Wednesday, 22 November 2017

The Flash (Robert Iscove, 1990)

Flash-backs, and red glad rags.

Now here's a point - a "Flashpoint", if you will - we have something of a surfeit of scarlet speedsters these days.  Whether it's the continuing adventures of Grant Gustin as the Fastest Man Alive in the CW's The Flash (in it's fourth season at time of typing), being about to debut of the big screen in the form of Ezra Miller in Justice League (Zack Snyder [and Joss Whedon], 2017) or various appearances in animated adventures voiced by TV's forgotten Ferris Bueller Charlie Schlatter and Alex Niforatos among others, DC Comics' crimson comet has never been so ubiquitous.

Timely enough then, if time be need be, to take a retrospective genuflect at the first live-action iteration of the iconic sonic boom dodger - the 1990 television series starring John Wesley Shipp (Bastian's dad in The NeverEnding Story II: The Next Chapter [George Miller, 1990], Dawson's dad in perpetual teen-angst whine fest that blighted my late teens Dawson's Creek [1998-2001] and the current Gustin-flavoured Barry Allen's dad in The Flash - the guy does seem to have somewhat cornered the market in playing dads).  I wasn't aware of the fact that an actual ongoing TV series was extant at the time, it having being shown on Sky in the UK a few years before we got round to having satellite television (though an uncle did have a BSB "Squariel" for those old enough to actually remember what they were and find it amusing - a decision up there with "Beta will outlast VHS, it's just a fad" and "I'm saving up for a Laserdisc player" in the Great Moves irony stakes), but the pilot movie did appear on the shelf of the local video shop, seemingly as a new stand-alone superhero movie in its own right (followed a year later by Flash II: Revenge of the Trickster [Danny Bilson, 1991], guest starring Mark Hamill himself as the villain, a 'sequel' whose slightly uneven feel was by dint of being two episodes of the series edited together.  A further trip to the Well of Diminishing Returns would lead to my baffled reaction of "Another one?!?" as Flash 3: Deadly Nightshade [Bruce Bilson, 1992] arrived unbidden to an uncaring world and even my childhood self would suspect that this wasn't a "real film").

A while back, i postulated in a piece for the rather nice website We Are Cult upon the notion of a 'Marvel Phase Zero' - a an early stage of the Marvel Comics Universe pre- Jon Favreau's 2008 Iron Man consisting of the various TV pilots and series of the late 1970s and early '80s (the original article can be found here: ) - and perhaps the DCEU, such as it currently is, had their own incipient epoch in the '70s and '80s; Christopher Reeve's four Superman outings and Michael Keaton's Gothamite Dark Knight being of the period.  The Wesley Shipp incarnation should, in my opinion, stand proud in these ranks of DC's emergent age alongside the aforesaid heroes, as well as Lynda Carter's Wonder Woman, Helen Slater's Supergirl and Dick Durock's Swamp Thing.

The setting of course is Central City, a twilit noirish urban sprawl almost but not quite identical in look and feel to the Gotham of Tim Burton's then-recent Chiropteran Crusader blockbuster Batman, but on a slightly smaller televisual scale (this being filmed at the Burbank studios of Warners rather than Pinewood).  This small-m metropolis is under siege from a criminal motorcycle gang known as the Dark Riders led by the enigmatic, charismatic (and probably systematic and hydromatic) Pike - played with a scene chewing elan by Dex Dexter of Dynasty Michael Nader, finally getting the Alexis role of butch bitch and having his own henchmen to boss about and abuse.  On the tail of the Riders' trail of havoc and destruction is newly promoted chief of the Central City police Jay Allen (Tim Thomerson, a familiar face in numerous Charles Band movies but chiefly Jack Deth in 1984's Trancers and its many sequels, as well as incarnating the eponymous Dollman [Albert Pyun, 1991]), scion of a family of CCPD cops headed by patriarch Henry Allen (M. Emmett Walsh, who's starred in... oh, everything, really, from Blade Runner [Ridley Scott, 1982] to The Pope of Greenwich Village [Stuart Rosenberg, 1984] to Sundown: the Vampire in Retreat [Anthony Hickox, 1989] to providing the voice of Cosmic Owl in Adventure Time [2010+]).  Henry's pride in his eldest son's following in his flat footsteps is matched by his antipathy toward's his younger son's choice of criminal investigation vocation, Barry (Shipp) being a 'mere' forensic science investigator - or a CSI as i believe they're known these days ('tis perhaps only by the caprice of chance of network that the present Flash series didn't find itself titled CSI: Central City).

Barry balances his daily routine of dodging his father's long streak of pithy remarks at the family dinner table with long day and night shifts of lab work alongside compatriot Julio Mendez (Alex Desert, Swingers [Doug Liman, 1996], Becker [1998-2004]) as well as trying to find personal time for his love life with beautiful bohemian artist Iris West (Paula Marshall, whom i remember well from such films as Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth [Anthony Hickox, 1992], Warlock: the Armageddon [Hickox again, 1993] and Full Eclipse [O HAI, ANTHONY, 1993]).  Run down and run off his feet with the demands of life and the nine to five in the morning overtimes as he does his part to analyse clues to help take down the Riders and their anarchic spate of bombings and robbings, Barry finds running very much a theme when one dark  and stormy night the elements come together and a stray bolt of lightning strikes the scientist (rather than the postman, as Wayne Coyne predicted) and the convergence of flash of cosmic light and the rack of frothing and broiling chemicals that his blasted body belts into transforms him into (all together now) "THE FASTEST MAN ALIVE".

Recovering rather quickly and checking himself out of hospital, Barry begins to realise that his brush with the beyond via a bolt from the blue may have some side effects when he runs to catch the morning bus and suddenly finds himself accelerating uncontrollably at high velocity for miles before barreling down the beach like a bullet, kicking up clouds of sand and getting in the sea before emerging from the brine gasping for breath and finding that the friction of his velocity his reduced his clothing to rags.  Finding that he must consume vast amounts of food to replace the calories burned by his speedy metabolism, Barry reluctantly engages with Dr Tina McGee (Amanda Pays, Theora Jones of Max Headroom [1985, 1987-88], as well as starring in late '80s SF horrors The Kindred [Stephen Carpenter and Jeffrey Obrow, 1998] and Leviathan [George P. Cosmatos, 1989]) of S. T. A. R. Labs - despite his misgivings at their shady past and alleged unethical experimentation - in an effort to understand his new found abilities and attempt to control the biological battleground of his body.  After confiding in Barry that the ruined reputation of her laboratory is because her former partner (in both the sciencing and sexing senses) tested an experimental drug upon himself and sacrificed himself upon the altar of knowledge, Tina supplies the nascent speedster with a prototype Soviet scarlet suit invented to withstand the intense pressures of deep sea diving as an ingenious method of cutting down on the wear and tear of his ensemble coming unseamed as he speeds around a test track.

