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Posts Tagged ‘Richard Matheson’

One of the first things you notice about watching very early Star Trek is that new life and new civilisations are a bit thin on the ground – strange new worlds pop up occasionally, but even they’re mentioned more than seen. I’m no expert on the creative history of Star Trek and so I don’t know if there’s a particular reason for the early episodes to be quite so humanocentric. It may be down to reticence on the part of the producers and a desire to avoid using the bug-eyed alien monsters of kiddie and B-movie SF, or possibly they doubted their capability to produce convincing aliens week in, week out. Less likely, though still possible, this may have been a deliberate creative choice to depict a fictional universe in which intelligent alien civilisations are thin on the ground. Finally, it may be that the intention was to open with a run of episodes focussing on the characters of the main cast and thus bring them to life, before moving on to less introspective fare.

This line of thought started after I watched The Naked Time, The Enemy Within, and Mudd’s Women, the first two of which are certainly character pieces centred on the regular cast. Mudd’s Women is a different kettle of fish, but still has enough in common with the others for them to make a nice triptych of sorts.

The first thing to say is that all three of these episodes are competently made adventure narratives: in each one there’s a serious threat, either to the ship itself or to key crew members, and the resolution of this threat is central to the story. The plot also revolves around a reasonably solid SF idea in all three, too – the central concept of Mudd’s Women is sub-par compared to the others, but we’ll come back to that. You could watch any of these stories as a straightforward piece of entertainment and not feel short-changed.

However, in these episodes you can also see a key Trek trait in virtually its purest form – the ability to take an SF adventure yarn and use it to explore surprisingly deep questions of philosophy, psychology and metaphysics, without compromising the entertainment value of the former or the integrity of the latter. If, as a consequence, you never get an absolute blitz of a thriller, and the series never quite attains the levels of profundity it’s clearly aspiring to – well, it’s a compromise I’m happy to live with.

Of course, you can also characterise Star Trek as a series of stock plots deployed in heavy rotation, and in The Naked Time we are treated to an early instance of Stock Plot #1: strange influence causes the crew to wildly overact. In this case it’s an alien pseudo-virus that causes everyone’s suppressed character traits to rise to the surface, and them to act irrationally. What’s interesting is that a lot of the character development this allows is actually given to very minor members of the cast – George Takei gets to take his shirt off and chase people around with a sword (oh my), but before the closing stages of the episode arrive the main beneficiaries are Nurse Chapel and Kevin Riley. (Bones and Scotty manage to dodge the bug entirely.) Shatner and Nimoy emote at each other earnestly but it’s all just a bit histrionic, and the whole thing is almost fatally undermined from the start – the Enterprise‘s biohazard suits are clearly made of bubble-wrap, and not even fully sealed at that. The demands of the plot prove greater than the writer’s ingenuity on this occasion. Nevertheless, as a vehicle for character development it has a certain potential, and you can see why this particular set-up got revisited many years later in an early episode of Next Generation. ‘The Naked Time: so mediocre they made it twice.’

Rather better in every department is The Enemy Within, in which Stock Plot #2 makes its debut: transporter undergoes bizarre metaphysical breakdown with peculiar consequences for transportee. In this case Captain Kirk finds himself physically divided into two entirely separate men, composed of his positive and negative character traits respectively. This is bad news for everyone else wanting to use the transporter, particularly Mr Sulu and his team who are trapped on a planet where it’s getting very, very cold.

The signs were always there.

The signs were always there.

The obvious response from the seasoned viewer is ‘why don’t they just send a shuttlecraft to collect them?’ – hush. Demands of the plot and all that. Less obviously required is a subplot about negative-Kirk slowly dying as a result of being separated from positive-Kirk (positive-Kirk seems physically unharmed, oddly enough).

