Et Al. Feb18

Ghosts (1915)

To celebrate his appointment as Chamberlain to the King, Captain Alving (Henry B. Walthall) holds an elaborate party at his hunting-lodge. During it, he is sought out by society woman, Johanna (Juana Archer), with whom he begins an affair. To support his new position, Alving proposes marriage to the daughter of the wealthy Nordje family, Helen (Mary Alden); seeing him as their ticket into high society, Helen’s mother and aunts pressure her into accepting. Hearing of the engagement, the local doctor (Al Filson) confronts Alving and warns him that he must not marry; must not have children… This adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s controversial play, Gjengangere, is much altered and still more compromised, yet remains an interesting exercise in what you could get away with during the silent era. In Ibsen’s play – though the word is never spoken – the “family inheritance” which ruins the Alvings is syphilis; the disease acting both in its own right and as a metaphor for the corruption of society. Ghosts, necessarily, plays an amusing game of placate-the-censor: it is, overtly, chronic alcoholism that has Captain Alving in its grip; we even see him passing his “taint” on to his young son, Oswald, encouraging him to drink from an early age. (A common 19th century practice, to make boys properly “manly”; Anne Brontë went to town on it in The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall.) Yet the physical symptoms which Oswald manifests as a young man (when he is also played by Henry B. Walthall) are clearly those of syphilis, and the film doesn’t pretend otherwise: Locomotor-ataxia declares one intertitle, baldly. Ghosts also retains the play’s incest theme, but has Regina (Loretta Blake) the daughter of Alving’s affair with the aristocratic Johanna, rather than his fling with a maidservant (and of course, her relationship with Oswald is never consummated). The play’s famous climax, however, was clearly a bridge too far. This adaptation restructures the play so that the story begins with Helen’s forced marriage to Alving, and ultimately mutes Helen’s role in the story to allow Walthall to dominate the screen with another of his melodramatic “breakdown” performances, as per The Raven the same year and The Avenging Conscience the year before. In this way, Ibsen’s overarching, double-barrelled point – not just society’s exploitation of women, but the way in which women may be lured into complicity in their own oppression by the church and the demands of “duty” – is almost entirely lost. Or—perhaps not. As was the case with many adaptations of books and plays at this time, there is clearly an assumption in Ghosts that the audience is familiar with its source—which, considering how widely Ibsen’s play was condemned and even banned, is rather interesting to contemplate…

Before Dawn (1933)

A dying gangster, Joe Valerie (Frank Reicher), reveals to his doctor, Paul Cornelius (Warner Oland), where the proceeds of a gold robbery committed some fifteen years earlier are hidden… In a lonely house on the outskirts of New York, Mrs Marble (Jane Darwell) gloats when she sees a newspaper story about Valerie’s death; but even as she makes plans to spend the hidden money, a spectral figure looms up out of the darkness: Joe Valerie’s ghost. Screaming, Mrs Marble staggers back—and falls down the stairs to her death… Inspector Dwight Wilson (Stuart Erwin) exposes and arrests a clutch of fake mediums, but he gets more than he bargained for with “Mademoiselle Mystera”, aka Patricia Merrick (Dorothy Wilson), when it seems that her psychic abilities are real. Patricia and her father, Horace (Dudley Digges), are arrested anyway; but when she is given the chance to demonstrate her powers to the sceptical Chief of Detectives O’Hara (Oscar Apfel), Patricia is able to put the police on the trail of the stolen gold… Based upon a story by Edgar Wallace, who sadly died before the film was released, Before Dawn is a serviceable little B-picture, a crime drama that morphs into an “old dark house” thriller, complete with ghosts, secret passages and a death-trap in the cellar. Though Wallace often did include marginally supernatural material in his stories, it is highly unusual to find a character with real psychic powers in a film of this sort. We’re on more familiar ground with Dr Cornelius, who isn’t a medical doctor as we are first led to suppose, but a psychiatrist—and of course turns out to be the film’s villain, as per the era’s view that psychiatrists were all quacks or crooks (or both). The film’s most startling aspect is its opening scene, which finds Joe Valerie giving up the whereabouts of his stash to Cornelius in exchange for “a shot”: in typical pre-Code style, Cornelius obliges—though it isn’t clear to the viewer whether we’ve witnessed a junkie getting a fix, euthanasia or maybe murder… Another intriguing touch is the character of Horace Merrick, who is not a crook of one sort or another only because his daughter is the real deal, and so he can live off her: the smoothly professional Cornelius and the huckster-ish Merrick recognise each other as kindred spirits almost at first glance, entering into a partnership that ends very badly for one of them… Meanwhile, though he turns up in time for the film’s climax, Dwight Wilson is an oddly ineffective hero, spending most of the second half of the film searching for a phone (sign of the times) while, in his absence, Dorothy and Mrs Marble’s elderly housekeeper, Mattie (Gertrude Hoffman), who alone knows the whereabouts of the stash, find themselves in ever-increasing danger…

Before Midnight (1933)

On a dark and stormy night, Inspector Steve Trent (Ralph Bellamy) is summoned to the country house of Edward Arnold (William Jeffrey), who tells him of a dark family tradition: that when a pool of blood is found beneath the portrait of an ancestor, the head of the house is doomed to die—and will do so when the grandfather clock in the hall stops. Arnold shows the sceptical Trent the portrait in question, and the dark stain on the hearth beneath it, which appeared the night before. As he leads Trent to the clock, there is a deafening clap of thunder—the lights go out—the clock stops—and Arnold falls dead… Before Midnight is a short but absurdly over-plotted little thriller, enjoyable enough as long as you can get past the fact that the central mystery doesn’t make a lick of sense. This was the first of four B-movies in which Ralph Bellamy played the “brilliant” Inspector Trent—whose brilliance can be largely attributed to the generosity of screenwriter Robert Quigley, who turns the wildest intuitive leaps into solid deductions. Moreover, as he always did in this sort of film, Bellamy overdoes it in his efforts to seem “tough”, making Trent something of a loud-mouthed bully. However, there’s enough going on that these defects just add to the fun. Family curses notwithstanding, it is soon demonstrated that Arnold’s death was due to an injection of cyanide. Of course there’s a household of suspects (plus a few extras), and of course they not only all have motive, but spend their time creeping around the house in a highly suspicious manner. With his sidekick, Stubby (George Cooper), in tow, Trent runs a jaundiced eye over Arnold’s secretary and supposed friend, John Fry (Claude Gillingwater); his wife, Mavis Fry (Betty Blythe), to whom Arnold wrote a large cheque just before his death; Dr David Marsh (Arthur Pierson), whose marriage to his ward, Janet Holt (June Collyer), Arnold had forbidden; Janet herself, who inherits Arnold’s estate; banker Harry Graham (Edward LeSaint), with whom Arnold quarrelled, and whose bank would have collapsed had Arnold withdrawn his funds; Howard Smith (Bradley Page), Arnold’s attorney, who is battling Mavis for possession of a certain incriminating diary; and the Japanese houseboy, Kono (Otto Yamaoka), who knows something about the murder—but gets a knife in the back before he can speak…

The Life And Adventures Of Nicholas Nickleby (1947)

