Thursday 31 October 2019

The Shining


The Shining - Extended Edition
(aka, The Full Cut and not the
stupidly short European version)

UK/US 1980 Directed by Stanley Kubrick
HMV Exclusive Dual Edition
Blu Ray Zone B DVD Region 2

There’s surely no doubt in the minds of many, I’m sure (asides from Stephen King’s once much publicised disappointment with this movie version), that Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is easily one of the most interesting horror movies ever made. The first few times you watch it, too, it’s kinda quite creepy... that perhaps diminishes somewhat over time and subsequent rewatches but what you are left with, even if it does have less impact through familiarity, is an amazingly beautiful looking movie which never really ages all that much.

The reason I’m revisiting this classic after more than a decade now, of course, is that the first screen adaptation of Stephen King’s fairly recent follow up novel, Doctor Sleep (I reviewed that here) is literally days from release (in fact, I think it comes out in the UK on the night I am intending to post this review). So I figured it was time for another look because, from the looks of the trailer (and I’m puzzled by this a little since King apparently loves this new movie), the director of Doctor Sleep has used a lot of the imagery from Kubrick’s version of The Shining in the new film.

As for Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining itself though... even from the opening camera work which follows a long journey of the vehicle driven by the as yet unseen central character Jack Torrance (played here quite maniacally throughout by Jack Nicholson), you are pulled into the story. One of the strengths of this opening, I suspect, is the way the speed of the photography of these sequences (the out-takes of which were famously plundered for the final scene in the original first release of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, reviewed here) is slowed down in terms of the soundtrack, which highlights Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind’s absolutely phenomenal variation on the Deus Irae... a truly eerie and unsettling take on the much used musical theme.

The film is a definite slow build for the most part... with little points being made slowly but methodically to lead up to the scenes where the Overlook Hotel and its ghostly inhabitants, overwhelm Jack Torrance and compel him to try and murder his wife and child... Wendy and Danny, played here by Shelley Duvall and young Danny Lloyd (who is being played as an adult by Ewan McGregor in the upcoming movie version of Doctor Sleep). I think I’d possibly agree with Stephen King’s assessment that Jack Nicholson seems a little too manic right off the bat (no pun intended) but that does nothing to diminish the fact that he’s extremely watchable in this. As is Shelley Duvall, who does an amazing job here along with newcomer Danny Lloyd in a role which could have gone way wrong for the film if the performance had been anything less than what it turned out to be. They are joined by the likes of Barry Nelson (the first screen James Bond), the always watchable Scatman Crothers and Dr. Eldon Tyrell himself, Joe Turkel, in the role of Lloyd the bartender... who plays the character absolutely deadpan and in an effectively chilling, minimalistic way.

The film features many Kubrick signatures and watching this one always reminds me of one of his other masterpieces, 2001 - A Space Odyssey, which I reviewed here. So the shots of Danny tri-cycling his way around the hotel in fluid camera movement cross cut against other things going on in the building, for example, always puts me in mind of those long interior shots of Frank Pool keeping in shape in the former movie. Similarly, the little... almost subliminal... cuts to various shots such as the twin sisters, the mutilated corpses of the sisters and the reaction shots of characters such as Danny (when he’s flipping out in full ‘shine’ mode) which are always silent whenever Kubrick does this (in that they have no diegetic sound and are merely using the sonic backdrop of the shots into which they are spliced) reminds me of both the reaction shots of David Bowman in the high speed journey via the monolith at the end of 2001 and the reaction shots of Patrick Magee in A Clockwork Orange. And, of course, you have those long held shots focusing on the face of a staring character from time to time, most notably in The Shining when Jack Torrance really starts to wig out and you just realise the dark, rotting heart of the Overlook Hotel has finally seeped inside of him and become the dominating force in any already lost spiritual battle in his soul.

Another thing which ties it to 2001 is the chaptering. This film also consists of, quite a few, chapter stops and in this film they are, in order of their appearance... The Interview, Closing Day, A Month Later, Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, Monday, Wednesday, 8am and 4pm. Like in 2001 they can be used to make a dramatic ending to a sequence, such as the unwavering stare of Jack Nicholson brought to you on a very slow zoom suddenly abruptly cutting to a title card... but they also function in this film, or at least I believe this is the case, to speed the rhythm of the story by giving us period markers going from an interview held a while before Torrance actually gets his job as caretaker of the out of season Overlook, to the closing day when he takes over and it’s abandoned to him and his family for the winter season... and then whittling down the times until you eventually get chapters talking about specific parts of just one day. It’s a kind of subconscious, accelerating spiral, I think, in terms of both the pacing of the action and also, of course, the internal state of Jack’s mind as he approaches full on serial killer mode in the film’s final sequences. It’s an interesting device and, for all I know, it’s just been employed to smooth over some awkward transition scenes that didn’t cut together properly but, whatever the reason for them, they function very well in this capacity.

Of course, one of the main ingredients in just how sinister this film feels is due to the music. I’ve already mentioned Carlos and Elkind but there’s also the use of Béla Bartók, Krzysztof Penderecki and, like 2001 before it, one of my favourite composers, György Ligeti. If you want a film to sound unbearably disturbing then many tracks by these composers are good for just that and, frankly, they often have the same effect on the human psyche when you’re not juxtaposing them with any imagery.

As usual with Kubrick, there are constant, beautifully designed frames throughout. Some may find the artifice involved in getting some of these, in some cases, almost symmetrical designs with very contrasting, almost primary colours a little off putting or overwhelming but, frankly, the gorgeous and constant eye candy of a Kubrick film is something I always find a sheer delight. So, yeah, he’ll have Wendy and Danny dressed in warm browns and reds for their walk through the green hedge maze to make them pop and, yes, he’ll have the majority of Jack Torrance’s encounter with the naked lady in Room 237 framed in it’s own little arched rectangle in the centre of the screen... but it all looks great as far as I’m concerned. And it’s a film, like many Kubrick films, full of iconic imagery. You all know the famous carpet pattern, for example and, of course, the wonderful shots of the elevators gushing blood and filling up the corridor. 

The Shining is always going to be a hard recommend from me and will probably always be somewhere in my top ten horror films of all time. The HMV Exclusive (to the UK) dual edition of the so called ‘extended cut’ (aka, the version they’ve always shown on TV in this country, just not at the cinema) looks absolutely gorgeous. I honestly didn’t know films could look this good on my Blu Ray player, it’s phenomenal. That being said, the film is presented in its original theatrical widescreen aspect ratio as opposed to the 1.37:1 aspect ratio that it was shot in (and which Kubrick himself insisted the film should be shown in) but I’m more than happy to see it as it was when screened at the cinemas on its first run... although a 4:3 presentation with more image information at the top and bottom (open matte) might have been preferable. Still a great one to look at though... especially if you want to see what your Blu Ray can really show you in terms of quality. It’s never looked so good.

Wednesday 30 October 2019

Legend Of The Witches/Secret Rites

Coven In Body

Legend Of The Witches
UK 1970
Directed by Malcolm Leigh

Secret Rites
UK 1971
Directed by Derek Ford

BFI Flipside Dual Edition Blu Ray Zone B DVD Region 2

I wanted to take a look at this new release from BFI Flipside before the end of the Halloween season this year because the subject matter, 'lifting the lid' on witches and pagan rites seemed to be somewhat aligned to what has become, over just the last decade or so, a more celebratory date in the UK calendar (for better or worse). Both the main features on these discs are claiming to be documentaries, showing what the real modern day practice of witchcraft was like at the time and, indeed, both documentaries centre around the personality of Alex Sanders, who was publicly known as the King Of The Witches, along with his wife Maxine, also a practicing witch.

In truth... and this is much more blatant in Secret Rites, the films are more or less excuses to show naked men and women dancing around in covens and using the quite legitimate (depending on your personal beliefs) rituals involved with modern witchcraft to allow a film full of eye candy with a serious tone the chance to be lucrative at the box office. The fact that both these ‘mockumentaries’ sometimes played on double bills with other more overtly, sexually titled productions is perhaps a testament to how they were seen at the time, although I’m sure that Mr. Sanders was probably quite genuine in what he wanted to get across to the paying audience, albeit cloaked... or should that be uncloaked... in a thin, exploitative veil.

Of the two, the first film on these discs, Legend Of The Witches is, for me at least, the most interesting, featuring sharply contrasted, crisp, black and white photography. It’s a bit of a slow burner and takes its time to get going with lots of static shots of landscapes and nature filling the 4:3 screen. The music is nice and low key but I don’t think you’d get away with opening sequences as slowly paced as these today... at least not shot and presented like this. It does start to feel a bit interminably dull fairly quickly but soon moves onto witchcraft initiation rites and naked bodies... curvy young women and men with their cocks impressively, given the amount of female flesh on display, hanging at half mast.

Various historical and modern witchcraft practices are recounted and demonstrated but, it has to be said, the documentary tends to wander around and lose focus between some of the set pieces quite a bit. A witchcraft museum in Cornwall is certainly ‘on point’ but we also have a team of investigators staying the night in a haunted house, demonstrations of things like Zenner cards and also sequences depicting trance states which can be manifested in subjects with the likes of a fast rotating spiral or the use of a stroboscope. It does tend to wander off topic quite a bit but does, a some points at least, try and tie up some of its more thematically challenged sections with contemporaneous practices of witchcraft.

