1940s, British cinema, Mystery, War

Green for Danger (1946)

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Director/Coscreenwriter: Sidney Gilliat

By Roderick Heath

Outside London, 1944. During the second, lesser-known but very bloody Blitz turned on the city by Hitler, V-1 bombs, nicknamed “doodlebugs” for the insectlike drone of their rocket propulsion, rain on southern English. These flying weapons are a unique blend of the amusing, for the sound of their jets is like a noise a small child might infuriate an elder by making, and the terrifying, because when the engines cut out the bombs crash to earth in total silence, people on the ground within earshot are stricken with a moment of heart-stopping impotence as they cannot know if the bomb will explode close enough to them kill them. This backdrop of hapless besiegement is both an immediate plot device and psychic overtone vital to Sidney Gilliat’s Green For Danger, adapted from a popular detective novel by Christianna Brand.

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The setting is Heron’s Park Hospital, an Elizabethan manor house in a village on the distant fringes of the city, requisitioned and expanded to serve as an emergency clinic taking care of civilians mangled as collateral victims of the war, as the unmistakably mordant drawl of Alastair Sim explains in voiceover. Sim plays Brand’s recurring hero, Inspector Cockrill, and his voiceover is the report he’s writing to his commander about his latest case, dropping alarming hints about things about to unfold, as when he notes the apparently banal progress of a postman and mentions that “he would be the first to die.” The postman, Joseph Higgins (Moore Marriott), speeds along a lonely country lane with a V-1 zooming overhead, and once he arrives at the post for rescue party volunteers with whom he works, reports dryly that the bomb was chasing him. The sound of the evil device still drones above, and then suddenly cuts out. Higgins listens for a moment, then, in reflexive fear, ducks just before an explosion erupts and the rubble of the destroyed building pours down on Higgins and company, all accomplished in what seems to be one, astonishing shot (close examination reveals a crucial, near-invisible edit). Fire gutters amidst clouds of dust. The office’s undamaged radio continues to operate, the voice of an infamous Lord Haw Hawlike female Nazi broadcasting propaganda threats and signing off with the eerie catchphrase, “This is Germany calling…this is Germany calling.”

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Gilliat had become well known working with writing partner Frank Launder before the war, penning the film that gave Alfred Hitchcock his springboard for a move to Hollywood, The Lady Vanishes (1938). They also created for that film the comic characters Caldicott and Charters, played by actors Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne. The characters so perfectly epitomised a kind of preoccupied, even cloddish, but basically okay English gentleman that they were carried over to several other films, including Night Train to Munich (1940) and Dead of Night (1945), and helped give Gilliat and Launder the clout to set themselves up as auteur filmmakers and, like Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, create their own distinctive brand. The duo were in their element during the war and just after it, their special blend of dry-trending-black humour and drama connecting with an invigorated and engaged audience hungry to have their day-to-day lives acknowledged. The team’s early films Millions Like Us (1943), Waterloo Road (1944), and The Rake’s Progress (1945) studied the mores of life on the home front with intimate empathy and an acute sense of the human absurdity amidst the official heroics. After the war, they engaged subjects like crime and urban poverty, in London Belongs to Me (1948), and Anglo-Irish relations, with Launder’s I See a Dark Stranger (1946). As with other British filmmakers who thrived in this period, including Powell and Pressburger, Alberto Cavalcanti, David Lean, and Carol Reed, the 1950s brought waning fortunes that forced many to head overseas or face decline, but the duo prospered again when Launder directed and Gilliat produced the hugely popular, disreputably funny The Bells of St. Trinians (1954), birthing a series.

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Launder loved farce and broader comedy, and was rewarded with the more solid directing career, but Gilliat was the more talented filmmaker, his elegantly cynical side meshing with an intuitive understanding for both noir and neorealist stylistics blowing in from abroad, and displaying elements of both in concurrence rather than in imitation of those movements. Gilliat’s sensibility found its greatest expression in Green For Danger. Importantly, this was a postwar film that nonetheless harkened back a mere two years, which could well have felt like a lifetime, making it partially a work of hurried anthropology bent on capturing the mood of the time before it slipped away. Rather than the unvarnished, docudrama look of a lot of wartime filmmaking, however, Green For Danger retreats to the studio to create the self-contained world of Heron’s Park—a mishmash of old and new, Renaissance gables abutting concrete blockhouses, stained and plate glass, where the workaday can suddenly morph into the menacingly shadow-ridden and alien: Powell and Pressburger’s idealised classical English landscapes of A Canterbury Tale (1944) and I Know Where I’m Going! (1945) are now riddled with the permanent mark of modernity, reflecting its jagged new sense of self.

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The setting has a curious similarity to the far more remote and overtly nightmarish precincts of Isle of the Dead (1945) and the lofty nunnery of Black Narcissus (1947) in the sense of being both insulated and besieged. Like Black Narcissus, Green For Danger is in part an oblique, metaphoric study of the mental exhaustion wrought by the oft-idealised Blitz spirit depicting the cost of lives led in painful sublimation and self-sacrifice through the figure of a young woman turned baleful psychotic. This jury-rigged jangle of a workplace can also be likened to the hospital staff, a team of people forced to subsist in close proximity, working long, exhausting shifts with little respite for several years in the midst of explosions and broken bodies. Gilliat’s camera introduces the crucial players and potential suspects in the mystery about to unfold, Cockrill’s voiceover noting their names before their faces are revealed.

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Mr. Eden (Leo Genn) is the great surgeon and former suave playboy of Harley Street. Dr. “Barney” Barnes (Trevor Howard) is the anaesthesiologist who’s made perpetually tense by both a troubled professional history and his toey relationship with beautiful, inevitably popular Nurse Fredericka “Freddi” Linley (Sally Gray). Sister Marion Bates (Judy Campbell) is the coolly efficient and commanding head nurse silently eaten up by her lapsed romance with Eden, who seems now to be fascinated with Linley. Nurse Esther Sanson (Rosamund John) is a quiet, good-humoured, but damaged young woman, daughter of a family friend of Eden’s whom Eden has taken a paternal interest in, whilst Nurse Woods (Megs Jenkins) is the hospital’s one-woman morale booster and likeable busybody. Tensions begin to manifest as the team emerge from a lengthy operation. Linley nettles at Barnes’ proprietorial attitude and breaks off their engagement. Bates swoops about directing work with hawkish intensity and then watches Eden move off with pained longing. Woods prods Sanson about her condition when she seems woozy. An alarm bell calls them again to action, as Higgins is brought in. He’s a John Doe who has been pulled from the rubble with a broken leg, dazed and reciting the propaganda radio’s lines in delirious terror.

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Linley replaces Sanson for night shift on the ward and chats with Eden about her problems until the sound of a V-1 overhead drives the two into each other’s arms in the anguish of waiting for the explosion, which fortunately goes off elsewhere. Eden kisses her in the heat of the moment, backs off shamefacedly and begs forgiveness, but Bates has glimpsed them through the window and assumed the worst. Sanson arrives back at the nurses’ quarters, quietly distraught: the death of her mother, crushed under her house and left to slowly die by a rescue team, is still a raw wound. Sanson also identifies Higgins before the surgical team operate on his leg. Recovered from his delirium, Higgins narrows his eyes suspiciously at Barnes before he can put him under and says “You’ve got a nerve.” Barnes decides to anaesthetise him on the operating table, but something goes wrong. Higgins stops breathing as he goes under, and in spite of Barnes’s quick efforts to give him more oxygen, he dies on the table from causes no one can determine.

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Heron’s Park’s new administrator and chief surgeon Mr. Purdy (Henry Edwards) hopes at first to pass the death off as the inevitable result of the risks his people must take. When assured Higgins wasn’t an emergency case, he instead pressures Barnes to step down pending an investigation and help shield the hospital—and him—from blame. “I merely suggested that I was hoping the gesture would come from you,” Purdy suggests. “The only gesture I feel like making is far from polite,” Barnes retorts. He joins the party the hospital staff are throwing to blow off steam and tries to patch up with Freddi, whilst Eden contends with Bates’ spiky, forlorn jealousy. “You’re sick of me, and I’m sick of myself,” she says as they’re thrown into dancing together during the Paul Jones mixer. Bates breaks away, turns off the record player and shouts out to the staff that she knows Higgins’ death was actually murder and that she has proof.

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The early scenes of Green For Danger are a master class in setting up a complex interaction of plot strands and human elements. The mechanics are readily familiar, obeying the basic precepts of whodunit detective fiction—setting up a cast of suspects, affording them all the opportunity for murder, bringing in a canny detective to disassemble the enigma—but the quiet excellence of the characterisation and the sharpness of the dialogue quickly nudge the film out of mere generic efficiency into something ebulliently enjoyable. Wilkie Cooper’s excellent photography, with future great DP Oswald Morris as camera operator, aids Gilliat in creating a probing, subtly mobile mise-en-scène with an interest in contiguity of space and action, such as the startling moment of the building dropping on Higgins’ head, that echoes Hitchcock’s fascination with such effects and looks forward to its use by many later filmmakers. For the most part, the film unfolds with a quiet realism, and yet Gilliat easily nudges it toward poles of ethereal strangeness and stygian menace. The early shot introducing the cast of suspects sees the camera adopting the position of prostrate patient, pivoting to note the masked, near-anonymous faces of the medical personnel, at once angelic and threatening in their concealing surgical whites. The hospital dance sequence is an intricate play of individuals in the midst of public revels, randomly stirred to bring both pleasant and nasty surprises to the participants. Lovers and the lovelorn are brought together, but then rearranged into less neat pairings, the change-partners motif played for both droll comedy and swift character illustration. The gang of medical heroes interact as a tight-knit, almost incestuous bunch, whilst warnings of dark and dangerous things unfolding are batted off with flip humour and drunken mordancy.

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The dance is scored to an impudently catchy jazz version of “Here We Go ‘Round the Mulberry Bush.” As Eden appeals to Sanson to give up working at the hospital and tries to make her wake up to the corrosive effects of her mother’s possessiveness, Eden’s fellow surgeon Dr. White (Ronald Adam) darts into the frame, grabs Sanson’s wrist, and draws her away, chanting along to the music in comically unnerving fashion, “Don’t you believe a word he says, a word he says, a word he says…” Bates’ public eruption and ill-advised, almost exultant announcement of having discovered the hospital is as rotten as her own sense of self, segues into the film’s most alluring and well-staged sequence. Bates flees the manor house and darts through the dark hospital grounds, whilst Bates keeps catching glimpses of a fleeting shadow dogging her footsteps. A hand grabs her out of the dark; it’s Eden, claiming to be worried about her. Bates accuses him of pursuing her, and escapes his grasp. She enters the deserted, darkened operating theatre and searches for her secreted piece of evidence. Bates realises that she’s not alone in the darkened room: in a revelation that’s quite bone-chilling on first viewing, Bates sees a figure in full surgical gear standing in the shadows wielding a scalpel. Bates’ scream draws Linley, who’s been drawn to the surgical block for her own mysterious reasons; she finds Bates sprawled in the theatre, stabbed to death.

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This sequence is an utter, sustained delight not just in the deftness of Gilliat’s staging, replete with camera movements racing with Bates through the aisles of a gentle English garden turned nightmarish zone of threat, but in the webs of association it evokes to the modern viewer, the prototypical edge to it all. Horror films had been entirely banned in Britain during the war, and here Gilliat skirts the edges of the genre with relish. The source of horror is no spook or monster, but a masked, gloved, homicidal maniac, an aspect that, considered with the film’s visuals, feels uncannily predictive of places the horror genre would go many years later, particularly Italian giallo cinema, which would follow Green For Danger in taking detective fiction and retaining its investigative plot patterns, but drag them into a zone of the irrational, filled with killers reduced to blank avatars of psychological menace. Much like Mario Bava’s Sei Donne per l’Assassino (1963) and its many children, like Halloween (1978), the solitary woman is stalked through familiar environs where the wind churns the bushes and autumnal leaves into an engulfing furore. As with Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), the villain is tethered inescapably to obsession caused by the possessiveness of a parent.

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As in Coma (1978), the institutions and paraphernalia of modern medicine are mined for the not-so-hidden anxiety and disquiet they hold for many, the barren, empty corridors of a hospital at night, the creepy impersonality of the surgical outfit, and the inherent anxiety in putting yourself into the hands of people charged with your protection but who might nonetheless betray that trust. Gilliat mischievously repeats a bleak visual motif—earlier he had framed Bates staring from without into the nurse’s station where Eden was kissing Freddi, boxed out by both life and the frame, and again just before Higgins’ operation, and finally in gazing through the window of the theatre door at her dead body. Darkness gives way to light, and Bates’ murder brings Inspector Cockrill to investigate, first glimpsed dodging this way and that at the threat of a V-1 and finishing up hanging from a gate in anxiety until the explosion goes off and leaves him to recover his dignity. Cockrill is a strutting bantam cock, a canny and incisive operator who also happens to be a self-conscious egoist and showy agent of justice, about as different as it’s possible to get from both the Columbo school of sly, misdirecting investigator and the scruffy, earnestly neurotic kind all too familiar from most recent detective TV shows.

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Cockrill is more like an overgrown schoolboy, pivoting playfully on spinning chairs and almost poking people with his umbrella, blowing his nose in front of surgeons, gloating with joy as Barnes and Eden finally lose their cool and get into a fistfight at his feet. Sim had been a popular supporting comic actor for many years in British film, but his performance here turned him into one of Britain’s oddest, biggest movie stars, warping his native Edinburgh lilt into a burlesque of a southern accent that’s alternately soft and stabbing, disarming and provocatively insinuating. It might be worth mentioning that as well as being a dark thriller and interesting pressure-cooker character study and period time capsule, Green For Danger is also one of the funniest films ever made, with Sim entering the film as both plot game changer and comic relief with his impudent, almost insulting sense of humour and buffoonish streak. The narration not only allows Gilliat to do quick storytelling but also introduces Cockrill as a character in the film long before he actually appears, which isn’t until well

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“Very well—pause for 30 seconds while you cook up your alibis,” Cockrill tells the assembled medicos. “Did you get us here just to insult us?” Barnes asks. “I only like to strike an informal note,” Cockrill replies. “You scare the life out of her like any flat-footed copper off the beat,” Barnes rebukes Cockrill after his interrogations cause Sanson to have a hysterical fit, to which Cockrill retorts, “The police force has not a monopoly of fallen arches Dr. Barnes. Ask any chiropodist.” Grilling Barnes over the procedures of his anaesthetising, Cockrill recognises nitrous oxide as “so-called laughing gas.” “Actually it’s the impurities that cause the laughs,” Barnes notes. “Ah—just like our music halls,” Cockrill quips. “Are you trying to make me lose my temper?” Eden asks the inspector as he prods him over his love life. “That was only a secondary object,” Cockrill admits. Cockrill is a unique creation, a postmodern character from before the idea was coined, one who points out and makes jokes out of the clichés in the story he both represents and detects. His presence lets Gilliat reflect on how familiar the tropes of detective fiction were in 1946, whilst also acting as a perfect plot disruptor by reflecting the neurotic insecurities of the suspects back at themselves.

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When Eden takes Freddi out for a romantic and secretive moonlight tryst in the hospital grounds, Cockrill suddenly emerges from the shadows to airily finish the quote from The Merchant of Venice Eden uses as a chat-up line, and then casually brushes aside a bush to reveal a similarly hidden, eavesdropping Barnes to say goodnight. Here and there, glints of sharp satiric comedy appear amidst the drollery, including another interestingly anticipatory moment early in the film when the blowhard Purdy is first glimpsed, schooling his staff in that most dreaded of postwar arts, management and team-building, pointing to his chalkboard marked with explanations of the principles of positive and negative thinking, and his putting these ideas into practice by having the waste bins relabelled as salvage bins. Cockrill is found lounging in bed, reading a detective novel: his face lights up in glee, having clearly guessed who the murderer is, and so turns to the back page, only for his face to drop in disappointment, his guess wrong. Green For Danger could have finished up a tonal stew with a less disciplined director, but instead it weaves together with the spryness of a dance, as Gilliat set himself the task of pulling off a feat Hitchcock had pulled off before him and Robert Hamer would afterward with Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) in extracting humour dry as a martini from dark situations. Gilliat may even have had ambitions of following Hitchcock, and with one film at least accomplished it. The film does become more conventional on a cinematic level once Cockrill enters the picture, though he acts like a bull in a china shop investigating the murder.

