Thursday, 28 April 2016
Brothers and sisters, all Cliff Twemlow movies got soul!!! So as I’ve yet to have my skull caved in with a blue plaque, I thought I’d draw your attention to 1983’s Target Eve Island, the second completed collaboration between director David Kent-Watson and actor, writer, producer, lover, fighter and all round legend in his own tuxedo Cliff Twemlow. Made at a time when their first film GBH (1983) was beginning to hit the video rental shelves, it would have been easy for Kent-Watson and Twemlow to have merely phoned in more of the same with Target Eve Island. Ambition was clearly flowing in the veins of both men though, and Target Eve Island is every bit the ‘bigger’ 2nd movie that offers up more fight scenes, car chases, explosions and general onscreen destruction than their first effort. Whereas GBH was rooted in Twemlow’s own background as a Mancunian nightclub bouncer, Target Eve Island looks to mainstream cinema for inspiration, especially the long running James Bond film franchise. Tasking itself with the near impossible challenge of replicating the James Bond formula on a shoestring budget, and shot on video production values.
Target Eve Island sees Twemlow’s GBH Co-star ‘Brett Sinclair’ elevated to leading man status and cast as the film’s Bond character, William Grant, a top secret service agent investigating the kidnapping of female scientist Dr Lindenbrook. Dialogue is Twemlow emulating Christopher Wood era Bond, with sexual innuendo being served up in rich abundance. “Something came up”, “I’ll come as quick as I can” quips Grant over the phone to his M-like boss Major Barrett (David Rankin), whilst simultaneously trying to jump the bones of his latest sexual conquest. Evidentially being associated with Grant carries with it the same short life expectancy as being related to Charles Bronson’s character in the Death Wish series. Grant’s regular snitch Danny gets knifed in the gut and Grant’s fellow agent Jonathan Halstead is beaten up by thugs, placed in a car and crushed to death in a junkyard. Halstead’s death tips Grant off that there is a snitch at MI5 in the form of female agent Christina Fleming. Grant’s subsequent pursuit of her around 1980s Manchester sends him in the direction of other displaced Bond villains, the Goldfinger-esque businessman Sir John MacKlin and the superbad, tough as nails soviet agent Dimitri Petrovitch (John Saint Ryan). Fleming learns the hard way that her elegance to Petrovitch counts for nothing when he sends a female agent to strangle her in his Jacuzzi, resulting in a topless catfight to the death between the two women. Meanwhile Grant discovers that Lindenbrook’s kidnapping is actually the work of Italian/American mobster Harry Filipino (Jerry Harris, a former turn on TV’s The Comedians) and Kung-Fu master Roman (Steve Powell).
Around the half hour mark Target Eve Island surprisingly drops Twemlow’s beloved Manchester as its location in favour of sunnier climes, when it transpires that Filipino and Roman have shipped Lindenbrook off to a secret island in the Caribbean. As a result Grant gets assigned to travel to Barbados and Grenada in the company of Chaser (Twemlow himself) a silent but deadly heavy who Grant insists on partnering up with. A decision that doesn’t go down well with Major Barrett, who whines “Chaser tends to attract trouble”. Frequent attacks by Filipino’s Kung-Fu goons take up the majority of Grant’s time in the Caribbean, however in the Bond tradition there are romantic interludes for our hero too. Grant romances Russian agent Stella Starlight (Ginette Gray), as well as a redhead called Maria Corsair (Andrea Kelly). When the latter is kidnapped by Roman, Grant and Chaser have to temporary abandon their attempt to rescue Lindenbrook from Filipino’s clutches, in favour of rescuing Maria from Filipino’s clutches. Petrovitch also surfaces in Barbados, and immediately sets about kicking Roman’s ass and kidnapping a few of Filipino’s men, as if this film didn’t already have enough kidnappings already!! In the midst of all this chaos Grant even acquires a comedy sidekick in ‘Crazy’ Max (comedian/impressionist Maxton G Beesley) who feigns being a nutcase “people round here think I’m crazy, mental” in order to disguise the fact that he too is a secret agent. Crazy Max’s penchant for impromptu impersonations of famous people –Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne, Peter Lorre- serves as a way for Target Eve Island to work Beesley’s real life shtick into the film.
The making of Target Eve Island was severely compromised when –rather inconveniently- the US government decided to launch ‘Operation Urgent Fury’ an all-out military invasion of Grenada designed to oust the Communist government that had just offed the Grenadian Prime Minister a week earlier. A dangerous turn of events that audaciously gets adapted into the film’s own storyline. Operation Urgent Fury in fact proved an unlikely godsend to the real life filmmakers, gifting them with all this incredible footage of American tanks and sea stallion helicopters rolling into their filming location, material that they’d never have had the funds to stage themselves. The American invasion also benefits the fictional Grant who uses Operation Urgent Fury as a smokescreen to launch his own assault on Filipino’s private island in order to finally rescue the female scientist. The goofy nature of the rescue scene –with Maxton G Beesley doing John Wayne impressions and tripping over coconuts- can’t prepare you for Target Eve Island’s unexpectedly downbeat conclusion. One that finds nearly all of Grant’s cohorts dead and an embittered Grant returning to the UK to get revenge on the corrupt government official who sold him out.
Target Eve Island is the kind of film that leaves the false impression of being allot longer than it actually is. I don’t mean that in a nasty, put down way, it is just that the film is so epic in scale, containing as it does two main villains in Filipino and Petrovitch, three different female characters, two sidekicks for the hero, and location hopping from Manchester to Barbados to Grenada. Given the film packs in what initially feels like an entire afternoon’s worth of entertainment, you’d swear it has to have been at least two and a half hours long, whereas in fact Target Eve Island does its thing in at a relatively short 80 minutes.
There is a tireless hyper activeness at work in the early Twemlow films like GBH and Target Eve Island. Calling these films action packed is putting it mildly, filler is in extremely short supply here, and the only reasons characters tend to keep still in this film for very long is if they’ve been punched out, stabbed or shot. It’s as if Twemlow and Kent-Watson feared the inferior look of video would be a hard sell to a 1983 audience still mainly accustomed to watching films on the big screen, and their solution to overcoming this prejudice was to cram their productions with way, way more action than the average shot on film production offered back then. It’s only as their filmmaking progressed, and presumably the pair grew in confidence, that their later films felt comfortable with setting aside time for character development and whose pacing was in keeping with that of regular films.
