The Horror, the Horror (Sort Of)
Well, readers, with Halloween just around the corner as I type this, I thought we'd gambol down nostalgia boulevard and look at a couple of older films: one that wants to be a horror film but isn't, and one that doesn't intend to be but which some of you may find an alarming experience anyway.
Druid, Where's My Car?
Today newspaper used to have a daily feature called Things You Didn't Know You Didn't Know. In a similar vein, welcome to Film Genres You Didn't Know You Didn't Care About as Julian Richards' 1996 low-budget Welsh nationalist horror film Darklands comes up for scrutiny.
Nastiness is afoot in Swansea (yes, Swansea) as an implausible-looking pagan cult are banging away on bits of metal, desecrating churches, and otherwise doing a pretty good impression of The Levellers on tour. Local journalist Fraser Truick (the plank-like Craig Fairbrass, who I'm told has been in EastEnders) is following the story but is distracted by the comely Rachel Morris (Rowena King), the local paper's work experience mature student. The alluring Rachel reckons that her brother's recent death was down to the druids and Truick readily agrees to have a poke about and see what he can see (he also agrees to investigate the death). Their sleuthing leads them to some comedy gypsies and local nationalist politician Keller (Jon Finch). It turns out the druids know a thing or two about pagan-themed horror movies and have made plans for Truick accordingly...
I hate to put the boot into a British movie, especially a British genre movie, but with something like Darklands it's unavoidable. Not unlike Baron Frankenstein's creation, it's a mass of bits from other, better horror films crudely stitched together. For a start there's a gender-reversed version of Rosemary's Baby, and a loony old priest laden with helpful plot exposition straight out of The Omen. But the biggest steal is from The Wicker Man, probably one of the greatest British movies of all time, and certainly the finest horror film ever made in this country. It's impossible to take Darklands remotely seriously if you've seen the earlier movie.
In olden days a British movie would hire a second-string American actor as its star in order to secure a larger (US) audience, and here something similar occurs as a Welsh film recruits the ludicrously Cockney Fairbrass. As a result the central character in no way looks, sounds, or seems Welsh in any way and, while the script tries to explain this, the movie never really recovers from this huge implausibility. The situation isn't helped by other glaring incongruities - such as, why would fanatical Welsh nationalists have names like Carver and Keller?
Richards' direction is actually rather good and atmospheric in places, but his script stinks, lacking any subtlety, charm, or surprises, and having far too many loose ends. The only really engaging bits are the ones nicked from elsewhere. It's not helped by am-dram performances from everyone involved, or the TV series production values - this looks like an episode of Peak Practice or Inspector Morse with a lot of added gore and sex. Darklands resembles another TV series rather more strongly, though: this is like a very long League of Gentlemen episode, only without the wit, inventiveness, acting, or creepiness. Shocking, but not in a good way, they should've come clean and retitled this The Thicker Man.
And now, brace yourself as we enter controversial territory and examine a film whose very name may send some of you screaming from your PCs. As a meditation on the nature of British national identity, and a deconstruction of imperialist political theory, I believe it has never been bettered. Yes, folks, let's Carry On Up The Khyber!
Fear of a Raised Kilt
Now I'm well aware that some (perhaps many) of you may not be remotely acquainted with the cultural juggernaut that is the Carry On comedy franchise. Well, the series began with 1958's Carry On Sergeant and ran until 1979 at a rate of roughly two films a year, on average.1 It draws upon the same rich theatrical tradition as the commedia del arte and pantomime, using stereotypical characters in settings ranging from the court of King Henry the Eighth to a 1970s British toilet factory. The producers employed a rotating troupe of comic actors at the top of their profession, and the jokes - like much British humour - were largely class-based, with the pretensions of the aristocracy and middle-classes almost always undercut by cheerfully lecherous working-class heroes.
Khyber comes from the series' late 60s golden age, produced, directed and written by the dream team of Peter Rogers, Gerald Thomas, and Talbot Rothwell. It's set in India in 1895. Under the watchful eye of Governor-General Sir Sidney Ruff-Diamond (rumple-faced comedy legend Sid James) British rule is secure. This is largely due to the reputed invincibility of the local highland regiment, the 3rd Foot and Mouth - known to the locals as the Devils In Skirts. But danger threatens when local maharajah the Khazi of Kalabar (strangely-adenoided comedy legend Kenneth Williams) discovers that some of the soldiers have actually been wearing nether-garments under their kilts! With a native rebellion thus on the cards, it's up to Captain Keen (the much-loved, and much-missed entertainer Roy Castle) and his brave men to save the situation by carrying out a daring raid on the Khazi's palace...
No, it's good, really it is, it's just very hard to do justice in a summary. The humour has a flavour that today only lives on in the best moments of the Austin Powers films. It may sound puerile and obvious on paper, but a) that's the point and b) it's written and performed with such skill and commitment, not to mention lunatic genius, that it has to be seen to be fully appreciated. The approach to jokes is along the lines of the shotgun principle - as well as the usual colossal amounts of double entendres and bad puns, there are sight gags, one-liners, topical satire (for 1968, anyway), and some surprisingly wry asides as to the hypocrisy of politicians and unreliability of diplomats. It works on many levels - I find it as funny now as I did at the age of six or seven. And, for all its' fixation on kilts and what lurks beneath them, it retains a strange, wonderful innocence. It may be vulgar, but it's never crude or tasteless.
In many ways it's like a pantomime - it's family friendly, it uses nearly all the main Carry On characters and actors, it has the typical obsession with male transvestitism. As usual all the performances are perfectly judged - this time round, Peter Butterworth is particularly memorable as dodgy missionary Brother Belcher, while Roy Castle (in his only Carry On role) makes a good impression. Angela Douglas (sadly the only major cast member not to have passed away) has the thankless, and jokeless, 'principle girl' role of Princess Jelhi. The production values are, erm, quaint - Wales doubles for the Khyber Pass on the Afghan border, and does it quite well in as much as both locations are clearly on the same planet.
Now you may disagree with me and say that this film is dated rubbish - that's your prerogative. But it's also entirely possible you may not think it's appropriate even to discuss it at the present time, given it features comedy Afghan rebels, trivialises the armed forces, etc etc - it even has foot and mouth jokes in it, for heaven's sake!
Well, it vanished from our screens ten years ago during the Gulf War for similar reasons and then the writer and humorist David Thomas gave three very good reasons as to why this was a ludicrous over-reaction. They're just as relevant today and here they are (duly paraphrased):
- a) This is the finest and funniest Carry On film in the series, and we could all use a good laugh at the moment,
- b) throughout the film, the virtues of the British stiff upper lip are celebrated and demonstrated, and once again, that's not inappropriate right now, and
- c) we win.
'Nuff said, I think. It would be a minor tragedy if future generations were robbed of this film as part of their comic heritage: it celebrates, and is, the best of the British character. God save Queen Euston!