Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Straight on Till Morning

Hammer = horror, right? The way Ealing = comedies, or Platinum Dunes = unnecessary remakes.

But just as Ealing also produced gritty crime movies (‘The Blue Lamp’), historical dramas (‘Scott of the Antarctic’), slices of social realism (‘It Always Rains on Sunday’), war movies (‘Went the Day Well?’) and one of the most accomplished horror portmanteau films (‘Dead of Night’) ever made, so Hammer’s output – including Bernard Mainwaring’s lost satire ‘The Public Life of Henry the Ninth’, Vernon Sewell’s moody thriller ‘The Black Widow’ and Val Guest’s classic sci-fi ‘The Quatermass Experiment’ – spans genres and iconography beyond the classic horror archetypes the studio became synonymous with.

When Peter Collinson’s ‘Straight on Till Morning’ was released in 1972, however, it was these very archetypes that defined Hammer. The Dracula franchise had reached its seventh instalment with the spectacularly lurid (and contemporarily set) ‘Dracula AD 1972’, the Frankenstein series had chalked up six titles, and the Karnstein trilogy – ‘The Vampire Lovers’, ‘Lust for a Vampire’ and ‘Twins of Evil’ – had stirred a hefty dollop of Sapphic shenanigans into the mix.

Audience expectation was always going to work against ‘Straight on Till Morning’. The opening credit sequence confounds and intrigues in equal measure. Opening on a tight shot of terrace rooftops, soot-stained chimneys and a grubby diesel loco jerking a passenger train across a railway bridge, the immediate aesthetic is that of a kitchen sink drama of the previous decade – an Alan Sillitoe or Barry Hines adaptation, maybe. This sense is reinforced, albeit briefly, by the instantly recognisable tones of Rita Tushingham (herself British cinema’s go-to actress for social realism) in voiceover.

And immediately the first of the film’s many subversions. Tushingham’s character, the cripplingly shy Brenda, is narrating a fairy story. It is quickly established that she has written this twee tale. Scenes of her scribbling away at a small table in an equally small room are jarringly intercut with a confrontation between Brenda and her mother. Brenda announces that she’s pregnant and is leaving for London where she hopes to meet “a father for my baby, someone who’ll love us both”. Her mother’s imprecations not to leave fall on deaf ears. A taxi arrives. Brenda leaves home.

In London, Brenda fetches up at a crowded labour exchange. She secures a low paying job at an oh-so-trendy emporium owned by the predatory Jimmy Lindsay (Tom Bell) and strikes up a tentative and unlikely friendship with promiscuous shop girl Caroline (Katya Wyeth) while trying to catch the eye of cynical co-worker Joey (James Bolam). Meanwhile, the impossible handsome and ethereally calm Peter Clive (Shane Briant) goes about his daily business of buying cigarettes and looking cool in his E-type Jaguar while flashing back to the woman he murdered in his flat the previous evening. All of these plot-strands, set-pieces and character introductions are effected in a dizzyingly extended sequence achieved with the kind of hyperkinetic intercutting and mind-bending visual juxtapositions that wouldn’t be out of place in a film by Nic Roeg or Alejandro Jodorowsky.

This from the guy who directed ‘The Italian Job’!

Essentially – and this is to take the film at its most basic level – ‘Straight on Till Morning’ is about the relationship between two people who live in fantasy worlds and how they drawn together by their very different attempts to function in the real world. Brenda’s fantasy world is the most obvious of the two: it is a world of fairy tales, her very own handsome prince and their baby (in case you haven’t guessed – MINOR SPOILER – Brenda’s pregnancy is a fiction), a world into which the actuality of cheap rooms, mundane jobs, social ineptitude and wrenching loneliness continually intrude.

The nature of Peter’s fantasy world is the thornier subject; a dichotomy that lends the film its power to disturb. With his Dorian Gray-ish looks (Briant was a natural to play Wilde’s ironic anti-hero in a TV production a couple of years later), his life of leisure (the source of his cash-in-hand income is never really explained) and his zen-like tendency to seem utterly removed from his surroundings, Peter never quite seems suited to the ostensibly real world of newsagents, cul-de-sacs and nocturnal walks with the dog along the South Bank (never mind that Collinson shoots the South Bank so that it looks like an alien landscape).

This, it is hinted, is the fantasy world to which he does his best to pretend he belongs. The real world – hammering away at his aloof fa├žade and sliding knife-edges of memory into his waking consciousness – consists of the murders he has committed, an absent but devastatingly powerful mother figure, and a fairy tale of the beautiful prince driven to sociopathic hatred by his own beauty; a story Peter recounts to Brenda, in a reversal of the storyteller/fantastist role, in one of the film’s key scenes.

Collinson loads the film with symbolism: mirrors are everywhere; androgyny is rife; the surface image is challenged and fractured time and again (most notably in a scene where Brenda’s makeover renders her a grotesque and sexless caricature); and a sense of troilism permeates. Brenda initially introduces herself to Peter as “Rosalba” (the name of the princess in her fairy tales); he later renames her Wendy (the ‘Peter Pan’ analogy hardly needs belabouring).

’Straight on Till Morning’ presents a strange, disconcerting and never less than chilling fusion of genres and film-making tropes – from the warped character study of Michael Powell’s ‘Peeping Tom’ to the visual dissonance of ‘Performance’ by way of an on-location aesthetic in its production design and cinematography that recalls ‘Poor Cow’ or ‘Up the Junction’ – that coheres into a haunting and challenging piece of work, nasty but surprisingly bloodless, with the power to linger in the mind long after much gorier fare has faded. It’s one of those films that gets under the skin. You can never unsee it. And I can’t think of a better recommendation than that.


Matthew Coniam said...

Fascinating. I've never seen this film, and this wasn't how I imagined it at all. You make me very keen to track it down.

Neil Fulwood said...

Look forward to hearing your comments once you've tracked down a copy.