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Posts Tagged ‘David Warner’

There is something remarkably comforting and familiar about sitting down to watch one of the Amicus portmanteau horror movies from the 1960s and 1970s. Perhaps it is because this subgenre is so strictly defined by its conventions – you know there aren’t going to be many startling innovations, you know there’s going to be a pretty good cast, and you know that none of the component stories are going to hang around too long. It is almost the cinematic equivalent of a sushi train – if what’s currently going past isn’t really to your taste, well, maybe the next course will do the trick.

1974’s From Beyond the Grave is normally listed as the last of the Amicus anthology horrors, which I suppose is true if you’re going to be quibbly about it, although my own feeling is that 1980’s The Monster Club is really the last of the line, sharing the same format and producer (Amicus’ moving spirit Milton Subotsky). There is another connection in that both films take their inspiration not from other horror movies or American horror comics, but the works of veteran horror author Ron Chetwynd-Hayes.

The movie is directed by Kevin Connor, who went on to have a moderately good line in low-budget genre movies like Warlords of Atlantis. The linking device on this occasion is an antiques and junk shop named Temptations Limited, run by Peter Cushing’s character (Cushing is in camp mode throughout and gives a very funny performance which nicely sets the tone for much of the movie). As the film reveals, the shop has an interesting gimmick (‘a novelty surprise with every purchase!’) and an even more interesting line in customer aftercare.

First story out of the traps is that of David Warner, who plays an arrogant young man who railroads the proprietor into selling him an antique mirror for a fraction of its actual value. No sooner has he put it up in his flat than one of his bright young friends shouts ‘Let’s have a séance!’, and Warner, for reasons best known to the plot, enthusiastically agrees. Well, it turns out that the mirror is a repository for an ancient, dormant evil which now wakes up, thirsting for the blood of – well, anyone it can persuade Warner to kill for it. He starts off with a prostitute (‘Five pounds and no need to rush,’ she says, which if nothing else I imagine says something about the impact of inflation since 1974), moves on to girls he picks up at parties, but draws the line at one of his actual friends (his neighbour seems to be fair game, though).

There are perhaps a few too many scenes of Warner waking up in blood-splattered pyjamas wondering if it was all a dream, but this is quite acceptable on the whole: Warner is always a class act and manages to lift some slightly schlocky material, and the piece has an unusually eerie and effective conclusion. The only thing that makes it sit a little oddly in this film is the unleavened darkness of the story – most of the film feels like it’s pitched as black comedy, but this seems to be aiming for a more serious tone.

The next segment is rather less predictable and feels rather shoehorned into the movie – Cushing and his shop only play a very marginal role. Ian Bannen plays an office drone, unhappily married to Diana Dors with a young son (John O’Farrell, later to find fame as a writer), who strikes up an odd relationship with an ex-army street hawker (Donald Pleasance) and later his daughter (Angela Pleasance). In order to cement their friendship, Bannen steals a medal from the shop, which is the link to the rest of the format. The Pleasances eventually seem to be offering Bannen a way out of his grim situation – but do they really have his best interests at heart…?

Once again, some slightly suspect material is lifted by the skill of the perfomers (Bannen and the Pleasances in this case), although this is much more of a bizarre, whimsical fantasy than a conventional horror story (though the story certainly scores bonus points for its voodoo wedding cake sequence). This is one of the stories which has no real reason to be in a film titled From Beyond the Grave, but it is an interesting change of pace and certainly stands out.

Ian Carmichael turns up playing another one of his posh silly-ass characters in the third section of the film, which opens with him attempting to swindle Cushing by switching the price tags on a couple of snuff boxes in the shop. ‘I hope you enjoy snuffing it,’ says Cushing, deadpan, as Carmichael departs the scene. In the peculiar cosmology of the Amicus horror movies, switching price tags is a sufficiently awful crime to mark you down for vicious karmic reprisals, and Carmichael discovers he has acquired a malevolent (but invisible and thus cheap) elemental companion, who seems to have it in for his wife in particular. Luckily he makes the acquaintance of medium and exorcist Madame Orloff (Margaret Leighton), who offers to assist…

Probably the weakest part of the film, probably because the plot hasn’t got a lot going on, and the segment is forced to rely on the comic performances of the actors involved. Once again, they are good enough to make the film watchable and entertaining (some good work from the set dressers in the scene where the elemental demolishes Carmichael’s living room), but it’s not really clever or striking enough to be memorable.

