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Posts Tagged ‘horror’

Seeing as we were discussing the change in fortunes of Marvel movies over the years just the other day, we might usefully consider the question of what, exactly, it will take for them to actually produce another proper turkey (yes, yes, I know a lot of people didn’t like Iron Man 3 – didn’t stop it becoming one of the biggest hits in history). Well, I would say that on paper, the omens for Thor: Ragnarok are a little worrying, simply because when Marvel head Down Under to make their films (Ragnarok was filmed in Australia), the results are frequently not pretty.

Exhibit A is the 1989 version of The Punisher, transplanting Frank Castle from New York to Sydney and turning him into Dolph Lundgren, and I would argue that Exhibit B is Brett Leonard’s 2005 take on Man-Thing. On this occasion the movie at least purported to be set in the swamps of the southern USA, but it was actually made, once again, in the Sydney area.

Rather surprisingly for a Marvel movie, the story gets underway with a reprise of the opening of Jaws, as a young couple sneak off into the bayou for a little illicit whoa-ho-ho. Things are going nicely, until the male participant is gorily impaled through the chest and dragged off into the undergrowth, leaving his partner a screaming wreck. (The character who gets killed is named Steve Gerber, who was a writer on the Man-Thing comic back in the 1970s – several other writers and artists get characters named after them, too. I suspect all of these people would have felt more honoured if the scriptwriters had tried harder to make a better movie.)

Next we meet the new sheriff in the area, Kyle Williams (Matthew Le Nevez), whose incipient male pattern baldness cannot disguise the fact that he is improbably young for such a big job (Le Nevez was only in his mid-20s when the film was made). Top of his in-tray, apart from the mysterious disappearance of his predecessor, are the various problems besetting the local oil company, which has been putting up various rigs in the swamp and annoying environmentalists and local Native Americans. Williams decides to open communications with the protestors by getting to know the blondest and comeliest protestor he can lay his hands on (Rachael Taylor, who has since gone on to a more successful Marvel connection, playing Hellcat in the Netflix series).

It turns out lots of people are vanishing into the swamp and then turning up dead, and Sheriff Kyle’s somewhat rudimentary investigations turn up two possible suspects – local ne’er-do-well Laroque, and the legendary guardian spirit of the swamp, which supposedly hosts the mystical Nexus of All Realities. Hang on a minute – does that mean Man-Thing is actually the bad guy in his own movie?!

Reader, I’m afraid it does. Now, we are of course dealing with a third-string Marvel character here, basically an ambulatory pile of muck with a philosophical temperament and a tendency to set fire to people (‘Whatever knows fear burns at the Man-Thing’s touch!’). There’s also the issue that Man-Thing, who lives in a swamp, is very prone to being confused with DC’s Swamp Thing, who used to be a man (well, kinda: it’s complicated) – Alan Moore basically said both characters were ‘Hamlet covered in snot’.

The movie version of Man-Thing is a very different proposition, resembling a grumpy Ent covered in CGI vines and creepers, much given to murdering innocent passers-by in a surprisingly graphic style. This is much more of a horror movie than anything else that has been produced under the Marvel marque, and contains a lot of other non-family-friendly material – F-bombs, nudity, and fairly graphic sex, too (perhaps the writers heard the comic was briefly titled Giant-Size Man-Thing and got the wrong end of the stick).

If only the film was as interesting as that makes it sound. The problem is that it isn’t; it’s just dull. This is a Man-Thing movie in which Man-Thing himself doesn’t appear in the flesh – sorry, muck – until near the end, and the script doesn’t seem to have much idea what to fill the monster-shaped hole at its centre. What it eventually plumps for is the kind of scenario that would sustain a filler episode of The X-Files, with a lumberingly unsubtle environmentalist message and cartoonishly evil oil-men bad guys, driven along by occasional monster attacks. It might just have been enjoyably silly and camp over a period of 45 minutes. Stretched out to feature-film length – it really does feel stretched – it’s just dull, lacking in tension or new ideas, brought to the screen by actors who are for the most part not especially charismatic.