Unfortunately for Twemlow and Kent-Watson history almost entirely tends to remember shot on video productions as the domain of amateur or underachieving filmmakers. When Target Eve Island was made in 1983, the concept of shooting films on videotape for direct to video release would have been seen as fresh and innovative, and you suspect that Twemlow and Kent-Watson had high hopes that once the public became familiar with watching films on home video they’d also come round to the idea of watching films that had been made on video too. With Target Eve Island the pair significantly upped their game. The exotic locations, explosions, speedboat chases, stunt work and a scene of a helicopter being downed, all raise the bar for a shot on video production. A pity then that rather than follow their lead and make productions that rivalled anything being done on film, other lesser filmmakers used the switch to video as an excuse to dumb down and go low-fi. The expression ‘shot on video’ eventually becoming synonymous to the public with terrible home-made horror films and cheap porno.
Although Target Eve Island is a relatively early film in Twemlow’s acting/filmmaking career, his cinematic inner circle had already been assembled by the time this film was made. All the faces and personalities that you remember from the Twemlow films- Jerry Harris, Brett Sinclair, Steve Powell, John Saint Ryan, Maxton G Beesley, David Rankin, Brian Sterling-Vete- are present and correct here. Target Eve Island is initially centred on Grant, and therefore a Brett Sinclair vehicle, yet quickly opens out into quite the ensemble piece, with all concerned allocated their own moment in the spotlight. Make no mistake this is an overly crowded film when it comes to supporting characters, still there is no one here who doesn’t justify their screen time. What real life Jeet Kune Do instructor Steve Powell lacks as a natural actor he makes up for in the physical action stakes and remains as facially distinctive as any great character actor. Brett Sinclair (actual name: Brett Hutchinson, the real life brother of actress Sherrie Hewson) was the obvious choice to play Grant. The most conventionally handsome of Twemlow’s people, Sinclair/Hutchinson juggles catalogue model good looks with the ability to convince you that he’d still be able to fight his way out of a bad situation. Jerry Harris is enjoyably OTT as Harry Filipino, making a side-splitting meal of an Italian/American accent. Boasting the kind of rubbery face that made his real calling in life as a comedian perhaps inevitable, Harris can’t help but bring a smile to your face, despite doing his best to play a complete bastard here. In contrast to the hilarity that Harris injects into the film, John Saint Ryan registers as a threating force to be reckoned with. Not surprising Saint Ryan was asked back to deliver further villainy in Twemlow’s horror/action hybrid ‘The Eye of Satan’ in 1988, and eventually had a career outside of Twemlow’s films, going on to appear in American TV shows like Babylon 5 and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Saint Ryan even got to reprieve his Russian tough guy routine in Delta Force 3: The Killing Game. That film and Target Eve Island do offer up a fairly decent argument that John Saint Ryan was the greatest Bond villain we never got.
Jerry Harris making an offer you can't refuse
Given the sheer amount of disparate elements and talents that Target Eve Island was trying to house under the same roof, it is no real surprise to find that this is the most uneven of Twemlow’s films. For all of the channelling of light, tongue in cheek Moore era Bond that goes on here, Target Eve Island isn’t shy of displaying its real working class roots. Beesley and Harris bring plenty of working men’s club flavour to the proceedings, a culture that rarely got a look-in when it came to British cinema, let alone got mashed up with James Bond elements like it does here. As with the Bond influenced British exploitation films that came before it –like the Lindsay Shonteff stuff and Harrison Marks’ Aphrodisia- Target Eve Island happily takes advantage of the fact that it can play outside of the confines of the family friendly EON Bond films. There is more boobage pointed in the direction of Brett Sinclair here than Moore and Connery ever got to feast their eyes on during their stints as Bond, and joltingly violent moments –a young child being gunned down in a crowded street, Grant ramming a pole through a baddie’s neck- also need filing under ‘things you’re never likely to see in a real James Bond film’.
Pop culture references are everywhere in this film, Christina Fleming owes her surname to Bond creator Ian Fleming, and appears to have borrowed her yellow jumpsuit from Bruce Lee in Game of Death. Jerry Harris is openly ‘doing’ Marlon Brando in The Godfather, seemingly a requisite impersonation for all 1970s British comedians. The twist ending is… ahem… somewhat indebted to The Wild Geese. Much as Twemlow’s films are frequently described as ‘exploitation films’ and ‘B-Movies’, the movie references contained within the Twemlow films themselves suggest Twemlow’s own viewing habits were a bit more mainstream than the Video Nasties and Section 3 titles that GBH is frequently mentioned in the same breath as.
Tonally all over the place as Target Eve Island is, this doesn’t diminish what an exciting, testosterone fuelled, whole lotta fun that this film is. One that functions best on a ‘Boy’s Own’ level. Target Eve Island’s relentless barrage of fighting, shootings, bikini clad babes and working class humour demonstrates just how in tune Twemlow and Co were with what the average man on the street wanted out of a video rental in 1983. GBH is said to have been especially popular with solders who’d just come back from fighting in the Falklands, and recently a former video shop owner has claimed said Twemlow film was also a frequent rental of persons belonging to the travelling community (although he didn’t put it as politely as that!); tales that reveal just how strongly the underdogs of British society connected to Twemlow’s films.
In a perfect world Target Eve Island would too have ended up on the video rental shelves, sharing shelf space with GBH, Missing in Action, No Retreat No Surrender 2, Big Trouble in Little China, Ninja Terminator and all the other good time action movies that wowed us all back in the video rental days. In reality it is one of two Twemlow films (the other being The Ibiza Connection) whose release history is shrouded in mystery to this day. We’ve still yet to get to the bottom of where and when Target Eve Island was released, that is if it was released anywhere at all. The version of the film I’m reviewing this from bears all the traces of being an uncompleted work print, lacking as it is in opening and closing credits, a music soundtrack and certain sound effects. A situation that lends Target Eve Island a couple of memorably bizarre, if unintended moments. Characters pick up phones and always find someone else on the other end of the line despite the fact that the phone hadn’t been ringing in the first place, and action sequences that cry out for a pulsating soundtrack –like Grant’s car being pursued by a helicopter- instead play out against peaceful silence. There exists the possibility that a more complete, and indeed completed, version of Target Eve Island could be out there. A scene from the film that is on YouTube is a no-show in the version I have, and Steve Powell’s website contains screenshots from what appears to be a version of the film that has opening credits. I have to admit though that I’ve become so accustomed to seeing Target Eve Island with several silent action sequences and phone conversations prompted by phones that aren’t ringing, that these quirks have become part of the film’s character to me. During my last few viewings of the film I’ve tended to find myself filling in the blanks by doing impersonations of a phone ringing at the points in the film that are missing said sound effect. Feel free to do likewise yourself.
