February 26, 2009

Oliver Missed: Sitting Target (1972) and the downward spiral of Oliver Reed.

by Dean Brandum

Where did it all go wrong for Oliver Reed? The 1960s had promised so much for the actor and the audience and his early turns in such Hammer fare as Brigand of Kandahar (1965), Curse of the Werewolf (1965) and Paranoiac (1963) had delivered a glimpse of a most assured screen presence. Perhaps brutish but undoubtedly handsome, his smouldering and slightly swarthy good looks kept in check the emotional anguish ready to explode from deep within his barrel-like burl. Among the cardboard contrivances of the Hammer romps, Reed, even in silly costume, provided a vitality to the material of an actor definitely a product of the present. Without the stage affectations of his peers and (at least in persona) neither a chinless chap nor a victim of early 60s kitchen-sink miserablism, Reed carried the swagger and cynicism of a young man who knew the game, who was on the up, who had the flash motor and the smashing birds. And yet, rather than revelling in his success, the Reed characters of the period find themselves poisoned by materialism, the artifice and emptiness of 1960s Britain. In only a matter of years Reed shuffled between the low rent of Hammer, the zeitgeist grabbing likes of Michael Winner and the restrained phase of Ken Russell when the director’s period adaptations and biopics were actually praised by the critical establishment.

 Generally, it is regarded that Reed’s best film of the 1960s is Russell’s Women in Love (1969) an adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s novel in which the actor played the homosexual Gerald Critch. At his brooding, subdued best, Reed is a match for his highly trained co-stars, Alan Bates and Glenda Jackson (the latter winning an Academy Award for her performance). Arty it may have been but, along with a pair of earlier Russell TV projects, it was apparent that the actor could move effortlessly between the commercial and the marginal, although ironically Women in Love proved to be his most commercially successful endeavour of the period. The Winner period, on the whole, established his box-office clout, at least at home. The System (1964), I’ll Never Forget What’s-isname (1967) and The Jokers (1967) were all popular performers that exposed uglier side of swinging London. The Winner film’s also allowed Reed to show his flair for subtle comedy; the actor well aware that his physical appearance only required the mildest cheeky contrast to break any tonal tension.  However domestic success would no longer ensure a long career for a British film star. With British film finances so intrinsically linked to American backing and stateside release, the British star of the 1960s needed to find appeal abroad or else suffocate at home.

The American studios had a long-established presence in Britain, their most important foreign market. Yet as popular as Hollywood product was in the UK, the return flow was far from equal. In fact it was barely a trickle. If British films were screened at all in the United States during the heady days of 1930s-1950s they either filled the B-slots on double features or took root in art houses with occasional, but marginal, success. It took until the 1960s for genuine cross-over appeal to occur. In quick succession the Bonds, Tom Jones, the Beatles, Alfie and Georgy Girl were all breakout hits and it didn’t take long for the Hollywood executives to realise that these modestly produced, vibrant efforts had hit a chord with the American public. At this same time other national cinemas were making their presence felt in the American market as French, Italian and Swedish features captured critical acclaim and a widening box-office interest. Was it the quality of the these imports that accounted for their popularity or the fact that Hollywood productions looked decidedly tired and old-fashioned in comparison? Not to mention their escalating costs were seldom being recuperated at an indifferent box-office.

As a consequence, Hollywood upped its investment in foreign production, with an emphasis on British film. Of all the studios, MGM, by their very nature, were the most conservative in their production slate. Cheap but popular Miss Marples and dull but expensive Anthony Asquith-directed middlebrow nonsense. After an early presence at Denham studios in the late 1930s, MGM took over the lease of Borehamwood Studios in 1948 and a number of British-set films followed, generally of the costume variety. By the mid – 1960s when contemporary British productions were in vogue, MGM gave us The V.I.P.s (1963) and The Yellow Rolls Royce (1964). Hardly edgy stuff there. Thankfully, Far From the Madding Crowd (1967) was a superb film but barely scraped together an audience. Where Eagles Dare (1968) did, something also managed by a pair of productions too unusual to be associated with the studio – Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966) and Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). But any revenue returned from those investments was quickly wiped with an ill-advised musical remake of Goodbye Mr. Chips (1969). With the parent company in near-financial ruin the doors to Borehamwood were shut and MGM quickly formed an alliance with EMI, subsidising the company with co-productions and distribution deals. The success rate was, to be kind, quite mixed.

As MGM were finding the going tough at Borehamwood, Oliver Reed had his first blockbuster hit with a supporting role in his Uncle Carol’s adaptation of the stage musical Oliver! (1968). Providing Reed with international exposure, the film was a roadshow smash and managed to win the Best Picture Academy Award. Yet in the year of Rosemary’s Baby, 2001, Faces, Bullitt, Rachel, Rachel, If…, Charge of the Light Brigade, The Boston Strangler and Poor Cow among the English language films eligible for nomination (let’s not even bother with listing the splendid foreign flicks on offer), that the rank throw-back to an earlier era should be voted by the establishment as the worthiest film of the year should have made Oliver Reed’s management extremely nervous. For an actor so of his present it seemed as if the Academy were hell-bent on turning back the clock. Indeed, one may think that Oliver! was an MGM production, with its determination to avoid any reference to concerns of the present, but the fact it was popular should dispel that notion. Oliver! was released by Columbia a company with thrifty origins that had survived the difficulties of the early 1950s and had thrived into the next decade. Of all the Hollywood studios it was probably Columbia that best utilised the foray into Britain. By tendering out its productions to independent producers they may have had less share of profits, but also negated much of the risk (not to mention the costly overheads). A number of expensive ‘prestige’ productions were made in this manner, including Lawrence of Arabia (1963) and A Man for All Seasons (1966) which were financial and critical triumphs. They also had a timeless, classical quality unlike some of Columbia’s attempts to embrace all things swinging in London – Casino Royale (1967), anyone? On the other hand, Columbia were responsible for two of the most audience-pleasing swinging London films, Georgy Girl and To Sir With Love (both 1966). Recent viewings of both films only confirm that for all their happening affectations, they were as artistically conservative as the company’s period pieces. Less celebrated but far more interesting to this viewer were several of Columbia’s smaller British productions, such as The Reckoning (1969) and Ten Rillington Place (1969), which stripped away any veneer of overt parochial identity to focus on character development and narrative tension. Nicol Williamson stars in The Reckoning as a ruthless executive forced to return to his dreary hometown of Liverpool when told his father has been bashed to death outside of a pub. Reconciling his past, reconnecting with his family and willed into the role of avenger, his regeneration does not lead to him forgoing his high-flying lifestyle. For he was well aware of its nihilistic nature to begin with. Instead, he returns to London rejuvenated. He committed a killing and now he was going to make a killing in business. It is the pragmatic, clear-headed cousin to I’ll Never Forget Whatsisname that is devoid of Winner’s trendiness and patronising redemption.

 In 1969 Oliver Reed should have been starring in something akin to The Reckoning to break from his swinging London ghetto and to prove he was capable of carrying a feature that had neither Winner nor Russell behind the camera. The story is apparently true that when Reed was later leaving to make a film in America, Richard Harris sent him a pair of crutches – on one was inscribed “Ken Russell” and on the other, “Glenda Jackson”. The accompanying note said “You are going to need these”. 1969 of course was the year of Women in Love but for strictly commercial purposes Reed was dicking about on the mildly amusing but inconsequential romp, The Assassination Bureau, a period comedy which may have been a better film than that year’s The Best House in London, but to those that have seen the David Hemmings bordello farce, such praise is thin indeed.

 By 1971 Hollywood had all but pulled out of Britain and with them went the foundations on which the British film industry had relied for the best part of a decade. Reed had two choices – firstly he could depart for America and reinvent himself as a Hollywood leading man. This would require skill, determination and good behaviour and sadly, Reed only possessed the first of those qualities. But what hope would he have had anyway? The British stars who had decamped over the previous decade were hardly faring well. Caine had endured almost nothing but flops since the last Harry Palmer thriller; Connery was struggling without a martini; Burton (and Taylor for that matter) were in box-office freefall; Harris was more notable for being a pain in the arse than for his actual work on screen and O’Toole’s career had obviously peaked with his first starring role. Britain was no longer flavour of the month and its performers were sliding off the A-list as a result. Indeed, after a decade in which its homegrown product appeared inert, old-fashioned and inordinately costly, American cinema was revitalised in the late 60s by a group of new filmmakers, the abolition of the Production Code and a generation of young stars. Hoffman, Beatty, Dunaway, Redford and a little later, Hackman, Pacino and De Niro pushed out those foreigners that had filled the void when the post WW2 stars’ appeal began to wane with audiences.

To my mind, there was no place for Reed in the United States in 1970, his opportunity missed by about five years. His other choice was to stay in Britain and enjoy being the biggest fish in an ever-evaporating pond. And this was what he did, even proclaiming that “I am the British film industry”. To a degree this was true, as he was the only major star still based in his homeland, but he had to suffer increasing competition from the flood of expats returning home in search of a good script and the career boost that would go with it. O’Toole was home for Under Milkwood and was gearing up for The Ruling Class (1972) and Connery would soon cross the Atlantic for The Offence (1972). Yet it was the stripped-down British arm of MGM that managed to lure back two of the brightest names back from Hollywood for a most remarkable pair of films. In 1971 the company released Villain and Get Carter starring, respectively, Richard Burton and Michael Caine. Two of the finest crime films to ever be produced in Britain, it took a number of years for Get Carter to receive due acclaim and to find a well-deserved following. Popularity at the time of its release was never a problem for Villain which was a sizeable hit in Britain (although it did not capture an audience in the US). Unfortunately, as Get Carter’s classic status has been assured, Villian has drifted into a near obscurity in recent years, a critical oversight that really should be rectified.

With all this last-gasp activity in a British film industry that would soon be swamped with horror, sex-comedies and TV spinoffs, Oliver Reed was treading water – a couple of European-shot features (The Lady in the Car with the Glasses and the Gun and the western The Hunting Party) aroused little interest and the public only seemed to take notice when Russell came calling, casting him the notorious The Devils (1971). Yes, Russell again. Winner was off Bronsoning in Hollywood by this time and one can only conclude that Reed was floundering; his career only resuscitated by Ken Russell’s casting largesse.

In 1965 Reed made a film titled The Party’s Over, a prophetic title for the star’s career fortunes by the end of such a promising decade. Interestingly, many years later it was revealed that Reed was shortlisted to replace Sean Connery when he first quit as Bond but due to financial considerations they decided upon George Lazenby. I’m far from being a Bond aficionado so I’ll leave the ponderings on his suitability for the role to others, but suffice to say it would have brought the actor international exposure and may have provided the stability and he so desperately lacked in his professional life.

Instead of acting On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the on-screen Reed found himself serving at her Majesty’s pleasure. MGM’s success with their crime films of 1971 led the company to greenlight a script by Alexander Jacobs who had written Point Blank for the screen in 1967. Sitting Target (1972) told of a violent career criminal imprisoned for the killing of a security guard during a botched robbery. Facing many years alone, his long-suffering wife tells him their marriage is over and reveals she is pregnant to another man. Enraged, her husband escapes from prison, intent on killing her and her lover. It all sounds promising enough, but do not be fooled. John Boorman has said that when he and Lee Marvin were preparing to film Point Blank, the actor only agreed to make the film after throwing the script out of the hotel window. Boorman then brought in Jacobs and together they worked on the rewrite of what would become a modern classic. One can only presume that Boorman’s contribution was considerable, given the by-the-numbers formula of Sitting Target. Had Marvin been involved I would think this screenplay would have been hurled across the English Channel.

From the film's pressbook

 Naturally, Reed plays Harry, with Jill St. John (on a last feature stop before spending the rest of the decade in TV movie purgatory) as Pat. Ian McShane is along for the ride as the younger inmate who makes the break with Reed and Edward Woodward is rather thanklessly and pointlessly cast as Milton, the cop on the case. Frank Finlay, Freddie Jones, Tony Beckley and Robert Beatty round out the support cast as various neer-do-wells.

The performers in the film all do what is asked of them and rise to level of mere adequacy that the project requests. Similarly, the production values also meet such requirements and the director Douglas Hickox gets from the MGM logo to the closing credits without doing himself any disfavour…by hardly making his presence felt at all. It is hard to reconcile that this was the filmmaker responsible for the élan of Les Bicyclettes de Belsize, the black wit of Entertaining Mr. Sloane and the hilarious, high campery of Theatre of Blood. But when handed straight drama, Hickox was a barely a competent journeyman (see Brannigan and Zulu Dawn) and one could only wish that some of the vitality and deft lightness that the director was capable of employing could have been rationed Sitting Target’s way just to enliven the stodge of it all.

But as much as the viewer begs for some shade to the characters, some zest to the narrative and some purposeful visual aesthetic, Sitting Target refuses to deliver. It does not want to, it does not need to. For this is a film made purely to boil pots to. A slate filler, an identifiable, paid up genre member, a one-dimensional programmer for a one-dimensional demographic; unwilling to offer the slightest variation to a tired and worn generic staple, its only compensation for the market is to ensure a requisite number of breasts and moments of quite nasty violence. So calculated and so cynical, Sitting Target’s grim determination to adhere strictly to formula and to employ actors to function as little more than props that are moved about, shaken around and dismissed as the conventions of that formula dictate, causes Sitting Target to be seen today as one of the most depressing examples of British cinema of the 1970s. This is especially so when one considers how the film uses Oliver Reed.

