Monday, February 1, 2016

Sadist and Surgeon

KONGA (1961)

Together with PEEPING TOM, HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM and CIRCUS OF HORRORS complete Anglo Amalgamated's Sadian Trilogy. Here are the celebrated dispatches of Dorinda Stevens from the former, and Vanda Hudson from the latter.

WITH a background at Gainsborough, Arthur Crabtree turned to titillating gore with HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM, where cigar-smoking true crime writer Edmond Bancroft (Michael Gough) has a private shrine of torture devices. Bancroft provides gravitas to his work by instigating a number of ghastly murders, most of which are carried out by his young protégé Rick (Graham Curnow) after the injection of a drug that turns Rick green. Bancroft moulds the youngster in his own image, telling him that females are "...all a vicious, unreliable breed" in the hope of putting him off Angela (Shirley Anne Field), giving fatherly advice ("Someday you will go deep into the black soul of man, deeper than anyone else has gone, and you will remember it was I who sent you on that journey") and subsequently securing the Black Museum as their dirty little secret. Under the garish hues of 1950's Eastmancolor, the set pieces are too flat to be effective: Bancroft's doctor Ballan (Gerald Anderson) is disposed of in a flesh-removing vat, Gail (Dorinda Stevens) has her eyes punctured by concealed binocular skewers, and the writer's mistress Joan (June Cunningham) succumbs to a DIY guillotine.

In Sidney Hayers' CIRCUS OF HORRORS, disgraced plastic surgeon Dr Rossiter (cold as ice Anton Diffring) flees England and turns a makeshift French circus - run by drunk Vanet (Donald Pleasance) - into an international success. The performers are all criminals whose faces Rossiter has re-built, and if they get out of line "accidental" deaths are arranged. After a decade the surgeon risks bringing his famed troupe back to Blighty, but as the walls come down on his shenanigans, Rossiter survives a gorilla attack before being run over. Similar to the sadistic murders of BLACK MUSEUM, CIRCUS OF HORRORS illustrates a style of gaudy schlock that would come to the fore in British horrors of the 1970's (the most celebrated being Magda (Vanda Hudson)'s ECesque demise during a sabotaged knife-throwing act). Lambasted by the Catholic Legion of Decency for its "excessive brutality [and] suggestive costumes," Hayers' makes the most of a bevy of large-breasted beauties such as Yvonnes Monlaur and Romain; as the Catholic Legion suggests, its narrative is purely an excuse to murder females who wear revealing circus attire, and all the better for it.

Claire Gordon in the clutches of KONGA. Shot in the fictitious but grand sounding SpectraMation, the giant gorilla is a B-movie charmer.

Allegedly filmed as I WAS A TEENAGE GORILLA, John Lemont's KONGA is a preposterous man-in-a-monkey-suit horror, and a riot of abysmal miniatures and opticals. Gough basically reprises his overwrought performance as Bancroft from BLACK MUSEUM, complete with a hypnotised partner-in-crime; here he is crazed botanist Charles Decker ("in science, a human being is only a cypher"), who wills an enlarged ape to acts of violence. Presumed dead after crashing in the African jungle, Decker returns to London a year later with a rare form of plant life, plus a pet chimp named Konga. When extracts from the vegetation causes rapid growth the chimp grows to Gorilla size and the doctor uses him to murderous effect: the school Dean, a competitor and the boyfriend of the bustiest of his teenage students, Sandra (Claire Gordon), are all dispatched. Although Decker's assistant Margaret (Margo Johns) has kept his activities quiet in lieu of marriage, when she too discovers of her intended demise, she gives Konga an excessive dose of the super-serum. This results in Decker finding himself in the clutches of a now-gargantuan simian by Big Ben.

Hollywood low-rent mogel Herman Cohen co-produced and co-wrote both BLACK MUSEUM and KONGA. Famed for his queasy shock tactics and playing up to his target teen audience, there are seldom truly likable characters in any Cohen production; instead, inhabitants are usually borderline unhinged and sex-obsessed. Consequently Gough is the archetypal Cohen actor, more than at home with arrogant, lecherous over-achievers while barking out his sudden outlandish demands. With KONGA Gough is in tantrum heaven, at one point gunning down his cat after it drinks some of the formula ("We're not ready to have a cat the size of a leopard running through the streets!").

