Devil’s work…

devils men bluI have the distinct, and very strange feeling, that I’m being trolled by a boutique label- the fine folks at Indicator have announced that in February next year they are releasing on Blu-ray disc The Devil’s Men, a film which regular readers here (or anyone clicking the link in the title) may recall I saw last month and deemed it the worst film featuring Peter Cushing that I have ever had the misfortune to see. When I saw this announcement in my inbox I did such a double-take, I couldn’t believe my eyes: its is such a strange world sometimes.

As usual, Indicator is being generous with attention and quality- a 2K remaster from the original negative, two versions of the film (the ‘uncut’ version I watched and the edited-down American cut carrying the alternate Land of the Minotaur title) and plenty of extras including a commentary track and an archival interview/lecture with Peter Cushing at the National Film Theatre in 1973. Now, their release a few months ago of another horror film, Corruption featuring Cushing  compelled me into a blind-buy because it had an audio recording of a Cushing lecture from 1986 at the NFT (shamefully, I haven’t heard it yet- damn all these distracting noir). Certainly compared to The Devil’s MenCorruption is a far better film no matter Cushing’s own distaste for it, so was a worthy blind-buy and a lovely package with rigid slipbox and substantial softcover book with essays etc. but the idea that Indicator deem The Devil’s Men even worthy of any release at all, never mind one of their bells-and-whistles numbers…

As a Cushing fan, these archival audio pieces are tremendously tempting to me for obvious reasons. the actor unfortunately passed away before any enterprising laserdisc or DVD producer could enlist him into commentaries for some of his films, so any material of him discussing his work at length is priceless. But this time, its like Indicator are just daring me. The Devil’s Men is a horrible film, clumsily directed and poorly scripted, bizarrely carrying a Brian Eno score and also starring fellow horror-movie legend Donald Pleasance. I can read Indicator’s announcement imagining them stifling a guffaw as they write “this offbeat horror film… an eccentric, bloody cult shocker” as if the words ‘offbeat’ and ‘eccentric’ are euphemisms for ‘shite’ and ‘diabolical.’ Ha ha, its like they watched a different movie or are just testing me with some ghastly jest: they know, they KNOW that I’ve credit enough at their shop from past purchases to cash it in and get this film for ‘free’ but really, I’ve got more self-respect than that, haven’t I? Extraordinary move, Indicator- you are the Devil’s Men indeed.

Clearly the decent thing to do if ever someone from Indicator reads this is to respond by sending me a copy gratis..

Columbia Noir: The Garment Jungle (1957)

cnoirgarmIts possibly true as far as actors go: you’re only as good as the movie you’re in. Kerwin Mathews, for instance, featured in the previous film in this Indicator Columbia Noir #1 boxset, 5 Against the House, in which he didn’t exactly set the screen on fire, but here in this Vincent Sherman/Robert Aldrich-directed crime/mob racket thriller he really impresses. I thought Mathews was really very good in this, measuring up well against the likes of Lee J.Cobb and a shockingly young Robert Loggia, both of whom are frankly excellent. The more that I think about it, it may be a case of very good casting- Mathews plays fresh-faced Alan Mitchell, son of Walter Mitchell, the owner of  successful garment company Roxton Fashions, who returns to New York after some several years away. Alan is a fish out of water, an outsider looking in, mirroring the audiences point of view as he (and we) learn about the seedy machinations going on in the industry. Alan is a rather thankless character, blank-faced and reactive to everything, so maybe the part worked to his strengths and suited Mathews to a tee. Maybe I’ll adjust my opening line: you’re only as good as the film you are in and the actors you are with. 

So anyway, back to that plot. When Alan arrives it is just after a terrible accident in which his fathers business partner has been killed. While Walter is bitterly saddened by his partners death, he is so distracted by the menace of unions infiltrating his shop that he doesn’t realise that the accident was no accident at all. Walter has for years been paying protection to ruthless mobster Artie Ravidge (Richard Boone) to ensure the unions are kept out of his business. How much of a blind eye he has been keeping regards Ravidge’s methods isn’t at all clear and there is a really nice grey line that suggests Walter accepts a necessary evil and knows more than he lets on, perhaps even to himself. Of course as the film progresses Walter has to come to terms with his own responsibility for Ravidge’s actions, especially when confronted by Alan, who has befriended a union activist, Tulio Renata (Loggia) who is eventually cornered and killed by the mobsters, bringing Alan and Walter to a bitter father/son confrontation.

