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O Lucky Man! (1973)

Once upon a time… there was a film which some reckoned classed as borderline horror. It starred Malcolm McDowell, playing a character not a million miles away from Alex in A Clockwork Orange, it included a host of British horror regulars (Arthur Lowe, Brian Glover, Warren Clarke), and it formed the middle section of a well-regarded threesome of films by director Lindsey Anderson - the first being the surreal not-horror film If… and the third being the definite horror film Britannia Hospital.

But is O Lucky Man horror? Traditionally, its borderline entry on the fringes of the genre is solely down to one scene - when our "hero", trapped in a strange hospital in the middle of nowhere, whips the bedclothes off a whimpering inmate to find that his head has been sown onto the body of a pig. This is a genuine horror moment, but one horror moment does not a horror film make.

O Lucky Man is a huge, rambling, mess of a picture, following the trials and tribulations of Michael Travis (McDowell) as he makes his way through life, going from wide-eyed trainee coffee salesman to framed tycoon to wide-eyed and hopelessly naive philanthropist. Every so often the story stops and Alan Price and his band give us a song vaguely connected to what we've just seen (or are about to see), including the reasonably famous (and screamingly 70s) Everyone Is Going Through Changes. During his journey, Travis keeps meeting the same people (or actors playing different parts), shags lots of middle-aged women and learns a thing or two about life (which, frankly, the audience doesn't). It really is quite a lot like A Clockwork Orange, without the old ultra violence and lovely Ludwig Van. But it's also a collection of strange little unconnected (apart from the attendance of Travis in them) vignettes - including a fair amount of nastiness, nihilism and surrealism - which, if they don't qualify it as a horror film per se, do at least make it a film which crops up in many of the "can you tell me what film this scene was in" e-mails I receive. So here's a brief overview of the film, with the horror-ish moments described.

As already explained, Travis starts off as a worker in a coffee factory, where, through a stroke of luck, he gets promoted to salesman for the North East. As he drives around he's overtaken by a flashy red sports car, which immediately crashes. As he investigated the bloody aftermath, two policemen arrive, shooing him off with a quick "On your way, sonny… unless you want booking for manslaughter…"

After a brief scene in a strip club ("chocolate sandwich!"), Travis gets given Scotland to sell in as well, but he gets lost on the way and ends up on government property, where he's arrested, strapped into a chair and tortured. Despite protesting that he hasn't done anything, he signs a confession - at which point klaxons go off and everyone fless the building. He's released by the tea lady (the marvellously unconcerned Dandy Nichols of Til Death Us Do Part), and just manages to get clear before the place explodes.

Wandering a post-apocalyptic wasteland, he eventually comes across a church, where he's forbidden to eat the produce stacked up for harvest festival ("No, not that… that's produce. It's for God") but allowed to suckle on a pregnant woman's breast.

He's then shown the way back home by some children.

But on the way he's picked up by a huge Rolls-Royce and taken to a clinic run by Professor Miller (Graham Crowden), where he's told he can earn some cash by taking part in scientific research. "I have a mongol here who can't tie his own shoelaces," the Professor explains. "By the end of this summer he'll be a contract bridge champion!"

"But what will happen to me?" asks Travis. "Will I come out the same as I went in?"

"Not the same," comes the chilling reply. "Better."

It's at this point he comes across the unfortunate man/pig hybrid ("How much are they paying you?") and Travis decides that his hard fought-for £40 fee isn't really enough.

Making a break for it he gets picked up by Alan's band, and a shockingly young Helen Mirren (which at least means he finally gets to sleep with a decent-looking woman). Mirren's father is Sir James (Ralph Richardson), a huge business magnate, and Travis uses his relationship with her to inveigle his way into the man's office. Whilst there he watches a wronged man (Crowden again) take a dive from the office window, pulling Sir James' assistant with him, and finds himself with a new job.

After becoming party to some extremely terrifying business practices (Sir James wants to destabilise an African country so he can exploit it - and kill thousands with his new napalm-like weapon, called "Honey" - possibly the most horrific moment within the film, mainly because it's probably not that far from the truth), Travis finds himself stitched up like the proverbial kipper and slammed up in Pentonville.

Released after being a model prisoner, Travis is back on the streets - but has lost his guile. He is stolen from as he discusses charity with the Salvation Army, beaten up by tramps he attempts to feed, and nearly dies trying to rescue a suicidal woman no-one else cares about.

Eventually (and surreally) the film ends with a Pop Idol-style talent contest, Travis being picked out of the crowd to become famous, but as he is photographed, asks: "What's there to smile about?"

What indeed? The parallels with Kubrick's droog-athon (even discounting McDowell's presence) are certainly there, but the horror credentials are few and far between. I'll be as infuriatingly enigmatic as the film, then, and leave any decisions up to you…

Last updated: February 25, 2010

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O Lucky Man

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