How does it use its star? As a marketing tool. I have nothing against actors playing to type – careers and genres have been built on the backs of such casting and career management. But in those cases it has been a gradual accumulation of an on-screen persona with the baggage past built into the roles and the audiences’ expectations. But in Sitting Target Reed is cast as a one-dimensional thug who is allowed but the briefest moments in which to show any emotion other than rage, a colour-by-numbers characterisation in which any alteration to the single dimension only exists to explain an action about to occur in the most literal definition of narrative cause and effect. If any past baggage was a requirement, the producers of Sitting Target have gone back to the Reed of The Angry Silence and The Bulldog Breed (both 1960) – his early bit parts as stock thugs in which he would menace and brawl.

What happened to the years in-between? Winner, Russell and Bill Sykes all forgotten. It was as if London had ever swung. Hell, even Hammer offered a greater range than what was on offer in Sitting Target. Where is the insouciance, the wry, knowing cynicsm and the voice that delivered even the most inconsequential line with a near-Burton like resonance? All those qualities that had made Reed a star and that carried the essence of a certain strain of British cinema ignored in the effort to cast a barrel-chested hulk driven by the basest of instinct to kill without remorse and consequence. Perhaps his character (and the actor’s screen persona) could be compensated by at least having him feared by his enemies but instead the only fear is of his brutality, otherwise he is played for a fool.

What a worthless role for a fine and talented actor, but even more tragic is the damage done to his professional standing. Having not been asked to carry a British film for several years, Sitting Target, made on the cusp of an industry collapse, needed to be a renewed calling card for the actor to let the industry know that he could cross into the new decade and redefine his persona for a less auspicious period while remaining relevant and commercial. Instead he is reduced to his lowest common denominator – 190lbs of sneer, shooting guns, smashing cars and punching heads. He is lucky he ws male, otherwise it would have been ‘tits out for the lads’ time. 

In spite of unanimously poor reviews, Sitting Target  did manage a successful four week run at the ABC 1 cinema in Shaftsbury Avenue when released in London on May 5th 1972. Oddly, when it reached here – Melbourne, Australia – on June 8th its title had been changed and only those when the keenest eyes could scan through the credits to find Reed mentioned at all.


Playing at the Metro Collins Street, a once grand palace whose fall from favour mirrored that of the studio whose product it (at the time) played exclusively, Screaming Target lastd one desulutory week.







One June 20th it New York admatmade it to New York where it was shunted to the bottom of the bill on a double feature with One is a Lonely Number, a story of a divorcee trying to get her life back together. The mix of testosterone and estrogen proved disastrous and the combo was yanked from its showcase run after a dismal week.

Mild success at home and failure abroad. Playing almost concurrently as Sitting Target in Britain was Z.P.G. a futuristic tale in which Reed and Geraldine Chaplin play a couple who defy the state’s ban on children and decide to have one of their own, risking all their lives in the process. At least here Reed gets the chance to attempt a performance, but some shoddy effects work and an overbearing glumness compelled audiences to stay away.

Four of Reed’s next five films were barely (if at all) released in Britain, with the exception being the popular Three Musketeers (1973) which finally gave the actor a chance to unleash some charisma and dash. It is not co-incidental that the swashbuckler’s director was Richard Lester who had made is mark in swinging London features. Similar, showy character roles were provided by Russell (again!) with Tommy (1975) and Lester (again!) with Royal Flash (1975). But in terms of leading man material the decent parts were over. Other actors could return to the stage or take on television but for Reed who had no experience of the former and no temperament for the latter, th international co-production ghetto was his only route and by the end of the 1970s his star cache was spent. 

I have no doubt that the booze and general unruliness also played their parts in derailing Reed’s career, but frankly I am sick of reading such stories which turn a formidible talent into a lad’s mag laughing stock. The waste of Reed’s talent is one of cinema’s minor tragedies and although we cannot blame the likes of Sitting Target,  its total disregard for the actor’s capabilities leaves a sour taste in my mouth every time I stumble across it on television.


December 18, 2008

Queer Heteronormativity, or How “Queer Duck: The Movie” is Straight-Laced.

by Craig Martin

When the feature-length animated film, Queer Duck: The Movie (Xeth Feinberg), was given a limited theatrical release in July 2006, it was lauded a queer triumph by the popular GLBT press. Reviewing the film for US national gay and lesbian newsmag, The Advocate, Alonso Duralde described it as ‘naughty, outrageous, … the must-see animated film of the summer’ [1]. Despite this and other enthusiastic accolades [2], Queer Duck: The Movie rarely lives up to its name. Certainly, the film lampoons homosexual panic, performative gender stereotypes and ex-gay cults, but it also endorses homosexual/heterosexual binarism and reinforces gender stereotypes, even as it benignly pokes fun. As such, Queer Duck: The Movie contains a considerable lack of authentic queer content, which we will soon explore. What follows is a brief attempt to describe aspects of queer theory for the purpose of illustrating how Queer Duck: The Movie might be considered straight-laced. Let’s commence with a working definition of queer theory.

Perhaps the most important point to make about ‘queer’ is what it is not, and how often it is misunderstood. Annamarie Jagose observes that queer is commonly thought of an “an umbrella term for a coalition of culturally marginal sexual self-identifications” [3] and notes that the term is regularly appropriated as interchangeable for lesbian and gay. Queer is, of course, concerned with sexuality and sexual identity, but it challenges notions that these are fixed. To suggest that queer is merely an alternative label for homosexuality is erroneous, despite the fact that such labeling persists. Queer rejects labels and categories and is committed to displacing ideas of normalcy, exploring instead what Harry Benshoff describes as “spaces wherein normative heterosexuality is threatened, critiqued, camped up, or shown to be an unstable performance identity” [4]. Because queer rejects ideas of normalcy, it also serves to “interrogate and complicate the term ‘gay and lesbian'” [5] as well as challenge binary categorisations of male/female, masculine/feminine, heterosexual/homosexual, in favour of fluid and transgressive sexual identities. Through such a lens, heterosexuality is deemed an artificial construct, despite hegemonic assertions of its naturalness and normalcy. Present within the same binary, homosexuality is an equally contrived and restrictive social construct. Its characterisation as aberrant, or a deviation from heteronormativity, ostensibly delimits heterosexuality, or, as Meredith Li-Vollmer and Mark LaPointe express it, “one function of the deviant is to help define for others that which is not deviant” [6].

Instead of fixed binaries, queer creates a space that argues for the validity of unstable constructs of sexuality and gender, which Alexander Doty refers to as “a place not concerned with, or limited by, notions of a binary opposition of male and female or the homo versus hetero paradigm” [7]. Queer is certainly inclusive of lesbian and gay subjects, but it is also concerned with alternative expressions of sexuality that, according to Jagose, include “cross dressing, hermaphrodotism, gender ambiguity and gender-corrective surgery” [8], as well as transgressive heterosexual behaviours such as masturbation, fetishism, prostitution, bisexuality, and alternatives to monogamy and procreation. Benshoff broadly encapsulates queer as a description of any sexuality “not defined as heterosexual procreative monogamy … [and includes] people who do not organize their sexuality according to that rubric” [9]. Using this amorphous understanding of queer, we can briefly explore the contrasting heteronormativity that characterises Queer Duck: The Movie.

Queer Duck: The Movie appeared at a time when mainstream lesbian and gay movements, according to Diane Richardson, were “increasingly demanding rights of citizenship on the grounds of being the ‘same’ as most heterosexuals” [10].  Unfortunately, in their pursuit of equal rights, gay and lesbian groups capitulate to the heterosexual/homosexual binary in an effort to create a legitimate, or normalising space for homosexuality. Thus, in their desire for respectability and recognition, significant segments of the lesbian and gay movement have effectively abandoned, or at least, minimised their transgressive identity. Observing this trend, Richardson states that, “both feminist and queer academics and activists have been highly critical of the normalizing politics that form the basis of mainstream lesbian and gay movements organized around claiming ‘equal rights'” [11], because they ostensibly validate social constructs designed to control and limit human sexuality.

Mike Reiss, creator of the Queer Duck universe, is a co-producer and regular writing contributor for The Simpsons. It may not be surprising then, to learn that Queer Duck: The Movie similarly contains an endless flow of parody, pastiche and intertextuality. Its characters eat Quentin Crisps and drink Harvey Milk, and during one promotional interview, Reiss described his film as “Brokeback Rocky and Bullwinkle” [12]. The film exploits almost every lesbian and gay stereotype and is crammed with wall-to-wall jokes about Disney resort ‘Gay Days’, Broadway musicals, drag queens and showbiz Divas. But does this make it queer? Interestingly, the film displays a keen awareness about the anthropomorphism of animals in animation, and this is perhaps its queerest characteristic. Animation is endemically queer because, as Alice Kuzniar argues, it has the ability to “frustrate the laws of nature” [13] that Philip Brophy calls “an incursion or irruption of reality” [14], which makes animation, with its transgressive qualities, an ideal medium for exploring queer issues. We certainly see this in Warner Bros’ Bugs Bunny cartoons, in which the waskily wabbit is forever dressing in drag and kissing the fall guy. Likewise, in Queer Duck: The Movie, the most transgressive aspect of the film is not its endless homosexual references, but its interspecies coupling. A parody of the Rex Harrison voiced song ‘Talk with the Animals’ from Richard Fleischer’s 1967 musical fantasy, Doctor Dolittle, declares we can instead have “Sex with the Animals.” The self-reflexive song winks at the film’s cast of animals and the prevalence of inter-species relationships, highlighting the obvious necessity for bestiality. The characters have drag names with humorous puns that describe their sexuality and species. Along with the titular Duck, there is his sensitive partner Openly Gator, and their friends, Oscar Wildcat and Bi-Polar Bear.

The film’s narrative is concerned with a chance encounter between Queer Duck and aging Norma Desmond-styled Broadway Diva, Lola Buzzard. The two hit it off to such an extent that Lola asks Queer Duck to marry her. He is mighty flattered, but reminds her that he is gay and couldn’t possibly consummate the marriage. Lola offers a solution, recommending that Queer Duck visit homophobic televangelist Reverend van Dergelding. After a few consultations, the Reverend cures Queer Duck of his homosexuality via a home brew. Queer Duck thereafter transforms into Straight Duck, complete with chest hair, stubble and a devil-may-care attitude. He and Lola immediately marry, causing no end of heartbreak for the duck’s former lover, Openly Gator. Straight Duck is the antithesis of Queer Duck. Whereas Queer Duck is talkative, flamboyant and seemingly asexual, Straight Duck is monosyllabic, assertive, sullen and sexually potent. On their wedding night, Straight Duck sees his withered bride waiting for him in bed and instantly develops an enormous erection. Their evening consists of non-stop sex and in the morning Lola speaks of her deep contentment before promptly dying from exhaustion, having bequeathed her fortune to the duck. Alone and lonely, Straight Duck reminisces about his old life and looks up his gay pals, who hire Barbra Streisand to turn him gay once again through the divine power of her nose. The procedure works like a charm and the remainder of the film involves a series of celebrations as Queer Duck reunites with Openly Gator, foils Reverend van Dergelding’s sinister plot to rid the world of homosexuals (by showering the gay populace with his ‘cure’),  and, finally, splurging Lola’s millions on his friends.

Despite its name, Queer Duck: The Movie contains little that is actually queer per se. Rather, the film emphasises the homosexual/heterosexual binary, problematically reinforcing a heterosexist, heteronormative paradigm. The only valid choices of sexual expression the characters are given is either gay or straight. Queer Duck readily abandons his homosexual lifestyle and friends, including his life partner, Openly Gator, and panders to stereotypes that homosexuals are incapable of long-term commitment and that a gay lifestyle is wayward, superficial and essentially sexually unsatisfying. Indeed, the only occasion in which an erect penis or sex acts find representation on screen is when Queer Duck is transformed into the virile, hyper-masculine Straight Duck. We subsequently learn that straight sex is infinitely more satisfying, potent, and even dangerous, as is evinced by Lola Buzzard’s post-coital demise. In contrast, when we see Queer Duck and Openly Gator in bed together, they do not touch, nor kiss. Indeed, their relationship is altogether asexual – oscillating between hystrionic and angst-ridden. There is of course a parodic element contained in the reversal of stereotypes that see straights oversexed and gays reserved and sexless, and this aspect of the comedy works well. Yet the fact remains that in the Queer Duck universe, homosexuality is confined to a superficial, self-loathing, agamous lifestyle primarily preoccupied with artifice, or what Susan Sontag describes in her Notes on Camp as “style at the expense of substance” [15]. Writer/Creator Reiss’ commentary on gay culture deliberately limits itself to artifice, offering a stereotypically camp view of homosexuality. While his cartoon seems, at first, witty and innocuous, there is little that is actually humourous or innocent about the way Queer Duck: The Movie exploits gay culture and negates transgressive sexual identifications. With so little actual queerness in Queer Duck: The  Movie it is fascinating to consider the enthusiastic reception the film received, especially from within the LGBT community. Or is it? Richardson’s observations about the quest for equality and – of even greater concern – assimilation among some gays and lesbians might lead us to conclude that Queer Duck: The Movie conspires to, if not strip queerness of its transgressive power, then at least tone it down. Straight society, Richardson effectively suggests, is more likely to accept homosexuality if it can distance itself from its transgressive roots and prove that it belongs. And there’s nothing queer about that.

