Friday 28 February 2014

The Mummy (Hammer Studios)

A Kharis Born

The Mummy
1959 UK
Directed by Terence Fisher
Hammer Dual Edition BluRay/DVD Regions B & 2

So here we have the Hammer studios third attempt at utilising one of the old Universal horror icons from the 1930s... well, actually from the 1940s mostly, but I’ll get to that in a minute. It was Hammer’s third big monster movie after their versions of Frankenstein and Dracula and, unlike those first two, this was part of a deal they now had in place with Universal to “reboot” certain of their monsters. Hence it is Kharis the Mummy, played first in the 1940s by Tom Tyler before Lon Chaney Jr took over for another three films, who gets reworked by Hammer here, although certain elements of the 1931 movie The Mummy, starring Boris Karloff as Imhotep, are also present.

For example, the opening of the Karloff picture, where a man is driven mad by the presence of The Mummy, is used in this movie (twice in fact... just to pad the film out and reveal more of what happened when it gets to be flashback time) and the back story of this incarnation of Kharis is almost identical to the Imhotep back story, referenced again in an overly long “padding” scene here and later re-used again much more dynamically and successfully in Stephen Summer’s reboot of The Mummy, forty years after this Hammer version. Another important element, which is again a hangover from the original 1931 picture, is the character of the main lead’s wife, played here by Yvonne Furneaux opposite Peter Cushing’s John Banning. Her resemblance to the love of Kharis’ life, Ananka, is used not once, but twice, as a way of preventing Banning’s death in two, almost adjacent, sequences which betray a certain sloppiness in the writing, to be honest.

There the Imhotep similarities end and we are definitely into the Kharis version of The Mummy, with Christopher Lee donning the bandages and reanimated by a fez wearing Egyptian tool of vengeance, although it should be noted that nobody mentions the magical tana leaves which brought Kharis to his lethargic reanimation every night, when required, in the original film series.

This is, apart from the dragging sequences of background exposition and unnecessary flashback mentioned earlier, really not a bad little movie. It’s nowhere near Hammer’s finest but there are certain nice things about it which make the film worthy of your attention on occasion. The colours, for example, are splendid and very reminiscent of the late, great Mario Bava in a certain scene where the father of Peter Cushing’s character first enters the Mummy’s tomb and finds a lot of the interior flooded with bright green, fluorescent lighting... which makes absolutely no sense in the scheme of things at all. But, whether there’s a rationale behind the lighting used or not, you can’t deny that the colours are dreamy.

Another thing is the design of the sets and the way things are shot. I noticed that the director has gone for a lot of triangular and angled compositions, especially in the first half of the movie, to re-emphasise the shape of the pyramids by echoing it in shots around tents or the slope of the roof or the outwardly jutting lines of a rock. At first I thought I was imagining this but then I noticed when there were no natural diagonals to bring out in a shot, the director had then resorted to tilting the camera in some scenes to enhance the diagonal motif. This design philosophy doesn’t seem to engulf the entire movie but it is pretty strongly pitched in the first half hour or more. Interesting stuff.

The performances by Christopher Lee (as Kharis), Peter Cushing and the rest of the gang, including Hammer stalwart Michael Ripper (yay!) are all very fine and on the money but a lot of the time they’re let down by a script that does tend to drag in places. They are though, as I said, supported by some nice set design and, for this film from this studio in particular, a quite extraordinarily good score by Franz Reizenstein, one of only four film scores he composed in his career as a composer, all of which date from either 1959 or 1960. This is much more melodic stuff than we are used to listening out for in a Hammer production, not that this gives it any more weight over a more atonal score, but it’s also one of the best I think (although I’m always a sucker for a good bit of Tristram Carey myself).

All in all, the movie is a bit pedestrian and repetitive (even the excellent score is overtly repetitive when, perhaps, it shouldn’t be, at times) but the film still has a certain atmosphere to it. The leading lady could have had a bit more to do rather than save Cushing’s character in two scenes and get carried off at the end though. This film certainly fails the Bechdel test on all levels, I’m afraid. But, even so, it’s got a bandaged Christopher Lee smashing his way enthusiastically through doors and windows (much to his personal cost as an actor, actually, from what I understand of the number of times he injured himself doing silly stuff like this on the film) and Peter Cushing verbally battling with Mehemet Bay, the latest of a long line of fez wearing villains who were a regular fixture in the Universal Kharis movies.

Like I said, not the best Hammer movie, but certainly one that lovers of the studio and their product can savour and enjoy. I’ll certainly be unwrapping this one for another look sometime in the not too distant future.

Monday 24 February 2014

Only Lovers Left Alive

Drink Tilda Blood Runs Cold

Only Lovers Left Alive
2013 UK/Germany/France/Cyprus/USA
Directed by Jim Jarmusch
Playing at UK cinemas now.

Up until a few years ago I thought the modern vampire movie was gone as a legitimate form of artistic expression and figured it was going to stay dead for a while. Zombies had taken over and not many people were really doing too much interesting with the genre, or at least that’s what I thought. Now I’ve seen four really great contemporary vampire films in the space of as many years and Only Lovers Left Alive is definitely one of the greats (the other three being Let The Right One In, reviewed here, We Are The Night, reviewed here, and Byzantium, reviewed here).

This time, master movie maker Jim Jarmusch takes his turn to play with vampires. That is to say, he’s using vampires to bring out one of the broader themes of his body of work and using that as a backdrop to, basically, have some fun with the possibilities inherent in the genre. This is not to say it isn’t a strong genre piece, it’s definitely a “Vampire movie” with an upper case V... but the way he uses the genetic make up and popular tropes of this type of experience very much requires a certain level of familiarity from the audience.

And in this artistic choice, of course, Jarmusch is not alone among film-makers.

I’ve noticed that a fair few writers and directors are taking the ingredients of the myth of the vampire, using the bits which they want and throwing the other rules out, making oblique mention of the parts of the myth that they have discarded for each film, assuming the audience already knows what those rules are... and thereby freeing themselves up to get on with “the story”. Which is an excellent way of doing things, no doubt, for an older audience... but young people who are perhaps less equipped to be familiar with the ritualistic elements of the vampire movie/novel may find themselves in danger of being left out of the loop if filmmakers keep using this tactic. Although I’m sure there’s an argument that, by the time one is old enough to see movies like this, the knowledge is already there. Which, I guess, certainly holds up for now with contemporary audiences... but future generations may not be so fortunate with the opportunity, and willingness, to watch the vast back catalogue of vampire films made over the last 100 years or so... but that’s an argument for another time.

Jarmusch starts this film with a startling array of rich imagery, beginning with some titles, in a quite clichéd font to match the legacy of the subject matter, superimposed over a slow circling backdrop of stars. This immediately puts the viewer under a little bit of tension and ready to enter a more hypnagogic realm as the titles have the illusion of veering off on their own if you lose your concentration or glance away from them to another part of the screen. It’s quite hypnotic. The motion is continued post-credits, as the starry background is replaced by a vinyl record rotating on a turntable and we are introduced to the two main vampires of the piece, Adam and Eve, played by Tom Hiddleton and Tilda Swinton respectively, in a series of shots which match the circling camera eye.

The swirling continues as they are intercut in their mutual slumber but, in different rooms and, once they get up and go about their business in two completely different places (Adam is sleeping in Detroit and Eve is sleeping in Tangiers) our perception of what we were just watching is completely overturned and we realise the dazzling camerawork and shifting distance of the main players from the lens is Jarmusch’s way of showing the mental connection between the vampires, even though they are separated by gazillions of miles, physically. Another series of shots of three of the main vampires drinking, which utilises a camera strapped to each actor I suspect, yields a similar sense of psychic camaraderie a little later into the running time of the film.