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The actual crux of the mystery is the surgical gown the killer wrapped Bates in; it apparently was stabbed twice, but Cockrill notices that one stab wound was an attempt to hide the fact a hole had been cut in the gown, possibly to remove a crucial piece of evidence the gown sported. Meanwhile, four tablets from a bottle of poisonous pills have been removed from the murder scene, and Cockrill warns the others that there’s one pill for each fellow suspect for the murderer to use. But when Freddi lets slip that she noticed something important about the crucial surgical gown, the killer instead seems to try to kill her by sabotaging the nurse’s quarter’s gas supply, almost choking her to death as she slept. The fortuitous arrival of Sanson just ahead of Cockrill sees Freddi rescued in the nick of time, with Sanson dragging Freddi from her bedroom but losing grip on her and dropping her down the vertiginous Elizabethan staircase. The method of attempted murder here again points to the killer’s still unclear method of executing Higgins, but Cockrill still can’t quite fathom the method. He convinces Freddi, battered but uninjured, to help him by pretending to be badly hurt, requiring skull surgery, and pressing the others in the circle of suspects to reproduce their function in Higgins’ operation. This gives the murderer the opportunity to repeat their modus operandi, something Cockrill recognises they’re bound to do because the murderer is actually insane, no matter their worldly motives.

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And motives they have. Barnes might have been after revenge on Higgins because of his seemingly personal knowledge of the professional mishap Barnes was investigated and exonerated of years before. Eden might have wanted to silence Bates. Woods might have covered up the truth of her twin sister’s fate: Woods told everyone her sister had died at the start of the war, but she has actually become the “Germany Calling” propaganda voice that haunted Higgins. Another part of the unusual beauty of Green For Danger is its lack of a stand-out hero. That’s actually a common feature of much WWII-era cinema, especially those that actually deal with the exigencies of coping with the war. There is emphasis on teamwork and mutual reliance (and like a lot of such films, the credits list characters by the relative organisational rank of the personnel): the innate professional commitment of the characters is the chief value that has been both violated, and yet holds fast elsewhere.

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But Green For Danger doesn’t idealise the commune entirely and all of the protagonists are notably fallible. Cockrill, in spite of his cocky cleverness, is outflanked on occasion, and the finale is a particular disaster for him. Barnes and Eden seem to be offered as a polarised pair, provincial middle-class and urbane swashbuckler. But Gilliat refuses to reduce either to a type, with Barnes’s slightly pathetic chip on his shoulder and Eden’s covert decency emerging even as they compete for Freddi’s attentions. Howard had just become a major romantic movie star thanks to Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945), whose epitome of the wartime ethos Green For Danger could well be burlesquing, as Gilliat probes for self-destructing irrationalism behind the stiff upper lip and laughingly notes the commonplaceness of the dalliances Lean’s film portrayed as singularly fearful. Importantly, Eden represents the kind of slightly soured, faintly arrogant but ultimately good playboy that Gilliat was so fond of as to seem like a personal avatar, a figure usually played by Rex Harrison in Gilliat’s films, including in The Rake’s Progress and The Constant Husband (1956).

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The quartet of nurses are even more interesting and diverse, ranging from Woods’ hearty presence as the team’s supplier of emotional ballast hiding a lode of humiliation, to Bates’ severe passion, as sadomasochistic and indiscriminate in her self-conceived tragedy as anything the killer does: “That hurt didn’t it? Now you know how I feel,” she comments with a quiet triumph after shocking Barnes with the news of Eden and Freddi’s kiss. Even Freddi, cast by fate as the confused object of affection and local glamour-puss, is thoughtful and aware of her naiveté as a problem, musing on how she considers Barnes “a better sort of person than I am altogether” and contemplating the nonlinearity of her emotional commitments. John’s Sanson is the quietest, the frailest, the least noticeable, so, of course, she’s the one to watch out for. John isn’t well remembered and didn’t appear in many films, eventually quitting acting after marrying a politician. But she was momentarily one of the most interesting British female stars of her time, discovered and given several leading roles by Leslie Howard before his death, usually playing quietly stoic heroines rising to the challenges of wartime in films like The Lamp Still Burns and The Gentle Sex (1943).

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As with Howard, Gilliat exploited that image in casting John as Sanson, whose emotional fraying makes her an object of concern for her colleagues and counts her out of the erotic roundelay eating everyone else up. Sanson retains flashes of droll humour and charm in between fits of anxiety, as when, intruding upon an argument between Woods and Eden over his play for Freddi, she notes Woods stamping out and asks Eden, ever so coolly, “Anything the matter?” The title finally becomes clear as the penny finally drops for Cockrill right at the edge of his risky stunt costing Freddi’s life: a smudge of black paint on Woods’ gown gives away the ingeniously simple trick Sanson has used, painting a bottle of carbon dioxide, usually coloured green, in black and white to mimic an oxygen cylinder, and slowly poisoning the person under anaesthetic. Freddi is saved in the nick of time, and Cockrill reveals how his thinking finally saw all the pieces snap together, in recognising that the gown found with Bates had a similar paint smudge on it before it was doctored.

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Most cleverly, when Sanson is revealed as the insane murderer, John, instead of letting Sanson’s lunacy off the leash in being caught, becomes even quieter, unnervingly exactingly polite and explaining her motives with nonchalant simplicity, nominally for revenge against Higgins who had headed the rescue team that unwittingly left her mother to die—only her eerily wide eyes signal a frustrated animal’s fear, absent of reason and convinced of her the rightness of her course of action until she keels over, killed by those self-administered poison tablets, a fate Eden tries to save her from, having guessed she was the culprit, and having an antidote ready—except Cockrill wrestles the syringe from Eden’s hand before he can administer it, mistaking his actions for an attempt to kill Sanson and evade justice. The bitter undertaste to the conclusion of Green For Danger is its last great touch, undermining the usual feeling of correct order restored and avoiding the sense that somebody heedlessly evil has gotten their comeuppance: instead the ultimate truth the film communicates is that the effect of war has turned a lovely young woman into a homicidal maniac and worn everyone else ragged. The film concludes on a joke that nonetheless still echoes the theme of professionalism as its own virtue: Cockrill offers his superior his resignation at the end of his report to express his regret over the resolution of the case, “in the confident hope that you will not accept it.”

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1960s, British cinema, Horror/Eerie

The Brides of Dracula (1960)

