Sunday, 12 July 2020
My Sweet Ford
Le Mans ‘66/Ford V Ferrari
USA 2019 Directed by James Mangold
20th Century Fox Blu Ray Zone B
I’m not really into motor racing to be honest... heck, I didn’t even know, until watching this film, that the Le Mans race runs for 24 hours non-stop with relays of drivers. However, I don’t mind the odd movie about the subject such as Grand Prix or Rush (reviewed here) and my dad certainly loves the sport. So, you know, I missed this one at the cinema but caught up with it on Father’s Day.
I honestly wasn’t expecting great things from Le Mans '66 (Ford V Ferrari) but I was expecting it to be a competently made, heavily dramatised story about ex-driver and car designer Carroll Shelby (as played by Matt Damon) and English driver Ken Miles (played here by Christian Bale). Mangold is a pretty solid director too so I wasn’t expecting anything less than an okay time with it. Having seen the trailer it looked like one of those films which ‘does what it says on the tin’, as the saying goes and, certainly, if you have talent like Damon and Bale in a movie... then you’re certainly stacking the deck in your favour as a director.
So, yeah, it absolutely did the ‘tin thing’ and what we have here is a nice looking film with an aesthetic of making what could be fairly standard, boring shots of driving look both beautiful in certain places and downright gritty and ‘in your face’ for a lot of the time. It feels like you’re right in the seat next to the drivers in this and Mangold has an absolute knack for giving this kind of subject matter the excitement it needs.
Now, a film like this is normally going to be the standard collection of Hollywood clichés and blown up dramatic moments and with a plot like this... which retells the story of how, in the wake of an unsuccessful merger bid by Ford to buy out Ferrari, the head of Ford (the grandson of the original Henry Ford) hires Shelby to make a car that can run in Le Mans and beat Ferrari at their own game... you should probably be expecting a lot of them to turn up. So, yeah, a film ripe for all those things like the story of the people getting the car ready, arguing, bonding, the son and spouse (in this case) of the driver and his relationship with them, the trials and tribulations as one of them is sacked but then proved right etc. and... yep... I can confirm that all those kinds of clichés and dramatic summits are there.
This is a movie of terrible old clichés and souped up dramatic moments to be sure but, it’s also so well put together that it's the very epitome of all that makes the best of those kinds of films so successful. Yeah, there are no real surprises (even less, I’m sure, for those of you who know how one of these two people met their untimely demise in real life) but it’s a heck of a well put together piece and just as entertaining as you’d expect. The cast are all excellent, especially Bale and Damon but also people like Caitriona Balfe and Noah Jupe playing Miles’ wife and son. I was especially impressed with Tracy Letts playing the grandson of the original Henry Ford, who comes across as totally ruthless a lot of the time but also someone who is not necessarily going to be totally swayed by the grand standing idiots in his employ... he really won me over in a scene where he has a bit of a breakdown after Shelby takes him for ‘a little spin’ in his new racing car. This couldn’t have been that easy to perform and it comes across as a surprisingly powerful moment which, given the specific condition that hinges on the outcome of this scene, it really needed to be. Letts really nails it here.
Two other people who really nail it are Marco Beltrami & Buck Sanders. The soundtrack uses a lot of needle drop pop songs from the era (and also some in cover versions which weren’t yet around at the time, it has to be said) but the actual score itself is powerful stuff and, sadly, not available in CD form other than a couple of cuts on a song compilation (who wants a bloody song compilation?). The full score is only available in far inferior formats such as digital download or fragile vinyl but, alas, not on the medium of choice for people who care about stuff like this. So, yeah, as brilliant as it is, it looks like I’m destined to never hear it away from the film and that’s a shame because, if you’ll excuse the pun, it’s quite driven and has a relentless, pounding rhythm to it which really makes the scenes fly. Also, when the grueling scenes of the race through rain and thunder during the night are on, the way the music orchestrates and muddies up and attacks the rhythm with a kind of scuttling percussion (yeah, I’m not good on musical description but hopefully you know what that means), it completely complements the idea of rain hitting the windshield as wipers cut across the surface trying to swoosh everything out of the way. This is really great music and it’s yet another great crime against filmanity that the score is not available on CD. The record companies have got to stop doing this to us.
Okay, so great cast, well shot, great music and, also, nicely edited. You really aren’t going to get lost in the edit during the race scenes here and this is no mean feat when it turns out that the big race scene at the end was shot on multiple different courses all sewn together to ensure it matched the look of the real Le Mans course in 1966. That must have been somewhat challenging.
So, yeah, that’s me about done on this except to say that if you’re into the odd Hollywood style docudrama then Le Mans ‘66 (aka Ford V Ferrari, depending on which country you are watching this in) is a pretty good example of that kind of film-making and is certainly a fun ride, miles ahead of some of the other racing movies. If you’re expecting something unusual or quirky then this may be the wrong picture for you but, even for someone like me who doesn’t worship these big Hollywood box office follies like some, this is a solid film, well made and about as good as you’d have a right to expect from this kind of project. I’m really glad I saw it and I’m sure it’s going to be a staple of TV stations for many a Christmas or Easter to come. Definitely a big holiday movie for sure. Worth a look.
Thursday, 9 July 2020
From Miller To Post
US 1952 Directed by Fred Zinnemann
Eureka Masters Of Cinema Blu Ray Zone B
High Noon really is one of the all time great American Westerns. It’s been a fair few decades since I’d watched it last (I used to love it as a kid) but I recently bought my father the new Eureka - Masters Of Cinema Blu Ray and, of course, I sat down to watch it with him. I was blown away all over again by it’s stark, black and white photography, the driven Dimitri Tiomkin score with the important song Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling and some interesting actors doing their thing - including Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly (later Princess of Monaco), Katy Jurado, Lloyd Bridges, Lon Chaney Jr (the monster man is billed here as simply Lon Chaney, for some reason), an uncredited Jack Elam and, not forgetting, the screen debut of one Lee Van Cleef... as one of the four men gunning for Cooper’s Marshal character Will Kane.
Actually, I have to say, I didn’t realise this was Van Cleef’s debut until after I watched it again and looked him up. I mean, it’s a pretty rare debut. Okay, so he’s not the bad guy... Frank Miller (played by Ian McDonald) or even the main villain of the three gunfighters waiting for Frank to return to town on the noon train (that would be Frank’s brother Ben, played by Sheb Wooley)... but he has a large portion of the opening credits solo, while he gets ready and joins the other two gunmen to ride to the railway station. He really looks like a villain and, with his scarred face and wild eye reactions, which feature a couple of times in the film, I have to wonder if Sergio Leone maybe looked at this film long and hard over the years before making the actor a household name and using him in two of his famous Spaghetti Westerns. When we think of those Leone movies, we think of the stylised poses, the expressive eyes and the constant waiting and... well, it’s all here in High Noon, long before the Italians started doing it, mostly, better than the Americans. Or at least as interestingly. As the three wait for the train, you will certainly be reminded of Leone’s later masterpiece Once Upon A Time In The West and I would bet this is one of the films he looked at for inspiration.
The plot, if you’ve never seen the film before, goes something like this...
Will Kane (Gary Cooper) marries his quaker lover Amy (Grace Kelly) but finds out that the murderous Frank Miller has just been released from jail (from up north!) and is returning on the noon train to get together with his fellow thugs to gun down the marshall in an act of revenge and then, as implied, take over the town with their hoodlum ways. The town’s folk try to get Mr and Mrs Kane to leave in a buckboard but Kane soon turns back to pick up his tin star (the new marshal doesn’t get into town until the day after) and try to get help to fight off these four cold blooded killers in an attempt to protect the community. Amy doesn’t understand this course of action and tells him she will be on that noon train when it arrives. His former girlfriend, the Mexican Helen Ramírez (played wonderfully by Katy Jurado) also ends things with the marshal’s deputy, played by Lloyd Bridges. She is also set to leave on the noon train.
Meanwhile, in a searing metaphorical indictment of the Hollywood anti-communist black list as experienced by one of the producers about to be put on that list, Kane calls on the various friends and acquaintances in town, only to be met with inaction or untenable conditions to the required help. Bridges character quits over the matter and, even the one man qualified enough to help, changes his mind just before the villains show up. Which leaves just Kane and, as one of two strong female characters in the film, his wife Amy... who shows up to aid him in ways which I won’t spoil for you here if you’ve never seen it.
