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Commendably Brief: Short Sharp Shocks Vol. 2 on Blu-ray

  There remains much interest in the tradition of the short supporting cinema feature, which could have been a cartoon, or could have been live action, but was something of a lottery when you dared to show up to the picture palace earlier than the main feature beginning. Nevertheless, The BFI found their first Volume of Short Sharp Shocks to be one of their bestsellers, proving there is still a market for this nostalgia, so of course there had to be a follow-up, and lo! Short Sharp Shocks Vol. 2 is the result, a compilation of thrillers and horrors of various quality and seriousness, but all worth your time.

First up is a double bill of what amounts to a parlour game, where the audience is asked to work out who the criminal is when presented with the facts of the cases. Quiz-Crime No 1 (1943) and Quiz-Crime No 2 (1944) detail three murders and one kidnapping, ever so slightly luridly to titillate the audience and get past the censors, but some of them are easier to work out than others. The opener is easy because there is only one suspect, so it must be him, but you must allow yourself to give into suspicion for the others. Presented by actors pretending to be detectives, this was the brainchild of Ronald and Jean Haines, a married couple who set up a production company, therefore as it was as cheap as possible didn't hire any big stars. It did hire one Wendy Wellings, playing a dodgy governess, whose accent is so unimaginably posh she makes Queen Elizabeth II sound like Ray Winstone, so listen out for her.

The Three Children (1946) is three minutes long, and little about it is known, least of all who the performers in it were. Presumably they were amateurs, for this was basically an amateur short, made, according to the credits, for a local safety committee in England. It introduces the three children going about their day, when things turn sinister: a man in black approaches them, persuades them to go with him, and you think this is an early stranger danger item, but it's not. The narrator informs us three children die every day on Britain's roads, so this has been a traffic safety warning; it's certainly a sobering statistic, and in its eerie manner, it's a sobering short.

Continuing the downbeat mood is director John Gilling's Escape from Broadmoor (1948), an attempt to put the wind up the forties audience by alluding to a real-life murderer, John Lapsien, who became notorious for, yes, escaping Broadmoor, the high security prison for the criminally insane, but also being a master of disguise, and still at large when this film was released (he was caught the year after). But that was not enough for Gilling, so he added a ghost story element where he could torment his Lapsien stand-in as he tries to make off with a haul, and in a bit of casting that will either prove unnerving or ridiculous, he was played by future comedy actor John Le Mesurier of Dad's Army sitcom fame. Unrelentingly dour, even when it's trying to lift the mood, this does capture some of the bleak post-war feeling such news stories were contributing to.

Theodore Zichy's work had made an appearance on Vol. 1, but with Mingoloo (1958) his somewhat confounding stylings found their apex. Is it a mystical fantasy? A gangster thriller? An eccentric drama? You guess is as good as mine what was going on in the ex-racing driver's head, but he did dabble in film for a handful of pieces forgotten until their revival on these sets. Here Anthony F. Page was a sculptor who has a terrifying dream of a Chinese dog, accompanied by the chanting of the word "Mingoloo" (don't look it up, it is never explained). This inspires him to make a model of said dog, which is stolen by drug smuggling gangsters of foreign countenance (brownface) while his actual human model Therese Burton assists and hinders in equal measure. She is also notable for being talked over by men who dismiss her, not once but twice in twenty minutes, and is a singular presence, though perhaps unsuited for serious roles, which may be why she vanished from the screen a few years later. All in all? Bonkers.

Screaming Lord Sutch started out as a singer of horror themed records, kind of a prototype, British Alice Cooper of the sixties, but despite working hard at publicity and touring, he could never break through to the mainstream, and even a whiff of a hit eluded him. But his most famous (if you could term it that) tune was Jack the Ripper, a Joe Meek-produced slice of appalling taste which gave the Whitechapel murderer his belated theme tune, and there was a video in 1963, a three-minute lark where Sutch pranced around Victorian-dressed models. Created for a shortlived video jukebox device, it captures the man in his heyday, despite him being best known for his political antics as leader of The Monster Raving Looney Party in more recent years, before his untimely suicide robbed Britain of one of its indelible characters.