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Director: Terence Fisher

By Roderick Heath

A fog-rimmed lake. A sonorous voice on the soundtrack telling us we are now in Transylvania. A carriage careening through the twilight forest, the driver whipping his horses in frenzy, his comely passenger panicking as her journey to a new life seems to be turning into a nightmarish ride in unknown territory. What looks like dead body lies on the road, blocking the way. A mysterious stranger watches from the woods, looking for his opportunity to stealthily climb aboard the coach and work his mysterious purpose. Now that’s how you start a horror movie.
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Amongst horror movie fans and connoisseurs of Hammer Films’ output, The Brides of Dracula has slowly gained repute, to the point where some state today that it’s the best horror work the studio ever made. The film’s delayed rise to such acclaim was due to its being overshadowed and dismissed as a by-product at the time of its release. Christopher Lee had played Bram Stoker’s vampire overlord in Terence Fisher’s Dracula (1958) to audience-delighting, icon-making effect. Titling a film The Brides of Dracula without Dracula actually turning up was received as a bit of a cheat, and after Lee resumed the role, Hammer’s first stab at extending its vampire franchise was obscured. Lee, frightened with good reason of being typecast, refused to play the role again, and would not buckle until 1966’s Dracula, Prince of Darkness. In the meantime, Fisher and the creative team at Hammer tried to synthesise a replacement for Dracula whilst retaining his antagonist, Peter Cushing’s Dr Van Helsing, for another bout with evil. Lee and Cushing wouldn’t be reunited in their archetypal roles until Dracula A.D. 1972. The film’s development was rocky, with three credited screenwriters including the studio’s two main horror scribes, Jimmy Sangster and Peter Bryan, and contributions from producer Anthony Hinds, Fisher, and Cushing, and a planned finale that was dropped and then used in another film. And yet Brides stands alongside the likes of Fisher’s own The Gorgon (1964) and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969), Don Sharp’s Kiss of the Vampire (1963), and John Gilling’s The Reptile (1966), as one of the supreme Hammer films, a fiercely concentrated and lushly executed work of the studio’s peculiar brand of Technicolor Gothic, instantly recognisable for its near-operatic sense of colour and drama.
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The Brides of Dracula arrived when Hammer’s budgets and ambitions were expanding, with more elaborate sets and some special effects, but still limited enough to deliver some of the shoddy pleasures associated with the brand, here apparent most particularly in a delightfully unconvincing devil bat. But Brides is a vibrant work, one that revels in being freed from the specific mythos of Dracula himself whilst still remixing the themes and images established so vividly by Fisher’s first take. Early sequences provide a tweak on Stoker’s template by placing a woman, rather than a man, in danger in a remote locale, and emphasising more forcefully the theme of the innocent abroad taking a plunge into the abyss. The innocent here is Marianne Danielle (Yvonne Monlaur), a young Frenchwoman on her way to work as a student-teacher in the small town of Badstein, in the usual hazily defined Mittel Europa of Hammer works, supposedly in what the narrator describes as, “Transylvania – land of dark forests, dread mountains and black, unfathomed lakes – still the home of magic and devilry as the Nineteenth century draws to a close.” The thunder of the opening resolves in a fake-out, as the body on the road proves to be only a peculiarly shaped log, which the fretful coachman (inevitably, Michael Ripper) clears out of the way. But this anticlimax turns out to be a ploy by the stranger in the woods (actually Black Park in Buckinghamshire, soon be all too familiar to audiences of Hammer films) who catches hold of the back of the coach and rides secretly with it into the nearby village.
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The stranger’s part in the film proves the most enigmatic element, an emissary of evil who’s never named (although the credits and the famously whacko novelisation by Dean Owen call him Latour) and vanishes from the proceedings having performed his deed, as he bribes the coachman to leave the village and abandon Marianne while she’s in a tavern having dinner. Already gilded genre cliché is already in play, but with a twist: the locale is strange, the underlying mood tense, but the locals are friendly enough in a workaday fashion, until the time of dread falls upon them, at which point the innkeeper so solicitous to Marianne (Norman Pierce) and his wife (Vera Cook) are gripped by enigmatic, hysterical urgency. Fisher offers a lovely weird moment when an abrupt silence draws the attention of Marianne and the innkeeper, who have been conversing pleasantly, to the front door, and see that the stranger is standing there, watching them with a satisfied smile, whilst everyone else in the room has fallen gravely quiet. Marianne is advised to flee by the two solicitous hoteliers, but before they can bustle her away, the sound of another coach coming into town signals the limits of their bravery and resistance. “Don’t open it,” the wife says; “I must,” the man replies in bleak concession to life under a tyranny. Tyranny in this village has a courtly face, however, as the owner of the coach Baroness Meinster (Martita Hunt), who offers Marianne hospitality for night, beguiling the young woman with aristocratic indulgences, like fancy wine. Marianne accepts and dines with the Baroness in the castle overlooking the village.
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The Baroness offers that most hallowed of gothic horror tropes, the devolved remnant of the ancien regime reminiscing with exultant sadness about the times when the castle was the scene of grand parties and conspicuous consumption. By this time, however, Marianne is privy to the mysterious secret of Castle Meinster, having glimpsed from the room the Baroness assigns her a young man, standing on a balcony far below. The Baroness admits this is her son, the young Baron who is, she explains, beset by a malady that has destroyed their lives, a malady he picked up in his wild, indulgent youth: “We pray for death, my son and I,” she reports, shocking Danielle but also stirring her empathy. However, during the night, Marianne catches sight again of the Baron, this time seemingly about to hurl himself to his death from his apartment balcony. She screams out to stop what she presumes to be his imminent suicide, but after she find her way through the house into the Baron’s apartment, she is confronted by the contrivance that makes his suicide by jumping impossible: he’s chained by the leg. The Baron, far from being an imprisoned lunatic, steps out from the shadows to reveal himself as a starkly handsome, soft-spoken romantic idol who appeals desperately to Marianne to find the key to the lock on his ankle in his mother’s room.
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The Brides of Dracula offers a fun burlesque here on classic historical romantic fiction, calling back to British cinema’s mid-‘40s heyday of films in that genre when James Mason and Stewart Granger played roguish, black-hearted seducers not that far removed from Hammer’s Dracula. Marianne is cast as plucky damsel freeing the cruelly imprisoned heir with an impressive feat of bravery, stealing into the Baroness’s room and locating the key and then, when she’s almost trapped by the Baroness’s arrival, escaping through the window and traversing a narrow ledge to safety, all whilst still clad in her nightgown. But Marianne’s act of love-struck bravery proves, of course, to have been performed in the service of bottomless evil, because the Baron is a vampire, held in restraint by his mother and kept sated with young women like Marianne. The freed Baron shields Marianne from the Baroness’s wrath however, telling Marianne to go pack and then addressing his mother with smoothly menacing intensity that compels her to follow him back into his former prison. Marianne, once dressed and ready to leave, hears a strange cackling laugh echoing from the Baron’s apartment and descends to investigate. Rather than her beautiful prize for gallant action, Marianne only finds Frieda laughing in nihilistic delight over the Baron’s discarded restraint, and the cracked servant happily makes Marianne face the consequence of her act: the Baroness sitting dead in an armchair. Marianne, horrified and panicked, flees into the night and traverses the forest by moonlight. Frieda remains behind, muttering a Shakespearean soliloquy as she admonishes the dead Baroness for her history of indulging the young Baron until he finally become an undoubted monster, and anticipates the Baron’s inevitable return to his coffin, waiting empty for its owner’s return.
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Hammer’s brand of horror was usually quite literal and straightforward, portraying eruptions of the irrational in a thoroughly tangible context, an alternative to the otherworldly approach of German expressionism. This alternative was rooted in a peculiarly British variety of magic-realism, one that had long lurked within classic gothic literature and romantic fiction, a distorted, magnified sense of the compellingly vicious that had generally only found cinematic expression in Britain through Alfred Hitchcock and Michael Powell, and the charismatic bounders and bitches of the Gainsborough Melodramas of the ‘40s. Evil, no matter how supernaturally powered, becomes a materialist thing infesting and infecting the human world in the Hammer ethos, whilst Fisher’s approach to the genre’s monochromatic moral essence was resolutely totemic and vivid, staked in flesh and blood and stone and wood. Social evil is indivisible from the less palpable kind, feeding each-other. The Brides of Dracula, however, sees the director straining beyond the studio’s usual realistic template, as he would again with The Gorgon. As usual with Fisher’s direction, the dramatic, geographical, and interpersonal relationships are all mapped with an exacting sense of linkage, progression, cause and effect in Brides. He builds a little world with the fastidiousness of a model train enthusiast, where all the elements exist precisely to facilitate others and are demonstrably connected, like the plainly visible chateau above the Meinster village set, and the keen camera movements and angles in the chateau that make the set feel both labyrinthine and spatially coherent.
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Yet Fisher often invested his horror films with hints of dark fairy tale and folk myth, an inflection fully apparent in images here like Marianne stalking the shadowy halls of the fairy tale castle, trying to free her demon lover, and then running away into the dark forest like Snow White, only to be found as a sleeping beauty lying in the midst of the woods by an improbable Prince Charming. The Brides of Dracula skirts of a kind of airy cinematic mysticism usually associated with continental filmmakers like Lang, Cocteau, and Franju, with their love of permeable realities and blithe manifestations of the fantastic. The film also harkens explicitly to Fisher’s early, pre-Hammer work, the Hitchcockian thriller So Long at the Fair (1952) where another young female traveller falls through the permeable barriers between normal and abnormal worlds, faced with jarring disappearances and conspiracies of silence. Van Helsing speaks of vampirism not as individual monstrosities but a “Cult of the Undead,” a “remnant of one of the ancient pagan religions,” which introduces a note of dense, conspiratorial evil reminiscent of Lang’s films, whilst the darkly romantic fairy tale motifs in a proto-modern world anticipate Franju’s remix of Judex (1963). Moreover, Brides may well be the most specifically influential of Hammer films, certainly in its visuals the quintessential studio entry. The rich Technicolor photography by Fisher’s regular photographer Jack Asher painting a world in musty, muted blues and browns that suggest a permanent autumn in the world, punctuated by eye-gorging, saturated hues in clothing and décor, evoking Victorian lithographic and book plate illustration to generate a sense of gothic atmosphere. Neil Jordan, with The Company of Wolves (1984), and Tim Burton, in Sleepy Hollow (1999), would later pay explicit tribute to that style, with Burton even recreating the windmill featured in this film’s finale for his tribute.
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The morning following Marianne’s adventure sees a passing coach halt on the forest roadside. A casual downward pan reveals Marianne sprawled unconscious on autumnal leaves. The passenger in the coach proves to be just the person you want to find you after a terrifying encounter with a vampire: Dr Van Helsing plucks Marianne off the ground and transports her to the village, where the innkeepers are surprised and happy to see her safe. Van Helsing has been invited to the village by the local Cure (Fred Johnson) who suspects the nature of the evil previously held within the Chateau and wants Van Helsing to investigate. Van Helsing carefully teases out details of Marianne’s story whilst trying to shield her from the nature of the danger she faced, hoping to speedily return her to normality, but this proves a miscalculation on his part, as he leaves the door open for the Baron to approach Marianne still playing the hapless young lover, his mother’s death dismissed as tragic culmination of her own violence. Van Helsing escorts Marianne to her new place of employment, a Girl’s Academy run by the sweet-and-sour couple Frau and Herr Lang (Mona Washbourne and Henry Oscar). Van Helsing calmly faces down the overbearing Herr Lang, whose own wife describes him as “a little bit terrifying,” when he chastises Marianne for being late and in a man’s company: Van Helsing producing his business card with its long list of impressive doctorates instantly turns petty overlord into grovelling bourgeois. This joke is repeated with a slightly more pointed inference later when Baron Meinster turns up to romance Marianne, and Lang, not knowing him, threatens to throw him out. The Baron explains he’s Lang’s landlord with suave assurance, but gets a measure of revenge as he congratulates Lang on maintaining “such a charming house and grounds – at so low a rent.”
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Cushing’s Van Helsing here wields the same specific gravitas he held in Dracula, as the unremittingly rational being who battles supernatural evil with the trappings of religion and myth but with the method of a scientist, slowly cutting out the cancer of ancient ills as the emblem of modernity as faith. “Who is it is who has no fear?” Baroness Meinster asks him when he approaches her: “Only God has no fear,” he replies, but Van Helsing hesitates at no threshold. Cushing was better off than Lee in returning to his character, as Lee would find to his increasing chagrin as he was reduced to an intensely glowering monster in Hammer’s later Dracula entries, whilst here Cushing was allowed to develop nuances in the role. Van Helsing had been courageous but brutal in Dracula, embodying the puritanical force pounding life out of the sensually gorged lovers of the vampire overlord, but turning on a penny to solicitously comfort a small girl with fatherly grace. Here that side of him is emphasised as he appears as the essential crusader hero, bringing relief from tyranny and insidious evil.
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Producer Hinds quipped once that he and Fisher and Sangster had all regarded these films as their own babies but Cushing was certain of it, and Cushing’s contributions to the script perhaps helped this recasting of the hero in something like his own image, kinder and with a dash of romanticism. Van Helsing engages in rivalry with the Baron for Marianne’s affection as well as her soul, the Baron’s pretty boy charms pitted against the spindly savant’s hangdog intensity and winning out initially. Cushing pulls off a marvellous scene when Marianne informs Van Helsing she’s now engaged: he congratulates her with a good grace that’s ever so slightly pallid, but when she mentions just who it is she’s marrying he reacts with horror and checks her hands for signs of the tell-tale venereal stigmata of the “kiss of Dracula.” “Do you love him?” he asks in mild incredulity, and quickly leaves when Marianne answers yes, silently astounded at the perversities of existence but not swayed from his mission.
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The deep veins of perversity that spread through The Brides of Dracula are indeed a source of the film’s specific richness. The notion that vampirism was a metaphor for sexuality permeates Fisher and Sangster’s take and permanently inflected the genre, but here Meinster’s attentions are indiscriminate and suggestively pansexual. Even Van Helsing, who’s seen a thing or two, is revolted by the discovery Meinster has drunk his mother’s blood, and this comes on top of the narrative’s hints of homosexuality, as the good doctor himself comes in for the vampire’s attentions. The film’s title suggests the Girl’s Academy will be a feasting ground for the bloodsucker as one would be in Lust for a Vampire (1970), but Meinster only attacks one of Marianne’s fellows there, her fast friend Gina (Andree Melly). On the night of his first release, Meinster kills a village girl (Marie Devereux), and her heartbroken father is confused and appalled when the Cure, after finding her buried in the churchyard, tells him she must be removed. Van Helsing, who overhears, assures the Cure that he can prevent the girl’s revival, but when he arrives in the churchyard finds Frieda lying upon the grave, playing midwife in encouraging the new vampire’s emergence in a travesty of birth. This cues one of the most memorable scenes in the genre’s history as it climaxes with the ecstatically morbid images of the girl’s white hand thrusting out of the earth, and then pushing back the lid of her coffin and sitting up with a dead-eyed smile of sensual gratification.
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Van Helsing can’t help but watch in disgusted but mesmerised fascination, a spell only broken when the Cure, who’s just arrived, bellows his protest and then leap to secure Frieda whilst Van Helsing chases the vampire. Van Helsing’s pursuit is stalled however by Meinster, transformed into a huge bat which dive-bombs the vampire hunter until his kitbag tumbles open and his crucifix spills out. Van Helsing heads up to the Chateau Meinster, where he finds the Baroness, now revived as a vampire, haunting her own castle. The splendidly patrician Hunt was most famous for her role as Miss Havisham in David Lean’s Great Expectations (1946), which Fisher had edited, and her casting here plays on that role as a reclusive and haughty grande dame whose hospitality entails destruction (Jackson, playing her servant, was also in the Lean film where she played the fearsome Mrs Joe), but here is allowed to retain more pathos as an eerie, existentially tormented victim who hides her new vampire fangs like a demure maiden behind a veil. The Baroness recites with dread the indulgences that brought disease upon her son and self and now believing herself cursed to eternally bend to her son’s will. David Peel, chiefly known as a stage actor, was received badly as a stand-in for Lee when the film came out, an understandable response as far as it goes.
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Peel is, nonetheless, a coldly confident presence as a younger, more sadistically callow but superficially debonair evil lord, charming Marianne with his Mod hairdo, hints of intense sensuality, and precise, plummy Old Vic accent reminiscent of a better-looking edition of fellow Hammer alumnus Michael Gough: he’s the vampire prince as a mix of boarding school bully and toffy-nosed pop heartthrob. Meinster is presented as a Byronic sleaze who takes active delight in spectacles of cruelty, stripped of even the faint remnant of noble hauteur Lee gave his Dracula. Peel handles the alterations between the smooth façade he puts on to people he needs to charm and the animalistic savagery of his true nature with élan, particularly when he suddenly appears from nowhere whilst Van Helsing talks to his mother, teeth extended and mouth dripping blood, hissing like a snake at the sight of its only natural predator.
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Meinster and Van Helsing have brief but vigorous tussle as the doctor fends off vampire by sliding his crucifix down the length of a table toward him, forcing the vampire back, cringing in pain. Meinster flees after upending the table to trap Van Helsing in turn, leaving Van Helsing alone with his mother. Fisher offers another starkly simple yet rhythmically powerful aside as Van Helsing waits for the dawn to give the Baroness the release she craves, whereupon he takes out stake and hammer and drives it through her body: Fisher cuts from the spurt of red blood to a deep crimson curtain which Van Helsing rips down and spreads across her body with solicitous care that mirrors the vampire midwifery, laying the desiccated matriarch to rest like a mother himself putting a baby to bed. The scoring by Malcolm Williamson, an Australian-born composer who later became Master of the Queen’s Music, is particularly notable in this sequence, a lightly funereal organ on sound rising to a crescendo that helps the vigorous cutting and colour inflate the brief sequence into something rhapsodic. Van Helsing’s return to the village coincides with news of Gina’s death at the Academy. At the Cure’s urging, Van Helsing goes with the local GP, Tobler (Miles Malleson) to look at the body, and convinces Tobler to let him deal with the problem by quickly quarantining the body locked in a stout, padlocked coffin and assigning reliable people to keep a watch over it. Marianne relieves Frau Lang in this task and waits with the school’s stable master Severin (Henry Scott). Before Van Helsing can return with his vampire killing kit, however, Severin is killed by Meinster in bat form, whilst Marianne is confronted by Gina rising out of her coffin.
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Fisher borrows a flourish here from M. R. James’ “Count Magnus” as the padlocks on Gina’s coffin fall one by one to the floor unlocked. The vampire Gina stalks the terrified Marianne with fiendishly sensual intent even as she begs her forgiveness for “letting him love me” whilst urging Marianne to kiss “your little Gina.” The lesbian vampire film still has to wait until the following year’s Blood and Roses to come out of the coffin however, as Van Helsing arrives in time to chase Gina off, but Brides does rack up the possibly more interesting landmark of gay vampiric activity later. Van Helsing breaks his unspoken compact to protect Marianne from the truth as she confronts her with the Baron’s nature and forces her to tell him where she expects to meet him. This proves to be an old windmill at the edge of town, a marvellous arena for a final confrontation where Van Helsing finds Gina and the other vampire bride with a harshly mocking Greta. Van Helsing holds off the two girls with his crucifix but Greta simply jumps on him and fights for the talisman, only to accidentally plunge with it over a balcony and crash to her death on some boards laid over a well. The cross drops through a crack into the well before Van Helsing can retrieve it, leaving him vulnerable to Meinster when he enters producing a chain from under his cape and almost throttling Van Helsing to death with it, before gleefully biting his nemesis, taking enough blood to put him under his command. The Baron then goes to drag Marianne out of the Academy and bring her back so that he can force Van Helsing to watch her initiation into the undead fold.
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When he wakes up, Van Helsing is distraught to find the vampire’s mark on his neck, but he isn’t out of tricks yet. In another of the film’s innovative and clever ideas, much mimicked in vampire cinema ever since, Van Helsing tries a radical cure. He stokes a branding iron red hot in a brazier and then jams it against his wound, scalding him hideously but removing the stain of this most transgressive “kiss.” A little dab of holy water from a cask the Cure gave him heals the burn immediately, and Van Helsing is back to form. When Meinster returns he doesn’t realise his enemy is able to fight, and before he can vamp on Marianne, Van Helsing helps to a face-full of holy water that leaves him horribly scarred. Meinster escapes after warding off Van Helsing by kicking the brazier over, turning the windmill immediately into an inferno, but Van Helsing escapes with Marianne to the mill’s upper balcony.
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The climax originally intended of Brides was for Van Helsing to use a curse to call down other vampires as bats upon the Baron, for his transgression in drinking his mother’s blood. Budget constraints and Cushing’s objection to the idea Van Helsing would engage in black magic meant this concept was abandoned, only to be used a few years later in Kiss of the Vampire. Meinster’s comeuppance here is less spectacular but still original and memorable, as Van Helsing jumps onto the mill’s sail and drags it down to turn the whole structure into a crucifix, pinioning the Baron under the shadow of religious sanctity and finally killing him, leaving a fade out with Marianne in Van Helsing’s arms and the mill with the two vampire girls within going up in flames as the credits roll. The Brides of Dracula was released in what proved a banner year for horror cinema as the commercial force of Hammer’s success unleashed a new wave of films, including Mario Bava’s La Maschera del Demonio, Roger Corman’s House of Usher, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, and it stands tall with them in the genre’s mottled history. After all but dying out in the mid-1940s, the horror film was well and truly back from the dead.

Standard
2010s, British cinema, Experimental, Horror/Eerie

Berberian Sound Studio (2012)

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Director/Screenwriter: Peter Strickland

