Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Jeff Lieberman

Jeff Lieberman (perhaps best known for Squirm, 1976) remains a critically neglected director within the horror genre. Although admittedly not in the same ‘league’ as Romero, Craven, Carpenter, Hooper, Cronenberg etc., his films are like the mortar between the bricks of these film-makers, extending and enriching sub-genres within horror cinema. Squirm is one of the best ‘creature features’ derived from Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963); Blue Sunshine (1978) (a true progressive horror film in its depiction of 1960s ideals destroyed from within by self-serving opportunism) spans the ‘invasion-metamorphosis horror’ gap between Shivers (1975) and Dawn of The Dead (1978), paving the way for the latter; Just Before Dawn (1981) picks up and develops the tropes of Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and The Hills Have Eyes (1976) (although the conscious influence on Lieberman was Deliverance, both the book and the film) and Satan’s Little Helper (2003) riffs intriguingly on Halloween (1978).

His films bristle with intellect. Lieberman is not an originator or a genre innovator; he is a magpie who steals from the nests of other directors. But the treasures he steals glister brightly, and he displays them magnificently.

Perhaps more than any other director, Lieberman has the ability to crystallise the essence of a subgenre in a single striking image.

In Blue Sunshine, we have the psychotic babysitter stalking her young charges with a large knife; her ‘invasion-metamorphosis’ is signified by her bald head – her ‘possession’ by the visual reference to Rosemary’s Baby (1968).

Babysitter with a knife: Blue Sunshine (1978)

In Just Before Dawn, there is the stunning moment where our heroine fends off her backwoods attacker by thrusting her fist down his throat (an inversion of the rape/violation imagery redolent of the ‘urbanoia’ film, notably the gun-in –the –woman’s-mouth scene in The Hills Have Eyes).

A fist down the throat: Just Before Dawn (1981)
In Squirm, we have three such moments, each encapsulating the three stages of narrative progression in the ‘nature rises up against us’ subgenre: proliferation – the scene where worms infest the face of the antagonist, Roger; besiegement – where the worms threaten to erupt from a showerhead on to our unwitting heroine (also, of course, a sly nod to Psycho – linking via The Birds to Hitchcock – see what I mean about the keen intellect?) Finally annihilation – when the worms invade the house and Roger sinks into them like a man disappearing into quicksand.

The worms claim Roger: Squirm (1976)

These iconic moments encapsulate the narrative conventions of their subgenres (the ‘nature horror’, the ‘backwoods horror’, the ‘zombie-metamorphosis horror’) unlike any other. Perhaps that’s why, despite a lack of recent critical attention for the films, these images featured so often in the horror film books and magazines of the 1970s.

It is a measure of the neglect in which Lieberman currently stands that his films have received patchy distribution on DVD.  Only Just Before Dawn and Satan’s Little Helper are available on UK cert R2, the former transferred from a very shoddy print. The American R1 of Just Before Dawn is of similar poor quality but includes a ‘Making of’ and interviews with cast and crew.  MGM released Squirm in 2003 on R1 only. The transfer is good (although the night scenes are a bit murky). Blue Sunshine is available in a double disc presentation from Synapse films on R1 (and a similar Dutch R2). This set includes a bonus CD of the film’s soundtrack, together with an early Lieberman short, 'The Ringer', and a substantial interview, ‘Lieberman on Lieberman’, which is a must for anyone wanting more information on this important director - very little exists on him any elsewhere.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Pete Walker

Although he has been retired from film-making since the mid-1980s, Pete Walker made a rare live appearance in a Q&A at the British Film Institute in 2009 (see video of the Q&A below). Best known for his ‘terror’ films written with David McGillivray (House of Whipcord, 1974, Frightmare, 1974, House of Mortal Sin, 1976), Walker loved to cause controversy by taking pot shots at the pillars of the British establishment such as the church, the penal system and the family. His films came out at a time when Britain was going through something of a sexual revolution thanks to the social reforms of the 1960s Wilson government, which saw a relaxation of laws on abortion, homosexuality and divorce. The inevitable moral backlash that followed this in the mid-1970s, led by people like Lord Longford and Mary Whitehouse, threatened a return to Victorian values and it was this that Walker and McGillivray kicked against in their wickedly enjoyable films.

Despite the cultural importance of Walker's films, which is only now becoming fully recognised thanks to Walker scholars such as Prof. Steve Chibnall, Walker is modest about his own achievements.  “The films were never as good as I wanted them to be," he says, "not enough money or time”. He was, however, a director of considerable skill. House of Mortal Sin, in particular, shows a mastery of the camera few ‘exploitation’ directors achieve in their careers.