After it is revealed that the villainous Nicholas Pike was Jay Allen's former partner (his facial dueling scars the result of the elder Allen discovering his crooked compadre's nefarious undertakings and leaving him for dead), Pike sees Jay heading the CCPD task force charged with bringing him down on the local news show hosted by Joe Klein (the ubiquitous Richard Belzer of every cop show going for the past hundred years) and decides to lay and bait a trap for his erstwhile comrade in arms utilising the charms of the alluring Lila (Lycia Naff, who played Ensign Sonya Gomez in a couple of 1989 episodes of Star Trek: the Next Generation before essaying the role of T. C. in the Troma-tastic Chopper Chicks in Zombietown [Dan Hoskins, 1989]).  After Jay falls for the obvious should-be-jailed bait and Pike takes his cruel retribution, Barry manages to rocket to the scene of the crime only in time to cradle his dying brother in his arms and fling back his head to howl the requisite "Nooooooo!!!" at the uncaring sky.  What should rightfully be a cliched scene is sold, though, by the acting of both Thomerson and Shipp.  Vowing to avenge his sibling, Barry asks Tina to fashion more of the speed suit: "I need a hood, to cover my face - and gloves, so i won't leave fingerprints" (there's all those years at forensic detection school paying off right there) and becomes a red clad avenger of the night, taking down Pike and his gang and ending their cycle of cycling destruction in a furious Flash of vengeance.

An effective superhero origin story in its own right (something that DC, Wonder Woman [Patty Jenkins, 2017] aside, seems to find it increasingly difficult to manage on screen these days) as well as the pilot for a TV series, the 1990 version of The Flash went on to have a big influence upon the modern televisual incarnation.  Not only has John Wesley Shipp appeared multiple times in the newer show as both Henry Allen and original Flash Jay Garrick, but both Amanda Pays and Alex Desert have made appearances as Dr Christina McGee and Captain Julio Mendez respectively, while their original roles of lab chum and sexy but frosty scientist with dead fiancee have been assumed by Carlos Valdes' Cisco Ramon and Danielle Panabaker's Caitlin Snow respectively.  While Iris West (played by Candice Patton) has a major co-starring role in the current show, sadly Paula Marshall's Iris only appeared in the pilot and was absent from the subsequent series.

Maybe if Anthony Hickox had directed...

Monday, 6 November 2017

Sherlock: A XXX Parody (Dick Bush, 2016) NB: NSFW. LOL. WTF.

In which things get quite a bit NSFW, and we muse upon the phenomenon of the porn parody.

(NOTE: This blog entry is going to be discussing the content of a mucky movie, and may well use some Rabelaisian and/or scatological language, and imagery which may produce powerful sensations in the brain and body.  "Consider yourselves...WARNED!", as James Dean Bradley so eloquently yelled at the beginning of 'Repeat UK')

Ah, the pornographic parody film - so ripe for satire, lampoon and pastiche of any given subject but with the added bonus boon of boobs.  Perhaps best remembered (by me, at any rate) for the early-2000s glut of straight to DVD Seduction Cinema 'classics' starring Misty Mundae and Darian Caine, such as Playmate of the Apes (John Bacchus, 2002 - co-written by and featuring scream queen Debbie Rochon as 'Dr Cornholeus'), Lord of the G-Strings (Terry M. West, 2003) and SpiderBabe (Johnny Crash, 2003 - starring Ms Mundae as 'Patricia Porker'), there has always been something of a genre bent being exploited: in recent years Axel Braun has produced a steady stream of semen-specked superhero scripts for Vivid Entertainment, spoofing and spoffing characters such as Batman, Superman, She-Hulk, Marvel's Avengers, Spider-Man,Wolverine, the X-Men and Wonder Woman (as well as other genre-related titles such as Game of Thrones, Ghostbusters and Charmed [featuring a Prue Halliwell who actually gives me less conflicted sexual thoughts than the original, which is odd but true]).  Britain's favourite genre product of the BBC (as in British Broadcasting Corporation, rather than in its porn acronym sense) has had several sexy makeovers, including the Adult Channel's 2006 Doctor Screw which followed hot on the heels of the Christopher Eccleston season of Who with Mark Sloan as a leather-jacketed and priapic Time Lord (though his spiked hair and goatee beard make him more of a young War Doctor than an alternative Nine in my book), Wood Rocket's The Doctor Whore Porn Parody (Lee Roy Myers, 2014) featuring almost startlingly accurate randy reprisals of the Eleventh Doctor, Amy Pond and Rory Williams by the brilliantly names Brian Street Team, Jodi Taylor and Richie Calhoun respectively, and the same year's The Doctor (directed by the fnarr-fnarr monikered Dick Bush) from KaizenXXX - which confirmed its canonical status by opening with Mark Sloan of Doctor Screw being injured (must be all of that tumultuous buffeting from the tremendous buggering) and regenerating into new incarnation Danny D, who has lost none of his libido in the transition.

From the same production company and director, we come to 2016's Sherlock: a XXX Parody (is it just my grammatically-picky brain that flinches and wants that to be "An XXX Parody"?  I suppose if you read it as "Triple X" it works...), which sets its sights and sweaty palms upon another of Steven Moffat's (a man who knows a bit about dodgy sexual exploits and bad jokes himself) TV shows.

Opening with a title sequence (aerial shots of London, familiar buildings and monuments) and theme tune that is redolent of the BBC's Sherlock whilst being different enough to just about skirt copyright, we start with the fundamentally-titled A Study in Brown (alimentary, my dear Watson!) with Dean Martin (no, not the piss artist cum singer cum actor!) as a gruff Lestrade calling in Holmes to help with the latest case to have him baffled, which interrupts Sherlock (the ludicrously-endowed Mr Danny D) as he indulges in an experiment to "test my deductive skills against all manner of distractions" as he's fellated by French fancy Nikita Bellucci - leading to a gag wherein Sherlock responds to both Lestrade's telephonic enjoinders to join him at the crime scene and his imminent unspooling in the gagging Gallic girl's gob by shouting "I'm coming!  I'm COMING NOW!" with an elated vehemence that both perplexes and pleases the puzzled policeman.  Another witness to this startling scene in Sherlock's study is medical student Jane Watson (played by the gorgeous crimson-maned Ella Hughes, who has actually made an appearance in a season six episode of Game of Thrones itself - with its alternate name of Tits and Dragons almost qualifying it as a porn parody in of itself, albeit with less jokes), who has arrived with a case for the celebrated sleuth but ends up with a casa - becoming his new flatmate in 221B Baker Street, perhaps aiming to parallel US 'modern Sherlock Holmes' series Elementary with its cross-gender casting of Dr Watson (in Elementary's case Lucy Lui as Joan Watson).

Holmes and Watson attend the murder scene, to find the latest in a string of corpses that show signs of having had intercourse ("Not just any sex - look at the beads of sweat: this guy was really going for it!" observes the sleuth) whilst expiring from poison ("So she likes to have sex with them whilst they dies?  Sounds... delightful" says a dubious Jane): very much a case of a petit mort post mortem.  The production plays with the tropes of Moffatian Sherlock, such as Holmes' 'mind palace' -

"If you don't mind, Jane," says Sherlock as he folds himself into his armchair, "i'm going to enter this information into my mind palace."
"Your mind palace?"
"Yes, my fucking mind palace!  Is there an echo?"

- and the technique of quickly flashing Holmes' thoughts up in text form on-screen (like the 'datablasts' of Violet Berlin and Andy Crane fronted '90s gaming show Bad Influence! and Lee and Herring's pioneering Fist of Fun), such as "slight bruises on penis", "he fucked even though it hurt", "he had to fuck" and "fuck or die" as Sherlock pieces together the clues from the case to cum come to the conclusion that the victims were poisoned by a Sexy Killer (no, not Sarah Young, nor Macarena Gomez neither) and forced to engage in a vigorous fuck session in order to obtain an antidote - no one yet having achieved the climax of this cunning linguist's plan.  The culprit is revealed to be the French girl who aided Sherlock in his oral examination earlier - Ms Bellucci now sporting a red wig - who reveals that she has already introduced the venom into Holmes' system and he must play the naughty game of death as she proffers her box to him (an actual small box, not her box box just yet).

