Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘1980s’

I was talking to my nephew the other day about the difference between a ‘good’ sequel and a ‘bad’ sequel (and he even managed to stay awake); a good sequel exists because someone has had a good and original idea about doing something new with the material, probably moving the story on, and either expanding or deepening the world of the story (maybe even both). (The example I suggested was The Empire Strikes Back.) A bad sequel, on the other hand, is just there to revisit the key elements of the original for the purposes of making more money. (And at this point the majority of the stellar conflict films made in the last six years or so came up.)

The weirdest thing about Dominique Othenin-Girard’s Halloween 5 (aka The Revenge of Michael Myers) is that very occasionally it really does feel like someone attempting to do a ‘good’ sequel. This is what sometimes happens well into a franchise or series – some ambitious young talent is brought in, possibly from an entirely different film-making background, to freshen things up and use some brave new ideas. What often happens, however, is that the producers or studio get frit, because the daily rushes look just a bit too ambitious, fresh, and brave, and the final cut invariably attempts to drag things back to familiar territory, often at the expense of things like coherency and logic. The result is usually a very bad sequel indeed.

This is what happened to Halloween 5, I think. That said, as the film gets underway it feels more like a mid-period Hammer sequel than ever before: the end of the previous film is revisited, which previously seemed to show the antagonist’s apparent demise – however, the secret of how they survive into the new movie is also revealed.

The previous film ended with Michael Myers being repeatedly shot by the police and falling down a mineshaft (which, in the recap, someone then throws dynamite into: I think this constitutes excessive force under the terms of most police handbooks). However, he crawls off just in time and is washed out of the mine into a river, which carries him off. The odd thing is that the film feels like it’s almost urging us to root for Michael and cheer when he survives; he’s the only character we’ve properly seen so far and he does seem very much like the underdog (for the first time in the series so far).

Anyway, Michael crawls out of the river and into the dwelling of someone who appears to be a hermit, where he collapses. The implication is that he is then in a coma for nearly a year, no doubt receiving the top-quality medical care and general support that all hermits are famous for providing, before waking up on ‘Halloween Eve’ the following year. (Just go ahead and call it Halloweeneen, why don’t you; dearie me.) There’s a quick shot of a tattoo on his wrist which eventually proves to be just simply confusing, before he murders his host, masks up, and picks up where he left off in the previous film. The sheer mass of odd creative choices and things which are just plain dumb and stupid get the film off to exactly the wrong kind of start.

Anyway, the focus of the film is still Michael’s pursuit of his niece Jamie (still Danielle Harris); she is in a clinic for the pathologically upset after having possibly-or-was-it-all-a-dream stabbed her stepmother at the end of the previous film; Halloween 5 fudges the question of exactly what happened to an unforgiveable degree. Still hanging around in Haddonfield is Dr Loomis (Donald Pleasence), although the events he’s been caught up in (in addition to making his burn scars change between movies) also seem to have driven him completely nuts. (That, or too much red wine has inspired Pleasence to take it way over the top.)

I say ‘the focus’, but after a while everything becomes rather centred on Michael Myers’ pursuit of a teenage girl named Tina (Wendy Kaplan), for no particularly convincing reason – the main character of the previous movie, Rachel (Ellie Cornell), is unceremonious shifted off-screen, another creative choice which is simply rather baffling. This is all very slasher-convention-congruent and rather reminiscent of something out of a Friday the 13th movie, right down to the bit where a couple of teens enjoying some whoa-ho-ho in a barn are interrupted by someone wielding agricultural implements.

It may come as no surprise if I reveal that the closing sequence of the film, which doesn’t have much connection to this, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense either, but the sheer brazen oddness of what happens might well be; an ominous figure dressed all in black has been stalking Michael and Loomis around town for most of the movie (his stature as an emissary of the Dark Powers is somewhat undermined by the fact he travels on the bus); he has the same tattoo as Michael. Suffice to say the connection between this mysterious personage and Michael Myers is central to the ending of the film, not to mention the fact that it doesn’t really have one.

This is, as you may have guessed, the point at which the ‘occult curse’ storyline really becomes prominent in the Halloween series, but on the other hand it seems like most of the exposition relating to this has been cut out by nervous producers, in favour of pedestrian and un-scary scenes of Michael Myers killing unsympathetic teenagers and tooling around Haddonfield in a stolen muscle car he shouldn’t really be even able to drive (though to be fair he does something similar in the original movie).

You almost feel sorry for the director, if this is the case: the series certainly needed a new direction by this point. (Whether the occult curse angle, or indeed the more humanised version of Michael Myers Othenin-Girard was also keen on introducing, are actually notions with any mileage to them is a different question, of course.) You certainly feel sorry for Donald Pleasence, who delivers virtually all of his dialogue with the same bug-eyed expression and in the same raspy whine; it’s as if he got sick of being the only person in one of these films actually bringing any class to proceedings and just decided to fit in with all the others.

The most remarkable thing about Halloween 5 is the way it manages to make Halloween 4 look like a coherent and thought-through movie. The difference is between something pedestrian, predictable and dull, and complete mess. So maybe the message is that sometimes you should be grateful when things are merely really bad, rather than absolutely dreadful. Which even for a horror movie is a rather downbeat message; depressing rather than actually scary. Then again, that’s a good summation of Halloween 5, unfortunately.

Read Full Post »

Looking back on it now, there’s something very odd about the fact that I and my family decided to watch Hugh Wilson’s Police Academy on its British TV premiere back in 1986 (the film came out a couple of years earlier), and – with the benefit of hindsight – perhaps also something odd about the fact we enjoyed it so much. It was the TV equivalent of an impulse buy: I distinctly recall that I was on the way to bed when the commercial advertising it came on. I laughed, my sister laughed, our father laughed: then, to my amazement he asked ‘Shall we tape that?’ It was, quite properly, showing well after our bedtime, as neither of us was even a teenager at the time. I said yes, not quite able to believe what was happening (I had a similar experience over twenty years later when he suddenly went out and bought a Wii). We found a spare video tape, and…

Well, you know, the Police Academy films have taken a lot of stick for being crass and repetitive and (most damningly) not funny, but the first film is… well, it’s better than all the others, at least. At the time it had a definite frisson around it, the product of the knowledge that I was watching something a bit too old for me (this was an R rated film in the States, almost certainly a 15 in the UK). This many years on, however, revisiting it with my pretend-critic’s hat on was… interesting.

The set-up is straightforward enough, and was apparently inspired by reality: the mayor of an unnamed US city (this coyness may have something to do with the fact the film was actually made in Canada) decides to remove all barriers on who is allowed to become a police officer, leading to a vast influx of screwballs, flakes, and nutcases applying to the titular institution.

