SOFT RIOT

Film Klub

The Servant

14 January 2019

The Servant, 1963 | Original PosterSometimes I get around late to watching things, or realise that something exists and why the hell didn’t I know about it? This was the case with the more recent British series Inside No. 9, created by Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton from the well-loved British comedy series League of Gentlemen. Whereas League of Gentlemen was more of a goofy, weird and humourous look at stereotypes in a small, remote northern English town, Inside No. 9 took a new direction, mixing horror and dark comedy for some great results that carried the show over a number of season.

Even before I had started to watch Inside No. 9 I suspected it would probably be pretty good, namely as both actors have done work in drama and films, and for me specifically with Reece Shearsmith in Ben Wheatley’s psychological horror film A Field In England, where he plays an army deserter in the English Civil War that ends up taking far too many psychedelic mushrooms and giving us the resulting trip-out sequence of the Altered States variety.

In the first series of Inside No. 9 there’s a episode simply called “Toby”, where Pemberton plays a homeless man (named Toby) that ends up infiltrating the life of a school teacher (Shearsmith). Initially Shearsmith is clear, focused and a bit uptight and Pemberton in the throes of desperation. Shearsmith feels empathy toward Toby despite resistant to interacting with him but offers Toby a drink to get out of the cold. As the episode progresses Shearsmith’s character starts to get more slovenly, unorganised and forgetful with the influence of this homeless man in his house and Pemberton in turn becomes more controlling and starting to dictate Shearsmith’s life. The lines between reality and the inner workings of the thoughts of one’s own head start to blur. It’s a pretty good episode and one that hits close to home in terms of how close we all are to mentally falling apart at anytime.

But one thing I definitely noticed was how the premise of this story was very similar to a 1963 film called The Servant, starring Dirk Bogarde, Wendy Craig, Sarah Miles and James Fox. I love a lot of films in the 60s and 70s with Bogarde; Victim, The Damned, Nightporter and Sebastian being just a few. Bogarde actually won a BAFTA for this film.

Bogarde plays Barratt, an experienced manservant who gets hired to tend to the household of Tony (James Fox), a somewhat naïve, fresh-faced upper class young man in his twenties who works in some sort of investment field. In the early parts of the film he’s rambling on about some housing development they’re building in some rainforest or greenspace — this scenario and how he talks about it sort of tips him off as being a newcomer to the world of business.

Barratt arrives for his interview, he’s smartly dressed while Tony’s slumped in a car in the sun room, having a nap after drinking a few beers at lunchtime. When Barratt starts working for Tony, it’s obvious that Barratt has a lot of experience, cleaning and providing changes to the apartment that Tony would never think of doing. Barratt also seems to have knowledge of current design and interior decoration trends and advises Tony on how to refurbish his London townhouse.

Tony’s fiancée, Susan, takes a disliking to Barratt as he seems to be constantly hovering around and soon enough the class difference becomes apparent as Susan’s discomfort with Barratt starts to turn into treating him with a lack of respect.

The pacing is quite sinister, along with the excellent framing of the shots within the townhouse. Little things that Barratt does when Tony isn’t around starts to unveil some ulterior motive that Barratt is hiding. You first get a sense of this when Barratt is making a call at a phone booth outside of the townhouse.

Barratt asks permission to invite his sister, Vera, to stay, stating that she can assist with the housework. The following events start to unravel Tony’s life as he starts making decisions without really thinking them through, with Barratt and his “sister” Vera starting to use those weak points to take control of Tony’s life.

As the film progresses, Barratt gets fired at one point and then is re-hired, but this time the dynamic changes quite a bit, with Barratt almost being like an “odd couple” housemate, still doing some servant roles but ultimately chastising Tony, getting into arguments and then getting drunk together and playing games throughout the house.

The film starts to take on a dreamy tone toward the end, where Tony and Susan start to act like they’re in a trance as Barratt starts inviting mysterious guests back to the house for drinks and partying and Tony and Susan in states of trance and confusion as they try to retain some grip on reality.

The above describes the key elements of the plot without giving too much away. The great thing about this film is the sinister feeling that underlies the film without making it “dark”. Set in 60s swinging London, there’s also some nice shots of bars, clubs and cafés that Tony and Susan go to and street scenes. There’s even a short appearance by Patrick Magee (most people will know him from Clockwork Orange).

The way the film is shot makes Tony’s townhouse reflect the various psychological moods of the film. There’s a great scene on the stairs nearer to the end of the film where Barratt and Tony are drunk, hurling a tennis ball at each other on the stairs. Tony, wearing a stripped shirt, sits down on the stairs in the shadow of the staircase bannister, which looks like prison bars and Tony a prisoner in his striped shirt. Some serious symbolism there!

There’s also a smooth, jazz-y track sung by Cleo Laine that repeats numerous times throughout the film as Tony turns on his turntable. In each instance where this track is played, there’s always a drastic change in circumstances in context to where the track is played in the film.

Now while I love you, alone… Can’t love without you.

And the last scenes of the film where Barratt throws a bizarre little soirée in the house are great to look at as well as you really feel that Tony and Susan have really lost their grip on being the “masters” of the house and start to lose their sense of reality.

Bogarde did another great film two years before this one: Victim, where he plays a succcessful, married barrister that deals with blackmail after some events start to reveal his hidden homosexuality. The directors of this film have acknowledged that  was designed to be “an open protest against Britain’s law that being a homosexual is a criminal act”. Victim became a highly sociologically significant film; many believe it played an influential role in liberalising attitudes and the laws in Britain regarding homosexuality. The character that Bogarde played mirrored his own life quite closely, as although Bogarde was married at points in his life, it was speculated that they were marriages of convenience as he was close to many male friends over the years, a good number of those early years as well where it was illegal to be in a homosexual relationship.

Anyway, The Servant packs a lot of social commentary, observations on British society at the time, good dialogue and some great shots in it’s environment, most of which takes place in Tony’s townhouse alone.

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The Servant | 1963, Joseph Losey | 01 The Servant | 1963, Joseph Losey | 02 The Servant | 1963, Joseph Losey | 03 The Servant | 1963, Joseph Losey | 04

Heart Of Midnight

09 January 2019

Heart Of Midnight | Film version of coverIt’s January, and you’re now acting on some sort of New Year’s Resolution you recently made, like running 10 miles a day, not drinking or opting to only breath two times a minute. It’s your call.

January is that time of year that’s a bit quiet and the vast empty void of winter starts to eat at your consciousness. You’ve got not very much going on and wondering what to do next. A Sunday night rolls around and you opt to stay in, do laundry and make some sort of healthy meal. You think: “I’m totally in the mood to watch a brooding film noir or something of the “midnight movie” variety.”

Most films I come across because I was interested in something else and wanted to find out more. At this particular time, around a year and a half ago, I was opting to watch a number of earlier films by indie stalwart actor Steve Buscemi including Parting Glances, Mystery Train, King of New York and Miller’s Crossing – the latter being an early Coen Brothers film that works the gangster, crime and film noir categories.

There’s a number of films around this time that Buscemi did that I was never aware of, and one of these films was Heart Of Midnight, which was directed by British director Matthew Chapman, who did a small run of films in the 80s and then writing screenplays for a good number of other directors. Buscemi has a small role in this film, as a local urban thug that gets up to some nasty things, but all with that slacker vibe that was present in a lot of his earlier roles. This was also an early film for Jennifer Jason Leigh, so it seemed like things were working in it’s favour already.

The film’s title comes from a club called Midnight, which Leigh’s character, Carol, takes up management of after she inherits it from her estranged uncle, against her mother’s wishes. It’s established that Carol has some mental health issues but the allure of running some mysterious nightclub seems like the right thing to get into doing.

Upon her arrival the club is in a state of disrepair, with lazy workmen continuing renovations, likely preturbed that a young woman has taken charge of this place.

The club itself is quite a standard place but as Carol starts exploring the upstairs rooms on part of her moving into the premises, the rooms themselves are moody characters of their own, with a vibe very much like Blue Velvet by David Lynch. Lots of blood red corridors, films filled with strange furniture, props, malfunctioning TVs and the like.

Soon Carol gets attacked by hoodlums hanging out on the street (one being Buscemi) and starts to experience strange phenomena in the hotel, including objects moving, the feeling that she’s being watched, lots of apples with worms and at one point being charged at by a giant eyeball (?). Carol goes to the police but they typically are reluctant to get involved due to Carol’s history of mental illness. One of these cops is played by Sylvester Stallone’s younger brother: Frank. The other is played by actor Peter Coyote.

As the film progresses some more things start happening that amp up the psychological horror, moving onto events that start to get a lot more seedy and weird. Carol finds out most of the club was a strange brothel catering to those with very perverted tendencies and the dark history of her uncle starts to come to light, And that the bumps and noises she keeps hearing in the walls is someone very scarred from what went on in these rooms, hiding out in the between spaces of the building.

Overall this type of scenario would be similar to Polanski’s Repulsion, released a couple of decades earlier, whereby a woman in fragile mental state starts to become victim of her surroundings and a line is blurred between what is real and imaginary. Most critical analysis of this film seems to point to how the film falls down massively due to the plot and all of it’s “arty” clutter.

However for mood and general strangeness of the it’s a good watch; good for a 2am sort of film. I suppose like a number of films that came out around the same time, there seems to be some influence from the somewhat newly founded MTV and a push for more style and visual flair sometimes took precidence over continuity, character development and for those looking for some masterpiece of story-driven genius there is a lot lacking here.

As one critic had said: “I am not sure he knows where he’s going with this film, but he gets there in style.”

However, for myself I watch films for different reasons and each time I watch them it’s for difference reasons. I watched this one a couple of times and found it enjoyable both times, the second because I know the atmosphere I was expecting and it worked. It’s very stylish, Leigh is great and the weird, awkward digital synth-laden soundtrack created by a then unknown “new age” composer Yanni makes it more alien.

There’s two versions of the cover packaging for this film: the first showing the Leigh’s character with her back to the audience, wearing a backless, lace-up PVC dress. There’s also another cover with Leigh in a more artistic rendering, in a black bob which a hairstyle she does not wear in the film. In most cases these situations arise due to a film being marketed to different audiences in different countries.

Finally, as a sidenote: Peter Coyote’s real name is Peter Cohon. He changed his name to Coyote after he had ingested peyote and had a hallucination in which he saw his footprints as coyote paw-prints. A few years later, he came across Coyote’s Journal, a poetry magazine, and recognized its logo as the same paw-prints he had seen during his drug-induced experience so therefore changed his name.

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Heart Of Midnight, 1988, Matthew Chapman - 4 Heart Of Midnight, 1988, Matthew Chapman - 3 Heart Of Midnight, 1988, Matthew Chapman - 2 Heart Of Midnight, 1988, Matthew Chapman - 1 Heart Of Midnight, 1988, Matthew Chapman - 5

Liquid Sky (DVD Re-issue)

07 January 2019

Liquid Sky DVD coverThis is certainly an obvious one; so obvious in fact it should have been one of the first entries in this FilmKlub section. I think it’s because I watched Liquid Sky randomly over a good number of years so that it was just sort of a staple. That and many other people I know have seen this film. Like me they probably watched it’s original VHS release, which have been known to be notoriously hard to find or just plain expensive. As we all got hurled into the noughties, the establishment of YouTube and other more dubious sites made it far more accessible whereby you could watch an obviously blurry and highly compressed version of the film. Even if you have never seen the film you’ve likely seen a lot of the imagery used in underground promotions, or passed around the network: Tumbler, blogs, etc.

Margaret is a fashion model with dreams of stardom, whose alter ego and rival, Jimmy, abuses and takes advantage of her to satisfy his rampant drug addiction. Unknown to them, tiny, invisible aliens have landed on the roof above the bohemian squalor in which they live and begin killing anyone Margaret has sex with to feed on their pleasure giving neurotransmitters. All the while, a German scientist attemptes to capture and study them.

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Billy The Kid and the Green Baize VampireSo… a camp, stylized 80s musical about a snooker match of which one of the players is a vampire you say? Yes, it has been done. The UK has a bit of a history of putting out some really camp musicals: Ken Russell did a few (Tommy and Lisztomania) which are the most obvious, then of course anything by Andrew Lloyd Webber which is of dubious quality.

Other than the two aforementioned Ken Russell films the other points of reference for this film include the most popular, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and then it’s lesser known sequel “new wave” tinged sequel, Shock Treatment. Or perhaps my favourite, Brian De Palma’s The Phantom Of The Paradise which features a gothic-styled synthesizer playing half-cyborg.

Billy The Kid and the Baize Green Vampire — the name alone draws up a lot of curiousity and that’s pretty much how I got around to watching it. That and London/mod poster boy of the 70s and 80s, Phil Daniels, was starring in this — a musical. Two points of interest right there. READ MORE

Images

17 August 2017

Images (1972, Robert Altman), coverFar more well known for his sprawling ensemble casts and “maverick” style of film making, Robert Altman (MASH, Shortcuts, Nashville, Gosford Park) did cover a lot of genres in his career, including “psychological horror” — well evident in his 1972 film Images.

This film stars Susannah York, a very talented British actress of many films, including one of my favourites, The Shout amongst many others such as The Killing of Sister George, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and so on.

Sometimes I get in patterns where I’ll watch a film directed or starred in by a particular person, in this case Susannah York, and then watch several others soon after with the same person, often discovering a film I wasn’t really aware of before, like this one.

York stars as Cathryn, an author of children’s books who is married to, Hugh, a professional photographer (played by René Auberjonois) who is often out and travelling for business and photo shoots. Right from the start the atmosphere of this film is very on edge and claustrophic — not only by a odd phone call see receives from what is apparently a stranger telling her of rumours of her husband’s infidelity, but also the soundtrack. This was an earlier film scored by John Williams sounds very different than the more orchestral compositions he did for Star Wars, perhaps even somewhat “industrial” sounding — lots of atonal bells, chimes, overblown woodwinds and what sounds like bowed metal making for a very brooding, creepy undertone that runs through the whole film.
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