Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Ghost Stories Not for Christmas


The woman who bled to death: STIGMA moves the BBC Ghost Story strand uncomfortably into the modern era.

FOR the 1977 BBC GHOST STORY FOR CHRISTMAS, director Lawrence Gordon Clark wanted to adapt M.R. James' Count Magnus, but instead made STIGMA on a freelance basis. Scripted by Clive Exton, it concerns a family who remove an ancient standing stone from their back garden. As the menhir is lifted a curse is unleashed, causing mother Katherine (Kate Binchy) to bleed uncontrollably. This body horror trapping made STIGMA a controversial departure, with its shift to a modern setting and loss of period detail lacking the resonance previously created by the series; it also results in a more mechanical tale, away from the myth and tension created by, say, time shifts between researchers and protagonists in more polished entries such as THE STALLS OF BARCHESTER and THE TREASURE OF ABBOT THOMAS.

STIGMA can too easily be labelled as a meditation on the male fear of menstruation, but nothing can disguise the fact that it is pretty nasty story; the first image the viewer sees is an out-of-focus red dot which morphs into the family's red Citroen 2CV, predicting the blood to come. Katherine's nude scene is unsettling rather than salacious, as she frantically tries to stop the endless flow, but there is a more unnerving sequence when husband Peter (Peter Bowles) is awakened to find a strange communion between an onion and a knife, hinting at the vegetable's role in pagan folklore as a symbol of protection and purification. The tale ends openly, as Katherine dies on route to hospital, and it is hinted that daughter Verity (Maxine Gordon) may be converting to the black arts.

Geoffrey Burridge comforts John Stride in THE ICE HOUSE.

If STIGMA is a straightforward horror story, it is difficult to describe THE ICE HOUSE other than a hazy, pretentious muddle. Directed by Derek Lister and written by John Bowen, it brought the original GHOST STORY strand to an oblique close before its short-lived revival in 2005, 2006 and 2013. The most experimental yet maligned of all the episodes, Paul (John Stride) has recently parted from his wife and moved to a residential health spa located in a country house. The disappearance of a masseur and the behaviour of the brother and sister who run operations (Clovis and Jessica, played by Geoffrey Burridge and Elizabeth Romilly) seem to be governed by a strange vine growing in an ice house. While the older residents go about their stately business, Paul is the centre of attention for the siblings; why is never made clear, perhaps he is just the latest in a line of guests for which they draw vitality (Jessica enjoys "having people"). Clovis and Jessica's connection to the overpowering scent of the vine is also open to interpretation; in fact the duo remind of pod-people with their otherworldy directness.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

A Dream of Flying

Alan Moore's Dark Age of Marvelman

In Marvelman, Alan Moore seeks to establish a benign global dictatorship because man can't be trusted to make its own decisions. This is in contrast to Moore's V For Vendetta, where the hero creates anarchy to build choice for the people.

BLACK and white reprints of Fawcett's Captain Marvel were extremely popular in post-war Britain for L. Miller & Son. When Fawcett ceased publishing the title off the back of their lawsuit by DC over Captain Marvel's similarities to Superman - who they were typically out-selling - Mick Anglo created Marvelman for the London-based publisher as a replacement. The whimsical adventures of Micky Moran - who becomes Marvelman when he shouts "Kimota!" - and sidekicks Young Marvelman and Kid Marvelman, could never foresee the troubles to come. When Alan Moore revived the strip for an adult sensibility in the Warrior launch of 1982, it was the start of a decades-long pit of rights-issues and insider frictions. Eclipse started to reprint colourised stories in 1985, calling their comic Miracleman to avoid legal compaints from Marvel, who would eventually reprint the run themselves.

