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A Patchwork Creation

I forget precisely where it was that I first read the suggestion that the cultural influence of gothic literature has been greater than one would expect, given how little-read some of the actual books involved are. I’ve recently started a new role-playing game, with a group of people who are all pretty literate, especially when it comes to the SF, fantasy and horror genres: one of the major reference points for the new game is the original novel of Dracula, and people admitting that they haven’t actually read it has become something of a running joke – one person admitted to attempting it on more than one occasion, and simply ‘bouncing off’ what’s an imposingly big and dense text. (I ploughed through it when I was thirteen, but then I’ve always been quite weird.)

Nevertheless, everyone knows Dracula, or thinks they do, and the same is true for gothic horror’s other big hitter, Frankenstein, as written by Mary Shelley in fairly celebrated circumstances. The storm-enshrouded castle! The obsessive baron! The hideous monstrosity, stitched together from purloined cadaver parts! The mob of angry villagers wielding their blazing torches!

We’re at a point where I think it would be disingenuous to suggest that all of these are not now part of the common conception of Frankenstein – they have become mythemes, to adopt a neologism invented by structuralists – but this tells us much more about the power of the mass media than anything connected to Shelley or her novel, because (of course) the castle, the baron, the patchwork man and the angry mob are all completely absent from the book. We only associate them with Frankenstein because they’re in James Whale’s 1931 adaptation, and this film has achieved an extraordinary prominence, largely eclipsing the source text. When someone announces they are doing a ‘faithful’ adaptation of Shelley – as was somewhat the case with the Kenneth Branagh-directed Frankenstein of the mid-1990s – this is basically code, warning the audience they are going to see something that won’t necessarily meet their expectations of the story.

It’s startling how little of the novel actually makes it into Whale’s film. It opens, ominously, with a funeral in progress somewhere that looks bleak and would probably be windswept were it not a studio soundstage. Not far off, Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and his hunchbacked assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye) are taking a professional interest… sure enough, once the funeral party leaves, the duo help themselves to the coffin and drag it back to the tower where Frankenstein is about his experiments. It’s not quite that he’s a self-made man, of course, but he does seem to enjoy making men himself.

Yes, Frankenstein has become obsessed with the twin mysteries of life and death, and – apparently in an attempt to comprehend the power of God – has assembled his own constructed person, whom he intends to animate, not with lightning but with a ray from beyond the ultraviolet portion of the spectrum (or something). Basically, don’t try this at home, kids. There is the slight problem that the creature’s brain is not the perfect speciment Frankenstein stipulated, but that of a diseased criminal (Fritz got a bit flustered), but nobody’s perfect…

Anyway, despite the concerns of Frankenstein’s sweetheart, Elizabeth, his father the old Baron, and his friend Victor (yeah, there’s something a bit you-what? about that, this being the main character’s name in the novel), his experiments come to a successful conclusion – for a given value of successful, anyway. The result is a towering, flat-topped creature, of seemingly limited mental capacity, but with an utterly human sensitivity. Boris Karloff plays the Creature, obviously. Bela Lugosi, who’d just played Dracula for the same company, turned the part down – apparently because at that point, the script had Frankenstein’s creation be just a frenzied monster driven to kill. Karloff, naturally, finds immensely more to do with the part, despite having no actual dialogue: this is a justly celebrated performance.

Before too long, Frankenstein’s desire to repent of his hubristic, sacrilegious offences comes to naught, as the Creature rebels against his cruel treatment at the hands of his creator’s associates and runs loose, crashing Frankenstein’s wedding preparations and inspiring that angry, torch-wielding mob to rise up. Which of them will get the justice they deserve?

As noted, it’s kind of fatuous to judge Frankenstein as an adaptation of the novel, because virtually none of the original story beyond the most basic premise makes it to the screen. Viewed solely as a piece of visual entertainment, however, it still stands up astonishingly well for a film now entering its tenth decade – it’s far better than Dracula, made in the same year by the same studio. It’s a piece about image and sensation above all else – characterisation is minimal, handled with the broadest of brushes – there’s none of the delving into Frankenstein’s personality and motivation that the Branagh version takes pains over. But the images themselves are fantastic: extraordinary, towering sets, and fluid direction by Whale. This is before we even get to the iconic realisation of the Creature himself.

On the other hand – and there really has to be another hand, no matter how legendary and influential the movie may be – one has to wonder about the extent to which this actually qualifies as an adaptation of Frankenstein, for it seems to me that the soul of the novel is absent. This is due to one key decision: rendering the Creature mute. Admittedly, Shelley’s handling of the Creature’s self-realisation and education is rather corny and implausible, but it does enable the central discourse of the story to take place: the discussion between Frankenstein and the Creature of what their responsibilities towards each other are. Frankenstein assumes the power of God, but is reluctant to take on the duties that go with it; the Creature’s resentment of what he sees as Frankenstein’s neglect is really justified. Karloff does a lot to make the Creature sympathetic, but in the second half of the movie Clive goes from being an imposingly unhinged presence (I think his performance in the opening section of the film is really underrated) to a much blander and more anonymous romantic lead. The climax of the film makes it initially seem quite ambiguous as to whether Frankenstein lives or dies: and, oddly, the scene which ends the film on a (supposedly) upbeat note barely features him. Perhaps the makers had already clocked that there was only one real star of this film, and it was the British guy in all the make-up.

The thing about Frankenstein the movie being such a massive popular success, and so iconic, is that the result is that there are essentially two rival versions of this story fighting for dominance in the public eye: Shelley’s and Whale’s. Every subsequent version of this story has riffed on or derived from one or the other of them – and, the vast majority of the time, it is Whale’s which has won out. You may find this regrettable (and it certainly means that a wholly satisfying film version of this story arguably doesn’t exist). Whale’s movie may be assembled out of images and ideas from many different sources, few of them having much real connection to Shelley, but this shouldn’t detract from the artistic success of the venture.

My parents, like many others, were quite cautious about letting me watch horror films when I was a child – I don’t feel that I properly started my education in this area until I was just into my teens, with the BBC’s wonderful season commemorating the thirtieth anniversary of the first colour Hammer horror film. Nevertheless, as a child you do see things that scare and disturb you – when I was quite young, I remember having several supposedly-educational books which had pages I always avoided looking at – one depicting some creepy deep-sea creatures, the others… I think it was something to do with either organ transplants or prosthetic body parts (possibly both). These things do stay with you.

And then there was the day, when I think I would have been about nine, when my class at school all trooped downstairs to find a screen and a projector had been set up in one of the spare rooms. We were going to see a film! Hurrah! Our excitement was only leavened by the fact that this was surely going to turn out to be something educational. And so it proved – but as well as being educational, the short film in question arguably qualifies as the first horror film I ever saw. I still remember the sense of dread and discomfort I felt while watching it: to say it made an impression on me is an understatement.

