Vader’s in The Champions!

Just a quickie- look who showed up at the start of the second episode of The Champions:

P1110436 (2)Yes, the late David Prowse, Darth Vader himself, turns up to be the subject of some fun by two of our teasing Champions. Originally broadcast in 1968, here Prowse looks both shockingly young and also impressively buff. Bet he had no sand kicked in HIS face.  Mind, how huge he was back then, he looks more Conan the Barbarian than Dark Lord of the Sith; imagine hearing “Crom!” in a strong Devonshire accent…

P1110435 (2)

The Weekly Summary # 8

champ4Week 8 already?

26. Black Sea (2023) – Netflix

27. Free Hand for a Tough Cop (1976) – Blu-ray

28. Bullet Train (2022)

The Champions, TV Series 1968/69, Episode 1 ‘The Beginning’ – Talking Pictures TV

Star Trek: Pickard -Season Three (2023), Episode 2

29. Sartana’s Here… Trade Your Pistol for a Coffin (1970) – Blu-ray

When I was a kid, ATV here in the Midlands used to show The Champions on Sunday lunchtimes/early afternoons. These were repeats, as the show was originally broadcast in 1968/1969, and what I remember would be in the early 1970s.  A bit of escapist fun, with lead characters with strange super powers, this espionage/thriller series was sure to appeal to kids like me stuck in the Black Hole that was 1970s Britain.  For a show that was only moderately successful (it was clearly limited by budgets and intended to cash-in on the success of The Avengers tv series) and doesn’t seem to have stayed in the cultural consciousness anything like how The Avengers has, The Champions has been repeated on television countless times. I noticed it starting a fresh run of repeats on Talking Pictures TV so set my Tivo to record it. Nostalgia and all that.

Yeah, nostalgia- funny how music is such a part of that. I used to love the theme tune (credited to Tony Hatch, who wrote other memorable theme tunes for shows like, er, Emmerdale Farm and Neighbours) and when the titles for The Champions come up with that familiar music I get that old tingle in the back of my brain, which I think is my six-year old self getting excited again. I’m just the same with the 1960s Star Trek titles, and have to admit whenever the theme from The Tomorrow People comes up on the radio (a clip is regularly played on 6Music’s  Radcliffe & Maconie weekend show) I get creeped out a lot, as that 1970s show scared the bejeezus out of me as a kid.

I suppose when I was a kid watching The Champions all those years ago, I would be more forgiving/less critical than I am now. Naturally TV shows back then were, well, obviously TV shows, the gap between TV production and film production more obvious than it is now (thanks to HBO and streamers like Netflix, television shows can have productions values better than some movies these days). Anyway, I doubt my young self noticed characters walking past the same set dressing of a rock outcropping several times. Outside locations were often created in the studio with obvious limitations, and so it was with the Tibetan mountains in which our three heroes crashed in this first episode. Ah, but we were so much more forgiving back then.

Anyway, time for best and worst- best film this week was Black Sea,  something I stumbled upon on Netflix. A submarine/heist thriller starring Jude Law, it had its issues and didn’t fulfil the potential of its interesting premise but its the best of an average week. Worst of the week, well, here’s a surprise, its not a Sartana film – no, that honour goes to Bullet Train. You can read my review to see why that topped a Sartana movie in the badness stakes (well, its some kind of achievement I suppose).

Bullet Train (2022)

bullet1Bullet Train, Dir. David Leitch, 2022,  127 mins

Excuse me, but I have to ask one question- what the hell has happened to Sandra Bullock’s face? I’ve seen plastic robots in cheap 1960s sci-fi b-movies with more expressions than Bullock seems to manage here (limited-to-a-cameo screen time notwithstanding).  I’m not an authority on plastic surgery or cosmetic injections but there’s something ghastly going on; Bullock is a beautiful woman and at times a pretty good actress (crikey, I remember being so impressed by her back in Demolition Man, too many moons ago)  and she should surely be confident in growing old gracefully, but hey, that’s Hollywood- not as progressive or enlightened as it likes to pretend, and perhaps a slave to the myth of ageless beauty as it ever was.

