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One fine day in the summer of 1995, I finished my university finals. Nearly everyone went off to get wrecked in celebration, but not I: even back then I find that I was dabbling with the abstemiousness which has now become my standard operating procedure, while other habits and tendencies were beginning to manifest themselves: I left my peers in the bar that lunchtime and went off to the cheapest of Hull city centre’s three cinemas, which was a place that gave one the chance to catch up on films that had come out a few months earlier at the now-unbelievable price of only £1.50 a ticket. So, you may be wondering, what did I see? Well, I caught the afternoon showing of Leon. And then, feeling almost dizzy with the heady knowledge I would never have to answer an essay question on epistemology again, I saw the teatime show of Interview with the Vampire. And finally, with the words ‘what the hell!’ distinctly resonating in my brain, I saw the movie version of Stargate in the evening.

My main recollection of that day is an inexorable decline in the quality of the movies, to be honest: Leon remains a film I really like (I still think it’s far and away Luc Besson’s best work), while I’ve never been able to get on with Stargate in any of its incarnations, to be honest (this despite generally being well-disposed towards Roland Emmerich’s SF movies). But what of Interview with the Vampire, first released in 1994 and directed by Neil Jordan. Well, I tend to like Jordan’s stuff, or perhaps it’s better to say I usually find things to enjoy in his films: I liked the visual style of The Company of Wolves and the sheer bonkersness of Greta, for example.

I have to say, though, that I found Interview with the Vampire to be slimmer pickings than most of his work – which was a surprise to me, as I have been a fan of vampire movies since discovering Hammer horror in 1987, at least. Mind you, I also found Anne Rice’s source novel to be pretty heavy going – I think I originally bought the damn thing second-hand in 1998, bounced off it a couple of times, found another copy in a ‘free books’ box outside the neighbours’ house fifteen years later, and finally ploughed through it then. (A review of the book is here.)

Any version of this story you care to mention concerns the life (brief), death (very brief) and thereafter (extremely lengthy) of a vampire named Louis (played by Bradley Pitt), who is telling his tale to a Studs Terkel-esque writer (Christian Slater). Louis, by his own account, is driven to the verge of suicidal madness by the death of his wife and child in 1790s Louisiana, at which point he crosses the path of a hedonistic vampire named Lestat (Tom Cruise). With Louis’ permission, Lestat brings him over to his side of the street, with the promise of immortality and eternal youth…

Yes, I suppose we’ve all wondered what we would do with such a gift. What Louis mostly does with it is brood and complain, although occasionally he takes a break in order to complain and brood. Apparently he doesn’t like drinking human blood, which leads one to wonder why he agreed to being turned into a vampire in the first place. God knows why Lestat puts up with him (this is not a healthy relationship). Lestat decides that having a child will save their partnership (not the first time someone has made this rather suspect decision) and turns a young plague survivor named Claudia (Kirsten Dunst, in her movie debut), and the three of them pass many years brooding, complaining, and thinning out the local population.

There’s a good deal more in this vein (sorry) but it has to be said that this is not a film with a particularly strong narrative line. The only thing that makes it a conventional narrative (as opposed to just a series of episodic vignettes) is the persistent focus on Louis’ relationship with Lestat. Possibly one of the reasons I’ve never been a particular fan of this film is that it takes all the trappings of a traditional vampire movie but uses them to tell what’s basically a story about a dysfunctional relationship – a bit like the Hunger Games movies, which come on like dystopian SF thrillers but turn out to be something more nuanced and introspective.

The thing that makes Interview with the Vampire rather unusual for a big-budget studio movie is that all those Gothic horror trappings are basically there to hide the basic subtext of the story: which is that of a man forming a relationship with another man, and becoming part of a hidden subculture which more traditional folk sometimes find either alluring or revolting. The main character feels terribly guilty about his new lifestyle. Needless to say both Pitt and Cruise look – how best to put this? Androgynous isn’t quite the right word – somewhat ambiguous in this movie, with lovely flowing long hair and clear complexions. In short, this is surely one of the gayest films to come out of a major studio in the 20th century.

I said something similar in the review of the book, and, as you may have seen, someone took issue with this, suggesting that Rice’s vampires transcend conventional notions of romance and sexuality. Hmmm, well, maybe. The thing is, any sane person writing about vampires is going to use them as a metaphor for something – to do anything else would be to perpetrate vacuous fantasy – and it’s worth mentioning that at one point Rice rejigged the story so that Pitt’s character would be a woman, to be played by Cher. Her reasoning? She assumed that Hollywood would be too homophobic for the story as she wrote it. I’ll just put my case down here, shall I?

The BBC showed Interview with the Vampire the other night, and the following evening their late movie was Behind the Candelabra, which is either one of those coincidences or evidence that someone in scheduling has a sense of humour, for if you do accept that the primary subtext of Jordan’s movie concerns a gay relationship, then the throughlines of both it and the Soderbergh film are strikingly similar, with Louis as the young semi-innocent and Lestat as the preening older man (Lestat does play the piano in a couple of key scenes, as well). Of course, what may keep the film from being wholly embraced by the LGBT community is that one of the main drivers of the plot is that Louis spends most of the movie feeling terribly guilty about being a vampire (i.e. gay) and most of the vampires (i.e. …oh, you get the idea) are nasty, bitter, bitchy types.

None of this is really why I’m not a particular fan of this film – there are lots of different ways of doing vampire movies, from Nosferatu to Near Dark to Captain Kronos, for the vampire metaphor is unusually adaptable. I think it’s mainly just the style of the thing, which feels very much like the work of a novelist rather than a screenwriter: a bit too much reliance on voice-over for exposition, and a fondness for characters telling each other things rather than doing things. All mouth and no trousers, really.

All the moments you remember from the film have much to do with the script: they’re visual rather than narrative. Jordan mounts a very impressive movie with a real sense of style about it, and gets a really good performance out of an eleven-year-old Kirsten Dunst. None of the performances are what you’d call actively bad; Antonio Banderas gets one of his better early English-language roles (now I think of it, it would be fascinating to see Almodovar’s take on this material). Tom Cruise is… well, he’s in his ‘give me an Oscar’ mode, which he is wont to slip into in this kind of prestige production (perhaps we should be grateful he mainly does thrillers these days), and his performance is just pitched a bit too high.

I feel obliged to say, though, that it’s still a damn sight better than the sequel. But if we’re going to look in that direction, it is interesting to note that if What We Do In The Shadows (both movie and TV show) is spoofing anything in particular, it’s this movie (the episodes with the vampire council make this particularly clear). Not many things this year have made me laugh as often or as hard as the What We Do… TV show, so I suppose Interview with the Vampire deserves credit for that. Fairly faint praise, I admit, but sometimes you have to take your damnation wherever you can find it.

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Philip Levene’s Small Game for Big Hunters has the feeling of being the product of a finely-tuned machine operating at peak efficiency, even if assiduous viewers may be at the point where they can sort of anticipate the various story beats as they come. This one manages to incorporate all the Avengers silliness one might hope for, while also sort-of addressing some topical sixties concerns (this also leads to this being another of those episodes which could be perceived as a touch problematic for a modern audience).

It opens with a man in ragged tropical kit staggering through swamps and undergrowth, clearly on the edge of exhaustion: drums pound ominously as he stumbles past trees decorated with human skulls. Just as it seems he has made his escape, an arrow takes him in the back… and the camera pans off his prone body to a road marker with the legend ‘London – 23 Miles’. It’s the kind of studied piece of weird juxtaposition that the show is making regular use of at this point.

