Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Fordyke Saga

THE BLACK TORMENT (1964)

A panting Edina Ronay makes for a memorable opening to THE BLACK TORMENT. The Anglo-Hungarian daughter of food critic Egon and mother of actress/writer Shebah, Edina was noteworthy for her fleeting turns in A STUDY IN TERROR and PREHISTORIC WOMEN. In the mid-70's she retired from the screen to take up fashion design, specialising in knitwear.

TAKING its cue from Hammer's costumed gothics, Compton's THE BLACK TORMENT is an underappreciated gem that also draws upon the aura of Mario Bava and the eloquent staging of Roger Corman's Poe pictures. Set in the spring of 1780, the film opens with a young woman fleeing across a nocturnal wood, as a murderous assailant gives chase. After being attacked and left to die, she utters the name ... Sir Richard! Days later, Sir Richard Fordyke (John Turner) returns to his Devon estate with second wife Elizabeth (Heather Sears). Although he has been away in London for three months, villagers claim to have seen the aristocrat riding through the woods, chased by the spirit of his first wife Anne, who supposedly committed suicide four years previously. With Sir Richard increasingly being manipulated into an alleged ancestral madness - including finding his crippled father hanging - he turns to magistrate Colonel Wentworth (Raymond Huntley) to help him solve the mystery. The final revelation is less a surprise more a sign-posted but illogical confirmation: this particular backward "evil twin" brother can not only rape and pillage, but place detailed orders to a Tiverton saddle maker.


The posters for THE BLACK TORMENT went into hyperbolic overdrive: "terror creeps from the fringe of fear to the pit of panic"; "the screen shudders with raw and violent savage suspense!"; "...by the screaming terror of a woman's fear" et al. Underneath this barrage you actually get a richly rendered production filled with solid performances (though Turner often subscribes to Elizabeth's line "Oh Richard, you're overwrought") and meticulous supporting players such as Peter Arne (whose trademark swarthy villain is a role identical to his appearance in THE HELLFIRE CLUB) and Patrick Troughton (who appears as a stable groom). A colour long associated with sensations of infinity and imagination, cinematographer Peter Newbrook smothers the film in languorous blue, and as Jonathan Rigby argues in English Gothic, perhaps a more apt title would have been THE BLUE TORMENT. Known for his moving camera and zooms, director Robert Hartford-Davis was indulging in his lush sets and costumes - including the obligatory low-cut frocks - until an on-set visit from the studio's wheeler-dealer partners Michael Klinger and Tony Tenser. Compton had already committed to a number of projects so budgets were tighter than ever, and after running three days behind schedule, allegedly Tenser ripped out ten pages from the shooting script in front of the director and proclaimed "there you are, you're back on schedule."

Thursday, January 15, 2015

House of Video Nasty Horror

The Suppression of House of Hammer in America
Video Nasty (2014)

Uncredited cover art for Warren's House of Horror #1 (April 1978), an "ashcan" produced to quash Top Seller's intention of House of Hammer reaching US shores.

AT the beginning of 1978, the US publishing empire of Jim Warren - responsible for Famous Monsters of Filmland and the b&w comic magazines Creepy and Eerie - announced a new quarterly venture House of Horror to be made available through their in-house mail order service Captain Company. Yet the truth was that the publisher rushed this magazine - which was always intended as a one-shot - into print for copyright reasons, securing the name and halting Top Seller's plan to release their respected House of Hammer in America under the same title. Warren was infamous for his volatile working practices, but any publisher who had the audacity to challenge his domain particularly created embitterment. Both mags were reprints: hardly a House of Horror at all, Warren's effort revisited paste-ups from Famous Monsters such as the special effects of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS and the robots of STAR WARS; Top Seller's collation included John Bolton's CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF comic adaptation, a George A. Romero interview, and Brian Lewis' VAMPIRE CIRCUS cover which originally graced House of Hammer #17.

