Monday, May 24, 2010

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey
And Winter's dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.
The land's sharp features seemed to be
The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.
At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.
So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.
"The Darkling Thrush"
Thomas Hardy
December 30, 1900

Friday, May 21, 2010

"Along the coast of Norfolk there persists an ancient legend. It is said that in the Dark Ages, when the Vikings were a constant scourge, the three royal crowns of Anglia were hidden in the ground. The crowns, so the legend runs, had a strange power. No foreign army would invade the kingdom of Anglia so long as at least one of them remained undisturbed. Since that time, the site of one crown has been plundered by thieves and its treasure melted down; another has been covered by the encroaching sea. Only one crown now remains lying somewhere in its royal burial ground."
"A WARNING TO THE CURIOUS" is one of the classic ghost stories of M. R. James; who would prove to be a mine of material for the BBC when the undertook to film and air "A Ghost Story For Christmas" each year to scare the life out of its viewers. "If there was a golden age of horror for BBC television then the 1970s were it." These words written by Phil Tonge for the Introduction to David Kerekes' useful tome on British horror television "Creeping Flesh" is the absolute truth. Particularly gothic horror. And M. R. James was at the apex of these ghostly tales. Most certainly, the idea for "A Ghost Story For Christmas" arose directly from the 1968 film "WHISTLE AND I'LL COME TO YOU" aired on OMNIBUS in 1968. Directed by Jonathan Miller and starring Michael Hordern, this masterpiece of horror was also derived from the M. R. James short story "O Whistle and I'll Come To You, My Lad". Starting in 1971 and lasting until 1978, the BBC specially filmed and aired a yearly "Ghost Story For Christmas" beginning with "THE STALLS OF BARCHESTER" (yet another M. R. James story) broadcast on the (late) night of December 24, 1971 at 11:05 pm. "A WARNING TO THE CURIOUS" would be the second installment: broadcast from 11:05 to 11:55 pm on December 24, 1972. The film stars the excellent Peter Vaughan as the hapless Paxton, Clive Swift as Dr. Black, David Cargill as Boots and Joun Kearney as Ager with Gordon Clark at the helm.
The story opens with the retelling of the legend of the 3 royal crowns of Anglia as the camera pans a chilly and deserted beach. An archaeologist is seen digging on a small hill. A strange cloaked man insists there is "No digging!" When the archaeologist brushes him aside, the strange man grabs a weapon (is that a bill hook?) and basically hacks the archaeologist to death with it. 12 years later we find an amateur treasure hunter named Paxton vacationing at the same location on the Norfolk coast. He appears to be out of work and, toting a book called "The Legend of the Anglian Crowns", plans on doing a little digging around. It's the off season, so the only other guest in the hotel is a Dr. Black: a frequent lodger who likes to come to the area to paint landscapes. During a visit to the local ancient church, the vicar tells Paxton that the locals still believe in the legend and, in fact, there was a family called Ager who had traditionally been charged with guarding the crowns against snoopers. In fact, 12 years before William Ager, the last of his line, had murdered an archaeologist who was searching for the crown. Ager now lies buried in the cemetery by the church. Boots, the caretaker of the hotel, denies having ever heard of the Ager family but Paxton is unconvinced. Paxton finds a journal having belonged to William Ager in a rare book store and tracks down Ager's former house. The woman living there complains of seeing a tramp who has been hanging around the woods. All during these searches, Paxton is vaguely aware of a distant, cloaked figure who seems to be following him and staring. Telling Boots that he must return to London for the night on business, Paxton instead hops a train with his shovel and goes out to where his research seems to hint the crown may be buried; yes, it's the exact same spot the archeologist was murdered. Paxton begins digging -- but he has the uneasy feeling of being watched. After night falls, Paxton unearths a human skull then a spearhead and finally the royal crown of Anglia. Thoroughly spooked at this point, Paxton secretes the crown about his person and begins to leave -- only to be chased by the terrifying figure. The next day Paxton boards the train and, as he is waiting for it to depart, a porter opens the door as if to usher another passenger into the car. However, there is no one there. Paxton hides the crown inside his suitcase in his hotel room and notices Ager's journal has been sliced to ribbons. A mysterious, wheezing cough is heard in the room next door -- where no one is staying. Later, Paxton encounters Dr. Black painting a beach scene. Black points out that there is a figure standing in the distance. Paxton eventually tells Black about the crown and, completely wigged out by now, asks the doctor to accompany him while he returns the crown to where he found it. Now Paxton is convinced he is being stalked by the ghost of William Ager and he will find no peace until the crown is returned. Later, while alone in his room, Paxton is suddenly plunged into darkness as the candles are extinguished. Strange sounds are heard within the room and, panning a torch across the room Paxton catches a glimpse of a ghastly pale figure squatting down over the suitcase containing the crown. He screams in horror. Boots and Dr. Black enter to find Paxton alone and sobbing over the suitcase. Paxton and Black return to the excavation site later that night. Black stands watch with a torch while Paxton re-buries the crown. All the time the ghost of Ager watches from the nearby woods. The next morning, Dr. Black suggest Paxton and he go for a walk. The two men depart as Boots watches. Moments later, Dr. Black emerges from the hotel asking Boots if he's seen Paxton. Flabbergasted, Boots informs Dr. Black that Paxton just went off with someone he swore was the doctor. Dr. Black hurries off in the direction they went. Eventually he catches up enough to see Paxton being chased by the mysterious figure and running for his life. It seems returning the crown will not be enough to appease the vengeful spirit. What happens next? Well, I won't spoil it. Suffice it to say that the ending underlines the fact that one should not meddle in otherworldly events.
