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A Kind of Loving & This Is My Street (New Waves #11)

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A Kind of Loving

Among the special features on the Vintage Classics blu-ray of A Kind of Loving I’ve been watching, there’s an interview with Stuart Maconie, where he speculates that The Beatles might have been encouraged to write tracks like Penny Lane by watching films like A Kind of Loving. It’s an excellent extra but I wasn’t entirely convinced by this idea.

Being Stuart Maconie, he also manages to bring up music by later Northern English bands like Joy Division and The Smiths that obviously watched this cycle of dramas too.

Based on Stan Barstow’s debut novel of 1960 and adapted by Willis Hall and Keith Waterhouse, this is a simple story. Boy meets girl. The boy is Vic Brown (Alan Bates), a draughtsman in a northern English factory. The girl is Ingrid Rothwell (June Ritchie), a typist in that same factory where Vic works. At the wedding of Vic’s older sister Christine, Vic catches Ingrid’s eye. Soon he’s smitten. She likes him too.

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Ingrid is a good-looking blonde named after Ingrid Bergman, although her life certainly lacks the glitz and glamour of the famous Swedish star. She lives at home with her widowed mother played by Thora Hird. A poisonous old biddy, she constantly bumps her gums about any subject you could care to name, without demonstrating a single insight into any of them as she does so.

Vic can be selfish. Ingrid can be demanding and unimaginative, almost like a representative of everything Richard Hoggart railed against in Uses of Literacy. She fanatically watches soaps and game shows and loves buying clothes, especially coats. Vic’s held onto his Northern working-class roots to a greater extent – he’s more brass bands than rock’n’roll.

He can be foul tempered, such as his reaction to Ingrid bringing her headnipping pal along to what was supposed to have been a date but he’s more a frustrated young man than a permanently angry young man like Look Back In Anger‘s Jimmy Porter or Arthur Seaton in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.

He’s also more ambitious than Ingrid, with a desire to see a bit of the world before settling down. But as you likely know, this doesn’t happen. The pair have sex and Ingrid becomes pregnant. Although this was an X-rated film on its release, we don’t see any sex. Instead, we see only its aftermath. And I reckon it’s safe to assume that the earth failed to move for either of them.

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This is a world of Brylcream, Woodbine, half pints of bitter and taking rattles to the football and it’s the same world that Barstow grew up in.

When the novelist first started out in his writing career, he still worked in a draughtsman’s office like Vic. His own father played cornet in a brass band (as Vic’s father does), while like Mrs Rothwell, his mother disapproved of strong alcohol. It would seem he also experienced a number of difficulties during his marriage.

As a middle-class gay Jewish intellectual from Hampstead, John Schlesinger might not have struck many as the ideal director to bring Barstow’s nuanced tale of working class life to the big screen but what an exceptional job he does. A Kind of Loving is poetic and lyrical and funny but entirely realistic too.

Alan Bates & June Ritchie in A Kind of Loving

The acting from Bates (even if he’s a little too old for his role), Ritchie and Hird is uniformly excellent and there are a number of actors like James Bolam and Jack Smethurst in smaller parts, who also manage to shine, albeit more briefly.

A Kind of Loving was a box-office success in Britain, ending the year as one of the top ten grossing films, and it scooped the Golden Bear at the 12th Berlin International Film Festival. It’s one of the best British films of the 1960s, and maybe Schlesinger’s finest ever although Midnight Cowboy might just edge it and Billy Liar is a delight too.

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If you like A Kind of Loving, you might also like This is My Street (1964).

This is My Street quad poster

My copy of Robert Murphy’s Sixties British Cinema has a photo of June Ritchie and Alan Bates in A Kind of Loving on its cover but This is My Street, which also starred Ritchie, wasn’t deemed important enough to merit a single mention in the book.

This largely forgotten slice of kitchen sink is set on an estate in the shadow of Battersea Power Station, which Ritchie’s character Marge Graham calls ‘a hovel’, although it’s not as grim as many of the northern settings in British New Wave films.

This is an interesting watch, a time capsule of 1960s London on the brink of starting to swing. The women do all the skivying while the men pay for the drinks and meals. It’s the 1960s and Beatlemania must have been happening while it was being made but don’t expect females in mini-skirts or men with longish hair.

Ritchie here teamed up for a second time with Ian Hendry – after 1962’s Live Now Pay Later proved there was a good chemistry between the pair. Both perform credibly again here although unlike A Kind of Loving, the plot veers towards the melodramatic on a couple of occasions.

June Ritchie in This is My Street

June Ritchie does a good job, but she would not go on to enjoy the same success in acting that Alan Bates did, largely due to her decision to concentrate on raising her children. But she did take part in some interesting projects including 1963’s The World Ten Times Over, which the British Film Institute described as ‘the first British film to deal with an implicitly lesbian relationship.’ In 1974, she appeared on one-off Granada TV drama Starmaker opposite Ray Davies and soon afterwards she sang on The Kinks’ album, Soap Opera – which was based on Starmaker.

Ray Davies, incidentally, brought up a similar point to the one made by Maconie. Talking about his time in art school in the early 1960s a few years ago, he noted: ‘The kitchen-sink dramas did show that people responded to subject matter that wasn’t purely about the leisure classes. It also allowed bands like The Beatles, The Stones and The Kinks to come through.’

For more on June Ritchie: https://juneritchie.co.uk/

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Too Old To Die Young (Soundtrack Sundays)

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Too Old To Die Young Soundtrack

If you ever happen to switch on your TV and come across a movie that you don’t know which has moody, damaged characters who say very little, hypnotic scenes with colourful palettes with red to the fore and plenty of visceral ultraviolence, chances are it’s been directed by Nicolas Winding Refn.

The chances are also that you will experience a strong reaction to what you’re seeing.

