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.


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.

Sunday, 29 October 2017

The Return of the School Night of the Living Dead

It’s spooky what you can find out when you actually do some research!

Way back in October 2014, I tried to interest the media company I work for in running a short piece about a bygone NZ tradition in late night fright films - The Sunday Horrors. it seemed ideal to me as Halloween was just around the corner, and the period in which they were shown (the 1980s) was a time which most of our readership could easily recall. 
My employers passed, and it became a blog post instead:

Three years later, with Halloween becoming less a twee splash-back of Americana and more the ‘geek Christmas’ every season, I tried again - and the successful result appears below.

This time I did some proper research and was dismayed by how badly wrong I’d got certain ‘facts’ from my first version. Admittedly, the 2014 blog post was written from a personal perspective - as usual I had assumed it was all about me, and the Sunday Horrors stopped when I ceased watching.

More Sunday Horrors then you can shake a stake at -
channel's 2 and 3 go head to head with the undead...

In reality something which I had always assumed was a strictly ’80s phenomenon didn’t care that I was living overseas in the early ’90s, and continued in rude health for the entire first half of that decade, too. The Sunday Horrors survived the introduction of TV3, hosting by Count Robula, and the advent of Shortland Street and MMP. It stared down Suzanne Paul, compulsory cycle helmets and the dawn of cafe culture.

Just how many countries can boast a former head of Government
as a TV horror host?  Only one that I know of...

So let the spirits take you - Karen Hay is once again bidding you goodnight and the main feature is about to begin. Settle into your Lazy-Boy and do not adjust your set - the film may actually be in black and white. No tricks - you’re in for a treat. 
Happy Halloween!

Friday, 25 August 2017

Getting Hammered Pt 2

So you want to write a book? Be careful what you wish for…

Hello again dear, neglected blog. It’s probably just you and me listening, but I’m still going to write about how it feels to have got the first draft of Infogothic: An Unauthorised Graphic Guide to Hammer Horror, completed.

I’m sure such people must exist, but off-hand I can’t think of anyone else foolhardy enough to do every aspect of a project like this single-handedly.  In my day job I’ve been fortunate enough to be given opportunities as a published writer, designer and illustrator. I’ve designed books, researched information graphics and wrestled with the myriad technicalities of preparing a complex document for print.
So, why wouldn’t I do it all myself?

To answer to that question - I need to remind myself of the following: 
I have spent the last seven-and-a-half months working every possible spare hour I could find in my day, on this book. Whenever possible, I’ve started my day at 4:30am and worked in a freezing room (hello chilblains) until my day job or a grumbling stomach intervened.
I’m not a night owl but have burned the other end of the candle, too. I found that if I could get past my ’pain threshold’ of 10pm, I would end up having to make myself go to bed in the wee hours of the following morning.
Exercise has fallen by the wayside, as has sometimes even leaving the house. And to myself at least, I definitely look older. 
I’m not looking for sympathy though - I’ve loved every minute of it.

Whatever happens next, I hope that love comes through in this book.  My publishers might demand extensive changes, or lose confidence altogether. Even after it’s published I might end up with a garage full of unsold volumes, gathering dust and cobwebs like a Hammer film set.

But you know what else?  I’m proud of it. I’ve put everything I have into this book - most of my annual leave, every ounce of effort and what might pass for talent that I possess.
But not for a second am I forgetting any of the wonderful people who’ve supported and helped me - I will definitely thank them all properly in due course. But for now, you know who you are.

It’s an unusual product in an already very narrow market, but I know the ‘Monster Kids’ are out there - those of us who grew up adoring our horror films and learning to appreciate them like fine wines as they, and we, age.
I hope Infogothic finds them - and hopefully you - eventually. 

But for now, there is still some way way to go in bringing my very own ‘unholy creation’ to life.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Getting Hammered

Hammer horror, Hammer horror,
Won't leave it alone.
I don't know,
Is this the right thing to do?”