The film in question is entitled Building Sites Bite, made in 1978 and written and directed by David Hughes. The object of the piece is to raise the young audience’s awareness of the dangers involved in trespassing on building sites, but the approach is not notably dry or fussy. A rather snooty woman (a young-ish Stephanie Cole), her somewhat-spoilt son Ronald (Nigel Rhodes), and their dog (a dog named Snoopy, playing him or herself) visit their relatives, a distinctly lower-middle-class bunch. To say the atmosphere is throbbing with class-related tension is an understatement. The son of the household, Paul (Terry Russell), is not nearly as impressed with his cousin as Auntie is, and (in his interior monologue) is rather scornful of his ambition to be a surveyor or architect. Is young Ronald even aware of basic health and safety principles?

Well, Paul fantasises that he and his sister Jane are in control of a super-high-tech testing programme with Ronald as the subject of their investigations. Through the miracle of a TARDIS-like teleporting shed, Ronald is transported to the edge of a building site, and told they want him to find Snoopy who has wandered somewhere inside. So in Ronald goes, finding the dog in a trench, which then collapses on him, smothering him to death. Snoopy mysteriously escapes, presumably so as not to upset the audience.

Frankly, I remember being pretty upset at this point anyway, given the hard-hitting depiction of Ronald’s demise, and quite glad the film was surely over. But no! Paul and Jane have the power to resurrect Ronald, luckily enough. Or perhaps not: because they proceed to teleport him to a series of other building sites. He is electrocuted! He is crushed by an industrial vehicle! He smashes his head open on a piece of pipe! He is killed when a stack of bricks collapse on him! He drowns! (Snoopy always scampers away without a scratch.) Educational films like this were outside the remit of the BBFC, and so there are levels of gore and general nastiness far beyond what children would be allowed to see in a film.

I was never a particularly outdoorsy or adventurous child, and so they needn’t have really shown me this film. But they did. Watching it again recently was a rather less traumatic experience than back in the eighties. What really struck me was the subtext of the film, though – most of it takes place in Paul’s head, and he seems to be a genuinely disturbed child, taking great pleasure in imagining his cousin’s death in great detail. This seems to be largely motivated by class resentment – Ronald and his mum are both much posher than Paul and his family, with Ronald wearing a cravat throughout his various misadventures. All of this went over my head at the time, which is probably just as well.

Of course, this was by no means the only film along these lines made in the 1970s, and Building Sites Bite doesn’t have quite the degree of notoriety enjoyed by some of the others. There were lots of other potentially lethal places around back then, and John Krish’s The Finishing Line (1977) looks at another one, the railway line.

Again we are privy to the imaginings of a (presumably quite disturbed) young lad, who – after an unseen headmaster declares that ‘the railway line is not a place for playing’ – imagines a school sports day taking place by the side of railway line, complete with brass band and refreshments. Various events take place: Fence-breaking, Stone-throwing, Last One Across (the line, with a train oncoming), and the Great Tunnel Walk. Needless to say, all of these result in horrific injuries and death amongst the competitors, with an astonishing shot from near the end of the film depicting dozens of bloodied child corpses laid out on the lines, while more of the walking wounded stumble out of the tunnel.

John Krish was an experienced film and TV director – responsible for Unearthly Stranger, and various episodes of The Saint and The Avengers – which explains the deftness with which he creates an atmosphere like that of a surreal, deadpan black comedy throughout The Finishing Line. The conceit is carried through quite rigorously, with umpires and other officials carefully checking and reporting the gory results of the different events, apparently with complete indifference to people staggering around with blood gushing from their injuries. (One familiar actor appearing here is Jeremy Wilkin, who also provided the voice of Virgil Tracy in later instalments of Thunderbirds.)

The question, of course, becomes one of just how disturbing and upsetting one of these films should be. The Finishing Line certainly has a cinematic quality to it, which only adds to its impact. It’s presumably because of this that the film was withdrawn after a couple of years, simply because it was so graphically effective.

Horror-movie style poster promoting the DVD release of Apaches.

Less grisly, but possibly even more memorable, is Apaches, also from 1977, directed by John Mackenzie (later to do The Long Good Friday, The Fourth Protocol, and Ruby, amongst others). The venue for slaughter this time is the British countryside, where we find six young children playing (mostly) cowboys and indians in and around a farm, while elsewhere adults are preparing for a mysterious party.

Well, you can probably guess what happens next: as part of their games, one of the children clambers onto and then falls off a moving trailer and is crushed under the wheels, then a second falls into a slurry pit while playing hide and seek and drowns, and so on. Weed-killer, lethal machinery, heavy and precariously-balanced objects – the film does a sensational job of implying that the average farm is a complete deathtrap; one wonders how The Archers or Emmerdale has lasted this long. (I should say that this does seem to be a fairly poorly-run farm, with the children still allowed to run wild even as the death-toll racks up.)

Then again, the thing about Apaches in particular is that it really does feel like an actual horror movie (albeit a short one): there is that same sense of tension throughout, the knowledge that something grim is inevitably around the corner all the time, and a willingness to stretch plausibility to generate its effects. Moments in Apaches are genuinely disturbing and horrible, and once again the effectiveness of the film is reinforced by the director’s skill. The child acting is actually not too bad (much better than in Building Sites Bite), and Mackenzie understands the power of moments of stillness and quiet. There is an understated realism to the film that meshes surprisingly well with its clear intention to make an impression on its young audience: I watched it for the first time recently, and had to take a break partway through, it was that gruelling an experience.

Any discussion of the public information film as quasi-horror would not be complete, of course, without a mention of perhaps the most famous exponent of the form: Lonely Water, directed by Jeff Grant and made in 1973. This one is much shorter than the other films mentioned here, but punches above its weight due to the way it intentionally adopts the conventions of a horror movie, up to and including casting the great Donald Pleasence.

‘I am the spirit of dark and lonely water,’ whispers Pleasence’s voice-over, as the camera shows a mist-wreathed swamp, in which a dark, cowled figure appears to stand on the water. (Many aspects of this film seem to me to have been nicked from The Masque of the Red Death, particularly the appearance of the spirit.) ‘Ready to trap the show-off, the unwary, the fool…’

Various scenes of young children getting into difficulty in or near water quickly follow, always with the figure of the spirit looming, sometimes almost subliminally, in the background. (One of the children featured is Terry Sue-Patt, later of Grange Hill, who later recalled just having fun on the river-bank while making the film – seeing the finished version was apparently an enormous shock for him.) Eventually, one drowning child is helped to safety by two of his wiser peers. (‘Sensible children!’ snarls Pleasence. ‘I have no power over them!’) With the spirit thus exorcised, its robes are thrown in the river, though it still gets to make its famous, echoing promise – ‘I’ll be back!’

Even the director was astonished by how full-on the horror elements of the Lonely Water script were, and the execution of the film does nothing to tone them down (Pleasence is not pulling his punches in the voice-over, either). This film has become something of a legend amongst those who saw it when it was new. There are stories, possibly apocryphal, that Lonely Water didn’t just reduce the number of accidental deaths by drowning, it actually made some children reluctant to go swimming at all, no matter in what situation. Whether that counts as the film just being too effective at its job, I don’t know: but even today it’s still remarkably accomplished artistically for what’s basically just a public information film.

