Monday, 19 November 2018

The Blood Beast Terror (1968)

" 'ere Tony and Laurie I've got this cracking idea for a film, there is this posh bird called Clare, only problem is whenever she gets all randy ...she turns into this bloody giant big moth and drinks a geezer's blood. So her father- who is a professor - makes a big male moth for her to mate with and as a future son-in-law for himself" How whoever pitched The Blood Beast Terror wasn't laughed out of Tigon's offices, not to mention the entire British film industry remains one of the greatest mysteries of the 20th Century.

Robert Flemyng, surely the poshest actor to ever come out of Liverpool, apparently hated every moment of working on this film, and boy does it show. There is more than a touch of authenticity in the way his character is continually yelling and blowing his top at everyone. A drinking game could be based on the amount of times Robert Flemyng loses his shit in this film. Thankfully, other actors appear to have taken a more humorous attitude to appearing in Blood Beast Terror, which does continually bleed on over into the film. Roy Hudd must have been using his own material for his role as the comic relief morgue attendant , but Peter Cushing steals the show with THAT sign off, which doubles as the film’s own greatest epitaph (“they’ll never believe it anywhere”). A final line sure to resonate throughout the decades with late night TV viewers who’ve spent the last 80 minutes or so trying to comprehend the fact that they’re watching a film about a killer, ‘were-moth’ lady.

One last thought, is ‘Billy the Bug Catcher’ the biggest drip to ever appear in a British horror film? His only pleasure in life is seemingly capturing butterflies in a net, for which he is continually belittled and reprimanded by women for, then nearly gets himself killed over when he ill-advisedly presents Ms. Deaths Head with a dead, distant relative of hers in a small box. Dennis Waterman’s wet lettuce of a character in Scars of Dracula seems positively macho in comparison.

Confessions of a Window Cleaner tweet along

My contributions to The Film Crowd’s live tweet along to Confessions of a Window Cleaner (1974) over on twitter, its not easy to watch a film, tweet and correctly spell Vladimir Tretchikoff at the same time I’ll have you know.

Friday, 9 November 2018

The Masque of the Red Death (1989)

For reasons that I’ve never been able to pin-down there was an influx of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations in the late 1980s and early 90s. Roger Corman did a 1989 remake of The Masque of the Red Death starring Patrick Macnee, Stuart Gordon made a version of The Pit and the Pendulum, Romero and Argento teamed up for the joint Poe adaptation Two Evil Eyes and Christopher Lee took off to Croatia to host the ropey ‘Tales of Mystery and Imagination’ Poe TV series. One would hope that this flurry of interest in Poe was solely motived by a love and respect for one of the masters of American horror literature, and had nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that Poe’s work had entered into the public domain, meaning that any Tom, Dick and Harry Alan Towers could adapt his work. Never one to miss a trend the notorious film producer Harry Alan Towers came up with his own versions of The Masque of the Red Death and The House of Usher in 1989, closely followed up by Edgar Allan Poe’s Buried Alive in 1990.

As tends to be the case with Towers’ Poe adaptations this version of The Masque of the Red Death plays fast and loose with the source material. It’s an aggressively modern updating of Poe’s story that drags Poe kicking and screaming into an era of power ballads, slasher movies and Dynasty. So instead of a medieval Italian setting, where characters gather at the castle of the morally corrupt Prince Prospero, it’s the 20th century and we’re getting our glad rags on to attend a costume party at the castle of the wealthy, yet shady film producer Ludwig (Herbert Lom). As Ludwig has enjoyed recent success with a series of film adaptations of Poe, he repays his gratitude to the great man by staging Poe themed costume parties, this year’s theme being The Masque of the Red Death. A gathering that as well as drawing Ludwig’s usual crowd of hangers on, famous friends and assorted Eurotrash, also attracts plucky tabloid photographer Rebecca (Michelle McBride) who works for a National Enquirer type rag called The Snoop. Rebecca’s goal is to dish the dirt on soap opera actress Elaina Hart (Brenda Vaccaro) who can usually be relied upon to make a drunken fool of herself at public occasions. Rebecca isn’t the only one determined to gate crash Ludwig’s bash though. One of his guests appears intent on reducing Ludwig’s inner circle and is slashing his or her way through the guest list whilst dressed as the ‘Red Death’ from Poe’s story.

