The Velvet Vampire (1971)

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Aka Cemetery Girls. Remember – this is the desert and out here the sun can be destructive. Nice guy Lee Ritter (Michael Blodgett) and his pretty wife, Susan (Sherry Miles) are introduced by friend Carl Stoker (Gene Shane) to mysterious vixen Diane LeFanu (Celeste Yarnall) to visit her in her secluded desert estate. She lives with Juan (Jerry Daniels) whom she says her family raised when his died on their reservation. However when she takes them to a graveyard where she claims her husband is buried tensions arise – trouble is Mr LeFanu was buried in 1875.  The couple, unaware at first that Diane is in reality a centuries-old vampire, realise that they are both objects of the pale temptress’ desire but that doesn’t really stop them lying in the way of her systematic seduction… Diane, I think I want to drive your buggy. This homage to Irish horror maestros Bram Stoker, Sheridan LeFanu and the recent Euro-Gothic erotic vampire genre, is the kind of cult exploitationer that should be seen more regularly but still belongs firmly in that realm despite its contemporary dayglo modern California setting, dune buggies and post-hippie glam.  While played straight, the lines aerate the daft premise with humour:  There is no life without blood, says the marvellous diaphonously clad Yarnall, a veteran of TV’s Ozzie and Harriet who died one year ago this week. You’ll recognise her from Live a Little, Love a Little as the beautiful girl who inspires Elvis to sing A Little Less Conversation. Miles is a lovably clueless ditsy blonde, barely clad in a bikini but topless more often than not. Blodgett (Lance in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls) is perfectly engaging as the good guy who just can’t help himself. The low budget is put to one side by the clever setting – that Spanish Revival house in the desert where the sunlight plays havoc with those pale of skin who prefer to socialise at night but also gives costumier Keith Hodges some fun opportunities and Daniel LaCambre shoots it beautifully. There’s a well conceived climax at LA’s bus terminal and a rather appetising coda. Blues musician Johnny Shines performs his song Evil-Hearted Woman. Directed by cult fave Stephanie Rothman and co-written by her (with her producer husband Charles S. Swartz and Maurice Jules, who also co-wrote that voodoo vampire outing Scream Blacula Scream), this gives you a good idea why her point of view as a feminist filmmaker was so significant in the drive-in era and it’s a real shame her women’s movies aren’t more widely known. Roger Corman was somewhat disappointed with the finished result and released it on a double bill with the Italian horror Scream of the Demon LoverI was having the same dream

Play It As It Lays (1972)

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I’ll tell you what I do. I try to live in the now. Burned-out B-movie actress Maria (Tuesday Weld), depressed and frustrated with her loveless marriage to an ambitious film director, Carter Lang (Adam Roarke) who would rather work on his career than on his relationship with her, numbs herself with drugs and sex with strangers. Only her friendship with a sensitive gay movie producer, B.Z. (Anthony Perkins), offers a semblance of solace. But even that relationship proves to be fleeting amidst the empty decadence of Hollywood as they both start to crack up ... How do you get to the desert? You drive there. Husband and wife screenwriting team Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne adapted Didion’s sensational novel of alienation and its transposition to the screen by director Frank Perry captures its existential sense of crisis. Weld is perfect as the model turned actress whose flashbacks are a faux-documentary and some biker movies she has made with her husband (and Roarke starred in some himself, of course). Her narrative is determined by movie business ghouls and Sidney Katz’s editing plays into her disjointed sense that she is losing control in a chilling world where her retarded daughter is locked away and she undergoes an illegal abortion.  Weld is teamed up again with Perkins after Pretty Poison and they work beautifully together – you really believe in their tender friendship. An overlooked gem which reminds us what a fine performer Weld is and also the fact that Charles Bukowski wrote about her in the poem the best way to get famous is to run away.  A cult classic. The fact is, when an actress walks off a picture people get the idea she doesn’t want to work

Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (1971)

