Saturday, December 2, 2006

Civil Warlock

WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1968)

WITCHFINDER GENERAL was released as THE CONQUERER WORM in the United States, as illustrated by Midnite Movies’ busy DVD case art. AIP had Vincent Price recite Poe’s poem The Conqueror Worm over the credits, in the aim to cash-in on their success with the Roger Corman pictures (note the totally redundant Pendulum motif).

WITH the exception of PEEPING TOM (1960), no British horror film carries more critical baggage than WITCHFINDER GENERAL. Dubbed "the most persistently sadistic and morally rotten film I’ve seen" by Alan Bennett, rarely has movie violence been used so legitimately. Co-produced by Tigon – British exploitation’s most endearingly downmarket film company - and AIP, only Michael Armstrong’s MARK OF THE DEVIL (1969) suggests the same rural cruelty in the witch-torturing subgenera. Set in pastoral East Anglia during the Civil War between Cromwell's Roundheads and King Charles's Cavaliers, Vincent Price stars as the pious opportunist Matthew Hopkins, the self-appointed General who profited from the chaos by ‘discovering’ witches among the peasantry. The film has long been a cult item, in part because its talented 25-year-old director, Michael Reeves, died of an accidental barbiturates overdose shortly following release, but mainly because it is an extraordinarily bleak story of political evil.

Often described as a Suffolk Western, the film has a robust autumnal quality that perfectly suits its setting, and cinematically it bears the mark of the late 1960s - there's an overabundance of zooms, and an easy reliance on the brutality of brightly hued gore. The white-gloved Witchfinder is both implacable and terrifying, a distillation which is simultaneously unfathomable and, sadly, recognisable. With the character of Hopkins at its centre, WITCHFINDER GENERAL takes a despairing view of the human condition every bit as gruelling as the outbursts of violence which punctuate it. Reeves shows bloodshed as a communicable disease, engulfing everyone from young and old; when Roundhead Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy) tackles brutal henchman John Stearne (Robert Russell), and then hacks Hopkins to death with an axe, his initial boyish likeability seems like a forlorn memory.

The sinister figure of Matthew Hopkins casts a long shadow over horror fiction, folklore and history.

Reeves’ reputation quickened almost immediately after his death. Whether he was cinema’s Keats or its Ian Curtis, we are, however, in the same light-constricted forests, and under the low thatched ceilings, that are forever Terence Fisher’s Slavic Europe. Yet WITCHFINDER GENERAL equates the English Civil War with the culture clashes of the 1960s. Witchfinders are allowed to call victims’ perpetrators as part of a moral vacuum that exists on the ungoverned fringes of any unrest. Loitering military bands, and forgotten human carcasses decaying in the bracken, are both social consequences in the breakdown of the system, allowing starvation and criminal behaviour. There is no Evil Incarnate, only perpetual corruption.

No matter how well the director captures the atmosphere of 17th century religious upheaval and moral hysteria, the real Hopkins – and the social context in which he operated – remain less well known. Qualifying his actions through religion, and aided by Stearne’s boiling Puritan blood, between 1645 and 1647 it is suspected that Hopkins was directly or indirectly associated with as many as 200 executions - if not by his direct "examinations", then by his murderous, and seemingly omnipotent influence. It can be said that Stearne was the adrenalin of Hopkins, but not the greed. One of the most significant contributions to the legend was Ronald Bassett’s Witch-finder General (1966), a novel which posed as source material for the film, where Hopkins is portrayed as a middle-aged Ipswich lawyer who reinvents himself as "a black-winged Attila, leaving behind him a trail of gibbet-hung corpses." But Hopkins was not so much the leader of the movement as an adjutant. It took a lot of people to hang a witch – witnesses, magistrates, clerks, executioners et al – so the witchfinder gave confidence to act. To call Hopkins a vindictive monster is to refuse to understand the hazardous potential of his followers; the same could be said about Hitler and Osama-bin-Laden. It was only after his death that people slowly began to see the error of their ways. The undertones of misery and guilt pushed the Hopkins persona into a legendary rather than historic mindset; children’s fairy tales would take on characters with tall buckled hats, knee-length boots and long knotted staffs, manifesting into an incubus. One could even suggest that the Child Catcher (Robert Helpmann) in CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG (1968) has something of Hopkins about him.

In one of his most humourless roles, Vincent Price was never better as the screen Hopkins.

Price classically renders Hopkins here, romanticising the events around the character, but WITCHFINDER GENERAL is extremely accurate in its interpretation of the accusation, torture and forced confession. The General is unshakeably matter-of-fact as he hangs, drowns, burns and has needles pushed into his victims, his face and voice convey comparatively little, even the sexual subtext implied by his interest in Sara (Hilary Dwyer). Price’s performance is not so much restrained but stone cold, and it can be argued that Peter Cushing’s interpretation of the Hopkins character, as Gustav Weil in Hammer’s TWINS OF EVIL (1972), is closer to the real-life person. Price, by 1968, was inseparable from carnival-host and Freudian-camp. Reeves, who had wanted the tyrant to be played by Donald Pleasence, felt that Price’s tongue-in-cheek approach to horror was wrong for the role. Exactly how Reeves achieved this radical shift in the actor’s tone is now legend. Clearly, he and his star did not get along, but the friction is attributed to various causes. One publicity photo taken on set shows the two antagonists together - Price in full costume clad in black, hunched over and solemn, and Reeves in a white polo-neck facing in the opposite direction - the impression is of two figures worlds apart.

Wednesday, November 1, 2006

Scoptophilia Now

PEEPING TOM (1960)

Director Michael Powell. Speaking of PEEPING TOM: "It vanished for twenty years, and I vanished with it."

MICHAEL Powell’s collaboration with Hungarian Emeric Pressburger – which gave the British film industry a string of hits such as A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH (1946), THE RED SHOES (1948) and THE TALES OF HOFFMAN (1951) – reveals strong elements of the fantastic. The work of Powel and Pressburger is often fragmented with emotional excess and hysterical behaviour, defying any classical sense of balance or order; their cinema is instilled with a magical and transcendent quality, in which the relationship between image and music is closely linked. In what Powell has called ‘the composed film,’ editing, dialogue, camera and actor movement all take on a strongly predetermined rhythmic and choreographed dimension. But the filmmakers also concerned themselves with documenting anxieties about the highly industrialised post-war British culture in which connections to the mythical and mystical past are suppressed or denied. THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP (1943) is perhaps the richest example of the tendency for them in creating a film which is at once a highly stylised fantasy, an analysis of British culture, and a meditation on the meaning and construction of cinematic images.

Few releases have as strange and tortured a destiny as Powell’s PEEPING TOM. Made without the involvement of Pressburger, and scripted by Leo Marks, the film was unanimously savaged by critics – branded everything from "destructive" to "necrophilic." Powell's sympathetic portrait of mild-mannered serial killer Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) was a bold and subversive risk that instantly destroyed the heralded director's career (this treatment apparently extended to Powell dressing the character in his own clothes). Mark ultimately emerges as a disturbed but very human figure, and such sensitivity was too much for the critics, who were unable to see past its foreground prurience and wicked humour. Today, thanks largely to a 1980 revival by Powell enthusiast Martin Scorsese, the film is rightly seen as one of the genre’s key achievements. Lewis, working as a focus puller, is the victim of a monstrously dominating father, who remorselessly subjected him to a campaign of constant monitoring during childhood in the name of scientific research. These experiences have turned Mark into a voyeur with an obsession with fear, and his killing is fed by a compulsion to capture on film the exact expression of his victims at the moment of death.

