Supporting Features

I watched the BFI edition Short Sharp Shocks. This is a collection of short films shown as “supporting features” in cinemas, made from the 40s to the 80s.

Lock Your Door (1949)

It is a very strange experience for anyone born after 1970 to realise that at one time cinema audiences were expected to listen to an old man rambling on for about 15 minutes. Even if he was the renowned ghost story writer Algernon Blackwood, and he does move about in his mock drawing room sufficiently to merit different cameras monitoring the old bird from different angles.

The sound of a train in the distance sets Algernon off on a stream of reminiscence, and he gives us the story of Miss Jenkin, an “elderly spinster travelling North”. When one of the carriages on her train derailed, she had to wait in a station overnight with a lot of other equally discomposed travellers. Encountering a porter with a “pockmarked face”, she takes his advice and goes to an old house to stay in a bedroom for the night. She follows her usual procedure of locking the door (due to being surprised by an unwanted gentleman in a London hotel long ago) and this protects her when mysterious noises start and someone rattles her door to get in. She gets away, and realises “the full horror that had been slowly creeping over her like a paralysis”.

Algernon delivers his lines reasonably fluently, and as he doesn’t stay put we can assume he isn’t simply reading from prompt cards (and his eyesight would need to be quite good to manage it). Some of these old-style stories are thin on plot and work better as readings, with a narrator controlling the suspense through pace and tone, than they would as dramatisations, where we would just gallop along and quickly run out of frighteners.

The Reformation Of St. Jules (1949)

According to the booklet, there were 6 instalments of A Strange Experience, but only these 2 survive. In this one, Algy starts off by telling us about a menu from a ship’s dining room, which happens to be on his mantlepiece.

The room looks much the same, though some of the furniture has moved about, and someone’s changed the mysterious books on the table. There is a fantastic opportunity here for someone to do a ghost story based around the making of these films, where the ghost writer is himself haunted. Try not to do the obvious conclusion that the old occultist has died and this is his chamber in Hell, endlessly recounting his horror-visions to eternity.

The story in this case is Algy’s recollection of hearing a fellow passenger on a liner talking about the supposedly supernatural events that occurred in the southern French resort of St. Jules, and how he knows the truth about the marvellous new invention which was the real cause. And then there is a twist about the status of the narrator.

The Tell-Tale Heart (1953)

Stanley Baker plays Edgar Allan Poe reading his own short story for 20 minutes.

It holds your attention. Further evidence that Stanley could have done Sean Connery’s career better than Sean did.

Death Was A Passenger (1958)

An English passenger on a French train recognises a fellow traveller: a Nun that he encountered when on-the-run in disguise during wartime. He was an RAF pilot whose plane had been shot down, and he was trying to get to Spain without getting captured by the Gestapo. Due to his complete inability to even manage an ‘Allo ‘Allo-level accent, he was soon rumbled, but luckily the other passengers were willing to help him.

The Airman is played by Terence Alexander, who did lots of films from the 50s through to the 70s (he was in the original The Day Of The Jackal), but was best known for playing the businessman Charlie Hungerford in Bergerac. Although Bergerac did have a supernatural episode (like every long-running TV drama), in this short there is no spookiness, just an ambiguity about who came to rescue him from the German.

Portrait Of A Matador (1958)

The English artist David Crane is in a near-trance as a parcel has been delivered from Spain. He thinks it is the portrait he painted of the matador Manuel Suarez, who died a year ago after seeing the work.

In a long flashback we learn that David detests bullfighting and when he presented the portrait, Manuel’s girlfriend reacted by recognising “the cruelty, the evil, the courage, the stupidity”, and so the angry young man went out and got fatally injured when this put him off his stroke. A year later and David is nearly the victim of a weird revenge that seems to work through “autosuggestion”.

The story would be improved by making it straightforwardly supernatural, maybe a variation on M.R.James’ Mezzotint by having the painting clearly changing as the action proceeds.

Twenty-Nine (1969)

We start in the colourful excitement of a football match. However we don’t stay there – the game is just ringing in the ears of 29-year old Graham Baird when he wakes up in a flat he doesn’t know, in clothes he doesn’t recognise, trying to figure out what he did in the previous lost weekend. There’s a cryptic message written in lipstick on the bathroom mirror.

Graham has a good job in an advertising agency, he’s already failed at marriage, but he’s getting too old for all this laddish runaround: strip clubs and casinos and drinking clubs where the manager laments these young kids who are all on drugs instead of alcohol. It all gets a bit scary and claustrophobic for Graham… maybe it’s time for him to finally try growing up.

The Sex Victims (1973)

Not a great title. We start with Alun Armstrong running away from the sound of screaming and don’t see him again for a while.

At a roadside cafe a trucker is on the look-out for opportunities, but a female hitchhiker gets in a different cab. Ah well.

Cutting across some country lanes he nearly collides with a nude woman on horseback. “What do you think you’re doing, you stupid bitch, running around starkers?”

Since our driver has some riding experience from his Army days, he goes along to the riding club he just noticed nearby and enrols, so that he can pursue this vision of Lady Godiva further. This leads to a rather unpleasant pursuit sequence, as we don’t know what he’s planning to do when he catches up with his quarry. It takes us up and around a strange universe of deserted and derelict buildings (and the continuity goes a bit off, as the distance between hunter and hunted clearly changes back and to between camera positions). It turns into fantasy as the mystery lady is suddenly happy to take this wannabe-stable boy in hand… but it’s to bring back Alun Armstrong, who was apparently the previous driver on this route. There is a sharp ending to this supernatural revenge story.

The soundtrack is the most interesting aspect of this film: some groovy rock for some of the fast action, but also weirdy oscillating electronica when a strange atmosphere is needed.

The Lake (1978)

Barbara and Tony are getting engaged and to celebrate they’ve gone back for a picnic at the lake where they used to imagine dragons dwelling when they were children. This requires passing by the old house that it is near to, and we get a big info-dump about how it has been deserted and derelict ever since the old farmer killed his family and livestock and then vanished. The viewer is shown an old photograph and we note the detail that the killer had half a finger missing, significant later.

There is a strange presence around our young lovers but we never see it clearly, except for a moment when a ghostly figure is behind Barbara in the woods. I’m not sure that moment really fits, but the ending is ambiguous. This could have been a bit longer if the initial exposition was done in less abrupt way, otherwise the tension-building scenes are perfect, and altogether this is 1000 times better than that Ben Wheatley thing I saw last week, which was 3 times as long.

The Errand (1980)

We start at a tough, tough training centre for tough, tough men.

The title flashes by and then we get a notice: “All characters and institutions represented in this film do not exist” ….and then a beat…. and then “……yet..” appears faintly at the end of the sentence.

There are some decent TV actors in this: Peter Howell and John Collin, playing the military men in charge of this special and mysterious establishment. Younger Captain Garratt is called in by them and given a special assignment, to travel to a derelict Army pillbox out in the countryside, to collect a message.

No sooner has he done this than he’s ambushed and attacked. He gets away and eludes his attackers for some time, but his injuries make him collapse from exhaustion.

There is of course a twist that explains how everything was not what it seemed, although it never seemed to be anything very stable in the first place. That opening “……yet..” warning puts this in the same setting as Penda’s Fen and its secret installation that can’t be discussed. This is a brutal version of the sort of paranoid conspiracy stories that turned up in shows like The Frighteners or Scorpion Tales. Absolutely excellent, and the sort of storyline that Inside No.9 will regenerate at some point, if they haven’t done it already.

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