Thursday, March 1, 2012

Rediscovering Mike Raven (part two)

(Click here for introduction)
(Click here for part one)

The story so far:

“Sorry about that, Danny, but in fact for the time being I’ve given up DJ-ing entirely. Now, it’s all down to horror films…”

Raven’s abrupt shift from radio personality to horror movie star was merely the latest in a series of such transitions that had marked his course through life, but to those unfamiliar with his past it must have seemed bizarrely arbitrary.
According to one interview, he had been introduced to Jimmy Sangster by ‘a friend at Radio 1’, who had merely observed that he had the right look for horror films. Sangster was then at work on Horror of Frankenstein and told Raven he had no role for him but that he’d keep him in mind. According to this account, Raven thought no more of it, and was genuinely surprised when he received the offer to make Lust For a Vampire.
As his wife Mandy remembers it: "I think that Jimmy Sangster could have been shown some photographs of Mike taken by a photographer called Phillip Stern. He was an American photographer who took quite a few photos for the Bunny Club and he knew all the Hammer people. Phillip was a very nice guy and a complete anglophile. He even belonged to the Sealed Knot (cavalier of course) and I remember going to see at least two battles, one in London and one in Cornwall. We didn`t fall out with Phillip but I think he was very much in the Hammer fold, and as I have said the row (over how Raven's performance in Lust was damaged post-production) was not inconsiderable."
But however it came about, the fact is that within a year of this casual introduction to horror movies Raven had entirely forsworn radio work in favour of this new direction, even to the extent of telling one interviewer that he would turn down non-horror film roles if they came his way.

It was an extraordinary thing to have done, because he was not just any old DJ but one of the most esteemed niche-DJs in the country, popular with listeners and hugely respected by the artists he showcased and championed.
Now, he had leaped into a whole new stream, and with an enthusiasm that contrasted markedly with his peers. While Cushing and Lee stressed their off-screen normality, the latter in particular keen to distance himself from his horror reputation at every possible opportunity, Raven was happy to be described in newspaper profiles as a genuine occultist, wearing a black cape off-screen and on.
(He’s actually wearing his cape in this fascinating extended interview, in which he discusses the story of pirate radio, and which surely gives the lie to any suggestion that the man wasn’t charismatic!)

Mandy recalls that the black clothes, at least, were not peculiar to his new image: “Mike wore black when I first met him in 1957. His theory was that if you dressed in black and white you always matched, so in those days he put together a sort of uniform: black shoes, black socks, white shirts, black Wrangler jeans and a black corduroy jacket. The aim of this dress code was not only to ensure he never had odd socks or mismatched clothes but also to avoid having to waste precious time thinking about what to wear. The same outfit could be dressed up or down, with the aid of a black string tie!”

The black clothes – his own (“there was so little money available for wardrobe”) – were much in evidence in Crucible of Terror (1971), the first and by far the better-known of his two solo vehicles.
The movie consolidated his presence as a British horror star, and may be the more useful of the two as an introduction to sympathetic newcomers: it’s certainly the more conventional. (Which is not to say that it’s all that conventional, merely that it’s more conventional than Disciple of Death, which frankly tells you virtually nothing.)
The film was the first production from Glendale Films, founded by Peter Newbrook, who had begun as the in-house director of photography at Compton-Cameo under Michael Klinger and Tony Tenser, then joined forces with Compton production executive Robert Hartford-Davis to form Titan. (This was before Klinger and Tenser themselves split, the latter to found Tigon.) Hartford-Davis and Newbrook would produce a number of horror films, including the excellent Corruption, before they too went their separate ways, the former to produce The Fiend under the incongruously grandiose banner World Arts Media, the latter to form Glendale.
Just before making The Asphyx, which boasted a larger budget and starrier cast than Crucible could dream of, Newbrook tested the waters by hiring Tom Parkinson and Ted Hooker as co-screenwriters and, respectively, producer and director of this first, tentative venture.

It was Parkinson who suggested Raven as the ideal star, recalls Mandy: “Ted Hooker and Tom Parkinson were both young and keen to try something different. We had already bought a ruin in Cornwall and it was coincidence that they wanted to film there. Tom knew of Mike because of the radio show more than the films, and he was looking for a budget-price name. That he was a name already, through radio, was what caught Tom’s eye.”
Raven’s appeal, then, was not particularly in any of the horror work he had done so far so much as in the fact that his look, and voice, already seemed so ideally suited to the material.
“Whatever anyone says about his performance in this film, to my mind he certainly looked the part,” notes Mandy. “And this image was already well known to blues fans: just look at the LP cover (The Mike Raven Blues Sampler). I think this is why they approached him. He certainly had never heard of the production company, or of Tom.”

