King John & Tricky Dicky: The Comic (1985) & Silent Heroes (1987)

Matty explores what happened when an emerging genre genius financed two pictures by Richard bloody Driscoll. 

A couple of months ago, in my post about John Eyres’ ace robo-sploiter, Project Shadowchaser (1992), I wrote that Eyres made the leap from operating a chain of video stores, ABC Video, to filmmaking after noticing the type of low-budget genre movies his customers were renting. While the “hey, we can do that” attitude of the Mancunian maverick and his two business partners, Geoff Griffiths and Zafar Malik, was a key factor in the DIY production of their maiden voyage, Lucifer (1987) (aka ‘Goodnight God Bless’), a recent chat I had with Lucifer’s production manager, Dewi Griffiths, in preparation for an upcoming liner notes and audio commentary assignment [1] revealed another important nugget of information: although Eyres and co. were completely inexperienced as craftsmen, they’d already had a hand in film financing and distribution via their store’s own in-house VHS/distribution label, ABC Films.

Now, exploring the effect these dealings had on Eyres’ subsequent career is an article in and of itself; the long and the short of it being that Eyres’ early savvy in film sales and releasing is why he became such a force in the ‘90s straight-to-tape/slapped-to-cable TV arena. As the gregarious Griffiths was quick to state in our chinwag, the man knows his onions and Eyres is as much a brilliant businessman as he is a brilliant producer and director. But what struck me as I perused ABC Video’s catalogue on videocollector.co.uk is how different it could have been. Because before Eyres went on to helm to fantastic pulp like From Beyond the Grave (1996), Octopus (2000), and the aforementioned Project Shadowchaser and two of its three sequels, the Cardiff-based ABC were in bed with writer/director/producer/convicted fraudster, Richard Driscoll — a name that even seasoned bad movie buffs often refuse to utter.

Critic, journalist, and Schlock Pit pal M.J. Simpson said it best:

“Richard Driscoll is, by general consensus — and by a considerable margin — the most consistently terrible filmmaker currently working in Britain. He is multi-untalented: he cannot write, he has no directorial skill, and is an absolutely lousy actor… His films are not just rubbish, they are bizarre, incoherent, overambitious, badly marketed rubbish with logic-defying plots and eclectic collections of inexplicably cast household names.” [2]

A damning assessment, for sure. And as an ardent fan and staunch admirer of Eyres’ distinguished output, him (presumably) kicking Driscoll to the curb sharpish is probably the single greatest move of his career. There’s an albatross around your neck, and then there’s a whole flock of screeching sky-rats pecking and shitting all over you. Driscoll is, without question, a bucketload of birdshit. However, a pair of naff yet fascinating curios remain from Eyres and Driscoll’s brief union: 1985’s deranged psycho-drama The Comic and 1987’s jaw-droppingly weird war movie Silent Heroes. Both were financed and issued on cassette by ABC, Silent Heroes standing as their final release prior to Eyres and Geoff Griffiths relocating to Vancouver for Eyres’ sophomore directorial offering, Slow Burn (1989)

Driscoll’s second stab at directing following his unfinished debut, The Elf (1982), THE COMIC has recently reappeared on British shelves in a limited edition Blu-ray from Arrow. Without doubt, it’s the film’s largest platform to date — though a cursory look at the venom-peppered reviews of Arrow’s disc reveal that The Comic is as reviled as ever. A somewhat legendary title among connoisseurs of truly crap cinema, Driscoll’s unhinged fever dream was famously booed off the screen when it played at The Scala’s Splatterfest on 24th February 1990. Heckled and slow-clapped, The Scala’s near riotous audience were miffed at its awfulness and the fact they were watching a movie that was readily available to rent when the rest of the ‘fest was comprised of then-new stuff like Bride of Re-Animator (1990) and The Toxic Avenger Part II (1989). Indeed, so dismal was The Comic’s reception that an on-stage Q&A with Driscoll was scrapped and the Driscoll-produced Dennis Nilsen biopic, Cold Light of Day (1989), which was also due to show, was swiftly pulled and replaced with an impromptu running of an old faithful, Evil Dead 2 (1987), in an attempt to restore order.

It’s a neat anecdote, admittedly. And yes, The Comic, as with the rest of Driscoll’s oeuvre, is achingly dreadful by any conventional metric. It’s shoddily paced, haphazardly structured, and about as much fun as being waterboarded — but there is a certain sense of vision and personality to it. It has a vibe and a swirling, dizzying charisma that’s really quite seductive in its own car crash of a way. Moreover, I find it extremely difficult to accept that the Splatterfest crowd — a group of people who, on the same day, had lapped up the UK premieres of John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986), Buddy Giovinazzo’s Combat Shock (1986), and Adam Simon’s Twilight Zone-indebted potboiler Brain Dead (1990) — didn’t realise that The Comic, irrespective of its many, many flaws, was the perfect supporting feature for them, what with it sharing similar themes and ideas in its depiction of madness, murder, and nihilistic rage.

