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!