Within the comics Bronze Age (1970 - 1985), the influence of underground comix and shifting political tides meant that the medium was increasingly aimed at adults, exploring topics such as drugs and racism. By the mid-1980's, the growth of comic shops and direct distribution spawned the Modern Age; pessimistically it was also a Dark Age, a perfect storm for experimental writers, artists and publishers. Moore was the pioneer of deconstructing characters, in this case taking Anglo's light-hearted and downright silly Marvelman family - and their mad scientist nemesis Gargunza - into the unchartered territories of modern London. Gargunza was now an ex-Nazi agent, Moran an overweight unhappily married man, and Kid Marvelman - Johnny Bates - the sadistic head of Sunburst Cybernetics. As Moore explains in the then superhero-waning world, "the idea of taking something as innocent and charming and harmless as Marvelman and dumping him in Mrs Thatcher's Britain - there was something poignant about that ... for all that it was a reinvention, there was an element of epitaph as well."

Here's Johnny! “Having exhausted all the humdrum cruelties known to man quite early in the afternoon, [Kid Miracleman] had progressed to innovations unmistakably his own.” During Bates' apocalyptic attack on London, the evil super-god is seen even reverting to cannibalism.

Moore's reinvention covered three "books": 'A Dream of Flying', 'The Red King Syndrome' and 'Olympus.' In the story, Marvelman views a file that reveals his entire experience as a superhero was a simulation as part of Project Zarathustra, which attempted to enhance the human body using alien technology. In a typically inspired Moore twist, Moran and the other subjects had been kept unconscious, their minds fed with stories plucked from comic books (the original stories) by researchers. Therefore Anglo's cartoon-like strips literally became a thing of memory, with Moore instead exploring what it would be like for a man to come to terms with super powers. This particularly effected Moran's wife Liz, who becomes caught in a bizarre love triangle, and gives birth to a super-daughter in a anatomically-correct but gruelling sequence.

Moore's journey for Kid Marvelman is particularly deprived. Bates murders his secretary in front of his former mentor, and threatens to do the same to Marvelman's wife. Saying "Marvelman" by mistake while gloating over Moran's beaten form, Bates reverts to a traumatised youth. Placed in a mental facility, Kid Marvelman tempts him into becoming the mad superhuman again, and Johnny finally gives in when he is about to be raped by older boys at a group home. Kid Marvelman consequently butchers Johnny's attackers, then moves on to the rest of the facility (in a harrowing passage misprinted in Marvel's #15). Moore's tenure ends In a battle where Bates ravages London and horrifically murders much of the capital's population; Marvelman and his super-allies bring Earth into a totalitarian order, but a final conversation with Liz suggests that the superhero has lost his humanity and fears his utopia is ultimately harmful.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Raiders of the Lost Tomb


Cybermen awaken from their slumber in one of the most iconic sequences in DOCTOR WHO's history. Presumed lost due to the BBC's infamous wiping process, telerecordings of all four parts of THE TOMB OF THE CYBERMEN were miraculously returned in 1992 by the Hong Kong-based Rediffusion company.

"OUR brains are just like yours, except that certain weaknesses have been removed ... you call them emotions, do you not?" This is how the Cybermen are introduced in their premier outing THE TENTH PLANET. Even though the 1960's saw the development of the pacemaker and spare part surgery, the notion of cybernetics was not new to the realm of science fiction. In her celebrated 1944 story No Woman Born, C. L. Moore tells of a famous dancer whose mind is transferred to a robot after being horribly burned in a theatre fire. This highly influential piece is considered one of the first fully realised portrayals of cybernetic consciousness, a level of "body-horror" the Cybermen have rarely achieved. However, unlike THE TENTH PLANET and THE MOONBASE, where the Doctor's second favourite foes are basically pitched against isolated humans, THE TOMB OF THE CYBERMEN is the first Cyber-story that exploits the real fear of cyborg conversion.

Five hundred years after the Cybermen were believed dead, a group of Earth archaeologists explore the cyborg's adopted ice planet of Telos. The Doctor (Patrick Troughton), Jamie (Frazer Hines) and Victoria (Deborah Watling) join in the exploration led by Professor Parry (Aubrey Richards), and after the Doctor helps to solve a logic puzzle, the gateway to an underground tomb is unveiled. Awakening the Cyber race from their honeycomb cells, the Time Lord realises that the tomb was a trap, designed to lure superior intellects for the Cybermen to convert. Yet it is also revealed that two members of the archaeological party - Kaftan (Shirley Cooklin) and Klieg (George Pastell) - have an ultimatum of their own, planning to merge the Cybermen and Brotherhood of Logicians to form an invincible army.

