Wednesday, 3 October 2018

The Erotic Rites of Countess Dracula (Donald F. Glut, 2001)

Well here i go again (on my own) with a look at the enticingly-titled The Erotic Rites of Countess Dracula.

When i was young, the name 'Donald F. Glut' meant two things: firstly the author of the tatty paperback novelisation of The Empire Strikes Back which i'd read much more than i'd seen the actual film (our local video shop never bothering to get in  copies of the Holy Trilogy until one of its mid-Nineties re-releases), and therefore Mr Glut's account of that particular adventure in the far far away being more familiar to me than the vision of Lucas 'n' Kershner; secondly, the author of a couple of short horror stories i'd read in various anthologies (the one that immediately spring's to mind being the Universal Horror pastiche 'Dr Karnstein's Creation' from the Michel Parry-curated The Rivals of Frankenstein). For such things alone, my young self felt fond of Mr Glut.

Turns out he did a lot of other things that chimed with my own interests, such as penning episodes of such TV series as Shazam, Scooby-Doo, Captain Caveman, Centurions ("Power X-Treme!"), Transformers, Masters of the Universe and the classic early '90s X-Men. What a guy. He also has the bizarrely hypnotic website Don Glut's Dinosaurs (here ) which caters to all of us who are interested in the alchemical admixture of paleontology and models posing in bikinis and schoolgirl outfits. And who among us could argue with that? The man is a god.

Turns out he has also written and directed - i don't think auteured would be too strong a word - a number of b-movies (or z-movies, if were to be honest with ourselves about the sub-Fred Olen Ray [yes, Olivia, that is possible] level of cinema that we're dealing with here) about such delightful things as lesbian vampires. Which, yeah, Hammer hammered into the ground aeons ago, but hey: it's still fertile ground. Especially with all the onanistic viewers spilling their seed like that.

And so we arrive at The Erotic Rites of Countess Dracula. Apparently filmed in five days, it would seem cruel to say "It shows", i can't say that the picture quality is great. As a Doctor Who fan it would be strange of me to complain about watching an enjoyable romp shot on cheap-looking video, but surely there's some kind of reverse-VIDFire process wherein a film can be made to look like it's on actual... y'know... film? Anyway, it kind of works toward the whole late '90s early '00s softcore porno atmos that's instantly created via the opening shots of a slo-mo orgy of writhing and intertwining naked female limbs. Nice one, Don. This is out introduction to our central character, the centrepiece of this Sapphic tableau: the Scarlet Countess herself, aka Scarlet Brooks played by porn star Elizabeth X (nee Janet Elizabeth Marsh, and credited herein as 'Brick Randall'), with her auburn tresses tossing amidst the frolicking. I love a red mane on a woman. But not a Redmayne. That would just be weird.

In flashback, we get The Secret Origin of the Countess, as Marvel comics may have put it, as we find Ms Brooks as an aspiring singer in the swinging Sixties, eager to get into the studio to cut her debut record and become "bigger than Janis". Venturing into the darkness outside the recording studio to find her lost "lucky charm" - a CND symbol medallion - she finds herself a victim of the dreaded Un-Dead himself: Count Dracula. Whose ambition to take the heart of the Empire and the whirl and the rush of humanity in 1897 had obviously settled into knocking around the Pacific coast 70 years later. Cool, dude. The Count is portrayed by William Smith - veteran of such genre offerings as Invasion of the Bee Girls and Grave of the Vampire, but most recognisable to me as the titular titan's Crom-quoting father in John Milius' Conan the Barbarian - who is very reminiscent of Jack Palance's 1974 take on the role of the vampire lord. Except with a goatee. So, like the version of the Count from Marvel's Tomb of Dracula, then. Which is cool. The Count puts the hypnotic whammy on the glam gal and takes a bite as per, and poor Scarlet finds her dreams of rock 'n' roll stardom are over as she is consigned to an endless eternal life of dwelling in the darkness with only Drac's servant Renfield at her beck and call. Played by Del Howison, real-life proprietor of the Dark Delicacies Burbank bookshop, this Renfield continues his family tradition of an entemophagous diet by chowing down on any passing beetles and bugs, but is more startling for his moustache and white-streaked mane giving him a startling resemblance to the famed thespian Steven Toast of London.

Spending the ensuing decades slaking her bloodlust with take-outs from the Burbank blood bank rather than sourcing the good stuff straight from the jugular tap, and mourning the loss of her humanity even if she retains her (Valleys porn standard) beauty, Scarlet establishes an exclusive nightclub named 'The Scarlet Countess' where she sits every night wistfully watching the mortals dancing with their youthful life and energy. She also gazes at the spinning mirrorball and daydreams (well, night-dreams, which is just dreaming, isn't it?) a scene of a buxom lovely doing a slow and sensual strip-tease in a jacuzzi accompanied by the soundtrack of the club's music. It's very reminiscent of those old Electric Blue videos from the '80s and '90s. Not that i'd know anything about that. I never found your videos, Dad, honest.

Tired of this mortal coil (though i don't suppose vampiresses need an IUD, do they?), Scarlet finally issues a command to her ever-faithful retainer: stake her through the heart and end her existence whilst she lays recumbent in her coffin. Renfield can't bring himself to do this, however, and instead turns to occult literature for answers - leading to the somewhat meta sequence of Howison patronising his own bookshop wherein he, with the help of black-clad goth shopgirl Shado who boasts of reading the entire Anne Rice canon in a week "Again!" (she is my new imaginary wife), finds the Ruthvenian: the Bible of the Un-Dead. In this grand grimoire he finds the answer to Scarlet's dilemma: if she can drink the blood of three virgins who give themselves and their "life's nectar" to her willingly, she will once again be mortal.

"In a single night?" she asks incredulously. "Where i the hell am i gonna find three young virgins in Southern California in a single year?"

And so Renfield's impossible quest begins. Obviously i don't want to divulge and spoil the ending of this masterpiece as doubtless everyone will want to experience it for themselves. Blessed with a bevy of bodacious boob-baring babes disrobing amidst coffins and mist, shot like a cross between softcore and a music video and soundtracked frequently with a selection of goth rock tunes (from mostly from the bands Doppleganger and Shadow Light, of whom i'd never heard but shall be checking out - i genuinely enjoyed a lot of the soundtrack), The Erotic Rites of Countess Dracula is the kind of fever dream that a hormonal teenager who's wet dreams of naked ladies are mixed with Famous Monsters of Filmland would want to see. In short, it was made for me. 

I got wood.

"I am Glut."

Monday, 1 October 2018

Hatchet (Adam Green, 2006)

Well, my fellow Famous Monsters, 'tis the season of the witch once more. And so it begins...

One of the great things about the October horror film challenge is discovering films that one has never seen before, whether through the recommendations of others or simply finally getting round to watching a film that has been in one's collection for some time. For myself this morning 'this the latter, as at long last the hour cones round for me to seeing Adam Green's Hatchet (2006).

Yeah, i know, i should hand in my horror fan membership card - i've long been aware of its status, it's just that... y'know... there are a lot of films out there (the vast majority made long before i was born), and so sometimes it takes me a while to get around to certain flicks. Nevertheless, here we are.

First things first, this is one of those flicks whose mere cast list can bring a gruesomely gleeful grin to a genre fan's face, boasting appearances by Freddy Krueger himself Robert Englund, Candyman and Ben from the revivified 1990 Night of the Living Dead Tony Todd, and four-time Jason Voorhees Kane Hodder in the role of this franchise's own Big Bad - the hatchet-handy Victor Crowley. I must admit that this already august line up was accidentally added to by my brain during the opening credits when i accidentally confused Mercedes McNab (who has a genre pedigree in her own right, not just for her long-running role as ditzy vampiress Harmony in Buffy and Angel but also for 1991's The Addams Family and its sequel) with Mercedes McCambridge (the daemonic voice of Pazuzu him/her/itself in William Friedkin's legendary The Exorcist, as well as boasting a twin-spin of Jess Franco flicks [99 Women and The Marquis De Sade's Justine] amidst an impressive roll of credits). Speaking of Buffy guest actors, we also have aboard (like, literally aboard: a chunk of the movie is set on a boat) Richard Riehle, who replaced the august Donald Sutherland for the franchise's TV incarnation as the Buffster's original Watcher Merrick.