Well, cut to Emma arriving at a house in the countryside, where Steed and the local doctor are tending to the wounded man. Something is up with him: he has lapsed into a kind of coma or deep sleep, from which he cannot be roused. Apparently a group of local men have all vanished recently, and this is the only one to reappear. A local expert named Professor Swain (Liam Redmond) is called in, who diagnoses that the man is under the influence of a kind of magic similar to voodoo, native to the African nation of Kalaya (which has declared independence from the British Empire fairly recently). Clearly not realising she is in a Philip Levene script, where just about anything could happen, Mrs Peel is a bit dubious about this.

Well, Steed has gone to the maker of the man’s tropical gear and learns that it was sent to Kalaya – but in 1929 (exemplary record-keepers, these tropical-kit makers). It also turns out that all the missing men are ex-servicemen who spent part of their careers in Kalaya, and the club for veterans of colonial service in Kalaya is just at the far end of the garden. Add an attempt to swipe Steed’s files on the subject by what looks like a native tribesman and it looks like a pattern is beginning to develop.

Following the previous week’s communist-prison-camp-inside-a-London-hotel, the discovery of a Kalayan officer’s club and plantation on the outskirts of the city barely raises an eyebrow, and neither does the presence of this week’s exponent of the ‘crazed innocent’ stock character – in this case, a veteran soldier played by Bill Kerr, who still thinks he’s in Africa. It turns out a lot of the Kalayan old hands feel they were unfairly driven out of the country following independence, and are planning to return and reassert their old authority, with the help of specially-bred tsetse flies spreading a new strain of sleeping sickness…

One of the odder expressions of Britain’s post-imperial angst, yes, but on its own merits this is another fairly typical episode for this period (which is to say it’s consistently enjoyable) – plus the climax features Mrs Peel in a sarong. There’s also a cheeky parody of Dr No at one point – ‘That’s a Mauser single-barrel, and you’ve had your five,’ declares Steed, contending with a villain who’s been blazing away at him. (Connery has a virtually identical line in the Bond film.) Naturally, the weapon goes off again: ‘Oh, my arithmetic is shocking!’ beams Steed. (There’s a fairly excruciating Tarzan gag, too, complete with ‘Me Steed!’ ‘Me Emma!’)

On the other hand, of course, there is inevitably something a bit awkward about all the jungle-drumming  and the use of spear-carrying ‘native tribesmen’ as henchmen. Even the fact that this is one of those rare Avengers episodes to give a significant role to a non-European performer (Paul Danquah plays a member of the Kalayan intelligence service, working the case from the other end) is unlikely to assuage anyone who gets nervous about this sort of thing. In the end, it is what it is: the imperialists and colonialists are the bad guys, and there’s never the faintest suggestion to the contrary. Everything else I can live with, personally.

Roger Marshall’s The Girl from Auntie (opinion seems to be split as to whether the last word should be capitalised; I see no reason why it should) sounds like a spoof of a certain other light-hearted sixties spy series (maybe even two) but it isn’t, really. Given the cast list you might be forgiven for expecting something particularly light-hearted, and you might be satisfied (although the episode does feature a fairly spectacular body-count).

It opens with Mrs Peel leaving a fancy dress ball (her outfit is memorable, to say the least) and coming to the aid of a sweet little old lady who takes a tumble off her bike; she is understandably surprised when the old dear drugs her into unconsciousness. Cut to Steed coming back off holiday and taking a taxi from the airport; Lord knows what his luggage allowance is like as the cab is stuffed to overflowing with canoe paddles, butterfly nets, golf clubs, and so on… the running gag is that the taxi driver basically has to chauffeur Steed around for most of the episode, and passes the time by playing with his luggage. What’s Steed so preoccupied with? Well, he arrives at Mrs Peel’s flat, only to find Emma is not herself: she is, in fact, a different woman entirely now (played by Liz Fraser, a semi-regular in the early Carry On films, with her usual comic skill). The impostor is an actress named Georgie Price-Jones, who’s been hired to give the impression Mrs Peel has not, in fact, vanished.

Steed tries to get to the bottom of this, but finds only a pile of corpses, all impaled with knitting needles (half a dozen of them, in fact – ‘Six bodies in an hour and twenty minutes. What do you call that?’ says Steed. ‘A good first act,’ replied Georgie, rather knowingly). The trail leads to Arkwright’s Knitting Circle, where a sort of crazed innocent (played by Bernard Cribbins, another Carry On semi-regular around this time) has become a yarn-based lifestyle guru. Just down the hall is a very exclusive and discreet agency, run by one Gregorie Auntie (Alfred Burke), which specialises in acquiring beautiful and unique objects, no questions asked, as long as the price is right…

Yes, Auntie has bagged Mrs Peel and is keeping her in a giant birdcage ahead of her being auctioned off (the keen interest in her is due to her massive intellect and knowledge of cyphers, apparently – friends, elevate your thinking). As you can see, the episode really doesn’t have much to do with The Man from UNCLE and is basically just a rather broad and preposterous comedy, obviously structured to give Diana Rigg some time off mid-season (she only really appears at the very beginning and end, and briefly at that). You would have thought the episode might flounder a bit without the presence of the future dame, but it has a good cast and many engagingly daft scenes: Steed goes undercover as one ‘Wayne Pennyfeather-ffinch’ to infiltrate Auntie’s operation, persuading the National Gallery to lend him a priceless masterpiece for verisimilitude’s sake, while there’s a ludicrous sequence in which Georgie fends off Auntie’s geriatric assassin, referring to one of Emma’s self-defence manuals throughout the fight. To cap it all, it’s strongly implied that Steed busts the actual Mona Lisa over Auntie’s head during the obligatory final tussling. Very entertaining throughout, and a good example of how to do one of these ‘regular cast member on leave’ episodes.

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It is, of course, very nearly a truism that professional creators of horror fiction generally turn out to be the nicest, sweetest bunch of people one could ever hope to meet. The people who finance horror movies may be exempt from this, unfortunately: this is the thought which inevitably crosses my mind when the logo for Dimension Films crosses the screen. This is, or was, a mini-studio which started life as a sort of off-shoot from Miramax, with the intention of making the sort of disreputable but remunerative genre pictures that just weren’t classy enough for the parent studio. The association with Miramax means an association with Harvey Weistein, and there is of course a rather sick irony in his reluctance to associate himself too closely with horror and exploitation – on screen, at least.

I would have pegged Dimension Films as an outfit which got going in the mid to late 90s – I would have sworn that Demon Knight and Bordello of Blood were both Dimension productions – but no: the studio launched itself on an unsuspecting world in 1992, starting as it would continue with a fairly undistinguished sequel (various entries in the From Dusk Till Dawn, Halloween, and Children of the Corn series would subsequently appear under the Dimension marque). That very first film was Anthony Hickox’s Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth.

The geographical ambiguity which formed such a peculiar part of the atmosphere of the first two films is instantly banished, as we are clearly in the Land of the Good Old Uncle US of Stateside right from the off (exactly where is left slightly vague, but it looks like it’s meant to be New York City). We meet nightclub entrepreneur, artist, womaniser, parricide and psychopath J.P. Monroe, who is clearly a man who believes in the value of a well-stringed bow. Monroe is played by Kevin Bernhardt, who in turn is a man who – I would wager – believes in the value of writing one’s own Wikipedia page (or at least paying someone else to write it) – a big deal is made over how many screenplays Bernhardt has had produced, but on closer inspection an awful lot of these are uncredited, star Orlando Bloom, or have titles not likely to inspire confidence in their quality (Jill the Ripper, for example). Just about the only ones an even vaguely average person will have heard of are the last two Rambo movies. But I digress.

