Saturday, December 15, 2007

Drink A Pint of Blood A Day

TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA (1969)

Anti-father and Anti-Christ: Christopher Lee and Linda Hayden. Cast primarily as seductresses and nymphets, Hayden is one of a handful of British actresses who can look back on a genuinely dizzying career in film and television.

TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA - directed by Peter Sasdy - was one of Hammer’s most troubled productions. There were accusations of plagiarism from the script by Freddie Francis’ son Kevin - who had handed in a rejected treatment entitled DRACULA’S FEAST OF BLOOD - a drama which indirectly lead to Anthony Hinds relinquishing his directorship of the studio. When an already disillusioned Christopher Lee insisted on a percentage of the American gross to appear again in his signature role, Hammer took the unimaginable step of replacing him with Ralph Bates. But by the time Warner Bros-Seven Arts reminded the studio that co-finance was on the condition that Lee played the Count, the actor’s late u-turn caused Dracula to be a supporting character in his own movie.

Hargood (Geoffrey Keen), Paxton (Peter Sallis) and Secker (John Carson) are three Victorian gentlemen whose charitable work in the East End is, in reality, a front for illicit thrills. At a brothel run by the effeminate Felix (Russell Hunter), Hargood has his prostitute taken from him by the contemptuous Courtley (Bates), who is known to dabble in the black arts. Courtley takes the three men to visit Weller (Roy Kinnear), who sells them the clasp, signet ring, cloak and powdered blood of Dracula. In a deconsecrated church, Courtley mixes his own blood with the powder in a ceremony to summon the Prince of Darkness, but his new-found colleagues refuse to drink the concoction; as the Acolyte chokes on the blood, the three men panic and beat him to death. During the night, Dracula is reborn, vowing to destroy those who have killed his servant by the mesmeric manipulation of the men’s previously obedient children.

Christopher Lee’s fourth outing as The Count for Hammer followed on directly from the actor’s stint in Jess Franco’s EL CONDE DRACULA.

Enveloped by one of James Bernard’s strongest scores, TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA hints at the brutality and breasts to come in Hammer’s twilight years and, despite its troubles, is a film that skilfully unravels the hypocrisy of Victorian society as well as adhering to the progressive anti-establishment ethos of the times. Dracula may be pushed to the sidelines, but with the character acting as an omnipresent puppet master, his presence becomes no less imposing, acting as a Charles Manson-like catalyst for the “liberated” youths. In fact, the highlight of the film is the metamorphosis of Alice Hargood (Hayden) and Lucy Paxton (Isla Blair) from prissy little rich girls to vulpine harlots; in a particularly powerful sequence, the suitably loathsome Hargood - alluring to incestuous desires - drunkenly prepares to beat his daughter for her forbidden alliance with a male suitor. Confronting Alice in her bedroom and brandishing a riding crop, Alice’s escape into the arms of The Count is one of relief, and, having telepathically issued her instructions, recedes into the darkness as Alice hits her father with a shovel, twinkling with impish glee. Hayden uses her innocent face to ironic effect as Dracula’s main complicit in the ensuing retribution. And on a more trivial note, look out for Madeline Smith as a young prostitute.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Gothic Romance

COUNT DRACULA (1977)

A feast of blood; the brides of COUNT DRACULA.

BRAM Stoker’s Dracula, published in 1897, is a novel that tells its story through letters and journals, where the reader can access the character’s thoughts in a way a film or television treatment can never convincingly portray. This BBC adaptation is considered to be one of the more faithful to its source material; it is certainly the first time we see the Count feed his brides an infant (the books’ nastiest and least often dramatised incident), and this is the only Dracula to shoot on Stoker’s Yorkshire locations, including St Mary’s Church in Whitby and the decaying cemetery that surrounds it. But there are also the inevitable liberties: Mina (Judi Bowker) and Lucy (Susan Penhaligon) are now sisters, and two of the latter’s suitors - Quincy P. Morris and Arthur Holmwood - are combined to form American diplomat Quincy P. Holmwood (Richard Barnes).

Another change from the novel is that there is no playing with the Count’s age, but this ensures a constant relevance to Frenchman Louis Jourdan’s performance as Dracula. Jourdan was an unusual choice, but pulls off some of the Count’s more inhuman moments (flapping down the castle wall like a bat) remarkably; not the otherworldly Valentino nor the imperious nobleman of Universal or Hammer norm, Jourdan speaks the familiar lines in an almost casual manner, purposely devoid of any affectation. This Prince of Darkness is supremely arrogant, coolly confident and totally disdainful of humanity; to him, the living are nourishment at best.

Louis Jourdan is a chilling Prince of Darkness.

Accentuating Jourdan’s take is an able cast, headed by Frank Finlay as Van Helsing, astutely capturing the kindness and steely determination of a vampire-slaying metaphysician, even if his Dutch accent can sound distinctly Irish. Bowker channels Mina’s innocence and intelligence directly from the page, and Jack Shepherd’s Renfield is more introverted than others, reciting William Blake to himself (“Am not I A fly like thee?/Or art not thou/A man like me?”). But Barnes as the hybrid Quincy can’t sustain a credible Texan accent, giving his scenes an unappealingly comedic turn.

COUNT DRACULA’s solarisation effects have been open to much criticism, but allowing for it being a made-for-TV film, there is a delicious campness to its clumsy composites and overlays. Actually, Dracula’s allure and supernatural powers are captured so sparsely that the harsh visuals act as counterpoint to the normal cinematography, which placidly captures the restraint of Victorian propriety. If the effects are risible now, they nonetheless exaggerate the contrast between the vampire and his English protagonists.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Devil's End

DOCTOR WHO - THE DAEMONS (1971)

Doctor Who’s Moriarty: Roger Delgado is The Master.

SHOWN as part of BBC4’s recent Archaeology Night, THE DAEMONS fits neatly under this banner for two reasons. Firstly, this Jon Pertwee DOCTOR WHO serial revolves around the live broadcast (on BBC3 no less) of the excavation of an ancient barrow. Secondly, the episodes themselves are something of a treasured relic; shortly after transmission, four of the original five colour videotapes were wiped. Luckily, BBC Enterprises had made a black-and-white film copy and a colour version (also now lost) for overseas sales. In the 1990s, the BBC painstakingly produced a watchable colour restoration using the black-and-white film and the colour signal from a fan’s home-recording made in the United States.
 
In THE DAEMONS, The Master (Roger Delgado) - posing as local vicar Mr Magister - uses black magic in an attempt to assimilate the powers of Azal. The story’s underlying theme of science versus magic is established early on, then explored during the episodes in which the viewer learns that many of the magical traditions and images are in fact a product of the Daemons “psionic science.” Viewed today, the story suffers from Pertwee's arrogant and inconsistent attitude, and the monumentally inappropriate line when The Doctor refers to Hitler as a “bounder.” The serial is also weakened by its somewhat simplistic denouement - Jo (Katy Manning)’s offered self-sacrifice makes Azal self-destruct - but there's also much to enjoy. In dog collar garb and latterly scarlet ceremonial robes, Delgado’s Master is a highlight, the epitome of evil charm.

The stone gargoyle Bok (Stanley Mason) is brought to life as a servant to the Master. Whether Bok comes to life because of The Master’s rituals or as a side effect of Azal’s appearance is never made clear.

