ABSOLUTE SHOCKERS

Short Sharp Shocks 1 & 2. BFI Flipside. BluRay 2020/21.

Short films are now a rarity on our cinema screens. This was not the case once. From the early 1950’s the BFI funded shorts and Rank produced their Look at Life series. If you blinked you’d miss something weirdly experimental or suffer a boring documentary on the steel industry. These films were squeezed in before the local ads and the main feature until 1985 when the Eady Fund ceased its finance for the short film
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I love the series title - Short Sharp Shocks. It evokes benefit withdrawal for the work shy or army training tactics. However these two Blu Ray sets provide more pleasure than punishment in the form of the short horror tale and mystery thriller.

So what has BFI Flipside resurrected and digitised? It’s a variable selection. There are a few duds but for the most part I was amused, excited and sometimes disturbed. Some have dated. Some look modern. And one felt positively transgressive. Twenty two oddities providing very different ‘shocks’ for which I’ll provide an overview and try to avoid plot spoilers.


SHORT SHARP SHOCKS 1

Lock your Door. 15 mins. (1949) and The Reformation of Jules. 14mins. (1949)

At the age of 82 Algernon Blackwood narrated these two stories. They were shot in his living room or a perhaps a studio set? Blackwood walks round, sits down and stands up a fair bit yet what’s most disconcerting is the fact that he doesn’t ever look directly at the camera: as Blackwood casually speaks of a haunted room, let for a night, to a stranded woman and an incident of mechanical sky-writing this creates an uneasy distancing.

I recently read Nicola Bowring’s essay “Algernon Blackwood’s Storytelling and the Horrors of Space.” This was probably in my mind as I watched Blackwood in his tele-visual space. It’s almost as if his indirect presentation is hinting at a ‘presence’ he’s encountered and can’t bring himself to reveal. Now these may be Blackwood’s unconscious thoughts or he’s just following his director’s instructions. Whatever the reason the films proved to be a beguiling watch.

The Tell-Tale Heart. (1953) 21mins. 1953

A very young Stanley Baker gives an excellent performance as Edgar Allan Poe writing The Tell-Tale Heart and also plays the murderer in the story. Its shot in black and white, filmed in a garret and is a gothic delight. Shadows are subtly used to convey a sense of increasing anxiety and guilt. One long-held shot of the outline of Baker’s face against his garret wall effectively conveys his inner shadow side. It’s an atmospheric 21 minutes, given back then an “H” certificate by the local council. Horrific, No. Compelling, Yes. And in this solo act Stanley Baker makes eye contact with you!

Death Was a Passenger. 18mins. (1958)

Death Was a Passenger is a mystery tale told in flashback. “A Frenchman who can’t speak French might be a bit awkward.” says the British airman to the French passengers in his train compartment. Terence Alexander’s under-powered performance didn’t convince me of his dilemma as he tries to escape into wartime Spain. However the actors playing the nuns in the carriage are better cast and engage. Plus there’s a well handled fight scene where a Gestapo officer is killed.

Portrait of a Matador. 24 mins. (1958)

Along with Death Was a Passenger this short was directed by Theodore Zichy a Hungarian count, racer, pilot and playboy.

A tale of mystery concerning a Spanish matador who’s insulted by a portrait of himself. On his deathbed the matador says he will seek vengeance, which he does employing the painting as a weapon. It’s mailed to the artist David (Anthony Tancred) who on viewing it suffers from “auto-suggestion.” A knife wound appears on David’s neck. The painting is destroyed by David’s girlfriend and the wound disappears. Some overacting and clunky dialogue doesn’t help but it’s strikingly directed and decorative when it matters.

Twenty Nine. 26mins. (1969) 

The mystery of Twenty Nine is very much of the druggy 1960’s variety. How did I wake up, with a hangover, wearing strange clothes, in this strange flat, after a very strange night? The promiscuous Graham (Aexis Kanner) puts together the puzzle in this engaging piece. Music fans will enjoy its alternative pop single soundtrack of obscure bands. Twenty Nine evokes a ‘liberated’ 60’s time and place before ending with a final imprisoning conceit.

