Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

When it’s on: Saturday, 1 October (1.00 pm)
Channel: Spike
IMDb Link

At the end of Desmond Davis’s Clash of the Titans, Father of the Greek Gods Zeus makes a prophecy that the exploits depicted in the film and indeed the Gods themselves may one day be forgotten. The speech might also be an end note on this type of movie – by 1981, Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion animation was looking quaint and increasingly artificial, while the tales of ancient mythology covered in these entries were not what audiences were perceived to want any longer. Fantastic cinema was taking to the skies, to other galaxies, with the decade’s later Krull resorting to a blend of both Harryhausen-esque fantasy and science fiction, and the main man’s retirement putting a seal on the genre.

All the same, these films had their golden age, and arguably they were never in better shape than when Harryhausen and Co. came up with Jason and the Argonauts in 1963. Remembered for its sword fighting skeletons, Hydra and of course the mighty Talos, what makes the film so good is that every element was thought about carefully. The casting was inspired; consider the character of Hercules, a role owned at that stage by bodybuilder Steve Reeves who had lent his services to a string of European productions. The easy thing would have been to hand the part to some passing beefcake, but instead they chose Nigel Green, who brought muscle to the role but more importantly a booming personality, lending Hercules a buoyant masculine arrogance that he might not otherwise have possessed. Green’s Hercules is well aware of his own legend – ‘HERCULES IS HERE!‘ – and revels in it, while being good natured enough to have real charisma, and it’s these qualities that make the character so memorable.

Elsewhere, Todd Armstrong’s Jason seems plucked from the shelf of ‘bland leads’, interacting with Harryhausen’s animated characters well enough, and especially in his conversations with it breathing life into the bust of the goddess Hero that provides the ship’s bow. Medea, the story’s heroine, is played by shapely Nancy Kovack and only turns up in the latter half, though in the legends she was a far more prominent character. A string of respected British thespians make up the rest of the cast in this Anglo-American production. The likes of Laurence Naismith, Douglas Wilmer and Gary Raymond help to crew the Argo, the Gods count Niall MacGinniss, Honor Blackman and Michael Gwynn among their ranks, and there are significant supporting roles for the likes of Patrick Troughton and Jack Gwillim. Each lends a touch of class, doing enough to suggest various sub-stories that are worth telling – what exactly did Troughton’s Phineus say to anger the gods to such an extent that he’s plagued by harpies every day, for example?

The film is based on Greek legends that were already ancient in times of antiquity, the story embellished as it was passed down, details added to throw in further challenges for its hero, a saga that in mythology all ended rather unhappily. They loved their tragedies, those Greeks, but here the focus is the golden fleece and its heroic collection. Bits of the tale are grafted on to suit the narrative’s purpose (in the myth, the Argonauts don’t meet Talos until their journey home), chosen to enhance the special effects, which at the time were enjoying their zenith as cinematic spectacle. It was filmed in Italy, mostly around the small town of Palinuro, based south of Naples, with its glorious blue Mediterranean seas and authentic locations, which looked exactly like the pre-Biblical Aegean world it was attempting to recreate. Bernard Herrmann was responsible for the film’s blistering score. Best known for his association with Alfred Hitchcock, Herrmann provided many of the soundtracks for these movies, especially those involving Harryhausen, and suitably evoked the sense of wonder and sometimes menace that fit the tone perfectly.

British director Don Chaffey keeps the action moving at the kind of pace that never reveres the material to the extent that everything slows down, a good thing because its yarn of Gods meddling in the deeds of men, men who come across fantastical beasts as a matter of routine, should be taken as seriously as the description suggests. The point is that there’s so much packed in it feels like a much longer film than its actual running time of comfortably under two hours – lots happens, it always looks great, but everything’s passing at breakneck speed so that viewers are never left to think too deeply about the simple fantasy they’re watching. Of course, Chaffey knew enough to appreciate that the project was a showcase for Harryhausen’s visual effects. By this point a producer as well as doing the legwork, Harryhausen had the good fortune to graft his work onto a film that ticked the boxes in all departments, meaning it never feels like something that’s waiting around for the next stop motion creature to light up the screen, something that becomes more apparent when watching the later The Valley of Gwangi. The effects aren’t gratuitous either. The scene where the Argo has to negotiate a narrow valley called the Clashing Rocks, and is saved from destruction by the intervention of the sea god Triton, is all the better because Harryhausen had the character played by a human actor (an uncredited William Gudgeon), the ship and sea projected in miniature because stop motion animation and water didn’t mix well. The effect works. It’s a memorable and beautifully filmed scene, teasing at the regular meetings of the human and deity spheres that were always prominent in ancient literature.

As for the other effects, well take your pick. The fighting skeleton from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad makes its reappearance, but this time it brings along its mates and the Argonauts have to take on a small army, a deadly corps of corpses as they kill some of Jason’s men and he’s only able to dispatch them by leaping into the sea, knowing if they follow the spell that’s animating them will be broken and they’ll once again be bags of bones. There are the flying harpies that make Phineus’s life an eternal misery, and the Hydra protecting the golden fleece, all obstacles for Jason and his crew to take on, but the show stopper is of course Talos, the enormous bronze statue of the legendary Titan that comes to life when Hercules steals one of the treasures it guards. One of the best things about Harryhausen’s animated characters is the personalities he gave them, perhaps a by-product of the hours and hours he spent bringing them to life, also the fact they were conduits of his own short-lived frustrations as an actor, when he suffered stage fright and instead channelled his performances through the creatures he created. When Talos moves, it’s with the jarring noise of ancient metal joints rubbing together, which becomes a terrifying signal of its approach. Despite its inscrutable mask of a face, it’s difficult not to imagine it being amused at the ant-like warriors attempting to hurt it with spears, its response an almost insulting swing of its sword, like it’s simply swatting them away. When Talos makes a serious attempt to attack the Argonauts, it very nearly halts the entire voyage when it stands, like the Colossus of Rhodes, at the harbour entrance the ship tries to flee through, picking the boat up like a toy and giving it a playful shake. What really makes all this work are the perspective shots, these larger than life heroes suddenly tiny fleeing insects with Talos in pursuit. It’s wonderful stuff, about as good an example of the craft as you’re ever likely to see, the sheer scale and ambition elevating the material to marvellous proportions, Herrmann’s score resorting to a martial drumbeat in reflecting the unstoppable approach of the metal Titan.

The influence of this movie on later film makers can’t really be overstated, the likes of John Landis, Steven Spielberg and Tim Burton all soaking up its delights. Tom Hanks once called it his personal best film of all time. The optimum time to watch it is of course in the early afternoon, the matinee hours, the world doing its own thing outside while you get to immerse yourself in a fantastical story of Gods, monsters and a time of adventure. I envy anyone catching it for the very first time.

Jason and the Argonauts: *****

The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 27 September (11.05 pm)
Channel: Channel 5
IMDb Link

Movies about exorcism continue to be good box office, years after the original The Exorcist hit the screens. Quality varies. Most seem content to rehash Friedkin’s 1973 classic, with direct sequels and even a rebooted TV version by Fox showing there’s life in the old dog, even if it’s very much one with fleas. Many films make an effort to lend credibility to their sensational content by claiming links to true stories, and The Exorcism of Emily Rose is no different in that regard. Its inspiration is the real-life case of Anneliese Michel, a German woman who died in 1976 after attempts to exorcise the demonic spirits possessing her couldn’t halt her demise through malnutrition and dehydration. While the courts found the priests and her parents guilty of negligent homicide, their sentences were minimised to suspended jail terms, which transformed the case into a worldwide sensation. The devout continue to make pilgrimages to her grave.

