Lady Summerisle (strange_complex) wrote,
Lady Summerisle

Carnivals, shows and the charms of the Seventies - three films seen recently

I saw all three of these with my partner in cinematic crime, ms_siobhan, and in the first two cases with others as well.

24. Carnival of Souls (1962), dir. Herk Harvey

This was the film which ms_siobhan chose to have screened at the Armley Mills Industrial Museum in celebration of her birthday. It's a creepy atmospheric sort-of ghost film, shot in beautiful black and white, about a young woman called Mary who somehow manages to be the sole survivor from a car which has plunged off a bridge into a river. Shortly afterwards, she moves from her small home town to the big city to take up a job as a church organist. But already on the journey there she begins undergoing a series of strange experiences - ghostly figures seen out of the corners of her eyes, bizarre hallucinations in which no-one else can see or hear her, and an increasing obsession with a closed-off old amusement pavilion and the lost souls who inhabit it. I shan't give away the 'twist' ending here - only note that it had one, that it had been quite strongly signalled for a long time by the time it played out and so was probably never intended to come across as a massive shock, but that it is also relatively unusual for horror films of this period to attempt one at all, so that in itself makes this film quite unusual.

ms_siobhan said before the showing began that this was one of her favourite films of all time, and I can see why. It's nicely shot, intriguing and macabre without over-egging the pudding, and above all captures the experiences of a person feeling oddly out-of-kilter with the world around her in a very compelling way. In fact, that aspect of the film reminded me quite strongly of Martin (1976), whose central character feels a similar disconnection from the people around him. Sure, the script is a little hokey in places, leading to some unintentionally-funny lines - especially whenever Mary interacts with Creepy McCreepster, the sexually-predatory neighbour who occupies the room across the landing from her in the boarding-house where she stays. But it is surreal and beautiful, and I think also captures something of the challenges faced by a young woman trying to pursue an independent life in the unsympathetic world of early '60s southern America. I would definitely watch this again.

25. The Smallest Show on Earth (1957), dir. Basil Dearden

This one I saw at the Cottage Road cinema's centenary celebration, and it was screened in standard Cottage Classics style, complete with a programme of shorts and old adverts before the film itself began. Some of these I'd seen before - like the Pathé news short about Art Pickles the yo-yo champion or the Carling Black Label dam-busters advert - but many others I hadn't. I particularly enjoyed the series of adverts for things like carpets and kitchens which were designed to work on a sort of franchise basis - you'd get a general advert for the product, and then be told that you could buy it at [Insert Local Shop Here], while seeing an insert with the details of your local provider. And already you could tell that the celebratory nature of the screening had put the audience in a particularly cheerful mood, with huge laughs, cheers and even rounds of applause greeting just the adverts.

The film itself had been selected because its storyline was particularly appropriate to the occasion. It tells the story of a nice modern young couple who learn that they have inherited a cinema. Full of dreams of selling it off and using the money to go travelling round the world, they arrive in sleepy Sloughborough to inspect their new property, only to find that it is a boarded-up old Electric Kinema (not 'cinema') named the Bijou, crammed in between two noisy railway lines, and still frequented by an eccentric staff who are all more or less as old as the building itself. All is not lost though, because they learn that the owner of nearby shiny cinemaplex The Grand would like to buy their inheritance so that he can build a big car-park for his patrons. In an effort to get him to raise his bid, they decide that they will pretend they are planning to reopen the Bijou - and of course find themselves caught up in opening it for real in order to make their plans seem plausible, becoming emotionally involved with its success, and going through a series of trials and tribulations, offers and counter-offers, until finally the Bijou and its staff triumph via not-entirely-above-board means.

It's a feel-good film which taps perfectly into our national love of cheering for the small, rickety underdog (the Bijou) over the slick corporate machine (the Grand). And in keeping with that the real stars are not the young couple but the Bijou's staff - Margaret Rutherford as the crotchety but redoubtable ticket-lady, Peter Sellers as the alcoholic projectionist who is the only person capable of working the antiquated equipment, and Bernard Miles as Old Tom, the janitor who just wants a nice uniform like the fellow on the door of The Grand and has an awful habit of acting rashly on overheard conversations. There is lots of comedy to be had from their inter-personal conflicts in the early part of the film, but also a joy as they slowly pull together in their collective efforts to turn the Bijou into a success - particularly the wheeze of running films set in the desert while cranking up the heating system and then making a killing on drinks and ice-creams in the intermission. Even the audiences are basically on the Bijou's side, demonstrating a cheerful tolerance when things go wrong with the projection system and actively enjoying the extra effects provided by passing trains which make the whole theatre shake violently.