UV in the USA

Just for the sake of completeness, and because I’d never got around to actually watching it before, let’s conclude our look at Ultraviolet with the unaired (and unsold) pilot episode for the American version of the show, which was made in 2000. There’s a sense in which a circle is being closed here, as one of the producers on the US version was Howard Gordon, who’d previously worked extensively on The X Files (and as we have previously discussed, it’s very unlikely the British version would have been made had The X Files not inaugurated the great mid-to-late 90s horror-fantasy boom). Gordon’s verdict on the American pilot was ‘we screwed it up and it just didn’t come out that well,’ which certainly inclines one to fear the worst with regard to it. The pilot was directed by Mark Piznarski and written by Chip Johannessen.

As the story opens we find ourselves at the stag party of former undercover cop Viggo (Spence Decker), who after a slightly chequered past is finally marrying the lovely, if slightly idiosyncratically named, Nealy (Madchen Amick). Keeping an eye on him is his former handler, NYPD lieutenant John Cahill (Eric Thal). (The IMDb listing for this show gets many of the character names wrong, usually defaulting to the UK equivalent – in this case, Jack, Kirsty and Mike, respectively.)

Anyway, the party seems to go reasonably well, but Viggo refuses Cahill’s offer of a lift home. Instead, on the way to his apartment he is approached by a mysterious stranger whom he clearly knows. As will not come as a surprise to anyone who’s been following along, Viggo does not make his wedding the next day, while evidence relating to an investigation into a prominent money-launderer he was involved in has been stolen. It does not look good for him, but Cahill refuses to believe his friend is as corrupt as he appears.

Viggo, meanwhile, is travelling through the city with the stranger, in a car with blacked-out windows. They get caught up in traffic and involved in a contretemps with a biker (slightly discombobulatingly, this is clearly derived from the opening sequence of episode two of the British show, almost on a shot-for-shot level). The car is attacked, sunlight pours through a crack in the window, the stranger partially combusts before pulling away in the vehicle.

Before Cahill becomes aware of this, though, he must contend with a new player: a mysterious federal agency has become involved, represented by taciturn hard-man Vaughan Shepherd (Idris Elba, basically reprising his performance as Vaughan Rice from the UK show) and CDC haematologist Lise Matthews (Joanna Going). Shepherd wears a rather prominent crucifix and Matthews is forever waving UV lamps about. Cahill’s investigation into what’s really going on is going nowhere – Viggo reappears and makes various vague claims of being in danger – until the biker, who was paralysed when the car hit him while departing, is now walking again and has checked himself out of hospital.

Cahill goes in pursuit of the man, and finds him indeed back on his feet. He flees into the New York subway system, occasioning a retread of a sequence from the first episode of the UK show: Cahill’s ability to track his quarry is severely hampered by the fact he doesn’t show up in mirrors or on video cameras. Someone who does show up is Shepherd, however, who promptly puts a bullet into the biker, causing him to explode into burning dust…

Apologies for slightly grainy screen-grab from this untransmitted piece of TV ephemera: that really is Idris Elba in the middle, by the way. Most of it is about as interesting as this to look at.

Well, Cahill tracks Shepherd and Matthews to their base, but remains sceptical about what they claim to be hunting even after watching an apparently paralysed man walk around and then explode. Matthews explains that, post-AIDS, the creatures they are pursuing have grown wary and are seeking to secure their food supply, which will require large amounts of cash (hence their involvement with the money-launderer). The question is one of whether Viggo is simply an ally, or has actually completely joined their cause…

As you can see, in a lot of ways this closely resembles the UK show in terms of its narrative. The first big difference is the absence of a character corresponding to Pearse in the US version; maybe he was being held back for subsequent episodes, or possibly the network were wary of including a priest (or ex-priest) in this kind of show. I wonder how much of the impact of Pearse is due to Philip Quast’s performance, though: he would certainly have been a tough act to follow.

The other big alteration is that Viggo is more of a central character than Jack in the British show, and doesn’t actually join the opposition until near to the climax of the episode (he survives to the end as well). He also gets a number of scenes interacting with his new friends – and here there seems to be a concerted effort to develop them and depict them as fully-rounded and even somewhat sympathetic individuals. The contrast with the UK version, where the undead are off-screen the vast majority of the time, and their agenda and motivation remains mysterious, is marked, and the main effect of this is to heighten the ambiguity in the way the hunters are depicted: we see Vaughan Shepherd blowing away an unarmed man, and they seem cold and hard and untroubled by softer feelings, whereas the creatures they are pursuing get big scenes talking about how much they love one another.

The result is that this really feels like less of a show in the mystery-investigation genre and more a kind of morality play, with much more parity between the two sides – it seems to be building up to be about that old question of whom the real monsters truly are. This isn’t a dreadful premise for a show, but it is a very different one from Joe Ahearne’s conception of the series. It’s equally understated, although in this case perhaps that isn’t completely a positive thing – British Ultraviolet did a good job of looking like any number of other TV shows made in the UK, but American Ultraviolet seems unusually grey and dour for an American TV show, especially a fantasy. It’s not the most inviting or engaging visual palette, and the plot is somehow less immediately gripping. Maybe this is just because the American networks never seem to have had the same kind of prejudice against fantasy and horror that UK ones have routinely shown. I can think of half a dozen American shows featuring vampirism that predated this pilot – in the UK, all the immediately springs to mind are various adaptations of Dracula.

I don’t think US Ultraviolet is quite a bad as Howard Gordon suggests it is – it’s not as immediately accomplished as its immediate progenitor, and the look of the thing could certainly do with improvement, while somehow none of the characters pop this time around. On the other other hand, there are signs of potential here – this could possibly, and I stress the adverb, possibly have turned into a very interesting, morally ambiguous show about not knowing who to trust, and the thin line between good and evil. But it would most likely have just been fairly dull and quickly been cancelled: on the basis of what we see here, it’s hard to feel terribly robbed by the fact that Ultraviolet US never went to a full series.

There’s a school of thought which suggests that the western genre was essentially a wholesome, thoughtful and sincere vehicle for examining the nature of the American national psyche, until Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood came along and perverted it into something cynical, nihilistic and obsessed with hollow slaughter. I think this is overly simplistic: darkness crept into the West years before the spaghetti western came into vogue, allowed in by some of the genre’s most celebrated home-grown exponents.

John Ford’s 1962 film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance opens with Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) and his wife Hallie (Vera Miles) arriving by train in the town of Shinbone, presumably some time around the turn of the century (the film is deliberately coy about the times and places involved, for this is in a sense the story of the entirety of the American frontier). Stoddard is one of America’s leading politicians and a very significant figure; his unexpected arrival causes a stir. What has brought him back to the town where he first became famous?

