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Holy Bat-Libel!

There are two reasons why the horror movie briefly became a respectable genre and the subject of ‘quality’ studio releases for a while in the late seventies; the first of these is The Exorcist and the second is Jaws. Most of the films I am thinking of stick pretty close to the template of one or the other – either Satanic forces are at work in the present day (see Gregory Peck in The Omen) or wild animals have grown unhappy with their lot in life and are staging an uprising (see Grizzly, Orca, Tentacles, etc). I suppose there is also a small but robust subgenre of paranoid suspense thrillers based on Ira Levin novels which are also horror-adjacent, too.

As ever, Hollywood studios love a formula and the more respectable cash-ins feature many of the more striking features of whichever film they are knocking off. Then again some of them are more original. Which category Arthur Hiller’s Nightwing falls into isn’t immediately apparent.

On the one hand, it opens with some rather striking landscapes of the American Southwest, depicting the Grand Canyon, what looks very like Montezuma’s Castle, Monument Valley, and so on. (I enjoyed a coach tour of this region a few years ago and this montage brought back some very pleasant memories, which may have predisposed me to like the film – to begin with anyway.) It’s all very atmospheric. Then we find ourselves in the company of police officer Youngman Duran (Nick Mancuso), a member of the Maski tribe (my extensive research – Googling and Wikipedia – indicates that the Maski may be a fictionalised version of the real-life Hopi people, but the evdiecne is oddly inconclusive on the topic). Duran is called to the scene of a dead cow, which is not usually police business except for the fact that the creature is covered in strange, inexplicable wounds and stinks of ammonia. (It is also quite obviously stuffed, a fact which started my opinion of Nightwing on a slow but irreversible decline.)

The plot kind of ambles around for a while after this not-unpromising opening, the most pertinent point being that one of Duran’s friends, a mad old shaman named Abner (George Clutesi), says he has grown sick of the corruption of the modern world and has basically cast a spell to bring about the apocalypse. Not long after he is found dead with his body drained of blood, which starts fewer alarm bells ringing than you might reasonably expect. Meanwhile the local tribal council leader, whose only character trait is sliminess, reveals he is selling mineral rights on sacred land and wants all strange events kept hushed up to avoid a backlash in the media. Duran also bumps into the obligatory British scientist, Philip Payne (the great David Warner, displaying his usual ability to be better than the movie around him), who has something of a mania for exterminating vampire bats. Payne is convinced that a swarm of vampire bats has moved into a cave somewhere in the region – and the news gets even better, for he believes the bats to be carrying plague, as well!

With all this suddenly kicking off, it is of course very unfortunate that a young doctor with whom Juran has a bit of a thing going on (she is played by Kathryn Harrold) is off in the desert with a group of missionaries (presumably they’re on holiday). Everyone is sitting around the campfire having a chat when one of the missionaries says words to the effect of, ‘Wait, did you hear that?’ as something flutters by in the darkness. Right on cue, a cloud of winged pests appear out of nowhere and commence sucking on the evangelical posse.

Up to this point the film has been essentially stolid, nothing very special, but not without points of interest. As soon as the bats turn up on screen, however… well, chief fake bat wrangler was the noted Italian technician Carlo Rambaldi, who is celebrated by those who know about special effects, mainly because he designed the animatronics for both Alien and E.T. the Extra-terrestrial. I should also point out that he did some decent monsters for bad films like the original version of Dune, and not-great monsters for films that only I seem to like (the 1976 version of King Kong being the obvious example). This, on the oher hand, is Rambaldi doing really bad monsters for a film which has largely been lost to history. It’s not just the bat puppets which kill the film, though – the whole array of techniques that Hiller wheels on to try and make this sequence work fall completely flat and render it comical rather than remotely scary. The back-projection is risible, the use of speeded-up film is obvious, and the actors understandably struggle to look convincingly frightened.

It may indeed have been the case that they edited one set-piece bat attack together, took one look at it, and then attempted to restructure their killer bat movie so the actual killer bats have the minimal possible time on screen. It makes you realise how lucky Spielberg was to be making a film about a shark – you can film a shark attack without actually putting the fish on screen, it just stays under the water and you get the actor to splash about and scream. This is not an option with an attack by a swarm of killer bats. You either leave the whole thing to the imagination and just show the aftermath, or it’s rubber bat time.

Certainly, the bats are used sparingly throughout the rest of the film. Juran shakes off the venal tribal leader and teams up with Warner’s character and his girlfriend to track down the bats and wipe them out. This is fairly pedestrian stuff, with set pieces that don’t quite pop – at one point the three of them are stuck in a chickenwire cage with the bats trying to gnaw their way in, while Warner tries to shoot a dart with a tracking device in it at a tiny little bat. Warner’s performance is one of the more memorable elements of the film, mainly because of the monomaniacal hatred he constantly displays towards desmodus rotundus: ‘they’re the quintessence of evil… the destruction of vampire bats is what I live for.’ I know that Jaws has drawn criticism for giving sharks a bad name, but Nightwing arguably misrepresents vampire bats (small, inoffensive, surprisingly altruistic creatures) even more severely.

The other mildly distinctive thing about Nightwing, within its subgenre at least, is the mystical angle, though this is left carefully ambiguous: have the bats been whistled up by the shaman’s curse, or is it just a coincidence? The question is left open. Juran does keep seeing the spirit of the dead man during the closing stages of the film, but as he is full of hallucinogenic roots by this point, this hardly constitutes a definitive answer to the question.

Nightwing hangs together as a narrative, and clearly has potential to be a competent movie, but commits the cardinal sin of being quite boring most of the way through. It’s a horror movie about nature in revolt where they barely show any revolting nature, and all the characters are stock figures whom the actors struggle to bring to life. The bats drag this down to the level of being a bad movie, but even without that crushing drawback it would still be an extremely tough film to recommend.

Amuse-Butchery

Here’s a name that has rather unexpectedly drifted up out of the mists of the past: Mark Mylod, long-time film and TV director, whose first movie, 2002’s Ali G Indahouse, dates back even unto the pre-blog days when I was solely doing this on a weird appendage to the BBC website. As you can see if you click the link, I was distinctly unimpressed by the film at the time, but – it may shock you to learn – Mr Mylod has gone on to have a solid career in both the UK and the US. (He’s the kind of person that Former Next Desk Colleague Now Manager may have worked with in his previous life as a TV editor; I must check.)

That said, it’s been a few years since Mylod’s done a movie, and his new one certainly looks like a change of pace from his previous work: it is The Menu, which feels rather like a horror film made for people who are normally a bit sniffy about horror. Or is it a satire? I think it’s probably a satire, to be honest, but a satire which has decided to hedge its bets by looking a bit like a horror film. This strikes me as a sensible strategy and one which doesn’t do the film any harm.

The film opens with enthusiastic foodie Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) preparing for the experience of a lifetime: he and his companion Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) are paying $1250 apiece to spend the evening at Hawthorne, a very exclusive restaurant on a private island. Also attending are a pretentious food critic (Janet McTeer) and her editor, three nouveau rich bros with far more money than taste, a veteran politician and his wife, and a fading film star (John Leguizamo) and his PA, who is trying to quit but finding it a challenge.