Prominent amongst their number is Mahoney (Steve Guttenberg), a pathological trouble-maker who the audience is clearly intended to find roguishly charming, along with Thompson, a rich girl looking to challenge herself (an early role for Kim Cattrall, before she became a Romulan traitor and moved to New York), a giant florist (Bubba Smith), a mild-mannered overweight guy (Donovan Scott), and many others. Mahoney is here as part of a deal to keep him out of prison and can’t quit; instructor Lieutenant Harris (G. W. Bailey) is under orders to make the training process as gruelling as possible to ensure as many ‘unsuitable’ cadets walk out as he can manage. Chaos threatens to engulf the training programme as Mahoney attempts to get himself thrown out by carrying out various outrageous pranks; the personalities of many of his fellow trainees result in much oddness as well.

It is, as you can probably tell, not so much a plot as a receptacle – the temptation to say ‘dustbin’ is very strong – for throwing various gags into; much of the film has an episodic quality, a little bit like the Zucker-Abrams-Zucker films in the way it keeps the jokes coming – the principle presumably being that if one joke fails to land, the next one inevitably will. It’s not quite as relentless as Airplane! or one of the Naked Gun films, but on this occasion it just about works.

British viewers of a certain age will find it very reminiscent of one of the early Carry On films, particularly Carry On Sergeant; the premise is virtually identical, though this movie is less essentially kind-hearted. Any resemblance is most likely a trick of the light, anyway: it seems the making of Police Academy was characterised by a dogged struggle between the director and the writers and producers; Wilson trying to make the film less crass and sleazy, all the others (to quote one of them) trying to ‘keep the flatulence in’. (This is why some scenes, such as the one where Lt Harris gets his head rammed up a horse’s backside, are unexpectedly coy.) Wilson himself recalls trying to make the obligatory T&A scenes, amongst others, ‘as artistic as possible.’ There is not much sign of him having succeeded, but the film at least feels a bit more restrained than similar films of the same era like Porky’s or Bachelor Party (interesting to speculate on the direction of the parallel worlds where Tom Hanks or Bruce Willis played Mahoney; both of them were considered for the role).

This is still a very hit-or-miss film which probably derives too many of its jokes from casual racism or homophobia, and it’s very obvious that many of the characters are one-dimensional, one-joke cartoon characters. Not that it doesn’t still have its moments – David Graf’s swivel-eyed gun-nut Tackleberry is consistently amusing, and the sequence in which the academy’s commandant (a magnificently vague George Gaynes) is obliged to deliver a speech while receiving the oral attentions of a call-girl someone has concealed in his lectern manages to be funnier than it is filthy (chalk one up to Wilson’s desire to leave as much as possible implied). We can probably thank the director for the fact that some of the characters are just a little bit better drawn than you might expect, providing the occasional moment which is genuinely poignant or affirmatory.

On the other hand, some of the ensemble are just saddled with very thin material; you can see why Kim Cattrall didn’t come back, and why they got shot of counterfeit lothario George Martin (Andrew Rubin), too. However, the film’s structure may not be innovative, but it is sturdy, and the switch to a more action-plot-focused climax provides a surprisingly satisfying conclusion to the story.

Much of Police Academy is still very funny, provided you’re okay with the extremely broad humour and rather dated attitudes on display; some of it is not, of course, but the film is pacy and likeable enough to keep most viewers on board (I would have thought). The fact that it inaugurated a franchise which made over $500 million despite being largely awful (at the time of writing, half the films enjoy the uncoveted 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes) is not its fault.

Read Full Post »

That leap beyond the second sequel is an important step for a young film franchise: you’re not just settling for being a trilogy, you’re potentially in this for the long haul. It is not surprising that many series take some time to reflect before coming back for a fourth instalment – Jurassic Park took fourteen years, the Indiana Jones series nearly twenty (and many people still feel the eventual decision may have been the wrong one in this case).

The Halloween series took a relatively brisk six year break between third and fourth outings – grit your teeth, but it also switched from Roman numerals (Halloween III) to the more regular kind (Halloween 4) at this point. Given that this series seems to have been a reliable income stream for the Akkad family, who were loathe to give it up, one suspects the delay was initially due to logistical concerns, and ended up having something to do with the value of releasing a film for the tenth anniversary of the original.

Apparently John Carpenter initially wanted to do a ghost story for the fourth film; whether this had anything to do with a proposed script about a spectral Michael Myers being summoned into existence in a fear-wracked Haddonfield, I’m not sure, but Moustapha Akkad opted not to take any chances and commissioned another screenplay much closer in tone and substance to the first two films. The result was Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, directed by Dwight H Little.

So we end up with Michael Myers, who has been comatose for a decade after being repeatedly stabbed, shot, and blown up in a gas explosion on Halloween night 1978, being transferred by ambulance from one institution to another. Unfortunately one of the medics overseeing the move makes the mistake of mentioning that Michael has one sole surviving relative, a little girl living back in Haddonfield. Needless to say this perks our man up, and soon he is ramming his thumb through someone’s skull like he’s never been comatose at all.

Yes, we are told that Laurie Strode has died off-screen in a car crash, leaving behind a young daughter named Jamie (played by Danielle Harris, who is nearly as cute as the in-joke behind her character’s name). She is living with a foster family, and has a dislike of Halloween (unsurprisingly, given it seems to be public knowledge that her uncle is ‘the bogeyman’). Her foster sister (Ellie Cornell) is Rachel, and she is one of those decent and virtuous but slightly dull final girls fairly and squarely in the lineage established by Laurie Strode herself. Rachel and Jamie prepare for Halloween, unaware as they are that Michael is coming to town.

Equally unaware that Michael was due to be transferred was good old Dr Loomis (Donald Pleasence), who has made his own impressive recovery from being stabbed and blown up in Halloween II; Pleasence has some burn-scar make-up on one cheek that makes him look a bit like he’s still playing Blofeld, and also does a limp. When he learns that Michael has escaped again, Loomis delivers another variation on his usual ‘He’s not human… pure evil… they should have listened to me!’ speech and sets off in pursuit.

And you can probably write most of what ensues for yourself, given a passing acquaintance with the first two films in this series – in fact, whatever you come up with will probably be rather more imaginative and interesting. The cycle of slasher movies Halloween had inaugurated had arguably peaked by 1988, when Halloween 4 came out – Friday the 13th Part VII came out a few months before this film, indicating a certain degree of market saturation – and there is a definite sense of creative exhaustion about the film. It’s not so badly done that it’s completely risible, it’s just often very predictable and not especially tense, scary, or cinematic.

Even the bits that are surprising aren’t necessarily positive features. There’s a definite sense that Michael Myers has transformed from a figure who is terrifyingly simply because his crimes are so inexplicable, to a single-issue monomaniac with a weird compulsion to hunt down his surviving family members. He also displays a surprising degree of tactical thought in this film, carrying out a de facto pre-emptive strike against the Haddonfield PD and also taking out the town’s power grid (needless to say, this is achieved by throwing a hapless lineman into the works).

