Thursday, 31 October 2013

'Salem's Lot

Barlow Sugar

'Salem's Lot
1979 USA
Directed by Tobe Hooper
Warner Brothers DVD Region 2

There’s an image which has stuck in my memory over the years but it rarely haunts my dreams the way it did as a child. A big double window made of various panes, looking out into the night through this window and the fog rolls in. Out of the fog, a small boy floats towards the window, his eyes black rimmed and glowing. He starts to tap/scratch on the window... he needs entrance and, of course, everybody knows a vampire has to be invited in.

This scene is something I saw in either 1979 or 1981, if you believe the UK TV release date from the IMDB (which I don’t as it happens, pretty sure it aired both in 1979 and 1981 over here). It’s one of many images which made a distinct impression in my mind when I was just 11 years old (or 13 depending on whether you believe etc), as I watched, over two consecutive nights I think it was, the two episode mini series ‘Salem’s Lot. I already liked (and had bad dreams from) various horror movies as a growing lad (most notably with the series of Quatermass remakes by Hammer) and I was doubly curious because it also had David Soul in it, who had just finished his very successful four year run as one half of what the BBC television announcer would weekly proclaim as, “those rough, tough but likable cops” Starsky and Hutch. Soul played Ken Hutchinson, the weedy one, but it was still kind of interesting to see how he would be acting in something else.

What can I say? Not only is he pretty brilliant in this (and I don’t even want to think about the TV mini-series remake of Casablanca he was in where he played Bogart’s role, thanks very much) but ‘Salem’s Lot is actually a quite brave and interesting piece of US horror television, following in the footsteps, perhaps, of the two extremely successful TV movies The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler and the one season TV show they spawned, Kolchak: The Night Stalker. 

It’s been a long while. 34 years (or 32, depending on, yeah you know that bit already) and I have to say, it’s really stood the test of time. I do think that this is the stand-out career highlight for director Tobe Hooper, director of the original version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and, allegedly, pseudo-director of... erm... Steven Spielberg’s Poltergeist. There are things that people of a younger generation might find hard going about this one these days... it had a pace all it’s own and most kiddies these days might not be able to sit still for that... but for people of my generation who were terrified and in love with the show, as I was, well it really isn’t all that dated compared to the original broadcast years ago.

The first episode starts off with a scene which takes place two years after the main narrative of the show and we meet David Soul as Ben and Lance Kerwin as Mark, still running from the events you are about to watch. A little bit of business with a vial of Holy Water which glows blue and then we’re into the jigsaw-like typography of the main credits, as composer Harry Sukman’s unbelievable score quotes the Dies Irae for a little bit before propelling us at high speed through a main title piece which is so startling and memorable that I’m surprised it hasn’t been released as a soundtrack before now. It was, in fact, released as a limited edition, 2 disc CD soundtrack a mere two weeks ago and I expect it will sell out soon (mine arrived a couple of days ago and it's been well played already) but the score is astounding in its moody atmosphere and that title music, I suspect, may have even been inspiration for Danny Elfman’s opening titles for Beeteljuice (and may also have been “inspired” itself by Bernard Herrmann’s Skeleton Duel music from The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad). That’s just my own flight of fancy speculation, of course... but I do believe it. 

Then we get in to the main story as writer Ben returns to his home town of ‘Salem’s Lot in Maine (where the writer of the original novel, Stephen King, sets most of his books and, indeed, lives), once known as Jerusalem’s Lot but shortened over the centuries. He comes to write the story of a house that terrified him as a child. A house where... bad things happen and, by a strange coincidence, where bad things are happening again. And this is where King pays tribute to (or just plain steals and splices in) the original Bram Stoker version of Dracula. With James Mason’s Mr. Straker acting as a Renfield substitute to “Mr. Barlow”, who is a vampire modelled after the Max Schreck performed creature in F. W. Murnau’s original Nosferatu: A Symphony Of Horror (hmmm... Nosferatu... sure I’ve heard that name before somewhere). The local estate agent has secured Mr. Straker and Mr. Barlow a nice antiques shop and, of course, the house that Ben has returned to write about.

And things get predictable but comfortable from this point, as Ben and his friends try to find out what is going on while the vampire slowly starts pulling the town apart. It’s not, in any way, rushed... but it still feels pacey at some points. I believe it was also very influential (I can think of at least one moment in John Carpenter’s The Fog which was done here first, although it's more likely that the specific scene I'm thinking of was first seen by Carpenter in the movie version of The Trollenberg Terror aka The Crawling Eye) and it firmly supports the foundations of the vampire myth in the 20th century while still having a certain amount of fun with it.

It also has some really nice shock and scare moments which were very well documented and talked through over the course of the next few days after its original airing in various school playgrounds around the country. The moment, for example, when a young boy is driven back from the wind, walks towards camera and then a black silhouette pops up from the bottom of the screen in front of him which is guaranteed to make most viewers who are engrossed in this jump out of their skin. Especially when it’s accompanied by a particularly close relative of the 1950s, B-movie monster, musical stinger, courtesy of Mr. Sukman’s thrill ride of a score. A similarly startling but, at this point expected, sit-up-in-the-coffin-and-take-a-bite moment also sticks in the memory. It’s all really great stuff and filled with carefully timed moments such as this, coupled with great acting from the entire cast, but especially all those I’ve mentioned so far and with a big shout out to young Bonnie Bedelia (known more for her role as Bruce Willis’ wife in the first two Die Hard movies) and the always watchable legend who is, one of the greatest overlooked actors in the history of the cinema... Elisha Cook Jr.

There is one irritating thing, though. It’s a glaring continuity error with a set of packing instructions which are stuck to the front of the crate which holds the coffin and body of Mr. Barlow. They seem to appear and reappear at will. You can forget about matching shots in this sequence of the show... but it is fun to play “spot the packing instructions” I have to admit.

Now, something which I would like help with from the memory of the NUTS4R2 reader collective is this. The character Mark has a penchant for horror pop culture. Various model kits and posters/stills of the iconic Universal monsters fill his disproportionately large bedroom (how do characters get that kind of money in the jobs they are in). In the story he is seen fixing part of the old Auroura model kit of the Frankenstein monster. Now I remember a scene where, once it was fixed, he pressed a button on the model several times and its eyes lit up and it made a buzzing sound. It doesn’t, however, seem to appear on this version of the show. Did I remember this right or have I remembered a scene from another movie or TV show from around the same time and grafted it onto my memory of ‘Salem’s Lot as the decades take their toll on my tired brain. I’d be really grateful if somebody could leave a comment or get in touch through twitter and put my mind at rest on that one.

And so that’s about it for this write up. I loved this as a kid and I still do now. This and Christine were the first two Stephen King books I read in my early teens (I read Christine first). I remember when I read ‘Salem’s Lot that the book followed it a good deal but then branched away and did its own thing... that is to say, the TV show changed it around and the writer, director and producers made some decisions about how best things would play out on popular TV is my guess. But it’s a pretty entertaining horror show and very much talked about by people, especially children, at the time. Definitely one to grab hold of and have a look if you’ve not seen it before and are in love with the horror genre. I understand there has been both a sequel and a remake to this in the ensuing years, but I haven’t seen either of those yet. I plan on fixing that sometime soon but, in the meantime, I will say that I can’t imagine any remake or alternate adaptation of this which could be anywhere near as engaging and entertaining as the original... nor have such a kick-ass score as this one. Definitely watch this 1979 version if you’ve got the time.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Dead Set

Big Blooder

Dead Set
Airdate: 27th - 31st October 2008 UK
Directed by Yann Demange
Channel 4 DVD Region 2

I never caught this mini masterpiece of zombie horror when it aired on British television, just 8 weeks after the end of the 2008 series of Big Brother. Mind you, I’ve sensibly never watched any Big Brother  other than for ten minutes at some point in its first series... which was ten minutes too much, for my liking.