The Garment Jungle is a very, very good film. Films can surprise, and when they do it can prove so very welcome. Back when I saw the list of films in this set, and knowing nothing of any of them, I reckoned that The Garment Jungle would likely be the weakest of the bunch- I think it was the title and the poster art which had me dismissing it. How wrong I was. This is a film with a superb cast, a genuinely interesting story with real surprises and plenty of opportunity for that cast to display some great performances. Its much more nuanced and complex than the exploitation film that poster suggested it was.

Regards the actors in this film, I can’t think of a bad turn. Cobb is excellent; tough, pressured, worried about losing control of his life’s work building his business into a success and desperate enough to make deals with someone he shouldn’t have, and then having to face the consequences. Cobb is thoroughly convincing and I appreciated the dubiety regards how innocent he is. Robert Loggia of course is as great as ever, a very fine and intense actor, it was something of a shock to see him as young as he is here and clearly displaying the strengths of that intensity at such a young age.

I was quite struck by the leading lady/more-than-slightly-uncomfortable romantic interest in this film, the beautiful Gia Scala playing Theresa Renata. Gia has an intoxicating, quite arresting presence in this, but its not at all a sultry, femme fatale kind of role that might be expected in a noir – I have to wonder what she might have done in a role like that. Here she plays Loggia’s young wife who seems to quickly get the uninvited attention of Alan – there is a certain chemistry between them from the moment they meet that works very well, but it also feels a little uncomfortable that Alan is so attracted to her when she’s married, and the murder of her husband just seems to give Alan even more opportunity to pursue her (this all in spite of her having a baby, I should add). It doesn’t necessarily show Alan in a very gallant light, but like his father, he seems rather in denial regards his methods and motives. How very noir, when even the nominal ‘romance’ of a film has such questionable undercurrents.

I looked up Gia to see what else she had been in, she so impressed me (its a really strong part considering it could have been just a one-dimensional wronged widow/endangered mother) but was horrified to learn that she died at just 38 years old, in 1972. Her career never really took off, film roles drying up to be replaced with television work through the 1960s, a blighted personal life and alcohol problems: it would seem she never recovered from the death of her mother in 1957. As I have noted before, I can often find it so difficult to reconcile the perfection seen on screen with the frailties and human weaknesses of real life. I think it makes such great performances just more incandescent, somehow, and arresting. Maybe its just the sense of promise unrealised.

Its such a shame- on the strength of her role in The Garment Jungle, I have to wonder what she might have achieved had circumstances been different or if she had been given the opportunity. I think she could have chewed up the screen gloriously as a traditional femme fatale role in some searing noir, but that was not to be. Some maintain doubts regards the manner of her death- ruled by the authorities as an accidental overdose of drink and drugs, some thought it a suicide while her sister believed it may even have been murder. Shades of the death of Marilyn Monroe (Gia was discovered nude sprawled on her bed with bruises on her body and blood on her pillow)? It seems to me that Gia’s fate is a grim footnote to The Garment Jungle and another reminder of the dark underbelly of Hollywood- indeed, how Hollywood is so very noir.

 

The Vengeance of Fu Manchu (1967)

fu manchu boxIndicator are releasing in October a Blu-ray box-set of the Fu Manchu film series starring Christopher Lee as the nefarious super-villain- a huge fan of their Hammer box-sets, I was pretty intrigued they would go to all that effort – its the usual bonanza of restored films, commentary tracks, archive audio recordings and new video interviews – considering that the films are largely frowned upon today in just the same way as similar Hammer material of that era. Discarding all the racial stereotyping issues, I was unimpressed, really, by Hammer’s The Terror of the Tongs (1961) that appeared in Indicator’s third Hammer set last year- I thought it was a very lacklustre effort only enlivened by a typical Christopher Lee performance elevating it to Shakespearean drama. Someone obviously noticed something in Lee’s unofficial Fu Manchu to warrant hiring him for the real thing, because five official Sax Rohmer adaptations followed: The Face of Fu Manchu (1965), The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966), The Vengeance of Fu Manchu (1967), The Blood of Fu Manchu (1968) and finally The Castle of Fu Manchu (1969).