While this is going on, we keep cutting back to the doings of Rachel and Jamie – particularly Jamie, who is mixed up in a teen soap-opera subplot where her boyfriend (who doesn’t exactly seem like a catch) takes the first opportunity to get a little jiggy with her friend, the sheriff’s daughter. Needless to say they meet the fate of anyone who gets amorous in a mainstream slasher movie, and even the T&A is unexpectedly tame (the whole movie is surprisingly well-behaved – apart from the thumb-through-the-skull scene and a bit where Michael tears a man’s throat out with his bare hands, there’s so little explicit violence in this movie it could almost have been made for TV). Soon enough Michael catches up with his niece and the stage is set for a low-octane chase.

Given the fact the film is silly, dull, and often not scary, I was quite surprised to learn that Halloween 4 is considered by some serious critics to be the second-best film in the series. To me it just seems the purest kind of knock-off, inferior in every way to the first film, and not as cinematic as the second one. Donald Pleasence remains a terrific presence – he’s the only reason to see the film, really – but he’s so much better than everyone and everything around him that in a funny way he’s the one who becomes incongruous.

The film’s one and only interesting idea is alluded to early on, when Jamie chooses a Halloween outfit suspiciously similar to the one Michael wore twenty-five years earlier, the night he killed his sister. This is setting up the conclusion of the film, which is a little too laborious to count as a twist ending, but is certainly striking and offers some potentially interesting new directions for future episodes. You can sense the series losing touch with all the things that made the original film so great, but such is the nature of the franchise business, I fear. Halloween 4 was not born out of a desire to do anything interesting or creative, but just to extract more money from a lucrative property. It may have made money back in 1988, but these days the film looks just about as bad as you might expect.

Read Full Post »

Just as every family has its oddballs, its black sheep, and its estranged relations, so every long-running film franchise has its weird outliers – its equivalent of Licence to Kill, or Godzilla’s Revenge, or Terminator Salvation. In the case of the Halloween series, the film that probably never gets invited round to dinner by the others is the third one, Halloween III: Season of the Witch, simply because they have so little in common.

What makes it even odder, perhaps, is that this was the intention all along – nine sequels further on, it seems hard to believe, but John Carpenter and Debra Hill had concluded there was no further mileage to be extracted from the doings of Michael Myers. Their idea was for Halloween to become effectively an anthology franchise, each film introducing new situations and characters.

Hence this film, which is not a slasher movie, and only refers to the original diegetically (characters in Halloween III are seen watching Halloween on TV, where it is modestly referred to as a ‘classic’). Looking for a new angle, Carpenter made the inarguably smart move of hiring Nigel Kneale (writer of The Stone Tape, amongst other things) to produce a script – but an intervention by the producers to add more gore and violence led to Kneale disowning the film, and the screenplay is credited to director Tommy Lee Wallace.

Perhaps this was a typically smart move by the veteran scribe. The film opens a week or so before Halloween and counts down towards the night in question. We initially see a man being pursued by sinister figures in grey suits, from who he barely escapes, wandering into a man’s shack and then collapsing. The man has one of those handy exposition TVs, which only shows things which have some bearing on the plot of the film, and so we soon learn that Halloween masks made by the Silver Shamrock company are important to whatever’s going on, along with the fact that someone has apparently managed to pinch one of the blocks from Stonehenge (yes, I know your disbelief is turning a funny colour, but just keep it suspended anyway).

The man who was being chased is whisked off to hospital where he is placed in the care of Daniel Challis (Tom Atkins), a slightly boozy doctor with a failed marriage behind him. One of the grey-suited men manages to sneak into the hospital and crush the patient’s skull, which I would describe as evidence of negligence, but Challis at least chases after him – the grey man immolates himself in the hospital car park.

It turns out the murdered man was a toy store owner, who was last seen heading to the small town of Santa Mira to collect a load of – oh, is that a bell ringing? – Halloween masks. So Challis, largely because the plot requires it, goes up there to investigate, in the company of the victim’s rather striking young daughter Ellie (Stacy Nelkin, who as a teenager was in a brief relationship with Woody Allen and claims Manhattan is partly based on this). Despite there being no discernible chemistry between them, Challis and Ellie get it on: this happens like someone turning a switch, and is presumably just there to meet some kind of assumed audience expectation. Needless to say, Nelkin gets a couple of nude scenes, Atkins (thank God) doesn’t.

I’m guessing the setting of Santa Mira is one of Wallace’s amendments to the original Kneale script, as it’s a very obvious call-back to the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which this seems in part to be a rather clumsy homage to. The parallels between the two films become much more pronounced as it continues, anyway, not that there isn’t always a lot of other stuff going on.

Santa Mira is a company town for a Halloween mask-making outfit run by wealthy old Conal Cochran (Dan O’Herlihy), and he and various other characters turn up to pad out the plot a bit. Cochran is obviously a bad ‘un and the other characters are there to meet sticky ends of various kinds – someone gets zapped by the maker’s tab off the back of a Halloween mask and their face falls off, someone complaining about Cochran has their head removed by two grey men, and so on. Cochran clearly has special plans for this year’s Halloween…

The act of reviewing some films does make demands upon your critical judgment and ability to articulate complex philosophical concepts. Halloween III is not one of those films. Halloween III is the kind of film that only really requires you to describe what happens in it, in order to provide a very clear picture of the kind of quality involved.

That said, simply describing the plot does not quite do the film justice. As the plot concerns an insane toymaker with an army of android duplicate henchmen, who steals part of Stonehenge and grinds it up to hide the dust in Halloween masks, which will then respond to a particular TV commercial by killing the wearers and causing poisonous vermin to erupt from their corpses, all because of a sentimental fondness for the traditions of Halloween, this is no small thing. The basic synopsis does not cover the quality of the playing, which is basic, to say the least: the closest thing to an acting performance comes from Dan O’Herlihy, who seems to have nicked it from Alec Guinness in The Ladykillers. Tom Atkins resembles someone who has wandered onto a film set, possibly to make a delivery or do some maintenance, and accidentally ended up being cast in the lead role. Stacy Nelkin is better, but grievously underused.

I can imagine a version of this film in which the sheer lack of narrative cohesion worked in the film’s favour – where it had something of the accelerating quality of a hideous unfolding nightmare, with a succession of bizarre images (mutilated faces, masks erupting with snakes and insects, characters revealed to be androids) piling up on top of one another to a disorienting cumulative effect, rather as in Hellraiser II. Unfortunately, Tommy Lee Wallace doesn’t have the skill or narrative control to pull something like that off, and he takes a very meat-and-potatoes approach to the material. At the very end, when the film’s debt to Body Snatchers is clearest, it does acquire a certain kind of energy, but it’s really too little, too late.

It would be interesting to speculate on a parallel world where Halloween III was, well, good, and the series went off on the anthology tangent Carpenter and Hill originally envisaged (in our world, the relative failure of the film meant that every subsequent episode has been firmly Michael Myers-centric). But it’s hard to imagine that world, based on this film. Halloween III isn’t just poorly assembled, it’s weird and tonally inconsistent, often mixing unintentional camp with stodgily-presented B-movie staples. This may have been quite a good idea, but it’s also an extremely poorly executed one.

