Producer: Noel Cronin
Cast: Ron Berglas, Edward Hardwicke, John Hurt
Year of release: 1986
Reviewed from: British VHS (AVR)
Not to be confused with Pete Walker’s Frightmare, Frightmares is one of the rarest ever British horror films although strictly speaking it’s not entirely British and it’s certainly not entirely a horror film. Like the even-more-obscure Nightmares, this was a mid-1980s VHS which compiled three short films into one anthology. But whereas Nightmares simply presented the three shorts in sequence, Frightmares employed no less than John Hurt to provide linking footage.
Truth be told, there’s very little of Hurt. On stage in an empty theatre, he sits in a leather armchair. A velvet smoking jacket, a drift of cigar smoke and a wry smile give him character and atmosphere but his four interstitial snippets probably don’t add up to three minutes between them. The three shorts are shown complete, including their respective opening and closing credits.
While all three are professional-looking films, the opener Vengeance seems the most assured, not least through the casting of two name actors. Ron Berglas (Highlander, Crimetime) plays Greg Bennett, an American who takes the ferry from Ireland to Milford Haven to enjoy a little Welsh hospitality before returning to the States. Future Dr Watson Edward Hardwicke (whose genre credits include Venom, the Tim Bond-directed 2001 version of She and the voice of Lara Croft’s father in a video game) is the mysterious man whom he meets in a hotel bar. ‘Mysterious’ because although he introduces himself as ‘Peter Carmody', Bennett spots that he has simply taken the name from a headline in the newspaper he was reading. Is there a significance to this or is it just a diffident Englishman trying to avoid engaging with a talkative Yank?
When Carmody’s car is blown up outside the hotel, he begs Bennett to drive him away as fast as possible, spinning a yarn which the American sees through. They check into a small hotel by the ferry terminal and Carmody tells a different story about bad gambling debts and borrowing his crooked employer’s money for a short-term, can’t-lose investment which would have solved everything - except that there is no such thing as a guaranteed can’t-lose investment. Now he plans to escape via the ferry to Ireland and only needs to hide out for a few more hours.
The story culminates inside an old tower where Carmody entrusts Bennett with the location of a blackmail letter. So long as the villains chasing him don’t get their hands on this, it hangs like a threat over them and should protect him. But if they catch him and force him to say where it is hidden, he’s a dead man. Can Bennett help him? Or should Carmody be careful about placing his trust in strangers?
Vengeance is not by any stretch of the imagination a horror film and, production values and name cast aside, seems an odd choice to kick off a horror anthology called Frightmares. It’s a thriller, pure and simple; a two-hander with a couple of red herrings in the setting (it’s bonfire night and there are references to an IRA bombing campaign).
Indian-born director Shani Grewal was, in the mid-1980s, a hot prospect. Produced in 1985, Vengeance was picked up for UK distribution by Fox who released it theatrically as support to Commando, surely one of the last instances of such a thing happening in British cinemas. Allegedly, Vengeance was nominated and short-listed for the ‘Best Live-Action Short’ Oscar but in fact there is no record of it on the Academy Awards website. I think it may have been longlisted but normally there are only three actual nominees announced in this category. Although eight British films were nominated during the 1980s, Vengeance wasn’t one of them.
The production company Balhar Film Productions derives from the names of family members Balwant S Grewal and Harjeet K Grewal who both took executive producer credit alongside Shani himself, although the producer was Barnaby Spurrier. Grewal moved into features with the Channel 4 TV-movie After Midnight and then remade Vengeance as Double X: The Name of the Game in 1992. This obscure British feature, which relocates the story from Wales to Scotland, assembled an eclectic cast including Simon Ward, William Katt (in the Berglas role), Gemma Craven, Bernard Hill, UFO’s Vladek Sheybal (in his last role), Red Dwarf’s Chloe Annet - and Norman Wisdom (in the Hardwicke role). This was 23 years after his last big screen work in What’s Good for the Goose and twelve years before his cinematic swansong Five Children and It (though he did of course make one notorious film during that period).
Double X is also notable as the first feature produced under the Business Expansion Scheme, a Government tax initiative designed to encourage low-budget productions. Unfortunately Double X turned out to be, according to Variety, “an inept low-budget suspenser ... [in which the] ... reliable cast is double-crossed by a laughable script and clumsy helming” and it subsequently disappeared from the face of the Earth until it was released by Odeon Entertainment as part of their Best of British collection in February 2008. Nowadays Grewal directs episode of Casualty and Holby City (I suppose somebody has to) and works on developing projects for various companies.