Anyway, Monroe is looking for fixtures and fittings for his nightclub and pops into an art gallery, where he finds the ominous pillar which manifested right at the very end of the previous film. He decides it is just the ticket and picks it up for a bargain price. Next, we find ourselves in the company of plucky young reporter Joey (Terry Farrell, still probably best known for six years in Deep Space Nine and for playing the cat in the American pilot for Red Dwarf). She is hanging around the emergency room when someone is rushed in impaled on barbed chains: the chains duly animate and gorily tear the poor unfortunate to pieces, but this should at least reassure latecomers that they really are watching a Hellraiser movie.

Joey befriends the victim’s companion, a lost soul named Terri (Paula Marshall), who reveals that they came from Monroe’s club – and also that, while there, they managed to acquire a puzzle-box like the ones which drove the stories of the first two films. It turns out this box was embedded in the pillar, and investigating the gap it left leads to Monroe being injured and his blood falling on the pillar (yeah, there’s a lot of quite elaborate and contrived exposition in this movie). Well, to cut a long story short this wakes up Pinhead, the sado-masochistic Cenobite, whose head is sticking out the side of the pillar.

Doug Bradley, who plays Pinhead, displays an impressive capacity for chewing the scenery even while technically being part of it, as he lures Monroe into indulging in his darker vices. Needless to say he has his own agenda, which revolves around not being stuck in a piece of set decoration. Joey, who has been doing her research into the previous films (this includes a very brief and slightly bemusing appearance by Ashley Lawrence as Kirsty), has basically figured all of this out too, although she is helped by the shade of Captain Spencer (Bradley again), the man who was transformed into Pinhead. (For what’s basically a pretty dumb movie this one does have a lot of complicated back-story, too.)

It turns out that the residual presence of Spencer, along with being bound to the box, meant that Pinhead was originally constrained in his funny little habits and could only terrorise and torture people who actively sought him out. Now the rules have changed, however, and if Pinhead does get out of the pillar he will be able to carve a bloody swathe across the world.

As I have suggested, there is a lot of pipe-laying in the first half of Hellraiser III, and I would usually suggest this sort of thing is only justified if it sets up a really spectacular climax and conclusion to the movie. Unfortunately, the first half of this film is the better part. I feel obliged to make it absolutely clear that I am using ‘better’ in a relative sense, and that the relation in question is that between the first half of Hellraiser III, which is pretty bad, and the second half, which is terrible.

The first thing you notice about this movie is how glossy and American it seems: the transatlantic feel of the first couple of films has gone completely. There was always something a bit awkward about that, but at least it gave them a distinctive atmosphere. This is much more of a generic American horror film, and that does seem to have been a deliberate choice. It seems to be trying to establish Pinhead (who wasn’t a lead character in the earlier films) as someone they could build a franchise around, rather like Freddie Krueger or Jason Voorhees. The immobile Pinhead who can only talk is actually quite interesting, almost a tempter in the classical sense, but once he is wandering around laughing maniacally and randomly slaughtering crowds of complete strangers, he very quickly becomes boring. The Chaotic Evil Pinhead is simply very dull compared to his earlier Lawful Evil incarnation.

Most of the second half is just dull and stupid too, to be honest. For all the flaws in the earlier films, they have moments which are genuinely eerie and twisted and somewhat transgressive. Hellraiser III is just a dumb slasher movie which vaguely gestures towards the subtlety and style of its forebears: when the script came in and the producers got to the scene with Cenobites wandering through New York, fighting the police department, they should have sent it back with a very strongly-worded note. One must presume Clive Barker himself only became involved once post-production was underway, for all that the film has a ‘Clive Barker Presents’ credit and he is an executive producer.

Here is the odd thing: Hellraiser III does have a coherent and functioning story – just a pretty stupid and dull one. Nevertheless, in this regard it still scores over the second movie, which is a narrative mess. But it lacks the extraordinary and relentless visual style of Hellbound, the imperative to bombard the viewer with grotesque and surreal images. Only a couple of moments even come close (Pinhead’s disgusting sacrament, for example). The closing scene, with an entire building taking on the form of a puzzle-box, promises a rather more inventive basis for the next sequel – but as it turned out, they went for the apparently compulsory ‘in-space’ installment next.

What positive things can one find to say about this film? Well, Doug Bradley is always a watchable presence as Pinhead (maybe a touch less so as Spencer) and most of the supporting turns are not what you would call actively bad. But most of it is just lazy studio sequel-mongering of the worst kind. The main achievement of Hellraiser III is to make Hellraiser and Hellraiser II look rather better by comparison to it.

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Genre’s a funny old thing, especially when you start playing games with it. I used to watch a lot of rather formulaic American TV shows and in some cases the only specific episodes I can remember are the ones which stirred a big dollop of fantasy or horror into an otherwise naturalistic set-up: both CHiPs and Matt Houston did episodes about alien abductions, while there were also episodes of Quantum Leap featuring vampires and the Devil. As we have recently touched upon, British series have sometimes done the same thing – just today they repeated the episode of The Saint with the giant ants in it, while we’ve been talking about those episodes of The Avengers which included things like alien plants and genuine telepathy, rather than the usual tongue-in-cheek whimsy. (I suppose it works the other way too: the various Star Trek series would very occasionally do a show which was SF only in virtue of its setting.)

In conjunction with this, I recently mentioned the Bergerac Christmas special from 1986, which is a) exactly the sort of thing I’m talking about and b) memorable for being properly scary (at least it was when I was not yet in my teens). Bergerac, for those not in the know, was a sort of precursor to modern shows like Death in Paradise and Midsummer Murders, in that it was built around competently-presented detective story plots (with perhaps a touch more action to them than usual), occurring against an attractive, escapist background. To pay for the thing, the BBC went into partnership with an Australian network, and quite possibly the Jersey tourist board too, given this is where the series is largely set.

Our lead character is Jim Bergerac (played by John Nettles), a detective with the (fictitious) Bureau des Etrangers, a usefully vague fictitious branch of the Jersey police. Bergerac has the two essential attributes of a 1980s TV detective, namely a memorable car (a 1947 Triumph roadster, it says here) and a complicated personal life (he is divorced and has a history of alcoholism).

The Christmas show in question is entitled Fires in the Fall, and was written by Chris Boucher (this must have been one of the last things he did on the show before departing to focus on Star Cops, which we have also discussed recently). The tone is quite properly set by a scene in a darkened graveyard and what sounds like a child’s voice chanting a nursery rhyme. Yes, this is going to be a bit spooky. The plot itself gets underway with Bergerac’s father-in-law, local tycoon Charlie Hungerford (Terence Alexander), asking for his help in exposing a man named Raoul Barnaby (Barrie Ingham) whom Charlie believes to be a fake medium (widescale cognitive dissonance ensues for anyone used to John Nettles himself playing a character named Barnaby in Midsummer Murders).

Barnaby has been attempting to insert himself into the good graces of wealthy local widow Roberta Jardine (Margaretta Scott), a friend of Charlie’s, by trying to contact her late husband. Jim and his partner Susan (the great Louise Jameson) duly attend the seance, something Susan is not entirely pleased about following a rather eerie experience at an old house she is involved in selling. Further odd events ensue at the seance, with the voice of a young girl being heard, strange scratches appearing, and a grave in an one of the island’s cemeteries bursting into flame at the same time.

Barnaby appears convinced he has been contacted by the spirit of the girl whose grave was interfered with, and goes to the press with this – a scummy reporter (Paul Brooke) duly appears – which in turn forces Bergerac’s boss to task him with finally closing the case on the girl’s death. Apparently she was the only victim of a spree of arsons back in the 1960s, but what is the connection to the Jardine family? It turns out the cop who was assigned to the case back then retired after it went nowhere – well, not quite ‘retired’, but took a well-paid job with Jardine’s company. There are also some irregularities involved with the firm of undertakers who handled the interment.

