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Posts Tagged ‘M.R. James’

I’m not sure what it says about the fare one is likely to encounter on TV at Christmas these days, or indeed about me, but I found myself thinking back to years gone by with great nostalgia. Not, as is acceptable and indeed perhaps expected, to things like The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show from 1978, but to a few years back when my parents and I spent practically three days solid watching nothing but The Two Ronnies re-runs on ITV3.

Nostalgia for repeats is a bit grim, and indeed grimmer than most of what the various networks wheeled out this festive season. The One Ronnie (BBC1) didn’t live up to its promise (at least not the bits I saw, having slept through a good deal of it), although Come Fly With Me (also BBC1) was amusing and refreshingly gentle considering its provenance.

However, one has to wonder if the makers of Top Gear (BBC2) just sit down these days and try to think up new ways to outrage unwary viewers. Although the drive-by shooting gag on the first show of the new series struck me as slightly iffy, it was funny enough to be justifiable – but when, in their proper Christmas show, they moved on to likening Clarkson to Jesus Christ it started to feel like a programme attempting to be deliberately provocative. I said as much at the time, and this was before the closing gag of the series: having trekked across the Middle East to a cod-nativity scene, the child in the manger was revealed to be… well, I won’t spoil it for you if you haven’t already heard, but at least the BBC switchboard people won’t have been short of things to keep them busy after the show.

Also on BBC2 was what’s effectively the latest episode of A Ghost Story at Christmas – this year, an adaptation of M.R. James’s Oh Whistle and I’ll Come To You, My Lad. This stood proudly in two great traditions: as well as being a BBC Christmas ghost story, it was also an infuriatingly loose adaptation of a genre classic. Rather than a fussy don on holiday, the central character here was a man taking a break having just put his wife into a home for Alzheimers’ sufferers. Perhaps most spectacularly, though, after treating us last year to The Day of the Triffids without the ‘comet debris’, this year the BBC’s crack team of adaptation gibbons raised their game by delivering Whistle and I’ll Come To You without the whistle.

It's behind you!!!!!

To be fair, this didn’t plunge quite the same depths as the Triffids excrescence, and taken on its own terms it had some rather effective moments and very interesting concepts – the idea of a person in the advanced stages of Alzheimers being somehow a ghost in reverse was a strong and, no pun intended, rather haunting one. But given that, why not just write something wholly new to explore it, rather than twisting one of James’ tales into a new and slightly incongruous shape? I suspect the reason is simply one of brand recognition: Whistle and I’ll Come To You was famously (and faithfully) filmed in the late Sixties by Jonathan Miller, and I suspect that it was the celebrity of that adaptation that was partly responsible for this one being made. Not that that makes any difference, really, but if so it casts a grim light into the workings of modern TV drama commissioning.

And so onto the Doctor Who Christmas special (various BBC channels). Whereas Rusty Davies’s various Christmas scripts just used the festive season as a backdrop for a fairly standard adventure yarn, Steven Moffat came up with something actually about Christmas – or something essentially indebted to the most famous piece of Christmas literature in history, which is surely the same thing.

I yield to no-one in my admiration of the intricacy of Moffat’s scripts, and his willingness to restore some of the wilful bonkersness to Doctor Who that was occasionally lacking during Rusty’s tenure. But having said that, taking the story to a place where the Doctor, wearing a Santa hat, soars through the sky aboard an open carriage towed by a flying shark – well, my disbelief was starting to  complain of altitude sickness. Still, there were lots of good gags and other clever bits of business (that said, I predict vociferous gripings from the hard-core about the repeal of the Blinovitch Limitation Effect – two versions of the same character touched without the time differential shorting out), and there are few guest artistes of the calibre of Sir Michael Gambon.

My only real criticism of the story, having only seen it once,  is that, after having made such a significant issue out of the impending death of Katherine Jenkins’ character, Moffat should either have found some method of averting it, or at least shown it on screen. It would’ve been a challenge to do so without bringing the mood of the story down to a massive degree, so perhaps saving her would have been better – in which case the problem would have been doing so without it all seeming rather contrived and manipulative. Either of which would’ve been tricky, but probably better than just ducking an unpleasant fact as the story-as-broadcast appeared to do.

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Being disagreeably blocked at the moment, I thought I would share with you my thoughts on a couple of exploitation movies I caught by accident this week (I did intend to see Machete but it’s not showing in Oxford, dammit).

 

The reputation of Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon (1957) as a cult movie of the first rank was probably sealed when it was referenced in the opening lyrics of The Rocky Horror Picture Show – having its dialogue sampled by Kate Bush for the title track of the classic album Hounds of Love probably didn’t do it any harm, either. Having said all that this seems to be one of those famous cult classics that no-one’s actually seen and which isn’t on TV that much. I caught it almost by accident at the weekend, showing in the middle of the night, and was nearly falling asleep by the end (one of the advantages of being single with no social life to speak of is that you can get away with this sort of thing).