Ironically for a film that acts as a strong showcase for all of Twemlow’s usual cast members, the one Twemlow regular who goes underutilized here is Twemlow himself. The big ego thing for Twemlow to do would have been to cast himself in the Grant role, yet perplexingly he instead allocates himself one of the least memorable parts in the film. Casting himself as Chaser, Twemlow gives himself virtually no dialogue, and largely chooses to hide his features under a straw hat throughout. Rather than use the role to demonstrate his action movie credentials, the main joke in Chaser’s big scene is based around how ineffective Chaser is. As Grant fights it out with Filipino and Roman, Chaser opts to drink Filipino’s booze and let them get on with it rather than lend Grant a hand. Twemlow’s incognito appearance and the low-key nature of his role in general could be interpreted as an acknowledgement that the film belongs to other people, and Twemlow admirably does nothing to scene steal the film away from anyone. Any accusations that the Twemlow films were simply self-produced vanity vehicles for Twemlow himself, can easily be counter argued by how little screen time he gives himself here, and while he may be restored to leading man status in his next film ‘The Ibiza Connection’, he uses that film to cast himself as one of the least likeable characters in film history.
Target Eve Island might give you very little of the man himself onscreen, but Twemlow’s personality, movie influences and sense of humour are all over this film. Although Twemlow never took to the director’s chair in his career, he always comes across as the main creative force in the films he was involved with, far more so than his regular director David Kent-Watson. The films Twemlow appeared in that weren’t made by Kent-Watson, ‘Moonstalker’ directed by Leslie McCarthy and ‘The Ibiza Connection’ directed by Howard Arundel, all retain the same feel and spirit as GBH. On the other hand the film that Kent-Watson made without Twemlow, 1986’s ‘Into the Darkness’ is a dreadful bore, that not even Twemlow regulars, a guest appearance by Donald Pleasence and a slasher movie plot can breathe life into. So I do feel that it was Twemlow who was the vital component in these films and the motivational force for getting these films made, it is telling that after Twemlow died in 1993 Kent-Watson appears to have dropped out of filmmaking altogether.
Despite short changing you when it comes to showcasing Twemlow as an actor, I’d still have no reservations about chalking up Target Eve Island as one of the key Cliff Twemlow films. Maybe not the first film of his you should see, that surely has to be GBH, but definitely a persuasive carrot on a stick to dangle in front of any potentially new converts to the small but dedicated cult of Cliff Twemlow. Everyone in Target Eve Island is so clearly giving it their all, and there is such energy and sense of camaraderie onscreen that you really do have to be without a pulse to not get swept along for the ride. Twemlow once wrote a song called ‘Cause I’m a Man’ whose protagonist likes “my movie shows with lots of action, take my beer straight from the can”. Target Eve Island is a film made with such a man in mind. Chances are that if you like your movie shows with lots of action, and take your beer straight from the can, then you’re gonna love Target Eve Island.
Thursday, 31 March 2016
Tintorera is as if someone had seen Jaws and thought “that was okay, but it could have done with less emphasis on the shark and more on disco music, full frontal male nudity and polyamorous activity”. The film born out of that moment of inspiration finds Andres Garcia and Hugo Stiglitz playing a pair of men about town who eventually bond over a shared love of impaling women (in the sexual sense) and impaling sharks (in the non-sexual sense). “Givin’ it plenty” a disco song used here (and even more so in Lindsay Shonteff’s No 1 of the Secret Service) is an apt anthem for these two beach dwelling Casanovas whose attempts to shag most of the female population are occasionally hindered by a party pooper of a tiger shark, who has a nasty habit of gobbling up their love interests.
Don’t ask me why but for years I’d laboured under the misapprehension that Tintorera was one of those all-star Lew Grade disaster movies, although it didn’t take long for the film itself to shatter that illusion. The amount of nudity and hanky panky on display here would have never gotten in front of the cameras on Lew Grade’s watch. In reality Tintorera was made in Mexico by local exploitation film powerhouse René Cardona Jr, with some of the financing coming from Hemdale, a British company formed in the late 1960s by the actor David Hemmings and Hemming’s agent. The dual nationality of the production being reflected in the casting, which serves up British crumpet (Susan George, Fiona Lewis) alongside Mexican beefcake (the aforementioned Garcia and Stiglitz) as potential shark food.
Considering that Cardona’s directorial decisions were frequently dictated by popular trends, his apparent disinterest in directly imitating Jaws here comes as an unexpected surprise. The main focus of Tintorera isn’t really the tiger shark of the title, but Andres Garcia’s character Miguel, a laid back, happy go lucky womaniser who lives a humble but fun filled existence in the Caribbean Island of Isla Mujeres. Tintorera is hugely infatuated by Miguel, and thinks the world of him, as do the two other main characters in the film. Steve (Stiglitz) a rich American born businessman initially butts heads with Miguel, only to eventually be taken under Miguel’s wing. In the process Miguel changes Steve’s outlook on life for the better. A hyper macho, hyper sexual attitude is strong in the early stages of Tintorera, scenes and dialogue draw comparisons between the two men’s hunting of sharks to the two men’s hunting of women, with Steve and Miguel in constant competition over which one of them can outdo the other in these stakes.
The macho front unexpectedly drops however, and the film and its male characters display a more romantic side with the arrival of Gabriella (Susan George) a British tourist with a sexually adventurous nature. (George’s career aim, stated in the Tintorera press book, “I’ve always wanted to play a nun” was clearly not going to be fulfilled by this role.) Unusually it is Gabriella rather than the guys, who initiates a ménage à trois living situation between herself and the two men, albeit with the stipulations that neither man can get jealous of the other and neither can sleep with any woman other than her “because I’m enough for both of you”. It is this unorthodox, three under the sheets, living situation that is really at the heart of Tintorera, and a subject that completely captivates Cardona. “One for two and two for one” is the motto of these three sexual musketeers. In another unusual touch it is the male stars of the film that are more forthcoming when it comes to onscreen nudity here, maybe Susan George was still holding onto those hopes to one day play a nun. Gabriella’s house rule about jealousy may lead you to anticipate a situation whereby the men’s competitive streak re-emerges to cause conflicts within this three way love affair, yet the film goes against such expectations by its steadfast refusal to go down that route. Indeed no such complications surface as a result of this "triad relationship" form of polyamouous hook up, or ‘the triangle’ as it is referred to in the film. Gabriella basks in the attention of not one, but two men, and the men in return are rewarded with what must be their most emotionally deep relationship with a woman to date, considering their promiscuous track record of one night stands.