Well, with that out the way (really, those last few minutes quite freaked me out) I’ll keep it brief regards Bullet Train. I figure its like a dance choreography, but with fighting and stunts, all carefully arranged and executed, but a dance nonetheless, and here stretching it out over an entire movie, pretty much. Some people love that kind of thing, I know.  It occurs to me how it must be boring as hell to act in something like this though. Arrange a camera set-up, do one part of a stunt/throw a punch, take a fall, wait for the greenscreen to be repositioned, wait your cue, move, wait twenty minutes for another set-up, then carry on with the chorography, repeat ad infinitum, maybe utter a wisecrack, react goggle-eyed to something the effects boffins will put in six months later…

I mean, that’s about it. The plot is as convoluted as the dialogue is over-laden with zingers. People don’t talk like this, or act like this, and they sure as hell can’t survive the pummelling and eviscerations, and being thrown around by explosions like they do in this. Its a video game but the lazy kind that doesn’t require a joypad, you just sit back and watch. But you can imagine it- left, right, down, bash the ‘b’ button like crazy….

It was…  well okay, its funny at times, there’s a few good twists and surprises, but its all so heavily orchestrated and planned-out it feels less a natural flowing narrative than a precise ballet of violence so meticulously planned that it lacks any spark, any soul.  I’m not sure how much further action movies can go down this road.  Violence should hurt, or have some kind of consequence, a sense of damage or danger, there needs to be some stake to it. Maybe even some drama. Films like Die Hard, even Predator or Robocop, they got it right. I know Bullet Train is ostensibly a comedy as much as an action movie (I think that’s just a method of excusing the silliness, frankly) but all the same, one can find oneself forgetting this film even as the end credits roll… and yes, even then,  even then, just when you hope its over, it just cannot resist a mid-credits scene….

Sergio Sollima’s The Big Gundown (1966)

biggundownThe Big Gundown, Dir. Sergio Sollima, 1966, 111 mins, Blu-ray

Ah, movie connections… not always planned, but viewed from the perspective of years later, we can follow them like a trail of  breadcrumbs. It was entirely Tomas Milian’s wonderful performance in The Big Gundown that led me to the 1976 crime thriller The Tough Ones which I reviewed yesterday. That’s the trouble with enjoying films and collecting them, one film can easily lead to another, and then another… sometimes its seeing an actor for the first time (as in the case with Milian here), sometimes its being impressed by the work of a director. You wonder what else they did, and the curiosity gets the better of you.

While Milian’s performance here led me to The Tough Ones and Free hand for a Tough Cop, which were surprising encounters in many ways, another series of connections led me in another direction; The Big Gundown was directed by Sergio Sollima, a director who I had never heard of just a little while ago, but this film led me to his crime drama Revolver and another western,  Run, Man, Run (a sequel to The Big Gundown  – a very good film albeit tonally rather removed from its predecessor). 

The Big Gundown stars the always great Lee Van Cleef, who at the time was fresh from Sergio Leone’s For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Van Cleef is excellent in the film, and this may well be his best performance; physically he’s like some kind of western icon here, with a huge presence onscreen. There’s a solidity, a sense of reality, to his character. The Big Gundown was a step up for Van Cleef, and although his character, lawman Johnny Corbett was very much in the same tough-guy mould as the characters he played in Leone’s films, this film offered him the distinction of playing the lead hero with an excellent script affording him some decent character development, certainly with a level of sophistication unusual in a spaghetti western; indeed as far as spaghetti westerns go, The Big Gundown stands head and shoulders above most, and is even up there with Leone’s films in terms of quality.