Gerry Davis' Target novelisation of THE TOMB OF THE CYBERMEN was released in May 1978, which sported a cover Cybermen design actually from THE INVASION.

The opening serial of DOCTOR WHO's strong fifth season, THE TOMB OF THE CYBERMEN depicts several advances in Cyber lore: it has the first appearance of the Cyber Controller (Michael Kilgarriff), and also introduces the Cybermats, silverfish-like devices that feed on human brainwaves. There are also technological improvements as they can now hypnotise, yet this drains the Cyber Controller who needs to retreat to his sarcophagus-like revitaliser. Strikingly visualised and effectively directed by Morris Barry, the story is also memorable for its creepy discordant music and a beautiful moment between the Doctor and Victoria - where she laments the loss of her father during THE EVIL OF THE DALEKS - and the tale also features for the first important role for a black actor in the form of Roy Stewart’s Toberman, loyal manservant of the treacherous Kaftan.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

"Wet with Terror"


"Imagine you are making love to this girl. Imagine you are making love to this boy ..." Also known as BIZARRE and TALES OF THE BIZARRE, SECRETS OF SEX is an omnibus oddity that has it all.

EXPLOITATION film distributor and director Antony Balch started with the moving image by writing subtitles for European movies and making adverts for Camay soap and Kit-E-Kat ("Your cat will stay younger, live longer.") While briefly living in France he befriended William Burroughs, before returning to run two movie theatres in London: The Jacey Piccadilly Circus, and The Times Baker Street. Balch made surrealist shorts in collaboration with the American beat poet, and Burroughs also provided narration for the distributor's 1966 re-packaging of HAXAN as WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES. With a proposed adaptation of Naked Lunch starring Dennis Hopper falling through, Balch found a more solid partner in producer Richard Gordon, which created cult favourites SECRETS OF SEX and HORROR HOSPITAL. Unfortunately future projects such as THE SEX LIFE OF ADOLF HITLER never materialised, and Balch succumbed to stomach cancer in 1980 at the age of just 42.

SECRETS OF SEX was Balch's feature debut, a dotty collection of tales fusing comedy, horror, spies and softcore using a framing device of a Mummy voiced by Valentine Dyall. There are six segments in total, each illustrating the age-old battle between the sexes: a female photographer asks her male model to straddle a 'Spanish Horse' torture device; an old man yearns for a son after a previous bereavement, only for his young scientist lover to keep a birth defect from him and deliver a monster; a man catches a burglar only to discover "Christ! It's a bird!"; Lindy Leigh is Mayfair's Special Agent 28, whose main talent is to shed her clothes at every convenience; a man beckons an escort in an attempt to have sex with his reptile; and an old women confesses to kidnapping the souls of past lovers and trapping them in her greenhouse. Amazingly, this inoffensive and often banal picture was censored by John Trevelyan to the tune of nine minutes, but the film was still a hit and shown up to seven times a day at the Jacey, often with an accompanying Bugs Bunny cartoon.

Graham Humphrey's DVD/Blu-ray cover for HORROR HOSPITAL, discs released in August 2015.

HORROR HOSPITAL sees songwriter Jason Jones (a pre-CONFESSIONS Robin Askwith) taking a break from London's cutthroat music business by going to "Hairy Holidays", a country spa provided by gay travel agent Pollock (Dennis Price). On the train journey there Jason meets Judy (Vanessa (actually Phoebe) Shaw), who is also travelling to the alleged health farm Brittlehurst Manor to meet her long lost aunt. Actually, the Manor is run by Dr Christian Storm (Lugosiesque Michael Gough), who uses lobotomy to turn wayward youth into zombie slaves ("fresh air, birds, flowers - and storm your way back to health.") The wheelchair-bound scientist is aided by Judy's Aunt Harris (Ellen Pollock), a former Hamburg brothel madam, comic-relief dwarf Frederick (Skip Martin), and two biker thugs; and if anyone escapes, Storm has a Rolls Royce fitted with a scythe to stop any such insubordination ("make a clean job of it Frederick, the car was washed this morning.")

