Thursday, December 15, 2016

State of Decay

DOCTOR WHO - HORROR OF FANG ROCK (1977)
DOCTOR WHO - IMAGE OF THE FENDAHL (1977)

A fan favourite, HORROR OF FANG ROCK contains many elements from the poem Flannan Isle by Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, which the Doctor quotes from at the end of the story (the poem draws on the real-life mystery of disappearances in 1900). Here is the cover to the 1978 Target novelisation.

PHILIP Hinchcliffe's three seasons as DOCTOR WHO producer registered unparalleled violence and complaints. Incoming producer Graham Williams was under pressure from BBC brass to tone down the horror elements with his premier block of serials - Season Fifteen - which would screen between September 1977 and March 1978. But from the start Williams was embroidered in a number of behind-the-scenes tussles. His first intended serial, Terence Dicks' THE WITCH LORDS/THE VAMPIRE MUTATION, was vetoed late on by Head of Serials Graeme McDonald, because it would undermine the lavish BBC production of Bram Stoker's Dracula then under preparation; Louise Jameson quit as Leela; and in an attempt to re-connect as a children's show and up the comedy, robot dog K9 became a regular companion - much to Tom Baker's chagrin. 

Against this backdrop, it is amazing that Williams' initial broadcast - HORROR OF FANG ROCK - is a triumph. One of the last genuinely scary Classic-era adventures, HORROR OF FANG ROCK sees a shape-changing amorphous jelly (a Rutan scout) crash-land near a desolate Edwardian lighthouse. Initially only populated by a crew of three, soon The Doctor (Baker) and Leela (Jameson) arrive, and survivors from a shipwreck swell the numbers. The alien - one of the race engaged in a perennial war with the Sontarans - is killing its occupants in a quest for life-giving electricity, and The Doctor has been battling to keep it out. But as the death toll rises, realisation hits the Time Lord: "Leela, I've made a terrible mistake, I thought I'd locked the enemy out. Instead I've locked it in - with us." Eventually, The Doctor turns the lighthouse into a laser, knocking out the anti-gravity of the incoming Rutan Mothership.

At the end of Part Two of IMAGE OF THE FENDAHL, the Doctor asks the Fendahl skull if it would like a jelly baby, but actually offers it a liquorice allsort. This was commented on in the 'Watchdog' segment of NATIONWIDE; the DOCTOR WHO production office replied by saying that this was one of the ways the Doctor liked to confuse his enemy.

The realistically cramped lighthouse scenes were shot at Pebble Mill Studios in Birmingham, the only time the series had ever ventured from its London studio base. Strong on atmosphere, this is a tense, claustrophobic tale that makes the most of its small cast and tiny location, but lacks the intensity of the Hinchcliffe Gothic era. Perhaps feeding off their tensions off screen, Baker and Jameson are both outstanding, The Doctor at his unpredictable, arrogant best, and Leela - without her trademark leather outfit - fearless against the threat. The loose background to this teleplay refers to the true mysterious events surrounding the disappearance of three lighthouse keepers from the Flannan Isles lighthouse around 1900. Built approximately twenty miles from the Outer Hebrides, this legend is a mixed bag of allegedly hoax log entries and sea monsters, and even a long-boat of ghosts heading to the Isle on the night the lights went out.

IMAGE OF THE FENDAHL acts as a last stab of gothic horror for the show. In contemporary England, Professor Fendelman (Denis Lill) subjects a twelve million-year-old skull to the effects of his Time Scanner, providing a channel for the malevolent Fendahl to once more terrorise the Earth. The skull is also infiltrating fellow scientist Thea Ransome (Wanda Ventham), who is eventually transformed into the Fendahl core, mutating colleagues into snake-like monsters. The theme of mankind manipulated by an ancient alien again draws from DOCTOR WHO's favourite reference point - the works of Nigel Kneale - but the story is let down by the Fendahl itself; an attractive women with eyes painted on her closed eyelids doesn't really justify a terrifying entity that feeds on death; nor does the climax, where a creature that can teleport itself across space is killed by a handful of rock salt.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Paint It Black

OMNIBUS - SCHALCKEN THE PAINTER (1979)
ITV PLAYHOUSE - CASTING THE RUNES (1979)

Dou (Maurice Denham), once a student of Rembrandt, sells his niece to a Sepulchral for a casket of gold in SCHALCKEN THE PAINTER.

THE first incarnation of the BBC's A GHOST STORY FOR CHRISTMAS strand ended with pretentious episode THE ICE HOUSE in 1978. The two programmes here attempt to carry on the tradition, the first often confused as an official entry, and the second directed by the series' talisman on ITV. Actually screened as part of OMNIBUS, Leslie Megahey's SCHALCKEN THE PAINTER is a fictional exploration of real life seventeenth-century Dutch artist Godfried Schalcken. Adapted from Sheridan Le Fanu, Schalcken (Jeremy Clyde) is a student of Gerrit Dou (Maurice Denham) and admirer of Dou's niece Rose (Cheryl Kennedy); Schalcken is as lifeless as the canvas he devotes himself to, and loses Rose's hand to deathly stranger Vanderhausen (John Justin).

If the story has a message at all, it is that females can become detached objects and property; when Rou's niece is bound to the cadaverous Vanderhausen, it serves as a metaphor on the cruelty of woman as breeding stock. The slow narrative and detached composition has flatteringly been likened to Kubrick, but the programme stands more as a companion piece to another OMNIBUS adaptation, Jonathan Miller's WHISTLE AND I'LL COME TO YOU. Whereas Miller takes M.R. James and reflects supernatural image as mental breakdown, Megahey sees Le Fanu's tale as an artist's shattering loss of hope.

CASTING THE RUNES was released on Network DVD in 2007. This disc also included ITV Schools' rare adaptation of Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance, and the documentary A PLEASANT TERROR: THE LIFE AND GHOSTS OF M.R. JAMES.

In M. R. James' Casting the Runes - first published in 1911's More Ghost Stories - Edward Dunning is a researcher for the British Museum, who has recently appraised The Truth of Alchemy by occultist Mr Karswell. He begins seeing the name John Harrington wherever he goes, and learns that this individual had also reviewed Karswell's work, but died in a freak accident. Following the celebrated 1957 film version NIGHT OF THE DEMON directed by Jacques Tourneur, the story was adapted twice on British independent television: in 1968 as a third season MYSTERY AND IMAGINATION, and again as an eleventh season PLAYHOUSE.

Directed by A GHOST STORY FOR CHRISTMAS regular Lawrence Gordon Clark, CASTING THE RUNES was another attempt at a contemporary updating. Shot on videotape and 16mm film, the central protagonist is a woman, Prudence Dunning (Jan Francis), the producer of an investigative television programme that is critical of the practises of Karswell (Iain Cuthbertson). With a limited running time, this take suffers from scenes which have previously been so effective in other adaptations - there is no séances, and no Halloween garden party - and what remains creates an imposing but underdeveloped demonologist; Karswell is reduced to building a model dolls house and putting a live spider in one of the beds to satisfy this particular brand of curse.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Possession!

DOCTOR WHO - THE ARK IN SPACE (1975)
DOCTOR WHO - THE MASQUE OF MANDRAGORA (1976)
DOCTOR WHO - THE HAND OF FEAR (1976)

An adult Wirrn from THE ARK IN SPACE. Originating from Andromeda, these aliens are "almost too horrible to think about."

