Thursday, 24 September 2020

Fortunes Of Captain Blood



Iron Pirate

Fortunes Of Captain Blood
USA 1950 Directed by Gordon Douglas
Columbia DVD Region 2


Okay, so this will probably turn out to be a fairly short review.

This is a film I watched with somebody on their birthday, sourced from a Spanish DVD but in the original English... well... American English at any rate. It’s the first of two movies made by Louis Hayward, top lining him as the title character of Rafael Sabatini’s Captain Blood novels. Now I can’t remember if I saw the much more famous Errol Flynn iteration of the character but, if I did, the last time I saw that would have been when I was less than six years old, I reckon and I have no real recollection of it nor, indeed, much knowledge of the character at all.

Now, as pirate films go, this is really not up there with the best of them. That being said, I do quite like Louis Hayward as an actor and it’s certainly not as bad as some modern pirate films I’ve seen in recent years.

Shot in black and white, Fortunes Of Captain Blood doesn’t really have much of a plot to it, in all honesty. That is to say, not a very complex one at least. Starting off with Captain Blood going to an island for supplies, some of his men are ambushed and held to be sold into slavery by an officer of the navy who has been commissioned to catch Captain Blood and rid the seas of him. Blood goes to the island where his six men are being held and, for the rest of the movie, negotiates his way... sometimes with a sword... to finding a way to free his men from the jail. This involves befriending a pretty woman played by Dona Drake, acquainting himself with a prison warder and getting him drunk and then getting into various bits of trouble and banter, all the while posing as a local fruit seller and falling in love with the richest lady on the island, Isabelita Sotomayor, played by Patricia Medina, an actress who has been in loads of things over the years and has quite striking eyes.

When his carefully laid plan goes a little wrong towards the end of the picture, the usual pirate movie things happen such as sword fighting, spiking the cannons and sacrificing his ship, The Avenger, to switch and take over the opposition’s vessel while they are busy trying to accept a surrender on the now empty vessel etc. And, although a lot of the film is more about delivering semi-sparkling, sometimes quite witty but sometimes quite hum-drum dialogue, the pacing is such that the film is livelier than it probably should be and Hayward is quite thoughtful in his acting, with the inner workings of his characters mind easily perceived on his features, even when he’s not wagging his lips at any enemy or ally who happens to be passing.

The man in the director’s chair on this one and, probably, the other reason why the pacing on a mainly 'talky' picture is a little lighter and fluffier than one might expect, is Gordon Douglas. Douglas, of course, directed many movies in his career, pretty much all of them notable for nobody really taking note of who the director was. However, this particular run of the mill director has some notable classics in his CV, as far as this audience member is concerned, such as the giant ant movie Them!, In Like Flint, Rio Conchos (reviewed by me here), Tony Rome and also its sequel, Lady In Cement. Once again, I couldn’t pick up on any directorial signatures from Gordon here but the whole thing is put together, mostly, competently with some good model work done (in places).

One thing I didn’t expect to see in a film from 1950 was blood... I mean, apart from the name of the title character, that is. This feels almost too early as even pre-code films didn’t feature that much blood in them and, although the inclusion of the red stuff... erm... black stuff in the case of this monochromatic motion picture... was totally new to films following the introduction of the Hayes code, I do find it strange that a film which has swordplay of the usual sort of a film from this time, where the hero can just run someone through with his blade and they will clasp their bloodless torso and fall over, has anything stronger. But there you have it, there are two instances here where actual fake blood is used. The first time is when Louis Hayward removes a musket ball from the wound of one of the characters and the ball and blood are clearly seen as he disposes of it and the other occurrence in the film is when somebody fires their pistol at one of Blood’s men and it misses its target but puts a bloody crease in the cheek of the intended victim. I really wasn’t expecting this but, thinking back now to my viewing a few years back of Rio Conchos by the same director, maybe it’s something I perhaps should have been on the look out for as these gory details seem almost unnecessary in context of the rest of the action and maybe this hints at a glimpse of directorial signature after all?

And that’s mostly all I have to say on the subject of Fortunes Of Captain Blood. I can’t tell you how well it measures up to the original 1936 novel, The Fortunes Of Captain Blood, but I can say that it’s well acted, less sluggish than one could expect from the somewhat tired script and it also has a surprisingly rousing score by Paul Sawtell,  someone who I usually associate with much less flamboyant scores than what he’s provided here. So, if you are a fan of either Louis Hayward or, indeed, one of Sabatini’s more well known characters, then you might want to give this one a look. It’s no The Crimson Pirate but it’s a nicely executed affair which makes for reasonable ‘afternoon viewing’. Maybe check this one out if you have nothing better on.

Tuesday, 22 September 2020

Shed Of The Dead



Dawn Of The Shed

Shed Of The Dead
UK 2019 Directed by Drew Cullingham
7DM Studios


Warning: Some spoilers.

Zombie movies seem to come and go with an alarming and ever increasing frequency over the decades since George A. Romero (whose image makes a posthumous cameo as a cartoon figure in the opening titles here) reinvented and popularised the genre back in 1968 with Night Of The Living Dead. I think the reason why zombie films and the majority of horror films made these days are so predominant in the modern cinematic landscape is because they're relatively cheap to shoot and, quite often, have more of a shot at turning a profit on their budget. So, yeah, Shed Of The Dead is another relatively low budget zombie movie which tries to sink or swim with all the rest of them.

Now, I will go on record straight away and say... this is not a terrible movie. It’s well made and it’s got a lot going for it. I think, from my personal point of view, the worst I can really say about it is that it’s just not to my taste. And you have to factor in that I’ve only seen, maybe 50 - 90 zombie movies in my life, so I’m hardly an expert on these things. I think this one may split people though, not because of the way in which it lives and dies by the necessary genre clichés of all the other zombie films made these days... but because of the tone of the writing.

Okay... so the plot is that Trevor (played by Spencer Brown) practically lives in the shed on his dishevelled and untended allotment. His prime activity, since he’s unemployed, is to distil homemade vodka and paint up his role playing game figures. Indeed, the pre-credits sequence of the film is the conclusion of a campaign rendered mostly as static drawings with slightly animated sections and a wonderfully enthusiastic voice-over commentary by Brian Blessed. He plays a Dungeon & Dragons flavoured military table top style game with his best friend Graham (played by Ewen MacIntosh) and suffers the constant nagging of his wife Bobbi (played by Lauren Socha), who has a beauty parlour under the ‘office’ of her sex worker friend Harriet (played by the always watchable Emily Booth). Then he gets into an argument with a guy in the allotment who accidentally falls back onto his own pitchfork which goes through his face and kills him. Trevor, quite stupidly, saws his legs off so he can bury him but, luckily for him... before he can be accused of a murder, the zombie apocalypse happens... although he does have a bit of trouble disposing of the very animate, legless corpse for a bit. Of course, as in the majority of the movies in this genre, there is no explanation given for the sudden zombie infestation and, frankly, none needed.

So there’s the set up. It’s got potential I think and at least some of the writing isn’t too bad. The performances are all excellent and, in addition to those four main cast, there are a wealth of good and known actors from the genre joining them, including Michael Berryman (as Harriet’s favourite client), Kane Hodder and Bill Moseley. And they and, pretty much everyone in this, are firing on all cylinders giving some nice performances.

The film is... well... it’s very English and the humour (it’s a zombie comedy, for sure) is probably not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. Personally, I found the dialogue and characterisations to be a little bit caustic and grittier than I would have liked. While the fact that some of the characters felt like they’d just stepped out of a Mike Leigh movie would normally be a huge compliment, I just found the language and crudity of certain characters a bit much and, for this kind of film, a little unnecessary (yeah, you probably won’t hear me leveling that complaint at a film very often, for sure).

That being said, there were some nice moments of humour and the goriness which, post-1968, have become a staple ingredient of the genre, certainly didn’t feel too cheap. And, of course, certain of the very UK oriented bits of humour did bring a smile. Like the fact that everybody knows that one of the allotment plot keepers is a serial killer who routinely buries the bodies there but, you know, nobody really cares enough to tell the police or anything and are just happier minding their own business. Very British.

There are some nice one liners in Shed Of The Dead too and, frankly, seeing Emmy Booth dressed as a dominatrix in one scene is certainly worth the price of admission to this kind of an affair. I do feel like I’m in the middle of the road on this one, much to my regret. I didn’t love it but, at the same time, I certainly can’t condemn it because it’s too well made and some of the characters made me smile on occasion. Although they were a bit dumb in a lot of cases, especially when the main weakness of the zombies is made known to one of the characters and used as a joke early on in the film... and then totally ignored, never to be revisited again in the course of the running time. It’s not exactly frightening or suspenseful but, then again, this kind of comedic zombie carnage movie rarely is intended to be, to be fair. And that’s about as much as I can say about it. Not a hit or a miss for me. I wouldn’t recommend it but then, I wouldn’t tell anyone who is into zombie films not to watch it either. Just not something which pushes my buttons in any major way. This might have done better if it had premiered at FrightFest, I suspect.

