Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Watching Japanese tokusatsu movies, you almost instantly get a sense that these are films made in accordance with a very different cultural and artistic sensibility: non-naturalistic, stylised, more concerned with visual appearance than absolute realism. You see a few of these films and decide you’ve managed to get your head around this – you watch Mothra Vs Godzilla and Ebirah, Horror of the Deep and start to relax, feeling you’ve got the basics down. This may not in fact be the case – sure, you may have become acclimatised to the Godzilla series, but this is a distinct set of films with its own tropes and conventions; it is not the beginning and end of wacky Japanese genre cinema.

Which brings us to a film like Dogora (aka Dagora the Space Monster and Giant Space Monster Dogora), directed by Ishiro Honda. Honda, of course, is synonymous with the Godzilla series, and the rest of Toho’s A-team is also in the building for this film: it is produced by Tomoyuki Tanaka, the script is by Shinichi Sekizawa, the music is by Akira Ifukube, and the special effects are by Eiji Tsuburaya. The crew were being worked pretty hard in 1964, starting the year with Mothra Vs Godzilla, moving on to this film, and concluding with Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster. It is startling to consider that the period when these films were basically being made on a production line also marks the time of some of Toho’s greatest successes in the genre.

Should we include Dogora in this group, though? Well, the most obvious thing about it is that there is a distinct whiff of Hamlet without the prince going on here, in that it looks and sounds almost exactly like a Godzilla movie, even including many of the same repertory cast members, but there is never even a glimpse of a man in a suit. This is the first way in which the film marks out its own rather peculiar territory.

Events get underway at the ‘Electric Wave Laboratory’, where scientists are overseeing orbital satellites. But then the instruments begin to register strange blobby shapes in the path of one of the satellites. Cue credits and a slow zoom from orbit down into urban Tokyo. Are we about to see some more scientists? Or perhaps a tenacious reporter?

No, we’re going to be spending a lot of time in this film with a gang of very unconvincing jewel thieves, some of whom have highly eccentric wardrobe preferences (one guy spends the whole film in a white suit with a black bowler hat). We find the gangsters attempting to break into a bank vault while the female member of their gang keeps watch outside in the car. She is played by Akiko Wakabayashi, best known to western audiences for her role in You Only Live Twice, and as breathtakingly beautiful in this film as usual. No wonder the local cops are so easily fobbed off. But then something else grabs their attention – a drunken salariman floats past, with no visible means of support. Shortly afterwards, the gangsters around the vault also find themselves having seemingly gravity-related issues and drifting off the floor.

In the midst of all this chaos some diamonds disappear from the bank, part of a string of diamond robberies taking place around the world. On the case is Inspector Komai (Yasuke Natsuki), who in addition to chasing the gangsters finds his time also taken up talking to expert crystallographer Dr Munakata (Nobuo Nakamura) and chasing around after Mark Jackson (Robert Dunham), a foreign diamond broker who also seems to be mixed up in all this. There is a lot of chasing about between the cops and robbers, to be honest, including a fair number of double-crosses and various characters not proving to be whom they initially claimed.

Meanwhile, other weird events continue, most of them concerning unlikely objects being drawn up into the sky: coal-heaps, trucks, factory chimneys, and so on, all to the bemusement of whatever cops or scientists happen to be in the vicinity at the time. Someone eventually has a brainwave and figures out the connection: all of this mysterious levitation is somehow connected to carbon – coal and diamonds, most obviously, but also other things associated with them. Komai comes up with his own theory as to why all this is going on – ‘I’m not one to jump to conclusions,’ he says, ‘but I think a giant space monster could be responsible for this.’

Naturally, this being a tokusatsu movie, he is correct, and soon enough Dogora itself materialises in the skies over Japan, pseudopods trailing menacingly downwards as it guzzles all the carbon in sight. Apparent it is the result of floating space cells being exposed to radioactivity (just for a change). Cue the usual scenes of the JSDF opening up with their full arsenal at the monster and it having no effect whatsoever, while scientists and their other associates stand around looking concerned.

Now, the danger when writing about Dogora is that you focus too much on all the stuff with the giant floating monster and the wacky pseudo-science, as this is the most immediately striking and outlandish element of the film. You would expect Honda and his team to do the same thing, after all. But no. The really weird thing about Dogora is the way in which all the material about the monster is essentially shuffled into the background while the film maintains a firm focus on the frantic convolutions of the cops and robbers plot about the Japanese police and the gang of diamond thieves. It is almost as if the creative team of the movie were determined to do their thriller runaround and only included the scenes with the levitation and the tentacles under duress.

It can’t really have been this way, though, for if nothing else the effects show no trace of being the work of people who don’t really care about their craft – the special effects in Dogora are amongst the best of any Toho film from the 1960s. Now, the fact the film doesn’t include any suitamation probably helps, as far as a modern audience is concerned, but the model-work, cel animation and optical effects are all excellent, even when the subject matter is as weird as it often gets here.

