Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Oh, God, it’s another attempt at a whimsical comedy episode (with a hefty side order of mawkishness) with everyone assuming that hamming it up is the key to comic acting. HARD PASS.

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I may be biased, but when I think about horror films from the 1960s, my starting point is always Hammer horror. Never far behind, however, are the Poe pix made by Roger Corman for American International just as Hammer were getting into their stride. These are the closest thing to Hammer that isn’t actually Hammer itself – they have the same costume-drama aesthetic and production values, and the presence of an indisputable class act in the thesping department; almost always Vincent Price.

Other people started trying to copy the Hammer formula fairly quickly, and – it would seem – the same is true of the Price-Corman-Poe films. Twice-Told Tales, directed by Simon Salkow and released in 1963, is some distance from the Hammer style, but it’s still as close to the Poe-pic formula as anything I’ve ever seen. That said, it tries to establish a respectable bit of creative distance by not being a Poe adaptation, but a film version of several stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne (possibly best remembered these days for The Scarlet Letter).

Twice-Told Tales was the name of a collection of Hawthorne short stories; the slightly awkward fact is that only one of the segments of the film is based on a story from that book. Nevertheless, things get off to a jolly start as a pair of skeletal hands open a mouldering old tome of forgotten lore, stopping at the title page of the first story in the film.

This is ‘Dr Heidegger’s Experiment’, which opens with two old friends (Price and Sebastian Cabot) enjoying a pleasant evening together while a storm rages outside. They celebrate their close friendship and look back on their lives – Cabot can’t help wondering how things might have turned out differently if his fiancee Sylvia (Mari Blanchard) hadn’t suddenly died before their wedding, nearly forty years earlier. This is obviously a change, as it’s usually Vincent Price mooning over his dead wife’s picture. (The entrance to Sylvia’s tomb is conveniently located outside the window of Cabot’s parlour, so he can raise a glass to her whenever he likes.)

But a bolt of lighting strikes the tomb and the door opens. Somewhat nervously the two old men venture inside, and discover that Sylvia’s corpse has remained miraculously fresh and uncorrupted by the passage of time. Cabot figures out that this is the result of water with unusual properties dripping onto the coffin. Before you can say ‘secrets of which man was not meant to know’ they are experimenting with the water to restore withered roses to full bloom, and so on. In a matter of minutes Cabot and Price are knocking the stuff back and dispensing with the old-age make-up they’ve both been acting under since the start of the segment.

What a felicitous development! But Cabot just can’t forget about Sylvia. ‘Don’t try and raise the dead!’ wails Price, but to no avail. Needless to say, this violation of the laws of God has terrible consequences for all concerned…

This is a proper piece of gothic horror that could easily be switched with one of the stories from Tales of Terror without anyone noticing. It’s a bit melodramatic and not what you’d call subtle in any department, but it tells its story briskly and well. One of the better anthology horror movie segments that I’ve come across.

The main difference between Twice-Told Tales and the Corman films is that this film seems to have had a rather lavish budget, which mainly seems to have been put towards a more expansive running time: it’s two hours long, which is unusual for a film in a subgenre where ‘get in – tell your story snappily – get out again’ is usually a wise approach.

The next story, ‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’, certainly takes its time a little. It’s set in Padua, where Giacomo Rappacci (Price again) keeps a rather unusual garden – the main feature is an astonishingly poisonous plant that kills anyone who even goes near it (insects landing on the flowers literally explode in a puff of smoke). All this is in aid of, believe it or not, a fairly extreme example of helicopter parenting – Rappaccini doesn’t want unpleasant men interfering with his lovely daughter (Joyce Taylor, who genuinely is a looker), and has alchemically used infusions from the plant to transform her blood to deadly acid – anyone or anything she touches is instantly poisoned!

Yeah, it’s a bit extreme, but this is 19th-century gothic horror, so what do you expect. Inevitably the daughter falls in love with a strapping young university student who lives next door (he is played by Brett Halsey), but it’s a bit hard to progress your relationship when even holding hands is likely to kill one of the participants. But perhaps he can find a cure…

It’s an interesting story, and the production values are nice, although it does feel like it’s hanging around a bit just to fill time. Once again we are in the realm of the gothic melodrama, but Price can do this stuff in his sleep and he keeps it interesting and enjoyable whenever he’s on screen, and the conclusion of the tale is memorably overwrought.

On to the final segment, based on Hawthorne’s novel ‘The House of Seven Gables’. This one in particular you can imagine H. P. Lovecraft watching and shouting ‘Yeah, baby!’, concerned as it is with curses, ghosts, dark family secrets, a haunted house, illicit romance, and much more in the same vein.

We are in New England in the mid-19th century. Price plays a guy named Gerald, who moves back to his old family home with his sister despite a curse that will supposedly kill him – his creepy sister keeps reminding him of this. The plot is actually somewhat involved and involves Gerald trying to get his hands on treasure, the location of which is known to the last descendant of the man who put the curse on his family. Basically all the gothic staples get an outing, and the film is unusual for being relatively gory for a film of this period – crimson gore pours from the mouths of portraits, the walls shudder and crack and blood gushes out, and someone is despatched by a pick-axe to the head. In the end Price has to act being throttled to death by a disembodied skeletal hand, which he manages with his usual aplomb.

Nothing much wrong with this one, either, although it has the same slightly mannered style as the rest of the film – there’s a touch of this in the very early Hammers, but they quickly dispensed with that in favour of a more visceral quasi-naturalism in many of their performances. You can perhaps see how this film influenced others, relatively obscure though it is – it may look and sound like a rip-off of the Poe pix, but it does have its own identity, and it does try to do things which the Corman films don’t. Certainly the acting, direction and production values are all at least as good as in the average American International production. If you like the Vincent Price Poe movies, then it’s a safe bet you’ll have a good time with this one, as well.