Sunday, 20 September 2020

Hope Lost

Lost Girls

Hope Lost
Italy 2015
Directed by David Petrucci
Bulldog Film Distribution Region 2


Hope Lost is one of eleven films given away as freebies at the 2016 Frightfest weekend. It wasn’t a film I was particularly interested in seeing, or had even heard of to tell the truth but I figured these free films were either hidden, under marketed gems or just bad movies nobody wanted to see. Well, this one is certainly no hidden gem but it would be wrong to call it a truly bad movie, I think. To be fair though, I’m not sure I’d want to sit through it again and I can’t really understand the appeal of it myself.

As I said, I’d not heard of the film so I looked it up on YouTube and watched the trailer... which in some ways made me want to watch it even less. From the promo it looked like a really terrible 1980s style grubby American sex thriller which should never have been made... which is not quite accurate to the content and style of the movie. It did nothing to endear me to the idea of watching the film but it did have a cast of known actors in it... Mischa Barton, Danny Trejo, Michael Madsen and Danny Baldwin are perhaps the best known here... and as my regular readers may have figured out by now, I can’t resist watching free stuff.

So, I sat down to watch it and instead found myself watching a really beautifully shot simulacrum of... a grubby American 1980s sexploitation flick... minus any real sex or nudity to speak of and with a very edgy look at the world of human sex trafficking which teases extreme violence and degradation without actually delivering any.

Francesca Agostini plays Sofia, a young girl who is tricked by an Italian film producer into a life of prostitution midst threats of mutilation, death and blackmail until she’s paid back his debt to Michael Madsen’s pimp/druglord/snuff film producer Manol. The film follows her somewhat repetitive and dull exploits as she tries to work off the ‘debt’ or secure freedom for her and her friend Alina, played by Mischa Barton. It’s a grim trajectory and the film is, frankly, a bit flat and boring apart from in the moments where it teases into getting really nasty or explores the back story of Sofia’s lesbian client Eva, played by Alessia Navarro, who slowly falls in love with Sofia while trying to work through her own acute mental problems brought on by her former life of being a torturer/interrogator in the army.

The film plays out in this kind of pattern... Sofia goes with a client. Sofia gets tricked by a fake client to see she is doing her job right and gets herself in trouble. Repeat this pattern a few times and you eventually get to a set piece where the two girls are taking a starring role in a snuff movie while ex-soldier lesbian Eva tries to track them down and rescue them... with not all that expected consequences, as it turns out.

Now, bearing in mind this is a UK release and the British Board of Film Classification (Censors) hate sexualised violence, the clue as to whether this film goes far enough to tell its story is in the rating. It’s got an 18 rating (personally I think a 15 would have been plenty because, you really don’t see much of anything going on) and it even says there is 'sexual violence' as a warning. However, sexual violence is almost always sliced out of any feature films or TV here and the fact that, according to the BBFC website, the film was passed with 'no cuts made', says everything about the extremes that this film doesn’t go to. Not that I would really have wanted to see it come to that especially but one of the main problems in this film, which is filled with good actors and a fairly mediocre script, is that it teases stuff it absolutely refuses to show. Everything seems tastefully done and it feels like it’s been self censored to the point where the writers should maybe think about trying to do something else other than what they seem to be trying to achieve here... which is to paint an effectively grim portrayal of the illegal sex trafficking trade. However, ‘effectively’ is not a word I’d use in the case of this film.

As I said, though, the actors are all fine and there’s some truly great cinematography in the film. Starting off during the credits sequence we see a slice of Sofia’s day at a busy clothing factory which is then juxtaposed with shots of the rural outdoors as she walks home. As we see her go to pick up her younger brother from school, a nice shot of vertical railing bars is blurred out so we can concentrate on her progress. It’s all very nice and it feels somewhat Italian in the devotion to giving the audience nicely composed shots throughout the film. It just seems somewhat too good for a film about this particular subject matter... at least with the script it has here.

And I’m sorry this is such a short review but there’s really not much more I can think to say about this one. It’s a bit like looking at a band wagon ‘torture porn’ genre movie, you know the kind which were so popular at the cinema about ten or so years ago? Not really my cup of tea and I’m not exactly an expert in this genre but shouldn’t a torture porn movie at least have some torture and porn in it? There are attempts here but everything is glossed over so lightly it’s like token scenes to just join the dots of a less than interesting screenplay, in all honesty. So, yes, Hope Lost is not for me and I certainly won’t be recommending it to anyone I know. However, I am grateful to have watched this one because, as the saying goes, you can’t appreciate the really good films if you haven’t seen some not so good ones too.

Friday, 18 September 2020

Lamia

 
The Snake’s Progress

Lamia
by Tristan Travis
Andre Deutsch
ISBN: 023397508X


Warning: If you want to read this gripping tale
of horror and police procedure then please be
warned that the following review will contain spoilers.


I don’t know who Tristan Travis is. Nor do I know who R. Keating Bolen is, whose name rests in the copyright notice of this book. Presumably the first is a pseudonym of the other but, since I can find no other claims to fame for either of them, it kind of begs the question why someone would want to use a nom de plume anyway. This writer is a complete puzzle to me.

All I know for sure about him is that in 1983 he wrote a truly great novel called Lamia and, when the paperback came out a year later and caught the eye of this 16 year old teenager, I was so taken with the cover and blurb that I bought a copy and read it. And then, within the space of a few years, I read it at least a couple more times. It was a well thumbed paperback and even though I was going through the usual, excessive period teenage boys tend to go through when it comes to devouring trashy and not so trashy horror novels by the gallon... this was a time when I was discovering the likes of Stephen King, James Herbert, Dean R. Koontz, Guy N. Smith, Shaun Hutson, John Halkin and John Farris... I still found time to revisit this epic doorstop of a novel at least twice more after the initial read through. Guess I must have really liked it.

Moving on to around ten years ago, I was on holiday and looking through a second hand book stall at some kind of small National Trust property when I came across this beautiful hardback, UK first edition of the novel. It had a slightly different cover in that the title character pictured didn’t have the forked tongue sliding out of her mouth but it was only £2 and I figured, well this would be a really nice edition to hold on to one day, if I ever looked to revisit it. So here we are, bang up to date... I revisited it. And I was not disappointed.

The book, set in 1967, has two main protagonists... black cop John Valjohn (which I can only assume is some kind of reference to Jean Valjean from Les Miserables although, I honestly couldn’t see the metaphor) and nurse Crescent Eisabeth O’ Leary (once Libby for short, after her middle name and possibly also as an oblique reference to Libya in the legacy of the title creature). The two characters are extremely interesting and, like pretty much every character in the novel, very well written and thoroughly explored. Honestly, even if a character is only there to be ‘Lamia-fodder’, you will usually get a few long sequences in the book where the writer puts you right into the head of those characters.

And yes, if you’re still wondering, the Lamia of the title is a variation of the mythical killer snake woman who has run through literature, poetry and art for a gazillion years... in different variations and permutations. This is.. another work which draws on some of the elements of those that the likes of Keats and Coleridge (amongst others) have written about over the centuries. There’s a moment in the novel where Valjohn gets himself clued up about the mythical character which will fill the reader in about some of that stuff but, you could always type the name Lamia into the Wikipedia and see what result you get.

Now Valjohn is going through all the racial problems you might expect from a mulatto on the force in 1967 America but he also holds a kind of minor celebrity with the newspapers because he also makes fine art collages using evidence purloined from the cases he’s working. I’ve never, ever been able to figure out why he’s allowed to do this, mind you but, there you have it. Various things are assembled and painted into a piece in an aesthetically pleasing manner and... as in one chapter... he sometimes looks back at an old piece of work based on one of the murders in the long crime case he is working and it will suddenly help him make a connection or a breakthrough on, what in this novel are called, The Reaper Murders.

Okay, so let me put that on hold for a second and turn to the other big main character, Crescent. She’s drop dead beautiful but, as John finds out when he marries her, unwilling to engage in sexual encounters. This is a big problem for Valjohn and the reasons are hinted at when we glimpse into her back story... and written quite overtly at the same time. That’s because, although Travis (or whoever he is), writes her as a heroine of sorts, he makes no bones in terms of more than hinting that she is, indeed, both the fabled Lamia of the title and also, it would appear, The Reaper. It’s no real surprise, perhaps, that when Valjohn takes her to an art gallery, she becomes fixated on the painting Full-Orbed Moon by Arthur B. Davies (pictured above right).

