Tuesday, 25 October 2016

interview: Nigel Kneale

This, ladies and gentlemen, is the one thousandth item posted onto my site. I wanted to post something special so I had a look through my interview archive and found this massive interview with the legendary creator of Quatermass. This was conducted at Nigel Kneale’s home in April 1996. An edited version was published in SFX; here’s the full transcript.

You started writing short stories. When was your first professional sale?
“Oh, a long, long time ago. I should think it must have been around 1942 or something. A lot of my stuff was published in short story magazines which no longer exist. They did then, including American ones which were very good, and they took quite a bit of my stuff. But it wasn't science fiction.”

Some of your stories like 'Minuke' have a horror element.
“Yes, some of them did, but some did not at all. I was really, I suppose, trying to find out what I could do, and trying every kind of story.”

For Tomato Cain and Other Stories, you won the Somerset Maugham prize. Did that affect your career at all?
“Well, I suppose any kind of literary prize is a plus. And it certainly did help me to get into the BBC a year or two later. You say to them ‘Look, I've won a prize.’ and it makes them feel a bit more enthusiastic about you. Mind you, the result of it was very little because there was no posting at that time for writers. They didn't believe in them. They didn't even commission new material much. They tended to use stage plays: dress them up and simplify them for television, and that was it. The idea of writing new material as fiction was very limited. They did a certain number of documentaries but very few pure stories, and that's what I wanted to do.

“So mostly I found myself doing scissors-and-paste jobs, cleaning up stage plays, simplifying things that looked like insuperable problems: an actor might have to appear on two sets more or less instantly, one after the other. Now you'd just cut, but in those days the actor had to physically get across from one side of the set to the other side. So obviously some allowance had to be made for this. There were various ways of doing it. Very primitive, because the whole system was primitive. It was really a matter of dodging.”

As I understand it, The Quatermass Experiment was written to fill a gap.
“It was, yes. I think they had some serials. That was about the only live thing that went on in the drama department. This form of ‘six half-hour parts’ thriller. And actually it was a very good form, because you could do quite a lot with it. You'd got time to play with; you've got time to develop characters and stories and so on. At the same time, you're not lumbered with long stretches: one-hour or two-hour things. You can move the story more rapidly, and that was quite important. It was the only real invention in the drama style, and it was still a very valid one. Because now the budget and everything is so different, it probably isn't as useful, but it was then, and I felt very happy with that.”

Why did you go for a science fiction story?
“It really wasn't a science fiction story. It was a story for a general audience who really didn't care tuppence for science fiction - any more than I did - but would be interested in a thriller, which moved very fast for those days and presented that kind of awful dilemma that had grown out of an attempt to do what was on the edge of the possible, it seemed to me, which was to go into space. But what grew out of that - because that was all over in the first quarter of an hour - the rest of the story was about the awful thing that might happen. It was a version really of ‘Could something terrible come back from space?’ because nobody knows. Might it all be a horrendous mistake? What might come back? It was a quest story with a horrid result. And it was on something that was just beginning to be talked about in sensible, serious newspapers.”

Was there a feeling at that time that Britain could have a viable space programme?
“Yes, I think there was just beginning to be. You see, no rockets had been seriously invented since the V2, by the Germans, and that was a military rocket, nothing else. But the old V2s, such as could be grabbed by the Americans and the Russians were being taken away and experimented with, to see if they could develop a real intercontinental rocket and kill each other. So there was a big race on there, but of course it was all secret. At the same time it was obvious that this would be the next kind of move - into space. Everybody I suppose guessed that this would happen fairly shortly, and it did. It wasn't very long before the Russians launched their Sputnik. That was 1957, and that was only four years after The Quatermass Experiment.”

Were you aware when you wrote it that it was the first science fictional series on British television?
“I do remember that it was necessary to explain what the story was at the beginning. You couldn't just have a rocket and say there were men in this rocket, because it wouldn't have been credible. We had to explain what a rocket was, really. And also the problem was that a rocket had stages. That was a real pill because nobody could grasp that. A rocket would be a thing like a V2 that had no stages, just a pointy end and blunt end. But once you began to think about a serious rocket - particularly that included what was then a nuclear-propelled stage - then you had a rocket that would come apart and each bit would fire on the next bit. That was a totally wild idea; nobody had ever seen one. And the audience had largely never heard of it, so you had to explain what it was that poor old Quatermass was trying to do, that he had this machine that he'd invented. Then you could go from there and tell the story.”

There were six episodes of this, and the BBC's only got two.
“That's right. They were going to record the whole thing. They did record the first two episodes, and they decided in their wisdom not to do any more. They were, I suppose, a little bit expensive, because there was no tape or anything. They had to be filmed off a tube which meant a half-hour's film, at 35mm, had to be devoted to this, because it was canned, and they didn't want the expense.”

Do you think it's possible that there could be some private off-air recordings? I know some of the early Doctor Whos have survived because somebody stuck an 8mm camera in front of the television. The quality's terrible, but it's better than nothing.
“Not much better, but I doubt if at that time anybody even knew the technique. The idea of putting a camera in front of a tube was so extraordinary that most of the population would never have heard of it. You very rarely see recordings, because the crudity was unimaginable at that time. I remember some drama I had to do with, and a character had to come in and produce an egg, and simply say, ‘Look at this.’ I forget what significance it had. But you couldn't tell what it was! The image was so fuzzy and ill-defined, I had to give him the line: ‘…this egg.’ You had that all the time. Things were not clear, and had to be made clear very simply for the audience who couldn't guess what was on their nine-inch screens. That didn't help either.”

Had you seen any of Hammer's earlier films before they made The Quatermass Xperiment?
“No, I hadn't. I'd never heard of them. They'd done a whole lot of stuff. They tended to pick up radio series and film them. Sometimes they got some downmarket ex-Hollywood star who had fallen on hard times, been hit for tax or something, and was glad of the cash. But they were really terrible films, made on an infinitely low budget. And funny times: 27 minutes long or 53 minutes. You wondered what they did with them.”

There were a few films afterwards that were fairly unashamed rip-offs of The Quatermass Xperiment, such as First Man into Space. Have you ever seen any of those?
“No. I've got something better to do. It only makes you cross if you suspect a rip-off. You go and see it and it isn't at all, it gives you the horrors of what you did.”

Do you think that, if you had scripted the first film, you could have produced a better screenplay?
“I'm sure I could have done better than what they had. It was just bad in many ways. Not entirely. It tripped along at a fair speed, but there were so many things wrong with it I couldn't begin to list them. This sort of thing, just to pick one at random. We had, in the story, a policeman - Detective Inspector or something from Scotland Yard - and he was played by a rather elegant actor and he gave a very subtle performance in the TV serial and it helped a great deal to bind the thing together, the whole story. And we had a very good actor called Reggie Tate, and he was absolutely excellent. He was troubled and bothered and anxious and very energetic at the same time; absolutely super.

“In the Hammer version, what had you got? Brian Donlevy who was permanently drunk. There's no other way to describe it. He only got the job because they wanted to have an American star and he was going cheap, so they got him. And our clever policeman was replaced by Jack Warner. He was a trundling common cop who had somehow risen through the ranks. It downgraded the whole thing into a sort of dizzy nonsense, because these weren't characters, they were just stuffed things.

“As for Donlevy - unbelievable. He just shouted. He had no idea what the story was supposed to be about, he just barked his way through it. He was quite terrible. They would do that, they would take dictation from the American distributors: 'If you don't have him and her - goodbye. It doesn't matter about the story; just have those two, and then we'll book it.' They just wanted the poster in; it didn't matter about the script.”

When you wrote Quatermass 2, why did you go for a continuation of that character, rather than just writing a stand-alone serial?
“There was no reason to. I knew him by that time. I knew him and his set-up, so we used it again. Otherwise you have to start from scratch, explaining how the rockets work.”

Was it your idea to do a sequel, or was it the BBC's?
“No, I think I thought of it. There must have been a certain pressure to write another one, but that didn't commit you to anything. The producer was quite keen on another one, and it just naturally happened.”

As far as I can tell it was the first ever sequel which is just a name with a number after it. You used to get Son of... and Return of... and now you just get So and So Part 8.
“(Laughs) Oh yes.”

Was there ever any intention to give it a different title?
“No, it was just Quatermass 2 and I thought: 'That'll do'. Then I rationalise it, that that was the name they had given the rocket.”

Yes, it's seen on a blackboard behind him at one point.
“That explained it. The rocket had been given his name. Strange, isn't it? Because there was quite a crop of lazy titles after that.”

You also did a very, very good adaptation of 1984.
“Yes, that happened between the first two series. That was more of a technical exercise than anything, of just being able to cope with an extremely complex story in the live studio. It was a fairly hairy-raising experience and it took a lot of dodging to make it possible in live terms. It had been on the boil as an idea for several years, but somehow nobody ever seemed to crack it. So I wrote the script and Rudy Cartier the producer said, 'Yes, I can do that. We can make it work, given the right people.'