Read Full Post »

We are now at a point where there are three films called Halloween, so it follows as logically as anything else that there are also multiple Halloween IIs – although I feel obliged to make it clear that the sequel to the most recent Halloween is, of course, not one of them (like I say, logical).

The first Halloween II was probably inevitable from a financial point of view, given the immense returns of the original film ($70 million on a £325,000 budget), and I suppose this is one of those cases of the sequel being the film which really laid the groundwork for an ongoing franchise – the original film is brilliant, but one of the reasons why it’s brilliant is because it’s such a perfectly self-contained narrative. It’s also a very slight outlier when it comes to the slasher movie genre, and the sequel is more conventional in this respect too.

The problem with a calendar-date horror movie like Halloween is that you’re a bit limited when it comes to staging the sequel – you can’t just move on to the day after or the title will become a bit spurious, while jumping ahead a whole year also brings its problems. So Halloween II is one of the most direct continuations in movie history, very slightly tweaking the end of the original film but pretty much just carrying straight on.

So: Shatner-masked embodiment of pure homicidal evil Michael Myers is still on the rampage in his home town of Haddonfield, despite having been repeatedly shot and stabbed by feisty babysitter Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and obsessed shrink Dr Loomis (Donald Pleasence). However, Haddonfield being the kind of folksy place where people leave their doors open at all hours, he is quite soon able to shrug off multiple bullet wounds, resupply with a big knife, and do in someone just down the street from the scene of his earlier crimes, just to keep his hand in.

Laurie, meanwhile, is whizzed off to hospital by nice young ambulanceman Jimmy (the film debut of Lance Guest, perhaps best remembered for quintessential 80s nonsense The Last Starfighter and Jaws: The Revenge), while Dr Loomis keeps up with his increasingly frantic attempts to hunt Michael down. But having heard where Laurie has been taken, Michael also heads to the gloomy and seemingly almost-deserted hospital, seemingly intent on finishing the job he started before the clock ticks twelve and they have to call the movie All Saints’ Day (though Day of the Dead would also be very appropriate and was still available back in 1981)…

John Carpenter really didn’t want to do a Halloween sequel, as he couldn’t see a place to take the story; he eventually limited himself to co-writing and producing, with Rick Rosenthal actually in charge of direction. Carpenter has said the creative process involved a lot of beer and him sitting in front of the typewriter saying ‘What am I doing? I don’t know.’

Then again, a classic slasher movie generally has two elements to it, the overarching storyline, and all the individual set-piece kills which punctuate the film. I suspect you can get away with making quite a congruent and popular slasher movie with very little actual plot and just a lot of good murders. Sending Michael to the hospital certainly presents the opportunity for a number of inventive slayings as he thins out the supporting cast (as ever, anyone foolish enough to have recreational sex in a Halloween movie is signing their own death warrant) – there’s death by scalpel, death by claw hammer, death by syringe, death by exsanguination, death by hydrotherapy pool, and what may be an attempt at death by slippery floor – though this may just be an accident. As you may perhaps be able to tell, the body count in Halloween II comfortably exceeds that of the first film, and where the original had a long period of Carpenter relentlessly cranking up the suspense before the killing begins in earnest towards the end of the story, in this one there’s a murder every few minutes, just to keep everyone paying attention I suppose. As I say, this is much more of a conventional slasher film than the first one.

It’s when Carpenter moves on to wider elements of the plot that the script begins to wobble somewhat – initially, it’s a spot-on continuation of the original film, with even some of the original cast returning just to play the corpses of their characters. Then Michael starts scrawling ‘SAMHAIN’ on the wall in blood and Donald Pleasence is issued with some cobblers about the history of Halloween and suddenly we’re on rather shaky ground.

The notorious plot device which the film introduces, simply because Carpenter felt it essential, is the revelation that Laurie and Michael are siblings, hence his monomaniacal pursuit of her. It feels like the film has suddenly gone a bit soap-opera at this point, and to be honest I don’t think the story really needed it – the really scary thing about Michael in the first film, after all, is that he doesn’t actually have a recognisable or intelligible motivation.

Most of the film is passably entertaining, anyway; Rosenthal manages a decent mimicry of Carpenter’s style, although the film is never as tense or scary as the original. However, the ending does feel weak – after Laurie is comatose for most of the first hour (I’m guessing there were issues with how available for filming Jamie Lee Curtis was), she ends up being chased round the hospital while Loomis – who’s just been conveniently informed of dynastic revelations – is racing to her aid.

This was, apparently, intended to finish off the story of Laurie and Michael in the most definitive way possible – let’s just take a moment, nine further films later, to reflect on just how successful that was – and I suppose it does just about hang together. (Just how do you kill off the bogeyman, though?) That’s about the best you can say about Halloween II – virtually every film in this series has basically the same plot, which is dressed up and tweaked in a new way every few years or so, and one of the jobs of the sequels is to disguise this fact as well as possible. Halloween II does a serviceable job of it; it is a sufficient sequel, but hardly a necessary one.

Read Full Post »

After being almost-unseen for decades and seemingly like a prime candidate for ‘lost movie’ status, Ray Cameron’s Bloodbath at the House of Death, released in 1984, has recently turned up on the UK incarnation of the world’s biggest streaming service. If ever a comparatively recent film has languished, it is this one. Perhaps the distinct lack of enthusiasm for it, even amongst some of the people involved in its production, may give us a clue as to why. ‘It’s a fairly terrible film,’ recalled the producer in a 2008 interview. ‘It’s not the film I want on my headstone, or in my obituary when I die.’

Well, there’s a refreshing sort of honesty there, anyway, and the movie does have the kind of bizarre cross-genre conception and eclectic cast list that usually indicates it may be on the road to cult status. As you may know, being ‘fairly terrible’ is not the kind of thing to put me off a film, and the thing is only a brisk 90 minutes or so long. So: how bad could it be?

Well, the producer was possibly being a bit over-generous. The film opens with the first of many swipes at horror cliches: we start with a shot of a big old house in the countryside, as seen via a POV shot from someone creeping towards it through the undergrowth. The watcher pulls back the branches to get a better look – only to lose his grip, and them to spring back into his face, painfully. It’s a better gag than it sounds (the first time they use it, anyway) and a promising start.

Anyway, a mob of robed figures with axes, spears, shotguns, nooses, and so on, break into the house and kill everyone inside, leaving a scene of absolute carnage, in which none of the other attempted jokes have been very funny. British comedy legend Barry Cryer (who co-wrote the film with Cameron) briefly appears as a cop investigating the slaughter, but doesn’t manage to uncover any clues (or any more decent lines).