The Time Lord’s writers had always transformed generic material for their own ends, but the Pertwee/UNIT era drew on Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass to create a template for a large run. The Third Doctor’s first story SPEARHEAD FROM SPACE (1970), for example, gleefully referenced - to put it politely - QUATERMASS II (1955). THE DAEMONS’ plot is not the most groundbreaking regardless of outside influences - witchcraft in an English vilage has long been a staple ingredient - and the idea of an impenetrable dome barrier had previously been used in John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos (1957). But ultimately THE DAEMONS recalls QUATERMASS AND THE PIT (1958), with its televised opening of an ancient burial mound which turns out to contain an alien spacecraft, whose dormant crew use technology which Mankind has come to know as Magic.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Bly Spirit

THE INNOCENTS (1961)

The BFI’s Region 2 DVD of THE INNOCENTS includes an introduction and commentary by Christopher Frayling, and one of the very few booklets that can be celebrated as a true DVD extra.

JACK Clayton’s densely ambiguous THE INNOCENTS, adapted from Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw (1898), builds suspense slowly, subtly, and inexorably. It tells the story of repressed Victorian governess Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr), who is hired by a wealthy and irresponsible man (Michael Redgrave) to assume charge of his country manor, Bly House, and his orphaned niece and nephew - Flora (Pamela Franklin), and Miles (Martin Stephens). Giddens sees the ghostly apparitions of her late predecessor Miss Jessel (Clytie Jessop) and former groundskeeper Quint (Peter Wyngarde) and, knowing that the children were exposed to this sadomasochistic relationship, she becomes convinced that this memory must be purged from the children before it contaminates them.

The films’ gothic angst and creep-outs manipulate its traditional ghost story ethic with remarkable freshness. Metaphor is one of cinema’s richest streams, and Kerr takes perfect advantage of her respectable facade wrestling with unspeakable turbulence. Prim and sexually straitjacketed, her character is convincingly corrupted by the old house. The ambiguity is consequently fascinating or maddening - according to taste - with critics labelling Giddens certifiably insane to even a paedophile. Whatever your conclusion, it is an unforgettable portrayal, and with Franklin and Stephens delivering performances of astonishing maturity, THE INNOCENTS may well be the finest-acted horror film.
 
The possible otherworldly intervention of Quint in the life of Miles is one of THE INNOCENTS’ many ambiguous threads.

Photographed by Freddie Francis in CinemaScope, THE INNOCENTS’ musters its frisson by both candle and daylight - its oil-black and snow-white compositions teasing the eye in unbidden directions, toward faces haunting the periphery or deep background. Francis’ self-made red iris filter deliberately frames in oval twilight, making outer edges appear shadowy and mysterious. Most haunting are the glimpses of Jessel, sobbing uncontrollably at her lectern, or standing forlorn among the reeds, and Quint’s initial unexpected surge toward the camera (and Giddens) gives the distinct impression of movement within another dimension. The audio effects are also noteworthy, with the natural sounds of the house’s garden amplified so that even bird song becomes unsettling and harsh.

Deborah Kerr passed away on October 16th at the age of 86. Kerr’s angular beauty and self-possessed femininity distinguished more than fifty films in four decades. Though her poise might be ruffled in scenes of passion (most famously by her encounter on the beach with Burt Lancaster in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (1953)), her well-bred airs and graces made Kerr a model of British womanhood in Hollywood. Yet her refined sensuality proved refreshingly attractive, since it hinted at hidden desires and forbidden feelings, giving an extra edge and interest. If she still looked more at ease on screen as a nun than as a nymphomaniac, or as a governess rather than a seductress, Kerr loved to hint at what she called "banked fires," the volcano steaming away beneath the surface. Never was this more evident than in THE INNOCENTS.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Evil Heritage

SATAN'S SLAVE (1976)

Based on an unmade AIP project intended for Vincent Price called THE NAKED EYE, for all its blatant exploitativeness, SATAN’S SLAVE remains atmospheric and engaging.
 
SATAN'S SLAVE tells of Catherine Yorke (Candace Glendenning), a young girl who is unexpectedly orphaned when her parents’ car explodes outside the house of her Uncle Alexander (a moustachioed Michael Gough). She is taken in but finds herself troubled by strange visions; gradually, Catherine falls in love with her brooding cousin Stephen (Martin Potter) - much to the chagrin of her Uncle’s secretary Frances (Barbara Kellerman) - but what she doesn’t realise is that her intended role in the household is more sinister than she could possibly expect.

A film aficionado fascinated by the medium since childhood, Norman J. Warren started in pictures by helming two sexploiters, HER LIVING HELL (1967) and LOVING FEELING (1968). Not wanting to be typecast as a skin director, Warren moved onto the horror genre, and his brief period of activity - PREY (1977), TERROR (1978) and INSEMINOID (1980) - provided a body of work which was derivative and makeshift, yet curiously casual and endearing. Along with Pete Walker, Warren’s films are sometimes dubbed New Wave British horror, on account that they upped the ante of explicitness, were mostly set in the modern day, and centring around twenty to thirty-year old protagonists. SATAN’S SLAVE firmly established Warren’s style as one which, for the most part, avoids kitsch and gets the most of what were obviously very limited resources.

Michael Gough, Candace Glendenning and Barbara Kellerman
star in Norman J. Warren’s cult classic.

Les Young’s cinematography is incredibly evocative here - the Gothic-style mansion is lensed in all its autumnal splendour - turning the English countryside into a place of terror with some of the effectiveness of WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1968). Warren is also helped by David McGillivray’s script which, like his work for Walker, succeeds in combining classic genre themes with a realistic contemporary setting. Glendenning’s wide-eyed performance as victimised waif mixes a delicate balance of independence, vulnerability and confusion. Gough is the big name in the cast and he doesn’t disappoint as the head of a coven; he’s a caring, considerate and gracious host, but underneath we sense the evil. Gough handles the role with great gusto and lack of pretensions, delivering his ceremonial lines with Satanic-Shakespearian zeal, and Potter gives a superbly creepy performance as the unbalanced Stephen.

Combining nudity and violence in a censor-baiting concoction designed to compete with the gore and cynicism of its contemporary American/European counterparts, SATAN’S SLAVE delivers on a number of effective shock sequences. Catherine’s boyfriend John (Michael Craze)’s demise is particularly bloody – he jumps off a tower block roof and ends up as a heap of twisted meat - and towards the end of the film Catherine stabs Stephen in the eye with a nailfile. In fact, SATAN’S SLAVE behaves like a black cat – dark, calm, and collected, yet you are intermittently aware of its claws.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Reality Bites

THE ZOMBIE DAIRIES (2007)

The budget for THE ZOMBIE DIARIES could never stretch
to as many ghouls on its impressive poster art.
 
PRODUCED, written and directed by Michael Bartlett and Kevin Gates, this low budget film is a culmination of six years work, and conceptualised long before the announcement of George A. Romero’s similarly themed and upcoming DIARY OF THE DEAD. THE ZOMBIE DAIRIES comprises of three separate video stories, that later cross and merge around an army-related prologue and ambiguous coda. The first is “Outbreak,” where four documentary makers set out to interview a blighted Hertfordshire farmer; the second, “Scavenger,” follows three people desperately looking for supplies, and in the third , “Survivors,” a beleaguered group start to unravel when one member becomes infected.

