Saturday, 14 December 2013

Quintet

Last night I grabbed a screening of Robert Altman's 1979 film Quintet, which may well be the least seen and most misunderstood film in the director's eclectic cannon of work. The story set during a severe ice age, concerns a seal trapper named Essex (Paul Newman) who along with his wife travels to a dilapidated frozen city to find Essex's long lost brother. Whilst there, Essex unwittingly becomes involved with a community engaged with a mysterious board game know as "quintet", for which the stakes for the players are literally life and death...

One of the bleakest films of the 70's, if not the entire sci-fi genre, Quintet's failure to connect with audiences is hardly surprising given the film's slow pace and doggedly anti-commercial concerns which seem intent on alienating viewers from the outset. Even the conventions of the post-apocalyptic sci-fi genre - radiation-scarred mutants, urban ruins, the emergence of a hero, are mostly swept aside as Altman and his 3 writers tease out a sort of strange cerebral detective story which must have left audiences confused and frustrated. Although not known as a director of speculative science fiction, Altman suggested the film might well be taking place not just in some future time, but on another planet. Rather than have his cast speak in an alien language, Altman cleverly cast some well known European actors, among them, Fernando Ray, Vittorio Gassman, Bibi Andersson and Nina van Pallandt (in her 3rd of 4 films she made for the director), and each of their own distinct accents bring a certain otherworldliness to the dialogue. Even Paul Newman turns in what is perhaps the most low-key performance of his long career, his character has few dramatic moments and his dialogue is pared down to a minimum.


But patience (and perhaps second or third screening of the film) are rewarded by the director's absolute mastery of mood and atmosphere. The film was shot during a particularly cold winter, in and around the abandoned buildings constructed for Montreal's Expo '67, which by 1979 had sufficiently deteriorated to resemble a destroyed city, here augmented by a thick frosting of ice which covers every surface. Cinematographer Jean Boffety (who had previously shot Altman's Thieves Like Us) gives the film a unique visual texture by fogging the edges of the frame, a strange but effective device to convey the sub-zero temperatures, while Altman's innovative use of sound design extends to the film's soundtrack which employs ominous deep thunderous rumblings regularly heard throughout the film as the doomed city is encroached upon by glaciers churning up what's left of civilisation. Interestingly, the Quintet game, played on a pentagonal board with dice and various trinkets was developed by Kenner but due to the film's unpoparlity, the plan the shelved. As for the film, Quintet has slowly carved out a very minor cult following over the years and fans of contemplative science fiction and admirers of Andrzej Żuławski's The Silver Globe, and Vincent Ward's The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey would do well to seek the film out.


Friday, 6 December 2013

"Look for the name of the rescue station nearest you..."

Last week as part of the TV coverage of the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's death, I watched a fine documentary (narrated by George Clooney) entitled JFK: News of a Shooting, which focused on the reporting of the assassination, the unprecedented challenges for reporters to get the unfolding story out, culminating in that famous moment when Walter Cronkite announced the American president's death on air, ("We just have a report from our correspondent Dan Rather in Dallas, that he has confirmed President Kennedy is dead"), the CBS anchorman visibly trying to maintain his composure (and fidgeting indecisively with his spectacles) while delivering the shocking news.

Watching this footage strongly reminded me of the news bulletins in Night of the Living Dead, which feature an anchorman dryly intoning the extraordinary news of bodies of the dead returning to life to prey on the living. These sequences are key component to the film's much celebrated documentary feel, director George Romero stages them with the raw unpolished look of a breaking news flash, in the background of the newsroom, news personnel can be seen manning teletype machines, taking rushed phone calls adding to the improvised feel of the broadcast.


The final bulletin delivered by a reporter tagging along with a search and destroy militia is perhaps the most incredible, a slyly subversive commentary on the violence encroaching upon American life - the clashes between police and civil rights activists, violent student protests, and the increasingly bitter (and televised) war in Vietnam. In one of the film's most memorable lines of dialogue, the slightly self-congratulatory sheriff co-ordinating the militia, offers some advice in fending off ghouls, with "Beat 'em or burn 'em, they go up pretty easy", which must have had enlightened audiences reflecting on newsreel footage of US infantry torching villages in South East Asia...

For more on Night of the Living Dead and other subversive Horror films, look out for Jon Towlson's forthcoming book Subversive Horror Cinema: Countercultural Messages in Films from Frankenstein to the Present, a study of the "subversive" strain of horror films produced in Britain and America from 1931 to the present day, to be published in early 2014 by McFarland


Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Tobe Hooper's Early Works (The Heisters & Eggshells)

Arrow's magnificent 3-disc edition of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 contains the finest supplements of 2013, with the second disc in the set devoted to Tobe Hooper early films, The Heisters and the director's debut feature Eggshells.

The Heisters, made in 1965 is a 10min absurdist slapstick comedy set in medieval times and concerns three thieves in flight from the law, hiding out in a dilapidated cobwebbed castle. Two of the men squabble over the loot they have just stolen and find increasingly ridiculous tortures for each other (an oversized custard pie, a lethal flying girdle) while the other thief more concerned with scientific matters, performs weird experiments on a beetle... Like many short, personal films of the era, The Heisters feels like a series of sketches, the movie is entirely dialogue-free (the three cast members compensate with some wonderful comic performances), and it's all the more remarkable that it looks like it could have been lifted from one of Roger Corman's Edgar Allen Poe adaptations, the film shot in Cinemascope and strongly influenced by Floyd Crosby's lighting for Pit and the Pendulum, explicitly referenced in one particular scene. The film also employs an exaggerated use of sound - at one point, a jawbone falling to the floor registers with a loud metallic crash. The film also contains two elements which would characteristic of Hooper's later work - striking expressionistic editing and camerawork and an imaginative use of props, in particular a bizarre, moldering music box which could have been part of the grotesque bric-à-brac decorating the house in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. All told The Heisters is a brisk, fascinating and enjoyable curio.