One criticism that occasionally gets slung at the Marvel Studio films these days is that they are all a bit samey, written to a formula, and overly micro-managed by the producers – hence the departure of Edgar Wright from Ant-Man, for instance. Marvel’s response to this is basically to point at a movie like Man-Thing and say ‘this is what happens when we don’t keep tight control on our projects’, and it’s hard to argue with them.

You can’t really talk about ‘the current boom in superhero and comic-book movies’, as it’s arguably been underway since the late 1990s (a very long boom), and you could even argue that there was a brief period in the mid-2000s when the bad old days made something of a come-back – as well as Man-Thing, there was the Tom Jane version of The Punisher, Ben Affleck’s Daredevil, Nic Cage’s Ghost Rider, and Halle Berry’s take on Catwoman. I suppose it just shows that doing this kind of film well is never as easy as you might think it is – also that getting the tone right is hugely important, and really understanding the character that you’re bringing to the screen. Man-Thing certainly constitutes a dropped ball, and that’s mainly because it doesn’t feel like a Man-Thing movie, and whatever kind of film it does want to be, it’s a poorly scripted and ineptly made one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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So, just recently I was writing about the vital contribution to my education which was made by the main commercial channel’s tendency to show endless old genre movies in the middle of the night, back when I was a teenager. Doesn’t happen these days, of course: even old movies are now too expensive, given there are a dozen other channels in the market for content, so the wee small hours are the domain of rip-off phone-in competitions and ultra-cheap home-grown repeats. And, as it happens, just the other day I was writing about the fractured dream-logic of a certain kind of horror movie. There is something oddly satisfying about the way these two themes combine in Freddie Francis’ 1972 film Tales from the Crypt.

Or should that be Milton Subotsky’s Tales from the Crypt? Subotsky is one of the (largely) unsung heroes of low-budget British genre movie-making of the 1960s and 1970s, most frequently through his company Amicus. Amongst other things, Subotsky oversaw the two 1960s movie adaptations of a famous BBC fantasy series the name of which I will not utter here, and the first few Trampas movies (the last one, Warlords of Atlantis, was the work of other hands). But if Subotsky left an indelible mark on the fabric of cinema, it is in the form of the portmanteau horror movies which he oversaw both at Amicus and elsewhere. He was not the first to make this kind of movie – I suspect that credit goes to Dead of Night, made in 1945, and widely credited as the best of the subgenre – but if you stumble across one of these, the chances are it’s one of Milton’s.

Subotsky was not the kind of man to mess with a successful formula, and it must be said that most of these films are rather samey, to the point where they all start to merge together in one’s head after a while. When an Amicus portmanteau comes on the TV, I have to take a moment to work out if this is the one with Fluff Freeman fighting the carnivorous vine, or Tom Baker misusing his voodoo paintbrush, or David Warner contending with a haunted mirror.

Tales from the Crypt is not any of these, in case you were wondering (oh, what delights remain as yet unconsidered by this blog). This one opens in classy style with a bit of Bach’s toccata and fugue on the organ and some shots of a cemetery. Geoffrey Bayldon, soon to appear as a homicidal psychiatrist in the next Amicus portmanteau, Asylum, plays a guide showing a group round the cemetery catacombs. Five of them get separated from the rest, and find themselves in, well, a crypt, with a robed and hooded figure (Ralph Richardson).

One thing about the moribund state of the British film industry in the 1970s, you got some heavyweight actors appearing in slightly suspect material. This is, as the title would indicate to the in-the-know, a fairly low-budget movie based on some disreputable American horror comics – a proper slab of schlock, not to put too fine a point on it. And yet it has Ralph Richardson, an actor from the same bracket as Laurence Olivier, Alec Guinness, and John Gielgud, and apparently taking it quite seriously. And he is not the only big name to appear.

Well, anyway, each of the five characters appears in their own short tale, revealed to them by the enigmatic Crypt Keeper. But is he showing them their future or their past?