[1] Duralde, Alonso. “Fine Feathered Fop.” Rev. of Queer Duck: The Movie, dir. Xeth Feinberg. The Advocate.  967 (18 July 1996): 57.

[2] The DVD cover for Queer Duck: The Movie includes a quote it attributes to BBC Television claiming that Queer Duck is “One of the 100 Greatest Cartoons of All Time.” Thanks go to Dean, who found that the source of this claim is a Channel 4 poll conducted in 2005 to determine the most popular cartoon characters and animated films. Queer Duck is listed 94th, while The Simpsons topped the list in first place. For the complete list of animated films, see http://www.channel4.com/entertainment/tv/microsites/G/greatest/cartoons/results.html

[3] Jagose, Annamarie. Queer Theory. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1996. p. 1.

[4] Benshoff, Harry and Griffin, Sean. “General Introduction.” Queer Cinema, the Film Reader. (Ed) Harry  Benshoff and Sean Griffin. New York: Routledge, 2004. p. 2.

[5] p. 1.

[6] Li-Vollmer, Meredith and LaPointe, Mark. “Gender Transgression and Villainy in Animated Film.” Popular Communication. 1.2 (May 2003): 89-109. p. 91.

[7] Qtd in Griffin, Sean. “Pronoun Trouble: The “Queerness” of Animation.” Queer Cinema, the Film Reader. Ed. Harry Benshoff and Sean Griffin. New York: Routledge, 2004. p. 107.

[8] p. 3.

[9] p. 1.

[10] Richardson, Diane. “Locating Sexualities: From Here to Normality.” Sexualities. 7.4 (2004: 391-411. p. 391.

[11] p 392.

[12] Urban, Robert. “Queer Duck: The Movie is Sooooo Gay!” AfterElton.com Online 18 July 2006. 27 October 2008.

[13] Kuzniar, Alice A. The Queer German Cinema. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000. p. 239.

[14] Sontag, Susan. Against Interpretation, and Other Essays. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1967. p. 278.

December 14, 2008

Rethinking the Cannon

by Dean Brandum

I’m guessing it was around March of 1986 when I saw Runaway Train at Hoyts’ Midcity complex on its opening weekend here in Melbourne. The film had been praised by a number of critics as a thoughtful and exciting action film, the fact it was based on an unproduced screenplay by Akira Kurosawa validated its potential of quality. With several Oscar nominations to boot, the expectations of the small, but anticipative audience were high.

The trailers and ads finished, the curtains adjusted – we were ready. And then it happened. The Cannon logo appeared onscreen and the audience groaned with dismay. We were to be duped. No philosophical musings on man’s savagery to come, instead it would be a cheap and nasty flick churned out for that lowest-common-denominator viewer, the dimwitted fan of Dudikoff and Bronson, one turned on by the putrid vigilante violence of such bottom shelf of the video store sludge. Never had I heard an audience diss a film logo before and nor have I since, but such was the notoriety of Cannon films that such outrage was justified.

Do you remember the Cannon logo? Look it up on youtube. That cold, blue metallic style so favoured by corporate promoters in the 1980s, ticking all the necessary boxes of the day – efficiency, synthesis, functionality – complete with a reverbing synthesizer.

Pretty soon the audience at Runaway Train settled into the experience and presumably enjoyed it – I know I did and to me it remains possibly Cannon’s finest achievement. Yet at the time I was well aware of the film being a Cannon production and to myself might have given a small cheer, for although Cannon’s reputation was for junk (which I invariably paid to see) I knew that the company, in its bizarrely schizophrenic manner, was determined to be seen a purveyor of high art cinema and taken seriously as such. It was this attitude, this desperate need for critical and peer respect that helped make the company the laughing stock of the industry and the critics’ whipping boy. Perhaps if they’d known their place and been happy to just mine the low-budget exploitation market they would have been ignored, but for a while, their ambitions, riding on a wave of bravura, chutzpah and just plain bullshit took them to the position of Hollywood’s foremost mini-major, their share price riding high even though few people were actually interested in seeing their films. Eventually the bubble burst and in the dying years of the 1980s the company collapsed, its heads Menaham Golan and Yoram Globus parting ways and since reduced to the smaller tables in the corners of world film markets.

Nearly that nearly two decades have passed since Cannon’s demise, how can and should we look back on their output?

If you mention Cannon to an aging buff you would more than likely elicit a hearty chuckle and memories of a tired Charles Bronson, a young Van Damme and Chuck Norris in his prime. This appears to be Cannon’s legacy – medium-low budget action flicks; suitable for drive-ins and grindhouses but produced a decade after such venues had closed. So instead of the romantic nostalgia of seeing Death Wish 3 at the mothbitten Albany/Roma/Star/Galaxy/Metro (insert your own, much loved fleapit here) or local ozoner, it would have more likely been screened in the pokier screens of your larger inner-city multiplex, a 100-seat box with floor to ceiling carpet.

Combine that with the Cannon visual aesthetic (cold, fluorescent and lots of concrete – call it cinematic brutalism) and those too-recent-romanticize fashions cobbled together by the cash-strapped costume and hair departments (the characters, even those apprently in positions of power, always looked so darn cut-rate and suburban) and the memories of Cannon are pretty grim. The aural chintzings of the synthesising Gary Changs and Jay Chattaways only compounds the pain.

There were times when Cannon aimed to have their fare last longer then a week on screen but their forays into matching it with the majors have passed into Hollywood lore for their sheer ineptitude. Perhaps Cannon’s entire legacy is best exemplified by its dealings with Sylvester Stallone. In 1985 Sly was, without a doubt, the biggest star in the world. In that year he managed the one-two punch of Rocky IV (domestic gross: $125 million) and Rambo: First Blood Part 2 (domestic gross: $150 million). Cannon spent that year trumpeting (and boy did they carry on about it!) the fact he was to star in their upcoming Over the Top and paying him $12 million to sign on (and to sign off much of his future career). With the boxoffice’s most bankable name on board, how could they go wrong? Well, by having him star in a story about professional arm wrestlers (gee, there’s one ‘sport’ that has been crying out for the big screen treatment) was one way to do it. Having Menaham Golan himself direct the film in his own inimitable manner (lunk of head and ham of fist) was another. Cannon’s marketing department, responsible for the least appealing campaigns of the decade, completed the task by making Over the Top look as cheap and tacky as the usual Cannon fodder they could not sell. When it was released in 1986 Over the Top grossed $16 million domestic – an abysmal return considering Stallone’s calibre, worse still considering the rentals would have not covered half of the star’s wage. Ahh Cannon – if only they put as much effort into making and selling their films as they did announcing their imminent production.

Other such attempts at playing the blockbuster game included obtaining the rights to make Superman IV, then pruning back the budget to above-the-line costs only (Reeve and Hackman) and managing to bury the franchise entirely with the worst of the series. Masters of the Universe seems to have its defenders but I’ll reserve judgement as even 20 years ago I was loath to part with my hard-earned for comic-book action figurey flicks.

To my mind the best of Cannon’s blockbuster efforts was Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce – a batty B-premise given the A-treatment (to the tune of $25 million in 1985 coin). Mathilda May’s gratuitous nudity, crazed space vampires, London as the setting and the notion that Steve Railsback could carry a film. Absolutely enjoyable and a prime example of how Golan and Globus had little idea of how to forge an audience-pleasing project. And thank god for that. Any major studio would have vetoed Life Force as an expensive Hammer film. In their naivety, Cannon thought they were on a box-office winner. Hey guys, I did my bit and showed up.

I also showed up to 52 Pick-Up (1985), in which Cannon provided cinematic asylum to the once mighty John Frankenheimer, allowing him to direct one of the very best Elmore Leonard adaptations to screen. This is one of the rare cases when the aforementioned Cannon aesthetic works to a film’s advantage. The scuzzy atmosphere, exploitative nudity and gratuitous violence do justice to Leonard’s milieu of low life on the outskirts of the Los Angeles skin industry. Once again, Golan and Globus were unable to see that such content would dissuade more viewers than it would bring in. Never let it be said that these moguls delivered overly slick product. Slick was not in their vocabulary. Their effect was even felt on films which they did not produce. Case in point was the Stallone vehicle, Cobra (1986). This was a Warner Brothers release that only had a nominal Golan-Globus on-screen production credit (this was due to Cannon nullifying an agreement they had with the actor in order to pocket a million much-needed dollars from Warners). Otherwise, Cannon had no creative input into Cobra and nor would they receive any financial return from the project. However, for all of Warners’ expense and experienced sheen, Cobra – one of the more putrid releases of a mostly putrid decade – had the fetid stench of Cannon wafting from every sprocket hole.

But…but…it is far too easy to rip into Cannon and if that was the only purpose of this post then it would not have been written in the first place. For harking back to my opening comments, the poor reputation of Cannon may have infected their better films to the point of audience turn-off, but better films they did produce or distribute. Rather than being just ill-bred cowboys, Menaham Golan and Yoram Globus were true film lovers and did wish to be appreciated by those of a higher brow. Indeed, for all the atrocious work Golan directed in his time with Cannon, he had once been recognised as Israel’s most promising director. Films such as Fortuna (1966), My Margo (1969) and Highway Queen (1971) all received international distribution and some acclaim leading to his best feature as director, Lepke (1975), with Tony Curtis (in fine form) as the Jewish gangster. It must also be acknowledged that his Operation Thunderbolt (1977) was better than either of the more star laden, American productions that retold the events of rescuing the hostages from Entebbe airport.

Sadly there is little that follows that is evident of such early talent. Quite typical of the later Golan is that he can hack out such dreck as Death Game (2001) and Final Combat (2003) yet in the year between helm a version of Crime and Punishment. Such is the story of Golan as it was with Cannon: there was no real distinction between high and low cinema. Arthouse and exploitation, they were all handled and marketed as the same goods and unfortunately, the rotten produce contaminated the many fine films the company released.

Which other major studio (or even mini-major, for that matter) in the 1980s would have given the time of day to the likes of Jean Luc-Godard, Norman Mailer, Andrei Konchalovsky, Emir Kusterica, Barbet Schroeder, John Cassavetes, Robert Altman, Jason Miller, Liliana Cavani, Lina Wertmuller, Franco Zefirelli, Harry Hook, Neil Jordan, Dusan Mackavejev, Godfrey Reggio, Fons Rademakers and Nicholas Roeg? Not many.

Miramax were held up as a later business model that would differentiate its product and market it appropriately. Cannon had no qualms about announcing Death Wish 3 alongside Fool for Love and selling them both in the same, crude manner. Yet the still employed these filmmakers, most of whom spoke highly of their time with the company but sadly, although some of these films met with critical acclaim, few made any money. But this was the story of Cannon – for even most of their Bronson and Norris flicks barely went into profit (due to the excessively wide releases afforded to such junk) and on the few occasions they had a bankable star they would somehow botch the deal.

Cannon have long gone and sadly we will probably never see their likes again. As a final treat I would like to end with a gallery of films the company announced but never produced. Would these titles have made a difference to Cannon’s reputation or bottom line? Who knows?

(Apologies for the blurry quality of some of these images. Too big for the scanner, the camera did not do them justice.)

Yes, when I think of a modern Judy Holliday, I think 'Whoopi Goldberg'.

Yes, when I think of a modern Judy Holliday, I think 'Whoopi Goldberg'.

In 1970 'Joe' had been a remarkable success for Cannon before Golan and Globus took over the company. This ressurection may have been interesting in the depths of the Reagan era.

In 1970 'Joe' had been a remarkable success for Cannon before Golan and Globus took over the company. This ressurection may have been interesting in the depths of the Reagan era.


A remake of Elio Petri's 'Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion'. Konchalovsky directing, Schraeder scripting and Pacino starring. Sounds to good to be true for Cannon. It was.

A remake of Elio Petri's 'Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion'. Konchalovsky directing, Schraeder scripting and Pacino starring. Sounds to good to be true for Cannon. It was.

Hoffman sulked off when Cannon used his image in a promotion without his permission. They tried to shoehorn Pacino into the project, to no avail.

Hoffman sulked off when Cannon used his image in a promotion without his permission. They tried to shoehorn Pacino into the project, to no avail.

The Final Chapter' Zito directing? Where's my ticket!?!

With Joseph 'Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter' Zito directing? Where's my ticket!?!

I'm sorry, make that Albert 'Cyborg' Pyun.

I'm sorry, make that Albert 'Cyborg' Pyun.

Tobe Hooper? You'd get a guy who made his name directing gory horror flicks to do 'Spiderman'? Like THAT would ever happen!

Tobe Hooper? You'd get a guy who made his name directing gory horror flicks to do 'Spiderman'? Like THAT would ever happen!

John Travolta was also attached at one stage. Just what the world needed.

John Travolta was also attached at one stage. Just what the world needed.

Spare me.

Spare me.

You aren't fooling anyone.

You aren't fooling anyone.

Yes, you read correctly - Michael Winner. M-I-C-H-A-E-L  W-I-N-N-E-R.

Yes, you read correctly - Michael Winner. M-I-C-H-A-E-L W-I-N-N-E-R.

Look, now you are just being silly.

Look, now you are just being silly.

December 14, 2008

From the Files on a Dumber Plight

by Dean Brandum

As printed in the New York Times cinema section in February 1975.


Ya really think this made much of a difference?

Nah, nor do I.

Damn those bloody Swedish names. The good folk at Filmways knew one of them had an extra ‘n’ on the end. Must have tossed a coin to decide which one.