For anyone unfamiliar with the movie's plot, we have here the simple and well-worn tale of a heartbroken young man - Ben, played with an agreeable weasleyness by Joel David Moore - attempting to get over his dumping by his long-term girlfriend (too close to home and too close to the bone, Green!) by attending the raucous Girls Gone Wild bewbs and booze shenanigans of the famed New Orleans (pronounced "Nyorlans") Mardi Gras with a clutch of reprobate friends, including the genre's staple character of wisecracking black sidekick (i don't make the tropes, i just check 'em off the bingo card) Marcus played affably by Deon Richmond. His heart not being into starting the day with an hour's copious vomiting followed by more Bacchanalian revelry of quaffing and boffing, Ben decides to peel off from the rest of the gang and leave them to their Saturnalian devices in favour of investigating the more edifying prospect of a haunted swamp tour - his good pal Marcus reluctantly tagging along in order to keep an eye on our heartsick hero. After first calling at the voodoo shop of the spectacularly-monickered Reverend Zombie (a fun cameo by Todd), but being rebuffed as he no longer runs nighttime riverboat cruises due to a Claims Direct ambulance-chasing insurance incident, the duo are directed to the premises of Madame Marie LaVeau and her Tarot-reading House of Voodoo where they meet try-hard chancer cum tour guide Shawn (Parry Shen) as well as a pair of naive amateur porn starlets - ditzy and literally Clueless valley girl Missy (McNab) and the gorgeous but tragically for Marcus and his designs pubic louse-infested Jenna (Joleigh Foireavanti) - and their entrepreneurial 'director', the pseudonymous Doug Shapiro aka Samuel M. Barrat (Joel Murray). Also along for this trip of a deathtime to where the river'll run red are older couple Jim Permatteo (Riehle) and his wife Shannon (Patrika Darbo), as well as the beautiful but sullen and withdrawn Marybeth Dunstan - who i believe goes on to become very much the Ash Williams of this franchise - here played pre-her regeneration into the second Queen of Halloween (after St Jamie Lee of Curtis, of course) Danielle Harris, bu Tamara Feldman (aka Amara Zaragoza. Seriously, too many names).

Marybeth isn't along on this trip for any fun - as she makes abundantly clear to Ben and his awkward and unwanted advances: she's on search mission for her missing father Sampson (Englund, famed for being everyone's favourite paedophile murderer turned nightmare trickster Freddy but best known in our house as friendly space lizard - no, not a member of the Royal family - Willy from V) and brother Ainsley (Joshua Leonard), who we as viewers witnessed being gleefully rent asunder in the pre-title sequence. After the group ignore the dire warnings of the genre's regular "Don't go to the camp/in the woods/into the house" character (in this case special effects wizard John Carl Buechler continuing the Tom Savini tradition of the gore 'n' grue guy getting a cameo, playing the urine-sipping Jack Cracker) and head on into the mire, Marybeth informs her fellow travellers about the truth behind the local legend of Victor Crowley, a severely deformed man who was raised by his caring father (a cameo from former Voorhees and robot werewolf from Project Metalbeast Hodder, who also plays the adult Crowley under several layers of latex) in the isolated surrounds of the swamplands. Born on the bayou, as Creedence would have it, the young Crowley (played under the makeup by the very attractive actress, member of geek girl collective Team Unicorn and former Mrs Adam Green Rileah Vanderbilt, whom i of course know from undisputed Best Film Ever Made Avengers Grimm) shuns the company of humans due to the bullying and mockery by other children - a teasing that blows spectacularly out of control when a firework prank turns into a full on Cropsy from The Burning inferno that consumes his wooden retreat in flames, and Victor's father's attempts to reach his son by chopping through the burning door with a hatchet end in tragedy when his unfortunate son takes an axe blow straight to his visage.

Of course, Crowley's vengeful spectre haunts the swamplands more deadly than any of the local crocodilian fauna, bringing violent retribution to all those who defile the dank deeps of his domain. The tour group are picked off one by one in a variety of grisly ways (don't you just wish that this would happen to Brendan and his regulation busload of the faeces of humanity in Coach Trip?), all becoming fodder for the Hodder, climaxing in a delightfully unexpected cliffhanger ending - doubtless to be continued in the sequel (to which i shall get round later in the month).

All in all, Hatchet was great fun - a knowingly genre cliche box-ticking romp that packs fun and frights into a fleeting 85 minutes that doesn't outstay its welcome. Remember when most films were c. 90 minutes? I miss those days. BRAVO, JACKSON. Sure to bring a smile to all those raised on a diet of '80s slashers a la Friday the 13th et al, i'd recommend it to anyone else who for whatever reason just hadn't got round to it yet.

Three and a half chainsaws out of five, at least.

Saturday, 2 June 2018

Blood from the Mummy's Tomb (Seth Holt, 1971)

In which we make a donation (a sanguineous one, natch) to the Great Hammer/Amicus Blogathon by giving a take on the entombed terror of Tera.

The 'Mummy' subgenre of horror began its literal, literary life (or, rather, waking half life bestowed by the Scrolls of Thoth, perhaps?) in 1892 when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - one of the founding fathers of detective fiction and onlie begetter of the legendary sleuth of Baker Street Sherlock Holmes - penned the short story 'Lot No. 249' for Harper's Magazine: a tale of an Oxford student who acquires Egyptian relics at action, including a sarcophagous containing a mummy which he learns to reanimate and send out at night to wreak revenge on those that he believes have wronged him.  Cinema, never being far behind the written word when it comes to transferring frights onto film, was quick to join in with the fin de siecle zeitgeist of Ancient Aegyptology fostered by the discoveries of 19th century archaeologists such as Champollion and Flinders Petrie.  In 1901 the early British film director Walter R. Booth made the two-minute short The Haunted Curiosity Shop (one of many he made with director and producer R. W Paul in imitation of the pioneering trick films of French illusionist and special effects maestro Georges Melies) which featured among the many whirling apparitions that fill its brief running time a sarcophagous that opens to reveal a resurrected revenant in Egyptian dress who then immediately dessicates into a skeleton.  Not the most auspicious start for the Mummy in film, but we all have to start somewhere don't we?

A mere two years later, literature struck back when Irish-born author and creator of the very Lord of the Undead himself - Count Dracula - followed up his 1897 novel of nosferatu with 1903's The Jewel of Seven Stars.  A tale of an ancient and powerful dark queen seeking resurrection through the child of one of the defilers of her tomb, the novel touched an Edwardian nerve with its invocation of the feminine power for destruction as well as creation (the emerging phenomenon of the 'New Woman' scandalising the repressed and repressive regressive classes) and the then-shocking notion that an ancient and 'primitive' civilisation like Egypt may have in many ways been more advanced than that of the 'enlightened' early 20th century West - so strong was the feeling against some of the book's themes that Stoker would reissue it in a redacted and revised version nine years later, removing the chapter containing speculation about modern monotheistic religions being cast into doubt and the resurrected queen's power proving the veracity of the Egyptian pantheon - and also rewriting the open and downbeat ending for a less impactful Happily-Ever-After with the male hero marrying the no-longer cursed heroin.  Ugh.  Coward.

