Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Rediscovering Mike Raven (part three)

Part One
Part Two

“It wasn’t a great film or a great performance, and personally I would have liked someone like Stephen Weeks (director of I, Monster) to direct Mike, as he could easily have too much of his own way! We both liked Tom (Parkinson, the director) very much. He had an art school background and was very similar to Mike’s radio audience, so it was quite easy to go to the next step and do another film.”
- Mandy Fairman, Mike Raven's wife, on Crucible of Terror (1971)

That other film was Disciple of Death (1972), Raven’s second starring vehicle and a very different animal from Crucible.
While the first was essentially a conventional British horror film, albeit with a few very unusual moments, Disciple is intensely personal, and really quite unlike any other movie.
That’s a much overused observation, but it really does apply here. Indeed, viewed today, it is hard to imagine how Raven could not have seen that he was serving up something that was just too bizarre, too esoteric and too personal to suit the tastes of his time.
But at the time his confidence was such that he finally and decisively cut his ties with BBC Radio, where he had been comfortably ensconced as a respected blues DJ for many years.

“Mike gave up the BBC during the post production of Disciple,” remembers Mandy. “He was the first DJ to leave Radio 1 of his own accord and they really didn’t want him to go. I still have the farewell letter from Doreen Davis saying that he could go back at any time. Several people did the show afterwards but I don’t feel it had the same impact. The official line by the BBC was that he was taking a break.”

What he couldn’t have foreseen was that Disciple would prove to be his last film appearance of any kind, his horror career undone before it had really started by a combination of bad luck, bad management and bad reviews.

While Crucible just about scraped by as a low budget mainstream release, Disciple is more obviously amateur (in the best – and literal - sense of the term) and individualistic. The budget is obviously much lower, and the fact that it is a period piece only enhances the home movie ambiance.
As the parson who takes on Raven, Van Helsing-style, Ronald Lacey makes a welcome return from the Crucible cast, as does Betty Alberge, and other recognisable faces (notably Virginia Wetherell, Louise Jameson and George Belbin, the old Baron in Jimmy Sangster’s Horror of Frankenstein), pop up as well. But the general feeling is of a rep company of – again, no pejorative meaning intended – amateur players.
“I think they all had fun shooting it, and we all had parts as extras,” recalls Raven’s son Dominic. (If you want to spot them, Mandy and some of the children are “very cheap extras” in the funeral scene, and Raven’s eldest daughter is one of the zombie girls.)

Rereading the above paragraphs, I am aware of what is going to be a persistent problem when writing about this movie: trying to describe what makes it so unusual and distinctive, without making it sound like it isn’t any good.
Let’s be clear at the outset: if you don’t like having to use your imagination, or enjoy the work of film-makers similarly obliged, if you’d rather have it all thrown at you so as to achieve that perfect state of CGI brain-death, then certainly this is not the movie for you.
But if you are a fan of those supreme individualists that exploitation cinema occasionally throw up; amazing, creative, sincere madmen like Ed Wood or Ray Dennis Steckler, then there is plenty here to reward your attention. It’s a film you have to get into a particular mindset to fully appreciate, and – crucially – it is not a Hammer/Amicus/Tigon mindset.
This is a film for people who enjoy seeing an individual vision transplanted to the screen with as little filtering through consensus, committee and studio sensibilities as possible. A low budget can only enhance such qualities: it prohibits short-cutting and reliance on cliché; it forces unusual solutions to logistic and creative problems.
It’s the kind of environment in which one-of-a-kind imaginations like Raven’s can thrive.

Though Tom Parkinson is again in the director’s chair, Raven is much more the driving force this time, with “a lot of Dad’s interest in religion and the occult… reflected in the plot” according to Dominic.
In fact, while most sources credit Raven as screenwriter, under his real name of Austin Fairman, Parkinson as director and the pair as co-producers, the print I watched has one joint credit that simply reads ‘a film by Austin Fairman and Tom Parkinson’ and no separate credits at all, indicative of the closely collaborative nature of the production.
As Mandy remembers: “It was very much Mike and Tom’s own work. They shared this ‘jokey but unjokey’ sense of humour, a bit undergrad, but with a serious layer hidden underneath.”

Though in many ways a more complicated and intricate production than Crucible, with the added financial burden of a period setting, Raven managed to scrape together only half the budget of the first film.
According to several sources, the script had originally been offered to Hammer, who had shown some interest and even announced it as forthcoming. But when Michael Carreras returned to the company at the end of 1971 it was one of many slated productions to be swept away by his new broom. Accordingly, Raven was forced to look for private financing, stumping up some of the budget himself with a bank loan.
Mandy is surprised that Hammer had ever been consulted, given their mutual history, and has no memory of their involvement: “I wouldn’t have thought that anyone connected with Disciple would have gone near Hammer: two different mind-sets. I wouldn’t have ruled out Tom approaching Amicus, but not to my knowledge, or rather memory.”
The budget, needless to say, was tight: “Both films were shot on a shoestring, but this was an even smaller shoestring, and with no distribution deal arranged beforehand. The money men were out of their depth. Tom actually sold this film in America for $250,000, and two days later the head of studio he had shaken hands with got fired! It definitely had the kiss of death on it. It has now become a bit of a cult movie and it was a shame that it was denied the audience it was meant for but somehow they have over the years found their way to it in America.”

