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.

Friday, 31 March 2017

The Guyver ([a.k.a.: Mutronics] Steve Wang & Screaming Mad George, 1991)

Created by former hentai artist Yoshiki Takaya in 1985, the long-running Guyver manga series ran into the magazine Shonen Captain.  Chronicling the adventures (and misadventures, old friend) of Japanese student Sho Fukamachi after his discovery of the alien Guyver module and his subsequent battles against the faceless and monolithic Chronos Corporation and their hordes of shapeshifting mutant hybrid Zoanoids.  Initially adapted for the moving image as the 55 minute OVA (Original Video Animation - an animated movie or series made with the intention of going direct to home video rather than for cinematic or television transmission) Guyver: Out of Control in 1986, the property was made into a full series of twelve episodes from 1989 to 1992 as The Guyver: Bio-Booster Armour, the guise in which i first encountered it in the early to mid '90s.  Released  in the UK by Manga Entertainment episode by episode (or 'Data' by 'Data', each VHS being dubbed Data 1, Data 2, etc.), with one 30 minute installment - plus Guyver and Zoanoid 'fact files' appended at the end of each - per videocassette (now there's a word that seems positively archaic nowadays.  Videocassette?  How arcane), my adolescent self thrilled to see Sho, the love of his life Mizuki Segawa, her brother (and Sho's best friend) Tetsuro, and their unreliable sometimes ally sometimes enemy Agito Makashima taking on the Chronos Corp to prevent the Zoanoid conquest of the Earth, aided by Sho's merging with the alien Guyver technology to create a secret identity as he becomes encased in the bio-booster armour of the title, becoming a Japanese superhero in the tradition of Spectreman (1971-1972) and Ultraman (originally 1966-67, but ongoing as sporadic series, miniseries and films as recently as 2015).

The directorial debut for special effects creatives Steve Wang and Screaming Mad George (Joji Tani to his mum) - who between them had been responsible for the creature effects in such films as Renny Harlin's A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988), Frederico Prosperi's "man's arm-into-snake's head" curio Curse II: The Bite (1989), Donald G. Jackson and R.J. Kizer's Rowdy Roddy Piper classic Hell Comes to Frogtown (1988) and Joe Dante's postmodern sequel Gremlins 2: The new Batch (1990) - The Guyver (released on VHS in the UK as 'Mutronics') certainly doesn't scrimp on the monster SFX front.  Retaining the vague plot outline of the Manga and anime versions of the story, the movie Americanises the lead character from Sho Fukamachi to the blond-haired Anglo gwai lo 'Sean Barker' (Jack Armstrong), who attends martial arts classes to emulate his action hero idols much to the exasperation of his Aikido instructor and the derision of fellow students such as part-time gangbanger Craig (Johnnie Saiko, whose credits include the intriguingly titles Chicks With Sticks, Part 3).  Sean's obvious intrigue with all things of the Orient include his Japanese girlfriend Mizky Segawa (Vivian Wu - the character's name being inexplicably slightly altered from Mizuki), whose father Dr. Tetsu Segawa had been working for the mysterious Chronos Corporation before his mysterious murder, drawing this Occidental tourist into a web of alien intrigue.

Sean discovers the object that Dr. Segawa had given his life to hide from the clutches of Chronos - the alien Guyver unit, a weaponised suit of armour that bonds with a host to create a symbiotic lifeform with the power to wipe out the hybrid Zoanoid creatures of Chronos.  Accidentally bonding with the Guyver, Sean finds himself the baffled new owner of a pair of vampire-bite style wounds in the back of his neck which pulsate with a life of their own when he is angry or in imminent physical danger before his cry of "GUYVER!" releases his symbiotic star-born sibling from its dormant phase of taking a nap in the nape of his neck.  Wires shoot out from his pinhole pricks and wrap around his body like living tendrils, then these chaotic coaxial cables form and assemble the Guyver suit around him: a blue-green armour plated alien-killing machine complete with elbow-mounted razor-sharp blades and an oxygen mask-style face plate which periodically "breathes" by hissing gas (and, quite possibly, prompting a murmur of "Are you my Mummy?" from viewers.  Or me, at least...).

Also involved in investigating the shapeshifting shenanigans of this mysterious company is FBI agent Max Reed (Star Wars' own Mark Hamill, during his post-Jedi, pre-Joker interregnum), who was working with the late Dr. Segawa to investigate Chronos.  Reed joins Sean / The Guyver to rescue Mizky when she is kidnapped as a hostage by head Zoanoid Oswald Lisker (played with his trademark google-eyed baldness by Michael Berryman of The Hills Have Eyes [Wes Craven, 1977] fame), the killer of Mizky's father who can transform at will into a seven-foot tall befanged and beclawed reptilian nightmare.  In charge of the Corporation's plans to convert humankind into alien hybrids and conquer the Earth (as you do) is the evil Fulton Balcus, played with villainous relish and garnish on the side by the late David Gale (best known to genre fans as the malevolent telepathic head of Dr Carl Hill in Re-Animator [Stuart Gordon, 1985] and its sequel), who walks the captive Mizky down the "Growth Corridor": a passage lined with glass cabinets containing the growing and mutating forms of neophyte Zoanoids in a sequence reminiscent Boris Karloff in Paul Kohner's The Black Cat (1934) - although unlike that film, these crysilline coffins are ocupied not by the embalmed dead but are replete with pulsating, fulminating life.

In what other film, though, can one expect to see Mark Hamill - Luke Skywalker himself! - transforming, Gregor Samsa-style, into a giant cockroach?

