Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018, Peyton Reed)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Scott Lang is under house arrest, but must leap into action when old pals Hank and Hope need help finding a long-lost loved one…

By the mid 1980s, Christopher Reeve had played Superman in three successful movies. For the fourth instalment, he was given an opportunity to develop the story himself and he hit upon the idea of Superman tackling the world’s growing proliferation of nuclear weapons. He then went to Tom Mankiewicz, the writer of the first two films, for some advice… and Mankiewicz told him to avoid the issue like it were Kryptonite. If Superman can solve the Cold War, he argued, then surely he can do anything. As a story idea, it just opened up too many cans of worms. Why doesn’t the Man of Steel cure cancer, then? Why doesn’t he solve world hunger? Why doesn’t he stop every rapist?

In the event, the advice was ignored – and we ended up with the rotten Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. But Mankiewicz had a point. Superheroes are not real. They don’t fit well into the real world. Superhero films need to construct a context for their stories – one where, for example, it’s plausible that an all-powerful character such as Superman could have obstacles to overcome. But in Ant-Man and the Wasp, the desire to have some fun results in a film where you constantly ask, ‘If they can do *that*, why don’t they just…?’

It’s been a couple of years since we last checked in with Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), the ex-con who became the miniaturising superhero Ant-Man in his debut film. He’s under house arrest after an unauthorised sojourn to Germany in Captain America: Civil War, but is having fun visits from his young daughter and is also setting up a security business with his pals. Meanwhile, his old cohorts Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) are attempting to develop technology that will allow them to locate Hope’s mother, Janet. She was lost in the quantum realm when she shrank down dangerously small 30 years earlier. Oh, and Hope has become a superhero herself: she has her own miniaturising suit – complete with wings and blasters – and is known as the Wasp. (She’s therefore the first woman mentioned specifically in the title of an MCU movie. It’s taken 20 films.)

Hank and Hope’s quest means doing a shady deal with a rent-a-complication bad guy called Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins). They need to acquire some vital equipment for their Death Star-like quantum tunnel – a device that will shrink them small enough to find the infinitesimally small Janet. And here’s just one instance of ‘Why don’t they just…?’ Hope can reduce herself to the size of a wasp. She has a gizmo that means she can change the size of other things too – cars, salt cellars, entire buildings and all their contents – so where is the suspense meant to be when Burch reneges on the deal? Can’t she just buzz in, shrink the equipment and buzz off without anyone knowing?

Anyway, when the deal goes south, a fight breaks out – and Hope and Burch’s goons are not the only ones involved. A mysterious character referred to as Ghost shows up and is determined to claim the equipment for herself. (Ghost is patently a woman, though at first Hope and Hank assume she’s a man for some reason.) Covered in a mushroom-grey bodysuit that brings to mind tardigrades, bizarre micro-animals that grow to just half a millimetre in size, she steals the MacGuffin and legs it. We then learn that she’s Ava Starr (Hannah John-Kamen), a young woman who – due to an scientific accident when she was a child – is constantly phasing in and out of reality. She’s being helped by an old pal of her father’s, Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne, previously Perry White in the rival DC series of movies).

With the pieces now in place, the ‘plot’ becomes a succession of chase sequences as various characters attempt to gain control of Hank’s lab, which has been shrunk down to the size of suitcase. Some of them are fun, such as a comedic sequence at a school that sees Scott inconveniently stuck at either half or twice his normal size. (After her time in the Hobbit films, Evangeline Lilly has form for playing opposite actors being artificially sized up or down by CGI. The film also wisely ignores any fetish subtext of her appearing half the size of Paul Rudd.) But there are a large number of plot holes, which become more and more difficult to ignore.

The biggest comes when Hank, Hope and Scott manage to send Hank down into the quantum realm and he finally locates his long-lost wife. Janet is played by silver vixen Michelle Pfeiffer, but no attempt is made to explain how she’s survived in a desolate micro-world for 30 years. What has been eating? Drinking? Using for moisturiser? Why hasn’t she gone insane after three decades with no human contact or external stimuli? Perhaps, having been Catwoman in a different superhero series, she’s got more than one life to play with.

Another disappointment is the drearily orthodox filmmaking. Maybe this is like criticising a four-door family salon for not being a sportscar, but Ant-Man and the Wasp is very bland cinema. Scene after scene plays out in boring medium shots and over-the-shoulder cutting. There’s no distinction or panache to anything, no visual storytelling (which is even more of a shame when you notice that the cinematographer is Dante Spinotti, who shot Heat and LA Confidential). All the movement, drama and emphasis comes from the never-ending editing. It’s by no means unique to this film, it must be said: it’s the MCU house style.