There are subtle hints of Peter Lorre in Carl Boehm’s portrayal of serial killer Mark Lewis. The character approaches life like a director, suffering for his art and being a technician of emotions.

PEEPING TOM is the first meaningful monograph about the act of watching horror films. In her feminist essay Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema, Laura Mulvey analyses the way movies tend to film women and argues, among other things, that the camera’s view point is rarely gender neutral, but usually has a "male gaze". Although it predates Mulvey’s essay by fifteen years, PEEPING TOM manifests many of the kind of criticisms she discusses, making it an exercise that also critiques the form and practice of movie making and spectatorship. The fact that Powell is implicating the filmgoers - along with Lewis - as voyeurs was not missed by the critics. As the blind alcoholic Mrs Stephens (Maxine Audley) warns - "all this filming isn't healthy" - Powell's own understanding of the motion picture impulse allows him to explore this idea, implicating the filmmakers, and his audience, in Mark's pathology. This ‘viewer-as-participant’ notion can also be attributed to Eli Roth’s HOSTEL (2005), with the connection between the ticket-buying cinemagoer and the paying-for-torture of its narrative. But hostility for PEEPING TOM was further fuelled by the fact that Powell cast himself as Mark's sinister father, and his own son, Columba, as the young Mark. Brian Easdale’s racing, silent film style piano music intensifies these nightmarish home movies of systematised child abuse even further.

PEEPING TOM was released in the same year as Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO, and signalled the start of horror films moving away from gothic mansions and monsters into a more contemporary world where evil is an aspect of the human psyche. In both of these films sex functions as a dirty secret, and it is possible to argue that Hitchcock’s commercial success at exploiting this secret despite initial critical disfavour was a crucial factor in determining the future sensationalism of sex and violence in American cinema, just as much as Powell’s commercial failure closed off a similar avenue of representation in Britain. The two films share certain thematic similarities - voyeurism, an unusually frank (for the time) treatment of sexuality - but the two leading anti-heroes, Mark and Norman Bates, are both timid, young, lonely men, who appear polite, tidy and reserved. Indeed, Mark’s awkward and childlike romance with Helen Stephens (Anna Massey) seems to have reverted to the only level in which Lewis can communicate with women without killing them. Metaphorically, the camera is portrayed as a phallic symbol. When we first see Mark’s camera it is held in his coat at waist level; later, when he is about to go out on a date with Helen, she tries to convince him to leave it behind, saying it is too much a part of him, "I though it was growing into an extra limb." Even the way Mark kills women is phallic: his weapon is a spike concealed in the leg of a tripod, which must be raised and then unsheathed before he can kill. Consequently, PEEPING TOM implicates that cinema itself can become an instrument of violence. Because of this, it is heartening that the film will, proudly, never be respectable.

Thursday, October 5, 2006

Going Underground

DEATH LINE (1972)
CREEP (2004)


Franka Potente misses the last train in CREEP.

BY the early 1970s, Hammer was stumbling toward an open grave. This decline was illustrated by DRACULA A.D. 1972 (1972), a deeply misguided attempt to lure back some patronage by locating the Prince of Darkness among the groovy Chelsea set. Placed alongside the burgeoning new wave of American horrors - socially relevant releases such as Wes Craven's LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972) – the “studio that dripped blood” perished because of this inability to adapt to a world beyond Home Counties Transylvania. But British horrors also typically endured disastrous relations with everybody from their distributors downward. Two important UK releases – PEEPING TOM (1960) and WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1968) – were both badly mishandled on release, and vilified in the national press. Although labelled repellent by British critics, DEATH LINE nevertheless tapped into the new-style unpleasantness being perfected by the US independents. The film is the tale of a lone cannibal stalking Russell Square tube station, as Inspector Calhoun (Donald Pleasence) uncovers a truth that the authorities would prefer remain buried. The Man (Hugh Armstrong) – riven by septicaemic plague and given to biting the heads off rats - is a sorrowful survivor of a race who have incestuously bred and fed on each other and hapless Londoners. A dispossessed spectre from a Victorian past, the only vocabulary at his disposal – “Mind the doors” – is typical of DEATH LINE’s uncomfortable blend of pathos and black humour.

DEATH LINE’s political themes - the collapse of Empire, class exploitation and high level corruption - were particularly relevant in the early 1970s. The humanity of the film’s aboveground characters is questioned from the outset. Backed with hilariously kitsch striptease music, bowler-hatted civil servant James Manfred OBE (James Cossins) tours the fleshpots of Soho and propositions women on platforms; we later learn that his luxurious home has closed-circuit TV in the bedrooms. Similarly, Calhoun is a humorous but ultimately mean-spirited character (we also get a glimpse of his conspicuously lonely bedroom), and Christopher Lee’s cameo as Stratton-Villiers MI5, complete with furled umbrella and Old Etonian tie, sneers at the proletarians. Conditions belowground are explored in the virtuoso 360-degree long, leisurely malingering pan of The Man’s den, culminating in his moaning over a dying companion (June Turner). Indeed, the skeletal sets and fetid atmosphere clearly acted as a key inspiration behind Robert Burns’ design for THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974).

One of the partially consumed cadavers suspended from a wall in the neglected gem DEATH LINE (affectionately released as RAW MEAT in the United States).

Christopher Smith’s modestly budgeted CREEP also held its own against the US independent releases of the early noughtees. The eponymous Creep (Sean Harris) has played an involuntary part in a programme within a covert surgical unit beneath Charing Cross station. The Creep becomes a surprisingly complex character: the absence of light, language, and love has turned this pale boy into a feral freak. More animal than man, his speech consists mostly of inhuman screeching as he hunts, snares and tortures anything in his path. But he also retains an unusual curiosity - at times almost sportive, as if playing hide and seek with his quarry. When Creep straps a homeless female (Kelly Scott) to an obstetrician’s chair, he prepares to operate as would a child playing doctor; donning a gown and surgical gloves, he pretends to anaesthetise before one of the most unmitigated acts of violence ever committed to celluloid. Regrettably there are plot holes large enough to drive a train through, but CREEP is fast-moving fare which benefits greatly from its haunting perspectives of the tube's otherworldly look, focusing on ominous low arches, ambiguous sewage tunnels, and oppressive crawlspaces.

DEATH LINE and CREEP both successfully adapt a particular legend to the screen. The subterranean tunnels of London are rich in urban myths - ghosts searching platforms for loved-ones, killer rats of phenomenal size, and walled-up trains with cargoes of skeletons - but its most famous story remains that of a race of Troglodyte dwellers. Viewing these films, we can appreciate the sensitive process that eventually manifests as local legends. By means of these myths, we maintain a sense of what we are worth and who we are, a romantic response to our perception of the London Underground that manifests a certain fear in contrast to what we can see and touch. As cinematic experiences, they are cannibal films with a conscience. Analogies between man and monster – and how far a man can degenerate and remain human – are not difficult to draw. Yet society is the real villain, the kind of capitalist state that abandons its disenfranchised children, and denying them their essence.

