Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Waxwork II: Lost in Time (Anthony Hickox, 1992)

 Of all the unholy crepuscular kinematic cuts that flashed and flickered upon my adolescent self's television screen, the original 1988 Waxwork was long considered to be (in the words of Chelsea Peretti) 'One Of The Greats' - at least in my bedroom it was - and i loved it so much and yearned for so much more whenever the end credits rolled to the toe-tapping yet heartwrenching strain's of Lesley Gore's "It's My Party" that i would gladly have offered up a sacrifice to the eldritch gods of Vestron Pictures to make a follow-up happen.  Had my nine to twelve year old self had a firstborn son (growing up in the North-East, this possibly wasn't as inconceivable as it might seem) it would have been passed gladly through the fires to Moloch to conjure a sequel to a low budget horror movie.  I mean, priorities, right?  Thankfully, this genre-addled youth didn't need to go that far, as little did i know that all i had to do was wait for but a few scant and fleeting years to pass and my wish would come true - by which time i'd probably forgotten all about it of course, affection being a fickle thing, and i think i was slightly baffled to lift the VHS box from the shelf in the local video store and realise that the artifact that i held in my hands was ACTUALLY WAXWORK II.  Oh, how could i have forgotten you?  Oh my Judas-like heart.

Oddly, sitting down to watch this recently was the first time that i'd seen the movie since that day back in the early '90s.  i think someone stole the sole copy from the video shop, or the tape was chewed up in some errant malfunctioning VCR or something, but it vanished anyway leaving my sole viewing experience of this film an ephemeral memory like breath fading from a window pane.  So, here i find myself with the R1 disc (this being one of those annoying cases where the original film has been widely available on R2 for ages, but the second one remains tantalisingly offshore and foreign on it's far-off format) in the Blu-Ray player, wondering what i'll make of this half-remembered follow-up to a film i've seen many, many times...

And so it begins exactly where the first film ends, with Mark (Zach Galligan from Gremlins [Joe Dante, 1984] and Gremlins II: The New Batch [Joe Dante, 1990] and other stuff too, probably) and Sarah (sadly not reprised by the lovely Deborah Foreman from the original, and now played by Monika Schnarre - Warlock: the Armageddon [Anthony Hickox, 1993] - who looks gorgeous but is very stiff and possesses none of the naive charm of Foreman) escaping from the fury of the inferno that is engulfing Mr Lincoln's wax museum and razing it and all its mysteries to the ground.  They return to their homes, pursued by the severed, disembodied hand of a zombie (trust me, it makes perfect sense if you watch the first film first) that kills Sarah's drunkard stepfather in a sequence obviously lifted from - sorry, 'inspired by' - Ash's handy antics in Evil Dead II (Sam Raimi, 1987), right down to the hand-on-person violence utilising kitchen implements.  Sarah finds herself up in court charged with caving in her stepdaddy's cranium,and for some reason the ladies and gentlemen of the jury aren't taking the defence 'a hand did it' all that seriously.  Worried about the prospect of facing the sit-down dance in Old Sparky, Sarah and Mark seek help at the home of the lat Sir Wilfred - a friend of Mark's grandfather who fell (from his wheelchair) in battle against the hordes of darkness in the first film's climax.

Proving that death is but a door, Mark triggers a recording that the late Sir Wilf (the sadly departed great Avenger himself, Patrick MacNee) had left for them in case of his departure from this realm, in which he informs our troubled twosome that just because the waxworks has been destroyed needn't mean that the portals through time and space are all closed, whereupon the mirror creaks open to reveal a temporal rift that takes our dynamic duo through the looking glass to find a couple of impossible things before breakfast.  First stop on this trip through the annals of the cinefantastique is Castle Frankenstein, home of the Baron played by Martin Kemp (The Krays [Peter Medak, 1990], Embrace of the Vampire [Anne Goursaud, 1995], Strippers vs Werewolves [Jonathan Glendening, 2012]), giving us the strange spectacle of an ex-Spandau Ballerina channeling Colin Clive and Peter Cushing on crack whilst employing an outrageous Mittel-European ex-hent.  Also in residence in this crumbling Gothic pile are a ludicrously mugging hunchbacked servant who makes Marty Feldman's performance as 'Eye-Gor' in Mel Brooks' 1974 Young Frankenstein seem positively Shakespearean, and of course dwelling in the dungeon is a cobbled-together golem, a man-mountain of stitched-together flesh created by this particular scion of the Frankenstein family.  When the mandatory horde of torch-bearing peasants are led up the hill to the castle by the Burgomaster dead set on destruction of the Monster, Mark and Sarah attempt to flee with Frankenstein's scientific journal, to take home as 'proof' of their story but find themselves separated from each other, lost in different time streams.

This takes us to a section of the movie with two parallel stories: a wonderfully shot monochrome sequence aping Robert Wise's classic 1963 chiller The Haunting (complete with stark chiaroscuro photography, Dutched camera angles and crash zooms on doors that bulge and warp as an eldritch force pushes behind them), which finds Mark cast in the Russ Tamblyn role from the movie - complete with blond wig - and joined by none other than b-movie megastar Bruce Campbell (of the aforementioned Evil Dead franchise, and many, many more), Star Trek's beautiful Betazoid Marina Sirtis, and Sophie Ward in the roles previously essayed by Richard Johnson, Claire Bloom and Julie Harris respectively; meanwhile, Sarah finds herself cast in the Ellen Ripley role upon a starship stranded in deep space and under siege from a rampaging xenomorph that is positively Giger-esque (and not entirely unlike the Dragon from the 1987 Doctor Who serial "Dragonfire").

