Sunday, December 1, 2013

"Who Knows?"


Playing the seventh incarnation of the Time Lord, Sylvester McCoy contrasted a bumbling buffoon with the mentality of a behind-the-scenes manipulator. Similar to Patrick Troughton's Second Doctor McCoy appears scatty, but becomes focused in extreme situations.

THE official 25th anniversary DOCTOR WHO story, SILVER NEMESIS is a tired and amateurish three-parter that throws together aimless plot threads and characters. Shot entirely on location, the serial sees The Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) and companion Ace (Sophie Aldred) arrive in 1988 England where Cybermen, a group of neo-Nazis led by Herr de Flores (Anton Diffring), and 17th century sorceress Lady Peinforte (Fiona Walker) all seek to control a statue that is in fact a Gallifreyan super-weapon (a notion similarly explored in REMEMBRANCE OF THE DALEKS). The three components to the statue - a bow, an arrow and the figure itself, made from the living metal Validium - were separated by The Doctor in 1638 and the statue launched into space on an asteroid, to foil Peinforte's initial plan to capture the item. With the Nemesis figure now cash-landed near Windsor Castle, the Time Lord must deal with the sorceress, the Nazis and the Cyber-fleet.

Since their TENTH PLANET induction in 1966, the Cybermen have never fully developed the potential of body horror beginnings, instead the emotionless metal menaces have been generic invaders prone to anger management amid incoherent continuity. They have also become easier and easier to kill; here only a slingshot from Ace is required, and their ray gun aim is frightfully lacking. What should have been a showcase for The Doctor's second greatest foes is cheapened by endless in-jokes (for example, Peinforte's mathematician is played by Leslie French, an actor considered for the First Doctor) and self-gratifying cameos, which include the Courtney Pine Jazz Quartet, Nicholas Courtney, Queen lookalike Mary Reynolds and even golden age Hollywood star Dolorey Gray appears as an American tourist.

Clare Higgins as Ohila in THE NIGHT OF THE DOCTOR. This mini episode sees the return to the screen of The Sisterhood of Karn for the first time since THE BRAIN OF MORBIUS. However, these protectors of the Sacred Flame have been in other areas of the Whoinverse, such as Terence Dicks' novel Warmonger, and Big Finish audio adventures Sisters of the Flame and The Vengeance of Morbius.

Re-launched in 2005, DOCTOR WHO has become embarrassingly smug, saccharine sweet and playfully incomprehensible. In the Classic Era, the Doctor maintained a remoteness; he was an intergalactic Sherlock Holmes, portrayed in a show that strived to be straightforward. In contrast, there is no room to breath in the Modern Era, a visual soap opera which drowns under endless story arcs, overblown scores, and the rushed nature of a 45-minute time slot. Guest star Timothy Dalton expertly described Russell T. Davies's show-running tenure as 2001 one moment, CORONATION STREET the next. Since Steven Moffat took over as head writer and executive producer in 2010, the show has become a brand. The best science fantasy explores the responsibilities and fears of the human race, but Moffat has made DOCTOR WHO a fairy tale; he argues that the programme isn't really sci-fi, rather stories that take place "under children's beds," amid his masturbatory world where he is much cleverer than you are.

On the 14th November 2013 a 7 minute minisode THE NIGHT OF THE DOCTOR was released, acting as a taster, companion piece and revelation to the 50th anniversary celebrations. Written by Moffat and set during the Time War, the short shows the previously unseen last moments of the Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann) and his artificially-controlled regeneration into the War Doctor (John Hurt). After crashing on Karn, the Doctor is taken in by The Sisterhood and revived; they convince him that there is no way to avoid being a part of the War, and so he subsequently consumes a potion which will ensure his incarnation into a warrior. Second to the unveiling of Hurt as the long-rumoured "unknown, evil Doctor", there was genuine surprise in McGann's dialogue mentioning companions in various Big Finish audio dramas, moving them into canon and marking a rare instance that characters created for licensed product being referenced in a series proper.

 THE DAY OF THE DOCTOR sees the visible return of the Zygons after numerous appearances in print and on audio; previously the body-snatching aliens were included in the Modern era episodes THE PANDORICA OPENS and THE POWER OF THREE, but without being shown in their natural guise.

The official 50th anniversary story THE DAY OF THE DOCTOR followed on the 23rd November - a 75-minute one shot - and was announced and subsequently advertised like The Second Coming. Yet against most expectations it is a triumph, with Moffat delivering giddying references to both WHO eras while maintaining a momentum for the final days of The Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith). Clara Oswald (Jenna-Louise Coleman) receives a message from the Eleventh Doctor and returns to the TARDIS, which is by royal order airlifted to Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery. Preserved instructions from Elizabeth I are shown to the Doctor, along with a 3-D portrait entitled "No More" or "Gallifrey Falls", and other paintings. It transpires that the shape-shifting Zygons, preserved in old images, are invading. Meanwhile, the War Doctor watches Gallifrey falling to a Dalek invasion, and decides to trigger a weapon of mass destruction - the sentient "galaxy eater" the "Moment" (Billie Piper) - which will destroy both races. The Eleventh Doctor meets the Curator (Tom Baker), and is told that the painting's actual name was "Gallifrey Falls No More", hinting that a plan to freeze Gallifrey had worked, and the Doctor's future involves finding it.

The scenes set in Elizabethan England with the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) and a young Elizabeth I under threat from Zygons are a joy, exploding from the TARDIS on a horse - in a TIME BANDITS kind of way - and later declaring his stature to a rabbit. There are several laugh-out-loud moments as the camaraderie increases, but Clara's ever-increasing scope  - even though she has existed at all points in time - seemingly extends to an inspirational power to make even three Doctors pause for thought (another piece that grates are the scenes on Gallifrey, which look like they were shot on an industrial estate). But the future, amazingly, looks bright; dialogue of the Curator seems to suggest that the Doctor will again get a chance to choose his regeneration, as from McGann to Hurt, and not only that, he’ll be able to "revisit a few" if only "the old favourites." 

Friday, November 15, 2013

Masculinity and Madness

KILL LIST (2011)

The final third of KILL LIST descents into a WICKER MAN-like nightmare, with a climactic nod to A SERBIAN FILM.

