Short Sharp Shocks Blu-ray Review
When cinema-going was at its height, the feature film might have been what you had paid to see, but it wasn’t all that you saw. Indeed, for the first decade and a half or so of the cinema’s existence, everything was a short. But when the feature-length film had become the mainstay of the industry, there was a full supporting programme, often including a newsreel, short films, a second feature. While that had been much reduced by the time I was going to the cinema in the 1970s, if you didn’t see a double bill, you still frequently saw a short film before the main feature.
Nowadays, a whole generation has grown up to expect just twenty minutes to half an hour of ads and trailers before the film, though the short film is not yet dead: Disney, and specifically Pixar, have made a point of providing a short film as a curtain-raiser to their new releases. Back in the day, many short films were unimaginative travelogues (I give you a film about grape-treading in Portugal, title long since gone from my memory) and were often dire (case in point, British Hustle, forty minutes of watching people dance in a disco, and as exciting as it sounds). But as in other media the short form is as valid, creatively if maybe not commercially, as the long haul, and the best short films have a way of staying with you. I can still vividly remember some when the main feature I had paid to see has vanished into the mist.
Short films were often a testing ground for emerging filmmakers, both in commercial and more arthouse cinemas. While short films were made in every fictional genre, what could be broadly defined as the Gothic, the macabre or simply horror was a particularly fertile one. As with the written variety, horror often lends itself to the short form – think how many classics are short stories or novellas rather than novels – and the first three films in this set make the connection between the page and the screen quite explicit. While many shorts were intentionally family-friendly – understandable, as otherwise you would restrict the films you could go out on the circuit with – others weren’t.
BFI Flipside have previously highlighted two examples of the mid-length horror film, too long to be called a short but shorter than you’d normally expect a feature to be: Sleepwalker and The Orchard End Murder. The latter did the rounds with the US feature film, and one-time video nasty, Dead and Buried, and it made quite an impression in its own right. Short films qualified for the Eady Levy, a form of tax relief of the box office takings. This ended in 1985 and the heyday of the short film – and for that matter the double bill – was over.
The nine films in this set, on two discs, range from 1949 to 1980, and there’s certainly scope for further releases, such awkward things as clearing licences and even locating suitable materials notwithstanding. One of the films was lost for many years. The first three are effectively monologues, bringing two masters of the written horror story to the screen – quite literally, in the first two films.
Lock Your Door (1949, running time 14:36, certificate U)
The Reformation of St Jules (1949, 13:31, U)
Algernon Blackwood was born before the cinema, let alone radio or television, was invented, but he took naturally to the new media in his later life. By that time, he had been a prolific and distinguished writer of supernatural short fiction. He read his stories to the nation, or at least the part of the nation who could receive him, on radio and later on television. One Halloween, he caused a flurry of calls to the BBC switchboard when by means of camera trickery he disappeared in mid-sentence...but with his voice still on the soundtrack and an empty chair on screen. Those television broadcasts were live and not recorded, but at least we have these two cinema shorts, made in the year Blackwood turned eighty. In both of them, Blackwood is standing in the drawing room of what could be a gentlemen’s club, a roaring fire behind him, as he tells his story to...us, beyond the camera. Unlike many author readings, Blackwood is deceptively informal, leaving in a few hesitations, giving a fine impression of casualness.
The Tell-Tale Heart (1953, 20:39, 12)
To get any possible confusion out of the way, this is not Tell Tale Heart, the eight-minute animated version of Edgar Allan Poe’s story narrated by James Mason. That was released the same year as this film and has the distinction of being the first animated film to be given a X certificate (then, restricted to sixteen-year-olds and over) by the then British Board of Film Censors. This is a live-action film based on the same story, with a solo performance by twenty-five-year-old Stanley Baker as “The Author”, i.e. Poe, telling us the macabre story. The result, directed by J.B. Williams, is unavoidably stagey but atmospheric on what must have been a tiny budget. The film was lost for many years, and was rediscovered in 2018 when a film collector, who had bought a 16mm print in 1980 put it up for sale on eBay.
