Saturday, December 10, 2016

The Future of Satanic Pandemonium

As of now, I've decided to put Satanic Pandemonium on hold, at least for the month of December. This will really be the first time I've taken a break from this site since October of 2012 (!). A lot of this has to do with other things I'm working on and deadlines that are quickly coming up in the next four or five weeks: I'm a writer and editor for Diabolique Magazine, and we're just gearing up to come back in print; my podcast, Daughters of Darkness, is in the middle of an Elio Petri retrospective and we're prepping for an exciting recording session in January; I'm contributing to and editing a book whose manuscript is due soon (more about that in the new year); I'm still working on my WWII book, which will hopefully be out next year; and I have two essays due soon for other publications. All the things.

I'm also thinking it might be time for a name change for this blog, which is something I seem to do every five years or so, since I'm not really good with the whole long term commitment thing. Additionally, my domain expired and Google is making it really difficult to reinstate, so there are suddenly tons of broken links (though all the content is still here, you just have to search for it). So, it just seems like a good time to take a break, though my British horror series will continue in January, but under a new name (which I'll link to here when I have the site together), and I hope everyone has a more relaxing holiday season than I am likely to!

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED

Anton M. Leader, 1964
Starring: Ian Hendry, Alan Badel, Barbara Ferris

A psychologist, Tom (Ian Hendry), and a scientist, David (Alan Badel), are working together on a study examining childhood development. They are fascinated when they come across the case of a young boy, Paul (Clive Powell), with remarkable mental powers and a very strange personality. They track down his mother (Sheila Allen), who ultimately reveals that the child forces her to do things, perhaps telepathically, and that she can’t stand to be around him because she was a virgin when he was conceived. Though they are reluctant to believe her story, they soon realize there are five other children from across the globe — countries like China, India, and the Soviet Union — who exhibit similar powers and soon run away from their respective embassies and gather together in an abandoned church in London. As government officials and British Intelligence close in, Tom and David attempt to prevent ultimate destruction.

This sequel to Village of the Damned is less of a direct follow up and more a film that happens to be set in the same universe. There are the requisite parallels, namely the fact that the children were all the result of virgin births from human mothers, they have a superior intellect, share knowledge, and are apparently telepathic. Where they different from the children in the first film is that, for starters, they don’t look alike: instead they represent a range of nationalities. They also seem to be more human than alien — some cockamamie explanation about blended DNA is given — and here they are clearly meant to be sympathetic. It’s actually the film’s saving grace; they recognize that they have no place on the earth and, once their true natures are revealed, will drive humans to desperate acts of fear-based violence despite their efforts to remain in obscurity.

This is also more overtly a Cold War-themed film, though its League of Nations approach to the second half of the plot hasn’t aged particularly well. It’s amusing to think of this set up in comparison to the last fifty years of cinema and television; somehow the British military (and intelligence service) have spearheaded a mission to kidnap or destroy the children that involves a number of embassies and diplomats, but is basically run by two scientists who just barge on the scene and do whatever they want (especially Ian Hendry’s Tom, though he’s known for this sort of arrogant kind of character, so either I’m just used to seeing him in a role like this or it really is plausible). There is an effectively moment when orders become confused and the different British regiments are basically firing on themselves, but overall it feels a bit ridiculous.

There are some eerie Quatermass and the Pit-like moments — particularly a scene where a child is killed and later raised from the dead — but overall the film beats you over the head with its anti-war/anti-nuclear terror message. The instances of the children forcing adults to become violent are a bit more ridiculous in this second film and I think someone was asleep at the wheel with those sequences, though part of the problem is that they don’t really seem to fit in with the film’s underlying thesis that the children aren’t inherently violent or dangerous, but will protect themselves when necessary. There is, however, a grisly sequence when British officials (it seems like a mix of military and intelligence) arrive to kidnap the children — who are newly arrived at the abandoned church — and they force the men to brutally murder each other.