This functions quite well as an example of the evil-twin narrative, but what makes it noteworthy is the degree to which it goes beyond this into slightly more sophisticated territory (as one might expect, given it’s from the pen of Richard Matheson, much of whose best work is on some level an exploration of the male psyche). The two Kirks are only described as ‘good’ and ‘evil’ in passing, and the story avoids the suggestion that the accident has created a new, evil version of the Captain – rather the existing man has been divided in two. The savage, appetite-driven negative-Kirk is a nasty piece of work, but the rational, sensitive positive-Kirk is increasingly useless as commanding officer of the Enterprise. The message is clear: for a man to be whole, and healthy, he must comprise elements both good and evil. That the two Kirks are initially reluctant to be reconstituted neatly suggests the conflict at the heart of modern masculinity between civilised sensitivity and traditional machismo – can’t live together, can’t survive apart. A good one.

If The Enemy Within is, in part, a meditation on the plight of the modern male, the gender politics of Mudd’s Women are considerably less enlightened and in places rather embarrassing. The Enterprise intercepts and takes on board the dubious figure of Harry Mudd, space trader (played, and not underplayed, by Roger C Carmel), in the process severely damaging its power systems. Fixing the ship should be everyone’s top priority, but they find themselves distracted by the three beautiful women Mudd was transporting, essentially as cargo (one of them is played by Hammer glamour girl Susan Denberg, from Frankenstein Created Woman). Mudd’s line is providing wives for lonely space colonists, and I think you can already see why this episode feels horribly dated.

The plot about Mudd trying to use his girls as leverage with the miners with whom Kirk urgently needs to do a deal for new power crystals is efficiently done, but what sticks in the memory from this episode – other than Carmel chewing the scenery – are the repeated shots of the Enterprise’s red-blooded male crew rubbernecking and standing slack-jawed as the eponymous ladies sashay past in their hugely impractical gowns. The musical score and direction are complicit in this – the soundtrack resembles something from a slightly naughty Vegas cocktail lounge, while at one point we’re treated to a close-up of three tightly-choreographed backsides wiggling past the lens.

Even beyond this, the psychological core of the story turns out to revolve around the women’s own life expectations. Not that they have any ambitions beyond cooking and cleaning for their future husbands, of course, but they want to be appreciated as real people rather than glamorous dolly-birds. The SF angle on all this is that Mudd has been dosing the women with a drug which transforms them from frumpy homebodies to interstellar superbabes, and the closing twist – or, if you prefer, the final nail in the story’s coffin – is that it turns out to be a complete placebo anyway. That’s right ladies – you can be a real person and a glamorous dolly-bird, all you need to do is believe in yourself!

Even Spock describes this as ‘an annoying, emotional episode’ and as usual he is on the money. You can, I suppose, credit the series with at least attempting to deal with questions relating to women’s role in society, but the fact they reduce this to a simple dichotomy between slattern and superbabe is – certainly by modern standards – unforgiveably simplistic. Comparing The Enemy Within with Mudd’s Women is revealing – one is surprisingly thoughtful and sophisticated, the other crass and embarrassing. Cheerleaders for Star Trek make a big deal about the programme depicting a ground-breaking, egalitarian vision of the future, with an underlying philosophy of liberal tolerance that’s welcoming to everyone, but at this point in time it is still a series that very strongly gives the impression of having been made almost exclusively by and for men.

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If you’re going to write about films with any kind of objectivity, one of things it behooves you to do is to try and separate the film itself from the context in which you see it – you shouldn’t let the lousy sound quality, or the poorly-racked screen or inadequate rake of the theatre get in the way – even the French tourists behind you talking noisily all the way through should not be a factor when it comes to giving your considered opinion.

Obviously this is not always as easy as it sounds, and most weeks the release of a movie in which Hugh Jackman must bond with his long-estranged young son by training a robot as a boxer would be greeted by a cry of ‘What fresh hell is this?!?’ But following my recent experience at the hands of Paul Anderson and his minions, I’ll try anything to get a cheap popcorn rush, even if that means going to see Shawn Levy’s Real Steel.

Hugh Jackman plays Charlie Kenton, an ex-fighter now wheeling and dealing in the lower reaches of the robot boxing circuit of a near-future America. He is feckless and irresponsible, to the despair of old friend-and-maybe-a-bit-more Bailey (Evangeline Lilly), but also, and more importantly, his numerous creditors. But luck smiles on Charlie when he learns he is the owner of an eleven-year-old son, Max (Dakota Goyo), whose maternal relatives are very keen to adopt him. A deal is struck where Charlie signs away his custodial rights in exchange for money to buy a new robot – but part of the arrangement is that Charlie has to look after Max for the summer, something neither of them is very pleased about.

Things do not work out with the new robot, and, on his uppers, Charlie is forced to use an ancient old machine salvaged by Max which appears to have been welded together out of spare plumbing supplies. Can their new fighter Atom shock the world and challenge for the title belt? And can Charlie and Max build some kind of father-son bond?

If you can’t guess the answer to both of these questions, then all I can say is – Hello. A cinema is a big dark room where moving pictures are projected onto a wall, normally telling a story – because you have clearly just escaped from an Amish colony or somewhere similar. There are films I’ve been watching for the second or third time which were less predictable than Real Steel.

The big danger for me as far as this film is concerned is to compare it too closely with Steel, a very different adaptation of the same Richard Matheson short story which aired on The Twilight Zone in 1963. In that version, Lee Marvin plays the lead role, and when his boxing android blows a gasket just before a fight he has to go into the ring himself against an opponent he has no chance of defeating. It’s a simple story but it does say something about the courage and determination of a boxer that rings true, and the conclusion genuinely surprised me.

Well, there’s nothing like that here – we get the archetypal father-son bonding story welded effectively enough to the archetypal boxing-underdog story, all slathered in a gloss of CGI-heavy no-brainer SF. And it looks very slick, and tells the story proficiently, but that’s really all it does.

The problem is mainly that the emotional story at the centre of the film is trite and hackneyed and quite simply doesn’t ring true. I think this may be down to Jackman – hugely charismatic he undoubtedly is, but it increasingly seems to me that he is an actor of extremely limited range. At the start of the film Charlie is a loser on the skids, who sells his own son without a second thought, and Hugh Jackman isn’t convincing for a second. He does a certain kind of laconic toughness and integrity very well, but outside this comfort zone the quality of his performance drops off dramatically. That said, no-one in this movie is really able to distinguish themselves, which is hardly surprising given the material they have to work with.

Real Steel is arguably a good fifteen minutes too long as well – it’s a loooong time before the man-and-boy-and-crapbot-take-on-the-world plot really gets into gear, and the film seems to be trying to be a sprawling emotional epic rather than the genre movie that would suit it much better. As a result, Atom’s ascension to the robot boxing big-time seems a little too rapid, with not enough incidental fights along the way. (We don’t get the scene where success goes to Atom’s CPU and he’s caught disporting himself in a hotel room with a couple of spin-dryers high on WD-40, either – maybe this will be in the sequel.)

The actual robot fights are the only time the movie really comes to life, with plenty of whangs and clongs and ka-dongs per minute. The import of boxing cliches and imagery into an SF context is amusingly done and the CGI itself is state of the art, or very close to it. And such is the power of the underdog-makes-good story that you really don’t care how cliched it all is, or that every fight has basically the same plot – Atom gets paddled around the ring for a while before pluckily battling his way back into it. Something which is cheesily uplifting is still uplifting on some level.

But anyway. This is not an actively bad film, but certainly not a very good one either. If as much thought and effort had gone into the script as the robot designs and choreography, then it might have been a different story. As it is, Real Steel is a film with a lot in common with its robotic protagonist – some signs of having a good heart, but overall really just mechanical.

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In the world of 50s SF movies there is usually a lot going on and a great deal at stake: alien vessels fall to Earth on a regular basis, planets detonate nearly as frequently, the survival of civilisation as we know it is under threat as the balance of nature is thrown horribly askew as a result of ignorance or hubris… Everyone is so busy with these things that they don’t have much time for introspection. Events, and the stories themselves, are almost always robustly external.

But there are always exceptions, and here is a film where the stakes at first seem much smaller – but one of the lessons the film has for us is that ‘small’ is a relative concept. It is, of course, Jack Arnold’s famous adaptation of Richard Matheson’s The Incredible Shrinking Man. This is really just the story of the one man of the title, though no less involving and bizarre for all of that.

Grant Williams plays Scott Carey, very much an everyday guy as the film begins, and not an especially likable one. While on holiday with his wife (Randy Stuart) Carey is exposed to a strange glowing cloud. Somewhat contrary to our expectations, nothing happens as an immediate result, but six months later contact with insecticide catalyses an inexorable and deeply peculiar change in Carey’s situation: he starts shrinking.

The best efforts of scientists prove ineffectual. Carey’s condition proves more psychologically damaging than physically hazardous to begin with (the predations of a thrill-hungry media don’t help – some things never change), but as he dwindles to the size of a doll he finds himself increasingly at risk: his pet cat starts to view him in a whole new light. By chance he is presumed dead and finds himself struggling to survive in his own cellar, which has assumed the proportions of an immense wasteland…

Writing about these films recently I’ve often commented on how clever writers and directors were in keeping the expensive (and potentially risible) elements of the story off-screen as much as possible: the monsters get hardly any screen time in most of the films from the early 50s, for instance. The Incredible Shrinking Man, however, stands or falls by the quality of its special effects: and even by today’s standards it’s still an extremely accomplished film.

The shrinking process is sold by a combination of making Grant Williams work with oversized props, and using a matte process to insert him into other footage. There are a few issues with dodgy matte fringing and his turning transparent, but on the whole the effects are exceptional. There’s one moment which initially had me going ‘how the hell did they do that?’, which is the sign of a great effects trick, but by the climax of the film I was so engrossed I’d stopped even thinking in those terms, which is the sign of great storytelling.

The film really breaks down into two rough halves: Carey’s experiences before he becomes trapped in the cellar, and his ordeal from that point on. The first is less memorable but in some ways more interesting, mainly because he gets to interact with other people. Matheson’s script is never short of a good moment or line of dialogue: ‘as long as that wedding ring stays on your finger,’ says Carey’s wife, ‘we’re going to be together’ – at which point, inevitably, it slips off, too big for him.

There’s a bit of a sexual subtext going on there which I understand is considerably stronger in Matheson’s novel. Not entirely surprisingly, Carey’s insecurities as he shrinks to the size of a child and beyond are presented in rather more delicate terms, but the subtext’s still there if you look for it. His initial recovery from despair comes about only when he meets a female carnival midget who’s even smaller than he is – if the intended implication is that men only feel a sense of self-worth when there’s a physically-lesser woman around, it’s a rather bleak one but the kind of thing you almost expect from an Arnold movie.

The film’s interest in masculine self-worth continues into the cellar section of the film, in terms which are less sexual but still not especially flattering. Thrown back on his own resourcefulness, Carey sets about, in his own words, dominating the new world he finds himself in. Here things are at once mundane and epic, the contrast almost becoming surreal: a primal, desperate existence where mousetraps and leaky plumbing become lethal hazards. The perils of this new mode of existence are memorably embodied by a spider he finds he’s sharing the cellar with.

Well, I’ll be honest, folks, I’ve had a phobia about giant spiders for a quarter of a century now (possibly the reason why Tarantula! keeps getting put to the bottom of the DVD pile), and the first time I saw this film, particularly the sequence in which Carey sets out to slay his enemy, I was in full on twitch-and-gibber mode. The effects are at their best here, the spider seems exceedingly well-trained, and of all cinema’s excursions into this kind of territory only the fight between Sam and Shelob in Return of the King is its better in terms of storytelling.

Even here, though, the film virtually comes out and states that Carey is only doing this to assert his manhood. Assembling a motley collection of pins and needles he’s using as lances and spears, Carey is defiant – ‘with my weapons I was a man again!’ Hmm.

