There are certain films that a serious film fan just should not admit to liking. They should revile them, pour criticism upon them, and expose their flaws and weaknesses, all the time secretly enjoying them, in private. The following films all fall into this category, for some reason or another. Trouble is, I really like them all, and I will try to explain why.
Pretty in Pink. A 1986 American romantic drama, with High School kids fretting over relationships and Prom dances. Come on, me? It should just go into the bin, surely? But no, you would miss out on some great performances, good characterisations, and some young actors really stepping up, to lift his film out of its brat-pack roots. You even get Harry Dean Stanton, as the pouting Molly Ringwald’s dad. This hackneyed tale of poor girl from the wrong side of the tracks, falling for rich boy she can’t have, is just that. But it’s better than that, so much better, and the reason is simplicity itself. Because they all take it so seriously, playing their parts as if they are in a Stephen Soderbergh Art House film, many years later. (And some were). We get early flashes of brilliance from James Spader, as the slimy friend of the object of Molly’s Ringwald’s desire, and a quiet, sleepy turn from Andrew McCarthy, as the boy himself. What seals the deal for me, is the fantastic performance by Jon Cryer, as the socially inept Duckie, who has always loved the girl, and is prepared to sacrifice everything for her happiness. His mimed performance of ‘Try a little tenderness’, across the floor of a record shop, is one of my favourite moments in cinema. Then there is the title song, performed by the Psychedelic Furs, but only over the closing credits, at least on my version. Pop magic. Oh yes, there is a happy ending too, sorry about that. Here is Duckie, miming to the Otis Redding version of that song I mentioned. I could watch this every day.
Caligula. This 1979 epic was directed by Tinto Brass, an Italian film maker well-known for his cheap titillation films, on the borders of soft porn. It was funded by Bob Guccione, head of the Penthouse magazine and blue film empire, and had to be cut to ninety minutes for cinema showing, because of its nudity, and pornographic content. It is now available uncut, in a full version, running just under three hours. What’s to like then? Well, pretty much everything, and for one good reason, the cast. As they say in poker, read ’em and weep. Peter O’Toole, John Geilgud, Helen Mirren, a clutch of Italy’s finest, and Malcolm McDowell, playing the lead role of Caligula, in a manner so crazy, it was a wonder he wasn’t banged up in a nuthouse as soon as filming ceased. Even a hammy script, dubbed Italian hunks, and completely shameless sex and full-frontal nudity, cannot detract from the quality of the performances. There are mad set pieces too. A huge machine that cuts off the heads of prisoners buried up to their necks in the sand. A scene in an Imperial brothel, where the wives of senators are forced to take on all comers, to raise money, is filmed on a vast set, with a huge cast of fornicating extras, indulging in all kinds of unspeakable perversity. There is rape, murder, buggery, torture, execution, incest, and even abortion by disemboweling. No degradation is too low to sink to. But this was Rome, at the time of its most depraved emperor; that was pretty much what it was like. I feel I should apologise in advance, but I just can’t resist it. Make sure you get the uncut version though, and don’t watch it with your Mum. Here is the scene with the bizarre head-chopping machine. Adults only!
The Blair Witch Project. In 1999, this indie film, made on a shoestring budget, took the fringe festivals by storm in America. Audiences screamed, or walked out of the cinemas, either from fear, or disgust at how bad it was. It made the evening news in the UK, and the hype was full-on. The best promoted film, with no budget for promotion, ever. I finally got round to seeing it, expecting the worst. Hand-held camera, unknown small cast, all set in a few acres of woodland. How can it possibly be any good? It wasn’t good, it was fantastic. Everything about it screamed talent, and innovation. The three lead actors gradual downward spiral into distrust, and downright hatred of each other, is superbly portrayed. The tension built up by the finding of a few twigs or stones, arranged in a pattern, is hard to imagine, until you see it. Close up camera angles, and one of the cast always being out of shot, filming the others, it all just works. The night photography, and eerie sounds heard from the black expanse outside the tent, can make the hair stand up on your arms. And the last scene, with little action except one person standing motionless in a dark room, lit by the camera, is one of the most chilling moments I have ever witnessed in a film. Believe the hype. This is that last scene. Do you see what I mean?