(Kate Bush)

Warning: spending too much time in your room could leave you looking like this...
(from Infogothic: A graphic guide to Hammer horror)

In my pre-teens I didn’t go out much. I spent too much time in my room and didn’t interact nearly enough with the real world. I didn’t do anything physically active, and if the very thought was not ridiculous to someone who still names his blog after a stick insect, I would almost certainly have been overweight and unhealthy. Instead I was immersed in a fantasy world of my favourite films and TV, pouring over books and magazines and writing and drawing pictures about them. It’s little wonder I had the social skills and physical coordination of a baby giraffe when hormones finally propelled me out of my bedroom.

Sometimes it feels as if I’ve lived my life trying to make up for this ever since - forcing myself outside in all hours and weathers for physical pursuits I might not even be very good at, pushing myself into social situations I’m probably equally ill-suited to.

So how utterly bizarre it is to come full circle all these decades later.

Instead of my bedroom, I now spend all my time at a keyboard in our office, and as much as I miss regular exercise, I’m still a stick insect. I’m even secretly glad we’ve just had the worst summer in living memory because I wouldn’t have been able to spend much time out in it. Much else has been neglected - needless to say this blog has been one of them. My wonderful wife has been incredibly patient and tolerant, only making occasional remarks about the anatomically-impossible position she believes my head to be lodged in, most of the time.

And I’m (only just) getting away with this blindingly anti-social and monstrously selfish behaviour because I’m writing a book, with a signed publisher’s contract and everything.

Coming soon...
I can’t remember the first Hammer film I actually saw, but do recall seeing a couple of seconds of a fanged, hissing Christopher Lee in an episode of Some mothers Do ‘Ave em when I was very young. Always like Frank Spencer in so many ways, this made an instant impression on me.

It’s taken forty-something years, but I’m now researching, designing, writing and illustrating a 94 page soft cover book about the horror films of Hammer Studios.
Very aware these productions have already been analysed, dissected and evaluated in molecular detail by authors all across the world (I was reading some of their books in my bedroom all those many years ago), I pitched a very different approach which astonishingly attracted some interest from a british publisher.

Over the last decade my day job has required me to produce infographics (information graphics) - visual representations of information which can be absorbed quickly by a reader, rather than having to be excavated from large bodies of text. These can be charts, diagrams, maps, graphs, schematics, illustrations - any visual device which analyses and informs.

Apart from the fact that successive generations of film fans are now delving deeper and deeper into the backgrounds and minutae of their favourite films, the perennially popular output of Hammer studios lends itself perfectly to this treatment. As with so many of their decisions, Hammer’s body of work was driven by cost considerations. Sequels were an efficient way to reuse props and costumes and calling upon the same actors familiar with the Hammer method of working saved time, as did reusing directors, writers and technicians.

The result of this ‘business model’ is a vast, interconnected world stretching across two decades of film-making. Sometimes it’s the fictional characters and settings which form the connective tissue, and sometimes it’s real-world factors. Either way, this gives me plentiful data which can be sifted and arranged into (hopefully) attractive and engaging infographics.

Will Infogothic - A graphic guide to Hammer horror sell? Will it actually see the light of day - will I even make my deadline? Even I’ve learned that many uncertainties lie between a project and a product in this industry.
The single best thing which has come out of this incarceration is the incredible generosity of fans and authors all over the world which I’ve encountered. They have been unfailingly encouraging and helpful with my every request and enquiry. I’m still reeling from the incredible kindness of one author who sent me a PDF of his entire out-of-print book for my own reference. Like Hammer films themselves, although the subject matter itself was often sensationalist or even tawdry - it was always executed with pure class.

This post is already longer than I intended, so it’s back to work. I’m not sure when I’ll return to this blog, but I definitely will - there’s been so much else to write about this year.
In the meantime; I’m learning a lot - not just about Hammer itself, but history, geography, languages and literally, rocket science. And I’m currently working on a fashion spread, charting the costumes of Hammer heroines from Raquel Welch’s doe-skin bikini in One Million Years BC to the PVC futurism of Moon Zero Two. So don’t feel sorry for me - and if you like what you hear - buy my book!

