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Posts Tagged ‘horror’

The final three episodes of Sapphire and Steel were the only ones I watched on their original transmission (I only came across the second episode of this final four-parter by chance – we weren’t a TV Times household) and I think it is a testament to the striking originality of this series that elements and images from them have remained with me ever since. I was already aware of the programme, mainly from – I think – a Look-In annual with a heroically inaccurate guide to the series and its main characters – I kept waiting for Steel to use his power to turn his enemies into metal (this completely untrue factoid may have resulted from a misreading by the annual writer of the Sapphire and Steel comic strip, in which Lead demonstrates the bizarre ability to turn people into metal toy soldiers). Watching again now, they are amongst the most atmospheric of the series, and also the most cryptic: so not at all unrepresentative of the series at its best.

The setting appears to be a motorway service station somewhere in England in the early 1980s (the programme makers have learned their lesson and don’t specify an exact year). The reason for the presence of Sapphire and Steel (and Silver, rather unusually) is that the whole place seems to be stuck in a moment it can’t get out of: the same few seconds at 8:54 in the evening repeat themselves endlessly. It certainly looks like the kind of time anomaly they usually concern themselves with, and there is a further mystery – a couple (Edward de Souza and Johanna Kirby), claiming to be from 1948, have arrived by Rolls Royce. They seem strangely unconcerned about having inexplicably slipped forward by three decades, and are uncooperative and hostile towards the operators, refusing to give their names or any other details about themselves.

The mystery intensifies: time starts to jerk forward, ten and twenty minutes at a time. They encounter an older man (John Boswall), who says it is 1925, and a younger one (Chris Fairbank), who believes himself to be in 1957. None of it seems to make any rational sense, even to Sapphire and Steel. Other strange details take on an unexpected significance in the circumstances – why was Silver sent here six hours before them, when specialists like him are normally only assigned after a request from ‘regular’ agents? Why was their ‘briefing’ on this situation so vague and general? The suspicion dawns that nothing here is what it seems, and no-one can be trusted…

None of the participants seem to be able to agree on whether or not this was intended from the start to be the end of the series, or indeed why the series concluded: ITV franchise politics may have been a factor, along with the issue of David McCallum and Joanna Lumley’s availability. There is also a suggestion that P.J. Hammond was tired of doing the programme, but this jibes somewhat with his recollection that he originally wrote a method of escape for the characters into the final episode, only for it to be removed at the request of McCallum (it involved Silver, and McCallum felt the final scene should focus on the two title characters only).

The big twist of this story is that, as the fanon title ‘The Trap’ suggests, the whole situation has been contrived to target Sapphire and Steel (and, possibly, Silver) for death and destruction (Sapphire uses the two words interchangeably, which is curious and perhaps indicative): this is why it is so bizarre and inexplicable. Of course, the problem with this from a writing point of view is that every situation in Sapphire and Steel seems bizarre and inexplicable, so how do you communicate the special nature of this one to the audience? Wisely, Hammond chooses to do so through the main characters’ reactions: Sapphire and Steel start to smell a rat as early as the second episode, and their increasing unease and concern at what’s happening around them communicates very well to the viewer.

If this was intended to be the final story, you would expect it to be the point at which some of the mysteries of the series were explained: but of course they’re not. Quite the opposite, in fact: the creatures working against the operatives are transient beings, supposedly trapped in the past normally, who seem to be more powerful than them (one of the transients overpowers Steel very easily, no mean feat considering some of the stunts he has pulled off elsewhere in the series). The transients are apparently ‘agents of a higher authority’ which Sapphire and Steel have antagonised by refusing to work for it. While they have been marked for destruction, Silver apparently still has a chance of survival.

The questions inevitably pile up. If Sapphire and Steel are the guardians, or possibly regulators of Time, then they are surely connected with the great cosmic principles of the universe – what ‘higher authority’ can there be? (Especially one which seems to be rather malevolent.) The implication is that the operatives have an existence separate from their roles when assigned – that this is, in some way, just a job for them. It also seems rather peculiar, given the vast cosmic forces apparently involved, that the transients are so dependent on the time box they have been equipped with (then again it is, almost literally, a plot device).

It’s a different kind of story, particularly in the final episode, but this doesn’t mean it’s any more conventional than usual. It still works, of course, partly due to the performances (the leads are as good as usual, while Edward de Souza and Johanna Kirby are impressive as the main guest stars), and partly because the director understands pacing and the power of a good image: the moment at the end of the third episode, where the transient beings drop their human guises and reveal themselves to be hostile analogues to the operatives, is one of the most effective in the series (there’s something very British about the agents of higher cosmic authority appearing in the form of men in grey suits).

