Wednesday 29 January 2020

Satanic Panic

Virgin Terror-tory

Satanic Panic
USA 2019 Directed by Chelsea Stardust
Arrow Films  Blu Ray Zone B

Warning: Very slight spoilers on gory details.

I didn’t bother getting tickets for Satanic Panic at last year’s Fright Fest. I’d heard some bad stuff about it but, since then, I’ve also heard loads of good stuff. A scroll down the armchair critic reviews on the IMDB finds a really mixed bag of verdicts ranging from the truly terrible to the utterly brilliant... and not much really in between. Definitely a bit of a Marmite movie for sure... so I thought I should probably give it a go after all. Especially since it’s branded under the Fangoria label. I don’t think I ever owned an issue of Fangoria but it was a very popular cultural backdrop magazine when I was a child (the kids in school used to pour over it) and it’s nice that now, after some bad times during the last decade, they’re back and fairly popular. It’s nice that they’re branching into movie making too.

So, anyway, this armchair critic’s opinion is, frankly, that the movie is one of the more successful ‘horror comedies’ produced in recent years and I wish now I’d gone to see it on a big screen. It’s actually quite a special movie with a lot of tongue-in-cheek (if not through cheek), healthy irreverence to the sub-genre of horror movie it is close cousins with. Yeah, the plot you’ve seen before in loads of movies and books and it’s the old ‘find a virgin to get penetrated and impregnated by the demon summoned by witchcraft’ plot. In the case of this film, the demon is known as Baphomet

Baphomet of course has been in gazillions of books and movies with this kind of setting, perhaps most notably in Dennis Wheatley’s The Devil Rides Out and the Hammer movie adaptation. He’s even a character in the Dungeons And Dragons rule book, it turns out.

The virgin sacrifice in this movie is Sam (short for Samantha and played beautifully by Hayley Griffith) who is working the first day of her new job as a pizza delivery woman. In a really rubbish pizza place run by a guy who makes the workers pay him a deposit for the kit to put the pizzas in on the back of the bike (leaving her with no money to buy petrol... and thus allowing her to get stuck in a very weird neighbourhood a little later in the film). This is a shop where the pizza delivery skills have been “passed down orally and anally” over the generations and where one of the employees, who helped her get the job, fancies himself and just wants to get into bed with her (or frankly anyone’s bed). He keeps saying stuff like ‘you can’t handle my authenticity’ and he’s hilarious... like much of the film actually.

Starting off with a great pan around the rich mansion-like house and the neighbourhood before going inside and treating us to an implied point-of-view double murder, we cut to a truly gaudy and almost psychedelic title card which really gets in your face before settling on Sam, the film’s main protagonist and ‘sacrifice to be’, singing a terrible song with, in the words of Simon & Garfunkel, lyrics that ‘strain and tear to rhyme’.

I instantly liked this character and when, after a montage of her first day trying to get some tips from her new job, she takes a delivery to an out of the way place (the mansion like structure from the pre-credits which even has its own miniature hedge maze in homage to The Shining out front)... I totally sympathised when she actively entered the house to try and obtain a tip... blundering into a coven of witches in need of a virgin fast, overseen by, in a deliriously villanous, campy kind of role I’ve not seen her do before, Rebecca Romijn.

Another actress she runs into at some point is Ruby Modine from the Happy Death Day movies and, she’s pretty cool in this too. She plays Rebecca Romijn’s daughter who, with Sam, is on the run from this crazy coven of witches who want nothing but bad, painfully mortal things to happen to them and who are quite capable of conjuring supernatural shenanigans to get exactly what they want.

There are some great set ups... the ‘code of Sams’ which a guy on Sam’s pizza delivery round uses to get her to help him into his house with a sofa is something which comes up in a very surprising way right near the end of the movie and when you get, in dribs and drabs, the full back story of why Sam is still a virgin and just what it means for her to get a job (I won’t spoil this moment for you but the background for the character is beautifully written)... well, you just root for her even more. Heck, there’s even a nice ‘punchline’ moment right at the end of the movie which follows up on her rhyming the word ‘paraphernalia’ with Australia in her song back when we first meet her.

And, well maybe it’s just me but I found the constant humour in this to be absolutely brilliant. I loved the fact that whenever anyone tried to kill Sam they accidentally get killed instead (Rebecca Romijn’s real life and fictional husband turns up in one scene and his accidental and dumb way of dying had me grinning for a while) and, as you would expect from a production company who are an off-shoot of Fangoria magazine, the film is quite graphic in the gory details but there’s a lot of the ‘so gory and over the top it’s funny’ sort of stuff in here. Like the way a man is forced to eject his own intestines through his mouth so Romijn can read his entrails or the fetishistic... oh, I’m just going to quote one of the characters here and say... ‘H. R. Giger lovestick’. It’s all good fun and I really connected with this one.

And then, as the end credits rolled... I found out why.

Turns out the film is co-written by Grady Hendrix. Hendrix, of course, wrote the wonderful, fictional ‘horror novel disguised as an IKEA catalogue’ HorrorStör (read my review here) as well as the delightfully fun and informative Paperbacks From Hell (which I reviewed here) so it’s no surprise, I guess, as to why I liked the writing on this one so much. And it helps when the performers can get just the right blend of ‘self awareness of the stupidity of their plight’ into their roles too. So, yeah, I guess if I’d twigged it was written by him when it played FrightFest, I would have actively sought out a ticket.

That’s me done on this one though. I absolutely loved Satanic Panic and will instantly recommend it to all my horror loving friends. It’s nicely respectful of the genre it flamboyantly pokes fun of and cineastes who embrace the irony and sense of fun should have a thoroughly entertaining time with it. Unlike a few other horror comedies of recent years, this one doesn’t shoot blanks when it comes to the laughs. Give it a go.

Monday 27 January 2020

Doctor Who - Fugitive Of The Judoon

Jack And The Box

Doctor Who - Fugitive Of The Judoon
UK BBC1 Airdate: 27th January 2020

Warning: Big spoilers right from the outset. If you don’t want to know, don’t read. You were warned.

Okay... this is what Doctor Who is all about. Or at least, what Doctor Who has become for the last ten or so years... a devious puzzle with a side helping of nostalgia thrown in from a couple of angles. Finally I can report that another new episode of this year’s series seriously knocked it out the park.

For starters, Fugitive Of The Judoon actually had some decent writing from someone who seems to really understand how the chemistry between The Doctor and her new companions works. There is concern and strength in unification of the team at the heart of the latest iteration of the extended ‘TARDIS family’. Also, when the various companions got separated from The Doctor, she continued to pull the threads of her own part in the story without, actually, even knowing something had happened to them. The show didn’t stop to play up the emotions on the bits that didn’t matter... only on the sections that built the character of the team operating as a unit.

So we have the return of the Judoon, who have placed a deadly perimeter around Gloucester while they are looking for a dangerous fugitive... or at least have been hired to find said fugitive. From the start of the episode it’s pretty obvious that the person they’re looking for is going to be one of two people... and as it turns out it was both, technically (or three if you think about the consequences of what happens later in the episode). It’s obvious two of them are disguised as humans and it soon becomes clear that one of them, Ruth, played by Jo Martin, is even disguised from herself. At this point, my ears pricked up and I thought... ‘pocket watch containing a Timelord’s identity?’. Well, no, not a pocket watch this time but a ‘break glass’ sign in the lighthouse this character thought she had lived her early life in. So, basically, a safehouse.