And it’s a staggeringly good movie. There are probably a fair few moving camera shots in the film but the absolutely beautiful 1.33:1 black and white photography set ups coupled with the pacing make the film appear static and, it has to be said, feel somewhat claustrophobic, as the characters and audience count down the minutes until the train gets into town. Which is something the audience can actually do in this film because, aside from some stuff at the start (and we’re only talking minutes), the entire film is shot... or at least edited... in real time. The various shots of clocks of all shapes and sizes included in the visuals to give you a constant reminder (and surprisingly accurate one, considering how a Hollywood movie is shot) of just how long you’ve got until the shooting starts... underlined by the fairly regular, tick tock percussion of the main title theme which, actually, I think was the first time a movie song had been written into the actual score to add emphasis. Can you imagine a Bond film that didn’t do this? Well, okay, there have been a few of them over the last decade but they’re all the poorer for it.
It’s also a film of mounting tension and unsaid or understated plot points. Nothing is directly said and, though there are some dense sections of scenes heavy with dialogue, a lot of the film plays out like a silent movie in terms of lack of conversation and it’s stronger for it (something else I suspect Sergio Leone learned from films like this). For instance, it’s never explicitly stated that Helen is the marshal’s ex but, as various comments are thrown about a picture is painted that she has history with the main antagonist of the film and you can piece together that the main protagonist, Will Kane, got her out of some problems before hitching up with her himself. It’s something an audience can sew together in their mind, just as Will’s new wife Amy does about half way through the film.
So, yeah, brilliantly minimal but carrying a lot of meaning in a way which almost seems a forgotten art in Hollywood nowadays, where teen audiences have lit a fire which ignorantly blazes through the subtlety of the art of cinematic implication and helped boil things down to a lowest common denominator of clear but stifling explanations and clarifications before the latest heroic incarnations can even get their clothes on. In this way the film is, perhaps, of its time but, honestly, it also feels strikingly timeless, especially with it’s criticisms of the common people on the street failing to do their duty and arguing their way out of harms way by justifying their stance in inventive rhetoric which never, quite, seems all that convincing.
And that’s me done on High Noon. One of the all time great movies that Hollywood ever put out and as entertaining a film as you’re likely to see. It holds up really well over the years and this new Blu Ray from Eureka is stacked with some interesting extras which, alas, I probably wont have time to watch for a very long time, if ever. But, as a recommendation, my dad absolutely loved it too and so do I and I reckon it’s a ‘must see’ for any fans of the art of the medium in general. Do not forsake this new release of an all time classic Western because, honestly, you’d be missing out.
Tuesday, 7 July 2020
I Wanna Huldra Haaaaaaand
Directed by Aleksander Nordaas
Metrodome DVD Region 2
Warning: Very slight spoiler you will see coming a mile off anyway.
This one’s a quite charming film which, while billed as a horror film, is more of a darkly cute monster movie than anything else. The title character, Thale, is played by Norwegian beauty Silje Reinåmo and she’s definitely not a character you can lack any empathy with... but I’m getting ahead of myself.
After teasing the audience with a short pre-credits sequence where the camera is focused on one wheel of a tape recorder, as the sounds of a possible violent encounter with the characters on the recording happens... the film starts off with the two main human protagonists, Leo (played by Jon Sigve Skard) and Elvis (Erlend Nervold). Elvis is the sensitive one of the two while Leo is the pragmatic master of deadpan humour and he runs what I can only describe as a clean up crew for violent crime scenes. So if you want someone scraped off the floor, Leo’s firm is the one who will do this for you. Elvis, who is just filling in for an absent member of the team, kinda stands by the side and throws up a lot.
And then, after their characters have been established, they are asked to find the other half of a body which is probably in a cabin, deep in a Norwegian wood. It’s while they are clearing this cabin that they find a secret entrance to what is an underground bunker (all shot in the director’s parent’s basement, by all accounts) with the remnants of what look like a mad scientists experiments on genetic transformation... along with the tape recorder we heard in the pre-credits sequence.
And then, up from a milky bath pops the title character, wearing only a a gas mask, both vulnerable and formidable as she is shown to be in the next five minutes. So the film is about the three characters interacting while Elvis and Leo try to feed the young 'lady' and discover what was her tail, kept in some kind of safe, so the smell won’t draw her fellow Huldra to reclaim her. A Huldra, by the way, is a Norwegian kind of wood nymph who, in its more more beautiful female form, inspires empathy with any humans it gets near as a defence mechanism. That defence mechanism certainly reaches out from the screen to lure in the audience too, as far as I’m concerned.
And then the three try to lock themselves in the bunker as a malevolent presence invades this world... but I don’t want to say more about that because, well, because it’s not what you are expecting from the way the film is set up... which is certainly a refreshing element to the movie. A movie which sets up a lot of tension and surprise while, sadly, occasionally telegraphing certain moments of the narrative.
For instance, I’d defy anyone to be actually surprised by the ‘reveal’ of the tail as... well... what did you expect? Similarly, a flashback which shows Thale as a child and bringing a dead flower back to life is going to absolutely give away the end punchline scene of the film much later to anyone who has been paying attention to Leo’s personal problem (which I won’t reveal here but you’ll see the formulaic way that one plays out, for sure).
However, I can forgive it the occasional obviousness in the way the story is written because the way the film is performed and also shot, in a fusion of bright and colourful (if sometimes bleached out) frames while simultaneously being almost completely done hand-held, is absolutely brilliant. He does things like a point of view ‘Huldra vision’ where the colours get bleached out slightly towards the focus of a frame and also, have little forward motion blurs on a lot of the picture to give those specific sequences a kind of ‘tunnel vision’ to the creatures.
Other things I caught the director doing are sometimes deep focusing on certain areas of a shot while everything else is a blur (not just in the Huldra sequences) and also a tendency to shoot his characters sometimes from a distance, looking into a room or corridor from outside another one... a bit like Roger Corman always leaving the doors open to make the locations in his films feel bigger but, here, it gives the bunker a more kind of claustrophobic feel.
The musical score is good too... with some traditional sounding stuff that more often than not transforms into the ‘atonal sound design meets dissonance’ which a lot of modern horror scores seem to use. Alas, the score itself is only available on download and not on a proper CD, so it looks like I won’t be getting to hear it away from the movie. Rather no score album at all than a watered down, compressed, electronic facsimile, I reckon.
But, yeah, the film is entertaining and certainly follows a traditional path in terms of the central creature of the narrative structure. This is why I say it’s not a horror movie but, rather a monster movie, because the film evokes the same kind of acceptance of the monster as movies such as King Kong (reviewed here) or Creature From The Black Lagoon (reviewed here). Similarly, the real villains of the piece are pulled from the human element in the film... but I’ll not say much more than that, at this point. I suspect you’ll probably figure all that stuff out before it’s revealed in the narrative anyway, to be honest.
So that’s me done on Thale. An impressive little horror movie which has some surprisingly good CGI effects, some great humourous, deadpan acting and a central female character who will undoubtedly win your heart. If you’re a fan of fantasy cinema then you’d probably do well to check this one out. Isn’t it good? Norwegian Wood.
Sunday, 5 July 2020
What Lay Beneath
Blood and Flesh - The Reel Life
and Ghastly Death of Al Adamson
USA 2019 Directed by David Gregory
Severin Films Blu Ray Zone A/B
As part of the Al Adamson -
The Masterpiece Collection 32 film Blu Ray set
I’ve only, at time of writing this, seen one of Al Adamson’s movies before. That was the incredibly bad but hugely entertaining Dracula Vs Frankenstein (reviewed, succinctly, by me in my early days of this blog here). However, there were a few I had on my list to try and get hold of but then Severin, who are a label worth reckoning with, released this limited edition, very long term project they’ve been working on for... well something like a decade, I think. And it’s really expensive too... probably the most expensive set I've ever bought. I finally pulled the trigger on this thing right before it sold out because... well I’d saved money from not travelling during the coronavirus lock down and it was likely that I would never again have the opportunity to see these films unleashed all in one place at the same time... 32 movies. So I wept into the remains of my tattered wallet, bit the bullet and ‘done the deed”.
This set also features this brand new feature length documentary film... Blood And Flesh - The Reel Life And Ghastly Death of Al Adamson, which was directed by David Gregory, who had made Lost Soul - The Doomed Journey Of Richard Stanley’s Island Of Dr. Moreau, which I watched and reviewed earlier this year (right here). Now, normally I would leave the documentary in a new set until after I’d watched all the other films but I figured, in this case, since I knew so little about Adamson (but had heard some disquieting rumblings), that it might be worth watching this thing so I could get an overview of his career and the strange way he finished his life.
