Saturday, December 19, 2015

Day of the Brain Dead

LEVEL ABOVE HUMAN (2015)

North Devon filmmaker Alex Poray's animation explores government manipulation. Panic and fear have always been created by "hierarchies" and media to control consumerism and attention; never has this been more prevalent that the modern rise of ISIS. 

THE director of The Disclosure Project - Steven M. Greer - wrote of the faked alien invasion scenario as government mechanism, justifying trillions of dollars being pumped into a space programme, and unifying the globe in jingoistic military might. In a paper written in June 2002, Greer feared that the net was closing in, stating that "maniacal covert programs plan to hijack Disclosure, spin it into the fire of fear, and roll out events that will eventually present ETs as a new enemy. Do not be deceived." Similarly in 1994 Canadian poet and conspiracy theorist Serge Monast published Project Blue Beam, which claimed that NASA and the United Nations were attempting to implement a New Age religion with the Antichrist at its head, via a "technologically simulated" Second Coming. Many observers have noted the similarities of this colourful notion with Gene Roddenberry's unfilmed STAR TREK - THE GOD THING treatment from 1975.

Hoax aliens have also played out in popular culture. The most famous example is Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre radio broadcast of 1938; this adaptation of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds allegedly caused mass panic, but the true extent has been brought into question over the years due to its relatively few listeners. Over this side of the pond, there is the twee story of a six-minute Southern Television interruption from November 1977. Accessed through the Hannington, Hampshire transmitter, the broadcast of an early-evening news programme was distorted by audio of a deep-voiced representative from an "Intergalactic Association." Vrillon warned us that all our "weapons of evil" must be destroyed and we have only a short time to learn to live in peace. And in comics, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon's Watchmen has Adrian Veidt - the "smartest man in the world" - genetically engineering a squid monster which consequently sets in motion a shockwave that kills half the population of New York City; with governments believing the creature to be from another world, they decide to work together against this new menace, rather than continue with the Cold War.

Originally a comic book from 2004, Level Above Human was extremely popular when it was uploaded to a short-lived e-book site in 2009.

The title of this twenty-two minute animation by SLAYERS: PORTRAIT OF A DISMEMBERED FAMILY kingpin Alex Poray was inspired by the Heaven's Gate flying saucer cult, where members were "children of the Next Level," which paradoxically reduced them to automatons with no individuality, outside contact and any notion of sexuality (Alex also considered THE SPACE SHOW as a banner, a reference to Greer). LEVEL ABOVE HUMAN tells of President Laine ("the worst president in history"), his attempt to rise political standing, and gain support for a space weapons programme. Laine unleashes hallucinogen Vision X on Snake City, an area which has descended into anarchy and acted as a springboard for widespread unrest. Vision X changes perception so people view military as aliens and helicopters UFOs, against a backdrop of projections and staged events. Snake City slacker Googie McKagan (voiced by Alex) hooks up with Snowflake (voiced by Donna Beeching) at The Parasite Club, but their escape is thwarted and the duo implanted with memories of alien abduction. But that is what they are lead to believe...

Every sequence of LEVEL ABOVE HUMAN illustrates Poray's life-long love of Ufology and punk rock, coming across as Charles Burns meets Hunter S. Thompson with THEY LIVE at the foundation. With its mixture of mean streets, widespread chaos and underlining sleaze, the piece is a brisk jaunt through ever-relevant issues of mind control and the true stature of people who act as law-makers and breakers (even Laine's Attorney General is found guilty of torturing and eating young women). In reality, the association between governments and conspiracy theorists is a constant tug-of-war; as Alex states, "just because you're paranoid, doesn't mean they're not out to get you!"

Thanks to Alex for his feedback via Facebook.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Ghost Stories Not for Christmas

A GHOST STORY FOR CHRISTMAS - STIGMA (1977)
A GHOST STORY FOR CHRISTMAS - THE ICE HOUSE (1978)

The woman who bled to death: STIGMA moves the BBC Ghost Story strand uncomfortably into the modern era.

FOR the 1977 BBC GHOST STORY FOR CHRISTMAS, director Lawrence Gordon Clark wanted to adapt M.R. James' Count Magnus, but instead made STIGMA on a freelance basis. Scripted by Clive Exton, it concerns a family who remove an ancient standing stone from their back garden. As the menhir is lifted a curse is unleashed, causing mother Katherine (Kate Binchy) to bleed uncontrollably. This body horror trapping made STIGMA a controversial departure, with its shift to a modern setting and loss of period detail lacking the resonance previously created by the series; it also results in a more mechanical tale, away from the myth and tension created by, say, time shifts between researchers and protagonists in more polished entries such as THE STALLS OF BARCHESTER and THE TREASURE OF ABBOT THOMAS.

STIGMA can too easily be labelled as a meditation on the male fear of menstruation, but nothing can disguise the fact that it is pretty nasty story; the first image the viewer sees is an out-of-focus red dot which morphs into the family's red Citroen 2CV, predicting the blood to come. Katherine's nude scene is unsettling rather than salacious, as she frantically tries to stop the endless flow, but there is a more unnerving sequence when husband Peter (Peter Bowles) is awakened to find a strange communion between an onion and a knife, hinting at the vegetable's role in pagan folklore as a symbol of protection and purification. The tale ends openly, as Katherine dies on route to hospital, and it is hinted that daughter Verity (Maxine Gordon) may be converting to the black arts.

Geoffrey Burridge comforts John Stride in THE ICE HOUSE.

If STIGMA is a straightforward horror story, it is difficult to describe THE ICE HOUSE other than a hazy, pretentious muddle. Directed by Derek Lister and written by John Bowen, it brought the original GHOST STORY strand to an oblique close before its short-lived revival in 2005, 2006 and 2013. The most experimental yet maligned of all the episodes, Paul (John Stride) has recently parted from his wife and moved to a residential health spa located in a country house. The disappearance of a masseur and the behaviour of the brother and sister who run operations (Clovis and Jessica, played by Geoffrey Burridge and Elizabeth Romilly) seem to be governed by a strange vine growing in an ice house. While the older residents go about their stately business, Paul is the centre of attention for the siblings; why is never made clear, perhaps he is just the latest in a line of guests for which they draw vitality (Jessica enjoys "having people"). Clovis and Jessica's connection to the overpowering scent of the vine is also open to interpretation; in fact the duo remind of pod-people with their otherworldy directness.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

A Dream of Flying

Alan Moore's Dark Age of Marvelman

In Marvelman, Alan Moore seeks to establish a benign global dictatorship because man can't be trusted to make its own decisions. This is in contrast to Moore's V For Vendetta, where the hero creates anarchy to build choice for the people.

BLACK and white reprints of Fawcett's Captain Marvel were extremely popular in post-war Britain for L. Miller & Son. When Fawcett ceased publishing the title off the back of their lawsuit by DC over Captain Marvel's similarities to Superman - who they were typically out-selling - Mick Anglo created Marvelman for the London-based publisher as a replacement. The whimsical adventures of Micky Moran - who becomes Marvelman when he shouts "Kimota!" - and sidekicks Young Marvelman and Kid Marvelman, could never foresee the troubles to come. When Alan Moore revived the strip for an adult sensibility in the Warrior launch of 1982, it was the start of a decades-long pit of rights-issues and insider frictions. Eclipse started to reprint colourised stories in 1985, calling their comic Miracleman to avoid legal compaints from Marvel, who would eventually reprint the run themselves.