Secret Rites, on the other hand, appears far more overt in its exploitative nature. Shot in full colour, it starts off with an echoey and deliberately sinister voice over narration as we see a witch orgy where a lady is stripped naked in a non-consensual, kidnapping kind of way and sexually groped by a coven, before upright Van Helsing-like hero ‘John Goodfellow’, warding off the witches with a cross (as though they were somehow vampires), comes to save the day. The narrative then flips all that you’ve just been shown and says something along the lines of... “that’s the popular conception of witches and it’s absolute rubbish... let’s show you how it really is.” We then catch up with Alex Sanders and his wife again (the High Priestess - “the personification of the matriarchal nature of the Wicca”) as they agree to initiate two ‘would be’ witches into their coven... except, if anything, the rest of the ‘documentary’ is at least ‘as’ exploitative as the opening section they are trying to repudiate. So.... less modernistic interruptions and just a few, elongated rituals shot, it seems, on actual sets rather than where things actually ‘go down’, so to speak... the whole thing looks like it was all exported from a Roger Corman AIP movie, to be honest. So the idea that this is presenting factual stuff rather than something which has been half created for the camera, is a bit comical. The film ends with the ‘secret rite’ of the title which is, pretty much, more of the same thing but everyone gets to wear some Egyptian costumes to augment their nakedness.

This new set also has a large selection of extras and, I have to say, even if you’re not a fan of the main content of these discs or the extras, hats off to the BFI for putting these out here in a nice edition because, frankly, this stuff isn’t going to be seen unless it has a platform like this to get bundled together with.

First up is a 1924 silent short film called The Witch’s Fiddle, put together by The Cambridge Cinema Club. It’s got a certain charm but it’s not too riveting, it has to be said. Then there’s a brief episode of a documentary style television show from the 1950s called Out Of Step. This episode is, naturally, entitled Witchcraft and consists of three interviews with people such as Aleister Crowley’s best friend and... it’s kinda interesting actually. The main witch they have on here, an elderly man who could almost pass for Gabby Hayes in looks, proves to be a highly intelligent sounding individual. He comes across pretty well anyway, as he looks on the practice of witchcraft in a philosophical manner.

These two are followed by a short film called The Judgement Of Albion - The Prophesies of William Blake... which is the kind of interminable supporting feature they used to show in the 1970s on cinema bills all the time. This one includes the voices of Anthony Quayle and Donald Sinden but that did nothing to temper the relief I found when the thing was finally over. The next thing on here is a short called Getting It Straight In Notting Hill Gate... a documentary about the area in London showing the poverty and counter-culture of the area. This was, it has to be said, a step up from the William Blake short but, alas, I also couldn’t wait for this to end, either. A gallery of archival material for the two main features on the disc rounds out the release and, I have to say, although this is not an absolutely essential purchase, by any means, it is of interest and the films have a certain charm. If this is your kind of thing then this has good transfers and is loaded with extras so, if nothing else, it's certainly value for money. Legend Of The Witches/Secret Rites is one to consider then, perhaps.

Tuesday 29 October 2019


Devil-in-a Detail

Atlas Comics (as Seaboard Periodicals Magazine)
Issues 1 - 2 USA 1975

Devilina... Illustrated Stories of Female-Filled Fantasy!... was one of Atlas Comics attempts to do a black and white comic book magazine in the style of Marvel’s Savage Sword Of Conan or, more than likely in terms of this particular title, something along the lines of Warren’s Vampirella comic magazine. The result is kinda curious and an interesting read but, alas, it obviously didn’t prove as interesting a read with the general public because the title was very short lived, folding after just two issues.

The first issue hit the ground running with an editorial called The Devil’s Dungeon, which talk ed about how the publishers want to adhere to the legacy of ‘fright fraught’ literature (their term, not mine) as popularised by such writers as Poe, Lovecraft and Hawthrone.. so, setting their sights high. However, this seems to be a general editorial column applicable to a range of their mature titles and, somehow, Devilina is conspicuously absent. So that’s all a bit strange. No version of this editorial column appeared in the second issue.

The magazine itself comprised of several short horror stories with the usual shock endings to them plus, first and foremost, a story involving the title character. The first Devilina story, Satan’s Domain, written and drawn by Ric Estrada, tackles her origin as the daughter of Satan’s mother, making them siblings. Satan’s mother is exiled from Hell and raises Devilina as some kind of ‘good witch’ until she reaches her 18th birthday, when she finds some horns on her head... some people might think that, given that she’s explained as having a superior IQ to most people her age, the fact that her mother named her Devilina might have been a bit of a tip off but, what do I know? One of the girls at her college asks if her name is Polish so... yeah. It’s not explained within these two issues if she can retract these horns at will but, since she decides to spend her time graduating from college and majoring in ‘occult journalism’, instead of taking Satan’s offer of ruling in Hell with him, I can only assume that these horns aren’t a permanent fixture. It’s sometimes hard to tell with her hair style. However, Satan is not happy with this arrangement and, after burning her boyfriend to death, sets out to scupper her attempts to live a ‘normal’ life at every turn. He even employs some kind of black arts super sorceress named Corrupta in the Devilina story in the second issue’s lead story, The Curse Of Corrupta. This, not too exciting, chapter of what was never, unfortunately, destined to be referred to as The Devilina Saga, even leaves things on a kind of soft cliff-hanger ending, with Devilina’s best friend and room mate’s body suddenly playing host to Corrupta’s soul. However, like I said... only two issues ever hit newsagents.

Actually, it’s some of the back up stories which are quite a bit more interesting than the title character’s adventures. Especially in the first issue which has, admittedly, a dully plotted story called The Lost Tomb of Nefertiri, dealing with the resurrection of a bandaged up female mummy who seems a not very distant cousin of the one who is so obsessed with Tom Cruise in the 2017 iteration of The Mummy (reviewed here).  The story is uninspired but the artwork by Pablo Marcos is brilliant, utilising some amazingly dynamic page layouts with elements of the panels (many of them open ended panels) over-lapping into other panels and leading the eye through the path of the story. Despite the lack of story pacing, however, the strip does have a nice twist ending.

Of course, twist endings is what both horror and science fiction anthologies are all about and the various stories scattered through the two issues of Devilina are no different. They’re not all exactly unexpected reveals, such as the first issue’s Lay Of The Sea, which features a topless, serial killing mermaid who is captured and raped by the crew of a ship before being left for dead and eventually returning riding a sea monster to deal with the enemies of the one man who stood up for her during her ordeal. I loved the idea that her ‘all male’ victims were found dead with seaweed pulled tight around their necks but there’s a strange jump in the story, although not in the page count, which makes me wonder if this particular tale was either censored or possibly self-censored before publication.

One low point, for me, was a comic strip adaptation of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest... which also had some nice art but which, frankly, just reminded me that I really don’t like ‘the bard’s’ writing and I was glad to see the end of it.

The second issue is... well, the Devilina story is a little better than the first (with it’s cliffhanger ending, as detailed earlier) but the supporting stories didn’t really have anything notable about them... which is a hard blow to take when you realise that one of them is a werewolf tale. The theme which I’d barely registered in the first issue but which is much more obvious with the drop in the quality of the stories in the second issue is the reliance on barely consensual sex, rape and brutality to women. Which kinda doesn’t really do much to enhance a positive version of that ‘female-filled fantasy’ the magazine covers proudly proclaim as their mission statement.

Each issue contains one magazine article also, accompanied by a set of illustrations. In the first issue, the subject is modern vampire movies but, it really seems to be an excuse just so the editors can publish some stills from the Hammer Horror films The Vampire Lovers and Twins Of Evil. The slightly longer article in the second issue, presumably to show just how ‘adult’ or ‘mature’ this magazine is when compared to the competitors’ comics, is a fully illustrated review of Flesh Gordon, the soft porn spoof of... well, you know. And talking of their competitors, since Marvel comics were often known as The House Of Ideas, it’s kind of interesting to find adverts for the regular line of Atlas comics in these two issues where they brazenly proclaim themselves to be The New House Of Ideas. One wonders how Marvel took that one.

And, yeah, there’s not much more to tell about these two issues of Devilina. One of many, I am sure, curios of comicdom but they are kinda intriguing and I had a good time with some of the content, despite the misogynistic overtones throughout. Worth picking up, should the opportunity arise, if you are interested in exploring some of the less remembered avenues that comics publishers took in their long history but, perhaps, left alone if the horror anthology format is not your cup of tea.

Monday 28 October 2019

The Lair Of The White Worm

The Great British Snake Off

The Lair Of The White Worm
UK 1988 Directed by Ken Russell
Vestron Video  Blu Ray Zone B

Warning: Spoilers... because the silliness
is too good leave without commenting on it.

Well this is absolutely bonkers.