Hawthorne is famous for its unique and enigmatic menus – every sitting is different, and specially prepared with great precision by its head chef, Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). Having received a tour of the island from Slowik’s steely head waiter (Hong Chau), everyone settles down for what they fully expect to be the meal of a lifetime. This turns out to be exactly what they get, although their lifetimes turn out to be somewhat shorter than they had anticipated when they arrived on the island.

Perhaps you can see what I mean about the horror trappings of The Menu: a group of people arrive on a secluded private island and find that their host has more planned than they originally expected. They have, in fact, been specially selected according to a rather particular set of criteria, and the fact that one of the people who have turned up is not the one featured on the guest list turns out to be pivotal to the plot. It’s not a million miles distant from fairly recent films like The Hunt and the horror version of Fantasy Island, in its premise anyway. The trailer makes it quite clear that, before the end, there will be a sequence in which many of the guests will be pursued across country by burly members of the kitchen staff.

That said – and this really shouldn’t come as a surprise given Mylod’s involvement as director – while some of the events of the film may be horrific (there are various stabbings, dismemberments, immolations, a drowning and a suicide) these never feel like the raison d’etre of the film, which they possibly would if this were an out-and-out horror – the movie seldom dwells on the gore, it is more about the idea of the violence than the grisly details. It’s an arch confection, and never that visceral.

Instead, this really is more of a black comedy, and specifically a social satire. The most obvious target is the world of the celebrity chef and the ridiculous adulation they occasionally receive for dishes which no sensible restaurant would have on their menu – a few years ago an elite restaurant in the UK started serving things like snail-flavoured porridge and bacon ice cream, and of course it very quickly became a kind of gastronomic mecca. The sheer absurdity of some of the conceptual courses that Slowik serves up to his guests is genuinely very funny, as are their reactions to the food (not to mention the helpful captions detailing the precise ingredients of the dishes) – at one point he sends out empty plates dabbed with sauces, for rigorously logical and well-explained reasons. Later on, as the tone darkens and the guests begin to suspect what’s going on, they get individualised tortillas, each one laser-inscribed with incriminating images of them.

However, there’s something a little more general going on here too, which is why it isn’t a great surprise to find Adam McKay listed as one of the producers of the film – he may be best known as a comedy director, but – amongst other things – he made the incisive, socially-committed comedy-drama The Big Short. The joke here is on the filthy rich and the careless way they make use of their vast wealth. From early on the film is drawing attention to the different levels of social strata occupied by the serving staff and the guests – Tyler is startled when a junior chef knows his name, but (as Margot notes) it doesn’t occur to him to ask the man’s name in return. Later on the distinction between those who give and those who take proves to be of the deepest significance.

The satire becomes increasingly grotesque one as it continues. You do get the sense that the idea of doing the satire was the priority, and the rest of the plot was built around it – it gets a bit unravelled towards the end, and perhaps could do with losing a course or two – certainly some of the characters’ actions, and their motivations, never quite ring true as those of real people: these are mostly caricatures, arch grotesques.

Nevertheless the performances are excellent, particularly from Fiennes and Taylor-Joy – Fiennes has the tricky job of essentially acting as the MC for the whole movie, and does it rather well. Taylor-Joy has become something of a fixture in all kinds of films since her early roles in horror, but as ever she brings a touch of class along with that truly remarkable bone structure. Then again, this is a classy movie, well-made, witty, and with something to say. Not quite a horror film per se, but horror-adjacent in the best possible way.

The Haunting of the Liberator

Here’s a hypothesis to mull over: the reason that so much television science fiction, particularly that from the 1960s and 1970s, is not very good, stems from the fact that it simply wasn’t possible to make a living writing SF TV scripts back then. (And this was when TV SF was a much more frequent element of the TV schedules.) As a result, most ostensibly SF TV shows ended up with scripts written by journeyman authors who were likely much more comfortable knocking out episodes of Z Cars and Crown Court. As we have discussed, Terry Nation, arguably one of the most prominent creators of SF throughout the 1960s and 1970s, actually spends most of his time writing nothing of the sort – if you’re an SF purist, anyway. Nation writes action-adventure stories, often very well, but genuine science fiction? Not so much.

And so it is something of a surprise whenever an actual genre writer gets tapped to contribute to broadcast SF. Christopher Bidmead had a go at getting proper SF writers on board to write Dr Who for its 1980-81 season (perhaps in the process misunderstanding the essential nature of that series, but not being a Dr Who fan it’s not for me to comment); one of the names Tom Baker mentioned in an interview as a possible candidate was Tanith Lee, a prolific writer of fantasy and SF novels and short stories.

It never came to pass, but the very fact Lee’s name was in the frame at all was probably the result of her having already been employed by Chris Boucher to write two episodes of Blake’s 7. Given that just the other day I was suggesting that Blake’s 7 isn’t really a proper SF show, Lee’s first contribution, Sarcophagus, has a damn good try at proving that it can be. Put together with Rumours of Death, it constitutes a major late-season spike in quality for the show – the fact that both episodes are directed by Fiona Cumming is clearly not a coincidence.

The quality of Sarcophagus (yes, let’s not beat about the bush, this is another good one) is even more surprising given it is that usually ill-favoured beast, a bottle show – an episode constructed to take place largely on a programme’s standing sets and featuring a minimum of guest characters. This is usually done for budgetary reasons, though Cumming manages to squeeze a fairly lengthy film sequence into the opening moments of the episode.

This takes place in what looks like an exotic pavilion on an eerie alien world, where robed and masked figures perform a strange ritual; it’s all a bit interpretative dance-y and (initially at least) wilfully impenetrable, until the figures all withdraw and the pavilion lifts into space – yes, it was a spaceship all along.

The alien ship eventually crosses the path of the Liberator, which is on the way to do a little speculative prospecting on an asteroid with unusual properties (the crew still seem to just be wandering about doing different things from week to week). However, the appearance of the alien, apparently a derelict, puts an end to this, as they decide to go aboard – even after it seems to start sending psionic messages to Cally. Almost at once things get a little bit ominous, as the teleport seems to be malfunctioning and the alien ship is completely unmanned, except for a dessicated corpse. Something causes the ship to explode, and Avon and Vila are only saved from the blast by Cally’s bravery.

Before the crew can get back to their plan originally in progress, it becomes apparent that they have brought more than dust back with them from the alien craft: a presence which has somehow bonded with Cally by means of her telepathy and has the power to disrupt the functioning of both Zen and Orac. The intruder takes Cally’s form and proceeds to have a good try at taking over the ship, informing the others that she has a liking for ‘intelligent menials’ – slaves, to you or me – but this is not an essential requirement. If need be she will kill them all and operate the ship alone…

This almost sounds like a Star Trek plot – in some ways it’s about as close together as the two series ever get – but it’s hard to imagine a Trek episode indulging in the same extravagant weirdness which makes Sarcophagus so memorable. This is here in the episode right from the beginning, with the long scene at the start of the alien’s funeral. The episode is crediting the audience with both intelligence and attention span here, as the significance of this only becomes apparent later (and even then is partly implied). The masked figures seem somehow to be archetypes, performing ritual functions – the Clown, the Troubadour, the Warrior, and a more ambiguous individual dressed entirely in black. On-the-ball viewers may guess what’s coming and not be entirely surprised when members of the Liberator crew later appear in those same robes – it’s no surprise that Vila is the Clown and Tarrant the Warrior, though presenting Dayna as the Troubadour feels like a stretch (though Josette Simon even gets to sing a bit this episode and does not disgrace herself). Avon, of course, is the man in black.