Meanwhile, to set up the first of a couple of important plot points for the overall story arc of this series, we had the very welcome return of Captain Jack Harkness, played by John Barrowman (which meant he was on two channels simultaneously, also busy judging the ice show on the other side when this thing was broadcast). He’s here to give a warning to The Doctor... which he has to settle doing through The Doctor’s companions as he is ejected from the ship he used to scoop them all up in by anti-theft nanites... to ‘beware the lone Cyberman’ and don’t give it what it wants. Okay, so I’m sure that advice will certainly both come in handy and be totally ignored by the end of this series, for sure. But it was great seeing him back and I’m sure we’ll see him again at some point very soon.

Meanwhile The Doctor, not knowing that Ruth, who she left alone in the lighthouse, is about to unlock her Timelord cover personality and reveal the true her, starts digging up an important looking unmarked grave outside. Only to discover she’s digging up another version of her own TARDIS. Now this is more like it as it’s soon established that both The Doctor and Ruth are the same person... but neither of them can remember the other from their past although our current version of The Doctor takes the destruction of Gallifrey as proof, for some reason, of the fact that she is a future incarnation of Ruth. There’s also another person who is working for whoever hired the Judoon and she may well be The Doctor as well, for all I know (we’ll see how that plays out but she’s dead for now). So, yeah, lots happening with... possible heavy-ish repercussions for the future fabric of the show’s history... though not ‘so much’ I suspect.

So... big episode with some really nice moments. I knew Graham wasn’t dead when he seemed to disintegrate, especially since the writers went out of their way to show another ruthless disintegration soon after to show just how serious they were being here. Wasn’t expecting to see Captain Jack teleporting him away though. So that’s a good thing.

Also, I love how Ruth, in automatic mode, pulled the horn off the Judoon (who are basically vertically walking rhinoceros people in heavy police uniform) and it was explained that she had dishonoured the Judoon in question. This is great stuff and, I suspect, comes directly from ancient Japan when, in days of old, it was a huge disgrace and dishonour if a samurai’s top knot was cut off. Indeed,  I wonder how many Westerners, when they watch Akira Kurosawa’s magnificent movie Seven Samurai, realise the absolute gravitas and anticipation that is built up in the opening scene for Japanese audiences when Takashi Shimura’s character shaves off his own top knot in order to disguise himself as a priest? It was great to parody this ‘loss of honour’ here with the Judoon and it also gives them a little more substance than they had on their previous appearances throughout the show.

So, yeah, this one was a rollercoaster and with the lone Cyberman and the ‘other Doctor’ out there, this looks like the writers are finally ‘really going for it’ at this point. I’m keeping my fingers crossed they are anyway.

Where could all this lead? Well, there’s always a chance that the Master could be hiding within this other Doctor still, I guess... unless s/he was the one who hired the Judoon in the first place (or heck, maybe it was even Rassilon or Omega from old Timelord lore, who knows?). Or it could be that The Master and The Doctor have always been the same person and the Timelords have split them into different time strands over the years... and this is why The Master chose to destroy Gallifrey just recently. Or something else. Either way this is compelling puzzle setting here and, even if the solution to the puzzle turns out to be a little underwhelming (as it so often did in the Steven Moffat era), it doesn’t take away from the brilliant set up that we got this episode. And I still haven't forgotten that Matt Smith reference to having had his memory tampered with in a previous Cyberman story... could they be finally tugging on that old Moffat thread here? I doubt if next weeks episode will have much, if anything, to do with this weeks story line but I am looking forward to when the writers start yanking on these strings again. This could go either way but I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it stays challenging to the viewer. With Fugitive Of The Judoon, my faith is somewhat, partially, restored... or at least distracted for the time being.

Sunday 26 January 2020

The Turning

Screw And Cry

The Turning
2020 UK/Ireland/Canada/USA
Directed by Floria Sigismondi
UK cinema release print.

I’m not going to say this film is completely terrible... more like a beautiful sculpture left two thirds hidden inside the rock that contains the potential for that particular work of art.

Now I’ve never read Henry James’ Turn Of The Screw and, neither, have I seen any of the numerous official movie or TV adaptations of it, to date. I have seen a film once that was supposed to be ‘heavily inspired’ by the book but, alas, I figured out the end of the movie within the first five minutes of that one. In terms of this new ‘updated for modern times’ adaptation, The Turning, I have to say that I came to a conclusion fairly early on... again within the first five minutes of the movie... about how things were going to be revealed at the end of the film but, alas, although I’m pretty sure I was right about that, I have no way of knowing just what the heck the conclusion of this film actually was supposed to be. Yeah, I’ll get to that in a little while.

So, there’s lots of good stuff in this movie but it seems to be packaged into what might be one of the worst representations of what the movie might have been. That the film works best as an atmosphere piece is probably it’s main strength. The performances by the actor and actresses playing the four main characters... Mackenzie Davis, Finn Wolfhard, Brooklynn Prince and Barbara Marten... are all more than competent and work really well together at conjuring up a sinister, almost laid back sense of approaching menace. So that kinda helps things along and the two kids are quite exceptional. Brooklynn Prince knocks it out the park as the charge of her new nanny (the film’s main protagonist played by Mackenzie Davis) and Wolfhard from Stranger Things plays against type as a villainous brat of a brother. He’s hard to like in this so, yeah, he obviously delivered a performance which really worked then.

The other main plus is some beautifully composed shots in an almost washed-out colour palette which highlight the fogginess, uncertainty and shakiness of the reliability of Mackenzie Davis’ character. It uses some nice, fluid camera movement to capture the main protagonist as she walks around the house and grounds of Bly Manor... little works of art in themselves, some of these shots.

Alas, although these shots are pretty nicely captured... as is all of the material in the film... they seem to be edited to death in places. That is to say, the edits seem faster than the nature of the footage would seem to suggest or, indeed, required to make them work together. For instance, when Davis is walking somewhere on a very simple route, several smooth and slow shots of her journeying to her destination from all different possible angles are spliced together in a way that calls attention to the way the DNA of the movie has been cobbled together. It’s not quite a case of ‘MTV generation’, fast paced editing but many of the shots in this movie can only last 7 or so seconds before cutting onto another and then another shot of the same thing from a different angle when, probably, one held master shot would have been the better option. Or, at the very least, maybe the shots could have been transitioned easier by having them slowly dissolve into each other on the movement (assuming the pacing of each shot was the same). Instead, everything seems to be chopped up way more than it needs to be and the result is a very fractured feeling in the narrative which... well, I guess that could be used to wrong-foot or unsettle the audience but it just doesn’t seem to work positively here.

And the other thing, apart from showing two or possibly even three approaches to a denouement in the final quarter of an hour of the film which are immediately thrown over for another interpretation, is the fact that the film leads us to an ending which is a big reveal for the main protagonist but... and this is the thing... not for the main audience, because we don’t actually get to see what that reveal is. A face is revealed to Mackenzie Davis but it’s deliberately obscured from the audience so that we really do ‘feel the ambiguity, man!’ instead of being left with something that might have made a little more sense. It’s almost like, by this point in the proceedings, the director or producers decided that the ending they were building up to was way too obvious so they decided not to show us what that ending was and instead, immediately they lead us into a ‘pop song’ with footage which teases a possible build to resolution over the end credits and, yeah, denying us again. It just feels like they’re deliberately 'screwing' with the audience to wind us up by this point.

Not much else to say on The Turning, it has to be said. Disappointing and really not great to recognise that a different assembly of the footage captured may well have given us a fairly decent horror movie. I guess I need to read the book at some point now to find out just what the heck is going on... although I suspect the ambiguity depicted in this film might also hold true to the original work, perhaps. Yeah, I’ll get to it at some point. I’m not glad I saw this one, to be honest.

Thursday 23 January 2020


Won’t Get Fuelled Again

Sweden/Denmark 2019
Directed by Pella Kågerman & Hugo Lilja
Arrow Films  Blu Ray Zone B

Warning: Slight story set-up spoilers.