But despite these problems, this is still a zippy, enjoyable – if disposable – couple of hours. Paul Rudd is charming, funny and likeable. Evangeline Lilly is excellent, providing both sass and heart. There are some good jokes, including a few meta-gags that poke fun at the film’s clichés. Michael Peña is good value as Scott’s mate Luis, even getting a reprise of his fast-talking montage from the first Ant-Man film. And of course there’s the general Marvel sheen to everything. But it’s doubtful it’ll linger long in the memory.

Six men who miss the 1960s out of 10

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Blake’s 7: Gold (1981)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The crew of the Scorpio attempt to steal a large consignment of gold…

Series D, episode 10. Written by: Colin Davis. Directed by: Brian Lighthill. Originally broadcast: 30 November 1981, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Avon (48) has had Scorpio chase after and hook up with a cruiser called the Space Princess. He’s seeking out old acquaintance Keiller, who has a proposition for the team: the ship may appear to be a luxury liner, but is actually used to transport gold incognito; they could steal a cache worth 17 billion. There’s a snag, though: the gold is processed in such a way that they need a special code to restore its glistening amber loveliness. So Avon, Soolin and Keiller teleport down to the processing plant on the planet Zerok… Later, during the heist attempt on the Space Princess, Avon learns that Keiller used to work for ‘the president’ so confronts him. He admits that he was told to contact Avon and co, but is twisting the plan so he can escape with the gold for himself. Near the end, Avon is nearly caught in the air lock between the two ships, but Vila manages to teleport him to safety just before his air runs out. He then leads the gang to a rendezvous to meet the gold’s enigmatic buyers…
* Vila (49) stays aboard the Scorpio when the others go to hear Keiller’s pitch. He doesn’t want any part in the heist, thinking it’s a trap.
* Dayna (23) and Tarrant teleport to Zerok as back-up when Avon and Soolin attempt to break into the processing plant, but find Keiller unconscious and two scarred bodies. Assuming Avon and Soolin are dead, they take Keiller back to Scorpio, and he explains there was a fight and an explosion. Later, during the gang’s attempt to steal the gold, Dayna has to take drugs that make her appear desperately ill; this then gives the team an excuse to move her to the Scorpio… with the gold stored under her bed.
* Soolin (10) frisks Keiller when he comes aboard Scorpio (bet he enjoyed that). He then flirts with her, unsuccessfully. Soolin later helps Avon sneak into the processing plant. After Keiller has been found unconscious and taken away, we viewers learn that Soolin and Avon are alive and well – it was actually two security guards who were burnt to crispiness.
* During the heist, Tarrant (23) and Soolin mingle with the Space Princess’s passengers, who have been drugged to keep them in line.
* Orac (32) pipes up to explain why the team can’t just teleport the gold off the ship. After the successful robbery, however, he points out that the cash the team have gained from selling the gold is now worthless: Zerok has just ceded to the Federation, invalidating its economy.
* Slave (9).
* Servalan (27) shows up at the end of the episode – turns out, she’s Keiller’s buyer. Avon has seen the twist coming. (We all have, mate.)

Best bit: Keiller is played by Roy Kinnear, an actor who often combined slyness and guile with bumbling humour.

Worst bit: The tiresome twist that Servalan has been pulling the strings. (The revelation also means that last week’s connection between Servalan and Tarrant has to be all but ignored.)

Review: A heist episode with all the usual conventions: twists, turns, complications, booby-traps… It’s fun, fast-paced, engaging and entertaining.

Eight notes drawn by the Bank of Zerok out of 10

Next episode: Orbit

Blake’s 7: Sand (1981)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

While on a mission to find out why the Federation is so interested in the planet Virn, Tarrant has an encounter with Servalan…

