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Cul-de-sac (1966) | When Roman Polanski went rogue on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne – and won!

cul-de-sac

Plagued with production problems, director Roman Polanski’s 1966 black comedy Cul-de-sac should never have worked – but it did and remains a critical high-point of his early career. Having won plaudits and good box-office receipts for his first British-backed film, the psychological horror Repulsion (starring France’s new star Catherine Deneuve), Polanski was given free reign for his follow-up which is now available in a restored HD transfer edition as part of The Criterion Collection.

Cul de sac

Set on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne on the Northumberland coastline, Polanski fashioned a morbidly absurdist bourgeois-baiting tale with his long-time collaborator Gérard Brach.

Happening upon an castle on the coastline, wounded American gangster Richard (Lionel Stander) and his gravely ill accomplice Albert (Jack MacGowran) decide it an ideal hide and so take hostage its owners – retired businessman George (Donald Pleasence) and his restless French wife Teresa (Françoise Dorleac).

But the claustrophobic setting and long wait for help to arrive sets in motion increasingly disturbing games involving sexual and emotional humiliation between captor and couple that escalates into terrible violence…

Cul de sac

When Cul-de-sac was released in the UK in 1966 (check out the premiere clip below), audiences really didn’t take to the film (probably on account it was too bleak and not the psychological horror that they had hoped). But when it then won the Golden Bear at the 16th Berlin International Film Festival, it quickly gained a new appreciation – and so it should.

Cul de sac

From its outset, Polanski had faith in bringing his bleak comedy of manners to the big-screen and against the odds and by going rogue he achieved it.

A typically British summer (rain, snow and storms) and the wrong tides held up shooting, while method actors Stander and Pleasence caused ructions on set, and Polanski was accused of driving his cast and crew to exhaustion, hypothermia (MacGowran) and near death (Dorleac almost drowned) in order to finish the film to his exacting standards. Even the locals began to resent Polanski and co’s presence (especially in the local pubs).

Meanwhile, the film’s fed-up backers (Compton Films’ Tony Tenser and Michael Klinger) eventually shut down production after it overrun its budget– but not before Polanski had the film’s powerful 8-minute one-shot climax involving a Tiger Moth plane in the can.

Cul de sac

Donald Pleasence is in his element as the dotty fed-up George, and his performance ranks as one of his best (alongside his alcoholic doctor in 1971’s Wake in Fright). Françoise Dorleac is also perfectly cast (also at the last minute) as the hippy-like Teresa – and her character is the total anti-thesis of her sister Catherine Deneuve’s sexually repressive character in Repulsion. Then there’s the gravel-voiced Lionel Stander (who’d go onto play Max in TV’s Hart to Hart), who is outstandingly repellent as the chief thug. Tragically, Dorleac died in a car accident a year after appearing in the film.

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The other star of the film is Holy Island and the surrounding landscape, made luminous by Gilbert Taylor’s stark black-and-white photography – and the inclement weather (those skies are divine, especially when shot day for night).

And alongside the rich visuals is Krzysztof Komeda’s jaunty score that lends the film a sense of carnival and menace, two elements that are that the heart of this caustic satire (which would look terrific if it were adapted for the stage like Polanski’s follow-up film, Dance of the Vampires). Watch for Jacqueline (billed as Jackie) Bisset, briefly on screen in one of her earliest roles.

THE CRITERION COLLECTION RELEASE
• Restored high-definition digital transfer, approved by director Roman Polanski, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
Two Gangsters and an Island: the 23-minute 2003 Blue Underground documentary (23min) about the making of the film, featuring interviews with Polanski, producers Gene Gutowski and Tony Tenser, and cinematographer Gilbert Taylor. Also participating are production designer Voyek, continuity Dee Vaughn and actor William Franklyn
• Archive TV interview with Polanski from 1967 (this is a fascinating insight into the young director’s cinematic vision about alienation, sex and his genuine dislike for the bourgeoisie)
• Theatrical trailers
• Plus, booklet featuring an essay by film critic David Thompson

 

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A Hard Day’s Night (1964) | The Beatles movie is still hard to beat 51 years on…

The Beatles' A Hard Day's Night (50th anniversary)

Soaring in their first, full-length, hilarious, action-packed film!
OK, so the 50th anniversary restoration release of The Beatles’ classic film came out last year, but I couldn’t help but share these great pics from the film which swept the world between July and October in 1964, and had its Spanish premiere on 14 September.