It certainly helps to keep the film engaging even when the plotting with the gangsters and cops becomes a bit, well, corny (perhaps I should say ‘even more corny’). But Shinichi Sekizawa’s script deploys his usual cheerful inventiveness and wit, which helps here too. That said, by the time of the climax everyone involved seems to be off their medication – the scientists cook up a plan to petrify or crystallise Dogora using wasp venom fired from tanks (no-one seems to have thought that petrifying a giant monster while it’s floating over your country might just lead to some collateral damage), while the cops and robbers have a gunfight that turns into a dynamite-throwing contest. Just another day in Japan, I guess.

Dogora is such a weird movie that it’s actually quite hard to compare it to anything else – the reliable monster-rasslin’ pleasures of the Godzilla series are not quite there – but it’s colourful and good-natured and knows not to out-stay its welcome. It’s probably not for everyone, but if you like oddball Japanese movies, oddball sci-fi, and weird stuff in general it’s a fairly safe bet for an entertaining hour and a half.

You never forget the moment when you realise you don’t believe in God despite what everyone around you has told you all your life; you never forget the moment when you realise the mortality of your parents is a fact; you never forget the moment when you discover that Wikipedia, far from being a perfectly objective source of Platonic fact, is fumbling around for information just like the rest of us. For me, the last of these came in 2007, when I was spending an awful lot of time just surfing the web in my local internet café in Japan. I came across the Wikipedia entry for John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids, a novel I have always had the greatest admiration for, and was gratified to see that my opinion was very much shared by critical consensus, according to the article. This turned out not to be so surprising after all, as it turned out that in this instance Wikipedia’s idea of the critical consensus had been arrived at by reading an old article I myself had written some years previously, which was duly listed as a source. Wikipedia did not so much happen to agree with me, as I happened (less shockingly) to agree with myself.

Well, cue shock, bemusement, etc – my faith in the whole site was shaken. How could I set so much store in the quality of information provided by a website which set so much store in the quality of information provided by a goon like me? Still, if nothing else I can now proclaim myself as an acknowledged expert on The Chrysalids and John Wyndham, and it is only marginally spurious.

While I may have lost faith in Jimmy Wales’ brainchild, I have never lost faith with The Chrysalids, nor indeed with Wyndham, who remains one of my favourite writers: he is up there with H.P. Lovecraft when it comes to the great names whose style and content I have ineptly been ripping off every November come NaNoWriMo time. Any Wyndham adaptation will automatically grab my attention; indeed, I have been awaiting with some trepidation the moment when some bright spark in Hollywood happens upon The Chrysalids and realises it could quite easily be filleted into an effective YA dystopian adventure a la Hunger Games.

Turning up to Pegasus Theatre’s stage adaptation of the book, I wondered if this would in fact be the case. I was pretty sure going in that this would inevitably not be a ‘straight’ adaptation of the novel, for many reasons which will be instantly obvious to anyone who’s read it – the discovery that this would be a youth production by the theatre’s 11-15 age group only confirmed this suspicion. So – how were they going to tackle it? Had they found a young performer with extra toes?

Well, perhaps inevitably, the first casualty of the stage version (cut down to a fairly pacy sixty minutes in length) is much of Wyndham’s careful world-building, and with it much of the context of the novel. The stage show concerns David and Petra, two of the children of Joseph, a strict and authoritarian father, living on a farm somewhere called Waknuk. Their society seems to be strictly religious (though this element is downplayed) and under the control of an oppressive authority (represented by dreaded functionaries in grey suits). The authority exercises strict genetic control, and anyone diverging from the established norms is declared a mutant and banished to somewhere called the Fringes.

However, David and Petra have a secret: they are also mutants, possessing a telepathic link with others of their kind (there are five telepaths in the stage show, a reduction from the number in the book). If they are found out, the very best they can hope for is permanent exile to the Fringes. But how long can they keep their secret?

As readers of the book will have perhaps gathered, David Harrower’s adaptation dispenses with a lot of the background detail – it’s never really suggested that the characters are living somewhere in Canada, nor that this is taking place in the distant aftermath of a nuclear war, which has flattened civilisation and left many of the survivors genetically damaged. This is in many ways a more allegorical version of the story. It should also not come as a surprise that the climax of the novel, which features a pitched battle between armies of norms and mutants and the intervention of another group of technologically-advanced telepaths from elsewhere, has also been radically amended. You expect these sorts of things in the theatre.

Something being amateur youth theatre should also impact on your expectations if you have any decency in your soul. The performances at the show I saw ran the gamut from capable to rather less so; one should also not be entirely surprised by a number of fluffed lines, missed cues, or someone accidentally sticking their foot through the set. All of this gets a pass, and I will repeat that some of the young actors were actually pretty good.

The question is really one of whether you can actually make The Chrysalids work as a piece of youth theatre. Quite apart from the changes to the story, and I will add to them the fact that a story which plays out over a decade or so in the novel is very compressed here, some of the key characters really do need a bit of mature gravitas and authority to them in order for them to work – I’m thinking here of Joseph and Axel, both of whom struggle to fill their narrative roles when they appear to be teenagers.

And there really is no getting away from it – The Chrysalids isn’t a children’s book, nor even really much of a YA book (all right, I read it when I was ten, but I’m just strange). It is about bigotry and intolerance, and a Darwinian battle to survive between different subspecies of human – the kicker being, of course, the final realisation that ‘baseline’ humans like the reader are both bad guys and likely to lose in the end. It is shot through with serious, even vicious moments – a woman drowning herself and her mutant child, a father contemplating the murder of another child in order to protect his own, mutants being tortured by the religious authorities.