In the end the episode turns out to be as much about Avon as it does Cally – or about their relationship, anyway. One gets the impression that Tanith Lee was a fan of the show before coming on board to write it, as she certainly seems very familiar with the characters and their past history – she still struggles to find anything to do with Tarrant beyond just making him a loud alpha-male bully though, but he does get a fairly good speech acknowledging the fraught nature of his relationship with Avon. There’s a sense in which the episode almost feels like a certain flavour of fan fiction, in that it’s predicated on the existence of an unspoken attraction between Avon and Cally which, to be perfectly honest, there has been very little sign of in past episodes (I suppose if you look hard at Mission to Destiny there may be something going on there, but Blake’s 7 is very much a show of its time where this sort of thing wasn’t wallowed in). It’s implied that Cally is incapable of killing Avon, due to her feelings for him, which turns out to be rather important given the alien’s bond with her. Jan Chappell makes the most of an unusually good episode for her, and Paul Darrow supports her well.

Once again Fiona Cumming lands all the key beats and gives the episode the atmosphere and treatment it deserves; as I’ve mentioned, the direction really shines in both this and the previous episode. (Now that I think about it, her work on the various Dr Who stories she did was also pretty good, though my non-fannish recollection is that the scripts usually weren’t as good as the ones she has to work with here.) So far she seems to be the only third-season director who’s found a way to make the scripts sing – though she has been given unusually good ones. The fact she was never invited back to work on the show again seems to me a terrible oversight, though we seem to be approaching something of a changing-of-the-guard as far as the series’ directorial staff goes, as it enters its final phase. Nevertheless, Cumming’s work on the series is an outstanding testament to her talent.

Schlock Therapy

Jack Cardiff’s The Mutations (released in 1974) is not a film which appears to be overly concerned by the attention span of its audience, which in our age of hyperactive, attention-grabbing gimmickry l actually find rather refreshing. It opens with a series of very long, slow, static takes of plants sprouting and developing (courtesy of the magic of time-lapse photography), over which the credits play. Grab-you-by-the-throat stuff this is not. Even when the credits conclude and we are off into the story proper, it doesn’t exactly burst into life, for we are at a scientific lecture delivered by university boffin Professor Nolter (Donald Pleasence, who indicates that Nolter is a mad scientist by doing an ever-so-slightly Germanic accent). His talk is on the development of life, and in particular the key role played by mutants. He also seems very keen on talking about carnivorous plants (that old staple of the dodgy low-budget horror movie), and proceeds to do so in some detail.

Watching all this are a bunch of they’re-a-bit-too-old-to-be-students, amongst their number Scott Antony, Olga Anthony, Jill Haworth, and Julie Ege (who had already done at least one Hammer movie by this point and had another one either lined up or just finished). They all watch fairly attentively as Nolter lays in the plot and themes of the movie, culminating in his belief that induced mutation could be used to bring about the next step in human evolution – specifically, a plant-human hybrid – an idea he seems to have nicked off Michael Gough in Konga. (Yes, so we’re already cutting the movie some slack, for it absolutely beggars belief that any credible university would keep someone on the payroll who is so clearly as mad as a mongoose – not that British horror movies don’t have form in this department, of course.)

The students depart the lecture and head off into mid-70s London, where the movie is set. However, something alarming befalls Olga Anthony, as she finds herself pursued across a park by – what’s the term we’re supposed to use these days? Dwarves? Midgets? Persons of restricted growth? Anyway, there are a few of them in The Mutations. Anthony manages to outrun them, as you might expect, but is grabbed by a looming figure anyway. This is Lynch, the hideously deformed man the short people are employed by; when not kidnapping young starlets he runs a freak show. The most notable thing about Lynch is probably that he is played by Tom Baker in one of his last pre-Dr Who roles; possibly this was the film that led Baker to temporarily pack in acting and work on a building site until destiny came calling – you could certainly understand why.

Anyway, it turns out that Lynch has done a deal with Nolter – he kidnaps young starlets and drags them off to Nolter’s lab, where Nolter performs his fiendish experiments and transforms them into hybrid mutants. Once Nolter has perfected the science he will fix Lynch’s face for him, and possibly help out the other members of the freak show too. In the meantime he transforms Anthony into a half-alligator hybrid mutant (don’t get excited, we barely see this particular monster).

It takes a while for the other mature students to notice their friend has gone missing, but perhaps they are distracted by the arrival of visiting American scientist Brian Redford (Brad Harris) – in the finest traditions of this kind of movie, the imported foreign star is enormously wooden and playing the least interesting character in the film anyway. Quite by chance, while showing him the sights of London, they end up taking him to Lynch’s freak show (maybe Trafalgar Square was full or something). They’re not allowed in to see the alligator girl, but they do get the regular freak show – which features people with genuine anatomical and genetic anomalies, and as a result is distinctly uncomfortable to watch.

The odd thing about The Mutations is that while there’s always something going on, it doesn’t really feel like a movie with an actual plot – it just seems to go from one lurid and provocative set-piece to another, strung together by some rather pedestrian connective tissue. Nolter goes on with his experiments, Lynch torments and is tormented by the side-show performers (when not out kidnapping), and Julie Ege wonders why her friends keep dropping out of sight. You know where it’s going; the pleasure (if that’s the right word for it) comes from the incidental horrors of the movie.

Or, to put it slightly differently: Donald Pleasence plays a mad scientist who hires a deformed freak-show owner to kidnap young people and transform them into monsters for largely spurious pseudo-scientific reasons. It’s not the most outlandish premise for a horror movie, I suppose, but it’s getting there.

Or, to be even more reductive – it’s The Island of Doctor Moreau meets Freaks, set in mid-1970s London. You know, when you put it like that it actually sounds like this might be an interesting and even fun movie. But I have to report that the finished product, though possessed of a sort of grim capacity to fascinate, is actually quite hard work.

Mind you, the same could obviously be said of the original Freaks, which I have already written about. The link between the two films is obvious, and openly acknowledged – there’s a scene reprising the famous ‘we accept you – one of us’ sequence from the Todd Browning film, although Tom Baker is less than delighted to be accepted into the side-show fraternity. The curiosity of seeing one of these early Baker performances is possibly one reason for watching The Mutations, though I must insert a strong caveat here – not only does the heavy make-up he’s under render the great man almost unrecognisable, it also severely impairs his performance (he can barely open his mouth). Nevertheless, power and presence shine through, and he easily holds his own against Pleasence.

At the time Pleasence was in the process of carving out the horror niche that would eventually lead to his being cast in Halloween – he did this movie, Deathline, and Tales That Witness Madness in the space of a few years. This is actually a lot like Deathline, to be honest – it has the same nondescript group of youths in peril, takes place in a down-at-heel, seedy version of modern London, and seems to be trying harder to be disturbing rather than genuinely scary. This is the sillier film by some way – by the time Nolter’s half-man half-Venus fly trap creation starts rising from the Thames and bothering tramps, it’s quite quite clear that this is just exploitative schlock.