While this Tell-Tale Heart, like the other version, received a 'X' certificate from the BBFC without cuts, this print tells us that for London viewers it carries a H certificate. H had been an official BBFC certificate which they occasionally used to denote “horrific” material which they considered unsuitable for under-sixteens. Many H films were horror films, but certainly not all of them were, and there’s a sense that the BBFC sometimes used the H as an all-purpose adult certificate before it officially had one, when it replaced the H with the X in 1951. However, for reasons which would bear some research, London retained the H for some time afterwards: House of Wax (1953) was another example, which like The Tell-Tale Heart, played as a X, also uncut, outside the capital.
Death Was a Passenger (1958, 18:14, PG)
Portrait of a Matador (1958, 24:26, U)
These two films were produced and directed by the flamboyant Theodore Zichy, billed simply by his surname. In his time he was an actor (in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and others), raced cars, flew planes and took up photography after the War, in maintaining an active love life. He also directed three shorts and two features. These two short films were made at Merton Park Studios, not the most lushly appointed of film studios, and their low budgets do show, for example using stock footage of an air raid as effectively a flashback inside a flashback in Death Was a Passenger – even more noticeable in HD. Death Was a Passenger is the better of the two, set mostly on a train, or rather two, as a man (Terence Alexander) meets a nun (Harriette Johns) by chance in a busy compartment and they realise they have met before. That was during the war, when he was an airman trying to escape France and the attentions of the Gestapo, and she was a younger nun who helped him. Portrait of a Matador takes us to Spain, and the story of a painting of said matador which carries a curse.
Twenty-Nine (1969, 26:27, 15)
A young man (Alexis Kanner) wakes up in a strange apartment, not knowing how he got there. Did he simply get very drunk, or did something else happen? This was an attempt to move into fiction filmmaking by two men who up to then had made commercials: writer/director Brian Cummins and producer Peter Shillingford. The film was shot in ten days with their usual crew, including Tony Richmond as cinematographer. Leading man Kanner was a busy actor then best known for his appearances on television in The Prisoner. Having filmmaking ambitions himself, he took over editing as Shillingford and Cummins were working on commercials, experience which stood him in good stead much later when he directed his own feature, Kings and Desperate Men, in 1981. Twenty-Nine is the furthest of these nine short films from horror in any conventional sense, but it’s intriguing all the same.
The Sex Victims (1973, 37:01, 18)
To get the obvious out of the way, The Sex Victims is a grubby movie. It looks grubby and it makes you feel that way too. Jack, a truck driver (Ben Howard), has a habit of picking up pretty young women hitchhikers...or at least until they go off with another driver. As Jack drives home he sees another young woman (Felicity Devonshire, a former Page Three girl in The Sun) riding a horse, naked, Lady Godiva style. Seeking to improve his luck, Jack signs on at a countryside equestrian centre and flirts with the woman who runs it. Then he sees the naked woman again, rather more dressed this time, and he goes off in pursuit of her. Taking advantage of the then 'X' certificate (which had recently been raised to 18 and over), The Sex Victims is of its time in that when a couple have just had sex, she is completely naked but he still has his trousers on. The pursuit scenes go on a long time, though the emphasis is more on that than the outcome. There’s not a sympathetic character in the whole film, which paints a depressing picture of the Home Counties England of its time.
The Lake (1978, 33:07, 15)
Barbara (Julie Peasgood) and Tony (Gene Foad), a young couple, and their dog Condor (played by his movie-veteran self, having appeared in The Omen two years earlier), go for a picnic in the countryside. Given that they are in the grounds of a large house where a tragedy occurred years earlier, this might not be a good idea.
Many directors of the shorts on this disc, and others like them, hoped to graduate to full-length features, but for one reason or another often didn’t. Lindsey C. Vickers had worked his way up the assistant-director ranks and later became a producer, but this short and the little-seen 1981 feature The Appointment, also horror, are his only directing credits. Both films include malevolent cars. The Lake is a classic-style ghost story with two contemporary young leads, with hints of strangeness building slowly to a chilling finale. You might need the ninety or so minutes of the main feature to shake it off.