As we approach the end of the very tense final episode, it almost looks as if Sapphire and Steel have managed to dodge the trap their enemy has prepared for them – but, of course, there is one last twist to come. The end of the series comes abruptly, almost anticlimactically, and the final fate of the operatives is all the more downbeat for coming so abruptly and inexplicably. The ending of Blake’s 7 almost seems cheery by comparison: death is one thing, but eternity trapped in some surreal cosmic oubliette is surely much, much worse. No wonder it stuck with me so clearly. Perhaps not the ending one would have hoped for, but one which feels entirely appropriate for this series – after all, if Sapphire and Steel had been interested in routinely offering explanations, it would not have been the distinctive and memorable series that it remains.

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At times like this, with all the cinemas closed and all new releases cancelled, the big streaming sites virtually qualify as an emergency service for those of us who normally try to watch two or three movies a week. Oddly enough, though, I find myself drawn not to all the shiny new original films these guys have been making, but those older classics (or not) which have found a place in their libraries. (I did read a piece pointing out the sheer scarcity of films from before about 1980 on Netflix, the implication being that the site eventually wants us all to become consumers solely of its own product, in much the same way that Disney Plus is trying to make people forget any other studios exist – mind you, if you look at box office returns over the last few years, this seems to be happening anyway…)

To take my mind off what’s starting to look, for some angles. a bit like the popular conception of the apocalypse, I decided to revisit a somewhat offbeat take on the post-apocalypse, in the form of Thom Eberhardt’s Night of the Comet. I don’t think I’ve seen this movie in over thirty years – the BBC used to have a regular Sunday night slot called Moviedrome, where they would show a different cult film every week, and as you can probably imagine this had a major impact on my development as a cinema bore. I saw my first Kurosawa movie through the auspices of Moviedrome, not to mention The Terminator, The Man Who Fell to Earth, the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Alphaville,  Assault on Precinct 13, and many others. Classics all – but they also showed things like Night of the Comet, which appeared in the strand (a little research has just revealed) in 1989.

Night of the Comet was originally released in 1984. A knowingly portentous voice-over kicks off proceedings, describing the approach towards our planet of a mysterious comet, which made its last visit 65 million years ago, right about the time the dinosaurs died out. What a coincidence… It’s not one which most people pay much heed to, gathering in the streets and parks in anticipation of a literally stellar display.

Not watching the celestial fireworks, however, is steely eighteen-year-old girl Regina (Catherine Mary Stewart), as she has spent the night in the steel-lined projection room of a Los Angeles theatre with her kind-of boyfriend. Come the morning, he heads off on urgent business, only to be brained by a zombie with a wrench the moment he steps out of the building. Luckily, Reg’s dad is in the army and has taught her to deal with this kind of emergency, and she heads home, slowly realising something unexpected has occurred: piles of clothes filled with reddish dust litter the streets, and the sky is stained a baleful orange colour (‘Bad smog today’ is her first thought). Eventually she puts two and two together and realises that the comet’s radiation has disintegrated the vast majority of the population and turned everyone else into a homicidal zombie!

Well, not quite everybody else: in a credulity-bothering development, Reg’s sassy younger sister Samantha (Kelli Maroney) has also survived after spending the night in a steel garden shed. It takes a bit of persuading to make Sam realise the gravity of the situation, but eventually she wises up. The sound of DJ chatter on the radio gives the girls hope there are other survivors – but on arriving there, they find only automated equipment, broadcasting as usual. ‘Beam me up Scotty,’ says an impressed Sam.

Which is a decent cue for the appearance of truck driver Hector, given he is played by Robert Beltran (Beltran is best known for his stint in Star Trek, and the epically disgruntled interviews he would give about his lack of character development). Beltran gets top billing here, but doesn’t really deserve it. Hector also spent the night in a steel box (the back of his truck) and has had run-ins with the zombies. There is perhaps a little spark between Reg and Hector (rather to Sam’s chagrin), but before anything can develop, Hector announces he has to go and see if his mum has survived.

There is also a phone call to the station from a secret government installation who claim to be bringing survivors together – like you’d ever trust the government in this sort of situation. The head of the installation is played by Geoffrey Lewis, who is the closest thing to a mainstream movie star in this picture, while assisting him is Mary Woronov, who is both practical and stylish in boiler-suit and legwarmers. It turns out the boffins need to develop a cure for zombie-ism rather quickly (their shelter wasn’t completely steel-lined) and require the blood of bright young women to do so… Little realising the peril they are in, Sam and Reg decide to take things easy and do what any self-respecting California girl would do in this situation – load up with automatic weapons and hit the nearest shopping mall!