Within the comics Bronze Age (1970 - 1985), the influence of underground comix and shifting political tides meant that the medium was increasingly aimed at adults, exploring topics such as drugs and racism. By the mid-1980's, the growth of comic shops and direct distribution spawned the Modern Age; pessimistically it was also a Dark Age, a perfect storm for experimental writers, artists and publishers. Moore was the pioneer of deconstructing characters, in this case taking Anglo's light-hearted and downright silly Marvelman family - and their mad scientist nemesis Gargunza - into the unchartered territories of modern London. Gargunza was now an ex-Nazi agent, Moran an overweight unhappily married man, and Kid Marvelman - Johnny Bates - the sadistic head of Sunburst Cybernetics. As Moore explains in the then superhero-waning world, "the idea of taking something as innocent and charming and harmless as Marvelman and dumping him in Mrs Thatcher's Britain - there was something poignant about that ... for all that it was a reinvention, there was an element of epitaph as well."

Here's Johnny! “Having exhausted all the humdrum cruelties known to man quite early in the afternoon, [Kid Miracleman] had progressed to innovations unmistakably his own.” During Bates' apocalyptic attack on London, the evil super-god is seen even reverting to cannibalism.

Moore's reinvention covered three "books": 'A Dream of Flying', 'The Red King Syndrome' and 'Olympus.' In the story, Marvelman views a file that reveals his entire experience as a superhero was a simulation as part of Project Zarathustra, which attempted to enhance the human body using alien technology. In a typically inspired Moore twist, Moran and the other subjects had been kept unconscious, their minds fed with stories plucked from comic books (the original stories) by researchers. Therefore Anglo's cartoon-like strips literally became a thing of memory, with Moore instead exploring what it would be like for a man to come to terms with super powers. This particularly effected Moran's wife Liz, who becomes caught in a bizarre love triangle, and gives birth to a super-daughter in a anatomically-correct but gruelling sequence.

Moore's journey for Kid Marvelman is particularly deprived. Bates murders his secretary in front of his former mentor, and threatens to do the same to Marvelman's wife. Saying "Marvelman" by mistake while gloating over Moran's beaten form, Bates reverts to a traumatised youth. Placed in a mental facility, Kid Marvelman tempts him into becoming the mad superhuman again, and Johnny finally gives in when he is about to be raped by older boys at a group home. Kid Marvelman consequently butchers Johnny's attackers, then moves on to the rest of the facility (in a harrowing passage misprinted in Marvel's #15). Moore's tenure ends In a battle where Bates ravages London and horrifically murders much of the capital's population; Marvelman and his super-allies bring Earth into a totalitarian order, but a final conversation with Liz suggests that the superhero has lost his humanity and fears his utopia is ultimately harmful.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Raiders of the Lost Tomb

DOCTOR WHO - THE TOMB OF THE CYBERMEN (1967)

Cybermen awaken from their slumber in one of the most iconic sequences in DOCTOR WHO's history. Presumed lost due to the BBC's infamous wiping process, telerecordings of all four parts of THE TOMB OF THE CYBERMEN were miraculously returned in 1992 by the Hong Kong-based Rediffusion company.

"OUR brains are just like yours, except that certain weaknesses have been removed ... you call them emotions, do you not?" This is how the Cybermen are introduced in their premier outing THE TENTH PLANET. Even though the 1960's saw the development of the pacemaker and spare part surgery, the notion of cybernetics was not new to the realm of science fiction. In her celebrated 1944 story No Woman Born, C. L. Moore tells of a famous dancer whose mind is transferred to a robot after being horribly burned in a theatre fire. This highly influential piece is considered one of the first fully realised portrayals of cybernetic consciousness, a level of "body-horror" the Cybermen have rarely achieved. However, unlike THE TENTH PLANET and THE MOONBASE, where the Doctor's second favourite foes are basically pitched against isolated humans, THE TOMB OF THE CYBERMEN is the first Cyber-story that exploits the real fear of cyborg conversion.

Five hundred years after the Cybermen were believed dead, a group of Earth archaeologists explore the cyborg's adopted ice planet of Telos. The Doctor (Patrick Troughton), Jamie (Frazer Hines) and Victoria (Deborah Watling) join in the exploration led by Professor Parry (Aubrey Richards), and after the Doctor helps to solve a logic puzzle, the gateway to an underground tomb is unveiled. Awakening the Cyber race from their honeycomb cells, the Time Lord realises that the tomb was a trap, designed to lure superior intellects for the Cybermen to convert. Yet it is also revealed that two members of the archaeological party - Kaftan (Shirley Cooklin) and Klieg (George Pastell) - have an ultimatum of their own, planning to merge the Cybermen and Brotherhood of Logicians to form an invincible army.

Gerry Davis' Target novelisation of THE TOMB OF THE CYBERMEN was released in May 1978, which sported a cover Cybermen design actually from THE INVASION.

The opening serial of DOCTOR WHO's strong fifth season, THE TOMB OF THE CYBERMEN depicts several advances in Cyber lore: it has the first appearance of the Cyber Controller (Michael Kilgarriff), and also introduces the Cybermats, silverfish-like devices that feed on human brainwaves. There are also technological improvements as they can now hypnotise, yet this drains the Cyber Controller who needs to retreat to his sarcophagus-like revitaliser. Strikingly visualised and effectively directed by Morris Barry, the story is also memorable for its creepy discordant music and a beautiful moment between the Doctor and Victoria - where she laments the loss of her father during THE EVIL OF THE DALEKS - and the tale also features for the first important role for a black actor in the form of Roy Stewart’s Toberman, loyal manservant of the treacherous Kaftan.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

"Wet with Terror"

SECRETS OF SEX (1969)
HORROR HOSPITAL (1973)

"Imagine you are making love to this girl. Imagine you are making love to this boy ..." Also known as BIZARRE and TALES OF THE BIZARRE, SECRETS OF SEX is an omnibus oddity that has it all.

EXPLOITATION film distributor and director Antony Balch started with the moving image by writing subtitles for European movies and making adverts for Camay soap and Kit-E-Kat ("Your cat will stay younger, live longer.") While briefly living in France he befriended William Burroughs, before returning to run two movie theatres in London: The Jacey Piccadilly Circus, and The Times Baker Street. Balch made surrealist shorts in collaboration with the American beat poet, and Burroughs also provided narration for the distributor's 1966 re-packaging of HAXAN as WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES. With a proposed adaptation of Naked Lunch starring Dennis Hopper falling through, Balch found a more solid partner in producer Richard Gordon, which created cult favourites SECRETS OF SEX and HORROR HOSPITAL. Unfortunately future projects such as THE SEX LIFE OF ADOLF HITLER never materialised, and Balch succumbed to stomach cancer in 1980 at the age of just 42.

SECRETS OF SEX was Balch's feature debut, a dotty collection of tales fusing comedy, horror, spies and softcore using a framing device of a Mummy voiced by Valentine Dyall. There are six segments in total, each illustrating the age-old battle between the sexes: a female photographer asks her male model to straddle a 'Spanish Horse' torture device; an old man yearns for a son after a previous bereavement, only for his young scientist lover to keep a birth defect from him and deliver a monster; a man catches a burglar only to discover "Christ! It's a bird!"; Lindy Leigh is Mayfair's Special Agent 28, whose main talent is to shed her clothes at every convenience; a man beckons an escort in an attempt to have sex with his reptile; and an old women confesses to kidnapping the souls of past lovers and trapping them in her greenhouse. Amazingly, this inoffensive and often banal picture was censored by John Trevelyan to the tune of nine minutes, but the film was still a hit and shown up to seven times a day at the Jacey, often with an accompanying Bugs Bunny cartoon.

Graham Humphrey's DVD/Blu-ray cover for HORROR HOSPITAL, discs released in August 2015.