The silver screen career of the Egyptian undead had of course kicked into high gear in 1932 with the release of Universal Pictures' Karl Freund-helmed The Mummy, starring horror colossus Boris Karloff as the resurrected Imhotep.  The real spurt of reanimated activity, though, would take place in the 1940s, when first cowboy actor and Captain Marvel Tom Tyler and later Lon Chaney Jr., would incarnate Prince Kharis in The Mummy's Hand (Christy Cabanne, 1940) followed by its sequels The Mummy's Tomb (Harold Young, 1942), The Mummy's Ghost (Reginald Le Borg, 1944) and the same year's The Mummy's Curse (Leslie Goodwins).  These films would entrench the trope of the Mummy as a shambling bandage-clad zombie figure, that hideous strength that could withstand flames and bullets belying his great age and decayed form as he habitually crashed through French windows to carry off the latest negligee-clad incarnation of his lost Luxor love.

Kharis' (or, rather, "Klaris"') contractually mandated comedy encounter in Charles Lamont's lamentable 1955 Abbott and Costello meet the Mummy notwithstanding, it was down to Britain's Hammer Studios to take up the Tana leaves and breathe new life into his old body in time for 1959's The Mummy.  Directed by Terence Fisher, the godfather of Kensington Gore, on the heels of his rejuvenations of Universal's other '30s and '40s horror stalwarts in 1957's The Curse of Frankenstein and 1958's (Horror of) Dracula the film was a fusion-remake (is that a cinematic term?  If not, can i coin it please?) of The Mummy's Hand and The Mummy's Tomb, with the reincarnated princess carried off into the murky depths of the swamp in the strong arms of Kharis (as tall, dark and gruesome as ever in the form of Sir Christopher Lee) lifted from the climax of The Mummy's Ghost.  This Eastmancolour Egyptian outing would be followed up by Hammer not with a straight sequel - as with the Universal cycle - but with an out-of-continuity outing (as Universal's Hand was to their eponymous original) with the delightfully-named Dickie Owen taking on the fuller's earth and bandages in Michael Carreras' 1962 The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb.  Owen would again do his duty awakening to walk the land of Khem in all his strength and... uh... not beauty in John Gilling's 1967 proto-slasher (seriously, it follows all of the beats six years before Bob Clark's Black Christmas and eleven years before John Carpenter's Halloween) The Mummy's Shroud.

Clearly, most of the mileage had been wrung from the crumbling resin-coated bandages of the idea of a walking mummified engine of destruction at this point.  Another Mummy-themed movie would have to take a slightly different tack.  And lo, around 1970, two different people would seize upon Stoker's Jewel of Seven Stars as inspiration.  Getting there first was an instalment of ABC TV's (that's the British ABC - Associated British Corporation  - rather than the American Broadcasting Company) anthology series Mystery and Imagination.  Adapted from the Stoker work by acclaimed critic, author and biographer John Russell Taylor and directed by Guy Verney (helmer of the early 1960s Pathfinder television sci-fi trilogy [comprising Pathfinders in Space, Pathfinders to Mars and Pathfinders to Venus] as well as the only very recently rediscovered early episode of The Avengers 'Tunnel of Fear') this 75-minute condensation was retitled as the rather prosaic Curse of the Mummy and due to the constraints of late 1960s and early 1970s British television was something of a chamber piece, confining all of the action to a few videotaped studio interiors.  Featuring then-star of The Devil Rides Out (Terence Fisher, 1968) and Cry of the Banshee (Gordon Hessler, 1970) and now-regular of Emmerdale Patrick Mower as a square-jawed Malcolm Ross alongside the alluring Isobel Black (The Kiss of the Vampire [Don Sharp, 1963], Twins of Evil [John Hough, 1971]) as the increasingly possessed Margaret Trelawny, it stands as an effective enough transposition of the story to the small screen, but it was soon to be eclipsed as meanwhile, in a Borehamwood not far away Hammer Films were preparing their very own and extraordinary rendition.

A fairly troubled production from the beginning, and described by Hammer historian Marcus Hearn as "an unhappy film beset with tragedy", there is something of the deathly shroud of a curse over the movie that lends it a real life doom-laden quality.  Cast in the role of Professor Fuchs (the character having been renamed from the Cornish Trelawny, perhaps in honour of the noted explorer Vivian Fuchs who legendarily gifted the world the newspaper headline "Fuchs Off Again" when he left on his latest expedition*) was Hammer Horror stalwart Peter Cushing, carrying the baton for Mummy movies after starring as John Banning in the 1959 version.  However, after completing just a day's filming Cushing received the news that his beloved wife Helen had been hospitalised with emphysema and had to leave the set to rush to her side.  The studio's hasty attempts to re-juggle the filming schedule would come to nought as Mrs Cushing was to sadly pass away a week or so later.  Cushing, always devoted to his wife of twenty-eight years, was devastated and said to never recover from her loss.  Andrew Keir (previous star of Hammer's Dracula: Prince of Darkness [Terence Fisher, 1966] and Quatermass and the Pit [Roy Ward Baker, 1967]) was hurriedly cast as a replacement, having to learn the script over a weekend and start shooting on the soundstage on the Monday morning.

The dark 'curse' over the film would be followed up when, towards the end of the penultimate week of the scheduled six-week shoot, director Seth Holt (who had directed previous Hammers Scream of Fear [aka A Taste of Fear, 1961] and The Nanny [1965]) suffered a sudden and fatal heart attack, collapsing into the arms of actor Aubrey Morris.  Michael Carreras would have to step in to direct the final days of production on an exhausted and depressed set.

The film broadly follows the storyline of the original novel, with some embellishments in Christopher Wicking's witty and literate screenplay (such as the character of Malcolm Ross being renamed 'Tod Browning' in honour of the monochrome cinema's trailblazing horror director, and Aubrey Morris' character Dr Putnam sharing has surname with the 1932 Mummy's credited co-writer Nina Wilcox Putnam) - with an expedition to Egypt's 'Valley of the Sorcerer' (a name up there with the Valley of the Tombs of the Scorpion from previous Mummy Tom Tyler's 1941 The Adventures of Captain Marvel) profaning the sealed and name-stricken (her nomenclature, like Imhotep's, being scratched from her cartouche to obliterate her memory for all time) tomb of the priestess of the Dark Side Queen Tera.  The expedition consists of Professor Fuchs (Keir), Corbeck (James Villiers, previously starring in Seth Holt's The Nanny as well as Roman Polanski's 1965 Repulsion), Dandridge (Hugh Burden, the eponymous lead in The Mind of Mr J. G. Reeder [1969-1971]), Berrigan (George Colouris, a long-time collaborator with Orson Welles in his Mercury Theatre productions, appearing as Thatcher in Welles legendary 1941 Citizen Kane) and Dickerson (Rosalie Crutchley, Madame Defarge in Ralph Thomas' 1958 A Tale of Two Cities [a role she reprised in the 1965 BBC TV adaptation] and Mrs Dudley in Robert Wise's 1963 triumph of terror The Haunting).  Opening Tera's tomb at the exact instant that Fuchs' wife back home in London gives birth to their baby daughter Margaret (dying in so doing, and the newborn's heart stopping for an instant, before restarting as the sarcophagous is opened and mortals gaze upon Tera's face for the first time in millennia), the group split the grave goods between them: Berrigan taking a snake idol, Dandridge a jackal's skull and Dickerson a cat idol of the goddess Bast, while Fuchs fuchs off home with the majority of the crypt's contents including the sarcophagous and the mummy itself.  It's unclear exactly what Corbeck gets.  No wonder he's so uppity and pissed-off later.