“They got the right people. Peter Cushing, in the days before he was Van Helsing and all that nonsense, when he was really acting. He was one of the first real television actors. He loved doing it. He felt: 'Here we've got an audience of x million; let's show what I can do.' He was quite excellent, as was Yvonne Mitchell, who again was devoted to television. And Donald Pleasance - it was one of the first things Donald did. It was an absolutely first class cast, which made all the difference, and always will. We've had duff casts, and this is what happened ten, twelve years later when the same production was mounted with a much weaker cast. It nosedived.”

Was it your script?
“The same script, just slightly updated. Christopher Monaghan produced it and directed it. Possibly people felt, 'Oh yes, I remember this one...' but I don't think it was the reason. I think it was a cast that was nowhere near as good. The original also had Andre Morrell who was wonderful. In the second version they had Joseph O'Connell who was also wonderful, but he was the only good one. They didn't have a Donald Pleasance or a Peter Cushing or an Yvonne Mitchell.”

Do you think Rudolph Cartier's input was very important to these productions?
“Yes because he was a very bold director. Of course Monaghan was a very bold director too. I think in the case of those two I wouldn't choose between them. But Rudy was doing his ten, twelve years earlier, and the equipment he had to use was much cruder. So considering that he had to beat that, he did wonders. The whole story of 1984 is that somebody stole a key prop.”

Ah, the paperweight story.
“The paperweight story. It was the worst thing that could happen because it was live. Peter Cushing had to come into a scene that was supposedly a junk shop that was actually sponsored by the State Police, and he picks up a paperweight and admires it: 'What wonderful things we used to have in the old world.' Somebody stole it just before transmission. The show had to go on, so they blacked the studio out: 'Will the person who has taken that prop please put it back.' 'No, I've got it and I'm going to give it to the wife.' So the assistant stage manager had to go home by bus where her little sister had one of these things. It was nothing like as good as the one we had, but it was something for Peter to pick up.”

Wasn't it Mickey Mouse?
“Mickey Mouse, with snowflakes.”

But then that gives it a whole different twist.
“It does rather, but it was the only one so that's how we had to do it. They always did the show twice, live, in a week, and I think by the second version - they wouldn't have got the original - but they'd got something that looked like it. But that was a hazard, a horrendous thing. Because you have to think very quickly. What do you do? Either stop the show and say, 'We can't proceed because a key prop has gone.' or do what we did.”

Is it true, this story about the bloke who swept up the snow while you were filming The Creature?
“Oh yes! Twice! They got him afterwards and Rudy said, 'Bring him to me. Why did you do that?' He said, 'Well, I wanted to go home early.' 'Why should you go home early when everybody else has to stay?' 'Well, I thought I would.' The snow of course was sawdust because anything brighter than sawdust would have burned out the tube. And so it had to be that. So Rudy said, 'When we do the second version, tell that man to take the day off.' But he was loyal to the BBC and he was there. It didn't show quite as much because the mouth of the cave where Peter Cushing and Stanley Baker were standing arguing was partially screened, so all you could see was this little face. I think the more forgiving people thought he was an abominable snowman on the loose: 'Oh, you could see it. They didn't see it but he was there.'“

Is there much difference between the original TV version of The Creature and the Hammer film of The Abominable Snowman?
“There wasn't all that much because a lot of the same people were in it. We had Peter Cushing as the anchor man, which is very important, and there were some other actors who had been involved. One or two new faces were in. Forrest Tucker was in it instead of Stanley Baker and he was fine - a good actor and a nice man. And so it came out looking very much the same only more expensive, obviously.”

When you were revamping the second and third Quatermasses from three-hour serials into ninety-minute features, did you start with the TV scripts and whittle them down, or did you start with the story and build it up again from scratch?
“Probably both, I should think. Because you couldn't do it by just cutting, you had to do quite a bit of rethinking. For instance, in the third one, we had a magnificent set - 'The Pit' - which was all shot down at Ealing Studios which the BBC had just bought. The designer was a very bright chap and he had a very ingenious idea. It was supposed to be that they were digging the pit deeper and deeper, so he made a surrounding wall of timber and built it higher and higher. There was a thing that supposed to be a constructor's hut that was on ground level and it gradually rose to about thirty feet up. So obviously the pit had got deeper.

“The floor was mud and they'd brought about 40 tons of mud into the studio. It had to be real mud. That was one that needed rethinking, because when we came to do the Hammer version, they didn't want the pit in that form, with open sky. They said 'There must be another way of doing it.' So you do it in an Underground Station. And it wasn't very good, but it worked. That was just another way of doing the same thing.”

How closely involved were you with the production of the TV series and films? Were you always on the set?
“Yes, pretty well. Except when I was writing the next one. I was heavily involved because the things were so hairy to do that it was just a matter of being there. 'What does this man mean when he says that? What exactly?'“

When you wrote the film versions of Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer, was that a conscious decision to try and get away from the science fiction?
“Oh no. I was just asked to do them because I'd worked with Tony Richardson at the BBC. He just rang up and said would I do it. I think what had happened was that John Osborne had written a script for Look Back in Anger and couldn't get finance for it. So Tony rang me and said would I do it.”

I've got some titles which I've come across in various articles. Can you fill me in on these? Apparently you did a production of Wuthering Heights in 1953.
“Yes, I did. Another horror! It was done very hastily. Richard Todd was very much a film star, and he had a gap in his very busy life and had always had a fancy to do Wuthering Heights. It attracts actors - like Cliff Richard! - it's a part that they can see themselves in. Anyway, he was determined to play this, and Rudy said, 'Right, okay! We'll do it. But we have no script.' All hands...! I remember I wrote it in about a week. So we did it. I remember Yvonne Mitchell who did 1984 and was very big in television at that time, and had a great figure - she did Kathy. Now she was a very tall lady, and Richard was not a very tall man, so we had to work that one out!

“Again, there's always some horror attached to these things. The grooming of the horse! It was idiotic, I should never have done it. There's a scene where Kathy encounters Heathcliffe who is then in the beginning of his career, working as a stable boy, as he's reported to be. Of course there's no point in having a horse in a live studio; too many things can happen. But in the Props Department, which you always had to ransack, there was the hind part of a horse. This thing was dragged into the studio. It was an old one and its skin was hanging down in wrinkles. But you never saw that; you had to keep the camera up. And the director said, 'Keep the camera off the bit where there's no more horse!' But Richard had to curry-comb it, and when he'd curry-combed it he gave it a reassuring slap. And clouds of dust...! But that's the way it was. You had to hope: 'Well maybe the clouds of dust won't resolve on our home screens...'“

A thing you did in the early '60s called The Road which sounds very interesting. All about ghostly noises.
“Yes, I liked that. I kept meeting film directors later who said, 'Oh, I saw something on the telly that had a total effect on my career.' and they'd tell me the story of this thing. That didn't have any big stars in it. Rodney Bewes was in it, I remember.”

Was it a success?
“I should think it was. It didn't call for a sequel or anything because by the nature of the thing there couldn't be one.”

What was The Crunch?
The Crunch was a very sharp number. It was simply the idea - ahead of its time - of an atom bomb ransom. The embassy of some little ex-colony had imported a very clumsy nuclear device - it was stored on their premises - and then said, 'If you don't give us x million pounds we'll explode it.' We had all sorts of people: Harry Andrews as the Prime Minister. We had tanks and God knows what else, because they surrounded the embassy. But the pretense was that everything was normal so none of this stuff really showed.

“I remember we had a lady who had to cycle down the street, right in front of this building that was full of thermo-nuclear stuff, pretending that she was just a lady cycling down the street. There was a milkman who delivered milk, but his milk bottles were all full of recording apparatus. It then became a battle of wills. The army came round and they were installed in next-door houses and things, waiting for any opportunity to shoot the lot. It finally worked out that the man in the embassy was not subject to reason, he was a kind of fanatic - very much the sort of situation that you see around now; an Islamic militant - who was determined in any event to set it off.

“We had Peter Bowles in it as a young officer who behaved outrageously foolishly. But Harry Andrews was the big star who gradually uncovered the horror, who had to go in there and surrender. And he did. He had to go in there and say, 'I'll give you anything. We'll arrange the instant transferral of however many millions you want through a Swiss bank. If you don't press the button, it's yours.’ Then he realised that they didn't want the money - they were going to blow us all.

“Then inside the embassy, the fanatic was faced by the ambassador. He had been totally taken in. He was a decent man who thought it was an honest, if desperate, demand, and having been told he could have the money said, 'Right, let's call it off.' And then found of course this man was a fanatic, so had had to go in and overpower him. This was done through Eastern practices that they both subscribed to. So the man was able to nerve himself sufficiently to go in and secure it while being shot at with a machine gun. So that was the original nuclear blackmail story.”

In 1968, you did a thing with Leonard Rossiter in it called The Year of the Sex Olympics.
“That was a very nice show. It was at a time when they had just started with Oh Calcutta and things like that, with soft porn being a terribly good thing. So it doesn't argue that soft porn isn't a good thing. This posited a world audience who are all couch potatoes, because there was no work to do, and they would be fed automatically. So all they had to do was have a very short life, just long enough for some, at least, to breed, and then die at the age of about thirty. And that's the world. But a few creatures want to opt out. The world in general won't listen; the world had become the audience, all the inhabitants. Except for the people who put the show on - they were still having fun.