IRAQ War veteran Jay (Neil Maskell)'s mood swings and unemployment are causing frictions with wife Shel (MyAnna Buring) and disrupting their connection to seven-year-old son Sam (Harry Simpson). After a dinner party with fellow vet Gal (Michael Smiley) and his new girlfriend Fiona (Emma Fryer) is also disrupted by an argument, Gal invites Jay to renew their partnership as professional hitmen. Made to sign a contract in blood, the duo are given three targets by a strange syndicate: a priest who may or may not have links to paedophilia, a librarian with a stash of violent videos, and an MP who lives in a secluded mansion. After Gal is fatally stabbed by one of many pagan celebrants near the mansion, Jay is forced into a knife fight with a masked 'hunchback', which ends with him being crowned by the cultists.

This visceral genre-bending crime-horror, shot around Sheffield, is the second feature from writer/director Ben Wheatley after 2009's DOWN TERRACEThe reactions and strange dialogue by people on the 'kill list', together with a bizarre visit to the doctors, enhance Jay's - and the viewer's - disorientation (the priest even thanks his executioners). We share the lead's emotional roller-coaster because the kitchen sink naturalism draws you to the characters before the brutality feeds in. Shel is trying to hold her family together despite financial worries and Jay's confrontational demeanour, while Jay struggles to control his psychotic episodes (possibly a post-traumatic stress disorder related from his tour, or mental scars from a 'job' in Kiev, details of which are never fleshed out). A conclusion that the hitmen have been victims of an entrapment conspiracy at the hands of the mysterious Client (Struan Rodger) still cannot explain all of the narrative ambiguities, especially when the latter refers to the act of "reconstruction."

Lambs to the slaughter: Michael Smiley and Neil Maskell play hitmen haunted by the past in this surreal offering.

KILL LIST is an artfully constructed shocker with strong performances and violence which is so jarring because of these convictions. The film also explores Wheatley's preference for a sinister Old England, a metaphysical existence where the landscape has a deep-rooted characteristic for bad vibes (a notion further explored in his next film SIGHTSEERS, and taken to its zenith with the extraordinary A FIELD IN ENGLAND). The filmmaker is arguably the greatest British talent to emerge since Ken Russell or Lindsay Anderson, an audacious creative force which produces works that defy any fixed categorisation. Next up for Wheatley are the first two episodes of Peter Capaldi's DOCTOR WHO tenure, and a film adaptation of J.G. Ballard's 1975 novel HIGH-RISE, which offers him an urban setting to warp the human psyche.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Aliens North of the Border


Don Marquez' 2007 oil on canvas rendering of Patricia Laffan as the DEVIL GIRL FROM MARS, featured in

NYAH (Patricia Laffan) and her robot companion Chani have come to Earth from Mars to capture men for breeding. At the remote Scottish Bonnie Charlie Inn, the Martian meets American reporter Michael Carter (Hugh McDermott) and Professor Hennessey (Joseph Tomelty), who have been sent to investigate strange lights in the area. Also at the Inn are model Ellen (Hazel Court), escaped killer Albert (Peter Reynolds), his optimistic barmaid girlfriend Doris (Adrienne Corri), and Innkeepers the Jamiesons (John Laurie and Sophie Stewart) with their nephew Tommy (Anthony Richmond). Nyah's plans are thwarted when she is persuaded to travel to London to find more suitable mating stock, which, as Tim Healey states in The World's Worst Movies, "turns out to be a suicide mission, for the killer, the craft, the Devil Girl - and the director's reputation - all perish in one grand explosion."

Released a year before Hammer's THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT, DEVIL GIRL FROM MARS is listed among 'The 100 Most Amusingly Bad Movies Ever Made' in The Official Razzie Movie Guide. It is also one of a handful of homegrown science fiction films that take inspiration from across the Atlantic for a more comic book take on SF, while still remaining typically pessimistic. Consequently, DEVIL GIRL FROM MARS takes everything very seriously and very British ("While we're still alive we might as well have a cup of tea"). The origins as a stage play are all too obvious, as most of the film is played out in the Inn's bar, but its kitsch value and unintentionally hilarious dialogue ("There's a meteor dropped near here, it's sort of romantic isn't it?") has made it a cult favourite. The human characters all subscribe to the Blitz mentality and the performances are fine, but McDermott's brash newsman has such an annoying accent that the idea of Ellen falling for him within a couple of hours stretches even this uniform female mentality.

In the best science fiction tradition, a leading protagonist is accompanied by a robot helper; here Nyah has the clunky Chani, an electronic-brained "mechanical man."

Nyah - as representative of an "intransigent matriarchy" on Mars - is unsurprisingly the highlight of this hokum, which unfortunately concerns itself equally between the hackneyed goings-on at the Bonnie Charlie and the apocalyptic situation that unfolds. Not only has the intruder placed an invisible electronic wall around the Inn and can blur into the Fourth Dimension ("Now men look, watch the power of another world") Nyah means business, disintegrating trees and hunchbacked labourer David (James Edmond) with her trusty ray gun. She also has a costume to die for; looking like a dominatrix and even a neo-Nazi, Nyah is incredible in her black latex outfit, black tights, padded shoulders, shiny black skullcap, boots and cape. The Wandsworth-born Laffan's other most famous role is in the 1951 epic QUO VADIS, where she played Poppaea, the second wife of the Roman Emperor Nero.

Also centred around shenanigans in a Scottish Inn, the Doctor Who adventure TERROR OF THE ZYGONS not just opened Season 13 of the show, but saw the beginning of the Philip Hinchcliffe/Robert Holmes Gothic Era in earnest. Written by SEEDS OF DOOM scribe Robert Banks Stewart and robustly directed by Douglas Camfield, the four-parter sees The Doctor (Tom Baker), Sarah (Elisabeth Sladen) and Harry (Ian Marter) summoned by UNIT to The Fox Inn in the Scottish Highlands (actually Bognor Regis). Investigating the mysterious destruction of oil rigs in the North Sea, locals talk of the Tullock Moor mists, but it transpires that the Loch Ness Monster is a cyborg controlled by Zygons, organic shape-shifting aliens who plan to take over the Earth. When their craft emerges from the Loch and The Doctor causes it to self-destruct, only Zygon leader Broton (John Woodnutt) survives. Assuming the identity of the Duke of Forgill, Broton travels to London to destroy a World Energy Conference, aided by the Skarasen cyborg.

