Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Winter Chills - Part Four: Scream and Scream Again (1970)

I’ve been left on my own for five-and-a-half weeks...
What to do, what to do?  Well, for a start: I’m going to watch all those horror/fantasy/sci-fi films I’ve always been meaning to get to
… and write about them here!




From the sublime: last time's Cat People, to the ridiculous. I knew what to expect this time as I had seen it before when I was very young, with my favourite horror film fan: my Mum.
I think the violence disturbed me a little then, and to be honest, it still does. Many of the perpetrators are essentially synthetic which both nullifies the brutality a little - but also makes the acts even colder.

But lets not get too serious - this has Uncle Vinny, Sir Chris and The Cush all in the same Amicus film! That's got to be fun, right?
Well it might be if they shared more scenes. Lee really only pops in at the beginning, middle and end for some exposition, and Cushing is a mere cameo which appears to be a very early audition for Grand Moff Tarkin.
Needless to say, any bit of screen-time these gentlemen have is brilliant, but kudos must go to comedian Alfred Marks who crashes through the film as the most intentionally hilarious Bull-in-a-China-shop London Copper I've ever seen.

The main leads are the films' definite strengths - but the script seems to be three completely separate stories until they finally collide messily at the very end  - where various characters disappear into the same vat of acid.

Elsewhere, an endless chase involving what seems to be a superhuman Mick Jagger in a purple pirate shirt will test most people's patience, but now that I've written about this film I realise that I probably had a better time watching than it felt at the time.

I still can't decide what is the most disturbing thing about the random jogger, though: what happens to him in Price's hospital, or the length of his shorts and bewilderingly effeminate running style...

Winter Chills- Part Three: Cat People (1942)

I’ve been left on my own for five-and-a-half weeks...
What to do, what to do?  Well, for a start: I’m going to watch all those horror/fantasy/sci-fi films I’ve always been meaning to get to
… and write about them here!



Long before David Bowie was 'putting out the fire - with gasoliiiine', a man called Val Lewton was tasked with producing horror films for RKO pictures on literally a fraction of what studios like Universal were spending.

A sensitive intellectual, as Martin Scorsese says in his documentary on Lewton, he was "lacking the temperament for the film industry but had the perfect temperament for film". Lewton took a drop in income to take on this challenge and his first film for RKO became Cat People. Sady, I can still barely claim to have seen it because the quality of the You Tube upload I endured is awful. But despite the cropped picture and constantly dropping-out audio, I can see this is a masterpiece.

Like The Damned this is the second time in a week I've wished more films were still made in black and white - the photography is exquisite and the direction flawless.
It's for good reason that the two stand-out scenes: the infamous 'Lewton bus' (a far more sophisticated fore-runner to the modern 'jump scare'), and the night-time swimming pool stalking are mainstay clips in almost every documentary about horror cinema.

But it's the sequences I hadn't seen before which really got to me, including the wedding dinner in the Serbian restaurant where a mysterious cat-like woman stops conversation by fixing a terrified Irena with her gaze and addressing her as "my sister?".  
Well aware of his budget constraints, Lewton turns it to his advantage - everything is subtle shapes in the shadows, hints and implication. Even the beginnings of Irena's transformation are terrifying in their subtlety - her darkening face and hardening stare seen over Dr Judd's shoulder as she suddenly drops out of view and he screams.

From my far-from reliable research, this was the film which kicked off New Zealand's very long running Sunday Horrors, back in 1981, although I missed it then (it was probably passed my bedtime on a Sunday night).

I've also never seen the 1982 remake but don't doubt I'll be repulsed by its apparent reversal of everything which is merely suggested in this beautiful film. 
I don't just want to see this original version again - I want to own it, in 'pin-sharp crikey-vision'. This one's a keeper!

Monday, 4 June 2018

Winter Chills - Part Two: The Creeping Flesh (1973)

I’ve been left on my own for five-and-a-half weeks...
What to do, what to do?  Well, for a start: I’m going to watch all those horror/fantasy/sci-fi films I’ve always been meaning to get to
… and write about them here!




A Cushing and Lee team up which I hadn’t seen yet!  Neither Hammer nor Amicus, this is Tigon Production’s The Creeping Flesh.
And it almost does what it says on the tin. The giant inhuman skeleton Cushing brings back from New Guinea is not something any sane person would ever want in their house - and it’s much more terrifying than a Gremlin when it comes into contact with water.

Meanwhile Lee plays one of his most genuinely hate-able characters ever - and given his back catalogue that’s really saying something.
There’s a lot of genuinely good stuff here - particularly Freddie Jones’ direction - particularly in a very spooky sequence when the cloaked thing from New Guinea throws a huge Shadow across the house it is implacably approaching. 