The Sex Victims. 37 mins. (1973)

The sleazy title The Sex Victims feels inappropriate for a film about a truck driver pursuing a naked blonde woman riding her horse through the woods. This Lady Godiva escapade is reinforced by an odd trickster of a tramp who suddenly startles driver (Ben Howard). We are in an intriguing semi-fantasy zone. 

But The Sex Victims’ soft-core porn style and casual sexism jarred. 37 minutes of padded out filming – a chase scene, with Felicity Devonshire, wearing a flimsy lingerie, being chased by Ben Howard goes on and on. Much woodland eroticism is contrasted with a world of transport cafes, A1 roads, and sex obsessed truckers. The social mores of the time ring true but are never redeemed by sympathetic performances. The intervention of the police and explanations, for the missing blonde, makes for an unconvincing conclusion. And it’s hard to believe that when the truck driver turns up for a lesson, at the riding school, that he’s already an experienced rider. On horseback his working class lust blends with the arrogance of an eighteenth century rake.

A 70’s time-capsule of the blokeish treatment of women which fails to critically explore an interesting, if weird collision with folklore.

The Lake. 33 mins. (1976)
The Errand. 29 mins. (1980) 

Arriving at The Lake and the final film The Errand (1980) BFI Flipside begins to deliver real cinematic shocks. Short, Sharp Shocks’ accompanying booklet contains a 2020 interview with The Lake’s director Lindsey Vickers who cites Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock as his influences. There’s certainly a Hitchcock feel to his filming as Vickers adroitly employs slow tracking shots in his accomplished horror film.

A young couple are picnicking near a lake in the country grounds of an estate where years ago a father mysteriously murdered his family and then vanished. Spirits of the dead haunt the place and the couple are set up to be its innocent victims. One of The Lake’s most powerful moments is when Barbara (Julie Peasgood) is locked in her car and physically shaken by a supernatural force. The windscreen shatters and the car drives itself towards the lake.

Around the couple we experience a palpable sense of them being watched by an invisible family in the woods (My slight criticism here is that the director briefly shows a sole spectral figure – it really wasn’t required). Still the threatening and animalistic way the camera stalks the couple is impressively managed. The Lake’s story allows for a suggestiveness that will culminate in violence, but it’s never gratuitous to the plot. Warm and believable performances from Julie Peasgood and her partner Tony (Gene Foad) contribute to a menacing short without a minute wasted.

I followed this with the disquieting The Errand. Young men are undergoing training for a secret army in a military academy hidden in the countryside. They are sent on errands to collect information from a woman waiting at a disused military pillbox: here they are attacked and killed. Captain Grant (J. Edward Kalinski) is left dying from stab wounds. The locals are reluctant to shelter him. When an ambulance does arrive to take him to hospital the medics turn out to be the enemy whose identity and motive remains enigmatic.

I found the violence of The Errand to be realistic and frightening reminding me of the authoritarian interventions in that great BBC nuclear-state thriller, Edge of Darkness (1985).


SHORT SHARP SHOCKS 2

Quiz-Crime no. 1. (The Crooked Billet Murder and Back Stage Murder) 14 mins 1943.

In 1954 British Foundation pictures produced their Quiz Crime shorts. These are whodunits where a fictional detective presents a fictional case and provides you with the clues.

The quiz series opens with a wonderful series of unintentionally funny shots of people reading crime fiction. What follows is the crime, then crime details are pointed up verbally and visually. So much so that our voice-over fictional detective constantly duplicates the information we can see before our eyes. “Suddenly it all dawned on me!” he cries.

Yes, I see.

Quiz-Crime no. 2. (The Case of the Stolen Boy and The Hairless Boarder) 19 mins. (1944)

An upper-class nanny with a wonderful cut-glass accent; a tailor’s dummy, dressed in an overcoat, revealed to illustrate how the killer of a landlady hides the bloodstains on his coat; “Tragedy was written all over his face.” says the detective about the boy’s distraught father and further voice-over analysis of the obvious and not so obvious. This was Cluedo for the cinema patron before they devised the board game.