Friday, 23 December 2016

Tarkin it to the limit

This year has brought disbelief in many ways - but I never thought we’d reach Christmas 2016 with Peter Cushing trending on social media.

Seasons greetings, and apologies to anyone who actually does look in on this blog. I have been criminally neglectful of poor Phasmatodea, (3 years old this past October) in recent months.
Apart from ever-increasing work commitments (which is never an excuse) I have been commissioned to write a book.  Or more accurately, write, research, design, illustrate and lay out a book, which is obviously going to absorb my spare time until delivery date mid-next year.

I will post about it in more detail later, but in many ways it’s a culmination of what keeping this blog has prepared me for - trying to find new ways to discuss and analyse genre films which I’m passionate about. For now, I’ll simply state that the subject ties-in peripherally with the main topic of this entry. Let’s just say it’s going to be 'Hammer Time'...

Now back to this post. Since the ‘House of Mouse’’s acquisition of Star Wars in 2012 we’ve been promised a visit to a galaxy far, far away every year. And this December we got a ‘side-ways’ addition to the saga which I have to confess I never had high hopes for.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’s trailers seemed to offer a collection of cold and unappealing characters, and Director Gareth Edward’s last big budget film, Godzilla, actually made me think more fondly of the 1998 Roland Emmerich version.

I reluctantly predicted Rogue One would be an unsuccessful experiment in offering something new, outside the main Star Wars storyline., News of extensive studio-instigated reshoots made me think this might even damage the brand more than the prequels did.
The one thing which did keep my interest was the possibility of seeing one of my favourite characters, and actors, return to the screen - the late Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin.

"...and I want proper images, instead of these screen caps, released immediately!"
Although initial, and to me very exciting, talk of a computer generated Peter Cushing seemed to go quiet, I kept hoping. Given the film’s setting immediately prior to Star Wars episode 4: A New Hope, I couldn’t see how Tarkin couldn’t be at least referenced. I cautiously expected that we might see a cutaway shot, (maybe manipulated unused footage from 1977), and perhaps a significant sound-alike line delivered. Glimpsed on a view screen or as a flickering hologram, something like that. Then no matter how bad the film was, I’d be happy.
The one thing I had never expected was that Tarkin would get more screen time and lines in Rogue One than when Cushing was alive…

The character has been posthumously represented for many years...
I’d never gone to a Star Wars film with low expectations before, and I left with my face aching from continuously grinning like a loon through most of the final hour. Let’s be clear, the first half is a little turgid and choppy, but the second is sheer TIE Fighter fuel. In its final act Rogue One felt to me like the most 'Star Wars-y' film since 1977, and unlike last year’s the The Force Awakens, the audience applauded at the end.

As far as Tarkin is concerned, it seems that those in the audience not in the know either don’t notice or wonder why this character was computer generated, while OCD Star Wars nerds either applaud the technical advancement or moan about video game rendering. And although some Cushing fans question the morality of digital resurrection, most seem rapturous over this respectful interpretation.

(Left to right) Tarkin from the Rebels animated series, Guy Henry, Tarkin from Rogue One and Peter Cushing from Star Wars: A New Hope.
My own expectations for the appearance of Tarkin were tempered - I knew it could never be perfect. Cushing was a tall man for his times but the actor who performed the role and wore later ‘wore’ the pixels; Guy Henry, is a good 3-4 inches taller. Cushing was also a master of ‘eye acting’, knowing how to use available light to make his pale blue gaze steely or compassionate where required - whereas in Rogue One the environment dictates that the Grand Moff’s eyes are more often in shadow.
But the biggest adjustment for me was not the visual, but the audio - because nobody else sounds like Peter Cushing.

