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Teal dear summary - both of these films are incoherent messes, and Christopher Lee isn't even in them terribly much, but the moments when he is on screen are excellent!

29. 1941 (1979), dir. Steven Spielberg

This was shown last Thursday afternoon, which was perfect timing given that the whole point of that day (in my world) was to lie on the sofa staring at undemanding things and recovering from my conference. Given those circumstances, though, it's a pity the gods couldn't have served up a slightly better film for me to stare at. 1941 is the type of film generally described as a 'zany, screw-ball comedy', which I have to say is a descriptor I usually find off-putting. It usually means a lot of humour based on prat-falls, annoying goofy characters, misogyny, sexual innuendo, bodily functions etc., and all of those apply here in abundance. But even if I liked all that, I don't even think this is a good example of the genre anyway. It's supposed to be about the American domestic reaction to the bombing of Pearl Harbour in 1941, and the sudden hysteria about an attack on home soil, but really it is just an incoherent mess. Too many characters, no clear sense of what motivates any of them, a convoluted plot, goes on too long and doesn't do enough to clarify how action A leads to consequence B.

Lee's character, Captain Wolfgang von Kleinschmidt, is your perfect stereotypical Nazi - peaked cap, sour face, "Ve haff vays of making you talk", all that sort of thing. He is stationed on a Japanese submarine, apparently (though it's never very clearly explained) to keep an eye on their manoeuvres on behalf of the Third Reich, but I think really because the submarine has to be Japanese given the Pearl Harbour context, but the film's stereotype check-list required that there be a Nazi amongst the cast somewhere - so there he is. What makes him great, though, is that he plays the role completely straight. There are no nods and winks here - just deadly seriousness, drawing beautifully on his established star image as a chilling villain. Set against all the annoying goofy Americans, he was very welcome indeed, and my favourites scene in the entire movie was when he bitch-slapped a gurning hill-billy. However, that scene was not worth watching the entire film for.

I should add that Lee speaks all his lines in rapid-fire German (which is subtitled for the viewing public), while the Japanese submarine commander does the same in Japanese - the 'joke' being that they can both understand each other perfectly, but refuse to compromise in either linguistic direction. I have very little grasp of German myself, so I'm not in the same position to judge Lee's fluency and pronunciation as I was with his French in Dracula père et fils, but it certainly sounded very convincing to me. I could pick out a few individual words in a way I can't normally with a native German speaker, which probably means his accent did lean towards the English tones and rhythms which my ears are attuned to, but all in all this is another language which I'm going to have to concede he really can acquit himself in.

30. Scream and Scream Again (1970), dir. Gordon Hessler

And this one I watched yesterday afternoon with the lovely ms_siobhan. It's one I've known of for a long time, and always wanted to see, because on paper it sounds amazing. It features the Holy Horror Trinity of Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and Vincent Price, was made in the Golden Age of British Horror, and plays around on the boundary between horror and science fiction. What could possibly go wrong, you may very well ask? Well, very much the same sorts of things as in 1941 (except, thankfully, without the screwball comedy), is the answer. Too many characters, no clear sense of their motivations, and no sense of where the plot might be going until it was far, far too late.

I maintained my optimism about the apparent deficiencies on these fronts for as long as I possibly could. Some films, after all, keep you guessing about characters and their motivations for a long time, but then everything becomes incredibly clever and nuanced and subtle in retrospect thanks to a big important reveal towards the end. Indeed, that is probably the format this film was trying to follow, because there is a big reveal at the end, where some high-level master-plans are uncovered, and we do suddenly understand a great deal more about some of the things we have seen and the people we have met up to that point. So maybe on a second viewing the story would indeed seem quite clever and well put-together. But for the purposes of the first viewing, we just weren't given enough likeable characters, or a meaningful point-of-view character who is trying to figure everything out and to whom we could relate along the way - and so we were bored and alienated to the point of just giving up caring well before the big reveal came. Compare, for example, The Wicker Man, where everything likewise changes on a big reveal about 4/5 of the way through the film, but a first-time viewer who doesn't know about that yet still has a lot of (apparently) charming, if puzzling, villagers to keep their attention for the first 4/5ths of the film, and the character of Howie to represent and articulate their bafflement on screen. Where The Wicker Man is a text-book example of how to do that sort of story perfectly, Scream and Scream Again is the cautionary tale exemplifying what can go wrong.