To find a film that is non-judgemental about a three way love affair would be difficult, let alone one that is as enthusiastically positive about the subject as this film is. For all the macho, chest beating bravado of the early scenes, Tintorera develops into quite the romantic, love letter to polyamory. The film favouring this type of union over traditional male and female monogamy, Steve’s earlier attempt to initiate a mutually exclusive relationship with another British tourist (Fiona Lewis) resulting a nothing but pain, jealously and unhappiness for Steve. It is this aspect of Tintorera that fascinates and intrigues the most, especially as the reasons why this subject effectively hi-jacks the entire film remains a mystery. It isn’t as if there was a wave of films dealing with ménage à trois relationships that this film was trying to cash in on. Nor does this subject matter surface in Cardona’s other films, ruling out the idea that Cardona was attempting to crowbar his own personal, sexual agenda into his films, Cardona wasn’t Derek Ford. It remains doubtful that a post Jaws audience, imaging they’d get more of the same from Tintorera, was expecting this film to sail into the lusty waters of troilism, but it is this aspect that guarantees you’ll remember Tintorera over all the other common or garden Jaws rip-offs.
Givin' it plenty
The other, less endearing reason, why Tintorera sticks in the memory is the amount of for real animal fatalities in the film, with various sharks, barracudas and stingrays being harpooned and bashed about the head during the course of the running time. Suffice to say, don’t go expecting any reassuring ‘no animals were harming during the making of this film’ credit at the end of Tintorera. In recent years this has led to the film being compared to Cannibal Holocaust in some quarters, although personally I’d draw a very slight line of distinction between the two myself. Admittedly these two films probably killed off an equal amount of animals during filming, but the animal fatalities in Tintorera are of a comparatively brief, matter of fact nature, and Cardonia appears less inclined to make a sadistic spectacle out of animal killings than Ruggero Deodato did in Cannibal Holocaust. The fact that the animal violence in Tintorera is all played out within the more ‘socially acceptable’ context of fishermen hunting animals for food and financial gain, tends to make this an easier pill to swallow than the pointless and unjustified nature of the shooting of a pig and butchering of a turtle in Cannibal Holocaust. Cardona doesn’t allow criticism of the hunting of animals to go unheard in the film either, with Steve initially remorseful “maybe you hate them, but I feel sorry for them” and Gabriella freaking out after their first encounters with animal killings. Ensuring that there is at least some acknowledgment in the film about how abhorrent these fishing techniques are to outsiders.
Perhaps because of these reasons Tintorera is the one that got the easier ride of the two films. Cardona’s film, attracting none of the controversy and censorious backlash over its animal abuse that awaited Cannibal Holocaust upon its release, with the British censor passing Tintorera without cuts for its UK theatrical release in 1977. Even so, those averse to animal cruelty in films would be wise to give Tintorera as wide a berth as Cannibal Holocaust.
Sailing into spoiler territory….
Ironically the destruction of the ‘triangle’ comes not as result of societal pressure to adhere to the norm or jealousy between the two men rearing its head, but the re-emergence of the Tintorera itself when the film finally remembers that it is meant to be about a killer shark. While the subsequent death of Miguel could be interpreted as a slasher movie-type display of moralising over the character’s very active sex life, you never really get the impression that Cardona was on a disapproval trip here. On the contrary, Miguel can do no wrong in this film’s eyes, and while I wouldn’t go as far as saying Tintorera is anti-American, there is a definite preference for the Mexican way of life over the American one here. There is a deliberate contrast throughout the film between Mexican Miguel’s hand to mouth existence and ‘joy de vivre’ attitude to the pessimism of the rich yet uptight and unfulfilled American Steve. Miguel’s rejection of materialism and passion for sun, sex and tequila does eventually rub off on Steve. In the process Steve goes from being regarded as a privileged outsider, disdainfully referred to as ‘the American’ by the locals, to earning their respect and blending in to his new surroundings. When Steve introduces himself and Miguel to Gabriella he even claims “we’re both Mexicans”. This could just be a gaffe on the part of the filmmakers but it could also be taken as evidence that through Miguel, Steve has reconnected with his Mexican heritage and cast aside his association with American culture.
A bit of research into the Tintorera cast tends to help explain at least part of the film’s character. Once you realise that its star Andres Garcia was a huge deal in Ibero-American territories when the film was made, it begins to make sense why the film is less inclined towards shark action and greater committed to capturing on film Garcia’s charisma, charm and ‘women want him, men want to be him’ sex symbol status. The death of his character, in quite a spectacularly gory fashion, would therefore have had the same huge shock value to a home crowd as an American film of the same vintage would have had were it to have killed off, say Charles Bronson or Steve McQueen two thirds of the way into a film. For audiences unfamiliar with Garcia, and who don’t have that connection to the actor, the outpouring of grief that follows his character’s demise can come across as a tad over the top though. Cardona is definitely guilty of pulling at the heartstrings at times, especially towards the end of the film and the reminder of the threesome in happier times that plays out over the end credits. “Together, take me, memories are just a moment, together until goodbye, until goodbye, until goodbye” someone warbles over the end credits, I’m sure there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Miguel provides his own obituary a few scenes prior to his death when he tells Steve “to enjoy life has been my goal, remember me that way, if I die tomorrow you have a party for me”. A piece of bar-room philosophy the film seeks to impart onto its audience.
The overall message of Tintorera seems to be that you should live for the day and squeeze all the hedonistic love, fun and pleasure out of life that you can, because who knows tomorrow a great big git of a tiger shark might chew off your head and send the part of you that women enjoy the most sinking down to the bottom of the ocean.
