearing their occupation and place of work has on the plot of Fighting Mad. In fact if a reel of film relating to gynaecologists or the fire fighting profession had fallen into E.J.’s lab prior to this film being made, Muscles would have undoubtedly been battling evil firemen or evil gynaecologists in it.

While many a filmmaker benefited from the Eady Tax system until it was phased out in the early Eighties, E.J. Fancey can claim the prize for pushing harder than anyone else when it came to exploiting that well-meaning tax on box-office receipts. Intended to encourage activity in the British film industry, the Eady tax dictated that a percentage of a British film’s box-office earnings was diverted away from cinema chains and found its way into the pockets of the filmmakers instead. Just to give an idea of how powerful an incentive Eady money was to E.J., his 1940s filmmaking efforts prior to its introduction consisted of the odd travelogue short, whereas after its voluntary introduction in 1950 his productivity grew to the extent that he was producing an average of five films a year throughout the 1950s. E.J.’s con appears to have been to make films for the least amount possible, bring them in at the shortest length possible, then send them out on a double-bill with a film that was a bigger box-office draw and make back his production money and a healthy profit thanks to the Eady money that would inevitably come his way.





I suppose the cineaste in me should be offended by Fancey’s output. Even the slightest exposure to the films clues you into the fact that E.J. clearly never gave a flying fuck about cinema, and it’s hard to believe that being involved with one of these films was a happy experience, you surely couldn’t have worked on a film like Fighting Mad and not feel the creeping realisation that you’d found yourself at the rock bottom of the film industry, that you were …ahem… Down among the Z-grade. Tales of Fancey himself paint a picture of a controlling no-nonsense Cockney, a creature of smoke filled Soho offices who wasn’t above threatening to dish out knuckle sandwiches to unruly crew members. ‘Bill Anderson’ the mean and repugnant pornographer that John M East plays in 1981’s Emmanuelle in Soho is said to have been based on Fancey, making East’s performance in that film one of the most unflattering portrayals of a real life human being outside of Raging Bull.

The list of people who began their careers in Fancey fare is an impressive roll call of figures who’d go on to play important roles in British exploitation cinema and in a few cases mainstream culture. Graham Stark, Robert Hartford-Davis, Jackie Collins, Michael Winner, Pete Walker and John M East all served their time either in front of or behind the camera in E.J.’s productions. Although the assembly line nature of the films they made on E.J.’s watch, coupled with the fact that none of their careers flourished until after they left E.J.’s orbit, makes it hard to put forward a case for E.J. being a Roger Corman-esque nurturer of future talent. It is also difficult to ignore the fact that in a couple of those cases we’re also talking about people from privileged backgrounds. Therefore their motivation for getting mixed up with Fancey was probably as a way of getting a foothold into showbiz, for it surely couldn’t have been for the chickenfeed people got paid for being involved in Fancey’s films. What toll did having E.J. Fancey as an entry level influence in showbiz take on these people though? Winner, Collins and John M East’s personalities are all bonded by a shared aura of ruthlessness, ambition and self-preservation. Were those qualities instilled into them by Fancey, or were those personality traits they had to grow merely in order to deal with a man like E.J. Rightly or wrongly Emmanuelle in Soho passes on such a nightmarish image of Fancey –cheating and bullying underlings, insisting on casting couch favours from actresses, generally laughing at the entire world behind its back- that it becomes hard not to take this insider portrayal of him with you when you watch his own films.



As I say the cineaste in me should be offended by Fancey’s output but I cannot tell a lie films like Fighting Mad, The Missing Scientists and Behind the Headlines have haunted me since I first encountered them, and probably always will. The Fancey aesthetic can be a tough one to get acclimatized too at first, trust me they are maddening, infuriating experiences the first time around. The rules of conventional storytelling and filmmaking mean nothing in Fancey’s little world. The narrative of The Missing Scientists runs around in circles several times over, and begins with a five minute documentary style look at the day to day running of a nuclear research facility; a location the film abandons a few scenes later. At least The Missing Scientists has a plot, unlike Fancey’s Behind the Headlines. Imagine a film that can never fully commit to being either a documentary or a narrative film and unfaithfully goes back and forth between both. Imagine a film that looks like it was put together from leftover scenes from other films and whatever crap Fancey could scrape off the cutting room floor, and therefore has no real protagonists or antagonists. Imagine a film which includes five minutes of real life surgery footage, despite it being mentioned in the previous scene that the character meant to be the man in the surgery footage didn’t survive the operation. Behind the Headlines is that film.

Stick with Fancey’s films though, because the more you see, and the more you learn about why these films were made, the more you become in on the joke that these films are, and the con trick played on the film industry and the British public that they represent. Maybe it is a form of Stockholm Syndrome, but at a certain point with Fancey’s films you learn to re-program your sensibilities and what should by rights hit you as being utterly tedious becomes a source of fun. I laugh like a drain when a character in a Fancey film suggests a trip from A to B, knowing from prior experience of Fighting Mad and The Missing Scientists that we’ll be dealing with a tortoise paced journey from A to B here, one that will encompass every form of transport known to man. As I watch these films I hear in my head the collective groans of a 1950s audience about to embark on another of E.J.’s a long day’s journey into stock footage, as well as the obscene cackle of E.J. laughing all the way to the bank. Is that wrong and wicked of me? Maybe it isn’t just being around the man himself that causes his personality to rub off on you, maybe simply watching E.J.’s films can do that too. A cause for concern indeed.

With E.J.’s films I can guarantee you that they are like nothing else you’ll encounter in cinema. The sole reason they were made, to exploit the Eady tax situation, frees them from being duty bound to either impress the critics or entertain the public as all other movies are. From a purely sociological perspective these films are now a lasting history lesion in the underbelly of the British film industry of the 1950s. Think, as I once did, that the Butchers and Danziger Brothers films as well as those Edgar Lustgarten Scotland Yard shorts were as low as British films got back then, then be prepared to have the rug pulled from under you by E.J.’s antics, he went lower than any of ‘em. As bottom half of a double-bill material these films were what lay in wait for unsuspecting 1950s audiences with a hankering for the sensational. The price to pay for getting out of the rain and going to the cinema to see one of the trashy American or European horror films that E.J was distributing back then, was having to put up with something like Fighting Mad or The Missing Scientists as the co-feature.

For even seasoned exploitation film aficionados the penny pinching, relentlessly threadbare nature of Fancey’s films is often overpowering. ‘Action’ scenes in The Missing Scientists generally consists of ancient, nobody actors talking on the phone in some drab, miserable office, probably Fancey’s own. One such actor is so amateurish or indifferent about being in the film that he doesn’t even bother to disguise the fact that he is reading his dialogue off a piece of paper on the desk before him. A young Jackie Collins briefly plays the film’s femme fatale figure. An image the film builds up for her, only to then undercut it thanks to a few viciously unflattering profile shots whose bitchy purpose seems to be to point out that our Jackie had a right schnozz on her back then.

Watching Fancey’s films poses the intriguing question; can a person become an auteur filmmaker by accident? There can’t be a least likely character to try and build up as an auteur than Fancey, only a person deaf, dumb and blind could mistake him for anything other than a tough businessman who saw film as his way to a fortune. Yet, his films, especially the 40 to 50 minutes ones are instantly recognisable, they have their own set of built in characteristics, they speak their own language, they play by their own rules and nobody else’s, therefore they would technically pass the majority of tests for auteur cinema. E.J. is always the dominant factor, the directors of these films are unimportant and interchangeable. Whether the man in the director’s chair was Maclean Rogers, Robert Hartford-Davis, Steve Sekely, or in the case of Fighting Mad Denis Kavanagh is neither here nor there. Due to the strict, cheap skate, conditions they were made in the films always end up feeling like the work of the same man.

