Monday, December 1, 2008

Apocalypse Wow

DEAD SET (2008)

“Is that Davina?” “Sort of.” Davina McCall as Davina McCall in
Charlie Brooker’s zombie masterpiece, DEAD SET.

TOWARDS the end of the first episode of E4’s astonishing DEAD SET, the camera pans to a crouching figure in Channel 4’s BIG BROTHER offices, savagely tearing at the entrails of a newly-slaughtered production assistant. It is the actions of an undead Davina McCall. Looking up - her face smeared with blood and innards - she then lunges for her whimpering producer, howling with bestial blood lust, as she chases him down a corridor. Screened over five consecutive evenings culminating on Halloween Night, DEAD SET follows in real-time the staff and “stars” of BIG BROTHER during a zombie outbreak, which starts on Eviction Night.

In George A. Romero’s seminal DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978), a group of mismatched survivors take refuge in a deserted shopping mall - then a thinly veiled nod to consumerist Western society. Thirty years later - with the mall replaced by the BIG BROTHER house - this mini-series is ripe for 21st Century allegories, an extremely visceral satire of the morally bankrupt Reality-TV generation. Like all lasting zombie pieces, DEAD SET therefore resonates truly in its time and - like all great art - is born out of distain. This impact can be traced back to the birth of the cinematic living dead - WHITE ZOMBIE (1932). Film historians have always equated the boom in 1930s horror to the aftermath of the Wall Street Crash, though WHITE ZOMBIE can be related more to the human condition than Dracula or Frankenstein. Expressing the powerlessness breadline Americans felt - unemployed almost reached 25% at the height of the depression - the film transformed work itself into the horror. The zombies who operate the sugar mill are humans reduced to expendable automatons; even when one worker plummets into the machinery they continue unabated, a pivotal moment that laid bare the wheels of capitalist economics.

Even the Diary Room can’t save Jaime Winstone as Kelly, the
much put-upon production runner turned feisty heroine.

Critical preconceptions about horror - one that it shares with science fiction - is that by introducing elements of fantasy, a work becomes less likely to explore social and emotional issues and instead concern itself with escapism. But it can be argued that the inclusion of fantasy elements opens up a new, free arena in which greater extremes of the human condition can be put under the microscope. Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) explores the impossibility of an undead uprising, but is less interested by the dead in narrative terms than by the pressure-cooker situation they create for his characters. Plot-wise the zombies are simply enemies, a malignant obstacle that our heroes have to overcome. The end of life itself is a universal fear, one that comes without cultural or historical baggage.

This reading shouldn’t detract from DEAD SET being a stunning slab of television horror. Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that writer Charlie Brooker has admitted to a life-long affinity to the living dead. After all, he has made his acerbic career critiquing years of life-less fodder that passes as modern TV entertainment. Production manager Patrick (Andy Nyman) is a priceless character who acts as a mouthpiece for Brooker and the millions of views who scream despondently at BIG BROTHER contestants (“…is the whole world just colours and shapes and the occasional noise in your head.”) Brooker’s zombies belong to the sprinting, adrenaline-flesh junkie brand of 28 DAYS LATER… (2002) rather than Romero’s grey-skinned walkers, but new here is an unnerving death rattle as they stalk and feed. The gore quota - especially in the last two episodes - is astounding; one can only think of the final reel of Romero’s own DAY OF THE DEAD (1985) to rival its level of grue. Yet the tone of the series is sombre but slick, with Brooker’s desire to make a series to challenge the intensity of 24 (2001 - ) fully realised.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Beware the Eyes that Paralyze

VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (1960)
CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED (1963)
VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (1995)

VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED typifies British science fiction in that - unlike the comic book and serial traditions of American fare - the films adhere to sombre threats in drab settings. The work unfolds Quatermass-style, slowly adding the uncanny to a normal rural setting.

DIRECT echoes of H.G. Wells' obsession with catastrophe and its aftermath appear time and again in John Wyndham's oeuvre. Christopher Priest famously summed up the most frequently voiced criticism of Wyndham's work when he described him as “the master of the middle-class catastrophe.” But while the tone of the author’s stories may occasionally strike modern readers as quaint, their cosiness serves a serious purpose. His innocuously English backdrops are central to the power of his novels, implying that apocalypse could occur at any time - or, indeed, be happening in the next village at this very moment. Wyndham was also redefining the science fiction genre; up until the late 1940s, sci-fi was almost exclusively set in space and involved what Wyndham himself described as “the adventures of galactic gangsters.”

Wolf Rilla’s 1960 VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED is a beautifully restrained adaptation of Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos (1957). It is the story of a mysterious, hours-long fainting spell among the inhabitants of a small community, which is followed by the pregnancies of every local woman of child-bearing years - including virgins. After short gestations, the women give birth to ten-pound babies with blonde hair and “arresting” eyes who, as they rapidly mature, are discovered to share a single consciousness, read people’s minds, and be very dangerous when crossed. Gordon Zellaby (George Sanders) - the aging father of the apparent spokesman of the group, David (Martin Stephens) - is entrusted by the government to educate the children in a remote house, while trying to determine their purpose.

A year before his performance in THE INNOCENTS, Martin Stephens is the tweed-suited spokesman of the children in the original VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED. Stephens' flicker of an almost-smile after forcing a motorist to kill himself is one of the nastiest shots in British cinema.

As the children grow, so do their powers. Nevertheless, there are some intriguing inconsistencies in the children’s actions. Early on, sensing that the grocer is frightened of them, they show unexpected consideration in promising to stay away from her shop in the future. But when a man accidentally almost strikes one of the children with his car, they instantly band together and force him to kill himself by driving into a wall. Conversely, after more acts of violence, Zellaby’s brother-in-law Alan Bernard (Michael Gwynn) forces his way into the children’s presence and threatens them, but they do not kill him, instead punishing him with a dose of temporary paralysis. Whether this is because of some kind of distant feeling for Gordon or wife Anthea (Barbara Shelley) is not stated; the only thing that is clear from all of this is that the children, like all children, do not have full command of themselves, however other they may be.

VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED is a film that has managed to enter the collective unconscious because of the portrayal of the Midwich Children. With identical blonde wigs (an unsettling effect is achieved by casting real-life brunette kids whose colouring is subtly wrong for their hair), staring eyes (in some prints a glowing effect was added) and choreography of movement, they are disturbingly other. Their origin is left ambiguous, and when Zellaby interrogates them on the subject, their only response is lowered eyes and a calm “It would be better if you didn’t ask these questions” from David. Although alien impregnation is the favoured theory, it is implied that the children are the result of mutation, representing the next stage in human evolution.

CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED develops the original film’s political subtext, and transports the action to a damp and grimy London.

 Much of the power of VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED comes via two pieces of serendipity. Firstly, when the project was in the planning stages, the Catholic Legion Of Decency objected to the central theme of mysterious impregnation. Consequently, the film could not be produced in the United States, and was instead made on location in Hertfordshire; the resulting shoot lends an uncomfortable air of authenticity. Secondly, filming in England meant the presence of some marvellous British character actors: Laurence Naismith as Dr Willers, Bernard Archard as the tormented village minister, Richard Vernon as the Home Secretary, and Peter Vaughn as a bicycling policeman. Sanders gives a suitably rounded performance but Barbara Shelley is not given all that much to do; Anthea seems to spend most of the film being sent out of the room. In contrast, Gwynn makes the most of his far more substantial role as a man with a foot in both camps, and Stephens’ air of cool, detached superiority makes us comprehend the extent of the threat. Stephens was eleven when the film was shot and, like many good child actors, both looked younger than he was, and seemed older.