By Roderick Heath

British sound engineer Gilderoy (Toby Jones) arrives at the Berberian Studio of Post-Production, a labyrinthine facility and a niche for creating the aspect of cinema perhaps least appreciated by laymen and yet amongst the most vital. This particular netherworld, where glowing, pulsing red lights wait with infernal meaning for Gilderoy, is guarded by a beautiful Circe, Elena (Tonia Sotiropoulou), armed with all contempt for the merely human expected of a fashion plate functionary in a magic kingdom filled with makers of fame and fortune. Gilderoy, middle-aged and gnomic, certainly seems especially human, like the intrusion of a sewage worker in a royal bedroom. But Gilderoy has gifts, gifts impressive enough to have inspired director Giancarlo Santini (Antonio Mancino) to have imported Gilderoy from England to mix the soundtrack of his latest film, The Equestrian Vortex.
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Gilderoy has recently won an award for his work on a documentary about rural England, evoking the delicate textures of a genteel and pastoral landscape, but now he finds, to his queasy discomfort, that he’s engaged on a blood and thunder flick, filled with bizarre supernatural emanations and grotesque torture. Light years out of his comfort zone, this homely, homebody savant of sound is worried about his aged mother back home, disturbed by the material he’s working on, and gnawed at by financial distress since he spent all his money on the plane ticket and can’t get anyone to reimburse him. He finds himself surrounded by people driven by unpredictable emotions and private agendas, the alienation exacerbated by a language barrier. Gilderoy sets to work with his exacting and deeply introverted method, only to find himself falling into an abyssal trap of anxiety and mystery.
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Writer-director Peter Strickland’s only previous feature work was the eerie, compelling revenge thriller Katalin Varga (2009), set and shot in Romania, and it’s possible Strickland’s experiences working on such menacing fare in a foreign language and locale helped inspire this far more enigmatic, deeply discombobulated follow-up. Berberian Sound Studio is, on the surface, a tribute to, and evocation of, the hallowed era of Italian giallo horror film, which came near the tail-end of an epoch of Italian exports from a film industry uneasy with English-language cinema, which it constantly tried to annex. Tales of disconnection and confusion in that time and place are many and amusing, and have already provided fodder to some filmmakers as far back as Vincent Minnelli’s Two Weeks in Another Town (1962). The mood of Berberian Sound Studios is similar to some other movies about moviemaking, particularly Anthony Waller’s chiller Mute Witness (1995), which offered Hitchcockian suspense in a near-deserted Russian film studio; Roman Coppola’s playful CQ (2000), depicting this often happenstance, esoteric and self-involved world where personal creativity and messy necessity often blend in unpredictable ways; and Brian De Palma’s Blow Out (1981), which turned the craft of its hero, a sound-effects man, into a deeply tactile, experiential drama where bottomless depravity is uncovered through layers of media. Strickland, whilst evoking such progenitors of method, ultimately has a distinct and peculiar purpose. Rather than segueing from the fakery of filmmaking into a zone of “real-world” drama, Berberian Sound Studio instead uses the paraphernalia and artifice of film to conjure an interior journey into places of disquiet and dread.
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Gilderoy is the innocent abroad here, and innocent he is, a bachelor and mummy’s boy who seems to have scarcely ventured out of the garden shed of his recording studio in years. He’s no signposted weirdo, however, only a timid and easily cowered man who has to undergo a sink-or-swim immersion in the ways of a corner of experience at once even more hermetic than his own but through which far more worldly characters occasionally tramp, violating the texture of his immediate surrounds and expectations with excruciating results. Gilderoy, upon arrival, learns that Santini worships his talents, but his hoped-for meeting with the director is delayed for some time and then proves a frustrating meeting with a patronising egotist. Gilderoy spends most of his time accompanied by Francesco (Cosimo Fusco), the film’s producer, always poised on a knife-edge above poles of professional facility and virulent irritation. When Gilderoy presses him about getting his ticket reimbursed, Francesco fobs him off on Elena, who passes him on to anonymous functionaries before Gilderoy learns about dealing with such matters here—get loud, get angry, and get the money—which is, of course, extremely difficult for a timid Englishman, especially one faced at every turn by language problems and wilful obfuscation. For extra genre cred, the studio is, in neat mid-’70s fashion, beset by random power cuts, with candles ready to illuminate the place after sudden plunges into stygian blackness.
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Gilderoy is hired specifically as a sound mixer, but as the post-production lumbers on and the shortfalls of the film shoot have to be plastered over, he’s drawn into helping create sounds through foley work, the artful manipulation of elements to create apt aural versions of what’s occurring on screen. Strickland’s wicked sense of humour in exploiting this element is introduced early on as Gilderoy is first shown some footage of the film whilst the two official foley artists, Massimo and Massimo (Pal Toth and Jozef Cseres), provide accompanying effects. They hack at watermelons with brutal force, evoking the savagery of killing on screen through the most blackly hilarious of indirection, as Gilderoy squirms in his seat: one of the Massimos offers him a slice of the melon to eat, and Gilderoy regards it like a severed body part.
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Strickland’s core conceit is that he never shows any footage from the film, allowing the sound effects the crew are providing and sometimes with a sketchy description of the plot to do the work. Ironically, the only bit of the film we do see is the opening credits sequence, a dynamic pastiche of ’70s-style design effects, which stands in for Berberian Sound Studio’s own credits. The Equestrian Vortex is evidently inspired by Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1976), though with overtones that seem closer to the work of trashier giallo directors like Lucio Fulci and Sergio Martino: the plot seems to involve young women who find that the equestrian school they attend is infiltrated by witches with a history dating back to gruesome medieval witch trials. Santini balks, naturally, at having Gilderoy describe his movie as a horror film: “This not a horror film. This is a Santini film! … This is a part of the human condition.” Santini airily expresses his desire to evoke the horror of historical misogyny, but, our suspicions that it’s utter trash are confirmed by the reactions of his crew and particularly the female cast members like Veronica (Susanna Cappellaro) and Silvia (Fatma Mohamed).
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Berberian Sound Studio is a display of dazzling technique attached to a mysterious-feeling, ultimately interior tale of a solitary man’s mental disintegration, or possible transcendence, conveyed through the methods of his own craft. A gift for film buffs but one that nimbly avoids descending into a mere pastiche for the sake of tickling facile recognitions, Berberian Sound Studio is more an attempt to comprehend the peculiar nexus of artistic endeavour, private psychological credulity, and workaday labour. Strickland celebrates a world, one rapidly fading into history, of analog technology by which so much of the great cinema of the past was created. In its time, Gilderoy’s art represented cutting-edge capacity, but now it smacks of retro fetishisation as Strickland delights in depicting methods of constructing the densely layered compilation of devices we glibly call a movie. Strickland reminds us of the almost fanatical attention to craft that often goes into even the seamiest piece of crap, and which, on the level of contemporary blockbuster cinema’s scrolls of hundreds upon hundreds of crew names in closing credits, feels close to a religious enterprise. There’s more than a hint of connotation here, in that culturally we want to reward modest DIY artisans like Gilderoy, but the industry tends to win out in every other respect. Strickland’s camera roves over Elena’s desk with typewriter and rubber stamps arranged on a trestle like an abstract sculpture, the buttons and dials and charts and tapes that form the paraphernalia of Gilderoy’s art becoming runic, inscrutable alchemic devices for conjuring spells.
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Strickland creates a uniquely strange atmosphere, and tension, but not by offering any specific source for unease, save for the oneiric atmosphere generated by his work. A parade of actors moves through the studio, making perverse and unnerving sound effects for terrified and slaughtered women, witches, and lurking goblins, filling the studio with disturbing inferences and the unpleasant sensation of everyday technical effort being suffused with menace and the ghosts of appalling acts. One scene sees Katalin Ladik, playing herself, recording the sound for her role as a witch, acting the incantatory part, face twisted into a visage of terrible delight, mimicking the faces of death and morbid ecstasy often glimpsed in De Palma and Argento’s films, exposed in artifice and yet still wielding a strange power. Santini proselytises to Gilderoy about his need to depict the horrors of witch trials to awaken his audience to historical crimes, except, of course, that Strickland notes the same crimes, in a far subtler and less immediately deadly fashion, going on in the studio. Santini, the smooth and imperious stud, is accused of casting with his dick, and Silvia, evidently involved with him in some fashion, is filled with disquiet and disillusionment. She forms a tenuous bond with Gilderoy, with his seeming status as meek, attentive gelding in contrast to the brash Italian alpha males, and advises him in how to combat the studio bureaucracy. Francesco warns Gilderoy about getting too close to Silvia: “Be careful of that girl…There is poison in those tits of hers.” Like Gilderoy, Silvia is another foreigner out of her element. Appearing with witchy portent in the dark of the studio and seeming alternately entrapped by the filmmaking and its dark avatar, Silvia finally goes on a rampage of destruction all too cruelly exact for the filmmakers: she destroys reels of sound and footage to announce her furious departure from the project, a special kiss-off to Santini.
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Meanwhile Santini and Francesco push Gilderoy in implicating himself in the professional drama that has overtones of the imaginary one, finally conflating as Francesco forces Gilderoy to turn up the volume on recorded sound effects to literally torture a potential replacement for Silvia into giving a decent sounding scream. The sneaky truth to the casual sexism and contempt for employee needs, like Gilderoy’s, passed over for the joy of working in the big wonderful world of filmmaking, melds with Gilderoy’s evident frustrated sensuality, a sensuality channelled into his work. Gilderoy is something of a gentle magician: in one mesmerising scene, when a power cut leaves the actors and crew bored, Gilderoy is talked into entertaining them by creating eerie sounds with household items, conjuring a UFO from a lightbulb scraped across a grill. Just recently I’ve been much fascinated with the work and life of Delia Derbyshire, a brilliant boffin who helped invent electronic music from the anonymous ranks of the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop, most famously creating the Doctor Who theme: Gilderoy is characterised as just such a classic English eccentric whose introversion masks the ability to create worlds and invent futures, a delicate gift unable to withstand the pressure of industrialised art filled with egotists and moral vacuums.
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One of the film’s most evanescently strange moments comes in one of the several turns in which Strickland uses the blackouts as a way to seamlessly and, with momentary disorientation, change scenes: Gilderoy is awoken in the night, and leaves his room, passing into blackness. The sounds of crunching detritus, as if he’s walking on fallen leaves, are heard, and Silvia emerges from the darkness, clutching a candle, an emanation from an ethereal beyond. Actually, they’re in the studio during another power cut, with Gilderoy recording his footfalls as background noise. Nonetheless Gilderoy’s tactile enjoyment of the moment evokes the very different world he’s used to, a quieter, more natural world. This moment reminded me powerfully of a similar motif in Seijun Suzuki’s Branded to Kill (1967), in which the antihero smothers his face longingly in natural detritus, mourning his isolation in a denaturalised world. Gilderoy sleeps in a room adjoining the studio, and his situation, and seemingly fragmenting consciousness, often seems to dissolve boundaries between liminal and subliminal zones. The rubbish bin filled with all the pulverised vegetables used in the foley work begins to turn into a toxic mass of putrefaction, standing in for the mangled flesh on screen: “Well, I was hoping for a more dignified end than this,” one actress quips upon seeing the mashed marrow that represents her on-screen character’s brutal death.
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Berberian Sound Studio is, in many respects, an experimental film, an extended attempt to explore the pure texture of cinema, a layered journey through the act of creation itself that becomes at the same time a mesmerising experiential plunge. There seems to be an emerging strand of what could be called pseudo-abstract genre work in recent independent filmmaking, mimicking the forms of traditional horror and science-fiction films, but doing so to extract and isolate qualities of tone and method whilst excising literal story development: the U.S. and British film scenes have produced several filmmakers, including Shane Carruth, Brit Marling and collaborators Mike Cahill and Zal Batmanglij, Ben Wheatley, and Ti West, who have deconstructed filmmaking pitched on the edge of the fantastic or the ominous to varying degrees; works by European filmmakers like Michael Haneke and Lars Von Trier have also grazed this zone. Strickland’s effort here stands closer to Hélène Cattet and Bruno Fonzani’s Amer (2009), which boiled the traditional visual essentials of giallo down to an enigmatic narrative freed from responsibility to the boilerplate requirements of genre entertainment. Rather than offer the usual coded metaphors for a descent into a realm of nightmares and the irrational, Strickland goes straight for the purified sense of dread and implication of a solitary man who specialises in creating hints of wonder but is too vulnerable to being immersed in his own works.
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Berberian Sound Studio therefore feels closer to some far more offbeat by-products of the ’60s and ’70s film milieu than to the giallo to which it pays surface tribute. David Lynch is an evident touchstone. Strickland references the shibboleth of Mulholland Drive (2001) through the flashing sign “Silenzio” outside the studio, the intimate examination of decay suggests Blue Velvet (1986), whilst the narrative doublings and dreamlike metamorphoses recall Lost Highway (1997). But where Lynch was fond of creating surrealist textures out of pulp stories, Strickland offers much less immediate strangeness, preferring to create a more definably psychological texture. The peculiar counterpoint of a technologically enabled tinkerer able to transform everyday ambience into strange art and a situation rife with discomforting expectation of violence recalls Jerzy Skolimowski’s The Shout (1976): the heroes of both are sound experts engaged in creating evocations of the uncanny and faced with the disintegration of their presumably stable lives. But the ultimate method feels to me closest to Ingmar Bergman, as in Persona (1966), mental breakdown is conveyed through the literal breakdown of cinema itself, whilst Hour of the Wolf (1968), where an artist’s neuroses consume his life, realised through dreamlike reductions of gothic horror imagery to their phobic essences. Where Bergman referenced the expressionist chillers and Bela Lugosi flicks he’d loved as a youth, Strickland evokes giallo, but both modes are for each filmmaker a style to emulate rather than a genre to copy, a wellspring of expressive ambiguity and nightmarish textures.
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Like the protagonist of Hour of the Wolf, Gilderoy disappears within the ghostly fantasia his mind seems to be projecting. As Gilderoy’s perception of his world becomes increasingly warped, everything becomes charged with a capacity for communing with a nightmare world, and the very filmmaking conspires against him. Gilderoy’s periodic letters from his mother take a dark twist as she recounts the massacre of a nest of bird hatchlings they’d been watching over before he left. Gilderoy’s private reality becomes increasingly mixed up with the film as one of the auditioned replacements for Silvia recounts the letter. We know who Gilderoy is, but what’s his last name? Why was he hired for this project? Why can’t the studio accountants find his flight booking? Is he here at all? Is the whole experience just his dream? Or is he, as the film repeatedly suggests, simply a figure at the mercy of his filmmaker, free to create him and then pull him apart, like Daffy Duck in Duck Amuck (1953)? This seems ultimately the perfect analogue for Berberian Sound Studio, an exercise in layers of cinematic construction becoming its own malefic stunt. Time eventually reboots; Gilderoy, suddenly a speaker of fluent Italian, becomes the high priest and witch hunter, pummelling the eardrums of his actress-witches and lighting candles in prayer to dark gods of nature even as he remains ensconced in his technological cocoon.
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Strickland saves his smartest antistrophe for a sequence in which Gilderoy imagines some hidden force crashing against the door of his bedroom, snatching up a knife and stalking out to search for the shadow enemy, only for the footage of his earlier fear in the room to start unspooling on the projection screen. Then the film melts and gives way to, of all things, the rural documentary Gilderoy won his prize for, tranquil footage of English dales and grass-munching sheep presenting a far more jarring and mercilessly funny twist than any supernatural ambassador could provide. Gilderoy is terrified of the price he will pay for success, of the world battering in his door and implicating him in its evils, anxiety attaching itself to the art he’s prostituting himself out to create. As in many horror films, however, the forces of good and light may have their victory over darkness. Gilderoy finds himself confronted by self-animating equipment that projects a spot of growing light, transfixing Gilderoy and promising to swallow him up, 2001–style, the beckoning promise of transcendence into ecstasy, or obliteration, a final surrender to the irrational. It’s easy, too easy, to imagine Berberian Sound Studio earning the wrath of viewers who would have it finally offer some sort of familiar gothic pay-off. But for anyone who engages with Strickland’s seriously peculiar yet remarkable style, this is a genuinely galvanising film experience—and those are pretty rare at the best of times.

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2010s, Action-Adventure, British cinema, Historical, War

Centurion (2010)

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Director/Screenwriter: Neil Marshall

The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film

By Roderick Heath

English film editor Neil Marshall burst out of the gate as a director with Dog Soldiers (2002), a vigorous, gory, refreshingly cheeky spin on the traditional templates of low-budget horror with a strong dose of hyped-up style. He quickly achieved cult status with his follow-up, the claustrophobic post-feminist nightmare The Descent (2004). Seen as a member of the early ’00s wave of splatter-loving horror filmmakers, Marshall then switched directions from horror to action-oriented fare with 2007’s Doomsday and Centurion in 2010. Marshall’s obvious worship of ’80s genre cinema in particular was crossbred in each with an amusingly parochial sense of humour and hip revisions of certain stock situations, giving his faux-blockbuster material a jolt of outsider energy and impudent perspective.

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Dog Soldiers set the template he’s followed consistently: placing a collective of tough and resilient people in the middle of a relentlessly dangerous situation and picking them off one by one, be it by monsters or hordes of angry Scotsmen. If The Descent was a touch overrated because of its original tweak on an old formula, and Doomsday underrated for being excessively indebted to Marshall’s favourite trash films to a degree that would make Quentin Tarantino blush, Centurion suggested new ground that, alas, Marshall has thus far been unable to pursue further. Watching the leaden conceptual snoozefest that was Gary Ross’ The Hunger Games (2012), my early feeling that the story was tailormade for Marshall became all the more powerful.

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Marshall isn’t above some modish tricks of modern cinema, and Doomsday falls prey to some excessively choppy editing and dodgy CGI. Most of the time, however, he is a pellucid, rigorous stylist, rare enough in modern filmmaking and particularly in his branch of cinema, with films that improvise on frameworks provided by his favourite influences marked with a personal brand. Centurion, although fast-paced and structured with elegant simplicity, is also littered with some of the most arresting and well-framed images in recent cinema. Centurion built upon the conceit of Doomsday, which had turned Scotland into a post-apocalyptic, Mad Max-esque landscape where modern civilisation began to devolve into barbarism. Centurion inverted the approach as an outright historical adventure film, indeed, the best example of such in the West in recent years. Centurion is a fight-and-flight action film par excellence, but one that encompasses all kinds of fascinating reflexive interests, deepened and given contemporary edge by distinct hints of political parable. With this relative complexity, Marshall outclassed many attempts to revive the historical action epic by filmmakers like Ridley Scott, with his clunky Robin Hood (2011), Antoine Fuqua’s moronic King Arthur (2005), Gore Verbinski’s overworked Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and Mel Gibson’s various bombastic entries, in spite of their infinitely greater resources. Centurion itself is easily recognisable to the adventure film buff in its working parts: a little bit of Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans (1992), John Ford, Kurosawa, some The Naked Prey (1966), combined with hints and hues of decades of sword-and-sandal flicks.

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On top of the film’s true historical foundation, Marshall superimposes a quiet, but powerful echo, implicitly evoking various phenomena like British Imperialism, the Wild West, and the Iraq War, through the efforts of the Empire to suppress Britain in a nihilistic, vicious struggle of suppression and reaction. He goes a step further to link the bombastic machismo behind the urges that began the Iraq War with that of the Roman expansion, with the phallocratic force of General Titus Flavius Virilus (Dominic West), commander of the Ninth Legion. His very name communicates virility, and the man is avatar for this underlying spirit. His counterforce is presented concisely in the form of lethal female warrior Etain (Olga Kurylenko), a brutalised engine of destruction working for the Picts. The setting is 154 AD, and the decades-long stand-off between the Roman Empire and the Pictish peoples of present-day Scotland is building to a head. The Romans, all swagger and politicking, are trying to hold on to a network of border forts. A Pict raid upon one fort sees most of the Romans wiped out; the conscientious officer Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender) is taken prisoner because he has learnt to speak the local dialect, in obedience to his father’s maxim that one should know one’s enemy. He is brought before the Pictish king Gorlacon (Ulrich Thomsen), who has troubled the Romans endlessly with his sophisticated guerrilla warfare. Gorlacon has him tortured and shown off as captured prey, but Dias manages to escape from Gorlacon’s stockaded capital and flees south across the snow-crusted Highlands.