One of the main reasons for Night of the Comet‘s charm (which is considerable) is the way in which it shamelessly mashes together two notably dour pieces of SF to produce something much more tongue-in-cheek, even silly in places. The opening, with crowds gathering in anticipation of the show from the comet, and early reports of communication black-outs being ignored, is lifted almost beat-for-beat from John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, while the vision of an empty Los Angeles with lurking zombie-like survivors is likewise an obvious steal from The Omega Man (vide Richard Matheson, again). There are also nods to Dawn of the Dead, although to be honest the zombies remain a fairly minor element of the story, perhaps explaining why this film only received a PG-13 rating on its release, one of the first films to do so.

And yet the finished film feels like it really wants to be a comedy or spoof – a line of dialogue retains the original working title for the movie, Teenage Comet Zombies, which does feel like it would have been a better fit than the one they finished up with. I’ve always felt there was a largely-unrecognised movement of low-budget SF movies made in California in the early to mid 80s, and this is part of it – I’m thinking of movies like Trancers and Cherry 2000, as well, with The Terminator undoubtedly the most significant film to come out of this scene. As a rule they are clever, inventive, and witty, and to begin with this film is no exception, playing with its genre conventions with a knowing deftness and treating the viewer with intelligence.

The first act, until the point at which Reg and Sam meet up with Hector, barely puts a foot wrong, with the revelation of the aftereffects of the comet and the presentation of the silenced city being particularly well-done. It kind of loses focus and runs out of steam after this, though: the plot sort of ambles around for a bit, with various set-pieces going on, before pulling itself back together for a half-decent finale. The good lines are further apart and the contrivances of the plot somehow more obvious; Stewart and Maroney are good enough to make you wonder why they ended up becalmed in TV, but there are some very iffy performances further down the cast list.

The problem with the movie is that it’s just not funny enough to work as a full-on comedy or spoof, but the fact that it wants to be one means it is fatally lacking in heft in its dramatic moments – Eberhardt may have based his script on interviews with actual California teenagers, asking what they would do in the event of an apocalyptic crisis (‘go shopping’ was apparently the result – they only became concerned when he pointed out the problems involved in getting a date), but there’s still something very absurd about the sisters’ untroubled response to the catastrophe that has befallen the world. This is a fundamentally superficial film, and intentionally so, but that doesn’t mean there is not a considerable amount of entertainment value to be derived along the way.

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It’s always slightly disconcerting when two films in the same genre end up bearing very similar titles – I’ve written in the past of the potential confusion inherent in the existence of The Day the Earth Caught Fire and The Day the Sky Exploded, not to mention The Land That Time Forgot and Creatures the World Forgot – and this is before we come to films in the same genre, with similar titles, and weirdly similar premises as well. Pay attention, this gets complicated: Shirley Jackson wrote The Haunting of Hill House, adapted for the screen as The Haunting, while Richard Matheson wrote Hell House, which he adapted for the screen as The Legend of Hell House. Haunting? Legend? Hill House? Hell House? The what of which?

Full disclosure: it wasn’t until quite recently that I finally saw either of the films in question, and prior to that I was genuinely prone to getting them mixed up – not that it made much difference, given how little I actually knew about either of them beyond the fact they’re about misguided investigations of properties with baleful supernatural properties. Having now seen the Matheson movie, directed by John Hough, I can at least bang on about that with more of a chance of looking like I know what I’m talking about.

The movie opens with physicist Lionel Barrett (played by Clive Revill) receiving a curious challenge from the millionaire Rudolph Deutsch (Roland Culver) – Deutsch will reward Barrett handsomely if he can finally resolve the question of whether the human personality can survive after death. According to Deutsch, there is only one place where this has not been refuted – Belasco House, once the home of an insane, perverted millionaire, which has stood empty for decades. A previous attempt to investigate spiritual disturbances in the mansion led to the death of all but one of the people concerned – it has become, in Barrett’s words, ‘the Mount Everest of haunted houses’.

Assisting Barrett in his mission are a pair of mediums – one of them, Fischer (Roddy McDowell), is the sole survivor of the previous investigation, the other (Pamela Franklin) is younger and more idealistic. Also joining them is Barrett’s wife (Gayle Hunnicutt), who is rather sceptical about the whole project.