Fighting Mad might be the best place for the inquisitive to start, it gives you a crash course in ‘the E.J. way’, but unlike many a Fancey production doesn’t totally short change an audience. Once the padding and the stock footage is out of the way, Fighting Mad turns out to be an extremely simplistic, physical and exciting film. E.J. presumably having had the brainwave that sending a bunch of actors up to Scotland to run around, wrestle and knock each other out was as inexpensive to film as having them talk on the phone in his office. Despite its Glasgow set opening and initial reliance on 20th century means of transport, Fighting Mad definitely has aspirations towards being a Western, albeit a modern day one. The problem is that Fighting Mad is the kind of ‘modern’ Western that gives the impression that its makers hadn’t seen a Western for the previous twenty years. 1930s American serials and B-Westerns of the Republic and Monogram variety are heavily evoked in the gloriously over dramatic music that accompanies chases on horseback, gun battles and fist fights here. Also in abundance is a particularly American variety of insults, “you knucklehead”, “why you dirty double crossing rat”, “the dirty jackals” and my own favourite “you lily livered son of Satan”.

The appropriation of old west lingo by actors attempting to bury their own natural English accents under a mishmash of faux American and Canadian ones, frequently pushes Fighting Mad in the direction of parody. However Fighting Mad is an even greater source of unintentional hilarity due to its cast playing it straight as they deliver out of place and out of time dialogue like “I’ll keep an eye on that coyote”, “bless my hide if it ain’t Lucy’s boy” and “as it is we’ve gotta go round the Indian village”.

Fight scenes come complete with indications that the employment of a fight chorographer, or stunt doubles were luxuries that the production couldn’t afford. The scene in which Muscles exchanges blows with one of Walkers’ henchmen by a waterfall finds both actors becoming visibly preoccupied by losing their footing and the threat of slipping on the wet stones. Lending both an awkward yet believable quality to this fight scene, as well as the guilt trip of watching actors place themselves in what appears to be legitimate danger. Sure enough your fears and theirs prove to be well founded when the actor playing Muscles’ adversary falls backwards, hits his back against the cold, hard stone and winds up in the drink. Towards the end of the scene Joe Robinson, who plays Muscles, breaks from character in order to lend a hand to his co-star, discretely helping him get out of the water that their characters have just been slugging it out in. Good on ya, Joe.

Fancey films may plead poverty by giving the impression they were made by a family of paupers who didn’t have a pot to piss in, but there is one piece of evidence in Fighting Mad that argues the very opposite was true, and that this film biz thing was a very profitable racket for E.J. The evidence in question being his own daughter Adrienne Fancey, part of the profits from E.J.’s films look to have gone towards giving his children the best public school education that the era had to offer. Adrienne sounds like the queen, and resembles a young Margaret Thatcher, making it all the more hilarious when her character here introduces herself as “Mrs Muscles Tanner”.

The constant use of his daughter in his films, and the charges of nepotism this inevitably invites is countered by the fact that Adrienne was usually allocated the lousiest, secondary roles his films had to offer, often as receptionists and secretaries. Her entire onscreen purpose in Behind the Headlines is to make cups of coffee for Gilbert Harding. Not for a second do you get the impression that these films had a secret agenda of showcasing Adrienne’s talents. Ironically, she isn’t a bad little actress and someone who is easy to warm too over her successive roles in E.J.’s films. Adrienne might have risen up in the cast list by the time of Fighting Mad, but her status as the producer’s daughter offers her no special privileges here. The one-take nature of the filmmaking here is illustrated early on in the scene where Muscles and Paula leave the receptionists, watch closely and you’ll see Adrienne bash her arm on the railings as they leave, the first of multiple indignities that Fighting Mad has in store for the producer’s flesh and blood. It is impossible not to feel for the dear girl, Adrienne has the sophisticated demeanour of a person who’d be more at home attending a high society ball and hobnobbing with nobility, instead the cruel hand of fate dictates that she was shipped off to an inhospitable part of Scotland in order to appear in another of her father’s terrible films. Inappropriately sent there in high heel shoes and a flowing white dress, the rocky and woodland terrain soon transforms those high heel shoes into an instrument of torture. “They weren’t made for walking in the Canadian Forrest” claims Adrienne’s character in the film, a line straight from the heart if ever there was one. Fighting Mad also sees Adrienne having to go barefoot in scenes that take place in the lumberyard, jump from the back of a moving pick-up truck, stumble about further in the dreaded high heels, then finally stand behind the actor playing Mad Jake as he fires off a gun, which causes Adrienne to flinch and then hold her ears in pain.

Such is life for the long suffering daughter of an exploitation film impresario. Judging from what ended up onscreen, by the end of filming her feet must have been blistered, her arm black and blue and her hearing not what it once was. Adrienne Fancey emerges as quite the trouper in Fighting Mad, and completely earns your respect and admiration during the course of it. Can anyone blame Adrienne for losing the acting bug and opting for a quieter life behind the scenes soon after. I, for one, bloody well cant!


 


Special thanks to Grahame L. Newnham, the unofficial gatekeeper of all things Fancey, for providing me with a copy of ‘Behind the Headlines’ and several other Fancey obscurities.

Monday, 20 July 2015

Virgin Witch; or The Crimes of Elton Hawke



The Devil made them do it, or was it the tabloid press? Throughout the late Sixties and early Seventies Britain’s tabloids both titillated and sent shock waves to the public with vivid headlines about black masses, Satanic orgies, graveyard desecrations and secretive and powerful Occult societies…. ‘read all about it in next week’s News of the World’. In a short amount of time a whole cottage industry sprung up to cater to the nation’s curtain twitchers and their new found fascination with witchcraft. From softcore sex paperbacks (Satan’s Slaves, The King of the Witches), to the reissue of Dennis Wheatley novels with a sexed-up ad campaign that ran in Titbits magazine, to Witchcraft magazine “the monthly chronicle of Horror, Satanism and the Occult”, whose pictorials were a mixture of professionally taken photos of glamour models posed against occult themed backdrops and real life photos of occult gatherings with black bars and drawn on underwear used to disguise the identity and genitals of the participants.

Cinema was no slouch when it came to capitalising on the subject, and soon cinemagoers were being treated to semi-fictional documentaries like Derek Ford’s Secret Rites and Malcolm Leigh’s The Legend of the Witches, the latter film playing for over 32 weeks in the West End, despite its non-commercial use of black and white and extensive male nudity. It wasn’t only domestic filmmakers who were drawn to documenting the occult in Britain, Italian made mondo documentaries such as Luigi Scattini’s Witchcraft 70 and Sergio Martino’s Mondo Sex took massive delight in portraying Britain as a nation with nothing better to do at the weekend than to don goat’s head masks and deflower virgins. Even Britain’s shadowy hardcore pornography industry got in on the act, in the blue movie ‘Satan’s Children’ a loser in an occult mask presides over dildo worshipping rituals, then demands blowjobs from his female followers.


 

from the pages of Witchcraft magazine


Of all the films born out of Britain going occult crazy during this period, 1970’s Virgin Witch is the one that has had the longest shelf life. Perhaps due to the smart move of the film going the fictional narrative route, over the pseudo-documentary one. A decision that gave it a life outside the limited sub-genre of occult documentaries and allowed Virgin Witch to be later billed as a horror film, although if we’re being honest Virgin Witch is closer to the sexploitation genre than it is horror.

Whatever powers Virgin Witch possess, staying power is certainly amongst them. Witchcraft 70, The Legend of the Witches and Secret Rites may have been films in touch with the tastes of their times, but quickly got kicked into the obscurity pile when the public’s curiosity over the sex lives of witches began to wane. Those films’ perceived lack of commercial value can be judged by the fact that no one considered them worthy of being released on video during the 1980s and 1990s.

