Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Strangers on a Train

HOWL (2015)

Similar to DOG SOLDIERS, HOWL benefits from a
contemporary setting and practical creature FX.

PAUL Hyett - more famous his special makeups for THE DESCENT and EDEN LAKE - directs this low budget but polished horror which pits hybrid werewolves against occupants of a stranded late night train (much better than snakes on a plane). London guard Joe (Ed Speelers), unsuccessful for a promotion, and trolley hostess Ellen (Holly Western), are working on the last Alpha Trax out of the capital. The passengers are a motley selection, which includes high-flying alpha male Adrian (Elliot Cowan), professional single mother Kate (Shauna Macdonald), annoying adolescent Nina (Rosie Day), football yob Paul (Calvin Dean) and an elderly couple (Ged (Duncan Preston) and Jenny (Ania Marson)). When the carriages hit a deer and the driver (Sean Pertwee) goes to investigate but never returns, Joe must rise up and protect the commuters from a menace attacking out of the dense forest.

HOWL is widely regarded as the best werewolf picture since AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON. Whereas Universal stumbled with their retro-fitted 2010 reboot THE WOLFMAN, Hyett's film doesn't suffer from the American picture's insistence with their outdated monster design: here, the lean and refreshingly non-hairy werewolves are portrayed more like mutations, impressively vicious and sleek when moving in on their prey. On the human side, the characters are stereotypes but well written and played, and in the best horror film tradition not always interacting successfully as the tensions mount. Consequently, HOWL follows in the tradition of the John Wyndham short story Confidence Trick, where an underground train journey to hell explores the effects of belief on the part of the travellers.

Widespread in European folklore, the werewolf concept chiefly developed during the Middle Ages.

Britain has several outlandish "real" werewolf stories. One of the most famous emanates from Cannock Chase in Staffordshire, where there have been sightings since a notorious incident in 1975: a boy claimed to have promised his soul to the devil through a Ouija board, gaining power to transform into a wolf (then stabbed himself to death). Another colourful tale originates from 1920's Lincolnshire, when a local archaeologist discovered a human skeleton with a wolf's head; after he took his find home, his house was besieged by a werewolf. The Buxton, Derbyshire werewolf is more abstract, as it is unclear whether the creature is a physical entity or a supernatural beast (the nearby village of Wormhill claims to be the location where the last wolf in England was killed in the sixteenth century). And on a broader scale, the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides allegedly once hosted an entire colony of wolf men.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Asylum of Horrors

TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS (1973)

"Does anyone here love me?" Joan Collins in Mel, where her husband's attentions shift to a tree which he sculpts into the female form.

OFTEN mistaken for an Amicus portmanteau, possibly because of the contemporary setting, this Freddie Francis-helmed anthology was actually made by World Film Services. TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS was inspired by Amicus' ASYLUM released the previous year, not least because of its mental patient setting, but also by its general outlandishness. Psychiatrist Dr Tremayne (Donald Pleasance) relates four cases to Dr Nicholas (Jack Hawkins, dubbed by Charles Grey): in Mr Tiger, introverted boy Paul (Russell Lewis) confides with an "imaginary" tiger against a backdrop of warring parents; an inherited Penny Farthing causes trouble for antique dealer Timothy (Peter McEnery) and girlfriend Ann (Suzy Kendall); Mel is a piece of tree art that starts frictions between husband and wife Brian (Michael Jayston) and Bella (Joan Collins); and Luau tells of human sacrifice involving literary agent Auriol (Kim Novak) and her daughter Ginny (Mary Tamm), where the latter is consumed to appease an Hawaiian god.

Based on short stories by actress Jennifer Jayne (credited here as Jay Fairbank) - who played Donald Sutherland's vampire bride in DR TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS - TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS is as literal and silly as most of the Amicus product, but elevated to watchable status by its cast (save for Novak who broke a four year hiatus to overplay her highly unlikable character after replacing Rita Hayworth). Jayston and Collins are particularly in tune to their slice of camp nonsense, Bella understandably annoyed not just because of her husbands wandering eye, but also because Mel - the name carved into its trunk - is damaging her cream shag pile carpet. If there is any overall underlying trend, it is a festering resentment with domesticity and the routine of married/working life.

In what is potentially the most interesting tale, Suzy Kendall encounters a haunted portrait and a time-distorting Penny Farthing.

