Wednesday, 30 October 2013

The Heart of Matter

This marvellous book explains the world’s most famous equation, by writing its biography.

Author and scholar David Bodanis was apparently inspired to write this book when he read an interview with Cameron Diaz in which the actress expressed an earnest desire to understand what E=mc2 means.
Most of us can recognise Einstein, and perhaps even mumble something about ‘special theory of relativity’ if pressed.  Perhaps I should just speak for myself here: I could even get as far as knowing that E is energy and m had something to do with matter, and the speed of light was involved somehow, but could I claim to understand it?  Of course not.  At least, until I read this amazing book

It is a biography, not of Einstein, although we certainly learn much of the man, but the equation itself.  Bodanis takes us through the ‘life story’ of each element of the equation (yes, even the ‘equals sign’ gets a chapter) and then, once we’ve been thoroughly edified and entertained, gives us this wonderful gift:
“…mass is simply the ultimate type of condensed or concentrated energy.  Energy is the reverse, it’s what billows out as an alternate form of mass under the right circumstances.  As an analogy think of the way that a few wooden twigs going up in flames can produce a great volume of billowing smoke.  To someone who’d never seen fire, it would be startling that all that smoke was ‘waiting’ inside the wood. The equation shows that any kind of mass, in theory, can be manipulated to billow out in an analogous way. It also says this will happen far more powerfully than what you would get by simple chemical burning – there is much greater expansion. That enormous conversion factor of 448,900,000,000,000,000 (the speed of light squared, represented as ‘c2’) is how much any mass gets magnified if it’s ever fully sent across the “=” of the equation.”

This was a revelation to me.  At school we were handed huge science text books called Matter, energy and life, the implication being that these three ‘kingdoms’ might well interact, but were to be thought of as very much separate entities.  We won’t discuss the meaning of life here, but matter and energy are in fact a ‘holy duality’, two aspects of the same thing, and Einstein proved it.

But Bodanis’s book is not just about Einstein, as I’ve said.  New Zealand ‘Father of physics’ Ernest Ruthford (fondly described by Bodanis as a ‘booming-voiced rugby player’ and by Einstein as ‘a second Newton’) is crucial in the ongoing story of understanding matter/energy.  To harken back to school again, we are all taught that Lord Rutherford ‘split the atom’.  Not content with explaining Einstein’s equation, Bodanis also explores what that rather glib expression which we all learned by rote actually means. This man who went to school in Havelock actually surveyed, redefined and ultimately transformed the building block of the entire universe. Below is a graphic I produced to mark his birthday in August.  (Once again, zoom in if you’d like to read all the text).


Sunday, 27 October 2013

The Abominable Bushman

Another famous mystery has been making the news, so it’s time to visit its local cousin.

Earlier this month Doctor Who fans received a special fiftieth anniversary gift when two stories long assumed lost were recovered in Nigeria.  One of these was a tale long-coveted: Web of Fear, which not only introduced Alistair Gordon Lethbridge Stewart for the first time, but brought back Doctor Who’s terrifying interpretation of the Yeti.  This was one of the very first target novelisations I ever read back in the late ‘70s (all but the first episode were believed gone forever even then), so I’m very much looking forward to finally seeing it.
  Then a couple of days ago Oxford University Geneticist Bryan Sykes announced that DNA tests on unidentified hair samples from the Himalayas have brought us closer to identifying the Yeti.  In a strange case of life imitating art, Sykes doesn’t present the familiar image of the man-beast most immediately identified with the mysterious creature, but, like the Doctor Who story mentioned above*, speculates that it could be a “more aggressive, more dangerous…bipedal” bear-like creature!
I’ve been fortunate enough to spend some time in the Himalayas, including a memorable night in a valley infamous for a ‘yeti attack’, and was also able to speak to a close friend of Sir Edmund Hillary about his 1960 Yeti expedition, while researching the graphic below.  Although Tenzing was convinced, Sir Ed remained sceptical, and in respect to Professor Sykes’ recent discovery, it seems to me that Himalayan people have always spoken of more than one type of creature.
 However, the New Zealand equivalent, the Maeroero, or Moehau, makes for a wonderful camp fire story.  Regrettably, I had to rely on some reports of a decidedly ‘tall’ nature for my timeline, and would have preferred to focus on pre-European Maori myths of ‘other races’ living in these islands.  Alas the time to give this subject the respect and detail it deserved wasn’t available to me.  One day, hopefully!  
*Yes, of course I know they were really fur-covered robots!