Well, Belasco House turns out to be an imposing Gothic pile, complete with bricked-up windows (could this have been to make it easier to film the interior scenes on a sound-stage) and a pre-recorded message of welcome from the last owner, Emeric Belasco. Everyone takes this in their stride remarkably well, to be honest. Barrett wants to press on with holding a seance almost as soon as they arrive, despite Fischer’s misgivings in particular: he is absolutely certain that the house has agency of its own and will actively try to kill them, tainted as it is by the succession of atrocities Belasco carried out. ‘How did it all end?’ asks Mrs Barrett, rather naively. ‘If it had all ended, we would not be here,’ replies Fischer, darkly…

You normally know where you stand when it comes to British horror movies from the early 1970s (this film was released in 1973). Hammer were in decline by this point, making a succession of increasingly lurid and dubious pictures, Amicus were in the midst of their series of portmanteau films, Tigon were just about to depart the stage – as producers, if not distributors – with The Creeping Flesh. The thing about The Legend of Hell House is that it doesn’t feel like or resemble any of those – it may be down to the presence of an American screenwriter (Matheson) and producer (James H Nicholson), but this does feel more like an American movie from the same period – where British horror films always have a tendency towards extravagance and even camp, this is much more sober and naturalistic.

The attempt at a kind of faux-documentary realism is propped up by a series of captions establishing exactly when the various scenes occur, and also by an opening card, supposedl quoting a ‘Psychic Consultant to European Royalty’ (oh, yeah) in whose opinion the events of the film ‘could well be true’. ‘Could well be true’? What the hell is that supposed to mean? Talk about hedging your bets. Nevertheless, the film’s attempts at a kind of eerie restraint work rather well, as things slowly begin to happen, to Pamela Franklin’s character in particular. The atmosphere is effectively oppressive. Much of this is due to an unsettling radiophonic score – not really music, but hardly ambient sound, either – provided by British electronica pioneers Brian Hodgson and Delia Derbyshire. Their work here is every bit as good as you would expect.

In the end, though, the film goes off on a slightly different path, and one which oddly recalls the plot of Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape (originally broadcast six months before the release of this film). Barrett, though a physicist, is open-minded about the existence of the supernatural and eventually unveils his ghost-busting machine, the operation of which performs a sort of technological exorcism of the surrounding area (the patent is filed somewhere between Carnacki’s electric pentacle and the Ghostbusters’ proton packs). Nothing wrong with a plot point like this in principle, but the problem is that it actually seems to work – nothing destroys the atmosphere and menace of a haunting like rendering it vulnerable to this sort of occult hoover. The film has to go through some fairly outrageous contortions to accommodate this and still provide a decent climax – it does so, thanks to a very odd cameo by Michael Gough and Roddy McDowell choosing just the right moment to go for it with his performance. It’s still a bit mad, though, effectively revolving around a pair of prosthetic legs and some armchair psychology, and the creepy atmosphere is perhaps a bit too thoroughly dispelled.

Still, this is still a notably effective horror movie, in many ways anticipating the way the genre would go towards the end of the decade. Performances, direction and soundtrack are all good, and if some of the plotting is a bit suspect, Matheson at least provides some very good dialogue, particularly in the opening part of the film. This is probably not the greatest haunted house movie ever made, but it is a memorable and effective one.

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More than any other story in the series, Assignment Four of Sapphire and Steel seems to have burned its way into the minds of those who saw it at an impressionable age back in 1981. Even the most casual piece looking back at the series almost always refers to the one with the photographs and the man with no face. It’s easy to see why: with this story you do get a sense of a show hitting its stride and learning how to make the best use of its advantages.

This is another studio-bound production, set in a junk shop, the yard behind it, and a small block of flats above. Children are playing, but there is something curiously Edwardian about them – almost literally so. They disappear when Sapphire and Steel arrive, having been sent to investigate… well, some kind of time disruption, their information is limited on this occasion. Steel sourly assesses the junk shop, stuffed with old things, as ‘a room full of triggers’, recalling Assignment One’s idea of things from the past being weak points where things from outside time can break through into the present. Is that what’s happened here? Someone or something briefly manages to trap the two investigators – they refer to themselves as ‘operators’ here for the first time – inside photographs, which suggests a malign power is at work.

They meet a young woman lodging in the building, Liz (Alyson Spiro), who does not seem very impressed by them, despite another casual display of their strange powers (in this story they seem able to manipulate simple mechanisms and devices by a form of telekinesis – perhaps they acquired this from Silver, as there’s also a suggestion that in a crisis they can mimic the powers of their colleagues). Liz reveals the old landlord of the building was fascinated by old photographs – but she hasn’t seen him, or her fellow lodger, for ages. There is a new landlord now – but she can’t for the life of her recall what he looks like…

Soon enough the new landlord returns. The creepy children inform him of Sapphire and Steel’s presence, and he is neither impressed or intimated. At least, if he is, he doesn’t show it, not having an actual face…

As mentioned, there’s a callback to Assignment One here, but also to Assignment Two in the way the antagonist recruits shades or echoes of people from the past – not their actual ghosts on this occasion, but the images they leave behind in old photographs. This itself is a rather creepy idea, before we even come to the idea behind the Shape – a being that has somehow become inextricably linked with the whole concept of photography, capable of travelling through or manipulating every photograph ever taken. Of course, if the Shape has a wider agenda beyond simply causing chaos it is never made clear (one wonders just where he has been when he returns at the end of the first episode). Up until now, Sapphire and Steel’s opponents have always been rather abstract, but giving them an enemy who can interact with them (even break in on their telepathy) works rather well.