Series D, episode 9. Written by: Tanith Lee. Directed by: Vivienne Cozens. Originally broadcast: 23 November 1981, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Servalan (26) has come to the planet Virn to investigate a distress call from a pilot called Keller. He crashed there five years previously and had reported a unique trace of life on the planet. Along with an officer called Reeve (Stephen Yardley), Servalan lands on and walks across the barren, rocky desert to Keller’s prefab base. But it’s not a successful sortie: they get lost, a lackey mysteriously dies, and then they bump into Tarrant. After Tarrant has killed Reeve, Servalan flirtatiously offers a truce – and the enemies investigate the base together. There’s sand inside, the computer system has gone loopy and they find Keller dead, though his body is still warm. The base is then enclosed by shifting sands, trapping them inside…
* Vila (48) gets drunk when things start to go pear-shaped aboard the Scorpio.
* Dayna (22) and Tarrant teleport down to Virn to learn why the Federation expedition has gone there. But Reeve soon spots them and shoots Dayna in the arm, so Tarrant sends her back to Scorpio. Unbeknownst to anyone, she brings some sand up with her on her boots…
* Soolin (9) pilots the Scorpio; tends to Dayna’s flesh wound; and generally stands around looking fiercely sexy with a side-on ponytail.
* Avon (47) is the one who pitches the idea that the team should visit Virn. If the Federation are there, he argues, it must be for something useful – and he’d rather the Scorpio gang have whatever it is. Later, when Avon sees the sand that Dayna has brought up from the planet, he deduces that it’s dangerous and in some way sentient. But he also discovers that liquid can combat it, so he engineers a rainstorm on Virn.
* Once Dayna’s teleported back to the ship, Tarrant (22) encounters Reeve and kills him. After Servalan has revealed that she’s on the planet too, the pair are locked inside the base. They share a meal and flirt. (The fact the characters have barely interacted before this episode doesn’t seem to be important.) Tarrant also realises that the sand is alive – it has the ability to suck life out of people like a vampire and also has the power of reason. For example, it leaves potential couples alive so they can breed and produce more ‘food’. Servalan and Tarrant end up sleeping together, but later – after the rainstorm has dampened the sandy threat – he teleports back to Scorpio, leaving Servalan alone…
* Orac (31) has to be switched off when he’s affected by the goings-on and tells Avon that he loves him.
* Slave (8) also gets some bizarre dialogue.

Best bit: In a rare moment of sincerity and vulnerability, Servalan tells Tarrant that she was once in love with Keller. He left her when she was a teenager and, bitter at the rejection, ‘power became my lover.’ Tarrant later admits that she might have been lying to him as a manipulation, but we viewers know she wasn’t.

Worst bit: While speculating on the plot, Soolin tells the others that she ‘seems to recall you telling me of an alien trying to take over the Liberator through Cally.’ Do we think the others have sat her down and explained the storylines of all the episodes she missed? There were 39 of them, so it must have been a long evening: ‘Then Brian Blessed showed up… There was that time Avon thought he was Columbo… Dayna got menaced by a giant crab-spider-thing-type-thing… We met Cally’s sister and Tarrant’s brother, both of whom looked exactly like them… Did we mention when we got sucked into a black hole?’

Review: This is an episode high on both atmosphere and subtext, and there’s a real richness to the dialogue. It’s also plotted and paced very well and the drama is brilliantly played and directed. Sadly, the production lets the side down now and again. The scenes on the surface of Virn – a jarring, embarrassing clash of CSO, videotape, film and model shots – are pretty naff, for example. But it’s easy to forgive when the story keeps the attention, when the key scenes are so enjoyable, and when Servalan is more than just a Cruella de Vil with caustic quips.

Nine girls next door out of 10

Next episode: Gold

The Ring (1927)

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An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

An exhibition boxer is hired as a pro’s sparring partner. But then the pro makes a move on his girlfriend…

Some of the earliest ever movies were boxing films. In the 1890s, cinema pioneer William Kennedy Dickson – the man who came up with the industry-standard 35mm film format – recorded fights involving boxers such as world heavyweight champion James J Corbett. Short and basic, they were the world’s first sporting films – and they were staged specifically for the camera. So Alfred Hitchcock’s The Ring was following an established tradition. By 1927, of course, drama elements had been added to the mix – and the title of The Ring is actually a pun. As well as the boxing arena, it refers to a wedding ring. Because, for all the ways it prefigures movies such as Rocky and Ali, this is mostly a love-triangle melodrama.

At a funfair, Jack Sander (Carl Brisson, who had once been a prizefighter himself) is an undefeated boxer who puts on shows for the punters. But one day a man challenges him to a fight – and Jack is beaten. No wonder: it turns out the challenger is heavyweight champion Bob Corby (Ian Hunter). Jack’s done well enough, though, to be offered the job of Bob’s sparring partner. Bob then takes a shine to Jack’s girlfriend, Mabel (Lillian Hall-Davis). She initially returns his affections, then pulls away. She later marries Jack, but is torn between the two men. Meanwhile, Jack sets his sights on challenging Bob for the championship…

The film climaxes with the men’s bout, which seems to be taking place at the Albert Hall – a venue where Hitch used to watch boxing, fascinated by the rituals of the sport, and where he later set the finales of his two films called The Man Who Knew Too Much. We get all the now-familiar clichés of a boxing movie: the well-to-do crowd, the frantic cornermen, POV shots as the fighters square up, the camera shooting through the ropes.