ALTHOUGH the script for what would become the DOCTOR WHO adventure THE ARK IN SPACE was commissioned during Barry Letts' show running tenure, it fell to incoming producer Philip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes to bring this classic tale of bodily possession to life. Screened as the second story of the programme's Season Twelve, and scripted by Holmes from an original draft by John Lucarotti, it tells of the insectoid Wirrn Queen laying eggs inside cryogenically-preserved humans on the future space "ark" Nerva; when the eggs begin to hatch and the monsters start to absorb homo sapien knowledge as well as their bodies, The Doctor (Tom Baker), Sarah Jane (Elisabeth Sladen) and Harry (Ian Marter) team up with revived humans to lure hatched Wirrn into a shuttle craft and blast them into space.

THE ARK IN SPACE's body horror is played out in Roger Murray-Leach's brightly lit, clinical sets, and its claustrophobia and trails of green slime couldn't have been further from the atmosphere of the previous serial, ROBOT. Noah (Kenton Moore)'s unnerving cell-by-cell mutation into an insectoid not only recalls the fate of Carroon in THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT, but provides a bridging point for body-destruction explored in major motion pictures such as ALIEN and THE THING (the shuttle craft finale also provides a nod to Ridley Scott's film). The Wirrn grubs and flesh of Noah's transforming hand were constructed primarily from then new bubble-wrap packaging and sprayed green, and to further illustrate the show's queasy hue, the opening titles to Part One were green-tinted as an experiment but consequently dropped.

THE MASQUE OF MANDRAGORA is one of the most literate of all DOCTOR WHO's; not only is Mandragora the latin for the plant Mandrake, which in folklore is said to have magical qualities, the serial has also been equated to Hamlet's discussions on the supernatural.

The Fourteenth Season of DOCTOR WHO opened with two stories that also explored the Hinchcliffe/Holmes brand of control. THE MASQUE OF MANDRAGORA is a sumptuous costume drama set during Renaissance Italy (which was actually filmed in Portmeirion). The TARDIS lands unwittingly carrying Mandragora energy, that possesses an underground cult - the outlawed Brotherhood of Demnos - intent on dragging the world back to the Dark Ages. Portmeirion's locations fit in perfectly for 15th century Italy, as the architect for the Welsh village - Sir Clough Williams-Ellis - was inspired by the Italian harbour town of Portofino. This mixture of history and black magic come to life in Louis Marks' intelligent scripts, using the Madragora Helix to symbolise superstition that would be negated by science ("the dawn of a new reason"), and Barry Newbery's design for the wood-panelled console room is a thing of beauty.

THE HAND OF FEAR is set on contemporary Earth, and sees Sarah Jane possessed by the fossilised hand of Kastrian Eldrad (Judith Paris/Stephen Thorne), a criminal who was destroyed in space as punishment for attempting to wipe out his own race. Sarah Jane hijacks a nuclear reactor where radiation recreates the creature; regenerated, Eldrad persuades The Doctor to take him back to Kastria, but the planet has been destroyed by King Rokon (Roy Skelton) in case Eldrad should ever return. At its conclusion, The Doctor receives a summons from the Time Lords, forcing him to leave Sarah on Earth; this action would result in the ground-breaking THE DEADLY ASSASSIN.

Judith Paris as the reconstituted Eldrad in THE HAND OF FEAR.

Disembodied hands have a long tradition in pop culture. Amicus in particular enjoyed the malevolent severed organ, and here the impressively realised digit is brought to life by Steve Drewett and CSO. But this is a serial for the women; in her female form Eldrad presents a ruthless beauty, and Sladen is threatening while under the influence, then feistily accepting in her farewell scene. In fact, THE HAND OF FEAR is the perfect story to showcase the most popular of the Time Lord's assistants. Sladen appeared in eighty episodes between 1973 and 1976, and through subsequent audio dramas, reboot appearances and spin-offs, new generations could also fall in love with her grounded yet infectious charm. Sladen's swift death from pancreatic cancer in April 2011 left the Whovian community in shock, and BBC Four fittingly showed THE HAND OF FEAR as a tribute to Sladen's timeless appeal.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

"It's a Creepy Business, Darling"

WORST FEARS (2016)
HORROR ICON (2016)

The Nucleus DVD of WORST FEARS not only tidies up the anthology, but also completes the mockumentary HORROR ICON.

THIS direct-to-DVD portmanteau collects seven shorts - all but one written by David McGillivray - and surrounds them with new framing footage by Jake West featuring The Storyteller (McGillivray himself). The tales, made between 2004 and 2011, are kept fresh by their different locations - filmed in Marrakech, Lisbon, Nice and London - and underpinned by a typically home-grown seediness and array of familiar faces. This Nucleus Films version is the second attempt at a WORST FEARS splicing, the first - a "horror hostess" cut with news presenter Juliette Foster in the role - premiered at the Electric Picture Palace, Suffolk, in 2007, and was instantly disowned by McGillivray's director Keith Claxton. In this revamp, McGillivray seems at home in the re-shot linkage, his camp façade wryly adding gravitas to the tales to come.

Tincture of Vervain stars "Her Ladyship" Fenella Fielding, disappointed with a provincial group of elderly witches ("I thought you'd like a bickie"); Wednesday has an Eastern European cleaner falling into the clutches of Anna Wing and Victor Spinetti; In the Place of the Dead sees a Djinn literally devouring a disastrous marriage; Mrs Davenport's Throat mixes airport arrivals with Herschell Gordon Lewis; Child Number Four is a creepy child yarn based on Gavin Smith's The Scarecrow; After Image tells of a photographer learning his true fate; and the secret of a strange apartment is revealed in We're Ready for You Now

Are you prepared to face your worst fears? David McGillivray - described by Starburst as "a bit of a legend" - is The Storyteller.

Known for his self-deprecating sense of humour, McGillivrey refers to himself as a "prolific writer, mostly of hack journalism, but also lowbrow films, plays, and radio and television programmes" who "is becoming increasingly unreliable, grouchy and difficult to work with.” Originally a critic for Monthly Film Bulletin, his life-long involvement in theatre was a gift when making the shorts contained here, enabling him to have a list of contacts long enough to fill gaps when they inevitably appeared (especially as no one was paid. The Scarecrow in Child Number Four, amazingly, was even played by passing acquaintance David Brett, of Flying Pickets fame).

The DVD also includes HORROR ICON, which started life in 2007. Now completed and edited by West, this faux documentary attempts to track down the elusive figure of David McGillivray, a long-standing shadow over the heady days of 70's British horror and softcore. Interviewees either refuse to talk about McGillivray or are uniform in their distain, charting a parallel universe that implicates the writer and producer in Columbian drug smuggling. This one-note joke wears thin even though the piece is only thirty minutes long, but it is fun to see Norman J. Warren diss McGillivray, and hear
Pete Walker instantly put the phone down on just the utterance of the name of his partner-in-crime.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Spearhead into the 70's

DOCTOR WHO - SPEARHEAD FROM SPACE (1970)

Autons attack!; their featureless facades a metaphor for characterless, mass-production. Fragments of the plastic-hungry Nestene Intelligence, the Autons brake out of a shop window and fire their wrist guns down a mundane British high street.

