Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Fear factor

Phasmatodea is now one year old !

Thank you to everyone who's looked in on my self-indulgent scribblings over the past 12 months.

For this first anniversary I'm going to combine two objectives.  The first is to continue my oblique look at this current, and brilliant, series of Doctor Who.  Listen is an episode which promises old-school frights, which started me thinking about televisual and cinematic fear in a broader sense.  The delicious thrill of being scared is what not only started my life-long interest in the ongoing adventures of the Doctor but led to the creation of this blog, where I can write about films and TV which have sought to deliver chills and thrills across the the years.
So my second objective is a brief run through some screen screams which have actually managed to frighten me, which i promise you isn't an easy thing to do.  I'm not at all brave, just a very seasoned horror viewer.  In doing this; I'm harkening back to the creation of this blog and recalling it's mission statement to share and explore these magical productions (many introduced to me by my Mum!)

To return to Listen; it didn't frighten me.  Based heavily upon invoking common nightmares as this episode was, I fall out of the target audience because I just don't have them.  Nightmares, I mean (beyond the recurring 'realising I'm naked in public' one which we surely all have - but I doubt that would make a good Doctor Who episode even in Steven Moffat's hands).  I don't know why my dreaming is nightmare-free - but there you go.
Where the episode achieves greatness is in linking to last year's already sublime Day of the Doctor, and managing to strengthen both stories in the process.  Bravo! Only four episodes in and already this series knocks several others into a cocked hat.

Now, onto the frights.  Rather than just giving a top ten, I managed to rationalise my own personal screen screams into five distinct categories - see if any of these examples chime with your own terrors.

1. The Unseen Terror

This was actually Listen's creepiest moment - the unknown shape under the bedspread which also recalls The Legend of Hell House and the Jonathon Miller adaptation of M R James' Oh Whistle and I'll come to you, my Lad ('Monty' James will figure again soon).  What you don't see is so much more terrifying then any prosthetic, CGI or costume effect.

An invisible object meets an invisible force -
the 'Monster from the Id' breaches the electrical barrier.
As a child I cowered from the unseen presence of the 'Monster from the Id' in Forbidden Planet.  Its huge invisible mass, buckling the spacecraft stairs and leaving evolution-defying prints in the dusty landscape of Altair 4, was fear fodder of the first degree.
In a more supernatural vein, the psychic attack on a cornered Peter Wyngarde in Night of the Eagle, when we hear a demonic siege against a classroom door, but don't actually see anything but his panic, is terrifying.

Now he believes.  Peter Wyngarde in Night of the Eagle.
Night of the Demon (again based on an MR James story) plays a similar trick but shows it's hand with the fiery demon which was inserted against the Directors wishes. (this creature has since become so iconic that the cinematic horror world would be a poorer place without it, however).

It's in the trees... it's coming!

Bringing us up-to-date, the Paranormal Activity series again uses this unseen menace strategy - I've only seen the first, but to my surprise was very impressed.

2. The Transformation

A staple of horror fiction from various Lycanthropes to Robert Louis Stevenson's classic The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde.  Of all the Hyde adaptations the most effective for me have been Jack Palance's disturbingly satyr-like make-up in the  Dan Curtis TV movie and cuddly old James Nesbitt in the magnificent Moffat/Gatiss-written TV update Jekyll.  But this particular Mr Hyde more properly belongs in the next category.

Jack Palance as Doctor Jekyll - and Mr Hyde.

As  a child I was traumatised by the shock unmasking of the Auton Policeman on Doctor Who - a figure of reassurance suddenly changed into a faceless, murderous monster.  A few years later I was petrified by the 'shock reveal' in the last segment of the Richard Matheson-written anthology Dead of Night.  I took the opportunity to rewatch it last year and although I'm not going to give anything away here, it still rattled me even now.

After performing a black magic ritual, Joan Hackett
gets her precious Bobby back... or does she?

3. The 'Bogey man'

Or 'fear personified'. As I mentioned before, James Nesbitt's startling take on Mr Hyde is properly scary.  Dark contact lenses give him the constant look of a predator about to strike: pupils dilated to eleven, with heightened awareness and deadly malice.  But it's the constant sense of violence bubbling under the surface and about to erupt at any second without warning which really unsettles.

Believe it or not, late Comedian Mel Smith made a genuinely-frightening criminal boss in a 2006 episode of the series Hustle, where he seethed with the same latent but ever-tangible capacity to suddenly deliver severe harm.
The first Hammer Dracula plays a similar trick.  In this film, the Count had so far been an imposing but formally polite gent until Harker makes the mistake of exploring the castle alone. A weird animal shriek heralds his host's violent reappearance, eyes burning red and fangs bared in a snarling embodiment of demonic fury.  I can only imagine the effect it must have had on audiences in 1958  - it definitely makes you sit up and take notice even today.

4. Creeping dread

I suspect this is the most difficult one to pull off effectively, as it's all about creating an unsettling, and sometimes queasy atmosphere which gradually works on your nerves, rather than a 'Boo!' jump/shock moment. And given that there's no accompanying rush of adrenaline , is also perhaps the least fun.

The US remake of the Japanese horror film The Grudge is a good example, with its consistently, disturbingly 'off' tone. The scene where a petrified hospital security guard tracks the shambling progress of a ghoulish apparition as it passes beneath an overhead camera is unbearably unsettling  - all the more so when the figure moves slowly back into view to stare into the lense with its dead black eyes. Brrrrr...
Infamous ground-breaking British  show Ghostwatch achieves its chills by gradually ramping-up the tension with degrees of wrongness in an ordinary suburban home. The events at Foxhill Drive aren't easily forgotten, especially not by me as I was abandoned part way through by someone who claimed that she 'wasn't scared, just tired and had to go to bed.  Right now'.

Parky's in this - so it must surely be true...

5. Coming to life

Ending on a classic technique which rarely fails, whether with a deceased or completely inanimate subject.  The shop window mannequins jerking to life in Doctor Who worked their way so deeply into the collective subconscious that this very scenario was chosen to relaunch the programme in 2005.
It's this scene from the first story which gets me every time though - I know one of them is going to move, but can never tell which ...

Behind you, Dummy!
The dismembered and tidily string and brown paper-wrapped victim returning to life in Amicus's Asylum  just about had me bailing out for bed as a youngster.  Particularly the parceled head which thuds ominously down the steps to come to rest upright, breathing visibly through it's papery shroud.

Finally, if you're ever lucky enough to catch the original television version of Quatermass and the Pit, you'll see an accidental example of 're-animation shock'. Watch out for the first shot of the mummified, insectoid martians, inside their ship.  As the camera moves in on them one of the props suddenly drops loose from the webbing it's suspended in, and made the collective viewing nation jump out of their armchairs in 1958 Britain.

As Doctor Who has featured so abundantly here, I'll wrap up with a quote from the most recent, AND the very first episode of this programme, which perhaps even sums up why some of us like our viewing to be scary:
"Fear makes companions of us all..."

And now it's time for a song, to 'Rock these Horrors':

Friday, 19 September 2014

Questerians* of the Galaxy

By Grabthar's Hammer, never mind Marvel - 15 years ago another unlikely, squabbling team saved the galaxy with wit, astounding visual effects and a prolific science fiction actress on board.

(*fan of fictional science fiction series Galaxy Quest)

Marvel films continued their seemingly unassailable multi-squillion dollar grip on the box office this year with an adaptation of a title even most comic fans hadn't heard of. Astute use of a retro soundtrack and a wise-cracking raccoon has made Guardians of the Galaxy yet another hit for Stan Lee's Empire.
It was fun, but as memories of exactly what I saw, and in what order, fade, I found myself buying a recently-released Blu Ray of another film which once delivered that most rare of events - a genuine, laugh-out-loud great time at the movies.  "Oh, Galaxy Quest", said the assistant as I handed over my money, "we had a real rush on these when the Blu Ray came out!"
Obviously others were caught up in the same flood of nostalgia that I was, but this was a film I saw one-and-a-half decades ago. And to be honest, hasn't really been talked about since. What if my memory was not only deceiving me, but going back proved to be such a disappointing experience that my happy remembrance would be blown to tiny pieces by a blast of cold hard reality?
Well, if my definition of courage has become daring to put on a movie then I'm in a worse state than I thought.  "Never give up, never surrender" as the crew of the NSEA Protector would have it; so the play button was duly punched.

The NTE in the Protector's designation apparently stands for 'Not The Enterprise'
I'm delighted to report that Galaxy Quest's alchemical combination of spoof and homage is still gold. The funny parts are still hilarious and the performances still walk that perfect knife-edge between conviction and parody - resulting in a crew you'd far rather hang with than most of those uptight Star Fleet guys (even if Tim Allen and Co would inevitably get you killed). And the Production values, well they're somehow better than I remember.  And this scares me a little, as it suggests that the last gasp of traditional miniature and optical effects work in the late nineties puts our contemporary CGI-soaked cinema to shame. But let's not follow that flippant tangent, there is so much more to this film than how good it looks.

Dream Weaver: Sigourney finally gets a flattering film hairstyle.
The cast is both eminent and perfectly suited to their roles, from a beautifully blonde Sigourney Weaver, to the initially aloof Alan Rickman whose character(s) somehow emerge with some shreds of dignity surviving. Sam Rockwell was a welcome bonus - I'd completely forgotten he was in this, but my personal favourite is Tony Shaloub. A baffling performance which seems to be operating on a subtly-deranged, disconnected level all of its own - but it completely works. His delightfully un-phased murmur after the experiencing the nerve-shattering matter transporter which leaves the rest of the crew twitching, traumatised wrecks: "that was a hell of a thing..." sums him up perfectly.

But another of Galaxy Quest's achievements is that despite a large cast, every character has his or her moment to shine. One of Sigourney Weaver's involves an instance of the most obvious over-dubbing of the 'F-bomb' in film history, which has become rightfully legendary.

The conceit of the film is well known: the cast of a defunct science fiction television series unwittingly recruited by a beseiged alien race who believe the episodes to be true accounts and the actors capable of saving them. And this means that we get to enjoy Galaxy Quest's cast in what are essentially double roles: their on and off-screen personas which shift and merge in fun ways as the story progresses.

Alan Rickman, as Alexander Dane, as 'Dr Lazarus'.
No wonder the cast almost unanimously claim on the disc extras that this to be the most fun they've ever had on a film (even Alan Rickman in what must be a rare instance of giving an interview), and it has to be said that it shows in the final result.  Tim Allen self-deprecatingly claims that Galaxy Quest is his salvation - possibly the only thing he's done which people like him in.
The Star Trek allusions are multitudinous, multi-layered but never laboured and not essential to the enjoyment of the film.  I love the fact that in a commentary for his wonderful Star Trek revival, JJ Abrams calls Galaxy Quest "...one of the best Star Trek films ever made".  Trekkies themselves have rated Quest above some of the genuine Trek films in order of preference.

Why a film which amply succeeds on so many levels isn't better remembered and celebrated is something of a mystery, but certainly not due to any fault of it's own which I can detect. But perhaps it's appropriate: like the imaginary television programme it depicts, Galaxy Quest has a cult following, and that makes it even more fun.

Friday, 12 September 2014

I am Joe's Eye-stalk

We're going beyond the beyond of beyond,
 and getting under the enemy's skin...

Doctor Who is back after it's longest break since Paul McGann left San Francisco in 1996, and so far it's been rather good. Inevitably I'd like to write about the new series here, but I don't want to slavishly post a review of the latest episode every week, either.  A plethora of up-to-date, well-written reviews are a few key-strokes away on Google, so I'm going to try something a little bit different.
What I'm planning to do is occasionally dip into the new series with a more peripheral look at a particular episode. For example, I covered the first story by banging on about Peter Capaldi for paragraph after over-long paragraph (well, he's great, OK?).
This week's episode has been almost unanimously, and deservedly, declared an instant classic. It delivered exactly what its title: Into the Dalek promised: a miniaturised 'fantastic voyage' through the inner workings of the Doctor's greatest enemy.  So I'm going to look at the first time many fans took the same journey - within the pages of a very special book.

“BEYOND the BEYOND of BEYOND”, we intoned solemnly into the cassette recorder, bellowing every time we came across a word spelt unnecessarily in BOLD CAPITALS, “at the DARK endless edge of ETERNAL SPACE!”.  We were eleven years old, and my friend Adam and I broke off helpless with mirth at our own prepubescent wit.  We were reading from possibly the first ever Doctor Who coffee table book, the legendary 1976 tome Doctor Who and the Daleks Omnibus, and specifically the stunningly illustrated but erratically ‘bold/Caps locked/strip: ‘Invasion – the Enemy Within’.

We might have been mocking, but we loved that book.  Like the Doctor's recent foray, the wonderful cutaway diagram 'The Anatomy of a Dalek' allowed us to see inside a Dalek. We learned that the gun was called a ‘multi-range variable power destructor’ (only here and nowhere else as far as I know), although the organic creature itself appeared to be a large collander of effervescent pea soup. We speculated whether being shot in the pinky finger by a multi-range destructor might kill you.

At the back, every Dalek serial was listed with a tantalising brief description, the closest thing to any kind of programme guide we'd ever seen at this point (even if few of the story names were actually correct).  This ended with the then-latest dalek adventure called Genesis of the Daleks.  The Omnibus was very focused on this serial which we had never seen and a good part of the book consisted of an apparently abridged reprint of Terrance Dick’s Target novelisation - a meticulous on-line Fan has since calculated that almost 5% of the original prose has been removed.  (This was months before I even knew what a Target novelisation was – but I digress, there will be much more about these wonderful little books in an upcoming post).  Pages of the actual Genesis script and images from the story were reproduced, along with a gorgeously lurid illustrated portrait of Davros.

 This all made Genesis of the Daleks seem like the greatest story ever, even though it was clearly inaccurate.  We all knew that the Daleks evolved as a result of a neutronic war with the Thals, not genetically engineered by some wizened, wheelchair-bound slap-head – how could the programme get that so wrong?
The third Doctor story Planet of the Daleks got similar treatment in the second half of the book, which I loved even more as I was, and remain, a steadfast adherent to the gospel according to Jon. And then some glorious colour stills including  a thrilling scene from Genesis where the Daleks apparently corner the Doctor in a BBC carpark (I had no concept of publicity stills at this age).

Like the modern programme-makers, the publishers of the Omnibus were clearly enarmoured with the stack-platformed, long-eared (that’s what the diagram said the Dalek ‘lights’ were) big-screen Dalek versions, as they featured in most of the illustrations.  Oh, the illustrations! Here we finally come to the reason why this book is utterly essential in any fan’s library.  No Doctor Who artist (and there have been many talented professionals over the years), ever came near the verve, spectacle, and sheer insanity of the magnificent work done by the General Illustration Company for this book.
Colour and texture which in isolation might border on unsightly are blended into stunning visions by a masterclass application of composition and technique.

 The illustrations for the Genesis of the Daleks prose are the most bold and surreal, broadly rendered and sparingly coloured, with beautiful use of negative space.
But personally, the artwork accompanying the Planet of the Daleks section is where the book really soars for me.  These are all beautiful pieces boasting a richer palette and more precise rendering, but still masterfully slick and never laboured. My own favourite is the contents page for Planet, featuring the Thals grimly removing the remains of two partially submerged Daleks while the Doctor looks on.  The composition puts the villains at the front, giving the two Daleks a sense of menace despite their predicament, while desperate determination is clear in the Thal's expressions. The Doctor is three-quarter length at the top centre, directing proceedings with a calm authority which is pure Pertwee.

I only wish we could properly credit the criminally anonymous geniuses of the general Illustration Company, the real stars of the Dalek Omnibus. From the startling cover to the literally stellar depictions of Skaro’s solar system and the mighty Dalek Deep Space Cruiser – this was artwork which convinced you of the might, the evil and other-worldliness of the Daleks in a way the programme itself never could.

(With special thanks to my Aunt May. Ten dollars was the most money anyone had ever given me in my ten-year-old life, but at least I spent your generous gift on a book which is still a prized possession and inspiration all these years later.)

Friday, 5 September 2014

Light reading

A good story doesn't have to be embedded in a weighty tome,
sometimes it can be quite Light.

To my shame, I haven't taken the time to read a good book in far too long.  Commuting with a sexy new little Macbook Pro means that time which might once have been spent snuggled within the pages of an engrossing book is now spent pecking ineptly away at a shiny metallic keyboard (for either business, or pleasure).
So when the striking cover of a young adult novel caught my eye recently, I thought: why not?  It seemed to be a little bit about maths and physics, set in Wellington and most importantly, short enough for me to get through before being distracted by other obligations.
Speed of Light is the latest young adult novel by the prolific Joy Cowley, a multi-award winning author of New Zealand fiction.  A passionate advocate of improving child literacy, Cowley claims to have struggled with reading when she was a child and learned valuable lessons through her own experiences:
"I believe that learning to read must be a pleasurable and meaningful exercise. If it isn't, then we teach children to read and to hate reading at the same time."

Before getting to Speed of Light itself, I'll just note that phenomenon some call 'syncronicity'.  I was dimly aware of Joy Cowley, but once starting this book I just happened to lay out an article about her at work, then read an interview with film Producer Dave Gibson who famously filmed Cowley's novel The Quiet One in 1985, and finally learned that she actually lives just down the road from our own home in the Wairarapa.
Such happenstance is appropriate for Speed of Light, a story about encountering and ultimately putting faith in influences beyond mere numbers, logic and financial and material gain. It's a surprisingly gritty tale about a dysfunctional, materialistic family who've somehow fallen out of touch with the fundamentals of life, and the efforts of the youngest child, Jeff, to find solace in the dependable, undeceptive world of numbers.

Tragic circumstances lead to his home life becoming steadily more unbearable; parents financially ruined and violently estranged, and his beloved big sister abandoning him for a doomed relationship with a married man. Eventually, Jeff's final comfort in the rational  and scientific is challenged by the dramatic manifestation of an elderly woman who might be delusional, or might very well be the supernatural agent of his deliverance she claims to be.

Cowley introduces each chapter with a short passage describing a particular scientific principle or definiton, whose relevance to the following section of the story becomes gradually clear.  For example, chapter ten is a turning point; when Jeff's plummeting situation has reached the point where it cannot get any worse, and is cannily prefaced by this description:
A falling object reaches terminal velocity when the sum of the drag force and buoyancy equals the downward force of gravity acting on the object.  Since the net force on the object is then zero, the object has zero accelleration.  Drag depends on the projected area and that is why objects with a large area relative to mass, such as parachutes, have a lower terminal velocity than objects with a small area relative to mass, such as bullets.

Brief observations on the properties of light, the nature of tides, prime numbers and many others are used to begin other chapters with equal deftness and acuity.
As we are often told, it is always darkest before the dawn, and Jeff's mystery 'guardian' opens his eyes to the importance of adhering to life as it should be, before age, cares and woes gradually dull its shining and simple truths.  Or is she simply a senile woman who has rediscovered, or even invented, a childish philosophy in her final, backward-looking days?

Despite being written for 'young adults' Speed of Light isn't an easy read in any sense of the word. It makes you work, and even despair at times, but I hope I'm not giving anything away to reveal that Jeff and his family's eventual re-emergence into the light makes all their beautifully-written tribulations worthwhile.