DENNIS POTTER’S SON OF MAN (1969)

Dennis Potter is a writer whose name is often spoken with awe; his early death (from pancreatic cancer) was a significant loss to television. Potter’s critically acclaimed “Wednesday Play” ran from 1964-1970 on the BBC, with his “Alice”((Included as an extra feature on BBC’s Alice in WonderlandDVD.)) (on the life of ), “Pennies from Heaven,” and “Singing Detective” all seen as cult masterpieces.

Yet, his most provocative hour was “Son of Man,” directed by Gareth Davies. When people today speak of controversial dramatizations of the life of Christ, very few remember this one, which may be the most radical dramatized portrayal of the Nazarene prophet to date: more so even than ‘s Gospel According to St. Matthew, ‘s Last Temptation of Christ, or ‘s The Passion of the Christ(which is only controversial in being pornographic). Unlike Scorsese’s film, Potter’s hidden gem((Unreleased on home video, although it can be found online—here is the “love your enemy” excerpt.))  ups the revolutionary ante, not because it veers from the Gospel text (it’s actually fairly orthodox in its narrative bullet points), but in how it is presented. Potter eschews any show of divinity. He doesn’t deny it, it’s merely not his concern. He focuses on Christ as a human and a prophet. As played by Colin Blakely, this desert Christ is visceral, beefy, dirty (eschewing that “cleanliness is next to godliness” verbiage), struggles with his faith, and is God-obsessed. That’s contrary to Christ’s usual stoic portrayals, and may partially be the reason for this film’s neglect. It’s easier to put a man who is emotionally detached on a pedestal. Once we see his ragged emotions, he, uncomfortably, becomes too much like us. The Christ of Potter/Blakely napalms that comfort zone with a portrayal that unnerved 1969 audiences. Airing it in the Easter season was salt added to the wound.

Another disconcerting mirror “Son of Man” holds up is its very clear contrasting of ethics and morality. The Ten Commandments are ten versions of “NO,” brought to you in the shape of patriarchal morality, which doesn’t have to be equated with love; hence, Christ improves on them with the ethics (morality + love) of the Beatitudes.

Author once mused that he had seen Christians, with tears in their eyes, bemoaning the loss of the Ten Commandments displayed in schools. When Vonnegut suggested posting the Beatitudes in their place, the reaction was: “Blessed are the poor? The meek shall inherit the earth? Blessed are the peacemakers? Oh, we can’t post that. People might take it wrong.” The Beatitudes are the centerpiece of Potter’s story, with Christ delivering them at the most inopportune moment; shortly after we see the corpse of a bloodied woman, brutally butchered by Roman Soldiers. “Love the man who would thrust his sword in your belly and torture you,” Christ ferociously shouts. It’s no wonder both his onscreen crowd and 1969 audiences were offended. Christ incites them, shouting over their vocal protestation: “Listen to me! Listen to me! God casts the same sun on the honest and dishonest. There is no division with God. The man who tortures you is a man as much as you are a man. If he hits you on the right cheek, offer him the left.” Christ gives no comfort: “and it will hurt twice as much,” he assures them, before ending, “you cannot love money and love God. You cannot hate your enemy and love God.” That’s quite the contrary of what we saw in much of religion in 1969, and what we see today, and it’s no wonder that the telefilm remains predominantly buried (as is the play).

From Potter’s rendition of the Beatitudes, the English school activist/nutcase Mary Whitehouse(( A self-appointed guardian of morality, Whitehouse’s other targets included “Dr. Who,” Dave Allen, , Chuck Berry, , Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ, Potter again with 1986’s “Singing Detective,” and evenEvilDead—she helped construct Britain’s infamous “Video Nasties” list.)) smelled something that reeked of Communism, and sued to stop the airing of the play on the grounds of blasphemy, claiming that it was a conspiracy intent on removing the myth of God from the minds of men. She lost.

The film might be seen as an extended vision of Christ facing temptation in the desert, and a precursor of his warring with what he envisions to be divine intent at the Mount of Olives. “Is it me?” he asks repeatedly, screaming, desperate. His feet are raw, his beard unkempt. Half-naked, he recruits Peter (Brian Blessed) and Andrew (Gawn Grainger) with such compelling charisma that we completely understand why they drop their nets.

In his ivory tower, Pontius Pilate (Robert Hardy) is increasingly agitated by street talk of a messiah to come. After consulting the high priest Caiaphas (Bernard Hepton, typically excellent and surprisingly sympathetic in what is often a two-dimensional villain role), Pilate scoffs at the idea of a peace-loving redeemer: “Violence is what makes a man.” Caiaphas is not far removed from his Roman oppressor when questioning Judas (Edward Hardwick) about what the carpenter has said. He reacts to the Beatitudes with “How can we, the chosen of God, survive if we kiss the sword that will slay us? How can we defend the faith of the true God if we don’t hate his enemies?” Ever the fundamentalist, Caiaphas quotes the prophet Jeremiah to justify his hate. And here we see the interpretation of the gospel that provoked Whitehouse, just as bishop Oscar Romero claimed the the only gospel worth telling was a provocative one.

Potter’s Christ is complex, refusing to succumb to contemporary sophomoric Western labels of conservative/liberal. He would seem a paradox to those who prefer simplistic either/or platitudes; forgiving the adulteress while forbidding divorce as a rejection of love.

Although the role of Peter is disappointingly small, Blessed makes for a swaggering apostle. When Judas seeks to join the fold and asks Christ, “who is my neighbor that I am supposed to love?” Christ answers, “whoever is standing next to you, in the hem of your eye.” Potter’s Christ is an advocate of a social justice that cannot be denied, even by those who would lamely try to label it political. Potter’s Christ espouses a social justice of “faith without works is dead.”

In a vignette under a tree, “Son of Man” ventures into the possessed fanaticism of William Blake. “It’s good timber, this tree. I should be making chairs and tables with it.” Yet, God’s burning him too relentlessly for bourgeois living, and that god-damned tree will be driven into him, and he knows it: “Holy Father, you have hunted me down and opened the top of my head and I have heard you.”

“Should I show man a chair?,” Christ asks sarcastically, “Or should I show him your justice with this tree?” Potter’s Christ is a reluctant one, and he almost loses it as he addresses the tree itself: “You should have stayed a tree and I should have stayed a carpenter.”

The throwing out of the money changers from the temple is surprisingly low-key; a symbolist interpretation more akin to the religious canvases of Odilion Redon than the fiery-colored El Greco. Yet, Christ has transgressed against the money system, and he knows this, too. It’s his moth to the flame moment. As Caiaphas looks on, Christ inches further toward his own inevitable burning, calling those gathered “godless hypocrites” for superficially seeking a sign, and outrageously telling them to pay their taxes and “shut up.”

Hardy makes an enticing Pilate, alternately nasty and unnerved, yet evoking empathy. Still, it’s Blakey’s earthy, heartrending messiah who makes an impression; his spiritual and physical torments are indistinguishable, and there is no comfort from false sanctity. Jerking and moaning violently, he cries “why have you forsaken me?,” looking for clarity. We hope he receives it, that his “Is it me?” may become his “I am.” But that’s on us, because, despite claims made to the contrary, belief is an abstraction. With that cry, Christ is deserted for dead, and “that is that,” says the camera, pulling back. No resurrection, no Easter, no swelling Handel chorus. Just a Good Friday; or rather, the worst, in the least remembered passion of all—yet paradoxically the most memorable and harrowing.

1969 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN, IT’S ALIVE, AND SATAN’S SADISTS

scream-and-scream-again

After the success of 1968’s The Conqueror Worm (AKA The Witchfinder General, with a deliciously evil Vincent Price), director Michael Reeves was assigned dual films: The Oblong Box and Scream and Scream Again. Unfortunately, shortly after pre-production work on The Oblong Box , Reeves died at the age of 25 from an accidental, lethal mix of alcohol and barbiturates, putting an end to a promising career. The film must have seemed cursed, because scripter Lawrence Huntington also died. Gordon Hessler replaced Reeves and Christopher Wicking replaced Huntington. Given Reeves’ high critical standing, Hessler was immediately criticized as being unable to fill the late director’s shoes. While there’s little doubt that Reeves’  idiosyncratic style would be impossible to imitate, he was unenthusiastic about the assignment to begin with. Thus, whether he could have made a better film is pure speculation. Despite starring Vincent Price and Christopher Lee, The Oblong Box can hardly compete with Roger Corman‘s AIP Poe series, but it does have an ambitious, somber, gothic style of its own and is well photographed by John Coquillon.

scream-and-scream-again

Of more interest is a genuine oddity in the AIP canon: Scream and Scream Again, which also starred both Price and Lee along with Peter Cushing (in what amounts to a cameo) and the same writing/directing team of Wicking and Hessler. Released in the U.K in 1969 and stateside 1970, Scream and Scream Again is one of the queerest horror science fiction extravaganzas committed to celluloid, which may explain why Fritz Lang proclaimed it among his favorite films. Wicking’s screenplay is an ambitiously brazen adaptation of Peter Saxon’s “The Disoriented Man.” Given that Hessler is a minor cult filmmaker, Scream and Scream Again is, likewise, a film with a minor cult reputation, one that deserves a broader audience. Although imperfect, it is creepy and perverse enough to be of interest to weird movie lovers who crave a challenge.

scream-and-scream-again

The fragmented plot (one of several) opens with a jogger in the park, keeling over from what appears to be a heart attack. He wakes up in a hospital bed to a nurse who won’t speak to him. After she leaves, the jogger finds that his leg has been amputated. He screams.

scream-and-scream-again

The corpse of a rape victim is discovered with two puncture wounds on her wrist.

In an unnamed European totalitarian state, a humanoid Gestapo soldier (a lurid Marshall Jones) murders his superior by squeezing his shoulder.

The jogger wakes up to find his second leg amputated. He screams again.

Inspector Bellever (Alfred Marks) of Scotland Yard sets up a sting to catch a serial killer (Michael Gothard) whose M.O. is biting women’s  wrists and draining their blood after raping them. Bellever uses a policewoman as bait, with fatal results. A long, captivating chase follows and, after the modish killer in a convertible is caught and handcuffed to the back of a car, he severs his own hand and another chase follows the trail of blood.

The jogger wakes up to find an arm amputated. He screams again.

Vincent Price shows up as a mad scientist who specializes in “organ transplants” and happens to have a vat of acid.

A fascistic superior (Cushing) lectures the Gestapo soldier about his torture methods, which is followed by another shoulder squeeze.

The jogger awakes to find his other arm amputated. He screams again.

Price returns to an operating table, meets a British Intelligence officer (Lee), and that vat of acid comes in handy.

scream-and-scream-again

And so it goes. For most of the duration of the film, the vignettes seem completely unrelated, but there’s a fascist spy ring afoot, paranoid conspiracies about super humans, and a potential alien takeover of the government. There’s no real star, but Marks (who is quite good) has the most screen time. Price and Lee lend little more than marquee value, although Price does get an over-the-top scene for the film’s conclusion and, for once, his hamminess is apt. While the finale is a tad too neatly wrapped, for the first 90 minutes of its 95 minute running time, one doesn’t know quite what the hell to make of this seemingly erratic mess. It’s equal parts science fiction, espionage thriller, and traditional mad scientist horror yarn, evoking Lang’s Mabuse but with a late 60s disco number performed in a seedy club thrown in for good measure. Well photographed (by Coquillon), kinetically paced, strikingly bloody, and awash in enigmatic energy, Scream and Scream Again is impressive for its adventurously bizarre composition. Although uneven and saddled with a ho-hum title, it’s as difficult to dismiss this authentic original as it is to embrace it.

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BARRY MAHON DOUBLE FEATURE: THE WONDERFUL LAND OF OZ (1969) & THE BEAST THAT KILLED WOMEN (1965)

Wonderful Land Of Oz (1969, Barry Mahon)

Barry Mahon is another 366 weird movie saint awaiting canonization.  His directing breakthrough was with the Errol Flynn fiasco Cuban Rebel Girls (1959), which is essential bad film viewing. For another eleven years, Mahon made one godawful film after another until someone wised up and quit funding this hack (he died in 1999, never making another film after 1970). He was something of a Zach Snyder for his time, although no one was stupid enough to give Mahon millions of dollars.

Wonderful Land Of Oz (1969, Barry Mahon)

Most of Mahon’s films were  Z-grade nudies (International Smorgas-BroadThe Adventures of Busty BrownFanny Hill Meets Dr. Erotico), but there are a few execrable standouts, with The Wonderful Land Of Oz (1969) and Thumbellina (bundled into 1972’s certified weird Santa And The Ice Cream Bunny) being among the most memorable.

Wonderful Land Of Oz (1969, Barry Mahon)

Literally looking like garage filmmaking, The Wonderful Land of Oz opens with a warbled song and introduces us to hanging sheets, Glinda (still annoying, regardless of who plays her), a papier-mâché purple cow with blinking eyes, and badly costumed characters, including the Wogglebug: a man with antenna, bug eyes, and a walrus mustache.

Wonderful Land Of Oz (1969, Barry Mahon)

The Tin Man and Scarecrow are obligatory characters, but Pumpkinhead has replaced the Cowardly Lion. Someone forgot to give him a microphone under that oversized head because we can barely hear him. It hardy matters, because he seems to be struggling with his lines. His fellow cast members, who frequently talk to themselves, are no help, mumbling their cues as they move lethargically, seemingly having overdosed on tranquilizers.

Wonderful Land Of Oz (1969, Barry Mahon)

Tip (Channy Mahon, Barry’s rugrat) replaces Dorothy. Tip is loaded with dull angst over his evil stepmother, the Wicked Witch Mombi ( played by someone named Ziska). She makes the boy go to bed on time, and when he attempts to rebel against such parental sadism, she vows to turn him into a statue. Comatose slapstick and phlegmatic sing-a-longs are visually accompanied by a cardboard fence (which we keep expecting to fall over) and half a gallon of straw on the soundstage floor to represent a stable. Tip flees with the aid of Pumpkinhead, who is brought to sort-of life via magic powder. The two run afoul of an obnoxious high school band (is there any other kind?) headed by teenaged brat General Jinjur. Tip and Pumpkinhead manage to make it to Emerald City (it’s a short walk around the garage), but rather than encountering a wizard behind the curtain, Tip gets magically transformed into a girl (he doesn’t put up much of protest) by Glinda, who confirms what we have always known: she is more Dolores Umbridge (the real villain of Harry Potter) than goodwitch (although she is called a fairy here). That sickening, bloated pink dress and K-Mart tiara fools no one. After that suburban porn reject Glinda forces a sex change on poor Tip, she does an exit stage left, cruelly depriving us yet again of the chance to see her die a horrible death.

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TERENCE FISHER’S FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (1969)

FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED poster

Director Terence Fisher had quickly grown bored with the Hammer Dracula series, along with the character of the Count.  For the two sequels, Fisher omitted the title character from the first (Brides of Dracula, 1960) and then made him secondary to Barbara Shelley’s character in Dracula, Prince of Darkness.  However, Fisher clearly reveled in the Baron Frankenstein character and focused primarily on the creator, as opposed to the creation.

FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED lobby card

In the fourth of the series, Frankenstein Created Woman (1967), the Baron allegorically became God the Father in Fisher’s idiosyncratic take on the Trinity.  In that film, Peter Cushing’s Baron is empathetic and waxes poetic at the tragic conclusion.  In the fifth film, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969), Fisher and Cushing create an alternative perspective on Frankenstein.  Here, the Doctor is at his most obsessed and least sympathetic. Continue reading