Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Hammer Has Risen From The Grave

WAKE WOOD (2011)

A reworking of W.W. Jacobs’ The Monkey’s Paw (1902) and Stephen King's Pet Sematary (1983), WAKE WOOD also owes debts to the 1973 releases DON'T LOOK NOW and THE WICKER MAN. But despite all these reference points, the film successfully attempts a genuine Hammer rebirth around rebirth motifs.

HAMMER has been in a state of frustration since the 1980s. New beginnings always fizzled into oblivion, including a Warner Bros deal in 1993 which proposed a $100m programme of remakes, a deal with Firstsight Ltd announced at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, and 2003 had a schedule issued by Queensland-based Pictures in Paradise. Then in 2007 it was announced that Dutch media tycoon John De Mol - whose production house invented the BIG BROTHER reality show - had purchased the Hammer rights to over 300 films in the studio's back catalogue, and the company was restarted under the guidance of Simon Oakes. The first output under the new regime was BEYOND THE RAVE - made in conjunction with Channel 4  - which premiered free on myspace in twenty, four-minute segments during 2008. This contemporary vampire serial with blasting techno (selected by dance-music maestro, Pete Tong, innit) and hip street lingo couldn't have been further from expectations.

David Keating's WAKE WOOD was the first of the new Hammer films to be shot, but the last to be released, after Matt Reeves' needless English language version of LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (2008), LET ME IN (2010), and Antti Jokinen's voyeuristic mis-fire THE RESIDENT (2011). WAKE WOOD tells the story of Patrick (Aidan Gillen) and Louise (Eva Birthistle), who move to the Irish village of Wake Wood after their daughter Alice (Ella Connolly) is killed in a savage dog attack. One night, they stumble upon a ritual led by Arthur (Timothy Spall), and soon learn that the community has the power to bring the recently deceased back to life for three days. The couple desperately want to see Alice again, and so begins the latest ceremony where their daughter is "reborn" via the utilisation of another corpse - a farmer who died in an accident involving a bull - which is systematically pressed, cut, covered in mud and burnt to recreate a suitable husk. 

Arriving in Wake Wood for a fresh start, a young couple become trapped in a tortured existence with their undead daughter. 

Gillen and Birthistle are fine as the grieving parents - Birthistle should be used to menacing minors after THE CHILDREN (2008) - and Spall evidently enjoys his turn as the village elder with nocturnal habits, but it is the wide-eyed Connolly was is the most effective as the dead soul, switching from wholesome child to murderous spawn with relative ease. Made in conjunction with the Irish Film Board and the Swedish Film Institute, WAKE WOOD is a slow-burning and emotionally draining film which draws heavily from past cult favourites. Refreshingly old school with its English eccentricities and grue, this may, however, restrict its modern appeal, and acceptance may be limited to those enveloped in Hammer nostalgia.

During their years of inactivity, many intriguing Hammer projects were mentioned, ranging from Jamaican voodoo film THE WHITE WITCH OF ROSE HALL, epic television anthology THE HAUNTED HOUSE OF HAMMER, and a mini-series based on Peter Norden's Salon Kitty (1970). Yet WAKE WOOD feels like the kind of film "new" Hammer should be making. With any reinvention of such a historic brand, production natures need to be tweaked, but a respect to their heritage is also important. Case in point is the new DOCTOR WHO, which is currently losing its prime time viewers in a whirlwind of riddles and bombastic CGI; it will be interesting to see over the coming years if Oakes will keep the ship away from revenue friendly crowd-pleasers, or commit to earthy releases with one eye on the past.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Pit of History

QUATERMASS AND THE PIT (1967)

One of the best Hammer productions, QUATERMASS AND THE PIT is science fiction just as audacious as 2001, with considerable less pretension. Here the film is being shown in an uneasy double-bill with CIRCUS OF FEAR.

SCIENCE fiction is a genre of ideas, apprehensive about the universe and our role within it; H.G.Wells was obsessed with human insignificance, and George Orwell our capacity for authoritarian evil. Away from the USA-style bug-eyed monsters and space cadets, British SF is sullied by a dark ocean of history and class struggle, yet today we live in a world of perpetual surveillance, apocalyptic pathogens and computer hyperconnectivity which has not only blurred fact and fiction, but eroded boundaries of national identity and personal space (in Fredric Brown’s one-page story Answer (1954), when a new super-computer is asked if there is a God, it replies "Yes, now there is a God.") London, in particular, has suffered at the hands of SF, with differing intellectual richness; DOCTOR WHO featured numerous "creature of the week" alien invasions, and on a more dystopian level totalitarian regimes have been evident in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971) and BRAZIL (1986). More bombastically, American productions LIFEFORCE (1985) found the capital overrun by space vampires, and in REIGN OF FIRE (2002) a hibernating dragon is awakened by construction work on the London underground.

QUATERMASS AND THE PIT is arguably the greatest "London under supernatural siege" picture, and a seminal ideas film. Based on the celebrated Nigel Kneale BBC series, Hammer's version  - directed by Roy Ward Baker from Kneale's screenplay - begins with the discovery of ape men skeletons - rather than dragons - during work at Hobbs End underground station. When a strange metal container is found, it is thought to be a German V2, but this is quashed when Professor Quatermass (Andrew Keir) finds insect creatures inside. He believes that these beings came from Mars five million years ago, and helped humanity to gain racial consciousness. The Martian psychokinetic energy still lies dormant in mankind and the horned insect figures are remembered in human memory as the Devil. Working with Dr Matthew Roney (James Donald) and his assistant Barbara Judd (Barbara Shelley), Quatermass uncovers Hobbs End as a hotspot for paranormal disturbances and now - with the full uncovering of the spaceship - the dormant powers become active.

A QUATERMASS AND THE PIT novel was published by Penguin in April 1960, with a cover illustration by the author's brother, Bryan Kneale.

Kneale has always been abrasive of the stealing of his ideas, particularly by DOCTOR WHO. But here the writer borrows from Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End (1953) - a novel about a race of aliens who resemble the classic image of The Devil - and also Clarke's The Sentinel (1948), a short story which was expanded and modified into 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968). Although the releases are poles apart in budget, both films share a great deal thematically: the impact of alien intelligence upon human evolution and the consequences of that intervention being discovered. But while 2001's alien intelligence is arguably one of teacher and observer, Kneale suggests that Martian genetics are actively malevolent, transferring the Martians own instinct to kill the other into the ape men who they experimented upon. Consequently, the human urge to hate, despise and destroy is explained through the fact that, as is explicitly stated, “We ARE the Martians!”

Kneale's concept of induced human violence is linked with the equally sensational notion that rationalises our conception of haunting and the devil, explaining apparitions ("ghosts... [are] phenomena that were badly observed and wrongly explained") and demonology in one handy revelation. Consequently, QUATERMASS AND THE PIT portrays our layered heritage of old, weird Britain with historical and supernatural clout unlike any other. The film is lensed by Arthur Grant in his trademark muted style, providing a perfect feel for a film so obsessed with bones and ancient mythology. The scenario of unearthing a long-buried evil is addressed with equal zeal in BLOOD ON SATAN'S CLAW (1970), where a skull is uncovered by a farmer's plough; this artifact turns the young people of a 17th-century village into a cult with a penchant for erotic blood sacrifices. Shooting with an abundance of low camera angles, this amplifies the feeling of being watched by some ancient other.