HORROR HOSPITAL sees songwriter Jason Jones (a pre-CONFESSIONS Robin Askwith) taking a break from London's cutthroat music business by going to "Hairy Holidays", a country spa provided by gay travel agent Pollock (Dennis Price). On the train journey there Jason meets Judy (Vanessa (actually Phoebe) Shaw), who is also travelling to the alleged health farm Brittlehurst Manor to meet her long lost aunt. Actually, the Manor is run by Dr Christian Storm (Lugosiesque Michael Gough), who uses lobotomy to turn wayward youth into zombie slaves ("fresh air, birds, flowers - and storm your way back to health.") The wheelchair-bound scientist is aided by Judy's Aunt Harris (Ellen Pollock), a former Hamburg brothel madam, comic-relief dwarf Frederick (Skip Martin), and two biker thugs; and if anyone escapes, Storm has a Rolls Royce fitted with a scythe to stop any such insubordination ("make a clean job of it Frederick, the car was washed this morning.")

Utilising Knebworth House exteriors and Battersea Town Hall interiors, HORROR HOSPITAL - released as THE COMPUTER KILLERS in America - is a washed-out but endearing pastiche of the mad doctor genre, complete with requisite fiery climax. Guest star Price shines as the lecherous Pollock, ogling Jones' package and as camp as Christmas on his visit to the Manor ("Mirror, mirror on the wall, don't say a word, I know it all") before his bloody demise. Askwith and Gough turn in solid performances in roles specifically written for them - Gough is overtly stern and almost a Bond villain  - and it is only a somnambulant Shaw that lets down the troupe. The influence of this piece of 70's schlock even extends to hip-hop, when in 2003 Norwich-based Stonasaurus recorded a concept album about the release; internally, actual 1960's psychedelic group Tangerine Peel appear at the beginning as 'Mystic', fronted by a cross-dresser who is actually co-writer Alan Watson.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Twisted Tales

SUPERNATURAL (1977)
INSIDE NO. 9 (2014 - )

SUPERNATURAL based two of its episodes around creepy dummies. After the death of her mother, and her father's re-marriage, a young girl becomes obsessed by a doll in the Peter Sasdy-directed VIKTORIA.

SUPERNATURAL was a BBC anthology devised by Robert Muller, who wrote seven of the eight tales. Muller intended the show to rekindle the flavour of early horror cinema, subtle tales of fear based around The Club of the Damned. Each week, a prospective member will tell a true tale of terror; if successful, they will be given lifetime membership, if they fail, murder awaits. It is certainly a series of two halves, with the first four stories suffering from verbal diarrhoea and two excruciatingly loopy lead performances by Robert Hardy (as a haunted actor in GHOST OF VENICE) and Jeremy Brett (who falls under the spell of Lesley-Anne Down in MR NIGHTINGALE). Amazingly the series then opens up considerably: Denholm Elliott and John Osborne expertly play brothers living with their paranoid mother in LADY SYBILL, and NIGHT OF THE MARIONETTES has Gordon Jackson a biographer of Byron and Shelly. Unfortunately this momentum is lost with DORABELLA, a straightforward Gothic where two travellers are ensnared to provide a new vampire blood line. The exterior scenes breath some fresh air, even though it relies heavily on matte shots from Hammer's SCARS OF DRACULA.

Inexplicably broadcast on BBC1 in the summer - and scheduled to clash with BBC2's popular Horror Double Bills - SUPERNATURAL was shot on then industry-standard videotape, and suffers from visible ghosting (the muted colours of the gloomy castles and Victoriana add to its tired façade). Muller's intentions may well have been "to set the viewer's mind into action" with a set of archetypal examinations, but the series was not re-commissioned, despite strong supporting roles by Ian Hendry, Cathleen Nesbitt, Catherine Schell and Vladek Sheybal. The Club of the Damned is also disappointedly underdeveloped, with members displayed as stuffy armchair dwellers rather than bloodthirsty Turks all too eager to literally wield an axe.

Graham Humpreys' poster for THE HARROWING, the final episode of INSIDE NO. 9 series one. Here, a unsuspecting schoolgirl housesits a Gothic mansion, but is actually the centrepiece for a demonic transfer.

During the Radio 4 documentary HOUSES OF HORROR, the observation is made that the main difference between Hammer and Amicus is that Amicus's dour, modern settings were what is revealed after Hammer's large-bosomed damsels and mist-enveloped castles evaporate into your romantic mind's eye. One of its commentators, Reece Shearsmith, really takes this to heart for his INSIDE NO. 9 - co-written with Steve Pemberton - a series of stand-alone thirty minute dramas that feel like TALES OF THE UNEXPECTED melded to PLAY FOR TODAY. The twelve episodes so far have been noteworthy for their eloquently dark writing and almost cinematic staging, with stellar casts bringing to light every sickly twist and turn. The tone has also been refreshingly irrelevant; SARDINES, for example, sees Tim Key cast as a victim of paedophilia, exacting his revenge on his tormentor, family and associates while they are all locked in a wardrobe, while A QUIET NIGHT IN focusses on physical comedy. The highlight of the second series is THE 12 DAYS OF CHRISTINE, a tight-as-a-drum emotional journey of a young woman beautifully played by Sheridan Smith.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Sensual Obsession

BAD TIMING (1980)
ARENA: NICOLAS ROEG - IT'S ABOUT TIME... (2015)


Never confuse BAD TIMING as a date movie; Nicolas Roeg's extraordinary picture showcases a love affair long after the hearts stop beating, a piece that rivals Andrzej Zulawski's POSSESSION as the most toxic and intense break-up film of all time.

NICOLAS Roeg's motion pictures are time machines that test the cinematic medium as much as their character's journeys. Like Ken Russell, Roeg is a genre by himself, riding against the British norm of dour realism to create art-house visions for the masses. BAD TIMING is Roeg at his most vicious, where scenes of sexual perversion upset backers Rank so much ("a sick film made by sick people for sick people") they removed their gong logo and refused to screen it in their own Odeon chain. In fact, Psychiatrist Alex Linden (Art Garfunkel) and Milena Flaherty (Theresa Russell)'s destructive relationship was almost brought to the point of both stars walking off the film. Set in Cold War Vienna, the opening has a catatonic Milena rushed to hospital after taking an overdose, accompanied by her former lover Linden. Police Inspector Netusil (Harvey Keitel, in a strangely forced performance) suspects foul play and questions Linden; through flashbacks we see the events leading up to the suicide attempt, documenting Milena's experiences with Alex, her heavy drinking, and estrangement from much-older Czech husband Stefan (Denholm Elliott).

Abandoning any chronology or clarity, scenes take cues from objects, music and art, with the controversial sex scenes un-erotic and un-sexy. BAD TIMING is impossible to classify; is it a love story, psychological thriller, or even a horror movie? If it is a detective mystery it certainly isn't a good one, as Netusil is no Sherlock Holmes (promotion dubbed the film "a terrifying love story" and carried the subtitle A SENSUAL OBSESSION in American theatres). Linden's methodical mind control clashes with the free-spirited and impulsive Flaherty through jealousy, bitterness, disenchantment and permanent lack of commitment. Russell shines in her first lead role, and Garfunkel is believable as his misinformation and misconceptions unravel; what is most extraordinary is how two mainstream actors could elude to the final revelation (erroneously dubbed necrophilia by many sources) and that Roeg and Russell fell in love during the production and married soon after.

86-year-old Nicolas Roeg, photographed in his study, to promote David Thompson's  entrancing ARENA documentary.

As Nathaniel Thompson notes in Video Watchdog (#103, January 2004), "[BAD TIMING] could be considered the first sexual warfare film to explore the concept of two people literally exhausting themselves to death (or at least coming perilously close)." Roeg's film would make an unbearable double bill with Andrej Zulawski's POSSESSION - released a year later - where the Polish director draws heavily on the breakdown of his marriage to create a work lead actress Isabelle Adjani described as "emotional pornography." POSSESSION is a discordant piece that is filled with excesses borne out of sheer desperation, as it veers towards its phallus-headed amphibian monster. A less bludgeoning companion piece would be Jean-Luc Godard's PIERROT LE FOU, where its hero must balance his pursuit of aesthetic perfection and yearning for stability against the shallow desires of his lover.

