Review- ‘The Killing of Sister George’ (1968)

Review- ‘The Killing of Sister George’ (1968)

One of the earliest British gay-themed films ever made, this tells the tale of June ‘George’ Buckridge, the soon to be eclipsed star on the TV soap opera Applehurst. We see her relationship with the Baby Doll-like Childie and also the interventions of television executive Mrs Crofts. But does Crofts have her own agenda?

This lesbian drama has the amazing tagline ‘The story of three consenting adults in the privacy of their own home’ which obviously mimics the mantra of liberals and homophobes alike regarding ‘the gays’. It’s also a reference to the wording of The Sexual Offences Act of 1967 decriminalising homosexuality. 

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There’s something aesthetically pleasing about Beryl Reid in all of the films and TV programmes I’ve seen her in. This film is no exception. She plays George and she dominates proceedings whenever she is on screen. Her character is irreverent, rambunctious and a sheer delight. She’s ‘punk’ years before the punk movement actually erupted. Also, notice how she plays her rebellious character to perfection and got under the skin of George. This is very evident in her body language. No unconscious crossing of the legs or keeping them together when she sits down. She can manspread with the best of them. This is a headstrong woman who lives life on her own terms rather than conforming to societal norms regarding how a ‘lady’ should act.

Part of the film takes place in the real life lesbian bar The Gateways Club which was then in Chelsea, just off The Kings Road. The film used the real patrons as extras and it feels so natural it’s as if the crew just went in and filmed without warning. The wide range of cast extras show that the uneducated myth about lesbians being either ‘butch’ or ‘femme’ is a fallacy and the locale provides a fascinating peek inside not just 1960’s Gay London but specifically Lesbian London. George and Childie are also dressed as Laurel and Hardy in this scene which makes it even more joyous, surreal and brilliant.

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Inside The real lesbian bar The Gateways Club with Laurel and Hardy

A primary theme of the film is the power play within the character’s relationships. This is nicely shown in the ‘contrition game’ scene in which rather than being degraded by George’s task, Childie makes herself enjoy it thus taking away the power from George and being in control herself. 

The film depicts it’s characters like human beings with all of their foibles rather than as freaks in a sideshow to be leered at and grimaced at by ‘them there normal folks’. The film prompts a new discussion on our perceptions of gay people in a Britain in which homosexuality had just been decriminalised (this was carried out in 1967- the year before this film was released). The tagline for the film also references the wording used in The Sexual Offences Act.

The Killing of Sister George was unsurprisingly very contentious with the unenlightened British Board of Film Classification when it was due to be released. The main bone of contention was with the scene between Childie and Mrs Crofts- Crofts kisses and caresses Childie. There is nothing gratuitous about this scene and it is dealt with respectfully and mostly takes place off-screen. From the BBFC Case Study regarding the film-

”(But) the BBFC was adamant that the scene be removed in its entirety. Trevelyan stated that the BBFC was “not prepared as yet to accept lesbian sex to this point.”

It’s unbelieveable today that the BBFC saw to not include this scene not because it may corrupt or adversely influence but because they thought the Great British public would have it’s collective minds blown by such a scene.

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The notorious scene

The BBFC Case Study on the film notes-

”The BBFC classified The Killing of Sister George as ‘X’ in February 1969, with the encounter between Mrs Crofts and Childie deleted. Nevertheless, a number of local authorities across the UK banned the film even in this version. The Greater London Council allowed the film to be shown within its authority area with minor edits. The increase in the age bar for ‘X’ films from 16 to 18 in 1970 saw some local authorities relent on their previous decision and allow the film to be shown under this higher age restriction.”

Today the film is thankfully uncut. This movie is an amazing time capsule, a perceptive and all too revealing glimpse into human relationships and a groundbreaking slice of LGBT history- a history that generally erases lesbians altogether. This film noisily and joyously bucks this trend. And audiences should be truly thankful for that.

5 out of 5

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Review- The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017)

Review- The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017)

From the director of the quite extraordinarily brilliant How To Survive A Plague comes this film.

Marsha P Johnson was a black transvestite/drag queen (there was no ‘transgender’ then) who hung around Christopher Street in the 60s until her mysterious death when she was pulled out of the Hudson River in the early 90s. As we hear from one person captured on video back then who witnessed her body being recovered there appears to have been some kind of wound on her head. Could there be more to Marsha’s death than just the officially held cause being accidental? Was it suicide or homicide?

David France expertly tracks the work of Victoria Cruz in unearthing and unravelling what happened to Marsha whilst celebrating this revolutionaries life. Moments of this documentary are sometimes very shocking. One such is when Ms Cruz telephones a retired member of the NYPD who she asks to meet to discuss the circumstances surrounding Johnson’s death. ‘Definitely not’ he responds to her meeting request. He then warns her ‘Don’t go playing detective’. Sinister.

This film feels like new unexplored relics and answers from LGBT history being unveiled right before your eyes.

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However, there are politics at play regarding the film. Some members of the non-white trans movement are slamming France’s work as hes a white cisgender (non-trans) man who is making this film rather than a trans person of colour. There have been accusations of theft of material from another project that was being made by the trans community regarding Johnson. There are also accusations that David France could get funding and distribution because hes white and cisgender. I think these accusations are just a case of sour grapes. If you are a filmmaker who has made films before, have a proven track record and can actually accomplish these projects through to fruition then you will get funding and distribution. How long have we been waiting for the fictionalised short film Happy Birthday, Marsha? I’m amused that its fictionalised- so was Stonewall in 2015. Lets see if there are protests regarding this new film if events are seen to be historically accurate.

Also, does it matter whether the person making the film is trans or cisgender or what their ethnicity is when the film they make is as great as this?

There seems to be a huge emphasis on Marsha and Sylvia Rivera when it comes to LGBT history and the Stonewall Riots. But when anyone else is represented they are lumped together and not given the same kind of detailed analysis or be the centre of attention. I’d love a similar documentary on Danny Garvin, Martin Boyce or the person widely believed to have started the riots- Jackie Hormona (Marsha P Johnson admitted in an interview that when she arrived at the Stonewall Inn on that fateful night in 1969 that the rioting had already started. The interview is here- makinggayhistory.com/podcast/episode-11-johnson-wicker/ She dashed off to Bryant Park to tell Sylvia Rivera who had taken heroin). You don’t know who Garvin, Boyce or Garvin are? Thats very telling.

A great documentary. Now lets hear about other Stonewall voices.

4 out of 5

Cease To Exist- The Cultural Influence of Charles Manson

Cease To Exist- The Cultural Influence of Charles Manson

I woke up to the news a couple of days ago that Charles Manson had died. My gut feeling was one of loss.

Yes thats not the acceptable thing to say when a serial killer dies. And not just any serial killer but the capo of serial killers. A serial killer so conniving that he even brainwashed and groomed others to do the majority of the killing for him. Nice try, Charlie.

He was the person who caused the loss of many innocent lives, even the lives of victims not born yet (Sharon Tate was seven months pregnant when she was slaughtered). He also figuratively ended the lives of the members of his Family who still languish in prison after committing the crimes after being plied with LSD and coerced into committing these atrocities. Just as he set up an alibi for himself for the murders whereby he could demonstrate he didn’t kill anyone, he also tried to conclusively incriminate the Family members who actually did kill on the two nights of massacres.

And yet whilst he was utterly vile in action and deed, I experienced a strange sense of loss because he was and is so very interesting. His actions and deeds are now ingrained in American history and he is seen as ‘The Man Who Killed The 60’s.’ Yes, murder is abhorrent but with such a moniker, as Quentin Crisp observed about the serial killer Gilles de Rais, ‘its hard not to be impressed’. History is balance and Manson seemed to be a one man Yang to the flowers, peace and love of late 60’s America’s Ying.

His image on the cover of Life magazine was possibly the first time that the general public were given a glimpse of the man who had caused all of the carnage they had read about. It didn’t disappoint and perfectly captured who he was, what he had done and what he symbolised in American society. He was The Boogeyman and his iconic picture was enough to induce countless nightmares just like Myra Hindley’s infamous mugshot had a few years earlier over the pond.

