Category Archives: British Movies

The Comeback (1978)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Singer hears weird noises.

Nick Cooper (Jack Jones) is a successful singer trying to revive his career after a 6-year hiatus. He travels to London to work on a new album under the guidance of his manager Webster (David Doyle), where the two share a hot-and-cold business relationship. Meanwhile his ex-wife Gail (Holly Palance) goes to their former apartment to collect her things, but is attacked by someone dressed as an old lady and brutally killed. After the murder Nick begins to hear noises at the mansion he is staying in that is owned by an older couple (Bill Owen, Sheila Keith) in which he hears the sound of a woman crying, but can’t detect where it is coming from.

This is another Pete Walker production who has in recent years received a strong cult following for the long line of British horror films that he directed during the 70’s and early 80’s before leaving the profession in order to start up a business where he bought and refurbished old movie theaters. While I’m not a big fan of some of his early work, which seemed kind of hooky, I felt this horror outing managed to deliver for the most part.

What impressed me most was the brutality of the murder where Gail not only gets stabbed many times, but has her hand cut off, which goes flying down the stairs. This was in the era of the Video Nasties, where the British government was banning all sorts of horror films brought in from other countries, so I was surprised why this one got a pass. What made it even more gruesome is that the camera keeps cutting back to the dead body at different intervals where the viewer vividly sees the decaying process. It starts by showing a close-up of the dried blood that covers the victim’s face, real blood was used that had been donated from a local hospital, then later on it cuts back to show maggots’ inside her eye sockets and mouth  and eventually even rats eating away at her face.

Having singer Jack Jones, who’s best known for crooning the theme song from the TV-show ‘The Love Boat’, cast in the lead seemed an odd choice. Apparently Walker was determined to get a singer for the part and first approached Cat Stevens and then Ringo Starr who both declined, so he had to settle for Jones, who isn’t bad. It’s refreshing to see a protagonist in a horror flick that isn’t a teen or college aged and instead in his 40’s, but since there is an element of teen idol worship in the story it would’ve made more sense having a younger singer cast that would’ve appealed more to the youth of the day.

David Doyle, best known for playing Bosley in the TV-show ‘Charlie’s Angels’, is surprisingly effective too and given a big role. Usually he would be relegated to small supporting parts in comical films, but here does well in a dramatic one and even seen at point putting on women’s make-up and wearing a dress, but the film never follows-up with this potential story thread, but should’ve.

The murders aren’t too prevalent, there’s only two and spread far apart, but they’re gory enough to leave a strong impression. The story moves a bit too slowly and while there is tension at times it’s not consistent. The wrap-up though is a complete surprise and pretty much comes out of nowhere, but I didn’t mind.

Spoiler Alert!

While the script is satisfactory there were a couple of moments that didn’t make much sense. One has Nick returning to the mansion after he’s seen the decapitated head of his ex-wife in a box there and tormented each night by her cries and screams, which is enough to send him to the mental hospital for awhile. If it were me I’d never go back to that place again and yet Nick does and just casually turns up the music on his radio when he again starts hearing the ghostly cries instead freaking out like anyone else would’ve. The scene where he takes an ax out of a victim’s body, who had been killed by someone else, and then is seen holding it over the dead body as someone else enters the room, made me believe he was going to be accused of committing the murder, but it doesn’t work that way, but probably should’ve.

Alternate Title: Encore

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: June 16, 1978

Runtime: 1 Hour 33 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Pete Walker

Studio: Enterprise Pictures Limited 

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video

Fright (1971)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Psycho torments a babysitter.

Amanda (Susan George) is a college student who earns money part-time by working as a babysitter. One night she takes a job with the Lloyds (Honor Blackman, George Cole) who assign her to watch after their sleeping toddler (Tara Collinson) at their isolated wooded estate while they go off to a dinner party. Once the couple leaves Amanda begins hearing strange noises and becomes convinced that someone outside is watching her unaware that Mrs. Lloyd’s ex-husband (Ian Bannen) has escaped from the nearby insane asylum and now looking to attack anyone inside.