This is another movie I got for my birthday which I fancied having a look at. Sometimes you just have to roll the dice and I’m glad I did because Aniara is one stylish and gripping slice of science fiction.

Based on an epic poem by writer Harry Martinson, Aniara tells the tale of the inhabitants of a starship who get pushed off course without fuel and without any real hope of rescue. Starting off with the central character Mimaroben, as she takes a space elevator (not unlike those conceived of by Arthur C. Clarke) to the big, flat slab of city that is the spaceship Aniara. Various people are fleeing an ‘almost post apocalyptic’ earth to join their friends and families on Mars, a trip which should take a matter of a few weeks until something goes very wrong on the flight.

Mimaroben is played, quite brilliantly, by an actress called Emelie Jonsson. She works on the ship looking after the MIMA, supervising people and training them up to be able to use the facilities. The MIMA is, basically, a sentient, glorified holo-deck of the mind. Several customers go ito the MIMA chamber and lay with their head pointing down as MIMA extracts their memories and shows them complete sensory, virtual reality style scenarios of scenes of ‘old Earth’ (forests, lakes etc) which are personal to them. Mimaroben is not all that busy because not very many people want to use this outlet.

So here we have a, more or less, floating city in space called Aniara which is on a three week voyage to Mars and which looks like a shapeless version of the Cygnus from The Black Hole. All is well and good until an accident which sends the ship off course causes the flight crew to jettison the nuclear fuel, thus rendering the steering of the Aniara impossible. After this happens, the captain explains to the passengers that they are going to try and slingshot themselves around the first celestial body they find to get them back on course. However, they also warn it could take up to 2 years before they pass one. After the uproar has died down, quite sometime later, the astronomer who is sharing Mimaroben’s quarters tells her that there was never going to be the chance they would come across a celestial body and that they are stuck drifting in space for good. As you can imagine, this doesn’t go down well with the passengers but there’s not much anyone can do except try and get along.

And, of course, everything goes on a downward spiral from there. MIMA, overwhelmed by the amount of people queuing around the block to use it and the negative impressions it gets from their minds, gains a kind of bleak consciousness and, after a while, starts taking people to horrific places in their minds before it commits suicide, effectively blowing itself up. Then things start to go down hill even more although Mimaroben does take on a lover... the ship’s once pilot Isagel, played by Bianca Cruzeiro. When Isagel gets impregnated at an orgiastic sex ritual in remembrance of MIMA, held by one of the cult religious groups which have sprung up on the ship, the couple even have a young child to raise.

The film looks at Mimaroben and the world as she experiences it through a two hour film split, for the first 1 hour and 50 minutes, into little sub chapters which take us from hour one of the voyage through to ten years later. Some chapters have a subtitle such as The Sarcophagus and, ten minutes before the end it skips to year 24. Then, for the last few minutes, it skips to a good many millennia ahead, as we rejoin the ship on its journey.

And it’s a really good time with vivid performances by the two actresses I mentioned before, not to mention the brilliance of The Astronomer, played by Anneli Martini and the absolute idiot of a captain played by Arvin Kananian. Emelie Jonsson is particularly wonderful as Mimaroben, playing it as a fairly buoyant, upbeat character who tries not to get too affected by all the misery and depression she sees around her... indeed, at one point during the ‘journey’, the suicide rate on the starship is up to 48 people per month. It’s a quite remarkable performance and it’s a shame, in a way, that nobody at the Oscars is taking note of films like this.

The way the film is structured and shot is also pretty great. Early on we get a sales pitch video introducing customers (and the audience) to what they can expect on Aniara as a kind of virtual tour of the facilities... much like the opening of David Cronenberg’s Shivers (reviewed here) but with the camera capturing the video in various rooms as it follows people around different places on the ship. It’s a good thing to do, of course, because it lets the audience know how the passengers can survive in space for that long and also what can go wrong with the facilities.

The cinematography and shot design is gorgeous, of course. I was particularly struck early on in the film when Mimaroben (who suffers from panic attacks in the early stages of the movie) is journeying up to another deck in a lift. The interior walls are surfaced with mirrors and we can see the reflection of her face in deep focus filling up two thirds of the shot while her real face is up close and personal on the left, blurred out. After we watch the other passengers leave from behind Mimaroben to get off at their floor, the camera shifts focus so the reflected image becomes a blur and we finish that journey with the close up of her head in focus so we can pick up on her expressions. It’s a nice moment in a film full of great moments which includes joyous celebrations but also some real down beats with the occasional scenes of violence thrown in, which shock not from their level of gory detail (which is fairly minimal) but from the sense of injustice and consequence wrapped up in the various violent acts.

The ending and inevitability of the ultimate fate of the remaining characters, plus the ironic final shot, are also played out with a certain 'matter of fact' gravitas, although there are moments of pure visual poetry too... I can imagine Andrei Tarkovsky trying to tackle the same material at some point in his ‘too short’ career. It’s not quite reminiscent of his style but certainly something I think he might have found intriguing... especially the use of manipulated memory by way of MIMA.

Being that this is an Arrow release, of course, there’s a fair few extras on here, one of which is a really nice half hour zombie short which the same director and writer had made nearly ten years earlier called The Unliving. This features the same lead actress as Aniara and dives into political and emotional issues in a post-apocalyptic near future where zombies are lobotomised and used as a work force for the survivors of the original outbreak (there's even a popular zombie opera singer). I won’t say much about the film here other than, it deservedly won some awards.

And that’s pretty much all I have to say on this little package. Aniara is a really good film and certainly worth putting up there with certain other ‘space bound classics’ of the last 60 years or so (yeah, you know the ones I mean). It was certainly a more fulfilling and rewarding film than last year’s High Life (which it shares some common ground with, reviewed here) and Ad Astra (reviewed here), the latter of which was kind of let down a little by the impotency of its ending. In terms of great science fiction cinema, this one is the real deal and it gets a strong recommendation from me for sure. Miss this one at your peril.

Monday 20 January 2020

Doctor Who - Nikola Tesla's Night Of Terror

Tesla Recoil

Doctor Who -
Nikola Tesla's Night Of Terror

UK BBC1 Airdate: 19th January 2020

Okay... so Nikola Tesla's Night Of Terror wasn’t the best episode of Doctor Who we’ve had this series but it was better than the last two episodes so I’m going to cling to that straw and use it as an excuse to keep up hope for the rest of the series.

As usual, Jodie Whittaker, Mandip Gill, Tosin Cole and the incomparable Bradley Walsh were all as watchable as ever. They were also joined by Haley McGee as Dorothy Skerritt, Robert Glenister as Thomas Edison and Goran Višnjić, who did a really outstanding job as Nikola Tesla. Yeah, they were all good and the scripting had its moments too. The episode started off fairly fast paced and, although there seemed to be a few jumps in logic (how the heck did The Doctor suddenly have her TARDIS to jump into at one point?) the script managed to run through its own wet paint quickly so they didn’t really ruin the  story that much.

There were a few bad things mixed in with the good though.

It wasn’t exactly an original story. Okay so they set it in the past and used Tesla and Edison as plot devices but the story was really a reworking of that old Star Trek - The Next Generation episode, where you have the scavenger race asking for everyone’s help to fix the ‘acquired’ equipment in their spaceship. However, whereas in the Star Trek episode the alien race were cleverly and consistently passive in their approach... this lot was a race of giant scorpion people who had tonnes of stolen tech in their ship and who were basically just saying... ‘Tesla comes with us and fixes our stuff or we destroy the planet’.

The biggest problems were not so much with the script this time though... more in the execution.

For instance, a fair few times The Doctor and her companions are being chased by electric death dealing simulacrums and it’s like, if one of those bad guys even slips, it seems The Doctor has time to give a lecture, run a few errands and set a trap before the bad guys catch up with them again. Might as well make a cup of tea and put your feet up on the sofa while you’re at it (incidentally, Star Trek - The Next Generation suffered from exactly the same lack of awareness of time critical danger in many episodes as that displayed here).

