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.