Filmmaker Matthew Mishory on Derek JarmanMarch 20, 2014
Issue 13 Volume 1 | July 2014 | “Occult, Magick, Evil and the Powers of Horror” SpecialJuly 2, 2014
By Bradley Tuck
I.Q. Hunter, British Trash Cinema (British Film Institute: London. 2013)
Trash films project, if you like, an alternative psychogeography of Britain that allows us to rethink what is meant by Britishness itself. Watched end to end, British trash cinema is an epic mondo film reporting back on Britain’s imaginative edgelands, far removed from the stately homogeneity of heritage cinema.
– I.Q. Hunter, British Trash Cinema, p.14
Ask the general populace what springs to mind when they think of British cinema and in all likelihood they will mention heritage cinema, period drama and a Richard Curtis style rom-com. British Cinema often gets the reputation of being a cinema of stately homes, period drama, politeness, etiquette, the upper class life and Hugh Grant stuttering whilst trying to seduce an American woman.
I. Q. Hunter’s British Trash Cinema offers an alternative narrative which takes us on a journey through British exploitation cinema, hammer horror, science fiction b-movies, pre-historic films, sexploitation, pornography, punk cinema, auteurs such as Anthony Balch, Ken Russell, Derek Jarman who blurred high and low culture and kitsch classics like Boom and Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? Hunter’s myriad of trash exemplars are drawn from across the cinematic spectrum and each could be said to run counter to the heritage vision of British life. Trash, rather than simply designating “bad” or “rubbish,” comes to imply a counter-hegemonic cinema that challenges conventional standards of good taste. Sometimes violent and pornographic, othertimes campy and kitsch, this cinema is always, to some extent, an affront on “good taste.” Hunter notes that “Critics have often been at odds with popular tastes, which they cannot police and regularly despair at, and with even more recherché tastes of cultists and cineastes, who revel in bizarre and undervalued film maudits and who, when they notice British films at all, love a different kind of British cinema and perhaps a different version of Britain.”(p.vii)
British Trash Cinema offers a different vision of Britain, both potentially radical and potentially reactionary. Trash comes to cover anything from Danny Dyer gangster films, low-budget horror films and Michael Winner’s exploitation films that are attempting to make a “quick buck” to art films that challenge and blur the conventions of high and low art. Trash covers a diverse spectrum: Some simply bad; others commercial genre b-movies packed with violence, sex and gore; others art films that blur hierarchies of taste. Testifying to this diversity and its tensions, Hunter notes that Michael Winner ‘was a kind of foil to Ken Russell. Both were directors with a distinctive profile but both essayed a very different style of trash.’(p.167) Whereas Michael Winner used sex, violence and exploitation tropes in the service of a genre cinema that was predominately mainstream and often ‘deeply reactionary’(p.170), Ken Russell, in contrast, was an auteur, who often collapsed the line between high and low art for surrealist affect. Hunter describes Russell as:
A high Romantic for whom the term enfant terrible may have been coined, Russell abolished the line between art and exploitation modernism and kitch, and high and low throughout his career. […] he is somewhat a missing link in this book, its high priest, drawing together many threads of trash and art. His films, once extremely popular, combine genre cinema (especially horror), the mainstream (the biopic and heritage film), modernism, avant-garde, TV documentary, erotica and the pop video, which he can claim to have comprehensively pioneered. They were held together by cartoonish surrealism underpinned by belief in surging erotic passion driving all motivation and artistic expression. With Russell trash came to be a stylistic choice, as with dazzling excess, he cut through factitious distinctions between official and popular culture in order to be true to the chaos and tastelessness of the Unconscious, from which creativity – his chief concern- sprang forth. (pp.153-153)
Ken Russell’s films with their surrealism, hybridising and excessive theatricality often challenged conventions of taste in a manner that had more in common with avant-garde traditions than with low-budget genre cinema exploiting sensational themes for commercial gains. Ken Russell, along with Derek Jarman (whose punk film, Jubilee, is also discussed in this book), explored the trashy, the excessive and the decadent in a context that was often deeply historically and culturally informed and blurred the line between the English radical and the romantic conservative in a manner similar to William Blake, William Morris and Michael Powell. In Jarman and Russell we find a very British form of romantic rebellion that could be said to unite the 17th century Ranters to twentieth century psychedelia and punk.
Hammer films represent a different tendency. Hammer’s gravitation towards the trashy came from a more commercial direction. Hunter notes how Hammer would “approach distributors with suitably commercial title and poster […] before deciding to write a screenplay that exploited the concept.”(p.34) In contrast to Russell and Jarman, exploitation cinema’s underlying motive has largely been commercial over the artist, but as with Russell and Jarman, Hammer’s exploitation cinema is also grounded in a British tradition, distinctively historical and literary, rooted in English romanticism and the Gothic novel. Hunter finds a “counter-tradition of romance and anti-realism in British cinema, which had been overlooked for reasons of class, aesthetic snobbery and hostility to popular cinema and even, you might say, to cinema itself”(p.4) including “not only trash but the saturated romanticism of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and the Gothic tradition of Hammer and its imitators, as well as the ambitious hybrid art cinema of Ken Russell and Peter Greenaway.”(p.4) Hammer’s horror, in this respect, can be seen as a distinctively British brand of horror drawing upon a long tradition of Gothic literature, romanticism and anti-realism. In light of this Hunter distinguishes it from its other UK rival company, Amicus. Whereas Hammer’s horror generally focused on adapting and reinventing literary classics such as Frankenstein and Dracula, Amicus tended to be a camper derivative “from horror comics rather than the Gothic tradition”(p.42) with films such as Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors(1964) and Tales from the Crypt (1972). Hunter suggests that Amicus had more of an American feel, largely inspired by comics and focusing on “’the contingency and arbitrariness of everyday life’ and ‘offered a different [American?] view – cynical, sardonic, cruel, modern’.”(p.42) Hammer, by contrast was more literary and moralistic and, as Hunter suggests, more “British”.