Bizarrely, this film - featuring as it does the heroic lead of the Star Wars saga - features some incidental characters who bear characteristics in common with the space saga's inhabitants of the Galaxy Far Far Away.  Jimmie Walker's Striker transmutes into a Zoanoid form replete with piscine fishlike features and flappy webbed ears horrifyingly reminiscent of outer space's most feared, loathed and hated scourge Jar Jar Binks (carrying with him the same questionable and troubling racial stereotypical exaggerations that Lucas failed to see in his creation of eight years later, and likewise being physically performed by a black actor.  Striker manages to push things further though, by busting into the occasional rap, replete with Flava Flav's trademark "Boyyyeeee!!!"  Perhaps had Lucas possessed the visionary acumen with which his followers credit him, we could have had Binks performed in a similar manner?  Wait - WTF am i SAYING?!!?)

Also, Striker's Zoanoid compatriot Ramsey (Peter Spellos) transforms into a mutronic form that is blue-skinned and with a prehensile trunk, rendering him the spitting image of Return of the Jedi songstress Sy Snootles on steroids.

This film may be of dubious canonicity among Guyver fandom, but i think we've firmly established that Star Wars-wise, it's as canon as hell.

Monday, 13 March 2017

Kier's Fears: Frankenstein, Dracula and Hyde (1973-1981)

The German cinema over the last four or five decades has produced many great Teutonic titans of terror: Ulli Lommel, Udo Kier and Uwe Boll to name just three.  Spot the deliberate mistake?
The beguilingly handsome and charismatic Udo Kier has starred in a great number of genre movies over the years, from Michael Armstrong and Adrian Hoven's 'The Mark of the Devil' (1970), through James Kenelm Clarke's controversial 'video nasty' 'Expose' (aka 'Trauma', 1976), Dario Argento's masterful sepuchral fearfest 'Suspiria' (1977) and Stephen Norrington's 'Blade' (1998) to Timo Vuorensola's 2012 space-Nazi SF romp 'Iron Sky'.  He will always be synonomous to many, though, for his gruesome twosome of 1973's 'Flesh for Frankenstein' and 1974's 'Blood for Dracula', a twin-spin (if you'll pardon the John Peel invocation) of ghoulish delights decried by Alan Frank in his '77 tome 'Horror Films' as "an appalling mixture of sex, sadism, silliness and quite awful acting and direction"1.
Released under the titles of 'Andy Warhol's Frankenstein' and 'Andy Warhol's Dracula' respectively, the actual auteur-ship of the movies was in doubt for a while, not only due to the famed Pop Artist's name being attached to the titles but also due to the fact that there has been a great deal of dispute about how much of the movies was the handicraft of credited director Paul Morrissey ('Chelsea Girls', 1966, 'Flesh', 1968, 'Trash', 1970), and how much was the input of Italian exploitation maven Antonio Margheriti ('Castle of Blood' aka 'Danza Macabra', 1963, 'Seven Deaths in the Cat's Eye', 1973), the second unit director attached to the features by producer Carlo Ponti - though the very idea of Mr Sophia Loren, producer behind King Vidor's 'War and Peace' (1956) and Michelangelo Antonini's 'Blow Up' (1966) being the emininence grise behind this kind of ghoulish nonsense is slightly more hysterical (in the humourous sense) than the films themselves (more in the uterine sense, especially viz: 'Flesh for Frankenstein').
This internecine web of confusion contnued to the actual credits, with Morrissey being given directorial credit in the English-language prints, but Margheriti being credited on the versions that, like Bananarama, were 'talking Italian'.  Margheriti is grudgingly, at least , given acknowledgement of one scene of 'Flesh for Frankenstein' by Morrisey: "Carlo Ponti required an entire Italian crew to be eligible for tax write-offs.  Margheriti, whose sole scene was the murder of the housekeeper in 'Flesh for Frankenstein', was given the director's credit by Ponti.  The Italian taxmen were not so easily fooled and these modifications led to Ponti and wife Sophia Loren being charged with tax evasion"2, though his role as supervisory / second unit director is sorely undersold.
The non-participation of Warhol himself on the movies has never been in any doubt, with Morrissey stating "not only did Andy Warhol not make [them], he couldn't have made [them]", and that "Bryanston [the movie's US distributor, who had released not only Bruce Lee's 1972 spaghetti kung fu epic 'The Way of the Dragon', but also the, uh... seminal porn classic 'Deep Throat'] thought it would help bring in an audience [to have Warhol's name attached], which is ludicrous since his name was on plenty of movies that nobody went to see"3.
'Flesh for Frankenstein' (its very name redolent of the '68 Warhol / Morrissey collaroration 'Flesh', which also starred the Noo Yoik actor / mannequin Joe Dallesandro [Dallesandro... Dalle-Dalle-sandro...]) is an intriguing movie, released in 3-D (which explains the roving, circular camera movements when watched today) and filmed at the famed Cinecitta studios and has a fascinatintg pretty bit of flesh in Dallesandro himself, doubtless a bit out of place amongst the cognoscenti and trying to fuck everything that moves.  Hey, if all else fails, revert to stereotype..  And yet 'Flesh for Frankenstein' actually displays some themes of interest, such as Kier's Baron's quest for the "perfect" Serbian nose for his incipient male "zombie" (or rather "zahmbi" as he pronounces it) and his insistence to his assistant Otto (Arno Juerging) that "the Serbian race comes in direct descent of the glory from the Ancient Greeks!" [sic] lends a Hitlerian-Aryan 'creation of the perfect pure-blooded master race' undertone to Frankenstein's experiments - the sight of naked and scarred bodies piled against the stark white tiles of his laboratory and the the barbaric butchery performed upon bare-breasted beauties reminiscent of the tales of the hideous 'experimentation' (torture) of Dr Josef Mengele, the Angel of Death of Auschwitz, given added emphasis by Udo Kier's nationality and accent.
The preservation of the purity of the bloodline extends to the incestuous marriage between Victor Frankenstein and his sister-wife, the Baroness Katrin (Monique van Vooren, the striking Belgian actress who had appeared is everything from her titular role as the Lord of the Apes' nemesis in 'Tarzan and the She-Devil' [1953], camping it up alongside Adam West's Caped Crusader and Burgess Meredith's Penguin in TV's 'Batman' [1966] to Pier Paolo Pasolin's 'Decameron' [1971]).  With their arguments about their parents - who were also obviously siblings - to the casting of a dark-haired boy and a red-headed girl as their two children boubling Kier and van Vooren, the Frankenstein dynasty is set up as the Eastern European equivalent of the Egypian Pharaonic dynasties such as the Ptolemies and Cleopatras, brothers and sisters marrying in succession to sire siblings to do the same.  The purity of the blood of course gives way to congenital deficiencies of all kinds to be found at the shallow end of the gene pool, including the inbred madness all too evident in this chaotic clan.
Filmed in 3-D (the process being made obvious by the roving, circulat camera moves around objects and the delibearate waving of viscera towards the camera), the movie has generally been seen by audiences in possibly more palatable for those who've just eaten 2-D version.  Still, the ironic and satirical overkill of guts 'n' gore piled into the film by Morrissey (including of course the infamous scene of the Baron lying atop his newly sewn-together female creation [Dalila Di Lazzaro] on the operating slab in a sequence reminiscent of Jorg Buttgereit's graphic 1987 shocker 'Nekromantik' and pawing her scars whilst whispering sensually "Soon i will give you life... would you like that?") earned 'Flesh for Frankenstein' a place on the Director of Public Prosecutions' list of 69 (what a serendipitous number for such a reactionary and censorious piece of legislation!) banned 'Video Nasties', ensuring that it went unseen in the United Kingdom for decades until a cut by almost a minute VHS release in 1996, and -finally - being cleared for a fully uncut DVD release a decade later.  The 1974 companion piece 'Blood for Dracula', Udo Kier's next film with Paul Morrissey, would thankfully suffer a less scissor-happy fate...