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Count Down part four: The Dark Knight Rises

In his third appearance as the immortal Count, Sir Christopher Lee brings new meaning to the expression ‘bloody students’

For many years this was ‘the lost Hammer Dracula’ for me.  I’d managed to catch up with all the others thanks to the good old Sunday Horrors, but it’s only because of the treasure trove which is Aro Street video that I finally saw this one.  I was very aware of the story, however, due to a pictorial synopsis in a Famous Monsters magazine special, which I picked up during a family holiday one year.  Richly illustrated with those famous publicity pics of Christopher Lee apparently helping Veronica Carlson out of her night gown, it looked great.

On seeing Dracula has Risen from the Grave, what strikes me is that the previous sequel featured decidedly middle-aged ‘heroes’, but here we see the first infiltration of youth culture into the series.  Keinenburg is a student town, and much like campus-neighbouring establishments today, its tavern is filled with noise, beer fumes and bizarre drinking rituals.  The town is also something of an ecclesiastical centre and both venerable institutions are about to suffer the red-eyed wrath of a recently risen revenant.

Dracula has risen from the Grave (1968)
This film has some wonderfully imaginative and gruesome scenes involving blood letting. Or, they would be, if the copious gore didn’t look like unstirred roof paint.  Whether this failure to accurately depict Dracula’s whole reason for existing is a deliberate move due to some strange censorship requirement, or well-meaning effort by someone who’s never actually seen the stuff is unclear, but somewhat frustrating.

With that niggle out of the way, there are scenes so striking peppered throughout this film that they have become almost compulsory in any book about horror films: the enraged, coffin-bound Count, grasping at a stake buried in his chest, a young girl hanging, drained of blood, from a huge church bell; and the mesmerised Veronica Carlson, barefoot in her night dress as she follows her new master through the equally dark forest.  Such stuff nightmares are made of.
 Lee, even by this relatively early stage, apparently required a great deal of coercion to return to the role. His reappearance had apparently been promised to the film’s distributors before the actor was consulted and perhaps some pent-up fury informs a performance which is electrifying despite almost no dialogue.  A feeling of real dread suffuses the ‘failed staking’ scene, which also has the gratifying effect of draining the insufferable smugness from young atheist hero Paul.  And no wonder, it’s bad enough having Lee’s Dracula after you, but when you’ve been stupid enough to really hiss him off first then it becomes terrifying

Having a corrupted priest follow at the heels of the Prince of Darkness like a whipped dog lends a blasphemous edge which surprises even now.  This peaks when the enslaved cleric unceremoniously dumps a mouldering corpse out of her coffin to provide a temporary home for his Master.  And the fact that the inhabitant is apparently ‘bell girl’ makes her one very unfortunate individual, even after death.
 And as a nod to my rightly-proud fifth-generation Kiwi friend Peter, I should also mention New Zealand- born actress and author Barbara Ewing’s wonderful performance as doomed barmaid Zena.  To paraphrase Steinlager: “They’re drinking our blood, here!”

This film has been described as “…a minor triumph of style over substance”, and it’s probably true.  The template of book-ending a story between an imaginative method of revival and destruction of the Count had been established in the previous film, and Risen really is just a revenge story which takes us from A to B, and back again.  But the powerful imagery can’t be denied.  An early scene of the Monsignor climbing towards Castle Dracula, at dusk, with a giant crucifix tied to his back is so iconic that it was used to open every episode of The World of Hammer, an excellent retrospective TV series which can’t be recommended enough.
Despite an unchallenging plot, Dracula has Risen from the Grave did great business, and the Count’s next return was assured.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Harbouring hidden felines

Godzone mysterious big cat has made the news again.

