Friday 29 June 2012

Interview with Amanda Norman

The Norman In Black

You know, ever since I first got involved with Twitter, initially to promote this blog, I’ve followed and met some pretty wild and wonderful people there. Gothic and Horror Photographer Amanda Norman is one of the more interesting people I’ve come across in my travels, mixing a larger than life personality, an eye for beauty and the juxtaposition of a certain dark attitude which permeates her photographs and grabs hold of the innocent, soon to be haunted onlooker right from the outset. She also augments and often combines her love of visually exploring the dark ambience she brings out in her subject matter with a thriving trade in tenebrous, but no less ostentatious, home crafted jewellery. I asked her a few questions about her inspirations and working methods because I thought my readers might be as taken with her work as I am and would lke to know a little more about her. Here’s what she came up with... 

Hi Mandy. You obviously have a dark half living inside you which you utilise to take some pretty stunning shots. Is the photography something you can pick up and put down anytime or is it an outlet which you feel compelled to take? By which I mean, do you start getting twitchy if you haven’t taken some of your dark shots for a while?

Hello. I certainly believe that I have a dark half inside of me and I do get twitchy if I don’t do any photography for a while. There is no set time limit, I just get the urge every now and again and this is when I do my best work. I do feel compelled to state that when I refer to the ‘dark side’ or a ‘dark half’, I’m in no way evil. I just love to explore the hidden philosophies and explore the possibilities of things that most people immediately close their mind to, usually because of fear, and this is what inspires my work. When I’m out with my camera, I ask myself "is there something or someone watching me from the hidden depths of the shadows and why?"

Ha! Yeah, I’ve always found a certain amount of healthy obsession can fuel greater work. Fear, sex or the neccessity to explore something with fresh eyes. This voyeuristic “there’s something watching me” kinda attitude presumably only covers your landscape work. Do you let your “camera eye” become the “something that’s watching” or do you just channel the unease/paranoia of that kind of situation without becoming a literal translator? Or both?

It doesn’t just cover my landscape work, it’s all photography work that I do, even with the horror portraits. I’m always searching for the hidden, so in answer to your question, I’m never the watcher. I do channel the unease/paranoia and try to encapsulate that element in my work. A picture is just a picture unless you can capture the atmosphere and the emotion of the subject. With the horror portraits, the true monstrous soul remains hidden unless I bring it out. I’ll leave you to ponder on that thought.

You’ve gone on record that you don’t plan your shots in advance but, you’ve been doing this a while now. Has your working method changed at all? Do you ever sketch out something which is in your head and then seek it out or manufacture a specific vision for your lens?

I very rarely plan my shots in advance. I might see a poster or something on the TV that inspires me, for example the poster for the film The Exorcist is so iconic with the silhouette of the priest under the lamp. This inspired a photograph I took of my ex on a dark path. I never want to copy anything I’ve seen out right, but I do love to experiment.

Ok. So it would be true that you prefer to find your way to a shot spontaneously when you are confronted with your raw materials. I know a lot of the old Hollywood directors liked to “think on their feet” like that. Would it be true to say that you get a buzz out of that kind of challenge when you’re on location then? And that too much planning, for you, would be to dull down the experience and perhaps dumb down the shot?

I always think on my feet and very rarely plan a shot and yes, I do get a buzz out of it, especially when I put the images onto the computer. Sometimes I surprise myself with what I’ve taken.

The majority of your photography is in black and white and you’ve noted your inspiration can come from the old 30s and 40s Universal Horror movies (and I suspect Val Lewton’s stuff for RKO might also be an influence on your work?) but I know you also find a muse in the Hammer Horror films of the 50s, 60s and 70s. Now Hammer’s big thing when they got into the horror game was the bright colours...are you planning to explore more of your work in colour as time goes on?

This is such a difficult area for me to explore. I prefer black and white as most times more detail is kept, but sometimes my images look great if they have striking colours. I take all of my shots in colour and then convert to black and white, but sometimes I will keep colour ones if I can’t decide. I now have a gallery titled ‘The Darkside’ ( that has quite a bit of colour photography in it. I sent you an image of one of Antony Gormley’s iron men on Crosby beach that I took recently. I prefer the colour one.  Also, you’re correct in your assumption of RKO influencing my work. I just love the old black and white movies and I can watch them time and time again.

When you work on portraiture, I’m guessing you make a lot of adjustments to the setting via lighting etc. Is this so and do you ever artificially alter the environment on your gothic, atmospheric landscape work to fit a shot? For instance, do you ever use reflectors, or a makeshift version of such, to change the lighting of a shot to any extent?

I’ve never studied photography and I’ve never had the opportunity to perform studio work. I’m quite lucky in the fact that all I require for a portrait shot is a plain dark background and enough light to get the desired result. I’ve never used any photography props such as reflectors. Most of my work is tweaked afterwards and I emphasise the word ‘tweaked’ as the pose and the lighting is the most important part of the portrait. 

Ahh... yeah okay. I was going to get around to asking you this anyway. So it would be fair to say that your shots are, like pretty much everything these days just by the nature of the beast in the age of a digital venue, enhanced in a programme like Adobe Photoshop after you’ve got the original shots? I’m assuming it’s Photoshop? I’m guessing you play around with the levels to some extent and also, possibly on your colour shots, enhance the saturation of some of the image content? I say this because I know I have to fix a lot of photos in my day job and try to get them decent enough for print reproduction and I do all of that same kind of tweaking myself. Take us through one of your shots. Pick one and tell my readers how you might get it sorted... unless that’s demistifying the process too far? Don’t want to spoil the magic.

As they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and it’s interpreting what one sees into digital format and how well they do it. Take for example the image of my shadow and a friends. The original is to many, a boring image, but for me there was something there, but I had to bring it out, without altering the original image. Therefore the finished result is a play on levels and colours, just like you mentioned in your question. The original image is exactly the same and yet the finished result is a brand new image, but with a splash of dark passion. Both versions pictured above.

Do you find the people who are drawn to your work to be similarly dark in nature? Also, do you find the percentage of your portraiture subjects who request that you “do them” (for want of a better term) to be of a similar dark type of personality or are they quite a diverse bunch?

Another tough question, as most of my contacts are people from Twitter who obviously have the same or similar interests as myself.  Some of the horror portraits that you see in my gallery ( are of friends and family who don’t generally like horror so really, you don’t have to have a dark personality to have your portrait taken. 

Ha! Fair enough... so you add the darkness yourself a lot of the time. Yes, I understand that your contacts would be drawn from a similar world view. What do your friends and family who sit for some of these portraits, and who don't share that view, think of the end results?

Good question as friends have a laugh and love the finished output, but some of my family have a strange reaction. 

I’ve sent you the dark portrait of my mother aptly titled ‘Dark Mother’ and I’ve also sent the original. Both versions pictured above. I had this image on my home page just before last Christmas and I also had it as my desktop background. To cut a long story short, my mother came to visit and I was showing her something on my computer when she suddenly asked "Who the Hell is that?" 

I looked at her shocked as I couldn’t believe she was asking me that question and I thought for a moment that she was joking until I realised she wasn’t. I told her that it was her and she was so shocked that she demanded that I take it off, but then I had to tell her that I use it on my website and business cards. She’s OK about it now, but it was just the shock for her seeing it first time. She really couldn’t believe that it was her. 

Well I’d say that was a pretty interesting result and says everything about the way your personal touch brings something entirely new to your subjects.

Mandy Norman, thanks very much for your time.

You can see Amanda Norman’s dark corner of the internet here... and you can follow her on twitter here 

Thursday 28 June 2012

Red Sun (Soleil Rouge)


Red Sun (Soleil Rouge) 
France/Italy/Spain 1971
Directed by Terence young
Optimum Region 2

I’ve been trying to obtain a watchable home video edition of Red Sun for many years now. Usually the prints available of this one are presented in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio but we’ve finally now got a release which restores the original theatrical 1.85:1 ratio (even though I suspect, having now seen it in this aspect ratio, that it was originally shot in 1.33:1 and cropped down for cinemas).

This is good because, Red Sun is a bit of a curio as a Western, in that it stars my favourite actor Toshiro Mifune, rubbing shoulders with an all star cast which includes Charles Bronson, Alain Delon, Ursula Andress and Capucine.

I’ll say that lot again while elaborating further so it can sink in why this movie screams out to be watched by anyone who loves cinema...

It stars Toshiro Mifune as a yojimbo who finds himself in the Wild West, aided (unwillingly at first) by the roguish outlaw Charles Bronson as they seek the current possessor of a precious sword and the loot which Bronson’s gang had stolen from the train carrying Mifune and his diplomat/retainer. The villain who has run off with all this is Bronson’s double crossing, evil and deadly former gang member as played by Alain Delon. On the way they stop by in Capucine’s whorehouse to pick up Delon’s girlfriend Christina, as played by Ursula Andress, to use as a bargaining chip. And the whole thing is directed by James Bond director Terence young, who also taps one of his regular character actors Anthony Dawson in a small role (well it would have to be a small role sharing screen time with this cast, wouldn’t it?).

