Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Quite a bit cheaper, quite a lot more fun

The death of producer Tony Tenser on December 5th this year robbed British cinema of one of the last, certainly one of the most important, living links with the sixties heyday of the British horror film.
Success to him meant commercial success. He once said he would rather feel ashamed of a movie that was making money than proud of one that was losing it, and when he explained "My films were in a similar vein to Hammer and Amicus but I made them quite a bit cheaper" he did so not matter of factly but with pride. But as well as cheaper, they were also in many cases a lot more enjoyable.
In an odd little book called Skin Deep in Soho, writer Richard Wortley recalls approaching a film producer who "was actually puffing at a large cigar and greying neatly at the temples" with an idea to shoot a documentary on strip clubs. He does not name him, but it is clearly Tenser:
He explained a method of beating the censor by using a rapid succession of nude stills, then scribbled a couple of selling titles on a piece of paper which he slipped across the table... We were in the presence of the master publicist who first described Brigitte Bardot as the Sex Kitten, who advertised a Lassie film at Cambridge by importing some animals for a sheep-dog trial, who renamed Love Between Friends as Love-Play Between Friends, and Plucking the Marguerittes as Mam'zelle Striptease...
A manual labourer before the war and an RAF technician during it, on demob Tenser exploited a family connection to get a job as a trainee cinema manager. From that he worked his way up to head of publicity for Miracle Films (where he helped Bardot into posterity). Needing some strippers for a publicity stunt, he visited the Nell Gwynn strip club in Soho and met the manager, a man who - to quote Wortley again - had "seen a punter spend £30000 in eight months, nightly crawling on the floor in a hunting coat to pick up fruit that a singer was shaking off her body during her number." The man was Michael Klinger - the manager, I mean, not the chap picking up fruit - and the two struck up a rapport that led to the formation first of the Compton cinema club (which circumnavigated censorship by catering only to members by private subscription) then to the production company Compton Films.
The earliest Compton products were mild sexploitation, coy nudist romps like Naked As Nature Intended and My Bare Lady and the likes of Saturday Night Out (1964), a quickie about a group of randy merchant seamen on shore leave that pulsated to the beat of The Searchers because Klinger and Tenser refused to pay the Beatles' train fare from Liverpool. They also imported and distributed foreign titles, usually tame erotica but occasionally more prestigious fare, which they sold in exactly the same way. For instance, hiding among the smut in the advert reproduced on the left is an infuriating art-house classic. Can you spot it?
The move into horror production came with Black Torment (1964), a minor but pleasant supernatural melodrama, and a collaboration with Herman Cohen in the Sherlock-Holmes-meets-Jack-the-Ripper pastiche A Study in Terror (1965). But their big break came that same year, when they decided to bankroll a frankly unpromising script called Lovelihead by a cocky young Pole with little grasp of conversational English called Roman Polanski. Retitled Repulsion, this story of a woman going slowly mad in her London flat became a major critical success, winning the Silver Bear at Berlin and worldwide distribution from Columbia.
Not that the production went smoothly; Polanski's resentment of Klinger and Tenser's close attention to schedule and budget still simmers in his autobiography, where he calls them "figures on the fringe of the film industry" for whom he devised a film carefully punctuated with horrific moments because "anything too sophisticated would have scared them off". (This is the man who made Pirates.) As such he deliberately wasted time and money with fussy displays of perfectionism and fits of artistic temperament; when he took 27 takes of a cut-away showing a hand picking up a bottle of nail varnish (on a Sunday, with the crew on triple pay) Klinger had all 27 printed, invited Polanski to dinner, then furiously instructed him to identify which three he had okayed and why.
The acclaim that the film, and to a lesser degree Polanski's follow-up Cul De Sac (1966), achieved left Klinger disenchanted with the tawdry world of strippers and 'orror movies; he left in 1967 to form Michael Klinger Productions, going on to make Get Carter and the Confessions series. (He died in 1989.)