Turns out Adamson was the son of an old, early Hollywood cowboy star/director called Denver Dickson (Victor Adamson) who turned down an offer with Universal studios in favour of making his films for his own production company. He had numerous movies coming out just at the tail end of the 20s and into the 30s, 40s etc as well as appearing uncredited in many movies and TV shows over the years up until his final appearance in the aforementioned Dracula Vs Frankenstein (he appeared in 285 productions according to the IMDB). So I guess the world of B-movie show business was somehow in Al Adamson’s blood when he started trying to direct/produce and also appear in his own films.
He was very much one of those kings or princes of the American made exploitation films and I guess you would think of him in the same breath as people like Herschell Gordon Lewis or, in some ways, a poor man’s Roger Corman, with even smaller budgets than Corman but making pictures which did very well on the drive in circuits in the 1960s and 1970s. This documentary details his story with interview footage from producers, friends, co-stars and even some of his stars, such as the legendary Russ Tamblyn, who was in a few of his movies like biker gang film Satan’s Sadists, Black Heat and the Dracula Vs Frankenstein movie. It also has appearances by Adamson himself in archival interview footage which must have been taken not too many years before the ghastly death mentioned in the title.
It shows many of the people who he worked with in some capacity or another such as... well lets just do a little list to whet your appetite... Colonel Sanders (the real one, promoting his Kentucky Fried Chicken in one of Adamson’s shoots), Charles Manson (he shot one of his movies on the ranch shortly before, or possibly during, the famous murders), John Carradine, Jim Kelly, Lon Chaney Jr, J. Carrol Naish, George Lazenby and even Forrest J. Ackerman. Some of these are seen only in clips from the director’s movies and some of them in archival footage. And it’s a rare treat listening to some of the stories his friends and crew tell... many of them who were working for ‘experience’ and no fee on Adamson’s shoots. It’s also amazing to discover that he was working with the likes of such famous cinematographers as Vilmos Zsigmond and László Kovács very early on in their careers too.
Additionally, there’s the tale of the unseen footage, enough for three movies, where Adamson was called in to make a dramatised documentary film about UFOs. He was a total non-believer in the stuff until, it’s alleged (and then the various interview subjects clam up when they realise the camera is still running), he was taken to meet a fully documented alien/human hybrid person and that, after a while, everyone backed away from the film they had been making because they all thought it was too dangerous because... yeah, government and ‘other worldy’ intervention.
It’s also tells of the tragedy of his losing his wife Regina Carrol, who starred in most of his films, to cancer a few years before Al’s untimely death. Followed by that tragedy itself as Al was hammered to death by a friend who he was hiring to work on a ranch he was living at, only to be buried in a bag under where the old jacuzzi was, which had been ripped out and replaced with his corpse before being cemented in and having tiles laid out over the top of him. The last part of the documentary plays like a police procedural set of interviews as friends, relatives and various law enforcement officials talk you through the details of how the missing director was finally ‘discovered’ and how they found the culprit living in Florida with his latest girlfriend and her young child, safely bringing the killer (who denies it to this day but the evidence seems pretty damning) to justice (of a kind).
And, yeah, it’s certainly an interesting narrative... usually when a documentary of this kind surfaces, it doesn’t end with the director getting murdered in a way which wouldn’t look out of place in one of his own, sometimes gory movies. It’s a hell of a way to finish up a movie which suddenly takes a turn in a different direction from the way it started out and, of the two documentary films I’ve seen by David Gregory, as interesting as that other one was, I think this one is even better. It really is a nicely put together, informative and straight-on look at one of those ‘maverick’ directors, if I may use the term, who probably wouldn’t be remembered in a lot of people’s top ten movie lists but who certainly gave the backdrop of American cinematic culture an added layer of questionable texture and who is... unforgettable in his own way.
Of course, it goes without saying that Severin’s amazing new box set is crammed full of extras for each and every film (including this documentary) and is beautifully packaged as a book in a slip case with the fourteen Blu Rays housing the 32 films in a series of double page spreads including poster artwork from the films, not to mention a sizeable bound book talking about these, also housed within the slipcase. And if you don’t want to shell out for this full retrospective career of the man’s work, painstakingly restored by Severin in ways that you wouldn’t expect films like this to be enthusiastically resurrected, then this documentary can also be bought as a stand alone release from the same company. If you are into the history of exploitation films of all kinds... secret agents, blaxploitation, horror, sexy stewardesses and various examples of ‘niche’ moviemaking, Blood and Flesh - The Reel Life and Ghastly Death of Al Adamson is probably something you’re going to love. Definitely worth checking out, that’s for sure.
Thursday, 2 July 2020
Apropos Of Nothing
An autobiography by Woody Allen
Arcade Publishing ISBN: 139781951627348
Woody Allen was always my number one hero when I was a kid. I found just a few of his films almost unwatchable over the decades (Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex, Bullets Over Broadway, Match Point) but, out of the 33 films I’ve seen of the 51 films which he both wrote and directed, I’d say the rest of them were... at their worst hugely entertaining, well crafted films and, at their best, works of cinematic genius. Now, it’s very clear Allen wouldn’t agree with me on that one and it’s made more than evident in Apropos Of Nothing, his autobiography, that he never watches one of his films after it’s done and never looks back at them. In fact, I think he might even have got the release date order wrong in one case so, yeah, that all rings true.
This book really isn’t about him specifically as a film-maker though and, I don’t think he’d ever write that book. Indeed, I’m surprised he’s wanted to write a memoir at all but I guess he wanted to address some issues about certain accusations which have been hurled at him over the years. You know the ones I mean.
When I first heard that he’d been accused of molesting an adopted daughter I really didn’t think it sounded right. Admittedly, I don’t want to confuse the real life person (who nobody could really ever know much about unless you were a friend or lover) with his on-screen writing but, there are enough loaded one-liners and tonal observations dotted about his back catalogue of work which suggest the absolute opposite. So my thoughts were, since the accusations have twice been disproved in court quite concretely, that he really probably didn’t and I couldn’t understand why so many actors turned on him and publicly denounced him in spite of what I assumed was overwhelming evidence to the contrary of his possible guilt of the accusations.
Still, I like to keep an open mind so, for a while he was just a fallen hero and someone I still admired as a writer and an artist. I didn’t ever expect an autobiography to come along and I certainly didn’t expect to see publishing houses falling over themselves not to publish it. I knew I wanted to read it though... not just to hear his side of that story (which I expected not to be included, actually) but because I really did want to know a little more about his films (more than I finally got here but, that’s okay, there’s still 'gold in them thar hills'). When a little publisher called Arcade finally made the book available, to such little fanfare that it was already up for pre-order a week or two before I found out about it, I hit that order button as soon as I knew, even though the times were a changing and the UK was in lock down.
Having read the book... and one would obviously expect the writer to defend himself in some way and so maybe not all the words could be completely trusted (that’s the mindset I had going in)... I can honestly say that I am in no doubt in my mind now whatsoever that a) all the charges against him were untrue and completely fabricated and b) he is a victim of one woman with a far reaching clout and her smear campaign against him. How do I know that? Well, stick with me for the rest of this review and I’ll get there.
Okay, so the first 20 or so pages of the book are dealing with the life of his parents and Mr. Allen’s childhood and, I have to say, I was in a state of shell shock. It’s a bit ropey for a while. The writing style didn’t seem like the Woody Allen I knew at all. Not the cultured and sophisticated writer of short story collections, plays and, of course, screenplays. It seemed completely unpolished and I struggled for just a little while... until, suddenly, once he starts talking about his career going into writing gags for comedians and upwards from there and into the career he’s known for today, it snaps back into the version of Allen I am familiar with and it suddenly becomes a bright and breezy, well written tome. All was well again... after a fairly shaky start.
Now, as I said, if you’re expecting to hear relevant minutia about the way his films are shot, what lenses and lighting set ups he employs, how he crafts a plot idea... you may be a trifle disappointed. However, instead we have little details about the various women in his life (including his current wife Soon Yi, with whom he’s lived in married bliss for over two decades), directors and actors who he’s worked with or met (he still thinks Mia Farrow was excellent in the films they made together), various legal shenanigans and, well, just about everything else... and it’s a trade off which, if you’re anything like me, will leave you thinking you came out a lot better on the deal.
The book is gold and I do get the illusion, at least, that I know certain parts of his personality a little better. The mask probably doesn’t slip much but, the mask seems to be a wafer thin one anyway as he tends to put a lot of stuff out there in his usual, self depreciating manner. It also jumps around a bit so, the sometimes chaotic structure is sometimes the lesser of two evils, I feel, when it comes to reading the book as if you’re face to face with someone recollecting their adventures to you in person. Which is not a bad thing.