So Fuchs keeps the embalmed and eternal corpse of an ancient death queen in her coffin in the basement of his London townhouse, raising his daughter who is the spitting image of said queen, as you do.  A totally healthy relationship, that, i'm sure.  Margaret Fuchs (oh i'm sure she does, in the gloriously imperious and sensuously beautiful form of Carry On and James Bond alumnus Valerie Leon) , born with a birthmark across her right wrist - in the place that Tera's hand was posthumously severed - that emos would kill for, finds herself wracked with strange dreams that come from beyond the shadowed veil of night and time that her boyfriend Tod (Australian actor Mark Edwards - who i recognised from an episode of HTV's Arthur of the Britons [1972], doing a good job in a fairly perfunctory role) can't help her with.  After her father gives her a ruby ring (taken from the severed hand of the mummy years before) a an early birthday present, Margaret finds herself drawn in to a strange and tangled web - a conspiracy thousands of years in the making.  Spied upon by the strange and icy Corbeck from a vacant house across the road from her home (the house's "To Let" sign displaying the names of "Neame and Skeggs" as an in-joke reference to production manager Christopher Neame and production supervisor Roy Skeggs), Margaret's dreams are as the coming of the doom of Tera, "She Who Has No Name" as she is slightly pre-Volemortianly termed.  After Fuchs is paralysed for attempting to defy Tera's design, Corbeck contacts Margaret and influences her to go along with the pre-ordained plan - for Tera to reincarnate when the seven stars of the Plough (or the Big Dipper, depending on your side of the ocean, i guess) align correctly with the insignia of the talisman ring.

The film is filled with nice nuances and touches, such as Tod's car being a 1920s-style roadster in keeping with the glorious age of Egyptology (such as Carter's discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb) in contrast to the present-day early 1970s setting - a car in which he meets his demise near the film's end in a crash so poorly shot and edited that one must conclude that it was a part of the hasty pick-up filming by Carreras rather than done during the main shoot by Holt.  There is also much glee to be gleaned by the genre fan from the casting - Hugh Burden and George Colouris having both appeared in Doctor Who (as Channing in 1970's Spearhead from Space and Arbitan in 1964's The Keys of Marinus respectively) and the score being provided by Who audio alumnus Tristram Cary, James Villers and James Cossins from the Eon James Bond franchise (Bill Tanner in For Your Eyes Only [John Glen, 1981] and Calthorpe in The Man with the Golden Gun [Guy Hamilton, 1974] respectively) and David Jackson (Olan Gan from Blakes 7 [1978-1981]) as the young orderly seemingly in the sexual thrall of Cossins' older orderly: a slight kinkster theme that recurs in the appearance of Jonathan Burn's character of 'Saturnine Young Man', the sexually ambiguous fingernail-painted acolyte of the preternaturally divining Ms Dickerson.  Which is nice.

Beyond the mere mortal concepts of Good and Evil, transcending the pale pale cast of mankind's morality, stands Tera - Egyptian accoutrements adorned and imperious.  She will strike, and cure out hearts.

(*Though according to David Marsh this is an urban myth.  Sod him, the spoilsport.)

Monday, 14 May 2018

Tales of Frankenstein: The Face in the Tombstone Mirror (Curt Siodmak, 1958)

Hammer Horror in the style of Universal Monsters: stylistically stitched together

In the wake of Hammer Films' sudden stratospheric success on the silver screen with the sanguineous and stylish The Curse of Frankenstein (Terence Fisher, 1957), executive producer Michael Carreras turned his eye towards the Stateside small screen for continuing Creature-creating capers.  The genesis of the Bray studio's Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and Hazel Court (oh be still my pulsating heart, floating in your tank of formaldehyde) starring feature film had been as arduous as the Promethean act of bringing life to the gut-stitched golem itself: the initial screenplay penned by future Amicus founders Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg (with the somewhat underwhelmingly prosaic title of Frankenstein and the Monster) had been received with more apathy than excitement, and the initial idea of filming it in black and white (like Hammer's breakout hit of 1955, Val Guest's The Quatermass Xperiment) with ageing maven of the macabre Boris Karloff in the role of the creator - rather than the Creature, this time - brought rumblings and mumblings from the legal department of US studio Universal.  Faced with the threat of legal repercussions if any element of their film should resemble the monochrome 1931 James Whale Frankenstein or its sequels, Carreras cut his losses by paying off Subotsky and Rosenberg for $5000, binning their pedestrian and derivative script and commissioning a new take from Jimmy Sangster in a new and different style to be filming in glorious Eastmancolour with lashings of Kensington Gore - establishing sex and grue Hammer Gothic style with which the studio would become forever and indelibly associated.

With a certifiable epoch-making hit on their hands - a position entrenched and solidified even further with the success of another adaptation of 19th century literature with Terence Fisher's Dracula (aka: Horror of Dracula [which looks like a pretty neat Jessica Jones episode title]) the following year - Carreras and Hammer soon planned sequels in what would these days be viewed as the planning of the establishment of a franchise.  Signing a distribution deal with Columbia Pictures, Hammer announced forthcoming releases including The Camp on Blood Island (Val Guest, 1958), The Snorkel (Guy Green, 1958) and the then-titled Frankensteinian follow-up The Blood of Frankenstein - soon to become The Revenge of Frankenstein (Terence Fisher, 1958) - Carreras answering the question of how a sequel could be possible after the antagonistic protagonist's long walk to the sharpened blade of the guillotine at the climax of Curse with a flippant "Oh, we sew the head back on".

Before Frankenstein would return to wreak his revenging upon the big screen, however, Hammer would channel their creative spark into the television channel - embarking with the Screen Gems division of their new partner Columbia upon the fraught journey to television pilot stage for a proposed series of 26 half-hour episodes of small screen shivers.  After a pilot script by Hammer's own Jimmy Sangster (entitled 'The Single-Minded Blackmailer') was rejected among several others, Columbia opted for a scenario from Universal legend Curt Siodmak, writer of classic Creature Features such as The Wolf Man (George Waggner, 1941), Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (Roy W. Neill, 1943), I Walked with a Zombie (Jacques Tourneur, 1943) and The Beast with Five Fingers (Robert Florey, 1946) and author of the three-times-filmed 1943 transplantation terror tome Donovan's Brain.  With Siodmak as storyliner (adapted by husband and wife writing team Henry and Catherine Kuttner - who, under the pen name C. L. Moore, had been one of the early pioneering women to write in the fields of pulp science fiction and fantasy for publications such as Weird Tales) as well as director and associate producer, this Hammer project would accrue many of the stylistic trappings of the older Universal cycle - an aspect encouraged by Columbia who had acquired the rights to the Universal Horror back catalogue with their syndicated Shock Theater television package of 52 of Universal's 1930s and 1940s films.

The influence is clear from the very opening: a black and while chiaroscuro montage of recycled footage (perhaps recycling is an appropriate theme when considering a story about a man who would rather use the parts of the dead to create new things rather than the wastage of throwing them away to rot with the worms of the earth: the Baron was ahead of his time in pioneering the art of upcycling!), including the drifting spectral brides filing past the tomb - alone in a darkened room - from Tod Browning's 1931 Dracula, and the eerie swirling features of David Hoffman entrapped in a crystal ball from the opening prologues of the Inner Sanctum mysteries with his voice overdubbed by the stentorian tones of former radio Sherlock Holmes Ben Wright introducing us to this new eerie twilit hinterland 'twixt Universal Monsterland and Hammer Eurogoth:

"From the beginning of time, many men have sought the unknown - delving into dark legions where lie those tombs which are destined to destroy.  Of all these eerie adventurers into darkness, none was more driven by insatiable curiosity nor went further into the unknown than the unforgettable Baron Frankenstein.  So infamous were his exploits that his name stands forever as a symbol of all that is shocking... unspeakable... forbidden.  Thus in our day any story which chills the soul and freezes the blood is truly a Tale of Frankenstein!"