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The meek shall NOT inherit the earth. They can’t be trusted with it.  British archaeologist Professor Julian Fuchs (Andrew Keir) and his team bring the preserved mummy of Egyptian royal Queen Tera (with a severed hand) back from their latest expedition. Fuchs’ rival Corbeck (James Villiers) persuades the archaeologist’s daughter Margaret (Valerie Leon) to get the expedition members to hand over missing relics but each time one is handed over the person holding it dies because Margaret is possessed by Tera’s evil spirit since her father gave her a bejewelled ring from the tomb.  Her nightmares about the expedition seem have now come to life … The late great Chris Wicking adapted (more, or less) Bram Stoker’s The Jewel of the Seven Stars but was banned from the set by producer Howard Brandy and continued working with director Seth Holt in the evenings. Peter Cushing was supposed to play Fuchs but dropped out when his wife became seriously ill. Five weeks into shooting Holt died in the arms of a cast member. He was replaced by Hammer boss Michael Carreras who found that Holt’s work didn’t cut together. This extraordinary backstory (the mummy’s real revenge?!) to one of the best of that studio’s late films is incidental to what is a canny interpretation of Stoker making this modern story seem entirely plausible because of the realistic and sometimes ironic approach. Bond girl Leon is fantastic in the dual role of Margaret and the tragic Queen who turned to evil – both are sexy, of course and Keir does very well as her father. The atmosphere of dread is well sustained while there is some genuinely gruesome action. More than a curio and not quite the mother of all mummy movies but pretty close.

The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970)

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Appears to me you’ve been seventeen kinds of damned fool. Cable Hogue (Jason Robards) has been abandoned to die by fellow failed prospectors Taggart (L.Q. Jones) and Bowen (Strother Martin) in the Arizona desert. When he finds a water source he digs a ditch and determines to settle there and charge passers by for a drink at his way station. When fake priest Rev. Joshua Sloane (David Warner) – minister of a church of his own revelation – stops and introduces him to photos of some fresh female flesh and enquires about ownership Hogue races to file a land claim at nearby Dead Dog where he takes a fancy to feisty prostitute Hildy (Stella Stevens). She joins him after being run out of town. They take leave of each other when she sees he isn’t committed to her. When Taggart and Bowen return in his absence they see an opportunity for prospecting. Then he comes back and takes charge but there’s a car on the horizon … Hogue is one of Peckinpah’s most empathetic characters, a rounded individual and funny with it and is embodied wonderfully wryly by Robards who has rarely been better. Stevens is equally at home with the material and their scenes together are remarkably tender (not for nothing did she get the Reel Cowboys’ Silver Spur award for her contribution to the western). This is a highly unconventional exercise in genre with marvellous characters adorning a story that is – as the title suggests – a kind of elegy to frontier life, with songs (by Richard Gillis) playing a large role in the narrative whose tragicomic end can be inferred. The end of the Old West is symbolised by the arrival of the motor car (or ‘horseless carriages’ as they call them here) when all at once Hogue’s little oasis is out of date. Too subtle to be a comedy western, too sweet to be lumped in with Peckinpah’s more violent fare (particularly his previous film, The Wild Bunch), this is quite a mellow and reflective essay on what a man needs to confront in his life:  change, loss and obsolescence. Written by John Crawford and Edmund Penney and beautifully shot by Lucien Ballard with split screens and speeded up scenes to remind us when it originated.

 

Trapeze (1956)

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Burt Lancaster is Mike Ribble, a disabled acrobat who walks with a limp because of a triple somersault that went drastically wrong years ago. Now he’s working as a rigger. Tino Orsini (Tony Curtis) wants to learn the triple and Ribble’s the only guy who can teach him. He doesn’t want to but his ex Rosa (Katy Jurado) persuades him to do it. The men form an act and try to crack the big time but when Italian trampolinist Lola (Gina Lollabrigida) gets between them their plans start to come apart at the seams … Vivid, colourful and atmospheric circus film directed by Carol Reed from a script by Liam O’Brien, adapting a novel called The Killing Frost by Max Catto. The screenplay was credited to James R. Webb but there were uncredited additions by Ben Hecht and Wolf Mankowitz. La Lollo makes her American debut in a starry, well-performed production that shows off Lancaster’s acrobatic skills, well documented by Robert Krasker’s photography (he was responsible for all those tilted angles for Reed in The Third Man.) Curtis is an excellent leading man, full of beauty, brio and bravery. Malcolm Arnold’s score captures the jauntiness and terror of the circus with its captivating sense of danger and daring. The bromance is great fun and La Lollo is an alluring femme fatale, as you’d expect! This was damned by the critics but huge at the box office. Quoi de neuf?!

