Wednesday, December 24, 2014

"Perfectly dry"

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


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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 15, 2014

"Mine shall inherit"

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 1, 2014

"Traces of uneasiness impinge"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Moonage Daydreams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Green and Unpleasant Land

PLAY FOR TODAY - ROBIN REDBREAST (1970)
THE SHOUT (1978)
THE MAD DEATH (1983)

Esteemed TV players Bernard Hepton and Anna Cropper's different world's collide in the rural horror ROBIN REDBREAST.

BROADCAST as part of the BBC's PLAY FOR TODAY strand, ROBIN REDBREAST is a folk horror rarity that acts as a precursor and influence to the more hard-hitting THE WICKER MAN and BLOOD ON SATAN'S CLAW. Written by John Bowen and directed by James MacTaggart, it is the story of Norah Palmer (Anna Cropper), a London-based TV script editor who temporarily escapes to the country in order to recuperate after a break-up. But with mice scurrying in the walls, birds coming down the chimney and local eccentrics like housekeeper Mrs Vigo (Freda Bamford) and Mr Fisher (Bernard Hepton) dispensing weird customs, Anna becomes increasingly isolated and lost within her new environment. When she falls pregnant after a one-night stand with SS-obsessed gamekeeper Rob (Andrew Bradford) - who she first encounters practising karate in the woods wearing only his underpants - Anna is embroidered in a conspiracy to prevent her leaving the village.

The class struggle theme is amplified by Anna being such a liberated, modern woman and Rob a himbo who looks to the history of the Third Reich to generate monosymbolic conversation. They have nothing in common but sleep together in the onset of fear, instincts which adhere to the programme's yearning to turn back to more straightforward times. The countryside may be full of shunned micro societies, but can the urban development of "civilised" post-war Britain - and the intrusion of the outsider - really ever erode the colour of tradition and ritual from a brutal prehistory? Talky but engrossing, ROBIN REDBREAST's slow burning dictum - and the inclusion of snobbish London friends Madge (Amanda Walker) and Jake (Julian Holloway) - makes a case that our green and unpleasant land will always govern our prudish endeavours.
 
The soul of a housewife is manipulated by a magical stranger in THE SHOUT; reverting to an Aboriginal state, Rachel scuttles on all fours through her cluttered kitchen.

Though THE SHOUT is connected with Aboriginal Outback culture, and was the first British film of Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski, Englishness seeps through every frame. Shot in and around Braunton Burrows and Saunton Sands in North Devon - a stone's throw from this writer's home - the film shows a cricket match between the staff and inmates of an asylum. One of the patients, Charles Crossley (Alan Bates), is running the scoring hut, where he tells Robert (Tim Curry) a strange story ("every word of what I'm going to tell you is true. Although I'm telling it in a different way, it's always the same story … I vary it a little because I like to keep it alive.") Told in flashback, we see married couple Anthony (John Hurt) and Rachel (Susannah York); Anthony is a Church organist/composer, and Rachel a staid housewife. Crossley appears and announces that he has returned from eighteen years in the Australian outback, where he lived among the Aborigines and studied their magic. Even though the stranger tells the couple of him killing his own children, Crossley moves in with Anthony and Rachel permanently, establishing a spell over the household.

An ambitious but ultimately perplexing film, THE SHOUT opens with the featured couple asleep on a beach, both having the same dream of a witch doctor in a tailcoat. Crossley explains this was one of his teachers, and we learn more about the strangers powers: the ability to take another man's wife by simply keeping an item of her clothing - in this case a sandal buckle - and the secret of The Shout, a cry so despairing that it can kill. Crossley creates a disquieting, intimate awkwardness, made the more terrifying because his incantations are introduced naturally into country village life. The production's otherworldly quality is further enhanced by its use of an electronic and avant-garde score by Genesis linchpins Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford. In fact the film's haunting central theme 'From the Undertow' was the opening track on Banks' solo debut album A Curious Feeling released a year later.

The THREADS of the Rabies world, the BBC Scotland drama THE MAD DEATH was made two years before its eventual transmission date.

In this age of bird flu and ebola, it is easy to forget that in the 80's Rabies was the virulent virus. The BBC had already featured the condition in a third season episode of SURVIVORS - MAD DOG by Don Shaw, screened in 1977 - which provided the already decimated population with another catastrophe, but THE MAD DEATH tackles Rabies full-on. Based on the Nigel Slater book of the same name, writer Sean Hignett and director Robert Young examine the effects of a notional outbreak of "the mad death" on our shores. Opening with a titles sequence where a voice whispers 'All Things Bright and Beautiful' over a distorted image of a fox, the terror begins when an infected cat is smuggled by her owner from France into Scotland. When the feline is run over by a car, its body is eaten by a fox. The spread amongst the animal population goes undetected until the first human, womanising American businessman Tom Siegler (Ed Bishop), befriends the infected animal. After Siegler is confirmed with the disease in hospital, the government calls in leading Rabies specialist Michael Hilliard (Richard Heffer) and Doctor Anne Maitland (Barbara Kellerman). Maitland's jealous partner Johnny Dalry (Richard Morant) creates a tepid love triangle which fails to hold interest against a number of alarmingly brutal scenes.