I mention the so-called “reality” TV show Big Brother because the Big Brother house, and the show itself, is the main geographical setting for the majority of this five episode UK mini-series which ran for a week, finishing on Halloween of that year. It’s even got the popular Big Brother presenter of that time, Davina McCall, as the presenter of the show within a show in question and, also, uses a variant of the big eyeball logo which had somehow become synonymous in various guises with the show without me even knowing about it (yeah, I really went out of my way to not watch Big Brother).

Now, I was going to highlight the fact that I hadn’t seen any of Big Brother (outside those 5 - 10 minutes way back when) as a factor in telling you, before I start, why I’m not qualified to judge this show in terms of how realistic it is in comparison but, having now seen Dead Set, and realising it’s only trying to ape the show as a catalyst to a true horror entertainment, I realise that you really don’t have to know very much about Big Brother to be able to watch this show.


In fact, out of the five episodes of horror presented here, it’s only the first episode which includes any footage that follows the format of the Big Brother show, while simultaneously cutting around to various characters outside of the Big Brother house to get a real storyline going. We meet the horrible producer, setting up the, almost compulsory, human villain of the piece and played with nasty relish by Andy Nyman... as well as various characters played by lots of British character actors you’ll probably recognise, such as Jaime Winston, Jam man Kevin Eldon and Warren Brown. The two standouts for me were Adam Deacon (4 3 2 1, Anuvahood) and the brilliant Kathleen McDermott, who also starred opposite Samantha Morton in the amazing movie version of Morvern Callar. 

I was really surprised by this show. It’s got some truly great suspense/horror build moments going on with it and, although the zombies aren’t all that scary (they rarely are these days, in various media), you do actually start to care about the fates of some of the characters because they are very well scripted and the actors are all pretty convincing in their roles. The pacing is brilliant and, unlike most zombie tales, it becomes much more than just a body count movie and moves right into the realm of actual horror. It’s actually got a very dark tone to it and that helps. The characters are pulled into the bleakness of the situation and the way that particular atmosphere is portrayed on camera and the nature of the events on screen, only gets grimmer and unrelentingly pessimistic the more the show plays out. There are some laughs to be had but these mostly come from the obnoxiousness of Andy Nyman’s character and the way he bounces off of Kathleen McDermott’s airhead contestant who, you start to realise, is actually more solid and reliable in her simplistic outlook than Nyman’s ruthless, get up and go shark of a TV producer.

The other thing which contributes to the horror is the sheer bravery of the goriness of a TV show. It’s heavy and mostly unremitting and is far stronger material than you would be likely to see in many movies banned by the BBFC over the years. If anyone wanted to highlight the sheer hypocrisy and “out there” nature of film censorship, then run this popular TV show up against something like, for example, an uncut print of formerly banned Zombie Flesh Eaters and you’ll find that Dead Set is far more into the flesh ripping, gut devouring, pull ‘em apart realm of zombie horror than Lucio Fulci’s classic 1970s horror opus ever was.

There are a couple of things which bothered me a little. The shooting style of handheld, react and follow/focus camerawork which was really taking hold around the time from TV shows such as the rebooted Battlestar Galactica is abundant throughout the production and, though it’s done well, it did seem to grate after a while.

The other thing I didn’t really like was the muggy filters used for the outside shots. I know why the director has used them, the interior scenes in the Big Brother house are supposed to be a contrast to the hazy grey feel of the outside world and makes the horror element, when it does invade the house, all the more visceral for its contrast against the “drabness” filtering... but I did find it hard to see what was going on during the exterior parts of the story and I would have preferred something a little less toned down, personally.

But, other than that, Dead Set is a neat addition to the zombie genre. Like the majority of films of this nature (and I haven’t seen The Walking Dead yet myself, due to censorship issues, but it probably extends to that too), there is no explanation as to why there is a zombie outbreak. It is what it is and this is, as always, a wise move because, not only does it allow you to jump right into the horror setting without having to build up a series of story incidents first, it also gives the characters something to talk and speculate about for some of the scenes, which is always a good strategy.

And, of course, there are the various nods to the zombie genre in general which I enjoyed. The opening episode which features a lot of TV studio activity while news channels are tuned to the approaching apocalypse, is a shrewd echo of the opening sequence of the original George A. Romero sequel, Dawn Of The Dead. Similarly, the final fate of one of the characters is basically a remake of the famous “pulling apart an important character while still alive and cursing” scene from Romero’s third living dead film, Day Of The Dead. The writer has even included a few sequences which harken back to the recent (very recent at the time this was made) reboot version of Dawn Of The Dead, with the characters standing on the roof and chatting while taking pot shots with a rifle at passing zombies. All very nice touches for genre buffs. I’m sure there are many more in there but, you know, I’m not a genre buff (nor a “buff” of any kind, thank you very much).

I was very surprised and taken by this TV mini series. Although it’s quite unflinchingly depressing in its moral outlook it is, nevertheless, a really good stab at making zombie horror relevant again and I think this show deserves more than to be forgotten and unwatched by people who like this kind of screen entertainment. It’s a very good take on an old chestnut and holds it rotting head and bony shoulders up high with the best of the big budget, cinematic specimens of the genre. Definitely a great one to watch if you are in the mood for a bit of Halloween horror but, beware, the violence and the language is quite strong at times.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

The Werewolf and the Yeti

Yeti’s Burg

The Werewolf and the Yeti
aka Night Of The Howling Beast
aka La maldición de la bestia
1975 Spain
Directed by Miguel Iglesias
West Minster Fayre Films Ltd 
DVD Region 0

Warning: Big hairy spoilers at the end... 
but it’s not that kind of film and it’s all to be expected anyway.

Depending on your belief as to whether the “lost” 1968 film, The Nights Of The Wolfman, was ever shot or not, The Werewolf And the Yet is either the 7th or 8th in the series of 13 (or 12 or 14 depending on your viewpoint on other movies including this character) films featuring Paul Naschy as his famous werewolf creation, Waldemar Daninsky (aka The Hombre Lobo series) which he made between 1968 and 2004. It’s also one of the few in that series that I’ve not seen before and one I’ve been trying to get a hold of for a long time (as has my supplier, also a Waldemar Daninsky fan).

What I'd completely forgotten when I was watching it, until I did a touch of research for this review, is that one of the reasons it’s been especially difficult to see, in this country in particular, is that it was a victim of the “video nasties” act back in the 1980s. Looking at it now, of course, when so many things shown on popular television are far stronger meat than anything on the menu here and when films like the banned, uncut Zombie Flesh Eaters are readily available nowadays at your local video store (if you can still find a video store standing), one wonders why it was even on the radar as a video nasty in the first place (see my review of a documentary detailing that particularly dark period in the BBFCs evil history here - Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide). Of course, looking at the majority of films on that list, some of which seemed quite tame even by 70s and 80s standards, one could ask oneself the same question of pretty much most of the films that had the misfortune of ending up on that list.

The Werewolf and The Yeti, however, is not a great hidden gem, as it turns out. It’s certainly one of the more competently shot in the series, with some occasional nice designs and transitions...  and with a certain clean, uncluttered look about it... but it’s also less interesting in terms of the Daninsky series as a whole, which is a shame because the setting and plot, such as it is, are something which could have fuelled a really great “hombre lobo” film.

It starts off quite strongly with three snowbound explorers being attacked by the yeti of the title. Our scene then shifts to London, Westminster. And how do the Spanish film-makers further support the obvious visual and tell the audience that this part of the movie is set in England? Well that’s easy isn’t it? You just play Scottish bagpipes over the shot, so people know it’s London. Um. Wait! What?

Anyway, an elderly professor and his beautiful daughter are planning a trip to Tibet to track down the yeti who destroyed the last expedition, so the professor sends for world famous anthropologist and psychologist Waldemar Daninsky, as played by Paul Naschy.

Wait. Hang on!

"Since when is Waldemar Daninsky a world famous anthropologist and psychologist?" you may ask yourself. Well, since they decided to make this movie, I guess? The professor wants Daninsky, not just for these credentials but because he can apparently speak fluent Tibetan.

Of course, right? Whatever...