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Ari Aster’s Hereditary, when it came out in 2018, was that unusual thing: a film which clearly announced the arrival of a major talent despite being rather divisive. Many legitimate critics loved it. We (your correspondent, Former Next Desk Colleague, and Olinka) thought it was fairly risible once the credits had finished rolling, but we were all duly impressed by the queasy atmosphere Aster managed to generate. 2019’s Midsommar was genuinely accomplished – Olinka, who is equally passionate about horror movies and psychotherapy, particularly enjoyed it. I haven’t caught up with her for a bit but I imagine she will flip her chips when she eventually sees Aster’s latest film, Beau is Afraid.

The film opens with Beau himself being born (at least, I assume it’s him), which Aster naturally presents as a nightmarishly traumatic experience. (Tone is thus established.) Beau grows up to be Joaquin Phoenix, and a rather nervous and fragile individual. We see him visiting his therapist (Stephen McKinley Henderson), getting a new prescription, and going back to his apartment. Everything seems calculated to create maximum disquiet and unease, from the violent squalor of the neighbourhood to the fact the building is infested with venomous spiders.

Beau is supposed to be about to visit his mother (Patti LuPone), a successful businesswoman, but a series of bizarre events – basically, his keys mysteriously vanish – force him to cancel the trip. From here, things spiral increasingly out of control, involving mobs of aggressive homeless people, and Beau discovering an urgent family situation he needs to travel to address. Naturally, he ends up running out into the street naked and being hit by a truck.

You know, when I do this capsule synopsis thing, what I’m basically trying is to give you a sense of the initial conditions of the film and then a general sense of where the story ends up going. With Beau is Afraid this is tricky, because this is not a film which sticks to a conventional narrative structure and never goes in the direction you expect it to. There’s something almost (and I hesitate to say this) Kubrickian about the way the film takes the form a number of different episodes, each of them quite different, with no particular connection beyond the fact that they happen to Beau and feature a distinctively grotesque sense of humour. It’s like a very unsettling vision-quest, perhaps, a stream of consciousness journey into everything going on in Beau’s head. The only obvious thing I can compare it to is Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, though it is slightly more measured in its madness, probably conserving its stamina for a truly heroic three-hour run-time.

I’m sure I saw an interview with Ari Aster where he said that, after Midsommar, he would have said everything he wanted to say in the horror genre. This may still be the case, and Beau is Afraid is not genuinely intended as an actual horror film. Or maybe he’s just changed his mind. Certainly he has described the new film as a ‘nightmare comedy’ (also as ‘a Jewish Lord of the Rings‘) and it is shot through with that sense of humour I mentioned up the page – black and twisted though it certainly is. But on the other hand, it’s not what you’d call comfortable viewing – it finds your psychic pressure points and kneads at them relentlessly, and at one point there’s an appearance by a psychosexual monster sufficiently gobsmacking it would even give David Cronenberg pause (probably). You can see why it’s been released as counter-programming to Fast X and The Little Mermaid; what’s genuinely surprising is the fact that anyone honestly thought enough people would want to watch a film this extreme to make a $35 million dollar budget viable.

What makes the film particularly confounding is the fact that it’s very difficult to work out on what level it’s supposed to be functioning. Parts of it are relatively naturalistic, parts seem to be set in a sort of version of the ‘real world’ where certain elements have been heightened for dramatic or comic effect, other parts are so fantastical or surreal that – one assumes – at these points the film has to be operating on some sort of symbolic or allegorical level. And it slips back and forth between these modes without fanfare or signposting. You’re expecting some kind of conclusion where everything resets back to a recognisable analogue of the ordinary, naturalistic world. But it never comes, and after a few final swerves through the realms of melodrama, horror and surreal fantasy the film reaches an end. Perhaps the bizarre wrong-footing-ness of the conclusion is part of the intended effect.

However, this is one of those films which isn’t about what you take away; it’s about the experience of watching it – upsetting, visceral, moving, blackly comic. Most of this comes from a typically committed and intense performance from Joaquin Phoenix, who is on-screen for practically the whole three hours non-stop; the film has come out at the wrong time of year and looks likely to lose money, but this aside it’s the kind of performance that gets award attention. Having already made the comic book movie respectable in terms of being award-worthy, could Phoenix do the same for the horror film?

That said, it is Ari Aster who displays once again an almost casual mastery of composition, sound, and general mise-en-scene. ‘I can’t believe the imagination some people have,’ murmured the only other visible audience member at the screening I attended, as we both sat in the theatre trying to process the experience of the preceding three hours. I’m still not entirely sure of what Beau is Afraid is actually supposed to be about – an exercise in experimental surrealism? A depiction of a mind in crisis as seen from the inside? The answer is not clear, and to be honest the film is almost overwhelming – the sheer length and strangeness of it becomes alienating and exhausting some time before the end. It’s a fascinating experience but also a gruelling and possibly disturbing one. It may indeed be a masterpiece, but I don’t feel qualified to say so with certainty. But it’s definitely a tour de force for both director and star.

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Oh, where to start? I just want to reiterate that I really liked the last episode of Strange New Worlds that we discussed, despite the downer ending. What can I say, I’m just inherently glum, I suppose. However, perhaps that gloomy denouement does have a bearing on the subsequent instalment, The Serene Squall (possibly The Congruent Oxymoron was considered as a title but ditched), because this certainly follows the grim/serious-episode-then-high-spirited-romp-episode pattern which is starting to develop.

Things get underway, somewhat weirdly, with Spock’s fiancee T’Pring making an entry in her personal log. (She’s some sort of prison psychiatrist, so why does she even have a personal log? Does everyone in this timeline have a log? Does Uhura have a log? Does M’Benga’s kid who lives in the transporter buffer have a log? Does Pike’s horse have a log? I guess the writers were just so habituated to the use of the log as a storytelling device that they didn’t actually stop to think about it. Hmmm.) Anyway, T’Pring is looking to help their relationship by ‘spicing things up’, which involves reading some naughty books from Earth history and then attempting to discuss them with Spock. I quite empathised with Spock’s discomfort as this scene was quite like what I imagine listening to my parents talk about their own amatory shenanigans would be like.