Michael O'Neill

Last week newspapers reported a sighting of what was described as a large cat-like animal feeding on road kill, in the early hours of the morning, in south Canterbury.  This persistently newsworthy mystery previously made the news in August last year when photographer Michael O'Neill took this image of  what seems to be a large feline crossing the frozen surface of Lake Clearwater.
But these reports are merely the tip of a long history of big cat sightings in the central South Island. I had the opportunity to produce a number of graphics last holiday season which highlighted New Zealand’s own ‘mysterious animals’: The South Island panther, the native otter,  moose still existing in Fiordland, the giant gecko, surviving moas and even our own version of ‘big foot’: the Maeroero.  And if you wonder why you haven’t seen or heard of all of these, the label Cryptozoology might explain this: it literally means ‘hidden animals’.
Do they exist?  History gives us many examples of previously undiscovered or assumed extinct creatures resurfacing throughout the world. Certainly other countries have their own mysterious big cat sightings, and New Zealand is blessed with large tracts of land uninhabited by humans.  Personally, I love the fact that there is still room for some mystery in this age of google earth and and GPS.  Cat of headline tales: long may you continue to evade any kind of capture except as a tantalising dark shape in photographs, you and your kind make the world a more wondrous place.
I hope to eventually revisit the Aotearoa Cryptids in this blog, but first up, here is our beautiful cat who walks alone (all text is legible once you zoom in):

Friday, 18 October 2013

By the pricking of my thumbs

I promised some Bradbury, and here he is at his very best...

Something Wicked this way Comes is a book which could only ever have been written by Ray Bradbury.  Its filigreed language, eccentric structure (chapter 31 consists of one sentence: “Nothing much else much happened, all the rest of that night”.) are all his own, as is his inherent understanding of the dichotomy of youth and age in all of us.
In simplest terms it is a 1962 fantasy novel (one of Bradbury’s comparatively few as he dealt most prolifically in short stories) about two 14 year old friends, Jim and Will, and their encounter with a macabre travelling carnival which sets up in their town one dark autumn night.  Led by the aptly named Mr Dark, the carnival lures customers with the promise of granting their secret wishes, only to trap them as exhibits and performers twisted by their own desires.  Will’s ageing father Charles Halloway helps the boys find the knowledge and courage to overcome the carnival’s evil, while struggling to resist Dark’s offer to restore his own lost youth.

Someone once tried to explain to me that Shakespeare is meant to be spoken, and heard aloud. I tend to think Bradbury is the opposite, the rich imagery he conjures is meant to swirl up at you out of a printed page.  This makes me doubly suspicious of the Disney film adaptation, which I have yet to see, if I can bring myself to.  Apparently Bradbury himself was happy with it, but as much as I admire Jonathan Pryce, my Mr Dark is always a slightly more loquacious version of Daniel Day Lewis’s ‘Bill the Butcher’, from Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. 

I’m a relatively slow reader (as editors who used to give me books to review have discovered), and this is particularly true with Bradbury. My eye continually slides back over sentences and whole paragraphs, because the temptation to savour them again before moving on is just too strong. And this adds to my belief that, also unlike Mr Shakespeare, the play isn’t the thing so much as the language Bradbury uses on the way through it.  I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read Something Wicked this Way Comes, but am always hard pressed to remember the narrative as a story.  That’s not to say that it isn’t a magical, beautifully told tale, because it certainly is, but it’s the individual parts, passages and sequences which impress themselves on my mind...  Here’s an example of the way Bradbury can make a building which might otherwise be dull to boys the age of the stories young heroes, seem like…well, like this:

“Out in the world, not much happened. But here in the special night, a land bricked with paper and leather, anything might happen, always did. Listen! and you heard ten thousand people screaming so high only dogs feathered their ears. A million folk ran toting cannons, sharpening guillotines; Chinese, four abreast marched on forever. Invisible, silent, yes, but Jim and Will had the gift of ears and noses as well as the gift of tongues. This was a factory of spices from far countries. Here alien deserts slumbered. Up front was the desk where the nice old lady, Miss Watriss, purple-stamped your books, but down off away were Tibet and Antarctica, the Congo. There went Miss Wills, the other librarian, through Outer Mongolia, calmly toting fragments of Peiping and Yokohama and the Celebes.”