The main section of the movie is a sort of Roger Corman Edgar Allan Poe pastiche (with flavours of Corman's House of Usher [1960], The Pit and the Pendulum [1961] and The Masque of the Red Death [1964]), complete with deliberately poor matte painting of the villain's castle, with Sarah taking the part of a mediaeval princess at the mercy of the villainous Scarabus (a.k.a.: 'The Master') played with melodramatic relish by Alexander Godunov (Die Hard [John McTiernan, 1988], The Runestone [Willard Carroll, 1991]), who is spookily reminiscent of Vigo the Carpathian from Ivan Reitman's 1989 Ghostbusters II.  Mark finds himself Quantum Leap-ed into the life of a Princess Bride-style hero, who is gifted with an enchanted sword by a passing myserious beggar (essayed by David Carradine with the same kind of 'i need the money and it's a laugh' twinkle he employed slumming it in Fred Olen Ray's 1991 'opus' Evil Toons - a style also perfected by Rutger Hauer) and crosses the enchanted forest to enter the evil castle on his quest to free the captive princess and vanquish the black hearted - and black magic-wielding - villain before he can complete his diabolical plan to murder the King (John Ireland, whose career had included A Walk in the Sun [Lewis Milestone, 1945], Joan of Arc [Victor Fleming, 1948] and Spartacus [Stanley Kubrick, 1960], in his final screen role) and usurp the throne of England.

The movie climaxes in great swashbuckling style as Mark takes on the evil and deadly knave Scarabus in a sword duel that passes in and out of a series of portals, meaning that they thrust and parry their way through a Tokyo under attack from Godzilla (with badly-overdubbed dialogue for maximum devastating Toho effect), a suspiciously familiar 1970s shopping mall wherein the duellists are caught in the crossfire between a SWAT team of survivors and a horde of shambling flare-wearing zombies, a Victorian encounter with both Jack the Ripper and Mr Hyde, and a black and white silent clash with Graf Orlok the Nosferatu (spot the cameo by Drew Barrymore as one of the hairless revenant's intended victims).

In the end of course the dastardly Scarabus is vanquished, the hearts of horror and fantasy movie fans go all a-flutter at spotting all of the in-jokes and references, and Mark 'n' Sarah return to their own time with a replacement twitching zombie hand to give as evidence in her trial.  Justice is of course done - this not being sad reality - and our hero and heroine ride off into time and space for an infinity of surprises and never to be seen new adventures (presumably too broad and too deep for the large or small screen).

All in all, a fun film that may not have all of the gory glee of its predecessor but is never less than enjoyable happy hokum, with plenty of gags for the seasoned genre viewer to enjoy and some great grand guignol grotesquery: i'd quite forgotten how much my 13 year old self laughed at seeing Martin Kemp's head being squeezed by the Frankenstein Monster until all of his teeth pop out and his eyes explode from their sockets and his brain is crushed from his cranium and flies across the room (sans teeth, sans eyes, sans everything!).

It's still pretty funny in this time zone, too.

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Dr Jekyll vs the Werewolf [Doctor Jekyll y El Hombre Lobo] (Leon Klimovsky, 1972)

A double dose of monsterdom, Iberian-style, as Paul Naschy (known to his parents as Jacinto Molina) reprises his iconic role as doomed Polish lycanthrope Waldemar Daninsky for the... what? (counts on fingers) either fifth or sixth time, depending upon whether the lost film El Noches de Hombre Lobo was ever actually extant in the first place.

This time around, our hairy hero descends from his black castle upon the hill (wherein the dwells, whispered about by the peasants in the village as a monster and a devil - in this particular principality the bogeyman to scare your children into behaving is a Spanish weightlifter dressed as the wolfman) and comes to the rescue of Justine (Shirley Corrigan) whom he rescues from an attempted gang rape by the thugs who just murdered her husband in front of her whilst attempting to jack their car. In gratitude, the freshly-widowed Justine offers to try and aid Waldemar in seeking a cure for his carnivorous lunar activities by taking him back to London with her to meet her friend Dr Henry Jekyll (Euro-horror stalwart Jack Taylor - Succubus [Jess Franco, 1968], Ghost Galleon / Horror of the Zombies [Amando de Ossorio, 1974], Conan the Barbarian John Milius, 1982 and many, many more), grandson of the original, who is something of an expert in treating these man-into-monster cases.

The location footage of Naschy as Daninsky wandering around London is sadly brief, but wonderfully jarring when the viewer is accustomed to seeing him in Hispanic or middle-European locales. Seeing the Spanish Wolfman (El Hombre Lobo) wander around Trafalgar Square before hailing and getting into a black cab is ever so slightly surreal that it actually seems like the strangest thing in the film. Waldemar takes said taxi to Dr Jekyll's clinic, arriving on time before an unfortunate power cut leads to him being trapped between floors in the lift with a beautiful nurse. What might be most mens' wildest fantasy is sadly a nightmare for Waldemar, as the full moon rises and he becomes a hairy howling beast and gets stuck into the nurse in a different way to that which he might have hoped in what could be a thumbs up scene for anyone who possesses both a uniform and furry fetish.

Eventually Jekyll decides to try and cure the carnivorous Count, although his spurning of his jealous ex-lover and laboratory assistant Sandra (Mirta Miller, Count Dracula's Great Love [Javier Aguirre, 1973], Vengeance of the Zombies [Leon Klimovsky, 1974]) leads to complications when she decides to stab him in the back both literally and metaphorically - knifing him before sabotaging the experiment by injecting Daninsky full of the original Dr Jekyll's Hyde formula. Turning from a man into a werewolf into Mr Hyde must be going for some kind of record, and boy Naschy goes for it with some relish wandering modern (1972) Soho under its neon lights wearing a cape, top hat and silver-handled cane. "I need pleasure... Women! Lots of women! Different women!" is his creed and cri de coeur as he goes about sexing, torturing and killing. In that order.

His reign of fun is brought to an end, sadly, when the potion runs out and he reverts to lupine form during the next lunar cycle, and the bereaved, battered and bleeding Justine tearfully riddles him with silver bullets, before expiring from her injuries. It's difficult to judge or gauge a performance hindered by dubbing, but Shirley Corrigan is good in a role that has her as a perpetual victim: widowed and sexually assaulted on her honeymoon before being dragged through the emotional wringer by falling in love with a doomed monster, whipped, tortured and suffering yet more sexual abuse before having her throat torn out by the man she loves. Yikes. She is also (if you can pardon the indulgence of my Male Gaze here) heartbreakingly beautiful, giving the thin role of Justine the air of a flower blossom amidst carnage and death like a rose growing in a graveyard. She's very different here to her role as the seductively wanton and bisexual Regine in Jean Brismee's 1971 The Devil's Nightmare, and i also doubt that her role as the titular heroine in Around the World with Fanny Hill (Mac Ahlberg, 1974) is quite this poignant.

