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.