Johnny Corbett is a man of conviction; hunting down bounties without much interest in the financial reward, rather he’s more concerned with cleaning up the west so that decent honest people  can live their lives in peace. So successful has he been, and admired, he’s possibly on the cusp of a political career, and a position on the Senate. A businessman, Brookston (Walter Barnes) uses Corbett’s political ambition to his advantage when he recruits Corbett to hunt down a Mexican peasant, Cuchillo (Tomas Milan) who has been accused of raping and murdering a twelve-year old girl. Brookston promises Corbett that if the lawman can capture Cuchillo he will use his many contacts to help Corbett become a Senator.

biggundown2What follows, then, should be a fairly routine manhunt across wide western landscapes, with the lead character eventually bringing the criminal to justice, but The Big Gundown has a few surprises. most notably that it turns Cuchillo, who initially seems a thoroughly repulsive character, a scoundrel, thief and womaniser, into someone who charms the audience through a magnificent, energetic performance by Milian, essentially stealing the film from Van Cleef. Its no mistake that the film’s sequel Run, Man, Run promoted Milian to the lead rather than bring back Van Cleef.

The Big Gundown has a largely episodic narrative, Van Cleef pursuing his quarry and being repeatedly thwarted, and slowly we, and Corbett, begin to realise that Cuchillo is actually innocent of the charges made against him. It gradually dawns upon Corbett who is truly guilty, and he realises to his ire that he has been hired to seal an injustice. The various narrative threads wind towards the titular Big Gundown when Corbett and Cuchillo face the true culprit and the forces that protect him.

Its a great movie. The direction is confident and imaginative, with a great eye for composition in the widescreen frame that’s often worthy of Leone (its inevitable to make that comparison, this being an Italian western). The screenplay in particular is very well done, with some great character arcs for both Van Cleef and Milian, and while it honours familiar western tropes (such as the showdown at the end) it features plenty of surprises too.

biggundown3Indicator’s superlative Blu-ray (I particularly enjoyed the archive interviews with Sollima and Milian) contains three cuts of the film- I watched the longer, Italian theatrical cut with the Italian audio. I shall be curious to watch at least one of the two US cuts, reduced from 111 minutes down to 89 minutes originally and later 95 minutes, if only to hear Van Cleef’s voice (its a little odd watching the Italian dub when it isn’t Van Cleef voicing his character). The longer Italian version can  be watched with an English dub (so one can hear Van Cleef), but as that dub was originally recorded for the 89 minute version, it occasionally reverts back to Italian dub and English subs for those moments originally cut. This actually makes for an interesting exercise, as I watched twenty minutes or so with that English dub and its fascinating how the editors must have cut lines of dialogue to shorten scenes to arrive at that 89 minute film; I am endlessly bemused by how editors craft shorter versions of scenes together by taking out a line here, a line there, a reaction shot there…

The Tough Ones (1976)

toughones2The Tough Ones aka Rome Armed to the Teeth, Dir. Umberto Lenzi, 1976, 95 mins, Blu-ray

More Italian mimicry of American Cinema, this time taking inspiration from Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry and William Friedkin’s The French Connection – indeed The Tough Ones is a curious combination of those two films, stylistically as well as narratively. The synopsis is hard to resist- a tough cop who breaks the rules to bring criminal scum to justice pursues a machine-gun wielding hunchback and his bank-robbing cronies. Seriously, Rome might be a nice place for a tourist to visit, but on the evidence of this film I wouldn’t have wanted to live there.

Released in 1976, I’m certain that The Tough Ones (Rome, Armed to the Teeth in its native country) was a daring, cutting-edge and controversial film at the time. Maybe coming to it nearly fifty years later (by way of 88 Films’ 2-disc Blu-ray) it is inevitable that it has aged somewhat; we’ve seen so many vengeful cops, crazy bad guys, and increasingly graphic onscreen violence over the years since, there is almost something quaint about this film now that reasons for it’s original  notoriety has been left behind somewhat. Except that, even now, some of this film’s excesses still feel surprising, particularly in our wiser, more informed times- well, I say surprising, but considering the misogyny and wanton disregard for life demonstrated in spaghetti westerns of the 1960s/1970s, maybe those trends continuing unabated in Italian crime cinema shouldn’t be such a shock. There is much within The Tough Ones that is thoroughly unpleasant and typical of its time; however, compared to those spaghetti western cousins, this film can be considered complex and nuanced, and it is certainly well executed. It’s a solid, entertaining and effective crime thriller. Its influences are unabashedly clear : a car chase with a on-hood camera offering a vicarious element similar to that of The French Connection‘s classic chase sequence, and the episodic nature of the narrative reprises Harry Callahan’s habit of dealing with whatever criminal scum  crosses his path.