“It was absolutely influenced by television; the people having fun are the people making the shows. The audience aren't. So really it was a comment on television. So then a small family group said, 'Look, we don't want this anymore. We want to go away and live on a desert island and suffer if need be.' Just one small nuclear family, like they used to have. They want to go out there, so they're sent to some terrible place. Not a desert island with palm trees but a sort of terrible bleak place somewhere up in the Orkneys. They settle down to their lonely life, but the whole place has been bugged. They are a television show. And then it gets really nasty. Brian Cox was in it, he was the most horrible person. It was the first TV show he'd ever done, and he was wonderful in it.”

A couple of years later, there was something called Wine of India.
“That was junk. That was about the assumption that everybody was given spare parts - heart and lungs and so on - so that they could define your life. You're given a life contract - 120 years or something - and they guarantee to keep you not just going but in perfect health for that time. But when the contract day arrives you must go. So the scene is a funeral, but all the people are alive. The pair of people who are to die are there as host and hostess, and most of the people who are there are their relations. At the end of the show they distribute what of their valuables they wish to present as mementoes. Everything goes.

“And then they themselves have to walk through a curtain exactly like the thing in a crematorium, except that these people are alive. And the whole thing is a show. You have a producer and an assistant producer, exactly like in a television gallery, putting the show on. And the ‘wine of India’ was; at that time they didn't have any Indian fizzing wine, so it was meant to be something that didn't really exist. They were given slightly drugged drinks for the party, and that was the wine of India.”

You did The Stone Tape in 1973.
“Yes, that was quite a good one. It was a ghost story. Chris Morahan suggested it and I wrote it. It was copied from the BBC's research establishment in Surrey. It was simply that a large commercial firm take over an old house like that as a research establishment, then they discover it's haunted. This is useless, it's holding up production. But what can the ghost be? There's no doubt that there is a ghost. They use all these electronics to track it. It still gets shown at the National Film Theatre from time to time.”

What was Mrs Wickens in the Fall?
“That was quite a nice one. It was quite different altogether. It was just about an American retired couple who get stuck in a small French town, and they find all sorts of goings-on in the hotel they're in. There's a greatly despised child who was the child of a German soldier and a French girl. Of course he was being given a hard time, so the Americans had to adopt him, and take him back to a happy life.”

And Ladies' Night?
“That was just a horrible gentlemen's club where they don't want any women, as they usually don't. They're allowed to come one night a week. This is a particular ladies' night, and one man who has been bullied by his wife, behaves disgracefully by shouting at them and accusing them of being what they are - a lot of bullies. And the husband gets so horrendously overcome that when they retire for the night he hits her over the head with an ornament and kills her. This meets with the entire approval of everybody else in the club! The only question is disposing of the body.”

You adapted a couple of novels into film scripts for Hammer: The First Men in the Moon and The Devil's Own. Were you happy with these?
“Not too bad. That was this thing about witches and witchcraft. It was quite decently done until the last moment. These days, people who believe in witches are ridiculous. It shows. Do you know the film The Wicker Man? They got away with it. It had Christopher Lee in it. It was the best thing I think he's done. Wonderful, superb performance, terribly frightening, much better than Dracula. It showed what he could really do. There was quite a lot in that witch thing, it wasn't bad. It needed Christopher Lee.”

Why was there such a gap between the TV version of Quatermass and the Pit and the film version?
“Somebody asked me that, and I don't have the correspondence. They wanted to make it more spectacular but they didn't want to pay for it. So it was always next year, then they didn't do it. It kept getting put off, year by year, it's as simple as that.”

When Quatermass IV came along, was that going to be a Hammer/BBC co-production?
“No, Hammer were never involved. It was going to a BBC production; it nearly was. But then they thought it was too big a spread, too expensive, and they went cold on it. I thought it would never show again, but then it drifted into the orbit of Euston Films who - rightly or wrongly - made it, very lavishly indeed. They spent an enormous amount of money on it, but they didn't get the casting right, and that's what killed it for me anyway.”

Who was miscast?
“Several people.”

Who would you have liked to have seen in it?
“Different people. They were very hard-working people and it wasn't their fault, they should just not have been in it, which does happen. If more attention had been paid to the casting - it wasn't a matter of expense - but something was wrong there. Maybe the idea was too esoteric or something; it didn't have a conventional monster.”

It's a very dystopian future.
“It was long after the old Quatermass stories of the 1950s, and I thought well, so much has changed that we've got to take account of that. We can't just do another one and say, 'This is a follow-up.' It had to account for the gap. Also, in that time, long after having persuaded people it's possible to have a rocket, Apollo rockets were being fired at the Moon. Things had changed completely, so the thing from outer space had to change too. It wasn't a chap in a rubber suit any more. It had to be something more unaccountable and quite different. Maybe that was asking too much. It needed something but I don't know what.

“There were so many things wrong. I think partly we were hampered by one of the conditions, and that was that they wanted to sell it in two directions. They wanted it to be a TV serial in four pieces, and also a viable movie that wouldn't go much over two hours. The only way was to write various scenes which were not exactly padding but could be taken out. It was a terrible thing to do, but we did it. There were scenes earmarked from the beginning never to be shown except on television, which is a rather desperate arrangement, but it was the only way they could finance it. It was a mad thing to do; I don't think anybody's tried it since. Probably the horror story of that was enough. They thought they would be able to show it - in America certainly - and I think the thing was then too disjointed to be viable.”

The American releases of the first three films were rather exploitative. What were your feelings towards the American ballyhoo over those films?
“I had nothing to do with them, I just didn't want to know. I could guess all too well the sort of horrors: the screaming blonde on the poster, with the people ogling, distraught, as things fell over. Posters for horror films, they'd actually been quite intelligent at one stage, but reduced to screaming blondes. It was not what I ever set out to do. It was very sad. I did a series for ATV called Beasts and one of those was in fact about the making of a horror film. I liked those very much. It was just meant to be funny, which of course the making of a horror film is. It was very briefly about a horror film, but the usual awful thing: they'd hired a real actor, a senior actor, but only for three days, so they could stick his name on. Calamity occurs - he says, 'Right, I'm going.' - and if they take his name off there'll be no film.

“The man who plays the monster, inside the rubber suit, who has been having a terribly hard time having a nervous breakdown, has been rescued to play this part. And he finds that his rival, who's run off with his wife is right there on the set as the Captain of the Guard. He has a complete nervous breakdown on the spot, and comes onto set in this terrible rubber suit with steel hands and things, and kills the man, quite genuinely. the man he's supposed to be strangling, this time he really does it, because he's gone over the edge, he's become quite insane. They clear the set, and there he is, breaking up the set and making monster noises, still in the rubber suit and completely bonkers.

“They get his wife who's deserted him to talk him round through a megaphone. She appears to have won, so they say, 'Right, she can go in and talk to him face to face.' except that he's covered in rubber. But he attacks her, and then we get the classic thing of the monster holding the blonde! She escapes by the skin of her teeth, and the Captain of the Guard, her new love, decides to finish it by killing the monster, but the other man is no longer in the rubber suit. He's out and in his vest, and kills the Captain of the Guard. It went very well.”

I know you had a lot of hassle over Halloween III. How did your original script for that differ?
“Oh, totally. Well, mine was funny and quite lavish. There was a tremendous amount in it. They just said, 'Oh we can't do it because I'm afraid it's too big.' And they shrunk it right down and put all sorts of things in like people's heads being drilled. Crappy, awful stuff like that!”

Did you like the first two Halloweens?
“No, not much.”

So why did you agree to write the third one?
“I was actually over there to do something on The Creature from the Black Lagoon which was quite fun. It was a nice story. In conference with John Landis and Jack Arnold and Carpenter came up and said, 'Can you think of a sequel to Halloween?' So I saw the two that he made - I didn't like either very much - and I said, 'Well, if I have a free hand to write an entirely new story that owes nothing to these, and you put the word Halloween on it, but put some more words so it's clearly not the same brand, I'll do one.' So I did. It took a month from beginning to final script. It was a good script; I've still got it. When I was shown the travesty they'd made out of that I said, 'Take my name off.'“

Have you ever thought of maybe trying to get your original version published?
“No. Nobody wants to publish scripts. Anyway, I’m sure it wouldn't be technically possible. I'm sure they own it, or they'd claim they own it.”

You were going to make a version of Lord of the Flies at one point.
“Yes, that was very, very good. Ken Tynan and I had met a few times, and he rang up. He had actually become the script editor for Ealing Films in its last stage in about 1956. Ken was busy at Elstree; they were under the wing of MGM at that time because they had no money. So: 'Lord of the Flies, yes, good.' I wrote the script. He thought very highly of it. 'When will we go?' 'We'll go immediately.' He had actors and directors all lined up. And then they just went bankrupt. But it was a quite sophisticated script. And then Peter Brook picked it up and made a mess of it. Because he couldn't write dialogue at all. He tried to get round it by ad-libbing, but it didn't work at all. He couldn't make films. A shame we couldn't do that, because we would have done it rather well.”