As Adam goes to get his blood supply from Dr. Watson (played by Jeffrey Wright) and gets some new guitars from his source, Ian (played by Anton Yelchin, the new Chekov in the Star Trek movies), Tilda Swinton’s Eve goes to see her vampire friend Marlow (yes, that Marlow, who wrote Faust and, in this version of celluloid reality, definitely wrote the entire output of William Shakespeare), as played by John Hurt, for her blood supply. The colours are really interesting as Jarmusch uses both fluid camerawork (and the occasional stint of handheld) to focus on what appear, at least to my eye, to be vibrant colours which have deliberately been toned down... so we get a kind of “filtered reality” feeling which is perhaps a visual rumination on the fact that, when you’re lived for as many centuries as the vampires characters in this film have, you get kind of jaded to things after a while.

The characters are set so you have Adam as a suicidal, Byronesque vampire archetype (something commented on quite blatantly by Eve during the course of the movie) who passes his time making great music which is never released and who gets a wooden bullet made so he can kill himself when necessary. And then you have the lightness and calm of the piece, his devoted wife who travels to Detroit to cheer him back up and act as the ying to his yang. The situations allow Jarmusch to comment and reflect upon the ideas made possible by the vampire myth in general, and since there are obviously only a few vampires here and there in this fantasy microcosm, it allows him to indulge on his kind of “last days of dying cultures rubbing together” theme, which he has dwelt on a few times, quite memorably in Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai. As he explores the possibilities of the genre, he gets to also invent some great responses to the nature of conversation between people who have been around this long and lived in this way... which is kinda the point I think.

A nice little idea, for instance, is the fact that the vampires tend to regard the general living human race as zombies and, when we look at our own culture’s current definition of all that means as defined by the slow, shuffling, brain dead legacy of the George A. Romero take on zombies from the 1960s and onwards, and then apply that conclusion to the supercharged senses of the vampires in this movie, that’s a pretty cool analogy to make. Cool being the thing here because, like a lot of Jarmusch movies, Only Lovers Left Alive is nothing if not extremely cool movie making.

It also gets allows Jarmusch an arena to get away with some cracking humour, which I think is where the bizarre accusations of pretension may have come from. The writing, if taken out of context, maybe does seem a little indulgent but, frankly, if you are decoding the scenes and the tone in which they are played, you’ll realise that a lot of the dialogue is high comedy. “You drank Ian!” for example, or my personal favourite moment, where I let out a large, inadvertent chuckle, as John Hurt pointed out that the old “zombie, Shakespeare” was a talentless hack.

However, a fourth vampire enters the picture, in the form of Mia Wasikowska playing Ava, and with her she leaves a wake of disruption which finds our main two protagonists fighting for their lives and, ultimately, reverting back to their behaviour from the 15th Century. Which is kind of an interesting angle for two characters such as these, who are lazing through life at their own pace and reflecting on the almost soporific nature of their existence.

I absolutely can’t reveal to you what happens by the end of the movie, but I will say that the pace is pleasant and leisurely, always fascinating, with stops to take in tranquil moments of beauty whenever those whims of fancy need to be indulged... all set to a fantastically simplistic, yet texturally rich, musical soundtrack which includes Jarmusch’s own band Sqürl in the mix too. And just when you think the pain of the reflection of the future survival of these vampires is about to take itself too seriously, it leads in to a final shot which is an absolutely delightful celebration of the vampire genre and which will, no doubt, please many people... just like it did me.

If you like Jim Jarmusch films in general then you’re not going to want to miss out on this genuine masterpiece. I’d place it up with my personal favourites of his ouevre like the aforementioned Ghost Dog and Down By Law (reviewed here). Similarly, if you like vampire cinema, he’s successfully made a film which both reflects on the genre rulebook while somehow still managing to keep it fresh and as alive as, it turns out, it always was. If you like works of art then, of course, you too will love this movie. If I’d had seen this movie last year, it may well have been my number one film, despite some strong opposition. My worst problem this year, however, is that it’s probably the best film I’ll see all year... and it’s only February.

Don’t miss out on this one, though, whatever you do. It’s one of those films that the cinema of reflection was invented for.

Sunday 23 February 2014

The Monuments Men

The Art Of War

The Monuments Men
2014 USA/Germany
Directed by George Clooney
Playing at UK cinemas now.

Warning: Very slight spoilers which, in no way, 
give away the course of the story.

There’s a scene about three quarters of the way or more through The Monuments Men which best demonstrates one of the things I found a little disappointing with this film overall. One of the lead protagonists has stepped on a landmine and cannot move for fear of blowing up himself and his colleagues. We’ve all seen this scene before in countless war movies, of course, and it’s a cheap but effective trick used by directors for decades to build up suspense, tension and force the audience to empathise with their characters even more... but this time it doesn’t quite work in it’s intent. At least that’s how it felt for me.

Instead of being played fully for tension, the director, as is his right, seems to want to play it for yet another in a series of “war romp” scenes. It’s not a funny situation but it’s played quite lightly and, for me, this really highlights the movie’s one, main flaw. There’s no edge to it and almost no consequence. It’s also dealt with in an unrealistic manner too... I thought the central characters were smarter than this.

Now my reaction to this might just be one of conditioning, to be honest. I’m really not one for watching too many war movies but we have been under fire in recent years from films like Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan and The Pianist, which show the horrors of war and pull, relatively few, punches in showing the raw misery that conflict will always bring into being. The Monuments Men, on the other hand, seems to be of direct lineage from films such as Kelly’s Heros and The Dirty Dozen in it’s genetic make-up (two films, I hasten to add, that I’ve not yet seen... so if I’m wrong in this judgement, please feel free to take me to task over it in the comments section below) and, naturally, films like The Inglorious Bastards and Tarantino’s own war movie in this vein, Inglourious Basterds (not actually a remake or homage to the former, in fact)... the latter being perhaps the best of this lineage to combine the War Is Hell but also, the bizarre War Is Fun element of a conflict which has been the subject of so many hundreds of movies since the 1940s.

It’s a decision and Clooney goes with his gut and delivers a war romp which is, in all honesty, quite entertaining... but finds itself at odds with itself, I believe, because some of the scenes he’s written in to deliver “the dark edge” are perhaps played a little too lightly for their own good. And I’m not putting that down to the acting because everybody in this movie... Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Jean Dujardin, John Goodman, Hugh Bonneville, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban and even Clooney himself, are all absolutely brilliant in their performances and it doesn’t seem to be their tone which is the problem.

For instance, I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say, when it comes to a movie set during the Second World War, that some of the main protagonists are going to wind up dead at various points in the movie. However, I found that, even though I liked all these characters, I didn’t really feel much when they died. Don’t get me wrong, the other characters on screen did... but I, as the audience, didn’t feel much. Similarly, when a couple of characters realise the gold they’ve been running their hands through is comprised of the gold fillings of dead victims of the German concentration camps, although we are given time to dwell on this horror, along with the characters, we don’t really feel it as such. At least I didn’t and, believe me, I’m not taking the actual events any less seriously for it.

I think the “lightening” effect I’m talking about here is something which came in the struggle to find the perfect edit and sound mix from the film. And also perhaps from the baggage that some of the actors have brought with them from other roles. Many of these are noted for giving some great comic performances and maybe that’s thrown into the mix too. Perhaps some shots needed to be a little longer or maybe have a less beautiful score than the “classic war anthem” style of composition, with direct lineage from the scores of Ron Goodwin, that master composer Alexandre Desplat has delivered... much to my puzzlement as this score doesn’t seem to me to fit his usual modus operandi, although it’s still a score and a half, to be sure.

So yeah. The film does seem a little, “war light” in places. Especially after such a brilliant opening montage of static shots of works of art juxtaposed with the sounds of hammer blows. This short sequence was almost stomach turning, when seen on a big screen, in the way the sound and image worked together in rhythm and sets you on edge for an intense and dynamic darkness which never quite delivers, at least on that front.