We’ve often seen Daninsky burst into snatches of Tibetan before, right? Maybe that’s the growling sound he makes whenever he turns into a werewolf because I’m buggered if I can remember a movie where he was a master of such foreign languages.

Moving swiftly on...

After the expedition has started, Daninsky and his guide, who looks like a giant bear, cross eyed version of Peter Lorre on steroids, scout ahead for the professor and his team and the guide promptly vanishes under the snow when he goes mad about being in the valley of the howling devils, or some such. It all happens so fast. Waldemar is alone against the elements but, a minute or so later, he stumbles into some kind of Tibetan temple cavern in a mountain and promptly faints. He is alone with two good looking ladies, guardians of the temple, who nurse him back to health and decide to keep him prisoner as he will be, and I quote, “a good companion and an ardent lover.” Obviously not happy about being the dedicated sex slave of two gorgeous women (because who would be, eh?) he tries to escape, only to stumble across the two of them eating bits of somebody, possibly Daninsky’s former guide, in their dining area... also known as “the floor”. The women promptly turn into she-wolves and bite Waldemar before he escapes, quickly transforming him into the angst ridden werewolf creature we know and love.

Oh hold on a minute!

This is preposterous. How many bloody times do we have to put up with another origin story for this character! We saw him turn into a werewolf back in 1968 in Mark Of The Wolfman (aka Frankenstein’s Bloody Terror) and since then we’ve seen him rebooted and re-bitten afresh with absolutely no reference to his past in almost every movie. What are these writers playing at? He’s Waldemar Daninsky. He is always played by Paul Naschy but... he has a different origin in practically every movie. C’mon guys! Nobody’s memory is that bad! I just don’t get it.

Anyway, while Daninsky has been having his adventures, the main expedition has been set upon by bandits who are lead by a man who is clinging on for life and who is manipulated by the evil scientist woman who has promised to keep him alive through alchemical means derived from her hobby of torturing people. The professor’s daughter is her prisoner, as is Daninsky who has since learned that a special flower that grows only in Tibet, mixed with the blood of a woman who loves him, will cure him of his werewolvery ways (which I think must be the fanboy who is Paul Naschy referencing the Marifasa Lupina flower from my all time favourite werewolf movie, Werewolf Of London, which was Universal’s first attempt at establishing a werewolf myth back in 1935) . All hell soon breaks loose and the beast lurking inside Waldemar’s tortured heart kills all the villains (and pretty much everyone except his main squeeze) before he is suddenly startled by the roaming yeti (finally) from the pre-credits sequence.

In a startling let down of expectations, werewolf and yeti fight... and when I say fight I mean trade a couple of blows before Daninsky bites the yeti on the neck and kills him, right before the girl accidentally finds the flower and, following the instructions she wasn’t in any way present to hear in the scene in which they were revealed, mixes her blood with it and gives it to Waldmemar to eat. Waldemar is cured and the two go off arm in arm into the sunset.

In the snow.

In the snowy, snowy, snow setting sunset in Tibet where they probably won’t make it back alive before freezing to death but, hey ho, you’re not supposed to imagine what comes next after the credits have rolled in these kinds of movies, are you?

The Werewolf And The Yeti is a nice looking entry into the series, to be sure, but ultimately it’s also one of the weaker ones and I wasnt’t all that entertained by the onscreen antics past the opening promises of snowy settings to the werewolvery action. And, big tip for the marketing people? The print I saw of this movie is called The Werewolf And The Yeti. This raises expectations of their being some sizeable “yeti action” in it. However, the time spent with the actual yeti is abominably small - a few seconds at the start of the film and, maybe not quite two minutes right at the end does not constitute the kind of yeti co-starring status I was expecting from your title. So all in all, I would only recommend this one to people who are already fans of this series of films. This is not a good jumping on point (which might explain why it’s so maddeningly hard to get hold of) and I would point people in the direction of something like the much better Dr. Jekyll And The Wolfman for a good one in this series to watch instead.

My review of the book Muchos Gracias Senor Lobo is here

Some of the other films in this series are reviewed by me here...

Assignment Terror
The Beast And The Magic Sword
Fury Of The Wolfman
Howl Of The Devil 

Monday, 28 October 2013

Whistle And I'll Come To You

Mr. M. R.

Omnibus: Whistle And I'll Come To You
1968 BBC
Directed by Jonathan Miller

Whistle And I’ll Come To You
2010 BBC
Directed by Andy De Emmony
Both available on one DVD from the BFI

Warning: Some slight spoilers but, since these kinds of tales are mostly about atmosphere as opposed to actual events, you may find the term spoiler redundant in the case of this story anyway.

Oh, Whistle And I’ll Come To You My Lad is a ghost story written by M. R. James in 1904. I first read it in a Wordsworth Edition of his Collected Ghost Stories about 6 or 7 years ago because I was interested in another story in that tome, Casting The Runes (on which the film Curse/Night Of The Demon is based). Oh, Whistle And I’ll Come To You, My Lad is one of the tales in that collection that sticks in the memory and I was delighted to find out that the BBC had made two TV adaptations of this story, one in 1968 and one in 2010 and that, furthermore, both were now available on one DVD. I did, in fact, receive a copy of this from my parents on the occasion of my 45th birthday, back in January but, due to a whole bunch of reasons, have only got around to properly sitting down to have a look at this now.

Well, the first thing I have to say about these two adaptations is that neither is a completely faithful version of the original story and some liberties have been taken by both sets of writers and directors. They both, in fact, even go under a shortened version of the original title. Of the two, it has to be said that the 1968 adaptation by Jonathan Miller, made for the BBC as an episode of Omnibus of that year, is a lot closer to the original M. R. James source than the 2010 version, which proceeds to demolish most of the original story and replace it and graft its own symbols and meanings onto a very basic frame.

The 1968 version stars Michael Horden as the main and, almost, singular, protagonist of the story, Professor Parkin. He checks into a hotel for a bit of a holiday and although he has occasion to talk to another guest, The Colonel, he refuses the game of golf offered him whereas, in the original story, Parkin is actually there to practice and perfect his game of golf. However, this is quite a shrewd move by Miller to lose this distraction, since the running time is a little over 40 mins, and he’s cut away some dead wood which, perhaps, he could have done without.

Michael Hordern plays Professor Parkin as someone who very much inhabits his own inner world, to the point where his internal monologues and attitudes to events around him spill out into the outside world in the forms of noises and exclamations and “Ahs” and “Ums”. He is distracted by the train of his own thought pretty much all the time and often forgets to reply to someone for a while before his thoughts can catch up with him properly and let him back into the real world, so to speak. At other times he will take someone’s words or questions and play with the construction of their sentence with them and explore the many differing meanings that their words could contain and only then find a way of offering a possible route towards starting off on an answer or proper reply (which certain people who know me might find as a character flaw/trait of mine, I’m afraid).

What I get from Horden’s performance in this role, which he performs quite brilliantly, is that I would be irritated beyond belief if I had to sit in a room with this character for more than ten minutes. A man who is so caught up in the play of his own intellectual experience of the world, that he misses the possibility of things outside his own experience of natural (and in this case, unnatural) phenomena occurring. Which, in a way, is one of the things you’re supposed to take from the original story... Parkin’s absolute disbelief of a supernatural realm beyond what he can understand and explore.

Asides from a few liberties (characters cut, scenes excised), the tale of a man who finds a whistle and blows it, inciting interest from a spirit who seems to be a guardian (or possibly even a watchdog) as opposed to anything else, is told extremely well and with a certain degree of respect for the original material. One thing I will, though, say... is that it isn’t really all that scary either. But, scary or not, the tone of the piece is very nice, the acting, especially from Horden who is a genius, is exceptional and, believe it or not, the whole thing is done without the aid of any kind of dramatic underscore. Perhaps, in fact, that lack of scoring was what I was missing for the full fear factor to kick in but certainly, it does do pretty well without one, so I can only say well done to all involved.