The A-plot thankfully kicks in with the ship going out to assist some colonists stranded on the edge of Federation space; this is at the request of visiting character Dr Aspen (Jesse James Keitel – the famous Keitel’s cousin, apparently). However, when they arrive, all the signs are that the colonists have been captured by space pirates (oh, don’t worry, we will come back to this; you’d better believe we’ll come back to this) and are in danger of being sold into slavery. So Pike sends the Enterprise in pursuit of the pirate ship, which involves flying through a very dense asteroid field for a long time (The Empire Strikes Back has a lot to answer for). After avoiding a few cunning traps, the ship catches up with them and Pike decides to join the tactical squad being sent over to try and rescue them; his combat suit is, of course, thoughtfully equipped with a gold-plated chestplate, just so anyone fighting them will know who the high-value target is. Actually, this is the first time that Number One mentions that Pike is breaking protocol by leading the landing party himself – which, for all that it makes sense, doesn’t really chime with Kirk leading virtually every landing party himself just a few years later. Unless, of course, we’re in a parallel timeline.

But while the security team are beaming over to the pirates, some pirates are beaming over to the Enterprise, and succeed in capturing the whole ship pretty damn quick. How many pirates are there? Let us not forget there are over four hundred people on the Enterprise, most of whom are members of a paramilitary organisation and likely able to handle themselves quite well even in an emergency. But the plot demands that the Enterprise be captured and so it is. There is a plot twist here too, which I will not reveal because I am basically an honourable person even though I think this episode stinks.

The pirate captain is planning to sell the Enterprise and its crew, but not before swapping Spock for one of the prisoners whom T’Pring is involved in trying to rehabilitate. So that’s something Spock and Chapel (whom he has teamed up with this week) have to resolve. Meanwhile Pike and the others, who don’t seem particularly bothered about being captured by pirates and thrown into a cage, put the standard escape-from-pirates protocol into operation.

Gene Roddenberry, as is well known, had many strict rules about the scripting of Star Trek, especially in the TNG era: no acquisitiveness, no conflict between crew members, no prejudice, all skirts to be no longer than mid-thigh. One of the more obscure of these was ‘no space pirates’ although nearly everyone seems quite vague about his reasoning on this point. ‘They’re just corny’ seems to be the consensus, but I’m sure I remember something along the lines of ‘the crew are explorers, not policemen’. I think it may also have something to do with the fact that Roddenberry was quite high-minded in his intentions for Star Trek, and the only way you can successfully do a story about space pirates is as relatively low comedy, leaning into all the cliches about eyepatches and walking the plank and so on; exceptions to this rule are vanishingly rare (I suppose the raiders in Babylon 5 are technically space pirates, but they all get killed off pretty early on). But here comes Strange New Worlds, taking a running jump at a space pirate story nevertheless.

A space pirate, yesterday.

Although, to their credit (not much credit, this episode is deeper into the red than Black Widow’s ledger – oh, yes, friends, I can do topical pop culture references), the makers of the episode seem to have figured out the low comedy thing and so much of this episode is another (I’m tempted to say yet another) light-hearted romp with Pike mounting an escape through cooking and Spock and Chapel attempting to dissemble a relationship. And there is what I think is supposed to be a comedy villain in the form of pirate Captain Angel. ‘We wanted a character you would love to hate’ according to the production team. They are partway there, because I certainly – well, hate is a strong word for an emotion I do my best only to indulge in under very strict conditions (when confronted with the grossest moral failings of humanity – prejudice, exploitation, Boris Johnson, that sort of thing), but I would certainly be very happy never to see this character again.

And once it all resolves comes a twist ending, sort of – or a revelation, anyway. This one I am going to spoil… SPOILERS INCOMING… you see, one of the Vulcan criminals that T’Pring is trying to rehabilitate turns out to be (and let’s forget about all notions of conflicts of interest and personal involvement, because they’re Vulcans after all) Spock’s half-brother Sybok from Star Trek V! Yes, whenever two or more Trekkies are gathered together the conversation invariably turns to William Shatner’s magnum opus and how much everyone loves it and wants to see more of the characters and concepts it introduced. (Captain, sensors are detecting extremely high levels of irony.)

All right, I know I am often a miserable and reactionary old sod about the SF and fantasy franchises I loved in my distant and fading youth, but that’s not the only reason I think this episode is terrible, is it? I don’t know. I don’t think so. Anyway, I think this is a terrible episode, and the indications we’ll be seeing Sybok and Captain Angel again at some point drag my spirits down like a neutronium manacle about my soul. But apart from that, mustn’t grumble.

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As somebody once said, sort of, if you want to get a sense of the upheavals suffered by American society and culture in the 1960s, all you need to do is look at the career of Dennis Hopper. Early Hopper performances often see the actor cast as a nice, well-brought-up American boy, occasionally troubled or acting out (his aspiring neo-Nazi in The Twilight Zone, for instance), but generally someone who is not a menace to society. And then Easy Rider happens and suddenly he seems inextricably part of the counter-culture in perpetuity.

Given this, the idea of Dennis Hopper as a romantic lead can seem a bit weird or counter-intuitive, but this is what happened in his first lead role. This was in a film called Night Tide, directed by Curtis Harrington. Exactly what kind of film Night Tide is, is a bit challenging to pin down, as we shall see – it shifts about across genre boundaries. The title is drawn from a piece of Poe verse, but it’s not much like one of the Vincent Price Poe films that American-International Pictures were in the middle of at the time – nevertheless, AIP distributed the film (one story has it that Roger Corman intervened with the developers of the negative to ensure the thing got finished at all), and it was shown in a double-bill with The Raven (which must have made for a slightly odd experience for the audience).

To the extent that Night Tide is a horror film, it’s one that owes its strongest debt elsewhere. Hopper plays Johnny Drake, a young sailor on shore leave in California. He is by himself, and clearly wistful and lonely as he wanders about a slightly rundown seafront. Eventually Johnny pitches up in a small bar where a jazz group is playing. Also listening to the music is Mora (Linda Lawson), who is likewise by herself.