October 9, 2008

Hotel Du Pud (part two): Harry Alan Towers and “Ten Little Indians” (1974)

by Dean Brandum

By 1973 the two-year partnership between the British EMI and Hollywood’s MGM had fractured to the point where the American organization decided to finalize its British production involvement and keep all of its dealings on its home side of the Atlantic. This was pleasing for EMI (the owners of the expansive and proficient Elstree Studios) as they had been suffering losses incurred by MGM’s disastrous losses in the USA. As a now single corporation, EMI company head Nat Cohen choose the 1973 Cannes film festival to announce a £5 million package of seven films, most of which would be American features with an EMI distribution interest. Of the domestically produced EMI features announced that year, it was an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s bestseller Murder on the Orient Express that garnered the most interest. It had taken a lot of strenuous negotiation between Christie and Cohen, but he eventually secured the rights to three of her Hercule Poirot novels, believing that such material would be the ideal screen antidote for Britain in what was a gloomy time of industrial, social and civil unrest.

Filming did not begin on Murder on the Orient Express until March of 1974, ten months after the announcement at Cannes. Yet in that time another Christie adaptation was conceived, financed, cast, prepared and already filming.

“Same Script different locations. You always kill off the most expensive stars first!” – Harry Alan Towers on his three versions of “Ten Little Indians”

In October that year, Variety‘s “international wrap” included a brief mention that Towers was producing a new version of Ten Little Indians. The news was from their correspondent in Madrid, so it seemed the film would either be shot there or at least based in that country. Towers, based at the time in Lichtenstein had attracted a strong cast for this project – Oliver Reed, James Mason, Elke Sommer and Herbert Lom were verified, with Adolfo Celi in talks and negotiations continuing with several international names.  Each week would bring new casting news with the November 7th column stating that the British-French-German-Italian-Spanish production was looking for two Spaniards to round out the cast and that James Mason had left the production. 20th Century Fox was expected to distribute the film in the USA.

Towers had arranged his most widespread production yet, involving five nations. It took some delicate work to make the arrangement as equitable as possible for each participating company to benefit from their local subsidies and rebates.

The companies and incentives involved were:

Oceania (French) who had previously worked with Towers on Call of the Wild and had a history of involvement in multi-national productions, especially genre-based films including westerns and crime thrillers. Tax rebates and no interest loans were available from the Centre du Cinema.

Talia (Spain) were a reasonably new company also in the co-production business. With Spain having equal partnership in this production they were eligible for a 15% rebate on ticket sales.

Coralta: (Italy) had, until this time restricted themselves to either local productions or partnerships with French companies. In those cases they were eligible for low-interest loans from the Film Credit Section of the Banca Nazionale (SACC) as a not majority participant on Towers’ film, the loan would be far smaller.

Corona (Germany), a well-established company that had previously funded several of Towers’ collaborations with Jess Franco. Germany offered State Aid, in which films German companies shared equal partnership were eligible. Companies could also offset.

The British component was Towers himself, through the aptly named Filibuster Films, a company created for this production only. Towers packaged the production and although Filibuster did not contribute any capital, it acted as a broker between the other companies. The creation of Filibuster was for the purposes of Eady levy rebate eligibility, yet although nominally British it was listed as located in elsewhere. This was due to these four companies had another, silent partner.

In the 1970s Tehran had an established film festival, one which showcased both Iranian and world cinema. Endorsed by the Shah or Iran, the festival spared no expense in attracting stars and directors to attend the festival, held late each year. The success of the festival led to the Iranian government believing that cinema was the ideal medium to promote the country internationally as a progressive nation. The Film Development Company of Iran was created and endowed with a large budget to attract international filmmakers. The 1974 Film Festival brought news of the first international film to be shot there – Ten Little Indians. The Film Development company offered the superb location of the Shah Abbas Hotel for filming (and five star accommodation for the cast and crew) there was also an added inducement that Towers could not resist – moving his company Filibuster to Iran which would act as a tax shelter for the entire budget and all of Tower’s personal fees. In this way, Towers took the money from his four partners and did not have to pay any tax on the amount until the film had grossed a certain percentage of the cost. Even then, this tax shelter offered minimal taxation rates.

The cast was finalised with a not quite equal spread of actors – there were two Britons (Oliver Reed and Richard Attenborough), two Germans (Gert Frobe and Elke Sommer) and two French (Stephane Audran and Charles Aznavour). However there was only one Italian (Adolfo Celi) and a single Spaniard (Alberto de Mendoza). Rounding out the cast were Herbert Lom (Czech) and Maria Rohm (Towers’ Austrian wife). This problem was solved by providing extra credits for Spaniards and Italians on the film. Jess Franco has spoken of this as a regular practice on Towers’ films. In order to meet a country’s co-production guidelines they would invent roles or create ‘strawmen’. This would entail paying a small amount to a certain artist or technician to agree for his name to be used and, if asked by the authorities, to state he did work on the film. Although there is no official record of these ‘strawmen’ being used, two extra producers are listed alongside Towers. These men (Juan Estelrich and Tibor Reeves) had fulfilled minor production roles on previous Towers’ films. One may also wonder about the names credited alongside that of screenwriter Peter Wellbeck (actually Towers’ pseudonym), Erich Kronke and Enrique Llovet. Although screenwriters, it seems unlikely that they had any true input, for the screenplay is almost identical (to the very word) with the once Towers wrote for the 1965 film. The only changes were very minor, detailing characters commenting on the outside landscape (changed from snowy alps to sandy desert).

Briton Peter Collinson was hired to direct. In his short career he had worked in a number of countries across a variety of genres. He had one true hit film to his credit, the 1969 caper comedy The Italian Job. After that, with the British film industry in difficulties he had travelled the world making films in Greece – You Can’t Win ‘em All (1970), Hollywood – A Man Called Noon and Spain – Open Season. He joined Towers just before production began, having left pre-production on a project titled “Nights of the Moulin Rouge” which appears to have never been made. Filming in Iran started in late December and seems to have taken around 3-4 weeks. The Iranian backers had requested that two of their popular stars be given roles, so a short sequence where two detectives stumble across the bodies was also filmed. Although mentioned in the press material, these cameos were excised from English language market prints. Several cast members then returned to Spain to film some interior shots and the film was then taken to Teddington Studios in Britain for post-production work, including the dubbing of Celi, Frobe, de Mendoza and Aznavour into English. They had spoken their lines in their natural languages during shooting, not fluent enough to have mastered the dialogue in English.

It must be mentioned that Oliver Reed has commented only that he did “a movie in Iran for the money”, which was to pay the upkeep on his large English estate, not even mentioning its title in his autobiography. Attenborough has stated that after having retired from acting he spent so long trying to finance his long-cherished Gandhi project (which he eventually directed in 1981) that he took what work he could find for the money. James Mason (originally cast) had relocated to Switzerland for tax reasons and although his biography does not mention his involvement in this film, that year he worked on four films in Europe which he’d described as ‘rubbish’, yet once again, he needed the money. These were harsh times for British actors, with little work available at home and high tax rates meaning they had to find work where they could. This explains why so many British actors and American tax exiles seemed to spend much of the 1960s-1970s jetting from one European co-production to another. Arthur Kennedy, an American character actor who managed a prolific career in Europe has said that he generally read only his part of the script for those films and seldom saw the finished product.

A scan of the actors’ credits reveals that after working with Towers, most of the cast worked predominantly in international genre co-productions for the rest of their careers. It would seem that having chosen such work, it was difficult to return to cinema with a distinct national flavour.

Murder on the Orient Express exceeded the expectations of all involved. Running for over a year in both Britain and the USA, it amassed a splendid $19 million in US rentals alone and a similar amount again internationally. Praised by critics, the film was nominated for six Academy Awards, with Ingrid Bergman winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance in the film.

Ten Little Indians opened late in 1974 in West Germany to “good” business and was rated as “popular” when it was released in Spain in December. Under the title of And Then There Were None (a late change as the pressbook still uses the original title), it was not released in the United States until August of 1975, (through Avco-Embassy, with Fox having passed) where it received unanimous negative reviews from the New York critics. It rose as high as eleventh on Variety’s Top 50 Box Office chart in its only week of wide release then quickly dropped away, grossing under a million dollars in the United States. Although it has been reported that the film never played theatrically in Britain, it was kept on the shelf for 16 months until it finally managed a solitary week in London in 1976 and was promptly withdrawn after a £1013 gross. There is no report of it playing provincially. Its poor British performance may be due to the fact it was distributed by EMI who had produced and distributed Murder on the Orient Express and did not want the rival film harming its business. There is also a theory that many of Towers films did not play in Britain due to his creditors there having the legal right to seize any returns from his films. France, the final official partner in the production, did not release the film until two years after it first screened in Europe.

Ten Little Indians has all the hallmarks that critics reviled of the international co-production: It rode on the coattails of a successful British/American production; it had performers chosen due to their passport rather then suitability for the role and a setting determined by investor demands. The film also is guilty of the most rank opportunism. Charles Aznavour, the first victim, is in the film for less then ten minutes and only has a couple of lines which are dubbed into English anyway, yet his one scene features him singing (in its entirety) his hit song “Dance the old fashion way”. The pressbook for Ten Little Indians even urges exhibitors to emphasise that point through radio and record store promotions. The film is also guilty of the criticism that such productions have their inspiration in antiquated and well-recycled narratives that lost their freshness early in the century. With such adherence to stock and stereotypes they ignore modern political realities and prefer to exist in a purely fictional temporal and spatial universe, one where the same narratives are repeated beyond exhaustion and invention and innovation are shunned in favour of formulae.

Rather than attempt to hide the fact, Towers’ film wore its international pedigree with pride. The American advertising stated it had an “international all star cast” and the pressbook contained several stories telling of the production and how various nations were ‘represented’ in the casting and how some performers were ‘obtained’ from countries, as if this was a film sanctioned by government.  Perhaps Charlton Heston closer to the truth then he knew when he had complained of Towers’ business practices amounting to ‘United Nations -style filmmaking’.

One can see the influences within the narrative. There is the obvious connection to the all-star casting aspect of Murder on the Orient Express (a film Ten Little Indians’ pressbook has no shame in continually referencing, even name-checking it on the film’s poster), yet this is an aspect both films share with the disaster movie cycle of the time. It has been theorized that audiences of the 1970s took great delight in watching luminaries of the screen being killed in gruesome ways. The advertising of Towers’ film also shares the ‘picture-box’ theme of several disaster movie posters in which the studio portraits of the cast are situated around the border, each identified by name. This method feeds the impression that it will be the performers we may pay to see die, rather then the characters they portry. But rather than a disaster movie, Ten Little Indians resembles an entry in the Italian giallo genre. One of the pioneers of that form of thriller, Mario Bava, has admitted that one of his films, Bay of Blood (1971) was inspired by the Christie story and that another, Five Dolls for an August Moon (1970) was a direct rip off. Ten Little Indians (1974) has a dour nature that is not evident in other versions of the story and, with its gloved hand seen dispatching victims, inventive manners of death and surprise revelation of the killer, it is clearly giallo-influenced. Cinematographer Fernando Arribas and composer Bruno Nicolai had previously worked on gialli, so their styles help in creating such an aesthetic. Yet it must be noted that of all the versions made of Ten Little Indians, not a single one has been filmed, or set, in England. With its lack of detective and misanthropic world-view, it does adhere to the European tradition of darker, rival variants of popular American and British culture. James Bond had Fantomas, Dr. No had Fu Manchu and John Wayne had ‘The Man with No Name’. With this theory in mind, Ten Little Indians is Christie’s anti-Murder on the Orient Express.

Note the Giallo-esque alterations to the advertising campaign

Note the Giallo-esque alterations to the advertising campaign

However, the most apt influence upon this international film is its own creation. With its financing and production methods Ten Little Indians manipulated the system to its fullest so it is only apt that the system is eulogized by the narrative. If the disaster influence valued stardom over character, then Towers’ film takes the theme a step further.

Ten Little Indians opens with a helicopter landing at a grand hotel in an unnamed country. Ten jet-lagged people step out and try to gain their bearings. Strangers to each other but with some acquainted by reputation, they have been invited there to a party by a mysterious host, ostensibly because he admires their professional capabilities. Instead, he wishes to sentence them for crimes they have committed (mostly) in the course of those very professions. There is no escape from the location and he kills them off, one by one, the only survivors being the two who he falsely accused.

One can read such a synopsis as a metaphor for the international film, perhaps this very film. Ten jetlagged actors arrive at a grand hotel in an unknown country, having been invited by a mysterious producer to participate in a film, believing it was their talents that have brought them there. The producer never appears, yet via the recorded voice of Orson Welles, who scoured the world for film work, he tells them they had each long sold out their integrity for financial gain. Their punishment will be to never escape the international film system, as represented by the hotel in the non-specific nation. They are destined to re-enact these roles, killed off for the audience’s delight, for the remainder of their careers. It is the two youngest stars who escape the punishment and they have the opportunity to return to careers with integrity and substance.

However, like so many co-productions, this is the imposed and unrealistic happy conclusion. Had Christie’s original ending remained then the truth would have been preserved, for there was no salvation for either Oliver Reed or Elke Sommer, both seldom found film work outside of international co-productions and their stars faded as the 1970s drew to a close. It is Attenborough who plays the judge and is revealed as Ten Little Indians‘ killer. Ironically, Attenborough  extricated himself from the international film roundabout and he barely acted again, realizing his dream of directing grand and respectable, middlebrow entertainments. The other members of the cast (and the director) spent their careers jetsetting from one unidentifiable country to the next and in that regard they never left the Shah Abbas hotel.

