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DVD SAVANT
Separate Reviews:

Demons of the Mind
&
Straight on Till Morning

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Soon after the beginning of DVD, Anchor Bay sprang upon the scene with ambitious and energetic discs of many movies that hadn't appeared on laserdisc, or even VHS tapes. After a rocky start, they took the Criterion route and offered quality transfers and extras. They were among the first to prove that genre fans would enthusiastically support good DVDs of even obscure titles.

Their best deals were for large numbers of Hammer films unaffiliated with major studios. Naturally, the big names and big titles came out first - the remaining Chris Lees and Peter Cushings. Now, getting down to the end of the package, AB is dutifully releasing the Hammer films of the company's declining years. The days of big, internationally successful hits were over - these later films began to lose the sense of company identity. Soon thereafter, Hammer lost their connection with their once-loyal audience.

For students of the genre, Anchor Bay's thoughtful extras will be very educational. Straight on Till Morning and Demons of the Mind are given full audio commentaries with the participation of principals who discuss the films honestly and openly.


Demons of the Mind
Anchor Bay
1971 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 / 89 m. / Street Date July 23, 2002 / $19.98
Starring Shane Briant, Gillian Hills, Patrick Magee, Paul Jones, Michael Hordern, Yvonne Mitchell, Kenneth J. Warren, Virginia Wetherell
Cinematography Arthur Grant
Production Designer Christopher Neame, Michael Stringer
Film Editor Chris Barnes
Original Music Harry Robinson
Written by Christopher Wicking from a story by Frank Godwin
Produced by Michael Carreras, Frank Godwin
Directed by Peter Sykes

Synopsis:

Baron Zorn (Robin Hardy) keeps his teenaged children locked up and drugged, fearing that his insane wife passed along a congenital curse to them before her own suicidal death. Elizabeth (Gillian Hills) escapes for a brief tryst with a local before being recaptured and subjected to a bleeding process to 'draw out the bad blood.' Emil (Shane Bryant) keeps trying to escape, but is thwarted time and again by his aunt Hilda (Yvonne Mitchell) who runs the house like a prison. One reason the siblings have to be kept apart, is their incestuous attraction to each other.

Local wenches are being murdered in the woods, and the superstitious peasants think demons are responsible. A wandering Priest (Michael Hordern) dedicates himself to root out the evil, but isn't taken seriously. Arriving at the castle are two more interested parties: Mountebank scientist-huckster Falkenberg stands to make a small fortune if his strange apparatus can cure the children of their inherited evil. Young Carl (Paul Jones) simply wants to rescue Elizabeth. As more murders mount, Falkenberg enlists village lass Inge (Virginia Wetherell) to play the dead mother in a psychodrama that he hopes will shock the children from their morbid state; but Baron Zorn's symptoms of derangement soon make it obvious that the doctor is treating the wrong patient.

Sufficiently gory, tarted up with meaningless nudity, and hamstrung by plodding storytelling, Demons of the Mind is a Hammer gothic that shows just how far the studio had strayed from entertaining horror. The very handsome cinematography by Hammer pro Arthur Grant is completely inappropriate to a story about imprisoned children and terrible family secrets: the Zorn manse (a real location) and its surrounding wood are too bright and cheerful in most scenes to help express the morbid subject matter. Showing utter confusion, the production concentrates on the '70s post-mod dullness of Shane Bryant and Gillian Hills, with their just-so hairstyles and flower-child looks. Bryant, we're continually reminded, was being promoted by Hammer as a big star. Never mind that Hammer never really had much success with starmaking (Lee and Cushing excepted), but who would ever warm up to Bryant in these pasty-faced psycho roles? He has the appeal of an albino slug found under a log. And since Hills plays her part as a nymphomanic zombie, exploited for girlie-photo nude shots, we never think of her as anything but a toy of the old men making the movie.  1

The acting and direction in Demons of the Mind is actually fairly accomplished; it's the terrible story that defeats the best efforts of all concerned. As was usual for Hammer films from about 1967 on, the first half of the show slowly assembles the basic setup, so the plot can get moving. Peter Sykes is very good at blocking and staging his scenes, and throws in some very nice poetic effects (the hand waving from the back of the coach), but he's stymied by too much stock action. The coach wreck and the repetitive stalking scenes bog the picture down with uninteresting incident.

