My publisher has asked me to help source movie posters for the cover of ’Film Freak’, specifically films mentioned in my book , and I’ve realised just how many really third-rate films I’ve seen in my life. Cheap films are just as powerful as expensive ones, of course, and I think many appeal to writers because often the first thing to go in an expensive film is a decent script. There’s a power in lurid thrills, and few come more lurid than ‘The Mutations’.
This was a ludicrously tasteless monster throwback featuring Donald Pleasance, a man-eating plant-person – half serial killer, half lettuce – and several real-life ‘freaks’ including a gentleman who could pop his eyes out on stalks by suddenly concentrating. I sat through ‘Twisted Nerve’, starring baby-faced Hywel Bennett and Walt Disney’s own Pollyanna, Hayley Mills, a film which ran into such trouble for suggesting that psychopathic behaviour was genetically connected to Down’s Syndrome that the producers were forced to bolt a hilariously dramatic disclaimer onto the feature. And we saw ‘Psychomania’, with mysticism-spouting Beryl Reid and a visibly uninterested George Sanders reviving lame-looking elderly Hells’ Angels from the dead. Soon afterwards, Sanders became so uninterested that he killed himself, leaving behind a note that read ‘Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored.’ He had presumably been watching his own late film output.
So many of these films are still vivid to me – Peter Walker’s deeply unsettling trilogy attacking church, state and the law, starting with ‘House of Whipcord’, now seems as if it represents the grimy, strike-ridden seventies in Britain far more clearly than any number of prestigious ‘quality’ films. The trilogy’s unholy centrepiece is ‘Frightmare,’ loosely modelled on Ian Brady and Myra Hindley’s relationship, although this sounds like a typical piece of grandstanding by writer David McGillivray, who wrestled with the script through 1973 because he felt it lacked credibility. Oddly, the film now seems far more credible than any number of Hammers from the same period, because of the small details – the killer places ads targeting the vulnerable in Time Out.
Of the ones above, ‘Barbarella’ was not a cheap movie, and yet it had cheap sensibilities, being little more than a stylish exercise in torturing a half-clad woman. Dubbed and recut, it was released like a B-movie, on halves of double bills.
While I was watching seedy little British films, Hollywood was going through its disaster movie cycle, but who now ever thinks of rewatching ‘The Towering Inferno’? There are still small British films, of course, but they tend to be gangster tales, with the odd low-budget horror thrown in, the best of these being ‘Shaun of the Dead’, ‘The Children’, ‘Kill List’ and ‘The Glass Man’, which is still in distribution limbo two years after being made. A shame, because it’s a terrific film.
Also unavailable is the terrifying ‘Dr Petiot’ from 1990, starring Michel Serrault as the eponymous real-life murderer who saved lives as a doctor and helped to kill Jews. The central image of him cycling through tunnels with his black cape billowing has stayed with me – if anyone knows where this film can be found now, let me know.