The renowned resurrectionist of revenants is played here by professional Teuton and Wimbledon fan Anton Diffring (of many a Nazi war film, and also Terence Fisher's The Man Who Could Cheat Death [1959], Francois Truffaut's classic Fahrenheit 451 [1966] and most famous in our house as Pavel in Paul Annett's The Beast Must Die [1974] and Herr De Flores in Doctor Who: Silver Nemesis [Chris Clough, 1988]), his casting one of the few concessions by Columbia to Hammer.  He plays the role of the perfidious Baron very much in the icy patrician mold established by Peter Cushing in The Curse of Frankenstein and his literally stepped into Cushing's Death Star slippers shoes - or at least his costume.  This Baron Frankenstein straight outta Bray seems somewhat out of time as he works in a laboratory that instead of bubbling with wooden retorts and whirling Whimshurst machines fizzes and crackles with Kenneth Strickfaden equipment and sparking arcs torn straight from the 1930s classics.  The Monster on the slab (from which he will soon begin to rise) is played by Don Megowan (no stranger to creature features, having previously stepped into the webbed flippers of Ricou Browning to play the Gill Man of the Amazon himself in The Creature Walks Among Us [John Sherwood, 1956] and later that same year faced off against the lycanthropic Steven Ritch as the sheriff in Fred F, Sears' The Werewolf ).  The copyright injunction that caused Phil Leakey to have to completely rethink Christopher Lee's Creature in Curse no longer applicable thanks to the Columbia deal, Megowan is made up and dressed in the iconic Universal Monster style cooked up for Karloff by Jack Pierce, replete with flat-topped head, bolted anode 'n' cathode neck, black serge suit and asphalt spreader's boots.  Under the makeup Megowan actually bears a very close resemblance to Glenn Strange - the lanky Western actor who was the last person to incarnate the Universal Frankenstein in House of Frankenstein (Erle C. Kenton, 1944), House of Dracula (Kenton again, 1945), and Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein  (Charles T. Barton, 1948) - which means that with a slight mental squint once could, if one was of such an inclination, 'canonise' Tales of Frankenstein as a later part or spin-off of the Universal cycle.

Furthering the iconic Universal imagery is the sequence of husband and wife couple Paul Halpert (prolific and veteran television actor Richard Bull) and Christine Halpert (Helen Westcott, who had played Rosamund in Anthony Mann's God's Little Acre earlier in 1958 and would go on to add to her previous genre credit of beautiful Karloff-bait Vicky Edwards in 1953's Abbott and Costello meet Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde also in '58 with roles in Jack Arnold's Monster on the Campus and James Wong Howe's Invisible Avenger) arriving in this benighted and rain-swept Bavarian mountain village, leaving the train station with drenched umbrellas assailed by the weather just like Basil Rathbone and Josephine Hutchinson's Baron and Baroness in Rowland V. Lee's 1939 Son of Frankenstein.

The Halperts have come to seek the help of the Baron, known throughout the land for his radical and pioneering surgical techniques, due to Paul's ailing health.  They make the usual outsider mistake of mentioning the Frankenstein name while sitting in the village inn, causing the stock reaction of stunned and suspicious silence from the locals in this Alpine Slaughtered Lamb - doubtless a local tavern for local people.  Heading through the storm they reach the Castle and plead their case to Frankenstein himself, asking if their is anything that he can do to cure the degenerative disease that is killing Paul and cutting their marital bliss short.  Noticing that Paul's shaking hands are of an elegant design, Frankenstein enquires as to his occupation and gets a gleam in his eye upon hearing that he is a sculptor ("The brain of an artist!" - his rapture akin to Cushing's upon the hands of Bardello falling into his own).  Determining to have such a brain for his Monster to replace the killer's mind that has made the creation so erratic and violent, Frankenstein declares that there is nothing that he can do and bids them a terse adieu before waiting patiently for the very few days that it will take Halpert to succumb so that the drunken gravedigger in his pay (Peter Brocco) can aid him in accessing the precious cerebrum that he so craves.

Alas, after the funeral but before departing from town Christine decides to pay a last visit to Paul's grave - discovering not only the disturbed earth but also the medallion that she had placed around his neck upon his death for him to be interred with.  Her suspicions and hopes aflame, she heads straight to Chateau Frankenstein elated with the idea that the Baron has somehow revived her beloved husband.  Timing is everything in scientific experiments, and the timing here is most definitely off as Christine stumbles onto the scene just as the Monster with Paul's brain has awoken and triggering adverse reactions to his new reflection in the mirror and their recognition of each other.  Breaking his chains and pulling the wires from the wall, the confused Creature bundles his erstwhile life partner up in his arms in traditional fashion to carry her off, pausing only to break the mirror showing him his new and hideous visage, but the Baron's decision to terminate this failing experiment by emptying his pistol into it (as opposed to Udo Kier's Baron emptying himself into his creation's pistil, in Paul Morrissey's 1974  Flesh for Frankenstein) distracts and distresses the daemon to the point of distraction, hurling his creator through the French windows (Megowan framed in the shattered window is quite reminiscent of a shot of Lon Chaney's Monster in The Ghost of Frankenstein [Kenton, 1942]) before the wounded beast lumbers off into the night.  The dying fiend finds his way back to the graveyard and falls into Paul's own little acre - the grave from which Frankenstein wrenched him the previous night  As Frankenstein frantically grabs a shovel and heaps the earth back into the hole and upon the body (a reversal of his usual activity - a body snatcher turned dispatcher as the inhumane inhumes the inhuman) the local gendarmerie arrive to arrest him for grave robbing.

"You have your job to do, and i have mine", says the Baron to Sydney Mason's chief of police "and i don't think either of us would let anything get in the way of us fulfilling our respective destinies.  Time is of small matter.  You see - there's always tomorrow..."

Clearly in the spirit of Professor Bernard Quatermass' vow of "I'm going to start again!" at the climax of The Quatermass Xperiment, unlike that occasion the sequel-bait would remain unfulfilled as Carreras headed back to England disappointed with the one-sided nature of the Columbia coalition meaning that there would be no more entries in the annals of the Tales of Frankenstein.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

Danger Man: View from the Villa (Terry Bishop, 1960)

The Mayne event.

Before he was a number, when he was a free man, that famous Prisoner of Portmeirion known only as Number Six was an international man of mystery - a man who led a life of danger, to everyone he met remaining a stranger.  The odds were always that he wouldn't live to see tomorrow.

Then he was given a number, and they took away his name.

But back then, in his salad days of spooking and spying as the number one of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation's secret service, his name was Drake.  John Drake.

Emerging from a government building in Washington DC (in reality a composite shot, adding the Capitol Building of Washington behind the Castrol Building of Marylebone Road, London) to the strains of Edwin Astley's original Danger Man theme (later, in the subsequent 50-minute episode seasons, to be replaced by Astley's more iconic score entitled 'High Wire' - only to be replaced in turn for the episodes' American airings as Secret Agent by the PF Sloan-penned and Johnny Rivers-crooned slice of sonic Sixties Spymania 'Secret Agent Man'), Patrick McGoohan's Drake gives the series' mission statement in a mid-Atlantic voiceover:

"Every government has its secret service branch.  America: CIA.  France: Deuxieme Bureau.  England: MI5.  NATO also has its own.  A messy job?  Well, that's when they usually call on me - or someone like me. Oh yes - my name is Drake.  John Drake."

Created for Lord Lew Grade's Incorporated Television Company (ITC) by writer and producer Ralph Smart, who had overseen ITC's William Tell and Invisible Man series in 1958-59, Danger Man chronicled the adventures of the titular man of action played by Anglo-Irish-American actor (a true Transatlantic talent!) McGoohan - a lone wolf troubleshooter whose employers sent jet-setting around the globe to various locales to become entangled in the shadowy goings-on behind the sunny exotic climes.