 

The Jungle Book (2016)

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I was indisposed to the idea that the classic Disney cartoon would get a revamp. Part of my problem with photo-real animation is that when things get dark they get very lifelike and sinister indeed, as we found with the beyond-creepy Spielberg takes on Tintin and The BFG (where the villainous giant seemed like a big ole murderous paedophile). So when man-cub Mowgli gets separated from his wolf family and taken away to his own people by black panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) the shifts in tone from good nature (Baloo the bear, Bill Murray) to bad (Shere Khan the tiger, an almost incomprehensible Idris Elba) are very jarring. The musical interludes while entertaining seem like they’re dropped in from another movie. Overall however, it has to be admitted that it all works out in the end. Good stories are sometimes immune to strange interpretations. And how nice is it to hear Garry Shandling voicing the porcupine?  Written by Justin Marks, directed by Jon Favreau.

Ten Little Indians (1974)

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Everyone knows the story of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Niggers, one of the most perfectly constructed of her mysteries and brought to the screen with the title And Then There Were None, by Rene Clair in 1945. It’s a classic. It was made again in the Sixites, set in an Alpine chalet. I didn’t much like the recent BBC mini-series which gave it a realistic colour scheme and took it very seriously which really isn’t the point, despite the casting (Aidan Turner, amongst others). It’s a rather nicely judged narrative experiment in human behaviour and as such has something of a scientific bent:  so this interpretation, which plays and looks like Antonioni took a hold of it, is a graphic and visual delight, all angles and space. It’s set in an Iranian hotel, the Shah Abbas, and  has a totally modernist scheme at odds with the historic location, which just enhances the concept. The cast of ten includes Richard Attenborough, Stephane Audran, Charles Aznavour, Adolfo Celi, Gert Frobe, Herbert Lom, Oliver Reed and Elke Sommer with a certain Orson Welles playing a rather cool cameo. Written and produced by Harry Alan Towers, who also made the 1965 version (with an uncredited contribution by Enrique Llovet) and directed by Peter Collinson.

The Planter’s Wife (1952)

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Aka Outpost in Malaya. Colonial pictures can present problems nowadays for the kind of people who wouldn’t dream of exiting their own parish for a pint of milk. But if you know anyone who settled anywhere more than a day’s travel away, you’ll know it’s never easy and it’s often done for reasons that are simply not relevant these days:  duty, opportunity, adventure, a desire for the exotic. Not a gap year, more a life choice. This was originally going to be called White Blood (a reference to liquid rubber) but that title was rejected by the Colonial Office (it was a thing – until 1966) on the basis that it could incite racial problems. It’s not often we see one of these stories set in the Malay peninsula and this is set in the Emergency that started in 1948 between the Commonwealth forces and the terrorist wing of the local Communist Party. Claudette Colbert and Jack Hawkins are under pressure with the local bandits threatening their livelihood – and lives – as rubber planters. Parents to a small boy, Mike (Peter Asher of Peter & Gordon fame), it’s time for him to go back to England to boarding school and Colbert thinks she’ll go with him and leave her husband for good. A local policeman (Anthony Steel) urges her not to bring Hawkins with her or her marriage will really be dead in the water. They give a sympathetic Malay a lift to town and he’s murdered after the Brits arm him;  then the plantation comes under sustained attack, Colbert uses a gun and the tension is non-stop until a lot of people are killed as the family are under siege. A neighbour/rival reluctantly calls for help but it takes a long time to come … A surprisingly violent and engrossing outing with some very exciting scenes, one of the best involving a cobra and Mr Mangles, Mike’s mongoose;  and Colbert using a Bren gun. (A sight I never thought I’d see. She was delighted to get the opportunity, and allegedly became very useful with small arms.) Based on the novel by Sidney Charles George which was adapted by Guy Elmes and Peter Proud and directed by Ken Annakin. It’s well edited by Alfred Roome and the cinematography by Geoffrey Unsworth camouflages the fact that it was most of it was made at Pinewood with a second unit shooting in Malaya, Malacca, Singapore and Ceylon. Bill Travers and Don Sharp, who would become a noted writer and director, have uncredited roles as soldiers.