Okay, so that’s a pretty negative view of the film so far so let me just temper that a little and tell you about the good way of looking at this...

It’s actually quite fun and it’s well acted, holds your attention and doesn’t, not even once, get boring.

It was possibly scripted so that certain scenes would go to the various “stars” in the movie to play to their strengths but, honestly, it doesn’t look or feel like it’s been tailored for specific performers in that way and it flows beautifully, not feeling like a series of separate incidents highlighting characters... even though it kinda is in many ways, as the lead protagonists work in smaller, separate units for the majority of the film and only come together for key scenes every once in a while. It’s a solid little story and although it certainly doesn’t drum home the horrors of war I was talking about earlier, they’ve not been forgotten or pushed to the background either (maybe tonally but not in terms of sweeping them under a rug or something like that).

What we have in The Monuments Men, I think, is one of those films which is going to play on television during seasonal holidays like Christmas and Easter for decades to come and will, in future years, be rightly identified as a classic. I know, for instance, that when future generations sit down and watch this, they’ll see a snappy and solid little war movie with a great cast of actors who all died many years ago and wonder why this didn’t make a bigger splash when it landed at the box office on its release. The haze of nostalgic rediscovery is as valid a process of receiving the art form as any other, it’s my belief, so I think this film will be remembered well when it starts to be included in text books of the history of war films in years to come. But don’t take my word for it... go and see this possible classic in cinemas now while you still can. It’s nothing like a perfect movie for us now... but it may well be a perfect movie in the future.

Thursday 20 February 2014

Doctor Sleep (aka The Shining 2)

Sleep Throat

Doctor Sleep (aka The Shining 2)
by Stephen King
Hodder & Stoughton
ISBN: 978-1444761160

It’s been a couple of decades since I last read a Stephen King novel (that one was Insomnia... and it was brilliant) and longer than that, even, since I used to regularly read him.

Part of that is because, when I discovered him at around the age of fourteen, I was pretty much a “binge reader”. I’d find a writer I liked and then read pretty much everything that was available by that person at that time and then move on to somebody else. When I started out, King only had 11 novels out under his own name and, at that time, his pen names were still an unlocked secret. The first novel I read by him was because I was at that age when all boys wanted to read about just two things... horror and sex. Everybody in the playground was reading something with a curious mixture of the two and, in terms of the sexual content, horror was an easy “in” because most of us kids weren’t into buying proper porn... that stuff needed to be hidden away.

That’s not to say that Stephen King was any kind of sex fix (nah... we left that to James Herbert) but this is the reason why writers like King, Herbert, Koontz and inevitably, the more exploitative writers like Shaun Hutson and, goodness me, Guy N. Smith, were lapped up heavily by us kids wanting to read about unpleasant or at least vaguely spooky phenomena.

King was pretty much the first horror writer I read, other than maybe Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, and the novel I started on was one which had just come out and had an amazingly attractive cover. That novel was Christine, about a haunted 1958 Plymouth Fury that had a mind of its own and started to possess its new owner. I already knew who King was because, like many people my age, I’d loved the TV adaptation of Salem’s Lot (reviewed here) and after I read Christine, I went on to Salem’s Lot and then... pretty much all the others which were available at the time while simultaneously exploring the other writers I mentioned above. Luckily for me, I didn’t read his debut novel Carrie until I’d read quite a few of his others first. I say luckily because my reaction to Carrie was that it was a terrible novel and if I’d read that first I wouldn’t have discovered King’s genius... and he is a bit of a genius, to be honest.

King’s work was never that visceral or gory, although he’d occasionally have something unpleasant to say and would phrase it in a way that cut through the layers and got under your skin quickly enough. I can’t even, honestly, say I found any of his books scary either... Lovecraft was one of the very few who could occasionally give me pause to think in that area. But what I saw right away was that he’s a damn good writer. His work with the characters and pacing is far above the others, something I discovered soon enough when I began reading some of those people I mentioned above (even so, if you think I can resist reading books with titles like Night Of The Crabs or The Sucking Pit, then you’re off your trolley).

One of the books I read in that initial binge was The Shining, of course. It was a pretty great book although, I have to admit, I did prefer the Stanley Kubrik interpretation of it on film.. let’s not get in to that argument here though, right?

When I expressed a desire to read King’s new sequel to his classic horror opus, a good friend of mine bought me a copy for my birthday back in January and, as I knew I would, I rediscovered just how good a writer Stephen King is all over again. Gonna have to look up some of that back catalogue for the ones I missed soon, I reckon.

Doctor Sleep is mainly set in the present day, although it takes a while to get here because King treats us to the intervening years of the central character Danny (the little boy from The Shining) as he grows up and slips inevitably into the spiral of alcoholism that was the legacy left him from his father (a father famously played by Jack Nicholson in Kubrik’s movie version). We see him go from low to new low to hope and then onto something a little better etc until we come to the present day. We also meet some important supporting characters plus a little girl called Abra, who we see growing up and kinda cross cut with Danny’s progression as a human being. Abra and Danny have a connection... but I don’t want to say too much about that here... no spoiler warnings.

King has always been about characters and, like some of his books, there is also a tangible villain of the piece in this one... as opposed to a woken up force of nature. In fact, there’s a whole bunch of villains who call themselves The True Knott and who will cross paths with the main protagonists and have an impact on their lives in many ways. But, like I said, King is all about character. So these are not just mere two dimensional villains, quickly fleshed out to present some kind of vague threat. As Danny and Abra mature and move forward towards their respective destiny, we also see the villains fleshed out and progressing with them. We understand what they want to take from our main protagonists but we also feel what’s at stake for them. We feel their own pain and can see why it is necessary for the antagonists to take the path they are taking. It’s all a question of survival and although these people are quite nasty and unsympathetic, King fleshes them out enough so you can at least understand where they are coming from. And, of course, once the writer has you hooked like that, you are invested in the stakes and caring all the more for what happens to the central heroes.

Now I have to say that, I did pick up fairly early on in the book where King was going to go with his denouement. He’s always, and I figured this out even when I first read Christine back in the early 1980s, used a certain amount of foreshadowing in his work. He’ll end a section saying something like... “It was the last conversation character X and character Y would ever have” or some such. It keeps you turning those pages and, although I’ve always thought he kinda overused the technique, I can’t argue against the fact that his use of this particular writing tool makes for a very gripping read. Lots of writers do this kind of thing nowadays... including my two annual Christmas reads, Patricia Cornwell and Kathy Reichs.

In this one, however, it wasn’t the foreshadowing so much as the internal logic and the legacy, or should that be baggage, of Danny thrown over from his experiences in The Shining that tipped my hat pretty early on as to roughly how the ending was going to play out. But you know what? Two things about that...

First is... it doesn’t matter. King is such a great writer that it becomes all about the journey and not necessarily about the destination. The destination can still be great even if a little predictable and it’s not all about that but more about what you learn about the truth of humanity through the trials of his characters than anything else. After all, if you’re into sex, for example, you’re not going to bother not going through with it even if you’ve predicted you wont have a “quality” orgasm at some point, are you? If you are, then don’t call me!

The other thing is, it’s not the ending which is so great in this, it’s the epilogue, or wind up, or secondary ending, that really makes this book worth while in terms of the novel as a whole. I didn’t see the stuff in the very last scene coming, where Danny once more fulfils his role as the title character, Doctor Sleep. It’s about a simple act of kindness but the implicit message behind that particular act is one of, not even redemption... that point has already been reached... it’s an act that reminds you that you are not, and never will be, the enemy. You rise above even the most inconsequential negative elements in this world if that’s at all possible. It affirms something about the life you live and the way you want to live it... and I thought this was a perfect “end game” moment for King right there.

