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Krypton on the Bosphorus

If we’re going to head off the beaten track, cinematically speaking, it occurs to me that Bollywood movies and the like are really just a first step. There are lots of much weirder, more startling films out there in the world, as I discovered at quite a young age – you can imagine the astonishment which resulted when I first encountered masked Mexican wrestling horror movies, for instance. The problem, such as it is, is that some of these foreign treasures are just a bit too strange to be really accessible to a western viewer. Striking some kind of balance between being recognisable and having the sheer utter capacity to smack gobs is the twilight world of Turksploitation movies.

You what? is a perfectly reasonable response. I speak of the charming Turkish habit, in years gone by, of taking popular American blockbusters and doing a local remake, without bothering with trivial little things like the legal rights to characters and stories. Needless to say, these films were often cobbled together on tiny budgets, using performers highly unlikely to ever get the call from Hollywood. And yet they sometimes have an exuberant charm of their own, as well as a entertainment value born of their sheer crudeness.

As a case in point, let us consider Süpermen Dönüyor (aka The Return of Superman), a fairly representative Turksploitation movie, made in 1979 by (stop sniggering at the back) Kunt Tulgar. I suppose the closest thing to this kind of film being made today are the ‘mockbusters’ plopped out by The Asylum, the crucial difference being that Asylum movies are carefully tweaked to avoid lawsuits – I speak here of the likes of Snakes on a Train, Transmorphers, and Sunday School Musical – whereas the Turkish films just totally ignore the dubious legalities involved.

We open in deep space, which is realised using a selection of Christmas tree ornaments on a black blanket, while a voice-over fills us in the history of planet Krypton (which closely resembles one of those shiny bauble thingies). The title card with the Superman S-shield on it appears (apparently painted by an eight-year-old), while John Williams’ famous fanfare plays. Then abruptly the music changes to something with more of the flavour of the souk about it while the rest of the credits roll.

With all this out of the way, we meet Tayfun (Tayfun Demir), a young man in a pair of Elton John’s old specs, who is just about to start making his way in the world when he receives a shocking revelation from his parents – he is adopted! Apparently they found a ‘rocket-like machine’ in the garden one day, with him inside, along with a sort of greeny-grey rock. Tayfun takes this extraordinary news with superhuman stoicism (either that or he’s a terrible actor – hmm…) and sets off to follow his destiny. This turns out to be to go into a cave, where he is confronted by the ghost of his father, Superman, leader of the planet Krypton, a world of supremely advanced science in all areas but dentistry (judging from the state of Superman’s mouth, anyway). Tayfun is to carry on the legacy of Krypton by being the new Superman of Earth, using his special superhuman powers in a surprisingly low-key and cost-effective manner.

Having learned all this, and adopted the traditional red-and-blue uniform (possibly the most impressive and expensive-looking thing in the movie), Superman flies off in search of adventure, and also to get a job. The scenes of our hero in flight are realised by – well, not to put to fine a point on it, sticking a doll in front of back-projected helicopter shots of famous Turkish landmarks. The results are breathtaking, one way or another.

Tayfun lands a job at what seems to be an extremely small Turkish newspaper (there only appear to be three other people on the staff), just in time for the plot proper to kick in – The Return of Superman is a (some would say blessedly) brief 68 minutes long, so there’s less of the hanging about you get in the Richard Donner version. Scientists have discovered the mystical ‘Krypton stone’, which will either provide an unlimited supply of cheap, clean energy (seriously, given this is a maguffin in so many superhero movies nowadays, The Return of Superman is way ahead of the curve here), or allow unscrupulous types to transform base substances into gold and get rich quick.

Any tiny remnants of credulity left in the audience will be cruelly squished when it turns out that that the professor in charge of investigating the Krypton stone is the father of Alev (Gungor Bayrak), Tayfun’s co-worker and love interest. Cue many opportunities for Alev to be menaced and repeatedly kidnapped by the mob as they attempt to get their hands on the Krypton stone, and for Superman to race to her rescue in his understated Turkish way (faced with a runaway truck, for instance, Turkish Superman does not plant himself in its path or grab it and bring it to a halt, he climbs in through the cab door and steps on the brakes – not exactly spectacular, but it saves on special effects).

In the end the villains are defeated, Tayfun has revealed his secret identity to the smitten Alev, and everyone asks if Superman will stick around to fight for truth, justice, and the Turkish way. No, he announces: he’s off to look for Krypton, which he lost ‘seven light years ago’ (according to the English subtitled version, anyway).  The End – and it certainly feels like it.

As an unauthorised foreign language rip-off, I expect it goes without saying that The Return of Superman is a terrible, terrible movie by any rational standard – the acting is awful, the subtitled dialogue is awful, the direction and editing are awful, and the special effects are awful. Normally I might even have some strong words to say about the dubious ethicality of this kind of undertaking, but given that DC Comics’ own treatment of Superman’s creators was hardly exemplary, I’m inclined to give them a pass. But seriously – is there any reason to spend an hour of your life actually watching this?

