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Multiple Maniacs: American Indie #7

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You have never, and I mean never, seen any movie remotely like Multiple Maniacs.

LA Free Press

During the late sixties I felt like a fish out of water. As the rest of my generation babbled about peace and love, I stood back, puzzled, and fantasized about the beginning of the “hate generation.” Woodstock was the last straw. Sitting in the mud with a bunch of naked hippies and their illegitimate children and listening to Joan Baez was hardly my idea of a good time.

John Waters: Shock Value (1981)

Multiple Maniacs

A couple of years ago, I got my hands on a copy of John Waters’ second feature length film on blu-ray. Released by Criterion, it was pricey but a great package – even though the music originally utilised by Waters had disappeared, due to copyright issues. The release boasted an impressive set of extras, including new interviews with Waters regulars like Mink Stole and George Figgs; a video essay by Gary Needham and a booklet with liner notes by Linda Yablonsky. Best of all was a new audio commentary featuring Waters.

The strange thing is I think I preferred this to watching the film ‘straight’.
Waters is clever and funny, a natural raconteur with a genuine subversive streak. Interviews with modern directors can often bore me rigid, as they constantly try to be complimentary about their cast and crew and desperately attempt not offend anyone who might just possibly stump up some cash and pay to see their films, but Waters is always a delight to listen to, even when I disagree with what he’s saying.

As a young director, he embraced bad taste and embarked on a mission to wind up absolutely everybody from conservatives to leftists and liberals and everyone in between. Most of his ire in Multiple Maniacs, though, is directed against Catholicism, the religion he was indoctrinated in to as a child but I’m sure other branches of Christianity might find themselves similarly infuriated if they bothered to watch.

Waters made the movie on a laughably low budget in his beloved Baltimore. As in all his early work, he adopted guerilla filmmaking techniques before that phrase was in common use and drafted in his Dreamlander regulars such as Mink Stole, Cookie Mueller, Edith Massey and of course Divine, who is in his fat Elizabeth Taylor phase here.

Divine looking into mirror

In Multiple Maniacs, a master of ceremonies known as Mr David (David Lochary), lures in suburban passers-by by promising they will see all manner of depravities should they enter ‘the sleaziest show on earth’ – Lady Divine’s Cavalcade of Perversions.

Mr. David’s warning that the show is full of ‘acts that would make any decent person recoil in disgust’ is no idle patter. There is a woman seemingly sexually attracted to a bicycle saddle, a man who eats his own vomit and a drug addict going through cold turkey.

The audience are dully disgusted, but they’re about to experience something far worse. Lady Divine is about to reveal the true purpose of the cavalcade. The whole travelling freakshow is a subterfuge, as onlookers at points across the country are only invited in so they can to be robbed – and murdered if they fail to co-operate.

Now, if you spend a moment analysing this, you will conclude that while this ruse might work once, the fact is that the police would interview witnesses afterwards, making it easy for them to track down the uber-eccentric misfits that comprise the crime gang, a true band of outsiders if ever there was one. Let’s face it, in the early 1970s, a grossly overweight transvestite would hardly be the most difficult suspect to track down.

Lady_Divine's_Cavalcade

Safe to say that realism is not the aim of Waters. Fun and shock are.

Lady Divine is Mr David’s girlfriend but Mr David – and he is only ever referred to this way – is tiring of Lady Divine’s out of control killing sprees. What’s almost as bad is that she also rejects the idea of letting ‘copraphrasiac and a gerontophiliac’ Bonnie (Mary Vivian Pierce) join the show.

Unknown to Lady Divine, Bonnie is Mr David’s secret girlfriend, and in the aftermath of her rejection, the pair hatch a plot to murder the serial murderess.

David Lochary in Multiple Maniacs

She is meanwhile getting fed up with Mr David and his attitude. When she receives a phone call from a blabbermouth bar worker (Edith Massey), she explodes in anger and heads out with payback on her mind.

Raging, she meets up with two glue sniffing men, one with a beard who wears a dress. They rape her.

Miraculously, Lady Divine then encounters a biblical figure, the Infant of Prague, who leads her to a nearby church. As she contemplates recent events, a young lesbian (Mink Stole) approaches her. She tells Lady Divine that she is known as the Religious Whore and seduces her, finding a use for a set of a rosary beads that the Catholic Church is never going to endorse.

Paul Swift, the actor who earlier portrayed the drug addict reappears, this time playing Jesus. This is followed by some graphic cannibalism.

And then things get really outrageous!

Lobstara_&_Divine

On the Trashometer, Multiple Maniacs is undoubtedly a ten but as a film it wouldn’t merit top marks.

The acting? It’s like a bunch of LSD casualties had taken over an am-dram group. The movie goes on too long and a middle section where Lady Divine imagines her version of the Stations of the Cross, it would have to be said, is frankly a drag.

Sometimes it just tries too hard to offend – such as the mentions of the Manson murders. It was shot before those awful events had led to any arrests and it’s occasionally hinted that one cavalcade member was heavily involved.

It isn’t nearly as good as many of his later works like Polyester, Hairspray, and Cry-Baby. Watching this in the 1970s, few would have predicted that Waters would go on to enjoy anything resembling the mainstream success that he managed later in his career with that trio of movies.

On the plus side, Multiple Maniacs is certainly original, and only one man could possibly have made it. As that quote at the top of the post says, if you haven’t already seen it, then you will never have seen any movie remotely like Multiple Maniacs.

Unless that is, you’ve already seen his follow up, Pink Flamingos, but that is maybe for another time.

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Dangerous Encounters of the First Kind (New Waves #13)

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Dangerous Encounters of the First Kind

And now for a nihilistic movie released at the dawn of the 1980s, just as Hong Kong’s new wave was beginning to establish itself as a cinematic force to be reckoned with.

Also known as Dai yat lai aau him, Don’t Play With Fire and Dangerous Encounters – 1st Kind, this was the third film directed by Tsui Hark, who would later be described as the ‘Hong Kong Steven Spielberg’. Spielberg might have made the similarly titled Close Encounters of the Third Kind but he certainly has never got remotely close to making anything like Dangerous Encounters.

If you’re wondering about the naming of Hark’s bleak – and then some – drama, yes, it consciously attempts to evoke Speilberg’s major box-office hit – and just look at that version of the original poster on the right hand side above. More specifically it refers to a 1956 Hong Kong law that decreed that explosives should be classified as ‘dangerous objects of the first kind’.

And there’s going to be many dangerous objects of the first kind in this movie.

Pearl in Dangerous Encounters - First Kind

It opens in a rain soaked maze of overcrowded apartments. We see an even more overcrowded cage, filled with white mice. A hand takes one out, then extracts a long sharp needle from a nearby candle with dozens of similar needles pierced into its wax. This is pressed into the mouse’s head, squizelling through its brain. This disorientates the poor creature, which is returned to the cage.

It’s a sickening way to start a film as the action does look like it might have been real. We’re then transported to some boys standing on the roof of a nearby building. They drop some kind of crude bomb which explodes next to an innocent bystander.

In an era when kung fu movies made by The Shaw Brothers and others ruled the roost, with chivalrous heroes as leads and happy endings, Hark’s ‘shock of the new’ vision would have made for, ahem, explosive viewing.

It was banned, though, by the Film Censorship Unit. This made headline news in Hong Kong in 1980, and Hark was forced to re-edit some of the more controversial scenes. Sadly, many were left on the cutting room floor.

Pearl (Chen Chi Lin), is a sadistic teenage sociopath – she was the one torturing the mouse. We see her at work where she pours a bucket of thick printer’s ink over a young girl for daring to criticise her, point her cop brother’s gun at neighbours and do something truly unspeakable to a cat.

After witnessing the three geeky young bombmakers (Ko, Loong and Paul) detonating a small bomb in a cinema, she blackmails them, forcing them to join her in the mayhem she has planned for society.

So is born our alienated and angry brigade or Gang of Four (the movie’s originally envisaged title) if you prefer.

Gang of Four - Dangerous Encounters 1st Kind

Events spirals out of control when, in the aftermath of a pointless confrontation with an American driver, Pearl finds a wad of Japanese bank orders worth millions of yen.