"The antidote is locked in this safe."
"That's voice activated!" deduces Holmes, somehow.  "They tried so hard, didn't they... Let me guess - the sound of your orgasm is the only thing to open it?"

After the revelation that he only has 30 minutes in which to get the siren to squirt, and pausing only to wonder whether or not to order the pizza now, the dying detective deploys his dong.   The action that follows includes oral both ways - as Holmes is rewarded for his cunnilingus with some spit-drenched suckage - as well as doggy-fashion (Ms Bellucci's shrieks as Mr D's very generously-proportioned member ploughed into her from the rear causing me to wonder whether we were in for an abbreviated episode, as surely those squeals would activate the box?), anal (i assume sitting down would be involving a soft cushion or one of those inflatable ring things for a while) and reverse cowgirl before the desired decibel level is achieved (during some vigorous anal choke-fucking) and then Holmes unloads his ribbons of liquid joy onto the villainous vixen's buttocks and quaffs the antidote.

After all that though, i'd have to personally opine that Ms Hughes as Dr Watson, with her red hair and pale skin and clad in a leather jacket and a pair of jeans that accentuate her lovely buttocks, possibly did more for me than the carnal scenes in the episode.  Why is none of your business, but maybe i'm just jaded like a cankered whore these days.

Episode two is once again punningly titled - this particular spin on Conan Doyle being The Sign of Whore - and entails Sherlock receiving a mysterious text message from the elusive Irene Adler, instructing him to go to number 14 Baskerville Road.  The detective duo promptly arrive at the assigned address to find themselves in a sex club, greeted by a buxom receptionist (Linsey Dawn McKenzie - something of a UK porn legend in the '90s, and a favourite of those who like to see their sex starlets endowed with elephantiasis of the chesticles.  Mammoth mammaries, Mycroft!) and the proprietor of this pleasure palace of impropriety who introduces herself as Irene Adler (the estuary-accented and slightly chavvy Chantelle Fox), who challenges Holmes to "a little game" if he can "pick out and fuck the girl [she's] describing".

"Um, sorry, wait - did you say 'fuck'?" asks an agog Watson, "we have to fuck them?"

"This is a very sexual place, Miss Watson.  A place for sex" is the reply, and possibly the best example of that kind of gag i've seen in a movie since "Greeks.  Men from Greece!" in Tom Green's opus Freddy Got Fingered.

After standing back to admire a display of his deductive skills that has him narrowing the description of a dominatrix down to the spexy secretary, Watson is surprised to hear Sherlock passing the sexing duties over to her ("Now go ahead, bang her brains out chop-chop!") and finds herself soon busily engaged in some receptionist rumpo involving a spanking session wherein Ms McKenzie smacks her alabaster buttocks a nice shade of pink.  There follows some oral fun before the toys are produced - then inserted, then produced again - before a judding climax involving a very slippery nipple as Watson teases Adler's henchlady by rubbing her perky breasticles against her clitoris allsorts.

Episode three sees the series give up on turning Conan Doyle Holmes titles into puns and resorts to the simple "does what it says on the tin" title of Sexbomb, wherein Sherlock is working solo (Watson being away on her honeymoon, her husband having been introduced via a series of gag scenes - as opposed to gagging scenes which do happen in these sort of thing but are quite different - in the earlier episodes).  He finds himself working alongside Inspector Sally Hopkins (Darlington's premier sexport Sienna Day), with whom he has an antagonistic/flirty banter relationship, on a case wherein a young lady (Carmel Anderson) has had a time-bomb strapped to her nether regions (a less erotic version of this scenario was played out in the Red Dwarf episode 'Entangled' - Craig Charles' charms being slightly less alluring than Ms Anderson's on that occasion).

"Thirty minutes 'til the big bang" says Hopkins in one of the most blatant signposts in a not exactly subtle series, before falling for the fiendish (and as yet unseen) Moriarty's trap by drinking what appears to be a glass of water but is in fact "that new female dodgy Viagra [that's] been all over the news - i need an antidote within the next few minutes, otherwise i'll die" (delivered with all the mortal panic of a malfunctioning toaster) "only your spunk can save me now!"  Our priapic private investigator duly obliges of course, going straight in for some rimming of the policewoman's puckered posterior and ere long tongue is replaced by schlong for "a dip in the brown" that turns her frown upside down.  This vigorous bout of bumming in various positions leads to Sherlock, who's got the medicine that she needs - in the wise, wise words of Lana Del Rey - filling her prescription good and proper and delivering it directly into her cupped hand to scoop and swallow as directed.  How many times a day is not specified, but i hope it's only once, the lad looks knackered.

Oh, on the way out he defuses the bomb and frees the girl.  I'd almost forgotten about her.

The fourth fit of febrile fun bears the moniker of Carnal Knowledge, neatly encapsulating the twin obsessions of both the production and the title character: the eternal yearning for both the pleasures of both the flesh and the sophia of wisdom (or, as Sir Steven Patrick Morrissey put it, "Does the body rule the mind, or does the mind rule the body? / I dunno.").  Or perhaps i'm giving Dick Bush's writing a little too much credit.  I dunno.

After being summoned by Lestrade to yet another murder scene, this time that of a terrorist suspect, Sherlock makes quick work dismissing the 'evidence' on hand - the various books and documents (along with a bomb) having been planted in the dead man's bedroom, as well as noticing that the necklace bearing religious symbols has caused an adverse reaction to the skin pre-mortem signifying that he didn't usually wear such an item - and concluding that the victim (who is sprawled before them on a bed with a large purple vibrator plunged into his chest) is the latest pawn in the game being played against him by the shadowy Napoleon of crime Professor Moriarty.  Arriving back at his Baker Street lodgings, Holmes sends a text as urgent as his restlessly twitching member to Irene Adler asking her to meet him, his "I want answers" being auto-corrected to "I want anal", prompting the wholly (hole-ly?) appropriate response of "Bugger!"  In timely fashion, Holmes enters his lodgings to rather serendipitously find Irene - this time the genuine article, you might say, rather than the decoy from the club earlier - waiting for him wearing nothing but high heels and a pearl necklace (an actual one: wait for it!).

"Sherlock!" cries flustered faithful landlady Mrs Hudson (June Smith) "I took Miss Adler's coat - but she didn't have any clothes on underneath!" before fleeing the room when her embarrassed enquiry as to whether tea should be served is met by Irene asking instead if there is any lube in the house.  As you do, when circumstances look like it's about to be needed.

"I do love playing with people" purrs the ardently amorous Miss Adler (played by the gorgeous Italian-born queen of the British grot industry, Stella Cox - a Tyrrhenian temptress more "Ream 'us!" than Remus, and guaranteed to make one's Alba Longa), prompting a frustratingly Freudian conversation between Sherlock and herself ("Sex.  All about sex." / "Isn't everything?") before his accusation that she is working for Moriarty and knows something of his plans, and that if she gives him the vital information to foil the professor's plot he will afford her protection.

"Saving those close to you isn't your forte" she smiles.
"You're not that close to me" counters Holmes.
"I could be.  Maybe then, i'll tell you something" she says, sashaying to the mantelpiece and presenting her pert and peachy posterior and fingering her fillable fundament.