Well, for the first few minutes at least, the sheer primitive incompetence of The Return of Superman makes it utterly hilarious to watch, but one becomes habituated to this with surprising speed, and only particularly striking moments really register: for instance, Superman’s suggestion to the professor upon rescuing him is ‘There’s a car outside – run away with it!’ There’s also a wholly tonally wrong sequence in which Tayfun uses his x-ray vision to check out a passing woman’s underwear – although I should say that, on the whole, this movie’s depiction of Superman is at least as authentic as that of the average Zach Snyder movie – while Superman does appear to kill a guy at one point, the actor reappears five minutes later, but this may just be down to the awful continuity. It’s not like he goes around wantonly snapping necks or allowing himself to be manipulated into picking stupid fights with people, anyway.

Probably the most fun to be had while watching The Return of Superman comes from playing Name that Tune. The makers of this movie clearly realised the importance of music to a proper cinematic experience, but couldn’t afford an original soundtrack for their film. So (and you may be ahead of me here) they went away and nicked bits from various popular American and British films and TV series. Quite apart from the 1978 Superman (of course), unwitting donors to this movie’s (un)original soundtrack include From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, You Only Live Twice, Westworld, and Space: 1999.

It is frequently laughable, especially when the music is slapped on randomly over a wholly inappropriate moment (one of John Williams’ more up-tempo action cues accompanies a bafflingly long and entirely dialogue-free scene depicting Tayfun packing his suitcase). But in other places you are reminded of just how important a good soundtrack can be to the success of a movie – moments which should be absurd actually acquire a vestige of emotional or dramatic value when the film-makers get their act together and dub the right piece of music over the top of their tosh.

For this reason, if no other, I find it a little hard to dismiss The Return of Superman quite as comprehensively as it probably deserves: the people who made it may have been an underfunded bunch of pirates, but they do appear to have had a genuine affection for and understanding of both Superman and cinema, and that makes up for a lot. Not enough to make this film any more than a bizarre and deservedly obscure oddity (it’s currently available to view on YouTube, if you really must), but if it teaches us anything, it’s that sometimes you just have to make do with what you’ve got.

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Duck!

A venture into a wholly strange and slightly baffling world now, as we launch a new, probably fairly irregular feature, entitled NCJG Goes To Bollywood. Your ability to find proper Bollywood films in the UK is really a bit of a postcode lottery – if you live in a region with a sizeable Asian community, the chances are there will be at least one or two screens at the local multiplex doing a roaring trade in the latest releases (hence their regular presence on the UK box office top ten), but elsewhere the pickings are much slimmer (where I live, you’re more likely to find a Polish movie – Pollywood? – than anything from the subcontinent). I suppose there is always Get Clicks (until they start paying me to endorse them, I’m not using their actual name), but my cursory research suggests most of the Bollywood films available to stream come from the ‘pilloried by the critics’ category.

Let us be thankful, then, for the BFI’s India on Film initiative, which last week brought us Ray’s The Chess Players and this week offers, in a similar vein of cultural outreach, Mani Ratnam’s 1995 film Bombay. My research – once again, pretty cursory – suggests this is considered a bit of a modern classic as far as Indian movies go, with nothing more recent ahead of it in the lists of the best of Bollywood.

Things get underway in rural India as the chunkily moustached Shekhar (Arvind Swamy) returns to visit his family after being away studying journalism in Bombay. His father (Nassar) is a respected man around the village and is on at Shekhar to marry a nice local Hindu girl, so it is a bit awkward when he falls head over heels in love with a local Muslim, Shaila (Manisha Koirala), whose father makes bricks for a living. A couple of banging musical numbers inevitably follow, along with many significant looks between the two, before Shaila gives in to her own heart and the two launch a passionate but also almost entirely chaste love affair.

Naturally, a Hindu-Muslim romance is bound to cause trouble, and when Shekhar approaches Shaila’s dad Bashir (Kitty) to inform her of his marital intentions, Bashir grabs a scimitar and tries to hack him to pieces, which is not the response he was hoping for. Despite the disapproval of both families, Shekhar and Shaila elope to Bombay to begin a new life together. For a while everything seems to be improving, with the two families gradually brought closer together, but as sectarian tensions rise in Bombay, it seems that not even Shekhar and Shaila’s love is safe…

There are obviously many things about a film like Bombay which seem rather strange and alien to a western viewer – cultural things, of course, but also some cinematic conventions. (And the fact that while the film is theoretically subtitled in English, it is a variety of English that seems to have been written with minimal knowledge of the language.) One might even rashly suggest that making a musical romantic drama set against the backdrop of bloody sectarian violence is a bizarre tonal choice, the product of a wholly different perspective. But then if you think about films like West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, and (if we really must) Absolute Beginners, you can see that they use music and dance to address challenging topics in exactly the same way.

To be perfectly honest, there were rather fewer big musical numbers in Bombay than I was hoping for, and I got the impression the film-makers would like to have included more too: at one point the story just stops and everyone launches into a fairly lavish routine on the thinnest of pretexts, with minimal relevance to the plot, presumably just because that’s what they fancied doing. Elsewhere the songs are incorporated into the story a little more subtly. Before watching this film I was unfamiliar with the Bollywood concept of the ‘item number’, which is a musical interlude featuring stars not appearing elsewhere in the movie, usually included for promotional purposes only. There’s one of those here, a suggestive pop song featuring some belly dancing and MC Hammer-style moves, but it does serve the plot rather neatly – having arrived in Bombay and got wed, Shekhar and Shaila find themselves unable to, ahem, consummate their relationship for several days. When the time comes, proceedings are alluded to by various shots of Shekhar taking off his vest, intercut with the aforementioned suggestive song. The overall effect is rather pleasingly subtle and genuinely mildly erotic.

