Thursday, April 21, 2011

Planets of Doom

DOCTOR WHO - PLANET OF EVIL (1975)
DOCTOR WHO - THE BRAIN OF MORBIUS (1976)
DOCTOR WHO - THE SEEDS OF DOOM (1976)

The Doctor and Sarah are engulfed by the PLANET OF EVIL.

PRODUCER Philip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes used many classic horror/science fiction motifs as a springboard for their stories on DOCTOR WHO, creating a greater appreciation of alien concepts and otherworldly environments. PLANET OF EVIL sees The Doctor (Tom Baker) and Sarah (Elisabeth Sladen) arrive on Zeta Minor - a planet "at the very edge of the known universe" - where they discover that a Morestran geological expedition has fallen prey to an unseen killer and only the leader, Professor Sorenson (Frederick Jaeger), remains alive. A military mission from Morestra has also arrived to investigate - at first suspecting the Doctor and Sarah of responsibility - but the culprit is revealed to be a creature from a universe of antimatter, retaliating for the removal by Sorenson of some samples from around a pit that acts as an interface between the two universes.

PLANET OF EVIL is an effective fusing of FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956) and The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), brought to life by a robust performance from Jaeger and Roger Murray-Leach's extraordinary jungle set, a vividly successful illustration of Hinchcliffe's desires to create more believable elseworldsNot only do we have Sorenson as a transforming character, Zeta Minor itself is a living contradiction, as is the unscientific (but suitably dramatic) plot mechanism of matter versus anti-matter. Television sci-fi writers have had a long love affair with anti-matter, which they have used to illustrate that well-known dictum do not tamper. Thankfully, there are usually safety valves between the two states (as in STAR TREK - THE ALTERNATIVE FACTOR (1967)), or a lonely sentinel warning against matter-mixing (SPACE: 1999 - MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH (1975)).

THE BRAIN OF MORBIUS features a monster so absurdly weird it challenges Japanese kaiju. Morbius’ brain is eventually encased inside a fish-tank with eye-stalks, on a patchwork body with one arm being a giant lobster claw.

Originally written by Terrance Dicks, THE BRAIN OF MORBIUS was extensively re-written in his absence by Holmes to up the horror quotient and remove the technically challenging notion of a scavenger robot. By Dicks’ chagrined request, the show is given the pseudonymous writing credit "Robin Bland". The final version is a messy mix of Frankenstein (1818) and She (1886) set on Karn, a home world for both The Sisterhood – whose sacred flame produces the elixir of life – and Solon (Philip Madoc) – a mad scientist who is putting together a body for the still-living brain of an executed Time Lord. When the Doctor (Baker) and Sarah (Sladen) arrive, The Sisterhood think they have been sent to steal the last drops of elixir produced by a dying flame, and Solon is after the Doctor’s head to complete his work (though it is left unclear why the scientist doesn’t just use the Doctor’s body rather than the unwieldy mutant he has created).

The ritualistic Sisterhood are laughable with their endless arm-waving, yet the serial’s most ridiculous moment comes when the Doctor solves their extinguishing life-force (“the impossible dream of a thousand alchemists, dripping like tea from an urn”) by removing some soot. Thankfully the scenes with Solon and his Igoresque assistant Condo (Colin Fay) are wonderful galactic Hammer Horror, and the moment where Condo is repeatedly shot predictably caused Mary Whitehouse to stir, claiming the story “contained some of the sickest and most horrific material seen on children’s television.” The graphic nature is indeed memorable, but the lasting talking point is the climactic mind-bending contest between Morbius and the Doctor, mainly because it seemed to contradict WHO lore by indicating that there had been eight previous incarnations before William Hartnell (although an equally viable explanation would have been the faces that appear – which include Hinchcliffe and Holmes in stock costume – where actually Morbius’ former selves).

In THE SEEDS OF DOOM, the humanoid Krynoid suit was recycled from a surviving costume from THE CLAWS OF AXOS, and sprayed green.

Robert Banks Stewart's script for THE SEEDS OF DOOM liberally draws on THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT (1955), THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951), and The Day of the Triffids (1951) for its source material. Two alien seed pods are found buried in the Antarctic permafrost and the Doctor (Baker) realises that they are Krynoids; "I suppose you could call it a galactic weed," begins the Time Lord, "though its deadlier than any weed you know. On most planets the animals eat the vegetation. On planets where the Krynoid gets established, the vegetation eats the animals." After an act of sabotage, one of the pods is delivered to eccentric plant collector Harrison Chase (Tony Beckley) at his English mansion, where assistant Keeler (Mark Jones) is infected. Keeler - whose transformation is accelerated by Chase feeding him raw meat - goes on a rampage, rapidly growing to gigantic proportions before being destroyed by the RAF.

THE SEEDS OF DOOM is a strange Doctor Who because it could be played out without the characters of the Doctor and Sarah (Sladen). Though behind Douglas Camfield's action-orientated direction, the show is easily one of the consistently entertaining Who six-parters. Baker and Sladen often lapse into self-parody, but Beckley is chilling as Chase, portraying a level of Masteresque authority and habit even down to wearing black leather gloves, and it is fun to see John Challis playing a "heavy" like Scorby, far from his future in Peckham for ONLY FOOLS AND HORSES (1981 - 2003). The model work holds up very well, and the various stages of Krynoid transformation are handled with aplomb, but the serial suffers from an antiseptic handling of UNIT and a perplexing final scene; after the TARDIS materialises at the South Pole, Sarah states that the Doctor "...forgot to reprogram the co-ordinates," yet our dynamic duo initially landed at the Antarctic base by helicopter.

This post is dedicated to the memory of Elisabeth Sladen (1/2/1946 - 19/4/2011).

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Virgin of Evil

VIRGIN WITCH (1970)
TOWER OF EVIL (1972)

VIRGIN WITCH's Vicki Michelle would later be best remembered as waitress Yvette in the BBC's WWII catchphrasefest 'ALLO 'ALLO. Unsurprisingly shying away from her schlock past, Vicki can also be glimpsed in QUEEN KONG and THE SENTINEL; she was young, she needed the work.

RAY Austin's VIRGIN WITCH sees two sisters - Christine and Betty (played by real life siblings Ann and Vicki Michelle) run away from home with dreams of fame and fortune in London. This being a 1970's British sexploitation flick, they are promptly picked up by a smooth-talker in a sports car (in this case, Johnny (Keith Buckley)), and swept off to a comfortable flat where opportunity waits around every corner. Christine is hired for a photo shoot by Sybil Waite (Patricia Haines), a predatory lesbian who uses her modeling agency as bait to lure attractive, naïve young women to the pagan coven she acts as high priestess; what Sybil doesn't know is that Christine is gifted with supernatural powers of her own. With Christine arriving at the Wychwold manor house for her assignment - and the innocent Betty in tow - it is soon discovered that the voyeuristic owner of the house, Dr Gerald Amberley (Neil Hallett), is a high priest who is (conveniently) holding a Sabbat that very evening.

VIRGIN WITCH was shot in 1970, but it took two further years to get it into theatres due to problems with the BBFC. The blend of horror and sex was always a problem for the censor, but viewed today it is difficult to understand why such a timid release should be withheld for such a period, particularly as these ingredients were inseparable for British filmmakers at the dawn of the decade. Whereas Hammer’s Karnstein Trilogy was old-fashioned horror spiced up with liberal sprinklings of flesh, VIRGIN WITCH is first and foremost a skinflick, with supernatural and horror elements so ineffectual they scarcely warrant a mention. In fact, the most unnerving thing about the film is that producer “Ralph Solomans” was actually a joint pseudonym for wrestling commentator Kent Walton and Hazel Adair, creator of that zenith of daytime soaps, CROSSROADS.

TOWER OF EVIL's Candace Glendenning has a tough time in this prototype slasher: suspected of a triple murder, her character is actually traumatised because of the Snape Island terror.

Jim O' Connolly's TOWER OF EVIL can boast one of the most delirious plots in British film history. John Gurney (George Colouris) and his son Hamp (Jack Watson) make their way by small boat to Snape, a fog-bound island off the South-West coast of England. On their arrival they discover the mutilated remains of three American teenagers (played with bogus accents by British sex film actors Robin Askwith, John Hammill and Serretta Wilson) before shrieking, naked survivor Penny (Candace Glendenning) knifes John to death and is knocked out by his son. One teen had been killed by a gold Phoenician ceremonial spear, which leads four love tangled archaeologists - Adam (Mark Edward), Rose (Jill Haworth), Dan (Derek Fowlds) and Nora (Anna Palk) - to travel to the island, together with Brent (Bryant Halliday), a private eye intent on clearing Penny's name. As the archaeologists delve deeper into the island, they are attacked by Hamp's demented Neanderthal brother Saul (Frederic Abbot) and his even madder son Michael (Mark McBride); it is claimed that the duo have become unhinged after the death of Saul's "calming influence" wife Martha, whose seaweed-covered, crab-chewed corpse is kept in a rocking chair.

Together with Mario Bava's equally convoluted A BAY OF BLOOD released the previous year, TOWER OF EVIL contains a potent blend of sex, nudity and violence that helped set the template for the American slasher craze yet to happen. Released in the US as HORROR ON SNAPE ISLAND, then reissued as BEYOND THE FOG, this uproarious film also mixes old world Gothic (dark setting, mythical superstition) with a riot of 1970's paraphernalia in its hippie dialogue ("Bravery isn't my bag, man"), psychedelia (Penny's very unorthodox interrogation involves regressive hypnosis induced by disco-lights) and fashion (the use of skin-tight flared jeans leave little to the imagination – and that’s just the men). Ultimately there is something very British in having a dank, foggy island as a hotbed of sexual activity and intrigue, where scrambling crabs over the dead act as a delicious metaphor.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Faking It

SCIENCE REPORT - ALTERNATIVE 3 (1977)
SCREEN ONE - GHOSTWATCH (1992)

Presented and narrated by well-known broadcaster Tim Brinton, ALTERNATIVE 3 purports to be an investigation into the UK's brain drain, uncovering a plan to make the Moon and Mars habitable in the event of an environmental catastrophe on Earth.

IN the 1970s, Anglia Television ran a weekly series called SCIENCE REPORT. The final episode was due to have been broadcast on April 1st, and as the slot was not to be recommissioned, the production team decided to produce a spoof. Written by David Ambrose and directed by Christopher Miles, ALTERNATIVE 3 began by detailing a number of disappearances and deaths of physicists, engineers and astronomers. It was claimed that these people were involved in a secret American/Soviet plan in outer space, and that scientists had determined that the Earth's surface would be unable to support life for much longer due to climate change. In 1957, Dr Carl Gerstein (Richard Marner) proposed that there were three alternatives to this problem; the first was the drastic reduction of humans, the second the construction of vast shelters to house government officials and a cross section of the population, and the third was to populate Mars via the Moon. The programme ends by showing a 1962 landing on the Martian surface; as American and Russian voices celebrate their achievement, something stirs beneath the Martian soil.

Following the grand tradition of CRIMEWATCH and BADGERWATCH, Stephen Volk's GHOSTWATCH involved BBC personnel (hosted by Michael Parkinson, with Mike Smith manning the phones and Sarah Greene and Craig Charles roving reports) performing a live, fake investigation of poltergeist activity. Like the most effective examples, the story centers around family relationships and prepubescent girls, areas which it is felt that the viewer will show attention and compassion. The culprit in this case is a malevolent ghost nicknamed Pipes, from his habit of knocking on the house's plumbing. We also learn that Pipes is the spirit of a psychologically disturbed man, himself believed to have been troubled by the spirit of child killer. In the end, the reporters realise that the transmission itself is acting as a national seance, with the spirits' taking control of the studio and possessing Parkinson. As part of its climatic melee, Greene is sucked into a cupboard and presumed dead, which, at this point, one hopes the programme had been real.

Michael Parkinson adorns the cover of the Radio Times promoting GHOSTWATCH's Halloween night screening. His typically forlorn performance was one of the key elements duping people to be believe the drama was actually showing true, live events.

ALTERNATIVE 3 and GHOSTWATCH illustrate how easily the viewer can be fooled if they are presented in acknowledged formats. Both were fronted by well-known television personalities which instantly lend gravitas, but it is difficult to understand how such a high volume of viewers can be fooled by interviews which are too polished to have been spontaneous, and ignore closing credits which clearly name actors and writers. GHOSTWATCH, in particular, resulted in an outcry of which only the Great British Public could manifest. The BBC were besieged with calls criticising the corporation for the misleading and disturbing nature of the programme, and the ensuing hysteria included the case of Martin Denham - a mental retard so "hypnotised and obsessed" by the show he committed suicide - and a woman who demanded recompense for a pair of jeans because her husband was so terrified he soiled himself. Additionally, a report in the British Medical Journal described two cases of GHOSTWATCH-induced post-traumatic stress disorder in children, the first PTSD caused by television.

The legacies of both programmes are far-reaching. Conspiracy theorists are still feeding and elaborating on the prophetic propositions of Dr Carl Gerstein, and GHOSTWATCH was ahead of its time in the sub-genre of horror vérité, which would break out in everything from THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999), MOST HAUNTED (2002 -10), and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (2007). MOST HAUNTED is an interesting faux pas, as after many viewer complaints - usually about "spiritualist medium" Derek Acorah - Ofcom cleared the show of any deception, ruling that the programme was entertainment and not to be taken seriously. Ofcom ruled that it contained "a high degree of showmanship that puts it beyond what we believe to be a generally accepted understanding of what comprises a legitimate investigation".