Actually, the two are worth comparing as far as marketing and presentation goes as well, because both were initially, and still are, largely positioned as horror films, and indeed play around with some horror tropes, but eventually go off in a different direction. It does need to be said that Wicker basically flopped on initial release, but that wasn't because of mis-marketing - it's because the production company responsible for it was bought out, and the new management didn't want to waste money promoting the products of the old management at all. Since then, though, the fact that Wicker stars Christopher Lee and Ingrid Pitt, involves pagan religious practices, and is promoted with images of strange people in masks and burning effigies, have not been a problem. Wicker works intelligently with its material, building up expectations and then delivering unexpected surprises, and it has an excellent script. Scream, by contrast, doesn't. It has Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Vincent Price, a classic horror genre title and hints of vampirism in the plot which eventually turn out to have a science-fictional explanation instead. It is clearly trying, then, to do much the same thing (and well before Wicker, in fact), but here the effort falls utterly flat. Again, the problem is that the basic elements of drama, and especially decent dialogue, exposition or characterisation, are just missing, so that you end up only feeling cheated about not getting the film you expected, and not (as with Wicker) delighted by the film you do get instead.

Anyway, what's really sad is that all three of Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and Vincent Price are absolutely excellent in it, but they only get the very briefest of scenes, and are essentially wasted. Poor old Peter in particular got about four minutes of being a scrupulous and crisply-accented officer in some kind of mysterious communist organisation (looking a lot like his later Grand Moff Tarkin, in fact), before being killed off by a character whose identity and motivations we only ever grasped deeply enough to be able to dub him 'bobble-hat man'. Christopher did rather better, in the part of a shady intelligence minister which allows him to stride up and down Whitehall looking extremely dapper in a suit, trilby and umbrella, and also somehow means that he gets to turn up at the end, put the Dracula-eyes on Vincent Price, and overpower him with apparently nothing but sheer charisma - though it would have been nice if these sudden super-powers had ever been explained. And Vincent does best of the three, with some nice climactic megalomaniacal speeches which for a few moments there are actually quite compelling. But, as with 1941, those few scenes, plus some surprisingly impressive camera-work, aren't really enough to make it worth sitting through the whole film.

If the world were a truly good and beautiful place, someone would by now have extracted all of the scenes with Christopher Lee in them from 1941, and all of the scenes with Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and Vincent Price in them from Scream and Scream Again and stuck the results on Youtube. However, as far as I can tell, they have not. We must suffer onwards in our imperfect and fragile existence.

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Comments

( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
vin_petrol
Aug. 25th, 2014 09:43 pm (UTC)
"Scream and Scream Again" does feature the collapsed jogger in his hospital bed, with the increasing awfulness of his predicament. That image has stayed with me for decades after I first saw this film.
strange_complex
Aug. 25th, 2014 09:48 pm (UTC)
It does indeed! Though I suspect if you were to watch it again now, you would be distracted by how painfully obvious it is that his legs are actually just folded underneath.
ms_siobhan
Aug. 26th, 2014 08:41 am (UTC)
Ah the innocence of youth - see it now and tut loudly at the fact that his legs are clearly still there.
ms_siobhan
Aug. 26th, 2014 08:46 am (UTC)
Ah Bobble Hat Man - quite how he ended up with such a prominent role in the film is beyond me as his charisma was precisely zero.

Full marks (no pun intended) must go to Alfred Marks for his spirited performance - including the line 'kinky freak burglary turned tragic' and his drawn out hammy death scene where we hear and see him bite down on the blood capsule.

It could have been really good and yet sadly it was so dreadful, like an overdrawn overlong episode of the New Avengers but with none of the verve and charm.
strange_complex
Aug. 26th, 2014 10:44 am (UTC)
Heh, yes, I had forgotten about the 'kinky freak burglary turned tragic' line! Glad you wrote that down. :-)
ms_siobhan
Aug. 26th, 2014 12:13 pm (UTC)
I think it's going to rank with 'he took her with a ferocity she had not experienced before' as one of my all time favourite lines.
strange_complex
Aug. 26th, 2014 12:20 pm (UTC)
Dear gods! What was that from???
ms_siobhan
Aug. 26th, 2014 12:28 pm (UTC)
A Saint Jackie of Improbable Plot Lines Collins. I forget which one - but that's of no matter as they are all virtually the same - only the characters names and brands change, though the last one I read Married Lovers really was unutterably dreadful.
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )

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