‘Polarization, to me, is the key,’ Refn explained in a recent interview. ‘That’s the definition of success.’ He also claimed that creativity is not about being likable, which is good to hear in an age where many virtue signalling filmmakers seem keener on providing an inspirational message that promotes social justice and diversity than telling a fascinating story. Not that social justice or diversity are bad obviously. But characters behaving horrendously do tend to make for better drama. And there are plenty of characters behaving horrendously here.

Miles_Teller_in_Too_Old_To_Die_Young

In Too Old To Die Young, dialogue is sparse and the pace slow. Frustratingly slow at times. I watched Refn’s Pusher trilogy recently and it was striking how fast moving it was in comparison. And that characters spoke as near as dammit naturalistically. Another big difference was the lack of a Cliff Martinez score. And of the scores he’s composed for Refn: Drive, Only God Forgives and The Neon Demon being the first three, this is very probably the best.

Here, though, I want to feature some existing tracks used in the series.
In the final episode, one of the main characters decides that it would be good to dance to Goldfrapp’s Ooh La La. On her own, for the complete length of the song.

Ooh La La is certainly a great synth glam stomp to shake your stuff to. Norman Greenbaum’s Spirit in the Sky is sampled, and there’s a strong echo of Canned Heat’s On The Road Again. Some early Giorgio Moroder and T.Rex have been thrown into the mix too, and I reckon I can detect a trace of Elvis in places and even an echo of Suicide in the keyboards. And I adore those disco angel vocals from Alison Goldfrapp.

Here’s the song live from Later… with Jools Holland:

Refn’s latest work is a sometimes brilliant and sometimes exasperating ten part series that explores the seedy underworld of crime in LA, and which occasionally takes up the story in Mexico with a drug cartel bigwig called Jesus (Augusto Aguilera). I’m sure Nicolas Windup Refn took a great delight in giving a brutal killer with a (dead) mummy fixation that particular name.

And believe me, you won’t have a friend in this Jesus.

If there’s a central character, though, it would be LAPD sheriff Martin Jones (played by Miles Teller), who is in a relationship with a seventeen year old high school senior, Janey (Nell Tiger Free). Janey has a brilliant mind, and according to creepy father Theo (William Baldwin), she’s a ten in the looks department too. Oh, and as this is California, having sex with Martin is illegal due to Janey’s age, although this doesn’t overly concern Theo.

Outwith his police work, Martin is also forced to carry out hits for Damian, a Jamaican American gangster, who loves vintage ska. Martin later comes into the sphere of Diana DeYoung (Jena Malone) a victim’s advocate, who feeds former FBI agent Viggo Larsen (John Hawkes), information about paedophiles that she has learnt about through her law work.

Viggo acts on this by killing the names he is given. Martin discovers this and luckily for Diana and Viggo, he believes that if a child abuser is killed, it’s a victim-less crime.

Does Martin believe in Homicide? Yes, he does. Absolutely. Does Theo like dad dancing to 999’s Homicide at a party for Janey’s eighteenth birthday? Yes, he does.

Produced by Martin Rushent (Buzzcocks, Human League), the sixth single by 999 was released by United Artists in October 1978 in Britain. Here it is live on The Old Grey Whistle Test, just as the craze in Britain for tight pink trousers apparently reached its peak:

Sadly, Homicide isn’t a part of the soundtrack album. Neither is Prince Buster’s ska classic Ten Commandments (okay, the lyrics are far from classic). Barry Manilow’s Mandy didn’t make the cut either – hurrah, but a nostalgic dirge called Elvis and Marilyn did – boo.

The Leather Nun are included, so hurrah again.

The Leather Nun were one of those acts whose name suggested that mainstream success was never very high on their agenda. The Sound of Young Sweden in the late 1970s/early 1980s, the band specialized in causing offence, especially with their live shows, where they were often accompanied by strippers with live adult movies being projected.

TOTDY utilises F.F.A, which doesn’t stand for Fast Filmic Action. If Grace Jones had teamed up with Bowie’s Lodger era band, they just might have come up with something not unlike this.

That’s Jesus with the whip, incidentally, in the video below and the brunette in the red leather trousers is Yaritza (Cristina Rodlo). Death follows Yaritza around to the extent that she proclaims herself ‘The High Priestess of Death’.

Maybe death is only following her around due to her cartel connections. But this theory doesn’t somehow seem to have occurred to her.

Here is a clip of F.F.A as it was used in episode 8. I didn’t mention the slow pace, didn’t I?

If you’re coming to Refn for the first time, then I’d recommend that you try Drive first. This series does resemble Drive in many ways, although Miles Teller is marginally less magnetic as Ryan Gosling and Jena Malone is nowhere near as good an actor as Carey Mulligan. But if you like Drive, you at least have a chance of enjoying Too Old To Die Young. If you dislike Drive, then watching this series will be a waste of thirteen hours of your life.

Nicolas Winding Refn could do with ditching the idea of letting himself be influenced by tarot readings from Alejandro Jodorowsky, but there is much to enjoy in the series from a psychedelic shooting rampage to a surreal skit on the crucifixion of Jesus (no, not the cartel Jesus) through to Monkee Puppet, a real cheeky little monkey who believes that ‘peace is only for hippies’.

A Sharon Tate Double Bill: The Fearless Vampire Killers & Valley of the Dolls

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Sharon Tate Double Bill

In the run-up to the release of Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, I decided to take a look at a couple of films featuring Sharon Tate.

Inevitably, Sharon will always be best remembered for the horrific events of the ninth of August 1969, but here I just want to examine Sharon Tate, the promising actress who was beginning to carve out a career in film in the second half of the 1960s.

First up is The Fearless Vampire Killers, a horror parody by her future husband Roman Polanski.

Sharon Tate and Roma Polanski - Fearless Vampire Killers

Also known as Dance of the Vampires, or even briefly Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck, this spoofs the kind of movie that Hammer specialised in at the time. Polanski directed, and co-wrote the screenplay with Gérard Brach, as well as reserving a starring role for himself as Alfred, the hapless assistant of expert though hopeless vampire hunter Professor Abronsius (Jack MacGowran).