So, although it’s clear right from the early quarter of the book, even when Travis indulges in writing some lethal red herrings of characters to confuse the plot and give the reader some small doubts, at least, that she could perhaps be considered an antagonist in the novel too... it’s hard not to be on her side because, well... let’s look at the murder scenes...

All the people murdered by The Reaper, who Valjohn finally twigs is female at some point due to secretions from vaginitis, are sleazy murderers, rapists and child molesters who prey on vulnerable women and children. This, of course, also includes the odd ‘non civilian’ or two such as men at the periphery of politics or, you know, fellow police officers. Their bodies are found twisted and splintered with extreme genital mutilations which are sometimes rearranged to show the killer has a sense of humour. And in terms of the sexual angle, well let me quote directly from the novel so you get the picture...

“Though the amount seemed incredible, it was found that in every victim examined, the spermatozoa reservoirs - the vas deferens, the tubules and retia of the testes - were totally depleted. It was as though the body’s ejaculatory mechanism had jammed in the ‘on’ position, as though each man could not stop coming until the entire contents of his gonads were spent. Until there was literally nothing left.”

So, yeah, whatever triggers this response in Crescent... and it’s up to the reader to figure out or judge as to whether she’s aware of the transformations herself... it’s obviously partially triggered by male sexual energy so, yeah, like I said, the character isn’t interested in having sex. At least, not under the usual circumstances.

And as we go through the story, different possibilities and tangents keep spinning off from the case, taking Valjohn into areas which, don’t always add up or have much relevance but certainly are well explored by the writer in a way that reminded me of film makers such as Fellini or Antonioni, where not everything has to lead to the next thing and can be enjoyed as just an episode which is a part of the experience. And, yes, I am comparing Tristan Travis (or Bolen or whoever) to the likes of Fellini because, with this novel, he shows true artistry and vision in his work. This tome is a true epic work and I can’t imagine many people, if they’ve read it, disagreeing with that. It’s more than a novel, it’s an experience and I can’t recommend it enough, I think.

And there are very few writers who could blend pulpy horror tropes, mythical literary characters and a 1960s police procedural story into the convincing, entertaining pot pourri of a book we have here. If I live another ten years, I can tell you, this won’t be the last time I revisit this masterpiece. It’s easily within my top ten favourite novels and you won’t find many, if any, other horror novels in that list (well okay, maybe Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting Of Hill House but, I hold this particular novel in higher regard even than that and it’s a different kettle of fish anyway). Granted, one of the characters does refer to the music of Ennio Morricone as a “...din of exotic whistles and percussion beats” but, with a work of art as assured as this, you can perhaps forgive the writer for misjudging the composer so harshly. Lamia is so much more than just another novel... it’s a phenomenon and, I really don’t know why it’s still so little known.

So, flashback to the mid-1980s. I waited and I waited for the next novel by Tristan Travis to hit the book shop shelves. And then I waited some more. I’m still waiting. None were forthcoming. This is the writer’s only noble tome... at least under that name. And it’s such a shame because it’s a work of sheer genius. I would really like to know why another work just didn’t come along after. Was there some controversy surrounding this writer? Who knows?

Another thing I’ve often wondered is why nobody has ever bought the rights to turn it into a blockbuster film or TV show. I mean, it has action, mystery, horror and intrigue in abundance. It’s quite startlingly entertaining and surely something which would make a truly excellent movie or mini-series. It seems to me like there’s ‘gold in them thar hills’ but nobody wants to actually dig up the obvious fortune. Another mystery. At least to me.

And with that, I’ll say farewell to Lamia for a while. I don’t know why the mythical/historical character has not been used more often in TV or film in general either but, maybe people will start to take notice of her again at some point. Either way, there are still a fair few second hand copies of the novel available in various formats for very cheap prices on the likes of Amazon at the moment. If you read just one 1980s horror novel in your life, make it Lamia, would be my advice.


Wednesday, 16 September 2020

Bill And Ted Face The Music

 
Wyld At Heart

Bill And Ted Face The Music
USA/Canada/Italy 2020 Directed by Dean Parisot
Warner Brothers


Warning: Slight spoilers as to the basic plot set up.

I remember seeing Bill and Ted on the big screen in both Bill And Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey on their release in the late 1980s and early 1990s and... I liked them just fine. Everyone was talking like them, walking like Keanu and directing little air guitar stings at each other. They were... well, you know... most excellent.

Now, when I heard a couple of years ago that both Alex Winter (Bill) and Keanu Reeves (Ted) were trying to get a third movie made, my feelings were mixed. I mean, it was nice that the original actors were involved but I really doubted that they could capture the lightning in a bottle that made both the surprise sleeper hit of the first film and the popular success story of the first sequel worth crossing the road for. I was somehow doubtful, especially when I saw the first critic reviews.

You know what though? A lot of those critic reviews were maybe not getting the whole point of Bill and Ted or... maybe they just hadn’t seen the originals. All I can say is, when I finally saw the new movie, Bill And Ted Face The Music, I was absolutely blown away by, not just how funny and charming it is but, also by the way that it never feels like anything other than a natural continuation of the original material. In fact, I think it might well be my favourite of the three.

The film starts off with a story recap voiced by Bill and Ted’s daughters, Billie and Thea, played by Samara Weaving and Brigette Lundy-Paine, as they remind us, via a clip from each of the first two movies, that they had a band, the Wyld Stallyns... and that their destiny is to write a song that will unite everyone in the future. We then discover that, despite their best efforts, they never did find that song and the band went from bad album to bad album, eventually splitting up when Death left the line up. So... we join Bill and Ted playing their new tune at the wedding of... Missy and Ted’s brother. Yep, that Missy sure gets around and, after a wonderfully convoluted speech explaining the dynamics of Missy in their lives, they play their new tune. I was already smiling by now but when they let loose with their tune... yeah, it’s outrageously not what I was expecting and already the film had more than won me over. And then did it again a scene or two later with a nice reference to the original, brilliant theremin performer Clara Rockmore.

Anyway, things get desperate when, as the two are desperately trying to save their marriages to the medieval princesses in a counselling session, they are interrupted by the daughter of Rufus, the late George Carlin’s character from the first two films, in a new style time machine. His daughter, Kelly, is played absolutely brilliantly by Kristen Schaal and she really does the memory of the character’s father proud. There’s also a nice little posthumous cameo from George Carlin in the early parts of the movie.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, reality starts packing up and the two dudes have only just over an hour to come up with their song and unite the universe before reality folds in on itself and everything goes to pot. Shenanigans ensue involving four sets of time travellers... Bill and Ted keep going a little more into their future to try and steal the song from their future selves, Billie and Thea go through history to put together a super group to perform said song with them, Kelly is kinda running interference to an extent while the fourth time traveller, a death bot sent by her mum to kill Bill and Ted, is hot on their trail.

And that’s all I’m saying about the story content. My one real criticism is that you can see the end twist coming from maybe ten minutes into the movie but, it doesn’t matter because this film is so much fun it’s untrue and, by the time you get there, you kind of want that to be the ending anyway.

All the cast in this are great and even minor characters like the deathbot have an important and, frankly, very funny role to play. Death is back, of course but, there are also some celebrity cameos which, I have to confess... being as old as I am now... I had no idea who they were. That being said, the super group the two girls put together from throughout history... wow. These actors must have had a lot of fun recreating some of these famous musicians but, in the interests of no big spoilers, I really can’t shout out those surprises for you. But I was smiling all over.

It was absolutely great seeing Keanu Reeves, Alex Winter, Amy Stoch (Missy), William Sadler (Death) and Hal Landon Jr. (Ted’s dad) reprising their roles and, honestly, it feels like not a day has gone by. Everyone, including the supporting cast, totally nailed their parts.

And that’s me done on Bill And Ted Face The Music. I don’t know what people were expecting from this but I thought it was both a phenomenally great movie and, well... it just felt so much like a slice out of the same loaf that the previous films drew from. To say the film is ‘most excellent’ would be an understatement, to be sure and I’ll certainly be grabbing a Blu Ray of this thing as soon as it comes out (hopefully in a nice boxed edition, bundled with the previous two, if luck smiles on us). Had a really great time with this one. Pure fun.

Sunday, 13 September 2020

Plastic Galaxy - The Story Of Star Wars Toys



Figuring Things Out

Plastic Galaxy -
The Story Of Star Wars Toys

USA 2014 Directed by  Brian Stillman
X-Ray Films


Plastic Galaxy - The Story Of Star Wars Toys is a documentary which I wasn’t aware of until it caught my eye online while I was searching for something else. Now, I did have a lot of different toys when I was a kid... probably a lot more than most, truth be told... but the original Star Wars figures which, actually, didn’t come out in the UK until quite a way into 1978 and with availability of a lot of those early figures being staggered from month to month, were obviously a huge thing in my life when I was a ten year old, partial to all things Star Wars. So of course I was going to watch this thing.