Based (rather loosely, one suspects) on one of Montague Rhodes James’ famous ghost stories, this is the tale of Holden (Dana Andrews), a very sceptical American parapsychologist who arrives in England and finds himself drawn into investigating a Satanic cult headed by the creepily jovial Julian Karswell (Niall McGinnis). The last man to do so died in an strange accident, and Holden himself finds he’s apparently suffering from hallucinations and surrounded by odd events – were the dead man’s suspicions that he was being stalked by a fire-demon from Hell true, and is the being now on Holden’s trail?

Well, it’s a bit of a minor miracle that Night of the Demon is as good as it is (which is to say, notably so), given that the producer, Hal Chester, unintentionally did his very best to make it risible rather than scary. Even watching this film without prior knowledge, it’s very clear that Tourneur intended to leave open the question of whether the demon and Karswell’s powers are real, and suggest rather than show the supernatural elements. The sequences where the demon actually appears, which were inserted by Chester against Tourneur’s will, are incongruous. The monster itself isn’t that bad for the 50s, but it seems to have wandered in out of a different kind of film. The grammar of monster movies is spectacularly broken with as the beast puts in a full appearance very, very early on.

The rest of the film, though, is well enough made for it to recover from this. The obvious thing to compare it to is, I would suggest, Hammer’s The Devil Rides Out from a decade later, but where that film is lurid and fantastical and really succeeds only because Christopher Lee and Charles Gray have tremendous charisma and play it all absolutely straight, Night of the Demon is absolutely restrained and down to earth, with the main character stubbornly looking for a rational explanation all the way through.

It’s a sign of the era this film was made in that simply being a Satanist is enough to qualify Karswell as the villain. It’s not as if he appears to have any master plan or particular ambition beyond running his cult and going about his own business. Karswell actually comes across as quite a decent chap, not really malevolent at all, and McGinnis is rather more likeable than Andrews. Nevertheless, morality is morality and one never truly believes that the powers of darkness will triumph. The path the movie takes to the point where they are eventually vanquished is an interesting one and the journey is completed in some style. This is a movie deserving of its reputation and a reminder that the British horror movie did not begin with Hammer.

With rather less of a reputation – and, in fact, so obscure it doesn’t even qualify for its own Wikipedia entry, which is saying something these days – is Wilderness Survival for Girls (2004), an exploitation movie written and directed by Eli Despres and Kim Roberts, whose other works include Autism: The Musical and Local Mechanic Wins Millions (no, me neither). The stock of this film has sunk so low that it’s legally available to view for free over the internet. Yes, I know, but it’s cold outside and like I said, I’m blocked.

In time-honoured (and slightly formulaic) style, this is the tale of three girls in their late teens who drive up to the mountains to stay in a remote cabin. One of them is a dweeb, one of them is a rebel, and one of them is nice. That night the spooky tale is told of how, some years earlier, another young girl was murdered in this area, and the killer never caught… but hang on a minute – who does all this stuff upstairs in the cupboard belong to? And is that the sound of someone creeping around the outside of the cabin they can hear?

This isn’t actually a slasher movie, as it’s rather more psychological than that – in a commendably brave move, the directors never quite make it clear whether the girls (Ali Humiston, Jeanette Brox and Megan Henning) are actually in serious danger from the intruder (James Morrison), or if drugs and alcohol are just causing a horrific over-reaction to a simple case of squatting. Morality here is rather more obscure than in Night of the Demon.

While the scenario sounds formulaic and the whole movie has clearly been made on a budget less than the catering crew of Avatar spend on their manicures in a typical month, this is actually a quite solid and interesting film that doesn’t feel the need to outstay its welcome (it’s very much on the brief side). The girls are written with wit and intelligence and performed with conviction and I’m not surprised that they’ve gone on to do okay for themselves. All the way through it I was thinking ‘Well, she’s giving the best performance of the three… no, hang on, it’s her… wait a minute, it’s the other one.’ Honours even at the end, I would say.

This being an exploitation movie revolving around a degree of fem. jeop., the script is obliged to include a few elements not found in more rarefied cinematic realms. Yes, the girls start taking their clothes off well before the ten-minute mark is reached, and later on there is a bi-curious interlude between two of them. As I’ve implied, these scenes seem to be here for form’s sake more than anything else. They’re certainly not lingered on (yes, I was biting back my disappointment), and for the most part they don’t seem too illogical or intrusive. The plot itself hangs together quite well, although it goes round in a bit of a circle in the middle, and does increasingly rely on a character who started out as believably kind-hearted and easy-going transforming into a gullible moron.

All this said I’m not entirely surprised that this film is as obscure as it is – the low budget shows in the extremely limited locations and tiny cast (four speaking parts), and while it is competently made it doesn’t really bring anything new or interesting to the teens-in-peril genre. But it did pass an hour and a quarter or so on a cold day fairly agreeably. Not sure that will be much consolation to the makers, but in this life you should be grateful for whatever crumbs you get, that’s what I always say.

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