Tuesday, 28 February 2012

William S. Burroughs: Thee Films 1950s - 1960s

This Cherry Red DVD from 2007 is a collection of five Antony Balch and William Burroughs short films made in the period of 1963-1971. The set contains, Towers Open Fire, The Cut-Ups, Bill and Tony, William Buys A Parrot and Ghosts at No. 9 (Paris). Only two of the films, Towers Open Fire and The Cut-Ups were exhibited theatrically, the remaining films were discovered when Psychic TV's Genesis P-Orridge rescued a number of film cans stored at Antony Balch's office. After Balch had passed away in 1980 from stomach cancer, his office in Soho was about being cleaned out for a new tenant, and a number of Balch's personal effects including several rusting cans of film were destined for a skip. Brion Gysin was informed of this and made a phone call to P-Orridge in London who became the unwitting caretaker of Balch's archive of undeveloped film footage.

The collection begins with the 1 minute 30 second, 16mm color short William Buys A Parrot, perhaps the most mysterious film in the set. In the film, Burroughs is seen calling to a house and speaking to a man at the door. The action then switches to a veranda and Burroughs is seen looking at the titular bird bobbing up and down in it's cage before sitting down and having a drink with his host... Very little is known about this fragment, when and where it was shot and the idea behind the film. Possibly the film was made in Tangier, from the same period as filming for Towers Open Fire, and might well have been an early experiment in shooting on color stock. Incidentally, the footage was shot without sound so P-Orridge added some Psychic TV music over it (a minimal loop of Burroughs' voice). Also the footage was originally untitled and was named William Buys A Parrot by P-Orridge, although the bird is quite clearly a cockatoo.


The most well known and widely seen of the Balch/Burroughs films, Towers Open Fire was made around 1962-1963, shot in b/w and runs around 9 and a half minutes. The soundtrack is a dense mix of narration, dialogue, sound effects and Moroccan music. Burroughs' writing at that time was exploring the non-linear Cut-Up method, used in novels like The Soft Machine and The Ticket That Exploded, but Towers Open Fire does have a narrative of sorts. In the film, society is plunged into chaos when the stock market collapses. Conventional sex has been replaced by masturbation (Balch, filmed from the waist up, which escaped the notice of the BBFC although they had some bad language removed), while hands are seen waving over canisters of film, and Burroughs' voice is heard conjuring a magic spell - "Lock them out and bar the door, lock them out for ever more, windows, nook, cranny, door... lock them out for ever more" (interestingly this dialogue turns up in the Burroughs-narrated Witchcraft Through the Ages, Balch's 1967 recut of the classic silent Haxen). The film then momentarily breaks down then recommences with Burroughs showing a demonstration of making a cut-up by folding strips of newspaper - this section of the film experiments with a hyper-speed cut-up montage of sequences showing Burroughs walking along the Seine, followed by footage of a Dreamachine exhibition in Paris, and a scene where Burroughs shoots up.

"You're white, white, white..." William Burroughs in Towers Open Fire
Burroughs is next seen dressed in full combat regalia, playing a guerrilla terrorist bursting into a boardroom and shooting a ping-pong gun at a display of family photographs. People are vaporized in the streets leaving piles of clothes behind. Burroughs in then seen armed with a tape recorder and a microphone giving orders over a public-address system which results in the Board members (including Scottish Beat writer Alexander Trocchi sitting to Burroughs' right) literally dissolving into static silhouettes. The strange cabalistic drawings from the boardroom are scattered along a country road. Finally, a man outside a cinema cheerfully dances to himself and then looks to the skies which are full of sinister colored blotches, perhaps the arrival of the apocalypse... For an experimental film Towers Open Fire received decent exposure when in the summer of 1963, the film was included as the supporting short on a double bill of Godard's Vivre Sa Vie and the classic Horror Freaks. Balch was a huge admirer of Todd Browning's masterpiece, and made a print of the film to exhibit theatrically after the BBFC had lifted their long running ban on the film.


Balch and Burroughs' next collaboration was The Cut-Ups, completed in 1967, which incorporated footage from an earlier abandoned film called Guerrilla Conditions. Running approximately 18mins, The Cut-ups is a radical experiment in montage, applying the rules of the Cut-Up to film. Balch cut foot-long strips on various footage he had shot around Paris, London and New York and edited it together in completely random order. The results are quite mind-bending. The individual shots itself pass by the eye so rapidly that the film is very much like the equivalent of viewing a Dreamachine with the dancing patterns of light shapes experienced by the viewer. Among the footage is Brion Gysin walking through the streets of Paris' Latin Quarter to the Beat Hotel, Burroughs playing a leering doctor examining a sickly youth, shots of a cityscape through the cut-outs of a Dreamachine cylinder, Burroughs boarding a subway train, Gysin at work on a huge floor-sized roller painting, Burroughs entering the Burroughs Corporation building, and Burroughs as an agent meeting a contact and receiving instructions.