The documentary starts off with a quick round of talking heads from the majority of the interviewees in the film as collectors and ex-employees of Kenner, the company who put these things out in the US (it was Palitoy who had the licence for the Kenner figures here in the UK) saying just how inspiring these toys were to all the kids and how much they changed the face of the market. This kind of serves as a prologue to the rest of the documentary which, to be fair and like a lot of documentaries, is mostly more talking heads as various interview subjects answer questions which are bundled together into themes.

The film is split then into seven parts and, although not completely creative in the way it’s made as a lot of more modern documentaries of late have been, it’s certainly as entertaining and informative as you would want it to be and, at no point, is anyone less than enthusiastic about their experiences of the time.

Section one, entitled A Long Time Ago... 1976, looks at the toy market prior to Star Wars and, thankfully, mentions that there were at least some franchise toys being dealt with... it highlights specifically the old Mego Planet Of The Apes action figures and also Kenner’s other one shot, pre-Star Wars, tie in toy, the popular action figure series based on the TV show version of the Cyborg novels, The Six Million Dollar Man. It briefly backtracks to 1947 and the birth of Kenner toys and then it talks about how, after all the other toy companies had passed on the right to merchandise this new Star Wars movie, they signed a deal with George Lucas and co just one month before the movie was released. Their mission was to get a few toys, posters etc out in time for six months later with the Christmas market. However, when the employees were taken to a preview screening of the movie, the creative people got fired up... they knew this was a phenomenon and, once the box office figures started coming in, they had to ramp up to get action figures out as quickly as they could.

And, as many fans know, the figures weren’t in shops for Christmas but one of the interviewees here is the very man who came up with the bizarre and fairly successful idea of launching an Early Bird Pledge Set, which was basically a sheet of card which stood up in front of a little plinth and the promise that the people who bought this would be sent the first four figures in a six month window starting February 1978. When you think about it, for the time and when you are facing a Christmas where you’ve not developed your proto-types fast enough to get them out in time, this was a kind of brilliant marketing idea which, frankly and as far as I can see, has now become the norm now when you think of modern day crowd funding and kickstarter marketing.

The second section is called Heroes In Miniature and it looks at the way the figures were designed, sculpted and manufactured. Lots of the collectors have some wild things from early moulds to early concepts and bizarre items which either never went to the marketplace or which, sometimes did but were quickly withdrawn. For example, the lightsabre wielding characters such as Luke Skywalker in that early bird set had slightly different versions of those lightsabres. Everyone probably remembers that the little lever under Luke, Vader and Kenobi’s arms would allow the plastic lightsabre beam to telescope out of their hand but, some versions of those early figures had ‘double telescoping’ sabres, where the thin part could be further pulled and extend out even further from the end. Not too many of those about but, here you can see them.

The next chapter, Designing The Galaxy talks about how Kenner, after the enormous success and expansion of their company due purely to this particular licence, went the extra mile and started making vehicles and play sets to support the figures so the customers could make their own Star Wars universe. It doesn’t mention that the UK Palitoy version of the Death Star was completely different but far superior to the US one... but then again, most if not all of the people talked to here, seem to be either American or Canadian so, maybe that’s not so surprising.

They also talk about the camaraderie and the creative atmosphere at the company, even though the rate at which these things needed to be conceived and finished put a lot of pressure on the staff. There’s some interesting looks here at things which were thought up but never made it to execution. Also, it’s a shame that this documentary is a little too old to know that the Imperial Troop Carrier, which was actually a non-movie toy, made as something else to sell to the kids, finally made it into the real Star Wars universe by appearing in episodes of The Mandalorian (reviewed here).

The fourth chapter, Marketing Imagination looks at the ways the toys were marketed with such things such as voucher schemes and send offs for rare figures etc. I still have all my original figures in the loft and I felt a pang of nostalgia when I saw one of the collectors pull out their ‘send away’ Bobba Fett from the little, white, unmarked box that mine came in when I sent away for it back in 1980/81. Also, we get the guy who photographed the toys for various box shots, packaging and catalogues of the time and it looks at the way these things were lit and composed. One of the photographers even shows us the old camera he used, which would already have been an antique back in the seventies.

Travel Through Hyperspace is a short but sweet look at the way these toys were packaged and sometimes modified for overseas markets such as Japan. Palitoy finally gets a mention here as being the people who came up with the ‘multi-language’ backing card which would have the title of the film in English, French and Spanish all on the same product. Which would be a way you save on the cost of printing in these countries, I guess.

The End Of The Line looks at the way the company had to go from being the ‘small fish in a pond’ to being one of the major players in toys during that period. It then segues into how, when the original trilogy finished in cinemas with the promise that no more would ever be made (that obviously changed at some point), the customers kind of lost interest and the company profits on the line just kinda fizzled out. I remember I had all the figures (still do, in the loft with my Millenium Falcon) up until about the end of the first wave of the Return Of The Jedi figures...and I kinda lost interest for a while too. Seems I wasn’t alone.  Everything was pretty much over by 1986 and then, later on, Hasbro bought out Kenner.

Star Wars Is Forever shows how Hasbro, almost inadvertently with their release of Star Wars Bend ‘Ems figures (I only had DC Bend ‘Ems when I was a kid in the 1970s) allowed them to discover, decades later, that the Star Wars market had revived and how the toys and various variants became popular once again.

And there’s not much to say other than that. Plastic Galaxy - The Story Of Star Wars Toys is only 67 minutes long but it’s a really entertaining movie, particularly if you happened to be around at the time and remember buying and playing with these epic toys. Not sure how younger viewers would react to this but those interested in the history of modern movie merchandising and marketing might find it interesting, for sure. Glad I watched this one... now if only they would release it as a cheap Blu Ray, I could give it some shelf space.

Thursday, 10 September 2020

Scanners


 
Head Pops
And Boom Tricks


Scanners
Canada 1981 Directed by David Cronenberg
Second Sight Blu Ray Zone B


The last and only time I saw Scanners prior to now I would have been about 16, a couple of years past its cinema release date, as a rented VHS cassette from my local off licence (the off licence is still there but... alas... they no longer rent movies). I remember liking it at the time (well, who doesn’t like Cronenberg?) but I remember being a little disappointed in the gore quotient, which I was more into as a kid as opposed to nowadays, I guess. I’ve been meaning to re-watch this for years though because, well, Cronenberg has been a consistently great director throughout his career and I always felt that when I first watched this, I wasn’t looking at the thing properly and appreciating it as much as I should.

Cronenberg himself cites this as one of his most chaotic and problematic films to make because it was rushed into production without a finished script, which he would have to write some of it each morning before trying to deal with whatever set or location they were using etc. I have to say that, looking at this movie now, I would never have known there were any production troubles. It’s an astonishingly good psychokinetic thriller with, despite the year of its release, a real 1970s vibe to it which groups it, in my mind, with the most popular of his earlier works Shivers (reviewed here), Rabid (reviewed here) and The Brood. I’d remembered hardly any of this film when I sat down to watch it but, right from the opening scene, I was drawn right in.

The film starts with the main protagonist, Cameron Vale (played by Stephen Lack) who is depicted as a down and out drifter, entering a mall and eating an absent customer’s food. We see him listening in on an old lady’s thoughts and, before he can control himself, his mind has entered hers and she’s taking a lot of internal damage and having a fit while he is trying to ‘turn off’ his powers, accidentally triggered by her negative thoughts. However, two men who have been watching him, shoot him with a tranquilizing dart and then give chase when he runs. The chase through the mall is quite well done and, though it’s vigorously edited, it’s got some nice, fluid camera motion in it and it feels quite coherent.

When Cameron awakens he is befriended by Dr. Paul Ruth (played by Number Six himself, Patrick McGoohan) who works for a company called CONSEC and who is a specialist in people with powerful psychokinetic abilities such as those possessed by Cameron. These people, in this movie, are called Scanners.

Then comes the films first big and, possibly, most spectacular set piece. When CONSEC try to unveil the existence of Scanners to the public in a live demonstration of mind reading, the subject they pick on from the audience of executives, Darryl Revok (played by everybody’s favourite 1980s US American movie villain Michael Ironside) volunteers and lets the Scanner in the room read him. However, he pushes back with his own, very powerful scanning ability and causes the other man’s head to explode in front of the audience in what, to me, is still an iconic piece of 1980s gory imagery (I think it probably started a bit of a trend). Turns out Revok is a psychic assassin who is trying to recruit Scanners and build a powerful army to, more or less, take over the world (wouldn’t you know it?).