I somehow never got around to seeing much loved director Ken Russell’s The Lair Of The White Worm on its original cinema release but I’ve kept it in mind to catch up to over the years and I thought October, the month culminating in Halloween, might be a good excuse to watch the newish Vestron Blu Ray release of the film. So there I was expecting a spine tingling horror romp.

Well I certainly got a romp.

It’s gone on record that Ken Russell regards this and certain other films he’s made as comedies... well that’s something which the audience could be forgiven for misinterpreting here I suspect. Sure, there are loads of laughs to be had in this fun packed film but I was certainly not aware, as I was chewing over this entertaining morsel, that the laughs here were anything but unintentional.

The film concerns the antics of a Scottish, student archaeologist called Angus, played by a young Peter Capaldi... and his brand new about to be’ girlfriend called Mary, who runs the lodgings he’s staying at, played by Sammi Davis. After digging up a huge and puzzling skull in Mary’a garden as part of a Roman excavation, he goes with her when the local police constable, played by prolific British character actor Paul Brooke, brings a pocket watch to Mary which belonged to her father. Her father and mother disappeared a number of years ago and so Angus and Mary join in the search for the missing couple near the caves in which said pocket watch was found.

We also have Mary’s sister Eve, played by a real life daughter of a princess, Catherine Oxenberg and her boyfriend, Lord James D'Ampton played by a young Hugh Grant.

Meanwhile, Amanda Donohoe, playing the decidedly dodgy and saucily aristocratic Lady Sylvia Marsh, returns to the other bit of land near D’Ampton’s manor and, after getting wind of Angus’ find, steals said skull while they are absent and, when she sees a crucifixion cross on the wall, spits venom at it from her suddenly, hugely fanged mouth. That’s because she is a cross between some kind of vampiric snake demon and a vampire who keeps a big worm beast in a pit in her cellar and who wants to sacrifice Eve to the skull of the Snake God to... I dunno, I kinda missed the part where they explained why she is doing this. Either the explanation was left a bit vague or I was so distracted by the content of the movie that I kind of lost the plot a bit.

What I can tell you is that absolutely bizarre shenanigans ensue as the four young protagonists do battle with Lady Marsh.

The film itself is an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel of the same name but, having read a summary of that novel and with the main action of the film taking place in Derbyshire, I’d have to say it’s more inspired by the novel rather than sticking to anything verbatim. Surely it’s equally inspired by the English mythical beast The Lampton Worm (as was Stoker’s novel) as anything else. Here though, the titular beast is actually the D’Ampton Worm, named after the trouble it caused in days gone by on the grounds of Lord D’Ampton’s domain.

The film starts off really well, it has to be said, with a long slow zoom of a piece of mountainous scenery and the cave which is made much of in the main story. Wind blows on the soundtrack as the credits roll over this image. Then, any pretence that this is going to be a proper ‘horror movie’ in anything but the presence of genre elements, flies out the window as we meet Angus and Mary and the ears are assaulted by a cacophony of fast talking characters dealing in dodgy accents and delivering a not so great script in a truly enthusiastic, if not particularly well acted, manner. To be fair, the acting may, after reading something Donohoe said of the film, have been a specific direction from the director so his approach to the material is possibly more to blame if you feel the film is tonally at fault in terms of the performances.

When we first meet Lady Marsh she is wearing, more or less, a white highwayman’s outfit but this is just a number of outrageous and over the top costumes she bravely wears (and strips out of) throughout the movie. She has some truly silly scenes in this such as when she picks up an 18 year old (at least, I hope he was 18) boy scout and takes him to her home as it’s raining. After slipping him out of his wet clothes and playing Snakes And Ladders with him, he whips out a mouth organ and starts playing Rimsy-Korsakov’s Scheherezade, which of course causes her to dance like a snake. She then starts washing him down in her bath and goes to give him some oral sex. However, she instead brings her fangs into play and, uses them to inject snake venom into his cock, which paralyses him and, when she is interrupted by Hugh Grant’s character knocking on her door, she just pushes him under the water to drown. She reminded me, just a a little, of Jacqueline Pearce's turn in Hammer's The Reptile here.

And if you think that’s smiler-rific, then the next two hander with Hugh Grant, where they trade quips, is even sillier. At one point in this, after pretending a fear of snakes, she throws the Snakes And Ladders board into the fire. Watching it burn she utters ‘Rosebud’, bringing us the complete non-sequitur of a Citizen Kane reference into all this madness. I was reminded a little of Michael Moorcock’s Miss Brunner character from the Jerry Cornelius novels in the way Donohoe plays the role. Scenes where she is strangling an air hostess in a scissor hold between her suspender adorned legs or rising snake-like out of an urn really give the film a kind of ludicrous, fun element which wouldn’t be out of place in one of those Cornelius chronicles.

As in other Ken Russel movies, he shows an interest in dream sequences such as the aforementioned ‘flight’ scene or a sequence where sexy nuns are pillaged by Romans as Christ is crushed on the cross by a big snake monster at ‘snake-Donohoe’s’ instruction. This also includes a blink and you’ll miss it, possibly less than two seconds, cameo by British glamour actress and author Linzi Drew as one of the nuns (I reviewed one of her latest novels here).

More shenanigans follow as Hugh Grant fights a vampiric underling of Lady Marsh, who he has lured to his mansion by playing a 78rpm recording of a snake charmer. Actually, this scene has what was, for me, the only genuine jump scare in the movie where, a little while after Hugh has cut his foe in two with his big sword (almost as big as the pointy, antique dildo Lady Marsh threatens Eve with later), the top half of the lady in question’s divided body makes a grab for Hugh’s ankle.

Later on, Angus gets his ‘kilt on’ and his bag pipes out in an attempt to lure the lady out of the house in which she has imprisoned Mary and Eve. Alas, he mostly just gets the attention of the police officer from earlier, who has been vampired up by Lady Marsh. Luckily, Angus is able to direct his bag pipes into an aggressive cacophony and forces Paul Brooke backwards as he trips and impales his head on a sundial... his left eyeball popping out the front in a none too convincing but deliriously funny moment of gore. That leaves Angus free to try and tackle the main snake lady and her ravenous pet himself, as he tries to rescue the fair maidens while Lord D’Ampton is trying to flush said snake monster out of the pit by piping gas through there. And... it all ends in a terrible set of loose ends involving mixed up antidotes which kind of don’t add up and with the character of Angus secretly a vampire, awaiting his turn to gobble down on his next victim.

And it’s brilliant. Terrible, clichéd, with silly acting, some nice cinematography and just a sense, aesthetically, of being written and performed while everyone was stoned out of their head. I loved it, just in case you were wondering and I’m sure that won’t be my last viewing. Would I recommend The Lair Of The White Worm to others? Yeah, I’d be happy to inflict this madness on various friends if I could find anyone but me who’s not actually seen this masterpiece of lunacy before. Very happy I’m finally catching up to this and I think I need to check out a couple of others of Russell’s oeuvre that I’ve not seen before. Really pleased I’ve finally discovered this one.

Sunday 27 October 2019

The Occult Files Of Doctor Spektor

Feel Spektor

The Occult Files Of Doctor Spektor
(The Gold Key Years)

Gold Key Issues 1 - 24 USA 1973 - 1977
plus assorted issues of
Gold Key’s Mystery Comics Digest

Written by Donald F. Glut and drawn by artists such as Dan Spiegle and Jesse Santos, The Occult Files Of Doctor Spektor was a comic which, it seems to me, could never quite make its mind up what it wanted to be in terms of which of the obvious competitors - Marvel and DC - it was trying to emulate. Not to mention a healthy dose of EC comics in there too, in many respects. Doctor Spektor first appeared in the odd issue of the giant sized Gold Key publication Mystery Digest Comics and, in the early days, he was just one of the many ‘narrators’ such as in the the other Gold Key titles presented in the odd issue of this compilation comic. So you had a fair few Boris Karloff Presents... and Twilight Zone stories (presented by Rod Serling) in the pages here and, like the famous horror hosts such as EC's The Crypt Keeper, Spektor’s narration was just a way in to a very short, twisty horror yarn of 5 or 6 pages.

Even some of these early stories are ingenuous though and I especially liked one where a man who is in love with his separated siamese twin brother’s fiance kills himself but, through this sin, returns as a vampire (which is a new one on me). However, he tries to take his brother’s bride for himself and turn her into a vampire. To stop this from happening and knowing that he and his vampire brother still share a bond, the other brother throws himself out the window and kills himself by impaling himself on the railings below before his evil brother can take a bite out of his fiance. This, of course, causes the vampire to feel as if a stake has been driven through his heart and he also dies. And there’s a few of these little stories and this format carries on, for a while, in the pages of The Occult Files of Doctor Spektor, with a definite difference...

The majority of the early issues contain two stories. One stars supernatural investigator Doctor Adam Spektor himself and the other is an unrelated horror tale just hosted by him. Every now and again you will get the occasional issue which is just one long Doctor Spektor story and... after a while, the comic switched fully to this format of just having the one story starring Doctor Spektor plus one or two of a building, regular cast within these tales. And what a cast they are...