As a director Polanski’s talents are undoubted. As an actor, this isn’t the case, albeit he’s not terrible.

Set in a secluded village ‘deep in the heart of Transylvania’, the pair arrange to a stay at a tavern as they continue their search for vampires. Strings of garlic decorate the rooms, so they just might be on the right trail.

Alfred accidentally walks in on the innkeeper’s daughter Sarah Shagal (Sharon Tate) having a bath. She’s radiantly beautiful, with Pre-Raphaelite hair and dazzling eyes. He instantly falls in love with her. It’s easy to see why.

Sharon Tate - Fearless Vampire Killers

Sarah is obsessed with cleanliness and soon she’s having another bath. When we see a hand clearing snow from the skylight above her, viewers may assume that this is some peeping tom perv.

It’s not. It’s Count Dracula, sorry, Count von Krolock, an ashen-faced vampire who kidnaps her, taking her back to his nearby Gothic castle.

Luckily – or maybe not – for her, our (far from) fearless vampire hunters hatch a plan to rescue her from the Count’s clutches.

Initially, Polanski wanted another American actor Jill St. John – who he had been linked with romantically in the press – for the role of Sarah.

Co-producer Martin Ransohoff had other ideas, and insisted that newcomer Tate would be ideal. He held the purse strings for the project and Polanski was forced to relent, although he wasn’t entirely satisfied with Tate’s acting early in the shoot. As filming progressed, he became more impressed by her abilities and the pair became closer.

Sharon Tate & Roman Polanski

This is certainly no Repulsion or Chinatown but it is worth a watch. There are a number of laughs, including a Jewish vampire who isn’t overly concerned when a crucifix is brandished in his direction and Polanski directs slapstick inventively. A mention must also be made for the score by Krzysztof Komeda, which admittedly is a little uneven but is often utterly wonderful.

Sharon Tate here is often something of a fleeting presence. She obviously possessed charisma and the camera loved her. In the relatively short time she is onscreen, she also demonstrates a very good touch for comedy.

Jacqueline Susann’s novel Valley of the Dolls was a staggering success, a publishing phenomenon that topped the New York Times bestseller lists and which, to date, has sold over 31 million copies. Its runaway sales speedily ensured that a movie adaptation would soon follow and a blockbuster was expected.

It’s the story of the rise and fall of three young females who enter different branches of show business and the lead roles would be expected to significantly raise Hollywood profiles. Candice Bergen, Raquel Welch and Ann-Margret were director Mark Robson’s early favoured choices but none eventually filled the roles envisaged for them.

20th Century Fox had also been especially keen for their contracted star Raquel Welch to play Jennifer North, but she feared she might be typecast as a sexpot if she did so. She offered to play Neely instead but that role went to Patty Duke, who’d won an Oscar, aged only sixteen for portraying Helen Keller in 1962’s The Miracle Worker.

A wide range of actors were then considered to play Jennifer, including Mary Tyler Moore, Julie Christie, Ursula Andress, and even Warhol superstar Baby Jane Holzer, but Tate won over the production team with her screen test.

Sharon_Tate_as_Jennifer_North

Jennifer is a sweet-natured but ditzy blonde who craves fame, although as she admits to her far from encouraging mother: ‘I know I don’t have any talent, and I know all I have is a body.’ She meets and marries a successful crooner and is a loving wife to him. She couldn’t be happier but as this is Planet Susann, don’t expect that joy to last long.

Anne Welles (Peyton Place star Barbara Parkins) finds work with a theatrical agent and is then offered a modelling contract where she becomes immediately recognised by audiences all over America as the sophisticated face of the ‘Gillian Girl’.

Then there’s Neely, an upcoming singer, kicked off a Broadway show for threatening to outshine main star Helen Lawson, a spectacularly rude diva of epic proportions played by Susan Hayward. ‘The only hit that comes out of a Helen Lawson show is Helen Lawson,’ she proudly proclaims. ‘And that’s me, baby!’

Not to worry, before the midnight hour strikes that same day, Neely has become an overnight sensation anyway after being invited to sing at a nationwide TV charity telethon and wowing the audience.

Again in the world of Jacqueline Susann, you never know when stardom might come knocking.

The plot here is hard to detail but there is illness, addictions, fame, fortune, love, marriage, death, abortion, love, tragedy, addictions – I might be repeating some of these now but it is difficult keeping up with the conveyor belt of ups and downs the characters go through.

Believe me, this trio of women would never need to employ any PR gurus to invent highs and lows in their lives.

Jennifer_and_Tony_in_Valley_of_the_Dolls

Struggling to cope with an outrageous workload, Neely adds booze and, of course, dolls (barbiturates) into the equation with predictable consequences. As she screeches on and on about needing more dolls, I began hoping for a fatal overdose. When this fails to transpire, I suspected I might need some drugs myself if I was to watch this through to the closing credits.

Valley of the Dolls is a melodrama with a load of musical numbers thrown in. I don’t like melodrama, and I’m allergic to any musical that isn’t Phantom of the Paradise. This really isn’t a film for my tastes.

The often overblown style of acting doesn’t help. Patty Duke is ferociously bombastic as Neely. At one point she gets involved in a catfight with Helen Lawson which it’s easy to imagine is over who is giving the most wildly OTT performance. Patty Duke edges that particular contest.

Then something strange happened. I began to enjoy the preposterousness of it all. Maybe the heat got to me – it’s so rare where I live and I watched on Thursday, the hottest day in Scotland for years.

Neely morphs into Helen Lawson but with added self-destructive tendencies. ‘I don’t have to live by stinking rules set down for ordinary people,’ she rants in one of a lengthy list of brattish tantrums.

On the first night of her big Broadway comeback show, she has more than one or two drinks too many – and likely more dolls than might be considered any kind of good idea. With the show about to kick off, she pokes her head out her dressing room after being called to go on. She’s in an absolute state and wearing the costume that she was supposed to have on for the second act.

And when told so, she delivers her response with all the skill and emotion of Tommy Wisseau being torn apart in The Room. ‘So, I’ll do the second act first!’