The story elements of diagnosing evil as a pathogen, and the creepy ‘Elder gods’ vibe of the fossil’s origins are both fascinating, and either would flesh out (pun intended) a lesser film on their own. Unfortunately, this film doesn’t really capitalise on these strengths and spends far too much of it’s running time pursuing extras pursuing mentally-disturbed supporting characters through the town set.

Unfulfilled potential is always disappointing, but Cushing and Lee are as solidly dependable as ever here, in slightly different roles than we’re used to seeing them in. And we even get a brilliantly set up twist ending…


OK - if even he's scared it must be bad...



Sunday, 3 June 2018

Winter Chills - Part One: The Damned (1962)


I’ve been left on my own for five-and-a-half weeks...
What to do, what to do?  Well, for a start: I’m going to watch all those horror/fantasy/sci-fi films I’ve always been meaning to get to
… and write about them here!



 


The Damned (1962)

Definitely in the ‘what did I just watch?’ category.
A heady mix of Brighton Rock and Village of the Damned, flavoured with Kubrick and Orwell, with the result looking a little like a bleak Avengers episode (an oxymoron if there ever was one).

Whatever memorable elements this film contains - and any scene with Oliver Reed in it is always one of them - everything seems to have been secondary to the director Joseph Losey’s exacting vision.
And so, on his insistence,  the final script was rewritten two weeks before filming began and costs quickly spiralled out of control from there.  Helicopters, a spectacular crash into a river, costly reshoots...

The finished film is undoubtedly great to look at and disturbing to contemplate, but Hammer and Columbia were left with such a difficult-to-define mash-up that no-one knew how to market the finished product.  
The black and white photography makes me wish more films were still made this way, and I enjoyed the performances. It’s hard to know if Hammer were exploiting Reed or whether it was the other way around - as if he was always aware of his talent and simply using them to get his screen ‘flying hours’ up.

Few ever saw this film, but critics recognised that there was cinematic mastery somewhere beneath the surface.
A challenging watch which expects you to keep up as the tone and genre abruptly shifts gear several times, then back again. But also a film which might prove difficult to forget.  Special thanks to Zac and Bill who went to great lengths to procure this for me - well worth the effort!



Star Wars (1977)

The original , you might say. I bought the unspecial-ed version of this 1977 life-changer on disc many years ago, but was always shallowly drawn to the extra bells and whistles of the new release whenever I felt like a rewatch. This time I resisted and I’m so glad I did.

The 1977 version has a rawness and urgency about it, almost a desperation, which smoothed- over (and now hideously outdated) CGI effects only clash with. It’s fascinating to see actors and technicians sometimes working counter to Lucas’s aims (he certainly didn’t have the obsessive control then that he would have in later years) and creating something all the better for it.

I’m not ungrateful for all you’ve done, George, but this is my Star Wars. Han shoots (first) and scores!

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Tideland - Part Three: Setting up a mooring

This blog was never intended to be a diary, but a lot has happened recently...


Motupipi River at dusk - the view from our deck

Easter weekend has just passed and we’ve now been living in Golden Bay for over a month - the realisation of a very long term plan. We’re adapting to coastal life and ‘Takaka time’ pretty easily: the constant good weather and friendliness of the people we’ve met has certainly helped.

But actually getting here turned out to be anything but easy.

Our biggest fear at the time, that our three cats would find the move and relocation stressful and unhealthy, actually turned out to be pretty-much unfounded. In fact, it was ultimately one of the easiest issues we had to overcome.

Ed and Monty struggle to adapt to their new deck

The biggest obstacles were physical: the notoriously rough stretch of water separating New Zealand’s two main Islands, and the 791m mountain pass which is modestly referred to as the Takaka ‘Hill’. And the biggest stress was to become our inability to get over either of them.

In hindsight picking the same day to move as the arrival of a tropical cyclone seems like tempting fate to the absolute extreme, but these storms are by their nature very difficult to predict, and our complex plans involving flights, ferry crossings and vehicle hire had been put in place well in advance. 

Wharariki Beach: The 'poster girl' for New Zealand tourist calendars never disappoints

Never-the-less, I flew into Takaka airport in a light plane with three bewildered felines the night before Cyclone Gita arrived, just to play it safe. Arriving at the airstrip we were immediately welcomed with 'Bay' hospitality, and gifted a free hire car to get us to our new home. Regardless of what lay in store for us over the next couple of weeks, this local generosity has remained a constant.