Also, you had a nice looking, if annoyingly slow or clumsy (so they wouldn’t ever catch up with the good guys and gals) set of computer generated giant, alien scorpions but then, when the Scorpion Queen was revealed, you had an ex-Sarah Jane Adventures actress in a terrible looking suit trying to look vaguely dangerous. It just really didn’t work here and didn’t impress me in terms of a decent example of villainy incarnate.

However, there was some nice, vivid colour gel lighting throughout the sequences on board the alien ship and the chemistry between the leads and this weeks co-stars was pretty good so I’m reticent to say too much negative stuff here. I’m just glad the episode was halfway decent. And the musical score on this one was quite good too (although I hope they consider releasing Murray Gold’s last Doctor Who series score on CD before wading in on this one).

Oh, by the way BBC people... don’t tell us a ray gun is Silurian in origin and then refer to it as alien technology. Anybody who has watched their fair share of Doctor Who over the years knows that the Silurians aren’t alien... they were here on the planet long before humans arrived, remember? Clumsy scripting there... who does the error checking?

Anyhow, that’s me done with Nikola Tesla’s Night Of Terror and, as I said before, I’m just glad it wasn’t too terrible. Next week we have the return of the Judoon so we’ll see what that one brings. Short review I know but, well, that’s the way it goes for the ‘current’ Doctor Who these days. Nothing terribly exciting to report.

Sunday 19 January 2020

Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley's Island of Dr. Moreau

Soul Survivors

Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley's Island of Dr. Moreau
USA 2014 Directed by David Gregory
Severin Films/Nucleus Films  Blu Ray Zone B

Richard Stanley is one of those directors I’ve always liked... and I finally got to experience him in the flesh last year in a Q&A about his latest movie Colour Out Of Space (reviewed here). I’ve never much been interested in seeing the misstep of a movie adaptation of The Island Of Dr. Moreau that Stanley was fired from and which was reshaped and made into the disasterous production starring Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer as director John Frankenheimer tried to resurrect a phoenix from the ashes of Stanley’s pre-production but I have, over the years, been fascinated by some of the stories coming off the experience so I’m glad I, almost accidentally, stumbled on this relatively recent documentary about how this happened here.

Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island Of Dr. Moreau is, as is to be expected, a lot of talking heads but the various heads that are talking here, including sizeable contributions from Stanley himself, are such that this does make a fascinating documentary. Intercut with quick scenes from Frankenheimer’s disastrous finished project for New Line, it goes back right to the kernel of the project with Stanley explaining all the ideas that came from H. G. Well’s famous novel, why he wanted to do a legitimate version of it in the wake of some historically poor adaptations of the material and all of the bad luck which dogged the project leading to his return, after going AWOL for a long time in the jungle, as a ‘dog-man’ extra in the film, unable to reveal his face to the majority of the cast and crew for fear of being prosecuted and not collecting his rejection fee. He’s in the final cut though.

Graham Humphries also turns up with the original concept art he did to help Stanley secure the green light on the film initially... indeed, he also did the cover art for this documentary release. He’s one of those people who seem to have turned up everywhere in the background of a lot of projects I’ve been watching or reading lately so, yeah, it feels almost like fate drew me to this one.

There are some great anecdotes about the politics and mechanics of a film that goes completely wrong which are, in fact, well... maybe not as opulent as the original director covertly returning to star in the film as a dog-man but, certainly, a lot more enlightening about how some of these kinds of train wrecks happen and, frankly, at this point in his career, I would have thought that anyone wanting to work a film set with Brando was kind of tempting fate a little too heavily anyway. Brando’s dead now, of course, so this tale of stardom gone mad, which is in some ways a rerun on a more absurd scale of the way in which he behaved on Apocalypse Now, can’t really hurt him. I tell you what though... if I were Val Kilmer then I don’t think I’d like to see many of these stories seeing the light of day. I’m amazed he went on to work on anything again after the way he comes across, second hand, in this and it’s really no surprise that he’s not in this documentary in anything other than photos, original footage and remembrances.

As with anything connected with Richard Stanley, there seems to be an almost supernatural hand in the way this production was put together, as he employed a witch to cast ‘fixing spells’ on his first meeting with Brando... who subsequently took to Stanley like a fish to water. The death of a couple of people involved in, somewhat, strangely grim ways, including the witch himself (you’ll have to watch the documentary to find out what happened to him) and the way that all the bad things came together at the same time Stanley was more or less fired from the project, are mentioned here and make you wonder just what kind of bizarre creatures of the nether-world that Stanley has stalking him... in either a positive or negative manner.

The film is also fairly educational to a layman like me. I’ve read stories featuring the Dr. Moreau character over the years but never Wells original novel (although I have read a number of his other works) and I had no idea that Wells had a falling out with Joseph Conrad when Conrad published Heart Of Darknesss a few years later which, allegedly, has a central character based on Moreau in a novel which has the same structure as Wells own. Conrad is said to have based the Kurtz character on Henry Morton Stanley (who famously said, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.”) who, it turns out, is a direct ancestor of Richard Stanley. As far as the Brando behaviour repeating from Apocalypse Now goes... Apocalypse Now is, of course, Francis Ford Coppolla’s take on Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness... so even there, there is a strange kind of spooky symmetry going on, I think. Although that last bit about Brando is not a connection I remember any of them making in this documentary.

It’s extraordinary though, especially Stanley and Fairuza Balk, who was a good friend of Stanley at the time and who was one of the stars of the movie... both the original as it was to be attempted and then again, much against her will it would seem, the fiasco of a version of it that eventually materialised.

As you would expect from Severin Films, the disc is full of extras including a 48 minute series of outtakes of Stanley, followed by some shorter out-takes sections by other cast and crew members, of fascinating stories which never made it into the final cut. It’s interesting stuff and, as I’ve said before, Stanley’s almost soporific accent combined with a keen intellect and ‘mile a minute’ rapidity of speech were always, even on their own, going to be worth the price of admission here.

Bottom line, Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley's Island of Dr. Moreau is a great little curio about how a perfectly good film can turn into a nightmare for so many people in some unlikely ways. If you love the cinema then you would surely find this an insightful and fascinating project and it has much to be recommended. I’m glad I got the chance to see this one.

Wednesday 15 January 2020

Welcome To Marwencol

A Figure Perspective

Welcome To Marwencol
by Mark Hogancamp & Chris Shellen
Princeton Architectural Press ISBN: 9781616894153

Welcome To Marwencol is a beautiful book that I was given by somebody special in my life for Christmas. It’s a gorgeous tome telling the story of artist Mark Hogancamp and highlighting some of his photographic work after he recreated himself in the wake of an almost life ending event. If any of this is ringing any bells then you should take a look at the movie about this guy, where he is played by Steve Carell, called Welcome To Marwen, which I reviewed last year here (and which ranked quite highly in my end of year films list). There’s also a documentary film about him called Marwencol which I will need to catch up to at some point soon.

Like many biopics, the Steve Carrel movie made a fair few minor changes to the truth of the situation and this book, which showcases Hogancamp’s work, seems somehow more up to date (even though it preceded the Hollywood biopic). It’s also a fairly depressing story and it goes something like this.

Ex navy man, illustrator and alcoholic Mark Hogancamp was in a bar one night when he admitted to somebody in there that he was a cross dresser. As he was leaving the bar, the guy he’d been talking to and several of his friends jumped Hogancamp and gave him a seriously life threatening beating which he almost didn’t survive. He was placed in an induced coma for quite some time because the injuries were so awful as his face was peeled back and the doctors gave him a prosthetic eye socket to replace the one which had caved in. When he awoke, he managed to recover enough to be able to speak and move about again but he has no memories of his life before the beating. However, from what he could learn of it, he has tried to improve his outlook on life from what it was... including giving up his reliance on alcohol.