Following their 1973 'Flesh for Frankenstein' collaboration, American director Paul Morrissey ('Women in Revolt' [1971], 'Heat' [1972]) and German actor Udo Kier reunited for another exploration of exploitation in the unholy and sepulchral form of 1974's nest of nosferatu nastiness 'Blood for Dracula'.  Wheras Kier's frail, translucent beauty had proven a stark contrast to the grindhouse gore and evisceral human disjecta membra of the Frankenstein film, his ethereal waifishness was absolutely perfect for the role of the vampire Count wandering the Earth in search of a nourishment constantly denied him, like sanguineous fruits in the eternal punishment of an undead Tantalus.
Already hardly a man of any great bulk, Kier went on a strict diet to lose weight for the part.  "Paul Morrissey came in and said 'Well, I guess we have a German Dracula'", said Kier in an interview with Dazed and Confused.  "I said, 'Who?'  He said 'You!  But you have to lose 10 kilos.'  I didn't eat any more.  I just had salad leaves and water."4  Kier's crash diet of nothing but rabbit food and council juice led to a drastic weight loss that gave him the perfect gaunt and emaciated appearance but left him severely debilitated, to the extent that he was rendered so weak that the Count's use of a wheelchair for mobility was given emphasis in the film.  "That's why i was in a wheelchair for so many of my scenes", Kier continued.  "I had no power to stand up any more.  It's not only Robert De Niro who prepares himself in this way."5
The lingering question as to the authorship (or auteur-ship) of the Warhol-produced Frankenstein film has been extended to the second picture, but Kier himself was adamant this, this time round, Italian genre director Antonio Margheriti had nothing to do with the hands-on direcing of the movie.  "Morrissey directed the film from the beginning to the end.  Margheriti was on the set, he came to the studio from time to time, but he never directed the actors.  Never!"6, he stated in a Video Watchdog interview with David Del Valle, adding that "Morrissey directed the pictures... certainly all the scenes with myself, that's all i know."7  Margheriti himself is happy to acknowledge much less involvement in the second film, saying of 'Blood for Dracula': "that was much more organised because, after 'Frankenstein', Carlo Ponti convinced Paul Morrissey to write a real screenplay and not just a treatment."8
Beginning with a spectacularly haunting sequence, over which the blood-red credits roll, that sees the thin white Count - a spectral albino - assiduously applying make-up to give his translucent features the sembance of life, the film creates a superb atmosphere conveying the crushing weariness of unending life.  Dracula goes through this routine, the endless ablutions of eternity, with mechanistic motions as he paints his pale lips red and his white hair black - the red of blood and black of ebony contrasting against his ice-pale skin in a haunting faerie (in the dangerous, daemonic sense) inversion of the Snow White - Rose Red of fairytale.  This evocative opening was a contribution (the film's sole one, it seems, apart from the name in the US release title) from Andy Warhol.  "The scene [...] was actually Andy Warhol's idea, which goes very much to his silkscreens", Kier told Movieline.9  "'Just paint your face', the shadows smile", Robert Smith of The Cure sang in Burn, as Dracula shades his cheekbones and darkens around his spellbinding blue-green eyes, 'painting on his sadness', and creating "a painted shell" of himself, as film historian Maurice Yacowar phrases it, to present to the world.10  Claudio Gizzi provides an absolutely sublime, heart-wrenchingly melancholic and spellbinding score that draws us into this sad yet beguiling world of languorous longing.
The Count and his manservant Anton (Arno Juerging, another returnee from 'Flesh for Frankenstein'), find themselves having to leave a Transylvania which is now thoroughly depleted of the blood of "wirgins" [sic], which in this mythology the vampire needs to continue his phantasmagorical existence.  The subtext of the aristocracy feeding off the lower classes, Dracula having preyed upon the peons and peasantry of Romania, is hammered hom like the proverbial hawthorn stake - Dracula's decaying family home  (and the family who have retreated still further from the real world into their coffins in the family crypt) are left behind as he and Anton leave their used-up homeland in their hearse, complete with the Count's coffin on the roof rack, to head to fresh pastures and suck the lifeblood of another country.
Travelling to Italy, in the belief that a Roman Catholic country will provide an endless supply of pure of heart, virtuous virgins, choosing as their prey the once-powerful and important but now in decline Di Fiore family, and especially their daughters ('fiore' being Italian for 'flower', the Count has arrived with the intent of a through plucking).  The Titian-haired and beautiful Di Fiore sisters Perla (Silvia Dionisio), Saphiria (Dominique Darel) and Rubinia (Stefania Casini, later to star in Dario Argento's 'Suspiria') work their family's land doing the work of peasants, while the camera tracks back to show them being idly watched from the veranda of their grand but going to seed home by their virtuous sister Esmeralda (Milena Vutokotic).  The aging Marquis Di Fiore, played by former screen idol Vittorio De Sica, is an ailing relic lost in his own comfortable world of poetry and family history, his own retreat from the realities of the world beyonfd the cloistered confines of his comfortable home leaving his wife and daughters vulnerable to the preyings of the vampire, as one ailing brnch of aristocracy literally feeds off another for its own parasitic continuance. "That [Count's] really got it sussed", to paraphrase Luke haines of the Auteurs in The Upper Classes.