Recently you resurrected Quatermass for a Radio 3 series. What persuaded you to do this?
“It was just that the producer rang up a year ago with this suggestion. I thought about it and we just used old archive material and bits of the old series. It was quite amusing. There was no financial inducement: God knows, it was Radio 3! So we did it.”

Had you done any radio before that?
“I think there were a couple of radio things in about 1970.”

I find that odd given your dissatisfaction with the way your scripts are presented. Radio is one of the purest media.
“Certainly. The first thing I ever wrote for radio was in about 1950 and it was about a mine disaster. A documentary, really, and about as far away as possible from anything I've done since. It did very well, and it's still alright. I'd probably write it in the same way now.”

There's talk of remaking the Quatermass films...
(Pulls face) "I think it's just talk. But also I find I have remake rights. They can't move without my specific permission and that will be very hard-won. It's not a question of the cash, it's a question of who. They were very high at one time on doing Quatermass and the Pit. And they got Dan O'Bannon, who wrote a script, and he sent me a copy, and it's very good. The dialogue's terrific. But of course they made a fuss and said, 'We don't like this script, it's too good.' It was a first draft, but he didn't trust them. He said, 'I doubt if they'll do it.' and he was quite right, they didn't.”

Have you seen any of the other scripts?
“I have seen one attempt. It was like something written by a feeble-minded child. Incredibly, without any rights. O'Bannon was paid properly under a contract when a set-up appeared to exist. This other thing was a clown doing it on his own back, saying, 'I'd like to do this' without any sort of deal or anything. They were very stupid not to have done O'Bannon's version, because it was a very intelligent updating to America. The Quatermass character was a descendant of Quatermass, and it was quite funny in legitimate ways, not tongue in cheek, but very bright, very good. They didn't like it.”

Was that the one that Hammer wanted to do?
“Yes. They wouldn't have even then been free to make it.”

One of your most notorious productions was a sitcom called Kinvig.
“It was terribly, terribly simple: all the flying saucers and everything were materialisations of the things in this poor creature's mind. For instance, he had a little shop, and in this shop he sold all sorts of junk - it was actually modeled on a real shop. In fact I met with somebody who said she knew the shop: 'I saw the show and I know where it was. And there's that terrible little man in it.’ I said, 'Yes, yes it was him.' So the flying saucer is a replica of the lampshade that he could never shift. But we didn't get that. What we got was a stainless steel flying saucer that cost a fortune, because the designer thought it looked good.

“Now that kills it. Unless you see that this awful flying saucer was imagined out of the lampshade, there's no joke. You put a real flying saucer in there, made of stainless steel, you've killed the joke. They didn't see that. It was very sad. But we had a wonderful cast, and lovely people. Colin Jeavons was the simpleton who believed in flying saucers. With a twisted logic: 'Ah, but it only seemed like that. The truth behind it was...' And I have actually had this, somebody saying, 'That story was true, wasn't it?' I said, 'No, I made it up.' He said, 'Ah, you only think you made it up.' You can't beat that one.”

If somebody's sufficiently paranoid, then they can explain anything.
“It is a purely paranoid performance.”

In a similar vein, there are people who are determined that they can analyse work and determine what you're really trying to say.
“It's very similar.”

There's a book about Hammer which is convinced that the scene in The Quatermass Xperiment where Victor Caroon, with his cactus arm, goes into the chemist, is a metaphore for the evils of masturbation.
(Collapses in giggles.) "That's a new one! Oh, I love that. Very clever. A more realistic version of that is: when we did it, the actor who played the character on television, Duncan Lamont, was very good. My wife and I were doing the special effects, such as they were. We had to convert his hand, so we had lots of twigs and bit of stuff and we stuck it on him - with Bostick! Bostick was kind of new then, and Duncan couldn't get it off for a week! He soaked it off somehow in the end, with liberal use of petrol. Terrible stuff. We should never have done it.”

Could you not just have slipped a glove on him?
“They were afraid about it peeling off under the heat, I suppose. It didn't peel off, that's one thing you could say, it didn't peel off.”

Have you seen much current TV science fiction?
“No. It doesn't look very interesting. They're mostly very trivial things, aren't they? That Blake's 7 thing. I remember seeing one or two episodes, because there was a girl in it that we knew, and being appalled that she should have been reduced to the circumstances where she took the job! Unbelievably terrible - all these wooden faces arguing with each other. They tend to do that, because they can't think of any real character, so they just think, 'Shout at each other. That represents conflict in the crew.'“

What about if you had been approached to write an episode of something like that? Would you have turned it into something better?
“You can't. A thing like that is dead in the water. I wouldn't touch it. And the same with Star Trek - terrible, terrible. I've seen odd ones of that, but again, the wooden actors. And my God, they're wooden! And the awful premise that whatever they encounter will be other chaps with rubber heads. It's so crude, that I wouldn't want to go anywhere near it.”

It's had some very fine writers, like Richard Matheson.
“Well, they must have been very hard up or the taxman was after them or something. There must have been a reason. Because I could think of better ideas in my sleep. Things like The X-Files; I'm happy to say I've only seen one episode of these two non-actors struggling with their lines. I despair! There must be somebody somewhere struggling to write something that's any good.”

But The X-Files is a huge hit so all the TV companies are looking for ‘a new X-Files.’
“I know. Terrible, terrible.”

More recently, you've written some stuff for Sharpe. Was that more fun to do?
“That was great fun to do. Because the book that I was offered, they'd used practically all of it. The heroine had been not only used but killed. All that was left was you had to blow up an entire city - 'Yes ... I'll have to think about that' - and there wasn't anything else. They'd used it in dribbles, it was the second book. So I said, 'Let me think of a story, and if you like it, we'll do it.' So I came up with a completely new story, using only the first part of the book. I gave the Duke of Wellington some horrendous female relatives, which was fun. Cornwell's stuff is very well researched, competently written. He's a good writer. He knows his stuff militarily, he knows his Peninsula War. His plotting is a bit overdone, and in too many places unbelievable, so I'm not a great fan. But it was fun to break away from some of that, and play with the box of toys. I'm now busy writing a Kavanagh QC.”

What's that like to write for?
“That's presenting some horrendous problems with the story.”

Were you approached to write these things?
“Yes. So I said yes to the story, and my hair stood on end. It's nothing to do with science fiction, believe me. I brought it on myself. But that won't appear for a year.”

Finally, despite all this other stuff that you've written, you're still known as 'Nigel Kneale, the bloke who wrote Quatermass.' Has that been a help or a hindrance?
“Hard to say. I suppose it's a help in probably the wrong way. Because what it tends to bring me is people who say, 'Can we do another Quatermass?' or something like that. Also, you get typed. You have a successful career up to a certain point, then you say, 'I want to break away and do something different.' But they go, 'No, do what you've done before. We can sell that, we know we can sell it.' It takes a lot of determination to fight that off.

“My brother retired last year from the Royal College of Art and he's made many changes, from sculptor to painter, back to drawing, which is where he began. But each time he's had to battle, as people say. 'Oh dear, what are you doing now? Why can't we have another one of those?' It's not so much that you can't do that, but you feel that if you do, you've got to go. You really want to be new every time. Unless you've got a very receptive fellow saying, 'Oh yes, that'll be great if you write something entirely new and quite different from your previous work.' But they tend not to say that. It's a funny old world.”

[Nigel Kneale, eh? Lovely old geezer and completely outspoken. A wonderful interview to do 20 years ago, and a delight to revisit it now. I hope you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read of the first thousand posts on my site, Here’s to the next thousand… - MJS]

Saturday, 22 October 2016

Slaughter

Director: Dan Martin
Writer: Dan Martin
Producers: Dan Martin, Scott Castle
Starring: Scott Castle, JA Chittenden, Kayleigh Young
Country: UK
Year of release: 2009
Reviewed from: DVD

I really, genuinely expected Slaughter to be awful. It was self-released with a pictureless sleeve bearing the bold proclamation ‘Banned in the UK!’ which is, of course, utter bollocks. A film can only legitimately claim to be banned in this country if it has been submitted to the BBFC and rejected (and we all know they hardly ever reject stuff nowadays). Just being ’not released’ in the UK is not the same as being banned. The video of my son’s school play hasn’t been released, but that’s not been banned. Although, having said all that, read on…

That sort of approach, coupled with the self-penned IMDB synopsis which promises that Slaughter “takes horror back to its nasty, gritty and often tongue in cheek roots of the 1970's and 80's” suggested to me that Dan Martin’s hour-long feature would be, to use the technical term, crapola.

The fact that it’s not crapola came as a great surprise to me. In fact, although the movie as a whole is a tad ramshackle, some parts are very, very good indeed.

A sequence of opening captions tell us about a serial killer named David Ward who filmed all his murders, and that what we are about to see is a dramatisation based on police evidence. Some of the film is indeed shot on Hi-8 as found footage, but some of it is more conventionally shot and the two formats integrate well together.

Ward is played quite magnificently by Scott Castle as a floppy-haired, masturbating loner, living in a caravan decorated with explicit photos cut from porn mags. In a clever touch, all of these pictures have noticeably had the woman’s head removed. In the commentary Castle claims this was to avoid any legal issues but actually what it does is emphasise Ward’s view of sexually available women as simply faceless pieces of meat for his own use.