Mounted with seed money that Driscoll obtained privately (apparently, Driscoll tapped up a Welsh mining company and a few local dentists to get the film going), and completed with a lumper from ABC when its production teetered close to collapsing, The Comic was primarily shot in an old aircraft hanger in Cardiff with a couple of sequences lensed on sets leftover from Freddie Francis’ The Doctor and the Devils (1985). Set in a nocturnal netherworld in a fascist-controlled future-shock Britain, it tells the story of ginger-nut comedian Sam Coex (a bewildering and indescribable turn from Steve Munroe [3]) as he navigates the country’s nightmarish club scene; an endless, pink-and-red hued hellscape full of anonymous faces who literally laugh at any old bollocks to escape the misery of their Orwellian existence. And that’s it. Things happen — Coex kills a rival, is haunted by guilt, and gets a smack-addled girlfriend — but they’re irrelevant. You’d drive yourself as crazy as Coex gets trying to decipher the nuances of Driscoll’s garbled plot and what on Earth it means. If you ask me, The Comic is either a poorly-penned and shonkily executed poke at Thatcherism or Driscoll simply doing an excruciatingly cheap, petrol station forecourt version of Erasherhead (1977), ladelling on the strangeness for strangeness’ sake and vanishing up his own arse in the process. 

And yet… It’s magnetic. You can’t take your eyes off it. What I love is the sincerity: as obscenely pretentious and as shamelessly derivative of Lynch — of Terry Gilliam, of Donald Cammell — as The Comic is, it feels genuine, as if Driscoll honestly believes he’s created a tremendous piece of art. His dialogue is ear-stinging, but it has an atonal rhythm that fits Driscoll’s total lack of technical proficiency, the sheer ineptitude a vital part of The Comic’s berserk tapestry of blunt cuts; bowel-churning electronic score cues; and jagged visuals — the latter of which are achieved through neophyte cinematographer Alan M. Trow’s gaudy lighting, and his emphysema-inducing use of a smoke machine. But the big surprise is the relatable human element to the film. Driscoll isn’t a capable dramatist by any stretch of the imagination, but he does manage to make a fairly salient point on the destructive impact trauma has upon the mind and spirit, particularly when it’s imposed by organisations and those in positions of power, be it the state or those higher up the social or economic ladder. 

It’s a notion Driscoll would probe further in SILENT HEROES (or, per ABC’s sleeve, ‘Silent Heroes: The Film’). Shot on video in and around Wales for less than a pack of cigarettes, this micro-budget backyard epic can’t be faulted for its ambition. It’s a sprawling (read: wildly unfocused) tale of political intrigue, bloodthirsty combat, and grim introspection that unfolds against the backdrop of the Falklands War. As with The Comic, the intricacies of Silent Heroes’ ‘narrative’ are redundant and nonsensical: the film’s main thrust seems to be two interconnected strands involving plummy journalist James Hamond (Martin Aylott) as he rails against a shady politician (Cold Light of Day’s Bob Flag — a Driscoll semi-regular best known as the face of Big Brother in Michael Radford’s 1984 (1984)), and conducts a series of soul-searching interviews with a hospitalised soldier called Hardcastle (Robert Wilford), who is 100% not a barely disguised avatar of real-life Falklands hero Simon Weston. So what if Hardcastle was in the Welsh Guard and was horrifically burnt in the Bluff Cove Air Attacks? Did you not see Driscoll’s disclaimer? It’s a coincidence. Pure coincidence! 

Despite Driscoll’s typically useless writing, there’s a lot to admire in Silent Heroes. Aylott and Wilford do what they can with the lame material and, amazingly, shape Driscoll’s linguistic diarrhoea into sentences that don’t sound like they’ve been scribbled by a person with no grasp of the English language. Covered in Chris Tucker’s Play-Doh make-up FX, Wilford’s performance is a mite am-dram but nonetheless pretty good. His disillusioned and disfigured grunt simmers with a quiet fury as he comes to terms with what a life of following orders and putting blind faith into The System has reduced him to. His anger and upset is palpable. 

Again, like The Comic, ultimately, Silent Heroes is an exploration of trauma, and its strongest suit are the passages that burrow deep into Hardcastle’s fractured psyche. Ignore the stupid conspiracy claptrap, hackneyed editing, and non-existent production values. Driscoll’s battle scenes might be (I’m guessing) friends and family sprinting across random, junk-slathered fields in military fatigues, carrying pop-guns and surrounded by firework-y explosions, but they exude a grit and rawness that transcends the film’s budgetary limitations — especially when Dicky-boy overlaps them with actual Falklands stock footage in Silent Heroes’ numerous eerie montages, as well-used snippets of Ronald Dunn’s The Comic score throb on the soundtrack. True, the anti-war sentiment is contradicted by the lurid exploitation elements of grue, gore, and an ill-fitting splash of T&A; and double true that Driscoll’s dive into flagrant Apocalypse Now (1979) territory with the po-faced philosophising of a bald, Brando-aping defector is the sort of obnoxious plagiarism that’ll have you screaming at your television in disgust. But the half of Silent Heroes that’s more Johnny Got His Gun (1971) than a ramshackle British answer to an American-style Vietnam flick — it’s kinda cool. Seriously. 

[1] You guessed it: me and my Schlock Pit compadre, Dave Wain, are providing notes and narration duties on a forthcoming US disc of Eyres’ Lucifer. Details soon!
[2] ‘Like an Opera Version of Tosca: The Ballad of Richard Driscoll’ by M.J. Simpson, The Dark Side, Issue 173.
[3] Munroe semi-reprised the role, sans orange dye-job, for a Saw (2004)-esque vignette in Driscoll’s appalling, Linnea Quigley-hosted portmanteau, Grindhouse 2wo (2016), which also utilised clips from The Comic.

ABC Films VHS art provided by videocollector.co.uk

Special thanks to M.J. Simpson

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