When the death of her husband leaves herself and her two grown children, Nicholas (Derek Bond) and Kate (Sally Ann Howes), in dire financial straits, Mrs Nickleby (Mary Merrall) applies for help to her estranged brother-in-law, Ralph (Cedric Hardwicke). A cold, grasping man, Ralph is unmoved both by his brother’s death and his relatives’ situation, but finally makes provision of sorts for them, arranging a post at a distant school for Nicholas and an apprenticeship with a milliner for Kate, as well as finding lodgings for her and her mother. However, there is a secret reason behind this seeming generosity: Ralph has plans for the pretty Kate, which require her to be without her brother’s protection… Meanwhile, Nicholas tries to do his duty at Dotheboys Hall, but is appalled by the treatment meted out to the young boys unfortunate enough to be placed under the authority of Wackford Squeers (Alfred Drayton) and his wife (Sybil Thorndike). In particular, he finds himself unable to stomach the brutality of the Squeers towards the frightened, gentle Smike (Aubrey Woods), who was abandoned at the school some fifteen years earlier. When Smike tries and fails to run away, Mr Squeers responds with a savage beating. Driven past breaking point, Nicholas violently intervenes, giving Squeers a dose of his own medicine. Having thus burnt his bridges, Nicholas departs the school with Smike, the two of them forced to make a scanty living on the road… Though it is invariably criticised in terms of its inferiority to David Lean’s version of Great Expectations, released two years earlier, there is rarely if ever any acknowledgement that Alberto Cavalcanti and John Dighton were adapting a much inferior work when they transferred Charles Dickens’ third novel, The Life And Adventures Of Nicholas Nickleby, to the screen. And in fact, they do a pretty good job capturing the essence of a rather clumsy narrative—at some points improving on Dickens, particularly with respect to the blunt way in which they handle the potential sexual exploitation of Kate and her sister-heroine, Madeline Bray (Jill Balcon), each destined to be used as “bait” by Ralph Nickleby. Otherwise, this is a typical Ealing production, effortlessly evoking Dickens’ world of saints and sinners, ogres and eccentrics. There’s not much that Derek Bond and Jill Balcon can do to make Nicholas and Madeline into flesh-and-blood human beings, but Cedric Hardwicke is properly monstrous as Ralph, Sally Ann Howes gives us a Kate with both brains and a backbone, and Aubrey Woods manages to be pathetic without sentimentalism as Smike. Amongst the supporting cast, Bernard Miles stands out as Ralph’s nemesis, Newman Noggs; while there are also appearances by Stanley Holloway as Vincent Crummles, Athene Sayler as Miss La Creevy, Patricia Hayes as Phoebe, Fay Compton as Madame Mantalini, Cathleen Nesbitt as Miss Knag, James Hayter as the twin Cheeryble brothers, and Guy Rolfe as Mr Folair. Meanwhile, a very young Andrew Sachs is one of the unfortunate schoolboys.

The Blazing Forest (1952)

Realising that she can no longer keep her grown niece, Sharon Wilks (Susan Morrow), in the lonely isolation of her farm, and with only the valuable timber-land bequeathed to by her late husband as a source of income, Jessie Crain (Agnes Moorehead) enters into a logging partnership with long-time friend, Syd Jessup (William Demarest), and crew-boss, Kelly Hansen (John Payne). Hansen is notorious as a driver of men, and rubs many people the wrong way; although unbeknownst to Jessie and Sharon, he has secrets in his life that prompt his uncompromising attitude. Though the work must be done to a deadline, many difficulties intervene—not least the behaviour of Joe Morgan (Richard Arlen), who shares one of Hansen’s secrets. When Morgan manages to drive a wedge between Hansen and Syd Jessup, it sets of a chain-reaction of events that ends with the forest in flames… Feh! – false advertising. The online descriptions of The Blazing Forest are misleading, making it sound as if fighting the fire comprises much of the body of the film—and that, consequently, it is either a disaster movie proper, or at least the proto-variety. Instead, the forest fire is merely an interlude in this rather tepid drama: adequately staged given the film’s evident low budget, but neither particularly thrilling nor particularly convincing. (The anti-climactic wrap-up of this subplot got a laugh out of me, though: in effect, “Ehh, close enough.”) Instead, most of the plot revolves around the difficulties and dangers of the logging, with Hansen having to battle the weather,  equipment failures, and the attitude of some of his men. Meanwhile, the handling of Hansen’s burgeoning romance with Sharon is perfunctory in the extreme. Not surprisingly, the performance of Agnes Moorehead is one of the best things about The Blazing Forest; while conversely, John Payne is unpersuasive in his tough-guy role. Though set in Nevada, the film was shot on location in the Sacramento Valley, and the colour cinematography is attractive. However, so much of the plot is devoted, one way or the other, to the destruction of trees that it becomes rather depressing.

The Floating Dutchman (1952)

A body pulled out of the Thames proves to be that of a Dutch jeweller. All identification has been removed, except a card for a nightclub owned by Victor Skinner (Sydney Tafler), which was concealed in the lining of the dead man’s coat; moreover, written on the card is the contact number of a known fence called Otto (Arnold Marlé). Though the police have long suspected Skinner of racketeering and jewel theft, they have never been able to prove it. Inspector Cathie (Hugh Morton) sets in motion an undercover operation, creating for Alexander James (Dermot Walsh) a false identity that includes a criminal history as a thief. James gets a foot in the door when he helps hostess Rose Reid (Mary Germaine) to get her drunken musician brother, Philip (Derek Blomfield), home from the nightclub. Recognising that Philip is carrying a valuable stolen cigarette-case, James says a few things that he is sure will be repeated to Skinner. Sure enough, Skinner takes an interest in James—and, when his background checks out, invites him to participate in an upcoming robbery… Based upon the novel of the same name by Nicolas Bentley and directed by Vernon Sewell, The Floating Dutchman is a tepid crime drama in which the criminals are so gosh-darned polite that it wrings all suspense and very nearly all interest from the story. The film is never better than during its opening scene, with the body of the murdered man being pulled from the water by a group of pragmatic watermen before being examined by an unemotional police surgeon and inspector. The noir-ish look and feel of this opening soon gives way, unfortunately, to a series of flatly-shot scenes set in an unconvincing nightclub, with career criminal Victor Skinner all too easily fooled by plant James, despite the sensible warnings of his right-hand man, “Snow White” (Guy Verney), who meanwhile is butting heads with James over Rose. Even the eventual springing of the trap fails to generate any excitement; although it does set up (i) the easiest evasion of the police ever by Snow White, and then (ii) the easiest jail-break ever, when Skinner – the criminal mastermind! – asks for a glass of water. Arnold Marlé as Otto and the diminutive Ian Wilson as Herring, the bookseller / contact man, give the film’s only notable performances. Author Nicolas Bentley, who was also an actor, a publisher and a cartoonist (perhaps most famous now for The Illustrated Old Possum), appears in a small role as James’ police contact, Collis.

