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Posts Tagged ‘horror’

A bit of a landmark for me recently, as for the first time ever I found myself watching a movie which was executive-produced by someone who once wrote me a letter. Hey, it’s not much, but it’s noteworthy for me at least. The person in question is the writer and critic Kim Newman, who – in addition to being a brilliant author and critic, a snappy dresser, and (according to Neil Gaiman, at least) the inspiration for Pinhead in Hellraiser – is a man who seems to be meticulous about replying to his fan mail. (An inspiration to us all.)

Given that Newman is an authority on the horror genre and has probably watched more bargain-basement films of that type than any other person in history, it should not come as a great surprise that the first movie he’s actually been involved in is… a rom-com. No, hah, it’s a horror movie, of course: Prano Bailey-Bond’s Censor.

The film is set in the early 1980s, with the UK in the grip of industrial unrest, the scourge of Thatcherism, and a moral panic about video nasties – the boom in VHS home entertainment also being underway. (There are various allusions to and recreations of notorious moments from legendary nasties like Cannibal Ferox, The Driller Killer and The Evil Dead: there is a lot here aimed at connoisseurs of classic gore.) Doing her bit to shield the public from the worst of this sort of thing is Enid (Niamh Algar), working – we are invited to assume – at the British Board of Film Classification, where her punctilious attitude and reserved demeanour has won her few friends amongst her colleagues.

Not all is ideal in Enid’s private life, however: she seems isolated and withdrawn, with no close friends or acquaintances. A clue comes when she has an awkward dinner with her parents – it transpires that, decades earlier, Enid’s sister disappeared in mysterious circumstances, and Enid’s own role in events is far from entirely clear. Her parents want to move on, but Enid is insistent her sister is still alive, somewhere, and refuses to countenance any other possibility.

The pressure on her builds as a video nasty she cleared for release is implicated in a grisly murder, and she is asked to view an older movie called Don’t Go in the Church!. But the events of the film are strangely resonant for Enid, almost seeming to be a recreation of her own memories of her sister’s disappearance. Could there be a connection? She sets out to investigate the film and its director, regardless of where this takes her…

American horror cinema currently feels like it’s going through one of its phases of retrenchment and consolidation, which is probably just another way of saying it’s sequel-a-go-go time at the moment (with the odd remake thrown in as well) – the trailers before Censor included one for a remake of Candyman and another for the latest Halloween episode, while follow-ups to The Purge, Don’t Breathe and A Quiet Place have also been out this year, along with yet another Conjuring movie.

Over here we don’t seem to be making nearly so many films of any kind, but at least our horror films seem to be a bit more original and interesting. One of the highlights of last year (not a vintage twelve months, of course, but still a hell of a movie) was Rose Glass’ Saint Maud, a film with which Censor has a few things in common with – apart from being low-budget British horror films starring and directed by women, they are both about protagonists undergoing a kind of psychological disintegration, which is reflected in the fabric of the film as the story unfolds.

The first thing to say about Censor is that this is not one of those films which will have the average person rocketing out of their seat in sudden fright every ten minutes (though there is certainly the occasional shocking moment) – the film achieves its effects slowly and carefully, through aggregation of detail and the creation of an unsettling atmosphere of uncertainty and unease. A convincingly grim and grotty 1980s is evoked, alongside the look and feel of many films from the era (archive footage, some featuring key players from the censorship debates of the time, is also included).

This is not to say it isn’t a very effectively creepy and unsettling film, built around a strong performance from Niamh Algar, who very effectively loses it in the course of the film – the movie occasionally makes quite big asks of the audience, and Algar does good work in keeping them on board. It’s almost wholly her movie, although Michael Smiley gets a ripe cameo and there’s an interesting turn from Adrian Schiller as an enigmatic horror director (this part feels like it was crying out for a more heavyweight piece of casting, but it seems that was not to be).

The film’s effectiveness as a piece of horror is closely tied up with its also being a rather tongue-in-cheek comment on the whole notion of censorship. The film apparently had its genesis when Bailey-Bond reflected on one of the chief principles of the censors: that certain images would be likely to provoke morally depraved behaviour from people viewing them, thus making it desirable to have them cut. But what about the censors who look at this depravity-inducing material more than anyone else? How come they are immune?

Of course, this is itself one of the main objections raised by the anti-censorship lobby, namely that one person shouldn’t have the right to decide what another is allowed to see or hear (assuming they are both adults and of sound mind) – it’s patronising, to say the least, and smacks of an implicit elitism (the idea that some people are better equipped to make this kind of judgement than others).

Censor’s stance on all of this is initially difficult to unpack, as the film’s protagonist – and Algar makes her more than sufficiently sympathetic – explicitly says that she sees her job as protecting the general public. The film seems to be suggesting that watching too much gory horror is indeed bad for you – but there’s also something very ironic about this, as well as the repeated dialogue that ‘evil is contagious!’. The film is partly about what the source of true horror is, and the film-makers clearly don’t think that the wellspring is VHS cassettes (or any other recording medium you care to mention).

Still, the film has playful fun recreating the atmosphere of dodgy old horror films, and there’s a lot of enjoyable knowingness in the film – early on, Enid comments critically on the poor quality of a special-effects dismemberment in a film she’s considering, only for an identical moment of on-screen splatter much later on to be (deliberately) equally unconvincing. The film deconstructs itself quite wittily towards the end, and it may be that its own intelligence and subtlety won’t necessarily help it find an audience amongst those looking for closure and certainty. But I enjoyed it very much; it doesn’t have the simplicity and startling power of a film like Saint Maud, but it’s a clever, vibrant, and very effective meditation on the nature of horror and horror films, as well as being a highly engaging (and rather gory) psychodrama. A very strong debut.

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If I cast my mind back into the dimmest recesses of history – we’re talking years and years ago, now – there was a time when I occasionally said something nice about Zack Snyder or one of his films. We’re talking the mid-to-late years of the last but one decade – are we really going to call it the noughties? Is that the best we can manage? – obviously, before his collision with the DC comics series movie franchise. Up to a point, I rather liked his version of Dawn of the Dead, and had a good time in 300 and Watchmen, as well. (Watchmen probably got him the DC gig, although the minds responsible don’t seem to have twigged that Moore and Gibbons’ masterpiece has an utterly different sensibility and tone to a conventional superhero film.)

So, always with the proviso that it doesn’t feature any superheroes, I should perhaps be cautiously hopeful about a new Snyder project, even if it is a Netflix original (the company continues to splash out vast sums on these big productions, but the people running it are apparently confident the massive debts incurred are manageable). It’s still not exactly what you’d call a step into bold new territory from the director, as it’s basically just another zombie movie, albeit on the kind of scale that George A Romero could only have dreamt of.

The premise of Army of the Dead (very nearly a fridge title) is that a zombie outbreak in Las Vegas has led to the entire city being walled off with the undead left inside to do whatever zombies do when there’s no-one around to eat. Obviously, this is a catastrophe waiting to happen, and so – in a blackly comic touch – the government is planning to nuke the city on the Fourth of July and thus permanently resolve the situation.