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The reactions to Manson’s death in the media and social media only heightened my sense of loss regarding it. Lots of people were crawling out from under their rocks to type ‘R.I.P’ but taking the time to exclaim to everyone that this in fact meant ‘Rot In Pieces’. And then there were those (and there were many) who took great delight in saying what they’d like to have done to Manson. One sticks in my mind more than others- a Facebook user said that he’d like to ‘bring Manson back to life so that I can beat him to death again with my bare hands’. Nothing sinister or dark there whatsoever.

Within a film group that I’m a member of the news of his death was reported with the group’s admin asking ‘Who should play him in a film?’ Someone responded ‘NO ONE! Why would anyone want to see a film about that psycho nutjob? Why try to romanticise his life?’ In other words this person was wildly trying to virtue signal and say ‘Look everyone, I have higher morals than a serial killer! I’m going to demonstrate them now! When do I get my prize?’ Thankfully not everyone agrees with this dullard.

My initial pang of loss was due to the fact that Manson permeated and overlapped with so much popular culture that I have loved since my teens. Yes he was a serial killer, yes he was interesting in the societal and historical framework of America but also he was really good value for money!

There are numerous great documentaries on Manson and his followers but the one that had the biggest impact on me was one called Charles Manson: Then and Now which I bought on VHS in 1992. I’ve transferred it to YouTube and it can be found here. Note the presentation- an audio track that is so high that its distorted, references to Manson’s influence on exploitation/drive-in films and alternative music (note the picture of Genesis P Orridge from his/her Throbbing Gristle days), sinister horror film incidental music. This is the stuff of mondo culture and I lapped it up as a teen and continue to.

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After devouring this documentary I also picked up a copy of the excellent book Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi who was the prosecutor at the Manson trial. Thorough, exhaustive and amazingly researched. Also worth investigating is the book The Family by Ed Sanders (lead singer of the Fugs).

On a lighter note, a book that I picked up much later was this- yes, Columbo takes on the Manson Family. I’m still waiting for the Dirty Harry-Son of Sam crossover novel but it hasn’t materialised yet.

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Whilst there were many Manson inspired B- movies that were hurriedly made around the time of Manson’s trial (documented well in the above linked documentary), the best film is Helter Skelter which is more a biopic of Manson and his Family’s life. This was actually a TV movie back in the day and earned massive ratings as viewers couldn’t wait to watch the grisly events unfurl. And the Moral Minority still take the moral high ground and get all Mary Whitehouse about such productions even though they are massively popular.

Helter Skelter is available on DVD and well worth obtaining. It stars Steve Railsbeck who was in Turkey Shoot. If this doesn’t act as a high enough recommendation then I don’t know what will. He is Charles Manson.

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Manson also cast a shadow over the work of John Waters which I started watching when I was 13. In the film Multiple Maniacs, Lady Divine holds Mr David in check by continually reminding about that night in the Hollywood Hills and the people they supposedly killed- a reference to the Tate-LaBianca murders that at that time hadn’t been solved or attributed to Manson yet. Waters would later attend the Manson trials.

Also in the film Pink Flamingos Divine walks past a wall that is spraypainted with the moniker ‘Love Tex Watson xx’ Waters’ next film Female Trouble is even dedicated to Charles Watson. The story regards a criminal and eventual murderer, Dawn Davenport who equates crime with beauty and fame. She is encouraged to be even more extreme in her actions whilst keeping them in line with her beliefs after being groomed and brainwashed by Donald and Donna Dasher. This brainwashing is very reminiscent of Manson- in Female Trouble liquid eyeliner takes the place of LSD as a mind-altering lubricant for this grooming and puppetry. Also within this film there are the scenes in which Davenport disrupts court proceedings just like Manson did by screaming the word ‘Liar!’ at certain points. She also makes statements as to her own magnitude and her sense of self-worth.

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But Female Trouble’s most perceptive observations are regarding fame and crime. Theres really not much difference between Elizabeth Taylor being filmed and photographed by the press in an airport terminal and Charles Manson receiving the same treatment on his way to court. Yes, Manson was responsible for the murder of several people. Some people would say Elizabeth Taylor’s later celluloid forays were the artistic equivalent.

