Short Sharp Shocks

As part of their regular Flipside strand, resurrecting obscure but worthwhile British movies of yesteryear, the BFI screened this trilogy of macabre shorts for the first time in far too long.

Twenty-Nine (1969)

Introduced by its producer Peter Shillingford with some fun anecdotes of its making and the general financing of English films in the 1960s, Twenty-Nine is not really a horror film. Rather it’s a kind of psychological thriller revolving around a 29-year-old married man playing away from home, watching an improbably-large breasted woman in a strip joint, visiting a prostitute (disconcertingly, played by Yootha Joyce), and hooking up with a 21-year-old hippie who actually turns out to be his nemesis. Alexis Kanner (of The Prisoner) does a great job of flipping between the man’s seedy adventures of the night before, and the morning after, when he has lost his memory of the last 16 hours and realises with growing horror that he may have been involved in an appalling crime.

29 is, indeed, a vexing age – on the cusp of 30 and marital and parental responsibility (as his infrequent calls to his wife reveal), the man seems deeply reluctant to actually tell the hippie his age, settling for, “Eight years older than you.” And the more she taunts him about being an old man, the more the man starts to lose his sense of proportion. The movie has a queasy atmosphere, disjointed sound and sudden cuts add to the idea of the man’s disorientation, adrift in a world of slightly younger people. It’s one of the most compelling depictions of the existential angst that tends to hit you in your late twenties, and despite a slightly abrupt and typically 1960s artsy ending, it’s a great little film and well worth searching out.

Panic (1978)

This is essentially a briskly efficient 25-minute re-telling of the urban legend of the hairy-armed hitch-hiker (the synopsis in Ten Years of Terror is entirely misleading). Snopes.com says that during the late 1970s, reports of the tale were made at 17 different British police stations. If that’s the case, the movie (which, given its obscurity, surely can’t have been the origin of the panic) is both timely and well-titled.

The acting is passable, with a few moments between the young lovers provoking sniggers from the audience. But once the film got going, the sniggers stopped. Director James Dearden creates a great sense of menace with a sudden rainstorm, an unsettling encounter with two punks at a set of traffic lights (setting up an even more haunting encounter at traffic lights later in the film), and the old lady hitch-hiker (played by the marvellously-named Avis Bunnage) is suitably creepy. The ending is hardly shocking, but it will linger unpleasantly in the imagination. Especially if you think of it as you’re driving on your own, in the dark. There are few things scarier than an urban legend, well told – and Panic is exactly that.

The Lake (1978)

The longest of the three films, The Lake sees a young couple, Tony and Barbara, and their dog (the only characters) setting out on a picnic at an idyllic and isolated lake, stopping off on the way to gawp at a boarded-up murder house. But while they stare up at the house, something else is staring down at them, and this sets the scene for half an hour of steadily mounting terror.

The lake itself is a suitably lonely location, allowing director Lindsay C. Vickers to set up some neat establishing shots of dark water and rustling undergrowth. The young couple are, at first, entirely unaware that they are being observed. However, the dog starts to act strangely. And Tony goes off to investigate, leaving Barbara on her own…

Thought very little actually happens for most of the running time, Vickers creates a superbly menacing atmosphere through the judicious use of point of view shots and sound effects. There are two explicitly ghostly moments, one (a hand in the lake) highly effective, one (a little girl in the woods) less so as it tends to reduce the sense of threat rather than increase it. Nevertheless, the film, like most great horror movies, works because it possesses a sense of dread and tragic inevitability as the audience waits for the horror to be unleashed on this innocent couple, whose only sin, like the protagonists of M.R. James, has been that of curiosity. The final sequence is surprisingly action packed and well done, and the denouement, which has Dead of Night’s  logic of a recurring nightmare, has been well set up during earlier scenes.

Short Sharp Shocks was a fantastic way to spend 90-minutes, and a great opportunity to see some genuinely forgotten gems of English cinema. I do hope the BFI consider more of these events (Dark Water, Clive Barker’s The Forbidden and Michael J. Murphy’s shorts for starters), and even perhaps releasing some of these cracking short films on DVD.

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One comment

  1. Steven Hamilton

    I saw all three of these films: Panic was surprisingly good & really stood up well. You can find it on Youtube:

    It’s worth the watch..
    The Lake has probably the creepiest start to any film i’ve ever seen but unfortunately just gets too fragmented, by the end. Stick it out though, it’s a strange time capsule of a film…

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