You can sense a lineage from all this to, say, Martin Scorsese’s 1980 film Raging Bull. But nonetheless The Ring has dated. How could it not? It was released 91 years ago and everyone involved in the production is long gone. There are six actors credited in the opening titles, for example, and five of them died in – respectively – 1933, 1945, 1958, 1967 and 1975. (London-born Harry Terry’s date of death is unknown, but given that he was in born in 1887, we can safely assume he’s no longer with us either. The most tragic death was the first: depressed after a downturn in her career, Lillian Hall-Davis took her own life, aged just 35.)

Perhaps the most old-fashioned elements is the lack of dialogue. There are very few title cards containing speech, so as a modern viewer you’re left to infer an awful lot of the detail. It doesn’t help with engaging with the drama, and after a while you wish you could get inside the heads of the characters just a little bit more. This paucity of words may be explained by the fact the script is credited to just Hitchcock himself. (Other people did work on it, however, including his wife, Alma Reville.) He was much more comfortable with and interested in visual storytelling, so while the story, characters and situations are conventional and predictable, there is the usual array of dynamic shots and effects. Crowd scenes at the funfair always have a waltzer rotating in the background; some shots have superimposed images so we can know what a character is thinking as well as what they can see; and at one point Mabel and Bob are filmed reflected in the gently ebbing waters of a river.

The best piece of narrative-by-pictures comes when Jack’s success in the boxing world is dramatised by a montage that shows his name being given more and more prominent placings on successive posters. A fantastic Hitchcock grace note has the seasons changing too.

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Seven bracelets out of 10

Blake’s 7: Games (1981)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Attempting to steal a valuable resource of energy, the crew of the Scorpio encounter both an old foe and a man who enjoys playing games…

Series D, episode 8. Written by: Bill Lyons. Directed by: Vivienne Cozens. Originally broadcast: 16 November 1981, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Avon (46) has heard about a new power source – Feldon crystals, which provide an infinitely inexhaustible supply of energy – so has devised a plan to steal a large stash worth 900 million credits. Without telling his colleagues, he’s even made contact with an expert to help them – an academician called Gerren. The geezer who runs the crystal mine then gets in touch and offers to give the gang some Feldon if they help him escape the clutches of the Federation… Belkov is a fruity, charismatic man who enjoys playing all manner of games and puzzles. (If this episode were made today, he’d be a teenage hipster who gulps Red Bull as he bashes away at a keyboard.) However, when Avon and co finally reach where the Feldon crystals should be, they’re not there. The whole thing was a con: Belkov just needed someone to take the blame for his theft of the loot.
* Dayna (21) doesn’t trust Belkov as far as she could throw him, which as Vila underlines wouldn’t be very far. (Well, he is skimming millions of credits’ worth of profit off the top of his Federation-sanctioned mining operation.) Later, she stealthily comes to the rescue when Tarrant and Vila are caught by guards near the mine – but soon after, Belkov betrays the team and locks them up, hoping they’ll be blamed for some Feldon he’s swiped.
* For the most part, Soolin (8) has another episode where she hangs around on Scorpio, looks pretty, and asks male characters questions so they can appear clever. Her one moment of focus this week is when the gang attempt to break into Belkov’s ship, Orbiter. He’s booby-trapped it with interactive computer games (of course he has), so Soolin uses her quick-draw skills to win the first round.
* Orac (30) explains that Feldon is the hardest substance in the universe. (‘And currently the most valuable,’ adds Avon.)
* When Avon lays out his plan, Tarrant (21) has a concern: he wants to ensure they’re stealing the crystals in order to use them, not to sell them and risk them ending up back with the Federation. When the crew arrive at mining planet Mecron II, Tarrant, Dayna and Vila take Gerren with them to find the cache of crystals. Tarrant also has to try his hand at one of Belkov’s booby-traps: a flight simulator not too dissimilar to that land-a-jumbo-jet game they used to have on The Krypton Factor.
* Vila (47) is initially bored by Avon’s lecture about Feldon, but perks up when he learns how much money they could make On Mecron II, he uses his lockpicking skills and then is given a side mission by Orac: steal a complex circuit from Belkov’s female-voiced artificial-intelligence unit. He tries talking her into giving up the circuit and letting his friends free from their prison… and he succeeds on both counts. Yay, Vila!
* Servalan (25) has come to Mecron II because she – rightly – assumes Belkov is on the take. But when she makes it clear that he’s in deep shit, he uses the fact he’s made contact with Avon and co as a bargaining chip.
* Slave (7).