You can’t really put this sort of stuff in a youth theatre production, and indeed most of it has been excised (with one surprising exception, concerning the fate of Sophie Wender). Even the cross which all the norm faithful wear has been tweaked into an ankh, presumably to avoid inflaming people concerned about Christophobia (or whatever we’re supposed to call it).

The most telling change comes near the end, and I should say that a mild spoiler follows. Joseph, believing Petra to be a norm child kidnapped by the telepaths, comes to rescue her from the Fringes people, and is appalled when she tells him she is a mutant too. Nevertheless, he wishes her well and they bid a sad goodbye as she and the others head on into the wilderness. This is not recognisably Wyndham’s Joseph Strorm, a monstrous character who happily joins a posse to hunt down his own children – if Wyndham’s Strorm was in the scene, it would have a totally different ending and qualify for one of those ‘scenes that some viewers may find disturbing’ trigger warnings.

As I say, this is the nature of the beast where this book is concerned. I should say that the stage version is often intelligent and inventive in its take on the novel, and the young performers all obvious tried their best. If the production still ends up feeling a bit flawed and lacking in a climax, that’s simply because The Chrysalids is not really at home in this particular context.

As Dead as a Pan

If you had asked me to come up with a list of actors I would expect to see pump-actioning and machete-swinging their way through a mob of zombies this year, I think it would be reasonable to say that neither Adam Driver or Bill Murray would have been particularly near the top of it, and yet this is what we find ourselves seeing during Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die. Is it therefore the case that this film is a particularly odd one, or simply the case that zombie films have become so ubiquitous everyone is bound to end up in one?

Well, I’m not sure about the latter part – it’s starting to feel a bit silly talking about ‘the current boom in zombie movies’, considering it’s been in progress for the vast majority of the current century, but on the other hand there hasn’t been a major English-language entry in the genre for a bit. The Dead Don’t Die is a fairly odd movie, though. Here is where I make one of my occasional confessions and admit that, feted independent American film-maker though he is, I have never seen a Jarmusch movie before. I think I came fairly close to seeing Ghost Dog and Only Lovers Left Alive, but seeing films isn’t like playing horseshoes – ‘fairly close’ means nothing in this context.

Therefore I have no idea how representative the new film is of Jarmusch’s output, although I can at least be confident about saying that, up to a point, it does a reasonable job of looking and sounding like a movie by the late George A Romero (who is duly acknowledged in the credits). We find ourselves in the small country town of Centerville, apparently ‘a nice place to live’ according to its own publicity, in the company of police chief Cliff (Murray) and his deputy Ronnie (Driver). Something odd seems to be in the air – the times of the sunrise and sunset are a bit off, and Ronnie’s watch and cellphone have packed up too. Could it be connected to worrying news reports that fracking at both poles have accidentally thrown the Earth off its axis? (Shades of The Day The Earth Caught Fire.)

Well, it doesn’t come as much of a surprise when the dead start clawing their way out of their graves and attacking the living. One of the first to do so is Iggy Pop, who makes a predictably convincing zombie given that he has looked rather cadaverous for many years. The cops, along with various other town residents and visitors, find themselves taking cover from the shambling horde, wondering what to do next (Ronnie repeatedly opines that it’s all going to end badly). Could salvation lie with the town’s eccentric sword-swinging undertaker (Tilda Swinton)?

There are many perplexing and distracting things about The Dead Don’t Die, but the most perplexing and distracting one of the lot is Swinton and her character. Given that most of the film is a tongue-in-cheek cruise through B-movie tropes and other Americana, one has to wonder about the inclusion of a funeral director with a samurai sword, not really a stock character in this kind of film. But wait! It gets even more whimsical – Swinton doesn’t just play a samurai-sword-wielding undertaker battling the undead, she does it while deploying a Highland Scots accent somewhat reminiscent of Maggie Smith in the Harry Potter films, and a peculiarly formal mode of speech reminiscent of no person ever. And Tilda Swinton’s character is named Zelda Winston. It is enough to make one scratch one’s head at some length.

Still, if nothing else, it does reveal Jarmusch’s ability to get a good cast for this movie. Quite apart from Swinton, Murray and Driver, it also includes Chloe Sevigny as another cop, Steve Buscemi as a Trump-supporting racist farmer, Danny Glover as the local store owner, Rosie Perez as a news reporter (her character is named ‘Posie Juarez’), Selena Gomez as a visiting hipster, and Tom Waits as ‘Hermit Bob’, an unhinged fellow who lives in the woods.

So, a good cast, and the zombie apocalypse is one of those scenarios which will always have potential provided you approach it with a new spin in mind. However, quite what Jarmusch had in mind when he came to make this film is difficult to discern – given the background of many of the actors, and some of the character names, you’d be forgiven for assuming it’s meant to be a parody of the classic Romero zombie film – it certainly cleaves particularly closely to the formula, virtually paraphrasing dialogue about how the risen dead are compelled to seek out the things that mattered to them when they were alive – thus we get the spectacle of zombies shuffling about muttering about coffee and wi-fi.

