Richard Johnson 1927 – 2015

 

(c) MGM

 

Last month, venerable British actors seemed to be dropping like flies and it was difficult for this blog to keep up with the increasing body count.  One actor whose demise went unmentioned in Blood and Porridge was Richard Johnson, who passed away on June 6th at the age of 87.  But I thought I would write something about him now, even if I’m about seven weeks late.

 

Johnson was a busy and much-admired theatrical actor whose stage CV included Pericles Prince of Tyre, Romeo and Juliet, As You Like It, Julius Caesar, Cymbeline, Twelfth Night and Antony and Cleopatra and who could boast that he’d worked with stage directors as distinguished as Tony Richardson and Peter Hall.  However, it’s for his film work that I’ll remember him – and never more so than for his performance as the male lead, Dr John Markway, in Robert Wise’s epic spooky-house movie The Haunting (1963).  I think it’s one of the scariest films ever made and, indeed, both Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese are on record as saying that it’s the scariest film ever made.  The fact that The Haunting is based on a terrific novel, 1959’s The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, doesn’t do it any harm, either.

 

The initially smooth and charming Dr Markway is investigating strange phenomena in an old, rambling and reputedly haunted house with a group of helpers – the young man who stands to inherit the building (Russ Tamblyn), a psychic (Claire Bloom) and a lonely oddball called Eleanor Vance (Julie Harris), in whom the supernatural forces on the premises start taking an unhealthy interest.  Markway’s wife (Lois Maxwell) also turns up at the house when things are getting properly scary, which the now-unnerved doctor isn’t very happy about.

 

Director Robert Wise understood that the most frightening things are things that we don’t see and are left to our imaginations; because what we are capable of imagining in the mind’s-eye is far worse than anything a special-effects or make-up man can conjure up for the camera.  So in The Haunting we hear rather than see.  The film’s characters find themselves reacting to all manner of weird and disturbing noises made by mysterious somethings off screen.  Wise’s sound editors played these noises aloud while the actors and actresses were filming their scenes, which added to the rattled authenticity of the performances by Johnson and company.

 

(c) MGM

 

Needless to say, when Hollywood got around to remaking The Haunting in 1999 with action director Jan de Bont at the helm, the result was dire.  Starring Liam Neeson – shame on you, Liam! – and also Lili Taylor, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Owen Wilson, it abandoned Robert Wise’s ultra-creepy suggest-don’t-show approach and relied instead on a crass welter of computer-generated special effects.  It got five nominations for in that year’s Golden Razzie Awards (including worst screenplay, worst director and worst picture) and I think I hate it even more than I hate the 2006 remake of The Wicker Man with Nicholas Cage.

 

The rest of Johnson’s film biography contains some interesting tales.  In the early 1960s, while Sean Connery was known only as a bit-part actor, former body builder and former Edinburgh milkman, he turned down the opportunity to play James Bond.  Terence Young, who was lined up to direct the first Bond movie, 1962’s Dr No, offered the role to Johnson but he didn’t like the idea of being stuck playing the same character in a long contract.  Later, though, he did play another British literary action hero (and a forerunner to Bond), Bulldog Drummond, in the films Deadlier than the Male (1967) and Some Girls Do (1969).  Meanwhile, in 1975, Johnson not only starred in but also wrote the original story for the forgotten thriller Hennessy, directed by Don Sharpe, which must be one of the first films to be inspired by the recently-ignited Troubles in Northern Ireland.

 

16 years after The Haunting, Johnson played another doctor in a very different sort of horror movie.  He was Dr Menard, the beleaguered but stoical GP on a remote Caribbean island doing his best to deal with an epidemic of reanimated and hungry cadavers, in the Italian film Zombie Flesh Eaters, directed by the inimitable Lucio Fulci.  Despite the schlockiness of the movie, which includes a once-seen-never-forgotten underwater battle between a shark and a zombie, and the variableness of the other performances – Johnson’s fellow Brit Ian McCullough is solid enough but Tisa Farrow is bloody useless – Johnson gives it his all.  He spouts the less-than-epic dialogue with as much earnestness as he would doing Shakespeare onstage.