Similar to the unevenness inherent in comedy sketch shows, the anthology subgenre is noted for its varied quality. As Mark Gatiss stated in BBC4's A HISTORY OF HORROR, it is fun to piece together your favourite portmanteau stories into a single outing; Mel could provide the icing on the cake to the wackiest, perhaps together with the reptile sequence from SECRETS OF SEX, the vampire film producer storyline from THE MONSTER CLUB, and the killer piano from TORTURE GARDEN. Yet the origins of the multi-tale film are held in much higher esteem, taking a cue from the episodic structure of Gothic novels The Monk and Melmoth the Wanderer (1876 and 1878 respectively). In fact, it was German silent cinema which first embraced the notion with Richard Oswald's EERIE TALES, Fritz Lang's DESTINY and Paul Leni's WAXWORKS. DESTINY, in particular, opens up The Grim Reaper as a leading character, omnipresent force and deadly puppet master.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Home of the Anti-hero

FUTURE SHOCK! THE STORY OF 2000AD (2015)

Pat Mills' 'Flesh' strip typified 2000AD's vicious streak. Exploring similar man-dominating-nature themes to his 'Hook Jaw' in Action, cowboys from the future farm dinosaurs for their meat. Its "dinosaurs eating people" vein tapped into the comics' mantra of giving the readers what they wanted.

ALTHOUGH IPC began 2000AD in the slipstream of STAR WARS, the comic would be in a galaxy far, far away from George Lucas' straight-laced space adventure. Here was a publication that prided itself in the unruly Britain of the late seventies, with an anti-authoritarian swagger and violence to spare. It spawned a parade of legendary writers and artists (termed a "brotherhood" here by Dave Gibbons), and forged life-long friendships and eternal arguments. Directed by Paul Goodwin, this documentary charts the rise and near-fall of British comics' saviour, from its heady beginnings during the cultural clashes of the punk ethic and the silver jubilee, to surviving the 1990's with its attempted 'Lads Mag' rebranding and strips on a cyborg Tony Blair, then onto its lasting legacy of the "destroyed future."

With such a broad canvas to cover FUTURE SHOCK! can only hint at the horror stories behind the scenes, and for far more comprehensive coverage you should be directed to David Bishop's book Thrill-Power Overload: Thirty Years of 2000 AD. The quality of the "talking heads" differ wildly, and their effectiveness gets less interesting as the prog count flies by. Creator/first editor Pat Mills is in his element, providing numerous examples of what would later be termed a "Mills Bomb"; furthermore, Kevin O'Neill, John Wagner and Alan Grant are wonderfully wry, and Alan Moore is notable in his absence. At the other end of the spectrum Anthrax's Scott Ian tells us he once wrote a song about Judge Dredd, and Leah Moore just wants Daddy to finish Halo Jones for her.

Grant Morrison's Zenith debuted in 2000AD #535 (August 1987). This was a period of new stories and new talent for the comic, with Zenith being a spoilt Generation X'er who used his super powers not to fight evil but to promote a pop career.

When a documentary is so gushing in its own importance as this, it is far too easy to overreach. Apparently 2000AD has influenced virtually every science-fiction film since, from the obvious (ROBOCOP, HARDWARE, TIMECRIMES) to the tenuous-at best (BATMAN BEGINS, MAN OF STEEL). Alex Garland is the most thoughtful in this passage, making the point that the comic's influences on film is similar to the connection between Conrad's Heart of Darkness and APOCALYPSE NOW: the power of Coppola's Vietnam odyssey reaching out to a far greater audience. What is more measured is the publications link to the creation of DC's Vertigo imprint, the direct result of the much-discussed American headhunting of British graphic talent in the mid-80's.

But 2000AD did save the British comic book industry. Its subversive "gang of reprobates" washed its hands of the stagnant norm and carried on the mentality of the banned Action and fused its pages with black humour and sub textual weight (although Mills laments this forced "retreat" into science fiction). Away from its supposed cinematic wastelands, the comic's greatest lasting legacy indirectly links back to the culling of talent by DC; with its "Credit Cards," it was the first time a strip magazine acknowledged its creative talents. But by seeking this healthier working platform, artists and writers suddenly became brands in their own right, jumping ship to the US and creating an intellectual change that transformed the staid American market.