Friday, January 15, 2016

Poltergeist! (Part II of II)


Janet Hodgson "takes flight." The real-life Enfield poltergeist increasingly veered into EXORCIST territory; Janet was pushed and pulled from her bed by an invisible entity, she uttered obscenities in a deep voice, and one witness claimed to see her levitate.
A decade on from the weirdness of Pontefract came Britain's most documented poltergeist case, involving two pubescent sisters in an Enfield council house between 1977 and 1979. The story attracted considerable press coverage and was championed by members of the Society for Psychical Research, inventor Maurice Grosse and freelance writer Guy Lyon Playfair. The Enfield haunting provided the major inspiration for the BBC's GHOSTWATCH - of which Playfair acted as an advisor - where writer Stephen Volk explored the human psyche of "what if [the audience's] need to see a ghost actually made it happen." GHOSTWATCH was never envisaged as a hoax, purely a scripted drama set within a live studio format, and its backlash has only increased its provocative influence; similar to the Orson Welles' War of the Worlds radio broadcast uproar, the public will always react vigorously when being so well duped. Grosse called GHOSTWATCH "well produced," but questioned the need for sensationalism when based on a real events.

Grosse himself was drawn to notions of the afterlife by personal tragedy, that of the death of his daughter Janet in a motorcycle accident in 1976. The investigator had originally studied commercial art and design before joining the artillery in World War II, and after finding his vocation with inventing he filed many mechanical-based patents, including rotating billboards which are now common place. For a grounded, non-theologian, Grosse always conducted his research with great courage, always reputing the alleged inaccuracies surrounding Enfield. His partner-in-crime Playfair was actually born in India and obtained a degree in modern languages from Cambridge University. Subsequently he spent many years in Brazil as a freelance journalist for The Economist, Time, and the Associated Press. His first book The Flying Cow describes his experiences with the psychic side of Brazil, and became an international best seller.

Ghostbusting, North London style: Matthew Macfadyen as Guy Lyon Playfair and Timothy Spall as Maurice Grosse.

Despite the demonic voices, knocking, flying items (cardboard boxes, lego, marbles) and a moving chair witnessed by a police constable, the Enfield poltergeist can too easily be labelled as a prank on behalf of the sisters in question. Janet's famous disembodied voice was achieved by manipulating thick folds of membrane above the larynx, commonly referred to as the false vocal chords, and in this guise she described the death of a former occupant that, according to Playfair, were subsequently confirmed. But poltergeist activity feeds less on the paranormal and more on traumatic, stressful family dynamics and puberty, especially among children who yearn for attention; the children's mother having divorced her husband and was left to bring up her four children with little money. To add to the upset, her husband often gave provided maintenance money with his new girlfriend in tow.

Sky Living's three-part THE ENFIELD HAUNTING - like WHEN THE LIGHTS WENT OUT - glorifies drab 70's interior decoration and retro paraphernalia (picture viewers and Bunty) within its supernatural husk. Although the show has its crowd-pleasing moments - Janet (Eleanor Worthington-Cox) in full Linda Blair mode and the jump scares - Danish director Kristoffer Nyholm and scriptwriter Joshua St Jonhston concentrate on the psychological over shock horror. THE ENFIELD HAUNTING poignantly explores the grief of losing a daughter between Grosse (Timothy Spall) and wife Betty (Juliet Stevenson) and its just as well, as after stripping away this veneer we are left with a uniformly excellent cast engulfed by strange phenomena and shifting narratives.