I’d never seen any of them, but the geek and film-fan in me seems to be instinctively drawn to box-sets such as this, in a similar way as Arrow’s The Complete Dr Phibes Blu-ray set with its gloriously rotten films staring the wonderful Vincent Price. I imagined that the Fu Manchu series were at least as politically incorrect and racially blundering as Hammers The Terror of the Tongs, and marvelled at how ill-timed the release seemed to be, considering everything going on in the world today.

And then, wouldn’t you know it, but I noticed Talking Pictures, yet again proving to be a marvel as they broadcast the third entry in the series just a few days ago. I set the Tivo (Talking Pictures always schedule stuff at exactly the time that its impossible to watch it), and yesterday gave it a go.

fu manchu1I’ll cut to the chase- I’ve ordered the Indicator Fu Manchu box. Yes it was bad, but it was bad in a good way; surprisingly well made (far more ambitious and successful than Hammer’s effort) with a good cast and impressive locations and sets, and I found it a great pulp yarn. Yes its very politically incorrect and you’d never get this kind of thing made today, but that’s exactly part of the films appeal: its all rather insane and feels so wrong but I couldn’t tear my eyes away from it. The Vengeance of Fu Manchu is the third film in the series, which means, in the time-honoured tradition of film cycles, that’s its worse than the first two but better than the last two, and gauging those other films on the merits of this one, I have to say, this series could well prove to be a delirious blast this Autumn. 

fu manchu2There’s a scene in The Vengeance of Fu Manchu set in the super-villains lair in which an American crook perpetually doffed with  a cowboy stetson is torturing a woman stretched out on a rack while her father is forced to look on from a cage suspended above: its decidedly strange and as crazy as it might sound. Considering the sensitivities regards western actors playing Asian characters these days, this film also features the novel spin (I doubt it qualifies as serious social commentary) of a plot-point in which an Asian character is given plastic surgery in order to pose as white man and commit murder.

I should point out my affection for a series of Robert E Howard yarns, Skull-Face in particular, but he did a run of Weird Menace stories for the pulps, which Howard wrote obviously inspired/indebted by the Sax Rohmer tales of Fu Manchu and the Western world under the threat of degenerate Asian menace. Clearly they are of their time and have to be accepted as such, but Howard was a masterful storyteller and wrote incredibly powerful potboilers (Skull-Face just blew my teenage mind back in the day). I can’t speak for the original Rohmer yarns as I never read them but Howard was a brilliant pulp writer. The Vengeance of Fu Manchu rather appealed to that love of mine for those Howard stories.

So I look forward to rewatching this film in high quality- all five films have been remastered in 4K from the original negatives for Indicator’s box-set – and naturally watching all the films in order.  Should be a guilty blast, if nothing else. We can’t get The Abyss on Blu-ray but we can get these Fu Manchu films… its a crazy bloody world, but I figure you just have to go with it.

 

Taste of Fear

tasteThe second film that I’ve watched in Indicator’s fourth Hammer box-set, Taste of Fear is a psychological thriller from 1961 deliberately set up to arose the viewers suspicions and curiosity and at the same time surprise through misdirection and subversion of those viewer suspicions. Its inevitably unnatural and artificial, rather like being played in a cinematic game between film-makers and audience, which unfortunately reinforces a sense of distance from the proceedings- for myself, rather than feeling immersed in the proceedings I felt distanced from them, always aware of film-maker scheming and manipulation. All films are manipulative of course, the skill is in hiding it- murder mysteries etc always seem to excel in manipulation and are less inclined to hide it, aware its all part of their appeal.

Its to Taste of Fear‘s credit then that I missed the films central twist, and unfortunate that as this is its main success I cannot divulge what that twist is- otherwise the film has little to really offer the viewer. I can comment on the cast, which is really pretty excellent. Indeed, one of the things that most interested me in the film prior to seeing it (indeed the only reason I ever knew of it) was the casting of Ronald Lewis in the film. I have mentioned Lewis here before, and in my review of an earlier Hammer film that I saw him in, The Full Treatment. Lewis was an actor of some talent whose career didn’t ever really hit the highs it might have done, and who died, apparently committing suicide, in 1982, shortly after being declared bankrupt. Films are time-capsules, and Taste of Fear is one- Lewis here in his relative prime and when his career was on the up, ignorant of the reality years ahead that our perspective affords us. I wouldn’t necessarily suggest that he is better here than in the earlier The Full Treatment, but its clear he could have been something of a star with better material and a little luck in choosing it. People today generally have no idea who Ronald Lewis was, and it might have been so very different.