A product of its time - the domestic scenes between the Zellabys’ now seem particularly dated - VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED dares not even hint at abortion. In perhaps the film’s most indelible moment, we see the affected villagers – one man accompanied by his wife and his daughter – filing silently in and out of the clinic, not one person making eye contact with any other. On one level at least, this is a story about rape, and the consequences of rape; and yet other than in a few scenes with Anthea, the film is never about its women. On the contrary, its focus is divided between the village men and the male authority figures. It has a power that many of its followers lack, perhaps because unlike them it is not merely a family drama, but deals with broader issues such as government action in times of crisis, how people’s perceptions of themselves can affect their actions, and where the moral line should be drawn. If the film’s resolution is, in a sense, a soft option, the hard questions asked nevertheless remain.

John Carpenter’s VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED remake marked another notch in his downward spiralling of a career.

In CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED, the youths identified by a research initiative are gathered from around the world and housed in London for collective study. After international and Cold War tensions lead world governments to return the children to their respective embassies, the children escape and hide out in an abandoned church in Southwark, where the situation escalates into a final showdown with the armed forces. Here, the youths are no longer malevolent, but merely misunderstood. Where VILLAGE was a variant on INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956) and its subgenre of aliens subverting the human norm, this film belongs to the type of alien contact personified by THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951) and STAR TREK (1966-9), about defusing xenophobia and prejudice. Subsequently, it lacks any of the sense of sinister thrill of the original, and the film offers up the ludicrously improbable notion of having the children build a deadly sonic weapon out of a disused church organ.

Both Wyndham’s source novel and Rilla’s film were very much a reaction to their place and time. John Carpenter’s 1995 American remake of VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED approached no such social issues, relocating the story to “Midwich, California,” and adding a dash of the director’s trademark shock tactics. The mis-casting of the film is its greatest talking point, however, which is amusing in its outlandishness. Just prior to his horse-riding accident, it is awkward to watch the limited dramatic range of Christopher Reeve as Midwich’s resident M.D. Kirstie Alley displays little presence or charisma as the cold-hearted, secretive epidemiologist, and if Crocodile Dundee's main squeeze (Linda Kozlowski) is difficult to recognize as one of the expectant mothers, what better camouflage could there be for Luke Skywalker than as the local minister?

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Two Tribes

DOOMSDAY (2008)

South African stunt woman Lee-Anne Liebenberg is memorable as Viper.

FURTHER advancing director Neil Marshall’s affinity towards examining humanity in times of extreme stress, DOOMSDAY is set in 2033, where Scotland had been quarantined since the outbreak of the Reaper Virus in 2008. All communication lines with the outside world were cut and people left to die; as a final measure, a wall was built following the same line as the Roman frontier, cutting Britain in half. When the virus re-emerges in London, The Department of Domestic Security instructs Chief Nelson (Bob Hoskins) to select a leader for a military team to be sent into Scotland to bring back either a survivor, or a vaccine from a Dr Kane (Malcolm McDowell)’s lab. Nelson appoints Sergeant Eden Sinclair (Rhona Mitra), who, with her comrades, head towards a job completed or to their deaths.

DOOMSDAY plays like a greatest hits package embracing anything and everything from apocalyptic efforts THE OMEGA MAN (1971), MAD MAX 2 (1981) and ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981). Marking a distinct increase in budget, Marshall still maintains his punky DIY aesthetic, but here functions more as a fanboy than a serious director; its his own private Grindhouse, a loving collage of genre throwbacks. In addition to its action heritage, when McDowell spouts soliloquies in a castle straight out of MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL (1974), we are reminded of another Marshall favourite, John Boorman’s EXCALIBUR (1981). Luckily, in the midst of anarchy, Kane has managed to outfit an entire medieval castle with painstaking attention to period detail.


Rhona Mitra is Sinclair. Saved from the chaotic clutches of the disease-stricken zone when she was a little girl, she has grown up without a mother and has nothing to lose.

What redeems DOOMSDAY from being merely an enthusiastic indulgence is the proficiency with which Marshall propels from one set-piece to the next. You almost have to credit the filmmaker for the rampaging senselessness, where somehow he wedges in pus-spurting ghouls, club-wielding punks, motorcycle chases, knights in armour, and gladiator fights, while breezing past matters as trivial as the plenitude of gas in this post-apocalyptic wasteland. There are also a couple moments of gratuitous cruelty toward animals that are meant to provide either a sick joke or a satirical statement about the Fascist nature of the government.

Effectively using a throwback pop soundtrack (Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Adam and the Ants), DOOMSDAY refreshingly relies on old-fashioned physical stunts rather than CGI, and consequently Marshall recaptures much of the rhythm and percussive power of the films he is referencing. Mitra handles her cold and distant role well and, although their scenes are brief, Hoskins and McDowell manage to register forcefully on screen, justifying their presence as something more than cameo casting. David O’Hara is excellent as the power behind the prime minister; his super-stiff body language is enough to tell you he’s a bastard the first time you see him, and Craig Conway has a blast as the Mohawk-topped Sol, a hollow-eyed punk who keeps the mob happy with goofy production numbers and ritual human sacrifice.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Spaced Out

SPACED (1999 - 2001)
HOT FUZZ (2007)

The excellent assemble cast of SPACED.

AN outstanding Channel 4 series with a huge cult following, Simon Pegg and Jessica Stevenson’s SPACED was a new breed of situation comedy. The situation wasn’t new - experiences of a group of mismatched housemates (here played by Pegg, Stevenson and Mark Heap, with regulars Nick Frost, Katy Carmichael and Julia Deakin) - but it was memorable for director Edgar Wright’s innovative shooting techniques, which added extra depth and texture to the already rich scripts. Wright mixes the everyday with the extraordinary, achieving an impressive array of sight gags which reference streams of sci-fi and pop culture; the director doesn't just borrow from cinema, he aspires to the visual quality of a different medium.

SPACED’s characters have a complexity unusual in sitcoms, and are allowed to develop from miserly beginnings: Tim (Pegg) spends hours shooting zombies and drowning Lara Croft on his Playstation, Daisy (Stevenson) will organise anything (parties, performances, pets) rather than sit down and actually work, landlady Marsha (Deakin) hit’s the bottle, Mike (Frost) joins any organisation which allows him to wear army clothing, and artist Brian (Heap) hides in his dark basement room, torturing himself with ideas which he can never fully capture on canvas. The show is often as touching as it is funny, and deeply sceptical about the things that twentysomethings are told to believe are the very essence of life: conceptual art, clubbing, responsibilities, and love. As Tim says in the closing scenes of the final episode, “Hollywood endings are just a myth, life is just a thankless struggle.”

“Here come the Fuzz”: Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.

A straight-faced spoof of everything from slasher movies to Agatha Christie and homoerotic U.S. buddy movies, Wright’s HOT FUZZ sees dedicated London cop Nicholas Angel (Pegg) compulsorily transferred to Sandford - a quiet Gloucestershire village - by his superiors to stop him from showing them up. The local cop shop is run by chummy Inspector Frank Butterman (Jim Broadbent), and Angel soon irritates everyone on his first night by arresting all the under-18s in the local pub (echoing DS Andy Cartwright (Rafe Spall)’s contemptuous put-down “If you want to be a big cop in a small town, fuck off up the model village”) and hauling in for drunk driving a slob called Danny (Frost), who turns out to be Butterman’s son and Angel’s imminent partner. When a figure dressed as the Grim Reaper begins killing the villagers, Sandford becomes the unlikely stage for bullet ballets and screeching car chases, as Angel and Danny lay bare the truth.

As in SPACED and SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004), the on-screen chemistry between real-life best friends Pegg and Frost is effortless. It’s refreshing to see Pegg in a more driven and stoic role, far away from his bumbling nice guy characters Tim Bisley and Shaun Riley. Frost is particularly good as the foil for Pegg’s procedural prig; wannabe badass Danny may come across as a bumbling klutz - his size instantly giving him the standard jolly fat man vibe - but he is the face of honesty inside a distorted reality of mysterious deaths, countryside conspiracies and semi-erotic male bonding. The film is awash with star supporting turns and cameos, but Timothy Dalton as Somerfield supermarket manager and pillar of the community Simon Skinner is particularly worthy of merit.

Decapitation, HOT FUZZ style.

With its provincial town hiding a dark secret from a newly arrived cop, there is more than an echo of 1973’s THE WICKER MAN (as if to underline the parallel, that film’s star, Edward Woodward, plays the head of the Neighbourhood Watch). To further the horror film foundation, there are underground catacombs filled with the skeletons and a number of stunning Argentoesque murders. Strangely, little if anything is done in any of these scenes to signal that they are a joke; they are presented exactly as they would be in a straight-out horror. Consequently, the results feel botched – as if a cop spoof had awkwardly mutated into a splatter film, with a big, violent finale to blur the lines between the two.

Ultimately HOT FUZZ seems disjointed, over-long, over-polished and missing an emotional core. Even SHAUN OF THE DEAD found time in its undead stomping to give its titular hero a love life; in HOT FUZZ, Angel’s only romantic involvement is speaking to his CSI inspector ex-fiancée Janine early on (Cate Blanchett in a clever, uncredited, cameo), and Danny’s private stash of action movies is a sad replacement for actual companionship. Janine wears her protective goggles and surgical mask throughout her single scene, and her anonymity is underscored by all the other generic females in the film. Ranging from the old and cranky to the busty trollop, the female triteness makes the weapon-worship even more interesting by comparison, the sight of an arsenal as pleasing as ogling a nice arse.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Wild in the Country

THE DARK (2005)
THE WICKER MAN (2006)

The unintentionally hilarious Hollywood remake of THE WICKER MAN - watch for Nicolas Cage in his bear suit.

IN John Fawcett’s THE DARK, cliff-jumping sheep point to a Jim Jonesesque cult on the Welsh coast, but far from being worried by these sheep, you’ll find yourself counting them during this often laughable film. It opens with Adèle (Maria Bello) and her daughter Sarah (Sophie Stuckey) visiting estranged husband James (a disinterested-looking Sean Bean). While out by the sea, Sarah vanishes and appears to drown; later, a young girl named Ebrill (Abigail Stone) - who apparently died over fifty years ago - suddenly materialises. Adèle starts investigating and her search leads to Annwn, a portal hidden under the sea.

In Welsh legend, the location of Annwn (“afterlife”) is said to be accessed by the living through a door located at the mouth of the Severn once a year. Inhabitants would welcome the living for feasting and celebration, upon the condition that they took nothing back with them to the human realm. Surviving from pre-Christian Celtic mythology, it's neither Heaven nor Hell in the Christian sense, as humans can enter spiritually or corporeally. All of which is more interesting than anything offered here, as THE DARK buckles under the heavy influence of other bodies of work, especially THE WICKER MAN (1973) and DON’T LOOK NOW (1973). Shot in Cornwall and the Isle of Man, the film looks stunning, yet only wakes from its slumber when Adèle crosses the watery threshold late on. On land, its haunted farmhouse and neighbouring abattoir settings are sadly unscary, and when things do turn grisly with harrowing flashbacks of child torture, it feels like the scenes are an intrusion from a different work altogether.


Explore undead children and menacing mutton in THE DARK.

When a major American studio release with two Oscar-winning stars opens without press previews, one assumes the distributor is trying to hide the film from critics. In the case of Neil LaBute's THE WICKER MAN - a pointless remake of the fabled 1973 cult curio - it's entirely possible that Warners wanted to conceal it from audiences as well. This reboot sees California motorcycle cop Edward Malus (Nicolas Cage) receiving a letter from his ex-fiancée Willow (Kate Beahan), begging him to find her missing daughter. Malus heads out to the island of Summersisle, where he discovers a matriarchal society of beekeepers.

Robin Hardy’s THE WICKER MAN serves as a working definition of a cult film: initially overlooked and offloaded as a support feature to DON’T LOOK NOW, the unclassifiable project now has a sizeable following; when viewed today, it suffers from a flower power feel and a slew of honey-dripping folk songs. By throwing the original’s meditation on pagan faith and Christian sacrifice out of the window, screenwriter and director LaBute rips the heart out of the Wicker Man ethos, turning Summersisle into a bizarre community where men are simpering “drones” and the women are mead-quaffing harpies led by Lady Summersisle (Ellen Burstyn in a Mel Gibson mudpack). The script is riddled with jaw-dropping declarations (“Step away from the bike” “Killing me won’t bring back your fucking honey!”) and the production wastes an array of strong actresses (Leelee Sobieski, Francis Conroy, Molly Parker et al). But what's most curious is it's utter sexlessness - the nude dancing and orgies that made a palatable case for earth worship over Christian repression in 1973 is simply replaced by Cage’s hangdog investigator barking at and punching women in the face.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Comedy of Terrors

SEVERANCE (2006)
THE COTTAGE (2008)

If only former BROOKSIDE actress Jennifer Ellison had remained gagged for THE COTTAGE’s entire running time…

TWO jet-black humoured horrors set within the backwoods, and made by second-time directors, SEVERANCE and THE COTTAGE will never approach the finesse of SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004) in the comedy stakes; both are grimmer, more shocking, and considerably less amiable. SEVERANCE tells of seven Palisade Defence employees on a team-building weekend in Hungary: there's Steve (Danny Dyer) the laid-back stoner-slacker, Harris (Toby Stephens) the golden-boy sales champ, Gordon (Andy Nyman) the overly enthusiastic corporate pawn, Richard (Tim McInnerny) the odious upper-management tyrant (“I can’t spell success without u…”), Maggie (Laura Harris) the sex-object, Jill (Claudie Blakley) the practical-minded girl with glasses, and Billy (Babou Ceesay) the token black PA. When Jill spots a masked figure outside their run-down bunker, it is only the start of a fight against a group who have more than axes to grind.