Under a simplistic and sparingly used score, the work is a slow-burning and often unnervingly creepy experience, mixing social commentary with crowd-pleasing scenes of gut-munching and zombie sex. The cast acquit themselves with a commendably naturalistic and improvised acting style, but THE ZOMBIE DIARIES ace card is that it asks the question “in a decaying world, could human nature be a greater threat than the zombies?”
 
As a bird flu-like virus hts Britain, its inhabitants are turned into flesh-eating ghouls.

From the titillating showmanship of INGAGI (1930), to the haunted backwoods of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999) and the video diary of a serial killer in THE LAST HORROR MOVIE (2002), the vogue for films constructed from faux footage has always benefited from the miraculous fact that the person holding the camera never drops or damages it, or simply throws it and runs. Ruggero Deodato’s quintessential Third World horror CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1979), in particular, shares similarities to Bartlett and Gates’ movie in both structure and its ending narration, “I wonder who the real cannibals are.” Yet THE ZOMBIE DIARIES seems more perfect because it exploits this technique for the noughtees age of media obsession, where we feel the need to document any aspect of human experience for public consumption. The filmmakers can be proud that they have created a fitting apocalypse for our YouTube generation.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

The Last Gothic

SCARS OF DRACULA (1970)

New Zealander Anouska Hempel bares her fangs. The actress also played "Australian Girl" in ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE and the title role in Pete Walker's TIFFANY JONES. Now a hotelier and designer, she married Allied Dunbar chairman Mark Weinberg in 1980, becoming one of the richest woman in Britain. During 1998 Hempel bought the right's to Walker's film and Russ Meyer's slave picture BLACK SNAKE - where she stars as Lady Susan - in order to keep them out of circulation.

HAMMER’s bloodiest film, SCARS OF DRACULA - scripted by Anthony Hinds - is also one of its most beautifully shot, defying its typically meagre budget. Braking the sequence began with their original DRACULA, no attempt is made to link it to the conclusion of the previous entry, TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA. The Prince of Darkness (Christopher Lee) is afforded more screen time and dialogue, uttering his lines in a dreamy tone (under pasty make-up) that could be the result of Lee’s oft-quoted desire to express “the loneliness of evil” and the curse of immortality. Alternatively, it could be the disenchantment of an actor tiring of a limiting role (John Forbes-Robertson was considered before Lee was persuaded to return, but would later be cast as The Count in THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES). Lee's verbose performance reminds of Bela Lugosi, but what is particularly grating is that the film dispenses with Hammer's renowned sensual lord vampire to create an atmosphere of brutal violence. The young cast are tepid at best (a miscast Dennis Waterman as Simon, the dubbed throughout Jenny Hanley as Sarah, and Christopher Matthews as womaniser Paul), but the real meat comes from the supporting cast, with Patrick Troughton transforming Dracula’s urbane butler Klove into a masochistic errant boy, and Anouska Hempel as concubine Tania.

The last of the studio’s Gothic Draculas - and developed as a double bill with Jimmy Sangster's equally misguided THE HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN - the film revels in 70s-style exploitation. Dracula is consequently transformed into a sadist, mystifyingly stabbing vampiric Tania to death, and branding Klove with a white-hot sword. He also impales Paul on a metal hook, and sends legions of bats to massacre an entire church of women and children; even the story is set in motion by a bat vomiting blood on the Count’s remains. Away from the general gore, Anthony Hind's screenplay is a plethora of nonsense: for example, the opening of "The Angry Mob" burning down the castle doesn't seem to have disrupted the interior. Director Roy Ward Baker’s preparatory work apparently drew him to actually read Dracula, inspiring the filmmaker to add an "unprecedented" shot from the novel of The Count scaling his castle’s wall which he claimed was his “only contribution … to the Dracula cycle” (obviously he had never seen DRAKULA ISTANBUL’DA, filmed seventeen years previously). In fact, the film’s “only contribution” is to have the most laughable bouncing rubber bats in British horror film history.

During the climax, Jenny Hanley's cleavage is ravaged by a vampire bat, eager to tear away her crucifix necklace. This "blood on breasts" sequence would have been unheard of for less liberal times.

During the audio commentary on Optimum's R2 DVD of 2006 - woodenly moderated by Marcus Hearn - Lee and Baker wax lyrical about the classic cinema dictum "less is more," views that particularly contradict the nature of the film they are viewing. Comments on The Count's shift towards frenzied violence are almost an afterthought, with the duo more lost in their silver screen legacies and after-dinner like recollections. Its a particularly meandering and name-dropping vocal from Lee, who quite rightly highlights the standard of actors Hammer cast in bit parts (here, Michael Ripper as the innkeeper, Michael Gwynn as a priest and Bob Todd as the Burgomaster), but he also makes the amazing statement that not only is Dracula's stabbing of Tania nonsensical, that such a scene is troublesome in the annals of influencing true crime.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

How Do

THE WICKER MAN (1973)

During the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, from which Halloween was derived, Druids burned huge sacrificial wooden effigies known as Wicker Men atop sacred hilltop sites. The Wicker Men were sometimes filled with animals, prisoners of war, criminals, and other sacrifices to Druid deities.

WHILE Terence Fisher, Peter Cushing and Madeline Smith were bringing Hammer’s Frankenstein saga to an unrelenting grisly end with FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL (1972), Christopher Lee was filming in Scotland, working for free in a role specially written for him. Although marketed as a horror film, Robin Hardy’s THE WICKER MAN is a counterpoint to the flamboyant excesses of the Hammer tradition, and a genuine genre misfit, equally resembling a detective story, an erotic thriller, a religious allegory, an art film, and even a musical. Hardly the “CITIZEN KANE of horror” as labelled by Cinefantanstique magazine, it became lost in a tangle of bad marketing, careless editing, and public indifference. The work does however remain a solid cult favourite, its status reinforced by a series of outlandish behind-the-scenes stories: the master negative was apparently lost when it was inadvertently included in a shipment of disposable material buried beneath the then under-construction M3, for example, and rumours circulated of inhumane acts towards animals. Lee even offered to pay for his critic friends to view the film when the bewildered new regime at British Lion refused to distribute it.

Edward Woodward, in a role intended for Cushing, is Sergeant Neil Howie, a humourless policeman whose devout religious views cause him to look dimly upon any kind of heathen activity. When he receives an anonymous letter informing him that a young girl is missing on the beguilingly remote Scottish island of Summerisle, he flies out to investigate, consequently discovering a community of pagans - led by Lord Summerisle (Lee) - who worship the old Celtic gods and have rejected Christianity. In the schools, children are taught to venerate male genitalia, while at night outside the public house, couples copulate openly. Howie’s faith further comes under assault when a naked Willow (Britt Ekland), the sensual daughter of the innkeeper, offers herself to him in an adjacent room while singing the haunting How Do (indeed, Paul Giovanni’s celebrated score often moves the story along rather than the dialogue). Convinced that the missing girl is intended as a human sacrifice for the islander’s May Day celebrations, Howie realises too late that she is part of a scheme to ensnare “the right kind of adult.”

The cover for Optimum’s 3-disc DVD of THE WICKER MAN, containing the original 84m theatrical release, the 99m director’s cut, and the soundtrack CD.

Within this structure of a miniature Holy War, Howie is no Sherlock Holmes, but the viewer is convinced by his dogged persistence, although his dour disposition and puritanical outlook makes it difficult to fully sympathise with the character. This investigative outsider is just one of many horror film clichés playwright Anthony Shaffer spins into his games-laden script: the raucous pub that falls silent on his arrival, a journey by carriage to the castle of an overlord, and the midnight exhumation of a coffin, are all present and correct. But the climax - in which the Sergeant is improbably manoeuvred into, and subsequently burned to death, within a sixty foot Wicker Man, is one of British cinema’s most visually arresting final scenes.

Friday, August 17, 2007

When Do We Live?

if.... (1968)

Malcolm McDowell and Christine Noonan’s celebrated
tussle in the extraordinary if…
 
THE time-honoured British Boarding School subgenera has been a stock scenario since the 1930s; explorations of how our hero - a potentially recalcitrant individual - could be brought to accept the wisdom of an Empiric value system. But it wasn’t just in actual boarding house narratives that public school values found cinematic expression. From the 1950s, headmaster-like commanding officers exerted stern benevolence; indeed, this pervious ethos enveloped anything from horse-play (“Come chaps, off with their trousers!”) in THE DAMBUSTERS (1955), to the exclusive girl’s school in the endearingly abysmal gothic LUST FOR A VAMPIRE (1970). Winner of the 1969 Palme d’Or, and a loose remake of the Jean Vigo short ZERO DE CONDUITE (1933), Lindsay Anderson’s if…. is one of the most stimulating and visceral of all British films. Scripted by David Sherwin, it introduced Malcolm McDowell and featured a veritable repertory company of distinguished actors (among them Arthur Lowe, Graham Crowden and Mona Washbourne) who would subsequently inhabit two further Anderson/Sherwin films headlining McDowell as wily Everyman Mick Travis - the horrors of big business in O LUCKY MAN! (1973), and the critique of Thatcherite healthcare BRITANNIA HOSPITAL (1982).

Released in the wake of actual revolution in Paris, where students challenged the authority of De Gaulle and the French State, if…. is a blueprint for future anarchy that might take any number of contrarian forms: participating in public demonstrations, starting an underground newspaper, or simply buying a copy of The Rolling Stones’ Street Fighting Man. The film plays like a lighter version of Stanley Kubrick’s A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971), with the mischievous and always watchable McDowell as the protagonist in both films. The actor already radiates his mix of arrogance and compassion here, which would be honed and forever etched into Kubrick's lead droog. It is in if…, however, that you understand more fully why McDowell's character is the way he is, your frustration and rage growing until you're relieved and horrified at the same time by its climax. if…. may, at times, display an overt fascination with the sadism it sets out to challenge, but its condemnation of the meaningless, colonialist rituals of a minor public school is utterly convincing. Tradition is only as good as those who maintain it, and Royston Lambert’s 1974 written survey of boarding school life, The Hothouse Society, offers ready evidence that Anderson’s work is closer to documentary than many critics would allow.

A publicity pose of Noonan, who plays if….’s enigmatic heroine. It's such an odd role and the actress - short and solidly built beneath a curtain of black hair - seems a decidedly non-ethereal actress to have been cast, but she lays absolute claim to it.

The character of The Girl (Christine Noonan) first appears as a waitress, where she communicates with Travis through sight and smell. Venting their passion like a pair of tigers, they roll violently on the floor, all teeth, claws and flailing limbs; suddenly there is a change that cements the sequence as one of the most memorable in British cinema: the two wrestlers are suddenly naked, The Girl baring her teeth and sinking them into Mick's arm.With her taking part in their vicious final assault, the climax becomes more fanciful; she's an inspirational image, like the magazine clippings adorning the dormitory walls. The presence of The Girl in this final sequence helps to coalesce the rebels into an alternative family, fighting for righteousness and brotherhood. All these years later, she retains her uncanny ability to provoke and encourage our vestiges of revolutionary spirit, and there are those of us who will always love her for it.

if… is a great film because it both loves and hates Britain. It captures the wing collars and tailcoats, "whips" (prefects) and "scum" (fags), crusty masters and militaristic padres, chaotic feelings and quasi-fascistic discipline. Yet at the same time it cherishes the intense friendships and loyalties of an all-male school, including the moments of kindness - and the crushes. For many who were fortunate enough to see the film on the threshold of adulthood, it became a memory to treasure and a true rite of passage. On the surface a seething, surrealist tirade against the hypocrisies of The System, the film (which was largely shot in Anderson’s old haunt of Cheltenham) uses its setting to explore more universal issues, such as society’s refusal to conduct itself in accordance with the morals it professes to hold. This fundamental question is posed in the history class scene: were the atrocities of the past the fault of lone dictators, or the collective result of the population? Ultimately, we create our own Hitlers and Hungerford’s.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Rocks Off

CHARLIE IS MY DARLING (1966)
COCKSUCKER BLUES (1972)

Mick Jagger on the cover of the July 6, 1972 issue of Rolling Stone.

WITH A HARD DAY’S NIGHT (1964), The Beatles became pioneers of the showbiz Beat Boom band. Under the wing of RADA dropout Brian Epstein, The Fab Four performed with the likes of Tommy Cooper and Alma Cogan. The Rolling Stones, on the contrary, had no pretensions to follow in such a luvvie tradition; their manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, memorably came up with the catchphrase “Would you let your daughter marry a Rolling Stone?,” at once instilling a surly attitude that separated them from the fresh-faced pack.

CHARLIE IS MY DARLING follows The Stones on their two-city tour of Ireland in 1965. More a 51-minute montage than a documentary, it's a jagged collection of grainy, handheld fragments, with songs and commentary starting and ending just as abruptly; the lack of synchronized live sound to match the concert footage, however, is the film's greatest drawback. They're still kids here, playing relatively small auditoriums jammed with hysterical, screaming fans. Brief interview segments show Charlie Watts to be virtually incoherent, uncomfortable, and unimaginative, while Bill Wyman claims he's not a musician, he just plays in a band. Keith Richards and Mick Jagger were clearly the brash media players and court jesters even then, while Brian Jones comes off as the band's sensitive soul, never more so than with the eerily prescient, "Let's face it: the future as a Rolling Stone is very uncertain."

The cover of the discontinued Australian DVD of CHARLIE IS MY DARLING.

With the release of their definitive album ‘Exile on Main Street’ (1972), The Stones sought to document their own celebrity and self-mythology by hiring photographer and filmmaker Robert Frank for their 1972 North American tour. There was much anticipation for the band's arrival, with them having not visited the United States since the 1969 disaster at Altamont, but the resulting movie - with scenes of debauchery, lewdness and assorted hangers-on shooting up - was never released, and plays like CHARLIE IS MY DARLING’s evil twin brother. The Stones quickly forbade the work, both for the obvious reasons of off-stage excesses, but also for the monotony, loneliness and tedium of their life on the road it so accurately captured. Frank fought The Stones' decision, and after a protracted legal battle, it was ruled that the film could only be shown once a year, and then only when the director was in attendance.

COCKSUCKER BLUES was shot cinema verite, with several cameras lying around for anyone in the entourage to pick up and start shooting. The ultimate irony of that technique, however, is that there was really very little to film. In one scene, Jagger, Bianca Jagger, and a soundman film each other simply standing in a hallway, too bored or stoned to do anything more. Frank's mixing of grainy black-and-white footage with Super-8 colour makes it impossible to tell what time it is at any point; the light is always the gray that could be dusk or dawn, and the band's sobriety is no sure measure of the time of day. The result is a feeling of timelessness, of being trapped in a continual waiting game between shows, played out in hotels and concrete-walled dressing rooms. It is worth mentioning, however, that the nastiest behaviour belongs to the roadies; but Mick and Keith do stand by and offer encouragement as their crew ravishes two marginally willing women aboard their private jet.