Thirteen-year old Eleanor Worthington-Cox - already an Olivier award-winning actress for the West End production of Matilda - as Janet.
In his Fortean Times #329 (July 2015) forum article 'The Enfield Poltergeist Show,' Playfair's only real satisfaction about Sky's dramatisation was that it helped shift several units of his 1980 book This House is Haunted of which the programme was derived. Guy questions why the most visual "real" instance was not used (Janet levitating and moving through a wall to reclaim a book which had mysteriously shifted address), and wonders why the scientific breakthroughs were ignored (in fact, the laryngograph recordings are clearly referenced in one albeit short moment). For the column, Playfair laments the phenomenon ("poltergeists continue to be treated as light entertainment") and states that the Enfield study "needs no fictional additions." We will have to wait until our journey to the other side for Grosse's evaluation of the programme, as he died in 2006.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Poltergeist! (Part I of II)


"Based on a true story of the most terrifying poltergeist haunting in British history," WHEN THE LIGHTS WENT OUT lacks any unease or scares, but has authentic 1970's hairstyles and beige décor.
THE word poltergeist is not only derived from teuronic poltern (to make sound) and geist (ghost), this mischievous spirit also originates from the first reported case in 856AD Germany. For an entity that enjoys the movement and levitation of objects - furniture and cutlery have always seemed favourites - this troublesome ghost often mirrors the prankster nature of its protagonists. In studies of anomalistic psychology, such occurrences can be explained by illusion and wishful thinking, and over the years unverified scientific research has referenced everything from unusual air currents, underground water and even ball lightning. Writer David Parson and author Sacheverell Sitwell have equated significant resemblance between poltergeists and the Nazis; in Parson's article about the supernatural at war, he surmises that "both are manifested in a subconscious uprush of desire for power ... both suck like vampires the energies of adolescents" and "Hitler speaks best in a state of semi-trance." Sitwell has also written of the Toadpool Poltergeist, a pebble-throwing spirit once based at his brother's farm.

Britain's premier ghost hunter Harry Price carried out tests on the so-called "Poltergeist Girl" - thirteen-year-old Romanian peasant Eleanore Zugun - at the National Laboratory of Psychical Research in South Kensington during 1926. With Zugun sporting facial scares and bitten by unseen teeth, Price claimed "it was not until I brought Eleanore to London that the word poltergeist became common in the British press." Price was most famous - some say notorious - for his studies of the 1928 Battersea poltergeist scare, the Isle of Man's talking mongoose, the Brocken Experiment (a magic ritual involving a goat) and Suffolk's Borley Rectory, "the most haunted house in England." The backbone of the Borley legend was a nun found guilty of unchastity, walled up in the basement and left to die of starvation. Poltergeist deeds was necessarily pulled into the mix with flying crockery and the spirit ability to materialise lead pencils and mark interior walls.

Tasha Conner is the standout performer in this formulaic programmer.  
Pat Holden's WHEN THE LIGHTS WENT OUT is "loosely" based on the Black Monk of Pontefract manifestations, which allegedly took place at the home of Joe and Jean Pritchard between 1966 and 1969 (Jean was actually Holden's aunt, and the director's mother - a local psychic - frequented the house). During the paranormal action crockery and household ornaments were smashed, pools of water appeared on the kitchen floor, crashing noises shook the building, and a strange white dust drifted down from the ceiling. The case is unusual because it also includes the sightings of a physical apparition, a tall faceless monk dressed in black, said to be the ghost of a sixteenth century brotherhood (the monk's most noteworthy act was to drag the Pritchard's daughter Diane upstairs by the neck). Although the case was well-known locally, it was Colin Wilson's 1981 book Poltergeist! that widened its scope.