The thing is that if so, it’s a comedy where it feels like they’ve forgotten to include most of the jokes. There’s the odd good invariably deadpan moment, but the film mostly just trundles along being neither particularly funny nor really trying very hard to be frightening. Everyone knows how this story goes, and it unfurls here pretty much as you’d expect (the odd apparent nod to Plan Nine from Outer Space notwithstanding). It’s more like a pastiche than a parody or spoof – a technically competent one, but one with serious issues in the script department. There’s a lot of cross-cutting between the different characters, which ends up more or less going nowhere – they tend to get the odd good moment, before the film seems to run out of things to do with them. One group of characters dies off-screen, another seem to get completely forgotten about. The film also seriously underperforms when it comes to the climax and ending.

The sense that this is a movie which has just been slapped together is only heightened by the inclusion of a bunch of jokes I can only describe as seeming lazy. There’s an in-joke about Adam Driver being in the stellar conflict movies. At one point the film’s theme song plays on the radio, and Murray’s character wonders why it sounds so familiar – Driver’s character tells him it’s because it’s the theme song of the movie. At one point Murray wonders about Driver’s weird prescience and is told it is because he has read the whole script of the movie, not just the scenes he is in. If this is supposed to feel knowing and witty, it does not; it just feels rather tired.

As I say, this is not a complete disaster, but the odd good moment and a generally well-staged zombipocalypse do not make up for a film which often feels stilted and self-conscious, narratively baggy and no real sense of what it’s supposed to be and why it’s here. I am assuming most Jim Jarmusch movies are better than this one; it’s certainly a disappointment as a zombie film.

One Bad Trip

‘I want to see all the horror movies,’ declared Olinka as we sat through the selection being trailed ahead of our latest choice of film. These included Annabelle Comes Home, Crawl, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and It Chapter Two. I am a bit more discriminating than she is and most of these films are not on my list of things I definitely want to see.

Yet here we were about to watch Ari Aster’s Midsommar, despite the fact that we were united in our underwhelmedness (and that’s putting it mildly) when we went to see his previous movie Hereditary – although I should say that Olinka has, on reflection, revised her opinion upward to a fairly significant degree. Certainly from the moment we saw the first trailer for Midsommar, we agreed this was a movie we wanted to watch. Why should this be? Well, in my case, the first point in the film’s favour was that there were more than enough positives about Hereditary to make me willing to give Aster another chance as a director, and the second was the involvement of the fabulous Florence Pugh, who has the talent to lift any film to which she is allowed to make a substantial contribution.

Midsommar is one of those films which opens with a significant first-act event which is not referenced at all in the trailer and thus presumably qualifies as a bit of a spoiler. So I must perforce be somewhat circumspect when it comes to my usual synoptical activities. Florence Pugh plays Dani, a young woman in a long-term relationship with a guy named Christian (Jack Reynor), although it is clear to all around them that said relationship is effectively moribund – she is worried about seeming clinging and needy, he is obviously unenthusiastic about spending more than minimal time with her, their discussions are full of low-level pedantry and almost-wilful petty misunderstandings of each other. But she at least is determined to keep the relationship intact.

Christian is so indifferent to Dani he has even agreed to go on a trip to Sweden with his college buddies without initially telling her. Most of them are anthropology post-grads and a Swedish friend (Vilhelm Blomgren) has invited them back to his home community in a remote part of the country for an important festival. The eventual news that Dani will be coming along is not met with universal delight from the other guys, especially Christian’s crass friend Mark (Will Poulter).

Off they fly to lovely Sweden, soon arriving in Halsingland (which, on the face of it at least, looks absolutely beautiful). They are greeted with great warmth by the members of their friend’s community, and prepare for various mind-broadening (if not outright expanding) experiences. However, this being an R or 18-rated horror movie, it could well turn out to be the case that this is the kind of festival where you probably shouldn’t touch the meat pies, and the educational value is mostly limited to a demonstration of what the term ‘blood eagle’ actually refers to.

Scholars of horrific cinema will no doubt already be aware of the fact that Midsommar is not just an unusual American entry into that subgenre known as ‘folk horror’, but one with a substantial and explicit debt to Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man, a film which long-term readers will be well aware I have the greatest respect for. (I have seen some critics attempting to argue that Midsommar is not really a horror movie, but a metaphorical fantasy about the demise of a relationship. To which I can only say: come on. That’s pushing disingenuity to the point where it becomes absurd.) As a Swedish-set spiritual descendant of The Wicker Man (possibly The IKEA Man would have been a good title), Midsommar does not discredit its forebear, and indeed possesses some of the same ghastly power, albeit in a rather different key.

The thing is that you basically know going in how this story is going to turn out: the beaming, friendly, white-clad Swedes who are so welcoming to the American characters obviously have some sort of hidden agenda, which is going to involve terrible Pagan practices. The points of engagement for the audience are thus a sense of suspense – what exactly is going to happen, and to who, and when, and just how grisly is it going to turn out to be? – and also, hopefully, a deeper sense of resonance in terms of how the events of the film function as an emotional or personal metaphor.