The Masque of the Red Death is a lively, yet crass, Poe cash grab, there is allot going on in it, the film has that in its favour for sure. Almost too much going on in it, there is a whole subplot about Ludwig having secretive meetings with a female doctor who injects him with a serum that prolongs his life, which initially looks as if it’s going to play a major part in the plot, but ultimately goes nowhere. Elsewhere it feels as if the writer was getting an extra bonus every time he worked another Poe story into the plot. Thus, we get a dream sequence modelled on The Tell-Tale Heart, Ludwig installs a giant pendulum in his castle as a homage to The Pit and the Pendulum, which the moment you lay eyes on it you just know is going to be put to a gristly use at some point. A black cat is also thrown into the proceedings at one point, quite literally, painfully landing on a kitchen sink and then limping off never to be seen again. All of which lends The Masque of the Red Death the appearance of a ‘greatest hits but not by the original artist’ package.

For all of the Poe pilfering at work here, this Masque of the Red Death self-consciously roots itself in the world of 1989. It’s very much Poe as slasher movie fodder, you can tell that Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street ruled the roost when it came to horror cinema of the time, and that Harry Alan Towers wanted as much a slice of their pie as he did Edgar Allan Poe’s. This was the era of attention grabbing, elaborate kill scenes and the wisecracking ghoul. In 1989 every new horror movie killer wanted to be Jason or Freddy and the ‘Red Death’ is no exception.
As well as being a serial killer the Red Death is something of a serial plagiarist as well, who appears to have taken fashion tips from the Royal Guard in Star Wars, speaks with a Freddy Krueger voice and has a similar line in groan inducing one liners. “Get the facts straight before someone does a hatchet job on you” quips the Red Death before sinking a hatchet into someone’s back. Inexplicably the Red Death also appears to also be channelling Muttley from the Wacky Races, and has a habit of sneaking up behind people and doing the Muttley laugh.

Comparisons between the 1960s Roger Corman Masque of the Red Death and this version really do validate the claim that period piece horror films tend to dodge the bullet of dating as badly as films set in the present day. The Corman version retains a timeless feel and doesn’t automatically feel like a movie from the 1960s, whereas everything about this Masque of the Red Death positively screams “now that’s what I call 1989”. The film seems to take immense pleasure in modernising the source material at every possible turn. Beginning as it means to go on with Rebecca’s flash sports car speeding around the Bavarian mountains, thereafter throwing around mod cons like CCTV cameras like confetti, while the costumed guests evoke the tail end of the New Romantics era. Entertainment for Ludwig’s guests comes in the form of a soft rock band, headed by a poor man’s Roger Daltrey, who valiantly try to keep the party atmosphere going even when the bodies start to pile up around them.

On the other hand Harry Alan Towers productions like this were all about tapping into the here and now, striking while the iron was hot, exploiting the trends, fashion and music of the times, without a care for the fact that within the space of a few years the film would be considered dated and a laughing stock. These days The Masque of the Red Death is a time capsule of the late 1980s VHS era, when all the small scale video rental shops helped create a market for B-level product. Want to rent the latest Hollywood blockbuster starring the likes of Sylvester Stallone, only to find your local video shop’s sole copy of it has already been rented out for the night? Then chances are that rather than return home empty handed you might be persuaded to rent out a B-list, shot in South Africa movie starring the likes of Frank Stallone. That was the little niche that films like The Masque of the Red Death owed their existence to, an existence that would be dealt a fatal blow with the rise of Blockbuster Video in the 1990s. Once corporately owned video shops came along offering multiple copies of the latest blockbuster, who was really interested in settling for second best and taking a film like The Masque of the Red Death home with them.

As is the norm with Harry Alan Towers productions from this period, The Masque of the Red Death was made amidst the remnants of Cannon films. Menahem Golan’s 21st Century films company released the film, while former Cannon alumnus Avi Lerner co-produced the film with Towers. The cast are your typical Harry Alan Towers ensemble of washed up actors, B Level stars and wannabe scream queens…here playing exaggerated and often unflattering versions of themselves. Brenda Vaccaro is a scream as the trashy, sweary, drunk soap opera actress who has hooked up with a toyboy (Frank Stallone) and tears into any woman who dares look twice at him. Vaccaro is even more over the top here than she was in Supergirl, chewing up the scenery and spitting out head turning dialogue like “the only thing the sun ever did for me was burn my ass”. Frank Stallone is well…Frank Stallone, in fairness he is not the worst actor in the film, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that he only got the gig because of the facial resemblance to his more famous sibling…which does at least lend the film some novelty value.

