The hunt is on

 

© 20th Century Fox / Silver Pictures

 

I don’t know which work of short fiction has impacted most on the cinema.  However, I’d bet that Richard Connell’s 8400-word opus The Most Dangerous Game (1924), also known as The Hounds of Zaroff, ranks at least in the top ten short stories that have influenced filmmakers.

 

The Most Dangerous Game is about a big game hunter called Rainsford who falls off a yacht in the Caribbean.  He gets washed ashore on an island belonging to General Zaroff, a Russian exile and another hunting enthusiast.  Zaroff, it transpires, has grown bored of hunting animals and graduated to hunting bigger game, i.e. human beings.  So he dedicates himself to tracking down and killing the poor sailors who frequently get shipwrecked in the treacherous waters around his island.  Zaroff is delighted by Rainsford’s arrival because now he has a quarry he can really pit his wits against.

 

Armed only with a knife, Rainsford is soon being pursued across the island’s forests, swamps and clifftops by the crazed Zaroff, who’s equipped with proper firepower and supported by a hulking henchman and a pack of hungry hounds.  A typical hunter, Zaroff makes sure the odds are stacked in his favour.

 

The Most Dangerous Game has been filmed officially several times, most recently in 2017 under the title of Never Leave Alive.  Several loose adaptations of it have appeared too.  But its premise of humans hunting other humans lurks in the DNA of dozens, if not hundreds, of films in the action-adventure, thriller, science fiction and horror genres – including the Hunger Games movies, the Saw ones, the original Rambo one (1982) and that infamous Japanese bloodbath Battle Royale (2000).

 

I recently discovered Connell’s story on the Internet and read it for the first time.  Some of it is surprising if, like me, you’ve already seen many of the films it’s inspired.  For one thing, Connell spends about 6000 of his 8400 words setting up the situation, before the hunt begins.   Admittedly, he squeezes a lot of action into the final quarter.  Rainsford flees through the forests and swamps to the cliffs, tries and fails to kill Zaroff with three hastily-improvised traps – a Malay man-catcher, a Burmese tiger-pit and a Ugandan knife-trap – fakes his own death and returns to Zaroff’s headquarters for a final showdown.

 

Also surprising is Rainsford’s lack of self-awareness.  The irony of his situation is implicit in the story, obviously, but he never recognises that irony himself.  The Most Dangerous Game begins with him sailing for South America with the intention of shooting jaguars and you get the impression that, once he leaves the island, he’ll continue to South America and shoot jaguars.  His experience of being hunted like an animal hasn’t increased his empathy for hunted animals.

 

Still, there’s much to enjoy.  Particularly amusing is the scene where Zaroff describes his modus operandi to a slowly-comprehending Rainsford:

 

“I wanted the ideal animal to hunt,” explained the general.  “So I said, ‘What are the attributes of an ideal quarry?’  And the answer was, of course, ‘It must have courage, cunning, and, above all, it must be able to reason.”

“But no animal can reason,” objected Rainsford.

“My dear fellow,” said the general, “there is one.”

 

So much for the original story, then.  What about the countless humans-hunting-humans movies that have come in its wake?  The following are my favourites.

 

© RKO Radio Pictures

 

The Most Dangerous Game (1932)

This is a direct adaptation of the story by Ernest D. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper, who made it while they were also making King Kong (1933).  They filmed it at night on Kong’s jungle sets, including the famous one depicting a gorge spanned by a fallen tree-trunk.  Connell’s plot is followed closely, though it’s pumped up and made more cinematic – a bigger proportion of the film is devoted to the hunt, Zaroff (Leslie Banks) has more henchmen helping him out and, in another overlap with Kong, Fay Wray is added as a love interest for Rainsford (Joel McCrea).  Also added is a grotesque trophy room where the heads of Zaroff’s victims are displayed – the glimpses we get of those heads wouldn’t have been allowed a few years later, after Hollywood’s censorious Hays Code was imposed in 1934.  Leslie Banks, sporting real facial scars that he acquired whilst fighting in World War I, is entertaining as Zaroff; though by attempting to do a Russian accent by rolling his ‘r’s a lot, he ends up sounding more like a demented Scotsman.

 

The Naked Prey (1965)

Shifting The Most Dangerous Game’s premise to 19th century South Africa, The Naked Prey has a group of white hunters offending and then falling foul of a local tribe.  The last survivor, played by Cornel Wilde (who also directed and produced), is stripped of his clothes and hunted across the veldt by the vengeful tribesmen.  I saw this as a kid and was traumatised by its stark depictions of the horrors inflicted by the hunters – an early scene shows native bearers plodding in and out of the gutted carcasses of slain elephants – and the horrors inflicted on them by the locals.

 

© United Artists

 

The Hunting Party (1971)

Here, The Most Dangerous Game is reworked in the guise of a Western.  A gang of outlaws led by a thuggish Oliver Reed – while most British actors stick out like sore thumbs when they appear in Westerns, Reed really looks the part – kidnap a woman (Candice Bergman), not knowing that her husband (Gene Hackman) is a wealthy cattle-baron who’s even more psychotic than they are.  He’s currently on a hunting trip with some buddies, using newly-developed long-range rifles with telescopic sights.  When he learns what’s happened, Hackman and his fellow hunters set off in pursuit, picking off the outlaws one by one at their leisure, from a safe distance.  Critics loathed The Hunting Party on account of its level of bloodletting, which was obviously inspired by Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969).  But I find it fascinating just for its single-minded nihilism.  Hackman’s prey get little chance to fight back; and even while his friends abandon him, sickened by his cruelty, Hackman keeps going, determined to kill ’em all.

 

Punishment Park (1971)

The underrated radical filmmaker Peter Watkins was responsible for Punishment Park, a fictional docu-drama  that transposes The Most Dangerous Game to a near-future dystopian USA – one where both the Vietnam War and opposition to it have escalated and Richard Nixon is drafting increasing numbers into the police and National Guard to maintain order at home.  The titular punishment park is a set-up whereby police and Guardsmen hunt down political dissidents (i.e. anti-war protestors, hippies and civil rights activists) while they try to cross an area of desert.  The former get valuable experience and training while the latter, if they can cross the park without being apprehended, supposedly win back their freedom.   Everything is viewed through the neutral eyes of a European film crew who are making a documentary about the process – though as the one-sided nature of things becomes clear to them, they find it harder to maintain that neutrality.  It’s a disorientating and disturbing piece that feels no less relevant today, given the way things are going in Trump-era America.

 

© Chartwell Francoise / Project X Distribution

 

The Beast Must Die (1974)

Strictly speaking, British horror movie The Beast Must Die isn’t about humans hunting humans.  It’s about humans hunting werewolves, though you could argue that werewolves are human for at least part of the time.  Calvin Lockhart – the first black actor to land the leading role in a British horror film – plays a millionaire hunter determined to bag a lycanthrope.  He rigs up his country estate with CCTV cameras and motion sensors, procures a helicopter and invites five unsavoury people to visit for a few days convinced that one of them – he’s not sure which one – is a werewolf.  Even watching this movie as a teenager I knew Lockhart’s logic was barmy.  What if he’s got it wrong and none of them is a werewolf?  He’ll be really disappointed.  Or what if they’re all werewolves?  They’ll surely rip him to pieces.  But nonetheless, The Beast Must Die is good, daft fun.  The sneaky werewolf gradually gets the better of Lockhart and his hi-tech equipment, whilst also bumping off his staff and guests Ten Little Indians-style.  (These include Peter Cushing, Charles Gray, Anton Diffring and a youthful Michael Gambon).