AFTER the optimism of the 1960's, Britain in the 1970's is most remembered for its economic disorder, power cuts, IRA bombings and riots. Post-war affluence was indeed fading, though David Bowie's dictum "one isn't totally what one has been conditioned to think one is" also illustrates a period of individualism and complexity. As late as 1971, women were banned from going into Wimpy Bars on their own after midnight on the grounds that the only females out on their own at that hour must be prostitutes; yet only eight years after that rule was lifted, Margaret Thatcher was in Downing Street. Despite all this eclectic nonsense, it was great decade to be a kid: hours pouring over Figurini Panini football stickers and STAR WARS bubble-gum cards, space hoppers, BAGPUSS, View-Masters and Cadbury Curly Wurly.

One of the highlights about growing up in the 70's was experiencing DOCTOR WHO's most vibrant era. Jon Pertwee's initial adventure - SPEARHEAD FROM SPACE - burst onto the screen in colour, arguably the first serial to go for the viewer's jugular. Even though Pertwee was known as a comedy actor, he portrayed the Time Lord as a technology-orientated man of action, who was also keen on "moments of charm." The serial would also signify the plagiarism to come (here, more than shades of Nigel Kneale's QUATERMASS II), but this four-parter did introduce the Autons and a new gritty feel; even UNIT, at the start of their long integration, had blood on one of their cracked windscreens. SPEARHEAD FROM SPACE begins with the TARDIS arriving on Earth in the middle of a meteorite shower, actually hollow globes containing the Nestene Consciousness. This disembodied alien has an affinity for synthetics, and agent Channing (Hugh Burden) has infiltrated the plastics factory to form mannequin-like replicas of establishment figures with the aim of colonisation.

Scientists-in-arms: Jon Pertwee and Caroline John.

The dawn of the 70's not only stifled a hopeful future, equality of the sexes was still a brooding issue. The self-titled Second Wave Feminists fought their corner in a Britain that was renowned for its CARRY ON view of women, and this anger spilled over at the 1970 Miss World contest at the Albert Hall. After compare Bob Hope fuelled the flames by making a number of crass comments ("I'm very happy to be here at this cattle market tonight"), he was bombarded with flour and stink bombs. Newsletters and publications such as Shrew, Spare Rib and Women's Report gathered a momentum of ideas, which developed the theoretical differences between socialistic feminism and the more radical format; as the decade developed, the liberation movement was addressing sexual stereotyping in education. 

With the Time Lord exiled on a near-contemporary Earth, DOCTOR WHO introduced a new female companion; but rather than the screaming, threatened norm, Liz Shaw (Caroline John) was a disciplined scientist and meteor specialist. Shaw could understand the Doctor more on a level footing, but producer Barry Letts decided that she was too intellectual to provide a dramatic balance. Lasting only a handful of serials, Shaw was either too far ahead of the time, or a character who writers struggled to fully relate to. Consequent feministic traits were very haphazard in 70's DOCTOR WHO: sassy, independent reporter Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) regressed to rescue fodder; leather-clad Leela (Louise Jameson)'s usual reflexes were to kill; and we had to wait for the first incarnation of Time Lady Romana (Mary Tamm) for the Doctor to have any scientific sparring partner again.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

"A Living Hell That Time Forgot!"

THE LOST CONTINENT (1968)

Actress/singer/songwriter Dana Gillespie - playing Sarah - makes the biggest impression, thanks to her 44-26-37 assets. Gillespie had previously appeared in the striptease exploiter SECRETS OF A WINDMILL GIRL and Hammer's THE VENGEANCE OF SHE.  

AFTER Michael Carreras hastily made PREHISTORIC WOMEN in the wake of ONE MILLION YEARS B.C.'s worldwide success, he would also be responsible for this Hammer fantasy loosely based on Dennis Wheatley's 1938 novel Uncharted Seas. On his rusty tramp streamer Corita, Captain Lansen (Eric Porter) has a cargo of illegal explosives (ten tonnes of water-sensitive Phosphor B) and an array of motley passengers (including a deported ex-mistress of a Third World president (Hildegard Knef), a blackmailer (Benito Carruthers), an alcoholic pianist (Tony Beckley) and an exiled abortionist (Nigel Stock)). When the ship becomes stranded on the floating swamp of the Sargasso Sea, the travellers must face such terrors as man-eating seaweed and a stranded Spanish galleon complete with Grand Inquisitor (Eddie Powell) and boy king "El Supremo" (Daryl Read).

Featuring imaginative sets and water tanks specially constructed at Elstree, THE LOST CONTINENT is a fun but convoluted picture which drowns under its own hyperbole ("SEE BLOOD-BEASTS battling over female flesh! TORTURE PITS for forbidden lovers! SACRIFICE to giant jaw-snapping molluscs! HELPLESS BEAUTIES attacked by crazed-kelp-monsters!"). It's really three films in one, a "ship of fools" tale, an adventure yarn, and an unintentional monster movie parody that relishes its kaiju-like creatures and cleavage. Originally released in America shortened by eight minutes, this truncated version actually replaced the longer cut in British circulation; DVD releases have restored this largely inconsequential footage, but there is one delirious scene where resident blonde Unity (Suzanna Leigh) is called a "hellcat" and almost punched during sex.

Gillespie's extensive musical output has encompassed pop, folk, rock and latterly blues. After performing backing vocals on 'It Ain't Easy' from David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust, she recorded an album produced by Bowie and Mick Ronson in 1973, Weren't Born a Man.

The Lost World subgenre is a popular staple of pulp novels and cinematic spectacle. H.Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines and the Hollow Earth work Symzonia; A Voyage of Discovery are often considered its printed paper springboard, exploring strange environments typically un-European. But THE LOST CONTINENT was a box office failure, released between Lost World picture peaks such as MYSTERIOUS ISLAND and the affection given to the Amicus/Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptations of the 1970's. Indeed, 1968 was a sobering year for fantastic cinema, a time with little regard for such a dynamic but ultimately empty release.

Monday, August 1, 2016

"We Must Adjust the Truth"

DOCTOR WHO - THE DEADLY ASSASSIN (1976)
DOCTOR WHO - THE ROBOTS OF DEATH (1977)

"Only hate keeps me alive"; opera singer/actor Peter Pratt brings a resonant voice to the black-shrouded, decomposing Master in THE DEADLY ASSASSIN.

GOTHIC as entertainment is usually traced back to Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764), a novel which kick-started a darker supernatural genre that lived amongst decaying settlements and subterranean crypts. Oscillating between romantic sub-plots and conventional reality, Gothic fiction places heavy emphasis on atmosphere and loss of humanity/identity; women are often cast in distress but typically portrayed as the heroine of the piece, while men struggle with a Jekyll and Hyde-type duality. When Philip Hinchcliffe (producer) and Robert Holmes (script editor) took over DOCTOR WHO in the mid-70's, there was a seismic shift away from what Holmes described as "straightforward, dull, children's stories." In the seasons that followed, the Time Lord would experience more oppressive environments and explorations not just of hauntings and possessions, but also early trappings which would latterly be known as body horror. These tales also effected the Doctor himself, changing from the adventurous dandy of Jon Pertwee to Tom Baker, an actor who embraced the outsider at odds with himself and the galaxy.