Bergerac thinks he’s cracked the case – the arson attacks back in the 1960s were the work of Mrs Jardine’s disturbed son, who is known to have committed suicide. Bergerac thinks he killed himself out of guilt, after being responsible for the girl’s accidental death, and the family covered up the scandal. Now Mrs Jardine’s rapacious niece (Amanda Hillwood) has uncovered the family’s dark secret, and – in partnership with Barnaby, an old associate of hers – is using it to damage her aunt’s mental stability to the point where they can fake her suicide, allowing them to inherit the family fortune.

So far, a satisfying and clever detective story, as smart and cynical as the best of Boucher’s work elsewhere. The supernatural trappings just seem to be set dressing, fun though they are. But what was that scene with the spooky old house all about? Before we even have time to ponder that, things abruptly take a different turn. Mrs Jardine abruptly rumbles Barnaby as a fraud after he affects to receive messages from her dead son. The corrupt copper involved in the cover-up (Ron Pember) and Barnaby himself are found dead in mysterious circumstances, with a black-robed figure seen near them shortly before, both times.

It turns out that the dead son did not in fact die: he was just horribly burned and smuggled off to a Swiss sanatorium by his mother, with the story of his death put about to facilitate the cover-up. Now, it seems, he is back in Jersey, and seeking revenge on the individuals involved in his mother’s murder (quite why he offs the bent copper is a bit of a plot hole). It also seems that he used to live in the spooky old house where Susan had her scary experience at the start…

Cue a rather creepy sequence where Susan is stalked around the old house again by the cowled spectre – all of the set-piece ‘phantom attacks’ are very well directed, with Tom Clegg the gentleman responsible. Perhaps running and screaming is a bit less than Louise Jameson deserves as a performer, but Bergerac was a show with a very large and unwieldy regular cast at this point (there’s Bergerac, his girlfriend, his ex-father-in-law, his ex-wife, his daughter, his boss, his boss’ secretary, two other detectives from the Bureau, and a nightclub owner of his acquaintance) and I suppose this was as elegant a way of incorporating all of them into the plot as any. It’s almost a shame they don’t make more of this horror angle, but the script still manages to bring it into the resolution of the main story: the villain confesses to the murder after glimpsing Nemesis over the shoulder of an oblivious, genially sceptical Bergerac: an almost uncannily creepy moment.

And Boucher still hasn’t quite finished – the final twist of the episode is that the believed-dead son has not snuck back to Jersey, killed his mother’s tormentors and then escaped. According to the Swiss staff, he has been there in the sanatorium all the time. Nettles delivers this information with a completely straight face, in complete contrast to the amused scepticism about the supernatural that’s been going in. It’s very nicely pitched, in fact: it’s up to the viewer to decide whether this a simple case of the Swiss staff getting it wrong, or some sort of psychic projection, or something even stranger and more obscure. Anyone who doesn’t like Christmas ghost stories is afforded just enough wriggle-room to be able to avoid feeling peeved.

At the time this felt like a fun seasonal change of pace, but it seems that Bergerac did its first horror-tinged episode earlier in the same season (I should say that every other episode was shown in 1985) – What Dreams May Come, starring Charles Gray (and very much informed by Gray’s appearance in The Devil Rides Out). The annual excursion into something a bit supernatural became something of a Bergerac tradition (I remember my teenage sister being genuinely scared by 1990’s The Dig, about a Viking burial site with a spectral guardian), but I don’t think any of them were quite as effective as Fires in the Fall (maybe the ninety-minute run-time helps the story and atmosphere develop). No-one, I think, would describe Bergerac as a genuinely classic piece of TV, but this is a solidly entertaining episode.

 

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Tony Williamson’s Too Many Christmas Trees is another very popular episode (or so I understand) which once again feels like it’s pushing the format of the series. It was The Avengers‘ Christmas episode for December 1965, which may explain the Dickensian elements deftly inserted into the script, as well as the titular arboreal growths.

Steed is troubled by restless nights (and little wonder, you might think) – recurring nightmares featuring a malevolent Father Christmas and the death of a long-standing colleague. When he tells Mrs Peel about this, she suggests the explanation is quite simple (she is an expert in psychoanalysis this week) – the colleague is under suspicion for leaking secrets and Steed has been tasked with ending the leak. Subconsciously he wishes the man were dead so he will be spared this disagreeable task. Steed is somewhat reassured, until he learns his colleague really has pegged it – are his nightmares precognitive on top of everything else?

Well, to take his mind off things, Emma drags Steed along to a Christmas houseparty at the home of a renowned Dickens-loving eccentric (Mervyn Johns). Unfortunately, both of them are unwittingly being manipulated, by a cabal of psychics who are controlling Steed’s dreams (and somewhat influencing his waking moments too). Can Mrs Peel figure out what’s happening before Steed’s sanity goes completely to bits?

All this, and an in-joke about Goldfinger, too (Steed gets a post-card from Mrs Gale, posted from Fort Knox). Apparently this was a favourite of Patrick Macnee’s, as well, which doesn’t really surprise me given the actor’s keenness to include more paranormal and supernatural elements in the series. I suppose that pitting our heroes against no-two-ways-about-it actual telepaths isn’t quite as out there as man-eating alien plants, but it still feels like a step over some sort of line; I just wish I knew what that line was.

Nevertheless, a fun and solid episode with some nicely-realised dream sequences and some lovely dialogue between our heroes, not to mention the stirring sight of Diana Rigg in her Oliver Twist costume. The episode’s Christmassiness is basically limited to the Dickensian elements – though I suppose the story has a sort of seasonal spookiness to it, as well. (It occurs to me that even a show like Bergerac did a full-on ghost story at Christmas one year, and I didn’t have a problem with that, so why do I have an issue with The Avengers occasionally doing genuine sci-fi or paranormal fantasy? Hmmm.) Apparently there’s a lift from The Lady from Shanghai in there somewhere too. A rich blend here, whichever way you look at it.

Roger Marshall’s Silent Dust is a very odd mixture of the deadly serious and the highly whimsical – the opening sequence shows the English countryside at its loveliest, an idyll which is abruptly punctured when the birds literally start dropping dead out of the sky. (Which, if nothing else, shows that the similarity of the episode title to that of Rachel Carson’s epochal ecological book Silent Spring is entirely intentional.) Steed and Mrs Peel appear on the scene (by punt, naturally), to investigate the sudden disappearance of our feathered friends. You would have thought this might be rather out of Steed’s line, but for the fact that something very similar has happened before.

Steed visits the site, a whole area rendered a barren wasteland by a fertiliser which went horribly wrong – a substance codenamed ‘silent dust’. Could it be that someone has got their hands on the formula for silent dust and is planning on employing it for nefarious purposes?

Well, yes, of course it could. The actual plot is fairly pedestrian stuff (or perhaps that should be equestrian, given the amount of riding going on), but the episode is memorable for the strange way it is pitched between very serious elements (ecological terrorism, Steed being shot and passing out from the pain) and equally whimsical ones (Steed has a bizarre wild west-style hallucination when Emma takes out the buckshot, while the whole climax is a uproarious hunting-themed sequence – Steed defeats one bad guy by belting him over the head with a ‘Stop the Violence’ placard taken from a hunt saboteur).  Nevertheless, the result is an episode with a rather distinct and not disagreeable flavour and some nice performances amongst the supporting cast.

Marshall also writes Room Without a View, which I am tempted to say is where I came in: back in around 1985, the newest commercial channel in the UK had hit upon the wheeze of building audiences by showing classic TV shows around tea-time – The Munsters, Danger Man, and – of course – The Avengers, a show which I was probably vaguely aware of at best. And this was the first episode I saw, although my memory of that first viewing is obviously somewhat confused (what I recall as being the hook scene actually comes about halfway through).