You sort of begin to wonder what kind of film this is going to be, as Johnny hits on Mora in the clumsiest, neediest of ways, despite the fact that she doesn’t seem to be that into him, even insisting on walking her back to her lodgings. There’s a name for this sort of behaviour and it’s not a word that turns up in connection with most romances. Nevertheless, Mora agrees for him to come back for breakfast in the morning.

The next day everything is sweetness and light, although the breakfast Mora has prepared for Johnny is mackerel, which is not my personal idea of a great start to the day. Suddenly the two of them are walking out together without either seeming to have given the idea much thought – or indeed there being much obvious chemistry. Perhaps it is best to consider Night Tide as some sort of melodramatic fable where some of the usual concerns of characterisation and motivation are not worth worrying about.

Johnny learns that Mora works at an attraction on the seafront, in a sideshow where (with the aid of a fake tail) she pretends to be a mermaid. Her godfather, or so he describes himself, runs the place – he is a retired naval captain named Murdock (Gavin Muir). Murdock claims to have found Mora as an orphaned child on the Greek island of Mykonos, and brought her back to the States to raise. All seems well for the young couple, for a bit at least – but then Johnny starts to see a strange woman in black haunting Mora’s steps, chanting strange incantations in a foreign language, and learns of ominous rumours about the unexplained deaths of her previous two suitors. Finally Murdock admits the awful truth – Mora isn’t just pretending to be a mermaid, she’s an actual siren, fated to lure young men to a watery grave…

The setting of Night Tide is well-observed and atmospheric; the horror-fantasy elements are delicate and ambiguously presented – in the end, it may just be the case that Mora is nothing but a disturbed young woman, subject to the influence of a possessive older man. Or it could be that she really is some sort of supernatural sea creature. You pays your money and you takes your choice – but the overall effect is strikingly reminiscent of the output of the RKO horror unit under Val Lewton, twenty years earlier, even if this is less Cat People and more Octopus Girl.

Still, the mixture of dreamlike, noirish fantasy and more naturalistic sequences is well-handled, and the production is probably wise to follow in Lewton’s footsteps by leaving as much as possible to the imagination – there are a couple of dream-sequences where Johnny imagines Mora first with a fish’s tail, and then transforming into a rubbery kraken-like monster, and these are the only moments where the film is in any danger of feeling camp or cheesy.

This is not a film which is overloaded with incident, so it’s just as well that the direction and incidental detail are as good as they are, and the performances help too. They kind of run the gamut from the earnestly naturalistic (Hopper, and probably Lawson) to the riper and more theatrical (Muir), but again this isn’t necessarily a problem and probably adds to the strange atmosphere of the piece. You can see why Night Tide has become something of a cult movie.

Doing films about actual mermaids (as opposed to people just living under the sea) has a somewhat chequered history – it seems to lend itself more to a sort of rom-com treatment (see Splash and its British antecedents Miranda and Mad About Men), but there has also been the odd full-on horror movie too (there’s a film called Mamula which I believe turned up on the Horror Channel under the title Killer Mermaids). We should also recall the recent kerfuffle over the complexion of the title character in the forthcoming live-action version of The Little Mermaid, and there is also the strange case of whatever-happened-to Empires of the Deep, an aspiring blockbuster with Olga Kurylenko, which has been MIA for about a decade. Given all this, Night Tide is probably somewhere towards the top of the heap, in its own little niche. It’s a weird little film, but quite well-made, and not afraid to assume the audience is intelligent. So there are three reasons at least to appreciate it.

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There are your non-traditional Hammer films and your traditional Hammer films, but the reason anyone talks about Hammer at all is because they made a lot of films that were good, full stop. I read a book on the vampire film genre years ago – it may have been David Skal’s V is for Vampire, if memory serves – in which Hammer Films earned a spot on the strength of the fact it was apparently a vampire film specialist. Really? Of course, there are seven or eight Draculas, plus a few other films in the same sort of territory, but that barely begins to scratch the surface – there are a load of Frankensteins, at least four Mummy-adjacent films, various psychological thrillers, some sci-fi films… and three takes on the Jekyll and Hyde story.

One of these is The Ugly Duckling, a 1959 comedy starring Bernard Bresslaw which need not concern us much. 1971’s Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde is probably the one with the higher profile, partly because of the impudence of the concept, but also because it has people like Ralph Bates and Philip Madoc in it, not to mention Martine Beswick of course. The third, 1960’s The Two Faces of Jekyll, seems to me to get somewhat forgotten about – possibly because it’s one of the first wave of Hammer horror films as we usually understand them, and doesn’t entirely fit the template as a result. Like most of those early films, it was directed by Terence Fisher, and it has a couple of really interesting ideas going for it.

The film is set in London in 1874 (some years before Stevenson actually wrote the novella). Straightaway the script gets to work establishing scenario and theme. We meet Dr Jekyll (Paul Massie), a restrained, cerebral man, obsessed with his work – he is seeking to elevate the human condition by allowing people to liberate their higher selves from the clutches of their baser instincts. What could possibly go wrong with that? Well, to get a really good grasp of what the baser instincts are like, Dr Jekyll has come up with a drug which unleashes them from all inhibition, and to prove this transforms a tame and gentle monkey into a fanged menace. The friend he is expositing to makes the reasonable point that a drug having the opposite effect might be more useful. We also learn that Jekyll is a social recluse, which is a bit wearing for his beautiful wife Kitty (Dawn Addams).

Wondering how these two actually got together is virtually obligatory, but Jekyll’s choice of best friend is also a bit puzzling – this is Paul Allen, a scoundrel and rake, played by Christopher Lee (Lee would get his own crack at playing Jekyll in all but name in I Monster, also released in 1971). Allen is always tapping Jekyll to cover his gambling debts, much to Kitty’s apparent disapproval – but when the two are alone together it becomes very clear that Allen and Mrs Jekyll have got a thing going on.

It seems that Mrs Jekyll rather likes being left to her own devices by her husband, for when he reaches out to her she chooses to go off to a dinner party instead. Disconsolate, he shoots up with his drug, and… well, here’s where the story gets interesting, for the middle-aged, dry, bearded Jekyll transforms into the young, suave, clean-shaven Edward Hyde (why he chooses this particular name is not clear) – it’s not entirely unlike the Jerry Lewis spoof from 1963, in which the nerdy professor turns into a parody of Dean Martin.