After the accident, he could no longer draw because his hand shook too much and he was initially afraid to venture outside his home for quite a while. But then he started to build the fictional, miniature town of Marwencol, in Belgium, perpetually stuck in a bubble that preserved the time to World War II. He populated this with heavily customised dolls and figures of alter egos of himself and friends and, even the five evil SS Men in the town who cause so much trouble for ‘Hoagy’ are based on his real life attackers. The plots to the adventures he ‘records’ photographically and in incredible detail, sometimes get quite convoluted... with very specific death rituals to truly kill an SS man, to stop them from re-spawning and... a time travelling witch called Deja Thoris (I guess Edgar Rice Burroughs fans will know where she gets her name from). There’s even another dimension with a knight who brings permanent death to the characters and a nazi encampment built around the other side of Hogancamp’s trailer where Hitler lives.

And it’s a wonderful book. The photographic artwork is truly beautiful, capturing a curious blend of gritty realism juxtaposed with a kind of fairytale whimsy. Fairytale whimsy with alcohol, cat fighting, torture and horrendous bullet wounds. These photos are really a labour of love and are dotted throughout the book which explores Hogancamp’s ‘recreation’ as a human being and then looks at his technique (to the point where he eventually embraces the digital camera... he’s a braver man than I).

The book also shows off a little of his early drawing skills and also the plans he knocks up now if he’s adding a new building to his ‘set’. There’s even a photographic plan of the town on a double page spread where most of the buildings are. And the final little extra dash of brilliance, for me, was the fact that Hogencamp’s scaled down alter ego is also busy building an even smaller model town as a hobby in his plastic reality... there’s a wonderful shot of the figure with a box housing two very small figures. It’s great stuff.

The final third of the book houses a photographic comic strip... like those old Fotonovel’s from the 1970s and 80s, telling tall tales of small people and its both charming and, sometimes, possibly a little unsettling too. But it is wonderful stuff and it's the kind of content I could look at for hours on end. I wish they’d do a show of his work here in London, England sometime.

Anyone who’s into the world of model making, miniatures, dolls and action figures would really like Welcome To Marwencol and its a definite recommendation from me (as was the movie). I can only hope that there’s a follow up volume sometime soon and I would love to see some of the comic panels as larger shots, unencumbered by the commentary. For more information on Marwencol and to buy this wonderful book, go to and may your stay in the town be as enjoyable as mine was.

Monday 13 January 2020

Doctor Who - Orphan 55

The Orphan Age

Doctor Who - Orphan 55
UK BBC1 Airdate: 12th January 2020

Warning: Here be spoilers.

Well this was pretty... to quote a friend... “Meh!”

I was less than excited when I saw the trailer for Orphan 55 because it looked like a standard, stereotypical Doctor Who story from the last few years. You know the kind... Doctor and companions arrive at luxury resort/planet/space station... take ten minutes to establish friends and characters and then hit the audience with the whole ‘actually it’s a bit of a deathtrap here’ spiel. And, guess what? That’s exactly what we got with this thing.

Actually, to be fair, this episode with Bradley Walsh’s Graham character activating some free tokens and teleporting The Doctor and companions out of the TARDIS and into a free two week vacation on a luxury resort wasn’t that terrible a set up, to be honest. Although it was pretty much the exact same set up as Kerblam! from last series. That being said, this one did manage to go down hill rapidly... primarily because a lot of the things which happen in it either didn’t make a whole lot of sense or were somehow contradictory.

So the fact that the luxury resort is held in by holographic walls and is actually built on an
orphaned’ world... so a planet that’s basically wiped itself out and is supposed to be empty and off limits... was all well and good. However, when it turned out to be the Earth in the future... well this was an unnecessary and unwanted plot twist and really doesn’t make sense in terms of series continuity with anything we’ve seen about the future of the planet before. And, frankly, the always good to watch Jodie Whitaker can go on about this being just one future for our planet in a host of possible timelines all she likes but there’s absolutely no evidence of that and... guess what? Our intrepid bunch of heroes don’t refute that timeline in any way, shape or form by the end of the episode so... yeah, I guess that future stands now, does it? As do all the other futures for Earth we’ve seen in the show. What happened to all those ‘fixed points in time’ moments we’ve been hearing about over the last few years? Makes no sense, right?

And the writing just generally seemed to be quite bad but I say seemed because it was, frankly, so sloppy that I suspect there must have been some production troubles with the episode. I really can’t believe this script was shot ‘as is’ because the dire contradictions and inexplicable incidents that made no sense would surely have been caught at the script stage? I’m guessing some scenes had to be improvised, rewritten or ‘written in’ without the time to worry about the consequences. This is all just a guess on my part but... well... watch it and see what you think.

So you had a lovely, elderly couple who became separated and when you did ‘hear’ the missing guy towards the end of the adventure... well, it seemed to make no sense. The character was hastily dropped out of the narrative, more or less, once he’d fulfilled his function to draw The Doctor and her companions out onto the surface of the planet. One wonders why they bothered building up these characters in the first place at all, to be honest.

But that was nothing compared to the amount of characters who sacrificed themselves to save the others by somehow offering themselves up to be... what, eaten? In order to slow a horde of creatures down? How was this working? How does one person slow a whole army of creatures down. And why does the young lad in this actually run off at some point? For no good reason other than to give the other characters something else to do, it seemed to me.

And for goodness sake, if you’ve set up the idea that leaving yourselves with a bunch of monsters and one gun which doesn’t really work because they can adapt to it is certain suicide... you don’t then suddenly have someone who was previously wounded and who selected this fate suddenly turn up from out of nowhere at the end, guns blazing, to buy The Doctor and the others more time to get off the planet. That makes no sense whatsoever. And should I mention that The Doctor didn’t bother going back in her TARDIS to save these poor buggers at the end? No, instead she made a really heavy handed speech about climate change which the audience really didn’t need to hear because, you know... we got it... and which went on for way too long. This was way beyond preachy.

Oh... and talking about the TARDIS. Once we’ve established that we're on future Earth in Russia... how the heck do the creatures understand Jodie Whitaker talking in English if they’ve evolved from Russians? The TARDIS is nowhere near them so the Universal translator which is projected in the near vicinity of the ship is not valid here. What’s going on? Have I missed something? Probably but... I’m almost past caring at this stage.

So, yeah, Orphan 55 was problematic at best and I’m going to try and forget this one. I’m also going to try and forget that the pre-order Blu Ray price for this series... for a measly ten episodes... is around £50. Seriously BBC? Do you think that’s anything approaching what this should be?

Anyway... as always I shall try and be a bit optimistic about what we may be getting in the next episode. Time will tell, I guess.

Sunday 12 January 2020

Cryptic Quiz Answers 2019

Cryptic Quiz Answers 2019

It’s that time of year when I reveal the answers to my Festive Cryptic Movie Quiz once again... so all of you who were playing can kick yourselves. Unusually this year, nobody got everything right but there was a clear winner with @matthematically who is someone from my Twitter timeline, scoring an impressive 14 out of 16. The two he didn’t figure out were numbers 1 and 8... which everyone had trouble with, to be fair.

So big congratulations to him and here are the ‘workings’ to this year’s answers revealed.

1. No identification... but it’s only half that you’re in.
Well another way of saying a half is ‘SEMI’. If you’re in it then that’s ‘INSEMI’ and then no identification could be abbreviated to ‘NO ID’. Put it all together and you have Norman J. Warren’s classic sci-fi horror INSEMINOID.