 

Southern Comfort (1981)

Perhaps the most accomplished film on this list, Southern Comfort was made by Walter Hill when he was at the height of his powers.  It tells the tale of a National Guard unit on weekend manoeuvres in the Bayou who unwisely antagonise an unseen group of Cajun hunters.  With its premise of supposedly well-trained, well-equipped American soldiers floundering in unfamiliar terrain, the film is often viewed as an allegory about the Vietnam War; but as the Cajuns prey on their victims using traps, quicksand and savage hunting dogs, the film’s roots in The Most Dangerous Game are plain to see too.

 

© 20th Century Fox / Cinema Group Ventures

 

Predator (1987)

A sci-fi / action highlight of the late 1980s when Arnold Schwarzenegger was King of the Box Office, Predator has clear parallels with The Most Dangerous Game.  Ah-nuld and a team of testosterone-stuffed commandoes (Carl Weathers, Jesse Ventura, etc.) enter the jungle to hunt down some insurgents, only to find themselves being hunted, for sport, by a grotesque-looking alien.  Yes, this is really an alien-hunts-humans movie, but the alien has all the characteristics of a human big game hunter.  It collects trophies (skulls) and, possessing deadly heat-rays, super-powerful sensors and an invisibility device that Harry Potter would be proud of, it hunts secure in the knowledge that it has technological advantages that its prey doesn’t have.

 

Surviving the Game (1994)

A homeless man (Ice-T) thinks his luck is on the up when he’s hired by a group of wealthy men to be their assistant during a hunting holiday in the remote Pacific Northwest.  But – surprise! – it soon turns out that he isn’t assisting them, he’s being shot at by them.  Surviving the Game is silly and predictable but I like it for its spectacular mountain landscapes and its excellent cast.  In addition to the always-endearing Ice-T, it has F. Murray Abraham playing a Wall Street stockbroker who believes that hunting people sharpens his business instincts, Gary Busey playing a deranged psychiatrist who finds hunting people therapeutic, and Rutger Hauer playing the evil scuzz-ball who’s masterminded the operation.  With a trophy room of human heads and a sequence involving a gorge spanned by a fallen tree, the film also makes visual references to the 1932 movie version of The Most Dangerous Game.

 

© Carnaby Film Productions / Kaleidoscope Film Distribution

 

A Lonely Place to Die (2011)

This is a neat little British thriller about a group of mountaineers in the Scottish Highlands who discover a young Eastern European girl, obviously a kidnap victim, locked in an underground vault.  Unfortunately, the kidnappers (chillingly played by Sean Harris and Stephen McCole) are in the area too, with high-powered rifles, and decide to retake the girl and eliminate her would-be rescuers.  As well as featuring some beautiful scenery in Glencoe and Glen Etive and some vertiginous rock-climbing set-pieces, the film has a grimly funny scene where the villains encounter two proper hunters, out shooting deer, who fatally mistake them for animal rights activists.

 

Revenge (2017)

Coralie Fargeat’s stylish exploitation movie gives The Most Dangerous Game a feminist twist.  Millionaire drug-dealer Richard (Kevin Janssens) takes his glamorous mistress Jen (Matilda Lutz) to his luxury hideaway in the desert, where he also intends to meet up with two sleazy buddies for some hunting.  Things don’t go as planned – Jen is sexually assaulted, she threatens to tell everything to Richard’s wife, and Richard tries and fails to kill her.  When Jen flees, wounded, into the desert the three men saddle up with their hunting gear and set off in pursuit.  Jen, who early on looked like she’d go to pieces at the sight of a broken fingernail or a laddered stocking, suddenly develops some outdoor survival skills and begins turning the tables on them.  It’s preposterous stuff but, like all such films, you find yourself cheering when the hunted starts to bite back against the bastard hunters.

 

© Rezo Films / MES Productions / Monkey Pack Films

 

His Ollie-ness

 

(c) Constable

 

I recently read What Fresh Lunacy is This?, a biography of the late and legendarily hellraising British movie star Oliver – ‘Ollie’ – Reed.  Written in 2013 by the film journalist Robert Sellers, it’s a brisk and engaging book.  Sellers knows and delivers what his core readership wants, which is a detailed account of Ollie’s outrageous booze-fuelled antics during four decades of stardom.  But he’s also aware of Ollie’s films and gives these due attention and respect.

 

Sellers’ book fully conveys the paradox of Oliver Reed.  On one hand he was often kind-hearted, funny, loyal, boundlessly generous and impeccably good-mannered.  On the other hand his character also contained a Pandora’s Box of vices: petulance, childishness, boorishness, cruelty and obnoxiousness.  And usually what unlocked that box was the alcohol consumed during his interminable drinking sprees.

 

From moviemorlocks.com

 

What Fresh Lunacy is This? cites several possible reasons why Ollie poured so much liquor down his neck.  He was at heart a shy man and booze bolstered his confidence.  He was conscious of being both well-to-do and an actor, two things he didn’t much care for; and booze was his way of bonding with the common folk whom he felt much more comfortable with – builders, soldiers, sailors, gardeners, road-workers.  Later, he realised he was frittering his talents away on sub-standard movies and booze provided an outlet for his frustration.  And, ever the showman, he felt obliged to give the Great British public what they wanted, which was the spectacle of him raising hell on an apocalyptic scale.  The book never identifies which of these was the prime motivation for his behaviour.  I suspect it was a combination of them all.

 

What often gets overlooked in accounts of Ollie’s life is the fact that he was a very fine actor, one of the most memorably intense and brooding ones that the British film industry produced.  His CV contained some treasurable performances: as King in Joseph Losey’s The Damned (1963); Gerald Crich in Ken Russell’s Women in Love (1969); Father Urbain Grandier in Russell’s The Devils (1971); Athos in Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers (1973) and Four Musketeers (1974); Dr Raglan in David Cronenberg’s The Brood (1979); Vulcan in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen (1988); and Proximo in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000).  Thankfully, Sellers’ book gives his acting the credit it deserves.

 

Anyway, here are a few new facts I learned about Ollie whilst reading What Fresh Lunacy is This?

 

Ollie’s grandfather was Herbert Beerbohm Tree, who in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was, in the words of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, “one of the great figures of the English theatre” and “the most successful actor-manager of his time”.  Beerbohm Tree’s half-brother and Ollie’s great uncle, meanwhile, was the essayist, humourist and caricaturist Max Beerbohm whose one-and-only novel, Zuleika Dobson (1911), is ranked by the Modern Library publishing company at number 59 in the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.  Ollie bought the film rights to Great Uncle Max’s book but never managed to get it to the screen.

 

(c) The Rank Film Organisation

 

I’d known that, early in his career, Ollie had appeared briefly in The Bulldog Breed (1960), a gormless and irritating comedy featuring the gormless and irritating Norman Wisdom. He plays the leader of a gang of hoodlums who waylay Norman at a cinema and give him a (well-deserved in my opinion) kicking.  What I hadn’t known that one of the sailors who rescue Norman from the hoodlums was played by an equally young and un-famous Michael Caine.

 

In 1962 Ollie appeared in the swashbuckler Captain Clegg, one of several movies he made for the British studio Hammer Films, alongside the much-loved and gentlemanly horror-movie star Peter Cushing.  Noticing how Reed rather overacted in a scene where his character gets shot in the arm, Cushing later wrote him a letter of advice.  “I think you’re going to go a very long way, Oliver,” the letter said.  “But always remember, if you are hurt, you don’t have to act hurt.  If somebody grabs you, just blink.  The screen is so big that even the slightest movement makes the point.”  Ollie took Cushing’s suggestion on board.  His best performances are distinguished by their stillness and understatement.  He conveys a great deal with only a modicum of expression and movement.