When Falkenberg starts his visually-arresting hypnosis apparatus (based, according to Sykes, upon a contraption used by the real professor Mesmer), the picture finally gets going, only to reveal that its premise is really nothing new. The perverse younger generation are revealed as the unfortunate victims of an insane, perverted parent. Baron Zorn is well-played by Robert Hardy, considering how inconsistent the character is. He tortures his children and caresses them at the same time. We know from frame one that he's the real madman, so we have to wait for the film to catch up with us.  2

Patrick Magee's genuinely twisted Falkenberg is the sole redeeming aspect of the show. He's a charlatan who seems to have good instincts about the Zorns' real problems, but isn't equipped to challenge the paterfamilias any more than he's qualified to cure anything. His is the only character who isn't straight stock. Fans who claim that the show would be improved by casting better actors miss the point - Peter Cushing would certainly make Zorn more interesting, but he can't patch the holes in the character. The production notes mention the Zorn part (and several others) being turned down by big-name British talent. As so many of them were taking practically anything available at this time, the script of Demons of the Mind must have been the deal-breaker. As lauded as Christopher Wicking is, Savant's yet to see a competent film from one of his scripts (including Scream and Scream Again, which we'll be getting to soon).

Naturally, Demons of the Mind wraps up with practically everyone dead. We get the (spoiler) ludicrous but predictable revelation that Zorn is a sexually deviate who has driven his children to similar sexual insanity, not by blood inheritance, but by his repressive brutality. Hammer's idea of blaming everything on the parents was pretty much a given by this time. Emil is the mad killer, set loose by Zorn to punish girls who roam in the woods (read: have sexual lives). How the weakened, drugged, anemic (not to mention scrawny and non-aggressive) Emil can stalk and kill these milk-fed, hardy peasant maidens used to wrangling irate livestock and overweight farm boys, is a complete mystery.

Demons of the Mind would have worked on at least one level if we had a reason to care about Emil and Elizabeth. As neither is given a chance to have a personality, we see them as dull victims instead of people we hope will escape. The final revelation that Elizabeth is just as vicious as Emil, has no effect. Demons of the Mind is asking us to seriously consider the proposition that the mod generation is rebellious and destructive because of the psychic conditioning of their parents, and that's hogwash.

Centrally indicative of the sad approach is evident in the handling of Virginia Wetherell's Inge character. Hammer was in the second year of adding nudity to its films, an exploitative move that turned off adults looking for serious oldfashioned Gothic horror. Worse yet, it made the movies unmarketable to the kids who surely were Hammer's biggest audience. Here we have Virginia Wetherell, who was probably hired for her statuesque physique and her presence (along with Gillian Hills) in Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. For no reason but the obvious, she's the subject of 90 seconds of full-frontal exposure. Hammer execs may have thought this was the way to 'stay trendy' with the youth market, but they really just appealed to dirty old men and the adolescent boys who couldn't get in anyway. The pointlessness of the nudity is the issue here - most religious peasants back in this time frame probably undressed as little as possible, and the sight of Wetherell parading herself is just wrong. Patrick Magee's conflicted ogling of Wetherell is interesting, but irrelevant.  3


Anchor Bay's DVD of Demons of the Mind is splendid. The film looks brand new, and the colorful photography is perfectly reproduced. In keeping with their high respect for the films, they've included a very thorough commentary track with the director, the screenwriter, and actress Virginia Wetherell. Writer Jonathan Sothcott does a good job of mediating. Sykes and Wicking consider the movie a success and give a very thoughtful rundown on the particulars of production and casting. The nasty little device used to bleed Hills, we learn, was a real antique instrument from a medical museum called a scarificator. Ms. Wetherell gives a very frank rundown on her role and her attitude toward the Hammer brass, who for her were indeed just a bunch of exploitative men twisting her arm to 'strip off.' By the language she uses, you can tell she's still bitter about it, and we tend to agree with her.



Straight on Till Morning
Anchor Bay
1972 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 / 96 m. / Street Date July 23, 2002 / $19.98
Starring Rita Tushingham, Shane Briant, Tom Bell, Katya Wyeth, Claire Kelly
Cinematography Brian Probyn
Art Direction Scott MacGregor
Film Editor Alan Pattillo
Original Music Philip Martell, Roland Shaw
Written by Michael Peacock
Produced by Michael Carreras, Peter Collinson
Directed by Peter Collinson

A psychothriller that sought to continue the Hammer line that began with Taste of Fear ten years before, Straight on Till Morning might be their most unappetizing and aggravating film. Shane Bryant is back, looking more androgynous than ever in an extremely shallow story without suspense or appeal. The film is a grim horror version of a story Rita Tushingham had played several times before - the waif who comes to London to find heartbreak or love.

Synopsis:

Shy Brenda Thompson (Rita Tushingham) writes naive children's stories to amuse herself. Stifled and desperate for a man of her own, she leaves Liverpool, telling her mom she's pregnant, and gets a job in a boutique in London. She moves in with the promiscuous but good-hearted Caroline (Katya Wyeth) but the mod set shuns her for her plain looks. Then she kidnaps a strange young man's dog, so as to perhaps get to know him while returning it. The young man turns out to be Peter (Shane Bryant), a psychopath with a predilection for killing beautiful things. He renames Brenda Wendy, and they start a hopeful, if strange, relationship. It might have a chance, if it weren't for Peter's murderous secrets.