In his afterword, King talks about how and why he came to write this sequel to a book he wrote well over 30 years ago and he comes across a little like he’s worrying how people will react to it after the original has always been considered a bit of a classic and how it might not live up to what people may expect from the inevitable comparison. All I would say to Mr. King is this. You’ve written another in a series of very fine books. If this doesn’t go down as another classic, then it certainly deserves to and probably, in time, it will. It’s a more than worthy sequel to The Shining and, personally, I enjoyed it far more than the first novel.

And as for any one still reading to the end of this review... if you’re into the work of Stephen King and haven’t given Doctor Sleep a go yet, all I can say is that it is a truly excellent and compelling read which will have you constantly page turning and which will hopefully leave you with a very satisfactory sense of conclusion. This one’s definitely a hard recommend from me.

Tuesday 18 February 2014

The Sensuous Assassin (Qui?)

When In Romy...

The Sensuous Assassin (Qui?)
1975 Italy/France
Directed by Léonard Keigel
Westminster Wags Region 0

Well this is one of the more interesting purchases I’ve made recently, based on false information, as it happens. This one cost me a fiver from a dealer at a film fair and the reason I was swayed to buying it was because he told me the music was what Mondo Macabre had sourced for their ID jingle on their DVDs. Now I wasn’t sure about this because I was so taken with that jingle about 10 years ago that I wrote to Mondo Macabre at the time and they told me it was something they’d put together themselves. However, if there was a chance that this film was what that jingle was sourced from, then it was worth the fiver to find out.

As it happens the stall holder, who I have a lot of time and respect for, got the music mixed up in his head, I think. The music written for this film by famous French composer Claude Bolling, did get an equally famous, second hand usage many years later as ID music, but not on the Mondo Macabre label. The music in question, which plays out on the opening credits and a few other moments throughout the course of this movie, is the music that much loved UK film critic Barry Norman used to use for his “film chart” run down on Film 84 (or Film "whatever year you remember actually watching it with affection"). Someone’s put it on you tube, if you don’t remember it, here...

Now, I already had this piece of music on a compilation album called Shake Sauvage but I was really pleased to hear it in the context of the movie, which stars Romy Schneider as Marina, a woman who tries to shoot her boyfriend at the start of the movie after he bashes her during a “splitting up” argument. As a result, the boyfriend drives them both at high speed through the opening credits, playing against the famous music mentioned earlier, and she jumps from his car just as he drives over the edge of a cliff and into the sea. She hooks up with her, now, ex- boyfriend's brother and stays with him for a while, allowing herself to fall in love with him and seduce him.

And here the plot gets slightly kinked and I can see why some people have concluded that this film is a giallo with an A-list cast. It’s not, actually, because I tend to think of giallo as a genre having a body count significantly higher and more organised murders than those which happen in this film... but I don’t want to reveal too much because I want to write this review without spoilers. What I will say, though, is that the film basically revolves around two central questions. Number one is... did Marina’s boyfriend survive the cliff top plunge and, if he did, is it he who is stalking her in sinister mode throughout the course of the film? Question number two, and simultaneous to that, is does the brother, who is now Marina’s boyfriend, trust Marina or does he think she deliberately killed the man in question? Two questions which are answered quite satisfactorily, and with a little twist of crashing inevitability, near the end of the film.

The unusual thing about this film is not, however, the convoluted plot, which is competently handled although, to my eyes, is not nearly as spectacular in terms of sets and shot design as those twisted tales you would find on many a trashy but visually glorious giallo. What startles on this is that it’s very much a character driven movie. Time is taken to explore the characters with the actors and bring them to life as credible people and not just cyphers to hang a mystery on. We watch them as they get under each other’s skins, get drunk,  get angry (and various other emotional states with each other) and it’s all indulged in a way which is not something you would get in a giallo.  So while it’s not as watchable as something like, for instance, Martino’s Who Saw Her Die? on a visual level, it more than makes up for it in terms of the way you perceive and feel sympathy for the characters as they make friends, fall in love etc. Not a bad trade off, to be sure, although having both things would have been better.

Not a great deal more to say about this one. There’s certainly no assassin in this movie and the character the title may be referring to isn’t all that sensuous either, to be honest. The music is brilliant when it’s instrumental but the soundtrack also contains an almost obsessive amount of cheesy euro-pop songs sung in English which really kills the mood in certain scenes. It is however, bearable, and if the ending of the film seems a little unfair on the characters who have at last found a certain amount of happiness, it’s certainly an engrossing watch getting up to that point and if you like these kinds of movies, then I think you’ll certainly not regret giving this one some of your time... if you can find a copy. Not an essential watch but certainly some really great performances and with some really good musical high points. Worth catching if you get the opportunity.

Sunday 16 February 2014

The Devil’s Wedding Night

Pazuzu’s Petals

The Devil’s Wedding Night 
(aka Il Plenilunio Delle Vergini 
aka Full Moon Of The Virgin)
1973 Italy
Directed by Luigi Batzella (and uncredited Joe D’Amato) 
Virginia Cinematografica DVD Region 0

A girl running in the woods.

Without warning she goes a bit “psychedelic wash” like she's in a Monkees movie and then a big red eyeball comes out of the screen at you… ushering in some groovy credits which continue in a similar vein with scenes of nakedness in bright colour washes, letting you know you’ve entered the realm of... The Devil’s Wedding Night.

To say these titles are fairly striking may be a bit of an understatement. The giant crimson eyeball keeps coming back and really getting in your face.

I came to this film by my usual route I’m afraid. I was listening to some sound samples of some interesting looking Italian CDs and when my cousin asked me what I wanted for Christmas last November, I asked for this score. It’s pretty groovy... and actually quite funny in certain places when listened to within the context of the movie... but I’ll get to that later. Anyway, I was at one of the big Westminster Film Fairs towards the end of last year and I noticed that one of my favourite dealers had a copy of this movie going for a fiver... which is just as well seeing as what he charged me for Top Sensation (which I reviewed here and which, like this movie, also features the always beautiful Rosalba Neri in it).

So I bought it and it finally pushed its way up to the top of the backlog where I could watch it and see how the musical score works with the visuals.

Immediately after the titles, a man is searching through books in his study. He is to be one of the lead protagonists and he is particularly interested in reading an especially sinister passage from a book regarding an old magical ring with a blood red stone set in it that can conjure up demonic phenomena when it is held up to the moon during certain rituals.

The gentleman in question is interrupted in his readings by the entrance of another character who is quoting Edgar Allan Poe’s poem The Raven. “Aha,” thought I. “They’re obviously trying to jump on the AIP/Roger Corman does Poe bandwagon which started back with House Of Usher in 1960.” That thought was further compounded by the fact that I knew one of these two gentleman playing.... well twin brothers actually, although they really didn’t look anything alike to me... was Mark Damon, who was in the aforementioned Poe flick and a few other similar kinds of titles back in the 1960s.

The first brother, the one who was reading, is actually an archeologist and he tells his “twin” of the magical Ring Of The Nibelungen. Yes, that Ring Of The Nibelungen, the guy explains. The one made famous by Wagner’s opera (as he pronounces Wagner like you or I might pronounce Robert Wagner, presumably not for comic effect). Actually, the way they pronounce Wagner is not nearly as laugh inspiring as the way they pronounce Nibelungen. And I thought cunnilingus was a mouthful (well, yeah, okay it is if you’re doing it right) but this stuff here is unintentional comedy gold.

Okay, so I digress. Must pay attention and get this stuff right because it gets funnier. It turns out, says our man, the archaeologist, that this ring was famous before Wagner wrote his opera about it because... oh yes... it was believed that the red stone is not a ruby, but filled with strange red stuff that was part of a meteor that landed long ago in the Carparthian mountains. Oh, stop smiling, I’m not making this stuff up... it’s in the film I tell you.