The second adaptation, starring the always watchable John Hurt as Parkin, does use music, is perhaps a trifle scarier because of that (though really not much) and is altogether a different kettle of fish compared to the first one. An unnecessary element to the original story is introduced... Parkin’s wife, who he leaves in an old people’s home for a few days while he goes on holiday. She is more or less a mental vegetable but after Parkin finds a ring (not a whistle as in the original story and first adaptation) with the “other” inscription mentioned in M. R. James’ original text (each adaptation uses only one of two inscriptions found on the whistle in the original) he starts hearing noises at night, just as Horden did in the first adaptation... and having visions of scary things following him (again, as in the first). Parkin in this one is a scientist and not the intellectual denier of the occult and supernatural that he was in the original story... so that trait of the character doesn’t really find its way into Hurt’s performance here (not his fault, I imagine, he has to follow a script, after all).

There are more characters in the second version but it all culminates with Parkin being visited by the terrifying (for a few brief seconds) vision of his wife’s soul, who is not happy about being left on her own and, therefore, we have an entirely different message here. Parkin is killed from the shock (this doesn’t happen in either the original story, nor the Jonathan miller adaptation) and, at the end, we are under the impression that his soul has come back to aid his wife and keep her company in the remaining time before her death. Nicely rounded and maybe a bit scarier, the clichéd but effective score helps in that sense, but ultimately not so much an adaptation of an M. R. James story as a different ghost story with a few similar elements.

Hurt is excellent, as is to be expected, and so is his supporting cast including Gemma Jones and Lesley Sharp. It’s not bad as a cosy ghost story without a whole lot of scariness in it and the photography is nice. Ultimately, though, this is a not so great adaptation and I think, changes aside, the Jonathan Miller one is the one to go for as both an entertaining watch and something a little closer to what the mind of M. R. James was trying to get to. I would consider neither of them definitive though, and would like to see someone else have a crack at this one sometime. However, if you’ve got an hour and a half free, which is just about the combined running time of the two versions, and have nothing better to do and have a hankering to watch an old fashioned ghost story but without the intense scares that usually come from this kind of material, then you could probably do a lot worse than take a look at these two versions of a classic tale.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

The Pact

Ghost Haste

The Pact 
2012 USA
Directed by Nicholas McCarthy
Entertainment One Blu Ray B 

Warning: There are some medium sized spoilers in this to let me talk about the points I want to make here, but I’ve been as oblique as I felt I could possibly get away with.

The Pact is a pretty interesting horror movie directed by Nicholas McCarthy. Interesting in that it’s not only written and directed by him but also based on a short, 11 minute movie of the same title he made the year before. Actually, having watched the short movie, also on the BluRay, which starred Firefly alumni Jewel Staite as the leading lady (a much different character to the one played by Caity Lotz in the feature length version), I think “inspired by” would have been a better choice of words. Although certain dialogue phrases and incidents were used in the 2012 movie.

It’s actually an example of a specific sub genre of ghost story, in that it belongs in the category of “benevolent spirits who are trying to help out the lead human protagonist”. Of course, since these are also horror movies, bent on scaring the &@%£* out of you, then the poor spirits do tend to make a mess of things for a while and mostly terrorise the main protagonist in question, in this case Caity Lotz portraying the character of Annie. And, of course, these shenanigans don’t always hold up under scrutiny when you think back and examine the motivations of the ghosties in question. These unearthly protagonists seem to be only too happy to give you all a good, cheap scare before getting around to lending out a helping hand.

Case in point is a scene fairly early in the movie when the lead character is being pulled towards a cupboard by ghostly, unseen hands. This really makes no sense when it comes to the motivation of the spirit because it’s putting the lead character in danger... although, maybe a case could be construed to say that the ghostly presence is trying to get help to save the life of another character. Not too sure to be honest... in some respects it’s a good thing that ‘happenings’ are left nicely vague and up to the audience to put some thinking time into the movie. On the other hand, this does tend to get fairly muddled when it comes to some aspects.

For instance... there’s no pact in The Pact. 

I’ll say that again to let that one sink in... there’s no pact in The Pact.

Now, I’ve actually read the director’s defence of this issue and I can almost buy into his justification of the title when it comes to the fact that there’s, kind of, an implied agreement that a certain character remains hidden and secret over the years. It just kind of nibbles at the edge of your consciousness in terms of credibility that the writer/director Nicholas McCarthy did actually intend this, maybe, to be represented by the title. But then I saw the 11 minute short he wrote and directed, which informed this feature length version, and the elements I’m referring to which “could” possibly have been pointing towards the idea that there was a pact, are definitely absent from this short. Incidentally... couldn’t find any kind of pact whatsoever in the short version either. But that’s an annoyance and not a criticism of either of the movies... after all, most artists would tell you that the title of a work is the least important thing.

All this aside, though, there is a certain skill and depth of appreciation of the ghost story inherent in this movie... and a nice idea of ghostly forces using electricity which gives the director a kind of “canary in a mine shaft” warning system with which to scare you (in the video game and movie versions of Silent Hill, this would be the equivalent of the siren going off).

One thing I’ll say is the timing is off a little in the spooky scenes, where the spiritual hand of scarifying things is perhaps introduced too early (could have done with a longer, more laid back cut of this before the scares start happening, to be honest) but since the director obviously knows what he’s doing, the ‘incidents’ are not too diminished and he does manage to effectively ramp up the suspense whenever he needs to... giving the audience new, key visuals to target their anxieties on as the movie progresses... cupboard, hidden room, basement etc.  There’s an absolutely brilliant sequence, for example, when the lead protagonist calls in a psychic/medium type of character who is the very picture of “gothic waif”. A terrifying payoff to a scene where they are concentrating on getting her to safety and then they all look up is brilliant... although it has to be said it kinda makes no sense in the general logic of the ghostly goings on at all. Or perhaps I just didn’t get it.

About two thirds of the way through, a scene sealing the fate of one of the main characters tips you off to the fact that there is the danger of this film having a scooby-doo conclusion if things are not played right and, although the director is skillful enough not to make that error, I think this scene came just a little too early for my liking... because it did tip me off to the very real idea that there was something a little more than just a ghostly presence happening here. Could have been left dangling a little longer and held that back to the final sequences, methinks.

But, as I say, still a fairly skillful entry into the ghost story movie and certainly an entertaining enough one. Technically very nice as well with some beautiful cinematography where the director and camera operator make good use of differential focusing (rack focussing) to nice effect. Some nice designs and the mise-en-scene is very clean... like a movie directed by Hal Hartley or someone of that impressive ilk. Maybe a little too clean in places... I started noticing little things like “There’s no way someone would have bothered to straighten that used spoon on a napkin like that, it needs to be at an angle and more dirty.” Things like that which I possibly shouldn’t even have been thinking about did tend to pop up in my mind at certain points

Overall though, it’s a really great, quite intense horror movie at times and, although I was shouting at the screen when the various protagonists did something stupidly “horror-movie-dumb” (like going down into a hole where you can be easily trapped rather than just wait for an easier escape and then return with the cavalry), I have to say it’s quite a scarifying movie and one which I’m glad I saw. Add to this some pretty fine performances and some typical modern horror outbursts on the scoring front (and that statement is not intended as a derogatory remark... far from it), coupled with the clean look and the brooding atmosphere, and The Pact marks itself out as one of the more competent, intriguing of the horror movies released over the last few years.

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Saturday, 26 October 2013

Satan's Baby Doll (La bimba di Satana)

Doll Set Tones

Satan's Baby Doll (La bimba di Satana)
1982 Italy
Directed by Mario Bianchi
Shameless Region 0

Warning: This one has major spoilers... although, to be honest, I don’t think plot points and story development are going to be on your mind if you’re prepared to watch stuff like this.

Hmm... well this film has Aldo Sambrell in it. A popular star of many Italian films and spaghetti westerns. The last two films I saw with him in it were the modern exploitation flick Flesh For The Beast (which also featured a cameo by the lovely Caroline Munro) and the second Superargo movie, Superargo And The Faceless Giants, where the titular villains were not even tall and all had noticeable faces. So that was a bit of a contradictory title then. In that one, he played a levitating Indian sidekick/mentor for the main character (my review here).

