Stop! Hammer time!
Now when you think of Hammer Films, what springs to mind? Usually its the late great Peter Cushing in Victorian garb, Chris Lee snarling in a cloak and painful red contact lenses, and the Home Counties doubling for Transylvania under a fog of dry ice.
But Hammer, despite it's House of Horror tag, made a great many films outside the genre. They produced a nice line of psycho thrillers, ventured successfully into scifi and put togther a line of period action adventure films (such as an old favourite of mine The Devil Ship Pirates). They even ventured in comedy, with their three films based on the popular TV sitcom On The Buses netting Hammer record profits. All in the all the studio had more up it's sleeve than gothic sets and Kensington Gore.
However in 1972, they produced Straight On Till Morning, perhaps there most unusual film of all. The trailer says it all .... "A Love Story from Hammer"! Now before you rush off to Youtube to check it out, be warned it's rotten with spoilers! Like many trailers from this period, it's not so much there are spoiling clips in it, but rather the whole piece plays like a three minute abridgement of the movie.
Now I discovered this film whilst working my way through the Ultimate Hammer Collection DVD boxset. It wasn't a title I'd heard much if anything about and assumed it would be one of their dark thrillers like Fear In The Night or Paranoiac. So I slapped it in and discovered a real little gem. A weird and disturbing film but a gem nevertheless. And I would suggest that if you fancy seeing this movie, avoid the trailer and any online research and go into it as fresh as I did.
So is it really a love story? Yes, kind of. Is it a psycho thriller? Again yes, but only kind of in that there is a psychopathic killer in it. So what exactly is this movie? I think it's probably best described as a kitchen sink psychodrama; Dennis Potter is a better touchstone than Alfred Hitchcock for the styles and themes of this movie.
The basic story goes something like this... Once upon a time, Brenda (Rita Tushingham), a rather simple and dreamy sort of girl, decides to move to London in search of love, but on arriving there discovers, like so many provincial kids do, that the streets are not paved with gold and opportunities. However by chance she meeets Clive (Shane Briant), who is attractive, debonair and rich, seeminly the handsome prince she has been looking for. And remarkably the pair form a friendship. It become clear that Clive is in many ways as child-like as Brenda; for example they rechristen each other Wendy and Peter. But, and you knew there was a 'but' coming, Clive/Peter is actually a deeply disturbed young man, and where as Brenda/Wendy is somewhat neurotic, he's violently psychopathic.
Now this film's strength is that it never descends into the usual cat and mouse tactics. The story is firmly grounded in social realism - there are no heroes or villians here, simply ordinary people. The film always remains firmly a character-driven drama and Peter's crimes are strongly woven into a background that paints a vivid portrait of early '70s London. In many ways, it is a kitchen sink drama which just happens to feature a psycho killer. Rita Tushingham of course was was a veteran of this particular school of dramatics, and her casting very much backs up the movie's kitchen sink credentials.
In construction, the level of performance from the cast elevate it from the usual thriller/horror fare. Director Peter Collinson artfully lenses the piece with a mix of experimental and traditional cinematography which captures both the tension between the traditional society and the post '60s permissive culture, and the fractured psyches of the characters.
Furthermore the way the film riffs on the Peter Pan story illuminates wider social and personal concerns. Brenda and Clive both do not want to grow up in the traditional sense; like J.M. Barrie's hero both long for the independence of adulthood but want no truck with the seemingly harsh society which demands them to leave behind the magic of adventures and fairy stories. I mentioned the late great Dennis Potter earlier, and the film's dramatic exploration of the tension between the ideals presented in the world of fiction and often cruel realities of modern society is very reminiscent of Pennies From Heaven and The Singing Detective.
This is a much overlooked film with alot to offer the discerning viewer. I think there are a few reasons why it's reputation is so low which I'd like to now address. Firstly I think being a fairly unique piece in the Hammer catalogue has bemused and disappointed generations of fans as it is neither a straight horror or a full blooded psychothriller. And by the same token it's probably been overlooked by cinefiles who have the impression it is a very minor entry from Hammer in either of these usual genres.
Secondly from trawling reviews online, a problem alot of peole have with this film is that the characters are fairly unlikeable and generally the film is somewhat bleak. Now both charges are true but likeable characters and happy endings do not a good film make. Really all that is required is that a film presents charcters that are interesting and reaches a satisfying conclusion, and Straight On Till Morning has both. However if you are expecting standard Hammer fare, you will find with the lack of clearly defined heroes and villains troubling, the tone down-beat and find the ending a problem.
As for the characters, we don't shouldn't really be expecting Peter to be likeable but the fact he isn't the usual screen villains wrong-foots some audiences. I think the realism of his derrangment strikes some as uncomfortable and disturbing rather expected pleasantly frightening.
Brenda is more complicated. The common problem seems to be that people find Tushingham's character to be hopelessly wet, and seem to get very cross with her naviety. Some have even called the film misogynistic seeing Brenda as a weak and demeaning female stereotype. However I'd argue that this view is missing the point - Brenda isn't meant to be a reflection of the young newly empowered '70s woman. Rather she's is a working class girl who has been brought up with narrow and repressed values, a character type probably still very much the norm at the time outside major metropolitian areas at the time. And that I think was the point. At the time the social breakthroughs of the '60s where still trickling down through the country and a great many idealistic and naive young people were galloping off to Swinging London rather than waiting for the decade's revolutions to hit their small towns.
Also I think that part of the reason some reviewers are so unsympathetic to Brenda is simply that the script and Tushingham's performance creates such a realistic naive character, she provides an unwelcome reminder of our own embarassing youthful naviety.
But at the end of the day this film is presenting a dramatic story in a very realistic style, and does not flinch from making the audience uncomfortable. If you approach this as a piece of serious drama, you shouldn't have many of the above problems. However be warned you still may find some scenes disturbing. However there is a strange kind of magic amid the bleakness. And more surprisingly there is tenderness in the Peter and Wendy relationship. It's strong social underpinnings, give the horror elements a real weight, and the blend of naviety and corruption make it a rather haunting film that lingers in the mind. It is admittedly a weird little film, but one that deserved a far better reputation and makes for very rewarding viewing. Leave any genre expectations by the door and check it out.
One finale note - this is an early '70s film and contains all manner of haircuts and clothes that you may find amusing. Indeed some wags have suggest Shane Briant's barnet deserved a horror franchise all of its own. So if you respond to the sight of flares, dragon tooth collars and feathercut mops with a chuckle, watch an episode of of Man About The House or The Mod Squad first and get the fashion hilarity out of your system!
POST SCRIPT - In the depths of Youtube, there is a short film called Straight On Till Midnight starring the legend Shane Briant himself. And this little feature is both a homage and a sequel to this underseen Hammer masterpiece. So after you've given the movie a spin, check this out...
JIM MOON, 3rd February 2009