I try to catch as many of the BFI’s Flipside nights as I can, since this monthly delve into the wilder side of British cinema should not be taken for granted. It is sobering to think that only a few years ago the BFI was an incredibly stuffy and conservative institution that haughtily ignored the film culture it now highlights in its Flipside programming. So big up to Vic Pratt, Will Fowler and the current BFI management for being forward thinking and in the groove! The days of tossers like Colin McCabe passing-off their tiresome taste in bourgeois snore fests as somehow representing everything that is ‘progressive’ in cinematic culture are thankfully over!
First up at Flipside last night was Towers Open Fire (1963, directed by Antony Balch). This was a clean 35mm print from the BFI archive, and you could actually see where Balch had deliberately degraded the film stock to create contrasts between different passages. Towers Open Fire was written by and stars beat novelist William Burroughs. It condenses his literary obsessions and cut-up techniques into a dozen minutes of screen time. The world disintegrates, the stock exchange crashes, and some strange things happen in the old BFI boardroom on Dean Street. Magic is performed over cans of film, the director lies on a bed and jerks off, there are shots of a Brion Gysin dream machine, cameos by BFI luminary Liam O’Leary and junkie novelist Alexander Trocchi, and things more or less end with Ian Sommerville doing a comic dance. I’ve seen this short many times, but never from such a good print.
Next up was the legendary Kronhausen’s Psychomontage No. 1 (1963, originated and executed by Phyllis and Eberhard Kronhausen), a short I’d never seen before. Antony Balch did some of the cinematography for this movie, the rest is by the Granada Zoological Unit and Harold Keene. The film cuts between shots of animal sexual activity and amorous human subjects. Towards the end, the Kronhausen’s up-the-ante with some almost explicit scenes of a woman getting fresh with a dog. This short is very hard to source and the BFI screened it from a video copy supplied by Mark Pilkington of Stranger Attractor. By chance, Mark had the seat next to me in BFI Screen 1. We said hello but the programme had just started when he came in, and he rushed off at the end of this Flipside session, so I didn’t get a chance to quiz him about the Kronhausen movie. I’m still trying to get my head around it, and would like to see it again.
The main feature was Horror Hospital (1973, directed by Antony Balch). This is essentially a parody of a Bela Lugosi-style b-movie. The plot revolves around a mad scientist called Dr Storm (Michael Gough), who is performing brain surgery on victims he lures to his Gothic mansion, turning them into mindless slaves (who he sexually abuses). Inevitably one of Dr Storm’s assistants is a dwarf (Skip Martin), and the flick also features iconic 1970s British sex-comedy star Robin Askwith. Balch plays with old dark house and horror tropes but keeps the campy parody reigned in just enough to maintain audience interest in the slight plot, which concludes with the mansion going up in flames. The overall vibe is similar to movies such as Thundercrack (1975, directed by Curt McDowell) and Flesh For Frankenstein (1973, directed by Paul Morrissey), but Balch gives the proceedings a uniquely English twist and does so with considerably more aplomb than the Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975, directed by Jim Sharman). The audience at the BFI was in stitches throughout Horror Hospital.
And while you’re at it don’t forget to check – www.stewarthomesociety.org – you know it makes (no) sense!