Obviously within seconds the twitching 'tec has taken the hint as is up behind her like a rutting Rottweiler, blithely taking the cup of tea offered by an aghast Mrs Hudson (who swiftly exits so traumatised she may as well be pursued by a bear) and sipping from it before resting it upon the dimples of Irene's lower back.  Possibly indulging a repressed cosplay fetish, he places his iconic deerstalker hat on her head and bends her over his armchair (with Union Jack cushion - how 'Cool Britannia'.  Is it 1996?) for some Sherlockian sodomy so eager and vigorous (can't blame him for excitedly ploughing that furrow i must say) that's it's bound to leave bruises in the morning.  Don't it turn my brown eye blue, as the old song goes.

In the finale, Game On, it transpires that the majority of the preceding events have been set in motion by the devious deviant Moriarty (played by the marvelously pseudonymous Fred Passion giving a less OTT performance than Andrew Scott, at least) who has - in an inversion of the events of Moffat / Gatiss' Sherlock's premiere episode - been passing himself off as Holmes' brother Mycroft to gain the trust of Watson, whom he now kidnaps and lashes to a Bond villain-style laser trap.  Sherlock is faced with the old "which switch?" dilemma with one deactivating button but two from which to choose, and so decides to opt for the patented Steven Moffat "cool shot in which the hero fires a gun at a random piece of equipment" get-out-of-a-cliffhanger gambit (C.F.: Sherlock 'The Great Game', Doctor Who 'The Time of Angels') before using his preternatural mental prognostication skills to outmanouvre and physically take out Moriarty's henchmen in the manner of Robert Downey Jr.'s Sherlock Holmes (Guy Ritchie, 2009).

"Fuck me, Sherlock - that was very unlike you!" exclaims Watson as she is untied.
"The only solution to winning his Game is not to play", responds the gnomic gumshoe, with a neat solution that perhaps should have occurred to Bruce Lee in The Game of Death and everyone in Game of Thrones.  The twosome then rather thoroughly consummate their professional relationship, including the lovely Ms Hughes lying on a leather couch with her head back and taking Mr D's egregiously proportioned member down her throat, followed by some very eager and frantic doggy-style and cowgirl positions.

After Moriarty is surrounded and taken away by the regular constabulary and Sherlock has received a message from Irene assuring him that she's alive and not a victim of one of Moriarty's deadly assassins, there's even a guest appearance in the closing Baker Street scene by Danny D in the guise of his other porn parody character - that of the TARDIS-travelling titular Time Lord from The Doctor (Dick Bush, 2014), giving any fan of Doctor Who and Sherlock who's made it to the end unspent the crossover that Moffat never did.  Which is nice, i guess.

'"My dear Holmes!", I ejaculated' - Dr Watson in 'The Adventure of the Resident Patient' by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1893.

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Frankenstein (J. Searle Dawley, 1910)

The Gothic horror tradition in both film and literature can ultimately trace, if not its genesis, then its apotheosis back to that legendary storm-wracked three day weekender on the shores of Lake Geneva at the Villa Diodati in the summer of 1816 when the legendary 'Mad, Bad and Dangerous' George Gordon, Lord Byron gathered together the elements of himself, his fellow Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, Shelley's soon to be wife Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, and Byron's personal physician Dr John Polidori - and together they infused the spark of undying life into the nascent Gothic genre.

The horror movie's debt to literature was recognised in James Whale's seminal 1935 The Bride of Frankenstein, which opened with a prologue set at the Villa (recast as the standard Universal Horror storm-lashed turret upon a craggy peak) with Mary (Elsa Lanchester) recounting her tale to Byron (Gavin Gordon) and Shelley (Douglas Walton), a scenario fully fleshed out on film by Ken Russell in Gothic (1986) - a superlative filmic fictionalisation of the epoch-making events of that eventful eldritch evening.

Long before Whale's dramatisation of this dark genesis of not only the nascent Mrs Shelley's Frankenstein but also Polidori's The Vampyre and two decades before William Henry Pratt changed his professional name to Boris Karloff and strapped on the iconic asphalt-spreader's boots and neck bolts in 1931, yet almost a century after that dank and dismal day of dreadful dreaming, the first Frankenstein was filmed by the Edison company at their New York studio facility in the Bronx.

Condensing the plot of the novel down to a one-reeler running a scant silent fifteen minutes, Searle's adaptation introduces us to medical student Victor Frankenstein (played by the splendidly-named Augustus Phillips) saying his goodbyes to his fiancee Elizabeth (Mary Fuller, whose life spanned a tragic arc from being an actress as lauded as Mary Pickford in such roles as the lead in the first ever American film serial What Happened to Mary [Charles Brabin and Ashley Miller, 1912] and the dual role of Mary Mayne and her mother Mrs Mayne in Lucius Henderson's Mayne main event of 1916 The Girl Who Feared Daylight before her career ending abruptly in 1917 and spending her last quarter century in the mental hospital in which she would die) before leaving home to dwell and toil amidst the shaded groves of academe.

After a time jump of two years (swiftly conveyed through an intertitle that also explains to us that Frankenstein has, in this brief span, "discovered the mystery of life" [though not how sweet it is or how he found it - we'd have to wait until Mel Brooks' 1974 Young Frankenstein to have that conveyed to us through the medium of song]), we find the student of the metaphysical sciences pacing pensively in his cluttered quarters, before deciding to pen - or, rather, quill - a letter to his beloved before beginning his alchemical wedding of science and nature:

"Sweetheart: tonight my ambition will be accomplished.  I have discovered the secret of life and death and in a few hours i shall create into life the most perfect human being that the world has yet known", he writes, shortly before all his dreams of an alpine ubermensch are torn asunder.

The cinematic representation of Frankenstein's creation of his creature has since 1931 been indelibly linked in the audience's mind with James Whale's tour de force of thunder and lightning and the crackling, sparking and arcing mechanical apparatus of Kenneth Strickfaden, and yet it's worth remembering that the brief description given in the novel contains nothing of elevating gurneys or kites or lightning rods - "It was on a dreary night of November that i beheld the accomplishment of my toils.  With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, i collected the instruments of life around me, that i might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet" - and indeed reads as much as the work of a magician or an alchemist than a physicist: more sorcery than science.

So Phillips' Frankenstein doesn't go about his act of asexual reproduction (and , let's face it, which student hasn't spent long sweaty hours in his room doing the same?) by sewing together the pieces of cadavers, but pours a sequence of elixirs into a cauldron before closing the fomenting mixture behind iron doors with a handy peep-hole with which to spy on his neon-genesis (evangelion not supplied).  The 'CREATION' sequence really is a tour de force, in which we see his hubbling-bubbling homunculus slowly forming from the frothing elements - apparently achieved via the simple method of burning a waxen figurine and running the film in reverse, we seem to see the flesh congealing and coalescing upon the very bones of the Creature, it's skeletal arm flapping wildly like an errant Muppet as the muscles and flesh begin to form upon it to create the Creature played by Charles Ogle (another veteran of the silent screen, including not only co-starring with Mary Fuller in What Happened to Mary, but also starring opposite her erstwhile rival Mary Pickford in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm [Marshall Neilan, 1917]*): Ogle's creature bears the elevated brow later made famous by Karloff. but also a stooped hunched walk more akin to Quasimodo and a wild shock wig and talon-like fingernails.