While the babysitter-terrorized-by-a-psycho theme may now be considered a cliché with such popular films as Halloween and When a Stranger Calls having successfully done it it’s important to realize that this film did it first and to some extent does pretty well although it does veer off from the formula. I did like the creepy set-up where an extended amount of time is given to building up the atmosphere. Some of the best moments are seeing the shadowy images on the other side of the window and not knowing who it is. The film is most effective when it’s seen from Amanda’s point-of-view making the viewer feel trapped inside the home alongside her, but weakens when it cuts away to the outside, which lessens the tension.

Having Amanda’s boyfriend Chris (Dennis Waterman) arrive doesn’t help. The fear hinges on Amanda feeling that she is all alone in this big strange house in the middle-of-nowhere and entering more people into the mix takes that element away.

The film is unusual in that unlike the other thrillers with a similar plotline the parents here figure heavily into the story. Instead of just focusing exclusively on the babysitter the films consistently cuts between her scenes and the scenes of the couple at the party. In many ways its the mother that becomes the real star, which is fine to an extent, but the part is played by Honor Blackman, a very gifted actress, but at age 46 was looking way too old to be the mother of such a young child.

The film is also unusual in that when the police arrive it doesn’t just end in fact that’s when it starts to get going with the entire third act filled with this long protracted stand-off. To some degree I felt this made it more realistic as real-life hostage situations can happen with long ‘negotiating’ session between the police and the person inside. Police aren’t always able to immediately take control of a situation either and can sometimes be just as helpless as the victim, but in the process this approach takes away the confrontational element between Amanda and the psycho, which would’ve been more interesting at seeing how she could use her wits to outsmart the bad guy that never really gels.

Susan George really doesn’t figuring in as much of the action as you’d initially expect spends most of the time just crying and looking scared. The 3-year-old child, which was played by the daughter of the film’s director Peter Collinson, doesn’t help matters either. I found it very hard to believe that any child could remain asleep such as this one when Amanda and the psycho stood over her crib talking and at certain points even shouting. The child never screams or cries either even when a sharp piece of a broken-off mirror is put to her throat.

Bannen can be amazingly creepy, I enjoyed his work in The Offence where he played a suspected child killer being interrogated by Sean Connery, but here he’s given a bit too much latitude and becomes a caricature. Having him seesaw between being child-like to behaving aggressively comes off as manufactured and more strained than frightening.

Spoiler Alert!

The ending, in which Amanda shoots and kills the psycho, does not work. For one thing Bannen had already handed over the child to the mother and at that point was completed surrounded by the police with nowhere to run, so killing him wasn’t needed. It’s questionable how and where Amanda got the gun, supposedly it was the one that an officer had put down earlier, but how she was able to sneak up and get it from him is never explained. Also, she had most likely never shot a gun before, in Great Britain most people don’t own guns, so she’d probably not have been able to hit him, especially in her shaky emotional state, at a long distance, which makes this scene dumb and unnecessary.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: September 18, 1971

Runtime: 1 Hour 27 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Peter Collinson

Studio: British Lion Film Corporation

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video

The Mirror Crack’d (1980)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Poison in her drink.

A Hollywood production company arrives in a small English village, where Miss Jane Marple (Angela Lansbury) resides, to film a costume drama. The film will star two actresses, Marina Rudd (Elizabeth Taylor) and Lola Brewster (Kim Novak), who are also bitter rivals. A reception is held to allow the villagers to meet the celebrities. During the reception Marina speaks with Heather Babcock (Maureen Bennett) a devoted fan who tells Marina about having met her years earlier backstage.  While she bores Marina with the details she also drinks a daiquiri cocktail that was laced with poison causing her to die and propelling Miss Marple, who is bedridden with an injured foot, and Inspector Craddock (Edward Fox) to investigate the case.

If there is one reason to checkout this otherwise so-so film it’s to see Taylor and Novak go at it as rival actresses. This was Taylor’s first feature film appearance in 4-years and, if you don’t count her cameo appearance in The Flintstones as well as 1987’s The Young Toscanini, which was never released in the US, the last one of her career. Her standout performance, which amounts to being a mixture of camp and poignant drama, more than makes it worth it and Novak is in top form as well playing-up the comic wickedness to a delicious level. Even Rock Hudson, who was reunited with Taylor 25 years after having done Giant together, does quite well as Marina’s exasperated husband.

