Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Cover Girl Killer revisited

In the wake of the recent DVD release of Terry Bishop’s 1959 film Cover Girl Killer (on a double-bill with another Bishop film ‘Life in Danger’, starring Derren Nesbitt), here are a couple of thoughts on this former late night TV favourite.

I can’t actually recall reading any take on the film written in recent times which doesn’t make the comparison between Cover Girl Killer and the later, more explicit Mary Millington vehicle The Playbirds. I’m guilty of this myself, opening my IMDB review of it in 2000 with “Nineteen years before Mary Millington crossed paths with a misogynist murderer bearing a grudge against bust models in The Playbirds, B-movie actress Felicity Young (Play it Cool) had to deal with the late Fifties counterpart in this enjoyable Butcher's Film Distributors programmer.” In reality, given that no one involved with The Playbirds seems to have ever even heard of Cover Girl Killer, and also bearing in mind that some of the characters and incidents in The Playbirds are based on real life, the similarities between the two films do seem to be merely a coincidence. Still British cinema’s closet obsession with the murky world of pornography can probably be traced back to late 1950s B films like this, as well as The Shakedown and The Flesh is Weak.

I first encountered Cover Girl Killer back in the 1990s, when ITV were pretty much showing it and a bunch of other films made by “Butchers Films” in rotation. Butchers productions were cheap, homegrown, crime themed efforts, shot in the late fifties and early sixties, and with ideal second feature running times of just over an hour. Viewed on a weekly TV basis like that, allot of those Butchers films do now tend to blur together in the memory. No doubt due to Butcher’s reoccurring stock company of British character actor types plus a token American or Canadian actor in the lead, as well as plots which always seemed to feature a hero who was a journalist, have at least one scene that takes place in a sleazy nightclub, and whose villains were either London gangsters or for a touch of cold war era flavour Russian spies.

Cover Girl Killer and Life in Danger remain though standout efforts by director Terry Bishop, albeit for somewhat different reasons. Life in Danger is a rarity in the sense that its storyline goes beyond being your typical Butchers film fodder and actually has something important to say about the dangers of small town prejudice and reactionary attitudes (unfortunately its a little difficult to say how without giving too much of that film’s plot away). Cover Girl Killer on the other hand sticks in the memory for having its feet firmly on the peddle of sensationalism, and is rich in bold, lurid dialogue like “surely sex and horror are the new gods in this polluted world of so called entertainment” that would seem more suited to adorning an exploitation film poster than emerging from the mouths of actors. It would be nice to see more of Bishop’s filmography, if only to judge which of these films’ approach is more typical of his career. The socially concerned one of Life in Danger or the tabloidish route of Cover Girl Killer. Either way a peek into his filmography suggests Bishop never escaped the low-budget rut. Upon his death in 1981, he had spent most of the previous decade directing health industrials, and it seems helming episodes of ITC series like Danger Man and Sir Francis Drake in the early 1960s was as good as his career ever got.

Cover Girl Killer opens with its titular character, a scheming porn hating psychopath, loitering outside a strip club and clearly up to no good. Dressed in the dirty mac attire of a raincoat, pebble glasses and a cheap wig the Cover Girl Killer is played by future Steptoe and Son star, Harry H Corbett who remains unrecognizable here from his later TV incarnation. Motivated by the “unsavoury obsessions of his twisted mind” and a need to “give back man his dignity to free him from the prison of lustful images that foul his mind and his sanity” the puritanical psycho initially poses as ‘Mr. Spendozer’, a supposed TV series director, in order to bump off models who have appeared on the cover of “Wow” a cheesecake magazine. Canadian born Spencer Teakle plays his unwitting nemesis, John Mason, a fish out of water innocent who has recently inherited a Windmill theatre type night club and the magazine Wow, from his uncle, both of which form the source of the Cover Girl Killer's rage against smut.

After initially suspected of being the murderer himself, Mason helps out the police who are being constantly outwitted by `The Man' (as Corbett’s character is billed in the credits). While the police actively encourage Mason to publish his cheesecake mag in order to lure the killer out into the open, unbeknownst to them the killer is actually working his way through Wow back issues in order to find his next victim. Still sporting his bewigged Spendozer guise, the Cover Girl Killer lures bikini model Joy (Christina Gregg) to a studio by posing as a Sun Cream commercial director, but when she peels down to a bikini the Cover Girl Killer can hold back his disgust no longer, complaining that “your nudity means nothing to me” before strangling her.

Eventually showgirl June (Felicity Young), who Mason has been trying to woo, agrees to pose for the cover of Wow in order to lay a trap for the killer. Not that the Cover Girl Killer has done with tricks to fool the police yet. His final, most devious scheme, involves him posing as a film producer and going to a showbiz agent with plans to make a movie version of his own killings. This results in a casting call during which a down on his luck actor, who has turned up for the audition dressed as the Spendozer character, is nabbed for the murders by the police, allowing the real killer a chance to get at June.