From here on, Cameron is given the job of trying to infiltrate this section of recruited Scanners to find out what’s really going on and kill Revok. He becomes involved, to the extent that anyone in an early Cronenberg film becomes involved with anyone, with another ‘outsider’ Scanner who is at the peripheral of this group called Kim Obrist (played by Jennifer O'Neill, who genre fans might remember from Lucio Fulci’s The Psychic aka Seven Notes In Noir). From here on it’s all thriller shenanigans as various people are ‘scanned up good’ and a bunch of dead bodies is left in Revok’s wake as Cameron tries to both get close to him and also find out who the mysterious traitor is at the heart of CONSEC.

More revelations happen towards the end but it’s a thrilling ride and the usual, lovely Cronenberg’s eye for nicely designed compositions in interestingly lit shots certainly helps things along. For instance, when Dr. Ruth is showing Cameron a video of the young Revok, who has drilled a hole in his own head to let the pressure out... he carries the scar of this like a third eye throughout the film (which, I’m pretty sure is a deliberate reference to the third or inner eye)... there’s some wonderful blue lighting hitting both actors on the left hand side of their faces (or right hand, as we see it). Later on, when Cameron is infiltrating what he thinks is a rival chemical firm headed up by Revok, there’s a nice dirty, pale, yellow wash on some of the shots. There’s another great scene where Cameron gets out of a car near a forest but it’s taken from the other side of a spindly network of tree branches between the camera and the actor... which kind of gives another wash or webbed effect to the shot. It’s all good stuff and, like all Cronenberg films, is always visually interesting.

Another great thing about the film is the sound design, which is awesome and, it’s just as well because it needs to be. After all, for a lot of the time we’re looking at various people thinking at each other... connecting through each other’s nervous system rather than just the head, is how Dr. Ruth puts it. So you are looking at people pulling all sorts of strange and, frankly, orgasmic facial expressions at each other which really wouldn’t have looked out of place on the poster campaign for Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac movies. However, the sounds used on the soundtrack really make the shots work and you can really feel the implied power behind the intent of these moments.

Ditto for a young Howard Shore, who has stuck with writing music for Cronenberg’s movies right through to the present, starting with The Brood. He’s more famous for scores like The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit movies now, perhaps, but he’s worked on most (possibly all) of Cronenberg’s projects since The Brood and Scanners was only his third score. However, it’s like nothing else he’s done, really. A phenomenal, grinding, sometimes brooding, electronic bludgeon of a score which absolutely pushes the sound design and atonalism, too, in certain sections and helps alert the audience anytime something ‘Scannerish’ is about to happen. Decades ago, Silva Screen released a nice CD compilation of three of Cronenberg’s films which included just over 20 mins from this film but I suspect that’s not the full thing and it would be great to get a complete release of this score one day.

There’s some nice conceptual stuff going on with the film too. Computers (with their green screens and lines of code) were all the rage then and there’s a nice scene where Cameron goes into a phone box and scans his way into a computer system with his mind through the phone, as though he’s some kind of organic modem. The director uses some shots here which, to me, felt like they were inspired a little by the cinema of Dario Argento, as he moves the camera through a close up of a prop (probably built oversize and filmed normally, is my guess) for a few POV shots of the electronic insides of some of the equipment that Cameron is ‘mind hacking’ his way through. When things get a little explosive towards the end of this scene, there’s a nice shot of Cameron holding the telephone receiver which has begun to melt and liquify all over his hand like it’s an escaped convict from a Dali painting. There’s some really interesting stuff here.

My understanding is that the final, mental showdown filmed between Cameron and Revok was originally intended to be a lot more... ‘grand guignol’, shall we say... than just the vein popping, bleeding head with arterial spray and eyeball bursting that made it into the final cut and, this is possibly why it felt a little disappointing to me as a youngster... especially when you compare it to the famous poster painting of Michael Ironside having a full on body meltdown (which I used to pass every day on the way to school when it was released in UK cinemas). That being said, what he did leave in works well enough and I certainly didn’t feel cheated this time around.

The most important thing about Scanners, though, is that is absolutely entertaining and the chemistry between all the actors is very good. If you’re a fan of this kind of science fiction thriller (I’m not sure I’d fully go with it crossing over into the horror genre) then you will probably get a kick out of this one. I’d heartily recommend it to anyone who is into this kind of scientific pulp fiction. That being said, I’ve never seen either the two sequels to this movie, nor indeed the two spin off movies. My understanding is that Cronenberg had nothing to do with those other films but, still, now this movie has whet my appetite I think I’d like to see them so, hopefully I’ll have some reviews up for some or all of those within the next 12 months for you. We’ll see how it goes.

Tuesday, 8 September 2020

The Complete Fiction Of H. P. Lovecraft



HP Source

The Complete Fiction
Of H. P. Lovecraft

by H. P. Lovecraft
Knickerbocker Classics - Racepoint Publishing
ISBN: 978-1631060014


I write this account of my recent researches into The Complete Fiction Of H. P. Lovecraft, not to serve as a caution or celebration to such explorers of literary intent who come after me but more as an accurate account of my findings that stand as testament to the slip into the mind shredding insanity that may be lifted wholesale from the sweet and slow miasma of his enthusiastic portent.

The facts simply, as I see them, are that I have been reading the works of one Howard Philips Lovecraft, off and on, for almost four decades of my life in one form or another, conveyed by various and fantastical lurid covered compendiums of his words in varying forms up to about ten years ago, when the Penguin Modern Classics published three collective volumes of his work in paperback form. However, I then came, a year or two ago, upon a handsome looking hardback tome proclaiming the entirety of his fictional output, minus the poetry which is of less interest to me and without samples of his non-fictional articles of which, I have to confess to the world now, that I know very little about. My hand was drawn to this heavy edition, comprising some eleven hundred pages of his fantastical gnarly brain windings in a foil blocked and embossed slipcase, because I felt that, despite the brilliance of the Penguin editions, this would be both everything in one venue and also may contain, which upon reflection I’m sure it does, small stories which may not have been included in the various other chilling anthologies from which I have partaken over the years.

So it was then, that I chose the two weeks of the summer recess from my working environment in the year of our Lord 2020, when the accursed Covid plague that has breached the livelihood and sanity of my fellow man lay lurking outside the city population’s front door like a shadow lurking in the whispering darkness, to further delve into these cosmic mysteries. Each afternoon, after my morning’s ponderous and sometimes sinister early activities, I organised a brief sojourn into the summer house at the far end of my garden and sat with the volume in question as the sun ate away at the day and the squirrels peaked in past the double doors of my preferred exile.

The works, I realised, as I began to devour them with less trepidation than I perhaps should have exhibited, were organised into some kind of chronology reminiscent of the order in which Lovecraft wrote these tales of other worlds and his legendary Cthulhu mythos - often peppered with the effects and paraphernalia of the Elder Gods and their alien brethren - as opposed to the ragged order in which they, indeed, found commercial publication to the general public at large, some posthumously in the long wake of success after this writer’s tragically early demise in 1937,  at the tender age of 46 and one half years old. This gives one a sense of the honing and development of both the author's skill at crafting his yarns and also of the rising degree of sophistication which such tales of questionable implication can be considered to have some great merit or accomplishment. Which, I might add, for the most part, the majority of these narratives certainly demonstrate.

As I began to approach the half way mark, where loosely recurring characters such as Charles Dexter Ward and Richard Upton Pickman, in whatever form, human or otherworldly, they appear to be manifesting in each subsequent tale, I began to realise that there was both a pattern to the general nature of his works but also, as I read further, I realised that there was one unflinching truth which was astonishing in its occurrence in the majority of this man’s work. I should perhaps hold my tongue, or at least stay my keyboard, rather than utter the central contrivance upon which I stumbled at this time. I have read various volumes in my studies of the dark worlds beyond our human recognition over the years but I had not made such an alarming discovery even in such tomes as the Liber Ivonis, the Cultes de Goules or the De Vermis Mysteriis. Nor, even, had my dabblings with a certain ‘hard to find’ French translation of the Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred revealed a similar ingredient to that which I had stumbled upon in my appreciation of this much ‘influential beyond the realm of sleep and death’ writer who is H. P. Lovecraft. I will not write of this again unless I feel, later in my ramblings, that I am forced to reveal this fateful ‘trick of the wit’ which I can scarcely consider without a troubled frown reshaping my outer visage.

That Charles Dexter Ward could be considered a cypher of that very writer is perhaps not problematical until one finds mention, without actually meeting, a quick reference to a character in Through The Gates Of The Silver Key... which he wrote with the help of one Edgar Hoffmann Price... known simply as ‘Howard Philips’. Of course, the fact that these are where the source of Mr. Lovecraft’s initials spring, perhaps should in no way make the former any less of a stand in for the latter, thoroughly unexplored character. I did, however, find it startling in his use of the nomenclature in this instance.