People complaining that this is a wild deviation from the book are, I suspect, missing the point (I also suspect that they haven’t read the book, because while everyone knows the story hardly anyone has actually gone back to the source). Stevenson himself never gives a detailed description of Mr Hyde’s appearance, merely declaring him to have ‘the Mark of the Beast’ upon him. Most films interpret this by turning Hyde into a sort of barely-human ape; Two Faces is possibly unique (amongst non-genre-fluid Jekyll & Hydes, anyway) for making Hyde a much more superficially appealing but morally degenerate individual. (This was very much in keeping with Fisher’s equally suave takes on Baron Frankenstein and Count Dracula.)

Hyde hits the town and ends up at the same nightspot where Kitty Jekyll and Allen have gone to disport themselves. (Also present in a very minor role is Oliver Reed, playing a pimp.) Crucially, neither of them recognise Hyde, thus setting up the film’s other brilliant innovation – Hyde takes rather a fancy to Kitty, and befriends her and Paul. Clearly he is scheming to displace Allen and have an adulterous affair with his own wife. (Of course, he also embarks on a sordid affair with a snake dancer, played by Norma Marler – a Rhodesian-born actress whose very brief career appears to have consisted entirely of Hammer adaptations of Jekyll and Hyde – her only other credit is for The Ugly Duckling.)

Two such good ideas would normally put the film on an easy track to success, but Two Faces does wobble a bit through its middle section, which turns into a slightly lurid melodrama about the interactions of the central trio (or quartet if you count Jekyll and Hyde separately). There’s also the odd question of why Jekyll keeps choosing to turn into Hyde, given he seems shocked and traumatised by the experience every time.

Things pick up towards the end as Hyde cooks up a devilish plan to force Jekyll to go into hiding (as Hyde) by framing him for various nefarious deeds (Christopher Lee is killed by the snake dancer’s pet, not very convincingly, and there are a couple of other murders). The climax is another divergence from most adaptations, as Hyde turns back into Jekyll at the police station and ends the film arrested, rather than dead.

It’s a bit of a mixed bag, overall: Paul Massie is very good as Hyde, but quite hammy as Jekyll, and Christopher Lee is as effective as ever. However, the film is notably light on blood and explicit nastiness, certainly compared to other early Hammer horrors – the emphasis is much more on moral corruption and degeneracy than violence and physical jeopardy. This is the earliest Hammer horror that I’m aware of that really leans into the flesh part of the flesh and blood formula, though – there are several leery sequences dwelling on demi-monde dancing girls, and more implied nudity and sexual violence than in the earlier films.

This isn’t a bad film, but it does feel more like it leans towards the costume drama end of the spectrum than horror as such. It certainly lacks the big visual icon of Lee as Dracula or the Creature or the Mummy. It’s understandable that it isn’t remembered as vividly as the other early films  You could imagine Massie going on to have a successful association with the company – you can imagine him playing Meinster in Brides of Dracula or many of those John Richardson Hammer hunk parts – but he never worked with them again and virtually retired from movie acting a couple of years later, meaning this is a rare Hammer film led by a rather obscure performer. Perhaps why the whole film often seems to get forgotten about – it’s a traditional Hammer production, but only just.

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I know it may be hard to believe, but I really do try hard to be a positive person; endless griping and dwelling on disappointment does nobody any good, after all. I was genuinely hoping to be able to find lots of positive things to say about Strange New Worlds, and yet time and again I have found myself stumbling into grumbling, often about the fact this modern TV series so closely resembles a modern TV series, which is probably not really grounds for complaint. (Getting the continuity so wilfully wrong week after week I will stick by as a casus belli, mainly bcause this is a choice they are making for themselves.)

The next episode, Lift Us Where Suffering Cannot Reach, finds the show back in its default tone – not too grimdark and not trying to be too light-hearted either. The Enterprise is back in territory Pike visited back when he was a young officer when it comes across a ship under attack; being good Starfleet types the crew intervene and shoot down the marauder (somewhat by accident, but it still counts). On the ship turns out to be a woman who Pike got to know on his previous visit, a grumpy former physician, and the physician’s son (‘only biologically,’ he is at pains to point out, rather cryptically). The lad, who is naturally a rather winsome moppet, turns out to be a spiritual figure for his home civilisation, being taken from a preparatory retreat to his homeworld of Majalis where a major dedication ceremony awaits him.

According to Alora, Pike’s old friend, this is because the lad – ‘the First Servant’, apparently – is of incalculable value to the Majalan civilisation and thus a prime target for mercenary-minded aliens keen to try their hands at an abduction. As the Enterprise is already mixed up in all this, Pike volunteers to keep the boy safe until it’s time for the ceremony, even though Alora seems a bit conflicted about that.

Pike considers joining the SCA.

As you may not be entirely surprised to hear, a mystery begins to develop – just who were the attackers? Alora has said they were from an alien colony, but evidence suggests a much closer connection to Majalis itself, and a conspiracy at all levels of Majalan society to sabotage the dedication ceremony. While all this is going on, the crew is learning of the wonders of Majalan technology and culture – not only do they potentially hold the key to saving M’Benga’s own child from having to grow up in the transporter buffer, they may even be able to undo the effects of the horrific injuries Pike is due to suffer in a few years time. The snag – and of course there’s a snag – is that the Majalans don’t share their technology with aliens (that Prime Directive cuts both ways, I guess), but if Pike were to settle down there…? Certainly Alora seems very keen to get to know him a lot better…

I ended up having to watch this episode twice before writing about it, which is somewhat unusual – not because it is excessively complicated or difficult to follow, it’s just not as simplistic as some of the others have been recently. Rather than a collection of repurposed old plot points from previous iterations of Trek, it’s probably the first episode to genuinely have the sense of being an actual pastiche of the original series. The obvious reference point is The Cloud Minders, a third-season episode which, like most third-season episodes, is not exactly drowning in affection from the fanbase: both deal with apparently cultured-civilisations that have a dark secret, and – on a more superficial level – both feature flying anti-gravity cities.