For Tenser it was back to business as usual, first as Tony Tenser Productions and then as Tigon. He hired British veteran Vernon Sewell for my two favourite Tigon movies, the ludicrous The Blood Beast Terror (1967) and the absurd Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968). The first - and there's really no getting around this - is cinema's only weremoth movie, in which Wanda Ventham periodically transforms into a giant death's head moth that flaps about the English countryside drinking people's blood. Policeman Peter Cushing, with impeccable logic, lights a bonfire and poor Wanda is drawn to it like... well, you know what like. If that hadn't worked he would have presumably tried a ten-foot rolled newspaper.
Altar bags Christopher Lee, Boris Karloff and Barbara Steele as, respectively, surprise villain, wheelchair-bound red herring and green-skinned witch revealed at the end to be... no, that would be telling. (But it's good.) Gorgeously photographed in velvet-thick purples, reds and greens it is actually a rather beautiful film, shot entirely in Grimsdyke House, one-time home of Sir Arthur Sullivan. It could easily pass for Hammer, in fact, if not for the crazed plot and typical Tenser touches like having Virginia Wetherell likening the house to something from a horror film, to which Mark Eden adds that he keeps expecting Boris Karloff to pop up.
Tenser was generous in his employment of young, untested talent. (You never knew when they were going to give you a masterpiece - plus they came cheap.) Michael Armstrong had only made a 21-minute short called The Image when Tenser hired him to shoot a film called The Dark in 1969. Armstrong's snappy description of The Image as "a study of the illusionary reality within the schizophrenic mind of the artist at his point of creativity" was hardly calculated to endear him to the one-time head of publicity at Miracle Films, and he admitted looking into the wrong end of the camera on the first day of shooting. The film, planned as "a cynical attack on the swinging sixties" emerged, after much re-editing and some reshoots overseen by Gerry O'Hara, as not much of a cynical attack on anything, other than audiences who like to know what's going on (and see it - it wasn't called The Dark for nothing.)
With Karloff in the cast as planned it would have been even weirder, especially when it was mooted that he be revealed as the knife-wielding killer in his wheelchair, but he sadly died and what would have been his role was split between George Sewell and Dennis Price. What finally appeared under the title The Haunted House of Horror is a jolly, not entirely worthless anticipation of the American slashers of the late seventies, but it could have been a great film: listen to Armstrong's fascinating commentary on the DVD. Still what we have is great fun, with a lovely score by Reg Tilsley and that well-known Swinging London teenager Frankie Avalon heading what could be the greatest cast ever assembled: ex-Preminger protégée Jill Haworth, now British horror's most beautiful and underused screamer, Richard O'Sullivan with short hair and Robin Stewart from Bless This House (who according to Robin Askwith had once tried to excuse his lateness at a rehearsal by claiming that he had hit and killed an escaped camel).
But Tenser certainly got his money back on Michael Reeves, a rather pompous director in his early twenties who made the studio's biggest hit, Witchfinder General (1968) and the silly Karloff film The Sorcerers (1967). There is plenty to admire in Witchfinder so long as you don't fall into the trap of seeing greatness in it, but both films are maddeningly overpraised. Reeves's naive, petulant response to a bad review by Alan Bennett - in which he claimed that his film was an attempt to show that "violence is horrible" and opined, hilariously, that the more lighthearted kind of horror film that "Mr Bennett... so strangely advocates is surely immoral to the extent of criminality"- is endlessly and approvingly quoted by genre writers.
Tenser responded to this brush with broadsheet respectability by continuing to green-light oddities like The Beast in the Cellar (1971) in which the mysterious beast tearing soldiers to pieces - that experts examining the bodies speculate may be an escaped leopard - is revealed to be a puny man with a beard and long fingernails that his sisters Beryl Reid and Flora Robson had locked in their cellar in 1939 so he wouldn't have to go to war. Neither the Sea nor the Sand (1972) is, if nothing else, Britain's only seaside zombie love story written by a newsreader (Gordon Honeycombe). Susan Hampshire goes on holiday and falls for a Russian in a chunky sweater who dies and returns as a green-skinned zombie to pick up where he left off; at the end they walk hand in hand into the sea. What's Good For the Goose (1969) was a sex comedy with Norman Wisdom as a bank manager who falls for free-loving Sally Geeson at a conference in Southport: the theme song is great but the waiters with bare chests and neck-ties must have looked horrible even at the time.