Then we are nine years later, and rather than death by stabbing or shooting we are threatened with death by exposition as the main cast all make their way to ‘Headstone Manor’, scene of the massacre, carefully telling each other who they are and why they’re going there. Most prominent are top-billed DJ-turned-comic Kenny Everett, in his only movie lead, and comic-actress-turned-latterday-sex-therapist Pamela Stephenson; the rest of the ensemble is not unimpressive as it includes the likes of Gareth Hunt, Sheila Steafel, Don Warrington, and John Fortune; appearing as the juvenile leads are Everett’s regular stooge Cleo Rocos (who brings big hair but no discernible acting ability) and John Stephen Hill (a fairly nondescript young fellow whose Wikipedia page claims he stopped acting the year before he made this film; maybe there is sometimes truth in Wiki after all).

Apparently they are all scientists, sent to the spooky old house to investigate reports of supernatural phenomena and high levels of radiation. The cognisant viewer will by this point essentially be expecting something along the lines of Carry On Up Hell House, given the broad low comedy on display and the premise thus established, but the film doesn’t even have the coherence and focus to hit this rather low target. (The censor, when showed the film, apparently thought it wasn’t especially problematic and indeed had its moments – generous fellow – but thought there’d been a mix-up and he’d been shown the reels in the wrong order. He had not. The plot makes that little sense.)

What you end up with is an increasingly baffled and/or desperate-looking cast, flailing about for a way to get laughs – Stephenson opts for a silly voice, while Everett starts off doing a silly walk and then also goes for a silly voice. Nothing, by the way, makes it apparent that Everett is a TV star doing his first movie more clearly than the over-the-top mugging he indulges in throughout. Some of the dialogue would struggle to get into even a late Carry On film, as when Rocos and Hill are exploring the kitchen: ‘Could you pass me a spoon?’ – ‘I suppose a fork is out of the question?’ – ‘Maybe, but let’s get dinner out of the way first’. Much of the rest of the film is made up of scattershot parodies of other films from around the same period – there’s a Carrie spoof, a very problematic Entity skit with some gratuitous T&A from Stephenson, a scene apparently referencing American Werewolf (which was partly a spoof itself), and even a gag based on E.T. (Inexplicably popular – if you ask me – comedian Michael McIntyre apparently appears in the E.T. segment, due to his being the director’s son.)

The vast majority of this movie is dreary, awful rubbish, one of the signs of the moribund state of the British film industry in the 1980s; it’s actually quite surprising how it manages to take normally capable performers and seemingly drain all the talent and charm out of them. The occasional flash of directorial cleverness, or a decent special effect, doesn’t come anywhere close to rescuing it.

However, there is a reason to watch this movie, and that reason is the presence of no-foolin’ horror legend Vincent Price, making his final appearance in a British film. I have often written in the past of the remarkable ability of stars like Price, Peter Cushing, and Christopher Lee to lift dodgy material through sheer talent and presence, but what Price achieves here is truly exceptional: to say this is a game piece of self-parody is a huge understatement. Price’s scenes are genuinely very funny: he plays the leader of the local Satanic cult, saddled with a bunch of insubordinate and incompetent followers (he’s off by himself and never interacts with the rest of the main cast). He gets a magnificent speech about his centuries-long career of evil, delivered in the classically arch Price manner, concluding with ‘…and you tell me to piss off? No, you piss off!’

That said, Price is only in the movie for about ten minutes, and it’s a near thing either way as to whether this is enough to justify watching the rest of it, which is really and truly properly dire. I have considerable tolerance for and fascination with bad movies, and even I found most of it tough going, so go in prepared and don’t be ashamed of bailing out. I can’t imagine anyone genuinely liking this movie, and even those who can get through the whole thing will probably only do so once.

Read Full Post »

Family movie night again (well, with my niece and nephew, anyway: their parents were off watching Bond) and I found myself in the midst of a ticklish diplomatic negotiation – finding a film to keep all parties happy. Virtually impossible, of course (it seems to me that the main innovation of the streaming era is that the protracted arguments you used to have in Blockbuster can now take place in front of your flat-screen), especially given the fact that my tastes incline towards nephew’s naturally, and I do worry about niece feeling a bit underserved.

So, in the end, I made an executive decision and we ended up watching Ron Howard’s Splash from 1984, which (the odd joke about Swedish pornography aside) I recalled as being nice, innocuous fare – this was admittedly based on my sole viewing of the film at Christmas 1987, so it’s not like my memory was pinpoint sharp or anything.

So: here we have a rom-com of the fantastical variety, although there are some interesting structural anomalies to it which we will come to in good time. A rather young Tom Hanks plays Allen Bauer, co-owner of a New York City fruit and veg wholesaler, who seems to be doing okay financially but is just not happy when it comes to his love life: no matter how seemingly perfect the woman in his life appears to be, he just can’t seem to engage romantically with them. His crass elder brother (John Candy) doesn’t seem to see the problem, but Allen wants love.

And so he drives up to Cape Cod, which for you or I would seem like an odd way to solve this particular problem – for him it makes marginally more sense, as he had an odd encounter there when he fell off a boat as a young man and hallucinated (obviously) seeing a young mermaid in the water. Apparently the area has form in this area, as a fringe marine biologist named Kornbluth (Eugene Levy) has turned up to go mermaid-hunting.

Well, what do you know, but Allen ends up falling in the water again, and knocking himself out. He wakes up on a nearby beach, apparently having been dragged to safety by a gorgeous naked blonde woman (Daryl Hannah) – maybe there’s something to be said for Cape Cod after all. She flees into the water when he attempts to speak to her, but still hangs onto his wallet (maybe there’s a lesson there, lads).

(The MousePlus version of Splash, which we watched, has a caption announcing it has been digitally re-edited for its appearance on the platform. I thought this meant the Swedish pornography joke had been expurgated, but no: what they’ve done is digitally extended Daryl Hannah’s hair to cover her bum when she’s running away from the camera. Apparently even an innocent pair of bare buttocks is unacceptable to the mouse executives – but the effect just makes it look like she’s got a furry arse, which is considerably less charming than the original scene must have been.)

Well, Allen goes back to New York, where he is soon afterwards joined by the blonde woman, who is indeed a mermaid, and has tracked him down using his driving licence and some ancient nautical charts (yes, this is a movie which makes a few substantial asks of the audience, even given that it is about mermaids). This being the 80s, and the whole safe sex message not quite having got going yet, they go straight back to his apartment for some off-screen (but apparently intensive) whoa-ho-ho: whether Allen later contracts Fin Rot or something similar is not disclosed.