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Meanwhile, the Roman Governor Agricola (Paul Freeman) decides to send a punitive expedition against Gorlacon north from his base at Carlisle, detailing the Ninth Legion under Virilus, a former foot soldier who’s risen to command whilst not losing his link with his men. Introduced in a tavern engaged in an arm-wrestling match, Virilus skewers his opponent with a dagger when it’s plain the man intends to do the same to him and joins the all-in brawl between his men and the locals that results. Washing up the next day, he’s mistaken by a messenger for a ranker. Agricola gives Virilus an unusual guide and scout in the form of Etain, a superlatively skilled, perpetually unspeaking woman whom Agricola introduces to Virilus through the expedient means of having her kill a slave in a play-act assassination.

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On the march into the fog-shrouded forests of the north, Virilus’ troops save Dias just as he’s been cornered by some of Gorlacon’s men. But a well-prepared ambush, into which they’ve been led by the double-agent Etain, sees Gorlacon’s army devastate the Legion and take Virilus captive. A handful of survivors, including Dias, regroup over the corpses of their dead fellows, and Dias enlists them to pursue Virilus and his captors back to Gorlacon’s city. They fail to free Virilus from his chains, however, and are forced to abandon him as Gorlacon’s forces begin to stream back into the city. But they soon find they’ve stirred up a new hornet’s nest, because one of their number, Thax (J. J. Feild), has throttled Gorlacon’s young son (Ryan Atkinson) to silence him during the raid. Incensed, Gorlacon has Virilus pitted in single combat against Etain, who quickly, brutally disposes of the General. She then leads a hunting party after Dias’s band of survivors until they or their chasers are all dead, and, in time-honoured style, the Roman survivors have to try to make it back to their own lines fighting every step of the way.

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Marshall starts with a structural nod to many classical epic poems that commence in medias res (mid action), resolving his opening, a series of helicopter shots of the Highlands that lay out the turf of the following action, and plunges deep into the one-time heart of darkness, zeroing in finally on a lone figure racing across a snowy ridge: Quintus, in his first flight from the Picts, bloodied and half-naked in an inimical landscape. Centurion plays loose with history: Agricola, who actually conquered most of Britain and defeated a large Caledonian army in a field battle, is transposed to the time of Hadrain, whose famous wall is depicted under construction in the film’s final phases, offered as a classical Green Zone. Moreover, the traditional belief that the Ninth Legion disappeared in Scotland, has been challenged by recent scholarship that shows it might have been met its end in Spain instead. Still, whilst it’s been much fictionalised—Rosemary Sutcliffe’s popular The Eagle of the Ninth novel series and its adaptation The Eagle (2011) also play with that contentious historical fillip—Marshall takes the legend a step further in suggesting the Legion’s vanishing from the history books was no accident, but a conspiracy perpetrated by Agricola and his fellow Roman bigwigs to cover up their own failure, a touch that happens to coincide nicely with the hunt for weapons of mass destruction, Abu Ghraib, and other suspicious travesties in Iraq. Moreover, whilst Centurion hardly slows for a breath, narrative-wise, Marshall paints a coherent vision of the past as present, with the polyglot of nationalities, economic conscripts, and continental refuse that was the Roman Army confronting a native enemy that resists with every tool at its disposal. Marshall interestingly casts European actors, like Thomsen and Kurylenko, as Picts, to emphasise that this historical land isn’t the same one as modern Scotland nor its people exactly the same, with only one Pict, the exiled “witch” Arianne (Imogen Poots), a woman stranded between cultures and a product of the middle ground, who has a modern Scots accent.

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Etain, on the other hand, has no voice, a trait that adds to the impression that she’s not entirely human anymore, but rather an animal mother in a human body, a beast that stalks Quintus in his dreams as well as in the primal forest. Etain’s savagery is revealed to be a Frankenstein creation of this invading force: forced to watch her father’s blinding and her mother’s gang rape by Roman soldiers as a young girl, and then being gang raped herself, Etain’s tongue was then cut out. Raised by Picts as an expert warrior and tracker, Etain is the personification of wrath against any force intruding upon a homeland, raw and mindless in antipathy but infinitely cunning in resistance. Kurylenko, since being stuck playing the most superfluous Bond girl in history in Quantum of Solace (2008), has evolved into one of the current film scene’s more interesting satellite stars, and here she brings a striking level of charisma and expressive intensity to Etain, displaying what Christopher Lee once said of playing Dracula, a silent, hypnotic power that can be the hardest kind of acting. Not that Etain, conceived with visual and attitudinal power, was ever going to be less than a striking figure: her compellingly atavistic visage, smeared in pancake white and daubed with streaks of blue woad, is the film’s obsessive, almost fetishistic refrain, laced with erotic appeal that blends weirdly with her completely inimical hate. Following Marshall’s recreation of Snake Plissken as a stoic one-eyed woman in Doomsday, Etain is an equally potent adversary. Marshall and Kurylenko imbue her with hints of masochism and distraught pain even as she’s committing horrendous acts, beheading a Roman she captures with a grimace as if she’s hacking a piece of herself off, and, after she kills Virilus, releasing an anguished scream of insatiable hate and unappeasable grief, her tongueless maw barking at the gods. As Arianne puts it, she has a soul that’s an empty vessel that can only be filled by Roman blood.

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Marshall is one of the few action-oriented directors at the moment really interested in female characters, usually mixing up the bag in allotting them good and evil parts, and the twinned poles of Etain and Arianne are joined by another Pictish warrior, the strident archer Aeron (Axelle Carolyn); indeed, between her and Etain the most formidable foes in the Pictish force are their women, whilst Agricola’s wife Druzilla (Rachael Stirling) proves an altogether different, but no less dangerous threat. Marshall offers a cheeky shot early in the film that confirms the link between his conquest-era Britons and Native Americans as pantheistic opponents of steely intrusive forces when Etain performs an ash-scattering ritual as tribute to ancestors before riding off with the Legion. She fulfills her mission as a sleeper agent to deliver the arrogant Romans into the best place for an ambush in a sequence where Marshall stretches his budget superbly with simple tricks and modern graphics. The imprint of Anthony Mann’s work on The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) is particularly strong throughout Centurion: like Mann, Marshall sees the links between the Western and the classically set action drama. The sequence in which the Legion is attacked and wiped out evokes both the forest barbarian battle in Roman Empire and the attack on the British column in Last of the Mohicans.

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More fundamentally, like Mann, Marshall captures a sense of spiritual and psychological extremes in depicting the violent disparity between first and third worlds at a time when those worlds were much closer together geographically but even farther apart in everything else, a maddening clash of nascent civilisation intruding upon primordial places and peoples who are less “civilised” but no less human in both good and bad ways. One shot presents Etain presiding over the incineration of the legion’s eagle standard, a perfect visual encapsulation of the infernal results of the clash between nascent despotism and fringe ferocity. Marshall goes on to suggest the charged counterbalance of humane feeling and dark, extreme mysticism in his Scottish landscapes that is authentic to the quality of the nation’s mythology. In the course of Quintus and his team’s flight from the Picts, the scene moves from mist-shrouded woods to craggy, snow-crusted mountains to hazily beautiful spring morns at Arianne’s hut, a safe ground from the predations of war ironically because she lives in cursed isolation, the flooding rays of sunshine giving visual substance to the air of regenerative tranquillity around her.

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Marshall isn’t above some of the less pleasing flourishes of many modern directors, particularly his love of adolescently vivid, CGI-enhanced gore. Visions of pikes being shoved into groins, heads being cleaved in half, and spears entering mouths are not as gruelling as they sound, largely more amusing in effect than sickening, and that’s actually the problem. But that’s really neither here nor there in a story that races with the verve and spunk of a classic drive-in flick whilst mixing with a genre more associated with grand scale production and pretence. And, indeed, Marshall’s delight in brute force is conjoined with his work’s vivacity and fierce, new-fashioned, balls-and-all attitude. Marshall plays some deft games, in a manner that’s becoming a distinct trait of his when it comes to apportioning empathy and thematic emphasis. He doesn’t romanticise either the honourably turf-defending, but feral and brutal Picts or the rapacious, war-loving Romans, viewing each as competing varieties of the same thing. That the lost Roman survivors, except for the conscientious, morally probing Quintus, are finally the heroes is only because of their assailed, outnumbered desperation. His company comes to include the psychopathic Thax, Indian-via-Syria Tarak (Riz Ahmed), North African runner Macros (Noel Clarke), cleaver-wielding Greek cook Leonidas (Dimitri Leonidas), and the lumpen Roman duo of Bothos (Neil Morrissey) and grizzled vet Brick (Liam Cunningham). The latter’s name proves to be sourced in a Latin pun, with Marshall’s sneaky sensibility nascent here, as Brick turns out to be is short for “Ubriculius,” aka, testicles. Quintus is dubbed the band’s centurion, after being left in command, a responsibility to which he rises, but not without qualm: as the son of a freed gladiator, he aspires to be a model soldier but has never entirely escaped his outsider status. When he and his team run away from Gorlacon’s city, all they can take with them is Virilus’ helmet. One of the men hands it to him sarcastically as he gives orders; Quintus leaves in a shrine.

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The Romans hardly prove an infinitely resourceful band of brothers: many of the remaining men die with stunning rapidity in spite of their individual qualities. After performing a regulation adventure movie stunt of leaping from a high cliff into a frigid river, most of the men flounder out together, but Macros and Thax are separated and finish up forging their way across open heaths chased by wolves. Thax sneakily cuts Macros’ Achilles tendon, leaving his fellow soldier as dog meat to ensure his own survival, in a nasty spin on that old joke about the man who puts on his sneakers to outrun not the lion but his friend. Only Quintus, Brick, and Bothos, who’s been wounded in the leg, remain of the original force when they come across Arianne, who gives them food and shelter. She saves the men by hiding them when Etain and her party arrive on the hunt, with Arianne almost getting her throat cut by Etain for facing down her malevolence with truculent wit: “Cat got your tongue?” Ardour sparks between her and Quintus, but the film’s most intimate moment actually comes when Brick apologises to Arianne for not trusting her, and the ever–terrific Cunningham is particularly good in this moment as he offers, “I’m sorry I misjudged you…there it is.” When the trio take their leave, Quintus leaves behind a carved horse in a pose of delicately artful expression that doubles as his memento for her, concluding a sequence that’s closer in spirit to Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) than Seven Samurai (1954).

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The terrific final battle between the Roman runaways and the Picts takes place in another familiar trope of adventure sagas, a remote fort that proves tragically deserted when the trio reach it—one almost expects the Romans to find Gary Cooper in there—because Agricola has ordered a general retreat to the new walled frontier. Unable to run any further, they set the fort up for a confrontation and successfully pick off several of Etain’s warriors, including Aeron, before she charges in for a frantic duel with Quintus, finally pitting native speed against gladiatorial art. Brick dies, but not after going out in the most badass way possible, skewering his opponent at the last breath by pushing the spear lodged in his own chest right through. Quintus finally defeats Etain, but only by the narrowest of margins, and her death comes across, aptly, like being put out of her misery.

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Victory segues into despair in a cynical final movement strongly reminiscent of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s fondness for last-act bastardry and some ’70s epics of dark revelry. Thax rejoins the surviving pair, but as Quintus lets slip his realisation that Thax killed Gorlacon’s son, Thax and he finish up fighting to the death, whilst Bothos is killed by snipers on the wall as he rides shouting toward it. Quintus kills Thax, but is left to despairingly cart Bothos’ body into Roman lines. Even once he’s safe, fate hasn’t finished twisting for Quintus, because, in order to save his reputation, Agricola lets his wife set up an attempt to kill him. Quintus survives again, but, badly injured, now has to flee again into the forest. Marshall closes the film with an aptly ouroboros-like flourish with Quintus’ admonition that “this is neither the beginning nor the end of my tale,” as he finds his way back to Arianne, cut off from his homeland. Yet the tale of Quintus’ struggle hardly suggests surrender to the dark forces, but the start of something else, with the distinct suggestion he and Arianne will found another tribe to inhabit British soil and invent the future. Either way, Centurion is a curt, rowdy, rousing gem and proof that the adventure film tradition hasn’t been entirely trammelled in the age of the blockbuster, whilst the class of the old can mesh with the vigour of the new.

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2010s, British cinema, Drama

Anna Karenina (2012)

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Director: Joe Wright

By Roderick Heath

Joe Wright’s fifth feature film, adapting Leo Tolstoy’s feted 1876 tome, seems on the face of it like a retreat to the safe ground of the period, prestige-laden works with which Wright first made his name: Pride and Prejudice (2005) and Atonement (2007). Wright’s smart, stylish revival-cum-critique of the globe-trotting action movie, Hanna (2011), was a departure for the director, and stood tall as one of last year’s best films, even if it didn’t quite add up to the sum of its parts. It proves to have been only a warm-up for this extravagant rendition of Tolstoy’s panoramic tale of adultery and social hypocrisy. Financial difficulties meant that Wright had to reconceive his intended adaptation, penned by no less a personage than Tom Stoppard, and hit upon the idea of rendering it as a variety of theatrical melodrama. The result is a teeming pageant of artifice, and heightened, almost dreamlike beauty that throws into relief the always powerful, often raw and disturbing emotions experienced and expressed by its characters.

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Tolstoy pushed the 19th century realist novel to its utmost limits of scope and inquiry whilst managing to maintain a grip on essential dramatic intimacy. The canvas of the average mainstream film is far more limited than what Tolstoy offered in creating around the centrifuge of Anna’s romantic tragedy an ontological portrait of his society in all its grandeur, contradiction, and pathos. This limitation is, ironically, one of the best arguments for rejecting Tolstoy’s measured, sprawling realism in film and adopting a style that can evoke the same meaning through cinematic means. Moreover, Tolstoy’s novel has been adapted many times, most famously with Greta Garbo in 1935 and a much-admired Russian version from 1967 by Aleksandr Zarkhi, thus raising the stakes for the worth of another version, whilst clearing room for radical interpretation.

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Wright’s chosen approach is clearly patterned after Laurence Olivier’s Henry V (1945), beginning amidst overtly theatrical settings that gradually give way to stylised reality and then general verisimilitude, and back again. There’s a certain similarity, also, to the porous boundaries of life and performance found in the films of Carlos Saura, where the performance consciously strives to recreate human drama and, in turn, bleeds over into “real life.” Whereas Olivier and Saura were paying heed of the theatrical origins of their material and turning the audience’s awareness of the artifice into an aspect of their cinema’s texture, an adaptation of a novel has no such original strictures or preordained conventions. On this level, the choice is less immediately apt, except that this setting invokes the closest thing there was to cinema at the time of the novel’s publication. For Stoppard, the author of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, this sort of thing is hardly new, and Wright avoids any obvious meta-narrative structures, a la The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981), another probable influence, about the nature of the performance.

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Wright’s choices reorganise the predictable rhythms of the period literary film with boldness, vivacity, and a narrative that drives like an unstoppable machine. That’s very much the point, as the first third of the film turns stage machinery into a visualisation of the governing laws and dancelike niceties of a society that is narcotising in its materialism and formalism and alienated from itself. Anna (Keira Knightley), a wife and mother who is still young and something of a case of arrested development, is swept up in a passion that manifests as an elemental imperative, a natural law made manifest by Wright’s intricate staging that transforms the erotic passion overtaking its heroine as a fatefully choreographed tötentanz.

