Monday, February 4, 2013

Scream for Help!: Deceased Artiste Michael Winner

Before the Oscars get around to their three-seconds-per-dead-legend necrology, I'd like to move through some of the notable filmmakers who departed in recent weeks and months (technology permitting, see below). I love the work of most folks I salute unabashedly, and for the reasons they intended. With Michael Winner, I can openly confess that his films were, for the most part, pretty dreadful – audience-pleasing on occasion, but lacking in any kind of artistry, vision, or even coherence. HOWEVER, he did make one piece of celluloid insanity that needs its place in the sun.

First, the usual historical overview: Winner died at 77 after a bumpy career as a director. He was the son of a successful businessman and graduated from Cambridge. He made a number of hip, swinging movies in the Sixties with hip, swinging titles – among them Play It Cool (1962), The Girl Getters (1964), You Must Be Joking! (1965), and I'll Never Forget What's 'Is Name (1967). Perhaps the height of Winner weirdness was The Cool Mikado (1963), a bizarre G&S update with Frankie Howerd and Stubby Kaye.

The one Winner film I legitimately like is the strange and moody The Nightcomers (1971), the prequel to Turn of the Screw that featured an inventive performance by Brando during the pre-Godfather period when he was otherwise sleepwalking through his films.

Winner's biggest successes were, hands down, the quintet of films he made with Charlie Bronson: The Mechanic (1972), The Stone Killer (1973), Death Wish (1974) and its first two sequels. Unlike Eastwood, Bronson mostly appeared in films that were pure shitkickers, and Winner was one of his best directors (along with fellow Brit J. Lee Thompson) for that kind of thing.

A possible epitaph for Winner's ability to make insanely weird and often entertaining (but, again, not for the intended reasons) crap was the startling Won Ton Ton, The Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976). Winner was no Mel Brooks (witness the reteaming of Young Frankenstein costars Madeline Kahn and Teri Garr) – the film is crammed to capacity with cameos by old Hollywood stars, but it is a stunner in terms of its goofiness and inability to capture what made Twenties comedies funny, or at the very least charming.

The one Winner movie I want to draw to your attention, though, is the startlingly tongue-in-cheek (?) thriller Scream for Help (1984). Upon first viewing, the film just seems wonderfully moronic – an overwrought version of the classic daughter-thinks-her-stepdad-is-a-killer plot (best executed in the Eighties in The Stepfather).

I devoted an entire episode of the Funhouse TV show to the film back in 1995 and haven't aired anything from it in the years since, but it is QUITE a special bad movie. Set in New Rochelle, NY, but shot in London (!), the film was directed with a sledgehammer by Winner and is best known in trivia circles for having a melodramatic (read: often ridiculously melodramatic – on purpose, who knows?) score by John Paul Jones of that wildly overpraised shrieking Zep band.

The script was written by Tom Holland, after he had written Class of 1984 and Psycho II (but before Fright Night), so it would seem that the film was conceived of as a tongue-in-cheek exercise. However, Winner being the kind of director he was, it's often very hard to tell, since Winner's overkill approach didn't alter from comic to tragic subject matter.

One of my favorite reviews of the film came from Philip Strick in the late, lamented Monthly Film Bulletin, who assumed the film was a parody but a “clumsy and vulgar” parody: “It's apparent that the only novelty Winner has to offer is a variation on the American splatter genre, in which film technique itself rather than the cast is dismembered, as we watch in horrified disbelief.... He puts his camera any old where, in a spirit either of gleeful misconception or uninspired taste.”

I can hardly top that, except to say that two posters have put the entire film up on YT (copyright be damned – YT is wildly arbitrary in regard to its copyright enforcement). However, I recommend you check out the two small slices of the film I put up on YT myself. First, part of the concluding segment of the film, in which both rich mom and her intrepid, would-be Nancy Drew daughter are tormented by the evil stepdad and his cronies:

And one of my all-time fave insane scenes. Watch this and understand why both critics and viewers weren't sure whether Scream for Help was meant as a straightforward thriller or a spoof one. In either case, this is pretty damned amusing:

Note: on the tech front, I should point out that the slightly “unhooked” sound and image in the clips above is the result of using a Diamond Video Capture device for Mac OS. Quicktime is one of the most difficulty-plagued computer-clip applications, and that is definitely true when you're attempting to create clips using the cursed QT, a capture device, and a (surprisingly in good shape) old video cassette.

1 comment:

Ivan said...

Wow, those clips hooked me! Gonna have to watch that movie.
BTW, I really like Winner's The Sentinel, which also makes no sense and is so wrong and tasteless, it's priceless. Winner deserves greater recognition--although maybe not respect...