This doesn’t really affect ex-special forces hard-nut and aspiring short-order cook Scott Ward (Dave Bautista), until a slimy casino owner approaches him with a deal: in a vault underneath one of the hotels is $200 million in cash. If Ward leads a team into the city, cracks the safe, and returns with the money, he can have a quarter of it to distribute however he sees fit. Is he interested?

Well, it would be a much, much shorter movie if he wasn’t. The crew Ward assembles includes various other tough guys and oddballs, with Matthias Schweighofer as a safecracker, Tig Notaro as a helicopter pilot, and Nora Amezeder as a scout and zombie expert. There’s also a clearly dodgy character in the employ of the slimy casino owner, and – for only slightly contrived reasons – Ella Purnell as Ward’s petite and wide-eyed young daughter (who must take after her mother).

So in they all go, and you can probably guess what takes up most of the rest of the movie – lots of sneaking about with the occasional interlude of extreme violence, revelations, double-crosses, desperate sacrifices, and so on. It’s an action movie at least as much as a horror film, and a stupendously violent one – although there are also elements of a heist film in the mix, obviously, and the plot has very obvious echoes of Aliens in a few places, too.

Zack Snyder is very good at orchestrating this sort of thing. (Hey, there you go: an unqualified piece of praise for Zack Snyder.) Some people have called the film humourless, but I’m not sure I’d agree: there’s a definite element of black comedy to the initial scenes of Las Vegas being over-run by zombie showgirls and Elvis impersonators, and the whole thing has a kind of tongue-in-cheek comic book sensibility to it. If anything, it’s attempts to give the film more of a serious emotional core which are less successful, and this may be down to the casting as much as anything else.

Most of the scenes in question feature Ella Purnell, who is clearly an able young actress, and Dave Bautista, who is a hulking ex-wrestler. (I think Bautista comfortably claims the #3 spot on the current Top Movie Hulks list, after genial Dwayne and Vin.) Bautista is very good in the scenes requiring him to mete out carnage to the undead, but less effective when it comes to delivering a dramatic performance. He’s not actively bad. But it’s fair to say that he is not a revelation in this role, and the scenes between him and Purnell feel underpowered as a result.

But you could also argue this is an ensemble piece rather than a star vehicle for Bautista, and there are certainly a lot of characters in the mix. Everything present in Army of the Dead is here in large quantities: lots of characters, lots of zombies, lots of gore, lots of money. The movie ends up being a hefty two-and-a-half-hours long as a result – at one point I checked how long was left, assuming the thing was virtually over, and found there were nearly twenty minutes left to run – with a lavish prologue depicting how the zombie outbreak got started, and a fairly elaborate epilogue potentially setting up a sequel. I’m not sure these are really needed; the film is probably about forty minutes too long considering it’s a zombie action movie.

Because in the end that’s really all it is. It’s a lavish and technically very accomplished production – apparently one of the more prominent actors got Weinsteined after filming had concluded and was digitally replaced in post-production, and you genuinely cannot tell – and, you know, it has epic spectacle to offer and all that. (Not to mention a zombified version of one of Siegfried and Roy’s tigers.) But while it’s obviously inspired by a George Romero movie, it’s very hard to see any sign of the big ideas about society or culture that are such a key element of his best films. This is just rock ‘n’ roll, crash-bang-wallop stuff, with a big dollop of calculated nastiness added to the mixture. It’s undeniably an entertaining film, if zombie action horror is your cup of tea, and less actively exasperating than most of the things Snyder has directed in the last decade. But despite all of this it’s essentially just an exploitation B-movie blown up to ludicrous proportions, and ultimately vacuous.

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What are we to make of M Night Shyamalan? Does he, in fact, get an unfairly raw deal from critics and commentators, for reasons which may have nothing to do with the quality of his work? (I myself have done jokes about his name in the past, which I am rather uncomfortable about now.) Many of the man’s films have been very successful; there’s a sense in which he rarely repeats himself; and he’s shown a willingness to be creative in his storytelling which a lot of less-mocked directors don’t.

But on the other hand, his work is maddeningly inconsistent, his early reliance on plot twists of variable quality has become the stuff of folklore, and some of the films are just plain bad. (This is before we even get to his insistence on casting himself in his films, often in significant roles he shows no real sign of being able to carry off.) It’s got to the point that with each new Shyamalan release, you wonder which version of the guy will have been responsible – the one who made The Sixth Sense and Split or the perpetrator of After Earth?

Well, he’s back again with the first post-Covid film I’ve seen on the big screen (this may explain some of the film’s formal minimalism), Old. It’s based on a Swiss graphic novel, but – not for the first time with Shyamalan – may strike some viewers as resembling an episode of The Twilight Zone stretched out to feature length.

Gael Garcia Bernal and Vicky Krieps play Guy and Prisca, an outwardly-successful professional couple (he is an actuary, she a museum curator) just beginning a holiday at a luxury resort hotel with their children. But, needless to say, there are soon signs of something strange and unsettling afoot. (Not least the fact that he is Mexican and she is from Luxembourg but their children both speak with neutral American accents.) The smarmy resort manager offers them a chance to go to an exclusive private beach on the other side of the island, and naturally they accept, despite the fact the guy driving the bus is a very bad actor (yes, it’s Shyamalan again).

They find themselves there with a doctor (Rufus Sewell) and his family, and another couple played by Ken Leung and Nikki Amuka-Bird (all those years of playing useless establishment types in dodgy BBC sci-fi have finally paid off). Also on the scene is a rapper (Aaron Pierre).

But is someone watching them from way up on the cliff top? Why are the children suddenly complaining of discomfort? And why does anyone trying to leave the beach seemingly faint? It soon becomes apparent that, due to a freak geological effect (it says here), anyone on the beach ages at the rate of a year every thirty minutes. This could be the holiday of a lifetime… it’s just that the lifetime may be over much sooner than anyone expected.

So, you know, an interesting premise for a movie, if nothing else. I must confess I wrote a little book about the horror genre not long ago (something to do during lockdown) and one of the things I discussed was the nature of those basic, primal fears that everyone shares. I think that deep down, everyone is a bit frightened of senescence, the slow and inevitable physical decline that’s part of the deal that comes with continuing to breathe. But because it’s so incremental and slow, we manage to thrust it from our minds, most of the time at least. Old, in theory at least, should be an interesting vehicle to force us to confront this particular issue.

The only problem is that – how can I put it? – nobody in Old actually gets that old; at least, nobody who wasn’t old to begin with. Primarily this is because Shyamalan clearly feels obliged to keep an eye on the narrative underpinnings of his high-concept story and try to ensure it all stays relatively plausible. Someone asks, quite sensibly, why their hair and nails aren’t growing at an accelerated rate, and the answer is that the acceleration effect only works on living cells. This is bafflegab, really, only there to facilitate the story (the director doesn’t want to mess about with everyone having hair down to their knees and two-foot-long fingernails), but one consequence of the very-quasi-scientific approach Shyamalan takes is that it rules out the use of proper prosthetics and other make-up to give the impression of extreme old age (the extent to which people actually look older is limited).