2. It’s dark but it’s all there.
If it’s dark then it’s possibly BLACK. If it’s all there (and not just, say, a half) then it’s WHOLE. Scrumble it all up into a film title and you have Walt Disney’s THE BLACK HOLE.

3. Back in the morning.
Well morning could be expressed as AM. Read it backwards and that’s MA.

4. MD peels back.
Similarly... MD is an abbreviation of Medical Doctor, so just keep the DOCTOR. Peels read backwards is SLEEP. So we have DOCTOR SLEEP.

5. They’re not in stereo.
If it’s not in stereo then it’s in MONO and if it's 'they're' it implies it’s plural so you get the movie MONOS.

6. Palindromic lady assassin.
So a movie title which is the name of the assassin character which is a palindrome... aka, it reads the same both ways... and we get Luc Besson’s ANNA.

7. Two days before tomorrow.
Well, yeah, that’s just simple maths. The day before tomorrow is today so the day before that would be YESTERDAY.

8. The absence of violent bloodshed.
Violent bloodshed could be considered GORE. When it’s absent it’s probably GONE. Put it together and you get Hammer Horror THE GORGON.

9. The ‘not very polite’ bee.
Something not very polite is RUDE (except spell it differently). A bee is literally just a B in front of it. So you get David Cronenberg’s THE BROOD.

10. His life lived backwards.
Lived read backwards is DEVIL.

11. Cannibal serial killer is promoted to the rank of colonel.
A cannibal serial killer could be Hannibal LECTER (spell it imaginatively folks). The rank of Colonel is often seen abbreviated to COL. Put it together and you have THE COLLECTOR.

12. He slipped into the trademark.
Trademark is TM. Slip HE into the middle of it and you get everybody’s favourite giant ant movie THEM!

13. The Sun God raises his hand at the auction.
A Sun God could be the Egyptian RA. What do you do at an auction? You BID for things. Put it together and you get David Cronenberg’s... or The Soska Sister’s... RABID.

14. Ellie isn’t around as this pachyderm takes over from Peter Lorre as a Fritz Lang serial killer.
A pachyderm could be an ELEPHANT. Take ELLIE or ELE out and you’re just left with PHANT. If it replaces Peter Lorre in the title role of the serial killer in Fritz Lang’s M, you get AS M. So Don Coscarelli’s classic horror film PHANTASM.

15. A file mix up ascends.
Scramble up the letters of FILE and you get LIFE. If it ascends then it must get HIGH. So HIGH LIFE.

16. Plus a scrambled, heavenly body that appears as a fixed, luminous point in the sky.
Plus could be expressed mathematically as ADD... but knock it down to AD. A heavenly body could be a STAR... but scramble it up to STRA. So you ‘add a stra’ and get AD ASTRA.

So there you have it. I hope some of you (preferably all of you) had fun trying to solve some of these and maybe I’ll do another next year if I get enough good feedback. Thank you for playing/reading.

Wednesday 8 January 2020

Face It

The Dagwood Stage

Face It
by Debbie Harry
Harper Collins ISBN: 9780008229429

I don’t read that many autobiographies. Not for any strange reason... it’s just that there are very few people I’d be interested in knowing more about and they’re usually the ones who don’t write autobiographies. However, when I found out that Debbie Harry, lead singer of the group Blondie (among other things), had just written a tome I was well on board and it went straight onto my Christmas list.

It’s funny... I was never much into pop music when I was a kid (Is it still called pop music and does Blondie’s US punk variant aesthetic apply here to pop?). I was... and still am, I guess... someone who prefers to listen to a good movie score. So I never really ‘followed’ Blondie when they were at the absolute height of their powers in the late 1970s... but their music was a frequent backdrop on all the radio stations and television shows when I was in my teens and something must have seeped in because, after I discovered pop music had more to offer than what was at face value, sometime in the mid-1980s, Blondie was one of the first groups (after The Beatles, Kate Bush and Simon & Garfunkel) who I decided to check out. Like a gazillion other people, I bought the old vinyl LP (and a little later, the CD) called The Best Of Blondie and it was, as far as I could tell, absolutely filled to the brim with some amazingly strong and melodic songs. There literally wasn’t a bad one on there (although, I admit it took me a while to get into Atomic) and seemed to me like a collection of fairly sophisticated songs. It wasn’t long before I explored some of their other albums and my favourite one, with also the best cover art, would have to be their Autoamerican album. I used to listen to that one a lot.

So here I am, having just finished Ms. Harry’s new book Face It and, as I’d kinda expected actually, it charmed the pants off me. This is a, more or less, chronological take on her life from childhood to the present but the structure, while certainly there, is a little looser and more flexible than some other autobiographies I’ve read. Debbie will think nothing of making a quick deviation here and there, jumping backwards and forwards in time to suddenly cover something which she feels needs to be... or maybe it would be more fun being... grouped together thematically with something else.

She seems to have lead an interesting life and the book is not, I’m happy to say, just a series of behind the scenes anecdotes to various concerts and recording sessions... these are here too but they take the form of ‘easy to swallow’ asides and it’s all gleefully mixed into the potpourri of her life in a way that is both jarring and complimentary 'both' at the same time. There are also little interpenetrating sections where various pieces of ‘fan art’ is showcased with introductory commentary by her and this, apparently, is where the title of this book comes in... since they mostly all depict her face.

Some of the movies she’s made such as Videodrome and Union City get a respectable amount of ink while others are sometimes just whispered in passing as she cruises past little pockets of her life which, as she says in her last chapter, leaves the audience... or readers, I guess... wanting more. I would have certainly liked to have learned something more about the making of a wonderful film she’s in called My Life Without Me so, if she writes a second volume of this anytime soon, I’ll be first in line.

So, yeah, the book is full of amazing facts and interesting attitudes to events that have happened to her in her time. For instance, the way she seems to take a rape/assault coupled with a robbery in her stride is perhaps a little telling of how comfortable and confident she is in her skin... many people would not be able to do that as seemingly lightly as she does here. There’s also a lovely moment where she reveals that she slept with actor Harry Dean Stanton a couple of times. The first word that sprang to mind when I read that little reveal was... “Legend!” Although I’m not sure if I meant that in regard to Debbie H or Harry D. On reflection... I think it pretty much meant both of them, to be honest.

There’s also the quirky and sometimes quite informative and intelligent side to her personae given room to thrive here too. For example, one chapter starts off with her explaining what she believes the phenomenon of ‘coincidence’ is actually about. Another chapter might concentrate almost totally on the usefulness of having thumbs... opposable ones at that. And, of course, sometimes what’s left almost unsaid in the book is what lingers most in the memory but, of course, as above... leave them wanting more.

Ultimately, this was a real breeze to read and, in places, quite thought provoking too. I got the feeling that the writer herself thought she was being a little too dark in places and has tried to compensate for that but, honestly, I think it’s a much lighter, fluffier book than she realises and, of course, that also makes it a very entertaining and most welcome tome to sit and ponder. Alas, my favourite song of hers, the one I always play first when I revisit her music... Here’s Looking At You... doesn’t seem to get a mention but that’s okay, the spirit of her vocals seemed to me infused into the pages so I didn’t really miss it as the writer sprayed her initials across the pavement, so to speak.

So yeah, Face It is a great read, something I’d definitely recommend to fans of Blondie and outsiders such as myself, who don’t have any idea of what its like to live in the ‘New York scene’ of various decades and who can, at least, get a flavour of what it was like there. I really enjoyed this little peek into Debbie’s world and all I can say is, I hope she gets the time and motivation to bring out a second volume some day. I’d definitely like to know a little more.

Monday 6 January 2020

Doctor Who - Spyfall Part 2


Doctor Who - Spyfall Part 2
Airdate: 5th January 2020

Warning: Slight spoilers regarding the future of The Doctor’s origins.

