Monthly Archives: February 2020

Women Seem Wicked, When You’re Unwanted… Dennis Potter’s SECRET FRIENDS Reviewed

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BD. Region Free. Indicator. 15.

Dennis Potter (1935-1994) was a prolific, idiosyncratic TV writer from 1960 onwards and a gratifyingly ongoing irritant to the Daily Mail tendency. The BBC production of his Brimstone And Treacle (directed by Barry Davis and broadcast in 1976) raised hackles by suggesting the therapeutic benefits of rape (by The Devil, no less). Despite bearing the unmistakable, er, influence of two 1968 films (Pasolini’s Theorem and a certain Roman Polanski effort), Brimstone was cited by supporters as definitive proof of Potter’s ferocious originality though one imagines that, in the post #MeToo era, it (and Richard Loncraine’s 1982 feature remake, in which the execrable Sting replaced Michael Kitchen as the demon lover) would invoke more hostility than ever.

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Potter peaked in 1978 with Piers Haggard’s six part BBC adaptation of his Pennies From Heaven, a narrative tour de force in which song and dance numbers are mimed at apposite points. It didn’t exactly hurt that a perfectly cast (as a romantically inclined but ill-fated sheet music salesman) Bob Hoskins was on superb form (when was he ever not on superb form?) throughout.

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13p?!? Pennies indeed…

“Ferociously original” as he may have been, Potter was never above recycling good ideas that had previously seemed to go over OK. His Blue Remembered Hills (directed by Brian Gibson as part of the Beeb’s Play For Today strand in 1979) revived the “children played by adult actors” gag he first tentatively deployed for Keith Barron’s character in Stand Up, Nigel Barton (a Wednesday Play, directed in 1965 by Gareth Davis). Sometimes, though, the revival of such devices was to distinctly diminishing returns…

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The Singing Detective (1986) shoe-horned Pennies From Heaven’s brilliant narrative conceit into a (rather dull, self-pitying) story where it didn’t really belong. The best thing about this one is that Mary Whitehouse proposed an ingenious, totally baseless theory about Potter’s inspiration for such “dirty” material, a proposal which resulted in her being successfully sued for libel by Dennis’s Mum… oh, how we laughed! Despite Mary’s moral and my aesthetic objections, The Singing Detective became a substantial success. Potter put his first foot seriously wrong, though, with the 1989 four parter Blackeyes, another racy BBC serial for which he insisted on directing his own script.

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Casting my mind back half a life time ago, I can’t pretend (not very convincingly, anyway) that I didn’t enjoy the spectacle of Gina Bellman (who had supplanted Joanne Whalley in the pantheon of Potter’s sexual obsessions) mincing around in various states of undress, but DP’s direction proved embarassingly ham-fisted and (for a writer who habitually took an oblique, allusive tack) sometimes shockingly on the nose.

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Monkeys about to be spanked on a pedestal in Dennis Potter’s Pantheon (caveat emptor, this is NOT a scene from any of the films discussed here)…

Potter’s sophomore and final stab at directing was Secret Friends (1991), a feature adaptation of his 1986 novel Ticket To Ride. Much of its action is set on a train (because it’s a journey of self realisation, right?), bringing to mind (“ferocious originality” notwithstanding) Return To Waterloo (1984), in which similarly over reaching director Ray Davies blotted his brilliant career escutcheon and its brightest adornment.

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Half way through dining on fish in First class, illustrator John (Alan Bates) finds himself in the throes of a profound amnesia attack. “As memories, fantasies and psychotic visions collide” (to quote the blurb), two straight edge businessmen sitting opposite John are drawn into his attempts to get a grip on his shifting “reality”, which notably involves them excitedly goggling at his assignation with an eye-scorchingly glamorous prostitute (Bellman) who, we eventually discover, is John’s wife (nudge, nudge) Helen. John can only, er, “function” in the context of this role-playing scenario but the fantasy is taking over and gradually killing their marriage. John’s whore / Madonna complex seems to stem from his father’s contempt for his mother. It’s also suggested that Dad might have sexually abused young John. Make of all this what you will…

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Limited, like most of the Indicator releases I get to see, to 3,000 copies, Secret Friends is looking good for its UK BD premiere in this HD remaster. Bonus materials include an appreciation of the film by Graham Fuller, the editor of Potter On Potter and a short interview with Ian McNeice, who plays one of those bewildered businessmen. You get the expected trailer and image gallery, plus a 36-page booklet (which I haven’t seen) including interviews with Potter, a new essay by Jeff Billington, full film credits and contemporary reviews. Gina Bellman, who (despite not reciprocating her director’s openly declared erotic fixation on her) has always previously spoken positively about her working relationship with Potter, is not interviewed here. Whether, in the fulness of time and the current climate, she decides that she was exploited, objectified or whatever by him, remains to be seen.