The scene almost parallels a real-life incident concerning the film. Judy Garland had been signed up to play Lawson, but was supposedly fired after only three days when found out her face in her trailer, refusing to come to the set. Ironically, Garland was at least part of the inspiration to Susann when creating the character of Neely.

As for Jennifer, her world is shattered when husband Tony is diagnosed with a degenerative and terminal illness. On the night she discovers the devastating news; she is invited to move to France to launch a career in ‘arthouse movies’. Or as Neely calls them ‘nudies’. She accepts the offer almost immediately.

I suppose someone had to pay his medical bills but poor Tony, dying in a sanitorium knowing his wife is establishing a reputation for herself as a soft-porn star

Sharon Tate in Valley of the Dolls

Although it didn’t intend to be,Valley of the Dolls is campy as hell. It was old Hollywood trying to be modern but bore little resemblance to what a new Hollywood was beginning to offer – The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde, Midnight Cowboy and Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, where Sharon took an uncredited role as ‘Girl at the Party’.

Without the modish threads and hairstyles, this could be the 1940s – the novel started off in 1945 and continued for another twenty or so years. Here we begin maybe in 1964 and continue only an undefined but obviously short period of time. No attempt is made to age the characters and don’t expect Vietnam or psychedelia to make any appearances.

Dionne Warwick supplies a slushy theme tune and there’s a soppy score to go with the hysterical soapy plot-lines.

It’s maybe hard nowadays to imagine audiences queuing up to see an adaptation of an airport novel that was almost universally slammed on its release as trashy. Then again I remember being in a cinema and witnessing crowds flocking in to see Shades of Grey, a commercial hit that few critics failed to mock.

Made on a budget of around $4.7 million, Valley of the Dolls took over $44.4 million at the box office and was studio 20th Century Fox’s biggest hit that year. It was also one of the top ten grossing films in America. According to website The Numbers, it sold over 37 million tickets in 1967. Which for a movie only released halfway through December is remarkable.

Like the novel, it received a critical mauling, and Jacqueline Susann herself is said to have hated it. As did many members of the cast.

Sharon_Tate

Sharon Tate is, by the standards of the movie, almost subdued, despite suffering more than any of the lead characters. She really is much better than the lines she was asked to deliver and even found herself nominated for the New Star Of The Year – Actress Award at 1968’s Golden Globes, although that was won by The Graduate’s Katherine Ross.

‘The work she did in the film was very sensitive,’ multiple award winning actor Lee Grant told Vanity Fair in 2017. Grant, who played Jennifer’s sister-in-law Miriam in the movie also noted: ‘There was something in her character that struck a chord with her… I found her fascinating.’

Would she have gone on to become a major star?

Very possibly. I wouldn’t go as far to say she was one the most gifted actors of her generation but she was already good and potentially about to become even better with more experience. Certainly her talent and good looks would have ensured plenty of parts in projects with better source material than Valley of the Dolls.

Mark Robson bumped into Roman Polanski on Sunset Strip after both movies had been completed and told him: ‘That’s a great girl you’re living with. Few actresses have her kind of vulnerability. She’s got a great future.’

Sharon Tate: January 24, 1943 – August 9, 1969.

For Sharon’s official site, click here.

 

Isaac Hayes: Theme From Shaft (Soundtrack Sundays)

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Shaft (1971)

Who’s the cat that won’t cop out when there’s danger all about?

John Shaft? Damn right.

Gordon Parks’ Shaft was a very important movie. A game changer even.

In an era of Black Panther and when 007 is supposedly about to morph into a black woman, it might be difficult to appreciate the impact that Shaft made on popular culture in 1971. Here was the first American action film from a major studio with a black man in the lead role. It received some great reviews and proved to be box-office gold. According to Time, it was made on a budget of only $500,000 but grossed $13 million.

This success encouraged other big studios, and independent production companies to grab their own slice of blaxploitation action.

Some have claimed that Shaft isn’t strictly blaxploitation as the Shaft novel that it is based on was written by a white man Ernest Tidyman with the character of Shaft in that being white too. The film’s director, though, was black. Its lead actor was black, and the man who composed its legendary score was also black. Not only that but the man who helped Tidyman write the screenplay was John D.F. Black.

Okay, he was white.

In Britain, cop and detective films and shows tend to kick off with some awful aural wallpaper that almost seems to tell us not to get our hopes up too high, nothing very exciting is gonna happen here.

Shaft opens in the middle of NYC. Skyscrapers. Bustling streets. Noise. One man emerges from the subway. This is, of course, Shaft and within seconds we realise that he’s a superfly guy, strutting between cars on 42nd Street as if fear was a concept that was alien to him.

Richard Roundtree as Shaft

Even better is the music accompanying this with Bar-Kay Willie Hall’s distinctive hi-hats and Charles Pitt’s chikka-chikka-wacka wah-wah, maybe the funkiest little riff ever recorded. And then those swirling symphonic soul strings!

Isaac Hayes’ Theme From Shaft is a masterpiece. The sound of an American metropolis, bursting with vitality and modernity. Danger lies ahead and plenty of thrills are surely guaranteed.

Arguably this is the finest theme song of the 1970s, and also arguably the best track Stax ever released. It reached number one in America for a couple of weeks at the tail end of 1971 and won the 1972 Academy Award for Best Original Song.

Shaft without the theme tune just wouldn’t be as good. The plot is a fairly standard hardboiled detective story involving a turf war between some black criminals based in Harlem and the Italian Mafia, which results in a kidnapping of one crime lord’s daughter and Shaft being tasked to find her.

Too black for the force, too blue for his brothers, Shaft operates between both sides of the law. He’s highly likeable, but he also has his faults. Despite having a girlfriend, he picks up and sleeps with a woman who he meets in a Greenwich Village bar. As she later puts it: ‘You’re pretty good in the sack, but you’re pretty shitty afterwards. You know that?’