Now, by some bizarre leap of faith or twist of the imagination, our archaeologist reckons this must mean the ring is located in Transylvania, in a place called Castle Dracula, in fact. However, his Poe quoting twin brother is a little concerned about this because... “vampires”. But our hero, well one of our heroes, because both brothers feature quite comically in this bizarre movie, tells him not to worry. He explains to him that  he will be wearing the amulet that he found a year before in the Valley Of The Kings which is an anti-evil charm, originally fashioned for warding off the demon Pazuzu (if that name rings a bell with anyone, by the way, remember The Exorcist?). So he wears this for protection and goes off to Transylvania where he will meet his twin brother in two days.

Now then, the fact that the characters are twin brothers is something of a point of interest to me now, I’m afraid. I didn’t know who both these actors were but when, later in the story, they get around to mentioning “hey we’re identical twins”, I burst out laughing because, seriously, they look nothing like each other and when, furthermore, one was posing as the other to ward off suspicion, I was chuckling quite heartily that anyone could be so taken in. Well, as it turns out... both the characters are played by Mark Damon... so the joke’s on me a bit with that one. Moving swiftly on...

Brother A stays at an inn in Transylvania, the night before he finishes the last leg to Castle Dracula. Now the inn itself is quite interesting because I feel like I’ve seen it before. It doesn’t look very Transylvanian at all inside the set... in fact, I think Lee Van Cleef might have been in this set in one of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns... possibly The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. I’m pretty sure this is an old Italian western set being reused here but perhaps an expert in such matters could look the film over for me sometime. I’d be interested to hear.

So, while at the inn, Brother A meets up with the landlord’s sexy daughter, who is afraid because in a few nights time, just by chance, it’s the ritual of the Virgin Moon in which, every fifty years, many virgins are summoned mysteriously to Castle Dracula and are never seen again. Our hero seems to be a bit of a ladies man (and I’m being polite here... if he was any more forward he’d be wandering off set somewhere tp sleep with half the film crew) and he offers the young lady in question protection... that is, he sleeps with her and “bingo” she’s not a virgin anymore... so she can’t be selected for the ritual “virgin sacrifice” which is an important social event on the Transylvanian calendar, to be sure. Of course, this doesn’t save her later in the film but... oh, look, none of this movie makes much sense, okay? Just go with it.

Anyway, our hero gets to Castle Dracula and finds, instead, a sexy housekeeper and Rosalba Neri playing a descendant of Count Dracula himself. He looks about the place a bit, including a study which is the dead spit of the one he’s seen in at the start of the film, with dozens of the exact same “by the yard” bound books as the ones filling his own library... he must feel at home then.

Well, he really must feel at home actually because it doesn’t take long for him and Lady Dracula (no, that’s not her actual character name but, in essence, that’s the message we are getting) to be involved in a sex scene which is, it has to be said, one of the funniest sex scenes I’ve seen in a movie which is trying to be erotic. Seriously guys... if you’re editing together footage of two naked people in close proximity to each other... don’t be breaking the 180 degree rule at that point. People will burst out laughing at the surprise... which is what I did.

And then Brother A ends up as a vampire in a box while Brother B comes to Castle Dracula to find him... which he does, rescuing him from his coffin and then plotting with his brother to stop Lady Dracula from going ahead with her ritual involving the ring and various young, virgin women and then later fighting him, as Brother A embraces his inner vampire.

It all gets a bit confusing and, frankly, the plot just lets go somewhere in the middle and drowns in the surrounding sea of scantily clad celluloid women. The ritual of the Virgin Moon seems to require the siren’s call of the ring, summoning young ladies who are held in place by some red cloaked, black masked, cult members, while the female house keeper rips the clothes off of each one and has a quick fondle of each of their bared breasts. I had no idea why she was doing this but it’s something both she and the camera were really getting into. When she gets to slash each one with a knife and watch the blood slowly drip down their naked protrusions, I thought her eyes were going to pop out of her head in mock ecstacy... and then everyone starts chanting mock satanistic placations mixed in with “Om mani padme hum” and... wait, what? Yeah, that’s right. It’s all “satani this” and “Baal that” and then, all of a sudden. let’s throw some nice, peaceful “Om mani padme hum” in there too, shall we.

I’ve got nothing much more to say about this film. It’s both terrible and brilliant but, besides the full-on unintentional humour of pretty much most of the movie, there are a few saving virtues, along with the obvious one of large amounts of nudity, of course.

The film is mostly, apart from that amazing comedy sex scene, fairly well edited and the raw material of the shot design is great, with some nice compositions and some very fluid and smooth camera movements... it’s not a film to wallow in static shots at any one point.

And the music, too, is pretty cool but... that’s only when listened to as a stand alone listen. When it’s used in the context of the movie it sometimes gets used inappropriately. Like the times when the subtle, atonal washes of slow horror tones are immediately cross cut with heroic horse-riding music as Brother B rides to Castle Dracula, quite jarringly and... alas... repeatedly. It’s brilliant. Not as brilliant as the terrible acting in some of this though. I can’t believe people were taking this script seriously. And as for the ineffectual vampire guy who looks like a cross between the original Nosferatu and a slimmer version of Tor Johnson, but with less subtlety than either... well let’s just say that it’s a very hard film to take seriously and just leave it at that.

So do I recommend this one to my readers or not?

Yeah, of course I do. It’s hilarious. Don’t bother watching it if you want to be in any way frightened or want to try to take the film seriously on its own terms... the dialogue and plotting, as I’m sure you’ve probably gathered by now, is unbelievably bad. But if you are happy to have fun with these kinds of films then you’ll probably enjoy this one a lot. I can guarantee you that if you showed this as part of a pub screening double bill, there’ll be a lot of laughter in the house.

So grab yourself a pint... on The Devil’s Wedding Night.

Thursday 13 February 2014

Battlestar Galactica: Blood And Chrome


Battlestar Galactica: Blood And Chrome
2012 US
Directed by Jonas Pate
Universal Pictures BluRay B

Warning: Slight frakking spoilers.

So here I am finally watching the Battlestar Galactica spin off Blood And Chrome, which is set somewhere in between the regular rebooted Battlestar Galactica TV show and the prequel series Caprica. This hour and a half movie tells the story of young William Adama’s very first mission in the first Cylon war and is pretty much setting things up for a regular series which, I guess, never got made. And that’s a shame because, like the BSG reboot, this prequel is absolutely brilliant, for the most part.

Young Adama is not played, however, by the guy who played him in the flashback sequences in the TV movie Battlestar Galactica: Razor (which is a missed opportunity because that kinda screws continuity a little) but by Luke Pasqualino, who is currently playing D’Artagnan in the new BBC drama of The Three Musketeers, apparently. At first I wasn’t sure about this guy... he looks to young and naive to grow up to be Edward James Olmos... but the dialogue in the script provided for that character is pretty kick-ass and it only took me a few minutes to start believing in this version of Adama.

The movie opens strong with a Colonial Viper VS Cylon fighter sequence in which young Adama ejects his cockpit glass after it gets battered in order to see the next kill and bravely risks death by radiation poisoning as he takes out an enemy by flying upside down over it and shooting the ship down from his exposed cockpit with a hand pistol. All is okay though, as it turns out this opening is a sly reference to the old Kobayashi Maru test taken by Starfleet Cadets in the 1982 movie Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan (and also the rebooted Star Trek movie from 2009, of course).

This is followed by a display of Adama’s cockiness, a scene showing the reaction of his future crew mates (if a series was ever commissioned) to his arrogance and, also, a naked unisex shower scene... which was kinda interesting for a BSG story (and somewhat welcome too).