Brion Gysin at work in The Cut-Ups. Here is seen making one of his writing paintings consisting of cut up words, including the phrase "Guerrilla Conditions"
Later sections of the film include images layered on top of one another to the point of abstraction - building fronts mesh together to form abstract grid patterns, while figures fade in and out of images like spectral visitors. The soundtrack for the film consists of words and sentences spoken by Burroughs and Gysin - Yes/Hello/Look at that picture/Does it seem to be persisting?/Good/Where are we now?/Thank-you/How does it seem to you now?, so randomly cut-up and repeated ad infinitum, that they gradually become meaningless, and the music of the speech emerges very much like Steve Reich's 1964 tape experiment masterwork It's Gonna Rain. The Cut-Ups, like Towers Open Fire played commercially in London, and according to Gysin had strange effects on the audience. Seen today, it remains an extraordinary, mesmerizing piece of Cinema.

William Burroughs and Antony Balch
Made towards the end of the '60's, Bill and Tony is a 5min film featuring Burroughs and Balch, who swap identities (and voices). After formal introductions ("Who are You ? I'm Tony, who are you ? I'm Bill, where are you Tony ?"), Burroughs is seen as a disembodied head speaking a bizarre Scientology text. Balch then speaks his monologue, consisting of some dialogue from Freaks ("And now folks if you'll just care to step this way, You are about to witness the most amazing, the most astounding living monstrosity of all time"). The exercise is then repeated but Burroughs now speaks with Balch's voice, and vica-versa... Shot on 35mm color stock, Bill and Tony was purely an experiment, based on an idea of Brion Gysin's and seen previously in Towers Open Fire - where a face was to be projected onto the face of a performer. Bill and Tony doesn't seem terribly important but in some respects it pre-figured Samuel Beckett's 1973 play That Time, in which the sole actor appears on stage completely blackened out except for his face and three disembodied voices are heard throughout the short play.

Rub out the image - an eerie shot of Burroughs from Ghosts at No.9 (Paris)
The final film in the set emerged from the cans of film P-Orridge had salvaged from Balch's office. P-Orridge set about the Herculean task of cataloging the footage which was eventually reshaped into a 48min film entitled Ghosts at No.9 (Paris), a reference to The Beat Hotel located at 9, Rue Git le Coeur. Much of the material used in the film was based on footage shot for The Cut-Ups plus some experimental color tinted footage of Burroughs' face undergoing strange and disturbing mutations by way of double exposure effects. In a sense Ghosts at No.9 (Paris) is a remix of The Cut-Ups but the film remains a valuable work in itself, giving the viewer a chance to savour the footage used for The Cut-Ups without the rapid-fire montage style of that earlier film. Ghosts at No.9 (Paris) also contains footage of what Jack Sargeant refers to in his excellent book Naked Lens - Beat Cinema as rehearsal footage for a proposed film version of Naked Lunch to be directed by Balch. In the film, Burroughs very much in agent-mode is seen hurriedly packing in his room - a scene which could have come out of the late section of the novel when agent William Lee shoots the two cops Hauser and O'Brien and has to make a hasty exit. The soundtrack for Ghosts at No.9 (Paris) is a cut-up of various Burroughs tape recorded experiments and readings, (plus an unexpected snippet of Dylan's Desolation Row) and is a sort of alternative companion to Burroughs' album Nothing Here Now But the Recordings which P-Orridge, Peter Christopherson and James Grauerholz put together in 1980.