Unfortunately Lansbury gets miscast as she was only in her mid-50’s while Marple was considered an elderly woman in her 70’s or 80’s. They dye her hair white in an attempt to make her appear older, but it still doesn’t quite work. It’s also a letdown not to have her in the majority of scenes like you’d expect. While I never read this Agatha Christie novel I have read some others as well as the movies that have been made from her works and all of them had the head detective taking an integral part in the investigation and not shackled up in her home doing nothing to propel the potentially engaging banter that she could have had with the suspects as she interviewed them. Ultimately the supporting cast gets more screen time than she, which was a waste.

The glossy cinematic element that was so apparent in other Agatha Christie movies like Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile is totally lacking here. Some of the on-location shooting does take place in what would be considered large mansions, but the interiors resemble rooms seen in any old building and convey no flair or distinction. Director Guy Hamilton admitted to not liking Agatha Christie’s books nor thinking much of the script, which he openly stated to the producers during the interview and yet they decided to hire him anyways,  but the result, with the exception of the kitschy film-noir opening bit, is mechanical while relying solely on the veteran cast to keep it interesting.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: December 19, 1980

Runtime: 1 Hour 45 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Guy Hamilton

Studio: Associated Film Distribution (AFD)

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video, YouTube

Water (1985)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Island nation fights back.

Governor Baxter Thwaites (Michael Caine) runs the British Colony island of Cascara a largely peaceful place that is mostly ignored by everyone else. Then one day one of the oil rigs on the island taps into a underground reservoir of water that has all of its impurities already removed. The delicious tasting drink, that can also be used as a laxative, becomes much sought after from bottling companies across the globe. Now suddenly the British government wants everyone on the island to move out and find some other island to live on while taking over and turning this one into a profit making venture.

The film is patterned after many British satires of the 50’s through the 70’s like The Bed Sitting Room and O Lucky Man that mixes in wacky characters with absurd comic scenarios and also trying to make sharp political observations in-between. Unfortunately this film, which is based on a story by Bill Persky who appears briefly as a TV director, goes soft and is too similar in its vapid tone to Persky’s other social satire flop, Serial, which came out 5 years earlier. The message is too ambiguous and the plot too cluttered with insignificant characters that it becomes almost nonsensical.

The characters are so eccentric that the viewer cannot identify with, or care about any of them. The film in a way comes off as almost racist since the island is populated with black people, but the main characters are all white while the blacks folks get completely pushed into the background. If anything the viewer could’ve sided with the islanders and their quest to protect their homeland, but since all focus is put on the British people who control them, that never happens.

The eclectic cast is the only thing that somewhat holds it together. Brenda Vaccaro, who normally plays in dramatic roles, is very funny as Caine’s feisty wife although I could’ve down without her misguided accent. Valerie Perrine, with her clear blue eyes is fun too as an idealistic social activist although she was already in her 40’s at the time in a role which would’ve been better served by someone in their late teens or early 20’s.

Caine on-the-other-hand isn’t all that entertaining with the exception of the scenes showing him wearing a cocked hat, which are amusing.  He at least seems more comfortable here than in Blame it on Rio, which he did the same year as this one, but due to the subject matter in that one he clearly looked quite awkward and stiff while here he’s having a fun time even if the audience really isn’t.

This also marks the last feature film appearance of Leonard Rossiter, who died in his dressing while waiting to go on stage in a play he was in just a few months after completing his filming here. Normally he’s enjoyable to watch even when he’s playing a stuffy character, which is what he usually did anyways, but here he’s too much of a jerk and I did not find him to be humorous or interesting in any way.

If there is one person that ultimately does comes-off best it would be Billy Connelly who’s hilarious as this rebel leader who refuses to speak and instead communicates everything through singing. Dick Shawn is also quite good as this arrogant actor whose career has declined and now forced, much to his dismay, to being a spokesperson for informercials. You can also spot Joyce Van Patten very briefly in an uncredited role as a TV news reporter.

