Monday, August 1, 2016

"We Must Adjust the Truth"

DOCTOR WHO - THE DEADLY ASSASSIN (1976)
DOCTOR WHO - THE ROBOTS OF DEATH (1977)

"Only hate keeps me alive"; opera singer/actor Peter Pratt brings a resonant voice to the black-shrouded, decomposing Master in THE DEADLY ASSASSIN.

GOTHIC as entertainment is usually traced back to Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764), a novel which kick-started a darker supernatural genre that lived amongst decaying settlements and subterranean crypts. Oscillating between romantic sub-plots and conventional reality, Gothic fiction places heavy emphasis on atmosphere and loss of humanity/identity; women are often cast in distress but typically portrayed as the heroine of the piece, while men struggle with a Jekyll and Hyde-type duality. When Philip Hinchcliffe (producer) and Robert Holmes (script editor) took over DOCTOR WHO in the mid-70's, there was a seismic shift away from what Holmes described as "straightforward, dull, children's stories." In the seasons that followed, the Time Lord would experience more oppressive environments and explorations not just of hauntings and possessions, but also early trappings which would latterly be known as body horror. These tales also effected the Doctor himself, changing from the adventurous dandy of Jon Pertwee to Tom Baker, an actor who embraced the outsider at odds with himself and the galaxy.

Holmes' scripts for THE DEADLY ASSASSIN take on board Richard Condon's bleak brainwashing political novel The Manchurian Candidate. The Doctor (Baker) is accused of the assassination of the Time Lord President, but it is in fact a plot by a dying Master (Peter Pratt). Having used all twelve of his regenerations, the Master aims to control the hierarchy so he can obtain the Sash and Rod of Rassilon, which act as keys to the Eye of Harmony, the source of all the Time Lord's power. When the Doctor links his mind into the virtual reality of Matrix (pretty novel for 1976) - which has accumulated the wisdom of his race - he wins a struggle with a hooded opponent revealed to be Chancellor Goth (Bernard Horsfall), who has been used as a pawn. The Master has now gained access to the Eye of Harmony and aims to give new life to his decaying, putrid husk of a body; but in a climactic fight with the Doctor, the Master falls into a crumbling Citadel chasm...

ROBOTS OF DEATH was fittingly chosen to represent the era of the Fourth Doctor at the BFI's 50th anniversary celebration of the show.

THE DEADLY ASSASSIN provides a number of firsts for Who lore: a regeneration number set at twelve; the absence of a companion for the Doctor; the portrayal of a layered society of ranks and chapters (very different from the glimpses seen in THE WAR GAMES and THE THREE DOCTORS); and trivia such as the TARDIS listed as a Type 40 capsule. But for many this spoilt the mystery of the Time Lord back-story, revealing Gallifrey as a planet akin to the doddering House of Lords, or a crusty Oxbridge society (one Time Lord even complains about hearing and hip problems). But within the Matrix the adventure is an irresistible, surreal experience, giving the show its most notorious and sadistically violent moment: the drowning of the Doctor at the hands of Goth as a cliff-hanger to episode three. Providing such a lingering, powerful image for children to mull over for a week was too much for the National Viewers and Listeners Association linchpin Mary Whitehouse, and the scene was shortened for repeats.

Written by Chris Boucher, THE ROBOTS OF DEATH is another tale of duality and deception ("nothing is inexplicable, only unexplained"). Mixing Dune and Ten Little Indians as well as inverting Asimov's First Law of Robots, the TARDIS materialises on a sandminer combing an alien world for minerals. The massive vehicle is run by a small human crew aided by three classes of robots (Dums, Vocs and a Super Voc), and the Doctor (Baker) and Leela (Louise Jameson) come under suspicion when the crew are killed by an unseen assailant. With the aid of undercover agents Poul (David Collings) and robot associate D84 (Gregory de Polnay), the real culprit is revealed as Dask (David Bailie), a scientist raised by robots who has been reprogramming the automatons to murder and to consequently form a superior order ("I see; you're one of those boring maniacs who's going to gloat, hmm? You going to tell me your plan for running the Universe?").

Social activist Mary Whitehouse CBE frequently singled out mid-70's DOCTOR WHO as particularly damaging to young minds. Yet the celebrated "fear factor" and "hiding behind the sofa" mainstays of the programme acted as a liberating and engaging emotion for viewers, who always had the reassurance of the Doctor to guide them through.