Despite effective sequences like that one, there is a lot that patently doesn’t make any sense. Where Village of the Damned introduced some interesting religious themes, only to throw them away by the second half, Children of the Damned does something similar with its central location of the abandoned church; the children use parts of the structure to build an insane mega-weapon to defend themselves. If they’re so smart, surely they could have constructed something a little simpler and more innocuous? When the government officials realize they could use the children’s device — and the children themselves — as powerful weapons, they change their tune and immediately roll out every excuse from patriotism to common sense to try to get the scientists to convince the children to come on board. And while the first film has an admittedly downbeat ending, this one attempts to be more tragic in tone and winds up being a bit too sentimental and moralistic for my taste. Mild spoilers: the film more or less ends with someone postulating that the children are not alien at all, but advanced humans who have arrived before their time.


I don’t know that I can really recommend Children of the Damned, though it is an interesting film and it’s worth tracking down if you like atomic horror, British sci-fi, or weird children’s movies. It’s available on DVD as a double feature with Village of the Damned. Though I do have to admit that Losey’s These are the Damned is still my favorite “evil alien/atomic children” film — and perhaps you should make a triple feature out of these three — but hey, it’s Joseph Losey. Nothing against Village of the Damned’s director, Wolf Rilla, or Anton M. Leader, but come on now. Joseph Losey.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (1960)

Wolf Rilla, 1960
Starring: George Sanders, Barbara Shelley, Martin Stephens

One afternoon, something happens in the town of Midwich: all of its inhabitants fall into a coma for several hours, an event that just happens to come to the attention of the military, because local scientist Professor Zellaby (George Sanders) was in the middle of an important telephone call. After a few hours, the citizens all wake up and the mystery remains unsolved. But several months later, it becomes clear that many of the town’s female population are pregnant — including young women who claim they are virgins and older, married women whose husbands have been away and protest they aren’t guilty of infidelity — and the babies develop at an unusually accelerated rate. The children are uncannily alike, all with blonde hair, overly large heads, and hypnotic eyes, and seem to have a telepathic link. Professor Zellaby, father to one of these children, becomes fascinated with them, though the government because convinced that they pose a dangerous threat…

Based on John Wyndham’s novel The Midwich Cuckoos — a title I much prefer — Village of the Damned has a lot going for it, particularly in the context of ‘50s and ‘60s British horror, which is generally schlocky at best. It’s not quite on the level of something like Hammer’s The Abominable Snowman or The Quatermass Xperiment, but it’s leagues beyond The Devil Girl from Mars, The Gamma People, or The Trollenberg Terror. It did remind me a bit of Hammer’s slightly later These are the Damned (1963), which I prefer simply because that film is just so insane (and stars Oliver Reed), Village of the Damned remains compelling viewing. The film’s opening, in particular, has aged extremely well and is still effective and chilling. If you don’t know the full plot details (or are hazy on them), it seems for at least a few minutes like the entire community of Midwich has dropped to the ground, stone dead. Though Sanders’ Professor Zellaby is briefly introduced, he’s not the protagonist during this opening and his fate seems unclear. Things are made even bleaker when an army pilot attempts to fly over Midwich airspace — it’s as if the town is surrounded by some sort of consciousness-proof though invisible bubble — and the reality of the situation dawns on the horrified onlookers.

I do really enjoy Village of the Damned and at this point, I think it’s regarded as a ‘60s genre classic so widely, that it isn’t really worth getting into why it’s so beloved; you should see for yourself. As a George Sanders fanatic, he’s the real reason I enjoy the film and if you’re unfamiliar with his work, stop for a minute, dust yourself off after crawling out from under that massive rock, and check out the wide range of classics he’s appeared in — titles as far ranging as Rebecca, All About Eve, Foreign Correspondent, The Jungle Book, and A Shot in the Dark (plus he’s the original Mr. Freeze) — as well as genre films like The Picture of Dorian Gray, Psychomania, and Doomwatch. He’s one of my favorite actors and deservedly so. He’s marvelous.

