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The Fog (Avco 1979, Adrienne Barbeau, Hal Holbrook)

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After the apt prefacing Poe quotation: “Is all that we see or seem/ But a dream within a dream?”, The Fog opens with John Houseman as an old sea-dog telling an eerie tale to a group of wide-eyed children sitting in the flickering circle of light cast by a camp fire. “The opening,” enthused Monthly Film Bulletin, “is as stunningly effective as anything John Carpenter has done to date.”

Houseman then recounts the legend of the Elizabeth Dane, a ship whose drowned crew and passengers, lured by six wreckers onto the rocks at the Californian coastal town of Antonio Bay during a thick fog, will return with the fog in 100 years’ time to exact vengeance. Exactly a century later, on the eve of centennial celebrations planned by a committee headed by Janet Leigh, a series of bizarre events unfolds. Adrienne Barbeau, who operates the local radio station from an old lighthouse, warns a trawler of worsening weather, but it is caught in a sudden fog and all three crew members, including Barbeau’s husband, are killed by spectral seamen.

The next day, Tom Atkins and Jamie Lee Curtis, a hitchhiker he has picked up, see one of the dead trawler-men return to life briefly and priest Hal Holbrook discovers his grandfather’s journal in the church. From it, he learns that his grandfather was one of six founders of the community who wrecked the Elizabeth Dane and stole its gold to make the church’s crucifix.

The centennial celebrations get under way and Barbeau realises the fog is moving aqainst the prevailing wind. And something horrible happens to forecaster Charles Cyphers as the fog envelops his weather station… When the power station inexplicably blows up the now understandably panicked citizens converge on the church. Five people have now died, including Barbeau’s housekeeper Regina Waldon – and, as the vengeful living dead advance, Holbrook offers himself, with the crucifix, as the sixth victim…

Carpenter had named Halloween’s psychotic killer ‘Michael Myers’ as a tribute to British film distributor Michael Myers, who had very successfully released Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13. The Fog found Carpenter continuing his homage to past collaborators. The character played by Tom Atkins was named ‘Nick Castle’ after the man who portrayed Michael Myers (and later directed Tap), and the screen name of Charles Cypher’s weatherman was ‘Dan O’Bannon’ who, in real life, was Carpenter’s co-writer (and actor/ special effects collaborator) from his first film, 1974’s Dark Star.

“Like the best ghost stories, the film is enjoyably scary,” wrote Cinefantastique. It is a prime shocker which fits in exactly with Carpenter’s own definition of the much-maligned genre. “Horror films,” he says, “are just fabulous escapism. You can really just go in and forget all your problems.” He doesn’t waste any time in creating stark, sustained suspense. The mise en scene delivers a series of sharp well-timed shocks and Carpenter also ensures the tension is vividly potentiated and rarely lets up until the well-constructed climax.

Originally, The Fog was to have depended almost entirely on mood and atmosphere for its effect. But, said Carpenter, “We went back and added the visceral shock. Had this not been a fantasy, it (our original plan) might have worked. But it was a miscalculation on my part. We’ve come a long way since Val Lewton. My commercial sense told me something was missing. I don’t mean to put down Val Lewton. I just came to a point on The Fog where I said, ‘They have seen Alien, Halloween, Phantasm, and a lot of other movies. If my film is going to be viable in the marketplace, it’s got to compete with those.’

Originally I was trying to compete only with Val Lewton movies – very understated horror with a brooding atmospheric feel to it. But if you released Isle of Dead today (1980), I don’t think it could compete because it doesn’t have those visceral shocks.” After an initial screening, Carpenter was given money to shoot some additional scenes, notably the title sequence and the sound effects were redone to excellent effect, and noted Carpenter, “the changes amount to less than 10 per cent, but what a difference.”

USA / Avco / 91 minutes / 1979 Filmed in Metrocolor and Panavision

Writers: John Carpenter, Debra Hill / Cinematography: John Carpenter, Dean Cundey / Production Design: Tommy Lee Wallace / Producer: Debra Hill / Director: John Carpenter

Cast: Adrienne Barbeau, Hal Holbrook, Janet Leigh, Jamie Lee Curtis, John Houseman, Tom Atkins, Nancy Loomis, Charles Cyphers

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California Split (Columbia 1974, Elliott Gould, George Segal)

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California Split

California Split is a movie about the adventures of two card players, and it stars two of 70s-era Hollywood’s most prolific male actors. Elliot Gould (M*A*S*H, 1970) plays Charlie Waters, a small-time card player who has the charisma and moxie of someone who’s way better at the tables than he actually is. Alongside him is George Segal (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, 1966) who plays Bill Denny, a magazine writer who moonlights as a casual player. Charlie and Bill meet in a California poker parlour game that turns heated over a dealt card hitting the floor, raising concerns of cheating. Despite this, the game continues, and one of them wins. This leads to the two players getting mugged by one of the game’s sore losers, giving them an experience that’s worth bonding over. The two become fast friends and this starts them off on a poker adventure that will test and reveal their true spirit.