Then there’s the issue of those troublesome and tainting accusations. I was surprised at how much ink he’s written on the two periods of his life where these accusations slammed into him but I did have some take-aways with his account of these incidents. Number one is that... and I certainly don’t wish to slander anyone here... Mia Farrow comes across a lot of the time as manipulative, vindictive and... perhaps... mad as a bag of frogs. The reason that Allen went through the court system twice and was acquitted was because there was nothing to acquit him of. There are numerous witnesses and enough evidence that, anybody who wants to just check what’s on file will know how the accusations made couldn’t possibly be true but were, instead (and also in the opinion of a fair number of experts, it seems to me), the harshly concocted and re-enforced grudge campaign of a vengeful mind. Not only that but the story made up seems to have been based on a song written by the ex-wife of a former husband of Ms. Farrow (Dory Previn) that was performed many years before the two even met, from what I understand.
And there are more horrendous things which have been left unpunished but which were certainly nothing to do with Woody Allen, it would appear. There’s some stuff I don’t want to go into about Ronan Farrow and some of the other kids that... I think are worth reading about from this book. I also think I understand now... or am at least reminded... how corrupt a system is in place in certain professions in the United States and have an inkling why, with so much evidence around to the contrary, Mr. Allen is continually depicted these days as some kind of devil’s spawn. I also found it interesting to know which of the actors who denounced him told him they were only doing that under orders, so to speak, from their overlords. All I’m saying is, I hope I’m alive when certain facts do finally see the light of day and I hope Woody is around to see himself redeemed in the public eye too.
But as a parting shot on that particular subject... let me just remind you that Woody and his current partner have two adopted children. Standards are quite strict and many fiery hoops have to be negotiated before an adoption agency will let you adopt someone, from what I can tell. A child molester would absolutely not make the grade and the evidence is all there that this is just not the case with Mr. Allen. He’s has been stringently probed and allowed to adopt. So, yeah, maybe just think about that.
Something that did surprise me about the relationship between Woody and Mia was that, by his account (and I believe him), he never even spent the night at her home. They were never married and the relationship was very relaxed to the point that she would spend each summer completely away from him and it sometimes sounds like the worst kind of failing relationship at best. And that really is the last I want to say about that toxic relationship because, although Allen produced some really great art in that period, it couldn’t have been the easiest working environment to be in emotionally.
Yeah, there is a lot about that whole non-incident but there are some great nuggets of interest too. For instance, I said there wasn’t much on his film work but, that being said, I know now what to look out for if I want to see Michael Keaton in the final cut of The Purple Rose Of Cairo (he was replaced by Jeff Daniels early on in the shoot). I was also vaguely aghast to discover that Allen completely re-shot one of his films again with some different actors before it was released because he just wasn’t happy with the film the first time he made it.
It’s also kinda telling that he remains friends with, or on good terms with, various ex-wives and girlfriends over the years, including of course Diane Keaton, who is also an excellent photographer and, indeed, a recent photo of Woody by her is used for the back of the dust jacket to this book (the front is designed like a typical Woody Allen set of film title cards, monotone with white American typewriter style font and no images). And I found all the stuff about Louise Lasser simply enthralling too. I always liked her in her starring roles in his films, a while after they’d divorced, in Take The Money And Run and Bananas... not to mention her little cameo in my all time favourite Woody Allen movie, Stardust Memories (I fractured my foot trying to see that movie but, that’s another story).
So yeah, this is a longer review than I expected but I certainly came away from this book knowing in my heart what I was only suspecting before, Woody Allen is completely innocent (of any of those infamous charges at the very least) and I don’t have to have any kind of problem re-evaluating his work as an artist again. Which is handy, actually, because I have three uncracked Blu Ray box sets of his to watch for this blog and so now I can do so with a clearer mind. It’s nice that I can start to think of him as a hero again.
In conclusion, all I can say is, allowing him a fairly shaky start early on in the book, if you’re a fan of this comedic genius then you should have... at least an informative time with Apropos Of Nothing and, certainly in my case, an entertaining and unexpectedly enlightening one. I hate the various media and news outlets just a little more after reading this but, you know... I’d rather know. Definitely a strong recommendation from me, especially if you’re one of those who have been condemning this man without actually checking out the evidence, which seems to have been inevitably ruled in his favour in court a few times. I think this is a true account and I think you should maybe give it a read.
Tuesday, 30 June 2020
Son Of Frankenstein
USA 1939 Directed by Rowland V. Lee
Universal Blu Ray Zone B
Warning: Some spoilerage here.
So this next review of my rewatch of the classic Universal Monsters movies is another of my favourites... and it’s probably not hard for most people to see why. This is easily the best looking black and white movie of the 1930s that I’ve seen and the latest Blu Ray set from Universal certainly shows off the crisp monotone photography to its advantage. I’ll get back to the look of the film in a minute.
Son Of Frankenstein starts off a little differently to how I remembered it, with an opening sequence that highlights Bela Lugosi in the role of the convicted and hung murderer Ygor... who returned to life after being pronounced dead by the coroner some years before. This is followed by a town meeting scene which, if it does anything other than look nice, is all about reminding the audience just who Frankenstein and his creation were. We then cut to Basil Rathbone as the titular character, Baron Wolf von Frankenstein, his wife Elsa (played by Josephine Hutchinson) and his young son Peter (Donnie Dunagan), on a sleeping car train bound for the town where Wolf’s father did his infamous work. For some reason, the village is now called Frankenstein itself which, as we are aware from the mood of the villagers in the earlier part of the film, does nothing good for the tourist trade. This sequence, as they rumble into ‘Banhof Frankenstein’ shows off just how good the dialogue writing is here. Wolf is talking to Elsa about his father’s accursed legacy and he just gets up to the bit where he is about to say the family name...
“... nine out of ten people call that misshapen creature of my father’s experiments...”
when the railway porter shouts out “Frankenstein! Frankenstein!” to announce the stop. It’s a wonderful piece of early dialogue juxtaposition, taking two pieces of dialogue of differing intent and then rubbing them together to push the meaning of the first. It also nicely underlines the mistake of the commonly held assumption that the monster itself is called Frankenstein when, clearly, it is not.
Now lets talk about Rathbone here for a minute because he was at a turning point in his career. He did, however, detest appearing in horror movies although he would appear opposite Boris Karloff again in Jacques Tourneur’s 1963 AIP Edgar Allan Poe cycle entry, The Comedy Of Terrors, of course. His lack of respect of the horror genre might explain why this one is a little bit ‘all over the place’ in certain scenes he performs here but it’s easy to watch and a lot of fun too. I’ve always had a soft spot for Rathbone and you have to remember that this was only a year after he had played the villanous Sir Guy of Gisbourne opposite Errol Flynn in the definitive Robin Hood movie, The Adventures Of Robin Hood. His very next film after Son Of Frankenstein and released in the same year would be the one which was the first time he played the role which he is probably best well known for to this day... playing Sherlock Holmes opposite Nigel Bruce (as Doctor Watson) in the first of a long series of films and, also, a large number of radio shows starring the pair too.
He is, of course, ably supported in this by some great Universal regulars such as Boris Karloff, reprising his role as the Frankenstein monster. Now, despite the monster being able to speak in the last installment, The Bride Of Frankenstein (reviewed here), here he is once more rendered mute with no real explanation as to why. I love what he’s wearing in this too... instead of the dark jacket he’s wearing what can only be described as a furry tank top and it looks great. This is my favourite fashion look for the Frankenstein monster, for sure. This was the third and final time Karloff would play the role of Frankenstein’s creation but not his final role in a classic Universal Frankenstein movie, as you will see in an upcoming review. His scene with Rathbone as he discovers himself reflected in a mirror is quite long but expertly done as we see the monster pantomime various emotional states while he tries to come to terms with his hideous looks. This is pure cinema although, it has to be said, that when we have assassinations performed by the creature who then stages things to look like an accident with some considered thought, he does at times become the very thing that Karloff was afraid he would become with more exposure in a series of films... a professional killing machine.
Then we have Lionel Atwill, who appears in a number of these Universal monster movies but whose career was ruined just a few years later due to a scandalous sex orgy and rape party which took place at his home. Although he’s going to appear in a few of the films I will be reviewing after this, he died of lung cancer only seven years after Son Of Frankenstein was released. Of course, in this he plays the wonderfully Germanic Inspector Kogh, the one armed police inspector who is trying to find out who is doing all the killings in the village (funny how all the people who died are the same people who condemned Ygor to death). Even without the one armed police inspector in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein being based on him, his handicapped shenanigans in this do often border on the comical... especially when he plays Wolf at darts and sticks them all into his arm to store them as he is taking his turn.