Christopher Smith - who previously made the London Underground chiller CREEP (2004) - adds underlying themes of dubious arms trading and exploitation of Eastern Europe, but any such commentary is overwhelmed by the gallows humour, including an encounter with a bear trap and a severed head rolling away still reacting in surprise. It is a thoroughly entertaining piece of work with one standout comedy moment - the accidental blowing up of a passing plane by Palisade’s American boss George (David Gilliam) - and the dwindling survivors are characters who are up a fight, even though the gun-toting call girls are more Russ Meyer than survival horror.

Claudie Blakley shortly to become toast at the hands of the Flamethrower Killer - one of the many denziens haunting the Hungarian backdrop of SEVERANCE.

Contrastingly, THE COTTAGE feels like a cheap cash-in of a horror comedy. Writer/director Paul Andrew Williams - who’s debut was the critically acclaimed LONDON TO BRIGHTON (2006) - unleashes a unrelentingly violent and uneven sophomore effort. Two brothers, David (Andy Serkis) and Peter (Reece Shearsmith) kidnap a nightclub owner’s daughter Tracey (Jennifer Ellison) and hold her ransom in a secluded country cottage. When her dim-witted step-brother Andrew (Steven O’Donnell) - who is in on the scam - delivers the ransom, they find out that not only have they been tricked, but Andrew has been followed by his father's bloodthirsty Korean henchman. As the blackmail spirals out of control, Tracey manages to turn the tables on her kidnappers and escapes with Peter as her hostage, fleeing into the woods; it isn’t long before everyone faces a desperate battle against a horribly disfigured local farmer (Dave Legeno in see-the-join make-up).

Williams claims THE COTTAGE explores the bond that exists between brothers – but while early scenes of Serkis and Shearsmith show plenty of potential, this quickly gets lost amid the director’s insatiable appetite for humour and gore; the brothers spend too much time bickering to endear themselves, and Ellison’s expletive-heavy Liverpudlian is every bit as monstrous as the main killer himself, resulting in a priceless understanding glance between the Farmer and Peter. In a role written especially for Shearsmith, the LEAGUE OF GENTLEMAN star shines brightest of all. The butt of continual violence, and permanently bloody-nosed, the deadpan Royston Vasey-stalwart completely understands this undiluted strain of Amicus-like weirdness.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Gallifrey Gothic

The Philip Hinchcliffe/Robert Holmes DOCTOR WHO (1975 - 77)

Emaciated Master makeup for THE DEADY ASSASSIN.

THE gothic tradition in DOCTOR WHO’s mid 1970s serials runs deep through the British science fantasy tradition, placing the exotic into our stoic world - Dracula may be chilling in Transylvania, but he is absolutely terrifying in Yorkshire. Most fans of the original DOCTOR WHO believe this period to be the golden era, when Tom Baker's goggle-eyed eccentricity was married with chilling horror stories. Producer Philip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes plundered Universal, Hammer and 1950s science fiction movies for their inspiration, as murderous dummies and disembodied hands kept Mary Whitehouse busy filing letters to the BBC. DOCTOR WHO’s take on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (1818) - THE BRAIN OF MORBIUS (1976) - predictably summoned the wrath of the self appointed moral guardian, with Whitehouse proclaiming the story “contained some of the sickest and most horrific material seen on children’s television.” When the Corporation issued an unprecedented apology to Whitehouse over a drowning sequence at the end of episode three of THE DEADLY ASSASSIN (1976), the repercussions were far-reaching: never would the show be as consistently absorbing again.

Hinchcliffe and Holmes’ debut season saw them tackle a set of scripts already commissioned during Barry Letts’ time as producer. Although the season featured reassuringly traditional elements, there was also a clear indication that the show was undergoing significant change, particularly the phasing out of UNIT. The classic GENESIS OF THE DALEKS (1975) - with its themes of racial hatred and war - was one example of a more horrific yet realistic quality. But calling Hinchcliffe’s tenure simply “the horror era” detracts from the ingenuity and intelligence channelled into the programme during this time. Writers, designers and directors were specifically briefed and consulted prior to production, and assigned to their strengths (budget willing) to bring Hinchcliffe and Holmes’s serial thrillers to life: each story had to have a power, a mix of rounded characterisation and sense of atmosphere to adhere to the required adult scientific concepts and convincing worlds.

A major factor in the success of DOCTOR WHO in the mid 70s was the on-screen performances of Elisabeth Sladen and Tom Baker. Here, Sarah Jane and The Doctor appear in THE ARK IN SPACE.

Holmes - perhaps the greatest original series writer - was in his element, injecting a more black, sardonic humour. But in addition to the more mature and macabre approach, a great deal of the success was the chemistry between The Doctor and his assistant Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen). Baker was also creating a Doctor more overtly and fittingly alien; you need only look at his homo sapiens speech from THE ARK IN SPACE (1975) to see that he was taking things seriously, unlike later seasons when the actor’s impulse to fool around was not held in check.

In THE PYRAMIDS OF MARS (1975), the gothic horror style is given its fullest expression; the TARDIS materialises on Earth inside an old priory owned by Egyptologist Marcus Scarman (Bernard Archard), who is possessed by the god-like Sutekh (Gabriel Woolf). With its entombed ancient evil and walking Mummies (in fact servicer robots), there is a genuine feel of dread, with the Mummies particularly effective in their simple yet hulking appearance. As Sutekh, Woolf creates a classic WHO villain, and it is noticeable how many such roles are voice parts - think Michael Wisher’s untouchable turn as Davros.

Following the success of the British Museum’s exhibition of relics from Tutenkhamen’s tomb, Ancient Egypt was big in the 1970s, a mythology embraced by THE PYRAMIDS OF MARS.

THE TALONS OF WENG-CHIANG (1977) was Hinchcliffe’s swansong. Widely regarded as one of the best ever serials, magician Li H’sen Chang (John Bennett) procures young girls for Magnus Greel (Michael Spice), a 51st Century war criminal who has come to 19th Century London to retrieve his lost time cabinet. The fog-laden streets, amateur sleuthing, oriental mystery and sinister doll Mr Sin (Deep Roy) make the story an entertaining romp, despite the major flaw of the giant sewer rats, which Greel uses to keep people away from his Palace Theatre lair. But THE TALONS OF WENG-CHIANG is also one of the most controversial: it was the first DOCTOR WHO that showed the taking of illicit drugs, and its use of nunchakus in one fight scene led to trouble with the censor for its first release on VHS. The most dominant controversy, however, was its uniformly bleak portrayal of the Chinese (“inscrutable chinks”), which lead to a rebroadcast ban in Ontario after complaints from the Chinese-Canadian community.

A criticism levelled at Hinchcliffe and Holmes was that they were making these stories for themselves. But it’s the fear factor in DOCTOR WHO that holds a special significance for many people, the “hiding behind the sofa” mentality that in itself has entered the British psyche.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Bad Moon Rising

THE COMPANY OF WOLVES (1984)
Swamp Thing #40 (1985)

With her pale skin, black hair, and air of innocence, 13-year-old Sarah Patterson was perfect for Rosaleen in THE COMPANY OF WOLVES.

UNLIKE Disney's sugar coated simulacrums of folktales, Neil Jordan’s THE COMPANY OF WOLVES resembles the original oral folklore of medieval times. These tales - the television and pornography of their day - were consistent with times full of violence, as well as the beautiful. Based on stories from Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber (1979), the film is essentially a coming-of-age story, a dark retelling of Little Red Riding Hood making explicit its sexual and Freudian subtext.