I’ve mentioned at the Bradbury’s talent for addressing the spring and autumn of life by contrasting them, but never making them mutually exclusive.  If that passage paints a picture of the world through the eyes and other senses of youth, then this next one depicts a far darker image. Marshalling their defenses in the darkened library, Will’s father tries to prepare and inspire the boys with what he’s uncovered about the carnival from his own long lifetime’s worth of experience and knowledge.
“The stuff of nightmare is their plain bread. They butter it with pain. They set their clocks by deathwatch beetles, and thrive the centuries. They were the men with the leather-ribbon whips who sweated up the Pyramids seasoning it with other people's salt and other people's cracked hearts. They coursed Europe on the White Horses of the Plague. They whispered to Caesar that he was mortal, then sold daggers at half-price in the grand March sale. Some must have been lazing clowns, foot props for emperors, princes, and epileptic popes. Then out on the road, Gypsies in time, their populations grew as the world grew, spread, and there was more delicious variety of pain to thrive on. The train put wheels under them and here they run down the log road out of the Gothic and baroque; look at their wagons and coaches, the carving like medieval shrines, all of it stuff once drawn by horses, mules, or, maybe, men.”

I have resisted giving much in the way of a synopsis because, as I’ve said, to me it’s not the most important thing.  I’m sure you could find a perfectly good one on the back of the Disney film DVD case. Bradbury was the first, and perhaps only writer I’ve ever plagiarised, his pulse-stirring evocation of the mighty tyrannosaurus Rex (from the collection Golden Apples of the Sun) found it’s way wholesale into one of my third form essays.  I’m not proud, and it’s no justification, but they do say if you’re going to steal, take from the best.  And in case you might worry that Something Wicked This Way Comes is just another nostalgia-drenched lament to lost boyhood, consider these musings of the age-plagued Charles Halloway as he lies awake next to his wife.
“Oh, what strange wonderful clocks women are. They nest in Time. They make the flesh that holds fast and binds eternity. They live inside the gift, know power, accept, and need not mention it. Why speak of time when you are Time, and shape the universal moments, as they pass, into warmth and action?”

Once again, a surprisingly mature viewpoint in a story ostensibly about two childhood friends.
And now, so as to not move too far out of the darkness which permeates this wonderful story, I’m going to end with the beginning:
“One year Halloween came on October 24, three hours after midnight. At that time, James Nightshade of 97 Oak Street was thirteen years, eleven months, twenty-three days old. Next door, William Halloway was thirteen years, eleven months, and twenty-four days old. Both touched toward fourteen; it almost trembled in their hands. And that was the October week when they grew up overnight, and were never so young any more...”

Monday, 14 October 2013

Count down: Part three: The Dark Knight Returns

Sir Christopher Lee finally resurrects the Count, 8 years after making the role famous

Dracula Prince of Darkness is the second sequel to the 1958 Dracula, but this time detailing the further exploits of the title character, rather than his nemesis Van Helsing, as Brides of Dracula did.
Although almost a decade had passed, every effort was made to dovetail with the first film, including a pre-titles reprise of its climax and a vivid demonstration of how to reconstitute ‘evil personified’ with the remaining dust and the corpuscles of an unfortunate tourist.

Dracula Prince of Darkness
This is a lovely looking film: as the novelty of Eastman colour faded so have some of the excesses of the original film’s colour palette.  But there are still some startling chromatic splashes, including bright red spots illuminating nooks and crannies of Castle Dracula’s decor which somehow seem right.

With Van Helsing sadly absent, the sensible decision is made not to try and emulate Cushing’s performance in a new protagonist, but go for a complete contrast instead.  So we have the booming-voiced, rifle-totting Father Sandor, one-time Quatermass Andrew Keir gruffly combining a priest’s vestments with an altogether more blue collar attitude to vampire slaying.

Another Hammer stalwart, the lovely Barbara Shelley, is the most compelling character.  Initially frosty and aloof as Helen, one of an unfortunate band of travellers unwisely choosing the Carpathians as a holiday destination, her conversion to the ranks of the undead transforms her into a sensual, snarling she-beast. It’s a credit to Shelley’s performance that not only is this contrast shocking, but we even feel sorry for poor Helen as she meets her final end at the hands of Sandor and his Brothers.

The first Hammer resurrection of the Count is still a marvellous piece of classic movie magic.  Obviously done with gradual fades between the gradually coagulating figures in the sarcophagus, it’s a scene which absolutely rivets your attention despite its sedate, almost lyrical depiction.