Wednesday, September 6, 2006

Thatcherite Phantom

V for Vendetta (1982-85, 88-89)
V FOR VENDETTA (2006)

An appealing portrait for V FOR VENDETTA, depicting V in a Phantom of the Opera-like enveloping of Evey.

WRITTEN by Alan Moore and illustrated by David Lloyd, the comic strip V for Vendetta debuted in the launch issue of Warrior in March 1982. Set in (the then) distant 1997, it depicts a Britain which has been spared from nuclear destruction, but is ruled by the fascist Norsefire regime, who have restored peace at the cost of personal freedom and privacy. This government have rounded up and killed everyone they consider subversive – blacks, gays and radicals – leaving a docile and scared populace held by a combination of a super-computer (state-owned radio broadcasts its propagandistic and reassuring lecture to the people as ‘The Voice of Fate’) and the secret police (‘Fingermen’). Into this mix arrives V, an anarchist and terrorist in a Guy Fawkes mask, who is enacting an elaborate and specific revenge. Speaking largely in rhyme, quotation and lyric, V rescues young Evey Hammond from the secret police, and introduces her to the ‘Shadow Gallery,’ an underground hideout filled with his large collection of banned and suppressed books, music and art.

Although the original impetus for its dystopian vision was a passionate protest against Thatcherite greed and anti-unionism, the story is a cocktail of influences as disparate as Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) and the Vincent Price vehicle THE ABOMINABLE DR PHIBES (1971). V for Vendetta’s ideological struggle still stands amongst the best of Moore; it works as a detective story, futuristic thriller and an action adventure, yet V’s brand of faceless and remorseless violence seems as dictatorial as the fascist ideal. V blows up buildings and is a cold-blooded murderer, a torturer and a manipulator. If ordinary people are caught within this struggle, the suggestion is that they have made their own cage. But beyond V’s rebellious aims he also reminds about identity and integrity. Change may be painful, but V channels and directs his anarchy to a specific goal – ultimately, the character becomes more than his menagerie of ideas, he becomes a force, pursuing his vendettas and preaching his values until his vision is vindicated. This is why Evey becomes V at the end of the story; while the first V was a destroyer, the next V will be a teacher and builder of the cause.

V’s actual appearance - a Guy Fawkes papier mache mask, cape and conical hat – was the idea of artist David Lloyd. Here V is the cover story from issue 5 of the comics fanzine Infinity, published in 1984.

The film version, written and produced by the Wachowski brothers and directed by their former assistant James McTeigue, adds nothing to the original and subtracts a great deal – most crucially, Moore’s paean to anarchism. Too much of the political fable falls back on posing and fireworks, unsurprisingly turning the comic’s grim and grey 1980s into a IMAX-friendly technological sheen. Evey (Natalie Portman) is no longer a factory waif on the point of prostitution, but an office girl (a new sub-plot involving Stephen Fry as a gay rebel is as pointless as it is irritating). Worthy of note, however, is Hugo Weaving as V, in what must have been the least sought-after leading male role of the season. Purring lengthy speeches with the insidious tones of a 1970s TV voiceover, his body language and head-tilts effectively convey seething emotions behind his immobile mask.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Fragile Geometry

DON’T LOOK NOW (1973)

John aimlessly clutches Christine in the harrowing opening to the film.

ARGUABLY the most commercial and, in many respects, completely satisfying films by the erratically brilliant Nicolas Roeg, this provocative work has lost little of its power to challenge, shock, and amaze. Roeg is one of Britain’s most adventurous directors, stretching the potential of cinema through a masterly montage of raw emotions, complex time-leaps and splintered narratives, and examining characters forced into a journey of self-exploration when cut adrift from their usual moral and physical milieu. Based on a story by Daphne Du Maurier, DON’T LOOK NOW is a beautifully sensual and restrained horror film, yet it also suggests a world that is perilous, cruel and out of control. Superficially calm, it is an eerie labyrinth that gets under your skin and stays there, underpinned by a constant sense of foreboding that erupts into bloody violence only at the climax; it is a love story with only one love scene, and a study of grief during which nobody cries. This makes the work characteristic of the same peculiar Englishness which informs films as different as BRIEF ENCOUNTER (1945) and THE INNOCENTS (1961).

Beginning with every parent’s nightmare – the tragic death of a child – DON’T LOOK NOW examines how grief can overpower emotion, but is cautiously optimistic in its portrayal of how love can transcend death. In the perfectly edited opening sequence, art restorer John Baxter (Donald Sutherland) and his wife Laura (Julie Christie) find their idyllic English country afternoon shattered by the accidental drowning of their young daughter, Christine (Sharon Williams). John experiences an unsettling psychic vision during the tragedy that proves to be a portent of things to come. During lunch at a restaurant in Venice, where John has been brought in to work on a precious holy fresco in the city, the couple are approached by a blind English medium, Heather (Hilary Mason), who informs the
m that their daughter is expressing happiness and messages of reassurance from the afterlife. During this time the streets of Venice are haunted by a series of gruesome murders - the bodies found drifting in the canals – and John's further visions may be related to a strange figure in a red coat.

Sharon Williams gives a brief, yet memorable, performance as doomed Christine Baxter.

The opening drowning takes place with almost unbearable force and intense awareness, a series of cuts that contain all the keys to the remainder of the film. Roeg's image system is all important, and this sequence introduces the key motifs of the picture; water, both as a source of life and death and as something which needs to be crossed if two people are to be connected; separation, literal or metaphorical, based on geography, belief or simply the way of seeing things; breaking glass, a potent symbol of an accident; scepticism and belief, how one's refusal to believe what's happening can be a fatal mistake; the difference between appearance and reality, as when John says "Nothing is what it seems"; and, perhaps most memorably, the colour red, whether as a harbinger of danger or a way of focusing the attention on something significant.

Until DON’T LOOK NOW, Venice was always used in films to symbolise romance and passion. But here, Roeg unsettles the viewer right from the start, and the whole movie is suffused with shrouded fog and subliminal clues. The transition from Hertfordshire to the cold, autumnal Venice is achieved with a brilliant jump cut from Laura's scream to the whine of a drill, link
ing the past to the impending horror of the present. Indeed, Venice, similar to the Victorian London in Alan Moore’s From Hell (1988-98), is turned into a character itself; gloomy, and almost totally other. It clouds John's consciousness, rendering him unable to see exactly what is happening as the maze of streets seems to have been designed specifically in order to make the unwary tourist lose their way. The Eternal City seemed to offer comfort and the hope of redemption from the awful feelings of loss but to John Baxter, it provides only terrifying glimpses of a fate which can be delayed but never avoided. Water is everywhere, acting as a reminder of his daughter, and an unavoidable obstacle to getting where he wants to go.

Possessing a star quality and physical presence rare in British cinema, Julie Christie has survived being the representative of a new generation into political activism and grand dame-hood.

