August 28, 2013

ON THE BEACH (1959) - post-apocalyptic waiting game

(1959, USA)

Before 'post-apocalyptic' meant an action movie...

There has just been a nuclear world war. Anyone in the countries involved who didn't get hit by one of the hundreds of direct strikes has succumbed to the deadly radioactive fallout. Most of these were in the northern hemisphere. The winds have yet to carry the invisible danger to Australia, where a lone submarine crew assembles for a mission to check for any remaining life, especially the source of a mysterious radio signal. If nothing can survive on the planet, then there's no hope for anyone...

I'm no scientist, so I don't know whether this scenario is accurate or not. Is there definitely no chance of escape from a release of airborne radiation on that scale? No place to hide while radiation levels drop? Later global catastrophe movies like the biohazard thriller Virus (1980) assume that the North and South poles remain safe. Terminator 3 and Damnation Alley (1977) have faith in nuclear bunkers deep underground, that might enable a few survivors to last out.

In On The Beach, made at the end of the 1950s, the premise is that no-one will escape the fatal levels of radiation that have been released in a nuclear war and it's only a matter of time before the weather circulates it everywhere on Earth. Unlike the atomic mutation movies unleashed throughout that decade, here is an invisible opponent that cannot be blasted with flamethrowers or even more missiles.

Unusually, it doesn't even begin with a montage of stock footage mushroom clouds. If you don't pay attention to a radio broadcast early in the film (or haven't read Nevil Shute's book), you'll not know that there's been a nuclear war! I remember watching this on TV and being puzzled for a while as to what was going on, it's such a subtle set-up. We're in the same shoes as the characters - they've seen no explosions and are waiting for news, or evidence.

There's little to say that this is set in Australia either. The characters are either American actors or have British accents. The clue to the location is the theme of 'Waltzing Mathilda' in the soundtrack. The calm reaction to the inevitable seems very British. This is in complete contrast to the later post-nuclear movies of Oz, particularly the Mad Max trilogy, which is all about heroism, high adventure and car chases. Examples of where the apocalypse is taken for granted. 

There isn't even a breakdown of society, like in The Day The Earth Caught Fire (1961) where the masses get drunk and start killing each other. On The Beach imagines a very resigned, logical mass suicide as the only option. Unless there's any good news from the submarine mission...

In the meantime, everyone goes about their daily routines, keeping civil to the last. A mass resignation to the inevitable. The terrible implications aren't talked about directly, instead there's an acute double-edge to every conversation. Each scene has an implied ironic or tragic kick. The effect is increasingly terrifying. I found it intensely depressing and, even though I'd seen it before, it's stayed with me since.

At this time, director Stanley Kramer was tackling gigantic social issues in major films every year. Race relations in The Defiant Ones (1958), religion versus science in Inherit the Wind (1960) and Nazi war crimes in Judgement at Nuremberg (1962). No wonder he made a comedy in 1963!

For our last days on Earth, we could do far worse than spend it with Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Anthony Perkins (just before he was typecast by Psycho) and Fred Astaire (in an early non-singing, non-dancing role). Pleasant company in an awful situation.

On The Beach an early mainstream film to tackle this unthinkable subject, made over twenty years before the TV movies The Day After and Threads showed what a nuclear war could look like. It was also released five years before Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove, which described how a world war could start. This was produced when the man-made doomsday scenario first loomed large. Now, the concept of nuclear destruction is, strangely, forgotten. Though thousands of warheads still lurk in America and Russia, enough to destroy life on Earth a hundred times over...

I rented the UK DVD release of On The Beach from LoveFilm. It's presented in black & white, 2.35 widescreen from good-looking film elements. But I believe this has yet to be re-released anywhere anamorphically.

(Written, while listening to Philip Glass' soundtrack to 'The Fog of War' and thinking of Jack, who's just left us.)

August 25, 2013

Flashback 1970 - M*A*S*H, MYRA BRECKINRIDGE and Maggie Smith

An online scrapbook selected from the pages of defunct British movie magazines...