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The early scenes of Anna Karenina, then, are a whirl of stylised spectacle, as Wright’s camera roars around the interior of a huge stage, observing as cast and crew “create” the world of period Russia, stripping down and erecting sets for changes of scene, with actors shifting from squared-off illustrative postures to naturalism. The very first shot is of Prince “Stiva” Oblonsky (the ever-splendid Matthew Macfadyen) framed on stage in a barber’s chair awaiting his shave, the barber marching in and swinging his towel like a matador’s cape before proceeding to circle the prone Oblonsky, sharpening his blade. The suggestion of violence, with Oblonsky as a bull perhaps about to be skewered by his servant, reverberates throughout the film, where a promise of death lurks, of course, but also with one eye fixed on the future, still far off and yet dreadful and unavoidable, when the society it portrays will collapse. The opening’s tone is set, however, by a series of swift, overtly theatrical tableaux, true to the droll mood of the novel’s beginning, as the fatuous, cheerfully licentious, but sufficiently respectable Oblonsky has his domestic bliss ruined when his wife “Dolly” (Kelly Macdonald) discovers his affair with their children’s French governess (Marine Battier). In a fillip of Dickensian humour, Wright’s dancing camera glides across the theatre floor transformed into a room full of bureaucratic factotums, labouring in synchronised rubber stamping, and Oblonsky, master of what he surveys, marches amongst them. The bureaucrats then rise from their chairs and change uniforms on stage, or flee to the corners, and the ministry becomes a restaurant where Oblonsky lunches with his old friend Konstantin Levin (Domhnall Gleeson).

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The teeming variety of human action in these scenes borders on the frantic, as the extras rush to change roles and erect new settings, but is also intricately choreographed, all moving with purpose and design, movement and labour tellingly contrived to support the illusion of opulence, ease, and natural motion for the governing class. As such it serves as a portrait of this communal existence, its structure, pretences, and underlying laws, far more concisely and intelligently than any number of exterior shots of passing carriages would have in a more familiar adaptation. Oblonsky begs the intercession of his sister Anna to convince Dolly to forgive him, though Oblonsky has no actual intention of restraining his extramarital appetites. Anna bids farewell to her husband, Count Alexei Karenin (Jude Law) and son Seryozha (Oskar McNamara) in Moscow, and, arriving in St. Petersburg, succeeds in convincing Dolly to reconcile with her husband.

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Levin, a landed idealist and fretful, unconfident intellectual, has set his own heart on marrying Dolly’s younger sister “Kitty” Shcherbatskaya (Alicia Vikander), and meets with Oblonsky to discuss it. Oblonsky warns him that he has a rival to his affections in the form of one Count Vronsky. “Oh, you don’t need to worry about him,” Oblonsky assures his pal dismissively, “He’s just a rich, good-looking cavalry officer with nothing better to do than make love to pretty women.” Kitty is vivacious but naïve, and she turns down Levin’s proposal in the hope of getting one from Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). But her suitor, whilst meeting his mother Countess Vronsky (Olivia Williams) on the train from St. Petersburg, catches sight of Anna, who has been conversing with the Countess during their journey, and is instantly drawn to her.

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Tolstoy’s name itself has long been a byword for artistic enterprise that engages with the macrocosmic as well as the immediate drama. The brilliance of Wright’s conceit is steadily revealed throughout these sequences he uses for holistic realisation of theme. The “theatre” serves a multiplicity of settings and functions: whereas its aptness for evoking artificiality is passing trite, the cleverness here lies in the dialogue of settings, as, in the bustle and closeness of the “backstage,” realism, even authenticity, is located. Its ropes and catwalks and narrow stairwells offer a cunning simulacrum of the labouring grit and functional claustrophobia of the urban world in this period in Russia; it is the street, the market, the hovel, the factory, the hiding place, the feminine retreat. The gilded world erected on the stage and in the auditorium is a constant interplay of spectator and drama, social form and personal viewpoint, barriers ruptured most effectively and dramatically in the film’s central set-piece. Levin’s ill-fated proposal to Kitty sees him approach the girl who, situated upon the “stage,” is glimpsed lounging amidst painted swirling clouds, actualising his perception of her as a creature from a higher realm, one who tantalises and delights Levin’s fervently romantic heart even as he acts the solemn, sober intellectual. The clouds part, and Kitty descends to the stage level as part of a soiree. After his proposal is rejected, Levin climbs up the backstage fly space, which becomes the other, unromantic world, a slum, where he finds radical brother, Nikolai (David Wilmot) dissipating in a haze of fever and vodka.

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The floor of the auditorium then becomes the railway station for the fateful meeting of Anna and Vronsky, a setting at once stylised and animated, replete with vividly visualised binaries: beautiful, white snow that crusts the thundering black locomotives, the whirling, colour-drenched crowds and the Morlock-like rail engineer whose appearance before Anna, covered in soot, perturbs her like a bad omen. When she lets Vronsky kiss her hand, it seems to shake the entire train—actually the portent of a dreadful accident, as the worker is glimpsed having been cut in half after being knocked under the wheels by the train’s sudden jolt. This moment is both an apt quote from Doctor Zhivago (1965), where the first physical contact of Zhivago and Lara was announced by a cutaway to the sparking coupling of a suburban tram: Wright cuts to sparking wheels and shuddering steel redolent of a more fervently sexual connection, and also a portent of bleaker tidings of Anna’s own predestined end. Vronsky is charmed by Anna’s concern for the engineer’s dependents, and in his own showy desire to charm her casually hands over a great wad of cash to rail staff to be given to the dead man’s family. This is a pungent moment where Wright’s feel for the underlying fiscal realities of this society are revealed as mixed inextricably with the vagaries of individual natures and brute reality, and the beginnings of a process of systemic rot.

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The subsequent ball sequence cranks steadily into an erotic and emotional crescendo: Wright repeats one of his signature conceits from Pride and Prejudice in a shot in which Anna and Vronsky, dancing, are suddenly, dramatically isolated from the cotillion, hovering in bright light that excises them from reality. The sequence continues with an increasingly frenetic series of whip-pans and drunken camera whorls, evoking the great waltz sequence of Vincente Minnelli’s Madame Bovary (1949) in sustaining the sensual force of both the dance and the emotions enacted. Whereas in Atonement Dario Marianelli’s scoring provided the film with an unnerving aural analogue for the reality-ordering drive of its antiheroine, here it approximates her overheated psyche and palpitating flesh. The dancers’ serpentine arms weaving around each other with increasing suggestiveness, and Kitty becomes increasingly distraught as she watches from the sidelines, Anna and Vronsky’s instant ardour in dancing every dance together is all too obvious for both her and other onlookers.

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Only after this sequence does this hermetic vision of period Russian society begin to break open. Wright’s theatricality expands to absorb Golden Age Hollywood’s mythical stylisation, with model trains standing in for the real things, and an ebulliently beautiful moment that seems torn from the most classically styled expressionist melodrama. Vronsky emerges from a haze when the train taking Anna back to Moscow is paused on a siding, snow piled, seething smoke and saturated light and colour, like the very ghost of Anna’s repressed desire. Taylor-Johnson’s Vronsky, every inch the dashing gallant with blue eyes unwavering in every shot, dressed in uniforms so crisp and clean he could have been carved from a solid hunk of ice, has an eerie, otherworldly beauty, seeming at first to be an incubus born and bred specifically to locate the fault-lines in bourgeois propriety and strike hard at them, a male bimbo seducer without depth or character. Yet he’s actually as high-flown a romantic as Anna, obeying the natural simplicity of his ardour for her with fixated intent, even as his strong-natured mother tries to offer up alternative partners and dissuade her son from a course of action that will harm her son’s prospects.

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Importantly, Stoppard and Wright preserve Tolstoy’s oft-denuded contrapuntal narrative, where Anna’s experiences are contrasted with those of a classic Tolstoyan seeker-hero, Levin, who searches for personal stability and happiness, whilst also trying to shake off what he sees as the ills of his society, including a self-loathing engendered by its Westernisation and the evils of its traditional hierarchies. Levin’s viewpoint offers a substantive diegetic channel for Wright and Stoppard’s inquiring, ironic approach—Wright based the film’s style especially in the tension between the Western affectation of the period’s Russian society—and offsets the raw, biological level for which romantic love manifests for Anna, who is plunged into a tragedy that plays out specifically because of social constructs which the characters themselves try to work around, but fail. The early shot of the barber sharpening his razor gives way to a scythe being sharpened, as Levin joins his peasants on his estate in reaping wheat. They’re frightened and confused by his labours, however, especially as, since their emancipation, they’ve lost the life security they used to prize, whilst Levin is beset by constant contradiction in his attempts to live by reason, which often dictates acting against his instincts, manifest most particularly in his love for Kitty. After being spurned by her he toys with the idea of marrying a peasant woman, and keeps swapping charged glances with one of his workers. Levin’s relationship with his more overtly radical brother informs, and haunts, his choices, as Nikolai, dying slowly of consumption, has married Masha (Tannishtha Chatterjee), a prostitute he plucked from a whorehouse to prove his radical cred, though he treats her as basic chattel.

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It is Levin who, notably, ruptures the film’s ravishing, yet stifling interior mise-en-scène when he first returns to his estate, the doors behind the stage parting and allowing him to step into snow-crusted fields. This visualises a clear schism between artificial city and natural landscapes, and sets up the dialectic that reverberates throughout. Later, Wright again refines an earlier piece of his own filmmaking, coinciding beautifully with a moment from Tolstoy’s writing: Levin is stricken by an epiphany when, having slept atop a haystack, he awakens in the dawn-light-drenched mist and sees Kitty driving by in a carriage, a gloriously visualised moment that evokes the romanticism of Pride and Prejudice’s similar dawn-light climax, but with an added spiritual aura and impact.

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Levin is ripped out of the ambient earthiness of his setting and announces not only his still-compelling love, but also his awakened self-knowledge and his surrender to forces larger than his reason, a surrender he doesn’t acknowledge entirely until the concluding scenes. His second proposal to Kitty, who, chastened and matured in her spurning by Vronsky, accepts the less glamorous but more substantial suitor, sees the duo avoid verbalising their feelings by spelling them with children’s letter-blocks. Vikander’s performance is particularly good in suggesting Kitty’s emotional authenticity and worthiness even when she makes childish mistakes, and the smartness of Levin’s choice becomes apparent when he takes her to his estate. They find his brother and his wife are there, with Nikolai dreadfully ill. Levin moves to obey the niceties of societal presumption to eject Nikolai’s woman, but Kitty instead sets about helping her nurse Nikolai, a triumph of humanist instinct that proves Kitty might actually be her husband’s moral superior as an embodiment of empathy.

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The time Wright spares for this aspect of the story is indicative of the underlying attentiveness of this adaptation to the thematic breadth and heft of the tale, rather than reducing it purely to a tale of adulterous passion and social crucifixion: the possibility of a different kind of union is evoked and sustained. Nonetheless, Anna’s story proceeds with merciless force and clarity. Visions of her and Vronsky, both swathed in white and glowing in the sun on a picnic cloth, give way to the trap of space that Anna’s homelife becomes, mirrors and glasses turning faces upon themselves and conflating individuals into functions of one another, as when Vronsky and Karenin catch sight of each other in the mansion’s double doors. There passion gives way to domestic pretence—there’s a ruthlessly funny shot of Karenin neatly plucking a Victorian condom from a silver case on his desk before retiring to bed with his wife. Karenin, played superbly by Law, swings between poles of powerful emotion, from self-pity to vengeful fury to chastised forgiveness, but finally settling into a default mode of acquiescence to socially demanded wrong-doing. His sister Lydia (Emily Watson) talks him into banning Anna from coming to visit their son on his birthday, an injunction Anna ignores; Karenin guiltily watches from the sidelines, looking as if Anna’s angry glare burns a hole right through his self-respect. The film’s major set-piece and pivotal sequence, which sees the private become public and truths forcibly acknowledged, is a horse race in which Karenin observes Anna with chilly suspicion; Anna, in turn, spies on him in with a purse mirror, and drama unfolds on “stage” as Vronsky tries to win the race.

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The audiovisual impact of this scene, with the horses thundering out of the darkness from off stage, is tremendous, and so, too, is the vividness of the shattering of the fourth wall as Vronsky’s mount falls and he crashes with it into the “audience,” wrenching Anna into an unfettered moment of hysterical concern that, like Barry Lyndon’s eruption of anger in Stanley Kubrick’s great film, leaves her fatefully exposed to forces that are inimical to individual definitions of happiness. The physical beauty Wright and DP Seamus McGarvey bestow on this film, and the gaudy, highly unreal spectacle in its most florid passages, is ravishing, even hypnotic in its lushness. The major objet d’art is Knightley herself, who perhaps represents the most lustrously fetishized screen presence since Marlene Dietrich, a possibly deliberate evocation.

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The costuming, providing eye candy par excellence, is also intricately employed as another dramatic device. Vronsky’s chill blue uniforms cut through the earthier tones surrounding him with the keenness of a straight razor. Anna’s veils, at first flatteringly thin, become thicker as she seeks to hide her face from the world, and yet they resemble cracks in a broken mirror, declaring the turmoil behind the perfect face they obscure. A deeper template revealed as the film continues is the ironic romanticism and orchestrated sedition of Luchino Visconti, especially Senso (1953), where every frame is drenched with physical lustre and yet eaten away at by the alternation of powerful, often ugly, but always authentic emotions that rupture that always-present fourth wall of social expectation. And hanging over the production as a whole is the spirit of Ken Russell, the doyen of radical Brit directors, an influence particularly apparent at a soiree where Anna and Vronsky’s affair is finally, properly sparked amidst the dazzle of fireworks and Kabuki-like posturing. I draw attention to these influences not to brand Wright as a filcher but in noting the depth of awareness of cinematic models evident here.

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Wright constantly offers a tension between the immobilising spectacle and frantic movement redolent of hysterical energy, and, like the movie, Anna is defined by her constant, extremely neurotic movement; her triumphant moment is, paradoxically, the one where she’s practically paralysed by fever, a crisis that sees her able to achieve an almost saintlike scene of mutual forgiveness and rapprochement between herself and her two men, conquering Karenin’s righteous fury. There’s a touch of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House in Knightley and Law’s early scenes together as she charms her pasty overlord with her still-girlish mannerisms, mannerisms that fade and give way to leonine ferocity as she enters her affair. The filmmakers and Knightley allow constant glimpses of Anna’s vanity, mental instability, and faintly sado-masochistic impulses, side by side with her admirable qualities, making her a different order of character to the usual run of blankly admirable females bound to be tortured in such period fare, several of which Knightley has played before. Knightley, more restrained than in her full-blown neurotic mode in A Dangerous Method (2011), maps out Anna’s journey as one of compulsions, until she’s finally beset by a cringing disgust and reactive grief in the face of social disgrace and the probability of being exiled from both her home with Karenin and the temporary bliss she has with Vronsky.

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The wonder of this Anna Karenina is the precision with which it captures and depicts the inner turmoil of Tolstoy’s characters, and the skill with which it finally removes, rather than adds, elements until, finally, emotional immediacy inverts the focus and the artifice retreats into the background. The film’s most striking moments are those where effect and matter are entwined, like the horse race, and when Karenin, tearing up a letter from his wife, hurls the pieces in the air, and they fall upon him and transform into snow, and his beset solitude in the midst of a fake city is rendered inescapably beautiful and sad. Karenin’s pathos is especially sharp, Law questioning “What did I do to deserve this?” as he sits before the darkened “theatre,” perfectly visualising his punch-drunk bewilderment and the gruesome sensation of being at once hollowed out by emotional shock and left exposed. Anna’s social crucifixion, an outing to the theatre that sees her confronted by her own most lethal anxieties, including watching Vronsky converse with Princess Sorokina (Cara Delevingne), the “child” his mother is trying to foist on him, and being loudly denounced by a society dame (Shirley Henderson) after her leering husband loans Anna a programme, results in Anna’s speedy spiral into a psychic collapse. This is momentarily assuaged, ironically, by Dolly, who cheerfully states to Anna she wishes she had the guts to follow in her footsteps.