Despite the pitfalls of the enormity of these stars coming together in this movie, and the politics of three countries co-financing the venture, Red Sun actually turns out to be, not just an interesting movie, but an entertaining one. It’s a little inconsistent in places but ultimately it’s held together by the strength of the actors (who really are, in this case, very much “movie stars”) and you really can’t fault the performances here (this is possibly the best I’ve seen Ursula Andress do in a movie, if not the most I’ve seen of her in a film... although she does briefly go topless for one scene).

The film seems, maybe, just a little too comfortable to watch in places although I don’t know why that is because in terms of content, Terence young doesn’t steer clear of nudity and he certainly doesn’t skimp on the blood, usually evident when Mifune runs someone through with his sword. But I did have some issues with some of the footage and the way it’s been cut together in general. There are a lot of Western landscapes with the small figures of our main protagonists (usually it’s Mifune and Bronson together in these kinds of shots) in contrast to the environment which threatens to engulf them and this visual style seems to work really well in some places, nicely framed with a sense of scale implied within the confines of the shot... and then there are other shots of a similar content which just look sloppy and badly framed like they’re missing a major element which could have made them work. Unfortunately, the two kinds of shots are cut next to each other as often or not which gives the viewer a sense of unease... it’s like some of the shots were taken by the main crew and other shots were taken by the second unit, who were perhaps a little less on the ball when it came to selecting a similar style of shot design. It does tend to lend some sequences in the film a certain lack of consistency which I found wore on my nerves after a while.

This movie is a bit of a Western road movie so there are a lot of shots which are one or two (occasionally more) riders on the trail of their ultimate treasure but it’s the characterisations when the camera moves in a tad tighter that make this movie so darned entertaining. Toshiro Mifune’s “honourable warrior” who has seven knots tied in his sash and who has to undo one knot each day, moving him further forward to the point where, if he fails to recover the sword after seven days have passed, he must commit seppuku and join his ancestors... is a typical Mifune characterisation. That is to say it’s damn good and you can just feel the loss of history in the character when he reveals that, due to the political climate in his own country as forced by people like the Americans, he is probably of the last generation of samurai before they are no longer needed and die out as a breed.

Charles Bronson’s relationship to Mifune in the film is not dissimilar to the relationship dynamic which plays out between Mifune and Lee Marvin in John Boorman’s Hell In The Pacific. Bronson always trying to lose Mifune or get the drop on him and Mifune repaying in kind... and sure enough the two soon become thicker with each other and form a genuine friendship, a friendship which ultimately leads Bronson to throw away his dreams of finding the gold and instead, at the last knockings, embracing the strength of character to sacrifice his goals and instead, do the honourable thing.

Alain Delon is just bad and you can’t trust him from the start. You know he’s bad because he’s incredibly well dressed and wears a black jacket and jeans. You also know he’s evil because he enjoys killing people more than... well... more than not killing people and also, he tries to kill Bronson, who is supposed to be his partner in crime... his boss even. Delon plays the most ruthless of the characters in this movie and you absolutely buy him as a villain. A thinly drawn, clichéd villain to be sure... but one who will worry you as to what he will ultimately do to the characters you have come to care about.

Then there’s Andress. She’s got “a thing” going with Delon and her character matches him in some aspects. You learn fairly quickly not to trust her (bewitching a man with her topless breasts before reaching for his gun... hey, she’d have shot me no problem) and luckily Bronson’s character knows not to trust her too. This doesn’t stop her having some depth to her character when she speaks up on behalf of our heroes after they have rescued her from a Comanche death torture. Andress doesn’t have a lot to do in this one but she really brings the character to life when she gets the chance. True, like the majority of the performances in this one (perhaps excluding Mifune’s who’s vast experience invests his character with a certain gravitas), it’s a very comic-book, stylised and blatant characterisation... but it’s just right for this film and it fits right in.

The music to this film comes from someone who is, to me, a surprising source to get to score something which is trying very hard to be an American Western. Directed by Young who was actually born in China, as was Mifune (although he was always synonymous with Japanese film), with a prominent French actor and a famous Swiss actress (who had worked with both Young and Dawson before on the set of Dr. No)... its a film where you wonder if Charles Bronson was just cast in it to be the “token American”. But it’s a Western with a difference and so to find the score written in a mode which doesn’t really harken back to Western Americana in it’s construction, nor more obviously to the then more fashionable style that Morricone brought to the Italian Western, I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised that famous Lawrence Of Arabia composer Maurice Jarre was chosen for scoring duties. He seems to have approached this very appropriately in some ways, highlighting a theme which is very much something with an “oriental” flavour to underline (and, of course, underscore) the unusual element of Mifune as a samurai in the West. It’s less of a Western score and more of a score which illustrates the warmth which grows between the characters... as opposed to relying on the tools-in-trade of the Great American Western. It’s not an absolutely wonderful score, but it is pretty interesting and won’t bump you out of the picture too much.

I could go on and try to persuade you as to why Red Sun is a gentle Western with a difference but I don’t think I really need to do that. Nor do I have to give it a full on recommendation because the main reason for seeing it is right in front of your face.

Mifune! Bronson! Delon! Andress! Capucine!

How many more reasons do you need to see this movie?

Monday 25 June 2012

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

I Got You, Abe

Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter 
2012 USA 
Directed by Timur Bekmambetov
Playing at UK cinemas now

Warning: Yeah, there will probably be a few spoilers in this one.

My first warning for this review probably should be that I can’t give you a solid call on whether this adaptation is anything like the novel it’s based on. Knowing Timur Bekmambetov’s work like I do though... I’m guessing probably not? However, that’s not to say that this is a bad film... on the contrary, I come to praise Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, not to bury it. But I probably do need to clarify my perceptions of the director before I start heaping praise on this movie.

Timur Bekmambetov made two movies inspired (to put it kindly) by a sequence of quite extraordinarily good books. These two movies were called Nightwatch and Daywatch and... yeah, they were okay. Not fantastic and the second movie was better than the first but, still, they held my attention for the running time of the movies, especially, like I said, the second one.

But then I had the good fortune, after waiting a while for an English translation of these Russian fantasy masterpieces to hit our shelves here in the UK, to be able to read the original novels, a couple of which were culled, again I’ll be polite and call it inspiration, to use for the movie versions. The four novels are called The Night Watch, The Day Watch, The Twilight Watch and The Final Watch... and they are truly wonderful tomes.* If you’re a fan of fantasy fiction you should just read these immediately, if you haven’t already done so. They are awesome.

But the downside, of course, is that I saw not only how little of these works made it into the movie versions of these stories, where the characters which were taken from the novels had been dumbed down to the point where any complexities of the drama of the stories would be practically unfilmable unless you took some time to actually let these characters breathe... but also the amount of extraneous material which had been thought up and grafted onto a fairly unfaithful plot line... thus changing not just the mood of the stories but also the actual meaning and consequences for the characters in these stories.

In other words... I know Timur Bekmambetov is a Russian movie-maker but it turns out he just trampled over these stories and did his own thing with them just like a regular Hollywood production might just buy the title of a book and then make a movie which ended up being nothing to do with that book. That’s what the Nightwatch and Daywatch movies turned out like. Eye candy with none of the actual meaning or entertainment value of the books coming through from them at all. The movies are so different, in fact, that one of the characters in the fourth book actually has a dream of a bizarre alternate universe which is depicted as a description of one of the scenes in the first movie. Because the movies have got very little to do with the novels.

Ok... so even though the guy who wrote the novel Abraham Lincoln:Vampire Hunter was on-board to pitch in on the screenplay to this movie, I’m still not saying this movie is like the novel. I probably would have guessed it was though, which is where I would have gone wrong because I read a few paragraphs of a review today saying that this movie is not a lot like its source material. However, the reviewer in question also gave this movie quite a negative review... and that’s not what I’m going to do here.

Because, frankly, this film is a lot of fun... but the trick it does quite neatly, in my humble opinion, is not to be a film about having fun... it’s a movie that has an actual story and a bunch of characters you care for... and it still gets away with being quite fun. Now I’m not knocking movies that are all about having fun. On the contrary, there are loads of movies that do that really well... Barbarella, Danger: Diabolik, Our Man Flint, Charlie’s Angels etc... and I love them all. What I’m saying here is that this ludicrous mix of early American politics with ramped up vampirism thrown in is already ludicrous enough in both its plotting and in some of the quite wacky, “did they really just get away with that” scenes that if the key actors in this one were seen to be taking this one anything less than seriously, there’s a chance that could have pushed things too far in the direction of the “total throwaway” and would have been forgotten almost as the images flickered over your retina. The actors in this one, however, are all giving great performances and the narrative voice-over supplied by Lincoln gives the movie a big shift in tone and helps you... kinda... take things seriously.