His film-stealing turn here as Zellaby provides some interesting depth; as a science-obsessed rationalist, in a way he makes the children sympathetic. It is clear that he feels no love for his “son” David, but rather a consuming curiosity. Their relationship almost accidentally becomes the focal point of the film, as Hammer regular Barbara Shelley’s role as David’s mother, Anthea, is given very little screen time, even though her role as a woman who knows there is something wrong with her child and, in a tragic touch, just wants him to love her anyway. And this is actually my primary complaint about the film. Many of the issues raised early on, or hinted at, are never resolved or even fully explored during the running time. The religious themes are underused, aside from an eerie key sequence where the town priest (Bernard Archard) admits that he is deeply disturbed by the pregnancies and believes the women may have become that way through supernatural means. It is really this issue of perverted virgin birth and the ensuing “messiahs” they deliver that should have been the focal point. There is a devastating series of short scenes early on where the women learn about their pregnancies, often with horror, and it would have been interesting to see this subtext of unresolved trauma develop throughout the film.

Because, I have to admit, I hate these goddamn children. I know you’re supposed to fear them — or at least be repulsed, or possibly even fascinated — but I just flat out hate them. In general I have a hard time liking child characters in films (Bob in Possession is an important counter example), probably because filmmakers seem to often play to this general assumption that the audience inherently likes children, feels protective of them, or at least finds them adorable. No. It doesn’t help that Martin Stephens, who costars as David, was also Miles in the far superior and more disturbing The Innocents. The film seems unsure about what to do with him. Are we supposed to feel sympathy for him, somewhere deep down? I could be off base, but that’s how it seemed to me and — despite the wonderfully downbeat resolution that I will not spoil — the somewhat shifting portrayal of David is uneasy at best.


Village of the Damned was supposed to be produced by MGM in America, but it was apparently put on hold because of protests over the mild, if controversial religious themes and it was eventually made in England thanks to the efforts of George Sanders. In the film’s universe, other places in the world suffer the same fate as Midwich and, even though it is essentially a horror film about aliens, director Rilla makes effective use of the subtle Cold War theme. This is essentially a film about the nature of power, as the children struggle to live apart and are at their most violent and dangerous when the adults try to strip that power away — driving them to some pretty nasty acts, including a scene where they force someone to commit vehicular suicide, among other things. Flawed but still compelling, the film really shines in its most quiet, unobtrusive moments, when Zellaby and David edge around each other, trying to make one another out. The script certainly benefits from the fact that David and the other children don’t take Zellaby for granted, but regard him as not only a potential equal, but as a viable threat. Even though the effects don’t really hold up (those goddamn glowing eyes), it comes recommended. Pick it up on DVD as a double feature with Children of the Damned. (And we’re just going to pretend that the John Carpenter remake doesn’t exist.)

Monday, November 7, 2016

BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING

Otto Preminger, 1965
Starring: Carol Lynley, Keir Dullea, Laurence Olivier, Noel Coward

The young Ann (Carol Lynley) has recently arrived in London to live with her brother Steven (Keir Dullea). On her daughter Bunny’s first day of school, she’s harried after a day of preparing their new home, but when she arrives in the afternoon to retrieve the girl, Bunny is nowhere to be found. Apparently she never made her way to her classroom and no one has seen her. An assured detective, Superintendent Newhouse (Laurence Olivier), attempts to unravel the mystery of the child’s disappearance, but quickly realizes no one outside of Ann or her brother has seen Bunny and there is no evidence of her existence at all. Otto Preminger, an Austrian émigré who escaped a war-torn Europe for the US like so many other prominent directors, actors, artists, and writers during the ‘30s and ‘40s, is one of those names that deserves more attention and while I have yet to see all of his films, he’s become one of my favorites of the years. Certainly titles like his seminal film noir Laura (1944) and courtroom drama Anatomy of a Murder (1959) are considered classics, but he frequently pushed the boundaries of Hollywood censorship when he tackled themes like infidelity (nearly all his films feature a love triangle), homosexuality, drug use, and rape. Many of his films are concerned with a man’s perverse obsession with a woman; in addition to Laura, this figures into Fallen Angel (1945), Whirlpool (1949), Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950), and of course Bunny Lake is Missing. My favorite of all his films, the majestically bleak Angel Face (1952), turns this on its head and features a pathological woman who is obsessed with a man, resulting in one of the most nihilist — yet still oddly romantic — entries in all of film noir.