This is for a given value of subtlety, of course. Bombay is essentially a sentimental melodrama with all of its emotions dialled up to 11 from the start – when Shekhar first catches sight of Shaila (her veil blows out of the way), we get the full slo-mo effect and Indian yodelling on the soundtrack. But you can’t fault the actors’ charisma or commitment – they are an undeniably sweet couple, with Koirala an almost irresistibly winsome screen presence – and, in its early stages at least, the film mixes some genuinely funny lines and business in with the romance subplot. (Shekhar can only speak to Shaila by dressing up as a Muslim woman – fortunately his niqab hides his moustache.)

‘I didn’t come here to be sentimental,’ says one of the characters later on in the film, which is possibly one of the most disingenuous lines in the history of cinema, for you could argue that everyone in Bombay has turned up to be sentimental, most of the time. As long as the film stays light on its feet, though, you kind of indulge it in this. However, the mood grows darker as the film progresses, and real-life events start to impact the narrative. The last third of the film concerns the Bombay riots of late 1992 and early 1993, in which clashes between Hindus and Muslims led to hundreds of deaths. The religious tension which at the start of the film is almost played for laughs – the two fathers can’t have a conversation without one of them reaching for a meat cleaver – becomes deadly serious, and the film basically turns into a deeply heartfelt plea for religious tolerance.

You can’t fault that as a message, I suppose, and given the nature of Bollywood, you shouldn’t be surprised when the film lays it all on a bit thick. But I have to say I found myself shifting in my seat and wanting to glance at my watch as the film approached its end, with many an impassioned speech about all blood being the same colour, and so on (you know, that may have been a song lyric – yes, they have songs in the middle of the rioting).

Bombay is not especially smart, nor is it especially subtle, but I don’t think it was ever intended to be – but I suspect it will stir your emotions and tug at your heartstrings, whatever your background, assuming you surrender to its considerable charms. It’s not as if sentimental melodramas don’t frequently do very well in Anglophone cinema, is it? Anyway: this is a thoroughly enjoyable film for most of its duration, with a worthy message passionately delivered. Probably a very good choice of sampler for the whole Bollywood experience.

The Quite-A-Mess Experiment

Let us set the dials on the Films of Yesteryear Time Machine to a point in history slightly closer to home than is usually our wont and head back to the strange days of 1999. So long ago! And yet still somehow so recent! It is slightly discombobulating to watch what looks like a contemporary film, but one in which nobody has a mobile phone and they still watch movies on VHS tape. Perhaps the strangest disconnect between Then and Now is the fact that Johnny Depp was not yet the box office darling he has since become, but a jobbing movie star whose ability to open a movie was still a bit questionable. Especially when the movie in question is one like Rand Ravich’s The Astronaut’s Wife.

Depp is playing the astronaut, natch. Playing Mrs Astronaut is Charlize Theron, and I suppose at this point it is incumbent upon us to reflect on what a movie business veteran – or perhaps hardy perennial – she has also turned out to be, although not without a few missteps along the way. Here she is at the age of 24, arguably carrying what was a fairly major movie (the budget of The Astronaut’s Wife was $75m, though I’m blowed if I can work out where all the money went). It is, admittedly, not a very good major movie, but nobody knew that when they were casting it.

Things get underway with Depp and Theron bunked up together and enjoying a last moment of whoa-ho-ho before his latest space mission. For the role Depp has adopted a somewhat questionable blond dye-job and a verywhat questionable Deep South accent. (His character is name Spencer Armacost, which apparently is theoretically possible, it just doesn’t sound like it.)

Well, Depp goes up into space with another astronaut, but there is trouble in orbit and contact is lost with the mission for a little while. When the astronauts return to Earth, Depp’s colleague (Nick Cassavetes) seems to make a full recovery, but starts behaving oddly at a party and then collapses and dies. The generally cheery tone of the movie continues when Cassavetes’ pregnant wife (Donna Murphy) commits suicide during the funeral. (I should have mentioned – this is ostensibly a horror movie.)

Not long after this, Depp announces he is quitting his job as an astronaut and joining a New York-based aviation company, despite his previous love of flying and oft-stated hatred of big cities (for a film about an astronaut there’s a definite lack of actual space hardware in it). Theron is a bit baffled by this strange behaviour but goes along with it, mainly because this is that sort of film. When she asks him about what happened during the mysterious interlude when he was cut off from Earth, he seems to take this as an invitation to start interfering with her intimate person, resulting in some public rumpy-pumpy which is not really as pulsating erotic as the film would like to think it is.

Soon enough, Theron finds out she is pregnant with her husband’s child – well, it’s twins, apparently. But is she? Coming out of the woodwork is Joe Morton from NASA’s Department of Paranoid Bafflegab, who reveals that Murphy’s character was likewise carrying twins when she died, and that Cassavetes died as a result of the strain placed on his body by some alien influence. He suggests that some malign force from deep space has taken possession of Depp and is using him to carry out a nefarious scheme here on Earth – which incorporates, somehow, the unborn children Theron is carrying…

Yeah, well, as I said, this is basically another entry into the obstetric horror subgenre (never a particular favourite of mine, it must be said), with strong elements of paranoia and cobblers SF to it as well. In fact it is, if you’ll indulge me, something of a cross between The Quatermass Experiment and Rosemary’s Baby, only not nearly as good as either. I expect this was one of those ideas which looked good on paper, but the problem is that the story runs out of places to go quite rapidly, settling on a final destination which seems not especially well thought-through – there is vaguely sinister talk of Depp helping to build a robot plane which will eventually be piloted by the twins, but this is only really a cigarette paper’s thickness away from being total gibberish. You would have expected a malevolent alien mind parasite to have come all this way with a better scheme than that.

So in the end the film just opts for an atmosphere of stately menace, with the occasional moment hoping for erotic tension – none of which really hides the fact that this is a movie in which not very much happens for long stretches, unless you include a baffling number of close-ups of people’s mouths, ears, feet, and so on (you can see why Charlize Theron was such a successful model – her toes are gorgeous). There’s a subplot about Theron’s past history of psychological trouble, but for me this just added to the vaguely dubious tone of much of the movie – you can tell this is one of those movies about the female experience which has been written and directed by a man.

The fact that the studio figured out they had a troubled production on their hands is fairly obvious, given that the DVD of The Astronaut’s Wife comes with not one but two endings. Now, the theatrical ending has lashings of CGI in it and concludes on a note of menacing incoherence. I have to say I am somewhat more impressed by the original ending which they ended up not using: it may be more ambiguous, but this seems to have been the intention.

Hey ho. We could speculate about a parallel world in which all those bloody pirate films never got made, and wonder about what kind of career Johnny Depp would have enjoyed there – I can well imagine the actor sitting down with a pile of his late 90s and early 2000s movies and thanking his lucky stars at great length, because it’s easy to envision him still trapped in the cult fave ghetto as Tim Burton’s slightly ageing muse. Theron does a decent enough job in a not especially rewarding part, I suppose – though I suspect no-one at the time would have pegged her as a future Oscar winner and latterday ass-kicker.

It’s fairly easy to see why Rand Ravich has not been allowed near the helm of another movie since this The Astronaut’s Wife. The look of the thing is competent, but its tone is more dismal than actually frightening. It’s one of those movies that freely helps itself to elements of a number of other films, but in the process somehow manages to make them rather less interesting and effective. Probably one for obstetric horror completists only.

 

Sometimes I could almost believe the people at Lovefilm are reading this blog and sitting in judgement upon it. One of the unusual (and, to my mind, rather enjoyable) aspects of my soon-to-be-defunct DVD rental service is the random nature of it – you basically get very little control over what films from your list they decide to send you. Is there some sort of lucky dip system in effect at Lovefilm HQ? Somehow I doubt it, for there have been several occasions when I have received a string of suspiciously similar films in a row. On these occasions I can almost hear a spectral voice saying ‘We enjoyed your review of that last Woody Allen film. Have another one.’ And my thoughts on Tales from the Crypt seem likewise to have earned the approbation of the DVD gods, for landing on my figurative mat this week was another Amicus portmanteau horror movie – the daddy of them all, in the form of Freddie Francis’ 1965 film Dr Terror’s House of Horrors. All I can say is: DVD gods, please send Tiptoes before your service closes down.

Anyway – yes, this is the one with Fluff Freeman and the killer vine. This was the original Amicus portmanteau, and as a result it does feel a little less formulaic than later films in the subgenre. Scripted by Amicus head honcho Milton Subotsky, apparently the film originated in the late 1940s, with the script hanging around for fifteen years or so before it finally went into production – scholars of American horror movies of the mid-40s have suggested that all the segments of House of Horrors are to some extent derivative of other movies and stories from that period, but this is not especially obvious to a modern audience.

The movie opens with a group of men gathering in a train compartment, and you do get a sense almost at once that this isn’t a film completely trapped in the horror ghetto – true, you do have Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee giving their legendary imprimatur to proceedings (although both are somewhat cast against type), but there’s also a very young Donald Sutherland, not to mention all-round entertainer Roy Castle and the disc jockey (and not very good actor) Alan ‘Fluff’ Freeman. Something for everyone there, I’m tempted to say.

Anyway, Cushing is playing the enigmatic Dr Schreck (German for ‘terror’, naturally), which allows the actor to have some fun with a peculiar accent, and really go to town with the make-up box: his fake eyebrows suggest a couple of hairy caterpillars are engaged in a courtship ritual on his forehead. When he reveals he’s carrying a set of tarot cards in his luggage, and they have mystical powers to foretell the future and shape destiny, the others are initially doubtful – especially Lee’s snotty art critic. But one by one they consent to have their fortune told…

First up is Werewolf (the segment subtitles leave a little to be desired, if you ask me), a slightly overplotted tale of an architect (Neil McCallum) who returns to his recently-sold family home to do some surveying work for the new owner (Ursula Howells). Soon enough he discovers the coffin of a legendary sorcerer and werewolf, the magnificently named Cosmo Valdemar, walled up in the cellar, and recalls old tales of Valdemar’s undying hatred of his family. Better start melting down the silver crucifix to make bullets, then… but is there something else going on that our man is not aware of?

The least you can say about any of the stories in House of Horrors is that they are atmospherically filmed, and this one is no exception. However, each of them also stands or falls on the strength of its punchline, so to speak, and the question of exactly what’s going on here always seems to me to be a little confused. Or, to put it another way, you don’t really expect to have to work out the plot of an Amicus portmanteau story for yourself. Hey ho.