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Catacombs (1965) | Gordon Hessler’s suspenseful directorial debut twists and twists again

Catacombs (1965)

The story of a girl who twice returned from the grave!
Taylor Mills CEO Ellen Garth (Georgina Cookson) is devoted to her business, her money and her husband Raymond (Gary Merrill), and is worth £1m dead. Feeling little more than a carer and 24-hr stud, Raymond drifts towards Ellen’s attractive young niece Alice (Jane Merrow), but is thrown out when the possessive Ellen catches them in a tender tryst.

With nothing to lose, Raymond joins Ellen’s shady attorney Richard Corbett (Neil McCallum) in an elaborate scheme to murder his wife. Events take a sinister turn when Raymond kills Ellen and buries her in a garden shed before the plan can be put in motion. But, as Ellen believed in life after death, there are signs that she is not content to remain in her grave…

Catacombs (1965)

…will live forever as a masterpiece of suspense!
This 1965 thriller (called The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die in the US) marked the directorial debut of the late Gordon Hessler (he died in January of this year at the age of 83), who had cut his teeth on Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour in the US, and would later helm the cult horror duo The Oblong Box (1969) and Scream and Scream Again (1970) in the UK, both starring Vincent Price, as well as Ray Harryhausen’s Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973).

The routine script is an adaptation of the 1959 novel by Jay Bennett, a former scriptwriter on the Hitchcock TV series, and shares similar themes to Henri Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques (1955), William Castle’s The Night Walker (1964) and even Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944).

Catacombs (1965)

Gary Merrill, best known for starring in 1950’s All About Eve with Bette Davis, was also a regular on the Hitchcock TV series. His age and looks certainly make him an unlikely gigolo here, but he carries it off quite well. And Jane Merrow, who plays the Lolita like Alice later turned up in 1967’s Night of the Big Heat and Hands of the Ripper (1971). Producer Jack Parsons was responsible for such cult genre fare as 1962’s Witchcraft, starring Lon Chaney Jr, in his only British film role, The Earth Dies Screaming (1964) and Don Sharp’s underrated Curse of the Fly (1965).

While Catacombs plays like a feature-length episode of a Hitchcock TV mystery, there are some disturbing moments that linger: like when Raymond is commanded by Ellen to carry her to bed for sex (it will make you cringe); or Ellen’s look-a-like getting a brick to the head then being set alight in a car that’s then sent over a cliff (vicious stuff). The catacombs of the title don’t actually appear in the film, but provide a vital clue in solving the mystery, and there’s more than one twist after the big reveal – which is straight out of William Castle’s The Tingler (1959).

Catacombs (1965)

THE UK DVD RELEASE
Catacombs is presented in a brand-new transfer from the original film elements, in its as-exhibited theatrical aspect ratio from Network Distributing as part of their British Film collection. The special features include image gallery and promotion material (in pdf form).

Night of the Big Heat (1967) | Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing battle protoplasmic space invaders – on Blu-ray!

Night of the Big Heat (1967)

SPEARHEAD FROM SPACE
A freak heat wave in the depths of winter sends temperatures soaring and sets nerves on edge on the remote Scottish island of Fara.

Novelist Jeff Callum (Patrick Allen), who owns and runs the Swan tavern with wife Frankie (Sara Lawson), is knocked for six when his former lover Angela (Jane Merrow) arrives on the island hoping to rekindle their one-time affair. But when a farmer’s sheep herd is found burned to a crisp, Jeff turns to local physician Dr Vernon Stone (Peter Cushing) to try to uncover the reason for the sudden change in climate.

But it’s surly scientist Godfrey Hanson (Christopher Lee) who has uncovered the truth: alien creatures are attempting to raise the temperatures to match those of their home planet as part of a spearhead before their invasion of Earth.

With the temperatures about to reach boiling point, all looks lost for the helpless inhabitants unless a weakness can be found to defeat the unseen creatures…

Night of the Big Heat (1967)

WELCOME TO THE ISLAND OF THE BURNING DAMNED
Based on John Lymington’s 1959 sci-fi novel Night of the Big Heat was adapted by Ronald Liles for TV then rewritten for the screen by Pip and Jane Baker, who Doctor Who fans will be familiar with as they penned two serials in the 1980s featuring renegade Time Lady, The Rani (played by the late Kate O’Mara).

The British sci-fi was also the second film that Hammer stalwart Terence Fisher directed for Planet Film Distributors – the first being 1966’s Island of Terror (a much more superior affair and a real guilty pleasure of mine). Despite having to work with a low budget, a short shooting schedule and not being familiar with the sci-fi genre, Fisher does his best to create a sense of claustrophobia as the events unfold (like an Agatha Christie mystery) and the islanders get all hot and bothered in the unnatural November heat as the aliens (who we don’t see until the end) carry out their reconnaissance.

Night of the Big Heat (1967)

However its the film’s poor special effects that lets the side down: the screen merely bleaches out when the inhabitants are incinerated, and the protoplasmic aliens aren’t half as exciting as Island of Terror’s bone-dissolving tentacled silicates – here, they’re just big balloons with glowing lights inside that turn into deflated Yorkshire puddings when a storm hits, finally destroying them.

As a consolation prize you do get Hammer pals Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing (in their last film together with Fisher): although Lee’s scientist does get the lion’s share of things to do unlike Cushing’s doctor, who basically props up the bar of the Swan tavern in a sweat-stained suit until his big death scene.

The film was released as Island of the Burning Damned in the US in 1971 in a double bill with Godzilla’s Revenge, and was shot at the legendary Pinewood Studios, with the tavern’s exterior scenes being filmed at The Swan Inn in Milton Keynes.

Night of the Big Heat (1967)

THE UK BLU-RAY RELEASE
The Odeon Entertainment Blu-ray region free release, part of their OEG Classic Movies series, features the 1967 sci-fi in a 16:9 aspect ratio, with LPCM mono audio. The quality of the transfer is a huge improvement on the digitally restored 2004 UK DVD release, but there are a couple of scenes that suffer from hot spots and scratches. The audio quality, however, is excellent, making Malcolm Lockyer’s superb score really swing (it really should be released as a double bill with Island of Terror – anyone?).

The release also benefits from the inclusion of the audio commentary, moderated by Marcus Hearne, featuring an enthusiastic Christopher Lee and screenwriters Pip and Jane Baker that originally appeared on the 2004 Masters of Horror DVD release; as well an episode from the 2012 British Legends of Stage Screen documentary series, in which Lee looks back at his life and career. The lack of gallery and trailers, however, is an oversight.

Night of the Big Heat is out on Blu-ray in the UK from OEG (Odeon Entertainment) from 14 July

Island of Terror gets a digitally remastered release from OEG on 22 September 2014

The Pleasure Girls | Gerry O’Hara’s sexy 1960s Chelsea-set drama is a guilty pleasure indeed

The Pleasure Girls (1965)

From director Gerry O’Hara, comes the 1965 London-set drama The Pleasure Girls. Like the same year’s The Party’s Over (check out my review here), this obscure British indie is all about 1960s youth culture – this time focusing on the modern independent woman, but also set around the achingly hip streets of Kensington and Chelsea.

The Pleasure Girls (1965)

Here the action revolves around No 48 Tudor Court, W8, a grand Victorian house occupied by a group of nice girls with posh accents all trying trying their darnedest not to become fallen women in the big city. Amongst this lot are Sally (Francesca Annis), a wannabe model from East Grinstead; her best friend Angela (Anneke Wills aka Doctor Who‘s Polly); and Dee (Hammer vixen Suzanna Leigh). Offering the girls tea and sympathy is the loveable Paddy (Tony Tanner), who enjoys his ‘stag nights’ with the ‘lads’ while the girls paint the town red.

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Despite its lurid title and bevy of beauties, this is no a porn film. Instead director O’Hara gives us a slice of London life (as it was), focusing on some fearlessly assured women making it on their own. New chick Sally’s big dilemma is whether she should ‘put out’ after meeting Ian McShane‘s youthful photographer Keith; while Dee has her hands full trying to convince her gambling slumlord boyfriend (Klaus Kinski) that she loves him as well as his money.

The Pleasure Girls (1965)

The Pleasure Girls might be light on drama, but it’s heavy on classy turns by the mainly female cast and lots of superb London location shots. Plus, Sloane Square and its environs never looked so good. This is a nostalgic must-see. On a trivia note, producer Michael Klinger made Roman Polanski’s Repulsion the same year, before launching a career in the Confessions series of sex comedies, while O’Hara would later film The Bitch with Joan Collins and Fanny Hill with Lisa Foster (two other films with slightly skewed feminist leanings).

The Pleasure Girls is available in a dual format edition (containing both DVD & Blu-ray on the one disc) as part of the BFI Flipside strand, featuring the alternative export cut (Blu-ray only) and export version scenes (DVD only). You can also rent it on BFI Player for £3.50.

 

If…. (1968) | Lindsay Anderson’s surreal satire is still as subversive as ever – which side will you be on?

Lindsay Anderson's If.... (1968)

‘One man can change the world with a bullet in the right place’
At College House boarding school in Gloucestershire circa 1967, winter term reassembles. New boys like Jute (Sean Bury) are looked on as ‘scum’, and forced to ‘fag’ for the ‘whips’, upper sixth formers who have totalitarian control over the younger boys. Non-conformist lower sixth former Mick Travers (Malcolm McDowell) however, is a rebel with no respect for authority. Following a vicious caning, the young man’s resentment of the system explodes into total carnage as he and his companions-in-arms, Johnny (David Wood) and Wallace (Richard Warwick) take possession of a cache of guns…

Lindsay Anderson's If.... (1968)

‘What stands, if freedom fails?’
Lindsay Anderson‘s 1968 film If…. was the first in the director’s trilogy he made with writer David Sherwin satirising life in contemporary Britain, later continued in O Lucky Man! and Britiannia Hospital. Caustic, cautionary and incendiary, it made a star out of Malcolm McDowell and turned him into the poster boy for 1970s youthful rebellion (iconically cemented in A Clockwork Orange as sociopath droog Alex).

Lindsay Anderson's If.... (1968)

A powerful indictment of the public school system (and the country as a whole), If… is a like an updated Tom Brown’s School Days fused with a savagely surreal 1960s counterculture twist. Here, Lindsay uses all his cinematic skills to scrutinise and lay bare its barbaric rituals and class systems, while giving radical voice to Britain’s frustrated youth – and pre-empting the punk movement of the late 1970s in the process.

Lindsay Anderson's If.... (1968)

Winner of the 1969 Palme d’Or at Cannes, If…. is Anderson’s and Sherwin’s finest hour; a masterclass in story telling, character development and cinematic language; and one of the greatest British films ever made. As the quitessential tale of rebellion, it deserves to be discussed and dissected time and again, especially in light of the fact that atrocities committed by youths in schools are now a tragic present-day reality.

Oh, and did you know it’s also David Cameron’s favourite film – odd choice for a Conservative Prime Minister, don’t you think?

Lindsay Anderson's If.... (1968)

The UK Blu-ray release from Eureka! Entertainment, part of the Masters of Cinema Series, features a 1080p transfer, approved by cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek and assistant editor Ian Rakoff, in the film’s original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and monaural audio, and includes the following extras.
• Audio commentary with film critic and historian David Robinson and actor Malcolm McDowell.
• New video interviews with producer Michael Medwin, writers David Sherwin and John Howlett, editor David Gladwell, production manager Gavrik Losey, camera operator Brian Harris, and actors David Wood, Hugh Thomas, Geoffrey Chater, Philip Bagenal, and Sean Bury (who went on to appear in The Abominable Dr Phibes).
• Three short films by Anderson: Three Installations (1952), Thursday’s Children (co-directed with Guy Brenton, 1954), and Henry (1955), which prove a real insight into Anderson’s visual language.
• Two US trailers.
• Booklet containing new writing by David Cairns; a new interview with actor Brian Pettifer; a self-conducted interview with Lindsay Anderson; notes on the three short films; and rare and archival imagery.

Wonderwall (1968) | The psychedelic cult movie immortalised by Oasis is now restored for your viewing pleasure

wonderwall bluray cover

Immortalised by Oasis in an eponymous track on their album, (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, director Joe Massot’s far-out Swinging 60s’ arthouse classic, featuring a score by George Harrison, is now out on Blu-ray in the UK following an extensive HD restoration carried out by Pinewood Studios.

The release, from Fabulous Films, includes the original theatrical version of the film as well as the director’s cut that features music from the original Wonderwall Abbey Road session never included in the original release.

Wonderwall (1968)

ARE YOU IN A HOLE?
It’s December 1967 and London is really swinging. Inside his cramped Landsowne Road apartment in SW11, absent-minded professor Oscar Collins (Jack MacGowran) discovers a hole in a wall in which he can view, unseen, the wild antics of a hip photographer (Iain Quarrier) and his collection of beautiful, drugged-up models, including the alluring Penny Lane (Jane Birkin). As he strips away more bricks, mortar, and even his ceiling, to get a better view of the couple’s love-ins and hash-fuelled ‘happenings’, he discovers Penny is far from happy and is soon forced to enter his ‘wonderwall’ in order to save her life…

Wonderwall (1968)

LET YOUR MIND WONDER
Great film man. Where did you get those fucked up ideas?’ ‘It was the times’. Those words, spoken between Liam Gallagher and Joe Massot after an Oasis gig in Bournemouth back in 1996 perfectly sums up the director’s Wonderwall. Originally released in 1968, the film plays like an feature-length music video, with most the film’s trippy visuals – courtesy of legendary cinematographer Harry Waxman – comprising of inventive pop-art inspired fashion-shoots, arty dream sequences and surreal slapstick comedy from Jack MacGowran (best known for his classic turns in Roman Polanki’s Cul-de-sac and The Fearless Vampire Killers).

Jane Birkin, who appeared briefly in another Swinging London film, Blow-Up, in 1966, speaks not a word throughout, which is dominated by George Harrison’s exotic score, a heady fusion of Indian sitar, tambla and sarod, that helped introduced Indian music to the West. Viewing it today, Wonderwall certainly has dated (its party scenes were even spoofed in an episode of Absolutely Fabulous), but its a real treat to hear Harrison’s sensual sounds alongside Massot’s ‘fucked up ideas’, visualised in Waxman’s psychedelic photography. Which only makes this Blu-ray release a must-have in my cult movie collection.

Wonderwall (1968)

THE SOUNDTRACK
With a budget of £60,000, Wonderwall was a low budget film with only £600 allocated for music. George Harrison spent £15,000 of his own money on creating the soundtrack which came his debut solo album, Wonderwall Music, and was the first release for The Beatles’ newly formed company Apple Records. The recording sessions took place at the EMI Abbey Road Studios and at Ravi Shankar’s studio in Bombay, India, with The Remo Four‘s Colin Manly and Tony Ashton, as well as Eric Clapton and Ringo Starr all becoming involved.

Wonderwall (1968)

THE WONDERWALL SET
Joe Massot commissioned Dutch design collective The Fool to create the Wonderwall. They were best known for decorating the Apple Boutique building exterior, and painting John Lennon’s Rolls Royce and George Harrison’s Mini Cooper. Simone Postuma was the painter and Marijke Koger was the graphic artist, while Josje Leeger designed and made clothes, including several of Jane Birkin’s costumes.

Wonderwall (1968)

THE EXTRAS
Reflections on Love (1966, 14-min) by Joe Massot. This is a real time warp trip back to 1960’s London when marriage, even between hippies, was between ‘one man and one woman’ (how times have changed).
• Publicity Text
• Biographies
• The Comic Art of Jack MacGowran (made up of clips from the film)
• The Art of Marijke (graphics from the film)
• Eric Clapton – Skiing (a clip from the film)
• John Lennon Poem
• The Remo Four Music Video (featuring clips from the film and short)
• Theatrical Trailer
• Outtake (the opening sequence with music by George Harrison)
• Collector’s booklet

[youtube:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ReCKDmeAdXA%5D
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