Producer Spurrier is one of those people who has done plenty of stuff without actually amassing too many credits although his name can be spotted on the 2001 BBC Christmas animation Hamilton Mattress. He ran the Redwing Film Company then Spirit Films and nowadays works for Tomboy Films whose production credits include Waking Ned and Shooting Fish. Spurrier’s most recent credit is the 2008 Shane Meadows feature Somers Town. There are several writers out there called David Fleming but I don’t know whether any of them are the one who wrote this script.
The only other credited actors are Robert Edmundson and Ewin Thomas who each have a couple of lines as customs officials in the opening scene. DP on Vengeance was Dominique Grosz who seems to have few other credits apart from Double X. Editor Michael Johns also cut the Christopher Lee feature A Feast at Midnight (and Double X) and may have actually worked in the editorial department on Scrooge thirty-odd years earlier, if the Inaccurate Movie Database is correct. A second credited editor, Brian Sinclair, may or may not have worked on Chaplin’s A Countess from Hong Kong in the 1960s. I can find no other credits for composer George Efstathion unless it’s a type for famous astronomer George Efstathiou (cheers Google!) and that seems unlikely...
Possibly the most interesting CV among the crew belongs to 1st AD Asad Qureshi whose career, further down the ladder as 2nd or 3rd AD, includes Never Say Never Again, Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense, Willow and Lifeforce plus a shot at the big time as 1st AD on Project: Shadowchaser. Or maybe the best CV belongs to art director Philip Elton whose credits include Event Horizon, Prick Up Your Ears, Gangster No.1, Sharpe, Flyboys, The Bourne Supremacy and, ah, Agent Cody Banks 2 (as well as assorted work in the art teams of The Phantom Menace, Little Shop of Horrors, Resident Evil and Children of Men). The costumes are by Jane Moxon, the make-up is by Fiona Kemp.
The second story Holiday for Three is the shortest of the triptych, running about 18 minutes as opposed to 25 minutes for Vengeance and half an hour or so for the third story. In this one, three lads head off to Wales in a battered old camper van to stay in a cottage which they have presumably rented from someone although it’s so basic it doesn’t even have any lighting.
Brian (Phillip Mackenzie - presumably not the actor who was in episodes of PSI Factor, The Outer Limits and The X-Files) is a bit of a git, constantly teasing his meek mate Dave (Richard Atkin) in ways that go beyond good-natured joshing. Bequiffed John (Kevin Parker) tries to keep the peace between the other two. After an unsuccessful venture to the local pub where they are evicted by the landlord (Troy Mitchel) for chatting up his wife (Leslie Rooney), the three friends return to the cottage for an evening of poker and, at Dave’s suggestion, “a game of ouija.” There has been no suggestion that the cottage actually is haunted, but what the heck, it’s not like they’ve got a telly.
Using playing cards with letters on them to form the ‘board’, the three lay fingers on the glass which spells out ‘D E A T H U P S T A I R S’ and Dave goes to investigate. When he doesn’t return, Brian follows, arming himself with a knife from the kitchen. In the dark of the upstairs landing, Dave plays a trick on Brian which leads to a fulfilment of the prophecy. The actual denouement of this short is very clever because it makes no attempt to determine whether the message was a genuine prophecy or whether it was Dave mucking about in revenge for Brian’s taunts and the result merely tragic irony.
Directed by Clive Paton and photographed by Ethem Cetintas, who shared script credit, Holiday for Three was made by Silver Productions Ltd in 1985. I don’t know what ever happened to Clive Paton (Google searches throw up only a winemaker of that name) but Cetintas is now a well-respected director of TV commercials and indeed is still running Silver Productions. His TV work includes some dramas such as Breaking Free and Republic as well as segments for current affairs shows and documentaries including World in Action, Newsnight and Horizon. He is also, by all accounts, a mean guitarist. Curiously, his bio describes Holiday for Three as a 1990s production for ITV. Executive producer Ron Glenister went on to work on war documentaries for the History Channel. The editor was Fred Ives and the composer was Dave Eppel.
Finally we have The Short Night, the only one of the three not set in Wales. In fact, this appears to be a French film: the location looks like Paris; the crew are all French; two of the four actors are French; and the credits are in French. But the on-screen title is in English (in the same font etc as the other credits); the dialogue is all in English and the three actors who speak all use English accents. Plus it is one third of a British pseudo-anthology. How odd.
Rebecca Pauly (later in Polanski’s The Ninth Gate) plays an affluent young wife who believes that she is being stalked as she returns to her expensive Paris apartment. Jean-Philippe Chatrier (the 1995 version of Les Miserables) is her husband who at first assures her that she is imagining things but later admits that he is the stalker, finding some sort of perverse thrill in the situation. Ah, but is he? Well, yes apparently he is. Ah, but is he?