I own two copies of this film, as the R2 DVDas the R2 DVD from Mondo is a nice print but is the Spanish dub. Whilst i have no problems at all watching subtitled movies (at least a third of my collection is comprised of such things), it does feel a little odd when the actors are clearly speaking their dialogue in English, but dubbed into Spanish with English subtitles. So the version i watched last night was the R1 English language one. Interesting to hear the actual dialogue but sadly the print is terrible and heavily cut - missing around the first five minutes, and missing the scene wherein the freshly transformed Daninsky-Hyde whips and tortures Justine (possibly also shorn of a couple of scenes of prostitute killing as well). Presumably this version (from the Pure Terror DVD set) was the US television print. I shall definitely be sticking with the R2 version - distracting dubbing and all - for any future watches.

Monday, 19 September 2016

London After Midnight (1927, Tod Browning)

"A cloudswept sky... trees moaned... owls hooted... a muffled shot... a groan... a scream pierced the midnight... Roger Balfour was found dead in his London home."

As a child, i thought, spake and got ill as a child.  One particular summer a long, low time ago i was laid down low with a particularly nasty case of the mumps - not that i suspect that there are any nice kinds, but my nine year old self prone on the couch barely able to speak (possibly to the relief of my beleaguered family) with glands all a-swollen wasn't having a very nice time.  To occupy me and keep me from feeling sorry for myself, my mother picked up a book she spotted in a second-hand bookshop's window that she knew i would like, and i spent the next few days on my sick bed (or sick settee) eagerly devouring the contents of this large hardback volume that would be a treasured possession to this day.  The book was Alan Frank's Horror Films, a chronological essaying of le cinema fantastique from the inception of the medium by the Lumiere Brothers to circa 1978.  I'd loved horror, science fiction and fantasy ever since i was a mite, and i delighted in being educated upon my favourite subject, learning all about these films and their plots and protagonists, and most of all being young i was entranced by the hundreds of images (stills, posters, lobby cards et al) from these movies.  One image that particularly caught my attention was Lon Chaney's vampiric visage leering from the page in a photograph from London After Midnight - all wide bulging eyes and bird's nest hair sprouting out from 'neath his hat and mocking taloned finger pointed accusingly toward me.

But, most of all, the teeth.

Not the wolfish canines i had seen displayed by Christopher Lee and Barbara Shelley in the colourful Gothic Hammer romps i'd been allowed to stay up and watch; these were the teeth of a shark - Chaney's grinning maw brimming with fangs, each and every gnasher a razor pointed weapon.  I was terrified.  I was intrigued.  I needed to see this, one day.

As i grew older i found myself seeing a great many of the films covered in that book, mentally ticking off each one, until now some 27 or 28 years later i'm sure i've seen the vast majority of them. But some seemed to perpetually remain elusive, including 'the one with the freaky looking vampire'.  I was quite saddened around ten years ago when i learned that London After Midnight was a Lost Film (in fact, the very notion of 'Lost Films' is one that saddles me with a heavy heart, as the realisation that not all art, including cinema, is preserved for the ages and can be ephemeral bites at my cineaste soul).  Growing up as a Doctor Who fan, the notion that we cannot simply access all of these delights that we've grown up reading and hearing about - a fair portion of 1960s monochrome Who having been 'junked' by the BBC in the 1970s - is a familiar but awful one, and learning that London After Midnight had survived as an extant print all the way to 1967 before being consumed in an MGM vault fire seemed to be putting me through the trials of Tantalus: it had reached out across fifty years of the void of time since its release, but then been cruelly snatched away.

But then i discovered that, much like the lost Doctor Who stories i was so familiar with, a reconstruction of the film had been made using photographic elements.  Much like, say, "Fury from the Deep", this was the only way i was ever going to 'see' the film - as close as i could ever get to experiencing it.  Good enough, i thought, it's better than nothing.  And so i finally sat down, almost three decades after first becoming aware of it, to see what i would make of London After Midnight.

After the mysterious murder that opens the movie, we are swiftly introduced to the intrepid Professor Edward Burke (Lon Chaney), private investigator liaising with Scotland Yard.  Burke, P. I. (which almost demands it's own Bellasario-style spinoff show) shows up at the scene of the crime surprisingly quickly - a mere 'fifteen minutes' after Balfour's death - to question the household and neighbours.  The rather pertinent question from Arthur Hibbs (Conrad Nagel) as to how the Professor-Inspector arrived so fast is deflected with an imperious "That's my business, young man!"

Five Years Later....

As with the later Universal horror movie cycle, what would a monster movie be without peasants? This time, they're merely passing a property in a cart rather than brandishing burning torches.

"'Oly 'Enry! The 'ouse is 'aunted!" exclaims the woman in the carriage, perhaps displaying the first ever cultural recognition of the Cockney peasant on film.  Chaney's befanged vampire has decided to rent this particular property after his spooky moonlight overlook of the premises.  For some reason unfathomable by the mind of man, the only thing the legal functionary can think to ask this shark-toothed boggle-eyed spectre of the macabre is "You understand that if you lease this house, the owner will not pay for the repairs?"

I think he's fine with that.

"Sir James, it's 'orrible!  The Balfour 'ouse is 'aunted!"  "Dead people from the grave!  Vampires is what they are!"  are some of the proclamations made.  At this point, Professor P. I. Burke returns, looking a bit older than a mere five year elapsing of time: Chaney's make up skills are evident here, white-haired and monocled was he.  The vampire in the beaver hat's signature on the lease for the Balfour house is signed 'Roger Balfour'.  Chills.  Scenes.  Lucille Balfour (portrayed by the absolutely lovely in a heart-stopping manner Marceline Day - i really must try to break this habit of falling in love with silent movie actresses one day) says that she has heard a voice calling to her from the garden.  "It sounded exactly like my father calling... Lucy!  Lucy!" - the parallels with Stoker's Dracula, which Browning would translate to the screen in a clunky and stagy rendition four years later, are obvious.