Though Raven had no hand in the development of Crucible, it proved the ideal first vehicle for him, with the bizarre plotting that was so much a feature of the subsequent Disciple of Death already much in evidence.
In a brilliantly creepy pre-credits sequence we see Raven, as sculptor Victor Clare, plastering the recumbent body of a woman in preparation, we presume, for the taking of a cast. Suddenly, we realise he has a quite different fate in mind for her, as a crucible of molten bronze is poured over the figure – just at the exact moment that her eyes flicker open!
The credits roll, and we assume that the rest of the film will be a Mystery of the Wax Museum-style piece about a mad sculptor.
But the film that then unfolds is about a mysterious assassin at loose in Clare’s house, and Clare himself has now switched to oil painting. Only at the end does the significance of the pre-credits sequence come into focus, leading to an extraordinarily left-field plot twist that will either delight or infuriate, depending on your taste in such matters. (This finale, what’s more, is set up by a scene ten minutes in that seems meaningless and is soon forgotten about: audiences only notice it on a second viewing.)
The fact that Clare’s much-abused wife, sharing his house with his regular mistress and other temporary conquests, has regressed to a state of doll-clutching infantilism is a similarly arbitrary touch, which plays as disorientingly grotesque with no clear back-story to substantiate it. Her climactic suicide only adds to the oddity.

It’s now a commonplace in reviews to note how similar the film seems to the Italian giallo movies, what with its gloved POV killer taking the camera along on its errands, a murderous implement held out in middle foreground.
But it’s important to remember that it was made in 1971, so even if the emergent giallo genre was an influence – which it most likely wasn’t, let’s be honest – the team were incredibly quick off the mark. No, what we’re seeing here is more of an odd kind of synchronicity, an unconscious similarity that is not influence so much as simultaneous inspiration. What is undeniable is that the murder scenes, in particular the killing of Beth Morris’s character and its aftermath, are quite strikingly well done. Unlike Argento and many of his progeny, who like to juxtapose their murders with deliberately intrusive music, the activities of this killer are played out in spooky silence, the only aural accompaniment being the Cornish wind whistling around the granite cottage.
The other giallo connection – and this really is an anticipation – is the colour scheme, which looks forward to Argento’s Suspiria, still five years in the future. Not only is Clare’s iron forge itself a riot of saturated colour, sending out a lush red glow to the edge of the frame and beyond, it even seems to creep – with Italianate anti-logic - beyond its immediate environs and up to the house itself, where its throbbing profondo rosso pulsates outside the nocturnal windows like the light from a flashing neon sign.

In fact, the visual design throughout belies the film’s low budget to an amazing degree, as does Newbrook’s photography, Paris Rutherford’s music score (which sounds at times like John Carpenter and at others like Lalo Schifrin), and Maxine Julius’s editing.
“Yes, it was made on a shoestring, and with a young, mostly untried cast,” confirms Mandy, “but with all the cast and crew pitching in, trying to get the job done.”
The cast certainly feels like a unit: they really do seem to know each other. Ronald Lacey, as Raven’s jealous, alcoholic son, is as strange and compulsive as always, and it’s a surprise treat to see James Bolam take a horror film lead, too. The rest of the cast features an interesting sprinkling of genre notables (Melissa Stribling, Judy Matheson) and attractive newcomers (Mary Maude, Beth Morris).

As for Raven’s own, much maligned performance: well, it’s unquestionably an eccentric job of work, but its eccentricities seem deliberate, and are concentrated mainly in the delivery of the lines: if you turn the sound down and just concentrate on his facial and physical performance he seems more than adequate. His odd way with dialogue, then, seems intended: no successful disc-jockey would have any real difficulty with line readings!
The net effect is precisely that which was presumably intended: to make Victor Clare seem like a pretentious oddball who may or may not be slaughtering the young girls he lusts after and immortalises. It’s a performance that becomes more interesting the more you watch it – especially when you know the truth about the murders.

To be perfectly frank, any horror movie that starts off in the streets of seventies London and then moves to the timeless coastline and abandoned tin mines of Cornwall has my vote before it even starts, and if you have any affection at all for the horror worlds of Pete Walker, or for the likes of Doctor Blood’s Coffin, then this is not a film that is going to leave you feeling short-changed.
After rewatching it for the purpose of these retrospectives, I have found myself wanting to watch it again, and again, and it’s been on a more or less constant loop as I’ve been composing these articles. It’s now a definite favourite, one of those films that for not entirely definable reasons becomes more compelling the more familiar it becomes. That, at least, has been my own personal reaction to it.

True, the reviews were by and large condescending, but when were they not for such an enterprise? And the mockery, albeit of a good-natured sort, even extended to the Raven household itself, as Mandy recalls: “Crucible was very much laughed at by the children - he had six, by the way - for the way in which it resembled our actual home life, especially when he banged the dining room table!”
But as far as Raven’s nascent career as Britain’s other horror star was concerned, it seemed a sound enough foundation on which to build. For the time being, his disc-jockey days were firmly behind him.
He was now very much in the horror business.

The third and final part will follow shortly


Mark said...

Brilliant, and so great to see the footage too!

Holger Haase said...

God dammit man, you've done it again.