The Three Children. 3 mins. (1946)

Probably made by the Wansford and Woodford road safety commission The Three Children is a creepy little film where a dark stranger allegorically leads three small children into an uncertain future. Walking against the back drop of wintry trees in the park the group looks like a composition in an Ingmar Bergman film.

Escape from Broadmoor. 39 mins. (1948)

For the first two thirds you have to tolerate a murky looking print and some lumbering dialogue. Yet John Le Mesurier is darkly sinister as the killer who’s escaped from prison. The house robbery scene works very well.

The thieves are interrupted by a strange woman who turns out to be the ghost of the person that Pendicost (ie. Mesurier) murdered ten years ago. She taunts, cajoles and warns him in a mesmeric way. This unusual intervention subverts a routine crime story. We are in uncanny territory and John Gilling’s direction becomes more assured as he carefully spins it out for a longish ten minutes. The house owner has had a presentiment that something out of the ordinary would occur that night. It did. A ghost appeared and improved the film.

Mingoloo. 20 mins. 1958

A third short from Theodore Zichy. For me it’s the former count/playboy as his best. Artist Mark Langtree (Anthony F.Page) has a dream where he’s asked to sculpt a Chinese dog (Mingoloo). He reluctantly does. Mark’s assistant Linda (Therese Burton) is asked by a foreign dignitary, and drug dealer, to sell him the sculpture so he can make toy copies in which wants to smuggle in his drugs.

The story is silly but Zichy directs with flamboyant ease. The nightclub moments and a dream scene, involving a giant version of Minoloo towering over Linda, are imaginatively produced. Dreamy, exotic and with one of the most memorable socks on the jaw I can recall in any B picture (The fist is waiting just behind the door and when it delivers it’s both hilarious and surprising). Forget some of the strained acting and go with flow of Mingoloo and you’ll find it great fun.

Jack the Ripper, with Screaming Lord Sutch. 3 mins. (1963)

The film’s title is self explanatory. Screaming Lord Sutch lurges into a ‘bad taste’ take on Hammer Horror. Inevitably the film contains grotesquely leering close ups of the Ripper as he attacks his busty victims. But what gives this short a mad swaggering charm is the fact it was produced by the now legendary Joe Meek and once banned by the BBC.

The Face of Darkness. 57mins. (1976)

Britain has produced some imaginative horror films ranging from Dead of Night to The Haunting and The Innocents. Yet there is a niche group of horror films that have a raw and visceral relationship to the flesh. I don’t mean they are all necessarily bloodthirsty but what they all do is make your skin crawl because of their sanguine ability to connect to an earlier time. I am thinking of Witchfinder General (Cromwellian Norfolk) Peeping Tom (Soho, London at the end of the fifties) and Deathline (Victorian cannibal trapped in an early 1970’s West End London tube). To this select list I can now add The Face of Darkness (a medieval undead one returning to late seventies Southern England).

“Blood is the instrument of dreams.” says the medieval villager of The Face of Darkness. A poetic declaration from someone thought to have the soul of the devil and therefore is buried alive. So why would a Conservative MP in 1976 want to re-animate someone from 1491?

Edward Langdon (Lennard Pearce) is traumatised by the death of his wife, three years ago, when her throat was cut, and her blood drunk by members of a satanic cult. This angry back-bench MP wants more power by introducing a bill for the government to create a society like a police state in order to prevent the violence of anarchist and terrorist groups. To do this he consults books on the occult and how to revive the undead. Once learnt the MP messenger must instruct the chosen one to commit a shocking act of violence and thus vindicate his proposed bill. This will involve a blood relative (a mother) and a victim (a schoolgirl).