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By this time, the stage surroundings have faded to a near-general realism. But Anna’s fracturing psyche and perception of herself and others, communicated by images fragmenting in mirrors and the sight of Anna stripped down to her support garments, reveal Anna’s very person is the stage, stripped back to the frame to reveal the ludicrous assemblage required to sustain the illusion of polite femininity. Anna’s suicide, a breathtaking sequence, takes place backstage, where onlookers are locked in friezes, reduced to props in Anna’s aching loneliness and despair, rescued by the prospect of a pummelling juggernaut, a force that both saves her from and mimics the forces that have already run over her, and a bliss of extinction. Wright nods again to Lean’s Brief Encounter, zooming in to the exultant fear on Knightley’s face as the lights of the train carriages whip across her visage; unlike Celia Johnson, she takes the plunge. The final images of the film, with Karenin seated in a verdant field as his son with Anna and her daughter with Vronsky play together whilst Karenin himself seems to have found peace in paternal solitude watching over the children, resolves with a sense of natural grace and maturity. The stalks of grass invade the “theatre,” presaging the breakdown of the order depicted in the film. Anna Karenina is an orgy of cinema, undoubtedly likely to be too rich for the blood of some, and yet it offers an experience far too rare in this year’s cinematic output—a film both boldly conceived and successfully realised on many levels.

Standard
1930s, Action-Adventure, British cinema

The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934)

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Director: Harold Young

The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film

By Roderick Heath

The true romantic adventure film is a rare breed. Not an action film where a romance is grafted on as a momentary distraction from stunts and gunfights, a romantic adventure film generates excitement not just by posing danger to the characters’ bodies, but also to their innermost selves and their relationships. The Scarlet Pimpernel, a true romantic adventure film, was produced by Alexander Korda at a time when he and Alfred Hitchcock were the key drivers of British cinema in the early sound era. Korda’s productions, with their determinedly classy, yet peculiarly minimalist, intimate style, gained initial success with The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), buoyed by Charles Laughton’s Oscar-winning turn as the rapacious monarch. This and other productions tried to make virtues out of some of the perceived faults in the British industry, with its reliance on a theatrical tradition and cramped budgets, and exploited Britishness for its own sake whilst also bringing a noticeably tart perspective on that Britishness that perhaps only an immigrant like Korda could. At its best in films like Henry VIII, Rembrandt (1936), and The Scarlet Pimpernel, Korda’s house style interrogated assumptions about cinematic structuring that were quickly becoming truisms under Hollywood’s influence. With a gentle sense of dramaturgy, and intricate, dramatically encoded sequences playing out in a fashion moulded after historical tableaux plays, Korda’s films shared a spirit in common with those of William Wyler and Jean Renoir and anticipated Andre Bazin’s theories of mise-en-scène over montage. The Scarlet Pimpernel is a peculiar by-product: an adventure film without set-piece derring-do, and hardly even a gunshot—and it’s one of the most exciting films ever made.

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The Scarlet Pimpernel is based on Baroness Emmuska Orczy’s literary hero, an English aristocrat who rescues the innocent victims of the Reign of Terror that accompanied the French Revolution. Orczy was herself actually Hungarian, but had married into the English aristocracy. Her first Pimpernel book debuted in 1905, and she was still alive and churning out books about her hero when this film was made. Orczy’s creation was and is fascinating and deeply consequential for pop culture, as she can in many ways be said to have invented a crucial type of modern hero: the man of action defying oppressive forces with disguises and cunning whilst maintaining a secret identity that masks his true nature. Simultaneously, whilst she stopped short of creating a proper female action hero, Orczy clearly invested a telling amount of interest and energy in creating Marguerite, Blakeney’s beautiful, intelligent, resourceful, yet initially morally questionable French wife who evolved throughout Orczy’s cycle into one of Percy’s agents. The Scarlet Pimpernel is built as much around the central romantic tangles and tortures the couple put each other through—an extended and fascinating metaphor for the problems of identity of many a couple actually settling down to the problem of really living together—as it is about period gallivanting and historical fancy.

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Orczy had constructed that historical fancy around the plausible wish fulfilment of saving innocents from the worst excesses of a political movement. As the 20th century progressed, this fantasy was to become increasingly urgent, and when Korda’s production was released, geopolitical overtones vibrated through the whole affair. Leslie Howard would play an updated version of the hero he plays here in Pimpernel Smith (1941), and in doing so, reputedly inspire Raoul Wallenberg’s efforts to save Jews from the Holocaust. In the 1934 film, the sensation that something evil is happening just over the horizon, played out in icy diplomatic niceties and by men utilising proto-Cold War techniques, is nonetheless palpable, and the period French Revolution setting starts to sound more and more contemporary as Percy condemns men who “use high-sounding principles an excuse for the most bestial cruelty.”

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Indeed, The Scarlet Pimpernel, made five years before WWII started, feels more than a little like the first WWII movie, offering as it does a template of flight, disguise, and infiltration that any number of spy adventure melodramas in the coming years would. It even lays out a template for the kinds of patriotic encomium such films would often see, as when Percy recites the “this England” speech from Shakespeare’s Richard II. The coolness of the Korda style, at odds with the kind of florid historical filmmaking becoming popular in Hollywood that would soon flower in the second coming of the swashbuckler, builds and emphasises tension in an entirely different fashion to what one expects. As witty and defiant as Percy can be, there’s no campy winking at the audience in the fashion of Errol Flynn’s films, and the absence of a music score, already by 1934 an unusual lack, emphasises the sombre, subtle pitch of the drama. The film begins with a discursive sequence of soldiers parading under the window of the Prince of Wales (Nigel Bruce). The Prince’s bluff and hearty charm seems for much of the movie as disconnected as the rest of his countrymen from the international reality, his soldiers marching prettily but not actually doing anything.

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The Prince confesses his pride in the fact that the Scarlet Pimpernel, rapidly becoming famous for his escapades, is English. In Paris, the situation the Pimpernel is fighting against is coldly depicted as victim after victim is sent to the guillotine in an assembly line of slaughter, and a neat dissolve from the guillotine itself to the Revolutionary logo of Liberty, Fraternity, and Equality packs ironic punch. A priest (Bramwell Fletcher, of The Mummy “He went for a little walk!” fame), actually one of the Pimpernel’s agents, gets an earful of bloodlust from a barber, before visiting a prison where families of the fallen nobility cringe in the cellar as a revolutionary official announces: “Madame Guillotine has fresh meat today.” The fake priest delivers a message in a bible to the family of the Count de Tournay (O. B. Clarence), his wife (Mabel Terry-Lewis) and daughter Suzanne (Joan Gardner). De Tournay, the former ambassador to Britain, is introduced playing cards with his fellows and contemplating with hard-won wisdom that his class has been “sheltered all our lives,” establishing him as a nice aristocrat fit to be rescued. As victims are called up to the tumbrel, rapid vignettes of grace under pressure include one aristocratic woman placing aside her book and adjusting her gloves with seemly calm, whilst outside the baying crowd awaits. Wife and daughter are dragged away to their deaths, torn from the Count, who is held back to be taken to Robespierre.

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But the Pimpernel’s promise to the De Tournays is good, as the crowd is distracted by a man on the rooftops shouting royalist slogans, a first sign of the depths of Percy’s cleverness in using the crowd’s own inchoate passion against it. As they pursue the rooftop agitator, Percy is able to swoop in and spirit away the family. The Pimpernel himself is disguised as an aged hag transporting her plague-ridden son out of the city, successfully bluffing his way past a guard who has already been seen capturing an aristocrat trying to escape and congratulating himself on his ability to sniff out his quarries. Moments after the Pimpernel gets out, a squad of mounted soldiers arrives to inform the guard he just let the Pimpernel escape, but the soldiers, under Sir Andrew Ffoulkes (Anthony Bushell), are themselves members of the Pimpernel’s band, and they escort the De Tournays across the Channel to safety. Meanwhile, Percy loses his hag’s guise, after a moment of deadpan transformative humour as Percy takes some snuff from his gold box whilst still in full ratty regalia, and then maintains the most businesslike of attitudes as he strips off the drag. He’s alerted by his operative Armand St. Just (Walter Rilla) that they have to return to rescue the Count and that a new, dangerous enemy has been set after them, Citizen Chauvelin (Raymond Massey), the Republic’s envoy to England. Armand also happens to be the brother of Percy’s wife, the former actress Marguerite (Merle Oberon), who is regarded as a traitor and murderer in French aristocratic circles because of her apparent role in the execution of the Marquis Saint Cyr and his family, the first aristocratic clan to go to the guillotine.

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The remainder of the narrative revolves around a peculiar question: is Percy’s wife one of the people he despises? Is he operating out of guilt for her actions? Marguerite is first mentioned in a tavern conversation between Ffoulkes and the De Tournays, as they tell him about her evil acts, and he states with defensive pride that “Everyone in London knows Lady Blakeney.” Marguerite is introduced thus, like her husband, first through gossip and second-hand perception, an accumulation of legends that address only one apparent side of their natures. She is first glimpsed properly having her portrait painted by George Romney (Melville Cooper), supervising her conversion into a perfectly aestheticized image as Romney would do for Emma Hamilton. Percy studies the work twice, once in full fop character and then again more like himself, and finds it frustratingly lacking, as he attempts to discover the true woman behind the various images of her. As the husband wears a mask of false identity, he is questioning whether his wife does, too.

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When Armand asks about the chill between the couple, Percy explains that he once asked if she had truly denounced the Saint Cyrs: “She flashed back a yes as sharp as the guillotine!” “So that is why you ceased to love her,” Armand says, “What a tragedy.”  Percy replies, “I shall love her ‘til the day I die, that’s the tragedy.” Such a line captures The Scarlet Pimpernel‘s rare feel for the smouldering romanticism lurking under the seemingly stoic and staid English surface. The very French and expressive Marguerite is conversely suffering her sudden and chilling alienation from Percy, who, as far as London society is concerned, is a shallow, witless gadabout obsessed with fashion and trivialities. True to Quentin Tarantino’s maxim about secret identity as a mask that reveals and critiques, the version of himself that Sir Percy Blakeney presents to the world is a stinging study in English upper-crust complacency and cloddishness. Percy maintains his cover by playing a jackass, fop, and effeminate pseudo-wit. He predicts Beau Brummel by advising the Prince in fashion, ridiculing his tailor’s efforts (“I’ll have you know that this is the last word in sleeves!” “Oh I should hope so, for there should never be another like it!”), and reciting to anyone who’ll listen his poem about the Pimpernel (“They seek him here, they seek him there…”) which he has to censor when repeating it to society ladies.

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The fat, old former soldiers he teases as they lounge about his club congratulate themselves on their superiority to such callow youth: “What that young man needs is a year of two’s hard campaigning, facing powder and shot!” declares Winterbottom (Edmund Breon), whilst one of the Prince’s circle, contemplating the horrors in France, muses, “What do you expect of a lot of foreigners with no sporting instinct? If it wasn’t for our fox hunting and grouse shooting, I dare say we should be cruel, too!” When Marguerite wonders if Ffoulkes might be the Pimpernel, Percy derides the idea: “The fellow couldn’t hit a ball at Eton!” This tint of satire on the worst traits of the English upper crust is, of course, contrasted in how Percy and his fellows actually represent their class’s best qualities. Even the Prince finally reveals his hidden grit when, disgusted by news Robespierre is planning to execute the French King, he’s introduced to Chauvelin, who he welcomes as a private citizen: “We shall try to forget the government that sent you,” before turning his back and getting on with his pleasant evening.

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The Scarlet Pimpernel’s layered and wit-laden script was composed by many hands, with Korda and Orczy adding some material to the credited foursome of Lajos Biró, S. N. Behrman, Robert E. Sherwood, and Arthur Wimperis. As per the Korda style, and perhaps partly reflecting the fact that the story had first appeared not as a novel but as a stage play, the narrative moves forward in a series of intensely orchestrated and carefully composed sequences. The actual job of direction fell to American Harold Young, making his third film after a long career as an editor: Young’s subsequent career would be largely unremarkable as a maker of B-movies, including The Mummy’s Tomb (1942). But the entire production bears the imprint of Korda, particularly in the carefully composed crowd scenes. Korda’s approach to spectacle was strange, offering lavish sets, casts, and costuming, and then often dismissing them, preferring to concentrate elliptically on peripheral details. The Scarlet Pimpernel deliberately detours from many key moments of action, and yet avoids staidness with its supple and functional cutting and quietly musical visual pacing.

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Notable are little minuets of telling close-ups and dramatic camera angles in compositions that are fastidiously balanced, often with characters framed in association with statues that match their personality. A brilliant, pivotal moment occurs when Marguerite finally realises her husband is the Pimpernel, camera zeroing in on a tell-tale feature of a painting she stares at, and cutting back to a high shot of Marguerite gazing up, the moment of realisation rendered electric. The effect shifts emphasis from the physical intensity of the drama to the emotional, making The Scarlet Pimpernel all the more singular. It’s tempting, if running the risk of making facile presumptions, to ascribe some of the emotional intensity of The Scarlet Pimpernel to the way it offers such a fervent metaphor for the lives of so many of its creators. Korda and Howard were Hungarian with Jewish backgrounds, busy dissembling as perfect English entrepreneur and actor, whilst Orczy was also Hungarian, and Oberon was part-Indian, a side of herself she had to keep suppressed to avoid the censure in a still often segregated cinema screen.

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One doesn’t look to The Scarlet Pimpernel for in-depth political considerations, and yet the brief depiction of Robespierre (Ernest Milton) is an amusing study in dictatorial power as the self-dramatized posturing of a child prodigy, one that seems cleverly pitched to evoke caricatures of Mussolini and Hitler as bratty buffoons for audiences of the 1930s. He stalks away from his desk after writing a death warrant with showy gravitas and situates himself before a nobly bearded bust, before calling Chauvelin and declaring effetely to De Tournay that “I send you people to the guillotine for the future happiness of the human race, but I don’t allow torture!” Chauvelin is both smarmy and serpentine in his confident espousal of the revolutionary cause, and also acutely aware of his vulnerability, tasked with capturing the Pimpernel and knowing it means his neck if he can’t. Chauvelin blackmails Marguerite into helping him identify the Pimpernel, having traced the various leads to Percy’s social circle. To manipulate Marguerite, he uses both standard pressures—arresting Armand and holding his fate over her—and his sinuous and unsettling psychological grip on her, as the keeper of her darkest secrets. Chauvelin was partly responsible for Marguerite’s denunciation of the Saint Cyrs, though her animosity towards the clan after the patriarch had her thrown in prison when his son wanted to marry her, was still powerful.

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The film’s multiple story strands collide in a lengthy sequence at a ball held by Lord Grenville (Allan Jeayes) in which dancing is dismissed as frou frou in favour of the far more intricate cotillion of role-playing and gamesmanship. Percy swaps gracefully between fop and spymaster (he’s able to rescue himself from the coterie of trailing women and make contact with one of his agents with the cry, “Zounds! That’s a monstrous good collar!”), Chauvelin stalks through the proceedings with his hunting-dog smirk, and Marguerite is caught between camps, cold-shouldered by the De Tournays until the Prince, who worships Marguerite, commands them to make friends. Marguerite is tasked by Chauvelin to obtain a message Ffoulkes has tucked in his sleeve, and Marguerite rises to the challenge in a sublimely odd sequence in which dance music drifts sonorously in from the ballroom, Ffoulkes tries to both aid Marguerite and read the message, and Marguerite looks for a chance, any chance, to see it, too, whilst a confused crackle of the erotic and the illicit infuses the game of deception. She finally succeeds in getting hold of the letter and is able to reveal its contents to Chauvelin, that the Pimpernel will be in the library at midnight, which proves true, only Percy makes a play of being asleep on a couch, sprawled with indolent laziness. Percy seems to fake Chauvelin out by this means, but his joke proves to have been a bit too clever, for Chauvelin quickly realises the truth and sets in motion a plan to catch Percy the next time he ventures to France.