Monday, 21 March 2016
Wednesday, 9 March 2016
Remember all those now antiquated films about Y2K and the world ending in 2012? Well, watching Whose Child Am I – a 1974 film about the pros and cons of artificial insemination- is an experience akin to revisiting those films today. The makers of Whose Child Am I obviously hoped to cash in on a subject that would have been on everyone’s lips at the time, only for the controversy over artificial insemination to quickly fizzle out and the public’s interest in the subject to wane, leaving us with a film that seen today just seems to be making a fuss about nothing.
Although American exploitation cinema had spotted the box-office potential of the artificial insemination theme relatively early–there is a film from 1948 called ‘Test Tube Babies’ for instance- in Britain the subject had largely gone overlooked, and Whose Child Am I remains one of the few British exploitation films to comment on artificial insemination. The film’s director Gerry O’Hara was something of a dab hand at zoning in on taboo topics and turning them into movies. Chances are if there was a subject that had collectively raised the eyebrows of the British public in the Sunday papers they’d be a Gerry O’Hara film along shortly to feed that interest. From venereal disease (That Kind of Girl), underage love (All the Right Noises), the underbelly of swinging London (The Pleasure Girls) to domestic violence (The Brute), Gerry tackled them all. ‘Officially’ Whose Child Am I is the only time O’Hara used a pseudonym on a film –he is credited as ‘Laurence Britten’ here. The reasons for this remain unclear, O’Hara has made more explicit films than this under his real name, like his 1983 adaptation of Fanny Hill, and he has certainly signed his real name to films far worse than this, such as 1993’s horror dud ‘The Mummy Lives’ or as I like to call it ‘Whose Mummy Am I’. In interviews however O’Hara has admitted to using fake names in order to direct ‘utter junk’ for Wilbur Stark, so there exists a possibility that there are even more pseudonymous movies in O’Hara’s closet that he doesn’t want the world to know about.
In Whose Child Am I, Kate O’Mara and Paul Freeman play Barbara and Paul Martin, a loving, married, yet unhappily childless couple. We know there are a loving couple because the film opens with them having very passionate sex, and we know they are unhappy because immediately afterwards they begin arguing and fretting that they seem unable to conceive a child. “I don’t know, every time we make love I feel more like a sperm disposal machine than a woman” Barbara complains, to which Paul lights up a cigarette then comes back with “thanks allot, I thought I was your husband, turns out I’m some kind of pump”. Right from the get-go the dialogue in this film really grabs you by the funny bone and has such a marvellously keen ear for crudity that you’d swear the film was written by Jackie Collins. Whether or not the makers of Whose Child Am I would take that as a compliment I’m not sure, but it is hard not to think of Whose Child Am I as some kind of offshoot of the Collins sisters universe, especially as leading lady Kate O’Mara would later show up as Joan’s sister in Dynasty and director O’Hara would soon after direct Joan in the Jackie scripted ‘The Bitch’. Paul and Barbara Martin are the kind of people who you can easily imagine moving in the same social circles as the characters in The Stud, The Bitch and The World is Full of Married Men. They’re a wealthy, successful, sophisticated young couple with a sprinkling of showbiz glamour in their lives, due to the fact that Paul works in the music industry, presumably for Vertigo records, given the posters for Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality album that decorates his offices.
A visit to a sex shop brings Paul into contact with a book about conception, which in turn leads Paul and Barbara to Dr Benson (Edward Judd) a leading expert in the field who recommends artificial insemination as a solution to their problem. Along with his assistant Helen (Frances Kearney), Benson is presented as the responsible and respectable face of artificial insemination treatment in this film. Progressive, friendly and authoritative, Benson is basically here to take the film’s audience by the hand and walk them through this unknown subject. Even so, there is an underlining concern in Whose Child Am I over how artificial insemination and sex aids pose a threat to the role of men in both the act of conception and the sex act itself. In the scene in the sex shop, a sour faced Paul is confronted by various phallic themed sex toys, whilst in the background an elderly man is casually seen buying a vibrator (“it works on 120 or 200 volts or a rechargeable battery” a female shop assistant informs the old timer). The fear of a world where a man’s penis is no longer of use to women permeates this film.
Thankfully for male audience members Whose Child Am I provides reassurance that the cock is still mightier than the test tube when the couple’s attempt at artificial insemination fails, leaving Barbara to contemplate going behind her husband’s back and committing adultery as a way of having a child. Enter Professor Roland (David Markham) a less ethical colleague of Benson, who essentially runs a stud farm where “normal mating” occurs between Roland’s female patients and Roland’s assistant Michael (Bob Sherman). Despite being now desperate to conceive, Barbara wrestles with her conscience over whether she can enter into “making love without loving” and flees the room after only some brief foreplay with Michael. This oily, full of himself wannabe gigolo isn’t about to be deterred however, and Michael talks Barbara into a series of clandestine sexual encounters at his bachelor pad. Soon after Barbara finally gets knocked up and has a daughter named Harriet. Complications arise however when Barbara’s Uncle Harry dies, leaves his estate to Harriett, and Michael steps in to try and claim paternal rights on his now rich illegitimate offspring. In turn forcing Barbara to come clean about her infidelity, and resulting in Barbara and Paul eventually having to do battle with Michael in court over the child.
As if the main plot of Whose Child Am I didn’t already pack in more drama than you can shake a test tube at, the film also follows the plight of several other characters who are in some way connected to Dr Benson. Whose Child Am I could never be accused of not trying to embrace just about every public concern when it came to artificial insemination, what with these sub-plots giving the chance for O’Hara to cover themes of race, lesbianism and incest. A furore erupts in Benson’s lab when it is revealed that the sperm of an ‘African donor’ has been given to a white American patient, Mrs Lustig (Beth Porter). As if that situation wasn’t enough for Benson’s assistant Helen to cope with, she is also dating an older silver fox called John Roberts (Ronan O’Casey). Trouble is, Helen’s mother suspects that Roberts is the long ago sperm donor who helped her conceive Helen and therefore Roberts may inadvertently be dating his own daughter!! Benson is also approached by a gay female couple Renate (Diane Fletcher) and Carrie (Felicity Devonshire) who plead the case for them to be given equal consideration for artificial insemination treatment as any straight couple.
