Friday, May 14, 2010

Smashing Birds

Now that's I've gotten your attention, the topics of this post is not Avian abuse—rather the English actresses whose presence brightened (or darkened, if applicable) cult and horror films from the '60s and '70s. I've already discussed the great Barbara Steele and the tragic Lynne Frederick in previous posts, but here are a few of my other favorites.

1. Judy Geeson. Pert, blond—and made for the sex kitten roles she played in the 60s'—she got her big break playing Sidney Poitier's infatuated student in 1967's To Sir, With Love, and has worked in almost every genre since. She made English "naughties" like Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush (1967) and Prudence and the Pill (1968) but her first appearance in our genre was playing Joan Crawford's psycho daughter in the hilarious circus horror film Berserk!, previously discussed here.

Other genre appearances include 1972's environmental horror Doomwatch for erstwhile Hammer competitor Tigon Pictures; the 1973 psycho thriller It Happened at Nightmare Inn for (directed by Eugenio Martin, who also helmed the wonderful 1972 Horror Express); and the sluggish Dominique (1978) with Cliff Robertson and Jean Simmons.

But in 1980 she answered the call of cult director Norman J. Warren and took the leading role in Inseminoid, an Alien ripoff that features Geeson, impregnated by a space creature, running insanely around a ship and killing the other crew members. It's cheap and it's tacky, and Geeson screams and wiggles her tongue around a lot. It also co-starred Stephanie Beacham, and both actress have distanced themselves from the film.

Here's the trailer, to give you an idea of the level of filmmaking I'm talking about. Warning: there is some sleaziness.

In 1984 Geeson moved to Los Angeles and began doing guest spots on just about every popular television show, from "The A-Team" to "MacGyver" to "Mad About You" and "Charmed." She most recently appeared in three episodes of "Gilmore Girls," and has her own antique shop in Beverly Hills.

2. Pamela Franklin. Attractive and intelligent, Franklin specialized in precocious children and teenagers but managed to bridge the gap to adult roles as she matured. She made her startling debut in Jack Clayton's The Innocents (1961), playing one of the possessed children. In 1965, she appeared as the teenage neighbor of a boy who thinks Bette Davis is trying to kill him in The Nanny.

In Our Mother's House (1967), also for Jack Clayton, she played part of a family of children who, fearing being taken to the orphanage when their religious fanatic mother dies, bury her body in the back garden and carry on business as usual. This one's awfully hard to see in the States; it sounds really intriguing to me. It also features Dirk Bogarde and Oliver!'s Mark Lester. She was also in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969), the film she's probably best-remembered for.

1973 brought my favorite Franklin film: The Legend of Hell House. She and Roddy McDowall play a pair of mediums who are brought to what is referred to as the Mount Everest of haunted houses by a scientist hired to examine the place. Supernatural phenomena abounds, and her character gets treated really badly. She gets attacked by a cat, raped by a ghost and ends up crushed under a giant crucifix. It's fun and creepy, and it really pushes its PG rating. I love the scene in which Gayle Hunnicut, all sweaty and supernaturally horned up, hits on McDowall. Read the following aloud and use the elipses for two-second pauses: " girl...naked....drunk...biting!" There's a bit of it in the trailer:

After Hell House, Franklin moved to Hollywood and began doing lots of television. She enrolled in Satan's School for Girls (1973) and did so many guest spots that her CV reads like a history of American TV in the 70s. She did two films for Mr. B.I.G. himself, Bert I. Gordon, the misguided Necromancy (1972) and Food of the Gods (1976), her last theatrical feature.

I haven't heard of her doing any guesting or convention appearances since she stopped working officially, so I guess she's just happy in retirement.

3. Susan George. With her blond hair, full lips and full figure, George perfectly captured the look of the ideal "bird" of the '60s and '70s. I guess you could call her "earthy." She played Lolita to Charles Bronson's Humbert Humbert in Twinky (aka Lola) in 1969 and a babysitter in peril in 1971's Fright.

That same year she made Die Screaming, Marianne! for notorious sexploitation/horror director Pete Walker as well as the controversial Straw Dogs for Sam Peckinpah. In Dogs, she plays the sexpot wife of milquetoast Dustin Hoffman, who exacts a violent revenge when she is gang raped by a gang of local toughs. The harrowing rape sequence is all the more squirm-inducing when she appears to begin enjoying it.

In America, her exploitation career began in earnest with Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, also starring Peter Fonda, and A Small Town in Texas. Her crowning achievement, at least as far as Weird Movie Village goes, is 1975's Mandingo, directed by Richard Fleischer. Based on the popular trash novel by Kyle Onstott (which I read at the tender age of 13!), it's big studio (Paramount) slavery sexploitation at its most appalling. George plays Blanche, a supposedly virginal Southern belle who marries Hammond Maxwell (Perry King), son of a powerful plantation owner.

On their wedding night, Hammond discovers Blanche isn't a virgin after all and rejects her. He turns to his slave, Ellen (Brenda Sykes), whom he'd already been in love with. In retaliation, Blanche begins bringing Hammond's prize Mandingo "buck," Mede (Ken Norton) upstairs for some heavy-duty sexing and becomes pregnant with his child. Hammond is forced to kill them all to preserve his reputation.

My God, it's a sleazy film. It features graphic whippings and other tortures, "wenches" preparing themselves for devirginization by their "massas," and young children, referred to as "saplings," being used as footstools by the cast, including James Mason as Hammond's father!

Here's a scene where Blanche discovers Ellen's true relationship with Hammond and metes out her punishment. This'll give you a good idea of the sleaze factor.

It was hard to top such a career peak, and George made a few more genre films, including Tintorera, for Rene Cardona, Jr., Venom with Oliver Reed and Klaus Kinski, and the bizarre Japanese-American co-production, The House Where Evil Dwells with Doug McClure. Reportedly she also recorded an album with then-fling Jack Jones!

Today George raises horses along with her husband, Simon MacCorkindale, at their stud farm, Georgian Arabians.

Yes, there are certainly more smashing birds to be mentioned, but these are the first three that come to mind. I'll continue this theme later. The Woman of Hammer Films definitely deserve a post of their own.

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