Photoplay, January
As you can see, there's a discrepancy between the month on the cover of the magazine (here, January 1970) and the release date of On Her Majesty's Secret Service in the advert (December 18th), indicating that the streetdate for the magazine was weeks ahead of the cover date. I was also surprised that this wasn't a full-page advert for such a major film. Note that even at the Odeon, Leicester Square, the film was showing in 'continuous performances' - you could buy one ticket and keep watching it over and over again for the rest of the day!

Photoplay Film Magazine, February
"The only 'X' rated film to win the Oscar for Best Picture" factoid refers to the US classification which reserved 'X' for porn movies (and the occasional horror film that proved too violent - like Dawn of the Dead). Midnight Cowboy also won Oscars for London-born director John Schlesinger and the screenplay. Amazingly, Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman weren't the first choices for these iconic roles.

Photoplay, March
I'd never heard of Twinky before seeing this ad and would have passed it over as a dodgy British comedy if not for the cast. Susan George and Charles Bronson playing a sixteen year-old schoolgirl and a thirty-eight year-old porn novelist, respectively. Presumably a riff on Lolita, (it was also called Lola). An astonishing example of how movies were allowed to sell themselves!

Photoplay Film Magazine, August
Another 'X' film, which now seems very harsh. Like Midnight Cowboy, the adult certification wasn't because of violence or graphic sex but, I'm guessing, for the brief nudity, drug use, and sex outside of marriage? This is what I'd call a mainstream 'X' certificate, gently breaking in audiences to the full excesses of the 'new permissiveness'. The full limits of the 'X' certificate would be fully tested over the next few years.

Photoplay Film Magazine, September
A perky publicity shot of Maggie Smith when she starred in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. I just wanted it remembered that she hasn't always looked like she does in Harry Potter and Downton Abbey. Maggie won one of her Oscars for this performance, starring opposite her then husband Robert Stephens. Pamela Franklin (the medium in The Legend of Hell House) plays the most vocal of her young students.

Films and Filming, October
Here's a more 'X' worthy movie, that was about to arrive in the UK. Myra Breckinridge still had no nudity, maybe some swearing and a lot of implied outrageousness that you'd probably have to read the book to realise what was going on. The publicity photo gives away more than the scene in the film.

Rex Reed plays Myron who quickly transforms (surgically) into Myra (Raquel Welch), but this isn't a serious look at transitional gender, but rather a satirical revenge comedy drenched in Hollywood back-references. Based on the novel by Gore Vidal, Myra represents a radical assault on the male domination of the world. With musical numbers.

Photoplay, October
I've not seen Goodbye Gemini yet, but it looks interesting and has been remastered and released in the BFI 'Flipside' series. Similarly, Girly has only recently resurfaced after a long absence, with an American DVD release. At his last Q&A at the BFI, director Freddie Francis picked this black comedy as his favourite film that he'd directed. Despite the publicity campaign relying on yet another sexy schoolgirl, the character of Girly is part of a seemingly dysfunctional family getting by in it's own unique and violent way. The full title, used in the UK, was Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny & Girly.

Photoplay Film Magazine, October
I found this advert for Toomorrow shortly after reading about it in Julian Upton's 'Offbeat' (pictured below) and would otherwise have skipped right past. What this advert fails to mention is that one of the young stars is Olivia Newton-John, who also sings several of the songs. Of course she was unknown at the time, and producer Don Kirschner was trying to start up a new version of The Monkees, with another ready-made band again being expected to act in wacky adventures. Olivia, only 21 at the time, is the standout star of the band and a relaxed onscreen presence in Toomorrow, well-prepared after her early TV work in Australia. It's a wacky sci-fi story with Roy Dotrice as a skin-peeling alien in a rather spectacular spaceship. But just as interesting is the nostalgic location work around London - including The Roundhouse in Camden.

A number of hitherto obscure movies like this are, surprisingly, already available on DVD - Toomorrow is a slightly fuzzy transfer, but watchable enough and available cheaply. The 2.35 widescreen, the modelwork and the psychedelic sets even makes me curious what a blu-ray could look like... The songs are even growing on me, it's not Grease but the vinyl soundtrack is still selling for silly prices.

Photoplay, November
As 1970 wears on, the UK was still catching up on American releases that we now refer to as '1969', because that's what IMDB says it is. They Shoot Horses, Don't They? shocked me as a teenager when I saw it on TV, on learning that couples actually entered marathon dances (to dance until they dropped from exhaustion - for a chance to win a cash prize) during the depression following the Wall Street crash in 1929.

Only when I read Tod Browning's biography ('Dark Carnival' by David Skal), did I realise that Horace McCoy's novel was written back in 1935, and that Browning had actually bought the rights to it, intending to film it himself. Browning lived near Venice Beach at the time and had attended some of the 'marathon dances' on the pier, which was eventually used as a filming location in Sydney Pollack's impressive, Oscar-winning film.

Here's Udo Kier looking like a sexpot, rather than the creepy eccentric of Blood For Dracula, Flesh for Frankenstein and Suspiria. The covers of Films and Filming more often featured sexy male actors than female, aiming to keep gay male readers entertained (an almost complete reversal of the current lads' mags controversy). Gay magazines and newspapers weren't sold at the time by 'respectable' newsagents, for that matter male homosexuality had only been decriminalized in the UK in 1967.

Films and Filming, December
These snippets of news intrigued me - did Spike Milligan actually shoot scenes for Ken Russell's The Devils? Boris Sagal's The Omega Man was nearly the first version of Richard Matheson's novel 'I Am Legend' to use that title. And Escape From The Planet Of The Apes nearly had a different title! Yup, I love trivia like this...

More magazine Flashbacks:

Lawrence of Arabia and more from 1963.

Blow Up, The Trip and more from 1967.

Barbarella, Witchfinder General from 1968

Rosemary's Baby, When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth, Women In Love from 1969

(These flashbacks are for reference and for fun's sake. I'm certainly not going to scan in any entire articles - instead, there are enough details of which magazine they're from - most are easily available on eBay. Some of the full-page ads, and of course the covers, are also worthy of framing! These are magazines that are no longer in print and, to hamper any reproduction for profit, these are all handheld photos rather than scans. M.H.)

August 19, 2013

THE SORCERERS (1967) - a new book with the full story...

The Sorcerers (1967) is best known as the film Michael Reeves directed just before Witchfinder General (1968), and as one of Boris Karloff's last films.

Witchfinder General caused a clash with the censors, despite Reeves being friendly with the chairman of the board. The cut version was still criticised for its violence (this was before The Wild Bunch and A Clockwork Orange). It was also seen as a turning point in horror film and in British cinema, raising high hopes for Reeves' future films. But early in 1969, he accidentally died of an overdose of prescription medication.

David Pirie's excellent 1973 overview of post-war British horror films 'A Heritage of Horror' took the genre seriously and defined its auteurs, devoting a chapter to Michael Reeves. He's rightly been celebrated ever since, with several biographies of a director who only made three complete films. The brilliance of Witchfinder General compensates for the fact that The She-Beast and The Sorcerers were made on very small budgets, though all three are analysed as the body of work of an auteur.

I keep returning to The Sorcerers because it has a good cast and an intriguing story, but it's ageing badly, as was its star, Boris Karloff. Notice that the film has been demoted to DVD-R status in the USA (pictured above). But historically, The Sorcerers is important because its financial success made Witchfinder General possible. It's also a film to be studied, rather than watched. For hunting traces of future greatness from the director.

Johnny Mains' new book 'The Sorcerers' (pictured at top) aids our research with a chance to read John Burke's original script before the director rewrote it, as well as making a plain case that Burke wasn't credited accurately onscreen.

This means that 'A Heritage of Horror' unwittingly got this detail wrong and, being such a rare book on the subject, the mistake was still being repeated nearly twenty years later. For example, in the article on Witchfinder General in Cinefantastique, Aug 1991, Michael Reeves and Tom Baker are credited as writing the script for The Sorcerers, based on a novel by John Burke (the same assumption that Pirie had made). But it had never been a novel, and Burke had written much of the script, but his onscreen credit is only 'From an idea by John Burke', ('an idea' could refer to something as minor as a pub conversation).

Burke had in fact expected to be credited among the scriptwriters, just as he'd seen it printed on the front page of the shooting script. As a result, students of film would credit the ideas in Reeves' films to 'his' scripts. This error was only eventually corrected in 2003, in Benjamin Halligan's biography of Reeves.

This new book provides the proof, with reproductions of letters received by John Burke, as well as a complete reprint of his original story treatment and the version of the script before Reeves and Baker amended it. It also includes the relevant chapter of Halligan's biography to give a complete story of the making of the film.

The producers were interested in horror films made by young new talent - they'd successfully hired Roman Polanski for Repulsion. To try and focus Reeves on a possible project, he was introduced to John Burke, who had two scripts the young director was interested in.

Intriguingly, the one that didn't get made, 'The Devil's Discord', was to star Christopher Lee and Raquel Welch. When that project fell through, and Karloff agreed, Reeves reverted to Burke's other script, 'The Sorcerers'. This could actually have been a lucky break - another gothic horror with Lee could have been lost among the rest.

The Sorcerers' story was originally called 'Terror For Kicks', where a trio of scientists recruit a violent youngster to become an unwitting guinea pig for their experiment. They give him a potion that promises intoxication without a hangover. It works, but while he's under the influence, the telepathic scientists are sharing his every experience. They can also control his actions, literally living vicariously through him, without the risk of getting caught...

Script treatments can be as little as a single page, but John Burke's outline is 21 pages long. His expanded 'original story and screenplay' is 120 pages long, and even includes shot descriptions.

But Karloff wanted a more sympathetic role, so Reeves and his associate Tom Baker (not the actor) rewrote the script to accommodate him, while Burke was by then busy on a TV series. The three scientists became two, now also a husband and wife in conflict over how this new power should be used. The potion became an electronic device (a far more visual, psychedelic scene). The rewrite added more visual elements and diluted others. The level of violence and the scientists enjoying their subject having sex certainly had to be toned down to get past the censor.

Interesting to learn that Reeves' approach to The Sorcerers was influenced by another low-budget British horror that he'd seen, The Projected Man. While he was an avid moviegoer, I thought his tastes were better than that, or perhaps it was just research...

It's fascinating to see how the story evolved and how much of Burke's script made it into the final version. Besides the entire original treatment and script, there are reprints of letters received by John Burke about his fees and credit on the film, if there was any doubt about the injustice here. There's a brief word from Burke's widow, a great contextual introduction to the story by Matthew Sweet, prime trivia from Kim Newman and, touchingly, Johnny Mains' account of the discovery of the script during his friendship with the late author.

The book can be ordered here but is a limited run of 500 copies. Meanwhile, the editor is currently working on compiling the best new British horror stories of 2014! News of that can be tracked here.

(Vangelis' soundtrack to Missing and our cat Willow helped with the writing of this article. Thanks of course to Johnny Mains for giving me an advanced peek at the book.)

August 08, 2013


A selection from the pages of defunct British movie magazines from 1969...
Photoplay Film Monthly, January - half page ad
This strikes me as a weird, mind-boggling double-bill. But in 1969, would have been a fun afternoon for the kids. But many mums and dads might not have been Toho Studio kaiju fans. Presumably distributors were inviting audiences to just laugh at Japanese monster movies...

Photoplay Film Monthly, January - full page ad
While the screens were quickly filling up with sex, violence and counter-culture, I was only eight, and actually found Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to be (fairly) exciting that year. It was fun to see Benny Hill on the big screen and, the Sherman Brothers' songs and Robert Helpmann's performance as the Child-Catcher have certainly haunted me ever since. The children's story was written by Ian Fleming, and produced by the same production team behind the big James Bond movies. Hence, the lavish budget and the wonderful Ken Adam sets (like the slopey-walled dungeon).

Films and Filming, March - full page ad
After Repulsion, Roman Polanski made another horror film set in the heart of a modern day city - this time in a Manhattan apartment block. For the time, this horror film was about as far from Edgar Allen Poe and Hammer Film gothic as you could get. Polanski had indeed just spoofed the Hammer film style with his rather odd Dance of the Vampires (aka The Fearless Vampire Killers)..

To be fair, Hammer were trying to reinvent themselves. As in, add more nudity. Not just to their vampire films, but to this follow-up to One Million Years B.C.. Despite the carnage and the cleavage, the film still only rated an 'A' certificate (kids allowed in with an adult). So, for an eight year-old, topless cavewomen and rough sex were a bit of a surprise. This would have been the film where I asked, "Mummy, what are they doing?"

Films and Filming, June - double-page centrespread
The same month, Hammer Films announced a raft of their forthcoming films. But several of the titles listed here never got made. Note that they planned another Dennis Wheatley adaption (The Haunting of Toby Jugg), that would have added to The Devil Rides Out and To The Devil A Daughter. I've seen the poster for When The World Cracked Open, but I'm not sure what The Claw and In The Sun would have been.

Films and Filming, August - half page ad
My parents didn't take me to many kiddie films, and I also saw this in 1969. The Most Dangerous Man In The World is now called by the US title The Chairman and on DVD under that name. I t features Gregory Peck and a young Zienia Merton getting tangled up in an assassination attempt on Chairman Mao! My full review here.

Photoplay Film Monthly, September - full page ad
This double-bill I also saw, but really included it here because of the supporting feature. Disney made a string of adventure films for children at this time, filmed and released in Britain and cut up to make several episodes of Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color for American TV. Note that a teenaged Kurt Russell was already getting top billing. Diamonds on Wheels was another similar project.

Films and Filming, September - full page ad
Here's one I didn't see that year, and not for many years - until ITV first showed it as an extremely censored version. At the time, there was a furore about the amount of violence shown. I don't doubt that the Daily Mail was appalled. The film magazines were running defensive articles about increasingly violent movies (Bonnie and Clyde was another offender), while emphasising to their potential patrons just how sexy and violent certain films were.

More controversy - perhaps even more infamous than The Wild Bunch. Ken Russell's Women in Love was a very revealing benchmark of public prudity, which erupted over the scene where Alan Bates and Oliver Reed wrestled nude by an open fireplace. Not only did it break the taboo of full frontal male nudity, but their sweaty grappling was too much like gay sex for many reviewers to handle. A stark contrast to the reaction to female nudity onscreen, which had been more warmly welcomed by the establishment, although similarly carefully censored.

Films and Filming, December - full page ad

Note also, that this first played at The Prince Charles Cinema, just off Leicester Square. It's still rolling today, but with daily repertory screenings.

Next up - you guessed it - 1970!

More magazine Flashbacks:

Lawrence of Arabia and more from 1963.

Blow Up, The Trip and more from 1967.

Barbarella, Witchfinder General from 1968.

August 06, 2013

HAKABA KITARO anime hits DVD - KITARO manga gets translated

So far, my favourite Miyazaki film is Spirited Away, but for English-speaking countries, any other yokai ghost stories have been thin on the ground. Shigeru Mizuki's GeGeGe No Kitaro manga have provided an almost endless stream of ancient Japanese ghost stories updated to modern times, and depite being aimed at children, are still creepy enough to entrance me without any translations.

So far, the only appearance in the US or UK of the many incarnations of this character has been the DVDs of two recent live-action movies. The stories are more faithfully represented in manga and anime and, despite being nearly fifty years old in Japan, are only just being translated into English.

Hakaba Kitaro is a short series aimed at older viewers, and a good starting point for anyone new to the character, as it's the story of Kitaro's origin, in the grislier visual style that he was first drawn in. This 2008 series has just been released on DVD in Australia, before any other Kitaro anime has appeared in the US or UK.