It also stars five other people (three of whom are beautiful women and who are in and out of their clothing like nobody’s business) and the whole thing is set in a large manor house with a small dungeon. And... that’s about it.

Satan’s Baby Doll has a wafer thin plot line. When Maria (played by porn actress Marina Hedman) dies, she comes back through her daughter Miria (played by Jacqueline Dupré... no not that one, she was classier than this), using both her own body and her daughter’s body, transformed by goodness knows what jiggery pokery at the cut of a shot, in varying states of undress and exploiting confusing, supernatural teleportation skills. She then goes on a rampage... a pretty slow rampage to be honest, and kills the other members of the household through various means.

There’s not a heck of a lot going on other than that. Half of the acting seems to be shouting insults at each other and the other half seems to be giving each other long, sombre looks with enough gravitas to fill a bathtub. Take the family priest/manservant kind of character... I’m sorry, I was really unsure of what role he was supposed to function as, in this shouty household. After Maria twitches after death, he goes to a little altar set-up and starts a ritualistic exercise which I can only describe as advanced chicken fondling, shaking and eating... raw and uncooked with a mouthful of blood and feathers. This is all accomplished, like more of the acting than I expected in this movie, with no small amount of vein popping, facial contortions and much flaring of the nostrils.

It probably should have come as no surprise to me that the same guy is later strangled by a bandaged mummy corpse of some strange description, which just happens to be lying around in the family crypt while the dead guy makes love to it, in order to try to summon the dead mother. He perhaps needn’t have bothered being all that ritualistic, to be honest. She was already up and about and killing off the family doctor when he was trying to embalm her.

I think that earlier chicken scene comes slightly after (I think) another sequence where the head of the family Antonio Aguilar (Sambrell’s character) has acquired heroine from his doctor friend to help his crippled, mute, wheelchair bound brother’s back pain... but, in actual fact, so he can just shoot up himself.

His brother Ignacio, meanwhile, has wheeled himself to the crack in the door of the trainee nun of the household (yes, this household has it’s own nun for some reason) played by the sexy Mariangela Giordano. Here, he can watch the lady in question disrobe and indulge in some hot nun-masturbation sequences, including extremely badly edited-in softcore scenes which don’t quite match the surrounding shots and which, frankly, appear quite comical. Especially when a still photograph of our voyeuristic wheelchair user is periodically superimposed over shots of Ms. Giordano running her fingers through her pubic hair. I know I shouldn’t laugh but... well. It was badly handled. It later turns out, of course, that the appearance of the naked daughter has the power to lure Ignacio slowly out of his wheelchair so he can fall to his death down a conveniently placed hole in the floor. Sex definitely seems to equal death in this movie and all three actresses seem to be very adept at getting their clothes off and practicing self abuse quite a bit... before getting it on with one of the other actors or actresses in the movie.

This all sounds very good and proper for an exploitation movie, to be fair, but... honestly? I prefer my exploitation movies to have at least an air of fun about them. This one is poe faced and the prominent nudity and flesh stroking dotted throughout the movie really don’t save it from being a very tedious affair.

There are more kills, of course, as Antonio is, um, backed off and over the railings at the top of a stair well to his death and our poor nun, who decides she would rather sleep with the dead mother’s corpse than sleep with the dead mother possessing her daughter, does exactly that... whereupon the corpse starts sexing her back while simultaneously crushing her to death with her bisexual caress. Actually... it really doesn’t look like she’s squeezing that hard at all, but blood starts coming out of the nun's mouth so one can only assume this is what’s happening here.

There’s a few nice things about the movie. Some of the shot set ups are pretty cool... but Mario Bianchi is no Mario Bava when it comes to this game, although I understand he did help out on one of Bava’s best movies, Five Dolls For An August Moon. There’s a nice shot of a wheelchair being pushed where the camera is moving with the wheelchair... giving the same effect and technique that Scorcese used for Harvey Keitel’s drunk scene in Mean Streets and, later, Aranofsky used in Requiem For A Dream, where the camera is strapped directly to the body.

And the music by first and last timer Nico Catanese is quite good, coming across as some kind of pseudo-Goblin affair which was all the rage at the time and which seems to work, like most of the Italian horror and gialli with this kind of music do, by being over the top and out of kilter with the on-screen visuals to the point where it kinda drives the visuals instead of the other way around. Very strange but, like the best applications of this style of scoring, it does seem to work. That being said, there’s only about two tracks in the entire film and once you’ve heard the exact same one played over and over again to score both sex scenes, shouty scenes, drug taking scenes and, um, more sex scenes... well, it does get a bit dull and outstay its welcome after a while.

So that’s about it for this reviewer, I think. I don’t seem to have anything else to say about this one. You’d think that, with the amount of sexromancy* going on in this film, it would at least be mostly watchable but, sadly, that just isn’t the case with this particular exploitation movie. Never mind Satan’s Baby Doll... it’s more like Satan’s Baby, dull.

*I’m trademarking that term I just coined, by the way. 

Friday, 25 October 2013

Dracula (Horror Of Dracula)

Fangs Of Fury

Dracula (Horror Of Dracula)
1958 UK
Directed by Terence Fisher
20th Century Fox Blu Ray B

Warning: Spoilers may bite you in the neck...

Right. Before I get into this review, I want to state up front that this is not one of my all time favourite Dracula adaptations... although it would certainly be in my top ten (and possibly even make my top twenty vampire movies). My all time favourites would be the unauthorised 1922 version of Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (aka Nosferatu), the 1931 Todd Browning version of Dracula and the simultaneously shot 1931 Spanish version of Dracula which utilised the same sets but different actors and with some more interesting artistic flourishes than the Browning version (although you can’t beat putting Dwight Fry in a movie, no matter how good your direction is).

I do, however, have a soft spot for some of the Hammer films. The first Hammer movie I saw was when I was about 6 years old in 1974. I remember going around to my uncle’s house to see a television screening of Taste The Blood Of Dracula. This was a very important moment in my infant life because a) it was another Dracula movie I hadn’t already seen and b) my uncle had a colour television set. Colour! This was still a novelty for many people in the UK in the early seventies.

I remember liking Taste The Blood Of Dracula so much that, one year later, I started collecting the Shock Theatre bubble gum cards, along with all the other infant school kids, with their depictions of, often quite nasty and blood curdling, photographs from various Hammer Frankenstein and Dracula movies. I remember I never got to finish putting more than just over half of the set together because all the kids parents got wind of them and they were soon banned at my school. Trying to complete my set now, with an exorbitant amount of money being asked for just single cards, would probably be out of my price range, to be honest.

In the ensuing years, I watched the various Hammer Dracula movies as they came on television but I can’t quite remember when I saw this first one. I certainly remember going to a 2007 screening of Dracula at the National Film Theatre with my friend @cultofthecinema and being somewhat disappointed and, frankly, infuriatingly alarmed at the liberties that were taken with the story in this version... although I seem to have calmed down a bit about that now. Most movie adaptations are versions of the stage story of Dracula and, even when they’re not, most movie companies make absolutely horrendous changes to the tale (see my review of Dario Argento’s new version here for another take).

I was expecting to be a little disappointed on this subsequent viewing again, to be honest, but I wanted to see it because the new 2012 restoration includes shots taken from the Japanese release print. Long story, but there were usually a few different release prints of the Hammer films for different global regions (so I’ve always been told and this film seems to prove that) and the Japanese version would usually be slightly longer with more gore, to cater for the tastes of that market. So I was interested in seeing those few seconds of footage and, to be honest, to also see the new documentaries on this edition (of which, at time of writing, I’ve only been able to see the first featurette).

The added unexpected outcome of this viewing, however, turns out to be that it seems to have grown on me and the Hammer version of Dracula is a much better movie than I’ve previously given it credit for. I even like one of the things which critics have faulted it for but i’ll get to that a little later.

So... okay, as a straight adaptation of Bram Stoker’s original novel, the Hammer version, if you’ll pardon the pun... sucks. But, as a tight script which distills the essence of Stokers novel, cutting away huge chunks but also making some bold and sometimes quite canny changes to the story line in deference to both budget and timescales, it really isn’t a bad piece of economic writing and Terence Fisher shoots the whole thing with a certain panache, it has to be said.

One of the main things it’s got going for it is that the rhythm changes often take you by surprise and are quite emotionally manipulative. Now if I was being less kind or seeing it for the first time in a long time (and this may have been my problem with when I saw the BFI print back in 2007) then I might be overly critical for the film having what could be described as an uneven tone. But on this viewing I realised that those tonal shifts from sedate, long, tranquil stretches to sudden, intense moments of fury... notably in the scenes where Dracula catches his “bride” with Johnathan Harker and, again, with his final fight with Van Helsing... were actually quite deftly handled. Of course, you’ve got a wealth of good actors selling you the moments through their performance and able to keep up with those sudden emotional switches without having to pause for breath, but the way the shots are edited together, the whole tempo of those sudden rises to match Christopher Lee’s sudden bouts of animal fury or Peter Cushing’s sudden bursts into action is all marvellously well done.

Naturally, the music really helps and James Bernard’s score, which possibly sounds a little like his scores to the first two Quatermass movies in certain places (although that might just be me responding to his personal style of composition) supports this movie quite assuredly, matching the sudden bursts of ferocity with great cries of what I can only describe as musical chaos whenever the film suddenly shifts gears. I’m amazed the first of Bernard’s Dracula scores has never, at time of writing, been released on CD.

There are, as I said, a lot of big changes to the story. The swapping of Mina and Lucy and their relationship to Jonathan Harker, for example, will probably catch many people off guard. The cutting of Dr. Seward to an extremely minor role and the absence of his sanitarium and, indeed, of the Renfield character, might equally throw some people (I know it did me, back in 2007). Not to mention the location shift (due to budgetary constraints).

One of the more interesting changes is the fact that, rather than appearing at Dracula’s castle as an estate agent, Jonathan Harker is, in fact, Van Helsing’s fellow vampire hunter, and he is there to end Dracula’s life right from the start of the movie... under the guise of a librarian to help catalogue Dracula’s books. This also, of course, means you can call the Van Helsing character into the storyline fairly easily and rationally without having to jump through narrative hoops... you can cut a few corners in the story is what I’m saying here.

All of this makes a pretty good Hammer film, marred perhaps by the fact that the same set seems to keep being re-used and dressed to double for multiple locations. Something I picked up on back in 2007 and which further added to my disappointment at that particular screening. Reworking the sets is a skill still practiced to this day, of course (just go ask Ridley Scott), but I wish it hadn’t had to have been so obvious in this movie.

Still, I did enjoy this rescreening for myself and I even found Michael Gough’s performance, which is often attacked, to be quite enjoyable too. He has a certain chemistry in the role with Cushing, I feel, and I would like to see if they ever worked together again. It certainly doesn’t mar the experience for me... certainly not as much as the poor, overworked sets... colourful and brilliant as they are, shot from curious angles and lovingly plastered across the screen in some, nevertheless, beautiful compositions.

Colour me surprised but I certainly appreciated this screening of one of Hammer Studios’ most important films a lot more than the last time I saw it. It’s not as good as their excellent Dracula AD 1972, of course, but as Dracula movies go it’s really not a bad one. Bit of a classic. Miss it at your peril.

Monday, 21 October 2013

A Colt Is My Passport

Cold Colt Ground

A Colt Is My Passport 
1967 Japan
Directed by Takashi Nomura
Nikkatsu/Criterion Eclipse DVD Region 1 
(as part of the Nikkatsu Noir boxed edition). 

Warning: Reading this review is a passport to very slight spoilers.

The last in Criterion Eclipse’s astonishing collection of Nikkatsu thrillers, A Colt Is My Passport maybe lacks the shot compositional flair of most of the other movies in this boxed set (apart from one amazingly framed sequence where the main protagonist is waiting, sniper’s rifle in hand, to make ‘the kill’) but it more than makes up for it with the style of the camerawork in certain sections and, very much so, in the way the footage is edited.

The opening, for example, is a tour de force of style over substance. Following a credit sequence which utlilises a brilliant pseudo-Morricone spaghetti western scoring style of sound to great effect, we go through a scene where the main protagonist, hitman Shuji played by Nikkatsu superstar Jô Shishido, is being briefed and shown the details of his new target. The man hiring him provides a steady stream of narrative for the first few minutes over shots of him and Shuji following the target and being shown and told where the target will be over the course of the next few days (it is up to Shuji how and when he completes his mission for hire).

During this sequence the camera is not the steady glide or mesmeric static shot of many a NIkkatsu crime flick. Instead we have something which seems far ahead of its time, as I watch it now. The camera does all kinds of acrobatics to catch things and people as they are pinpointed by the voice over instructions to Shuji. It’s like the camera is looking around and then stops and concentrates on parts of the shot when it stumbles upon the correct piece of visual information. Normally, this is not the kind of shot sequence a studio of that period would have indulged their directors in, I would have thought. It’s very much a sequence of fast paced POV ‘camera reactions’ edited together in one big, narrative scoop.

This is something which I’ve noticed modern TV shows, especially in the science fiction genre, using to great effect nowadays (to the point where it’s become a cliché almost) but I can’t imagine the creative freedom to throw out the prescribed way of shooting these things could have come easy back in the late sixties in an environment like Nikkatsu. Shows like Firefly and the rebooted Battlestar Galactica tend to use this “taking you unawares” style of catching things out of the corner of the camera eye before swivelling around and focussing, quite frequently to help push the credibility of shots set within a fantastic universe, which would be less easy to buy into without this style of camera work. Artificial lens flares on the model and CGI shots seem to be another favourite nowadays. I find the fact that Takashi Nomura was able to get away with a similar sensibility in the first 5 or 10 minutes of A Colt Is My Passport very interesting. He must have been either a very confident director or pulled a lot of weight at the studio, is my guess.

This is one of the films where Jô Shishido’s star presence really comes through and helps to carry the movie... in as much as he is the main focus of the narrative and he manages to hold your interest by, for the most part, not doing very much. Shishido is extremely low key in this, showing neither emotion or interest for a great deal of the running time... although it does transpire that he is a big softie where friends and family are concerned (as these kinds of characters usually are).

Even though he doesn’t seem like he’s emotionally available for most of the film, it’s probably this kind of cooler than ice attitude which makes him stand out more against the other actors, even though there’s not a bad performance in this film. It’s an interesting contrast between his indifference and the emotional investment of some of the other characters in this.

The one thing which will make you sit straight up in your chair is the opening musical notes on the credits, followed by a string of gunshots, followed by a main theme tune which, as I noted earlier, sounds like it was torn straight from the score a spaghetti western. I mention this again because all the way through the movie,  there’s not a heck of a lot of music (at least not by modern, wall-to-wall standards) but when the music does come in it’s usually this bold Morricone-esque, ride-your-horse-to-death-and-beyond, wild spaghetti western style scoring. And it makes sense because Japan has always been a country where spaghetti westerns have been extremely popular (more so than America and the UK I suspect) and treated with a certain amount of respect where they wouldn’t be as well recieved in other countries. This movie seems particularly influenced by the genre... what with Shishido’s distanced and iconic anti-hero characterisation and the climax of the movie which basically ends in a many against one duel in a wasteland of dust, doubling for a western desert. Even the title, A Colt Is My Passport, is quite similar to the English translations of some of those movies.

This is a great piece and it’s a film full of details. Shishido lighting a cigarette, for example, purely so he can judge the speed and direction of the wind before he settles down to make his killing is particularly spell-binding. Another thing the director goes out of his way to do is have the various weapons’ audio signatures different to the others in the film... so the sound of bullet shots pitched against each other gives a more interesting sound dialogue than it would in a movie where the same kinds of gun shot sounds are used for all the weapons. This is a tactic Spielberg used for absolute realism on Saving Private Ryan and, more artificially and artistically, in the Indiana Jones films... where Indy’s revolver actually utilises the sound of a shotgun on the soundtrack. Shishido even digs a trench and makes his own version of a sticky bomb at one point in the proceedings.

It’s stuff like this, the cool music, the cool anti-hero and the little quirks and details that make A Colt Is My Passport another unmissable Nikkatsu treat and Criterion’s boxed set of five of these gems is definitely worth picking up if you’ve not seen them before. My only regret is that there aren’t more of these kinds of movies on the market right now. if you’re into the “cinema of cool” then this movie is not something you’re going to want to let get past you.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

The Chemickal Marriage

Chang High Express

The Chemickal Marriage
by G. W. Dahlquist
ISBN: 9780670921669

Warning: Very slight spoilers regarding the way 
the second book ended at the start of this review.

The Chemickal Marriage is the third part of the trilogy/series begun in Dahlquist’s heavily promoted The Glass Books Of The Dream Eaters and continued in The Dark Volume. Like the first two books in the run, it details the continuing adventures of the unlikely alliance between the prim and proper Celeste Temple, the assassin Cardinal Chang (he’s not a cardinal and he’s not Oriental either, but I’m not going to explain it all again here... read the book or maybe my review of the last one) and Dr. Abelard Svenson.

This alliance and even the existence of a third (already hard to find although practically brand new, for some reason) book in the series was very much in doubt but, as I’d explained in my last review, the apparent deaths of Chang and Svenson at the end seemed a trifle incomplete in their delivery and reportage by various characters in the novel and it is, therefor,e with the greatest of ease that Dahlquist is able to bring them back from the dead for this third adventure. Or should that be the third part of their adventure, since this novel dovetails into it more or less exactly where it left off and, once again, deals with several cabals of people who have knowledge of the “blue glass” detailed in the other books... and are using their knowledge to wrest control of the country.

In this book, we have the usual new elements, being glass cards which pass on an emotion rather than a narrative memory and, also, bombs constructed of slivers of glass used by nefarious people as they try to change the course of the country with only Temple, Chang and Svenson to stop them. And, once again, the plot, such as it is, follows a road movie kind of format in that it concerns the journeys taken by our three heroes, both together and individually, as they try to put things right. The stakes are raised somewhat in that both Celeste and Chang are carrying some kind of fate wrapped up in their experiences of the blue or orange glass but the format still feels like an old fashioned Universal or Republic serial in its wandering from here to there, and then back again, while threats are encountered and entertained.

I’m not knocking this format, it works fine, but again... I wish we could have had a completely fresh set of ideas involving these characters, rather than a retread of the same concerns and nefarious plans of those who control the glass. The writing was solid but, once again, I would have rather had more of a specific target in sight than the episodic miniature tasks reminiscent of, say, a Flash Gordon serial from the 1930s. Again, there’s nothing wrong with this approach and it’s all very well written and presented clearly and concisely... I just didn’t care about the characters as much as I did in the first two novels, to be fair.

The sexual undercurrent running through the minds of several of the characters returns here, perhaps slightly more blatantly and certainly in a quite amusing fashion in a couple of scenes, but again I felt that the writer was holding back on some of the characters a little and the sexuality of the thing still felt more than a little muffled in most places. However, the descriptive prose is as well written as it has been in the other two novels and the dialogue sings in even the places where exposition is at its most alarmingly high.

That being said, the technical complexity of that exposition, being based as it is in alchemy rather than hard science, seems to have little real bite to it and I did find myself feeling at a loss at several points as to why I was bothering to try and follow the made up processes of placing someone’s soul into another body (the users of the blue glass are up to their old tricks) when a) only about two characters in the book were able to understand it themselves and b) it seemed so obvious that the final set piece in regards to this scientific mumbo jumbo could have gone either way without any real necessity to the reader “understanding” the process or not.

But I am being quite harsh on it because I did enjoy the book, although I feel the three books have lost a little something over each release. We are told that this is the last volume but, towards the end, a huge loose end is left unaccounted for and one of the main characters deceives the other two and goes off to discover the whereabouts of this “loose end”... and this just begs the question of, are we really done with these characters just yet?

I, for one, hope not and although I wouldn’t recommend this novel as any kind of jumping on point (you really need to start with the first one) it’s not something lovers of the first two books in the series are going to want to miss out on. Despite its weaknesses (as I perceive them), it’s definitely another corker... just a little more dissipated through repetition of the main themes consistent witin the trilogy as it stands so far.

Still, like the blue glass itself, you may find it something to get absorbed in.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Machete Kills

Machete Junction Kills

Machete Kills
2013 USA/Russia
Directed by Robert Rodriguez
Playing at UK cinemas now.

Warning: Yeah, there’s gonna be some fairly big spoilers here.

The original Machete movie was a spin-off movie of a fake trailer used in Rodriguez and Tarantino’s Grindhouse project (released separately as Planet Terror and Deathproof over here in the UK). Like other projects made from the fake trailers in Grindhouse, such as Hobo With A Shotgun, Machete was a modern movie masquerading as a 1970s exploitation picture but made with a dash of self-conscious nostalgia for the sub-genre.

Both Machete Kills and Machete Kills Again were put up at the end of the original Machete as two films in which the title character ... um... Machete (played by Danny Trejo), would return. And now he has, in the promised Machete Kills. This was a film I’d really been looking forward to.

The film opens with a new fake trailer, that for the third movie in the Machete trilogy which has had something of a title revision since the last movie. Now the next Machete movie after this one, if the series gets that far, is Machete Kills Again... In Space. And indeed, the trailer looks wildly silly, it has to be said. Laser beams, Buck Rogers robots, light-sabres, light-machetes and a host of other things referencing the boom to plunge a character into the sci-fi milieu left in the wake of the original Star Wars movie’s cinematic success. Although this trailer is quickly referenced again at the end of Machete Kills (amongst other pre and post-credits chunks of “Machete movie moments”), I think that this should maybe have been left completely to the end of the movie because, this opening trailer tells us some important and spoilery things... one very quickly and then a bunch of stuff when you get into the last third of the movie.

The thing it ruins straight from the start is the fact that it reminds audiences the original Machete started off with a scene where he lost his partner. As you know from the previous movie, Machete’s new partner was also his new girlfriend, as played by Jessica Alba, a role this actress reprises here. However, since she isn’t in the trailer for Machete Kills Again... In Space, it doesn’t take much to figure out her character probably won’t make it until the end of this movie. Remembering that last film’s opening sequence on top of that, it’s not hard to realise she probably won’t even make it through the pre-credits sequence of this one before coming to a nasty end and... alas.... this is indeed what happens.

The other stuff you’ll realise, as you go through the movie, is that things are all pointing towards this one dovetailing straight into the next one. When Mel Gibson’s villanous Voz is shown to have a Star Wars fetish and intends to colonise the moon with his hand picked people and super-clones, much in the same way as the “off course” Bond film Moonraker did in the late seventies, you start to figure out where this is all going and, when he shows the silver mask worn in the Machete Kills Again... In Space trailer, you realise that this whole film is leading up to some kind of cliffhanger ending which takes Machete and the main villain careening into more mayhem in space... and that is also the correct conclusion.

For while Machete is clearly playing a more Bondian role in this one (he has his gadgets and knows how to use them... and is clearly a parallel here for “the many lives of John Shaft”... specifically the Shaft of Shaft In Africa) and the movie is quite blatant in its Moonraker references towards the end (with even some of the underscore sounding particularly late 70s Barryish at certain points)... it’s obvious that Machete Kills is Rodriguez saying to his Grindhouse audience... “Okay, so this is Machete’s version of The Empire Strikes Back.” And that is quite literal too... some parts of the sets are modelled on corridors and textures from Cloud City, Gibson has his own landspeeder and, after one of the regular Machete characters is blinded, Voz freezes her, encases her in carbonite and absconds with her in his spaceship.

Okay... so, this is all good and it certainly demonstrates the way films were getting high-jacked mid-production and turned into hastily changed science-fiction vehicles in the late 1970s. However, one of the things it has done, perhaps, is dilute down the already parodic Machete character into something else. It’s certainly a valid thing to do and it was very entertaining, but it was a bit more epic in scope than I wanted and a bit less punchy, I felt, than the first movie in the series.