Personally, I quite like The Cloud Minders – it’s not the most distinguished piece of original Trek, but there are much worse; the costume designs are fun and it has a sort of thematic-metaphorical purity to it. And I rather like Lift Us Where Suffering Cannot Reach, too, not really for the same reasons but because it has an undeniably retro quality to it (Pike gets a bit of kissy time and a couple of fist fights) and a strange note of sweetness, in the early stages at least. What’s particularly impressive is that this isn’t overdone to the point where you go ‘Uh oh, this is all setting something really horrible up.’

I mean, I’ve written about my fondness for table-top RPGs before and the players in my games of Cthulhu in particular have learned the hard way that if they stumble across a cache of high-powered weapons and explosives with which to equip themselves, it means they are in for a brutally horrific time involving something completely immune to conventional weapons. In the same way, the clumsy way to do this episode would have been to overload the tweeness and cuteness until it was obvious there was going to be shocking reversal. They still manage the shocking reversal, and manage one which – while foreshadowed – still comes as a surprise.

If you’re on the ball – and here we enter the realm of SPOILERS INCOMING – the suspicious similarity between the treatment of the First Servant, and that of the Perfect Victim in the civilisation of the Aztecs, is probably fairly obvious. For, yes, the Majalans practice a technological form of human sacrifice, all in the name of preserving their civilisation in its current very agreeable form. Now, it’s interesting to consider what sort of allegorical point the episode is gunning for at this point: I just thought it was something quite general about the child labour involved in the production of a lot of luxury goods we value in 21st century western civilisation. However, I have seen it suggested that this episode is actually a very oblique statement on the whole issue of the Second Amendment and gun control in contemporary America: the founders of the Majalan civilisation organised things so their descendents have to plug a child into a machine every few years just to keep things going. Nobody knows why. I’m not sure this entirely hangs together – the writers of the Second Amendment wrote it for fairly intelligible reasons, just reasons which are now arcane and anachronistic – but it adds a degree of heft and moral content to an episode which deserves it. It does feel genuinely tragic when the Majalans turn out to be complicit in monstrosity, as the hope they offer both Pike and M’Benga has been subtly set up throughout the episode. Star Trek isn’t usually very good at downer endings, but this one works.

To be fair, most of the episode’s subtlety dissipates like mist at dawn as the climax arrives, and I thought the subtext was very on-the-nose (this was before I realised I wasn’t sure what it was supposed to be). But, once again, the sense of being bopped on the snoot by the writers with respect to whatever issue they wish to explore or point they wish to make is a familiar one to those of us who have spent a lot of time with this franchise, so this is once again a rather agreeable and nostalgic sensation.  Star Trek is often at its best when it’s up on a soapbox of some sort, and the sincerity of the script is as obvious as its quality. This is the best episode yet of Strange New Worlds. 

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As chance would have it I popped out to our local food market just before settling down to compose this latest indelible stain on the internet. The two gentlemen I ended up dealing with, when not wrangling artisan Frankfurters, were passing their time by discussing what they’d been up to; the one doing most of the talking making most of his contributions at the sort of decibel level usually associated with the crowd at a football match. ‘Best film of the year so far! I loved it! Had to go and see it twice! So exciting! Although I did miss the first forty-five minutes cos I was asleep.’

”Sa bit far-fetched, though,’ said hot-dog purveyor #2.

‘No it’s not,’ said #1, unprintably. Naturally, I enquired as to what film they were discussing. ‘Fast and Furious! It’s fantastic!’

‘It is a bit far-fetched,’ I said.


‘What about that bit where the giant neutron bomb is bouncing through Rome with Vin Diesel chasing after it in his car? What about the bit where he drags those two helicopters behind his car until they crash, then uses the burning wreckage as a vehicular flail? What about when he drives down the vertical face of a dam to escape the exploding tankers?’

There was a pause. ‘Yeah, the bit with the bomb is kind of far fetched. But it’s still fantastic.’

Personally, I was most surprised that anyone managed to sleep through any section of Fast X (directed by our old friend Louis Leterrier), given that events of the film routinely take place at jet-engine volume. But there you go. I have long since stopped being a snob about this series, because the best of these films are irresistible fun, but I know that many people still smirk and snigger. Nevertheless, a film series doesn’t last twenty-plus years, reach double-digits, and earn a combined take of over seven billion dollars without being genuinely loved by a big audience.

As ever, the answer as to why this should be probably lies in the details. There are lots of big action movies, I expect, that would build a major sequence around a giant spherical neutron bomb rattling through the via Roma on course for the Vatican, with a desperate race-against-time to save the Pope. What elevates Fast X to its preeminent position in the action landscape is the fact that the giant spherical neutron bomb, while bouncing on its way, is on fire. That’s what I call a touch of genius.

This isn’t even close to the climax of the film, coming at the end of the first act. Anyone somehow managing to sleep through the start of the film will miss a protracted flashback to the climax of Fast Five, revealing that the villain had a son (Jason Momoa), who inevitably survives and swears revenge on Vin Diesel and his Fast and Furious All-Stars. (Students of the franchise will be aware of its penchant for revising the events of previous films this way.)

Back in the present day, we find man-mountain boy racer Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) doing his fatherly duty by teaching his son Little B to do doughnuts at eighty miles an hour, even though he is only about nine. (The film invites the audience to engage in the usual conspiracy of silence concerning the whereabouts of Little B’s namesake Big B; i.e. Paul Walker’s character, who has always been conveniently busy elsewhere or just off-screen since Walker’s untimely death about four sequels ago.) Sure enough, there is another barbeque and a gathering of the extended family and Diesel rumbling on about the importance of family; this is distinguished, a bit, by the appearance of Rita Moreno as Granny Toretto – Singin’ in the Rain, West Side Story, and now Fast X: that’s what I call a career trajectory. These scenes are, of course, objectively terrible, but they are in a very real sense obligatory for each new film in this series.

