I’ve always been fascinated by the writing of, and indeed, the legend of playwright Joe Orton. It was so refreshing to discover someone who was, shock horror, a confident homosexual in the 60s rather than some simpering, guilt-ridden closet case. I remember when I arrived in London to study film, a friend told me about an organised tour entitled The Joe Orton Walk that went to the sites of public lavatories where Joe looked for casual sex. A worthy tribute as ever there was one.
Stephen Frears’ 1987 film adapts John Lahr’s fantastic biography of Joe with the working-class boy from Leicester venturing to London to join the RADA (darling) and pursue a career in acting. It’s here that he meets Kenneth Halliwell who becomes his partner and co-conspirator. But this union would come to a horrifying conclusion as the tutored (Orton) would eclipse his teacher (Halliwell) and accomplish everything he wanted to but that which was beyond his grasp (you could say it was ‘Beyond Our Ken’ haha).
We get a fantastic depiction of being gay in London in the 1960s where sex was everywhere with a knowing look or if you knew the relevant places to frequent. We also get a vivid depiction of the gay paradise of that era, Morocco.
Orton was ‘punk’ before ‘punk’. His plays poked fun at society’s hypocrisies through his amazing use of language and his fantastic, laser-sharp wit. The library books he altered the covers of and wrote new liner notes for were another example of his playful subversion. I love the fact that the existing examples of these books have now been preserved for the enjoyment of generations to come. And to think that this act actually earned Orton and Halliwell six months holiday at Her Majesty’s Pleasure. Outrageous.
Frears’s directs amazingly aided and abetted by a screenplay by none other than Alan Bennett. The cast is also uniformly brilliant with Prick Up Your Ears being an example of perfect casting- Gary Oldman as Orton, Alfred Molina as Halliwell and Vanessa Redgrave as the regal but irreverent Peggy Ramsey.
I also loved the parallels between Kenneth Halliwell and Lahr’s wife that the film establishes. This is very perceptive indeed.
And something else which is remarkable about the film is that it’s currently on YouTube for your delectation. Watch it before it gets taken down.
I was brought up in Yorkshire and still live here (I just got lucky, I guess…) but even I have a problem with the Barnsley accents in Ken Loach’s masterpiece, Kes. Thank God for subtitles and online Yorkshire dialect translators.
Billy Caspar is a 15-year-old youth who is due to leave school soon. He is permanently dishevelled, looks unwashed and is smaller than everyone else in his class. He always seems to be in another world, maybe because his existence in his grim 1960s town is so brutal. He discovers a nest of kestrels and early one morning steals one as a pet.
Billy and his kestrel quickly become inseparable as Billy trains and cares for it.
Kes is nothing short of astounding. A film that was made just after the boom in ‘kitchen sink dramas’, it blows my mind that a film featuring characters with the broadest Yorkshire accents would eventually be so revered that it would be released on the prestigious Criterion label when it was released on home media.
Billy is daydreaming his way through life but is approaching a critical juncture. He is due to leave his soul-destroying school life and is due to enter the equally vile world of work.
Kes (the name he gives the kestrel) gives him a purpose in life and shows that there are things that fire his interest and can even win him admiration and attention (witness the impromptu presentation he gives on his newly found passion to his English class). It’s a cruel irony that the horrific event that occurs near the end of the film (I’m not going to ruin it, but I will warn you that it’s one of the most upsetting scenes I’ve ever seen in a motion picture) occurs just after his meeting with a school careers advisor. We literally see Billy’s hope, his newly found sense of freedom and his passion snuffed out in one fell swoop. It’s devastating.
Whilst there are plenty of fantastic performances by already established actors (Lynne ‘Ivy Tilsley’ Perrie, Brian Glover), it’s Ken Loach’s insistence on using ‘real’ people who had never acted before that is the revelation here. Kes feels 100% authentic on every imaginable level.
Loach’s greatest find when it came to authenticity and real people being captured on film, was the casting of David Bradley as Billy. Bradley’s performance is nuanced, multi-layered and, most of all, utterly captivating. It’s one of the best performances I’ve ever seen in a film and one of the most audacious and brilliant casting decisions also.
I’m so glad that the sheer brutality of the dark years when corporal punishment was permitted in school has been captured here also and shown as the archaic practice it really was. If you don’t feel a twinge of emotion at the youngest boy’s reaction to getting the cane then you don’t have a soul. Corporal punishment in schools was outlawed in the UK in 1986, the very year I entered a secondary school. My timing was impeccable. I could still sense that some teachers were gutted that physically punishing a child had been made illegal and that their real reason for being a teacher had been taken away from them.