A WARNING TO THE CURIOUS is a thoroughly creepy and, at times, genuinely frightening experience. Anyone having seen WHISTLE AND I'LL COME TO YOU however will no doubt notice a STRONG resemblence between this film and the earlier one. The bleak seaside setting, the buried object, the ghostly watcher from afar. However, even with the strong sense of deja vu while watching, I believe the viewer will find A WARNING TO THE CURIOUS to be a thoroughly enjoyable, flesh-crawling fright. Peter Vaughan plays the part with wonderful understatement. Paxton is not out to harm anyone -- he simply wants to make a name for himself and feel important. The viewer will feel a great sympathy towards Paxton when, after having taken that foolish fatal step, he can seem to find no way to extricate himself from the terrible mess he's place himself into. There are a couple truly frightening moments; the scene in the darkened hotel room is a chilling highlight. All in all, A WARNING TO THE CURIOUS is a deft and sure realization of a truly spooky ghost story. Watching it in the dark on a windy night will no doubt have you crawling out of your skin!
HALLOWEEN: THE HAPPY HAUNTING OF AMERICA is a fairly well-known documentary (among horror fans, at least) which took an affectionate look at the holiday and various horror-themed attractions across the country. Created (like a Frankenstein's Monster) back in 1997 by busy actor/producer/director Chuck Williams and LOST explosion victim Daniel Roebuck, the documentary features everything from the Universal Monster Tour, Dr. Lady's Horror Hotel, classic Don Post Halloween latex masks and the venerable Witch's Dungeon. Also featured giving their opinions and reminiscences of Halloweens past are such horror titans as Angus Scrimm, Robert Englund, Alice Cooper, Tony Todd, Tom Savini and Doug Bradley among others. Daniel Roebuck, who grew up in Pennsylvania, created his TV horror host character "Dr. Shocker" for this documentary as a tribute to the late, lamented Philly horror host Dr. Shock (Joe Zawislak). I also grew up watching Dr. Shock's Mad Theater and Horror Theater on Channel 17 during the 70's so I can appreciate the loving tribute more than most. After the "Shock Theater" B&W opening, Roebuck sheds his makeup and tours the country's Halloween attractions accompanied by beloved horror fan Bob Burns (who appears in the Dr. Schocker segment in his patented gorilla suit). The documentary itself is a pleasant affair combining Halloween haunted house attractions with brief explorations of Halloween origins and folklore. The documentary itself is a little on the "cursory" or "lightweight" side and has now been far outshone by the more recent "THE WITCH'S DUNGEON: 40 YEARS OF CHILLS" dvd. Nevertheless, HALLOWEEN: THE HAPPY HAUNTING OF AMERICA is well-worth catching; especially in it's newer 2-disc 10th anniversary dvd which includes a brand-new 2007 documentary which is basically H:THHOA Part 2. Roebuck takes up residence in California's Magic Castle (the scene of Boris Karloff's recording of his classic LP "An Evening with Boris Karloff & His Friends"). The second installment of the documentary does boast higher production values (since the original seems to have been shot on video and is a little blurry). Also included on the second disc are a welcome grouping of special features including a live on stage magic performance by Roebuck in his Dr. Shocker guise which attempts to replicate the early 20th century Spook Shows of lore. Besides "Dr. Shocker's Halloween Spooktacular", the dvd also boasts a photo tour of Roebuck's personal horror museum "Dr. Shocker's House of Horrors", and a round table discussion about horror called "Raw Talk" featuring Roebuck, Williams, Tony Todd, Christa Campbell, John Gulager and Don Coscarelli.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