The actual hook has a young woman (Jeanne Roland, uncredited for some reason) hosting a dinner party – which is unexpectedly crashed by her husband, who disappeared over a year ago! It seems he is a top boffin, but he is in a terrible physical and mental state and cannot look at his (Asian) wife without being moved to violence. Assessment indicates he has spent the intervening time in a prison camp somewhere in communist China. Before Steed and Mrs Peel can get much more out of him, he disappears again, kidnapped – it would seem – by the local Chinese laundry.

More than one top scientist has disappeared recently and so Steed decides to keep an eye on another one due to be travelling abroad – by a weird coincidence, he’s staying in the same hotel as the one the brainwashed boffin checked into before he vanished! What are the chances? Sure enough, the man who checks out is not the one who checks in… but how does all of this connect with a brutal Chinese prison camp?

Well, I have to say that after a number of episodes dealing with gimmicks like killer alien plants and telepathy, it’s nice to be back in the realm of something traditional and down to earth like a Communist interrogation facility hidden inside a luxury hotel. (The episode pulls the same kind of psychogeographic stunt as The Ipcress File, the Colony Three episode of Danger Man, and, I suppose, virtually all of The Prisoner, suggesting that what really matters is the country you think you’re in.) The rest of the plotting isn’t quite as strong as the premise, but there are some lovely scenes as Steed infiltrates the hotel in the guise of a renowned epicurean. On the other hand, it’s really lacking a strong villain, and it’s not like it’s short of candidates – Philip Latham, Peter Jeffrey, Peter Arne, and Paul Whitsun-Jones all appear in supporting roles, but the actual bad guy is more comic than genuinely threatening. The vagaries of the production schedule tripped up the episode ever-so-slightly on first broadcast – one character states the year is 1965, when it was first shown at the beginning of January 1966. Nevertheless, a solid mid-table entry.

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Let us take a moment to glance into the future, by which of course I mean 1970, or thereabouts: there’s going to come a time when The Avengers ceases production, after all, and what is everyone involved going to do then? Well, emigrate to America in the case of Patrick Macnee, not make a Bond film in the case of Linda Thorson, and as for the boys behind the scenes…

It seems like most of the key creative personnel stuck together with an eye to going into movies. Brian Clemens, producer and de facto head writer on the show, eventually ended up writing and directing a couple of the later Hammer horrors (Doctor Jekyll and Sister Hyde and Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter), so perhaps it’s not entirely surprising that a little while before this he was involved in what’s effectively a horror movie: Robert Fuest’s And Soon the Darkness.

(This is one of those movies where you do get a sense that the title is a placeholder which they never really got back to. Quite apart from the fact that it’s roaringly inaccurate even in terms of basic grammar, it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the plot, which takes place in the course of an almost completely sunny day. But there we go. I suppose it has a kind of ominous tone to it which is by no means completely inappropriate.)

We find ourselves in rural France, which is flat and seems rather underpopulated, in the company of two maternity ward nurses from Nottingham, who are on a cycling tour. They are played by Pamela Franklin, who never seems to have really hit the big time (though she was in The Legend of Hell House), and Michele Dotrice, who is still probably best remembered for playing Betty Spencer in Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em.

It soon becomes quite apparent that going on holiday together was possibly not the wisest move the girls could have made, for they clearly have very different temperaments: one of them is very sensible, cautious, and organised, and insists that they stick to their planned schedule and itinerary, while the other is much more laid-back and even a touch hedonistic, happily letting herself get distracted by some of the handsome young hommes they come across as they travel. (Seasoned horror movie watchers will already have worked out which one of the duo is likely in for a sticky end before the conclusion of the story, which is why I’m being rather vague about who plays who: it would practically count as a spoiler.)

Well, after stopping for a break on the road, the two girls have a genuine falling-out, with one of them pressing on and the other staying where she is, alone in the woods. But is she quite alone? (Hint: of course not.) Her friend eventually grows worried about her, something which is in no way mitigated by the fact that a female hiker was murdered in those same woods a couple of years earlier, and the killer was never caught. A young man (Sandor Eles) approaches her, presenting himself as a Surete detective on holiday, but is his offer of help all that it seems? Who can she trust?

Brian Clemens’ co-writer on this movie was none other than Terry Nation, who was another contributor to the final season of The Avengers. (The two men seem to have had quite a good working relationship, at least until Clemens ended up taking Nation to court over the issue of who actually originated Survivors.) Both Clemens and Nation have near-legendary reputations as originators of a certain flavour of pulpy, escapist entertainment (Clemens shaped The Avengers into its classic form, as well as creating The New Avengers and The Professionals, while Nation heavily influenced the BBC’s SF-fantasy output in addition to creating – on paper, at least – Survivors and Blake’s 7), so it is a bit of a surprise to find that And Soon the Darkness is a relatively gritty, down-to-earth psychological thriller. Both men are, you would think, a bit out of their comfort zone, and this is before we even come to the fact that the main characters are a couple of young women.

Then again, that’s kind of essential as the movie is really just an exercise in what the French would possibly call le jeopardie du femme: which is to say, it’s a film about young women, but one made largely by, and for, men. There’s often a trace of that little exploitative edge to the film, where the male viewer at least is invited to momentarily entertain some unacceptable thoughts. I suppose this kind of catharsis is an inherent part of the horror genre makes me feel a bit uncomfortable, and one thing you can say about And Soon the Darkness is that it’s relatively restrained in this area.

This is because it is relatively restrained in pretty much every area, a restraint which may arise partly from creative decisions but also probably owes something to the fact it has clearly been made on a very low budget. There are a handful of characters and locations, none of them especially lavish, no big set pieces or crowd scenes… as an exercise in parsimonious storytelling it’s quite impressive, but one wonders why the film is stretched out to well over ninety minutes, other than for solely contractual reasons. you can understand why this kind of film would start slow and then gradually build to a thrilling climax, but in this case it starts slow, stays quite slow, occasionally decelerates for a bit, then goes back to being just slow rather than actually glacial, and then there’s a climax and it stops.

This is the crux of the issue when it comes to this film: it’s slow and not much happens. You can sense that Nation and Clemens are working very hard to try and generate a bit of intrigue when it comes to the identity of whoever-it-is that’s been murdering young women on holiday, but in the end as a viewer you fundamentally understand that it’s either going to be Sandor Eles or it isn’t, and if it isn’t then it will be someone rather unlikely (basically because Eles’ character is the only plausible suspect). Another consequence of this is that rural France comes across as a very sinister and unsettling place, inhabited by shifty, alarming locals. One can imagine a lot of reproving missives from the French Tourist Board arriving on the producers’ desks, complaining about the poor light this movie places the whole continent in. It’s hardly likely to make people approach their European holidays, or indeed Europe in general, with more positivity. (The roles of Brian Clemens and Terry Nation in subliminally laying the foundations for the Brexit disaster: discuss.)

Well, I suppose most of the acting is pretty good – this is one of Sandor Eles’ better roles, I think, as he mainly seemed to get stuck with second- or third-banana parts in his films for Hammer – and Robert Fuest does the best he can with the material. This is an efficient, economical little psycho-horror-thriller, let down a bit by sluggish pace and lack of incident. But given the names on the script you would be forgiven for expecting something with a bit more colour and life and fun.