 

The 1967 comedy I’ll Never Forget What’s ‘Isname was among a half-dozen films Ollie made for the famously gobby director Michael Winner.  Generally, Winner and him got along like a house on fire.  But one day, Ollie’s patience snapped when he had to film a scene where he was propelling a punt along the River Cam in Cambridge with, at one end of it, a cameraman and Michael Winner barking directions through a megaphone.  Ollie got so fed up with Winner “f**king rabbiting on in that grating voice of his” that eventually he jumped off the punt, taking the pole with him, and swam ashore – leaving Winner (“shouting and screaming and gesticulating so ferociously that he almost capsized the boat”) and his cameraman helplessly adrift on the river.

 

(c) The Guardian

 

Ken Russell’s The Devils saw Ollie appear alongside the actress and fervent left-wing political activist Vanessa Redgrave who, during filming, wanted to show solidarity with a one-day strike organised by the Trade Union movement against the early-1970s Conservative government.  She tried to get the performers and crew on the set to stop work and walk off it.  Ollie was having none of this, believing that a day’s strike-action was the last thing Britain’s beleaguered film industry needed.  The pair of them had a furious ten-minute confrontation about it in his dressing room, which culminated in Redgrave bursting into tears.  “So I put my arms around her,” recollected the gallant Ollie, “and gave her a cuddle.  Then I slapped her on the bottom and sent her back to her own dressing room.”

 

In the early 1970s, Ken Russell and Ollie were working on an ultimately-unrealised project about the quartet of knights who killed Thomas Beckett at Canterbury Cathedral in the 12th century.  Discussing the film in the great hall of Ollie’s country mansion one night, the pair of them somehow ended up in a swordfight that climaxed with Russell slashing open Ollie’s shirt, and his chest underneath, with a rusty six-foot broadsword.  “Excellent!” enthused the wounded hell-raiser.  “Now we’re blood brothers.”

 

Ollie’s 1981 movie Venom is the story of a house where a hostage situation is taking place and where, somehow, an ultra-poisonous black mamba snake is also slithering around loose, endangering both hostages and hostage-takers.  It’s infamous for the rivalry that existed on set between Ollie and his co-star, the great but deranged Polish-German actor Klaus Kinski.  Venom’s director, Piers Haggard, noted that Kinski “had no sense of humour”; whereas Ollie “had a fabulous sense of humour, very wicked… and he definitely liked a laugh at Klaus Kinski’s expense.”  One day Haggard was informed that the film’s financiers, the aristocratic Anglo-Irish Guinness family, would be visiting the set, but soon forgot all about it.  When Lord Guinness, his wife and children were ushered in, they were treated to an unscripted scene where Ollie, laughing like a maniac, came charging down a staircase pursued by an enraged Kinski who was screaming, “You f**king English c**t!”, presumably because he’d just been on the receiving end of an Ollie-prank.  Small wonder that Haggard claimed the black mamba had been the easiest cast-member to work with.

 

(c) Morrison Film Group / Handmade Films / Paramount

 

By the early 1980s, his career on the slide, Ollie made movies in some unlikely places with some unlikely backers.  The historical epic Lion of the Desert (1981) was filmed in Libya and funded by Colonel Gaddafi.  Meanwhile, A Clash of Loyalties (1983) was a personal project of Saddam Hussein and was made in Iraq even though the Iran / Iraq War was in full swing at the time.  Holed up in a large, boring hotel when they weren’t filming, Ollie’s antics kept the crew entertained.  On one occasion he created such a rumpus that several Arab guests pulled out guns, believing that the hotel was being attacked.

 

The early 1980s was also when Ollie had his penis – ‘the mighty mallet’ as he called it – tattooed and he liked nothing better than to whip it out in public and show people the results of the tattooist’s art.  Whilst making Castaway for the renowned British director Nicholas Roeg in the Seychelles in the mid-1980s, a dislike developed between Ollie and the producer’s assistant.  One day he spied her eating a meal in a restaurant, crept up behind her, loosened the tattooed mallet and dropped it onto her shoulder.  She promptly stabbed it with her fork.  Ollie did not attempt this stunt again.

 

Ollie cemented his reputation as a booze-monster with a string of drunken appearances on British TV chat shows during the late 1980s and early 1990s: Aspel and Company, Des O’Connor Tonight, After Dark and The Word.  In doing so, he effectively doomed what was left of his movie career since producers became too frightened of his reputation to hire him – as Sellers puts it, he was “the sniper at his own assassination”.  At least on Des O’Connor Tonight he befriended a fellow guest, the Liverpudlian comedian Stan Boardman.  When Boardman performed on the island of Guernsey, where by now Reed was living for tax purposes, he invited him to the gig.  There, Ollie didn’t take kindly to an audience-member who was heckling Boardman.  The comedian recalled how Ollie grabbed the heckler, “gave him a big bear hug, lifted him up on to his feet, dragged him out onto the dance floor and they collapsed together in front of about three hundred people.”  The next day, Stan and Ollie headed for a restaurant where by coincidence the exact same heckler was sitting having a meal.  Renewing hostilities, Ollie flung himself on top of him and they ended up rolling about the floor, knocking crockery everywhere.  The man eventually fled the restaurant.  Presumably he never heckled Stan Boardman again.

 

In 1999 Ollie died in Malta, where he’d been making Gladiator for Ridley Scott.  I knew he’d expired in an establishment in Valetta called the Pub, from a heart attack seemingly caused by over-exertion – he’d just been knocking back rums and arm-wrestling with a bunch of young ratings from a Royal Navy warship.   (In fact, I knew that very well because I’d drunk in the Pub in Valetta myself on a few occasions.)  However, I hadn’t known that his death happened by accident.  His original intention that day had been to have a quiet meal with his wife at a nearby Chinese restaurant, but the restaurant had been closed and instead they’d wandered into the Pub and encountered the sailors.

 

I like to think there’s a parallel universe where the Chinese restaurant had been open that fateful day, so that Ollie avoided the Pub, the ratings and the heart attack and survived to make a few more films – buoyed by the success of Gladiator and the acclaim that his performance in it received.  (As Proximo, he’s one of the best things in the movie.)  Who knows?  He might have worked with the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Danny Boyle, Michael Winterbottom and the Coen Brothers; and made a couple more pictures with old acquaintances such as Terry Gilliam, David Cronenberg and Ridley Scott.

 

(c) Scott Free Productions

 

Was there anything this man couldn’t do?

 

(c) WingNut Films

 

For a man who epitomised evil to generations of film-goers – he played, after all, Lord Summerisle, Dracula, Fu Manchu, Rasputin, Scaramanga, Comte de Rochefort, Frankenstein’s monster, the mummy, Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Blind Pew, Saruman, Count Dooku, the Jabberwocky, the Devil and, in the 2008 adaptation of Terry Pratchett’s The Colour of Magic, Death himself  – the passing of venerable actor Sir Christopher Lee has sparked a remarkable outpouring of love over the last few days, in online newspaper comment-threads, on Facebook and on Twitter.

 

The love has flowed both from ordinary punters and from the countless celebrities who knew and / or admired him.  And those celebrities have included some of the coolest people on the planet: Samuel L. Jackson, Martin Scorsese, Sir Iain McKellen, Stephen King, Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Alice Cooper, Slash from Guns n’ Roses, Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols, Bruce Campbell, Bryan Fuller, the Soska Sisters, the human movie-factory that is Roger Corman (who, in between tweeting to promote his new opus Sharktopus Vs Whalewolf, said of Lee, “Your talent, kindness and generosity will never be forgotten”) and Boris Johnson.  There was a deliberate mistake in that last sentence – did you spot it?

 

I don’t think the Queen has tweeted her condolences yet, but Joan Collins has, which is the next best thing.

 

From @joancollinsobe

 

Indeed, I’ve seen the adjective ‘awesome’ thrown around several times in description of the great man and his career.  But in my opinion, Lee wasn’t just awesome.  To me, he discovered the kingdom of Awesomeness and then journeyed in there and planted his flag (probably a skull and crossbones) on top of the highest peak of Awesomeness.  And to support this opinion, I’ll now remind you of a few of the things that Lee did during his 93 years on earth.