Kes is beautiful but don’t forget to switch on the subtitles. Loach says that for the American release of the film, some parts were dubbed to try to make some speeches a bit more understandable for those not from South Yorkshire. But even this didn’t work. One American film executive said that he had a better chance of understanding Hungarian films than he did of Kes.
Sam Bowden is a lawyer who finds that a criminal, Max Cady who he prosecuted resulting in him going to jail (he had attacked a young woman) has been released from prison. Cady starts a harassment campaign against Bowden and his family and is seemingly hellbent on making Sam suffer for his incarceration.
I knew of this film from when the Scorsese remake came out. I was in the midst of my love of all things Scorsese and thought his version of Cape Fear was very good. But that was until I saw the original.
For all of the visual frills, the over the top performance of De Niro as Cady and scenes that weren’t in the original (the thumb sucking scene instantly springs to mind as does the attack that resulted in the cheek biting gratuity) the remake isn’t as good as the original film. Sometimes, less is more as is the case with this film.
The 60’s version of Cape Fear is more understated, character-led and directed (by the underrated J Lee Thompson) with more restraint and is a much better film because of it.
The original feels less forced, more organic and features some much better performances from truly great actors such as Gregory Peck as Bowden and the great Robert Mitchum as Cady. Whenever Mitchum plays crazy he always excels and his portrayal of Cady is up there with his star turn in another fantastic shocker of a film, Night of the Hunter.
This isn’t to take away from the ’90s remake which is still a great film in its own right. But one great thing about it is that it might make more people aware that it is indeed a remake and so hopefully they may seek out the original. And they have a treat in store when they do.
History is the ultimate judge of everything and film is no exception. One director whose work history has been very kind to is British director Pete Walker.
Walker was actually the son of music hall star Syd Walker. His first job was as a comedian at a strip joint in Soho (!) He also made 8mm ‘glamour shorts’ before making full length (pun not intended) softcore films at the end of the 60’s with titles like School For Sex, Cool It Carol and Four Dimensions of Greta.
But it was in the 70’s that Walker turned his attention to exploitation films and primarily the horror genre.
House of Whipcord is one such film and was made in 1974. This is a lurid movie with an equally lurid title. It concerns specially selected women who were judged to be far too liberated and sexually free and are thus thrown into a mysterious correction facility so that they would receive punishment for their wicked ways.
The film exposed the huge gulf within British society at the time- on one side were those who embraced the progressive changes Britain was undergoing regarding women’s changing roles that empowered and liberated them from simply being mothers and housewives. On the other side those who were more traditional and conservative. They were angry at the new permissive society and were the kind of people who wrote venom-filled letters to the national newspapers whilst spewing bile behind their net curtains. A figurehead for these people can be seen as Mary Whitehouse and her ‘Caravan of Light’ who campaigned against everything and wanted offensive and ‘corrupting’ films to be banned (Mrs Whitehouse would come into her own in the next decade during the Video Nasties moral panic), television programmes she didn’t approve of (the watershed was introduced because of her campaigning) and even pieces of poetry that didn’t meet her outdated moral standards (the publication Gay News was disbanded after she took them to court over a poem they published regarding Jesus and one of his foot-soldiers).
House of Whipcord is a genuinely brilliant piece of exploitation and horror that holds up a mirror to what was happening in society at the time. Britain was still so repressed that it was easy for mavericks to break boundaries and challenge taboos. In fact, there were those who at this time who were delighting in poking holes in the more archaic elements of society. Punk was just around the corner and tellingly Walker was approached by Malcolm McLaren to make a documentary about The Sex Pistols. This was only cancelled because the band split up before the film could be made.
House of Whipcord is also a fantastic addition to the Women In Prison subgenre. It feels like Within These Walls on steroids. There are also elements of Kafka’s The Trial thrown in for good measure. This is highlighted by the shadowy figure of Judge Bailey who lays down the law within the facility but whose laws are completely unclear. This is an authoritarian nightmare that still feels all too real.
Special mention needs to go to the cast. Celia Imrie starred in the film at the start of her career and she speaks about the movie at numerous points in her autobiography. She makes it sound like the film was a cinematic shocker that she starred in when she was young and needed the money. However, you get the feeling that she is kind of proud to have been in such a production with it almost attaining a kind of ‘cool’ status.