Another significant plus for this story is that it is one of the shorter ones, meaning that there is less of the obvious padding that has been there to fill out the previous stories. Four episodes (or about an hour and a half) really seems to be the optimum length for this kind of story, for all that longer outings may be less of a strain on the budget. I’ve seen comments that the conclusion of this episode feels rather abrupt – well, perhaps in some ways it is, but you can see why they cut it short before having to show Sapphire and Steel teleporting off to the other side of the world. Maybe the method used to neutralise the Shape is a little contrived, but given the vastly powerful nature of the character this was probably inevitable. At least the story’s end includes Sapphire and Steel’s chilling advice to Liz – to find every photo of herself ever taken and burn them all, and never appear in another. One wonders how she would cope with today’s camera-obsessed world…

Given how indifferent Steel in particular has been to human lives in previous stories, it is a little surprising to find the agents quite so concerned with the wellbeing of the Shape’s victims – both seem genuinely concerned and even outraged when he sets fire to a photo in which he has trapped two people, burning them to death. It is another surprisingly chilling moment, and again one wonders whether you could show something like this in prime time nowadays. Probably not.

In the past I have mentioned a couple of times the influence Sapphire and Steel had on a Call of Cthulhu scenario I wrote before even seeing the episodes concerned. I know that one of my players is familiar with the series, but otherwise I would certainly be looking to recycle bits of this story as a game scenario as well – it has a strong theme, an interesting gimmick, and a creepy villain. I’m not sure I would strictly call it Lovecraftian, though – the story’s references to different forms of art (as well as photography, the initial arrival of the Shape surely alludes to Magritte – if you google for ‘Magritte faceless man’, a still from this story appears!) and other imagery suggest to me no more and no less than the presence of Hastur, that most enigmatic member of the Mythos pantheon (though we are admittedly quite a long way from Robert W Chambers at this point). The situation in the story probably needs some modification, if only to prevent the Shape from TPKing the players, but this shouldn’t be too tricky to achieve.

Assignment Four is perhaps the most conventional story so far in Sapphire and Steel – it doesn’t have the longeurs of the first two, or the sheer weird angular strangeness of the third – but it manages to maintain the strengths of the series without losing the peculiar atmosphere which makes it so distinctive. It’s hard not to conclude this is the high point of the series.

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Stranger things may have appeared as primetime entertainment on a commercial British channel than Sapphire and Steel‘s Assignment Three, but I can’t imagine what they were. The first couple of stories bear a kind of familial resemblance to the classic English ghost story – Assignment Two in particular has all kinds of half-echoes of things like M.R. James, Charles Dickens’ The Signal-Man and even a touch of Nigel Kneale. Assignment Three is very different – if it owes a debt to anything at all, it’s new wave British SF (maybe J.G. Ballard or Christopher Priest), but it’s a very tangential connection at best.

The setting is urban, modern, austere: an apartment in a tower block in a British city, in the year 1980 (the year before the story was actually broadcast). The inhabitants are a couple, she rather younger than he; they have a very young child. Almost at once it becomes clear that things are not quite as conventional as they appear – the couple are really time-travellers from the 35th century engaged upon a study of life in the late twentieth century.

Soon enough, Sapphire and Steel appear – materialise? manifest? – in the building. In this story their agenda is made quite explicit: the well-being of individual people is only a secondary concern, their priority is to protect the structure of Time. As you might expect, they have no fondness for time-travellers, but the situation here is more complicated than simply dealing with the intruding researchers. Some other force is operating, one that is hostile to the intruders and might conceivably cause greater damage to the timelines.

Steel’s rather dour fall-back position is to prepare to blow up the entire block, killing over sixty people, but Sapphire is reluctant to pursue this course. A methodical search of the block reveals no sign of the time-travellers, until they visit the roof – the time-travellers are living in a perfect replica of a contemporary flat, invisible, completely sealed off from the outside. It’s so comprehensively isolated that not even Sapphire and Steel’s powers can effect an entrance to it.  (There is something undeniably odd about the fact that the observers are apparently mimicking the forms of twentieth century life but remain perfectly cut off from it. But we are still only on the outermost lip of the rabbit hole.)