The film functions as a revisionist text which blends Gothic motifs with Carter’s own interpretations of classic fairy tales. For Carter, the original version(s) of Little Red Riding Hood operated as a structured agenda to warn young girls of the dangers of sexual maturity, and implicates for them a passive family and societal role. By rewriting this and other traditional tales from a feminist perspective, both subtle and blatant inversions took place within Carter’s stories. Jordan wrote the script in collaboration with the author, and as such, the film creates a symbolic world where the transition from child to adult - from girl to woman - is a change to be both celebrated and feared.

Swamp Thing #40 contained The Curse, a segment of Alan Moore’s sprawling American Gothic story arc for the comic.

As in Freud, Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson)'s dream deals with her psyche as characters in her dream. Her Grandmother (Angela Lansbury) symbolizes the path of rules, caution, and fear. Rosaleen is warned by her Grandmother to never "stray from the path… Once you stray from the path you're lost entirely! The wild beasts know no mercy. They wait for us in the wood, in the shadow, and once you put a foot wrong they pounce!" What the Grandmother is really saying is to stay on the path of celibate adolescence leading to marriage, and to beware of the bestial sexuality of men.

Like John Fawcett’s GINGER SNAPS (2000), THE COMPANY OF WOLVES uses the changing body of the werewolf as a metaphor for puberty, menstruation and sexual maturity. The recurring motif of the full moon draws obvious parallels between the menstrual (often thought lunar) cycle and the 'call of the wild' of the full moon for werewolves, which was also the subject of Alan Moore’s story for DC Comics Swamp Thing #40 titled The Curse. This tale provoked more heated mail - pro and con - than any other entry in Moore’s celebrated run on the title, ranging from letters about feminism to suicide. But The Curse works as a female werewolf yarn on three levels: as a horror story standard, an allegory for menstruation, but also men’s attitude to the female sexual cycle and by extension their attitude to woman. This hints at Moore’s true illustration for the tale - that physical and psychological mistreatment of the gender goes back a long way…

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Anarchy in the UK

O LUCKY MAN! (1973) 
BRITANNIA HOSPITAL (1982)

A leading theatre director, Lindsay Anderson was also an eloquent and perceptive critic, editing Sequence - still widely regarded as the most influential film magazine ever published in Britain.

O LUCKY MAN!  and BRITANNIA HOSPITAL complete a trilogy of boldly conceived and literate films from director Lindsay Anderson, scriptwriter David Sherwin, and actor Malcolm McDowell as everyman Mick Travis, which began with the schoolboy rebellion allegory if… (1968). Despite the shared name, Travis isn’t the same character in the three, nor do the stories follow-on; they do, however, jointly illustrate through fantasy and satire the sobering reality of how our institutions succeed in dehumanisation.

A study of Britain during the first half of the 1970s - using McDowell's real-life experiences as a coffee salesman as its springboard - O LUCKY MAN! is an energetic piece of work. Within its lumbering three-hour timeframe, Travis starts off as an ambitious coffee salesman who finds unexpected riches in the North East, narrowly avoids being blown up by the army and killed in the name of science, makes a fortune associating with a corrupt businessman, and finally becomes a movie star. At the end, Mick is lucky not because he is successful, but because he has survived a world where cruelty is random and kindness rare.


O LUCKY MAN! shows Britain retreating from its imperial past but managing to retain some influence in the world by means of corrupt dealings with foreign dictators.

Anderson has described O LUCKY MAN! as an “epic in the classical, poetic sense.” Travis changes careers frequently and philosophies as many times, enjoying good fortune and enduring considerable injustice and suffering. Because of this, the character bears marked similarities to Perceval, the archetypal quester of medieval romance. The film has aged well because many of the issues it explores - the class divide, the corruption of authority, the immorality of international affairs and the ruthlessness of science - are all still relevant. Science comes off especially badly at the Millar (Graham Crowden) research laboratory, where Mick narrowly avoids having his genes spliced with those of an animal – he’s luckier than another who has had his head grafted onto the body of a sheep. Sherwin’s script hits out in all directions, giving the work a disjointed feel of a series of prolonged sketches; apart from McDowell, the only real constants within its anarchy is the score of Alan Price, who provides a commentary for the serendipitous events. His lyrics could act as a warning, but atypically remain unheard.

With the imminent visit of the Queen Mother, Britannia Hospital couldn’t be any less prepared. In the opening sequence to BRITANNIA HOSPITAL, an elderly patient in an ambulance is blocked for entering by striking workers. The old man is only let through because he is about to die, and even inside the staff decline to attend to him because their shift is over. Also, kitchen workers refuse to prepare food until a union leader (Robin Askwith!) is bought off with promises of O.B.E.’s. Later, in a scene which plays like an anticipation of RE-ANIMATOR (1985), Dr Millar (Crowden, in his recurring role) - a surgeon conducting deranged experiments with public funds - inadvertedly rips the head off his Frankenstein creation.
 
BRITANNIA HOSPITAL - lost when initially released during the Falklands conflict - is an English political cartoon similar to MONTY PYTHON’S THE MEANING OF LIFE.

Much more than a scathing satire on British healthcare - and unfairly dismissed as by far the lesser entry of the trilogy - BRITANNIA HOSPITAL acts as a grotesque sledgehammer to where the world was heading. Anderson presents a society incapable of accepting any responsibility, or communicating in anything other than demand. There are no heroes - here, Travis is reduced to an investigative reporter whose head is used for Millar’s monster, and even the hospital administrator (Leonard Rossiter) fells a striking worker with a shovel. However mad, Millar is the only authority figure who inspires loyalty from his staff, and the only character who cares about the world around him. In his climactic monologue, Millar prophetically announces that a “motion picture entertainer of North America will receive enough money in a month as would feed a starving South American tribe for a hundred years.”

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Temptations Limited

FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE (1973)

Years before becoming a stalwart of television tat,
Lesley-Anne Down earned her stripes fighting forces of evil.

THE Amicus gem FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE - directed by Kevin Conner - stars Peter Cushing as the wily Yorkshire-accented proprietor of Temptations Limited - a decrepit antiques shop situated between a cemetery and a demolition contractor - whose customers face a supernatural death if they conduct their business dishonestly. There are four stories here, all based on the work of R. Chetwynd-Hayes: “The Gate Crasher” has David Warner buying a haunted mirror; “An Act of Kindness” sees middle-aged Ian Bannen finding solace from his overbearing wife (Diana Dors) in the company of a street vendor and his daughter (Donald and Angela Pleasence); “The Elemental” is the story of a man (Ian Carmichael) possessed by an imp; and “The Door” bought by Ian Ogilvy and Lesley-Anne Down opens an ancient blue room.

FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE is an anthology bettered only by the grandfather of them all, DEAD OF NIGHT (1945), and similar to the Ealing classic, the framing story and main tales have a resonant thread. “The Door” contains the most sophisticated use of colour attempted in a British horror - the cobwebbed room of a Necromancer bent on “the entrapment of those yet to be born” is handsomely visualised by veteran designer Maurice Carter - with the first and this fourth tale closely modelled on the Googie Withers/Ralph Michael DEAD OF NIGHT segment. Both are effective in conjuring parallel dimensions, especially in Warner’s degradation to servant, whose ghostly master proclaims “We are legion; we sit in high places and fan discord.”

Peter Cushing stars in the effective framing narrative.

“The Elemental” strongly shifts from comedy to horror in its final twist, as the demon passes from Carmichael’s bland, commuter-belt persona to Nyree Dawn Porter’s disgruntled housewife. But it is “An Act of Kindness” that cements the deserved reputation of the film, a compelling narrative of believable characters with poignant yearnings. Donald Pleasence - his every utterance a military cliché - is suitable unsettling as the kipper-tied, match-selling old soldier, yet it is the performance of real-life daughter Angela which is the most unnerving.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

An Angel for Satan

THE BLOOD ON SATAN'S CLAW (1971)
EXPOSE (1975)

A charming publicity photograph of Linda Hayden for THE BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW

A graduate of the Aida Foster stage school, Linda Hayden's first role was in BABY LOVE (1968), playing an amoral 15-year old who seduces a man (who may well be her father), his wife and his son. This was a stepping stone to her later roles, as the actress was frequently cast in horror productions - TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA (1969), VAMPIRA (1973), MADHOUSE (1974) - or as window dressing for British 1970s softcore (often with her then partner Robin Askwith). Her career path belittled her obvious talent: stunningly attractive, and able to absorb the screen through looks and observation, Hayden often mixed a naughty demeanour with a perverse sex appeal - with her eyebrows Satan-sent.

Tigon British was a relatively short-lived company that distinguished itself by making a handful of classics in amongst quite a bit of rubbish. Piers Haggard’s THE BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW is one of Tigon’s best films; an eerie gothic which was intended as a successor - in spirit if not in story - to the company’s crowning achievement WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1968). It is an intelligent study of repression set towards the end of the 17th Century, where the children of a small rural community start to play sinister games: their pouting leader Angel Blake (Hayden) is in league with a half-glimpsed cowled Behemoth, while the others donate their body parts to make the creature complete.

…and Hayden as she appears as Angel Blake, ringleader
of a group of Devil-worshipping children.

Hayden is a revelation as Angel; her false accusation of sexual assault against Reverend Fallowfield (Anthony Ainley) holds a powerful charge, and the moment where Blake stabs Cathy Vespers (Wendy Padbury) to death and languorously smells and licks the blade is preceded by a tour de force unrivalled in British horror: Vespers is lured to a ruined chapel and raped as the crowd of mutilated children (and a toothless old couple) look on in undisguised excitement, as the offscreen demon rasps “Give me my skinn-n-n-n.” Not only does THE BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW provide a blueprint for the lethal potential of teenagers, children and babies that would wreck havoc in 1970s cinema, it portrays a turn-of-the-decade disillusionment with the stench of the Manson Murders and child-strangler Mary Bell.

James Kenelm Clarke’s EXPOSE builds a claustrophobic mood of sweaty summer expectancy in its tale of blood, breasts and rubber gloves. Here, Hayden plays a manipulative secretary - Linda - for Paul Martin (Udo Kier), a best-selling author of pulp fiction who can only work in complete silence and seclusion in his rented country cottage. Under pressure to meet the deadline for his second novel Straw Summer, Martin is tormented by nightmarish delusions; a control freak who is only able to make love to his girlfriend Suzanne (Fiona Richmond) while wearing surgical gloves, it transpires that his last book Deadly Silence was actually written by Linda’s husband Simon, who was driven to suicide when Paul tricked him out of the manuscript.

“You look really, really good”: Linda Hayden
seduces Fiona Richmond in EXPOSE.

EXPOSE was the only British entry in the Department of Public Prosecutions’ list of banned movies during the video nasties furore of the early 1980s, and it is hard to see why the film deserved such a fate. Linda’s sex game with two gun-toting Essex boys could be interpreted as a rape scene in which the victim starts to enjoy herself - mirroring the controversy of Susan George in Sam Peckinpah’s STRAW DOGS (1971) - but this hardly warrants the branding of a video nasty. Of the performances, Kier is sufficiently deranged and unlikeable as the paranoid Paul, and Richmond is amicable in her first sizeable film role, yet it is Hayden who excels, charting Linda’s progress from seducer to psychopath with consummate skill. Unfortunately, Hayden has subsequently disowned the film, claiming that material was inserted after she finished work on it somehow lowered the tone. Given the conspicuous absence of body doubles in her masturbation scenes and seduction of Richmond, Hayden’s attitude is a perplexing one.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Blood Lust

VAMPYRES (1974)

Anulka Dziubinska was Playboy’s Miss May 1973...

THE 1970s offered a glut of lesbian vampire movies, and all of them seem to have attracted their own fanatical devotees. A rare horror film independently made in Britain, VAMPYRES is a collaboration between UK-resident Spanish director Joseph Larraz, and editor Brian Smedley-Aston; yet its own precedent of the genre - Hammer’s conventional gothic THE VAMPIRE LOVERS (1970) - is shrugged aside in preference for the desires of Harry Kumel’s DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS (1971). Fran (Marianne Morris) and Miriam (Anulka Dziubinska) are the eponymous bisexual vampires, spending their days insensible in a cellar (filled with Carpathian wine), and their nights seducing unwary drivers who they proceed to sexually exhaust and kill.

The astonishing debauchery of the murder scenes - filmed mostly by Larraz using a hand-held camera - are poetic in their excess, as Fran and Miriam slice their victims and lap at open wounds with ferocious intensity. As Larraz explains, “I imagine my vampires (to) turn almost to cannibalism, to take the blood from anywhere. I can't imagine anyone coming to suck blood gently. It would be very quick with urgency … urgency for the kill, urgency for the blood, because it's what they need.” The wintry shots of the vampyres waiting by the roadside are effective, but it is also the smaller details that add to the overall lingering chill: Ted (Murray Brown) is horrified by Fran’s habit of sleeping with her eyes open, and people’s watches stop when in the vicinity of the bloodsuckers.


...and co-star Marianne Morris appeared naked in the October 1976 edition of Mayfair.

The two female leads were cast for their bodies and not their acting talent, and as a result both were subsequently dubbed. But Morris and Dziubinska play their roles remarkably well; Fran is the hunter-gatherer, while Miriam is the petite blonde waif that belies her savagery. An unusual production as far as it has plenty of loose ends and unexplained back-story, VAMPYRES is nevertheless the definitive erotic horror film, a primal piece of work which is driven by emotion and lack of logic - both distinctive traits of the vampiric ethos.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Hamlet Covered in Snot

Alan Moore and (Saga of the) Swamp Thing (1984 - 87)

Gabriele Dell’Otto’s rendering of Swamp Thing and Abby Cable appeared as part of Alan Moore: Portrait of An Extraordinary Gentleman, a book to celebrate the creator’s fiftieth year.

WRITER Alan Moore - along with American creative force Frank Miller - was responsible for the injection of comic book relevancy in the 1980s. The Northampton resident’s literary skills moved mainstream superheroes ahead of popular culture, lacing fantasies with the nihilism of the liberal-minded, disenfranchised youth of Thatcher's Britain and Reagan's America; and as DC’s second attempt at a Swamp Thing running title was heading for cancellation, the company agreed to give him an unprecedented free rein. By the time Moore’s tenure had ended, the series had won most of comics top awards, and monthly sales had risen from 17,000 to over 100,000.