Walker started making ‘terror’ pictures in the early 1970s after several years making soft-core sex films. Although profitable, he found the soft porn film rather boring because “the sex stopped the plot”. A gifted raconteur with a background as a stand up comic in the final days of music hall, Walker wrote the scenarios for many of his films. In his collaborations with McGillivray, Walker decided the storyline and McGillivray scripted the scenes. An admirer of Hitchcock, Walker always included a set piece murder in his films and his best work showcases his skills in creating suspense sequences, such as the first murder in The Comeback (1980).  

When the British film industry all but collapsed in the 1980s, Pete Walker quit film-making to go into property development, buying and refurbishing cinemas. It was the biggest loss to the British horror film since the death of Michael Reeves.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Michael Reeves

While researching Shocks to the System I decided to go on a pilgrimage to Knightsbridge, London and look at the homes of Michael Reeves.

In the tradition of ‘psycho-geography’ I wanted to see if I could gauge something of Michael Reeves’s mental state towards the end of his life by ‘tuning into’ his surroundings at the time.

For anyone who may not be familiar with Michael Reeves, he was the director of two of the most important British horror films of the 1960s, The Sorcerers (1967) and Witchfinder General (1968). He died from an accidental overdose of sleeping pills during a period of depression shortly after making these films. He was 25 years old.

Michael Reeves had a privileged background – public school, trust fund – and a passion for filmmaking that translated into two powerful (and controversial) meditations on the nature of violence as intrinsic to the human condition. The schism between comfort/darkness, homeliness/alienation seemed to pervade his life as much as it did his films, and the startling contrast between his two Knightsbridge homes – although situated only a few streets apart – seems to bear this out.
23 Yeoman's Row

Reeves’s first home at 23 Yeoman’s Row, where he lived from 1964 to 1969, is a quaint three storey cottage on a quiet little cul-de-sac off the busy Brompton Road, just a short walk from Sloane Square. Reeves owned this house himself but shared his occupation of it with friends. He lived in the second floor rooms and the third storey housed his office. Looking up from the street at the small dormer windows, it struck me that this was an incongruous place to have written the scripts for The Sorcerers and Witchfinder General,  films that brilliantly capture the dark underside of the Swinging Sixties.

According to John Murray’s biography, Reeves was very happy in this house, receiving lots of visitors, including Lee Marvin and Don Siegel, and enjoying a family-like atmosphere with his friends. It was here that he would endlessly screen The Killers (1964) – Siegel was his idol and it is clear to see Siegel’s influence on Reeves in terms of the lean and mean trademark style that Reeves was himself to adopt as a director.

A few doors down on Yeoman’s Row there is a steakhouse that Reeves frequented with friends (Reeves was generous to a fault: this led to him acquiring various hangers-on, which eventually contributed to his decision to move house). The steakhouse is now called ‘Frankies’ and is owned by Frankie Dettori and Marco Pierre White. On the corner is a pub, the 'Bunch of Grapes', where it is easy to imagine the young Michael regaling friends with talk of films and his plans for productions.

After the release of Witchfinder General, Reeves found himself the subject of a critical savaging at the hands of morally outraged film reviewers, including Alan Bennett. This and his battle with the censor, John Trevelyan, left him feeling that both he and his film had been misunderstood, and caused Reeves to fall into a deep depression.

19 Cadogan Place

It was during this period of despair that Reeves sold the Yeoman’s Row property and moved into the top flat at 19 Cadogan Place. In stark contrast to the homely family cottage at Yeoman’s Row, the Cadogan Place building is a strange Tudor-style apartment building of red-brick and stone with black leaded bay windows. It has a brooding feel, not unlike the apartment buildings that you might find in a Roman Polanski film. In short it is exactly the kind of place that you would expect a tormented young director of horror films to live.

Reeves resided in the top floor apartment, isolated from the rest of the world. His depression left him reclusive and withdrawn; he would leave the flat only to visit his psychiatrist and to take his meals at the Carlton Tower hotel across the road, literally a minute’s walk from his front door. He might see the occasional friend, but by his 
own admission he had become 'a hermit'.

His girlfriend at the time, Ingrid Cranfield, has published a moving account of his final days, At Last Michael Reeves. In it she describes Reeves as self-absorbed, melancholy, unable to shake off his bewilderment at Witchfinder General’s hostile reception. 'Witchfinder represented Michael’s deepest- held principles.' she wrote, 'It was his manifesto,championing peace against violence, justice against persecution, morality against sin, good against evil. It was an exposé of his soul. And nobody understood.'

One wonders if the isolation of living alone in the Cadogan Place apartment also contributed to his continuing depression, and if he had stayed in the more communal environment of Yeoman’s Row might he have recovered. Who knows? - Michael Reeves was found dead in the Cadogan Place apartment on 11 February 1969. The loss to British Cinema was immense.