Co-written by Smart and future Avengers auteur (as well as the eminence grise behind '70s-tastic cop caper The Professionals [1977-83] and tres '90s techno-espionage mess Bugs [1995-99], and the author of everything from the sublime heights of Robert Fuest's 1970 And Soon the Darkness to the perhaps not so great nadir of Russell Mulcahy's 1991 Highlander II: The Quickening) Brian Clemens, the opening assignment sees the indefatigable Drake dispatched to Rome to investigate the murder of imbezzling American banker Frank Delroy (Philip Latham, recognisable to connoisseurs of cultdom as the immortality-seeking Lord President Borusa from Doctor Who's 'The Five Doctors' [Peter Moffatt, 1983] and/or the Counts blood-seeking servant Klove in Terence Fisher's 1965 Dracula: Prince of Darkness - before Klove regenerated into the even Whoier form of Patrick Troughton for 1970's Scars of Dracula - but a mainstay of British TV and quota quickie second features such as Merton Park's Edgar Wallace Mysteries for decades).  We open on a pre-credits sequence of Delroy being tortured with a savage beating - possibly for causing offence with the terrible Stateside accent half-heartedly being affected by Latham - by the thuggish Mego (burly Tyneside actor Colin Douglas, who had a similarly lengthy career as Latham, including being a two-time Who alumnus [1968's 'The Enemy of the World' and 1977's 'Horror of Fang Rock'] and a Hammer appearance in Peter Graham Scott's 1962 Eastmancolour version of Russell Thorndike's 'Doctor Syn' stories Captain Clegg [aka Night Creatures] - coincidentally a subject matter to be visited a year later by McGoohan himself in the eponymous role of James Neilson's Dr Syn, Alias the Scarecrow).  Mego is the henchman of the villainous Tony Mayne (played by Australian actor John Lee, Alydon of the Aryan Thals in the premiere of the pestilent pepperpots 'The Daleks' [1963-64] and Len Mangel of Erinsborough's Neighbours [1994]), who is seeking the $5, 000, 000 dollars worth of gold bullion that Delroy has funneled from the financial funds for his own personal use.

Mego's rather overenthusiastic beating (i can relate) leads to Delroy's demise without confessing the loot's location, and to add to Mayne's woes and frustration (i can... never mind) the terrible twosome hear the sound of Delroy's aghast mistress - who has witnessed the murder from the apartment's bedroom - fleeing via the fire escape to the Via below.  Drake enters into this murder scene mise-en-scene accompanied by his own gruff noirish voiceover, setting the scene like the Sam Spade of Sixties Spymania by describing bank manager Mr Finch (played by the wonderfully named Canadian actor Court Benson) as "in no way distressed by the death of his president - only unbalanced accounts would distress Mr Finch.  The man had ink in his veins", all delivered in McGoohan's distinctive clipped vocal style.

Drake's detective work leads him across Rome - represented in the trademark 1960s ITC adventure serial style (viz. The Champions [1968-69], The Saint [1962-69], Man in a Suitcase [1967-68] et al) by mixing location footage with distinctly Borehamwood-bound studio interiors - to couturiere Gina Scarlotti (Barbara Shelley, whose status as a Hammer Horror heroine for such future films as Terence Fisher's The Gorgon [1964] and Dracula: Prince of Darkness [1965], as well as Roy Ward Baker's 1967 big screen version of Nigel Kneale's seminal slice of SF Quatermass and the Pit had already been staked out - so to speak - by her early roles in Alfred Shaughnessy's 1957 feline frightfest Cat Girl [in which co-starred John Lee], Henry Cass' 1958 Blood of the Vampire and Wolf Rilla's 1960 John Wyndham adaptation Village of the Damned).  Having discovered that the absent witness wore the fashions of Signora Scarlotti's boutique, he pumps the pretty proprietor for information on the late Delroy's missing mistress but receives only the vaguest of descriptions ("blonde... rather pretty, with a good figure" and "I don't think she was very nice") and an address that takes him to the construction site of a still-unfinished edifice.  Further stymied by a seemingly insoluble lack of leads (the lady in question "always pain in cash, never by cheque, no matter how large the amount" and "never had her orders delivered - always picked up by messenger") Drake finds himself even more perplexed when a waiter from Delroy's regular ristorante recalls the fugitive bit on the side very differently ("she is dark, she is a true Roman" and "so kind"), but obtains a clue from the establishment's sketch artist - a drawing by our gone girl signed with a 'G' which matches that on a painting hanging in the apartment crime scene.

Tracing the real life locale of this watercolour scenic landscape of belvederes and campaniles leads Drake on a drive to a small village (or should that be spelled with a capital 'V'?) played by the actual In Real Life location of Portmeirion - the Italianate North Wales folly built by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis that would become world famous for its use as the main location of McGoohan's post- Danger Man cult classic The Prisoner (1967-68).  There is a strange sense of dislocation, of a strange retroactive deja vu, in the shots of McGoohan's Drake parking his vehicle to stare up at the iconic belltower with a quizzical expression - as if he is recognising his own future prison - like there's a continuity error in reality itself.  Here in this strange place Drake finds a villa, the vista from which matches the painting exactly, and correctly deduces that this is the holiday home of sometime artist, daytime dressmaker and ex-sexy bit of stuff on the side Gina Scarlotti.  Admitting to her affair with - and intention to someday marry - the late Delroy, Gina confesses her deceit due to her fear of being identified by Mayne as the sole witness of her lover's murder but denies any knowledge of the missing millions before pointing out a wooden crate that she was told to be full of books: the contents of which turn out to be more suited to a bank vault than a bookshelf.  The treasure trove thus tracked down, it only remains for Drake to take on the trio of Mego, Mayne and the merry widow of Delroy who has been treacherously teamed up with Tony all along.  One of the series' patented action scenes - an unarmed fist-fight, at McGoohan's own request minutely planned out and choreographed to the minutest detail to be as realistic as possible - ends with Gina putting a bullet in the murderer and wounding him.  "Don't worry, he's going to live," Drake tells her as he takes the smoking gun of vengeance from her trembling hand and picks up the phone to call in the cavalry, "and from now on, so are you."

John Drake would go on to face another villainous Mayne three episodes later in 'The Blue Veil' in the awesome form of Ferdy Mayne (Count von Krolock in Roman Polanski's wonderful 1967 Dance of the Vampires [aka: The Fearless Vampire Killers, or: Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are In My Neck] as the Moukta - rather perplexingly credited as 'The Mayne' in that episode's entry on Danger Man website - but his career would of course go on and on, graduating from the original 25-minute episode format to the higher budgeted 50-minute version of the show known best Stateside by its alternate moniker (how apt for a spy) of Secret Agent, replete with iconic theme tune.  Between that and the full-colour cult immortality of The Prisoner, there was the strange hybrid halfway house of a two-part John Drake story filmed in full colour and set in Japan - which co-starred Christopher Benjamin (Henry Gordon Jago of Doctor Who renown) as the character of Potter, who would re-appear in the Prisoner episode 'The Girl Who Was Death'.  This two-part missing link betwixt Danger Man and The Prisoner would later be edited into a rarely seen movie Koroshi (Michael Truman and Peter Yates, 1968), an Eastern piece of ephemeral espionage.

A Secret Asian Man.

Monday, 12 February 2018

Altered Carbon: Out of the Past (Miguel Sapochnik, 2018)

E'en as a fully paid-up total geek (the kind who wilfully wields the word "e'en", for a start), there are areas of the Subbacultcha that do upon occasion elude me.  One of these, it seems, was Richard Morgan's 2002 dystopian cyberpunk opus Altered Carbon, of which i first heard fully four days ago during the following conversation with a friend:

"Have you been watching Altered Carbon?"