ARENA's heralded first in-depth documentary on Roeg's career ultimately leaves much of the meat to a series of talking heads, while Roeg himself acts as a puppet master, often with a whimsical grin while reading poetry ("There is always another story, there is more than meets the eye" from Auden's At Last the Secret is Out). Taking its title from his obsession with scrambling and reassembling frames, NICOLAS ROEG - IT'S ABOUT TIME... is an array of entertaining and insightful comments, from Danny Boyle's wonderment of Roeg's treatment of sex in his films, to Ben Wheatley's point of how his casting of music stars (Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Art Garfunkel) somehow provide tendrils within the movies that reach out and co-exist with the moving image. Theresa Russell champions the use of dislocation in BAD TIMING as particularly apt when considering relationships ("people do not think linearly") and Roeg is quite pleased that his birth year was 1928, when sight and sound were first merged.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

"Watch Out for Your Asp!"

THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM (1988)

Once Adam Ant's partner, Amanda Donohoe is in her element as a worm-worshipping vamp. Gaining notoriety in Nic Roeg's CASTAWAY, the actress also appeared in Ken Russell's next film THE RAINBOW.

LOOSELY based on Bram Stoker's final book, Ken Russell's bombastic spoof horror opens with Scottish archaeology student Angus Flint (Peter Capaldi) excavating an old convent. On grounds now occupied by a Derbyshire B & B run by Trent sisters Mary (Sammi Davis) and Eve (Catherine Oxenberg), Flint unearths a large snake skull and serpent mosaic, which are tied to a local myth. The legend states that a monster was slain in Stonerich Cavern by John d'Ampton, the ancestor of current Lord of the Manor James d'Ampton (Hugh Grant). When the pocket watch of the Trent sisters' missing father is found in the Cavern, James surmises that the legendary creature may still be alive. Soon James, Angus, Mary and Eve are drawn into a deadly game with Lady Sylvia Marsh (Amanda Donohoe), an immortal priestess to the snake god Dionin.

Dialogue is laced with sexual innuendo ("playing with yourself can't be much fun"), and the fusion of loopy dream/hallucination sequences and garish 80's monster effects (the giant worm's jaws were made from Volkswagen Beetle parts) make THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM a curio even by Russell's standards. Joseph Lanza expertly sums up the tone in Phallic Frenzy: Ken Russell and His Films, by describing the film "as if a dotty, old, and salacious English auntie is telling it from an attic where her more prim relatives have exiled her." The scenery-chewing, mincing Donohoe casts a long shadow over the other leads, but bit parts from Paul Brooke - as lazy eyed P. C. Erny - and Stratford Johns - playing James' eccentric manservant Peters - crackle with life. 

Lady Marsh steals the excavated skull of Dionin. The prop was constructed by adding sculpted sections to a real cow head.

With Russell's forked tongue firmly in cheek, it is one delirious sequence after another. Marsh - in PVC boots and black underwear - seduces a half-witted boy scout, and later her strap-on defloration of Eve is interrupted by Dionin itself. One of the shot on video hallucinations has nuns being gang-banged by Roman centurions as a snake wraps itself around Christ on the cross, and kilted Angus plays bagpipes while battling a possessed Erny (which ends in a Fulciesque eye-gouging). Treading the fine line between kitsch and downright embarrassing, James' fever dream sees Eve and Lady Sylvia wrestling in air hostess outfits, the red-tipped pen in his hands standing to attention. Its a glorious mess that was debunked by critics at the time, but over the years the picture has gained a cult following worthy of Dionin, and stories even circulate of chic Los Angeles parties where revellers dress as their favourite characters.

Russell's initial flirtation with Stoker occurred after making TOMMY in 1975, when British cinema's enfant terrible wrote an adaptation of Dracula. The venture lost its impetus when a number of similar projects were released in the late 1970's, such as John Badham’s big-budget DRACULA starring Frank Langella, and Werner Herzog's remake of NOSFERATU. Whereas Herzog's vampire longed for death, Russell's Count rejoiced in possibilities of the forever, a master of the undead who loves the arts so much he seeks to bring great artists back to life; "how jealously God guards his immortality. Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Tchaikovsky: as soon as they challenged him with their visions of heaven, he cut them down - until we started to fight him." Russell claims that Mick Fleetwood was so eager to play his Dracula, that the musician offered to drain a pint of blood from his body each day throughout the shoot. But as Paul Sutton notes in his introduction to the full script published by Bear Claw in 2012, "Ken Russell's Dracula is a cloaked portrait of Ken Russell himself."

Monday, June 1, 2015

Voyage of the Greasy Bastard

RIPPING YARNS - THE CURSE OF THE CLAW (1977)
ALEXANDER ARMSTRONG'S REAL RIPPING YARNS (2014)

RIPPING YARNS parodies the golden age of empire, and won the 1980 Light Entertainment Award presented by BAFTA; in THE CURSE OF THE CLAW, gothic horror comes to 1926 Maidenhead.

RUNNING for nine BBC budget-busting episodes between 1976 and 1979, Michael Palin and Terry Jones' RIPPING YARNS showcased different characters and settings each time, but always against a backdrop of archetypes from boy's own papers. Made when the memory of British empire-building was fading under the swath of punk-rock, the show was initially developed under the vague guise of "The Michael Palin Variety Show." Palin baulked, and preferred to write longer, more cohesive narratives with Jones that took them away from the Pythonesque norm and into territory explored by such stand-alone FLYING CIRCUS episodes as THE CYCLING TOUR from 1972. RIPPING YARNS is infectiously silly; TOMKINSON'S SCHOOLDAYS, for example, depicted the horrors of public school education - such as eluding the school leopard - and WHINFREY'S LAST CASE sees Britain's most famous spy foiling the Germans who want to start the First World War a year early.

THE CURSE OF THE CLAW begins with Sir Kevin Orr (Palin) visited by Captain Merson (Keith Smith), who is leading an expedition to the Naga Hills of Burma with a handful of natives. On hearing this name Orr tells Merson that he grew up in a very strict house and had a secret sweetheart, Agatha, and his only excitement was visiting Uncle Jack (Palin), who had every disease known to man. Uncle Jack had taken a sacred claw from the Hills, but discovered there was a curse; Kevin promises to return the claw, running away and becoming the captain of The Greasy Bastard, a small ship carrying goods between England and Burma. Kevin finds himself attracted to Chief Petty Officer Russell (Judy Loe), and the voyage becomes a paradise that the crew don't want to end. Kevin tries to explain the danger but Russell throws the claw into the sea; the ship explodes and Kevin is the only survivor. Orr, after his parents and Uncle Jack's' death, marries Agatha, and lives happily in his uncle's house until the morning of his sixtieth birthday, when he finds his wife dead and the claw lying next to her. The horned digit then nightmarishly folds back time: his uncle and wife return from the grave, and Kevin and Agatha become children, only to see his father appear to instantly stifle his life once again.

Michael Palin stars as Kevin Orr, anxious to return the sacred Burmese vulture claw to its homeland before his sixtieth birthday, or die.

This "Ripping Yarn of fear, tragedy and terror" was created from two separate scripts: one dealing with black magic (with a healthy nod towards W.W.Jacobs' The Monkey's Paw), the other sexual repression. Like all the stories, THE CURSE OF THE CLAW is filled with colourful supporting characters and here the performances are pitch perfect: Aubrey Morris as naughty servant Grosvenor, and Tenniel Evans and Hilary Mason as Kevin's emotionally suffocating parents ("as soon as the entire human body is covered the better.") Dramatic and numeric errors grate slightly; there is a sense at the beginning that Agatha has been dead for some time rather than just earlier in the day, Grosvenor doesn't recognise a reincarnated Uncle Jack even though he was his servant for many years, and it is revealed that Kevin was born in 1881, the show is set in 1926, but its his 60th birthday. Yet these are disposable errors for what is such a, well, ripping yarn.