George Harrison, who also produced the film, appears near the end playing the bass guitar in front of political leaders at the UN while Ringo Starr handles the drums and Eric Clapton does the vocals, but the movie would’ve been more entertaining had all three of them been given roles to play, or at  least it couldn’t have hurt. The film’s title is a bit misleading too as the water ultimately has nothing to do with what saves the island from takeover, or allows them to keep their independence.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: January 11, 1985

Runtime: 1 Hour 55 Minutes

Rated PG-13

Director: Dick Clement

Studio: Atlantic Releasing Corporation

Available: DVD

Prick Up Your Ears (1987)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Bio of Joe Orton.

This film, which is based on the biography of playwright Joe Orton that was written by John Lahr, has two diametrically different story lines going on at the same time. One part has John Lahr, played in the movie by Wallace Shawn, going around interviewing people that knew Orton when he was alive, which includes Orton’s theatrical agent Peggy Ramsey (Vanessa Redgrave). The other part delves into Orton’s (Gary Oldman) relationship with his Kenneth Halliwell (Alfred Molina) showing how it began and then eventually ending in tragedy.

The film, which was directed by the usually reliable Stephen Frears, starts out right away with the murder scene showing Halliwell covered with blood as he stands over Orton’s body that he has just killed, which to me was a mistake. Sometimes using flashbacks in films can help accentuate the story, but here it gives too much away way too soon. What’s the point of continuing to watch the movie if the viewer knows exactly how it will end? Even if one such as myself was aware of Orton’s demise, which occurred on August 9, 1967 in Islington, England, it still should’ve approached the material in a linear way having the murder occur at the very end after we had gotten to understand and feel for the characters and therefore making the act all that more impactful.

The story should’ve started with the scene, which doesn’t occur until 30 minutes in, where Halliwell and Orton are attending a acting improv class, which is where the two first meet and the funniest moment in the movie. In the scene the students are instructed to pass around a make-believe cat and when this invisible cat gets handed to Halliwell, and to the shock of the other students, but to the amusement of Orton, he kills it and then hands it back to the instructor.  This moment also perfectly reflects the black humor that became so apparent in Orton’s plays as well as conveying the weird dynamic that the two had.

When the film focuses solely on the two lead characters and their love-hate relationship it is quite interesting. Molina gives a powerhouse performance and dominates every scene that he is in. His mental deterioration is both vivid and horrorifying and  leaves a lasting impression. Yet there are also other moments where you feel sorry the guy and it helps to make sense of what lead to the tragedy as you see how Orton, who is much younger and better looking, openly have trysts with other men that he randomly meets while Halliwell, fully aware of what is going on, gets pushed into the background and unable to do anything about it.

The film is also filled with some memorable imagery. The scenes where Orton and sometimes Halliwell would pick up strangers for indiscriminate sex, like in dingy public restrooms with the lights turned off and even at times inside the bathroom stalls themselves while constantly in fear of getting caught and arrested, is well captured. The tiny room that the two lived in for years, with pictures that cover every inch of the walls, gets recreated to a perfect tee. Based on images of the actual room found on Google it looks exactly like the one in the movie and its claustrophobic dimensions hits home making it seem amazing that such significant long lasting stage plays, that were later made into movies, could’ve been written in such an insignificant space that seemed no bigger than someone’s walk-in closet.

The opening bit that focused on Orton’s agent and having her reminisce about her experiences dealing with him is boring and should’ve been taken out of the final cut. Viewers come into this wanting to learn more about Orton and his relationship with Halliwell and that’s where the film should’ve started and stayed. I admit Redgrave gives a very good performance as the agent, so having brief scenes with her in them that intercut between the ones dealing with the lovers might have been interesting, but too much time gets spent on the side characters that almost dismantles the entire rest of the film.

Spoiler Alert!

I didn’t like how loud crashing music gets abruptly played during the murder sequence either. The soundtrack had been quite subtle up until then, so having it suddenly get loud is jarring and goes against the tone of the rest of the film. It also puts too much of a theatrical quality to the murder that was not needed. The  visuals are all that is needed to show the shocking and gruesome nature of the act without music needing to be any part of it.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: April 17, 1987

Runtime: 1 Hour 45 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Stephen Frears

Studio: The Samuel Goldwyn Company

Available: DVD

Bugsy Malone (1976)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: The gangsters are kids.