It feels a long time in coming, but once Lee is up and about the film is instantly his again.
It might be argued that the ten years since his ‘death’ have meant that Dracula returns in a more demonic and animalistically instinctual form; violent, thirsty and stripped of the icy formality we briefly saw in the first film.  Perhaps the process of death and resurrection pushes the Count further away from his own original humanity each time? The fact that Lee has no lines whatsoever adds to this impression, and we can only marvel at the way his performance achieves so much by doing so little (although being 6’6” no doubt helps).  Either way, the die is cast here for Lee’s Count to forevermore appear as a raw force of (un)nature which cannot be reasoned with.

Elements from Stoker’s original novel find their way into the story, including a fly-munching Renfield-inspired character and the Count compelling the heroine to drink from a self-inflicted cut in his own chest.
Had this film not done so well at the box office, the careers of Christopher Lee, and Hammer films might have been quite different.  But it seems that as the end credits roll over the Count’s body gradually submerging beneath the ice of his castle moat, the only person who doubted his return was Lee himself.  More on this next time…

Friday, 11 October 2013

Amazon but true

With the recent casting announcement of the increasingly ubiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch as Colonel Percy Fawcett, it seems a good time to pick up another book.

The title of this book might sound like the worst that adventure fiction can offer, but this is the true story that inspired much of the genre.
Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett was the original Indiana Jones, from an age when explorers strode forth from the Royal Geographic Society, pipe clenched firmly between their teeth and machete in hand, determined to fill in the empty spaces on the Victorian world map.

Before the obsession for adventure and discovery took over his life. Fawcett was already an outstanding sportsman and military officer, possessing uncommon mental and physical toughness. In one rugby match, he continued to plough through the opposition even after his front teeth had been knocked out.
In the jungles of the Amazon, he showed an almost freakish resistance to the hardship and danger he found there.
Allowing himself no quarter, Fawcett was inevitably frustrated by the frailty of other expedition members, who inevitably succumbed to the horrific diseases wrought by the region's insect life. During one journey, he seriously considered killing a gravely ill man so others in the party might better survive.
Fawcett seemed the perfect disciple of the British Empire, well equipped to carry its stern principles to the darkest corners of the globe. But this book shows that there was far more to him than that cliched image.

Rather like Arthur Conan Doyle (the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle also based his lead character from the novel The Lost World on Fawcett), he became drawn to spirituality beyond conventional Christianity.
Apparently, Fawcett ceremonially accepted the precepts of Buddhism while posted in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and sought out an infamous psychic, Madame Helena Blavatsky.
These influences combined to form an obsession that consumed the rest of his life: the quest to discover the remains of a fantastic lost civilisation at the heart of the Amazon, which he, inexplicably, named "Z".

Fawcett's philosophical depth made him the first explorer of the Amazon forest to treat the native people with respect, forbidding the use of firearms against them, even if his own life was threatened.
His adventures make fascinating reading, as do the difficulties he encountered in even putting together an expedition party. Unlike many of his rivals, Fawcett had little personal wealth and had to convince sponsors of the value of his quest.

His final expedition, for which he was certain he had pinpointed the location of Z, was delayed for four years by World War I. Being Fawcett, he spent those years in the thick of things on the Western Front, displaying his usual indestructibility and distinguishing himself as a natural and effective leader.
It was not until 1925 that the ageing explorer, his son, Jack, and companion, Raleigh Rimell, finally set forth into the Amazon jungle, this time never to be seen again.

In the ensuing years, the "search for Fawcett" became as irresistible to other adventurers as the discovery of Z. Many stories and theories have circulated. In the 1940s, a young, pale-skinned Amazon tribesman was paraded around Brazil as the "grandson of Colonel Fawcett", until the youth was revealed to be an albino.

Even today, "Fawcett nuts", as those still eager to solve this 75-year-old mystery are known, are regarded with amusement and suspicion. Many have disappeared on their own expeditions.
But one who did survive to return and write this excellent book is David Grann. His account of his Amazon expedition is woven into Fawcett's story and gives an insight into how much this untamed part of the world has changed.