I say kinda because, well, there’s some real over the top fun in this movie and it’s no different to a lot of vampire movies, both contemporary and vintage, which pick and choose their own rules when it comes to the common traits of your common or garden vampire. The chosen “vampire model” here is the super strong kind who seems impervious to almost anything except actual decapitation or any weapon laced with silver. You wont see any crucifix phobia, running water or stakes wedged handily through the ribs on this one and, although the vampire characters do tend to wear sunglasses in the bright sunlight for most of the time, you won’t see any blistering skin or melting Minnies whenever the sun comes out. Of course, this does kinda water down their presence a little as traditional, gothic vampires but, ten minutes into this film and you’ll soon figure out that this certainly isn’t a gothic horror piece... it’s an action piece where the vampires are the new brand of “beat-em-up” super villain and it’s up to our good friend Abe to put a stop to their evil stranglehold on the human race and the political spectrum.

So what I’m saying is, though I mourn the use of vampires as something less than their past movie and literary incarnations, I am also kinda happy because that means you can have a movie where this scene happens...

“A bad guy fighting Lincoln in a stampede of horses picks up a horse by its leg, spins it around and around and then throws it at Lincoln. The horse hits Lincoln and both man and beast go rolling backwards... but after a few rolls Lincoln comes up in the saddle of the beast he was hit with and rides on towards his vampire foe with his silver coated axe.”

Yes, folks, it really is ludicrous but the general poe faced sterness employed throughout these... ahem... serious events, somehow make it all a little easier to digest and, despite scenes like the one I just described, there are also some quite emotionally valid sequences in the film involving the personal fortunes of the Lincoln family which actually will have you caring for our main protagonists and rooting for them in their final battle against their vampire enemies. Especially when one of the good guys is sporting those brilliant folding-lens sun glasses that Vincent Price wears in Roger Corman’s version of Tomb Of Ligea. Great stuff!

When all is said and done, this is quite a spectacular movie full of wire work fighting and “bloody deeds” kinds of shenanigans. There’s not a heck of a lot to think about and it doesn’t feel like it’s pulling too many gory punches either. Also, unlike the majority of “three dimensional extravaganzas” I see these days at the cinema, this one feels like it was born to be seen in 3D... so even that worked for me. I know this hasn’t got the best rep from some of the comments I’ve seen but I don’t really care what other people thought of it... this one gets a strong recommendation from me and I’ll be first in line when the DVD hits my local Tesco in a few months time. Bloody good popcorn fodder film-making!

*Coming in 2013 to a bookshop near you... The New Watch.

Sunday 24 June 2012

Chernobyl Diaries

Diary Of A Chernobody

Chernobyl Diaries 2012 USA 
Directed by Bradley Parker
Playing at UK cinemas now

Warning: Mutated spoilers lurking in the
shadows of this review, coming to get you!

Well, after seeing Oren (Paranormal Activity) Peli’s Chernobyl Diaries last night, directed by Bradley Parker, it would be fair to say I am somewhat conflicted by this movie. Conflicted because, frankly, I don’t think it’s a very good film but, perhaps somewhat in contradiction to that, I did find it scary (or at least suspenseful) in that “watching-where-the-heart-pounding-jumps-are-coming-from” way you develop from watching too many horror movies over the years. Unfortunately, despite the elevated heart-rate while viewing, the answer to the whole when are the jumps coming and where from issue is pretty much... exactly where you are expecting them to be.

I was kinda stoked to see this movie because the trailer looks like another one of those found footage movies which maybe deals with “ghosts” from Chernobyl’s past appearing spirit-like to the main heroes... unfortunately, this is not a ghost story at all... and the two best moments of the movie are both already in the trailer.

The film starts off with a group of teenagers, or so I thought, in a montage of what the movie studio thinks are typically “teenage antics while on holiday” shenanigans backtracked with a terrible teeny-bop song and... really... this does nothing to endear you to the characters. Honestly, if this was supposed to make me identify with the group of main protagonists, a bunch of Americans on holiday, then the dumb, witless antics in this opening sequence was really not the way to do it. Seriously people, within five minutes of the start of the opening sequence I just wanted all these kids to die horribly.

I honestly thought from that point on that this movie was going to turn into a demonstration of a list of Stupid Things Teenagers Shouldn’t Do If They Want To Stay Alive In A Survival Horror Movie. And it did too!

You wouldn’t believe the stupidity of the “split up into smaller, helpless divisions” mentality of the main protagonists in this movie. But then it hits you... horror of horrors... the main protagonists are too old to be teenagers or kids! These are supposed to be twenty and thirty-something (judging by the age and looks of the actors) adults thrown into this situation together. Seriously, we are being asked to believe that a group of adults would be this shallow and stupid when faced with these kind of events? I shudder to think that there’s a section of the audience that can identify with the main characters here. It’s depressing. You just want them all to die... and they do.

This movie, plot wise, deals with a bunch of American “kids” (of adult ages) who go on an illegal “extreme tour guide” in the abandoned city which was emergency evacuated after the Chernobyl disaster. The older, strong, ex-military tour guide goes with them and that’s the entire set up. Once there, the escape route is cut off (car parts stolen) and they are left with “what lives” in the dark and abandoned city. It’s a great premise actually, and I would have loved to have seen a better rendition of it than the one I saw last night. Alas, it seems to suffer from every horror movie cliché in the book which, as I’ve said before, is not normally a problem because clichés usually work and can be as effective as anything... and to be fair to this movie, they do. The tension is ratcheted up at every level and it becomes almost a textbook exercise in how to create apprehension and worry in your audience.

Except... even for a horror movie, which are notorious in reputation for being stupidly easy to decode, this one is so blatantly hitting those marks that it becomes tired almost as it starts... and of course, it really doesn’t help if you can’t sympathise with the key protagonists.

For example, you know right from the outset that the “kids” strongest hope for any protection in the movie, the ex-military, self-confident tour guide, is going to be the first one to go so the key team of players are going to be left totally defenceless without any credible means to defend themselves. It’s, as I said, text book horror and excusable... but I’m really getting tired of it now. This tactic will probably work with an audience consisting of teenage “horror virgins” but the kinds of audiences who go to these kind of movies again and again are surely going to be left wanting a more sophisticated execution of the “bugger we’re f***ked” school of suspense? The old ploy of using low rumbles of almost imperceptible base tones on the soundtrack (when the boundaries of music and sound design overlap) to highlight, probably subconsciously to the majority of the audience, when they should be disturbed by some random element that they might not have picked up on with just the visuals alone, is also employed to great effect... but isn’t the fact that I picked up on that myself evidence that the execution of this is just a little heavy handed in this movie?

And then there’s the divide and conquer strategy on show here which I mentioned earlier. The “sinister malevolence” personified by what roams the shadows of Chernobyl already have a recognised modus operandi which manifests itself as them sticking to dark places (yeah, they only come out at night). Why then, do the “kids” in the movie insist on looking for their “taken” or “fallen” comrades during the day in the darkest recesses of the city they can find? Yeah, alright. Don’t shout at me, I know. It’s because that’s where the creatures have obviously taken them to... but come on, this is not how one survives a movie of this nature and leads to an “evade the scarey protagonist scene” directly reminiscent of ones found in such movies as Spielberg’s Jurassic Park and War Of The Worlds, and probably coincidentally, the Russian set The Darkest Hour (another film which I didn’t appreciate on the level at which it was intended).

So I’m really in two schools of thought about this movie because, frankly, it’s a predictable mess which, unlike many horror movies I’ve seen, I won’t be able to sit through again on DVD or any other home video format of the future (and I understand that this movie didn’t have any advanced press screenings, which makes me realise that the studio were less than confident about the kind of critical reception it would receive). On the other hand, the first run through is still a very effective, jump you out of your pants and create worry kind of movie... so if you’re a regular teen audience wanting a heart-leaps-into-mouth time of it, then you’re probably not going to be as disappointed with the general construction of this one as I was... and you might like to give it a go.

I can’t, however, justify giving this movie a recommendation to anyone who has more than a passing interest in scary movies, except perhaps as a tick on your check list of “movies that hit these points” kind of mentality. And even then you might be concerned with the most puzzling question this movie raises , since it is not... extremely jerky, hand-held camera movement aside, one of those found footage movies (no first person here folks... just traditional third person, shaky-cam movie making on show)... which is this...

What diaries? There are no diaries? There’s one piece of recorded footage which goes on for a couple of minutes which plays a part in the main narrative but this is definitely not “fresh from the diary” in nature. And nobody’s writing anything down or recording it in a diary format either. What is up with that title? Never mind Diary Of A Nobody. This movie has no diary at all!

Friday 22 June 2012

K9 And Company: A Girl’s Best Friend

Dog to Who?