The Zygons grace the cover of Doctor Who Weekly #9 (December 1979).

TERROR OF THE ZYGONS features arguably the best and worst monsters in the Time Lord's history. The Zygons  - designed by James Acheson and John Friedlander - are superbly realised, their suckers and throbbing veins bathed in red and green light to maximise queasiness. In contrast the Skarasen/Loch Ness Monster - a creature design based on a dog's skull - is embarrassing, both when moving across the moors and rising from the Thames. The serial boast one of Baker's best performances, and there is also gallant support from Sladen and Marter, especially the scene where the "body print" Harry attacks Sarah with a pitchfork. UNIT is also integrated into the story more realistically, but similarly to THE GREEN DEATH's depiction of Wales, TERROR OF THE ZYGONS stereo-typically treats the Scots as bagpipe-playing, kilt-wearing superstitious loons ("Can ye no send over a few haggis.")

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Their Satanic Majesties Request

TERROR (1978)

French A style poster for New World's THE HELLFIRE CLUB, more pulp adventure than demonic horror.

THE notorious real-life Hellfire Club was famed for its debauchery and devil worship, the name given to several exclusive establishments in Britain and Ireland as meeting places of "persons of quality" who wished to take part in immoral acts. Founded in 1719 London, The Club motto Fais ce que tu voudras (Do what thou wilt) was a philosophy associated with François Rabelais' fictional abbey at Thélème, and later adopted by infamous magus Aleister Crowley. Set in 18th century England, THE HELLFIRE CLUB tells the story of circus acrobat Jason (Keith Michell) in his attempt to reclaim the estate of his estranged father Lord Netherton (Andrew Faulds), leader of the Hellfire Club. Years earlier, Jason as a boy (Martin Stephens) is whipped by his father after walking in on an orgy held by The Club, and together with his mother (Jean Lodge), flees with Timothy (David Lodge). Jason discovers that his villainous cousin Thomas (Peter Arne) has stolen his rightful inheritance, and together with lawyer Merryweather (Peter Cushing) plans to bring an end to the deceit, and brake the grip of The Club on King George II’s rule. 

Although billed as a guest star, Cushing's fussy but erudite character is pivotal to the fate of English society. In fact, the actor later adapted Merryweather's demeanor for his takes on Doctor Who and Abner Perry. Because of Cushing's presence and its lush staging, the film is often mistaken for a Hammer production. But there is no bite to THE HELLFIRE CLUB, with no satanic overtones, and the picture limits itself to a handful of lame orgies where most of the participants remain fully clothed. Directed by Robert S.Baker and Monty Berman from a script by Leon Griffiths and Jimmy Sangster, the production is more swashbuckling melodrama, using The Club as a pinning to hang its elaborate fight scenes and love interests (redheads Adrienne Corri and Kai Fischer)Like most cinematic heroes brandishing a sword, Jason is not only morally perfect but also irresistible to all women, and Michell gives a likable performance as he gathers his circus comrades to do battle with the evil hierarchy.

With a running time of only 80 minutes, TERROR is a whirlwind of gore, semi-nudity and in-jokes. Amazingly, the film topped the UK box office charts for a week in early 1979.

TERROR takes a much more direct approach to its satanic theme. Reuniting director Norman J.Warren with scriptwriter David McGillivray - after their exploits on SATAN'S SLAVE - TERROR is not so much an unashamed rip-off of Dario Argento's operatic gore noir SUSPIRIA but a star-struck reaction to it. The picture starts with a witch hunt and a beheading, subsequently revealed to be a "film within a film" being watched in the same house where hundreds of years before the events being portrayed on screen took place. The witch exacts her revenge on the ancestors of her persecutors, one of whom is the production's director, James Garrick (John Nolan). After a makeshift hypnosis goes awry, the curse takes on a more direct approach, including death by lighting equipment, murderous film cans (in reality nine faulty prints of SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER specially supplied by Rank Laboratories) which leads to a very Argentoesque window-pane decapitation, and aspiring actress Carol (Glynis Barber) is impaled to a tree trunk with knives.

The performances are generally competent, but James and Ann Garrick (Carolyn Courage) both have too little screen time to develop the family curse scenario, even if Warren was more interested to do so. Instead, the focus is on Les Young's coloured filters to provide TERROR with a suitably garish tableau for its elaborately bloody murders, and enhance the hallucinatory disregard for logic. The opening "film within a film" narrative acts both as a Hammer Gothic pastiche and a expostulation of it, but this is not the only nod to a cinematic heritage; the viewer is also treated to snatches of a ficticious soft-core film called BATHTIME WITH BRENDA, scenes heavily indebted to experiences not necessarily enjoyed by Warren and McGillivray in their careers. Other points of interest are a nightclub act you won't forget in a hurry, and a red herring sequence culminating in a Peter Mayhew cameo.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

There's Something About Mary


David Sullivan’s (The New Blue) Exciting Cinema was ostensibly created as another platform in which to promote Mary Millington's appearance in COME PLAY WITH ME. This issue - from February 1978 - shows Mary posing next to her Mercedes-Benz.

MADE by Roldvale and distributed by Tigon, COME PLAY WITH ME features - rather than stars - Britain's favourite 1970s sexpot, Mary Millington. Born into unmarried parents, and suffering low-esteem during her formative years, bisexual Millington committed suicide in 1979 at the age of 33. Described by the Sunday Mirror's Colin Wills as the "Tooting Marilyn Monroe," Mary became an uninhibited performer for magazine shoots - including her lover David Sullivan's Playbirds and Whitehouse - and the modelling funded her beloved Mother's cancer treatment. On the printed page and on screen, the 4'11" non-actress clearly rejoiced in the naked form and loved being the centre of attention. Mary was also a high-class call girl, and her list of 'conquests' allegedly included Harold Wilson. Enjoying her celebrity status and lavish home, Millington's shrewd public image shrouded her private "little girl lost" demeanor, a savage contrast that determined a fall as swift as her rise.

Latterly Mary suffered from depression, kleptomania and cocaine abuse, becoming increasingly frazzled following the death of her mother in 1976. After this, Millington's bizarre level of morbidity included taking a Mortician course, and she even considered opening a funeral home. Mary was also a long-standing campaigner against censorship, having a disregard for authority that was fueled by repeated raids of her sex shop by the Obscene Publications Squad, and pressure from the Inland Revenue. Even an amateur psychologist can see the cracks: rejected by her father at birth, and with such a gulf between the public and real Mary, the need for value to offset her emptiness was recognised by money (she once proclaimed that cashing up at her sex shops was more gratifying than any carnal activity). As Julian Upton states in Fallen Stars: Tragic Lives and Lost Careers, Millington's films "...will never stand up, but her life story is a cautionary tale with a timeless significance."

The cover to Odeon's 2010 DVD. The disc also includes a 1975 8mm short made by George Harrison Marks and featuring Mary Millington - SEX IS MY BUSINESS - and publicist John M. East's dubious 1980 documentary MARY MILLINGTON'S TRUE BLUE CONFESSIONS.

An atrocious, star-studded sex comedy set in a health farm, COME PLAY WITH ME amazingly broke box office records throughout the UK and went on to become one of the most profitable movies of the decade, strongly sold by the image of Millington - who only appears on screen for a few minutes. The film tells of Cornelius Clapworthy (George Harrison Marks, also director/writer) and Maurice Kelly (Alfie Bass), two elderly forgers flooding the UK with fake £20 banknotes. On the run from gangster boss Slasher (Ronald Fraser) and government official Podsnap (Ken Parry), the pair pretend to be musicians, hiding out at a struggling Scottish B&B run by Lady Bovington (Irene Handl). When Bovington’s choreographer nephew Rodney (Jerry Lorden) arrives with his troupe of dancing girls business picks up, as the females - vaguely under the leadership of Rena (Suzy Mandel) - decide to help out by dressing up as nurses and re-opening the Manor as a brothel, complete with topless massages.

COME PLAY WITH ME gestated from an old Marks script bullishly pushed into production by Sullivan, who at this point was keen to produce movies. By 1976 "glamour" photographer/publisher Marks had endured two obscenity trials and seen his business empire go into receivership, but initially this team-up between the British porn kings seemed amicable, especially when Sullivan gave Marks a £120,000 budget without reading the full script. When footage was shown to the producer - a tired mix of music hall and veteran performers fluffing their lines or blankly gazing into camera - Sullivan was horrified, and extra filming took place at the Mayfair Burlesque Club and his own sauna in Croydon (plus extensive scenes on and around Brighton Pier). Sullivan also ordered shooting of additional hardcore sequences for the continental version, but the strong cut was never sold and was only screened once by mistake in North London. But the damage had been done; furious at the inclusion of blue material, Handl, Bass and Fraser all made complaints to Equity. This was all priceless publicity for a film which stands as one of the most bafflingly popular motion pictures in history, a triumph of marketing over content.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Do You Dare Spend a Night in the ...


"In our day in Hollywood, the monsters didn't need makeup ... they just came as themselves." The MADHOUSE cover to Famous Monsters of Filmland #109 (August 1974).

MADHOUSE begins with friends gathered to celebrate the horror movie career of Paul Toombes (Vincent Price), whose signature role is Dr Death, a character co-created by writer/actor Herbert Flay (Peter Cushing). Toombes has decided to settle down with fiance Ellen (Julie Crosthwait), an actress who has been previously linked to producer Oliver Quayle (Robert Quarry). However, the night ends in tragedy as Toombes finds Ellen beheaded, a murder undertaken by someone wearing the cinematic garb of Dr Death. Though never convicted of the crime, Toombes is institutionalised. Twelve years later, Flay convinces Toombes to resurrect Dr Death for a new television series to be made in England; before long the body count begins, leaving Toombes to wonder if he is enacting the events of his character in real life. Eventually consumed with guilt, he locks himself into the studio, turns on the cameras, and sets fire to the set. In fact it has been frustrated actor Flay who has been committing the murders; a burnt Toombes returns to kill Flay and cavort with his spider-obsessed, basement-dwelling wife Faye (Adrienne Corri), who has had long-standing feelings for Toombes.

This joint Amicus/American International venture plays both as a requiem for Price's association with AIP and the nature of the 60s/70s B-movies that became suppressed by the release of THE EXORCIST. COUNT YORGA star Quarry - who had appeared with Price in DR PHIBES RISES AGAIN and was originally cast in the Herbert Flay role - was being groomed to replace the horror star, and this was one of many frictions: Price was also experiencing an impending divorce, the budget-cutting Twickenham Studios provided indifferent production values, and director Jim Clark wrote a despairing letter to Price complaining about Milton Subotsky's interference in the editing room. The feel of MADHOUSE also isn't helped by the extent of footage used from Roger Corman's Poe pictures to illustrate Toombes' career; in fact, so much so that Corman almost deserves a co-directing credit. As Denis Meikle observes in Vincent Price: The Art of Fear, "[Price] comes closer to playing himself in this film than in any previous one ... and with the footage having been supplied by Corman's Poes, Price must at times have felt like a dying man, watching his life pass before his eyes."

Pulp potboiler Devilday acted as the source material for MADHOUSE. The film dropped the satanic overtones of the book, and makes its lead character more sympathetic.

With Price and Quarry being snide on and off screen, the supporting cast supply a number of welcome diversions. Natasha Pyne is likeable and enthusiastic as Toombes' PA Julia Wilson, and Linda Hayden leaves an all-too-brief impression as stalking actress Elizabeth Peters, who is despatched by pitchfolk. In a further eerie pursuit of Toombes, Peters' parents Alfred (Ellis Dale) and Louise (Catherine Willmer) follow the actor across twilight lawns before both being skewered on the same sabre. But the real meat lies in the final ten minutes, where Flay sees Toombes miraculously step down from the screen of his own snuff movie and subsequently murder and become Flay, utilising some startlingly effective make-up as Cushing's distinctive cheekbones are melded with Price's heavier facade. 

