This sampler DVD features a newly made documentary produced for the British Film Institute (BFI) by Nucleus Films, with the intention of introducing a modern audience to its new 'Flipside' DVD & Blu-ray range. The titles showcased consist of lost or semi forgotten British movies that have been previously overlooked or critically marginalised — most of them dating from the sixties or early-seventies. These rare films — neglected 'B' movies, short films and little-seen studio pictures — have been rescued from obscurity, given pristine High Definition transfers mastered from original source materials, and released via BFI Video's beautiful range of special editions. Looking, frankly, a great deal better than the DVD releases of many a more recognisable title, they're packaged with glossy colour booklets crammed with essay analyses and detailed production credits.
The problem with such a laudable project is that, precisely because so few people — including the critical establishment — have actually seen any of them, it sometimes makes such obscure films rather a tough sell to even the most ardent cineaste. Thus, respected genre film critic and novelist Kim Newman has been employed here to give an overview of the series range, hopefully wetting the appetite of fans who will have grown used to seeing him elsewhere — either interviewed on, or providing commentaries for, DVD releases for much better-known genre product, particularly along the Horror spectrum. Despite the obvious 'advertisement' Raison d'être of the documentary, it also functions as both alternative history of '60s cinema, a filling-in of previously ignored blank spots in the filmographies of various directors or actors who have since gone on to high profile careers, and a fascinating social document of a milieu; providing more of an unvarnished, authentic-looking record of 'swinging' and pre-hippy London than the official records of these eras often manage.
Newman is a fine choice for the task. His knowledge and enthusiasm for these lost curios is as evident here as ever — as he wittily examines the likes of the early sixties 'mondo' films, "London in the Raw" and "Primitive London", placing them in context as stemming from a repressed Britain where even the sight of a fairly tame-looking cabaret striptease act (which is what these films in the main consist of) was a forbidden delight for many a punter who would have few other opportunities for seeing what a woman looked like with no clothes on!
Like many such films, including the Mondo Cane movies out of Italy which helped popularise the trend, their true intentions tend to be inexpertly clouded by their spurious claims to be factual, investigative reportage or vice expose, with often random footage of (as in one of the films included here) painful-looking hair transplant operations or footage from chicken processing plants bizarrely included and given a pseudo-documentary narration, making these flicks into just about the unsexiest way to get your kicks as anyone could possibly imagine; yet, almost inadvertently, they do end up painting a very evocative picture of the times.
Elsewhere, there are a few rare gems by some bigger names, also to be savoured. Richard Lester ("Help!", "Superman 2") made a bizarre, surrealist '60s comedy set in a grim post-apocalyptic landscape. "The Bed Sitting Room" is a mad comedy-drama starring seemingly everybody who was anybody in sixties/seventies British TV and film: Arthur Low, Spike Milligan, Peter Cook, Marty Feldman - you name them, they seem to be here! Newman identifies the film as playing like a hardcore version of Monty Python, and it certainly places the careers of many mainstream luminaries of British culture in a whole new light to see them situated in such peculiar, avant-garde surroundings.
Cult director Pete Walker has become increasingly popular with British Horror fans over the last few years ever since his provocative contemporary Horror flicks from the '70s have become more widely available on DVD. Films such as the brilliant "Frightmare" and "House of Mortal Sin" have cemented his reputation as one of the most distinctive voices of the post-Hammer period, bridging the gap between the unrealistic Gothic character of the British Horror films of the '60s and the more visceral style from America that eventually overtook it and rendered it redundant. Walker's sexploitation movies have been widely commented on in relation to his development as a Horror director, but who knew that he also made several sex-stuffed crime capers, now released on Blu-ray and looking a million times better than any of his better known films!
Then there are the directors whose careers were cut short by critical hostility, or because they were simply ignored altogether. Don Levy is a director whose brief flirtation with cinema may well be set for radical reappraisal after the release on BFI Video of his one movie, the 1967 experimental art-house flick "Herostratus": an uncompromising collage of seemingly random images and sounds that may well have been far more influential in the work of directors such as Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell than was previously realised. It also provided Helen Mirren with her first screen role. Meanwhile, Jack Bond's "Seperation" offers a stylish black and white avant-garde take on the emerging feminism of the mid-sixties.
All in all, Newman looks at nine main films, also including Peter Watkins' satirical sci-fi rock surrealist drama "Privilege" which presages the manipulation of the rock music counterculture by the political establishment, and "That Kind of Girl": a social realist drama intended to warn people of the dangers of venereal disease! The documentary is a pleasurable and informative way to acquaint yourself with these unusual movies, and there will almost certainly be something among them to interest almost anyone who has any kind of interest in the cinema of the period covered.
Newman also comments upon some of the extras which appear on many of these discs: short films, sex education features and promotional travelogue pieces that give the viewer a scattershot view of the era. A few of them are also included on this disc and make for both perplexing and fascinating viewing. "Tomorrow Night in London" is a five minute promotional feature shot in 1969 for the British Travel Association, and it plays like a montage parody of Sergeant Pepper-influenced psychedelic iconography. The Queen's Guard and a uniformed bobby directing London traffic give way to the 'high class' sights of the capital — the Royal Opera House and St. Paul's Cathedral. Then the upbeat library music is accompanied by trend-setting images of happening London with the inevitable hip Carnaby Street boutiques displaying their wares; and there's Union Jack merchandise a-go-go!
"Carousella" is Mithras Films' playful documentary about the girls who worked in Soho's flourishing strip clubs in 1963. Influenced by the nouvelle vague style of the French New Wave of Godard and Truffaut, the 25 minute black & white film mixes fly-on-the-wall footage, apparently staged sequences and voice-overs — both that of a dispassionate narrator and the girls' own words — to try to create a truthful impression of its subjects' unusual lives, but was banned by John Trevelyan - then head of the BBFC - because he felt it played like a recruitment film, the strip artistes portrayed as being mostly fairly happy with the lives they'd forged! There are the inevitable lurid sequences of the girls trotting through their routines in rather insalubrious surroundings and "The Who" even make an impromptu appearance at one point. The film's director John Irvin, went on to direct such films as "The Dogs of War" and "Hamburger Hill".
The last piece is a short film (27 minutes) called "The Spy's Wife": a wry and quite sharp comedy directed by Gerry O' Hara. With a groovy theme tune that plays like the kind of thing Stereolab built a career on emulating — jazz drums, coiled loops of fuzz guitar and catchy glockenspiel melody lines punctuated with the morse-code-like stabs & bleeps of a staccato organ — this film strikes up a modish tone from the off. Lead, Tom Bell, looks like the quintessential embodiment of the suave hero of the 1970s with his massive sideboards and sharp suit. But after leaving his skittish wife on an overseas job (he can't talk about it, of course ... top secret and all that), she appears to be involved in some mysterious goings on herself. Strange visitors turn up at the door and a mysterious man appears who frisks the house for bugs. It's a strange film with lots of ideas being fired off in all directions, but although it doesn't amount to very much, it certainly creates a vivid vignette of early seventies (1972) styles.
This sampler disc is exclusive to the BFI website (www.bfi.org.uk) or www.HMV.com and retails for the price of £1.99. If nothing else, the clips display the astonishing amount of care that's been taken in restoring these rare titles. In many cases they look better than they ever have — probably even when they were released theatrically. This intriguing documentary is a cheap and quick way to open up whole new vistas of cult strangeness for the fan of period British film and comes with an exclusive 14 page booklet featuring essays by John Irvine & Tim Miller, and Vic Pratt. It's well worth a look