Ten Little Indians is a rare form of self-reflexive cinema, in that such self commentary is probably unintentional. Had the European co-production never existed, and had Harry Alan Towers and his ilk been restricted from practice then the film, as we see it today would be little more than a curio. Yet, it is impossible to see it existing anyway, had such productions and producers never occurred. It remains a film of a time, a place and a method and a film whose method creates its own time and a place.

As for Harry Alan Towers, well you can’t keep a cunning old rogue down. From Ten Little Indians he returned to his blue territory, producing efforts for Italo sleazers Joe D’Amato and Massimo Dallamano and failing to make much of a star of Annie Belle in the process. It was then back to the public domain classics for a while, raiding H. Rider Haggard, Jack London and H.G. Wells and giving work to Jack Palance, David McCallum and Rod Steiger while taking advantage of tax breaks in Canada and South Africa. More soft porn kept him busy in the 1980s along with forays into the sword n’ sandal epics that were briefly popular at the time (the Gor movies, for example). Michael Dudikoff was his star for a while and Towers took to buying up the fag-ends of spent series for Howling IV – The Original Nightmare (1988), American Ninja 3 (1989), Delta Force 3 – The Killing Game (1991) and a pair of Michael Caine Harry Palmer spy flicks – Bullet to Beijing (1995) and Midnight in St. Petersburg (1996). A slew of South African filmed Edgar Allan Poe adaptations from Towers gathered dust on video store shelves in the late 80s -early 90s, wringing whatever marquee value was left from Donald Pleasance, Oliver Reed and um, Ginger Lynn Allen.

But if you thought he was done with Christie well another decade, another Ten Little Indians. In 1989 he produced what was originally to be titled Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians, but was forced to abbreviate the title when the novelist’s estate complained. This time his then regular director Alan Birkinshaw took duties behind the camera and the cast included Brenda Vaccaro, Herbert Lom, Donald Pleasance and (yes!) Frank Stallone. Shot in South Africa it went directly to video in most territories.

Towers, now back in Britain having settled his legal difficulties is still in action today. For 2009 he has announced a version of Moll Flanders, with none other than Ken Russell as director. At 88 years of age there appears to be no stopping this great vagabond of the international co-production.

Harry, here’s to you.

September 30, 2008

Hotel Du Pud (part one): Harry Alan Towers and “Ten Little Indians” (1974)

by Dean Brandum

Following on from my post providing a brief history of the international co-production comes the first in a series turning the spotlight on the films tainted with this unsavoury brush. First up, the third version of Ten Little Indians (1974). Never even released on video in this country and long-unavailable on the tape format in either Britain or the United States, it has yet to appear anywhere on DVD (officially, at least) and remains a most difficult film to see. Having lingered (festered?) in my memory since a TV screening around 30 years ago, it became one of many films I have been determined to track down over the years in an obsession to place some order on the collected fragments cluttering my subconscious.

Original avertising admat for the film.

Original avertising admat for the film.

I finally found a copy and upon viewing Ten Little Indians, I was immediately gripped.  No, not for reasons artistic as it is an inept and shoddy production, lacking credibility and logic and devoid of even the most basic of thrills. Instead, the film captures most beautifully the entire euro-pudding movement, not only in its production method, but (no doubt unintentionally) as its own subtext.

“”Ten Little Indians,” the latest remake of the Agatha Christie story, looks less like a movie than a movie deal…an international movie mess of the sort that damages the reputations of everyone connected with it” – (Vincent Canby – New York Times)

Before we get to that we have to trace the history of this forgotten, minor landmark. It is a long tale – too long for one post. What I must do is introduce you to the inimitable Mr. Harry Alan Towers…

“I can step off a plane in any country in the world and within 24 hours have a film in pre-production” – Harry Alan Towers.

The son of a theatrical agent, Harry Alan Towers was born in London in 1920. By his early twenties Towers was becoming known to the public as a radio personality and within the industry as a producer of scripted dramatic series for that medium (many of which he wrote himself). By the age of thirty he had established offices in several countries (including Australia and the United States) distributing these series. His success in radio and ability to produce vast quantities of high quality programming saw him drafted into television by Lew Grade at the ATV network. Towers’ commission was to produce television programs with the same efficiency as his radio business and he accomplished the task with relish. Although he was creating strong profits for the network, Towers was asked to resign due to conflict of interest concerns. In what acts as an indicator of his future unorthodox business practices, Towers was asked to create a nightly chat show and given a substantial production budget, Towers decided to host the show himself, be thrifty with the other costs and keep the rest of the allocated budget for himself, as a hosting fee.

After a brief foray into feature film production with a pair of B-films produced by his Towers of London banner, in 1963 Harry Alan Towers was on the run and hiding out in South Africa. Two years earlier, he had skipped bail after being arrested in New York on the charge of running a call-girl ring. Naturally, that ruled out any return to the United States, but due to a number of previous deceitful dealings in his native Britain, his creditors were eagerly awaiting his arrival home, meaning setting up a production base in Britain was also out of the question.

Undaunted, Towers teamed up with Oliver A. Unger, a producer who had made his name and fortune in the 1950s – the early years of television syndication – most notably through purchasing old cartoons from the major studios, editing them into half-hour programs and selling the packages to television networks and individual stations. Hoping to extend into theatrical film production and distribution he hooked up with the experienced Towers in 1963 and they planned a number of projects that contained exciting action, colourful backdrops and could be cheaply filmed. With Towers’ showmanship, Unger’s U.S. experience and the conditional agreement of several fading screen stars willing to perform in these productions, they managed to sell the North American distribution rights to the Canadian based Seven Arts Pictures (this was the company that pounced upon the troubled Warner Brothers Corporation in 1967 when they bought out founder Jack Warner’s controlling interest. However, Warner Brothers-Seven Arts lasted a mere two years before a financially disastrous 1969 saw that Seven Arts stake bought out by the Kinney Corporation).

With the Seven Arts distribution deal in place and the resultant funds from the rights’ sale in pocket, by 1965 they had completed an impressive slate of six feature films which they unveiled in the market section of that year’s Cannes film festival. Operating under the banner of UPI (Unger Productions Incorporated) a full page advertisement in Variety immodestly announced that these were pictures of “Major Importance”. With no mention of Towers’ involvement whatsoever (Unger was listed as sole producer of each film) the suspicions of creditors and law enforcers either side of the Atlantic would not be raised.

Four of the titles were filmed in Africa. Mozambique was an adventure tale of diamond smugglers, 24 Hours to Kill fell into the espionage and intrigue genre that was highly popular in the wake of the successful James Bond franchise, Coast of Skeletons was a remake of the colonial drama Sanders of the River (1938) and Sandy the Seal hoped to capture the family audience. With the likes of Mickey Rooney, Steve Cochran, Dale Robertson and Richard Todd there was enough (fading) star wattage to fill out the lower half of double features in the English language markets. However the savvy Towers also peppered his cast with a number of actors popular in Germany, where Towers would later base many of his operations. The American sales had financed most of the productions but it was a silent partnership with the Munich-based Terra Filmkundst that completed the budgets. Their financing was conditional on the casting of German actors in each of the productions in order to increase their appeal in those markets. This accounts for the likes of Hildegarde Neff, Paul Hubschmid, Elga Anderson, Walter Slezak and Lex Barker in the films. The venture was a successful one with all of these titles having all territories sold by the end of the festival. However, although the rights to these titles were available individually, they were generally sold as a complete package at discounted rates when buyers paid the higher fees for the two gems in UPI’s slate – The Face of Fu Manchu and Ten Little Indians.

Towers had always known the value of a good story, especially one with an inbuilt audience familiarity. The Scarlet Pimpernel series was one of his early television productions and in the early 1970s he was to film versions of Black Beauty and White Fang. More recently he has produced Blood of the Mummy, a version of Phantom of the Opera and a series of Edgar Alan Poe adaptations. Apart from their marketability as known literary commodities, these properties were also public domain titles, meaning Towers did not have to pay screen rights to the authors, much less any later royalties. But the downside to this ploy was that these titles were overly familiar to audiences, having been filmed many times, both for the cinema and television. Towers needed exclusivity with some prize material so he purchased, for £25,000, the rights to a number of novelist Sax Rohmer’s books, including thirteen that featured Oriental criminal mastermind, Fu Manchu (although Towers also produced two films based on Rohmer’s less known other arch-villain, Sumuru).

The Face of Fu Manchu was the first of five Towers films to feature the character (played by Christopher Lee), with the first entries resembling Hammer Studios productions, but the final pair (as directed by Jess Franco in 1970) delving deeper into the territory of sleaze and sadism that would characterize many of Tower’s productions in the coming decade.

Ten Little Indians was the final film on UPI’s 1965 Cannes slate and the one with the most mainstream potential. Agatha Christie had written the novel Ten Little Niggers in 1939 and upon its release was hailed her masterwork and remained her personal favourite of all her writings. The novel tells the story of ten strangers who are invited to a weekend on ‘Indian Island’ as the guest of a Mr. and Mrs. U.N. Owen. Never having met their host the guests are under the impression they have been invited due to their fame and expertise in their various professions (judge, doctor, detective, entertainer etc).

Yet they never meet their host who only makes his presence felt via a gramophone recording in which he accuses each of the guests of being guilty of a serious crime (each involving the death of innocents) for which they have (so far) gone unpunished. Furious at the allegations but unable to leave the island, the guests endure a horror evening in which their party is reduced in number as one by one they are victims of an unseen killer. Central to the décor of the dining room is an ornate piece of china depicting ten Indians and with each death one is mysteriously broken from the display. The children’s nursery rhyme (from which the novel takes its title) in framed in each room, which each line seemingly foretelling the circumstances of each of the guests’ deaths. The invited party (who have admitted their guilt for the crimes of which they were accused) soon realize that, having searched the house and its grounds in vain,   Mr. U.N. Owen does not exist and the killer is indeed one of them, implementing this elaborate plan in order to fulfill his or her insane scheme of social justice. Suspicions are raised and tempers flare but the killings continue. Eventually Vera Claythorne kills the last suspect, her love interest Phillip Lombard. She appears to be the only survivor but the judge – already believed killed – reappears to admit he is the mastermind of the scheme. Stating he is terminally ill, he drinks poison, leaving Vera alone with a noose hanging from the ceiling. Realising that the police will believe her the killer and seeing no way out of her predicament, she hangs herself – the final piece of the judge’s plan now complete and following the exact last lines of the nursery rhyme:

One little Indian left alone alone.

He went and  hanged himself

And then there were none.

Ten Little Niggers differs from many of Christie’s more celebrated work in that it does not feature a sleuth (professional or amateur) solving the crime and detecting the identity of the villain. Yet it still remains a archetypal example of classical British crime fiction. Featuring prototypical aristocratic and upper-middle class gentlemen and ladies hiding dark pasts of violence and improper behavior, the plot convolutions throw up numerous red herrings until the dénouement unmasks the real criminal, an unexpected character with a once seemingly foolproof alibi. With its settings rarely straying from the confines of the mansion (a subsidiary character itself), Ten Little Niggers conforms to the ‘drawing room’ characteristic of the form, as does its preoccupation with manners and conduct (un)becoming.

The novel may have been a hit in Britain but its title caused obvious discomfort American publishers. She agreed for it to be released there as And Then There Were None and subsequent edition in Britain and the Commonwealth were retitled Ten Little Indians. Christie also had the problem that the novel’s downbeat conclusion proved problematic for adaptations into other media. Christie herself rectified the situation by writing a version for the stage, with a reworked ending that had not only Vera and Lombard surviving, but actually innocent of their supposed crimes. The judge was not as infallible as he (and the audience) believed, realizing the last act of his grand plan was in ruins only after he had sipped his fatal drop of poison. Certainly this adhered to the most popular aspect of melodrama in which villainy is quashed in the final moments by the virtuous, restoring a moral order to the universe and offering a catharsis for the audience (with the promise of a romantic future thrown in for good measure). However, it could be argued that for those with a more cynical bent, the original narrative restored its own order, with the judge’s virtue and sense of righteousness (albeit with a brutal bluntness) righting the moral unbalance that social norms have been unable to correct. For the needs of a potentially wide audience though, the proposal that society’s conventions of law and justice are inherently flawed was a notion too impalpable to contemplate.

Christie was correct. Her stage adaptation opened in November 1943 to capacity crowds London and replicated that success in New York the following year. The film industry was immediately interested and independent producer Leo V. Popkin purchased the screen rights from Christie and the resultant 20th Century Fox production marked the first time a Christie property had been filmed by Hollywood (five previous Christie works had been filmed in her native Britain and another in Germany). Directed by Frenchman Rene Clair with celebrated screenwriter Dudley Nicholls opening it up for the cinematic approach, And Then There Were None was cast with a gallery of fine character actors including the likes of Barry Fitzgerald, Walter Huston, Louis Hayward, C. Aubrey Smith and Dame Judith Anderson. Released in 1947 the film was expectedly acclaimed as an outstanding mystery-thriller but was tellingly praised for its casting, period atmosphere, stylish design and musical score – the hallmarks of a well budgeted studio system production of the day. It is the care (or lack thereof) taken with the material that would mark the versions filmed by Harry Alan Towers in the decades to come.