These cannot be cashed legally outside Japan, so Pearl and the boys seek out some local Triads, who might be able to launder them. The Triads offer a deal, but they’re not to be trusted. And the American and his friends, presumably Vietnam vets who enjoyed some leave in Hong Kong and decided to stay, desperately attempt to recover their treasure trove, no matter how many lives they have to end in the process.

The final section of the film is set in a vast and hilly graveyard and resembles the kind of violent climax of a spaghetti western. Even today the film is rated Category III in Hong Kong, their equivalent of an 18 in Britain.

Dangerous Encounters of the First Time still

Its nihilism also reminded me of two bleak North American dramas made around the same time, Jonathan Kaplan’s Over the Edge (1979) and Dennis Hopper’s Out of the Blue (1980).

Hark wasn’t in a good place when he shot the film. According to Pak Tong Cheuk’s book Hong Kong New Wave Cinema 1978-2000, he ‘transferred his discontent, accumulated over many years, to the images of this movie, producing scenes of blind, cruel massacres. The film is an intense, unrestrained expression of the film-maker.’

Despite this, it’s been called his ‘greatest contribution to the Hong Kong New Wave’ and over the years it’s picked up more and more of a cult following. But its commercial failure on release played a big part in persuading Hark to seek more mainstream friendly material.

It’s not a film for everyone – especially animal lovers – but it did lodge in my mind. Chen Chi Lin is excellent as Pearl, and repugnant as her character is, I did begin to root for her as the film progressed, albeit in a lesser of three evils way. The action sequences are handled expertly, and it’s never predictable.

I also generally liked the patchwork soundtrack. This includes a burst of Jean-Michel Jarre’s Oxygene (Part 4), extracts from Goblin’s work on Dawn of the Dead, and even the theme from The Warriors. No copyright infringements, I’m sure. Or maybe not.

If you like Dangerous Encounters of the First Kind then you might also like 1991’s Once Upon a Time In China, which was directed, produced and co-written by Hark.

The story of Cantonese folk hero and martial arts master Wong Fei-hung (Jet Li), this franchise inspiring epic is essential viewing for kung fu fans. Li is at the peak of his powers and is involved in some of the most sensationally kinetic action sequences that you could ever wish to come across, including an audacious and extended fight on bamboo ladders that has to be seen to be believed.

A major box-office hit locally, this is one of the very few classics that spawned an equally good, arguably even better follow-up. This was also directed, produced and co-written by Hark, who since his early new wave days has established himself as one of the most important names in South East Asian filmmaking with his genre-spanning movies. He’s collaborated with John Woo, Jackie Chan, Donnie Yen, Sammo Hung and Ringo Lam, to name only a handful of Hong Kong cinematic legends.

The Return of Tracy Hyde: The Orchard End Murder

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Tracy Hyde in Orchard End Murder 1980

Previously on For Malcontents Only, I featured the movie Melody (alternatively known as S.W.A.L.K), a British film from 1971 that Wes Anderson took as inspiration for Moonrise Kingdom. The titular Melody was played by Tracy Hyde and the post gave me the chance to reference The Wondermints’ gorgeous tribute track Tracy Hide (yes, that’s the correct spelling), more on which later. In the course of the post, I mentioned that I hadn’t yet seen 1981’s The Orchard End Murder which Tracy starred in, but intended to seek it out.

And now I have.

This is a drama that clocks in at an awkward length, too long to be a short and too short to be a feature. It lasts just under fifty minutes and so the best it could hope for was to find distribution as a B-film in Britain.

GTO Films, an offshoot of GTO Records, which started out by financing a couple of glam rock related cheapies, Never Too Young to Rock and Side by Side picked up on it. They successfully managed to place it on the bill with several longer movies, namely Dead and Buried, a 1981 chiller, crime film The Hit and even Nightmare on Elm Street.

The film kicks off with a crane shot of a cricket match being played on an idyllic village green bordered by an apple orchard. The camera slowly drifts across a road towards a zippy wee red sports car parked in the middle of the orchard and onto a young couple kissing on the grass. And then onto a creep spying on them.

This was shot by Peter Jessop, who collaborated frequently with Pete Walker on movies like Frightmare and House of Whipcord, and also even joined the crew of Jamaica’s first ever full length film in 1972, midnight movie favourite The Harder They Come.