K9 And Company: A Girl’s Best Friend
UK Airdate: 28th December 1981
BBC Region 2

When I was 13 years old, the pilot episode of the proposed Doctor Who spin-off series K9 And Company, which would follow the further adventures of Jon Pertwee/Tom Baker companion Sarah Jane Smith (as played by the inimitable Elisabeth Sladen) and a brand new K9 Mark 3, played by the same prop as the previous incarnations of the character... was what my “Christmas 1981” was all about! I was in eager anticipation of the “television event” of the year, still in blissful ignorance that Tom Baker would soon be leaving the regular Doctor Who show just a few months after.

Conceived by uber-producer John Nathan Turner, the series was definitely pitched to run as a TV show if the ratings were good. I even heard that there was going to be a twist at the end of the first series when the audience finds out that the K9 Mark 3 sent to Sarah Jane in the pilot film (the Mark 1 K9 was left on Gallifrey with The Doctor’s companion Leela and the Mark 2 K9 was left in E-Space with the second incarnation of the timelord companion Romana) turned out not to have been sent by The Doctor, as it had first seemed, but by his arch enemy The Master. Interesting stuff.

Alas, the TV show never came to pass... but not for any critical reasons I might highlight in this review and certainly not for want of trying. My understanding is that the pilot certainly didn’t fail and that the ratings were quite high and on track for giving the show a regular time slot. But these were troubled times for the BBC... or at least for Doctor Who at the BBC. A new controller came in and I think this is probably when the bizarre agenda to clandestinely kill off Doctor Who, one of their most succesful TV shows, first started to raise its head and the lack of budget would finally take the show from our screens less than ten years later. We all know what happened after this and the woefully inadequate TV movie which aired between the demise of the show and the “sparklied up” (aka given an adequate budget) regenration of the show in 2005.

The K9 And Company show, however, never stood a chance in this kind of hostile, early 80s climate... although it certainly wouldn’t be the last we saw of Sarah Jane Smith, of course... nor her titular robot companion.

I have to say that, having watched this pilot show again the other week, that K9 And Company: A Girls Best Friend is... well... it’s just not very good. It doesn’t hold together at all well nowadays and I personally feel that both the script and the shooting schedule were to blame. Elisabeth Sladen said as much, if my memory circuits are not malfunctioning again, in her recent autobiography, published posthumously. To be honest though, you can kind of see all the problems right up there on the screen so easily. I’d have to say that, at the time of its original transmission, I certainly didn’t have any problems with it so perhaps the tolerance of the average 80s viewing public was a lot more robust and less sophisticated than the average viewer these days. I don’t think they could have gotten away with airing what’s in this episode on TV these days all that easily.

The dialogue in this one is really not so bad and Sladen, while possibly having a hard time with some of it (I don’t think there was time for rewrites) does a lot better than she subsequently gave herself credit for in managing to inject at least a little of the Sarah Jane Smith character into the written script. It’s not noticeably a vastly different Sarah Jane to the one we’d been so used to watching in the 70s... although I should probably point out that I haven’t been in a position to rewatch any of her 70s episodes in recent years. Maybe before the year is out.

The story, however, is an altogether different kettle of time travelling space fish. It... well... the set up is okay but nothing is ever that clearly established in the name of trying to preserve some sense of mystery over the 50 minute running time and it has to be said that... it kinda jumps around a bit. The transitions between time settings is bloody awful with the characters one minute running around in the scare laden darkness (well, not so scare laden actually) and the next scene you’re back in broad daylight before traipsing back into “night shoot” territory again. I’m not sure if it’s just bad transitioning between scenes that is to blame or slap dash editing or, more likely, a lack of getting all the necessary footage to make some of the scenes work next to each other and keep it down to the prescribed running time.

The acting from some of the cast is way over the top and pretty non-naturalistic, especially when it’s pitched in juxtaposition against some of the more noteworthy actors in the cast like veteran Bill Fraser and, of course, Elisabeth Sladen herself. Although, having said that, there is some really wooden work from Sladen in the title sequence, talking of which...

Wow. I remember that title sequence being really cutting edge and fantastic in the early 80s... unfortunately, it has to be said that the title sequence now looks very dated and reveals itself as a phenomenon contemporaneous to the good old days of the BBC Micro (I was a Spectrum kid myself but still). The “too long” held frozen expressions and other ridiculous shots of Sladen in this sequence look... well... lets just say they look the opposite of inspiring and it really buggers belief that re-shoots weren’t taken because I’m amazed anything this slap-dash was allowed to be broadcast outside of a non-terrestrial channel showing Topless Darts and The Spanish Archer. I believe Elisabeth Sladen's autobiography had a very good reason as to why she was looking so unenthused during these sequences but I can’t quite remember what they were (although I suspect she possibly thought she was doing test shots for focus etc at the time and didn’t realise the camera was running).

But... at least I still like the inane song with John Leeson’s familiar tones singing “K9” over the titles. A bit silly but it has a certain charm to it.

Although I personally didn’t have as good a time as I was expecting from rewatching this old episode, I am still dissapointed that the show was never allowed to get up to running speed with its own regular time slot. Of course, this would not be Sarah Jane Smith’s last appearances in Doctor Who related programming over the years (The Five Doctors is set sometime not long after K9 And Company by the looks of it) and when she returned, with K9s Mark 3 and 4 to make the first of a number of appearances in the regenerated Doctor Who show of recent years, her popularity ensured that she finally got to have her own regular TV series. A show which turned out to be a real corker at times, in fact.

I still miss coming home to see new episodes of The Sarah Jane Adventures on TV in the void left by Elisabeth Sladen’s untimely death, but she will live on in peoples memories for generations to come and, clunky or not, it’s really nice to have this little piece of British television history preserved on DVD. I’ve just bought a copy for my firend’s daughter’s birthday as she loves The Sarah Jane Adventures. She’ll be a fair bit younger than I was when it was first aired and it’ll be interesting to see if she takes to this earlier version of the character as she does in her recent portrayals. I hope she likes it as much as I did when it first aired... and not through the cynical eyes of a more sophisticated viewership.

Wednesday 20 June 2012

Rio Conchos

Regaining Conchosness

Rio Conchos USA 1964
Directed by Gordon Douglas
Shout Factory Region 1

Warning: Some slight spoilers in this one... 
mosey along if you want to avoid them.

A long crane shot of a desert, in cinemascope, which tracks down as a bunch of Apache Indians dismount their horses in foreground to bury one of their dead. After we’ve tracked down to watch them for a bit, we zoom slightly past them to catch the lone cowboy who is watching them from the distance. When we get to his point of view, he takes a rifle and massacres every last indian in the burial ceremnony and, as the camera tracks down to the spent cartridges ejected from his weapon in the wake of the slaughter, the rousing, “whip-crack punctuated” Jerry Goldsmith score propels us into the credit sequence as a small cavalry unit travel the desert looking for clues to the perpetrator of the slaughter...

Wow. So that’s a pretty good opener to a Western movie right there... I saw this about 15-20 years ago and didn’t think much of it at the time, but it was a TV broadcast in a clunky pan and scan aspect ratio and, thinking about some of the content in this one... I suspect it would have had censorship cuts too. This sparkly clean DVD print from Shout Factory (which is double billed with a blaxpolitation, kung fu Western called Take A Hard Ride) makes viewing this movie a much different experience. Straight away I could see director Gordon (Them, In LIke Flint) Douglas’ beautiful control of the 20th Century Fox scope canvass which he uses to achieve some really complex (but deceptively simple looking) and dynamic compositions. Here’s a man who’s not afraid to keep that camera moving on such a widescreen area and I really hope I get an opportunity to watch this film at a cinema someday... if only to prove to myself that I still wouldn’t get sea sick.

The cavalry catch up with Lassiter, the man who slaughtred the Indians at the start. He’s played by a guy called Richard Boone... who seems to be a pretty level headed guy and a nice actor, even when he’s portraying a man on the verge of madness and on an insane mision to kill all Indians after Apaches tortured his wife and child in a fate worse than death (which presumably ended in death anyway I reckon). Stuart Whitman, who seems to be a kind of watered down version of Glen Ford from what I see of him here, plays the main cavalry officer who is more interested in where Lassiter got his gun than actually arresting Lassiter for his, perhaps somewhat justified in his mind, crimes against the indians. He arrests him anyway and dumps him in a prison cell with Mexican Rodriguez, a lovable rogue played uncannily well and very differently to his usual on-screen persona by Anthony Franciosa (Tenebrae, Fathom). Add to the mix another cavalry officer played by Jim Brown and you soon have a crack (or maybe just cracked) team of people who don’t all get along trying to track the guns which were lost by Whitman’s character Captain Haven before they can be sold to the Indians.