It’s the 1920’s and rival mobsters, who are all played by children, fight over control of a club that illegally sells liquor. Fat Sam ( John Cassisi) is the one who currently controls it, but Dandy Dan (Martin Lev) makes a play at a violent overthrow in which his men attack the club by using machine guns equipped with whipped cream that ‘splurge’ their victims. Bugsy Malone (Scott Baio) is a penniless boxing promoter caught in the middle. He tries to help aspiring singer Blousy (Florrie Dugger) get an audition at Sam’s club, but then becomes distracted by Sam’s alluring girlfriend Tallulah (Jodie Foster) who causes Sam’s ire by flirting with Bugsy.

This odd concoction was the product of Alan Parker in his feature film directorial debut who came up with the idea while driving his kids on a weekend trip to a countryside cottage. To keep his kids entertained he started telling them a story about some prohibition era gangsters based on old gangster movies he had seen as a child. It was at one point where one of the kids brought up the idea of having gangsters be children instead of adults.

The first 15 minutes or so are quite inventive and fun. I enjoyed the freeze-frames showing each victim splattered with whip cream and the pedaled powered automobiles, but after awhile it starts to repeat the same gags over and over becoming a one-dimensional, one-joke flick.

I kept wondering where the adults where and despite this being a fantasy what exactly where the ‘rules’. Is this a type of universe where there are no adults at all and the kids remain at that age forever and if so does that ultimately then make them the ‘adults’? For me it would’ve been better had the story been book-ended with some connection to the world as we know it. Perhaps with a Wizard of Oz type structure where the film starts out, maybe even in black-and-white, with adults in the parts of the gangsters and then one of them gets hit on the head or drinks something with a drug in it and has this weird dream involving kids suddenly taking over the roles previously played by the adults. Showing the differences at how kids approached things versus how the adults do would’ve been a funny contrast instead of keeping it at the kiddie-level the whole way through, which ultimately falls flat.

The performances of the young cast are quite energetic although I could’ve done without the musical numbers. Cassisi, who in real-life ended up serving jail time of his own for money laundering, steals it with his humorous send-up of a mob boss. Baio is quite good too especially with his over-the-top Brooklyn accent, but I felt Foster got shamefully underused. If anything her role should’ve been combined with Blousy’s to make one and cutting out Florrie Dugger, who now goes by the name of Florence Garland, completely. I didn’t have anything against her per say, but she didn’t have the onscreen spark that Foster did. She also apparently disliked Baio and the scene involving her hugging him required many retakes as she didn’t want to get near him and this lack of chemistry comes through onscreen.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: September 12, 1976

Runtime: 1 Hour 33 Minutes

Rated G

Director: Alan Parker

Studio: Paramount Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video

Scandal (1989)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Politician has an affair.

Based on the Profumo affair that rocked the British parliament in 1963 the story centers around an exotic dancer named Christine Keeler (Joanne Whalley-Kilmer) who catches the eye of Stephen Ward (John Hurt) a doctor with a thing for attractive young ladies. She moves in with him and the two share an unusual relationship where he pimps her and her friend Mandy (Bridget Fonda) out to members of the conservative party. Her sexual affair with one of the high-ranking officials of parliament, John Profumo (Ian McKellen) eventually reaches the attention of the press and leads to far-reaching ramifications for all involved.

Part of why this movie didn’t work for me and may not for others is that politicians getting involved in a scandal is no longer a big deal. We’re living in an age where political figures have been caught having affairs, even while in office, and it isn’t enough to have them removed. Yet this film expects the viewer to be in jaw-dropping shock from the first frame to the last even though in this cynical age it would be more shocking if one actually lived a squeaky clean life.

The first hour meanders along from one racy sex scene to the next until it almost seems like a soft core porn flick with no story. I had no idea where any of this cavorting around was going to lead and wasn’t really all that intrigued in finding out either. First time director Michael Caton-Jones takes too much of a detached approach to his characters. They all come off like wild sexual animals unable to control their inner urges, but with no other discernible differences making everything that goes on seem like one giant frolicking blur with no point.

Hurt gives a great performance, but I didn’t understand the motivations of his character. Why doesn’t he want to sleep with Christine and instead get more turned-on listening to her stories about her having sex with other men? What about him makes him this way, which the film should’ve helped answer, but doesn’t.

