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.

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.

Friday, 12 July 2013

Re-Agitator - A Decade of Writing on Takashi Miike

FAB Press' second book about Takashi Miike which arrived in April this year seems to have come and gone with little comment from the fan community. This may be due to the book's title, a clever riff on author Tom Mes' previous Miike book, Agitator: The Cinema of Takashi Miike but I suspect the similar titles will lead to some confusion. A shame considering Re-Agitator makes for a fine introduction to the work of the Japanese maverick, and in this respect is superior book to its 2003 predecessor. Re-Agitator collects together in one useful volume a wide range of Mes' writing on Miike, from DVD liner notes, magazine and web articles, foreign language publications (Italian and Croatian no less), and some previously unseen writing. In contrast to Agitator which tended to plod along with scholarly dissections of Miike's films (which at the time were hard to see), the writing in this new volume is compact, enthusiastic, and spoiler-free for new comers, the majority of the films covered in the book readily available on DVD on both sides of the Atlantic. My favourite chapter in the book, entitled Generation V: Takashi Miike and the Wild World of V-Cinema (which originally appeared in an Italian anthology) is a fascinating account of Japan's once thriving direct-to-video industry which in part shaped Miike's avant-garde approach to otherwise conventional scripts. Miike shot the majority of his early films on 16mm which were then transferred to VHS, which accounts for the bland visual quality of these early films, but as Mes explains, these films which exist solely on videotape are becoming increasingly hard to find, such is the lack of conservation for these DTV productions in Japan.

At 160-pages, Re-Agitator is a slim book and can easily be read in two or three sessions, but this being a FAB Press production, it is of course a handsome looking, beautifully laid out and filled with high-quality color stills. The book is limited to just 1000 hardback copies (the first 200 were signed by Miike and Mes, my copy is #80) so if you're anyway curious about the cinema of Takashi Miike, this is an excellent entry point. Order the book direct from FAB Press, impeccable customer service and delivery is guaranteed.

 A page from Re-Agitator chronicling Miike's Masters of Horror episode, Imprint

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Images of Brian Eno's On Land

Brian Eno's 1982 collection On Land, the 4th and final of his Ambient series features four tracks named after specific places on the British map - three of the places are located in and around Eno's childhood home in East Anglia, as well as the nearby Suffolk area towards the south east coast of England. Lantern Marsh, is a fresh water marshland popular with gun clubs and once home to Cobra Mist, a long-range Anglo-American surveillance radar station. Leeks Hills is a small wooded affluent area of Suffolk. Dunwich Beach on the Suffolk coast is a quiet pebble strewn beach steadily disappearing due to coastal erosion. Lizard Point by contrast is located in Cornwall and is the southernmost tip of mainland Britain, its rocky stretch of coastline has been responsible for many shipping disasters. Lizard Point is also said to be where the invading Spanish Armada was first spotted on the afternoon of July 19th 1588.

In his liner notes for On Land Eno explained that the tracks composed for these landscapes were not intended as faithful sonic representations of these particular places, rather the music reflected impressions of what a place might be like after seeing it on a map. Eno would probably loathe the idea of revealing these locations to listeners, but I've enjoyed the experience of listening to On Land whilst gazing at the photographs, and the transformative effect the album's dark and unsettling music has on these otherwise benign landscapes is particularly interesting.
Lizard Point
Lantern Marsh
Leeks Hill
Dunwich Beach

Photograph credits:

Lizard Point ("Looking towards Lizard Point" © Nick MacNeill) details
Lantern Marsh ("Lantern Marsh behind Orford Ness" © Richard Law) details
Leeks Hill ("Footpath to Turnpike Lane on Leeks Hill" © Adrian Cable) details
Dunwich Beach ("Dunwich Beach, Looking South" © Stuart Shepherd) details

Additional Reading: