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Help her, O Lucifer!
27 January 2019
Very effective low-budget British horror that, thanks to skillful direction and a striking central performance, delivers its impact with great economy. John Moxey creates a wonderfully spooky sense of mood in a studio-bound backwoods New England town, still under the curse of a 17th century witch. He is aided by a memorable performance from Patricia Jessel as the unholy Elizabeth Selwyn, a chilling portrait of malevolence and evil. Christopher Lee is billed higher but his is more of a supporting role to the poker-faced Jessel. If it starts a bit slow, it soon picks up pace, with lots of atmosphere, from the creepy old inn, hellishly lit by firelight shadows, to the town streets blanketed by dry-ice.
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The Satan Bug (1965)
Strangely flat suspenser that didn't fulfil its potential
29 January 2018
A near miss that should have been a landmark 1960s suspense thriller. It had a personable star in George Maharis, a heavyweight antagonist in Richard Basehart, a highly proficient action director (John Sturges) at the helm, a quirkily unnerving Jerry Goldsmith score and a chilling premise - a stolen flask of a super-bacteria that threatens global extinction. Throw in sleek 60s technology and photogenic desert locations and what could go wrong?

Unfortunately the exposition. We're never given any firm idea of Basehart's motivation, and his accomplices (including a younger Edward Asner) just seem like B-movie heavies. Dana Andrews hasn't enough to do as Maharis' brooding superior, while romantic interest Anne Francis' part is virtually superfluous. It badly needs some more interesting secondary characters. And, bafflingly, there's not actually that much action or pace either, though Sturges does build up the tension masterfully at the climax.

Enough remains to just about hold the attention. But it should have been better...
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Creature-feature with surreal touches
8 January 2018
Director Jack Arnold saved an otherwise monotonous B-horror with a few imaginative touches. An amphibious man-monster is discovered in an Amazonian lagoon by explorer Richard Carlson and covets Julia Adams.

The characterisation is two-dimensional, the story plodding. But you forgive all of that for that single scene where the Creature swims underneath Adams, unaware of what's stalking her, in a surreal aquatic sexual ballet. It's quite uniquely Freudian. Elsewhere, the story only gets slightly more exciting when the hero confronts it in a hauntingly dank grotto.

The film spawned two rudimentary sequels. By now Universal was branching more into science fiction - alien invaders and atomic mutations - and Arnold became the film-maker most sympathetic to this sub-genre.
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Not much of a gas, in the end
13 January 2016
Impossible to say how Roger Corman's attempt at a loose kaleidoscopic comedy-satire in the Richard Lester vein would have turned out had not American International Pictures re-edited it against his wishes. He left the studio after 15 years with them after this.

The script is decidedly weak, a common Corman failing, full of potentially intriguing, half-formed ideas that are never realised. Meanwhile the cast of unknowns never get any real chance to build up their characters into anything sympathetic or likable. It's as if the director isn't really interested in them.

It's an adequately stylish, and zippy enough production. But like much of Corman's later stuff for AIP, it also has an air of opportunism about it, riding the post-Easy Rider youth-counterculture boom while having only an outsider's empathy with it (Corman was 44 when he made this).

Still, if nothing else he does get a chance to say an ironic farewell to Edgar Allan Poe (the author of Corman's earlier celebrated cult film series), who here appears in period dress riding a Harley Davidson with a stuffed raven on his shoulder!
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West 11 (1963)
Smoothly made little Brit-pic
7 January 2016
A minor but very smoothly made example of British film noir. Director Michael Winner, then at the start of his career, had a strong cast (Alfred Lynch, Eric Portman, Diana Dors, Finlay Currie, et al) to inhabit this starkly photographed little crime melodrama set in London bedsit-land, all tacky Notting Hill coffee bars and smoky jazz clubs.

Lynch makes a downbeat but sympathetic protagonist, more thoughtful than the usual type of hero. Portman plays the clipped-moustache ex-military man-turned-swindler to perfection. Dors is just right, too, as a blousy divorcée ("Young enough to still want a husband; old enough not get the one I want").

Winner plays up the salacious sex element a bit, but a tight Keith Waterhouse/Willis Hall script touches on Lynch's Catholic guilt, and Currie's existential search for 'truth', just enough to give the story a modicum of depth. There's also an evocative score by Stanley Black, with Acker Bilk on sax.

Until latterly a neglected, even scorned, cinema sub-genre, these usually low-budget British film noirs, often superbly photographed, were violent by the standards of their day, and showed the rain-washed streets of cities like Newcastle (Payroll), Manchester (Hell Is a City) and Brighton (Jigsaw), as well as London, could be pretty mean, too.