After the standard sequences of Frankenstein rejecting his creation, and the Creature stalking his creator and his bride like some flailing human striving to search for Yahweh and Shekhina (but in sepia-tinted black and white and in under a quarter of an hour, so we probably don't have time for philosophy all that much), the Creature finally meets his end when, rejected by his 'father', he catches sight of his reflection and - in rather a good trick shot - at first vanishes to leave nothing in the room itself but only his reflection in the mirror, and then the reflection changes to show only Frankenstein himself.  The nightmare vanishes, to leave only the waking dreamer - the father left to deal with the consequences of his misbegotten, forgotten son.

(*The book The Rivals of Frankenstein by Michel Parry [Corgi, 1977] lists a film entitled Franenstein [sic] of Sunnybrook Farm as a "nudie rip-off" directed by William Rotsler in 1971.  To the best of my knowledge, this is a product of M. Parry's inagination, but answers on a postcard please if anyone knows any better.)

Monday, 2 October 2017

Mockingbird Lane (Bryan Singer, 2012)

In which a telefantasy classic is re-imagined for a new generation by some of the most capable genre-savvy people in TV land, with decidedly mixed results.

As but a small child, i was very into the whole 'Universal Monsters' thing.  Boris Karloff as the eternal Monster from James Whale's classic 1931 Frankenstein, Bela Lugosi as the titular Count from Tod Browning's Dracula and Lon Chaney Jr.'s tragic lycanthrope Lawrence Talbot aka The Wolf Man (George Waggner, 1941) stalked the mist-drenched forests of my dreams and i knew that the night was not what it might seem.  These gruesome spectres of the macabre always had a touch of humour about them to me, however - possibly due to the influence of having seen both Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein (Charles T. Barton, 1948) and The Monster Squad (Fred Dekker, 1987) before the age of eight or so, long before seeing the characters in their original classic cinematic context.

It is for this reason, perhaps, that i always loved both The Addams Family (1964-1966) and The Munsters (also 1964-1966) when they would be rerun on Channel 4 during my misspent, maladroit and maladjusted youth: but especially the latter.  I enjoyed the fact that, being made by Universal television, the show was able to utilise the classic Jack Pierce created looks for the creatures comprising the cast - such as the Karloffian Frankenstein stylings (replete with flat-topped head, anode and cathode duly bolted onto both sides of the neck, and costume of asphalt-spreaders boots and black serge suit) sported by Fred Gwynne as Herman, and Al Lewis' bemedallioned Lugosi-inspired penguin suited Dracula outfit as Grandpa.  They seemed tangible echoes of the real Famous Monsters of Filmland to me, whereas, funny though the show was, i always asked myself who or what the Addamses  were supposed to be?

I even enjoyed - somehow - the late '80s to early '90s revival series The Munsters Today ("We went to sleep twenty years ago / And woke up with a brand new show!"), now in glaucoma-inducing colour NTSC videotape, and starring Catwoman (Lee Meriwether, replacing Yvonne De Carlo as Lily).  One would have thought, therefore, that i would have eagerly looked forward to a 21st century 're-imagining' of The Munsters, especially given a pedigree of being directed by Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects [1995], Apt Pupil [1998], X-Men [2000] and many of its sequels/prequels, and Superman Returns [2006]) and produced and co-showrun by Bryan Fuller (Pushing Daisies [2007-2009], Hannibal [2013-2015], American Gods [2017-?]), and yet... It wasn't only the dreaded spectre of the 'pilot not picked up to go to series' taint that cast a pall over the project by the time i became aware of its existence: i genuinely didn't want to watch it for the longest time as i didn't want my happy childhood memories of these characters to be tainted with a bad interpretation (i mean, sure, you'd think that John Schuck and company would have done that in the early '90s, but at least that ran for a couple of seasons so someone besides me was watching it).  But the time finally came to bite the (silver) bullet and give this thing a whirl.

Eschewing the original's creaky monochrome Universal horror approach, the Mockingbird Lane pilot opens with a campfire scene more indebted to the early '80s slasher horror genre of The Burning (Tony Maylam, 1981) or the Camp Crystal Lake of Sean S. Cunningham's  1980 Friday the 13th, during which Eddie Munster's werewolf transformation is treated with a seriousness far beyond anything that the Henry Hull-inspired widow's peak of Butch Patrick may have ever called for - young Eddie's (Mason Cook) carnivorous lunar activities at scout camp being covered up as the activities of a "baby bear".  Charity Wakefield (Lois Lane-a-like Lucy in 2016 Doctor Who Christmas special The Return of Dr Mysterio, as well as Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility [John Alexander, 2008] and Mary Boleyn in Wolf Hall [Peter Kosminsky, 2015]) takes on the role of "normal" Munster relative Marilyn, adding a kooky and skew-whiff sense of offbeat menace to the role previously essayed by Beverley Owen, Pat Priest and Hilary Van Dyke.  Unlike those previous 'cute' Marilyns, however, there is the underlying feeling of unease that this one isn't the normal one - she could quite easily go for your throat.

Stepping into the Frankenstein lifts of Herman we have nobody's favourite cast member of Stand By Me (Rob Reiner, 1986), Jerry O' Connell - also of Sliders and Kangaroo Jack and possibly other stuff - playing Herman not as a literal reincarnation of the Karloffian Monster, but as a m,an literally held together by the nuts and bolts and sutures of surgery: stitched and braced together and with a heart on a timer that needs replacing (cue requisite sub-Grinch maudlin US TV sentiment).  Grandpa has Eddie Izzard assuming Al Lewis' role, arriving Salem's Lot-style, his coffin delivered by scared moving men in a van, with rats spilling from his coffin a la Gary Oldman's crepuscular Count in Francis Ford Coppola's cinematic and overwrought 1992 Bram Stoker's Dracula (with a crimson cloak / dressing gown echoing Eiko Ishioka's ruby robe).  Completing the clan is Portia de Rossi (of the sublime Arrested Development 2003-2013) as Lily, who has a glorious entrance (pardon me) as spiders spin her a gossamer cobweb gown over her ethereal form.

The bulk of the pilot's plot consists of the usual 'fish out of water' sitcom tropes, enlivened by Izzard's louche delivery (recoiling from a proffered handshake with "I have a disease") and insistence on his monstrous heritage ("I intend to start drinking again"), and the amusement of the family dinner wherein scout leader Steve has been lured with the intent that Grandpa will drink his blood and Herman will receive his heart but is under the comic misapprehension that he is there to take over Herman's marital duties towards Lily.

An amusing enough update of a fondly recalled classic, but it's no real surprise that it didn't make the cut, as 'twere, in the very cut-throat world of modern television pilots.  Perhaps some things shouldn't be resurrected.