Its easy to forget these days that prior to Steptoe, Harry H Corbett enjoyed a reputation as an up and coming method actor and at the outset of his career was even being heralded as Britain’s answer to Marlon Brando. Unfortunately such was the popularity of Steptoe that he quickly became completely identified with the role, and forever typecast as a comedy actor, something which as we now know was a source of bitterness for the actor throughout the rest of his life. His early reputation is something you almost have to take on good faith these days, given that most of his acting triumphs were won on the stage, and that there are few films that showcase him very well as a serious actor. Of his earlier films, his performance as a gangster in The Shakedown is noticeably over the top, and his northern accent in Muriel Box’s adaptation of Charles Dyer’s Rattle of a Simple Man is to these manucian ears at least, pretty ropey to put it mildly. Cover Girl Killer could of easily been just another one-note psycho killer role for Corbett, thankfully the film makers were clever enough to turn the character into quite the master of disguise. Something which also allows Corbett room to pull off a number of memorable character turns within the one role. The superbly creepy Mr. Spendozer soon gives way to the outwardly more respectable looking, but equally dodgy film producer guise of “Mr. Spiller”. In an even more audacious twist the killer also pops up at police headquarters at one point posing as “Mr. Fairchild” a bowler hat wearing toff, who tries to throw the police off his trail by giving them an ID of the killer based on the Spendozer guise. Whilst allowing Corbett to flex his acting muscles this host of bizarre characters the Cover Girl Killer wheels out also introduces an intriguing guessing game to the film as to which, if any, of these personas are closest to the
nameless killer’s real identity.

Just like its psychopathic master of disguise the film itself seems to be comprised of several different, contradictory personalities. At times the film seems to have quite a sense of humour about itself, and could almost be described as a black comedy. Check out the scene in which the lead detective, commenting on a bikini clad victim initially suspected to have been a suicide case, asks the pathologist “Doc, if you were to do yourself in at 1 O’clock in the morning, would you put on a bikini”. A line that regular Butchers player Victor Brooks somehow manages to deliver straight-faced, but which its hard to believe wasn’t written by someone with a slight smirk on their face. At other times however Cover Girl Killer seems to suffer from delusions of grandeur, as if its makers considered themselves worthy of greatness and a film like this beneath them. The script is full of cheap quips about the supposed illiteracy and -nudge, nudge, wink, wink- poor eyesight of readers of cheesecake magazines like Wow, as if the makers of films with titles like Cover Girl Killer had the right to look down on anyone. At its most moralizing the film introduces scenes whose sole purpose is to paint unflattering portraits of the victims’ husbands and fathers- who inevitably are revealed to be sad ineffectual men, a drunk husband living out a bed sit existence whose wife left him to pursue a modeling career, and a wheelchair bound father who let his daughter go into girlie magazine modeling to earn some extra cash for herself. At these moments the film seems to take on the guise of a chauvinistic public information film, pointing the finger at these weak men and citing their inability to control the women in their lives as the reason for their loved ones’ demise.

Even more intriguing than the film’s mood swings from saucy humour to tut-tut moralizing, is its fixation for turning the camera round on the cheap film world that the film itself sprung from. The supporting characters all have an air of being taken from real life about them. All are very much the sort of characters you’d expect to have had to rub shoulders with in the British B movie world of the late 1950s, from Gregg’s talentless bikini model who pathetically prides herself on being “Miss Torquay 1959” to the unscrupulous showbiz agent who comes across as the prototype of Eskimo Nell’s Benny U Murdoch and proclaims “I'm all for the good old X-certificate if you can get it”. Most touching of all is the nobody actor who turns up at the fake audition only to suffer the double humiliation of not only being mistaken by the police for a killer, but also failing to be recognized by them as an actor. “I haven’t worked for six months” he pleads with the police, trying to explain away why his face isn’t familiar to them, before going on to try and regain some hurt pride by claiming “I worked for two years at the Old Vic”

Its particularly ironic then that a film which paints such a self-loathing picture of the British B movie world as a place of depressed nobody actors, talentless starlets and X certificate fixated filmmakers, should now stand as one of its most entertaining and most seen examples. Don’t let this put you off though, if anything these candid insider elements make Cover Girl Killer even more fascinating now, given that the times and places these lowly characters inhabited have now long gone. Its contradictory attitude of distain and fascination for the burgeoning market in cheesecake magazines and films with ‘the good old X certificate’ slapped on them, now can be seen as reflecting the anxiety of those pre-permissive society times, and the “sex and horror are the new gods” quote entirely accurate given that the rise of nudist films, Hammer horror, the Profumo affair and the critical crucifixion of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom lay just around the corner.

For what is essentially a cheap B movie, Cover Girl Killer really has had a amazingly long shelf life, from a regular late night TV attraction during the 1980s and 1990s (Back in 2000 I wrote that “The Cover Girl Killer now enjoys a second life as a stable of late night television, guaranteeing that the Ghost of the Cover Girl Killer will haunt insomniacs and the curious for many years to come” ) to now being back for a third time to haunt these insomniacs and the curious on DVD as well. As the Cover Girl Killer himself might have begrudgingly noted, surely sex and horror are the new gods in this polluted world of so called DVD entertainment as well.

Cover Girl Killer poster from

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