In short, the director can’t find a way to make the process of dying of old age very rapidly into something visually interesting and cinematic. Nevertheless, the structure of this particular kind of film requires a succession of – to put it delicately – striking deaths, along with other arresting goings-on. He just about manages it, but the result is a film supposedly about dying of old age where most of the characters are actually murdered, or drown, or fall to their deaths, or undergo spectacularly nasty demises due to chronic medical conditions running out of control. So it’s arguably a bit of a chiz on that front: the central conceit is fantastical, but the film feels inhibited about really running with that notion.

It does not help much that the script is a lot less clever and subtle than Shyamalan probably thinks it is: virtually the first piece of dialogue we hear is a mother telling her daughter not to be in too big a hurry to grow up, but there’s so much stuff in a similar vein very early on that it topples over from being a neat foreshadowing of the subtext to simply too on-the-nose. And in places it’s vague, too: the children grow from being pre-teens to being on the cusp of middle-age over the course of a day and a night; what’s not at all clear is whether they remain children in adult bodies, or if they mature intellectually and emotionally too. I think the film eventually inclines towards the latter, but why this should be isn’t really addressed.

We must remember Shyamalan was working under sub-optimal conditions with this film and there are still some good things about it: the various transitions between the different actors playing the children as they age are neatly handled (some of the switches in actor are almost imperceptible – The Crown this ain’t), horror fans will enjoy one or two memorably gruesome moments, and the whole thing does eventually hang together on its own terms reasonably well (there’s not so much a twist, more a sort of reveal of what’s been going on). The problem is that those terms, the ones that make it a coherent thriller, are the same ones which undercut the film’s effectiveness as a film about how people deal with the ageing process. For once, a more fantastical approach would probably have resulted in a better film. In the end, Old isn’t one of Shyamalan’s worst films, but it’s just mildly diverting tosh when it could have been something genuinely unsettling and thought-provoking.

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What a pleasure it is to be able to visit the cinemas in and around Leicester Square once more – it’s like being let out of prison, even if doing so at the moment involves staggering through the streets of London rather like Edward Judd at the beginning of The Day the Earth Caught Fire. (Where can a person get a stillsuit when they need one?) Being able to see the big Hollywood releases is all very well and good, but the great all-song of cinema is incomplete without the quirky little themes and unlikely melodies provided by less mainstream fare you only find in independent cinemas.

With Quentin Dupieux’s Deerskin (F-title: Le Daim, which apparently translates as either The Deer or The Suede) we are certainly some way off the beaten track, drawn there, perhaps, by the star power of Jean Dujardin, who was rather famous around the world for The Artist a while back but has shown a creditable disregard for the siren song of American movies. Not that Dupieux is without a certain reputation of his own: in addition to writing and directing (amongst other things) 2010’s Rubber, the greatest film about a homicidal tyre with psychic powers ever made, he also had a sort of music career as the creator of Flat Eric and the Flat Beat (google at your peril: some things are best left forgotten).

As the film opens we find Dujardin on the road. He is playing an ordinary-seeming fellow named Georges, but it soon becomes clear he is perhaps not such an anonymous chap: stopping for a break, he abruptly decides to take off his coat (an inoffensive green corduroy number) and attempts to flush it down the lavatory, not very successfully. (There’s a story that Martin Fry of the pop group ABC once attempted to do the same thing with a gold lame suit.)

Anyway, the now-shirtsleeved Georges reaches his destination, where he is making a purchase from an old man. He’s buying a replacement jacket, made entirely of deerskin, and he seems absolutely delighted with it – despite the fact it is obviously too small and too short for him. Nevertheless, he coughs up more than 7000 Euros for the thing, receiving as a sort of bonus a small digital video camera.

Resplendent in his new jacket, Georges drives off to somewhere remotely Alpine and checks into a hotel, despite the fact his credit card has stopped working. Conning the staff into letting him stay on, he decides – despite a total lack of knowledge or expertise – to pass himself off as an auteur film-maker, and starts presenting himself as such at the local bar, where he befriends barmaid and aspiring editor Denise (Adele Haenel).

There is so clearly something not quite right about Georges that it doesn’t come as much of a surprise when he starts carrying on conversations with the jacket, supplying its contributions himself. It’s not even as if this is a case of a troubled man having found a friend, for the jacket has an ambition it wants Georges to help it achieve. Fortunately, Georges has his own dream, and – what are the chances? – the two things dovetail perfectly…

Yup, another tale of a man undergoing a mid-life crisis and forming an unhealthy co-dependent relationship with a psychotic piece of clothing: only from the director of Rubber could this really be described as a step towards more mainstream and accessible fare. At least it’s clear what this is: it’s a horror-comedy, or possibly a comedy-horror, albeit one with a very distinctive tone to it.

This is a real slow-burner of a film, which starts off looking relatively normal before slowly sliding into the realms of the truly bizarre. From the start it is completely deadpan, with perhaps the faintest touch of a knowingly tongue-in-cheek feel: as the story progresses and Georges’ behaviour becomes more and more outlandish, you’re increasingly aware that the story is completely ridiculous and implausible – never mind the farcical way in which Georges’ breakdown expresses itself, there’s the behaviour of all the other characters, and the mysterious non-appearance of the police or media (given a gory and substantial killing spree takes place).

And yet it stays very watchable and engaging, rather than becoming absurd to the point of complete silliness. This is mostly down to Jean Dujardin, who carries the majority of the scenes himself and brings an enormous amount of understated conviction to Georges: a peculiar and rather sad individual he may be, but he’s not unsympathetic, and it’s Dujardin’s portrayal of his vanity and cluelessness which really finds the veins of black comedy running through the film.

Helping very much is Adele Haenel, as someone theoretically sane but proving to be remarkably credulous as the film goes on and Georges’ tales of what he’s up to unravel. Unlike Dujardin, Haenel plays it entirely straight – or at least as straight as the material will permit – which just adds to the oddness of the film. Are we supposed to conclude that life in small-town France is so dreary she’s prepared to engage in a kind of folie a deux with Georges just because it offers the prospect of escape? (Possibly folie a trois if you count the jacket.)

Unfortunately, any resolution of all this is limited, at best: Deerskin lasts a brisk and peculiar 75 minutes or so and then ends, the story having come to an abrupt and largely unresolved stop. It’s not just another of the formal post-modern pranks which Dupieux inserted so many of into Rubber, as there is a vague attempt at conventional storytelling involved here (exposition is laid in well in advance). This doesn’t make the lack of closure any less unsatisfactory, though.

Oh well. I enjoyed Deerskin a lot more than Rubber, and frequently found myself laughing out loud at the sheer deadpan strangeness of it, mainly as manifested through Dujardin and his performance. This is about 75% of a really good film; the problem is not that the other 25% isn’t up to the same standard, it’s that it just isn’t there at all.

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The pre-titles sequence of Robert Young’s 1971 film Vampire Circus has a lot of heavy lifting to do, exposition-wise, so perhaps it’s not surprising that it doesn’t completely hang together. We find ourselves in the usual Hammer evocation of an 18th or early 19th century Osten-Europ (resembling, as ever, woodland a short drive from Pinewood Studios), where a young girl is playing under the kindly eye of local schoolteacher and upstanding citizen Muller (Laurence Payne). But wait! A young woman (Domini Blythe) appears and entices the girl away with her, luring her off to the local castle. Muller is sent into an awful tizzy by this.