First up is And All Through the House, featuring Joan Collins as an avaricious housewife who is unkind enough as to bash in her husband’s head on Christmas Eve, solely for his life insurance. (Best not to worry too much about finer details of character and motivation, to be perfectly honest.) However, no sooner is the deed done than the news is reporting that a homicidal lunatic has escaped from the local asylum and is on the loose, dressed in a Santa Claus outfit (well, of course). Sure enough, the psycho Santa is soon lurking in Joan’s garden, leaving her with the awkward problem of what to do – she can hardly call the police with her husband’s corpse still on the lounge floor…

Some effective jump scares in this one, I suppose, and it’s an especially camp segment of what’s a rather camp overall. The contrived plotting and particularly fake-looking fake blood (all the Kensington gore in this film is completely the wrong shade of red) just add to the fun, but it’s just as well this is the hors d’oeuvre in this particular collection.

Along next is Reflection of Death, an unusually short segment starring Ian Hendry as a man leaving his wife and children to be with his mistress (this is a sufficiently heinous crime to make you a marked man, and put you in line for spectacularly cruel and unusual punishment, in the odd cosmology of the Amicus portmanteaus). Well, they are driving off to their new life together when there is a car crash, and…

Well, the thing is that this one is so short and so insubstantial that it barely stands up to even a cursory review. If it were any longer it probably wouldn’t work at all – as it is, some slightly gimmicky direction and the re-employment of the ‘endless nightmare’ idea from Dead of Night just about keeps it afloat. You might wish for Ian Hendry to get some more substantial material, but you take what you’re given in this particular genre.

On next is Poetic Justice, in which a grasping, good-for-nothing, rich Tory bastard (Robin Phillips) schemes to ruin the life of a sweet old widowed bin-man (the legend that is Peter Cushing), having his numerous pet dogs taken away by court order, and spreading malicious rumours that, um, he’s a paedophile. What can I say, it was the 1970s, tastes were a bit different back then. Cushing is finally driven to suicide by a load of vindictive Valentine’s cards (the Tory bastard seems to have put an awful lot of effort into writing all the insulting doggerel involved), but his tormentors have failed to realise he has mystical connections beyond the grave. Or something. This is not really made very clear, but suffice to say, one year later, Cushing comes back…

Another textbook example of Peter Cushing deploying his powers to their full extent to lift some rather dubious material. There’s also the added poignancy of the recently-widowed Cushing taking on this role – I couldn’t help noticing that his character’s dead wife has the same name as Cushing’s own partner, and I’d be prepared to bet this wasn’t a coincidence. Sometimes you think you understand just how much this loss defined the last two decades of Peter Cushing’s life, and then sometimes you suspect it’s impossible to fully appreciate that.

Oh well. Onto Wish You Were Here, in which another ruthless Tory type (Richard Greene) finds himself financially embarrassed and on the verge of serious debt, at which point his wife discovers that a mysterious statuette they bought in the Far East has the power to grant three wishes. Any self-respecting viewer will at this point groan ‘Oh, no, not The Monkey’s Paw AGAIN,’ but the movie earns a degree of respect for having the characters also be aware of WW Jacobs’ famous cautionary tale and actively try to avoid making the same mistakes as their counterparts in the story. It doesn’t help them, of course, and the film earns bonus points to go with the respect, for finding inventive ways for their ill-considered wishes to screw them over.

And finally, Blind Alleys, in which yet another callous and greedy Tory type (I’ll say one thing for Tales from the Crypt, it may be campy schlock, but ideologically it’s completely sound) takes on the job of superintendent of an institution for the blind. As our man (played by Nigel Patrick) does not run the place in the most compassionate manner, resentment builds up amongst his charges, led by Patrick Magee (someone else who appears in Asylum). Suffice to say the assembled blind men prove unexpectedly good at DIY and a sticky end is on the cards for someone…

So, the guilty all get punished in suitably outlandish style, and all that remains is for the twist of the frame story to be revealed. I say ‘twist’, because another of the defining features of the Amicus portmanteaus is that the final twist is almost always the same, and hardly difficult to guess if you pay any attention whatsoever to what’s been going on in the film.

I really don’t know about Tales from the Crypt: by any objective standard, it’s really quite a bad movie, with silly stories, obvious twists, and unconvincing fake blood, lifted only a bit by the presence of some properly talented actors. The same could really be said for most of the other, similar films produced by Milton Subotsky. And yet it also manages to be quite marvellously entertaining. If 1970s British horror movies are not your thing, you should probably give it a very wide berth, but if they are – well, you probably already know what to expect. Hardly a great film, but – for some of us – great fun.

 

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And now for a little unfinished business. As frequent visitors may have noticed, I spent a few weeks earlier this year watching and writing about the BBC TV show Doomwatch, which ran on BBC1 from 1970 to 1972. It has never been repeated, despite its enormous success and popularity at the time, and received only a very limited VHS release in the 1990s. As someone interested in TV science fiction and fantasy, though, I was always vaguely aware of the Doomwatch name, enough to make a point of taping and watching the movie based on the show when it turned up on TV – I’m not sure when this actually happened, at some time in the late 1980s I suppose – the main UK commercial network had just gone 24-hour, turning the wee small hours of the night into a treasure trove of obscure genre movies rolled out just to fill holes in the schedule. (What bliss it was, etc.) In any case, the big-screen version of Doomwatch was my first point of contact with the series.

Peter Sasdy’s film was released in March 1972, during the gap between the second and third series of the TV show – it features the second-series line-up of characters (Ridge is still a member of Doomwatch at this point, as is Trend), although features is the operative word – the main actors of the TV show are billed as ‘also starring’, with the lead roles taken by Ian Bannen (a very capable character actor) and Judy Geeson (a quietly prolific actress whose most memorable big-screen role was perhaps her gob-smacking appearance in Inseminoid).

Bannen plays Dr Del Shaw, a member of Doomwatch’s big-screen-only division, who at the start of the film is packed off by Quist to the remote island of Balfe. The exact location of Balfe is left obscure, but, as we shall see, the temptation to assume it is somewhere off the Scottish coast becomes almost irresistible given how the film plays out. There has been an oil-tanker spill in the region and Doomwatch is checking out what effect this has had on the local ecology (the opening credits indicate that Doomwatch exists mainly as an anti-pollution agency, which is a bit of a simplification of the rationale given on TV, but I suppose it would work to bring new audiences up to speed).

Arriving on Balfe, Shaw sets about obtaining his biological samples, but soon comes to suspect that not all is well on the island – most outsiders are unwelcome and resented, almost violently (although, for plot reasons, this does not extend to their schoolteacher, who is played by Geeson). Shaw finds himself shadowed by a gun-toting islander throughout his sample-collecting excursions. Many of the islanders have a short fuse, to say the least, if not an actual tendency towards savage brutality. Shaw comes across a body in a shallow grave, but when he returns it has mysteriously vanished. What is going on on Balfe, and has it got anything to do with the oil spill he has been sent to investigate?

Peter Sasdy is probably best known as a director of genre and especially horror films – he did a couple of rather good movies for Hammer, Taste the Blood of Dracula and Countess Dracula – although his career effectively ended when he won a Razzie for a more conventional drama, The Lonely Lady. In a similar vein, the big-screen Doomwatch was made by Tigon, a production company best-known these days for making two classic folk-horror films, Witchfinder General and Blood on Satan’s Claw. So perhaps it’s not entirely surprising that, in some ways, Doomwatch’s big-screen incarnation feels like more of a horror movie than the TV version usually did (the US title of this movie was Island of the Ghouls, which is punchy if not especially accurate).

What is perhaps a bit unexpected is the way in which Doomwatch anticipates or mirrors another classic folk-horror film. Look at it this way – an outsider arrives on a remote island, intent on investigating. The locals clearly have a secret which they are very reluctant to share with him. The local schoolteacher provides some intriguing clues. The body of a child disappears in mysterious circumstances. Now, all this happens in the early part of the film, and it’s not as if Ian Bannen is seized by the locals in order to be sacrificed as a way of lifting the curse on the community, but there is a sense in which Doomwatch feels like a weird pre-echo of many elements of The Wicker Man (I should mention that this film was released six months before The Wicker Man went into production, not that I’ve ever seen any suggestion it was an influence on Robin Hardy or Anthony Shaffer). And you could equally well argue that the premise of the movie – something in the sea near a remote coastal community is causing deformities which lead to many members of the community being hidden from outsiders – has something of the atmosphere and tone of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth.

Sasdy conjures up a reasonably effective atmosphere of mystery and menace during this opening movement of the film, culminating in an attack on Shaw by one of the island’s more brutish and deformed inhabitants. However, at this point the story turns into a science-procedural thriller of a kind which would be quite familiar to viewers of the Doomwatch TV show. There’s a rational scientific explanation for everything Shaw and the others encounter, and the only evil involved is that of greedy people trying to cut corners and disregard the danger to the environment. At least Quist and Ridge get more to do in this part of the film, including some scenes with George Sanders (listed, as was common in low-budget British films of this period, as a ‘guest star’).

(I do wonder what 1972 audiences would have made of a movie based on TV’s Doomwatch in which the actual stars of the TV show play such very peripheral roles. I imagine I would have felt a bit cheated. It is a slightly odd creative choice, and an unexpected one given the storyline for the film came from Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis, creators of the TV show. Perhaps it was simply the case that the stars of the TV show were busy actually making the TV show when the movie was in production; I don’t know.)

In the end, the least you can say is that big-screen Doomwatch is recognisably the same beast as small-screen Doomwatch, with all the positives and negatives that this implies. It’s a fairly intelligent film that clearly cares about the issues with which it is dealing (primarily, damage to the environment from big business) – one might expect no less from a script by Clive Exton, a very capable screen-writer. And many of the themes of the movie are reminiscent of ones touched on in the TV show – the effects of pollution on communities being the main one. On the other hand, there is a problem when what starts off looking like a certain type of horror movie ends up as something rather different – you’re braced for a particular kind of climax, which never really comes. Ultimately, this is more of a drama than anything else – and a somewhat peculiar one, if you’re unaware of the conventions of the TV show which spawned it. But the Doomwatch film stands up well as an adjunct to the TV show, even if not as a movie in its own right.

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As a person who has been looking at and listening to things with my eyes and ears for quite a while now, I am no stranger to the concept of absurd hyperbole. That said, absurd hyperbole is not what it used to be – the revelation that Jonathan Ross’s review of Batman Forever described it as ‘one of the greatest films ever made’ solely in order to win a bet arguably debased the whole notion of saying something ridiculously overblown about a film simply to make yourself noticed. In other words, it takes a bit to get my attention these days.

But here comes the New York Observer (a reasonably well-established and respectable news source, even if it did used to be published by one of the Trump clan), proudly announcing that Darren Aronofsky’s mother! is ‘the worst film of the century’. Crikey, now that’s a bold claim, even if you accept they’re not actually making predictions about the next 83 years. Let us not forget that this is the same century which has given the world Sex Lives of the Potato Men, Paul Anderson’s butchery of The Three Musketeers, A Good Day to Die Hard, After Earth, and many other really poor films. One might even say that it would take something quite unusual to beat Hampstead to the position of Worst Film of 2017, before even starting to look further afield.

Well, anyway, such a claim had to be investigated, and as a colleague is a confirmed Aronofsky fan (‘He is incapable of making a bad movie,’ he declared, which just prompted me to ask ‘Have you seen Noah?’), off we trotted to the very small cinema which was showing mother! (regular readers can have fun imagining the intonation I used on the title when asking for our tickets).

It’s not just the Observer, by the way: the reputable market-research firm CinemaScore has given mother! its rare and very (not) coveted F rating, indicating a film which audiences are likely to react violently against – other recipients include the remakes of Solaris, which isn’t that bad, and The Wicker Man, which most certainly is. So what’s going on with Darren Aronofsky’s mother!?

Hmmm. Well. Popular and critical darling Jennifer Lawrence plays a young woman living in a beautiful house in the countryside, along with her husband (played by Javier Bardem). She is slowly renovating the house, he is a writer contending with a bout of the dreaded block, and all initially seems very nearly idyllic.

But then an older man (Ed Harris) turns up, claiming to have been sent there in the erroneous belief they run a hotel, and Lawrence is just a little irked when he invites the vaguely sinister Harris to spend the night without checking with her. Soon he is joined by his wife (Michelle Pfieffer), who is rather given to inappropriate behaviour. Is there something going on between Bardem and this couple? Or is Lawrence simply overreacting and being a bit paranoid?