MADHOUSE was loosely based on the novel Devilday by Angus Hall, a smutfest of late 60s/early 70s Satania. In the book Toombs is a sadistic heroin addict, a latter-day Aleister Crowley whose film career is in meltdown after being suspected of inserting an icicle up a woman's vagina (vaguely paralleling Fatty Arbuckle's notorious scandal of 1921). Opening with a quote from Poe's Marginalia, of men who "soared above the plane of their race," during the course of the novel the faded star - as "the dark and dreaded" Dr Dis - enjoys relations with jailbait groupies, and appears at a Black Mass so that the congregation can (literally) kiss his ass. At the climax, he is killed by a falling rock, and a swarm of fans scavenge his corpse for souvenirs; but years later the book's narrator glimpses Toombs in a Rolls-Royce, leading him to suspect that the notorious actor's LaVeyan mayhem will resume. 

Thursday, August 1, 2013

"I Was Having a Problem Drawing the Alligator"

The From Hell Companion (2013)

Queen Victoria's physician Sir William Gull is revealed as Jack the Ripper as early as the second chapter of From Hell. Gull experiences increasing visions during his ritualistic murders, glimpsing future shock moments such as television and mobile phones.

THE sprawling, post-modern From Hell remains a work Alan Moore is proud of. The book's fourth chapter holds a special significance for the writer, as a line of dialogue - "the one place in which Gods and demons inarguably exist is in the human mind where they are real in all their grandeur and monstrosity" - sparked his interest in becoming a magician, fueled by drugs and imaginative concentration. Moore has never been a fan of tags, stating in a Mustard #4 Vol II (March 2009) interview "my experience of life is that it is not divided up into genre; it's a horrifying, romantic, tragic, comical, science fiction cowboy detective novel ... with a bit of pornography if you're lucky." Subsequently, From Hell is more than a graphic novel of the Whitechapel murders, rather a meditation on the mechanics of five socially-charged murders that expertly adhere to Moore's quest that his work acts "like a drug ... if you put the words in the right order with the pictures, you can create a psychedelic state." 

This Knockabout softcover is a selection of Moore’s original scripts and sketches for his alluringly brutal masterpiece, with annotations and commentary from the books' artist Eddie Campbell. Campbell provides a fascinating series of narrative-order anecdotes and confessions that only he can, having shared an exhausting decade-long journey that survived three publishing bankruptcies and spawned a vacuous film adaptation. Moore’s voluminous, capital-bashing scripts are overpowering in detail - for example, in a chapter three market scene, a single 3" x 2" panel could never start to depict an envisioned sexual relationship between two street urchins - and Campbell includes a word count for each of the entries like a badge of honour, the highest of which surpasses 2000. It is therefore refreshing that even though the reader is awash in the dankness of Victorian London, Campbell - despite an over reliance on references from Wikipedia - speaks comfortably and clearly about the problems with confronting such an onslaught and its transition to the comic page.

"Our story's written, Netley, inked in blood long dry ... engraved in stone." A new Eddie Campbell watercolour graces the cover of The From Hell Companion; in Campbell's epilogue, one closes the book sharing the illustrator's sentiment "all the people that I worried I could never quite bring to life now sadden me with their last glimpse."

What is evident when reading through this companion is that when the artist did diverge from the writers intentions, Campbell chose a similar clarity. Yet one wonders if the passionate descriptions are best suited to the comic book page; the completed From Hell could only ever have been a dilution of Moore's meticulous actions, foundations creating mood and tone that would possibly only stand justice in a series of hefty novels. The FROM HELL movie is just that, diluting the book's convoluted narrative in a way only a Hollywood blockbuster can. Moore has never championed the silver screen, insisting that the medium is inherently technical thus financial, creating a tendency to drive and immerse the viewer on a set path thus limiting personal interaction and development. Books and comics therefore are the arts of choice for the Northampton magus, where the reader isn't spoon-fed.

In the foreword, Craig Fischer and Charles Hatfield highlight the need for a companion book, to explain a project that is densely threefold: firstly, the connections between freemasonry, occultism and architecture; secondly, how these heady subjects are insight-fully woven into a story; and thirdly, how a personal friendship and artistic collaboration survives under such prolonged duress. Moore has always been more vocal and robust in his theories than his esteemed artist, but Campbell is equally fascinating as both an individual and illustrator; the Australia-located Scot surmises that the human condition cannot except a random universe, inventing its Gods and conspiracies to explain at least some order. Perhaps it is better to believe that evil is in control, rather than there being no control.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Arc of a Journey

The Sonic Adventures of Broadcast
Broadcast's Trish Keenan: a unique talent tragically cut short.

TAKING the aesthetics of 1960s psychedelia and the avant-garde, West Midlands electronic group Broadcast rejoiced in an exhilarating deluge of musical, literary and cinematic references. Co-founded by partners James Cargill and the late Trish Keenan - who passed away in 2011 aged 42 having contracted the H1N1 flu virus on tour in Australia - Broadcast were key in the development of what the music press would term hauntology. There was a compelling aura that surrounded them from their first gigs, a band detached among hypnotic light-shows akin to Andy Warhol's Factory and The Velvet Underground's psych-outs. Keenan's ethereal vocals - allegedly like the person herself - were heartfelt yet fragile. As Jeanette Leech notes in her capsule critique of the singer in Shindig! #32 (April 2013), Keenan subscribed more to the intensity and bravado of The United States of America's Dorothy Moskowitz than the killer-stares of Grace Slick or Nico.

Broadcast's debut in 2000 - The Noise Made By People - stands as one of the great first albums, a work swathed in references from John Barry to Martin Denny, yet forging a hazily spectral sound of its own. 2003's Haha Sound was a more intricate work, which coincided with Keenan's discovery of the Czech New Wave masterpiece VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS and Cargill's obsession with library music. By the third album released two years later - Tender Buttons, named after Gertrude Stein's 1914 book of verse - Broadcast had stripped back to just the two founders, which consequently produced a more minimal sound. The next album was released in 2009 and would simultaneously frustrate and alienate fans; infused with a trance-like quality, Broadcast and The Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age was a record influenced by Cargill and Keenan moving to the countryside and immersing themselves in ancient folklore.

Studio secretary Elena (Tonia Sotiropoulou) in the Lynchian BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO.

The spirit of Broadcast lives on in their soundtrack to Peter Strickland's otherworldly art-house hit BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO. Even though the music is used sparingly, the atmospheric fragments nevertheless bleed into the drama that unfolds. A lonely English sound engineer from Dorking, Gilderoy (Toby Jones), travels to Italy to work on the post-production of the horror film 'The Equestrian Vortex.' Struggling with the language, he attempts to get his airfare reimbursed with a disinterested secretary, and is later disturbed by the hostilities of director Coraggio (Cosimo Fusco) and producer Santini (Antonio Mancino). Repulsed by the violence depicted in the film which requires him to record various witch incantations, torture and an "aroused goblin,"  Gilderoy loses his sanity as reality and fiction merge.

With BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO being a claustrophobic love letter to analogue recording and the world of Italian giallo soundtracks, it exists in a vacuum between academia and exploitation. There is something outlandish with an environment that is visually static yet aurally harrowing: human viscera is replaced by bludgeoned cabbages, slashing kitchen knifes and watermelons spliced with machetes. Jones is superb as the innocent abroad, a character who can only truly express himself within his beloved sonic landscape; the question remains if Jones actually exists on a higher plane, or is being manipulated by magic spells rendered through the fast-forwarding and rewinding of the material. For all its measured build up, it is up to the viewer to judge if the final sequences of Gilderoy's madness are an example of audacious film-making or pretentious self-indulgence.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Cushing Centenary (Part II of II)

ASYLUM (1972)

ASYLUM's Richard Todd is attacked by that favourite of Amicus plot devices - the severed limb - for the cover of Famous Monsters of Filmland #97 (April 1973).

DIRECTED by Roy Ward Baker and with Robert Bloch adapting his own tales, ASYLUM was the fifth of Amicus' seven portmanteau pictures and one of the silliest, despite a strong framing story. Dr Martin (Robert Powell) arrives at Dunsmore Asylum and meets wheelchair-bound Dr Rutherford (Patrick Magee). Rutherford tells Martin that he will be considered for employment if he can deduce who is Dr Starr - the former head of the facility - now among the inmates. Attendant Max Reynolds (Geoffrey Bayldon) admits Martin to the cells where he interviews each in turn: in Frozen Fear, Bonnie (Barbara Parkins) tells of lover Walter (Richard Todd), who suffered the consequences of murdering voodoo-studying wife Ruth (Sylvia Syms); The Weird Tailor has Bruno (Barry Morse) recount how Mr Smith (Peter Cushing) requested an elaborate suit made from a mysterious fabric; and Lucy Comes to Stay is a split personality story featuring Barbara (Charlotte Rampling). The final tale - Mannikins of Horror - is not viewed in flashback but sees Martin encounter Dr Byron (Herbert Lom), who is working on soul transference to small automatons.

Bloch had constructed the flow of stories to build the tension slowly, intending the running order to be The Weird TailorLucy Comes to StayFrozen Fear and Mannikins of Horror. After seeing a first edit, Amicus co-founder and financier Max Rosenberg ordered the stories to be re-arranged, on the basis that distributors would need a more action-orientated start to the picture. Both Bloch and Baker were unhappy about the restructuring, but it is hard to see the film vastly improved no matter what the order - the Lucy Comes to Stay segment would grind any release to a halt. In summary ASYLUM packs out-of-work British star quality - most of whom in their twilight years - into very little, and it is up to Cushing, yet again, to bring emotional depth into his small role of a grieving father planning to resurrect his son. As Tim Lucas states in his Video Watchdog review, the film "...suffers from an out-moded script, more appropriate to 1940s horror radio than 1970s horror cinema," another example of Amicus' juvenile approach.

Catherine Fengriffen (Stephanie Beacham) is drawn into the mystery and madness of --AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS!.

Amicus assembled much the same cast and crew - including director Baker, stars Cushing, Lom, Magee, and the crawling hand - for the peculiarly titled costumed gothic --AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS!. This meandering effort is set in the late 18th century, where newlywed Catherine (a ravishing Stephanie Beacham) moves into the stately mansion of her husband Charles Fengriffen (Ian Ogilvy). Almost immediately, the bride is plagued by spectral visions, including an eyeless, one-handed phantom. We learn that the family curse originates from Silas the woodsman (Geoffrey Whitehead) having his hand chopped off on his wedding night by Charles' lecherous ancestor Henry (Lom), who also deflowered the woodsman's young bride. Family doctor Whittle (Magee) summons psychiatrist Pope (Cushing) to the house, who witnesses the birth of Catherine's baby, an infant that sports Silas' facial birth mark and hand less stump.

Based on David Case's 1970 novella Fengriffen: A Chilling Tale, the use of Oakley Court Manor - a location that would soon become THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW castle - provides a rich backdrop for such a meagre-budgeted film. Cushing's character does not appear on screen until half-way through the picture, and although this is a welcome adage, without doubt it remains Beacham's film; the actress gives the most rounded performance made the more evident by the fact that Catherine is surrounded by soon-to-be-murdered ciphers. Even husband Ogilvy seems a bit-part among the turmoil of his own family's sordid history, though he belatedly comes alive in an unsettling rage at Henry's tomb during a downpour. The final shot of Catherine with her mutant son clashes wildly with the confusing opening narration, which recollects these historic events in a forced sereneness, rather than the bludgeoning horrors that unfold.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Cushing Centenary (Part I of II)


100 years young today; Peter Cushing's Dr Knox commands the screen in THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS.

"THIS is the story of lost men and lost souls. It is a story of vice and murder. We make no apologies to the dead. It is all true." So begins THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS, John Gilling's take on infamous Irishmen Burke and Hare. The film is not only one of the finest British horror films, but a production that may well have provided Peter Cushing with his best ever performance. Capturing the squalid atmosphere of 1828 Edinburgh, the film sees "brilliant, aggressive, provocative" Dr Knox (Cushing) use "resurrection men" Burke (George Rose) and Hare (Donald Pleasence) to supply fresh cadavers for his prized medical students. When one of these students Chris (John Cairney) becomes involved with feisty prostitute Mary (Billie Whitelaw), the communion begins a chain of events that brings the murders too close to home: Burke is hanged, Hare avoids prosecution only to be blinded by the angry mob, and Knox sees the error of his ways.

Knox is the only person that ultimately changes. Beginning with a relentless flow of intelligence, authority and conviction, this driven rationality for his beloved medical cause ("Men of medicine are the modern miracle workers ... you are entering the most honorable profession in the world") is eventually melted by the fears of a young girl. After instructing Chris that "emotion is a drug that dulls the intellect," Knox quietly tells niece Martha (June Laverick) "as a child, I believed in God and the devil; it took a child to show me what I am now." Cushing's posture and delivery is pitch-perfect across his character arc, and his disagreements with the medical council are laced with a wondrous snideness ("Now, if you would be so good as to incline your heads slightly to the right, you will observe the door; please use it.") Cushing is complimented by sly performances from Rose and Pleasence, who further inject the film with a sardonic black humour. 

The Vampire-Beast Craves Blood. Together with Japan's Mothra, The Blood Beast of THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR is part of a pretty exclusive club of moth-related monsters.

On the other end of the scale, Vernon Sewell's THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR was described by Cushing as perhaps the worst film he ever made, and few would argue. Two murders have left the police perplexed, with the only witness insane and several petal-like scales left at the crime scenes. Inspector Quennell (Cushing) is drawn to the house of celebrated entomologist Doctor Mallinger (Robert Flemyng, replacing Basil Rathbone after his fatal heart attack two weeks before principal photography). When a further slaying implicates Mallinger and his daughter Clare (Wanda Ventham) the couple flee, but Quennell traces them and - together with daughter Meg (a stilted Vanessa Howard) - travels to a remote fishing village. It is discovered that Mallinger has created a Death's Head moth/female human hybrid, a creature that drinks blood and kills when sexually aroused.

An erratically-edited programmer, Tigon's THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR suffers from a formulaic script by Peter Bryan (though there is a bizarre departure with an amateur theatrics sequence), threadbare special effects (that makes the moth mutant on a par with Roger Corman's THE WASP WOMAN) and alleged comic relief (from Roy Hudd as the cliched mugging mortuary attendant who enjoys eating lunch among the corpses). Flemyng's performance as the mad scientist is blatantly suspicious from the opening lecture scene, and Cushing's customarily stoicism allegedly included extensive re-writing by the actor himself. In America, distributor Pacemaker re-christened the film THE VAMPIRE-BEAST CRAVES BLOODfollowed by some even more deranged hyperbole by the publicity department: "A ravishing Psycho-Field with diabolical power to turn into a Giant Death Head Vampire, to feast on the blood of her lovers before clawing them to death."

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Slasher Sleaze

SCHIZO (1976)

The Daily Mail described SCHIZO as "polished, pernicious cods wallop."

IN the 1970s, Pete Walker made a series of films more sophisticated than the exploitative titles implied. SCHIZO is an under appreciated slasher given added cult status by the fact that the leading lady is Lynne Frederick, who was married to Peter Sellers and died of substance abuse at the age of 39. The film opens with night shift worker William Haskin (Jack Watson) reading in a newspaper that ice-skating star Samantha Gray (Frederick) is to marry wealthy manufacturer Alan Falconer (has-been pop star John Leyton). Haskin starts to stalk Gray, who looks for reassurance to her psychiatrist Leonard Hawthorne (John Fraser), lover of her best friend Beth (Stephanie Beacham). Gray tells Hawthorne that when she was a young girl, she witnessed Haskin stab her mother during a lover's quarrel. After serving sentence he now is after Samantha; or is there a different connotation?

Walker has always heralded the twist ending as something fresh and unique, but the climax is more of a contrived confirmation than a revelation. Screenwriter David McGillivray struggled to add meat to Walker's bones of a story - delivering a first draft allegedly only 42 pages long - and there is evidence here that the Walker-McGillivray partnership was going through the motions. Yet there are several effective shock sequences to hold interest - including death by hammer and knitting needle - and a mixture of roving camera and close-ups are used to generate tension and menace. The casting of Watson is a big plus, an actor able to suggest a lot by doing seemingly very little, whose worn facade and controlled stares makes his character genuinely unsettling. As Steve Chibnall points out in Making Mischief: The Cult Films of Pete Walker, the main difference with SCHIZO when compared to the film maker's more famous canon of work - HOUSE OF WHIPCORD, FRIGHTMARE et al - is that previously Walker explored contrasts between aged killers and youth culture; here we have the victimisation of common man.

Redemption's remastered US import Blue-ray of THE COMEBACK, released in February.

Quitting school at 15, Frederick appeared in a number of supporting roles in the early 70s, including Dora Mueller in VAMPIRE CIRCUS. As Julian Upton acutely states in Fallen Stars: Tragic Lives and Lost Careers, the actress "went from appearing in SCHIZO to marrying one" when she tied the knot with Sellers. Within weeks, Frederick's emotional destruction began, amid violent attacks, the actor's increasing heart problems, and Sellers' plummeting box office appeal. After Sellers' death, his widow binged on drink and drugs; in his hastily revised will, Frederick was left almost everything, while his three children were left an insultingly token sum. Frederick subsequently married David Frost then LA heart specialist Barry Unger, filling the Unger marital home with photographs of Sellers and even devoting a room to his memory. In summary, Sellers biographer Roger Lewis describes Lynne as Seller's "supernatural double or fellow lost soul; except she acquired his insanities without the compensations of his genius."

Walker followed SCHIZO with THE COMEBACK, the last of his 70s terror output, and in an attempt to appeal to an American market in the wake of the crippled British film industry, the most conventional. Gone are the low-key locale of Walker's earlier triumphs; now the viewer sees locations for the rich and famous. Reuniting the director with the scriptwriter of DIE SCREAMING, MARIANNE, Murray Smith, the picture sees crooner Jack Jones cast as Nick Cooper, a faded singer returning to England from America to make a comeback album. His ex-wife has been murdered in their docklands penthouse, a fact unknown to him as he is staying in a country mansion maintained by Mr and Mrs B (Bill Owen and Sheila Keith). Increasingly disturbed by nocturnal sounds, and driven to a breakdown by the discovery of a rotting corpse then a head in a hatbox, Cooper discovers that Mr and Mrs B are exacting revenge for the suicide of their daughter, an obsessive fan who could not accept his marriage. Both a psychological thriller and a violent murder mystery, THE COMEBACK consequently never quite gels, but Walker manages a memorable conclusion when our nominal hero confronts the dastardly duo.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Carnage and Carnality

"If it wasn't so tragic and horrible, it would almost make a movie script."

THE bluntly independent horror output of Pete Walker often depicted society itself as the monster, a clinically cold England that tries to cast off the shackles of the past, only to be smothered by a tide of permissiveness after generations of repression. Unlike Hammer or Amicus, Walker's monsters are not based in the supernatural, rather symbolically drawn from a bygone age. Scripted by Alfred Shaughnessy, Walker's first venture into horror, THE FLESH AND BLOOD SHOW, tells of a young acting troupe led by Mike (Ray Brooks) residing in an abandoned seaside theatre. The group - which includes Julia (Jenny Hanley), Carol (Luan Peters), Simon (Robin Askwith) and Sarah (Candace Glendenning) - are engaged by a mysterious agent to produce a musical review. When the aspiring thespians are picked off by a hooded prowler, the killer is revealed to be distinguished actor Sir Arnold Gates (Patrick Barr), who previously entombed his wife and her lover alive during a production of Othello.

THE FLESH AND BLOOD SHOW explores the relationship between life and illusion and the connection between acting and promiscuity in a collectively complex dictum. Gates' outburst - "They're all the same, young actors, filthy and degenerate lechers, all of them. And the females, flaunting their bodies, offering their thighs and their breasts. Scum! Excrement!" - subscribes to a world where performance is being eroded away by the use of the body. Sir Arnold's views reflect those of Walker himself, whose contempt for the acting profession is illustrated by him saying "If I could make films without actors, I would rather do it," a standing that has also been noted by many of his scriptwriters, particularly David McGillivray, who quotes the director as describing actors as "egotistical poofs" and actresses "pompous prostitutes." Not content to having his dramatis personae reduced to ciphers and sex-crazed starlets, Walker obliged the scantily-clad performers to suffer for their art by shooting THE FLESH AND BLOOD SHOW in February. 

Best remembered for presenting MAGPIE, Jenny Hanley was briefly a Bond girl in ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE and survived the SCARS OF DRACULA.

Using the concept of Ten Little IndiansTHE FLESH AND BLOOD SHOW is a rich British giallo similar to the Britsploitation classic TOWER OF EVIL. Both these features include the staples of the slasher film before this much-maligned sub-genre really existed. It is also interesting to note how the film sows the seeds of Walker's stabs on the establishment that would flow freely in his more famous output. The small town where the picture plays out feels creepy enough on its own even without the aid of the maniac on the loose, but THE FLESH AND BLOOD SHOW's major fault is its incredibly murky photography. Also to the production's detriment is its use of an experimental 3-D process - seen only in a flashback to the wartime Othello production - which appears so late in the proceeding to lose any real shock value.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Curse of Kah-to-Bey


South African non-actress Maggie Kimberly escapes the clutches of Eddie Powell in Hammer's third Mummy picture. 

MEZZERA, Egypt, 1920: a British archaeological expedition financed by businessman Stanley Preston (John Phillips) - comprising of Sir Basil Walden (Andre Morrell), Preston's son Paul (a stilted David Buck), photographer Harry Newton (Tim Barrett) and psychic linguist Claire de Sangre (Maggie Kimberly) - discover the tomb of Kah-to-Bey, a child prince. Members of the find are soon being murdered by the Mummy of Prem (played by Hammer's regular stuntman and Christopher Lee double Eddie Powell), Kah-to-Bey's devoted servant, who can be revived by reading the words off the Prince's burial shroud.

Following Terence Fisher's magisterial THE MUMMY of 1959 and Michael Carreras' disposable 1964 THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY'S TOMB, THE MUMMY'S SHROUD ("Beware the Beat of the Cloth-wrapped feet!") is a formulaic affair, and the last movie shot at Bray. Written and directed by John Gilling, and scripted by Anthony Hinds, the film starts with a painfully dull and micro-budgeted ancient Egyptian prologue - which includes Dickie Owen, the titular fiend from THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY'S TOMB, as the living Prem - and viewers will also be disappointed by the lack of cleavage, especially as so much is on offer from Kimberly's promotional poses. Unusually for Hammer, the glamour girl role is a character with a narrative function (the somnambulist Claire has the ability to read the "words of death"), but unfortunately Kimberly - who had just appeared in Gilling's secret agent spoof WHERE THE BULLETS FLY - is the worst actress in the Classic Hammer canon.

Studio Canal's Blu-ray/DVD was released in October 2012, containing two standout documentaries: an informative making-of and a touching tribute by Madeline Smith for husband David Buck.

As Jonathan Rigby points out in English Gothic: A Century of Horror Cinema, a telling sign of the relegated stature of Hammer's Mummy sequels is that stunt men were cast as the monster, following Christopher Lee's barnstorming performance in Fisher's original. The real monster of THE MUMMY'S SHROUD is Preston, expertly portrayed by Phillips as an arrogant coward: quick to enjoy the spoils, even quicker to escape when the curse starts to take hold. Elizabeth Sellars, as his wife Barbara, makes an excellent foil, and it is good to see Michael Ripper in a prolonged role as Preston's long-suffering valet, the myopic Longbarrow. Completing the cast are Catherine Lacey and Roger Delgado's scene-stealing turns as the mother-and-son team whose family have barred the entrance to Kah-to-Bey's tomb for centuries. In fact Lacey's role as fortune-teller Haiti, together with Barbara and Claire, form a trio of female characters with second sight, while the male protagonists are lambs to the slaughter. 

The Mummy itself has always been the slightest of movie monsters. Covered in bandages that barely conceal the decay beneath, and often reduced to stalk-and-slash with a mystical backdrop, the Mummy started life on film as a device for camera trickery; in both Melies' 1899 CLEOPATRA and Walter Booth's 1901 HAUNTED CURIOSITY SHOP, the creature was an object to illustrate the joys of celluloid illusion. Unlike the heralded literary origins of Dracula and Frankenstein, the springboard for the Mummy as a potential movie monster was enhanced by real life: the myths surrounding Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon's 1924 expedition to uncover the tomb of Tutankhamen. In Hammer's fourth and final excursion into this sub-genre - 1971's BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY'S TOMB - the studio side-stepped including the bandaged menace altogether. Yet unlike Universal's arthritic Mummy movies, at least Hammer's ancient terrors were brutal threats.