When Warren immediately filed for copyright infringement against the British invaders, the US courts upheld his claim, so Top Seller's American adventure lasted two issues: (Hammer's) House of Horror #1 and the next issue of the regular title, #19, which received limited distribution in the States. Because of this outcome, Top Sellers were forced to change the name of their homegrown version to (Hammer's) Halls of Horror with #20. This was a stunt the American publisher also pulled over the fabled birth of Eerie in 1965. Warren printed around 400 copies of House of Horror, but only 200 editions of Eerie #1 existed. This illustration of the publisher's ego started with the demise of a one issue Eerie (Tales) in the late 1950's, by Hastings. Warren discovered that another publisher who used the same distributor was bringing out an imitation of Creepy called Eerie, thereby inventory material from Creepy was used to cobble together his version of the title, which was on the newsstands outside his distributor's building the following morning. The most ridiculous aspect was that Warren had his facts wrong: the company who challenged him was Eerie Publications, and the magazine in question was actually called Weird.

Each with a cover by Graham Humphreys, Video Nasty is a breezy Reaper comic book that nevertheless deals with weighty agendas.

In his website, Top Sellers supremo Dez Skinn remains tactful towards Warren, championing his business sense. Warren initially heard the news of the British assault in Comic Media News, where Skinn proudly announced 200,000 copies of his House of Horror were set to conquer America. By the most unlikely of coincidences, that same issue also featured an interview with Warren, so the editor sent him a complimentary copy. The first Top Sellers knew of the situation was when their office received a letter from Warren’s lawyers, stating that shipping copies for US distribution would be infringing the copyright of their client’s “well established” House of Horror magazine on which a “considerable amount” had been spent on its launch. The hard fact is that, against this messy backdrop, American readers were deprived of a quality publication, instead left with the pictorial and pun-filled standard of Famous Monsters.

Former comic store owner turned independent writer, Mario Covone's six-issue Video Nasty is set in 1983 Kettering, and uses both the video panic in Britain, and the political climate of the era, as its provocative foundation. Along with Greek artist Vasilis Logios, Covone has produced a love letter to the genre, inspired by the documentary VIDEO NASTIES: MORAL PANIC, CENSORSHIP AND VIDEOTAPE and Lucio Fulci's THE BLACK CAT. Characters are archetypes without being bland, as the police, neo-Nazis and a film director turned media scapegoat are sucked into a pit of depraved murders. Mario's crisp dialogue creates a flowing yarn which exists in a fictionalised but recognisable tableau - the relocation from Manchester to Northampton of "God's Cop" Chief Constable James Anderton for example, as he instructs officer David Gorley to look at video nasty's for case research (by the end of the second issue, Gorley has acquired ZOMBIE FLESH EATERS and CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST from his friendly local video rental store). What inevitably hurts the book is the frighteningly sketchy interior art of Logios; proportions vary wildly from panel to panel, and what is even more surprising are the standard of Graham Humphreys' covers; while #5 and #6 have a grandiose power, the first four covers lack a central focus.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

"Blood of My Ancestors!"

Doctor Who Weekly - Black Legacy (1980)

When Black Legacy appeared in June 1980, Alan Moore's story predated his 2000 A.D. debut by a month, representing his first published comics work - amateur or professional -  solely as a writer. To illustrate the tale's "legacy," Russell T. Davies name checks the Deathsmiths of Goth in a Time War piece published in the 2006 Doctor Who Annual.

LIKE most TV characters that find themselves on the printed page, the Cybermen enjoy poetic license in comics. John Canning's surreal Patrick Troughton strips for TV Comic had DOCTOR WHO's second greatest foe use skis (Eskimo Joe, #903-906, 1969) and earlier they were even destroyed by flower scent (Flower Power, #832-836, 1967). Steve Moore introduced the philosophical Kroton in Throwback: The Soul of a Cyberman (Doctor Who Weekly #5-7, 1979), a man from Mondas who is sent to quell a human revolt, but wonders if an understanding of "abstract concepts of freedom and individuality" is the better path to take. Even Grant Morrison wrote a debatable account of Cyber origins in The World Shapers (Doctor Who Magazine #127-129, 1987). Using a muddled reference dating to the 1968 serial THE INVASION, Morrison explains that the rubbery inhabitants of "Planet 14" the Voord - seen in the 1964 THE KEYS OF MARINUS - have used an alien Worldshaper machine to evolve into Proto-Cybermen.