Unlike in brother Sly’s movies, Frank doesn’t get to sing in this one, but he does get to show off his dance moves, at one point jumping up on the tables and performing the tango with one of his female co-stars. A scene that comes out of nowhere and feels as if it was born out of Stallone letting slip that he was a decent dancer on set, and someone then throwing this scene together to capitalize on this factoid. The rest of the younger cast are pretty forgettable, though your heart does go out to lead actress Michelle McBride, who spends the entirety of the film dressed in a cupid costume that doesn’t do her figure any favours. “Awfully small breasted for a dress like that” bitches Elaina.

A pity that the self-referential elements of the film tend to get thrown aside as the film progresses. What with his motley showbiz entourage, Herbert Lom’s 20th century answer to Price Prospero invites comparisons to Harry Alan Towers himself. Although with his hair dyed blonde and combed forward to within an inch of its life, plus a penchant for significantly younger, trophy girlfriends, it’s now difficult to not mischievously draw comparisons between Ludwig and a certain American president. The Melania to Ludwig’s Donald being Colette (Christine Lunde) a talentless actress with supermodel good looks and an often incomprehensible foreign accent. Okay, Colette is actually French which does prove an obstacle when it comes to the Melania comparisons, but as the actress playing the role frequently seems to forget that Colette is meant to be French as well, it’s not a huge obstacle. There are many moments in this film where you do have to pinch yourself to remind you that this is a film from 1989, and isn’t meant as a satirical hatchet job on Donald and Melania Trump, even if it now plays like that.

Always the pro, Herbert Lom could do screen villainy in his sleep, but Ludwig is a character who goes against expectations. Built up as a mysterious, Howard Hughes type control freak, Ludwig is eventually revealed to be a rather pitiful figure, whose only crimes are to try and buy friendships and overindulge those around him. Whereas Vincent Price in the 1964 film was a despicable bastard who thoroughly deserved his comeuppance, Ludwig mainly evokes sympathy when the finger of suspicion falls on him and his paranoid friends turn against him “this party is just a scapegoat, a trap to get us here and kill us off one by one. You’re dying, so the way your sick mind works, we must all die too”.

Considering that Harry Alan Towers began the 1980s with a spate of softcore costume dramas, and continued in a similar vein with the pornographically minded Edge of Sanity, The Masque of the Red Death is surprisingly reserved in that department. While you’d expect everyone at an affluent late 1980s party at a castle to be bed hoping and knee deep in cocaine there is nothing that decadent on the menu at Ludwig’s place. The chief form of excitement being –I kid ye not- a Faberge Easter Egg hunt, surely a slasher movie first when it comes to ways of sending characters off to their deaths. Softcore sex may have fallen out of favour in Harry Alan Towers’ world by this point, but violence was still very much in fashion. No one gets a simple death in this film, hands are hacked off, people are stabbed then have acid thrown in their faces, Ludwig’s pendulum costs one character their head, while another has their skin stretched with metal hooks, Hellraiser-style.

Faced with demises like that, it’s no surprise that most of Ludwig’s guests make a speedy exit. Not all manage to escape though before Ludwig turns on the castle’s hi-tech security system, trapping all of the key characters behind the castle’s walls for six hours. At which point you realise that Edgar Allan Poe has been thrown out of the window and you’ve been suckered into watching yet another one of Harry Alan Towers’ adaptations of Ten Little Indians. In the land of Harry Alan Towers all roads lead to Ten Little Indians. Just who is the ‘Red Death’ though? The Roger Daltrey-esque rock star?, Rebecca’s ex-boyfriend Max?, the gay German manservant Hans?, the British fashion designer Kitra?, or has Melania/Colette finally snapped after suffering one too many insults over her acting ability (“she can’t even screw her way into an acting job these days”). Let’s just say that all these years on from the Pink Panther movies, a character with an overcooked French accent still poses a threat to Herbert Lom.

The late 1980s was a very busy period for Harry Alan Towers. The fact that the Masque of the Red Death shares its sets with his 1989 version of The House of Usher, and three cast members (Herbert Lom, Brenda Vaccaro and Frank Stallone) with his 1989 version of Ten Little Indians, would indicate that all three of those films were shot in close proximity, if not back to back. Who says men are no good at multi-tasking, take a bow Harry Alan Towers.

