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.