 

Westworld (1973)

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Boy, have we got a vacation for you! Michael Crichton hadn’t wanted to make a science fiction film as his feature directing debut. The successful doctor and writer (now that’s a real multi-hyphenate) had however visited Disneyland and been fascinated by the robotised Pirates of the Caribbean ride and saw the potential for a story.  (Not the one that made Johnny Depp rich as Croesus. Ira Levin similarly had a  lightbulb moment following a visit to the Hall of Presidents and the result was The Stepford Wives.) This corresponded with Crichton’s interest in machine and human interaction, technology, systems failure, and things going awry, so he came up with the concept of a theme park for adults where they could safely live out their fantasies for a few days and a thousand bucks. There are three worlds at Delos:  Roman, Mediaeval and Westworld, which is where Richard Benjamin and James Brolin hole up to de-stress – it’s Benjamin’s first time, Brolin’s second. The plan is to shoot some harmless rounds,enjoy a drink at the saloon and the attentions of some robotised whores. They don’t figure on a a robot rebellion or getting involved in the revenge fantasy of The Gunslinger, an android programmed to instigate gunfights. He’s played by Yul Brynner, equipped with pixellated point of view which was a first for cinema and necessitated an expensive animation process. The rebellion appears to be infectious and spreads through the three worlds and those guns that are supposed to recognise body heat start killing humans as the technicians start to die, locked into the control lab … A lot of the fun is seeing Brynner reprising his garb from The Magnificent Seven and imbuing his droid with that inimitable charisma, this time in villain mode. Not so much fun in real life, by some accounts. When he was playing in The King and I at London’s Palladium, one of his fans waited for him by the stage door at the conclusion of every evening’s performance in the hopes of getting his autograph.  He refused. Finally, she bought a bunch of flowers which he brushed off. So she hit him over the head with them. The Palladium’s manager, John Avery, who died recently, famously said, “It was the only time I saw the fan hit the shit.” A TV series Beyond Westworld was made in 1980 and lasted just five episodes;  we are however about to see a new TV interpretation, co-created by Jonathan Nolan (yes, that one), exec’d by JJ Abrams and starting in October. Can’t wait!

Foul Play (1978)

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Beware the dwarf! I just love Goldie Hawn. And I love pretty much every single thing she’s ever done: now how many actors or actresses can you say that about? Seeing her puts a smile on my face. And this Hitchcockian farce from the pen of Colin Higgins is screamingly funny. She’s quiet divorced librarian Gloria Mundy who picks up Scotty, a hitchhiker with a roll of film concealed in his cigarette packet, and gets embroiled in a plot to assassinate the Pope in San Francisco. There’s an albino killer, a dangerous dwarf, a snake, a sexy cop (Chevy Chase) and a most unseemly setup at the Catholic bishopric. There’s a brilliant sidebar relationship with sex addict Dudley Moore, regular interludes with a fellow librarian who’s convinced every man is after her for sex and all the while Goldie is trying not to get killed for something she knows nothing about. It’s laugh-a-minute hilarity from the get-go with Barry Manilow’s songs to soothe the fevered brow as the antics proceed at breathtaking pace performed with gusto by a wonderful cast. A must-see.