By the way, when did it become normal to have only three darts to throw per player? Not before 1939 I guess because here they are playing with five a piece. The reason for Kogh's handicap however, is far from comical. His history goes that, when he was a young toddler, the Frankenstein monster was busy terrifying the villagers and he ‘tore his arm out by the root.’ Of course, once this information and disability is introduced, you just know it’s going to come back and be revisited on him again and, sure enough, in his final confrontation with the Frankenstein monster in the film, his artificial limb is torn from him by the monster, who tries to use it as a club to keep everybody back.
The basic plot of this is of Wolf trying to restore the long surviving monster in his father’s laboratory while trying to ignore the obvious that Ygor is using him as a killing machine while warding off the questions of the inspector... until he is finally threatened himself and after shooting Ygor dead with three bullets to the chest (although this is not enough of a mortal injury to prevent Lugosi reprising his role through the course of the next Frankenstein movie). He then finds himself trying to rescue his son who the monster has stolen from him in revenge for the killing, ready to throw him into the pit of sulphur which the laboratory was somehow built over. And, again, once you know there’s a pit of sulphur under the lab, it’s no prizes for guessing just how the creature will meet its supposed end in this film, after a bit of swashbuckling action from Rathbone saves the day when he swings from a winch and knocks Karloff into the pit. Then we watch a not so great dummy of the monster sink below the bubbling surface.
But enough of the story... it’s the look of the film which is where the strength of the picture lays. This is the Frankenstein film where the set design and lighting go ‘the full Caligari’ with amazing twisted geometry and dark, distorted blacks which reflect straight back to the German Expressionist form of cinema from which they derive, as fleeing film crews deserted Nazi Germany and pitched up into Hollywoodland. Just amazing angles and things that sit strangely within the beautiful, slanted compositions such as, for example, chairs with amazingly tall backs that only a giant would truly be able to appreciate. These are further highlighted by some beautiful shadow work. You know that scene at the start of the bar fight in Raiders Of The Lost Ark, where Spielberg emphasises people by having their shadows arrive first... well that style was always straight out of the 1920s/30s where that kind of emphasis on the look was common.
For example, there’s a wonderful moment where Rathbone follows Lugosi into a kind of tomb-like approach to the laboratory. Rathbone’s silhouette, completely black, is framed perfectly in the doorway at the centre of the shot with his shadow cast down below him and into the laps of the audience at the foreground of the shot... then Lugosi lights a torch on the wall which instantly allows Rathbone’s full figure to materialise out of the silhouette, while still maintaining the shadow... expert stuff. Another shot where Rathbone’s shadow precedes him up a ladder, through a hatch in the floor before Rathbone follows it up into the shot, is also mesmerising. And even the shadow of a ladder that Rathbone descends from in one scene, has a twisted rung accenting the strange and angular set design. Like I said, it’s one of the best looking and best lit movies of the 1930s you are ever likely to see.
There’s also an interesting addition to the Frankenstein legend in this one. Wolf’s research reveals that, unknown to his father, it wasn’t just the lightning he summoned into the creature which gave life to the creation that Karloff so brilliantly plays on screen. It was, in fact, according to this iteration of Shelley’s creation... cosmic rays. These had already been known about when Victor Hess discovered them in 1912 and my guess is they were still fresh in people’s minds since Hess had won a Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery only three years before this picture was released. So that’s kind of interesting I think (and yes, I had to look that up when the words were uttered on screen... I had no idea as my first exposure to the term myself was as a kid in a reprint of the first issue of Fantastic Four from 1961).
I’d better mention the music too, while I’m here. This was the first of the classic Universal horrors to feature the music of Frank Skinner (who was often paired with Hans Salter in later movies in the various monster series). It’s a classic score and the one which, despite the strength and influence of Franz Waxman’s score for the previous Frankenstein film, ended up becoming the classic, ‘brand sound’ for the Universal monster movies that followed it. Lots of this was recycled into other horror films by the company over the years and it became quite evocative of a certain kind of genre package, especially after the various films aired on television in the late 1950s when it gathered a lot of recognition and a large following with film music fans. The montage sequence where Wolf cures the ailing monster is almost as splendid as Waxman’s creation music from The Bride Of Frankenstein and the score is even used, in this film, in a metatextual manner in two scenes. In those scenes, Ygor is seen playing a bizarre looking kind of flute/horn and the tune he plays is... Skinner’s main monster theme to the movie. So, again, a nice touch and, perhaps, somewhat ahead of its time.
And there you have it. Not much more to say about Son Of Frankenstein other than... it’s an absolutely brilliant film and worth the time of any true lover of cinema to sit down and study. I can’t over emphasise the sheer spectacle of the mise en scène in this movie... it’s absolutely gorgeous and there’s absolutely no way you can go wrong with a film of this calibre. The last great Frankenstein movie... not the last fun or watchable one, for sure but, in terms of greatness, this one was the absolute peak of perfection for the Universal Horror series and the success of it convinced the company to resurrect its now, almost retired, monsters for a huge amount of sequels throughout the 1940s... all of which I hope to review for you on here some time soon. If you are any fan of not just horror movies but the art of cinema in general then, this one is simply not something you’d want to miss out on. So good.
Sunday, 28 June 2020
The Stake’s Progress
Lake Of Dracula
aka Noroi no yakata: Chi o suu me
Japan 1971 Directed by Michio Yamamoto
TohoArrow Films Blu Ray Zone B
So here we have Lake Of Dracula, which is the second, tentative, entry into what is nowadays being called The Bloodthirsty Trilogy on the recent Arrow films release. Again, a bit of a misnomer because the films really don’t have a lot of blood in them, at least the first two films don’t (I’ve yet to see the third one but plan on getting to it before this review is published). So, barring the occasional blob of blood on the mouth of an undead creature of the night or dog, don’t expect too much in the way of goriness from this one until you get to the final sequence here which, even compared to the previous movie The Vampire Doll (reviewed here), is not really in any way gruesome, it has to be said.
This film stars Midori Fujita as Akiko, the films main female protagonist. We see her character first as a little girl in a pre-credits sequence which is referred to for most of the rest of the film as the recurring dream this character has in real life. After her dog Leo escapes her, she finds him in a ‘vampire house’ but we don’t find out what happened to her when she goes in here until the finale of the film, more or less. However, after the credits finish we find her some... I dunno... maybe twenty years later, living with her sister Natsuko, played by Sanae Emi. They live right by Lake Fujimi which, I’d like to say is the Lake Of Dracula but... there are some things which stop me from making that connection, it has to be said. For a start, it turns out that the lead vampire harkens from Akiko’s home town which is a coastal town and not by a lake. And though he has his coffin delivered to Akiko’s new locality decades later, the lake has no real tie in to the story in any way, it has to be said.
Another reason why I’m hesitant to call this place the Lake Of Dracula is because, like the previous movie, Dracula isn’t actually in it. He gets a mention at least once in the English subtitles but he’s nowhere to be seen. At least, though, the unnamed vampire character is actually a true vampire this time, unlike the character in The Vampire Doll, around which there seemed to be a fair bit of doubt. There’s also a bit of back story to his character which does, at least, suggest that he is the great grandson of Dracula so, you know, that’s something. Perhaps ‘Dracula’s Heir’ may have been a better title.
Anyway, after his coffin arrives and the locality suffers some sinister, vampiric goings on, it’s up to Akiko and her doctor fiance Takashi, played by Chôei Takahashi, to investigate the unexplained shenanigans and get to the truth of her connection to the vampire. And also find out why her sister is suddenly acting so strangely, too. Actually, the fact that she begins wearing a scarf half way through the movie after she starts acting as sinisterly as she was sisterly should be a dead giveaway, I’d have thought, that she is hiding fang marks. As would be the fact that her face seems to be several shades paler than usual after a certain point in the movie but, hey, what do I know about siblings?
The vampire himself looks very good and he is played here by Shin Kishida, who was apparently quite often cast for his sinister looks. Readers may recognise him for his excursions in other famous Japanese movies including roles in entries in the Zatoichi, Lone Wolf and Cub, Hanzo The Razor and Godzilla movies... not to mention the Zatoichi TV show. He doesn’t have a lot to do in this film, to be sure but he does look good and wears a long white scarf to offset his dark clothing, making him look the very height of vampire fashion in most of his scenes. Neil Tennant wears a very similar costume in the Pet Shop Boys movie It Couldn’t Happen Here (reviewed here) and I wonder if he caught this film back in the days when he used to go to Scala screenings.