Shaft with Gun

Shaft is also a fascinating time capsule of New York as the 1970s are getting underway – from the cinema billboard advertising Get Carter (another film with a cracking theme song) and a poster announcing a Four Tops concert to those sharp sideburns, moustache, and tan leather coat worn by Shaft. And Richard Roundtree is just about perfect as the eponymous hero.

Its success persuaded ailing studio MGM to knock out a couple of quick sequels, Shaft’s Big Score! (1972), and Shaft in Africa (1973). By the time the latter was released, the blaxploitation floodgates had truly opened, with a raft of movies playing theatres, drive-ins and grindhouses across America every night of every week.

Some of these movies like Superfly and Coffy were terrific watches. Others like Blackenstein and Disco Godfather were rank rotten with 1974’s Three Tough Guys and Truck Turner (both scored and starring Isaac Hayes) somewhere in between.

In October 1973, Shaft became a CBS TV series. Compared to the movies, this was a toned down Shaft. No longer any kind of renegade, Shaft was now happily co-operating with cops. The violence was toned down and the bad language disappeared. Predictably, with nearly all the things that fans liked about the films gone, the series didn’t last long. And that looked to be the end of Shaft.

On paper, Shaft 2000 must have looked like a wonderful idea. Name of a fondly remembered, iconic film? Tick. Classic theme tune? Tick. Box office actor that could have been born to play the lead? Make that another tick.

In reality, there’s little reason for this using the Shaft name for this John Singleton directed movie, other than to trade in on the brand and re-use the music. Okay, Richard Roundtree notches up a few minute’s screentime to provide some continuity, the idea being that he is the uncle and mentor of sorts to Samuel L’s Shaft II, a NYPD detective. Uncle Shaft is hardly essential to the plot, though, albeit it’s always nice to see Roundtree onscreen.

I’m guessing that if, a poll was conducted at the start of our new century to find out who the public considered the coolest man alive, then Sam L might well have topped that poll. He demonstrates his charisma here, but the dialogue is never Tarantino sharp and he struggles to match the magnetism of his persona in Pulp Fiction. Not only that, but he just isn’t as cool as Richard Roundtree in the original.

Roundtree & Jackson

The plot tries to be ultra-smart but is often pretty dumb. It revolves around racist rich kid Walter Wade (Christian Bale channeling some of the obnoxiousness of American Psycho‘s Patrick Bateman) killing a young black man and Diane Palmieri (Toni Collette), who witnesses the murder but denies having done so. She really should have checked the giant mirror in the bar where she works to see if she had wiped all the blood from her face, or Shaft might not have known she was lying about not seeing anything.

Soon any traces of believability vanish as we’re introduced to Latino crime boss Peeples, a caricature bad guy, surrounded by cartoonish idiots.

By the hour mark, I was growing bored. There are few things more tedious than gun fight after gun fight unless someone as gifted as John Woo is choreographing the shootouts and Singleton is no Woo. Even worse are the ‘twists’, such as when female cop Vanessa Williams reappears after being seemingly shot dead. Did anyone in any audience in the world not see that coming?

Don’t expect subtlety and definitely don’t expect character arcs. Like his uncle, this John Shaft is a sex machine with all the chicks: smart, charismatic, heroic with badass patter that no criminal can compete with. He’s flawless when we first see him and flawless when we’re again treated to some of Isaac Hayes’ classic (and re-recorded) theme as the closing credits kick in. Followed by some R. Kelly dirge.

This is a dumbed down Shaft, made for the wrong reasons and lacking the grit and the charm of the original.

Shaft 2000

My original plan for this post had been to go and see the latest instalment of the franchise which features John Shaft, John Shaft II and his son John ‘JJ’ Shaft Jr, an FBI agent. On finding out that this was even more comedic in tone than the 2000 version, I couldn’t muster up the necessary enthusiasm to go see it.

Why reward Hollywood for lazily dishing up stale reboots and uninspired remakes and sequels? And while I’m not very interested in James Bond – the last time I paid into to see 007, Roger Moore was jumping over crocodiles – maybe the producers of Bond 25 should ask themselves what are the benefits for fans of that franchise in taking out what the character has always been about?

Getting back to Isaac Hayes and that 1971 soundtrack, here’s the Black Moses live at 1972’s Wattstax Festival. Dig that psychedelic pimp cape and chain mail vest!

For more on the recently released deluxe Shaft soundtrack, click here.

The Party and the Guests (New Waves #10)

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The Party and the Guests

‘When one lives in a society that is essentially not free, it is the obligation of every thinking person to attack obstacles to freedom in every way at his disposal.’ Jan Němec

O slavnosti a hostech*, to give the film its Czech title, isn’t that widely known outside of the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and when it is discussed one fact is always mentioned.

But first a little background.

By Eastern Bloc standards, the Czechoslovakia of the mid-1960s was relatively liberal, though censorship in the arts was still very common.

President Antonín Novotný took a keen interest in this and is said to have been left apoplectic with rage after being given a private screening of Němec’s film, demanding it be withdrawn from circulation. Yes, that fact that is always mentioned when The Party and the Guests is discussed is its history of suppression.

The ban inevitably soon came into force – along with Vera Chytilová’s Daisies – at a meeting in 1967 of Czechoslovakia’s National Assembly. It was declared – as if this was a bad thing – that neither film had anything ‘in common with our republic, socialism, and the ideals of Communism.’

Never mind, as the then-country attempted to navigate their ways towards a more democratic future during the Prague Spring, the film was once again made available for screenings. It was even selected to compete for the Grand Prix du Festival International du Film at the Cannes Film Festival in 1968, but due to the student and worker revolt in France, the festival was curtailed and then officially called off to show solidarity with the protesters.

Back home, three or so months later, Warsaw Pact troops and tanks rolled into Prague, reforms were crushed, and the country entered a period dubbed ‘normalisation’ by the ruling Communists.

For Němec, normalisation meant his film was banned for a second time.
And when I say banned, I don’t mean for a specific period of time after which the ban might be re-considered like the first time around. It went on to became one of four films (along with The Fireman’s Ball, All My Good Countrymen and End of a Priest) to be officially ‘banned forever’.