Friday, April 1, 2016

"Yes, I can hear you Clem Fandango"

TOAST OF LONDON (2012 - )

TOAST OF LONDON is the latest in a long-line of comedic triumphs for Matt Berry, following star turns in GARTH MARENGHI'S DARKPLACE, SNUFF BOX, THE IT CROWD and HOUSE OF FOOLS.

THIS deliciously bonkers Channel 4 sitcom, written by Arthur Mathews and Matt Berry, charts the misadventures of middle-aged actor Steven Toast (Berry). The London-based thespian with a streak of white hair spends most of his time dealing with personal issues away from stage and screen, a situation not helped by his self-absorbent agent Jane Plough (Doon Mackichan), who relentlessly provides him with disastrous roles. Plough also gives Toast voice-over assignments with Scramble Studios in Soho - mimicking Berry's own lucrative side career - where he locks horns with sound engineers Danny Bear (Tim Downie) and Clem Fandango (Shazad Latif). Other recurring characters are Ed Howzer-Black (Robert Bathurst), Toast's flat-mate and one true friend; Colonel Blair Toast (Adrian Lukis), Steven's eccentric army veteran older brother who lost his hand in the Falklands; Ray "Bloody" Purchase (Harry Peacock), a rival actor; and Mrs Purchase (Tracy Ann Oberman), Ray's prostitute wife who even he has paid to have sex with, a woman who has an off and on affair with Toast himself.

Utilising Berry's outstanding musical talent - 'Take My Hand' from his third album Witchazel acts both as a theme tune and a comment on Blair's predicament - TOAST OF LONDON is a masterful absurdist comedy that is branching out from its tough time-slots. Bedfordshire-born Berry is a true original, his rich baritone voice and stoic demeanour making him perfect for a character in fine tune with colonial Olde England. Grumpy and woman-obsessed, Toast is always to the point, disliking extra-safe condoms because their thickness doesn't necessitate the additional effort, and struggling to attract Hollywood roles because he once said that Minnie Driver had a big face. The second and third series (screened in 2014 and 2015 respectively) build on this surreal foundation, adding famous faces such as Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme and Jon Hamm to the mix. The third stint is particularly entertaining, where Toast is reacquainted with Purchase's albino twin brother Bill, we encounter Bob Monkhouse's zombie wife, and a production of Twelfth Night cast entirely of dogs.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Forest Has Claws

BY OUR SELVES (2015)

Director Andrew Kotting in Straw Bear costume that marks the Fenland start of the agricultural year. Graphic novelist Alan Moore guest stars in Kotting's on-foot road movie about John Clare; in fact, Moore gave us a highly anarchic version of the poet in his debut novel Voice of the Fire, in the chapter 'The Sun Looks Pale Upon the Wall, AD 1841.'

THE son of a farm labourer, John Clare (1793 - 1864) championed the English countryside and mourned its disturbances, his poetry also exploring heart-felt mental instability. After this idyllic rural childhood, Clare observed the Agricultural Revolution and the Enclosures act, which resulted in widespread uprooting and segregation of common land. Not only did he see destruction of his Olde England, but Clare was distressed of rural poverty as a mechanism for migration to towns and factories. Subsequently Clare's mental state worsened when struggling to support a wife and seven children, and he spent four years in Dr Matthew Allen's progressive private asylum at High Beach within Epping Forest. In his Man Booker prize-nominated The Quickening Maze about Clare, Adam Foulds paints the institution more of The Priory of its day for the Victorian London smart-set. Later Clare was committed to the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum (now St Andrew's Hospital) where he remained for the rest of his life; under the guidance of Dr Thomas Octavius Prichard - a pioneer for the humane treatment of the mentally ill - Clare wrote his most famous poem, I Am.

The idiosyncratic work of Andrew Kotting - a hybrid of Derek Jarman and David Lynch - increasingly has opened up the notion of when does a film become less a film but more an art instillation. From absurdist, experimental beginnings, Kotting's first feature GALLIVANT in 1996 was a travelogue following his grandmother and daughter Eden - who suffers from Joubert Syndrome - around the British coastline; his second THIS FILTHY EARTH showcases landscape in all its beautiful but brutal glory. Kotting's 2012 SWANDOWN followed the director and writer Iain Sinclair in a swan pedallo, highlighting his interest in eccentric journeys of identity and history. Simon Kovesi, head of English at Oxford Brookes University and editor of the John Clare Society Journal, describes Kotting's work as "anti-pastoral," and "revels in the sodden awkwardness of Englishness. For him our eastern culture is outside, is wet and deliquescing, fluid and yet grounded in thick sod."