This police mugshot of Jagger occurred when the singer was arrested on charges of assault after getting into a brawl with a photographer during the ‘72 tour. Keith Richards and three others were also arrested.

Of course, some gems are caught using this angle; Mick films himself masturbating in a mirrored hotel ceiling, and Keith theatrically throws a television off a hotel balcony (an act that earns him a "TV Repairman #1" end credit). Aside from these moments, the band seems genuinely ill at ease anywhere but on stage. When The Stones aren’t performing or in impromptu jams, they seem tired and uninterested; in other words, like Charlie Watts has looked every day since 1963.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Everything is Permitted

SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL (1968)
PERFORMANCE (1970)

The cover of Fabulous Films/BFI’s 2006 DVD release of SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL.

WHEN Jean-Luc Godard came to London in 1968, fresh from the Paris student riots, he intended to make a pro-abortion movie, but this was abandoned after a change in legislation. The French new wave director then turned to The Rolling Stones for his subject matter, which happened to be their feature film debut. Alternatively boring and mesmerising, SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL would later be re-edited by Godard as ONE PLUS ONE, after being angered by the producer’s attempts to commercialise the work so much, he punched him at the premiere. It is the director’s title version, however, that makes clearer its intention – to put together two discrete elements, rock and revolution. But these do not directly interact, nor do they sit comfortably; the black-power commune, with its eerie passive white female victims covered in blood, and a crazed, Buster Keatonesque final sequence, for example(s), are mixed with footage of the Stones working on Sympathy for the Devil from its ballad beginnings to its final samba-driven form. What most strikes one about SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL is its expressive flatness; Godard’s cameras simply look at things, as though he’d rather not intervene in time’s flow at all. The filming of the Stones, meanwhile, seems to be almost autistic, as if the camera is simultaneously baffled by and unconcerned about what is going on. It doesn’t really work as a piece of cultural politics either, and has always been regarded as a lesser work in the Godard canon.

Quite where the Stones fitted into this scheme must have been beyond them. Their footage is undoubtedly fascinating, containing in itself a separate double-edged sword: the evolution of an infamous song and Brian Jones’ self-destruction. A first-person commentary from a suave and sophisticated Lucifer, Sympathy for the Devil is a song that cemented fears that the band were indeed devil-worshippers and a corrupting influence on youth. It should be noted, however, that one interpretation of this song is that The Devil is in fact mankind. The lyrics are a brief history of some of the most notable atrocities committed by man against man, including wars of religion ("I watched with glee while your Kings and Queens fought for ten decades for the Gods they made"), the 1917 Russian Revolution ("I stuck around St. Petersburg when I saw it was a time for a change, killed the Czar and his ministers"), and WWII ("I rode a tank, held a general's rank while the blitzkrieg raged, and the bodies stank"). In that light, the song would appear to be a criticism of the immorality of mankind. Jones’ estrangement from the group as the song unfolds is unforgivingly portrayed, with him spending much of his time inaudibly strumming behind a sound partition. Indeed, the most uncomfortable moment of the entire film is when Mick Jagger attempts to explain to Jones a basic chord progression, as if humouring a slow child.

Mick Jagger’s androgynous, iconic presence
on an Italian poster for PERFORMANCE.

Jagger would attempt to become a fully-fledged movie star in PERFORMANCE, a haunting meditation on human identity from co-directors Donald Cammel and Nicolas Roeg. This controversial film is an example of the peculiar effects generated when avant-garde or experimental practises are integrated into the Hollywood mainstream, with its innovative use of montage and mirror shots being imitated by a generation of film students. It is the story of Chas Devlin (James Fox), a sadistic petty gangster who has trouble fitting in, even with his cohorts. Chas clashes with boss Harry Flowers (Johnny Shannon) after he carries out a murder for personal - as opposed to business - reasons, and hides out in the Notting Hill basement of "retired" rock star Turner (Jagger). Turner has secluded himself in the house in order to lament the loss of his powers of "incantation," which seems primarily to mean that he indulges in a lot of drug-taking and sex with two female companions, Pherber (Anita Pallenberg) and Lucy (the omnisexual Michele Breton). Soon, Turner – whose name can be taken somewhat literally - senses a connection between Chas’ brutally violent nature and his own dried-up creative powers, and he draws the young hood into his world.

Famously characterised by Cammell and Jagger as about "a perverted love affair between homo sapiens and lady violence," PERFORMANCE remains as provocative as ever – and one of the few truly visionary films made in the UK. The explicit sex and brutal violence was a breakthrough for British cinema, such as Chas’s oddly sexualised whipping at the hand of Maddocks (Anthony Valentine). At the time, Fox was Britain’s freshest rising screen star, but was so disturbed by his experiences here that he failed to act again for nearly a decade. Furthermore, 20th Century Fox rejected the film, delaying its release, then ordering a drastic re-edit. As Turner explains, "The only performance that makes it, that really makes it, is the one that achieves madness."


Executives sneered that even PERFORMANCE’s bath water was dirty. At least here, Jagger, Michele Breton and Anita Pallenberg save on some.

Jagger’s portrayal of Turner reinforces his stage image without copying it, and is a comment on his own life and style. Submerging himself with such a hedonistic existence, and surrounding himself with a cloying assortment of Eastern artefacts, almost every shot in his apartment is aimed past incense and tapestries. This is not the environment your everyday white-collar gangster feels at home in, but Fox’s Chas is a character who struggles to feel at home anywhere. The identities of the two men become blurred; in Turner, Chas sees his own desire for adulation, while in Chas, Turner sees his own demon, the violence needed to restore a creative impulse. When he sings Memo from T, Turner brings the two worlds of violence and the cult of rock music together, in a way much more effectively than Godard’s pretentious posturing. This song – which can claim to be the first fully-formed music video – is a sleazy post-modern blues, with Ry Cooder’s slide guitar uncoiling like a predatory snake behind Jagger’s mannered delivery of what was, for him, an unusually Dylanesque lyric, packed with references to characters we’ve never met, including a "misbred grey executive" and a "faggy little leather boy."

In the wake of PERFORMACE, Roeg directed a number of acclaimed motion pictures, while Cammell’s career appeared to stall. The themes illustrated here – of masculinity in crisis, transformation and extreme violence – would re-appear throughout Cammell’s later work. Indeed, the artist spent four decades in the film business, but his director’s credit only appears on three further films – DEMON SEED (1977), WHITE OF THE EYE (1987) and WILD SIDE (1995) - all of which were made in America. In their 2006 book Donald Cammell: A Life on the Wild Side, Rebecca and Sam Umland paint a picture of a life in such sexual excess that it may have been that this limited output was because professional considerations seem to take a very second place. PERFORMANCE is a scream against the hierarchy and repression that links the ruling class and the underworld that is Old England; the puzzling fact that Cammell took out French citizenship in the 1960s, and spent most of his later life in Los Angeles, perhaps starved a creativity which produced its best work under the acute observations and groundings of a society he turned his back on.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Blighted Blighty

CHILDREN OF MEN (2006)
28 WEEKS LATER (2007)

The Americans make London their 51st state, and prove
as dangerous a threat as the ‘infected,’ in 28 WEEKS LATER.