Several hours later, while I huddled in a sleeping bag with restlessly prowling cats in the  corner of our empty new living room, Rose was driving our packed-to-bursting hire truck onto the 2.30am ferry.
If you think this division of labour seems unfair you’re probably right, but I cope with rough seas (and they were) about as well as Rose copes with rough flights and she had no wish to share the cats suffering either in the air on in the car, to and from airports. 

My idea of paradise - beaches for miles, and the sun just won't stop...

Our first mistake was probably to seriously underestimate the time needed to pack properly. Although we’d been stowing belongings in our garage for months, the week was a maelstrom of frantically shoving it all in and out of a truck, car and trailer, (gradually without the benefit of daylight, food or sleep), in mere hours when we should have allowed days. It became clear that moving from the North to South Islands was more like immigrating to another country than we could ever have suspected.

Rose arrived with the truck at around 11am on the rainy morning of February 20th - scant hours before the hill she had just crossed was devastated by Cyclone Gita. Over 20 slips were brought down onto the road, some of them washing whole sections of it away.

We were blissfully unaware of this at the time, our new neighbourhood somehow almost completely sheltered from the force of the storm. The first evidence that other areas hadn’t been so fortunate was a power-cut that afternoon. but in our ignorance, even this was treated lightly. Our first day back on the national grid in six years and we’re without power - that’s got to be funny, hasn’t it? 

Living history - the Langford store, serving the Bainham community since 1928

Our sense of humour was to serve us well over the next fortnight. The road closure meant that we couldn’t return an expensive hire truck for over a week, and after a near-evacuation, a cut-off Takaka began to suffer food shortages and petrol rationing. 

But worse still, our house purchasers defaulted on their settlement payment, leaving us to teeter on the brink of financial ruin as we struggled to afford the mortgage and insurance on two houses.
Without going into specifics, the compassion of the vendor of our new home pretty much saved our bacon, (which was definitely off the menu as we struggled to survive). 

The daily late fee our tardy house buyers tided us over when the whole horrible business was finally concluded, but was little consolation at the time. I could say more here, but am choosing to move on after a brief warning. House sellers beware: the integrity of a contract is only worth the integrity of the person who signs it with you.

Naturally we celebrated once the money finally came through. We’ve dined at the Mussel Inn, picnicked at Wharariki Beach and I’ve cycled everywhere from Collingwood to Pohara. 
Rose posted a request on the local facebook group for firewood, adding that we would come and chainsaw/chop it ourselves. She was bombarded by offers and we’ve met some interesting and generous people while putting in the hard yards to stock up on wood for the winter. 

This was a shapeless pile of metal and plastic when we moved in...

She has also repaired our ramshackle greenhouse and we’ve insulated the entire underfloor of the house. Although autumn has officially been here for a month and daylight saving has just ended - the hot Golden Bay sun shows little sign of abating.

It hasn’t been easy getting here, but so far at least, we’re living the dream...

Who needs a garden bench when you can have a jetty to relax on?

Thursday, 18 January 2018

The Omega Man


It's funny what you can discover when you're packing up to move house.



I've seen that author's name somewhere before...
no idea what happened to the the illustrator, though

For decades I have carried around two A1 sized boxes stuffed with select work I'd produced at Design School in the mid 1980s, to freelance illustration in Scotland in the early 1990s.

Most of it is horrible and finally needed to be got rid of on a bonfire of inanities. But a few exceptions also exist, a tiny stack of scribblings which, more through accident than design, manage to hold up. By my standards, at least.
Among these are some illustrations I did for an Edinburgh-based magazine called Scottish Field, established in 1903 and despite publishing some of my work in 1993/94 are still going strong today.

These commissions came at a time when I really needed the money, and confidence boost, and were for a series of whimsical short stories about a retired butcher called Bodie who becomes a private investigator.

I'd supply two black and white roughs, then a colour rough for my
own reference, and finally the finished art in watercolour and ink.

I realised that I'd actually kept some copies of the magazine itself, and turning to one of these stories was struck dumb by a realisation twenty-five years after the fact (I can be slow on the uptake, but a quarter of a century for the penny to drop has to be a record).

The author of these stories was a man called Jack Gerson. And this might not have even meant anything to me now, if I hadn't written blog post about a television series and book which I took into my sad little geek heart so many years ago:
http://fasmatodea.blogspot.co.nz/2015/08/the-omg-factor.html

I had been illustrating stories by the writer and creator of The Omega Factor and hadn't even realised it.

It won't mean much to anyone else, as my wife's rather bemused expression conveyed when I shrieked this discovery. But this 'one degree of separation' rather rocks my world, sharing 'journalistic real estate' with a storyteller who's skill fired my imagination as a teenager and still does even now. And made all the more poignant by the fact that I was gormlessly unaware at the time.