Virgin Witch on the other hand has been anything but invisible during these last few decades. Since the early 1990s, it has constantly been in circulation, thanks in no small part to Redemption films, for whom Virgin Witch is obviously a bit of a personal cause, despite the fact that the film doesn’t even have any naked nuns in it. Seriously though, you cannot fault Redemption when it comes to their role as Virgin Witch’s proud custodian. It is a film they’ve done right by over the years, not only releasing it on video but re-issuing its tie-in novelisation, getting the film shown on television via the Bravo channel, releasing it on DVD, releasing it on Blu-Ray in the States. My girlfriend even caught the film on Netflix. So it seems cometh the new formats and new ways to watch films, cometh the Virgin Witch, there is no escaping her.


As for me, I bought the Redemption VHS second hand a couple of years after it came out, committed it to DVDr when I sold the tape on a few years ago, and for all the ample opportunity to do so since, I’ve never felt the inclination to buy it again on DVD or Blu-Ray. So take that as a reflection of how I feel about this film, I’m happy to own it and dust it off once in a blue moon, but I’m not so enamoured with Virgin Witch that I’d want to throw further money at it to see a better looking version of it. Although ironically given that I don’t own it on DVD, I can credit Virgin Witch with being the film that in the early 2000s snapped me out of collecting VHS in favour of going with the times and moving onto DVD. To explain in more detail, I was at a film collectors fair back then and was absolutely stunned to see somebody casually lay down fifty pounds for an early video release of Virgin Witch, this keeping in mind was at a time when the film had already made it onto DVD and could be picked up at a fifth of that price and probably looking ten times better on disc. Now, I am aware that fifty pounds is a small fry amount when it comes to pre-cert videos, and that at the higher end of collectability there are tapes that can fetch four figure sums, but for me that was the moment that caused me to jump ship on the video collecting mentality. Prior to DVD, collecting rare films and collecting rare videos tended to be one in the same, but once DVD came along and opened up new avenues to see hitherto obscure films, you did begin to see a split between the people who wanted to see these films looking as good as possible and so turned their back on VHS in favour of DVD, and people who stuck to their guns and continued to remain faithful to the VHS format. After the Virgin Witch incident I began to side with the former’s mind-set. To me fifty pounds for Virgin Witch just represented someone’s spiralling out of control obsession for collecting videos for the sake of collecting videos, irregardless of whether the actual film on the tape was rare, or desirable, or warranted the price tag. So that really acted as a wakeup call for me to take a couple of steps back from the video collecting world for fear that I one day could become the man who could justify paying fifty pounds for a copy of Virgin Witch.


For the benefit of those that haven’t seen it, Virgin Witch features real life siblings Vicki and Ann Michelle as Betty and Christine, two sisters escaping from the provinces with the foggy notion of hitchhiking to the big smoke and breaking into modelling. Soon after hitting the road they make the acquaintance of Johnny (Keith Buckley) who takes a special shine to Betty, and offers the sisters a place to crash and the warning to avoid backstreet photographers. Advice that falls on deaf ears in the case of Christine, who soon finds herself auditioning for a modelling gig before Sybil Waite, (Patricia Haines) a stern looking, domineering lesbian and self-billed “wizard of commercial photography”. Sybil might not fit the bill of the type of lecherous bloke Johnny had in mind when he told Christine to avoid backstreet photographers, however Sybil’s motivation is pretty much the same, to get female models into her studio then come on to them sexually. Sybil’s office is an almost Bond villain set-up, full of gadgets designed to enable this female peeping tom to spy on her models undressing. Instantly getting her claws into Christine and attempting to exert control over her, Sybil tells Christine to change her name to Christina, and then insists on taking Christine’s vital statistics, all the while trying and failing badly to feign indifference to a job that privately is giving her a cheap thrill. “Do you really think you can use me?” asks Christine. In the context of the scene, it is simply a question about whether Sybil can employer her, but Ann Michelle’s delivery of the line makes it sound instead like a challenge if not outright threat to Sybil, offering a brief, flash-forward clue to how the entire film is going to play out.

As a reward for playing along with Sybil’s casting couch games, Christine gets a modelling gig shooting a cider advert at a country house called ‘Wychwold’. Having discovered that leg over merchant Johnny already has a girlfriend in black singer Abbey Dark, Christine insists on dragging Betty to Wychwold too in order to keep her at arm’s length from Johnny. Sex sells everything, even it seems cider, as the photoshoot for the cider campaign sees Christine sprawled naked over a car while Peter the photographer issues instructions like "take those jeans off... now the pants". Sparks fly between photographer and model, who enjoy an amorous roll around in the grass, Sybil seethes when she discovers them making out. As Sybil reminds him soon after, Peter is on the lower end of the sexual pecking order, within the household. It seems if anyone is getting their hands on the sisters during this weekend shoot it will either be Sybil or the house’s owner Gerald Amberly, doctor of philosophy and world class authority on the subject of witchcraft played by the extremely likeable, and cravat sporting Neil Hallett. Inquisitive souls, the sisters quickly discover Gerald, Sybil and Peter are all part of a witch’s coven of which Gerald is the chief white witch. Over dinner their concerns about this set-up are instantly put to bed by Gerald who reassures the sisters that the coven only use their powers for good, dropping swinger-type lines like “we use it for friendship and to give pleasure where we can”. Whilst Gerald cuts a surprisingly convincing figure with authentic dedication towards his lifestyle and religious beliefs, you do get the feeling that regularly stripping off for orgies in the grounds and ‘initiating’ young women into the coven by having sex with them on altars isn’t entirely without its appeal to this old fox as well. There are few funnier things in the history of cinema than the frenzied, ready for sex facial expressions that Neil Hallett pulls in the final scene of Virgin Witch. Christine wants in on the scene and to be made a witch, and our man Gerald is only too happy to initiate her.


A dramatic plot thread finally comes to the fore when Gerald discovers that Christina has hitherto unsuspected psychic powers that gives her control over others and make her a born witch. “There are some people who are born to be witches, born with special powers” he tells her. Armed with this information, Christine becomes determined to use these powers against Sybil, stage an occult coup within the coven and ultimately take Sybil’s place as high priestess.




There has been a tendency to dismiss Virgin Witch as a now kitsch, lightweight and airheaded excuse to fill the screen with as much female flesh as possible, and granted at the outset it is easy to jump to that conclusion. Initially it does appear that we are knee deep in another film in the ‘Au Pair Girls’ mode, one that gives you a mental image of its director as being a cravat wearing, serial bottom pincher who is giddily celebrating a post pill world where young women wear the shortest skirts possible, take having their bottoms pinched as a complement and are happy to strip off completely for filmmakers. Scratch below the surface though and I think there is more going on in Virgin Witch than people give it credit for, and this is a film with a complex, if somewhat mixed up, take on the roles of men and women at a time when both permissiveness and feminism were beginning to emerge.

Dialogue and the seriousness of Ann Michelle’s performance seek to underline the drive and fierce independence of Christine. “You don’t strike me as the domestic type” observes Sybil to which Christine boldly confirms “there is not a man living who could make me settle for that”. Fighting talk indeed. Finding less favour here is female passivity and emotional dependence on men. The first and last time we meet Johnny’s girlfriend Abbey Dark she is performing a song ‘You Go Your Way’ in a nightclub, the song doubles as an emotional plea to Johnny “I hear your cry, and I obey, my life, my all, the choice I pay, you know damn well, I’m in your spell till life is gone”. A heartfelt commentary on her crumbling relationship with Johnny, that is met with indifference from the rat bastard himself who is too busy chatting to a male friend about the Betty situation to pay attention to Abbey. The sad punch line to the scene sees Abbey finishing the song and staring at an empty seat where Johnny had been, Johnny having literally gone his own way.