toughones1As an avowed fan of 1970s cinema, I found much that was worthy in The Tough Ones. The films rough, hard-hitting narrative has a perfectly judged, gritty soundtrack score that feels purely of its era (shades maybe of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three). Tomas Milian is short-changed, really, as the chief antagonist, the hunchback Moretto – there’s no character development to speak of, and his screen-time is surprisingly short, but he certainly makes a big impact. Actors love chewing up the scenery when playing bad guys and Milian is evidently having a blast. As the Dirty Harry wannabe, Maurizio Merli is pretty fine playing no-nonsense Inspector Tanzi, Maurizio sporting a full-on 70s stache, snarling his frustrations at liberals around him and naturally smoking and drinking in ways no film hero probably could now outside of noir, but nonetheless Merli seems positively restrained compared to Milian’s theatrics. I think comparisons to Eastwood’s iconic character do him few favours though- who, after all, could possibly measure up to Eastwood’s Harry Callahan? The odds were stacked up against Merli from the start, but I guess that’s the danger being so obvious regards influence. That said, some might argue there’s a bit more depth and subtlety to Merli’s Inspector Tanzi than ever we see in Eastwood’s Harry Callahan.

The Weekly Summary #7

Well here we go, another week…

20. If You Meet Sartana…Pray for Your Death (1968) – Blu-ray

21.I Am Sartana, Your Angel of Death (1969) – Blu-ray

22. The Big Gundown (1968) – Blu-ray

23. Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (1948) – Blu-ray

Blade Runner: The Final Cut (1982/2007) – 4K UHD

24. Run, Man, Run (1968) – Blu-ray

25. The Tough Ones (1976) – Blu-ray

Star Trek: Pickard -Season Three (2023), Episode 1

Viva Italia! That’s five Italian movies there; more in one week than I usually watch in a year (or more than a year, frankly). I did manage to throw in another Film Noir for the first time in a few weeks, and to be honest, that  film was like a breath of fresh air. I also watched the opening episode of Star Trek: Picard‘s third season, which underlined the lesson that (with the caveat that I haven’t watched Strange New Worlds yet) new Trek is terrible and only survives through its fan service to Old Trek – every scene with the ‘old’ tv show characters is fine, but the quality falls through the floor every time a ‘new’ character appears onscreen. I’m not sure why Akiva Goldsman, Alex Kurtzman etc don’t just give up on writing new characters and coming up with original ideas, they patently can’t do it and only prove it by increasingly falling back on fan service/ bringing back old characters. There isn’t a single ‘new’ character in Picard (or Star Trek: Discovery for that matter) that is compelling or any new fascinating ideas, no ‘new’ alien race as promising a foe as the Klingons. Maybe the truth is, Star Trek is done; after all these decades, of movies and tv shows, maybe its tired-out and done, and we should move onto something new (maybe that’s a painful lesson Dr. Who fans are finally learning). If this season is an improvement on Picard Season Two, if only because of bringing back yet more old cast members etc, then doesn’t that prove it?

Oh well. Back to the list, and this week having at least seen something new (last week being a bust on that front) I can choose a best of/worst of; best film of the week was The Big Gundown, a fantastic western and the worst of the week was, well either of the two Sartana films that I watched (if I have to pick one, then we’ll go for the second one if only to add further proof most sequels are inferior to originals).