But perhaps it's just as well, my Fanboy reaction and inevitable stalking of Mr Gerson might have only earned me a restraining order and termination of contract.

Finding an obituary, I discovered that Gerson passed away six years ago, leaving a huge body of work to the world.
The last writing he did was a radio play called Bodie’s Occupations, featuring, yes, the very same character whose earlier adventures I had illustrated.

The connections don't end there. As anyone who has to listen to me for longer than 5 minutes knows, I am currently writing a book about Hammer films, which has absorbed a huge part of my life recently.
The concept of 'Hammer Horror' really began with a 1957 film called The Curse of Frankenstein, starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in their first film together. Second billing went to a Scottish actor called Robert Urquhart, who played Frankenstein's tutor and eventual accomplice, Paul Krempe.

Urquhart himself had a long and illustrious career, and one of the final things he did before his death in 1995 was a certain radio play by his old friend Jack Gerson, where he took the title role of a private detective called Bodie.

My preliminary sketches for Bodie's appearance and
(inset) actor Robert Urquhart, who eventually played him on radio.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Count Down - Part Ten: Transylvania Jones and the Temple of Doom


The concept of Halloween becoming the ‘Geek Christmas’ was reinforced this year with a very special gift from BBC Radio 4.



Finally returning to this blog has been an interesting experience. Last time I got to revisit, correct and publish something I first posted in 2015, and now I’m returning to a series of posts from the blog’s earliest days, which I had assumed long over.
Count Down was my nine-part look at the Hammer Dracula films, and revisiting them first kindled the spark which led to my upcoming book about that film company (whose release is now postponed until Halloween next year - more on this later)

Given the Count’s unfailing ability to rise from the grave again and again in these films, we shouldn’t have been too surprised when the script for an unmade production was brought to life this Halloween.

The Unquenchable Thirst of Dracula has a long and interesting history. Intended as a follow-up to 1970’s Scars of Dracula, it was written by Anthony Hinds to take advantage of frozen assets which Hammer’s then-finance partner and distributor, Warner Bros, had in India at that time.
According to Hammer historian Marcus Hearn, the story was first titled Dracula High Priest of Vampires, before being dropped in favour of Don Houghton’s script Kali Devil Bride of Dracula in 1974, (to co-star Peter Cushing if the poster artwork is to be believed). Hind’s original script was then returned to 1977, shifted to the 1930s and given the name we know it as today.


Apparently it eventually transpired that Warner’s Indian assets were unavailable after all, the story was never filmed,  was and this was all no doubt yet another nail in the Hammer coffin at the close of the 1970s.

Decades passed until the Mayhem Film Festival mounted a full-cast-live reading of Unquenchable in Nottingham in 2015. Complete with a live sitar player, it was widely praised and lead to the Festival giving another unfilled Hammer script the same treatment this year: Zeppelin v. Pterodactyls. (Presumably without a sitar this time)


And then a few months ago it was announced that celebrity Hammer fan Mark Gatiss was going to adapt it as a radio production. Directed by Gatiss from Hind’s original screenplay, The Unquenchable Thirst of Dracula debuted on BBC Radio 4 at Halloween. Fortunately for those of us in other parts of the world the BBC iplayer did allow us access, and thank goodness, because this is an absolutely brilliant production.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09bx9fn

Set in Northwest India in 1934, the indigenous characters are all authentically cast, including Jekyll’s Meera Syal in two superb roles. Michael Sheen really brings the gravitas and atmosphere with his narration, and Lewis MacLeod, if not actually impersonating Christopher Lee, at least effectively channels his most famous performance, as Dracula.


But the true, unexpected delight is the story. I’ve half-seriously suggested that this is like listening to ‘Hammer meets Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’, but this production actually improves on the 1984 Spieberg film in its cultural depiction. Unquenchable may have the requisite light nudity and sadism you’d expect from Hammer, but also none of the racism and sexism that the second Indiana Jones film provided.

We follow a very capable female protagonist, Penny Woods, who drives the action. Although assisted by an Indian father figure and love interest, neither are given time to ‘man-splain’ or patronise as they have their hands full just keeping up with her.
The originality of the setting and story structure achieves what Hammer never really succeeded in doing - injecting new life into their Dracula series. Unquenchable is fresh, exciting and never predictable. I was wrong-footed every time I tried to guess ahead, and that was a treat for someone so steeped in the ways of the house of horror.

However, I can confidently predict that everyone who listens will wish it had been made. More realistically, it’s my wish that Mr Gatiss turns his talents to the many more un-filmed Hammer scripts for Halloweens to come.