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Fame, fame, fatal fame. Theres not that many differences between being famous and infamous.

Waters later said that he regretted his flippancy regarding Manson and his Family in his films as he got to know Leslie Van Houten who hes now friends with and believes is now ready for parole. I’ve never seen Waters more serious in his interviews except when speaking of Van Houten who he says was just a pawn in Manon’s overall scheme- a disillusioned middle class girl who wanted to rebel and came into contact with Satan himself. Shes now free from the magnetic hold of Manson but serving life in prison for her involvement whilst briefly under the influence of a master manipulator. An account of Waters’ friendship with Leslie is a chapter in Waters’ book, Role Models (an amazing book. Highly recommended).

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John Waters with his friend Leslie Van Houten

Another aspect of Manson and his legacy that I found intriguing was his position as a countercultural icon. Once Manson’s face and crimes were well known his image would appear on all manner of merchandise to be lapped up by the darker components of the counterculture and those who wanted to stick two fingers up at authority. You’re an angry teenager who wants to shock all those around you and give Mom and Dad a coronary? Buy a Charles Manson t-shirt. This action was akin to the first London punks wearing a swastika. They might not have been Nazis but they wanted to shock and outrage.  The older generation who had used the ‘I fought the war for your kind!’ line would be apoplectic with rage at a fashion accessory like a swastika armband. Job done.

But there were also those in the counterculture who looked to Charlie as some kind of religious leader just like his Family members did. A major source of his twisted philosophy were his lyrics. Yes, Charlie was a singer, musician and lyricist. His songs are actually pretty good. But I’ve never subscribed to this ‘Charles Manson, philosopher’ schtick. Hes too much of a fucking nutjob for that.

So, Charles Manson has died. The end of the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970’s. Altamont, Nixon, Vietnam…Charlie’s place in this dark period of American historical events is assured.

Please don’t take the moral high ground by suggesting that reading and watching about Manson and his dark, warped place in American history is bad. Through examination and analysis maybe there are clues to the prevention of such a bloodsoaked chain of events ever occurring again. And if there aren’t signs as to this and you’re not a moralistic twat on Facebook then you’ll realise that its still just a really interesting topic, no matter how grisly.

It seems to me that its the people who try to suppress and prevent others from investigating the darker incidents from history that have more to hide and conceal themselves. After all, Fred West’s favourite movies were exclusively made by Disney as he didn’t approve of violence in films. And we all know how fucked up he was.

Day 27- 31 Days of Halloween- The Sadist (1963)

Day 27- 31 Days of Halloween- The Sadist (1963)

Three schoolteachers stop at a garage on their way to a baseball game at Dodgers Stadium. Their car isn’t running properly and so they need to look at it and maybe try to fix it. But thats not their biggest obstacle- they come face to face with Charlie Tibbs and his girlfriend- a couple of killers who are accused of murders in Arizona and are on the run. Charlie has a gun and insists that they work on the car so that he can get away in it.

This film is like a play that has been filmed- there is primarily one main setting (the film reminded me of Cujo in that respect). But this doesn’t mean that the film is static and boring. The one setting is used innovatively and this means that the film is directed with verve. There is also a sense of ‘us versus them’ with the schoolteachers in their Sunday best (shirts, ties or a nice conservative dress) whilst Tibbs is looking every part the juvenile delinquent in his denims and sporting a greasy quiff. Tibbs is obviously based on real-life serial killer Charles Starkweather.

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This film is brilliant- will the teachers get away, when and how? The film ramps up the tension and suspense and never lags- theres no scenes that feel unnecessary. The film is also very extreme for its time. It was even rejected by the BBFC when it was submitted for classification in 1964.

Arch Hall Jr in the lead gives an extraordinary performance as Tibbs- the Sadist in the title. His face and facial expressions are almost other-worldly and supernatural as is his portrayal. Quite extraordinary.

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Watch out for the poignant scene in which the schoolteachers hear on the radio the baseball game they should be at instead of fighting for their lives.