Then we have the discovery of an ancient tome of vampire lore - The Undead: The True History of Vampyrs Being a Compilation from Authentic Sources of Quaint and Curious Phenomena (Published London, 1721) - a la Murnau's earlier Nosferatu, prompting Burke's (probably quite valid) expectoration of "This is all ancient tommyrot!".

Hibbs says to Lucille "You turn to me first in danger - that proves love, Lucille" (or indeed instinct, you fool).  He then winds up in a steamy clinch with Smithson the Cockney peasant maid.  "Can't I sleep upstairs with you tonight, Mr Hibbs?" pleads the terrified menial.  I'm sure you can, dear - the man's an animal.  An ANIMAL.  "There isn't going to be any sleep about this house tonight..." he says. I'm quite sure, you dog, you.

Inspector Burke and Sir James explore the grounds of the Balfour house in a sequence highly reminiscent of the staging of Harker and Van Helsing's casing of Carfax in Dracula.  They see such sights as should never be seen - Sir Roger himself, sitting in a chair in a room with the vampire.  Burke then decides to protect Lucille's room from the undead, with a twist and lore-change in that two crossed swords of steel and a wreath of roses are utilised, instead of the more traditional crucifix, garlic and / or hawthorn.

Burke then decides to hypnotise Hibbs - forcing him to remember the night of Balfour's murder. While Hibbs remains in his Mesmerised state, Burke goes to Hibbs' bedroom and lies in the bed awaiting the coming of the footfalls of the murderer.  A hooded figure enters, and attempts to kill him...

Lucille goes missing from her room, lured to the Balfour house by the bat-girl vampiress Luna (Edna Tichenor - tres Gothy).  "Tell Luna, we are ready" instructs the late Sir Roger to an Irving Pichel-esque (in the sense of his role in Dracula's Daughter, rather than the more unpalatable rumours...) flunky, and Lucille is duly brought in.

"Remember, Lucille... you... are doing this... for your father".

Burke gives Sir James his gun, and takes him to the Balfour house, telling him to look whomever he may meet "straight in the eye - show no fear!".  The mysterious vampiric 'Man in the Beaver Hat' hypnotises Sir James, telling him to remember the night of Balfour's death.  Meanwhile, Luna has given Lucille the same white dress that she wore upon that fateful night, and as Sir James - thinking that it is five years ago - enters, Lucille is with "Sir Roger" re-enacting some disenchanted evening.

Burke: "Smithson, i'm all ready to prove that, when hypnotised, a criminal will re-enact his crime!"

The ersatz Sir Roger announces that he has signed his will, naming Sir James as the executor of his estate and Lucille's legal guardian.  Sir James announces his hopes that, Papa Lazaou-like, Lucille will one day be HIS WIFE.  "But... she's only a child, James!" exclaims Rog.  "I don't mean now," says reasonable paedophile Sir James, sounding for all the world like the basis for Brass Eye's 'Someday I Want To, But Not Today' song, "I mean in five or six years!"

Oh.  Well, that's alright, then.

At 1. 10 A.M. Sir James returns with two guns, telling Roger to write his own suicide note.  Then he shoots him.

"That's how Roger Balfour committed suicide, is it?" asks Burke of the Yard as he wraps up the case.  "Sorry i had to be so rough with you, Mr Hibbs, but i guess your reward was worth it!"

Oh.  He's objectifying the radiant Marceline Day. Still, i suppose i did a bit.

Another case, another collar for Burke, P. I..

I'm not quite sure what to make of that.  I'm not sure anyone can give an actual opinion on a film based solely upon an after-the-fact reconstruction to begin with, but that was...  Well, i enjoyed it.  I would have preferred another way than the "cheat" ending, and for the legendary Lon Chaney to have actually played a vampire rather than some kind of Fake Shemp for a maverick detective.  But, in this life, you can't always get what you want.

Friday, 8 July 2016

'Swamp Thing' (Wes Craven, 1982) / 'The Return of Swamp Thing' (Jim Wynorski, 1989)

In July 1971, DC Comics released issue #92 of its mystery anthology series House of Secrets, featuring a horror-themed story from the pen of legendary scribe Len Wein (co-creator of Marvel Comics icon Wolverine, and writer on such titles as The Incredible Hulk, The Amazing Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, Thor, Batman, and Green Lantern over his long and illustrious career) and illustrated by artist Berni Wrightson (whose often grimly beautiful art was a mainstay of series such as House of Secrets and its sister publication House of Mystery, as well as the appositely nomenclatured Eerie and Creepy before progressing to adorn novels like Stephen King's Cycle of the Werewolf [1985]). This dark pulp tale was a man-into-monster story reminiscent of the horror and sci-fi B-movies of the 1950s, and told of a scientist transformed in a laboratory explosion engineered by a jealous rival into a green muck-encrusted bog-dwelling travesty of humanity called 'Swamp Thing'.

This one-off gruesome gothic proved popular enough to be spun-off a year later into its own title, and issue #1 of Swamp Thing emerged from the briny depths to menace mankind in the October of 1972.  Over the next few years Wein (and later Gerry Conway, creator of Marvel's violent vigilante the Punisher) steered the saga of the Swamp Thing as the shambling revenant that was once Dr Alec Holland and his eternal struggle against the machinations of the diabolical Dr Anton Arcane, as well as his burgeoning girl-meets-mockery of a man romance with Arcane's niece Abigail.  The fortunes of the comic book waxed and waned throughout the mid-Seventies, until there was a revival of the title in 1982 when Embassy Pictures released a motion picture adaptation directed by horror maven Wes Craven (creator of such ghoulish delights as The Last House on the Left [1972], The Hills Have Eyes [1977], the monumental A Nightmare on Elm Street [1984], The Serpent and the Rainbow [1988], The People Under the Stairs [1991] and the sporadic Scream tetralogy [1996, 1997, 2000 and 2011]).  A year later, the writing reins were entrusted by Wein to British up and comer Alan Moore, a decision that would turn around the fortunes of the book as well as totally revamping it in style, tone and direction.  Moore - later to become a titanic cornerstone of the graphic novel with such feted tomes as Watchmen, V for Vendetta, From Hell and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen - shook up the meandering monster magazine by transforming it into a labyrinthine Southern Gothic with strains of environmental, social and societal issues as well as turning the basic founding principle of the protagonist.  No longer was Swamp Thing Dr Alec Holland transformed by a combination of flames 'n' formula into a creature of the quagmire - now we discovered that the titular tree-man was actually the essence of the mire itself - the very embodiment of the elemental spirit of Nature itself, known as 'the Green' - infused with the essence and intellect of the late scientist.  Not a man who had become a plant, but a plant who thought it was a man.

