B&W/Color, 1943-1986, 223 mins
BFI (Blu-ray) (UK RB HD)
A year after delivering the head-spinning short film candy box of Short Sharp Shocks, the BFI's Flipside series is as it again with another two-disc Blu-ray collection of bite-sized genre films ranging from quaint detective stories to nightmare-inducing slashers, and everything in between. As with the previous set, your mileage will vary as these were made over four decades with a wide variety of styles and sensibilities, but the "what could possibly be coming up next?" aspect is also a huge part of these films' appeal.
Up first is 1943's Quiz-Crime No. 1 (13m31s), a fun viewer challenge that poses two mysteries for you to solve while you watch the film. In this case it's "The Crooked Billet Murder" and "Back Stage Murder," hosted by a chain-smoking character named Detective Inspector Frost (Carol O'Connor, with an amazing accent) who's leafing through his casebook. "Many of you have fancied yourself amateur detectives," he begins, so you can match wits to first figure out how a guy named Valentine ended up with his head bashed in while crossing the woods to the Crooked Billet Inn. Then it's a story of infidelity and drama that leads to crime when a showgirl named Rita is found in her dressing room. It's quite entertaining seeing two murder mysteries jammed into a speed-dating format, so buckle up. The following year's Quick-Crime No. 2 (18m41s) presents "The Case of the Stolen Boy" and "The Hairless Boarder," with a different, unnamed Inspector (Max Earl, who's a snappier dresser) narrating the stories of a boy seemingly snatched via ladder through a bedroom window and a jewel theft that leads to murder with a telltale bloodstain inside the case. The very short The Mystery Children (2m58s) is a quick and cool little warning following three cute tykes getting ready to go out into the neighborhood, but it turns out to be a very morbid and creepy plea for safety.
1948's Escape from Broadmoor (38m30s) starts off with a literal bang and marks the writing and directing debut of John Gilling (The Flesh and the Fiends, The Reptile, The Plague of the Zombies), who even provides a written forward touting this as the first of his series of "psychic mysteries." John Le Mesurier (Dad's Army) stars as Pendicot, a criminal who escapes from prison where he's serving a sentence for shooting a maid during a burglary. After some police procedural filler that might make you wonder why this is on the set, the fun stuff starts when he decides to return to the scene of the crime with a fellow criminal to raid the safe. Things get... a bit uncanny. 1958's Mingoloo from director "Zichy" (Theodore Zichy, who was behind the equally off-center "Death Was a Passenger" and "Portrait of a Matador" in volume one) is a really baffling entry starting off with artist Mark (Anthony F. Page) dreaming of a strange-looking doggie type creature. He soon starts bringing the creature to life in his work, but it's such a stark change of pace from his normal style he initially considers letting his assistant, Linda (the astoundingly grating Therese Burton), be its creator. Trying to mass produce the pieces turns into a smuggling caper involving international espionage, with a Chinese gong used a musical accompaniment because... '50s. Probably the most intriguing thing here is the assistant director, Douglas Hickox, who went on to have a great directing run in the '70s with Theater of Blood, Sitting Target, Brannigan, Sky Riders, and Zulu Dawn. Finally disc one closes out on a short but absolutely insane note with 1961's "Jack the Ripper with Screaming-Lord Sutch" (2m42s), a Scopitones-style music video (for a line of video jukebox machines called Cinebox) with the Joe Meek-shepherded title singer vamping it up on a colorful sound stage stabbing ladies of evening.