Idealogical orthodoxy wasn’t Němec’s thing, and he’d been considered an enfant terrible since his days at the lauded FAMU film school. Now he was being regarded as ‘politically undesirable’ and believed to be biggest filmmaking threat to the government and Communist system.

Blacklisted, he had his passport taken away from him in 1969 and he wasn’t given the chance to direct another feature film in his homeland until the aftermath of the Velvet Revolution.

The Party and The Guests -The Picnickers

The film is based on a novella written by Ester Krumbachová, a fascinating figure in the Czechoslovak New Wave, who at this point was married to Němec, both being credited with the screenplay.

This is a relatively short drama, just sixty eight minutes – few Czechoslovak New Wave films ever outstayed their welcome – and the plot is basic.

The following summary does contain spoilers.

A party of four men and three women are spending a pleasant afternoon enjoying a picnic on the edge of a pine forest. The weather’s good, as is the food, and the wine, which has been chilled in a nearby stream.

This could almost be some socialist realist propaganda borefest glorifying the wonders of Communism but it soon becomes apparent that it really isn’t.

Their little idyll is just about to turn sour. Very sour.

Jan Klusak as Rudolf

Some men, led by an obsequious looking figure in plus fours, accost and manhandle them. These men begin to play some kind of game. They won’t say who they are. They might resemble an absurdist street gang – if such a idea existed – but it’s easy to assume to represent the secret police.

We learn the leader is called Rudolf and everything about him seems slightly ridiculous. He takes great pains to appear polite but his faux-friendliness grates – like Christoph Waltz’s Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds.

A table is laid out and the party are told to step inside a circle, marked out on a gravelly piece of land. Fed up with an inane interrogation, one man Karel dares to defy the interlopers and strides away. He’s roughed up.

Another man arrives who is obviously in charge of the interlopers. Dapperly dressed, he has a goatee beard like Lenin’s, and he apologises for the behaviour of his men. He invites the party to join an open-air banquet to celebrate a wedding and his own birthday.

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One of the original group, who remains nameless but is played by well known dissident Evald Schorm, says little and displays no willingness to join in the charade. At an opportune moment, he vanishes, much to the chagrin of his wife.

The Lenin lookalike may appear jovial, but he is a stickler for order and the fact that they are a guest short makes him snap. A solution is suggested. The party guests could break from their meal and attempt to track down the missing man and bring him back, despite his wishes.

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A hound is given a sniff at a slipper he has left and it picks his scent. The search party sets off in high spirits.

The other original picnickers decide to stay on, on the pretext that if their (former) friend should return on his own accord, they should be there to greet him.

They chat and eat, much as they did earlier and seem content with the situation.

And that’s about that. On the surface.

The Party and the Guests (1966)

The Party and the Guests comes over like a Luis Buñuel film with a screenplay by Harold Pinter.

The ruling regime clearly took it as an anti-Communist allegory, although Jan Němec has never claimed it was specifically aimed at them. Maybe it’s as much, if not more, of an attack on ordinary people who, rather than oppose the system, passively make an accommodation with it for the sake of a quiet life, like most of the characters here seem happy enough to do.

It makes you ask yourself the question of how you would behave under similar circumstances. Compromise and conform or confront?

No trailer online but here’s a clip:

If you like The Party and the Guests, you might also like Němec’s first feature Diamonds of the Night, the story of two young Jewish boys who escape from a Nazi transport train. This is another uneasy watch with some startling imagery – including a hommage to Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou.

* In America the film is known as A Report on The Party and the Guests

The Bulldance aka Forbidden Sun (Folk Horror #2)

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The Bulldance aka Forbidden Sun

The term folk horror has been increasingly bandied around in recent years. Coined by Piers Haggard in 2004, when he explained to Fangoria that with Blood on Satan’s Claw (1970), he ‘was trying to make a folk horror film’, Mark Gatiss then borrowed the term for his Home Counties Horror episode of A History of Horror for BBC4.

From that moment on ‘folk horror’ was picked up by many critics and film fans. It’s not easy to precisely define its meaning but it’s generally used to describe films (and TV plays/series and literature) that deal with often insular, rural communities, and pagan rituals and folklore.

Should The Bulldance be categorised as a folk horror?

It does certainly tick a few of the boxes associated with the subgenre. There’s the rural setting in Crete (although it was filmed in what was then Yugoslavia), and it does examine pre-Christian traditions in the shape of Greek mythology.

The Bull Dance Ritual

Pagan is an umbrella term and whether modern day Hellenic polytheists should be considered pagan or not is a source of argument among some practitioners. Or so I’m told.

Extra points surely, though, must be awarded for the involvement of the director of The Wicker Man. Robin Hardy supplied the story and the screenplay. He additionally acted as exec-producer and had originally been slated to direct, although Zelda Barron eventually took on that role.

In his generally excellent book Inside The Wicker Man, author Allan Brown mentions that many American fans of the Hardy directed film perceive what is known across the Atlantic as Forbidden Sun as a kind of sequel to Hardy’s 1973 classic, which I find curious. If you decide to watch this 1988 movie, don’t expect The Wicker Man with sunshine. Or leotards for that matter.

Forbidden Sun - Training Routine

Okay, the movie. Paula (Samantha Mathis), was a gold medal winning gymnast at the 1984 L.A. Olympics, forced to retire at fourteen through illness. She arrives in Crete to spend a summer semester at an elite all-girl’s school for American gymnasts. Her aims are simple: to get fit again and see some of Europe. She sails to the island where the gym is situated on a boat with Ulysses (Svetislav Goncic), a young man with few social skills, and a fellow student Elaine (Renée Estevez, daughter of Martin Sheen). As they disembark, Ulysses attempts to brush his hand against Elaine’s breasts. She warns him off but later claims to Paula that he’s harmless.