As Palin has stated, characters in RIPPING YARNS tread that fine line between British arrogance and madness. Each tale evokes a repressive world that has all but vanished from modern living. British colonialism and the establishment are ridiculed expertly, factors explored in the fine documentary
ALEXANDER ARMSTRONG'S REAL RIPPING YARNS. Armstrong interviews Palin and Jones who are both still evidently enthralled about the bygone days of boys adventure stories, but it is also evident that they are also telling a story of lost innocence and the erosion of risk. Away from today's social media, this was a childhood of wonder and national belonging. Exploring the show's inspirations, it is amazing how popular the boy's own papers were, with their character-building topics of public school life, sport, war, hobbies, espionage and outdoor pursuits. They may have been overtly racist in their depiction of scheming, sinister foreigners - a constant threat to the plucky Englishmen - but the articles and letter pages are both hysterical and heart warming (the dire warnings about masturbation et al).

Friday, May 15, 2015

Circus of Strange

THE SLAYERS: PORTRAIT OF A DISMEMBERED FAMILY (2014)

"Dirty, smelly girl." Not just Final Girl but Only Girl, Ghost threatens Anna during the trek to her final destination. Director Alex Poray notes of his actress Donna Beeching: "she was a great sport and took it in her stride ... she didn't have a heads up on what she was going to be put through until we shot the scene!"

ALEX Poray's infectious indie horror is part shock-mockumentary, part snuff movie. Made for £3,000, it tells the story of Patrick (Poray, using the pseudonym Lex Ray) - the son of Rt. Hon. Stanley (David Poulter) - claiming his father murdered a woman during a satanic ritual and forced him to film it; victim Anna Thompson (Donna Beeching) is consequently presented as a meal to wife Olga (a gurning Georgina Richmond) and other sons Leech (Julian Poulter),Tommy (Matt Lemon) and Ghost (Marek Gruszczynski). The question remains: is Patrick - a mentally unstable individual obsessed with death - telling the truth, or is Stanley, who claims that the scenes of abuse, witchcraft and cannibalism where a Halloween-night exercise aimed at liberating his troubled son. The project itself acquired controversy during its staged abduction of Beeching into Lemon's decommissioned Ambulance. Several calls to the authorities by concerned onlookers later, the filmmakers were flagged down by a Police dog unit, who explained that four other deployments - including armed response - had been utilised, and stingers had been placed on the highway.

Filmed in North Devon and Cardiff - taking in talking heads from the 2013 Cardiff Comic Con and the Braunton community (including estate agent James Benning as the family accountant) - THE SLAYERS is a relentlessly bleak canvas, best viewed at midnight and played loud. Publicity-seeking Patrick spends most of the picture wearing a pig mask, a familiar horror motif that also reminds of Grant Morrison's Professor Pyg, the "low-rent" extreme circus boss enemy of Batman. This façade provides a startlingly effective moment, where a squealing Patrick provides the ident card for the snuff portion, DEAD GIRLS. THE SLAYERS has the same raw feel as Roger Watkins' 1973 American cult curio THE CUCKOO CLOCKS OF HELL, and also is thematically similar in its portrayal of a disillusioned youth who - together with the liberal use of masks for his sociopathic helpers - makes a snuff movie that culminates in gleeful intestine-based slaughter. Thankfully, Poray's film doesn't have the toxic vibe of Watkins' amphetamine-fuelled movie, but rather gives the viewer an admiration for a group of friends who have assembled to make a horror picture and got the job done.

"He beat evil into me." The head of the North Devon Slayer family, is Stanley a respected citizen fighting for what is right for his disturbed son, or actually a master of the black arts?

The film's real-life father and son combination David and Julian Poulter both excel; David in particular is heartfelt when talking about Patrick, while suitably wide-eyed when donning his ceremonial robes. In her thankless role as Thompson, Donna is stalked, drugged, bound, gagged, punched in the stomach and urinated on in her own makeshift grave, before being cut to pieces and eaten (Beeching is particularly effective when being dragged face-down through house corridors and muddied pools). Donna remembers that filming the Ilfracombe churchyard scene was particularly harrowing. "It was really cold being buried alive with a few worms and that water was even colder, and with no spare cloths it was a wet journey home. But the worst for me was the chainsaw. It was real and so close I could feel the breeze on my face, so I did not want to do that take twice, especially as David had drilled through his arm a week before and I was worried his arm might give out." When asked about Poulter Snr's off-set injury, Julian reassures that it was "ok for chainsaws over a girls neck."

Next up for Alex is an animated realisation of his comic book Level Above Human, scheduled for 2016. As he explains, "the story is about a hoaxed alien invasion in a fictional American city which has fallen into chaos." Quizzed on the eternal SLAYERS father and son debate, the filmmaker was unsurprisingly guarded; "that's not for me to say. Some people write Patrick off as a useless lying junkie, others feel Stanley is guilty as hell! Maybe they are both lying?"

Thanks to Alex, Donna and Julian for their feedback via Facebook.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Don't Look Back in Anger

Kenneth Anger's chaotic relationship with British rock gods

A follower of Aleister Crowley's Thelema religion, Kenneth Anger's filmic influence can be seen in the emergence of the music video, and the work of David Lynch and John Waters.

SANTA-MONICA born Kenneth Anger is equal parts Aleister Crowley disciple, avant-garde filmmaker, and gay Hollywood gossipmonger. Fixated with fading silver screen stars and homosexual male icons, his scandalous tome Hollywood Babylon lifts the lid on an endless array of tinsel town drug abuse and depravity, stories of deviance and death that would befit The Great Beast himself. Anger considered Rolling Stones guitarists Keith Richards and Brian Jones - and Anita Pallenberg, who had been a lover to both musicians - to be at the centre of his provocative path. Perhaps the Stones themselves saw Anger as a possible conduit for the rebellious tone of the late 1960's, yet looking at the cover of their 1967 album Their Satanic Majesties Request, it isn't absolutely clear how serious the group were taking the magus (the band wear sorcerer garb that would only suit a pantomime).

Anger's infamous film LUCIFER RISING is a mesmeric ritual charting the shift of Christianity (Aeon of Osiris) towards a demonic land (Aeon of Horus). Anger considers movies as spell-casters, "a transparent excuse for capturing people," but this subscribes to Crowley's religious cycles, looking at a post-anointed faith. Mick Jagger was intrigued by Anger, and how occultism had the potential to inspire counterculture. The filmmaker tried to convince The Stones talisman to take the role of Lucifer, but Jagger baulked and offered his brother Chris instead. The more famous Jagger composed a gratingly discordant moog score, which would be used in INVOCATION OF MY DEMON BROTHER, a short that salvages initial LUCIFER RISING footage and splices scenes from The Stones Hyde Park concert for what is essentially a film about a funeral for a cat. Donald Cammell was also cast as Osiris in LUCIFER RISING, together with Marianne Faithfull as Lilith and Jimmy Page in a cameo as "Man holding the Stella of Revelation." On set, Anger repeatedly argued with Chris Jagger, resulting in the latter being fired, and Faithful fell off a mountain, luckily sustaining only mild concussion.

Mick Jagger's score for INVOCATION OF MY DEMON BROTHER was created from a newly acquired Moog synth and it shows; it has the much the same effect as turning on the instrument and leaving it running.