Michael Reeves on the set of Witchfinder General (1968)

Monday, 6 June 2011

Tony: London Serial Killer

A recent British film that shows the effects on the psyche of economic hardship is Tony: London Serial Killer. Directed by Gerard Johnson on a budget of £40k the film is shot on location in Dalston, Hackney (very close to where I live as it happens) and follows the life of the socially inadequate Tony as he tries to connect with the people around him in the bleak urban environment of London’s East End. Unfortunately the only way he seems able to do this is through murder.

The film has been compared to Taxi Driver and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer as a study of social alienation and in my opinion is worthy of the comparison. At the heart of the film is a startling performance by Peter Ferdinando as Tony, a character loosely based on real life London serial killer, Dennis Nilsen. But whereas Nilsen, by all accounts, was a dominant personality, Ferdinando plays Tony as a timid, passive-aggressive rather ‘nerdish’ man who vents his anger and frustration by quietly, and sometimes unexpectedly, hammering, strangling and suffocating his victims to death.

Like Nilsen though, Tony seems both sexually and socially confused – one is never quite sure of his orientation – if he has one – and over the course of the film we see him variously trying to make sexual/social contact with a prostitute and a gay man who picks him up in the pub he frequents. What Tony clearly is though, is desperately lonely, and the great insight of the film is that it makes clear how human relations suffer in such dire economic circumstances. The only people Tony encounters are all equally desperate as he is and see him as someone to use and abuse. In a darkly humorous sequence, Tony tags along with two junkies as they go to score some heroin and then invites them back to his flat for a beer and a smoke. However by the time the two scag-heads have zonked out on the settee, Tony has had enough and out come the plastic bag and duck tape.

The theme of exploitation is extended to the portrayal of authority in the film. In one of the most effect sequences, Tony (who perhaps not surprisingly is long-term unemployed) is sent for an interview by the job centre to work as a billboard man for a tanning shop. The owner of the shop wants Tony to work fourteen hours a day for a pittance and threatens to have the Job Centre cut off his benefits if he refuses. In the next scene Tony visits an east European prostitute who rebukes his offer of five pounds for a ‘cuddle’. The clever juxtaposition of these two scenes deftly underlines the exploitation that faces people like Tony and the prostitute who are living on the fringes of society.

Although Gerard Johnson shies away from labeling Tony as a horror film, preferring instead to describe it as a work of social realism, the film quietly gets under the skin. Less overtly shocking than Man Bites Dog, the shock here is ideological and thus creeps up on you. As Tony wanders aimlessly through Kings Cross at the end destined only to repeat his actions, I was left wondering if in Tony: London Serial Killer I had seen the true face of David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’.

Thursday, 2 June 2011


The photograph is of St Ignatius Church, Stamford Hill in London. It is Alfred Hitchcock’s alma mater and located at the bottom of my road as it happens. Hitchcock attended the Roman Catholic school adjoined to the church (it is not there any more sadly) in 1910.

I like to think that young ‘Alfie’ might have passed by my house once or twice – sandwich in hand – while on his way to the park for his lunch hour or perhaps to walk along the River Lea. Perhaps he might have glanced in my window as he passed. Maybe, if he had a friend who lived on my road, he might even have popped in for a cup of tea and a Swiss roll - who knows?

Although Hitchcock never publicly disparaged his Catholic upbringing (unlike Bunuel) there is no doubt it influenced his films. He has said St Ignatius taught him ‘a strong sense of fear and guilt'. The film that combines both to the greatest effect is, of course, Psycho (1960). In that film, Marion (Janet Leigh) suffers guilt to the point of neurosis. She steals money from a rich vulgar man who probably won’t miss it but her conscience won’t rest until she makes the decision to return it. By that time however, her fate is sealed because Norman Bates has set his sights on her. Hitchcock’s genius in that film is to connect Marion’s neurosis with Norman’s psychosis. They are both products of the socialisation process gone wrong. Normal has an Oedipal fixation on his dead mother and Marion has a guilt-fixation on hers.

 Hitchcock also said that he learned ‘Jesuit reasoning power’ at St Ignatius, and his rigorous approach to storytelling and film-making probably started here. So all-in-all his Catholic education was something of a double-edged sword.

St Ignatius is now enjoying a surge of popularity thanks to the influx of Polish and Spanish speaking people into the area. Hitchcock, of course, moved to Hollywood, and spent most of his life living in Bel Air.  When I was in Los Angeles I stopped by to have a look at his house at 10957 Bellagio Road - to return the favour if you will. How the other half lives.