Toby Jones as John Clare. The actor can now add the poet to his list of obsessive artists roles on screen and stage, which includes Truman Capote, Alfred Hitchcock and J.M.W. Turner. 

Inspired by Sinclair's Edge of the Orison, Kotting's BY OUR SELVES is a drama-documentary about Clare's eighty-mile, four-day walk from Epping Forest to Northampton in July 1841. Escaping from High Beach asylum, Clare's journey through hunger and madness has the goal of reaching his love Mary Joyce, who actually has died three years previously in a house fire. Young Clare is portrayed by a voiceless Toby Jones, whose father Freddie plays Old Clare as well as a narrator, often regurgitating lines from his performance as the poet from a 1970 OMNIBUS presentation (a female voiceover from the programme consistently taunts "Clare was a minor nature poet who went mad"). Along for this ethereal jaunt are Sinclair (often behind a goat mask), Kotting (always in Straw Bear garb), Kovesi (as a boxer) and magus Alan Moore, who not necessarily laments his confinement in Northampton and describes his birthplace as a cultural black hole ("nobody ever gets out unless they're sucked back in.")

Beautifully photographed by Nick Gordon Smith in black and white, Clare's Victorian route is punctured by the modern landscape (endless traffic, wind turbine blades, humming pylons), underpinning his famous line "I long for scenes where man hath never trod." The filmmaking process itself is also exposed, as the full-bearded soundman with his mop-head microphone always appears in shot. Actual characters and particularly females are kept at arms-length - musician MacGillivray is Joyce and Eden Kotting appears with the Straw Bear in home movie-style footage previously seen in the short THE SUN CAME DRIPPING A BUCKET FULL OF GOLD - as if Kotting's use of blurred film stocks with natural sound can only act as a conduit for Clare himself, forever encased in a past which infiltrates his space and verses.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

"How Shall I Show My Love?"

PLAY FOR TODAY - PENDA'S FEN (1974)

Interviewed in the Radio Times at the time of PENDA'S FEN's original broadcast, David Rudkin commented " ... it was conceived as a film and written visually. Some people think visual questions are none of the writer’s business - that he should provide the action and leave it to the director to picture it all out. For me, writing for the screen is a business of deciding not only what is to be shown but how it is to be seen ..."
 
BRITAIN is a land of foreboding subterranean terrors, isolated woodlands and remote islands. It is a country that, to a certain extent, still follows its ancient boundaries, pathways and quirky lore. Beneath the decomposing topsoil of British film, a richer, weirder substance pervades. It is a material of the past that permeates the present and future, mineral horizons darker in tone that exist within our celluloid. If the moving image itself is the greatest ghost story, this secret property teems with a surreal catalogue of customs and practices, and an engaging alternative to urbanisation. In this semi-forgotten Albion, film has seen human nature fighting its demons in WITCHFINDER GENERAL and BLOOD ON SATAN'S CLAW; Ben Wheatley's phantasmagorical nightmares KILL LIST and A FIELD IN ENGLAND; and old religions explored in THE WICKER MAN and THE BORDERLANDS.

Written by David Rudkin and directed by Alan Clarke on the writer's insistence, the BBC's PLAY FOR TODAY showcase PENDA'S FEN is a major example of this exponent for television, and a ninety minute sermon on identification. During his last boyhood summer Stephen (Spencer Banks) awakens a buried force against the backdrop of the Malvern Hills. His sexual, mystical and political growing pains are played out against a past and present England, where he encounters angels, demons, Edward Elgar and King Penda ("Be secret. Child be strange, dark, true, impure, and dissonant. Cherish our flame.") His confusion is further heightened by his pastor father's doubts of orthodox Christianity, and the revelation that his is adopted "with foreign blood."
 
"Unnatural"; in a constant flux between adolescene and anguish, at the height of a homosexual yearning Stephen awakes in his bed to find a gargoyle perched over him.