The soundtrack to LUCIFER RISING is another contentious affair. Anger met Page at a London auction where they were both bidding for Crowley memorabilia. Anger convinced Page to compose the soundtrack for his film, with the rock star giving Anger permission to move into the basement of his London mansion to use his editing suite. In October 1976 Anger got into an argument with Page's then wife Charlotte, who threw him out for allegedly giving guided tours to strangers. The magus consequently labelled Page as a washed out musician unable to meet deadlines, and removed him from the project. In fact the Led Zeppelin guitarist had the soundtrack in place before he ever saw any footage; Page had extended an existing piece that he thought would fit the film, centred around a "majestic drone" on a bass tanpura acquired from India. He then used chants and assorted instrumentation to create a twenty-minute track that takes up one side of the 2012 release Lucifer Rising and Other Soundtracks.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Suffolk Saucer Attack

THE RENDLESHAM UFO INCIDENT (2015)

Steve Bissette's trading card on the Rendlesham alien envounter, featured in Kitchen Sink's "Saucer People" set of 1992. Bissette's illustration focuses on one of the many traits of this infamous 1980 UFO incident: the observation by American and British personnel of creatures suspended in beams of light working on their spaceship.

SHORTLY after Christmas 1980, Suffolk became the location of an apparent UFO crash; dubbed "the British Roswell," mystery still remains what actually happened in Rendlesham Forest, near RAF Woodbridge. At around 3.00am on the 26th of December, RAF Watton in Norfolk registered an "unknown" flying toward the coast. Disappearing from scopes in the vicinity of the forest, security police at the RAF base - then under the control of the USAF - saw lights fall from the sky. Patrolmen discovered a metallic object with "a pulsating red light on top and a bank of blue lights underneath ... hovering or on legs." Case studies are blighted by witness contradictions and disparities, particularly the extent of people involved: one maintains that before a second sighting, a large number of personnel gathered to await the UFO's arrival at a prearranged spot. Consequently, facts have been shrouded by exaggeration and misperception; UFO researcher Jacques Vallee has even suggested that the story was a complete fabrication to monitor servicemen's reactions to a potential alien attack.

Since the Autumn of 1980, Eastern England had been a hotspot of UFO activity. Incidents included strange lights over Fylingdales radar station and the NSA communications base at Menwith Hill, and even a police officer was reported abducted from his patrol car in Yorkshire. On Christmas Day, the British Astronomical Association stated that sightings of moving lights were in fact meteors and inert space debris; even on the 26th December, the RAF Watton "unknown" coincides with the passage of a bright meteor. Yet by the following day, stories had spread between the twin NATO bases at Woodbridge and Bentwaters of aliens, ground traces from their craft, strange marks left on trees, and significant increases of radiation. USAF airmen claimed that they discovered triangular depressions in the clearing where the UFO landed, yet British police officers noted that "the impressions were of no depth and could have been made by an animal." Similarly, the marks on the trees were in fact made by forester's axes identifying trees due to be felled.

If you go down to the woods today ... THE RENDLESHAM UFO INCIDENT creates some wonderfully ethereal images.

While the facts of the Rendlesham UFO encounter are still muddied thirty-five years on, explanations follow two main paths. As Jenny Randles notes in her piece 'Rendlesham Evolving Theories' in Fortean Times #204 (December 2005), "there are hints ... that conditions could have made the [nearby Orfordness] lighthouse look more mysterious and difficult to recognise. The trigger for this confusion may have been a mirage caused by the lighthouse beam shining through a patch of low mist, splitting the light and smearing it. Some of the military witnesses were using night vision scopes to observe the glow, and these can cause optical distortion effects." Another plausible theory is that the lights were caused by a "fireball" created by the rocket-body of Soviet satellite Cosmos 749 re-entered Earth's atmosphere around the same time. Indeed, it was subsequently revealed that twelve satellites decayed during the week of this particular UFO flap.

Daniel Simpson - who made the squatter-horror SPIDERHOLE in 2010 - filmed THE RENDLESHAM UFO INCIDENT without a formal script as HANGAR 10. The picture is shot in found footage style, following metal detector enthusiasts Gus (Robert Curtis) and Sally (Abbie Salt) in their quest for Saxon gold. Their expedition is shot by Jake (Danny Shayler), who captures incredible UFO footage while the three drift increasingly lost into MoD land. Eventually stumbling upon a disused military complex and linking tunnels, mutations of a spiky viral-fungus are revealed, and alien life itself. Found footage pictures are thematically disadvantaged by generic characters and sluggish pace; THE RENDLESHAM UFO INCIDENT suffers from both these factors, but is saved by its sound design (metallic groanings and aircraft screeches) and SPFX (allegedly achieved by Simpson on his laptop) which are refreshingly non-obscured and genuinely eerie. The sheer vastness of the forest is photographed effectively with washed-out tones, but Ufologists expecting a film steeped in Rendlesham folklore will be disappointed. Its triptych of protagonists, disillusioning movement and foreboding are more direct lifts from the picture's real inspiration, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Behind Forbidden Doors


THE HAUNTED HOUSE OF HORROR (1969)

THE HAUNTED HOUSE OF HORROR makes the cover of German magazine Film Neues-Programm, where it was released under a title which translates to GOOSEBUMPS.

AN early attempt at the teen slasher movie that would explode a decade later, Michael Armstrong's THE HAUNTED HOUSE OF HORROR begins during a less than swinging shindig in Carnaby Street. A group of bored youths - including Chris (twenty-nine year old Frankie Avalon, in a role intended for Ian Ogilvy), Sheila (Jill Haworth), Gary (Mark Wynter) and Peter (Richard O'Sullivan) - leave the party and drive to a deserted mansion haunted by a killer who murdered his family in a frenzied knife attack twenty years previously. When Gary is slayed, rather than report the incident to the police, the group hide the body and try to solve the mystery themselves.

After all the problems with THE HAUNTED HOUSE OF HORROR, it is amazing that director/writer Armstrong had the inclination to continue in the industry. Developed from his script THE DARK from 1960, Armstrong envisioned the film as a vehicle to showcase the talents of then unknown David Bowie, who the filmmaker had worked with on the 1967 avant-garde short THE IMAGE. With this being a joint Tigon/AIP picture, American International's head of British productions Louis M. Hayward ordered a new draft to add sex scenes, Americanise characters, and include an ill Boris Karloff so the literally fading star could see out the last three days on his AIP contract. "Deke" Hayward also rejected any involvement with Bowie, insisting that Stateside audiences wouldn't except any songs unless they were sung by Avalon. Deke then butchered Armstrong's revised draft anyway, turning Karloff into a crazed Police Inspector in a wheelchair, somehow rampaging around a derelict house before proving to be a red herring; this was a similar synopsis for Karloff that actually reached some kind of fruition a year previously with CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR.

Michael Armstrong encountered endless front office interference while making his debut picture, but things didn't get better for his next project, filming the notorious MARK OF THE DEVIL in Austria. The Bolton-born filmmaker would later write numerous 1970's British sex comedies and Pete Walker's HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS.

To ease tensions between Armstrong and Hayward, Tigon head Tony Tenser intended to shoot two versions: essentially Armstrong's third draft, and Deke's AIP/Karloff version. But when it became evident that Karloff was too ill to participate - even in a desperately proposed introductory speech - the inspector role was awarded to Dennis Price. While Hayward was called away on problems with Cy Enfield's DE SADE, Armstrong shot his scenes while Tenser attempted to capture Deke's wheelchair killer; with a rough cut not ready for an international sales pitch by AIP heads Arkoff and Nicholson, Tenser cut together what he could - to disastrous results. With Tigon trying to appease AIP and Hayward attempting to hide his meddling, Armstrong then discovered that Gerry Levy was shooting additional scenes (essentially giving Sylvia (Gina Warwick) an affair with sugar daddy Kellett (George Sewell), a pub sing-a-long, and generally toning down the feel of the film - under the pseudonym Peter Marcus). Filled with clichéd lines ("I really dig this place", "Let's hold a séance!", "I think its a gas!"), Armstrong's intended darker, sexually edgier piece is not surprisingly lost in the mess.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Sixties Sorcery

THE SORCERERS (1967)
CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR (1968)

"You enjoyed it, didn't you?" In an allegory for the thrills of cinema itself, THE SORCERERS tells of an old couple who invent a machine to live vicariously through a young man.