At one point, Grann is driven to a location that had taken Fawcett a month to reach by hacking his way through thick rainforest.
Grann's journey might be expected to pale by comparison with the colonel's adventures, but, even in this age of GPS and Google Earth, the world's largest jungle still has its mysteries.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

I'm walking here

As the weather settles and warms in seasonal fits and bursts,
here is my second ‘spring essay’.


With apologies to Solace in the wind

I’m convinced that the phrase “You can’t beat Wellington on a good day” was coined in summertime, at Oriental parade.  The Wellington sea front from Frank Kitts promenade, sweeping past Chaffer’s Marina to Oriental Bay and on to Point Jerningham beyond, is a golden mile (actually 3 km) of vibrancy and beauty rivalling any urban shore in the world.

The best part is that our waterfront isn’t just to be enjoyed on weekends, mental health days or by visiting tourists – for many of us it’s almost literally on our employer’s doorstep. Assuming you can get an hour for lunch (never certain these days) and the weather gods are smiling, the sea is within the easy reach of we drones from central business district. It’s a much healthier option than sitting at your desk, dropping bits of lunch into your keyboard – and cheaper than failing not to spend money on Lambton Quay.
A quick walk through Civic square – one of Wellington’s most successful sun (or wind) traps depending on the weather, over the Para Machitt land sea bridge, and the sparkling harbour is laid out before you.
Circling around the north bank of the lagoon – taking time to see if any stingrays have returned after last summer’s Orca banquet – leads you to the promenade running between Frank Kitts Park and the sea.  This sunny stretch of concrete can be a perilous place early in the morning, as cycling commuters in lycra nightmares seem to regard it as a velodrome, and anyone on foot as a hindrance to their personal time trial. But by lunchtime sanity is restored and the walker reigns supreme once more - not counting the inline skaters, of course. 

Alternatively, if you’re in it for the long haul, cut across to the far corner of Hikitea wharf, where 'jumpers' used to be seen launching themselves the beautifully designed spiral staircase tower and plummeting into narrow gap of water below.  This sculptural monument to exhilaration has sadly been closed since last summer, whether because of harbour bacteria as claimed, or deadlier nanny state-motivated back-tracking, remains unclear  
Once past this former spectacle you’re in crocodile bike territory.  These always make me smile and wonder if I’ll ever be able to find three willing people to hire one with me.  Very tame as a far as an item on anyone’s ‘bucket list’ is concerned, but it’s there all the same.  Also raising a smile is the Solace in the wind statue, always happy to have his hand held in a group photograph, although he never faces the camera.  I now put this down to failing eyesight, but at first glimpse I assumed he was one of those once-common street performers who used to paint themselves head-to-foot in a single colour and hold the same pose for amazing lengths of time – just like a statue, really.  It was the complete lack of clothing which dissuaded me from examining more closely. 

Eventually you pass some waterfront cafes and then catch sight of the forest of masts at the Chaffer’s marina. Dipping down below the Oriental parade footpath level to walk past the brightly coloured doors of the boat sheds, you can avoid the legions of sweaty lunchtime runners, bereft of their cell phones but still able to talk work via staccato gasps and grunts, and almost believe that you’re in a smaller, quieter seaside town.  The chlorine-scented monolith of Freyberg pool looms and it’s time to briefly rejoin the throng before dipping back down to my own regular destination in summer – Oriental Bay beach.  The whole point of this trip for me is to get into the water as quickly as possible, swim out to the floating raft and back again, get dried, changed and back to work within an hour.  I’ve tried to explain the ‘almost physical pull’ which the sea has for me, the urge to get into the water being so strong that even jellyfish infestations or forgetting my swimming shorts hasn’t prevented me on a couple of occasions.  The ‘togs, togs, undies’ rule was inverted without any widespread panic, it was just a shame that I had to run into a long term friend of my parents on my way back out of the water. Whatever awkwardness might befall, this lunchtime dip has always been well worth it for me.  

If you are a walker rather than a swimmer, the sensuously-curving Oriental Parade sea wall can lead you ever onwards, offering an ever shifting view of the city you’ve temporarily escaped, before you have to reluctantly turn around and head back to it.
The atmosphere of carefree happiness which pervades this magical edge of the harbour can sometimes lead you to believe that everyone else is still on holiday.  But for a precious hour you too can stretch your legs, fill your lungs and enjoy the best that the waterfront has to offer, free of charge and without even taking leave.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Count Down part two: Bride of the Meinster

The star of Hammer’s Dracula returns,
but not the one you might be expecting.