Michel’s story is here Americanised by Scott Derrickson and focuses on the legal drama that takes place after Emily’s death. Laura Linney plays Erin Bruner, a defence attorney appointed on behalf of Father Richard Moore (Tom Wilkinson), the priest in whose care Emily had placed herself and who helped her to reject medical care in favour of a spiritual cure. Bruner, a religious Agnostic with a successful defence of a suspected serial killer who’s gone on to repeat his crimes behind her, wants the Priest to plea bargain, but he isn’t interested. In his eyes, Father Richard isn’t guilty. He worked according to Emily’s own wishes and believes he did the right thing. The trial is his opportunity to tell Emily’s story, and over the course of the film her account is related.

As is made clear, The Exorcism of Emily Rose falls down squarely on the side of the Priest, the spiritual dimension. The trial progresses, as Bruner is plagued by strange noises and smells that occur every night at 3.00 am. Her star witness is a doctor who dies after he too is assailed by demonic forces. Above all is Emily’s tale. A devout girl from a Christian family that lives on a remote farm, Emily wins a scholarship to attend college and is soon after targeted by demons. Attempts to medicate her for diagnosed epilepsy lead to naught but further episodes and declining health. Emily ultimately turns to Father Moore, who agrees to perform the exorcism ceremony and witnesses firsthand the malevolent spirits controlling her. When she passes away, it’s as a consequence of refusing to eat over many months and the failure of the exorcism attempt. She depends on the Father to tell her story, which is what he does during the trial in an effort to prove the existence of angels and demons.

All this leads to some standard ‘exorcism’ scenes, the noble, steadfast preacher confronted with a wailing, thrashing possessed girl, speaking in tongues, sometimes reacting violently, contorting her body into impossible physical positions. It’s impressive to note that much of the latter is down to Jennifer Carpenter’s extraordinary flexibility as a performer, double-joined limb contortions that won her the role in rehearsals and look incredible on the screen. Her increasingly hysterical acting convinces, giving the impression of the girl suffering from untold mental and physical torture. Some special effects work was obviously carried out; no one can bend their spines the way she does in the film, yet much of it just her and it’s very good, and it makes the scenes including CGI that bit less convincing. Fortunately this is kept to a minimum, reserved for jump scares that are mercifully few, the tone on the whole making for an unsettling atmosphere of quietly mounting dread that for the most part works very well.

At the same time, because the film is in favour of its tale of possession, it fails in the end. Wilkinson’s Priest is presented as an infallible man of conscience. There’s little doubt that his character is on the right path, that he hasn’t made a mistake in giving Emily wholly over to a Christian cure, and this imbalances what could have been a clever courtroom drama, leaving audiences questioning the verdict. Because Bruner’s on the side of truth, her opposite number on the bench, Campbell Scott’s prosecution lawyer, becomes more petty minded and at times a bully, attempting to cajole the virtuous Father Moore, completely losing the audience’s sympathies when, in reality, the weight of evidence and the advantage of hard-headed realism would work in his favour. We’d believe in him, rather than see him increasingly as a villain, which is how he ends up being perceived. Multiple perspectives of the same scene show both the terrifying vision from Emily’s perspective and the bemused looks from onlookers as she appears to be suffering from delusions, and this is an angle I would have liked to have seen occur more. As it is, the film leaves us in no doubt of where its sympathies lie, who’s right, whereas you imagine a cleverer work would present both sides rationally and leave it up to us ultimately to make up our minds.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose ends on a semi-optimistic postscript. Bruner turns down the opportunity to take a partnership in her law firm, presumably sickened morally with the work she’s having to do. Father Moore refuses to appeal, his work on this earth done. Ignored is the rather messier epilogue from the real-life Michel case, in which her body was exhumed two years after its burial and found to have shown signs of constant deterioration caused by years suffering from mental illness. Far from attempting to save the girl, the priests exorcising her were indeed guilty of negligence.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose: ***

“You should have stayed away”

Disappointed with myself for intending to upload a piece on Roy Ward Baker’s splendid prisoner of war film, The One That Got Away, last week and not finishing it in time, I decided my punishment was to be a visit to the cinema in order to catch Timur Bekmambetov’s rebooted Ben-Hur. Thanks to Odeon Limitless, any notion of quality control over what we see these days has more or less vacated the building. Mrs Mike and I can decide the worth of a movie by just seeing it for ourselves and so that’s pretty much what we do. As a consequence we have watched some pleasantly surprising gems – Midnight Special, The Jungle Book – but also the occasional outright stinker, like Sausage Party (awful, thumbs down emoji, etc). We’ve had further opportunities to be dismayed at the Odeon’s general inability/unwillingness/can’t be botheredness to deal with problem patrons, let alone the fact their picture houses are in dire need of some TLC, but that’s another story. The other week, I went by myself to see Morgan. I think there were two other people in the entire theatre, and a malaise hung over the entire experience. The show started late, and when the film eventually arrived I detected a slight flicker on the screen, mostly when the image was supposed to be white. I didn’t even know if it was my tired eyes or a problem with the projector, until the three of us left at the end and were confronted by the manager who confirmed there was indeed an issue with the equipment, they’d been in two minds over whether to screen the film at all, and would we like some free guest passes? As though we had any use for them, being Limitless subscribers, but what the hell, right? Not a bad film, as it happens, like a schlockier take on the storytelling possibilities introduced by last year’s Ex Machina

So anyway, Ben-Hur, a film I was dying to see because (i) I’m an irredeemable sucker for this stuff (ii) I retain a kernel of faith in the future of epic cinema. In truth, the genre’s been dead for years, hasn’t it? Okay, so Gladiator entered peoples’ hearts and minds, but that film is getting on for twenty years old now and the projects green-lit on the back of its success have barely been worth the trouble. Ridley Scott’s subsequent entries in the ‘epic’ tradition are more miss than hit. I liked the Director’s Cut of Kingdom of Heaven, but by then the damage was done. There were some interesting ideas in Exodus: Gods and Kings, yet it remains at best a pale imitation of The Ten Commandments, albeit with some ravishing visuals. As good an actor as Christian Bale is, even having that elusive capacity to command the screen in a way Kingdom’s Orlando Bloom rather fatally did not, he did nothing to supplant Charlton Heston as the definitive Moses. And let’s face it, even revisiting Gladiator is a disappointing experience. Scott’s visual flair, liberal amounts of gore, Russell Crowe’s larger than life presence and the piece’s sheer loudness can’t hide its obvious direction and ham-fisted plotting. I admit upon first watching it that I was dazzled, not to mention delighted by the return of an extinct tradition of film making, but now I don’t think it comes close to the movie – The Fall of the Roman Empire – from which it ripped the broad stokes of its narrative. As for Crowe, I think I now prefer him in the eponymous Noah, which if nothing else embraced its sheer loopiness for a truly unique cinematic experience.

How does the new take on Ben-Hur stack up? William Wyler’s 1959 version was by no means the first attempt to film General Lew Wallace’s allegorical saga, but I think I’m being fair in suggesting it remains a special film. There’s the weight of Oscar glory, the film’s length and scope, its straight-faced lashings of religious storytelling. While not I’d argue a perfect picture, it gives every impression of being the definitive screen adaptation of Wallace’s text and the task of redoing it seems an awesome undertaking. Besides, the world doesn’t appear to have been crying out for this film to be released. The trailers and other promotional material have met with a collective sigh, a sense of ‘really, why would you?’ from viewers who either have fond memories of Wyler’s film, simply couldn’t care less, or regularly bemoan the fact that its special effects would be computer generated and therefore weightless. I’m not going to ramble on about CGI, which I’ve already done exhaustively elsewhere and, in fairness, I thought was used quite well here on the whole. Some of the things that happen to horses in this picture could not have been filmed in the past without ending the lives of the poor beasts in a cruel and unnecessary fashion, so it’s all good with me to know the producers harmed pixels instead.