Utilising Knebworth House exteriors and Battersea Town Hall interiors, HORROR HOSPITAL - released as THE COMPUTER KILLERS in America - is a washed-out but endearing pastiche of the mad doctor genre, complete with requisite fiery climax. Guest star Price shines as the lecherous Pollock, ogling Jones' package and as camp as Christmas on his visit to the Manor ("Mirror, mirror on the wall, don't say a word, I know it all") before his bloody demise. Askwith and Gough turn in solid performances in roles specifically written for them - Gough is overtly stern and almost a Bond villain  - and it is only a somnambulant Shaw that lets down the troupe. The influence of this piece of 70's schlock even extends to hip-hop, when in 2003 Norwich-based Stonasaurus recorded a concept album about the release; internally, actual 1960's psychedelic group Tangerine Peel appear at the beginning as 'Mystic', fronted by a cross-dresser who is actually co-writer Alan Watson.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Twisted Tales

INSIDE NO. 9 (2014 - )

SUPERNATURAL based two of its episodes around creepy dummies. After the death of her mother, and her father's re-marriage, a young girl becomes obsessed by a doll in the Peter Sasdy-directed VIKTORIA.

SUPERNATURAL was a BBC anthology devised by Robert Muller, who wrote seven of the eight tales. Muller intended the show to rekindle the flavour of early horror cinema, subtle tales of fear based around The Club of the Damned. Each week, a prospective member will tell a true tale of terror; if successful, they will be given lifetime membership, if they fail, murder awaits. It is certainly a series of two halves, with the first four stories suffering from verbal diarrhoea and two excruciatingly loopy lead performances by Robert Hardy (as a haunted actor in GHOST OF VENICE) and Jeremy Brett (who falls under the spell of Lesley-Anne Down in MR NIGHTINGALE). Amazingly the series then opens up considerably: Denholm Elliott and John Osborne expertly play brothers living with their paranoid mother in LADY SYBILL, and NIGHT OF THE MARIONETTES has Gordon Jackson a biographer of Byron and Shelly. Unfortunately this momentum is lost with DORABELLA, a straightforward Gothic where two travellers are ensnared to provide a new vampire blood line. The exterior scenes breath some fresh air, even though it relies heavily on matte shots from Hammer's SCARS OF DRACULA.

Inexplicably broadcast on BBC1 in the summer - and scheduled to clash with BBC2's popular Horror Double Bills - SUPERNATURAL was shot on then industry-standard videotape, and suffers from visible ghosting (the muted colours of the gloomy castles and Victoriana add to its tired fa├žade). Muller's intentions may well have been "to set the viewer's mind into action" with a set of archetypal examinations, but the series was not re-commissioned, despite strong supporting roles by Ian Hendry, Cathleen Nesbitt, Catherine Schell and Vladek Sheybal. The Club of the Damned is also disappointedly underdeveloped, with members displayed as stuffy armchair dwellers rather than bloodthirsty Turks all too eager to literally wield an axe.

Graham Humpreys' poster for THE HARROWING, the final episode of INSIDE NO. 9 series one. Here, a unsuspecting schoolgirl housesits a Gothic mansion, but is actually the centrepiece for a demonic transfer.