Holmes' scripts for THE DEADLY ASSASSIN take on board Richard Condon's bleak brainwashing political novel The Manchurian Candidate. The Doctor (Baker) is accused of the assassination of the Time Lord President, but it is in fact a plot by a dying Master (Peter Pratt). Having used all twelve of his regenerations, the Master aims to control the hierarchy so he can obtain the Sash and Rod of Rassilon, which act as keys to the Eye of Harmony, the source of all the Time Lord's power. When the Doctor links his mind into the virtual reality of Matrix (pretty novel for 1976) - which has accumulated the wisdom of his race - he wins a struggle with a hooded opponent revealed to be Chancellor Goth (Bernard Horsfall), who has been used as a pawn. The Master has now gained access to the Eye of Harmony and aims to give new life to his decaying, putrid husk of a body; but in a climactic fight with the Doctor, the Master falls into a crumbling Citadel chasm...

ROBOTS OF DEATH was fittingly chosen to represent the era of the Fourth Doctor at the BFI's 50th anniversary celebration of the show.

THE DEADLY ASSASSIN provides a number of firsts for Who lore: a regeneration number set at twelve; the absence of a companion for the Doctor; the portrayal of a layered society of ranks and chapters (very different from the glimpses seen in THE WAR GAMES and THE THREE DOCTORS); and trivia such as the TARDIS listed as a Type 40 capsule. But for many this spoilt the mystery of the Time Lord back-story, revealing Gallifrey as a planet akin to the doddering House of Lords, or a crusty Oxbridge society (one Time Lord even complains about hearing and hip problems). But within the Matrix the adventure is an irresistible, surreal experience, giving the show its most notorious and sadistically violent moment: the drowning of the Doctor at the hands of Goth as a cliff-hanger to episode three. Providing such a lingering, powerful image for children to mull over for a week was too much for the National Viewers and Listeners Association linchpin Mary Whitehouse, and the scene was shortened for repeats.

Written by Chris Boucher, THE ROBOTS OF DEATH is another tale of duality and deception ("nothing is inexplicable, only unexplained"). Mixing Dune and Ten Little Indians as well as inverting Asimov's First Law of Robots, the TARDIS materialises on a sandminer combing an alien world for minerals. The massive vehicle is run by a small human crew aided by three classes of robots (Dums, Vocs and a Super Voc), and the Doctor (Baker) and Leela (Louise Jameson) come under suspicion when the crew are killed by an unseen assailant. With the aid of undercover agents Poul (David Collings) and robot associate D84 (Gregory de Polnay), the real culprit is revealed as Dask (David Bailie), a scientist raised by robots who has been reprogramming the automatons to murder and to consequently form a superior order ("I see; you're one of those boring maniacs who's going to gloat, hmm? You going to tell me your plan for running the Universe?").

Social activist Mary Whitehouse CBE frequently singled out mid-70's DOCTOR WHO as particularly damaging to young minds. Yet the celebrated "fear factor" and "hiding behind the sofa" mainstays of the programme acted as a liberating and engaging emotion for viewers, who always had the reassurance of the Doctor to guide them through.

Developed under the titles PLANET OF THE ROBOTS and THE STORM-MINE MURDERS, the programme raises above its "people killed off in an enclosed environment" foundation by adopting a highly distinctive art deco production design, a tight script, earnest performances, and effective, lethal robots. Of all the influences listed for Ridley Scott's ALIEN over the years - from the B-movie theatrics of IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE to the otherworldliness of Mario Bava's PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES - don't forget that Boucher's serial has a claustrophobic mining setting and an undercover robot.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Into the Wilderness

CREATURES THE WORLD FORGOT (1971)

In April 1970, a Hammer-Columbia campaign was launched to find the "Screen's New Sex Symbol of the 70's" who would be offered the starring role in CREATURES THE WORLD FORGOT. Au pair, Penthouse pet and former Miss Norway Julie Ege was picked from over 2,000 replies; this is one of many publicity photos that attempted to make Ege the new Raquel Welch, a promotion in contrast to Michael Carreras' intention for a more historically accurate film.

AS exciting as watching cave paint dry, Don Chaffey's CREATURES THE WORLD FORGOT was thankfully the last of Hammer's jaunts through prehistory. After a volcanic eruption kills many members of The Dark Tribe, Mak (Brian O'Shaughnessy) leads the survivors across a desert in search of a new home. They befriend a tribe of fair-haired people, the leader of which presents Mak with Noo (Sue Wilson), who gives birth to twin boys on the same day another woman delivers a mute girl (Marcia Fox), who an old witch (Rosalie Crutchley) adopts as her apprentice. Resentment escalates between the twins Rool (Robert John) and Toomak (Tony Bonner) when - after defeating a marauding tribe - Mak names Toomak as his successor and takes the defeated chief's daughter Nala (Julie Ege in an overwrought dark wig) as his wife. Even though Toomak saves his brother and his men from a forest tribe, Rool abducts and stakes Nala to a cliff-top pyre; Toomak saves Nala whilst the mute girl stabs an effigy of Rool, sending him falling to his death.

Shot in South West Africa, CREATURES THE WORLD FORGOT was another of freelance writer/producer Michael Carreras' attempts to lure Hammer away from their gothic underpinning. Unable to secure the budgets for his extravagant fantasies, the studio's fourth cave girl picture also excluded any cumbersome stop-motion dinosaurs that had delayed ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. and WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH. But the studio also felt the picture could genuinely do without them anyway, punting the production into the then vogue of nihilistic, allegorical fantasies such as if... and 2001. For the late 60's/early 70's cinemagoer, there seemed no room for family-friendly adventures, typified by the box office failure of Ray Harryhausen's dino-cowboy epic THE VALLEY OF GWANGI; as the stop-motion master has noted, "a naked dinosaur just wasn't outrageous enough."

Julie Ege was far from happy with the long shoots in the Namib desert. Homesick and away from a newborn child, the actress also disliked her dark wig and cut-price bikini.

Before even a distribution deal or script was in place, Hammer commissioned Tom Chantrell to produce three concept posters, one of which even pitched a modern setting with jet fighters. Another outlandish concept came from Jeremy Burnham, who envisioned a subterranean world of murderous bat people, a story which was dismissed for the project but assigned another of Hammer's "posters", WHEN THE EARTH CRACKED OPEN. What eventually transpires is a gruntfest which fails to elaborate on its only interesting concept, that of the primeval mysticism and relationship between the characters played by Fox and Crutchley (and for creatures we are limited to an oryx, wildebeest and python).

CREATURES THE WORLD FORGOT acts as both a limp finale for Hammer's prehistoric filmography and the non-start of Ege as an international starlet. Aside from the studio's publicity fanfare, in reality it was the press coverage the Norwegian gained from her largely naked role in Marty Feldman's EVERY HOME SHOULD HAVE ONE that swung the casting choice. Subsequently Ege appeared in a handful of "last gasp" horror and sex pictures and retired from the industry soon after Derren Nesbitt's bawdy THE AMOROUS MILKMAN; working largely in the Oslo public health sector after training as a nurse, she succumbed to breast cancer in 2008.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Strangers on a Train

HOWL (2015)

Similar to DOG SOLDIERS, HOWL benefits from a
contemporary setting and practical creature FX.

PAUL Hyett - more famous his special makeups for THE DESCENT and EDEN LAKE - directs this low budget but polished horror which pits hybrid werewolves against occupants of a stranded late night train (much better than snakes on a plane). London guard Joe (Ed Speelers), unsuccessful for a promotion, and trolley hostess Ellen (Holly Western), are working on the last Alpha Trax out of the capital. The passengers are a motley selection, which includes high-flying alpha male Adrian (Elliot Cowan), professional single mother Kate (Shauna Macdonald), annoying adolescent Nina (Rosie Day), football yob Paul (Calvin Dean) and an elderly couple (Ged (Duncan Preston) and Jenny (Ania Marson)). When the carriages hit a deer and the driver (Sean Pertwee) goes to investigate but never returns, Joe must rise up and protect the commuters from a menace attacking out of the dense forest.