And then we get to the milk run mission which turns out to actually be a hush-hush secret mission to rendezvous with a team on an ice planet for something special. Yeah, that’s right. Half an hour in and this movie is suddenly shaping up to be an homage, at least in theme, to the old Gun On Ice Planet Zero episodes of the original 1978 Battlestar Galactica TV show which, if anyone remembers it (the novelisation was called Battlestar Galactica 2: The Cylon Death Machine) was actually a science-fiction remake of The Guns Of Navarone. Now, what we get here is not quite that... but it has some very similar highlighting to it and it was pretty obvious, especially when a sex scene is introduced at a point into the narrative, that nothing about the mission is quite what it seems and there’s going to be some heavy betrayal coming up at some point towards the finale of the story. And that’s quite correct, as it turns out.

The acting in this one is all fine and the script is good. The dialogue is pretty cool for a lot of the time although it does have its more “soap opera hysteria” moments at a few points. The mise-en-scene is pretty much the same as the rebooted Battlestar Galactica TV series, with the camera wandering around a scene and then reacting to things as it follows and highlights by pan, zoom or refocus when something happens to “surprise” it. They do this very well in this show and it’s one of the few shows/movies (Firefly was another) where this method of “reaction camera” really works well, I think.

Two more things on top of this ensure you are going to have a really good ride with Blood And Chrome...

One is the usual spectacle of the special effects sequences, especially with those ariel battles still following this kind of camera methodology throughout. The fast paced action and editing (which misses nothing and is not confusing at all) is coupled with some kick ass sound design and really pulls it all together into something which you wouldn’t have been able to imagine ever being affordable on TV even ten years ago. It’s an awesome array of visual and aural spectacle.

And talking of the aural element... the other big thing about this is exactly what you would expect it to be in the Battlestar Galactica franchise. Bear McCreary’s unbelievably cool, heavy percussion mixed with ethnic vocal melody scoring, which absolutely supports the on-screen visuals and enhances them so that you’re toe tapping as you watch the electric death carnage unleashed on screen. Um... yeah, there’s subtle stuff too, of course... McCreary’s a kick ass composer... but I really like all that electric death carnage music a lot, you know? There was an album release of this score and it’s absolutely fantastic. The end credits, which takes the Apocalypse theme with new lyrics in English by McCreary’s wife Raya Yarbrough, is an absolute joy to listen to, too.

And that’s about it. If you’re a fan of the regular rebooted series, even though none of the regular cast are in this (asides from a brief appearance from the Galactica in its heyday, of course, and the voice of Tricia Helfer as an early version of Six), then you’ll love this addition to the BSG universe. It’s probably not a bad jumping on point either since, unlike some of the stories set in the past of the show, it gives away none of the many twists of the regular series in it. Definitely a strong recommendation on all counts.

So say we all.

Tuesday 11 February 2014

Deliver Us from Evil: True Cases of Haunted Houses and Demonic Attacks

Spirit Level

Deliver Us from Evil: True Cases of Haunted Houses and Demonic Attacks
by J.F. Sawyer, Ed & Lorraine Warren
Omnimedia Publishing LLC
ISBN: 978-1935856856

Last year I saw a truly great horror movie at the cinema called The Conjuring (reviewed here). The film was based on a case investigated by a husband and wife team of “ghost hunters/demonologists” called Ed and Lorraine, who were played in the film by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga. The film made an impression on me, not just because the film was exceptionally well executed in terms of scariness, acting, shot design, editing and musical score... but also because all of the human characters in the movie were just such nice people who you would like to hang out with.

Of course, this made me curious to learn more about the case files of Ed and Lorraine Warren... so I sought out this book.

My first impressions of the book were that it was not very well bound and seemed quite thin. It is told, not by The Warrens but they do have a voice... as their friend, who used to go out on some of their cases with them, uses their recollections of the cases and presumably uses a lot of their words in his descriptions of them.

The chapters are quite short and each chapter details a different case... the book finishing with a case which was not investigated by The Warrens at the time it happened (in the 1940s) but with an account based on Ed Warren’s descriptions of it through his being one of the few people allowed by the church to have access to the historical records of the case case in question. That case is, for people who are interested, the one which inspired the famous book and movie called The Exorcist.

Now I was not all that sure whether I should give this book a good review or a bad review because, quite frankly, the stories are told matter of factly, but with also a small thread of poetic expression running through some of the descriptions which maybe make it seem a little naive at times. At the end of the day, though, I have to acknowledge that some of the small stories in here did give me a little chill and, if I’m being extra honest... did scare me a fair bit, actually. Which is interesting because, although certain horror films can scare me quite a lot, The Conjuring being one of them, it’s rare for me to be spooked by the content of a book. Maybe it’s the idea, controversial or not, that these events are purported to have actually happened which put the extra cold touch of fear down my spine as I was reading. I’m not sure but, ultimately, I have to give credit where credit is due and say that the writer certainly did his job if scaring me was the object.

However, despite being suitably scarified, one of the issues I had of it is that I didn’t get too much impression of who The Warren’s were and if this stuff actually happened like they said. I tend to be cynical sometimes and I can’t help that... even though I totally believe in the supernatural as I have known too many “converted cynics” who have had brushes with the ghostly realm to remain unconvinced. About the only thing I did get from the accounts here, and it’s something which was touched on in the movie, is the The Warrens are quite religious... which is unsurprising, I guess, if you’re working in the devil’s back yard.

Ultimately, I see this book as a kind of taster to explore these people and some of the cases they have worked on further. So, in a way, I guess the book does it’s job. Of course, the fact that I’m curious enough to explore this stuff further is something which moves me a step closer to the world beyond the one we can physically see, according to Ed Warren, and so I’m maybe thinking it might be an equally good idea to stay away from any further exploration, in case I set myself up psychologically to become a victim of such unearthly shenanigans. If I do find another tome which will give me anymore insight into the world The Warrens used to live in (Ed passed away in 2006) then I’ll surely let you know on a future review on this blog. Whatever I do though, if there’s one clear message I took from this book it was this... No matter how many times either family members during my childhood have told me not to... or how many horror movies have demonstrated the activity as a decision of folly, I should surely, never... ever... play with Ouija boards.

Sunday 9 February 2014

I, Frankenstein

Shelley Babies

I, Frankenstein
2014 USA/Australia
Directed by Stuart Beattie
Playing at UK cinemas now.

Mary Shelley’s famous creation has had a lot of make-overs and facelifts over the nearly 200 years since she penned the original Frankenstein novel and its subsequent revisions and variations (published not long after the original version and revised by Shelley herself). The comic book on which this movie is based, I, Frankenstein, is not one I’ve read but I’m more than familiar with the concept of the Frankenstein monster surviving for decades and becoming embroiled in various adventures involving raising an army or tapped in service to another cause etc... a concept which has been done many times in books and which I read at least one variation of almost every year in the annual Tales Of The Shadowmen volumes.

Being as I was unfamiliar with the specific source material for this adaptation, you might wonder why I was so looking forward to seeing this one.... especially after a fairly uninspiring trailer? Well, two reasons actually...

One is that I really think Aaron Eckhart is one of the great, modern actors. Very underrated and someone who I feel is more than talented enough to be able to carry a movie on his own, if needed. I wanted to see how he performed in the iconic role of the Frankenstein monster and, having now seen that performance, all I can say is he acquitted himself very well with a script that, to be fair, could have been a lot better. He plays this role as convincingly and seriously as he does all his others and you really do have to admire this geezah.

The other reason I wanted to see this is because there’s a line in a trailer which is an iconic reference to the old Hammer film studio. The Gargoyle Queen (yeah, really, don’t ask) proclaims on the promo, “Frankenstein must be destroyed!” Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed was, of course, the fifth in the Hammer Films Frankenstein series, starring Peter Cushing as the titular scientist, from 1969. This got me interested because I thought this film would be a post-modernistic, eclectic ride through the history of the Frankenstein monster in film... alas, I was wrong.

Although the film does contain a fair few audio and visual references to a couple of the 1930s Universal incarnations of the character, this is pretty much the only real nods on show (as far as I could make out) and the Hammer line doesn’t seem to be in the actual film proper. Either an alternate version of the scene was used or quite possibly, two different sound bites were used to create the dialogue in the trailer... either way, it’s not in there and that’s a shame because I was waiting to hear this iconic line throughout the course of the whole picture.