Ben-Hur 2016 hasn’t done great business and critically it’s taken a mauling, with enough caveats to suggest individual viewers could form differing impressions. For my part, it was pretty much what I was expecting. It’s a little over half the length of the 1959 film, which means some of the earlier work’s statelier elements either fly past or are exhumed entirely, but also the sheer epicry gets dialled down. Judah’s fall from grace, leading to his time served as a galley slave, is one of the story’s more powerful moments. In 1959, this was given the full grand sweep. The privations experienced by Judah and his fellow rowers were conveyed really well, the years he spent there made palpably clear. This is important because Judah emerges from the horrors of slavery a vengeance machine; the depth of his anger fuels the film’s second half and you can see why he feels that way. The new version includes the rowing period, but truncates it. Judah takes to his oar and then we’re told that five years have passed and we can tell because he now has long hair and a funky hipster beard. Admittedly, the sea battle he’s involved in looks pretty cool, something that the 1959 film falls short upon as the camera pans over Wyler’s toy boats, but nowhere do you get to experience Judah’s years of torture on the ship, the will to survive, his festering resentment. It just sort of happens and then the story moves on, a mere notch on the hero’s journey towards his inevitable showdown with Messala.

One of the more interesting aspects of this update for me was how they would treat its Christian overtones; after all Ben-Hur is a story of the Christ, and Jesus looms large over it. I didn’t expect to see anything like the 1959 film’s Nativity scene, which is in truth a few minutes of utter beauty, told entirely without words, the pictures and Miklos Rozsa’s score doing all the work because it’s one of the western world’s best known stories and doesn’t need to be narrated, indeed as I remember Jesus goes on to feature prominently without a single line of dialogue escaping his lips. Famously, Wyler opted never to show Christ’s face; we see him from behind and it’s left to the reactions of other characters to him to make it clear who he is. Inspired direction really, transforming Jesus into an otherworldly and very special character who it appears the film never feels worthy in showing fully. No such luck here. Jesus, played by Rodrigo Santoro (who I last recall seeing in Zack Snyder’s insane 300 as an enemy king with almost spider-like elongated arms and legs), is just another dude living and working in Jerusalem, spouting what would become Christian wisdom to anyone who cares to hear him but not especially noteworthy. I could go with that, actually; if Bekmambetov wished to cast Jesus as a commoner whose views long outlived him, then there’s some logic in that. Only the film wants to have its cake and eat it, as shown in the scene where Judah’s on his journey to the galley and collapses, Jesus defying the guards to give him water and the Romans unable to do a thing to stop him. So what is he then – preacher with a revolutionary message of universal love, or indefinably more than that? It’s confusing, and it makes the film’s climactic moment – when Judah has his moment of epiphany at the foot of the cross – so much less meaningful. The ‘moment’ happens, but we’re supposed to accept the crucifixion’s impact on Ben-Hur because of it being a major world event that we all know about, not as a consequence of great build-up and storytelling. The film’s lack of internal logic is a real issue.

Finally, the element I was really looking forward to, which was the clash between Judah and Messala. In my most recent viewing of the 1959 film, which I wrote about on these pages here, the personalities of the two main characters, one Jewish and the other Roman, became its decisive point. It was helped by the performances – Heston we all know about, but Stephen Boyd’s Messala was an outright revelation. Both seemed capable of calling on depths of bile that gave their mutual enmity such heft and lent enormous gravitas to their personal battle in the chariot arena. With all that emotional weight, the already spectacularly mounted race became one of the screen’s most exhilarating spectacles. How could the modern retelling stack up? The film opens with the prelude to the race, before tracking back to show how these two ‘brothers’ became enemies in the first place. Messala is played by Toby Kebell, best known for motion capture performances for films like Warcraft and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Far removed from Boyd’s pent up rage, Kebell’s acting makes him look in permanent pain, with none of the ‘be on top at all costs’ motivation that made Boyd’s Messala such a menacing figure. Jack Huston, an actor I haven’t seen in many things, or at least not enough to sit up and take notice, makes for a low key Judah, which is the worst thing he can be. The 1959 film was carried on Heston’s broiling sense of resentment, his anger at the world washing off the screen in great waves, but you get none of that from Huston, who seems an all-round nicer guy but whose cause it’s almost impossible to get behind. That leads to the movie’s biggest misunderstanding, that having action and carnage during the chariot race is all well and good, quite impressively filmed and trying to add fresh elements to a simple retelling of what came beforehand, but that’s all it ever is. I didn’t really care who won. Rather, I was more impressed with the video (linked below) that let me faff around on the chariot as it hurtles around the track. Very pretty and a bit of fun, yet there’s no weight, no emotion invested, as though the film can get by on visual splendours alone. It can’t.

In all, the 2016 retelling makes me think kindlier of the Wyler film, to appreciate it all the more, which I don’t suppose was ever the intention. Perhaps it’s the case that these kinds of movies have simply had their day and should be left back in the past, dusted off for Bank Holiday TV screenings and, if you’re lucky, the occasional big screen exhibition. I don’t agree with that personally. Good stories are good stories, so why not keep telling them? And some of the best ones come out of antiquity, whether they’re fictional ones like Ben-Hur that run alongside real-life events or the account of Cleopatra, the Empire defining tale that was most recently brought to life on HBO’s typically expensive series, Rome. But it isn’t here, and it’s nothing to do with CGI but instead the reliance on spectacle over old-fashioned elements like character and plot development. In the film’s notes, much is made of the race being shot using clever camera work, stuntmen (and animals) and practical effects over the whole thing being computerised. Fine, the sequence is very nicely done, a good showpiece. A shame they didn’t dedicate the same amount of time and effort on all the other things.

The Man from Colorado (1948)

When it’s on: Thursday, 8 September (4.55 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

The Man from Colorado is set at the close of the American Civil War. Glenn Ford plays Owen Devereaux, a Union Colonel who is appointed Judge for his region in Colorado. His right hand man in the army, Del Stewart (William Holden), becomes Marshal and his second in command. Justice under Judge Devereaux is swift and brutal. He orders hangings on the flimsiest of evidence. Death is pronounced as a matter of course and with a straight, unscrupulous face, but Stewart knows better. He remembers an episode shortly before the war ended, when Devereaux’s detachment trapped a Confederate force into offering terms of surrender and, despite waving the white flag, the Colonel gunned them down. Devereaux gives instances of insight into his own condition, writing after the slaughter that he has no idea what’s happening to him, but the rough justice continues and drives an irreconcilable wedge between Stewart and himself.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder has existed for as long as human beings. Since ancient times there have been investigations taken into the psychological effects of war, clearly one of the most stress-inducing human experiences, and as long ago as the Civil War formal medical studies into the condition were undertaken. PTSD as a consequence of World War One, especially the experience of living for weeks in trenches, was known as ‘shell shock’, a term redefined as ‘battle fatigue’ in the global war that followed. The shattered mental states of soldiers returning from Germany and Japan in 1945 spilled over into popular culture, notably in Film Noir, in which PTSD became a prominent player in attempting to explain the rationale of its damaged heroes and their struggles to adjust to civilian living. Westerns too chose contemporary issues for storylines transposed into the Old West, and in The Man from Colorado Devereaux is an obvious sufferer. One of the film’s neater themes is that lack of understanding from other people to his psychological state. Stewart recognises his friend’s ‘sickness’ and urges him to take a break from his duties, but his is a lone voice and otherwise everyone is unaware of the particulars of Devereaux’s malaise. You can imagine it really being like that, a PTSD sufferer resorting to almost psychopathic levels of violence without the realisation from him or anyone else of the reasons for his behaviour.