As I continued my explorations I had, as I made clear, found a pattern to his work and this seems to take the form of three kinds of tale made manifest in his writings. The first type, which tend to develop to almost unendurable lengths, a curiously intense sense of foreshadowing of things to come, are the tales of terror of either a supernatural or alien design. These I find honest and noble but, although my mind could recall almost no details of Lovecraft’s fiction which I had previously perused, they held no real surprise as to the nature of the twist in the tale... an outcome which is sadly shared by the entirety of his output, although truth be told, my revelation as to the nature of his strategy and the layers of continually creeping portent certainly doesn’t help the potency of his ultimate ambition.

The second type that he demonstrates is that which I can only think of as his travelogues. These tend to take place in the shadowy world of dreams, in which the central characters - most of Lovecraft’s aspects tend to narrate proceedings in the first person form - describe the architecture and psychological feel of certain wonderlands and forbidden places in a realm entered by sleep but with sometimes less of an obvious return in sight. These I find perhaps the dullest of affairs in all this writer’s canon although, I have to say, that I finally took some small enjoyment from his somewhat gruelling and long work The Dream Quest Of Unknown Kadath, where none was found before.

The third type is the happier fusion of these two styles with the travelogue nature of certain styles of the second archetype supporting and making more concrete the diabolical nature of the account and it is these that tend to make up a proportion of my favourite of his tales. I might mention here that of my two absolute favourites, At The Mountains Of Madness and The Shadow Over Innsmouth, the former exhibits the third type of yarn spinning while the latter is perhaps, in some ways, a much loved throwback to his earlier tales of terror, albeit one which demonstrates that a sense of humour, though not readily apparent in the po-faced nature of his written form, is certainly not lacking in the heart of the artist.

As I read through this mad mountain of erstwhile fantasy, comprising examples of varying human transformation such as of fish or ape, reanimated corpses stumbling about in varying degrees of success, body swaps from one realm to another and the hideous, lurking horrors of Lovecraft’s fantastic imagination... I also found there to be the profound influence of such writers as Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, not to mention the name checking of certain friendly contemporaries and the stuff of their tales such as Robert E. Howard and young Robert Bloch. There is even a tale, ghostwritten as the popular Harry Houdini, which was a commission for the esapologist’s own magazine, where his central ‘real life’ character certainly takes up the familiar visage of a typical Lovecraft protagonist and this, too, tends to slip into the less dreamstate version of his travelogue template.

In addition to these references and, perhaps the reason for the successful incline and influence of this wordsmith in later years, was the weaving together of many of his ‘weird tales’ into a single, if loose fitting, cloth. The metatextual nature of which nobody can deny and perhaps this knitting together of different parts of his tales with the many references to the Necronomicon, Cthulhu and places in Arkham such as Innsmouth and Dunwich, is what made the workmanship so proudly displayed now an appealing prospect for the preservation of his life’s work. There's even a tale, The Thing On The Doorstep, that acts as a direct sequel to The Shadow Over Innsmouth... although the concept explored therein is much different.

All this I took in as I continued to read, afternoon upon afternoon, with a fervour no alienist could cease, until I at last reached the final tale which, once again, proved my terrifying deduction about the structure in which this consummate artist presented these antediluvian phantasmata to his potential readers. This is the one thing which made me shudder and which has haunted my dreams when I think back to those sunny afternoons of reading these chill and casually unspeakable terrors, rewarding the efforts of my matutinal activities. As Lovecraft himself wrote at the opening of his famous tale The Call Of Cthulhu, which I quote here for the understanding of the reader... “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.”

Alas, such correlation was not destined to be stifled in mine own case as I reveal now to you, patient reader, my one terrible discovery of this writer’s eerie and powerful works which will forever mock me when I revisit his fantastical realms - otherworldly or terraqueous. And it is this.

For the majority of these stories found in The Complete Fiction Of H. P. Lovecraft, the writer crafts the tale in such a way that, since we usually know the outcome of the final fate of the central character given the tremendous amount of foreshadowing employed by the artist, that character will usually make a dreadful and groundshaking discovery about two thirds or three quarters of the way through and then, after this has happened, will give excuses as to not reveal that dark secret until such a time as it needs to be truly known. Hiding this information in plain sight from the reader, he waits until the very last paragraph, sometimes the very last sentence of a tale to... REVEAL THE NIGHTMARISH TWIST OF THE THING THAT HIS WHOLE DISCOURSE RESTS UPON.

Professor Nuts4r2
Miskatonic University
Arkham

Sunday, 6 September 2020

Doctor Who - The Sontaran Experiment



Styre Beware

Doctor Who
The Sontaran Experiment

Airdate: 22nd February - 1 March 1975
BBC 1 - Region 0 Blu Ray Two Episodes


So following on directly from The Ark In Space (which I reviewed here), we have The Sontaran Experiment. This was Kevin Lindsay’s second go at playing a member of the Sontaran race following their debut in the previous season opposite Jon Pertwee’s Doctor in The Time Warrior. It was also his last... as the costume apparently aggravated his heart condition, causing his death some months later. However, before he died he really established a performance and manner of speaking as a Sontaran which various actors continue on to this day.

This one is, it has to be said, a mostly deadly dull affair so, thank goodness it only lasts for two episodes. In fact, it’s one of only a handful of classic stories which last that short running time in the first quarter of a century of the show. It’s also one of the few which doesn’t feature the TARDIS in any shape or form since The Doctor (Tom Baker) and his companions are arriving at the future version of Earth (in the year 16087AD) via the matter transmitter on Nerva, so they can make some adjustments to get the crew safely recolonising the planet again.

Alas, a small team of people for a another colony are also roaming the planet trying to survive a lone Sontaran and his highly dodgy looking robot who is running an experiment on the ‘humans’ that he’s lured there, in order to see how they stand up to torture and pave the way for an invasion fleet. Nobody asks why the Sontarans want to invade an empty planet so... I shan’t either. There’s obviously an entirely good explanation of this that the show’s writers and producers decided not to share with the audience.

Sarah Jane was, of course, also involved in the previous Sontaran story so she is shocked at first because... well they all look alike to her and she thought that Linx had somehow managed to survive. Harry of course, played as always by Ian Marter (who also wrote the Target novelisation), has never heard of them which is unfortunate because, the three main protagonists actually spend most of the two episodes apart form each other and all doing different ‘side missions’, so to speak, to do their bit in defeating this lone Sontaran and eventually signalling to his superior officer in space, also played by Kevin Lindsay (it’s not like they’d made more than one Sontaran costume for this production anyway), that the Earth was not to be trifled with.

And it’s pretty boring, mostly. The dialogue doesn’t sparkle and, apart from some charming performances, especially from the well spoken Lindsay, there’s not a heck of a lot to recommend on this one. Also, despite being a family show, the amount of times torture comes up just makes it feel a bit unpleasant with definite shades of Nazi Germany being alluded to in terms of the experimentation of the title, despite the fact that it isn’t really that violent.

Tom Baker apparently broke his collar bone while making this one and, looking at the forest landscape filled with big dips in it (and I suspect it might also have been shot in a quarry too), it’s really not that surprising that somebody broke something. Out of all of the stories in this series, this one just feels like its padding, to be very honest, to help link up the overall arc of that season and bide time until the next, six part and much quoted story Genesis Of The Daleks.

The pacing isn’t great either. Yes, everyone’s got something to do but it all feels a bit lethargic and I did notice at least one or two scenes which kind of didn’t quite make sense and were almost non-sequiturs presented in the order that they were televised. I learned today that at least one scene was cut out after Tom Baker broke his collar bone so I have to wonder if that’s what caused some of the lines and character locations in this to be... I dunno.... slightly out of kilter with what comes before or after them.

Whatever the reason, this was certainly the last two parter in the show until Peter Davidson’s incarnation of The Doctor starred in Black Orchid seven years later. This makes it about as long as one episode of the modern version of the show but, even some of the clunkier episodes these days make this one look bad. Perhaps some of that is precisely because the actors playing The Doctor, Sarah Jane and Harry all such have good chemistry together. Put them all on their own and they can’t bounce off each other the way they did in the previous stories. It really shows here and even Dudley Simpson’s musical score can’t liven this one up. So... sorry for the short review but this really isn’t a story I would recommend unless you are making a point of watching this entire series as one, fairly loose story arc. Certainly the least interesting story of this season.

Thursday, 3 September 2020

German Angst

Angst In Your Pants

German Angst
Germany 2015
Directed by Jörg Buttgereit, Michal Kosakowski & Andreas Marschall
Artsploitation Blu Ray Zone A


Warning: Spoilers on this one because
there’s not much else to talk about.