Well, that one was certainly... something. I’m not sure what but it was certainly... an episode of the new series of Doctor Who.

Nah... I’d like to just leave it there but I can’t.

There’s something which has kinda been happening a lot recently with the show... ever since Russell T. Davies left and Moffat jumped on board and then, carrying through to the present. And it’s the phenomenon of starting off either stories or, more often than not, arcs with a bang and then not following through on them with anything like a satisfying conclusion. And that seems to be what happened here.

Last episode (reviewed here) we started with a mad rush of humour and spy spoof and I was thoroughly caught up in it. This week... well it’s not completely terrible but it did seem to kind of fizzle out a bit and, while I admire the chaos and friction of jumping through different time periods and picking up strays... such as Ada Lovelace lobbing miniature hand grenades... as The Doctor goes on her merry adventures, well.... I dunno, it just felt a bit dull to me this week.

The cast, as usual, were all excellent. I really like Jodie and her friends as The Doctor and her companions but, honestly, I think the scripts are a bit hit and miss and that’s especially infuriating when you’re halfway through a story and it kinda loses impetus.

Sacha Dhawan was okay as the new version of The Master... although I’m the only one who seems to like him in the house. His performance was a lot less histrionic than last week and I think he’ll hopefully improve as the series progresses... and due to the nature of the underlying story arc I’m sure we’ll be seeing him reprising that role before the series is finished. Having said that, I’ve still no idea how the heck The Master survived after his/her final death in the Peter Capaldi stories so... I hope they don’t just leave that one with a big question mark over it.

There were some nice things with Bradley Walsh hogging a lot of the best lines. I loved his little tap dancing laser shoes and the way he used them. That brought some much needed humour to a mostly dark episode... when you start using Nazi imagery and seasoning it with some heavily noirish atmosphere then, unlike some of the other Doctor Who shows that have used that period, you’re not necessarily going to invoke a miasma of fun. Of course, the argument is that you shouldn’t anyway but it depends on the message you’re pushing and I somehow didn’t think the gravitas of this period really matched what was going on in the rest of the episode so well.

My real big worry is how the show will progress now. As each new show runner has come along, they’ve usually tried to either change or add to the underlying mythos of Doctor Who a bit. Davies did it, Moffat did it and now it looks like Chibnall is also trying to do it. as well. This might mean he’s already on his way out and, if he goes towards the end of the season, he may well take some of the cast with him, is my guess. Is a regeneration on the cards anytime soon? If it comes to it, I’d rather that than a cancellation of the show outright but we shall see.

So, yeah, we have some serious implications here, via a recorded message from The Master, that there is something amiss with the origins of the Timelords on The Doctor’s home planet of Gallifrey. So much so that The Master burned the planet to the ground as a result of hearing what that ‘betrayal’ was. Maybe it's a Rassilon or Omega thing... who knows? Of course, this could all blow over but I suspect the show runner wants to put his stamp on the history of the character before his tenure is done and so I suspect this will possibly be leading to a kind of soft reboot of The Doctor in some way, to a lesser extent. For all I know The Master and The Doctor are aspects of the same person but... we shall see.

That being said, it could all just be something which we’ll look back on and point accusatory fingers at the BBC for in the future... after all, is anyone asking about The Valeyard lately? I think there’s definitely some underlying tinkering going on here and while I loved what Davies did with the history of the show... which was kind of retracted in the Moffat era when Gallifrey was alive and well but then hidden away to materialise at a later date... I don’t think all this unnecessary tinkering with the basic plot mechanics is particularly good for the people who have grown up with the show from various decades.

So, yeah, big tonal change on this one. Lots of drama and gravitas but a deadly serious, dark edge which, while not completely unwelcome, doesn’t really sit as well alongside the set up episode, I think. There was a distinct shift in tone which, frankly, could have worked well and been a genius touch but... I don’t think it was here. At least, it didn’t quite do it for me.

Oh well, the next episode looks much less interesting so, with my expectations set relatively low again, I can only hope it will get better again soon. Luckily, there’s a doctor in the house.

Saturday 4 January 2020

Dracula (2020)

Leaving Demeter Running

Dracula (2020)
Airdate: 1st, 2nd and 3rd January 2020
BBC 1 Three Episodes

Warning: Yep... spoilers residing within.
Don’t read this if you don’t want to know.

So this was unexpected.

As you know I find the work of Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss a bit hit and miss... sometimes I find it brilliant and at other times, beyond irritating and disappointing. Well, I have to say, this one exceeded any hopes I had for it and managed to be quite spectacularly entertaining throughout each of the three episodes. Quite wonderful stuff.

Now I complained bitterly just recently and on this very blog, when the BBC did a free and easy excuse for an ‘adaptation’ of War Of The Worlds... mutilated more like it (which I reviewed here). I would almost have been much more happy to accept it, I suspect, if there had been at least one ‘straight’ adaptation of the novel before the BBC did what they did to it... possibly not because, it was indeed terrible but at least there would have been a history of adaptation so that people could now have a go at legitimately subverting the source.

Dracula is completely different territory. There have been lots of good adaptations already... not of the novel which, I suspect, still hasn’t been done properly, but of the 1924 stage version Hamilton Dean wrote from the Bram Stoker novel, which had major simplifications to the book and which he knew would play better as a visual spectacle. In fact, it’s quite likely that most of the versions subsequent to the two 1931 versions of Dracula from Universal are based on the John L. Balderston revisions to that adaptation, if memory serves.

So I’m not uptight about bothering to do the novel again and also, there have been enough straight adaptations now of the play that I can easily forgive people doing their own thing with Stoker’s fascinating Count. After all, how would I be able to enjoy movies like Son Of Dracula, Abbot And Costello Meet Frankenstein or Dracula Vs Frankenstein without being able to let go of the original. So, yeah, I wasn’t expecting to see a straight adaptation which is just as well, although Moffat and Gatiss have certainly infused this new version with a lot of the same plot points, often disguised and embedded into the DNA of the thing rather than ticking the boxes in a more conventional manner.

Also, they have been rather clever for people who have enjoyed various versions of Dracula over the years and, I have to say, they won me over really quickly. After the setting up of a ‘start to mid-point’ framing device in the first episode (a flashback and then forward technique which they use, to an extent, in all three episodes), the first ten minutes or so of Episode One is almost a straight remake of the early scenes of the two 1931 Universal versions. Right down to the line readings and arrangement of the dialogue. Honestly, the only things which were missing and, it has to be said once I’d seen what they were doing, pining for, were the girl quoting “Around the rugged rock...” and the appearance of a total non-sequiter of an armadillo in Castle Dracula. And, honestly, if they had actually put the armadillo in I would have been ecstatic.

As it was though, the way the story is done in the first episode as a recollection from the now ‘vamped up’ Jonathan Harker (played by John Heffernan) and Sister Agatha Van Helsing (played by Dolly Wells, who also plays her ancestor in the third episode), was absolutely ingenious and though a good deal of the ‘surprise’ moments were, actually, not all that surprising, Moffat and Gatiss do have a few moments up their sleeve and, especially at the end of the second episode, did manage to blind side me a couple of times... so that’s good.

The second episode was actually my favourite, which tells of the journey to Whitby on the Demeter but, with a wonderful twist at the end and, honestly, quite a different version of the voyage which was established cinematically, originally, in the 1922 version of Nosferatu (one of my two blog title namesakes). And, frankly, the final twist of the second... which has a much different line reading from when we see it again when revisited in the third (Dolly Wells is definitely delivering it as Agatha at the end of episode two and as Dr. Helsing in the third)... is bloody brilliant and reminded me of why I loved some of the early episodes of Sherlock so much.