My favorite of Preminger’s films fall under the loose thriller umbrella, which is certainly where Bunny Lake is Missing belongs. And it is one of those thrillers that subverts the standard murder mystery trope; instead of operating on the premise that someone has been murdered and a killer must be located (before killing again), the film focuses on a character who is missing and follows a protagonist who is soon confronted with the possibility that no one except for them knows for certain that this character is real. Films like Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938) and Terence Fisher’s So Long at the Fair (1950) fall under this umbrella and are all, in one way or another, based on an old urban legend that has turned up in fiction, film, and television over the years (I first encountered it as a child in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark).

On one hand, I find this premise really annoying; it’s just seems so improbable that not a single person would have witnessed the existence of the missing character — Hitchcock deals with this particularly well in The Lady Vanishes — but there is something about it that’s frightening in a primal way. What makes this (admittedly tiny) subgenre so effective is that the real crux of the film is not really whether the missing person will be located or who is responsible for their disappearance, but whether or not the protagonist is sane or insane. Preminger handles this particularly well in Bunny Lake is Missing and in that sense it ties into films about characters descending into madness and would fit in well with some of the similar thrillers made by directors like Hitchcock, Polanski, and De Palma.

But where Bunny Lake is Missing is so brilliant is in its use of a series of truly demented characters who surround Ann and the case of her daughter’s disappearance. Even the English band The Zombies make an appearance and while I love them, it’s a bit out of place to hear their songs pop up on the radio or to see them performing on television within the film. I don’t want to give all these character tidbits away, but one particularly delightful example features Martita Hunt (of one of my favorite British films of all time, David Lean’s Great Expectations) as a retired headmistress who lives in an attic room playing back recordings of children’s nightmares that she’s collected over the years. I could not make this up if I tried. But the oozing, decadent cherry on the cake is undoubtedly Noel Coward as Ann’s invasive landlord who works as an announcer for the BBC. At one point he brandishes a whip and claims to own the Marquis de Sade’s skull — all while clutching an enfeebled chihuahua named Samantha on his arm — and he tries to seduce Ann with his “melodious voice,” telling her that she should “sample the wine” before so hastily attempting to return it to the cellar. It’s maybe the greatest thing I’ve ever seen and I demand to know why there wasn’t a spin off film starring his character. It’s one of the great injustices of this world and by god, if I have to write that script myself, one day I will.

Last but not least is Keir Dullea — who will always and forever creep me out whenever I see him on screen, probably thanks to Black Christmas, or maybe just the fact that he looks like he’s plotting everyone’s death in some horrific way regardless of the role he’s in — as Ann’s brother, though I don’t want to spoil the surprise where he’s concerned. Needless to say, one of the film’s themes is among my favorites — incest — and in this way it ties in neatly with a handful of British horror films from the period that dealt with perverse family relationships and demented male protagonists stuck halfway between pathological violence and arrested development.