The first issue of the regular comic introduces us to Doctor Spektor’s new secretary Lakota Rainflower, who is a mix of Sioux and Apache Indian and who, very quickly, also become’s Spektor’s regular girlfriend. After a while we also meet characters like medium Elliot Kane and his girlfriend, not to mention Adam’s cousin Anne Sara. There’s also a regular cast of villains including the Frankenstein monster, the mummy Ra-Ka-Tep and Dracula.

There's also some interesting plotting decisions, changes and progressions to the various support cast too. I was pretty impressed with the first issue because it involves a vampire, Baron Tibor, who has returned from the dead, only for Spektor to discover that he has long atoned for his sins and just wants a peaceful life. Spektor invents a serum which takes away the majority of Tibor’s powers and allows him to lead a relatively normal life. The Baron continues to make the odd guest appearances as an ally of Doctor Spektor until, in one of the later issues, he wants to steal Adam’s secretary/girlfriend and turns into an evil vampire again... forcing Doctor Spektor to deal with him.

There’s also a lot of name dropping of famous literary or real life characters in the comic, like in the issue which sees Varney The Vampire, Countess Karnstein and Lord Ruthven teaming up with Dracula to try to take out Spektor. It even mentions the famous Borgo Pass for all the Dracula afficionados out there. One of Van Helsing’s heirs is also present as a modern day supernatural bounty hunter but he becomes as much of a villain as the others in the tale and he returns in a later issue to give Spektor more trouble.

One of the great things about the majority of these stories is that, although they are all stand alone tales, they tend to refer back and link up quite thoroughly with previous issues and so an almost constant story arc seems to be in play. It’s a story arc which sees quite a lot of changes in Spektor’s character and, as he gets more involved in the plot of the ancient evil that attacks him from beyond our realm, there’s a real sense in later stories that Glut or the publishers wanted to give him a kind of Doctor Strange vibe, by allowing him to battle with various demons using the odd archaeological relic.

And this all seems to shift a lot in intent throughout the course of the stories.

For instance, there’s a three or four issue set of tales where Doctor Spektor is suffering from the ill effects of a lycanthropic bite and he seems to be suddenly transformed into something from out of the pages of one of his nearest, popular Marvel comics rivals for a bit... Werewolf By Night. There’s even a Swamp Thing/Man-Thing (take your pick from DC or Marvel) kind of character introduced to the pages towards the end of the run.

However, all these ups and downs in terms of the status of the lead character do keep things interesting, although there are also a few things which are a bit more irritating. Such as...

Doctor Spektor seems to have an almost supernatural talent for being knocked unconscious by the villain of the month in order to allow either his own capture or for the abduction of Lakota Rainflower. I mean, this guy must have brain damage or something by now because I’m talking about him getting knocked unconscious nearly every issue.

Also... and this is really annoying... since Doctor Spektor is narrating his own tale, he also seems to have knowledge to relate to his personal adventures which he can never actually know about at times. For example, stuff will happen when Spektor is not present and all parties involved may die or disappear into the ether but, somehow, Spektor knows all about it to be able to relate it to the reader, first person. It’s a bit much and a bit of a schoolboy error.

Another obviously bad lack of attention to detail comes in the form of the artwork. In the issues where Doctor Spektor transforms into a werewolf, he more than likely rips his clothing and his top may be beyond repair very quickly. So the question I was dying to find out was... why is it that when he comes back to his normal, human form, he comes back fully clothed again? I mean... seriously.

Plus, I think I would have liked a little more of a back story to the Bruce Wayne-like, wealthily independent Adam Spektor, owner of Spektor Manor. Where does he get all his money from... not to mention his lust for seeking out the supernatural? Questions like these are never answered.

However, there are more than enough good things on hand to make this comic a nice read and there are even some unexpected crossovers which turn up in the stories unannounced. For example, The Owl, who first appeared in a 1940s issue of Crackerjack Funnies, makes an appearance in one issue as he tries to clear his name when a real life demon owl-man is causing havoc. Similarly, Doctor Solar makes an appearance which is presumably set between the initial Gold Key run of Doctor Solar - Man Of The Atom (which I reviewed here) and the later, short lived Whitman branded series of four issues. The look of Solar when he’s not in uniform in this, though, not to mention some slight tweaks to his demeanour, make him seem like more of an old hippy than the character as written in those original Gold Key comics, it seemed to me.

All in all, though, the artwork is good although somewhat sporadic when it comes to the look of the characters. In some of them Spektor seems a little haggard and just what you’d expect from a male horror host whereas, for the majority of the issues, he’s more the kind of Errol Flynn style heartthrob who you could actually believe a few of the female characters lurking within the pages are so mesmerised by, which is the case of some of the lead villainesses. Ditto for some of the supporting characters like Elliot Kane... who is sometimes a fairly thin individual and at other times, somewhat pudgy I would say. The layouts are a far cry from the days of Doctor Solar though, it has to be said, with some much more dynamic designs  making up the majority of the stories.

A couple of issues towards the end, Spektor’s girlfriend Lakota leaves him for reasons which aren’t quite made clear. As he tries to dull the pain of her departing over subsequent issues, one gets the feeling that, despite a few encounters with other women to tide him over, this is supposed to be a set up for a dramatic return of the character. Instead, the comic was cancelled, presumably before any such arc had time to play out. There was, after the final issue of the series, one last appearance of the character in a comic called Gold Key Spotlight, Issue 8. Alas, I haven’t been able to, as yet, track that one down but my understanding is that Lakota is a ‘no show’ in this tale too.

This wasn’t quite the last of Spektor, however. My understanding is that there was/is a more modern reboot of the character... although I think it was quite short lived. I’ll try and track that one down again for this blog at some point but for now, that’s me done with The Occult Files Of Doctor Spektor, I think. I have to say though that, like Doctor Solar, I thoroughly enjoyed these comics, despite (and in some ways because) of their faults and would recommend these to anyone with an eye for four colour horror. Give these ones a go... they are quite entertaining and Donald F. Glut, who I mostly remember for writing the novelisation of The Empire Strikes Back, has an eye for the dramatic, for sure.

Saturday 26 October 2019


Xtro Curricular

UK 1982
Directed by Harry Bromley Davenport
Second Sight Blu Ray Zone 2

Warning: Some spoilers on this one, if you’re that bothered about such things.

Well, you’ve got to give a big round of applause to Second Sight for resurrecting such a memorable and somewhat trashy but not uncharming ‘classic’... in a brand new Blu Ray transfer with a fair few versions of the movie you can watch (in different cuts), a whole slew of good extras (which I haven’t had the time to look at fully yet, although the long featurette that starts it off is certainly worth the watch and that particular documentary is directed by Jake West who helmed one of my favourite vampire films, Razor Blade Smile), an accompanying booklet, slipcase and, the one thing which completely sold it for me, a CD of the soundtrack that the director composed for the movie.

Now, Xtro is a movie I saw only once before in the mid-1980s, in that I rented it out from my local off licence over the road. The off licence is still there but, alas, they no longer rent out large box VHS tapes these days. Thinking about it now and how it was caught up in the whole, shameful, Video Nasty affair (I reviewed two DVDs dealing with this awful part of recent British history here and here), albeit as a discretional Category 3 video, I’m amazed I was even allowed to rent this one when I was about 15... I think it was an X rated movie and some of the shops carrying it might have known it was a risk having it around, even though this title never actually got prosecuted (it was liable for seizure, though).

Anyway, this was around 36 years ago and, to be honest, as excited as I was by the exploitative tag line “Not all Extra Terrestrials are friendly!” (I’d not liked E.T. - The Extra Terrestrial all that much), I forgot the film soon after I saw it. There were, however, always two bits that stuck out in my mind and my 50 year old brain was hoping I was even remembering the right film when I pre-ordered this thing. So one of these was because of a specific actress. The film has a pretty good cast for the low budget style horror movie it is but all the actors take this thing seriously and there’s no sense of them ever dumbing down on some of the more ridiculous dialogue or unusual concepts which somehow worked their way into the film. These actors include Philip Sayer and Bernice Stegers playing Sam and Rachel, father to the little boy who is a central protagonist/antagonist (depending on your point of view) and Tony, played by Simon Nash. Rachel also has a new lover in the absence of the father, played by Danny Brainin but the person who really stuck in my mind is Maryam d'Abo.

This was Maryam d'Abo’s first movie but, just five years later, she found herself catapulted to fame as the main Bond girl in the excellent Timothy Dalton Bond film The Living Daylights. However, the memory of her wandering around naked and having sex in this film is one of those two main memories I have of Xtro and it’s always something I wanted to come back to one day.

The other thing was one of the two roles played by Tik and Tok in the film... who oldies might remember as the fresh, leading British proponents of ‘robotic dancing’ in the early 1980s. The role in question being a scene where Tony’s Palitoy Action Man (the British equivalent toy to the US template GI Joe) grows to full scale, comes alive and proceeds to terrorise a downstairs neighbour in the Victorian building that the main family call their home here... eventually bayoneting her to death. It’s quite a surreal sequence and one wonders why the heck Palitoy even allowed it (or have continued to allow it on various releases over the years). I did note at the time that this was not the ‘eagle eye’ variant of the Action Man that was the dominant version from 1976 onwards but, thinking about it now and noting on the documentary when the guy inside the suit said there were holes in the eyes for him to see out of, that does kind of make sense.