DON’T LOOK NOW is a romantic ghost story, but on a deeper level it is also a meditation on perception and fate, where human destiny can be thwarted by a simple misreading of the signs hidden in everyday reality. The film explores what are too fleetingly only referred to as “coincidences,” yet are defining moments of life. The use of colour is especially notable, with all but red being muted and icy blues and greys becoming prominent as John’s search becomes more frustrating. When Baxter pursues the small red-garbed figure at the end of the film, Roeg offers an unforgettable echo back to Prospero’s pursuit of the Red Death in Roger Corman’s THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (1964), a picture in which Roeg acted as cinematographer. Although the film is about death, it is also about love, making it more than just a clever Gothic puzzle. In the performances of Christie and Sutherland, we can believe in the ongoing passion of these two adults for each other. The famous love scene, with its non-linear cutting of the couple dressing for dinner, is not played for the usual cinematic effect of seduction or titilation. Rather, it is a natural scene notable for its candour, and for the fact that it seems to communicate love and not just sexual attraction. Without this scene, the story would seem less engaging and the interim between the Baxter’s last devoted moments together and their subsequent alienation would be left unexplored.

Wednesday, August 2, 2006

War in His World

The Artistic Legacy of H.G. Wells

Chris Moore’s stunning cover to Gollancz Press’ SF Masterworks 24, which collects Wells’ two most popular books – The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds.

NOVELIST, analyst of society, amateur of science and populariser of ideas, H.G. Wells’ astonishing literary career exhibits the guiding passion of a single-minded personality. He believed, above all, in shaping the progress of mankind, and in the destruction that awaited us in the absence of such control. The simple fact is that his mind and vision became so completely possessed by the sense of a crisis in human affairs, that Wells lost patience and more than once decided to give up writing fiction altogether. It was plain, he argued, that social planning on a planetary scale was essential, and that we needed to form a single world community and order. In support of that belief came a flow of words, a torrent of ideas, a mounting spate of enthusiasms from year to year that formed the mental climate of his times, and that made the word Wellsian almost a household term of criticism. Today we can realise how much more than mere fantasies his Scientific Romances were, and how his imagination was excited by the new vistas opened up by scientific conquest.

All too often, Science Fiction writers are misread as prophets, and are judged by predictive success or failure rather than literary accomplishment – yet Wells excelled in all areas. His first true influence on SF literature was The Man of the Year Million (1893), which introduced that potent image of a hyper-evolved man with overdeveloped head, eyes and brain, an impact most famously echoed in Dan Dare’s foe The Mekon. In a technological sense The World Set Free (1914) imagines the use of atomic power in war and peace, but the most remarkable Wells prediction was of tank warfare, long before the outbreak of World War I, in The Land Ironclads (1903). The Ironclads tracked each target in a camera obscura and fire with what we’d now call a joystick. Here, the author anticipated not only today’s remote-controlled slaughter but also the interface of a million computer games.

A Dell edition of The First Men in the Moon, a novel first published in 1901. This work introduces the gravity-shielding material Cavorite, Wells’ most powerful influence on the fringes of science. This incidental device - which allows a low-budget Moon expedition in fiction – led to the establishment of an actual Gravity Research Foundation.

Wells’ genuinely great achievement was to use the apparatus of science to take a long, bleak view of the human condition, and to show how small we appear through the grandeur of the Universe. The real hero of The Time Machine (1895) is not the traveller or his device, but the concept itself – hundreds of thousands of years in which humanity is warped and divided by evolutionary pressures into a class system of effete Eloi and sinister Morlocks, and then billions of years more before that unforgettable vision of Earth’s last crab-like inhabitants on a barren shore under a blood-red dying Sun. The docile Eloi are prototype flower-children, forerunners of the hippie counterculture then seventy year distant, while the whip-wielding, ape-like Morlocks feed off the Eloi in the most literal way. This then-subversive notion that humanity is not the pinnacle of evolution but perhaps just another passing phase was more delicately finessed a year later in The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896). Here, the Doctor’s experiments to “uplift” animals to human form and intelligence in The House of Pain is underpinned by a disquieting sense that – given the story’s premise – the gulf between animal and man cannot be very great. Worshipped with extreme fear by his Manimal subjects, Moreau is the ultimate example of the mad scientist as self-appointed God, a malignant deity given to acts of Old Testament-style wrath and retribution. His relationship to the Beast Folk is a deliberate parody of the Christian conception of God; Moreau is capricious to the Manimals as, in Wells’ view, God is cruel to Man. The Doctor’s attempts to supersede evolution may be abhorrent, but Wells’ intended Moreau to be the hero of the novel, who constructs a rational code of morality to meet the complex requirements of life.

Our chronic delusions of superiority are satirised in Griffin, the megalomaniac antihero of The Invisible Man (1897). Despite its paranoia and grotesquerie, the novel ultimately provides comfort by showing, in miniature, the fate of a would-be fascist dictator when common people unite against him. Wells then gave the British a contrasting shock in The War of the Worlds (1898), in which the fondly cherished Victorian mandate to colonise and civilise the world is inverted. On the surface, The War of the Worlds is an invasion story, but the worries of the late Victorians are expressed through its symbolism and themes, concerns of an end to Empire and a weakening of the national will. His imperialist Martians – “intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic” – set about Earth without regard for its natives, debunking the complacency that assumed the superiority of British firepower, and demonstrating an exhilarating penchant for property damage (a metaphor for Wells’ ruthlessness toward humanity). Another potent Wellsian influence can be detected in these invaders, who are physically feeble and powerful only when linked, cyborg-fashion, with their war machines, thus anticipating everyone’s favourite creatures from DOCTOR WHO, The Daleks.

A portrait of H. G. Wells. The author questioned society’s chances for survival in a world in which technological advances outpaced intellectual development.

The content of all great Science Fiction is partially eclipsed by the “fun stuff.” The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds are magical works, and are as thrilling as anything in Haggard or Kipling. Wells wrote to warn and transform, and his spirit (evoked in such recursive fictions as Michael Moorcock’s The War Lord of the Air (1971) and Stephen Baxter’s The Time Ships (1995)) remain an inspiring presence. But given that Wells touched on just about every major SF theme – with the exception of the alternate reality story – during his prolific career, its arguable that subsequent Science Fiction has simply followed in his wake, updating, reworking and subverting basic genres with varying degrees of accomplishment.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Heroes and Monsters

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (1999- )
THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN (2003)

Peta Wilson is LXG’s Mina Harker. The Australian actress
and model can next be seen in SUPERMAN RETURNS,
in the dizzying role as "flight attendant."
 
WHAT is known today as Steampunk has its beginnings in the early days of Victorian penny dreadfuls and the novels of Jules Verne; an increasingly literate public took advantage of the opportunities for adventure and high romance offered them by Verne, Wells, Haggard, Conan Doyle and Burroughs, as well as the macabre tales of Poe and Hawthorne. Steampunk, is in part, a nostalgic reclamation of Victorian and Edwardian Scientific Romances, Imperialist derring-do and Gothic horrors, reminiscing about a more elegant age that never really existed. Yet the spectre of the Victorian era has never left the discourse of the fantastic for very long; new creators always seem to find themselves returning to this steam-driven crucible, an age of tremendous aesthetic decadence yet sublime heavy industry.

The mannerisms and references Alan Moore drops into his comic book series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen makes it a veritable Steampunk bible. Previously, the Northampton writer has subverted and reinvented myths about superheroes (Watchmen (1986)) and Jack the Ripper (From Hell (1988-98)), and this time he’s taken it further by pulling literature into the graphic medium like never before. Illustrated by Kevin O’Neill, the series is a homage to the grand adventure stories of yesteryear, with a dark slant that only Moore could envision. By applying the conventions of the superhero team-up book to characters of Victorian literature – Mina Murray from Dracula (1897), Allan Quatermain, Captain Nemo, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and The Invisible Man all acting under the auspices of the British Secret Service – the scenario recreates the reading experiences and entertainment we had as children. But we have the best of both worlds – a youthful sense of wonder and a mature reflection upon it.