Journalists gather, but Stoddard and Hallie are more interested in catching up with old acquaintances: retired marshal Link Appleyard (Andy Devine) and lowly ranch-hand Pompey (Woody Strode) chief amongst them. There is an air of inescapable melancholy and regret in the air, of things long-buried being uncovered, all connected to the reason for the Stoddards’ visit: to attend the funeral of washed-up town drunk Tom Doniphon (who, when he eventually appears in the flashback which makes up the bulk of the film, is played by John Wayne). But why?

Stoddard, with the air of a man finally getting something off his chest, tells the tale. The scene changes to many years earlier: Stoddard is travelling to Shinbone by stagecoach, a freshly-qualified lawyer. However, the coach is ambushed by the notorious local bandit Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) and his men, and Stoddard is badly beaten when he resists. What’s left of him is hauled into town by Doniphon and his servant Pompey, and he’s taken in by the family running the local saloon. He’s nursed back to health by their daughter, Hallie, which Doniphon is a bit disgruntled about (he has plans of the marryin’ kind which involve her).

Stoddard is determined to see Valance brought to justice, which Doniphon roundly ridicules him for: law books mean nothing here, compared to the authority of a gun barrel. If Stoddard wants to stop Valance, he’s going to have to kill him, law or no law. Stoddard is appalled by the prospect (to say nothing of the fact he’s useless with a gun). Meanwhile, tensions are growing between Doniphon and the lawyer, as Stoddard grows closer to Hallie, teaching her to read and write in his capacity as the town’s new schoolteacher.

The lack of law and order in Shinbone is partly due to the territory not having been given statehood yet, which Stoddard and the town dignitaries would like to see happen – but the powerful local cattle barons want to see things stay as they are, and retain Valance to ensure this happens. Stoddard finds himself inevitably heading for a confrontation with the gunman – but, even with Doniphon’s tuition, can he possibly have a chance?

There’s certainly more of a drama than a traditional western about The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and perhaps a fair bit of a romance, too: a big portion of the plot revolves around the love triangle between Doniphon, Hallie and Stoddard. The fashion in which this resolves is one of the bittersweet elements which runs through the movie; there is something profoundly melancholy and wistful about the framing scenes that bookend it. The Stoddards reflect on the changes that the railroad and modern technology have brought to the town, rather ambivalently. ‘The desert’s still the same,’ offers Appleyard, rather dismally.

Perhaps, then, this is the story of how the west was lost – or, at least, tamed, if that isn’t the same thing. It’s about the creation of civilisation and society about of anarchy, on one level, a place where men like Stoddard can prosper, but not – it’s implied – ones like Tom Doniphon or Liberty Valance himself.  What’s telling is that it’s suggested that Doniphon has much more more in common with Valance than with Stoddard – neither man has much time for rules or finer points of behaviour, being ferocious individualists, and if Doniphon is a ‘better’ man than Valance, that’s simply due to his essential character rather than any kind of sense of moral obligation.

That this is put across so effectively is mainly due to Ford’s casting, which is both brilliant and obvious: Wayne is playing his usual monolithic rugged individualist, verging on self-parody by this point: by his own admission, a very tough, unreconstructed alpha male. You can’t imagine him playing Stoddard any more than James Stewart playing Doniphon: like Hitchcock and many other directors, Ford recognised Stewart’s genius for playing flawed, human heroes, and that’s what he does here. (We should probably note the irony that in real life, Stewart was a decorated war veteran, while Wayne was acutely self-conscious about his own lack of military service.) In many ways the film is much more about the conflict between Doniphon and Stoddard than either man’s clash with Valance himself (and, as noted, Doniphon and Valance are in many respects mirrors of each other).

In the end, of course, Valance is shot and a bright future for the west is assured – but this, like most of the film, is couched in numerous levels of irony and ambiguity. The film does romanticise the old west, but not without qualification; it suggests that the old west, with its heroes in white hats and virtue always naturally triumphant, is a myth, with little grounding in truth – in this respect it to some extent anticipates Unforgiven, and many other revisionist westerns. But it also suggests the myth is a necessary one for America’s sense of itself to endure. In this respect The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a surprisingly dark and complex film – amongst other things, suggesting that dark and ruthless acts, carried out in secret, are necessary for civilisation to thrive – but it is also a touching and surprisingly moving portrait of the central characters and their relationship. A serious film about complicated ideas, and real emotions; one of the great American westerns, I think, and a harbinger of the genre’s future.

Dust to Dust

After about eight months watching not-quite-all of The Avengers, it’s a shock to get through all of Ultraviolet in less than a week, but here we are: the final episode, Persona Non Grata. This follows on directly from the previous one – the inquisition is holding a member of the opposition prisoner, while Kirsty is being manipulated by the bad guys for reasons which as yet remain slightly obcure.

Pearse is refusing to take his medication until this case is resolved, and decides their priority is to identify their prisoner – as he can’t be photographed or even fingerprinted, this is a little bit tricky. Their only lead is a scar he has retained from his mortal days, suggesting cancer treatment in his past. Nevertheless Pearse puts Mike and Vaughan on the job, and Mike promptly ditches Vaughan on the grounds they can cover more ground individually – he’s intent on his own parallel investigation into Jacob, the recently-turned journalist the opposition are using to handle Kirsty. Almost at once he runs into Vaughan, though: it seems Jacob was also recently investigating hospital cancer wards.

Meanwhile, Philip Quast and Corin Redgrave are getting some cracking scenes together, as the former priest and the former human being debate morality and philosophy – it’s implied that the experience which brought Pearse to his faith was an encounter with the undead, which, their captive suggests, rather suggests they are instruments of the divine will, rather than the abominations Pearse’s general shoot-on-sight principles suggest he thinks they are. ‘We are the source of all religion. We are the afterlife,’ whispers Redgrave; a compellingly creepy performance.

Off in yet another plot thread, Kirsty is essentially being kept in protective custody by Jacob, and being sold a line about Mike being part of the same death squad that killed Jack in episode one (which is basically correct). Inevitably, she discovers the truth of exactly what Jacob has become, before too long, but is clearly susceptible enough to buy his line about how the opposition are victims of propaganda from the Church and other sections of the establishment.

The team is clearly on the point of falling apart: Angie is tormented by the possibility she made a terrible mistake in destroying her husband and daughter, Pearse appears to be very aware of his own mortality and is perhaps even contemplating switching sides (which Vaughan predictably responds to with great hostility), and the enemy are exploiting Mike’s own misgivings and his feelings for Kirsty: she will be released, but only as part of a trade. There is someone in the inquisition’s headquarters whom the opposition would like sprung, very badly.

This isn’t quite the epic conclusion one might be hoping for, but it raises the stakes (sorry) very effectively and includes a lot of things assiduous viewers have probably been hoping for: Frances finds out just what Mike does for a living, for instance. The opposition also get some proper screen-time too, for a change. I’ve seen it suggested that Joe Ahearne initially considered doing a show where some of the main characters were undead, but realised that the budget wouldn’t permit it to be made exclusively at night – hence the existing format, where in the first few episodes the bad guys are mostly off-screen. Here, they get some proper scenes and meaty dialogue, as I’ve suggested.

In the end it largely boils down to the arcs of the four main characters, though (five if you include Kirsty), and this is quite satisfyingly done, without feeling particularly contrived. The plots of the previous episodes are also revealed to be connected to an overall plan to seize control of the world by instigating a nuclear winter and blacking out the sun for months – at least, this is what Pearse surmises, based on what they eventually learn about Redgrave’s character. The actual climax of the series isn’t its strongest or most convincing moment, but it ties nearly everything up quite neatly – there is a loose thread, but it’s not an egregious one.

Which brings us to the question – should we celebrate Ultraviolet as a superbly-effected miniature, or complain about the fact they only made six episodes? (Seven if you count the US pilot, which is supposedly awful.) Given the series was relatively well-reviewed, how come they didn’t do any more?

I seem to recall that in interviews around the turn of the century, Joe Ahearne indicated that the problem was that Ultraviolet was a show with a mainstream budget but only a cult audience (the same old story, sadly). However, more recently he’s said that it was all to do with how the series came together – other people were initially supposed to be writing and directing episodes, but it ended up with him doing the whole series, almost as an auteur. This meant he was fully occupied with filming and editing episodes at the time when the early work on a second series would normally have been done. Ahearne has said he always assumed there would only be six, and that it was a relatively high-concept show that would have struggled to come up with new plots anyway; the production company apparently did invite pitches from other writers on how a continuation might possibly be done, but most of these were very radically different takes on the series (which isn’t to say that Ahearne was unimpressed by them).

It is kind of a shame, because my feeling is that it’s usually in the second season that a TV show really hits its creative peak, and the prospect of another set of Ultraviolet episodes even better than the first would have been a mouth-watering prospect. (Perhaps they might even have managed to turn Mike into a more engaging character: Jack Davenport was one of the show’s big names at the time, but he’s playing such a hopeless individual that he doesn’t get much to do – the other regulars are all much more interesting characters.) But then again, I suppose one really shouldn’t be greedy about these things. All of the episodes are good, at the very least; some of them are exceptional. Is this the best British horror series of all time? It’s such a tiny genre that the answer wouldn’t mean much either way, especially when you consider that most of these shows are anthologies. Let’s just say that this really is an overlooked gem that transcends its origins as a sort-of knock-off of The X Files and becomes a great show in its own right.

Bromance on the Boards

Were you aware they’d done a remake of Point Break? I’m guessing it’s really not a very good movie, seeing as it’s so obscure. When I first became aware of it the other day, my immediate thought was ‘that’s a pretty new movie to be getting a remake’ – but then, of course, I thought about it and realised that Point Break – the Kathryn Bigelow version, that is – is thirty years old this year. Thirty! I can scarcely believe it.

On the other hand, while all great movies have a timeless quality, that doesn’t preclude them from also being essentially of the time they were made, either, and there is something quintessentially early-90s about Point Break: it’s not brash and excessive like an 80s movie, but neither does it have that slightly chilly slickness you get in a lot of films from the following decade. The sense of a changing of the guard is only emphasised by the presence of iconic 80s heart-throb Patrick Swayze (in a very questionable but also authentic hair-style) and also Keanu Reeves, a man for whom the 90s were a defining decade.

The film opens with scenes of Swayze hanging ten and catching waves (etc), and looking majestic doing so, while Reeves struts his stuff on the FBI academy firing range. Keanu is playing football-star-turned-rookie-FBI-agent Johnny (made-up name) Utah, whose first assignment sees him join the bank robbery section in Los Angeles. Utah is a bit buttoned-down, but not yet a fully-fledged pen-pusher like his boss. He is partnered with a world-weary veteran named Angelo Pappas (Gary Busey) who has become a laughing-stock around the office: charged with catching an elite gang of robbers nicknamed the Dead Presidents, Pappas has become convinced that they are surfers, based on their schedule (they’re only active in summer, California’s surf season) and a few shreds of forensic evidence. Someone needs to go undercover on the beach and see what’s going down…

Well, it’s obviously not going to be Busey, so Keanu buys a board and is soon getting surfing lessons from a nice young woman named Tyler (Lori Petty). Through her he has his doors of perception well and truly opened up when he meets top surfer, free spirit, and near-as-dammit spiritual guru Bodhi (Swayze) and his gang of followers. Not only that, his buttons are loosened, his screws are undone and he takes to wandering about inside the FBI building carrying his board. He even turns up late for a raid after some night-surfing (and a spot of the old whoa-ho with Petty) takes the place of the recommended early night. But could Bodhi and his pals be getting up to more than some extreme sports?

It sounds rather generic when you write it down that way, and indeed one of the things that makes Point Break such an intriguing movie is the fact that it has almost exactly the same basic plot trajectory as the original The Fast and the Furious film while still feeling like a stylish and classy film for grown-ups, right down to the central character dynamic. One plot summary I’ve seen of this movie suggests that Keanu finds his mission complicated when he falls in love with Swayze’s ex-girlfriend. The film itself is rather more ambiguous on whom the exact object of Keanu’s affection is, something which Hot Fuzz recognised with typically forensic accuracy when one character summarised a key sequence: ‘Patrick Swayze has just robbed this bank, and Keanu Reeves is chasin’ him through peoples’ gardens, and then he goes to shoot Swayze but he can’t because he loves him so much and he’s firin’ his gun up in the air and he’s like ‘ahhh!” It’s all very subtextual, naturally, but Swayze is very sinewy and macho and Keanu is still at that point where he’s often sort of blankly bovine and – there’s not really another mot juste in this case – pretty.

Nevertheless, Keanu is showing signs of improvement, and this is surely the first film to establish his potential as a genuine action movie star: he runs and fights and chucks himself about with great aplomb. And he always has that same Reevesian charisma – he is a still point of total calm on the screen, which you somehow cannot help but fill with your affection for the lad. At one point in Point Break, the film (which has hitherto been relatively restrained and naturalistic) requires Keanu to hurl himself out of a plane in flight, without a parachute, and apprehend his quarry in free-fall. Even at the height of Bondian absurdity, Roger Moore was excused this sort of thing, but Keanu – well, he doesn’t exactly sell the bit outright, but he makes you indulge the film in it.

Of course, if we’re talking about pretty – and yes, this is a fairly shallow and spurious bit of linking – then we should also mention that Lori Petty is in this movie too. She always struck me as someone extremely smart and watchable, but – on the face of things, at least – the failure of Tank Girl dealt her career as someone who could lead a movie a mortal blow. Here, you just wish she was given a bit more to do than be a plot device: as noted, the central relationship in the movie is between Reeves and Swayze, so she ends up sidelined and barely appears in the third act of the movie.

Most of this is chasing and shooting, which Bigelow handles with her characteristic muscular efficiency: she’s had a distinguished career, but one where good films just haven’t had the success which they deserved, with some quite substantial gaps in her filmography as a result. On one level Point Break feels like it occupies some peculiar narrative space between The Lost Boys and The Fast and the Furious – Patrick Swayze (who surely gives the best performance of his career here) as the somewhat unlikely missing link between Kiefer Sutherland and Vin Diesel – but at the same time the film has a class and a quality which elevates it above the level of simply being a popcorn genre movie. I’m not sure it has any genuine depth to it, but it certainly gives that impression. A great thriller, deserving of its cult status.

Blood Pacts and Other Beliefs

The episodic nature which has characterised the first four instalments of Ultraviolet begins to disappear with Terra Incognita – although as there are only six programmes in total (this is a perfectly-formed miniature, really), it could really qualify as the first of a two-part series finale.

A man arrives at Heathrow on a flight from Brazil, but is stopped at immigration on medical grounds – he is bleeding from the ears. A full examination reveals an open bite wound on his neck, and suggests he is suffering from some form of haemorrhagic fever. More startlingly, the man’s sister, Maria (Ellen Thomas) indicates they have come here to get help from a doctor in London who is an expert on his condition, whom the man’s specialists in Brazil suggested could cure him – someone called Dr March…

All of this naturally raises an enormous red flag for the inquisition, and both siblings are brought in for examination and interview. Vaughan and Mike interview the crew of the flight they came in on, and discover it was carrying medical equipment – the cause of a last-minute flight delay. The equipment turns out to take the form of large, hermetically-sealed, time-locked casings, one of which Vaughan and Mike manage to secure.

It turns out the bleeding man has a history of sickle-cell anaemia, which appears to have mysteriously vanished – but an examination reveals that the opposition have been nibbling on him in a most peculiar way, almost as if they have been sampling his blood. Maria tells the team she has come here not to see Angie March, but her husband Robert – the man whom she staked years before – as apparently only he has the knowledge to save her brother. Angie realises it could make a certain kind of sense – the opposition could be trying to perfect synthetic blood, something which would free them from their dependence on human beings as a food source. Judging from the man’s condition, they’re not quite there yet – but Robert March was a brilliant haematologist who could conceivably crack the problem. Angie points out to Pearse that the breakthrough would not only remove the casus belli between the inquisition and their enemy, but also help in the treatment of conditions such as non-Hodgkins’ lymphoma.

However, their top priority is finding the other casings, as they assume each contains a member of the opposition – the time lock is set to open just after the sun sets. But the enemy has been cunning, and sold the team a dummy – and Vaughan is captured, knocked unconscious, and wakes up in a locked room with four of the casings, each set to open in only a few minutes…

There’s a slightly schlocky element to this, basically to enable its resolution – whichever Renfield has locked Vaughan in there has been gallant (or dumb) enough to leave him with his gun and pen-knife – but it’s still really the dramatic peak of the episode. Vaughan is difficult to read, as usual, but seems almost on the verge of terminal despair – we also get a glimpse of the man behind the tough-guy front, as he rings Angie with only moments to go. Idris Elba doesn’t get a great deal to do acting-wise in many of these episodes – he’s basically there as the team hard man – but he makes the most of this opportunity to do a little more with it, and it works well.

But apart from this, the episode doesn’t have same focus as the previous ones. The initial mystery sort of gets forgotten about in the aftermath of Vaughan’s ordeal, overtaken by other concerns – mainly the arrival in the team’s base of the occupant of the container they captured. It’s almost implied this is part of the opposition’s plan – insert one of their number into the heart of the inquisition’s operation, to sow dissent and misinformation. Emerging from the quasi-coffin is a quietly impressive individual played (as well as you might reasonably ask) by the actor Corin Redgrave. (Thirty years earlier Redgrave had turned in a fine performance as Jonathan Harker in an ITV adaptation of Bram Stoker’s most famous novel, although I’m not sure that’s enough for this to count as stunt casting.)

Corin Redgrave prepares to be interviewed.

Redgrave has the presence and technique to hold his own against the regular cast, and believably puts the team on the back foot, making Angie once again question their ethos and methods. The plotline is left unresolved, as events are clearly building towards some kind of climax: Mike has succumbed to his feelings for Kirsty and arranged to see her again, even if he does turn up armed and prepared to potentially put a wooden dum-dum in her chest if she turns out to have been turned by the opposition (the question of whether Kirsty is still human or not is left open, reasonably skilfully, until after she’s seen Mike getting ready to take her out – at which point there’s yet another homage to the Citizen Kane hall-of-mirrors shot, though here for a reason on this occasion).

This is an odd, all-over-the-place kind of episode, without the strong central plot of most of the others and containing a few convenient plot devices, and some odd digressions. At one point Vaughan and Maria have a discussion of Candomblé (a syncretic Afro-Brazilian religion), which is sort of interesting but doesn’t really go anywhere except in that it links into the episode’s theme, which I think is faith (and the loss of faith). Maria is a believer, and has faith in Robert March’s ability to cure her brother (though this ultimately profits her little); Vaughan nearly loses all hope during his moment of crisis; Mike is clearly having severe doubts about having joined the inquisition; and so is Angie – though it’s been clear all along she’s never quite recovered from destroying her own husband and child.

In the end, though, it still works – it’s clearly doing things to set up the final episode, and there are lots of good individual set pieces, even if they don’t really link up with one another – Vaughan’s crisis with the coffins, Redgrave’s first appearance, and Mike’s confrontation with Kirsty. More than enough good stuff here for it to pass muster, anyway.

The Remembrance of Tom Past

There are some films which have a particular significance in my memory – not necessarily because they are especially good, or poor, or interesting, but just because they came along at a particular time in my life and burned their way into my memory. For instance, there was once a time when I did not – mutatis mutandis – go to the cinema once or twice a week. I went along now and then, when there was a film that looked particularly interesting, but I didn’t actively seek out things to go and watch. (I suppose this is how normal people approach going to the cinema.)  This didn’t change overnight, but there were a number of times when I recall it dawning on me that going to see a film I didn’t know much about could actually be a really great and rewarding trip out.

I feel obliged to make clear that Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible is not such a film. Well, not exactly. Here’s what was happening: it was the summer of 1996, and relations between your correspondent and the people he was living with were at a bit of a nadir. I had taken to going out of the house very early and staying out all day, simply to avoid them, until the university term ended and they all left. Friday, the day before the great departure, finally rolled around, and unable to face another marathon stint in the library or the bar I went to into town and decided to go to the cinema. I’d always enjoyed the legerdemaine in the plotting of the old Mission: Impossible TV show, and I expect I would have seen it eventually, but as it happened it had just opened that day: seeing a film on its day of release was a new experience for me then, but one which seemed rather agreeable.

De Palma’s film opens with a deliberately misleading set of titles, evoking the style of the TV show very nicely (needless to say, Lalo Schifrin’s immortal theme blasts out too). We encounter Jim Phelps (Jon Voight), head of the CIA’s Impossible Mission clever-tricks squad, receiving an exploding cassette on a plane. It seems that a rogue CIA agent is about to steal a very important Maguffin from the US embassy in Prague, and Phelps and his team are to nab the miscreant in the act.