His camerawork is very impressive throughout The Orchard End Murder and might just be the best thing about it.

It definitely isn’t the script.

The Orchard End Murder X

Okay, Pauline Cox (Tracy Hyde) is a 22 year old from Sidcup who takes up the offer of watching her potential new boyfriend Michael (Mark Hardy) play cricket in the Kent countryside. Believe me, I would have definitely have suggested something more exciting myself.

It’s 1966, though apart from Pauline’s leyline dress and Mary Quant hair, director Christian Marnham does little to evoke the period.

Unlike Ray Davies, Pauline doesn’t remotely love the village green. Bored senseless with men aiming balls at wickets – and I can relate to that – she wanders off, coming across the cottage of an eccentric stationmaster (Bill Wallis) whose garden is decorated by garden gnomes, one of which bears a striking resemblance to him.

He invites her in for some tea, and she agrees to join him.

Tracy_Hyde_Orchard_End_Murder_still

The garden gnome lookalike talks in cliches and the pair engage in some small talk. Their little tête-à-tête comes to an abrupt end with the arrival of hulking and dim-witted Ewen (played by Clive Mantle in his first screen role). He certainly knows how to make an entrance. With a manic glint in his eyes, he stands holding a large white rabbit, which Pauline takes a fancy to.

Suddenly, he slams the poor creature’s head down onto the table, killing it in an instant. He produces a scary looking knife. Outside he skins the dead animal and Pauline finally shows some sense by making her excuses and leaving. Maybe watching cricket wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

And wasn’t Ewen the one spying on Pauline and Mark earlier?

Distraught, she rushes through the orchard, comes across an unseen angry dog, and then bumps into an apologetic Ewen, who in the meantime has filled a fancy basket with apples for her. Quick work.

Clive Mantle and Tracy Hyde

The pair begin picking more apples and soon they’re kissing, a scenario that is just plain dumb to the point of absolute unbelievability. This is a shame as before too long there’s a very disturbing scene set against piles of rotting apples with both actors performing admirably.

In an accompanying feature on the BFI release, Marnham claims the film is a black comedy. ‘It’s intended to be amusing.’

I can’t say I thought of it in this way as I watched. At no time did I remotely feel like laughing. Yes, the station master’s character could be seen as having something in common with some of the League of Gentlemen regulars but the whole harrowing murder sequence was filmed too realistically for the rest of the story to hold any comedic value for me.

As the credits roll, the usual disclaimer proclaims ‘The story, events and persons portrayed in this production are fictitious, and any similarity between anyone living or dead is purely coincidental’. Yeah sure, the characters may be invented, but the story is based on a real-life murder of a young woman in the South of England some years earlier. A fact that makes the idea of comedy in connection with it even more distasteful.

In conclusion, this isn’t one that I’d recommend, albeit it’s an interesting enough watch if you’re keen on obscure British dramas of the time.

As for Tracy Hyde, I get the feeling she never desperately attempted to pursue a long and sustained career in acting. She did appear in a number of TV series in the 1980s like Dempsey and Makepeace and The Bill, but she dropped out of acting before the dawn of the 1990s and apparently now runs her own business.

She’s interviewed in the BFI Orchard End Murder release but the only time in recent years that she has appeared publically – as far as I can tell – was at a celebrity autograph convention in Blackpool in 2015.

Tracy Hyde Orchard End Murder photo

For more on the film click here.

I’ve only belatedly found out about the death of Nicky Wonder (Nick Walusko), a founding member of The Wondermints, an act who also frequently acted as part of Brian Wilson’s backing band. Wonder died on the sixth of August and Wilson praised him as ‘my favourite guitar player ever’.

He formed The Wondermints with Darian Sahanaja in 1992, after they’d bonded over their love of Smile and Brian Wilson in general. As John M. Borack puts it in his book Shake Some Action: ‘The [Wondermints’] Beach Boys influence is particularly up-front on Tracy Hide, a comely, almost ethereal ballad whose evocative lyrics and sweet, sweet melody are both kissed with longing; it’s sure to make any fan of wispy ’60s pop smiley smile.’