Blood On Satan's Claw (1971), a genuinely chilling tale of 17th century diabolism, is surely the best of Tigon's output in a legitimate sense, but connoisseurs of British cinema's by-ways and cul-de-sacs may well warm to Zeta One (1970), a soft-core sci-fi spoof notable for the number of respected British character actors who walked off before it was finished.
Tenser claimed to have grown weary of the violence in his films, and disbanded Tigon in 1973; after serving as executive producer on Pete Walker's Frightmare (1974) he left the business entirely to sell cane furniture. But he lived long enough to find himself hailed as a maverick hero by a new generation of horror fans. For all his carny-barker bravado, he was basically a modest man, and this belated reverence and acclaim must have surprised and delighted him.
But it was not un-earned. In films good, bad and indifferent, there is more diversity, madness, originality and occasional greatness in Tigon's five or so years of horror film production than in the output of any of its rivals in the same period - including Hammer. Tigon's films are wackier in concept - blood-drinking moth women, OAP mind-controllers, rotting but romantic zombies - and boast brazenly and wonderfully crass exploitation titles. At a time when Hammer and their ad campaigns were routinely criticised on the grounds of sensationalism Tenser sent one film into different territories with the following titles: The Blood Beast Terror, The Deaths Head Vampire, The Vampire Beast Craves Blood and Blood Beast From Hell. This tasteless zest, and the shrewd knowledge of the market that informed it, were what kept Tenser head and shoulders above his competitors. It is also what makes his films, to this day, so much fun.
Tony Tenser, 1920 - 2007

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Your Christmas film guide

This is not, let me hasten to stress, my pick of the films on television over Christmas. (Though I can do that if you want: Mr Deeds Goes To Town, Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House, Samson & Delilah, a couple of Val Lewtons and I Married a Witch. There, that's that done. Same time next year?)
No, what I intend doing here is recommending a favourite seasonal movie of mine that you might wish to track down if you are looking for a break from Alistair Sim or George Bailey this year.
If like me you've always enjoyed the first episode of Tales From The Crypt (1972), that wonderfully atmsopheric, largely silent sequence with Joan Collins menaced in her isolated farmhouse by an escaped lunatic dressed as Santa, it is just possible you will enjoy perhaps the cheapest and grottiest British horror film ever made. Joan will, I'm sure, because it places the fur-lined boot firmly on the other foot and details the activities of a maniac with a homicidal grudge against Santa. The film is called Dont (sic) Open Till Christmas (1983). If you like unpleasant rubbish with a yuletide theme you can do no better. Or worse, probably, but that's beside the point.
It's a formulaic slasher thriller with the big difference that the victims are not pretty girls but fat old men getting a bit of Christmas beer money by selling chestnuts or working the department store grotto. We never quite know how many have been killed (by what turns out to be the character we had marked as principal red herring); enough have taken place for the newspapers and police to be already talking of "another Santa murder" by the time the film begins, and we get to see a mind-boggling 10 others before it ends, along with three of non-Santas and one attempted murder in which the victim is let off because it turns out to be a topless woman under the red costume instead of an old man (don't ask).
Despite this, the obvious safety measure of not going out alone at night dressed as Father Christmas is never suggested by the police, nor does it cross the minds of any of the victims. One is killed in the London Dungeon, another in full costume in a Soho peep show, another has something unmentionable done to him while taking a leak in a public lavatory.
The dialogue is frequently hilarious, especially the banter between detective Edmund Purdom and his Sergeant (Mark Jones). "Do you think, sir, we might have a psychopath on our hands?" asks Jones after what must have been at least the fifth slaying. "That's exactly what the Assistant Commissioner was bellowing at me a moment ago," says Purdom, "you know what I replied?" "It's early days yet for a pattern, I suppose," suggests Jones. On and on it goes in this vein:
Jones: Trouble is, sir, the moment anyone puts on a Santa Claus costume they become a sort of semi-holy figure, don't they, well, to the kids anyway.
Purdom (not really listening): The whole of the West End is crammed with Santa Clauses. What have you got on this latest?
Jones: Petty crook, known to West End Central, could have been pushing drugs. This one could have been a coincidence, actually.