It’s been said that in casting he and Alec Guinness in Star Wars, George Lucas inadvertently brought the best diction in the acting profession to his galaxy far, far away.  
Peter Cushing overcame a serious dental issue and his south counties accent to develop a cut glass voice which somehow found more syllables in words than anyone else suspected ever existed, decisively clipping them only after every vowel and consonant had been properly honoured. And he could roll those r-r-r-rs like no-one else not from Scotland can.
That being said, Tarkin’s most famous line, (beautifully honoured in Rogue One) urbanely draws the first word out without finishing it: “You may fa-h-h when ready.”
As far as Henry’s delivery is concerned, in fairness perhaps a slavish impersonation of Cushing would only sound like mimicry rather than a performance.

Wayne Pygram's makeup as a younger Tarkin in the closing moments of
Revenge of the Sith, (2005), was best seen from a distance.
Personally, I am delighted with the result and find it mind-boggling that when a digital recreation was finally attempted as a significant and sustained performance in a major film, it was done so with my favourite actor.

Last years The Force Awakens felt like an early Christmas present, But the last act of Rogue One makes you feel like a Star Wars fan finding everything you’ve ever wanted under the tree.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

"I cast him the first moment I met him.
There was no doubt in my mind that Peter Cushing was perfect for the role of the
sinister Grand Moff Tarkin... he was not only a very talented actor, but he even
looked the role – exactly what I imagined Tarkin to be."

George Lucas

Friday, 11 November 2016

Flying Sorcerers

The real world has let us all down very badly this past week.  So I was very happy to visit the mind-bending alternative realities of my favourite Marvel character, instead.

Doctor Strange has always been my favourite Marvel character, for a number of reasons.
Firstly, he always reminded me strongly of Vincent Price, and I believe that is who the look of the character was derived from.

Secondly, I’ve always preferred my heroes to think, not punch their way out of crises - hence my favourite characters tend to be Doctors and Professors, rather than Captains, commanders and mopey Dark Knights.
And thirdly: you never forget your first time. I was twelve and spending a period in hospital, flying full of pain killers and other drugs. My Mum visited gave me another mind-altering substance to help pass the time - a Doctor Strange comic. Very soon my own astral form was well-and-truly tripping through Steve Ditko’s psychedelic realms with the Sorcerer Supreme.

"They'll never get this stuff on screen", thought the Sorceror Supreme

Yes, this natty chap with the cloak and a severe deficit of modesty was the superhero for me, but never in the most skewed of cosmic states of existence would I have thought I’d see him on the big screen.  
By all accounts this somewhat risky investment in a little-known supporting character has magically transformed into yet another Box Office triumph for Marvel Studios.

The fact that they will stumble one day is surely inevitable, but to my great relief not with this particular title.  
In fact, Doctor Strange brings much that is new to the Marvel cinematic Universe - an altogether more cerebral approach to protecting our puny planet, culminating in a genuinely clever resolution.

Impressive visuals are a given. But speaking of becoming jaded, at this point I’d invite anyone likely to whine that they’ve seen it all before in Inception to stick their head in a bucket.
I love Inception as much as anyone, but what we saw there was a mere starting point to the truly astonishing vistas we see Cumberbatch, Ejiofor and Mikklesen tumbling through.  This is one of those rare films which demands you see it in 3-D.

And what a cast.  In Price’s absence I literally can’t imagine anyone but Cumberbatch in the role, and no doubt his star power is responsible for much of the film’s success. Mads Mikklesen has the thankless task of bringing a fairly stock-standard villain to life, but his talent for exquisitely-timed, dry-as-dust humour (see also Wilbur wants to kill Himself, 2003) create some of the film’s best scenes.

If I’m to be completely honest there seems to be a slight coldness about Doctor Strange which ultimately makes it less than the sum of its parts (the exhilaration and warmth of Civil War and The Avengers keep those two at the top for me). But its parts are utterly amazing - and I haven’t even mentioned Tilda Swinton or many people’s favourite character - the Cloak of Levitation.