This is quite an impressive little Western and, being as it was released in 1964, an unusual mix of both 1950s Americana Western charm thrown together with some quite ruthless moments, mostly personified by Boone’s Lassiter who is definitely this movie’s equivalent of John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards from The Searchers (although the shirts aren’t as colourful here). This is perhaps epitomised by a scene where a woman is found groaning on her bed (you never see her, only the reactions of our colourful heroes to her) as she has been left to die after torture and gosh knows what else at the hands of the Indians. When Lassiter’s companions slip outside, Lassiter takes it upon himself to put a bullet in her to put her out of her misery. Then comes the sucker punch as the noise of the gun awakens a half mutilated baby (again, courtsy of the Indians, who are portrayed pretty badly in this particular western) which has a pretty bad effect on Boone. Luckily (or not) for Lassiter, the mother and child in the ransacked house have been left there for bait to attract people to the house for the Indians to have their evil ways with, which allows Boone to freak out and go all... err... go all Lassiter on their collective asses... leaving behind a young female squaw who is enlisted by our heros to look after the baby until it dies from its wounds a little later on in the picture.

The sequence I just described is all done quite matter-of-factly and its these kinds of scenes which give the film its strange attraction as the juxtaposition of death, torture, betrayal and violence with the banter and colour of something more closer to a 1950s, rather than a 1960s movie, is held together quite assuredly by a director who seems quite confident with his presentation of the onscreen events.

And of course, all this is accompanied by the late, great Jerry Goldsmith’s wicked-cool, propulsive and jazzy action scoring which acts for the film in much the same way that Elmer Bernstein’s score to The Magnificent Seven does. That is to say, on the slacker paced scenes, Goldsmith reigns in that slack with fast paced, jolting, melodic cues which artificially speed up the action on screen by association. Really good stuff and the main reason why I was here in the first place... I love the soundtrack to this one. Goldsmiths always good for a dependable piece of musical action shennanigans and Rio Conchos is certainly no exception to the rule...

And then you have that ending. I can’t tell you what it is because that would be a major spoiler but the style of filmmaking on display here is very different than it would be today... and for a few seconds I even failed to really register what had just happened. Then the film just quietly ends, without any added ballyhoo. These days I think it’s rare Hollywood would risk an ending like this one but, if they did, you can be sure there’d be lots of “post ending” epilogue to somehow justify it to the audience. Not here... here it’s all “said and done” and the score cranks up again for the final cast list.

So there you have it... a really great little western with some off-beat characters, some nice acting, some excellent shot design and gorgeous music... this one definitely gets a recommendation from me and I have to say that I’m surprised that this particular oater is not a little better known. It certainly deserves to be.

Monday 18 June 2012


Cos n’ Effect

Cosmopolis 2012
Directed by David Cronenberg
Playing at UK cinemas now

Warning: In reading this review you will be sitting 
in a metaphorical traffic jam with a load of spoilers
glancing at you from other lanes. Beware.

I should probably start off this little review with a warning that I haven’t actually read Don DeLillo’s novel, the one that Cronenberg took as his starting point for this work. So I don’t know if this movie version is actually a literal adaptation of the work or if Cronenberg has taken the spirit of it and done his own thing with it (like Naked Lunch, for example). What I can say, though, is that Cronenberg probably wouldn’t have touched this if the source material wasn’t already something which he responds to on an artistic level and it would be true to say that it fits nicely into his oeuvre and is especially in tune with his earlier works, although actual bodily decay/mutation is not an issue for the characters in this one.

Set in a world where the rich can rise or fall in a day due to the instability of the economy, a rich power player called Erik Packer, who looks a bit of a thug actually (Who the heck is Robert Pattinson? He looks like Tarantino and you just want to punch him.), embarks on a quest to be driven in his deluxe limo downtown to get his haircut... a journey which will take him all day and into the night and see his fortunes fall due to, and I paraphrase the words of one character, his inability to predict the random elements of nature within the patterns of the stock market figures, as represented metaphorically by the discovery of his asymmetrical prostate. During his day he plays host to numerous visitors both in his limousine and in various interior spaces, while worrying about a “credible death threat” and getting the pretty-boy veneer stripped from him as he shows his true thuggish nature by the end of the piece.

For a road movie, it’s a pretty claustrophobic one with the majority or the film (if not all of it, actually) shot in sets rather than locations (as far as I could tell). The visitors with whom he talks money or philosophy or poetry or has sex with include some fairly famous names giving fine performances (Juliette Binoche and Samantha Morton, to name two) and for the most part the script is quite dense and I’d normally find this pretty interesting but, I have to say, I spent a lot of my time in front of this movie feeling kinda bored. The attitude of the main character didn’t help this lethal malaise that infected me as I started watching his movie but, at the same time, I got the impression I was watching a future classic in that it so neatly dovetails into that “easy-to-decode” early Cronenberg phase. Well, I say early but I saw traces of eXistenZ in it too... in addition to some of his earlier works like Videodrome and the remarkable Crash.

Talking of which, I think the choice of lead actor, or at least his style of acting, is a definite shift for Cronenberg in that he used to use some pretty inspired and charismatic actors to portray the kind of cooled down, emotionally vacant characters he often populates his films with... James Woods, James Spader, Debbie Harry and Jeff Goldblum spring instantly to mind. Pattinson seems to throw less fire into his role but I don’t think that makes him any worse an actor than those other guys because of it. Contrarily, and possibly even serendipitously, Pattinson’s lack of presence may be the exact kind of stripped down perspective that both he and Cronenberg are going for in this one... and if that’s the case then it might be because the last scene in this movie which the narrative leads to is such an intense, suspenseful one.

Following the eye stabbing of a VIP live on television, as seen in Erik Packer’s limousine, the director further re-enforces the unexpected and damaging properties of violence with a brutal, point blank slaying of an important regular character towards the end of the film. You will see it coming... but still you feel the injustice of the decision made, just as the person responsible will have to embrace the consequences of this act later on, towards the end of the film. This wariness around tools of violence is the way that Cronenberg sets the scene for the final act of the movie, which is a double header between Robert Pattinson and the remarkable actor Paul Giametti as the target and the assassin come face to face with each other in a run down apartment. Steven Spielberg used a similar emotional device in the opening of Jurassic Park, when the power of the dinosaurs is demonstrated with deadly results to ramp up and heighten audience expectation and anxiety when we see these beasties again, for instance. As did David Lynch when he introduced his audience to Sailor Ripley in Wild At Heart with that notorious, literally head-banging, opening. What this does for Cronenberg’s movie is it gives it a very intense edge that one minute either actor could  shoot the other at any time during their long and twisty-turny conversation. This gets almost unbearable at times and makes me wonder if Pattinson isn’t such a bad actor after all, if he can credibly hold screen time against Giametti.

As I said earlier, Cronenberg’s obsession with physical decay and mutation is not mirrored in this movie but the story does concern itself with the gradual decline of the human mind after a day doesn’t quite go just as you’d expect it too. This is reflected in both protagonist and antagonist in the final scene and, frankly, if by that point you can still work out which one actually is protagonist and which is antagonist, then you’re doing well. This is also mirrored in the journey of the physical media the film is made up of, at least that’s what I thought, since the early shots of the terrain outside of the limousine look much like the fake, projected backdrop the director used deliberately in certain scenes of eXistenZ whereas, as Packer presumably gets poorer, everything starts to look a little more grimy and real... to the point where an incident leaves Packer messy and angry on the streets. The ramshackle set design of the place where Giametti’s character lives seems very much, to me at least, as an external projection of that “slow, body-horror mutation” that marked this director’s early works (or his early funny ones, if you will).

Another great thing which also harkens back to the early Cronenberg is the ending. I’ve been suckered in before with Cronenberg’s endings stopping a few seconds short of where you’d like them to end and he’s done exactly the same to me with this one. He puts you in a place where you are trying to figure out which of the two or three possible endings that Cronenberg has deftly lead you too will be the final, end game of the movie and... as the seconds drag on... your choices are suddenly taken away from you and I’ve definitely seen a few of his movies end in exactly the same way as this one did. It’s nice that there’s a certain symetry at work here... maybe Cronenberg’s prostate is less skewed than his main protagonist’s. Either way, it’s a nice way to finish and I certainly didn’t share the groan that the majority of the other six members of the audience, in the cinema that I saw it in, let out as a collective response to the commencement of the final credits.

If Cronenberg is your thing and you like his early work, especially Videodrome and eXistenZ, then you might like to give Cosmopolis a chance, although it has to be understood that my comparisons to these two works are not to be found in the surface details of the movie and if you look for them there then you will see no similarity, other than the very fluid, slow and steady camerawork that Cronenberg likes to view his ideas from. On the other hand, if you struggle with the emotional aspects of Cronenberg’s work usually, then you might be quite lost in this one since very few of the characters express themselves as being anything other than voyeurs to the events that are actually happening to them... and often don’t seem that present in the moment, getting drawn along in the wake of the cause and effect and ultimate downward spiral of... well... of following the flow of the money.

Personally I’m glad I saw this one but I have no idea if I could sit through it again... although I can see how his kind of movie could be best seen as a personal, individual experience with just the lone viewer and a DVD, as opposed to the normally preferred venue of the cinema. That is to say, Cosmopolis is a dish best served cold, perhaps?

