Sunday, July 3, 2011

Screamtime (1982 or 1983)

New York. Two crooks steal a couple of videos from a video store and go watch them in the apartment of a female friend of one of them, because hot damn, we need some breasts in this thing! The videos they watch are - quite inexplicably - three British horror shorts.

In the first of these shorts, Jack Grimshaw (Robin Bailey), the owner of a Punch and Judy show in a town by the British seaside, who just might love his puppets a little too much, is beleaguered by the contempt of his wife and the pure hatred of his teenage stepson. After the darling boy burns down Jack's little theatre, someone carrying a large stick and talking like Mister Punch does a bit of violence.

The second short concerns Sue (Yvonne Nicholson) and Tony (Ian Saynor), a freshly married couple, moving into the traditional house with a dark secret. Soon enough, Sue has visions of blood and violence that lead her to seek help from a psychic. But the haunting is more elusive than expected.

In the final short, a young dirt biker (David Van Day, of a band named "Dollar" I'm just not going to google) in need of money takes on a job as gardener for two eccentric elderly ladies who are obsessed with a bunch of rather unpleasant stories about an ancestress's bloody pact with fairies, and with their collection of garden gnomes. Our biking friend decides to rob the old gals; obviously, he hasn't expected the lethality of garden gnomes and other assorted fairy creatures.

The Internet - usually a source of rumours and ideas about everyone and everything - does not provide any data about the production history of this UK-produced (mostly UK-produced?) anthology movie. My theory - I have no proof whatsoever for it, mind you - is that a US producer somehow got his fingers either on a UK omnibus movie without a framing story or three unconnected short films, and decided the only thing this one was missing to become saleable was said framing story, a bit of female nudity and some footage of Times Square in its sleazy prime. Consequently, the producer shot the New York-based framing device that doesn't fit the tone of the rest of the movie at all, but contains tits, and called it a day.

The shorts - maybe the whole film - are supposedly directed by Michael Armstrong and Stanley A. Long, two veterans of UK exploitation films, working under the pseudonym of "Al Beresford", which might explain the professionalism at least the first two shorts demonstrate.

The stories themselves are quite good in their cheap and unassuming way. They're shot in the typically pleasant, slightly grainy style of their time that gives the simple plots an effective grounding in reality.

Quality-wise, my favourite is the first story. Obviously, there's something inherently creepy and unpleasant about Mister Punch, and whoever directed the episode milks that fact, as well as the grey bleakness of the surroundings the short takes place in, to conjure up a mood of the weird quite efficiently. The murder scenes' use of handheld camera and subjective shots is also quite creative.

The middle part just didn't grab me as much, solidly made as it may be, but the third and final episode's another winner, if of a very different kind than the first one. As is only right and proper for something starring a very minor pop star, the fairy story is a real cheesefest that just can't pull off what it's trying to do - namely somewhat subtly demonstrating the inherent menace of the common garden gnome in its natural state - but turns into something pretty special once it pulls out its big guns: a little person badly dressed up like a murderous garden gnome and an attractive woman who first steps out of a painting, then undressed a guy via telekinesis, snogs him, and then telekinetically knifes him. Say what you will about this part's failure at being horrific, it is pretty darn funny.

As is the finale of the framing story that teaches us that stealing three short films from a video store (or even just sleeping with someone who did that) is the sort of crime that should be punished with random, ridiculous death by Mister Punch and grabby TV hands. I'm sure the MPAA would approve of that message.

Anyway, though I wouldn't call Screamtime a lost classic, it's an entertaining enough little film that contains multitudes: the creepy, the mediocre, the ridiculous and the documentarian. I could hardly ask for more.


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