IRONICALLY, Danny Boyle’s 28 DAYS LATER (2002) – an energetic blend of THREADS (1984) and George A. Romero’s THE CRAZIES (1973) – actually lead the so-called zombie renaissance even though it’s monsters were living, shrieking, blood-vomiting ‘infected.’ It can be argued that Boyle’s masterwork spawned the wave of undead viscera that shows no sign of abating. From the social breakdown of Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968), to the political quagmire of Joe Dante’s MASTERS OF HORROR: HOMECOMING (2005), the standard zombie diet has consisted of two delicacies: human meat – preferably intestines – and subtext; you are what you eat, and if you happen to eat people, there is anthropological gristle to chew.

Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s 28 WEEKS LATER has an American-led NATO force resettling British civilians on an Isle of Dogs safe haven – a metaphor for Baghdad’s Green Zone - after the ‘infected’ from the first film have starved to death. This War on Terror, like its real counterpart, is similarly self-destructive in its bullying authority figures, demoralised combat divisions and fractured family units, a stillborn Iraqesque commentary that sees the Americans smugly declare the war against infection as over. But when the situation quickly reaches Code Red they fittingly shoot and blowtorch at will, firebombing city blocks and releasing biological weapons. Here, fear of the ‘infected’ is a horror clearly working closely to the terror of protocol.

This UK preview poster for Fresnadillo’s sequel to 28 DAYS LATER draws heavily from the symbolism of the vastly superior virus movie THE CRAZIES.

28 WEEKS LATER lazily rehashes the first film’s ideas; the only addition to the virus Rage’s cannon is the hint that the ‘infected’ may be undergoing a kind of memory-recall that Romero’s zombies have long since taken for granted. London suggests a decimation of civilisation in general and heroes are hard to find; the two most sympathetic people, Don (a suitably wizened Robert Carlyle) and his naturally immune wife Alice (Catherine McCormack), set the new outbreak in motion in a world of relenting doom. In fact, the film rolls in like a poisonous dust cloud of nihilism - basically we’re all fucked and there is no hope. Fresnadillo presents 28 DAYS LATER’s trademark shutter-strobe jump cuts even more frenetically than the original, adding only to the confusion. The director makes the fatal mistake of believing that chaos equals fear, and while he may have been trying to purposely disorient his audience, in reality, all he does is frustrate, equating the whole premise to that of a Rage victim: quick, loud and with little control.

Alfronso Cuaron’s CHILDREN OF MEN is a BLADE RUNNER (1982) for the 21st century, telling of a dystopian future where mass infertility has led to a world without children. Unlike Stanley Kramer’s comparable ON THE BEACH (1959) – where Australians await killer radiation with good-humoured stoicism – here the Londoners of 2027 respond to the apocalyptic sterility with a howl of self pity, which is embodied in a quasi-fascist democracy of riot shields, caged refugees and feral gangs ("The world has collapsed, only Britain soldiers on.") Beautifully filmed in battle-scarred colour drained hues, the film climaxes in a Hadean vision of Bexhill-on-Sea which most closely resembles wartorn Bosnia. The best science fiction talks about the future to talk about the now, and CHILDREN OF MEN compellingly creates a world gone mad that is uncomfortably close to the one we live in. In this existence of rubble, Cuaron comments on the problems society faces today: racism, terrorism, government-inspired paranoia and decaying infrastructures.

Theo (Clive Owen) and Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) hold the future of humanity literally in their hands in CHILDREN OF MEN. This scene has warring factions stunned into immobility by the sight of a baby.

Non-British filmmakers, who observe the strangeness of this land with the empathy of an outsider’s eye, direct both of these releases; they also add to the grand tradition of British horrors that turn familiar sights into killing fields. Romero’s American Living Dead movies, a quartet of films spanning four decades, saw its zombies become powerful metaphors for the horrors of racism, consumerism, vivisection and class war. Yet there is something particular about phantasms that are placed within familiar British sites, a juxtaposition that has long been exploited by purveyors of the uncanny. Ever since Bram Stoker brought his eponymous vampire Dracula across the waters from Transylvania to Whitby, and H.G.Wells deposited his extraterrestrial invasion on the outskirts of Woking, these outlandish tales seem more credible when played out against the down-to-earth, uptight backdrop of Britain. The United States can use its landmarks to startling effect – one need look no further than the climax to PLANET OF THE APES (1968) – but it doesn’t have Britain’s deep, dark ocean of history, and perhaps it is because of this abyss which makes such scenarios resonate more subconsciously.

Layer upon layer of London soil reveals burials from pre-historic and medieval times; the city is one giant grave, from plague pits by The Houses of Parliament to St Paul’s foundations built upon remains of previous eras. One particular location – the brooding labyrinth of the London Underground – has come to embody the morbid groaning of horror’s repressed psyche. DEATH LINE (1972) surely inspired John Landis when he let his AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981) loose at Tottenham Court Road station. Its here that an unsuspecting passenger is stalked and savaged in a film which trades heavily on the distinction between English locations (Yorkshire pubs, West End porno theatres, Piccadilly Circus, Tower Bridge and London Zoo) and lycanthrope fantasy. More recently, V FOR VENDETTA (2006) ran into unexpected controversy when its tube-bound finale chimed too closely with the real-life horrors of the July 7th bombings. Its fitting that the multi-lined network has such appeal; after all, the reason why the tunnel curves between Knightsbridge and South Kensington is because it was impossible to excavate through skeletal catacombs.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Horror Hospital

GARTH MARENGHI’S DARKPLACE (2004)

Unlikely defenders of the Earth: from left to right, Matt Berry as Lucien Sanchez, Richard Ayoade as Thornton Reed, Matthew Holness as Rick Dagless and Alice Lowe as Liz Asher.

FILMED in the 1980s, DARKPLACE has earned a cult reputation as one of the most terrifying and radical television programmes. Considered too subversive and scary, the show was suppressed for over twenty years – although it did enjoy a brief run in Peru - until it finally surfaced on Channel 4 in 2004. The brainchild of best-selling horror author Garth Marenghi – the writer of such chillers as The Ooze ("can water die?") and Black Fang ("Rats learn to drive!") - Marenghi not only scripted and directed the episodes but also starred as the lead character, Dr Rick Dagless MD, a maverick physician battling evil forces lurking beneath a post-apocalyptic Romford hospital. The series was produced by Marenghi’s publisher and business associate Dean Learner, who plays shotgun-toting administrator Thornton Reed in the show, together with devilishly handsome and velvet-voiced Todd Rivers as Dr Lucien Sanchez, and Madeleine Wool as psychic Dr Liz Asher.

In reality, the show is a razor-sharp parody of 80s TV from Richard Ayoade and Matthew Holness, adapting the pretentious horror writer from their Perrier Award-winning GARTH MARENGHI’S NETHERHEAD (2001). Marenghi (Holness) is painted as a super-egotistical Stephen King who happens to write like Guy N. Smith or Sean Hutson. He’s a man’s man, speaking in a constant husky whisper, and wearing leather jackets over dark shirts. One often thinks of THE EXORCIST (1973) director William Friedkin when looking at Marenghi, who is inadvertently self-incriminating (at one point he boasts that he’s written more books than he’s read).