And so to the final part of the film, in which young writer Ian Ogilvy buys, somewhat improbably, an imposing old door to put on the stationery cupboard in his study. You can probably write the rest for yourself, particularly if you’ve been paying attention, not least because it does bear a certain resemblance to the David Warner story at the top of the film – the door turns out to be a gateway to a domain of ancient, dormant evil, which now wakes up, thirsting for the souls of… well, you get the idea, I think.

Still, the production values aren’t bad and the story also manages to distinguish itself by having the closest thing to a genuine plot twist you’re likely to find in an Amicus film – the audience is invited to assume that Ogilvy has ripped off the till at the shop, thus marking his card for a sticky end, but it turns out he’s a decent, honest chap, and thus has a chance of making it out of the film in one piece. If nothing else it provides an upbeat conclusion.

There is, of course, still time for the final twist with the frame story of the shop. This is not the usual ‘everyone is actually already dead!’ twist as deployed in Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, Tales from the Crypt, and Vault of Horror, but something very nearly as obvious. Still, Cushing gets another chance to camp it up, being funny and menacing at the same time, and the film does conclude with a couple of good gags. Probably not the best or most colourful of the Amicus anthologies, but still an enjoyable piece of comfort viewing.

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I must confess that my fondness for the Phoenix, my local art-house cinema, has taken the odd knock over the last few years, mainly because with each new refurbishment (there have been several) it seems to have become more and more bland and corporate and just a little bit less charming. Admittedly, the complete rebuild of the smaller theatre is a vast improvement, but then the big one has also been totally redone and it didn’t really need it. Hey ho; that’s progress, I guess. One reason to still love the place is its habit (on the verge of becoming a tradition) of digging out a classic fantasy or horror movie to inaugurate the start of every Christmas season. Last year it was the wonderfully nasty Blood on Satan’s Claw, and this year it was Neil Jordan’s 1984 film The Company of Wolves, based on a story by Angela Carter.

Looking at this film now inevitably takes one back to a lost age of the British film industry, a time when companies like ITC were cranking out movies like Hawk the Slayer and The Dark Crystal on a fairly regular basis, while the hip young gunslingers at Palace Pictures, who started out by distributing art house movies from abroad, were chancing their arm with projects like Mona Lisa and and Absolute Beginners. The Company of Wolves is an ITC-Palace production, of course.

This is one of those movies which it is rather difficult to give a capsule synopsis for, but let’s have a go anyway. The story opens in what appears to be the real world, with a well-off couple (David Warner and Tusse Silberg) returning home to their rather expansive country home and their two daughters. The elder (Georgia Slowe) is packed off to rouse the younger (Sarah Patterson) from her attic bedroom, but it quickly becomes apparent that there is tension between the sisters. The younger girl continues to sleep, and suddenly the atmosphere darkens, the vista beyond her window becoming that of a dark, fairytale world.

She dreams of her sister becoming lost in the woods, initially encountering giant sized, animated toys, and then – as the forest itself becomes more grotesque and fantastical – a pack of wolves, which pursue and set upon her (this is still a very creepy and effective sequence three decades later). But the dream continues, and makes up the rest of the movie, as she herself appears as a young girl named Rosaleen, along with her parents, and her grandmother (Angela Lansbury, back in the days when she was much less controversial).

What follows is a kind of adult fairytale, very loosely following the plot of Little Red Riding Hood, but with many discursions and embellishments along the way. Quite apart from the main plot (which concerns a wolf menacing the village, and also, not to put too fine a point on it, Rosaleen’s incipient sexual awakening), there are a number of shorter stories woven into the film, usually as tales told by either the grandmother or Rosaleen herself, most of them taking a lupine bent – for example, a young woman marries a ‘travelling man’ (Stephen Rea), who disappears on their wedding night while answering, ha ha, the call of nature (there is a full moon), while a village girl dishonoured by a local aristocrat turns up at his wedding party to exact a startling revenge on the degenerate nobility there. Most of these are not much more than vignettes – one of them, featuring an uncredited Terence Stamp as the Devil, materialising in a white Rolls Royce, is very short indeed – and all of them are rather impressionistic and allusive.

Then again, this is the sort of film where everything seems to allude to something else. There are layers of meaning heaped upon each other as the film goes on, and in a rather ostentatious way. This is not the sort of film where the allusions and symbolism contribute another layer of meaning to the story – this is the sort of film which makes virtually no sense unless you accept that it is intended as a kind of coded parable, to be interpreted as such. At one point Rosaleen, hiding in the forest from an amorous boy, climbs a tree to discover a stork’s nest full of eggs. The eggs all spontaneously hatch out into tiny homunculi. On the face of it this is just weird, but it is clearly a moment of deep importance.

So, to coin a phrase, what is The Company of Wolves really all about? Well, for all that it occasionally resembles a rather superior Hammer horror pastiche, made with 1980s production values, I don’t think I would call this an actual horror movie as such – though, as mentioned, there are plenty of unsettling sequences, gory moments, and bits you wouldn’t necessarily want to show your own granny. It is clearly framed as a combination of fairy story and folktale (hence this revival, as part of a season of films in that kind of vein), and as for its central theme…

Well, to begin with, the stories all have a cautionary bent – not quite Beware of the Dog, but certainly Beware of the Wolf – the wolf in question often having something to do with aggressive male sexuality (I have an essay on the topic of lycanthropy as a metaphor for toxic masculinity in a book coming out next year, but what do you know, The Company of Wolves was there decades ago). All men are beasts, especially ones whose eyebrows meet in the middle (and this film was made years before the Gallagher brothers became famous).  The thing is, though, that as the film progresses, it becomes quite clear that everyone’s a little bit lupine occasionally – it doesn’t shy away from accepting the existence of female desire, nor is it treated as something wrong or shameful.

I suspect that one of the reasons the film remains so oblique and obscure in its meaning is because the structure established at the beginning is never really resolved. Normally, when a film opens in the ‘normal world’ and then moves to a dream reality, the conclusion sees the main character waking up and putting the lessons they have learned from the dream into reality – the classic example being, of course, The Wizard of Oz. This does not happen here: the end of the film sees a pack of wolves breaking through the walls of the dream, into the bedroom where the ‘real’ Rosaleen is still sleeping, but then abruptly concludes on an unresolved note of menace. I was not surprised to hear a group of people a couple of rows behind me discussing the film and admitting that they had no idea what the frame story was supposed to mean.

Nevertheless, this is a handsomely mounted and atmospherically directed film, even if the fairy-tale forest is fairly obviously a soundstage somewhere in Shepperton. There is also an undeniable pleasure in seeing people who are undeniably proper star actors (Lansbury, Warner, Rea) rub shoulders with folk you’d more normally see on the telly – Brian Glover is in it (his second British-made werewolf movie of the decade), so is Graham Crowden, so is Jim Carter (uncredited). Sarah Patterson, on the other hand, is so good in what was her movie debut that it’s genuinely surprising she didn’t go on to have a much bigger career. For what was a fairly low-budget movie even in 1984, it looks rather good, although some of the special effects – I’m thinking here particularly of the flayed werewolf transformation – have not aged particularly well.

I have to say I didn’t enjoy seeing The Company of Wolves again quite as much as I did The Blood on Satan’s Claw last year, but that’s probably because the latter is a (no pun intended) full-blooded supernatural horror movie, while the former uses some of the trappings of the genre to explore its own areas of concern. While the results are thought-provoking, it’s also a film where the narrative is there to service the author’s ideas and message. As a result it’s a film which is clearly at least as interested in making you think as it is in entertaining you – not that there isn’t a lot here to entertain, anyway. If nothing else, it’s a reminder of a time when British films were not afraid to be properly ambitious, experimental and imaginative.

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Well past time for some more Babylon 5, I think (apologies to any Mail on Sunday readers who may still be wandering past, to whom this will no doubt be a matter of total disinterest). Disc 4 of the first season is a slightly curious beast: following a run of strong episodes, this is a definite mixed bag, possibly due to only one being from the pen of JMS (two of the others are from the story editor Larry DiTillio, while the last is by freelancer Christy Marx).

A common criticism of the non-arc related episodes of B5 used to be that they tend to rely on a plot structure known informally as the ‘Wandering Looney’ – basically, someone rather eccentric turns up on the station bringing the best part of the plot with them. I’m not sure this is entirely fair – for one thing, the series is based on a space station, so the stories have to come to them, while for another you could quite easily argue that many well-regarded arc episodes are essentially Wandering Looney stories.

This is arguably true of Signs and Portents, one of the two or three standout episodes of the first season – on first viewing, this looks like a story about the hubris of a Centauri nobleman and the resolution of the plot-thread about space pirates running through the first half of the season. Seen in context, of course, the most significant character in the story is Morden, whose presence isn’t even flagged up in the guest star credits – and if Morden isn’t a wandering looney, I don’t know who is.

More Wandering Lunacy par excellence in the bizarre TKO, a peculiar fusion of character-based religious drama and inter-species cage-fighting action, after a disgraced prize-fighter and an orthodox Rabbi arrive on the same transport. This is an episode I have a sneaking fondness for despite its deep strangeness and some obvious flaws – for one thing, it handles all the aliens in it as a homogenous mass of people in prosthetics, rather than as individual species with complex inter-relationships separate from those with humans. This is a small thing, but it’s normally one of the angles that B5 covers exceptionally well.