Queen Bee (1955)

Naive Jennifer Stewart (Lucy Marlow) is delighted to receive an invitation to visit the home of her married cousin, Eva Phillips (Joan Crawford). Almost immediately, however, she is shocked by what she sees as the selfish unkindness of the other members of the household, including Eva’s alcoholic husband, Avery (Barry Sullivan), his sister, Carol (Betsy Palmer), and Judson Prentiss (John Ireland), the manager of the mills owned by Avery who is – as Lucy accidentally discovers – secretly engaged to Carol. Before long, however, Lucy is a witness to – and a victim of – the lengths to which Eva is prepared to go to get what she wants… Based upon a novel by Edna Lee and written and directed by Ranald McDougall, Queen Bee is a strange, absurd yet compelling film that was clearly aiming for psychological noir but only managed soapy melodrama. There is a distinct sense of unbalance about the production, not least because the entire cast (with the exception of Lucy Marlow) is about fifteen years too old for the characters they’re playing, all the better to accommodate Joan as femme fatale Eva. However, it’s also because the further the story goes, the harder it becomes to find any point in it. Eva takes such pleasure in her own bad behaviour that the occasional moments in which we’re supposed to see that behind the bitchiness she is lonely and unhappy ring completely hollow. Initially it seems to the viewer that Eva is a woman suffering from a profound delusion – the delusion that she’s the most beautiful, desirable woman in the world – and that everyone else is kindly playing along. But no, it’s all meant to be taken seriously—with Joanie’s histrionics eventually becoming their own justification. (Not surprisingly, this was one of the films to which the makers of Mommie Dearest turned for inspiration, if that’s the right word.) Dressed to the nines, wearing that trademark almost-Kabuki makeup and dripping venomous honey in every word, Eva tramples over anyone who gets in her way, wrecking lives right and left—and with so little resistance, it becomes harder and harder to sympathise with her passive victims. The film’s title comes via Carol, comparing Eva to a “queen bee” that stings all its rivals to death; it’s not quite clear if the obvious secondary reading was intended, i.e. that Eva is surrounded by drones. (The third reading, that Eva is a real “B”, definitely is.) The supporting cast does an adequate job but, with Joan so domineering, no-one else really makes much of an impact. I confess to being disappointed that the character of Carol is so wishy-washy and defeatist, given that she’s played by Betsy Palmer: in the back of my mind there was a clear image of a showdown between Eva and Carol that involved sharp objects. The film’s better performances come in its smaller supporting roles: Katharine Anderson as the nurse Miss Breen, in whom Eva finds a kindred spirit; and most importantly Fay Wray as Sue McKinnon, who Avery Phillips left at the altar.

Atlas In The Land Of The Cyclops (1961)

Original title: Maciste Nella Terra Dei Ciclopi (Maciste In The Land Of The Cyclops), also known as Atlas Against The Cyclops. Queen Capys (Chelo Alonso), a descendant of Circe, is cursed to carry on a vendetta against the descendants of Ulysses, until his line is extinguished. Capys orders an attack upon the peaceful realm of King Agisander (Germano Longo): the king is killed, and his wife, Penope (Vira Silenti), is captured. However, Penope entrusts her baby son to a loyal servant, Efros (Massimo Righi), who, though mortally wounded, manages to evade his pursuers. As he lies dying, Efros is discovered by Maciste (Gordon Mitchell); hearing what has happened, Maciste asks Aronio (Giotto Tempestini), a shepherd, to hide the baby in a cave in the mountains, while he tries to discover the fate of Penope… Despite the threat posed by the last Cyclops, and the battle between the monster and Maciste which inevitably comprises the film’s climax (and which equally inevitably involves eye violence, sigh), Atlas In The Land Of The Cyclops is one of the palace-intrigue, men-waving-swords-around variety of pepla, which was disappointing. Likewise, the story is somewhat lackadaisical: the screenplay never bothers to tell us how, exactly, Capys is “cursed”, while chunks of the film are devoted to her attempts to discover which of the imprisoned women is Queen Penope when, really, it’s beside the point. Similarly, Maciste’s first appearance, evidently cast up upon a rocky shore, goes unexplained, as does his absence from home, which allowed the attack of Capys’ soldiers to succeed. This was the Italian debut of Gordon Mitchell—who is mysteriously billed as “Mitchell Gordon”, and whose character is called “Maciste” in-film despite the common retitling. He makes an adequate hero, and the film gives him ample opportunities to show off his physique. However, he has a weird affect—grinning through scenes that ought to be deadly serious, like when he finds the dying Efros. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that he soon moved to villain roles. Chelo Alonso makes a fair wicked queen, although she doesn’t get a dance scene (puzzling, given Capys’ other attempts at seducing Maciste); while Dante DiPaolo is amusingly bad as Iphitos, her frustrated counselor / would-be lover; though of course that might be due to the dubbing. More interesting is the contribution of West Indian body-builder, Paul Wynter, as Iphitos’ right-hand man. However, the highlight of the film is undoubtedly that it boasts an appearance by my favourite Italian actor of all time, the half-grown male lion who turned up in a number of pepla (including Hercules And The Captive Women), and whose gentle friendliness makes his “fight” scenes both amusing and uncomfortable. Atlas In The Land Of The Cyclops is a film that suffers very much from print neglect, with the visual quality of the copy released by Retromedia as part of their Hercules Collection “better” only inasmuch as the Mill Creek alternative is so appallingly bad.

Colossus And The Headhunters (1963)

Original title: Maciste contro i cacciatori di teste (Maciste Against The Headhunters), also known as Fury Of The Headhunters. A volcano erupts, destroying most of an island and the people living on it. Maciste (Kirk Morris) takes the survivors onto his raft, a group which includes Ariel (Demeter Bitenc), whose father was one of those killed and who is now king of his people, and Asmyn (Ines Holder), with whom Ariel is in love. They set out in search of an island once visited by the late king and, after a difficult journey, make it to shore. Maciste offers to explore while the others rest and sets out in search of food and water. Almost immediately, however, the others are captured by the soldiers of Queen Amoha (Laura Brown); while Maciste himself is wounded by an archer. He is not seriously injured and journeys on, encountering Amoha herself. He is brought back to her people’s encampment in the forest, where he learns that Amoha and her people are under constant attack by a tribe of headhunters under the leadership of Kermes (Frank Leroy), a rebel of her own tribe who is determined to seize the throne… With no monsters and no magic, a surfeit of poorly choreographed fights scenes and far too much of its running-time taken up by tedious wandering-back-and-forth scenes,  Colossus And The Headhunters is surely one of the dreariest of all pepla. What minor interest this film has to offer has little to do with the main plot, or with its alleged hero—the inevitable “stranger from the sea” prophecy notwithstanding. Kirk Morris (like Gordon Mitchell’s character before him, called “Maciste” in-film) is anything but convincing as the legendary strongman, who spends most of the film hovering on the fringes of the action and turning up late to fights, only distinguishing himself during his showdown with Kermes. The only recompense for those with the endurance to sit through this thing comes in the form of a heroine with unexpected agency, taking part in the climactic battle and deciding her own romantic fate (though given she’s the local heir to the throne, her choice is hardly appropriate), and a villain so determined to rule his people, he’s willing to slaughter every last one of them to achieve his goal. The performances from Frank Leroy as Kermes and Luigi Esposito as his sidekick, Aris, are amusing; and Corinne Capri’s notorious dance scene is every bit as hilariously awful as its reputation would suggest; but otherwise, the only distraction from the boredom comes in the form of unanswered questions—like, what was Maciste doing at sea for a month? – and, why were the people killed in the opening scene dressed like cavemen? – and, where did that lion come from (and where did it go)? – and, how did the headhunters know what music to play at the wedding?