Over the years the Balch and Burroughs films have been released on home video in various incarnations. In 1984, Towers Open Fire and Ghosts at No. 9 were released on the 2nd tape of double-VHS release of the Burroughs-themed The Final Academy Documents, while all 5 films were made available in 1988 on the UK Jettisoundz/Visionary label as Thee Films 1950s - 1960s (which the Cherry Red DVD is a re-issue of), while in the US, Mystic Fire Video released the films (minus Ghosts at No. 9 (Paris)) on a tape simply entitled Towers Open Fire. In 2005, both Towers Open Fire and The Cut-Ups were included as extras on Synapses' DVD edition of Balch's Secrets of Sex (or Bizarre as it's known Stateside), also included on UK label Odean's 2010 DVD. Italian label issued a 2-disc collection of Burroughs films under the title W.S. Burroughs: The Cut-Up Films, which included the 5 films plus two additional films, Stan Brakhage's 1978 film Thot Fal’N (which Burroughs appears in) and Commissioner of Sewers, a shot on video souvenier of Burroughs' trip to Germany in 1986. The Raro DVD would seem an obvious choice but apparently the picture quality is quite poor. The region-free Cherry Red DVD is by far the best way to see these films, the image quality looks very good (in as much as it could be), although the Cherry Red DVD provides no information on the films, and lazily replicates the Jettisoundz/Visionary edition's misleading title (none of the films were made in the 1950's) and it's lack of credit for Antony Balch, the co-creative force behind these important films. Aside from some promos for other Cherry Red releases (including their poor release of The Final Academy), the disc has no extras.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

FLicKer

This fascinating and engrossing documentary from 2008 sheds much needed light on an artist who has too long lived in the shadow of friend and collaborator William Burroughs. Brion Gysin, avant-garde writer, painter, inventor, magician, performance artist and sound poet is best remembered for introducing Burroughs to the Cut-Up method, whereby random words and sentences are spliced together to form new and unexpected meanings. It marked a new direction in Burroughs' writing, the technique was incorporated in the writing of Naked Lunch, and later both men would develop the Cut-Up method for sound art and Cinema. Gysin's other major work which forms the centerpiece of Nik Sheehan's film is the Dream Machine (or to give it its exact title, Dreamachine), a light flicker device which rapidly alternates between shadow and light creating striking hallucinatory patterns behind the closed eyelids of the viewer.

Gysin first began thinking about the Dreamachine during a bus trip to Marseilles in 1958. Gysin was resting against the window and the light from the sun flicking through a line of tress created a strange pulsating effect behind Gysin's closed eyes. Gysin wrote of the experience in his diary:

"An overwhelming flood of intensely bright colors exploded behind my eyelids: a multidimensional kaleidoscope whirling out through space. I was swept out of time"

Constructed in 1960 by Brion Gysin and mathematician friend Ian Sommerville, the Dreamachine is a simple yet brilliantly effective object. The original prototype for the Dreamachine was a cardboard cylinder with slits which sat on a spinning 78rpm turntable. Inside the cylinder hung the light source, a 100W bulb. For Gysin, the Dreamachine was the ultimate "drugless high", and he had hoped it would bring nothing less than a revolution in human consciousness.

Brion Gysin and William Burroughs experience the Dreamachine
Sadly the Dreamachine never caught on. Gysin came close to doing a deal with Philips to produce a line of Dreamachines but the plan fell through. The strange story of the Dreamachine is thoroughly explored in the documentary, alongside an excellent overview of Gysin's life - his years in Tangier, where he introduced Western listeners to the drone music of the Master Musicians of Joujouka, his years at the Beat Hotel in Paris, his residency in London (in view of MI5's headquarters much to Gysin's amusement) and his lifelong friendship with William Burroughs, both of whom collaborated on the 1977 book The Third Mind, which further explored the Cut-Up technique. Gysin's other art is featured as well - his beautiful grid paintings, and his series of artworks based on Japanese calligraphy. Gysin's sound poetry is also heard in the film, like his 1960 spoken word cut-up "I Am That I Am".

Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo and the Dreamachine
Sheehan's film includes a diverse and interesting cast of musicians, writers and film makers, including Genesis P-Orridge, Kenneth Anger, Iggy Pop, Lee Ranaldo, Ira Cohen and DJ Spooky. P-Orridge, who has done much to champion Gysin's work since his death in 1986, takes us on a tour of what's remaining of his personal archive (P-Orridge's London home was famously raided in 1992 while he was abroad, his belongings were seized by Scotland Yard investigating the activities of his organisation Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth), while Iggy Pop is joined on stage by the Dreamachine during a Stooges show in Paris. Sheehan also opens up the film to a wider discussion on the meaning of art and the role of the artist, and despite the film's esoteric subject, FLicKer makes for intelligent and bad pun aside, illuminating viewing.

FLicKer is available on DVD in the US on the Alive Mind label. The DVD features a very pleasing 1.66 transfer - the interview footage Sheehan filmed for the documentary is very clean with strong vibrant colors, while the archive footage is a little rougher but otherwise in good shape. Sound is fine too, and the score sounds very robust. The DVD features no extras except for trailers for two other films on the Alive Mind label. Alternatively, you can view the entire film here.