Sartana: Spaghetti Angel

sartana1If You Meet Sartana…Pray for Your Death, Dir. Gianfranco Parolini, 1968, 95 mins , Blu-ray

I Am Sartana, Your Angel of Death, Dir. Giuliano Carnimeo, 1969, 103 mins, Blu-ray

Other than the Sergio Leone westerns, my experience of spaghetti westerns is really quite limited, and on the evidence of these Sartana films, I am beginning to doubt that Leone’s films qualify as spaghetti westerns at all. Well, of course they do, but the gap in quality between Leone’s hugely cinematic, well-crafted pleasures and tosh such as these two is really so night and day it feels to me that describing Leone’s films as part of the same sub-genre is doing them a terrible disservice. Leone’s films are so much better, so much… classier.

One’s really in the cinematic trash bucket with these Sartana films, but to be fair to them, they are hardly attempting to be Cinematic Art (Leone’s passion for cinema, particularly American Cinema, resulted in his films always having loftier ambitions). No, the Sartana films, like many spaghetti westerns, are dirty, violent, misogynistic, one-note affairs that seem to get dafter with every passing reel. In these films, life is cheap and dirty, the jokes immature and often falling flat, and the climbing kill-counts more hilarious than alarming.

I approached these films expecting as much, and they didn’t disappoint. To be fair to them, you simply can’t treat them seriously; they are pure exploitation, the Italian film industry obviously seeing an opportunity to make money (and they did) on the heels of a 1960s re-evaluation of the American Western, at least partly instigated by Leone (its unfair to credit Leone with that alone). These are cheap, pulp-fiction paperbacks, such as you’d see on carrousel racks at train stations, airports etc, disposable reads, here brought to vivid, gory life as cheap film entertainments. If you expect simple, fairly illogical plots mostly written to link scenes of violent gunplay, with little to no character development and pretty poor acting, then you are tuned to watch them and get some enjoyment, of a sort. Although you may feel a little dirty afterwards (but hey, there’s always Leone to cleanse ones palette, and as we will see, there are other more rewarding efforts to rescue the spaghetti western brand).

Starring as the titular character, Gianni Garko makes for a fantastic poor-man’s Clint Eastwood,  Garko an actor who physically fits the part like a glove and proves the chief saving grace of the films. Not without considerable charm and screen charisma, I rather suspect he would have been capable of carrying better, more ambitious films and more complex writing. As it is, I rather suspect he is in on the joke from the start, well aware of the limitations of the films he is in. He’s clearly the best thing in these two films and what makes the films bearable.

If I were to write down the plots of these two films… well, it’d be hard. They are inherently very simple affairs but so full of twists and turns (if only to facilitate each and every gunfight) that as each film progresses they feel increasingly incomprehensible. Its almost quite amusing: I’m tempted to rewatch the films with a counter to add up all the deaths/dead bodies, and must confess had a good chuckle when in a later scene characters walked around a room trashed with dead bodies from a gunfight some scenes earlier, casually ignoring the bodies, as if its simply not time for the cleaners to start their shift yet. I think that was the moment I think I’d finally keyed-in, or tuned-into, the film and started to enjoy it even though I knew I shouldn’t.

The first film involves an insurance scam with several parties chasing a big box full of gold and lots of bodies left in the ensuing wake.  The film likely tips its nonsensical hat when, after we witness an elderly couple shot dead in cold blood and their bodies left in the sand, Sartana is apparently gunned down only to rise as if from the dead moments later, remaining as indestructible as Gerry Anderson’s Captain Scarlet for the rest of the film. The film portrays Sartana as some kind of outsider, on the outskirts of events, indeed usually one step ahead of everyone and entering scenes simply to wreak some deadly justice, almost like some kind of decidedly hands-on Angel in a rather violent spin of Wings of Desire, but the Sartana films certainly don’t seem interested in any such religious readings, apart from in its titles.

If anything the films seem more like the 1950s television serial The Lone Ranger turned into a horror series, replacing the clean-cut moral code of the first with dirty warts-and-all violence and misogyny. I Am Sartana, Your Angel of Death suggests that Sartana is quite famous within his in-movie universe, when somebody dresses up as him (as if wearing a superhero costume) in order to frame Sartana for a robbery – the plot of the film, such as it is, being one of Sartana trying to clear his name. Here the film suggests perhaps the mantle of superhero movie in Western guise, partly no doubt excusing its silly excesses as some Marvel entry would today (“its only a spaghetti western” the same as “its only a superhero movie”). Which suggests the level one should be viewing these films; live-action cartoons far removed from Leone’s films, and certainly any Western John Wayne would have appeared in.