Following a few screenings when it first emerged in 1971, Tobe Hooper's debut feature film Eggshells was lost for almost four decades. Rarely mentioned even by the director himself the film became little more than an untidy loose end in Hooper's filmography until Stefan Jaworzyn's 2003 book The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Companion, an oral history of the series, revealed some tantalizing details about the production and its untimely demise. Miraculously, a faded print of the film was unearthed in 2009 and following an extensive restoration and some eagerly anticipated screenings at select film festivals in Austin, Texas and London's Frightfest, Eggshells finally makes its long-awaited debut on home video.


In the film, two hippie couples have moved into an old rambling house, both on different journeys. One couple are preparing to be married while the other couple are just starting out in their relationship. Meanwhile, a fifth occupant of the house who nobody seems to be aware of, has made contact with a strange unearthly presence which has moved into the basement... Once described not inaccurately by Tobe Hooper as a cross between Paul Morrissey's Trash and Fantasia, Eggshells is an incredible document of the counterculture of the late 60's, of peace marches against the Vietnam war and the growing interest in politics, spirituality, alternative lifestyles and philosophies, much of it reflected in the charged semi-improvised dialogue spoken the young twenty-somethings in the film. In this regard the film is very much a companion piece to Zabriskie Point, Michelangelo Antonioni's sad-eyed look at post-60's America, the two films sharing some interesting parallels - the use of documentary footage of student protests, characters searching for their path in life, and an anti-materialist sentiment which leads to scenes in both films where something is spectacularly blown apart. In contrast to Antonioni's film, Eggshell's is a joyous, exuberant celebration of youth and the energy of the times, reflected in the film's dazzling, free-wheeling experimental style, and audacious invention.


Early in the film, the audience is taken on a breathless hyper-speed journey through the house by the mysterious entity, very much like the breakneck trips around the suburbs of Tokyo in Tetsuo The Iron Man. Two people make love and are transformed into abstract blobs of dripping melted wax (a scene reminiscent of Saul Bass' distorted credit sequence for Seconds), there's some Stan Brakhage-like color animation, a 2001 style star-gate sequence through the cosmic avenues of Austin, and in the most extraordinary sequence of all, a man has a swordfight with himself, an effect achieved with some ingenious jump-cutting. Tobe Hooper devotees will look of comparisons between Eggshells and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and while there are some interesting if superficial similarities (Eggshells begins with a shot of a girl in the back of a pickup, Texas Chainsaw Massacre ends with one), the film would be better placed with the likes of the Roger Corman's The Trip, John Carpenter's hippie space oddity Dark Star, and Richard Linklater's experimental 8mm film It's Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books, another film featuring a cast of Austin odd-balls and eccentrics


Arrow's Blu-Ray of Tobe Hooper's Early Works presents The Heisters & Eggshells in fine form. The Heisters looks the better of the two, with eye-popping colors and clarity. Eggshells looks far more grungier, however the Blu-Ray edition looks extremely good considering the rarity of the film (the screenshots above are ripped from the DVD edition). Both Blu-Ray and DVD discs also come with a director's commentary on Eggshells, a 25min interview with Tobe Hooper, and a whistle stop tour through the ups and downs of Hooper's career with trailers for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre through to 2006's Mortuary

Sunday, 1 December 2013

A Taste of Blood

Herschell Gordon Lewis was evidently feeling confident enough in his film making abilities when he set to work on his 1967 picture A Taste of Blood, a straight Horror film without the bankable nudity and splatter that had made his earlier movies so successful. In A Taste of Blood, John Stone, a mild-mannered businessman is transformed into a cantankerous vampire after unwittingly drinking a brandy laced with the blood of his ancestor, Dracula no less, long since dead but still exacting revenge on his enemies by having Stone kill their descendants. Donald Stanford's original screenplay The Secret of Dr. Alucard which relocated the vampire mythos to contemporary America was hardly a novel idea, despite predating Stephen King's novel 'Salem's Lot by several years, Dracula had already stalked 50's California in The Return of Dracula (1958) while the Count was transplanted to more wackier surroundings in William One Shot Beaudine's 1966 Wild West/Horror hybrid Billy the Kid vs. Dracula. Still, the idea of a proxy war fought by the modern day relatives of Dracula and Van Helsing is a genuinely intriguing notion but Lewis almost completely ruins it with the gargantuan slog that is A Taste of Blood.


Running an unrelenting 117mins, A Taste of Blood is a dour, humourless and endlessly talky film. Worse still, the film features only a token amount of bloodshed with the odd stab wound or gashed throat to savour between oceans of dialogue scenes shot in well-furnished living rooms. At least Blood Feast had between bouts of carnage, inept direction and dreadful dialogue to enjoy, A Taste of Blood however has no such pleasant diversions - on this picture, Lewis' directing skills are improved (comparatively speaking) and the screenplay has very few howlers. Fortunately the sequences where the vampire stalks his prey are well-handled - rather than have his vampire skulk around in a cape, flashing a set of fangs, Lewis lights his monster in a blue glow, which makes actor Bill Rogers' pasty crumbling makeup all the more eerie, a cheap but surprisingly effective idea. Also, worthwhile are some subtle nods to classic vampire films, like a scene where a ship's captain is snooping around a coffin Stone has collected in London recalls a similar moment in Nosferatu, while in the film's final act, Stone's wife Helene draped in a billowing nightdress, is summoned trance-like to her husband, echoing a scene from Dracula. Incidentally, lookout for Lewis doubling as the aforementioned ship's captain, complete with cockney accent ("Alrite Guv'nor!") and students of Trash Cinema should keep their eyes peeled for an early screen credit for J.G Patterson, listed here as an associate producer, but better known as the director of the deadly dull Dr. Gore (1973), and the marginally better Electric Chair (1976).