The director of both Towers’ 1989 versions of The Masque of the Red Death and The House of Usher was Alan Birkinshaw, a graduate of British exploitation cinema, who began his feature film career with the sex comedy Confessions of a Sex Maniac (1974), but whose cult reputation rests on his second film 1978’s Killer’s Moon, one of the most laughably inept British horror films of the 1970s. As tends to be the case with British exploitation film directors who hadn’t thrown in the towel by the 1980s, Birkinshaw spent most of that decade working overseas for B movie producers like Towers and Dick Randall. For all of the ribbing Birkinshaw has taken over the years on account of Killer’s Moon, a film that once earned him the cruel yet wickedly funny nickname of ‘Edward Clumsyhands ’, his direction here is of a much more professional standard. Nothing outstanding, but certainly on a par with any of the other directors who were on the Harry Alan Towers payroll at the time.

When it comes to Edward Clumsyhands’ 1980s employers, I’ve always favoured Dick Randall’s film productions over those of Harry Alan Towers. Don’t get me wrong, I’m under no illusions that lining his pockets with the profits of film producing was as much Dick Randall’s endgame as it was Towers. To me though there is more heart and personality at work in Randall’s productions, and Randall comes across as quite the showman who enjoyed giving the public what they wanted. Whereas with Towers, you get the impression that film making was nothing more than a business transaction to him. Strictly a matter of signing the cheques, assembling a few down on their luck actors at whatever country offered the best tax breaks, letting 90 minutes of film run through the camera, depositing the profits in a Swiss bank account, then paying a few backhanders to the Russian mafia, before moving on to the next adaption of the work of an author whose material is in the public domain.

The Masque of the Red Death is one of only a few Towers’ productions to capture me in its crooked spell and that still is a blast even after multiple viewings. C’mon who cannot fall slightly for a version of The Masque of the Red Death in which the Red Death laughs like Muttley, or which ends with an almighty cat fight worthy of an Alexis/Krystle bust-up. The Masque of the Red Death is a treasure chest of 1980s trash. It’s even worth enduring that strange buzzing sound you hear in your head the day after you’ve watched it, a noise that is either the ghost of Edgar Allan Poe turning in his grave or the ghost of Harry Alan Towers laughing all the way to the bank.

Friday, 2 November 2018

Random thoughts on: Horror Express (1972)

Warning: if you watch Horror Express on Halloween you may wake up the next morning to discover your entire face has transformed into a Telly Savalas album “if a picture paints a thousand words, then why can’t I paint you”?

Aka ‘Good Guys Wear Tweed’. Seriously though, is there any greater evidence that Cushing and Lee were a marvellous screen double-act than Horror Express, impossible to watch the film and not miss them both, dearly.

This dog really, really doesn’t want to be in the movie does it? In the context of the film its meant to ‘sense’ the danger posed by the creature in the crate, in reality it probably wants to get away because this mad woman is intent on plucking it like a turkey.

On the basis of revisiting this film I’m convinced that allot of the personality, and the sense of humour at work in both Horror Express and Psychomania comes from their writing duo of Arnaud d'Usseau and Julian Zimet, the pair had a real ear for witty dialogue “Monster? We're British, you know” has rightly entered into legend.

“shhh, don’t wake her up, she’s a dreadful actress”. In fairness Faith Clift isn’t too bad in a small role here, its only later when she played one of the main roles in Cataclysm (1980) that her ‘limitations’ become more obvious. I wonder what the story was with her and film producer Philip Yordan. Cataclysm comes across as a thinly veiled excuse to promote her acting, and Clift doesn’t appear to have ever acted outside of Yordan’s productions (although he goes uncredited in Horror Express, I believe Yordan did have a financial stake in the production)

To misquote Kate Bush “Faith Clift, its me, your Telly, I’ve come home”

It does seem unusual that the ‘This is Telly Savalas’ album knocked on the door of Horror Express for its cover photo, rather than going the more obvious Kojak route. Then again, that is a damn cool image, I mean Telly is holding a cigarette and a gun in the same hand ferchristsakes!!

‘If’ isn’t actually on that album, but Telly does sing Dylan on it.

‘Arranged, conducted and produced by John Cacavas’. Who seems to have been Telly’s main man in that respect, Cacavas having done soundtrack duties on both Kojak and Horror Express.

Throwing around diminutive Chinese men, whipping a monk and hitting on women, Telly sure knows how to gate-crash a party

"God made a few beautiful heads, the rest he covered with hair"- Telly Savalas

“If the world should stop revolving spinning slowly down to die, I'd spend the end with you.”