What disappoints about Whose Child Am I in this respect is that these subplots feel so underdeveloped. As if the filmmakers wanted to raise potentially controversial issues and yet when push comes to shove have nothing really to say about them. This is particularly true of the Mrs Lustig subplot, where the news of the sperm mix-up understandably leaves this dope smoking, ex-hippie stunned and dismayed. By rights you’d think that the next time the film revisits Mrs Lustig we’d find a character deep in turmoil and considering legal action. Instead, we find her just shrugging off the problem with the reasoning that she and her husband were considering adopting a Vietnamese kid anyway, so it don’t really matter that she is having a black one now. At which plot this whole storyline just deteriorates into a horribly misguided attempt at comic relief. Don’t get me wrong, Whose Child Am I isn’t a film without a sense of humour about itself, but the rest of the film still manages to take its subject matter seriously, making this played entirely for laughs subplot feel so out of place for not towing the line. Scenes like the one where Benson rushes to Lustig’s bedside expecting to help her give birth only to discover it’s a false alarm and finds her sucking on an orange and listening to rock music, elicit a head scratching audience response of ‘at what point did this film suddenly become Carry on Matron’. Beth Porter was a wonderfully gifted comedy actress, check out her screamingly funny turns in Eskimo Nell and the Crown Court story ‘Scalped’, but she does seem to be acting in a completely different film to everyone else here. Not only is there the cowardly sense of a film trivialising and avoiding a genuine issue here, which is doubly frustrating given how rarely British exploitation cinema dealt with racial issues, but it also undermines the trust the film has built up in Dr Benson. Are we really to believe that the same man who puts the rest of the characters in this film through a rigorous screening process before commencing with artificial insemination treatment would really okay the impregnation of a dope smoking, scatter-brained all around walking disaster area that is Beth Porter’s Mrs Lustig. Frankly, it is too big of an ask.
Fortunately Whose Child Am I is a bit more willing to engage in the subject of same sex couples’ right to artificial insemination treatment. Renate puts forward an eloquent and persuasive case for her right to motherhood (“we’re probably more married than many of your so called married couples”) in the process challenging Benson’s homophobic concerns about lesbian mothers. It’s enough to eventually convince Benson to heroically go ahead with the couples’ treatment, despite knowing that doing so is likely to result in a heated backlash from the conservative elements of British society and the press. Renate and Carrie represent one of the more positive depictions of a gay female couple seen thus far in British exploitation cinema, they are shown to be committed to each other, financially and emotionally stable, and comfortable with their sexual orientation. Whose Child Am I admirably avoids the route that so many British exploitation films took of making one half of a lesbian couple essentially bi-sexual and whose wandering eye for men leads to problems within their gay relationship, as is the case in films like ‘Vampyes’, ‘Prey’ and ‘Erotic Inferno’. It’s not all positive though, and in a piece of dialogue that causes you to do a severe double-take Carrie at one point tells Renate that “you’re the butch in this family, I think I should be the one to have the baby……you’re so flat chested”. Now, the last part of that comment can be taken two ways, either the suggestion is that Carrie thinks her body is more suited to motherhood because she has bigger breasts or that she thinks any offspring born to her has a greater chance of developing bigger breasts and being conventionally attractive. Either way though it hits you as a really crass and tactless comment and hardly the thing someone would really say to a long term lover. I’d also question whether Renate really qualifies as being ‘butch’. She may be in her late 30s and have a forceful personality that could intimidate certain men, but she still is quite feminine and the actress who plays her deemed attractive enough to have a nude love scene in a film aimed at straight men, yet the way Renate is referred to in the film you’d think people were talking about someone who drives a truck, is great at playing tennis and works as a warden in a women’s prison.
Considering the torment that Paul and Barbara go through in this film to have and keep a child, their gay counterparts do get a relatively easy ride in comparison. Benson’s doom mongering concerns about the public reaction to him providing insemination treatment for a gay couple leads you to anticipate violent retaliation and homophobia aimed at the couple that thankfully never actually comes to pass in the film. In fact after Carrie and Renate win over Benson they never experience any further kind of homophobia during the film. Evidence of a film with an enlightened attitude towards lesbian couples? Or evidence of a film with an underdeveloped script? Whatever the answer, it is worth noting that the gay characters do ‘win’ at the end of the film. After Carrie gives birth and Renate sits at her bedside, a man visiting the same ward asks Renate if Carrie is her sister, to which Renate proudly and immediately responds “oh no, she is my wife”. A line that allows the couples’ story to end on a powerfully triumphant note.
The subject matter of both Whose Child Am I and O’Hara’s The Brute, artificial insemination and domestic violence, are almost exclusive staples of American TV movies these days. Back when O’Hara made these two though, the thinking seems to have been that they’d be suitable subjects for the big screen as long as they received a large shot in the arm of sex and sensationalism. Thus The Brute tackles the subject of domestic violence as if it were a horror film, complete with the wife beating villain of the piece going all Norman Bates at one point and pursuing the heroine whilst dressed in his mother’s clothes. On the other hand Whose Child Am I regularly interrupts its narrative with bouts of soft-core lovemaking and full frontal nudity from people who didn’t usually do such things like Kate O’Mara and Ronan O’Casey. This approach does give Whose Child Am I and The Brute an immediate uniqueness, but it is hard to escape the feeling that these films’ subject matter and the genres that O’Hara assigns them to sit awkwardly together. Take Whose Child Am I with its preoccupations with child birth, marital problems and male impotence, plus talk of VD, blood tests and women’s periods… hardly the kind of thing that has the average person reaching for their dirty mackintosh is it? It may have not been apparent when the film was being made in 1974, but by the time it finally came out in 1976 Whose Child Am I would have found itself swimming against the cultural tide. In those interim years sex on British screens had become something silly, something irreverent. Keeping in mind that by 1976 the Confessions series was at part 3 and the Adventures series was onto its second outing, all of which would have made a film like Whose Child Am I the square peg in the round hole of British sex comedy mania.
Trying to find evidence of this film’s British release is a task in itself, in the process of researching the film I’ve managed to come up with promotional material on it from Yugoslavia, Italy, North America and Japan but came up empty handed on anything relating to Whose Child Am I’s domestic release. From what is known, it was distributed here by Miracle films who put it out under the title ‘Feelings’ on a double bill with an Italian crime thriller called Street Killers starring Helmut Berger, now better known under the title of ‘Mad Dog Murderer’. A pairing so random it is as if Miracle films just grabbed the nearest two acquisitions they had and sent them out there, regardless of whether these two films had anything in common. This double-bill played for a week in the West End in July 1976, thereafter Whose Child Am I all but became invisible in its country of origin, it has never had a UK video release, and its content means it is unlikely to have ever made it onto British television.