Some things belong dead.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers (Fred Olen Ray, 1988)

Rent raunchy and ridiculous from the mind of B-movie exploitation legend Fred Olen Ray (the helmer of such delights as Beverly Hills Vamp [1989], Scream Queen Hot Tub Party [1991] and Ghost in a Teeny Bikini [2006]), Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers (released on VHS in the UK as simply 'Hollywood Hookers' but with a picture of a chainsaw in between the two words due to the ridiculous edicts of the 1980s and '90s James Ferman-headed BBFC and their bizarre fear of the word 'chainsaw' due to a certain Lone Star State set power tool spree themed motion picture and its continued status as a 'video nasty') is a title that gripped me when i was twelve years old back in 1992 and got my first issue of The Dark Side magazine.  Having loved horror, fantasy, SF and basically anything genre since i was a tiny toddler, discovering film magazines that catered to the more Mondo Bizarro side of cinema was a revelatory experience back in the pre-interwebs age, opening up brave new worlds of directors such as Ed Wood, Herschell Gordon Lewis, Lindsay Shonteff and - of course - Fred Olen Ray, an interview with whom was carried in that first issue that i owned.  Even as a (just) pre-teen, i found the notion of chainsaw wielding sexy ladies enticing: what could stimulate the imagination of a boy who's hormones have just begun to run wild like a video box image of a lingerie-clad Michelle Bauer wielding a buzzing saw like a sexy Ash from Evil Dead (not that Bruce Campbell isn't a handsome guy: i can appreciate stuff like that now i'm older)?

Obviously my young bad self went on a mission to seek out such movies, and thanks to a local video shop with a very lax policy on film rating certificates (i think the guy only refused to let me rent one movie ever: i think it was a volume of Electric Blue, so he may have had a point) i soon came home from school after a stop-off at said VHS and Betamax emporium with a copy of the truncatedly-titled Colourbox Video release clutched in my clammy little palms.  I'm pretty sure i quite enjoyed it, but i was bound to at that age, when the worth of a motion picture was judged on the amount of 'killings' and 'boobies' above anything else.  So i watched it again for the first time in 25 years last night, just out of curiosity of course, and wondered what my sophisticated Tarkovsky and Bunuel-appreciating older self would make of it.

Setting the gleefully tongue in cheek tone of the whole thing, the flick opens with a caption warning that the "CHAINSAWS used in this Motion Picture are REAL and DANGEROUS!  They are handled here by seasoned PROFESSIONALS.  The makers of this Motion Picture advise strongly against anyone attempting to perform these stunts at home.  Especially if you are naked and about the engage in strenuous SEX."  So, fair warning there as well as a taste of the gleefully crazed goods to come.

The tale is narrated in flash back by Jay Richardson (star of many of Olen Ray's other adventures in filmmaking, such as Haunting Fear [1990], Wizards of the Demon Sword [1991] and Teenage Cavegirl [2004] ) as a '40s style gumshoe - opening the way for many a "private dick" joke ("That's what this town has been needing for a long time - an honest dick!") - with the archetypal pulp-noir name of Jack Chandler, filling us in on the Meaty Deetz of his latest case with a voiceover that seems like Humphrey Bogart's Sam Spade with an even more sardonic streak and a teenager's sense of humour, or even Harrison Ford's mumblings over the original 1982 cinematic cut of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (and curse the Director's and Final Cuts, i LIKED the film noir narration...) if he'd had a penchant for puerile puns.  Chandler has been hired by Mrs Kelso of Oxnard, Southern California to find her runaway daughter Samantha (Linnea Quigley, scream queen star of many a fright flick including Silent Night, Deadly Night [Charles E. Sellier Jr., 1984], Return of the Living Dead [Dan O' Bannon, 1985], Night of the Demons [Kevin Tenney, 1988]) who's fled home to get lost in the bright lights of the big City of Angels.  His inquiries bring him into the orbit of a Satanist / Ancient Egyptian chainsaw cult led by The Master (Leatherface himself of Tobe Hooper's iconic 1974 Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Gunnar Hansen) and his harem of hacksaw whores including crazed 'Cuisinart Queen' Lori (Dawn Wildsmith, who was at the time the current Mrs Olen Ray - appearing in many of Fred's flicks such as 1986's The Tomb, 1988's The Phantom Empire and 1990's Alienator, before her own alienation and divorce saw her replaced in Fred's next flurry of films by his then current crush, Brinke Stevens), slinky baseball bat beating brunette Lisa (Esther Elise, Vampire at Midnight [Gregory McClatchy, 1988]) and the fabulous "built for comfort, not speed" with "great headlights" Mercedes, played by Michelle Bauer (appearing here as 'Michelle McLellan', one of Ms Bauer's many monikers across the movies including 'Michelle McClendon', 'Kim Bittner', and for her early naughty stuff 'Pia Snow' [i can heartily recommend the pseudonymous Ms Snow's leading role in the thoroughly strange 1982 sci-fi porn classic Cafe Flesh, directed by the amazingly named Rinse Dream]).

Our introduction to Mercedes is pretty unforgettable as she picks up construction worker Bo (Jimmy Williams) in "the kind of dark, quiet, sleazy place where dark, quiet sleazy things happen". and escorts (DO YOU SEE?) him back to her personalised motel room replete with wall-mounted shrine to the King of Rock 'n' Roll himself.  After settling her perplexed punter down on the bed with a drink, she switches on the music to dance whilst disrobing to the strains of Elvis, and continues her sensuous striptease whilst all the while placing plastic sheeting over the pictures of Presley and donning a shower cap - it's great that naked sexy murderers are aware of the perils of splatter stains  If it's wrong to think that the crazed manic grin on her face as she revs up her chainsaw is hot, then i just do not want to be right.  Po' Bo is very soon in pieces over the whole thing of course, and the physical comedy as his groping hand reaches Mercedes' blood-spattered breast as she carves him up, only for her to pull the now-severed appendage away and toss it over her shoulder whilst continuing to euphorically and orgasmically dismember him is a grin-inducing companion piece to all the gleeful gore.

"Blood plus breasts equals brilliant!", decides my twelve year old self.  For all the thin veneer of adulthood i may have built up over the years, the kid's onto something pointing out the primal power of such a sanguinary mammary conflagration.

Chandler's investigatory trial leads him to an assignation with Mercedes, in a scene wherein the flirtatious banter doesn't exactly go for Bogie and Bacall levels of undercurrent subtlety ("Jack," she purrs with a snarl, "i'm going to fuck your brains out", to which he dramatically gulps and says in a 'Thinks' inner monologue "I didn't like the sound of that..."). During all of this, Jack notices through his booze-infused haze that the blonde stripper gyrating on the stage of the nightclub wherein their assignation is taking place is the missing girl he's been assigned to search for.

"You could have knocked me over with a pubic hair.  There she was: Samantha Kelso, humping it out on that little stage for anyone who could stick a buck down her pants."

Having espied his Quigley quarry, our distracted detective suddenly realises that his drink has been Mickey Finned by Mercedes, and thinks "I guess i should have been looking at the glass instead of the ass - that'll teach me" as he collapses into unconsciousness, only to awaken as a prisoner of the coven of call girls ("If my head wasn't hurting so much, i'd have sworn i was in Heaven - Heaven for guys who like big tits").  Tied to a motel bed, Jack finds himself involved in perhaps the strangest Bond villain confrontation on film as he's greeted by Hansen's mysterious dark and bearded Master, replete with sub-Fleming dialogue.  "We're very honoured to have you here, Mister... Chandler" intones the man with the masterplan as he explains his belief system to a bemused gumshoe.  "What do you do?", asks Chandler, "pray to Black & Decker?", his insistence that Ancient Egypt "never had chainsaws back then"  rebuffed with "But there were the Chainsaws of the Gods!" and an insistence that flesh must be sacrificed to appease these eldritch deities to which the cult prays.

Finally captured and taken to the sacred temple of the slasher slappers, Jack finds himself the sacrificial offering in this cut-price cut 'em to pieces Temple of Doom as an enslaved Samantha, drugged with the 'Blood of Anubis' and her near-naked body elaborately painted with serpents, dances the Virgin Dance of the Double Chainsaws - a routine wherein she sinuously slithers her body whilst swinging powerful tree-felling equipment in each hand.  Which is certainly interesting, but the scene does perhaps go on a little bit too long.  Or at least it seems to, but then time is not Linnea.  Oh, ho ho.  That was funny when i was twelve, too.

Like Indiana Jones, though, Samantha manages to break through the conditioning which has made her "at one with the Gods" and turn her chainsaw on the Master (possibly because even in a film as absurd as this, his pronunciation of "Horus" sounding like he was making sacrifices to some guy called Horace kind of of spoiled the whole incantation bit) - thoroughly disemboweling him before engaging in a final lightsabre-style chainsaw battle with Mercedes ending with buckets of blood blasting from Bauer's breasts as the temple of the titular trollops topples.

"They never did find the guy who called himself the Master", Chandler V.O.'s, seemingly setting the scene for a never to be seen sequel, I mean, sure, i saw Sam giving him an unscheduled appendectomy, but something deep down inside tells me we hadn't seen the last of him...".  You had.  Look, it was a fun hour and fifteen minutes, but let's not spoil things, eh?  No, i'm not sad that Student Chainsaw Nurses never materialised.  Well, not any more.  I've had two and a half decades to deal with that disappointment.  So, then: a film that i pruriently preferred a long, low time ago - and still found fun yesterday.  I guess over the last two and a half decades, i haven't grown up all that much after all.


Sunday, 18 June 2017

Mystery and Imagination: The Fall of the House of Usher (Kim Mills, 1966)

When one thinks of The Fall of the House of Usher, it could take on many forms in the subjective mind.  We could be thinking of Edgar Allan Poe's original 1839 masterpiece of the macabre (originally published in Burton's Gentleman's Magazine - an intriguing title, but i think this periodical may have been a bit early to contain mucky pictures of ladies alas),  Roger Corman's Technicolor Gothic of garish ghoulishness starring the great maven of the monstrous Vincent Price with the truncated title of House of Usher (1960), or perhaps even Steven Berkoff striding the stage of the 1974 Edinburgh Festival - his face a mask of greasepaint before a stylised castle wall whose cracks open ever wider in psychological symbolism as the sanity of the Ushers crack - in his unique theatrical interpretation.

A favourite iteration of mine, though, is the television adaptation broadcast on the UK's ITV network on the 12th of  February 1966 as part of the anthology series Mystery and Imagination.  Television in the 1960s was already by this point heaving with spooky series relaying stories of a spooky, spectral and supernatural bent - in addition to Rod Serling's legendary The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) and The Outer Limits (1963-1965), there was Boris Karloff himself telling tales of tenebrous terror in Thriller (1960-1962), the BBC's Out of the Unknown (1965-1971) and cinema's maestro of suspense himself fronting Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-1965) - and so Mystery and Imagination may have launched itself into a slightly saturated market of both genre television and an era where the cinema screens were regularly filled with the ghoulish delights of Hammer Films' Kensington Gore-drenched classics, as well as the period Poe pictures of Corman and many European (and even further afield) horror, science fiction and exploitation films,  The new show chose to forego the modern day or futuristic settings of other series to focus upon the seminal works of the genre, with adaptations of short stories, novels and novellas by the likes of J. Sheridan Le Fanu, M. R. James, Bram Stoker, Robert Louis Stevenson and - of course - Edgar Allan Poe.

The screenplay adaptation by David Campton is a 'free adaptation' of Poe's story, substituting the stead of the prose's unnamed narrator the series' stock recurring character of Richard Beckett - protagonist of Sheridan Le Fanu's story The Room in the 'Dragon Volant' from his 1872 collection that also gave the world the Sapphic vampire classic Carmilla (both stories would be adapted for the series' second season, as The Flying Dragon and Carmilla respectively, on the 5th and 12th of November 1966).  Played by David Buck (Dr Syn, Alias the Scarecrow [James Neilson, 1963], The Mummy's Shroud [John Gilling, 1967]), the dashing and gentlemanly Beckett relates the story relates the story to us retrospectively as he sits ruminating regretfully by the brackish (and blackish, in Kim Mills' monochrome photography) waters of a mountain tarn about his fateful adventure at the gloomy house of Usher.  We flash back to Beckett's old life amidst the dreaming spires of Oxford, a life of safe and prosaic domesticity with his fiancee Lucy (Mary Miller, remembered from my distant childhood as the characters of Lilith and Mildread from ITV's fantasy game show Knightmare [1987-88]) - a cosy book lined haven soon invaded by the tornado of wild female energy that is Madeleine Usher (Susannah York, The Killing of Sister George [Robert Aldrich, 1968], They Shoot Horses, Don't They? [Sidney Pollack, 1969], and of course Lara in Richard Donner's masterful 1978 Superman and two of its sequels), who bursts into his study on day like a crazed hurricane.  "Aren't you handsome?" she coos to the befuddled Beckett, who has never seen her before in my life.  "Oh.  Have i done wrong?  I was never taught to behave you see - my mother dies when i was born."  Then she turns to the flustered academic with a coquettish smile: "Will you teach me how to behave?"

Madeleine is conveying greetings to Richard from her brother, Beckett's old school friend Roderick Usher, from whom he hasn't heard in years.  "He had to return home... at the end of the Earth it seems."  This golden haired whirlwind without reason sweeps Beckett away from his staid and studious existence, enticing him to visit her and Roderick's ancestral manse upon the marshy moors, followed by the spectral Shadow cast by the grotesque Tor Johnson-like hulking henchman Finn (Oliver MacGreevy).  The eponymous edifice makes a stark impression - its walls carved and scrawled with the images of tortured and hanging men, and the central parquet pocked with a great gurning Sheela-Na-Gig twisting its visage into a mask of horror.  This is not a happy home.  The camera lingers upon the great crack rent throughout the house, cutting through the skulls and skeletons of the ceiling until we are revealed upon the master of the house, Roderick Usher himself (Denholm Elliott, Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush [Richard Donner, 1968], The House That Dripped Blood [Peter Duffell, 1971], Raiders of the Lost Ark [Steven Spielberg, 1981]) as he covers his ears and begs for peace to descend upon his cursed house, his white-maned and aghast visage a mask of torment.  Elliott's performance is, i believe, more nuanced than Vincent Price's epicene iteration of the character in Corman's picture - he conveys every second of the agony that his heightened senses convey to him.  His catechism as he hears his sister's caged linnet on the other side of the house ("Now it is terrified.  It chirps, feebly.  It hurls itself against the bars of the cage... It breaks its wings against the bars...") and then turns down his doctor's recommended laudanum to greet his smiling sister ("Why do birds sing so?  Is it because they know their lives will be so short?") is a show of the inherent insanity of the Usher brood in microcosm.

Madeleine takes Richard down, down into the depths, for a date in the tombs and vaults of the family remains beneath the lake amidst the caskets and coffins and ancient bones of her family and points out the fault in the house of  Usher (the solid foundational one, as well as the moral and inbreeding one) - "When these walls split, Usher will crumble, into the lake... Nothing lasts forever.  Everything dies.".  York conveys Madeleine's taphophilia - or thanatophilia? - "Are you afraid of bones, Richard?" she coos, caressing a sad skellington and lamenting its lost chances of love.