Branded To Kill (1967)

During a mission to escort a client from Sagami Beach to Nagano, professional hitman Hanada (Shishido Jô) is involved in a bloody confrontation that leaves the country’s #4 and #2 ranked assassins dead. Hanada contemplates his own #3 ranking—and the identity of the mysterious #1, usually referred to as the “Phantom Killer”. On the journey back after safely delivering the client, Hanada’s car breaks down. He is picked up by a beautiful woman in a convertible; as they drive through the pouring rain, she speaks frankly of her death-wish… Hanada is hired to kill three men: a customs officer, an optometrist and a jeweller. He has barely completed his mission when Misako (Annu Mari), the woman from the road, calls upon him at home and hires him to kill a man she refers to only as “the foreigner”. It is a job requiring the finest of split-second precision—and Hanada botches it. The target is only wounded, and an innocent bystander killed—and Hanada himself becomes a target, as his fellow assassins turn upon him… Legendary as the film that got Suzuki Seijun fired from Nikkatsu (though he eventually won his unfair dismissal case, exposing in the process the scapegoating of a studio in crisis), Branded To Kill (Koroshi No Rakuin / Killing’s Brand) is a delirious deconstruction of the formulaic yazuka films that for nearly a decade had been Nikkatsu’s stock-in-trade. In this respect, the summation given is entirely misleading: accurate enough in outline, it conveys nothing of Branded To Kill‘s frenetic energy, shocking violence, stunning visuals, mordant humour and general weirdness. First-time viewers may find it not merely confronting, but confusing; not least because of Suzuki’s refusal to join the dots of his plot. In this, he both uses and satirises Nikkatsu’s more conventional productions—suggesting, in effect, that everyone is so familiar with the tropes of the genre that he needn’t bother spelling them out. Instead, Branded To Kill skips, lurches and leaps from one virtuoso set-piece to the next, as the viewer struggles to keep up. Perversely, despite the film’s ever-escalating body-count, it tends to be its humour rather than its violence that lingers: Hanada’s rice-fetish, which repeatedly finds the hitman hunched over a cooker and huffing the aroma; the bizarre three-fer assassination sequence; the sexual marathon between Hanada and his wife, Mami (Ogawa Mariko), which follows the killings (Suzuki keeps cutting away to the unrumpled marital bed, which is the only place they’re not doing it); or even the botched assassination—which goes wrong when a butterfly lands on the barrel of Hanada’s rifle at just the critical instant: an amusingly literal visualisation of the “butterfly effect”, as Hanada’s life spirals out of control as a consequence. (I assume this was only a coincidence, though, as the term had not yet been popularised.) Branded To Kill‘s sustained climax has Hanada terrorised by the Phantom Killer (Nanbara Kôji), who then moves into his apartment with him in order to let him see – before he kills him – exactly what it takes to be #1… Shishido Jô played the lead in a whole series of Nikkatsu’s “normal” yakuza films, and his performance here suggests that, like his director, he was relishing the opportunity to thumb his nose at the studio. However, despite the excellent contributions from Shishido and Nanbara, the ladies come mighty close to stealing the show. This was Ogawa Mariko’s only film; perhaps participation in this killed her career at the outset? – a pity, since she puts a dynamic energy into her role as sex-kitten Mami (which required her to spend most of her screen-time naked). However, it is the stunning Annu Mari as the enigmatic, death-obsessed Misako who provides many of the film’s most indelible moments. That said— Personally, I could wish that her thanophilia expressed itself otherwise than via decorating her existence with dead birds and pinned butterflies. I could have done without the Buñuel / Dali eyeball reference, too…

Contes Immoraux (1973)

This French production, a response to the slackening censorship laws of the early 70s, is a portmanteau film offering four different examinations of transgressive sexuality. (A fifth story was removed and later expanded into La Bête.) In La Maree (‘The Tide’), based upon a short story by André Pieyre de Mandiargues, André (Fabrice Luchini) leads his virginal young cousin, Julie (Lise Danvers), to an isolated beach, where he teaches her the meaning of the tides—among other things… In Thérése Philosophe, a young woman (Charlotte Alexandra) channels her sexuality into her religious fervour—and vice-versa… In Erzsebet Bathory, the notorious Countess (Paloma Picasso) tours her estates, collecting nubile young women… In Lucrezia Borgia, having had her impotent husband disposed of by her father, Pope Alexander VI (Jacopo Berinizi), and her brother, Cesare (Lorenzo Berinizi), Lucrezia sets about providing the Borgias with an heir… They’re immoral, all right, but possibly not in Walerian Borowczyk’s sense of the expression. The four stories in Contes Immoraux, each one of which takes place at an earlier historical period than its predecessor, are clearly enough intended to depict human sexuality through the ages, and to argue that the same desires have always existed—as have the same societal repressions. Unfortunately, what Borowczyk actually depicts is the fact that, in 1973, the double-standard was alive and well. Thus, the women in these stories who submit themselves unquestioningly to male desire are the ones that survive; while those who act independently to fulfill their own desires are brutally punished. In this respect, we can only shake our heads over the implications of Erzsebet Bathory, in particular, wherein the Countess’s female page, Istvan (Pascale Christophe), is apparently willing to play along with the mass slaughter of young women for their blood but, when compelled to have lesbian sex, sells her mistress out to the (male) authorities. La Maree, meanwhile, has a sixteen-year-old girl forced to perform fellatio on her cousin, but not until he reassures himself that her mouth is sufficiently virginal: “Intacta!” he exults, when she confesses she’s never even been kissed. (Thinking about it now, I see why Borowczyk removed La Véritable Histoire de la Bête du Gévaudan from Contes Immoraux: its female sexual “victory” is hardly in keeping with the tone of the other stories.) Only Lucrezia Borgia hits the note that, we assume, Borowczyk was aiming for, with Lucrezia’s willing participation in a threesome with her father and her brother being intercut with Savonarola’s (Philippe Desboeuf) denunciation of debauchery in the church, and the latter’s consequent burning at the stake with the church-sponsored baptism of Lucrezia’s (male) bastard. The double-standard at play in Contes Immoraux extends to its copious nudity: while a penis or two does drift by, the focus at all times is upon the female body and, more specifically, the female genital area; the constant pubic leering grows extremely tiresome. Frankly, if I were interested in that sort of thing, I’d go and watch Zombie Lake again. At least that’s funny.