As an antidote to the incestuousness of the ossified upper echelons we have the revolutionary force of Joe Dallesandro's gardener Mario - his New York accent a stark contrast to the Teutonic cadences of Dracula and Anton, the Italian of the Marquis and his daughters and the clipped English of the Marquesa - bringing a revolutionary fire burning upward from his proletarian stratum through the worn and rotting painted veil of the Di Fiores and Dracula, with his exhortations of Marxism and the righteousness of the Russian Revolution in between his regular carnal threesomes with the less-than-pure Saphiria and Rubinia leading to the iconic (in both the filmic and religious sense) of the Count's gaunt form, stripped to the waist, his thin ivory skin daubed in crimson blood as he vomits the rejected blood of the sisters into the bath and cries to Anton, "The blood of these whores is killing me!"
'Blood for Dracula' is a biting (arf!) satire of the snobery and elitism of the defunct and decrepit upper classes, wrapped in the horror genre's night-black cloak and bedecked with blood and gore.  Morrissey and Kier crafted a quintessential Count Dracula to fit this film, ending as he does sans arms and sans legs, like the Pythin's Black Knight, but still snapping and hungry to continue his predatory existence.
Kier had finished his devilish diptych with Paul Morrissey, but would later incarnate another legendary horror character for another enfant terrible of cinema...
Dr Jekyll et les Femmes', or - as it's more usually known to the Anglophone world - 'Dr Jekyll and the Women', 'The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Miss Osbourne' (the director's preferred title) or 'Bloodbath of Dr Jekyll' is a foray into the wild, weird and whacked out world of Walerian Borowczyk.  Described variously as "a genius who also happened to be a pornographer" and a "Master craftsman, Dadaist prankster and unrepentant sensualist"11, Borowczyk - like Werner Herzog - began his filmic career with a number of short (less than ten minute) pieces, ranging from animations like the 1958 'Requited Feelings'  and 'Les Astronautes' (1959, a collaboration with French auteur Chris Marker, who would later go on to helm 'Le Jetee' [the 1962 short that would inspire Terry Gilliam's 1995 'Twelve Monkeys'] and 'Sans Soleil' [1983]) to 1964's concentration camp allegory (a perhaps unsurprising theme given Borowczyk's Polish background) 'The Games of Angels', named as one of the best animated films of all time12.
Borowczyk graduated to full length features with the dreamlike and allegorical 'Goto, Island of Love' (1968), a dystopian fantasy set in a Mervyn Peake-like enclosed and entropic society in which the Steerpike stand-in of Grozo climbs his way up the social strata from lowly fly-catcher to ruler of the island; his Machiavellian manoeuvres fuelled by an all-consuming lust for the beautiful but unreachable wife of the realm's despot.  The theme of unrequited lust was revisited in the director's 1971 tragedy 'Blanche', in which a mediaeval castle becomes a pressure cooker environment of hatred borne of frustration as three men compete for the affections of a fair lady who remains steadfastly loyal to her husband.  Sex and sensuality are never far from the surface in these movies, but they would come out roaring unbridled and unbound like animalistic passion - like the warm jets of lust - in the deviant diptych of 'Immoral Tales' (1973) and 'The Beast' (1975), leaving viewers and reviewers rattled by the rush of the gush of their wake.  The former picture consists of four vignettes of sexual exploration and deviancy, including Paloma Picasso as the Bloody Countess Erzsebet Bathory and Florence Bellamy as the incestuous and murderous Lucrezia Borgia, and the latter evolved from a mooted fifth instalment of the same movie ('The True Story of the Beast of Gevaudan') into its own perversely lyrical exploration of sexuality, sensuality and bestiality that presented the unwitting world with a confrontational depiction of the raw animal instinct.
The theme of the repressed primaeval passions of the unfettered id would be revisited in Borowczyk's 1981 take on Robert Louis Stevenson's 1886 classic novella of split personality shenanigans 'The Strange Tale of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde', a tale already interwoven with the darkest undercurrents of the human psyche and the evil that humans are capable of doing that grew out of Stevenson's interest in the dual life of the notorious Edinburgh figure Deacon Brodie13.  Cast as the urbane Dr Henry Jekyll was Udo Kier, adding another classic horror character to his CV after his turns as Baron Frankesntein and Count Dracula in the duology of produced by Andy Warhol and directed by Paul Morrissey (and a bit by Antonio Margheriti, probably) films of the '70s, as well as having already portrayed another dark spectre of Victorian England as Jack the Ripper in Borowczyk's 'Lulu' the previous year (an adaptation of the Frank Wedekind plays that had been adapted in 1929 by G. W. Pabst as 'Pandora's Box', starring the luminous Louise Brooks in the titular role).