The League are recognisable characters, not just visually but in terms of their literary and cultural reputations. Beyond that Western readers know them because they represent archetypal characters from Victorian literature, archetypes that are still present in popular culture.

The typical Moore twist is that each of the characters are presented as being somewhat past their prime, and well past their individually known stories. Quatermain, for instance, is rescued from an opium den and a life of dissolution, and Wilhemina Murray, formerly Mina Harker - erstwhile wife of the ill-fated Jonathan Harker - continually conceals her neck after incidents which left her ravaged by a foreign nobleman (i.e. Count Dracula), thus setting her outside of polite society. Therefore, this is not a gathering of squeaky clean heroic individuals, which makes them all the more interesting. With Quatermain an addict, Dr Jekyll threatening to change into Mr Hyde at any stressful moment, and The Invisible Man remaining completely amoral, things are never straightforward.

Moore and O’Neill evidently revel in this new pulp universe. The idea of a Victorian League is just a starting point, with the creative team tirelessly working in the era’s architectural fancies into their fantasy environment. The fact that all characters or names refereed in the strip would have their origin in either fictions written during or before the period in hand, or else in elements from later works that could be retro-engineered into a continuity, has made the series popular with normally non-comic book fans, including Sherlockians and the H. Rider Haggard Appreciation Society. O’Neill renders an intricate world of Empire at its zenith emerging from the filth and squalor of an authentic 19th Century London; his scratchy style is particularly effective with Hyde and Nemo, portraying a brutish appearance and imposing filed fangs for the former, and an appropriate burning gaze for the latter. His pencils are often cartoonish but always precise and full of motion and expression, lending each character, no matter how trivial, a unique sense of personality.

The first volume of stories centre around an amount of Cavorite being stolen by a nefarious crime lord, while the second series is set amongst H.G. Wells’ Martian invasion. Depicted here is the Question Mark Man, a trademark from the first series who tends to have been replaced by a Boadicea figure in the second. In both instances, the symbols resonate with a bygone era.

This freshness of ideas and execution make Stephen Norrington’ 2003 film adaptation even more depressing, despite some astounding set design by Carol Spier. Typically known as LXG, this abomination, starring Sean Connery as Quatermain, starts exploding in your face almost immediately. The movie brings the characters together to battle a supervillain called the Fantom, but uses them like guest stars in some television variety show. As we watch, often dumbstruck, Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend) minces around trying to hide his portrait, and The Invisible Man (Guy Skinner) literally disappears for huge stretches and then reappears with the same annoying cockney accent and bad jokes. And in Venice, where the narrow canals can accommodate the Nautilus, the Fantom's men detonate explosions in the middle of a carnival, while our heroes - who now include, amazingly enough, Mississippi River ragamuffin Tom Sawyer (Shane West) for American interest - race around in a white limousine.

Saturday, July 1, 2006

Moore's Murderer

From Hell (1988-98)
FROM HELL (2001)

Alan Moore has shaped and refined the art of comic book storytelling in a way that no other creator can claim, and may arguably be the mediums only true genius.

NORTHAMPTON scribe Alan Moore was the first modern writer to approach the comic book medium with the same intent and thoughtfulness expected of any successful novel or theatrical production. In an art form that is often dismissed as juvenile, Moore explores adult themes and challenging subjects, but also experiments with form, creating different ways to combine text and image. By adding his own highly tuned sense of playfulness, Moore creates a nexus where readers can embrace some of the deepest aspirations of humankind while exploring the heritage of the comic book universe. From Hell, a post-modern grimoire of Jack the Ripper written by Moore and studiously illustrated by Eddie Campbell, is an exhaustively researched magnum opus, both a baroque conspiracy story and an intricate dissection of the Victorian era. As the Ripper cuts and slashes the "warm corpse of history itself," Moore examines the burgeoning black library of Ripper lore for the facts, then rearranges them in a yarn that transcends the source material.

Starting work on the project exactly a century after the killings it portrays, Moore plays with the idea that the 1880’s were a sort of microcosm of what was going to happen in the 20th century - scientifically, artistically, and politically. The point is not to solve the murders; instead, he is interested in how the crimes have become part of a cultural psyche. Jack the Ripper, in a very real sense, never had a physical existence; he was a collage-creature, made from crank letters, hoaxes, and sensational headlines. Right from their inception, the murders entered the realm of fiction, and the reality of the case has rarely been anything but a sideshow. From Hell presents its Ripper as physician Royal Sir William Gull, commanded by Queen Victoria to suppress the evidence of a bastard born to Prince Albert Victor. Gull decides that he is a magician and that the murders will be acts of social magic, surmising that history itself has a structure, with Freemasonry its architects.

Eddie Campbell illustrates a London that to a large extent no longer exists, yet is arguably the book’s primary character.

One of the greatest attributes of Moore’s work is his deep knowledge of collaboration; his famously detailed scripts are the writer as auteur, but deliberately play to individual artist’s strengths. Through a cinematic sense of place, Campbell’s angry black-and-white renderings effectively convey the Victorians swimming against the tide, brutally bringing to life such realities as street prostitution - the cold, cheap rooms, the alcohol, and biscuits paid for a three pence a fuck (the infamous "thrupenny upright"). As drab as late 19th century London may have been, Moore and Campbell uncover the concealed energy lying below the surface, and From Hell burns with a secret, tragic knowledge.

Adapting the events, but not the narrative focus, of Moore and Campbell’s work, the film version of FROM HELL is imbued with violence, but it is not the violence of the book, rather the macho posturing and strong-arm tactics of Hollywood bad attitude. Scripted and dramatised in the formulaic manner of a serial-killer thriller, FROM HELL is the Whitechapel murders by the way of John Carpenter’s ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981). Director brothers Albert and Allen Hughes give the impression that an American audience might gain if a British production tried to recreate Metropolis; no luminance is allowed to intrude on the film’s studied gloom, nor is their any evidence of industry, only indolence. Apart from the scene where Inspector Abberline (Johnny Depp) and Mary Kelly (Heather Graham) saunter through Hampton Court Gardens, FROM HELL offers no relief from the squalor and dark-age superstition which it sees as epitomising the period. None of this is helped by the screenplay’s decision to have the historically respectable Abberline while away his leisure hours in an opium den, and act as a seer afflicted by precognitive glimpses of the killings.

Heather Graham, hopelessly miscast as Mary Kelly, in the film adaptation of FROM HELL.

The murders themselves are varied and stylish, ranging from SE7EN (1996)-style montages to giallo-influenced throat slashing, but given the film had two hands on the directorial tiller, overall it is conventionally handled. Endless crane shots and a surplus of lap dissolves work against the action; one sequence employs time-lapse photography to show the gathering of a crowds around the body of Polly Nichols, but this is a gimmick used in isolation and reminiscent of the glass-ceiling shot in Alfred Hitchcock’s THE LODGER: A STORY OF THE LONDON FOG (1927). But it is the weak casting of the two leads that is the primary flaw. A glum Depp struggles to maintain his bizarre Scottish/Cockney accent, and Graham radiates a sunny Californian physicality despite her dyed red hair and working girl lilt that would not even pass for a prostitute in modern day Los Angeles, let alone in the mean streets of Victorian London. This problem is amplified further by a superior British supporting cast, including Ian Holm as Gull, and most memorably Jason Flemyng as the Ripper’s coachman, Netley.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Lust of Evil

THE VAMPIRE LOVERS (1970)
LUST FOR A VAMPIRE (1971)
TWINS OF EVIL (1972)

Hammer starlet Madeline Smith in THE VAMPIRE LOVERS.

WITH an absence of fresh avenues for their monsters to explore, and a relaxation of censorship regulations, Hammer turned to J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1871) for inspiration. A curious mix of traditional vampirism and Irish folklore, the novella overtly uses lesbianism to heighten tension and to symbolise abnormality, and was a major influence on Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). By adding this explicit frisson to their already luridly realised baronial halls, village taverns and moonlit woods, the studio’s Karnstein Trilogy - all scripted by Tudor Gates - suggests a more obvious deviance and desire, and a recognised stage in which the drama could be played out.

Roy Ward Baker's THE VAMPIRE LOVERS is historically remarkable for being the first (and only) co-production of Hammer Films and American International Pictures. While this combination looks promising on paper, the result is an uneven attempt to bring the studio into the late 1960’s marketplace by revelling in lesbian couplings and graphic decapitations. In early 19th Century Styria, Carmilla Karnstein (Ingrid Pitt) is insinuated into the household of General Spielsdorf (Peter Cushing), and the death of his niece soon follows. When Emma Morton (Madeline Smith) begins to suffer from fatigue and anaemia, her fate rests in the hands of her young suitor (Jon Finch) and the vengeful fathers of Carmilla’s previous victims. While too mature and earthy to make an ideal Carmilla – Le Fanu wrote her as a young creature unaware of her destructive effects – Pitt nevertheless displays some memorable vampiric anger, including the panting seduction of a governess played by Kate O'Mara. The central theme of the film is the battle between Carmilla’s brood and the repressed, brutal vampire hunters – Cushing’s General and Douglas Wilmer’s Baron Hartog make suitably grim-faced avengers - reinforcing the question of who represents the greater threat; the uninhibited vampires, or the sadistic authority figures.

LUST FOR A VAMPIRE’s lesbian focus is blurred by its heterosexual romance between Mircalla and the writer turned schoolmaster LeStrange (Michael Johnson, the part a fictional representation of Le Fanu himself). This piece of narrative is appropriately centrepiece in this attractive promotional poster.

The hastily conceived LUST FOR A VAMPIRE never raises above a schoolboy level of eroticism, but this mongrel entry has earned a reputation as a Hammer fan’s guilty pleasure. Here, Carmilla Karnstein is reincarnated as Mircalla (Yutte Stensgaard), a luscious seductress who is enrolled at an exclusive girl’s school. The Danish actress is everything a traditional vampire is not: blonde, blue-eyed and with a cleft chin, but she is also enigmatic, mannequin-like and ethereal, with a forbiddingly cold core. The shot of Mircalla sitting upright in her coffin, her bare breasts drenched in the blood of a sacrificial victim, was the company’s most shocking image since Christopher Lee’s entrance in DRACULA (1958). Stensgaard does not possess Pitt’s burning intensity, but her serene, blank-faced detachment is strangely effective.

The final film of the trilogy – TWINS OF EVIL – is, in fact, set 150 years before its predecessors, and is one of the most brutal and brilliant of Hammer’s latter-day oeuvre. Heavily influenced by WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1968), the film substitutes the exploitation of flesh for an intensity and chilling sense of purpose rare in British horror. Madeleine and Mary Collinson, duly cast as titular Frieda and Maria Gelhorn, stay with their puritanical uncle Gustav Weil (Peter Cushing) in conservative middle Europe, where Count Karnstein (Damien Thomas) is pitted against Weil’s witch-hunting sect. Cushing gives one of his finest screen characterisations – unwilling guardian to his wayward nieces by day, and ritually seeking out and burning young girls by night. Weil is blind in his devotion to duty, with his interpretation of good nothing more than an alternate evil to that being woven by Karnstein. His death scene – plunging from the Count’s balcony to the stone staircase below, surrounded by his black-clad brethren - provides one of the most memorable of all climactic tableaux.

Peter Cushing in TWINS OF EVIL. The film went into production nine weeks after the death of the actor’s wife, and his performance bears the unmistakable signs of this bereavement. Consequently, a character that easily could have been no more than a religious zealot is transformed into something much more resonant.

Horror is not an obvious genre for locating positive representatives of women, based as they are in the misogynist mythology of the female as either virgin or whore; in spite of the presence of numerous female vampires, the cinematic representation of predatory women is invariably a negative one. Victorian vampire literature reveals a belief in the vulnerability of young girls to the temptation of the flesh, and vampire cinema merely gives this notion a contemporary spin. A young woman, one bitten, will become shamelessly promiscuous and a threat to decent society. Patriarchal control in the form of fathers, husbands, vampire hunters or witchfinders, can reign in transgressional impulses but when all else fails, death is the only solution. Within the society of the undead, the usual rules apply.

Thursday, June 1, 2006

Murder Across Millennia

THE MUMMY (1959)

Towards the end of the Universal Mummy cycle, the monster devolved into a harmless joke, shambling and closing on his prey with all the menace of a turtle. Hammer makes Christopher Lee’s Kharis a constant threat, an automaton that crushes the throats of his victims.

ALTHOUGH most modern readers have been conditioned by decades of horror stories and movies to expect a Mummy to be intrinsically evil, initial literature portrayed them as intelligent, reasonable and even philosophical beings, such as in Leopardi’s The Dialogue of Frederick Ruysch and his Mummies (1827). It wasn’t until later in the century, however, that the Bad Mummy became a stock device, particularly in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lot No. 249 (1892), which illustrates the shift in tone in the wake of important archaeological discoveries, and the increase in Britain’s involvement and later occupation of Egypt. Hammer’s spin on such mysticism is one of the studio’s most glamorous productions, enriching the expected violence and spectacle with a memorable, melancholy undertow. Continuing director Terence Fisher’s fascination with Gothic Romanticism, THE MUMMY sees John Banning (Peter Cushing) excavating the tomb of Princess Ananka, only to have the mummified corpse of her former lover Kharis (Christopher Lee) instructed to murder the desecrators.

THE MUMMY was one of the last of the first wave of British horror films that enjoyed enormous world-wide success, and may arguably stand as the finest of all Mummy movies. The basic plot is little more than a series of predictable monster attacks, but Jimmy Sangster’s script uses politically-based complexities, as the priggish English battle the vindictive ideologies of the third-world. Mehemet Bey (George Pastell), the devout worshipper acting only out of love for his God, is mercilessly baited and dismissed by colonial contempt. In the most memorable scene, Banning’s midnight visit to Bey - a verbal confrontation between East and West – contains more malice than the violent sequences. Lee’s Kharis is a powerful and fast-moving adversary, a Golem-like juggernaut with a swift and deadly grasp. His human signs of adoration and weakness upon recognition of Isobel Banning (Yvonne Furneaux) as a dead ringer for Ananka, are all communicated through evocative eyes and precise mime; equally striking is the actor’s initial clumsiness after emerging from the swamp, as though unused to manoeuvring his limbs. In stark contrast is Cushing’s subtle performance as the cold fish archaeologist with a pronounced limp and death wish, his emotions as atrophied as the muscles in his leg.