Ten Little Indians (1974)

Filmed as Ein Unbekannter rechnet ab (roughly, A Stranger Settles Accounts) and released in some territories as And Then There Were None, this adaptation of Agatha Christie’s much retitled novel seems to have missed the point. Produced and co-written by Harry Alan Towers, the latter under his “Peter Welbeck” pseudonym, this is a remake of Towers’ own production of the story from 1965. In that case, he changed the setting to a mountaintop resort in Austria; this time around, he has the characters stranded at a desert hotel in pre-revolutionary Iran. Seven guests – Hugh Lombard (Oliver Reed), General André Salvé (Adolfo Celi), actress Ilona Morgan (Stéphane Audran), judge Arthur Cannon (Richard Attenborough), Dr Edward Armstrong (Herbert Lom), ex-policeman Wilhelm Blore (Gert Fröbe) and entertainer Michel Raven (Charles Aznavour) – plus newly hired secretary, Vera Clyde (Elke Sommer), arrive by helicopter at the isolated hotel where they expect to find their host and employer, a Mr Owen. However, the only people on the premises are two servants, Elsa (Maria Rohm) and Otto Martino (Alberto de Mendoza). As they settle in, each of the newcomers discovers in their room a framed copy of the nonsense-poem, ‘Ten Little Indians’. After dinner, the guests chat in the lounge as the Martinos serve drinks—until they are interrupted by a booming voice, which accuses all ten of them of having gotten away with murder. A frightened Martino admits to having started the recorded message, not knowing what was on it. Most of those present deny fervently the charges made against them. Michel Raven, however, admits that he was indeed guilty of hitting and killing two people with his car—for which he lost his licence. Having made this defiant announcement, Raven finishes his drink—and falls dead… As a fan of Agatha Christie, I am frequently annoyed by the changes made to adaptations of her novels—most of which just seem like tampering with the text for its own sake. The changes made over the years to almost every version of this particular story are, however, more exasperating than most, since they invariably have the effect of completely undermining the point of the whole exercise. I mean— If you’re intent upon having a happy ending, why film this story in the first place?? Not recognising, apparently, that rounding up ten English people on an island off Cornwall stretches credibility quite enough, Ten Little Indians has a United Nations-ish crew persuaded into travelling into the Iranian desert. (Begging the question of how U. N. Owen knew about their various, equally international transgressions.) Once the murders start, things go from bad to worse: not only is there no attempt made to replicate the deaths in the poem, but several of the killings are logistically impossible. They are also unimpressively staged, and do little to break up the tedium of too many wandering-in-the-dark and (in the case of Elke Sommer) screaming-for-no-reason scenes. Perhaps the most annoying thing, however, is the suggestion that having gone to all this trouble, Mr Owen has nevertheless made at least two mistakes… It is easy to imagine that Harry Alan Towers was prompted to remake himself by the release of Murder On The Orient Express the same year, and he too goes the “ensemble” route. The cast, indeed, is easily the best thing about Ten Little Indians; so it is frustrating that most of the actors given so little to do. Elke Sommer and Oliver Reed have no chemistry as the film’s putative “romantic” leads; conversely, Stéphane Audran is charming but woefully underused. Richard Attenborough finally comes out of this best—and gets the most memorable death-scene. Otherwise, only two touches rescue this film from being a complete disappointment: Charles Aznavour’s amusingly gratuitous rendition of his signature song, Les Plaisirs Démodés; and the fact that U. N. Owen’s arraignment of the guests / victims features the voice of Orson Welles.

Dead Sleep (1992)

American nurse Maggie Healey (Linda Blair), looking for work after the failure of her relationship with her Australian boyfriend, Hugh (Andrew Booth), is relieved to secure a part-time position at Elysium Fields, a private psychiatric facility outside Brisbane. Though she attracts the ire of her supervisor, Sister Kereby (Christine Amor), leading psychotherapist Dr Jonathan Heckett (Tony Bonner) is impressed with both Maggie’s qualifications and her attitude to her work, and insists upon her being hired full-time. Maggie is at first delighted to be assigned to Dr Heckett’s deep-sleep patients; however, when she learns the details of the controversial therapy she begins to have doubts; while the death of a patient, plus Heckett’s uncaring and arrogant attitude, prompt her to resign. When crusading journalist, Thena Fuery (Vassy Cotsopolous), brings a whole series of deaths to her attention, and after tragedy strikes again, this time close to home, Maggie manages to get her job back, in order to conduct a secret investigation… Well—this was one of my more uncomfortable viewing experiences of recent times. While its general listing as a horror movie indicates that people elsewhere don’t realise that it was based on a true story, this Australian thriller is a reworking of the real-life Chelmsford Private Hospital tragedy, wherein at least two dozen psychiatric patients died after being subjected (voluntarily or involuntarily) to so-called “deep sleep therapy”, that is, induction via drugs of an extended coma, during which time other treatments are given, including electroconvulsive therapy. The problem with Dead Sleep is it is neither one thing nor the other: neither a serious consideration of the real-life culture of negligence which allowed the situation to develop, nor a thoroughly nasty exploitation film—which might have been its own justification. Instead, a generally solemn presentation of the story is awkwardly interrupted from time to time with moments of tackiness (Dr Heckett taking advantage of a female patient, for example); while overall, the film is organised like a rip-off of Coma, with Maggie finally risking her life as well as her career to expose the deadly “treatment”. Thus, while we get lengthy scenes of Maggie banging her head against the brick wall of administrative and political indifference, it’s not about the failure of the system, it’s to isolate her so she has to put herself in danger to get the job done. Name guest-star Linda Blair is adequate as Maggie, but Tony Bonner’s buffoonish performance as sleazebag-cum-megalomaniac-cum-serial killer Dr Heckett is squirm-inducing, in light of the knowledge that his character is based on a real person (though apparently in general outlines the characterisation isn’t that inaccurate, horrifyingly enough). Meanwhile, Vassy Cotsopolous is shrill and annoying as Thena, a character invented to paper over the one point at which the film’s screenplay shies away from the truth: that the nurse who blew the whistle at Chelmsford was working with the Church of Scientology, as part of their anti-psychiatry campaign. A few familiar faces in supporting roles are welcome (Christine Amor doing her snooty voice as the matron, Slim de Grey as a doomed patient), but ultimately, the single grace-note in Dead Sleep is that it never at any point exploits or demonises the psychiatric patients, or treats them as anything but the most vulnerable of victims.

Dead Birds (2004)

Alabama, 1863. Four Confederate deserters – William (Henry Thomas); his brother, Sam (Patrick Fugit); Clyde (Michael Shannon); and Joseph (Mark Boone Junior) – along with William’s lover, Annabelle (Nicki Aycox), and a former slave, Todd (Isiah Washington), rob a bank of a recently-received gold shipment. It is a bloody affair, with a number of people killed including a child; while Sam is seriously wounded. The band then heads south, meaning to cross the border into Mexico. However, with night falling they take refuge in the deserted Hollister plantation. As soon as they enter the grounds, disturbing events begin to occur: a crucified figure in a cornfield may not be a scarecrow at all; while Joseph shoots and kills a strange, deformed animal. The travellers nevertheless press on to the house—where it is soon clear that they are not alone… The historical setting of Dead Birds is well-executed and imaginative, and makes a welcome change, but the film itself is a let-down for a variety of reasons—chiefly, that while there are some creepy moments in the film, and some gross ones, overall there is just way too much wandering around in the dark. In addition, the whole bank robbery turns out to be a bit of a McGuffin, with the tensions over the gold not amounting to as much as the initial handling of this subplot suggest they will. The film’s morality is a bit dubious, too: it tries to divide the characters into “good” and “bad”, or at least “sympathetic” and “unsympathetic”, but after the opening-scene slaughter, it all seems a bit moot. The biggest disappointment for me, however, is that this is one of those horror films where everything is revealed via lengthy flashbacks / visions, instead of the characters figuring it out for themselves. I’m also a bit unclear on the link between the two halves of the supernatural plot—although if I’m understanding it correctly (and there’s a bit too much mumbling at critical moments), Dead Birds offers the rather Lovecraftian idea that various unpleasant entities are “out there”, and that one character’s attempts to raise the dead only succeeded in tearing down a barrier and letting them in. Unfortunately this idea is not particularly well worked out and, with the exception of the creepy skinned-animal thing, the entities are disappointingly familiar, the usual ghostly children whose faces distort at the last moment. Muse Watson appears in the flashback / vision scenes as the husband whose love for his wife leads him to torture, wholesale murder and accidental entity-inviting.

