Thursday, 16 May 2013


Directors: various
Writers: various
Producers: various
Cast: Martin Shaw and others
Country of origin: UK
Year: 1992
Reviewed from: UK VHS

Nightmares is an ersatz anthology: three short films, compiled into one not-quite-feature-length movie for video release. Not that there is any newly-shot linking footage or presentation, just a single title caption before the first film.

This is Oilman, a 30-minute short written and directed by Steve Gough in 1986 for Channel Four, the Arts Council and the National Film and Television School. Almost wordless, the film looks suitably professional but is obtuse to the point of incomprehensibility. I can do no more than describe what happens.

Shaw (ever associated with The Professionals, who would have made this just after starring as Scott of the Antarctic on The Last Place on Earth) plays a character named Mr White, who we see in a room with a white guy and a black guy. This scene is captioned ‘West Africa, two weeks earlier’ but since the prologue is a very short scene of a woman getting into a car at night, it’s not clear what this is two weeks earlier than. The black guy goes into the bathroom and the other two follow and show him, wrapped in a white handkerchief, a black woman’s severed finger with a diamond ring on it.

The black guy is so shocked at this that he faints, whereupon Mr White opens up and rifles through his briefcase. He throws out onto the floor various papers and two clear plastic pouches of what may be blood, one of which bursts. Then he finds what he’s looking for: photographs, which are difficult to identify but I think they show people in an African village killing a goat. He takes the photos and tosses a tightly-wrapped roll of money into the case. As Mr White and the other white guy descend the stairs, the black guy appears above them and throws the unwrapped money back at them.

“Wake up, Mr White, we’re there,” says an air hostess, leading the audience to wonder whether the preceding scene was a dream, although I don’t think it was. Back home there’s White’s son Mark (Nicolaus Mackie Jr, son of the film’s producer) and a brunette woman (Georgina Wilson) who, we only learn in the end credits, is an au pair. The brunette leaves as a rather glamorous blonde (Diana Goodman: Curse of the Pink Panther) arrives. Until I saw the ‘au pair’ credit I was assuming that the brunette (who we saw giving the son a bath) was the first Mrs White, spending quality time with her son while his dad was in Africa, since the blonde is evidently not his mother. When she arrives she admires, accidentally breaks and hides a small vase so she obviously doesn’t live there.

Without dialogue and with only a limited running time, the relationships between characters need to be made clear - and here they’re not. Over dinner Mr White shows the blonde one of those pouches of dark liquid; later, while they’re canoodling on the couch, the boy opens a similar pouch and smears some of the contents on his face, giving himself a droopy moustache. His father is annoyed by this, though it’s not clear why.

The boy is sullen and introspective and when we see the three of them in a car, he is playing with a large bug. White is talking animatedly - or rather, listening to an animated voice - on what was known in those days as a ‘car phone’ while the blonde drives. There’s a whack and the car screeches to a halt, and on inspection it seems that they have hit and killed a young stag. As they examine the body, they are watched from a distance by a small group of men with guns and dogs who I think we can assume are hunters. The woman is upset at hitting the animal and, when White consoles her, she takes his handkerchief from his pocket, neither of them noticing the severed finger as it falls to the ground. When White subsequently spots that the finger is missing, it’s too late to go looking for it.

White, possibly deciding that he fancies venison for dinner, ties a rope to the stag’s legs and drags it over to his car, cramming it into the boot - and off they drive. When next they stop, to swap drivers, the boy gets out and wanders off. The two adults wander across the countryside calling for him, watched by the hunters, one of whom eventually shoots Mr White. As he lies dying beside a stream, blood and oil staining his shirt, the blonde somehow trapped in a net or wire fence a few yards away, his son gives him a handkerchief. Finally we see the blonde getting into the car and driving away, as per the prologue. These final scenes are far too dark unfortunately but I think that’s what happens.

I profess myself absolutely flummoxed as to what is going on here. I don’t know the significance of the severed finger or the African scene. I don’t know what is in the pouches: blood? oil? I don’t know the significance of the photographs, which White watches at home on a screen, evidently having had the prints converted into slides. I can see some sort of ironic justice in the fact that he is some sort of ruthless person (drug dealer?) because he carries a severed finger around with him, who is then killed for a death he didn’t intend (though he wasn’t actually driving when the car hit the stag). But I don’t know why the hunters shoot him, or where he was driving to or why.

Oilman is competently directed and produced but one gets the impression that there were a great deal of things in the script which simply become impossible to fathom on-screen. We don’t know who any of these people are, what they’re doing or why, their circumstances, their relationships with each other. We see what is happening but don’t know any context or reason or motive. The minimalist blurb on the Nightmares video sleeve says: ‘A macabre story about a contract killer whose life is turned upside-down after an assassination.’ Unfortunately, there is absolutely nothing in the film to indicate that White is a contract killer or that his life is being turned upside-down, nor is there anything which really warrants the adjective ‘macabre’ apart from the severed digit. And there is absolutely no reference to an assassination. Perhaps the photos show an assassination but we don’t get a clear enough look at them, which is why I thought it was a goat...