There is evidence in Whose Child Am I itself that the film had its sights set on an audience outside of the UK. Namely the fact that the majority of the cast are sporting put on American and Canadian accents in the film, with the exception of Beth Porter and Bob Sherman who as Americans do the film in their real accents. The accents may imply a Canadian setting at times, yet exterior shooting occasionally lets slip home-grown details such as shots of double decker buses and an Ann Summers store. A confused audience might be less inclined to ponder the title question of Whose Child Am I and instead puzzle over ‘Whose Country Is This?’
The background of the film’s producers offers a possible clue to the reasons for the Canadian/US masquerade being played out here. Whose Child Am I was produced by a married couple called Jesse and Carol Vogel who around the same time were involved in the making of a sex comedy in Toronto called ‘My Pleasure Is My Business’ starring the Happy Hooker authoress Xaviera Hollander. Outside of film producing, the Vogels were primarily known for re-shaping and dubbing Eastern and European films for release in English speaking territories. For people who grew up during the video era the Vogels’ best known work is probably the re-editing of several Japanese TV shows into feature length movies for American producer Sandy Frank. The resultant films like Time of the Apes, Fugitive Alien and Mighty Jack were omnipresent in bargain basement UK video shops during the 1980s and 1990s. Given their brush with canuxploitation via My Pleasure Is My Business and the fact that the main focus of their careers was altering movies to suit American tastes, it is likely that the Vogels were key to why Whose Child Am I plays the faux Canadian/US card.
The credits to Whose Child Am I also reveal it to be copyrighted ‘1974 Mara Company’, which could be an indication that the film’s star Kate O’Mara had some kind of producership role or financial involvement in the production. I can’t claim to be the biggest expert on Kate O’Mara’s career, but the work of hers that I am familiar with, from early horror films like Corruption and The Horror of Frankenstein to of course Dynasty does tend to relegate her to secondary ‘never the bride always the bridesmaid’ acting roles. The fact that she enjoys the unusual status of lead actress here, along with that production company name, does add credence to the idea that her involvement with this film extended beyond just being an actress for hire. The performance we get from Kate O’Mara here is a far from typical one for her. Barbara is an enormously sympathetic character, one who doesn’t enter into deception and infidelity lightly and remains emotionally troubled by her actions throughout the film. Making her the antithesis of the shoulder padded villainesses that would eventually become O’Mara’s forte. The quality of the acting in Whose Child Am I is universally high, which maybe one of the film’s more redemptive aspects. Paul Freeman is especially good, and even at this relativity early stage in his career demonstrates why he’d go on to become a highly respected stage actor and appear in big movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark. His is a brave role to take on, going against the alpha male image that 1970s men were meant to aspire to back then. In Freeman’s hands Paul Martin makes for a humorous and highly likeable figure, and as a result becomes the character you tend to connect to the most during the film. Paul isn’t afraid to show his feelings or air his sensitive side; he is seen knitting children’s clothes at one point and poses with a doll under his jumper for Barbara’s amusement in a clear nod to the 1970 “would you be more careful if it was you that got pregnant?” Pregnant Man ad campaign. Paul is the light to the darkness of the memorably vile Michael played by Bob Sherman, a serial fucker of other men’s wives who can only relate to women as sexual objects and/or a source of financial gain.
Surprisingly none of the performances are brought down by the prerequisite of having to adopt phoney accents, with even lesser known and less experienced cast members being up to the demands of these meaty roles. Special credit is due to the relatively unknown Frances Kearney who (along with Ronan O’Casey) is given the tough, unenviable task of having to sell the farfetched incest subplot to an audience. Kearney demonstrates considerable range within this role. Her character Helen may come across as rather cold in the early scenes of the film, but later displays vulnerability and anger when a cruel twist of fate threatens to destroy her emotionally and compromise her professionally. “It’ll make the highlight in my lecture, I sleep with my own father, and we plan on breeding a long line of idiots” she tearfully rages at her mother. Kearney carries off the role with the confidence of a seasoned pro, and is someone you’d imagine had a decent career ahead of her, whereas in reality she only ever appeared in three other roles on TV, which is a real shame.
Pseudo-father figures abound in Whose Child Am I, Benson acts as a fatherly mentor to Helen, expressing parental concern over her dating an older man. Barbara’s Uncle Harry also comes across as another substitute father, and has no problem with doting on Barbara’s daughter Harriett and writing Harriett into his will. The point that Whose Child Am I appears to be making by stressing these relationships is that a strong parental bond can be formed even if the people in question aren’t actually blood related. This argument is echoed in the main plot of the film, with Paul undergoing a transformation from a person initially dismissive over whether he could bond with a child that isn’t his (“every time I’d look at the child, I’d say to myself I’m not its real father, someone else had to do the job for me”) to coming to the realisation that he truly loves Harriett and needs to rise up to the challenge of fighting Michael in the courts for her. In an audacious move Whose Child Am I even cites the Bible as part of this argument, with the catalyst for Paul’s change of heart coming when he visits a kindly priest who advises that Paul should follow by biblical example “yours is not the first case in human history, consider the humble carpenter Joseph, who loved and cared for his son Jesus even though he knew he had not begotten him”. Whose Child Am I even extends its biblical references to the incestuous subplot with Ronan O’Casey’s character drawing comparisons to his and Helen’s situation with that of Lot and his daughters “y’know when you read in the bible about some venerable patriarch like Lot sleeping with his own daughter it didn’t seem to matter, in fact it even made for spicy reading in those pre-permissive days”. Disappointingly however Whose Child Am I eventually ducks out of the extremely controversial move of using the bible to justify and validate an incestuous relationship by failing to provide an adequate resolve to this sub-plot. We never discover if they are actually related, with their storyline ending with them discussing the possibility and awaiting the results of their blood tests. Although the fact that they are discussing this whilst walking about in a graveyard, for no apparent reason other than the setting being frightfully ‘symbolic’, strongly indicates that their relationship might be headed for that graveyard.