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Notes
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UbuWeb hosts an excellent archive of Brion Gysin's sound art albums, all available to stream or download as good quality mp3s. Also the official Brion Gysin website is an excellent and comprehensive resource of Gysin art, images, articles and interviews

Monday, 20 February 2012

William S. Burroughs: A Man Within

This documentary from 2010 is an excellent introduction to the life and work of William Burroughs, one the great writers and thinkers of the 20th century. A Man Within gathers together an impressive array of Burroughs' closest friends, lovers and admirers, plus contributions from John Waters, David Cronenberg, Gus Van Sant, Patti Smith, Genesis P-Orridge, Lee Ranaldo, Thurston Moore, Iggy Pop and Laurie Anderson, each of whom offer their own personal take on the man Norman Mailer once declared to be "the only American novelist living today who may conceivably be possessed by genius".


Less interested in making a conventional biography of Burroughs the novelist, director Yony Leyser concentrates on Burroughs the person, or the man within, and largely succeeds. The film is structured in chapters which examine the forces that shaped Burroughs' life and propelled his writings - drugs, homosexuality, guns, the impact of Naked Lunch and Burroughs' own difficulty in connecting with people. Burroughs himself was a mass of contradictions. He wrote extensively about drugs and despite having been a habitual user all his life, Burroughs' writings are full of warnings about their damaging effects, the degradation and the loss of control to the user. Burroughs struggled on and off with addiction ("the strait-jacket of junk" as he called it) and actor Peter Weller remembers a conversation with Burroughs on the set of Naked Lunch where Burroughs stringently warned him off using Percodan.


Despite marrying and fathering a son, Burroughs was homosexual but was the antithesis of the limp-wristed gay. Burroughs distanced himself from the queer movement and remained quietly reserved about his sexuality, only emerging through works like Naked Lunch and Queer, which often took a dark, subjective view of homosexuality. John Waters speaks about Burroughs' sexuality as another example the writer's iconoclasm - "He opened up to me, not gay culture, but gay rebels and couldn't-fit-in gay culture". The film is quite candid about Burroughs' relationships with men and includes a marvellous snippet of archive footage of Burroughs and Warhol in a rare moment discussing homosexuality over dinner.

John Waters on Burroughs - "He was the first person that was famous for the things you were supposed to hide. He wrote poetry about assholes and heroin"
The most notorious chapter from Burroughs' life remains the accidental shooting dead of his wife in Mexico City in 1951, which Burroughs darkly referred to as the catalyst for his writing career. Rather strangely this tragic event in Burroughs' life did not deter him from guns and along with his beloved cats, became an permanent fixture of his life. The documentary features a lot of footage of Burroughs at the target range and shows the writer working on his so called shotgun paintings, created by Burroughs shooting a can of paint, with the ejecta splashing across a nearby canvas. Interviewed for the film is one of Burroughs' gun dealers who shows an elaborate silencer Burroughs had made in his basement so he could shoot off his guns and not disturb his guests upstairs, while Marcus Ewert, Burroughs' lover relates an anecdote about the writer keeping guns in bed with him - they were of course fully loaded.

Burroughs reading from Naked Lunch: The Man is carried in naked by two Negro Bearers who drop him on the platform with bestial, sneering brutality. The Man wriggles. His flesh turns to viscid, transparent jelly that drifts away in green mist, unveiling a monster black centipede. Waves of unknown stench fill the room, searing the lungs, grabbing the stomach...
Named by Jack Kerouac and published in Paris in 1959, (The) Naked Lunch Burroughs' seminal work brought with it international notoriety and a devoted following. Friend and collaborator John Giorno recalls the legion of fans that would arrive at the Bunker, Burroughs' home on the Bowery, New York's Lower East Side, bringing with them copious amounts of drugs. (Giorno amusingly reckons that Burroughs' insistance on taking the first shot saved him from contracting AIDS). In the 70's Burroughs was regularly having dinner with luminaries like Andy Warhol, Norman Mailer, Terry Southern, Nicholas Roeg, David Bowie, Lou Reed, Mick Jagger, Debbie Harry and Richard Hell. Burroughs was a supremely intelligent and eloquent raconteur but emotionally withdrawn. Perhaps it was his unrequited love for Allen Ginsburg, but Burroughs preferred sex with professional young hustlers, where there was little chance of heartache. Even Burroughs' relationship with his son (seen here in rare footage) was problematic and ulitmately unresolved - William Jr. died from liver cancer in 1981 aged 33.