At first glance the world of Virgin Witch is one run by men, yet all is not as it seems. Gerald may be the head of the coven, but the film wastes little time in shattering that illusion by revealing that behind the scenes all the strings are really being pulled by a woman, Sybil, who is only too happy to remind Gerald of that fact and put him in his place “you don’t have the power, you are high priest in name only”. What’s fascinating is that it’s a situation that mirrors that of the film itself. Virgin Witch’s credits might give the impression that the film was entirely directed, produced and written by men, but they appear to have been high priests in name only, and delving deeper into the genesis of the film reveals a strong, if largely invisible, female influence over the production. Now, here is where matters do get confusing, for forty five years on, exactly which women worked on this film and in how large a capacity has still managed to remain shrouded in mystery and conjecture. It is universally known and accepted that Virgin Witch marked the first entrance of Hazel Adair, previously known as the writer of TV soap operas like Emergency – Ward 10 and Crossroads, into the world of X-rated filmmaking, but it is less easy to pin point the extent of her involvement here. For years it was believed that the film’s producer Ralph Solomans was a pseudonym for Adair, foreshadowing her adoption of another male pseudonym ‘Elton Hawke’ later on in her career. However recent evidence has revealed that Ralph Solomans is in actual person, and a photo of him, taken on the set of one his earlier productions shows a youngish man rather than a middle aged woman called Hazel. Another Virgin Witch mystery is the real identity of ‘Klaus Vogel’ who not only wrote the film’s script but also its tie-in novelisation. Theories put forward over the years are that Vogel is either an Adair pseudonym, or a pseudonym for Beryl Vertue, better know these days as the producer of TV hits Men Behaving Badly and Coupling. Given the advanced age of both Adair and Vertue, plus their closed mouth stance on Virgin Witch, it seems likely that both ladies will take the secret of who Mr Vogel really was to their graves. Officially Adair is only credited on the film in a lowly capacity, as writer of the lyrics to the ‘You Go Your Way’ song, still given that Adair wore writer and producer hats on all the other films she worked on, it seems a safe enough bet to surmise that she held those position here too, albeit either anonymously or pseudonymously. An interview with Adair in a 1975 ‘Man Alive’ episode does carry a cut away to the press books of her adult films, designed to illustrate her filmography, and includes the Virgin Witch press book among them, so on that basis we can assume that Virgin Witch is indeed part of the Adair ‘canon’.


Virgin Witch does establish a repeated pattern of Adair hiring a specific kind of male film director who could be relied upon to deliver very competent and professionally made films while at the same time not leave any auteurish handprints on the end product. This is true of the other filmmakers who later worked for Adair- Robert Young, Don Chaffey and James Fargo- peek in on their careers and they were clearly prolific, go to guys who made whatever types of films that the producers and moneymen demanded of them, and were the antithesis of big personality, auteur filmmakers. The same goes for Virgin Witch’s director Ray Austin, another gun for hire director who appears to have made whatever was offered him, with a career that in the 1980s and 1990s took in lots of American TV work, he directed episodes of The Love Boat, Airwolf, Magnum P.I, Hart to Hart, etc. etc. The three feature films of his I’ve seen are so dissimilar that you can’t help reaching the conclusion that whatever personality they possess came as a result of the writers, producers or moneymen rather than Austin himself.


 


A year after Virgin Witch he made Fun and Games (1971), now better known under its American title ‘1000 Convicts and a Woman’ about the prick teasing daughter of a prison warden whose presence at Daddy’s place of work causes the (not really 1000) convicts to get all hot under the collar. Based on that salacious plot you’d be forgiven for thinking that Fun and Games could be a sister film to Virgin Witch, and yet there is a playful quality and sense of humour to Fun and Games, something you can’t really say about Virgin Witch. Mislabelled a sex film in some quarters, Fun and Games is actual fleeting in its use of nudity, which is something you could definitely never say about Virgin Witch. Austin’s next post-Virgin Witch film is even further divorced from it. Taking himself off to South Africa, Austin directed 1974’s Dr Maniac aka The House of the Living Dead, a bloodless old fashioned horror film that blatantly channels I Walked with a Zombie during several set pieces, and let’s face it using Val Lewton as a reference point is as far removed from Virgin Witch as you can get.


All things considered Virgin Witch does slot in far comfortably with Hazel Adair’s career than it does Austin’s, themes and hang ups that boil to the surface here, were destined to do so again in the later films she made under the Elton Hawke name. Without question Adair disserves credit as a female pioneer in mediums that in her time were perceived as being male only environments, there certainly wasn’t many women writing for television in the 1950s and 1960s, and there certainly wasn’t many women making sex films when ‘Elton Hawke’ was born, still Virgin Witch also serves as a valid reminder that women are as capable as bring the same bad mental baggage and bigotry to the screen as any chauvinistic or homophobic male.

For few films have oozed hostility towards lesbianism, and lesbians quite as much as Virgin Witch. While allot of the ‘poofter’ put down humour that is so prevalent in the era’s films and sitcoms can be traced back to the fact that the films and TV shows in question were made by straight men who at best viewed gay men as a source of amusement and at worst as an intimating sexual threat, Virgin Witch offers up the lesser sighted straight female equivalent. Just as straight male filmmakers of the time were regularly guilty of succumbing to ‘watch your backs’ paranoia when it came to gay characters, Virgin Witch is happy to pander to similar concerns about lesbians.

As far as the gospel according to Virgin Witch is concerned straight women aren’t safe around lesbians, the message here is ‘drop your guard for a moment and they’ll try and eat your pussy and worse still after they’ve had their wicked way with you, they’ll be after eating your younger sister’s pussy as well’. Adair’s script and her characters see Sybil’s sexuality as a larger threat and cause for concern than her deep involvement with the occult. “All the models have to wear copper plated pants, she’s as les as they come” Johnny is warned at one point, elsewhere Peter admits to Betty “she’s the other way, she fancies birds”. Where I think Virgin Witch puts a foot wrong dramatically is in its automatic assumption that its audience shares the prejudices of the characters quoted above, and the fact that Sybil is a lesbian is enough to turn us against her. Admittedly there is an opening scene in which its implied Sybil has murdered one of her earlier models, but the sequence is so confusingly put together that it is hard to make sense of and easy to forget given that there are no further references to this character during the rest of the film. Other than that you do feel that Virgin Witch never really shows us enough villainy from Sybil to truly justify Christine’s need to destroy her and take her place as the head of the coven. The last two times I’ve watched the film I’ve felt a growing degree of sympathy towards Sybil –who comes across as a slightly tragic, isolated and despised character-and at the same time alienated from Christine whose becomes less humane and more power hungry as the film goes on. Something helped immeasurably by the fact that Ann Michelle is blessed with one of the most intense, bone chilling stares ever captured on film. If you take nothing else from Virgin Witch it is that you’d never want to spill Ann Michelle’s drink in real life. If looks could kill, Ann Michelle would be on death row as we speak.


Now, not for a moment do I believe the filmmakers intended you to view Christine as anything other as the heroine of the piece, or Sybil as its villainess, but it is very easy to rebel against how the film wants you to see these characters, and look upon Christine as the real evil, destructive force at work in Virgin Witch. Taking into account that by the end of the film, she has both Betty and Johnny under her control and is using them to do her bidding. As well as using her sex appeal to win Gerald over, setting into motion her plan to make and grab for power within the coven and psychically assassinate Sybil.

Should you ever need proof that in the past gay men and woman were once viewed on the same level of contempt as child molesters in British culture then look no further than Virgin Witch. Sybil is closely depicted along those lines. Sybil being a sexual predator, incapable of having a consensual relationship with anyone, abusing her position of power, forcing her advances on others who are left degraded or vengeful by the experience. Even within the apparently sexually swinging and open minded confines of the witches’ coven Sybil is viewed with suspicion and treated as an outcast whose feelings for other women are seen as abhorrent.