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Hate Island… Bruno Mattei’s ISLAND OF THE LIVING DEAD Reviewed.

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DVD. Region 1. Intervision (Severin). Unrated.

Former crud film cohort Claudio Fragasso having struck out for relative respectability with the likes of the Palermo-Milano movies, the indefatigable Bruno Mattei hitched his star to those of producer Gianni Paolucci and writer Antonio Tentori (a duo which would resurface to discouraging effect in 2012 on Argento’s Dracula In 3-D). The first fruits of their partnership, 2006’s  The Jail: A Women’s Hell is a predictably wild and thoroughly non-PC WIP effort, but things took a quantum leap into the cinematic trashosphere with a brace of zombie flicks that Mattei would shoot back-to-back (possibly simultaneously) in 2006… Island Of The Living Dead and Zombies: The Beginning, fitting titles to close out the illustrious CV and indeed, life of the last pasta splatter man standing.

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IOTLD (which borrows its name from the working title of what would become Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters) kicks off with an 18th Century prologue, in which conquistadores and priests are attempting to bury plague victims in a cave (or is it a church?) on a Caribbean island, hindered by the fact that native voodoo rites are returning many of them from the dead as flesh-eating zombies, which necessitates the pre-titles sequence of Fulci’s seminal flick being replayed no less than three times. While the zombies are tucking into those priests, the conquistadores emerge only to discover that their town has been torched (conspicuously rendered by stock footage) and adding insult to injury, they are attacked by (what were the odds on this?) a passing band of vampire pirates (just in case you can’t spot where that idea came from, IOTLD is a “La Perla Nera Production”)…. some days you just wish you hadn’t bothered getting out of bed, right?

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In “the present day”, a down-on-their-luck team of treasure hunters happen upon this unchartered island, which just appears out of the fog. Lucky for them, the pirates’ treasure is still stashed here. Not so luckily, the place is still crawling with zombies (possibly also vampires and / or pirates, though things now move along at such an incomprehensible lick, it’s difficult to tell). Captain Kirk (!) played by Ronald Russo, refuses his crew’s pleas to radio for help (you keep thinking that he’s going to be outed as some kind of zombie sympathiser in a boffo plot twist, but it never happens… he just made a stupid decision for no apparent reason) and when most of the crew leave for a reccy of the island, zombies invade the boat and the engineer blows it up by pushing the red button apparently installed to do precisely that (like the levers in an old Universal flicks that could always be relied on to level Baron Frankenstein’s castle, when required.)

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Mark (played by astonishing George Galloway looky-likey Gary King Roberts), an obvious Night Of The Living Dead enthusiast, teases Sharon (Yvette Yson) that the first zombie they see (in a jungle graveyard) is “coming to get her” and of course it is. Tao (Miguel Franco) piles into the deadster with his best kung fu moves but the result is a predictable Shaolin 0, Voodoo 1. Sprinkled amid the regular anthropophagous attacks via which our happy treasure hunters are gradually whittled down, there’s the discovery of treasure chests and dusty grimoires which add to the ever proliferating theories competing with each other to explain wtf happened on the island, the novel spectacle of a zombie’s arm being regenerated after it’s been shot off, a throwaway reference to Olga Karlatos’ eye popping demise in Zombie Flesh Eaters, casks of wine which contains maggots and which makes those foolish enough to drink it hallucinate vividly (e.g. a reworking of the bar tender scene from The Shining)… there’s the Dawn Of The Dead-patented conceit, already recycled in Zombie Creeping Flesh, whereby reckless showboating when surrounded by ravenous zombies only gets you eaten and, in lieu of ZCF’s “soft shoe shuffle in a tutu” non-sequitur, treasure hunting Snoopy (Jim Gaines) is waylaid by a seductive flamenco dancing zombie… or is she a vampire? Dunno, give up… throw in a spot of The Fog, a reminder of Mrs Bates in her swivel chair and there you have it.

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After the remaining hallucinating crew members have all killed each other, sole survivor Sharon puts out to sea in a home-made raft but is declared DOA by the helicopter medics who recover her… only she isn’t, the final shot revealing her to be a zombie or a vampire pirate or fuck-knows-what. Of course all of that (plus any remaining scraps of sanity) fly out of the window as the story picks up in Mattei’s perversely titled Zombies: The Beginning. Those seeking further enlightenment (but destined for deeper confusion) should click here… and may God have mercy on your soul!

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Severin’s Carl Daft assures me that Island Of The Living Dead and Zombies: The Beginning have been gutted and recut by producer Paolucci into an “all new” motion picture experience. The mind fair boggles…

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One Brief Shining Moment… WINTER KILLS Reviewed

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BD. Indicator. Region B. 18.

Nick Kegan (Jeff Bridges), footloose scion of America’s most powerful political dynasty, is called out to one of his father’s offshore oil rigs to hear the dying confession of one Arthur Fletcher (Joe Spinell), who admits to being the man who assassinated Nick’s big brother, President Tim Kegan, in Philadelphia in 1960. Fletcher expires before he can reveal whose orders he was acting on but his  account of where he hid the rifle checks out. The cops who accompany Nick to locate it are shot and when he contacts his father (John Huston), he learns that both the men who witnessed Fletcher’s confession have also died. Plenty more fatalities follow as Nick pains-takingly unravels the mystery en route to the unbelievable, quite shattering truth…

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“It’s a conundrum… riddles within riddles”, Nick is told by his father’s lieutenant Keifitz (Richard Boone): “They will run you dizzy, they will pile falsehood on top of falsehoods until you can’t tell a lie from the truth and you won’t want to. That’s how the powerful keep their power”. The fact that this advice is delivered by a character who’s already officially dead indicates the depths of labyrinthine intrigue goin on here…

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You don’t have to be involved in film making to obsess about Kennedy conspiracy theories, but ever since Abe Zapruder found himself unwittingly filming the scoop of the Twentieth Century on the afternoon of 22nd November 1963 in Dallas, it has certainly helped, with offerings varying from Oliver Stone’s pedantically literal JFK (1991) to Tonino Valerii’s The Price Of Power (1969, below) which restaged the assassination and the speculations swirling around it as a Spaghetti Western. Brian De Palma has, of course, always been obsessed with the assassination and with those who obsess about it.

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The difficulties that former documentarian William Richert encountered in completing Winter Kills and the film’s sporadic unavailability since it was released in 1969 have prompted some of these obsessives to suggest (suggestions amplified in much of the bonus materials on this release) that it’s been suppressed for somehow getting “too near to the truth”, whatever that is. Truth is, there’s nothing in Winter Kills (engrossing as it is) that’s not been mooted in countless and increasing (in this internet age) alternative forums. I think it’s fairer to say that while American audiences could just about cope with the dream of Camelot turning into a tragedy, they weren’t ready for the spectacle of it presented, in this adaptation of Richard (The Manchurian Candidate) Condon’s novel, as rollicking, amoral farce.

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Throughout the bonus materials it’s confirmed what a gent John Huston was, which makes it all the more remarkable that he could play such convincing scumbags in the likes of this, Michael Sarne’s Myra Breckinridge (1970) and Polanski’s Chinatown (1974). Winter Kills benefits from an amazing cast, though many of them (e.g. Elizabeth Taylor, Eli Wallach) are seriously underused… the throwaway appearance of Toshirô Mifune as somebody’s butler is especially mystifying.

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Anthony Perkins gets his twitchy teeth into the role of sinister Intelligence nabob John Cerruti but blink and you’ll miss Tomas Milian (who also appeared in Stone’s JFK). It seems particularly perverse of Richert to cast an actor as facially memorable as Joe Spinell in the Fletcher role then swathe his head in bandages. Another firm HOF favourite Tisa Farrow, who had already appeared in Alberto De Martino’s Blazing Magnum (1976) is briefly glimpsed here as a sexy nurse, before her Italian odyssey (Zombie Flesh Eaters, The Last Hunter, Anthropophagous, et al) kicked off in earnest.

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Indicator’s handsome, limited (to 3,000 units) edition 4K restoration, a UK blu-ray premiere, comes with the expected glut of extras. There are two alternative cuts of the film, one with Richert’s optional audio commentary. The 2003 featurette Who Killed ‘Winter Kills’? includes many of the film’s principals and repeats many of the commentary track’s revelations about certain “colourful” aspects of the film’s production. There are shorter featurettes in which Richert talks about Winter Kills’ starry cast and is reunited with Jeff Bridges. In the new, half hour Things Happening in Secret critic Glenn Kenny contributes a useful overview of the history and legacy of conspiracy thrillers. Plus trailer, radio spot, image gallery… and a 36 page accompanying booklet, which I haven’t seen.

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