Saturday 16 June 2012

Attack of the Crab Monsters

Up For Crabs!

Attack of the Crab Monsters 
US 1957
Directed by Roger Corman
Shout Factory Region 1

Oh my gosh! This is just an amazing discovery.

I can’t believe nobody’s ever told me to watch this movie throughout the course of my life. It’s so hilariously bad and stupid it just might be one of the most entertaining B-movies ever made! I’m amazed Roger Corman directed this movie (rather than just produce it). It’s not even his directorial debut, he’d made a number of movies before this one. I’m just having a hard time comprehending that the man in charge of such an amusingly incompetent production was only a few years away from giving us his Poe “inspired”, widescreen classics which show infinitely more taste and restraint in one scene than the whole of this movie put together. Not as much fun as this though.

Okay... so this starts off really well with a crab themed, animated title sequence which is quite striking in its design and in some ways bears a lot in common with those elaborate end credits animations which have become all the rage over the last 7 or 8 years with modern cinema audiences. So what you’ve got here is a quite stylish title sequence followed by... THE REST OF THE MOVIE!

The rest of the movie is absolutely an insult to anyone’s intelligence but it does it’s insulting with such fearlessness that you can’t help be won over by it’s dumb charm. I can’t possibly describe all the magical uselessness of this movie... you really have to experience this film yourself. But I can at least give you some of the highlights so you know what you’re in for.

So let’s get to it...

A group of people, including many scientists, go to an Island to find out what has happened to the scientists who had previously been sent there to study the effects of “Nuclear Testing” in the general area. As they get to the island and row to shore, the second or third boat almost runs aground coming in to the beach. One of the sailors falls off the boat and... even though they could probably stand up and walk to the shore in this depth... the sailor falls down seemingly to the bottom of the ocean depths where a big eye in close up spots him and... does something. The sailor screams under water... as you would, I guess. The crew manage to snag the sailors body and haul him up but the limp rag mannequin they pull back on the boat is minus it’s head. Oh my gosh! Where has the sailor’s head gone... well nobody seems that much worried about it to be honest but one of the sailors does yell to his men on the boat to “Cover him!” One wonders if this order was perhaps a necessity of trying to hide the fact that said sailor was a cheaply constructed mannequin for the cameras as opposed to being a mark of respect but... well, maybe I’m just being over cynical. No worries, even worse tackiness and general incompetence is to come.

As the plane which brought the crew to the island (which is never seen in context with anything else in the story because it’s obviously just stock footage... something which this film does a lot, actually, in terms of not matching shots up or placing them in context) flies off to return in a month, it unexpectedly explodes and so the party of people are left stranded on the island with just their supplies unless they can get rescued. There seems to be no logical explanation as to why the plane would just explode like that but... hey, not to worry, nobody thinks to ask why it exploded anyway.

The acting is universally bad but half excusable since the script is absolutely abysmal and takes all the shortcuts it can in terms of expository dialogue... even including a long sentence or two which lists more or less every character who has come to the island (soon to be food for crabs) and their profession in the shortest time they can. Even a seasoned veteran might have trouble selling these kinds of lines and attempting to make them sound half convincing... the actors here seem to be less skilled at handling this kind of thing.

Pretty soon there are some violent explosions and some tremors which reduce parts of the island and open up a strange network of caves... and some of the dynamite has gone missing too, but too much later on in the story to make much sense as a reason for this series of tremors. A marine biologist and her husband take a dive in the ocean to find out... something. I still can’t quite figure out what but I felt safer when she went in the water wearing a cleavage revealing rubber suit because the way she was wearing those sweaters she was going to have someone’s eye out. As she and her husband swim around and then resurface, unscathed from the depths of the ocean (which seems to be situated perilously close to the beach again so how they could get near the depths of the ocean from where they surfaced is beyond me... all they needed to do was stand up) two things became evident. Number one is that the guy playing her husband may be quite wooden in his delivery but, he has an even hairier chest than Sean Connery! Seriously, I thought she’d been swimming with a shaggy rug until the rug opened it’s mouth and began delivering lines. Secondly, all the swimming about in the ocean was shot using a tank. It wasn’t shot “in” a tank in terms of where the camera was placed but at least the actors were in the tank. I know this because, aside from the top of the tank not matching the surface of the ocean in any way, shape or form, I noticed that at one point the girl was swimming past what looked suspiciously like some french windows. That would be the reflection of the french windows behind the camera in the glass on the front of the tank then.

People go missing (one falls down a big pit which has opened) and the blasting and tremors go on at semi-regular intervals, as demonstrated by some mild camera shake and some very bad “camera shake acting” where the humans are all over the place but the leaves on the trees don’t move. A crab comes to smash the house of the puny humans but the giant crab claw which  two of the party barely escape from does not tip them off that there was a giant crab for some reason. The “still a mystery” intruder nicks their food and destroys their radio... which is a bit strange because you find out the crabs are blasting away at the island to make it smaller so the humans have nowhere to run to. Why don’t they go back to where the humans are and just “crab them up good” there and then? Apparently because the crabs are scared of electricity, thats why! Um...

And what are those eerie voices from some of the missing people which keep appearing to characters, trying to get them to follow them? Why does one scientist shout down to his colleague from a cliff edge in close up but then, when the shot continues in long shot he is wearing sunglasses again, before cutting back to close up where the glasses are mysteriously absent? And why is it that, when a person runs through the cave system, he passes exactly the same bit of rock wall three or four times before reaching his destination?

Soon, some answers are forthcoming. The crabs are scared of electricity and crumble into dust when you pass a current through them, but are impervious to bullets and bombs... although cutting bits off them seems to have a successful outcome. The voices are the voices of dead colleagues who have had their brains eaten by the crabs and whose thoughts the crabs can transmit through any metal device in close proximity (rifles, belt buckles etc). This should have been twigged earlier, I feel, since the people behind the voices were never willing to appear and were always trying to get one or other member of the team to “meet them by that big pit with the caverns” instead of arranging a more sensible, less perilous rendezvous point. Soon, the scientists are wise to the crabs plan to whittle the island down to nothing (“There was a mountain over there yesterday. Remember?”) and it’s not long until we get into all out human versus crab warfare. The humans cut off the claw of a crab which has been temporarily stunned and take it back to study it. This gives rise to an absolutely hilarious scene later where a giant, puppety crab (these things never look even remotely realistic) is pretty much shaking his claw at the humans and screaming at them words along the lines of... “You cut off my claw puny humans. Ha! Ha! Well I can grow my claw back in just one day. Will you be able to grow yours back when I take your legs off. Bwahahahahahahahahah!” This film has talking, puppet crab monsters with “evilistic”* intentions... this film is a work of genius.

I’m not sure how much more I should go on about this. Maybe only to say that the end of the movie bears no small resemblance to the end of Quatermass And The Pit in its “final solution” to the crab problems and that, with only two survivors left on a small island, the happyish ending (with just unbelievably atrocious acting) is one of those endings where the producers obviously hope the audience don’t think about that conclusion too closely. Why? because you’ve got two characters stuck on a tiny piece of island with no food and no hope of rescue... that’s why! This is almost as far from a happy ending as you could get. Is slow starvation with, admittedly, a sunny beach to have uninterrupted sex on, any better of an alternative to being sliced up for crab meat and your brain absorbed into the minds of th crabs? I think not.

Attack Of The Crab Monsters is, it would be fair to say, something of a lousy movie... but it’s just the right kind of movie you can have a lot of fun with if you approach it in the right way. I’ve watched this twice now in the space of two days and I really don’t have time to be repeat watching movies. I can only recommend this shining bastion of crabby goodness to anyone who wants to scuttle along for a viewing. With just over an hour in it’s running length, it won’t pinch too much of your time.

Thursday 14 June 2012

Three The Hard Way

Hard Three Way

Three The Hard Way US 1974
Directed by Gordon Parks Jr.
Warner Brothers Region 1

Right, this is a film I’ve been meaning to see for a long time now because it’s got three classic heroes of 70s blaxploitation cinema all in one film... Jim Brown, Fred Williamson and the incomparable Jim Kelly. They are the Three... who are having to do things... The Hard Way... apparently.

Okay, so this one’s directed by Gordon Parks Jr, who also directed Superfly which, apart from the awesome score on it, I didn’t really dig all that much when I saw it. This movie is much more palatable to my visual taste buds but the score on this one by Richard Tufo, while still okay, is not a patch on Curtis Mayfield’s epic for the former movie. But it is still quite funky (when nobody actually sings over it) and it doesn’t really matter all that much because this one’s got...

Brown! Williamson! Kelly! Doing things the hard way. The three of them together. Doing things the hard way. Watch them doing it hard! All three of them. In... Three, The Hard Way!

Um... sorry, don’t know what came over me there.