Winner's next film, The System with Oliver Reed, was even better.
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Bottom of the Barrel Bond spoof
16 July 2015
Budget-wise, location-wise and production value-wise, this bargain basement spoof of the Bond films pretty much scrapes the barrel. Actually, though, John Gilling (better known for Hammer horror) directed it niftily enough and in patches even makes it quite witty.

Tom Adams carries off the hero part with nice deadpan aplomb and gets good support from Michael Ripper as main baddie Mr Angel, Joe Baker as an oafish Labour minister, and a Sid James cameo as a mortuary attendant ("Business is perking up here," he says over the phone while ducking from a frenzied shoot-out). Cheesy organ music and locations that include a gasworks and sewer add to the threadbare fun.
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Arty drama about corruption in the Met
27 January 2015
David Greene's assured direction makes this offbeat police thriller as notable as his first British film, The Shuttered Room, the previous year. Here he uses another fine jazz-score to counterpoint a sordid story (naïve rookie constable Michael York caught up in corruption in the London Metropolitan Police by detective Jeremy Kemp) with the same strange, almost dreamy quality.

By now, the anti-establishment Sixties was souring towards authority (compare the cynicism towards the police with, say, 1961's Jigsaw). But although initially Greene's telephoto camera-work gives the film a documentary feel, he proceeds to visualise Swinging London in almost David Hockney-like pictorial compositions (the shadow of a helicopter across the old Battersea power station, Susan George's kinky bedroom), all of which add to an unsettling air of unreality.

An oddity, but an original and arresting one.
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Thunderball (1965)
Mid-ranking Bond but still a favourite
20 January 2015
Terence Young returned for Thunderball at the height of the 007 craze, but this fourth Bond marks the first signs of the polish of the Eon formula becoming glazed. Young blamed the underwater sequences which dictated their own – inevitably more languorous – pace, although the muffled thud of the harpoons as they puncture the bodies they slam into gives it a nasty edge.

The more cluttered script in Thunderball may lack the clean narrative line of its immediate predecessor Goldfinger, but there is plenty to enjoy. If the baddies are not quite so grotesque, Adolfo Celi has a powerful feral malevolence and Luciana Palazzo a voluptuous sexuality heightened by her refusal to succumb to our hero's charms (composer John Barry even awards her a musical legit motif of her own). She's got much more sexual electricity than Honour Blackman in the previous film, or indeed of main heroine Claudette Auger in this one. Young generally handles sex better than other Bond directors. Although the clichéd shots of Connery and Auger embracing underwater don't much work, the final shot in which they whisked into the blue yonder by a USAF rescue-plane has a rather magical quality.

But it's also the first film where the gadgets begin to intrude. The protracted hijack and ditching of the Vulcan bomber, and the climactic underwater battle, means Connery is either not on screen or is semi-recognisable in a wetsuit, reduced to merely an operator of the propeller-back-tank.

Other scenes - such as the Shrublands health farm and M's office - are pretty mundanely handled by Young. The fleeting reappearance of the Aston Martin, shot from only one angle in the short chase with Lippe's car, suggets there wasn't enough covering footage for the editors to assemble into something better. Meanwhile, clumsy continuity and poor colour grading intrude (Young only just escapes a disastrous lapse with Connery pictured in long shot with Rik Van Nutter's Felix Leiter at the casino before the script has them meeting next day).

But Ted Moore's photography makes good use of the Bahaman location, all hard azure sea and white beaches. His handling of the Junkanoo carnival chase (one of the best sequences in the series) is a riot of exciting vibrant colour. Apart from the main theme, Thunderball boasts some of John Barry's wittiest music, notably his pounding calypso score for the Junkanoo chase, repeated for the climatic fight on board the hydrofoil. Only designer Ken Adam is constrained by a screenplay that doesn't call for a single large elaborate set, although the MI6 conference room is rather elegant. The traction-device in the health clinic, although even more sexually allusive, lacks the outré frisson of the laser-beam in Goldfinger.

And the climax certainly delivers. Even if the matte shots used in the fight in the hydrofoil's cabin – as it skims precariously between the reefs - are quite blatantly speeded-up the resulting action is as vicariously exciting as Connery's battle with Robert Shaw in From Russia with Love, a furiously cramped bout of kicks, scuffles and bone-breaking blows, with music and editing used to maximum effect.
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Dr. No (1962)
"It depends on what side of the mirror you're on, Mr Bond."
19 January 2015
Sean Connery is just a little stiff and the plot does rather thin out towards the end, but for a film made over 50 years ago this first James Bond thriller dates remarkably well. Joseph Wiseman was the baddie with the metal hands and metallic voice, while bikini-clad Ursula Andress wades languidly out of a turquoise ocean in one of cinema's most famous entrances.

