And so we reach Volume 3 of BFI Flipside Short Sharp Shocks. Volumes 1 and Vol 2 were hugely successful. If you have them you’ll certainly want this set. However perhaps your purchase will rest on the basis of being a series-completist because content-wise Volume 3 is probably the weakest. It’s not that it’s bad but more surprising than shocking.
Dealing first with the effective shocks I found Skinflicker (Tony Bicat, 1973) and Wings of Death (Nicola Bruce and Michael Coulson, 1985) disturbing on the grounds of ‘harrowing’ realism and ‘harrowing’ fantasy: harrowing having been given single inverted commas because I was forced to do a time travel double-take. In the 70’s and 80’s their content would have been harder to take and a lot more viscerally shocking. In 2023 are we now more predictably immune even blasé?
Skinflicker was once controversial enough to have a question raised in Parliament about its political violence. An angry nihilistic group, with a half-baked, poetically written (William Blake is invoked as an inspiration) manifesto, kidnap and murder a high profile MP. This is all shot in the manner of a hand-held camera film record which after the event is cleverly framed as a police training film about terrorism. The influence here is the drama doc style of Peter Watkins’s nuclear attack TV film The War Game and more interestingly a first try-out of ideas, shot on 8 and 16 m, to be later realised in found footage genre films like The Blair Witch Project (1999).
Cinema verité and mockumentary are also thrown in with much hysterical screaming and shouting about the kidnappers’ intentions and motives - the feverish screenplay is by playwright Howard Brenton. However the film’s most disturbing image is of a man’s hovering boot about to stamp on the MP’s false teeth lying on a garage floor. The shot is held for a long time and for me had a queasy barbarity. Skinflicker still has a dramatic edge but, unlike the genuine horror of The War Game, isn’t a provocative edge I’d chose to fall over again by giving it a second viewing.
Wings of Death, coming in at 21 minutes, packs a lot of paranoid fantasy and sordid realism into a cyclic account of a young heroin addict who books himself into a grotty room for the night. Its visual explosions have a real beauty that reminds you of Kenneth Anger and David Lynch and anticipates the toilet drama moments of Trainspotting. The young naked self-harmed body of the addict, posed in a gay and angular fashion like the poet of Jean Cocteau’s fantasy short, The Blood of the Poet, begins and ends the film. Although it’s a downer Wings of Death’s repellent but striking imagery and expressive use of colour would pull me back to watch it again.
I enjoyed Strange Stories (John Guillerman / Don Chaffey, 1953) and especially their adaptation of Melville’s Bartleby – John Laurie - whose repeated “I think not” is highly effective almost as a straight precursor to his later Dad’s Army declaration “Were all doomed!”
Return to Glennascul (Hilton Edwards, 1951) is an effective spooky Irish tale recounted by Orson Welles. Maze (Bob Bentley, 1969) was so enigmatic about the 60’s London social scene to have me say what was that all about? Very odd.
Strange Experiences: Grandpa’s Portrait and Old Silas are episodes from a long forgotten TV show. I felt they should still be forgotten. Broken Bottle and Don’t Fool Around with Fireworks are public information films aimed at the safety of children that have a tough minimalist power.
And finally The Terminal Game (Geoff Lowe, 1982) is about AI and corporate power control that’s moderately effective. It borrows some ideas from The Parallax View (1974) but doesn’t employ them as well. The Terminal Game’s violence and controlling menace feels muted, on a single track and lacking in development. But it’s a brave attempt to tackle conspiracy material, especially for the UK in 1982.
This two-disc set comes with many special features for you to watch and help you make up your mind on what’s more a surprise than a shock: recommended “Flipside” oddities but this time round with reservations.
- Alan Price