Okay so... shortly after I saw the absolutely brilliant Luciferina (reviewed here) and I was having to come to terms with the fact that nobody in the UK seemed to be interested in making that masterpiece available (or even giving it a proper cinema release), I finally found somebody with a Blu Ray up for pre-order in the US. So I ordered from overseas from Amazon as represented, in this case, by a label that I will really have to look into properly at some point, called Artsploitation. They look like they have some really interesting movies on their books, most of which seem completely unknown over here in England (at least to me) and so I ordered another one, German Angst, while pre-ordering Luciferina, because it had such a great cover and promised an anthology film giving us three tales of gory and sexual grotesquery.

I had already seen a movie made by one of the directors, Andreas Marschall... but wasn’t as impressed by his stuff as I thought I would be (although I still have a copy of Tears Of Kali to watch - my review of his pseudo-Suspiria movie Masks is right here). That being said he seems to have a great deal more running time on his segment than either of the other two directors so I’m guessing he might well have been the driving force that got this movie made.

Now, I will tell you right off the bat that, while I was impressed aesthetically with the level of blood and splatter on show in this movie, I was pretty disappointed in the stories themselves and I don’t think I would have made the purchase had I already seen this one at the cinema (which is why cinema is important people... it’s a shop window for your library of physical media... don’t bother with downloads, they’re evil).

Okay, so of the three tales in this one, the most effective one is the much shorter, opening segment directed by Jörg Buttgereit called Final Girl. Ironically, it’s the only one of these segments which never strays into the category of ‘horror film’ as far as I could tell. No monsters (human monsters don’t count) and no supernatural shenanigans either.

What it does have going for it is a real air of clinical detachment. The film starts with shots of a hamster crosscut with close ups of someone’s skin and then gets going when a very young woman wakes up in her apartment and starts telling us about why the hamster has an amputated leg. As she goes about her early morning routine, I was interested in the way the director shot the piece. He seems fond of picking out tiny little details from what is going on and then focusing on them while often eschewing a jump to a master shot. So, for example, he will latch onto some cereal and then milk being poured into a bowl in close up or will start looking at reflections in a tap. This was all pretty good stuff and it reminded me a little of the early films of Darren Aranofsky like Pi and Requiem For A Dream and why I used to like that director’s work a lot more than I do nowadays.

After a little while we find the young wife has her husband tied and blindfolded naked to a bed and she goes in and cuts off his genitals with a kitchen implement that looks a bit like a pair of garden secateurs, with much made on the approach to this act from her voice over narrative on the soundtrack. It was a little reminiscent, actually, of that mock castration scene in David Slade’s Hard Candy... but with actually having a pay off to the sequence. When she revisits him a little later, she stabs him in the neck with a scalpel and cuts hits throat and, between these scenes and which glue these two moments together, we get little clues as to the nature of their previous relationship... although I confess I couldn’t work out just what had been going on to prompt such violent vengeance myself. The abstract and wordless visual narrative of the back story seems a little too cryptic to me. Still, this is easily the best segment here and the one that promotes the most engaging and slightly uncomfortable response, as far as I’m concerned.

The second segment, Make A Wish by Michal Kosakowski, focusses on two deaf and dumb lovers wandering into an abandoned building. I suspect the fact that they are both afflicted with these disabilities is a metaphor for something and possibly ties into something else a little later in the segment. The guy tells the girl a story set as a flashback to a group of villagers being terrorised by Nazis in Poland in 1943 and the significance of a talisman he has. This sequence is very gory but again, very throwaway and naturalistic with it, so when we see, for instance, an old woman who has her head chopped in half with a spade, it’s brief but haunting. We then cut back to modern times and the two are terrorised by a group of violent thugs who proceed to torture and murder them... but not before the guy has used the talisman in question to bring about a certain change.

Honestly, I hate these kinds of scenarios in movies anyway but this one also seems quite politically charged and, again, the politics are way too enigmatic for me to completely figure out. In a sequence where a main character seems to be talking directly out of the screen to the audience and speaking about generational differences and what I imagine is some kind of collective German guilt for the atrocities of the 1940s, it felt a little bit too preachy for me and I was almost glad, in a way, that I didn’t understand really what the issue was. Frankly, I hate hooliganism so this segment really turned me off.

The third and final lengthy segment by Andreas Marschall and called Alraune is, I think, based on a German myth but I didn’t know that when I watched this... so the title made absolutely no sense to me. This should have been right up my street but I have to confess I found it relatively unengaging and lethargic.

A man who has just gotten back together with his girlfriend after a break up tells her what he did after they split up. It’s the tale of developing an on-line relationship and then meeting the wrong person at a night club called the Mabuse Club (probably a reference to the Dr. Mabuse movies, I would guess). He ends up joining a private and exclusive club of a 'sexual nature' at a private residence but things aren’t quite what they seem and... well it’s less than two weeks since I watched this but already I can’t remember how this one ended. It’s not that well done or memorable is my take away... although there is some nice cinematography including the use of some gialloesque reds and greens in juxtaposition which, at the very least, makes the segment easy on the eye. The lead actor of this segment, Milton Welsh, is also quite engaging with a good personality so, at least you have a main protagonist you can kind of root for. However, it all just seems such a tame affair from what I would expect of this kind of story set up, to be honest.

And that’s me well and truly done with this one. I’m probably not going to watch German Angst ever again but, I am interested in pursuing some of the other titles over at Artsploitation at some point, especially since they were good enough to release the absolutely brilliant Luciferina. Some horror enthusiasts may get a little more out of this one than I did and it’s shot very nicely and competently put together so, I guess it could have been a lot worse. Mainly worth it for Jörg Buttgereit’s opening segment, though.




Tuesday, 1 September 2020

Coronavirus At The Movies

 
The Movies Have Got It Covid

Warning: This article gives away the endings to Wonder Woman, Inglourious Basterds and Once Upon A Time In Hollywood.

Over the last six months of pseudo lockdown, I’ve been writing and editing a monthly Pandemic newsletter which I send to a small circle of friends to help keep them occupied and smiling through these trying times. Normally I don’t repeat content from here that I’ve included there and vice versa but, I thought the following article which I wrote for inclusion in the final issue (volume 2 starts up when we hit the second wave of Covid), number 6, last week might interest some of my blog readers too so, here’s the article I wrote speculating how cinema content might be shaped in the Covid and post-Covid world. I hope you like it.

It’s been suggested to me recently that, once movie production gets going again properly, it’s doubtful that the future of film will be reflective of the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic. The argument is that people will not want to see depictions of social distancing on screen and, instead, will want to see a world untouched by the disease that has been, err, plaguing us these last six months or more. Audiences go to the cinema for escape, after all.

I'd have to say that... I think it’s probably quite dependent on how long this ‘new normal’ will be with us but I don’t think that people who are working on any form of art... be it film, fiction or music (to name but three), will be necessarily falling over themselves to provide people with a Covid-free environment in their work. Also, the fact that it seems people can get reinfected just a few months after having the symptoms, possibly prompting four times a year vaccines* if, indeed, an effective one can be found, is also going to be a factor in this. I think we could be stuck in this for a while and I fully expect our films to represent this. Even those set in alternate fantasy versions of our current reality such as the DC and Marvel universes, for example.

One of the things you need to remember is that a lot of fictional creators tend to base their stories in a world of historical accuracy. Unless they’re set in the past or in some remote fantasy land such as Middle Earth or Cimmeria, they’re going to want to base their story in the real world as much as possible. Why? Well simply because conforming to a facsimile of the real world helps make the fantasy they are weaving... be it superheroes, spy stories or even romantic comedies... more believable. If the audience can buy into the physical, psychological and sociological environment in which certain characters are interacting with each other, then it makes the story they are telling more credible.

Historically there are plenty of things which buy into the time period of when they are set and in which great pains are taken to explain certain historical inaccuracies conjured up by the subject of their stories.

Take the comics of DC published during the Second World War, for example. The DC characters were so powerful that kids would wonder why they didn’t just go over to Germany and stop the war. A good point... Superman would have finished the war in one afternoon.  So the writers came up with (or is that fell back on?) the artefact which Hitler himself listed among his occult obsessions. In the DC comics, Hitler absolutely had possession of the Spear Of Destiny (the spear that allegedly pierced the body of Christ on the cross), an artefact which has been used over and over again in genre fiction and movies since... well, for a long time. Because of the strange properties of the Spear Of Destiny, the readers were told, the superheroes couldn’t go near Hitler because the Spear would negate their super powers. And so, the comics could go on publishing superhero tales without the question of quickly ending the war ever coming up. A useful side step.

