Horrifyingly suggestive: Nothing But the Night (1973)

nothingAnother horror film  that teamed up Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, Nothing But the Night is a particularly strange one. It doesn’t really work and the ending in particular is a poorly-edited debacle that damages the whole film, but thinking about it afterwards, it seems to me that it one of those badly-executed efforts that wastes a really disturbing premise that deserved better. In better hands and better circumstances, it could have been as harrowing as The Wicker Man or other of the best British horrors. There’s even a genre nod with Christopher Lee nearly being the one put in the fire this time around.

To get into this, I have to break into spoiler territory but I imagine spoiler warnings for a film as obscure as this is largely pointless, but anyway, here goes nothing: beyond this point lie spoilers, folks.

So anyway, the basic premise of the film, which is a ‘shock’ twist reserved for the films end, is that Frankenstein-like mad doctors/scientists in a children’s orphanage on a remote Scottish island have discovered a method of immortality by abusing/killing the children in the orphanage’s care. The twelve trustees of the orphanage and the carers there are all in on the horrible scheme. Its really quite harrowing and disturbing when one thinks about it. The mind/personality/memories of the old trustees/carers are being transferred into the bodies of those of the young children, whose own minds end up in the old bodies of the trustees and then executed in various ways to suggest accidents or suicide. This makes the opening sequence, in which we see three mute people being secretly murdered (one woman sitting in a car that is rolled out over a cliff, another a man pushed over a balcony to his death, another an old woman shot in the face as if shooting herself) really horrifying in retrospect, once one appreciates that infant children are trapped in those bodies and sacrificed for the ‘greater good’/immortality of the evil old buggers ostensibly responsible for them.

There’s a pretty scary film in there, but this film isn’t it. I did appreciate a suggestion that this ‘immortality’ isn’t perfect and is gradual,  with one of the girls in hospital haunted by dreams of fire, not realising that she is the founder of the orphanage and that the dreams are actually memories of a traumatic moment in her previous life and that actual self-awareness and individuality only comes later (i.e. at the films end when the girl/old woman finally reveals who she really is and what is going on).  Shades there, too, of The Boys from Brazil.

Sure, the whole premise is rather daft, but it is pretty much the same premise as Get Out, the 2017 film that was highly regarded, so there was obviously promise in it and I’d argue that executed properly, Nothing But the Night could have been far more horrible and scary than Get Out, if only because of what grisly fates it inferred for the innocent children.

As it is, Nothing But the Night is just poor, wasting both Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee and featuring some peculiarities that endlessly distract- a very odd Diana Dors as an angry mother who unintentionally looks like Little Britain‘s Matt Lucas in his female character roles (the likeness and mannerisms are uncannily similar), and the dawning recognition that Mary, the girl haunted by dreams turns out to be none other than a (understandably) very young Gwyneth Strong, later better known for playing Cassandra in Only Fools and Horses.

In Brief: Midsommar

“It’ll be over soon, won’t it?”

This hopelessly pretentious modern-day remake/variation of The Wicker Man is so monstrously derivative of older, better movies that if it had more lens-flares I could have mistaken it for a JJ Abrams joint. What is it with so many movies now just re-purposing old movies in new clothing?  I think this one tries to excuse its horrible writing and character motivations and acting by saddling it with myriad arthouse sensibilities and social/political commentary, but for me that just makes it worse, it drags it out to something like two and a half hours of excruciating twaddle. I hear there’s actually a longer directors cut, which sounds to me akin to torture and something to really be afraid of. Anyway, I decided to keep this brief so that’s about it: no, I really didn’t like it.

Midsommar is streaming on Amazon Prime (for all intents and purposes for free, thankfully, for those of us who have Prime, because if I’d paid to see it I’d have felt robbed). 

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)

hound1I watched Arrow’s excellent new blu-ray release of The Hound of the Baskervilles a few days prior to the sad passing of Christopher Lee. I make a point of stating this because, well, it won’t ever be quite the same in future watching a film featuring him. The knowledge that there will be no more films made with Lee is a sad one, and it can’t help but colour your thinking whilst watching him now in any of his great films like The Wicker Man or Dracula or The Devil Rides Out. Some of these great old films are passing out of living memory and into history, an inevitable fact of life as the years pass but nonetheless a sobering one. Part of the power and magic of movies- performances captured onto film forever, the work of actors waiting to be discovered and appreciated by viewers yet unborn. Sadly the audiences for some of these older films may wane as time goes on -later versions of Sherlock Holmes may make later generations think that a 1959 Holmes film is pretty much redundant. That’s their loss. This is a great little movie.