                  


Virgin Witch can’t be classed as a one shot excursion into dyke-hating by Adair either, which is another reason why I think it ties in closely to her other films. Consider her next film as writer and producer 1971’s Clinic Xclusive aka Sex Clinic aka With these Hands, whose sole lesbian character –played by Carmen Silvera- is depicted as a mental wreck, constantly making advances on a straight woman and whose sexuality leads her down the path of being blackmailed and death by suicide. Even when working in a lighter mode as in 1974’s sex comedy Can You Keep It Up For A Week, Adair can’t resist throwing in another lesbian bogeywoman, this time in the form of a leather-clad Valerie Leon, who makes unwanted advances on the hero’s girlfriend.

Now toxic as Adair’s hateful and negative depictions of gay women are, I do have to beguilingly concede that they are not entirely without foundation in real life. While there were sex hungry, exploitative males that the real life versions of Betty and Christine would have had to cross paths with back then, from wolves in family entertainers’ clothing like Rolf Harris and Stuart Hall to a certain pornographer (especially disliked by George Harrison Marks) who insisted on having unprotected sex with every model who worked for him (a decision that resulted in him and his models being regular guests of the clap clinic) don’t for a minute think that there weren’t unpleasant females taking sexual advantage of women as well. There is an extremely well known British actress, adored and assumed heterosexual by the public, who backstage was Sybil Waite verbatim back then and a known threat to young actresses and female models. No doubt something similar to “all the models have to wear copper plated pants, she’s as les as they come” has been said many times behind the person in question’s back.

Should that particular national treasure ever be exposed as the sexual predator she really is, it would be interesting to see if one of the knock on effects were that people started to regard Virgin Witch as a warning from history that nobody took notice of. In the same way that Val Guest’s film Au Pair Girls is now starting to take on the appearance of a warning from history with regards to the very Stuart Hall-esque character that John Standing plays in that film.





Adair’s films may unmistakably be products of their time but there is a tortured conservatism hiding away in her work that often feels at odds with the era. Anything that steps out of the confines of heterosexual monogamy and marriage is either a cause for concern or comedy fodder in Adair’s films. Early on in Virgin Witch there is a scene where Betty and Christine have a giggle at the expense of the fetish adverts placed in a corner shop’s window. A scene that is expanded upon for Adair’s Can You Keep It Up For A Week. A film that likewise laughs at the sexual tastes of others, and finds its accident prone hero (played by Jeremy ‘Boba Fett’ Bulloch) fumbling his way through a storyline involving a comic relief roll call of adulterers, hypersexual housewives, male streakers, limb wristed gays and assorted swingers.

The Bulloch character’s motivation- to keep a job for a week so that his girlfriend will marry him and at the same time having to frequently rescue her from the sexual advances of others- is a notably straight laced and chaste premise for a 1970s British sex comedy. To her credit Adair was much more colour blind than her contemporaries, an online bio righty praises her as the writer of “the first black and white kiss on world television” and that progressive attitude towards race continues on into her sex film work. Virgin Witch features an (admittedly strained) relationship between a white man and a black woman, and Clinic Xclusive and Can You Keep It Up For A Week have no qualms about undressing black cast members with the same enthusiasm as white ones.

Perhaps due to the fact that Adair herself was middle aged when she made these films and possibly felt that women of her own age had the same right to be erotised onscreen as younger women, her films aren’t as age restrictive as the British sex films made by men. Whereas the films made by men only tended to focus on the sort of twenty something actresses they’d like to get into the knickers of off-screen, Virgin Witch cast members Neil Hallett and Patricia Haines were in their late thirties and early forties when they undressed for the film, Carmen Silvera was in her late forties when she did likewise for Clinic Xclusive and lesser known cast members seem to have been into their sixties maybe even seventies when they bared all for these two films. Adair’s films are in wholehearted agreement with the belief of the Lynn Lowry character in Shivers that “even old flesh is erotic flesh”.


Adair’s take on men is where Virgin Witch becomes a film of mixed messages, as noted females hold all the real positions of power in this film, yet the erosive effect this has on masculinity isn’t something that this film celebrates. The two men that the film partners Betty and Christine up with fall well below the standard that ‘real men’ were meant to measure up to in the 1970s, and the film never lets up criticising them for it. Johnny may present himself as a flash, self-made man about town- entering the film by giving the sisters a ride in his fancy mustang convertible- but the film doesn’t let him pull the wool over her eyes for long. Even before the car journey is at an end, a bracelet inscribed ‘from Abbey’ gives the game away about him being a taken man who is driving about in a car, and wearing a bracelet that a wealthy girlfriend bought for him. The shame of being a kept man, of driving a car a woman really owns, of wearing a bracelet that acts as Abbey’s brand on him, haunts Johnny throughout the film. Christine’s paramour Peter is similarly introduced as another sorry excuse for a man. A nervous wreck, Peter is tormented by the idea that his heterosexuality will antagonise the dreaded Sybil and does his best to fight against his feelings for Christine. So successful is Sybil in her emasculation of Peter that his real sexual persuasion even comes as a surprise to her “I was quite sure he was queer” she tells Gerald. Given her films feelings toward lesbians, being mistaken for ‘Un Ami De Dorothy’ must be considered the greatest insult Adair could throw in the direction of a straight man.

The plot of Virgin Witch necessitates that Johnny and Peter assert themselves as men, and reconnect with their red blooded side. Johnny has to emerge from under the thumb of Abbey. Peter has to form an allegiance with Christine and take a stand against Sybil. “She’s a normal, healthy girl” he protests after it becomes clear Sybil has designs on Christine. There is a lot of deceptive subplot concerning Johnny trying to search for Christine and Betty. He revisits the apartment he put them up in to look for clues to their whereabouts, finds an address for Sybil’s studio, breaks into Sybil’s studio, has little luck there but later runs into two female cyclists who he recognises from the nude photos he saw in Sybil’s studio and finally gets the location for Wychwold out of them.

So you can’t fault Johnny when it comes to doing his detective work, and as with Scatman Crothers’ character in The Shining we join him on a long protracted journey to the central location of the film, under the mistaken belief that he will turn out to be the knight in shining armour of the piece. Johnny’s attempted heroics aren’t as dramatically curtailed as Scatman Crother’s are in The Shining, still the term ‘wasted journey’ comes to mind when after all that effort he finally shows up at Wychwold only to get quickly shooed away by Betty and called a “cheap little ponce” by Christine to boot. Natch, Christine has a change of heart soon after and uses her psychic powers to force him to drive all the way back to Wychwold and play a minor role in her plan to become high priestess after all. Women can be strange, indecisive creatures at times, fellas. The end of the film sees all the male characters, Gerald, Johnny and Peter all accept Christine as their new leader by slavishly following after her and away from the body of the now deceased Sybil. In this film men loved to be led by a woman.


Virgin Witch didn’t exactly have a trouble free journey to the big screen. Filmed at some point during 1970, it was previewed in the December 1970 issues of Mayfair and Continental Film Review (where for the record its title was referred to as ‘The Virgin Witch’) only for censorship hassles to throw a spanner in the works of its release. Rejected outright by the British censor in April 1971, the film subsequently managed to have a small release when the GLC passed it for an X-cert release in London. It wouldn’t be until 1972 that the British censor relented and passed a cut version of the film for general release in January of that year. However the censor related delay must surely have damaged if not rendered useless any immediate publicity generated by the Mayfair and Continental Film Review pieces, as well as the 1971 ‘Klaus Vogel’ novelisation, in light of it being nearly two years later before the majority of the public could finally see the film.

As the many who’ve tried over the years will attest, attempting to put yourself behind the eyes of a British censor and make sense of some of their decisions can be a tough task. I suppose the film could have caused the censor a few brow furrowing exercises due to its rather laid back attitude towards the occult, becoming mixed up with the witches coven is shown to be an empowering experience for Christine, and there is precious little finger waiving going on over the coven’s orgiastic group sex actives here either. Nor does Virgin Witch tow the traditional line of horrorpixs by demanding that a price needs to be paid for dabbling in the occult. Lest we forget that Ann Michelle’s character and her biker chums all got turned to stone at the end of Psychomania for that very reason, but there are no such consequences for her character using occult forces and committing murder here.

More realistically though, the real reason for the censor ban on Virgin Witch was likely that it was one of the earliest British films they’d been faced with that made no bones about being a purely titillation film. To them Virgin Witch would have represented a new breed of British films that no longer felt they had to justify themselves to the censor over their heavy use of nudity. By putting a block on the film’s release the censor probably thought they still had a chance to prevent out and out sexploitation from establishing itself as a film genre in Britain, and prevent full frontal female nudity and simulated sex from becoming commonplace in British cinema, both of which they failed miserable from happening. By 1972, the decision to ban the film must already have appeared archaic, taking into account that during the two years in-between the censor had been faced with passing far more controversial and confrontational films like Straw Dogs and The Devils.


Time certainly waits for no man, or woman, in the British exploitation film world, and by the time Virgin Witch was finally let loose in 1972, Adair had already written Clinic Xclusive and teamed up with wrestling commentator Kent Walton to produce the film under the joint ‘Elton Hawke’ pseudonym. Cinema X magazine wasted no time in exposing the duo behind the Elton Hawke name, their real identities inspiring Cinema X to quip in 1972 that Clinic Xclusive is ‘far removed from Miss Adair’s more cosy world of Crossroads, but not in fact so far removed from Walton’s world of the wrestling mat’. It wouldn’t be until 1975 however that Adair and Walton’s involvement in sexploitation films became widely known after the duo were interviewed by the BBC’s Man Alive programme, in an episode that profiled the major players in the British sex film world.

You do probably have to see what Hazel Adair looked like to truly comprehend just why people were so shocked and rendered incredulous that she was the brains behind Virgin Witch and Can You Keep It Up For A Week. It wasn’t merely that Adair was a woman; it is what sort of woman she was. I must confess that for many years after watching Virgin Witch I had held onto the idea that Adair would herself turn out to look like the Sybil Waite character, a tall, dark haired tough cookie, only to discover through the Man Alive episode that Adair was this ‘cuddly granny’ type, closer in looks to Irene Handl or Mrs. Mills than Virgin Witch’s Patricia Haines. In the episode itself Adair, like many of the participants, plays the reluctant pornographer card, refusing to take responsibly for her own actions, placing the blame on Joe Public for flocking to see the likes of Can You Keep It Up for A Week, when of course M’Lady would rather be making innocuous films. “I’d much rather make all sorts of films, particularly I want to make children’s films, but unfortunately they don’t pay, that’s why we find people complaining that they’ve got nowhere to take their children to during the school holidays” she told Man Alive reporter John Pitman.

Personally, I don’t buy into Adair’s ‘butter wouldn’t melt’ attitude and appearance. The shooting of explicit additional footage for the export version of her 1976 film Keep It Up Downstairs, as well as the casting of Tony Kenyon and Mary Millington in that film, do alone suggest that Adair was no stranger to hard-core pornography.




The Virgin Witch's Mother: Hazel Adair in 1975


My feelings towards Hazel Adair’s films are similar to my feelings towards Derek Ford’s 1970s output. Their late 1970s sex films come across as impersonal and played strictly for dumb laughs, whereas the early 1970s ones are darker, often psychologically revealing, and thus have a bigger hold on me.

Adair might have had a superior flare for sex comedy than Ford, but in her earlier films sex is bad, sex can get you into trouble, sex is a human failing that is there for despicable persons to swoop down on and exploit. In Clinic Xclusive, Sybil Waite’s characteristics get shared equally between two of the characters, Elsa Farson (Carmen Silvera) inherits the weak, vulnerable aspects of that character, whose lesbianism and unreciprocated love for a younger woman leads to her doom. Julie (Georgina Ward) the object of her affection is a continuation of the power abusing, unscrupulous side of Sybil Waite.

Both Sybil and Julie outwardly despise the sexual permissiveness that surrounds them. “Keep your filthy paws off her” Sybil hollers at Peter after catching him making out with Christine. Julie –a masseuse who throws kinky sex her clients way and then blackmails them- constantly flashes back to her childhood sexual abuse during her sessions with her clients, giving her an emotional detachment from the clients that allows her to blackmail the poor bastards without it pricking her conscience.

Yet it is sex that leads to both these characters’ downfall. The moment either Sybil or Julie show even the slightest flicker of emotion or erotic desire for another person, is when they reveal their weak spot, their bronze plug in the ankle of Talos, that causes these otherwise cold and sociopathic characters to themselves be used, manipulated and come crashing down. Never is Adair’s soap opera background more obvious than in these audience appeasing climaxes that demand these immoral characters receive a terminal taste of their own medicine. What goes around always comes around in the early films of Hazel Adair.


Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Enter the Jacey



I’ve recently been contacted by John N Cohen, the surviving director of the Jacey Cinema Chain, which his family used to run. John has recently put together a website about the Jacey cinemas which does provide the most comprehensive history of the Jacey chain that I have read and manages to answer many of the questions I’ve had over the years about the Jacey and the Cohen family. Particularly of interest to British exploitation film buffs will be the account of the backlash the Cohens faced following the release of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom in 1960, the family’s unsuccessful attempt to kill off the public’s interest in the nudist film genre and John’s newspaper clippings relating to The Yellow Teddybears.

www.jncohen.net/JaceyGroup/JosephCohen.htm

Monday, 8 June 2015

Come Play with Francis Searle

Most of the films discussed here stand very little chance of turning up on television these days, so I thought I’d give a heads up to one such rare exception to the rule, as newbie TV channel ‘Talking Pictures TV’ are airing 1972’s A Couple of Beauties- previously written up here- next week. The last film by British B movie workhorse Francis Searle, and showcasing mancunian drag artiste Bunny Lewis, the film is on Friday 12 June at 21:30, and repeated on Saturday 13 June at 21:20.





Talking Pictures TV have also been screening another Francis Searle short of late, that like A Couple of Beauties was clearly made with its eye on the Eady Money rewards. Searle’s penultimate film, A HOLE LOT OF TROUBLE (1969) centres around three workmen (Victor Maddern, Bill Maynard and Brian Weske) whose attempt to dig a hole in a street in Watford is hindered by two incompetent electricity board officials (Arthur Lowe and Tim Barrett). Mainly attempting to elicit laughter from how petty bureaucracy obstructs even the most seemingly simple of tasks, the conflict over where to dig the hole quickly spills on over into a nearby café, the bedroom of a honeymooning couple and the studio of a camp girlie photographer (Ken Parry).

For a film that pits the workforce against bowler hat wearing, upper middle class management figures, A Hole Lot of Trouble is surprisingly neutral and apolitical in tone, with neither side coming up smelling of roses. The three working class road diggers are depicted as rude, lazy and unpleasant, but the film seems equally comfortable ridiculing the Arthur Lowe and Tim Barrett characters, constantly placing them in embarrassing situations that threaten to jeopardize their treasured respectably, mainly involving them bumping into the scantily clad models that populate Ken Parry’s studio.

The film seems to find its real mouthpiece and hero in an elderly, former military man (Neal Arden) who wins the public’s support and cheers by criticising the workmen’s shoddy attempts at digging the hole and belittles the Arthur Lowe character for adhering to the unhelpful regulations that the very Mainwaring esque Lowe character holds dear. Although a fairly minor- and unnamed- character, he does reflect a dissatisfaction with the modern world of the 1960s that is clearly at the heart of A Hole Lot of Trouble, the film seemingly arguing that the Britain of the time was being brought to its knees by laziness, class conflicts and red tape.