HOWL is widely regarded as the best werewolf picture since AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON. Whereas Universal stumbled with their retro-fitted 2010 reboot THE WOLFMAN, Hyett's film doesn't suffer from the American picture's insistence with their outdated monster design: here, the lean and refreshingly non-hairy werewolves are portrayed more like mutations, impressively vicious and sleek when moving in on their prey. On the human side, the characters are stereotypes but well written and played, and in the best horror film tradition not always interacting successfully as the tensions mount. Consequently, HOWL follows in the tradition of the John Wyndham short story Confidence Trick, where an underground train journey to hell explores the effects of belief on the part of the travellers.

Widespread in European folklore, the werewolf concept chiefly developed during the Middle Ages.

Britain has several outlandish "real" werewolf stories. One of the most famous emanates from Cannock Chase in Staffordshire, where there have been sightings since a notorious incident in 1975: a boy claimed to have promised his soul to the devil through a Ouija board, gaining power to transform into a wolf (then stabbed himself to death). Another colourful tale originates from 1920's Lincolnshire, when a local archaeologist discovered a human skeleton with a wolf's head; after he took his find home, his house was besieged by a werewolf. The Buxton, Derbyshire werewolf is more abstract, as it is unclear whether the creature is a physical entity or a supernatural beast (the nearby village of Wormhill claims to be the location where the last wolf in England was killed in the sixteenth century). And on a broader scale, the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides allegedly once hosted an entire colony of wolf men.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Asylum of Horrors

TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS (1973)

"Does anyone here love me?" Joan Collins in Mel, where her husband's attentions shift to a tree which he sculpts into the female form.

OFTEN mistaken for an Amicus portmanteau, possibly because of the contemporary setting, this Freddie Francis-helmed anthology was actually made by World Film Services. TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS was inspired by Amicus' ASYLUM released the previous year, not least because of its mental patient setting, but also by its general outlandishness. Psychiatrist Dr Tremayne (Donald Pleasence) relates four cases to Dr Nicholas (Jack Hawkins, dubbed by Charles Grey): in Mr Tiger, introverted boy Paul (Russell Lewis) confides with an "imaginary" tiger against a backdrop of warring parents; an inherited Penny Farthing causes trouble for antique dealer Timothy (Peter McEnery) and girlfriend Ann (Suzy Kendall); Mel is a piece of tree art that starts frictions between husband and wife Brian (Michael Jayston) and Bella (Joan Collins); and Luau tells of human sacrifice involving literary agent Auriol (Kim Novak) and her daughter Ginny (Mary Tamm), where the latter is consumed to appease an Hawaiian god.

Based on short stories by actress Jennifer Jayne (credited here as Jay Fairbank) - who played Donald Sutherland's vampire bride in DR TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS - TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS is as literal and silly as most of the Amicus product, but elevated to watchable status by its cast (save for Novak who broke a four year hiatus to overplay her highly unlikable character after replacing Rita Hayworth). Jayston and Collins are particularly in tune to their slice of camp nonsense, Bella understandably annoyed not just because of her husbands wandering eye, but also because Mel - the name carved into its trunk - is damaging her cream shag pile carpet. If there is any overall underlying trend, it is a festering resentment with domesticity and the routine of married/working life.

In what is potentially the most interesting tale, Suzy Kendall encounters a haunted portrait and a time-distorting Penny Farthing.

Similar to the unevenness inherent in comedy sketch shows, the anthology subgenre is noted for its varied quality. As Mark Gatiss stated in BBC4's A HISTORY OF HORROR, it is fun to piece together your favourite portmanteau stories into a single outing; Mel could provide the icing on the cake to the wackiest, perhaps together with the reptile sequence from SECRETS OF SEX, the vampire film producer storyline from THE MONSTER CLUB, and the killer piano from TORTURE GARDEN. Yet the origins of the multi-tale film are held in much higher esteem, taking a cue from the episodic structure of Gothic novels The Monk and Melmoth the Wanderer (1876 and 1878 respectively). In fact, it was German silent cinema which first embraced the notion with Richard Oswald's EERIE TALES, Fritz Lang's DESTINY and Paul Leni's WAXWORKS. DESTINY, in particular, opens up The Grim Reaper as a leading character, omnipresent force and deadly puppet master.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Home of the Anti-hero

FUTURE SHOCK! THE STORY OF 2000AD (2015)

Pat Mills' 'Flesh' strip typified 2000AD's vicious streak. Exploring similar man-dominating-nature themes to his 'Hook Jaw' in Action, cowboys from the future farm dinosaurs for their meat. Its "dinosaurs eating people" vein tapped into the comics' mantra of giving the readers what they wanted.

ALTHOUGH IPC began 2000AD in the slipstream of STAR WARS, the comic would be in a galaxy far, far away from George Lucas' straight-laced space adventure. Here was a publication that prided itself in the unruly Britain of the late seventies, with an anti-authoritarian swagger and violence to spare. It spawned a parade of legendary writers and artists (termed a "brotherhood" here by Dave Gibbons), and forged life-long friendships and eternal arguments. Directed by Paul Goodwin, this documentary charts the rise and near-fall of British comics' saviour, from its heady beginnings during the cultural clashes of the punk ethic and the silver jubilee, to surviving the 1990's with its attempted 'Lads Mag' rebranding and strips on a cyborg Tony Blair, then onto its lasting legacy of the "destroyed future."

With such a broad canvas to cover FUTURE SHOCK! can only hint at the horror stories behind the scenes, and for far more comprehensive coverage you should be directed to David Bishop's book Thrill-Power Overload: Thirty Years of 2000 AD. The quality of the "talking heads" differ wildly, and their effectiveness gets less interesting as the prog count flies by. Creator/first editor Pat Mills is in his element, providing numerous examples of what would later be termed a "Mills Bomb"; furthermore, Kevin O'Neill, John Wagner and Alan Grant are wonderfully wry, and Alan Moore is notable in his absence. At the other end of the spectrum Anthrax's Scott Ian tells us he once wrote a song about Judge Dredd, and Leah Moore just wants Daddy to finish Halo Jones for her.

Grant Morrison's Zenith debuted in 2000AD #535 (August 1987). This was a period of new stories and new talent for the comic, with Zenith being a spoilt Generation X'er who used his super powers not to fight evil but to promote a pop career.

When a documentary is so gushing in its own importance as this, it is far too easy to overreach. Apparently 2000AD has influenced virtually every science-fiction film since, from the obvious (ROBOCOP, HARDWARE, TIMECRIMES) to the tenuous-at best (BATMAN BEGINS, MAN OF STEEL). Alex Garland is the most thoughtful in this passage, making the point that the comic's influences on film is similar to the connection between Conrad's Heart of Darkness and APOCALYPSE NOW: the power of Coppola's Vietnam odyssey reaching out to a far greater audience. What is more measured is the publications link to the creation of DC's Vertigo imprint, the direct result of the much-discussed American headhunting of British graphic talent in the mid-80's.