Best bit: Pitching his plan to steal the Feldon crystals, Avon lists the problems they face. One is the fact that the prize is ‘protected by a security system that’s supposed to be impassable.’ Vila replies, ‘They’re *all* supposed to be impassable.’ That’s an amazing pun, that is.

Worst bit: Servalan’s appearances got monotonous and unimaginative a while ago. It’s also dreary that the show has distilled the entire threat of the galaxy-wide Federation into one character – the regulars never come up against other officers or officials.

Review: There’s an awful lot of plot for a 50-minute episode of Blake’s 7. It’s a nice change from previous stories that take half an hour to gear up, but maybe there’s too much here. Games is occasionally so swift it’s hard to follow. Some moments – the rescue of an injured Gerren, for example – are simply skipped over. But things are kept enjoyable, thanks in part to a fun, detailed performance from Stratford Johns as Belkov. He’s a game-player, a manipulator, so it ain’t a huge shock when he betrays our heroes. But he’s very entertaining along the way.

Eight recalcitrant chiefs out of 10

Next episode: Sand

Blake’s 7: Assassin (1981)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Hearing that a killer has been hired to hunt them down, the Scorpio crew decide to find him first…

Series D, episode 7. Written by: Rod Beacham. Directed by: David Sullivan Proudfoot. Originally broadcast: 9 November 1981, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Avon (45) and the others discover that a mysterious and expensive assassin called Cancer has been mentioned on a communique of Servalan’s. Assuming that Cancer has been employed to kill them, Avon argues they should bump off Servalan before she can make the payment. So, following a clue from the communique, Avon and Vila teleport to the planet Domo and the former deliberately gets himself captured by some space pirates. He’s then placed in a cell with an elderly man called Nebrox (Richard Hurndall), who comes over all Basil Exposition and tells Avon about the slave auction they’re both due to be part of. Nebrox also recently saw someone arrive, buy a prisoner and leave – Avon reckons it must have been Cancer. At the auction, where Servalan is one of the bidders, Nebrox manages to help Avon escape. So Avon takes his new pal back to the Scorpio and the gang chase after Cancer’s fleeing ship (which handily has a painting of a crab on its hull). When they catch up and teleport aboard, Avon finds Cancer – a large, imposing man – holding a simpering woman hostage. After the assassin has been subdued, the woman, Piri, explains that Cancer bought her from the slavers for sexual purposes. Avon then lies in wait for Servalan to show up. But soon Cancer gets loose, Nebrox is found dead, and is ship is disabled. Oh no! It gets worse: Avon is then knocked unconscious and tied up. When he comes round, Piri reveals the shock plot twist that no one saw coming: *she’s* Cancer, and the large, imposing man is an actor she got from the slavers as a decoy. She tries to kill Avon with her signature weapon – a poison-delivering mechanical crab – but thankfully Tarrant and Soolin burst in and kill her.
* Vila (46) is the one who stumbles across Servalan’s message about Cancer and Domo and ‘five targets’. Later, he and Dayna take the Scorpio back to base while the others continue with this week’s plot.
* As well as Servalan (24), one of the bidders at the slave auction – which, like so many Blake’s 7 location scenes, takes place in a non-descript bit of wasteland – is played by Betty Marsden off of Carry On Camping. (Others are non-speaking white actors in various ‘ethnic’ costumes.) We’ve come a long way since the fascist psycho-drama of episode one…

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Servalan wants to buy Avon and is willing to outbid anyone – but he then scuppers her plan by escaping. Later in the episode, it’s revealed that the communique giving away her plan to hire an assassin was a plant: Servalan masterminded the whole thing, and actually ends the episode believing that Avon and Tarrant have been killed in an explosion.
* Tarrant (20) thinks Avon might be scared of Cancer – and he’s right. Tarrant later flirts with Piri, who at this point still seems to be a dippy drip of a woman.
* Dayna (20) teleports down to Domo to help with Avon’s escape. When she spies Servalan, she attempts to kill the woman who murdered her father (yes, it’s time for that plot point to be remembered!) but she fails.
* Soolin (7) has heard of Domo, the planet mentioned in Servalan’s message. Ten years earlier it was colonised by space pirates. Later, during a Die Hard section of the episode set aboard Cancer’s ship, Soolin is brilliantly cold and harsh towards the wet Piri. She’s then nearly attacked by a mechanical crab… but just as it approaches unseen, she has a eureka moment and jumps out of its reach. What has she realised? That Piri is not what she seems…
* When the initial threat is discovered, Orac (29) counsels the gang to find Cancer before he finds them.