The Errand (1980, 28:41, 15)
David McGillivray has worn a large number of hats in his time, as a screenwriter, journalist, film critic, broadcaster and, if that were not enough, regular gag-writer for Julian Clary. The Errand was his first film as producer as well as writer. A soldier on the run (Edward Kalinski) in an unnamed country finds no friendly face anywhere...and we soon find out why. An effective little short, which like the trap its protagonist is in, snaps coldly shut at the end. The director was Nigel Finch, his fiction debut. He made several other films, fiction and documentary both, with his final feature, Stonewall, released just after his death from AIDS in 1995. As for McGillivray, most recently he has produced a tell-all autobiography and his directing debut, The Wrong People, is in pre-production as I write this.
Short Sharp Shocks is BFI Flipside release number 41, comprising two Blu-ray discs encoded for Region B only. The package carries an 18 certificate. I have indicated the certificates of each short above, but have a guess which is the adults-only one?
The short films are all transferred at 2K resolution from a variety of sources. In the case of the two Algernon Blackwoods, they are the 35mm finegrain duplicating positives, The Tell-Tale Heart, The Sex Victims and The Errand from prints (the first 16mm, the other two 35mm) , the others from original negatives. The Errand shows some signs of colour fading, as noted in the booklet with this release.
The first three films were made before the widescreen era – only just before it, in the case of The Tell-Tale Heart – and are presented in Academy Ratio, or 1.37:1. The others are presented in 1.85:1 with three exceptions I have questions about. It’s odd that while Portrait of a Matador is widescreen (as you would expect from a 35mm commercial release from 1958), Death Was a Passenger, made the same year at the same studio with much of the same crew, is transferred in 1.37:1. The only explanation I can think of is that the library footage I refer to above was shot in 4:3 but it would be cropped when shown in a cinema as part of the larger film, which is clearly framed and composed for wider. Likewise, Twenty-Nine begins with scenes of a football match, shot as part of the production in what looks like 16mm when the rest of the film was 35mm, but again this film looks like it was intended wider. As for why The Sex Victims would be Academy Ratio, I really don’t know. By 1973, the only commercial cinemas still capable of showing 1.37:1 were repertory screens and arthouses, and it’s a fair bet this film was not aimed at either.
The soundtrack is the original mono in all cases, rendered as LPCM 1.0, with no issues that I could pick up. English hard-of-hearing subtitles are available for the shorts but not the extras.
These begin on Disc One with two interviews with Kate Lees, owner of Adelphi Films, makers of The Tell-Tale Heart. In the first (7:40) she describes how the film was lost for many years and finally found. In the second (29:11) she describes the history of the company, founded by her grandfather Arthur Dent. Finally, there is an image gallery (3:20) for the short film.
The interviews on Disc Two begin with Renée Glynne (15:12), a longstanding continuity advisor or script supervisor) who performed that function on Twenty-Nine. Her producer Peter Shillingford (41:47) talks about his career in the film industry, including this short film, which wasn’t as successful as he would have liked. Another career overview is given by David McGillivray (42:46), who is, if you didn’t know already, an entertaining raconteur, and doesn’t pass up the opportunity to give his memoirs a plug. Finally, Julie Peasgood (17:52) talks about her experiences making The Lake.
The remaining on-disc extras are image galleries, self-navigating ones for some of Peter Shillingford’s memorabilia (3:50) and production shots for The Lake (1:50) and The Errand (2:20). You do have to use your remote to advance the shooting scripts for The Lake (both pristine and annotated-by-the-director versions) and The Errand and McGillivray’s original short story (or rather treatment) for The Errand.
The BFI’s booklet, available in the first pressing only, runs to thirty-six pages. An opening essay on the rise and fall of the British short film is credited to William Fowler, Vic Pratt and Josephine Botting. This is followed by pieces on each film, straightforward appreciations by Fowler on the two Blackwood films, Pratt on The Tell-Tale Heart and Botting on the two Zichy films. Twenty-Nine has two short essays, one by Peter Shillingford, the other by JT Rathbone on Tuesday’s Children, the band who make a brief appearance in it. Jonathan Rigby talks about The Sex Victims as does David McGillivay regarding The Errand. For The Lake, we get writer/director Lindsey C. Vickers interviewed by email by Vic Pratt. The booklet also contains notes and credits for the extras, transfer notes and stills.
Short Sharp Shocks is available to own on Blu-ray from November 23.