So what else has this on offer? Well the soundtrack is a little bit anemic in places... it’s all done by the director on some synthesizer kit he had at the time and, while quite effective in some places (in a late 70s to mid 80s Doctor Who kind of way), at other times it leaves a lot to be desired and could do with a little more impact, I felt. That being said, it’s not the composer/director’s fault... although the budget was quite large compared to what he was used to playing with, I suspect any musical augmentation was not going to be the order of the day when the money ran out.

After a terribly long set of opening credits, we have a scene with Tony and his dad Sam playing with their dog at a country cottage. Sam throws a stick up in the air and it turns into a shaft of light as the whole area is engulfed by blackness and Sam is abducted by something which may or not be a spacecraft. We then join Tony who wakes up from dreaming about this three years later but he is the only one who correctly remembers what happened... everyone else thinks his dad just went missing. Then, as if by magic, the Xtro lands on Earth and starts killing a few people.

Then, in what is a very memorable scene (so how come I didn’t remember it after all these years?), it impregnates a young woman in a farmhouse played by Susie Silvey, who also appeared in such movies as Come Play With Me (reviewed here) and The Playbirds (reviewed here). When she wakes up after the shock, the quite effective looking alien creature is now just a shedded mess of skin and internal organs but suddenly the poor woman finds her belly is growing at a massive rate. She rolls around on her back on the floor as it grows to maybe ten times larger than any other pregnancy would be and then she, somehow, gives birth to Tony’s long missing father.

And if you think that sounds strange you’d be spot on but it’s just one thing in a movie which gets stranger and stranger, featuring toy tanks shooting at Rachel’s lover, a clown toy come to life and doing nasty things to people (including collecting eggs from an ‘alien cocooned’ Maryam d'Abo) and an out of the blue appearance by a Black Panther in the flats. Not to mention a scene that I will simply describe as... burning, liquorice telephone.

The film is awkward, off kilter and looks quite cheap and tacky in some places but, like
I said, it’s not without its charm and it does have some good things in it too, not to mention some striking moments which I’ve already described for you above. The acting is, as I said, pretty good (by many of the cast, but not all) and covers up for some of the dialogue. The director also tries to do some interesting things with the camera on occasion such as shooting parallel set ups through some iron railings or shooting people through sections of foreground shapes made by architecture or foliage, at certain points.

Ultimately, though, if you are looking for a horror film which has a lot of polish and flair, you may be less enamoured with Xtro than you might suspect, given its ‘much loved’ status grown over the years. I was personally very glad I saw it again and I think it has a certain something special about it which makes it worth looking at. I would also suggest, if you’ve never seen it before, to go with he menu option of ‘alternative ending’ to see the ending which most people will remember this film having (it’s also the better, if somewhat less low concept and bleaker ending of the options available on this disc). If you are a die hard horror fan, though, then this is a movie you should probably have an opinion on and if you’re ever going to pick it up, this new Blu Ray edition is definitely the version to have. Give it a look sometime, maybe.

Friday 25 October 2019

Vampirella - Lost Hammer Performance

Fang About The House

Vampirella -
The Lost Hammer Script Performance

UK 2019 Directed by Jonathan Rigby
Performed at the Regent Street Cinema
Thursday 17th October 2019

Vampirella is a pretty iconic character these days. I think my father refused to get me a comic when I pointed to one when I was about 4, wanting to read it, because he said I was too young. She was created, along with artist Trina Robbins, by the driving force behind the much loved Famous Monsters Of Filmland magazine, Forrest J Ackerman... and she was originally, for a few issues at least, just another one in a long line of comic book horror hostesses there to introduce the stories. However, she was also given her own short strip as part of the comic and things soon began to look up for the young, vampiric alien from the planet Drakulon. After the Warren Publications Magazine finished in the 1980s, she found herself on hold for a bit but never absent for too long, finding a new lease of life in full colour comic adventures from the likes of, first Harris Publications and then Dynamite, who are still putting out a lot of stories with the character to this day. And I’ve never gotten around to reading any, alas... although earlier in the year I acquired a complete run of the Warren Magazines and I’m hoping to get through them sometime in the next year or two, so I can put a review up here.

Now, back in the early to mid 1970s, Hammer Films needed to rejuvenate their flagging company in an age where films like The Exorcist and other sophisticated horror movies were making their once very successful films seem very old fashioned and not that sustainable at the box office. So one of the directions they were going to go down was an movie based on the Vampirella comic strip which would hopefully take their stock-in-trade of Hammer vampire films and blend it with the science fiction genre (which was only a couple of years away before it exploded like never before at the box office) to see if this would get them out of a hole, so to speak. I’ve heard various names come up who were considered for the title role over the years, who either refused or didn’t get the job, including the wonderful Caroline Munro, the fantastic Valerie Leon and Barbara Leigh. Alas, the movie was never made and Hammer failed as a company soon after... there were several  ‘lost’ intriguing projects in their portfolio ready to roll and people still lament the fact that these didn’t get made.

However, like any good vampire and much like her comic book incarnation, who tended to hop from company to company, Vampirella refused to stay down for long... although as far as the Hammer version goes, it’s been a bit of a wait to even see what they had in store for her on-screen equivalent (there was a movie made by another company from another script in the 1990s which I still haven’t got around to watching... need to dig that old DVD out from under the pile.. but my understanding was that it was far from successful). Luckily, the original Christopher Wicking script surfaced back in 2017, according to Kieran Foster who, along with Hammer expert, actor and writer Jonathan Rigby, is one of the driving forces behind this particular project in its most recent form. So Jonathan Rigby adapted the script and got people like Caroline Munro involved to give what they modestly describe as ‘a live script reading’ of the unfilmed screenplay... although in the hands of this wonderful cast and crew, it seemed like so much more than just ‘a reading’ when I saw it performed.

The production opened with an animation set to music where a brief intro was given about the Vampirella character. The artwork on this ‘cartoon’ was extremely stylised and perhaps a little jarringly angular for a character who is, frankly, as much about curves as anything else on a visual level but it was really nicely done and somehow fitted the subject like a glove. Next, Kieran Foster came out to introduce the production before handing over to a cast of ten, very talented actors. Then came a lovely opening credits sequence involving a ‘montage in motion’ of panels from the old Warren Comics version of the character (which would have been the only version of the character when Hammer were trying to produce the movie) where various cast and crew’s names were placed into the descriptor boxes of some of the panels (this was very nicely done). This was followed by approximately two hours of the ‘dramatised’ reading. Jonathan Rigby started off with the narrative of the script but also played Pendragon, a down on his luck magician until he met Vampirella. The great lady herself, Caroline Munro, also had a couple of roles and many of the actors here had several. The nice thing about it was that Rigby had divided up the narrative sections between various performers to keep things varied and interesting and this worked a treat.

It was a great performance of the thing with the occasional visual flourish by way of an accompanying graphic and a nice musical score by Luke Jackson. Alas, Georgina Dugdale, who I believe is one of Caroline Munro’s daughters, didn’t wear the iconic red outfit sported by Vampirella in the comics and on the beautifully rendered poster by Graham Humphries (designed and illustrated for the event) but she was wearing a lovely red dress to keep in spirit with the character. Either way though, she was absolutely brilliant in the title role and it was a really strong and friendly performance. And pretty much the same can be said of all the people up on stage. Special mentions to Claire Louise Amias and Francesca Anderson for their wonderfully hilarious turns in this and a big shout out to lady whose face I couldn’t quite place... Peyvand Sadeghian... but then discovered she was the person I had singled out in my review of The Numbers (you can read that here) which I’d watched a couple of weeks before. Also, Jason Morell, son of the famous Hammer stalwart Andre Morell (who was once a Quatermass), did some marvellous voice work but nothing... nothing... could compare to his scream as one of his characters was ‘rolled’ to his death.

I had a really good time with this production and I really got a picture in my minds eye about how this could have played out as a film, thanks to the wonderful vocal characterisations on display. I tend to gravitate sometimes to films which were... let’s say were not always hugely loved in their time... as well as some of the more camp or interesting films of the 1960s and early 1970s. I can imagine, from the way the script came across, that this would have stood head and shoulders with such fun classics as Modesty Blaise, Barbarella, The Final Programme and even, perhaps, Casino Royale (yeah... you know the version I mean). In other words... something which might not have caught the imagination of its time but something we would all be happily devouring on Blu Ray releases to this day.

And, because of this, it just makes me really sad that this didn’t happen as a movie, although I’m pretty sure that some of the quirks of the script were, possibly, just a little bit too quirky to have stayed in the final filmed version. And by that I mean there’s a fair degree of post-modernistic reference to other works outside of the Vampirella canon itself... such as a boat named Dirty Harry. Or, at one point, I’m pretty sure I caught a reference specifically name checking Commander Straker from Gerry Anderson’s UFO. So, in a way, as I put the picture together in my head, I couldn’t help but think we were maybe ‘seeing’ how an uncut version of the movie might have played out.