Right from the start you know it's something different. The multi-coloured computer-dots of the title-sequence dissolve into writhing calypso dancers, suggesting an espionage thriller with a science-fiction lining. It's London premiere was the same month (October) as the Cuban Missile Crisis. There's the pastel colours of the decontamination chamber (with its the sexual undercurrent as the naked Connery and Andress are forced through it) and the luxury bedrooms, contrasted with the harsh swamp where they are captured, sealed off by the clamp of metal doors. Then there's the weird gushing echoes on the soundtrack as Connery edges along the circular ventilation shaft with its surreal sexual symbolism, and the sense of sterile super-technology seen later in the reactor set.

Dr No set the scene for all the Bonds which have followed. The exotic locations, the impossible plots, the megalomaniacal villains, and, of course, the alluring heroines. An instant success, in the UK at least where it was top British money-maker at the box-office that year despite opening in mid-autumn, it would still be coining it in, double-billed with other Bonds, a decade later.

Plenty of fans prefer the gaucheness of Dr No to the slickness of the later, more inflated Bonds. There's a fresh feel to Bond and to the action, of Eon Films capitalising on the uncertainty of a new star and formula. The early Bonds had yet to become parodies of themselves. Bond here is still recognisably human (he is distinctly nauseous after killing tarantula). Contrast his basic precautions against intruders (a strand of hair, talcum powder) to the later technological gimmicks. And the location work in Jamaica and the glistening Caribbean is vivid.

Dr No, meanwhile, is the least seen of Bond villains. Wiseman's intense performance is so seemingly impassive even his rage seems measured.

It's not quite the best Bond film. Connery escapes rather too easily from his prison cell, while not enough is made of the climatic fight, there's no bravura editing by Peter Hunt. Monty Norman's music is too Dick Barton-ish (one particularly pedestrian passage is used again in the helicopter chase in From Russia with Love). John Barry would have made more of the beach encounter between Connery and Andress, and highlighted more subtly the menaces within Dr No's lair. And there's no interesting subsidiary villains, certainly not Professor Dent (later Bonds might have made something of the 'three blind mice' assassins).

Dated only by the 'space age' costumes, trouser turn-ups, and dark red lipsticks, Dr No acts as a very effective overture for the subsequent series.
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An oddity worth catching
7 January 2015
An offbeat curiosity, this laid back, quirky suspenser is based on a HP Lovecraft story set in New England but was shot, more or less convincingly, in (Old England) Norfolk. Apparently Ken Russell was originally slated to direct but the job fell to Canadian TV graduate David Greene. While intriguing to imagine what Russell would have made of it, Greene has endowed this underwritten yarn with a strange, dreamy quality that sustains the interest enough to transcend the slight story. And he uses landscape well - bare sandy heathland and rocky coastlines - to give the setting a rather other-worldly feel. Carol Lynley's doll-like beauty makes the vulnerable heroine seem even more fragile, but Gig Young as her older husband is just too square for the Swinging Sixties. Oliver Reed seems strangely subdued; he never quite gets a chance to really get to grips with his character, a menacing backwoods psychotic. Flora Robson also underplays her part as local witch, but her restraint is more effective. Greene stayed in Britain to make the equally original The Strange Affair with Michael York.
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Solid suspenser
7 January 2015
Watchable but somehow unmemorable suspense thriller from a major British director. The plot, cleverly written by John Mortimer, has some quite subtle twists and turns; the acting good. Laurence Harvey as a dislikeable insurance fraudster, Lee Merick is particularly fetchi9ng as his increasingly uncertain wife, Alan Bates gives his usual sensitive performance as investigator who might be on to them, all convince. But Carol Reed (director of such classics as The third Man, Odd Man Out, Oliver) never manages to give it quite enough urgency or edge. It all comes across as something of a pot-boiler in his career. The scenery in Spain and Gibraltar is atmospheric, but it's one of those films that relies just a bit too heavily on pleasing sunny locations.
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Paintbox colour and lava-lamps on Planet Skaro
31 May 2013
Purists of the BBC cult programme will doubtless sniff at this cheerfully undemanding little spin-off by Amicus producers Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg. But, aimed squarely at Saturday morning children's cinema audiences, its not without its charm. Not least the paint-box colours (the petrified surface of planet Skaro is lit by a lurid green light) and lava-lamp decor. And some of the planetary landscape mattes are rather magnificent in their comic-strip way.