One of four back-up strip collaborations between writer Alan Moore and illustrator David Lloyd for Doctor Who Weekly, Black Legacy is introduced and tailed by the Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) as if recounting the story. Published in issues #35-38, Cyberleader
Maxel leads a mission to Goth ("a haunted planet shunned by all"), the former home world of legendary armourers the Deathsmiths. In search of a weapon that wiped out an entire civilisation overnight, the cyborgs explore the war museum, but are watched by the Apocalypse Device, a synthetic creature carrying every conceivable disease and virus. Having annihilated his creators, the being wipes out the Cybermen by telepathic nightmares and a lethal rust-like virus. Finally, Maxel confronts the Apocalypse Device who wants to use the Cyberleader's craft to escape the planet and destroy the galaxy; when Maxel auto-destructs the ship, the creature's dastardly plan is seemingly thwarted ... until a Sontaran vehicle lands. The last line – "It will not wait forever, that is the problem with ultimate weapons" – is almost certainly Moore's attempt at implicating the nuclear arms race.

Altered Vista's created a VCD version of the story in 2006, which was applauded by Moore. As the writer states on the Altered Vista website, "This is clearly a work that is born out of nothing save for a simple love of the material. It has not opted to change elements of the story, give it a less bleak ending or introduce a love interest and cute pet dog for the chief Cyberman protagonist. You have simply adapted the story as faithfully as you were able, without feeling the need to 'improve' it".

Taking a cue from the exploits of Kroton, Black Legacy portrays the Cybermen as un-characteristically human in their thinking, speech and posture, and illustrates Moore learning his craft with little interest in the source material (the strangely declamatory Cybermen spout "blood of my ancestors!" twice). These strips acted as ideal learning curves for the Northampton magus, creating characters and worlds in concise timeframes (usually a tale of two pages crossing four issues); consequently, as well as building the story, each two instalment had to work if read in isolation, but also recap and end on a cliff-hanger. The flaws of the strip, however, are not limited to aspects of Who lore. It’s actually a near re-run of Steve Moore’s The Final Quest from Doctor Who Weekly #8, where a Sontaran is tricked into self-destruction by exposure to a lethal plague. The Apocalypse Device broadcasting telepathic nightmares, paralysing enemies with fear, are two factors Cybermen ought to be immune to.

Moore followed Black Legacy with the Autons story Business as Usual, and three linked tales set in the distant past of Gallifrey: Star Death (with artist John Stokes), 4-D War and Black Sun Rising. While DOCTOR WHO had been on television for seventeen years, the history of the Time Lords had barely been touched on. With a relatively blank canvas, Moore created a space opera hung around a time paradox – the Time Lords are under attack from the Order of the Black Sun, a mysterious organisation from the future who are retaliating for some offence the Time Lords are yet to commit. The series hadn't explored the nuances of time travel since the 1972 Jon Pertwee adventure DAY OF THE DALEKS, so it was refreshing to see an illustrative work play with similar non-linear ideas. In conclusion, Moore’s strips for Doctor Who Weekly come to a sum of 28 pages over little more than a single year, and even though he was working to a restrictive brief and writing for a very young audience, the reader can already see a distinct progression from simple templates to the type of cosmic-bending work Moore would later make his own.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

"Perfectly dry"

CROOKED HOUSE (2008)
A GHOST STORY FOR CHRISTMAS - THE TRACTATE MIDDOTH (2013)
M.R. JAMES: GHOST WRITER (2013)


CROOKED HOUSE stands as a fine companion to the BBC's celebrated GHOST STORY strand of the 1970's.
 