(Saga of the) Swamp Thing ushered in a bold new age for American comics: the so-called British Invasion. Moore dismissed everything that had gone before on the book; readers who had followed the Bayou monster’s attempt to restore his lost humanity for more than a decade saw their hero swept into an entirely opposite direction - not only would Swamp Thing not regain his humanity, he never had it to begin with. In the masterwork “The Anatomy Lesson,” an autopsy discovers that the creatures’ body was only superficially human, its organs little more than crude, non-functional, vegetable-based imitations. This meant the Swamp Thing was not scientist Alec Holland, but only thought it was: a “ghost dressed in weeds,” where the vegetation had absorbed his mind, knowledge, memories, and skills to create a sentient being. Moore would later reveal that there had been dozens, perhaps even hundreds of Swamp Things since the dawn of mankind, and that all versions were defenders of the Parliament of Trees, an elemental community also known as The Green that represented all plant life on Earth.


(Saga of the) Swamp Thing #21 - which contained “The Anatomy Lesson” - would change the character forever. It was a revelation that, like the best of revelations, felt so obvious we ought to have guessed it all along.

This innovation opened up the boundaries for a title which had been painfully restricted. A plethora of intriguing new abilities were suddenly available, with Swamp Thing able to mutate, transport himself around the globe, explore space, and even experience love on both a physical and emotional level. The monster’s consummation with Abby Cable in the extraordinary “Rites of Spring” saw the first comic to exclusively focus on a sex act between members of different animal kingdoms, and was an indication just how far Moore had brought the title in his first year. In the comic book world sex is usually limited to large breasts, rippling muscles and thigh-length boots, but it is made abundantly clear that Swamp Thing and Abby’s partnership is based on love. We watch as they navigate through their first sexual encounter, Abby as confused about the mechanics of the process as we are. By eating a fruit that the Swamp Thing plucks from his back, Abby is transported to a psychedelic wonderland; instead of an external sexuality for the delight of the readers, the two share a private fulfilment that we are allowed to observe. Their communion is beautifully rendered on the page, awash in spirals and orgasms, without showing anything that could be considered titillating or censorable.

Moore’s run provided other nuances, including the lasting creation of John Constantine - who helps Swamp Thing evolve into an elemental deity - and popular Hippie Chester Williams. The writer also included several of the obscure or forgotten (Phantom Stranger, Cain and Abel, Floronic Man et al), thereby cementing DC's supernatural characters into a consistent mythology. But no re-introduction was as illuminating than “Pog”, which resurrects Walt Kelly's funny animal comic character Pogo (created in 1943). More than a simple homage to Kelly, the story is a commentary on the lost innocence of the old comics, the cruelty of humans (who are referred to as “the loneliest animal of all”), and the destruction of a natural beauty that can never be reclaimed. Moore also experimented with form that would affect the standing of the DC universe: his characterisation of the Justice League in #24 - for example - would become a touchstone for the deconstructionist super-heroics that followed.

Alan Moore’s work crosses genre boundaries like no other, ranging from farce and high comedy to the dark, grim work that epitomised the comics revolution of the 1980s.

It was during issues #29-31 that DC, seeing what it had, dropped from the title's cover the box showing approval by Comics Code Authority - the self-censoring body established to keep comics safe for kids. DC replaced this with Sophisticated Suspense, running above the title's logo, signalling readers as to the content. At the time, this was an unprecedented move. It would lead in time to the label “Suggested for Mature Readers” - the titles carrying this label would form the basis of the Vertigo imprint.

Moore's Swamp Thing is filled with aggressive metaphors and narrative structures; stories end with a line or an image from the opening, creating a satisfying circular structure. The scribe publicly regretted, not long after his run, the pretentiousness of such designs. But these were the thoughts of a successful artist attempting to stay new: whatever critical overtones we may add in retrospect, the literary intelligence of Moore's work on the title was the single most important work that made comics unafraid of experiment. Every time a mainstream superhero barely features in his own title - or tries to craft a psychologically compelling tale of human longing - we have Alan Moore to thank.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Rape from Space

INSEMINOID (1980)
XTRO (1983)

Unremittingly cheesey and occasionally ridiculous, it really does feel like XTRO is from another planet.

IN the wake of seemingly endless ALIEN (1979) rip-offs, Britain’s contribution to this unnecessary subgenera were two low-budget films both structured around extraterrestrial rape: Norman J. Warren’s INSEMINOID - where Judy Geeson is assaulted by a monster with a test-tube penis - and Harry Bromley Davenport’s XTRO - where a male abductee is reborn fully grown by a girl who has been probed by an alien tentacle. For those who want to try this at home, the inseminatory fluid in Warren’s entry was a combination of raw egg and watered-down Swarfega.

INSEMINOID tells the story of an archaeological expedition, who discover a vast tomb-like complex and an assortment of crystals beneath a strange planet. The first half is unbelievably slow (with dialogue functional at best and banal at worst), and only gets going once Sandy (Geeson) is attacked. Once impregnated, the character - at the psychic urging of the crystals - hunts down her colleagues, feasting on them to sustain her pregnancy, and eventually gives birth to plasma-seeking twins who eventually abscond to Earth. The highlight is John Metcalfe’s low-lit Chislehurst Caves interiors, which make the most of the combination of blue and red filters - with this surprisingly lush element contrasting with the increasingly garish content.

“...A far from Human Birth”: INSEMINOID’s exploitative poster.

XTRO is a completely nihilistic shocker, mixing scenes of bitter, understated British life with effects heavy on teeth and slime. Narrowly escaping becoming the second official Brit-made “video nasty” - that honour only belonged to James Kenelm Clarke’s EXPOSE (1975) - XTRO was marketed as the “anti-E.T.”, with the tagline “Not all aliens are friendly.” In fact no-one “phones home” here - they're usually bludgeoned, stabbed or sucked to death in a mess of rubber mallet-head bopping, murderous toy tanks and (inconceivably) a black panther.

Surprisingly, XTRO opens on an idyllic autumn afternoon. Tony (Simon Nash) is playing with his father Sam (Philip Sayer) and their dog in the garden of their house; the sky shatters, its crisp sunlight replaced with darkness and howling winds. Sam is absorbed by a blinding white light and disappears; three years later, Tony is suffering from recurring nightmares. Feigning amnesia, Sam returns and moves back into a fragmented family unit, and sets about rebuilding his relationship with Tony and Rachel (Bernice Stegers). But this is a front to get closer to his son; in an unsettling scene which could be viewed as a child abuse allegory, Sam bites Tony's neck and starts pumping secretions into the child, preparing him for a similar change. This gives Tony amazing abilities which he uses to bring a toy clown and an Action Man doll to life. The latter set piece is truly outlandish - the boy sends the life-size doll to slaughter his next door neighbour after she chops up his pet snake. The fact that neighbour Mrs Goodman is played by Anna Wing - who spent years as Lou Beale on EASTENDERS - is a fittingly trivial fact for a wholly trivial viewing experience.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

A Bit of Mischief

HOUSE OF WHIPCORD (1973)
FRIGHTMARE (1974)
HOUSE OF MORTAL SIN (1975)

FRIGHTMARE’s iconic poster art depicts Sheila Keith’s pre-Abel Ferrara use of power drills as an implement of murder, and is the film that best illustrates Pete Walker and David McGillivray’s distinctive brand of grot guignol.