Ward provides underground videos to a shady gangster known only as Mr X and seen only as a cigar-clenching hand, whom we first meet being serviced by a 14-year-old girl. The hand/shoulder is Dan Martin while the voice is Shaun Kimber, an academic authority on horror films who recently co-edited a book about snuff movies with my mate (and fellow British horror revival expert) Johnny Walker. Mr X offers Ward a thousand quid to kill – and film the death of – a whore whose recent pregnancy has made her surplus to requirements. A second young man (also played by Martin) brings the girl (Emma Wetherill) round to Ward’s caravan where the three sit down, swig some vodka and mess about a little before the two men start abusing, assaulting and torturing the woman.

This is one of several seriously impressive and disconcerting horror sequences. It’s all filmed in black and white on Ward’s Hi-8 camera, initially as a locked-off shot, later handheld but with disguised edits to give the impression of a single, uninterrupted take. It’s brutal, nasty, realistic and uncompromising. But what really makes this – and other scenes – work is the soundtrack. In lieu of diegetic screams and punches the whole sequence is filmed silent, ‘scored’ only by a repetitive, atonal sound that I can only describe as musique concrete. Credited to Adam Nelson, it’s a disturbing, even upsetting soundtrack, that like the headless porn images, stresses the inhumanity of what’s on screen. An appalling (and appallingly realistic) sexual attack and murder, which culminates in Ward raping the girl with a knifeblade, is reduced to the level of mechanical actions by a soundtrack that could be the pulsing blood inside his (or your) head. As horror film techniques go, it’s immensely successful and something that other film-makers could certainly learn from. (Nelson’s own subsequent directorial credits include feature-length drama Little Pieces and award-wining sci-fi short Emotional Motor Unit.)

We have already seen Ward attack a girl (Ella Mackintosh) in the woods, and stalk a man in a brief but very frightening home invasion scene. In the next sequence he brings two young women (Robynne Calvert – now a jobbing busker – and Alice Worsfold) into his caravan with the intention of filming a scuzzy, low-rent lesbian porno. This is shot conventionally, allowing the edit to jump swiftly to the point where - Ward having lost control - both victims are bloodied, bruised, tied up and terrified.

Intercut with these scenes are sequences of a detective named Jason King who is hunting Ward. This is Dan Martin’s father, credited as JA Chittenden, who picked the name himself so it is presumably an homage to Peter Wyngarde. Martin and Castle, who were both teenagers when they made this, are certainly too young to remember Department S. There are also a few clips of Ward, in an orange prison outfit, describing his crimes, including the sexual assault and murder of a child outside her parents’ house. This is dark, dark stuff. But it’s not presented salaciously or in a cheapjack attempt to shock.

Much of the second half of the film is a sequence before and after a Halloween party. Three friends (Martin, Aaron Grant and Lewis Powney) have decorated their house, got some booze in and are watching Night of the Living Dead on telly. We cut away just as the first unseen guests arrive and pick up the next morning when the trio discover one person has stayed over, unknown to them. This is Ward, whom they don’t recognise and didn’t invite. With him is a gleefully sadistic young woman, Sandra (an absolutely belting performance from Kayleigh Young). Ward and Sandra beat up and tie up the terrified lads then Ward anally rapes one of them while Sandra forces the young man to go down on her. Ward then produces a gun, shoots the boy in the head and forces the other two to carry the body out to the garage in a sheet.

This whole party sequence, none of which is found footage, has a feel of Last House on the Left to it, which Martin acknowledges as a major inspiration. In the film's penultimate sequence a final victim (Chloe De Salis) manages to escape from Ward after he rapes her in some woodland and pours petrol over her. This slip-up leads Detective King to Ward’s caravan and a final confrontation.

I have now watched Slaughter twice in succession, once with the regular soundtrack, once with the commentary by Martin and Castle. I am hugely impressed with what I’ve seen, and fascinated by the story behind the film. It transpires that the caravan sequence that moves from vodka to knife rape was a short film called The Last House on Straw Lane. The party sequence was also a short, billed as a sequel to the previous one but narratively unconnected. Slaughter was created by bolting the two together (with some nips and tucks) to give the impression that Castle is playing the same character, then filming enough extra material to bring the whole thing up to just about feature length. (Among the new footage was an interstitial shot of someone, presumably Castle, in a devil mask raping a young woman which appears occasionally, cluing us into the character’s unstable mental condition.)

The two shorts were shot in early and late 2007 while Castle and Martin were both studying at college in Gosport. Two of their lecturers appear in the film: Steve Launay as a TV news reporter and Bob Taylor as a vicar who is attacked by Ward in a churchyard. The rest of the footage was shot in 2008, with the DVD released in May 2009. Martin says on the commentary that the film had a few screenings but that some attempts were kaiboshed by local councils, which could well be true and, being fair, does give him some legitimacy for claiming that Slaughter was ‘banned in the UK’. (Would it actually pass the BBFC if submitted? I suspect so. It has artistic merit, it’s not prurient or sadistic, but it is a powerful study of psychotic amorality. Although there is some blood, there are no real prosthetics on show. Everything is framed so that we never see a blade actually entering. Far worse has been passed uncut 18.)

For a first feature by a couple of teenagers, cobbled together from existing and new material, Slaughter is extraordinarily accomplished. It has some random bits and some loose ends but that’s part of its accomplishment and its appeal. This is a true horror film: serious, disturbing, a journey into the darkest recesses of the human soul. There are references noted in the commentary (I wouldn’t have spotted them myself) to Jim Van Bebber’s The Manson Family and Gus Van Sant’s Last Days. This is a cine-literate film made by a cine-literate director.

Martin mostly DPed himself but a few bits, including the murder of the vicar, were photographed by Robert F White (who I’m guessing may have been the respected photographic retailer who passed away last year). Several of the credits are also Martin under such telling pseudonyms as ‘Dante Matheson’ and ‘Michael Deodato’.

Since making Slaughter, Dan Martin has adopted the screen name Juno Jakob and had made three more features: romantic drama No Direction Home; a very personal mental health documentary entitled They Call Me Crazy; and most recently Fox: A Documentary, a look inside a wildlife rescue charity. He has been trying for some time to find a way of making another horror film, Season of the Scarecrow. The IMDB credits him with something called Woodcote: Evidence of a Haunting (starring and co-written by Castle) but there is no evidence that this ever got made.

So that’s Slaughter, another forgotten gem of the British Horror Revival. It’s not perfect, in the same way that a Sex Pistols record isn’t perfect. It has the passion of youth, the fire of ambition, and the excitement and immediacy of let’s-do-the-show-right-here. Through a combination of design, accident and adaptation, Dan Martin and Scott Castle somehow created a film that, despite my initial misgivings, actually does “take horror back to its nasty, gritty and often tongue in cheek roots of the 1970's and 80’s”. They captured something that neither they nor anyone else could intentionally recreate. For fans of uncompromising, heart-of-darkness, human horror that knowingly nods towards early Wes Craven territory, Slaughter is a must-see. Tracking down a copy after all these years might be difficult, but keep an eye on eBay. I did, and I’m glad I did.

MJS rating: A-

Friday, 21 October 2016

Stray

Director: Nena Eskridge
Writer: Nena Eskridge
Producer: Nena Eskridge
Cast: Gabrielle Stone, Dan McGlaughlin, Samantha Fairfield Walsh
Country: USA
Year of release: 2016
Reviewed from: Online screener
Website: www.strayfeaturefilm.com

Some people think that all I do is watch and review British horror films. While it’s true that most of the films reviewed on this website are horror, and many of them are British, I do actually have a self-imposed broad remit of ‘cult movies and the people who make them’ which means that I can – and do – review whatever the heck I want.

As it happens, work on my next book means that, away from the website, pretty much all I’ve been doing for months is watching and reviewing British horror films. So it’s a real pleasure when something like this turns up in my in-box: an American psycho-thriller that I’ve never heard of, wasn’t expecting and can watch with neither expectations nor commitments.

I say ‘psycho-thriller’ but specifically this is a ‘psycho bitch thriller’, slotting into that subgenre of questionably misogynist pictures that includes the likes of Fatal Attraction and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. Questionable because there’s a debate to be had about whether the strength and power of these woman in getting what they want in a man’s world is enough to make up for the fact that they are bunny-boiling amoral psychopaths on permanent PMT that any man should run a freaking mile from – for Christ’s sake, what are you thinking? – no matter what his dick tells him.

The psycho bitch du jour is Jennifer, played by Gabrielle Stone (Zombie Killers: Elephant’s Graveyard, Speak No Evil) whose mother is Dee Wallace Stone. Which is pretty impressive, although to people of my generation, Dee Wallace Stone was everyone’s mother. We first meet Jennifer leaping out of a campervan and running away, having stabbed (in the arm) the man who follows her. She makes it onto a train (part of the rail network around Philadelphia) and we assume at first that she is a victim, escaping an abusive situation that could have been anything on the spectrum between chauvinist boyfriend and sex slavery. Now she can maybe start a new life. (In reference to the previous paragraph, Jennifer was actually a male character in early drafts of the script...)

