Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Body Beneath – review


Director: Andy Milligan

Release date: 1970

Contains spoilers

In a series of correspondence recently Doc. Despicable, from over at the Frequency of Fear wondered about my thoughts with regard to the body of work of Andy Milligan and, specifically, the vampire movie The Body Beneath. I had to admit I wasn’t familiar with Milligan and thus hadn’t seen the film, but did spot it cheap on Amazon marketplace (coincidentally, OllieMugwump mentioned the film in a comment the day after I ordered it).

Now they do say, “Never listen to a mad scientist,” but to be fair Doc Despicable didn’t lead me wrong with this. It was pointed out that it was cheap as a film, almost a sadistic version of Ed Wood, and yet it was a labour of love. I must admit it had something, it isn’t a good film by all the standards of cinema but there is that indefatigable earnestness, which in itself can make something worthwhile.

We start off in a graveyard and note that the film poster proudly states “filmed in the graveyards of England”. Well, to be fair, some of the shots were taken in a graveyard – ostensibly Highgate Cemetery and I’ll take it to be so. One glaring plot faux pas came later in the film when it suggested that the Ford family (who, as we shall see, are all vampires) were buried in Highgate for 21 centuries. Given it was opened in 1839, and was designed by Parliamentary order, I doubt that very much!

The woman in shot is Anna Ford (Susan Clark) and she is visiting her mother’s grave. The film as it stands is a grainy, dark effort and this (surprisingly) worked well, especially as the colour of her red coat and yellow flowers juxtaposed nicely – it might have been accidental but I’ll give the benefit of the doubt and assume it was purposeful. Then three green faced vampires appear. Yes green faced – but I’ll discuss that in just a moment.

Algernon and Alicia in reposeGraham Ford (Colin Gordon) is at home snoozing when the doorbell rings. A vicar and a woman stand there. He introduces himself as the Reverend Alexander Algernon Ford (Gavin Reed), a distant relation, and the woman is his wife Alicia (Susan Heard). Alicia spends the film silent, whispering to Algernon. They have just moved to the area, he is reopening All Souls Church, has taken Carfax Abbey as a home and wishes to invite his cousin to dinner. Anna comes home and she seems fearful of Algernon but the scene cuts abruptly away before her reaction can be gauged.

Susan and PaulWe cut to a couple in a softcore embrace. Linger for a moment and then cut to them (partially) dressed and talking. She is Susan Ford (Jackie Skarvellis) and he is her boyfriend Paul (Richmond Ross). She is pregnant, they talk of marriage and she says that she is going to visit an aunt and then on to Carfax to meet a new relative who recently contacted her; the Reverend Ford.

Finally we meet Candace Ford (Emma Jones), a fashion designer. She is due to go out when there is a visitor. Her maid answers the door and a hunchback, Spool (Berwick Kaler), gives her flowers for Candace. When she turns around a green faced vampire is there. The vampire whispers to her and she takes, in a daze, the flowers to her mistress, manages to prick Candace’s finger and get a slide of blood for the vampires.

putting the bite onSo, we have our main players… what is going on? The Fords (historically) are vampires but their bloodline is weakening. Algernon has returned to put things straight. Susan is to be a baby machine, breeding a new line of strong Fords. Candace is to be a blood donor, offering her blood to Susan (if needed during the pregnancy) and to the vampires. As for Graham? Well Algernon has no use for him but his wife will be a centre piece at a vampire feast. The plot veers off at the end, as all goes wrong, and Algernon decides that the family should move to America (a land of pimps, prostitutes and religious fanatics but better than police state England, is the rationale).

tricky blood momentsOkay, let’s talk vampires. They can go out in daylight but it weakens them. Algernon and Alicia must be injected regularly with blood to combat this. Why there was an intravenous blood bottle up during these scenes is anyone’s guess; there probably was a reason but, to me at least, it was unfathomable. Sometimes this procedure causes Algernon’s blood pressure to fluctuate and he must be bled with leaches. No, I didn’t get this either and, to be fair, neither did the script as Algernon states his confusion.

green faced vampiresWhy most of the vampires have green faces and the two principle vampires do not is beyond me. This is not the only film to do this sort of thing however. The vampires do not have fangs – a failing as fang marks seem to be left behind. The fact that Algernon poses as a priest is interesting but, I’m afraid, nothing new. Sir Francis Varney posed as a monk in Varney the Vampire.

wearing a tea cosy?The main locations are wonderful (though the lighting can be pedestrian) but the outfits not so much so. Doc. Despicable mentioned wondering if there was a naked sofa somewhere, bringing to mind innocent furniture having been viciously skinned alive to provide costumes. I had to admit that I wondered whether Algernon was wearing a tea cosy at one point. The stock music used can be terribly intrusive.

the print is corrupt in placesFilm wise the print used for transfer is damaged in places, but little can be done about that I’m guessing. Some of the angles chosen are peculiar but the scene where the family get out of the cemetery for a vampire meeting was nearly wonderfully atmospheric – except dark filters made it difficult to see. In fact the entire feast was a near miss visually.

gore momentWhen action sequences occur there is shaky camera syndrome (though there aren’t many action scenes). When I say shaky camera, let me be clear, this is flinging the camera around wildly to completely obscure the action being filmed. That said, whilst we do not see the actual deed, Milligan tried his best to throw some gore in aftermath. The primary example of this being the knitting needles in the eyes of the maid Jessie (Felicity Sentence).

Acting wise things are odd. Everything is done with utmost seriousness and has a very stagy feel to it. This does not work to produce a high class performance level but offers an Englishness that does work on a very weird level. The dialogue actually seems to flow quite nicely and Gavin Reed is excellent in his own perverse way. The plot is too convoluted for its own good and scenes cut away at what feels like the wrong moment sometimes.

Spool with CandaceActually, I should also mention that I was rather impressed with the characterisation that Milligan decided to lend to Spool. We discover about his abused childhood and how he became hunchbacked. We see him vulnerable and able to be coerced by one of the good guys. This characterisation spilled over into Algernon who punishes Spool (by nailing his hands to a wall) and then questioning why he should feel compassion (sadistic, two-faced compassion it turns out) when he has no soul. A little gem within the script.

I mentioned the earnestness, this really comes out in the performances and the entire thing is obviously a labour of love. It misses the mark severely as good cinema but it has a quality which makes the entire thing fascinating. In fact I have noted that some have called this boring but I was strangely drawn into the world Milligan created. Not good, but somehow worth watching – as long as you know what you are letting yourself in for. 3.5 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.


forestofthedead said...

I really enjoyed this movie, a depressing but very interesting work of art.

I think your review was fair. Thank you for spreading the word about this film.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

cheers forestofthedead, please explore other reviews and let me know what you think