 

Until his death on June 7th, he was one of the last people alive who could claim to have met M.R. James, the greatest ghost story writer in English literature.  As a lad Lee encountered James, who was then Provost of Eton College, when his family tried, unsuccessfully, to enrol him there.  Lee obviously didn’t hold his failure to get into Eton against James because in the early noughties he played the writer in the BBC miniseries Ghost Stories for Christmas.  (Previously, Lee had attended Summer Fields School in Oxford, where one of his classmates was none other than the future John Steed-of-The Avengers Patrick Macnee.)

 

Incidentally, though in the late 1970s he penned an entertaining autobiography called Tall, Dark and Gruesome, Lee didn’t seem to go in for writing per se.  But he had literary connections aplenty.  He was step-cousin of James Bond’s creator, Ian Fleming; and by the time Peter Jackson got around to filming the Lord of the Rings trilogy (2002-2004), he could boast that he was the only member of the movies’ cast and crew who’d actually met J.R.R. Tolkien.  He was also good friends with Robert Bloch (author of Psycho), the fabulous Ray Bradbury, and posh occult-thriller-writer Dennis Wheatley, whose potboiler The Devil Rides Out Lee would persuade Hammer Films to adapt to celluloid in 1968.

 

Talking of Wheatley and the occult, Lee reputedly owned a library of books about black magic.  As a kid I remember reading a film book called The Horror People by the critic John Brosnan, in which Lee told Brosnan that his occult books were for reading purposes only and he would never try to practice the dark arts because – yikes! – “It’s too dangerous.”

 

Lee’s military service during World War II included attachments with the Special Operations Executive and the Long Range Desert Patrol (which was the forerunner to the SAS), but he kept schtum about what he actually did with them.  Decades later, though, he may have unintentionally dropped a hint about his secret wartime activities to Peter Jackson when, on set, he discreetly advised the Kiwi director about the sound a dying man would really make if he’d just had a knife planted in his back.

 

In the late 1940s he got into acting, although not with much initial success due to his being too tall (six-foot-four) and too foreign-looking (he had Italian ancestry).  During this period he at least learned how to swordfight, a skill he drew on when appearing in various low-budget swashbucklers.  During the making of one such film, 1955’s The Dark Avenger, the famously sozzled Errol Flynn nearly hacked off Lee’s little finger; although later Lee got revenge when, during a TV shoot with the same actor, a slightly-misaimed sword-thrust knocked off Flynn’s toupee, much to the Hollywood star’s mortification (and no doubt to everyone else’s amusement).

 

(c) 20th Century Fox

 

And I’ve read somewhere that when he made the swashbuckler The Scarlet Blade for Hammer in 1963, Lee taught a young Oliver ‘Ollie’ Reed the basics of sword-fighting.  I’m sure fight-choreographer William Hobbs and the stunt crew who worked on The Three Musketeers a decade later quietly cursed Lee for this.  (He starred alongside Reed in the film, playing the memorably eye-patched Comte de Rochefort.)  From all accounts, the ever-enthusiastic Ollie threw himself into the Musketeers’ sword-fights like a whirling dervish, and eventually one stuntman had to ‘accidentally’ stab him in the hand and put him out of action before he killed someone.

 

In 1956 and 1957 Lee got two gigs for Hammer films that’d change his fortunes and make him a star – playing the monster in The Curse of Frankenstein and then, on the strength of that, Bram Stoker’s famous vampire count in Dracula.  Apparently, Hammer wanted originally to hire the hulking comedic actor Bernard Bresslaw to play Frankenstein’s monster.  I suppose there’s a parallel universe out there somewhere where Bresslaw did indeed get the job; so that the man who played Little Heap in Carry On Cowboy (1965), Bernie Lugg in Carry On Camping (1969) and Peter Potter in Carry On Girls (1973) went on to play Count Dooku in the Star Wars movies and Saruman the White in the Lord of the Rings ones.

 

Playing Baron Frankenstein in The Curse of Frankenstein and Van Helsing in Dracula was the legendary Peter Cushing and he and Lee would hit it off immediately, become best mates and make another 18 films together.  Such was Lee’s affection for Cushing that I’m sure he wouldn’t have minded the other day when the ever-reliable Fox News f***ed up the announcement of Lee’s death by mistakenly flashing up a photograph of Peter Cushing playing Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars (1977).

 

(c) Fox News

 

Lee was famously uncomfortable about being branded a horror-movie star and about being associated with Dracula – an association that might thwart his ambitions for a serious acting career.  He did, though, play the character another six times for Hammer, and an eighth time in the Spanish production El Conde Dracula.  Tweeting a tribute to him the other day, Stephen King said, “He was the King of the Vampires.”  So sorry, Sir Chris, but when the man who wrote Salem’s Lot says you’re the King of the Vampires, you’re the King of the Vampires.

 

(c) Hammer Films

(c) Hammer Films

 

As Dracula, he got to bite Barbara Shelley, Linda Hayden, Anouska Hempel, Marsha Hunt and Caroline Munro.  Last-minute interventions by Peter Cushing in Dracula AD 1972 (1972) and The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973) prevented him from biting Stephanie Beacham and Joanna Lumley, which must have been frustrating.  Meanwhile, the 1965 movie Dracula, Prince of Darkness was the first really scary horror movie I ever saw, on TV, back when I was eight or nine years old.  I’d watched old horror films made by Universal Studios in the 1940s, like House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945), in which everything was discreetly black-and-white and bloodless, so I wasn’t prepared for an early scene in Dracula, Prince of Darkness’s where Lee / the count is revived during a ceremony that involves a luckless traveller being suspended upside-down over a coffin and having his throat cut, so that blood splatters noisily onto the supposedly dead vampire’s ashes.  I suspect that exposure to that traumatic scene transformed me from the morbid, oddball kid I was then into the normal, well-balanced adult I am today.  Or maybe it’s the other way around.

 

Thanks to Hammer’s success in the horror genre, the late 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s saw a boom in British, usually gothic, horror filmmaking.  And during that boom, Lee did many cool and memorable, though evil, things.  He drove his car into Michael Gough and squidged off Gough’s hand in Doctor Terror’s House of Horrors (1965).  He forced Vincent Price to immerse himself in a vat of acid in Scream and Scream Again (1969).  He turned up as a nasty, snobbish civil servant and tormented Donald Pleasence in Deathline (1972).

 

He did bad things to, and had bad things done to him in return by Peter Cushing.  As a mad-scientist-cum-asylum-keeper in The Creeping Flesh (1972), he brought a monster to life and then, after the monster had attacked Cushing and driven him insane with fear, he coolly incarcerated Cushing in his asylum.  Whereas in The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973) Cushing chased him through a prickly hawthorn bush – hawthorns are apparently not good for vampires and the experience, Lee recalled in his autobiography, left him ‘shedding genuine Lee blood like a garden sprinkler’ – before impaling him on a sharp, uprooted fence-post.  Meanwhile, the 1972 British-Spanish movie Horror Express featured a decomposing ape-man fossil that’d come back to life, was possessed by an alien force, had the power to suck people’s brains out through their eyeballs, and was generally such an evil motherf***er that Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing had to join forces to defeat it!  Silly horror movies don’t get any better than this.

 

(c) Jack Morrisey / The New Yorker

 

Fluent in French, Italian, Spanish and German, Lee also found it easy to find employment making horror movies on mainland Europe, where the gothic tradition was raunchier, more lurid and looser in its plot logic than its counterpart in Britain.  He worked with the Italian maestro Mario Bava and with the fascinatingly prolific, but erratic, Spanish director Jess Franco.  Despite Franco’s cheeky habit of shooting scenes with Lee and then inserting them into a totally different and usually pornographic movie – something Lee would only discover later, when he strolled past a blue-movie theatre in Soho and noticed that he was starring in something like Eugenie and the Story of her Journey into Perversion (1970) – Lee held the Spaniard in esteem and championed his work at a time when it was unfashionable to do so.  (Since his death in 2013, Franco’s reputation has begun to improve and art-house director Peter Strickland’s recent movie The Duke of Burgundy is a tribute, at least in part, to the man.)