By addressing humanity's fear of disease with a love of animals, THE MAD DEATH has a solid premise. While most commentators mention the shopping centre containment in episode two as the highlight, the slow-burning demise of Tom in the first part is more dramatically satisfying. Benefitting from focuses on the declining health of the businessman for a continuous large portion of running time, we follow Siegler through the various stages of the disease, starting off with headaches, disorientation, and blurred vision; and in medical care, having hallucinations of being strangled, as hydrophobia takes hold. If the story seems pedestrian after the shopping centre sequence, it only serves as a foundation to the barnstorming final act, which depicts a still difficult to watch cull and creepy scenes within the home of Miss Stonecroft (Brenda Bruce) - the obligatory demented pet-obsessed loner - which includes the capture of Maitland and Stonecroft's attempt to feed her cat food and milk. Of the performances, Bishop shines as the charismatic American, as confident and chatty as the English cast are reserved and stiff upper-lipped. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

Experiment in Fear

THE QUIET ONES (2013)

"What did you expect? My head to spin around?" Debutant Olivia Cooke's performance is the highlight of Hammer's otherwise messy THE QUIET ONES. Similar to the 1970's era of Classic Hammer, where the studio struggled against an onslaught of progressive American cinema, the production ignores an interesting premise to portray a bias of shock.

THIS "Hammer production" actually encompasses five companies, five producers, and four screenplay credits. No wonder the result is uneven, illustrating a collage of styles from found footage to retro supernatural terror. The picture begins at Oxford University in 1974, where chain-smoking Professor Coupland (Jared Harris) - assisted by students Krissi (Erin Richards) and Harry (Rory Fleck-Byrne) - is experimenting on troubled Jane Harper (Olivia Cooke). Coupland believes that the power of the human mind far outweighs any paranormal possibility ("you're not possessed, you're just unwell"), and the Professor hires cameraman Brian McNeil (Sam Clafin) to document events. But with funding suddenly withdrawn, the project moves to an isolated house where several manifestations take place and a scar on Jane's skin is unveiled. Brian researches the case of Evey Dwyer, a young girl raised in a satanic cult, but it transpires Jane is Evey, who unleashes her powers to murder the academics and leave Brian institutionalised.

The much overused "based on true events" tag here relates to an exercise set in motion during 1972 by the Toronto Society for Psychical Research. The members aimed to explore the Tibetan Buddist concept of "thoughtforms" by "willing" a ghost into existence. The group began by creating "Philip Aylesford", providing a backstory that he was an aristocratic Englishman living in the middle 1600's. After falling in love and concealing the gypsy Margo from his wife Dorothea, Aylesford commits suicide after being stricken with remorse by not defending his lover after she is burned at the stake. Initially meditating on the history of the character then holding séances, unsurprisingly there were no visitations, only an example of unconscious will within a proposed environment. This notion of a collective human hallucination is reduced to sensationalism for the picture: Jane/Evey not only seems to be mischievously channelling evil spirits akin to THE EXORCIST - after all, William Friedkin's tour-de-force was released in the UK in the year of the film's setting - but also sees the character emotionally lashing out in CARRIE vein, and a final third reverts to PARANORMAL ACTIVITY. At least the narrative makes effective use of Krissi's hot pants and Slade's 'Cum on Feel the Noize.'

Friday, August 15, 2014

Ghoulish Murders at the Dark House

THE GHOUL (1933)
MURDER IN THE RED BARN (1935)
SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET (1936)
CRIMES AT THE DARK HOUSE (1940)


Boris Karloff carves a hieroglyph onto his chest in THE GHOUL. Assumed to be lost since screenings in 1938 - at least in a viewable print - a perfect negative of this Gaumont-British film surfaced in a forgotten vault at Shepperton in the early 1980's.

THE pictures under consideration here exist in two twilight zones of cinema, development arcs that bridge silents to talkies, then defuse staged melodrama to open up more erudite levels of performance. THE GHOUL sees Boris Karloff return home after achieving stardom with Universal - in a film influenced by those golden horrors - while the three Tod Slaughter releases play as last gasps to Victorian Gothic, a tradition of spectacle illustrated by the lurid Penny Dreadfuls and Madame Tussaud's Chamber of Horrors. In THE GHOUL - very loosely adapted from Frank King's 1928 bestseller - Egyptologist Professor Morlant (Karloff) believes that his devotion to Anubis and possession of 'The Eternal Light' jewel will resurrect him and give him immortality. He forces his manservant Laing (Ernest Thesiger) to bind the jewel into his palm on his deathbed, but after being entombed in the family mausoleum with the stone stolen from his grasp, Morlant returns from the grave to stalk those he suspects betrayed him.