Under a minimal sound design from the Radiophonic Workshop, the play mirrors the elemental struggle between pagan values and the modern "machine." Clarke himself has admitted that he didn't fully understand its meaning (Stephen's "waking dream" of a man cutting off the hands of willing children is particularly perplexing), but Banks portrays a character as pompous as much of the dialogue. Its focus on myth sits out-of-place with Clarke's usual social realism, and in Rob Young's 2010 book Electric Eden, the author labels PENDA'S FEN as a psycho-geographical toolkit: " ... the occult history of Albion – the British Dreamtime – lies waiting to be discovered by anyone with the right mental equipment." It would be hard to see Rudkin's pastoral hybrid commissioned today; in fact, its slow-burning theories and ideas must have been a test even for seventies audiences.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Primal Disorder

QUATERMASS (1979)
THE QUATERMASS CONCLUSION (1979)

Sir John Mills is the fragile face of dystopian Britain in ITV's QUATERMASS serial, here making the cover of Time Out. Mills' performance has largely been underappreciated over the years, but as Tim Lucas points out in his Video Watchdog review (#106, April 2004), the actor is "steeped in the irony of a visionary whose ideas have been perverted and abused by the less visionary corporations he served."

NIGEL Kneale's long awaited fourth Quatermass television serial - directed by Piers Haggard - finally arrived on ITV in 1979, four years after the BBC's option had expired. Suffering from a long gestation period, and a fanfare that was quashed by a technicians strike which delayed the broadcast, QUATERMASS is doom-laden and lethargic. In a decaying near future, an elderly Professor Quatermass (a stoic John Mills, persuaded into the role by his wife) longs to be reunited with his runaway granddaughter. During a joint United States/Soviet space venture, the hardware is struck by an unearthly beam of light; it soon transpires that this ray is also striking ancestral gathering points around the globe - including stone circles and Wembley Stadium - and harvesting the Planet People, disillusioned youth of Earth who long for their misguided paradise in the stars. With the help of a radio telescope centre barely run by Joe Kapp (Simon MacCorkindale), and latterly a group of Pensioners, the rocket scientist succeeds in repelling the alien intrusion, but only at the cost of his and his granddaughter's life (thanks to a big nuclear "red button.")

Originally written in 1973, Kneale's exploration of youth alienation and the space race were relevant, but by 1979 are too distant topics to act as a successful hook. Kneale's often prophetic reading of society is limited to the Planet People being forerunners to New Age travellers, yet the writer had intended them to be proto-punks. In fact, QUATERMASS is more a wearying of life story, where youth and the elderly are warring species (and complete with internal frictions; even the usually sedate Planet People have their Kickalong (Ralph Arliss), apparently modelled on Charles Manson). The writer was usually lukewarm at best about the performers of his work, here labelling Mills as not having the authority of Quatermass, and questioned the casting of MacCorkindale as a rational and intelligent man; he also dismisses Barbara Kellerman, who play's Kapp's wife Clare, for her bouts of smiling. But Kneale himself must shoulder a great portion of the blame for a story that never permeates past its core idea.

Ashen-faced Simon MacCorkindale, Barbara Kellerman and John Mills in the TV Times listing of the second episode 'Lovely Lightning' (31st October 1979).

Haggard, who had provided a blueprint for folk horror with BLOOD ON SATAN'S CLAW, firmly places the Planet People within their spiritual, sexual landscape, but this is no longer a world for myth and legend, only one that reflects a Nazi concentration camp iconography: once harvested, ashes hang thick in the air and powdered flesh and bone seep into the earth (and to further a quasi-Third Reich agenda, in a dirty, makeshift London marketplace, books are on offer only because they can "burn well.") Unfortunately the director provides everything too flat for its own good, undermining what should have been the showpiece sequence of the Wembley stadium incarcerations, which is only memorable for Quatermass' dialogue on the sky ("the colour of vomit.") 

This relentless sombre atmosphere inevitably created a muted Press reaction, describing QUATERMASS as "pedestrian," "capable humdrum" and even "mumbo-jumbo." This was particularly galling for the amount of money and extensive location filming invested in it; made on 35mm Panavision stock by the Euston Films umbrella of Thames, a lucrative £1.25m budget was made available for the four-part programme and a re-edited, 106-minute theatrical version for overseas (entitled THE QUATERMASS CONCLUSION). This truncated cut basically sliced in half the first, second and fourth episodes, with only brief sequences used from episode three, where Quatermass is saved and befriended by the underground OAPs. However, in the post-STAR WARS world there was little room for downbeat cinema science fiction, and the film version made only sporadic appearances across North American, and the intended UK dates never transpired.