The best thing about Ford in his performance is that Devereaux’s countenance is precisely the same as in his heroic roles – resolute, fixed, always with that undercurrent of violence behind the eyes but maintaining a sense of control. It’s terrifying at times, the sense that to some degree Devereaux thinks he’s dong the right thing, the part of his personality that caused him to question himself eradicated and leaving those around him to challenge his behaviour. The real-life friendship between Ford and Holden spills over into their acting, their ease in each other’s company and the latter’s air of disillusionment as he finds Devereaux taking a path he can’t follow. The clash and split between these two veterans who we are led to believe have been through the horrors of war together and survived should be devastating enough, yet the film adds an unnecessary extra dimension in Ellen Drew’s Caroline, the love interest for both men. Drew’s fine in the part, but the plotline seems thrown in to add a conventional layer of romantic added tension, which isn’t needed. The exploration of PTSD and its effects is enough.

A cool $1 million was lavished on The Man from Colorado, the sum showing in the film’s sprawling township set, part of which was destroyed in the climactic fire scene. Production problems were reflected in the recycling of directors, Charles Vidor being replaced by Henry Levin, which caused the shoot to be extended and costs escalating as a consequence. Whereas the former carried the more celebrated body of work, turning out the classic thriller Gilda two years earlier (which also starred Ford), the latter was a sure hand and developed the film as a Western with Noir themes, helping to show the genre as a format for reflecting prevalent issues within contemporary America. The result is a fine, tense drama, perhaps not quite all it could have been yet well paced and certainly entertaining.

The Man from Colorado: ***

Getting Hitched!

No, I haven’t died and I’m most definitely still watching movies. The reality is that I took a promotion at work a couple of months ago and as a result I’m putting in much longer hours currently (I’d like to say that my pay rose to reflect the twelve hour days I’m often doing at the moment, but still). Something’s got to give, and at the moment it’s the scouring of TV schedules and putting comments together for these pages that’s losing out. It’s my choice and I don’t regret it, but in all truth I’m generally coming home from the job ready for nothing more than something to eat and some sleep, and FOTB is simply at the back of my mind.

All the same, as a fun side project and ‘to keep my hand in’, as it were, I’m working steadily on another ‘Best to Worst’ article for the site, this time on the directorial adventures of Alfred Hitchcock. I would argue that over the years of film viewing Hitch has become my favourite auteur of them all and so it’s quite a pleasure to plough through his extensive back catalogue. I own copies of just about every film of his that’s available (on DVD; there will come a time when I update the lot to HD format but that sounds like an exhausting assignment), and at the time of writing I’m up to the late 1930s, a very rich period for Alfred and featuring some brilliant movies. Similarly, to help I’m referring often to several books about him, including the terrific The Art of Alfred Hitchcock by Donald Spoto, and Charles Barr’s English Hitchcock. Both volumes contain extensive critiques of his films, often going into exhaustive detail about pictures where I’m confining myself to around 500 words apiece.

Despite the risk of nullifying my poor family into endless boredom with Hitchaphenalia, I’m enjoying this project immensely. Clearly, producing an actual ranking is going to be very difficult. Even the great man’s duds aren’t poor works by most people’s standards. Generally derided entries, like Number Seventeen and Waltzes from Vienna, have something to recommend them, whether it’s the former’s crazy chase scene (featuring some lovely model work), or the bravura debut performance of Blue Danube by Strauss Jr. Neither film is going to come close to troubling the higher spots, and God knows how I’m going to work that out (personal preference is as good a guide as any ultimately), but we’re talking about some very serious talent here. Luckily it’s a nice dilemma to have to deal with.

As I write this I’m listening to a Bernard Herrmann playlist on Apple Music. Herrmann isn’t even close to entering Hitchcock’s orbit on my viewing schedule yet, however the number of documentaries about him that I’ve seen recently are all daubed liberally with the great composer’s scores, and let’s face it there’s no chore in hearing his music, is there? Despite his close association to Hitchcock, I confess the main joys right now are coming from his soundtracks for Ray Harryhausen movies. If there’s a better fun work than that he did for The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, then I’m yet to hear it.

In the meantime, it’s always worth checking out the poll of Hitchcock’s movies that Sergio compiled over at Tipping my Fedora. I don’t agree with the entire top ten produced by this public vote, yet that just shows the sheer variety and richness on offer. Not a sign, in the upper echelons, of entries like I Confess and Rebecca, both of which I love, nor Dial M for Murder, Frenzy, Sabotage, Young and Innocent or Foreign Correspondent… Similarly, the trilogy of lengthy podcasts done by The Secret History of Hollywood covering Hitchcock’s life and work can’t be recommended highly enough.

Again, please forgive the hiatus taking place on these pages. And with that, I’m off to watch The Lady Vanishes

Becket – the Sequel

Apologies for this post’s misleading title. There isn’t of course a sequel to the excellent Becket – how could there be? What did happen, however, in one of those lovely, neat bits of timing was a trip to Canterbury I made with my family this week. We went because it was raining on Wednesday morning, another wet day on our one week off together before July, and we agreed to give up the splish-splash north-west and pilgrim our way across and down the country in order to visit the seat of the Church of England.

Needless to say it wasn’t raining in Kent, and Canterbury emerged as a rather lovely place, only really shoehorned into this century thanks to being a University town. The focus of our brief stay was obviously the Cathedral, which you really can’t miss even though we were stopped from visiting on the first night as they were filming a Hollywood production there (no idea what, unfortunately, and if you ask me rather inconsiderate of them not to advise me before I went).

I’ll confess here and now that I’m an inveterate Cathedral visitor, something about those mighty structures that were constructed at a time when buildings so enormous shouldn’t have been possible, and trying to imagine myself in medieval times, awed into submission by their sheer scale when nothing similar existed. Canterbury is of course a special place, given its position and the sheer length of time that a place of worship has been present on its site. From what I can gather, more or less as long as Christianity has existed in England there’s been a church here, which means you’re walking on 1,500 years of significant history. And it’s a fine building, perhaps second only to Ely in my chart of English Cathedrals and wholly capable of inspiring the appropriate dropping of one’s jaw. Even with bits grafted on to the structure over the centuries it’s impressive.

Inside, the main focal point is naturally the bits that involve Thomas Becket. There was something stirring about walking where he no doubt once did, exploring the exact spot in the church where he was martyred, viewing the roll of Archbishops and seeing his name on the list. For good measure there were the tombs of King Henry IV (buried deliberately adjacent to Becket in the Cathedral as the cult around the Saint was at its peak) and Edward the Black Prince here also, but nothing really compares to the Thomas stuff, and the humbling feeling of being somewhere that had paid witness to the same events I had been exploring for this site mere days earlier. Given our journey, it’s almost impossible to picture what people went through to get here in times gone by. I can get some impression from the topography alone, the way we crested a small hill before having our first sight of the place, but England in 2016 is nothing like the forested land it was back then and imagining the trek pilgrims made sounds like a special kind of ardour.

Very much a worthwhile expedition, despite the long journey and the failure of other road users to show any more care for the Highway Code than a ‘screw you, I’m going here’ attitude. Sadly, I didn’t quite have my own Dennis Price moment a la A Canterbury Tale, but I am pleased to have been at last.