“As I remember Dad lost quite a bit of money trying to get Disciple of Death a distribution deal and it ended up with a court case,” adds Dominic. “I don’t know where the DVD copies have come from, actually: after the court case it was never meant to see the light of day.”

Billed simply as ‘the Stranger’, Raven plays a Satanic emissary, raised from the depths when blood is accidentally spilled on his grave, compelled to supply the Devil with an endless succession of virgin sacrifices, surrounded and served by his white-faced former victims. Only when one of his victims comes willingly to his altar and agrees to die and be his companion in eternity will he be freed from his onerous duties…
At least, I’m reasonably certain that is the extent of the idea, but the narrative is developed so obliquely, with so much left for us to assume, or giving up its meaning long after we have experienced it, that you can never feel entirely sure what is going on or why.
The Stranger, for example, gets visibly older and younger from scene to scene like Stoker’s Dracula, but there’s never any clear indication whether this is dependent on how recently he has undertaken a blood sacrifice. (We see him drinking from a chalice of blood in one sequence, but he doesn’t then get younger, and he’s at his most sleek and dyed-black-haired at the beginning, before he’s killed anyone.)
Both plot and setting are uncommon in a film of its type; I suppose Blood on Satan’s Claw is its closest cousin, but the two films are quite unlike each other in style and presentation. As befitting a film written by a man of Raven’s interests, the plot is steeped in mysticism, magic, ritual and symbolism. It goes further into such realms than just about any other British horror film, bucking the general trend towards rationalism, established and rarely violated since Hammer’s original Dracula had haughtily dismissed the notion of vampires turning into bats as “a common fallacy”.
Not for Raven such empiricist cynicism: his film is a rich stew of bizarre esoteric touches, and one which – to say the least – is not afraid to rely on purely magical plot developments, not least in its climax.
While many reviewers have balked at the sudden leap into the supernatural at the end of Crucible, here by contrast is a film that starts in that frame of mind and gets progressively stranger as it moves on.

There are some strikingly beautiful images. The early funeral sequence, in which several members of the Raven clan appear walking the coffin along the lowering Cornish skyline, the weeping of the mourners and the howling of the wind mingling to form a single uncanny noise, is one such, and indicative of the unshowiness of the film’s best effects.
“I thought Tom shot that really well,” agrees Mandy. “He wanted to have a funeral exactly as it would have been during that period.” The point of influence may well be the eerily wordless pre-credit sequence of Witchfinder General, Raven’s favourite horror film, but if so it comes close to eclipsing its source.
Like Ken Russell’s television films, there is a pictorial simplicity that is far more effective than the kind of elaborate set-ups that draw attention to themselves but distract from the general mood. The film makes good use of skylines especially – Raven and Parkinson were not the first period film-makers to notice that the sky is the one part of any location that is guaranteed not to have changed over time - and a later sequence in which the avengers gallop on horseback past a gibbet, complete with gently swinging corpse, is simply superb.
Lovely use throughout is made of natural light – note the scene where the heroine encounters the gypsy woman and asks her to tell her fortune, with the two silhouetted against the waning sun.
There are many other great touches, some ideas which impress in their very simplicity and willingness to risk naivety. Look at the moment when the hero is led to the Stranger’s lair by the ghoulish face of his dead sister appearing at his window and summoning him outside: generically basic stuff, but presented with a striking kind of straightforwardness that could only be diluted by any additional effects or tricks of presentation.
The same goes for the abrupt cuts to split second shots of Raven’s eyes (really his this time, not Christopher Lee’s) accompanied by the sound of a crow, or the scene where his shadowy form appears in the heroine’s bedroom, set to the first line of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, looped to notably odd effect.
The film is intensely scored throughout to classical organ pieces, often assumed to be library recordings, but in fact specially arranged and recorded for the film, and very effective they are too. (According to Mandy, the additional responsibility of overseeing the film’s score was a decisive factor in Raven’s decision to leave Radio 1: “He was responsible for all the music, which was played on the organ in St Clement Danes, and he felt he didn’t have enough time. I can’t remember the name of the young organist, but he was brilliant.” It was Robert Cornford, the multi-talented musician and composer, who died tragically young in 1983.)