Soon enough the plot kicks in when old enemy Cipher (Charlize Theron) turns up having just come off worse in an encounter with Jason Momoa; yes, someone else is out to get them. This all leads into the bit in Rome with the bouncing neutron bomb (which is on fire) – yes, Momoa is such a loon that blowing up the Vatican with a WMD is just a sort of by-product of his real plan, which is to give Diesel and the others a jolly hard time.

From here the plot splits, or possibly unravels, into a number of storylines (possibly one or two too many, to be honest) – Diesel goes off to Brazil to rumble stoically in Momoa’s direction, Michelle Rodriguez gets chucked in the clink and has to be rescued by a new character played by Brie Larson, Little B goes on a road-trip with his uncle (John Cena), and most of the others end up in London where – oh joy of joys! – they have to ask for help from Jason Statham, whose extended cameo peps up the film just when it is starting to flag a bit.

In the end – well, we obviously have to preface any criticism of elements of Fast X by acknowledging that this is a film which is almost completely implausible from start to finish, with some startlingly poor acting in several of the key positions, and a narrative sensibility where it’s not just acceptable to switch off the plot for five minutes so Michelle Rodriguez and Charlize Theron can gratuitously kick each other in, it’s practically obligatory. Not to mention that it is now clearly apparent that no-one important ever dies in these films, assuming the actor involved is happy to come back. Anyway, despite all this, the film is still afflicted with a structure where it’s the first episode of a two-part conclusion to the series, which means it ends on a cliff-hanger, with the characters still scattered all over the landscape. This is an undeniable flaw, which I suppose will be excusable if Fast XI does the business whenever it comes along.

The rest of it finds the series back on form after the rather lacklustre F9: it’s silly and implausible, but not egregiously so, nearly all the characters show up to make a decent contribution, and the stunts and fights are as outrageous as ever. It all confirms my suspicion that, for the last ten or fifteen years at least, the Fast movies have supplanted Bond as the acme of escapist action nonsense (the closing titles of this film suspiciously resemble a Bond credit sequence). The Bond films became their own genre decades ago, and the same thing happened to this series round about the fifth or sixth film – you can try judging it by conventional standards of logic and credibility, but that’s to miss the point: it’s all about the sheen and the glamour, the growl of engines and the screech of brakes, cars doing impossible things and Vin Diesel never being caught dead in a shirt with sleeves. Fast X is not a good film as these things are usually understood, but it’s a great Fast & Furious movie, and just as entertaining as that sounds.

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If you talk about British film studios specialising in horror movies from the 60s and 70s, the first name that gets mentioned is invariably that of Hammer; the second is Milton Subotsky’s Amicus (usually on the strength of its portmanteau horrors); and a solid third place usually goes to Tigon Films, if only for Witchfinder General and The Blood on Satan’s Claw. Tigon is the British horror company for cool kids, for whom Hammer is just a bit too mainstream. One potential problem for the easily confused is the existence of another outfit called Tyburn Films, who were operating about the same time as Tigon and making similar sorts of movies, such as The Ghoul and Legend of the Werewolf. And you don’t even have to be that easily confused to confuse Tyburn Films with Tyburn Entertainment, who a few years earlier made what looks very much like a classic British 60s horror film, Doctor Faustus.

Put it this way, it’s a costume drama with a very distinguished lead actor, about a man who gets mixed up in black magic: of course it looks like a classic British 60s horror film. When it turned up on TV a little while ago it was billed as a horror movie; it’s a little tricky to think of what other category it would reasonably go into.

Richard Burton, who also co-directs with Nevill Coghill, plays Faustus, who at the start of the story has just received his doctorate from a German university. Despite his reasonably advanced years, post-graduate study beckons, but what to focus on? What could prove rewarding enough? Motivated, it would seem, primarily by a desire to hang out with naked women, Doctor Faustus opts for the little-known post-graduate qualification in advanced satanism and summons up the Devil’s sidekick Mephistopheles to make the necessary arrangements.

You know the sort of thing: bargain away your soul, sign a contract in your own blood, enjoy youth, wealth, and the life of Riley for a few years and then get dragged off to Hell for eternity when your time is up. It doesn’t sound like a particularly good deal to me, but then I’m sure life was different in medieval Germany and one shouldn’t necessarily rush to judgement. The first part of the film concerns Faustus deciding to take up his new hobby and getting acquainted with Mephistopheles (Andreas Teuber); most of the rest of it is about him enjoying his new powers in various ways and experiencing the odd qualm as the due date on his soul draws closer.

If you think this sounds like a slightly odd plot for a film, you would be right: for this is not so much a film per se as a filmed performance of an adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s play about the Faust legend. Describing it as very, very stagey therefore almost becomes redundant – it really is like watching someone performing Elizabethan drama on the set of a very low-budget Vincent Price film. Quite long stints of it are just comprised of Richard Burton shouting things in Latin.

It’s a bizarre beast, and that impression is only added to by the other major quirk of its production – apart from Burton himself, all the other speaking roles are taken by members of the Oxford University Dramatic Society, based out of Queen’s College (apparently Burton put on the show with these guys shortly before). Most of these people did not go on to great acting careers: if you cheeck out the film’s Wiki page, most of the cast are much more prominent for their academic work (Teuber, for instance, went on to be a professor of Philosophy somewhere in the States). On the other hand, Richard Durden is in it (he’s hardly famous, but he has played bit parts in movies like Scars of Dracula and Batman), and so is Ian Marter (an actor and novelist who died tragically young but is fondly remembered for his association with Dr Who). Even though the cast of this film is essentially just Richard Burton and a gang of amateurs, there’s none of the unevenness you might be expecting – the supporting cast aren’t embarrassing, while Burton (who is, after all, largely directing himself)  isn’t particularly great.

It’s not the greatest film if you’re looking for strong independent women: apart from the group nude scenes which are occasionally inserted, it’s largely men only, the only exception being Elizabeth Taylor, who keeps popping up in different guises as the object of Faustus’ desire. Sometimes she is painted green. Sometimes she is painted silver. What is constant is that she never has any dialogue, and what one is inclined to guess is that she is involved mainly as a favour to Burton to make the film more marketable.