Needless to say, odd things are beginning to happen within the time-travellers’ capsule. They have lost contact with their superiors in the future, and also with two other research units in other parts of the country. When the woman, Rothwyn (Catherine Hall), goes through the motions of preparing a meal, she is besieged by visions of animals in an abattoir and the sound of their frightened cries. Small loose objects begin to move spontaneously within the apartment. The climax of the first episode comes when a pillow takes flight, turns into an angry swan, and hurls itself at Steel, who is precariously clinging on to the exterior of the unit.

Well, it’s an undeniably arresting opening episode, establishing the odd, alienated tone of the thing. To be honest, for all that this is clearly being made on a slightly higher budget than the earlier stories (it’s a bit of a shock to see Sapphire and Steel on film, when they venture onto the roof), it still comes perilously close to being unintentionally funny when the soft furnishings turn hostile.

This is another six episode story, and – as is practically standard in the series at this point – the pace of the thing is somewhat languid, to say the least. All the stuff established in the opening episode does get picked up on and resolved by the finish, but it goes off down some very circuitous pathways before this happens: one might even call it padding, but it’s some of the most surreal and diverting padding ever incorporated into mainstream entertainment.

Most of this concerns the peculiar fate of the time-travellers’ child, who is transformed into an adult (a genuinely eerie performance from Russell Wootton) who has time-manipulation powers (the touch of one hand sends objects into the future, that of the other reverts objects to their primal state – so glass becomes sand, and so on). Sapphire, meanwhile, is transported against her will to one of the other research units, where she makes some grim discoveries.

Turning up to help Steel out in Sapphire’s absence is Silver (David Collings), another of the elemental creatures. It seems to be generally accepted amongst fans of this series that Sapphire and Steel are ‘Operatives’ and Silver is a ‘Technician’, suggesting some formal difference in their status, but this is no more than implied on screen: Silver has his speciality (machinery and mechanisms), but then so do the others (Sapphire’s seems to be information gathering, while Steel’s is resolving problems, usually taking a direct approach – in this episode, he ties knots in elevator cables with his bare hands to isolate the roof).

Introducing Silver is really the story’s most successful innovation, as the three-way dynamic between him and the others is very engaging (David Collings’ performance is of the sort which makes you wonder why he remained a fairly unknown character actor throughout his career). Silver clearly winds Steel up very, very badly – where Steel is dour and serious, Silver is much more of a dandy, and one with a very high opinion of his abilities. Could there be something going on between him and Sapphire? There is certainly a whiff of tension there, and also the suggestion that the elementals are more human than they sometimes appear – there is talk of Silver’s childhood, while Sapphire seems genuinely frightened and even bleeds at different points in the story.

Even so, there does seem to be something very off about the pacing of this story: an episode or two of diversion, before a return to the main plot – but in Assignment Three things get largely put on hold towards the end of episode two and the plot only really picks up again in the final episode – the elementals and the time-travellers only meet face-to-face towards the end of episode five. The concluding episode inevitably feels very rushed as a result. The overall sense and message of the thing is clear – the story is, perhaps, a very oblique piece of agitprop about animal rights, with the biomechanical systems of the time capsule spurred into revolt by the journey into the past – but exactly how things resolve is left open – is there any significance to the fact that supposedly sealed capsule apparently had a mouse in it?

There’s a lot of interesting and often impressive stuff in this story, which shows that Sapphire and Steel can function as a more obvious piece of SF. But it is slow and baggy; often it’s only the sheer arresting weirdness of it which makes it work. It’s always very strong on the what-will-happen-next? factor, not least because it soon becomes clear that the answer is usually ‘anything the budget can afford’ (this is less impressive than it sounds). Nevertheless, as weird-and-distinctive pieces of TV from the past go, this is as striking as they come.

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Normally the news that the release of Peter Rabbit 2 has been delayed for months would count as unusually good news, but the circumstances, coupled to the fact that the new Bond and Fast and Furious films are also being put back by a considerable period of time (with other big releases no doubt to follow), kind of takes the shine off it. One wonders if the time will come when UK cinemas close entirely, either due to government decree or a complete lack of films to show (although there must be some intriguing possibilities for counter-programming opening up at the moment). I suppose one must do the best one can in the circumstances, for an eclectic range of films is still on offer, always assuming there isn’t a power cut in the cinema (this actually happened to me the other night; details to follow when we get around to watching the end of the interrupted movie).

Which brings us to Jessica Hausner’s Little Joe, which by any reasonable metric counts as a very peculiar film indeed: what I suppose we must describe as an Anglo-Germano-Austrian post-horror movie (yes, another one of those). There are things about this film which feel very familiar indeed, but the overall tone and posture of the piece are, well, challenging and unusual, or will be to most audiences, especially the ones most likely to be drawn to it.