The film looks as good as the last one, with the director slicing the screen up a lot into slats and placing his characters into situations where natural or often unnatural (this is a movie after all... everything is as controlled as you can get it) verticals and horizontals box them into their own area of the screen. He also does something a few times which gives me pause to think in that, sometimes, when all the characters have exited the screen, he will choose to hold the shot for a couple of seconds with nothing else going on. Not sure why he does that but it isn’t jarring in any way and doesn’t detract from the pacing too much.
Okay, so lets talk about the dog. I’m firmly convinced that the film-makers threw the ‘dream’ angle in there for a bit... before it’s confirmed as a true memory and not a dream... to stop the audience realising something is very wrong with Leo the dog. When he runs away at the start of the film he definitely seems to be a different breed of dog to what he eventually grows up to be. Which is pretty strange casting if you ask me. Also, the fact that this dog must be over 20 makes no sense as it’s still running about everywhere and getting into trouble... I would say the ‘grown up’ version of Leo is no older than 10 so... yeah, it’s a pretty tenuous version of doggy reality/continuity if you ask me. Maybe Leo always wanted to be some kind of Alsatian when he grew up. Who knows?
This does seem to be one of those films where, as brilliant as the technical stuff is, there’s always something really silly going on in the main narrative content to counter the remarkable achievements of the crew. For example, there’s a fight sequence in the car where Takashi has a fist fight with this film’s version of a kind of Renfield character... as in a character who has been vamped up to serve his new master. It goes on for a while and takes place completely in the car with a lot of juddery, handheld camera work... and it must have been a really tough thing to shoot. I have no idea how the cameraman was able to get in there with them and keep himself out of the way of the action... but it’s pretty good stuff.
However, as I said... lots of silly stuff too. For instance, when Akiko and Takashi are reading the notebooks of the completely non-vampiric but dead father of the film’s lead vampire... they get to a point where his narrative voice stops because our two heroes are discovered and cornered in the room they are reading this from by the vampire himself. However, the vampire carries on the narrative on the back story for them at the exact moment that they left off reading. Seriously, how does that happen? How would he know which part of the story the inner voice of these two characters had gotten too? Makes absolutely no sense.
So there you have it. All said and done though, I really enjoyed this one almost as much as the previous as it gives off that kind of Hammer meets Amicus meets AIP kind of vibe which the first one had in spades. As does the musical score. Lake Of Dracula is a minor vampire film but fans of the conventions of the genre should be happy enough with this, is my guess. Grab it while you can and fangs me later.
Thursday, 25 June 2020
Joker Lives Matter
Wild Cards - Three Kings
Edited by George R. R. Martin & Melinda M. Snodgrass
Harper Voyager ISBN: 9780008283599
Three Kings is the 28th in the Wild Cards series of mosaic novels which have been going since the 1980s. This one is the second of the British interlocking viewpoints into the Wild Cards saga, following on directly from the various stories in the previous volume, Knaves Over Queens (which I reviewed here). Pop into my book index and you’ll see all the more recent novels, from the last ten years, have been reviewed here so if you want to get a flavour of what the Wild Card universe consists of, then you should maybe have a look at one of those earlier reviews before diving in here.
So, I said in my last review that I thought the new UK series, while excellent, had rather shot its bolt by having so many decades rushed through in one volume. So yeah, this one is set square bang in a few weeks ranging from February to March 2020... finishing literally before a real life virus shut down the nation. Coronavirus is, unsurprisingly, not mentioned here in any form and, since this is an alternate reality anyway, it doesn’t need to be. Something tells me though that, had the writers known just what would be going on in the world right now, they would have slipped some sly references in.
That being said, there are parallels to things happening right now as this particular story deals with rioting on the streets as the Twisted Fists (still headed by The Green Man from the previous story), Britain First and other factions fight in the streets as rioting breaks out at some point over the monarchy and who will be on the throne at the end of the story.
This one starts off with the dying Queen Margaret (Elisabeth drew the Black Queen and died from the Wild Cards virus before ever taking the throne, back in the 1940s) who entrusts Alan Turing, the Ace known as Enigma, to search back through the records to find her Joker offspring, abandoned at birth, as she fears both her sons, Richard and Henry The Ninth (as he becomes for a while) are incapable of taking over from her competently. And so is set in motion a chain of events involving Turing, Richard, The Green Man, Noel/Lilith, Constance the Ace fashion designer (still making protective clothing for the new monarchy, much to her anger) and one or two other players including, of course, the evil Irish crow Goddess Badb who is pretty successfully manipulating everything, unknown to all the others, in the hopes that she can turn Great Britain into a bloodbath of heroic proportions.
And like pretty much any of the Wild Card books you’d care to grab over the years, this one is a great, fast paced yarn full of pathos, drama, action and, as it happens, the death of at least one regular character (or more, I’m not going to tell you). This one is also one of the less fragmented of the mosaic novels. Unlike the last volume, which fit together various stand alone stories, this one is taken bit by bit from multiple viewpoints of specific characters and locks together as a quite seamless story. What this means is that you have specific goals and character motivations which you can focus on and watch (or read, I guess) play out as an arc over the whole story, rather than having lots of mini climaxes throughout.
It goes without saying, at least in the Wild Cards novels, that you care for each and all of the characters... except for the villains of the piece, obviously. Even though the pacing on this is terrific and the stakes are high (at least on a national level, it’s nothing compared to some of the threats faced in the Wild Cards universe which, quite recently, nearly saw the destruction of the world), it still manages to explore the subtleties and worries of the main characters in a way that will have you investing in their well-being from the start and, of course, that means the narrative can really punch you in the gut when each and every twist or death is just around the next corner.
In terms of its space within the engulfing Wild Cards shared universe, there really aren't that many links to the more US or global based novels in the series and there’s not even a Croyd Crenson sighting or much of anything about what’s been going on in the world since it almost ended in High Stakes (which I reviewed here). You won’t miss that though because there’s so much going on while the Knights Of The Silver Helix (as the Ace division of the British Secret Service are known) are trying to find any information at all which has been buried in the past about a possible heir to the throne before the Joker-hating Henry the Ninth gets properly bedded into the throne and his supporters take to the streets to attack the least fortunate heirs of the Wild Card virus.
There are shifts in allegiance for some of the characters here, as Aces switch sides or are asked to do things which go against their role in the grand scheme of things. And, of course, there are many sacrifices along the way, not just the loss of life but various acts of betrayal and redemption as the clash of the cold war meeting terrorist organisations like the Twisted Fists (technically) forces people into situations and actions which might seem unthinkable to them in lighter times.
And that’s all I’ve got to say about Three Kings... I’m not going to go into too many details here but I will say that, while there is a sense of resolution to things as they are, there are also some characters that I really hope they don’t leave behind. What I’m saying is... I hope this is another of the mini trilogys that pop up from time to time in the Wild Cards universe. I need to know what becomes of the relationship between Constance and Bobbin, for starters. And Alan Turing’s arc seems a little unresolved too, I would say. So I hope the next volume in the series is published sooner rather than later. These characters come alive so well on the page it would be a shame to lose them just yet, even though most of the main players in this one are in their seventies or over. As usual I will end this by saying that, if you’re a loyal reader of the Wild Cards books, Three Kings is an absolute winner. If you’re not that familiar with them though, this is really not a good jumping on point and you should maybe consider reading them in publication order.
Tuesday, 23 June 2020
The Haunting Of Hill House -
Extended Director’s Cut
10 episodes. 2018
Directed by Mike Flanagan
Paramount Blu Ray Zone B
Warning: This one has spoilers for pretty much all iterations of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting Of Hill House.
Well this is going to be a hard one to write about because, in some ways, it feels almost like a personal attack on one of my favourite movie adaptations, the great 1963 version of The Haunting (which I reviewed here), based on Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting Of Hill House. Easily the best horror movie ever made and I suspect that’s why horror director Mike Flanagan, who I actually find fairly hit and miss, was so drawn to it. Everybody loves this novel/movie and, if you can get it right, it’s one of the scariest things you could do.
Alas, I’ll be up front here and say the reason why I’m torn on this new TV series ‘adaptation’, for want of a better word, is that it happens to be a quite well made TV show while, at the same time, having almost nothing in common with the original text.
That’s not to say the original text doesn’t make it into this iteration. It’s peppered all over the place throughout the series, just in completely different context. Richard Johnson’s opening delivery of Shirley Jacksons words, for example, open the series but this time spoken by the character Steven Crain and it is he who speaks dead Eleanour’s (Nell’s) lines at the end of this version.
