A Severed Head (1971)

severedSo this is some kind of shocking Horror film, right? Er, well its certainly shocking. Seriously, I came into this (I’d never heard of it before, which in hindsight is not surprising) expecting a horror film or murder mystery, maybe something like a Hammer or Amicus film. Its actually a British comedy film, something to do with sexual politics, social etiquette… it was possibly one of the most bizarre things I have ever seen, utterly crazy and strange and…utterly impossible to sum up, really. Some kind of horror, certainly. Very British, back when that meant something, although quite what I’m not entirely sure. 

So whats it about, then? Well its set in the ‘present’ of 1971 but it seems wholly of the 1920s, something from that era. I’m sure even in 1971 it must have seemed terribly anachronistic, totally self-absorbed. In 2020? Crikey. The great Ian Holm, who sadly passed away not so long ago, stars in this looking very young with his film career long ahead of him, playing Martin Lynch-Gibbon, a wine merchant who is enjoying an affair with a mistress, Georgie (Jennie Linden), until his wife Antonia (Lee Remick), ignorant of Martins infidelity,  announces she is having an affair with Martins’ best friend, psychiatrist Palmer Anderson (Richard Attenborough) and that she wants a divorce. Palmer and Antonia’s biggest concern is that Martin doesn’t feel guilty about their affair, they must all stay good freinds. It seems everyone can behave like utter bastards, but the important thing is to be civil about it and don’t cause a fuss. I think Billy Wlder would have had a ball making a film like this, but er, it definitely is not the film Billy Wilder would have made.

severed2Well, what about the severed head, then? I really don’t know. Honor Klein (Claire Bloom) the enigmatic half-sister of Palmer (who Martin at one point finds in bed with Palmer, this is so messed up) makes some kind of speech quoting something about severed heads but it was lost on me. By the time she says it, Martin’s mistress is off with Martins brother Alexander (Clive Revell) and Martin is chasing after Honor despite her tryst with her half-brother whilst Palmer of course is supposedly living with Antonia. Utter cads, the lot of them, but at least they are polite. So very 1920s. Maybe its a study in self-obsessed people who are overwhelmed with self-gratification at the expense of all others, who think they can get away with being complete bastards as long as they are pleasant and civil about it. But how is that supposed to be laugh-out-loud funny in any sane world?

Er… Yes, exactly, Somehow its supposed to be funny, wildly sophisticated, maybe. The biggest shock is the cast- as you may have noted from my notes above, its a brilliant cast so badly wasted its almost criminal. Some of them seem to know they are in a farce, but perhaps director Dick Clement (yeah, he that wrote Auf Wiedersehen, Pet) hadn’t been told. Certainly I’m not so sure some of the cast were in on the joke.

Bet you came close to pressing the ‘Abort’ button. Yeah, oh boy so awfully close. Sometimes horrible calamities like this can be morbidly fascinating though, like you can’t quite believe what your eyes are seeing. 

Anything good about it? Well I did quite like the music score by Stanley Myers (who would later work on The Deer Hunter, of all things), an orchestral score which seemed to have a gentle, sweet, almost timeless life of its own within the film. It was the best thing about the film, for me. That music, and the frankly bizarre alien-world London of so long ago proved quite entertaining, but the latter’s true of any film of that era, its like some other world now, and quite oddly mesmerising. 

A Severed Head is on the Talking Pictures schedules should you feel the urge to hunt it down.

 

 

Alien 4K UHD

alienAh, Alien– just thinking about the film throws me back to summer 1979, reading Fantastic Films magazine  absolutely goggle-eyed at the imagery- you have to remember, absolutely nothing that looked quite like it had ever appeared on film before (except, curiously, for the Victorian-bent tech of First Men in the Moon in 1964). Alien really was something new, a trend-setter and showstopper, one of those cultural pivot points that rarely happen now in these more jaded times- and of course a neat adult response to Star Wars. It wasn’t the technology of Alien‘s film-making that changed things (as opposed to how technology-driven modern film-making has since become, it was using all the old tricks and methods of so many films before and after), but rather the sophistication with which Ridley Scott approached its otherwise derivative b-movie plot (essentially a haunted house/monster on the loose story in space). The coverage of those issues of Fantastic Films really opened my eyes to the craft and art in genre films- its interviews with Ridley Scott in those issues (particularly the extensive examination of the Alien storyboards Scott drew) really fascinated me, and sealed my interest in Scott’s films forever after.

ff2I wasn’t really familiar with Heavy Metal at the time, but Alien was definitely the very first Heavy Metal movie in approach and artistic worth. It was adult and dark and gritty and quite overloaded with visual information. Even today some forty years later it’s amazing not just how well Alien holds up, but also how it surpasses much of what we see now. The Nostromo bridge, the messroom, the corridors, it’s incredibly convincing, a work of art. That’s quite seperate to the impact of Giger’s nightmarish creations: never was a films title so apt. Alien really was alien, its Lovecraftian pseudo-sexual horrors as disturbing now as they ever were. I almost wish it stood alone, that there were never any sequels or any prequels, that Alien could just stand there, a one-off classic.