Theres also some innovative direction within the film- it almost feels like Tibbs’ gun in the first half of the film is an actual character.

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I didn’t know about this film until recently. I’m glad I do now. Why isn’t this more widely available on DVD and Blu ray?

Apparently this film is a favourite of director Joe Dante’s- a seal of approval anyone would be proud of.

4 out of 5

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Day 8- 31 Days of Halloween- Les Yeux Sans Visage/ Eyes Without a Face (1960)

Day 8- 31 Days of Halloween- Les Yeux Sans Visage/ Eyes Without a Face (1960)

The daughter of a famous plastic surgeon causes a car accident in which his daughter’s face is disfigured. The surgeon has a new theory hes dying to carry out which involves transplanting a face to replace his daughter’s maimed features but this involves donors- willing or not.

I forst saw this film when I was studying film analysis and writing at University. I throughly enjoyed it but I’ve only just rewatched it now. This film is haunting, poignant and so very sad. Everything about it is pinpoint perfect from the cinematography, the music score and the acting. Edith Scob’s portrayal of the surgeon’s daughter Christiane needs highlighting here. Never has a performance been so nuanced and touching as Scob  comes across as vulnerable, child-like and so sad. On of the most touching perfomances I’ve ever experienced in the whole medium of film.

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The film has some amazing observations to make about beauty, self-image and superficiality. Beauty is only skin deep and is also transitory. In these times of facelifts, implants and Botox, this film is even more relevant.

There is also a running theme in the film regarding being caged or constrained and being free- bother physically, mentally and ideologically. If I went into these themes anymore I’d ruin this film experience for anyone who hasn’t seen this gem.

Please see this film. You won’t regret it.

5 out of 5.

Day 6- 31 Days of Halloween- The Abominable Dr Phibes (1971)

Day 6- 31 Days of Halloween- The Abominable Dr Phibes (1971)

Vincent Price’s Dr Phibes avenges the death of his wife by bumping off the culprits with each murder having a biblical connection.

Very camp, very funny and very unsettling- this is one of Price’s best just like Witchfinder General and the Poe films he also made with Roger Corman.

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Check out Phibes’ clockwork band- one of the eeriest things committed to celluloid.

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Also check out the classic art deco decors and groovier surroundings that capture the early 70s so fantastically.

Caroline Munro appears but only as photos of Phibes’ tragic dead wife.

4.5 out of 5

Day 1- 31 Days of Halloween- The Nanny (1965)

Day 1- 31 Days of Halloween- The Nanny (1965)

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What a cracking film to start my 31 Days of Halloween with.

This is a British film which stars Bette Davis as a nanny for a family living in London in which a young boy has been sent away for supposedly killing his sister. The boy is due to be released after two years and return to his family home and under Ms Davis’ supervision.

The boy vehemently protests his innocence and insists that instead it was the nanny who committed the terrible deed. Is he right? Or is the nanny indeed guilty?

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Theres already the almost unspeakable taboo of a child killing another child within this film which gives the film a grittiness right from the get go. The household in question is steeped in gothic tension even though it is in fact light and airy. No Baby Jane mansion here.

Theres also the stifling formality of English life at this time. There are so many manners and formalities at play that are overwhelmingly suffocating and claustrophobic.

Within the film there is also a delicious generation gap which underlines this and presents a tangible ‘Old vs new’ scenario. The boy in question, Joey forges a friendship with a 14 year old girl who lives in the same building. She dresses like a hip 60s girl, all white lipstick and black eyeliner. When we see within her bedroom Joey gazes up at a Beatles mobile she has hanging from the ceiling and at one point we see her reclining on her bed reading a copy of the girls magazine Jackie which has a pin up of Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones on its back cover.

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Beautifully acted (especially Ms Davis of course, whose character has a pair of the ugliest eyebrows ever captured on film) and elegantly directed, this is one of Hammer’s finest films.

Of course this would only have been made with Ms Davis if Hollywood wasn’t casting the very best stars of yesteryear anymore. Every cloud has a silver lining. What was Hollywood’s loss was very much Hammer’s gain.