"What's Altered Carbon?"

"Are you telling me you've never heard of Altered Carbon?"

"I'm assuming it's a TV show."

"Have you never heard of the book?"

"Is the book called Altered Carbon?"


"Then the fact that i said 'What's Altered Carbon?' should tell you that i haven't heard of the fucking book, either.  No.  Is it any good?"

Torturous intros aside, and the fact that my friend then went on to attempt to convey in quite some depth the labyrinthine plottings of an SF novel while we were on a night out and my concentration may not have been at it's absolute 100% peak efficiency (it never is in pubs, you know) that wound up coming across as some crazed mass of verbiage that was "Takeshi" this and "Laurens" that and "a bit like Blade Runner meets Gattaca (or, at least, that's sort of how it came across with all the mention of futuristic elites and rain-soaked neon), i did take in some of the conversation and made a mental note to check this show out at some point.  I mean, i trust John's judgement on matters science fictional (with the caveat that he told me back in the halcyon dreaming days of Uni that Space: Above and Beyond was worth watching, and it was so much one of the worst things i've ever seen that i think i almost felt physically sick while trying to fight my way through the first few episodes before utterly giving up), so - it should be okay.  Even if it's managed to somehow completely slip past me.  Let's give it a go.

Adapted for the screen by Laeta Kalogridis (co-writer of Timur Bekmambetov's slice of Slavic supernature Night Watch [2004], which is a good sign, and also the co-writer of Oliver Stone's 2004 Macedonian monstrosity Alexander and Alan Taylor's 2015 late and lamented rear entry in the Terminator franchise Genisys, which aren't such good signs) and directed by Miguel Sapochnik (helmer of the thoroughly entertaining [not as good as Repo Man, obviously] 2010 Repo Men, as well as a reliable director of such TV genre standards as Fringe, Game of Thrones and Beneath the Dome), the series' premiere episode was already onto a good start e'en (please, somebody stop me) before i noted that the episode title was a nod to the classic '40s film noir (aka Build My Gallows High) starring Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas.  This noirish nod would go on to prove to be accurate as to the tone and flavour of the show itself - its future world very much a similar SF noir to the rain 'n' neon soaked streets of Ridley Scott's 1982 Philip K. Dick epic.

Throwing us headlong, everlong, into this future scene wherein the memory engrams of the deceased can be re-uploaded into new "sleeves" (the streaming of the minds of the dead into newer, fitter bodies reminded me of Robert Sheckley's Immortality, Inc., filmed in 1992 by Geoff Murphy as the unlikely Mick Jagger and Anthony Hopkins team up of Freejack), old lives shucked off the way that in the spring snakes shed their skin and they blow away in the changing winds, we are launched into the life, death and afterlife of Takeshi Kovacs (Will Yun Lee) - a hitman and former Envoy 9a kid of adaptable all-terrain assassin) who is taken out and finds himself rudely re-awakened in a new incarnation in the form of Joel Kinnaman (yes, the rubbish RoboCop.  No, worse than Richard Eden.  Hey don't diss Robert Burke - he was in Richard Stanley's Dust Devil, motherfucker).  The scenario of the newly-reborn (literally, emerging from an amniotic fluid-filled body bag and pulling an intubated umbilicus from his throat like an awakening from the Matrix, or like Bobby De Niro as the newborn Creature in Kenneth Branagh's 1994 Mary Shelley's Frankenstein) Kovacs staring at the reflection of his new visage in the mirrored surface of a metal tray is highly reminiscent of the early scene of the newly-regenerated Patrick Troughton in Doctor Who's 'The Power of the Daleks' Episode One - both scenes having a character newly awakened into a new body at first beholding their original reflection: seeing the self that they expect to see, only to have that fade into the person that they now are.

The Doctor Who comparison is an apposite and interesting one, i think, as we are in the age of the politics of identity and a minor furore around the Doctor - a previously male character - becoming a woman (in the form of Jodie Whittaker).  It honestly wouldn't surprise me if there has been some kind of fuss around this series of a main character being played by a Caucasian actor but having an Asian name - we are in the era of the "whitewashing" outcry after all (which is well-meaning and everything, but when you're dealing with a character who is of Asian origin  but happens to be incarnated in a white body, surely he's free to still identify as Asian, right?).  It's an interesting thought though - in the realms of fantasy and science fiction, why shouldn't it be okay to have a character of non-white (do i have to say POC? I hate that acronym) origin played by an actor of a differing ethnicity should be okay, yeah?  Especially when it's actually part of the plot?  But then - i remember the "whitewashing" outcry over Iron Fist (a series which cast a white actor as Danny Rand, a white character in the original comics, but still got called out as racist) - and i just shrug.  But not like Atlas.  Ayn Rand sucks.

The rebirthed Kovacs finds himself at the behest of the rich and powerful Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy, Marc Antony of Rome [2005-2007] fame, V from V For Vendetta [2005] for about minutes possible fame, and the titular Solomon Kane [Michael J. Bassett, 2009] and Dracula from Big Finish Doctor Who audio Son of the Dragon "probably only in my house fame"), who is in the rather singular quandary of wanting to know who has killed him.  Being a "Meth" - short for "Methuselah", as in the long-leggedy long-lived Biblical patriarch - Bancroft is at least three centuries old due to having the means to be able to download his soul (if the rich can be perceived to possess such a thing) into a new body every so often, but has been shot through his prior head and the backup personality that has streamed into his new corporeal coil is missing the vital hours that contain the knowledge of who his killer actually was.  So the new-reborn man finds himself reluctantly on the payroll of posh Laurens - literally a rich man's toy - and taking on the case of the (admittedly non-permanent, but still rather serious) death of this guy who literally dwells in an ivory tower in the clouds; Laurens' grand mansion house with its spacious gardens and ornate statuary towering high above the grinding Metropolis below is so Fritz Lang it almost hurts.  In that painful, but pleasurable kind of way.  Pegging Doctor Freud.  Paging.  Shit.

So far, so intriguing, and that's without mentioning the glimpses of the other characters and the rest of our brave new world ready to be tentatively probed and explored (my mind's still on the last paragraph, isn't it?) - such as dogged Detective Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda), ready to get on Kovacs the cold case; or the intriguing Poe (Chris Conner) - a seeming replicant of Edgar Allan Poe himself and proprietor of the appropriately Gothic-accoutremented The Raven hotel (bedecked with an appositely pendulumed clock).  I'm being drawn in to this futurescape awashed with a hard rain (hard enough to wash the slime from the streets).  We can only but wait to see what happens.  For we are all interested in the future.  For that is where you and i shall spend the rest of our lives.

Monday, 1 January 2018

The Keep (Michael Mann, 1983)

To the Tower... to Rasalom!

Deep in the distant Way-back When of 1981, when i was but two years old and death was but a dream, the American author F. Paul Wilson began his series of novels - variously named the Nightworld Cycle and the Adversary Cycle - chronicling the aeons-old battle betwixt vastly powerful and otherworldly creatures dubbed the Ally (an unknowable and ancient entity that collects and preserves planets and sentient life) and the Otherness (an equal and opposite malevolent force that rapaciously consumes life and revels in destruction).  So far, so Manichaean, one might think - the dualistic concept of light versus dark, order versus chaos, good versus evil has been variously represented throughout the ages by the Avestan Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu, the Satanail and Michael of the Bogomils as well as the Judaeo-Christian God and Satan.  Wilson's pulp horror distillation of this eternal struggle started with the novel The Keep, which introduced the earthly champions of the eternal forces: two immortal beings who battle each other upon Earth's mortal plane throughout the ages for their respective masters.  Serving the all-consuming dark of the Otherness is the ancient and evil sorcerer Rasalom, and the warrior - dubbed 'the Sentinel' - Glaeken represents the Ally.  These two mystical individuals are locked in their struggle against each other throughout the ages, one sometimes temporarily besting the other, only for their immortal and ever-living opponent to return to continue the conflict.

I spent most of my young life ignorant of such things, of course, but i was interested in scary movies - which is why one day when i was about seven years old my parents returned from the local video shop brandishing a VHS of  Michael Mann's film adaptation of Wilson's novel, and one bright afternoon in 1987 or so my nightmares for the coming months would be invaded through my eyes, from the television screen, by the dark and malevolent presence of Rasalom.

Adapted for the screen and directed by Mann - and showing early signs of the wonderful visual flair that he would go on to display in Manhunter (1986), The Last of the Mohicans (1992) and Heat (1995 - although personally, i find his original telefilm version of this one, 1989's L.A. Takedown, slightly more satisfying) - and evocatively scored by Edgar Froese's electro-synth outfit Tangerine Dream (who would go on to provide a similarly mystical score for Ridley Scott's 1985 fantasy excursion Legend - at least for the US release, before it was re-scored by Jerry Goldsmith), the film opens with a long tracking shot of the clouds above a mountain pass in the Carpathians of Romania (the shot and soundtrack combinations slightly reminiscent of Werner Herzog's 1979 vampiric masterpiece Nosferatu).  Here, in the fictitious Dacian 'Dinu Pass' in 1941 (actually filmed in a North Wales slate quarry near Llanberis - had the film crew arrived here at a different point in '83 they probably wouldn't have been able to move for Cybermen), a detachment of German troops arrive to occupy the region to facilitate the Nazis' Operation Barbarossa - the attempt to invade and conquer the Soviet Union.

After occupying the small mountain village the self-proclaimed "Masters of the World", in the words of Captain Klaus Woermann (Jurgen Prochnow, making his Hollywood movie debut after the huge success of Das Boot [1981], and a an English-language role in Michael Landon-starring US TV movie Love is Forever [1983]), take charge of the large and foreboding castle keep - the eponymous edifice of the title - against the warnings of the old caretaker Alexandru (genre stalwart W. Morgan Sheppard): when told that nobody has ever stayed an entire night within the citadel Woerman asks Alexandru what drives them away -

"Dreams...", intones the elderly retainer.
"Nightmares?", scoffs the weary German soldier. "Look, man - the real nightmares man has made upon other men in this war.  The bad dreams of your keep are but a nursery rhyme in comparison."

Woermann further finds himself baffled by the castle's construction: "Why are the smaller stones on the outside and the larger stones in here?  It's constructed... backwards.  This place was not designed to keep something out."

When, on night watch, two of the German sentries discover that among the 108 metallic crosses embedded into the stone walls is silver rather than nickel, their rapacious desire for the spoils of war leads them to prize the talisman - and the masonry into which it is set - from the foundations and open up a narrow passageway into the interior of the monument (akin to the mysterious vent shafts under the pyramids, entombed with the pharaohs) that leads to a chasm into the vasty deep bowels of the earth.  This is the tomb of Rasalom, and from these mist-filled pits, dark, dank, unclear his ephemeral spectre rises to fill all before him with frost-fingered fear.

Whilst Woermann has to deal with one evil rising from inside the keep, another arrives outside, with the coming of a squadron of Einsatzkommandos (the mobile SS death squads) led by Eric Kaempffer (Gabriel Byrne, Excalibur [1981], Gothic [1986], Stigmata [1999]) who begins shooting the villagers having accused them of being partisan fighters against the German army, promising that five Romanians will be shot for ever German that dies, ignoring Woermann's protests that the deaths of soldiers within the keep are not the doings of the Dacians - and Woermann begins to realise the similarity between the thing that has been unleashed from the interior and the sadistic Kaempffer, both being coldly inimical to humanity and life.

"Something else is killing us," he tells a smirking Kaempffer in response to the latter's clinical explanation of rule by fear of death, "and if it doesn't care about the lives of three villagers - if it's like you - then does your fear work?  Take that brilliant thought back to Dachau with you".  The very real horror of wartime Nazi atrocities and man's inhumanity to man is thrown into relief (no doubt backlit by the penetrating blue laser lights and slow motion photography that characterise the movie) by comparison with the completely inhuman and ancient implacable evil of the daemonic Rasalom.  The atrocities of the former are seen manifested in the concentration camp from which the Jewish scholar Dr Theodore Cuza (a pre-mutants and Middle Earth Ian McKellen) and his daughter Eva (the late Alberta Watson, whom i remember from the startlingly memorable Spanking the Monkey [David O. Russell, 1994]) are plucked by the increasingly desperate despoilers in an attempt to translate the mysterious runic warnings adorning the edifice.  After being touched by the hand of the ungodly reborn creature, Cuza finds his crippled and aged body rejuvenated and cured of his scleroderma.

"I don't know what it is, and i don't care," cries the rapturous professor, "He is like a hammer and can help smash them!"
"What are you talking about?" asks his frightened daughter.  "We're dealing with a golem... a devil!"
"The devil in the keep wears a black uniform and has a death's head in his cap and calls himself a Sturmbannfuhrer!" he spits, referring to Kaempffer who had 'welcomed' them after their liberation from the death camp with "the people who go to these 'resettlement camps' - there are only two doors: one in, and one out.  The one out is the chimney".  As far as Cuza is concerned, the enemy of his enemy is his ally - even if it be an unearthly entity from before the dawn of time.

Also heading like Roland to the dark tower is the mysterious Glaeken Trismegistus (Scott Glenn, Alan Shepherd in The Right Stuff [Philip Kaufman, 1983], Jack Crawford in The Silence of the Lambs [Jonathan Demme, 1991] and Stick in the Netflix Marvel series Daredevil and The Defenders [2015-2017]), who awakens in the night with bright blue eyes aglow at the moment that the dark spirit of Molasar/Rasalom begins to take on corporeal form, the psychic connection between the two adversaries reaching from the darkness of the Romanian pass to the Greek village from which Glaeken immediately departs on a voyage by sea and land to reach the appointed place for the Final Conflict (not to be confused with the third film in the Omen trilogy, which had been released two years earlier) of the enmity of ages.

"I have been here for ages," he tells Eva, "watching and guarding against what is happening now.  He is being released.  I have come to destroy him... When he goes, i go."

After Kaempffer has shot and killed Woermann and taken the silver cross that Cuza had given to the latter for protection, he finds himself face to Sphinx-like animated rock face (doctor living stone, i presume?) with the black colossus Rasalom in a mist-bound setting and shot that haunts my memory from childhood.  Answering the terrified Nazi's enquiry as to where he comes from with "I come from you", the titan of terror crushes the ineffectual relic and destroys him like a child crushing an insect.  Cuza also finds himself confronted by the creature, their Faustian pact called into question when his master's voice commands him to destroy his daughter, who is barring him from carrying out the monster's will by removing the relic that binds him to the confines of the keep.  Faced with this dilemma, his own personal binding of Isaac, Cuza turns recusant and questions the infernal fiend ("Who are you that i must prove myself by killing my child?").

Glaeken takes on the beast, of course, in a sacrificial finale made almost incomprehensible by a combination of bizarre editing and haphazard and unfinished effects (partially due to the sudden death of special effects supervisor Wally Veevers during production).  The film was beset with post-production woes, with the studio ordering Mann's original 210 minute cut hacked down to 96 minutes.  The film is in many ways the Lovecraftian horror equivalent of David Lynch's 1984 Dune - both flawed epics stymied by studio interference and editing that removes much context and badly vitiates the (un)finished product.  All that said, the movie still contains many magical (sorcerous, even) moments and a great atmosphere, helped a great deal by the Tangerine Dream soundtrack with its Olympian drums like insistent raindrops and haunting synths like swirling mist.