Of course no one can compete with a weary-looking (and apparently quite ill at the time) Laurence Olivier, despite the fact that he delivers a subtle, understated performance and is clearly not trying to steal the film from the other actors. He’s not really an eccentric figure, but is the calm, steady center of the film around which all of them — including Ann — swirl as the narrative moves increasingly into madness. Apparently it’s notably different from the source novel, by Merriam Modell, but wouldn’t be a Preminger film without his distinctive use of suspense, madness, gender conflicts, and good old fashioned human perversion.
And while Bunny Lake is Missing is one of Preminger’s more ignored films and received mixed critical reviews, I really love it. As with many of his best works, it looks absolutely beautiful, has a wonderful score (jazzy, but also vaguely threatening, from Paul Glass), and a title sequence from Saul Bass that is glorious (as is basically all of Bass’s work). Pick it up on Blu-ray, though I demand to know when someone will release a special edition box set of Preminger’s thrillers.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

TEN LITTLE INDIANS (1965)

George Pollock, 1965
Starring: Hugh O’Brian, Shirley Eaton, Daliah Lavi, Fabian, Leo Genn, Mario Adorf

Eight strangers plus two caretakers are invited to a weekend party in a remote house in the mountains by a mysterious host, Mr. Owen, but they soon realize that they’re stranded there for the entire weekend and their host has accused them all of murder. Though he has promised to show up for their first dinner together, there is only a record with his voice charging each of them with a specific crime, which they all deny. But the first guest to admit that he is at least partially guilty is found dead soon after and the surviving members of the party realize that their host’s obsession with the “Ten Little Indians” poem could spell doom for them all...

Now generally known as And Then There Were None to avoid any of the racist connotations of the original title, Agatha Christie’s book is a must-read for anyone who likes murder mysteries and this film is the second adaptation of her much loved work. It contains some of my favorite of the genre’s themes: strangers trapped together in a confined space with no feasible way to escape, they are all murder suspects, and a murderer among them insures that they begin dropping like flies in some imaginative ways. Ten Little Indians diverges from Christie’s plot in several key ways, sadly, and the misanthropy of her book — where everyone actually is a terrible human being at best and some are actually murderers — is mostly absent, but I still have a real weakness for these sorts of plots.

Admittedly, Ten Little Indians also pales in comparison to the first adaptation of the film, René Clair’s 1945 film And Then There Were None. One of my favorite mystery films and one that is much closer to Christie’s novel, it relies more heavily on tropes found in the old dark house subgenre. The characters in that film are wildly unlikable, though Clair expertly builds tension and keeps the group as a whole sympathetic because of their understandable desire to stay alive. Any changes made to the script were largely because the Hays Code prevented Clair from depicted some of the novel’s bleaker themes, like teen pregnancy, something that Ten Little Indians did not have to grapple with in quite the same way.

For whatever reason, cult producer Harry Alan Towers and director George Pollock — hired because he made a number of successful films in the ‘60s based on one of Christie’s most popular recurring detectives, Miss Marple — decided to abandon the racier themes of Christie’s novel and go for more of a swinging ‘60s vibe. I can’t really say why I decided to include it in my British horror series, as it isn’t a horror film and abandons many of the spookier elements of Clair’s film in favorite of some hilarious death scenes (including two involving a tumbling from the mountain), but there is still something compelling about it and addicted to these types of mysteries. I love the snowy setting; though it doesn’t necessarily improve on the coastal English vibe from the first film, it adds a pleasantly continental feel, which is enhanced by a cast that is both English and European.

And that’s the real reason I think horror/cult fans will want to seek this out: the cast. Though there aren’t any major starring names, Christopher Lee has a cameo as the voice of Mr. Owen, lending his distinctive baritone to the memorable recording that accuses all ten of the guests of murder. Italian horror regular Daliah Lavi makes an appearance as a demanding, self-important actress, though my favorite appearance is from prolific actor Leo Genn (Green for Danger) as the amazingly named General Mandrake, what I would loosely call the protagonist for the first half of the film. Wilfrid Hyde-White (The Third Man), as the judge, is excellent and is especially allowed to shine during the second half of the film. And let us not forget Mario Adorf (!!!) who makes an appearance as a German caretaker, seeming far older than he was and more ridiculous than he would go on to appear to be in his numerous appearances in New German Cinema or giallo films.