Beat happening - William and Allen, seen as part of the documentary's well chosen archive footage
If the film has a flaw it's the brief running time - at 80 odd minutes the film feels a little too lean. It would have been nice to hear more about Burroughs' novels post-Naked Lunch, like the Nova Trilogy, comprising of the novels, The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded and Nova Express, which all feature the most radical use of the cut-up. Also there's little about Burroughs' impact on Cinema, the experimental films he made in collaboration with Antony Balch in the '60's, the 1984 German film Decoder which took inspiration from Burroughs' Electronic Revolution essay (and features a cameo by the great man himself). Also, more time should have been allocated to David Cronenberg, whose 1983 film Videodrome is one of the best cinematic interpretations of Burroughs' ideas, not to mention Cronenberg's own film of Naked Lunch which brilliantly fused the novel with episodes from the writer's life. These minors gripes aside, A Man Within, with its soundtrack by Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore and fabulous footage of Burroughs remains an essential document.

Cronenberg on Burroughs - "I think Burroughs' writings particularly Naked Lunch were quite revolutionary... It wasn't just homosexuality, it was alien sexuality"
My copy of A Man Within is the UK edition courtesy of Artefact Films. The DVD features a decent enough 1.78 anamorphic transfer. Much of the archive footage looks expectedly beat up and worn depending on the source, while the newly filmed interviews look fine (if not exceptional). Audio is good, and helpfully some of the audio on the rougher archive footage is subtitled. Extras includes 16min of Home Footage with Burroughs relaxing in Kansas with friends (among them Steve Buscemi), 3mins of murky handheld looking footage of Sonic Youth paying a visit to Burroughs' farm, plus 2min of Burroughs creating his shotgun paintings. Overall a fine DVD but the US edition on the Oscilloscope label is better, packaged in a very nice foldout sleeve, and containing some additional extras, including a 15min featurette on Naked Lunch's 50th anniversary held in Chicago in 2009.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

The Third Annual Report of Plutonium Shores

I'm normally not one to mark birthdays and anniversaries, or swoon over post-counts and hit-numbers, but this blog has reached the third year of activity today and I'm in a contemplative mood. No one is more surprised about this than me - there was never any plan, long term or otherwise when I set it up on that Saturday afternoon, Valentine's Day 2009, most likely it was something to kill a few minutes while some music was downloading in the background. But after I put out my first experimental post (a rough n' ready piece on Stephen King's Dark Tower saga), I liked the look of it and more followed...

The first header, a shot of Catherine Deneuve wearing a nightdress and a switchblade, from Repulsion. Featuring the mission statement - "Some words about films, music, books and other good stuff..." Honestly, that was the plan
Originally, the blog was intended as a sort of blogger's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, an ever shifting patchwork of personal interests and obsessions - Cinema, music, art, literature, astronomy, the music of Throbbing Gristle, the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, and the lives of counter culture figures like Aleister Crowley and Charles Manson. Pretty soon though, it was apparent that the focus had narrowed and I was concentrating all my writing on films. Occasionally, anomalies slipped through like a post about a John Cage album, which I later removed because it looked so weird sitting there sandwiched between a bunch of exploitation films - somehow I had moved into the ghetto of Cult Cinema writing, and now that my blog was made I had to sleep in it...


The second and third header - both landscape shots, the second a Caspar David Friedrich. Both short lived. "Some words about films, music, books and other good stuff..." but where was the music, and other good stuff ?
I often say that blogging is hard work, and for me it really is. When I put a post together, it's never an easy process, the thing gets bashed out and kicked around, chopped and changed endlessly before it goes out. I'm not a professional writer by any means, and it shows, but I think anyone who can stitch a few words together can communicate an idea or an opinion. No one should have to have a qualification to write. Having said that, I always cringe when I chance upon a vintage post of mine and I'm a little bit like Woody Allen in the sense that I never go back and watch my old movies. But I do remain proud of some things - the trainspotter's guide to the Apocalyspse Now Workprint, and a Watchdog style bit of detective work on some missing subtitles on DVD editions of Tarkovsky's Mirror. I think the 39 strong Video Nasties review series I ran was pretty good too. If I had to name two major influences on my writing, it would the brilliant UK film fanzine Shock Xpress, and Nathaniel Thompson, whose film reviews over at Mondo Digital are the best on the Internet.