No such worries in the next one, The Creeping Vine – yes, the time has finally come. One of the distinguishing things about this film is that it’s not about dodgy types receiving their well-earned comeuppance, which is basically the rationale of later films like Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horrors and From Beyond the Grave – it’d be a stretch to describe any of the protagonists here as actually wicked, they’re petty or foolish at worst. And yet their fates are uniformly pretty grim. In this case, Fluff Freeman plays a very ordinary bloke who comes back off holiday to find a peculiar vine has sprung up in his garden. The vine violently resists any attempts at pruning, which is enough to prompt Fluff to head off to consult some boffins.

‘I’m pretty good at handling garden tools, I don’t think those shears slipped!’ says Fluff to the experts (I can’t understand why that line has not become one of the most celebrated movie quotes in history). The boffins (Jeremy Kemp and Bernard Lee), who obviously have far too much free time, speculate that rather than being a gardening mishap, this may be evidence of a sentient mutant plant having appeared, and one of them actually moves in with Fluff to investigate.

Well, who’d have guessed it, but the boffins are right, and soon the malevolent vine is strangling family pets and covering the whole house. Bernard Lee brings remarkable gravitas to an uproariously silly story, all the more so given he was apparently so much the worse for drink during most of his scenes that he had to deliver his dialogue sitting down. Fluff, meanwhile, just stands around looking slightly bemused by the whole thing. Very entertaining, but hardly the high-point of the British botanical horror tradition, and once again the ending is just a bit too ambiguous.

Next up is Voodoo, the tale of Roy Castle’s hapless jazz trumpeter (it’s Roy Castle, of course he’s going to have a trumpet), who is sent off for a residency in Haiti along with his band. We’re heading into slightly problematic territory here, with Haiti depicted as a hotbed of black magic and voodoo (Castle’s attempt at a West Indian accent at one point is also rather embarrassing), but the casting of Kenny Lynch allows the film to undercut the stereotypes a little.

Castle is much taken with the music of the local voodoo ceremonies and plans to arrange it for his jazz group, despite the objections of the local houngan, who insists it is ancient and sacred to his god Dhambala. ‘Oh, well, if it’s that old, it’s out of copyright…’ says Castle. Needless to say the playing of the music leads to unfortunate events back in London. A slightly lighter tone to this one, mainly because of Castle’s deft comic performance (hard to imagine first-choice actor Acker Bilk being quite so capable), if (a pattern develops) the climax is a little underpowered.

Christopher Lee’s stuffy art critic consents to have his future told next, and suffice to say it is entitled Disembodied Hand. Lee’s pompous and snobbish character gets involved in a feud with an artist (Michael Gough), which spins out of control. Gough is maimed and commits suicide as a result, but his severed hand is still on the loose and seeking revenge on Lee…

A really good performance from Lee here, who is miles away from his traditional kind of role – here he plays a vain, foolish man who gradually succumbs to terror as the hand’s relentless attempts at vengeance go on, and on, and on. The crawling hand prop is actually rather impressive, given this is not exactly a big-budget film – the hand would go on to have a fairly distinguished career in other Amicus productions, playing one of Richard Greene’s severed hands in Tales from the Crypt, for instance. A strong ending, too, finally.

And so to (spoiler alert) Vampire, in which doctor Donald Sutherland sets up in small town USA with his faintly exotic foreign bride. No sooner have they settled into their new home than mysterious cases of anaemia start cropping up amongst the townsfolk, often accompanied by strange marks on the neck…

I think this is a fairly witty little story, provided you don’t know the twist going into it. Not a great showcase for Sutherland, though, partly because while his character may be a qualified doctor, he’s also depicted as rather a dim bulb, but mainly because Sutherland gets bulldozed off the screen by Max Adrian, here playing the town’s other doctor, one of those actors with a tremendous capacity for stealing scenes.

Then it’s time for the final twist of the framing story. Now, as I’ve observed before, the thing about the Amicus portmanteaus is that the final twist is nearly always the same in all of them, but bearing in mind it would have been new and original on this occasion, I think it’s a reasonably good way of ending the movie.

All in all, Dr Terror’s House of Horrors feels rather less schlocky and threadbare than some of its successors, possibly because it’s not principally based on American horror comic books (as a couple of the other films were). Derivative it may be, but its choice of subject matter is sound – a vampire, a werewolf, a crawling hand, voodoo magic, and a killer plant… again, something for everyone here – and the film has an interesting mixture of styles. The werewolf story is properly gothic, the vine is more of an SF B-movie, the voodoo story is somewhat played for laughs, and so on. This, along with the extraordinarily eclectic and interesting casting, gives the film a real sense of variety and colour. You can see why Amicus and many others have endlessly reused this formula in the years since Dr Terror’s House of Horrors was made, but this film has a touch of class almost all the others lack.

 

Hammer (Bed) Time

Well, now, here’s a slightly odd coincidence – just the other day I was writing about the film career of the Hungarian-British director Peter Sasdy, and (in a couple of quite separate venues) about horror films with the disjointed, compelling logic of a bad dream. And then last night I stuck on a random DVD, solely for pleasure, and it turned out to be a bad-dream horror story directed by Peter Sasdy. Either my subconscious mind is rather more on the ball than its conscious equivalent, or a cry of ‘Whoo, spooky!’ is justified.