Weirdly, overall, Ten Little Indians belongs to Goldfinger’s Shirley Eaton. Her performance here it made me wish she’d been in more mystery and horror films (rather than sex comedies) and now I have to revisit Jess Franco’s The Blood of Fu Manchu, in which she has a small role. The relationship between a secretary, Ann (Eaton), and an actor, Lombard (western star Hugh O’Brian) — which includes a sex scene — is a bit ridiculous and certainly there are a number of annoying characters, for example, I could really do without ‘60s pop singer Fabian, though his character is, blessedly, the first to die.


I don’t know if I can actually recommend Ten Little Indians. If you like murder mysteries, it’s an entertaining way to pass the time and anyone who loves Clue (1985) would probably be interested to see at least one or two versions of what is basically that film’s source material. There are a number of other versions of And Then There Were None to come after this film, and I’m also going to cover the 1974 version, which was directed by Straight on Till Morning’s Peter Collinson and stars both Richard Attenborough and Oliver Reed. It avoids some of the more absurd elements of Ten Little Indians — such as the lounge-appropriate, ridiculous, and very ‘60s score from Malcolm Lockyer, as well as the “Whodunit Break,” where you’re supposed to guess the identity of the murderer before he or she is revealed. And that goddamn cat. If you’re curious, pick it up on DVD.