Night Of Terror (2006)

Real estate agent Jill Dunne (Mitzi Capture) finds herself in a state of almost constant conflict with her teenage daughter, Olivia (Martha MacIsaac), over the girl’s relationship with her boyfriend, Zack (Joe MacLeod). Chasing up a strange charge on her credit card, Jill is led to a luxury hotel, where the manager, Richard Grant (Nick Mancuso), tells her that their records do indicate that her husband, Sean (Rick Roberts), had been there. Jill is confused by this, as she knows that Sean was out of town on the weekend in question. Her conversation with Grant leads Jill to give him her business card, and to make an appointment to show him a condominium. Not long afterwards, Grant phones Jill and tells her that her husband is back at the motel. Driving over to see for herself, Jill observes Sean with another woman… Brooding over her discovery, Jill is almost drawn into an affair with Grant, but breaks things off at the last moment. A subsequent confrontation with Sean brings his infidelity and some other long-standing marital issues out into the open. The Dunnes decide that they need time together, and plan a camping-trip to an isolated location in the woods, with the reluctant Olivia in tow—and Richard Grant on their trail… An obvious and rather tiresome thriller, Night Of Terror is notable chiefly for its outrageous double-standard. Sean’s six-month-long affair is not just hand-waved, the screenplay somehow makes him the victim, allowing him the moral high-ground in his subsequent confrontation with Jill; while at the same time, her single almost-fling, called off in time and bitterly regretted, brings a psychopath down upon the family. Indeed, the film’s evident sympathy with Sean becomes increasingly exasperating, in light of, not just the affair itself, but his constant complaining about not getting enough attention at home when he gets back from his business trips—and for “business trips” he means “dirty weekends with his mistress”! Besides— What sort of idiot uses a shared credit card to pay for his secret affair? (Answer: the same sort of idiot that goes back to the same motel after he knows he’s been busted.) Otherwise, the main issue with this film is that far too much of it is devoted to the members of the Dunne family shouting at one another, and far too little to the promised “night of terror” (a good chunk of which unfolds in the daytime, by the way). Nick Mancuso’s see-sawing performance as Richard Grant is at least entertaining, but Rick Roberts fails to make Sean anything other than a selfish dick, while Mitzi Capture is unable to contend with the script’s determination to blame everything on Jill. (Night Of Terror isn’t as overt in its anti-career-woman stance as some, but hey, here we are again.) And really— When a petulant seventeen-year-old and her slacker boyfriend ultimately come across as a film’s most emotionally mature characters, there’s only so much a knife-wielding psycho can do.

Séance (2006)

While most of the student body of a New York university departs for Thanksgiving, four friends stay behind in their dorm rooms: Lauren (Kandis Erickson, aka Kandis Fay), Melina (Tori White), Alison (Chauntal Lewis) and Diego (A. J. Lamas), Alison’s boyfriend. The only others people in the building are loner Grant (Joel Geist), who has a single room down the corridor, and security guard Syd (Jack Hunter), who mans the front desk downstairs. Much to her friends’ amusement, Lauren insists that the room she shares with Melina and Alison is haunted by the ghost of a little girl, whose activities seem to be centred in their bathroom. Late at night, Lauren sees the corridor lights begin to flicker, and the door of an out-of-order elevator open and close on its own. Observing her, Grant remarks calmly that the little girl is doing it. He is able to tell Lauren that the ghost is that of Cara Furia (Bridget Shergalis), whose family lived in the building some forty years before when it was still a block of commercial apartments, and who died in a fall down the elevator shaft. Furthermore, he has surveillance footage of the corridor that briefly shows the ghostly figure. Lauren reports this to her friends, who remain sceptical. Diego then suggests a séance, to find out what Cara wants. The ritual fails to contact the little girl, but it is soon evident that the friends have summoned a different and much more dangerous spirit… The most striking thing about Séance is the way it manages to both open and close with an incredibly annoying moment, starting with a cheating dream scene that turns a benign victim-ghost into a yawningly familiar black-mouthed demon, and closing not just with the crushing inevitability of a kicker ending, but a kicker ending placed in the middle of the credits. In between it does have a few interesting touches, besides generating some good-will at the outset with its refreshingly matter-of-fact acceptance of its ghosts; but overall, it’s a failure—partly because it never makes up its mind what kind of horror story it wants to be (a confusion indicated by its simultaneous riffing on The Exorcist, The Changeling and A Nightmare On Elm Street, with just a touch of Wait Until Dark thrown in too), and partly because this is one of those exasperating films that makes up its own rules about its supernatural entities and then refuses to play by them. There are several instances of this, but the biggest concerns the accidental summoning of the building’s former janitor / resident serial killer, Jesse Spence (Adrian Paul). When the séance fails to bring Cara into the friends’ presence, but does call up Spence, it is “explained” via the assertion that a séance can only summon a spirit not already present—but the reason Lauren (who called Spence’s name) knows about him in the first place is because Grant told her that even as her room is haunted by Cara, his is haunted by Spence—so how is he “not already present”? As we’re pondering that contradiction, Séance morphs from a ghost story into a slasher movie, with occasional detours into a possession movie, as Spence resumes his murderous career: picking off the building’s few residents one-by-one – lacking a black character, he starts with the sexually active young woman – and progressing rapidly from bloody but straightforward murder to the concocting of a ridiculously elaborate death-trap. (The latter begging the question of why, if ghosts have such agency in the physical world, Cara didn’t just rip up the bathroom floor herself, without needing Lauren’s help.) By this time I was thoroughly disengaged from the film, but even if I hadn’t been, Séance finishes the job with an absurd little scene of Melina hiding from Spence—so terrified by what lurks outside her refuge that she literally hasn’t a glance to spare for the second ghost hunkered down beside her…

Reflections (2008)