 

Franco also directed later entries in a series of movies about Fu Manchu that Lee made in the 1960s, in which he played Sax Rohmer’s super-villain in rather unpolitically-correct Oriental makeup and spent his time barking orders at Chinese minions, who were usually played by Burt Kwouk.  And when Fu Manchu’s secret headquarters got blown up at the end, Lee’s voice would boom imperiously through the smoke: “The world will hear of me again!”  A prediction that proved to be right.

 

(c) Compton Films

 

In the early 1970s, Lee finally got opportunities to make the sort of films he wanted to make, including Richard Lester’s two Musketeers movies (1974 and 1975); the ninth official Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun (1975), in which he taunted Roger Moore, “You work for peanuts – a hearty well-done from Her Majesty the Queen and a pittance of a pension.  Apart from that, we are the same.  To us, Mr Bond.  We are the best…  Oh come, come, Mr Bond.  You get as much fulfilment out of killing as I do, so why don’t you admit it?”; and Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), regarded by many as the best attempt at bringing Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s deerstalker-wearing sleuth to the screen.

 

In that latter film, Lee played Holmes’s snooty brother Mycroft – the role that Mark Gatiss now plays in the popular BBC TV version with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Holmes and Watson.  Lee also played Sherlock Holmes himself several times, including in a couple of early-1990s TV movies with Dr Watson played by his long-ago school chum Patrick Macnee.  And he played Henry Baskerville in the 1959 Hammer adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles, which had Peter Cushing in the role of Holmes.  But for some strange reason, nobody ever thought of casting Lee as Professor Moriarty.

 

(c) Hammer Films

 

In 1973, he also played Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man, a film that needs no introduction from me.  It’s sad to think that recent years have seen the deaths of nearly all the film’s main cast members – Ingrid Pitt, Diane Cilento, Edward Woodward and now Lee – leaving just Britt Ekland in the land of the living.  So take care of yourself, Britt.  Go easy when you’re dancing naked around your bedroom.

 

Later in the 1970s, no longer so typecast in horror movies and with the British film industry on its deathbed, Lee decamped to Hollywood.  He ended up appearing in some big-budget puddings like dire 1977 disaster movie Airport 77 and Steven Spielberg’s supposed comedy 1941 (1979), but at least he was able to hang out with icons like Muhammad Ali and John Belushi.  And he didn’t, strictly speaking, stop appearing in horror movies.  He was in the likes of House of the Long Shadows (1982), The Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf (1985), The Funny Man (1994) and Talos the Mummy (1998), although Lee usually made the excuse that these films weren’t really horror ones.

 

The Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf wasn’t really a horror film?  Aye, right, Sir Chris.  At least you got to snog Sybil Danning in that one.

 

From @sybildanning

 

Though he never relented in his workload, it wasn’t until the 1990s that Lee experienced a late-term career renaissance – no doubt because many of the nerdish kids who’d sneaked into cinemas or stayed up late in front of the TV to watch his old horror movies had now grown up and become major players in the film industry, and were only too happy to cast him in their movies: Joe Dante, John Landis, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Peter Jackson and Tim Burton.  Hence his roles in two of the biggest franchises in cinematic history, the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings ones.  Burton, meanwhile, ended up casting him in five of his films, though I suspect the only reason he put him in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2004) was so that he could have a scene at the end where Lee and Johnny Depp give each other a hug.  Aw!

 

From zimbio.com

 

When he was in his eighties, Lee must have wondered if there were any territories left for him to conquer – and he realised that yes, there was one.  Heavy metal!  He had a fine baritone singing voice but only occasionally in his film career, for example, in The Wicker Man and The Return of Captain Invincible (1983), did he get a chance to show it off.  In the mid-noughties, however, he started recording with symphonic / power-metal bands Rhapsody of Fire and Manowar and soon after he was releasing his own metal albums such as Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross and Charlemagne: The Omens of Death, which had contributions by guitarist Hedras Ramos and Judas Priest’s Richie Faulkner.  He also released two collections of Christmas songs, done heavy-metal style.  Yuletide will never seem the same after you’ve heard Lee thundering his way through The Little Drummer Boy with electric guitars caterwauling in the background.

 

Obviously, the heavy metal community, which sees itself as a crowd of badasses, was flattered when the cinema’s supreme badass – Lord Summerisle, Dracula, Fu Manchu, Rasputin, etc. – elected to join them and they welcomed Lee with open arms.  They even gave him, as the genre’s oldest practitioner, the Spirit of Metal Award at the Metal Hammer Golden Gods ceremony in 2010.  And the other evening, when Alice Cooper received the Legend Award at Kerrang magazine’s yearly awards, he dedicated his win to the just-departed Sir Chris.

 

(c) Charlemagne Productions Ltd

 

So was there anything this man couldn’t do?  Well, it seems the only thing he couldn’t quite manage was to live forever.  Mind you, for someone who spent his cinema career dying – even when he was in his mid-fifties, he claimed in his autobiography that he’d been killed onscreen more times than any other actor in history – but who always returned to perpetrate more villainy, it feels odd to be writing now that Christopher Lee has finally and definitely passed away.

 

And if anybody wants to congregate in a Carpathian castle after dark and perform a ritual to resurrect the great man, by dousing his ashes in copious amounts of blood (freshly drained from Boris Johnson), I’m up for it.

 

http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/postscript-christopher-lee

http://blogs.indiewire.com/leonardmaltin/joe-dante-and-john-landis-remember-christopher-lee-20150612

http://www.blabbermouth.net/news/alice-cooper-dedicates-his-legend-award-to-sir-christopher-lee/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EZ9se8i4ujs

 

(c) Seven Keys

 

Peebles’ holiest relic

 

Certain towns and cities in the world can boast of having ancient and holy relics.  In the Christian world, for example, Sienna has the mummified head of Saint Catherine in its Basilica Cateriniana San Domenico, Paris has what is alleged to be the crown of thorns worn by Christ at his crucifixion in its Notre Dame Cathedral and, in Rome’s Basilica di Santa Croce, you can see part of the index finger of Saint Thomas – the finger that, as a sceptical disciple, he poked into the wound in the side of the resurrected Christ to check if it was real.  Some places have relics so special that they are said to have healing or protective powers – Naples, for instance, is lucky enough to have in its city cathedral the dried blood of St Januarius, which protects it from disasters like earthquakes and plagues.

 

However, my hometown of Peebles contains surely the most powerful holy relic of all.  Because in the public bar of the Crown Hotel on Peebles High Street you’ll find the armchair of Oliver Reed.

 

 

This hallowed item of furniture, on which the legendary hell-raising star of movies such as Hannibal Brooks, Women in Love, The Devils, Tommy and The Three and Four Musketeers once rested his butt, is rumoured to have healing powers too.  A pilgrim who reposes against its upholstery will, with time, be cured of certain pernicious ailments.  He or she will be cured of sobriety, for instance.  And common sense.  And dignity.

 

The story behind the chair is that, in the middle of the 1990s, Oliver Reed found himself staying in Peebles whilst doing some location filming for a Scottish movie called The Bruce – a quick and cheap cash-in on Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, which had cleaned up recently at the box office.  I’ve never seen The Bruce, but from all accounts it’s terrible.  Reed being Reed, of course, he soon managed to sniff out the pub in town containing the biggest number of what are euphemistically known as ‘local characters’, which was the Crown’s public bar.  He then set up camp there for several days, much to the joy of the Scottish tabloid press.  At one point, the Scottish edition of the Sun published on its front page a photo of an inebriated Reed passed out against the inside of the Crown’s entrance door, while someone outside tried to push his way in.  (No doubt he was thinking, “What the hell’s blocking the door…?  Oh…  It’s Oliver Reed.”)  For some reason Reed was clutching a toy sheep at the time so the Sun’s headline was, inevitably, SHAME ON EWE.