The song first appeared on their eponymous debut album of 1996 although I reckon this (cover) version – which appears on Wonderful World of The Wondermints – is even more hauntingly beautiful. See what you think.

Finally, a recent release from Japanese band For Tracy Hyde, who claim to have taken their name from The Wondermints’ song rather then the actress, despite the spelling of their name.

This is 櫻の園, and just as Tracy Hide evokes The Beach Boys at their baroque best, this recently released song displays a distinct late period Cocteau Twins feel.

Penda’s Fen: Folk Horror (#3)

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Penda's Fen 1973

When I think about English director Alan Clarke, I think of a young borstal boy clobbering the head of a fellow inmate with a sock filled with pool balls. I think of a bunch of football casuals planning to establish themselves as the most feared firm in the country, or I think of a skinheaded Tim Roth strutting around London on the lookout for some aggro.

His name doesn’t conjure up dramas set in idyllic rural villages overlooking the Malvern Hills, with a central character who is seventeen but does his best to sound like an old, lifelong Conservative, pompously clinging on to the last days of empire. This is Penda’s Fen, though, shot in 1973 by Clarke for the BBC’s Play for Today strand.

The play (or film for television according its author David Rudkin) opens with a shot of a Worcestershire landscape that could almost be a John Constable painting.

Spencer Banks plays the priggish sixth former Stephen. Social skills obviously aren’t his strongpoint, and he is highly unpopular at his posh all-boy’s school. Extemely proud to be English, he is also a devoted Christian (his father is a parson) and he rails against the unions who, he believes, are holding the country to ransom through their industrial actions. I’m guessing he would approve of Mary Whitehouse, Britain’s most high profile killjoy of the era.

Spencer Banks - Penda's Fen

On the week of Penda’s Fen being screened in March 1974, the top 20 of the British singles chart included Queen’s Seven Seas of Rhye, Devil Gate Drive by Suzi Quatro and Bowie’s Rebel Rebel but predictably, Stephen is no glam fan. Instead, he adores Edward Elgar, and the nearest Stephen manages to get to rebel rebelling is when his mother insists he turn the volume on his Bush Dansette as Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius is being blasted out. He glares at her, clearly thinking about disobeying her. But he doesn’t.

The highlight of Stephen’s social life is a night out with his parents to the local parish hall where a debate is taking place between some stuffy locals and Arne, an incomer, who writes controversial TV plays and whose politics are a radical mirror image of Stephen’s. It’s easy to assume that he is a substitute character for Rudkin.

Arne outlines his ideas on how the village and the country as a whole could be improved. He also makes mention of what he sees as a sinister and highly secretive local development with government involvement – later we get a hint of what is happening there with a probable radiation death before this subplot is quietly ditched.

Not surprisingly, Stephen despises Arne. ‘He’s a terrible crank,’ he shrieks to his mother. ‘He’s unnatural.’

‘Stephen,’ she chides him. ‘You can be grotesque.’

Despite his traditional outlook, it’s obvious that he holds some kind of fascination for the local milkman – look that one up if you’re under 30 – a young man who looks like he’s just back from an allnighter at Wigan Casino. Is this sexual?

Strange visions begin to haunt Stephen’s sleep. He sees golden angels and naked schoolboys. A demon visits him, with a face that momentarily morphs into Joel’s. It squats on his bed like the incubus in Henry Fuseli’s painting The Nightmare, its distinctive hooked nose resembling Elgar’s.

Soon, while Stephen shelters from some rain in a barn, he gets to meet the ghost of his favorite composer, and later comes across King Penda, reputedly the last pagan king in England.

Penda's Fen church

As the visions continue, his worldview begins to unravel. He becomes strangely drawn to Arne and his wife and starts visiting them. He even encourages Mrs Arne to adopt children and doesn’t baulk when she mentions that homosexuals ‘make very good fathers I’m told.’

When Stephen asks if his next play will be outrageous, Arne admits that he’ll have to tone it down. ‘The public have lost the imaginative strength they had,’ he explains. ‘Their sight and will to see what’s really going on has been steadily weakened by the entertainment barons for gain, by the yes men for cravenness.’

It wouldn’t be hard to guess what his opinion would be on the dumbed-down television offered up by Britain’s 21st century entertainment barons like X-Factor, Celebrity Big Brother and Love Island.