Well, one of the elements of Midsommar I’m not sure about is the running time, which is not much shy of two and a half hours, but this does allow Aster to execute an extremely slow burn in the way he creates an insidious atmosphere of creeping, queasy wrongness. This is the film’s real achievement and strength. You begin fully aware that something is not quite right in the story, and then through the drip-drip-drip of incidental detail, you’re suddenly aware that Everything Feels Horribly Wrong even though the events on screen are frequently relatively innocuous. There are some extremely graphic moments in this film – at one point we were both hunched down in our seats, instinctively contorting our limbs to try and block out as much of the screen as possible, simply because we didn’t want to see what was happening – but it’s the atmosphere of the movie which is the most pervasively upsetting thing about it. Various characters do take mind-altering substances in the course of the film, seldom with positive outcomes, and it is as if Aster is trying to communicate to the audience the sensation of being on the world’s worst acid trip. He does so with great success: imagery from this film has shown up in nightmares I have had since watching it. (Ari Aster has apparently announced he has now done everything he cares to within the horror genre and will be moving on to do different kinds of film in future. To which I can only say, I will believe it when I see it: this man has a natural talent to screw with people’s heads.)

That said, I am not sure the film really qualifies as a complete success – The Wicker Man, for example, is on some level about moral relativism and the clash of different ethical systems. There’s no sense of that here – if the film is about anything more than just Aster trying to put his audience into therapy, it’s not clear to make out what that is – at least, not to me. Clearly, there are resonances between Dani and Christian’s disintegrating relationship and some of the things that happen to them at the festival (one also assumes there is some symbolism in Christian’s name), but if there’s a single big idea here then it’s not particularly well articulated. At one point I thought there was a subtext going on about the Swedes not being actively malevolent towards the visitors, but only reacting to the crassness, shallowness and self-interestedness of the Americans, but this turns out not to be the case. You do find yourself searching for some kind of deeper subtext to Midsommar, which to me suggests the script isn’t quite there in this department.

Of course, I should present an alternate view, given there is one available, and in this case Olinka found the film to be very interesting and symbolically powerful. On the way to the bus stop she gave me an ad hoc lecture about existentialism, loss, the grieving process, empathy, the role of the community in the foregoing, Midsummer as a symbol of a ‘frozen’ moment with no change or progress being possible, and so on. (I did ask her to write all this down and send it to me so I could include it in the review, but no joy so far.) So it may well be that your mileage may differ when it comes to this film, just as much as it did with Hereditary.

I’m not sure I’d say that I actually enjoyed Midsommar, but that’s only because it’s such a gruelling and traumatic experience to watch this film. Certainly I am highly impressed by the skill involved in making it – I haven’t even touched on how good Florence Pugh’s performance is. And it is a remarkably subtle film in many ways, not afraid to even be slightly camp in the way it plays with national stereotypes about Swedish people. It retains most of the strengths of Hereditary while dispensing with the most egregious of that film’s weaknesses. Viewers of a delicate disposition should think several times before watching it, but this is a very impressive film.

Curses and Plagues

Werner Herzog is such a distinctive and idiosyncratic figure that it’s easy to sometimes lose track of everything that he’s done. Certainly, his is a CV of dizzying variety as an actor and director – documentary about cave art? Check! Role as villain in a Tom Cruise thriller? Check! Drama about a man dragging a steamboat over a mountain? Check! Studio Ghibli US dub voice role? Check! It almost comes as a shock to recall he ever did anything as straightforward as a serious adaptation of Bram Stoker’s famous novel Dracula.

Then again, to describe the genesis of Herzog’s 1979 film Nosferatu the Vampyre as ‘straightforward’ is probably somewhat disingenuous. Nosferatu isn’t just an adaptation of Dracula, but a remake of Murnau’s 1922 film Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens. Here things begin to get a little more tangled, as the Stoker estate refused Murnau permission to adapt Dracula for the big screen. Murnau went ahead and made his movie anyway, changing some of the character names in a rather feeble attempt to disguise what he was up to – Count Dracula became Graf Orlok, Harker became Hutter, Renfield became Knock, and so on. Unsurprisingly, this fooled no-one and Florence Stoker attempted to have Symphonie des Grauens destroyed (luckily, this did not happen, as it is a superb movie).

By 1979, Dracula was out of copyright and so Herzog was able to use the ‘proper’ names for the characters, but still retained Murnau’s version of the plot and the title Nosferatu (an etymologically problematic word which has effectively become a synonym for vampire; Nosferatu the Vampyre is rather tautologous). The movie is openly another take on the much-told story of Dracula; however, it is just as distinctive and idiosyncratic as its director.

As noted, Herzog sticks with Murnau and dispenses with the English-set portion of the story; instead, the tale opens in Wismar, in north-eastern Germany, where estate-agent’s wife Lucy Harker (Isabelle Adjani) is troubled by disturbing, bat-filled dreams. Maybe she is right to be concerned, for her husband Jonathan (Bruno Ganz) is given the unexpected assignment of going to Transylvania to conclude a deal with the mysterious and reclusive Count Dracula.