Alright... the plot on this one is unbelievably non-politically correct. I’m almost afraid to even mention it in this review because it’s just so racist and if anyone tried to make a film with this plot device in today's climate, they would be handed their backsides by the media and public alike. However, I’m reviewing the movie here so I’ll just go ahead and say it...

A sleazy group of neo-nazi white boys have been kidnapping and experimenting on black people in order to perfect a new toxic chemical which will only kill black people. Their plan is to dump it in the city water supplies in three test areas and start “cleansing the nation”... of black people.

Seriously, I’m not making it up. That’s the premise!

The opening, pre-credits sequence shows a friend of Jim Brown escaping from the villains’ compound and, after the credits have rolled to an interminably questionable choice of opening title song, the wounded guy hooks up with Mr. Brown and enlists his help. Pretty soon after though, the group of “good ol’ white boys” finish their ex-prisoner off with some bullets and kidnap Jim’s girlfriend from the hospital in the process. Not good.

Soon Jim Brown has enlisted his friends Fred Williamson and Jim Kelly to help him tackle the problem head on. This seems to involve the following process.

Jim goes to see Fred Williamson who has been showing his romantic prowess in a previous scene. Jim and Fred get chased by evil guys and shot at and everybody has a big fight in which the group of white guys all get soundly trounced. Then they go off to see if they can get ahold of Jim Kelly, who has been beating up the police who are trying to frame him, with his ultra-fine, slow-motion kung-fu techniques and impressive array of what can only be described as “kung fu whoops” coming from his mouth. The three of them all get attacked by the villains and kill them all apart from one guy they capture. After a few more shenanigans of this nature, the three separately go to the three cities targeted by the “bad guys” and each stop the toxin from getting dumped in their water supplies. They then regroup and “hit” the compound together to kill all the bad guys and rescue Jim Brown’s gal.

Now you might think from this description that this movie is immensely entertaining... and you’d be kinda right actually. It’s nowhere near as slick or as enjoyable as, say, the Shaft trilogy or the first Cleopatra Jones movie, but it has got a certain vibe to it and it’s also got a raw gutsiness that you wouldn’t necessarily expect in some of the more commercially “clean” product of this genre of movie. For instance, there’s a brilliant sequence where Fred Williamson calls in three dominatrix friends to find out what their captured bad guy knows. After a while they come out all topless and sweating and send Fred and Jim in to pick up the pieces. The guy is so terrified of what’s been happening to him, even though there seem to be no marks on his body even, that he tells all... then dies of fear before the ladies can continue their perspirational work. These are some mean mothers and not anything like the more common images of dommes associated with the BDSM scene these days (and perhaps is worth something from the point of view of a historical document to those interested in such things). Even though there’s a lot of humour in this sequence, it also has a very dark undertone and it lends this movie a certain credibility or edge which some other films in this sub-genre lack.

It’s also competently shot and, while some of the action sequences may seem a little less heart pumping to modern audiences, there’s certainly enough enthusiasm for the running/jumping/fighting by all concerned. And, to be honest, I always find it fun how some of these 70s action movies pan out. There seems to be some vehicles in this one, for example, that just wanted to explode for no other apparent reason than they hit a small bump in the road or went up a curb. I reckon 70s cars must have been built to spontaneously combust if Hollywood movies of the time are anything to go by. I’d be really cautious about driving one myself... it seems like all you have to do with these things is lean on the bonnet and you’d suddenly see your car and body engulfed in flame. Not a prospect I’d relish.

Three The Hard Way isn’t exactly a top notch action movie... but it does have a lot of heart beating within it to inject a little soul into the proceedings and, like I said before... a lot of enthusiasm. The plot is absolutely outrageous and the music varies wildly from cool n’ funky to downright corny as hell (usually when somebody starts singing) but ultimately, if you’re a fan of this genre, then this is one you should probably add to your “to watch” list if you haven’t seen it already.

See it because it’s Brown! See it because it’s Wiliamson. See it because it’s Kelly! See it because they are three friends with a mission... doing it the hard way. Three... The Hard Way!

Tuesday 12 June 2012

The Alligator People

Snapping Yarns

The Alligator People US 1959
Directed by Roy Del Ruth
20th Century Fox Region 1

Woohoo! Every now and again I discover a movie which I know I’m going to think of fondly for the rest of my life.

The Alligator People was made FOR 20th Century Fox in their new cinemascope format to play as the bottom half of a double bill with Return Of The Fly. I didn’t know that much about the film until now (other than it presumably had some kind of “alligator people” in it) since it’s not a movie which comes up in conversation too often. I only wanted to see it because I loved the music.

Years ago the Monstrous Movie Music label released a recording of the score to Creature From The Black Lagoon with a 16 minute suite from The Alligator People on it. I exchanged emails with the album’s producer, David Sheckter, at the time and his critique of the film left me in no doubt that it just wasn’t very good. However... it’s like being bitten by a bug (as opposed to a croc or an alligator I guess) and when I found out recently that it had been issued on DVD, I stumped up the princely sum of five quid for it!

I’m happy to report that The Alligator People is terrible... but in that good way that only true afficionados of 1950s weird science B-movies are really going to relish. Hopefully that’s a large chunk of my readership though.

The film starts and the score ushers in a dark musical mood punctuated with stabs... well, more like harmonious riffs... on an electric violin (yeah, that’s right, 1950s electric violin... in your face modern instrumentation mavens) and we soon join a psychologist and his “specialist” friend as they discuss our heroine Joyce Webster (played by Beverly Garland) who agrees to once again be hypnotised and given truth serum as part of a social “experiment” for our friendly shrink. But the doctor is really trying to decide whether to reveal to her that she is living a secret identity and has blanked the memories of the past few years from her mind. This is why he has his psychoanalyst friend come in, to hear what’s happened to her in her own words and help decide whether this could really be a true buried memory... and then we join the movie proper, as it’s told in flashback from the long held cinematic sanctuary of the “psychoanalyst’s couch”!

We start off with two newlyweds, Joyce and her husband Paul, on the evening of their wedding as they take a train journey to their honeymoon destination. The two were in service together in the war (Korean?) and she doesn’t know much about her mysterious boyfriend's past. All she knows is that all his bones and body were broken beyond repair but that, thanks to some good “doctoring up”, he is now a fighting fit, poster-boy of a husband who shows no signs of having ever been bruised... let alone in a war. All is well for just a few minutes into the movie. Paul is just about to tell Joyce about some big secret in his past when tragedy strikes! As they are reading a load of well timed, well wishing, congratulatory telegrams which suddenly turn up and interrupt their conversation (at just the crucial moment of husbandly revelation), Paul reads one which upsets him enough that he leaves the train at the next stop and runs out on Joyce... leaving her for good.

A year or so flies by between shots with Joyce trying to dig up clues to her husbands past in order to find him and her one final clutched straw leads to a big house in a swamp run by an old lady, her butler and their drunk servant Manon, as played by Lon Chaney Jr (with a hook replacing one of his hands after an alligator once bit it off). After having to stay at the house overnight with everyone denying knowledge of ever having heard of her husband (and finding she’s locked in her room so she doesn’t see what she’s not supposed to) she soon starts exploring strange things which have been happening... like a shadowy, scaly figure playing the piano in the night who leaves wet footprints and handprints where he’s been. It doesn’t take her long to find out the woman running the house is Paul’s mother and the scaly “thing” is... prepare yourself dear reader... Paul!

Turns out the “friend-of-the-family-kindly-and-well-meaning-but-mad-doctor” in the next swamp is running a community of “alligator people”. People like Paul who he has cured and made whole again due to his timely invention of an alligator serum which allows the human body to mimic the limb replicating systems of such reptilian creatures. However, on Paul’s wedding night, he realised there was a long term side-effect kicking in which rendered his good work null and void until he can “iron out” certain little wrinkles in his “cure”. Yeah, you guessed it, the patients bodies (and brains) slowly start to turn into those of an alligator.

Okay, so that’s as much of the silly plot line I’m gonna tell you for this one... if you want to know what happens next you’ll have to watch the movie. One last thing I will say as to the story content, however, is that I’ve noticed a lot how much comic-book character creator’s used to take influence from the movies (Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s “The Joker” in the Batman comics, for example, is obviously based on Conrad Veidt’s “look” in The Man Who Laughs) and Stan Lee, I think, used to take a lot of ideas from B-movie science fiction he was watching just a few years before he started concocting his “new wave” of super-heroes which, today, are still the figurehead characters of the Marvel Comics brand. The scaly appearance Paul wanders around in for the majority of the movie, which is a very good make-up job by the way, is very much like Jack Kirby’s original drawings of The Thing in The Fantastic Four comic and the back story of the unfortunate, half-man half-reptile creatures in this film is definitely reflected in the origins of one of Spider-Man’s earliest foes, The Lizard, who in the comics looks more like the final phase version of The Alligator People than he does in the new Spider-Man movie coming out this July.