Discovering something ‘new’, like an unwatched Kubrick or Hitchcock film, is something rather special, which is how I approached Baskervilles as I had never seen it before and it starred the great Peter Cushing as Sherlock Holmes. Regular readers of this blog will know of my appreciation of Cushing, and seeing him in something new (to me anyway) is always something to treasure. His Holmes here is a vivid, almost mercurial one, quite a surprise when compared to his dour Van Helsing or obsessed Victor Frankenstein. He clearly relishes the part of Holmes and makes it a rather physical role rather than a still, intellectual one- there’s a jolly, almost youthful exuberance here. Its fun. Reminds me of his Captain Clegg.

Its a Hammer film so its obvious why the Baskerville story was chosen, as it leans towards the horror of the story in a similar way to how Hammer’s first Dracula pared Stoker’s tale to the bone but it’s a very good version of the tale, and Cushing’s evident fun in the role makes me sad Hammer didn’t continue the series with another Holmes film. Would have certainly been a welcome diversion from Cushing’s usual Hammer roles. The film’s prologue is pure Gothic Hammer, as we see the dastardly Sir Hugo Baskerville launch the legend of the Baskerville curse with some gusto. Hammer was great at this stuff and it’s a startling way to start a Holmes movie.

Christopher Lee’s role, as Sir Henry Baskerville, is most atypical. There’s nothing threatening about him here and he even gets something of a romance. Clearly this is before he became typecast (he was just too good as a villain, with so much presence on-screen) and its a pleasure to see him in something so unusual. Hammer’s Baskervilles is clearly one of those ‘what-if’ movies- what if they made more Holmes movies, and Cushing starred in them, what if Lee had gotten the opportunity of more of these kind of roles. Well. Its fun to wonder.

Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971)

clawRe-watching this last night only cemented my opinion that Blood on Satan’s Claw is one of the very best British horror films. It may not be the most famous -certainly the best Hammer films have always been more popular and likely always will- but there is a dark undercurrent that elevates Claw above most British horror.  It also forms a rather notable (albeit unintended) horror trilogy with 1968’s Witchfinder General and 1973’s The Wicker Man either side of it- three of the most haunting horrors ever made, sharing themes of Paganism and Witchcraft, and threatened Christianity, with Claw perhaps the most perverse of the three in how it portrays the seduction of the innocent. Its an undeniably disturbing piece of work that surpasses the limitations of its budget, at least until reaching its climax.

The film feels genuinely authentic- it looks utterly gorgeous (the work of cinematographer Dick Bush who also filmed Hammer’s Twins of Evil), the locations and sets are convincing and eerily moody- it looks like a far more ambitious and higher-budgeted film than it really is. Some of the location footage measures up very well against even Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. For me, the best horror films are all about atmosphere rather than gore, and Claw is particularly brilliant at this, really evoking the period setting and maintaining an atmosphere of brooding menace throughout, heightened by a creepy score that worms its way under your skin. There is something tangible about its sense of place and time lacking in, say, those Hammer films with a similar setting.

claw1The story is fairly simple, only complicated by it actually being a combination of three separate stories (giving it an unnerving, disjointed feel that elevates the strangeness of the narrative). In 17th century rural England, a farm labourer (Barry Andrews) ploughing a field uncovers remains of a devilish skull, complete with a perfectly preserved human eye starring back at him, as if its actually aware of him. The shaken labourer enlists the advice of the Judge (Patrick Wymark), taking him to the field for his opinion but the remains have disappeared, upon which the Judge discounts the labourers tale.  However, the unearthing clearly triggers unnatural occurrences, and particularly odd behaviour amongst the children of the village,  their young innocent minds evidently corrupted by a demonic presence, their games in abandoned church ruins out in the woods becoming increasingly sexual and violent, culminating in rape and murder.

claw2The beautiful Linda Hayden is excellent as the Satanic Cults young leader, the bewitched Angel Blake intent on returning her demonic master to corporeal form by sacrificing others. The scene where she undresses in church to seduce the village Reverend is a remarkable confrontation between the forces of Good and Evil, the sacred and the profane, that must have likely concerned film censors of the day. Its the films stand-out scene and is an erotically-charged moment that is quite chilling. Hayden is particularly good at playing a sultry seductress one moment and a naive innocent the next, as having failed to corrupt the priest she then feigns shame as she soon after accuses the Reverend of attacking and abusing her. Its a stand-out performance throughout the film and I am amazed that she didn’t become a major actress.

Eventually the ambition of the film proves its undoing- the conclusion simply cannot measure up to what it wants to be with such a limited budget and production- but its what leads up to that conclusion that makes the film such a great horror film. Indeed, I think its superior to both Witchfinder General and The Wicker Man. Why aren’t British film-makers making more films like this?  Here we are four decades later and there is still nothing quite like it.