Phelps’ team includes his wife Claire (Emmanuelle Beart), technical bod Jack (an uncredited Emilio Estevez), posh Brit Sarah (Kristin Scott Thomas), a slightly nondescript character played by Ingeborg Dapkunaite, and (in the old Martin Landau master-of-disguise role) Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise). There is a lot of sneaking into the embassy, wearing of rubber masks, the deployment of clever gadgets, and – rather subtly – establishing the rapport between the various members of team.

This is significant, because after a smooth start, the mission begins to go pear-shaped in a very terminal way: one by one, the Impossible Missionaries are crushed, shot, stabbed and blown up. The important Maguffin is nicked, and the only survivors of the carnage, it would seem, are Hunt and Claire Phelps. It transpires the whole mission was part of a bigger, more devious scheme: CIA director Kittridge (Henry Czerny) believes there is a traitor in the IMF, and all that has gone before has been an attempt to flush out the mole. As Hunt seems to be the last man standing, he looks somewhat compromised.

However, this is not the kind of thing Hunt is wont to take lying down, and – for the first time, but absolutely not the last – he goes on the run from his own people in an attempt to identify who the traitor who killed his friends is. Some slightly knotty exposition ensues (well-handled by the script and direction), with the following results: he does a deal with arms dealer Max (Vanessa Redgrave), whereby she will manufacture a meeting with the mole, in exchange for him breaking into CIA headquarters and stealing another copy of the same Maguffin as earlier.

This all enables a rather pleasing structure to the film, which is essentially built around three big set-pieces done in the style of the original TV show – the initial shenanigans at the embassy, the raid on the CIA, and finally some fairly unlikely goings-on in and around the Channel Tunnel as Hunt finally confronts the bad guys. The second of these provides the film’s most iconic image – after scrambling through the (surprisingly capacious) air vents at the CIA with Jean Reno, Cruise ends up operating a computer workstation while dangling on a wire from the ceiling – while the third sends the film for the first time off into more generic Hollywood action movie territory – Reno ends up flying a helicopter down the (equally surprisingly capacious) Channel Tunnel, with Cruise hanging off one of the skids.

I think it gets the balance between being like the TV show and being cinematic just about spot-on, although others had a different opinion: amongst them Peter Graves and the other original members of the TV show cast, who were invited back (to get killed off). I suppose I can understand the source of their chagrin – in the end, it’s hardly reverent towards the characterisation of the source material, even if it gets the substance pretty much right.

Yet it also felt very contemporary back in 1996. Nowadays, it’s not exactly dated, but the film’s near-fixation with computer hacking and the internet does feel very much of its time. It also serves fairly well as a snapshot of actors who had recently made an impression in other successful films – Reno was fresh off Leon, Scott Thomas had recently done Four Weddings and a Funeral, and Ving Rhames (who’s gone on to appear opposite Cruise in all the subsequent films in the franchise) had played a key role in Pulp Fiction.

In the end I think this is an extremely efficient and polished movie, rather than a truly great one: it has that slickness one often finds in Tom Cruise projects, and Brian De Palma seems relatively restrained: there are hardly any of the bravura touches or outrageous bits of showing-off that sometimes characterises his work. And yet I remain extremely fond of it – I saw it twice more that summer, and remember listening to the soundtrack endlessly, as well. I suppose I remember it so warmly because it marked a point, more or less, at which things lightened up for me – and also because, immediately afterwards, I was in such a good mood I hung around in town and saw Wayne Wang’s Smoke, one of my first real art-house experiences (or so I recall, anyway). Another time, another life – but still pleasant to recall.

The Limits of Dark

Ultraviolet‘s fourth episode is entitled Mea Culpa, which would probably qualify as another fridge episode-name – were it not for the fact that there was a movie a few years ago entitled Mea Maxima Culpa, which it shares a few thematic elements with. The thing about this episode is that it really is trying very hard to be a proper serious drama for adults, rather than a campy bit of genre-based fun. This is always true of Ultraviolet, of course, but perhaps on this occasion they go over the top in the whole dour-and-gritty department.

The story opens at a school where a priest attempts to speak to a boy in his early teens named Gary (Robert Stuart). The lad is reluctant to speak to the older man, and when the priest refuses to take no for an answer, stabs him repeatedly with a craft knife. The priest dies of his injuries, Gary goes on the run. For some reason – and the episode really fudges this a bit too much – the inquisition are called in, as such a savage assault on a religious figure might be connected to the opposition’s activities. Even Mike is openly dubious of their getting involved in what looks like a job for the conventional police.

However, inquiries at the school reveal a suspicious degree of heliophobia amongst the boys, and Angie discovers they show a marked aversion to religious artifacts as well. Mike still thinks this might be symptomatic of something like meningitis, with the aversion to religion more closely linked to the dead man in particular. There’s also the question of how all the boys managed to pick up a Code Five infection given there’s no sign any of them have been bitten.

Meanwhile, Gary is in hiding in the local park, where he encounters a man named Colin (Rupert Procter). Here the episode starts heading into what seems to me to be quite dodgy territory: Colin is presented as pretty much the stereotype of the seedy gay man, cruising public lavatories, and so on. Anyway, Colin takes Gary back to his place, but before anything else can occur, Gary is attacked by Colin’s dog and badly injured. Colin dumps Gary at the local hospital and runs for it. Mike, on the other hand, who’s become rather appalled by the draconian measures employed by the team when there’s very little evidence of opposition involvement (all the children have been brought in for testing), has discovered evidence that the priest who was murdered was a paedophile.

(Round about this point, the A-plot is gently paused and we catch up on what’s going on with Kirsty and the journalist she has teamed up with – he has been digging a bit too deeply and got himself turned by the opposition – and Pearse and his mysterious ailment. Angie’s diagnosis is lymphoma, which is not good news for the team’s top man.)

Everything changes when it turns out that Gary indeed has a form of meningitis – but one which has been engineered to carry a version of Code Five infection, rendering the carrier heliophobic, hostile to religious symbols, and highly suggestible (by the opposition, anyway). This same virus is spreading through the school. The spectre of an epidemic of a disease which could render huge swathes of the population vulnerable to control by the opposition qualifies as a nightmare scenario for the team, but where has it come from?

Well, Vaughan and Mike track down Colin, and Vaughan – in a display of barely disguised homophobia – proceeds to beat the information they need out of him, while Mike looks on uncomfortably. Gary, Colin reveals, showed signs of having been groomed before, but not by the priest. All the evidence points to a man named Oliver – a recluse suffering from a genetic condition called xenoderma pigmentosum, which means he can never leave his home during daylight…

Vaughan Rice conducts an interrogation.

In many ways, this episode shares all the strengths of the rest of the series: it’s slick, well-played, and cleverly plotted with an inventive new take on the traditional lore (it turns out the opposition are indeed experimenting with producing mass infections without having to bite everyone individually, but one of their test subjects is refusing to socially distance himself). There are a couple of places where the plotting could be tighter, but this is only a minor concern. My issue with it is really that it just seems to be in rather dubious taste.

I’m not saying that paedophilia – even paedophilia involving the Catholic Church – is something that should be off-limits for drama. But if you’re going to use it as a plot element in a fantasy drama – and, when it comes down to it, Ultraviolet is ultimately a fantasy drama, an entertainment – you need to be justified in doing so. The problem is that the story doesn’t contain a metaphor for child abuse, or anything similar. It just seems to be there because including it makes the series look properly grown-up and dark.

I’m not sure this is enough, and there are other ways in which the episode doesn’t really distinguish itself in handling its subject matter: Colin, in particular, is a homophobic stereotype, and I don’t think the episode does anything like enough to clarify that not all gay men are paedophiles. The scene where Colin is beaten into helping the team is uncomfortable to watch – it really does add to the impression that the team are not terribly nice people. On the other hand, this may have been intentional: the suggestion seems to be that what they’ve all been through has left them damaged and callous. What new-recruit Mike’s excuse is, is another matter: Jack Davenport is always reasonably watchable, but Mike often comes across as glum and a bit moody. He certainly doesn’t seem to be enjoying the new job, referring to Pearse as the witchfinder-general and openly questioning his judgement. He’s even upset when he’s let off after accidentally shooting someone he thought was one of the opposition – Vaughan Rice, on the other hand, is more worried by the fact that Mike put two bullets into the guy and still managed to miss the heart.

As I said, this is a strong episode in lots of ways, sharing all the series’ usual virtues. But the nature of the story and the tone of it both leave me uneasy, despite all of that. It feels exploitative of real-world issues in a way that the previous episode wasn’t – and quite crassly exploitative, too. Worth watching, nevertheless, if only because the ongoing story elements do move on somewhat in the course of it – but I do think it’s problematic in many ways.

The ’89 Comeback Special

How about this for a Christmas movie? It is almost instantly apparent that Jeffrey Mandel’s 1989 movie Elves is not one which is troubled with more money than it knows what to do with. The cheapo titles, synth soundtrack, and generally cruddy production values all instantly send a message that this is a movie which can only aspire to the bargain basement. A great cinematic experience this is not.

It would take an astonishingly witty, inventive and engaging narrative to distract the viewer from the effects of the micro-budget. This is what you get: three young women head into the woods, apparently intent on performing some kind of pagan ritual as a protest against the commercialisation of Christmas (I really wouldn’t bother trying to follow the logic of this). None of them actually seem like the kind of person who would actually be interested in paganism, as they are simply horror-movie-stock-girls, interested in shopping and boys. But there you go. Anyway, main character Kirsten (Julie Austin) cuts her hand by accident while doing the ritual, shortly after which they all go home. But something unearthly (not to mention rubbery and somewhat cheap looking) is stirring where her blood fell to the ground. Yes – it’s an elf!

(I must qualify this by saying that most of the characters describe it as looking like a troll, rather than an elf, and I have to say ‘elf’ is not the word that springs most readily to mind whenever the monster comes on. It’s probably also worth pointing out that for a movie called Elves, there’s only actually one elf in it. On the other hand, the elf – which appears to be some kind of puppet – is not as bad as you might expect, by which I mean it is just very bad rather than actually appalling.)

Anyway, the elf has homicidal tendencies and follows Kirsten home, where it attacks her, scratching her before running off. Her callous mother (Deanna Lund from Land of the Giants) has none of this, and blames Kirsten’s cat (this sets up another winning moment when Lund attempts to flush the live cat down the toilet). Her wheelchair-bound, thickly-accented grandfather (Borah Silver) perhaps knows more about what’s happening than he’s letting on, though…

Well, it’s back to the old routine for Kirsten and her friends, which mainly involves working and hanging out at the local mall (which is very tiny and dimly lit). Needless to say the homicidal elf turns up here as well, and when the mall Santa Claus tries it on with Kirsten, the elf takes exception to this behaviour. The lubricious Santa is ambushed backstage and fatally stabbed in the crotch. (Am I giving you enough of a sense of what a really classy film this is?)

Well, they need a replacement Santa now, obviously, and the job goes to a character who’s an alcoholic former cop who’s down on his luck, played by Dan Haggerty. Haggerty is best remembered for playing kind-hearted mountain-man Grizzly Adams for many years, so at least he has the right kind of beard for the role. The new Santa is soon in post, taking the opportunity to sleep on the premises (which saves on rent).

So Santa is in the building when the three girls decide to get together with their boyfriends at the mall one night. Unfortunately, the boyfriends never turn up, for they are ambushed and dealt with by a squad of neo-Nazi agents who have come in search of the elf and the young women responsible for summoning it up.

There follows a protracted and surprisingly leisurely sequence in which there is a gun battle in the (small, dimly lit) mall between Santa and the neo-Nazis, while the rubber puppet elf menaces the young women. This does seem to go on forever and the most frightening moment in my viewing of the film came during it, when I looked at my watch and realised the film still had another forty-five minutes or so to run.

Well, anyway, Santa and Kirsty manage to escape the neo-Nazis and the elf, and the plot, such as it is, becomes clearer. This is all part of a long-in-the-works Nazi plan, which Kirsty’s grandfather is a part of, to create a true master race of beings who are part-human, part-rubber elf. Kirsty, apparently, is the last pure-blooded Aryan maiden the Nazis are aware of (this has involved a spot of inbreeding in her family tree, something the film casually drops in because… well, by this point, why not?). If the elf can get it together with Kirsty on Christmas Eve (again, such a classy and well-thought-through plot), nothing can stop the spawning of a world-conquering race of Nazi monsters…

So, just to recap: you’ve got pagan rituals, rubber elves, a gun-toting Santa, and a secret Nazi plan to conquer the world using hybrid monsters. And yet for some reason, people still go on about It’s a Wonderful Life as the archetypal Christmas film. That said, the Christmas-themed horror movie has a bit of a pedigree – the tradition includes Black Christmas, after all. ‘Pedigree’ is not a word you’d probably choose to describe Elves. It is more of an ugly mongrel.

It’s a bit like a slasher film and a bit like a monster movie and a bit like an exploitation film; if they’d actually had a decent budget this would either have ended up as something ridiculously camp and knowing or simply very nasty and unpleasant indeed. As it is, while the film often seems to be trying to play the knowingly-ironic card, it’s simply not accomplished enough on any level to make this work: it’s just too primitive and crude to play those kinds of games with the audience. Pretty much the only element of it which does not seem to be challenging the viewer to switch off with its sheer badness is Dan Haggerty’s performance, which is… well, the guy has presence, and seems to be taking it all much more seriously than it deserves.

In the end Elves has a sort-of coherent story (though the climax is confusing), even though the tone of the thing is wildly variable and never particularly convincing. When it comes to this kind of film, I feel that I’m not so much giving a review as issuing a warning: this is another case of a film which sounds like it might be mad, campy fun. It’s not. It’s just grim and crude and mean-spirited – nasty, brutish, and not nearly short enough. Happy holidays.