 

During his sojourn in the Crown, Reed complained to the hotel owner Peter Cassidy about the hardness of his seats and then thrust a bundle of notes into the hand of a regular called Davie Lees and ordered him to go to the local furniture store, the Castle Warehouse, and buy the pub a properly upholstered, properly comfortable armchair.  Davie obliged, and the armchair now resides against a back wall of the public bar, under a framed photo of a well-refreshed Reed posing with Cassidy outside the hotel.

 

Reed departed for the great pub in the sky back in 1999, when he expired during the filming of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator in Malta.  He keeled over and breathed his last in, appropriately enough, a Valetta bar called the Pub, after he’d taken on a squad of British sailors in a series of drinking and arm-wrestling contests.  However, I have a feeling that the great man’s psychic residue lives on in that armchair in the Crown.

 

Just a few days ago, I’d arranged to meet my Dad for a meal in the Crown’s restaurant.  As the Oliver Reed armchair is aligned with the pub’s front door, I sat down in it so that I could watch the door and spot my Dad as soon as he walked in.

 

Immediately after sitting down, I found myself possessed by strange urges – to drink 104 pints in one sitting and then climb up the nearest chimneystack naked whilst roaring, “I’m Santa Claus!”; to indulge in a nude fireside wrestling match with Alan Bates; to vomit over Steve McQueen; to smuggle an elephant over the Alps; to take the local rugby club on a drinking spree and then organise a naked cross-country run with them through the surrounding moonlit fields; to film a Musketeers movie and stab several stunt-swordsmen during the fight scenes; to insult Jack Nicholson about his height, Richard Harris about his toupee and Raquel Welch about the thickness of her ankles; to arrive drunk at Galway Airport lying on the baggage conveyor; to chase ace snooker player Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins around a house with an axe; and to get a bird-claw tattoo done on my willie, which I’d subsequently threaten to whip out in front of the cameras every time I did a TV chat-show interview.

 

But then my Dad came into the hotel, I rose from the seat and the strange spell was broken.  So instead I ordered a half-pint of lager shandy and a plate of supreme-of-chicken with honey-and-mustard sauce, and later washed everything down with a nice cup of coffee.  And then went home to my bed.

 

(c) 20th Century Fox

 

Actors and Directors

 

An exchange between Johnny Depp and Ricky Gervais, from the first series of Gervais’s TV show Life’s Too Short:

“You know, I’m working with a great director just now.  A guy the name of Tim Burton.  You ever heard of him?”

“Of course.”

“And the film itself is really brilliant…  And, um, I’m playing a very interesting character.  Do you have any idea who my leading lady is on this film?”

“In the Tim Burton film?

“Yeah.”

“Helena Bonham-Carter?”

“How’d you know?”

“Stab in the dark.”

“She thinks you’re an idiot.”

*

It’s hard to believe now but there was a time when Depp made films for directors who weren’t Tim Burton.  However, of late, his partnership with the tousle-haired, black-clad director of all things gothic has increasingly dominated his career.  Some would say it’s made Depp’s career rather stale.  Yes, he was great in the 1990s when Burton gave him roles in Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood and Sleepy Hollow.  However, having been force-fed Depp-Burton versions of Willie Wonka, Sweeny Todd, the Mad Hatter and Barnabas Collins in quick succession since the mid-noughties, I suspect modern audiences hope that Depp and Burton, like a married couple whose marriage has lost its magic, might want to spend a little time apart from each other.

 

Anyway, this has made me think about regular collaborations between other actors and directors.  Back in cinematic history, of course, Humphrey Bogart and John Huston were a prominent acting / directing duo, as were John Wayne and John Ford.  More recently, we’ve had Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese and more recently still, Samuel L. Jackson and Quentin Tarantino.  Here are a few of my own favourite actor (or actress) / director team-ups.  Note that I’ve excluded performers who appeared in numerous movies directed by their spouses, which means there’s no mention of Gena Rowlands and John Cassavetes or, for that matter, Mr and Mrs Tim Burton.

 

Dick Miller and Joe Dante.

 

Craggy New York character actor and former middle-weight boxer Dick Miller made his name in the 1950s and 60s appearing in films directed by the human B-movie factory that is Roger Corman – for example, It Conquered the World, Little Shop of Horrors, The Premature Burial, X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, The Wild Angels, The St Valentine’s Day Massacre, The Trip and most famously 1959’s A Bucket of Blood (in which he played a very bad avant-garde sculptor called Walter Paisley who starts faking his art by murdering the annoying Beatniks at his local café and covering their bodies in clay).  When Corman moved into producing and encouraged young, up-and-coming talents to do the directing for him (on low salaries and with low budgets), Miller got passed on like a family heirloom to Corman’s prodigies – Jonathan Kaplan (1973’s Student Teachers), Jonathan Demme (1975’s Crazy Mama), Paul Bartel (1976’s Carquake), Allan Arkush (1979’s Rock ‘n’ Roll High School) and James Cameron (1984’s The Terminator – Miller is the hapless shopkeeper who furnishes Arnie with his weaponry).

 

However, his longest and most prolific partnership has been with Joe Dante, who by my calculations has cast him in 13 movies, from 1976’s Hollywood Boulevard to 2009’s The Hole.  Dante usually puts Miller in blue-collar roles – security guard, pizza delivery guy, garbage collector, truck driver, taxi driver and in the case of Murray Futterman, his memorably harassed character in Gremlins and Gremlins II, snowplough driver.  Furthermore, in honour of his most famous role, three of Dante’s movies – Hollywood Boulevard, The Howling (1981) and the Dante-directed segment of Twilight Zone: the Movie (1983) – see Miller playing a character called Walter Paisley.

 

Klaus Kinski and Werner Herzog.

 

Unstoppable sex-crazed schizophrenic German force meets unmoveable insane-dream-obsessed German object?  The relationship between Kinski and Herzog could be euphemistically described as ‘tempestuous’ and it was that way from the very beginning.  Their first collaboration, Aguirre, Wrath of God, saw Kinski lose his cool so spectacularly that he fired a gun at a film-crew tent and blew a fingertip off one of the extras.  Herzog, in turn, was said to have held a gun on Kinski to force him to continue filming, although Herzog denies this.  Meanwhile, 1982’s dragging-a-steamship-through-the-Peruvian-rainforest epic Fitzcarraldo was right up Kinski and Herzog’s street – they eschewed the use of special effects and did it using real steamships in real rainforest.  By this time Kinski was so off his head that supposedly one of the local Indian chiefs approached Herzog and offered to kill him.

 

(c) Werner Herzog Filmproduktion 

 

Kinski and Herzog’s other collaborations were Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), in which, miraculously, Kinski managed to keep his cool during the four-hour make-up sessions required to turn him into the bald, toothy, Spock-eared and talon-fingered nosferatu of the title, Wozeck (1979) and Cobra Verde (1987).  Herzog was so unbearable during the filming of that last movie that original cinematographer Thomas Mauch ended up walking off the set and Herzog himself didn’t employ Kinski again.

 

Shelley Duvall and Robert Altman.

