April 23, 2014

THE WHITE BUS (1967) - a prologue to Lindsay Anderson's trilogy

(1967, UK)

After the gritty drama of This Sporting Life (1963) director Lindsay Anderson's approach to films about British society turned slightly surreal, in both content and acting style. His next three feature films all starred Malcolm McDowell as the hapless Mick Travis, in if.... (1968), O Lucky Man! (1973) and Britannia Hospital (1982). All three are enjoyable for their ensemble casts, weirdness, humour and savage criticism of monolithic establishments.

But I was wrong to think that those three are all there is. The White Bus is a fitting prologue to the mannered acting and increasingly acid satire used in the 'Mick Travis trilogy'.

This short film, 45 minutes long, was intended as part of a longer collaboration with other directors. But I hadn't realised that it was so similar to the trilogy. The distant cinematography, a drifter caught up in a tour of Britain (like O Lucky Man), a cross-section of society (like all three)... I also was delighted to see this black and white film occasionally burst into colour, which I thought was unique to if..... No surprise that Miroslav OndrĂ­cek was the director of photography on both. There's even a substantial part for Arthur Lowe - an actor and a character who appeared in the three later films.

The White Bus follows a young typist (possibly being driven to despair by her job) as she leaves London and travels north to an unspecified city (which looks to me like Manchester). There she accidentally joins a bus tour on which international delegates are being sold modern society by the mayor.

It's less pointed, even less structured than the other films, but an interesting predecessor. There are treats in the cast, such as Anthony Hopkins' debut on film (singing Brecht!) and Stephen Moore (Marvin The Paranoid Android) as a besotted businessman.

Patricia Healey plays the young woman who's our entry point into the meandering non-narrative. It made me realise that the character of Mick Travis is also more of an observer than a protagonist in the trilogy. Even in if.... where he stands up to challenge the system, could be interpreted as a fantasy of his character.

A more concrete link with the longer films is the style of acting, which I'd not really considered until reading Erik Hedline's 'Lindsay Anderson: Maverick Film Maker'. He describes how Anderson, who also directed many plays, developed this uniform style of 'non-acting' - naturalistic, unblinking performances, where an elephant in the room is completely ignored - taken to an extreme with the school chaplain in the chest of drawers, in if..... The same blank reactions as the diplomats and mercenaries while they view film of war atrocities, in the process of purchasing illegal weapons in O Lucky Man!.

Stand alone, it'd probably leave viewers cold, but if you like Anderson's work, or oblique, absurdist British cinema of the 1960s, this could be for you.

The White Bus is currently available from Warner Archive as a made-on-demand DVD-R (cover art at top).

April 15, 2014

NEXT OF KIN (1982) - a unique Australian horror


(1982, Australia)

2008 Documentary Not Quite Hollywood is a funny and informative clip-packed story of Australia's exploitation cinema, which rose to infamy and success in the 1970s. While the nation's arthouse films like The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith and Picnic At Hanging Rock gained international attention, less well-known filmmakers aimed for easier markets with sex comedies, horror movies and insane stunt-heavy actioners.

While first watching it, I fast-forwarded through the clips of films I hadn't seen yet, including Next of Kin. I've since seen Race for the Yankee Zephyr and Long Weekend. So after Wake In Fright, I'll be able to watch it properly. Not Quite Hollywood is made up of laid back interviews with the actors, producers and directors of the classics of this genre, plus unexpected fan Quentin Tarantino as enthusiastic as ever. It's very entertaining in itself, but also trails dozens of fairly unknown, wonderful movies for you to pursue.

Next of Kin, like The Survivor and Thirst, isn't exploitation except that it's in the horror genre. Beautifully made, it mostly shuns cliche (apart from a leaping cat and a hand-on-the-shoulder scare) to offer something ambitious and unique, almost halfway to arthouse.

Linda inherits Montclare, a huge old people's home, but is reluctant to shut it down and sell it off for the money. She gets attached to the residents and even takes in new guests. 

But life in this huge mansion starts getting to her. A figure lurking outside her window at night and the sudden death of one of the residents puts her on edge, despite the reassurances of her boyfriend. 

For at least half the story, I enjoyed not knowing what kind of film this was going to be. A ghost story? A slasher? It cleverly hints at several horror sub-genres while racking up the mysteries and scares. When a stranger hassles her car on a dirt road, I was delighted that it might even swerve into Road Games territory. 

There's impressive, tour de force camerawork at pivotal moments, and an electronic score from Klaus Schulze (of Tangerine Dream). I know their music isn't everyone's idea of a soundtrack, but it's not as overpowering as other 1980s' films like, say, The Keep. The music effectively boosts the creepy atmosphere to another level and floats in a carefully-crafted sound design.

I'd not seen Jacki Kerrin before, but she ably carries the film. The only member of the cast I recognised was Alex Scott, one of many Australian actors who found plenty of work in British TV and movies in the 1960s, but returned home in the seventies, when the Australian film industry was in a better state. I knew him as one of the victims of The Abominable Dr Phibes. Here again he plays a doctor.