The movie deals with the theme of dualism from the outset, the credits rolling over a photographic negative image of London's Palace of Westminster - suggestive of the darker sides of the 'great and good' of the moral authoritarianism of the 19th century.  The aforesaid bastions of Victorian rectitude are well represented in the film as the array of guests in the home of Kier's Jekyll, attending the celebration of his engagement to Miss Fanny Osbourne (Marina Pierro, who had starred in Borwczyk's 1979 'Immoral Women', and would go on to play the lead role in Jean Rollin's 'The Living Dead Girl' in 1982).  The name of Jekyll's fiancee is an interesting addition to the original tale by Borowczyk's screenplay, utilising the real life pre-marital name of Robert Louis Stevenson's wife - who  played a key role in the novella's creation - and giving her prominent co-lead billing in the original title.  The party guests include Jekyll's more conventional scientific rival Dr Lanyon (played by genre stalwart Howard Vernon, star of many Jess Franco films including 'The Awful Dr Orlof' [1962], 'The Bloody Judge' [1970] and 'A Virgin Among the Living Dead' [1973] among many others) who scoffs at Jekyll's professions of transcendental medicine, and the seemingly starched and upright military man General Danvers Carew (Patrick Magee, who had featured in Francis Ford Coppola's 1963 debut 'Dementia 13', Fredie Francis' 1965 'The Skull and the Steve Roberts-directed, Viv Stanshall-scripted 1980 oddity 'Sir Henry at Rawlinson End'), whose patrician veneer barely covers his behind-closed-doors debauchery as he makes lecherous advances towards Fanny on the day of her engagement, and sadistically whips his nubile young daughter seconds after giving his "word of honour" not to raise his hand to her - the living embodiment of the hypocrisy entrenched in 'Victorian values'.
The night of the engagement is swiftly invaded by violence and horror as Jekyll's oncoming wedding is overtaken by his chemical wedding to his dark side, unleashed by his alchemical experimentation.  In a twist on the usual adaptation of the tale Hyde is achieved not through Jekyll drinking a potion, but by filling a bath and infusing the bathwater with his formula - the powder turning the water a blood red - before immersing himself in it Bathory-style (one wonders if, after the Warhol 'Dracula', Kier felt an affinity wit white tiled bathrooms filled with blood...).  Another innovation unique to this iteration is that it eschews the tradition of Jekyll and Hyde being played by the same actor, as Kier's handsome Jekyll goes benath the surface of the crimson waters to emerge in the form of Gerard Zalcberg's ugly, brutish Hyde.  This uncaged and unhinged inner self is not only supercharged with all of Henry Jekyll's manifold unfulfilled desires, but also bestowed with a barbed penis 6 centimetres in diameter and 35 centimetres in length - measurements pronounced by a startled Dr Lanyon as he examines the body of a young ballerina whose brutal rape by Hyde and his monstrous organ have resulted in her death from massive internal injuries.  Hyde's rampage of lust does not draw a line at the females of the house (including General Carew's daughter, whom he takes savagely from behind in front of her father, forced to watch apoplectic from the chair Hyde has lashed him to), but also the handsome houseguest Mr Maw.  "I've never seen anything like it," wails the Reverend Guest, "another sexual crime - this time a homosexual assault!" - the perpetrator being described as "an individual of no morality, only an overwhelming capacity for evil".
Fascinatingly, Kier's Jekyll is played against the usual Hollywood and television portrayals in that instead of feeling angst and remorse about his alter ego's actions, he is actively using Hyde as a persona under which he can revel in all of his inner carnality without any recompense or retribution; knowing that the actions of his animal animus will never be ascribed to the suave and gentlemanly doctor of medicine taking a respectable bride from high society.  More than any other version of the story, this film shows Hyde as his true self, the real man over which Jekyll is the disguise - a painted and pretty veneer over the beast within.  "Both of my faces are me," he confesses to his fiancee, "and each of them is perfectly sincere [...] I throw off pretence and leap, wallowing in an ocean of freedom and pleasure!".  Jekyll says this as he prepares his final transformative blood bath, knowing that his next chanhe into Hyde will be final, and suddenly his bride to be throws herself into the fluid and gives herself over - in the words of richard O' Brien - to absolute pleasure and release her own unbridled anima, Pierro's performance managing an instant sexual switch from reserved English rose to a carnal creature of sensuality and passion.
This fascinating film is a perfect admixture of Udo Kier and Marina Pierro's performances and Walerian Borowczyk's by turns surreal and dreamlike, yet biting and sexual direction.  The enigmatic ending is perfect, as Hyde and his Bride burn the worldly possessions of their past selves and ride off together in a horse drawn carriage, thier limbs intertwineed in an erotic frenzy of locking lips, biting teeth, blood and lust and sex and death as they leave Victorian London behind for a new life in the realm of the senses.