Developed under the titles PLANET OF THE ROBOTS and THE STORM-MINE MURDERS, the programme raises above its "people killed off in an enclosed environment" foundation by adopting a highly distinctive art deco production design, a tight script, earnest performances, and effective, lethal robots. Of all the influences listed for Ridley Scott's ALIEN over the years - from the B-movie theatrics of IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE to the otherworldliness of Mario Bava's PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES - don't forget that Boucher's serial has a claustrophobic mining setting and an undercover robot.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Into the Wilderness

CREATURES THE WORLD FORGOT (1971)

In April 1970, a Hammer-Columbia campaign was launched to find the "Screen's New Sex Symbol of the 70's" who would be offered the starring role in CREATURES THE WORLD FORGOT. Au pair, Penthouse pet and former Miss Norway Julie Ege was picked from over 2,000 replies; this is one of many publicity photos that attempted to make Ege the new Raquel Welch, a promotion in contrast to Michael Carreras' intention for a more historically accurate film.

AS exciting as watching cave paint dry, Don Chaffey's CREATURES THE WORLD FORGOT was thankfully the last of Hammer's jaunts through prehistory. After a volcanic eruption kills many members of The Dark Tribe, Mak (Brian O'Shaughnessy) leads the survivors across a desert in search of a new home. They befriend a tribe of fair-haired people, the leader of which presents Mak with Noo (Sue Wilson), who gives birth to twin boys on the same day another woman delivers a mute girl (Marcia Fox), who an old witch (Rosalie Crutchley) adopts as her apprentice. Resentment escalates between the twins Rool (Robert John) and Toomak (Tony Bonner) when - after defeating a marauding tribe - Mak names Toomak as his successor and takes the defeated chief's daughter Nala (Julie Ege in an overwrought dark wig) as his wife. Even though Toomak saves his brother and his men from a forest tribe, Rool abducts and stakes Nala to a cliff-top pyre; Toomak saves Nala whilst the mute girl stabs an effigy of Rool, sending him falling to his death.

Shot in South West Africa, CREATURES THE WORLD FORGOT was another of freelance writer/producer Michael Carreras' attempts to lure Hammer away from their gothic underpinning. Unable to secure the budgets for his extravagant fantasies, the studio's fourth cave girl picture also excluded any cumbersome stop-motion dinosaurs that had delayed ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. and WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH. But the studio also felt the picture could genuinely do without them anyway, punting the production into the then vogue of nihilistic, allegorical fantasies such as if... and 2001. For the late 60's/early 70's cinemagoer, there seemed no room for family-friendly adventures, typified by the box office failure of Ray Harryhausen's dino-cowboy epic THE VALLEY OF GWANGI; as the stop-motion master has noted, "a naked dinosaur just wasn't outrageous enough."

Julie Ege was far from happy with the long shoots in the Namib desert. Homesick and away from a newborn child, the actress also disliked her dark wig and cut-price bikini.

Before even a distribution deal or script was in place, Hammer commissioned Tom Chantrell to produce three concept posters, one of which even pitched a modern setting with jet fighters. Another outlandish concept came from Jeremy Burnham, who envisioned a subterranean world of murderous bat people, a story which was dismissed for the project but assigned another of Hammer's "posters", WHEN THE EARTH CRACKED OPEN. What eventually transpires is a gruntfest which fails to elaborate on its only interesting concept, that of the primeval mysticism and relationship between the characters played by Fox and Crutchley (and for creatures we are limited to an oryx, wildebeest and python).

CREATURES THE WORLD FORGOT acts as both a limp finale for Hammer's prehistoric filmography and the non-start of Ege as an international starlet. Aside from the studio's publicity fanfare, in reality it was the press coverage the Norwegian gained from her largely naked role in Marty Feldman's EVERY HOME SHOULD HAVE ONE that swung the casting choice. Subsequently Ege appeared in a handful of "last gasp" horror and sex pictures and retired from the industry soon after Derren Nesbitt's bawdy THE AMOROUS MILKMAN; working largely in the Oslo public health sector after training as a nurse, she succumbed to breast cancer in 2008.

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.