The fourth header, featuring a shot of the demon mask from Onibaba. Finally a revised mission statement, "Going steady, deeper into Movies", shamelessly stolen from Pauline Kael
Aside from the creative kick I get from blogging, the long terms friends I made through these pages is the most satisfying thing about doing this blog - Aylmer, Jeremy, Jesper, Jon, Martin, Phil, the hardcore faithful who have kept up with me over the years. Thanks guys to each of you. (Your commentary always means a lot to me, but where are the girls?). Special mention also for the ever faithful Japanese porn site that's been spamming me with their links since I began. I promise one of the days I will post a link to their website where you can check out their bukkake and enema vids if you're that way inclined. When I started the blog I was so clueless - the blog was running well into a year before I discovered the Followers gadget. Also the name I chose for the blog has been a bit of a curse for me. The name was decided in the space of a minute during the blog set up (really it's one of those things you should sleep on), and came from a misquoted line in Edgar Allen Poe's poem The Raven, "Get thee back into the tempest and the Night's Plutonian shore" - I was sure no one would have made the same mistake (the damn thing is tricky to spell as well!) but now it seems there's a bunch of Plutonium Shores out there - so if you landed on this page expecting to see something about an investment advisory company from Milwaukee, you best go back to Google. We only deal in films here, mister...

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Quatermass and the Pit

You'll rarely find it rubbing shoulders with the likes of Metropolis, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Blade Runner, but Hammer's 1967 film Quatermass and the Pit is quite simply one of the greatest science fiction films ever made. Of the three Quatermass adaptations The Pit had the longest gestation period, first mooted as a Hammer film in 1961, then falling in and out of the production schedule until February 1967 when Nigel Kneale's screenplay finally went before the cameras, some 8 years after the original serial had aired.


During an archaeological dig at Hobbs Lane tube station, a strange unidentified vessel is unearthed. Declared to be an unexploded German missile by Col. Breen, his reluctant colleague Professor Quatermass is not so sure. When insect-like bodies are found inside the vessel, Quatermass is convinced it is in fact an ancient spaceship from another world, and despite it's 5 million year vintage, still contains a destructive power... As Hammer's Quatermass series evolved, the films inched ever nearer to perfection, culminating in Quatermass and the Pit, one of the studio's finest hours. Nigel Kneale's third Quatermass teleplay had packed an extraordinary amount of ideas and imagination into three and a half hours of television, but somehow Kneale's screenplay with just a few minor revisions to the original story, streamlined the story into just 97 minutes of Cinema. "It was one of the few scripts where you didn't have to alter a single word", remembered director Roy Ward Barker. "I just took the script and shot it"

Andrew Kier - the fifth Quatermass
Andrew Kier who had previously battled evil in Dracula Prince of Darkness, stepped into the role of the Professor, and comes a close second to André Morrell as the definitive Quatermass. Kneale was famously displeased with the title role going to Brian Donlevy in the previous films, and was very happy with Kier, who restored the humanity of the character while retaining the toughness required to hold his own against the aggressive Col. Breen. Excellent as well is archaeologist Barbara Shelley (in her final Hammer film) bringing sophistication, not to mention astonishing beauty and grace to what is largely a secondary role. Aside from Kier, she's easily the most interesting and compelling character in the film, outdoing an otherwise excellent James Donald, one of the finest character actors of his generation (appearing in Bridge on the River Kwai, The Vikings and The Great Escape). Incidentally, actor Duncan Lamont who played the roughneck charged with penetrating the interior wall of the spaceship with a drill, appeared as Victor Caroon, the stricken astronaut in the original BBC Quatermass Experiment.

Lucifer over London
Roy Ward Baker who directed A Night to Remember, the definitive film of the Titanic disaster, had spent much of the sixties in television was ideally suited to Hammer's tight scheduling and low budgets, and together with cameraman Arthur Grant who expertly lit Bernard Robinson's magnificent sets, gave the film a class and slickness that went far beyond the final costs of the production. Baker went on to make The Anniversary (1967), The Vampire Lovers and Scars of Dracula (both 1970) for Hammer but Quatermass and the Pit is by far his best work for the studio. The final act of the film is one of Hammer's most dazzling moments, with Baker and his handheld camera urgently capturing the dangerous frenzied streets of London engulfed in chaos (a sequence much imitated by Tobe Hopper in 1985's Lifeforce, a film that owes a huge dept to the Quatermass saga). Brilliant as it is, the film has at least one flaw which most commentators will readily confess to, the scene of Barbara Shelley's recorded vision of the Martian massacre, a rare clumsy moment in the film, botched by some truly pathetic effects. The same scene was included in the television serial but actually looked better. Also, some of the film's effects shots look crude by today's standards, while the alien creatures can look less than convincing (although look out for a deliciously gooey moment, where one of the decomposing bodies drips green juice onto a suitably disgusted soldier!)

Hammer's art department included some shameless self-promotion in the film - behind James Donald you can see a poster for The Witches, while if you look fast during the opening scene where commuters emerge from the elevator, you can just spot a poster for The Reptile
Optimum's DVD of Quatermass and the Pit is one of the best looking DVDs in the box set, featuring a fine, sharp vibrant colorful 1.66 transfer image. Audio is very good too, no problems with dialogue or sound effects. The sole extra on the Optimum disc is a two & a half minute trailer. Far superior is Optimum's 2011 Blu-Ray edition and while I have yet to pick up this disc, by all accounts it's a stunner, and topped many DVD of the Year lists, with a glorious, high-def, demo quality transfer as well as a definitive sound mix. The BR comes with some fine extras as well, a commentary track by Kneale and Baker (from the old Anchor Bay DVD) and a host of interviews with various admirers of the film (the best of which is Kim Newman's 30min segment) as well as the Sci-fi episode of World of Hammer.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Quatermass 2

Hammer's decision to film The Quatermass Experiment had paid off handsomely for the studio, and producer Tony Hinds wasted little time securing the rights to the second teleplay. Now that he was free to work on projects beyond his contract with the BBC, Nigel Kneale came on board for the second film and oversaw a remarkably faithful adaptation of the serial for the big screen. A British answer to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the second Quatermass film, made in the summer of 1956 expands on the original film with the alien menace no longer confined to an astronaut returning from space, but an entire invasion force falling to earth as innocuous meteorites, setting up shop in a huge, highly sophisticated industrial installation, and all of it overseen by the government itself. The apocalypse had arrived and nobody was watching...


Kneale's mistrust of institutions was evident from his 1954 television adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four and his view was even more caustic in Quatermass 2. The cold war years had brought fear, paranoia and a climate of secrecy to the shores of Britain. This was the age of the Space Race, East/West espionage and the ballistic missile. Photographed by Gerald Gibbs in cold hard monochrome, Quatermass 2 continued with the veritae style of the first film, and shooting in the immense Shell Haven oil refinery in Essex gave the film a sense of space and grandeur. Val Guest, a director with a fine sense of composition makes terrific use of the location and the visuals remain striking today, with the plant's ominous looming towers and the nebulous web of pipes and conduits, a brilliant visual metaphor for the bureaucratic coverup.


The screenplay Nigel Kneale delivered to Hammer was further worked on by director Val Guest who pared it down for feature length, but packing most of the 3-hour serial into a tight, coherent 80-odd minutes. The original ending of the serial was revised for the film version, and instead of Quatermass piloting a rocket to destroy the alien asteroid, the film version climaxes with the aliens revealed in all their sticky shapeless glory. Also, a sequence in the television version where a picniking family are brutally gunned down by the plant's security force, is absent from the film version. The BBFC had objected to this sequence outright when they read the screenplay in May, but interestingly this sequence might well have been shot but removed in post production - if you look fast during the sequence where Quatermass drives out the gate of the plant, you can just glimpse a truck arriving at the gate towing a car, perhaps a leftover from the cut sequence.


Despite the BBFC's protestations, the film was strong stuff for it's day and has a number of grisly details - like the open wound left by the alien infection, and a memorable sequence where a snooping government minister is covered in a thick corrosive tar after straying too close the alien dome. In another astonishingly gruesome moment, a supply pipe is seen dripping blood after one of the rebel plant workers is wedged inside to thwart Quatermass' plan to flood the alien chamber with poisonous oxygen. Despite Nigel Kneale's misgivings about Brian Donlevy in the title role of the first film, the American actor returned for the sequel, and this time plays the Professor with a little more restraint, less of a barking dog, but still his presence in the film is problematic. One wonders if Hammer had chosen to film 1967's Quatermass and the Pit in close succession would Donlevy have returned for the third outing ? Also noteworthy in the cast is Sidney James, the veteran English comedy actor who can be difficult to separate from his 19 Carry On films (and that trademark dirty laugh) but he's in fine form here as a boozy journalist.


Icon's transfer of Quatermass 2 is very much like The Quatermass Xperiment, a good but underwhelming fullscreen picture. The previous UK edition from DDVideo is superior but that disc commands a tidy sum these days. In the US, the Anchor Bay disc which included a commentary by Kneale and Guest and an episode of World of Hammer ("Sci-fi") is officially out of print, but Amazon are offering a DVD-R of the film which looks like the Anchor Bay edition and while it's missing the extras, features a fine crisp transfer of the film.

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Notes
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Quatermass fans should head over to Stephen Reed's extremely impressive and thoroughly exhaustive Quatermass website.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

The Quatermass Xperiment

Over July and August of 1953, BBC's 6-part television serial The Quatermass Experiment had gripped the nation, with an average 3 million people tuning in each week to discover the fate of Victor Carroon, the doomed astronaut who crash landed back on Earth carrying a deadly organism. Among them was Hammer producer Tony Hinds who immediately saw the serial's potential as a feature length film, and two days after the final episode had aired, Hammer purchased the rights from the BBC, a move which would forever change the fortunes of James Carreras' company.


Renamed The Quatermass Xperiment as a mischievous endorsement of the BBFC's X-rating, the film was enormously popular with the public on its release in the summer of 1955, but when shooting began in October '54, the film's success could not be guaranteed. Hammer's previous dabbling in science fiction, The Four Sided Triangle and Spaceways (both from 1952) were met with indifference and quickly forgotten, so the Quatermass film was cautiously granted a modest budget. Perhaps in an attempt to deflect the serial's more fantastic elements, Val Guest a talented journeyman with four previous Hammer assignments under his belt was chosen to direct. Guest had little affinity with science fiction and Horror but proved to be an inspired choice giving the film a solid touch of realism. Guest went on to direct the magnificent Hammer noir Hell Is A City in 1960 and it many ways the Quatermass film shares the same gritty urban ambiance in the latter half of the film as the police dragnet closes in on Victor Carroon.


Nigel Kneale however was less satisfied with the film. The writer had profitted little from Hammer's acquisition of the serial, and worse still, the changes made to the story to bring it within an 80-min feature length, had greatly angered Kneale. In fact screenwriter Richard Landau and Val Guest had done a fine job condensing the plot and opening up the teleplay for Cinema, devising an alternative ending which was decidedly more pyrotechnic and exciting than the soulful, melancholic climax of the serial, where Professor Quatermass appeals to the last vestiges of humanity left in the creature. Kneale however had his revenge on Hammer when he refused the studio the use of the Quatermass character for Dean Jagger's scientist in 1957's X The Unknown, a Quatermass film in all but name. The writer's criticisms aside, the film version retained two set pieces from the serial which brilliantly translated to the big screen - a scene where a hideously mutated Victor Carroon stumbles into a chemist, and a wonderful eerie sequence where the monster stalks animals in a zoo.

Brian Donlevy - the fourth Quatermass

If the film has a weakness it's Quatermass himself. In the serial Reginald Tate portrayed the Professor as a sensitive, troubled man of science, but in the film Irish American actor Brian Donlevy made Quatermass ill-tempered and surly, exactly the type of man, Kneale's Quatermass would have loathed. Apparently Donlevy had great difficulty on set with his lines which perhaps had more to do with actor's dedication to the bottle than Landau's writing. (Ironically, Donlevy returned for the sequel the following year making him the only actor to have played Professor Quatermass twice). Much more impressive in the film is Richard Wordsworth playing Victor Caroon, his tall frame and gaunt emaciated face give him a genuine alienness. Look out for a fabulous creepy moment in the film when Wordsworth fixes his wife, oblivious to the monster growing inside him, with a sinister stare. Yet, Wordsworth's often childlike portrayal of an alien emerging into a strange new world manages to elicit sympathy from the audience which in retrospect seems prophetic - the success of The Quatermass Xperiment gave Hammer the confidence to tackle another sympathetic monster when plans were made to film a version of Frankenstein.


The Quatermass Xperiment is available in the UK on the Icon label (collected as single disc double bill with Quatermass II). The Icon disc has come in for some criticism for it's lo-fi image quality and while the film most definitely looks unrestored, both picture and audio are perfectly decent for a budget disc. The Icon disc has no extras, a shame considering the previous UK edition, the superior but now hard-to-find DDVideo disc came with a comprehensive booklet, and an audio commentary with Val Guest. In the US, the film is available as a burn-on-demand MGM DVD and although light on extras, it features a much better transfer than the UK edition.