THE NOVEL PLOT OF LITTLE-KNOWN EALING COMEDY "PASSPORT TO PIMLICO" (1949) ONLY UNDERLINES HOW BANKRUPT OF IMAGINATION HOLLYWOOD IS THESE DAYS. While Hollywood can't seem to come up with a single original or interesting idea nowadays, PASSPORT TO PIMLICO features one of the most delightful ideas for comedy going. Post-war England is still feeling the sting of rationing and the menace of UXB (unexploded bombs) left over from the Blitz. During a stifling summer heat wave, some kids accidentally detonate a UXB in the tiny Pimlico section of London uncovering a secret buried cache of treasure as well as some ancient documents. These documents provide evidence that the small area of Pimlico actually is French soil belonging to the Duke of Burgundy. Initial incredulity soons give way to the realization that Pimlico, being foreign soil, is not subject to British laws and restrictions i.e. ration books! The residents start buying as much stockings or meat or sugar as they want and happily disregard pub closing times. When the local British authorities protest, they are dismissed as a foreign government. However, the King's officials will not be put off so easily; they promptly shut off all utilities running into Pimlico so the residents must do without electricity, water and even food. Much like in the London blitz, children are evacuated out of Pimlico (aka Burgundy) while the adults soldier on defiantly. As the "Burgundians" are about to give in due to starvation and lack of washing during a heat wave, a little girl throws a bit of food over the barricades. Quickly, all the Londoners gathered at the barricades start lobbing food over to the Burgundians giving them strength to fight on. The lack of water is solved by a night-time raid to siphon off fire hydrant water into a huge cistern on the Pimlico side. In the midst of all this, a dotty old professor offers her help in substantiating the Burgundian claim to Pimlico and the last descendant of the old Duke of Burgundy arrives to lead his newly-found people.
This is a gentle, witty and genuinely funny Ealing comedy which plays out every thread the plot sets up. Directed by Henry (I AM A CAMERA) Cornelius with restraint, the film is character driven. And those characters are filled by another fine example of the seemingly bottomless cache of great British character actors which is an embarrassment of riches for the British nation. Headed, of course, by delightful old Stanley Holloway (MY FAIR LADY, THE LAVENDER HILL MOB and BRIEF ENCOUNTER) the rest of the cast includes Hermione Baddeley (known to U.S> TV audiences as Bea Arthur's maid Mrs. Naugatuck on MAUDE as well as from MARY POPPINS and BRIGHTON ROCK), Raymond Huntley (the stage's first DRACULA as well as appearing in Hammer's THE MUMMY, I'M ALL RIGHT, JACK and BREATHLESS), Margaret Rutherford (veteran of countless Miss Marple movies as well as BLITHE SPIRIT and I'M ALL RIGHT JACK), French-Canadian actor Paul Dupuis, Charles Hawtrey (of countless CARRY ON films as Will Hay vehicles), the seemingly forever-teamed-together Naunton Wayne & Basil Radford (of DEAD OF NIGHT), Jane Hylton (CIRCUS OF HORRORS), John Slater (Powell & Pressburger's A CANTERBURY TALE and WENT THE DAY WELL), Betty Warren (SO LONG AT THE FAIR), Barbara Murray (the 1982 DOCTOR WHO story "BLACK ORCHID") and even an extremely young Sir Michael Hordern (WHISTLE AND I'LL COME TO YOU) as a town official.