MICHAEL Reeves was a true cineaste and perhaps the greatest lost talent of the British film industry. Although he only directed three pictures, the Sutton-born Reeves increasingly became frustrated about the difficulty of getting projects off the ground. Suffering from depression and insomnia, on the 11th of February 1969 he died at the age of twenty-five from an alcohol and barbiturate overdose which many - including lifelong friend Ian Ogilvy - believe to have been purely accidental (indeed, the coroner's report stated that the level of barbiturate dosage was too marginal to suggest any dark intention). There is nothing critics like more than to mythologise an untimely artistic death (Brian Jones would follow five months later), but there is no mistaking that Reeves was a precocious talent. This is a man who travelled to Hollywood at the age of sixteen, sought out the address of his favourite director - Don Siegel - and subsequently gained employment. But after the critical and commercial success of WITCHFINDER GENERAL in 1968, Reeves seemingly lost his way. Starting to drink heavily, the boy wonder was also taking uppers and downers, and those close offered a variety of reasons: the development hells, the strain of his on-set clashes with Vincent Price, a failed romance, and an underlying nihilism.

There is much to enjoy in Reeves' second feature under consideration here, which followed the British/Italian REVENGE OF THE BLOOD BEAST shot in 1966. THE SORCERERS is a trippy slasher movie made as the 1960s neared its dizzying end. Retired and discredited hypnotist Professor Marcus Monserrat (Boris Karloff) and wife Estelle (Catherine Lacey) are an elderly couple who, through hypnosis, can "live" through young people and feel their emotions. Marcus picks up a bored youth - Mike Roscoe (Ogilvy) - at a Wimpy bar, who partakes in a ground-breaking experiment at the Monserrat household. When the pensioners choose to 'tune in' their fun begins mundane enough - Estelle instructs Roscoe to steal a fur coat - but soon she becomes hooked on the strength of her manipulative powers, forcing the hipster into carrying out a series of increasingly gruesome acts (such as a scissor murder of Audrey (Susan George)). As Marcus becomes mentally and physically overpowered by his wife, the husband manages to break the spell by causing Mike to die in a fireball of a car crash; the film ends on the image of the Monserrat's charred remains miles away at their home.

"... as though Boris Karloff's going to pop up at any moment." Barbara Steele's only home-grown horror - and Boris Karloff's last - CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR also wastes the talents of a bored Christopher Lee, who wears his own tweed jacket throughout.

By 1967 exploitation guru Tony Tenser had left Compton-Tekli and formed Tony Tenser Films, which would soon be renamed Tigon. THE SORCERERS was a co-production with the American company Curtwel - run by the husband-and-wife team of Patrick Curtis and Raquel Welch - and it is an effectively edited and lively lensed film which confronts cinema's inherent voyeurism. It also deftly contrasts gyrating youth culture with the dreary existence and tired home décor of the older generation; quieter sequences are governed by the sound of a ticking clock, as if to signify the both the passing joy of youth and the beginning of the end. Reeves makes the most of a derisory budget (£11,000 of the total £50,000 went to Karloff), though Monserrat's laboratory set is achingly threadbare. Karloff - sporting a pinstripe suit and goatee - gives a strong performance in his twilight years, still managing to sustain a erudite presence but also very much under the shadow of past glories. But it is Lacey who is the star, her demented wide-eyed enjoyment of Roscoe's building mania made even more disturbing by the fact that it is portrayed through violence rather than sexual yearning.

If Karloff was fading here, Tigon nearly finished the star off totally during Vernon Sewell's CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR, where Boris contracted pneumonia during night scenes filmed in freezing rain. Based uncredited on H.P. Lovecraft's The Dreams in the Witch House, Robert Manning (Mark Eden) goes in search of his brother, who was last known to have visited Craxted Lodge, Greymarsh. Manning is invited to stay by Eve (Virginia Wetherell) - the niece of Lodge owner Morley (Christopher Lee) - but is haunted by nightmares. When wheelchair-bound Professor Marshe (Karloff) informs Manning about a cult based around Lavinia Morley (Barbara Steele), and Robert discovers that he is descended from Lavinia's chief accuser, Craxted Lodge is burned to the ground, and Morley - exposed as the head of the followers - is consumed in flames. Starting with a written extract about hallucinatory drugs, the film descends into an unintentionally hilarious attic ritual, where Lavinia is aided by a man wearing an antlers head cap and leather underpants, and a woman with nipple-patches and horsewhip. The camp continues at a swinging party at the Lodge, which includes an exotic dancer pouring champagne over her breasts, but this is where the fun ends. Eden and Wetherell are functional at best, and the climactic notion that Morley and Lavinia are the same person - which would have made sense under the shooting title THE REINCARNATION - is left unexplored.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Bloodsucking Freaks

INCENSE FOR THE DAMNED (1970)

In a non-speaking role, Imogen Hassall is bewitching as the leader of a perversion-driven vampire cult.

DIRECTLY after THE BLACK TORMENT in 1964, director Robert Hartford-Davis and cinematographer Peter Newbrook quit Compton and formed Titan. After making the musical GONKS GO BEAT, Michael Bentine's THE SANDWICH MAN and Norman Wisdom vehicle PRESS FOR TIME, the studio turned out their lasting legacy in 1968 with the seedy CORRUPTION. A brutal picture which sees Peter Cushing as a surgeon killing in order to restore his young fiancée's facial tissue, Cushing departed to make another low point in his filmography with Tigon's THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR. Titan, however, went on to nearly complete their greatest folly, a take on Simon Raven's novel Doctors Wear Scarlet - INCENSE FOR THE DAMNED.

If you ever wanted to see Patrick Macnee and Imogen Hassall ride donkeys in a British vampire picture, then INCENSE FOR THE DAMNED is the film for you. Richard Fountain (Patrick Mower) - an Oxford don and the Foreign Secretary's son - falls into the clutches of Chriseis (Hassall) while researching ancient Minoan rites in Greece. Chriseis heads a non-supernatural bloodsucking cult of socialites who murder innocents as a form of sexual perversion. In an attempt to avoid a scandal, a search party flies to the island of Mikonos in a desperate search for Richard, which contains Major Derek Longbow (Macnee), British Foreign Office assistant Tony Seymore (Alexander Davion), friend Bob Kirby (Johnny Sekka), and Fountain's somnambulant fiancée Penelope (Madeleine Hinde). After apparently halting the cult's influence over Richard, the don returns to his sheltered life, but we discover that the marks left by Chriseis still resonate.

Also known as BLOODSUCKERS and FREEDOM SEEKER, INCENSE FOR THE DAMNED is based on Simon Raven's 1960 novel Doctors Wear Scarlet. Raven - a Luciferian provocateur who was also a journalist and television writer - rejected faith and possessed a deep contempt for the English unwillingness to offend.

According to David Pirie's The Vampire Cinema, INCENSE FOR THE DAMNED was a long-gestating project of Terence Fisher, who was never able to interest Hammer in its subversive content. With the rights acquired by Titan and Hartford-Davis at the helm, it was the beginning of a painful production and editing process. While shooting in Cyprus funds were exhausted, leaving the picture unfinished. With a compressed narrative and lame narration introduced to cover the cracks, the director disowned the picture and prints only exist under a directorial psydonym (Michael Burrowes) or with no director credit at all. The ending was also shot against Hartford-Davis' wishes, where Kirby and Seymore go to Fountain's coffin to administer a stake through his heart. This climax vilifies the rest of the film, which had explained vampirism as a psychological distortion, rather than reverting to cliché. Also jarring is an extraordinary six-minute sequence of a hallucinogenic orgy, which was either cut or excised completely for overseas prints.