The tale in question was an episode of Hammer House of Horror, a 1980 anthology series which was very nearly the final gasp of the original incarnation of the legendary British production company. I would never argue that this is either a great TV show or a real example of what makes real Hammer horror movies so special – the TV budget means that the episodes are all set in contemporary times, making it feel somewhat more like an Amicus production, while the desire to sell the show to a US network means the horror and exploitation elements are too often watered down – but quite a few of the famous Hammer names are involved in various capacities, such as Sasdy in this instance.

This episode is entitled Rude Awakening, written by Gerald Savory, and its particular Amicus resemblance is somewhat heightened by the fact it stars that legend amongst British character actors, Denholm Elliott (he had previously played a hack horror writer in The House that Dripped Blood and one of the victims of Tom Baker’s voodoo paintbrush in Vault of Horror, both for Amicus). This is, as far as I’m aware, the only conjunction of Hammer and Denholm Elliott, but the result is one of the series’ more striking episodes.

Elliott plays Norman Shenley, a middle-aged provincial estate-agent whom the actor invests with all the understated seediness he often brought to this kind of part – although calling it understated may be stretching a point, as virtually the first thing we see Norman do is start letching over and groping his secretary, Lolly (Lucy Gutteridge). Norman is having an affair with Lolly, of course, although there is the slight problem that his wife (Pat Heywood) refuses to grant him the divorce he so desperately wants.

Anyway: a man named Rayburn (James Laurenson) appears, claiming to be the executor of a will with a large country house to be disposed of. He would quite like Norman to take a look at the place in his professional capacity, and our man cheerfully agrees. His enthusiasm is only slightly dented when the manor turns out to be a half-decrepit, cobweb-festooned old pile, complete with spooky doors that open seemingly by themselves and wall-to-wall suits of armour. But then a disembodied voice berates Norman for the murder of his wife, and the armour creaks into life to exact retribution on the hapless estate agent…

Who wakes up in a panic, rather annoying his wife in the process. It was all just a bad dream, apparently – but so realistic! Norman can’t get over it, talking to his wife about, and Lolly when he goes in to the office. He’s so obsessed with his odd nocturnal experience that Lolly suggests he drive out to see if the country house really exists. Discovering that he still has the map given to him by Rayburn in his pocket (somehow!), Norman finds the house is not there, but a phone box is. He almost dies when the box threatens to combust around him, spying a tramp who resembles Rayburn while doing so, but then enjoys a somewhat torrid interlude with Lolly (still in the phone box)…

Only to wake up yet again, back in bed with his unimpressed missus. One of the bricks you could throw at Rude Awakening is that the structure of the story becomes rather predictable as the episode progresses – Norman wakes up from his latest nightmare, restarts the day in question, only for events to go off at some odd tangent or other, normally resulting in him meeting an outlandish sticky end. The sticky ends get progressively more outlandish in the course of the episode – never mind being assaulted by animated suits of armour, Norman finds himself executed by undead domestic staff, almost killed when the building he’s in is demolished around him, and (most surreal of all) waking up midway through brain surgery to find himself dead on the operating table.

All good fun, if you like weird, not-especially-horrific horror, but the problem is really that it builds the viewer’s expectations of something really spectacularly surreal at the climax of the episode, and unfortunately it just doesn’t happen. The conclusion is reasonably clever, though, as is the way the script combines several different story types – Rude Awakening goes for, and pretty much achieves the triple by including elements of a recurring nightmare story, a precognitive dream story, and a can’t-tell-dream-from-reality story. It’s clear from early on that something fishy is afoot – Norman doesn’t seem at all surprised to find a dream artefact in his pocket while he’s supposedly awake, to say nothing of the fact that he doesn’t notice Lolly appearing in a different provocative guise in each new iteration of the story – but the resolution, when it comes, is relatively understated. It may be that it is in fact supposed to be blackly comic – after so many fake demises, Norman ends up assuming he’s asleep, which proves to be a serious mistake – but the script is not quite sharp enough for the results to be particularly amusing.

That said, there is, of course, a masterly performance from Denholm Elliott to enjoy, which is the episode’s main treat. Ineffectual and/or seedy men were really his speciality, usually in a supporting capacity, and he is, it almost goes without saying, on fine form here. He keeps you watching even after it’s become quite clear how the episode’s going to function, even if not where it’s going. And Sasdy has fun with the more surreal elements of the story, which are quite different from the stuff of the relatively grounded feature films he made for Hammer. Rude Awakening probably counts as only a minor item on the CV of both men, but it brings a certain style of surreal British horror to the small screen reasonably effectively.

Motstånd är Värdelös

I know it’s not something to really be proud of, but I’m as prone to a touch of the old schadenfreude as the next person. Watching someone spectacularly torch their own career has a strange fascination to it, not to mention a peculiar and terrible beauty. Young movie stars are kept under pretty strict control these days, so they have to be quite determined to really do themselves some damage, career-wise – but someone who managed it was Shia LaBeouf, whose ill-chosen comments on the last Indiana Jones film, while admirably candid, apparently seriously ticked off Steven Spielberg. These days he’s not even allowed to be in the Transformers movies, a franchise so beyond the critical pale that not even I go to see them. A move into performance art has just been bemusing, more than anything else – last year he spent a whole weekend just going up and down in the lift in an office building round the corner from where I work, while a queue of admirers lined up to go up and down once with him. (He should have used the lift where I work: our building has twice as many floors, so everyone would have got a longer ride.)

And yet here he is, popping up in Janus Metz Pederson’s Borg vs McEnroe (the movie has a variety of other titles, depending on where you see it; we will return to this). This looks like being a bumper autumn for tennis-based historical drama, but apparently Borg vs McEnroe is struggling at the box office, rather: I can’t say I’m completely surprised. This movie reminds me very much of Ron Howard’s Rush (an account of a different sporting rivalry of yesterday), a rather fine film which did okay money-wise but was hardly a smash hit. This is a film much of which is in Swedish, without a really big star to carry it, or a big name director, and sheer quality just doesn’t guarantee success these days.

The film is set in 1980 and concerns the famous clash in the Wimbledon men’s final, between the Swedish player Bjorn Borg (Sverrir Gudnason) and the American John McEnroe (LaBeouf). Quite apart from the fact that the two men are both supremely gifted athletes, there is a clash of styles and personalities – Borg is renowned as an iceman, his game characterised by an almost robotic perfectionism, while McEnroe is a much more turbulent, provocative figure, famous for his explosive temper on court. Borg is loved by the crowds; McEnroe routinely booed.

Borg is campaigning for his fifth Wimbledon title on the spin; McEnroe is seeking to establish himself as a major figure in the sport. The pressures on both men are enormous – in private, Borg’s relationship with his coach (Stellan Skarsgard) and fiancee (Tuva Novotny) come under strain, while McEnroe’s fractious relationship with the media is another distraction. But as Wimbledon begins and the two men begin to battle their way through the draw, perhaps each of them sees a little of himself in the other…

I suspect that the one thing you really need to know in order to understand Borg vs McEnroe is the fact that this is a Scandinavian-financed film, known in Sweden simply as Borg. Bearing this in mind, it’s not exactly a surprise that the film is not completely even-handed in its treatment of its two principals. It’s not that McEnroe is smeared or disparaged in any way, more that the focus of the story is much more on the Swede than the American (the sense that this is the authorised biography of Borg only increases when you learn that playing the athlete as a youth is a lad by the name of Leo, ah, Borg – I wonder who his dad might be?).

The film has one of those slightly tricksy constructions where scenes from the ’present day’ of the film (i.e., 1980) are intercut with flashbacks to the youth of the characters – well, the extreme youth of the characters, given they are 24 and 21. There are many more of these for Borg than McEnroe, and – it seemed to me – more of an attempt at psychological insight and a fully-rounded characterisation. We see that McEnroe was clearly pushed to excel by extremely ambitious parents, but not really very much more – whereas in the case of Borg, we see in much more detail his troubled early years in the junior game, his discovery by Lennart Bergelin, and so on.

As a result, the film feels a bit unbalanced, and I have to say that the casting of LaBeouf is arguably a bit of a mistake that does not help matters much. We can skip over the fact he’s a decade older than McEnroe was at the time (the age disparity between Gudnason and Borg is even greater), but it still remains the case that there really isn’t much resemblance between the two of them. McEnroe was and remains a well-known public figure; at the time his various touchline rants at the umpire (’You cannot be serious,’ etc) were hugely famous, the raw material for dozens of jokes, cartoons, and even novelty pop songs. Everyone feels they already know John McEnroe already; bringing him successfully to life on screen would require a more nuanced and powerful performance than LaBeouf provides here. If nothing else, LaBeouf has the same problem that Tom Cruise suffers from these days – his peculiar behaviour away from the camera gets in the way of his work in front of it. He is known as a celebrity rather than an actor, and so when he appears he is only ever really Shia LaBeouf in a wig rather than any version of John McEnroe. (LaBeouf-watchers may be slightly alarmed to hear their man likening himself to the tennis player, saying he feels they are both ’misunderstood’. Hmmm.)

Anyway. I used to be very cool about sports-based movies, feeling that sport had no business muscling in on what’s supposed to be an art form. What I realise now, of course, is that both are in the business of storytelling, and the main appeal of sport is its potential to deliver a totally unpredictable narrative. The match at the end of Borg vs McEnroe is an unpredictable narrative to which the climax is already well-known, which presumably counts as a neatly-squared circle. Both the climax and the rest of the film are very competently assembled, even if the film’s ’inspired by true events’ style is hardly particularly innovative.

I’m just old enough to remember being vaguely aware of the events of this film when they happened, and I’m aware of the significance of the 1980 final. And the least you can say about Borg vs McEnroe is that it is a worthy, entertaining, and surprisingly insightful recreation of these events (it goes without saying, of course, that the 1981 encounter is dismissed in a single caption at the end). Not a perfect movie, but by no means a bad one, either: worth watching even if you’re only marginally a tennis fan.

What the World Needs Now

‘Star Trek lures you into a false sense of positivity that the world can be a utopia and recent events have proven it cannot.’ – Adam Savage

So, here we go, finally: Star Trek: Discovery is with us at last, not exactly preceded by the positive buzz its makers might have hoped for, but accompanied by the kind of media attention you might expect from the stirring of a genuine pop culture colossus. I don’t agree with the quote above this paragraph, by the way: I disagree with it rather strongly. What the world needs now may indeed be a new series of Star Trek at its best. What I’m pretty sure the world doesn’t need is a tidal wave of reviews of the beginning of the new series by rather excitable Trekkies and other interested parties, but hey – can’t have one without the other, I guess.