The Evening Standard headline after one murder is 'Only Three More Killing Days To Christmas'. ("The chief's gonna love cracks like that", grumbles Purdom.)
It's one of my favourite of all Christmas movies, made on the run and on the cheap by a British outfit calling itself Spectacular International Films, actually a conglomeration of old reprobates like Derek Ford, Alan Birkinshaw and Dick Randall. ('British Rail Traveller's Fare' is thanked in the closing credits, along with Scotland Yard, presumably for not telling them to clear off while they were filming Purdom stood in front of the revolving sign.)
Purdom is both star and - incredibly - director, though one 'Al McGoohan' (actually exploitation hack Birkinshaw) is credited with writing and directing additional scenes. The smart money is on these being largely comprised of the huge numbers of additional Santa murders that nobody mentions or even seems aware of in the rest of the film, and which are in many cases surprisingly horrible despite the obviousness of the special effects.
There is, incredibly, a documentary out there about the making of this film, which I've never seen. (If anyone has a copy, please drop me a line!) It apparently shows some scenes being shot with different actors, one of them the bit where a Santa is murdered in a peep show. Presumably the actor in the costume is the one listed in the credits, since in the finished film it's unquestionably Keith Smith from the Spike Milligan shows under the whiskers.
The plot and resolution are ridiculous, insultingly so, really; the revelation of the killer's motive is absurd and his actions throughout inexplicable and often physically impossible. I confess it took a couple of viewings for me to see past the silliness and the gore and find the charm. But it is there. It's there in the guerilla film-maker's handbook shots of Purdom loitering outside Scotland Yard, in the extraneous padding as he wanders around Covent Garden listening to carol singers, in the enthusiastic amateurism of the supporting performances, in the incredibly evocative synthesiser score (including a nifty spooky version of Silent Night), in the opportunism of having one body discovered on stage at a London theatre so as to give Caroline Munro a musical number called 'Warrior of Love'.
Make no mistake: this is a terrible, terrible film, and should be avoided entirely unless your tastes run to the most tawdry excesses of cheapjack exploitation. But if they do, prepare yourself for a treat.
Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 14, 2007

An old kazoo and some sparklers

I'm not actually all that familiar with All About Eve, so it was good to see it at my local cinema.
This is, of course, the Bette Davis film that rounded off her golden Hollywood period. It is a very good movie rather than a great one: as always with Mankiewicz it is at least half an hour too long and only perfunctorily filmed; the dialogue is the thing, though even this could do with judicious pruning. It survives mainly on account of a few waspish one-liners, a generally convincing evocation of the solipsism of the theatrical community and two terrific performances.
Actually three - as well as Davis's superlative Margo Channing, a great actress facing middle age and usurpation by the insufferable Eve, Thelma Ritter comes close to stealing the show as the wisecracking Birdie, the humblest but wisest person in the room when Eve makes her first move, and the only one to instantly see through her act.
But the real star of the show for me is George Sanders as venemous critic Addison DeWitt. It is to Sanders's absurdly rapturous description of one of Eve's performances as "a thing of music and fire" that Davis characterises herself as "an old kazoo and some sparklers".
As always I find myself pondering why Sanders was never a major star; he's certainly talented enough, handsome enough, and blessed with the most melodious speaking voice around. Perhaps he is just too cynical, apathetic and indolent in his manner to suggest hidden reserves of heroism or romance. He played his share of heroic roles, but audiences always felt most comfortable with him as the witty, ironic bystander, first with the putdown and last into the fight.
Perhaps they also sensed that what they saw was pretty much the real man. David Niven, who liked him enormously, speaks in his autobiography of Sanders's mocking reluctance to do anything to support the British war effort - which certainly took bravery of a sort - and his cheerful admission that his death would come at his own hand. When he did eventually commit suicide in 1972 he left a note addressed "Dear World", citing boredom as his principal motive and concluding "I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool."
But what a screen presence - possibly one that communicates itself more attractively to our hard-bitten age than it did to his own. It is to Sanders that Mankiewicz donates the film's best and truest line: when Marilyn Monroe's lousy aspiring actress asks "Do they have auditions for television?", Sanders replies "That's all television is, my dear: nothing but auditions."