In a 1974 review, Roger Ebert called California Split a “magnificently funny, cynical film”, which is probably the best way to describe the succeeding events following Bill and Charlie’s meet up. Regarded by many to be one of the best poker movies ever made, California Split is a quirky but ultimately realistic and darkly comedic look into the life and mind of card players. Despite this, you don’t really need to know a thing about poker beforehand in order to enjoy the movie. It’s a classic American adventure movie that has inspired countless other road trip movies and casino films.

From start to finish, California Split follows Bill and Charlie through the race tracks, seedy bars, private poker parties, Vegas’ second-rate casinos, treating bruises with hot shaving cream, waking up to massive hangovers, and even another mugging in which their instincts are put to the test. The result is less of a movie with careful exposition, and more of what feels like an inside look into the hilariously nightmarish world of America’s casino scene. The Telegraph calls the film one of Robert Altman’s best out of his extensive catalogue. It is brilliantly pieced together by his signature subtle visual prose, realistically overlapping dialogue, and the bravely understated introductions of his many quirky characters, California Split is one of the 70s’ definite must-see adventures. Such was the film’s realism that PartyPoker state that legendary player Thomas Austin Preston Jr. aka ‘Amarilo Slim’ had a small part. In his time Slim was known as one of the greatest ever poker players, winning 4 WSOP bracelets, and would have been an inspiration for the two main characters.

California Split is definitely a treat not just for card players, but for anyone who likes well-crafted movies about friendship and the makings of the American Dream.

main stars
George Segal, Elliot Gould Ann Prentis, Gwen Welsh, Edward Walsh, Joseph Walsh, Bert Remsen

crew details
Director: Robert Altman
Producer: Joseph Walsh, Robert Altman
Director of Photography: Paul Lohmann
Editor: O. Nicholas Brown, Lou Lombardo
Composer: Phyllis Shotwell
Screenwriters: Joseph Walsh
Production Designer: Leon Ericksen

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Raising The Wind (Anglo Amalgamated 1961, Leslie Phillips, Sid James)

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Raising The Wind

Raising The Wind, a winner from the Carry On stable, boasts a cast of familiar British comic actors and a surprisingly sharp screenplay by composer Bruce Montgomery, who wrote the music for many of the Carry On films.

Montgomery’s screenplay sensibly stuck to the successful formula established by the Carry On and Doctor film series, focusing on the comic adventures and misadventures of an assortment of impecunious music students working their way towards finals at a London Academy of Music under peppery conductor James Robertson Justice.

There was little straightforward plot; instead, Montgomery provided plenty of splendid comic situations which were played for all they were worth by director Gerald Thomas and his expert cast. Justice, sensibly making his conductor a variation on his celebrated surgeon Sir Lancelot Spratt from the Doctor comedies, “bulldozes his way magnificently through the role,” said Variety, and there was well-deserved praise for accomplished film farceurs Leslie Phillips, Kenneth Williams (notably in a hilarious scene in which his orchestra runs away with him), Liz Fraser, Sidney James, George Woodbrige and Jimmy Thompson.

UK / Anglo Amalgamated – GHW / 91 Minutes / 1961

Writer: Bruce Montgomery / Cinematography: Alan Hume / Music: Bruce Montgomery / Producer: Peter Rogers / Director: Gerald Thomas

Cast: James Robertson Justice, Leslie Phillips, Kenneth Williams, Paul Massie, Eric Barker, Liz Fraser, Jennifer Jayne, Sidney James

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Town like Alice, A (Rank 1956, Virginia McKenna, Peter Finch)

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A Town Like Alice

Nevil Shute’s novel A Town like Alice, from which this film was made, was based to a degree on fact – after the fall of Malaya to the Japanese during the war, European families were split, the men to labour camps, the women and children supposedly to other camps but these were over populated and they spent months on the road, ill-fed and sick, suffering deaths along their tortuous ordeal.

Virginia McKenna plays Jean Paget, who helps her fellow marchers as best she can. She meets Joe Harman, an Australian PoW on transport duties and a spark ignites between the two. But he is brutally punished by the Japanese after stealing a chicken for her and she thinks she’ll never see him again. When their lone guard dies, the women settle down in a small village and the war’s end brings repatriation. Then Jean gets a letter from Alice Springs, Australia…

The film, which saw the two leads win BAFTAs, also saw them at the height of their popularity and the film was a domestic triumph here and in Australia. Full of emotion and drama, Lee never allows the historical sweep to overwhelm the love story at the heart of the film and despite being shot entirely in Britain (doubles were used for McKenna and Finch for scenery shots in Malaya and Australia), it remains faithful to the story from one of Australia’s favourite writers.

UK – Australia / Rank – Vic Films / 117 minutes / 1956 made in black and white

Writers: W P Lipscombe, Richard Mason, based on Nevil Shute’s novel / Music: Matyas Seiber / Cinematography: Geoffrey Unsworth / Producer: Joseph Janni / Director: Jack Lee

Cast: Virginia McKenna, Peter Finch, Marie Lohr, Rennee Hosuton, Jean Anderson

US title: The Rape of Malaya

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