This complex drama is very 1970s, the pace is slow, its ambitions are high and its author doesn’t feel the need to spell things out, preferring to let the audience work out what is going on for themselves. Don’t expect to see anything like this on TV any time soon.

Penda's Fen March 1974

As noted by the TV correspondent of my local newspaper, the Glasgow Herald, an arts show Real Time felt that the play was important enough to discuss later that same evening over on BBC 2. Rudkin was invited on to have his say and this show lasted 45 minutes, roughly half the length of the play. Sadly, I’d guess that any tape of this held by the BBC would have disappeared long ago.

Penda’s Fen split opinions. While many critics praised it – including, surprisingly enough, the Daily Mail – it wasn’t to be shown again on British television for over fifteen years.

Should it be classified as a folk horror?

Author David Rudkin doesn’t believe so, although as Rob Young pointed out in Electric Eden, his book on visionary British folk music: ‘It was created at exactly the same time as The Wicker Man, and deals with a similar theme: the lingering pagan presence in the British landscape, and by extension, in the soul of the nation.’

Rudkin himself considers it a ‘political work’. It also examines religion, myth, the family, repression, nationhood, and history.

Penda's Fen still

Clarke excels, and some of the phantasmagorical imagery he presents us with is as disturbing as it is startling, especially one involving a truly bizarre series of atrocities in a gorgeous picture book setting, which I won’t ruin for anyone who hasn’t already seen the play.

Some might find criticism with the special effects on display, and although these look outdated today, they must have appeared rather impressive for British television of the era.

Penda’s Fen is far from perfect. There’s little real drama and much of the conflict is interior. The theology debates failed to arouse much interest in me and surely more could have been made of the radiation death, but it is such a thought-provoking piece of drama that I have a hunch it won’t be too long before I’ll want to see it again. Rudkin is a highly individual voice and I’ll be seeking out more of his work in the forthcoming weeks and months.

For more on the play click here, and for David Rudkin’s official site, here you go.

The Last Picture Show & The City of the Dead

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No, not Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 classic film, this Last Picture Show is a track on the newly released album Diabolique by L’Épée, a band comprising Emmaunelle Seigner (Ultra Orange), Anton Newcombe (The Brian Jonestown Massacre) and Lionel & Marie Limiñana (The Limiñanas).

If you were putting together names beforehand for a band that could make uber-cool droney hypnotic pop and somehow make it all sound effortless, then those four names are the kind that might very possibly have sprung to mind.

Together, according to the Guardian‘s Paul Moody, they’re ‘as seductive as Serge Gainsbourg and as druggily alluring as the Velvet Underground’.

Their album’s title may allude to Mario Bava’s 1968 action movie Diabolik, but I have no idea why this track is called The Last Picture Show, deciphering lyrics not being a strongpoint for this tinnitus sufferer.

If anybody’s wondering about that atmospheric looking old black and white movie featured throughout the promo, you’ve come to the right place. These clips are taken from The City of the Dead, a gothic thriller that inspired the name of the B-side of The Clash’s 1977 single Complete Control.

The City of the Dead (1960)

Scenes from the film were also utilised in Iron Maiden’s Bring Your Daughter… to the Slaughter video, while he Misfits wrote a song about it called Horror Hotel, this being the name forced on the film by its American distributor for a time. One of the most stupid re-titlings I can think of, albeit you could argue that the film’s setting of Whitewood, Massachusetts, couldn’t really be described as a city.

There’s also a music connection in the actual film. 1957’s top male vocalist as voted by Melody Maker readers appears in a leading role.

That’ll be Dennis Lotis, and no, I have never heard him singing either.

Also starring Venetia Stevenson and Christopher Lee, I’d always assumed this was an American movie but Lee put me right on his commentary on the Arrow blu-ray. It was completely shot in England with mostly British actors. Lee, incidentally, is predictably impressive here as Professor Driscoll, albeit he is absent for a large chunk of proceedings but as he says: ‘There are no small parts. Only small actors.’

Christopher_Lee_The_City_of_the_Dead.png

Shot in a silvery black and white, The City of the Dead opens as a witch is being burned at the stake in New England – although that’s not how they were executed in reality in that part of the world. As the pyre’s flames draw ever nearer, Elizabeth Selwyn spits at the jeering onlookers and places a curse on the town and its inhabitants.