Best bit: There’s a great sequence when our heroes are searching the ship for Cancer. It’s compelling and there’s good incidental music too.

Worst bit: Sadly, this episode has a real disparity between the quality of the location filming and the scenes recorded in the studio. The latter stuff is well paced, well lit and inventively shot. Tension and atmosphere are generated. But when the episode is outdoors, the filming style is so drab and staccato.

Review: A decent and fun episode marred by two things: the hamfisted location scenes and the spectacularly obvious plot twist, which is based on the idea that the audience won’t even consider the possibility that an assassin might be female. The characters assume Cancer is a man, and we’re meant to as well. In the plus column, Soolin has a meaningful role to play in the storytelling. A rarity.

Seven vems out of 10

Next episode: Games

Frenzy (1972)

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An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

An innocent man must go on the run when he’s accused of being a serial killer…

Hitchcock comes home. The opening image of his penultimate film is a long, slow helicopter shot down the Thames and past Tower Bridge. The story then plays out in recognisably London locations such as Covent Garden (filmed just three years before the famous fruit-and-veg market moved out), Oxford Street, Leicester Square and Park Lane.

But this is not Hitchcock giving his hometown a Hollywood sheen. This is the down-and-dirty London of the early 1970s. Perhaps it’s the film stock, or the British weather, or the 1970s fashions, or deliberate choices by Hitchcock and cinematographer Gilbert Taylor (A Hard Day’s Night, Dr Strangelove, The Omen, Star Wars) – but whatever the reason, Frenzy is a tough, uncompromising, seedy and vivid film alive with working-class life. You can smell the sweat and feel the grime. This is a world of sex murders and perversion, back-street boozers and alcoholics, fry-ups and fags, roadside cafes and enormous bank notes. It looks like an episode of The Sweeney. It’s absolutely compelling.

The storyline is a Hitchcock standard – innocent man gets caught up in events out of his control – but the movie twists the idea from the playfulness of North by Northwest into a dangerous, threatening and explicit plot about a sadistic serial killer. Former RAF pilot Richard Blaney (an angry but not unsympathetic Jon Finch) is down on his luck. We first see him getting fired from a crummy job by landlord Bernard Cribbins, then when his friend Bob Rusk (an excellent Barry Foster) gives him a dead-cert racing tip, Richard doesn’t have the cash to make the bet. So he goes to visit his ex-wife, Brenda (Barbara Leigh-Hunt). She takes pity on him and gives him some money… but that only makes Richard look guilty when Barbara is later raped and strangled by a serial killer known as the Necktie Murderer.

With the police assuming he killed his ex, Richard goes into a panic. Bob offers help, as does former colleague Babs (Anna Massey) and an old pal from his RAF days (Clive Swift, with a terrifically tart Billie Whitelaw as his wife). But the circumstantial evidence against Richard begins to mount up – and then Babs is also found raped and strangled.

By this point, the real killer has been revealed to we viewers… Earlier, Bob Rusk visits Barbara in her office. At first all charm and friendliness, he begins to get more and more lecherous and aggressive. Telling her he’s locked the front door, he rapes her and strangles her to death. The two actors, working with understandably challenging material, make the scene easily the most harrowing moment in Hitchcock’s filmography because of its awful verisimilitude. It’s very difficult to watch. Rusk’s second attack in the film is shot more obliquely, but is no less terrifying. Playing the harmless friend again, he lures Babs up to his flat. But the camera doesn’t follow them inside. Instead, after he closes the door, it slowly retraces its steps down the stairs, out of the hallway and into the busy Covent Garden streets. Life is going on as normal, unaware of the monster under their noses.

Frenzy is a dark film, there’s no getting away from it. But there are also flashes of gallows humour and whimsy, as you’d expect from Hitchcock. A sustained scene of absurd grimness comes when a frantic Bob must wrestle with Babs’s corpse in the back of a potato van because he’s left some vital evidence on her. The copper on the case, meanwhile, is Chief Inspector Oxford (Alec McGowen) who précises the plot while attempting to eat one of his eccentric wife’s pretentious dinners.

These moments are vital. They give the film extra life and a dynamism that would otherwise be missing. They also show a playwright’s hand at work. Based on a 1966 novel, the script was written by Anthony Shaffer (who also wrote The Wicker Man). His attitude to dialogue – an attention to the rhythm of everyday speaking – gives a real sparkle to everything, which means you’re gripped from the first moment. Hitchcock makes sure you never lose interest.