The film opens, and much of it occurs in, the austere confines of a greenhouse attached to a scientific research facility. The people here are intent on breeding genetically-modified plants, with variable degrees of success. One of the most dedicated and passionate researchers is Alice Woodard (Emily Beecham), who is going against the flow by attempting to create a plant which needs especially high levels of care and maintenance from its owner – some of her colleagues are doing the exact opposite, trying to breed plants which don’t need watering when you go on holiday. The pay-off, in the case of Alice’s flower, is that the plant releases chemicals promoting the happiness of the owner and ensuring a strong bond between the two of them.

As you can imagine, this is demanding work and Alice is devoted to it, ignoring the awkward advances of a colleague (Ben Whishaw) who has a bit of a thing for her. Virtually the only thing she allows to impinge on her dedication to the plant is her relationship with her son Joe (Kit Connor), who is in his early teens. As a special gift for him, Alice smuggles one of her plants out of the lab and gives it to him. They decide to call it Little Joe.

But then the Little Joes still in the greenhouse start producing large amounts of pollen – something they shouldn’t be doing, considering they have been engineered to be sterile. Other plants in the same facility wither and die, and Alice’s boss insists on a full examination of the Little Joes to see if they could be harmful or allergenic. Another colleague’s dog is exposed to the pollen and begins to behave very oddly indeed – the colleague (Kerry Fox) insists that the pollen ‘infects’ people and changes their behaviour, that the plants are trying to ensure their survival through other means now they can no longer reproduce in the conventional manner. Naturally Alice resists this idea entirely – the Little Joe is just a very unusual plant, that’s all. Of course, it transpires her genetic modification of the planet has entailed a few unauthorised short cuts, so she is invested in having it proven harmless for a number of reasons. But when Joe starts to behave strangely, she begins to wonder if there might not be some truth to her colleague’s wild accusations about Little Joe…

The involvement of BBC Films means, probably, that a substantial proportion of the British public can sort-of take pride in being a producer of Little Joe and thus ensuring the continuation of the proud tradition of the botanical horror-SF movie. The British pedigree in this sort of thing goes back a long way and includes some very impressive books and films – starting with The Day of the Triffids and quite possibly proceeding on to The Girl with All the Gifts. (For fairness’ sake I must also admit that Z-movies like Womaneater and the segment of Dr Terror with Fluff Freeman and the killer vine also qualify.)

On paper Little Joe does look like a fairly straightforward horror-SF film about a creepy plant with more to it than meets the eye. However, anyone turning up to it expecting that is probably heading for disappointment, for this is a rather more subtle and restrained movie than most of the other blooms in this particular flowerbed (is this metaphor overdoing it a bit? I’m not sure).

One thing you can definitely say is that this is clearly a movie which has been made with a very great deal of care and attention: a lot of thought has clearly gone into the composition and framing of every shot, with the camera gliding implacably past scenes and characters, seemingly completely detached and disinterested in them. There is a certain austerity to the film – the visuals are crisp and colourful, but it always feels cool, detached, and calculated, with very little sense of the organic about it.

This persists. The script (by Hausner and Geraldine Bajard) works brilliantly to establish the premise and then slowly track the development of the situation, as the influence of the flowers seems to grow stronger. Equally good is Beecham’s award-winning performance, with her trajectory from dispassionate sceptic to uneasy believer in Little Joe’s odd sway completely plausible. But it’s all done with almost too much restraint and understatement. There’s not so much tension as a sense of creeping unease and vague disquiet, which never quite resolves itself or reaches the expected moments of revelation or resolution (this is the main reason why I’d almost describe this as a post-horror movie, rather than a true member of the genre).

In other words, we never really get the money shot, but the film is still well-made enough to keep the attention, not least because of the performances. The film naturally touches on some interesting ideas, as well: quite apart from the whole issue of genetic modification and the possible consequences, there is also the question of chemical happiness – whatever else it’s doing, the Little Joe flowers do seem to be making people happy, so why do they seem so sinister? Needless to say there are shades of Invasion of the Body Snatchers here, and perhaps even of Rosemary’s Baby.

I don’t think Little Joe is up to the standard of either of those, quite, but it is an impressively made film with some very good performances in it. Anyone expecting a traditional horror movie is likely to be disappointed, but viewers with an open mind will probably find a lot to appreciate.

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There was a point in the late summer and autumn of 1979 when the UK went down to having only two TV networks in operation, something which is almost literally unthinkable now. Both of them were operated by the BBC, the commercial network having fallen victim to industrial action by the unions. This happened partway through the transmission of the second Sapphire and Steel story, and when broadcasting resumed the decision was made to start the serial again from the beginning, presumably on the grounds that the story was quite weird and abstract enough already, without forcing the viewer to try and remember exactly what had been going on.