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The weight of sustaining the film falls heavy on Howard’s and Oberon’s shoulders. Howard was just hitting the height of his fame, as he was starring in the hit play The Petrified Forest and had played the lead in a Hollywood adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage opposite Bette Davis. At first, Korda had offered the role of Percy to Charles Laughton after the success of Henry VIII, but fans of the books objected. Howard’s specific screen persona here came to the fore, in playing a man who seems emotionally obtuse and physically mild, and yet who actually possesses surprising moral and mental force; Howard would offer several variations on this character before his sad death in 1943. His performance as Percy, nonetheless, has a clarity and simplicity of technique that puts me in mind of Paul Scofield, in the precision of his shifts of character registered in diction and restrained physical emphasis, his delightful skill in swinging from pallid overcivility (the curse of his Ashley Wilkes in Gone With The Wind, 1939) and mincing foppishness, to an unconventional, but steely, convincing rectitude. He’s particularly excellent in the key scene the couple have after the ball, in which Marguerite distraughtly confesses how Chauvelin has used her, and Percy asks just what she’s done in exchange for her brother’s freedom, with a sudden revelation of the anger and pain he’s been sitting on. As Marguerite breaks down and appeals to him with real desperation, he comes precariously close to kissing her as he realises she’s a victim and not a villain, but remembers himself at the last moment and pulls back with obvious difficulty.

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Oberon was still a fairly fresh-minted movie star, although she had been leading a life laden with novel-worthy mystique for much of her life, rising from headliner in Bombay nightlife in her early teens to several years of bit roles after landing in Britain, and discovery by Korda, whom she would marry. She would go on to be an underutilised but reliable star in Hollywood, but she inhabits the difficult role of Marguerite perfectly. She keeps Marguerite’s emotional quandaries in focus, smouldering with guilt and disaffection even as she’s called upon to be the perfect, nerveless beauty, wife, secret agent, and emotional prostitute, speaking with rueful sadness after her husband’s made another of his embarrassing displays, “The biggest fool in England has the most complete contempt for his wife,” and insulting Percy with bite, “You were a man once!” The quiet romanticism of the film is indeed laced with the bitter taste of its opposite, the Noel Coward-esque cynicism apparent as Percy, in character and yet delivered with cold brutality, responds to Marguerite’s proposition that they should help Armand get married, “What has poor Armand done to be sentenced to matrimony? You should know better, my dear.”

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Massey likely never quite had as much fun in a film role as here, playing Chauvelin with a plummy, come-and-go accent, but more effectively offering his hangdog face and perpetual five o’clock shadow to imbue a faint air of shifty dishevelment to Chauvelin’s pretences to elegant villainy, the inelegant method and functionary brutality underneath constantly in evidence. His exchanges with Percy in foolish guise are droll in Chauvelin’s recoiling disgust of the seemingly oblivious aristocrat who sneakily makes jabs at Chauvelin’s fear of the guillotine under the pretext of giving him fashion tips; whenever Percy reaches to adjust Chauvelin’s cravat, the envoy recoils in alarm. Chauvelin has his moment of triumph as he thinks he finally has Percy exactly where he wants him, in front of a firing squad, mouthing orders in anxious delight until he hears the shot. Once Marguerite ventures into enemy territory to warn Percy that Chauvelin is laying a trap for him, but once again makes herself perfect bait, as Chauvelin takes her prisoner and uses her as a means of forcing Percy into exchanging himself for her.

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Here the moral, physical, and romantic danger facing the characters crystallises in another marvellous moment of smouldering romanticism, as Marguerite declares she wants to die with her husband and fainting, Percy offering a last, breathlessly romantic kiss to her prone form before letting her be carried out. Percy pauses for his moment of poetically graceful patriotism before heading out to die—except, of course, Percy is too clever for Chauvelin, and, in one of the great action hero bluffs, his firing squad proves to be formed entirely of his own men. What’s rare about this last act is that in avoiding traditional action movie stunts, it generates a fervent tension that’s altogether sublime. The very finish twists Percy’s earlier black description of matrimony as a sentence, as he revises Chauvelin’s own pronouncement that Marguerite would be free when Percy died into an epigram of fidelity of a couple reforged into strong and confident partners in adventure. It’s worth noting that a sequel was produced three years later, but the only returning cast member was Bushell, and the film, whilst competent, was essentially an afterthought, which goes to show that half-hearted sequels are hardly a recent phenomenon.

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1960s, British cinema, Horror/Eerie

The Witches (1966)

aka The Devil’s Own

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Director: Cyril Frankel

By Roderick Heath

Hammer Studios first moved into making films in the cinefantastique genres with adaptations of Nigel Kneale’s epochal TV serials in the mid ’50s. But Kneale had surprisingly little to do with the studio, except for adapting his own work with the 1957 film The Abominable Snowman, and penning the script for this ripping mid-’60s work that sports one of the House of Horror’s few imported star turns, in the person of Joan Fontaine. Director Cyril Frankel’s name doesn’t conjure many associations, which perhaps partly explains why this film has fallen under the radar: after initial film work, he worked chiefly as a TV director. But The Witches is a fine slice of classic British genre fare offers much the same deeply neurotic mood of repression and explosive release that also marks out other great, thematically similar British horror films like Night of the Eagle (1961) and The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971). It anticipates, in many ways, The Wicker Man’s ironic contrast of idyllic hamlets and uncanny threats, if without the calculated inversions of story expectations, and looks forward to more modern studies on similar material like Wake Wood (2010) and the satiric landscape of Hot Fuzz (2007).

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The Witches is an adaptation of a novel by Norah Lofts, who also provided the source material for John Ford’s last feature film, shot the same year, 7 Women, an equally interesting revision of genre film with a female-centric viewpoint. Here, a bizarre and jarring prologue immediately hits a note of frantic alarmism, as it offers a fin-de-siecle twist on colonial do-gooder tales like The Nun’s Story (1959). Fontaine’s character, Gwen Mayfield, running a school in a colony beset by a Mau-Mau-like uprising, tries to pack up and flee before the menace comes calling. Her native assistants are so frightened by the curse of the local Juju man they finally abandon Gwen. The door is bashed in, and the Juju men, one wearing a colossal tribal mask, enter, presumably to rape and abuse our heroine.
After the credits, Gwen reappears in London three years later. She’s patched herself back together but is still bearing signs of trauma, fending off an attack of nerves as she’s interviewed by the pleasant, but fusty eccentric Alan Bax (Alec McCowen) for a job teaching at small, rural school of which he’s a patron. Gwen’s new position takes her to the hamlet of Heddaby.

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Alan and his sister Stephanie (Kay Walsh) are the wealthiest people in the area, and the town is a backwater without a government school, which is why the Baxes fund their own. Gwen shares duties with another teacher, Sally Benson (Ann Bell), and begins to settle into her job, until the romance of two of her adolescent students, Ronnie Dowsett (Martin Stephens) and Linda Rigg (Ingrid Boulting), is discovered. Linda’s guardian “Granny” Rigg (Gwen Ffrangcon Davies) objects to this coupling, and Gwen finds herself called upon to find a way of keeping them apart. She encourages Ronnie’s talents, and soon he wins a chance to go to a better school out of town. Rather than send him away, which Gwen thinks will make him unhappy, she begins personally tutoring him, making him vulnerable to secret forces who control the village, and want to protect Linda’s virginity. Ronnie falls into a coma one night and is hospitalised. Gwen makes a disturbing discovery, of a male doll Ronnie had bought for Linda as a suggestive partner for the female figurine she perpetually sports. Gwen finds this hidden in the crook of a tree with its head removed and riddled with pins, and it stirs her suspicions that she’s dealing with something she has encountered before. Ronnie’s mother (Carmel McSharry) flees town with her son when he recovers, and her husband (John Collin) visits Gwen one night in the schoolhouse stinking drunk, distraught at the collapse of his life. When Gwen lets slip that she suspects Granny Rigg might have cursed Ronnie in some way, he goes to visit her, but turns up drowned in a nearby lake. Before she can report her story at the inquest, Gwen, staying overnight at the Bax’s house, is stricken down with a vision of the Juju mask and she awakens in a nursing home, having completely lost her memory of the past three years.

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Like many great horror films, The Witches cunningly uses other, more humdrum genres and everyday familiarities as a starting point. Although the prologue announces things are going to be sensational and garish, most of the first half is deceptively casual and evokes a traditional depiction of an English village that might have stumbled out of soap operas from The Archers through to Heartbeat. It avoids even the signposted oddness of The Wicker Man, with only a slightly tweaked atmosphere of estrangement, apparent in touches like the cheery brutality of the local butcher Bob Curd (Duncan Lamont), beaming with overemphatic friendliness as he rips the skin off a rabbit, the coolly unexaggerated bigotry of the local mothers aimed at Ronnie because of his father’s reputation as a layabout, and the discomfort Gwen experiences in trying to negotiate small-town politics. She plays the beneficent teacher helping give the poor young lad a leg up in a victimising world, almost a prototype for Kes (1969).

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Frankel’s unmannered, clear-eyed direction helps the film walk a tightrope of tone, only skewing from the realistic in such odd moments as Granny Rigg telling her grey cat to follow Gwen, and a slowly manifesting sense of more than usual evil lurking under the surface, as when Ronnie tries to alert Gwen, claiming to have seen Linda being punished by Granny Rigg, who jammed her hand into a clothes wringer. Ronnie’s romancing of Linda isn’t just verboten because she’s important to a witches’ rite, but also because his mother isn’t local: the other children are all so in-bred, as Sally says, it’s hard to distinguish the variations on the “Heddaby face.” Frankel wields Hitchcockian technique as Gwen notices details like the many bare footprints scattered in the mud by the lake where Dowsett drowned, only to be erased as a flock of sheep charges through, panicked by Stephanie’s dogs; it’s a moment clearly reminiscent of the erasing of Miss Froy’s dust-written name in The Lady Vanishes (1938).

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Perhaps another reason The Witches isn’t as well known to Hammer fans as it ought to be is because it mostly eschews the studio’s usual gothic stylistics, preferring crisper, restrained hues in the photography to the usual saturated tones. It also sports an uncommonly good cast of actors not at all associated with the genre, redolent of an attempt to elevate studio fare that was beginning to slide into the blood-and-boobs formula of many later Hammer works. In addition to Walsh and McCowen, Leonard Rossiter turns up late in the piece as a smug, yet hapless doctor who takes Gwen in charge when she suffers a second breakdown after being hexed. The comely Boulting was a daughter of film director John Boulting, and whose most recognisable role is perhaps the mysterious object of affection in Elia Kazan’s The Last Tycoon (1976).

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Witchcraft has often been one of the more neglected fields for horror films to draw on, in part because it often demands suggestion of unseen forces at odds with the declarative demands of genre cinema, and also because the modern mind is largely inclined to give witches the benefit of the doubt. Frankel doesn’t draw out fulminating sensuality and neurotic energy like Terence Fisher or Don Sharp at their best, but he does master the necessary rhythm of slowly composing strangeness leading into outright nuttiness. Whereas Fisher’s tackling of similar notions in the following year’s The Devil Rides Out is a lushly orchestrated spectacle, Frankel and Kneale’s film builds toward something like black comedy in its depiction of dowdy villagers suddenly hurling themselves with joyous, countercultural energy into satanic rites and orgiastic preludes.

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The Witches partners squarely with the same year’s Plague of the Zombies, though not played in a period setting, by invoking similar motifs: the secret link between colonialist horrors and malevolence infecting the coloniser’s homeland, an evil manipulated by the mansion on the hill, and virtually surreal visions of atavistic rites within the supposedly staid and settled English order of things. True weirdness finally, explictly manifests when Gwen ventures into the cave where the coven meets, discovering a cabalistic dial on the ground upon which a strange doll-like object seems to dance spontaneously—it’s actually got Granny Rigg’s familiar-like cat sewed up inside, and has a photo of Linda’s face pinned to it.

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The Witches is fundamentally a good yarn, but it required a compelling lead performance to give the drama true pep, and Fontaine delivers. Her Gwen is shaky, but intelligent and dogged, fighting against her own brittle nerves and fear of the unknown. She is severely contrasted by the film’s other major female figure, Stephanie, a popular newspaper writer whose bracing, if slightly grating bravado contrasts her brother’s air of tragic failure. He had wanted to be a priest, and as well as dressing as one, spends much of his time locked away in private playing church bell and choir music and drifting away in melancholy distraction when trying to explain his fixations to Gwen. Fontaine offers, in a way, a bookend to her career-making part as the heroine of Rebecca (1940), considerably older and wiser, but equally perplexed by the workings of the world where, be it in Africa or rural England, irrational, cryptic, boding forces work to annihilate or assimilate anything that disrupts their cohesive fabric.

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When Gwen presents the pin-stuck doll to her, Stephanie slashes heartily through the pretences of witchcraft in describing its practitioners as mostly repressed yokels looking for an orgy. Of course, she is really the secret head of the coven, which she found operating in the town and has taken over for her own purposes: convinced of her own brilliance as a force that could heal the world’s ills, she’s looking for a way to renew herself, and has found it, planning to claim Linda’s body to transplant her soul into. Walsh’s Stephanie is posited at first as a less damaged, more outgoing version of Gwen, radiating cosmopolitan intellectual confidence and, more subtly, a hint of lesbian charisma, all but licking her lips in joy at having Fontaine under her thumb as dominated, unwilling confidant. But she’s also a colossal egomaniac with a hale and aggressive energy that operates a little like an energy vampire against those close to her, even before she reveals her true status and her ultimate intent, which is to slice off Linda’s skin and wear it as a cloak of youth.

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The attraction and tension between Fontaine’s and Walsh’s differing editions of middle-aged, woman-of-the-world, strength of purpose then sustains the drama, with Gwen starting off on the back foot thanks to her traumatic experiences and ignorance of the lay of the land in Heddaby, but slowly gathering resolve in trying to penetrate the mystery. When she’s stuck in a nursing home, stricken with amnesia, her memory returns in a cathartic moment, but she’s able to keep anyone from realising it until she can get a chance to escape. She’s soon snatched and forcibly inducted into the coven. Between the women stands the castrated Alan, whose defence mechanism against his monstrous sister is to isolate himself with the apparel of the church: Gwen’s appeal to him to give aid proves ineffectual as he locks himself away again: he is as much damsel in distress as Linda. Only Gwen is capable of standing up to Stephanie.

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The film’s climax is also its major set-piece, as Gwen is forced to watch over a mesmerised Linda as Stephanie whips her coven into a sensual frenzy, orchestrating their gyrations as they perform the ritual dances. The tawdry sexual element Stephanie mocked comes out, the villagers, clad in rags, beat drums and blow horns with comic intensity. Gwen is held prone by two of the village men who can’t wait to induct her properly, and the rest cavort like they’ve been choreographed by an enterprising high school dance teacher. But the latent power and fascinating intensity of the rituals also begin to assert themselves as Stephanie, wearing deer horns on her head when clad in her witch’s garb, evokes the most ancient religions, and Linda, as she enters the coven, catalyses through her body the unnerving force she represents as an adolescent female, completely unfettered, a different kind of crucible that offers manifold promises of ecstatic delights. The coven smear themselves in juice squeezed from fruits, rubbing themselves and each other down, including one moment of homoerotic punch as two of the village males gleefully caress each other. Stephanie serves up a magical glop that look like excrement to be eaten in frenzied joy, and she leaves them twitching on the floor as if in a mass epileptic convulsion.

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Meanwhile Stephanie’s monstrous egotism is configured as she conducts her coven like a puppeteer, sensually grasping Linda from behind and guiding her like a tuned instrument. Fittingly, then, the film’s corkscrewing narrative seems to find in the ritual acts of the coven a metaphor for the genre itself, a carefully orchestrated eruption of elements other worldviews frantically suppress or ignore, and where the dichotomous choice is to grasp or destroy the young female. Fittingly, Stephanie’s arrogance proves her undoing as her reading of the ritual procedure to Gwen earlier in the film gives Gwen the knowledge to wreck the ritual right at its climax, stabbing herself in the arm and soiling Stephanie’s cloak with it, bringing down the offended power of the dark gods on her: Stephanie drops dead and the coven’s power is broken.

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The appended coda is a happy ending but rather disorienting in its disarmingly cheery tone, even as it encompasses some strange implications. A happy Alan sets about aiding Gwen as her liberated potential romantic partner, the town is suddenly dragged into the 20th century as the general store is replaced by a supermarket and the old residents scatter after the coven’s is broken, and Gwen’s students flock in to celebrate her goodness. The shattering of a corrupt order seems to have meant also throwing away that cosy insularity so often fetishized in retrospect in modern British life. In any event, The Witches is a delicious diversion for fans of offbeat horror.

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