All very well, I suppose, until it becomes apparent that the woman is actually Muller’s surprisingly young wife. At this point the characters’ behaviour and reactions, and thus the whole sequence, more or less stops making sense. Oh well. It turns out that Mrs Muller has been having a fling with the local nobleman, Count Mitterhaus (Robert Tayman, who has a bit of a look of a young Timothy Dalton). Mitterhaus is, unsurprisingly, a vampire, albeit one with a uniquely non-frightening name (in English he’d be Count Middlehouse). The count polishes off the little girl (initial gore quotient met), which Mrs Muller enjoys watching rather too much. ‘One lust brings on the other,’ smirks the count as she slips off her costume (initial nudity quotient met) and the two of them get down to it.

Well, not entirely surprisingly, Muller has been organising an angry mob with flaming torches and a cartful of barrels of gunpowder, and they all turn up at this point. Not having bothered to bring any crosses or garlic, however, the count carves a bit of a swathe through them before he is finally staked and the castle blown up – but not before he can whisper a few dying commands to Mrs Muller (who flees into the forest) or promise a terrible revenge on his assailants and their children.

Yes, this is another of those vengeance-of-the-vampire movies that Hammer had a few goes at in the early 1970s. At least one of these, Taste the Blood of Dracula, is from near the top of the Hammer Horror stack, so perhaps it’s understandable that they should keep going back to it. This is from a lower bracket, though. Fifteen years later, the town of Stitl (home to Muller and the rest) is suffering from an outbreak of a mysterious plague, and the place has been encircled by armed men who shoot anyone trying to get out.

The local doctor, who’s new in town and has the thankless role of being the guy who says ‘Don’t be absurd! Vampires don’t exist!’ at the start of Hammer vampire movies, thinks this is normal plague-type plague, but the Burgomeister (Thorley Walters), Muller the teacher, and everyone else who was there when Count Middlehouse was disposed of have other ideas.

Spirits are briefly lifted with the arrival of the enigmatic and glamorous Circus of Night rolls into town, having somehow got past the circle of armed soldiers. Running the enterprise is a gypsy woman credited as Gypsy Woman (she is played, with considerable oomph, by Adrienne Corri). Everyone rocks up to the circus and enjoys looking at a few caged animals, some slightly tacky exotic dancing, and some more peculiar acts.

Now, here’s the thing that basically turns Vampire Circus into a melodrama you have to indulge rather than a film you can take completely seriously. Senior figures in the community are worrying that the plague is the result of a curse laid on them by Middlehouse the vampire. You would think that all things vampirical would be playing on their minds a bit. And yet no-one seems to find the fact that the circus acts include a man turning into a black panther and acrobats turning into actual bats remotely suggestive. Furthermore, the fact the gypsy woman is credited as Gypsy Woman is presumably to conceal the revelation that she is actually Mrs Muller, come back to exact revenge. It’s not really clear why no-one recognises her – or, alternatively, why her appearance has changed so much. Nor is it quite clear why it has taken her and the count’s cousin Emil (Anthony Higgins, credited as Anthony Corlan) a decade and a half to get round to avenging him.

Then again, all of these films are somewhat melodramatic. Some of the narrative shortfall in Vampire Circus may be down to the fact that it was Robert Young’s first film as director, and his inexperience meant the production overran to the point where the producers shut it down and simply told the editor to do the best he could with the available footage. This may be another reason why the storytelling occasionally feels a bit strained; it’s probably also the best explanation for a sequence in which a group of minor characters are savaged to death by a panther which seems to be realised in the form of an astonishingly manky-looking hand puppet.

Once you get past the obviousness of the title and plot (George Baxt, credited for ‘story’, claims he was paid £1000 just for coming up with the title and had no other involvement with the film), this is a reasonably solid horror fantasy with an agreeably dreamlike atmosphere and impressive visual sense – it’s lurid and garish and a bit surreal in places, but engagingly so.

On the other hand, the main villain is woefully weak, even by late-period-Hammer standards, and none of the performances are particularly strong. You kind of come into these films expecting the juvenile leads to be wet and forgettable, but Vampire Circus is lacking the strong character performances so many Hammer movies benefit from – Thorley Walters is okay, but not in it enough; Adrienne Corri has presence and charisma to spare, but is hampered by the fact she’s playing the sidekick of other characters.

One thing about this movie is that for what feels like a production-line exploitation movie, it has an unusually interesting cast, even by Hammer standards. Quite apart from Walters, Corri, Payne, Higgins and the rest, lurking around the circus are Dave Prowse (one of many pre-Darth Vader fantasy and horror roles), Robin Sachs (another prolific fantasy and horror actor), and the Honourable Lalla Ward in pretty much her first professional acting engagement. It’s not entirely surprising the movie has become something of a cult favourite.

Vampire Circus is a bit of an oddity in the classic Hammer canon, as it’s a standalone vampire film with no particular connection to its series about Dracula and the Karnstein family – if you discount Countess Dracula (which this was released in a double-bill with, and is really a Dracula film in name only), the only other example is Kiss of the Vampire from 1963. I suppose the central notion and its execution is strong enough to justify the film’s existence, but it would have been interesting to see that double-bill fifty years ago: two very different films, one vibrant, lurid and almost impressionistic, the other chilly and measured and rather more thoughtful. Vampire Circus is a flawed movie and not even the best film about bloodsuckers Hammer Films made that year, but it has enough novelty value to be worth watching even so.

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Rumours were rife a few years ago that the revered Canadian auteur David Cronenberg was considering retiring from film-making, simply because trying to find financing for his projects had become too much of a grind. Whether or not this is true (the current rumours are of a possible film noir-ish movie, shooting this year with Cronenberg’s regular collaborator Viggo Mortensen), there has been a bit of a gap, and Cronenberg seems to have filled his time by writing a novel, Consumed.  Some might be surprised that the acclaimed director of such historical dramas and psychological thrillers as Spider, A History of Violence, Eastern Promises and A Dangerous Method should choose to go into print with what’s essentially a horror novel about cannibalism and techno-fetishism, but there is a reason why Cronenberg is still routinely referred to as a cult horror director and the high priest of body-horror in particular.

This is a label Cronenberg picked up back in the 1970s and early 80s, off the back of a string of films with titles like Shivers, Rabid, and Scanners. I think it’s fair to say that early Cronenberg has a very strong and distinctive taste, and one which still lingers in certain aspects of his later work: it might not be going too far to suggest the main theme of the Cronenberg canon is a fascination with all things psycho-sexual, an interest which initially manifested in a string of no-foolin’ horror movies.

The psycho-sexual element is present front-and-centre right from the start of Cronenberg’s 1979 film The Brood, which opens with unorthodox mental health professional Dr Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed) deep in a therapy session with a clearly troubled man. Raglan’s favoured method is something known as psychoplasmics, in which the patient’s repressed emotions manifest through physiological changes in their body: tiny lesions erupt all over the skin of Raglan’s subject as the psychoplasmic demonstration continues.

Watching this is architect Frank Carveth (Art Hindle), whose estranged wife Nola (Samantha Eggar) is currently receiving intensive treatment from Raglan. The relationship between Frank and Nola is acrimonious, to say the least, and much of the trouble centres around the question of who gets custody of their five-year-old daughter Candy. When Candy returns from a visit to see her mother with scratches and bruising, Carveth is naturally concerned and starts looking for legal grounds to block Nola’s access to her, or at least keep Candy away from Raglan’s clinic.