Whalley is too old for her part as she was supposed to be playing someone who was 19, but in reality was already 29. Having a true 19-year-old play the part, and have a definite look of innocence about her, may have given the provocative material a little more bite.  Her character also has the same issues as with Hurts. I got how she wanted to get away from her impoverished surroundings and sleeping with rich influential men could help her do that, but I didn’t understand why she liked her Hurt, or their unusual relationship.

The film ends with the court proceedings, which like with everything else doesn’t have the impact that it should. While the attention to detail and accuracy is impressive it would’ve worked better had it began with the trial and then worked backwards through flashback showing how they all got there instead of the linear narrative that it does take, which is too plodding. Focusing on only one of two characters would’ve helped too instead of trying to encompass so many of them where none of them are all that interesting or distinct.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: March 3, 1989

Runtime: 1 Hour 46 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Michael Caton-Jones

Studio: Miramax

Available: DVD, Blu-ray (Region B/2)

There’s a Girl in My Soup (1970)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Playboy falls for hippie.

Robert (Peter Sellers) is a dashing playboy who enjoys having random sexual encounters with women, even having sex with a bride on her wedding day. Despite being in his 40’s he shows no signs of wanting to settle down and get married. Then he meets Marion (Goldie Hawn) a groupie for a rock band who finds out that its lead singer Jimmy (Nicky Henson) has been unfaithful to her. With nowhere else to go she lets Robert pick her up and take her back to his pad where he tries to seduce her, but without much luck.

Although the stageplay for which this film is based did quite well its translation to the screen leaves much to be desired.  Despite director Ray Boulting’s efforts to liven up the scenery by placing several scenes in exotic locales while also sprucing up Robert’s place by inserting his bathroom to have all mirrors in it that cover both the walls and ceiling, the film still ends up coming off like a filmed stageplay that lacks both energy and action. Even the dialogue, that usually helps  keep other plays that have evolved onto the big screen, lacks bite and becomes as stale as the rest of the proceedings.

The relationship is only funny when Marion rebuffs Robert’s advances and openly tells him how unsexy he really is, but when she foolishly ignores her better judgement and starts falling for the cad is when the whole thing goes downhill. There’s also confusion for why Robert, who openly enjoyed his single life and sleeping around with various beautiful women, which he seemed to have no trouble getting, would suddenly fall for a young woman that he didn’t have much in common with. For a relationship to begin both sides have to initially be looking for one and there is absolutely no hint that is what Robert wanted, so what about Marion got him to suddenly change his mind?

Sellers is okay although critics at the time complained that his performance was ‘lifeless’, which it is, but he makes up for it with his Cheshire cat grin. The role though doesn’t allow him to be inventive, or put on many of his different accents or personas, which he is so well known for. The character and situation are also too similar to the one that he played  in I Love You Alice B. Toklas, which he did just two years earlier.

Hawn is great and I enjoyed seeing her playing a snarky woman instead of the spacey blonde that she usually does, you even get a nice shot of her naked backside, but her character is too similar to one that she did in Butterflies are Free. In fact the two people that come-off best here are not the stars at all, but instead John Comer and Diana Dors as a middle-aged, bickering couple who should’ve been given more screen time.

Overall there’s just not enough laughs here to make sitting through it worth it. The plot has no point and the characters don’t grow or evolve making it a waste of time for its two leads whose talents are above this type of material.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: December 15, 1970

Runtime: 1 Hour 36 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Ray Boulting

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

The Beast in the Cellar (1971)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Elderly sisters harbor prisoner.

Soldiers throughout the English countryside are being gruesomely murdered by what seems to be some wild beast, but the authorities have no idea what type of creature it is, or where it came from. Ellie (Beryl Reid) and Joyce (Flora Robson) are two elderly sisters living together in an isolated rural home, who fear they may know the answer and it has something to do with a dark family secret that lies imprisoned in their basement.

The film’s perceived charm revolves around the casting of two legendary actresses in offbeat roles where they at times come-off both as antagonists and the anti-heroes. Reid is especially interesting because here she’s a child-like individual while just a few years earlier she was a controlling, domineering woman to Susannah York’s child-like one in The Killing of Sister George, so seeing her able to play both parts effectively is fun and impressive.