One of the things about The Incredible Shrinking Man one has to acknowledge is that the climax is, er, metaphysical to the point of vagueness. Having reaffirmed that his masculinity (and thus his value as a person) endures, no matter what size he dwindles to, Carey makes an exultant speech about the link between the infinite and the infinitesmal, that the two ultimately loop round and join together… To be honest this is the only part of the film that doesn’t ring true for me (Matheson claims Arnold wrote it). It sounds like a load of old bibble-bobble, and worse than that it’s rather hackneyed bibble-bobble tonally adrift from the rest of the film. Still, if you’ve got a film which effectively concludes with the protagonist vanishing up his own profundity, I suppose you have to find your sense of closure where you can.

It seems to me that The Incredible Shrinking Man is amongst the most psychological and mature of the great 50s SF movies, to say nothing of being one of the most bleak (in its view of men, at least). That it couples this to production values that are amongst the best in the genre only adds to the impression it gives of being a genuine classic, a film that will surely endure. Its stature has grown with time, and will probably continue to do so: an irony that Arnold and Matheson would surely appreciate.

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For some people, H.P. Lovecraft’s major contribution to the horror genre (other than a massive expansion of its vocabulary) would probably be the vast pantheon-come-menagerie of Things That Should Not Be, gnawing away at the edges of reality and threatening to unravel the edifice of logic sanity is built upon. Or something.

However, it’s always seemed to me that Lovecraft’s best stories express a struggle to assimilate the various revelations of astronomy, geology and biology towards the end of the 19th century (numerous stories revolve around a character making the horrific discovery that his ancestors were apes or fish and going insane as a result). Lovecraft’s universe is vast and cold and empty and the best words to describe his work are existential and fundamentally rational.

Post-Lovecraft, horror stories have really fallen into two broad groups: ones where the story involves a disruption of the natural moral and physical order, and ones where there really is no deeper reality than the unforgiving laws of physics and no absolute morality to speak of. As an agnostic about religion and a sceptic when it comes to anything supernatural myself, I find the latter group rather more effective – I’ve always said that I think you have to be a Catholic, or at least a practicing Christian, to find The Exorcist really scary, for example (though, that said, I am on record as a fan of The Omen – perhaps more because I find the story interesting than because it’s actually frightening).

One film falling fairly and squarely into the old-school supernatural horror category is The Devil Rides Out, a 1968 Hammer movie directed by Terence Fisher and starring Christopher Lee and Charles Gray. Based on the – according to the credits – ‘classic’ novel by Dennis Wheatley, this is a movie I’ve wanted to write about for a couple of months now and, er, here goes.

The film takes place a little out of Hammer’s comfort zone, in that it’s set in 1930s England rather than some fabricated 19th-century mittel-European fairyland. It’s a bit difficult to tell who the main character’s meant to be, but certainly central to the plot is the Duc de Richelieu, portrayed – but of course – by Christopher Lee himself, in a beard and moustache that make this movie prime material for fan-artists wanting source material for pictures of Count Dooku in happier days. The Duc (or possibly the Dooku) has a problem in that his young friend Simon (Patrick Mower) has dropped all his old circle and started moving with a new, racier set. (I don’t entirely blame Simon for this, as most of the Duc’s friends are either tedious or actively irritating.)

Pausing only to recruit his tedious chum Rex (Leon Greene), the Duc tracks Simon down to an ‘astronomy club’ meeting, but very rapidly discovers (well, this movie is only 95 minutes long) that the astronomers are actually a Satanic cult commanded by black magician Mocata (Charles Gray)! The stage is set: can the Duc and his dull, but loyal, band of friends save Simon from a fate which, if not actually worse than death, is certainly just as bad?