There I was, sitting in the cinema with my 3D glasses on, drumming my fingers all through the movie, thinking to myself... she’s going to say it soon. Any minute now. She’s going to say it... and then the credits rolled. Which says something very basic about my experience of the movie as a whole I think... the fact that the on screen shenanigans weren’t enough to distract me from the anticipation in the sound bite on the trailer probably speaks volumes.

Now, it’s not a terrible movie by a long shot. Most of the performances are good and the mise-en-scene during certain parts of the movie does shine, usually noticeable when there’s less CGI on display... which is unfortunately often the case in an effects heavy film like this. The music is serviceable and the action choreography, while not brilliant, is as competent as the rest of the thing. But the film does feel rather flat and I wasn’t really that invested in any of the characters in the piece. I think the thing that really lets it down is the writing...

The film is mostly set in the present and we’re expected to believe in a world where stone gargoyle angels battle demonic forces and the death of either of the species send them either returning to heaven (in the case of the ludicrously silly looking gargoyles) or back to hell. The world is just something we’re expected to believe in without any real set-up or stakes and, frankly, the whole thing feels ridiculous. People behave in ways which display a lack of intelligence and a blinding acceptance of things as they are and even the little details like the creation of the monster via current supplied by electrical eels seems a little off when you consider the creation scene in the original novel which, if I remember correctly (it’s been many decades since I read it), doesn’t once mention the harnessing of electrical current in relation to the creation of the monster. Yeah, okay, we can only blame iconic Universal horror versions of the thirties and forties for this “character echo” through the years but, well, it just felt a little like the writer was not showing any respect for the original material. Electric eels as a solution is both credible and imaginitive but... besides the point.

Now the general tone of the story arc is good, and it’s a tale about redemption and the unsought journey of Adam (as the Frankenstein monster is named in this) to find a soul... but the horrible gargoyles VS demons backdrop just seems astonishingly bad and, because of this and the fact that sometimes the actors seem to be a bit like they’re trying to find their gravitas and failing miserably, the film didn’t really engage me... at least not in the way I hoped it would. It’s a B-movie, for sure, but not one I will revisit any time soon... although I suspect the passage of time will do wonders for it in terms of nostalgic re-appreciation for future generations. Not a terrible movie but certainly not a great one either and not nearly as much fun as it should have been, to be honest. Only see it if you are a keen 'Frankenstein’s monster' enthusiast.

Tuesday 4 February 2014

Saturn 3

My Farah Lady

Saturn 3
1980 UK
Directed by Stanley Donen
ITC  Scream Factory Dual Edition 
BluRay/DVD Regions A & 1

Warning: Some slight spoilers mechanically stalking you.

“There was a wet click and the whole hand fell free and spurting.”

This is a phrase that’s stayed with me for a few decades, since my first exposure to it as a twelve year old back in 1980. I don’t have the book it comes from to hand, it’s probably in the loft these days, but this phrase (or something very close to it) was from the Stephen Gallagher novelisation, taken from Martin Amis’ script, presumably, of a new movie which was about to come out called Saturn 3. 

Now I never, from what I can remember, got to see this at the cinema. It didn’t come near me, from what I can recall, and even if it had come to my local it didn’t matter at my age because it got an AA rating from the BBFC. Not the 15 rating the IMDB claims it had, mind you... the 15 classification wasn’t a rating that was in existence at that time.

So as I was a kid I never got to see it... but the novelisation was all over the playground and it was what people were talking about in school at the time. We didn’t know it was a novelisation, actually. By the time I was 12, I was really growing tired of novelisations and realised them as the leeching, secondary way of making money off a movie that they are. I thought Saturn 3 was an original novel first, which the film had been based on. If I’d have known that the exact reverse was true at the time, I probably wouldn’t have bothered reading it, to be honest.

But I did and it was just the right mix of science fiction coupled with gory horror that some of us young ‘uns at school liked to read. This mania for the movie increased with features in the magazines we would all read, of course. The usual suspects. Starburst, Starlog and Fangoria. The holy trinity to deranged young fans of sci-fi, horror, adventure and intrigue on other worlds.

I remember the novel had a man murdered via wires taut against an airlock opening (ripping him into bits as he is unceremoniously blasted through them), the aforementioned hand lopping, a small dog pulled apart and a decapitation... followed by the murderous robot causing the majority of the trouble in the book wearing the head of his victim over his own mechanical stand-in for a head. It was all very bloody and so, of course, us kids just lapped it up.

When I saw it on TV about five years later, I remember quite liking it but was curious at it not being as bloody as I expected it to be from the novel (which is, it turns out, because it was obviously fairly heavily censored for the TV showings at the time). It was still a far cry from what I would have expected from a director like Stanley Donen, famous for his work on MGM musicals like On The Town, Singin’ In The Rain, Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, It’s Always Fair Weather and various other classics. For him to tackle something which is a “space horror” movie is a bit of an eyebrow raiser, perhaps, and the film has suffered a lot of criticism over the years... unfairly so, in my opinion.

I have a couple of criticisms myself, of course,  but they’re hardly make or break and, when I watched the new Scream Factory Blu Ray, which a friend had got me for my birthday earlier this year, I have to say that I really enjoyed myself and was particularly impressed with the very crisp and clean quality of the picture in high definition. In terms of image quality, in fact, Saturn 3 seems to be one of those moves that works noticeably well on this format.

It’s easy to understand why a film like this got made at the time. We were still in the wake of the first Star Wars movie, back when that was its full title and, by then, we also had A L I E N under our collective belts. A sci-fi terror movie must have looked like the box office gold that never quite materialised for it at the cinema. Which is a shame.

The film starts off with one of a series of bad special effects. Pretty much any effects work which shows spaceships flying in space with planets in the background in this movie are absolutely, unbelievably bad, it has to be said. Truly dreadful looking and not even fit to be in a Gerry Anderson TV show from 20 years before this movie was released. The first shot, in this case, is a rip off of the opening shot of Star Wars and it just looks like something out of Blakes 7. It’s very unfortunate.

However, other effects in the movie work extremely well indeed, not least of which is the main Frankenstein’s monster of the piece, Hector the robot. In the 1931 Universal version of Frankenstein, the company “improved” on the original work by having the monster inflicted with a criminal brain... which could be seen, perhaps, as a moral pacifier for audiences at the time. In Saturn 3, we have already seen Harvey Keitel’s character perform a coldly calculated and fiendish murder (the aforementioned airlock killing) and he doesn’t act like a "well person" should. Actually, I love Keitel as an actor but his performance in this seems incredibly wooden. Now that might have been a deliberate ploy to make a comment about the character which isn’t fully explained to us... but it comes over as a bit lacking. Anyway, where was I? Oh, yes. The robot he constructs, Frankenstein-like in the laboratory, has a quite sizeable brain which is educated via a direct link between Keitel and the robot. So we already have the old Universal theme of a lifeless husk being brought to life with a wrongly developed brain. It’s an old story.

The rest of the movie is an old story too and, it would be true to say, it doesn’t have much in the way of plot development, I suppose. Monster gets ideas above it’s station, falls in love with Farah Fawcett (as we all did from the dominatrix-like, black clad publicity shots in the aforementioned magazines... we would look at them and... erm... look some more), kills his creator figure and then runs amok while the only other two human characters, Farah Fawcett’s Alex and the larger than life Kirk Douglas as Adam, try to outwit Hector and find their way off the moon of Saturn on which they’ve been stationed all these years.