It’s an ignoble end to Jack Cardiff’s directorial career, and while it does exert a strange hold, this is mainly because it’s so determinedly grotesque and repulsive. To a modern viewer it looks unpleasant and exploitative on a dozen different levels, to say nothing of cheap and tacky. And yet in the 1970s you commonly found actors of note appearing in this sort of thing. The Mutations is not alone in this – but few low-budget horrors even of the 70s have such a sense of tawdriness about them.

Frankenmantis

Would it have been possible, I ask myself, to watch Nathan Juran’s The Deadly Mantis again and not write about it afterwards? Constant Reader, I think not: the watch-assimilate-write process has become almost reflexive at this point, to say nothing of the fact that writing about The Deadly Mantis will, in some small way, justify the fact that I expended about an hour and a half of my finite and precious lifespan in watching the damned thing again.

This is yet another of the Atomic Bug movies which were such a mainstay of B-movie SF throughout the mid to late 1950s, and most of the tropes are in full effect. I suppose you could divide these films up into two groups: ones where the giant bugs are realised through the use of photographic blow-ups, and ones where the special effects are basically achieved through using puppets. (Not much place for stop-frame animation in the world of 50s B-movies, unless you were Ray Harryhausen, of course.) This is one of the latter, although they do use a live insect at one point for a long shot. Puppets would have been, I suspect, more expensive to realise, and this might lead you to expect that a puppet movie like Deadly Mantis would be a higher-budget, more prestigious production. In this expectation you would be badly wrong.

Things get off to a frankly unimpressive start as the camera roams across a world map, seemingly at random, before settling on a small island near Antarctica, which then explodes for no reason whatsoever. ‘For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction,’ intones a stentorian voice-over, which in B-movie world means that spontaneously detonating Antarctic islands are counterbalanced by melting glaciers in the Arctic – one of which contains, well, a praying mantis the size of a jet airliner. (I hope you are not going to allow headspace to silly questions along the lines of ‘what’s that doing there, then?’)

Titles roll and then the film makes one of the peculiar gear-stripping shifts of tone which may in fact be its most distinctive feature: we find ourselves, somehow, in the midst of a patriotic American public information film, as the stentorian voice-over becomes much more cheery. The virtues of radar as a protection from those dreadful (but carefully un-named ) Commies are extolled, details of the US radar defence umbrella are given, and finally we are shown the process by which the Distant Early Warning system has been constructed. Virtually all of this takes the form of stock footage.

Radar even turns out to be useful when the film runs out of stock footage and has to resort to hiring actors: one of the DEW outposts picks up a strange blob on the screen, closing on their location; a high-pitched buzzing is heard and then the roof falls in. This is one of those movies which unthinkingly sticks to tropes and conventions which it really has no reason to be using. The movie is called The Deadly Mantis. We have even seen the deadly mantis defrosting. So why the director keeps the deadly mantis off-screen and attempts to generate a sense of mystery about just what could be responsible for the destroyed outpost and various other early bits of mayhem is rather baffling (and, ironically enough, infinitely more mysterious than anything in the actual movie).

Square-jawed DEW commander and Air Force officer Joe Parkman (Craig Stevens) eventually turns up a giant spike which he has no idea what to do with; he asks the Pentagon, who ask the Museum of Natural History, who get onto ace entomologist and silver fox Nedrick Jackson (William Hopper). The fact that Nedrick Jackson is a scientist is signalled by the fact he wears a white lab coat even in his office. Soon enough he and the obligatory Token Love Interest character (a slightly matronly Alix Talton, but it takes all sorts, of course) are flown up to the Arctic to hunt for the beastie.

Suffice to say the mantis attacks an Eskimo village in Greenland (more creative use of stock footage ensues) and then the DEW HQ itself, before heading off south at 200mph. The Ground Observer Corps is roped in to keep an eye out for the monster, which includes giving them a picture of a praying mantis. Presumably this is so they don’t raise a false alarm if, say, Mothra happens to be passing and they get confused.

It all wraps up with a sequence quite blatantly ripped off from Them!, with the mantis at bay in the Manhattan Tunnel and the infantry being sent in to finish it off. (The caption to a photo from the climactic sequence, featured in my copy of the 1985 book Monsters and Horror Movies, snarkily makes it clear that ‘those are not supposed to be toy cars’.) But then this is par for the course for a movie which is almost completely derivative, with virtually no identity of its own. The deep-frozen monster is a steal from The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, with perhaps a touch of The Thing from Another World thrown in, but it does increasingly turn into Them! or one of its knock-offs as it proceeds. That procession is made possible only by the regular and heavy use of stock footage. There’s virtually no mantis in the mixture, just a lot of other sources stitched rather clumsily together.

Is there anything positive to be said about The Deadly Mantis? If so, I’m really struggling to find it. I suppose one of the things that really kills the movie is that – unlike even in other terrible monster movies like The Giant Claw or Beginning of the End – the characters here are bland and flat, just shuffled around on screen to suit the plot rather than having anything approaching personalities. The role of protagonist is awkwardly split between Joe and Nedrick, with the result that neither of them is a particularly strong presence.

If you have never seen an Atomic Bug movie from the 1950s and then suddenly find yourself afflicted by a burning desire to watch one, and the only exponent you have available to you is The Deadly Mantis, then… well, what kind of situations are you putting yourself into, for heaven’s sake? Plan your life better. Watching movies like this should not be a priority under any circumstances. Now just go and sort your life out.

Irony and History

Stephen Frears’ The Lost King appears to have an opening title sequence and score which is a homage to Psycho: this is by no means an untouched well when it comes to people making reference and paying tribute, of course, but it does seem a bit unusual given what we are supposedly dealing with here is a true-story comedy-drama about events in fairly recent history (although the whole question of what actually constitutes recent history is one of the issues raised in passing by the film itself). The film is, in some ways, a follow-up to the very well-received and accomplished Philomena from 2013 – Frears directed that one too, and it likewise had a script and lead performance from Steve Coogan (whose production company is behind it). One might be forgiven for having reasonably high expectations, especially given the appearance in the lead role of Sally Hawkins, a very able and accomplished actress.

Hawkins plays Phillippa Langley, who as the film opens is an unfulfilled office worker in Edinburgh – the fact that wherever she goes she passes some feature or other of outstanding natural or architectural beauty doesn’t seem to cheer her up much, which only goes to suggest that a) familiarity breeds content and b) Screen Scotland’s support for the production was not entirely string-free. She is separated from her husband (Coogan), though their relationship is amicable, and suffers occasionally with ME – which her boss seems to use as a pretext to promote younger and blonder co-workers over her.

Things change when she is obliged to take one of her sons to see Shakespeare’s Richard III. Being (it is not-very-subtly suggested) something of a put-upon figure, she finds herself empathising with Richard himself rather more than she expected, and she gets quite vocal about the fallacy in the automatic assumption that anybody with a physical deformity must also somehow be morally lacking too (a perfectly sound and reasonable position, but presented here in a very on-point and slightly hectoring way which feels extremely 2022).

Anyway, she ends up joining the local branch of the Richard the Third Society and, after expressing a desire to visit his grave and pay her respects, is surprised to learn that no-one knows where it is. She sets out to rectify this, doing her own research into everything involved, even at the expense of some of her other obligations. If this seems to you like a sudden and rather niche interest for a character to develop – I’m struggling not to use the word obsession – then I entirely agree with you; the script does its best to sell the idea, not least by having an apparition of Richard (played by Harry Lloyd) occasionally appear to Langley for chats and moral support.

The quest eventually involves a trip down to Leicester, which looks like the likely area. Langley’s investigations eventually lead her to a car park, where (it is suggested) she is seized by an almost clairvoyant sense that this is where the king is buried. Would it be appropriate in the circumstances to suggest she has a sudden hunch? Maybe not. (Perhaps you are already getting a sense of some of the reasons why I had issues with the script of this film.) Of course, persuading others of this is not that easy (and understandably so, you might say), and the rest of the film deals with her struggles with the archaeological and academic establishment, leading up to the tense moment where the car park is finally excavated, and…

Well, spoilers, obviously, unless you were watching TV a few years ago when the re-burial of King Richard III’s remains was extensively covered (it wasn’t quite as grand an affair as the more recent royal funeral, but on the other hand the queues were a lot less punishing). There’s no doubt that the story of the discovery of Richard III’s grave more than five hundred years after his death is a remarkable one and worthy of the big-screen treatment. Worthy of this kind of treatment? Well, this I am not so sure of.

There is of course a profound irony at work here. The Ricardians, to give them their proper title, have long been of the opinion that Richard III wasn’t the monster of popular repute: Shakespeare’s persuasive characterisation of him as a machiavellian supervillain was done at the behest of the ruling Tudors, the theory goes, who had a vested interest in denigrating the man the founder of their dynasty had overthrown. Fair enough. If you’re going to do a story based on actual events, especially quite recent ones, then you have an obligation to get your facts straight.

Quite how this squares with a film which may yet be the subject of legal action on the grounds of its own historical inaccuracy is a little unclear, but there’s obviously scope here for schadenfreude (if you’re anything like me, at least). You can see how it suits the film’s narrative thrust and moral premise for Phillippa Langley to be presented as a determined underdog-like figure, battling a dismissive establishment in the name of something she truly believes in – but it’s also entirely understandable that the representative of Leicester University depicted here as a slimy self-serving politician who’s prejudiced against the disabled should feel the need to explore the possibility of suing the film-makers for defamation of character.

I don’t know who’s right and who’s wrong, though I will say that I lived in Leicester for three months last year and the bus service is excellent. I am inclined to doubt the version of events as presented in the film, though, and not just the scene in which Steve Coogan goes to watch Skyfall at the cinema several months before the film was actually released. The film would have you believe that Phillippa Langley went to watch a production of Richard III and a couple of weeks later was solving a historical mystery which had baffled the world for centuries. Even if it were true, it would have to be presented a lot more convincingly than it is here.

There’s also a kind of anti-intellectualism implicit in the film; Langley’s attraction to the Richard case is presented in largely sentimental terms, and at several points her intuition comes into conflict with the more rational approach of the archaeologists and academics (mostly men) she is regularly locking horns with. Naturally she is proved right, of course. To be fair, Langley herself has spoken of having a strange feeling upon visiting the car park for the first time, but, you know, we’re getting a bit anecdotal at this point. The film notably fails to mention that the car park in question had been identified as a possible site of Richard’s grave as far back as the mid-1970s: once again, historical fact comes off worst in any conflict with the story they actually want to tell.

The actors, who apart from Hawkins and Coogan are mostly people you will recognise from other low-budget British movies and telly programmes (James Fleet, Amanda Abbington, Mark Addy), do the best they can with the material, though Coogan the script-writer fails to find much for Coogan the actor to get his teeth into – perhaps he’s there on screen just as a face to guarantee funding for the film? He gets the odd funny line – ‘Boys! Your mum’s found Richard the Third!’ he cries to his children at one point – but this isn’t nearly as good a vehicle for him as Philomena was. You equally get a strong sense of Hawkins repeatedly bashing into the limitations of a rather thinly characterised protagonist.

I suspect the movie of the court case provoked by The Lost King (should there ever be one) may well turn out to be rather more interesting than The Lost King itself, which is fairly undistinguished in every department despite the talent involved. There is certainly a fascinating story to be told here, but not like this. Its own lack of self-awareness is probably the most interesting thing about it.

Exaggerated Greatness

As I think I’ve said, the third season of Blake’s 7 was the one I was most familiar with, certainly until the show started coming out on VHS in the early 90s: I saw it on both its original transmissions, as opposed to nothing from the first two years and only part of season four (most of that only on its repeat showing). My memories from 1980 are fragmentary: some episodes clearly made more impact than others. I’m guessing I missed Children of Auron entirely, as nothing from watching it again recently rang any bells, but quite substantial portions of episodes like Aftermath and City at the Edge of World did match up with my misty recollections. (Further research indicates that Children of Auron got skipped from the 1981 repeat run, which may explain why I’ve no memory of it.)

Even back in 1980 Chris Boucher’s Rumours of Death struck me as a bit unusual – mainly the unusual in media res opening, which finds Avon being held prisoner in a Federation interrogation centre, where he has apparently been for some days. What’s going on remains obscure until the arrival of Federation torturer Shrinker (John Bryans). Shrinker doesn’t know Avon’s identity, but – assuming we’ve been paying attention – we know that Shrinker is the man Avon was on his way to kill before he got diverted last episode. And so it proves: Shrinker has been implicated in the death of Avon’s lover Anna Grant, which he intends to take revenge for. Yes, Avon has let himself be captured so they will eventually send Shrinker to interrogate him, at which point he summons up the rest of the crew for an escape-by-teleport, taking Shrinker with them.

Already this is starting to feel like an unusually dark and restrained episode, and the next scene only continues with this: Tarrant and the others mock and ridicule their terrified prisoner, much to the disgust of Cally. Boucher gets the original regulars spot-on – Avon recognises that Cally is the most moral of the group, and doesn’t involve her in his revenge plot, but with Vila there is an obvious and unspoken understanding: both criminals, both highly skilled, both ultimately driven by self-interest.

One of the many very pleasing things about Rumours of Death is the way it addresses the issue of what’s been going on back on Earth since the end of the Intergalactic War. The answer is that the revolution Blake had been hoping for did break out – but, it’s implied, factionalism and poor leadership led to a counter-revolution which kept Servalan and her clique in power. Elsewhere on Earth, preparations are being made for the first official reception to be held by Servalan at her official home, Residence One (another of those reconstructions of ancient architecture, or so the script would like you to accept). But it transpires that the rebellion hasn’t quite been snuffed out, and an attempt is underway to depose the President and return control of the Federation to a People’s Council (this lot seem as murderously brutal as the existing regime, so it’s difficult to imagine they will be much of an improvement).