 

(c) Variety Film Productions

 

When he was older, and after Fulci had become a cult figure and Zombie Flesh Eaters had become something of a camp classic, Johnson would be invited to horror movie conventions to discuss his experiences making the film.  He might have been a serious Shakespearean actor but he always sounded gracious and affectionate towards Fulci.   He was even complimentary about the film’s most notorious moment, wherein Menard’s wife gets grabbed by the hair and dragged through a freshly-smashed hole in a door by a rotting zombie arm – and in the process, in loving close-up, gets a big splint of wood protruding from the hole embedded in her eye.  (This image was surely the one that cemented Zombie Flesh Eaters’ place on Britain’s list of banned ‘video nasties’ in the 1980s.)  Ben Bussey, a writer for the excellent horror-film website www.brutalashell.com, remembers an 80-something Johnson enthusing at one convention, “That spike in the eyeball scene!  Wasn’t that genius?  So cinematic!”

 

Clearly, the late Richard Johnson was a man who enjoyed his work.

 

Hey, Lucio!

 

From whatculture.com

 

Nowadays, satellite television can beam any subject matter, however graphic, into our living rooms.  Thanks to this, the whole family – mum and dad, grandma and grandpa, the teenagers, the primary school-kids and the pre-school little’uns – can now sit together in front of the TV and enjoy, communally, such splendid sights as the bit in season three of The Walking Dead where Danai Gurira grabs a big jaggy chunk of glass and rams it in extreme close-up into David Morrisey’s eyeball.

 

Even better, a few minutes later, they can enjoy the sight of David Morrisey, again in extreme close-up, pulling the jaggy glass out of his eyeball.  Hurrah for modern tele-viewing!

 

This wasn’t always the case.  Audiences didn’t always have easy access to images of extreme eyeball abuse.  Indeed, three decades ago, a scene where a person got a humongous wooden splint stuck in her eye while a mouldering zombie grabbed her by the hair and dragged her through a hole it’d just smashed in her bathroom door was enough to cause outrage amongst the powers who decided what British film-fans could and couldn’t watch.  The scene belonged to the 1979 Italian horror movie Zombie Flesh Eaters, directed by the inimitable Italian filmmaker Lucio Fulci.  And it was the gory content of this and movies like it that led to Britain’s Video Nasties scare of the early 1980s.

 

By 1983, the Department of Public Prosecutions – cheered on by the likes of public-morality campaigner Mary Whitehouse, various flatulent back-bench Conservative MPs and the right-wing British tabloid press – had drawn up a list of 72 films deemed liable to ‘deprave and corrupt’ and thus were open to prosecution under the Obscene Publications Act.  39 of the 72 were successfully prosecuted.  The remaining 33 weren’t prosecuted or were subject to unsuccessful prosecutions, but at the time you had little chance of seeing them through legitimate means.

 

Now that the hysteria has long since passed, the majority of these films are available in uncut versions in Britain.  A couple of them – like Don’t Go into the Woods and Contamination – have even suffered the ultimate humiliation: they’ve been awarded wussy ‘15’ certificates.

 

Among the movies Lucio Fulci directed, two, Zombie Flesh Eaters and 1981’s The House by the Cemetery ended up on the list of 39 prosecuted titles; while a third, 1981’s The Beyond, was on the list of 33 that escaped successful prosecution.  A fourth, 1980’s City of the Living Dead, didn’t make the Nasties list at all, but British police seized videos of it nonetheless.  And a fifth, 1982’s The New York Ripper, wasn’t classified as a Nasty either, but it still got banned from British cinemas.  For this achievement alone, I think Lucio deserves respect.

 

(c) Variety Film Productions

 

I have a complicated relationship with Lucio Fulci.  While it’s debateable if I’ve ever watched anything he’s directed that I’d classify as a good film, I have to admit that when I encounter a new Fulci title in a DVD store or see one scheduled for broadcast on the Horror Channel, my pulse speeds up.  I get a prickly, sweaty sense of excitement.  I tell myself, I have to see this.  Although the end result is usually the same.  After the damned thing has finished, I sit back and feel a strange combination of bemusement, queasiness and disappointment, while a voice nags at me: “What the hell was that about?”  Although to be fair to Lucio, there’s usually been at least one sequence in the film that’s made me think: “Wow!”

 

Lucio Fulci didn’t find fame, or infamy, in the English-speaking world until the late 1970s, but he’d been a staple of Italian cinema for a long time beforehand.  He started as a scriptwriter, first of all working on the 1954 comedy Un Giorna in Pretura.  In 1959, a dozen film-scripts later, he began directing – one of his earliest directorial efforts was Ragazzi del Juke-Box, a musical starring none other than the soon-to-be 1960s pin-up Elke Sommer.  During the 1960s and 1970s, Lucio beavered away making comedies and spaghetti westerns.  He also tried his hand at directing giallo movies, those particularly twisted, kinky, violent and macabre Italian variations on the thriller genre: 1969’s Unna Sull’atra, 1971’s A Woman in a Lizard’s Skin and 1972’s Don’t Torture a Duckling.

 

Some have noted that his sudden interest in giallo movies – and hence in darker, bloodier material – coincided with the death of his wife, Maria Fulci, who in 1969 committed suicide after discovering she had cancer.  But the director himself never mentioned a connection between this personal tragedy and the darkening tone of his films.

 

The release of Zombie Flesh Eaters in 1979 saw Lucio plant his flag both in horror-movie territory and in the consciousness of impressionable, sensation-hungry teenagers, as I was then.  The film was a success despite English-speaking critics slamming it as an inferior Italian cash-in on George A. Romeo’s seminal zombie movie from the previous year, Dawn of the Dead. 

 

Well, Zombie Flesh Eaters is nowhere near as good as Dawn of the Dead, but it has an undeniable something about it.  The story kicks off with a seemingly un-crewed boat drifting towards New York Harbour (while a ravenous zombie lurks in its hold).  Then it shifts to the Caribbean island from which the boat originated, where a full-scale zombie epidemic – possibly scientifically induced, possibly supernatural – is underway.  And at the very end it returns to New York, which has now succumbed to a zombie onslaught too.  The stuff in New York is pretty ropey but the scenes on the Caribbean island, which is depicted as a cursed, pestilent and windswept hellhole, are wonderfully atmospheric.  A particularly hard-to-forget sequence is one where the protagonists stumble into a ‘conquistadors’ cemetery’ while some very old corpses indeed start wriggling their way out of the graves there.

 

But even that scene is surpassed by an earlier one where a female scuba diver flees from the predations of a large shark and hides behind a coral reef; only to discover that on the other side of the reef there lurks – eek! – a soggy and bedraggled-looking zombie.  The shark and the zombie then proceed to fight, in a slow, balletic, underwater way.  It’s typical of Lucio’s best sequences in that it manages to be simultaneously bizarre, haunting and totally bonkers.

 

The film is helped by the presence of two British performers, Ian McCulloch and Richard Johnson, who just ignore the absurdities of the situations and dialogue and get on with some proper acting.  I read an interview with McCulloch a while back and he professed himself bemused by Lucio’s filming techniques in New York – which involved the cast and crew turning up at a spot, filming without any licence, and then clearing off as soon as the police appeared.  This might explain the film’s curiously disjointed final image, which shows an army of zombies shuffling along an elevated bridge whilst below the New York rush-hour traffic trundles back and forth as if it’s just a normal evening.

 

The female lead, played by Tisa Farrow, is bloody awful, though.  Tisa is the younger sister of the more famous Mia Farrow, and I’ve often wondered what the pair of them talked about when they met up during this period.  “Oh hi, Tisa.  I’m busy making A Wedding with Robert Altman and Death on the Nile with Peter Ustinov.  What are you up to?”  “Well, I’m fighting off a horde of flesh-eating zombies in a conquistadors’ cemetery, courtesy of Lucio Fulci.”  Mind you, considering what Mia had to endure with Frank Sinatra and Woody Allen, maybe she thought her kid sister had the better deal.

 

(c) Dania Film / Medusa Distribuzione / National Cinematografica

 

Zombie Flesh Eaters is my favourite Lucio Fulci movie because it has a story – one where things move from A to B and then to C.  Unfortunately, for his next horror movies, Lucio decided that there’d be a common theme.  Each would take place in a locality that, unknown to the inhabitants, rests on top of a portal to hell.  And if you’re on top of a portal to hell, the laws of physics, of cause and effect, of A leading to B and then to C, will be suspended.  All sorts of crazy things will happen.  The dead will rise, furniture will levitate, dogs will go mad, eyeballs will bleed, the sky will rain maggots, demonic winds will blow in your windows and satanic spiders will chew your face off.  But there won’t be anything like a logically sequenced plot.  No, sir!

 

Many film fans have applauded Lucio for doing away with such outdated, bourgeoisie concepts as ‘plots’ in his films, but I have to say I find it a cop-out.  This ‘portal to hell’ stuff was just an excuse for Lucio to make things up as he went along.

 

First in this series was 1980’s City of the Living Dead, which centres on strange goings-on in a remote American town that, by bad luck, is built on one of those afore-mentioned portals to hell.  The townspeople are soon falling victim to various forms of supernatural mayhem, which are orchestrated by a ghostly priest and a clutch of zombies who apparently have the power to teleport from one place to another.  The film is a shambles – what else can you expect when there’s teleporting zombies in it? – but as usual with Lucio there are scenes that really stick in the memory.  I particularly like one where the protagonists explore some catacombs under the local graveyard, unaware that the cobwebby old cadavers there are stirring into life the moment they pass by.

 

A sequence that all viewers of City of the Living Dead remember is one where a girl sits paralysed in a car while the ghostly priest leers in at her and, under his malevolent influence, she starts to vomit up her own entrails.  Lovingly captured on Lucio’s camera, those entrails ooze from her mouth in a slow, slimy, stringy mass.  The actress who had the honour of playing this scene was starlet Daniella Doria.  She had to sit before the camera with her mouth crammed full of sheep’s offal, which then she slobbered down her front.  People go on about the pain that Christian Bale inflicts upon himself in his quest for cinematic perfection, starving himself to a skeletal husk for The Machinist (2004) or making his weight balloon to play the slobby hero of American Hustle (2013); but I bet even Bale would draw the line at regurgitating mouthfuls of cold sheep-guts over himself in a Lucio Fulci movie.

 

Daniella Doria made three subsequent films with Lucio and she died horribly in all of them – via asphyxiation, stabbing and slashing.  “She was one of my favourite actresses,” Lucio reminisced later.  “I killed her so many times.”

 

(c) Fulvia Films

 

Many rate the following year’s The Beyond as Lucio’s masterpiece – its champions include Quentin Tarantino – but I have the same problems with it that I have with City of the Living Dead.  There’s no rhyme or reason to it, because the action takes place on top of another of those pesky portals to hell.  Again, though, there are some striking scenes – notably, one where heroine Catriona McColl encounters a spectral female figure standing in the middle of a straight, seemingly endless causeway.  The figure is that of a blind woman, Emily, who turns out to be a ghost.  Later, though, Emily dies when her throat is torn out.  How you can kill a ghost, someone who’s already dead, is never explained.

 

The Beyond also contains the barmy ‘spiders from hell’ scene, during which a lightning bolt knocks a character off a ladder.  He breaks his back and then lies helpless while giant spiders emerge from the ether around him, converge on him and start munching on his face.  The spiders – real tarantulas – look creepy enough as they approach during the long shots; but for the face-nibbling close-ups they become highly fake-looking bundles of pipe cleaners that Lucio’s special-effects team probably threw together during the mid-morning tea-break.

 

Another problem is the ending.  It seems that Lucio had intended The Beyond, which takes place in a dilapidated Louisiana hotel, to be a haunted-house movie.  However, his financial backers expected him to make them another money-spinning zombie movie.  I can imagine Lucio’s producer grabbing him one day on the set, after looking at what was already in the can, and waving his arms and ranting in a stereotypical Italian way: “Lucio!  Hey Lucio!  Where-za hell-za zombies?!”  So, although he didn’t want to, poor Lucio had to insert an incongruous climax into the film where McColl and hero David Warbeck have a shoot-out with a sudden and unexpected bunch of, yes, zombies.

 

(Warbeck was a New Zealand actor whose CV included Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dynamite and Hammer’s Twins of Evil, both made in 1971.  He also appeared in Britain’s famous Milk Tray Chocolates advertisements and for a while he was in with a shout of becoming the next James Bond.  Alas, he died from cancer in 1997.)

 

The final instalment in Lucio’s ‘portals to hell’ series was 1982’s The House by the Cemetery, which has a young family moving into the titular house by the titular cemetery and discovering that they’re sharing it with, down in the basement, something very horrible indeed.  But sadly, the film lacks those moments of demented flamboyance that distinguished its two predecessors.

 

Meanwhile, between City of the Living Dead and The Beyond, Lucio also tried to do something different – filming a contemporary update of the Edgar Allan Poe story The Black Cat and setting it in England.  Inevitably, the resulting film is very loosely based on Poe’s story.  I’d hoped that the subject matter would reign in the director’s excesses and impose a little discipline on him.  The focus, after all, isn’t on a portal to hell that makes all things possible, but on a cat.  A pretty evil cat, right enough, but at the end of the day just a cat.

 

Unfortunately, the feline in Lucio’s The Black Cat (1981) is something else.  Somehow, it’s picked up psychic subconscious emanations from its owner, who’s a paranormal investigator obsessed with contacting the dead and who’s played by the distinguished Irish actor Patrick Magee.  Absorbing the hatred Magee feels deep down for the untrustworthy yokels who live around him in a rural English village, the cat starts acting out Magee’s supressed fantasies and starts killing the villagers.  But this cat seems to have picked up some other things too, including super-intelligence and super-strength; for it can hypnotise its victims, sabotage ventilation systems, set furniture on fire, come back from the dead and even, like those silly zombies in City of the Living Dead, teleport.  In fact, this darned cat can do so many things that you wonder why it ever bothers to scratch people.  But it scratches people too.

 

Once again, there are wonderfully eerie sequences, such as when Magee heads down to the village graveyard after dark and tests out his new contacting-the-dead wireless equipment.  But the film suffers from having everything thrown into it bar the kitchen sink, the same as Lucio’s other films from this period.

 

(c) Italian International Film / Selenia Cinematografica 

 

Lucio is remembered for one more ‘major’ horror film, 1982’s serial-killer / slasher epic The New York Ripper, which was controversial to say the least.  Even if Britain hadn’t been so jittery at the time about Video Nasties, the fact that it appeared soon after the real-life Yorkshire Ripper killings in northern England probably meant it was never going to get a British cinematic release.  It also led to Lucio being accused of misogyny.  I haven’t seen The New York Ripper, except for a few clips on YouTube, and it does look pretty gruelling.  The fact that the killer likes to perform Donald Duck impersonations during the murders is something viewers will find either deeply disturbing or deeply stupid; or possibly both.

 

Thereafter, due to various misfortunes – he fell out with his long-term scriptwriting collaborator Dardano Sacchetti and suffered a series of health problems, such as hepatitis, cirrhosis and diabetes – Lucio’s output tailed off in terms of both prominence and quality.  Although ‘quality’ is a subjective concept when you’re discussing his movies anyway.  He soldiered on into the early 1990s, with his last directorial effort being the poorly received psychological thriller Door to Silence in 1991.

 

I’ve seen one movie from his later years, a 1987 teen-orientated horror film called Aenigma that was apparently filmed in Yugoslavia.  It’s a weak rip-off of Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976) and Richard Franklin’s telekinesis thriller Patrick (1978) and is about a schoolgirl who’s on the receiving end of a malicious prank by her classmates.  The prank goes wrong and she ends up comatose on a hospital life-support system.  But, possessing telekinetic powers, she’s able to wreak revenge from her hospital bed on those cruel schoolmate pranksters.  As usual, Lucio is all over the place when depicting the carnage.  People get strangled by their own reflections, get crushed by statues that come to life, get beheaded by falling window-blinds…  It seems the schoolgirl has the power to do everything except revive herself from her own coma.  Incidentally, the death-by-snails sequence in Aenigma has to be seen to be believed.

 

Lucio Fulci died alone, impoverished and sick in Rome in 1996.  At least he had the satisfaction of attending, two months prior to his death, a convention in New York organised by the American horror-movie magazine Fangoria.  Much to his astonishment, he was mobbed at the convention by thousands of American fans.  He’d had no idea that his name was known beyond the shores of Italy.

 

Funnily enough, Lucio’s films make me think of Gerry Anderson’s sci-fi-puppet TV show from 1964, Stingray.  Each episode of Stingray would open with a voice intoning, “Anything can happen in the next half-hour!”  That line would make a suitable opening for a typical Lucio Fulci movie too: “Anything can happen in the next hour-and-a-half!”  Especially if the film takes place on top of a portal to hell.

 

(c) Fulvia Films