FOR FANS OF "THE GREAT ESCAPE", I GIVE YOU "THE WOODEN HORSE" (1950). Surely this must have been a strong influence on the later, more famous and lighter-in-tone film. Only 5 years after the cessation of hostilities, London Films brought us this unsensationalized and rather realistic portrayal of British POWs attempting to escape from a German camp. The plot (based on actual events) follows the "duty" (as the opening text states) of every British prisoner to attempt escape at every opportunity. Unfortunately, the Germans have placed the prisoners' barracks so far away from the perimeter fence that any tunnel would have to be extremely long and take an inordinate amount of time. The POWs have, in fact, been in the process of digging a tunnel but have shown little progress for the time involved. One prisoner, however, flashes upon a moment of inspiration while observing several men playing leapfrog and shares his idea with the "escape committee": that is, a re-working of the Trojan Horse. Only this time, the "horse" in question will be a gymnastics wooden "horse" which the men will leap over. All the time, a hidden man will hide in the hollow centre of the wooden horse (which will be placed in the open activities yard much MUCH closer to the perimeter of the prison camp) and start digging a tunnel underneath the horse. At the close of the day's "calisthenics", a signal will be given for the hidden man to wrap up his work and recover the tunnel opening with buried sandbags and the dry surface dirt he has reserved for the purpose of camouflage.
In any film of this kind, the suspense rests on the many close calls the POWs risk of German discovery and their ingenious outthinking of their captors. Eventually, of course, the tunnel breaks through to the other side and a handful of three men make their escape. This, however, is only the beginning as they must somehow negotiate a hostile Germany and find some Swedish or French sympathizers to help them escape to neutral Sweden. Director Jack (A TOWN CALLED ALICE) Lee keeps things moving at a brisk clip and maintains audience interest throughout. The cast of THE WOODEN HORSE is typically packed with top British character actors. Leo Genn is the ostensible star of the film; he is perhaps best known for his Oscar-nominated turn in QUO VADIS and also appeared in the British medical mystery GREEN FOR DANGER and as Starbuck in 1956's MOBY DICK. Genn is ably assisted by minor British "matinee idol" Anthony Steel who, in later life, made appearances in the final Amicus (in everything but name) horror flick THE MONSTER CLUB and the Agatha Christie adaptation of THE MIRROR CRACK'D. The third escapee is played by David Tomlinson; better known and beloved by Disney fans for his uptight Mr. Banks in MARY POPPINS and his dotty turn in BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS. Haunted-looking Michael Goodliffe (an actual British POW during the war) is one of the supporting characters: he is best known to film fans as the designer of the ill-fated ship Titanic in A NIGHT TO REMEMBER. Other Goodliffe role include Powell & Pressburger's superb WWII home front film THE SMALL BACK ROOM, THE BATTLE OF THE RIVER PLATE, CAMP ON BLOOD ISLAND, science-fiction extravaganza THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE and horror films like Michael Powell's doomed PEEPING TOM, THE GORGON and the final Hammer Horror TO THE DEVIL - A DAUGHTER adapted (and butchered) from Dennis Wheatley. Also rounding out the supporting cast are Peter Burton (the first "Q" in a James Bond film DR. NO) as well as two future film directors: David Greene and Bryan Forbes. Greene began as an actor but went on to win Emmy Awards for directing ROOTS, RICH MAN POOR MAN and FRIENDLY FIRE for television as well as an episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE and my much-beloved 1975 TV movie THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO starring Richard Chamberlain. Bryan Forbes also was a busy actor in such films as THE SMALL BACK ROOM, THE COLDITZ STORY and the classic caper film THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN as well as sci-fi outings in QUATERMASS 2: ENEMY FROM SPACE and SATELLITE IN THE SKY before going on to direct such films as SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON, THE MADWOMAN OF CHAILLOT and THE STEPFORD WIVES. Sinister-faced Anthony Dawson appears in a small role as a snivelling little rat-faced git (his film Cv includes THE QUEEN OF SPADES, Hitchcock's DIAL M FOR MURDER, THE HAUNTED STRANGLER with Boris Karloff, Hammer's CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF, DR. NO, FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE and the aforementioned TV COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO) while Peter "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore" Finch has a one-scene cameo as a wounded Australian POW in the aforementioned hospital room scene.
Oh yes, I have to mention my favourite line in the film and the only laugh-out-loud moment in the whole proceedings. In the prison camp hospital ward, the German warders play phonograph records of Beethoven. As a German officer is leaving, he turns to the British POWs and states proudly: "Beethoven! Here's a good German!" Whereas immediately a British voice cheekily shouts back: "Yeah, he's DEAD!!!" My one qualm about the film is that the end snuck up on me rather suddenly. Of course, this is a truism in the entertainment world: "always leave them wanting more" and I did find myself wishing it had gone on a little longer. In the final analysis, I am not really predisposed towards the World War II prisoner-of-war movie. As is the case with any other genre, I only like it if it's a very good movie. THE GREAT ESCAPE, of course, is one. THE WOODEN HORSE is another.