Fast forward to a university lecture where Driscoll recounts the details of the witch’s death to a class that includes super keen student, Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson). Before long, she is persuaded to visit Whitewood, the village where Selwyn was burned, to research the subject.

There she meets the proprietor of the Raven’s Inn, Mrs. Newless – who looks suspiciously like a prim and proper modern version of Elizabeth Selwyn. And try saying that surname backwards.

City of the Dead still

The plot resembles that of Psycho in a number of respects, although I’ll spare you from any spoilers. I will mention, though, that shooting started on City of the Dead around six weeks before Hitchcock began work on his chiller. Had the team behind it read Robert Bloch’s novel? Nobody seems to know, but the original treatment for the English film had been penned before Psycho had even been published in America. I’m guessing any similarities were a coincidence.

The City of the Dead has also been compared to another film released in 1960, Mario Bava’s Black Sunday. Yes, that man Bava again. It’s not really in the same league as either Psycho or Black Sunday, but it still makes for a very entertaining watch.

Yes, some of the plot doesn’t quite make sense, though it stands up to far greater scrutiny in that respect than this year’s most successful horror, Us, a film that requires far higher levels of suspension of disbelief than I could muster up.

Despite being made on a budget of £45,000, City of the Dead looks fantastic with cinematographer Desmond Dickinson perfectly evoking the atmosphere of a creepy fog-shrouded village with a very dark secret. Most of the performances are convincing too – although hopefully Lotis was a better singer than an actor – and, even sixty years after it was shot, the film still manages to consistently unsettle.

If you want to hear The Clash song, click here.

Bambi Meets Godzilla: American Indie #6

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We all like Bambi, don’t we? And we all like Godzilla too, yeah?

In 1969, a Californian student named Marv Newland came up with the simple but inspired idea of bringing the two of them together in his very first animated short.

He spent two weeks working on the idea and made it for under 300 dollars. That budget, incidentally, didn’t include gaining music clearance from The Beatles for the use of that iconic reverberating piano chord that ends A Day in the Life so stunningly. Newland apparently slowed it down to half its original speed, lending it an even more ominous feel.

Bambi Meets Godzilla would go on to feature on many a supporting bill on the midnight movie/drive-in/university film club circuits back when you didn’t just get awful ads and a bunch of trailers for superhero movies before seeing the film of your choice.

Here it is in full, all one and a half minutes. Enjoy.

Paper Moon (New Waves #12)

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Paper Moon

For a while at the start of the 21st century, Peter Bogdanovich was best known to some as Lorraine Bracco’s shrink Dr Elliot Kupferberg in The Sopranos but in the early 1970s, when he decided to shoot an adaptation of Joe David Brown’s Depression era novel Addie Pray – renamed as Paper Moon – he was a Hollywood A-list director and on a roll.

In 1971, The Last Picture Show received fantastic reviews and gained eight Academy Award nominations, while the following year, he scored a box office smash with his screwball comedy What’s Up, Doc?

Ryan O’Neal, the co-star of the latter film was cast as Moses (Moze) Pray, one of the two central roles in Paper Moon and his real-life daughter Tatum, despite having never acted, was chosen to play nine year old orphan Addie Loggins, who as the film gets underway stands at the graveside of her mother as her funeral draws to a close.

The small gathering of mourners is joined by Moze, who arrives in a noisy jalopy and throws some stolen flowers into the grave. Moses is a low-grade grifter with a certain rascally charm and perhaps a resemblance to the child, although when asked if he is her father, he’s keen to deny it. Despite some major reservations, he agrees to escort Addie to Missouri, so she can go and stay with her aunt, as he is heading in that direction himself.

Paper Moon - Ryan and Tatum O'Neal

And so begins a road movie where you’re never sure if the pair will ever reach their destination. They’re certainly in no real hurry to do so, which is fine as this is a character driven rather than plot driven film and the two leads are both such fun to watch.

First stop on their (mis)adventures is a local grain mill, where Addie overhears Moze threatening the brother of the man who killed her mother in a car accident while drunk with a lawsuit. He accepts $200 to drop the matter.

And then we have a fantastically funny scene in a diner which consists mostly of the precocious and tomboyish Addie asking Moze if he is her father and demanding the two hundred bucks for herself and Moze repeatedly telling her to eat her Coney Island hotdog. He’s evasive as hell and she is one very persistent kid.

Is he her father? Well, that particular question is never answered although I’ve always believed he was, maybe influenced by the fact that he is in real-life. Actually, if Moze isn’t her father then this is one weird movie if you think about it.

Paper Moon - Tatum and Ryan O'Neal

Addie soon discovers and enrols herself into his main scam, which consists of studying obituary pages and then doorstepping the widow of someone recently deceased and claiming their dead husband ordered a ‘deluxe’ edition of the Bible – on which he has already embossed the widow’s name himself – which they are now under no obligation to buy.

Of course, they usually do want to buy it.

Yes, this is highly unethical, but Moze does have a good heart at times. After all he could have refused to help Addie in any way. And those bibles that he sells do appear to provide some comfort to the grieving women.

As for Addie, she might be happy to join in on the scam, but she employs an almost Robin Hood approach, giving away a bible free to a poor looking woman with a gaggle of kids to feed, while doubling the price to an obviously wealthy widow.

Interestingly, she soon proves herself more adept at swindling than Moze and her deviousness also helps engineer a split between Moze and his squeeze, Miss Trixie Delight, an exotic dancer and narcissistic chancer played superbly by Madeline Kahn, who he takes up with briefly around the midpoint of the film.

Paper Moon - Madeline Kahn & Ryan O'Neal

Paper Moon is a joy from beginning to the end and if has any faults then I’ve never noticed them. Okay, it’s not the funniest film ever made but it is maybe the most charming comedy I’ve seen and one of the most consistently amusing.

It’s also beautifully directed by Bogdanovich and with its crisp black and white cinematography it hasn’t seemed to age since the 1970s. The costumes and period detail are always fantastic, but best of all is the acting, although Tatum O’Neal is the one whose performance you will remember long after the end credits have rolled. She absolutely steals the show.

Don’t work with animals or children? Thankfully Bogdanovich never listened to that old show business adage.

Interestingly, the director has spoken about how he would have to bribe her during certain scenes to get her to cooperate with promises of money or new shoes. Apparently she hated the filmmaking process and while I can see how a child really would be bored stupid at times due to the length of setups and number of takes sometimes required on set, I like to think that maybe she was drawing on her onscreen persona at times and practising a little scam on the director herself.

Tatum O’Neal (along with Madeline Kahn) received a Best Supporting Actress nomination at the 46th Academy Awards, and I have no idea why she wasn’t included in the Best Actress category, as she is seldom off the screen. Bogdanovich opens the movie with a close-up of her face for a reason. Happily though she did win the award and is still the youngest actor ever to do so in any competing category.

If you liked Paper Moon, then you might also like Daisy Miller. Then again, you might not.

In Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, the author claimed that Bogdanovich carried around rave reviews of Paper Moon in his pockets.

Life was good. Not only was he one of the most highly regarded young directors in Hollywood but he also was in a relationship with Cybill Shepherd, the radiant star of The Last Picture Show.

He cast her again in his follow-up to Paper Moon, 1974’s Daisy Miller.

Cybill Shepherd - Daisy Miller

Based on Henry James’ novella of the same name, this time round I doubt he would want to carry any reviews on his person, although Vincent Canby in The New York Times was a rare supporter of the film.

Branded a ‘dud’, with Shepherd mercilessly lambasted for her performance, Daisy Miller was also a commercial flop. In a Director’s Guild interview, Bogdanovich later admitted: ‘I remember watching dailies of Daisy Miller in Rome or Switzerland and thinking to myself, saying out loud, “This is beautiful, but I don’t know who’s going to want to see it.” And boy, was I right.’

He would go on to make more very good films such as Saint Jack and Texasville, but never anything as acclaimed as The Last Picture Show or quite as perfect as Paper Moon.

*

The above piece is a revised and expanded version of a review I wrote for Louder Than War for the Eureka Masters of Cinema dual format release of Paper Moon in 2015.

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