It soon turns out that the only people wanting Harker to go are his boss Renfield (Roland Topor) and possibly Dracula himself; Lucy doesn’t want him to go, the Transylvanian gypsies he encounters don’t want him going anywhere near Castle Dracula, and neither do the local peasants. Harker ends up having to walk most of the last stretch of his journey, mist-wrapped mountains rising around him and the half-ruined castle creeping into view. (The journey from the ‘normal world’ to the place of horror is obviously something of a staple in movies of this genre, but Nosferatu handles it unusually well.) Soon enough he arrives at the castle and meets his host.

Dracula (Klaus Kinski) is delighted to meet him. Actually, delighted may not be the right word, as Dracula seems to exist in a permanent state of existential anguish, bordering on actual despair. Chalk-skinned, with rat teeth and ears like a bat, one wonders just how badly Harker needs his commission if he’s willing to contemplate staying at this guy’s castle. This is before Dracula starts musing on the horrors of eternal existence and how there are far worse things than death.

Well, eventually Harker puts zwei and zwei together and figures out that there’s something not quite right about his host. The sight of Dracula loading coffins onto a wagon preparatory to taking up residence in his new property may have something to do with this, to say nothing of Dracula’s nocturnal visits to Harker’s room, when the estate agent discovers that the price of staying at Castle Dracula really can be a pain in the neck.

Dracula eventually departs for Wismar, leaving Harker a prisoner in the castle. He escapes, weak and feverish, desperate to get home and warn everyone of the terror soon to be in their midst – but is it already too late…?

This wasn’t the only Dracula of 1979, of course: the same year saw John Badham’s version, with Frank Langella and Laurence Olivier. Both are recognisably adaptations of Bram Stoker’s novel, but they have almost nothing in common with each other beyond a few character names and the basics of the plot. Badham’s Dracula is set entirely in England, dispensing with the Transylvanian section of the plot (the two films almost mirror each other in this way), and Langella’s Count is a suave, romantic anti-hero. The American film is a vivid one about passion and desire. Herzog’s film, on the other hand, opens with a series of shots depicting mummified human corpses, establishing from the start that this is to be a much bleaker and more morbid film about the boundaries between life and death.

Romantic is the last word you would choose to describe Kinski’s Dracula: quite apart from the fact he is physically hideous, he seems to exist in a state of existential torment. He is cursed as much as he is a curse, much given to doleful complaints about the terrible loneliness of immortality; Lucy Harker may dream about bats and the film may mention the vampire’s affinity with wolves, but for most of the movie Dracula is associated most closely with rats, which swarm around his various resting places and provide a visual symbol for the Black Death which he propagates wherever he goes. (Animal-lovers may wish to steer clear of behind-the-scenes accounts of the making of this movie, as the rats were apparently very poorly treated indeed.)

Kinski actually manages to find the pathos in this conception of Dracula as a miserable, rodent-like parasite, and he is never entirely unsympathetic at any point in the film – then again, most of the characters manage to retain a degree of sympathy, not least because they are all trapped in such an obviously bleak and horrible world. My researches have not revealed whether Herzog and Kinski’s collaboration on this occasion resulted in one of the director’s various attempts to murder his troublesome star, but it is a eerily powerful performance and easily one of the most striking screen Draculas. Herzog and Murnau’s amendments to the story also produce some interesting effects – Harker is never normally a plum role in Dracula, but Bruno Ganz ends up with some interesting things to do as the film goes on, not least during the twist at the end of the story. Likewise, Lucy is not just a passive, ornamental victim of the vampire’s lust, but a character with real agency and strength; Isabelle Adjani’s performance is as eye-catching as her ethereal beauty. Most of this comes, however, at the expense of Van Helsing, who normally gets all the best lines in any version of Dracula. Here, Van Helsing is a closed-minded, sceptical materialist, played by Walter Ladengast – his contributions to the story are minimal. The same can probably be said for Renfield – Roland Topor isn’t afraid to go way out there with his performance as a giggling madman, but one wonders what the character really adds to this version of the story.

You can tell this isn’t a movie which has been made on the biggest of budgets, and some of the scenes do lack the kind of atmosphere you get in the better Hammer horrors. It must also be said that this is not a film in which the plot moves along like a bat out of hell (or from anywhere else, for that matter). However, the pervasive atmosphere which Herzog generates has considerable power, especially as the film goes on and the scenes of a plague-stricken Wismar acquire a hallucinatory, nightmarish quality. At one point the soundtrack seems to include an excerpt from a Kate Bush album that would not be made until six years after the film’s release, and this does not feel entirely surprising (Herzog and Bush both decided to employ a snatch of the same Georgian folk song, apparently).

As I mentioned, this is not the most lavish Dracula, and it may lack some of the set-piece moments some may be expecting. But the strength and consistency of the film’s vision of the story is considerable, and matched by its execution. It is a bleak and morbid version of the story, entirely bereft of most of the comforting moments and touches found in other retellings of the novel. Nevertheless, Nosferatu the Vampyre is hugely impressive for its atmosphere and for Kinski’s performance; this is definitely one of the best versions of Dracula on film, and a worthy updating of Murnau.