American Europol Agent Tom Brindle (Timothy Hutton) is called to Barcelona, to investigate the latest murder by a serial killer known as “Pygmalion”, who dresses his victims in red and places them where they can be observed through a window. At the latest crime-scene, some prints are found upon the glass; they are determined to be those of Marco Soler (Miguel Ángel Silvestre), a mechanic in the army. However, Soler turns out to have an iron-clad alibi for the last murder: after an altercation with a superior officer, he was in a holding-cell. Investigation of Marco’s family history reveals that he was born from an implanted embryo conceived in an IVF program, and has a “twin” brother ten years older than himself. Brindle reconnects with his ex-lover and former colleague, Elena (Tània Sàrrias), a psychologist, and persuades her to work with Marco and himself in their attempt to build a remote profile of the killer… As I seem to be saying a lot lately, the premise of Reflections is one that deserves to be in a better film. Much could have been done with it both dramatically, with someone finding out about their connection to a killer, and psychologically, in terms of the “twin” studies cited here. Instead, having sprung its genetic surprise at the outset, instead of saving it for a shocking twist, all we get in Reflections is a tepid thriller full of Informed Attributes©, wherein the most basic deductions are hailed as brilliant insights (the killer posing his victims must “mean something”, for example), and seasoned investigators react to setbacks by wailing, “But we got DNAAAAAAAA!!!!” (Also, they can’t pronounce “carotid”.) This was a Spanish production but aimed at an international market; so that, while logically we should find Tom Brindle speaking Spanish, what we have instead is European actors speaking heavily accented English—to an extent that frequently makes their dialogue tricky to understand. This is particularly problematic with respect to the performances of Ivana Miño as forensics expert Paz Bonilla and Anna Lluch as Dr Molina, who between them have to convey the physical evidence and medical background of the case; while it increasingly becomes so with respect to Miguel Ángel Silvestre, too, as Marco’s emotional state spirals out of control. The situation also exacerbates the film’s ongoingly poor identification of characters, so that you often don’t know who is being spoken about until after the event. Brindle, meanwhile, is one of those exasperating “heroes” who goes through life getting other people killed on a semi-regular basis; not that it seems to bother him particularly. Reflections was shot on location in Spain and France and this makes it attractive and refreshingly unfamiliar to look at; but its pay-off is both thuddingly obvious and psychologically dubious.

Clara’s Deadly Secret (2013)

Architect Michael Clayton (Richard Ruccolo) and his ex-police detective wife, Helen (Emmanuelle Vaugier), move with their two daughters, Emma (Eva Link) and Kate (Ella Ballentine), from Boston to Helen’s home town of Hallowell. Even as they are settling in, odd occurrences plague the family: doors slam without reason, and Kate begins talking to an imaginary friend; she also has dreams about “the bad man”. A series of anonymous letters arrive, containing photographs of newspaper clippings about murders and disappearances. Helen also notices a man watching the house. After a series of odd reactions to their occupancy of the house, Helen learns from her old friend, Anna (Rachel Casseus), that Hallowell has a disproportionately high number of unsolved mysteries, and that her new home was the site of one of them: the death of young Clara Jenkins (Kirtsten Hayden), whose fall from her tree-house was ruled an accident. Helen visits Jane Jenkins (Kate Drummond) in a psychiatric facility: Jane is adamant that Clara’s death was not an accident, arguing that the charm bracelet which she never took off was missing from her body. Having already given Helen records of some of the town’s unsolved crimes, Anna, who works at the sheriff’s department, paves the way for Helen to begin her own investigation—only to then die herself in a mysterious accident… Though it does not – to say the least – ultimately hang together, the weird blending of ghost story and police procedural in Clara’s Deadly Secret made it unexpectedly enjoyable; as indeed did the fact that this turned out to be another example of one of my favourite subgenres, a film about a family finding out that they’re living in The Murder House. In that regard, some of the subtext here is amusing: though Helen was seriously injured while working on a case where she “got too close to it”, it is clear that Mike has pressured her into early retirement, and that the move from the big bad city to a small town was his idea—only for him then to discover he has walked his ex-detective wife into (i) a haunted house, and (ii) a twenty-year-long serial-killer mystery. Oops. The performances in Clara’s Deadly Secret are all adequate at worst, so the film goes down fairly easily even when it doesn’t work. While its supernatural elements are mild in the extreme, the film does manage something of an Amityville vibe, with creepy things happening in an ordinary (if impressive) suburban house. However, the serial killer plot is both over-obvious and psychologically lacking; efforts to demonstrate Helen’s “brilliance” as a detective are half-hearted (when she takes about five minutes to discover a link between the various deaths, we come away less impressed with her than appalled at local law enforcement); and the film remembers and forgets about her shoulder injury as convenient. Meanwhile, if you put the two plot-threads together, we’re left with the unanswerable question of why Clara Jenkins alone has stuck around as a ghost, when it could be (or at least so it seems) half the town. But its ghost and its resident psycho notwithstanding, the most unbelievable thing about Clara’s Deadly Secret is the tree-house from which Clara falls during the opening sequence: the thing is such a nightmarish death-trap that you can’t imagine any parent letting their kid anywhere near near it; and its continued presence twenty years (and several family-occupants) later requires more suspension of disbelief on the viewer’s part than anything else in the film.

Stalked By My Doctor (2015)

Despite his being one of America’s leading cardiologists, the private life of Dr Albert Beck (Eric Roberts) is a mess. As yet another attempt at a relationship falls apart, Beck concludes that he needs to find someone younger; much, much younger. When lovely teenager, Sophie Green (Brianna Joy Chomer), ends up on his operating-table, Beck knows that he has found the girl of his dreams; and if he and Sophie being together requires him to stalk her, sneak into her bedroom, sabotage her relationship with her boyfriend, abduct her, and fake her death via a stolen corpse and a rewritten coroner’s report, well, so be it… Oh. My. Goodness. From the embarrassing implosions of Albert Beck’s romantic ventures with age-appropriate partners (He: “What am I doing wrong?” She: “YOU ARE INSANE!!”), to Sophie’s enthusiastic, golf-club-wielding takedown of her tormentor (“I love you!” WHACK!!), Stalked By My Doctor is just way too entertaining. This is (of course) a Lifetime movie, with all that implies; but it also has something that most Lifetime movies do not: self-awareness. It gets its effects by letting Eric Roberts go as far over the top as he likes – and trust me, that’s a lo-oo-oo-ong way – while making the rest of the cast play it straight. The results are bizarrely compelling—hilarious, and squirm-inducing, yet with a queasy undertone emanating from our awareness that, however absurdly presented here, there is an underlying truth in everything from Beck’s need for a partner he can control, to the difficulties experienced by Sophie and her mother in getting anyone to take their accusations seriously. (In that respect, the most Lifetime-ish character here may be Sophie’s father, who apparently doesn’t feel that his teenage daughter being molested is too high a price to pay to retain the services of the man who “rewrote the book on cardio-vascular surgery”.) While Eric Roberts’ meltdown-studded offering almost defies description, the supporting performances in Stalked By My Doctor are actually pretty good—particularly from Brianna Joy Chomer as Sophie and Deborah Zoe as Adrienne, her mother; the relationship between the two is depicted in a refreshingly positive manner. And while this whole film is pretty funny, on reflection I’m not sure that its best joke isn’t the final-scene implication that Sophie’s parents will never again be able to complain about anything her idiot boyfriend does—even if that turns out to be trying to kill her by texting-and-driving for a third time…

Stalked By My Doctor: The Return (2016)

