|The art of the short film as a supporting feature before the main event is something of a lost one, with shorts relegated to streaming services or dedicated movie channels as filler, and countless examples having fallen through the cracks, barely remembered even if they can be brought to mind at all. But once upon a time, certainly in British filmgoing, the films that were shorter than a B-movie and longer than the average cartoon were a regular feature of the experience, though often dismissed as ephemera. In recent years the only one of these to make any waves in the popular culture was Black Angel, the 1980 half-hour support to The Empire Strikes Back, but the BFI have long championed them as worthwhile, and placed them as extras on their discs and available on the BFI Player.
On Short Sharp Shocks, nine horror and thriller shorts are included running from the nineteen-forties to the nineteen-eighties, beginning with Lock Your Door from 1949, basically a showcase for writer Algernon Blackwood to recite one of his signature tall tales. The walnut-faced author holds forth in a drawing room, either standing up or reclining in a large armchair, telling the story of a lady who took a bed for the night in a mysterious house when she missed her train, and while in the bedroom heard a strange voice intoning, you guessed it, "Lock your door" over and over, with increasing emphasis. She had a shock coming... but this was as basic enough to be almost crude, reminiscent of the BBC's bedtime story slot for years which would at times present a horror tale, Tom Baker's run from the late seventies being a memorable instance. It was a novelty to hear the story from the author himself, however, though he does sound a mite vague as he relates it.
Second up is The Reformation of St Jules from the same year, another in the same series A Strange Experience to star Blackwood as the narrator of his own yarns; apparently there were six of these in all, but the only two to survive are on this disc. Judging by the surviving prints, this was as unadorned as you like, the story in this case about a gambling addict named Fatty with a sting in the tail that it's safe to say wouldn't fly now, that's if you can follow Blackwood's rambling manner, but if you ever hankered to watch the nearly eighty-year-old author posing around the hearth or a handy armchair, then this at least gives an impression of what it would have been like to attend one of his readings. There's little here other than seeing him that a radio episode would not have conveyed, however.
Third on Disc One is The Tell-Tale Heart, that old reliable from Edgar Allan Poe, though this time with a nice background as this 1953 item was long believed lost forever, its parent company Adelphi having given up the search for it. Now, versions of this story were ten a penny, but this was something special as it starred Stanley Baker, the Welsh leading actor who became a star in the sixties and has gone on to enjoy a following well past his untimely death in the seventies. Here he played Poe, or so we assume, as he recites the text with some commanding force, raising and lowering his voice as the rhythm demands, all played out against an expressionistic room with moonlight streaming in through its single window and a candle with a guttering flame the only alternative source of illumination. As you can imagine, this was very atmospheric, and Baker patently relished this one man show, the story itself of a man driven mad by hatred and concealing the body of his object of revulsion only to be convinced the police can hear the corpse's heartbeat.
The next two shorts on Disc One were produced and directed by the colourful playboy Count Theodore Zichy, a dilettante who dabbled in racing cars and photography (and foot fetishism) and also tried a film career, both as actor and director. First up was Death Was a Passenger, one of three horror-inflected pieces he helmed in 1958, and one that saw the old strangers on a train set-up to have businessman Terence Alexander meet nun Harriette Johns in a carriage and realise simultaneously that they knew one another during the Second World War. Most of the rest unfolds in flashback as we see how they met, Alexander a British soldier who had just carried out a stock footage raid on the Nazis in France and trying to get to Spain, Johns advising him how to avoid capture: murder ensued. It was all right, but you kind of expected something more eccentric from this celebrity filmmaker.
Something like Zichy's Portrait of a Matador, an overheated, quasi-supernatural melodrama starring one-time starlet Sandra Dorne as she encouraged an artist to paint said matador, a preening, hotheaded man whose love of slaughtering bulls for fun disgusts the painter, and that shows in the eventual artwork, to the matador's shock. When it all goes horribly wrong for him, the artist's life follows suit, as if the bullfighter has employed some revenge with his sword that may be all in the artist's imagination; it takes Yvonne Romain as the curser's sister to save the day. Agreeably nutty, this twenty-four-minute wonder was largely setbound, but the flaring nostrils and arched eyebrows throughout made up for its lack of budget, and had you wondering what Zichy would have done with a real budget as the big reveal of the canvas was genuinely surprising, if not quite as alarming as intended.