This being the second story in the series, there is a subtle shift of emphasis in that Sapphire and Steel, not the more typically human characters, are the audience’s point of identification as the assignment gets underway. Despite that, we still meet the main guest character first: Tully, a middle-aged amateur ghost hunter played by Gerald James. We learn very little about him – he lives alone, has a cat – but James establishes that despite his slightly fussy and pompous demeanour, he is a decent and compassionate man, motivated by a genuine desire to help what he perceives to be spirits in distress.

He is naturally a little nonplussed when the two agents turn up in the middle of his own investigations into what appears to be a haunting at an old railway station and the hotel attached to it. As far as Tully is concerned, the station is being haunted by the spirit of a soldier from the Great War, but Steel naturally suspects something more complex is going on and with Sapphire’s help begins to unravel the mystery.

The ‘haunting’ is the work of an entity which manifests itself as a cloud of darkness, and which feeds on anger and resentment. Whether this is another of the things which normally exists outside of Time but has managed to break through into the conventional world is not made clear, for Sapphire and Steel mostly limit their discussion to terms of reference which Tully accepts: spirits, and so on. It is the darkness which has summoned up the young soldier, and other victims of the two world wars, and drawing sustenance from them.

If the darkness has an agenda beyond this, or just plans to keep attracting and leeching from other resentful dead men, is not clear. Certainly the spirits are initially very hostile towards the two agents and Tully – they seem to have the ability to force others to experience the circumstances of their own deaths, with potentially fatal consequences. Sapphire and Steel don’t appear to have any special resistance to the powers wielded by the darkness’ pawns, and indeed show little sign of having unusual powers themselves, beyond Sapphire’s usual extra-sensory perception. They use a traditional seance at one point, and when they resolve the problem – whatever it exactly is – it is through negotiation, not force or trickery.

I am reluctant to spoil this story for anyone who hasn’t seen it but may potentially do so in the future, but (as ever with this series) it raises more questions than it answers. Who or what are Sapphire and Steel working on behalf of? What is their agenda, their overall objective? In the first story it seems to be that they are working to preserve the integrity of Time and minimise disruption to the lives of human beings. Here things seem to be quite different: Steel is so determined to rid the station of the darkness’ influence that he contemplates a serious disruption to the flow of future time. This is before we even contemplate the ruthlessness of his methods. The conclusion of the story manages to be both shocking and anticlimactic (the story resolves off-screen; all the audience is aware of is a sound effect), and the viewer is left off-balance: so little exposition has been delivered that it’s difficult to know whether Steel’s actions are justified or not – we just don’t know what the stakes are.

More than in the first assignment, the story does take on an abstract, almost theatrical air. I have to confess I approached this story with a certain degree of trepidation: my experience of these short SF/fantasy serials is that it takes something quite exceptional not to drag at six episodes in length. Assignment Two clocks in at eight episodes, meaning it is well over three hours long. Throughout this duration there are just the three main characters, plus the soldier and a couple of other ghosts who play minor roles; it all takes place in and around the same large set. It sounds like a gruelling prospect when you consider it that way, but – provided you don’t do something silly like trying to binge the whole thing in one sitting – the sheer measured spareness of it is quite engrossing. It’s true that the narrative of the thing advances only incrementally from episode to episode, but even on videotape, with minimal special effects, it is a genuinely atmospheric and rather creepy production.

This is the story I had at the back of my mind when I found myself obliged to write a Call of Cthulhu scenario at quite short notice last year, although I will confess to mashing it together somewhat with Assignment Six (which I had actually seen at that point). I kept the old country railway station in the middle of the night, and the apparitions from the past (also the future, just to do something a bit different), and in place of the darkness I had one of Lovecraft’s deities manifest in the form of a rather unsettling railway carriage which it was a very bad idea to board. It all turned out quite enjoyably for all concerned, but it was probably for the best that I only had the vaguest ideas of the actual plot of this story. ‘All right, let’s explore the spooky old railway station,’ said one of the players, as the plot got underway, ‘and hope we don’t meet Sapphire and Steel.’ I must try to make my influences a bit less obvious.

Well, whatever. I have a growing belief that, whatever else it is, Assignment Two is quietly rather brilliant, for managing to do quite so much with such unpromising raw material. Assignment One may have stronger individual moments, but this one is more consistent, and not afraid to really challenge the audience. One wonders if the programme makers already knew that further episodes would be made – certainly, if they did, what they do with Steel’s character in particular is very radical and surprising. But then one watches Sapphire and Steel to be challenged, and to experience the uniquely peculiar atmosphere of the thing. Assignment Two does what you want this series to do.

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