Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Lots of wood in the forest… Crypt of Dark Secrets (1974)

It’s not difficult to imagine how director Jack Weis came up with the foundation stone for this ill-fitting horror film. With no budget and some half-cooked mumbo jumbo ideas he had to work out a way of getting his female star, the astonishing Maureen Ridley, dancing naked for at least 5 full minutes. So, lithe body in place and nudity clause signed off in the contract he decided that she must be a swamp witch who needs to perform an ancient write in order to raise the dead.

From there he reverse engineered his entire story, just to arrive at that one moment of pure X-rated gold. Now this may or may not be the case, but I’m just putting it out there…

Of course, he may also have been looking for a way to shoot some quite glorious shots of the Louisiana swamps, as police launches glide their way through endless mysterious lagoons, snakes and alligators lurking beneath and mysterious mist enveloping the tangled trees on the shore. It’s a great location and the cats and crew deserve credit for working in it.

These things aside, the quality of story, dialogue and performance is not the best in this film but it adds to the period charm and this is a fun film to while away a rainy afternoon.

It concerns the legend of a swamp witch called Damballa who is rumoured to live in the deepest part of the bayou… a woman who is nearly immortal and who can turn herself into a snake at will.

The opening scene see the local policeman Lt. Harrigan (Wayne Mack, probably the film’s best actor) discussing the legend with a local investigator (not sure if I can call him an actor whoever he be… but he tries).

Then we meet Ted Watkins (Ronald Tanet, who is wooden enough to be a one-man log cabin) an army vet who has decided to retire to the most haunted island in the most eerie part of the swamp. No one has been able to live there without being driven out be mysterious goings on and so the Lieutenant and his Sergeant Buck (Herbert G. Jahncke, he too got wood...) go out to investigate.

Sgt Buck and Lt. Harrigan
Ted welcomes them and we find a house with a remarkable range of fixtures and fittings, electricity, fridge and hot water… not sure about TV reception. Ted is cool and isn’t bothered about no legends… nor is he bothered about keeping all of his army money in plastic bags under his bed or similar).

On the Lieutenant’s advice he goes to talk to the local bank only to be overheard by one of the local  criminal types – see: he was right about banks!!!

Max, Earl and Louise on the prowl
This criminal is Earl (Butch Benit – who also acts and has what sounds like an authentic drawl…) and he decides that his podgy pal Max (Harry Uher) and wife Louise (Barbara Hagerty) shall deprive Ted of his life savings and his life. Remarkably, in spite of their rubbish condition and lack of Navy Seal training they are indeed able to overpower the ex-military man and leave him to drown in the shallow waters as they make off with their ill-gotten gains.

But fear not gentle reader, the mysterious – and very shapely – figure of Damballa comes to the rescue and with the aid of a highly graphic naked dance sequence, wakes Ted from the dead not just because she likes him, but because he will serve a higher purpose.

The witches of old Orleans
Time for more remarkably attractive women, a few sundry old natives, a grave, a ghost and scotch mist… seems the ancient tribe, who exist in an alternate reality (I possibly lost the thread here…) have always kept one foot in our reality through Damballa but now it is foretold by a previous blonde-haired witch – who arises from her grave - that new brunette Damballa will be accompanied by a new male Damballa and all will be well. There’s some dancing and chanting and magic words are spoken by the, stunning, High Priestess (Susie Sirmen) and an, so-so-looking, High Priest (Vernel Bagneris, sorry Vernel…) whilst three Voodoo Dancers strut their stuff (Lois Tillman, Cindy Almario and Nattie Dear).

Blimey. You really wouldn’t want to be the guys to mess with all these supernatural forces would you… especially as the swamp witches are assisted by a human witch in spooking the baddies out as blood pours through their money and they begin to lose their nerves… and, there are voodoo dollies too!

Ted and Dembala entertain...
Dusty Verdict: Like Death in Paradise stripped of plot and performance quality there is still the same inevitability about the narrative. But there is a lively score and some wonderful shots of boats gliding through swamps and a mystical dance you would not want to watch with anyone else in the room.

The film is available on DVD from Amazon and is a curio and mid-seventies kitsch artefact for those who cherish such things plus those who just like to watch witches dance…

Saturday, 30 December 2017

Old new labour… No Love for Johnnie (1961)

The more things change the more politics stays (roughly) the same. This examination of the politics of ambition versus conviction, still strikes many a chord today after the fall of the centrist Labour movement and its still surprising replacement by the more overtly left-wing leadership of Jeremy Corbyn and the Momentum movement. Who knows where this will lead us but there are still plenty of men like Peter Finch’s MP Johnnie Byrne in all parties.

No Love for Johnnie was based on a novel by Wilfred Fienburgh who was not only a Labour MP from 1951 until his death in 1958 but was also described as “rather louche” by Anthony Howard and, according to Denis Healey, a man whose “good looks and big brown eyes often led him astray…” It’s hard not to conclude that his books contained at least some autobiographical references.

Johnnie Byrne is a charismatic MP on the rise… a new breed of politician who gives good copy and seems to represent the future of a party that could sense election victory as the Tories ran out of ground. Johnnie is a man who places his own interests ahead of his constituents, party and even friends and lovers. Johnnie is left of centre and is married to Alice (Rosalie Crutchley) a former member of the Communist Party, a situation that has held back his rise in the party.

Rosalie Crutchley
After a Labour victory, Johnnie must face the disappointment of being overlooked for a cabinet post and then coming home to find Alice has had enough and wants to leave him. The film is balanced between his desire to be loved by the party and its electorate as well as his need to replace Alice’s loving stability. Johnnie needs to decide what he wants the most and stumbles about for much of the film.

A young neighbour, Mary (Billie Whitelaw), who has obviously held a candle steps in to help and soon she is comforting Johnnie as he drowns his sorrows. The phone rings and Johnnie choses to answer it rather than focus on the girl in hand, gifting Mary the realisation that this guy will always jump at the political chance.

Billie Whitelaw
Despite this, Mary invites Johnnie along to a party hosted by the immaculate Sheila (the brilliant Fenella Fielding – still wowing us in her 90s!) where he meets an attractive young model, Pauline (played by the delicious Mary Peach). The following day he tracks Pauline to a photographer’s studio run by a chap named Flagg (the singular Dennis Price – what a cast this film has!) and pretends he has bumped into her by accident…

Meanwhile, Johnnie is being lined up as a stalking horse by a group of left-leaning MPs concerned at their new PM’s direction. These include Donald Pleasence as Roger Renfrew, Peter Sallis and Mervyn Johns as Charlie Young with the Prime Minister being played by Geoffrey Keen. They arrange for Johnnie to raise an awkward question about overseas aid at Question Time and as the in-fighting progresses, wise old-head Fred Andrews (Stanley Holloway on fine form; what a range he had), reminds Johnnie of his parents’ principles and their role in keeping the party together.

Mary Peach
The day arrives, and Johnnie is nowhere to be found… as the House of Commons prepares itself for the showdown he is in bed with Pauline finally consummating their relationship at precisely the time when he should have been standing up for his party’s values. But even as he seduces Pauline he begins the process of losing her as he overburdens the 20-year old with his 42-year old desire to settle down.

Back in Parliament he’s spurned by his co-conspirators and Renfrew exacts revenge by fixing for his constituency party to call him up north for a vote of no confidence. For the first time we see him squirm and lose confidence as the real passion of his comrades reveals his smooth talk as hollow and he just about survives the vote.

Meanwhile Pauline has gone missing and there are pitiful scenes with Mary who refuses to be his fall-back… he’s nothing without a woman it seems.

Spoilers: But, if a week is a long time in politics, these few days offer Johnnie a way back as a now grateful PM offers him a chance of promotion after the tragic resignation of a junior minister. Free of his wife with her troublesome past he’s now a player with a future, only Alice returns and he’s going to have to choose…

Dusty verdict: No Love for Johnnie may have its period charms but it’s a timeless play on politics, power and passion. Ralph Thomas directs a wordy script well and uses a quite splendid cast well.

Johnnie’s women are superb, especially Billie Whitelaw who can match Finch’s intensity. Mary Peach is well cast as Johnnie’s beautiful but unsuitable young love and against Finch’s worldly-wise and conflicted character she appears every inch the unformed girl who could not possibly commit to loving such a shadowed soul.

Finch won a BAFTA for the role and its easy to see why. He’s on screen for virtually the whole film and manages to make you care for this ultimately feckless chancer: he truly is Johnnie.

It’s now available on DVD from those Amazon people and makes for gripping viewing in these strange times…

Oliver Reed pops up at the party as Fenella and Peter negotiate