It feels a bit odd to be writing about an episode of Star Trek without doing the traditional capsule synopsis of the plot, but I rather suspect that would constitute a spoiler given the episode in question is less than 24 hours old as I write. Let us try to be usefully non-specific, for the time being – I cannot guarantee that a few spoilers won’t slip through the net later on, especially if I find myself getting exercised, which may well happen.

Anyway, here we are in the mid-2250s, supposedly about ten years before the start of the original series (yes, yes: we will inevitably come to Discovery’s exact location in the space-time multiverse), all aboard the good ship Shenzhou (er, what?). Oh well – after a spot of teaserage allowing some high production-value location filming, and an insight into the new show’s take on the Prime Directive (apparently, it’s no longer the case that you should never interfere in the affairs of less-advanced species, only that you should never get caught interfering – hmm).

Well, from here we move to a CGI starscape where a Federation comms relay has been mysteriously nobbled, and a strange alien object is discovered nearby. The ship’s adventurous first officer Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) rockets off to investigate, only to discover it is some kind of Klingon cultural artefact, and the bumpy-headed ones (yes, yes, we’ll come to that, too) are close by in force, and spoiling for a fight…

I have to say that, following the last few movies and all I’d heard about Discovery over the last few months, my expectations for it were dialled down to almost-subterranean levels, and so it was rather a surprise to discover (no pun intended) that there were many things about The Vulcan Hello which were genuinely rather delightful – it has the look and feel of Trek much more than I had anticipated, to begin with at least, and Doug Jones’ alien science officer, whose culture’s response to any situation appears to be to run away as fast as possible, promises much. The – oh, dear, here we go – virtue signalling inherent in the casting and characterisation which drew so much scrutiny during early publicity was handled with a much lighter touch than I was expecting, too.

Still, there are a couple of things which make me rather uneasy about Star Trek: Discovery, partly because I’m such an utterly ossified old-school Star Trek fan, partly because I’m fully aware Star Trek is not the be-all and end-all of life, but only a significant reflection of where we are as a culture.

While I was watching and enjoying the bulk of the episode, I found myself repeatedly thinking ‘If only… if only…’ If only they hadn’t made such a big deal about the fact that this was a show set in the main Star Trek universe, ten years prior to the original series. Based on what we see on screen, this is a frankly unsupportable assertion, which seems to me to be calculated merely to shift merchandise and avoid the unpopularity with fans that the Kelvin movies suffer. Do I even have to list some of the ways in which Discovery jibes with the established history of the Trek universe? The uniforms don’t match, the level of technology doesn’t match (the use of long-range holography to communicate doesn’t start showing up in other Trek shows until over a century later, and is hardly common even then), and this is before we even get onto Discovery’s take on the Klingons – props to the writers for the shout-out to the mythology created in The Final Reflection, but if it wasn’t for this and the use of Okrandian Klingon, they would be almost unrecognisable as members of the same species – pretty much the only thing to pass my lips while watching the episode was a cry of ‘That’s not a bat’leth!’

I expect there are perfectly sound commercial reasons for attempting to crowbar Discovery into the main timeline (toys and suchlike ain’t gonna sell themselves), but the decision to set the show in the 2250s is rather baffling one. If they’d simply moved the prime timeline on a hundred years or so and set the new series in the 2490s or whenever, it would have been considerably easier to rationalise all of the incongruities – for instance, the Klingons have shown a certain genetic mutability in the past, so another radical shift in their appearance would have had some kind of precedent. They’d have had to parachute in another classic character instead of Sarek, but no big deal there, surely.

As it is, the only way to make sense of Discovery is to assume we’re off in another alternate timeline (maybe the Kelvin universe, but most likely not). Does this really matter? Well, maybe only if you’re a die-hard Trekkie or fellow traveller, but I still think all this constitutes a misjudgement on the part of the makers of the show – grumpy reactions from the fanbase have apparently already imperilled the production/distribution deal between Netflix and CBS, and created a rather negative buzz around the new show, which I still think could have been avoided fairly easily.

Onto more serious issues, and here we do face the prospect of genuine spoilers, so caveat lector. The thing about The Vulcan Hello is that it builds to a climax about a genuine point of moral principle – that of whether, as a person of good conscience, it is ever permissible to shoot first, starting a fight. The episode’s argument seems to be that yes, this is possible (let us skip over the slightly febrile handling of this in the actual narrative of the episode).

Hmmm. I turn off Star Trek and I turn on the news, where I see an old man and a young man, both of them ridiculous and frightening in equal measure, both of them acting like babies, waving their nuclear devices at each other and indulging in the most ludicrous rhetoric. Is this really a good time for Star Trek, famous for its optimistic vision of the future, to be suggesting that sometimes the wisest thing is for the good guy to shoot first? I would argue not; I would argue very strongly not.

Of course, I write this as someone who has published an essay discussing the fact that the original series came out in support of American involvement in the Vietnam War, so a touch of realpolitik in Star Trek is not without precedent. But even so. This is a frankly slightly disturbing sentiment to find at the heart of a 2017 episode of Star Trek. Who knows, maybe this ideology will be discredited and rejected as the series continues; there are still many episodes to come. But for now, it’s enough to make me slightly concerned. I think the world needs Star Trek, but it needs a Star Trek that shows us how the world could be better, not one that reflects how messed up it currently is. And I hope that’s what this show ultimately turns out to be.

(Yeah, I know there’s a second episode currently available. All in good time, I expect.)