And indeed a new life is precisely what she does start, initially attaching herself to a retired insurance agent named Marvin (Andrew Sensenig: Don’t Look in the Basement 2, Terror Trap, Dylan Dog: Dead of Night, The Last Exorcism Part II). These early scenes are – hang on, there’s a sequel to Don’t Look in the Basement? Really? When did that happen? Anyway, these early scenes are finely handled by the two actors: Marvin finds himself helping Jennifer – whoa, hang on. There’s a sequel to The Last Exorcism? That doesn’t even make sense. Jeez, the stuff that I find out when I check the IMDB. Where was I? Oh yes: Marvin finds himself helping Jennifer out of nothing much more than philanthropy with a dash of paternalism. She takes more than she’s offered, but still our sympathy lies with Jennifer who is clearly escaping a shit life.

Said sympathy will last for not much more of the film than Marvin does, though I don’t want to go into any detail about what happens to him. Suffice to say: it’s not nice and it makes us adjust our opinion of Jennifer for the whole of the rest of the film.

She takes a job as a cook, tossing burgers for the customers of a bar run by Greg (Dan McGlaughlin: also in Zombie Killers: Elephant’s Graveyard). His girlfriend Sarah (Samantha Fairfield Walsh, who has some seriously sexy eyebrows) is a waitress in the bar and there is a resident elderly female barfly, Edna (Arita Trahan: 21 Grams - who passed away in May 2015). It comes as no surprise to us that Jennifer has designs on Greg, and the second act is a study in Machiavellian manipulation as Jennifer carefully prises Greg and Sarah apart, then moves in. Some of this is quite disconcerting because Greg is clearly a nice guy, albeit one who seems to have difficulty keeping Little Greg inside his trousers, and Sarah also seems sweet and kooky (I mean, she’s a bit clingy and emotional but she’s Mother Theresa compared to Jennifer).

Eventually not only do Greg and Jennifer become an item, they also have a kid, a scenario which requires the largest of several suspensions of disbelief throughout the film. The baby is born at home without medical intervention, but it doesn’t seem credible that Greg (and others) would be fine with this happening, plus a complete absence of antenatal or neonatal care. It’s never made clear whether Jennifer’s identity, or indeed name, is real. She’s on the run, she has secrets both old and new, and she is somehow maintaining the pretense she creates throughout all this with no-one ever questioning who she is or where she came from. She doesn’t want any medical help with the baby, not least because it would show that she’s further advanced than she claims and hence it’s not actually Greg’s kid (it is presumably Marvin’s).

The thing is: that might be believable if this all took place in the remote one-horse town of Shitsville, Arkansas but it doesn’t. These characters live in (and the movie was filmed in) Chestnut Hill, a small town suburb of Philly, so how is Jennifer going to full term without ever having a scan, and without Greg or anyone else close to them being concerned that she's not had a scan?

I can accept Greg taking on Jennifer at the bar without resume or references, even without needing her address. It’s bar work and presumably it’s cash in hand. That’s fine but the other gap in believability here is the lack of interest by the cops in what happens to Marvin. There would have been some sort of investigation, and it would have uncovered something, surely. There’s actually the stump of a subplot when Sarah has coffee with her police detective brother Andrew (Sean Patrick Folster: episodes of Gotham and Mr Robot) because she’s starting to suspect that there’s more to Jennifer than meets the eye. Which is very perceptive, and I guess it’s fair that Andrew dismisses her concerns because she doesn’t even have a concrete accusation, let alone evidence. He does reappear right at the end but in a different context which has no real bearing on the plot and really just saved them hiring a different actor to play Other Cop.

I was disappointed that this aborted investigative subplot never went anywhere since it meant that revelations of Jennifer’s background – and hence her deceit and criminal record – were never really in danger of coming to light. Her relationship with Greg is strained, but her own web of lies is never under threat, denying us some tense plotting that would have enlivened the third act. Oh, and one other thing that seemed less than believable. Sarah hires a waiter, Michael (Ben Lyle Lotka) who is obviously gay. Jennifer uses this innocent friendship as part of her armoury, encouraging suspicions of infidelity in Greg’s mind (even though Michael is obviously gay). Yet it’s only much, much later, after the baby is born, that Greg discovers (actually, is told by someone) that Michael is gay. And to be fair to Greg, the fact that Michael has a boyfriend doesn’t mean he wasn’t necessarily also up to something with Sarah. You know, he could be bi.

The above nitpicking notwithstanding, I really enjoyed Stray. As long as you don’t think too carefully about the practicalities of Jennifer’s machinations (and Greg’s naivety), this is a gripping, solid thriller with well-rounded characters and well-crafted relationships that either draw them together or push them apart. The cast are all terrific and Nena Eskridge directs her debut feature with a polished, deft hand that makes her look like an old pro. Fine cinematography by David Landau (Dark Tarot) and top-notch editing by Sam Adelman (Donnie Brasco, Desperately Seeking Susan) complete the picture, almost literally.

Stray played festivals in 2015 and was released onto Amazon Prime in late 2016. Very much worth your time – check it out.

MJS rating: B+

Monday, 10 October 2016

Room 36

Director: Jim Groom
Writers: Jim Groom, Tim Dennison, David Read
Producers: Jim Groom, Tim Dennison
Cast: Paul Herzberg, Portia Booroff, Brian Murphy
Country: UK
Year of release: 2005
Reviewed from: screener DVD

What a national treasure Brian Murphy is. Although he only ever seems to play variants on his George Roper character, frankly that’s good enough for me. He can make (almost) anything worth watching and his performance as the long-suffering manager off a seedy London hotel is the icing on the cake in this enormously enjoyable movie.

Room 36 (not to be confused with Mike Hurst’s Room 6) is black - dark black. It’s a black and white, blackly comic film noir which is as funny as it is grim, as stylish as it is intriguing. I loved it.

The Midlothian Hotel is the sort of paint-peeling, run-down establishment that survives by catering for travelling salesmen, one-night stands and DSS dossers. It is therefore just the right place for a secret switch of a roll of film for a briefcase full of cash. It is, unfortunately, also the sort of place which is in such need of repair that the door numbers can easily be chipped, resulting in not one but two Room 36s, one of which is actually Room 38.

Connor (Paul Herzberg: Charly Cantor’s Blood, The Dirty Dozen: The Next Mission) is the man with the cash in Room 38, a professional (in both senses of the word) hitman whose instructions are to hand over the briefcase then use the suspicious bulge under his jacket to get it straight back. His contact is Helen Woods (Portia Booroff, whose stage work has been supplemented by roles in The Bill, Minder and Crimewatch), a junior MP who is working for Sir Desmond Mitchell, tipped to become PM in the imminent election.

Mitchell is played by the great Norman Mitchell, who died during this film’s lengthy post-production phase and to whom the movie is rightly dedicated. He gives a terrific performance as a character whose complexity and untrustworthiness sums up every politician in Westminster without descending into parody or satire. In a career which lasted more than half a century, Norman Mitchell amassed credits that included Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, And Now the Screaming Starts, five Carry Ons, Beat Girl, Oliver!, Simon Hunter’s Lighthouse and Legend of the Werewolf plus recurring roles in Crossroads, Emmerdale Farm and On the Buses and episodes of The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Prisoner, Dad’s Army, The Goodies, The Tomorrow People, Ripping Yarns, Come Back Mrs Noah (as Mollie Sugden’s husband), Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense and Doctor Who.

Sir Desmond gives Woods a roll of film. We never find out what this McGuffin shows but we have to assume that if the right (or wrong) person owns it, the outcome of the election will go the other way.

Next door, in the real Room 36, is Dick Armstrong, oleaginous travelling salesman in ladies underwear, played just this side of over-the-top by the great Frank Scantori (Witchcraft X), who is not only obese but also sports a Michael Bolton-style (‘sure got a lot of hair for a bald guy’) haircut. Armstrong is expecting a visit from a call girl provided by his regular source, Madame Desiree. What is more, he is on for another romp later on with the chambermaid (Darby Hawker, who was in Ken Campbell’s The Warp). Scantori, incidentally, is the writer and director of another British film that seems trapped in limbo, Warrior Sisters, with Booroff in the cast.

The broken room number is the trigger for the confusion and misunderstanding which drives the plot, but what could have been a broad, Carry On-style knockabout farce becomes instead a wonderfully sly Hitchcock-ian thriller with a lightness of tone that never overpowers the action and the intrigue.

Call girl Kate (Nicola Branson: Darklands - just credited as ‘prostitute’ on screen) calls at the wrong Room 36. Connor is surprised to see his contact acting so flirtatious, but of course they are both talking about money. When it becomes clear that a mistake has been made, Kate is understandably terrified. Connor casually shoots her and stuffs her under the bed before Woods enters. There is a wonderfully tense scene as Woods sits on the bed and a hand flops out, unseen, between her feet. It’s a measure of the script quality that this is not just an arbitrary movement but ties in perfectly with the setting: Connor whacks a cockroach on the other side of the room and the vibration dislodges Kate’s arm.