The script did some nice stuff, too, with unpacking the information at an energetic and interesting pace. For example, it kind of reminded me of a 1960s Marvel comic as Vampirella’s back story was told through ‘hypnotic flashbacks’ at dramatic points rather than going at it in a more linear format and it really did bring home how well crafted these scripts were and whether that kind of structure would have been employed if it were filmed today (possibly making for a duller movie). The minimalistic stage direction, so to speak, that Mr. Rigby so empowered the production with, where little special vocal effects like the ‘hubbub of the crowd’ or Morell’s fatalistic scream, punctuating the text with little moments, seemed to really go down well with the audience too and I did find myself totally immersed in the thing... which is rarely the case these days.

And that’s me done with the unfilmed Vampirella. I would love to see this again so it’s a shame it’s only a one off performance but I was very pleased to take home a limited edition poster marking the event, along with a small programme, so I’m very pleased I came. An absolutely brilliant production and Mr. Rigby and his cast and crew did a really exceptional job. This will be one of my more treasured memories, for sure.

Sunday 20 October 2019

Zombieland - Double Tap

The Tappening

Zombieland - Double Tap
Directed by Ruben Fleischer
2019 USA
UK cinema release print.

Wow. it’s been ten years already, to the month apparently, since the first Zombieland hit cinemas and received a warm welcome from audiences across the globe. It had a certain easy charm and a lot of gut wrenching humour in the movie but it’s taken a while to get to this sequel, which is also set quite a time after the first film, with the four main actors reprising their roles... Woody Harrelson as Talahasse, Jesse Eisenberg as Columbus, Emma Stone as Wichita and Abigail Breslin as Little Rock. Normally when a sequel takes a long time in its gestation period, the cast and crew are always quick to say that they were waiting until the script was properly developed and right and, you know what? I wouldn’t have minded it a bit if they’d have claimed the same thing about this one because, if anything, Zombieland - Double Tap is even funnier and at least as smart and self aware as the first movie.

This film starts with our four friends making their way through the post apocalyptic Zombieland and using The White House as their home before things get messed up and the two girls take off again. Columbus re-finds love... okay, re-finds sex... when he discovers the hilariously airheaded Madison, played by Zoey Deutch and things get even sillier as the writers do not use her as a throwaway character and she has a role to play in this... including making Wichita jealous when she regroups with the other two.

Why does Wichita come back? Well, Little Rock has found love with a peaceful but impossibly naive pacifist who is taking her to the ‘safe haven’ of Babylon, populated by peace loving folk who burn all their weapons and turn them into jewellery. Trouble with that is... things are getting even more dangerous out there in Zombieland, with a new breed of hard-to-kill zombies beginning to appear. So the remaining four go on a road trip to catch up with her and, on the way...

... they meet a few new characters, in addition to Madison. There’s Luke Wilson and Thomas Middleditch, for example, playing bizarrely similar characters to Talahasse and Columbus, which may seem like a bit of an obvious ploy for comedy antics and, indeed, it is... but like the first film, the writers are well aware of what they are doing and make sure the audience know they are not trying to dumb it down for the viewing public. The scenes with these two are actually very funny and they don’t outstay their welcome. Also, one of my favourite actresses, Rosario Dawson, gets a pretty decent role here as another new character, Nevada... so I was happy.

There are quite a few shout backs to the original movie in this one... so if you haven’t seen it in a while, you might like to re-watch it quickly before going to see this... like a wonderful scene where our main protagonists find out that Columbus’ accidental killing of Bill Murray (playing himself) in the first movie has spawned a verb amongst the surviving human population in those areas. There’s also Columbus’ rules and various typographic shenanigans lit up on screen via the use of CGI which really move the film along and tug at the funny bone in some cases (try and read them all because there are some great throwaway lines hidden in the words here).

Now, it would be true there are no real surprises in the movie... a ploy where something happens to one of the characters halfway through the story to cause their hasty exit from the film for a while didn’t fool me one bit, for example, with exactly what I thought was actually going on (down to the specific manifestation of symptoms... trying not to spoil it here) actually turning out to be the case. However, because the script is so intelligent in terms of the dialogue and the way that dialogue functions, which seems to be a trait built into the cynicism of the characters, thus allowing the audience to know that they are ‘in on the joke’... means that even the ‘not so surprising surprises’ are not exactly disappointing and, honestly, just add to the fun here. In fact, I rarely laugh at comedies (even when I love them) but this one did get a good number of chuckles from me during the screening.

Also, like the first one, the film doesn’t skimp on the goriness normally associated with the zombie genre (even zombie comedies like this one) and, although it does kind of 'normalise' the violence somewhat... in a non-jaded manner... it does also get a few laughs on occasion, especially when Columbus is running us through the zombie-types which they have now become known to the group as.

And, this was a near perfect movie for me. If I had to say the one thing that disappointed me about this one, then I’d have to say it’s that there are no references to Twinkie Bars in the sequel, given that they played such an important role in the first film. Honestly though, it doesn’t really matter here because the quality of the script is such that I’m willing to forgive small character continuity traits like this and, as Columbus points out in his running voice-over narrative at the start of the film, the characters have moved on a little since the first one. There was even a true moment of suspense towards the end of the film when the fate of one of the main characters hangs in the balance... which was pretty good going from the director here, since it’s a comedy.

So there you go. That’s me more or less done on Zombieland - Double Tap other than to say, if you liked the first movie then you’ll probably really like this one and, a quick word to stay around past the credits... there are mid credits and post credits extra scenes, both a shout out to a specific, audience pleasing sequence in the first film so, you know, don’t run for the exits when the end credits start playing out. Also, if you do stay, know that it’s actually Woody Harrelson covering a song over the end credits too so... you know... stay in your seat for a bit.

Wednesday 16 October 2019

Gemini Man

Game Of Clones

Gemini Man
Directed by Ang Lee
2019 China/USA
UK cinema release print.

Not to be confused with the famous 1976 TV series of the same name, Gemini Man is the latest movie from the great director Ang Lee. It stars the always watchable Will Smith as Henry, the somewhat clichéd figure of a top government assassin who, on retirement, is seen as a ‘loose end’ on a recent job and is being hunted down by a new top government assassin, sent against him by Clive Owen (who is playing the real villain of the movie). The slight novelty is that the man sent to kill Henry is a younger clone of himself, also portrayed in the movie by Mr. Smith, using that de-aging CGI trick that Hollywood have been leaning on of late. Actually, the de-ageing for most of the sequences here doesn’t look half bad (or half as bad as I’ve seen it looking) but, for some reason, the epilogue scene in the movie doesn’t seem to be able to match the earlier stuff at all and, in this last sequence, the clone barely looks like Smith apart from in assorted shots. Don’t know why that is but it’s done well for most of the story so I’m not that bothered.

Ang Lee is a director who seldom disappoints and he’s a bit of a hard one to pin down in terms of a particular cinematic niche. I loved what he did with The Ice Storm and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and, heck, I even liked his version of Hulk which, in some ways, was a bit better than The Incredible Hulk, albeit with a puzzlingly rubbish, metaphorical fight at the end, from what I can remember.

It wouldn’t be fair to say Gemini Man is disappointing, as I’ve heard some people say... it’s entertaining enough and has some nice action sequences and scenes which build a relationship between the various characters (not necessarily what you are thinking). That being said... it’s not entirely unforgettable either and I think the possible problem here is with people’s pre-conceptions of what an Ang Lee’s movie is going to deliver to them. Everybody expects this exceptional artist to do something great with each movie and Gemini Man is not great... but it is very good so why can’t we all just be satisfied with that?

Also, the moral issues, not to mention the relationship issues between certain characters and sheer technical achievements to make this tale come alive are not to be sniffed at. Lee and his team have done some significant work here... I think this one might get some festival revivals a few decades from now.

Asides from the always wonderful Mr. Smith in the movie, we have him joined by Clive Owen, as I mentioned, perhaps somewhat wasted in the most clichéd character of the lot here but, again, always watchable so he certainly doesn’t hurt the film as much as some of the lines written for him.

Then we have one of my favourite modern actresses who I’ve seen in a fair few sci-fi and horror projects, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, playing what I will not refer to here as the love interest of the film, purely because... although a strong bond develops between her and the original template for the clone, Henry... with Will Smith being 51 and her being in her 30s, the writers have been surprisingly respectful of the not so visible age gap between the two, for a Hollywood movie at least (Will Smith always looks perpetually in his late 20s to me). She really knocks it out the park in this film and, thankfully, has a lot to do here rather than just play second fiddle to the male characters. She is the one ‘working things out’ and, also, she has a really great and somewhat brutal fight scene with a henchman that really shows that she can look the part and is capable of being a modern day action hero herself... something which I hope some wiley Hollywood producers will realise when they see this movie and hopefully commission someone to write some big budget action movies built around this actress.

Finally, we have the inclusion of Benedict Wong. I loved him as Wong in Doctor Strange (reviewed here) and Avengers Infinity War (reviewed here) and he’s as charming in this as he is in those. He plays the character the hero always needs from his past to ‘call in a couple of favours’ and he fulfills that role admirably here. A stylish actor with a big personality who I’m hoping we’ll see in a lot more high profile projects in the coming years.