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Been to the cinema much recently? No, me neither: if you’d told me at any point in the last decade or so that there would be a four-and-a-half-month gap between visits to the pictures, I would have concluded that this indicated my leaving the country, going to prison, or having some kind of medical emergency. Nice one me, I suppose, as a medical emergency has indeed been to blame. However, for whatever reason, attempts to drag the country back to something resembling how things used to be have been in progress and this weekend saw the re-opening of the first cinema in Oxford.

Naturally I was there, but I wonder, I wonder. I am as critical as anyone of the efforts of those in power and their media cheerleaders to persuade everyone to resume their old lifestyles, mainly for the benefit of the bottom line and the continuation of the old economic model. People have, perhaps, begun to question what they took for granted, or were told, and even glimpsed another way of living more to their liking. Certainly the virus has shredded our former way of life, and it is foolish to pretend this can quickly or easily be repaired.

Then again, am I not just as worthy of scorn for clinging to the hope that the old model of cinema can be preserved? As you may have surmised, I used to go to the cinema two or three times a week, on average, occasionally far more often than that. Often this wasn’t because I had a burning desire to see a particular film, but I enjoyed following the schedules, finding new and unusual things to write about – even the simple routine of going to the cinema (buying my ticket, taking my seat, waiting for the lights to go down, watching the adverts for the umpteenth time) was something I genuinely took pleasure in. You don’t get any of those things just streaming something.

I hope it’s too early to make predictions, because the signs were not especially positive – although the whole experience was a little surreal, to be honest. It turned out I had forgotten which of my cinema cards was which, for one thing: that would have been unthinkable back in March. (Though looking on the bright side, my membership has been extended until the middle of next year.) There were all the masks and bits of hand sanitising equipment you would have expected, all for the benefit of… well, just me, if we’re honest about this. I had the whole screen to myself. Now, I should say that this was not that unusual even back in the old days, given some of the obscure films I went to see at funny times, and the afternoon showing of a subtitled art-house drama on a sunny August day would likely never pull a big crowd. But even so.

Notably few commercials, and – other than one for vodka – most of these were for either charities or public health agencies. Not many trailers, either – well, one, to be precise, for Tenet (which feels like it is rapidly becoming the last great hope of mainstream cinema for this year). According to the trailer Tenet is (or was) released in July 2020 – but, given the time-mangling nature of the story implied by the trailer, this actually feels oddly appropriate, and it’s far from the only film which had its publicity campaign overtaken by events: all over the city centre one could see buses still decked out in advertising material for movies which were supposed to open in March, and never did: ghosts of a vanished future.

Anyway, I went to the cinema to go to the cinema rather than see any particular film. The one I ended up going to see was Alice Winocour’s Proxima, which had a hopeful, slightly science-fictiony-sounding title – although had I known going in that Winocour also co-wrote the accomplished but slightly heavy Mustang I might have managed my expectations a bit. There you go: always do your research, friends.

Proxima does indeed turn out to be slightly science-fictiony, by which I mean it is a film about space exploration rather than an actual piece of science fiction. Or is it really about something else? Eva Green plays Sarah Loreau, a woman whose lifelong ambition has been to become an astronaut: her daughter (Zelie Boulant-Lemesle) is named Stella and her cat is named Laika, after the Soviet space dog. At the start of the film it looks like her dream has come true, as she is selected for Proxima, a long-duration space mission and a crucial part of the programme which will culminate in putting a person on Mars.

Rather tellingly, the first thing Sarah worries about once she gets this news is sorting out her childcare for while she’s away: Stella will have to go and live with Sarah’s former partner Thomas, an astrophysicist (Lars Eidinger). Then it’s on with the training, and having to sort out some sort of modus vivendi with the American mission commander, Shannon (Matt Dillon), who seems openly dubious about her abilities. As the training regime grows increasingly gruelling, Sarah becomes aware of the strain all of this is placing on her relationship with her daughter and the concerns of her psychiatrist (Sandra Huller).

I know what you’re thinking: Gravity knock-off. Well, I can see where you’re coming from, but no it isn’t, not least because none of the film actually takes place in space – it’s all resolutely earthbound, about the training process rather than the actual mission. A big chunk of it looks like it was shot at Star City in Russia (officially the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre), with some scenes being filmed around the Baikonur space centre. I’m not as much of a space enthusiast as some people whom I know, but even so, the nuts and bolts of the training regime are fascinating and occasionally unexpected, assuming the film isn’t just making things up: trainee astronauts watching upside-down TVs to prepare for work in zero gravity, for instance. I think this naturalistic element of the film will be quite engaging enough to satisfy many viewers.

On the other hand, though, by the end it is quite clear that the movie isn’t really about a woman preparing to go into space: it’s about a mother on that journey. Every element of the story is viewed through the lens of the relationship between Sarah and Stella and Sarah’s attempts to preserve the bond between them. We are invited – maybe even commanded – to sympathise with Sarah and accept that the maternal connection is one which the male-dominated space exploration establishment do not appreciate. At one point Sarah commits a massive breach of mission protocols in order to keep a promise to her daughter, and it is presented as a transcendent moment of togetherness rather than someone being dangerously irresponsible. It doesn’t quite sit well with a film which is implicitly critical of the chauvinist American alpha-jock played by Dillon (when asked how he feels about a French woman joining the crew, his response is that he’s happy, because they’ll have someone around to do all the cooking). Dillon’s character suggests that Sarah’s preoccupation with her daughter makes her a bit of a liability, but the really odd thing is that the film implies he is correct, while simultaneously presenting her as a sympathetic, admirable figure. (Then again I am neither a woman nor a parent, just someone who occasionally enjoys space films: I fully expect other people to have very different takeaways where Proxima is concerned.)

Well, apart from that it is competently written and directed, with a very good performance from Eva Green and solid support from everyone else (Boulant-Lemesle gives an extremely self-assured turn for one so young). As I said, the nitty-gritty of the story is fascinating, I just couldn’t buy into the film’s idealisation of motherhood, or the suggestion that mums who go into space are making some kind of unqiue sacrifice – plenty of fathers go into space, after all. Is Winocour suggesting they are all distant, cool parents without much of a connection with their kids? Oh well. Not the best film of the year, nor the worst, and so probably the kind of thing we should be hoping for going forward, if we really want to see the restoration of something resembling the old days. That still feels like it’s a long way off, though.

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Roger Marshall delivers his second script in a row with Dial a Deadly Number, which manages to blow its main gimmick before the end of its hook scene (the title itself is a dead giveaway). A top company director, who, it is made very clear, has just started carrying a pocket pager (younger readers, ask your grandparents), is struck down in mid-board meeting. It turns out he is just the latest in a long line of suspicious deaths in the world of high finance, and all the dead men shared the same banker…

Yes, so we’re off into the world of banking and stockbroking this week (a world which seems to subsist entirely on sherry, biscuits and vintage wine), with Peter Bowles and John Carson coming back as villains (I really don’t mean to go on about this, but it isn’t just that Bowles and Carson previously appeared in the videotaped incarnation of the show – more than once, in Carson’s case – they were both in the same episode). The main gag of the episode – killer pagers – is hardly a mystery to the viewer, and so it gets its mileage from a convoluted plot (perhaps a bit too convoluted) with possibly the odd hole in it and perhaps a slightly harder edge than usual – Steel is at his steeliest, even apparently carrying a gun, and Carson is playing a genuinely nasty psychopath. This is also that very rare beast, a filmed Avengers episode with occasionally clumsy direction – for instance, a jarring moment where the line is crossed (film school jargon for a particular kind of lapse in visual continuity) during Steed and Emma’s first scene together.

Still, the show is on such a roll at this point that even an episode which isn’t quite firing on all cylinders is still pretty good stuff, and there are still some very nice moments here – most of them set in and around the wine cellar which just happens to be underneath the bad guys’ merchant bank offices. Slightly fluffed but by no means spoiled, I think.

I’ve never quite been able to warm up to Man-Eater of Surrey Green, written by Philip Levene, simply because it’s an outlier in the way that no other episode really is (well, maybe Warlock sort of qualifies). Levene introduced full-blooded sci-fi to the Avengers formula in The Cybernauts, very successfully; perhaps this is an attempt to do something similar.

The episode opens with some young horticulturists in love, stealing moments in the greenhouse – but then she comes over all funny, clearly under a peculiar influence, and marches off to climb into a sinister passing Rolls. It turns out she is a friend of Mrs Peel’s, not that it matters much: Steed and Emma’s interest in her disappearance stems from the fact that all manner of horticultural boffins are droppig out of sight, and even the country’s leading expert in the field, Sir Lyle Peterson (Derek Farr), is keeping a low profile. Steed does the usual sniffing about and extracts from Peterson the confession that he has all the missing experts on his estate, working on a new ‘flowering shrub’. Hmmm.

Investigations lead Steel and Mrs Peel to an abandoned farm, where they discover a crashed spaceship (no, really), a failed product of the British space programme (one assumes), brought back down to earth after colliding with something in orbit. But what? It turns out to be a giant seed, like that of a dandelion. Emma suggests it may have originated amongst the belts of vegetation known to exist on the Moon and Mars. (Er… what?) They bring in their own botanist (Athene Seyler), who reveals that the plant a) has a brain and b) would be dependent on human flesh for sustenance, were it to germinate.

Yes, you’ve guessed it: there’s another seed, which Peterson and his team are working to get to sprout. Why would any sane person do such a thing? Well, the man-eating alien plant has psychic powers of mind control, to which only people wearing hearing-aids are immune. (Well, maybe you didn’t guess all of this.) It’s up to Steed and Emma to get their hands on some nice strong herbicide and save the human race!

I suppose you could argue that this is all intended as a spoof of B-movie sci-fi, but it’s not a particularly funny episode – in places it’s actually quite grim (fun trivia: this is apparently the only episode other than the very first one from 1961 in which a woman dies (eaten by the plant)) – could it be that this is a speculative attempt to see if The Avengers can work as even more of a sci-fi show, with alien invasions and psychic powers? I don’t know, but for me it doesn’t quite work. (Though the fact that a well-known BBC fantasy show did an eerily similar story about ten years later, and makes an unqualified success of it, may colour my thinking.)

I mean, it’s not flat-out bad in its execution, though the thrashing tentacles leave a bit to be desired, and the episode gives us a rare instance of Steed and his partner taking each other on in earnest (once again, this is less successful than it could be). The thing is, and I do realise this may just be my own prejudice, that the problem’s in the premise: alien invasions just aren’t the stuff of The Avengers.

Moving on, we find ourselves watching Two’s A Crowd, another Levene episode and one which likewise stretches the format, albeit not quite so jarringly. It opens with a gag where Russian Ambassador Brodny (Warren Mitchell’s third appearance in two seasons, essentially reprising his role as a senior Other Side figure from The Charmers) finds himself being dive-bombed – the punchline being that it’s a model plane dropping a message inside a very tiny bomb.

A legendary and enigmatic operative for the Other Side, known only as Colonel Psev, is apparently in London and Steed and his people are understandably keen to find out about him. It seems Psev is in town to attempt to infiltrate an important top-secret conference, which Steed is naturally involved in the security for. It seems the Other Side may have an opening, as Brodny discovers a double of Steed while attending a fashion show – a rather dissolute male model. If they can manage to substitute their man for the real Steed, the conference will be at their mercy…

Not the first nor the last Avengers episode to deal with the topic of doubles, but certainly one of the most comedic: Patrick Macnee’s performance during the fashion show sequence alone is arch almost beyond description. On the other hand, this is quite broad comedy and doesn’t really distract from the fact that the twist ending of this particular plotline is the kind of thing you can see coming (the reveal of Psev’s true identity is slightly more surprising, but it doesn’t really feel like it matters much). If you like the show going pedal-to-the-metal with its comedy elements then you’ll probably enjoy this episode more than I did.

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I’m not entirely sure of exactly when I first became aware of Clive Barker’s existence, but I’m quite certain that the first time I laid eyes on him was when he participated in a BBC documentary entitled The Studio That Dripped Blood, a tribute to Hammer Films. This was made in 1987, around the same time Barker was making Hellraiser. What has stuck in my memory were his musings on Hammer’s 70s travails and what could have mitigated them a bit – perhaps the launch of another successful series of films…?

I mention this because within a year or so of that interview, Barker was involved in his own horror franchise – well, I say ‘his own’, but part of the deal involved in getting Hellraiser made was that he sold all rights to the film and its characters: his participation in the sequels was basically as a consultant, and one gets the impression the producers of the later films gave him the minimum input necessary to ensure he was willing to have his name somewhere in the credits.

Nevertheless, is there an echo of the Hammer approach in some of the Hellraiser sequels? To their credit, Hammer tended to avoid straight retreads, looking instead to move the characters and concepts on and explore different situations. This is certainly also true of the first follow-up, Hellbound: Hellraiser II (directed by Tony Randel), released in 1988.

Central to the new story is Dr Channard (Kenneth Cranham), a brain surgeon who runs his own lunatic asylum (yes, I know, but we’ve barely touched the surface of this film). Channard is obsessed with the Cenobite-summoning puzzle boxes, one of which was crucial to the plot first time round, and so it is an astonishing coincidence that it is to his clinic that Kirsty Cotton (Ashley Lawrence) is brought following her traumatic encounter with the forces of darkness. She is in a bad state and so, it would seem, is geography itself, as her family home was in London in the first film, but is now apparently under the jurisdiction of trigger-happy NYPD cops (still only really on the surface, folks).

Channard listens to her story and persuades the cops to let him have the gory mattress on which Kirsty’s stepmother Julia (Clare Higgins, mostly) met her demise. By getting one of his patients to mutilate himself on the mattress and thus spill even more blood, he succeeds in resurrecting Julia, sans skin (it’s not Higgins under the rather-impressive flayed-alive make-up and prosthetics, but Deborah Joel). Julia and Channard strike a deal – if he will help her make herself a bit more presentable, then she will help him explore the realm within the puzzle box and introduce him to the dark power that reigns there…

Kirsty, meanwhile, has been getting nightmarish messages, apparently from her father, who is trapped in the hellish world of the box. Can she free him without falling foul of Julia and Channard? Not to mention Pinhead (Doug Bradley) and the other Cenobites, who are feeling a bit cheated after she escaped from them in the previous film. Perhaps Channard’s collection of box-related research can provide a useful clue as to the Cenobites’ origins and weaknesses…

I talk sometimes about the concept of the Good Bad Movie, by which I mean a movie with no great aspirations to be anything more than (often pulpy) entertainment, but one which is assembled with skill, imagination and energy. I’m not sure calling Hellbound a Good Bad Movie really does it justice in either respect: this is a tremendous, awful movie. The cognitive dissonance alone is almost enough to give you vertigo.

Perhaps I’m alone in this, but the Channard role is one which I can imagine Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee playing had the film been made fifteen years earlier. Kenneth Cranham is a very able actor with definite gravitas, and you can see him doing his best to try and lift the movie and give it a touch of class. The problem is that the script just doesn’t give him – or anyone else, for that matter – much to work with in terms of characterisation.