But 2000AD did save the British comic book industry. Its subversive "gang of reprobates" washed its hands of the stagnant norm and carried on the mentality of the banned Action and fused its pages with black humour and sub textual weight (although Mills laments this forced "retreat" into science fiction). Away from its supposed cinematic wastelands, the comic's greatest lasting legacy indirectly links back to the culling of talent by DC; with its "Credit Cards," it was the first time a strip magazine acknowledged its creative talents. But by seeking this healthier working platform, artists and writers suddenly became brands in their own right, jumping ship to the US and creating an intellectual change that transformed the staid American market.

Friday, April 1, 2016

"Yes, I can hear you Clem Fandango"

TOAST OF LONDON (2012 - )

TOAST OF LONDON is the latest in a long-line of comedic triumphs for Matt Berry, following star turns in GARTH MARENGHI'S DARKPLACE, SNUFF BOX, THE IT CROWD and HOUSE OF FOOLS.

THIS deliciously bonkers Channel 4 sitcom, written by Arthur Mathews and Matt Berry, charts the misadventures of middle-aged actor Steven Toast (Berry). The London-based thespian with a streak of white hair spends most of his time dealing with personal issues away from stage and screen, a situation not helped by his self-absorbent agent Jane Plough (Doon Mackichan), who relentlessly provides him with disastrous roles. Plough also gives Toast voice-over assignments with Scramble Studios in Soho - mimicking Berry's own lucrative side career - where he locks horns with sound engineers Danny Bear (Tim Downie) and Clem Fandango (Shazad Latif). Other recurring characters are Ed Howzer-Black (Robert Bathurst), Toast's flat-mate and one true friend; Colonel Blair Toast (Adrian Lukis), Steven's eccentric army veteran older brother who lost his hand in the Falklands; Ray "Bloody" Purchase (Harry Peacock), a rival actor; and Mrs Purchase (Tracy Ann Oberman), Ray's prostitute wife who even he has paid to have sex with, a woman who has an off and on affair with Toast himself.

Utilising Berry's outstanding musical talent - 'Take My Hand' from his third album Witchazel acts both as a theme tune and a comment on Blair's predicament - TOAST OF LONDON is a masterful absurdist comedy that is branching out from its tough time-slots. Bedfordshire-born Berry is a true original, his rich baritone voice and stoic demeanour making him perfect for a character in fine tune with colonial Olde England. Grumpy and woman-obsessed, Toast is always to the point, disliking extra-safe condoms because their thickness doesn't necessitate the additional effort, and struggling to attract Hollywood roles because he once said that Minnie Driver had a big face. The second and third series (screened in 2014 and 2015 respectively) build on this surreal foundation, adding famous faces such as Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme and Jon Hamm to the mix. The third stint is particularly entertaining, where Toast is reacquainted with Purchase's albino twin brother Bill, we encounter Bob Monkhouse's zombie wife, and a production of Twelfth Night cast entirely of dogs.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Forest Has Claws

BY OUR SELVES (2015)

Director Andrew Kotting in Straw Bear costume that marks the Fenland start of the agricultural year. Graphic novelist Alan Moore guest stars in Kotting's on-foot road movie about John Clare; in fact, Moore gave us a highly anarchic version of the poet in his debut novel Voice of the Fire, in the chapter 'The Sun Looks Pale Upon the Wall, AD 1841.'

THE son of a farm labourer, John Clare (1793 - 1864) championed the English countryside and mourned its disturbances, his poetry also exploring heart-felt mental instability. After this idyllic rural childhood, Clare observed the Agricultural Revolution and the Enclosures act, which resulted in widespread uprooting and segregation of common land. Not only did he see destruction of his Olde England, but Clare was distressed of rural poverty as a mechanism for migration to towns and factories. Subsequently Clare's mental state worsened when struggling to support a wife and seven children, and he spent four years in Dr Matthew Allen's progressive private asylum at High Beach within Epping Forest. In his Man Booker prize-nominated The Quickening Maze about Clare, Adam Foulds paints the institution more of The Priory of its day for the Victorian London smart-set. Later Clare was committed to the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum (now St Andrew's Hospital) where he remained for the rest of his life; under the guidance of Dr Thomas Octavius Prichard - a pioneer for the humane treatment of the mentally ill - Clare wrote his most famous poem, I Am.

The idiosyncratic work of Andrew Kotting - a hybrid of Derek Jarman and David Lynch - increasingly has opened up the notion of when does a film become less a film but more an art instillation. From absurdist, experimental beginnings, Kotting's first feature GALLIVANT in 1996 was a travelogue following his grandmother and daughter Eden - who suffers from Joubert Syndrome - around the British coastline; his second THIS FILTHY EARTH showcases landscape in all its beautiful but brutal glory. Kotting's 2012 SWANDOWN followed the director and writer Iain Sinclair in a swan pedallo, highlighting his interest in eccentric journeys of identity and history. Simon Kovesi, head of English at Oxford Brookes University and editor of the John Clare Society Journal, describes Kotting's work as "anti-pastoral," and "revels in the sodden awkwardness of Englishness. For him our eastern culture is outside, is wet and deliquescing, fluid and yet grounded in thick sod."

Toby Jones as John Clare. The actor can now add the poet to his list of obsessive artists roles on screen and stage, which includes Truman Capote, Alfred Hitchcock and J.M.W. Turner. 

Inspired by Sinclair's Edge of the Orison, Kotting's BY OUR SELVES is a drama-documentary about Clare's eighty-mile, four-day walk from Epping Forest to Northampton in July 1841. Escaping from High Beach asylum, Clare's journey through hunger and madness has the goal of reaching his love Mary Joyce, who actually has died three years previously in a house fire. Young Clare is portrayed by a voiceless Toby Jones, whose father Freddie plays Old Clare as well as a narrator, often regurgitating lines from his performance as the poet from a 1970 OMNIBUS presentation (a female voiceover from the programme consistently taunts "Clare was a minor nature poet who went mad"). Along for this ethereal jaunt are Sinclair (often behind a goat mask), Kotting (always in Straw Bear garb), Kovesi (as a boxer) and magus Alan Moore, who not necessarily laments his confinement in Northampton and describes his birthplace as a cultural black hole ("nobody ever gets out unless they're sucked back in.")

Beautifully photographed by Nick Gordon Smith in black and white, Clare's Victorian route is punctured by the modern landscape (endless traffic, wind turbine blades, humming pylons), underpinning his famous line "I long for scenes where man hath never trod." The filmmaking process itself is also exposed, as the full-bearded soundman with his mop-head microphone always appears in shot. Actual characters and particularly females are kept at arms-length - musician MacGillivray is Joyce and Eden Kotting appears with the Straw Bear in home movie-style footage previously seen in the short THE SUN CAME DRIPPING A BUCKET FULL OF GOLD - as if Kotting's use of blurred film stocks with natural sound can only act as a conduit for Clare himself, forever encased in a past which infiltrates his space and verses.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

"How Shall I Show My Love?"

PLAY FOR TODAY - PENDA'S FEN (1974)

Interviewed in the Radio Times at the time of PENDA'S FEN's original broadcast, David Rudkin commented " ... it was conceived as a film and written visually. Some people think visual questions are none of the writer’s business - that he should provide the action and leave it to the director to picture it all out. For me, writing for the screen is a business of deciding not only what is to be shown but how it is to be seen ..."
 