However Langdon makes a mistake and doesn’t cut out the tongue of the undead one (played by David Allister). This means he’s free to verbally seduce the mother and captivate the girl, who he names Pandora, before leaving a box, inside a magic circle, chalked up on a school playground and containing a bomb which kills her. Afterwards the minister’s bill becomes law, but the 1491 being will not die. He’s here to stay and will plague Langdon day and night.

There are not many films that combine the occult, a social critique of political power, family trauma and a bloody thriller. The Face of Darkness does, and it's brilliantly realised. Its rawness and intensity being realised by the confident direction and writing of Ian F.H. Lloyd: the edgy photography of Peter Harvey; a strangely ominous music score from Martin Jacklin and the film’s remarkable performances. Lennard Pearce, David Allister and John Bennet (playing both medieval inquisitor and modern psychiatrist) are outstanding. They horrify and fascinate, ensnaring the viewer with intelligent, deadly serious acting: nothing is made to sound risible in The Face of Darkness concerning the violent powers they speak of: they are real, dark and complex, have been irrevocably conjured up and can’t be returned to their satanic source. 

In 1976 some of its religious scenes (The soon-to-be buried alive man being nailed to a cross and tortured); family drug taking and the politician’s kissing of his accomplice to bring him to life might have appeared borderline transgressive. Not so, today. But they still disturb.

The Face of Darkness’s director was interviewed for Short, Sharp Shock's booklet where he describes his practical difficulties in shooting the film. Unfortunately we don’t learn anything about the ideas of the film, Lloyd’s scripting or research. The Face of Darkness is not without faults. I never quite understood why the mother was repelled by the occult and then appears to react with and inter-act with occult powers so quickly. The psychiatrist’s speech is overlong and laden with references to ECT and how could the undead one have managed to enter a school playground, draw an occult circle and not be approached by a teacher?

Yet putting repetition, puzzling behaviour and implausibility to one side, I am delighted that the BFI reissued this powerful film. The Face of Darkness alone would make you want to buy Short Sharp Shocks 2. Such a forgotten gem needs supporters.

The three films after this may appear to be an anti-climax but here they are.

The Dumb Waiter. 17mins. (1979)

A beautifully shot and edited stalker film that thankfully stops well short of being an obvious slasher experience. Geraldine James is excellent as the woman being followed by a menacing man, in his car, and then in her flat. Director Robert Bierman went on to direct Nicholas Cage in Vampire’s Kiss and his current film project is Ruthven based on the original vampire story, The Vampyre by John Polodori.

Hangman. 16 mins. (1985)

A construction-industry safety information film. Numerous shots of the staged falls of guys working on insecure scaffolding, walls and ladders creating their own dark rhythm through editor Austin Martin and stunt man Stuart Fell. The hangman presenter, wearing black jeans, vest and mask, also becomes an accident victim in a gleefully black piece of propaganda for heath and safety issues.

The Mark of Lilith. 33mins. (1986)

Instead of Short Sharp Shocks 2 ending with an appropriate bang I’m afraid it’s more of a whimper. Polly Biswas Gladwin, one the three credited directors of The Mark of Lilith says “We borrowed ideas from Brecht and Godard, such as breaking down the fourth wall for an alienation effect – to hinder the audience from identifying with underlying dominant ideologies and points of view of mainstream cinematic production.” 

Nothing wrong with that. Nor a feminist dissection of the vampire myth. It’s how you do it. Unfortunately the film’s constant reading out from texts on how female goddesses have been ignored by patriarchy came across as preachy and stilted. And the attempt by a young black woman, “doing her own research.” so as to tackle the morality of a white vampire woman, she’s gone to bed with, struck me as absurd. Please attack mainstream cinema but with something genuinely experimental and uncomfortable not this obvious, and now dated didactic short. One for students of eighties structuralism only!



How to sum up the totality of all these 22 shocks? Well, I won’t sum them up because they are all so divergently different in tone and ambition and I hope they are successful enough for the BFI to issue more sets and perhaps move the emphasis from horror and mystery to include SF and more political thrillers? We shall see.
  • Alan Price

Source: pelicanist

ABSOLUTE SHOCKERS