And, naturally, Avon and the others walk into the midst of this, for Shrinker reveals to Avon that the one truly responsible for Anna Grant’s death is a Federation operative code-named Bartholomew, whose identity is known to Servalan and her closest advisors. (The twist which connects the coup plotline with Avon’s search for Bartolomew is moderately guessable, but even the limited way in which Boucher’s script and Fiona Cumming’s direction are able to obfuscate it is quite impressive in the circumstances.)

Maybe my critical faculties are impaired, having just come through a run of episodes mostly as bad as Volcano and Harvest of Kairos, but Rumours of Death looks exceptionally good to me, easily the best of the third season so far, perhaps even the best of the entire series. Partly this is down to the episode’s willingness to be experimental in both script and direction, and of course there’s some of Chris Boucher’s best-ever dialogue for the series: ‘Have you finally lost your nerve?’ Avon demands of a chained and possibly traumatised Servalan. ‘Have you murdered your way to the wall of an underground room?’ ‘It’s an old wall, Avon. It waits,’ she replies, with almost a hint of pity for him.

Beyond all this, the episode really works as a sharp reminder of what Blake’s 7 was originally about, and what series three so far has – mostly – failed to be: a cynical look at the politics of authoritarianism and revolution, albeit dressed up as a science-fiction adventure. Rumours of Death is entirely missing the pulp sci-fi elements (and, as a result, the ropey visual effects) which feature so prominently in the bad episodes of the season: I think I’m right in saying there isn’t a single model shot of the Liberator in it, which may be unique. With its palace revolutions, torturers, and undercover operatives it’s almost more like an episode of The Professionals than conventional science fiction. It drags the series back to where it’s supposed to be, and fulfils the promise of the third season by exploring the post-War settlement and the relationship between Avon and Servalan.

Of course, nothing is quite perfect, and I suppose we must address one slight head-scratcher arising from this story in terms of the series’ wider continuity. Rumours of Death establishes that the woman Avon knew as Anna Grant was, to say the least, using a false name, and essentially was not the woman he believed her to be. So what are we to make of the season two episode Countdown, in which we meet her brother, who is very cross with Avon for supposedly causing her death? If Anna Grant was a fake identity, who the hell is this guy and what’s his beef with Avon?

Well, naturally, a couple of possibilities occur to me: firstly, there really was an Anna Grant, whose identity was taken over by the woman Avon knew, and Del Grant is the brother of the real Anna. This does assume that – somehow – Del Grant never learned that the Anna Grant Avon was involved with wasn’t actually his sister, which is hard to imagine plausibly happening, but may just be possible. The other is that Del Grant isn’t really anyone’s brother, but some poor schmuck the Federation have brainwashed and memory-implanted into believing he’s Anna Grant’s brother, to add credibility to her cover identity and potentially act as a bodyguard. Again, it’s quite far-fetched, but there doesn’t seem to be an especially plausible explanation for what appears to be going on in this case.

This is the definition of a fannish question, anyway: nobody watching Rumours of Death in isolation, or even as a fairly casual viewer, would be aware of the issue. To be honest, anyone watching Rumours of Death in absolute isolation would probably come away thinking what a terrific series Blake’s 7 was: intelligent, cynical, hard-edged, and properly dark and dramatic, the characters moving around one another in a dance of nihilistic pain. It’s not all this good, obviously. But it’s nice to fantasise about a world where it was.

Majesty and Mortality

When superheroes look death in the face, it usually doesn’t go that well for the fellow with the scythe – but different circumstances obviously apply when it comes to Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. The first Black Panther film was phenomenally successful both commercially and critically, even having a significant influence on the zeitgeist – which would have made a sequel a sure thing even without the ten-year plan that Marvel Studios usually have in place for their properties and characters. However, the untimely death of Chadwick Boseman, who played Black Panther in the first film and various other Marvel projects, inevitably presented the studio with problems as far as continuing this thread of the franchise is concerned. Quietly forgetting about the character wasn’t really an option, and it would obviously have been profoundly insensitive to recast such a prominent figure.

So the option they’ve gone for is to address Boseman’s death by writing it into the movie – the sequel opens with the Black Panther dying off-screen of a disease which is somehow connected to the destruction of the herb from which he derives some of his abilities (this happened towards the end of the last film, though I’d forgotten about it). His sister Shuri, who was the techno-whiz last time around, is left traumatised by her inability to save him. The dowager queen (Angela Bassett) takes up the throne once more, but with the herb destroyed it seems that the nation of Wakanda, despite its wealth and advanced technology, will be without its traditional protector from now on.

Time passes and it indeed seems that some other major powers are testing Wakanda’s defences with the ultimate aim of acquiring its reserves of the super-metal vibranium for themselves – but the US has also acquired a vibranium detector, which it has used to locate a new deposit on the Atlantic seabed. However, the mining expedition is attacked and wiped out by a new faction – the warriors of an underwater civilisation named Talokan (presumably because Tlalocan was deemed too difficult for audiences to pronounce and using the name Atlantis is awkward given it’s already in Aquaman).

Anyway, the Atlanteans (which is basically what they are) are no more keen on being bothered by the US and other major surface powers than the Wakandans, whom they hold responsible for this mess. The underwater kingdom delivers an ultimatum to Wakanda: locate and hand over the inventor of the vibranium detector, or face the wrath of Atlantis and its god-king, Namor…

It’s true that the way in which the central conflict of this movie – Wakanda vs Atlantis! – is orchestrated is a little bit contrived, and takes a while to arrive (the movie lasts a very substantial 160 minutes or so), but they work hard to justify it, and the irony involved – the Wakandans and Atlanteans have more reasons to be allies than enemies – does chime with the themes of the movie, which include the exploitation and control of weaker nations by strong ones. To be honest, though, the movie is much more about grief than anything else – it’s shaped around the absence of Boseman and the Black Panther, as it had to be, and this gives it a sombreness not often found in Marvel movies. The film is about Wakanda, his family, and the franchise as a whole finding a way to respect his memory while still moving on. And it does this very well.

Everything else is, on some level, secondary, but the procedural plot about tracking down the inventor, initial skirmishes with the Atlanteans, and so on, is executed as slickly and effectively as in any film from this franchise. There’s a slightly unusual structure where it almost feels as if the role of main character is being passed around between members of the cast – Letitia Wright, Angela Bassett, Lupita Nyong’o, and Danai Gurira all seem to be leading the film at different points in the story, although it begins and ends with Wright, who steps up very impressively. Martin Freeman also comes back, though he doesn’t get a great deal to do.

The film’s most interesting innovation is the introduction of Namor the Sub-Mariner (Tenoch Huerta Mejia), a character dating back to the 1930s – predating the existence of Marvel Comics as an entity, in fact. Going in I was a little dubious about this Mesoamerican-inflected take on the character – but in every single respect that really matters they get Namor absolutely right: he is a dangerous, unpredictable figure, not easily reducible to either hero or villain, but still somehow noble and a force to be reckoned with. Only the use of his catchphrase feels a little contrived and improbable; hopefully Marvel have got Huerta under contract to reprise the character in future projects.

