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.