Our Greatest Adventure

The least predictable franchise in cinema history is back again, nearly eight years after the most recent instalment: yes, it’s yet another movie in the Apollo series, Todd Douglas Miller’s Apollo 11. On-the-ball readers will no doubt recall the 1995 movie Apollo 13, which launched the whole undertaking, and was a rather successful disaster movie in the slick and mainstream idiom, and bonus points go to anyone who can further recall the 2011 offering Apollo 18, which was a bit of a departure, being a rather quirky found-footage horror movie. The new film pioneers another new genre by being not just a prequel but also a documentary.

Well, yes, it’s a feeble conceit, but I have to get these things started somehow. I have occasionally reflected on the fact that we have been treated to two films about troubled entries in the Apollo programme (including an entirely fictitious one), but the closest we’ve got to a film about the actual Apollo 11 mission has been last year’s First Man, a slightly different proposition in terms of its tone and focus. I suppose you could consider First Man to be the first of a whole bunch of films coming out to commemorate the first manned Moon landing – shortly to appear, for instance, is Armstrong, another documentary focusing on the man himself. Apollo 11 takes a more general look at this most seminal moment in human history.

But really, fifty years! I imagine there are grandparents living today who were not born the last time someone walked on the Moon. As this achievement slips ineluctably into the past, with still no concrete sign of the prospect of people travelling again beyond low Earth orbit, it is perhaps no wonder it increasingly acquires the status of myth – with all the associations that accompany this. As well as films about the Apollo landings, there have also been an increasing number of films about the faking of the Moon landings, documentaries, dramas, and even comedies. It has almost become a cliché to allude to Stanley Kubrick’s role in this, with the conspiracy literature on the subject reaching almost encyclopaedic quantities.

If nothing else, Apollo 11 should do something to counter all of this, by going back to the basics of this remarkable story. Todd Douglas Miller is credited as the director, but one has to wonder to what extent he actually directed this film, at least in the sense the word is conventionally understood. It contains no footage filmed after 1969, unless you count some very basic graphics used to illustrate the progress of the flight; there is no narration, no interviews recorded after the fact. The credits even take pains to make clear that the minimal music score included uses only instruments and technology that existed at the time depicted in the film. All Miller has really done is select and edit together pre-existing pieces of film.

And yet, and yet: this is to be too dismissive of a film which often borders on the mesmerising. There may be little truly new here, but Miller has assembled this fifty-year-old footage with great deftness and focus. There is no backstory, no legacy – except, perhaps, for some brief archive footage of President Kennedy inaugurating the lunar project – the film begins with Apollo 11’s Saturn V making its way to the launch pad, and concludes with the three astronauts making their safe return to Earth. In between is the mission itself, shown mostly through unseen, or at least unfamiliar film.

Apollo 11 has received glowing reviews, and I must confess to having been a little sceptical about whether they were entirely warranted – there is a tendency sometimes to praise a documentary simply because its subject matter is praiseworthy, rather than because the actual film-making craft involved is impressive. However, the sheer quality and variety of the images here is very-nearly jaw-dropping. I had no idea the mission was so comprehensively documented, though of course it makes sense that it was: it feels like whatever image Miller wanted to achieve a certain effect at a particular point in the story, he was able to find it somewhere in the NASA archives.

This is, of course, a historical document, but one of the striking things about it is the incidental detail revealing the vast social changes that have happened in the last fifty years: the massed ranks of NASA technicians at Mission Control are almost exclusively white guys of a certain age, in identikit white shirts and dark ties, while there’s not much more variety amongst the crowds gathering to watch the launch – although there are some pretty eye-catching hats on show amongst the spectators.

I hope I am not being too provocative if I suggest that everyone should be educated about Apollo and the rest of the manned space programme, both American and Soviet, simply because it is one of the most important things we have achieved as a species. As part of this, Apollo 11 is certainly a vital, impressive document. I do wonder, though, if the decision to make the film quite so spartan and un-spun was quite the best one. We learn a lot about what happened and who did it, but very little about the technical challenges involved and the characters of the people involved (although given Armstrong’s noted aloofness perhaps this latter element is quite appropriate). Another consequence of the format of the film is that if something didn’t happen on camera, it doesn’t get mentioned – for example, moving around inside the lunar module in bulky spacesuits, Aldrin and Armstrong broke the switch that would fire the rockets to take them off the Moon, and the highly-trained astronauts were forced to resort to sticking a felt-tip pen into the control panel to make the circuits operate. It’s this kind of quirky human story which the film is almost completely lacking in.

Still, as I mentioned, there are a plethora of films and books on this particular topic, and at not much more than ninety minutes in length Apollo 11 can’t cover everything. What it does succeed in is making these events feel fresh and real again, the plethora of details and new perspectives bringing new life to a story which is well-worn for some of us. A great achievement, and arguably a very important film.

A Tangled Web

I will not inflict upon you the heavily-vowelled utterance a friend of mine could not contain when he learned that the fourth Marvel superhero movie in five months was about to come amongst us; use your imaginations. Normally he and I are in different camps when it comes to this sort of thing – he would quite happily see the whole genre consigned to the waste-basket of history, whereas I, on the other hand, cheerfully organised the schedule of a recent trip to New York City so we could see Captain Marvel there on opening night. Nevertheless, I was more sympathetic than usual on this occasion – Avengers: Endgame was such a monumental piece of work, carrying such a significant emotional charge, that a lengthy pause in Marvel Studios’ operations in its aftermath would have felt logical and entirely appropriate. Knocking out another Spider-Man sequel to meet a contractual obligation… well, it almost feels like it’s too soon, doesn’t it?

Certainly the opening sequences of Jon Watts’ Spider-Man: Far From Home give the impression this movie has been slipped an almighty hospital pass, for it is almost obliged to try and make sense of the rather confused state of the Marvel movie universe in the wake of Endgame. Half the world was dead for five years, before returning to existence not having aged a day – the film is obliged to acknowledge this, but also has sound dramatic reasons for wanting to handwave it away as quickly as possible and get on with telling a story set in a recognisable version of a world resembling our own. It’s a tricky conundrum the film never really manages to get to grips with, and the way it still seems to feel the need to stress its continuity with the non-Sony Marvel movies doesn’t help much – there are endless references to the other films, much more than you find in any of the ‘real’ Marvel Studios productions.

Still, once the plot gets properly going the film makes an impressive recovery from this dodgy opening section. Peter Parker (Tom Holland) and his peers are all off on a tour of photogenic European capitals; Peter is hoping for a break from being Spider-Man and a chance to get a bit closer to the girl he likes, MJ (Zendaya Coleman). However, the various antics of Peter and his peers take a bit of a back-seat when the Grand Canal in Venice unexpectedly takes on semi-human form and becomes rather aggressive to everyone around it. A mighty tussle ensues, with the belligerent landmark on one side, and Spider-Man and an enigmatic new superhero on the other. Everyone is impressed with the new guy – ‘He’s kicking that water’s ass!’ cries one onlooker – who is soon christened Mysterio and turns out to be played by Jake Gyllenhaal.

Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) turns up to make the formal introductions. It turns out Mysterio hails from another dimension where Earth has been devastated by hostile elemental beings. Now these creatures are coming to Earth, and Fury wants Spider-Man – anointed, it would seem, as the chosen successor to Iron Man as the world’s foremost protector – to partner up with Mysterio and stop the elementals from trashing this planet too. It’s a big responsibility for a young man feeling the loss of his mentor, to say nothing of the disruption this could cause to Peter’s school trip…

As mentioned, it seems like the Sony-funded MCU movies really do go out of their way to tie themselves into the wider continuity of the series, and on this occasion that proves to be a bit of a mixed blessing. Like I said, it does force the film to address the odd state of affairs pertaining after Endgame, which was always going to be tricky, and I imagine the film’s repeated use of Robert Downey Jr’s image will ultimately prove a bit exasperating for viewers who get the message quite early on, thank you. On the other hand, this is hardly happening frivolously: the events of Endgame are crucial to the plot, and the film builds intelligently on them to provide motivation for the various characters.

Nevertheless, this is still obviously a Spider-Man film rather than an addendum to the Avengers series, for all that the European setting is a bit unusual for this particular character. Now, you may well be thinking that Spider-Man teaming up with a new superhero to fight monsters from another dimension is a bit of a departure plot-wise too – well, all I can reasonably say on this topic is that you certainly have a point. That said, the plot of Spider-Man: Far From Home is quite a clever one, making some amusingly jaded observations on the ubiquity of superheroes these days and how silly the plots of some of these films have become. It also reinterprets material from the original comics in a convincing and imaginative way. The only problem is that it is very easy to guess which way the story is going, even if you’re only passingly familiar with the characters involved.

Still, there is a lot to enjoy here: this is as much of a quirky comedy film as Homecoming was, and Samuel L Jackson throws himself into the funny lines and comic situations whole-heartedly. The film’s star turn performance-wise, however, is Jake Gyllenhaal, who makes the most of a part which really allows him to show his range as an actor. About fifteen years ago, Gyllenhaal was in the frame to replace Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man himself when Maguire’s bad back threatened to force him to withdraw from Spider-Man 2 – he was also apparently on the list of people considered for the part of Venom in Spider-Man 3. It’s gratifying to see that his arrival in the series (finally) is such an impressive one.

(And if we’re talking about the Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy, how’s about this for a genuine visitor from another plane of the multiverse – Far From Home includes a cameo from JK Simmons, reprising his role as J Jonah Jameson from those films. Very nice to see him back, of course, and one wonders about the extent to which this opens the door for other stars of non-MCU Marvel movies to cross over into this series. Let’s have Alfred Molina back as Doctor Octopus, for a start, and Nicolas Cage as Ghost Rider, and how about Wesley Snipes as Blade? Apparently Snipes and Marvel have had meetings…)

Once the film gets going, it is pacey and consistently amusing, even if it is also knowingly absurd in a number of places. The special effects are as good as you’d expect, and the film concludes with the best set-piece sequence around Tower Bridge from any fantasy film since Gorgo. I’m pretty sure this isn’t the greatest Spider-Man film ever, and it would be foolish to try and deconstruct it in the hope of deciphering what Marvel will be up to next (for the first time in years, they’ve released a movie without revealing what the next one is going to be), but this is still a fun, clever, and solidly entertaining blockbuster.