If this studio can succeed so well with a relatively little-known, high-concept character like this, then I’m fast reaching a heretical conclusion.  If DC fail with their big-screen Wonder Woman next year (and I desperately hope they don’t), then perhaps they should just carry on churning out Batman films and hand everything else over to Marvel.

Saturday, 5 November 2016


To celebrate our anniversary we usually visit glamorous destinations to eat, drink and spend too much money.  This year we dragged ourselves to physical exhaustion and beyond…

Team OrangeCat give the competition paws for thought...

I run and cycle fairly regularly because I enjoy it - and need to spend time away from a computer screen for my health and sanity’s sake. (I have already failed in at least one of those categories).

But it’s always better to to have an event to aim for, and when Rose told me about the Big Bang Adventure little did she know what she was letting herself in for.
Their website told me that you could only enter in teams of at least two, and somehow catching Rose at a weak moment, she agreed to join me - Team ‘OrangeCat’ was born!

Mountain biking - how hard can it be?

This all day multi-disciplinary event has a strong map reading and orienteering angle, and so exact details were shrouded in mystery right up until the actual date. All we knew for now was there would be running, mountain biking and a mystery aquatic event.
Rose arranged mountain bike hire for the date and I drafted my ever-dependable Dad as our support crew, another stipulation of entry.

Fast forward the inevitable training montage (alright, a little bit of running and stuff) to the big day. But first, there’s something you need to know about Rose. Although a brown belt in two martial arts styles and constantly active, she also suffers from a mysterious muscular ailment which has shortened her right leg and made even walking painful at times.  But paradoxically, our running seemed to help and Rose gradually became fitter and more pain-free than she had been in years.

This was hugely encouraging, but I also knew we would never be serious contenders - our goal was to do as much as possible without causing lasting harm.

Leaving at 5.30am with me crammed in the back of our car around two huge mountain bikes and a sack of scroggin we headed for the Kapiti coast, and the recently disclosed race location. On hilly private land just east of Raumati we were to throw ourselves into four cross country events. Alternating between running/orienteering and mountain biking, before ending up at Queen Elizabeth Park for the water challenge.

A always, a lot of anxiety dissipates once you’ve actually made it and know what’s expected of you, but the difficulty level was extreme. Finding  a variety of electronic check points up and down the hillside was made slightly easier in that we were able to stay with ‘the pack’ to some extent, although the steepness and altitude of the terrain was extremely daunting.

The first orienteering stage. We go up, and up...and up.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t worry about my staunch OrangeCat team mate at points throughout the day.  Mobility pain aside, in the darkest moments a history of heart problems in Rose’s family made me question the sense of this foolhardy venture.  Just when I thought she might do the sensible thing and give up, Rose rallied every single time and willingly stepped back into her world of pain. She probably showed more courage and determination than anyone else on the course, certainly me.

And down - I'm holding the map which was our life-line.

I worried a little about my father as well, left for hours on his own waiting for us to finally reappear and driving our gear from one transition point to the next.  But true to form he was totally dependable, always smiling and encouraging - making the best of a day anyone else would find a chore.
He even had a selfie taken with one of the top managers of the organisation I work for, just by falling into conversation with her.  Couldn’t have done it without you, Dad!

Emerging after getting lost in the bush - still smiling...

We struggled up endless bush-clad inclines, hurtled down logging roads on our hired bikes, got seriously lost when we fell behind anyone who could actually orienteer - but found our way out again. 
Ending with a punishing motor boat ride through the pounding surf to a marker buoy, we crossed the finishing line, intact, alive, still friends - and not even last.

Surf's up - time to get very wet...

I know I’m married to an incredible woman, but 27 years on she continues to surprise me still.
Next year - shopping and eating in Melbourne!

(and here is a video of the day - watch out for those OrangeCat hats at 0:25 and 1:09)