Previously given a big screen airing at the Renown Festival of Films back in February 2015, and now receiving small screen showings thanks to Talking Pictures TV, A Hole Lot of Trouble is one of a number of films from that late sixties/early seventies period that like ‘The Magnificent 7 Deadly Sins’, ‘Simon, Simon’, and ‘The Cherry Picker’ is filled to the rafters with famous faces, comedy actors and glamour girls, and whose cast lists raise expectations for British comedy gold that the films themselves struggle to live up too. Be warned, genuine laughs are very thin on the ground here, Bill Maynard ends up with the one laugh out loud moment when his numbskull character discovers a priceless roman relic only to then smash it up and complain “aint it marvellous you never find anything new”. There is also a ‘did they intend that to be funny’ moment in which ‘The End’ credit plays just as someone’s bottom comes into frame. I’m not so sure if ‘R.S. Kennedy and Co’ would have been pleased that their end credit ‘thanks’ acknowledgement was also in such close proximity to female derrière as well.

Such a sight though pointed the way forward for the career of many of A Hole Lot of Trouble’s personnel. Seven years later, the film’s composer Peter Jeffries, editor Peter Mayhew, director of photography Terry Maher, production manager Ernie Lewis, not to mention Ken Parry himself, would be reassembled to work on Come Play With Me, finding themselves in another hole lot of trouble in the process.

    

Thursday, 28 May 2015

Can Jennifer Eccles ever forget King Kong and find true happiness?

Busty brunette Jennifer Eccles was a mainstay of top-shelf magazines towards the end of the seventies. She also appeared in several 8mm shorts like Beach Orgy and Shower Lust which are relatively easy to find. The one 8mm short of hers that was the most tricky to track down was the one with the most unusual and perverse premise. Shot in the UK at the end of the 1970s, this hardcore short was released in Germany as School-Girl Traumt Von King Kong. A title which translates back into English as A SCHOOLGIRL DREAMS OF KING KONG, and casts the very un-schoolgirl looking Ms. Eccles as a woman with a unique sexual problem, best spelled out by this super 8mm box cover and plot synopsis (images: BGM)




Long thought lost, A Schoolgirl Dreams of King Kong eventually roared back to life thanks to 8mm film collector extraordinaire ‘Sgt Rock’, who spotted an 8mm copy of the film for sale at a foreign online auction site and put up the cash to not only buy the film but have it transferred to DVD back here in the UK. For my part I embarked on a sort of poor man’s version of a kickstarter campaign, that basically involved me contacting anyone I could think of who’d be up for buying a DVD transfer of a pornographic interpretation of King Kong, in the hope that we’d be able to cover Sgt. Rock’s costs (fifty five pounds for the 8mm film itself and an extra sixty pounds for the DVD transfer) and maybe show a bit of profit as reward for the heavy lifting he has done in getting this piece of British sex film obscura back into circulation. Unfortunately since this post was written Sgt Rock was raided by the police, and as a result no longer sells DVDs.






The premise for A Schoolgirl Dreams of King Kong would make the majority of people doubt its existence, after all a porno about a woman fantasizing about being fucked by fictional giant gorilla King Kong? It sounded beyond ridiculous, more befitting a made up ‘film within a film’ that might have gotten a laugh from being name checked in the likes of The Yes Girls, Eskimo Nell or Can I Come Too. Yet A Schoolgirl Dreams of King Kong is very real, and now I have the film itself to prove it.

A Schoolgirl Dreams of King Kong’s star, the aforementioned and pseudonymous ‘Jennifer Eccles’ was an adult model with considerable charisma and an aura of bohemian decadence about her. With her dark hair, glass green eyes, stunning body and devilish grin, Eccles seemed to revel in her odyssey through 1970s sexual excess and threw herself into the eye of that storm with uninhibited glee, appearing in hardcore photo-shoots for European magazines and baring all for home-grown top shelf publications like Mayfair, Knave, Men Only, Escort and Whitehouse. Eccles was a woman with the right body, in the right place at the right time, arriving in British pornography at a time when the loosening censorship of the 1970s allowed British magazines to explore female genitalia with greater freedom than ever before, and Eccles’ untrimmed bush and notably large and fleshy labia lips made her the perfect muse for that most pussy worshipping of decade. Eccles –whose real name might have been Gillian Hanna- adopted multiple guises during her porn modelling career, she’d been a topless genie let out of the lamp, an overaged schoolgirl being screwed by a farmer on top of a tractor, a beach bully kicking sand on another woman’s face, a lady trucker offering a ride for a ride to a hitchhiking ‘Gypsy’ Dave Cooper, a stiletto boot licking masochist, and a leather cap wearing femme fatale. Eccles even slipped on an oversized blonde wig and a girl next door image for a Mayfair shoot that anticipated the big hair, big bust fixations of the 1980s glamour modelling scene. Whatever your fantasy, chances are there was a version of Jennifer Eccles to satisfy it. A former glamour photographer’s recent memory of Eccles being “a nut case in the nicest possible way” in real life, both cracked me up and hinted that there might be a degree of authenticity to the wild, crazy image that porno gives you of her.



 


A Schoolgirl Dreams of King Kong casts Jennifer as a rich young woman who divides her burgeoning sexual desires between King Kong and her father’s French maid. After kissing the former’s image, which she has had imprinted on a birthday card, Jennifer makes a heavy handed move on the latter, pinching the maid’s bottom with such force that it causes the woman to go tumbling onto Jennifer’s bed, where Jennifer’s aggressive if not entirely unwelcome seduction of the maid continues. After Jennifer falls out of the bed, the maid gets the upper hand and playfully pats Jennifer on her ass before attempting to resume her duties. Undeterred by the setback, Jennifer pesters the maid into sitting legs akimbo in what looks to be a barber’s chair –evidentially every rich young woman’s bedroom should have one- where she coerces the maid into letting Jennifer masturbate her with a banana. In a prelude to the freakery to come, there are quick flashes to the phallic fantasies that are simultaneously playing out in Jennifer’s head. Filmed against a black background these find a naked Jennifer suggestively fondling and rubbing her crotch against a giant sized banana. Constant reminders of the King Kong theme come courtesy of crash zooms and close-ups of the famous photomontage of Kong towering over the New York skyline from the 1933 film, shots that are scored to a male voice doing a hammy imitation of King Kong’s trademark roar, the effect of which manages to be both laughable and unsettling.




In an about turn A Schoolgirl Dreams of King Kong then dismantles the sexually aggressive image its built up of Jennifer, by revealing her to be the least sexually experienced of the two women, if not –its implied- a virgin. The maid’s attempt to repay the sexual favour that has just been done to her, by sticking Jennifer with the banana, proves too painful for Jennifer to endure, and also triggers another momentary flash into her fantasies, this one finding Jennifer posing legs akimbo and the giant banana being fired in-between her legs only to unsuccessfully bounce out of her pussy.




Jennifer nearly dies of embarrassment when the maid’s boyfriend, Charlie, shows up. Being unable to pull up her hot pants in time forces Jennifer to hop around the room with the hot pants around her ankles, futilely attempting to protect her modesty. The possibility of a threesome is briefly contemplated, with Charlie and Jennifer making out in front of the maid, before jealousy gets the better of the maid. Pushing Jennifer aside, the maid wants Charlie all to herself, and the pair of them go at it on Jennifer’s bed, allowing a frustrated Jennifer a ringside seat to this crash course in heterosexual sex.