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

The Blind Swordsman

This November Criterion release their most ambitious title to date, the 27-disc anthology of the Zatoichi films, one of the longest and most popular series in Japanese Cinema. Barnes & Noble are set to ship my copy any day now although I don't hold out much hope that this will arrive this side of Christmas (and in one piece), so with that in mind, I grabbed a little taster of what to expect with the 21st film of the series, from 1970, Zatoichi: The Festival of Fire, previously available as part of AnimEigo's 7-disc collection. In this episode, the blind swordsman has been targeted by a yakuza gang for his continued disobedience, and is lured to a festival where he is to be assassinated...


If the short synopsis above seems simple, consider yourself spared. As with some of the other episodes I've seen, eccentric plotting is to be expected. In The Festival of Fire not only is Ichi in peril from the yakuza gang (led by a boss who's also blind), but from a mysterious swordsman seeking revenge for the death of his wife who Ichi may have had relations with. In another plot strand, one of the yakuza lieutenants has enlisted his beautiful daughter to steal the masseur's heart and lead him to his doom. Twists and turns aside, The Festival of Fire hits all the highpoints of the series, and includes some incredible swordplay, like a sequence where Ichi is set upon in a bathhouse by a cadre of naked tattooed yakuza. The film includes some weird moments too, like a new wave-ish dream sequence, while the credit sequence where Ichi is pursued by a dog is one of the most bizarre I've seen in quite a while. Although the series could never match the level of carnage seen in the Lone Wolf & Cub films, the 70's era films had their fair share of gory moments - like a scene in The Festival of Fire, where a yakuza soldier makes his exit with a spectacular geyser of blood from a neck wound.



Ultimately what makes The Festival of Fire so enjoyable and the series so compulsively watchable is Shintaro Katsu and his Zatoichi persona - the tortured brow, the awkward waddle, his exuberance for gambling, women and drink, his supernatural senses, and his extraordinary sword technique which slaughters enemies (and tree trunks) with lightning speed and ferocity. Zatoichi made Katsu a huge star, and by all accounts he was quite a hell-raiser. Katsu was often at odds with Japan's film intelligencia with own brand of popular violent action cinema (he starred in the title role of the Hanzo the Razor series, and produced the Lone Wolf & Cub films), and to borrow a phrase from one of Zatoichi's foes, was the pebble in the rice bowl. Writing in his Japan Journal memoirs, Donald Richie recalls attending a dinner for Japan's film community, with Nagisha Oshima and Katsu glowering across the table at each other. Sadly, the Blind Swordsman passed away in 1997 after battling cancer.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Maniac Music

I'm just fresh from a screening of William Lustig's 1980 film Maniac and not having seen the film for some years now, I had forgotten just how good Jay Chattaway's electro-acoustic score is. By the late 70's, early 80's seemingly every low budget Horror film was outfitted with an electronic soundtrack. By then synthesizers had become more affordable, and cash-strapped film producers were more likely to seize the talents of a one man bedroom boffin than a composer with an orchestra in tow. This was an era when electronic music was still relatively new and exotic and many Horror films of the day featured little more than bargain basement knob twiddler soundtracks (Inseminoid and Don't Go In the Woods come to mind). Jay Chattaway's music for Maniac is something else entirely, a dark gloomy work which really compliments the urban menace of Lustig's visuals. This being a slasher film, Chattaway's music comes with its fair share of requisite stings - a tradition already well established in the wake of John Carpenter's music for Halloween, but it's the score's quieter moments which really impress - like the extremely unnerving music that accompanies Spinell's maniac tending to his mannequins, or the thick brooding drones in the sequence where Spinell sets his sights on the couple making out in the car.



It's difficult to think of another contemporary American Horror film with a score similar to Maniac, the music in fact sounds closer to a European tradition, falling somewhere in between Ennio Morricone, Tangerine Dream and Goblin, the opening theme music in particular is augmented with a melancholic flute refrain and a fretless bass sound that might have strayed from an ECM record. Chattaway's score did earn an official soundtrack release in 1981 on the Varese Sarabande label in the US and releases followed shortly in France and Italy. Since then the soundtrack has surfaced at various times on CD and vinyl in limited edition runs, but fortunately the entire score can be listened to here


Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Africa Addio

I'm currently reading Tim Butcher's Blood River, an account of the author's journey through the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2004 during a period of political upheaval and intense lawlessness. With that in mind it seemed as good a time as any to revisit Africa Addio, Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi's 1966 documentary recording the painful final years of British, French and Belgian rule in Africa in the early sixties. The film, assembled from three years worth of footage gathered throughout the continent is grueling, harrowing and at times shocking. Among the events presented in the film include the handover of power in Kenya and the bulldozing of white farms; poachers brutally laying waste to wildlife in Mozambique; mass graves of Arabs murdered by soldiers of the interim government of Zanzibar1; Portuguese troops fighting rebels in Angola2; Hutu violence against Tutsis in Rwanda3; racial violence in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; the bloody aftermath of a battle between government soldiers and rebel insurgents in the Congolese city of Stanleyville4; and in the film's most infamous episode, an assault on the Congolese town of Boende by mercenary soldiers where two rebels are executed on camera.

Jacopetti and Prosperi have long claimed that their film was not invested with any political agenda, but was made as an emphatic criticism of the colonial powers and the chaos left in the wake of their messy departure from Africa. In the space of a few short years, the continent had made the transition from brutal white rule to brutal African dictatorship, with many of the worst trappings of empire still in place. Jacopetti and Prosperi were quick to seize the opportunity to record this era of Africa history as it was unfolding, but Africa Addio is too steeped in the language of the mondo documentary - a package deal of exotic scenery and shocking incidents, to be a truly important historical document. Seeing the film today, any viewer not familiar with this era of Africa history would have a job finding his bearings. Many sequences pass by with little information about when and where the sequence was filmed and the circumstances of the event. And it's this lack of context that condemns the film to be little more than an atrocity exhibition for the armchair traveler. The extensive footage of animal slaughter in the film is particularly disturbing to watch, and while the Italian narrator laments the activities of poachers, one has to wonder if a scene where an elephant calf is torn from the womb of it's dead mother was really necessary.