Meanwhile, Raglan continues Nola’s therapy, encouraging her to work through her repressed anger and resentment towards various people in her life, including her mother. It is quite clearly not coincidental, then, when Nola’s mother is brutally bludgeoned to death by someone or something (Cronenberg makes it quite clear the killer is not a normal human being) while baby-sitting Candy.

The tragedy repeats itself when Nola’s father, visiting the house while drunk and grieving, meets a similar fate. Carveth himself confronts the killer, who expires in front of him: a deformed, sexless midget, with no digestive system or umbilicus. But what is the connection to Nola and Raglan, and why does the creature bear a slight but disturbing resemblance to Candy herself…?

Well, and needless to say spoiler alert, it seems that Nola has proven an exceptional subject for psychoplasmic therapy, and her body has been sprouting cysts or sacs, each of which produces one of these homuncular creatures: born of a deeply troubled psyche, they act upon Nola’s subconscious desires without her being aware of it. Raglan, who despite his serious and urbane demeanour is clearly a lunatic mad scientist of the classic type, has getting on for a dozen of these things locked up at his clinic, but they have started breaking out and articulating Nola’s repressed emotions in an actually physical way…

A response of ‘Ewwww,’ is entirely acceptable, and may in fact be obligatory for the scene where Eggar produces yet another of her psychoplasmic spawn, tearing open the birthing pouch with her teeth. (Cronenberg complained that a lengthy shot of Eggar licking the newborn creature was edited by the censors with the result it gave the impression she was actually eating it, ‘much worse than I was suggesting.’) To be fair, though, apart from a little bit of bloody violence, this is a relatively restrained film prior to the climax: indeed, until the first murder, the focus is almost domestic, with Carveth and Nola more concerned about their family situation than anything else.

Bearing this in mind perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Cronenberg himself had recently been through fraught divorce proceedings, to which this film formed a response: the director suggested it was a variation on the same theme as Kramer Vs Kramer, ‘only more realistic’. Perhaps it says something about the essentially cerebral nature of Cronenberg’s work that this never really feels like a personal story, the director working out an issue of his own – indeed, the characters are quite thinly presented, just adding to the sense this is on some level an allegory or fable. There is perhaps something problematic in this interpretation: Carveth is the loving, misunderstood father; Nola a vindictive loon.

Cronenberg himself has suggested this is the closest of all his films to being a ‘classic’ horror movie, and if I was going to be harsh I would suggest The Brood certainly features a lot of horror movie acting as it is stereotypically (and perhaps unfairly) understood, by which I mean that Hindle is a bit wooden and Eggar is over the top, and the best performance comes from the mad scientist. At this point in his career Oliver Reed was just transitioning from (ahem) brooding, saturnine leading man to brooding, silver-fox, borderline-unemployable character actor, and he is unusually restrained but as effective as ever as Raglan. You kind of wish he was in the movie a bit more; if nothing else he provides serious gravitas.

The classic-horror-movie-ish-ness of The Brood extends beyond the presence of a mad scientist doing weird experiments; the homicidal midgets inevitably recall the killer from Don’t Look Now, and there is something of the slasher movie in the way the creatures sneak into their victims’ home or place of work before suddenly unleashing bloody slaughter upon them (though ‘basher movie’ might be more apropos given their clear fondness for blunt force trauma). There is inevitably some tonal unevenness when it comes to the combination of schlocky, slightly camp horror and intense psychological drama, but on the whole this just gives the film a distinct identity of its own. This may not be one of Cronenberg’s most ambitious or visually striking films, but it’s satisfyingly intelligent and repulsive in a way he manages uniquely well.

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Most people, if shown a movie, could probably take a pretty good stab at guessing when it was produced. Even without the obvious clues – well-known dialogue, famous stars – there are all manner of subtle little technical and stylistic things that can tip one off to the time a film was made. Most of the time the evolution of cinema as a visual art form seems quite gradual, with only tiny incremental changes – but then, to stick with the evolutionary analogy, there are occasional moments of punctuated equilibrium, when things change quickly and drastically: the arrival of sound, and then colour; the introduction of a format like cinemascope; the arrival of the modern blockbuster around the time of a revolution in special effects technology; the rise of CGI.

All of these are obviously huge changes, but sometimes you look back at an old film – or, strictly speaking, a couple of old films – and you are struck by the fact even during those apparently static periods of slow and gradual change, progress was still taking place.

By the time that George Waggner directed The Wolf Man in 1941, Universal Picture’s initial cycle of monster and horror movies had been underway from a decade: as well as the initial versions of Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy, the studio had also made The Invisible Man and various follow-ups like The Bride of Frankenstein, Dracula’s Daughter, Son of Frankenstein and The Mummy’s Hand. They’d also had a go at a werewolf movie, Werewolf of London, without much success (consensus is that it was a bit too similar to a recently-released Jekyll and Hyde movie).

This second take on the theme of lycanthropy is done more in the style of Frankenstein and Dracula, by which I mean it occurs in what feels almost like the borderland between the real world and something out of a fairy tale. This sense is only heightened by the decision to set it in Wales – presumably as distant, exotic and romantic a land as central Europe, as far as most Universal executives were concerned. Certainly, in terms of authentic Welshness, the film is about one percent convincing.

There’s something very odd about the near-total refusal of American horror movies in the first half of the 1940s to engage with real world events of the period, but there we go: it’s practically a genre convention at this point not to mention the war then raging. Certainly nobody mentions it in and around the country estate of Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains), where much of the film takes place. Tragedy has recently struck the family with the death of his eldest son and heir, occasioning the return from America (naturally) of his estranged younger son, Larry (Lon Chaney Jr.). (The age gap between Rains and Chaney is, if we’re going to be exact, about seventeen years, or, to put it another way, not quite big enough to convince). Larry initially seems like an amiable, well-meaning guy, which is what the plot requires, although events soon take a rather odd turn.

Sir John’s pride and joy is a big telescope, which he appears to use to spy on the local village as much as for astronomical research, and Larry avails himself of this too: and soon he is peering at the most beautiful girl in the village (Evelyn Ankers) in her bedroom. What can I say – autres temps, autres moeurs. Soon he is beetling down to the village to chat her up properly, apparently not having clocked that it’s a bad idea to admit to ogling someone through a long lens when asking them out.

Still, it’s Wales, and they do things differently there. Having bought a cane with a silver wolf on its pommel (yes, all kinds of plot is brazenly being laid in here) from young Gwen’s shop, Larry ends up taking her and her friend Jenny to the local gypsy camp for what must constitute some very cheap and not very thrilling thrills. The other two go off for an evening walk while Jenny gets her palm read by a gypsy named Bela (Bela Lugosi). Unfortunately, all Bela can read in her palm is a pentagram, which translates as ‘imminent death’.

Yes, Bela Lugosi is a werewolf in this one, though he is let off having to put on the makeup: he turns into an actual wolf. Bela attacks Jenny and Larry has a go at saving her, bashing Bela on the head with his silver cane and getting nipped in the process. Needless to say this kind of incident causes a stir, even in Wales. The natives get ugly and dark imprecations are muttered, blaming Larry for the whole thing.