It’s not much of a story and the resolution, once it gets going, is quick and fairly easy... but it’s also a very easy watch. The sets are really just rooms and walkways but they seem to be handsomely lit like the director is delivering one of his famous 50s musicals and the camerawork and editing are very clean and easy on the eye. Farah Fawcett is also very easy on the eye and she actually does a good job, along with Kirk Douglas, who delivers a solid performance and shows just how “in shape” he was for a, then, 64 year old... with his energetic skipping, running and even a naked fight scene.

What little remains of Elmer Bernsteins classic score is pretty good too and it helps ratchet the tension up to 11. I was surprised that a sequence where Adam and Alex are trying to escape from the robot made me jump out of my skin at a certain point. So that pleased me.

The real star of the show is Hector the robot himself though. It’s mostly just a man in a suit, I would guess, but it’s a really nice, skeletal design and the production team have hydraulic tubes filled with blue and orange liquid winding around him to add a bit of colour into the proceedings and, although Hector does hold up the tradition of a relatively slow monster still being able to catch up with you somehow, it is a very threatening presence with a personality all its own.

And that’s Saturn 3. A very enjoyable, low end science-fiction movie which is a pleasure on the eye and, for the first time as far as I can work out, is available on a DVD/Blu Ray format both uncut and in the correct theatrical aspect ratio (I refused to buy the previous US and UK editions because of problems with one or the other). The new Shout Factory presentation has a handful of low quality deleted scenes from the extended network TV version (you sell it by the yard to TV to increase your revenue) and also includes the famous scene which was cut before it was released in cinemas and, I believe, only ever put in the German edition of the movie. This is a scene with Alex and Adam in which Farah Fawcett wears something very domme-like and it’s curious that the scene was cut because pretty much all the publicity photos in all the magazines at the time (and even the trailer) used Farah in this costume to promote the movie with... a scene which, in most countries, was absent from the print). So if you like this movie, at the time of me writing this review, this Shout Factory edition is definitely the one to get. A fun, no brainer of a good time which will be of interest to science fiction movie fans and, possibly, fans of robotics. It’s been a long time since I first saw it but... I had a real blast when revisiting this one.

Saturday 1 February 2014

John Carter And The Gods Of Hollywood

Barsoom Brawl

John Carter And The Gods Of Hollywood
by Michael D. Sellers
Universal Media 
ISBN: 978-0615682310

Okay... so 2012 saw the release of what was for me, at the time, one of the most eagerly awaited films of recent years, the ill-fated John Carter. When it came out I quite liked it but my enthusiasm was tempered somewhat by my bitterness in the way the title character was written, which differed a little to what was in the books, and also the shoe-horned in technological explanation given for the hero’s originally spiritual transportation across the astral planes to Mars - why they thought they should give scientific explanations when there wasn’t any in the source material just to please the majority of the current audience is beyond me (you can read my original review here).

Michael D. Sellers book, John Carter And The Gods Of Hollywood, is written by somebody who feels as close to the original Edgar Rice Burroughs material as I do (again, see my original review for the way the character has impacted on my life) and who, furthermore, actually tried to do something to help put the pre-release buzz back on track to where it should have been after the shoddy treatment that this film had in regards to the marketing push needed by the studio. This is the guy, it turns out, who made that “fan trailer” which was highly regarded as doing the job that Disney themselves weren’t capable of doing at the time and his involvement with the way the movie impacted on his life goes even a bit further than that.

This book is essential in the understanding of what the author calls the “perfect storm” of little things going wrong behind the scenes of the marketing of the film itself and, towards the end, tries to at least give the impression that there’s life in the old Barsoomian war horse yet.

Starting off right from the early announcements of the film as it got into Disney’s hands, it reveals how some accidents in timing, compounded by unbelievably dumb marketing decisions and an enormous lack of attention at just the wrong times in regards to mishandled social media accounts, and the like, led to the premature downfall of the movie that should have been called John Carter Of Mars even before the film had been released. Yeah, I mentioned the stupidity of the title in my original review of the film... John Carter on its own without qualification doesn’t work as a title to the international, young audience who are unaware of Burroughs’ legendary hero and it’s true to say that, when I found out in this book that the decision was made to drop the “Of Mars” was all due to the fact that Mars Needs Moms flopped at the box office... well, anger at the incompetence and buffoonery at the hands of this particular product certainly got an emotional response from me.

The book is extremely educational, even for those with no vested interest in the success or legacy of the movie. This is a great text book to understand just the kinds of “behind the scenes” things that can go wrong with a major Hollywood motion picture when the director, cast and crew are giving it their absolute all but the people at the studio are just tuned out (and it’s still a great film, by the way, check it out if you have a chance, there’s very few people I’ve shown it to who didn’t like it and a friend of mine asked for the novels at Christmas after I’d shown her the DVD). The writer demonstrates a gift for the reading of the market place through various trends and numbers and it’s detailed in all its gory detail, front and centre, in this book... making you wonder why the people in control of the way the marketing was pushed couldn’t do this for themselves. It’s almost like they were trying to kill the movie.

It’s also interesting to note how other things outside the world of Edgar Rice Burroughs' hero affected the fortunes, or should that be misfortunes, of this particular film and I was illuminated by the way films like the first of Marvel's The Avengers (aka Avengers Assemble), Bruckheimer’s Pirates Of The Caribbean franchise and the opening shots of Disney’s deal to buy the Star Wars franchise from George Lucas all had a little contribution to the butterfly effect that ended in the inevitably chaotic reaction at the box office. I was also somewhat surprised to learn a few things about the early history of John Carter’s attempts to infiltrate popular culture outside of the “beyond bestselling” original novels... such as the young Alex Raymond who was working on a strip version of the character's adventures before William Randolph Hearst pulled the plug and, as if by magic, the character Flash Gordon was created. I honestly hadn’t put two and two together before but, now that Sellers has documented stuff like this in this book, it’s quite easy to see how certain elements of the culture of Burroughs’ planet Barsoom somehow made it into the culture of Raymond’s planet Mongo.

It’s all fascinating stuff and a really great read. My only real criticisms being two ommissions. One is that there was no real information about Michael Giacchino’s excellent score for the movie... although, to be fair, this really isn’t a concern of Sellers in that it doesn’t really fit into the intentions of this book. That’s just me moaning as a fan.

What I did find, however, was a bit of a glaring error of absence... and I’m sure there must be a good reason for this (and I can kinda guess what that is but, it’s a reason that doesn’t excuse the error, in my opinion)... is that, other than by title, once, in an extract of something else reprinted as facts and figures source material, does Mark Atkins 2009 movie Princess Of Mars (aka John Carter Of Mars), which starred Antonio Sabata Jr as John Carter and Traci Lords as Dejah Thoris, get any kind of coverage or even acknowledgement in this book. I’ve heard it’s truly awful (and sometime soon I should be able to find out for myself and review it on this very blog - it’s in the post) but I would have thought the way this low budget, straight to video production would have at least have had some kind of impact on the perception of the 2012 movie. So that was a bit of an omission I thought.

Like I said, though, there may be good reasons why this cheaper (and probably far from faithful) "alternate" version of Burroughs’ classic doesn’t get a look in here and... even so, I have to say that I can only strongly recommend this book to anyone even remotely interested in the process of the marketing of a movie. Not to mention the actual fans of the movie, who seem to be increasing in number since the film’s DVD and Blu Ray release, as they slowly wake up to the fact that the film, which Disney kinda abandoned, is actually a pretty great movie. The writer explains a lot of what happened and does so in a fairly insightful and, importantly, well balanced style of writing which doesn’t allow his personal agenda to re-educate the potential audience of the film get in the way of his own minor disappointments with the final motion picture, many of which seem to echo my own thoughts on the film as a whole (which surprised me a bit, actually). Hopefully, a lot of educational establishments will choose to stock this in their library for students on film studies courses because it’s a valuable book, in my humble opinion, on the way a movie both can and... erm... shouldn’t be marketed. Definitely worth a read.

Michael D. Sellers wonderful website, The John Carter Files, can be found here...