Barbara Markham is spectacularly unhinged as Head Warden Mrs Wakehurst who turns from measured to biblically psychotic in an instant (witness the sequence in which is lurches at her husband wielding a knife whilst screeching ‘If thine eye offends thee, PLUCK IT OUT!’)
An actress who would be cast by Walker in a total of five of his film and stars here is the magnificent Shelia Keith. Her portrayal of sadistic warden Walker is as cold and brilliantly extreme as Markham’s is. Think of Vinegar Tits from Prisoner Cell Block H but much more extreme.
The next of Walker’s films that stands out for me is Frightmare also from 1974. In 1957 Dorothy Yates and her husband Edmund are convicted of murder and cannibalism (!) and sent to an asylum until the film’s present-day (1974). They are then released supposedly fully cured and living a quiet life. But are they? The answer, of course, is of course not! The film shows Dorothy not being cured at all but using the cover of giving tarot readings to people who she then kills and eats.
The film also deals with Jackie (Edmund’s daughter from a previous marriage) who regularly visits the couple offering gifts of animal brains whilst falsely telling them that they are actually human remains and that she is actually killing people so that her stepmother doesn’t relapse and remains free. It is also revealed that her father had actually faked being complicit in the crimes and feigned madness so that he could stay with his wife. Jackie lives with Debbie, a wayward 15-year-old who is the actual daughter of the couple who was placed into an orphanage as a baby just after her parents were institutionalised. She has recently been expelled from there as she is too much for the authorities to deal with and so spends most of her time with her boyfriend who is the leader of a violent biker gang.
Walker’s film goes to the darker places that other horror films of the age wouldn’t have dared to. Frightmare has enough deprived goings-on to have even the most jaded of horror fans salivating with glee.
There’s also a playful pop at the more respectable films on release at this time and what Walker thinks of these- Jackie drags her new boyfriend out of a screening of the arty farty Blow Up- and for good reason. Why watch that when you could be watching (or even starring in) a Pete Walker film?
Another facet of Walker’s work that I love is that his films capture the world in which they’re filmed in and feel like beautifully filmed time capsules. The fact that a certain demographic was lapping up films like Walker’s with a healthy section of the cinema-going public loving all things horror and exploitation was also very revealing of the time. The drive-in and 42nd Street audiences weren’t just confined to America during this time.
There’s also a fantastic strain of black humour at play within the film with events sometimes becoming so extreme that they become surreal and darkly funny. This reminds me of the dark comedy that rears its head during the endings of both Straw Dogs and Taxi Driver. Within Frightmare, this reads as completely intentional with an almost vaudevillian Grand Guignol tone during certain scenes.
Again, Keith features and plays the role of the cannibal housewife Dorothy resplendent with pale palour and red eyes. She attacks each character she takes on with such unbridled zest and zeal that her presence feels an essential part as to why Walker’s films are so noteworthy. Walker talked about working with her saying-
“Sheila Keith was a lady who lived a quiet life with her dogs and her cats and came into work to do, brilliantly, whatever was asked of her. She was like your nice old aunt who would serve you cucumber sandwiches before ripping into a dismembered limb – without complaining.”
I honestly think that Walker and Keith make for one of cinema’s great director/actor partnerships in much the same way De Niro and Scorsese or John Waters and Divine do.
Another Walker favourite of mine is Schizo made in 1976. Figure skater Samantha is just about to get married but we see that a former partner of her mother is travelling to London from the North East to seemingly stalk her.
The film feels ahead of its time as issues that are more widely spoken about now such as stalking, voyeurism and obsessive behaviour directed towards a single person hadn’t been tackled in film before. All of these concepts and dysfunctional attributes would have been new and revelatory to audiences back then in much the same way as those introduced to audiences watching Hitchcock’s Psycho (crossdressing, multiple personalities) or Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (celebrity stalking, obsessive fans) for the first time.
There are also questions as to who the stalker is, why he’s stalking Samantha and what role she has in all of this. There’s a huge sting in the tale and I’m certainly not going to spoil any of this here.
More than with any of Walker’s films before or since, Schizo really captures the time and locales it’s set in with London being beautifully captured in the year that, ironically, punk was about to explode. Just as punk marked an explosion not just within music but also within other art forms, Walker’s films can be seen as part of that movement.
Walker actually thought there were no subtexts to his films but was pleasantly surprised by what he saw when he reinvestigated his work. He said-
“But recently I had to record commentaries for the DVD releases so I saw the films for the first time since making them, and you know what? They’re not as bad as I thought. But searching for hidden meaning . . . they were just films. All I wanted to do was create a bit of mischief.”