Onto Disc Two, and we reach the point where censorship had noticeably loosened its grip on what was permitted to be seen in British cinemas. First was Twenty-Nine, a 1969 mystery drama that kicks off with that reliable old cliché, the man waking up in bed in a Chelsea flat on the morning after the night before having no idea of how he got there. It takes the rest of the half hour for him to remember, though he may be drawing the wrong conclusions. Alexis Kanner was the lead, probably best recalled for his appearances near the end of the run of Patrick McGoohan's bizarre television series The Prisoner, though he was a respected stage thespian in the main. He gave a decent account of himself as the confused protagonist, a twenty-nine year old (hence the title) who has to face up to the fact he isn't getting any younger and cheating on his wife with a twenty-one year old is not exactly the best use of his time. He is led to believe there has been murder involved, but has there? It was both vague and convoluted, but he presumably has learned his lesson.
Another mystery followed, though 1973's The Sex Victims was, as the name suggested, closer to horror and sexploitation than drama as the first thing we see is familiar character actor Alun Armstrong running out of some bushes in the countryside just as screams die out on the soundtrack. Then we cut to a trucker (Ben Howard) who after failing to pick up a nubile hitchhiker (a signifier of the decade) drives off and nearly crashes when a nude Felicity Devonshire (who became one of the richest women in the world in real life) rides a horse across his path. Intrigued, though angry, he sets off to track her down, and books a place at a horse riding academy, where he happens across the lady (now in a nightie) and a chase ensues where it seems he is about to commit a crime with her - but things do not turn out the way you might anticipate. There was a tight little twist in the tale piece here struggling to get out, though director Derek Robbins (who rejected the film industry after his next project hit censor trouble) insisted on padding it out with those chase scenes. Nevertheless, it did contain a seventies mood that verged on the callous, and that kept you watching.
Horror next, 1978's The Lake and was committed to the genre, the brainchild of Lindsey C. Vickers who had started in the industry at Hammer, and graduated to this and... one other film, the half-remembered Edward Woodward horror The Appointment that was largely relegated to television showings in 1981. The both showed he had a real knack for the uncanny and eerie, this telling the not-completely explained story of a young couple (Gene Foad and Julie Peasgood) who go on a picnic in a remote part of the English countryside (always rural with these things) and visit a rundown house where a mass murder had been staged years before, the killer never having been caught. After this macabre stop, they go to the nearby lake to enjoy nature, but in a style reminiscent of The Raft section of Creepshow 2, there's something in the water... And maybe something in the trees as well, revived by their trip to the abandoned house. The fact this refused to explain itself and only threw a few clues your way was part of its power, a very respectable item of unease.
Last in the set was a half hour, Kafkaesque item called The Errand about a seemingly pointless military exercise where a Captain (Edward Kalinski) in training for a top secret, elite unit is sent to pick something up from an agreed rendezvous, but finds a nasty surprise for him, not only from his contact, but from just about everybody else who encounters him in a neat bit of paranoid plotting. The screenwriter was probably the most famous person associated with it: David McGillivray, scripter of Pete Walker and Norman Warren horrors and latterly comedy writer extraordinaire, though at the time the biggest name would have been Dorothy Alison, who showed up near the end as a worried wife who warns her husband away from getting involved with the Captain's dilemma (she was a mid-level celebrity actress for a while). Yet again the rural locations were used, and used well by director Nigel Finch, and the whole thing had a solid air of menace, even if it seemed more allegorical than accurate to any genuine arm of the military. This closed a rich selection that illustrated how the public's ideas of what was scary would change over the years, and if you were a short films addict, it was essential - even if you were not, this might turn you into one. Perfect late-night viewing.
[Here are the Special Features on the BFI's Blu-ray set, worth getting for these interviews alone:
Man With a Movie Camera (2020, 42 mins): interview with Twenty-Nine producer Peter Shillingford
A Crazy, Mixed-up Kid (2020, 43 mins): interview with David McGillivray, writer of The Errand
Telling Tales / Arthur Dent and Adelphi: Films in the Family (2020, 37 mins): Kate Lees, Chair of Adelphi Films, discusses the family business and the discovery of 1953 short, The Tell-Tale Heart, long believed lost
Almost Thirty (2020, 15 mins): interview with Renée Glynne, scrip-supervisor on Twenty Nine
Splashing Around (2020, 15 mins): interview with Julie Peasgood, star of The Lake and House of the Long Shadows
Image galleries for The Tell-Tale Heart, The Lake and The Errand
Script galleries for The Lake and The Errand
Gallery of the original short story The Errand
Newly commissioned sleeve artwork by renowned illustrator Graham Humphreys
***FIRST PRESSING ONLY*** Fully illustrated booklet with new writing on the films by Vic Pratt, Dr Josephine Botting, William Fowler, Jonathan Rigby, Peter Shillingford, Lindsey C Vickers and David McGillivray.]