Okay, so the stage is set and the film, as you would expect from Lee, looks fantastic on an aesthetic level. It would be true to say that the whole thing trundles along with no real surprises up its sleeve and that, for me, is a great shame. There are a couple of blisteringly good action sequences here where the sound design really comes into its own and with Lorne Balfe’s score (which I shall order on CD when it’s released tomorrow) keeping up with things nicely although, I really need to hear it as a stand alone because some of it does get a little buried in the mix. Alas, even the third act reveal of ‘someone’ is already something you can kinda see coming a mile off and, honestly, when they deliberately hide a character's face, I don’t know why Hollywood people actually think the audience are going to be in any way remotely surprised as to the identity of the character underneath... it doesn’t makes sense that this is saved as some kind of reveal here.

Also, since the film touches on the manipulation of DNA to edit out the stuff not needed, it never really tackles the issue at the heart of the movie which, in fairness, I only just realised with this particular film... why would you give the clone of Will Smith the same huge, sticky out ears? Honestly, I never noticed this about Will Smith before but they are a quite prominent feature and, unless they give a clone powers of super hearing, why would you leave those in the DNA edit? Oh well, that’s one thing I’ll think about in years to come when I remember this movie, I guess.

At the end of the day, Gemini Man is nothing too special but, it does try to tackle the issues brought up by the plot set-up in an intelligent manner, looks fantastic, has great performances and is a fairly fun time. So if you want something to go and take a look at which is, at the very least, quite entertaining with some intense action sequences and with a strong sense of Smith’s brand of ‘good guy chivalry’ running through it, then you could do a lot worse than give this film some of your time. It’s a pretty okay night out at the cinema... and what’s wrong with that?

Monday 14 October 2019


Attack Of The Clowns

Directed by Todd Phillips
2019 Canada/USA
UK cinema release print.

Warning: Minor spoilers about a subway scene here.

Cesar Romero did it better.

Heath Ledger did a pretty good job too but it’s kind of hard to compare the portrayals of the fair few actors who have played The Joker on screen over the years since they’ve mostly been written slightly differently for each incarnation and, certainly in the case of this new variant of the character played by Joaquin Phoenix, he’s a very different beast altogether.

Set in the 1980s, this new stand alone stab at an ‘origin’ film for The Joker is purported to be inspired by Alan Moore’s groundbreaking 80s graphic novella The Killing Joke but... I really don’t see that. In that comic the iconic character had more or less the same origin he had in the majority of the previous comics (and many of the big screen versions of the character) which is something this new iteration does absolutely nothing to parallel. It kinda makes you wonder why they bothered calling it Joker and tying it into DC in a way but, they do at least use the iconic make-up here and there are some other overlaps from the world of Batman in the movie.

I remember when I first heard about this project and I thought that it was kind of a bad idea. Back in the 1970s, DC had tried launching a stand alone comic of The Joker and it got cancelled after nine issues. Ironically and, presumably, to tie in with this new movie which also seems to be trying to distance itself as much as possible from the comic book version of the character, the company has recently released Issue 10 containing the artwork and story originally scheduled for that issue way back in the 1970s (I might review this short run of comics sometime soon on this blog, I think). So, the point I’m trying to make is that I wasn’t expecting a film about a super villain from DC to make much of a splash (even though I’m probably the only person in the world to like the Catwoman spin-off movie with Halle Berry) and I’m not the biggest fan of Phoenix either, although I’ve warmed to him of late due to his participation in You Were Never Really Here (reviewed by me here).

It’s interesting that Phoenix should follow that movie with this one because they both have a lot of echoes of Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver about them... although it’s even more blatant in the former movie. Critics who have cited Scorcese’s Taxi Driver and The King Of Comedy as major influences on Joker have been absolutely right to do so. You can see the mentally damaged Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver (not to mention some Gotham street scenes which could pass for Bickle’s nightmarish perception of New York in the 1970s) and there’s definitely a strong link to The King Of Comedy here, with Joker obsessed to an extent with a talk show host here which manifests itself in almost exactly the same way as they did in the Scorcese movie (flights of imagination presented as reality etc). Ironically though, it’s Robert De Niro himself, who had the obsession with the comedian played by Jerry Lewis in The King Of Comedy, who is the target of The Joker in this film so... what goes around comes around, I guess.

Joker itself is, I have to admit, a pretty good movie. I was very surprised at the quality of the narrative conviction shown in the performances here... Phoenix is great, as is Zazie Beetz, DeNiro and Frances Conroy as the older version of The Joker’s mother. Conroy also had a role in that Catwoman movie with Halle Berry too so, I’m glad this production was not cursed by her involvement in that one.

The film is also impressive in that it portrays a very small scale story (writ large with bigger implications) and it’s consistently, tonally, a downward spiral. A grinding, wearing depiction of down beats with a character who has no real grasp on reality and who is portrayed, for the most part, as a victim. I’ve already had a disagreement with somebody as to whether The Joker is depicted as evil in this film. I think not... he’s just mentally unhinged which, I suspect, takes away a person’s ability to make a choice between right and wrong and so, I think this is more of a monster... a human monster, for sure but, a monster nonetheless. Indeed, one could say the writer/director is even trying to illicit sympathy and empathy for the character with the way he portrays all of life’s ‘tough breaks’ as a force which finally flicks the switch in the title character’s head. In Bonnie And Clyde, Arthur Penn did this much more subtly using the language of film to win over the audience to the title characters by withholding establishing shots and long shots until the first crime is being committed. Here, Phillips and Phoenix are somewhat less subtle by piling on the despair and pathos of the character.

Indeed, the first set of murders The Joker commits are something the audience are really, I suspect, rooting to happen. He’s just been terrorised and beaten by a gang of rich, yuppie thugs who are the absolute opposite of sympathetic character types... you kind of want them to get their just dessert and  when they do it kind of puts you on his side when it happens. Later on, when he slashes someone’s throat before stabbing him in the eye, the damage is already done with the build up and framing of the character that, even though it’s a totally unjustified killing, you kind of shrug it off. In fact, in the audience I was with, in the aftermath of this very scene, when he lets a distraught character go free instead of murdering him because he was always nice to him in the past, I heard one of the ladies in the audience utter the words “Aww, so sweet.”, so, yeah, there’s empathy and identification going on with the title character in this for sure but, you know me, I’m not one to be on the side of censorship. Art is art and people will interpret it how they will, dependent on their psychological make up so, it’s good that this film can blur the lines between villain and ‘everyman’ character in some ways. At least it throws up the issue for discussion.

Another way in which the movie seems to ‘normalise’ the psychopathic killer, to some extent, is to make his laugh a psychological condition which the character even has to highlight to people by carrying a card around with him, explaining he’s not laughing at them it’s just a neurological malfunction. Gone, though, are the character's keen wits that allow him, in the comic, to be a master of crime. This film has much less in common with popular, lionised super villains of past literature and film such as the exploits of Fantomas and Fu Manchu and seems to be a much more willing spiritual cousin of those 1930s hoodlum and gangster pictures that Jimmy Cagney and Edward G. Robinson used to make. So not like the keen mind of the comics at all.

That being said, the film does take things from the long, comic book history but the biggest thing I think it takes is probably the ‘Cult Of The Batman’ which was at the forefront of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns... except it’s filched for The Joker instead. This ‘movement’ isn’t even something the character deliberately instigates or has any control over, although there’s a wonderful scene near the end of the film (which I think is where the film should have ended) where The Joker is confronted by his ‘children’, so to speak, and plays to them. It feels a lot like the end scene from Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes (reviewed here) and I think it’s quite effective.

Another thing from the comics, of course, is the Wayne family. There’s a nice set up to the idea that The Joker might actually be Batman’s step brother and, although it’s thrown out as the reality of the situation before the end, there’s also evidence within the film that this is just a cover story (take a look at the back of the photo of Arther Fleck aka The Joker and his mother and tell me whose initials they are). Similarly, the familiar old Batman origin story which gets done here, is portrayed as an indirect result of the actions of The Joker so, once again, we have the idea that the creation of The Batman was only possible with existence of The Joker. This yin and yang relationship about the two characters is pretty much the only thing I can really see as being taken directly from Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke although, I have to say, it’s probably been thirty years or more since I last read it so, that’s something I need to get into again.

There’s some beautiful cinematography here too. The many online critics of the use of orange and teal to light a scene will not be happy with this because the film is full of it... but it works well and I loved the way the colour pallette sometimes started out as one thing and then suddenly became a little schizophrenic, possibly as a visual metaphor for what is going on in Arthur’s head. For example, a shot bathed in orange where Arthur is sitting at a desk towards the other end of a long shot is suddenly changed when the camera slowly shifts slightly to the right, allowing the kitchen door and window space to come into view at an angle, which is completely lit in teal. Stuff like this make the movie fun to watch when, perhaps, the tone and content seem a little too bleak to be able to get anything positive out of it.