There are touching moments, too, as when the young couple chance upon the three elderly staff members screening an old silent film out of hours, while Mrs. Fazackalee accompanies it on the piano and the projectionist and janitor look on, weeping for simpler, happier days. But in the end the film doesn't allow itself to sink too deeply into nostalgia. After an 'accidental' (*cough, cough*) fire destroys the Grand, the underdog manages to play the corporate machine for a wheeze after all. Its owner is forced to buy up the Bijou as the only other cinema in town in order to stay in business while he rebuilds - so the young couple are able to accept twice their original asking price and a guarantee of jobs for the cinema's staff, before waltzing off to their long-dreamed-for life of exotic travel. It can be read quite directly as a parable about post-war Britain reconciling the faded glories of its past with the unsettling new world of profit-driven big business, and being able to move forward into a happier future as a result.

As with every Cottage Classic, this one finished with a rousing recording of 'God Save the Queen', accompanied by some 1950s footage of Her Madge on a very nice-looking horse. This old custom was satirised in the film itself, as the Bijou's audiences stampeded at high speed out of the auditorium the moment each film ended in order to avoid having to stand up while the national anthem played. But in 2012, it was a pleasure to stand up amongst a full house in recognition of the Cottage's one hundred years of film screenings. I don't think anyone knows what its very first film was back on 29th July 1912, as I'm sure that would have been mentioned in the commemorative booklet produced for the occasion by local historian Eveleigh Bradford if they did. But it did give me a real sense of connection with the cinema's past, and Headingley's past too, to be sitting there with my popcorn exactly one hundred year's to the day after its first screening. I wonder if the people who attend the bicentenary celebrations will think of us in the same way as they settle down in the same place to watch one of those charming funny old movies from the early 21st century?

26. Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972), dir. Alan Gibson

Finally, I watched this one on Thursday, after ms_siobhan and I had had a quick session practising our Charleston steps ready for the next Morley Big Band night. It's not normally the highest-rated of the Hammer Dracula series, but it is one of my personal favourites. For me, it stands about equal with the first one and Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968) (though for rather different reasons), and since I have owned all eight of them since I was about 14, I reckon I have watched this particular one at least ten times. It's one of my personal 'treat' movies which I know will always make for a good evening whenever I watch it, I know practically every line of dialogue off by heart, and I was thrilled to discover that ms_siobhan enjoys it as much as I do.

It was the first Hammer movie to bring Dracula into the 20th century (followed by The Satanic Rites of Dracula the next year), and tends to get panned by critics, mainly for an inept portrayal of contemporary youth culture. But I'm not sure it is so badly off-key really - and even if so, what it definitely is is fun! Maybe the difference doesn't matter so much forty years later, and to someone who wasn't born at the time. After all, I don't expect the depictions of 19th century Transylvanian / Austro-Hungarian village life in the earlier Dracula films to be true to life either. Certainly, I've always absolutely loved the Chelsea scene this film depicts, with its bunch of bored teenagers crashing posh people's house-parties, wearing funky clothes, hanging out in divey bars, snogging at the car-wash and trading painfully cool quips with one another. Placed next to a world-weary police inspector and Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee facing off against one another in their ever-professional Gothic style, it's an absolute winner in my book.

Now that I've seen both films, I realise that this one has quite a lot in common with The Sorcerers (1967), which also explores what happens when bored teenagers start meddling with the supernatural in their eternal quest for 'kicks'. I can see how it would have been a popular plot at almost any time from the mid-1950s onwards, as a metaphor for fears about what all this youthful hanging around in coffee-shops and wearing flamboyant clothing might lead to. I really must look out for more examples of the genre, actually, because the combination of teenage youth cultures and supernatural horrors pushes my buttons in a big way. I guess things like Buffy the Vampire Slayer are its more recent manifestation, in fact. To be fair, The Sorcerers does it considerably better, in large part thanks to its depiction of the relationship between the elderly couple played by Catherine Lacey and Boris Karlov who are behind the supernatural goings-on. But that doesn't mean A.D. 1972 isn't ace too.

Since ms_siobhan and I had both seen the film many times before, and knew the plot backwards, we agreed beforehand to watch it in MST3K mode, and had a brilliant time debating the changing colours of Stephanie Beacham's wig, spotting places where the script had not been properly updated to reflect the last-minute decision to cast Peter Cushing as her grandfather rather than father, and laughing ourselves silly over Christopher Neame's crazy death-scene. We also noticed that his character (the brilliantly-named 'Johnny Alucard') seems to be quite an early example in the vampire genre of someone actively wanting to get vamped rather than fearing it. This is standard stuff nowadays, of course, but I think of it as something which was only really introduced by Anne Rice, whose character Daniel Molloy is desperate to be 'turned' at the end of Interview with the Vampire (1976). I don't doubt there are other earlier examples too - I'm pretty sure there are some 19th century short stories which do it - but it was definitely still quite an innovative motif at this time.

Anyway, A.D. 1972 still makes for a fantastic evening after twenty years of watching it, and I don't think I can ever imagine a time in my life when it won't. Long live the Count's visit to swinging hot-panted London!

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Tags: adverts, christopher lee, cinema, dracula, films, films watched 2012, hammer films, headingley, horror films, leeds, peter cushing, reviews, vampires

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