However, there are wrinkles in the idyll which appears to be in the offing: for one thing, the mermaid, who takes the name Madison (this was a joke at the time, but as a result of the movie it experienced an immense spike in its popularity), can only stay on land for five or six days before having to leave forever (it’s an arbitrary plot-enabling rule). Also, Kornbluth is aware that Madison is staying with Allen and is determined to expose her and thus vindicate his belief in the existence of merfolk (their tail turns into legs on lend, until they get wet, at which point the tail reappears – another ability the film seems to have invented wholesale as a plot-enabler, along with Madison’s ability to learn perfect English in an afternoon just by watching TV)…

Splash is a charming, funny film, and you can see why it was a big hit and gave most of the people involved such substantial career bumps – this is really the start of the career of Tom Hanks as we know him – not too long prior he was appearing in things like the silly scaremongering TV movie Mazes and Monsters, while he was also in the coarse frat-boy comedy Bachelor Party in the same year. At the time I doubt anyone honestly thought they were looking at the great leading man of his generation, but with hindsight you can see just why Hanks has become such a big star.

Daryl Hannah hasn’t done quite so well – I don’t remember seeing her in anything since Kill Bill – and while this may be due to the usual way movie star career trajectories pan out – men mature, women either fade away or end up in character parts – perhaps it’s also got something to do with the rather odd structure of the film, which I alluded to earlier.

I don’t want to generalise, but the rom-com genre is usually perceived as being quite female-oriented, or at least egalitarian in the way they handle the two leads. The thing about Splash is that it mixes into the rom-com formula some quite big dollops of broader comedy, as well as a sort of action-adventure jeopardy climax which feels like it owes a lot to E.T.. (This is where the Swedish pornography gag fits in, along with the pricelessly funny image of John Candy trying to play squash with a fag hanging out of his mouth.) These skew the film more towards a general audience. In addition to this, Madison never quite feels like a fully realised character, she’s just a sort of convenient fantasy figure (blonde, often-clothing averse, large sexual appetite – not sure the furry arse fits this profile though) – it’s Allen whose personality and feelings the film seems much more interested in exploring. Perhaps this is what you need to do for your rom-com to be a break-out hit – Four Weddings was a smash, which was likewise very focused on the male lead, while the critically-adored The Shape of Water (which is almost a darker, role-reversal version of the same story) billed itself as a fantasy or even a horror film rather than a romance.

I don’t know how much of this was the result of calculated choices by Ron Howard and the directors (nor, for that matter, how much of a debt the film owes to the British romantic comedy Miranda and its sequel, films with a vaguely similar theme), but I think they contributed substantially to Splash’s success. I enjoyed seeing it again, and my young relatives found it quite diverting too. So we may cautiously describe it as a minor classic – even if I would still recommend the pre-digital-editing version.

Read Full Post »

My usual line when it comes to John Carpenter and his career (as previously articulated here, quite a few times I expect), is that he basically did it backwards – starting with the acclaimed, massively influential studio films and then going on to make a range of eclectic movies, which only really have in common the fact they are exasperatingly inconsistent. The consensus is that Carpenter started to go off the boil after making The Thing in 1982, though I am aware that Starman (1984) has its champions and some of the other later films have achieved cult status too (Carpenter probably qualifies as a cult director, full stop).

One of those later film is They Live, from 1988, although it is a divisive and provocative work. The director Alex Cox has described it, essentially, as being halfway brilliant – which I’m not sure I’d entirely agree with. I’m fully in accord with Cox when it comes to the many flaws of the film, which are substantial, I’m not sure the rest of it is quite as good as he thinks.

The movie opens with the usual sort of Carpenter-penned theme music (my niece has been known to complain that the music of Sparks is repetitive, but they have nothing on Carpenter in this respect) and a blue-collar drifter arriving in Los Angeles; he is (initially at least) a taciturn, thoughtful chap, and also a strapping lad (he is played by wrestling heel par excellence ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper). Our hero is never actually named on screen, but he’s credited as Nada (meaning ‘nothing’). Nada is part of a growing underclass of people struggling to make ends meet, though he manages to find work on a construction site. In Carpenter’s usual sparse way, he establishes a situation not unlike an 80s-set update of The Grapes of Wrath – the majority desperately struggling to survive as a tiny elite grow richer, although there is the very non-Steinbeckian motif of the poorer members of society being placated by an endless diet of cable TV.

But then, as this is a Carpenter movie, another element appears: pirate TV broadcasts seemingly ranting about a conspiracy to subjugate and exploit the population, railing against the mysterious group responsible for the economic and social divisions in the country. It turns out the rebellious group are based in the church next to the camp for homeless people that Nada is living in; the police arrive and brutally deal with the group.

However, Nada does some poking around in the lab that the rebels were operating and finds a pair of sunglasses. He pays them little heed until he puts them on and sees a world transformed: TV screens, billboards, signs, the covers of books and magazines – all of them projecting subliminal messages along the lines of OBEY, CONSUME, DON’T QUESTION AUTHORITY, and so on. Even more disturbingly, the glasses reveal that many of the wealthiest members of society are in fact skull-faced green-skinned aliens…

It’s They Live’s one great moment of inarguable brilliance, and such a neat idea it has been co-opted by other films since (most recently Free Guy). Of course, it’s a good science fiction idea, but it’s also an openly allegorical and subversive one (Slavoj Zizek discusses the film at some length in The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology) – you have to give Carpenter some credit for managing to get such an anti-capitalistic message into what was a fairly mainstream film.

(Of course, Carpenter is on slightly treacherous ground here – as far as he’s concerned, They Live is metaphorical, suggesting that the elite of society have alien values and treat everyone else like a different species (possibly contentious, but defensibly so). The problem is that some people have interpreted the film as an actual allegory in support of a wide range of crackpot (and objectionable) conspiracy theories about the world being secretly run by aliens or lizards or alien lizards, which usually end up heading off into anti-Semitic territory or somewhere even nastier. Carpenter has said this wasn’t his intention, and I have no reason to disbelieve him, nor do I think that a film is necessarily bad just because it can be interpreted to support offensive views.)

Unfortunately, making a truly great film isn’t just a matter of having a good idea, you have to do something with it too – and the problem with They Live is that, having finally pulled off his big reveal (and not before time – we’re quite a long way into the film by now), Carpenter doesn’t seem to know what to do next in terms of developing his idea or exploring it further. So he falls back on cheesy B-movie action tropes and cliches.

Up to this point Nada has been depicted as a more or less normal, decent, reasonable, reserved kind of guy; probably a Republican voter, but you can’t have everything. Having been attacked by two aliens disguised as police, however, he arms up with their weapons, walks into a bank, delivers a cheesy one-liner and starts blowing away every alien he sees with a stolen shotgun. The action is reasonably well-mounted, but it still feels like a film which initially showed compassion and a flash of real intelligence and wit has suddenly become gleefully stupid and a tiny bit crass.

It gets worse (in every sense). The screenplay was written by Carpenter himself (under the Lovecraftian pseudonym of ‘Frank Armitage’, which is also the name of Nada’s sidekick, played by Keith David), although ‘written’ probably suggests a degree of structure and coherence which it doesn’t really deserve. Many of Carpenter’s creative decisions are, well, very odd indeed, and seem poorly thought-through (if thought-through at all) – for instance, most films start fairly slow and then pick up the pace as they continue, but this one plods along steadily from beginning to end. Even the film’s most celebrated sequence – a brawl between Piper and David in an alleyway, adding very little to the plot, which goes on for six ridiculous minutes – has a weirdly stately and unhurried quality to it.