The two sequences that tend to attract most derision are both in the film’s second half.
The first sees the young hero and the parson visiting a Jewish cabbalist for help in defeating the Stranger. As well as lurching much further into the realms of magical fantasy than the more darkly folkloric narrative had hitherto hinted, the really odd thing about this sequence is that it is played for laughs, and very broadly, in a film that has displayed not one trace of tongue in cheek at any time prior (and we’re fifty minutes in).
Not only is he given a great deal of comic Jewish dialogue, there is an outrageous moment when, immediately after leaving his house, the Parson returns for more information to find him inexplicably transformed into a cobwebby skeleton. Instead of expressing horror, he looks away and embarrassedly mumbles, “it can wait”, as if he had just walked in and caught him in the nude.
Then, while all this is going on, we see The Stranger conjuring up a vampire dwarf to assist him: the dwarf (played by former Oompa-Loompa and future Jawa Rusty Goffe) them attempts to waylay the heroes in a variety of supernatural ways, and every time he is thwarted he stamps his feet and waves his fist. Again, the intention can only have been for the effect of this to be comic, which is strange enough in itself at this late stage in the movie, but when the dwarf then goes on to kill the Parson by overpowering him and ripping out his throat with his teeth the juxtaposition is frankly bizarre.
"The jump from horror to jokiness was meant to be sort of Saturday morning pictures," explains Mandy. "It was intentional, but perhaps a step too far for most people. Typical Mike."
It is at these moments – when the film’s detractors become most vociferous – that I was first struck by the links between this film and those of Ray Dennis Steckler, notorious for his abrupt narrative gear-changes, seen to most magisterial effect in his certain masterpiece Rat Pfink a Boo Boo. You may find yourself recalling the talking wig blocks from Herschell Gordon Lewis’s Gruesome Twosome also, and the exhilarating way in which both of those film-makers refuse you the reassurance of knowing how their movies will progress from one scene to the next.
And provided you do not find such things an unconscionable violation of the rules of verisimilitude you demand of your movies, you’ll like the weird stylistic mix here too. It’s certainly odd to see The Stranger, at first so sinister, taciturn, stealthy and black-clad, suddenly revealed by the Cabbalist’s remote-viewing skills as an eccentric, red-gowned magician, with the latter commenting on his skills as he goes about his hocus-pocus. (“A neat trick, that! Unquenchable fire!”)
And actually, there’s something authentic-seeming even about this degree of weirdness if we think of the film, as Raven surely did, as a piece of Cornish folklore. Anyone with even the smallest acquaintance with the rich store of bizarre and sinister legends in which the county is steeped will have no trouble with its seeming eccentricities, which are not really all that outlandish in comparison.

Raven’s performance lacks entirely the odd hints of uncertainty detectable in the previous film and is twice as full-blooded: just listen to his joyous delivery of his exit speech, as he prepares to torture the young lovers on a vertical rack:
“For seven days and seven nights you will be racked in torment. But long before your sinews crack and you are torn apart you will have prayed for death a thousand times. Oh, well, I must be on my way. No doubt we all shall meet again… in Hell!”

The first lines are said slowly, half-whispered, with subdued sadistic anticipation, building to a crescendo on “a thousand times.” Then, the “oh well, I must be on my way” is delivered with definite bathos, as a deliberate comic punchline; but cut short as he snaps back to devilishness, until “in Hell!” is yelled with a triumphant glee that Tod Slaughter might have envied.
It’s hard not to feel that Raven was just getting started in this film, but it was not to be.

The original critics weren’t entirely unanimous in their derision, according to Mandy: “At the press showing there was an ‘establishment’ critic, I believe from the Mirror. Not at all the sort of person we thought would ‘get’ the film. However, to Mike’s delight he got it spot on, and gave it a very good short review.”
But one good review does not a hit movie make, and the sad truth about Disciple of Death is that it didn’t really have the chance even to fail. Swamped in distribution problems it played for a week in London before disappearing in a morass of legal complications. It has rarely been seen since, and unlike Crucible - a perennial treat for curious insomniacs - it has never played on British television.

With it, alas, went Mike Raven’s hopes of being a British horror film star, though his family remember little by way of disappointment or gloomy introspection.
The Raven way was to plunge into some new diversion, and after settling into his Cornish farm that proved to be sculpture, the form of artistic expression that satisfied him for the rest of his life.

Austin Fairman, aka Mike Raven, passed away in Cornwall in 1997, at the age of seventy-two.
He was buried on his farm, in a scene strangely reminiscent of the sequence in Disciple of Death in which his family had participated, twenty-five years earlier.
As Mandy recalls: “On the 1st May, 1997, that scene more or less took place, on this farm when he was buried. All our neighbours carried the coffin quite a way across the fields to the grave. It only struck me later that this had all happened before, in the film.”

(with thanks to Mandy and Dominic Fairman)


Holger Haase said...

Thank you so much again, Matthew. What a terrific series of articles. I really have no excuse anymore not to explore Raven's most famous productions.... that I am afraid to admit I have still yet to see. But not for long!!!

Mark said...

Fascinating. Still long to catch this.

Incidentally, this may be of interest

Mark said...

Not sure about that link, try this

Matthew Coniam said...

I'll say! What wouldn't I give to get my hands on that!

Mark said...

I bid, but forgot to set a reminder :(

Mark said...

Just seen this on ebay

ledatape said...

fascinating article! Thanks - Mike is featured at length in Horace Ove's classic 1970 movie "reggae" (aka Boss Sounds etc). Mike was way ahead of his time to be hip to this music. His comments in the film are very insightful.

ledatape said...

and here's a link - Mike is even in the thumbnail!

Holger Haase said...

Thanks for those links! Great find.