B&W/Color, 1943-1986, 223 mins
BFI (Blu-ray) (UK RB HD)
After a bit of a break following the inaugural Short Sharp Shocks in 2020 and Short Sharp Shocks Vol. 2 in 2021, the BFI's Flipside series returned in 2023 with a welcome two-disc Blu-ray set of chilling cinematic nuggets ranging from fleeting cautionary industrial shorts to evocative spook tales and bizarre cult curios. By now most folks are probably familiar with the idea here, with the first disc devoted to black-and-white works and the second going more modern and baroque with a higher blood quotient as well.
Things start off on a very high note with the most famous short in the set, 1951's Oscar-nominated Return to Glennascaul (23m14s), which earned a standalone VHS release back in the day and has been streaming for a while in a mediocre SD scan on The Criterion Channel. Here we finally get a nice HD scan of this nifty ghost story written and directed by Irish theater legend Hilton Edwards and starring Orson Welles as himself, both of whom were working on Othello around the time. In fact, that production gets name-checked visually and verbally at the beginning as Welles drives through the nocturnal countryside and offers a ride to a stranded motorist (Michael Laurence). In turn, Welles gets an earful involving the passenger's recent encounter with a mother and daughter named Campbell (Shelah Richards and Helena Hughes) who have a surprising secret involving a cigarette case and an abandoned old manor. Strange Experiences is essentially the same thing as the A Strange Experience shorts on part one, here featuring 1956's Grandpa's Portrait (3m26s), a jokey vignette with Peter Williams narrating the story of an ancestral painting that serves as a perpetual good luck charm until a fateful day involving a sporting event, and the same year's Old Silas (3m32s), with Williams handling a brandy snifter while a murderer and a fateful clock figure in the aftermath of a crime.
1969's Maze (12m43s) directed by artist Bob Bentley (his Royal College of Art degree film) isn't shocking in the least, instead featuring an odd melange of characters in swinging London including a Greek kitchen worker, several bohemians, and a bored society type converging for a farewell dinner, some park bench chats, and other bits of French New Wave-style ruminating on life and relationships. 1953's Strange Stories (44m46s) directed b y John Guillermin and Don Chaffey is a two-fer with John Slater and Valentine Dyall relating a pair of supernatural ironic tales, "The Strange Mr. Bartleby" and "The Strange Journey," about an unusual office working situation and a peculiar ship voyage (including a juicy role for Peter Bull from Dr. Strangelove and William Castle's The Old Dark House). That last selection is also the subject of one of the two video extras on that disc, "A Vandyke Production: Roger Proudlock and Strange Stories" (6m46s), a survey by Vic Pratt of the sibling-run production company who also churned out a handful of comedies and crime films. In "Getting Lost" (19m37s), Bentley talks about the background behind his student film and his various artistic pursuits as well as his family background and the influence of European cinema. A Maze image gallery (2m56s) is also included.
Things get much rougher on disc two with 1973's Skinflicker (42m57s), a fascinating Tony Bicât short for the BFI that easily counts as the most startling entry here. An ominous foreword informs us that this government document "displays the kidnapping and brutal murder of a public man. It is not to be shown to unauthorised persons. The kidnappers and murderers made this record of the crime themselves. They filmed their vile act in cold blood. Why? Because they thought it was funny." Yep, what we have here is really ground zero for the found footage horror film passing itself off as reality, way before Cannibal Holocaust, The Blair Witch Project, Man Bites Dog, and so on. In fact, it even predates the nihilistic approach of Last House on the Left and company as we see a stag movie creator recruited to shoot and document the activities of a trio of revolutionary miscreants determined to abduct and execute a government official in between diatribes to the camera. It's definitely obvious the whole thing is staged thanks to some recognizable actors (most notably a very intense Henry Woolf, later one of the Time Warpers in The Rocky Horror Picture Show), but the tactics here are astonishing to witness given how many subsequent films used them well into the 2000's. In fact, even if you think you know how this will wrap up (a la Cannibal Holocaust), there's an extra gruesome grace note thrown in that still packs a punch. While all of the other shorts here are in pristine condition, this one has an intentionally rough and distressed 8mm look appropriate for the subject matter. The fleeting 1973 public service announcements Broken Bottle (29s) and Don’t Fool Around with Fireworks (42s) are self-explanatory, implying horrific violence inflicted on youngsters when they don't pay attention to their surroundings or explosive party devices.
The longest and most intricate film in the set, 1982's The Terminal Game (33m49s) by Geoff Lowe, a techno-thriller about the Invex Corporation, a dystopian evolution of Silicon Valley computing where a desktop technician named Paul Mallory (Jack Galloway) plays a game demo tied to an Orwellian master plan at work on the population. Finally in 1985's Wings of Death (21m15s) by Nichola Bruce and Michael Coulson (which famously played as the opening short for A Nightmare on Elm Street in the U.K.) is a sickly colorful and stylized depiction of a heroin addict (Matthew Vaughn regular and Caravaggio poster boy Dexter Fletcher) spends his apparently final hours at a seedy hotel filled with lowlifes and a creepy doll-mutilating girl. That's pretty much it for the plot, but the mood and eye candy here are the real stars with a grotesque vibe that puts it close enough to the horror genre to count. In "Touch a Nerve" (25m59s), Bicât (brother of The Reflecting Skin composer Nick Bicât) talks about his approach to screenwriting, his affinity for horror films, the process of finding actors for a fairly grueling project (with a reluctant Woolf being a choice he always had in mind), and the moral points he was trying to get across. In "A Game of Two Halves" (27m55s), Lowe goes into great depth about his engineering background, the process of making The Terminal Game thanks to a spec script submission, and some very funny tales about casting and shooting. "Playing Music" (8m21s) is a new interview with composer Colin Towns, who composed The Terminal Game after his landmark work on The Haunting of Julia and explains how he came up with some of the experimental, electronic approach to the story. Finally in "Flying High" (31m22s), Bruce and Coulson discuss the making of Wings of Death, their art college backgrounds, the height of the punk scene at the time that influenced graphic design and their film, and the metaphorical aspects of heroin imposed on the film by the BFI. Also included are three Skinflicker galleries (1m4s script pages, 8m56s images, and 2m8s ephemera), a trailer for The Terminal Game, a 6m59s reel of silent behind-the-scenes footage from Wings of Death, and galleries for Wings of Death featuring photos by Steve Pyke (3m50s) and ephemera (1m2s) mostly consisting of wild concept paintings. The first pressing also features an illustrated insert booklet with new essays by Bob Bentley, Nichola Bruce, and Tony Bicât.
Reviewed on October 2, 2023