In the meantime, this site might be a little quiet over the next few weeks. I’m just taking a bit of a break from it all, though I reserve the right to drop in at any time I please and place a stealth write-up on these pages.

Becket (1964)

When it’s on: Monday, 4 April (1.15 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

The first of two 1960s films covering the life and times of Henry II and starring Peter O’Toole as one of England’s most important kings, Becket stands as cracking medieval drama. Like its ‘not really, but it could be’ sequel, The Lion in Winter, Becket was adapted from a stage play, actually a French play, and noteworthy was the amount of licence used in pulling away from historical accuracy. The main point of contention was the film’s assertion that Henry was a Norman and Thomas Becket a Saxon, throwing in a key note of tension as William the Conqueror’s successful invasion of England set up an apparently divided country of ruling Normans and downtrodden Saxons that played well in Hollywood versions of the time. In reality, Becket was as Norman as they came whilst Henry was from the Anjou region of France, an Angevin whose territories on the continent added further chunks of what would become the French nation to England.

The Norman-Saxon element is ever present in Becket, but far more important is the personal relationship between Henry and Becket, the deep friendship that turns to enmity once the latter is handed the Archbishopric of Canterbury and sets up a dividing line between the two real powers in England – that of king and church. Henry’s belief that giving Becket the job will put his strongest ally in the most powerful job within the clergy and therefore bend it to his will turns to ruin. Against the odds, Becket finds God. In doing so, he becomes the church’s staunchest defender and aligns himself in political opposition to Henry. Their argument, over the incident of a priest being killed by Lord Gilbert rather than handed over to ecclesiastical justice, boils over into a personal feud as neither side is prepared to back down. Using the full fury of royal power, Henry eventually forces Becket to go on the run, to France and thence to the Pope, all the while lamenting the loss of his best friend and fellow lad and in private cheering Becket’s spirit. The story boils to its well known conclusion, the king drunkenly sanctioning the dispatch of his ‘meddlesome priest’ before really regretting it.

Becket was unavailable for many years before being painstakingly restored and rereleased during the previous decade. Technically it’s a marvel, much of the film’s budget going on a titanic reconstruction of Canterbury Cathedral so well designed that it’s virtually impossible to imagine the action is taking place anywhere other than the actual site. To all intents and purposes the crew transported back in time to thirteenth century England, a shift away from previous visions of the era as a pastoral and rural idyll to show it as austere, dark and dirty. Even the king, who would have enjoyed the highest living standards, is in relative squalor. You imagine a film like Becket, which was very popular, blowing apart forever the chocolate box representation of Ye Olde England as it had been depicted in The Adventures of Robin Hood and copied since, because this version was simply truer.

It really works on the performances of its two leads, Richard Burton’s Becket and Peter O’Toole as Henry. Burton was at the time one of the world’s biggest stars thanks to the previous year’s Cleopatra and his relationship with co-star Elizabeth Taylor. After Lawrence of Arabia O’Toole’s star was also in the ascendancy and it was his complicated, multi-layered performance that made him an ideal choice for the capricious Henry, a role he had in fact previously wanted on the stage before he was offered the part of T.E. Lawrence. Burton, top billed as the eponymous meddlesome priest, has the tough sell of conveying Becket’s spiritual transformation, a difficult thing to convey in the modern, secular age and something the play struggled to depict convincingly. What Burton does, however, is portray his character as a man of conviction from the start, working both as a friend to the king and operating behind the scenes to smooth over his many caprices, as in the scene where he deals with the peasant girl. When told by Henry that he’s going to be the next Archbishop, Becket begs him to reconsider – he knows that doing the job will place him in opposition. Sure enough, no sooner has he donned the robes of office that he starts taking his duties very seriously, defending the church and even discovering his own spirituality. It’s not long before he’s clashing with the monarch, but it’s consistent with Becket’s entire approach to life and it’s something he understands will happen exactly as it does. It’s the essential difference between Henry and Becket. The former, a young king, has been used to getting everything his own way and thinks of the world in terms of bending it to his will. Becket embraces a wider view, sees it from the perspective of the people and realises just what heading the church involves. His is a tragic story, one in which he turns to God because it’s the logical route to turn to a greater power for help and support.

Burton plays his character with complete conviction, a real sense of steel-eyed purpose, and makes it work. That he is ultimately overshadowed by O’Toole is that the king gets all the best lines and despite everything is a likeable and playful monarch. Henry’s struggle against Becket is a dichotomy – he loves him on a personal level and cheers him on even though officially the Archbishop’s struggle is against him. Other moments, his saving of the peasant girl for Becket even after the latter has privately kept her away, show his basic lack of understanding for his friend. He just wants Becket to be his pal, but on his own terms, and when he’s rejected it becomes dangerous because he’s a king and he can call on all manner of earthly forces to manifest his anger. O’Toole plays Henry as a force of nature, using his position to say exactly what he thinks, often to ruinous effect, sparing no one the barb of his tongue. The way he talks to his family, presented as duplicitous and critical, is simultaneously hilarious and horrible. And there’s a lovely consistency in his character from this film to The Lion in Winter, where the older Henry is shown as being prepared to start his dynasty all over again because the current one isn’t working to his liking.

Brilliant, complex work from both actors, beautifully written – Edward Anhalt won an Oscar for his screenplay, though the film’s further eleven nominations did not end in awards – and performed. O’Toole revealed that the tight shooting schedule was beneficial due to the months he’d spent beforehand rehearsing his role, getting the nuances of his character just right, and it helped that he and Burton became good drinking buddies whilst on set together. It’s a very well acted film featuring a string of solid to good supporting performances, notably John Gielgud as a camp and cool-minded French king, and David Weston as the monk who falls wholeheartedly for Becket’s show of faith, sticking with him to the end. Becket is an intelligent and altogether engrossing couple of hours, bookended by marvellous work from its two lead actors.

Becket: ****

The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964)

When it’s on: Monday, 28 March (12.30 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

There’s no use crying. You don’t understand all this, do you? In the old days there was gold from the wars for the legionnaires, but your father… He was a great man, but with this new Rome it’s all changed.

The Fall of the Roman Empire is infamous as the film that bankrupted its producer Samuel Bronston and sounded a death knell for the lavish epic. Making back a mere quarter of its titanic $20 million budget at the box office, it was a complete flush and a warning to the industry never to gamble so recklessly again. Now, with the financial misfire taking place more than fifty years ago we can see it for the brilliant picture it is – large scale, truly epic, absorbing with subtle levels of characterisation and plotting, and with all those high production values placed front and centre. While writing this, I’m listening to Dimitri Tionmkin’s score; it’s a thing of utter melancholic beauty, which kind of sums up the film itself.

Bronston had always thrown the dice when making his features. Before this one, he’d come up trumps with the likes of King of Kings and El Cid, each one outdoing the last for their ensemble casts, massive sets and armies of extras. Today in the CGI age we can really appreciate the effort, the way these films had to employ thousands of people to play the parts that special effects would simply fill in digitally now. The production company was based in Spain, and Bronston would entertain his guests with tours of the films’ sets, indeed there’s a suggestion that these walkabouts were part of the point for the egotistical producer. In any event, the Roman Forum set built for The Fall of the Roman Empire holds the record as the largest ever built outdoors, and a splendour it was, ancient buildings reconstructed with a gorgeous attention to detail and sense of giant scale. I guess if you’re going to fail then you might as well do it on a spectacular level, and few films did that quite so fulsomely.

The film was conceived from director Anthony Mann, fresh from the success of El Cid, reading Edward Gibbons’s massive examination of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, a series of works written in the eighteenth century that attempted to tackle one of history’s great questions. Covering Rome from the end of the first century CE to the fall of Constantinople in 1453, it remains a terrific if time consuming analysis, still eminently readable and wholly objective in its outlook. The task facing the production was to condense Gibbon’s central thesis into a single film, selecting a single episode from history in order to illustrate why the ‘decline and fall’ took place, when exactly the rot started to creep in. The ruinous reign of Commodus from 180 to 192 CE was chosen as it came after the rule of Rome’s ‘five good Emperors’ and suggested the fragility of the its vast and sprawling empire when it was mismanaged. Rome lurched on for a few hundred more years before being overwhelmed by ‘barbarians’ and remaining solely in the east, because it was still powerful enough to continue, but Commodus showed how it was vulnerable to corruption and bad decision making.

On a political level, the film plays the start of the fall as a tragedy, suggesting that Marcus Aurelius’s vision for the empire’s future was undone by his death and the subsequent Commodus, who partly through sheer spite against his father took Rome’s policy in the opposite and destructive direction. Both men were actual historical figures, and Marcus Aurelius’s daughter, Lucilla, existed in reality also. The fictional element comes in the shape of Livius, a general on the Danube frontier who shares Marcus Aurelius’s ideas and is also Lucilla’s lover. The ageing Emperor’s plan is for Livius to ascend to the throne after him, marry Lucilla and guide the Empire into a new age of prosperity and inclusiveness, but he dies before he can enact it and Commodus instead takes over, with terrible consequences, what the contemporary historian Cassius Dio described as a descent ‘from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust’.

Whereas the focus is inevitably on Commodus’s folly as Emperor, helped by a performance filled with elan by the then up and coming Christopher Plummer, all playful smiles and mental fixed stares, the film takes its good time to show Rome’s corruption as about more than one man. Marcus Aurelius is killed not by his son but as a consequence of plotting from self-serving Senators who can see in his plans the deaths of their own advancement. Both Emperors are surrounded by would-be assassins, political opportunists on the make, which lends the film a degree of terrifying topicality. It’s worth bearing in mind that it was made during JFK’s assassination, and whether or not you believe the President was murdered by one man or a conspiracy the reality is a lot of people stood to lose much from his continued existence and this film suggests an expediency in Marcus Aurelius’s death that gives it a delicious level of subtlety. Compare it, as we must really, with Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, in which Commodus suffocates his father in order to advance to the throne, and the contrast is astonishing. In Gladiator, while the servile Senators are still present and correct the characters are rather one-dimensional, whereas in The Fall of the Roman Empire Commodus is presented as being merely at the apex of a rotten society, a corrupt business that is already eating itself away from within. Decline and fall? You’d better believe it’s happening!

Plummer is one of the better performances delivered by a stunning ensemble cast. These movies employed armies of well known faces as a matter of course but The Fall of the Roman Empire takes this element to its natural summit. At the very top is Alec Guinness’s Marcus Aurelius, trying to hold it together and enact his reforms in a race against his advancing illness. The ‘fall’ of the film’s second half works on his absence. Once he’s gone there’s a vacuum, well minded characters struggling because the man at the top who they believed in is no longer around to support them. Plummer’s Commodus is a study in opposites – younger, more energetic, thrusting forward without any thought of the consequences, far and decisively removed from the carefully considered philosophies of Marcus Aurelius. A marvellous and riveting scene in the debating house, where Senators discuss the merits of settling former enemies to farm on Roman land, illustrates this perfectly. The lickspittles who’ve advanced through Commodus argue against accommodating the ‘barbarians’, and it takes a speech from Finlay Currie’s aged sage (Currie was one of those actors who turned up often in epic films, normally playing wise old characters and putting in minor but significant roles) to turn the matter. Currie’s character can see past the immediate self interests to the future envisaged by the late Emperor, but you can tell his is a dying voice with little place in Commodus’s world and during a later scene in the same location, by now a room of toadies, his absence is telling.

James Mason puts in a fine piece of work as Timonides, the philosopher freedman employed by Marcus Aurelius as his sparring partner in wit and words, and later throws in his lot with the German farmers. A scene in which he attempts to talk beaten foe Ballomar (John Ireland) into surrendering peacefully is brilliant. Ballomar, beaten and trapped in a cave, has little interest in giving up without a fight and would be far happier going down killing Romans. As Timonides tries to persuade the German warrior to give up this end in favour of accepting a farmer’s future, Ballomar tortures him with fire, knowing that a pained scream from the Greek philosopher will alert the guards and bring on his favoured fighter’s death. But Timonides doesn’t give up and refuses to cry out, a beautifully performed scene typical of Mann, who dotted his films with such moments in order to illustrate physical human sacrifice, and in the end it’s Ballomar who submits, so impressed and moved is he by his opponent’s strength of conviction.

The film’s main star was none of these great actors but in fact Sophia Loren, the towering Roman who in 1964 was named the most popular star among British audiences. Earning a cool million for her role and echoing the salary paid to Elizabeth Taylor for Cleopatra, it was Loren’s attachment to the project that turned Mann’s preferred male star, Charlton Heston, away. Having worked together on Mann’s previous Bronston epic, El Cid, Heston had endured enough of Loren’s fussy insistences that she be shot a certain way to capture her nose on camera at its best that he refused to do so again, opting instead for 55 Days at Peking (and as it happened suffering another torrid professional relationship with Ava Gardner). Personally, I’ve never felt Loren to be blessed with outstanding acting talent, but what she did have was presence, poise, grace and those longing, massive eyes, which were capable of conveying complete tragedy and make men melt. Cast against her was Stephen Boyd, best known at the time for playing the villain Messala in Ben-Hur. Over the years it’s become fashionable to blame Boyd for many of The Fall of Roman Empire’s ills, as though the decision to employ him as a substitute for Heston became its fateful tragedy as he simply wasn’t as good. True enough it’s difficult to argue against Heston as the ultimate casting choice for films of this type, but Boyd, given the tough role of playing the blue eyed good guy, the bloke we root for throughout as he battles vainly against massive odds, turns out to be marvellous, personally magnetic and selling wholly his character’s devotion to Loren’s Lucilla. Boyd would later claim that he was enamoured with Loren and it’s certainly the case in the film that the pair have great chemistry. As Commodus uses their love for each other as a lever in trying to get his own way, there’s a real believability about their efforts to make the most of their moments together.

And the stars just keep on coming. As the blind man Cleander, the man of dubious loyalties who performs the subtle, perfectly executed killing of Marcus Aurelius, Mel Ferrer plays him with absolute inscrutability, realising that audiences can tell a lot about a character through their eyes and when those eyes are dead there’s nothing to see. Anthony Quayle plays a gladiatorial confidante of Commodus with great conviction. One of the more decisive yet smaller tragedies of the film is his character’s complete loyalty to the young Emperor, the way he continually steps into harm’s way for him, a fact that has its fateful denouement late in the story. Hammer stalwart Andrew Keir is on hand as one of Livius’s generals, a man who remains steadfastly faithful right to the inevitably bitter end. If one performer gets short changed then it’s Omar Sharif as the Armenian king. Sharif is always watchable but there’s an entire film one could make that focuses on the events of the film purely from his perspective. What a fascinating exercise that would have been, the opportunity to witness ‘the fall’ from the point of view of a supporting character whose own motivations are on the periphery but come to matter. As it is, Sharif gets a handful of lines and a beautifully choreographed fight scene.

Almost 2,000 words into this piece and I’ve mentioned little about the plot, which I leave to you for your enjoyment. It’s a treat, on the surface the stuff of high melodrama but beneath that a mess of broiling machinations and the crushing weight of history. Throwaway bits of dialogue – check out the closing lines from George Murcell’s General, Victorinus – hint at the sweep of Roman policy and how it affects ordinary people, adding so much depth to the action and showing how deeply Mann understood the significance of the tale he was weaving. You don’t have to really swallow this stuff; there’s a great deal going on all the time, but it’s a stirring brew all the same. There’s a weight to the film’s most significant moment, the magnificently mounted funeral of Marcus Aurelius, where Livius hands the torch to Commodus, which effectively gives him the throne. Audiences can be forgiven for crying out at this stage; we all know where the film’s going with a nutjob like Commodus in charge. But it’s all been built up to by the preceding moments, as Timonides tries to find a scrap of paper that makes law the decision to crown Livius and learns that it doesn’t exist. Livius knows that if he seizes power at this point it will never be accepted and lead to civil war and therefore has no choice but to hand the Empire to Commodus, hoping for the best. Which of course, he doesn’t get. Again compare this with Gladiator, in which the hero Maximus loses everything as Commodus attempts to eliminate him. The tale of his bloody rise from the gladiatorial pits is well told, but it’s altogether less complicated than the story being weaved here, in which Livius acts not only from a position of relative strength but knows also he has to work against someone he considers to be a friend, adding dramatic heft to the film’s string of tragedies, both on a giant scale and at a personal level. I know which version I prefer.

It’s easy enough to see why this film failed. It’s gigantic, on any point you choose to consider, whether you’re marvelling at the forum set (which is staggering, no doubt about it) or being pummelled into sheer emotional submission at the sight of thousands of extras dressed in Roman soldiers’ uniforms lamenting the passing of Marcus Aurelius (sorry to return to it again and again, but it remains one of my favourite scenes of all time and makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up with each viewing). Whether you’re as impressed as I am or turned off by the capricious grand scale, you must appreciate the sheer human effort that went into it, the epic vision and scope of the piece. But it could only work if people went to see the thing and that didn’t happen. Perhaps the tastes of movie-goers had simply moved on. The absence of any element of Christianity (it is there, however, if you notice the talisman Timonides wears around his neck, but that’s another of the film’s clever little subtleties and adds quietly to its characterisation) removes an aspect that was writ large in many of the more successful films of this type, suggesting a link between stories that focused on ancient times and the religious sensibilities of viewers, and without it you’re left with a piece about a long dead empire that held little relevance for the majority.

One thing for certain is that The Fall of the Roman Empire is nobody’s idea of a bad film. If you haven’t before seen it, do so if only to make your jaw drop, to take in the last hurrah of a dying genre, a late example of the sort of movie they simply don’t make anymore because the cost if it doesn’t work is far too great. For me it’s a title that gets better each time, a brilliantly filmed labour of love that contains real heart. See for yourself the bit where provincial governors are assembled before Marcus Aurelius. Your focus is on the Emperor, his efforts to remember all their names, and so it should be because it’s funny and Alec Guinness’s face as he becomes more dumbfounded is a treat. But check out the costumes and bear in mind that someone took the time to design them as close as possible to the real garments these people would have been wearing if the scene had happened in reality. That takes some effort and as far as I’m concerned shows the care and attention that was lavished on the film’s production values.

The Fall of the Roman Empire: *****

It’s been a couple of weeks since I lasted posted here and my apologies for that. I’ve no good excuses; I’ve even been busy buying discs of films I intended to cover, watched them and then didn’t get around to doing the writing. It just wasn’t there I guess, the intent, and at times like that the worst thing I could probably do is get something down because the effort of having to do it – as opposed to wanting to – would have been clear. Hope this makes up for it. As you can probably tell I quite like this one…

Something Evil (1972)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 8 March (4.30 pm)
Channel: Horror Channel
IMDb Link

When putting together this site’s Steven Spielberg from Worst to Best article last year, I knew I was missing a couple of his made-for-TV movies off the list. I included Duel, which I justified thanks to its theatrical release in Europe, but the truth was I just like the film and thought it more than merited its place in the list. Two other titles, Savage and Something Evil, were omitted because I simply couldn’t get hold of copies. Neither appears to be available on DVD, and indeed where the former’s concerned it seems to have more or less vanished from existence. What I didn’t think to check on, though, was YouTube, where it turns out Something Evil is available to watch in full. Given its appearance on the Horror Channel, I thought it might be nice to see what we can learn from this semi-forgotten supernatural offering.

Among the extras on my Duel DVD, Spielberg talks about moving from making that to The Sugarland Express as though nothing else happened in between. Not true, of course. If his aim was to put some distance between himself and the two further micro-budgeted films he made then I’d argue he’s doing his own work on Something Evil a disservice. Sure, it’s cheaply made and it’s a long way from perfect. The suggestion that Poltergeist (which Spielberg co-wrote and produced) came as a glossier update of this material is hard to shake off, yet as with many TV fright flicks it isn’t without merit. I remember being terrified as a child watching the likes of Don’t be Afraid of the Dark, Dark Night of the Scarecrow and, most of all, Don’t go to Sleep. The latter, with its meditations on guilt all leading to that delicious twist in the final frame, pretty much ensured that I was unable to defy the film’s title. Like Something Evil, these titles were made on television budgets, but that meant the slack was taken up with atmosphere and suspense, which they all have in spades. Incidentally, for real fans of the form this entry also hands a starring role to Darren McGavin, who’s perhaps best known for his lead performances in the Kolchak series (two TV movies and a run of twenty episodes). As a mixture of gritty urban crime and horror, they’re well worth checking out.

Of course, the real reason for watching Something Evil is to see the formative work of Spielberg, to spot clues in it of the director responsible for some of the world’s biggest films honing his skills. On the surface, there’s little evidence of that here. The film uses next to nothing in terms of special effects, unless you include the technical wizardry that went into placing two glowing yellow eyes in a few frames. What it does have is a mounting sense of dread, palpable unease, all nicely teased out in several ways.

The film’s a short one, running for little over seventy minutes. Its plot is therefore understandably slight. McGavin, his wife Sandy Dennis and their two young children move into a farm house that’s well outside the bustle of New York. He’s the classic working man, an advertising executive who pulls long hours at the office and often leaves his family at home alone. Sandy admires the strange symbol she sees painted over the barn door and starts copying it in her own artwork, fashioning good luck charms. She’s told it’s a symbol of good luck, a token to ward away evil spirits. What she doesn’t know is that it was painted there to protect against ‘devils’ that reside inside the house, that the previous occupant threw himself from the hayloft rather than succumb to being possessed. Soon enough, she starts hearing strange noises in the middle of the night, the cries and whimpers of a very young child. The barn is filled with jars of strange luminescent goo that pulsates and unsettles her. The behaviour of her oldest child, Stevie (Johnny Whitaker) deteriorates and she reacts more violently than normal. A couple of friends die in a horrible car crash after attending a party at the house. Steadily, Sandy’s own spirits descend as she starts to feel she’s losing control of her own sanity.

Something Evil was made a year before The Exorcist was released, but after William Peter Blatty’s novel was published, and there’s undoubtedly a link in terms of the possession storyline, though it’s one that’s easily resolved by the film’s end. The cheapness is an issue. It has none of The Exorcist’s astonishing special effects, the visible sight of a young girl becoming the corrupted vessel for a demonic host. Instead, everything’s done with askew camera work, unsettling filming angles that emphasise the feeling that all isn’t well, often from a distance to give the impression of characters being watched by something unseen. A lot depends on the acting, Sandy Dennis’s rather brilliant portrayal of a woman being unravelled emotionally by an entity she can’t understand and doesn’t easily believe in. As the story progresses she seems to age, and she becomes jumpier and more abrupt with every ambient sound. There’s a great supporting role for Ralph Bellamy, here playing an expert on Devilry who advises Sandy on how she can cope with and defeat the spirits she becomes convinced are in her home. Bellamy’s presence comes as a neat wink to his part in Rosemary’s Baby, where he portrayed one of the Devil worshippers.

Other moments work less well. John Rubinstein plays Bellamy’s son, and has a couple of scenes in which he seems to turn up for no reason, says his piece to Sandy and then simply walks away, plus another where he appears to be making a grab for her baby girl only to exit when he hears her approaching. It’s a bizarre little performance and suggests a number of scenes that wound up on the cutting room floor. Some of the evil things tormenting Sandy’s character are a bit on the weak side, notably the jars of goo, which by their very strangeness are objects of abject terror for her though they don’t threaten and never do anything. The intimation is of a script that’s determined to throw every potential scare at audiences, hoping that bits stick; it misses the more assured hand of Richard Matheson, who of course wrote the taut and mounting in suspense screenplay for Duel.

But on the whole, I admit I found it a suitably uncomfortable viewing experience. For all the film’s shortcomings, it worked well in places, such as when McGavin is presented with some cells of footage he’s filmed outside the house and a pair of strange yellow eyes appear in the frames, for no reason that anyone can understand. Despite Sandy’s evident breakdown, there are signs like this that suggest what she’s experiencing isn’t a consequence of her own fragile mental state, and the film’s closing twist confirms that. There are some traditional tropes of Spielberg’s work that are in evidence here – the dysfunctional family, troubled children having a tough time, absent fathers – if you want to look for them; otherwise it’s a neat little frightener that more often than not hits its mark.

Something Evil: ***

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)

When it’s on: Sunday, 6 March (3.55 pm)
Channel: Channel 5
IMDb Link

One of the biggest differences between Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and current movie series is that these days films are conceived with the wider franchise firmly in mind. That’s why something like the most recent Star Wars film can finish on such an open ended note, all those threads left dangling so they can be picked up in the next instalment. It’s a neat trick, like a TV show and especially like the old cinema serials ending on a cliffhanger, keeping fans on tenterhooks and hopefully eager for more. No such consideration back in the early 1980s, where the Star Trek films were concerned. This entry’s predecessor, The Wrath of Khan, closed on a bitter-sweet note with the day won but at the expense of a major character who had sacrificed himself for the crew. The moment was effective because Spock was absolutely dead; whatever Leonard Nimoy’s reasons for pulling out of playing the character any longer, dramatically it was a devastating coda and a most satisfying pay-off to a picture that had provided more than its fair share of treats.

But wait! Having unexpectedly enjoyed his time making the film, Nimoy found himself increasingly reticent about leaving the series and, in collusion with director Nicholas Meyer, improvised Spock’s pre-death scene to give the character a ‘resurrection pass’ if they chose to take it, and if the decision was made to carry on with the story beyond this entry. At the time, no one knew if this was the end of the fledgling Trek films, but Wrath of Khan turned a good profit, earned overwhelmingly positive notices, and the goodwill continued when it was later made available to buy on video and sold well. The green light for the third instalment was duly given; Spock’s pass was activated, and Nimoy compensated for his lack of time on the screen (Spock features heavily, but Nimoy himself gives a cameo appearance only) by being handed his first directorial assignment.

The film’s title is pretty much a giveaway for what happens, the Genesis project introduced in Wrath of Khan turning out to be a Deus Ex Machina, not only giving life to a dead planet but also restoring dead things that are left there, principally Spock’s corpse. You can sum up the basic plot in a sentence or two, and so writer Harve Bennett introduced several elements to add tension and meat to the bare bones story. Most sensational is the moment the starship Enterprise itself is destroyed, a fan pleasing set piece within a film featuring so much service to Trekkies that it’s impossible to watch the thing without being at least a little familiar with the lore. To an extent that’s nice, a sign of the series’ growing confidence in its own material, though newcomers would be forgiven their bafflement over, for instance, the critical ‘Pon Farr’ scene, which turns out to be all about sexual awakening. Who knew?

Over the years, The Search for Spock has dated rather badly compared with many of the other episodes. One obvious problem is the low budget, the money available to the production again being considerably less than the amounts lavished on The Motion Picture. In The Wrath of Khan, it mattered little as so much of the action took place on ships’ bridges, but here the focus is on the Genesis planet itself. Mattes and sound stage dressing substitute for location shooting, and the end result is risibly easy to spot. The effects take a knock also, early Industrial Light and Magic work looking fairly shoddy compared with the state of the art, big budget efforts created for Return of the Jedi.

In terms of plotting, The Search for Spock takes a darker world view than the usual optimistic outlook promoted by the Star Trek universe. Genesis, seen very much as a positive development in The Wrath of Khan, is here exposed as a failure, truly bringing planets to life but also accelerating the process exponentially so that its only use is as a weapon, an element rife for being taken advantage of by Christopher Lloyd’s renegade Klingon. The Federation, which represents the future of human exploration into space, is cast as backward thinking and overly bureaucratic, an obstacle for Kirk and his mates to bypass in order to get the job done. All this is done to ramp up the suspense, to stop the heroes getting from A to B in what is otherwise a fairly routine mission that involves picking up the Spock child and transporting him and McCoy – who’s possessed with Spock’s living soul (go with it) – to Vulcan in order to fix them both.

At least the cast is good. By now, all the principals are comfortable with both their roles and their advancement into middle age. I’ve always had a lot of goodwill for William Shatner, who whilst undeniably hammy more often than not hits the right notes. There’s a sense that Kirk is given a fight scene purely because it’s not a proper movie if Kirk doesn’t get to use his fists, but the largely wasted scene in which his son is killed is laden with gravitas thanks purely to Shatner’s emotive playing. DeForest Kelley loses much of McCoy’s traditional sardonic wit as a consequence of being laden with Spock’s memories, but this just gives more exposure to actors who normally support from outside the ‘Holy Trinity’, notably James Doohan and Walter Koenig, who both enjoy great moments and show perfect comic timing. Robin Curtis as Saavik is a weaker link. The part had gone to Kirstie Alley in The Wrath of Khan, who demanded more money to reprise it and so it was duly recast, robbing the Vulcan of all the sass and ambition Alley had brought to the table. Lloyd is good value though, lending his character a forceful violence and unquenchable evil. As for the direction, Nimoy proves that he’s no Meyer. Sure this was his first time, but there are few flourishes in The Search for Spock and it’s all told rather flatly. If there’s a saving grace, then it is that however ordinary Nimoy was in ‘the chair’ he was certainly better than Shatner, who took over for the forgettable fifth instalment.

The Search for Spock is quite good fun in places, when not overladen with solemnity. The Enterprise’s flight from the Federation’s space dock is exciting, and the face-off between Kirk’s crew and the Klingon Bird of Prey has echoes of the classic brinkmanship that made Wrath of Khan such a blast. Many of the finest bits are elevated thanks to James Horner’s score. The late Horner, who would go on to win two Oscars (both for Titanic), composed music that elicited all the wonder and sense of adventure that underpins Star Trek. It’s simply ravishing and it makes a lot more of what’s taking place on the screen than is otherwise deserved. Despite moments, though, The Search for Spock largely obeys the general rule that followed these films – those with the even numbers were nearly always better.

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock: ***