Old films and our contemporary perspective of them and the people who made them can offer sobering insights of the human condition, something that endlessly fascinates me. I was particularly impressed with Taste of Fear‘s lead, Susan Strasberg, who played the wheelchair-bound Penny Appleby- its a great performance that surpasses the limitations of the role and script, she engenders real empathy and she was the clear highlight of the film for me. I was surprised to later learn that Strasberg would only have limited success in film, instead generally appearing onstage and mostly in guest-spots on various 1960s and 1970s TV shows. Shades of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood there, funnily enough.

Its difficult to refrain from looking up actors names from these old movies, seeing what else they were in and inadvertently the success of their career or lack of it, or indeed reading an entire bio in just a paragraph or so. Marriages, siblings, deaths. Lewis died at the age of just 52, Strasberg passed at just 60. Taste of Fear of course will live forever, the two actors in their youth frozen in time, as is the wont of film. Indicator’s Blu-ray release in this box-set is of typically high standard, with some very interesting and informative supplements that perhaps belie how generally forgotten the film has become over the years. I think its nice to think that actors like Lewis and Strasberg can be seen by more people because of releases such as this, and we can watch them and wonder at what might have been. At the very least, it gets bloggers like me mentioning them, and ensures they might be forgotten a little less.

 

The Damned

damned1This is a particularly odd one, but its also one that, strangely enough, I’ve absolutely completely fallen in love with. Part of Indicator’s long-awaited fourth Hammer box, this  ably demonstrates the genius and worth of these collections, as its another excellent film that otherwise I would likely have never heard of, never-mind had opportunity to see.

The Damned really doesn’t begin well- it starts like a very horribly dated, awkwardly British gang-culture film, in which a group of leather-clad teenage bikers armed with knives pick upon unwitting tourists in the coastal town of Weymouth at the start of the 1960s. A female member of the gang, Joan (Shirley Anne Field) baits the attentions of frankly predatory middle-aged American tourist Simon Wells (Macdonald Carey) and once led into a back street by Joan the gang sets upon Simon, beating him up and stealing his money. So far, so ordinary, and not helped by the film’s soundtrack being dominated by a terrible song that acts as the biker anthem which infects the viewer like the most terrible ear-worm one could imagine (by frequent Hammer stalwart composer James Bernard, and part of a quite effective score).

But immediately it becomes apparent that something else is going on under the surface, and I find myself wondering if Hammer’s Weymouth was an inspiration for Lynch’s Twin Peaks. The leader of the gang is Joan’s brother, King (Oliver Reed) who clearly has an incestuous fascination with his sister that is hidden from no-one. He seems to externalise his own self-revulsion by beating up any man who dares touch Joan (“I’ll kill any man that touches you,” he promises her). There’s a tension between them that goes unrealised but carries some weight on the proceedings: at one point later in the film a child asks “Mr. Stuart told us that brothers and sisters can’t marry. Is that true?” Its a peculiar question that comes out of nowhere, but would seem to be a sideways reference  to King and Joan. There also seems to be an unspoken friction between King, Joan and Sid, another member of the gang who shares furtive glances with Joan, indicating some kind of secret relationship of their own that threatens Kings ‘ownership’ of his sister and the solidity of the gang.

Something about Simon attracts Joan, even though he’s clearly old enough to be her father (or maybe because of that, as King and Joan appear to be orphans), and she finds her way back to Simon once she’s temporarily escaped the watchful attentions of her brother. Simon, of course, comes across as something of a sleaze- a divorcee who has left his career behind in America and has seemingly decided to spend his mid-life crisis yachting around Europe preying on women young enough to be his daughter. I mean, this guy is the nominal ‘hero’ of this film, but it makes you wonder if anyone has Joan’s best interests at heart.