They Live doesn’t just become a cheesy B-movie action film, it turns into a really bad cheesy B-movie action film. By the end, characters and locations are appearing and disappearing simply to serve the meanderings of the story, with their personalities and agendas changing to suit. The main female character, played by a third-billed Meg Foster, initially comes across as a steely Howard Hawks-type dame, but in each of the three short sequences she appears in she has a different attitude and set of priorities – she’s very obviously a plot device rather than a character.

Some have suggested the sheer badness and incoherence of the second half of They Live is intentional, that it’s a deconstruction of the kind of pap commercial cinema the big studios routinely pump out, and that as it a result it’s part of the film’s subversive thesis. But it just seems like a bad movie to me, and – regrettably – much of a muchness with a lot of later Carpenter movies. Perhaps it’s because the film has that one really great cinematic moment of revelation that the rest of it feels so very disappointing in comparison. But what is certain is that the opening section of the film promises a very great deal, which the conclusion dismally fails to deliver.

Read Full Post »

I earned various gasps and envious mutterings from my friends the other night when I casually let slip that the next day I had a ticket to a showing of Dune on the big screen. This naturally abated somewhat when I made it clear this wasn’t the delayed, and now even-more-eagerly anticipated new version of the story directed by Denis Villeneuve, but another outing for David Lynch’s 1984 crack at the story, courtesy of the Prince Charlie near Leicester Square.

(Ah, the Prince Charlie: looking back I’m startled to realise I’ve only been there two or three times in the past, and not since 2013, but every time I even go past I feel like it’s somehow my spiritual home. It’s almost enough to make me contemplate moving to London just so I can go to this one cinema more often. Very odd.)

‘I become very happy, because the film is terrible,’ said Alejandro Jodorowsky, describing his own first experience of seeing Lynch’s Dune on the big screen. As is now quite well-known, Jodorowsky spent years planning a lavish ten-hour-plus version of the book, starring Orson Welles, Mick Jagger, Gloria Swanson and Salvador Dali (amongst others), with music by Pink Floyd. Strangely enough, no studio was willing to finance this project, and the rights to Frank Herbert’s novel fell into the grasp of Italian impresario Dino De Laurentiis. Meanwhile, if you believe the folklore, Jodorowsky’s pre-production work went on to inspire the great wave of blockbuster SF-fantasy films that came out in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

It’s kind of ironic that the Lynch Dune is part of this wave itself. I was vaguely aware of it at the time it came out, when it was definitely marketed as a sci-fi blockbuster not unlike the previous year’s Return of the Jedi, complete with Panini sticker album given away free with the comic 2000 AD. But I don’t remember anyone ever really being very excited or interested in Dune, hardly anyone bothered collecting the stickers, and I’m not even sure it showed near me. The only person I knew who’d seen it (much older than I was) said it made no sense at all unless you’d read the book.

But, hey, there was a pretty good turnout for the Prince Charlie revival, so what were we all there for? Presumably a few sci-fi die-hards, and David Lynch completists, and people wanting to refresh their memories ahead of the new film (across the way they were showing a thirty minute preview of the Villeneuve version; hopefully nobody got confused and went to the wrong one). And I suppose this is a sort of cult film, which only goes to show that cults can crop up in all sorts of places.

The film gets underway with an introductory monologue from Virginia Madsen, playing Princess Irulan, daughter of the Emperor of the Universe. This actually does a pretty decent job of setting the scene is very broad strokes, establishing that we’re in for an epic tale of ruthless galactic politics, all based around control of the planet Dune, source of the most important substance in existence. The titles and music crash in, it’s all very impressive and stirring, and it’s only much later that you realise that pretty much all that Madsen does in the rest of the film is stand around in the background; her character is completely insignificant.

Things stay visually impressive, in terms of costuming and set design and a lot of the special effects, as we get a brief gazetteer of important planets in the story (Arrakis, Caladan, Giedi Prime, Kaitain), and the various factions attached to them (the Fremen, the Atreides, the Harkonnens, the Imperial House, the Guild of Navigators) and we are privy to an audience between the Emperor of the Universe (Jose Ferrer) and a third-stage Guild Navigator, telepathically overheard by his Bene Gesserit advisor (Sian Phillips), where the Emperor’s plan to use the Harkonnens to destroy his Atreides rivals is outlined, while the threat posed to the Navigators by Duke Atreides’ son Paul (Kyle McLachlan) is also touched upon.

And all this is just in the first scene. Are you baffled yet? If not, you are either some kind of a savant, or have read the book, or aren’t really bothering to pay attention (all of these are equally acceptable excuses).

The thing about Dune, the novel, is that it is essentially a straightforward, even archetypal tale of a young man born into privilege who loses everything but undergoes various trials through which he attains superhuman faculties, which he uses to avenge himself on his numerous enemies. Nothing wrong with that; that’s a perfectly solid framework for a story.

The other thing about Dune, however, the one that makes the book so extraordinary and has ensured its reputation as a masterpiece of SF, is the complexity of the world of the story, and the way it is filled with intricate background detail. The main problem with the film is that Lynch concentrates on all the throwaway detail and back-story so much that the actual central narrative disappears from view.

Names of people and things pile up: Mentat, Bene Gesserit, Sardaukar, Shadout Mapes, Shai-Halud, Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam, weirding modules, Gom Jabbar, the Waters of Life. Introducing all of this (all without ever quite explaining what much of it is) causes the film to grind to a halt and buckle under the weight of its own baffling exposition. Characters like Irulan are introduced as if they’re going to be significant, only for them to barely appear again.

That the film makes any sense at all is because of Lynch’s lavish use of voice-over as an aid to explaining what’s going on. We are frequently privy to the thoughts of many characters, mid-scene, even when we could likely figure out for ourselves what they are thinking, while the progress of the story is usually accompanied by a bit of voice-over explaining what’s happening or has just happened.

I can’t stress enough how important this is: I’ve read Dune several times and some parts of this film are still impenetrable. You can usually tell when something important is happening in a scene – the appearance of the stirring main theme is usually a clue, especially if the electric guitars kick in – but quite what it is or its significance is frequently a mystery. Everything that’s wrong with this film is encapsulated in the final moments, with the last line of the film being an unlikely cry of ‘For he is the Kwisatz Haderach!’ Who or what the Kwisatz Haderach actually is has only been touched upon in the vaguest of terms, rendering this moment both momentous and deeply obscure. This doesn’t feel like an attempt at a slingshot ending or an enthymeme, where lack of traditional closure is part of the intended effect – it’s just bad scripting from Lynch.