FOR a regrettably brief period, Pete Walker made some of the most striking movies to come out of 1970s British cinema, at a time when the country’s film industry was in serious decline. Segued from sexploitation, Walker’s pictures tend to be downers (even his sex films are depressing), often featuring sadistic authority figures punishing anyone (but usually young women) who don’t conform to their strict personal codes. He has denied there being any political subtext to his work; however, HOUSE OF WHIPCORD is dedicated to "...those who are disturbed by today's lax moral codes and who eagerly await the return of corporal and capital punishment," suggesting Walker isn't entirely unsympathetic towards his villains. Although never undergone a critical reappraisal in the same way as his American contemporaries Tobe Hooper and Wes Craven, the producer/director maintains an avid cult following, commenting on his filmography “…all I wanted to do was create a bit of mischief." Walker deserves to be seen as an auteur: his films are technically competent, if declining to indulge in grandstanding displays of technique that might have won him more recognition in the manner of, say, Ken Russell.

By directing films set in the Home Counties, Walker bucked the trend of English Gothic; instead of mad scientists and cloaked vampires, his films dwell on old ladies and teenage tearaways. In HOUSE OF WHIPCORD - the first of four collaborations with critic-scriptwriter David McGillivray - Walker delivers a deliciously raw view of what happens when individuals decide to mete out justice in their own backyard. Ann-Marie de Vernay (Penny Irving) - a naïve French model living in London - is enticed by playboy Mark E. Desade (Robert Tayman) into spending some time at his parent's house. But Julia finds herself imprisoned in a corrective institute run by Mark's mother Mrs Wakehurst (Barbara Markham), and senile Justice Bailey (Patrick Barr). Overseen by sadistic warders Walker (the filmmaker’s illuminus, Sheila Keith) and Bates (Dorothy Gordon), she exists in a living hell where minor infractions are punished by whipping, and subsequent misdemeanours result in hanging. As the prison’s intractable sergeant-at-arms, Keith delivers her lecherous lines (“I’m going to make you ashamed of your body di Vernay…I’m going to see to that personally”) with venomous aplomb. Less admirably, Irving is possibly the most irritating Gallic damsel-in-distress (“Zees cannot be!”), and the film does suffer from a too tidy resolution, and a bungle of day-for-night scenes.


Censor Stephen Murphy’s fanciful conviction that HOUSE OF WHIPCORD’s self-appointed governors Wakehurst and Bailey were savage lampoons of Mary Whitehouse and Lord Longford led him to pass the film with only the deletion of a single whiplash effect.

Although Michael Powell's PEEPING TOM (1960) is far superior in an artistic sense, HOUSE OF WHIPCORD shares that film's troubling evocation of the agony brought by imminent death and the way in which the viewer responds to it; Peter Jessop's deliberately dark lighting suggests all manner of depravities which aren't directly on screen. Indeed, one of the defining features of Walker's style is that the overwhelming impression of brutal violence is often much more disturbing than anything which is shown. The torture scenes aren’t in the same league as Ilsa, yet the forced haircuts, sham legalities and ghastly institutional food are far more credibly appalling; instead of titillating shower scenes or lesbian gropings, we have unerotic nudity in uncomfortable surroundings.

Another facet of Walker's work present here is an extraordinary sense of the impotence of men to do anything to protect the women they care about. Time and again, the male characters who should be heroic are pleasant types, but totally ineffectual. When the battered heroine escapes, lorry driver Mr Kind (Ivor Salter) hands her back to Wakehurst under the impression that the prison is a clinic where she will be treated for her wounds, and the apparent hero (Ray Brooks) arrives too late. Walker seems to find women much more interesting, and this immediately marks out his work in a world - exploitation horror - which, at the time, tended to have women as purely victims. Walker's heroines may often be victimised but they are also vivid, tough and proactive. If they fail, it's not for lack of trying.

Despite her long and varied career on stage and television, Sheila Keith is best remembered for her collaborations with Walker, FRIGHTMARE being the only time she had a lead role.

Arguably Walker's best film, FRIGHTMARE turns the concept of the family unit upside down. In a black and white prologue, Dorothy Yates (Keith) is sentenced to rehabilitation in a psychiatric ward for her uncontrollable taste for human flesh. Her husband - Edmund (Rupert Davies) - is sentenced along with her, leaving their daughter, Debbie (an alarmingly credible Kim Butcher), in the care of Jackie (Deborah Fairfax), Edmund's child from a previous marriage. Years later, both Dorothy and Edmund have been released and live an isolated life out in the country. In London, Debbie has become an embittered juvenile delinquent, much to the dismay of Jackie and her psychiatrist boyfriend, Graham (Paul Greenwood). Unfortunately Dorothy's bloodlust continues unabated, with people falling prey to power drills, pokers and pitchforks.

Although Davies brings a complex pathos in his fine performance as Edmund, this is unquestionably Keith's show. FRIGHTMARE allows her to run the gamut from a tremulous and confused aging woman to a crazed, bloodthirsty maniac in the span of a few seconds, and her attacks are explicit and intense. Although Walker clearly sees her as a threat to society, he gives her enough quiet moments - made genuinely touching by Keith's performance. Walker cleverly subverts expectations by pointing out that corruption stems not from the swinging lifestyle shown at the beginning of the film, but rather from barbaric familial practices spread down from one generation to another which fester under the noses of polite society. From a technical standpoint this is also one of Walker's most accomplished features, creating an oppressive atmosphere as he contrasts the bustling city life with the dark, damp, lonely country locations, all enhanced by a chilling Stanley Myers score. FRIGHTMARE is a tightly constructed piece from McGillivray which invites the viewer to decide who amongst the Yateses is the biggest monster.


Influenced by Walker’s Catholic school background, HOUSE OF MORTAL SIN (released in America as THE CONFESSIONAL) is another enduring classic.

Not as heavily condemned for its assault on the Catholic church as Walker would have liked, HOUSE OF MORTAL SIN was made in an era when priests were getting good press in genre movies as exorcists and advisers. This wild melodrama taps into abuses of power, and the channelling of repressed sexuality into ultra-violence, as Father Xavier Meldrum (Anthony Sharp) secretly tapes confessions and develops obsessions with young women. In McGillivray’s amazingly intricate script, the writer packs in several Walkeresque murders by flaming censer, poisoned communion wafers and a string of rosary beads, while a more distinguished cast bring to life an interesting array of characters: Susan Penhaligon and Stephanie Beacham as sleuthing sisters, Sheila Keith as a one-eyed lovelorn housekeeper, Hilda Barry’s bedridden mother and Norman Eshley as the more approachable Father Cutler.

But Sharp is simply spellbinding as Meldrum, at once frighteningly mad and genuinely tragic. Like several other cast members, Sharp was apparently dismayed by the subject matter, and its impossible to tell from his feverish performance whether we are watching Meldrum’s or Sharp’s self-disgust. Meldrum approaches his victims Dracula-like, achieving a brilliant role reversal as his glimmering crucifix becomes an object of terror rather than reassurance. The eruption of violence within such a genteel actor more accustomed to playing minor civil servants or stooging for Morecambe and Wise, makes them all the more unsettling.