A smack in the face for Liz

IN A week of films such as these, you can always spot the film critic around the office. He's the one clutching his hair in his fists, and sobbing quietly that what he really wanted to do all along was review restaurants.

But first, the burning question. Elizabeth Hurley, what is she really like? Despite her first major film role, in Mad Dogs and Englishmen (18), it is still virtually impossible to tell. The blitz of safety-pin dresses, schmoozing in Hollywood, stepping out with Hugh Grant and so on, has fixed her surface personality so largely in the public mind that it is hard to find anything below it.

In fact there are moments when she looks alarmingly like Grant. She shares with him that slight, brief rictus of the mouth which suggests a rueful embarrassment, but which is probably the closest either of them comes to expressing contempt. And there is also the faint hesitancy of speech, a tic common to their class.

The other problem is that in a film as bad as this, it is unfair to judge any performance. Even a seasoned trouper like Joss Ackland looks like a loony old ham. It is directed by one Henry Cole, who claims to be a reformed drug addict, albeit one from the right side of the tracks. And upper-middle-class drug-taking is mostly what the film is about. I lost count of the number of times that Hurley is seen smoking heroin, but it must have been upwards of a dozen. At least I think that is what she was doing. The business involves holding a lighter under a sheet of foil with some powder on it, and then sucking up the smoke through a tube made from more foil. (Readers with more street-cred than me will no doubt write in to say she is chasing a dragon or somesuch.)

Then she always drags greedily on a cigarette, which seems to give her much more pleasure. After a while you suspect that she'd be better off in an advertisement, out on the range as Marlboro woman. She certainly has the ability to survive a rape at the hands of a maddened policeman, be knocked on the back of the head, thrown into the Thames and then pop up in the next scene with her maquillage intact.

Ackland plays a copper who is out to nail the frightful crowd of Sloaney ne'er-do-wells in which she mixes. Unfortunately he is too often sidetracked by incestuous feelings for his own daughter, who has also fallen in with this shower and some colourful low-life. The low-life have names like Spider, or maybe it was Nucksie, I forget. They are the sort of low-life who make Dixon of Dock Green look like a model of social realism.

There is also C Thomas Howell, as an unlikely motorbike messenger. He seems to be broom-brooming through the film for much the same reasons as Andie MacDowell appeared in Four Weddings and a Funeral: to suggest that emotionally stunted Brits need a little American sexiness to sort them out. And of course to pro- vide a little pull at the American box office.

Do you wish to know just how bad this film is? How long have you got? Suffice to say that it is shot with all the panache of a 20-year-old commercial for an Indian restaurant, and has the sort of dialogue which makes an audience of hardened critics first titter, then cringe. The sole moment of interest came from Jeremy Brett as the aristo swine in charge of the drug orgies. When the police finally burst in, he waves a languid arm and says, "Arrest them all, they are beginning to bore me."

Tales From The Crypt: Demon Knight (18) is an altogether better prospect. A campy gore-fest taken from the popular US television series based on the 1950s EC Horror comics of the same name, it boasts Walter Hill, Joel Silver and Robert Zemeckis among its producers, and quotes liberally from many of their better action pictures. The opening sequence, in which a terrified driver (William Sadler) is pursued by twin lights in his rear-view mirror, conjures up happy memories of Night of the Demon.

This wandering knight takes refuge with a motley crew in a hotel which just happens to be a deconsecrated church. Demons - led by a flamboyant devil (Billy Zane) with a nice line in comic asides - lay siege in a manner which would have done credit to Assault on Precinct 13. There is a lot of pleasantly hokey stuff about a holy key filled with the blood of Christ, which the demons cannot get past. And a lot of other stuff with pump shotguns, which are always a great pleasure. A black actress with the terrific name of C C H Pounder gets her arm ripped off by the nimble little fiends, but carries on as if nothing had happened.

Good horror films are thin on the ground right now; this one will do nicely. The censor in his infinite wisdom has given it an 18 certificate, which signally demonstrates his judgement of film. Eighteen-year-olds will be bored, but it is just the sort of film with which 12-year-olds love to scare themselves witless. Me too.

Somebody to Love (18) has an impressive cast list which includes the ubiquitous Harvey Keitel, and all those other people like Steve Buscemi and Eddie Bunker who were the men in black suits in Reservoir Dogs with names like Mr Pink and Mr Orange. Tarantino himself even turns up, doing his usual geek act, though mercifully brief. But they can't save this wan little film, which is about a spunky Latino girl called Mercedes, played by Rosie Perez with an accent that carves its initials on your eardrum. A young illegal immigrant (Michael DeLorenzo) falls madly for her, gets "Mercedes" tattooed on his chest, and does foolish things for the Mob to get her some money. It all ends badly.

Finally an advance warning that Nana (no cert), a rare silent film of Zola's novel about the Parisian courtesan, made by the great Jean Renoir in 1922, will play at The Institut Francais on 21 June, with an excellent musical accompaniment from the Ensemble Flexus. It's one of Renoir's earliest films, but already there are signs of his love of theatricality, and his understanding of the myriad reasons of the heart, of which reason knows nothing.

Cinema listings: see Review, page 82.

Quentin Curtis is on holiday.