There’s absolutely loads of good stuff I could say about the set design, the scoring, the way the camera frames some of the set ups, the graphic, artifical dream landscape glimpsed in the third episode etc but this would have to be a long review and that stuff is perhaps much better touched upon in a book about the show. But asides from some brilliant direction and top notch pacing throughout... often maintained by cutting the story in a non-linear way to break the flow and stop things from going on too long... we have to give credit, too, to the two brilliant actors who absolutely make this show their own.

I don’t know who Claes Bang is but his portrayal of Dracula and what he makes of the sometimes exquisitely playful lines he is given are absolutely first class. The chameleon shift from charming to brutal and back again really does help lift the show past what it might have been and you have to love this stuff.

But then... even he is upstaged in this. Dolly Wells’ performance as Agatha Van Helsing and her modern day equivalent (and sometimes a cross pollination of both due to Agatha’s blood-memory being in the blood the modern incarnation of her drinks), is absolutely fantastic. The way she pulls off the wit of the lines and matches Claes Bang blow by verbal blow is just incredible and I would love to see more of this lady in this kind of role. Van Helsing and Dracula have absolutely brilliant chemistry together... which is quite right, after all.

And of course, the other thing is, despite there being no armadillo, the way that Moffat and Gatiss pepper the show with both subtle and often quite blatant references to, not just Dracula’s cinematic and literary history but also other gothic or cinematically sympathetic moments, is wonderful and enrich the show for some of us who might be getting a bit tired of the abundance of Dracula at this point.

So yeah, asides from the Universal and Balderston parallels I mentioned earlier, we had the castle in the first episode actually ‘played’ by the exact same castle that F.W. Murnau shot his 1922 Nosferatu variant of the story in. There’s a wonderful moment in the first episode, where Harker runs into the full on ‘younged up’ version of Dracula which is absolutely an obvious homage to the ‘animal predator’ version of Christopher Lee’s wonderful portrayal from the Hammer Dracula movies... red contact lenses too (or some CGI trickery).

My stand out favourites, among other things you may or may not have caught, were the opening of the second episode being an homage to The Beast With Five Fingers, a version of Vincent Price’s sunglasses from the AIP movie version of Tomb Of Ligeia and a blue version of the carpet pattern from Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining adorning Dr. Seward’s wallpaper. My favourite one of all, though, was the hospital room Dr. Helsing is a patient in during episode three... AD/072... being a less than subtle reference to my all-time favourite Hammer Dracula movie, Dracula AD 1972. Wonderful stuff.

it was perhaps less than wonderful to see the guy fro the annoying Cineworld campaign show up as the Texan, Quincey, from the novel but... I guess it’s good that he’s getting work in the business and I wish him well. However, the supporting cast of loads of modern character actors that you never really remember the names of was also superb and there were even some ironic vampire names amongst the supporting characters too (cough... Lord Ruthven... cough).

Finally... and I know some people had a problem with it... but I also loved the ending. Not just the sacrificial romantic sentiment but also the way it was shot... which was an absolute dead steal from the movie version of The Final Programme (reviewed here) which is one of my favourite movies of one of my favourite literary heroes. It almost even kind of made sense at this point because this version of Dracula, transposed to modern times, was beginning to get a little more like Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius character as the show progressed to its conclusion so, I’m absolutely convinced that Moffat and Gatiss would do something interesting with that character, should Moorcock ever give his blessing.

The only flaw I could find in the production... asides from Agatha’s floating dead body still being visible and 'out of time' in the shot as Dracula leaves his underwater coffin at the end of the second episode... was the fact that, at the end of the first episode... Mina definitely invites ‘Johnny’ into the chamber, specifically by name... and not Dracula. It could be argued, perhaps, that since Dracula was, quite literally, wearing Harker’s face at this point that he was also, in fact, Harker but I think that’s pushing it a bit. Still, there could be a case to be made so let’s just sweep that little slip up under the bloodstains and enjoy the production for what it is.

And that’s me done with the new Dracula. Absolutely loved it for many reasons and I’ll definitely be picking up the score CD at the end of January and the Blu Ray in a month or two. A solid and interesting effort and a worthy and blisteringly entertaining addition to the vast array of cinematic and television Dracula’s of the last 100 years. Beautiful work.

Wednesday 1 January 2020

Doctor Who - Spyfall

Expect Her

Doctor Who - Spyfall
Airdate: 1st January 2020

Warning: Spoilers in this one... you have been warned.

Right then. Here we are for Series 38 of Doctor Who and they’ve managed to slash budgets even more than the last series, it looks like, by not only cheating us out of a Christmas special once again but, also, making the so-called ‘New Years Day special’ part one of a two part story in what is a series consisting of only ten episodes. Good grief, what a comedown. Back in the day you’d get a minimum of six multi-part stories per season with the smallest story usually being no less than four 25 minute episodes. So we’re definitely short an hour or two here at the very least.

Never mind... as it happens, Spyfall wasn’t a bad episode. Well, I liked it anyway... everybody else in the house hated it and I might have trouble getting the television for the next episode but I’ll do my best.

So, we have an espionage themed story and, true to some things I’d read lately, the episode was a little darker in tone and felt a little more dangerous. Also, it was going for a James Bond-esque tone which, at times it did very well. Early on in, I think it was in the third section of the pre-credits sequence, there was some scoring which was definitely trying to sound like John Barry and, later in the episode, there were some definite nods to the David Arnold style Bond scores as well, I think.

The appropriate scoring plus the great chemistry between the usual team of Jodie Whittaker as The Doctor and Bradley Walsh, Mandip Gill and Tosin Cole all lent a certain credibility to the sense of pastiche and assured the whole thing was carried off to a high standard. Stephen Fry as the head of MI5 and Lenny Henry as this story’s villain also did a good job, Henry playing against type pretty well and getting away with it superbly. Not a ‘de condensed milk’ sandwich in sight.

And then there was the surprise villain. Since we already saw The Master kill his future self, Missy, dead 'for good' with the inability to further regenerate, I’m going to assume that the new incarnation of The Master, played by Sacha Dhawan, is an earlier incarnation that we... and somehow, The Doctor... haven’t seen before. I hope so because, frankly, it’s sloppy writing to just having no excuse for bringing The Doctor’s long running arch enemy (first introduced in the Pertwee era) back from the dead again and again. So... yeah, lets leave that on a back burner for now. I wasn’t as impressed with his performance as I was with the others but it’s early days for this version of the character and so I’m hoping some of his more irritating mannerisms will be dropped before long.

And... there’s actually not too much more to say about this one, I think.

There was a little more action than some of the latest stories but the script isn’t too bad and, unlike many in Whittaker’s first season, it doesn’t waste the actors on a terrible story. Well, part one doesn’t at least. I’m not a hundred percent convinced that the alien beings are enemies we haven’t seen before either... if they turn out to actually be there at all. There is a large element of smoke and mirrors in this one and it wouldn’t surprise me if, by the end of either the second part or the entire series, things are revealed to be an illusion of some sort. Certainly the forest of what looks like a hanging nervous system implies that there could be a whole lot less to things than we might expect. And the reason the sonic screwdriver is being no help is because there’s nothing to register? Just a guess mind you... I’m sure all will be revealed soon.

Now, one of the complaints from the people I watched it with was that the series had lost its sense of fun. Well... I think Id disagree with that one too and I kinda like a darker version of the show, it puts me in mind of some of Tom Baker’s more sinister stories and the old complaints of ‘scaring the kids’ that has never really left the show since it first started in the 1960s. Frankly, if it’s giving the young ‘uns watching this nightmares then its doing it’s job as a good TV programme, arming blossoming viewers with the coping skills they’ll need in later life.

Anyway... Spyfall is a good opener and I’m kind of hoping against hope... although really not expecting... that the rest of this short series continues in this manner. Keeping my fingers crossed for this one.