Its certainly the best way to watch it today. Just soak up and savour the mystery of that derelict craft and the alien space jockey, and the glimpses of the creature itself as it preys on the Nostromo crew. Try to forget the mythology that followed after with all its contradictory noise.

So that summer of 1979- like some kind of fool, I was of course madly anticipating actually watching the film, but as the September release date of the film neared here in the UK I learned that it was rated ‘X’ by the BBFC, partly no doubt for the films intensity but more for the use of language- swear-words were a big no-no in the old days of Blighty (actually things might not have changed so much in the years since). So having read all the film magazines, as we used to do in those pre-internet days, the film became this forbidden object, a tantalising mystery- and of course this was in those dark pre-VHS days when films came to the cinema and then went, lost for years before even a glimmer of hope of a possible tv screening. I didn’t actually see the film until it turned up on television*, on a Sunday night following the 1982 World Cup final on ITV. In pan and scan, nevermind the dreaded ad breaks (didn’t have a video recorder back then, so recorded the film onto audio cassette to listen to after- only hardcore/older geeks possibly understand what that was all about).

So perhaps it was fitting that last night, another Sunday almost thirty-seven years later, slowly slipping towards the fortieth anniversary of the films 6th September UK release date, I watched the film again, only this time in yet another format- 4K UHD.  I have to say, the film looked gorgeous, the best I’ve yet seen it, one of the best catalogue films I have seen on 4K disc. The HDR isn’t distracting, instead tastefully managed to increase the sense of depth to the picture and really improving some of the miniature shots (such as the Nostromo touching down on the planetoid with its lights blazing in the stormy murk). The colour balance and saturation of the film seemed improved, and the 4K image certainly allowed more appreciation of the films many visual details. I’d say this presentation seemed pretty much definitive to me, and I really enjoyed the film again.

Rewatching films can always be a curious experience, as you can take different things from them with every viewing- this time around, I seemed to appreciate some of the acting quality. Ian Holm was brilliant, as was Veronica Cartwright too- both are superb character actors with a sense of understated reality. They seem natural and effortless performances and convincingly ‘down to Earth’ (albeit that might seem strange considering the film’s setting). As a whole I’d say the films casting was a masterstroke in general- the characters are quite underwritten by the script but each actor brings something to each part. Compare the trucking Nostromo crew to any of the characters in Prometheus or Alien Covenant, say, and you’ll get what I mean (damn- I intended not to refer to those prequels at all and I’ve gone and bust it). The casting grounds the film in a sense of blue-collar reality, and while the smoking may seem a little incongruous these days, it’s certainly another layer of reality that carried weight back in 1979. The world has changed but Alien won’t, it’s a part of film history locked in time and thank goodness for that.

A curious thought though, that forty years ago I would be reading all those magazines, Fantastic Films, Starburst etc) and getting photographic glimpses of the film, and I’d read the Alan Dean Foster novelization, and the film would be frustratingly yet held back for another three years. And here I was some forty years later rewatching the film again. If I was around forty years from now, no doubt I’d still be rewatching it. Films, afterall, can be forever- well, the best of them, certainly. But maybe I’ve just bought Alien one last time in one last format.

* prior to the network premiere, indeed some time before as I recall. maybe in 1981, I was looking at records in my local HMV when I noticed that they were playing Alien on a television sitting on the shelf near the till (it must have been a sell-through VHS tape, which were wildly expensive at the time, before rentals took off and the idea of actually owning a film became rich fantasy). It was near the chestburster scene, and needless to say I stuck around awhile to see it in the corner of my eye while pretending to examine vinyl copies of albums. Vinyl, VHS, record stores… it’s a long time ago indeed, and I was so nervous that this was an ‘X’ -certificate film that they were surreptitiously screening that everyone in the shop of any age could see. Was I ever that young/naive?