Hammer's '70s directors are frequently called stylists and cited as talents that 'were rarely allowed' to break through the genre vehicles they made. Peter Collinson's biggest career, judging from Mark Wickum's detailed liner notes, was being the professional protégé of Noel Coward, who appears to have gotten him jobs for the greater part of his life. A competent director, Collinson does indeed give this depressing and frustrating horror tale style - the trendy cross-cutting, flashbacking, flashforwarding editorial blendor style that seeks to give dull and unrewarding scenes life by constantly comparing them to one another. In Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy, the cuisinart cutting very clearly compared and contrasted warring emotions in Joe Buck's mind. Here, the cutting just marks time - the individual snippets have to be more arresting & meaningful, not less, for the technique to work.

The earlier Hammer psychothrillers worked only when they had strong actors in clever scripts; otherwise they played as confused sub-television material. Susan Strasberg & Stephanie Powers were terrific in films written by pros like Richard Matheson and Jimmy Sangster (in a good week). Tallulah Bankhead and Bette Davis gave powerhouse performances in vehicles tailored to their talents. Those films rank up with the best of Hammer's gothic horrors. 4

Straight on Till Morning is custom-fit for Rita Tushingham, the winning star of The Knack ... and How to Get It! (due out soon), and A Taste of Honey. In her earlier films, she won us over immediately with her so-called 'ugly duckling' appeal. Given a tad of support, audiences easily invest all of their emotions with her - she singlehandedly launches and wraps up Dr. Zhivago with her beautiful tears and smiles.

The whole point of Michael Peacock's script seems to be to destroy Tushingham's appeal. Brenda Thompson isn't just shy or hesitant, as with her earlier heroines, she's a serously undeveloped personality, pathetic in her relations with people. Plenty of her kind are always around, and it's true that they're usually discriminated against for their lack of social skills. But as written, this Brenda is pretty intolerable. When picture perfect 'dolly girl' Caroline (Katya Wyeth) takes her in, it's Caroline we admire. She's at least reaching out; Brenda is too self-oriented to think of helping anyone else.

(spoiler)

In this 'Love Story - From Hammer', we basically squirm while Rita suffers for 90 minutes straight, only to be delivered into a doom-laden non-conclusion. Despite all the Peter Pan illusions, from the title to the name of his dog, there's nothing the slightest bit illuminating about her relationship with Peter (Shane Bryant). This Peter is clearly no Peter Pan, so we have to assume that writer Peacock is commenting on what women want in their fantasies, as opposed to what they get in life. The traditional Wendy is a strong character, and Peter Pan is a mindless boy dedicated to self-gratification. He might represent the child-man every woman has to deal with, in addition to the adult they thought they were getting. The relationship here never reaches the level of the thematic flags it waves. The Peter character is laughable. He slaughters beautiful women, and women who tell him he's beautiful. The treatment is so hamfisted, when Brenda washes his dog Tinker, it gives the pooch a death sentence. Again, here's the stock psycho situation, where the horror hero's aberration conforms to a strict literary formulation.

Peter's M.O. is given plenty of screen time, yet it still doesn't make sense. Are we to assume his previous victims were Sugar Mommies who gave him the drawerful of cash and the Jaguar car? If the bobbbies are looking for Caroline and Brenda, must we conclude that none of his victims can be traced to him because they all met him on the street and were never seen with him in public? How does he dispose of the bodies? Why isn't his bedroom soaked in blood, especially (spoiler) twenty minutes after he's killed Caroline with a box cutter?

Straight on Till Morning is stylized (read: confected) so that the miserable relationship between Peter and Brenda is foregrounded, except, of course, for the dull interludes of poor Mum's search and the police investigation. Tushingham, unlike the forceful female heroines and villains of Hammer's earlier psychothriller hits, is a victim every step of the way, a patsy and fool who, no matter how earnestly performed, loses our respect. When she's finally given the indignity of being 'prettied up' in a hideous wig, makeup and dress, the movie goes out the window. The whole point of earlier Tushingham shows was that she was never stupid. By reel two her personality made her plain looks irrelevant, and by the end we were all madly in love with her. She suffered in Taste of Honey, but always kept our loyalty. There's not so much as a single moment of humor or humanity in this film to relieve the constant pummeling of the Tushingham character.