BRITAIN is a land of foreboding subterranean terrors, isolated woodlands and remote islands. It is a country that, to a certain extent, still follows its ancient boundaries, pathways and quirky lore. Beneath the decomposing topsoil of British film, a richer, weirder substance pervades. It is a material of the past that permeates the present and future, mineral horizons darker in tone that exist within our celluloid. If the moving image itself is the greatest ghost story, this secret property teems with a surreal catalogue of customs and practices, and an engaging alternative to urbanisation. In this semi-forgotten Albion, film has seen human nature fighting its demons in WITCHFINDER GENERAL and BLOOD ON SATAN'S CLAW; Ben Wheatley's phantasmagorical nightmares KILL LIST and A FIELD IN ENGLAND; and old religions explored in THE WICKER MAN and THE BORDERLANDS.

Written by David Rudkin and directed by Alan Clarke on the writer's insistence, the BBC's PLAY FOR TODAY showcase PENDA'S FEN is a major example of this exponent for television, and a ninety minute sermon on identification. During his last boyhood summer Stephen (Spencer Banks) awakens a buried force against the backdrop of the Malvern Hills. His sexual, mystical and political growing pains are played out against a past and present England, where he encounters angels, demons, Edward Elgar and King Penda ("Be secret. Child be strange, dark, true, impure, and dissonant. Cherish our flame.") His confusion is further heightened by his pastor father's doubts of orthodox Christianity, and the revelation that his is adopted "with foreign blood."
 
"Unnatural"; in a constant flux between adolescene and anguish, at the height of a homosexual yearning Stephen awakes in his bed to find a gargoyle perched over him.

Under a minimal sound design from the Radiophonic Workshop, the play mirrors the elemental struggle between pagan values and the modern "machine." Clarke himself has admitted that he didn't fully understand its meaning (Stephen's "waking dream" of a man cutting off the hands of willing children is particularly perplexing), but Banks portrays a character as pompous as much of the dialogue. Its focus on myth sits out-of-place with Clarke's usual social realism, and in Rob Young's 2010 book Electric Eden, the author labels PENDA'S FEN as a psycho-geographical toolkit: " ... the occult history of Albion – the British Dreamtime – lies waiting to be discovered by anyone with the right mental equipment." It would be hard to see Rudkin's pastoral hybrid commissioned today; in fact, its slow-burning theories and ideas must have been a test even for seventies audiences.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Primal Disorder

QUATERMASS (1979)
THE QUATERMASS CONCLUSION (1979)

Sir John Mills is the fragile face of dystopian Britain in ITV's QUATERMASS serial, here making the cover of Time Out. Mills' performance has largely been underappreciated over the years, but as Tim Lucas points out in his Video Watchdog review (#106, April 2004), the actor is "steeped in the irony of a visionary whose ideas have been perverted and abused by the less visionary corporations he served."

NIGEL Kneale's long awaited fourth Quatermass television serial - directed by Piers Haggard - finally arrived on ITV in 1979, four years after the BBC's option had expired. Suffering from a long gestation period, and a fanfare that was quashed by a technicians strike which delayed the broadcast, QUATERMASS is doom-laden and lethargic. In a decaying near future, an elderly Professor Quatermass (a stoic John Mills, persuaded into the role by his wife) longs to be reunited with his runaway granddaughter. During a joint United States/Soviet space venture, the hardware is struck by an unearthly beam of light; it soon transpires that this ray is also striking ancestral gathering points around the globe - including stone circles and Wembley Stadium - and harvesting the Planet People, disillusioned youth of Earth who long for their misguided paradise in the stars. With the help of a radio telescope centre barely run by Joe Kapp (Simon MacCorkindale), and latterly a group of Pensioners, the rocket scientist succeeds in repelling the alien intrusion, but only at the cost of his and his granddaughter's life (thanks to a big nuclear "red button.")

Originally written in 1973, Kneale's exploration of youth alienation and the space race were relevant, but by 1979 are too distant topics to act as a successful hook. Kneale's often prophetic reading of society is limited to the Planet People being forerunners to New Age travellers, yet the writer had intended them to be proto-punks. In fact, QUATERMASS is more a wearying of life story, where youth and the elderly are warring species (and complete with internal frictions; even the usually sedate Planet People have their Kickalong (Ralph Arliss), apparently modelled on Charles Manson). The writer was usually lukewarm at best about the performers of his work, here labelling Mills as not having the authority of Quatermass, and questioned the casting of MacCorkindale as a rational and intelligent man; he also dismisses Barbara Kellerman, who play's Kapp's wife Clare, for her bouts of smiling. But Kneale himself must shoulder a great portion of the blame for a story that never permeates past its core idea.

Ashen-faced Simon MacCorkindale, Barbara Kellerman and John Mills in the TV Times listing of the second episode 'Lovely Lightning' (31st October 1979).

Haggard, who had provided a blueprint for folk horror with BLOOD ON SATAN'S CLAW, firmly places the Planet People within their spiritual, sexual landscape, but this is no longer a world for myth and legend, only one that reflects a Nazi concentration camp iconography: once harvested, ashes hang thick in the air and powdered flesh and bone seep into the earth (and to further a quasi-Third Reich agenda, in a dirty, makeshift London marketplace, books are on offer only because they can "burn well.") Unfortunately the director provides everything too flat for its own good, undermining what should have been the showpiece sequence of the Wembley stadium incarcerations, which is only memorable for Quatermass' dialogue on the sky ("the colour of vomit.") 

This relentless sombre atmosphere inevitably created a muted Press reaction, describing QUATERMASS as "pedestrian," "capable humdrum" and even "mumbo-jumbo." This was particularly galling for the amount of money and extensive location filming invested in it; made on 35mm Panavision stock by the Euston Films umbrella of Thames, a lucrative £1.25m budget was made available for the four-part programme and a re-edited, 106-minute theatrical version for overseas (entitled THE QUATERMASS CONCLUSION). This truncated cut basically sliced in half the first, second and fourth episodes, with only brief sequences used from episode three, where Quatermass is saved and befriended by the underground OAPs. However, in the post-STAR WARS world there was little room for downbeat cinema science fiction, and the film version made only sporadic appearances across North American, and the intended UK dates never transpired.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Sadist and Surgeon

HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM (1959)
CIRCUS OF HORRORS (1960)
KONGA (1961)

Together with PEEPING TOM, HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM and CIRCUS OF HORRORS complete Anglo Amalgamated's Sadian Trilogy. Here are the celebrated dispatches of Dorinda Stevens from the former, and Vanda Hudson from the latter.

WITH a background at Gainsborough, Arthur Crabtree turned to titillating gore with HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM, where cigar-smoking true crime writer Edmond Bancroft (Michael Gough) has a private shrine of torture devices. Bancroft provides gravitas to his work by instigating a number of ghastly murders, most of which are carried out by his young protégé Rick (Graham Curnow) after the injection of a drug that turns Rick green. Bancroft moulds the youngster in his own image, telling him that females are "...all a vicious, unreliable breed" in the hope of putting him off Angela (Shirley Anne Field), giving fatherly advice ("Someday you will go deep into the black soul of man, deeper than anyone else has gone, and you will remember it was I who sent you on that journey") and subsequently securing the Black Museum as their dirty little secret. Under the garish hues of 1950's Eastmancolor, the set pieces are too flat to be effective: Bancroft's doctor Ballan (Gerald Anderson) is disposed of in a flesh-removing vat, Gail (Dorinda Stevens) has her eyes punctured by concealed binocular skewers, and the writer's mistress Joan (June Cunningham) succumbs to a DIY guillotine.

