One of the rarest, most obscure British horror films – not that it’s entirely and simply a horror movie – this used to inhabit a limbo of unseeable titles with the likes of Face of Darkness and Whisper of Fear, and was thought to have survived only in abbreviated form (cut from 55 to 35 minutes). Now, it’s on the BFI-Player and has screened on Talking Pictures. Few were doggedly looking for it, so not many have noticed it’s reappearance … and it is, in its full-length form, a fairly slight EC horror comic tale with London louts given supernatural just desserts. Minor as it was, the script by Peter Marcus (a pen name for director Gerry Levy) proved slightly influential: the basic set-up of thugs terrorising a stage magician who fights back with his presdigitation (or sorcery) skills was used in Ola Solum’s Turnaround (1987), which (with added tentacles) got a make-over as the ludicrous Cthulhu Mansion (1992). After this edgy start, Levy/Marcus went on to the flat Tigon science fiction film The Body Stealers. He did jiggery-pokery rewrites/reshoots for Curse of the Crimson Altar and The Haunted House of Horror before settling in as a production manager on prestige items like Gandhi, 84 Charing Cross Road and Out of Africa (which I’d happily junk if it meant a print of Face of Darkness suddenly turned up*).
It’s slightly arty, though its frills – a direct-to-camera title song from Ottilie Patterson, credits and title only at the end – might just be a way of padding it out. It begins with some 1964 yobs being tossed out of a the Indigo jazz club and tossing milk bottles through the sign, then roaming the late-night streets hassling folk (Patricia Quinn is in the sparse crowd somewhere, apparently). Clods like this wander through British cinema of the 1960s and early ‘70s (The Damned, Corruption, The Penthouse, A Clockwork Orange): too old to be juvenile delinquents, too blandly-dressed to be associated with actual youth cult (this mob dress like mods but act like teds), given to menacing patter influenced by the mouthy moaners of Angry Young Man plays and the sinister presences of Pinter, and played by folk who went on to long careers as respectable bit-players but somehow got a better showing here. The alpha git is Mick (John Malcolm), wearing a hat over bad hair, dragging his mates Ginge (Ray Armstrong) and Tim (John Challis) into arguments and scraps … thrown out at the same time is Kip (Christopher Robbie), a smiling posh hulk in a student scarf, who Mick seems to want to fight with but is so intimidating on a physical and class level that he gets adopted into the club for an evening. It may just be padding to put off getting to the single interior set where most of the film takes place, but Levy and the cast do well by the early, pathetic rampage – and it’s even an acute observation that Tim, who seems to be the most sensitive and sensible of the gang, is the one who bashes a random bloke (Joseph Cook) over the head with a rock when he puts up a fight … and the way Kip joins in terrorising people just for a lark without actually sharing shortarse bully Mick’s constant anger is chilling and credible.
The quartet spot Emilio Dinelli (Warren Mitchell) working late in his business, making carnival-fairground attractions – the place is packed with garish, outsize, clumsy-looking masks, sideshow gimmicks and huge snaggletooth faces. The props are crude, but believable. They barge in, rifle his cash-box (stealing three whole pounds!), tie him to a chair, disrespect him and his business, mock his sputtering rage (Mitchell overdoes the Italian accent), and play a football/pinball game to destruction (its huge-headed, octopus-legged, sort of disturbing goalie figures are important back later). Discovering that Emilio used to be a stage magician, the gang force him to perform for them … and he lures them one by one into a disappearing cabinet for a simple effect with a punchline slightly analagous to that of The Little Shop of Horrors. Mitchell, an all-purpose ethnic performer who specialised in playing older than his years, was months away from being cast as Alf Garnett, and goes the whole hog as the putupon, vengeful little man – it’s a shame Levy didn’t stretch to a more elaborate magic show revenge scene (as Turnaround does), but perhaps the drab, small nature of the comeuppance is appropriate for the low-budget, low-rent feel of the whole thing.
*Good news – Face of Darkness is included in the second of the BFI’s Short Sharp Shocks releases. Whispers of Fear is still missing, though.