Alas the weakest link, amazingly, is Peter Cushing as Dr Who. Though the film mainly sticks to writer Terry Nation's original story, the producers understandably had to jettison the television serial's back-story (such as it was in 1965) if it was to appeal to the crucial American market. But here Cushing's Doctor is little more than a doddery old grandfather, with none of the crotchety antagonism of William Hartnell, the role's originator. And the Tardis interior is just a mess of overhanging wires and junkyard cast-offs rather than the wonderfully sterile, futuristic control room of the small-screen.

The Daleks, though larger, are more ungainly and don't have the streamlined menace of the TV ones (perhaps the only monsters on film to actually swivel with sheer pent-up malice). Worst of all, their exterminators just scoosh out rather pathetic white smoke. Was the original x-ray laser effect, turning the TV screen image negative, deemed too scary, even though most of its audience would have thrilled to it at home? There's not a great deal more to commend it. Roy Castle clowns around rather embarrassingly as the young male lead, while Jenny Linden barely gets a line of script as the heroine. All in all, eleven year-old Roberta Tovey walks away with the acting honours.
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Right idea, Mr Bond. Wrong pussy...
1 May 2012
A greying Connery returns for an enjoyable but only occasionally 18-carat entry, his last for the Eon Bonds. Jill St John makes a gutsy heroine and Charles Gray the iciest and best of the Blofelds. But the gags are overdone (and would be from now on) and the ending weak.

The producers also brought back director Guy Hamilton but the untidy screenplay doesn't allow for the polish of his earlier 'Goldfinger'. A tight shooting schedule, a contractual condition by Connery, explains the somewhat hurried look of 'Diamonds are Forever' (the drainpipe sequence, for instance, is so shoddily cut it seems assembled from discarded outtakes).

And yet all the elements of a great Bond thriller are here. A mysterious hi-tech desert installation, a hidden jungle surgery complete with bubbling sulphur-pit, a car-chase along the Las Vegas Strip (that admittedly seemed more daring then than now), a world-threatening plot, a wonderfully tense confrontation between 007 and two Blofelds in a stainless steel penthouse. Unfortunately, that's really the last interesting sequence in the film.

Despite the introduction of the laser-satellite, it loses what narrative verve it has and the subsequent events aren't charged with enough urgency. The final set-piece battle is a disappointment; a converted oil rig of the Californian coast hardly provides for a very spectacular climax or a memorable interior set to focus the action on. In fact, the satellite control-room must be about the least inspired set that designer Ken Adams has ever come up with. And some of the explosion effects are glaringly poor.

What a pity. Because John Barry comes up with yet another distinctively superb score, memorably the harsh discordant sax for the desert sequences that also acts as the recurring musical leit motif for the murderous gay couple Mr Wint and Mr Kidd, as well as that clamorous, piercing piece with piccolos that accompanies the fight scenes. And cinematographer Ted Moore well captures the neon-hard local colour and the arid starkness of the hinterland, noticeably in the very high angle shot of Bond's red Ford trailing Metz' minibus out of Las Vegas into the desert.

The real pleasure of the film is Connery, though. If the trim figure that began nine years earlier has gone, along with the muscle-tone, he's more relaxed and assured than ever in in a role that by now fits him like a glove, despite a five-year absence.

The role is his, absolutely, and he knows it.
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Underrated Swinging Sixties precursor with its feet on the round
1 August 2011
A neglected but in its unassuming way very well-made little melodrama by a young Michael Winner, shot mainly on location around Torbay right at the start of the Swinging Sixties era. Fairly racy in its day, it never tries to sensationalise its premise that casual sex is as normal as the twist among the holidaying young people.

The cast is exceptional. This was Winner's first collaboration with Oliver Reed, whose charisma and aura of watchful menace here is unmistakable. There was never another star in British cinema quite like him. Jane Merrow is just as excellent as the sympathetic but ultimately unattainable Nicola; she makes the character totally three-dimensional without any histrionics. Barbara Ferris also stands out among a talented young cast, especially in her final stoned lament at the evening beach-party.

Winner is helped immeasurably by a brilliant cinematographer, Nicolas Roeg (here in between lensing such notable Brit-flicks as The Caretaker, Nothing But the Best and Masque of the Red Death). His location work right from the title sequence gives a vivid sense of place of a jaded seaside resort in the last days of summer.

Directorial flair is surprisingly confident, borrowing just enough new-wave technique to languidly establish the film's youth pedigree without ever indulging in obtrusive effect for its own sake.

Winner's previous film, West 11, a lowlife murder suspensor, also made good use of a mainly young cast. After The System he moved on to bigger but not necessarily better things before Hollywood swamped what talent he had. A pity, because this film, never acknowledged as being one of the best British b-films of the time, really is pretty good.
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