Onto Disc 2 and the longest short on the set at just under an hour, The Face of Darkness (1976) has a plot that you could not honestly say was one used very often, or indeed at all outside of director Ian FH Lloyd's efforts here. Lennard Pearce of sitcom Only Fools and Horses fame starred almost unrecognisably as a posh politician who has suffered the loss of his wife in a terrorist attack, and wants the law changed to gain revenge on those who would carry out such crimes, preferably lethal revenge. The way he goes about this is highly unusual: he digs up what appears to be some kind of warlock in the nearby forest and instructs him to plant a bomb in the playground of a girls' school, thus in his twisted logic providing all the motive for Parliament to pass the laws he wants, despite warnings this will turn Britain into a fascist state. Heady stuff, and that's without mentioning Gwyneth Powell, future head teacher of kids' soap Grange Hill, as the mother of one of the victims who has a connection to this, though precisely what is rather obscure in a film that has an original take on its subject but is not too coherent in its execution.

Possibly the most famous short on this set is next, The Dumb Waiter (1979), purely because in Britain it was the support feature to the Frank Langella version of Dracula, and as that was a hit, plenty of folks saw this. It was directed by Robert Bierman, best known now for Nicolas Cage freakout horror Vampire's Kiss later in the eighties, and as a director of hundreds of commercials, he was one of the filmmakers to emerge from that medium in the seventies, though he was nowhere near as high profile as, say, Ridley Scott or Adrian Lyne. The plot is simplicity itself, inspired by a road rage incident that happened to Bierman's girlfriend: a man is stalking a woman (Geraldine James) through the streets as she drives, and despite his best attempts she eludes him until she returns home, whereupon he tracks her and tries to break in with chilling determination. He even works out how to jam her phoneline so she can't call the police, and despite the old "don't take your clothes off in a horror movie" cliché, this was a suspenseful piece that ends unexpectedly ambiguously.

Hangman (1985) was a chiller of a different stripe, the public information film, made for industrial safety purposes and one of the last gasps of the more brutal strains of such items before a more compassionate style was adopted for many - though not all - of the genre. It was a building site danger quarter hour, kicking off with a savage montage of workers and public alike falling (literally) victim to poor health and safety precautions, presented by a cheery, masked, black-clad hangman who brandishes a noose, but plays the game with a piece of chalk rather than executing victims. You could say he doesn't have to: the clowns we see in this show such flagrant disregard for looking out for themselves and one another that the film is almost inviting us to pass the judgment that they were asking for their fate. Grimly amusing from a modern perspective, its lessons are relevant to this day.

Finally, The Mark of Lilith (1986) presents a horror thesis as sociology lecture, essentially a student film and looking it as the three directors were keen to put across what they had learned and discovered in class, through in a style that shifted between fiction and documentary. Lilith was Adam's first wife in Jewish legend, a woman who refused to kowtow to him and therefore was demonised by representing an actual demon in some readings, and here, was the first vampire and worthy of reclamation as a lesbian icon. It's a great idea, but you can tell the filmmakers did not have the experience (or budget) to handle it properly, as there was a telling off tone to the short as well as a kind of patronising "Ah... do you see?!" approach to the plentiful dialogue and monologue. Yet as an example of how horror was being accepted to a broader palette than simply placing women in victims' roles in the eighties (Tony Scott's cult movie The Hunger was a big influence) it has some worth, as a rundown of how some female writers were seeing it.

[The special features on this Blu-ray set from The BFI's Flipside brand are as follows:

New interview with Ian F H Lloyd, writer and director of The Face of Darkness (2021)
New interview with Bruna Fionda, Polly Gladwin and Zachary Mack-Nataf, directors of The Mark of Lilith
New interview with the writer and director of The Dumb Waiter, Robert Bierman (2021)
New interview with Claire Binns (2021): the Ritzy alumnus celebrates the radical history of the legendary London cinema where The Mark of Lilith was shot
Image galleries for The Face of Darkness, The Dumb Waiter and The Mark of Lilith
Newly commissioned sleeve artwork by renowned illustrator Graham Humphreys
**FIRST PRESSING ONLY** Illustrated booklet featuring contributions from filmmakers Ian F H Lloyd and Robert Bierman and other writing from Vic Pratt, William Fowler, Josephine Botting, Jon Dear, Jonathan Rigby and Caroline Champion - from which much of the information above comes from.]

Author: Graeme Clark.


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