AIRED over three consecutive evenings on BBC4 in the lead-up to Christmas 2008, CROOKED HOUSE - written and produced by Mark Gatiss - merges the gravitas of M.R. James with the playfulness of the Amicus portmanteau. The three stories concern Geap Manor - a house with "an interesting reputation" - enveloped by a framing story which sees a museum curator (Gatiss) share his research of the Tudor mansion with history teacher Ben (Lee Ingleby), who has brought in an old door-knocker found in his garden. The first tale, THE WAINSCOTING, sees Joseph Bloxham (Philip Jackson) renovating Geap in 1786 after capitalising on an investment which ruined a fellow speculator. As the building work comes to an end Bloxham hears noises behind the interior wooden panels, which have been sourced from gallows. The second story, SOMETHING OLD, is set amongst a lavish 1920's costume ball at the Manor, where Felix (Ian Hallard) announces his engagement to underling Ruth (Jennifer Hignam). However, this happy event is linked to a tragic wedding day and a ghostly bride. And in the modern day final part, THE KNOCKER, Ben discovers that his property is set in the grounds of the demolished Manor, which sees sinister figures from the past pray upon his new born child.

Director Damon Thomas works wonders with a limited budget, and the cast includes a number of individuals in roles they are relishing, such as Andy Nyman (THE WAINSCOTING), Jean Marsh (SOMETHIND OLD) and even illusionist Derren Brown (THE KNOCKER). Geap is portrayed as a constant threat whatever its condition (the house "drew evil to it like a sponge draws in water") and situations are infused with wry humour (the builders ever-expanding schedule, Ruth's family background "in fish.") While the first two tales are entertainingly creepy, the show saves the scariest till last, containing not only a masterful twist but a swath of 1970's-tinted nastiness. It is, however, the abomination - played by 7'3" John Lebar - conjured out of an Elizabethan crib, that will leave you scurrying for safety.

The elemental menace of THE TRACTATE MIDDOTH is stylishly photographed by Steve Lawes.

Gatiss penned - and made his directorial debut - with THE TRACTATE MIDDOTH, a faithful adaptation of James' story first published in the 1911 collection More Ghost Stories. Young librarian Garnett (Sacha Dhawan) has a vision of a skull-like entity while searching for an old tome for John Eldred (John Castle). Garnett takes some leave in the country where he meets Mrs Simpson (Louise Jameson) and her daughter Anne (Charlie Clemmow), who tell him of a missing will that would make them heir to a sizeable inheritance. Unfortunately the document has been written in an obscure book, linking the librarian to late priest Dr Rant (David Ryall): "twisted, he was, twisted, while others had a soul, he had a corkscrew; don't trust him in life or death." On the written page the first appearance of "the figure" is an upper face which is "perfectly dry" with deep-sunk eyes covered in cobwebs; the prosthetics on screen are very much in accord with this suitably crusty visage, and the climax - the second "monster of the week" moment - is effectively carried out in broad daylight.

THE TRACTATE MIDDOTH on BBC2 Christmas Day 2013 was followed by Gatiss' M.R. JAMES: GHOST WRITER. What is most striking about this documentary is how secondary in his life the ghost stories James wrote were; they were almost a hobby, a pursuit after his astonishing achievements as a medieval scholar. Gatiss paints a picture of a sexually repressed man who also viewed his tales as a social device, particularly for readings at King's College's Chitchat Society (where James enjoyed sessions of "ragging," essentially floor-bound genital-grabbing). It is a compelling piece, where we follow James' journey from happy childhood - fascinated with the historical and the supernatural - to his studies, his infatuation with James McBryde, and increasing disillusionment with The Great War.

Monday, December 15, 2014

"Mine shall inherit"

A GHOST STORY FOR CHRISTMAS - THE ASH TREE (1975)
A GHOST STORY FOR CHRISTMAS - THE SIGNALMAN (1976)

Jolting nudity in THE ASH TREE, an extraordinary tale reminiscent of WITCHFINDER GENERAL.

THESE BBC ghost stories - both directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark - hit the ground running with their ambience of dying curses, bleak moorlands and impending doom. THE ASH TREE - from M.R. James' 1904 collection Ghost Stories of an Antiquary - tells of eighteenth-century nobleman Sir Richard Fell (Edward Petherbridge), who inherits a stately home dominated by an old Ash tree. The seat has been cursed since the day his ancestor Sir Matthew (played in flashback by Petherbridge) condemned Mistress Mothersole (Barbara Ewing) to death for witchcraft. More a tale of resurrection and an exploration in the aching loss of fertility, writer David Rudkin energises James' prose by discarding the original set of narrators in favour of a singular descent into madness, and also emphasises sexual awareness with Fell's free-spirited muse Lady Augusta (Lalla Ward). The species of Ash has inspired numerous cultural myths: in British folklore it is said that ill children could be cured by passing through the cleft of the tree; here it is a vessel that acts on the sorceress' battle cry ("Mine shall inherit"), as its branches unleash grotesque spider-babies into Sir Richard's bedroom.

Based on a Charles Dickens' short story first published in the 1866 Christmas edition of All the Year Round, THE SIGNALMAN was greatly infused with the writer's own involvement with the Staplehurst rail crash of June 1865. The most critically acclaimed of all the BBC ghost stories, Andrew Davies' script creates a strong sense of foreboding, where the phantom is a time displacement which portends the death of a signal operator (Denholm Elliott). Very much the embodiment of the Victorian innocent, the signalman tells his story to a traveller (Bernard Lloyd) who initially scoffs at the premonitions. If James' ghosts aim to infiltrate and scar, Dickens' spectre is one that personifies overwhelming fate; the systems and technology that man creates also can suffocate and lead to unfathomable dread to come (such as the railways leading to Auschwitz, for example).

The fleeting appearance of THE SIGNALMAN's open-mouthed phantom mimics the railway tunnel and forewarns the terror to come.

If the signal operater is a tortured soul, the mystery of the traveller adds more spice to the story. Taking a cue from Dickens' original text, Davies' line "I've been confined but now I am free" leads the viewer to surmise if the character is referring to his working background, a spell in prison, or even he has escaped a stifling marriage; as David Kerekes states in Creeping Flesh Volume 1, "maybe there is something in the latter, given that Charles Dickens wrote The Signal-Man following his own escape from a bad train wreck ... in the company of his mistress." The television adaptation is at times so ambiguous and in limbo it adds to its surreal vacuum; even the inn where the traveller is staying is shrouded in fog, and no other guests are present. Lloyd's role may well be "the straight man," but by the end his face takes on the attitude of the phantom, perhaps signifying that the traveller himself is a visitation and harbinger of death.

Monday, December 1, 2014

"Traces of uneasiness impinge"

A GHOST STORY FOR CHRISTMAS - THE STALLS OF BARCHESTER (1971)
A GHOST STORY FOR CHRISTMAS - THE TREASURE OF ABBOT THOMAS (1974)

Of all the celebrated BBC ghost stories, THE STALLS OF BARCHESTER remains closest to its source material.

IT is argued that Christmas supernatural fiction can be traced to the Victorian era, a time when magic lanterns and stage magicians milked the population's craving for thrills and sensation - in contrast to the stereotypical staid prudes. With technology making printing cheaper and more accessible than ever before - not to mention fascination with spiritualism and Egyptology - Charles Dickens became the architect of things snowbound and spectral. But telling scary stories while huddling around a festive fire can be traced back in several layers: Joesph Glanvill's 1681 treatise on witchcraft Sadducismus Truimphatus had harsh words for those who dismissed the existence of unearthly powers as "meer Winter Tales, or Old Wives fables," and William Shakespeare even titled his 1623 tale of magic and transformation The Winter's Tale. Looking back to the previous century, we find Christopher Marlowe using the same notion in his 1589 play The Jew of Malta: "now I remember those old women's words, "who in my wealth would tell me winter's tales, and speak of spirits and ghosts that glide by night.""

Although THE STALLS OF BARCHESTER started the BBC ghost story strand proper, a template was in place with Jonathan Miller's 1968 OMNIBUS take on M.R. James' 'Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad'. Not so much a supernatural tale than an exploration of a deteriorating academic mind, this was a loose adaptation which plays like a satire on James himself. By doing so, the production dispenses with "James' original dialogue [which was] ludicrously stilted" - to quote Miller - and consequently paints a different picture to director Lawrence Gordon Clark's take on these stories. With Clark, even in weaker moments, there is always an underlying conviction to the heritage of 'The Father of the English Ghost Story'. Yet the Jamesian ghost is hardly a spirit at all, rather demonic beings determined for retribution; as Denis Meikle states in his article 'Now is the Season to be Chilly' (The Dark Side #157, Jan/Feb 2014), James' ghosts "...were the harbingers of threat - to his faith, his beliefs, his whole way of life."