Other examples would be the repeat dialogue from caretaker Mrs. Dudley’s line reading... “In the night... in the dark.” At least it’s, most of the time, Mrs. Dudley’s character who is saying it throughout the series here but there are a lot of lines of dialogue which are taken out of the mouths of others and given to different characters with a completely different context to the words... kinda like a fanboy homage to the original. Which in some way, I can’t really blame the writers for.
And as for the “Oh God, who’s hand was I holding!” moment, which was so terrifying in the 1963 adaptation (even though it was used as a highlight of the trailer), it’s referenced here at least twice by different characters. It’s like they wanted to have two different ways of giving us the same kind of scare (which is truly terrifying in the novel and original film version) but failing in the scare department and indulging themselves twice.
Not to mention a load of name drop references to people and things associated with the legacy... such as the funeral home being called Harris, in reference to Julie Harris who played Eleanour/Nell in the original movie. Heck, they even bring back Russ Tamblyn, who played Luke in the original, as Nell’s psychiatrist. Not to mention Nell’s ‘paranormal’ hail stone attack back story incident actually being present in the narrative, albeit given to the mother figure here, Olivia.
So, okay... I’ll start off with listing all the really bad points before finding my way to the positives because, it is a gripping TV show, even if it has nothing to do with the original...
Rather than three strangers brought together by the parapsychologist in the original... Nell, Theo and Luke are all siblings, along with their other brother and sister Steven and Shirley (obviously named after writer Shirley Jackson). They, along with their mother and father, played here by Carla Gugino of Sin City and Henry Thomas, who played the little boy in E.T. - The Extra Terrestrial, all live for a few months in Hill House. So when they eventually return (in the final episode), the events which are manifest are things which have been with them all their lives.
And the film takes a time jump kind of approach... which wouldn’t really be even doable if the director was making a straight adaptation. That is to say, the narrative keeps cross cutting from when the central characters were kids in Hill House to their various lives in the present (like in the original Stephen King novel IT)... where we have Timothy Hutton playing the older version of Henry Thomas’ Hugh Crain... another name which will mean something to fans of the original work but, again, taken totally out of context here. It’s actually not that confusing but the very nature of the structure is enough to tip you off to certain things as, of course, ghost stories have always been trafficking in states of temporal manipulation... ghosts by their very nature are ‘of a time’ different to that when they manifest.
For example, the death of Eleanour at the end of the novel/film is done and dusted in the very first of these ten episodes (half of the content of which doesn’t even take place in the titular residence). It’s not even the same death, instead it harkens back to the character who hung herself from the top of the spiral staircase at the start of the 1963 version. However, once Eleanour dies it’s more than enough to tip off the audience that the ‘bent-neck lady’ as seen by young Eleanour throughout the series, is obviously her older self revisiting backwards in time. I actually got there way before the character died right back near the start of the first episode actually but, yeah, by the end of the episode I think most people would have twigged it and it becomes something of a spoiler. Unless, maybe, Flanagan intended it to be just that, in order to give more meaning to the structure of the show itself... I dunno, could be, I suppose.
Another big element for me which kinda failed is that, unlike the 1963 movie, the show is not actually scary. And when it does go for some fright scenes it uses that technique of making the ambient sound in a room sound more ‘fizzy’ (a technical term, obviously) and it telegraphs (subconsciously for some, perhaps) that something unusual is about to happen. The 1963 one had outstanding sound design and that added much to the scary atmosphere... here it’s just like every other horror movie you see these days and... sometimes that works and sometimes that doesn’t but if you’re going to do a film following in the steps of the classic movie, then maybe you want to do something more jarring or special with the sound?
Also, the big, clever trick of the 1963 version is that you really see very little and your head puts the frights together for you... for this one, the big ‘scare’ moments are anything but subtle and often come across as cheap tricks.
Okay, I’m coming off as a little negative here but only because I love the original versions in their respective media so much. This TV show is actually quite well put together, in spite of some of my earlier criticisms...
For instance, the way the director inserts ghostly figures appearing and disappearing from certain scenes, such as a 360 degree pan which both includes and excludes ghosts depending on which revolution it is on. Or some nice transitions such as... one of those when they definitely got the sound right... a man nailing a frame to a wall in one shot cutting to a guy in Hill House knocking in a chimney as the bangs, slightly exaggerated, spill over between both shots and time zones.
There are also some nice moments scattered throughout where the director uses a very slow, almost imperceptible zoom on a static shot and, clichéd as this has perhaps become in modern horror, he makes this work fairly well and, while the show isn’t actually nearly as scary as it seems to want to be, it’s certainly handled competently as a technique and adds to a voyeuristic, creepy atmosphere which is held throughout the show’s ten episodes.
So yeah... some nice stuff and, because of the decade in which Flanagan is directing this from, Theo’s lesbianism is much more overt than what the Robert Wise directed version got away with when the character was played by Claire Bloom, where it was definitely there in a kind of capitalised highlight of the subtext but, by nature of its time (I suspect), much more suppressed.
Another interesting thing... and I didn’t even realise this until I was about four episodes in... is that the majority of episodes, bar a few of them, are all told through the eyes of one of the main characters. So Luke, Steve, Shirley, Eleanour, Theo, the mother and father are all given their own episode and, of course, this helps with certain ‘reveals’ when an event already witnessed by one character catches up with another character and we can see the whole picture. Such as when Carla Gugino smashes the mirror of a dresser in one scene. I mean, yeah, it’s pretty obvious what caused her character to do this but it’s nice seeing it revisited from her eyes when the time comes. So, while the structure of the way the story is presented may seem ponderous or padded out some of the time, it actually really isn’t... it’s just a complex puzzle the director is presenting to us in an interesting way and, I have to say, it must have been really hard to keep it all in your head in the right order at the writing stage when certain things need to be injected into a specific person’s episode and still be a ‘reveal’ when scenes are revisited. I wonder how much of that stuff was created serendipitously in the editing room.
So yeah, that’s me about done with this particular project. The Haunting Of Hill House TV show is an entertaining enough horror series with much more to be admired than scared of but, absolutely not anything like the original source material and fans of previous versions of this might find this a huge barrier to getting any enjoyment of the show. So if you’ve not read the original novel or seen the 1963 classic, then you will probably get a heck of a lot more out of this than others might. I’ll just leave you with this one thought though... in the 1963 movie, Eleanour, once she has ‘passed on’ and become a ghost, gives us the closing narration... “Hill House has stood for ninety years and will probably stand for ninety more. And we who walk at Hill House, walk alone.” In this version, it’s a very much alive Steven Crain who narrates the famous line reading but, this time around, it’s changed to... “And those who walk there, walk together.” Which is a very different look at the equation and says something, perhaps everything, about this new manifestation of what is, to many, a classic piece of literary and cinematic horror. Still, after all these years, it’s nice to see that walls continue upright, bricks meet neatly and the floors are still, to this day, firm.
Sunday, 21 June 2020
A Warm Nun
It Couldn't Happen Here
UK 1987 Directed by Jack Bond
BFI LTD Edition Book Version
Dual Blu Ray Zone B/DVD Region 2
Earlier this week the British Film Institute released this limited edition of the Pet Shop Boys’ feature film, It Couldn't Happen Here... and I bet they wish they’d manufactured more because the thing sold out in less than a week, by the looks of it. I’m glad I pre-ordered mine though and if you want to see the film but were too slow to hit the order button, they have announced they will be releasing a standard edition later in the year. I grabbed this one because I remember I really liked it at the time and it stirs up a few memories.
I was into the music of the Pet Shop Boys back then and, in particular, their second album Actually, which was released in 1987 (the same year that this film previewed at the London Film Festival). A lot of the songs in this movie come from that album and I was interested in seeing just how you put visuals to these works. My memory is a little hazy on these things (being as it was so long ago) but I think I first saw it at my local ABC/Canon/whatever cinema it was, just around the corner from me in Enfield, when it was released theatrically in 1988. I can’t remember if my best friend Kerry was with me at that screening or if I showed him the VHS tape a year or two later but, I remember he must have liked it a little because he kept reciting one of the lines used by Gareth Hunt in the movie to repeatedly irritate those around him... “Ha, ha, ha! Only a laugh, no harm done.” Kerry also used it like this and I enjoyed him slipping it into conversation with people who had no idea what he was quoting.
Anyway, the film was... and still is for that matter... at least in some ways, a typical ‘pop star movie’. Only a tenuous story at best (or not really at all in this case) as the stars are put in situations where they get caught up in little episodes with people and get to sing their songs. You know the score... films like A Hard Day’s Night (The Beatles), Head (The Monkees) and Spice World (the Spice Girls)... all of which I admire for different reasons but, yeah, you can certainly tell a pop promo style musical.