In Sidney Hayers' CIRCUS OF HORRORS, disgraced plastic surgeon Dr Rossiter (cold as ice Anton Diffring) flees England and turns a makeshift French circus - run by drunk Vanet (Donald Pleasence) - into an international success. The performers are all criminals whose faces Rossiter has re-built, and if they get out of line "accidental" deaths are arranged. After a decade the surgeon risks bringing his famed troupe back to Blighty, but as the walls come down on his shenanigans, Rossiter survives a gorilla attack before being run over. Similar to the sadistic murders of BLACK MUSEUM, CIRCUS OF HORRORS illustrates a style of gaudy schlock that would come to the fore in British horrors of the 1970's (the most celebrated being Magda (Vanda Hudson)'s ECesque demise during a sabotaged knife-throwing act). Lambasted by the Catholic Legion of Decency for its "excessive brutality [and] suggestive costumes," Hayers' makes the most of a bevy of large-breasted beauties such as Yvonnes Monlaur and Romain; as the Catholic Legion suggests, its narrative is purely an excuse to murder females who wear revealing circus attire, and all the better for it.

Claire Gordon in the clutches of KONGA. Shot in the fictitious but grand sounding SpectraMation, the giant gorilla is a B-movie charmer.

Allegedly filmed as I WAS A TEENAGE GORILLA, John Lemont's KONGA is a preposterous man-in-a-monkey-suit horror, and a riot of abysmal miniatures and opticals. Gough basically reprises his overwrought performance as Bancroft from BLACK MUSEUM, complete with a hypnotised partner-in-crime; here he is crazed botanist Charles Decker ("in science, a human being is only a cypher"), who wills an enlarged ape to acts of violence. Presumed dead after crashing in the African jungle, Decker returns to London a year later with a rare form of plant life, plus a pet chimp named Konga. When extracts from the vegetation causes rapid growth the chimp grows to Gorilla size and the doctor uses him to murderous effect: the school Dean, a competitor and the boyfriend of the bustiest of his teenage students, Sandra (Claire Gordon), are all dispatched. Although Decker's assistant Margaret (Margo Johns) has kept his activities quiet in lieu of marriage, when she too discovers of her intended demise, she gives Konga an excessive dose of the super-serum. This results in Decker finding himself in the clutches of a now-gargantuan simian by Big Ben.

Hollywood low-rent mogel Herman Cohen co-produced and co-wrote both BLACK MUSEUM and KONGA. Famed for his queasy shock tactics and playing up to his target teen audience, there are seldom truly likable characters in any Cohen production; instead, inhabitants are usually borderline unhinged and sex-obsessed. Consequently Gough is the archetypal Cohen actor, more than at home with arrogant, lecherous over-achievers while barking out his sudden outlandish demands. With KONGA Gough is in tantrum heaven, at one point gunning down his cat after it drinks some of the formula ("We're not ready to have a cat the size of a leopard running through the streets!").

Friday, January 15, 2016

Poltergeist! (Part II of II)

THE ENFIELD HAUNTING (2015)

Janet Hodgson "takes flight." The real-life Enfield poltergeist increasingly veered into EXORCIST territory; Janet was pushed and pulled from her bed by an invisible entity, she uttered obscenities in a deep voice, and one witness claimed to see her levitate.
 
A decade on from the weirdness of Pontefract came Britain's most documented poltergeist case, involving two pubescent sisters in an Enfield council house between 1977 and 1979. The story attracted considerable press coverage and was championed by members of the Society for Psychical Research, inventor Maurice Grosse and freelance writer Guy Lyon Playfair. The Enfield haunting provided the major inspiration for the BBC's GHOSTWATCH - of which Playfair acted as an advisor - where writer Stephen Volk explored the human psyche of "what if [the audience's] need to see a ghost actually made it happen." GHOSTWATCH was never envisaged as a hoax, purely a scripted drama set within a live studio format, and its backlash has only increased its provocative influence; similar to the Orson Welles' War of the Worlds radio broadcast uproar, the public will always react vigorously when being so well duped. Grosse called GHOSTWATCH "well produced," but questioned the need for sensationalism when based on a real events.

Grosse himself was drawn to notions of the afterlife by personal tragedy, that of the death of his daughter Janet in a motorcycle accident in 1976. The investigator had originally studied commercial art and design before joining the artillery in World War II, and after finding his vocation with inventing he filed many mechanical-based patents, including rotating billboards which are now common place. For a grounded, non-theologian, Grosse always conducted his research with great courage, always reputing the alleged inaccuracies surrounding Enfield. His partner-in-crime Playfair was actually born in India and obtained a degree in modern languages from Cambridge University. Subsequently he spent many years in Brazil as a freelance journalist for The Economist, Time, and the Associated Press. His first book The Flying Cow describes his experiences with the psychic side of Brazil, and became an international best seller.

Ghostbusting, North London style: Matthew Macfadyen as Guy Lyon Playfair and Timothy Spall as Maurice Grosse.

Despite the demonic voices, knocking, flying items (cardboard boxes, lego, marbles) and a moving chair witnessed by a police constable, the Enfield poltergeist can too easily be labelled as a prank on behalf of the sisters in question. Janet's famous disembodied voice was achieved by manipulating thick folds of membrane above the larynx, commonly referred to as the false vocal chords, and in this guise she described the death of a former occupant that, according to Playfair, were subsequently confirmed. But poltergeist activity feeds less on the paranormal and more on traumatic, stressful family dynamics and puberty, especially among children who yearn for attention; the children's mother having divorced her husband and was left to bring up her four children with little money. To add to the upset, her husband often gave provided maintenance money with his new girlfriend in tow.

Sky Living's three-part THE ENFIELD HAUNTING - like WHEN THE LIGHTS WENT OUT - glorifies drab 70's interior decoration and retro paraphernalia (picture viewers and Bunty) within its supernatural husk. Although the show has its crowd-pleasing moments - Janet (Eleanor Worthington-Cox) in full Linda Blair mode and the jump scares - Danish director Kristoffer Nyholm and scriptwriter Joshua St Jonhston concentrate on the psychological over shock horror. THE ENFIELD HAUNTING poignantly explores the grief of losing a daughter between Grosse (Timothy Spall) and wife Betty (Juliet Stevenson) and its just as well, as after stripping away this veneer we are left with a uniformly excellent cast engulfed by strange phenomena and shifting narratives.

Thirteen-year old Eleanor Worthington-Cox - already an Olivier award-winning actress for the West End production of Matilda - as Janet.
 
In his Fortean Times #329 (July 2015) forum article 'The Enfield Poltergeist Show,' Playfair's only real satisfaction about Sky's dramatisation was that it helped shift several units of his 1980 book This House is Haunted of which the programme was derived. Guy questions why the most visual "real" instance was not used (Janet levitating and moving through a wall to reclaim a book which had mysteriously shifted address), and wonders why the scientific breakthroughs were ignored (in fact, the laryngograph recordings are clearly referenced in one albeit short moment). For the column, Playfair laments the phenomenon ("poltergeists continue to be treated as light entertainment") and states that the Enfield study "needs no fictional additions." We will have to wait until our journey to the other side for Grosse's evaluation of the programme, as he died in 2006.