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Chiller and shocker on DVDs

28 August 2015

by Stephen Brown


IN 1953, The Yellow Balloon, a film on the Cain and Abel theme (Genesis 4), was thought to merit an “X” certificate. Studio Canal’s new digitally restored DVD release, now Cert. PG, provides an opportunity to consider how this tale continues to speak to our condition.

The boy Frankie (Andrew Ray) lives with his parents in London, which is slowly recovering from Hitler’s bombs. Even as far west as Chelsea, whole streets have been reduced to rubble. Frankie’s father, Ted (Kenneth More), exudes some hope, though mainly whistles in the dark to keep everyone’s courage up. Ronnie (Stephen Fenemore), who knocks around with Frankie, seems to be more affluent, able to pay fo a yellow balloon without too much difficulty. Impoverished Ted generously stumps up a hard-earned sixpence for his son.

When Frankie, going to buy his balloon, loses the money down a drain after a (far-from-convincing) fall, he snatches Ronnie’s away, runs off, and is hotly pursued. The chase ends in a fatal accident, witnessed by Len (William Sylvester), a criminal on the make.

Len puts the mark of Cain on Frankie by blaming him for Ronnie’s death. Frankie’s fear of being caught for the great sin that he believes he has committed enables Len to groom him for a life of crime. Guilt crouches at every door. At Sunday school, the topic is Cain and Abel. Frankie hears how God, though angry with Cain, protects him. The problem for this wide-eyed innocent is to discern his true protector, beguiled as he is by Len.

In whom do we put our trust, especially if we believe that we are fixed in an indelibly shameful identity? It can take a lifetime’s wanderings to know who we are and recognise by whose authority we stake our claim. The Yellow Balloon brings this sharply into focus. The Tube chase is still one of the most thrilling of endings.

This is due not least to J. Lee-Thompson’s direction. He was to return to the theme of innocent but vulnerable children in Tiger Bay and the original version of Cape Fear. In the Frankie figure here, however, Lee-Thompson most clearly shows that, but for saving grace, our tendency is to take on the mark of Cain, think the worst of ourselves, and be too eager to believe mere mortals’ definitions of us.


THE CALLING (Cert. 15), also on DVD (Sony Pictures), is not so much a whodunnit as a whydidhe. We are told fairly soon that the serial killer is Simon Peter (played by Christopher Heyerdahl), a Roman Catholic faith-healing mystic. It is a rather positive twist on the mass-murderer genre.

This gentle, likeable person always gives his terminally ill victims a choice. He can, if they so wish, speed their way to heaven. But his methods remain his own choice and are excessively gruesome. Severed heads and ripped-out stomachs feature; but more distinctively their mouths have been manipulated, after death, to spell a Latin word with religious connotations. It is not exactly the snowy wastelands of the Coen Brothers’ Fargo meeting the deadly sinners of Se7en, much as you suspect it would like to be.

Hazel Micallef (Susan Sarandon) is the detective on the case. In sleepy Fort Dundas, Ontario, she views the world through Scotch-coloured glasses, mugs, and cups. You could argue that this series of grisly murders is a wake-up call for her — a stimulant that isn’t bottle-shaped. Micallef and her colleagues are bright enough to spot that there is a religious, or at least ritualistic, dimension to the murders.

This is where Father Price (Donald Sutherland) comes in handy — twice — to explain the plot. Sutherland performed a similar service in the Kennedy conspiracy movie JFK, but with more accuracy than his professor of linguistics here. You know that Explanation No. 1 is going to be dodgy when he starts by telling Hazel that the Bible as we know it was “composed” around AD 400. Then he speaks of an ancient oral tradition requiring twelve disciples willing to sacrifice themselves so that one can be “set free”, meaning resurrection. Later, he colludes with Simon Peter’s lethal mission, informing us that God requires these sacrifices for forgiveness to ensue.

Theological quibbles aside, does the film stack up either emotionally or as an above-average thriller? Certainly, there are shock moments, but in between not even the efforts of a talented cast can pump life into it. Its finale has elements of films that the first-time director Jason Stone probably grew up knowing, such as the noirish Kluteor even The Silence of the Lambs. Not bad examples for him to emulate. Next time, perhaps.

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