Here we also have the usual load of star actors supporting our heroes... Tennant and Lowe... as they wander aimlessly through a series of pop video styled visuals and keep us, hopefully, entertained for the length of the feature. In this one we have people like the aforementioned Gareth Hunt (who was famous in the UK for playing Gambit in The New Avengers), Neil Dickson (playing a World War I fighter pilot, similar to his turn a few years earlier in Biggles), Joss Ackland (well he gets in everything) and the one and only Barbara Windsor. What a Carry On.
There’s also a big side helping of quite deliberate surrealism underlying the film, in a way which only Head (out of those examples above) shares with it in intent. It’s distinctly British and it belongs to what I would call a certain kind of ‘almost golden’ era of British cinema which I sometimes refer to as... the Palace Pictures era. If anything, the film kind of has the atmosphere and visual density in some parts, of the kind of films directed by Peter Greenaway around the same time. In fact, if somebody asked Greenaway to make a movie to a bunch of pop songs, I can’t help thinking that he might have come up with something similar to this - the two zebra men leading the zebra around, the free moving ventriloquist’s dummy waxing lyrical about the nature of time and the not entirely inevitable creation of tea cups, the nuns with their suspenders and garters who strip off and do a lovely dance to the hit song It’s A Sin (one of a few in the film choreographed by Strictly Come Dancing star and Hot Gossip choreographer Arlene Philips), a man going about his day but on fire and, of course, Joss Ackland as a blind priest/serial killer getting away with, as only he could by this point, telling the old nymphomaniac who only gets turned on by Jewish cowboys joke.
And it’s of its time. There’s lots to look at if you don’t mind the sometimes pretentious use of Tennant’s lyrics recited by him straight on the voice over narrative but delivering it in his distinctive style. For instance, in the performance of the hit song by the Pet Shop Boys with Dusty Springfield, What Have I Done To Deserve This?, we have Neil Tennant on the phone with Barbara Windsor miming to Dusty’s singing and, at one point, she’s spinning around in front of the camera on a swivel chair. This is cross cut with the telephone box that Neil Tennant is making the call from also spinning around in front of the camera and it’s the kind of shot where you might not at first click what’s going on until you realise it’s not the camera moving... it’s the people and their props. Effective and interesting stuff like this certainly helps you forget the lack of substance to the content of the film and both the Pet Shop Boys hold up pretty well in this movie... especially when you consider the wealth of acting talent they’ve surrounded themselves with in this film. It’s also very colourful and I can’t help think but the film must have played really well when it was screened at the old Scala Cinema at Kings Cross at the time. I think Tennant, at least, was a semi-regular attendee at some of those outrageously off kilter Scala double bills (which I talk about a little in my review of Jane Giles book on the Scala here) and one wonders if some of that atmosphere and sensibility was injected both into his music and, certainly, into this movie.
And that’s pretty much all I have to say about this one except the limited edition packaging of the film by the BFI is pretty nicely done, with both the Blu Ray and DVD discs housed in a hardback book which comes out from the bounding slipcase and which features a fair amount of essays on the film and the people behind it. There’s also a round of extras (as yet unwatched by me) which include the pop video, partially culled from this movie, for the hit Pet Shop Boys song cover version of Always On My Mind and an interview with dance choreographer Arlene Phillips. My one regret is that there’s no extra feature on the music of Ennio Morricone, who collaborated with Tennant and Lowe on the song which gives this movie it’s title. Nobody ever seems to mention this and I remember accidentally discovering his name included in very small print on the Actually CD when it came out but... with absolutely no fanfare. Strange that. Anyhow, It Couldn’t Happen Here maybe looks a little dated in places but it’s a great film for capturing a certain time and feel of British cinema. If you’re old enough to remember that time... or if you’re a Pet Shop Boys fan obviously... then you should have a good time with this movie, actually.
Thursday, 18 June 2020
Raiders Of The Lost Bukkake
Mothra VS Godzilla
aka Godzilla VS The Thing
aka Mosura tai Gojira
Japan 1964 Directed by Ishirô Honda
Godzilla - The Showa Era Box Set Blu Ray Zone B
Mothra VS Godzilla is a sequel to both Mothra (which I reviewed here) and King Kong VS Godzilla (which I reviewed here). Directed by original Gojira and Mothra director Ishirô Honda, this is pretty much the last time in the Showa Wave of Godzilla films that he is portrayed totally as a menacing figure. Barring, of course, him being controlled by evil aliens but, yeah, I’ll get to that in a future review.
Another thing it shares with both the original Gojira and Mothra movies, courtesy of this particular director, is the slow and ponderous nature of the plot which once again concentrates on various human characters such as those portrayed by Akira Takarada, Yuriko Hoshi and Hiroshi Koizumi. This way of gradually building to the inclusion of the main monster characters can often work well but, as far as I’m concerned, this really doesn’t help the pacing at all on this one and the characters themselves, even the token human villains out to exploit Mothra’s egg, are all pretty dull and forgetful. The only bright spot is, of course, the pop duo The Peanuts, reprising their miniature roles from the first Mothra movie. Alas, their single costume in this is pretty hideous and it’s hard to take them seriously when they are wearing such silly, furry hats.
So the basic plot set up is this. After a mudslide caused by a typhoon carries Mothra’s egg onto the ocean and out to a beach in Japan, it is ‘bought’ by a philanthropist and his naive but still evil co-investor to design a theme park around it. The Peanuts try to retrieve the egg but are left empty handed. Then Godzilla rises from a beach in much the same way that a future George A. Romero zombie would and starts causing havoc. In fact, for a while there he just seems to be stumbling around and tripping over things, accidentally destroying them, until his aimless path of destruction becomes more focused and intentional.
The humans from Japan manage to enlist the aid of the original Mothra, who is near the end of her life cycle, to try to repel Godzilla. Alas, halfway through the first battle, Mothra finally expires but then the egg hatches and it seems she has given birth to twins. Two twin larvae finally take Godzilla down and then return with The Peanuts to Infant Island where they originated.
This one was very popular in Japan but, I have to say, the pacing really drags it down and the special effects don’t really hold up as well as even some of the earlier movies in the series. Shots of the giant Mothra egg on the beach while people stand around it and watch look terrible and it’s obvious from the inclusion of these shots that the close up scenes of the egg on the beach show the only small portion of the shell that the effects department built to full scale. The cracks on the egg as it hatches look a bit better than last time this happened though, it has to be said.
Some of the battles look okay and although her spawn only ever remain in their larvae state, the original Mothra looks pretty good. There’s also some interesting shot choices in the movie too. For instance, one of the shots of a cityscape has the camera panning along, stopping and then going back to a building it just passed before zooming in on one of the windows to give us the establishing shot of the next interior scene. This is quite bizarre and is almost a foreshadowing of the way modern TV shows use the camera in a kind of reactive mode to ‘find their shot’ as a play for authenticity.
Other things of interest in the movie include a scene where one villain punches the other and his face gets really bloody, before he shoots the other guy. And they don’t skimp on the blood there either... which is strange for a film which many might perceive to be a ‘family, kid-friendly movie’ but this ‘adult’ tone is not the last time this will occur in a Godzilla movie, if memory serves.
That being said, nobody even thinks to ask who or what it was that’s got Mothra in her pregnant state in the first place. Seriously, who has a penis big enough to fertilise Mothra? I didn’t notice Chuck Norris anywhere in the movie so this is a real plot hole.
And talking of penises... that’s exactly what the two Mothra larvae look like in the last ten minutes, when they take on Godzilla. Basically bobbing up and down and spraying Tokyo’s nemesis with white webby stuff which looks pretty much like they are... um.. cumming all over Godzilla’s head and shoulders repeatedly. Yep, I wouldn’t mind betting this is where the Japanese porn staple of bukkake really started, foreshadowing it by around 20 years. Never mind The Big G... this is pretty much The Big GGG (and if you understand that joke then you have no right to come complaining to me about the observation and, if you don’t understand it, don’t Google it around kids or at work and don’t say I didn’t warn you).
Ultimately, this film hasn’t aged well but it does have a nice score by Akira Ifukube, although the main march is absent. It also references certain orchestrations and melodies from Yûji Koseki’s score from Mothra, including The Peanuts doing a new rendition of the famous song. So there’s that. Certainly, Godzilla watchers will need to see this one in order to get all the links between previous and future films but it’s nowhere near the best in the series, for sure. That being said, the rushed production and release of the next one in the series, Ghidorah - The Three Headed Monster, brought out the same year as this one, is a fair bit better, if my memory of it is anything to go by. I guess I’ll be finding out for sure soon enough.