Don’t get me wrong, it was fast paced as hell and the actors were all firmly committed to their tongue-in-cheek seventies roles, but I just didn’t have quite as much fun with it. That being said, however, there’s still a lot of laughs to go around and it brought a smile to this face on more than one occasion. It even had a follow up to the gory intestine joke of the previous film, which wasn’t quite as funny as the first but had a lot of people laughing. It’s very much a rip roaring time at the cinema and, what it lacks in the rawness of the first movie, it certainly makes up for in the sheer stupidity of its ideas... which includes flick knife smart phones, gatling gun bras, a miniature “strap-on” bazooka which shoots when you twerk, a helicopter blade ride with a difference and a 3D sex scene that will definitely leave you wanting more... especially as the print isn’t even in 3D, if you catch my drift.

Machete Kills is not quite the grimly humoured gore fest of the previous movie (although it certainly has its moments) but this shouldn’t stop the same audiences who liked the first movie from getting into this one... and with actors and actresses like Danny Trejo, Mel Gibson, Lady Gaga, Michelle Rodrigues, Amber Heard, Cuba Gooding Jr, Antonio Banderas, Charlie Sheen and even gory make-up legend Tom Savini, reprising the character he played in the first movie (but with a twist) going along for the ride... you’ll probably find something you’ll enjoy if you liked the first one. Definitely glad I saw this one and certainly looking forward to Machete Kills Again... In Space.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Jodorowsky's Dune

Dune And Dusted

Jodorowsky's Dune
2013 USA
Directed by Frank Pavich
Screening 12th October 2013 at the London Film Festival

Alejandro Jodorowsky is one of those directors who seems to violently split people when his name comes up in conversation. There are those who think he is quite mad and find his films too challenging to stick with and will let you know about that in no uncertain terms. And there are others who relish the directors own style of creative madness and embrace his films as the great works of art that they should, like all great art, be perceived to be.

Having said all that, I tend to have a more muffled and jaded reaction to his work than most people I talk to on the subject, who seem to be pretty much outspoken either for or against his films... which I think says something in that, at the very least, Jodorowsky’s work has effected them to that extinct (which I personally feel is a good thing). I know that I myself, while having no real shocks or surprises from this director’s works (nor many others in recent years) do, nevertheless, enjoy his movies and speak of them in a positive manner. And, certainly, I remember heading off to the Metro cinema in London (now sadly lost to us) with my friend Kerry back in 1989 to see the movie which was to be my personal introduction to this director’s work, Sante Sangre. I loved that movie a lot, with it’s comfortable and seductive blend of high art and trashy b-movie sensibility... and this has carried through over the years in a more sedate manner as I’ve seen his earlier works such as Fando y Lis, El Topo and The Holy Mountain. In fact, my friend Kerry bought me a box set of this man’s first three movies as a Christmas present a few years ago... for which I am grateful.

Back in about 1979/80, when I would have been about eleven or twelve, I was in one of my favourite comic/book stores (Forbidden Planet) and spied in the “art books” section, two very expensive tomes by the person who would soon become one of my favourite artists... H. R. Giger (Necronomicon and Necronomicon II). I can’t remember if the text was in English on those original editions but I suspect not. When I received these two books for Christmas and birthday, I fell in love with the bleak artwork in the pages and was astonished to see a photograph of the artist, H. R. Giger, sitting around in a desert with my other art hero of the time, Salvador Dali. It was pretty amazing and, from what I could work out from the text (yeah, it must have been in a language foreign to me, I reckon) the two had been collaborating on conceptual designs for a movie version of Frank Herbert’s seminal sci-fi classic Dune. As it happens, I was wrong about the nature of the collaboration, but I’ll get to that soon.

Now, I’d not read Dune at that time in my life but, as a child growing up in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was almost as impossible a book to escape as J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings. It, and it’s sequels (I think there were only three sequels at the time but, as I’m sure you know, there are many more now) were all over British bookshops for many years and, even had they not been, there was usually a copy hanging around the house as my dad was a big fan at the time. When the David Lynch version of the movie got made I was not all that impressed with it, to be honest (neither was Jodorowsky, in one of the funniest and most memorable scenes in this film). Perhaps if I revisited it nowadays I might be more receptive to it but, to me, David Lynch was the spirit of Eraserhead... not the version of Dune that ended up on the big screen and underwhelmed audiences at the time.

Frank Pavich’s new documentary film, Jodorowsky's Dune, tells the story (of which there have been many rumours in the past) of the time when Jodorosky wanted to make an epic version of the movie... and how it all fell into place and then, after a long time in pre-production, got thrown away in favour of a version which was simpler to understand by the suits in control of Hollywood. And as you may expect from anything associated with Jodorowsky... it’s a mad tale.

H. R. Giger was, indeed, invited to do some of the conceptual art for one of the planets, which he did and which was pictured in those Necronomicon books I was given as a teen. Another major designer on the film was Chris Foss, the illustrator who many will remember had a gift for paintings of highly detailed starships which graced the covers of almost every science-fiction book going in the seventies and eighties. If you see a Chris Foss starship design, you will know exactly what I’m talking about. His work is so distinctive. What the documentary doesn’t mention, and I’ve no idea why, is the other thing that Fosse is equally well known but actually less famous for. The black and white illustrations in the original best selling editions of The Joy Of Sex.

The tale of the movie gets more and more brilliant and less and less likely as Jodorowsky talks extensively for the documentary. He recruits Dan O’ Bannon’s services for the film (after saying no to one of Hollywood’s leading special effects men, Douglas Trumbull) and then secures the services of, among others, Salvador Dali to play the Emperor, Orson Welles to play the Baron Harkonnen, Mick Jagger as somebody who I completely forget and Pink Floyd to do the music for one of the planets. They are Jodorowsky’s “Dune warriors”. He even gets his son trained in various combat styles to ready him for the part of Paul.  And as crazy a mix as that all sounds, Jodorowsky’s stories of how, for the most part, these people just turned up in unlikely places when he had no idea how to find them and then said yes, is even crazier. And the way he courted both Dali and Welles is absolutely amazing and something I don’t think I’d heard before.

The documentary culminates in the famous, rare book which was put together to sell the project (honestly, I can’t describe this here, you just have to see this movie) and  finishes by showng the influences on cinema resulting from the pilfering and reusing of the concepts created by Jodorowsky’s extended “Dune family”. Some of which are easy to see and others... which are not great examples, I would have to say.

Pavich’s film is absolutely fascinating and rivetting, using mostly talking head footage by Jodorowsky, Foss, Giger and others close to the production, but also from the underused director Richard Stanley (Hardware, Dust Devil) and Jodorowsky’s good friend, the director Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, Only God Forgives). There’s also some animated sequences where the director brings some of the storyboards and designs for the film to life and, as I was very relieved to discover in the Q & A session with the director after the screening, the people in question had been very careful to just breathe a little life into the original drawing and paintings for the animations, rather than add their own baggage into the mix.

The whole thing sails along at a pace which is a reflection of Jodorowsky’s own unique personality and enthusiasm for the project and it also has a kick ass score by Kurt Stenzel, which is quite “in your face” but catchy and appropriately mixed into the film. It’s a bit reminiscent of the small scale chamber works of Philip Glass but it is quite distinctive and hypnotic and although it strikes you right away as you’re watching, the music doesn’t distract from the people who are talking on screen and is very mindful of the job it needs to be doing.

So there you have it.

Jodorowsky's Dune is a great documentary made by a director who knows when to step back from the material when needed and who knows well enough when to add a bit more to it to make it interesting without intruding on the hearts, minds and words of the people being interviewed on screen. It also brings us the full tale of one of the classic unmade films in movie legend, which is something we should all be grateful for. So, if you want to know about all this stuff then you should definitely try to see this movie. It’s worth the price of admission just for the late Dan O’ Bannon’s description of his first, drug tinged meeting with Jodorowsky. Don’t miss out on this one.