During the Radio 4 documentary HOUSES OF HORROR, the observation is made that the main difference between Hammer and Amicus is that Amicus's dour, modern settings were what is revealed after Hammer's large-bosomed damsels and mist-enveloped castles evaporate into your romantic mind's eye. One of its commentators, Reece Shearsmith, really takes this to heart for his INSIDE NO. 9 - co-written with Steve Pemberton - a series of stand-alone thirty minute dramas that feel like TALES OF THE UNEXPECTED melded to PLAY FOR TODAY. The twelve episodes so far have been noteworthy for their eloquently dark writing and almost cinematic staging, with stellar casts bringing to light every sickly twist and turn. The tone has also been refreshingly irrelevant; SARDINES, for example, sees Tim Key cast as a victim of paedophilia, exacting his revenge on his tormentor, family and associates while they are all locked in a wardrobe, while A QUIET NIGHT IN focusses on physical comedy. The highlight of the second series is THE 12 DAYS OF CHRISTINE, a tight-as-a-drum emotional journey of a young woman beautifully played by Sheridan Smith.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Sensual Obsession


Never confuse BAD TIMING as a date movie; Nicolas Roeg's extraordinary picture showcases a love affair long after the hearts stop beating, a piece that rivals Andrzej Zulawski's POSSESSION as the most toxic and intense break-up film of all time.

NICOLAS Roeg's motion pictures are time machines that test the cinematic medium as much as their character's journeys. Like Ken Russell, Roeg is a genre by himself, riding against the British norm of dour realism to create art-house visions for the masses. BAD TIMING is Roeg at his most vicious, where scenes of sexual perversion upset backers Rank so much ("a sick film made by sick people for sick people") they removed their gong logo and refused to screen it in their own Odeon chain. In fact, Psychiatrist Alex Linden (Art Garfunkel) and Milena Flaherty (Theresa Russell)'s destructive relationship was almost brought to the point of both stars walking off the film. Set in Cold War Vienna, the opening has a catatonic Milena rushed to hospital after taking an overdose, accompanied by her former lover Linden. Police Inspector Netusil (Harvey Keitel, in a strangely forced performance) suspects foul play and questions Linden; through flashbacks we see the events leading up to the suicide attempt, documenting Milena's experiences with Alex, her heavy drinking, and estrangement from much-older Czech husband Stefan (Denholm Elliott).

Abandoning any chronology or clarity, scenes take cues from objects, music and art, with the controversial sex scenes un-erotic and un-sexy. BAD TIMING is impossible to classify; is it a love story, psychological thriller, or even a horror movie? If it is a detective mystery it certainly isn't a good one, as Netusil is no Sherlock Holmes (promotion dubbed the film "a terrifying love story" and carried the subtitle A SENSUAL OBSESSION in American theatres). Linden's methodical mind control clashes with the free-spirited and impulsive Flaherty through jealousy, bitterness, disenchantment and permanent lack of commitment. Russell shines in her first lead role, and Garfunkel is believable as his misinformation and misconceptions unravel; what is most extraordinary is how two mainstream actors could elude to the final revelation (erroneously dubbed necrophilia by many sources) and that Roeg and Russell fell in love during the production and married soon after.

86-year-old Nicolas Roeg, photographed in his study, to promote David Thompson's  entrancing ARENA documentary.

As Nathaniel Thompson notes in Video Watchdog (#103, January 2004), "[BAD TIMING] could be considered the first sexual warfare film to explore the concept of two people literally exhausting themselves to death (or at least coming perilously close)." Roeg's film would make an unbearable double bill with Andrej Zulawski's POSSESSION - released a year later - where the Polish director draws heavily on the breakdown of his marriage to create a work lead actress Isabelle Adjani described as "emotional pornography." POSSESSION is a discordant piece that is filled with excesses borne out of sheer desperation, as it veers towards its phallus-headed amphibian monster. A less bludgeoning companion piece would be Jean-Luc Godard's PIERROT LE FOU, where its hero must balance his pursuit of aesthetic perfection and yearning for stability against the shallow desires of his lover.

ARENA's heralded first in-depth documentary on Roeg's career ultimately leaves much of the meat to a series of talking heads, while Roeg himself acts as a puppet master, often with a whimsical grin while reading poetry ("There is always another story, there is more than meets the eye" from Auden's At Last the Secret is Out). Taking its title from his obsession with scrambling and reassembling frames, NICOLAS ROEG - IT'S ABOUT TIME... is an array of entertaining and insightful comments, from Danny Boyle's wonderment of Roeg's treatment of sex in his films, to Ben Wheatley's point of how his casting of music stars (Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Art Garfunkel) somehow provide tendrils within the movies that reach out and co-exist with the moving image. Theresa Russell champions the use of dislocation in BAD TIMING as particularly apt when considering relationships ("people do not think linearly") and Roeg is quite pleased that his birth year was 1928, when sight and sound were first merged.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

"Watch Out for Your Asp!"