A typically hyperbolic ad mat for THE MUMMY.

The film’s prevailing sense of atmosphere is generated in deeply saturated tones that include eerie greens and rich crimsons (Fisher's wide masters are equally sumptuous and full of detail). Franz Reizenstein's sweeping score is the best in any Hammer film; the main theme carries the weight of a Hollywood Biblical epic, and its cues augment Kharis' murder missions with regal flourishes, and evoke his tenderness when confronted by the vision of his undying love. A sexual reading of THE MUMMY can see the men as weaklings, either cripples or sex slaves; even in afterlife, the female is in charge. This interpretation hits hard in the final confrontation, with Kharis reduced to a mere puppet in the hands of a woman who simply resembles the princess to whom he's so devoted. Seemingly, the power of the feminine sex trumps all - English society, ancient religions, and even magical prowess.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Residential Evil

SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004)

On-set make-up design at Ealing Studios.

THE flesh-eating zombie film, essentially invented by George A. Romero in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968), has thrown off parodies, rip-offs and tangents for nearly four decades. Coincidentally released at the same time as the Hollywood remake of Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978), SHAUN OF THE DEAD offers an exuberantly knowing take on the Pittsburgh director, extending Romero’s state-of-the-nation addresses by translating an apparently American sub-genre into a uniquely British canvas of dead-end jobs and uncongenial flat-shares. A self-styled "romantic comedy, with zombies," it features 29-year-old Londoner Shaun (Simon Pegg), whose lack of ambition, and camaraderie with slacker pal Ed (Nick Frost), continually distracts him from his responsibilities to his mother Barbara (Penelope Wilson) and girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield). When Liz dumps him, Shaun finally resolves to "sort his life out," at the same time that the population are turning into ghouls. SHAUN OF THE DEAD’s anti-zombie arsenal remains resolutely English – cricket bats, umbrellas, darts and hockey sticks – with the final siege uprooting Romero’s Shopping Mall to The Winchester Public House.

Co-written by Pegg and director Edgar Wright, SHAUN OF THE DEAD understands that the essential interest of the zombie genre is that when it works, it is on the grounds of satire and trenchant sociology. One of the endearing aspects of the film is that, similar to YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974), it pokes fun at its inspirations but also plays by their rules. An obvious way of parodying this sub-genre is to make the creatures comical, but the dead here are generic, bloody-mouthed fumblers, with the laughs coming at the expense of the living. Consequently, the film delivers the visceral shocks, but we are also allowed to get to know the characters before the undead element takes hold. In its final third the story shifts into a much darker mode - having listened to a genuinely moving valedictory speech from his steadily zombifying stepfather (Bill Nighy), Shaun is later required to kill his own mother.

Ed and Shaun face the first true test of their lives – a plague of zombies.

Shaun is an instantly loveable anti-hero, in no way motivated by aspersions of heroism, but prevailing by the strength of his previously untapped inner-strength. Pegg’s impeccable performance fuses subtle comedic tics, crack timing and committed emotional reality, while Frost unleashes a hilarious stream of practical jokery and an incompetence which is as endearing as it is stupid. Inspired by a TV skit from their own sitcom SPACED (1999-2001), Wright and Pegg embrace the snappiness of quality television comedy, forging a rapid cohesion of gags that push the narrative forward in decisive portions, while able to fluctuate swiftly between tone.

Monday, May 1, 2006

Time Machines

GIMME SHELTER (1970)
MEETING PEOPLE IS EASY (1998)

Mick Jagger triumphant at Madison Square Garden, before the storm of Altamont in GIMME SHELTER.

ROCK documentaries are generally prosaic affairs, at best extended promos for their subjects, at worst overlong pop videos with bad interviews. There are noble exceptions, notably when film takes a group and views them in the context of a particular period. MEETING PEOPLE IS EASY plays as the quintessential 1998 rock documentary in the same way that GIMME SHELTER is a document for the death of the 1960’s - it's as much about a moment in time as it is about the music.

The sheer thematic magnitude and angst of Radiohead’s OK Computer (1997) served time on the laddish anti-intellectualism of BritPop. Yet it is a work not of despair but of acceptance; such stoicism renders the album as a true articulation of the late twentieth century, music not only of extraordinary grace, but of experimental clarify. MEETING PEOPLE IS EASY charts director Grant Gee’s year on the road with Radiohead in the wake of ‘OK Computer’, offering an impressionistic study of the band launching, promoting and touring their pre-millennial masterpiece. Gee captures the banality of being a human product on the marketing treadmill; as gigs race past in a blur of fragmented images, the film is Kubrickian in its atmospheric melancholy, foreboding disorientation and technical mischief - interview fragments manage to be revealing without ever achieving coherence, sentences are chopped and diced, and television clips mashed into abstract art. The inflated vanities of most rockumentaries are strikingly absent, nor is there much orthodox concert footage, even though Radiohead’s music bleeds from every frame. Similar to Godfrey Reggio’s KOYAANISQUATSI (1982) - a dazzling collage of industrial images set to the music of Philip Glass - the film is a visual accompaniment to the scrambled emotions and shattered beauty of its source.

Radiohead talisman Thom Yorke. MEETING PEOPLE IS EASY portrays the frayed nerves of five sensitive souls trying to make sense of their spiralling fame. Yorke truly seems ill at ease everywhere except onstage, and even then his presence is intense but aloof.

The legacy of GIMME SHELTER is far more problematic. Dubbed a snuff movie by critic Pauline Kael, this extraordinary rockumentary takes the two obsessions – film and rock music – and turns them into mirror images that could not begin to contain all the meanings. David and Albert Maysles, together with Charlotte Zwerin, capture this volatile mixture in their belief of direct cinema, a technique applying movie-making conventions to non-fiction work. Covering the Rolling Stones’ 1969 North American tour, it begins conventionally enough, with performances at Madison Square Garden showing Mick Jagger and company at an artistic high. The band appeared capable of winning over any audience, but it's exactly this confidence - some might say overconfidence - that led to the problems at the Altamont free concert. In the wake of Woodstock, rock 'n' roll promised love and hope in a way of re-shaping the future. The Stones failed to understand how fragile this spell could become when invoked hastily; the venue was still in doubt a day before its staging, and the resulting sanitary and medical facilities were woefully inadequate. By the time Jefferson Airplane reach the stage, the struggles between the audience, stoned on bad acid and speed, and Hell’s Angels, hired as security, had become violent. With 300,000 people around a tiny stage, its rim inexplicably only four feet from the ground, and the bikers angrily bludgeoning with weighted pool cues, GIMME SHELTER contains little of the exhilaration of rock 'n' roll. During the Stones set, we see 18-year-old black man Meredith Hunter stabbed and beaten to death by the Angels twenty feet from the stage. We see the blur of a gun in Hunter’s hand, we see the glint of a knife guided by a biker as it hits its mark.