Bibliography / References for all three pieces:
1. Alan Frank, 'Horror Films' (Methuen, 1977)
2. Paul Morrissey interview by Tom Rainone, 'Fangoria' Magazine.
3. Ibid.
4. 'Dazed & Confused' 20th Anniversary issue, interviewed by Caroline Ryder.
5. Ibid.
6. Udo Kier interviewed by David Del Valle in 'Video Watchdog'.
7. Kier to Rainone, 'Fangoria'.
8. Interviewed by Peter Blumenstock, 'Video Watchdog' #28.
9. Kier interviewed by Seth Abramovitch, December 28th 2009.
10. Kier and Maurice Yacovar, on the Criterion Collection DVD commentary.
11. Film Society Lincoln Center, on 'Obscure Pleasures, the Films of Walerian Borowczyk'.
12. Terry Gilliam, 'The Best 10 Animated Films Of All Time', The Guardian 27th April 2001.
13. Roger G. Swearingen, 'The Prose Writings of Robert Louis Stevenson' (Macmillan, 1980).

This was originally published in three pieces at We Are Cult, in a slightly redacted version.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Ninja Strikes Back (Bruce Le and Joseph Kong, 1982)

Bruce Lee vs. Oddjob!  Well, sort of...

Amidst the plethora of Bruce Lee clones and imitators to have emerged upon the Asian action scene in the wake of the Little Dragon's death - including Bruce Li (real name Ho Chung Tao), Bruce Lai (Chang Yi-Tao) and Dragon Lee (Moon Kyoung-seok) - perhaps the king of the Bruceploitation scene was the cheerfully indomitable Bruce Le (born Kin Lung Huang and unleashed upon an unsuspecting and ungrateful world on the 5th of June 1950).

Having previously denigrated paid homage to the memory of Bruce Lee in such z-grade cinematic disasterpieces as Bruce's Deadly Fingers (Joseph Kong, 1976), the amazingly-titled My Name Called Bruce (Kong again, 1978) and Bruce's Fists of Vengeance (Bill James, 1980), Le comprehensively staked out his manifesto for idol desecration firmly with this artifact in 1982, with a script (a script?!?) credited to the hard-to-credit 'Bruce Le Writer's Group' which must have been an infinite monkey cage periodically hosed with psychoactive hallucinogenics.

Bruce here essays the challenging role of a martial arts expert called Bruce - in what can be left to the individual viewer to decide to be either a brilliantly meta fourth-wall breaking piece of self-referencing, the usual bandwagon-jumping hanging on to the coattails of the late departed Lee, a stunning lack of imagination or all of the above.  Bruce is partners with Ron (played by the superlative Tae Kwon Do expert Hwang Jang Lee, whose high-kicking skills and flying feet of fury have graced films as diverse as Jackie Chan's breakout duology of Snake in the Eagle's Shadow and The Drunken Master [both helmed by Yuen Woo-Ping, 1978], probably the best and most competent of the Bruceploitation movies Game of Death II aka Tower of Death [Ng See-Yuen, 1981], and Godfrey Ho's 1985 cut 'n' splice chopsocky collage Ninja Terminator) in the employ of Al, a shady low-rent Caucasian Bond villain whose lair comprising of a menagerie of wild animals such as tigers and swimming pool bedecked with topless girls while martial artists practice on his lawn are a testament to his Flemingian ambitions that belie his grotty drug dealing setup.

The title sequence of the movie plays fast and loose with international copyright as per usual in the grey area of Asian cinema of the period (my own personal favourite is still the simultaneously totally inapposite and yet bizarrely right usage of Pink Floyd's "Time" in Bruce Lee's debut feature The Big Boss [Lo Wei, 1971]), as a photo montage of Le high-kicking against a cardboard Colosseum  backdrop plays out to seemingly random samplings of Lalo Schifrin's main theme from Enter the Dragon (Robert Clouse, 1973).  During this sensory assault we are not only informed that Bruce Le was the action director on the film (and therefore we know exactly to whom we can apportion blame for that) but also that the co-producer credit is shared by the legendary / shady (delete as applicable) Dick Randall, the man behind such psychotronic exploitation fare as Around the World with Nothing On (Arthur Knight, 1963), The Wild, Wild World of Jayne Mansfield (Charles W. Broun Jr., Joel Holt and Arthur Knight, 1968), The Erotic Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (Ken Dixon, 1975) and Eighties splatter classics Pieces (Juan Piquer Simon, 1982) and Slaughter High (George Dugdale, Peter Litten and Mark Ezra, 1986).  The credits also assail our eyes with the acting credit of 'Chick Norris' (in fact the producer's wife, Corliss Randall) - no doubt the perfect partner to Bruce Le(e).

The plot, such as it is, unfolds as the ambassador to Italy (a cameo from Randall himself) from an unknown country - presumably the USA and yet its so difficult to tell as it's probably not Dick's voice on the dubbed Anglophone soundtrack, and the voice tracks and sound effects are unanimously out of sync anyway - breaks off his dodgy business dealings with Al, which prompts the easy-going Honest Businessman to order the distressed dignitary's pretty young daughter kidnapped as leverage ('Mister Ambassador, with this nubile girl you are spoiling us!', said no Ferrero Rocher advert ever.  Incidentally, the kidnapper is a burly bearded man in drag for maximum devastating WTF?!? effect).  Bruce decides that a line had been crossed at this point and informs Al that he's quitting the organisation, prompting his erstwhile partner Ron Wong to Go Wrong and turn on him, in a harrowing sequence that doubtlessly influenced George Lucas to write the scenario of Captain Cody turning heel on Obi-Wan Kenobi in Revenge of the Sith (2005).  Just kidding: this is much better than that.

As Bruce recovers in a Rome hospital from his attempted assassination by Ron to the strains of a cover version of 'Bridge Over Troubled Water', aided no doubt by the ministrations of his pretty but dim girlfriend Laura (or Lara?  The sound sync is so bad who knows?), he's visited by a pair of C.I.A. agents (or Interpol, or someone, i dunno) who ask for his aid in tracking down Ron Wong Gone Wrong, and the damsel in distress / dignitary's daughter Sophie (Sophia?  Shrug).  Acquiescing eventually, Bruce goes with Agent C.I.A. to Paris on the trail of the villains, treating us to long tracking shots of the Champs Elysses and Eiffel Tower to compliment the 'let's get as much of our money's worth in the can as possible' holiday footage of Roman locales such as the Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps from earlier in the movie, wherein our dynamic duo raid first a French discotheque and then the film set of a girl-on-girl porn movie in their dogged pursuit of their quarry.

