Director: Terry Jones
This film contains one of the most outstanding silences in any film (well, any sound film, obviously) I’ve ever seen, i.e. the bit where Brian shouts “NOW FUCK OFF!” at his suddenly acquired mass of followers, and they pause before, about eight seconds later, John Cleese’s disciple asks him how they should fuck off. It’s one of the most beautifully timed jokes in a film that swarms with them; watching it again tonight for the first time in several years (the first film I’ve watched in months, obviously, except for repeats of Flash Gordon and Heavy Metal which obviously didn’t need to be reviewed again here) was a great reminder of just how thick and fast the comedy comes, and how absurd baffling the controversy the film generated back in the day (still does? Apparently the town of Bournemouth only lifted their local ban on the film as recently as 2015, and even in this country it actually got upgraded from an M rating—which is the one my DVD copy bears—to an MA for its blu-ray reissue. Unless that was on account of the bonus features?) was. Even allowing for changes in attitudes over time, it seems bizarre that people could seriously accuse it of blasphemy; it clearly doesn’t have a go at that Jesus fellow in any way, the one scene in which Jesus appears—i.e. the Sermon on the Mount—plays him straight and the humour comes from the crowd who mishear what he says. And that’s the real root of the film’s satire; it’s not taking the piss out of Jesus, it’s taking the piss out of his followers, as witness the speed with which Brian’s disciples not only attach themselves to him for no good reason, then become divided as to whether the gourd or the shoe (and indeed whether it’s a shoe or a sandal) is his true sign, and finally not only misunderstand but actively ignore what he actually says… Come to think of it, maybe that’s really why people took such offence to Life of Brian back then, cos they recognised it was about themselves rather than their Lord…
As a final thought, how good is Graham Chapman as Brian? I only discovered tonight John Cleese actually wanted the role, and had to be talked out of it with difficulty by the other Pythons. What a piece of potentially terrible miscasting that could’ve been; considering Cleese’s general Python persona and the other parts he plays in the film, I just can’t imagine him working as Brian. Chapman was so determined not to fuck it up that he overcame the alcoholism that had plagued him for years, and you can see that commitment in his performance. I mean, all the Pythons are good in their many and varied parts, but it’s Chapman’s film, really. Absolutely top stuff.
Directors: Chuck Jones & Phil Monroe
Look, I know there isn’t much point in me watching this. I’ve got the big DVD box set with all the original cartoons on it (barring, notably, Hare-Way to the Stars, incomprehensibly excluded from the Golden Collection series) remastered and uncut (the editing performed here on Long-Haired Hare damages one of the best gags in it). It’s kind of outlived its usefulness in some respects, and there’s not a lot of point to watching it now, unless you really want to be faintly disgusted by the absence of Bob Clampett and Ben Hardaway among the list of Bugs’ “fathers” (the latter—who only gave the bunny his name, after all—seems to have been an honest mistake on Jones’ part, but the former was a deliberate act of spite by Jones, who had a notable grudge against him). And yet, when I was looking through the TV guide to see what was on today and I saw TBB/RRM listed there… how could I not watch it? Cos it’s great. The component parts are all great, some of them among the very best things to come from Warners’ animation department (and I’ve said for a long time now that the best of the Warner cartoons are among the best films made by anyone anywhere at any time), and it’s still a pretty amazing highlights package, markedly better than the other recycled compilations that followed it in the 80s, cos Jones and Monroe were careful to (mostly) leave the originals alone and limit the new material to essentially introductory links rather than trying to embed the old stuff as stock footage into a new story (cf. 1001 Rabbit Tales). I’ve loved this since I was little, and it still works for me now. It’s a joy to watch, basically, and I suppose that’s really all the reason you need to do so.
Director: Jess Franco
It’s only taken me just short of five years after seeing Pere Portabella’s Cuadecuc vampir to finally watch the film associated with that one… There’s a really interesting comment by Christophe Gans in an interview on the Severin DVD of this film (which handily includes the Portabella film as an extra, evidently he got over his reluctance to let people see it), that Franco’s absurd work rate (especially in the 70s) meant what you got from his films was more of a “trance” than “a worked-out product”. Which, basically, sums this film right up. The idea for it seems to have really come from his producer Harry Alan Towers, who thought it would be a great idea to make an adaptation of Dracula that was actually faithful to the novel. On which level I’m not sure it fully succeeds (though it’s a damn sight more so than the 1931 Tod Browning film, to say nothing of Hammer’s version), but give it points for trying. Actually, what struck me more than anything was what I can only describe as the disorienting feel of the whole thing… I don’t know how else to describe it, there’s just something really strange at work that I can’t quite put into words. I’ve said before about some of Franco’s films that they don’t seem to fully take place in a recognisable world, but it’s not quite that here… It seems to be a mix of things, like the way it’s shot at 1.33 (unusual by 1970), the compositions within that frame, the camera angles, maybe even the camera lenses… things just seem slightly off somehow in a way I find hard to describe, as you can see… In the end Franco’s Dracula is what it is, i.e. a cheap European horror film made at the end of the 60s, and the slow pacing doesn’t help much, but the atmospherics are interesting and performances are actually decent; Christopher Lee in particular attacks his lines with some vigour, knowing Hammer would never give him the chance to speak actual Bram Stoker…
Director: Ted Post
Cult Sinema is back in Sydney! It’s been an awfully long time since the Mu-Meson crew ran films at the Annandale; now they have a new home in Petersham, and OY did they kick off the revival in style… Being part of the Drive-In Delirium collection, The Baby is a film whose trailer I’ve seen many times, and so I had some idea of what to expect, i.e. a sort of southern Gothic melodrama (albeit one set in what I presume were rather more northern suburbs) involving the titular baby… who just so happens to be a young adult who never developed beyond infancy. And one day a social worker takes on Baby and his family—mother and two sisters—as her latest client, for reasons that finally become clear at the end. So I was prepared for some strangeness… and yet I was woefully underprepared for just how strange it would get. Put bluntly, this is profoundly fucking warped; there’s an early hint that something untoward happened to a previous social worker who dealt with the Wadsworth family, and it doesn’t come as a great surprise to learn that the rest of the family has even more problems than Baby, but OH MY just how problematic they are is something else. The scariest actually scary thing in the film—which I’m filing under “horror” cos that’s the best I can do with it—is Marianna Hunt’s astounding bouffant hair in the party scene, cos it looks more like 1983 than 1973, but the overall atmosphere of wrongness (enhanced by the film’s bizarre pacing and bravura scenery chewing by pretty much everyone involved, especially Ruth Roman’s matriarch) is the main thing, especially in the last third or so when the emotional temperature goes from merely superheated to positively thermonuclear. This film, basically, is fucked, and I enjoyed it immensely through all the times I had to keep picking my jaw off the floor.
Director: Robert Fuest
It would be harsh to say that this film’s credit sequence, which uses the work of Hieronymus Bosch for its backgrounds, is the best thing about it, but I’m sure some people—probably a lot of people, in fact—would say it’s also fair… we’re looking at a somewhat notorious dog here (Scott Ashlin’s observation about the film’s nonsensical promotional tagline is apt), which more or less killed Fuest’s film career, he only made one more theatrical film in the early 80s and otherwise remained stuck working in TV for whatever remained of his career. The problem seems to have been producer Sandy Howard, who wanted a movie featuring Satanists and a climax with all of them melting; quite how the film was supposed to get to that point seems to have been of less interest to him. Fuest was accordingly saddled with a script that didn’t make much sense and little way to force it to do so… conversely, he was also saddled with interesting Mexican locations also picked by Howard, and he does get to do good things with those in widescreen, and his design background serves him well with the Satanist church setting (I presume this is where Anton LaVey offered “technical advice”). The story involves a book belonging to a Satanic cult back in pilgrim times, containing the names of the members who’ve sold their souls to Satan, and when it’s stolen it means cult leader Ernest Borgnine can’t actually dispatch their souls to Hell. Quite why Satan is so picky about this detail is something the film never addresses, as is the question of quite why Borgnine takes, you know, a few hundred years to find the book, doesn’t say a lot for his supposed Satanic powers… But none of that was the point anyway, the point was Sandy Howard’s melting Satanists, and, well, he surely got those, frankly to excess as Fuest himself says in the DVD commentary. Alas, the evident determination to get a PG rating means you don’t even really get that much of a gorefest, everyone just melts into goo rather than blood and guts. On the whole pretty meh, but there is some bravura ham from Borgnine (and from Bill Shatner to a smaller extent) and a certain overall strangeness that does keep you watching, even if the attempt to understand is sometimes in vain…
Director: Robert Young
And we need a bit of Hammer for this month, too, so why not go with one that’s been on the to-do list for a while. This is, obviously, latter-day Hammer, and I gather it’s generally regarded as one of the better such films these days—even Sinclair McKay is quite kind to it in his book on Hammer—although at the time it seems to have been comparatively unloved. Again we have Hammer somewhat stuck in its fading gothic mode, but at least this time they had some new people on board to write produce and direct it, and at least it wasn’t just another Dracula sequel (though there’d be one of those that same year, and the next). It’s a film of kind of limited resources, whose production was kind of hampered by Young’s determination to take his time with it and make it as good as possible; this was the height of presumption at Hammer, and in the end some key scenes never got shot. For the most part, though, I don’t think the film actually suffers too much. Our story is set in some Mitteleuropa village suffering a plague which the townsfolk ascribe to a curse laid on them by a vampire killed nearby some years earlier; somehow, despite roadblocks being place, the titular circus comes to the village and, you know, things don’t get any better from there, cos the circus people are there to fulfil the vampire’s curse and restore him to life. Or unlife, whatever. Kind of bold in some ways (opening with a child as the first victim, and having two more later, gives it a decidedly unpleasant edge) and problematic in various others (the animal attack scene is just terribly done, and there are slips in continuity and logic even I noticed), but generally it’s pretty solid and markedly better than most of the other 70s Hammers I’ve seen.
Director: Jess Franco
Cos we need some Franco in there if we’re going to be spending this month doing horror, and this is one of a number of unwatched Franco titles on my list… and Jesus fuck, what a film it is. This could be, in many ways, the most bizarre Franco film I’ve seen yet, not just in the inherent strangeness of the story—a rather singular take on the Frankenstein story that’s actually nearer in its way to Bride of Frankenstein, except in colour, in widescreen, and rather more fucked—but in the telling of it, too, from the baffling camera angles which reminded me of Sergei Urusevsky to some extent (the credited cinematographer is Raul Artigot, who also shot The Pyjama Girl Mystery among a bunch of other stuff I don’t recognise, but Tim Lucas reckons in his DVD commentary Franco himself actually shot some of it at least) to the somewhat casual manner in which it approaches some of its more ludicrous moments, like the reanimation(s) of Frankenstein… and that’s before we even think about the extraordinary Anne Libert’s bird-woman. Lucas refers to the influence of the adult-oriented European comics of the period, of which Franco was apparently a fan, and the “comic book” comparison is perhaps the key to understanding a film which is even less realistic than usual for uncle Jess. Plot, well, the wizard Cagliostro wants Frankenstein’s monster to, er, assist him in his own project at creating a new race. Simple enough, and yet so many of the details make it just… something other (some of the more out-there stuff was apparently suggested by star Howard Vernon, who plays Cagliostro in a manner as bug-eyed as the rest of the film). And in many ways I suppose it is the sheer strangeness of the film that carries it along more than anything; Franco gets good value from his Portuguese locations, particularly that castle exterior, and from Artigot’s perplexing camerawork, but the overall oddity of the thing makes it weirdly compelling.
Director: Brian Trenchard-Smith
And this was the logical follow-up to our last film. By all accounts it was a far less happy experience making this than Deathcheaters was, mostly on account of imported Hong Kong star Jimmy Wang Yu; in the scene at the martial arts academy where TS plays one of the guys going hammer and tongs against Wang, well, the blood may have been fake (transcendently so throughout the film), but the punches weren’t… Whatever, the film is great, of course; it was the mid-70s, Australian cinema was resurging nicely and Hong Kong action cinema’s international renown was on the rise, so uniting the two seemed like a good idea, even if the leading man was an obnoxious shit, and even if the not altogether casual racism expressed in some scenes makes for not altogether comfortable viewing in our allegedly more enlightened times. The plot is simple enough, a Hong Kong inspector is brought to Sydney to question someone who turns out to be connected to crime kingpin George Lazenby, who obviously has to be taken down with as much violence as $450,000 could buy in 1975 (and that was a surprising amount); by this time TS had cut his teeth on an assortment of documentaries, and his first fiction feature displays a certain skill for widescreen carnage. Obviously dated in a lot of ways—I mean, just look at the soul-blasting amount of orange in Lazenby’s lair where he and Wang have their final duel, and the classically 1970s not wholly naturalistic post-sync sound—and prone to a certain, I don’t know, larger than life-ness in some of the acting (hello Ham Keays-Byrnes!), but an awful lot of fun; if you were going to do a sort of Bond-style action knockoff with an Asian twist in those days, this was the way you’d do it.
Director: Brian Trenchard-Smith
After that bit of faux Trenchard-Smith the other night, let’s have the real thing now, and one that could actually benefit from a modern remake… You know how they say you should never remake a film unless it wasn’t up to much in the first place and could potentially be improved upon? Deathcheaters is exactly the sort of thing they mean. Very cheap (apparently $150,000-odd, which was certainly worth something in 1976 but still not a lot), very cheerful, fairly cheesy, and potentially an enormous hit if given to the right people to redo. TS says in the DVD commentary he set out to make what he describes as a “whimsical” film, an action comedy that’d be family-friendly (indeed, the film succeeded in scoring a G rating, as opposed to the R rating Man from Hong Kong earned the previous year), with a sort of semi-camp tone of the sort you found in TV programs like The Avengers. I think it’s fair to say this intention does come through in the finished product, in spite of, let’s be honest, a number of problems, the biggest of which is probably the opening chase (jumping from Kurnell to Northbridge to Warringah Mall) and the abseiling down the Hilton Hotel; it makes for such a good opening 20 minutes or so the rest of the film can’t really live up to it. Plus, although it does tick along at a fair enough pace, the film does take longer than necessary to get to the point—our two heroes (Grant Page and John Hargreaves), Vietnam vets turned stuntmen, are hired by a mysterious government figure (Noel Ferrier) to “acquire” certain papers belonging to a Filipino crime lord—and nowhere near enough on the mission (we never actually see said crime lord or really know much about him). And at the time there seems to have been some fuss over TS using actual Vietnam War stock footage in a couple of flashback scenes when the war was still, you know, a fresh memory. Still, it’s kind of fun, kind of charming, and the film communicates the enjoyment the people making it clearly had; plus the original will always have one advantage over any putative remake, namely the 70s fashion… that shirt Page wears at one point with the gigantic puffy sleeves is as jaw-dropping as the stunt work.
Director: John Carpenter
Rewatched this very late last night for the first time since… I don’t know, probably the mid-90s, at which time I wasn’t overly impressed by it. I have, of course, since learned that pan and scan VHS was no fit way to watch John Carpenter’s films, and watching a decent anamorphic DVD of this one made me appreciate it rather more. This was his avowed combined knock-off of Rio Bravo and Night of the Living Dead, an attempt to make a western whose budgetary limits ($100,000, apparently) meant he couldn’t make a “proper” one so he updated the Hawks film to a 1970s police precinct about to be closed down… except this time the gang attacking the station don’t want to break someone out alive, they want him dead. I mean, if a gang kills your daughter (a scene which is still pretty startling) and then you kill one of said gang members, they’re probably going to want to kill you back…
It’s interesting that the film makes such a point of the gang being multiracial, cos that kind of takes the edge off the fact that the gang is, frankly, something of a characterless mob otherwise, much like Romero’s undead, and similarly it’s interesting that Carpenter’s other major cue from Romero was evidently the choice of a black actor in the lead role (and another one in a secondary role). But otherwise it’s Carpenter’s own skill on show, and he demonstrates a pretty ruthless efficiency; although the set-up to the siege situation takes longer than it really should, once shit starts happening, GODDAMN. I kind of wish this has been his breakout hit (it did well in Europe but much less so at home) rather than Halloween, cos we might’ve been saved the slasher film glut that the latter gave birth to. Then again, Assault might’ve just engendered its own flood of dodgy clones, so who can say…