Saturday, August 7, 2010

Alien Encounters

PREY (1977)
LIFEFORCE (1985)


A dog-nosed alien terrorises rural England in PREY, the strangest British horror movie of all time.

EXISTING in tandem with Hammer's decline was a vibrant sub-culture of independent filmmakers working with minuscule budgets but inspirational levels of enthusiasm and raw talent. One such director was Norman J. Warren, who followed his cult pot-boiler SATAN'S SLAVE (1976) with PREY, shot in ten days at Shepperton for around £50,000. A triumph of minimalism, with a principal cast of three, the film is the story of hesitant shape-shifting alien Kator (Barry Stokes), who adopts a human guise (and the name Anderson) from his first victim and finds himself stranded on Earth in the care of an unstable lesbian couple in their isolated home: possessive Josephine (Sally Faulkner) and childish Jessica (Glory Annen). Unnervingly bleak, PREY plays out its bizarre triangle with several moments of inspired weirdness. Anderson is forced to dress as a girl for a highly uncomfortable dinner party, and when the alien discovers he cannot walk on water, there is a seemingly endless slow-motion struggle in an improbably filthy stream. And when Anderson finally gets to go to bed with Jessica, Warren unleashes a truly shocking entrail-wreathed climax.

Josephine is more sinister than the alien, and has already killed one of her lover’s potential male suitors; Faulkner doesn’t overplay this, and keeps the character at least two steps from insanity. PREY was Annan’s first movie and despite a very halting style of delivery it is appropriate that she doesn’t have the strength of Faulkner. Stokes is also memorable, his limited resources as an actor paying dividends in this role where he's meant to seem awkward and an outsider. When he changes into his true form, however, Stokes looks less like a dangerous alien than a badly made-up dog on children’s television. But considering the budget and the schedule, PREY is astonishingly effective and certainly deserves more attention. It’s also got one of the great final lines of any British horror movie.

Mathilda May's background in ballet lends her a certain onscreen elegance in the SF fiasco LIFEFORCE.

LIFEFORCE (commonly known as Lifefarce) is a film light years away from the intimate inventiveness of PREY, so conceptually ambitious that it bites off far more than it is ever capable of coherently presenting. Loosely based on Colin Wilson's 1976 novel Space Vampires, its tale of three sleeping humanoids brought back to Earth and draining London of its lifeforce plays more like a Quatermass scenario. Directed by American maverick Tobe Hooper, the film is remembered mostly for French actress Mathilda May - billed as Space Girl - who spends the entire film undressed. May is possessed of such a spectacularly statuesque physique that she could probably have conquered all of mankind even without her special talents, which include a form of electroshock vampirism and the ability to inhabit other bodies.

Hooper pays homage to his hosts, drawing on the British tradition of sci-fi drollness (tea is served as the country burns to a crisp), and much of its wryness is in the laughably sincere performances; wispy Peter Firth representing military authority and Frank Finlay playing the relativist scientist ("Well... in a sense, we are all vampires"). Producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus sank a then substantial $25 million into the production, clearly seeing LIFEFORCE as the next great SF blockbuster. Hiring ALIEN (1979) co-scripter Dan O’Bannon and John Dykstra - the man behind the visual effects on STAR WARS (1977) - the film, however, was a box office disaster. In fact, LIFEFORCE and Hooper’s other two productions for Cannon - the equally disastrous remake of INVADERS FROM MARS (1986) and THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE 2 (1986), ended up almost single-handedly sinking Cannon’s finances and forced Golan and Globus to declare bankruptcy by the 1990s.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

"It's in the trees ... it's coming!"

NIGHT OF THE DEMON (1957)

Despite being book-ended by appearances of a crudely
animated monster, NIGHT OF THE DEMON
is an effective exercise in atmosphere.

IN 1957, British horror cinema exploded into life with the garish, Eastmancolour THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. Terence Fisher's box office sensation was the starting point of Hammer's domination, but Jacques Tourneur's NIGHT OF THE DEMON - which started filming on the same day as Fisher's classic - was shot in black and white, and unlike Hammer's emphasis on physical violence, owes more to the power of suggestion. Tourneur's stylish production - an adaptation of M.R. James' Casting the Runes (1911) - predicted an anti-Hammer stance in the early 1960s that produced a triumvirate of monochrome horrors based on works of supernatural fiction: THE INNOCENTS (1961, from Henry James' Turn of the Screw (1898)), NIGHT OF THE EAGLE (1962, from Fritz Leiber's Conjure Wife (1943)) and THE HAUNTING (1963, from Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House (1959)).