Needless to say Larry has problems of his own, as Bela’s mother (Maria Ouspenskaya) fills him in on the details of being a werewolf. (The age gap between Lugosi and Ouspenskaya is only six years, which I suppose makes the Rains-Chaney gap seem a bit more reasonable.) Soon Larry finds his toes getting hairier and hairier, and he is gripped by savage primal urges…

(In an odd deviation from what you might expect, the film never provides the full man-into-monster transformation sequence, beyond a shot of Chaney’s bare feet gradually turning into something more like paws. There’s also obviously something rum about the fact that it seems like the very first thing the wolf man does after changing into a savage, inhuman beast is put his shirt back on – I mean, there were obviously very good reasons for not wanting to have to make up Chaney’s arms and shoulders, it’s just a weird bit of continuity.)

What’s obviously missing from all of this is any real mention of the full moon as the trigger for the wolf man’s appearances, and what’s unexpectedly present is a sort-of association between werewolves and Satanism (the pentagram which both Bela and Talbot are marked with, and see on their victims). So we are still in a kind of half-way house between the folkloric werewolf (very much akin to a vampire) and the Hollywood breed, which this film did the most to inaugurate.

Still, the film’s innovations came to be ‘how werewolves are’, in terms of popular culture, in the same way that the Universal versions of Dracula and Frankenstein likewise define their subjects. Not bad going, considering that Lon Chaney Jr isn’t quite in the same league as Karloff or Lugosi (I always find him to be a stolid, doughy sort of performer), and the wolf man make-up also leaves something to be desired: if the film was called The Boar Man it would probably be better, but I can understand that was never going to fly.

Here we come to an odd thing: for while The Wolf Man is appreciably not up to the same standard as the first Universal monster movies and lacks some of their iconic power, it is – by almost any rubric – an appreciably slicker, more competent, more modern production. Tod Browning’s film in particular betrays its stage origins in countless ways; this is much more genuinely cinematic, and more entertaining as a result. We’re talking increments rather than a quantum leap – both films retain the ‘rude mechanical’ comedy relief characters, in this film a policeman called Twiddle – but the use of a much more modern visual grammar is immediately apparent.

Are we stumbling towards the suggestion that The Wolf Man is in some sense a triumph of style over substance? I’m not sure I would honestly go that far, not least because I would call it a decent example of a foundational horror movie rather than a particularly great film in its own right. But it’s true that the way in which the story is told complements the premise in a way that wasn’t always the case with the earlier films, and this goes a long way towards making up for the fact that the premise itself is only a pretty good one on this occasion. An engaging bit of horror history, anyway.

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There have been many notable and occasionally great one-and-done Draculas in screen history: Klaus Kinski, Denholm Elliott, Gary Oldman, Frank Langella. The list is extensive. What’s perhaps a surprising is how close Bela Lugosi comes to appearing on it. But it’s true: while the actor racked up a long list of genre and horror movie roles (including playing Frankenstein’s creature, one of Dr Moreau’s creations, several other lookalike vampires and appearing in a very early picture from Hammer Films), he only played Dracula twice – and one of those films was a spoof (1948’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein). And yet he remains Christopher Lee’s only credible rival for the title of One True Dracula (Lee played the character in nine movies).

Maybe it’s because he originated the role – or perhaps the original 1931 Dracula, directed by Tod Browning, is just that good? Certainly it establishes the ground rules for anglophone versions of Bram Stoker’s novel, mainly by taking a very flexible approach to the text. Several characters are dropped entirely, others have their roles switched around, and the end result is that in this film it’s Renfield (Dwight Frye) who’s on his way to Castle Dracula to finalise the sale of a house.

It almost feels a bit redundant to summarise the plot of Dracula, but I suppose every version is a little bit different and – in any case – it’s just possible some people may not be familiar with it. The locals are appalled to learn Renfield will be visiting Dracula, giving him a crucifix for protection. Renfield, poor sod, wanders up to the gloomy old pile anyway, finding it to be oddly infested with what look like possums and armadillos (some very odd choices from the art department here). Dracula (Lugosi) issues his usual warm welcome and they conclude the sale of a ruined abbey near London before the brides of Dracula descend on Renfield. (As usual, the film doesn’t address the real question of why Dracula has decided to up stakes – ho, ho – and relocate to England. He hardly fits the usual profile of an economic migrant.)

After a brief interlude depicting the not-exactly-untroubled voyage of the ship Dracula takes from Romania to England – the crazed Renfield has now become his servant – we’re into the main part of the film. After a brief but strikingly effective interlude of a top-hatted Dracula stalking through the metropolis’ fog, pausing only to snack on the occasional match girl, this primarily concerns Dracula’s dealings with Dr Seward (Herbert Bunston), owner of the asylum next door to the ruined abbey, and his nearest and dearest: his daughter Mina (Helen Chandler), her fiancé John Harker (David Manners), and her friend Lucy Weston (Frances Dade).

Best not to get too attached to Lucy, for she is soon no more: her plot function is basically to be a sort of demonstrative victim of Dracula’s M.O. (The subplot from the novel about Lucy rising as a vampire and preying on children is mentioned, but not really developed.) From this point on the film is about the battle to stop Mina from going the same way – luckily, Dr Seward is able to call in his old friend and expert on all things peculiar, Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan), who very quickly realises just what’s going on here.

The status of Dracula as an important and iconic film is indisputable by anyone with a passing knowledge of and interest in modern culture, but in recent years a sort of critical push-back against it has developed, suggesting it is simply not a very good movie (and the Spanish-language version made on the same sets at the same time, starring Carlos Villarias, is often cited to be a much more effective take on the story).

Well, I can see where critics of Dracula are coming from, because nine decades on this iconic piece of cinema often feels barely cinematic at all. The reason for this is, in a sense, very straightforward: it’s not quite a direct adaptation of the novel, but rather a filmed version of the 1924 stage version (with occasional moments lifted from Murnau’s unauthorised adaptation, which genuinely is a classic movie). This explains the talky and largely static nature of the piece, although given the film is only about 75 minutes long, probably not its sluggish pace – I get a sense that the stage play may have been a gruelling ordeal, just not in the way that its makers may have intended. Certainly, as a horror movie this film is seriously restricted by the censorship of the period: this is a wholly bloodless vampire movie, some might say in more senses than one.

Then again, neither sensationalist spectacle nor studied naturalism were really in the toolbox of American cinema in the 1930s; many films were basically just filmed theatre, with an accordingly theatrical and camp air to them. There’s something very theatrical, and indeed practically Shakespearean, about the way most of the major roles are played dead straight, while the supporting parts are often comic grotesques (apart from Frye’s wildly over-the-top turn as Renfield, I’m thinking of Charles Gerrard as the asylum attendant, who seems fond of telling his charges they are ‘loonies’).

On the other hand, there is Bela Lugosi as Dracula. Again, this is a very theatrical performance, with a lot of rather studied posing going on, not to mention some stilted line readings. But there’s something else here too – particularly in close-up, where he brings a real intensity and charisma to the part. It’s just a shame that Tod Browning elects to shoot most of the movie in rather static long- and medium-shot. You can perceive, perhaps, why this performance effectively set the template for screen Draculas – virtually every other take on the character is a reaction to it, either an emulation or a modulation.

You can say the same about the movie as a whole: it may hardly be a great Dracula movie itself, but you can sense it incubating the seeds of many other Draculas and vampire movies to come. For every scene which is a bit of a dud, there is another which either really lands, or is at least brimming with potential. Perhaps that’s the kindest thing one can say about this movie – it’s almost like an extended sizzle reel for Dracula and the vampire movie genre as a whole. Perhaps the movies weren’t quite ready for Dracula in 1931, but this movie did a fine job of giving them plenty of motivation to revisit this story time and time again.

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I haven’t done a full statistical analysis of what the most common opening shots of Hammer horror movies are, but I would imagine that there would be a high incidence of forests, castles, implements of execution, and glowering skies of various hues. Vistas of row upon row of terraced houses in the grim urban north would be correspondingly lower on the list, especially when soundtracked by someone reading out a fairy tale. And yet this Coronation Street-meets-Jackanory approach is exactly how Peter Collinson’s Straight On Till Morning chooses to make its bow.

The unexpectedness of tone persists, as in one of the houses we meet Brenda (Rita Tushingham), the young narrator of a fairy tale she has apparently written herself. Domestics are afoot between Brenda and her mum (Annie Ross), as Brenda insists on going down to London to find a man to take care of her and the child she is expecting. Already it is clear that Brenda may not have an absolute stranglehold on reality, but she is also stubborn and determined and duly rocks up in the Smoke, finding herself in a milieu not a million miles away from that of Hammer’s Dracula AD 1972, a slightly shabby demi-monde of mildly debauched young people in the usual startling fashions of the period. She gets a job in a shop, moves in with a co-worker who is having an affair with the boss (the co-worker is Katya Wyeth, and the boss Tom Bell, though his role is so minor and tangential it barely qualifies as a cameo), gets to know another young man who works there (played by James Bolam, likewise appearing less than you’d expect, considering he’s third billed). You would expect Bolam to be the decent, sensible lad whom Brenda eventually ends up. For best results, this movie requires expectation management, however.

Meanwhile, we of the audience are also getting to know Peter, a young man Brenda literally bumps into in the street not long after arriving in London. Peter is played by Shane Briant, possibly the last individual to qualify as a Hammer horror star, here making his first appearance for the studio (he would go on to make three more, Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter and Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell amongst them). It is rapidly made clear that, despite his good looks and well-heeled appearance, there’s something not quite right about Peter, as many of the women in his life have realised too late.

Persistent lack of success at landing a bloke causes reality to crash in on Brenda and she goes out for a midnight walk, sobbing and wailing as a rather maudlin song plays on the soundtrack. However, we have now reached the inciting incident of the movie – and not before time, some might say – as she happens upon a scruffy dog named Tinker, also out for a midnight walk. Tinker belongs to Peter, whom she also spies. Displaying a hitherto undisplayed capacity for low cunning, Brenda dognaps Tinker, takes him home and gives him a bath, before taking him back to his owner. As ways of manufacturing a cute-meet go, this is fairly extreme, but for all its relatively mundane setting, this is not a movie which is short on extreme personalities.

For Peter is fully aware of what Brenda is up to, and invites her to stay with him. It transpires that she is not actually up the stick, but would like to be, and telling her mother she was formed part of a not-especially-coherent plan to get her used to the idea of becoming a grandparent. Again, Peter suggests that he might well be open to assisting Brenda with her plans, though he dismisses the fake name she initially gives herself – Rosalba – and christens her Wendy instead. However, a grisly (and not strictly necessary) reminder of Peter’s own issues soon arrives, as he takes against Tinker (whom Brenda has groomed somewhat) and makes his views very clear, using a craft knife…

Quite nasty stuff, but one thing about Straight On Till Morning is that there’s hardly any gore in it: the unpleasantness is almost entirely implicit, with the film owing its adults-only certification to some moderately graphic sex scenes early on. It’s another departure from the Hammer formula – Briant’s presence aside, this is probably the least Hammer Horror-like Hammer horror movie of the lot – in a movie which is obviously trying to do something different.

It would be nice to think that this was born of a desire by the company to broaden its palette a bit and move into other areas – it was released back-to-back with another contemporary psycho-thriller, a slightly more conventional fem jeop movie called Fear in the Night, which at least had Peter Cushing and Ralph Bates in it. However, the fact that the bulk of the movie takes place in the same small apartment, with most scenes being played out between Tushingham and Briant, suggests simply that one of the defining influences on Straight On Till Morning was the fact it was made on a punishingly low budget. Divergence and distinctiveness were really forced upon it.

Even so, I’m not sure this fully explains one of the most striking things about the movie, namely its editing. The actual direction of the scenes, the compositions and the handling of the actors, is perfectly fine, but Collinson frequently opts to rapidly intercut between scenes, juxtaposing clashing images and settings, in a way which is almost subliminal. This gets a bit wearisome very quickly: it’s certainly an interesting experiment, but on this occasion it’s an experiment which fails, badly.

In the middle of all of this, Shane Briant and Rita Tushingham are doing the best they can, and neither of their performances is anything to be ashamed of. This is no faint praise considering the unhinged, wildly implausible characters they are both saddled with playing, or the dubious nature of the plot they are forced to enact. Some of the contrivances involved I trust you will already have spotted for yourself: the rest concern Briant’s character, who (it’s implied) is really named Clive, and has from somewhere acquired a homicidal hatred of beauty – hence his fondness for bumping off the beautiful women who are drawn to him like flies, the fate of the recently-bathed Tinker, and the fact he’s drawn to Brenda (whose main character point seems to be that she is a bit plain-looking). Where to start with the implicit misogyny? The downbeat naturalism of it somehow makes it seem far worse than any of the dodgy T&A-themed vampire movies Hammer were putting out at around the same time. (You may also have spotted an implied conceit relating to Peter Pan, involving the title of the movie and several character names, but this doesn’t really inform the plot or theme much.)

Some of this would be excusable if the film somehow redeemed itself through its resolution: but such is the scantiness of the budget that the climax seems to have been omitted. The movie concludes with an annoyingly open, unresolved ending – the implication of what’s happened is clear, but there’s no sense of actual closure. Straight On Till Morning has been very difficult to like up to this point – it’s got an implausible opening, a talky and largely static mid-section, and a pervasive atmosphere of charmless nastiness – but as it draws to a close it actually becomes objectionable. It is, literally ninety-something minutes of your life you will not get back, and stakes a good case for itself as Exhibit A for the decline and fall of Hammer Films in the early 70s.

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Every now and then, when I’m about one of my creative endeavours, I’m suddenly struck by a sudden attack of self-doubt and become convinced the thing I’m doing has no value. Nowadays when this happens, I tend to park the thing and either forget about it or think about something else for a bit before returning to it with fresh eyes. In years gone by, though, rather than waste the work I’d already done, I often used to try and turn what I’d been working on into something else that I found myself filled with more enthusiasm about: ghost stories would turn into post-apocalyptic sci-fi, high fantasy would turn into a western or spy story, all with little regard for logic or coherence.