Monday, October 17, 2016

A STUDY IN TERROR

James Hill, 1965
Starring: John Neville, Donald Houston, John Fraser My knife's so nice and sharp, I want to get to work right away if I get a chance. Good Luck. Yours truly, Jack the Ripper.” In late nineteenth century London, prostitutes are being murdered in the seedy district of Whitechapel. The city’s most renowned detective, Sherlock Holmes, is soon on the case along with his associate Dr. Watson and the scant clues — including a case of personalized surgical instruments left at a pawn shop —  lead them towards the missing son of the illustrious Duke of Shires. Holmes’ own brother Mycroft encourages him to find the killer, dubbed Jack the Ripper by the press, before the madman strikes again, sending Holmes into an increasingly complex web of lies, family secrets, and past violence, all revolving around a local asylum. It might seem a little off track for me to cover a Sherlock Holmes film for my British horror series, but — as with Hammer’s earlier The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee — this film does have some connection to the horror genre. I’m a massive Sherlock Holmes fan and it’s really a shame that this film and Hammer’s effort didn’t kick of a string of horror-tinged Conan Doyle thrillers. That bit of wishful thinking aside, A Study in Terror did have an interesting impact, both in terms of cinema and fiction; even though it’s relatively ignored and received mixed critical attention, it’s worth remembering because it was influential in two ways. First, it pitted the world’s most famous fictional detective against a historical, unsolved case; secondly, it was (as far as I can tell) the first work of fiction to pin the Ripper murders on a member of the British aristocracy, implying that a government-wide conspiracy is at foot. This theme began to reappear somewhat regularly, including in Murder by Decree (1978), which I’ll discuss more later, and Alan Moore’s masterpiece, the comic From Hell (1989-1996). The film’s connection to the horror genre is further highlighted in the fact that it was penned by Donald and Derek Ford of The Black Torment, and implied more sex and violence than the censors were apparently comfortable with; really it has nothing on, say, a Pete Walker film, but there are some brutal death sequences and a few implied seductions. And in his own way, Saucy Jack has become as much of a classic horror genre figure as Dracula or Frankenstein’s monster. It’s always felt a bit weird to me to cut Ripper-themed films out of horror genre discussions and include them with thrillers instead; after all, this is about a series of crimes where an unidentified person literally guts prostitutes and spills their entrails all over the street. The film’s twist — which I am going to reveal here, so look out, spoilers ahead — focuses on the same core plot element as Murder by Decree and From Hell: a rebellious aristocrat had a relationship with a woman of questionable morals and his family attempted to cover it up, leading, in a roundabout way, to the murders. In this case, Lord Carfax (John Fraser), Michael’s brother, became obsessed with covering up a scandal. The murder of several prostitutes was just a ruse, a diversion, in order to distract from his real plan, to locate and then murder Angela (Adrienne Corri). The plot is sort of hard to follow and improbable: While Michael (John Cairney) was studying to be a doctor, he met and married a beautiful prostitute, Angela. He learned that she was unfaithful to him — with Max Steiner (Peter Carsten), the owner of the inn — and in an ensuing fight, she tried to throw acid in his face, but only wound up hideously scarring herself. Steiner keeps her hidden away in a room above the inn, while Michael went mad from the incident and is similarly hidden away in the asylum by his former mentor, Dr. Murray (Anthony Quayle), who has let everyone believe that he’s dead. Sherlock’s deductions are a bit groan-worthy at times and his logical leaps make the head spin, but some of this is expected and the rest is made up for by a number of wonderful performances. Gilliam’s Baron Munchausen himself, John Neville, is absolutely divine as Holmes and I really wish he had been given his own run as the sleuth, like Peter Cushing or Jeremy Brett (though admittedly no one can compare with the latter). Donald Houston’s blustering Watson provides a nice counterpoint, as he is generally always affronted about something, adding a subtly comic twist to the grim proceedings. I know this use of Watson as comic relief annoys a lot of Conan Doyle purists, but when it’s done well, I’m afraid I can’t agree. It actually spares the film from being obsessed with its own cleverness, a fate that Bob Clark’s Murder by Decree suffers from. And while I think the latter is a better film, overall, it stands firmly on the shoulders of A Study in Terror and isn’t quite as entertaining in a diverting way. Also look out for Robert Morley (Theatre of Blood) as a wonderful Mycroft Holmes. The prolific Frank Finlay is probably my favorite Lestrade, a role he happily returned to for Murder by Decree (A Study in Terror’s Anthony Quayle also returned for that film, though not as a recurring character). And in an interesting sidenote, a young Judi Dench plays Murray’s niece and confidante. Her brief turn here reminds me a little of Angela Lansbury’s role in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945); both actresses are now so well known that to see them so young and relegated to supporting roles is a bit distracting. Overall, I have to recommend A Study in Terror, if only because of my Sherlock Holmes love. If you don’t feel the same way about fictional consulting detectives, or have a fascination with Jack the Ripper films, this might be something to pass over. The concluding exposition is pretty teeth-grinding, but the film’s presentation of issues like classism and misogyny blended with some good old fashioned inherited insanity and religiously-inspired paranoia make for a deadly cocktail, though one that A Study in Terror serves up with mixed results. The loose implication that Carfax could murder Angela by murdering every prostitute in Whitechapel is something I wish had been brought to the screen a bit more exuberantly, but I will be forever spoiled by Moore’s From Hell (though I refuse to acknowledge that the horrific film adaptation even exists). Though it’s available on DVD, a cleaned up Blu-ray release would be nice, preferably in some sort of Holmes-themed box set, or, even more amazingly, a Ripper set.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

I START COUNTING

David Greene, 1970
Starring: Jenny Agutter, Bryan Marshall, Simon Ward

The 14 year old Wynne (Jenny Agutter) realizes she is in love with her stepbrother, George (Bryan Marshall), who is in his early thirties, and her sexual awakening just happens to coincide with the emergence of a serial killer who is murdering young women in the area. Wynne comes to suspect that George might actually be the killer, thanks to his suddenly mysterious behavior, which includes lying about his whereabouts, scratches on his back, and a bloody sweater that he attempts to hide in the garbage. He also disapproves of Wynne spending a lot of time at their partially burnt-out old house, which Wynne and her friend Corinne (Clare Sutcliffe) pretend is haunted, because George’s fiancee died there in an accident years ago. But the more investigating Wynne does, she finds herself closer and closer to the killer...

