Tag Archives: Museum of London

What makes a cult movie? Does it just have to be ramshackle, rickety and unhinged? Like these.

Yesterday morning, I received a DVD in the post of the 2006 movie Special – Specioprin Hyrdrochloride which mad inventor John Ward had sent me.

According to the cover, Nuts magazine called the film “A huge cult hit”

I must have blinked. I have never heard of Special.

I guess, ironically, that is often the definition of a cult film.

Last night, I saw a special screening at the Museum of London of probably the biggest cult film ever made in Britain: The Wicker Man.

It is a film linked to one of the reasons I stopped drinking and I have family connections with its shooting.

It is often called a horror film but, despite Christopher Lee’s involvement as both actor and producer, it is not. It is just plain weird to an extraordinary extent; it has been called “a pagan musical” which, while being totally and utterly misleading, is not too far from the truth.

In fact, it is not as weird as director Robin Hardy’s next film The Fantasist – released a whole 16 years later in 1989 – that one takes the biscuit as the only film I have ever seen anywhere near Michael Powell’s bizarre 1950 movie Gone to Earth: one of the few movies which manages to directly link sex and fox hunting. Alright, maybe the ONLY movie to directly link sex and fox hunting.

For maybe the first 60 minutes of both films I thought This is the worst acting I have even seen in my entire life and The direction of this odd movie is more than a bit ropey. By the end of both, I had got half-used to the non-naturalistic style. But only just.

I think The Fantasist lasted maybe one week in Leicester Square before it was quickly taken off. When I saw it there, I was the only person in the cinema. I saw Gone to Earth at a one-off screening at The Cornerhouse in Manchester. When I left at the end, I recognised someone I worked with at Granada TV who had also sat through the movie. We looked at each other, speechless, united in our confused disbelief.

Neither The Fantasist nor Gone to Earth has really reached cult status. In fact, The Fantasist has simply sunk without trace.

Umberto Eco, the Italian who has an opinion on everything, apparently says a cult film has to be “ramshackle, rickety and unhinged” and that certainly covers The Fantasist and Gone To Earth.

When I first saw The Wicker Man, I definitely thought it was very ramshackle, very rickety, very rough-edged indeed and that the director was almost certainly unhinged. Since then, I’ve see it five or six more times (there are at least three different versions of it) and it gets better on repeated screenings. Though no less weird.

One of the problems is that  you only realise on a second and third screening just how good and how tight the script is. You have to have seen the entire film to understand why you are watching what you are watching. It was scripted by Anthony Shaffer, who also wrote Sleuth; his brother Peter Schaffer wrote Equus and Amadeus. Those are a couple of siblings who must have had interesting parents.

Even the direction of The Wicker Man – more than slightly eccentric at best – seems better and tighter on repeated screenings

The Wicker Man was originally released in the UK as the bottom half of a double bill with Nic Roeg’s much over-rated Don’t Look Now.

As I mentioned in a blog last year, at the time The Wicker Man was released by British Lion Films in 1973, Michael Deeley, the highly-talented and highly-regarded head of British Lion, reportedly said that it was the worst film he had ever seen. Years afterwards, the equally highly-regarded Cinefantastique magazine devoted at entire issue to The Wicker Man, famously calling it “the Citizen Kane of horror films”, while the Los Angeles Times said it was: “Witty & scary! No one who sits through it to the end is likely to find it easy to shake off.”

One of the most impressive things in it, as far as I’m concerned, is Edward Woodward’s spot-on West Coast Scottish accent. Britt Ekland’s accent is pretty good too, though she has the advantage of being Scandinavian – always a bonus with the bizarre Western Isles accent.

I have a particular affinity for the The Wicker Man because some of the movie’s scenes were filmed in Whithorn, Wigtownshire, where both my parents went to school. And the climactic sequence with the Wicker Man itself takes place on Burrowhead, off which one of my dead relative’s ashes were tossed into the sea – not because of the film but because he had spent many happy childhood days there.

Also the film – which is so bizarre it must have turned many people to drink or drugs – ironically contributed to my giving up drink. I was never much of a drinker: in my late teens/early twenties, I drank weak lager to be sociable because it was less horrible than Bitter. All I really liked was vodka drowned in orange juice or champagne drowned in orange juice – and they were a bit pricey as everyday drinks.

But I was reviewing films when The Wicker Man came out and the press officer at its distributors British Lion was clearly a very intelligent man who had simply been drinking for too long – it was part of his job – and it appeared to have softened his thinking processes. The sharpness of mind which he presumably once had had melted away. It’s one of the downsides of being a PR man.

I thought I don’t enjoy drinking anyway, so why bother when this can be the outcome?

So I stopped.

Ever since then, because I don’t drink, people have thought I am weird.

Well, OK, there might be other reasons.

But if you want really weird, see The Wicker Man.

And if you want REALLY REALLY weird, see The Fantasist and Gone to Earth.

Ramshackle, rickety, unhinged. With knobs on.

