Friday, 11 December 2009

horrifying movies and horrible errors

A friend from our King's College Cambridge days, who later became an eminent Professor of Psychology, recently sent me a dvd of M R James's finest ghost story, Oh Whistle And I'll Come To You, My Lad. This was made for BBC tv in the 1960s (minus the first and last 2 words of the original title), filmed quite beautifully at that, in monochrome and presumably on a minimal budget, by yet another Cambridge alumnus, Jonathan Miller. It's short, only 50 minutes or so, but a terrific performance by Michael Hordern is central to the film, which manages to be creepy, poetic, imaginatively suspenseful, psychologically fascinating and true to its original source. Dr Miller, before he turned into the portentous panjandrum of latter years, must have grown sick of being lauded for Beyond The Fringe and this marvellous little film… But those were after all perfect achievements of a high order, unusually provocative entertainments at their best. So it was good to see the film again after so long, and to realise that over two generations later it hadn't dated one iota – crisp and creepy as ever: thanks for sending it, Dr Halliday!

Contrast this minor classic with a "major movie" such as The Shining, which I also saw again the other day. Inflated budget and length, very high-tech for its day, boasting a riveting if outrageously over the top central performance from Jack Nicholson, in full colour, full volume all the way… And yet by the end, how disappointing, even boring. Certainly unsatisfactory and short on shock, with every gory episode overdone and underlined. Stanley Kubrick now seems a rather overrated director, apart from his earlier monochrome, low-budget movies, Killer's Kiss, The Killing and Paths of Glory. These, though derivative in various respects, all packed a punch and showed imagination alongside the hysteria and violence depicted. High quality black and white photography and youthful energy won the day. Money, attention to detail and stars and gloss can't rescue The Shining from being something of a horrid mess – as were Kubrick's later films, for the most part. But those early, less pretentious works should be enjoyed and remembered however, along with the grotesque fantasy Dr Strangelove. He also offered some friendly support and encouragement to genuine talents like Stuart (Overlord) Cooper and Kevin Brownlow during their own youthful directorial struggles: Stanley K. seems to have been, by different accounts, either a warmly generous, meticulous craftsman or a coldly dictatorial, eccentric obsessive. But then perhaps nearly all the most individual filmmakers display a wild and weird mixture of divergent and/or extreme character traits?

1 comment:

  1. Oh, yes, the Miller adaptation was wonderful, though apparently some MR James enthusiasts didn't like the introduction of psychological ambiguity via the Professor being portrayed as mentally fragile. It can be found on YouTube - see Whistle And I'll Come To You.