And we’ve seen things using historical context time and time again at the cinema. Take the recent Wonder Woman movie, for example. This was set in the First World War and, because it was Diana’s mission to end that war by destroying her war god brother, the film-makers brilliantly made sure that the day that she does this also coincided with the day the armistice was signed. So in the real world about her, the war was over but... we flies on the wall know how it really ended... right? Wink. A nice solution to what could have been a huge fantasy versus reality problem. One which allowed the fantasy world of the character to play out in a relatively accurate historical backdrop without the two elements ever fighting one another. Nice work.

Of course, some writers and directors don’t care about historical accuracy... or so it seems at first. Look at the two Quentin Tarantino movies Inglourious Basterds and Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, for example...

I work in an educational establishment and I can’t even begin to tell you the horror stories of the genuine historical ignorance of a large number of the students making their way through colleges and universities across the country. It’s astonishing and I can tell you now that there are a lot of people of a certain age (and younger, now) who believe that Adolf Hitler met his death by being machine gunned down in an exploding cinema and... that’s how the Second World War ended, didn’t it? Because that’s what happens at the end of Inglourious Basterds so, it must be true, right? That was set in World War II. Now, I’m absolutely all for artists doing what they want in movies but, when something presents itself as historically accurate then I think they should just have a little warning put in at the beginning of the film saying that the outcomes of this film are in no way representative of real life. Because, you know, a lot of people think these things actually are.

Similarly, even though the ending Tarantino was going to go for was obvious even before I took my seat at the cinema to see Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, there are a fair few people of, again, a certain age, who think Sharon Tate went on to have a long, prosperous career as a Hollywood actress. I guess at least some of the people who go on to explore her post-Manson body of work will hit a wall of truth when it comes to the IMDB, at least.

The thing is, though, even these flights of fancy on the parts of Tarantino are taking a lot of time to paint that fantasy into a world which is backed up by the time in which they are set. Sure, the outcome is different but all the window dressing of 1940s Germany and 1960s Hollywood is brought into play to make his fantasies credible. So, really, he’s doing exactly the same as most filmmakers do these days... setting the story in a historically accurate environment.

Which brings me back to Covid in the movies (and other art forms). If this thing truly does last less than a year then I think the virus and the distancing will, at the very least, be used to have a scene or two with ‘light hearted social distancing’ scenes used to show, say, a development through time for a romantic relationship. “Oh, look guys, now they’re in the 2020s and they’ve got that kooky social distancing going on!”

At the worst... which I’m guessing is where we are at (the news hasn’t been very encouraging of late), I think we’ll be seeing the long term effects of social distancing and coronavirus in movies for a long time to come. Because, for one thing, it demonstrates what the audience are living themselves and thus adds credibility to the story line (whether you want to see it or not) and two... because if you’re forced to film scenes in a socially distant manner then, surely, it will be easier to do that if the scenes you are doing that with are having socially distant content?

So yeah, I’m sorry to say that, in terms of the virus and its more visible side effects, I think art will be imitating life just as much as it always does in the future and, since coronavirus is such an important part of our everyday lives currently, I don’t see us escaping that anytime soon.

*has been suggested at time of writing

Sunday, 30 August 2020

Toy-Ventures


The Joy Of Toy

Toy Ventures Issue 1


I’ve been following @Plaidstallions, the creator of the new Toy-Ventures magazine on Twitter, for a short while now... having discovered them by way of retweets by @MegoMuseum and others. Very recently, the gentleman responsible for the account has produced Issue One of what we all hope will be a long running magazine and, since I’m a man wholely in touch with the memories of my childhood possessions (name me one guy who has actually, ever ‘grown up’) and I remember a lot of the stuff coming out over here in the UK too, I thought I’d go ahead and order the thing.

Now, I don’t review magazines that often on here. In fact, outside of magazine format comic books I think I’ve only ever reviewed a magazine one other time on this blog in just over ten years and... that was quite some time ago. However I wanted to flag this one up because it’s a really nice product and, well... how often do print based magazines come out these days?

I’ll get to my slight criticism right away because a) it’s minimal and b) probably unimportant to most people anyway. The thing is, I’m a graphic designer and... just don’t ask a graphic designer about another designer’s work is always a good policy for the most part so... yeah, I’d say the font size is a little too large for comfort in some areas and some of the background washes on the text are just a little too heavy in places for quick legibility. Although, having said that, you never know what ‘dot gain’ is really going to do to a design until you get it back from a printer so that’s always a risky business anyway and it’s certainly worth doing because... well... it’s legible enough. Those kinds of issues are always trial and error anyway.

Okay, that’s my only slight negative on the whole venture.

Everything else about this is quality and, large print or not, there are certainly some nuggets of information to be gleaned from the issue, which works as both an informative guide for collectors of various highlighted toy lines while also being damn fine entertainment. I had a huge wave of nostalgia just hitting me as soon as I got this out of the envelope... not just from the cover but also from the free little ‘trading cards’ of various action figures over the years which accompanied it. Some of the design detailing in the magazine itself is really cool and I especially liked the inclusion of the little price tag in the top right corner on some of the ‘toy branded’ pages in the interior spreads.

This issue of the magazine is an Azrak-Hamway tribute edition and most of the toys featured are made by them so, if you’re wondering why some of your favourites from certain toy lines are not here, I’m sure they’ll be coming in future editions. This one is split into seven main articles which comprise the following:

Set Phasers To Fun is a look at various Star Trek toys such as phaser and U.S.S Enterprise water pistols and character parachute figures. I loved the little ‘pin ball’ sets in this section which, to be honest, took me back while reminding me just how disappointing those little pinball sets really were compared to the real thing.

The Guide To ‘Official World Famous Super Monsters’ does exactly what it says on the tin, so to speak and looks at the history of the various and sometimes copyright bending Universal Horror action figures comprising Dracula, Frankenstein (well, the monster at any rate), The Wolfman, The Mummy and The Creature From The Black Lagoon. And most of their many variants, both in body colours, widths, accessories and boxes/card displays are shown here. There were a lot of these for reasons explained in the mag but I found it interesting that the slight variant of the astonishingly beautiful Frankenstein monster I had from one of these moulds was not pictured or included in the many versions listed here. The green hands I had were of a slightly different orientation to the ones displayed in this article. However, if you’re interested in information about how, say, the moulds were inspired by the famous Aurora model kits or which box artworks had bleeds or borders/punch holes etc then this is something you might want to spend some time with.

Now, Skydive Like Apes! This is a look at some of the outrageous and brightly coloured rack toys inspired by the Planet Of The Apes license. These include parachute apes, friction wagons and even a nice Dr. Zaius stunt cycle. It also includes a reproduction of a ‘Notice To Trade’ retraction of a Mego & 20th Century Fox VS Azrak-Hamway legal dispute, accompanied by a photo of some wonderful ‘knock off’ action figures from their range of ‘Action Apeman’ toys. Nice.

I Wanted The Best... KISS mike
is a tale of obsession of trying to find a specific piece of KISS merchandise over the years which is both tragic and moving. Not going to say much about this one but it’s a story with a very unexpected ending.

Rack Toys: 1999 is an absolutely wonderful three page item about various rack toys produced to tie in with the Space 1999 TV show (which I reviewed here). This included the little light up ray gun I used to have as a kid and, honestly, loads of stuff I never knew even existed. I mean, a lot of kids had one of the two versions of Dinky’s Eagle Transporters but, did you know that there were ‘friction’ versions of the Eagles produced for sale?

Realistic Floating Action takes a look at the various Super-Hero themed parachute sculpts that were all over the shops in the 1970s and early 80s. There’s a lovely quote from a former Senior Vice President of AHI/Remco alluding to the fact that the sales dropped when kids started questioning the credibility of flying characters like Superman ever needing a parachute. I can vouch for that... it’s exactly why I didn’t get interested in things like a Superman parachute or Superman car when I was a kid. Who fell for this? As some of the other sections, there are also photos of some versions of these toys which never made it onto the shelves and were only built as prototypes or, in some cases, just didn’t get much distribution. So this is valuable visual info.

Adorable Horror looks at the Universal Monsters inspired Bend-Em toys. I used to like Bend-Ems as a kid... until the wire in the arm or leg broke and you could no longer... you know... bend ‘em. I don’t remember owning any of these horror ones though, so this was a nice surprise.

The magazine finishes off with a couple of double spreads of more photos of the Universal Monsters figures and, although it’s something of a quick read... it’s one I’ll probably keep delving into for weeks and years to come because, as much as some of this stuff can be found online, having actual printed photographs of these things and the ability to quickly flick through them is definitely a more quality experience.

Toy-Ventures Issue One is, for me, an essential purchase and, if you think you had the same kind of childhood as I did, you’ll probably find one or two special things lurking within its pages too. I’m definitely looking forward to Issue Two now, which will hopefully release sometime in December.

Toy Ventures Issue One can be bought from Mego Museum and you can check out the Plaid Stallions website here.