Sergio Sollima’s Revolver (1973)

Itallian3Revolver, 1973, Dir. Sergio Sollima, 11 mins, Blu-Ray

Well, something of a curio- my first exposure to Italian crime cinema is this fine Blu-ray edition from Eureka. I wonder what kind of sub-genre rabbit-hole I may have unearthed… (the Italians made lots of these crime-thrillers, I gather). It also serves as my introduction to Italian director Sergio Sollima. My ignorance regards Italian directors is profound-  I know of Sergio Leone, obviously, but other than Sergio Corbucci (The Great Silence) that’s about it.

Revolver is a very solid film, rewarding in all sorts of ways. Oliver Reed plays Vito Cipriani, an Italian prison warden married to beautiful, albeit dubiously young, Anna (Agostina Belli). The age difference here (when the film was shot, Reed would have been a  slightly overweight, drunk and unfit 34 and Agostina a svelt 23 years old) likely betrays its age, and how male actors were habitually cast with flatteringly young romantic interests (I remember Kirk Douglas and Farrah Fawcett in Saturn 3)- in this case, Agostina could have gotten away with playing Reed’s daughter. This age gap is accentuated by a very odd love-making scene, after which Anne is kidnapped, and the kidnappers demand that a French prisoner, Milo Ruiz (Fabio Testi), be released in order for Vito to get his wife back. Vito arranges Milo’s escape from his prison but then kidnaps Milo himself, to ensure the kidnappers return his wife safely. What follows is a decidedly violent game of cat and mouse, crossing from Italy to France, as both men try to discover who wants Milo released and why (Milo has no ‘freinds’ and no idea why anyone would be in the slightest bit interested in his freedom). The desperate lawman and escaped convict gradually form an unlikely  bond (shades of, and possibly an influence on, the later Midnight Run here), eventually unearthing a massive conspiracy involving high government and lowlife criminals in a film that proves to be very dark and nihilistic, perfectly capturing themes of paranoia so common it was almost a cultural zeitgeist in American cinema of the early 1970s, but obviously giving it a very European spin.

rev1I’m not certain what it was, but something struck a chord in me regards this film – maybe it was that delicious feel of 1970s paranoia which is gradually becoming both prescient and timely here in 2023, with corruption in authority seemingly increasingly common and individuals in society feeling less control of their lives and situation. Maybe its Oliver Reed’s very good, albeit bizarre, performance (a Brit playing an Italian with, of all things, an American accent?). Its actually remarkable how good Reed is in this, when one considers how drunk he apparently was most of the time- he started drinking early and by mid-afternoon it was allegedly not worth filming him in any scenes. Maybe its the excellent soundtrack score by Ennio Morricone, with its typically lush, romantic sweep that is hugely cinematic (the love theme was later used by Quentin Tarantino in his film Inglourious Basterds), but which is otherwise sprinkled with a relentless, propulsive rhythm that influenced his more widely-known score for The Untouchables a decade or so later. I don’t know if it was just simply the gritty setting with its curious, 1970s fashions/cars and horrible, miserable city streets. Or maybe its the exquisite cinematography by Aldo Scavarda, whose tendency for golden-hour shots makes everything look so pretty while also so unrelentingly dismal. Maybe its the art direction and canny location shooting. Maybe its a combination of all the above, that curious alchemy that makes some films better than their individual parts would usually warrant.

Whatever it is, Revolver just works. Credit for this must naturally fall upon director Sergio Sollima – a highly-regarded western he shot before this, The Big Gundown, is next on my list, finally being released by Indicator after a few months of production delays (curiously now arriving after the films sequel, Run, Man, Run, (also directed by Sollima) has been released on Blu-ray by Eureka). How curious that so many Blu-ray releases of Sollima’s films are getting released of late. Some kind of serendipity perhaps.

The Weekly Summary #6

Well its late by a few days but for what its worth, here’s what I watched last week-

18. Revolver (1973) – Blu-ray

From the Earth to the Moon Episodes 5 & 6 – Blu-ray

19. Neither the Sea Nor the Sand (1972)

…and I’m afraid that’s it, my worst week this year. Pretty appalling really, and hardly the Italian cinema week I was expecting it to be when I started with Sergio Sollima’s Revolver, which was an excellent introduction to Italian crime cinema, a sub-genre (?) that I’ve never dabbled with at all. I need to get my review post completed but suffice to say I thought it was a great little movie, enlivened by a powerful turn from Oliver Reed. I was never a great fan of Reed, when I was growing up as a kid I just couldn’t understand his drunken antics (his Parkinson interview THAT Saturday night for one) and just ignored him afterwards- I think it wasn’t until his last role in Gladiator (and hell, I only saw THAT performance because it was a Ridley Scott movie) that I began to seperate his work from the real-life persona that irked me so much. I’ve seen some of his early appearances in Hammer films over the past year or two via Indicator’s box-sets and he’s been fine, sometimes very good, in them, but I can’t say I’m a Reed enthusiast at all. In Revolver though he is very good. Sports an American accent though for some unfathomable reason, but perhaps more on that in the proper review.

So I also watched two more episodes of From the Earth to the Moon (including my beloved episode ‘Spider’)  and then this really obscure old-school supernatural film from 1972, Neither the Sea Nor the Sand, which was really, really strange. It at the very least got me enthused enough to post a review. I’ve been wondering over the past few days, if Indicator announced a Blu-ray with some extensive special features, would I actually buy it, and I possibly would. It is such an odd film; terrible in some ways but just so curiously strange I don’t think I’d be able to resist the temptation of an Indicator edition that ‘opened the box’ on some of the mystery. Lets hope I never get tested…

So anyway, next week, more Sergio Sollima. And I have every intention of at least TRYING to watch Blade Runner on my birthday…

The strangest romance (with a zombie)

Neither the Sea Nor the Sand, 1972, Dir. Fred Burnley, 110 mins, Amazon Prime

Sometimes, what dark sorcery is the Amazon algorithm – I suspect that, in this case, it was triggered by me having watched the folk-horror film Men several weeks ago. The 1970s were a rich time for British folk-horror films such as The Wicker Man (1973) and  The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971), which were clear influences on Alex Garland’s film, although his film fell well short.

While it is clearly in that British folk-horror tradition, what really made me curious about Neither the Sea Nor the Sand, a beyond-obscure film of which I had never heard anything before (frankly, has anybody?), was that the film was based upon a book by Gordon Honeycombe. Readers outside the UK will have no idea who this gentleman was, but for anyone of my age who grew up in the 1960s/1970s, Honeycombe’s face, and particularly his voice, will be well-remembered, as he was one of the main news readers for ITN here in the UK, reading the primetime evening news to the nation. I had no idea he wrote stories though, and something as low-brow as a horror story?  Or a passionate love-story that turns into some kind of zombie nightmare tale? I couldn’t resist.

To be clear, I won’t pretend that  Neither the Sea Nor the Sand is actually any good; its a pretty terrible movie, but it has an impressive cast, really bizarre music, surprisingly effective location shooting, all of which creates a curiously unique mood which results in a quite haunting film that made quite an impression upon me – maybe for all the wrong reasons, really, but its a strange film. To be fair, its central premise makes for a great ghost story, which I suspect in the  book worked very well- it just got lost in translation being transferred to the screen (the irony that Honeycombe himself wrote the screenplay suggests that authors don’t always understand the needs of film or the differences between literary works and visual narratives).

The very beautiful Susan Hampshire, herself a familiar face from television when I was growing up in the 1960s/1970s, stars as Anne Robinson, a wife from a troubled marriage who has left home for a break in Jersey, presumably to take stock of her life and decide what to do when she returns to her marital home. Visiting a remote lighthouse on the island she meets local lad Hugh (Michael Petrovich) and their mutual attraction is sudden and overwhelmingly intense- their love affair is wild and elemental in the greatest Mills & Boon tradition and Anne decides to stay with Hugh. For reasons not entirely explained (“I want to make love to you in Scotland!” Hugh announces), and certainly serving little actual purpose to the plot, they decide to immediately go to Scotland on vacation, but after arriving there Hugh suddenly dies. Anne is understandably horrified and distraught, but it transpires that the bond between them is so great that Hugh returns from the dead – in, it has to be said , a very moody and effective sequence. The film here takes one of those weird leaps of logic/reason that effects how one accepts everything that subsequently happens. Somehow Anne thinks life can go on as normal; such is her relief at Hugh returning to her, Anne’s heart over-rides her reason, quite blind to the fact that while Hugh’s soul has returned, his body is cold and inevitably begins to decay…

Hampered by very routine, perfunctory direction, the film has a turgid pace that suggests a short story badly bloated into a full-length film; it reminded me of The Ghost of Sierra Madre, which I watched a little while ago. My suspicions that that film was originally a one-hour tv pilot stretched too far to full-length feature (which turned out to be the case) were repeated here, even though in actuality here it really isn’t the case, but I do feel that had this been cut down by half to a one-hour drama it would have been much improved. No matter how well it possibly worked in the book, the film just can’t carry the simple story for close to two hours, at least not with such unimaginative direction lacking the visual flair a supernatural film such as this really needs, and the terrible music score (reaching for Morricone but falling far short) is clumsy and ill-suited, 1970s muzak at its very worst, often threatening to mark the film as farce .

I think Susan Hampshire is very good in this film; something of a porcelain English Rose, I was surprised how sensual she is in this. Anne has a deep fragility to her character and one can certainly believe how this incredible passion overcomes her, its intensity everything her marriage lacked, although admittedly some may think Petrovich makes a better corpse than hot lothario. The delicious quality of the cast is really evident in the great Frank Finlay tearing up the screen playing Hugh’s older, disapproving brother (“Doing that in mother’s bed – it’s disgusting”). His bravura gusto when he declares “I know what we must do! We must take him to a priest!” when he learns his brother is one of the living dead suggests his role in Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce a decade or so later was as inevitable as the sun rising in the East.

The film actually dares some kind of suggestion of necrophilia with a curious scene of sex with a zombie, albeit it is some kind of suggestion of sex, Hampshire groaning on the bed while the undead Hugh does things to her, er, telepathically, or something like that- a very ill-judged sequence that would have been best left on the cutting-room floor. Well, it gets a titter in a film otherwise lacking any real humour.

One sequence suggests the great folk-horror this film might have been. Anne returns to the cottage she shares with the undead Hugh, finally overwhelmed at her predicament as Hugh bangs at a the door from the next room, trying to be with her (he’s the clingy type). Finally Anne relents, unbolting the door and Hugh reaches for her- all we see is Anne’s terrified face and Hugh’s blue-black, decaying hand reaching for her. Its quite disturbing and effective, casting a sudden spell of horror that enlivens the film but is immediately neutered when we then see his face and its still rather surprisingly pretty. How much better had we not seen his face at all from then on, but rather it left to our imagination. But alas, the director has no such skill or daring, or faith that less can sometimes be more.

The ending of the film, while inevitable, really, is also quite refreshingly grim. There is an air of tragedy over all, which unfortunately doesn’t land as deeply as it should. By the end the film has out-stayed its welcome, its been too long getting to that finale and we’ve been asked to swallow too many wtf moments, which is a shame. I think Hampshre deserved a better film, frankly. Well, Finlay, too, to be honest; his camp skills would have to wait for Tobe Hooper to find their true vindication. Neither the Sea Nor the Sand is such a very strange film though. In some bizarre way it really needs to be seen to be believed.