Simon resumes his pursuit of Joan, and at one point when he’s got her on his boat out to sea he attempts to awkwardly force himself on her, an attempt which begins to feel like a rape until she manages to push him away. Joan demonstrates a peculiar ill-judgement when, after asking him to put her back ashore, she acquiesces to his  desires once she’s led him to an isolated cottage and he finds them a bed. Its a really uncomfortable sequence and there’s something genuinely unlikable about all the leads, really, which just makes it so interesting to watch. Naturally all the attention Joan is aiming towards Simon causes King to become increasingly unbalanced and dangerous as he sets the gang searching for them.

damned2At this point I haven’t mentioned Bernard (Alexander Knox) who is in charge of a military installation above the cliffs outside of the town, or his relationship with Swedish sculptor Freya (Viveca Lindfors) who arrives planning to spend the summer in the cottage in which Joan ‘enjoys’ her romantic tryst with Simon. Freya teases Bernard for an explanation of whats going on in his military base, but Bernard’s work is a secret, he warns her, that were he to confide it with Freya, might condemn her to death. Definite shades of typical Hammer there.

As you can likely tell, its a very strange, dark and surprisingly disturbing film- and I haven’t even gotten to whats REALLY going on, or whats REALLY disturbing about the film, as its all part of the genuinely surprising twist that transforms the film into a science fiction film. Suddenly the Lynchian gang-culture, the sexual taboo obsessions of brother and father-figure with poor confused Joan, melt away as the film becomes something else entirely. Its disorientating and quite brilliant, and I can’t explain why: this film is getting on for sixty years old but I don’t want to spoil it for anyone. Maybe in a few months time, maybe.

Ten minutes in I doubted I’d ever watch the film again, by the time it ended I was keen to devour the substantial on-disc special features and give the film an immediate second viewing. Its quite strange and brilliant. I’m not going to suggest its perfect- in some respects it hasn’t aged well and there is an oddness about some character motivations and twists that don’t quite gel, but maybe even because of this, on the whole its a bizarre and fascinating film. It really struck some kind of chord in me, and I wish I could expound on some of those twists that transforms the film into something so special. Its a very bleak, odd and mesmerising film that ranks as one of the major surprises of this year for me.

 

 

Night of the Demon (1957)

night1First of all, an admission- this wasn’t the film I was expecting. I’d seen that Indicator was releasing a great old British horror film titled Night of the Demon, and somehow got my wires crossed with another film (it may have been The Devil Rides Out, but I was certain the film I was thinking of was in black and white, and I know that Devil Rides Out was in typically gaudy Hammer colour, so anyway, it remains a mystery- anybody have any suggestions?). Well, as it turned out, contrary to my expectations, I hadn’t seen Night of the Demon before.

Well, lucky me. This film was brilliant. A genuinely unnerving British horror film from 1957 that somehow passed me by in all these intervening decades until Indicator’s superlative Blu-ray dropped through my letterbox. I have to say, if I’d watched this thing as a kid, it would have scared me shitless and scarred me for life (then again, that lamentable 1941 Arthur Askey flick The Ghost Train scared the willies off me as a kid – but admittedly scares me for different reasons when forced to watch it these days: Night of the Demon seems to have aged better).

It should indicate the qualities of this film that it made me uneasy throughout, and actually made me jump a few times. Sure, some of the effects have dated and the titulat demon likely gets titters of laughter from foolish young ‘uns today more accustomed to CGI stuff, but that’s what suspension of disbelief is all about. You have to work with films of this vintage and make allowances, and in this case that effort gets richly rewarded. Like The Blood on Satan’s Claw, this is a really great British horror film, and I can’t wait to rewatch it- this one really is a classic.

Oh, and this edition has enough different cuts of the film to qualify it for some kind of Blade Runner award; bravo, Indicator, another excellent release.

The Camp on Blood Island (1958)

camp1The third and latest boxset of Hammer films from the superlative label Indicator has arrived- subtitled ‘Blood and Terror’ it comprises of four racially-charged war and horror films. I haven’t seen any of these films before and will kick things off with the first title in the set – The Camp on Blood Island.