By discussing these films Hunter maps out the changing face of Britain. Hunter contrasts British exploitation cinema to American variants by situating British exploitation within the context of the declining British Empire and Britain’s declining importance on the world stage in contrast to America’s growing importance. For example, Hunter tells us that whereas ‘Classic American SF films of the 1950s like Invasion of the Body Snatchers were paranoid about the communist threat and subversion from within, […] British SF was nervous about Britain’s loss of prestige, power and influence after the war and humiliation of Suez in 1956.The Day the Earth caught Fire, for example, looked back to the war as a time of purpose and resistance and asks whether the Blitz spirit – the pluck and resolve Londoners showed during bombing – could survive the new realities of the nuclear age. The enemy was the bureaucratic establishment of the emerging Welfare State (as in Quatermass 2); dangerous youth (like the super-intelligent Aryans in Village of the Damned and its sequel Children of the Damned (1963)); and those aliens closest to home, housewives and career women.”(p.51) The central theme in British science fiction was the collapse of Britain’s prestige and importance in the world, coupled with apprehension at cultural changes and youth movements. In this respect, British exploitation cinema tended to share the youth and counter-cultural interest in sex and rebellion, but quite often this was accompanied by a discomfort or fear of the altering state of British life. Hunter tells us that “Where Hammer’s Dracula films pathologise sex as the repressed erupting into bourgeois normality, the prehistoric films can be interpreted as nostalgic visions of virile energy in a period when Britain was emerging from the unheroic aftermath of war.”(p.84) Sex, desire, and violence emerge in the context of a Britain reassessing its place in the world, sometimes with conservative or reactionary undertones.
The other key feature to distinguish British trash and exploitation from America’s is Britain’s stringent censorship laws. More than America and Europe, British exploitation was fundamentally limited through censorship that forced British filmmakers to work around the censor’s limitation. Hunter notes that “Sex films were constrained to disguise themselves as documentaries on social problems, while in horror films a comforting framework of good versus evil offset any dwelling on blood and transgression. Censors banned the spectacle of sex and violence for their own sake.”(p.35)
In spite of such censorship, Hunter is able to draw on a plethora of iconic, surreal and unusual gems for the archives of British cinema. Covered in this book are films like Slave Girls (1967), a strange surreal politically incorrect prehistoric film about a British explorer who is transported into an Africa of the distant past where a tribe of brunettes who have imprisoned all men and enslaved all the blonds. It is not often you find a film about religious cults, time travel, the battle of the sexes and the battle between brunettes and blonds in the African jungle and maybe its deserved prominence in this book is largely a result of its strange uniqueness and its aptitude for critical and imaginative interpretations. Hunter aptly describes this film as a “cinematic Rorschach test and an irresistible semiotic playground”(p.92). Psychomania (1973), is a similarly strange film exploring counter-cultural youth in the form of living dead bikers. While kitsch classic Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? (1969), a semi-autobiographical, sexual exposee-come-musical comedy, is described by Hunter as being “music hall routines, bad jokes, ‘X’-rated nudity, lurid confessions and sick allusions to underage sex and bestiality.”(p.148)
For Hunter the biggest hero of the book is Anthony Balch who is the only person to get a whole chapter to himself. Like Russell, Balch is an important mediator between art cinema and exploitation. He directed a sex comedy, Secrets of Sex (1969) and a horror movie, Horror Hospital (1973), planned to make a film entitled The Sex Life of Adolf Hitler, collaborated on collage films such as Towers Open Fire (1963), The Cut-ups (1966) with the beat poet William Burroughs, re-edited Benjamin Christensen’s 1922 film Häxan as Wtichcraft through the Ages adding a voice over from Burroughs. Along side this, Balch also programmed film screenings at Jacey Piccadilly, which showed x-rated films, where Balch often blurred categories of art, film and avant-garde and set up a distribution company subtitling foreign films with a similar flair and eccentricity, renaming films such as Juliette De Sade (1969) as Heterosexual or the French SF film Traitement de Choc (1973) as Doctor in the Nude. Hunter describes him as “a pasticheur like Anger, Warhol, Kuchar and Smith, who is documenting (with cues for insiders) the camp sensibility of a particular sexual and cinephile subculture.” Balch’s cinematic experiments are often forgotten, but remain an exciting, inventive, suggestive, imaginative and sometimes subversive contribution to British cinema.
Trash cinema certainly doesn’t necessitate great cinema (some of it really is rubbish and/or reactionary), but the willingness to risk making a bad film has often produced notable gems, crazy experiments and intriguing oddities. One of the major barriers to British films is not too many trash films, but instead a kind of trash-phobia which instead attempts to play it safe, second-guess the market and make a few big budget “commercially minded” films that “disappear quickly from cinema.”(p.2) Trash, in making room for failure, invites experimentation and innovation. This is why the trash tradition remains important. I. Q. Hunter’s British Trash Cinema brings this underworld of British Cinema to life, introducing his readers to cinematic masterpieces, underrated oddities and shit films alike. But the book’s real value is the way it opens us to another Britain and another cinematic experience which challenges the coordinate of cinema and could possibly provide new inspiration for how we can think about the past and the future of British cinema in the UK.