You can see why they employed someone with Lynch’s kind of visual sense on a grandiose project like this one, but the narrative utterly escapes his control and he seems more interested in small details  – Baron Harkonnen’s disgusting pustules, for instance – than epic storytelling. I think it’s telling to compare Dune with the 1980 version of Flash Gordon, another lavish De Laurentiis extravaganza – Dune’s climax, where desert warriors riding on gargantuan worms do battle with imperial terror troops as atomic weapons go off in the background, is broadly akin to the Hawkman attack on the rocket ship in the earlier film, but where Flash Gordon is lively and colourful and thrilling, Dune is subdued and ponderous.

Most of the cast (McLachlan, Sean Young, Francesca Annis) are good looking but bland. Even very fine actors like Max von Sydow, Sian Phillips and Patrick Stewart (yes, it’s our week for discussing early Patrick Stewart fantasy movie roles) end up just standing around doing the best they can to make an impression. Well-drawn characters simply vanish into the art direction (which, to be fair, is consistently good); Baron Harkonnen, one of the great villains of SF, is reduced to being simply a ‘flying fatman’, in charge of a family of slavering perverts.

Perhaps Jodorowsky was right and it’s impossible to do Dune justice as a conventional movie; you either need to do it as a TV mini-series or an absurdly long mega-epic, or a series of films. Jodorowsky opted for the mega-epic; Villeneuve, I understand, has opted just to do the first half of the book and hope the film is successful enough to allow him to finish it off in a second movie. We shall see; the audience is certainly there for a really good Dune movie, the question remains whether such a thing is even really possible.

Read Full Post »

Odd to think that the first of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films will be twenty years old in less than six months (the same is true of the first Harry Potter adaptation, of course). Or, to put it another way, it’s now very nearly equidistant in time between the present moment and the appearance of another great fantasy film of decades past – I speak of John Boorman’s 1981 film Excalibur.

The comparison is a pertinent one as Boorman tried for many years to mount his own adaptation of Lord of the Rings, never quite managing it (given one of his ideas was for the Hobbits to be played by children being dubbed by adults, perhaps it’s just as well). But apparently a lot of the Rings prep work ended up informing Excalibur, and you can perhaps trace a connection between the syncretic Arthurian mythology, built up over a thousand years, and the primal European myths which inspired Tolkien’s legendarium.

Boorman puts his own spin on the Arthurian cycle, as everyone who approaches it ends up doing, focusing the story on the titular blade. The film opens in the Dark Ages (real-world history and geography is more or less elided), with ferocious warlord Uther (Gabriel Byrne) intent on becoming king, assisted – sort of – by the enigmatic, and eccentric, figure of Merlin the Magician (Nicol Williamson). It is Merlin who procures the sword of power for Uther, and Merlin who is most dismayed when Uther seems intent on simply using it to satiate his own lust for power, and other things.

One of the other things is Igraine, wife of the Duke of Cornwall (she is played by another of the numerous Boormans to appear in the film; he is Corin Redgrave). But Uther’s deal with Merlin whereby he can enjoy a night of passion with Igraine (Uther keeps his suit of armour on throughout, surely the hallmark of any sensitive lover) has unexpected consequences: Merlin takes the ensuing child, and while pursuing the magician Uther is ambushed and killed, but not before he can drive Excalibur into a block of stone, from which only the rightful heir can draw it…

This first section of the film unfolds very naturally and satisfyingly; from here on things get a bit choppier, as Boorman has to start picking and choosing which elements of the Arthurian legend to focus on. So we get the sword in the stone, the struggle faced by Arthur (Nigel Terry) as he tries to claim his throne and unite the country, the coming of the invincible Lancelot (Nicholas Clay), the founding of Camelot, Arthur’s marriage to Guenevere (Cherie Lunghi), the treachery of Arthur’s half-sister Morgana (Helen Mirren) and the begetting of Mordred, the Grail Quest, and so on and so on…

Even for a film that’s pushing close to two and a half hours in length, this is a lot to handle, and Boorman omits many of the peripheral elements of the story – the May Babies are omitted, as is the story of Tristram and Isolde, along with that of Balin and the Fisher King, while the importance of Gawain (Liam Neeson) is downplayed, and Galahad is left out entirely (most of his role is given to Perceval, played here by Paul Geoffrey).

Doing the entire Arthurian legend in detail would be an undertaking beyond the scope of any sane movie – you’d be thinking in terms of a series (much as Guy Ritchie recently did), or perhaps a multi-season TV series like a cross between Game of Thrones and The Crown (this is such a patently brilliant and obvious idea I’m surprised no-one’s doing it already). So the flaws in the narrative structure of Excalibur, the jarring shifts in time and space, the odd changes of tone, are to some extent inevitable given the nature of the film.

However, the decision to frame the film almost solely as mythic fantasy is Boorman’s own: there’s relatively little grit or dirt in the world of the film, and not much sign of the common folk, either: on the rare occasions when they do appear, it’s slightly reminiscent of another great Arthurian film of roughly the same period, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. You could definitely argue that the Python film has a greater sense of reality about it than Excalibur; Boorman’s film always looks good, but it’s strangely heftless and is often easy to snigger at (Uther isn’t the only character who spends all his time lumbering around in full armour, even at feasts and weddings) – the balance of otherworldly mysticism and quasi-historical grit was handled much better by the Robin of Sherwood TV show (which possibly shows hints of an Excalibur influence on occasion).

Nevertheless, there’s a huge amount the film gets right, or at least does interestingly: the central thesis of the connection between king, land, and sword is a splendid innovation, and the film handles many of the incidental moments of the story extremely well: Merlin’s mentorship of the boy king, Arthur winning the loyalty of the barons who initially refuse to acknowledge his right to the throne, and so. It is, of course, helped enormously by what history has proven to be a really impressive supporting cast – Helen Mirren doesn’t chew the scenery as Morgana, a young Liam Neeson is sweaty and energetic as Gawain, and there’s a cracking turn from Patrick Stewart as Leodegrance. When this film was made, Stewart was still best-known as an RSC stalwart: he gives his declamatory scenes and sequences where he gets to whack people with a battle-axe the full Shakespearean beans, and you come away wishing he was in the movie more.

Perhaps the fact that it’s mostly the supporting players you think this of is another flaw in the film; Terry, Lunghi and Clay are all right as the central trio, but not exactly captivating. As a result, it’s really Williamson who ends up walking away with the film – given Merlin’s disappearance from the story, this might be a fatal flaw, but Boorman contrives things so he makes a vital contribution in the climax.

In many ways the director makes sensible choices about how to bring the King Arthur story to the screen, and occasionally inspired ones (the Wagner- and Orff-heavy soundtrack, for instance). If he ends up eventually making a film which is at best flawed, that’s because the task itself is an impossible one; ‘flawed’ is still a significant achievement given Excalibur‘s sheer ambition. Nevertheless, this is still the yardstick when it comes to movie treatments of the Arthurian legend, even if it is a bit too hectic and breathless to be much more than an introduction to the cycle.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »