Monday, October 26, 2009
Mind The Doors
The most fondly remembered British horror films of the late 60s and early 70s are usually period pieces, often from Hammer, sometimes from other places. It could be a question of why there weren’t more films set in present-day England but when Hammer began making things like STRAIGHT ON ‘TIL MORNING and DRACULA A.D. 1972 it was easy to see why (not that I don’t love A.D. 1972 in its own ridiculous way). Maybe the powers that be just didn’t know how to approach a version of the real world with the horror that they excelled at. Non-Hammer titles like CORRUPTION with Peter Cushing are problematic as well, but at least that one is slightly insane. It took Alfred Hitchcock to do something considerably more interesting with the London landscape in 1972’s FRENZY and among any other hidden gems out there would have to be Gary Sherman’s RAW MEAT (aka DEATH LINE, as it was known in England) a fairly bold, unnerving film also from 1972 which at the very least is considerably better than any film with the title RAW MEAT would be presumed to be. With a number of different elements at play it feels like the movie is trying a few things too many to be the genre-shattering experiment it may want to be, but maybe that feel of uncertainty is part of the point. It’s part late-show mystery, part grindhouse picture and part stylistic exercise that tries to combine different tones and defy some of the conventions that can be found in those films, resulting in a sharp turn into something bolder, more ambitious. The whole may not be as successful as some of it parts but at least it attempts to put us in a sense of genuine unease, never letting us to get too comfortable as we’re watching it.
After trolling the red light district of London, the otherwise distinguished James Manfred, OBE (THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN’s James Cossin) is attacked in an Underground station and soon after his unconscious body is discovered by young couple Alex Campbell (David Ladd), an American, and Patricia Wilson (Sharon Gurney), who insists that they go get help. He reluctantly agrees (he’s seen plenty of people lying around on the subways back home; “In New York you walk over these guys!”) but by the time they get back Manfred’s body has disappeared, with no possible way he could have gotten out. Inspector Calhoun (Donald Pleasence) of the London police soon gets wind and begins to investigate. Though he is warned off the case by MI5 (in the person of Christopher Lee in a cameo) it soon becomes clear that what’s happening down in the Underground is worse than anyone feared, possibly being linked to the long ago cover-up of workers left to die in the construction of the station.
RAW MEAT makes its audaciousness known fairly early on when, after an introductory set of sequences that are enjoyable even if nothing unique, it suddenly takes a sharp left turn with the introduction of its main threat in a virtuoso seven-minute shot (the cinematographer was Alex Thomson) which is not only strikingly well-done, even with one or two apparently invisible edits, but contains some genuinely repulsive imagery as well (good thing I ordered in some Chinese food to watch the movie with). It also introduces us to one of the great, truly pitiful movie ‘monsters’ (played by Hugh Armstrong) an individual whose only words he knows to speak is the simple phrase ‘Mind the doors’ over and over, no doubt from hearing it from nearby train conductors (which we’ve actually heard as the first bit of dialogue at the start). Even within its modest scale the movie does a very good job of making the characters surprisingly layered—I couldn’t help but be surprised at the earnestness of Gurney’s character’s concern for the missing man and it contrasted nicely with the equally shocking nature of the underground dweller’s despair at losing his loved one. Even its portrayal of the British political system at work comes of as slightly more complex than would be expected and the minor involvement of MI5 in the context of this period reminded me of the machinations in last year’s very good THE BANK JOB, so it was surprising when one of the key players in the real-life version of that story turned up in a headline seen on a newspaper in one scene. The plotting isn’t quite as complex as it seems like it might be at one point--there is a certain amount of thinness to the story and that combined with the ambitiously long dialogue-free stretches makes it seem like the script couldn’t have been longer than 70 pages. It’s possible that some of this was done to stretch things out to feature length, like the prolonged opening credits with its jazzy main theme by Wil Malone and Jeremy Rose along with how one long shot near the very end drags out a scene of policemen walking a long, dark corridor but this steady feeling of gradualness the film has manages to somehow work.
Directed by Gary Sherman (probably best known for helming POLTERGEIST III but let's not dwell on that) and with a screenplay by Ceri Jones from Sherman’s story, RAW MEAT keeps its ambition in check, never seeming to want to expand things too much beyond its budgetary means but the structural nature of things also keeps it from breaking out too far beyond what the ambitions were. By a certain point it almost feels kind of like an extended demo reel for the director to display what he could do with actors, his camera, settings and pacing more than a full story that’s been put together. But even with this slight drawback RAW MEAT contains scenes which are genuinely startling as well as containing some pretty surprising gore for the time. Sherman is from Chicago (possibly making Ladd’s character a surrogate for him) and he makes very good use of London as well as the essential Britishness of some of the characters (such as Pleasance’s displeasure at learning his tea will now be served in bags). Looking forward to what John Landis would do in AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, the Underground is used very well, which reminds me of how another film, QUATERMASS AND THE PIT (more science fiction than horror) used the setting as well. The issue of the main plot representing what the monarchy of England is kept buried for so many years down to the more working class Inspector Calhoun drunkenly ranting about the state of things makes it feel like the film is trying to be about the state of England and its past when this film was released. I’d be the wrong guy to offer a take on all this but it does give the feel of RAW MEAT being more than ‘just’ a horror film, even one that succeeds in consistently keeping us on edge.
Playing his part as if in some dryly comic BBC series that sadly doesn’t really exist, Donald Pleasence is amazingly funny and enjoyable as he continually gets flustered with having to deal with anyone who crosses his path (as he shouts at young student Ladd, “Hurry back to school, there might be a protest march for you to join!”). He makes the film about his character more than it would have been otherwise and it’s hard not to wish he’d played the role again in other films. The pairing of Ladd and Gurney comes off as slightly bland in comparison, even with the girl’s sensitivity, but it feels intentional in how it feels like there’s believably not much to them. Their lack of uniqueness makes them seem much more genuine that the leads in various giallos that were made around this time and I like a few of their tiny exchanges like when he asks her if she wants to go see THE FRENCH CONNECTION. Christopher Lee gets some good dialogue in his single scene playing against Pleasence but it’s awkwardly staged as if the production couldn’t spend much time getting the two actors in the frame together. It doesn’t even feel like Lee worked a day on the film, it feels like he worked a half-day.
RAW MEAT isn’t very well-known and while the various pieces don’t always connect together in ways that make it a minor classic, the best things in it (Pleasence, the camerawork, the very sober tone) are extremely good, making it absolutely worth a look. The approach to its story means that any climactic action isn’t necessarily going to make everything better and the ending keeps a certain sense of dread hanging enough so I didn’t feel much of a sense of relief when the end credits rolled—almost at a point in a shot where they were slightly unexpected, which seemed to add to that feel. But it’s to the film’s credit that it didn’t try to convince anyone watching that everything was going to be all right. With films like this, you sometimes feel strangely reassured in knowing that the opposite is going to be the case. That’s one of the reasons we watch movies like this anyway.