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“The Long Good Friday” – inside one of the two greatest British gangster films ever made

Last night I went to the Museum of London’s Docklands cinema for a special screening of the 1981 movie The Long Good Friday, introduced by its scriptwriter Barrie Keeffe. Very appropriate, as the film’s plot is partly about 1980s plans for Docklands’ re-development. In the film, there is a model of what Docklands might look like in the future. As Barrie Keeffe said last night: “We never imagined it would look like it does tonight – Manhattan…”

I am a great admirer of The Long Good Friday – it is on an equal footing with Get Carter as the greatest British gangster film ever made.

I have blogged before about The Long Good Friday – I was working at Lew Grade‘s ATV in Birmingham when the film encountered its post-production problems.

Both Barrie Keeffe and I assume that Lew Grade did not actually read the script before agreeing to finance the £1 million film but then – hey! – I never read the Killer Bitch script which I financed – I still haven’t. Not that the two movies are exactly comparable… Anyway…

When Lew Grade saw the completed movie of The Long Good Friday, he was so shocked by some of the plot details – especially the film’s climax – that he refused to release it as a feature film, refused to screen it on TV without massive cuts to the violence and the plot and even refused to allow anyone to buy it off him – until George Harrison (yes, the Beatle)’s Handmade Films made him an offer he felt he couldn’t refuse – a financial offer not involving any horse’s head.

It is difficult to discuss The Long Good Friday without mentioning the twist that most offended Lew Grade, but here goes…

It is a wonderful film partly because the crucial opening sequence is shot without audible dialogue – the only line clearly heard by the audience is someone saying something in an East London accent during an abduction… also partly because the audience is suckered into looking the wrong way in plot terms… and also partly because it has a triple ending.

There are two scenes at the end which feel like the rounding-off of a normal thriller but then there’s a sudden shock ending which should, in theory, have an equally sudden cut-to-black (as in French Connection II). Instead, director John Mackenzie uses a final static and very effective shot held on one character’s face for an extraordinarily long time.

Barrie Keeffe says his inspiration for The Long Good Friday was his love of film noir movies from the 1940s and 1950s. He wanted to make a black and white Humphrey Bogart film noir of the 1940s in colour in 1979 (when the film was written) – and he always had the then relatively inexperienced Bob Hoskins in mind for the central role of gangster Harold Shand; producer Barry Hanson had previously worked with Bob.

Barrie and Barry had a crucial script discussion with Bob shortly after he returned from filming Zulu Dawn in South Africa. They went to see him at the School of Tropical Medicine in London because he had managed to get ill with a 26-foot-long tapeworm inside him during the shooting. The film-making duo were told by medical staff not to get Bob excited about the Long Good Friday script because they were operating on him the next day and, if he got too excited, the tapeworm might split in two with dangerous consequences. Bob got excited but the tapeworm kept calm.

One format for film noirs is that the chief protagonist is a gangster who faces rivalry from another gangster. Barrie decided to make the opponent Harold Shand faces not a rival gangster with his own values but an opponent of an entirely different kind who does not share Shand’s values.

Perhaps mistakenly, Barrie revealed who that opponent was to the audience before last night’s screening and some members of the audience had not previously seen The Long Good Friday. A friend who was with me had not seen the movie before and told me afterwards that knowing whodunnit had not spoiled her enjoyment of the film (she said it was “brilliant”) but I still think audience ignorance is a good thing in The Long Good Friday.

The film was criticised by one newspaper for over-use of religious symbolism – in particular. the sequence in which one man is found crucified on a wooden warehouse floor. But, as Barrie explained, this was not uncommon as a punishment in London gangster circles at the time. As a young reporter on East End newspaper the Stratford Express, he was once sent to interview the victim of a crucifixion. The guy lay there in his hospital bed covered in bandages and, when Barrie asked him what had happened, his reply was: “It was a self-inflicted D.I.Y. accident.”

Barrie’s background was partly as a journalist on the Stratford Express during the heyday of the Kray Twins in 1960s London. As an innocent-eyed 18 year old, he once stood in the men’s toilet of an East End pub with notoriously violent and rampantly gay Ronnie Kray.

“Take a look at this,” Ronnie said to him standing at the urinal, looking down at his own groin. “Go on, son, look at this – the handle on it.”

Barrie reluctantly looked down.

It was a gun.

Barrie was relieved it was only a gun.

In The Long Good Friday, there is a scene in which a gangster is approached by a woman in black widow’s clothing who raises her veil and spits in his face. This was taken from a real incident in which a bereaved widow raised her veil and spat in Barrie’s face after he had pretended to be working for a newspaper rival of the Stratford Express.

After the screening, I was able to talk to Barrie briefly and ask if it was true that he had once been going to re-write John Osborne’s classic 1950s play The Entertainer with comedian Malcolm Hardee in the Laurence Olivier role.

“I wasn’t going to re-write it,” Barrie told me, “but we were going to adapt it to suit him.” He paused, then added: “But I don’t know what his discipline would have been like…”

Indeed.

Yes.

Indeed.

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