But there is meaning and subtext to be found in all films whether this is intended by the screenwriter and/or director or not. Walker and his screenwriter David McGillivray and their views on the British society of the time are there for all to see and marvel at throughout their work.
Walker’s last film was made in 1983 and was his most polished movie to date, the big-budget House of Long Shadows which cast horror royalty Vincent Price, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee all in the same picture. After this film, Walker retired from making films and instead set about restoring old cinemas.
Boxsets of Walker’s films have been released but curiously, only in the US. It’s time for 4K restorations of his work for Blu ray releases in his home country. It’s time for the outstanding back catalogue of this amazing auteur to be finally recognised and released in the UK. Walker’s work documents a secret history of a time in British cinema that was gritty, forbidden and utterly intoxicating. I think the BFI would be the best company to issue these releases and tout Walker as the major force he truly was within the British film industry even though he may have been frowned upon by others within that industry at the time. And if the BFI do release his films then they should also show a retrospective at the NFT for good measure.
Even though her husband popped his clogs some ten years before, Mrs Taggart still makes an occasion of her wedding anniversary to him by making sure that her sons join her at the family home so they can celebrate together.
The build up to the event sees her sons describing her as akin to a force of nature that can’t be controlled and as a fierce matriarch. This seems fitting when she finally makes her entrance on screen as she is played by none other than Bette Davis who is on flying form and attacks her role with relish. Not just that but she has a fantastic wardrobe topped off with an eye patch!
It’s obvious that Mrs Taggart will keep her boys in place by means necessary whether it be manipulation, knowing secrets that her sons would rather be kept private to be used at any given moment like some kind of trump card that she keeps up her sequinned sleeves and by finding any weaknesses that her sons or their partners possess.
It’s fitting that this film was made by Hammer Films as whilst on the surface it’s a very black comedy, it also works as a horror film with Davis demolishing all around her like a very stylish and catty version of Godzilla.
The tone here is high camp which is why it works so well. If this was presented as more serious it wouldn’t have been half as much fun and Davis would have been wasted.
Davis didn’t want to take the role but only changed her mind when her friend Jimmy Sangster rewrote the script for the screen from the stage version. Sangster had penned the excellent screenplay for Davis’ earlier film, The Nanny (also highly recommended).
There was also animosity between cast members with ‘serious stage actress’ Sheila Hancock witnessing the way Davis was pampered over and given the attention deserving of a star of her stature and being utterly alienated by it. C’est la vie.
This early Fassbinder film concerns a group of dissatisfied and directionless young people who turn their attentions away from themselves and the relationships within their inner circle when a young Greek man arrives looking for work and lodging. Soon the group rumour mill goes into overdrive as they perceive the young man as an outsider and so demonise and persecute him.
Another great character driven piece by the German maestro with the ugliest facets of human nature being explored as the members of the insular and narrow minded group start to spread rumours and make their prejudices known towards young Jorgos. After an innocuous chance meeting in the street with one of the women from the gang, the group’s Chinese Whispers soon snowball to him having tried to rape her as well as other crimes such as him being a Communist.
The men of the group then seize their opportunity to beat him up for crimes he isn’t guilty of.
Conformity, group hysteria and mobbing by the gang are all explored perceptively within Katzelmacher which makes it, unfortunately, ring all too true.
Beautifully acted, perfectly framed and directed and with a gorgeous late 60’s black and white which is icy cool and absolutely gorgeous.
Look out for the scene of the young woman dancing.
A mother and daughter in law (named in the credits as ‘older woman’ and ‘younger woman’ respectively) are waiting for their son/husband to return from the war he’s fighting in. A soldier named Hachi who fought alongside him comes back to tell them that in fact he saw him killed. He then starts having a torrid affair with the daughter against the wishes of her mother in law. This is going on in secret although the mother in law knows all about it and is jealous. All of this continues until…well, that would be telling!
Breathtaking cinematography, a great plot, amazing acting and imagery that will stay with you well after the film has ended!
This film was banned outright when it was first submitted to the BBFC and then released heavily edited. It’s now acknowledged as a classic with it being on the Criterion collection.
A teenage drag race goes dreadfully wrong with one car being forced off a bridge and into a river. From the car a woman, Mary manages to escape and clamber ashore.
However, Mary’s life after that isn’t the same. She seems to see ghostly figures when she seemingly disassociates herself with everyday life that is going on around her. One example takes place on a bus when she sees seemingly dead people coming for her. The film very creepily plays with space and time and does so without warning. The film is just as disconcerting and disorientating for the audience as it is for Mary.