Steve Gough went on to write a few other productions for the BBC and Channel Four and now teaches screenwriting and production at the University of Westminster. Producer Nicolaus Mackie later set up a company called ‘United Media Ltd’, one of whose unproduced projects announced at Cannes in 1996 was Deadly Asylum, ostensibly to be directed by Julian Richards (The Last Horror Movie, Silent Cry). Mexican-born cinematographer Gabriel Beristain (whose actor father Luis was in The Exterminating Angel!) went on to greater things including DP duties on Talos the Mummy, both Blade sequels and The Ring 2.

Considerably easier to follow, and hence more enjoyable, is the second film on the tape. False Profit is a 14-minute short written and directed by Mark Logan in 1989. Set in what was then the near future of the early 2000s and based around a corrupt TV preacher with his own channel, it reminded me favourably of Steven Saylor’s The Pope of Utah.

Emma Healey plays motorcycle-riding teenager Valentine (though the character’s voice-over narration is by Shauna Baird for some reason). When her father (Simon Thomas) suffers a fatal fall from the roof while trying to adjust the family’s giant satellite dish, her mother Doreen (Valerie Bell, in episodes of The Avengers, Steptoe and Son, Z Cars etc) falls for suave tele-evangelist Earl who is on screen at that moment. Earl (prolific TV actor Dennis Chinnery, who was in an episode of The Prisoner, played a copper in Plague of the Zombies and was also in The Kingdom of Shadows) has his own satellite station, funded by viewers of course and providing him with enough money to own a limousine with the licence plate GOD 1. He marries Doreen who joins him in his work; Valentine dislikes her new stepdad intensely but not so much as to turn down a job delivering ‘autographed filo-bibles’ to viewers.

One night The Earl and Doreen Show is interrupted by TV hacker CP Ellis (Richard Leaf: whose interesting credits include Jupiter Moon, Oktober, Neverwhere, Mary Reilly and The Sin Eater), an unshaven youth who wants to expose Earl’s corruption and hypocrisy. The police can’t catch CP, but Valentine finds him and falls for him; there’s a great narration line about falling in love and imagining that you’re the only people it has ever happened to and so on, which ends with the cynical comment, “Sickening, isn’t it?”

Initially aghast at CP’s interruptions, Earl discovers that they boost his ratings enormously and since that is all that matters to him, he too tracks down the young man, offering him a suitcase full of cash to keep it up. “You’re a cult hero but your arse is hanging out of your trousers,” says Earl, and when CP says he wants no part of it, the older man points out, “When you hack into prime time you become prime time.” Unknown to either of them, Valentine is hiding in the corner of the room with a (big, clunky, 1980s-style) video camera. Disgusted with CP’s acceptance of the money as much as Earl’s offering of it, she determines to bring them both down.

This is a smashing little short, a bit dated by hairstyles and clothes, as depictions of the near future so often are, but tightly scripted and adroitly directed. I can’t see any trace of Mark Logan on the net (unless he’s the guy who worked as a location scout on some of David Cronenberg’s recent movies) but the credits identify this as a student film: ‘WSCAD Farnham’ is the West Surrey College of Art and Design.

Finally we have The Sweet Shop which is the most recent of the three films, written, directed and produced (and edited) by Melanie Viner in 1991. Andrew Howard plays Sam Willett who, on his 17th birthday, is made a partner in his parents’ sweet shop business. His father (Bill Monks, who was in the excellent early 1980s sitcom Brass) is a sort of middle-aged nerd - round glasses, bushy moustache, receding hairline and a fastidious attitude which manifests itself when he removes a couple of sweets from the scales to sell only a quarter and nothing more. His mother (Linda Regan, one of the yellowcoats in the later series of Hi-de-Hi) is a tarty Liverpudlian who dotes on her only child.

Sam has no interest in the shop but daren’t rebel against his parents until he meets Ben (Barry Morse: The Fugitive, Space: 1999, Whoops Apocalypse) who tells him stories of his evacuation from Dunkirk, his exploits in Egypt and so on. Emboldened by this, Sam finds the strength to tell his parents he doesn’t want to run a sweet shop - and sets off to see the world.

That’s it. It’s a nice enough character study with some excellent acting and a couple of brief, surreal animated sequences (three if you include the title) featuring a laughing jelly baby; William Correia is credited with these. But it does just end, like that - there’s no real sense of resolution and the Sam/Ben relationship is under-explored. It probably needed to be about ten minutes longer. No college or other institution is identified in the credits but William Jeffery is listed as producer and since he also produced False Profit it’s reasonable to assume that this is another WSCAD production.

What The Sweet Shop plainly is not, as you will no doubt have spotted by now, is a nightmare (laughing jelly babies notwithstanding). In fact, none of the three films really deserves that soubriquet. ‘From macabre to black humour,’ says the video sleeve. ‘A selection of Three Nightmarish Stories.’ The front image is of a full Moon shining through the clouds. This might lead one to expect some sort of horror movie, but one would be disappointed.

With the best will in the world, neither False Profit nor The Sweet Shop could ever be described as even slightly nightmarish. Maybe Oilman could be - if you really, really bend the definition and interpret the film loosely: it does feature a severed human finger and perhaps the final scenes could be considered as some variant on The Most Dangerous Game. But that’s a hell of a stretch.

MJS ratings: C+ (Oilman), B+ (False Profit), B- (The Sweet Shop)
review originally posted 9th January 2005

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