I found it difficult to watch The Camp on Blood Island without considering how politically-correct the world is now- this film just could not get made today, and even back in 1958 critics were appalled by this films depiction of Japanese soldiers as monsters and sadists, and the casting of mostly white actors in rather odd make-up as these Japanese fiends only compounded the sense of exploitation and unfairness. From the perspective of sixty years later, however, it is so unlike anything else it actually almost seems refreshingly bad taste and rather unique. Japanese POW films today (The Railway Man or Unbroken spring to mind) can be unrelentingly brutal and indeed more graphic than their 1958 predecessor, but they also have to be balanced and respectful to both sides of the war with a fair account. Not so this Hammer film, and its so unapologetic that its quite astonishing.

camp2I suppose as its a Hammer film it could actually be considered as much a horror film as a war film. There is no Geneva Convention being observed by the Japanese devils of Blood Island- Colditz and Stalag 17 are like holiday camps compared to the horrors inflicted upon the British POWS here. The film opens with a prisoner digging his own grave and being summarily executed by  gleeful Japanese in front of the assembled prisoners. Their mail is burnt in front of them and hostages taken and beheaded as punishment for subsequent escape attempts. One emaciated escapee makes a break to the women’s camp to see his wife one last time, and is killed by machine-gun fire before her very eyes, the Japanese soldier laughing as he shoots, the wife (played with customary style by the great Barbara Shelley) reacting in total horror.

What makes the film so watchable is a twist that is quite fascinating. The prisoners on Blood Island are led by Colonel Lambert (Andre Morell, excellent as ever as he somehow makes even the most implausible seem ordinary), who knows from a radio that the prisoners have rigged up, that the war is actually over. Unfortunately for them, the prison commander, Yamamitsu (Ronald Radd), has a history of war-crimes to his name with nothing to lose, and has already boasted to Lambert that if/when the Japanese lose the war, he will slaughter all the prisoners in the camp, and also all the women prisoners held in the other camp across the island. Keeping the secret of the wars end to just his closest officers, Lambert has instigated a series of escape attempts to try get word of their plight to the outside world, and repeated sabotaging of the Japanese radio equipment to keep Yamamitsu in the dark – but these efforts have resulted in bloody reprisals on the prisoners who have become wary of Lambert’s actions.

camp3Considering the boys-own adventure war films of its era, such as those that starred John Wayne, The Camp on Blood Island is surprisingly dark, brutal and indeed nihilistic. When all seems lost at the films finale, Lambert leads a violent last-ditch escape that results in himself blowing up one of his own officers by mistake, and the wasted deaths of many of his men during the battle, just prior to Allied forces arriving to save them having been contacted by one of the successful escapees. Its a dark and rather sober conclusion to a film of much misery and suffering and, yes, extreme sadism by monstrous Japanese. The whole thing is utterly fascinating and so utterly non-politically correct that it is remarkable indeed and the opportunity to actually see the film (it hasn’t been screened on British television since 1979, for perhaps obvious reasons) is something to savour. While there are obvious issues with the films approach and its sensibilities I thoroughly enjoyed it and found it surprisingly challenging and well-made considering its era and low-budget. There was clearly much more to Hammer than the gothic horrors it became so famous for and I can only commend Indicator for this excellent release.

 

The Full Treatment (1960)

 

full2So here we go with the fourth film in Indicator’s second Hammer box, The Full Treatment. If I were to be brutally honest and ranking the four films in preference, this film would be third on the list, but nonetheless this has quite a lot going for it. In essence it’s a very odd and strangely ‘modern’ film regards its sensibilities, with all sorts of subtext, intentional or otherwise.

The film begins quite brilliantly, really grabbing the viewer with the immediate aftermath of a road accident, depicted in some graphic detail. Immediately following their wedding, racing driver Alan Coulby (Ronald  Lewis) and his Italian wife Denise (Diane Cilento, who is quite brilliant in this film) have been involved in an head-on collision with a truck, killing the truck driver and throwing Denise clear into the road with superficial injuries. Alan Coulby, however, has suffered severe head injuries. Several months after the accident, Coulby is released from treatment and attempts to get his life back on track by taking the honeymoon that was originally curtailed by the accident.

Unfortunately Coulby is something of a broken man- he is too traumatised to drive, which, considering his earlier prowess as a racing driver, would be doubly emasculating (Denise has to drive them to their honeymoon destination, with Coulby a frustrated passenger) and is rendered impotent by an unnatural urge to strangle his wife whenever they attempt to be intimate or share physical contact. He stares at his trembling hands, compelled to do his wife harm whenever aroused, as if his hands belong to someone else. Driven (sic) to distraction by all of this, he is prone to violent outbursts and rages. This proves to be a difficulty for the film, the character as written is a pretty unlikeable lead which impacts the films ability to foster much sympathy for his predicament. Instead we feel for Denise and view Coulby almost as a villain, which is likely not the films intention.