 

The huge-eyed, gangly and charming Shelley Duvall was rarely absent from Robert Altman’s movies during the 1970s – she was in Brewster McCloud (1970), McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971), Thieves like us (1974), Nashville (1975), Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976) and Three Women (1977).  With her distinctive appearance, it was inevitable when Altman agreed to direct Popeye for Disney Studios in 1980 that he asked Duvall to play Popeye’s girlfriend, Olive Oyl.  (Indeed, Duvall was initially reluctant to accept the role because ‘Olive Oyl’ was the nickname she’d been tormented with at school.)  Afterwards, the actress and the director went their separate ways.  Duvall devoted herself to producing television adaptations of fairy stories and children’s books, though not before she got pursued around the Overlook Hotel by an axe-waving Jack Nicholson in The Shining (1980).

 

Oliver Reed and Ken Russell.

 

The pugnacious and permanently-pickled legend that is Oliver Reed had been making swashbucklers and horror movies for Hammer Films and swinging-sixties comedies for Michael Winner when Ken Russell – a director best described by the adjective ‘unrestrained’ – gave him a leg up into arthouse cinema.  Reed had small parts in Russell’s Mahler (1974) and Lisztomania (1975) but it was in Russell’s three best remembered films – Women in Love (1969), The Devils (1971) and Tommy (1975) – that he excelled.

 

Women in Love is famous for its saucy nude wrestling scene between Reed and Alan Bates – even now you have to ‘sign in to confirm your age’ to view it on youtube.  Of major concern to Reed and Bates before they filmed it, apparently, was the question of whose member would look bigger and whose would look smaller.  (To their relief, when they compared lengths, it was a draw.)  Two years later, Reed played Urbain Grandier in Russell’s hugely controversial The Devils, based on John Whiting’s play of the same name and The Devils of Loudon by Aldous Huxley – such passions did the film arouse that in a TV debate Russell walloped critic Alexander Walker over the head with a rolled-up copy of the Evening Standard (the paper that Walker wrote for) when the latter described the film as ‘monstrously indecent’.  In Tommy, Reed held his own as the title character’s brutal stepfather – holding his own was no mean feat in a movie that included Tina Turner as the Acid Queen, Keith Moon as the detestable child-molesting Uncle Ernie and Ann-Margaret writhing in a morass of baked beans.

 

(c) Warner Brothers 

 

Both Reed and Russell’s careers went into freefall in the 1980s and thereafter their paths didn’t cross again.  It might’ve been fun, though, to see Reed in Russell’s Lair of the White Worm (1988) – you could almost imagine him fumbling to open his trousers whilst bellowing, “You call that a giant worm?  This is a giant worm!”

 

Stephen Rea and Neil Jordan.

 

Irish director Neil Jordan’s films seem to need the presence of Stephen Rea.  Whether he’s in a main role – Angel (1982), The Crying Game (1992) – or a supporting one – Michael Collins (1996), The Butcher Boy (1997) – or just turning up in a cameo – The Company of Wolves (1984), Breakfast on Pluto (2005) – the lugubrious-faced Belfast actor apparently adds some talismanic luck to the artistic success of Jordan’s work.  The Rea-less Mona Lisa (1986) is an outstanding exception; but, looking at the likes of High Spirits (1988), We’re no Angels (1989) and The Brave One (2007), none of which had him on board, the general rule for Jordan’s films seems to be, no Rea, no good.

 

Sheila Keith and Pete Walker.

 

A combination of exploitation cinema and social commentary, British director Peter Walker’s 1970s horror movies were memorably grim – serving up (for the time) disturbingly graphic violence, attacking institutions like the judiciary and the Catholic church, and generally showing how depressingly grotty life was in 1970s Britain.  What helped their impact immeasurably was his repeated casting of Scottish actress Sheila Keith, familiar to several generations of British TV viewers for her appearances as prim ladies of a certain age (often aristocrats or nuns) in cosy situation comedies like The Liver Birds, Some Mothers do ‘Ave ‘Em, Rings on their Fingers, The Other ‘Arf, Bless Me Father, Never The Twain, A Fine Romance and The Brittas Empire.  But there was nothing cosy about the chilling harridans whom Keith played for Walker, in House of Whipcord (1974), in House of Mortal Sin (1975) and most subversively in Frightmare (1974), in which her Dorothy Yates character shifted gears between being a confused, pathetic, middle-aged housewife and a demented brain-eating cannibal.  Apparently, she found these roles liberating compared to her normal acting fare.  And the now-classic stills of Keith in Frighmare, wielding a Black-and-Decker drill, grinning, and splattered with a victim’s cerebral tissue, suggest an actress who enjoyed her work.

 

(c) Miracle

 

Walker cast her in two later horror movies, 1978’s The Comeback and 1982’s House of the Long Shadows, but neither was to the standard of their earlier work.  The Comeback at least has an interesting idea – an elderly couple (one of whom is Keith) take gruesome revenge on a faded rock star whom they believe induced their daughter to commit suicide.  Confronting the rocker at the end, Keith admonishes him in a hate-filled voice for his decadence and depravity and even his lewd bodily ‘contortions’ onstage.  This would’ve worked if the rock star had been played by someone properly decadent like Mick Jagger or Iggy Pop but, laughably, he’s played by Jack Jones, housewives’ favourite and singer of the Love Boat theme.  Jones’s performance was likened by one critic to a ‘hibernating bear’.

 

Roy Kinnear and Richard Lester.

 

The portly and eternally flustered-looking comic actor Roy Kinnear was a fixture in the films of American-based-in-Britain director Richard Lester during most phases of Lester’s career.  Kinnear turned up in the second of the movies Lester directed with the Beatles, 1965’s Help!, then accompanied Lester when he moved on to directing the surrealist black comedies 1967’s How I Won the War and 1969’s The Bed Sitting Room, and then provided comic relief in Lester’s The Three Musketeers and Four Musketeers in 1973 and 1974.  Around this time too, Lester cast Kinnear in his British disaster movie Juggernaut (1974), giving him a role with more depth than usual – he played Curtain, the luckless entertainments officer who has to keep a cruise-liner-load of passengers amused after it transpires that a terrorist has placed six bombs on board the ship.

 

Only during Lester’s box-office peak – 1980’s Superman II and 1983’s Superman III – did Kinnear fail to make an appearance in his old friend’s films.  The two were reunited in 1988 for a belated second sequel to The Three Musketeers, The Return of the Musketeers, but tragedy awaited.  During filming in Spain, Kinnear was thrown from a horse and suffered a broken pelvis.  The following day, in hospital, he died of a heart attack.  Lester was so upset by the experience that, apart from a concert film for Paul McCartney, 1991’s Get Back, he hasn’t directed a movie since.

 

(c) United Artists

 

At the Edinburgh Festival: Oliver Reed – Wild Thing by Mike Davis and Rob Crouch

 

Before I begin this review, I have to declare a bias.  I’m from the Scottish Borders town of Peebles and people there regard the late hellraising movie star Oliver Reed as an honorary Peeblean.  In 1995, Reed was staying in the area whilst making a film called The Bruce – a sub-Braveheart effort that, like most of Reed’s late-career films, was fairly dreadful – and one day he managed to find his way to the raucous public bar of the Crown Hotel, known to locals as ‘the Croon’, on Peebles High Street.  If you’re to believe the Scottish tabloid press, Reed took such a shine to the Croon, and the regulars of the Croon took such a shine to him, that he took up permanent residency in the bar for the next couple of days.

 

Indeed, the Scottish edition of the Sun printed a front-page headline saying SHAME ON EWE, with a photo underneath of Reed slumped against the inside of the Croon’s front door whilst cradling a toy sheep in his inebriated arms.  Some unsuspecting soul was on the street outside, trying to open the door and get in, and he must’ve been thinking: “What’s blocking this door…?  Oh…  Oh, look…  It’s Oliver Reed.”