While all this is unfolding, various other oddities and enigmas are floating around at the edge of the story – why does the structure of the house seem to dissolve when blood is spilled on it? (Don’t ask.) What is the obscurely disgusting object Lawrence finds clogging up the toilet? What is in the mysterious potion she finds herself compelled to glug when the stress all gets a bit too much for her? Will any of these things be explained before the closing credits finally roll?

Um, well, probably not. Watching mother! really brought it home to me that the two kinds of people with the greatest creative freedom in the movie industry are completely unknown directors, whose films are made on micro-budgets and so whom no-one really cares about, and those who have a strong track record of both popular and critical success, who as a result are granted a certain degree of latitude to do something a bit different on a lavish scale (though this only lasts as long as their films continue to turn a profit, as a quick look at the careers of M Night Shyamalan and the Wachowski siblings will attest to).

Darren Aronofsky currently seems to be in this state of grace, making distinctive, generally well-received films. I went to see Black Swan (‘unlike anything else I’ve seen at the cinema in a long time’) and Noah (‘engrossingly strange’), both films which ended up making over $300 million. A similar achievement for mother! does not appear to be on the cards, however, not that this is especially surprising when you consider that this is an example of the historically-unpopular ‘surreal bat’s-ass-insane psychological art-house horror’ genre.

I suspect this is why many people have taken against what is, by any standards, a superbly crafted film – it is unafraid to go rather a long way out there. In fact, just as a thought experiment, imagine yourself going really quite a long way out, to the very fringes of your comfort zone. Now imagine a faint speck on the horizon, even further out. This speck is a house equipped with a very strong telescope, and through this you would just about be able to make out mother!, hurling itself about and howling at the sky. This is how way-out-there Aronofsky’s film is, especially in its closing stages.

Luckily, I figured out very early on that we were not in the realm of a traditionally naturalistic narrative here, which probably helped – there’s almost a sense in which the fractured dream-logic of mother!, in which events pile up wildly on top of one another in a totally irrational way, reminded me of some of the weirder short stories of H.P. Lovecraft, although that would require Lovecraft to have been capable of writing for a female protagonist. There is certainly a touch of Terry Gilliam in the film’s various conjuring tricks, and perhaps also a little of Peter Greenaway in its more gleefully gory excesses.

Aronofsky has gone on record and attempted to explain what mother! is actually supposed to be about – I won’t trouble you with that here, not least because it’s really a spoiler. I can’t help suspecting that this was a movie where the surreal, nightmarish style and tone came first, anyway, and it was just a question of coming up with a premise that would justify them.

Why, somebody asked me, would an actress like Jennifer Lawrence choose to appear in a film as strange as this one? The prosaic answer would have something to do with the (presumably significant) portion of the $30 million budget going home with her, but at the same time you can see why this film would appeal, if only as a technical challenge – it largely fails or succeeds by her performance, for she is on-screen virtually non-stop throughout, frequently in close-up. She is, needless to say, very good, but then so is everyone else – Bardem’s Iberian inscrutability is well-employed, and in addition to Harris and Pfieffer, there are somewhat unexpected cameos by the likes of the Gleeson brothers and Kristen Wiig.

Mainly, however, the film is a triumph of direction and editing, with the pace and mood of the film always expertly controlled. It is obviously the case that some of the subject matter will repel many people from this film – there are some nauseatingly nasty moments, none of them really suggested by the film’s (arguably misleading) advertising. Others will not be able to get on board with the peculiar stream-of-consciousness flow of the narrative, its lack of conventional story or characterisation. And this is fair enough – but I have to say I hugely enjoyed the film’s sheer audacity and willingness to do something unusual and different. This did mean I was laughing in some rather inappropriate places (my colleague feared I was laughing out of scorn rather than appreciation), but my enjoyment of the skill and innovation that clearly went into this movie was genuine.

The chances are that mother! is a movie which will not appeal to you. There’s quite a good chance its excesses will actively appal or disgust you. I suspect it may prove to be the cinematic equivalent of Marmite (a proverbially-divisive, rather foul yeast-based spread, in case you’re wondering). I can’t imagine anyone not having some kind of strong response to it, but the minority that get it, will probably really, really like it. Certainly not the worst film of the century, anyway, even if it’s highly unlikely to make much of a profit. Pretty much a dead cert to become a cult favourite for decades to come.

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