Nine men listening to a political speech out of 10

Blake’s 7: Headhunter (1981)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Things go badly wrong when the team attempt to contact a cyberneticist…

Series D, episode 6. Written by: Roger Parkes. Directed by: Mary Ridge. Originally broadcast: 2 November 1981, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Slave (6) wakes up Vila as the Scorpio approaches the planet Pharos, where the gang have come to recruit an expert to their cause. But later the computer is mysteriously incapacitated.
* Vila (45) has come on the mission to Pharos with Tarrant. Their aim is to collect a genius called Muller, who works for a robot-development cartel. When the guest’s on board, however, he acts oddly and attacks Tarrant – so Vila whacks him with a spanner, apparently killing him. They put his body in a cryogenic capsule and head back to base, but due to some bizarre problems with Scorpio the craft has to be quarantined with Vila and Tarrant still on board. When the life-support system then fails, the two men need rescuing. After he’s recovered, Vila is given the job of opening a box that belonged to Muller…
* Tarrant (19) is suspicious when Muller changes the rendezvous for his pick-up at the last minute – it seems ‘they’ are on to him. Armed, Tarrant teleports down to Pharos to collect him; he also picks up a box Muller seems wary of. After Muller’s death, Tarrant orders Vila not to open the box until they can deduce what’s inside – then the ship suffers from unexplained buffeting and power failures and a course change…
* Meanwhile, Avon (44) is keeping Muller’s wife company back at the base. When news comes through that Muller has been killed, Vena (Lynda Bellingham) is distraught and accuses Avon’s friends of being murderers; Avon reminds her that they needed him alive. Then contact is lost with the crippled Scorpio – and Avon is torn over whether to risk a mission to rescue Vila and Tarrant. Eventually he agrees and sends Dayna and Soolin to fetch their colleagues. Later, Avon and Vena go aboard too to check on Muller’s body – but it’s gone walkabouts! They find him back on the base – alive and seemingly well. But he then kills Vena. Avon deduces that Muller is able to manipulate nearby electrical circuits, hence Slave incorrectly diagnosing his decease. Then when the gang look inside the box, they find an android’s head. ‘Muller’ is actually a rebellious robot who’s propped the murdered Muller’s head on his body as a disguise. The whole thing was a ploy to gain access to Orac.
* Orac (28) mentions his creator, Ensor, who we met way back in season one and was coincidentally Muller’s teacher.
* Dayna (19) teleports over to the stricken Scorpio with Soolin to retrieve Vila and Tarrant. She later tries to deal with ‘Muller’ by throwing a grenade at him – at the time he’s conveniently in a corridor of the base that’s shot on film. Sadly for Dayna, he survives… sans head. Eventually, the gang manage to lure the robot outside and onto a metallic bridge, which they then electrocute and disable their nemesis.
* Soolin (6) consoles Vena and gives her a drink when she learns her husband is dead. But she’s later surprised when Orac begins to waffle on about philosophy and then asks to be switched off and hidden. She later has to play fox to the hounds and run around the base with Orac in an attempt to lure ‘Muller’ to follow her.

Best bit: The spacesuits worn by all the regulars at some point are beautifully retro-futurist. They’re like something from Dan Dare.

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Worst bit: Due to the actress having to time her dialogue to some 1981-style computer graphics, a six-second countdown read aloud by Soolin actually lasts for 15 seconds.

Review: It’s certainly from the pulpy end of Blake’s 7 storytelling spectrum, but this is really enjoyable stuff. A decent plot always keeps the interest. It’s also the first episode where Soolin feels like a proper part of the line-up.

Eight superstitious halfwits out of 10

Next episode: Assassin

Love at First Bite (1979, Stan Dragoti)

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An occasional series where I watch and review works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: We start in Castle Dracula in Transylvania, then events move to New York City. It’s the modern day.

Faithful to the novel? No, this comedy film is set later than Stoker’s story. As we begin, Count Dracula (George Hamilton) is living in his gloomy castle with a servant called Renfield (Arte Johnson), who has a dirty laugh and enjoys eating insects. When the Count is evicted from his home by the local communist authorities, he flees to New York City in order to find his long-lost love: a woman who has been reborn into successive bodies over the years. He first met her in Poland in 1356, then when she was called Mina Harker in 1930s London. (This last incident is a nod to Universal’s famous 1931 film adaptation.) Her latest incarnation is successful fashion model Cindy Sondheim (a fun Susan Saint James). Dracula woos her and sleeps with her. But then her therapist, Jeffrey Rosenberg (an increasingly demented Richard Benjamin), becomes jealous of the relationship. Rosenberg’s real name is actually Van Helsing (he changed it for professional reasons), and he sets about trying to prove that Dracula is a blood-sucking vampire.