Frankly, Doctor Faustus needs all the help it can get in this department, because everything about it screams vanity project. Take away Burton and Taylor’s star power and all you’re left with is a film primarily of interest to fans of amateur productions of 16th century plays, which is not a particularly significant or sizeable constituency by any stretch of the imagination. This is filmed theatre, and not particularly good theatre – it makes the mistake of trying to tell an obviously theatrical (and thus non-naturalistic) story in the naturalistic mode in which most films operate, with clunky results: at one point Faustus does battle with various worldly kings and only survives due to the immortality granted him by Satan. This is depicted via Burton striding about and declaiming with various obviously fake swords stuck unconvincingly through him. Bits like this are often unintentionally funny; but most of the film is just damned hard work.

It’s hard to imagine anyone other than a theatre student or academic watching this all the way through and finding it a positive and engaging experience. You can sort of imagine how it ended up being made: Richard Burton was often criticised as someone who had the potential to be the Olivier of his generation, but ended up squandering his talent in commercial cinema, and presumably this was his attempt to show that, yes, he really could cut it in a classical theatre production. Maybe as a piece of live theatre this was electrifying stuff, but the filmed version is clunky, slow, and tacky.

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One of the questions you’re left with after watching Chie Hayakawa’s Plan 75 is that of exactly what kind of film this is, because it doesn’t really fit into any obvious category. Is it a socially-conscious drama? A naturalistic piece of dystopian science fiction? A rather unusual horror film? Certainly there are elements of all three going on.

The film is set in Japan in what looks very much like the present day. Japan, as you may know, is blessed with one of the longest life-expectancies in the developed world and afflicted by a problematically-low birth rate; this has created what used to be referred to as a demographic time bomb, as there will eventually be too many elderly people for the younger generation to take care of effectively. The film imagines a situation where this is causing immense social pressures, with spree killings and hate crimes targeting old people becoming a serious issue.

The response of the authorities is Plan 75, a measure deeply rooted in the Japanese traditions of social responsibility and and self-sacrifice. Anyone aged 75 or older can apply to join a scheme where they report to a facility where their life will be quietly and peacefully brought to an end; in return they will receive a grant of about $1000 as a reward, which they can spend on whatever they like (spa days and beauty treatments are mentioned).

Initially the film deals with a number of plotlines in parallel – a Filippino migrant worker (Stefanie Arianne), badly needing money for her child’s medical care, gets a job working at a Plan 75 facility. A young man (Hayato Isomura), whose job is as a junior administrator for the scheme, discovers his estranged uncle has applied to join it. And, most centrally, there is the story of an old but dignified woman, Mishi (Chieko Baisho) – she has no family, and it is getting harder to make ends meet (the implication is that the government is making it harder for older citizens to keep their jobs, presumably to pressure them towards a Plan 75 application). She wants to be a good citizen, naturally, and everyone from the plan whom she speaks to is so friendly and helpful…

The film is shot with an almost documentary-like reserve and lack of sensationalism, but it makes very clear the kind of soft power being wielded by the authorities: Plan 75, they stress, is entirely voluntary and applicants can withdraw from the process at any time. But at the same time, for an older generation which still broadly trusts the authorities, there is an unspoken sense of expectation – given it is supposedly for the good of society, it is surely selfish for an eligible person not to apply for the plan…?

The whole notion of society is at the heart of Plan 75: its nature, its purpose, what is best for it. What’s happening, of course, is that society is being treated as something separate from the people who comprise it – for if anything else were the case, the good of the elderly would be being considered, and the euthanasia of healthy old people can hardly be said to be in their best interests. Or, to put it another way – while the film is initially very detached and non-judgemental, it eventually makes it horribly clear that what Plan 75 is really about is people deemed to have no value being taken somewhere out of the public gaze and quietly gassed to death.

Through some deft slight-of-hand, Hayakawa contrives it so that the moment of realisation that this is what’s happening hits like a hammer. This is a considerable achievement, given the film is up-front about what Plan 75 involves from the start – there’s no ‘Soylent Green is people!’ twist here. The film lays its cards on the table slowly and carefully as the climax approaches – we learn that Plan 75 workers are encouraged to essentially loot the bodies of expired applicants, to reduce the amount of clothing and other personal items to be disposed of (the images of piles of possessions being rummaged through by workers in uniforms has its own historical resonance), while Isomura’s character is perturbed to learn that one of the private sector partners in the running of the scheme is a company specialising in running landfill sites. And for all that the plan is supposedly voluntary, we learn that the staff who interact with applicants are explicitly told to ensure no-one changes their mind.

The grimmest thing about the film is not that it is about what’s essentially an extermination programme, but the fact that it makes it seem so plausible and convincing. Plan 75’s training sessions and office politics are distressingly mundane: everyone involved seems to have mastered that variety of tunnel vision where they concentrate on the specifics of their job and manage not to think about what they’re actually doing. (As a former civil servant involved with the rationalisation of senior care services in a major UK county, this brought back some disquieting memories.) The treatment of the elderly is a long-standing concern of Japanese films (Ozu’s Tokyo Story dealt with the theme seventy years ago) but one can imagine similar scenes playing out in Europe or North America very easily.

Euthanasia is the hook for this film, but it felt very much to me like there was a broader question being asked here, one about how we treat the elderly in general. Just because we don’t gas them and stick their ashes in a landfill it doesn’t necessarily make us saints – I couldn’t help but remember the treatment of people in care homes during the pandemic, and the supposed ‘let the bodies pile high’ declaration from one of the UK’s foremost national disgraces. People are not very good at accepting their own mortality, and this seems to extend to a reluctance to acknowledge that everybody, one day, will get old – with luck, anyway – even us.

Ageing populations are a real problem and it’s fair to say that Plan 75 doesn’t have an alternative answer to offer. But it does a tremendous job of suggesting that there is no such thing as ‘voluntary’ euthanasia, and that the introduction of such a scheme, rather than saving society, is almost certain to brutalise it and everyone involved. This is not a cheerful film, as you would expect, but a very well-made and profoundly humane one.

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