Bruce, discovering that Sophie / Sophia has been "shipped out to Macau" jets off to his homeland to rescue her from a cruel fate at the hands of villainous Japanese ninja Sakata (played in yet another genius slice of fried-gold character naming by Harold Sakata of Goldfinger [Guy Hamilton, 1964] fame).  Sakata is indeed a worthy adversary and one of the greatest villains in screen history, wearing his signature bowler hat with his traditional kimono in a fearlessly mismatched costume and having snatches of Monty Norman's James Bond theme played whenever he walks into shot.  As well as his trusty lethal steel-rimmed throwing headgear, Oddjob Sakata also has a golden hand (a Midas touch?) replete with metallic talons like a Bond version of Shih Kien's Han from Enter the Dragon (he also has all of his female kidnap victims addicted to drugs and corralled into an enforced harem, just like the aforesaid Bruce Lee foe).  Sakata's deadly hulking henchman is portrayed by kung fu flick mainstay Bolo Yeung (born Yang Tse, and henchman and villain in numerous action flicks from the aforementioned Enter the Dragon and Drunken Master to Bruce Le's Enter the Game of Death and facing Jean-Claude Van Damme in Newt Arnold's 1988 opus Bloodsport), the 'Chinese Hercules' who provides his usual threatening physical presence.

After dispatching these nefarious Nipponese nemeses, Bruce rescues What's Her Face with a cursory "Your father hired me to rescue you.  Ready to go back?", before we're back in Rome travelling First Class via airplane stock footage.  It is here, back at the place of the beginning, that Bruce must face the man who was once his best friend and is now his best fiend.  This epic confrontation with Ron takes place in the Colosseum, as the film decides to flip its prime source of shamefaced thievery cinematic homage from Enter the Dragon to Lee's 1972 The Way of the Dragon and ape the Bruce Lee vs. Chuck Norris battle pretty much shot for shot in the build up to the fight.  At last, our infinitely tested patience is rewarded with a competently choreographed acion sequence as Bruce battles against the lethal spinning kicks of Hwang Jang Lee's Ron, with a final 'nicked from a better movie' touch as the x-ray inserts of broken bones that added impact to the visceral violence of Sonny Chiba's The Street Fighter (Shigehiro Ozawa, 1974) are replicated with animated (hand-drawn) shots of Ron's leg being shattered and his poor cartoon heart stopping as he falls at the feet of Bruce.

Quite how the makers of this spectacle managed to take an obviously decent sized production budget, varied and exotic Rome, Paris, Hong Kong and Macau locations, and a cast including very competent martial artists and yet still manage to make a film almost unwatchable in its ineptitude is truly a feat of wonder that should ensure this piece of celluloid mastery a pride of place in the canon of any true lover of hilariously 'so bad it's great' movies.

Friday, 6 January 2017

Invasion (1966, Alan Bridges)

Emerging from Britain's Merton Park Studios towards the end of their hallowed halls' tenure (after being in use from 1930 and producing a string of B-pictures - including the Edgar Wallace Mysteries series - and government-backed information films, Merton Park would produce it's last film a mere two years later in 1967), Invasion is an interesting little curio that long occupied a part of the back of my mind - having caught around half an hour of it many years ago caught by accident at the end of a videotape when recording whatever-film-it-was that had preceded it on broadcast back in the 1990s - and it was strangely satisfying to finally see the complete movie a mere two decades (give or take) later.

Directed by Alan Bridges (who had previously helmed some television policier series such as Z Cars and Maigret and an Edgar Wallace thriller [1964's Act of Murder], and would go on to direct the 1985 film The Shooting Party and the original 1987 Nicol Williamson-starring adaptation of Stephen King's Apt Pupil) from a screenplay by Roger Marshall (who had a huge background of writing credits, including six Edgar Wallaces, fifteen credits on The Avengers [a number of which are up there on my favourite episodes list for that series, being the slight pro-early years anti-Peel hipster that I am], nerve-jangling 1968 Hayley Mills-starring thriller Twisted Nerve, and the 1973 adaptation of David Case's "Fengriffen" And Now the Screaming Starts), based upon an original story by Robert Holmes (whose famed TV SF scribing career was soon to launch itself into the writing of the earliest of what would become an unprecedented seventy-three episodes of Doctor Who, and that's without mentioning his contributions to such small-screen sci-fi / fantasy classics as Doomwatch [1971], Blake's 7 [four episodes between 1979 and 1981], Douglas Camfield-directed SF horror The Nightmare Man [1981] and Into the Labyrinth [1981 and 1982]) the film certainly has a fine and intriguing pedigree.

The film's opening shots of a clouded sky followed by a crashing 'space rocket' are very redolent of Hammer Films / Exclusive Releasing's 1955 cinematic adaptation of Nigel Kneale's The Quatermass Xperiment, a parallel that continues with the domestic 'soap opera' sequences of an older middle-aged couple engaged in an extra-marital affair - the 1950s / '60s social realism aesthetic permeating into the genre: "You're the one who would always get scared that your wife would find out!" - who hit the alien being (played by Ric [nee Eric] Young: The Face of Fu Manchu Don Sharp, 1965], Lord Jim [Richard Brooks, 1965], Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom [Steven Spielberg, 1984]) with their car, leading to the stranger being taken to the nearest hospital.

We have the true-to-the-period requisite Cold War paranoia among the locally-stationed soldiers, with dialogue such as "If the Russians decide to invade, you'll be sitting on this radar telling me it's a car ferry!" and "The Russians haven't sent anything up, have they?" as the autonomic responses to the evidence of a crashed spacecraft.  The shots of the military radar scanner are reminiscent of both the opening shots of the BBC's Quatermass II serial (Rudolph Cartier, 1955) and screenwriter Robert Holmes' later Doctor Who offering 'Spearhead From Space' (Derek Martinus, 1970), and the character of Major Muncaster is portrayed by actor Barrie Ingham (Alydon the Thal in the Amicus / Aaru Dr Who and the Daleks [Gordon Flemyng, 1965] and the eponymous hero in Hammer's A Challenge for Robin Hood [C. M. Pennington-Richards, 1967).  This recycling of imagery and ideas brings to mind the famed Robert Holmes quotation "All you need is a strong, original idea.  It doesn't have to be your own strong, original idea".