With GIMME SHELTER’s building hostility, the tendency is to mythologise Altamont as the nail in the coffin of the 60’s, and Jagger as the Lucifer who called it into being. There is the look of disbelief on the people's faces, wondering how the Stones could go on playing in the bowels of madness and violent death. The group would wonder the same thing; the ashen expression on Jagger's face at the end, caught freeze-frame in the Maysles' editing suite, speaks a thousand words of remorse.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

All the Rage

28 DAYS LATER… (2002)

Unlike the loping creatures in the films of George A. Romero, the ‘infected’ of 28 DAYS LATER… are a blur. Possessing a body-snatcher like screech, they are ravenous predators, who kill for no reason but to spread disease. Their fast-moving and savage nature is similar to the zombies portrayed in Umberto Lenzi’s delirious Italian film NIGHTMARE CITY.

DIRECTED by Danny Boyle and written by novelist Alex Garland, 28 DAYS LATER… is a release of definite indie-film sensibility, a piece of punk-rock movie making that is quintessentially British, sneeringly aggressive, but hauntingly poetic. Shot on DV, this virus/post-Apocalyptic hybrid sees animal rights activists release a chimpanzee which carries an engineered plague, ‘Rage’. 28 days later, comatose motorbike courier Jim (Cillian Murphy) wakes in an abandoned London hospital and discovers the city empty but for vicious bands of ‘infected’, whose bite or blood spray spreads the disease, and a few toughened survivors. After hearing a radio broadcast professing to have the answer to the plague, Jim sets out with hardboiled pharmacist Selina (Naomie Harris), taxi driver Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and his teenage daughter Hannah (Megan Burns), to travel North. Eventually finding the source of the signal, a refuge run by Major West (Christopher Eccleston) in a requisitioned country house, Jim and Selina discover that merely surviving isn’t enough.

Once outside of London the film’s palette changes, mixing the enduring features of England – a ruined abbey, a 15th century cottage, and the stately home - with scenes of claustrophobic horror traditionally associated with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968). Murphy’s performance is charming and oddly ethereal, outstanding in the violent finale, while Harris treads an instinctive line between tough posturing and tender protectiveness. Eccleston, heading the gun-toting shreds of devastated authority, swallows his borderline-psychotic role with ease, while Gleeson and Burns’ father/daughter relationship lends ballast. Shooting in digital video suitably captures a coldly clinical style, picking up every drop of rain and eruption of blood. The fast editing and tight framing add a raw brutality to the spasmodic violence, an adrenalised energy which creates particularly strong effects when showing the jarring, slashing movements of ‘infected’, and in the scene where Selina dispatches newly-infected Mark (Noah Huntley) with a machete.

Cillian Murphy wakes up to find London an empty
maze of wreckage and useless landmarks.

The power of the film is not that it hasn’t been done before, but that it hasn’t been done recently. Floating in the mind of 28 DAYS LATER… are lasting cultural artefacts, thoughtful re-imaginings of familiar themes and images explored in British science fiction. Waking in a deserted hospital (The Day of the Triffids (1951)), a sequence hinging on a flood of rats (James Herbert), a distrust of laboratories (DOOM WATCH (1970-72)), and the question of if everyone is dead, what’s the point in living (THE SURVIVORS (1975-77)), all represent a throwback to fantasy formulae of yore. Furthermore, the depopulated London strikes a chord with an embedded psyche by everything from The War of the Worlds (1898) to DOCTOR WHO - THE DALEK INVASION OF EARTH (1964). Consequently, the film acts as a spiritual successor to these streams, but is given a tense post-millennial edge by Boyle’s stripped-down visual aesthetic.

Containing an evocative soundtrack of both peace and rock-guitar fury - a dichotomy that is fitting for a film obsessed with anger and the quest for calm - 28 DAYS LATER… also taps into millennial fears about chemical warfare and viral outbreaks. Released at the onset of the SARS panic, it is also a reflection of our increasingly stressful social interactions, employing the ‘infected’ as a metaphor for the breakdown of our behaviour towards one another. The film suggests that anger has become the defining emotional response in capitalist societies; ‘Rage’ is not an abstract monster, or based on the usual factors that cause violence such as race, religion or gender. Rather, it is a social condition that has no defining boundaries, a new kind of intolerance that is in all of us.

Monday, April 3, 2006

Daleks and the Nazis

DOCTOR WHO - THE DALEK INVASION OF EARTH (1964)
DOCTOR WHO – GENESIS OF THE DALEKS (1975)

THE DALEK INVASION OF EARTH mirrors the Nazi Britain of Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo's IT HAPPENED HERE.

THE arrival of the Daleks has often been cited, with some justification, as the development that sealed DOCTOR WHO’s popular success. Malicious mutants encased in armoured machinery, Daleks are perfect little Hitler’s, ordering, exterminating and ranting in unison. Strictly cyborgs, the Daleks blend opposite extremes of science fiction menace: a regimented, hard outer shell, with a seething, tentacled inner creature. The most fundamental feature of Dalek culture and psychology is an unquestioned belief in their superiority; other species are either to be killed immediately, or enslaved and then destroyed later once they are no longer necessary.

In their debut story THE MUTANTS (1963), the Daleks were portrayed as a paranoid yet complex race. In THE DALEK INVASION OF EARTH, The Doctor (William Hartnell) must now face a full-blown galactic menace, the Daleks establishing a huge mine in Bedfordshire, in order to remove the Earth’s core and replace it with a drive system to pilot the planet around the galaxy. More a ‘Dalek Invasion of the Home Counties’, the story is still one of the most nihilistic and iconic of the Time Lord’s tales. This six-parter also signalled the start of Dalekmania, but arguably may well have been the point where DOCTOR WHO turned from a limited-run children’s tea-time series with educational intent, into a national institution. The images of a shattered London and its environs are stark, and the collapse of civilisation is portrayed like the result of a World War II air raid. To further the WWII slant, the story can be seen as a "what if…" depiction of Nazi occupation, an appropriate re-emphasis for a race of xenophobes like the Daleks. With the resistance group clearly modelled on the bands of patriots who resisted the Wehrmacht in occupied Europe, Terry Nation’s scripts essentially equate the story with this notion. The black Dalek of the mining camp is referred to as the ‘commandant’, and the extermination of all humans is their ‘final solution’. As if to ensure that nobody misses the point, the scene were the Daleks raise their sucker arms in a Nazi salute has passed into WHO folklore.

Davros and his creations. GENESIS OF THE DALEKS showed that the series was developing an appreciation of moral issues, reflecting Baker’s Doctor being more liberal and indecisive. Yet the intensity of the violence and high body count prompted angry letters to the Radio Times, and attracted the attention of clean-up TV campaigner Mary Whitehouse.

In GENESIS OF THE DALEKS, Nation revisits early Dalek history, elaborating (and contradicting) back-story established in THE MUTANTS. Dramatic, gritty and uncompromising, it pushed the show to its creative boundaries in every sphere of production, as well as introducing Davros (Michael Wisher), the deranged and disfigured chief scientist whose genetic experiments gave rise to the Daleks. A megalomaniac who demonstrates a cruel eloquence and cunning lacking from the belligerent creatures he spawned, rarely has a DOCTOR WHO villain been given such depth, and been played with such bravado. Obsessed with the racial supremacy of his creations, Davros takes the Darwinian idea that evolution favours the strongest, modifying embryos to eliminate the weaknesses of conscience and pity. The Doctor (Tom Baker)’s dilemma is whether destroying the Daleks – an act of genocide – makes him as immoral as the Daleks themselves.