 

Thereafter, Reed made Peebles his port-of-call whenever he visited Scotland.  He even elected to spend his sixtieth birthday there in 1998.  And when he died of excess the following year, BBC Radio Scotland sent a reporter to Peebles to interview Peter Cassidy, the owner of the Croon.  During the interview, Peter observed that although Reed had died at the relatively young age of 61, he’d managed to cram into his time on earth twice as many years’ worth of living.

 

My fear when I approached Oliver ReedWild Thing, which has just finished its Edinburgh Fringe run at the Gilded Balloon Teviot, was that the play’s focus would be very much on those 122 years’ worth of ‘living’ – the industrial consumption of alcohol, the partying, the brawling, the hi-jinks with fellow hellraisers like Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins and Keith ‘the Loon’ Moon, the notorious chat-show appearances where he’d turn up in the studio completely trolleyed, the tattoo he famously bore on his penis – at the expense of his film career.  And the first half of that career, at least, was pretty impressive.

 

He started out as a bit-player in the late-1950s British film industry – for example, he was the leader of the teddy-boy gang who beat up Norman Wisdom in The Bulldog Breed.  (Thanks for that, Ollie.)  Hammer Films discovered him and began his development as a star, casting him in both their costumed swashbucklers (Pirates of Blood River, Captain Clegg, The Scarlet Blade and The Brigand of Kandahar) and their internationally famous horror movies (The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll, Paranoiac and The Curse of the Werewolf, which offered the oddly prophetic spectacle of Reed turning into a slavering, out-of-control monster whenever the sun went down).

 

After that, he found proper fame between the mid-1960s and early 1970s making trendy comedies like The System, The Jokers, I’ll Never Forget What’s ’Is Name and Hannibal Brooks for Michael Winner – it’s difficult to believe now, but prior to the bitchy restaurant reviews in the Sunday Times, the car insurance commercials and the Death Wish movies, Winner was regarded as one of Britain’s most promising directors – and making more challenging, sometimes-quite-bonkers fare like Women in Love, The Devils and Tommy for the late, great Ken Russell.

 

In his prime, Reed was unlike any leading man that the British film industry had seen before (or has seen since, for that matter).  He could be charming, he could brood and smoulder, and he could come across as an utter brute: sometimes, all three qualities seemed to exist within his burly frame at the same time.  It’s a shame nobody got around to casting him as Heathcliff in a late-1960s version of Wuthering Heights.

 

In popular terms, his high-water mark was probably Richard Lester’s Musketeers films of the mid-1970s.  The most entertaining versions of Alexandre Dumas’ novel ever made, they managed to be funny, knowing and exciting, and were packed with faces that were iconic in the cinema of the time: as well as Reed, they featured Raquel Welch, Faye Dunaway, Michael York, Christopher Lee and Charlton Heston.

 

Around this time, Reed got the opportunity to make it in Hollywood.  He was offered the role of Quint, the Captain-Ahab-like character in Steven Spielberg’s record-breaking blockbuster Jaws, before it was given to Robert Shaw.  Financially, the role would probably have set him up for life, but he passed on it.  Now I love Shaw’s performance in Jaws, but I consider the possibility of Reed in the role as one of the great might-have-beens of film history.  Can you imagine the film 10 minutes before the end, with the shark leaping up on the boat’s deck, grabbing Oliver Reed and dragging him roaring and cursing beneath the waves, while he beats the beast on its nose with a harpoon?  (Though knowing Reed, he’d probably have been beating it with an empty beer-keg.)

 

An incident in Stringfellow’s nightclub, where he vomited over Steve McQueen, no doubt helped to blow his chances in Hollywood too.

 

By the end of the 1970s, with the British film industry in terminal decline, his career was on the skids.  Although he got the occasional good role – usually thanks to directors who, in different ways, were as maverick as he was, like David Cronenberg, Nicholas Roeg and Terry Gilliam – most of his movies were either so bad they were good (Piers Haggard’s Venom) or so bad they were dismal (Winner’s Parting Shots).  And from this time onwards, he cultivated a grotesque parallel career rampaging about the television chat-show circuit.  He’d turn up on programmes like After Dark, The Word and Aspel and Company, totter around drunkenly, insult feminists and threaten to whip out his penis.  With hindsight, it’s debatable how much of this behaviour was genuine inebriation and how much was playacting.  By then, he was aware that British TV viewers expected – wanted – him to be a drunken hooligan doing outrageous things in front of the cameras, and he didn’t wish to disappoint his public.

 

This warped sense of showmanship was one element in the combustible mixture that powered Reed.  Other elements included a restlessness that came from having an extremely low boredom threshold, a fondness for pranks and japery – no wonder he got on so well with Keith Moon – and a genuine love of boozing in ordinary pubs with ordinary Joes far removed from the well-heeled and pretentious film-industry thespians whom he despised.

 

But it wasn’t quite over for Reed’s film career, for in the late 1990s Ridley Scott came calling and gave him an important role in his sword-and-sandals blockbuster Gladiator.  When you look beyond Scott’s brilliantly-choreographed battle sequences, and beyond Russell Crowe’s pecs, you realise that Reed’s performance as Proximo, the weary ex-gladiator who become’s Crowe’s reluctant ally in his plot against Roman Emperor Joaquin Phoenix, is one of the best things in the film.  Shrewdly, Scott gave him the best lines.  (“Die to be remembered as men!”)

 

It probably would’ve revived Reed’s fortunes as an actor but, alas, he didn’t live to see the end of filming.  While on location in Malta, Reed visited a British-style bar in Valletta called The Pub, got into a major drinking-session-cum-armwrestling-tournament with some sailors from the Royal Navy frigate HMS Cumberland, and suffered a fatal heart attack.  At least how he died was consistent with how he’d lived.

 

Oliver Reed – Wild Thing, written by Mike Davis and Rob Crouch, and with Crouch in the title role, is set in The Pub in Valletta on the last day of Reed’s life.  It has the ageing and soon-to-depart hellraiser reminiscing about, and sometimes acting out, the highlights of his life.  Thankfully, the highlights covered by the play include those on Reed’s acting CV – Hammer, Winner, Russell, the Musketeers and Gladiator, plus the B-movies and Z-movies that came in the 1980s and 1990s – as well as the incidents of drunken excess.

 

Rob Crouch does an excellent job capturing the many shades of Ollie – drunkard, charmer, hooligan, barroom philosopher, buffoon, rebel, overgrown schoolboy, prankster, exhibitionist and occasionally something of a bitch (as evidenced by catty remarks about Jack Nicholson’s height and the thickness of Raquel Welch’s ankles).  So good is Crouch during the play’s most exuberant moments that you forget it’s him on the stage and not Reed himself.  He becomes almost shamanistic in his ability to channel the unruly actor’s spirit.

 

It is not a play, if you’re of a shy and retiring disposition, to watch whilst sitting in the front row of seats – as I found out.  While Crouch / Ollie cavorts above you, you find yourself on the receiving end of a rain of spittle and beer-flecks.  And it becomes alarming when he gets onto the topic of the Musketeers films and, with great relish, starts waving a large and realistic-looking sword above the audience’s heads.  (During the making of those movies, so enthusiastically did Reed enter into the swordfight sequences that the stuntmen ended up deliberately injuring him, figuring that they’d better put him out-of-action before he killed somebody on the set.)  Spectators in the front seats were also hauled onstage to participate in the drama.  It wasn’t long before I found myself up there, acting the role of the barman in The Pub, and handing out beers.  At least, Crouch / Ollie invited me to have one myself.  Having a beer with Oliver Reed in 2012 – not many people can claim they’ve done that.

 

One last thing – two and a half years ago, my Dad and I were on holiday in Malta and we visited The Pub, scene of Ollie’s last stand and now, inevitably, something of a shrine to him.  Here’s a picture of my Dad and Oliver Reed.  (Oliver Reed is the one hanging on the wall.)

 

 

And here’s a link to a pertinent website: http://www.oliverreed.net/.