Skinny and sexless, with a hairdo suitable for a rock star and nobody else, Shane Bryant is unattractive to the point of being loathsome. Caroline demonstrates her 'any bloke'll do' mating habits quite clearly with the thick-looking Joey (James Bolam); when she bats Twiggy Eyes at Peter and bunny hops up to his room, we just don't believe it - Bryant should be too goddamn weird even for her. Squareville Hammer seems to think that the sexual revolution is only about people being indiscriminately, randomly promiscuous. Naturally, Caroline has to pay with her life, as this 'innovative' horror film still needs pretty women to carve up.

When the story finally throws Peter and Wendy together in a blissful domestic fantasy, we don't share it - the pretentious central conceit never begins to work. All we're left with are a couple of awful revelations, Peeping Tom - style. At least Anna Massey in Peeping Tom was capable of considering Carl Boehm a person worthy of empathy, even when she learns his secrets. All we get for the thin ending of Straight on Till Morning is the despair of a terrorized, deluded woman who doesn't get her Prince Charming after all. Does anyone remember the kiddie book "Are You My Mother?", where a cute, little duckling or whatever eventually finds its mommy? Straight on Till Morning has the effect of reading such a book, except the last page turns the innocent, undeveloped lost animal into roadkill.


Anchor Bay's sparkling DVD of Straight on Till Morning is so attractive, it puts the negativity of the film into high relief. Again, the transfer and presentation are excellent. The highlight of the disc is the commentary with Rita Tushingham and Jonathan Sothcott again. They cover every facet of the film in great detail, and Ms. Tushingham maintains a sensibly balanced outlook, even as she obviously regrets ever having anything to do with it. ("But, I took the money...") Again, Mark Wickum's bio on Collinson paints an intriguing portrait; Sothcott defends the picture in his liner notes, more than he does in his comments. Rita Tushingham is of course excellent in her part, but the part is still unworthy of her.

The trailer can't disguise the unsavory anti-thrills of the movie and uses that "A Love Story - From Hammer" ad line as a silly text title. Bear in mind that Savant just thinks Straight on Till Morning rates very low as entertainment, but isn't trying to campaign against it or anything. Genre fans will find it an interesting disaster, just as Demons of the Mind is an excellent starting point to discuss the merits and pitfalls of Hammer Horror.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Demons of the Mind rates:
Movie: Fair
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary with Christopher Wicking, Peter Sykes, Virginia Wetherall, Jonathan Sothcott; trailer
Packaging: AGI case
Reviewed: July 30, 2002


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Straight on Till Morning rates:
Movie: Poor
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary with Rita Tushingham and Jonathan Sothcott, Trailer, Director bio
Packaging: AGI case
Reviewed: July 30, 2002


Footnotes:

1. As a child, Hills had her first role in Roger Vadim's Les Liasons Dangereuses. As she has almost identical Brigitte Bardot/Annette Stroyberg looks, it's easy to see why he cast her. She also worked for Georges Franju in La Faute de l'Abbé Mouret, no easy role to nab.
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2. This is Savant's main complaint with almost all of the gothic Hammer films past 1962 or so: they so formulaically cover and re-cover the same ground. We enjoy the familiar atmosphere, but too many of the shows re-establish situations covered in previous films, only breaking new ground in the last few minutes of screen time. Earlier pictures like The Brides of Dracula apparently had bold plotlines that had to be reorganized for censorship, to their detriment. At the end of Brides, when Cushing is confronted by two vampire girls in the barn, we're finally getting to where the movie should have been at the end of its first act. Instead, we're a couple of minutes from the finale. Why Hammer lost touch with their audience, I'll leave to the experts who know much more studio history than I. Why I stopped responding was directly due to negative experiences - waiting patiently through stories that didn't develop, for the (sometimes) exciting conclusions.
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3. Even Phil Hardy, who champions most everything about UK horror, pegs the nudity in Hammer films from The Vampire Lovers for what it is, sniggering old-man's girlie-photo ideas of what's sexy. All these brave actresses are ready to do just about anything - they want to make a good movie too. They're also bright & creative, and have surely learned a thing or two about sex & relationships that would surprise us all - but Hammer thinks their best function is to give us something to ogle. I'm not saying the films should have gone softcore, but the women take their clothes off in a dramatic vacuum - they don't do anything! Gothic movies, above all, are Romantic and expressive - and centerfold nudity like this is as antithetical to drama, as is explicit cannibal-zombie style gore.
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4. Taste of Fear (Scream of Fear) and Fanatic (Die, Die, My Darling) are, I believe, Columbia, and may come out if the studio is encouraged by sales for the superior Curse of the Demon. The Nanny is so chillingly original, it almost defies description as a Hammer film. It's required viewing, if only to truly appreciate the powers of super-actress Bette Davis.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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