Away from the 2-D of the printed page, the Craven film came a year or so too early for Moore's psychedelic regeneration of the title, but is a fairly faithful rendition of the 1970s and early '80s incarnation engendered by the Wein / Wrightson axis.  Craven assembled a fine cast for his circa three million dollar picture, including Ray Wise (recognisable to genre fans as Leon 'Don't touch me, maaaan!' Nash in Paul Verhoeven's future-shock classic RoboCop [1987], and forever to be known as the haunted Leland Palmer in David Lynch's mindfuck mystery Twin Peaks [1990 - 1991]) as Dr Alec Holland, and Adrienne Barbeau (at the time married to legendary horror director John Carpenter and earning the title of Scream Queen through appearances in Carpenter's The Fog [1980] and Escape from New York [1981], as well as Creepshow [George A. Romero, 1982], the splendidly-titled Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death [J. F. Lawton, 1989], and the Edgar Allan Poe diptych Two Evil Eyes [Dario Argento, George A. Romero, 1990] as well as providing the purring tones of Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman in Batman: the Animated Series [1992 - 1995]) as government agent Alice Cable, an amalgamation of the original comic characters of Abby Arcane and Swamp Thing's best frenemy Matthew Cable.

As the movie's villainous contingent were David Hess (who had started out his career as a songwriter, penning Elvis Presley's "All Shook Up" and Pat Boone's "Speedy Gonzalez" among others, before starring as the vicious and demented Krug in Wes Craven's notorious The Last House on the Left [1972], before adding his intimidating presence to two Italian features by Ruggero Deodato - he of Cannibal Holocaust infamy - The House on the Edge of the Park [1980] and Body Count [1986]) as Arcane's thuggish henchman-in-chief Ferret, and as the diabolical Dr Anton Arcane himself the ever suave and sophisticated presence of Louis Jourdan (matinee star of such classics as The Paradine Case [Alfred Hitchcock, 1947], Decameron Nights [Hugo Fregonese, 1953], Three Coins in the Fountain [Jean Negulesco, 1954], and Gigi [Vincente Minelli, 1958] before going on to give a superlative turn as the lord of the undead Count Dracula [Philip Savile, 1977] and face off against an eyebrow arching Roger Moore as Kamal Khan in the 007 adventure Octopussy [John Glen, 1983]).

Jourdan lends an aristocratic and debonair air to the perfidious Arcane, the presence of whom is felt long before his physically appearing due to his name being mentioned in the muted whispers between the staff of Holland's bayou-based research lab as a kind of bogeyman, before a stylishly dramatic reveal as the laboratory is overrun by hired mercenaries led by the despicable Ferret.  Holland's head of security, Ritter (Don Knight), appears to have betrayed the project and let the armed intruders into the complex:

"No", cries a betrayed Holland as he as overpowered by goons, "No, Ritter.  Not you!"
"No, Dr Holland.  Not Ritter" says the once-familiar man before him, before his voice suddenly becomes that of a stranger. "Ritter, poor fellow, is long dead."  Then he reaches up and begins to peel off his face!, which is now a lifelike latex mask of the kind oft-employed by the IMF team on Mission: Impossible, and Ritter's face comes away to real the saturnine features of Holland's nemesis.
"You have heard of, but never seen me, so i will introduce myself" says the sinister stranger, casually sitting atop a laboratory table and aiming a gun in Holland's direction. "My name is Arcane."

And just like that, Louis Jourdan plays a far superior Bond villain to Kamal Khan, a year early.

The plot of the movie unfolds along the lines of the original comic book saga, with the villains' attempts to get their hands on Holland's unique 'bio-restorative formula' - a green glowing goo that looks very like Dr Herbert West's resurrecting refreshment in Re-Animator (Stuart Gordon, 1985) and can cause flowers to spring from wooden floorboards in a shower of sparks as if by magic, and promises to yield harvests of tomatoes the size of beachballs growing int he desert to cure famine - ending in a destructive inferno, as Holland becomes a human inferno, plunges into the brackish brine and becomes the titular titan of the tarn.  Holland's new monstrous alter ego, Swamp Thing (played by 6' 5" stunt performer and actor Dick Durock, who had played another shambling green comic book character as the transformed 'Evil Hulk' Del Frye, going toe-to-toe with Lou Ferrigno's Gamma-ray Goliath in The Incredible Hulk two-parter 'The First'), has to fight for survival as Arcane's men hunt him through the swamplands (Craven making great visual use of the verdant South Carolina locations) to extract the only remaining traces of the bio formula: his blood.  Arcane is on a quest for immortality, and believes that the unique regenerative effects of the fluid can give it to him.  When a sample of the formula is tested out on his hulking henchman Bruno (Nicholas Worth, Hell Comes to Frogtown [1988], Darkman [1990]), shrinking him into a stunted ratlike creature (Tommy Madden) Arcane demands answers from the concoction's creator.

"Why doesn't Bruno have your strength?"
"Because he never had it", says Swamp Thing. "...It only amplifies your essence.  It simply makes you more of what you already are."

Arcane's monumental ego judges that if Bruno's true self was revealed as a rodentlike parody, then his inner truth - his genius - will become manifest as a living god.  Drinking the tincture, he goes through a startling transformation into a grotesque chimaera - a werewolf mixed with bear and boar, Arcane's monstrous inner self red in tooth and claw.  This of course leads to a Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man / King Kong vs Godzilla style clash of the creatures, as we flip genres slightly from Man Into Monster tale to full on Monster Mash.  Our swampy hero engages the Arcane monster in battle, as Alice watches on relegated from tough government agent to damsel in distress (and discovering that diaphanous white nightdresses might look great as fenland fashionwear, but aren't really the correct attire for the terrain) and eventually triumphs, leaving the once brilliant and urbane Arcane a slain pig-man oozing the strangest of ooze as he lies in the bracken - a slaughtered swine festooned in slime.  Not the most dignified of ends.

Which made it all the more startling when he reappeared as right as rain to menace our hero once again in The Return of Swamp Thing (Jim Wynorski, 1989).  Dick Durock resumed the eponymous role, now in an improved costume that more closely resembled the portrayal of the character in the comic series, rejoining the eternal struggle with the seemingly indestructible Arcane - essayed again by Louis Jourdan - whose survival and restoration to human form were hand-waived in a few lines of dialogue from Arcane's evil scientist sidekick Dr Rochelle (the wonderfully named Ace Mask, who seems to have been one of Wynorski's lucky charms, appearing in his Chopping Mall [1986], Not Of This Earth [1988], 976-EVIL II: The Astral Factor [1991] and Ghoulies IV [1994]) about finding him dying in the swamp and bringing him back to the laboratory to restore him.  Director Wynorski (helmer of many a z-grade B-Movie, in addition to the aforementioned he's churned out such dubious delights as Sorority House Massacre II [1990], Scream Queen Hot Tub Party [1991], Munchie [1992], Vampirella [1996] and The Bare Wench Project [2000]) wholeheartedly embraces the 'comic book' aspects of the property, with lurid coloured lighting gels and split-screen effects giving the movie the air of a comic book brought to life, an effect previously achieved by George A. Romero in the 1982 portmanteau horror anthology Creepshow.

Also starring Heather Locklear (Firestarter [Mark L Lester, 1984], and long-running roles in TV series T. J. Hooker [1982-1986] and Dynasty [1981-1989]) as a ditzy 'Valley Girl' portrayal of Abby Arcane far removed from the original, Sarah Douglas (eternally to be known by genre fans as Ursa in Superman: the Movie [Richard Donner, 1978] and Superman II [Richard Lester, 1980], as well as the tyrannical Queen Taramis in Conan the Destroyer [Richard Fleischer, 1984]) and the buxom charms of the director's then-partner Monique Gabrielle ('star' of such wonders as Emmanuelle 5 [Walerian Borowczyk, 1987], and Planet of the Erotic Ape [Lou Vockell, 2002]), this lurid, garish and hyperactive spawn of the more introspective original is certainly fun if lightweight fare - though it does take on one aspect of the Alan Moore comic run by treating the audience to the possible cinematic first of a human / plant sex scene (Cheryl's tree rape in Sam Raimi's seminal 1983 The Evil Dead notwithstanding), as Abby gnaws on a tuber / root from Swampy's body (steady, there!) and enters an altered state where she can see him as the naked human Alec Holland before an extremely 1980s soft-focus love scene plays out.  Whether the viewer reacts with a freak out or a 'Cop out!' will entirely depend on whether you want your girl-on-dirt-monster action implicit or explicit.

Whilst a third cinematic outing for Swamp Thing has to the date of writing yet to materialise, a year after Wynorski's effort the property made the transition to the small screen courtesy of Universal Television and DiC Enterprises.  Durock once more donned the foam latex bodysuit to play the Green Man himself, opposite British actor Mark Lindsay Chapman (Annihilator [Michael Chapman, 1986], The Langoliers [Tom Holland, 1995], Titanic [James Cameron, 1997], Legend of the Mummy [Jeffrey Obrow, 1998], and stretches in US soap operas such as Dallas [1988], Falcon Crest [1989], Days of Our Lives [2002-2004] and The Young and the Restless [2006]) as Anton Arcane.  I was first made aware of the existence of the series via a cursory, cussing and cutting review in the April 1992 edition of The Dark Side magazine, which castigated the CIV Video release of four selected episodes of the show (under the title The New Adventures of Swamp Thing) as 'truly abysmal', with '[t]epid effects, awkward, cliched dialogue and poor performances' which 'make this a tape to be avoided at all costs', and closed closed with the reviewer's 'doubt [that] video shops will be swamped with orders for it anyway'*.  This roused my 12 year old self's interest as much for the invective heaped upon the project as for the revelation that there was a television incarnation of one of my favourite comic book characters, but alas neither a VHS copy of the above artifact nor a television broadcast (certainly not a terrestrial one) materialised.

* Video Vault review by Norman Taylor, The Dark Side issue cover date April 1992, Stray Cat Publishing.

Monday, 29 February 2016

Nosferatu: the Vampyre (Werner Herzog, 1979)

Sepulchral.  Now there's a word.  A word redolent of the grave, and of foul decaying fiends and cor'ses that from their tomb rent (as Byron so put it in The Giaour: 'But first on Earth, as vampire sent / Thy corse shall from thy tomb be rent / Then ghastly haunt thy native place / And suck the blood of all thy race').  The awful stench of ill-fard inhumation.  The terrifying paralysis of obsequy with the very breath of the wind of the winds of madness pricking each and every hair on the back of your neck.  These are words that could begin, in some way - like the chained prisoners in Plato's cave attempting to describe reality from the flickering shadows upon the wall before them - to go about beginning to describe the infernal opus that is Werner Herzog's 1979 Nosferatu (originally subtitled Phantom Der Nacht), possibly the greatest representation of dread and crawling terror that an auteur ever unleashed.

Originally filmed in 1922 by Teutonic cinema pioneer Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, Nosferatu was a thinly-disguised 'free adaptation' of Bram Stoker's 1897 novel Dracula.  Dispensing with the business of securing copyright and paying royalties (much as he had done in 1920 when he directed Conrad Veidt as 'Dr Warren' and 'Mr O' Connor' in Der Januskopf, rather than filming Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde), Murnau and his screenwriter Henrik Galeen took the basic outline of Stoker's plot and grafted onto it the very folkloric roots of the vampire legend.  Here there is no seductive Count, no opera-caped and top-hatted aristocratic Mephistophelean charmer - in actor Max Schreck (the actor's actual name, despite the fated coincidence of his surname meaning 'Terror' - a name that has been homaged in cinema from Peter Cushing's Dr Schreck in Freddie Francis' 1965 Dr Terror's House of Horrors to Christopher Walken's villain in Tim Burton's 1992 Batman Returns) Murnau gave the silver screen a truly repellent vision of the blood-drinking undead: a rake-thin, pallid hairless ratlike creature with elongated talons and a feeling of having actually crawled from a cobwebbed tomb to slake his inhuman thirst and fill his emaciated body with the hot lifeblood of the living.

Murnau's copyright-dodging did not, however, go unnoticed and in short order Florence Stoker (widow of  Bram) gained a court ruling against Prana Film (rendering the company bankrupt by 1925) stipulating that all extant copies of Nosferatu should be destroyed.  Thankfully for cinema history, copies survived - possibly in part due to the fact that a number of differing variant versions had sprung up in so short a time, including an attempted re-release in 1930, re-edited and with added soundtrack, under the title Der Zwolfte Stunde (The Twelfth Hour).  This and other versions of the movie utilized different character names in order to further distance the movie from the original source, and so Gustav von Wangenheim's distaff Jonathan Harker is renamed Thomas Hutter, Greta Schroder's role of Mina is renamed Ellen (or the closer to the original 'Nina', depending on the variant being watched), John Gottowt's Van Helsing character becomes Professor Hutter, and Alexander Granach's insane Renfield substitute is retitled Knock.

In the 1970s, the German cinema was undergoing a creative renaissance due to the wave of young directors spearheading the New German Cinema, including Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Beware of a Holy Whore [1971], Fear Eats the Soul [1974], Satan's Brew [1976]), Wim Wenders (Summer in the City [1970], The Scarlet Letter [1973, starring the wonderful Senta Berger], The American Friend [the 1977 Dennis Hopper-starring adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's Ripley's Game], and later to direct Paris, Texas [1984] and the superlative Wings of Desire [1987]) and Werner Herzog.  After starting his cinematic career with several shorts and documentary pieces, Herzog had begun to make a name for himself with the haunting and frankly startling Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) before making the first of many motion pictures starring his 'best fiend', the unpredictable, anarchic and quite possible not quite sane Klaus Kinski (whose turbulent anti-friendship and working career with Herzog would prove as productive as the invective that was wont to fly around the set) with Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972).  While these scions of Neuer Deutscher Film were being touted as the future of the filmic arts for their country, some of them were interested not only in forging ahead into the future, but also in connecting the modernism of the present with the heritage of Germany's cinematic past.  Fassbinder utilized established cinematic stars from past eras of German film history, and Herzog decided to bring Teutonic Kinema full circle by delving early into its roots and remaking the work that he called the greatest film Germany had ever made: Murnau's Nosferatu - the enfant terrible of the modern German cinema paying homage to his illustrious Golden Age predecessor.

Herzog opens his movie with a spectacularly eerie title sequence of footage of mummified corpses (filmed in Mexico) - and the handheld camera lingers lovingly over these dessicated denizens of the catacombs as a canto Gregoranio unspools form the soundtrack, the spellbinding tones invoking a literal Fear of God as we experience a Thanatophobic reaction to these tenants of the tombs with their yellowed leathery hides pulled taut over wizened ligaments and protruding bone.  The spectre of death haunts the film from its very opening seconds, and even in the establishing scenes set in the pretty town of Wismar (the North German Hanseatic township that Murnau had chosen as his surrogate for Stoker's Whitby, the location shooting for which in Herzog's film taking place mostly in the picturesque pottery setting of Delft, the Netherlands), with Bruno Ganz (later to garner great acclaim for his barnstorming portrayal of the Fuhrer in Oliver Hirschbiegel's masterful 2004 Untergang [Downfall]) as Jonathan Harker going about his daily routine - Herzog having made the decision to revert the names of the dramatis personae of the film back to their more well-known Stoker nomenclatures.  Herzog pays homage to the Murnau film in these establishing shots, with a number of camera set-ups being almost exact recreations of the '22 film such as the small kitten batting playfully at the locket containing the picture of Lucy hanging from the vanity's mirror.  As Lucy (Herzog opting for that name for the film's conflation of Stoker's Lucy Westenra and Mina Harker characters, rather than Murnau's Nina / Ellen), French actress Isabelle Adjani (The Tenant [Roman Polanski, 1976], the titular Queen in Patrice Chereu's La Reine Margot [1994], and Jeremiah Chechik's best-forgotten-about 1996 bastardisation of Clouzot Diabolique) is the very incarnation of a Gothic (in both the literary and the more modern senses of the term) heroine, with raven-black hair, porcelain pale skin and lips of blood red (levres de sang, as Jean Rollin rolled), a fragile and spectral beauty amidst the haunting images of death and decay when Death comes to Wismar.