The island is idyllic and the Roman built gym intrigues her, especially as their exertions are looked over by the Night Goddess, a sculpture of a female that the girls refer to as the Sex Goddess. It’s said that she brings the girls good luck.

But only if they deserve it.

Bulldance - Jane and the Night Goddess

The facility is run by Charles (Cliff De Young) and Francine (Lauren Hutton) who are immediately taken by Paula, as are her contemporaries. She’s even praised as ‘the champ in the camp’ and soon gets to meet coach Jack (Robert Beltran), who was pally with her dad, and who most of the girls have a crush on. One even seems to be involved in a hush-hush affair with him

As Elaine is dating English guitarist Steve (Marcus Myers), the girls also get to party his band The Lemon Boys, who are in Crete to record their latest album. They’re played by real-life act Hard Rain, whose roots include a punkish Brighton band – wait for it – Midnight and the Lemonboys.

What a summer this is gonna be for Paula!

Although not in the way she might have imagined at this point.

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Fifteen minutes have passed without a hint of horror and already it’s obvious that The Bulldance completely lacks the magic of The Wicker Man. It’s like some not terribly interesting made for TV movie. Luckily, it does improve, although not to the point where you’re likely to become particularly absorbed in the fate of any of the characters.

In addition to their training regime, the girls are also given tours of historic places of interest and Francine teaches them Greek mythology.

She takes them to see a fresco depicting a fearsome looking bull, whose story she has earlier outlined to the class: angered by a deception by the king of Crete Minos, Poseidon casts a spell on his wife Pasiphaë, inducing her to fall in love with the bull that he had gifted to Minos to sacrifice, Pasiphaë later giving birth to a half-man, half-bull, Minotaur.

Francine goes on to explain the origins of ‘the Bulldance’, this being a massively dangerous somersault over the horns of a charging bull, that is believed to have been last practiced several millenniums ago. ‘I doubt if any modern gymnast could do it,’ she declares.

Jane (Viveka Davis), the school’s rebel, isn’t so sure and becomes obsessed by the idea of re-enacting it. And she’s the kind of gal that, well, isn’t afraid to grab the bull by the horns. She convinces Elaine to persuade Steve – who has an art school background – to create a Minotaur mask, so the gymnasts can perform a form of the dance as a routine at their end of term show.

Forbidden Sun -Minotaur mask

During a group training run, one of the girls goes missing. When found, she has to be hospitalised and it transpires that she has been the victim of a sexual assault.

The girls immediately pin the blame on Ulysses, who has just been caught spying into the girls’ room, using his binoculars.

As an attempt to gain revenge, they lure him to their studio, where they encourage him to don the giant bull mask (which they then lock). With his vision obscured by it, the girls lash out at him until he is unconscious. Suddenly panicking, they attempt to revive him with the medically dubious method of pouring half a bottle of brandy down his throat.

Soon afterwards, it emerges that he was not behind the attack. Surprise, surprise, his pervy behaviour was only a red herring. Who coulda seen that coming?

The plot twists consistently fail to deliver surprises. Lauren Hutton kept reminding me of Jessica Lange, only without the exceptional acting ability. Not, that she was rotten but I’m guessing she is another model turned actor, who was more suited to the former profession.

Likewise, Samantha Mathis and Viveka Davis were both fine, without ever really shining. I remember Mathis gaining some rave notices around this time but her career never blossomed in the way some imagined it might. Nowadays, she’s maybe best remembered as the one-time girlfriend of River Phoenix.

Forbidden Sun Minotaur mask

As for Zelda Barron, she’s an interesting figure. She started as a secretary then script supervisor, and performed continuity work on Cry of the Banshee and Slade in Flame. Moving up the ranks, she took on the role of associate producer on The Coal Miner’s Daughter and was special consultant on Reds. She even shot a number of videos for Culture Club.

As a director, her biggest success was Shag. A movie about the 1960s dance craze in case you found yourself raising an eyebrow at that title. The experience of working with so many young female actors on that played a big part in the decision to give her the job on The Bulldance.

Here, she demonstrates her talents only intermittently, with some imaginative shots of the gymnasts in action – some of the girls were obviously trained athletes. As newcomer Paula arrived at the school, I momentarily thought of the entrance of the vulnerable Suzy to the ballet academy in Suspiria. But it lacked any of tension that Argento generated there.

In his 2012 book Serendipity… A Life, producer Peter Watson-Wood (who later also produced The Wicker Tree) recalls The Bulldance immediately falling behind schedule. After five days of the shoot, he noted, Barron had yet to complete the first day’s schedule. To attempt to make up for lost time, whole pages were dropped from Hardy’s script.

As for the soundtrack, The Lemon Boys’ songs are competent enough, as is their incidental music, but to paraphrase a comment by Alex Cox that I quoted in last week’s post, it lacks the excessive genius of Paul Giovanni songs like Willow’s Theme.*

They maintain that they were never even paid for their work on the movie.
Clearly the production was always a troubled one.

Today, it’s almost forgotten, but it’s still just about worth a watch if anything folk horror related is your thing.

* Around ten yeas ago, I caught one of them, bassist Simon Laffy, at a ‘secret’ gig in Rockers in Glasgow as a member of Man Raze, who wanted to perform a warm-up show before their support slot for Alice Cooper at the Clyde Auditorium later that evening. A bit rocky for me, although it was nice to see Paul Cook on drums.

Witchfinder General (Folk Horror #1)

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Witchfinder General

Moviedrome, a BBC2 series originally hosted by Alex Cox, is where I saw many cult movies for the first time. Michael Reeves’ classic Witchfinder General was one of these, screened in 1992 as half of what was dubbed the ‘Religious Madness Double Bill‘. John Huston’s Blood Wise being the accompanying film shown.

He may be keen to observe platitudes such as ‘The Lord’s work is a noble thing,’ but I’m not quite sure how much witchfinder Matthew Hopkins’ religious madness is to blame for the large numbers of witches and warlocks he dispatches here, as his love of money and sadism would also have to be considered major factors. This is a man who loves his job. He travels around East Anglia with his equally psychopathic sidekick John Stearne, investigating accusations of withcraft and sorcery.