Michael Bryant in THE TREASURE OF ABBOT THOMAS rivals Denholm Elliott in the 1976 GHOST STORY entry THE SIGNALMAN as the strand's outstanding performance.

THE STALLS OF BARCHESTER - based on James' 'The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral' from his 1911 collection More Ghost Stories - was also penned by Clark, and is the most ecclesiastical of all the BBC stories. Dr Black (Clive Swift) - whilst cataloguing the Barchester Cathedral library in 1932 - is shown a diary detailing the events leading up to the death of former Archdeacon Dr Haynes (Robert Hardy). The diary implies that Haynes caused the demise of his aged predecessor Pulteney (Harold Bennett) and was haunted by carvings (of the Devil, Death and a cat) made by artisan John Austin ("they say he was blessed with second sight.") Filmed entirely on location at Norwich Cathedral, the programme adheres to James' phrase "movement without sound" with its half-seen terrors and foreboding back story. Hardy gives a staunch performance as a guilt-ridden man in increasing isolation, but scratches inflicted by a spectral hand mean this is in no way an abstract haunting...

THE TREASURE OF ABBOT THOMAS - based on James' story of the same name from his first 1904 collection, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary - is a slow-burning cryptography tale; shifting its Germanic origin to Wells Cathedral, Reverend Somerton (Michael Bryant)'s arrogance cannot overshadow a thirst for treasure - which literally meets a sticky end. Somerton is the archetypal James anti-hero: a character punished for his curiosity and disrespect towards the unearthly. James' most intricate story, John Bowen's script opens it up considerably by including a young foil (Peter, played by Paul Lavers) and sly nods to the English fascination with comfort food (slab cake and grilled chops). James' experience of the rise of spiritualism in the 1890's also sees a sardonic adage, as Somerton debunks fake mediums through the power of pure intellect. Overall this is an underrated episode, but the climactic slime has all the effectiveness of X THE UNKNOWN.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Moonage Daydreams

OMNIBUS - CRACKED ACTOR: A FILM ABOUT DAVID BOWIE (1975)
THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (1976)

"I'm just a space cadet, he's the commander." CRACKED ACTOR is a poignant portrayal of David Bowie's infatuated audience, as he attempts to escape from his Ziggy Stardust persona and discover American soul.

IN 1974, David Bowie embarked on a 70-concert, 6-month American Diamond Dog tour. Midway through, a BBC crew - headed by Alan Yentob - were invited to document proceedings, resulting in the insightful CRACKED ACTOR programme screened under the OMNIBUS arts strand. Opening with a US reporter - Wayne Satz - dissing his Bowie interview as "it would be nice to talk to somebody not being evasive and discussing riddles," the BBC documentary unsurprisingly is more patient, searching and rewarding that such an observation. Taking its title from a track off Aladdin Sane, Bowie aims to distance himself from the overbearing ghost of Ziggy Stardust and conquer America on his own terms, aborbing the United States as a land of myth which could fuel new avenues of his imagination. Yentob paints a picture of an exhausted and undernourished performer surviving on cocaine and milk (many years later, Bowie proclaimed "I was so blocked ... so stoned ... when I see that now I cannot believe I survived it"), but also one that is constantly seeking to discover forms of performance art best suited to the shape of his work beyond the lyrics.

Scenes of Bowie and Carole King in a limo taking in the American west especially fascinated PERFORMANCE and DON'T LOOK NOW director Nicolas Roeg, as the singer talks about a fly inside his milk while listening to an Aretha Franklin song that King co-wrote ('(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman'). This synchronicity must have appealed to Roeg's layered mentality, as a year later the filmmaker would cast Bowie as a fragile alien consumed by humanity in the hallucinatory THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH. In fact, CRACKED ACTOR was shown to the backers of this new project, and the shots of Bowie in the back of the car - especially the wearing of his hat - created a mood that morphed into his title role.