Towers’ purchased the screen rights from Harry M. Popkin in the early 1960s, with Popkin believing that the story’s surprise ending was too well-known by audiences for another film version to succeed. However, although he sold the property for a low sum he took a production credit on the film and a cut of any profits as part of the deal. The reason Towers was interested in the material was due to the success MGM had enjoyed with a series of Miss Marple adaptations filmed at their Borehamwood Studios in Britain. Starring the inimitable Margaret Rutherford as the amateur village sleuth, dotted with a cast of eccentric English stereotypes and a bright comedic sensibility, these inexpensive productions were very popular as mainstream releases in Britain and on the American arthouse circuit. However, after four films in as many years MGM discontinued the series as they were hoping for more than a cult following in the United States. MGM owned the rights to a large proportion of Christie’s other work, except for those stories that featured Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. A notoriously difficult person to deal with, Towers never considered negotiating for her unsold stories and instead sought out this one, already purchased property. In order to replicate the feel of the MGM Marple films he hired George Pollock, the director of that series to film his version of Ten Little Indians and filled the cast with a number of well-known English Character actors such as Leo Genn, Stanley Holloway, Dennis Price and Wilfred Hyde-White. The leads were Shirley Eaton who had memorably been a victim of ‘Goldfinger’ in the James Bond film of 1964 and the imported American actor Hugh O’Brian who had starred as television’s Wyatt Earp for six successful seasons and was now attempting a career as a leading man in the cinema. As with the rest of the Terra Filmkundst financed films, three roles were given to German actors – Daliah Lavi, Mario Adorf and Marianne Hoppe which also enabled the film to be eligible for German subsidies and tax concessions.  Finally, in casting calculated for the youth market, American pop singer Fabian played the first of the murder victims.

Set in a Scandinavian chateau, but filmed at one of Ireland’s stately homes (some footage shot in the Austrian mountains was spliced in for establishing shots), the 1965 version of Ten Little Indians was one of several British-German co-productions during the 1960s. Apart from the German subsidies available to Towers (via his ‘Tenlit’ company, established just for this film and delisted shortly afterwards) the film’s quotient of British talent allowed it to be eligible to take advantage of the Eady Levy. Instigated in 1949, this was a tax placed on all cinema tickets sold in Britain for foreign films. The pooled revenue was then shared amongst the British films screened that year, proportional to their box office (a percentage also went to the National Film Finance Corporation and the Children’s Film Foundation). The more a British film earned, the more it could claim. This fund rewarded successful films and promoted further filmmaking ventures. However, not matter how well intentioned, the system was ripe for exploitation. American films shot in British studios were often eligible, no matter if that was the extent of their ‘Britishness’. In the late 1970s the worst abuse of the system occurred when distributors of the American blockbuster Grease purchased a £25,000 20 minute British short film about skateboarding and paired it on programs with Travolta musical. This provided enough British content for not only Grease being able to avoid paying the Eady Levy, but qualifying for £200,000 of the Eady share and virtually draining the pool in a very quiet year for the British film industry. The system was finally abandoned in 1985 in favour subsidies granted on individual proposals.

When it played it cinemas during 1965, Ten Little Indians was targeted towards a youth audience. Taking a cue from American producer-director William Castle who marketed his films with various gimmicks, Towers included a 60-second ‘Fright Break’. This entailed the screen turning black shortly before the dénouement and a narrator explaining to the audience they have one minute to guess the twist ending. Each murder is replayed on screen as a clock ticks by in the corner. The minute over, the film resumes. Receiving mixed reviews but healthy boxoffice, the major release of UPI’s slate was its most successful. Towers and Unger parted ways and the Englishman entered the second period of his international co-production, known as his ‘blue phase’, teaming with Spanish director Jess Francofor a series of sex and sadism shockers aimed at the growing adult film market.

After Eugenie…The Story of Her Journey into Perversion (1970), Harry Alan Towers realised that the darker environs of the sadistic sex film were losing their boxoffice appeal as they became increasingly ghettoised into grind-house cinemas and smaller drive-in chains. He and Jess Franco parted ways, with the Spanish director happily prospering in that field for several further decades.  In late 1969 Towers arrived in London trying to gain financial backing for a version of Anne Sewell’s “Black Beauty”. Unfortunately he arrived too late. A couple of years earlier the British-based Hollywood companies would have shown strong interest in a children’s film set in the English countryside but as the decade closed they were moving their investments out of Britain. With the respectable production companies interested in neither Towers nor the oft-filmed story, he found unlikely backing through Tigon, a company associated with low budget horror and erotic films. They had previously distributed his Sandy the Seal and were intrigued by the idea of a foray into the family market. Tigon supplied part of the budget and Towers spent the next few months raising the rest of the funds in Spain and Germany. Shot in Ireland and Spain and featuring the usual assortment of international stars, Black Beauty (1970: James Hill) was well received by critics but failed to make much of an impression with audiences. Undeterred (and having made a nice personal profit from presales), he embarked on a series of further family films, each based on established, public domain, classics.

Although the Spanish-French-Italian White Fang (1973: Lucio Fulci) was a well-reviewed success, two other productions were beset by difficulties. Treasure Island (1972: John Hough) starring Orson Welles as Long John Silver and using the star’s own, pseudonymous screenplay (with other names also attached for the purpose of national contribution) ran short on finances and filming was shut down on several occasions. Tower’s showmanship had lured Charlton Heston to star in Call of the Wild (1972: Ken Annakin) but the star detested the experience, describing Towers as ‘shadowy’ and ‘untrustworthy’. Once again finances did not flow smoothly and Heston has said that working with a West German, French, Italian and Spanish crew was just like ‘the United Nations’ with lots of yelling, no-one understanding each other and nothing getting done. Heston was so incensed at the quality of the finished product that he persuaded Paramount, who owned the U.S. distribution rights, to not release the film. It eventually received a few brief screenings in 1975, after it was on-sold by Paramount to the exploitation distributor Intercontinental Releasing Corporation for a pittance. Costly and requiring much arduous location work for a market offering only slim returns, Towers never truly conquered the family film market. In 1973 he was looking for a new opportunity the on that would arise was a return to an old success, but relaunched with a decade of new skills acquired on in the fierce market of international film finance.

And now, an intermission….

September 16, 2008

Pan(ned) Atlantic – The dreaded international co-production.

by Dean Brandum

To any self-respecting, serious film-buff, the term ‘international co-production’ is cause for instant derision and immediate dismissal. Conjuring up memories of turgid and incomprehensible narratives set in far-flung corners of the earth and populated with a gallery of disinterested, fading performers delivering depressingly dreadful dialouge. Once a staple of 1960s-1970s cinema (and later filling many a late night TV schedule), such Europuddings are still concocted, but their multi-national pedigrees are somewhat better disguised.  Indeed, if you follow the production histories of many recent Hollywood blockbusters you will find they are a complex web of financial necessities are considerations, with input from a consortium of international backers. Tax concessions, currency exchange rates, available production facilities, appeal to foreign markets are all woven into the getting a film off the ground. Today’s international co-production may appear more seamless than those earlier forays into a true, global cinema, yet such smoothing of the edges has robbed the mode of its jet-setting soul.

There is little love lost for the original euro-pudding (or ‘runaway production’ as the trade more kindly described it), however, in a regular series, I would like to delve into this rather forgotten past and pay some tribute to the films, their makers and how (and why) they came into being.

For those unfamiliar and those just trying to forget, perhaps a very brief and potted explanation is in order…

“In the age of political integration, co-productions are inevitable and necessary. Indeed, they provide the only strategy to boost the cinema economically and to secure a film’s success at the boxoffice. Worries that artistic input might suffer in purely economic considerations might be justified. But much more important is to find the foundations for workable joint productions with any country in the world which is willing to co-operate…” – Horst Axtmann in 1967

Following the Second World War the European Cinema was in a state of crisis. Individual nations were deep in debt, talent had been decimated and infrastructure destroyed. Assistance to the European countries from the United States arrived swiftly to both wartime allies and enemies in the form of loans and rebuilding programs. A number of American films also arrived on the continent, provided free for educational, inspirational and entertainment purposes.

During the war, Hollywood lost its once lucrative European markets. Apart from Britain, the studios were only importing (and deriving income from) the British Empire, Latin America and a handful of neutral countries of negligible value. With a number of markets now again available, the studios leapt into the void created by the war and the dearth of local product by flooding European cinemas with the backlog of films accumulated over several years. The American industry was also aided by the loss, during the war period, of the many practices such as quotas and tariffs imposed by governments that had restricted the import of foreign (especially American) films. With the approval by the US government for a legal cartel formed by the studios to enhance export opportunities, these factors allowed for a concerted effort by Hollywood to gain a position of power in a vulnerable European film market. That it was detrimental to the European industries was an inevitable consequence.

Yet, the European nations fought back. Apart from the damage to European industry and culture, the American studios were draining currency from desperately poor nations with little tangible in return. Restrictions on film imports were implemented and, in an attempt to stem the currency loss, new regulations were imposed whereby the American companies could only use such funds (or percentages of them) if they were used for purposes of production or investment within the European countries. In 1946 Italy and France signed an ‘experimental’ co-production agreement, ratifying it in 1949. Of the many bi-lateral and more expansive agreements made in the decade after the war, this was the most successful, producing over 230 films by 1957. Germany signed with France in 1951, France with Argentina and Spain in 1953, then with Yugoslavia and Austria two years later. Eventually nearly all of the filmmaking countries (including smaller nations such as Holland, Hungary, Sweden and Denmark) of Europe had passed agreements, often with overlap. Each of these agreements had a complex set of criteria for each participating company to fulfil in order that the production met the requirements of national representation within the pact. This process was often tied in with government initiatives that supported film production, such as subsidies and tax rebates. Various categories were established (often markedly different over each agreement) in which the percentage of investment could be evaluated. This would determine such details as how many performers and crew would be required from that country and, how many scenes would need to be shot there. Indeed, in many cases, having a compatriot fulfil a certain high profile position, such as director, would be regarded highly by the regulators at the expense of some other, otherwise mandatory, requirements.

When quantified in numbers of pure production, the co-production method was highly successful. Between 1949-1964 there were 1091 films made involving at least two national partners. Mostly genre films, the filmmakers adapted quickly to ever-changing market tastes. In the process some genres such as the German ‘Heimatfilme’ (domestic melodramas of the ‘homeland’) which were very popular in the 1950s had vanished by the end of the decade. Action became the key ingredient of the co-production, a selling point that appealed to audiences across all national boundaries. The concentration of spectacle also alleviated the reliance upon dialogue, relegating it to general conversation and exposition. This also strengthened the films’ claims to being truly pan-European, with post-synchronising (dubbing) of the soundtrack made easier. Importantly, action-based genre films, especially those featuring Europe’s most cinematic natural and urban landscapes, could be exported outside of the continent, including to the lucrative US market. Although not within the scope of this discussion, it must be noted that many well received films that played well in the international arthouse market were the product of co-production details. Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard (1963) was an Italian-French co-production, as was Francois Truffaut’s Day for Night (1973). Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900 (1976) was financed through Italian, German, French and American partners. The system did allow an auteur-cinema to flourish, as long as the directors were willing to bend to certain pan-national conditions.

Hollywood was suffering its own crises at home during this period. Forced to divest itself of its theatre chains they also faced a post-war slump in the audiences who were now finding their entertainment in other sources, especially television. The various measures set up in Europe to negate a perceived attempt at American domination actually proved a blessing in disguise for the Hollywood studios. After attempting a number of underhanded schemes to access boxoffice funds frozen on the continent, the studios finally relented and began investing in European films. Believing that spectacle would lure audiences back to cinemas, they found Europe offered the scenery required for such exotic epics and that production crews were not only capable but comparatively inexpensive. For a time the giant Cinecitta studios in Rome were known as ‘Hollywood on the Tiber’ due to the number of what would be referred to as ‘runaway’ American productions shooting there. The Hollywood studios also carefully met any requirement for such films to be declared ‘French’, ‘Italian’, ‘British’ or wherever they were shooting in order to receive the due government inducements such as tax minimisations and subsidies offered by that particular country. Although Britain was reluctant to join any pan-European co-production agreements, they also benefited from American involvement, with Hollywood investment paving the way for a number of successful films in the 1960s that were ostensibly British but backed with American finance. In fact, American involvement was so important in Britain that when it was withdrawn late in that decade the British industry ground to a halt, subsisting through much of the 1970s on low budget exploitation product. The success of European genre films in the 1960s also allowed for a number of small distributors in the United States to expand rapidly by importing these films at low cost to an appreciative American youth market, who had become the most important audience for the Hollywood studios. A company such as AIP made a fortune by cheaply acquiring the distribution rights to Goliath and the Barbarians (1959: Carlo Campogallianni) and after similar successes then began financing European productions.

Even within the confines of the action genre the co-produced film would move through various cycles and forms, mimicking successful Hollywood hits or even finding variations on their own profitable formulas. From peplums to gothic thrillers, westerns to detective thrillers, espionage adventures to softcore pornography, it became a business of gambles and speculations, whether a producer could jump aboard a particular genre when it was popular with audiences and if they knew it was time to move on before the audience tired of that particular formula.