 

It is an at times perplexing move for A Schoolgirl Dreams of King Kong, what with the film initially seeming like a sexual showcase for Jennifer, only to then quickly turn her character into an unwanted sexual nuisance, and a source of indifference, if not hostility by the other two characters in the film. In doing so however, the film does give Jennifer the scope to display a hitherto unknown flair for physical comedy –with the maid pushing Jennifer off the bed being a reoccurring gag in the film- and throws her the acting challenge of playing a clumsy, sexual novice. It is a big ask, but Eccles proves surprising adept at selling the idea that a man’s cock is a source of mystery to her, with her character hesitantly approaching Charlie’s erect penis and prodding it with a believable mixture of fear and excitement. Only when Jennifer resorts to underhanded means -taking photographs of the pair and using the photos as a blackmailing tool- is she allowed to intrude on the couple’s lovemaking.




In an unusual touch the scene in which she finally gets her wish of being deflowered by Charlie, actually places greater erotic value on the character’s facial responses to the sex over close-ups of intercourse itself. Intercut with all this is what the film has really been building up to, and while in reality Jennifer is losing her cherry to Charlie in her mind she is having torrid sex with her hero King Kong. Whereas in the 1933 film, Fay Wray only managed to be tied by ropes to columns whilst awaiting King Kong’s first appearance, the dirty minded variation that A Schoolgirl Dreams of King Kong serves up finds Jennifer tied to King Kong’s penis itself. Her attempts to free herself from the ropes only having a masturbatory effect on Kong, but when she does manage to get loose Jennifer turns the tables on Kong and begins riding on top of his erection and whacking it with a cane into even greater heights of arousal.


 


Despite its thoroughly demented concept of ‘sex with King Kong’ never being far away from the film’s attention, A Schoolgirl Dreams of King Kong belongs to a recognisable trend of high quality, professionally made and expensively produced hardcore loops that were shot in London in the late 1970s, which include the likes of ‘No Morals’, ‘Arabian Knights’, ‘Locked Out’ and ‘Kameraklub’. Loops that largely focused on the British upper classes, and boasted five star hotel or Regent’s Park area location shooting. Plush settings that not only represented pornographers trying to up their game but played to the rest of Europe’s perception about the British upper classes being a privately debauched bunch, an image no doubt still fresh in their minds from the Profumo affair. As these loops were made by European film makers temporary shooting in London, or British pornographers working for big European porn companies, these loops tended to be a breed apart from regular British sexploitation fare, and certainly a whole lot less vanilla in there sexual content.

At their most subversive these loops delight in tearing down the respectability of the British elite, in ‘No Morals’ the three daughters of a well to do family opt to take their own cherries by using a dildo equipped blow up doll, before offering blowjobs to two passing workmen, who then go on to gang bang the girls’ mother. At the end of the loop the head of the household returns home to be greeted by the sight of his female offspring, his hired hands, his wife and the workmen all participating in an exhaustive orgy. As far as No Morals is concerned there is nothing like a sex party to break down those class boundaries. A Schoolgirl Dreams of King Kong likewise offers up another poor little rich girl who isn’t averse to humping the servants, as well as a patriarchal figure who is used as a figure of fun and ridicule. In a variation on No Morals’ ending, here Jennifer and her playmates manage to put their clothes back on just as her father is arriving back home. Having successfully pulled the wool over his eyes, Jennifer and the maid exchange knowing glances over afternoon tea, as Jennifer peels back and eats the banana from the earlier masturbation scene, the significance of which is totally lost on her dullard, tea drinking father.

When I first became aware of the film my suspicion was that Russell Gay might have been its director, but now having seen it I’m beginning to wonder if A Schoolgirl Dreams of King Kong couldn’t be a forgotten loop made by sexual revolutionary and iconoclastic pornographer Lasse Braun. The film is ‘presented’ by one Mike Hunter, who in reality is actually Gerd Wasmund, a German porn baron, who acted as producer on a series of hardcore loops that Braun filmed in London during the silver jubilee year of 1977. Loops that were not only released separately, but were also complied into a feature film ‘Sex Maniacs’, complete with an Amicus horror anthology like connecting sequence that finds a series of strangers assembling at a psychiatrist’s office and passing the time by recounting their past deeds and fantasies to each other. In a massively provocative move Braun opens Sex Maniacs with filmed from a car footage of Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament, a sequence that carries the considerable charge of seeing an illegally made hardcore film unravel quite literally under the noses of the British establishment. Could A Schoolgirl Dreams of King Kong have been intended as a vignette in Sex Maniacs that for whatever reason never made the grade? Its contents fitting in with Sex Maniacs’ theme of characters anecdotally indulging in extreme or outlandish sexual fantasies. As 1977 was the year that Eccles made two softcore shorts for Russell Gay (Shower Lust, Beach Orgy), this would in theory have made her available to work with Braun during his 77 busman’s holiday in London, the use of her in one of his shorts would also fit in with Braun’s casting methodology of using the more extreme characters from UK porn in Sex Maniacs and his British filmed loops.

Of course I’m posing questions out loud here that I freely admit I don’t have the answers to. This is very much charted cinematic territory. Maybe over time a clearer picture of the clandestine side of 1970s British filmmaking will emerge, until then this blog serves as an inquisitive exploration into an era that still keeps a tight grip on its more illicit secrets. A pity though, as A Schoolgirl Dreams of King Kong is the type of film that simply floods your imagination with questions over its production. First and foremost being where did they find someone willing and able to knock them together a massive, monster sized black penis for the climactic scenes? and did they manage to transport it to and from the shooting location without attracting the attention of any uptight busybodies? After all its not the kind of prop that you could easily dream up a cover story for, no one would ever believe that thing was going to be used in the latest Disney production, or was part of the new ride at the local family amusement park. Considering that this was a decade when hardcore porn was filmed in London under only cloak and dagger circumstances, with tales of film labs being given backhanders to develop hardcore footage and hardcore porn feature films being shot at Twickenham Film Studios under phoney, innocuous shooting titles, the makers of A Schoolgirl Dreams of King Kong took a considerable risk in order to bring the central idea of their film to life and commission this potentially compromising prop. Not only that but they were also stepping on very big feet indeed with this production, what with its continual flashing back to a copyrighted image from the 1933 King Kong, and the use of the King Kong name in its title. In light of Dino De Laurentiis –the producer of the 1976 remake of King Kong- having sued the makers of Frank Agrama’s Queen Kong for copyright infringement, thus rendering that film un-releasable in the UK, the makers of A Schoolgirl Dreams of King Kong appear to have gotten off lightly, with perhaps only good luck and a lower profile having spared them the wraith of Dino.

A Schoolgirl Dreams of King Kong isn’t quite able to get itself together as hardcore pornography, compared to ol’Kong, Charlie comes up short in the money shot department and Eccles is kept at arms’ length from heterosexual sex for a large percentage of the 22 minute running time, meaning that her European porn magazine appearances are still the best way of seeing her in a hardcore capacity. In its favour the film can lay a definitive claim to containing the most outrageous imagery ever to grace British sexploitation cinema, in its depiction of King Kong sex, effortlessly blowing away all known completion. It is as if Ken Russell himself had burst onto the set, and still working off all the visual excesses from Lisztomania, demanded a halt to all this conventional porn malarkey, in favour of sending the lead actress off to climb up the side of a bloody great big prick. The downside to exposing yourself to this image? you’ll never be able to listen to a certain song by The Hollies again without recalling the time you saw that song’s namesake riding high on big, black dick and bringing forth a geyser of semen in the process…. For it truly was beauty that caused the beast to blow its load over the New York skyline.






Incidentally outside of the 8mm film work Eccles’ other contribution to British sex cinema was providing the breasts for the cover of the big bust fetish magazine that Tony Maiden jerks off to in Norman J Warren’s Outer Touch (1979).