Or plot, come to that. One of the remarkable things about this film is that it is as watchable as it is, given the almost total incoherence of the story. The question of what country we’re in is of only marginal importance compared to the comprehensive lapses in logic, plotting and characterisation throughout the film. There’s no real sense of anyone having a character arc or a throughline – stuff just happens, seemingly at random. For example, Kirsty is supposedly trying to rescue her father from hell – until it turns out he’s not there (or at least, not in the one inside the box), at which point the issue of what happened to him is sort of forgotten (possibly Andrew Robinson didn’t want to come back or they didn’t want to pay his fee). Never mind fridge logic, even while you’re watching it you find yourself noting all the ways in which it simply doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.

And yet in a strange way this isn’t the terminal problem it would be for a less extreme movie. Rather than a conventional narrative, the film is almost a stream-of-consciousness experience, giving something of the impression of a visceral, surreal nightmare. There is a series of events which do connect with each other, but it does seem like the visual impression left by the film was the over-riding concern. And in this they were very successful, for the relentless grotesqueness of it, and its extravagant goriness, mean this is one film which does have an impact on an aesthetic level if no other. Make no mistake: this is a grisly, graphically violent film from beginning to end, revelling in images and sequences which border on the obscene – but there is a real intentionality behind this. It’s not being done for effect – in a weird way it’s the whole point of the film. Whatever its shortcomings, it’s not lacking in vision or conviction.

Do I seem ambivalent about this film? If so, then it’s because I am. As a piece of storytelling it’s horribly dysfunctional, even moreso than the original film (which, as I’ve said, I don’t think is a particularly distinguished horror film). But it does have that extraordinary surreal ghastliness to it – the very primitiveness of much of the production actually contributes to this – which would almost inevitably be diminished in a story which made more sense. I’ve no idea if this was intentional or not, or just a piece of good fortune on the part of the production.

As I may have said before, I’m not a particular fan of the Hellraiser franchise – I don’t think any of the films are particularly good, but I can appreciate Doug Bradley’s screen presence at least. Conventional wisdom is that the first film is the best one, and by standard criteria it probably is. However, this was the one which made the strongest impression on me when I first saw it, simply because it is so strange and so extreme. I still don’t think that necessarily makes it a good film, but there is a lot about it I find commendable, even if I would struggle to actually recommend it. Few other films manage to be so successful creatively and yet at exactly the same moment really bad.

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I have a pretty good memory when it comes to films: I can probably tell you which cinema I first saw every film of the last twenty years in, and in some cases which screen within that cinema. When it comes to things I have only seen on TV, well, then I can probably have a good guess at when and where. So – Dawn of the Dead would have been on videotape, on a long Monday afternoon just before Christmas 1997, The Legend of Boggy Creek would have been on a Thursday evening in the autumn of 1981, and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed would have been on a Saturday morning in the summer of 1988 (again, videotaped).

The Blues Brothers would have come my way in the early summer of 1989, I think, on the same VHS as a recording of Beverley Hills Cop, but in this case I have no idea why. I didn’t record it, a friend of mine did, and he ended up lending it to me. I don’t know why; I wasn’t particularly aware of the film and certainly wasn’t burning to see it.  At the time I don’t think it had quite the same cult status it has since acquired. But my friend was (and remains) someone of strong enthusiasms, particularly when it comes to comedy and music, and I can imagine him foisting it on me with his usual energy.

The film (directed and co-written by John Landis) is amiable and straightforward, anyway, opening with the reunion of the titular siblings when one of them (John Belushi) is collected from prison by the other (Dan Aykroyd), having just done time for robbery (the crime was necessitated by the need to pay the members of their band, for – as you might expect – the Blues brothers are musicians).

Well, the nun in charge at the orphanage where the duo grew up is unimpressed by their moral development after all these years, but a more serious problem is looming: the orphanage has a considerable outstanding tax bill and will be closed down unless it is settled in a matter of days. Nevertheless, this all seems a bit out of the brothers’ hands until Jake Blues (Belushi) has a religious experience at the local church and realises that God has given him the mission of redeeming himself by saving the orphanage. All the brothers have to do is get their old band back together and play a fundraiser to raise the money the nuns need! What could be simpler?

Quite a few things, to be honest, as circumstances conspire to put the Blues brothers and their associates on the wrong side of a large number of people, including the Chicago police department, the American branch of the Nazi party, a bad-tempered country and western band, and Jake’s ex-fiance (Carrie Fisher), who keeps popping up and trying to kill them with military-spec weapons. But they are on a mission from God…

The cult status of The Blues Brothers is not really surprising given it contains such an eclectic mixture of styles, genres, and people. It’s a knockabout, somewhat profane comedy; it contains some impressively spectacular stunts and chases; it’s a musical. It is also generally accepted to be the only movie derived from Saturday Night Live it’s worth bothering with. As well as Belushi and Aykroyd, the cast features names like John Candy, James Brown, Cab Calloway, and Aretha Franklin. It feels very much like a bizarre one-off in the annals of cinema.

Well – maybe, but I think there is something significant in one of the final scenes of the  film, in which the brothers foist their tax money onto a hapless clerk. The clerk is played by one S. Spielberg, before he grew his beard, only four films into his own directorial career at the time. At the time the most recent one was an only moderately-successful comedy entitled 1941, in which both Aykroyd and Belushi prominently appeared (without ever really sharing a scene).

The Blues Brothers doesn’t have the complex, multi-stranded structure of 1941, nor are most of its gags quite as sophisticated – but, on the other hand, it doesn’t have the relentless, breathless pace that can make 1941 an offputting experience for the uninitiated. But the two films do share a similar kind of freewheeling brashness, almost an interest in taking all the machinery and techniques of late 70s film-making and putting them to work in the name of comedy. The Blues Brothers has a kind of swagger and playfulness that seems to me to be very much like that of 1941 – but where the Spielberg movie often feels like it’s on the verge of turning into a cartoon, The Blues Brothers says goodbye to the real world early on (probably around the time Carrie Fisher attacks the duo with a rocket launcher and they blithely pick themselves up and go on about their business).

By the end of the movie, Landis’ more-is-better approach, while initially exhilarating – vast numbers of police cars being trashed, and so on – is beginning to have diminishing returns, but I would still probably say the film peaks about the right time. It does know when to go pedal to the metal with slapstick comedy and when to take a break and include a musical number.

It’s hard to shake the impression, with this kind of film, that it’s basically just the product of a deep-seated desire on the part of comedians to be proper rock stars. It’s probably to the film’s credit that Belushi and Aykroyd don’t do any real singing themselves until nearly halfway through, and when they do it’s in a comedy sequence (the band find themselves having to perform to a surly and unappreciative country and western crowd and have to make some unusual song choices). Before this all the heavy musical lifting is done by supremely qualified guest stars like James Brown, John Lee Hooker, Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin, in what are mostly diegetic song sequences.

Certainly it’s the music which helps to make the film as successful and entertaining as it is – and here again we find ourselves considering the film’s origins at the end of the seventies, a decade which had seen the beginnings of a new kind of Hollywood. Many great films from the seventies and early eighties indulge in homages to the golden age of American film-making – it’s there in the Casablanca-style trappings of Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the Howard Hawks references in some early John Carpenter films. For all the profanity and occasional crassness of The Blues Brothers, there’s something similar going on here in the way it celebrates classic American music, up to the point of giving Cab Calloway his own number.

So maybe The Blues Brothers isn’t such a one-off as it first appears: it connects to a number of trends and movements in mainstream American cinema of the time – of young directors pushing the boundaries of genre, while still retaining a kind of reverence for the past. Now it feels like a bit of a period piece itself: Dan Aykroyd still looks young and thin, while John Belushi… well, whether or not it’s indeed better to burn out than fade away, Belushi seems to have lived as though he believed it. The Blues Brothers is possibly the best known of the films he left behind, and whatever its flaws as a movie, it’s an enormously likeable memorial.

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