This is all very well when it comes to someone labouring (for want of a better word) in obscurity (this is already the best word), creating solely for their own amusement. It’s a bit more of a surprise when something similar seems to be happening in a reasonably big-budget TV series. Which brings us to Sakho & Mangane. After watching a lot of old TV shows high in comfort-viewing value and The Queen’s Gambit (well, everyone’s been watching it), I decided to strike out in a bold new direction and check out the ‘world drama’ section of one of the big free streamers (rather curiously, there are some TV shows available on Netflix also available for free elsewhere, if you hunt about). Quite why I decided to watch what was billed as a ‘fast-moving African cop show’, I’m not completely sure: simple curiosity, I guess, never having seen a TV series from an African nation before.

Anyway, Sakho & Mangane mostly takes place on the streets of Dakar, where a new special Crime Brigade has been set up. In charge is the no-nonsense Mama Ba (Christiane Dumont), despite the fact that veteran cop Commander Sakho (Issaka Sawadogo) half-expected to get the job. Sakho is very stern and serious all the time, for reasons we will later discover. The new brigade’s first problem is a dead Belgian anthropologist who’s turned up dead on the sacred island of a local tribe of fishermen. The problem (and our first splash of Senegalese colour) is that the fishermen won’t let non-tribe members onto the island to investigate. Luckily, there is a cop from the tribe in the building – but he’s in the cells, as Sakho has just busted his derriere on suspicion of being corrupt. His name is Basile Mangane (Yann Gael), and he is a bit of a rogue.

Mama Ba decrees that Sakho and Mangane, horribly mismatched though they are, must partner up to solve the case of the dead Belgian. ‘I work alone!’ the duo cry in outraged unison. ‘So do unemployed people!’ responds their boss. And so a fairly convoluted police-procedural gets underway, involving a stolen idol, people-traffickers, a mysterious local gangster named Bukki, and Mangane’s on-and-off relationship with local journalist Antoinette (Fatou-Elise Ba). It’s fairly engaging stuff, helped by the charisma of the two leads.

Fair enough. After an opening two-parter, the third episode goes with another resonant theme, that of European sex tourists (mostly women) visiting Senegal to enjoy themselves with handsome young gigolos. It opens with one of these lads turning up dead on the beach. ‘Looks like a ritual killing, his balls have been cut off,’ announces one of the team (not something you often hear in Midsomer Murders, nor indeed Death in Paradise). Naturally, Mangane has to go undercover as a gigolo, which he is not delighted about. Again, it’s slightly knockabout stuff, but colourful and fun, with the actors clearly growing into their roles – I particularly enjoyed the performance from Christophe Guybet, who plays the team’s perpetually drug-addled pathologist.

Episode four is where things take… a turn. Mangane’s old army mate turns up dead in mysterious cirumstances, leading him to become even more excitable and impulsive than usual. It seems he was working undercover to expose a gangster leading a counterfeiting ring (I think, this episode is not one of the best-scripted). The bad guy is either a midget or a pygmy, but more importantly he claims to have a magic amulet that makes him bulletproof. Just another nutter, right?

Wrong. Come the climax, Mangane unloads into the pint-sized perpetrator, who’s coming at him with a machete, only for it to have no effect. He is only saved when Sakho appears and plugs the villain. What was that all about? Even weirder, an old bloke who’s been turning up occasionally to give Sakho vague, ominous warnings puts in another appearance. ‘You can’t use your powers that way!’ he tells Sakho. What powers? What is going on here?

Now, anyone watching Sakho and Mangane via Netflix will have had a slightly different experience: there, the show is advertised as a story of two mismatched detectives taking on strange forces as the supernatural threatens Dakar – anyone tuning in for that must have found three episodes about dead Belgians and sex tourism rather confusing.

Nevertheless, this is a show which takes one of the hardest and weirdest left-terms mid-season that I’ve ever seen. What was going on behind the scenes on this series? Was this planned all along? Did the people making it get bored of doing a police procedural and decide to have a go at making something more like The X Files instead? It’s baffling and intriguing at the same time.

From this point on, things get progressively more peculiar, as you might have guessed. Episode five is a post-financial-crisis story, with bank executives involved in selling dodgy sub-prime mortgages turning up dead with their faces melted off. Working out the connections and identifying the individual with a motive takes us briefly back into the realms of a detective story, but the killer turns out to be some sort of avenging angel with supernatural powers (Sakho and Mangane face a sticky moment until the big man calls on his ‘special powers’ again).

Episode six throws the format well and truly up in the air, with the entire regular cast reporting for special training at a cinema inside a deserted theme park. But it’s a trap! Bukki (who, it seems, is a close relative of Mama Ba) has managed to get out of prison and unleashes a horde of zombies against our heroes. Sakho is forced to reveal his special abilities to the whole team before the day is saved.

Yeah, it’s about rampaging zombies in a theme park. By this point I was just letting the show sort of wash over me, as there was clearly not much point in trying to anticipate what was coming next. This looks like the kind of episode made in a hurry, as a response to some kind of behind-the-scenes crisis, so different is its structure and style. None of the regular sets appear (and indeed the Crime Brigade’s HQ is blown up while they’re all off fighting the zombies, and is never seen again).

Episode seven finds the Crime Brigade now based out of Mama Ba’s back yard, with a rather peculiar sex attacker on the loose and the team a man down, as Sakho has gone AWOL now everyone knows he is an exorcist or a magician or something. Mangane seems more bothered about finding his former partner than the killer, which gives some of the minor characters a chance to shine; the fact the culprit turns out to be a demonic incubus (or ‘night husband’, as such things are apparently known in Africa) is not really a surprise at this point. (The demon is surprisingly well-realised.) Highlight of the episode, for me, was the scene in which a government minister summons Mama Ba and announces that the Crime Brigade is publicly being shut down – but it will continue as a secret task force fighting paranormal threats! Mama Ba takes this news with surprising stoicism, and does not appear to inform anyone else on her team of this minor change in focus.

By this point I was expecting something pretty spectacular from the last episode, in story terms at least. However, and this may not come as a total shock if you’ve been paying attention so far, iron narrative control and thought-through structure are not amongst Sakho & Mangane‘s most obvious virtues: the last episode is one of the duds of the season, over-preoccupied for most of its length with a sub-Saw plotline: Sakho is held captive and put through various fiendish tortures (some of them supernatural, of course), while the killer sends Mangane all over the city doing various errands for him. By the time we get to the climactic revelations (something to do with an evil cult Sakho would rather cut his ties with, various estranged relatives, and Mangane’s soul), there’s not much time left to sort it all out.

Furthermore, this is the 21st century, and no self-respecting series bothers with closure if there’s the slightest chance of a continuation, so everything ends on a rather confusing cliffhanger, bringing an end to one of the weirdest viewing experiences I’ve had this side of the final episodes of The Prisoner. Was a second season on the cards prior to the pandemic? Is it still a possibility nowadays? Where can this series possibly go next?

I don’t know. The thought of another full season of Sakho & Mangane quite as detached from the anchor of reason as the first one certainly gives me pause. But I suspect that in the end I would feel compelled to give it a look. In a world so often characterised by tedious competency, it’s important to cherish these eruptions of wildly inconsistent madness. Bravo, mon braves.

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