From the early 1960s, there was a surge in the number of films co-produced by companies in two or more countries, particularly within Europe. Although their initial aim was for Continental success, many found their way to the United States, often through the distribution arms of the major Hollywood studios, who found them to be ideal product for cheaply buffering their release schedules. The derision for the international co-production from critics in the United States and Britain stemmed from a number of factors. A New York Times review of The Viscount (1970: Maurice Cloche), a West German-French-Spanish co-produced espionage thriller partly set in the USA was typical in relaying several of the prejudices which could be expressed in a short-hand fashion in many reviews for such productions:

“[The Viscount] pretends to the title and the class of a high-born Bond-type picture and all it is is a low-grade gangster film-so low that it thinks Jersey City was the height of elegance as a center of crime in years gone by. Charge that up to the fact that it is one of those European sausage films – ground out by a group of co-producers representing West Germany, France and Spain-and you know what usually happens when the Europeans try to show how wise they are about America….it is the sort of picture they’d be strongly inclined to brush under the rug in Hollywood-or quickly sell to television for burial on the late night shows.” (Crowther).

Within this review is the belief that the film is attempting to defraud the audience, by modeling itself on a genre created, refined and perfected by British and American filmmakers (in this case, the high-class spy thriller). It tries to present a familiarity with the American milieu, yet its background reveals it an imposter in Hollywood guise. The reviewer displays a possible xenophobic streak in his distrust of European comment of American issues (and seems to feel that the newspaper’s readership agrees). The film’s international pedigree is described in a manner that implies financial considerations over artistic ambition (referring to producers rather than a director), with no singular national vision. That it was ‘ground out’ demeans the film as a low-grade factory created product, but one without any class, skill or even pretence to art. The inclusion of “one of those” indicates a pre-supposed knowledge on behalf of the readership in that that they are well-aware of this type of film and its inherent traits. Finally, in a direct comparison with Hollywood product, The Viscount is assessed as being so inferior as to being worthy of the then lowest and last rung of mainstream exhibition – late night television.

Yet, for all the invective they suffered, the internationally co-produced genre film flourished for many years, particularly in Europe and through various channels still found distribution in English language markets.

Even when the budgets were substantial and the aims highbrow, the critics rarely let up –

The Red Tent (1969: Mikhail K. Kalatozov), an Italian-Soviet aviation drama featuring a cast of mixed nationalities including Sean Connery, Claudia Cardinale and Hardy Kruger “Soon succumbs to that spectre of modern movie-making, International Co-Production….one is left with a niggling doubt about the wisdom of spreading creative co-operation over so many boundaries” – Monthly Film Bulletin.

Such critical invective may be explained by the refusal to accept the notion of a trans-national cinema. This stubborn attitude was borne of a belief in the inherent ‘purity’ of a singular national voice which – through the work of a filmmaking collective from that particular country – will impart a sincere representation of the issues, concerns and art of that nation and its people. The by-product of a transnational cinema which utilizes cast, crew, finances and locations from several nations is an inevitable dilution of such a voice. The transnational film it was believed, was one created by filmmakers thrown together for funding purposes rather than any true desire to work together, creating a narrative with the intent of appealing to as many nationalities as possible and in the process, thought many critics, pleasing very few. These were the sentiments of Sidney Cole in 1962. Within his concerns for the future of European film was an anxiety for the future of his own industry. As founder of the British Film Technicians Union, he feared that, in order to compete with a flourishing pan-European market, Britain film companies would be forced to integrate, losing their cultural identity in the process.

Cole had other things to worry about – namely Hollywood pulling up stumps by the end of the decade and leaving the British industry in ruins, taking nearly two decades to return to a near-viable concern. In that time, Hollywood reconsolidated its position as of world dominance and, streamlining their release slates, fewer overtly international co-productions were included in their schedules. Instead, the major studios adapted the mode to their own benefit – securing their own international finance, taking advantage of available concessions, shooting where cheapest and, with varying degrees of discretion, slotting international stars into their casts, for maximum global boxoffice potential.

The true euro-pudding was left to the continental market and when they found American distribution, it was generally in the lower tiers of the art and grind markets, eventually ghettoing in films direct to video or the wasteland of cable television. Oh yes, in these single continental currency days the highbrow euro-pudding is still around and can be found on display at various notable festivals. Check out The Barber of Siberia (1998: Nikita Mikhalkov), Vatel (2000: Roland Joffe) and Luther (2003: Eric Till). The bewildering world of pre-sales usually ensures the films make profits, even if few actually perform well at the box office.

Films seemingly from nowhere, trying to appeal to as wide an audience as possible by pleasing few in the process. Yet there are pleasures to be found as I hope this ongoing series of Europudding pieces will illustrate.

September 14, 2008

Bricked Vermeer: Subversive Frames and Fulci’s “Sette Note in Nero” (1977)

Note: The post that was once here has now been refereed and can be found as the essay “Subversive Frames: Vermeer and Lucio Fulci’s Sette note in nero” at Refractory: A Journal of Entertainment Media (Issue 17, 2010).

September 5, 2008

Life in the Old Girl Yet: ‘Carrie’ (1976) and the Unbearable Lightness of De Palma Bashing

by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Crudely boiled down to the barest of narrative and thematic bones, horror more often than not is predicated upon a world of villains – Michael Myers, Freddy Kruger, Jason Voorhees – and, in turn, the heroes who fight them to restore order. Even when delineations are not that clear cut, it still often exhibits (and may be  defined through) a perverse delight in manipulating and challenging the binaries of ‘good’ versus ‘evil’ for its own macabre, sometimes even subversive, purposes. For its critical history alone, it is on these terms that director Brian De Palma’s 1976 film Carrie is of some note. Neatly fitting into this binary system, responses to Carrie can be divided into two schools. The film’s brazen technical excesses and references to Alfred Hitchcock are considered by some critics to be the films greatest virtues, while for others these same elements are Carrie‘s downfall and reveal De Palma as naught more than an artless hack. Even more violently opposed are the many critics that have taken part in the most heated debate concerning the film (and “De Palma studies” in general): is he a misogynist? The debate has reached the point of such repetition that over 30 years after its release, the question itself is problematic if only by virtue of its overwhelming dominance of critical treatment of the film. But not all criticism has entered into the invitingly Manichean world that horror frequently encourages. Despite the bulk of material to the contrary, there still appears to be critical life for Carrie outside of the traditional hackneyed debates.

To suggest that De Palma’s technical style – in Carrie at least – is anything less than overt would not only be untrue, it misses De Palma’s painstaking (although perhaps zeitgeist-drunk) formal construction of the film. Critics have employed startlingly polarised language in response to these stylistic issues, Richard Combs embarking upon the clearest mode of attack when he accuses De Palma of “leading his audience on with the gushy lyricism of a shampoo commercial before kicking them in the pants with the knife-wielding hysterics of the crudest Hammer horror” (1977: 4). Serafina Kent Bathrick is equally hostile, employing terms such as “fatuous”, “overstuffed” and “flashy”, describing the prom scene sequence as “the ultimate-moment of self-congratulation”. Eye-of-the-beholder critical evaluations come to the fore, however, when this same sequence is described by David Rosen as “De Palma’s stylistic high point” (38: 1977), and that the film’s excessive style is, as a whole, “lush” (37). Those who defend the films excesses do so by crediting the very significance of that excess: “Carrie…experiences everything with excessive intensity, and the film takes its purply style from her feelings”, says David Pirie (22: 1977), while for Kenneth MacKinnon, the issues are one of authorship; “De Palma’s announcement of his hand in the organisation and execution of the film may be resented by the spectator wishing to stay lodged in the security normally available to the viewer of dominant cinema” (132: 1990).

Then there’s the old “Hitchcock Knock-off” chestnut. Pirie describes Carrie‘s shower scene as “an odd and fruitful progression from De Palma’s acknowledged mentor” (22), while Rosen notes a shared thematic concern between the two directors, suggesting De Palma “quite effectively exploits [shared themes]…satirizing them with a menacing Hitchcockian touch” (37). Robin Wood and Keith Ulhich dismiss accusations of plagiarism as ultimately irrelevant, Wood suggesting a high-brow hypocrisy active within this claims core: “When De Palma works his variations of Psycho (1960), this is imitation or plagiarism, whereas when Bob Fosse or Woody Allen imitates Fellini or Bergman this is somehow, mysteriously, evidence of his originality” (125: 2003). Ulhich is more diplomatic; “I like to view [it]…as a conversation between two filmmakers – one who has been absorbed into history and memory, and another who uses certain of the elder filmmaker’s techniques and themes as a prism through which he filters his own sensibilities”. On the flip side, we find Bathrick’s attack encased in a continuing tone of dismissive indirectness; “Carrie is a senior at Bates (ugh) High” (Bathrick), the style of Carrie’s house is “another clunky comment on Norman Bates’…more massive mausoleum”. Shelley Stamp Lindsay gives her concerns about the connection between the two directors a somewhat more serious tone, suggesting that De Palma’s attempts to mimic Hitchcock fundamentally fail on an ideological level. Again referencing Carrie‘s shower scene; “Violence and sexuality are further confused in this sequence through overt parallels to Psycho‘s shower scene … whereas the violence in Psycho is split between victim and attacker, between Marion and Norman Bates, here no such division exists” (282: 1996).

It is these ideological concerns that dominate discussion about Carrie. Bathrick’s attack on the film is not alone in its fundamental claims that De Palma “has developed his own brand of sexism”. She claims, “there is an urgency in his desire to prove the impossibility of community amongst women”, and that ultimately, “like all the women in the film…[Carrie] is punished for being a woman”. Lindsay shares a similarly negative view of the film in terms of its gender politics; “In charting Carrie’s path to mature womanhood, the film presents female sexuality as monstrous and constructs femininity as a subject position impossible to occupy” (281). Barbara Creed focused on this notion in The Monstrous-Feminine, approaching Carrie as, you guessed it, an example of the monstrous-feminine; “a particularly interesting representation of woman as witch and menstrual monster” (77: 1993) (with no Ginger Snaps around to take the now gratingly orthodox critical “flogging a menstrual horror horse”, many critics of this era had to make do with Carrie to fit the bill). Michelle Citron’s comparison of Carrie to The Marathon Man (1976) is also based on the connection between Carrie’s introduction to biological womanhood with her supernatural abilities; “To be a man is to become moral and courageous, to rise up victorious out of the evil of the world. To be a woman is to become that evil: uncontrolled and destructive” (1977). Michael Bliss shares this belief that Carrie’s telekinesis that “first manifests itself along with ‘the curse’ suggests that the power itself is a curse, a view supported by the film’s subsequent events” (53: 1983). For these two events – the onset of her first period and the awakening of her supernatural powers – to be fundamentally linked to De Palma’s misogyny is, again, dependent upon the critics subjective intent. De Palma himself defends the depiction of Carries’ “out of control” body simply: “I wanted to use it as an extension of her emotions”.

Misogyny arguments are primarily based on the assumption that because it is Carrie’s supernatural abilities that ultimately are a destructive force, it is this relationship between the onset of menstruation and those telekinetic powers that indicate that her womanhood is also a destructive force. But as Bruce Babington radically points out, the film never indicates that her telekinesis – and by association, her womanhood (gained through menstruation) – is a negative force as such in its own right. In fact, this is where the power of the film lies: our fundamental positioning as spectators with Carrie. The simplistic reading of her classmates violent attack in the opening shower scene where “period=abject/bad/ evil” are challenged by Babbington. The attack, he claims, stems from a larger social awkwardness at their own femaleness “their own self-hatred, of their own unconscious, culturally-developed fear of the female in themselves” (11). Their attack on Carrie is an attack on their own discomfort with their own response to their socially taboo menstruation. But to suggest that by virtue of exposing the other girls’ socially-conditioned and aggressive discomfort with their own menstruation, De Palma is himself responsible for creating the patriarchal attitudes that are responsible for such a phenomenon seems quite a leap, but one that is made by many of his detractors. This is the similar kind of rhetoric that surrounds much writing on rape-revenge film: does even the depiction of rape as a violent itself count as a symbolic act of violence , or is there a way that, by showing the horror of rape, some kind of message or lesson can be imparted? Does this act of “showing” in effect neutralise intent?

A further complication in the misogyny debate is from Carol J. Clover, who uses the film as an example of her notion of cross-gender identification in the horror genre. “With its prom queens, menstrual periods, tampons, worries about clothes and makeup, Carrie would seem on the face of it the most feminine of stories” (3: 1993). But, she argues, this is clearly not the case: ‘If Carrie, whose story begins and ends with menstrual imagery and seems in general so painfully girlish… and if her target audience is any high school boy who has been pantsed or had his glasses messed with, then we are truly in a universe in which the sex of a character is no object” (20).

What is unendingly fascinating is the very insistence of so many critics to take such extreme, polarised positions within the misogyny and style debates themselves. This raises significant questions about the critical landscape upon which De Palma criticism takes place. It could be argued that critics have followed habit when attempting to read Carrie on the plane of polarised heroes and villains that the horror genre so frequently evokes, but in the process ironically reducing critical debates on Carrie to one that mirrors the very same divisions: De Palma is a villain/ De Palma is a hero. What is more curious is the often-blatant disregard for evidence provided by the film itself to support or deny these claims. As Babbington points out, “in order to sustain the views that Carrie is misogynistic and incoherent, it is necessary to cut off discussion that might be embarrassing” (16). Babbington offers the example of the minor but significant character Frieda – her position is vital, but he is the only critic I have found who even mentions her. And for Bliss to comment on what he describes as “the polarized world of Carrie, in which a Manichean struggle continually exists between good and evil” (15), he relies upon a deeply concerning dismissal of the many debates concerning the moral classification of characters such as Sue and Miss Collins.

There are alternate ways of reading Carrie: these either/or readings are not the only positions possible. William Paul’s examination of the film in his brilliant book Laughing, Screaming takes the dominant binaries of the horror film into account in his reading to dramatically enlightening effect, taking the daring step towards a moral reading of the film and stepping away from the done-and-re-done debates of mysoginy and Hitchcockism. He’s worth quoting at length:

Horror films generally operate in a Manichean universe to the extent that the monstrous and the human inscribe a world of polar opposites. Carrie seems to take over the Manichaeism of the horror film, but it ultimately challenges it as well… Carrie offers a radical shift by invoking this familiar opposition in order to collapse it. The human and the monstrous are not polar states in this film precisely because the human is the monstrous (366) … Carrie earns a sympathy that seems to confuse our willingness to designate her as monstrous. Yet since the film does finally insist on her monstrousness, it invokes a scheme of opposing monsters only to collapse it as much as it collapses its other oppositions. (367: 1994)

Paul’s book – amongst other things – is the closest to attempt what Vivian Sobchack invites in a footnote to her seminal essay, “Bringing It All Back Home: Family Economy and Generic Exchange” (1987), noting that critical attention needs to be given to connections between horror films like Carrie and “the contemporary teen revenge comedy” such as Revenge Of The Nerds (1984). Sobchack’s article also refuses to participate in the traditionally dominant either/or debates around Carrie, locating the film as a significant example in her analysis of the “problem child” figure in horror and other genres. And curiously, despite being referenced by both Creed and Lindsay in their positions on Carrie as fundamentally misogynistic, Sobchack has little interest in gender in regards to De Palma’s work, and instead weighs Carrie up against the far more problematic male protagonist in De Palma’s following film The Fury (1978).

Other interesting readings of Carrie do exist even if they hold less immediate appeal than the ready-made positions provided by traditional De Palma debates concerning style (Hitchcock!) and gender (pig!). Pauline Kael reads the film as “a satiric homage to exploitation film” (211: 1981), while MacKinnon views it as “a satire on fundamentalism” (136). Rosen agrees (39) also widening his critical scope to include in its thematic concerns “some very real and recognisable horrors of contemporary American life, chiefly and centrally the trauma of female adolescence when subjected to the… terrors of the anxiously conformist ambience of high school” (37). Dmetri Kakmi‘s analysis of the film is noteworthy if only for its refreshing absence of any reference to Hitchcock at all, replacing it instead with comparisons to everything from William Blake to Jean-August Dominique Ingres to Hieronymus Bosch. While these arguments may be debated in their own right, their very value stems from their refusal to enter into the more pedestrian misogyny/Hitchcock debates. And there are still areas as yet untouched – while virtually all critics comment in one way or another is to the sympathetic character of Carrie, not enough attention has been given to the powerful and specific role of pathos in the film.

Few other directors so immediately polarise opinion like Brian De Palma, and a history of the critical treatment of Carrie suggests that this film is no exception. But regardless of your take on the film – even if just on an initial subjective, gut level – it seems only fitting that this film, so intent on collapsing the binary framework of heroes/villains and good/evil, has even critics themselves caught up in the inviting honeytrap of the Manichean in horror.

August 13, 2008

Abby Ho’ed: William Girdler’s ‘Abby’ (1974)

by Dean Brandum

It would have been at least 25 years ago that I became aware of Abby. I purchased a set of lobby cards for the film (for $4, if memory serves me correctly). In garish green monotone, the ghoulish font and lurid images promised a low-budget exploitation extravaganza, a blaxploitation version of The Exorcist just as willing to trade on exploitable elements but without the Blatty-Friedkin veneer of respectable seriousness. At the time my only recourse for actually seeing the film was the hope that it turned up on late night television or found a repertory cinema slot. Neither eventuated and nor did it appear on the shelves of the newly-emerging video stores that were springing up across town like mushrooms after a spring rain.

Times changed and so did I. My movie tastes moved elsewhere and mostly away from the horror and trash obsessions of my youth. However I did keep abreast of those genres and fixations of yore through various magazines and the occasional bootleg purchase and when I finally connected to the internet I would pass an odd glance at websites devoted to such matters with the enthusiasm that I would once muster for a combination of monsters and afros.

It was only when I was making some completely unrelated purchases recently that I stumbled across Abby in the bootlegger’s listings and so, with a nostalgic chuckle, I added it to the order. What I once considered a holy grail was now relegated to making up the numbers, a scruffy deviant inexplicably sharing company with a proud range of noted cinema classics.

When I finally got around to watching Abby recently, it was not the experience I had long expected and, I’m pleased to say, that was a good thing.

Released by AIP, Abby’s narrative happily works the side of its distributor’s street. A youthful community is thrown into turmoil when a mythical evil is unleashed. A particular innocent young thing is targeted and must be saved from corruption. After conventional methods prove fruitless, it is the obscure and ancient tracts that are applied and in a violent finale, the evil is vanquished and the soul saved. From various Blaculas, Yorgas, Deathmasters and so forth, it was a popular company model at the time.

In this case the evil is none other than Eshu, African deity of sexuality, unleashed when the multi-talented bishop-archaeologist-lecturer Garnet Williams (William Marshall), excavates its resting place when on a digging expedition in Nigeria. Somehow it travels back to the bishop’s hometown of Louisville, Kentucky and takes residence in his daughter-in-law Abby (Carol Speed), a marriage counsellor and devoted member (and gospel leader) of her local church, one presided over by her husband Emmett (Terry Williams), the bishop’s son. Before long, she begins acting oddly, engaging in self-mutilation, verbal and physical abuse of her husband, mocking the church and finally slutting herself over town. With Emmett at his wit’s end he calls dad in Africa who returns home and begins a process of expelling the demon from her body.

With such material at hand one would imagine a bevy of boobs, afros ahoy and fashions furiously vivid, all set to a pulsating funk soundtrack. However these genre touchstones are mostly ignored in favour of a reasonably sincere indictment of the patriarchal notion of the church. Such a theme may only be appreciated if the viewer is attentive enough to overlook many of the cruder aspects of Abby’s production values, including some cheesy effects work and often risible dialogue.

“There aint no sin in being proud of doin’ a good job, living a good life and lovin’ a good man” – Abby’s mother (Juanita Moore) to Abby.

When we first meet Abby she is a demure young woman, an over-achiever in community and church spirit. She genuinely loves her husband and praises his love-making skills, the sort of compliment he needs as it is apparent that he harbours resentment at living in his famous father’s shadow. Emmett, it would seem, suffers the impotence of asserting his own personality within his church and neighbourhood, all the while he shares that common surname.

After Abby’s possession Eshu takes time to manifest. We are first alerted to the demon’s presence by Abby masturbating in the shower (as if a woman’s sexual self-exploration is such a sin) and next by self-mutilation with a kitchen knife (perhaps as a form of self-flagellation for the previous misdemeanour).

After Abby causes the reverend some embarrassment during his Sunday sermon he attempts to make love to her that evening. Yet with abject disgust Abby sneers at his lines of seduction and tells him that he does not have enough to satisfy her. With a mixture of joy and contempt she gives him a fierce boot to the balls for good measure. It is this moment in which Abby breaks with her marital tradition of submissiveness and asserts a dominant position over her husband who meekly cowers at her verbal barrage. It may be the voice of Eshu that rolls off her tongue but perhaps the demon is only a cipher for her long dormant thoughts, kept hushed and never acted upon out of deference to her husband’s position in the community?

“Help us to put away all pretence and to face each other in deep trust, without fear or self pity. Let us be done with falsifying”.

These are the words Abby reads from a prayer book to a young couple who have sought her counsel with their marital problems. At the moment she reads this line Emmett opens the doors and looks in admiringly. The irony is that he has yet to realise that his notion of a successful marriage has been built on a sham. The moment Abby sees him, Eshu is manifested and her demeanour is one of hatred for her Emmett. She turns to the visiting young husband, rips of her shirt and declares that she is going to “fuck the shit out of him”. Emmett drags her upstairs where Abby then rapes him, beating him across the face in the process. The ritual humiliation is complete.

Soon afterwards Abby is convalescing at home and is paid a visit by the church organist. Abby ridicules the elderly woman for having lived the life of a being respectable widow, when the man whose surname she took “screwed you once and left you to rot like a rotten apple”. Shocked at such a secret made public, old Mrs. Wiggins suffers a heart attack and dies. One could presume that it is the all-knowing Eshu who knew and chose to announce that secret, but perhaps it was Abby herself spitting out the words. Maybe it was common knowledge as gossip around the church’s holy water cooler and Abby was fed up with such hypocrisy and decided to call the bluff on a life so virtuous, destroying it in the process.

The humiliation for Emmett continues when Abby goes missing and he finds her in a local nightclub, having already fucked one man to death (the young husband from earlier in the film) and now in the process of initiating a gang bang. When Emmett tries to take her home Abby mocks his religious position and the entire bar joins in the fun. Out of his comfort zone, with his church status offering providing no respect, his impotence is complete. It is only through the arrival of the bishop at the scene that saves Emmett, yet such interference only reinforces the son’s lack of authority.

The finale occurs in the evacuated nightclub’s bar. The Bishop is clearly the only man with the power to exert any control over Eshu (this fact is aided immeasurably by the almost lion-like presence of the towering, deep-voiced actor William Marshall, formerly a villain himself in Blacula and its sequel). But as he speaks his words of the exorcism’s ritual, Abby has one final shot to deliver.

You might have fooled your son, but I know your hypocrisy. Wanna hear your mother’s opinion of your wonderful father, Emmett?”

It would appear that Abby is not the only woman left disappointed after marrying a respected member of the Louisville clergy. It would also seem apparent that the only thing Emmett shares with his father is an unjustified and inflated self-importance.

Naturally, Eshu is cast out and Abby is saved. Her words and actions during her time of possession dismissed as demonic bile and regarded with scant attention. The film ends with a happily reunited Abby and Emmett departing at the airport for vacation. Normal service (and servicing) is resumed.

Although raggedy produced and often slipshod in its execution, there is are a number of interesting ideas at play in Abby that the film does not deserve its status as a camp blaxploitation Exorcist ripoff, which unfortunately seems to be the consensus. If you can locate the film it is certainly worth a look.

For a film that deals with mythology, an awful lot has sprung up around the movie itself. In 1976 Warner Brothers launched court action against the producers and distributors claiming that Abby shared too many similarities with The Exorcist. The WB lawyers were kept busy at that time, bringing similar action against the makers of Beyond the Door, an Italian variant on their blockbuster hit. AIP did win the case eventually but with the film still too hot a potato, they decided (possibly in agreement with WB) against video and television distribution, leaving Abby to rot in the archives. The only copies available today are some rather scratchy and murky bootlegs that appears to be sourced from a battered 16mm print.

For all things Abby – related one should check out the excellent website williamgirdler.com which provides fine details about the director, the film’s production and a thorough interview with Abby herself, Carol Speed. The site also provides some information about the court case brought on by Warner Brothers and does mention that it caused the film to be pulled from theatres. No explicit time for this is given and the rest of the net is even murkier in such specifics. However there are a handful of sites that state the film was withdrawn after a single month / four weeks of release.

Let’s put that little embellishment to bed right now.

In a decisive but risky piece of counter-programming, AIP opened Abby on Christmas day of 1974, offering the only horror film of the season and one only a couple of features with a black audience in mind (Boss Nigger and The Black Godfather were also in limited release). The ploy was a remarkable success and the Christmas days numbers were so hot that AIP took out an ad in Variety trumpeting the figures, which included all-time one day records for its theatres in New York, Oakland, Milwaukee, Memphis, St. Louis and Jackson.

These were indeed excellent figures, and after its first week of release Abby was rated #11 on Variety‘s Top 50 films in release. Considering the competition included the likes of The Godfather II, The Towering Inferno, The Man With The Golden Gun, Murder On The Orient Express, Death Wish, Airport ’75 and Earthquake, the take was even more impressive.

However, for the most part Abby took a bit of a hit in its second week, except in New York where it maintained boffo business (over $80,000 in its second week at the Penthouse). Abby played for well over the month’s run where it was supposedly dragged, managing a solid seven weeks daydating in New York.

It then reappeared in New York in mid-February at 56 second run venues, enough to take it to #8 on Variety‘s Top 50.

And in late June it appeared in New York once again as a support feature for the first run of Bucktown, another AIP blaxploitation release. It is clear that by this time Abby had run its course as a viable commercial product, for the distributor did not even bother listing the fact the film was filling the lower half of the bill (Variety provided that information).

In regional markets Abby did not perform as strongly. Even in Louisville – where the film was shot and set -the strong opening week was a massive success ($20,000) and the drop off was immediate. By its fourth week it was playing to a virtually empty house ($2000).

So basically, Abby played itself out pretty quickly and whatever rentals AIP would have secured after 6 months would have been negligible. However it still did manage some overseas coin, opening here in Australia in August of 1975. In Melbourne, after a solid three weeks at the Albany cinema it jumped into the drive ins for an excellent double bill with The Creeping Flesh.

And as for claims that AIP destroyed all prints, well it was still bopping around Melbourne drive-ins as late as 1978, filling in the final slot of dusk-dawn horror-thons.

Until the exact details of the court settlement are disclosed (AIP head Samuel Z. Arkoff does not even mention the film at all in his autobiography) we will never know the exact story. But lets make it clear that the notion of it being pulled after a single month is a load of rubbish.

A film known of more than seen, Abby deserves re-evaluation, its reputation deserving of more than the campy Exorcist ripoff that Warner Brothers buried.