Hopkins certainly has a high rate of success in proving these accusations true, but the odds are very much stacked in his favour. His methods of discovering the ‘truth’ include torturing the suspects during interrogations and if confessions fail to be extracted, then he can still prove their guilt.

As two women and a man are tied up and lowered from a bridge into a foul looking river, he explains with an inscrutable face that if they should sink, he will know they have been lying. And if they manage to swim or float, then guess what? Yep, that will prove their guilt ‘beyond a shadow of doubt in the sight of God,’ as Satan will have taken control of their bodies. They will then be withdrawn from the water and hanged by the neck until they are dead.

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It may not take a hotshot lawyer to see a flaw in this logic.

The movie is based on the 1966 novel of the same name by Ronald Bassett, a fictional account of real-life witchfinder Matthew Hopkins, who is said to have ordered the death of around 200 people in the space of just a few years in 17th century England.

What’s frightening here isn’t any jumpscare, spooky soundtrack, or vampires, demons, zombies, ghosts or monsters.

It’s the religious fervour whipped up by Hopkins in the towns and villages he visits, along with the attitude of locals, whose engrained belief in both Christianity and superstition, ensures they won’t intervene on behalf of the falsely accused. Many even gleefully encourage the hangings, drownings and burnings that Hopkins orders with an air consisting of equal measures of moral superiority and malevolence.

At one point, we’re shown the aftermath of a burning. A group of children roast some potatoes in the same flames that have so recently engulfed and taken the life of an innocent woman, and in scenes like these Reeves demonstrated his potential to become a top filmmaker.

Witchfinder General - Children Roasting Potatoes

Price turns in one of his finest ever performances here and ironically he was only given the starring role because small American independent AIP contributed enough to the film’s £83,000 budget to be able to dictate that an actor contracted to them was given top billing.

Reeves had wanted Donald Pleasance and on the set, the director and Price clashed, mainly because Reeves wanted Price to tone down the campy, often melodramatic style of acting favoured by AIP. The famous story here is that, during one fierce row, Price approached Reeves and boasted about the fact that he had acted in eighty-four films, before asking Reeves how many films he’d made.

The twenty-four year old answered: ‘Two good ones.’

I’m guessing he was gambling that Price had never actually seen The She Beast, a schlocky micro-budget Euro-horror with nothing much to recommend it.

The action, and there is plenty of that in Witchfinder General, is set against the backdrop of the English Civil War and been compared to a western revenge tale. You can see why, with horses galloping across the lowlands of Suffolk, almost as a substitute for the American Plains, the revenge drama element coming via a roundhead soldier Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy), who has several very strong reasons for wanting Hopkins dead.

Vincent Price in Witchfinder General

Perhaps significantly, cinematographer John Coquillon was later given several jobs by Sam Peckinpah, including his last western Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid (1973).

Coincidentally, around the time of Witchfinder General‘s release, Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch was being heavily criticised for what many critics judged as excessive violence. Reeves’ film would experience similar problems in this regard.

In Britain, censors demanded a number of cuts in order for it to be granted even an X-certificate.

Nowadays, when massively popular TV series like Game of Thrones can include scenes that veer towards torture porn, this might sound strange but back then sex and violence were high on the lists of what moral majority types wanted banned in Britain. Reeves was forced to comply with the British Board of Film Classification.

The film found many fans but some significant enemies too. In the Sunday Times, Dilys Powell dismissed it as ‘peculiarly nauseating’, while Alan Bennett in The Listener called it ‘the most persistently sadistic and rotten film I’ve seen,’ before adding: ‘There are no laughs in Witchfinder General.’ Which is like complaining about the lack of gore in the Lady in the Van or The History Boys.

Witchfinder General - Burning the Witch

Since then its reputation has grown, although not everybody came round. Echoing earlier criticism, Ken Russell told Benjamin Halligan (author of a biography of Reeves) that ‘this is one of the worst films I have ever seen and certainly the most nauseous.’ Even Alex Cox, in his Moviedrome intro, damned it with some pretty faint praise, calling it ‘a fairly routine Price horror movie with none of the excessive genius of the Roger Corman Edgar Allan Poes films.’

The standing of Michael Reeves, who was dead within months of the film being premiered, has also grown. In recent years he’s been hailed as ‘the lost genius of British cinema’ and ‘lost visionary of British film’.

Re-titled The Conqueror Worm in America, Witchfinder General was made by Tigon British Productions, who were also behind Reeves’ previous film The Sorcerers and who would later put out Piers Haggard’s The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1970) – which, together with Witchfinder General and The Wicker Man (1973), has been referred to as the ‘Unholy Trinity’ of Folk Horror.

And more on that term in the months to come.

Maverick Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, The Neon Demon) had planned to direct a remake but it was announced last month that he would now act as a producer on the project, with John Hillcoat (Lawless) taking on directing duties instead.

‘I’m drawn to the dynamic departures behind this remake,’ Hillcoat told Empire. ‘The idea of a world pushed to extremes where fear preys upon all, unleashing religious fanaticism, rival factions, tribalism, heretics, and witch hunts… feels strangely familiar in today’s world.’

And yes, sadly, anti-witchcraft legislation still exists in a number of countries, albeit ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia is only nation where practising it remains legally punishable by death. A grotesque state of affairs and one that shows no signs of ending. The kingdom set up a special ‘Anti-Witchcraft Unit’ in 2009. Since then hundreds of men and women (mostly foreign domestic workers from Africa and Indonesia) have been convicted of ‘magical crimes’.

Just as the opportunistic Hopkins came up with the idea of implicating Marshall and his fiance in witchcraft purely as part of a personal grudge, it is suspected that many of the recent cases in Saudi are the result of the migrant workers complaining about issues like not being paid and their employers’ retaliating by accusing them of witchcraft.

The spirit of Matthew Hopkins lives on.

For more on Folk Horror, click here.

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