For the film, set in 1974, the poltergeist is portrayed as a warning. Jenny (Kate Ashfield) and Len (Steven Waddington) Maynard move into their new property with thirteen-year-old daughter Sally (Tasha Conner). From the start Sally is haunted by the spirit of a young girl, who she later learns was murdered by a monk. A séance reveals that both the girl's and the monk's spirits exist in the home, and after an exorcism seems successful, the monk returns for Sally, who eventually banishes the apparition using the dead girl's pendant. It's all by-the-numbers, with the only memorable scene having Jenny spooked by some suitably garish 70's wallpaper; in fact, it's this authentic smell that makes the feature palatable at all, with its misty clubs and creepy use of retro toys (Slinky and Buckeroo). Conner and Hannah Clifford - as school friend Lucy - are the pick of this dramatis personae, and in more disposable roles Martin Compston plays a concerned teacher and Gary Lewis is the disgraced Father who oversees the unintentionally comedic exorcism, which is further blighted by cheap CGI.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Day of the Brain Dead


North Devon filmmaker Alex Poray's animation explores government manipulation. Panic and fear have always been created by "hierarchies" and media to control consumerism and attention; never has this been more prevalent that the modern rise of ISIS. 

THE director of The Disclosure Project - Steven M. Greer - wrote of the faked alien invasion scenario as government mechanism, justifying trillions of dollars being pumped into a space programme, and unifying the globe in jingoistic military might. In a paper written in June 2002, Greer feared that the net was closing in, stating that "maniacal covert programs plan to hijack Disclosure, spin it into the fire of fear, and roll out events that will eventually present ETs as a new enemy. Do not be deceived." Similarly in 1994 Canadian poet and conspiracy theorist Serge Monast published Project Blue Beam, which claimed that NASA and the United Nations were attempting to implement a New Age religion with the Antichrist at its head, via a "technologically simulated" Second Coming. Many observers have noted the similarities of this colourful notion with Gene Roddenberry's unfilmed STAR TREK - THE GOD THING treatment from 1975.

Hoax aliens have also played out in popular culture. The most famous example is Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre radio broadcast of 1938; this adaptation of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds allegedly caused mass panic, but the true extent has been brought into question over the years due to its relatively few listeners. Over this side of the pond, there is the twee story of a six-minute Southern Television interruption from November 1977. Accessed through the Hannington, Hampshire transmitter, the broadcast of an early-evening news programme was distorted by audio of a deep-voiced representative from an "Intergalactic Association." Vrillon warned us that all our "weapons of evil" must be destroyed and we have only a short time to learn to live in peace. And in comics, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon's Watchmen has Adrian Veidt - the "smartest man in the world" - genetically engineering a squid monster which consequently sets in motion a shockwave that kills half the population of New York City; with governments believing the creature to be from another world, they decide to work together against this new menace, rather than continue with the Cold War.

Originally a comic book from 2004, Level Above Human was extremely popular when it was uploaded to a short-lived e-book site in 2009.

The title of this twenty-two minute animation by SLAYERS: PORTRAIT OF A DISMEMBERED FAMILY kingpin Alex Poray was inspired by the Heaven's Gate flying saucer cult, where members were "children of the Next Level," which paradoxically reduced them to automatons with no individuality, outside contact and any notion of sexuality (Alex also considered THE SPACE SHOW as a banner, a reference to Greer). LEVEL ABOVE HUMAN tells of President Laine ("the worst president in history"), his attempt to rise political standing, and gain support for a space weapons programme. Laine unleashes hallucinogen Vision X on Snake City, an area which has descended into anarchy and acted as a springboard for widespread unrest. Vision X changes perception so people view military as aliens and helicopters UFOs, against a backdrop of projections and staged events. Snake City slacker Googie McKagan (voiced by Alex) hooks up with Snowflake (voiced by Donna Beeching) at The Parasite Club, but their escape is thwarted and the duo implanted with memories of alien abduction. But that is what they are lead to believe...

Every sequence of LEVEL ABOVE HUMAN illustrates Poray's life-long love of Ufology and punk rock, coming across as Charles Burns meets Hunter S. Thompson with THEY LIVE at the foundation. With its mixture of mean streets, widespread chaos and underlining sleaze, the piece is a brisk jaunt through ever-relevant issues of mind control and the true stature of people who act as law-makers and breakers (even Laine's Attorney General is found guilty of torturing and eating young women). In reality, the association between governments and conspiracy theorists is a constant tug-of-war; as Alex states, "just because you're paranoid, doesn't mean they're not out to get you!"

Thanks to Alex for his feedback via Facebook.

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.