Linda's boyfriend is played by John Jarratt whose career spans the entire era of 'Ozsploitation'. He appeared in Picnic At Hanging Rock and has continued working into the current resurgence of Australian horror, appearing in Rogue and starring as bushman Mick in Wolf Creek and Wolf Creek 2

Despite Quentin Tarantino giving Next of Kin glowing reviews, this is currently out of print on DVD, except in Germany where the cover art (above) is awful and misleading. 

Another review of Next of Kin, with screengrabs and spoilers at Moon In The Gutter...

April 14, 2014

FIRE IN THE SKY (1993) - based on a true story of alien abduction

A night to remember...

A small team of Arizona loggers come home late one night looking very shaky. They report one of their crew as a missing person. Questioned by the police, they all tell the same story, that Travis Walton had disappeared after been struck down by a UFO. The police and the townspeople find it easier to believe that they've murdered him and buried him in the woods...

Based on events in 1975, it would have been timely to adapt Walton's 1978 book of his experiences while audiences were still high from Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). But it took until 1993 before a film was made, possibly mistimed by being released several months before The X-Files debuted on TV. 

Fire In The Sky boldly starts with the caption 'Based on a true story'. While this makes us uneasy that all this actually happened, true stories don't necessarily make good plots for movies. In close parallel to Communion (1989), once we've seen the recreation of the abduction, the story has to end before Walton gets his book deal and sells the film rights.

I enjoy this and Communion because a little part of me wants to believe. I also a enjoy a good nightmare, and Fire In The Sky delivers a wonderfully scary abduction. With Walton exploring an organic spacecraft in zero gravity and being treated like a lab rat. Excellent practical visual effects, disorientating camerawork and a nagging sense that this is how aliens would look like and behave, make this the obvious highlight.

The very watchable cast has too little to do, but it's wonderful to see James Garner playing a detective again. The crew of witnesses are mostly made up of sci-fi stars. D.B. Sweeney is convincing as the shell-shocked Travis Walton. Robert Patrick plays his best friend, years before joining The X-Files, in his first major role after Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Sweaty, ripped Craig Sheffer, who starred in Nightbreed, here plays the renegade of the group. Henry Thomas was ten years older than when he met the very different extra-terrestrial of E.T.. Peter Berg had starred in Shocker and was decades away from directing the alien war story Battleship (2012).

There's also fun in trying to figure out the holes in this 'true story', through the thick veil of a Hollywood adaption. My suspicions are fired by the fact that this all took place only two weeks after The UFO Incident first aired on TV. The hugely successful TV movie dramatised the first alien abduction story to be taken at all seriously by the mainstream. 

I watched the 2004 region 1 Paramount DVD (pictured at top), which is 2.35 letterbox and anamorphic widescreen. Last year it was again released on DVD by Warner Archive (above).

April 02, 2014


My selection of movie magazine pages from 1980 is much shorter than 1979's. I was seeing just as many films, at the University film society (three different films a week) and the local BFI cinema, the newly-opened Cinema City.

But I was buying fewer Film Review and Photoplay magazines that make up the bulk of these flashback articles. The photo layouts had become overlapped wonky collages, with the subjects cut out and removed from the backgrounds. Added to that, the photographic reproduction was notably poorer, fainter. I was also far less dependent on them for their tricklefeed of movie news and images.

There were now far more movie magazines available than the ones sold in cinemas, but most of them I daren't reproduce here because they are ongoing organisations - like Omni, Fangoria, Starburst and Starlog. Though, for reasons I don't fully understand, most back issues of Starlog have recently appeared online to view, legally, here.

Photoplay Annual 1980
In an article about actors-turned-directors, here's a shot of Burt Reynolds in charge of Gator, the sequel to White Lightning. His very tall co-star, William Engesser, is just behind him.

Two current genres offered blockbusters to start the year. The ultimate Vietnam movie Apocalypse Now, and sci-fi adventure Star Trek - The Motion Picture

Film Review, January
I saw Apocalypse Now at the ABC 2, Shaftesbury Avenue and was startled by the use of multi-channel Dolby Stereo - that sounded like helicopters were actually flying overhead. The end of the film simply faded to black and the end credits were handed to the audience as they left cinema, as a booklet. This is one of several endings that the film has had.

Film Review, January
Just as they did with Superman - The Movie, the press focussed on the budget, in particular Marlon Brando's fee compared to his time on screen. His face on the posters was worth every penny.

Film Review, January
The Star Trek movie franchise started here, with the stars of the 1966 TV series and a crew full of Trekkies (the speech Captain Kirk gives the crew was filmed with using a crowd of fans in futuristic costumes and alien masks). 

Film Review, January
Meteor proved that Irwin Allen wasn't the only one struggling with disaster movies. Despite a great cast (including Sean Connery and Natalie Wood) and a potentially interesting premise (basically the same as Armageddon), the climax is a long slow launch of hundreds of missiles.

Disney's outer space adventure The Black Hole opened in London the same week as Star Trek - The Motion Picture. Both studios had barely enough time to cash in on the success of Star Wars before The Empire Strikes Back arrived!

Photoplay, February
Perhaps it was the return of Superman that inspired TV to attempt so many superhero series. The feature-length pilot episode for The Incredible Hulk was released in cinemas in Britain. The added attraction of an old Lassie film didn't tempt me. If we were patient, it would appear on TV soon enough.

Photoplay, February
Another franchise that launched in 1979, The Amityville Horror followed the huge success of the book. Perhaps it was the cursed house that soon led to star James Brolin returning to TV and Margot Kidder doing nothing more famous than Superman sequels. Despite taking his performance deadly seriously, Rod Steiger's career continued on downwards and he even made two more horror movies, The Kindred and American Gothic.

Photoplay, February
The winning combination of director Don Siegel and star Clint Eastwood (Coogan's Bluff, Dirty Harry...) ended with this prison break film, Escape From Alcatraz.

Films and Filming, March
William Friedkin's success with The Exorcist and The French Connection had been cancelled out by the poor reception to Sorcerer. But Cruising was a controversial return to form, with a serial killer stalking the sado-masochistic leather bars of Manhattan's Greenwich Village. Despite a relatively honest and explicit portrayal, and the fact that he'd already made a very different 'gay film' before (The Boys In The Band where all the characters are gay), the gay community urged a boycott and straight audiences weren't in a rush to see Al Pacino struggle with his sexuality.

It remains a dark thriller making the most of New York locations, with a great cast and plenty of surprises. I keep confusing the imagery from the opening scene with that of Zombie Flesh Eaters...

Photoplay, June
Besides Star Wars launching a fleet rip-offs, it also inspired renewed interest in science fiction stories set in outer space. Alien had also skewed a sub-genre towards horror, though dark thriller Saturn 3 opted to be cut down to an 'A' certificate. Several scenes build themselves up to unseen nastiness and Farrah Fawcett's sexy hallucination disappeared completely.

Photoplay, June
Advanced publicity for The Elephant Man, with a shaven-headed John Hurt out of make-up and director David Lynch looking like James Spader. The publicity photos, TV clips and cinema trailer all avoided revealing the face of John Merrick before the film was released. It also downplayed Mel Brooks involvement - the comedy director had produced this and hired David Lynch to make his first studio film.

And then, this happened. The first Star Wars sequel struck for the school holidays.

Photoplay, June
Unlike Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back only opened in one West End cinema - the Odeon.

Film Review, July
Film Review, July
Empire builders (above): director Irvin Kershner, producers Gary Kurtz and George Lucas, writer Lawrence Kasdan.

Film Review, June
Opening the same week as The Empire Strikes Back (!!!) the second Battlestar Galactica movie, The Cylon Attack, was again bumped up from American TV. Just like the first film, it was shown at the Empire, Leicester Square in Sensurround sound. 

Hmm. A Clint Eastwood comedy western, the Village People movie or the Star Wars sequel?

Film Review, August
Interesting photo comparison of Roy Scheider playing Bob Fosse's alter-ego, and the man himself directing All That Jazz. I'm not big on dance movies but this is superbly made. A revealing and honest look behind the scenes of Broadway musicals with many immaculate dance routines, also choreographed by Fosse.

Film Review, August
Director Alan Parker refused to be categorised, following up the successes of Bugsy Malone and Midnight Express with his first American film, Fame - a huge hit that also span off a hit TV series. Hollywood felt briefly threatened (for a few minutes) that they were about to be swamped by British directors (like Ridley Scott and Hugh Hudson...).

Film Review, August
The Final Countdown was sold like a 'Bermuda triangle' sci-fi mystery on the scale of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. What we got was a B-movie adventure with a big cast (Martin Sheen and Kirk Douglas) that looked like a million dollars because of the spectacular use of an actual US Navy aircraft carrier. It's no Close Encounters but still an enjoyable watch because of the cast, the score and the king of Troma, Lloyd Kaufman, both acting and producing!

The Final Countdown reviewed on blu-ray, here.

Film Review, August
While disco had been proclaimed dead (news reports of vinyl being burned in football fields, and an elaborate joke at the end of Airplane!) Can't Stop The Music presented itself as a musical comedy, the comedy notably missing. However, this caption in Film Review is funny...

Film Review, August

Film Review, August
How about this for a double-bill?

More about Exorcist II: The Heretic here.

Film Review, December
My first taste of John Carpenter's The Fog. Spoilt a little by a weak comedy caper as the support film. Note that the censors thought that The Fog uncut was okay for 14-year olds despite the director improving the graphic scares with boathooks.

Film Review, December
After The Deep failed to cause a ripple, The Island was another attempt at adapting a Peter Benchley novel. Michael Caine stars, years before his Jaws sequel.

Film Review, December
I've not got every cinema magazine from these years, but it was strange that I didn't find any mention of John Carpenter's Halloween. Other, lesser-known slashers had full page treatment though. He Knows You're Alone briefly includes Tom Hanks' screen debut!