I didn’t really set out to be glib or flippant about a movie I have a sneaking fondness for, but The Devil Rides Out takes itself incredibly seriously without, it seems to me, very much justification. A lot of the script is absolutely ludicrous – heavily reliant on coincidence, improbable behaviour, and with a sort-of cop-out God-rewrites-time ending. The characters are eye-opening too: ‘I’ve never told any of my friends this, but I’ve carried out a very deep study of black magic,’ announces Lee, quite early on. Hmm, okay. If you’re an inexplicably French aristo living in 1930s England with nothing else to do, why wouldn’t you? He spends the rest of the movie displaying unexpected Devil-battling skills and chanting gibberish, and isn’t above a little benign necromancy at one point. If it were anyone else it would seem completely absurd – I think perhaps even Peter Cushing couldn’t have played this part quite as well. Cushing would no doubt have played it with a little twinkle in his eye and thus fatally undercut what tension the film generates.

Hands up if you fancy playing a hero for once in your career.

Of course, if you have Christopher Lee playing your good guy, who on earth can you cast as the villain? The film’s other real masterstroke is in employing Gray. He’s best known for his fruity, campy, slightly arch performances in things like Diamonds Are Forever and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and there are faint elements of that here, but for the most part he plays it just as straight as Lee does. There’s a sequence where he turns up at Lee’s niece’s house and hypnotises her into telling him where Mower and Nike Arrighi’s characters are, and he commands the screen entirely. It’s an astonishingly powerful moment, the stuff of real supervillainy, and when his plan is foiled he gets a killer exit line too: ‘I’m leaving. I shall not be back – but something will…’ Very regrettably, Richard Matheson’s script takes a tag-team approach to Lee and Gray’s characters: one of them is usually on screen, but hardly ever both, and they don’t get the big face-off you’re always hoping to see.

When I wrote about the rather similar Night of the Demon not long ago, I said the main difference between the two films was that Night is restrained and low-key and Devil isn’t. Well, more than that, it’s practically lurid – though there’s no nudity and very little blood (I’m actually slightly surprised it’s earned a 15 rating) – with various unlikely spiritual manifestations and other goings-on throughout. (Top tip: should you find yourself having to repel an actual physical manifestation of the Devil himself, full-beam headlights will apparently be a good place to start).

But the two films are very similar in that they both make it clear that being a Devil-worshipper is, in and of itself, wrong and unforgivable. Rather like Karswell in the other movie, Mocata doesn’t appear to have any wider ambitions beyond running his coven and sacrificing the odd farmyard animal. If Lee and his friends had never met him there’s no evidence anyone would have been any worse off materially. Certainly, viewed dispassionately, there’s not much real evidence that the polite brand of Satanism Mocata and his associates practice is very different from some of the more energetic forms of Christianity (except for the animal-cruelty angle and the fact that the object of your worship is more likely to show up in person). The movie presupposes the viewer shares a moral framework that seems hopelessly quaint and archaic these days.

Hmm, well. When my soul eventually ends up frazzling in one of the innermost circles of Hell for saying some of the above, I will at least be able to take my mind off my tribulations by reflecting on the excellent production values and direction of this movie. To be perfectly honest, the rest of the cast beyond Lee and Gray are rather forgettable, though you get the impression Paul Eddington could have made an impression had he been given a better part.

Is this, then, the first-rate Hammer production it’s so often held up to be? I don’t know – it’s certainly not fantastically representative of the studio’s output. Nearly every aspect of this film is so well-mannered and polite and upper-class: one never gets the sense of dark passions slipping out of control or a wider world going on beyond the limits of the screen, which are both there in the best of the Hammer horror output. And, deep down, you can’t help thinking that on some level this film is trying to impart a serious message, but doing it via rather silly means. It never even suggests you might like to laugh along with it, which only leaves you the options of taking it deadly seriously or relentlessly taking the piss. The commitment and sheer charisma the two leads bring to the movie mean I can just about manage the former, but only for short bursts. I would love to hear what an actual believer made of this film – but, despite the fact it treats the existence of God as a fact, climaxes with the triumph of the cross, and is thus on some level an essentially Christian film, I suspect most such people would refuse to watch The Devil Rides Out on principle: a rare example, perhaps, of the choir refusing to be preached to.

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