A violent struggle is inevitable, during which the make-up container in which the film is hidden becomes lost. Woods escapes to the next room - Room 36 - where Armstrong assumes that she is the long-overdue classy prostitute which he ordered. His rambunctious gropings of the panicked (and understandably revolted) Woods form an extraordinarily well-directed and well-acted scene, culminating in his death by champagne bottle. This is violent without being sick, bloody without being gory and comic without being silly. The two actors tread a fine balancing act to bring off a scene which could very easily have toppled into either outright horror or unabashed comedy.

So now Woods and Connor are in adjoining rooms, each with a dead body. She knows she has been set up, he knows that his usual meticulous planning has gone awry. Mitchell learns, by phone, that everything has gone wrong and walks away to let them sort it out themselves.

The story takes a slight detour while Woods directs Connor to a nearby bar to do the swap so that she can blag her way into his room and search for the film (which he assumes she still has). Picking a fight by accident, Connor loses his locked briefcase, which is picked up by Bert (John Cater: Captain Kronos - Vampire Hunter, The Tenth Kingdom, both Dr Phibes movies, Alien Autopsy and forty years of cult TV from Out of This World to Chucklevision), an old guy from the hotel who spots an opportunity. With Bert disposed of and the case returned to its owner, Connor returns to the hotel and negotiates with Woods through the door of his room. They both have something which the other one desperately wants, but she needs to escape with her life and he needs to rescue his pride and reputation. Who has the upper hand?

Weaving through this story are the staff and guests of the Midlothian, including exasperated manager George (Murphy, whose previous film work includes The Devils and of course Man About the House, arguably the funniest sitcom spin-off feature of the 1970s), bubbly receptionist Trisha (Jackie D Broad) and bone idle porter Bob (Paul Garner, sporting hair even longer and more lifeless than Scantori’s; he also gets a production designer credit and worked in the art departments of Gormenghast and Beyond Bedlam). Room 36 is constructed in the manner of a Shakespearian play, following at the same time the interweaving and complex machinations of the court (Connor, Woods, Mitchell) and the down-to-earth honesty/dishonesty of the kitchen (George, Trisha, Bob et al).

The large cast also includes Sara Dee (Witchcraft X, Warrior Sisters), Paul Cotgrove (writer/director of Green Fingers), John Gugolka (A Challenge for Robin Hood), John Forbes-Robertson (The Vampire Lovers, Vault of Horror, Venom and Vegend, I mean Legend, of the Seven Golden Vampires) and Crispin Harris (Friar Tuck in Blackadder: Back and Forth) as a police inspector. The film is billed as ‘from the creators of Revenge of Billy the Kid’ and this is very true indeed. Among those who worked on both films are writer/director/producer Jim Groom, writer/producer Tim Dennison, writer/cinematographer David Read and actors Broad, Mitchell, Gugolka and Scantori.

Room 36 is Jim Groom’s second feature, more than ten years after Revenge...; his directorial debut, however, was actually the UK trailer for Day of the Dead which had to be created specially when the BBFC banned the American trailer. Tim Dennison, who shared line producer duties on Beyond Bedlam with Groom, has a track record remarkably in tune with this website. After AD-ing on productions such as the Little Shop of Horrors remake and the Max Headroom pilot, he produced Lighthouse, Silent Cry and Evil Aliens. Richard Mathews, who co-wrote Revenge... (and The Mumbo Jumbo and the remake of Greyfriars Bobby!), receives a 'story consultant' credit.

DP David Read, whose background is in news and industrial films, contributes a great deal to Room 36’s success with magnificently evocative monochrome 35mm cinematography that gives the film an otherworldly feel, an ambience out of time - rather handy considering the huge lag between filming and release! There is one sequence in colour, some sepia-tone flashbacks and a handful of computer-generated colour inserts in black and white shots - and this use of occasional colour is expertly judged. An effective orchestral score by Scott Benzie (Soul Searcher) adds to the atmosphere.

The film’s website is definitely worth checking out [Seems to now be defunct; here's a version on archive.org - MJS], especially the PDF download which includes a summary of all the things that went wrong during production: labs catching fire, the film stock being discontinued and so on. When Room 36 comes to DVD, I hope there will be a lengthy and detailed Making Of [Indeed there is - and I'm in it! - MJS], detailing all these trials and tribulations. In fact, there’s probably a film to be made about the making of Room 36 but I suspect that Groom and Dennison don’t want to make that because, extrapolating from their first two features, we probably wouldn’t see it until about 2025.

Room 36 had a limited theatrical release at a couple of cinemas in London in late 2005 and a broader release is planned for 2006. I urge you to do yourselves a favour and go see what is undoubtedly one of the best British movies of recent years. It is almost impossible to find fault with this - and if I didn’t have so many other films in my To Be Watched pile, I would stick it back in the DVD player and watch it all over again.

MJS rating: A+
Review originally posted 28th May 2006

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Sinbad and the Caliph of Baghdad

Director: Pietro Francisci
Writer: Pietro Francisci
Producer: Angelo Faccenna
Cast: Robert Malcolm, Sonia Wilson, Spartaco Conversi
Country: Italy/Egypt
Year of release: 1973
Reviewed from: UK VHS

Isn’t it great that, in these days when everything seems to be available, when The Deathless Devil is on the racks in Tower Records, when Hanuman vs Seven Ultraman can be obtained with a handful of mouse-clicks for less than the price of two pints, that there are still old films awaiting rediscovery? One such is this little gem.

It is also a pleasure to find films which remain gloriously uncertain of their own titles. In this case, there are three questions. Is ‘caliph’ spelt with a PH or an F? Is ‘Baghdad’ spelt with a G or a GH? And is the main character’s name Sinbad or Simbad? The video sleeve has Sinbad and the Caliph of Baghdad; the on-screen title is Simbad and the Calif of Bagdad (which is also on the BBFC certificate); and the label on the tape calls it Simbad & Caliph of Bagdad. There are also Italian intermission cards in this print which carry the original title Simbad e il Califfo di Bagdad. ‘Simbad’ incidentally is not bad proof-reading or an attempt to avoid some feared copyright suit, it is a legitimate alternative spelling (as is Sindbad, of course).

Robert Malcolm (Three Fantastic Supermen in the Orient) is our hero, introduced at the end of a two-year sea voyage. He is suitably handsome and athletic and spends much of the film wearing nothing but a pair of grey swimming trunks. He has a neat beard and a bouffant hairdo and is dubbed by someone with a strong Italian accent.

But before we meet Sinbad, we witness the evil that is the Caliph of Baghdad. This insane despot likes to pick a beauty from his harem and have her dance for him - except that the Caliph is hiding behind a screen with a crossbow while the serene figure on the throne is actually a lookalike dummy. The young lady shimmies and shakes and then gets a bolt in the chest for her troubles, at which point she is picked up and carried away by the other dancers, who are evidently used to this sort of thing.

This is the only actual example of the Caliph’s cruelty which we witness although the implication is that there is much else. Two government ministers discuss (quietly) how bad the ruler has become, including the introduction of a new punishment called ‘the pole’: “a straight, round stick, pointed at one end, is inserted into the victim’s... well, you can see this drawing.” And we do!

I’ll call these ministers Abdul 1 and Abdul 2, as they will reappear later. Neither is actually called Abdul but there are no character names in the credits and I can’t make out any names clearly in the dialogue - and even if I could, I would be guessing at spellings. I can’t even tell if people are calling the main character Sinbad or Simbad. The more senior Abdul is played by Spartaco Conversy who, in some other films, was credited as Spean Convery, presumably because he bears (or at least, bore) a passing resemblance to a certain Scotsman. I wonder whether any Italian audiences ever actually fell for that one? Conversy was in loads of westerns including A Bullet for the General (with Klaus Kinski) and Umberto Lenzi’s One for All. He has an uncredited bit-part in Once Upon a Time in the West as a guy who gets shot through the foot.

Also in the palace is the evil Vizier, who controls the Caliph’s medication and has his eye on the throne. I think he’s played by Arturo Dominici (unless that’s Abdul 2). Dominici played Eurysteus in the original Steve Reeves Hercules (also directed by Pietro Francisci) and was also in Caltiki the Immortal Monster, Goliath and the Barbarians, Black Sunday, Castle of Blood, loads of other pepla and - good Lord! - a 1972 Italian remake of A for Andromeda! I’m assuming he is the Vizier because he generally played villains. (Even more interesting are his dubbing credits. He was the voice of: James Doohan in Star Trek II and III; Bernard Lee in The Man with the Golden Gun and Live and Let Die; Jose Ferrer in Dune; Billy Barty in Willow; and Bruce Forsyth in Bedknobs and Broomsticks!)

Checking images via Google, I think Abdul 2 is played by the brilliantly named Franco Fantasia, who also gets a credit as ‘fencing master’. He was assistant director on several notorious films such as Mountain of the Cannibal God and Eaten Alive and had acting or stunt roles in dozens of Italian swashbucklers and thrillers plus various horrors and even the odd sci-fi picture like Atomic Cyborg: Steel Warrior.

Anyway, when Sinbad returns to Baghdad he finds his adopted father (he was an orphan) has died and the house which he thought was home is being emptied of all possessions by the Caliph’s men. All that has been left for Sinbad is half of a parchment, with instructions to find the other half and “the large safe”. Out on the street and unsure where to go, he is befriended by a comic relief double act of two crooks who I will call Larry and Mo. Larry (Leo Valeriano) is small, shifty and wide-eyed in contrast to the taller, older, more lugubrious Mo (Gigi Bonos). They are cheerful but not terribly competent and yet they’re not nearly as irritating as comic relief characters often are, and in fact a few of their lines border on funny.

Gigi Bonos was in his sixties when he made this and had been in films since 1945. His credits include Castle of the Living Dead, Mario Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much, 12+1 (a version of The 13 Chairs which stars Orson Welles and Tim Brooke-Taylor!), They Call Me Trinity (and stacks of other spaghetti westerns), Roman Polanski’s What?, Frankenstein 80, Three Supermen of the West, Mr Superinvisible, The Exorcist: Italian Style and an extraordinary-sounding sci-fi western called The Sheriff and the Satellite Kid. Leo Valeriano, in contrast, was making his screen debut but went on to make another 52 pictures and is now a big-name cabaret star in Italy.

They take Sinbad to an inn where they ply him with drugged wine and then sell him to a sea captain - who then has his men cosh Larry and Mo, taking back his money and acquiring three Shanghaied slaves instead of one. Sinbad comes to onboard the ship, where he is sent aloft as lookout while Larry and Mo work as scullery boy and cook. The rest of the crew are a gang of thuggish ruffians but Sinbad shows them he’s not to be trifled with.

A small boat approaches the ship and several comely maidens climb onboard, disappearing below deck. Director Pietro Francisci makes frequent use throughout the film of vertical movement as people scale ropes, step down into hatchways or plummet through trapdoors. The final maiden doesn’t have to climb a rope ladder like the others: she is lifted up serenely on a platform by a pulley. This is ‘Scheherazade, Crown Princess of Bahrain’ (Sonia Wilson), intended as a politically expedient bride for the Caliph, and she holds her nose as she passes the sweaty (but handsome) slave who is scrubbing the deck.

Of course Sinbad falls hopelessly in love with the princess so as soon as he has finished swabbing he heads down to the kitchen where he has Larry and Mo give him a bath in a cauldron of fresh water, before anointing himself with perfume from the galley spice rack. The girls are looked after by a camp eunuch (who, rather cruelly, wears a turban decorated with a small pair of scissors!); Sinbad drugs the eunuch’s food then steals his clothes in order to take the princess her meal. This eunuch is played by the noted American writer Eugene Walter, who had time to found the Paris Review, hang out with all sorts of famous people and generally become famous - there’s even a Eugene Walter festival, and yes, it is the same guy! - when he wasn’t making films like Juliet of the Spirits, Black Belly of the Tarantula, The House with Laughing Windows and The Pyjama Girl Case.

Discovered in the princess’ room, Sinbad is sentenced to death but she orders him spared so he is set adrift in a small boat, along with Larry and Mo. They wind up on a curious, barren island. One of the staples of the Sinbad legend is the curious, barren island which turns out to be the back of a giant sea monster. In this instance, although Sinbad spends some time examining the strange rock formations, the idea that this might be a monster is never raised and the three men successfully escape without them - or us - finding out. Perhaps the budget simply didn’t stretch to those sort of effects.

There are several wrecked ships on the island, including one with the skeletons of galley slaves still gruesomely chained to their oars. Another boat is Chinese in which they find not only explosive bombs but a hot air balloon, which they use to make their escape.

Back in Baghdad, the trio start to live like kings, using treasure which they purloined from the wrecked ships. Sinbad has his beard shaved but leave his moustache, prompting Abdul 1 and Abdul 2 (remember them?) to note that he is the Caliph’s double. At a slave auction, presided over by our old friend the eunuch, the Caliph is bidding; it seems that most people have no idea who he is because he rarely leaves the palace. Sinbad turns up wearing identical clothes but with a blue fez instead of the Caliph’s red one. A gang of revolutionaries try to attack the Caliph and in the confusion it’s Sinbad (knocked unconscious) who is taken back to the palace while Larry and Mo rescue the Caliph by accident. This is all part of the Abduls’ plan.

Things then start to get more complicated. Sinbad (posing as the Caliph), Larry, Mo and the Abduls gain entry to a treasure room containing a large safe, which proves to have not only vast amounts of treasure within but also the other half of Sinbad’s parchment. This reveals that he is the Caliph’s twin brother, spirited away after birth to avoid political complications. However, the team’s presence in the room is alerted to the Vizier who sends Sinbad, Larry and Mo plummeting through a hidden trapdoor into a water-filled well.

Although we don’t see their rescue, we are told of it later. The film nears its finish with the Caliph watching Scheherazade dance but he is interrupted by the intrusion of the Vizier who declares that he is assuming sovereignty - and takes a crossbow bolt to the chest for his trouble. (A curious character, the Vizier: clearly evil, yet he is trying to rid Baghdad of someone even more evil, which makes him almost good by comparison.)

However, the Caliph has been tricked. That fake Caliph on the throne is not a dummy but his long-lost twin brother and the two indulge in a sword fight which is very well edited and only spoiled slightly by the body double with his back to the camera having much shorter hair than Robert Malcolm. There are also two extremely well-done split-screen shots with Sinbad and the Caliph face-to-face, one of which actually has the sword in Sinbad’s hand pressed against the chest of his brother. My guess is that this was achieved by having the sword fixed in place, probably with a pole sticking out from the scenery behind it. At least, that’s how I would do it...

Having disposed of the evil Caliph, Sinbad then has to face a squad of soldiers outside, commanded by a general who was previously holding allegiance to the Vizier. He now announces that no-one from the Caliph’s dynasty should rule, but the day is saved by Larry and Mo in the hot air balloon, dropping Chinese bombs on the soldiers from above.

What a corking adventure. It’s all just over-the-top enough to work as a good Sinbad adventure should. Above all, it looks gorgeous, thanks to location work in Egypt and the use of Eastmancolor stock (called ‘Telecolor’ here). The film is ‘An Umberto Russo di Pagliara production for Buton Film SpA with the collaboration of the General Egyptian Cinematographic Organisation.’

Also in the cast are Paul Oxon (The Slasher is the Sex Maniac - a film which share quite a number of cast and crew with this one), Maria Luigia Biscardi, Mark Davis (the acting pseudonym of screenwriter Gianfranco Clerici: Don’t Torture a Duckling, L’Anticristo, Cannibal Holocaust, The New York Ripper, Monster Shark, Phantom of Death etc), Eva Maria Grubmuller, Carla Mancini (the third victim in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, also in All the Colors of the Dark, What Have You Done to Solange?, Baba Yaga Devil Witch, Flesh for Frankenstein, Flavia the Heretic and more than 150 other movies) and Alessandro Perrella (Death Walks at Midnight, The French Sex Murders, Seven Dead in the Cat’s Eye, Dr Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks).

This was the last feature directed by Pietro Francisci, seven years after his previous one, oddball sci-fi flick 2+5: Mission Hydra (aka Star Pilot). He is best known of course, for launching Steve Reeves’ career - and the whole peplum genre - with Hercules and Hercules Unchained although he had previously made some other historicals including The Queen of Sheba and Attila the Hun. He died in 1977. Cinematographer Gino Santini’s many spaghetti western credits include Django the Bastard and a film which looks like it should belong in the Mirror Universe - Inghilterra Nuda, an Italian mondo film about Britain! Other notable crew members include costume designer Maria Luisa Panaro (The Bloodsucker Leads the Dance), supervising editor Otello Colangeli (Operation Kid Brother, Mr Superinvisible, Castle of Blood, The Virgin of Nuremburg, lots of pepla and Antonio Margheriti’s 1960s sci-fi movies), assistant director Renzo Girolami (Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks), sound technician Roberto Alberghini (Puma Man, Erotic Nights of the Living Dead, Castle Freak, Mind Ripper, Argento’s Phantom of the Opera) and hair stylist Silvi Vittoria (Short Night of the Glass Dolls, Death Laid an Egg).

Composer Alessandro Alessandroni’s cool list of credits includes A Fistful of Dollars, Once Upon a Time in the West, The Devil’s Nightmare, The Strangler of Vienna, Lady Frankenstein and, um, SS Extermination Camp. Rather cheekily, the use of a stock recording of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade means that Herbert Von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic also get a credit - which would probably surprise them if they knew.

Special effects, which don’t extend much beyond a model hot air balloon on a rather visible wire, are by Paolo Ricci whose career extends from Django the Bastard in the late 1960s through The Sexorcist, Mountain of the Cannibal God, Big Alligator River, Fulci’s The Black Cat, 2019: After the Fall of New York, The Atlantis Interceptors etc right through to 2003’s The Accidental Detective.

Currently unavailable in English, except on old VHS tapes like this one, Sinbad and the Caliph of Baghdad is good, clean fun. The production values are surprisingly good and mention must be made of the way that a slight rocking motion is imparted to every single scene onboard the ship, above or below decks. It would be nice to seem someone pick this one up for DVD release, maybe with contributions from some of the surviving participants. I have no doubt that it will happen eventually.

MJS rating: B+
Review originally posted 28th March 2006