The film stars Edward Judd (The Day the Earth Caught Fire [Val Guest, 1961], First Men in the Moon [Nathan Juran, 1964], Island of Terror [Terence Fisher, 1966]) as Dr Mike Vernon, Valerie Gearon (Nine Hours to Rama [Mark Robson, 1963], Anne of the Thousand Days [Charles Jarrott, 1969]) as Dr Claire Harland, Tsai Chin (lately of such things's as television's Marvel-ous Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. [2014] and big screen Bond bonanza Casino Royale [Martin Campbell, 2006], but known to most genre aficionado's as the calculating Lin Tang, daughter of Fu Manchu, in five fiendish flicks between 1965 and 1969) as Nurse Lim, and - as credited on the DVD box and presumably the contemporary publicity, explaining the slightly problematic nature of the phraseology - 'Oriental beauty Yoko Tani' as the Lystrian leader.

Our crashed spaceman arrives at the local hospital (the building and surrounding environs familiar from sundry Merton park productions, from installments of The Edgar Wallace Mysteries to such features as Sidney J. Furie's 1964 The Leather Boys and the 1966 Ian Curteis / John Croydon monstrosity The Projected Man), and Dr Harland (the enchanting Valerie Gearon) finds herself in the same quandary that the irate Dr Lomax was to find himself in a few years later in 'Spearhead from Space' - cross matching a blood sample from the unearthly patient and not recognising it as human with a frustrated "Is this your idea of a joke?".  There are alien signifiers in the X-rays, too, not a binary cardiovascular system but an opaque disc inside the speech centre of the brain which turns out to be a Universal Translator as the visitor finds himself able to speak and understand human language (English of course - this is the 1960s after all!) after touching a nurse (not like that, this isn't a Carry On) - "a direct electronic pathway" having been established.

While the alien has his body temperature regulated and brought down with ice, the old eerie and mysterious standby of 'freak weather conditions' cause patches of localised fog to coalesce around the area as the hospital is isolated from the outside by sinister forces and communication is severed ("All outside lines are out of order!") and the temperature, both dramatic and thermal, begins to rise.  Officious hospital official Carter (Lyndon Brook) tries to barter with the alien visitor to set up an exclusive exchange of information, prompting Dr Vernon's boiling frustration to overspill with a cri de coeur of "Three hundred patients' lives are more important than any glory!", before the departing Carter crashes his car at full speed into the invisible force barrier placed around the hospital by the alien's pursuers and ends his days dashed upon the dashboard.  The army troops guarding / investigating the space vehicle's crash site are tres Quatermass and the Pit , and tension builds as Geiger counter readings detect large amounts of radioactivity around the site.  "We think it crashed here... Atomic powered"; there are definite undertones of atomic age nuclear paranoia - a fear that runs like a transuranic seam through many 1950s and '60s SF and horror movies.

The leader of the pursuit squadron from the planet Lystria (Tani) infiltrates the hospital by changing places with Chin's Nurse Lim, a substitution that seemingly goes unnoticed by the nurse's co-workers including the ward sister as the imposter homes in on her bed-ridden target, evoking the awful and parochial Western attitude that people of East Asian appearance "all look the same".  We learn that Young's character is the prisoner of the female Lystrians who was en route to a prison planet when an accident caused the crash landing, and the Lystrian socity is broadly painted as the old pulp SF cliche of the 'inverted' society of a 'planet ruled by women', a hoary trope that was still being trotted out contemporaneously on BBC television with Doctor Who: 'Galaxy 4' and its belligerent Drahvins - and in a serendipitous co-incidence of casting Stephanie Bidmead who played the Drahvin's ruthless leader-queen Maaga is featured here as the character of Elaine.

"Our justice is a poor thing - often conducted by women" say the gals from the gynocentric globe, playing a poor-me ploy and painting a picture of a female-led society as weaker, perhaps illogical and ruled by instinct - a curiously anti feminist message that clashes with the strong and capable portrayal of Dr Harland who responds to Judd's wavering ("Maybe we can reason with them - maybe they're not as savage as he says") with moral certainty ("They still have prisoners").  The uncertainty as to which Lystrian is telling the truth - is Young's character a dangerous criminal or a victim? - ceases to waver when the patient takes Dr Harland hostage in a bid to get through the force barrier and stabs Major Muncaster, and the old tableau of the strange, strange creature carrying off the beautiful woman (as seen in movies such as  Universal's The Creature from the Black Lagoon [Jack Arnold, 1954] and Hammer's The Mummy [Terence Fisher, 1959]) is played out once again.  Our sympathy for the visitor, which has grown over the course of the film, begins to waver and the cold and remote Lystrians become more plausible in their tale - his story "the product of an immature mind", as Tani's lead Lystrian says.  As the patient / prisoner gets to the ship and takes off, only to be shot down by the Lystrian pursuit ship, we are left with the contemplation of "I think i preferred the idea of space peopled by three-eyed monsters... Now we've got them killing each other just like us."

Invasion is a well-crafted little slice of Cold War era science fiction, which uses the 'Reds Under the Bed' metaphor employed with the subtlety of a sledgehammer in such films as William Cameron Menzies' 1953 Invaders from Mars in a more nuanced fashion and transcends its limited budget with an intelligent script, well-performed characters and a pervasively claustrophobic atmosphere that takes full advantage of the restricted locations.  I would certainly recommend any fans of genre movies to check it out, as well as anyone interested in the capabilities of the smaller studios in 1960s UK filmmaking.

B-movies could really be movies.