Dracula was not only a huge success for Hammer, but also Universal pictures, who distributed the film in the US (under the title Horror of Dracula, to avoid confusion with their own 1932 Lugosi version), and made enough money to save themselves from financial strife.
A sequel: Brides of Dracula was demanded and quickly put into production, but incredibly, without either Christopher Lee or Dracula in it. The reason for this is unclear, perhaps a combination of Lee’s recently-launched career now enabling him to enjoy more demanding speaking roles elsewhere and the Count having been reduced to a pile of ashes.
Instead, Brides is the further adventures of Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing and succeeds in every way which the dire 2004 Hugh Jackson vehicle of that name didn’t.

Brides of Dracula 1960
In talking about these films it’s too easy to simply regurgitate what I grew up reading in books and magazines.  So I almost felt that I had seen this film (inexplicably, I missed its Sunday Horror outing back in 82-83, but my friends wasted no time in telling me what a good one it was) and already knew its beats and set pieces.

Instead, I find that one of the most entertaining things about Brides of Dracula is its sheer unpredictability.  From the outset, the misleading title (no brides, no Dracula) throws you off-balance. To be honest, much of the surprising narrative might be down to an over-worked script which went through several redrafts, some at star Peter Cushing’s request.  Instead of this process refining the story, character motivation and plot holes seem to have multiplied.  A mysterious coach-hopping, tavern conversation-stopping character dominates the opening scenes, and is then never seen or referred to again.  In direct contradiction to Van Helsing’s pronouncement in the first film, Meinster can transform into an unintentionally humorous bat, but is kept imprisoned by a manacle around his ankle (why doesn’t he just change and fly away?).  And why on earth does the heroine Marianne (a beguiling performance from french actress Yvonne Monlaur)  instantly agree to become engaged to Meinster, after clear evidence that he’s just murdered his own Mother? Perhaps he hypnotised her...

David Peel’s Baron Meinster is a compelling lead when seem in normal human form, but when required to appear fanged and in the throes of blood-frenzy his dishevelled hair and wild eyes make him look a little like a maddened lap-dog.   Blond and clad in a light grey cloak, he is almost a negative image of Lee’s Count, and a poor substitute.

And so emphasis is shifted from this rather emasculated vampire and placed on the fascinating female characters.  Meinster’s domineering Mother is played beautifully by Martita Hunt, and her ashamed attempts to conceal her vampiric teeth after, as Van Helsing intones with the just right amount of disgust to make the Oepidal euphemism very clear: “He has taken the blood of his own Mother!”, are strangely moving.
Freda Jackson as her servant is a delightfully malignant character and spellbinding in possibly the film’s best sequence where she lies across a grave and coaxes Marie Devereaux’s vampirised village girl to struggle out of her recently buried coffin in a ghastly parody of birth.

Devereaux, a voluptuous proto-Hammer starlet is unfortunately given very little else to do.  She and the other vampire ‘bride’ literally just stand white-faced and hissing in the wings, confusedly observing the climactic action and perhaps waiting for some direction which never comes.

Where the film really succeeds is in its intention as a vehicle for Cushing’s beautifully observed Van Helsing. Icily commanding and sensitive by turns, he is utterly determined to stamp out the ‘evil cult of vampirism’ at any cost.  Brides also cements his reputation as an unlikely action star, with a surprising display of athleticism apparent as he literally hurls himself into several exuberant battles with the supernaturally stronger Meinster, with no regard for his own safety. 

As others have said before me, you can keep your Buffy’s and Blades, this is the only Slayer, with his nattily monogrammed ‘staking kit’, I’d want around in a vampiric emergency.
Alas, it would be 12 years before Cushing would return to this role, but here his performance and some truly memorable sequences (watch out for the creepy padlocked coffin scene) elevate Brides as one of the better entries in the Hammer Dracula cycle.

Friday, 4 October 2013

Weapons of grass destruction

A brief foray into the world of reality, and one of my major preoccupations at this time of year.


A warm, wet spring has seen an even more pronounced rampage of greenery than usual for this time of year.  The inexorable rustling of grass growing out of control can almost be heard above the frequent showers of rain, while males all over the country watch frowning from their living room windows, powerless to halt the green tide.
It is probably safe to say that this compulsion to tame and control one’s immediate grassy surroundings is a male affliction; alas – fantasising about making an almost instantaneous impact on the environment with as big a machine as possible seems to go hand-in-hand with ‘testosterone poisoning’.  Ride-on mowers are proudly displayed to friends, and duly examined and admired with the same degree of envy and respect afforded exhibits at a classic car rally.  Urgings to ‘take her for a spin’ are usually instantly accepted, and often regretted all round as an inexperienced driver inevitably finds the one hidden rock or tree stump on the entire property.
There are a number of theories behind the phenomenon known as the lawn, one being that they were originally an attempt to emulate the semi rural estates of the landed gentry.  Difficult to apply this to your typical quarter-acre slice of paradise, but perhaps the psychology is sound.  A lawn is a status symbol, why else would we lavish so much time and care on them, and fret when the weather prevents us from firing up the mower?  In New Zealand we are mercifully free from the moles and gophers who famously decimate the lawns in Britain and the US, but in our rural areas at least, grass grubs and the chickens who love to excavate and eat them can make grown men cry.
Finding myself with two and a half acres to control when I moved to the country, it became clear that a push mower wasn’t going to cut it, as it were.  I managed to maintain a sad little moat of mown lawn around our house, but the pampas ruled everywhere else - looming like a solid mass of triffids waiting patiently for the opportunity to reclaim ground.   So I was thrilled when my wife made the semi-serious gesture of presenting me with a genuine scythe which she’d bought from an antique dealer – and delighted in how ergonomically perfect the gracefully curving wooden handle felt to hold. Great swaths of grass fell instantly before my wildly swinging onslaught, and I was even vaguely proud of the fact that, when combined with my skeletal build, the image must have strongly suggested the Grim Reaper. “I am the Death of grass!” I exalted, until the absurdly long blade found another hidden rock or tree stump and I’d come to a juddering halt, more like Wyle E Coyote than the fearsome personification of mortality.
As satisfyingly physical as scything was, the effort and blisters didn’t really justify the fairly modest results, and so the 21st century interceded in the form of a huge petrol-driven scrub-cutter.  Sporting handle bars like a motorcycle and requiring a harness to support its weight, this was the muscular, evolutionary pinnacle of the humble lawn strimmer – on steroids.  Steroids were almost required to be able to operate this behemoth as well - but this time treacherous rocks and tree stumps tended to disintegrate in showers of sparks and wood chips. Urban myths involving the ferocious circular blade suddenly working loose and bringing instant spinning carnage to anything within its radius always meant that I checked this machine carefully before unleashing it on our rapidly retreating meadows. 
The scrub-cutter’s main drawback was the noise it produced. On one never-to-be repeated occasion, I accidentally snagged my ear-muffs on a low-hanging branch, and the sudden exposure to the engine sound made my ears ring for days afterwards.  It was also frequently pointed out to me by my significant other that this weapon of grass destruction was absolutely no fun to listen to for hours on end, either.
The scrub-cutter’s life burned brightly but relatively briefly, the mighty beast finally succumbing to an internal fault which was too expensive to fix.  But by now, our ‘estate’ had been subdued and it was now a case of refining and maintenance.  A ride-on mower was the only remaining option, and after ‘big red’, a sprightly Masport five-speed, was delivered, we’ve never looked back.  It’s definitely a more sedentary way of keeping our grass down - I’ve been known to wear my iPod under the ear muffs, although certainly never installed a beverage holder as some reputedly have - but the result is unrivalled by any other method.  There’s a huge satisfaction in noting how even the scrubbiest, most weed-infested wasteland can start to look like a lawn after just a few repeated mowings.
On a sunny day, meeting the gentle challenge of grooming an area of grass with as few unhurried traverses as possible, overlapping each pass by just the right degree and keeping these graceful sweeps as straight as possible is a close to nirvana as a male on a large-bladed machine can ever hope to achieve.