Scenes such as the storm invoked by black magician Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis), dressed in clown's makeup for a children's Halloween gathering, are genuinely unsettling, and this garden party suddenly interrupted by demonic intervention anticipates THE OMEN (1976). As in that film, the leading protagonist is an American - here, Dr John Holden (Dana Andrews) - coming to terms with what he initially sees as bunkum. This theme of the modern, rationalist American adrift in a world of superstition can be traced through several films, including AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981), and even back to Universal's cycle of the 1930s and 40s, were settings were often in generic old Europe.

Columbia's 2002 R1 DVD of NIGHT OF THE DEMON was sold as a "double feature" with CURSE OF THE DEMON, the film's Americanised, truncated version which cut fourteen minutes from the original running time.

Screenwriter Charles Bennett crafts a meditation on the conflict between science and superstition, embodied by the personality clashes between the two worldviews of Andrews’ psychiatrist and MacGinnis’s occultist. One of James's most important achievements was to redefine the ghost story by dispensing with many of the Gothic trappings of his predecessors, and replacing them with more realistic, contemporary settings. By using this trait cinematically, NIGHT OF THE DEMON sometimes seems somewhat dry, but this is a small price to pay for a movie that takes its subject matter with an utter conviction rarely seen in the genre.

Tourneur was a master of suggestion, his visual style the perfect film equivalent of James’ prose; Holden's eerie encounters alone in forests, empty hallways, and desolate farmhouses evoke a wonderfully paranoid atmosphere. Ken Adam's production design is an effective blend of British antiquity and striking modernism, rendering library corridors and railway carriages as endless passages which need to be conquered. It has become a cliche to point out that Tourneur cut his directorial teeth working on three of producer Val Lewton’s brooding 1940s horrors (THE CAT PEOPLE (1942), I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE and THE LEOPARD MAN (both 1943)), but NIGHT OF THE DEMON seems to be Tourneur’s attempt to recreate the Lewton formula: the emphasis on solid scripting, the use of shadows, and the depiction of belief versus skepticism. But none of the Lewton-produced films ever endorsed the supernatural; in fact, such beliefs were often equated with mental illness. Holden is not portrayed as a man sinking into madness; in fact, acting on his new-found knowledge saves him from death, and it is interesting to note that Andrews' wooden performance loses up as he gets closer to supernatural enlightenment.

Video Watchdog #93 (March 2003) featured a "duelling critics" piece where Kim Newman and Bill Cooke assess Columbia's DVD release, as well as detailed analysis by Cooke of the cuts made to produce CURSE OF THE DEMON.

A 1960s Mad magazine article pointed out that movie heroes and villains often act against type: villains are courteous, charming and open-minded, while heroes are bad-tempered, bigoted and thuggish. NIGHT OF THE DEMON illustrates this sound theory expertly. James' Karswell is a melodramatic character akin to George Zucco, but MacGinnis plays the Devil-bearded disciple with a touch of Celtic whimsy; he may be a diabolist, but he always treats his enemies with exaggerated courtesy. The odd relationship between Karswell and his mother (Athene Seyler) is one of the many off-beat aspects of the film, suggesting that the magician is an insecure mother's boy who shows none of the insidious interest in the opposite sex so commonly demonstrated by screen devil worshippers. This hint of homosexuality doesn't progress further, leaving Karswell as a paunchy and balding character, whose resemblance to that of Aleister Crowley is closer than any other actor.

Tourneur crafted NIGHT OF THE DEMON to exist in a shadow world which would evoke feelings of dread through expressive lighting and sound rather than any sensationalised effects such as a man in a monster suit. Bowing to pressure from executive producer Hal E. Chester, the director agreed to reveal the demon for a few frames in the film's finale. Much to Tourneur and Bennett's horror, Chester re cut the film so that Karswell's fire demon (a combination of a puppet, suit and a mechanical bust influenced from Medieval woodcuts) was shown extensively at the beginning and end of the feature, and was on all the film's publicity materials. For decades, the debate has raged whether Chester's use of the demon cheapened or enhanced the film. Dubbed as a "monumental blunder" and "atrocious," the monster is over-used at the climax, but overall beneficial to the narrative but perhaps not to the overall facade.