Having fled the country to Mexico, and now using the name “Victor Slausen”, Dr Albert Beck (Eric Roberts) is still looking for love when Amy Watkins (Claire Blackwater) almost drowns. As her terrified mother, Linda (Hilary Greer), and her boyfriend, Garth (Mark Grossman), look on, Beck resuscitates Amy—and promptly falls in love with her. However, Beck has learned a few things from his disappointment over Sophie Green; and instead of pursuing the teenager directly, he begins to court her hesitant but flattered mother… You may have gotten the mistaken impression from my comments on Stalked By My Doctor that Albert Beck couldn’t possibly be any more of a creep. He certainly could, and this one-year-later sequel ties a pretty red bow around his all-engulfing psychopathy by having him make moves straight out of the Humbert Humbert playbook. Stalked By My Doctor: The Return is somewhat less fun than its predecessor, mostly because Eric Roberts’ performance is more restrained. Though Beck still dissolves into elaborate and pathetically unlikely fantasies at the drop of the hat, there are fewer of the hysterical meltdowns that were the high-point of the first film. This sequel also reworks a few too many of the first film’s plot points—having Beck ruin Amy’s relationship with Garth, for instance, this time via a doctored blood-test which makes her believe he has given her herpes (terrible not just in itself, but because They’ve Only Had Sex With Each Other). However, this one does still have its moments, like when “Victor”, while supposedly listening sympathetically to Linda’s various problems, suddenly fantasises about slashing her throat; or when he sits down to a pancake-breakfast that spells A-M-Y… When “Victor” declares his interest in Linda, it is (ironically enough) Amy who pushes her mother into the relationship, glad to see her begin to spread her wings again. Since the death of her husband, Amy’s father, Linda has suffered a range of psychological problems, and Beck recognises and zeroes in on this, exploiting Linda’s vulnerability and self-doubt for his own purposes. By the time Beck’s mask has slipped far enough to make Amy realise that she is his actual target, Linda has committed herself to “Victor”, and stubbornly insists that Amy is either misreading him or is just plain jealous. Unable to prevent the hurried wedding, Amy’s fears come to a head when she finds that Victor has been collecting articles about fatal honeymoon accidents…

(Thanks to The Deadly Doll for putting me onto these two.)

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17 Responses to Et Al. Feb18

  1. Dawn says:

    I watched “Dead Birds”, and loved the ending. The middle was somewhat tedious. I felt sorry for the big hulking brute who wanted to help the poor little child, only to get promptly killed.
    Annabelle’s dying husband was from the Hollister estate, and told the gang to go there if they needed a hideout. By the end of the movie, it’s pretty obvious that he was quite well aware of what would happen, and also aware of Annabelle’s cheating on him with William.
    The gold from the robbery is used mostly as a reason for the surviving partners not to worry too much about all the deaths around them – it’s just more gold for themselves.
    SPOILER ALERT: The ending was great. The last surviving member, after accidentally killing Annabelle, finally finds his way out of the corn field just at sunrise. He jumps through the last row of corn onto the road, only to be shot dead. The camera swings around, and you see that he has become that weird white creature from the beginning of the movie. As he lays dead, he drops the gold that was in his hand. The soldier who shot him looks at the gold, then at his partner. You know they are going to be next in line to look for the gold, and find only DEATH.


    • lyzmadness says:

      It certainly has its moments but for me they didn’t outweigh the tedious bits. It feels like they didn’t quite recognise where the film’s strengths were, and so didn’t give them enough prominence.


      • Dawn says:

        first half hour, 15 minutes in the middle (where we discover Annabelle’s husband is deliberately sending them to the evil house), and the last 10 minutes.
        That would be a good movie. Who cares how the house became evil?


  2. Doug says:

    Odd, the version of Immoral Tales that I saw included all five stories. Apparently multiple versions were released.


    • lyzmadness says:

      Yeah, at various times and for various reasons it has been shown with four, five and six short films. Four is supposed to be the “official” version, though. At any rate, it’s what we got on DVD. 🙂


  3. Firedrake says:

    Here’s a solution for Queen Capys: “Right, prisoners, I’m going to execute one of you per hour until one of them turns out to be Penope, and the curse lifts. Everyone still alive at that point gets to go free. You sort it out between you who goes first.” … what can I say, I’m a mean nasty sort of person.

    Maybe the sea is just where Maciste gets put when he’s not needed to beat things up.

    I now want to get “fatal honeymoon accidents” into my search history, just because.


    • lyzmadness says:

      Yeah, but it’s Ulysses’ bloodline she’s supposed to be ending; so unless Penope is either Agisander’s cousin or pregnant again (and the film doesn’t suggest either), she is irrelevant. All that time and energy should have been focused on hunting down the baby.

      Storage-lockers of…THE PAST!!

      Just don’t leave your computer where your suspicious step-daughter might access it…


      • RogerBW says:

        My wife can tell you how paranoid I am about computers. (More than she used to consider reasonable, until I showed her some of the things an evil-minded person can get up to.) Though I’m tempted to write a screensaver with a large button on it labelled “OVERRIDE SECURITY”…


  4. Galaxy Jane says:

    Holy cow, I need to see those last two! I can’t resist a trashy TV movie.


    • lyzmadness says:

      They don’t come much trashier. 😀

      I was very pleasantly surprised when they both turned up on cable last month. (As opposed to the Channel 7 Midday Movie, which is where Lifetime movies usually hang out in this neck of the woods…)


  5. The only one of these I’ve seen was Dead Birds, and that was years ago. All I remember is that it had lots of great atmosphere, no likeable characters and too many jump scares.


    • lyzmadness says:

      That strikes me as a fair summation.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Actually, I reviewed this film a long time ago (dramatic pause) when I walked among the living.
        I honestly don’t recommend reading that–I did, because I thought I recalled the title, but the review just goes on forever and is always guessing wrong. (The things we do, decades ago….)


      • Dawn says:

        I read your review, beckongchasm, and turned out I had forgotten a lot about this movie. I do remember very well the scene where the lone survivor jumps out of the corn field, is shut, and has turned into that weird skinned beast. Best scene of the movie.
        The movie Scarecrow is similar to this – bad guys end up at a farm and are picked off one at a time. In that movie, there is no attempt to explain just how those scarecrows moved around.

        Liked by 1 person

      • therevdd says:

        Admittedly it’s been years since I’ve seen it, but I believe it’s stated (or maybe just hinted) that the previous owners of the farm practiced black magic. Of course, that doesn’t explain the nature of the curse, which would’ve made more sense if something valuable was rumored to have been hidden on the farm itself. As it was, it came off more like “Well it’s because they were EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEVIL!!”

        Liked by 1 person

      • lyzmadness says:

        The very fact that we’re having this conversation (and can’t decide what was actually happening) sums up my issues with the film: ambiguity is fine, but this is just confusion.

        My reading is that they didn’t practise black magic per se, rather Muse Watson started doing so to bring his wife back (via rituals involving the torture and murder of slaves) but instead tore a hole in the cosmic fabric and turned the plantation into a Lovecraftian Bad Place. But honestly, I have no idea where the creepy skinned-things fit into that.


      • therevdd says:

        Just as clarification: I was talking about Scarecrows. I haven’t seen Dead Birds.


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