Sent by his employer, the estate agent Renfield (played by writer Roland Topor, who had authored the original 1964 novel of The Tenant in a strange piece of serendipitous synchronicity), Harker finds himself bidding farewell to his loving Lucy and embarking upon a strange journey to the wilderness of Transylvania, the 'Land Beyond the Forest'.  This long sequence, filmed in locations across the Czech republic and in the Tatra Mountains of Slovakia, is largely free of dialogue and with the striking vistas of forests and mountains soundtracked by an effective combination of the German avant-garde electronic ensemble Popul Vuh and Richard Wagner's Rheingeld from the Ring Cycle we are swept along with Harker into a strange land where the normal laws no longer apply.  Herzog may have lacked the inter-titles of the silent film, but where Murnau used text to tell us '...and when he crossed the bridge, the phantoms came to meet him', here the same chilling effect of stepping into The Beyond is conveyed purely with sound and image: the very essence of pure cinema in full effect.  Here in this realm of ghosts Harker arrives, conveyed by a hearse-like phantom carriage pulled by night-black horses, at Castle Dracula to be met by the Count himself.  Klaus Kinski plays Dracula in a make-up extremely faithful to the Max Schreck Orlock, his head a moon-white and waxen hairless skull with pointed batlike ears and rat's teeth - the very embodiment of the unclean ('necurat'), insufferable ('nesuferit') enemy ('nefartat') bearer of disease ('nosophoros'): ancient atavistic folkloric horror incarnate.  Kinski portrays the character as shuffling wearily under the weight of the centuries, his voice a sighing suspiration, his movements languid and fatigued - this is a creature who has crawled down through the centuries cursed by the inability to die, a far cry from the image of the Romantic 'life' of the undead portrayed in the works of Anne Rice or the glittering ghouls of Stephenie Meyer.

As Harker languishes imprisoned in the corbelled crypt that is Castle Dracula, fed upon nightly by the Count whose polite and courtly manner disappears in the dead of the night to become a predatory animal (the image of his death-white visage emerging from the Stygian darkness to hover over the vulnerable supine Jonathan reminiscent of Fuseli's iconic The Nightmare), Herzog conveys a spiritual or psychic connection to Lucy who wakes screaming from strange dreamings - slow motion close up images of a bat in flight accompanied by the strains of Popul Vuh emphasising the lovers' bond betwixt one another transcending space and time, Lucy feeling Jonathan's pain and fear from afar.  The Count leaves Jonathan behind in his dungeoned hell, travelling in his crated coffin of earth by ship to Harker's homeland and arriving in another shot mirrored from Murnau, as the ghostly barque with it's dead crew sails into the harbour and its sail obliterates the view of the town's church.  The Nosferatu lives up to his name of 'plague bearer' as he arrives in Wismar bringing death and disease in his wake, as hordes of rats (around 10, 000 white lab rats - which the production tried to make resemble black 'plague rats' by covering them with makeup - being imported into the Netherlands by zoologist Maarten t' Hart under Herzog's instruction) sweep the streets and the Black Death decimates the population.  The slow creeping dread that falls over the town like a shadow, and Lucy's growing realisation of the cause, leads to the film's most powerful sequence - the white-robed virginal Lucy wandering through the town square through a vista of death: stacked unburied coffins and the unshriven dead, as the remaining townsfolk dance, drunkenly carouse and sacrifice animals as the strains of the desolately beautiful and poignant Georgian folk song 'Tsintskaro' ('At the Spring Waters', perhaps better known to Western audiences through its sampling by Kate Bush on 'Hello Earth' from Hounds of Love) echo all around.  Herzog expertly conveys a populace in disintegration, the thin veneer of civilisation being so easily stripped away to reveal the ugly animalistic face of humanity as civilisation collapses all around, and as the town's remaining enclave of the petit bourgeois sit at repast, dressed in their finery and inviting Lucy to 'Join us - it's our last supper' as the plague rats crawl about their feast and anarchy howls all around them and Lucy stands appalled at the insanity surrounding her like a lone sublime rose in a graveyard of dead flowers.

Lucy's attempts to appeal to the town's remaining authority figures to convey the root of the disease ('I know the cause of all this!  Why won't you listen?' she implores) are met with deaf ears, and the character of Dr Van Helsing (Walter Ladengast, portraying the character as a closed-minded buffoon as far from the wise and heroic portrayals of Peter Cushing, Frank Finlay et al as can be imagined) is unable and unwilling to come to her aid.  Following the denouement of the Murnau film, Lucy uses her beauty to entice and entrap the vampire, willingly giving her life and her blood (the blood, of course, being the life) to the undead Count as a sacrificial lamb to keep the monster occupied and engrossed in his engorging upon her until the dawn wherein he will be destroyed by the cleansing rays of the rising sun.  This sequence of willing self-destruction for love and the greater good plays out without any music, and the grim naturalism of Dracula's puckered dead lips approaching the terrified Lucy's throat, and then the suckling sound as he drinks her blood whilst his taloned hands paw at her breasts and lift up her nightdress to claw at her thighs is an absolutely perfect image of the abhorrence of violation and of death ravaging beauty and youth.


Herzog saves his final devastating sucker-punch for last, however.  After Lucy has given her life to destroy the Count and breathed her last lying upon her bed strewn with flowers - the very image of a Rosetti painting as she passes beyond the veil - and Professor Van Helsing has finally summoned the courage to do the right thing and hammer a wooden stake into the dying monster's heart to prevent the revenant's return, the surviving bureaucracy of this blighted burgh descend upon the house to arrest him for murder.  'Is it true?' barks the town official (Rijk de Gooyer), 'Did you kill the Count?  With this stake, here?', indicating the blood-covered lump of sharpened wood clutched in the hapless academic's hands.  As Van Helsing is carted away to face the petty 'justice' of the bourgeoisie for helping to end the plague of death, Jonathan - who has been ill, recovering from his ordeal, and sitting in a chair that Lucy has surrounded by a circle made from crushed wafer of the sacred Communion host by Lucy to protect him - suddenly awakes and barks orders at the terrified maid to clean up. 'Can't you see', he indicates the circle around him, 'this place is full of dust?'  As the maid returns with a dustpan and brush to sweep away the fragments, Harker leaps from the circle and triumphantly pulls the crucifix from round his neck with taloned fingers, smiling a terrible smile to bare the ratlike teeth of the vampire.  'Bring me my horse.  I have much work to do.'

And our final shot is of the vampirised Harker riding away upon his steed across the shifting sands and into the horizon as dark clouds gather in the sky to signal an oncoming storm (shades of the end scene of James Cameron's The Terminator of five years later) and the Sanctus from Gounod's Messe solennelle en l'honneur de Sainte C├ęcile soars on the soundtrack.  All sacrifice has ultimately been in vain, as death triumphs over life and the Count is reincarnated in Harker to continue his works.  The undead is dead, long live the undead.

Nosferatus dominus.