Mower’s character is revealed as impotent - and possibly bisexual - making vampirism his only means of satisfaction. Richard's liberating climactic outburst at a Oxford dinner not only frees him from the stifling academic system championed by provost Dr Walter Goodrich (Peter Cushing) - Penelope's father - but also plays as a rousing counter-culture statement of the times ("the thieves who come to take our souls ... smooth deceivers in scarlet gowns.") As Tim Lucas points out in his Video Watchdog review, INCENSE would play well with Fisher's THE DEVIL RIDES OUT, where Mower plays another privileged upper class individual who falls under the power of persuasion. As well as Cushing - who is used far too fleetingly - Edward Woodward appears as an anthropologist who tries to explain vampirism where the drinking of blood serves as surrogate orgasm.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Fordyke Saga

THE BLACK TORMENT (1964)

A panting Edina Ronay makes for a memorable opening to THE BLACK TORMENT. The Anglo-Hungarian daughter of food critic Egon and mother of actress/writer Shebah, Edina was noteworthy for her fleeting turns in A STUDY IN TERROR and PREHISTORIC WOMEN. In the mid-70's she retired from the screen to take up fashion design, specialising in knitwear.

TAKING its cue from Hammer's costumed gothics, Compton's THE BLACK TORMENT is an underappreciated gem that also draws upon the aura of Mario Bava and the eloquent staging of Roger Corman's Poe pictures. Set in the spring of 1780, the film opens with a young woman fleeing across a nocturnal wood, as a murderous assailant gives chase. After being attacked and left to die, she utters the name ... Sir Richard! Days later, Sir Richard Fordyke (John Turner) returns to his Devon estate with second wife Elizabeth (Heather Sears). Although he has been away in London for three months, villagers claim to have seen the aristocrat riding through the woods, chased by the spirit of his first wife Anne, who supposedly committed suicide four years previously. With Sir Richard increasingly being manipulated into an alleged ancestral madness - including finding his crippled father hanging - he turns to magistrate Colonel Wentworth (Raymond Huntley) to help him solve the mystery. The final revelation is less a surprise more a sign-posted but illogical confirmation: this particular backward "evil twin" brother can not only rape and pillage, but place detailed orders to a Tiverton saddle maker.


The posters for THE BLACK TORMENT went into hyperbolic overdrive: "terror creeps from the fringe of fear to the pit of panic"; "the screen shudders with raw and violent savage suspense!"; "...by the screaming terror of a woman's fear" et al. Underneath this barrage you actually get a richly rendered production filled with solid performances (though Turner often subscribes to Elizabeth's line "Oh Richard, you're overwrought") and meticulous supporting players such as Peter Arne (whose trademark swarthy villain is a role identical to his appearance in THE HELLFIRE CLUB) and Patrick Troughton (who appears as a stable groom). A colour long associated with sensations of infinity and imagination, cinematographer Peter Newbrook smothers the film in languorous blue, and as Jonathan Rigby argues in English Gothic, perhaps a more apt title would have been THE BLUE TORMENT. Known for his moving camera and zooms, director Robert Hartford-Davis was indulging in his lush sets and costumes - including the obligatory low-cut frocks - until an on-set visit from the studio's wheeler-dealer partners Michael Klinger and Tony Tenser. Compton had already committed to a number of projects so budgets were tighter than ever, and after running three days behind schedule, allegedly Tenser ripped out ten pages from the shooting script in front of the director and proclaimed "there you are, you're back on schedule."

Thursday, January 15, 2015

House of Video Nasty Horror

The Suppression of House of Hammer in America
Video Nasty (2014)

Uncredited cover art for Warren's House of Horror #1 (April 1978), an "ashcan" produced to quash Top Seller's intention of House of Hammer reaching US shores.

AT the beginning of 1978, the US publishing empire of Jim Warren - responsible for Famous Monsters of Filmland and the b&w comic magazines Creepy and Eerie - announced a new quarterly venture House of Horror to be made available through their in-house mail order service Captain Company. Yet the truth was that the publisher rushed this magazine - which was always intended as a one-shot - into print for copyright reasons, securing the name and halting Top Seller's plan to release their respected House of Hammer in America under the same title. Warren was infamous for his volatile working practices, but any publisher who had the audacity to challenge his domain particularly created embitterment. Both mags were reprints: hardly a House of Horror at all, Warren's effort revisited paste-ups from Famous Monsters such as the special effects of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS and the robots of STAR WARS; Top Seller's collation included John Bolton's CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF comic adaptation, a George A. Romero interview, and Brian Lewis' VAMPIRE CIRCUS cover which originally graced House of Hammer #17.

When Warren immediately filed for copyright infringement against the British invaders, the US courts upheld his claim, so Top Seller's American adventure lasted two issues: (Hammer's) House of Horror #1 and the next issue of the regular title, #19, which received limited distribution in the States. Because of this outcome, Top Sellers were forced to change the name of their homegrown version to (Hammer's) Halls of Horror with #20. This was a stunt the American publisher also pulled over the fabled birth of Eerie in 1965. Warren printed around 400 copies of House of Horror, but only 200 editions of Eerie #1 existed. This illustration of the publisher's ego started with the demise of a one issue Eerie (Tales) in the late 1950's, by Hastings. Warren discovered that another publisher who used the same distributor was bringing out an imitation of Creepy called Eerie, thereby inventory material from Creepy was used to cobble together his version of the title, which was on the newsstands outside his distributor's building the following morning. The most ridiculous aspect was that Warren had his facts wrong: the company who challenged him was Eerie Publications, and the magazine in question was actually called Weird.

Each with a cover by Graham Humphreys, Video Nasty is a breezy Reaper comic book that nevertheless deals with weighty agendas.

In his website, Top Sellers supremo Dez Skinn remains tactful towards Warren, championing his business sense. Warren initially heard the news of the British assault in Comic Media News, where Skinn proudly announced 200,000 copies of his House of Horror were set to conquer America. By the most unlikely of coincidences, that same issue also featured an interview with Warren, so the editor sent him a complimentary copy. The first Top Sellers knew of the situation was when their office received a letter from Warren’s lawyers, stating that shipping copies for US distribution would be infringing the copyright of their client’s “well established” House of Horror magazine on which a “considerable amount” had been spent on its launch. The hard fact is that, against this messy backdrop, American readers were deprived of a quality publication, instead left with the pictorial and pun-filled standard of Famous Monsters.

Former comic store owner turned independent writer, Mario Covone's six-issue Video Nasty is set in 1983 Kettering, and uses both the video panic in Britain, and the political climate of the era, as its provocative foundation. Along with Greek artist Vasilis Logios, Covone has produced a love letter to the genre, inspired by the documentary VIDEO NASTIES: MORAL PANIC, CENSORSHIP AND VIDEOTAPE and Lucio Fulci's THE BLACK CAT. Characters are archetypes without being bland, as the police, neo-Nazis and a film director turned media scapegoat are sucked into a pit of depraved murders. Mario's crisp dialogue creates a flowing yarn which exists in a fictionalised but recognisable tableau - the relocation from Manchester to Northampton of "God's Cop" Chief Constable James Anderton for example, as he instructs officer David Gorley to look at video nasty's for case research (by the end of the second issue, Gorley has acquired ZOMBIE FLESH EATERS and CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST from his friendly local video rental store). What inevitably hurts the book is the frighteningly sketchy interior art of Logios; proportions vary wildly from panel to panel, and what is even more surprising are the standard of Graham Humphreys' covers; while #5 and #6 have a grandiose power, the first four covers lack a central focus.