"Madeleine will never marry", snaps Roderick to Richard.  "Madness runs in our family.  Each generation it blossoms forth - the flower of evil", conjuring the fleurs du mal of Baudelaire as he speaks of the horror that runs in the veins of the Usher line and how both he and Madeleine must be confined to the house.  Summoning Lucy to the house of Usher to, if you'll pardon the phrase, 'cock-block' Richard's affections towards Madeleine, Roderick sorely underestimates his sister's psychopathy.  What's that noise?  "Madeleine... is taking Lucy... down to the vaults".

York's Mad Madeleine is a terrifying and stark streak of insane beauty reflected against the bleak backdrop of the scenes of torture and miserable miserichords that decorate the house, a golden angel of death bearing a blade as she prepares to stab her brother.  "I know why you've come", he intones fatalistically.  "Have you brought that knife for me?  Do you hate me so much?  Once, you loved me.  We were children then."  The confrontation causes Madeleine to collapse in a cataleptic conniption that Roderick passes off to Richard as death - a gambit that he hopes will cause the lovelorn suitor to leave and return to his normal life.  Yet Beckett's insistence on 'doing the right thing' by remaining for the funeral leads Roderick to inhume his sleeping but still-living sister in her premature sepuchre, Finn nailing her coffin lid closed as Roderick agonises with his enhanced senses, imploring his buried alive sister to "Be still!" and crying over the "scratching... like rats in the beams".

For judgement day has come for the Ushers, as Madeleine claws her way with bloodstained fingertips and torn fingernails from her early grave, her madness inflamed by the terror of waking within her grave to avenge herself upon her sibling.  As the Ushers entwine in the tombs 'neath their home - "The lake rushes in", as Roderick says.  "The disease is cured.  The poison stopped... I am no longer afraid.  FALL!" - the great crack opens and the very House of Usher itself collapses upon itself as a grave for the living and the dead.

As Richard Beckett concludes his reminiscences by the dark tarn, he leads us out with his Springer (not Sprenger nor Kramer) -esque Final Thoughts: "Memories are all that is left to prove that they ever existed.  They're a poor enough epitaph, but it's a friend's part - perhaps - to keep them fresh."

And then he tosses his final flowers into the brackish brine and we fade out from this phantasy fable on a bittersweet note.  I don't think he's wrong.

Saturday, 17 June 2017

Doctor Who - The Eaters of Light (Charles Palmer, 2017)

Ever since the return of Rona Munro to the world of the writing of television's titular Time Lord was announced in advance of the tenth full season of the 2005-onwards post-Time War run, i had been waiting in anticipation.  Whilst the eyes and minds of many fans will be focused upon the concluding two-part story of the season and the upcoming Christmas special to see out Peter Capaldi's tenure in the role of the heroic Gallifreyan and find out the identity of his mysterious successor, the concept of Munro (she of Ladybird, Ladybird [Ken Loach, 1994], Aimee and Jaguar [Max Farberbock, 1999] and the James Plays cycle for the stage) returning to Doctor Who for the first time since 1989's 'Survival' - the first writer for the 1963 to 1989 original run of the show to return - captured my imagination that had been transfixed as a freshly Loomed ten year old back Ye Olden Days by her wondrously woven tale that had riveted me with its unique feminine mystique and symbolism and its undercurrents of bourgeoning animalistic lust and forbidden queering passions boiling beneath the surface of a science fiction story.  The idea of her triumphant return, and writing a story steeped in the history of her Scottish homeland which i imagined would be threaded through with Celtic mysticism that would be directed by alumnus of Who (having helmed acclaimed episodes such as 2006's 'The Girl in the Fireplace' and 2007's 'Human Nature' / 'The Family of Blood') Charles Palmer had me on tenterhooks awaiting the episode.

Having just watched it... Well, nothing's ever the same after a year of mental build-up, is it?  I do tend to set my expectations unrealistically high and therefore set myself up for disappointment i guess.  Having anticipated a kind of lyricism of the Dark Ages akin to John Boorman's Excalibur (1981) - all emerald-flecked forests of Faerie groves, barrows of Baobhan sith and gushing river wellsprings that could well be the nocturnal nooks of Naiads - what i experienced was sadly more of an Antoine Fuqua's King Arthur (2004), replete with not that well characterised Roman soldiers.

Responding to Bill's (Pearl Mackie) suggestion of investigating the fabled fate of the Roman Lost Legion - the Legio IX Hispania, whose vanishing in c. 120 AD has been documented in such motion pictures as Neil Marshall's 2010 Centurion and Kevin Macdonald's somehow even worse 2011 effort The Eagle - the Doctor (Capaldi) takes her and Nardole (Matt Lucas) to second century Caledonia.  The idea that Bill would for some reason be entranced by Rosemary Sutcliffe's 1954 novel The Eagle of the Ninth is perhaps slightly credulity-stretching, but then again i loved Sutcliffe's Sword at Sunset as a kid so perhaps i shouldn't question the literary choices of fictional characters.  Arriving upon the admittedly well-photographed by Palmer windswept plains of northern Scotland, the TARDIS team soon, as per usual, discover that all is not right with the world.

The Ninth Legion have been decimated - and not in traditional Roman style - by something very not of this earth dwelling within the hollow hills, as speaking crows and ravens (both the Celtic embodiments of kingship, the word 'Bran' signifying both 'raven' and 'king', and the soul-carrying psychopomps of myth and James O' Barr's graphic novel The Crow) fly above stone cairns and standing stones covered in scrawled symbology and Ogham incantations.  For all that i have no doubt that the usual suspects on sites like Gallifrey Base who have long fallen into the snark-chasm will be making comments like "Feeble of the Ninth, more like", i did find the setting a little evocative even if it wasn't quite as lore-steeped and magical as i'd hoped.  As Bill finds herself with the surviving Roman legionaries, hiding in shame in caverns beneath the ground like the worms of the Earth for their cowardice having fled a frightening foe, the Doctor and Nardole find themselves in a Pictish village wherein the Gate Keeper (who doesn't, unlike Sigourney Weaver's Dana Barrett, seem to require the coming of a Key Master) Kar - played by Rebecca Benson of Philippa Gregory's historical The White Princess (2017) - proves quite truculent and obstreperous toward her alien saviours.  Never trust a Celtic girl from Fortriu.  Or Fintry.  One of those.

The episode does have its moments, such as Bill's awkward attempt to explain her sexuality to a second century Roman leading to her realisation that the pre-Victorian repression past was a lot more cosmopolitan with regards to people's choice of sexual partners than might be commonly thought (what she'd have made of the sacred army of Thebes goes sadly unrecorded), and the Doctor's rallying talk to both Romans and Picts to unite wherein he describes the non-future that lies ahead if they don't unite against the eponymous Eaters of Light who are coming through the dimensional portal within the Sidhe cairn to consume the sun and all of the stars of the skies.  The revelation that the crows and ravens haven't lost the power of speech through the ages, but are simply remembering Kar's sacrifice in their repeated invocation of her name, manages to transcend any potential hokiness to actually work quite well.

All in all, an episode that i may have expected too much of, and going some way toward cementing the belief that the currently common format of one story being a single 45 minute episode simply doesn't leave room for the breathing spaces for character and backstory building that i'd prefer.  It's in the inbetween spaces that the magic is made.

Or maybe, like the Doctor himself, i'm just getting old and in need of a regeneration.