Whose Child Am I can be annoyingly indecisive about its subject matter at times, and would be near on impossible to defend against charges of sitting on the fence. There are moments in the film that are in the corner of artificial insemination, counter arguing any objections from the religious right by throwing the priest’s ‘what would Joseph do’ speech back in their faces. By its very nature as an exploitation film though Whose Child Am I tends to betray these well-meaning intensions with its inability to resist scare mongering and playing to a tabloidish mentality …… WHAT IF SHE HAS A BLACK ONE BY ACCIDENT!!!…..WATCH OUT LADS, NOW THE LESBIANS ARE AFTER OUR SPERM!!!….. HOLD THE FRONT PAGE!!!
Sadly it is not hard to understand why the film has all but vanished, Whose Child Am I is very of its time and I suspect deliberately so. Many of its references are calculated to resonate specifically with audiences of the day, the use of the posters for the Black Sabbath album as set decoration, the visual reference to the ‘pregnant man’ advert, there is even a name drop mention of the oil crisis too. As if the film wanted to grab 1970s audiences by the collar and with a Donovan Winter-esque air of self-importance yell at them “the characters in this film listen to the same music as you, they pick up on the same advertising campaigns as you, they’re as concerned about the oil crisis as you are, therefore this film has to be important to you!!!”. It isn’t just that the film has dated badly in terms of fashions and cultural references, from a 2016 perspective it is impossible to overlook the fact that the passing of time has now rendered whole chunks of this film’s plot obsolete. Gay marriage and the right of same sex couples to have children are now a reality, whereas for the gay characters in this film such concepts are the impossible dream. More damagingly is that today’s science and technology pisses all over the plot twist at the end of the film. Major spoilers coming up, so as they say in sports programmes, turn away now if you don’t want to see the results. The courtroom revelation that Barbara slept with several members of Roland’s staff in order to get pregnant, which causes the Judge to throw out Michael’s claim to being the child’s father on the reasoning that this makes it impossible to say which member of staff made Barbara pregnant, just wouldn’t happen today given that advancements in DNA testing would make it possible to give a definite answer to the title question of Whose Child Am I.
For all its faults Whose Child Am I has grown on me over the years, it does boast an involving storyline, characters you genuinely care about and the quality of the acting impresses. It is also proof that British sex films weren’t always just seaside postcard derived smut, and were on occasion able to engage on a thought provoking level. While I do still have issues with and reservations about the film, overall I do feel that it is a pity it has fallen into an even bigger sinkhole of obscurity than many films of its ilk. Whose Child Am I also features what I consider to be the greatest line ever spoken in a British exploitation film, when Helen sings the praises of older men and their virility by claiming “they say you make the best wine in old barrels”. Now, I have to confess to frequently repeating that line over the years, I’ve managed to drop it into conversations about everyone from Charles Manson to Des O’Connor and more recently Rupert Murdoch, and it never fails to get a huge laugh. So, for the old barrels line alone I am forever indebted to Whose Child Am I.
Thursday, 11 February 2016
(above) Russell Gay’s magazine and Mistral film line gets some free publicity thanks to a 1978 episode of LWT’s Mind Your Language.
As a sort of follow on/appendix to the piece on Bloodlust and Russell Gay I thought it would be worth posting several 1970s adverts for the Mistral films, and information about the films’ re-emergence on tape in the video era, by which time Gay appears to have sold out to the brothers Ralph and David Gold. These ads come from the collections of ‘Sgt. Rock’ and ‘Hellochas’.
By the dawn of the 1980s the British public was spoilt for choice when it came to ways to watch Gay’s Mistral productions on the newfangled home video format. Ralph and David Gold’s Lydcare company issued “The Best of Blue Movies” video series. Eventually lasting for nine volumes, each of these video releases contained two or three of the Mistral shorts, kicking off with a double-bill of Open for Anything and The Office Affair for Vol. 1, which appeared in 1981. Slightly more value for money was “The Connoisseurs Collection”, another video series put out by the Gold Brothers, which reached five volumes, and generally consisted of four Mistral shorts per video.
The Brothers Gold were also responsible for ‘The Juicy Cuts’, yet another video compilation of Mistral films but this time mixed with other material. A collaboration between Lydcare and Mike Lee’s Vipco company, as well as containing clips from the Mistral films The Juicy Cuts also draws on footage taken from Vipco’s early video releases of Immoral (1980, Claude Mulot) and The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann (1974, Radley Metzger). Vipco having initially released several adult titles before moving onto the extreme horror films that the company would become synonymous with and infamous for. Unlike The Best of Blue Movies and The Connoisseurs’ Collection tapes, which presented the same 15 minutes or so versions of the Mistral shorts that were released on 8mm, The Juicy Cuts compilation whittled the Mistral films down to about 5 minutes worth of ‘highlights’, exorcising the opening and closing credits and much plot exposition in the process. What is noteworthy about The Juicy Cuts tape is that it draws on more sexually explicit versions of the Mistral shorts than appeared on the other Gold Brothers video releases. For instance the footage from the Mistral short 'Hot Vibrations' that appears on The Juicy Cuts video includes shots of the lead actor’s erection and mild hardcore imagery (cunnilingus, finger and vibrator penetration) that are absent from the version of Hot Vibrations which appeared on The Connoisseurs’ Collections Vol 3. The reasoning why The Gold Brothers thought to remove this footage from their Connoisseurs’ Collection release, but included it in this compilation remains unclear. After all we are talking about videos that were released by the same people and in roughly the same time frame here (The Juicy Cuts appeared in 1980, The Connoisseurs’ Collection series was rolled out over 1981-82). A newly shot linking sequence for all the Juicy Cuts clips features host ‘Tanya’ knocking back champagne, suggestively sucking on a cherry, popping porno tapes into her VHS machine and having a wank. The cutting between the clips and someone watching them on a VHS player makes The Juicy Cuts something of the porno equivalent of Stanley Long’s Screamtime. As with the Long film, the prominent use of a giant sized, top loading video player in The Juicy Cuts is sure to induce a slight feeling of nostalgia in anyone who grew up during the 1980s and a more than slight feeling of astonishment for anyone born afterwards.
If this story didn’t involve enough porn barons already, a certain David Sullivan - who had a hand in distributing Vipco’s adult VHS releases- eventually began to issue his own ‘Juicy Cuts’ compilation tapes as well, although their exact content remains unknown. In all likelihood these Gold Brothers videos represent the end of the distribution line for many of these Mistral shorts, with the majority of these films unseen since these VHS releases from the early 1980s. As of this writing only Response (1974) and BloodLust (1979) have so far made it onto DVD.