Rounding off the quartet is Eyes, a rather disappointing tale of a nutty Captain Bligh-ish martinet arriving to supposedly investigate Commander Sinclair but actually just to recap the plot of the season so far for late-arriving viewers. The bad guy is not well played, none of the ambassadors appears, and it’s all a bit histrionic. This was one of the episodes I missed on the initial run of the show; I was annoyed at the time but now I realise it could have been much worse.

Tucked in the middle of these is Grail, an episode JMS has openly admitted to not caring much for. I can probably guess why, but at the same time this is a very B5-ish story – visually ambitious, doing small and clever things with respect to the wider world and its story, and with a story largely concerned with religious belief.

We open with the plight of Jinxo, one of the station’s large population of homeless people (why they let people on without money or an onward ticket is a bit of a mystery, but hey ho). Jinxo helped to build Babylon 5 (along with Babylons 1-4), and his knowledge of the construction of the place puts him in the sights of vicious gangster Deuce, who appears to have a special relationship with Ambassador Kosh, to whom he enjoys feeding people.

At the same time, the Minbari are excited that one of the greatest living Earthmen is about to visit. Sinclair and Garibaldi have no idea who it is and are slightly annoyed to learn it is the eccentric figure of Aldous Gajic, a softly-spoken warrior-mystic who’s searching the cosmos for the Holy Grail. The human characters dismiss Gajic as a crank, and he gets varying responses from the different ambassadors (he doesn’t speak to G’Kar, for some reason – maybe Andreas Katsulas was off doing a movie). Needless to say Gajic and Jinxo cross paths, with the result that the quest for the Grail gets put on hold while a voracious alien predator and some gangsters are dealt with…

I’m not entirely sure why JMS is less than enamoured of Grail, but I’m prepared to make a few guesses. There are a few minor continuity issues compared to other episodes of the series, mainly concerned with how timekeeping is organised on the station, but the most obvious thing about the episode is that it falls into the time-honoured trap common to much episodic TV, where a freelancer comes in and delivers an episode which focusses much more on the guest characters than the regular cast.

‘I’m a mystic, and to prove it here is my stick. Ka boom tish.’

Grail is really a story about Aldous and Jinxo and their relationship, with the human staff characters floating about in the background – although the ambassadors get some quite good bits (Londo is a bit OTT even by his standards). To some extent this is not a problem, as Aldous Gajic is played by David Warner, a brilliant actor who approaches genre film and TV with the same commitment as doing Shakespeare in the theatre (and for once that’s an informed opinion). Warner is far and away the best thing in the episode. Tom Booker, playing Jinxo, can’t even begin to keep up, and his performance when he has to portray extremes of excitation or fear is actually pretty excruciating to watch – but you can’t have everything I suppose.

The other really memorable thing about the episode is the monster, which remains pretty striking today (the CGI is not ageing brilliantly) but was genuinely startling back in 1994. I think this was probably the first attempt at using CGI to depict a completely non-humanoid alien on TV, and it’s not half bad. The subplot about everyone assuming the Feeder to be a Vorlon doesn’t feel like it goes anywhere, until you get to the little scene with Sinclair and Kosh discussing the situation – which more or less justifies it, I think.

You could skip Grail and probably not lose anything in the wider scheme of B5 things – well, there’s some stuff about the first four Babylons which is setting up an episode a few weeks off – and I don’t think anyone would argue this is one of the episodes you’d show a friend to make them want to watch the show regularly. But, like I say, it isn’t really like anything else on TV, and that kind of uniqueness will always be up my street.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published June 8th 2005:

Hello again, everyone, and welcome to this ‘stealth’ edition of the film review column that isn’t as defunct as everyone thought it might be, 24 Lies A Second. Quite coincidentally this week we feature a tale of authors haunted by a past project that refuses to go away, in the form of Steve Bendelack’s The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse.

You might be forgiven for thinking that this is a movie that’s dragged its feet in reaching the screen, given that it’s more than thirty months since the League’s last TV series (and arguably about five years since the peak of their popularity). Doubtless this is partly down to the vagaries of getting a British comedy film made these days – the vaguely similar Shaun of the Dead took three years to get made – while the extracurricular projects of the various League members (novels, appearances in other people’s shows, straight acting, doing the Guide movie, radical televised biographies of Dickens, etc) have probably taken their toll as well. But here we are, and the question is: just what have the famously unwilling-to-just-sit-there-and-coast League come up with?

Well, ahem. The renowned Scottish hippy-writer-visionary-nutcase Grant Morrison has proposed that such is the complexity and sophistication of certain longstanding fictional universes that sooner or later they will inevitably achieve sentience and start evolving without the assistance of writers. This certainly seems to be happening to the grotesque rural hellhole of Royston Vasey in the movie. Strange and terrible events (some involving the ejaculate of the camelopardalis reticulata) are occuring, leading clinically fed-up vicar Bernice (Reece Shearsmith) to realise an appalling truth – Royston Vasey is only fictional! The writers responsible for its creation have decided to move onto new projects, and as a result its dissolution is imminent. The folk of Vasey being the horrific monsters that they are, they’re not going to take this lying down. Using a convenient plot device they effect entry into the ‘real’ world, and a crack (and cracked) team comprising local shopkeepers Edward (Shearsmith) and Tubbs (Steve Pemberton), Hilary Briss the specialist butcher (Mark Gatiss), hopeless businessman Geoff Tipps (Reece Shearsmith), the unsavoury Herr Lipp (Steve Pemberton) and the indescribable Papa Lazarou (Reece Shearsmith) set out to change the minds of recalcitrant writers Reece Shearsmith (Reece Shearsmith), Steve Pemberton (Steve Pemberton), Mark Gatiss (Mark Gatiss) and Jeremy Dyson (Michael Sheen – eh?).

Oh well, if nothing else at least the League have managed to get their names into one single review more often than virtually anyone else I can recall. Anyway it turns out that they have forsaken Vasey in favour of a Tigon-style horror movie set in the 17th century, The King’s Evil. Obviously the Vaseyites endeavour to halt this project, but not before one of their number accidentally wanders into the fictional reality of the new film. Peculiar wizard Doctor Pea (David Warner) and his friends have no more desire to be set aside than their predecessors, and so the stage is set for… oh, don’t ask.

I’d like to see how this goes down in Topeka, demanding as it does a fairly detailed familiarity with not only the original TV show but the personalities responsible for it – there’s a fairly pivotal scene involving Dyson-the-character which is largely there simply because Dyson-the-writer is the Leaguer who hardly does any acting and he was clearly equally unwilling to appear as himself in the film. It’s clear the League didn’t want to fall into the same traps as some of their predecessors transferring from TV to film (the notoriously bad ‘everyone goes on holiday to Spain together’ plot of the big screen Are You Being Served? is inevitably referenced), and their strenuous efforts to do something new and original means that they fall into a brand new set of traps instead.

Well probably. This is such a dementedly strange film that it’s difficult to be sure. It’s certainly not as funny as one might have expected (and the makers doubtless hoped) it to be. There are some laughs, but not that many – and the humour, rather than dark, is more often broad and crass. However it certainly retains the attention and even engages the emotions: there’s a touch of pathos as one Vasey resident in particular struggles to come to terms with the realisation that he’s a one joke character based around a bad pun. It’s never dull.

The Leaguers themselves carry most of the film, playing the vast majority of roles between them. Reece Shearsmith probably wins the ‘most parts played’ trophy, while Steve Pemberton gets the strength in depth award (he also spends more time playing himself than either of the others). Rather disappointingly Mark Gatiss seems to spend most of the film playing Hilary Briss (not a particularly engaging character). It’s to the credit of the League that they portray themselves as complete sods: pill-poppers, poor parents, uncharitable and prone to making film references at the least helpful moments. They’ve drafted in some top-drawer support for cameo duty: Peter Kaye, Bernard Hill, Victoria Wood and Simon Pegg all feature in The King’s Evil. It’s David Warner who walks off with the film’s comic acting honours, though. (Initial reports that the great Ray Harryhausen would be coming out of retirement for this movie seem to have been premature, though there are suitably reverent homages to the master at a couple of points.)

But in the end this an infuriatingly patchy film. It never quite overcomes the flaw in its central idea (if the Vasey characters are so utterly dependent on being written by the League for their existence, how can they sneak up on them without the writers knowing what’s going on?), and the perspective of the film (the story is told from the point of view of the characters rather than the creators) means the story loses some of its impact (the opening sequence, which reverses this, is considerably more successful in blending comedy with genuine creepiness and horror). It’s undeniably original, but probably the kind of original that baffles and repels audiences instead of beguiling them. The League of Gentlemen get ten out of ten for effort, but the fact remains that Apocalypse is the stuff of cult raves rather than mainstream success.

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