Superheroes never really die, of course, and there is a sort of narrative inevitability about the way in which the conventions of this story eventually reassert themselves – the initial suggestion that the role of Black Panther has become an anachronism that Wakanda no longer needs turns out, of course, not to be the case, and the acceptance of loss goes hand in hand with the acceptance of this new role. It really is handled very gracefully and sensitively while still respecting the conventions of the story, and once this is resolved the film proceeds to a final act which is as genuinely thrilling and spectacular as anything else Marvel have done – the way in which Wakanda Forever negotiates what must have been an incredibly awkward set of requirements is at least as impressive as everything the first film achieved.

I think it is fair to say that Marvel’s film output has experienced an unusual number of wobbles since the pandemic, occasioning much commentary from the many followers of the franchise (the fact that some films set for release as far out as 2026 have already been announced has been interpreted as an attempt to steady the boat by demonstrating the studio does know what it’s doing). It’s not that the actual films have all been terrible, just that there’s been less of a sense of the series actually going anywhere. That’s still the case to some extent, but this is still clearly the work of a company which is capable of combining serious themes with entertainment of the highest quality.

Different Playground, Same Snow

One great actor follows in the footsteps of another in Oliver Hermanus’ Living, currently making a confident scoop for the counter-programming pound while all the kids are buying their tickets for Black Panther 2. People don’t usually flock to see adaptations of short novels by Tolstoy; nor do they usually turn up in their droves for English-language remakes of acclaimed but honestly relatively obscure Japanese dramas: nevertheless, the teatime screening of Living that I turned up to was virtually sold out, which rather surprised me. To what can we attribute this unusual occurrence?

I should probably make clear that the Tolstoy novella is The Death of Ivan Ilyich, about a dying judge coming to terms with his own mortality, while the Japanese drama is the Akira Kurosawa movie Ikiru, about a middle-ranking civil servant dying of cancer. Hey, I said this movie was popular, I never said it was going to be bunnies and rainbows.

One reason for the popularity of Living (other than a glowing set of notices from the legitimate critical establishment, which never hurts) is probably the fact that it looks like the sort of hats-and-fags costume drama which the British film industry does very well and which routinely attracts a certain section of the great movie-going public simply on the grounds of its innocuity and familiarity. Or perhaps I am not being quite fair there: perhaps one of the achievements of Living is to take Kurosawa’s Ikiru and turn it into a hats-and-fags costume drama without doing too much violence to the essential nature of the piece.

Another is the presence of Bill Nighy, who I am happy to say I have been calling a brilliant actor for nearly two decades now. If Nighy has not quite yet achieved bona fide national treasure status it is surely only a matter of time, and this indeed may be the film which pushes him over the top in this regard – he really is outstandingly good in it, and only the fact it probably looks a bit dour on paper may stand in the way of it being a popular and critical success.

Nighy plays Mr Williams, a middle-ranking civil servant at the Department of Public Works, attached to London County Council. The year is 1953; the war has receded somewhat in the memory but English society is still very tightly buttoned up. The myriad unwritten rules of conduct and decorum are in full effect – a chap must wear the right sort of hat, affect the right sort of demeanour, follow the current, play the game. Nobody seems to be on first-name terms with anyone. Williams and his coterie (mostly male) just push bits of paper around bloodlessly and serve their time from one day to the next; Williams returns home to his grown-up son and daughter-in-law, who seem mostly interested in potentially tapping him for funds. The highlight of his week appears to be his ‘pictures night’ when he goes to the cinema (this is apparently meant to be another source of pathos, which for some reason I find slightly alarming).

However, his followers are surprised when he one day leaves the office early to go to the doctor for the result of some tests: the results are not good, for he apparently has stomach cancer and will not live out the year. So far the film has been about people doing their best to disappear behind routines and conventions, revealing as little as possible of their actual personalities and feelings. The heart of the story is about a man nearing the end of his life and railing against all of that – railing in a very quiet way, but the tension is central to the narrative. Perhaps this is why the makers of Living have decided to keep the mid-50s setting of Ikiru – people in the UK these days just aren’t that emotionally repressed any more.

I haven’t actually watched Ikiru in nearly ten years – I find it one of those films which it’s much easier to admire than to actually enjoy, for all that I am an enormous admirer of Takashi Shimura (who plays the Nighy role). Nevertheless, both while watching Living and later after refreshing my memory of the Kurosawa original, I was surprised and impressed by its fidelity to the earlier film, in general shape and atmosphere if not granular detail. Williams’ attempt at having a hedonistic last hurrah takes the form of a trip to a seaside resort on the south coast of England; the results are authentically grim and miserable, as you might expect. Here he recruits a rather louche artist played by Tom Burke, almost as a kind of psychopomp (Burke contributes a predictably solid turn).

Living also retains the startling third-act swerve of the source material – to some extent, anyway. The narrative jumps forward, omitting most of what you’d expect to be in the film (Williams decides to make his life count for something by dedicating himself to seeing a children’s playground is built in a deprived neighbourhood), although there are a few flashbacks here I don’t recall featuring in Kurosawa’s version. The overall effect isn’t quite as ambiguous, but it’s still implied that Williams has only won a victory for existential niceness rather than changing the world or the people around him in any significant way).

There are even bits of Ikiru I’d completely forgotten about which are faithfully recreated here, mainly the relationship between Williams and the only female member of his department – Miss Harris, played by Aimee Lou Wood. She, understandably, gets a bit skittish when Williams keeps turning up inviting her to the cinema and out for lunch, assuming that an awkward romantic infatuation must be in progress. This is another element of the film which is tremendously well-judged, helped by a performance from Wood which is quite unreasonably sweet and winning.

Nevertheless, this is Nighy’s film, just as Ikiru’s was Shimura’s. He never overplays a scene or fishes for pathos, but he dominates the movie and fills it with humanity and emotional truth. This is a turn which is going to be everywhere at next year’s awards season, and Nighy will deserve every gong that comes his way. Remaking classic Kurosawa movies in English is not exactly a new idea, but seldom has it been done quite as artfully or effectively at this. This is a movie of the highest quality in every department.

I’m Not An Alcoholic

I am not a Dr Who fan. I feel it is important to establish that right from the start, just to avoid any confusion on this point. The reason I mention this is that it might appear, from some angles, that anyone going to see a film about Dr Who must necessarily be a Dr Who fan. I just want to nip that notion in the bud. The beauty of a great documentary is that it can create interest in the most esoteric and unpromising topics, and make you care about something you were previously unaware of or indifferent to. This is in principle as true of a documentary about Dr Who as one dealing with the topic of making perfect sushi or people squabbling over dinosaur remains.

That said, Matthew Jacobs and Vanessa Yuille’s Doctor Who Am I is not really a Dr Who documentary as one examining the subculture, and what an uncharitable observer might describe as the pathology, of Dr Who fans. (Of which I am not one.) Several things immediately spring to mind at this point: firstly, Doctor Who Am I is a borderline awful title for a film, presumably the result of the need to signpost the topic of the movie without risking a writ from the rights holders to the Dr Who TV show. (Even so, it must be right up against the border of being actionable.) Secondly, not everyone is as interested in obscure documentary topics as I am, meaning that the potential audience for a film like this is – well, it’s not so much a niche product as one aimed at a hairline fissure.

Matthew Jacobs, who produced, directed, and features throughout the film, is a faintly controversial figure in the realms of Dr Who fandom, as he was the screenwriter on the American Dr Who TV movie which was broadcast in the early summer of 1996. (The film introduces him as a ‘mid-level screenwriter’ which strikes me as just a tad charitable given all his work with any kind of prominence dates back to the 1990s.) The opprobium Jacobs has attracted for this has, as the film opens, led him to steer clear of the Dr Who convention circuit for many years, but now he has decided to do a round of appearances at gatherings in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Long Island, in the hope (he claims) of resolving his problematic relationship with the programme and its followers.

You will, perhaps, have noted that the film’s interest in Dr Who fans does not extend beyond the borders of the continental United States, but this did not prevent many of their UK counterparts turning up to the screening of Doctor Who Am I. I got the strange sense of intruding on a private party just by being in the auditorium: the Dr Who fans were cheerfully calling back and forth across the theatre to each other and knowledgably discussing the quality of the TV movie (‘Not the worst thing ever in the history of Dr Who,’ which is a valid opinion but still probably depends on your terms of reference) and the ramifications of the fact that, technically, Disney now co-own at least a small sliver of the programme (the TV movie was produced by Fox, which is now a Mouse subsidiary). It is a strange feeling to be the only non-Dr Who fan at a gathering like this, and I almost regretted not staying at home with the co-spousal unit instead – we had postponed our viewing part one of the Jon Pertwee story The Curse of Peladon, the 297th instalment of the series, due to my being out that evening (justĀ  because I’m not a Dr Who fan doesn’t mean that I never watch an episode).

Jacobs believes the failure of the Dr Who TV movie to spawn a smash-hit long-running series on an American network is mainly down to two things: the fact that Dr Who, portrayed by Paul McGann on this occasion, engages in a spot of tonsil-hockey with the leading lady (Daphne Ashbrook), something unprecedented in the annals of the programme, and also the innovative notion that Dr Who, rather than being a pure-blooded member of the Prydonian Chapter of the Time Lords of Gallifrey in the constellation of Kasterborous (I’m not a fan, but I have picked up the odd bit of Dr Who-related trivia), is in fact half-human. It is these things which have apparently brought the wrath of fandom down on his head: Dr Who fans do care deeply about the canon, the greater story, of the series – they write erudite and closely-argued theses trying to address and resolve obscure points of continuity, such as what the planets in the show’s version of the solar system are, or at what point in time the Silurian civilisation introduced in Malcolm Hulke’s 1970 script Doctor Who and the Silurians was dominant on Earth. On the other hand, it is striking that the notion of Dr Who’s half-humanity has been firmly and flatly rejected by both fans and the makers of the series (if that’s still a meaningful distinction): it’s never even mentioned any more.

This is arguably a bit glib (the failure of the TV movie, such as it was, was much more the result of other factors, such as it being broadcast opposite the hugely popular Roseanne on another network, not to mention Dr Who‘s lack of profile in the United States), but there was potential here for a film exploring just why Dr Who fans (just to reiterate, I’m not one) are so passionately, earnestly devoted to it. Parts of the film are anthropologically fascinating: Jacobs meets people who have named their children after the stars of the programme, a man who has the autographs of nearly all the living lead actors tattooed onto his body, someone who talks about their ‘Whovianship’ like it’s some kind of religious vocation. One interviewee is casually knitting a Tom Baker-style scarf while talking to the camera (the original scarf was produced by a lady named Begonia Pope, while on-screen the 1975 episode The Ark in Space reveals it was a gift from Nostradamus’ wife, a ‘witty little knitter’); around his neck is a medallion shaped like the TARDIS key introduced in Jon Pertwee’s final season and also prominent in the American movie. These people inescapably come across as… well, one mustn’t judge, especially if one isn’t a member of this particular group. (Though I did find myself gouging my fingernails into the palms of my hands at several points during the movie: I couldn’t honestly tell you why.)

The problem is that this look at fandom is very superficial – not much more than a gawp, although someone does make the fairly obvious suggestion that Dr Who fandom is a form of surrogate religion for its most dedicated members. This may be a universal truth not limited to the American fanbase – while one contributor to the documentary, ‘TARDIS Tara’ (a herpetologist who tours the convention circuit with a collapsible nine-foot Police Box), displays absolute bafflement at how different US and UK fans are: ‘Hardly anyone was dressing up, they weren’t even wearing T-shirts’, the occasional cry of ‘Oh for God’s sake!’ or hiss of ‘Incorrect!’ was heard at my screening when Jacobs said something particularly objectionable or got his facts wrong. But it’s not particularly deep.

Matthew Jacobs seems rather conflicted about the whole thing anyway. Near the start of the documentary he more or less admits that he’s just hitting the convention circuit to make some easy money, and one almost gets the sense that he’s making the film as a fig-leaf, an attempt to justify what may actually be an entirely mercenary undertaking. His attitude to the fans he meets is often ambivalent – in one unguarded moment he refers to fans in general as ‘screwed up’, although he quickly tries to walk this back. The film soon stops being about Jacobs trying to reconnect with fandom, or indeed discover anything insightful about the fans, and becomes a sort of audio-visual form of free-association. Jacobs hooks up again with Philip Segal, moving spirit behind the TV movie (these days impressario behind TV shows like Ice Road Truckers) and the two share an amiable grouse about stick-in-the-mud fans, talks to various other luminaries associated with the movie (mainly McGann and Ashbrook, though Eric Roberts briefly appears), and reflects on his own life.

The fact that Jacobs’ own father appeared in Dr Who as an actor in the four 1966 episodes now known as The Gunfighters allows the film to stay nominally on-topic even while it becomes more focused on its subject’s childhood, which does not appear to have been a very happy one. One can’t help wondering if the young Matthew Jacobs was really as much of a fan of the show as is implied here, or if this is just another case of the movie reaching. He certainly comes across as jinxed when it comes to Dr Who – the suggestion is that his own visit to the set of the show back in the William Hartnell period coincided with some traumatic personal experiences, just as his stint as a writer on the TV movie eventually turned out to be a poisoned chalice.

Perhaps mindful of its primary audience (not me; I’m not a Dr Who fan, after all), Jacobs and Yuille manage to wrangle the movie to the point where he seems to experience some form of catharsis and reconnect with the fan within; although on the basis of the rest of the film, Jacob’s inner fan probably ended up getting tapped for cash or patronised before the end of production. But it doesn’t feel like there’s a journey going on here – at least, not one single journey, just two or three vague ambles. Frankly, it’s a little bit chaotic in the way it switches from topic to topic, never really addressing any of them satisfactorily.

Then again, if the movie does make one thing clear it’s that for actual, proper Dr Who fans (I’m not one), unconditional affection and appreciation is everything (well, that and adherence to canon), which means that a lot of people will probably really like Doctor Who Am I. Anyone engaging their critical faculties, on the other hand, may conclude the film is the product of questionable motives, mostly functions only on a superficial level, and is badly lacking in focus. If you only watch one documentary about the pathology of fanatically dedicated American Dr Who fans this year, then… well, you could be in trouble.