The film does feel quite subversive with the sexual undertones of his murderous urges and jealous rage, I would think someone like Verhoeven or Cronenberg could fashion a quite riveting modern thriller from this material. Its quite surprising to see a Hammer film of this period having some nudity, too- we see Denise swimming naked in the sea or having a bath infront of her husband, quite clearly liberated and confident of her own sexuality and body, which again is at odds with her husbands feelings of emasculation and his horror at his body betraying him when he loses control of his hands and they do Denise harm.

There is a wonderful twist towards the third act, in which Alan and the viewer actually believe that he has indeed possibly killed Denise and he goes on the run, following a blackout. While I doubted that a films of its era could actually follow through with this possibility, its nonetheless an unnerving moment of the film pulling the rug from under you and subverting expectations. For that alone, I rate this film quite highly. Maybe i’m ‘seeing’ too much in its subtext and themes, and the film does become somewhat pedestrian at the end with its fairly formulaic denouement but it isn’t enough to detract from its achievements before.

And of course the film has its interests beyond the film itself- the unfortunate fate of actor Ronald Lewis, which I dwelt upon in a recent post here and Diane Cilento who was soon famous more for being Mrs Sean Connery than her own acting career (which arguably suffered from that marriage).  Neither of the two really reached the heights they might have, but this film is a tantalising glimpse of a moment when both of them had all sorts of possibilities ahead of them.

 

Never Take Sweets from a Stranger (1960)

neverThe title tells it all really- indeed,even today, giving a film a title like that feels progressive, audacious, almost subversive. It treads across a line somehow, some kind of moral/social taboo that really the film itself does too. Indeed, I was so very surprised by this film, expecting some kind of exploitation b-movie about child endangerment/molestation (as deplorable an approach as the subject itself) but instead this film turned out to be intelligent and restrained and, sadly, as relevant today as it was over fifty years ago. Indeed, perhaps even more so. When one considers some of the news headlines from the last few decades, all those scandals etc, then this film feels more provocative, more ahead-of-its-time and just plain brave, than it likely did back in 1960. I suppose audiences back in 1960 could fool themselves into thinking child molestation and murder were rare incidents in their modern society and the uncomfortable message of the film somewhat redundant in a modern, sane and responsible world. Unfortunately recent history would suggest otherwise.

Of course you cannot possibly seperate this film from the period in which it was made and it does regrettably feel a little dated in some respects, but in a way I guess that adds a sort of David Lynchian-otherness to the whole thing. Thinking about it, that feels rather fitting, considering that his Twin Peaks series shared some of this films themes regards the dark underbelly of modern society and child abuse etc.  But how odd to consider that Hammer did this film so many decades earlier! I wonder if Mark Frost/David Lynch were familiar with this film back when they started Twin Peaks.

At its heart, Never Take Sweets from a Stranger is a film about small-town politics and abuse of power as much as it is about child sex abuse, and also has a courtroom section as rivetting as any courtroom drama you will remember. Its quite a sophisticated film carefully dealing with the uncomfortable issues it raises, somewhat distancing itself from the more sensationalist Gothic horrors that Hammer is more famous for. Watching this so soon after being amazed by the excellent Cash on Demand (this Indicator Hammer boset is proving quite a revelation), makes me wonder that perhaps the box office successes of those Gothic horrors did Hammer something of a disservice, and lost British film of a voice and channel for important, thought-provoking quality films.

The chilling and quite gruesome denouement of this film is possibly one of the best of any Hammer horror, in fact, and this film has lingered in my head somewhat uncomfortably over the last few days since I saw it. Its quite an important British film, I think, and one terribly overlooked and criminally forgotten. Had Hitchcock, for instance, directed this, then yes in execution it would likely have been a better film, but also I think it might well have been as famous and notorious today as his own Psycho. Instead it seems to have been consigned to an obscure footnote in the history of Hammer, rather lost in the shadow of its glossier and more sensational horrors, but hopefully the wonderful treatment that the film has been given by Indicator here will raise the film’s standing somewhat and give its place in British film history some reconsideration.