Witchfinder General. There have been remarkably few films about the English Civil War. This 17th Century conflict ravaged most of England, and set families against each other, resulting in the execution of the King, and a short-lived dictatorship by Cromwell. As someone very interested in this subject, I tend to collect, or at least watch, all and any films made about it, or set during those years; and this is one of them. Made in 1968, it was sold to the public as a ‘horror’ film, with scenes of torture, executions, and some sexual content. By today’s standards, it is remarkably tame, showing less than we might expect see on a modern TV drama, after the viewing watershed. It stars Vincent Price, as Matthew Hopkins, who was actually a real person, and self-styled ‘Witchfinder’ during those times. Using this time period, and the Civil War setting, is merely an excuse for a film about nasty people, preying on the fears and insecurities of an ignorant population, already in shock, as a result of this devastating war. Hopkins, and his leering assistant, obtain money (and some sexual gratification) by examining women, to see if they are witches, and they usually are found to be so, and executed accordingly. Hopkins is then paid by the local dignitaries, in gratitude for his ‘work’, before moving on to the next town. He uses the spurious authority of ‘Parliament’ as his cover, although he was never officially appointed to that role. The meek villagers he encounters are too afraid to question him, and he continues unchallenged, until he makes the mistake of interfering with the family of a young Roundhead cavalryman, a member of Oliver Cromwell’s regiment. This proves his undoing in the film, though of course, this was not the case in real life. This film enjoys cult status with many, and does have some effective moments, alongside many questionable acting performances. I like it simply for the Civil War connection, you may well enjoy it for a number of other reasons. Who knows? Here is the theatrical trailer.
Excalibur. The legend of King Arthur, and the Knights of the Round Table, has been the subject of numerous films, almost all of them forgettable. From the cringe-worthy musical ‘Camelot’, to the lampooning farce of ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’, there have been many others, purporting to bring the truth behind this legend onto the screen. In 1981, the film maker John Boorman threw his hat into the ring, and brought us this epic version. Taking liberties with time and place, and moving the events from their supposed time in the 6th Century, forward a few hundred years to a more recognisable medieval setting, he assembled a magnificent cast, and a suitable budget. At the time, I remember coming out of the cinema in London, thinking that I may have just seen a future masterpiece. The crashing soundtrack, swirling visuals, and (for that time) astounding special effects, left me reeling. Thirty years later, it does all seem a bit tame, and surprisingly clumsy in parts, but I have not lost my affection for it. Helen Mirren is at her sex-siren best as the wicked Morgana, playing her part as if it was written by Shakespeare. Nicol Williamson as Merlin is capricious, irritable, and yet shows that it is really him that holds all power, regarding the other characters like children, that he has to look after. Nicholas Clay plays a worthy Lancelot, even though costume (and direction? ) make him come across like a gay pin-up boy. The cast list rolls on, never failing to impress; Gabriel Byrne, Cherie Lunghi, Patrick Stewart , Liam Neeson, Corin Redgrave, at times it just feels as if everyone is in it. Nigel Terry takes the lead as Arthur, a strange choice. For reasons best known to the director, and possibly Nigel himself, he plays the part as a country bumpkin, with appropriate accent, and slack-jawed appearance. Supposedly educated and groomed to manhood for his role as the King, by Merlin, he doesn’t really alter his performance at all. That aside, there are other treats in store. Robert Addie appears as Mordred, the incestuously conceived son of Arthur, all childish wickedness, and resplendent in gold armour, looking as camp as a row of tents. He brings the country to war, famine, and disease, by attempting to seize the throne; and the Knights leave, in search of the grail, which they believe will save the realm. It is great stuff really, pretty much irresistible, but it is tosh. Here is a medley clip, accompanied by the powerful music of Carl Orff.
Sorry about the length of some of those reviews, I suppose they took longer, as I had to explain why I like things that are generally considered to be unwatchable, or forgettable. Each of these films remains fresh in my mind, and each supplied one or two fantastically memorable scenes, that I will never forget. That sums it up, I think.