Arguably justifying the inclusion of what is essentially another thriller in a horror anthology (or arguably not), the wife is in the habit of consulting tarot reader Miss Belloch (Annette Milson - probably the ‘Annette Milsom’ who was in Deadly Summer) and does so by phone once she realises that she might be in danger - with the reading predictably death-laden. At the risk of giving too much away, the cast also features Jean-Claude Dreyfus as l’inconnu (the unknown); now one of France’s best-known actors, he was in a 1977 version of The Portrait of Dorian Gray, Cheech and Chong’s The Corsican Brothers, a 1989 Joan of Arc TV biopic., something called Un Vampire au Paradis, The Adventures of Pinocchio (alongside Martin Landau and Udo Kier), City of Lost Children and Delicatessen!
Like the other two films, this is professional looking (although the production company’s name is spelled wrong at the end) if less than exciting. Writer-director Alain Berberian made his feature debut with La Cite de la Peur, in which attempts to screen a low-budget horror film at the Cannes Festival are continually thwarted by a serial killer offing the projectionists. More recently he directed a 2007 French version of Treasure Island. The Short Night is ‘un production Gregorio/Pinchon’ and was made in 1985 by Les Films du Rhinoceros, although the end credits spell it ‘Rhinceros’. Jean-Marc Gregorio is one of those otherwise anonymous investors whose names litter the world of short films.
Cinematographer Stephane Leparc more recently lit a French teen horror feature called Hellphone which sounds great. Art director Francois-Pierre Deberre has subsequently had gigs on films such as Asterix and Obelix: Mission Cleopatra and the 2004 version of Arsene Lupin which starred Kristin Scott Thomas and Eva Green.
The only thing which all three shorts have in common is that each ends with a murder - or at least a death (it’s an accident in Holiday for Three). The ouija board in the middle segment makes that story arguably a horror tale and I suppose that The Short Night could be shoe-horned into the genre because of l’inconnu’s mysterious, unexplained nature and his ability to enter the locked apartment (although the tarot reading is really irrelevant).
The problem with Frightmares is that not one of the stories is frightful or (with the possible exception of The Short Night) nightmarish. The interstitial footage of John Hurt, whose script does refer specifically to the events of the three short films, is completely inappropriate in its spooky, almost gothic ambience. The 1986 VHS tape from AVR Home Entertainment which was Frightmares’ only commercial release features a photo of Hurt on the sleeve under a completely unrelated painting of a demonic face and hands. ‘Worse than your worst nightmares’ is the imaginative strapline. The blurb on the rear reads thus:
John Hurt, the Master of Suspense, brings you three spine-chilling stories from his theatre of terror which will keep you gripping your seats and glued to your screen. Venture into the uncanny, the occult and the evil as John Hurt guides you into your worst frightmares.
There are three small-stills: the three lads doing ouija in Holiday for Three, a close-up of a tarot card from The Short Night and a church and graveyard which I think is seen very briefly in Holiday for Three. Certainly none of the stories involve a church or graveyard in any significant way! You can see how this all makes Frightmares seem like some Amicus-style horror anthology - “theatre of terror”, tarot and ouija and graveyards, “spine-chilling stories” - which can’t help but leave the viewer disappointed when they find that it’s three perfectly good thrillers with little or no actual horror content.
The only on-screen credits for the films as a whole are ‘Distributed by Dandelion Distribution Ltd 1987’ although the video sleeve says 1986. Dandelion Films was established as a post-production house in 1971 by Noel Cronin, who had started as a post-boy at Rank and worked his way up to become a respected film editor. Dandelion moved into distribution in 1975 and became one of the biggest independent distributors of film and TV in the UK until 1999 when Cronin sold the company. In 1992 Cronin founded String of Pearls, the production company which made Shani Grewal’s Double X, and in 1999 he launched Renown Pictures with The Ghost of Greville Lodge, a family film starring George Cole, Prunella Scales and a pre-Last Horror Movie Kevin Howarth.
Frightmares remains an oddity. It has to be listed as a British horror film (when such things are listed) because it was very definitely marketed as a horror film but the only spooky bits are the brief clips of John Hurt, the three stories themselves having the flimsiest connections with the genre. Hurt’s own status as ‘the Master of Suspense’ is dubious although there is no doubt he does a grand job in the four brief moments of screen time which he is afforded. Apart from the obvious Alien, his principal genre credits prior to Frightmares consisted of After Darkness, 1984, The Shout, Spectre and The Ghoul.
Ultimately Frightmares is only ever going to be of interest to British horror completists but as they are the only sort of people ever likely to try and see the film (or who will even have heard of it) I suppose that’s all right. I’m taking the unusual step of giving the overall film a lower rating than any of the individual stories because it simply fails to live up to its advertised claims of “spine-chilling stories from a theatre of terror”.
MJS ratings: B-/C+/C+ (overall C-)
review originally posted 18th May 2008