Best performance: George Hamilton, who was also a producer on the film, plays Count Vladimir Dracula with a Bela Lugosi accent and cape – and a fantastically straight face. There are no nods or winks to the audience; it’s a performance that works and is funny because of Hamilton’s commitment to staying in character. This version of Dracula is at least 700 years old and can turn into a bat and a dog.

Best bit: The film’s tone is set up in the opening scene. Dracula sits alone and playing his piano. Outside his castle window he can hear howling wolves. ‘Children of the night,’ he says, a frustrated look on his face. ‘Shut up!’

Review: There was a vogue in the 1970s for contemporary-set Dracula films – and especially for dropping Dracula-ish character into busy, thriving, modern cities. Hammer rebooted its long-running series with the marvellous Dracula A.D. 1972, shifting the Count from a vague Victoriana setting to modern-day London. Comedy film Vampira (1974) was also based in the UK capital in the 70s, while Blaxploitation movie Blacula (1972) and its 1973 sequel took place in an up-to-date Los Angeles, and the risible Nocturna: Granddaughter of Dracula (1979) in New York City. So Love at First Bite is not doing anything especially new or different. But thanks to some amusing performances and general air of easy-going-ness, it’s a very entertaining hour and a half. The script toys with the usual Draculian clichés, but there’s never any sense of smugness about the humour.

Eight black chickens out of 10

Blake’s 7: Animals (1981)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Dayna attempts to recruit her old mentor to the gang’s cause, but Commissioner Sleer gets wind of the plan…

Series D, episode 5. Written by: Allan Prior. Directed by: Mary Ridge. Originally broadcast: 26 October 1981, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Tarrant (18) hopes Dayna’s old friend Justin, who he calls a ‘mad scientist’, will be worth the trouble. The Scorpio has come to the planet Bucol-2 so Dayna can visit him, but once she’s teleported down Tarrant is menaced by some Federation pursuit ships. With Scorpio damaged in the encounter, he has no choice but to leave Dayna behind and head back to base…
* Dayna (18) hasn’t seen Justin for a long time and hopes he remembers her; he was a friend of her father’s, who used to visit their home to mentor Dayna. On the surface of Bucol-2, she’s stalked by strange creatures – humanoid animals with fur and large horns. Thankfully Justin then appears and they retreat to the safety of his lab. He reveals that the creatures are the result of his Federation-funded experiments in merging humans and animals into troops who are immune to radiation. When he tried brain implants, they rebelled and escaped. Dayna is disgusted but still asks Justin to join her anti-Federation group. Later, she goes outside to try to reason with the lead animal, Og. But he bashes her on the head and she falls down a ravine… and then is found by Servalan’s soldiers, who have just arrived on the planet. Servalan brainwashes Dayna into thinking she hates Justin, so she’ll lead Servalan to him. Later, though, Dayna manages to escape when Justin sacrifices his life for her – leaving her distraught.
* Slave (5) and Orac (27) get some functional dialogue.
* Upon hearing that the Scorpio is damaged, Avon (43) orders Tarrant home. The repairs take a long time, but eventually Avon, Tarrant and Soolin are able to head to Bucol-2 to look for Dayna.
* Servalan (23) – who’s still going by her new identity, Commissioner Sleer – learns that some pursuit ships had an encounter with a super-fast planet-hopper near Bucol-2, and her interest in both the ship and the planet is piqued. After some investigation, she learns about Justin and his experiments, so journeys to Bucol-2, captures Dayna and forces her to help find Justin.
* Soolin (5) flashes a cheeky smirk when Vila (44) is forced to crawl into Scorpio’s gloopy, mucky innards to fix a fault.

Best bit: Idiosyncratic character actor Kevin Stoney drops in for a single scene as a decript, blind old man who Servalan interrogates about Justin. He realises who ‘Sleer’ really is, but then has to smartly backtrack when she makes it clear what will happen to him if he reveals the information.

Worst bit: Does Servalan’s new persona make any sense at all? Isn’t it like Vladimir Putin showing up with a moustache and expecting no one to recognise him?

Review: At least it’s a Dayna-centric episode, which is a nice change. (The storyline was planned for Cally but then the actress quit the series.) There is also some fun season continuity going on: the Sleer storyline and the pacification drug were set up in Traitor, the Scorpio’s new engine in Stardrive. But this is a script with very little panache and quite a lot of leaden dialogue. Meanwhile, the design of the animals themselves – more like Muppets than a menacing threat – really makes it difficult to take things seriously.

Five inertial-guidance glycolene ballast channels out of 10

Next episode: Headhunter