Unlike the body-snatching or maiming mentality of most aliens-on-Earth movies, David Bowie's traveller has his character and mission eroded by human traits in THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH.

Roeg's film exists in a science fiction void between the sterile 2001 and the fantasies unleashed by STAR WARS. Tim Lucas, in his Video Watchdog review (#17, May 1993), offers a more specific place in motion picture history, stating that the production "is the turning point in English-language SF filmmaking that BLADE RUNNER is often assumed to be." Very loosely based on the 1963 novel by American Walter Tevis, THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH was an inversion of the norm: rather than a United States-funded picture filmed in Britain, here was a subversive film that was British-financed and made largely in New Mexico. Hiding his native hairless, cat's eyed appearance, the visitor takes on the visage of an English electronics entrepreneur in America. Soon under the surveillance of the CIA, the alien uses the name Thomas Jerome Newton, and rapidly amasses a fortune through a number of patents set up as World Enterprises, with the help from attorney Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry). It is revealed that with this money, Newton seeks to transport water back to his drought-ridden home world; but even though Newton befriends lonely hotel maid Mary-Lou (Candy Clark), he becomes a recluse corrupted by the Earthly fascinations of sex, alcohol, wealth, television and fame.

The film's use of time lapses and abrupt crosscuts also alludes to different genres: it is a science fiction film without special effects, a drama, western, love story and even satire. This non-linear story also creates a dream mentality, a key sensation in Roeg's visionary and portent-themed style (Farnsworth's line "when Mr Newton entered my apartment, my old life went straight out the window" takes on a literal meaning later). In Joseph Lanza's 1989 book Fragile Geometry: The Films, Philosophy, and Misadventures of Nicolas Roeg, the author mentions a number of manifestations in the director/DPs personal makeup that leave lasting impressions. As a child, Roeg's feverdream of a beach resort decaying into an apocalyptic visa - complete with writhing creatures - is turned into the alien's featureless, desert-like home world (replete with an almost amusement park-type train service); and a white mare that appeared on a grassy knoll but eluded being captured on film as Roeg lensed FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD acts as a recurring motif here and in future work.

"Get out of my mind ... all of you!"; Newton encounters the effects of channel-hopping in one of many prophetic elements of THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH. What is most astonishing is how the narrative anticipates technologies that have shaped our lives: disposable cameras, self-developing film, digital music and multi-channel viewing have all come true since the film's release.
 
By the very nature of Roeg providing an out of sync story, this caused an extraordinary situation with the film's United States distributor. On viewing a rough cut, the newly appointed chairman of Paramount Pictures - Barry Diller - rejected THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH on the grounds that it was not a linear story. The kaleidoscope nature, the chairman argued, was not the film his studio bought, and resulted with producer Michael Deeley instituting a lawsuit where Paramount eventually contributed a modest settlement. The picture was actually picked up by Don Rugoff's New York-based outfit Cinema V, which specialised in unusual European releases. Even though British Lion clawed back two-thirds of their deficit with Paramount, Cinema V didn't have the same weight as the major Hollywood studio, and could not open the film on the same scale.

In real life Bowie was also a UFO enthusiast - he even contributed to a British UFO journal in the late 60's - belonging to a long list of rock luminaries who were actively involved in saucer investigations. But Bowie is THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH, an outsider who - according to Roeg - may or may not actually be of extra-terrestrial origin ("you in the audience think perhaps he's from outer space, I don't think that's definite. All we see is what's in his mind.") At the time of the production Bowie was using around 10gms of cocaine a day, consequently the musician/actor was as alienated as Newton himself.  Deeley - in his 2008 book Blade Runners, Deer Hunters and Blowing the Bloody Doors Off - My Life in Cult Movies, reveals an episode where Bowie was adamant that his beloved glass of skimmed milk was poisoned, making the star unable to work for two days; another where Bowie insisted that his mobile dressing room be moved from a location he considered to be an Indian burial ground. Against the odds, the leading man was allegedly accessible and ready for the extraordinary scenes Roeg asked of him; as Deeley states in his book, "David Bowie lived in his own world, and I'm not sure how many other inhabitants it had."