In front and behind the camera, THE GHOUL was given star treatment. Together with Karloff and Thesiger, the sterling thespian cast also includes Cedric Hardwicke as Morlant's attorney Broughton, and a young Ralph Richardson as snooping parson Hartley. Cinematographer Gunther Krampf creates a musty ambience, and Louis Levy provides a stirring score. But it is hardly the classic heralded by critics upon its R1 DVD restoration in 2003, as viewers will find their patience tried by T. Hayes Hunter's languid pacing, pregnant pauses and over-stated dialogue and dramatics, as the picture crawls to its non-supernatural, SCOOBY DOO climax. Karloff, who, to the film's detriment, disappears for a large portion of the prolonged 80m running time, obviously uses his role as Im-Ho-Tep from Karl Freund's THE MUMMY as the prototype here, with the distinctive make-up - devised by the specifically imported Henrich Heitfeld - swathed in thick wrinkles and scar tissue so prominent as to occlude one eye almost completely.

Tod Slaughter in MURDER AT THE RED BARNAlthough Karloff, Lionel Atwill, Charles Laughton and Claude Rains were successfully exported to Hollywood, Slaughter was Britain's first home-grown horror star.

Born Norman Carter Slaughter in March 1886 and adapting the name Tod in 1925, this English actor and stage proprietor became infamous for his melodramatic performances in macabre theatre and film adaptations (as Jonathan Rigby points out in English Gothic, "[Slaughter's] villainy is redolent of boiled beef and carrots gone rancid.") It is said he briefly retired from acting to become a chicken farmer at the start of the 1930's, but he was soon back touring theatres with his trademark repertoires. Exploiting his toothy grin, throaty voice and amphibious façade, Slaughter was publicised as 'Mr Murder' in the 1931 New Theatre run of 'The Crimes of Burke and Hare,' and shortly after played urban legend Sweeney Todd for the first of over 2,000 performances. Consequently, the persona of an over-the-top lunatic gripped his character similar to the career not necessarily always enjoyed by Bela Lugosi with Dracula. By the early 1950's the public's appetite for melodrama have abated and Slaughter went bankrupt. He continued to act in stage productions such as 'The Gay Invalid' opposite Peter Cushing and was still performing to the very end, dying of coronary thrombosis in February 1956. This timescale conveniently connects the coming of Hammer and the more sophisticated performances of Cushing and Christopher Lee.

In 1935, at the age of 49, he started in a run of poverty row pictures with MURDER AT THE RED BARN. Based on the true story of 1827, Slaughter plays Squire William Corder, who seduces farmer's daughter Maria Marten (Sophie Stewart) then murders and buries her beneath a barn floor - "you shall be a bride, a bride of death!" - after discovering she is pregnant. This does not fall into Corder's plan at all, as he aims to marry a wealthy spinster to pay off a dicing debt. In the darkly humorous finale, Corder's own dog marks the spot where Marten is buried, the Squire forced to dig to incriminate himself knowing one of his pistols lies by the body; there is further irony when Corder is hanged by a volunteer executioner, Gypsy Carlos (Eric Portman), Maria's lover. Flaunting its stage origins by starting with a Master of Ceremonies in front of a painted backdrop, Slaughter's portrayal of the seemingly cordial Squire morphing into a gambling murderer provided a template for a career of maniacal dual personalities.

Californian Sleazemeister and rockabilly musician Johnny Legend presented this DVD double-bill of SWEENEY TODD and CRIMES AT THE DARK HOUSE.

A year later Slaughter reprised his most famous stage role for the screen. In SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET, the eponymous character "polishes off" wealthy customers who sit in a mechanical barber's chair which dumps them head-first down into the basement; there, the victims are ready to have their throats cut ("a lovely lot of throats, the lot of 'em ... rich and mellow to the razor.") Neighbour Mrs Lovatt (Stella Rho) disposes of the bodies by processing them in pies for a share of the stolen money (but similar to Marten's pregnancy in MURDER AT THE RED BARN, this is only implied). Todd has an eye for Johanna Oakley (Eve Lister), who is in love with seaman Mark (Bruce Seton), and in a Slaughteresque twist both these characters adapt a more literal disguise to fool the demon barber, eventually plunging him down his own trap door to an infernal damnation. This is Slaughter's consistently most entertaining picture, with the actor at his cackling, vindictive and money-grabbing best, and rife with double entendre (at one point he leers at Mark "when I'm finished with you, you won't know yourself.")

Loosely based on Wilkie Collins' 1859 ground-breaking detective/mystery novel The Woman in White, CRIMES AT THE DARK HOUSE
opens with in the gold fields of Australia, where Slaughter creeps into a tent to kill Sir Percival Glyde by hammering a tent peg into his ear. Assuming Percival's identity in order to inherit his English estate, on arrival back in Blightey the scheming prospector discovers that the Glyde's are in fact bankrupt. Benefitting from higher production values - which included future Hammer designer Bernard Robinson's first gothic sets - there is also a more convoluted but dramatically satisfying storyline, encompassing an insane illegitimate daughter, a blackmailing doctor, mistaken identities and the obligatory impregnation and murder of a maid. Slaughter may be at his most archetypal for SWEENEY TODD, but CRIMES sees his most polished, sly and sexually sardonic performance. Almost every line is delivered in a suggestive manner, and his lascivious excitement at bedding his new reluctant bride is particularly depraved.