VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS

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Jaromil  Jires was born in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia in 1935 and was identified with the Czech New Wave. He often worked with non-professional actors. In 1970 he directed Valerie and her Week of Wonders (Valerie a týden divu) based on a novel by Vitezslav Nezval. It proved to be an influential film, dripping with sexual ciphers and earthy symbolism. The story tells of 13 year old Valerie’s quest to discover the truth of her family tree at a time when she herself is going through an awakening of her own.

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It all takes place in some fevered evocation of a Transylvanian town with cobbled streets and fountains, where the logic of dreams is used to depict a girl transitioning into a young woman. Evils beset her and characters are seldom what they seem, veiled behind masks and revealed as their true selves only at times of emotional upheaval. A strange and sumptuous treat for the eyes that rewards sitting back and submitting to, like laying on a stream bed letting the water rush above you.

val4Threads of transformation and subterfuge trickle through the sunlit trees and shuttered houses like blood. There is the air of immortality and a whiff of the undead.  Nosferatu and the vampire mythos permeate the pavements. Characters begin in one place and then appear in another seemingly impossible location at will, perhaps at the top of a glistening fountain or on a tiny ledge halfway up a sheer wall.

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If you watch this in the hope of narrative I think you’ll be as sorely disappointed as the weasel that gets shot and hung up on a wall during the film. If however you are prepared to give in to the kaleidoscope of tumbling images that enter like acrobats, beautifully arcane and infused with European  folklore, then you’ll be mesmerised and bemused in equal measure.

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European cinema is full of strange and obscure ways of looking at the world, from the slow, lingering panning shots of Bela Tarr and Andrei Tarkovsky to the ludicrous carnival of colours and sex that is Fellini, but nothing is quite like Valerie.

A publicity still from Jaromil Jireš’s <i>Valerie and Her Week of Wonders</i>, 1970

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VILLAIN

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Directed by Michael Tuchner, the 1971 film Villain is a plunge into the seedy, violent underworld of London gangster and all-round thug Vic Dakin (Richard Burton). The borderline comedy cockney accent adopted by Burton for his portrayal of the unredeemable Dakin puts him in the same league as Dick Van Dyke regarding improbable pronunciation. How ever  you dress it up, Burton is Welsh and it shows through the cracks in his faux East End swagger.

Modelled on Ronnie Kray, Dakin is a homosexual who loves his mother and deals out his own form of justice with the help of his razor and knuckleduster.  Although normally content with extortion and protection racketeering, he plans a factory payroll robbery with his gang and proceeds to blackmail Members of Parliament, in particular oily sleazebag Gerald Draycott MP (Donald Sinden), which isn’t too hard considering Draycott’s unorthodox sexual preferences.

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For the robbery Dakin enlists the help of neighbouring gang boss Frank Fletcher (T.P. McKenna) and one of his henchmen to flesh the team out a bit. Given his rampant paranoia this seems a bit of an unlikely move on Dakin’s part. He is obsessed with stoolpigeons, grasses, snitches, informers and narks, such is his insecurity.

Needless to say, the robbery goes spectacularly wrong in a flurry of brutal violence leaving half dead gangsters hanging out of car doors and blood on 1970’s tarmac. Finally fate catches up with Dakin in a place where some railway arches open onto a spectacularly barren area of wasteland, desolate and forsaken.

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The best things about this film, which can’t hold a candle up to Get Carter (also 1971) or the sadly overlooked The Reckoning (1969), are the nylon shirts (complete with ruffles), the pubs with their patterned wallpaper and polished brass, the tinny rust-bucket cars and the half built modern office blocks beginning to rise up on the edge of town. The worst thing is thinking about Lovejoy (Ian McShane) having sex with Richard Burton.

Burton’s brother Graham Jenkins said he felt this film made it appear as though Burton was desperate for parts at the time, and you have to say he wasn’t far wrong.

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PIRANHA

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In the eighties we lived on Gray Street, Whitby, in an area of terrace houses known as The Railway. Every Tuesday evening a nice chap called Phil came from Loftus in his van selling fizzy pop by the bottle and VHS video tapes to rent. We’d often have a cherryade, two lemonades and something like Piranha, plus a comedy with Chevy Chase and a Disney cartoon for the kids.

The tapes often hadn’t been rewound by the previous renter and sometimes there were sections that were damaged producing an onscreen snow blizzard and necessitating the use of the trusty head cleaner tape. Ah the golden years of VHS exploitation films and frighteningly dayglo fizzy pop.

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Piranha sadly didn’t quite live up to the memory. Two lovers looking for somewhere private to ‘make out’ stumble across an old rundown research facility on a mountain. They throw caution (and their clothes) to the wind and dive in a forbidding looking water tank. Unfortunately hungry teeth await their American high school bodies and suddenly they’re fish food.

A whiskey swilling redneck (Bradford Dillman) and a female reporter (Heather Menzies) search for the missing teens, find the facility, have a set to with the bloke who runs it (Kevin McCarthy) and accidentally activate a lever that sends genetically engineered, bloodthirsty Piranha into the river. Off they swim, stopping every now and again for a snack (dozy angler, unwitting rower, that kind of thing) and head for a riverside water park downstream, a resort that the local town mayor is especially pleased with because of its ker-chingability.

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The special effects seem a bit lopsided, in the sense that when the reporter and the guy first go into the facility, a little dinosaur-like creature is moving around in the background among the specimen jars. It is stop-frame animated and must have cost quite a bit of effort and time to bring to life, yet the Piranha themselves don’t even move their fins. We don’t really see them close up, just as swiftly moving shadows in the water. During the carnage the jump cuts are so furious and scattergun that the shortcomings in the props department are just about covered.

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Directed by Joe Dante and produced by Roger Corman, Piranha is clearly a satire on the Jaws phenomenon. Universal Studios were reportedly going to take legal action to prevent the film being made, until Stephen Spielberg offered positive support. Taken in context Piranha could hardly damage the Jaws franchise, because for the satire to work at all you’d surely have to see the giant shark movie first.

The original 1978 film spawned two remakes and remains a cult item. The previous two Film Night presentations seemed designed to discourage swimming, and this is clearly no exception. If you still, even after viewing these celluloid anti-swimming public information films, decide to take the plunge, don’t choose a shark infested beach, a secret army research facility or a black lagoon.

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SCOTLAND YARD: THE MISSING MAN

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EPISODE 2

An intriguing entry in the Scotland Yard, series filmed at Merton Park Studios and directed by Ken Hughes.

A kindly retired country vicar and his wife come to visit their son in London, but he isn’t there. Apparently he’s gone to France, but he isn’t there either. Then his mother has a weird dream involving a tree and an old building…

What makes this such a great episode is the dream sequence itself. It isn’t very often that these rather practical and utilitarian programmes feature a delve into the supernatural, but this one enters Twilight Zone territory with the tale of a missing man whose whereabouts come to light thanks to a subconscious vision.

The dream is filmed in negative. It’s really quite effective and atmospheric. As always the erudite Edgar Lustgarten bookends the story with his learned thoughts about crime and its consequences.

This episode hardly seems to be documented on the internet and images were quite hard to come by, so I just snapped the picture direct from the telly. That’s why it’s a bit fuzzy. It probably just adds to the mysteriousness though.

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LET THE RIGHT ONE IN

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Goth Weekend is coming shortly to Whitby with its Victorian ruffles and coquettish corsetry and it’s worth remembering that drinking blood is actually not that wholesome or hygeinic. It probably makes your breath smell a bit, and for every meal there remains a corpse to be disposed of. The Swedish film Let The Right One In (2008) places a 12 year old girl vampire (Lina Leandersson as Eli) in a tawdry nordic housing block.

An older man claiming to be her father, but clearly there as a guardian and provider, collects blood on her behalf by hanging victims upside down over a funnel and a plastic container, then slitting their jugulars. If she goes without blood she begins to rot and smell. If forced to search for food herself she becomes feral and vicious, so there is none of the seduction and submission which is such a staple ingredient of Dracula type vampirism. Instead it is animalistic and brutal.

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Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) is a blond, fair skinned, bullied boy who lives with his mum in a small apartment in the block. Eli and Oskar gravitate towards each other and form a bond. Both are outsiders in their own way and both need each other to assist in the fight against their respective demons. The performances of the two young leads are superb and understated and form the centre of this cold world.

Visually most of the lines in the picture are horizontal or vertical, hardly ever diagonal or curved. Even the trees seem rigid and perpendicular. There is no sumptuousness, no castles, no billowing curtains, just acres of snow, concrete, glass and a most uninviting bar. Despite the fact that a lot of people must live there, hardly anyone goes out and the exteriors are largely deserted and lonely.

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We never learn Eli’s origin, or that of the man who acts as her guardian for that matter who comes to a grisly end when a blood collecting foray goes wrong and the little girl, having no one else to turn to, strengthens her bond with Oskar. There is just the brief hint that Eli was once a boy, though this is never really explored in the film, although I believe it plays a larger part in the novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist (2004).

After turning on the ringleader of the bullies and clouting him round the ear with a stick, we know for sure that trouble will surely be visited on Oskar by way of revenge. When it does occur we also assume that, with the help of Eli, he will somehow escape the full force of the cruelty. Indeed this happens, but in such an unexpected, silent, visually surprising way that it seems poetic.

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It reminded me in spirit of George Romero’s Martin (1978), a picture that also took vampirism out of its gothic setting and dropped it into small town Pennsylvania in the mid 70’s. If you choose to watch Let The Right One In have some warm blankets, a thermos and a wooly hat on stand-by. Oh, and cancel those swimming sessions you had booked for next week. You won’t want them after this.

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SCOTLAND YARD: THE DRAYTON CASE

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Scotland Yard was a series of 39 films of around half an hour in length. They were made between 1953 and 1961 with the intention of being shown in cinemas as a support for the main feature. They focused on true crimes, but the names were changed undoubtedly, as they used to say on Dragnet, to protect the innocent.

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Episode 1: The Drayton Case was made in 1953 when police cars still had bells and the nights were much darker. Cities were lit with feeble sodium lights and shadows were black and abyssal. Set in 1941 during the early years of the war, a body is found on a bombsite. It seems Charles Drayton (Vincent Platt) murdered his wife some years before and tried to pass her off as a victim of German bombing.

John Le Mesurier is in charge of getting to the bottom of this heinous misdeed as the last hours of Mrs Drayton (Hilda Barry) are reconstructed for our perusal. Described as between 40 and 45, she frankly looks like an old lady. The only conclusion is that the war aged people much more rapidly. Her hair is white and wispy and she must have lived a pretty unrewarding life, especially being married to the lumpen, irascible Charles Drayton.

Every episode is bookended by Edgar Lustgarten in his comfortable office offering considered words of wisdom about what we are about to see, and then at the end tying everything up with a choice moral epithet. The perfect way to round off a Film Night.

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Elizabeth and Charles Drayton (Hilda Barry and Vincent Platt)

 

IT FOLLOWS

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For the first Film Night after the long, long summer break we plumped for a newish American horror film followed by an episode of the vintage television show Scotland Yard, which we will gradually be working our way through as the time progresses.

It Follows (2014) begins in one of those quintessentially American residential suburbs. The lawns all reach down to the pavement, the houses are large and low and there are no dividing walls. It is the world of Halloween and Blue Velvet. A girl is running away from something, but we know not what. Later she’s dead on a beach having been mangled by whatever she was fleeing from. We were waiting for the titles to roll, as this seemed to be the appropriate moment, but they simply didn’t. The name of the movie doesn’t appear until the end credits. A nice and ever so slightly disconcerting move.

Jay, played by Maika Monroe, is smitten with a guy from the far side of town, and after a sexual tryst in a car he informs her that he has passed a curse on to her. She will be followed by walking spirits that will relentlessly pursue her until she too can pass the scourge on.

Recording Game Clips _ Game DVR _ Windows 10 Games - Google Chrome 21_09_2017 23_24_31It’s easy to see parallels with zombie films in this, as the followers are always slow moving, they never travel faster than walking pace, and it seems bullets can only momentarily slow them down. However the underlying principle of the curse itself, the set of rules governing it and the relentlessness of the apparitions, has definite echoes  of modern Asian horrors (The Ring, The Grudge, Dark Water etc.).

Dwelling in that same familiar VHS eighties neighbourhood as Netflix’s Stranger Things, the music by Rich Vreeland, primarily a computer games composer, adds a layer of icy angst to the overall feel of the piece. It is raw sequenced synthesisers, minimal and starkly elegant, perfect for driving, escaping, panicking, running and cranking up the tension to snapping point.

The first time these strange things manifest themselves on screen, always one at a time and always different in appearance but with the same resolute ambition to get to Jay, they are truly chilling. No special effects are apparent in the early scenes and it’s all the better for it. Only Jay can see them and they’re very physical to her. They’re imperceptible to her friends, which is the cue for some invisible man style effects, some flinging of chairs and pulling of hair on a beach.

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We thought that as the film progressed the director David Robert Mitchell lost his nerve a bit and it started moving into more conventional American Gothic territory. The final showdown, such as it is, takes place in a monumental building with thunder and lightning cracking off outside while a group of teens await the arrival of ‘it’. Prudently the ending leaves ample opening  for an It Follows 2.

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This was nevertheless a truly excellent film with an original idea and a great approach to storytelling. Unfortunately it diluted itself towards the end and the originality dwindled a bit. However It Follows is intelligent, non-gory scariness that packs a definite punch proving the genre is certainly not dead. The puritanical, traditional horror film view of teenage sex as a conduit to somewhere evil and threatening still stands though. Don’t enjoy yourself kids, it’s really not good for you.

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THE BLACK PANTHER

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The day after watching The Black Panther I saw episode 8 of Twin Peaks: The Return. It was in four parts separated by commercial breaks. Firstly agent Dale Cooper’s evil doppelganger gets shot, then revived by some ghost-like woodsmen who rub blood into him in an awful dark ritual until he’s alive again. Then in 1945 an atomic bomb in New Mexico unleashes a female goddess figure who vomits out evil over the Earth, including BOB. Thirdly a giant and a woman live in a metal castle in a lonely sea. The giant floats into the air and dreams a golden dream from which a shining globe containing the image of Laura Palmer drifts into the woman’s hands. She kisses it and sends it via a cinema screen and a brass tube into our world. In part 4 it is 1956 and a cross between a frog and an insect crawls over the desert sand and into a sleeping girl’s mouth whilst a woodsman speaks the following incantation over the radio:

THIS IS THE WATER AND THIS IS THE WELL

DRINK FULL AND DESCEND

THE HORSE IS THE WHITE OF THE EYES

AND DARK WITHIN

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The Black Panther is as diametrically opposite to the Lynchian universe of quark, strangeness and charm as it is possible to get. Ian Merrick’s film of Donald Neilson’s exploits, robbing post offices and then kidnapping a teenage heiress, is so true to life and forensically unimaginative that it hurts. I don’t think I’ve ever seen another film as unblemished by context and subplot in my life. The story is told without any attempt to explain or rationalise the events. It is an hour and a half of Crimewatch reconstruction.

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Born Donald Nappey in 1936, his surname made him the butt of jokes and cruel jibes, so he changed it to Neilson. He did his National Service in Cyprus and Kenya and became interested in guns, but when he married Irene in 1955 she persuaded him not to pursue a career in the forces. Fancying himself as a survivalist, he kept ammunition and maps at home and his love of military order never left him.

Finding it hard to make ends meet, in 1965 he turned to burglary as a lifestyle choice. Houses proved easy to rob without getting caught, but rewards were meagre, so he turned his attention to sub-post offices. Neilson lived a double life, becoming ever more bitter and domineering at home to his wife and daughter, and ever more ruthless in his night time pursuits. The media called him The Black Panther.

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The film shows him getting greedier and greedier as he turns his gun on postmasters who unfortunately get involved in this sad man’s lone wolf crime spree. In the late sixties and early seventies provincial England was an uninspiring brownish grey. Everything smelled of cigarette ash and chip fat and it constantly drizzled a fine, cold rain. This is the texture from which this film is forged.

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THIS IS THE WATER AND THIS IS THE WELL

DRINK FULL AND DESCEND

Treating society as a well from which to draw his sustenance, Neilsen decides to drink full and descend. He abducts young heiress 17 year old Lesley Whittle from her bedroom. Wearing only a dressing gown, she is taken to a place where Neilson will keep her hostage and where she will eventually die.

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THIS         IS         THE         WATER         AND         THIS         IS         THE         WELL

Deep in a drainage shaft in Bathpool Park, Staffordshire, on a platform above dark, icy water, with a cable round her neck and no hope of escape, Neilson holds her for ransom, demanding a money drop from her family with no police presence. As a man who can’t successfully rob a post office without resorting to murder, he isn’t quite the master criminal he thinks he is and the whole episode ends in farcical tragedy and dark sadness.

All this is bathed in a bare, stark reality. No private worlds of imagination are stepped into, no psychology is examined. The food looks unappetising and the interiors are without atmosphere. As a conveyor of the cruelty and isolation of the criminal the film works well. Donald Sumpter is superb as the unlikable Neilson, alienated from civilian society and forever preying on its weaknesses.

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Years later, outside a chip shop in Mansfield The Black Panther was eventually captured by police officers and members of the public.

THIS         IS         THE         WATER         AND         THIS         IS         THE         WELL

DRINK                 FULL                AND                 DESCEND

THE           HORSE          IS            THE          WHITE           OF           THE           EYES

AND                   DARK                   WITHIN

 

He died in prison on December 18th, 2011.

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