Disc two kicks off with the longest entry of them all, 1976's The Face of Darkess (56m26s), which pretty much counts as an entire feature and ran as the long accompanying short in the U.K. with The House by the Lake (a.k.a. Death Weekend). Starting off with a juxtaposition between a covert ritual in the woods involving men in robes and on-the-street coverage of a hard-line extremist politician played by (the normally much funnier) Lennard Pearace, who's gone ice-cold after the reputed murder of his wife by Satanist terrorists(?). His current project: reviving an ancient occultist (David Allister) to pull off a catastrophic public events that will get his bill passed. However, carrying out the explosive tragedy delivers an aftermath its architect hadn't imagined. Shot on 16mm, this one has a very Hammer House of Mystery & Suspense vibe to it and is a very ambitious film that gets about as far it can on a limited budget. The excellent acting does a good job of selling this Faustian tale that now feels more than a tad ahead of its time. Next up is the most widely-seen title in the set 1979's The Dumb Waiter (17m26s), which actually got some cable TV play on HBO as a time filler between movies in the early '80s. An early effort from director Robert Bierman (Vampire's Kiss), it's an icy little treat following a terrifying evening in the life of Sally (Geraldine James), who's informed by a stalker on the phone that he'll be watching and following her tonight. After a car ride turns into a near assault, she comes home to have a friend over only to find that her inner sanctum may be no protection at all. It's a very atmospheric and enjoyable little suspense piece with a strong slasher slant, even though there's nothing explicit; it also doesn't hurt that this is extremely well shot by Billy Williams (Women in Love) and marks the second credit for composer Colin Towns just after his remarkable debut with The Haunting of Julia.
If you're of the right sensibility, the entertainment highlight here might be 1985's Hangman (16m34s), a completely cracked industrial short about safety measures for construction workers. After an apocalyptic opening montage of various men plunging to horrible deaths or pulverizing passersby below (including a little kid!), we meet our host, a beefy guy in a black mask and wife-beater, who presents four deadly scenarios in which we're challenged to spot all the danger signs. If you fail, he's playing a live game of hangman along the way that will lead to your doom. If you're a fan of carnage-packed educational films, this one's absolutely unmissable. Last up is 1986's The Mark of Lilith (33m16s), an interesting precursor of sorts to the gritty arty urban vampire wave of the '90s (The Addiction, Nightowl, Nadja, etc.). Told in a jagged style, the film begins with lesbian college student Zena (Pamela Lofton) delivering an address about the progressive aspects of the horror genre while surrounded by attendees in creepy masks, as nearby some vampires, Lillia (Franklyn) and Luke (Jeremy Peters), argue in a club about their predatory and general lifestyle habits. Soon Lillia and Zena's paths cross, which results in a most unusual romance. A fascinating miniature contribution to discussion of vampirism's role in popular culture, it's an unpolished but memorable and sometimes spooky film with occasional echoes of Martin and Ganja and Hess. Plus, don't miss the mid-'80s street shots including a theater marquee showing Teen Wolf and D.A.R.Y.L.!
Image quality on all the shorts is very good, with the 35mm material obviously faring best and the 16mm ones looking a bit rougher due to the format; however, the sources all pulled from the BFI National Archive are in good shape with crisp LPCM 1.0 mono tracks and optional English subtitles. All the films are presented at 1.33:1 except The Dumb Waiter, which is 1.66:1 and looks fine that way. Also included on disc two are four featurettes starting with "Darkness Falls" (43m23), an interview with writer-director Ian FH Floyd about The Face of Darkness and his overall career starting at Granada, including thoughts on how the production evolved and how his documentary background influenced the film. Then in "Heads Will Roll (39m45s), Bierman goes into his own journey to The Dumb Waiter and beyond starting with his first experience working the clapper at a production in Soho. He also touches on his work in advertisement, the challenges posed by his young age, and of course, his legendary cult film tangent in Hollywood. In "Making Their Mark" (33m3s), The Mark of LIilith directors Bruna Fionda, Polly Gladwin and Zachary Mack-Nataf (the latter video conferencing in) discuss their split roles on their film, their time bumping up against other filmmakers like Derek Jarman, their approach to mixing film theory and story structure in the short, the depictions of women in horror they were trying to play around with, and their college experiences together. Finally in "Puttin' on the Ritzy" (12m42s), Claire Binns discusses the wild history of the Ritzy cinema in London where The Mark of Lilith was partially shot. It's a fun look back with chatting about the very edge film programming, the counterculture audiences, an appearance by William Boroughs, and more. Also included are separate galleries for The Face of Darkness (3m30s), The Dumb Waiter and Vampire's Kiss (5m10s), and The Mark of Lilith (12m20s). The first pressing also comes with an illustrated insert booklet featuring notes by Floyd and Berman as well as additional essays by Vic Pratt, William Fowler, Josephine Botting Jon Dear, Jonathan Rigby, and Caroline Champion.
Reviewed on November 27, 2021