The ghostly figures she sees seem to be led by a man (in reality, the film’s director Herk Harvey) who seems intent on somehow coming for Mary to take her somewhere as yet unknown.
Mary is a church organist by occupation but even this is affected now with her only playing the kind of funereal pieces that in the future The Cure would be playing in 1981. Yes, they’re that bleak! One priest who hears her playing stops her and deems her playing as ‘Profane! Sacrilege!’
Add to this a very sleazy and creepy housemate who gets off on perving on her as she gets out of the bath and won’t let up.
The action builds up to an ending that actually takes place in an abandoned fairground. This all adds up to a truly great cinematic experience. There are sequences of this film that are far removed from anything I’ve ever seen in a motion picture before or since. The haunting photography, the use of some sequences such as a dancing scene in the carnival being sped up, the way the film takes the audience with Mary as she enters her limbo world where the dead walk and stalk her.
The idea of a limbo world between life and death was also brilliantly explored later on in the classic movie Don’t Look Now. Carnival of Souls went on to influence George A Romero who said that it was a huge influence on Night of the Living Dead as did David Lynch on Blue Velvet. The influence of the film can also be seen within the better parts of the Goth movement. The sequence where the undead run after Mary on the beach feels like a fantastic Goth version of something from a Fellini film.
Carnival of Souls is an anomaly in cinematic terms, a one-off which is like no other. It’s also a masterpiece. I’m so glad it wasn’t forgotten. It was restored and released cinematically in 1989 after it’s original 1962 release and is now on the Criterion collection on Blu ray alongside the best of cinema. And rightly so!
As soon as I saw that this 1965 Amicus film was directed by Freddie Francis I knew that the direction and photography would be beautiful. And I was right! I was also excited as I knew that this was a horror anthology film and starred two heavyweights of the genre, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.
As well as Cushing and Lee the cast also includes Alan ‘Fluff’ Friedman, Donald Sutherland and Roy ‘You’re a Record Breaker!’ Castle. We even get Kenny Lynch appearing in a cameo role.
Travellers in a train compartment are joined by the very sinister Dr Schreck who whips out his deck of tarot cards and tells each of his fellow traveller’s fortunes. Each fortune told is a separate episode in this anthology.
The separate stories involve vampirism, a vine seemingly related to a Triffid that comes to life, lycanthropy, voodoo and black magic and a severed hand. I want to give more details away about each segment but there are so many brilliant twists and turns that writing any more would be like trying to tiptoe through a field full of landmines.
Each episode is completely different from each other, taking place in a real breadth of locales and circumstances which keeps the film as a whole really varied and interesting.
This film has all the ingenuity of five separate mini episodes of Tales of the Unexpected. Each concept is unpredictable, genuinely ingenious and likely to surprise most viewers.
A joy from start to finish with perhaps the biggest twist coming after each of the characters fortunes has been told.
A sequel to Village of the Damned which is less a continuation of the plot and instead like a film containing characters who possess the same powers as the children in the original but under different circumstances.
Whereas the original took part in a countryside idyll, the action within this film is based in London. A gifted child called Paul is studied and observed by the relevant governmental authorities. Other almost supernaturally gifted children are also discovered and brought to the city so that UNESCO researchers can witness them at work. They are brought from places as varied as China, Russia and Nigeria.
These gifted children then abscond from each of their respective embassies that they are staying in and take refuge in an abandoned church. It’s here that the authorities and the army find them and have to decide whether to try to coax the children out or destroy them if they pose a threat to humanity. It’s here that a tense standoff encroaches.
This film as opposed to the original is firmly on the side of the children who we see as persecuted and in need of human support. The original depicted them as inhuman, devoid of emotion and empathy and very much as villains in a horror film. Children of the Damned elicits sympathy and compassion for the children who are shown as unjustly discriminated against, ostracised and treated as freaks in many ways. Having high levels of intelligence and other powers such as telekinesis are gifts but also hindrances. Witness the speech Paul’s mother shrieks at him that she should have destroyed him before she took him in her arms for the first time.
I made the mistake of reading the reviews for this film before I actually watched it. The few examples I could find were derogatory and very unflattering. They were also wrong, in my humble opinion. Children of the Damned may not be as good as the original film it is a sequel to but is still a vivid, well written, engaging film that is well worth a view. The shots of 60’s London are beautiful. A special mention to Ian Hendry (Repulsion) who heads a stellar cast.