DARKPLACE's dynamic duo: Richard Ayoade and Matthew Holness.

Suitably ham-fisted, appallingly acted and badly written, DARKPLACE’s not so special effects adds to the cheesy fun as the characters battle everything from Scotch Mist to cosmic broccoli. Fashions, music, film stock and punchy audio are all captured with expert aplomb. The episodes themselves are funny enough, but the "new" framing interviews provide the real meat. Reminiscing about the show, Marenghi is presented as a blinkered genius and still thoroughly convinced that the show is a masterpiece; he adopts a highly defensive stance, aggressively justifying the material and the sub-texts behind it, while Rivers (Matt Berry) is portrayed as a washed-up theatre actor, whose experiences on the show have left him with an alcohol dependency and a hazy memory; a glass of whisky constantly in his hand, Rivers alternates between praising his own performance and having no recollection in actually starring in them. Learner (Ayoade), meanwhile, with his oddly-angled beret and extensive cigar, is the picture of a sleazy tycoon.

"He whisked off her shoes and panties in one movement, wild like an enraged shark, his bulky totem beating a seductive rhythm. Mary’s body felt like it was burning, even though the room was properly air-conditioned. They tried all the positions: on top, doggy, and normal. Exhausted, they collapsed onto the recently extended sofa bed. Then a hellbeast ate them" – Extract from Juggers by Garth Marenghi.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

The Stones on TV

THE ROLLING STONES ROCK AND ROLL CIRCUS (1968)
THE STONES IN THE PARK (1969)

An attractive French DVD cover of THE STONES IN THE PARK.

IN December 1968, The Rolling Stones turned the Wembley Intertel studios into a real live circus for a BBC special never to be broadcast. Shelved and only released on video in 1996, then on DVD in 2004, THE ROLLING STONES ROCK AND ROLL CIRCUS is a masquerade of dwarves, trapeze artists, fire-eaters and headlining musical talent, with Mick Jagger as the Ringmaster. Set on a tiny stage just barely sufficient to accommodate the bands, the show nevertheless captures the spontaneity and communal spirit of swinging London in the late 1960s, as well as a project that delightfully ridicules the variety show conventions to which the stars so obediently adhered to when they were rising young turks. The appearance of Jagger’s then muse Marianne Faithfull - sitting mannequin-like in a floor length evening gown - is the only conventional moment in an otherwise glowing piece of entertainment.

The Who’s alleged up-staging of The Stones with A Quick One While He’s Away is often cited as the main reason Jagger pulled the plug. Even though the song is hardly one of The Who’s best - a clumsy patchwork telling a puerile but strangely resonant tale of adultery and absolution – it gives the CIRCUS its most primal and joyous moment. It is evident that the group is perfectly in tune with themselves and their surroundings, especially Keith Moon, tossing drums over his shoulder once they’ve outlived their usefulness, his eyes forever embroiled in mischief. The other stand-out, in his first public musical performance outside The Beatles, is John Lennon, who triumphantly tackles Yer Blues with rock’s initial supergroup The Dirty Mac - Eric Clapton on guitar, Keith Richards on bass, Mitch Mitchell on drums and Yoko Ono caterwauling her way into some private apocalypse on Whole Lotta Yoko.

‘Dirty’ Keith Richards introduces The Who and Lovely Luna and the Fire Eater for THE ROLLING STONES ROCK AND ROLL CIRCUS.

Today, one watches The Stones set and reflects that Jagger has been harsh on himself. Unlike the televised Beatles, Jagger has always acknowledged the camera, often stalking it like a cobra that might strike if the lens-eye pulled back or looked away, his grins and stares are both inviting and seductive – qualities of a great performer. But the appearance of Brian Jones is another story. Jones once gave The Stones glamour and their music texture; it was he, remember, who added sitar on Paint It Black and slide guitar on Little Red Rooster, but his failing was to be born without the steely ambition of Jagger and Richards. Consequently, the CIRCUS shows the Stones early leader reduced to an insignificant other; puffy-faced and looking totally defeated, it is only once – during a fine No Expectations - that he returns to the living.

When German actress, fashion model and alledged mistress of the black arts, Anita Pallenberg, left Jones for Richards, it created a mental shift within the Stones of which Brian never recovered. This also created musical changes, from the instrumental dandiness which epitomised Jones’ tenure, towards the rock and roll of the band’s first truly great album ‘Beggars’ Banquet’ (1968) and Richards' sulphurous brew of hard rock, pagan rhythms and badass writing. The Stones had been planning the free concert in Hyde Park to unveil Mick Taylor as Jones’ replacement, but Brian’s death only two days before overshadowed the event. Captured by a Granada Television documentary crew for THE STONES IN THE PARK, the gig is not a good one. In front of over 200,000 fans, Jagger takes to the stage in a white smock and releases hundreds of butterflies in honour of Jones, most of which are already dead through improper storage. The Hyde Park performance shows the group as woefully underpowered, under-rehearsed, and still in shock. It is obvious that Jones could not have survived within the Stones structure, but, as this film shows, perhaps they weren't quite ready for life without him.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

He's Not the Messiah

MONTY PYTHON’S LIFE OF BRIAN (1979)

He’s got a very good friend in Rome...
Michael Palin’s star turn as Pontius Pilate.

IN July 1977, Mary Whitehouse – the self-appointed guardian of national morals – won a blasphemy libel case against Gay News for publishing James Kirkup’s The Love that Dares to Speak Its Name, a poem which detailed a Roman Centurion’s homo-erotic meditations towards the crucified Christ. This had a personal resonance within the Monty Python camp, as Graham Chapman had helped launch the publication; yet both parties could never have foreseen the deluge when their paths would meet under similar circumstances two years later. The foulest-spoken yet best humoured Biblical epic ever, LIFE OF BRIAN shows that any subject can survive a sardonic tweaking, as long as it is done with intelligence and wit. Religion may be comedy’s last taboo, but the film does not lampoon Jesus Christ, his teachings or his importance as an icon. Less an attack on the Bible itself, it's more a scathing satire on mob mentality, bureaucracy, and cult ideology.

LIFE OF BRIAN captures the period in Python’s life when the group were at their happiest and most creative. Under the firm helm of Terry Jones, the picture is much more structurally sound compared to the troupe’s first "proper" theatrical release, MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL (1974), and is therefore less faithful to the stream of consciousness spirit of their television series. It isn't littered with Terry Gilliam animation, or plot line tangents, and therefore is a more serious attempt at linear comedy painted on a much broader canvas, with Gilliam’s inventive set design providing a constantly interesting backdrop. Brian Cohen (Chapman), the reluctant prophet, is a simple man constantly mistaken for the King of the Jews. From his birth in a manger right next door to Christ’s, to his unexplained rise as a spiritual emblem for Judea, Brian remains an incorruptible innocent; he is bemused by his contrasting Roman/Jewish ties, confused in love, and foiled by the very spirit of individuality he advocates.

Always look on the bright side of life;
the scene that cemented LIFE OF BRIAN’s infamy.