Roger Ebert who hated the film, dismissed Africa Addio as "dishonest" and "racist", and while I don't entirely share Ebert's opinion about it being racist, the film will do little to alter the stereotype of Africa as the dark and savage continent. Ebert's assertion that the film is dishonest does require more careful consideration. In his review of the film Ebert took exception to a number of sequences in the film, like scenes of white Boer settlers leaving their farms in Kenya with their belongings in cattle wagons to make the long journey south. Ebert claimed this simply would not have happened in this fashion, the wealthy Boers would simply fly back to the Cape, rather than set out on antiquated horse drawn wagons. Perhaps. More seriously Ebert questions the harrowing footage of animal mistreatment and killing seen in the film, suggesting that Jacopetti and Prosperi might have had the butchery staged for their cameras. In this regard Ebert may well be correct - in an early sequence in the film a Kenyan court is passing sentence on anti-colonial Mau Mau rebels for various crimes against the white settlers, including the maiming of livestock belonging to farmers. The film then cuts to a sequence where cattle are seen writing in agony, their tendons cut, before being destroyed by their owners. Immediately the viewer has to wonder if Jacopetti and Prosperi simply had the good fortune to turn up just as both events were occurring ? It seems unlikely. Authors David Kerekes and David Slater in their 1994 book Killing For Culture were also not convinced that all the scenes in Africa Addio were genuine, singling out a sequence filmed on Zanzibar island which purported to show a beach strewn with bodies of Arabs, recently killed by government forces as being particularly dubious.


Whether the film makers used fakery or sincere factual reconstruction remains unclear. When discussing the film for the 2003 documentary Godfathers of Mondo, Franco Prosperi deflected charges of coercing soldiers into committing murder for the film, Prosperi insisted that it was easier and technically better for the film to fake it. If the veracity of some scenes in the film is questionable, the majority of Africa Addio's scenes of human suffering are distressingly real. The film is filled with scene after scene of corpses in various states of disrepair. Bodies are shown decomposing in ditches, viciously mutilated and burned beyond recognition. In one scene a man points to a pile of hacked off hands, a traditional punishment meted out in the Congo. Two sequences in particular have secured the film's fearsome reputation, the execution on camera of two men filmed in the Congolese town of Boende, during an assault on the town by government-backed mercenaries. In the first sequence a man is shot dead by a firing squad. In the second sequence, a rebel accused of killing 27 women and children is seized by soldiers and shot in the chest and then in the head right before the camera.


Despite the brutality of the images, Africa Addio is often very beautiful to look at. Cameraman Antonio Climati's deep focus Techniscope photography, captures a number of extraordinary moments, like a zebra foal airlifted to safety by helicopter and silhouetted against a brilliant setting sun. In another sequence, Climati trains his camera on a sprawling caravan of Tutsi refugees and their livestock fleeing to the safety of Uganda in the wake of Hutu violence. Another caravan of people is later seen in Johannesburg, this time a crew of gold miners, preparing for the nightshift, the illuminations from their pit helmets giving the appearance of a huge swarm of fireflies. In yet another sequence, a certain joviality creeps into the film with a slow motion montage of cheerful bikini girls defying gravity on the beaches of Cape Town.


Today, Africa Addio has become a footnote in cinema history, the film occasionally revived by Exploitation movie enthusiasts and mondo movie fans. Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi did not earn a single mention in the book Imagining Reality: The Faber Book Of The Documentary, Kevin Macdonald and Mark Cousins collection of essays on the form. Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi are referenced in Haskell Wexler's 1969 film Medium Cool when Robert Forster briefly mentions Jacopetti and Prosperi's debut film Mondo Cane, from 1962. And interestingly, Africa Addio and Medium Cool feature sequences where the film makers find themselves in mortal danger. In Medium Cool Wexler and his soundman are caught up in a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. In Africa Addio, during a sequence filmed in the Tanzanian city of Dar es Salaam, Jacopetti and his cameraman are manhandled out of their car by soldiers (with Jacopetti seen bleeding after the butt of a rifle shattered their car window) and for a few anxious moments were held at gunpoint until they were identified as Italians, not British as originally suspected, and were let go. Perhaps Jacopetti and his crew might not have been so lucky if Roger Ebert was calling the shots...

"Keep smiling!" director Gualtiero Jacopetti advises cameraman Antonio Climati, when both were seized by the army at Dar es Salaam

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Further Reading
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1. Zanzibar Revolution, 1964
2. Angola War of Independence, (1961–1974)
3. Hutu and Tutsi conflict in Rwanda, 1963
4. Simba Rebellion, 1964

Friday, 1 November 2013

10 Great Moments in John Carpenter's Halloween

1. The Crane Shot

The opening prologue of Halloween is justifiably celebrated for the use of the Steadicam, or more specifically, the panaglide, a camera which seemingly floats in and around the Myers' house like a silent assassin. My favourite moment in this whole sequence comes right at the climax when a confused 6 year old Micheal Myers is unmasked and Carpenter in a tremendously stylish bit of direction pulls his camera back to frame Myers and his parents in a striking high angle crane shot.



2. "Every town has something like this happen..."

A campfire ghost story as told by Haddonfield's cemetery caretaker... I remember over in Russellville, old Charlie Bowles, about fifteen years ago... One night, he finished dinner, and he excused himself from the table. He went out to the garage, and got himself a hacksaw. Then he went back into the house, kissed his wife and his two children goodbye, and then he proceeded to... Carpenter's inspiration for Halloween was Hitchcock and Psycho, and like Hitch's signiture film, Halloween is often perceived to be more explicitly violent than is actually is. Carpenter in fact found the subsequent slasher movement's taste for gory throat-slittings and other assorted splatter rather distasteful and to underscore Carpenter's sense of good taste, has an ever so slightly irritated Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance) interrupt the caretaker's tale before it reaches it's bloody crescendo...



3. Night Falls on Haddonfield

In a film full of expertly edited shocks, Halloween has a wonderful jolting edit some 39 minutes into the film when Carpenter jump cuts from the failing light of a late dusky evening to full on inky black night. Rather than a more subtle transition from evening to night, Carpenter's choice of cut is momentarily disorientating - moving from a master shot of a Haddonfield avenue to a shot further along the avenue from inside The Shape's prowling car. For me this is Halloween's very own bone-to-satellite moment and with all the character-building out of the way, the film at this point gets down to business.




4. The Thing (From Another World)

Aside from Halloween's debt to Psycho (and Suspiria as Carpenter acknowledged on the Criterion laserdisc commentary), two other films feature prominently during the course of Halloween - the 1956 sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet and Howard Hawks' 1951 production of The Thing From Another World. In retrospect, the inclusion of The Thing has become one of Halloween's most famous in-jokes, although it seems unlikely that Carpenter was planning to remake the film as early as the Spring of 1978. It's interesting to note that the direction of The Thing From Another World was credited to Howard Hawk's editor Christian Nyby, but Hawks' wrote, designed, produced and most likely directed the film over Nyby's shoulder. For Halloween's first two sequels, Carpenter delegated directing duties to Rick Rosenthal and Tommy Lee Wallace yet Carpenter was still heavily involved in the production and filming of both films.



5. Nancy Loomis gets sexy

Simply put my favourite character in Halloween is Annie Brackett played by Nancy Loomis, one of the film's doomed babysitters. Unlike the virginal Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) or the bubble-headed Lynda (PJ Soles), the character of Annie is smart, hip, funny and sexy. Actress Nancy Loomis (real name Nancy Louise Kyes) appeared in Carpenter's previous film Assault on Precinct 13 and most likely Carpenter wrote the part of Annie with Loomis in mind, the actress grabbing some of the funniest dialogue in the film ("Laurie, Mr. Riddle is eighty-seven!") as well as a great moment when her boyfriend Paul teases her over the phone about her being a vamp ("I think that's all you think about!") and she replies, "That's not true, I think of lots of things. Now why don't we not stand here talking about them and get down to doing them"



6. Haunted Planet

Only two brief clips of Forbidden Planet are seen on the Doyle TV set but the most significant borrowing from the film is Louis and Bebe Barron's pioneering electronic soundtrack. In the sequence where Tommy hides behind the curtain to scare Lindsey, he spies out the window a silhouette of The Shape (or what he believes to be the Bogeyman) carrying the corpse of Annie. In a moment of inspired genius, the strange and eerie atonal music from Forbidden Planet, quietly heard playing on the TV set in the background now swells up on the soundtrack to make an powerful and unnerving marriage of image and sound.



7. "Death has come to your little town"

When John Carpenter first met with Donald Pleasance about appearing in Halloween, Carpenter remembered the actor's reluctance to play the part of Sam Loomis. Fortunately, Pleasance's daughter convinced her father to make the film resulting in a resurgence of the English actor's career. Pleasance is quite brilliant in the film as the slightly sinister psychiatrist but Carpenter deserves much credit for giving the actor some wonderful dialogue. In one of the film's most famous scenes, Loomis describes his nemesis to a sceptical town sheriff: "I watched him for fifteen years, sitting in a room, staring at a wall, not seeing the wall, looking past the wall - looking at this night, inhumanly patient, waiting for some secret, silent alarm to trigger him off. Death has come to your little town, Sheriff..."



8. Shut the door !

I'm usually not an obsessive viewer who can spot film goofs and gaffes but this moment from Halloween always has been shouting back at the screen. In the scene where Bob and Lynda arrive at the Wallace house, Bob grabs Lynda from his van, sweeps her up in his arms, and in his excitement to get it on with his girlfriend, leaves his van door open ! In a later shot, the van door is closed - a continuity gaff or perhaps a conscientious neighbour. Unfortunately for Bob, his van door is the least of his problems...



9. The Art of Death

In one of Halloween's most chilling moments, The Shape pins Bob to the door of a cupboard with a kitchen knife (feet dangling off the floor no less) and gazes at him for some minutes, and in a strange canine way, tilts his head from side to side, perhaps admiring this frozen tableau of death or perhaps registering some sexual confusion that Bob is clearly not a girl - the objects of his sexualized violence.



10. The Shape Emerges

Finally no word about Halloween is complete without mentioning one of the film's chief architects Dean Cundey whose lighting and camerawork give the film a truly frightening dimension. One of Cundey's most inspired moments is a shot from the final act of the film which perfectly illustrates Michael Myer's enigmatic credit name The Shape: as Laurie quietly sobs in a corner of the landing, Myer's emerges out of a pool of darkness, at first as a strange ghostly disembodied face, the white mask eerily lit by Cundey's subtle blue gel lighting. A cinematic icon is born.


Wednesday, 4 September 2013

John Fahey and The Clockwork Blind Joe Death

I recently picked up Claudio Guarneri’s self-published, labor of love John Fahey Handbook - Vol. 1, a 476 page compendium of biographical and discographical information about the great American guitarist. As well as obsessively cataloging the myriad of Fahey releases over the years, this book is teeming with weird and wonderful factoids and among my favorites is Stanley Kubrick’s tip of the hat to Fahey in A Clockwork Orange. In the sequence where Alex stands at the counter of the record store, one can see Fahey’s 1965 album The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death in the rack alongside the 2001: A Space Odyssey soundtrack. Of course it’s possible that the Fahey album was placed there by the production designer, but it’s worth noting that in the sequence in 2001 where HAL is being shut down, the malfunctioning computer sings the popular American song, Daisy Bell (Bicycle Built for Two), a song Fahey covered on... The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death...





Friday, 16 August 2013

A Staircase by the Sea

I'm just back from a 10 day vacation in France and among the usual holiday snaps is this one, inspired by Coil's sleeve for The Anal Staircase EP. This pic was taken inside the Phare de la Coubre, a majestic French lighthouse near the town of Royan on the Atlantic coast. If you're ever in the neighbourhood I'd highly recommend a visit, the views from the top are quite stunning, and there's a small museum onsite with various lighting and signalling equipment on display.

Near the summit, 300 steps later...

A treasure of the pre-GPS era, the Phare de la Coubre built in 1905

The view from the top, looming 210 feet over the Côte Sauvage (The Wild Coast)

Over the course of the holiday I caught quite a random selection of late night TV movie screenings - all of 'em dubbed en Francais but I persevered - among them the original Shaft, Picnic At Hanging Rock; The Blues Brothers; Luc Besson's Nikita, a film I hadn't seen previously, and was impressed; a beautiful restoration of Umbrellas of Cherbourg, with Catherine Deneuve at her most stunningly gorgeous; and a really terrific 1977 French-Canadian thriller called La Menace, starring Yves Montand and featuring one of the most spectacular truck-goes-off-a-cliff set pieces I've seen in quite some time. Well worth seeking out...

Monday, 29 July 2013

Inside The Wicker Man: How Not to Make a Cult Classic

The Wicker Man makes its UK Blu-Ray debut this coming October in what promises to be most complete surviving version of the film. When the film's distributor Studio Canal announced that a 35mm print of the film had been located in the Harvard Film Archives there was much excitement among the fan community, leading many to believe that the film would now be seen in it's original full-length director's cut. Sadly, this wasn't to be the case - the original director's cut of The Wicker Man is almost certainly lost forever and despite all the press releases in the last week or so, I'm still unclear about what this new version, to be known as The Wicker Man - The Final Cut will entail. I'm thinking The Final Cut will most likely be the version of the film that played in US cinemas in the latter half of the 70's, distributed by an outfit known as Abraxas, and would be best described as a third cut of the film, pitched somewhere between the shortened UK theatrical version that originally played second on a double-bill with Don't Look Now, and the extended version of the film which was first released on DVD in 2001.

Allan Brown's book, Inside The Wicker Man, originally published in 2000 and brought up to date with a second edition in 2010 recalls in fascinating, and sometimes distressing detail the long and tortuous history of the film which began when screenwriter Anthony Shaffer promised to write an intelligent horror film for a despondent Christopher Lee. In his forward for the book Edward Woodward writes that the film was "surrounded by a strange kind of evil" and one is inclined to agree when reading the chapters detailing the film's near ruin at the hands of indifferent financiers, and later, the complex and convoluted circumstances behind the film's revival in America. Fortunately the book reads less like a dry production report, but rather a black comedy of errors. Brown's writing is breezy and irreverent, each chapter kicking off with a humorous summary (e.g. Chapter 5: In which Christopher Lee relates an interminable anecdote concerning golf and a mime artist admits to constant drunkenness) and Brown skillfully wades through some wonderful stories to separate fact from fiction - most of Edward Woodward's tall-tales are given a wide berth, while a few myths about the film are thoroughly dispelled - the shot of the Wicker Man headpiece toppling over to reveal a blazing setting sun was not an accidental gift from the gods but a carefully planned effect, and Rod Stewart's wish to bury the film to protect girlfriend Britt Ekland from the lascivious gaze of the raincoat brigade is completely apocryphal.

 Crew preparing The Wicker Man for his appointmentment with  Sergeant Howie

Still, parts of the book will make for unpleasant reading for Wicker Man devotees, the film has prompted its fair share of the bitter disputes, chiefly concerning screenwriter Anthony Shaffer and director Robin Hardy, who both claim authorship of the film for themselves. Production designer Seamus Flannery evidently has little regard for Hardy and rarely holds back in his opinion of the director, while Britt Ekland who hated making the film, was in turn hated by the locals after she made a flippant comment to a journalist. And one of the book's final chapters which investigates the disappearance of the original negative is truly heart-breaking stuff. Rounding off the book is a compressive appendix section which sweeps up some stray curios, including a scene-by-scene breakdown of the locations used in the film, Lord Summerisle's introductory speech from Anthony Shaffer’s screenplay, a Wicker Man related excerpt from Christopher Lee's 1977 autobiography Tall Dark and Gruesome, and the spoiler-laden plot synopsis from the back of the Thorn EMI VHS tape released in the UK in 1981.

Inside The Wicker Man is currently out of print for paperback (a kindle edition is available) but thankfully the book will be reprinted for October to tie-in with the Blu-Ray release. Absolutely essential reading.


Friday, 26 July 2013

The Art of Heist

A new issue of Video Watchdog is always a cause for celebration around here, since it first appeared in 1990, the Watchdog has become one of Fantasy Cinema's most important, influential and reliable journals. However, the latest issue #174 has become embroiled in a plagiarism controversy involving one of the Watchdog's irregular contributors Lianne Spiderbaby and her article Emmanuelle & Emanuelle which one might say leans a little heavily on a review of Emanuelle In America written for the Monsters At Play website. Unfortunately, issue 174 was already at the printers before Ms Spiderbaby's antics were discovered. I don't know editor Tim Lucas personally but I do know he's a person of great integrity and I imagine this has been highly distressing for him and the VW team. Tim has posted his thoughts on the matter over at his blog, and will no doubt be discussed in next issue.

Plagiarism is a nasty business of course, not just for the hard working film reviewer but the unsuspecting reader. I remember when way back in the pre-Google days of 1994 when I was beginning to take film culture more seriously, I was an avid reader of the BBC's Radio Times Film and Video Guide, a hefty 1300 page compendium of reviews written by Derek Winnert. I truly loved this book but soon after the release of the 1995 edition, it was reported that the BBC had sacked Winnert as the Radio Times film correspondent after Harper Collins discovered some odd similarities between the Radio Times entries and their own Halliwell's Film Guide. I can honestly say this was a heart breaking moment for me and I now wondered if Winnert had in fact seen Saló or El Topo, two films I was particularly obsessed with at the time and both extremely hard to find (each was awarded a lukewarm ** rating). Winnert could have seen both films but the doubt was forever planted in my mind and I quietly shelved the Radio Times (that's my own dog-eared copy on the left) and soon became a card-carrying, and rather snobbish Time Out Film Guide devotee. Apparently Winnert was caught out when some factual errors reported in the Halliwell guide were replicated in the Radio Times which gives me pause for thought about another well loved film guide (which shall remain nameless) whose review of Aguirre Wrath of God includes the bizarre assertion "Pizarro's men are after the fabled Seven Cities of Gold but Kinski as Done Lope de Aguirre doesn't even appear until the end". A trick of the author's memory or a bit of factually incorrect plagiarism ? Who knows ?

Plagiarism is something that every blogger will reflect on at some stage. As far as I know I've never been plagiarised - I'm not sure if I'm sufficiently well read or well written enough for someone to do such a thing, but I have been bootlegged, if one can call it that. I've seen a few of my Video Nasty reviews appearing on junkyard torrent sites usually accompanied by illicit download links, and my post on the Apocalypse Now Workprint has turned up in various places but luckily most times it's been credited to me and the link-backs to the site bring a few extra visitors in. I've never felt moved to put a copyright notice on these pages, for fear that I might be taking all this blogging stuff a bit too seriously, but y'know, maybe I should...

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

The Keep (novel vs. film)

F. Paul Wilson is not an admirer of the film of his 1979 novel The Keep. The New Jersey author declared the film to be "visually intriguing, but otherwise utterly incomprehensible". Speaking in 2011, Wilson was still bitter about the treatment of debut novel - "The shoot went way over budget, and Paramount says “No. No more money!” Then, Michael Mann hands in a three-hour cut of the movie that needs even more funding for more effects. And again, they say “No. Cut that down to an hour and a half, and we're going to release it.” And it was on their “B-list” for publicity. There were a few trailers on TV, and that was about it. They knew it was a turkey" 1
For all it's flaws, The Keep is far from a turkey but Wilson's contempt for the film might be better understood after reading the novel. Somewhere between Paramount's botched handling of the film and Michael Mann's own screenplay, many important aspects of Wilson's novel were left on the cutting room floor or eliminated completely to the detriment of the final film. The following post is based on my recent reading of the novel and may contain spoilers so caution is advised...

At over 400 pages (at least in the current paperback edition), Wilson allows his plot and characters considerable time and space to develop, in contrast to the film which unfolds at breakneck speed.  Frequently referenced in the novel, but only hinted at in the film is the Holocaust. In the novel SS Commander Kaempffer (played in the film by Gabriel Byrne) arrives at the keep en route to oversee construction of a large Auschwitz-sized facility in Romania, built to exterminate Romanian Jews, gypsies and other so called undesirables. This may seem superfluous to the goings on within the keep, but the Final Solution plays an important role later on in the novel as we discover that Molasar, the keep's sole prisoner feeds on man's capacity for sadism and cruelty as well as the despair and suffering of peoples across war-torn Europe, making his escape from the keep at this particular juncture in time all the more desirable. Good dramatic stuff, but the film fails to capitalize on this plot detail, leaving Molasar simply a caged monster.

A high-angle shot of The Keep set, Glyn Rhonwy Quarry, North Wales

Another dramatic device which Michael Mann fails to exploit is the relationship between Kaempffer and Captain Woermann (played in the film by Jürgen Prochnow). In the novel, both know each other, having fought together in the First World War, but now are at odds since Woermann was decorated for bravery, and Kaempffer dismissed for cowardice. It's a smart backstory, both men forever locked in conflict with each other, mirroring the relationship between Molasar and Glaeken (Scott Glenn's character), but the film ignores this fact, despite Mann including a revised scene late in the film where Kaempffer shoots Woermann dead, which would have made more sense had the two men known each other. The character of Glaeken is also pared back considerably in the film, and with it the raison d'être for the existence of the keep construction. In the novel, Glaeken, an ancient ageless being is charged with destroying Molasar but fearing his life would come to an end upon completion of this task, Glaeken imprisons his nemesis within the cross encrusted walls of the keep. Interestingly, there is a brief moment in the film which alludes to Glaeken's supernatural origin when he embraces Eva and fails to cast a reflection in a mirror - a scene which sets up Mann's original unused ending for the film (based on the book) where Molasar is vanquished and Glaeken sees his reflection in a pool of water, having transformed into a normal man. (The film simply ends on a freeze frame of Eva, with the fate of Glaeken unknown)

Perhaps the most disastrous departure from the novel is the character of Molasar, in the film depicted as a 8ft creature with bulging rippling muscles and glowing crimson eyes. This is a complete contrast to his appearance in the novel where he is dressed like a 15th century nobleman. Wilson describes him during an encounter with the wheelchair-bound Dr. Theodore Cuza:
A giant of a man stood before him, at least six and a half feet tall, broad shouldered, standing proudly, defiantly, legs spread, hands on hips. A floor-length cloak, as black as his hair and eyes, was fastened about his neck with a clasp of jeweled gold. Beneath that Cuza could see a loose red blouse, possibly silk, loose black breeches that looked like jodhpurs, and high boots of rough brown leather. It was all there - power, decadence, ruthlessness.
The screenplay retains almost nothing of the fascinating backstory Wilson invented for his character. In his early scenes in the book, Molasar is initially believed to be a vampire, when the corpses of the German soldiers stationed inside the keep are found with their throats torn open and drained of blood (which prompts Kaempffer to recall seeing a pirated print of Nosferatu). Molasar claims to be a contemporary of Vlad the Impaler and helped defend Wallachia (a historical region of what is now Romania) and its people from invaders, but was forced to seek refuge in the keep when pursued by his enemies. But later it emerges that Molasar (an inversion of his actual name, Rasalom) is not the vampire of myths and legends but like Glaeken, is an ancient being who draws strength from human pain, misery, and madness, feeding on man's inhumanity to other men.


A production sketch from The Keep, depicting the annihilation of the German army

The final film jettisons a number of other interesting sequences from the novel. At one point Kaempffer is provoked to madness when he is visited by two undead soldiers, and there's one particularly memorable sequence in the book when Molasar re-animates the corpses of the slain soldiers (one of them headless) to dig for the talisman buried deep in the bowels of the keep. Later on these zombie soldiers (a nice metaphor for mindless fascist automatons) are hacked to pieces by Glaeken wielding a magical sword (in the film, the sword is swapped for a rather non-descript baton which fires beams of light). The final confrontation between Molasar and Glaeken in the novel, along the crumbling walls of the keep has been greatly simplified in the film. Apparently Mann had shot some 10mins of footage of Glaeken pursuing Molasar within the keep but this footage did not survive the final edit. Mann also filmed but discarded an epilogue of sorts to the film in which Glaeken, Eva and Cuza leave Romania by boat (a sequence not in the novel)

Despite the compromises made bringing the novel to the screen, the film of The Keep is undeserving of the contempt of author F. Paul Wilson and the indifference of Michael Mann. Wilson's novel is a finely crafted and compelling piece of horror fiction and in the absence of a director's cut of The Keep, serves as an excellent guide to what Michael Mann's film might have become had the film been given the support of the studio.

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Notes
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1. This F. Paul Wilson quote is taken from an interview found at The Accidental Author blog

Friday, 19 July 2013

To Keep the Darkness Sealed Within

I love this production sketch from The Keep, depicting a soldier obliterated by the malevolent entity imprisoned in the mysterious Carpathian citadel of the title... Despite numerous viewings over the years - the most recent, just a few weeks ago - I've never quite warmed to The Keep, its mixture of Jewish mysticism, villainous Nazis, tons of dry ice and a big rubber monster doesn't quite gel. On its theatrical release the film was met with a decidedly lukewarm reception - for years the film occupied the exact same shelf space in my local video shop - but its fortunes began to change in the early 90's when Paramount issued a widescreen laserdisc and more appreciative audiences were able to properly savour Michael Mann's terrific visuals. Nowadays, the film is hailed as one of the great lost cult items of the 80's, but why the film has yet to secure a DVD release remains a mystery.


In 2004 a DVD was tentatively announced, but of course never materialized fuelling speculation that Michael Mann has actively supressed the film - unlikely considering Paramount owns the property. Furthermore it's been widely reported that Mann remains deeply bitter about the film after Paramount reduced his alleged 3-hour director's cut to a more palatable 96mins. However fanciful it seems that Mann would deliver a 3-hour horror film for release, the film certainly feels like it has been edited by an unsympathetic hand, which would account for the film's incoherency and conspicuous tonal shifts. Another theory, and in my opinion the one that holds most weight, concerns the long running difficulties between Paramount and Virgin regarding the use of Tangerine Dream music heard in the film, which Michael Mann lifted from a selection of their albums, significantly Logos Live (1982), plus excerpts from Rubycon (1975) and White Eagle (1982). In fact the film has never had an official soundtrack album, Virgin's plan to release one in 1984 were quietly shelved for no apparent reason. In 1997 Tangerine Dream released through their own label The Keep: Official Motion Picture Soundtrack, a limited edition album which mostly included music not used in the final film, and strictly speaking should not be considered an official soundtrack.

The Keep may not have a DVD or Blu-Ray release for now but the film is available to stream at Amazon and youtube is currently hosting a very watchable copy of the widescreen laserdisc.  Not one of Michael Mann's best films for sure but a fascinating one nonetheless and certainly worth a look in preparation for Chronicles of a WWII Fairy Tale: The Making Of Michael Mann's The Keep, a new feature-length documentary due for release at some point this year (to coincide with the film's 30th anniversary I suspect).

Monday, 15 July 2013

Takashi Miike's Yatterman

The latest addition to my Takashi Miike collection arrived quite by accident, given to me by my great friend Dave who initially received it as a freebie from the British distributor Eureka, and Dave who's far too sensible for this kind of stuff, flung it in my direction. So by random chance, I sat down with Yatterman, a juvenile sci-fi fantasy from 2009 based on a colourful anime series from the late 70's. If a frame of reference is required think of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers series spliced with Robert Rodriguez's Spy Kids. From what I can gauge from browsing through the 60-odd unsubbed, undubbed Yatterman episodes currently on youtube, Miike and his team have produced a remarkably faithful live action version of the original series. In the film a teenage boyfriend/girlfriend crime fighting duo are charged with locating some powerful stone fragments before they fall into the hands of the Dorombo gang, headed up by the sexy Doronjo and her two bumbling henchmen. Hardly my thing, but the idea of Miike doing a children's film was weirdly fascinating - after all this is a director who filmed a woman drowning in a paddling pool of her own shit in Dead or Alive. Happily, the pre-pubescent young person in your life is in safe hands here and should go gaga for the relentless action, wide scale destruction, slapstick comedy, and eccentric retro-robots, augmented by some excellent CGI animation and design work. Fans of the director's usual stock and trade should find much to enjoy as well with some very sly touches of humour - at one point, one of the bad guys blissfully imagines himself lying on top of a mountain of schoolgirls, or the environmentally friendly weapons that fire squid ink, and the film turns surprisingly dark for the second half when the Yatterman team are spirited away to a metallic wilderness of cogs and clock parts to confront Dokurobei, the film's sinister demonic villain.


The reaction to the film in the West has been mostly positive but it's interesting to see how the film has been marketed, a tricky prospect considering Miike's fan base developed on the back of taboo-baiting films like Audition and Ichi the Killer. The notes on the sleeve of the Eureka Blu-Ray describe the film as "candy-coloured camp" as if it was some sort of eye-winking Barbarella style romp. Or perhaps it's a sign of the cultural shift between Japanese and Western attitudes. I suspect a scene where a female robot fires a volley of gunfire from its breasts would be completely inoffensive to young Japanese audiences but the British censors felt differently and slapped the film with a ludicrous 15 rating ("Contains infrequent strong sex references", my italics). Unfortunately the film seems destined to be seen only by adults, or at least young adults as the current home video editions of the film - the Eureka Blu and the Australian Madman DVD include only the original (subtitled) Japanese audio track. For the Takashi Miike fan who must see everything, the film is warmly recommended, but for the casual watcher, I'd recommend catching a taster of the film first.