The acting in this one is terrible... but the actors are all trying their best and the lines they have to say in some parts are so clichéd and awful that the movie becomes really entertaining. Lon Chaney Jr’s probably the best actor there but, even though it’s written in that this character spends a lot of his time drunk (just like Chaney used to on the film sets he was on), the acting is so, let’s say “powerful” that, against the unintentionally minimalist acting of the majority of the other characters, he seems really over the top in comparison. He’s pretty much playing the “human villain” of the movie, so you’ll spend some of the short running time of the film wondering when and how he’s going to get his alligator-hating butt kicked before the allotted running time comes to an end.

The final transformation of Paul into a full-blooded “Alligator Man” in the last five minutes or so is... hilarious. Remember the old Star Trek episode Arena? Where Kirk fought the Gorn and it was really a man in a lizard suit? Well that costume looks like a masterpiece next to the ridiculous, overly fake alligator head which comprises the final fait accompli of the monster mayhem in this movie. But it’s just so fun you’ll love him escaping from the lab and running around the jungle, upright on two legs, like a mad man... err... mad gator.

Seriously people, if you’re in to what I would generally term the “second tier” Universal-style atomic-science-gone-wrong B-features that were around at the time like The Mole People and The Monolith Monsters (where the threat is slowly growing calcium deposits on a big bit of rock which threatens to topple over and accidentally crush people... absolute genius) then you’re sure to like the laughable brilliance of The Alligator People. How can you not fail to be entertained? Plus it’s got a great score too. This film does not deserve to be forgotten. Give it a watch if you can get it cheap!

Sunday 10 June 2012

Saul Bass A Life In Film and Design

Saul In The Mind

Saul Bass A Life In Film and Design
Jennifer Bass & Pat Kirkham
Laurence King Publishing. 
ISBN: 1856697525

Okay... this is another one of those articles which I’ve been putting off for a while because I am just in awe of the subject of the review.

Saul Bass is one of my heroes.

He’s right up there, for me, with Akira Kurosawa, Andrei Tarkovsky, Philip K. Dick, Lester Dent, Kate Bush, Bernard Herrmann and Jerry Goldsmith. 

And once, a long time ago in the troubled decade known mostly as “the 1980s”, I saw him give a two or three hour live show... and it was amazing.

I’d known his work before that of course. Everybody has come into contact, whether they know it or not, with some of his famous graphic design campaigns or logos. I personally knew I loved the title sequences he designed for Hitchcock’s Psycho and North By Northwest... so when I won one of only two free tickets from my College to go to a live lecture at the ICOGRADA (International Council of Graphic Design Associations) show in London one morning, I was really curious as to why it was taking place in the ODEON cinema in Leicester Square and then, when I found out it was Saul Bass talking about his career (along with various breaks for projected footage of his works), I was over the moon.

I’d already seen, at that point, his one commercially released feature film, the sinister and unnerving Phase IV (reviewed here) and so I knew I was going to be in for one of the best experiences of my life. I wasn’t wrong. I discovered then, as the lecture commenced, a whole heap of the logos, symbols and design campaigns that Saul Bass had worked on. 

The famous distillation of the Bell Telephone symbol... a blue bell in a little circle? That was Bass. 

That block colour version of the Quaker Oats guy that tagged their cereals and products for goodness knows how many decades? That was Bass.

That brilliant rendition of the old Warner Brothers logo that stripped the W right back to three, diagonally set curved stripes within a block lozenge shape? You remember that one, right? Pure Bass!

The famous airline liveries, the food lines, the company letterheads and product ranges. He very modestly and hurriedly skipped through it all at a rate of knotts during his lecture and, most endearingly, the guy was funny. He really knew how to entertain an audience. Seriously, he had me and the rest of the packed out cinema (and it was a big cinema back then, before it became a multiplex, I believe) laughing out loud at some of his brilliant stories.

And of course, there were the title sequences he’d designed for movies, some of which he projected for us (I loved his little story about how they couldn’t get the cats to fight over the titles of Walk On The Wild Side and so ended up doing everything through the juxtaposition of the edited shots)and the sequences in movies that he’d directed instead of the actual director, like the shower scene from Psycho and the racing sequences from Grand Prix (another great anecdote he told there about how panicked and unprepared he felt on his first day of shooting and the way he distracted the cast and crew to give him time to prepare was just so great to hear). Plus he showed us some of his much lauded documentary/information films... Why Man Creates. 

It was a truly entertaining session and, as importantly, it was an inspiration to me as a graphic designer to continue to imagine and create and think my way around to solutions in the most appropriate, but not always the most obvious, manner. Of course, all that inspiration was beaten out of me not very long after I started actually working as a graphic designer but, hey, at least I was aspiring to be like my hero, even if my work was destined to be whittled down to nothing by a “design-by-committee” attitude towards the job.

It’s always been a bit hard to come by any books on the work of Saul Bass. When I was in my next College, working on my degree, they had the one book on him that it was possible to get... I think the only book ever published on him which included his flat design work before now. It was a thin, soft back volume with some good samples of his work and it was called Saul Bass And Associates. However, it may have been the only book on him but it was written and printed in Japanese so... apart from the gorgeous samples there wasn’t much help on any biographical information at the time (I’ve never been good at languages).

Then, in 2004 at the Design Museum in London, they had what was supposed to be a major retrospective of Saul Bass’ work. To be honest, it wasn’t all that. I don’t think anyone could call it in any way an extensive collection of his work and I remember feeling a teensy bit disappointed by it.  "Less" definitely wasn’t "more" in this case but, there were some nice pieces on display there, including some rather wonderful film promo letterheads that I’d not seen before. 

An extra kick in the teeth, though, was that there was hardly anything “Bass” in the museum shop at all. Practically nothing in fact (not even a catalogue if I remember correctly). Of course, there were no books available on the designer in the shop (not even the chance to purchase that old Japanese edition to call my own) but there was... a strange thing. A promise of a book. 

There was a flyer promoting a massive book project of Saul’s work which was going to come in at something like a three figured retail price. The object of the flyer was to get people to send off a deposit on the price of the book so the production could be completed more quickly. I didn’t send my money in but I was licking my chops at the prospect of saving my money up for a book on “the master” for the estimated publication date in 2005. 

Needless to say the book never, to my knowledge, materialised.

Now I don’t know if this book, Saul Bass: A Life In Film and Design, started off as that other intended publication, but what I do know is this... it’s the only book to date which covers Bass in any great detail and it’s a labour of love for the writers and designers on the project, one of whom is his daughter Jennifer. 

It’s not just the “only real book” on the market celebrating Bass though... it’s also a great book. 

Really great. 

Absolutely filled to the brim with facts and many, many anecdotes (some of them just as I remember from Saul’s own mouth when I heard him tell them at the ICOGRADA all those decades ago). You get a real sense of the man and his work from those who knew and loved him and also, of course, absolutely gazillions of examples of his beautiful work, attractively reproduced in full colour.

The presented work is really useful too because, although it doesn’t go out of its way to highlight all the instances, you can work out where he re-used bits of old projects and reworked them for other jobs. Probably not consciously, is my guess, since he always approached his work with nothing but dedication and never short changed anyone. However, you can see the influences if you flick forward and back from the vast mountains of his output represented in this book. The way an old logo or letterhead, for example, may turn up as a similar element for his animated titles to It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, or some such, is always interesting to see. Perhaps it’s simply the recognition of a stylistic continuity in his work over the years. Even so, it’s very interesting.

Another great thing about this book is that it doesn’t fail to make known the tremendous importance and design input of his wife, Elaine. Even before they started getting billing as Saul & Elaine Bass, they were a very tight collaborative team and this book makes no bones about the strength of her creative input into Saul’s work. This is something that’s quite important as they were pretty much a team for many decades and it’s another reason why this book is worth its considerable weight in a shiny, metallic substance.

Another thing it brings to light is, un-equivocally the last word about that in/famous shower scene in Psycho. Saul designed and directed it. Sure Hitchcock was on the set but my understanding is that he wasn’t doing too much directing at the time. I was all down to Mr. Bass when it came to it (my understanding is that Hitchcock was generally disappointed in Psycho and was going to cut it down to less than an hour in length for his TV show until he heard Bernard Herrmann’s influential score... suddenly Hitchcock’s publicity brain leapt into action).

Stuff like this definitively revealed is exactly what every fan of this amazing graphic designer’s work want’s to read and there were a few revelations on the directing front which are real jaw droppers. There’s also some very interesting stories about how he dealt with certain clients and dug his heels in on some issues. I wish his techniques would work for me where I do my job.

And there’s probably not too much more I can say about this book, I guess. It’s both a truly excellent read and a beautiful book to own and leave lying around so people can discover this talented designer for themselves. If you’re already a fan of his work, be it his flat art, his title sequences or his direction, you will not want to miss out on reading what is, to date, the most definitive and thorough, if not the only, real book on Bass. A truly epic tome you’ll want to pour through again and again... take a walk on the wild side and give it a go.