Once Adam Ant's partner, Amanda Donohoe is in her element as a worm-worshipping vamp. Gaining notoriety in Nic Roeg's CASTAWAY, the actress also appeared in Ken Russell's next film THE RAINBOW.

LOOSELY based on Bram Stoker's final book, Ken Russell's bombastic spoof horror opens with Scottish archaeology student Angus Flint (Peter Capaldi) excavating an old convent. On grounds now occupied by a Derbyshire B & B run by Trent sisters Mary (Sammi Davis) and Eve (Catherine Oxenberg), Flint unearths a large snake skull and serpent mosaic, which are tied to a local myth. The legend states that a monster was slain in Stonerich Cavern by John d'Ampton, the ancestor of current Lord of the Manor James d'Ampton (Hugh Grant). When the pocket watch of the Trent sisters' missing father is found in the Cavern, James surmises that the legendary creature may still be alive. Soon James, Angus, Mary and Eve are drawn into a deadly game with Lady Sylvia Marsh (Amanda Donohoe), an immortal priestess to the snake god Dionin.

Dialogue is laced with sexual innuendo ("playing with yourself can't be much fun"), and the fusion of loopy dream/hallucination sequences and garish 80's monster effects (the giant worm's jaws were made from Volkswagen Beetle parts) make THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM a curio even by Russell's standards. Joseph Lanza expertly sums up the tone in Phallic Frenzy: Ken Russell and His Films, by describing the film "as if a dotty, old, and salacious English auntie is telling it from an attic where her more prim relatives have exiled her." The scenery-chewing, mincing Donohoe casts a long shadow over the other leads, but bit parts from Paul Brooke - as lazy eyed P. C. Erny - and Stratford Johns - playing James' eccentric manservant Peters - crackle with life. 

Lady Marsh steals the excavated skull of Dionin. The prop was constructed by adding sculpted sections to a real cow head.

With Russell's forked tongue firmly in cheek, it is one delirious sequence after another. Marsh - in PVC boots and black underwear - seduces a half-witted boy scout, and later her strap-on defloration of Eve is interrupted by Dionin itself. One of the shot on video hallucinations has nuns being gang-banged by Roman centurions as a snake wraps itself around Christ on the cross, and kilted Angus plays bagpipes while battling a possessed Erny (which ends in a Fulciesque eye-gouging). Treading the fine line between kitsch and downright embarrassing, James' fever dream sees Eve and Lady Sylvia wrestling in air hostess outfits, the red-tipped pen in his hands standing to attention. Its a glorious mess that was debunked by critics at the time, but over the years the picture has gained a cult following worthy of Dionin, and stories even circulate of chic Los Angeles parties where revellers dress as their favourite characters.

Russell's initial flirtation with Stoker occurred after making TOMMY in 1975, when British cinema's enfant terrible wrote an adaptation of Dracula. The venture lost its impetus when a number of similar projects were released in the late 1970's, such as John Badham’s big-budget DRACULA starring Frank Langella, and Werner Herzog's remake of NOSFERATU. Whereas Herzog's vampire longed for death, Russell's Count rejoiced in possibilities of the forever, a master of the undead who loves the arts so much he seeks to bring great artists back to life; "how jealously God guards his immortality. Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Tchaikovsky: as soon as they challenged him with their visions of heaven, he cut them down - until we started to fight him." Russell claims that Mick Fleetwood was so eager to play his Dracula, that the musician offered to drain a pint of blood from his body each day throughout the shoot. But as Paul Sutton notes in his introduction to the full script published by Bear Claw in 2012, "Ken Russell's Dracula is a cloaked portrait of Ken Russell himself."