The banter between the two though needed to be played-up more and I was expecting, given the storyline, more of a campy, dark humored tone, which really never manifests. The dialogue gets too extended, as the women do nothing, but pretty much talk, talk, talk until it seemed to be almost a filmed stageplay with the camera locked in the house and nothing visually stimulating to captivate the viewer.

The scares consist mainly of a handheld camera swinging back and forth  in an apparent attempt to replicate the beast attacking the victim, which ends up being more dizzying and amateurish looking than frightening and the fact that this technique gets done with each attack makes it quite derivative. It would’ve been better had the attacks not been played-out at all, but instead simply revealed the mangled. bloody body afterwards. The film also makes the tacky error of portraying the eyeball, which gets gouged out on one victim, as being shaped like a ping pong ball, which is probably what was used, when in reality it is more oval shaped.

A good horror film should have a frightening image to latch onto, but here that’s lacking despite a few prime opportunities where one could’ve been implemented. Reid’s retelling to the police inspector about the backstory dealing with their basement prisoner has some interesting cutaways making it the best part of the movie, but no shot of the shell-shocked, war weary father even though he’s an integral component to the plot. The ultimate reveal of the beast is highly disappointing in a climactic finish that completely fizzles, which makes sitting through this not worth your time.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: April 14, 1971

Runtime: 1 Hour 28 Minutes

Rated R

Director: James Kelly

Studio: Tigon Film Distributors

Available: DVD, Amazon Video

The Big Sleep (1978)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Hired to find blackmailer.

Philip Marlowe (Robert Mitchum) is an American detective living in London who gets hired by a aging, retired general named Sternwood (James Stewart) to locate the person who has been blackmailing him for money. He thinks it may have something to do with his colorful daughters: the gambling addicted Charlotte (Sarah Miles) and the promiscuous Camilla (Candy Clark) who enjoys posing for nude photographs.

The film is based on the 1939 novel of the same name by Raymond Chandler and a remake of the 1946 film that starred Humphrey Bogart. Here though the setting has been updated from the 1940’s to the 1970’s and the venue changed from New York to London. The movie was also able to tackle many of the more kinkier aspects of the story that the 40’s version was only able to allude to.

Personally I felt the changes worked and made the premise more interesting. Why an American detective would be working in England is never properly answered, but the new setting does allow for some interesting on-location shooting like having the Knebworth House used as the Sternwood Mansion, which is breathtaking to look at both inside and out. The erotic undertones get used to their full potential especially with Candy Clark’s nude scenes who looks fabulous naked and she plays the part with such spunk that every scene she is in is highly amusing and the whole film could’ve easily been built around her alone.

Mitchum’s presence isn’t as distracting as it was in Farewell, My Lovely where he played the same part, but in a 1940’s setting. Having it upgraded to the modern-day actually makes him come-off as younger and a lot of the reason could be the snazzy suits he wears as opposed to the drab hat and trench coat. He also isn’t forced to get into any physical confrontations with anyone, which would make him look foolish as he’d be too old to kick any young guy’s ass, nor is there any romantic overtures with a younger woman, only Camilla who immediately throws herself at him the second she meets him, but since she does that with every man it doesn’t matter, which all helps to make his advanced age, which was 60 at the time and far older than the intended character, a non-issue.

The main problem is the story, which I found to be just too damn confusing. I like mysteries, but more in the Agatha Christie realm where we have actual clues to follow and an interesting array of suspects as opposed to something with a dizzying pace where every line of dialogue creates a new twist and potential suspects popping up out of nowhere only to quickly get killed off or just disappear completely. It’s possible in the novel, which I never read, this all got laid out better, but here it became convoluted to the extent that after the first 30 minutes I became lost and didn’t care what happened next, or for that matter who got killed and who didn’t.

Having a side-story thrown-in like Marlowe taking up some sort of quirky hobby that had nothing to do with the mystery that the film could cut back to every once in awhile in order to allow the viewer to catch their breath would’ve helped. The film still manages to be watchable mainly from the high production values and the eclectic cast. I also enjoyed the beginning and end segments where the camera takes the driver’s point-of-view as we see the car drive through the winding roads as it enters the Sternwood Mansion property and then at the end while it leaves the property as the credits roll past.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: March 13, 1978

Runtime: 1 Hour 40 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Michael Winner

Studio: United Artists

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube