Posts Tagged With: BFI

The Singular Vision Of Identical Twins… INNER SANCTUMS – QUAY BROTHERS: THE COLLECTED ANIMATED FILMS 1979 – 2013 Reviewed.

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BD. Region B. BFI. 15

“To enter the impossible, haunted night of a Quay Brothers film is to become complicit in one of the most perverse and obsessive acts of cinema.” Michael Atkinson, Film Comment.

“As an American, I always wanted to be seduced into this strange decadent, rotting idea of Europe, and the Quays have created that world in a manner which hypnotizes me, but which I don’t fully understand.” Terry Gilliam.

Me neither. This splendid double disc set has been in heavy rotation here at The House of Freudstein for some weeks now but the prospect of reviewing it has been a daunting one, not only by dint of the sheer volume of stuff packed into it (Inner Sanctums does pretty much what its subtitle says on the tin, clocking up 305 spell-binding minutes of screen time) but also due to the sheer ineffability of much of its subjects’ phantasmagorical vision…

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The identical Quay (pronounced not “Key” but to rhyme with “Kray”) Twins, Stephen and Timothy, having considered and discounted possible careers in gymnastics, studied illustration (Timothy) and film (Stephen) at the Philadelphia College of Art before relocating to London in the late ’60s to further their studies (and start making films, now lost) at The Royal College Of Art. Falling under the spell of Polish artists Walerian Borowczyk (yes, that Walerian Borowczyk) and Jan Lenica, they followed their heroes from poster collage into stop motion animation. The East European connection continues and is reflected in the co-production status of much of their filmography and more overtly in such titles as The Cabinet Of Jan Svankmajer (1984.) The Quays most high-profile work was contributed to Peter Gabriel’s celebrated Sledgehammer video, though they subsequently disowned their involvement in it. What they will own up to is on these discs…

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… and include such firm family favourites as Nocturnia Artificialia (1979), Street Of Crocodiles (1986), Rehearsals For Extinct Anatomies (1988), In Absentia (2000), Songs For Dead Children (2003), Eurydice, She So Beloved and Alice In Not So Wonderland (both 2007)… the very titles clueing you in to the kind of austere spiritual terrain they traverse.

The Phantom Museum (2003) effectively anticipates the far frothier (and of course infinitely more lucrative) Night At The Museum franchise and the Quays returned to mine this rich psychical vein again in 2009’s Inventorium Of Traces (a salutary true tale and warning that not even the liveliest mind is proof against melancholia) and Through The Weeping Glass: On the Consolations of Life Everlasting (Limbos & Afterbreezes in the Mütter Museum) (2011), a potent portmanteau of pathos, dread and devotion beyond death.

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Harry Eastlack Jr (1933-73), fibrosyspladia ossificans progressiva sufferer who donated his mortal remains to the Mutter Museum, College Of Physicians Of Philadelphia

I didn’t get the booklet (apparently containing Michael Brooke’s updated “Quays Dictionary” and the 2013 dialogue “On Deciphering the Pharmacist’s Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets”) but elsewhere among the generous compliment of extras there are some fascinating “behind the scenes at the College Of Physicians Of Philadelphia” stuff… indeed, quite enough glimpses of The Twins at work to dispel any lazy depiction of them as “reclusive artists.” The Quays are hiding in plain sight, sufficient unto each other (perhaps interested, in a way only identical twins can be, in how spirit populates and animates flesh)… and anyway, does it really matter or not if we understand? Rather like the narrator of Jethro Tull’s Thick As A Brick, it’s easier for them to make us feel than make us think. The Quays’ Inner Sanctums remain obdurately impenetrable…

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Admitting defeat, like Terry Gilliam before me, I’m going to resort to an expedient to which I’ve usually loath to indulge, demoting myself to the role of puppet (or at least ventriloquist’s dummy) in quoting you a chunk from the BFI blurb that accompanied my screener discs…

“Filtering arcane visual, literary, musical, cinematic and philosophical influences through their own utterly distinctive sensibility, each Quay film rivets the attention through hypnotic control of decor, camera, lighting, music and movement, evoking half remembered dreams, fascinating and yet deeply unsettling in turn.”

Still not convinced? Put it this way, you’ve probably already seen the Quays’ style frequently and clumsily plagiarised on MTV and elsewhere, so here’s a chance to immerse yourself in the real thing and take from it what you will. I found a day pole-axed and febrile on the sofa with the proverbial “flu-like symptoms” particularly conducive to getting my head around their lovingly crafted, wistfully melancholic oneiric mind scapes… against which, regrettably, there is no effective inoculation.

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Wild In The Aisles… PSYCHOMANIA Reviewed

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BD. Region B. BFI. 15.

Square dude: “Just what is it that you want to do?”

Peter Fonda: “We wanna be free! We wanna be free to do what we wanna do! We wanna be free to ride. We wanna be free to ride our machines without being hassled by The Man… and we wanna get loaded… and we wanna have a good time… And that’s what we are gonna do!”

Roger Corman’s The Wild Angels (1966)

Cut to 1973 Walton-on-Thames, where local outlaw biker gang The Living Dead are on the rampage. After running a van driver off the road to “blow his mind” (yeah, right through the windscreen of his car!), their leader Tom (Nicky Henson) is making out with girlfriend Abby Holman (Mary Larkin) in a graveyard (when, that is, he’s not taking time out to catch toads.) He suggests that they “cross to the other side” by killing themselves. “Oh no, not that again…” complains Abby: “I can’t. I promised my mother I’d help her go shopping tomorrow!”

Tom won’t be put off by such humdrum, diurnal considerations. Having wheedled the secret of immortality out of his medium mother (Beryl Reid) and her sinister (possibly Satanic… maybe even Satan himself) butler Shadwell (a bizarrely cast George Sanders), he rides off a bridge into the river, dies, is buried astride his bike in a mound in the local park (Mrs Latham gave her permission, but didn’t the environmental health department have anything to say about this?) and returns (running over a hapless passer-by in the process) to tell his gang (Hatchet, Chopped Meat, Gash, Hinky and, er, Bertram) the glad tidings… namely that if you commit suicide, secure in the belief that you can “cross over” and come back, you will. Furthermore, that having died once, there’s nothing  on  earth that can kill or even hurt you. “Oh man!” cries his evil lieutenant Jane Pettibone (Ann Michelle): “What are we waiting for?” Hey ho, let’s go…

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Cue a series of ludicrous and surreal suicides (played out to furiously wicky-wacking wah wah guitar)… leaps from motorway bridges and tower blocks… RTAs… best of all, the eejit who chains himself to an anvil which he then chucks into the river… and before you can say “wankel rotary engine”, an undead biker army has suburbia at their mercy.

Although a contemporary review in The Times considered Psychomania to be ideal viewing “at an SS reunion party”, Henson and co’s antics during their alleged reign of terror is more reminiscent of The Bash Street Kids than anything that went on at the Spahn Ranch. Cornflake packets are knocked off of supermarket shelves, women in hot pants are chased around shopping centres (lacking only the Benny Hill theme music), the gang attempt (and more often than not fail) to kick over traffic cones and anyone reckless enough to carry a cardboard box is jolly well going to have it jostled out of their hands. Christ knows how Tom manages to cajole these wimps into suicide and beyond. “Today we do the ton!” he announces at one point (though the clapped out machines on display look scarcely capable of that), only for one of his acolytes to bleat:”It’s suicide!” It really isn’t… I’ve done it (as a pillion passenger, anyway) and lived to tell the tale. Don’t start me on their drippy hippy funerary practices either, though admittedly Harvey Andrews’ rendition of Riding Free is pleasing stuff, a darkly deft psych-folk offering conceived with at least one ear on Paul Giovanni’s Wicker Man OST.

All this weediness notwithstanding, Tom’s declared intention to kill a long list of establishment figures (the kind of squares who want to stop our anti-heroes from doing what they want to do) prompts his Mum to reconsider her pact with “superior powers”, even if it means that she’ll be turned into a toad while he and his gang are transformed into monolithic stones. Well, these are the breaks when you deal with The Devil…

Psychomania gleefully mines the occult, anarchic, homo-erotic and thanatonic overtones (The Coffin Cheaters, anyone?) of the biker lifestyle previously delineated in films as diverse Cocteau’s Orphee, Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising and Freddie Francis’s Tales From The Crypt, not to mention Easy Rider and all those AIP programmers. Ted Moore’s beautiful photography of Henson and co’s quaintly sanitised biker antics is enhanced no end by John Cameron’s atmospheric, nay doomy death-prog score.

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Don Sharp directed (perhaps “perpetrated” would be more appropriate) Psychomania at a time when American money was draining out of the British film industry. A series of early ’70s films which suggested that the groovy mores of the swinging ’60s were finally embedding themselves into mainstream consciousness actually disguised the desperation with which the trend conscious bread heads and bean counters were trying to keep bums on British cinema seats. Even the stumbling giant of Hammer was dipping its toe into youth rebellion, juvenile delinquency, biker gangs and plastic psychedelia with its last gasp Dracula flicks. If small British producers couldn’t compete with MGM, aping AIP was much more feasible and while Sam Arkoff and co had a hand in many UK-based co-productions during this period, Psychomania (in which they didn’t) follows the AIP formula more slavishly than most of those.

As prestige productions dried up, unlikely names got dragged into the ensuing schlock fest… Beryl Reid already had The Killing Of Sister George and Entertaining Mr. Sloane on her resumé. Hollywood’s Mr Suave, George Sanders had been in (to name but one) All About Eve, fer chrissakes, but was dogged by personal problems at this point in (and very close to the end of ) his life. Both of them shape up like troupers, indeed it’s the resolution with which the whole cast keep their faces so admirably straight during the preposterous proceedings that accounts for much of its oddball charm. Ann “What are we waiting for?” Michelle was a girl whose leather trousers adroitly straddled the zeitgeist, sandwiched as she is here between her roles in The Virgin Witch (1972) and House Of Whipcord (1974)… after two 1977 roles in The Cruel Passion and Young Lady Chatterley her film career pretty much petered out (though she has continued to work on TV)… no wonder she didn’t want to hang about!

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Young Vic alumnus Henson (who took a significant role in the zenith of UK horror cinema, Michael Reeves’ Witch Finder General, five years earlier) hoped that nobody would ever see this film and, disappointed in that hope, has slagged it mercilessly throughout the decades, though he seems to be reconciling himself somewhat to it in his old age… surely a more measured response than that of Sanders, who – legend has it – killed himself immediately after watching Psychomania! Robert Hardy is wheeled in as an oddly accented police inspector investigating the gang’s skid marks and you’re also treated to an early Dot Cotton cameo.

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You can see Henson’s attitude towards Psychomania mellowing over the course of two of the bonus featurettes on offer here, Severin’s “Return Of The Living Dead” retrospective from 2010 (in which there’s some nice reunion stuff with co-star Larkin… see below) and a more recent interview devoted to him. He rightly praises the film’s stunt work and recounts various stunt mishaps, along with anecdotes focussing on the cheap skate nature of the production and the cringe-inducing treatment of fallen star Sanders.

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Other extras carried over from Severin’s own release of the film include interviews with John Cameron and Harvey Andrews, the latter shot by James “Birdemic” Nguyen… a stark reminder there for Nicky Henson that Psychomania is nowhere near the worst film ever made!

New on this BFI disc is an interview with Derek Harris, proprietor of legendary outfitters Lewis Leathers (who supplied the biker gear for Psychomania) and they’ve dug up an old Shell-sponsored short in which John Betjeman encourages us visit the standing stones of Avebury, Wilts (and presumably use lots of Shell petrol in the process), similar to those that The Living Dead spend much of their time riding around in slow motion. You have the option to watch the main feature with a Wilson Bros Trivia Track (an option I haven’t chosen to exercise yet) and there’s a micro-featurette on the BFI’s pains-taking restoration of Psychomania (it looks pretty good considering the paucity of available elements, though colours get a bit flickery in places.) The accompanying booklet contains informative, amusing and nostalgia-tinged essays by Vic Pratt, William Fowler and Andrew Roberts. Pratt’s reminiscences of trying to stay awake during late night TV screening of horror films such as Psychomania in the pre-VHS era struck a sympathetic chord with me and I imagine there are many readers of this blog who’ll know exactly where he’s coming from.

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The most astonishing aspect of this set, though, is the inclusion of Roger Wonders Why, a 16mm Christian biker propaganda film (indeed An Apostle Christian Venture Film), the contents of which are probably more gob-slapping than anything in the main feature. Its stars are listed as the eponymous Roger Abbott, Derek Jones, The Gang, The Scouts and Father Shergold. In it, young Roger is unwinding with his pals after a church service with an enthusiastic spot of conga dancing when he notices that a moody, leather jacket wearing youth (Jones) isn’t joining in. Derek convinces Roger to visit The 59 Club, where he observes that he’s never seen so many rockers altogether at one time in his life, before being introduced to the genial, pipe-smoking Father Shergold, who dreamed up this whole wizard wheeze to co-promote the twin joys of Jesus and biking. Now I’m sure that Father S was a stand up guy and everything about his club was on the level, but what we now know about some of the dodgy things that have been going on under cover of the cassock and the confessional make you wonder if any similar club, initiated today, might more appropriately be named “ten higher” than its predecessor. Anyway, our mild-mannered Marlon Brando graduates from the club to a scouting holiday in Wales, where we finally learn exactly what it is that Roger wonders, namely why more people don’t make the connection between trusting your abseiling trainer and “my faith in God and Jesus Christ as our guide and instructor across the rugged face of life to the frontier of heaven. So many people miss this point… I wonder why!” Dunno, Rog… beats the hell out of me!

Was Don Coscarelli influenced, when making Phatasm (with its characters’ casual acceptance of an out-of-whack world-unto-itself) by a previous exposure to Psychomania? Who can say. Together they’d make a cracking double bill, though…

… and while somebody is sorting that out, here’s the BFI’s Blu-ray release of Psychomania. To paraphrase Ann Michelle: “Oh man! What are you waiting for?”

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P.S. Yes, as well as haunting late night TV schedules (and Nicky Henson’s nightmares) for many years, Psychomania did play The Scala on several occasions.

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La Repulsion… SYMPTOMS Reviewed

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Blu-ray / DVD combi edition. Region Free. BFI. 15.

Do you remember, dear reader, when ITV (in its various regional incarnations) was actually worth watching? Before it was completely overrun with talent contests, reality programs and shit films, ITV was synonymous  with World In Action, The World At War and… late night screenings of really cool, obscure films. I distinctly remember Lucio Fulci’s “lost” meisterwerk Beatrice Cenci (1969) turning up in the graveyard slot on Granada during the late ’80s, round about the time we were cooking up Samhain… ditto Symptoms (1974) by Jose Ramon Larraz. The latter broadcast became the source of innumerable VHS bootlegs which were the only way to see and appreciate Larraz’s film for about thirty years, as all negatives seemed to have disappeared. Now you can finally chuck your bootlegs away because, after featuring it for some time on their “75 Most Wanted” list, the BFI have finally tracked down the required elements for Symptoms and issued this all-singing and dancing Blu-ray edition, on their more exploitation-oriented “Flipside” imprint… this, mind you, for the film which managed to bump Ken Russell’s Mahler as the UK entrant for the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1974.

The first thing to say about Symptoms, the thing you really can’t avoid mentioning, is the obvious debt that it owes to Polanski’s Repulsion, 1965 (though that’s probably too simplistic a statement of the relationship between the two films… no less a pundit than David Pirie has argued that Larraz actually outdoes his avatar here.) In Repulsion Catherine Deneuve’s alienated young manicurist comes unglued amid the isolation of the big city, her repressed sexuality erupting into unconscionable violence before she retreats irrevocably into catatonia.

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Symptoms unfolds as though Larraz and his co-writers (Stanley Miller and Thomas Owen) have been pondering whether she might have achieved a more positive outcome by heading for the sticks and honouring the early ’70s tradition of  (in the vernacular of the time) getting her shit together in the country. The answer they arrive at seems to be… no! The shit hits the proverbial fan when this notional rural idyll turns out to be every bit as oppressively agoraphobic as any urban milieu. Perhaps this jaundiced take on our green and pleasant land is a particularly Spanish phenomenon… in the same year as Symptoms, Jorge Grau turned in his surreal and utterly alarming twist on English gothic, The Living Dead At The Manchester Morgue.

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Helen (Angela Pleasance) invites her friend Anne (Lorna Heilbron) to her old lake-side house so that the latter can get over the trauma of a romantic bust-up. It will transpire that Helen is getting over an even more drastic sundering, but for the time being it’s as well to note that she’s a bit odd…. intense. Presumably a classic screen beauty like Deneuve would have been beyond Larraz’s budget anyway, but Symptoms benefits immensely from the casting of Pleasance, whose peculiarly puckish presence draws the viewer into an ongoing guessing game regarding just WTF her problem is.

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Whatever it is, it’s got something to do with the disappearance of her “friend” Cora (briefly glimpsed in the shape of Marie-Paule Mailleux during intermittent flash backs)… nor do the vaguely sinister attentions of lurking handyman Brady (Peter Vaughan) in any way alleviate the growing tension, which builds beautifully for about an hour before a final third which maintains the film’s supremely creepy atmosphere while punctuating it with an escalating series of grand guignol eruptions. In Symptoms, Larraz reiterates Polanski’s point about sexual self-loathing and the potential it has warp the self and damage others, a concept whose relevance to real life is all too readily apparent at the time I sit here typing these words….

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I reacquainted myself with Symptoms during a thunderstorm which complimented the on screen events quite beautifully… then again I remember how wonderfully evocative and engaging the film was, viewed late at night in my parents’ lounge, all those years ago. This perfectly orchestrated chamber piece will  probably weave its disturbing magic in whatever circumstances it is seen. Larraz is exceptionally well served here by sympathetic collaborators… his cast, his DP Trevor Wrenn, his art director Ken Bridgeman and composer John Scott… also by his own polymath grounding  in comic book art, fashion photography and art history. There are frames of Pleasence’s face that suggest a Vermeer portrait. Elsewhere, some of the house’s William Morris interiors are echoed in the fronds which embrace the corpse of a woman discovered in the lake, a scene which itself strongly suggests a pre-Raphaelite rendering of Ophelia.

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Symptoms failed to garner anything like a feverish reaction at Cannes Festival or indeed anywhere else, but its editor Brian Smedley-Aston was sufficiently impressed by Larraz to remortgage his house to fund the directors’s Vampyres the same year, an altogether more lurid take on the “rural lesbian violence” schtick that also comes highly recommended. The witty Smedley-Aston is interviewed for this set’s generous compliment of bonus features, as are Pleasence and Heilbron. As well as his work with Larraz, he discusses editing (and being obliged to re-edit) Performance with Donald Cammell and his experiences on the  Jeff Lieberman films Squirm and Blue Sunshine. To her Symptoms reminiscences, Heilbron (now working as a psychotherapist) adds her reflections on Freddie Francis’s The Creeping Flesh (1973) and rhapsodises about acting alongside Peter Cushing. Pleasance is interesting, insightful and funny (e.g. when she reveals that her “perfectly circular head” saved her life when a heavy light fell on it during the making of Symptoms.) For all of these new interviews we have to thank our old mate Pete Tombs and the From Barcelona… To Tunbridge Wells episode of his 1999 Channel 4 series Eurotika! is also revived here (remember, dear reader, when Channel 4 was actually worth watching?) Pride of place though, must go to Celia Novi’s award winning 2011 feature On Vampires And Other Symptoms, an impressive, impressionistic mash up of JRL’s two most celebrated pictures, his autobiographical comic strips and what turns out to be a trip to the 2009 Sitges Film Festival (four years before his death) where the Catalonian director received an honorary award and was treated to a surprise reunion with Vampyres stars Marianne Morris and Anulka Dziubinska…. those scenes alone were worth the price of admission.

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… it’s better than bottling it up! Larraz’s El Periscopio, 1979.

 

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