When LIFE OF BRIAN premiered in New York, the opening salvo in what would become a heated and often surreal war of words came from Rabbi Abraham Hecht, who said that the release was "produced in Hell." Hecht’s genuine if misguided fear was that the film would weave a corrupting spell over the impressionable minds of young cinema-goers, leaving them with a contaminated view of religion. After the Rabbi’s denunciation, outraged religious leaders in America queued up to vent their spleen, from the Lutheran Council to the reactionary politics in the southern states of the Bible Belt. In Britain, the war against LIFE OF BRIAN was fought a little differently. The Nationwide Festival of Light - a watchdog association working in league with Whitehouse - lobbied the BBFC to refuse a certificate. When the film was passed, the Festival of Light, supported by the Church of England Board for Social Responsibility, began an insidious campaign, circulating anti-BRIAN literature and encouraging Christians to pray for the film’s downfall. When it opened across Britain, local authorities even exploited a loophole in the law through health regulations. Consequently, the film ended up being banned in Surrey, Swansea, Cornwall and East Devon (where councillors refused to even watch it, arguing that "you don’t have to see a pigsty to know that it stinks.")

Despite the uproar created on its initial release, the work is anything but blasphemous; on the contrary, it is a statement which reduces the religious beliefs of our society on the hearsay of people two thousand years ago, and argues that freedom of thought is rare and precious. Above all, LIFE OF BRIAN is very much Pro-Christ, but anti-Church, standing as a beacon for the right to criticise religion. Whether it’s Brian’s unwanted disciples arguing over whether to follow the shoe or the gourd he’s left behind as he runs away, or the anti-Roman factions who do more damage to each other than the Empire, the film stabs at the heart of comedy’s favourite target, conformity. What's endearing about the Pythons is their irreverence; LIFE OF BRIAN is so cheerfully inoffensive that it's blasphemous to take it seriously.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Into the Unknown

Quatermass at the BBC (1953-2005)

André Morell, the definitive Professor Quatermass, in QUATERMASS AND THE PIT.

THE stories of Nigel Kneale explore a collision between science, superstition and social issues. Although hating the tag "science fiction writer", his work, nonetheless, takes us through experiences that leaves us brighter and more aware, speculating on all the mysteries that remain to be clarified. He was one of the genre’s most illuminating humanists, a confrontational individual who used his writing as a metaphor for our problematic times. Kneale often painted cynical landscapes of our future and developed into a masterful satirist, whose tweaks at mankind’s expense proved just as prophetic as his works undertaken in a more sombre mood. His abundance of intelligent ideas tapped into contemporary fears and a succinct observation of human behaviour. Comparisons to H. G. Wells cannot be underestimated; Kneale was a genuine seer, predicting the disintegration of broadcasting and society, typified by his depiction of Reality TV in THE YEAR OF THE SEX OLYMPICS (1968).

Kneale’s arrival as a staff writer at the BBC coincided with television’s post-Coronation mass appeal. Early drama was dominated by unambitious stage and literary adaptations, and there is some justification in Mark Gatiss’ claim that the writer invented popular television. During the 1950s, Kneale wrote three serials featuring his most famous character, British Rocket scientist Professor Bernard Quatermass. Each broadcast live, THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT (1953), QUATERMAS II (1955) and QUATERMASS AND THE PIT (1958) all made a lasting impact on the nation’s consciousness, and were also subsequently made into films by Hammer in 1955, 1957 and 1967. Manned space flights were years away, but THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT presented them as near docu-drama; viewers were terrified by the realistic presentation of astronaut Victor Carroon (Duncan Lamont) returning to Earth in the grip of alien infection. Its sequel, QUATERMAS II, features a heavily guarded government refinery, supposedly a factory for synthetic food, but in fact an alien-breeding colony nurtured on poison gas and processed human blood. And in QUATERMASS AND THE PIT, a capsule unearthed on a London building site is found to contain the remains of Martians and augmented ape-men, tapping into the dormant Martian mental faculties bred into Mankind and provoking a gigantic race purge. QUATERMASS AND THE PIT is the most complex and bleakest in the trilogy, portraying the human condition as an irreversible alien experiment, and Kneale’s only remedy is restraint against the ancient destructive urges implanted in us. This last serial was shown at a time when newly arrived Caribbean immigrants – the so-called Windrush Generation – faced widespread daily abuse.

The Quatermass Memoirs were broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in 1996. The series mixes a new monologue by Kneale - in which he discusses the genesis and development of Quatermass - together with archival material and a dramatised strand in which the Professor discloses his reasons for reclusion and discusses his demons with a persistent reporter.

THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT evokes the wartime blitz spirit, while QUATERMASS II tackles the threat of an Orwellian "enemy within." Unlike the bombastic spectacle of American horror films of this period, Kneale’s aliens use humans as involuntary symbiotic hosts as part their life cycle, or as a means of continuing their species. Consequently, the strongest emotion evoked by the Quatermass stories is one of disgust. The tales create images that allude to things that are universally repulsive: faeces, urine, rotting flesh, foul odours and deformed bodies, a literary technique used more by writers of horror and supernatural fiction. In THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT, there is the physiological deterioration of Carroon whose arm resembles an exfoliating cancer, not to mention the gelatinous remains of the missing crewmembers, the slime the creature leaves in its wake, and the deformed bodies of those it has drained of life. Similarly, QUATERMAS II has foul-smelling gases and faecal aliens writhing in the excremental "food" inside pressure domes, and QUATERMASS AND THE PIT takes place almost entirely in a mud-filled excavation in which the decomposing bodies of the Martians are discovered.

In April 2005, BBC4 aired a new QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT, the BBC’s first live drama broadcast since a series of lunchtime plays in 1983. Shown as the centrepiece of the channel’s ‘TV on Trial’ season – a re-evaluation of the medium from the 1950s to the 2000s - like almost everything involving Kneale’s character, the production is literally an experiment; it takes risks, suffers from underfunding but certainly is heroic. With only the first two episodes of the original series surviving, the idea of creating a two hour condensing of the writer’s scripts was a fine one, if only for the nerve of its staging and to have a more complete document for posterity. The setting is a notional present day via 1955, leading to an almost alternate feel to the 21st century in which there has seemingly been little space exploration and terms like "pressure suit" are still in use. Kneale’s references are only lightly updated, like casting Anglo-Indian actress Indira Varma as the astronaut’s wife, who delivers her 1953 dialogue without seeming as comically cut-glass as the original actress, Isabel Dean. And as a replacement for the Coronation-friendly Westminster Abbey, which saw the mutated Carroon’s demise in the original, the finale takes place at the Tate Modern Gallery, an inspired choice in finding an equivalent symbol of pride in an era where Royal association is forever receding. Not only does it provide a vast, shadowed space for Quatermass (Jason Flemyng)’s "casting-out" of the alien lifeform within its fabric and air, the Tate acts as a stringent metaphor in a cultural shift from religion to art.

Jason Flemyng is the Professor in BBC4’s rendering of THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT.

Other changes, however, are less successful. In the year Christopher Eccleston became the new DOCTOR WHO, the casting of Flemyng as a younger Professor seems to appeal to the same primetime mentality. Flemyng delivers his high-tech speak as well as anyone, but being the same age as the actors playing the astronauts and his colleagues creates both a symbolic and plot problem. Most of his scenes are with seasoned performers as Adrian Dunbar, David Tennant and Mark Gatiss, over whom he cannot adhere to the same boffin-like authority of Reginald Tate’s Quatermass from the initial serial. Tate was undeniably in charge, but Flemyng is too often on the defensive, as if any of his co-stars could challenge his role.