Based on a novel by Audrey Erskine Lindop, I Start Counting is really more of a psychological thriller than a proper horror film, though it’s something of a spiritual successor to Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943) — about a young woman with latent amorous feelings for her uncle, who she suspects is a serial killer — with shades of eerie Australian masterpiece Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), though of course the latter wouldn’t come out until a few years later. But speaking of Australian films, this was an early starring role for the mesmerizing Jenny Agutter prior to her career-making performance in Walkabout (1971), which is also something of a coming-of-age film set in the Australian outback.

Walkabout, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Shadow of a Doubt, and I Start Counting are all concerned with depictions of teenage sexuality — specifically emerging female sexuality and the potentially violent effects of its repression. Like some of the other British psychopath films of the time, I Start Counting intertwines fantasy and reality, but with an interesting twist: from the perspective of a potential victim rather than the killer. It was apparently somewhat shocking for the time, but there is nothing graphic about the sexuality on display here and (outside of a sex scene that Wynne stumbles into, to her horror), there is not even much implied. That’s not to say that director David Greene’s (The Shuttered Room, among many other more mainstream titles) use of this theme isn’t impactful and, in a sense, the film also reminded me of Romero’s Season of the Witch (1973), where the film’s horror genre themes emerge from an unhappy character’s boredom with their dull homelife. For Wynne, this is compounded by puberty and I Start Counting is a compelling portrait of the jarring, notably melancholic shift from childhood into adolescence.

And this is actually the primary focus of the film: the undertones of sex and morbidity just happen to coincide with the off-camera actions of a serial killer. This figure serves less as a major plot point (or side plot) and more as a symbol for the confrontation of past trauma with repressed desire. There is a brief glimpse of a girl’s body under the water — perhaps a reference to Night Must Fall (1964), which also opens with the murder of a girl near a riverside — but, as with Shadow of a Doubt, the central characters are made up of a female “detective” and her family: a nagging, clueless mother and a male relative obsessed with the crimes. Wynne’s slightly older, teenage step-brother has a folder where he collects all the press on the murders. He utterly some (perhaps unintentionally) hilarious lines like “If he’s going to kill all these people, he could at least rape them, it seems like such a waste.”

It’s perhaps unusual to have what is essentially a film about a young psychopath — like the countless titles made in the wake of Psycho (1960) and Peeping Tom (1960) — told from the perspective of an even younger female protagonist. Though the basic script from Richard Harris — no, not that Richard Harris — is the only real flaw and it could have stood a bit more development, it makes great use of the fact that Wynne is still finding her way in the world and the agony she feels over her love for George is tangible. There are a few comical scenes, most of which involve her absolutely horrible friend Corinne, including one where she and Corinne discuss sex during mass and another where Corinne insistently shouts that she has had sex seven times. Seven times! If you’ve ever had a friend who was actually quite nasty to you (as teenage girls can often be) and was aggressively jealous, this captures that perfect. Corinne even tries to seduce George, which sets in motion the concluding tragic events, though I will restrain myself where spoilers are concerned.

I Start Counting has been almost totally ignored — particularly compared to other British psychopath films — and, as far as I can tell, it’s not yet available on a proper home video release, something that needs to be rectified as soon as possible. It deserves a restoration and a Blu-ray release with plenty of special features. If you’re a fan of Shadow of a Doubt, this would make an interesting double feature with either that or Picnic at Hanging Rock, and anyone who loves Agutter — and particularly in her early years, you’d have to be a monster not to — should seek this out immediately. Though I shouldn't give it all to Agutter, though she is phenomenal. Bryan Marshall (The Long Good Friday) has great chemistry with her and is perfectly used. Between the two characters, and especially in their interplay together, the film's stretches its legs and explores a profound sense of fantasy, longing, and emotional restraint that means that a lot of non-horror fans will also find a lot to love here.