Whatever you make of it though, the film looks good, has some fantastic performances and has a nice score by Hildur Guðnadóttir, which is something I’ll definitely have to pick up on CD at some point soon. There’s also a nice undercurrent of reality versus what’s going on in the mind of Arthur Fleck and the ‘twist reveal’ actually caught me out for once... so that’s good. Admittedly, the film maybe goes on a little longer than it should and the final coda is a bit redundant but the very last shot revealing the probability that something very violent just went down 'off camera' is quite effective and it’s not a terrible ending... I just thought it was better ending up with The Joker playing to his cult following rather than give it almost a ‘crime doesn't pay’ undercurrent at the end. Not that The Joker, unlike his comic book and previous big screen counterparts, is interested in crime at all. Only with killing people, by this point. I do suspect that the ending has been added after either test screenings or studio interference to soften the tone somewhat... the location of the character makes no sense after what we’ve seen in the sequence prior to this (when he has so many admiring people in the crowd ready to help him).

If you have been sitting on the fence about Joker... I would urge you to give this one a go. It’s at the very least a really nice looking film and it’s very well put together. And, even if you don’t like the film, it’s simplistic approach to some very questionable viewpoints on this kind of character and his portrayal on cinema screens is perhaps something you’d like to have an opinion about. I know I really liked this film and though I wouldn’t see it again at the cinema, I would be happy to take another shot at it on Blu Ray next year and see what else I can spot in it. Definitely something I’d recommend you to go and see, if you get the chance to get to the cinema in the next week or two.

Sunday 13 October 2019

Colour Out Of Space

Drag Me To Well

Colour Out Of Space
(aka Color Out Of Space)

Portugal/USA 2019 Directed by Richard Stanley
Screening at the London Film Festival 8th October 2019

Okay, so the sixth and final film of my London Film Festival experience this year was also a treat, in the form of a new H. P. Lovecraft adaptation. Now, I’ve always had a soft spot for Lovecraft but he’s a hard writer to get up on screen. Mostly, I suspect, because the majority of what he wrote used the short story form so it’s hard to expand out into a feature anyway. Also, Lovecraft’s preoccupation of describing ancient, ‘nameless’ horrors or alluding to the unspeakable things which happen rather than actually giving you full descriptions... the literary equivalent of hiding your monsters in the shadows so nobody can see how bad your creature costume is... doesn’t help potential film-makers when it comes to trying to adapt his stuff. I do, however, tend to enjoy a certain amount of what passes for ‘screen Lovecraft’. I could happily rewatch Die, Monster, Die, a 1965 attempt at bringing The Colour Out Of Space to the screen and I was even tolerant when they insisted on presenting one of his key stories, The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward, as Edgar Allan Poe’s The Haunted Palace... I still don’t know how they got away with that one, though.

So, yeah, I was chomping at the bit to see this new movie but not, necessarily, because it was based on Lovecraft (although that was always going to be one of the plus points) but because this was the triumphant return... and having seen the film I can certainly confirm it is ‘full on triumphant’... of much loved director Richard Stanley. I loved his movies ‘back in the day’ when he directed Hardware and Dust Devil but, it appears that this is the first feature film he’s attempted to make since, by my reckoning, 1992. I’ve seen a few shorts and documentaries by him since then but he’s been hiding in the shadows for a while now due to various reasons, some of them personal, and now somebody has let him have another proper crack at making a low budget feature and... well, good idea. I just wanted to see it regardless because I know how special his first two films are.

So I was delighted to be in attendance at one of the two screenings that Colour Out Of Space got at the London Film Festival this year and even more happy that the great man was in attendance himself, to give an intro to the movie and then get into a question and answer session with the audience afterwards. He’s got one of those hypnotic voices I always find so easy to listen to for long periods of time which, in a way, is just as well because he is a bit of a talker.

So anyway, based on a work by Lovecraft, a writer who Stanley said in the Q & A that his mother got him into at the age of seven, Colour Out Of Space stars Nicholas Cage as Nathan, the head of a secluded homestead in New Orleans where he keeps a farm of tomatoes and alpacas and lives with his wife Thereza, played by Joely Richardson and his three children Benny (played by Brendan Meyer), young Jack (played by Julian Hilliard) and Lavinia (played by Madeleine Arthur).

The film is re-set in modern times but as the film’s ‘outsider’ character, a water surveyor played by Elliot Knight, walks into the forest and finds Lavinia, she is dressed in antiquated looking clothes and standing by her horse as she is trying to ‘summon up a spell’. It’s a lovely opening actually because, it’s not until Knight walks in on her and you can see him wearing modern clothes, that you are able to get a better time fix on the thing. It’s almost like you are looking at something which Roger Corman might have made in the mid-1960s for a minute. Knight’s character is called Ward Phillips which is, of course, a shortening of the original writer’s first two initials, Howard Philips.

Actually, the film is absolutely cluttered with allusions to the life and literature of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, with references to Dunwich and Arkham and all kinds of things. It didn’t bother me too much though because this production is so well put together. I was a little disappointed, truth be told, that the Necronomicon, the fictitious, extremely rare and demonic tome mentioned in many a Lovecraft tale... and quite a few other tales in both literature and film over the years... was reduced to being a small paperback volume in this. I got over it fairly quickly though. There are also a fair few references, I think, to the previous films of Richard Stanley ‘hidden in plain sight’ on occasion, such as the graffiti scrawled on the eldest son’s bedroom wall stating that... “No Flesh Shall Be Spared”... which is, of course, a reference to Hardware.

The film is... and this really isn’t surprising given as it’s Lovecraft... not entirely faithful to the original Lovecraft short. This is a movie and demands changes to be able to pass into this format, especially in a world where every film pretty much has to strive to be commercially popular now. However, unlike a fair few adaptations of the writer’s works, it is actually quite faithful in its own ways to the spirit and basic plot points of the thing. So yes, there are alpacas and crazy, almost Gigeresque... perhaps I should say Cthulhuesque in this case... monsters but various key points are put in place and faithfully maintained to anchor the film firmly in the source material quite overtly and positively so. In terms of modern adaptation, it holds up quite well. I was surprised when I heard the astonishingly low budget for this film too (around 6 million dollars) since it looks way more expensive, I think, than what it was actually put together for.

Beautiful shot set ups, of course, as you would expect form Stanley and the colours are, absolutely wonderful. There’s some nice purples in there. It probably doesn’t help matters for potential directors that, if memory recalls (it’s been at least ten years since I read this and probably twenty more before that even), the ‘colour’ out of space is an alien colour which has no equivalent on Earth so, given the challenge of an impossible colour palette to work around, I think the director here does pretty amazingly well.

I’m not going to say much about the story beats on this one... the meteor, the well etc... because you know, pretty much (and Mr. Stanley said this himself in his Q&A session, after pointing out the difficulties of adapting Lovecraft for the screen) that as far as human characters go it’s almost always going to end in either madness or death (usually both). There is, in fact, a last person standing moment in the film but I think this is very much in keeping with the original short and the nice ‘absence of colour’ in certain parts of the end sequence was also nicely done and enough to distract me on a visual level anyway.

If I had any criticisms of the film then I think, purely going on this first viewing, that things maybe do get a bit over the top towards the end... not in terms of content but in what they ‘show’ of the content. Of course, you expect that of a Nicolas Cage film now anyway but I was amused to hear Mr. Stanley saying, after the film had finished, that Cage “isn’t nearly as crazy as people think he is”. I always suspected as much but, of course, coming from a director as delightfully crazy as Richard Stanley anyway, I’m not 100% sure that’s a stirling endorsement.

Another slight criticism would be the title, which on the print I saw (even though I saw it in rainy England), was written as Color Out Of Space, in the American spelling. However, I did notice that the spelling was written in the English manner on the credit which read something along the lines of... based on the short story The Colour Out Of Space by H. P. Lovecraft... so that kind of mollified me a little. As did the appearance of Tommy Chong in the movie.

Oh... I almost forgot to mention the score by Colin Stetson, which I thought was pretty good. It does call attention to itself in various scenes but I don’t see anything wrong with that and it does well to help maintain a level of unease and strangeness to the proceedings. It’s a nice scene setter too, with the breathtaking opening shots of the surrounding forest before the meteor crashes down made somehow eerie by Stetson’s, almost ‘new age’ moments within the score. I’d grab this one quickly if only the thing was out on a nice CD.

And that’s me pretty much done with Colour Out Of Space and I can’t wait until this thing comes out on Blu Ray (hopefully sooner rather than later). It was a thrill to see a film I’d been really looking forward to more than most others this year and a very special cherry on top of the icing to actually get to see Richard Stanley ‘in the flesh’, as it were.

And that’s also me done with the London Film Festival this year. I’ve seen some truly remarkable films this time around and I had a great time with all of them. Looking forward, now, to the next festival I have tickets for... which is the mini FrightFest Halloween all dayer event at the start of November. Hopefully my ‘film stamina’ will prove its worth as I try and survive from 10am in the morning until 12.30am the next morning, devouring various new horror movies as they flash before my eyes. In the meantime, I hope you enjoyed my coverage of the films I saw at this year’s London Film Festival and normal review service of three a week should resume very shortly, with two new cinema releases up next, fingers crossed. Thanks for reading.