Hakaba Kitaro (Graveyard Kitaro) is a series that I'd recommend. It's bizarre, funny and ghoulish, as well as providing a valuable understanding of a large part of Japanese pop culture. It's been released as a 2-disc DVD boxset - Australia is region 4, PAL system.

Here's the full news story from Twitch with more screengrabs from Hakaba Kitaro.

My preview of Hakaba Kitaro from 2008.

Happily, the first extensive English translation of Mizuki's original manga also arrives this month. A generous selection of classic Kitaro stories have just been published by Drawn & Quarterly. Recommended for any fan of Japanese ghost stories. Here's one of the stories, previewed on CBR.

'Kitaro' follows two other recently translated volumes of Mizuki's work, 'Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths' - about Japan during WW2 and Mizuki's own trials in the South Pacific, and 'Nonnonba' - a wonderful account of his childhood and the adopted 'grandmother' who first introduced him to the ancient ghost stories of Japan.

The Black Hole guide to all of Kitaro's other anime series and films.

August 05, 2013


A selection from the pages of defunct British movie magazines from 1968...

Kino Weekly was a thin, fact-packed glossy trade weekly for cinema owners, enthusing over the latest movies on offer and getting them excited about what's in production. There's news of which studio or overseas location filming is happening. Sometimes films are mentioned under working titles. There are tactful guides to what's making money, premiere photos and publicity gimmicks - all great for research... This issue has Hammer Film's black comedy The Anniversary touted on the cover.

Set visit - Kino Weekly, January 6th
This photo from the filming of Witchfinder General appeared six months before the film was released in the UK.

Photoplay Film Monthly, February
An insight from Vincent Price into how he played Matthew Hopkins in Witchfinder General. Again, advanced publicity for the film.

I collect magazines that feature the arrival of the movie Barbarella. So far, the best behind-the-scenes coverage I've seen are in several Playboy magazines from that year. There aren't many publicity photographs of Jane Fonda looking like a cooky sex bunny, but Photoplay found one for their cover.

Centrespread - Photoplay Film Monthly, February
Centrespread photographs of young women in 1960s editions of Photoplay Film Monthly were usually of the less well known and less dressed. This double-page of Jane Fonda is fairly restrained, but also deceptively cheeky, with it's supposedly transparent plastic 'windows'.

Photoplay Film Monthly, February
The third Harry Palmer film was also Ken Russell's first big-budget feature film. Here, the producer gets a bigger credit than Ken because of his Bond films. My review of Billion Dollar Brain is here.

Photoplay Film Monthly, June
An 'X' certificate for an adult drama. Very distant male nudity and the underlying gay undercurrent was presumably too much for the censor to bear. Another film that was controversial at the time, but harder to understand its screaming melodramatics now. Robert Forster (The Black Hole, Alligator) isn't mentioned in the advert, but he plays the soldier who loves naked bareback riding and attracts Brando's attention...

Films and Filming, July
July 1968, a year before Britain got The Wild Bunch, Tigon films made 'the year's most violent film'. This half-page ad crowds out the poster art with quotes from the newspapers. No bad thing, because it's not a great likeness of Vincent Price. Wilfrid Brambell gets a huge billing for appearing in just one shot! My review of Witchfinder General is here.

Films and Filming, December
Behind the scenes shot - filming the opening scene of The Monkees' movie Head. Interesting to see how compact the underwater camera is. 

Films and Filming, December
Heist thriller with an even subtler gay subplot (tastefully referred to here as 'perverse'), which again bizarrely boosts this up to an 'X' certificate. Beautiful John Barry score and a tense jewel robbery, this may be too slow-paced for today. 

Films and Filming, December
Intense splash page for Twisted Nerve. This psycho-thriller reteamed Hayley Mills and Hywel Bennett. The Bernard Herrmann score has helped the longevity of this minor horror movie - the whistling theme reappearing in Kill Bill: Vol 1. My review of Twisted Nerve is here. This gets two rare 35mm screenings at the BFI SouthBank on September 17th and 21st - details here.