Thursday, 27 March 2014

Notes on Recent Viewings

Death Line (DVD, MGM)
London Under, Peter Ackroyd's wonderful book on the city's secret subterranean world sent me back to Gary Sherman's classic 1972 Horror about a feral man who forages on the London Underground for food - the food being unsuspecting commuters spirited away to the dark serpentines of an abandoned tube station... Pete Walker's 1974 film Frightmare has often been cited as the Britain's own Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but Death Line actually anticipates Hopper's film in some respects, with both films featuring interesting parallels - families reared on human flesh, a not entirely unsympathetic monster, and a heroine trapped inside a charnel house of decomposing flesh and skeletal leftovers. And if The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has at least one great moment of technical prowess (the low angle traveling shot underneath the swing chair), Death Line actually trumps it with a stunning five minute unbroken tracking shot thru the cannibal's lair, which justifiably earned camera operator Colin Corby a place on the front credits. And there's enormous fun to be had from Donald Pleasance playing an obnoxious cockney cooper. Unmissable.

Holocaust 2000 (TV, Horror Channel)
Alberto De Martino's 1977 film is such a slavish imitator of The Omen, one might be tempted to give it a wide berth, but like Ovidio Assonitis' Exorcist lift, Beyond the DoorHolocaust 2000, a British-Italian production is surprisingly enjoyable. In this one Gregory Peck's American ambassador is replaced by Kirk Douglas' ambitious Industrialist whose plans to solve the world's energy crisis are hijacked to facilitate the arrival of the Anti-Christ. This one ticks all the boxes - strange prophecies, inventive deaths (a helicopter blade lobotomy which predated Dawn of the Dead by nearly 2 years), sinister choral music (phoned in by Ennio Morricone), and plenty of enjoyable weirdness all'Italiana. Douglas was 61 when he made this picture but plays it like a man half his age, at one point shamelessly frolicking around with his topless leading lady (a gorgeous Agostina Belli, looking like she just walked out of an Abba video), and he's ably supported by some familiar British character actors including Simon Ward (Peter Cushing's reluctant collaborator in Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed) and Anthony Quayle (the incognito German officer in Ice Cold In Alex). Recommended.

The Funhouse (Blu, Arrow)
Tobe Hooper's finest studio picture begins like so many Horror films of 1981 with a bare-breasted ingénue threatened by a masked psychopath wielding a sharp knife. Thankfully, the film immediately switches gears and develops into something far more interesting as two courting couples hold up in a funhouse for some after hours kicks but instead witness some very wicked goings-on by a barker and his hideously deformed son... Whether it was conscious or not on the part of Hooper, there's a certain Argentoness to The Funhouse - at least on a visual level, the film's candy-colored lighting and baroque decorated sets recall Suspiria, and actress Elizabeth Berridge reminds me of Jessica Harper (and strangely enough, Berridge's character's name is Amy Harper). The film also has the same kind of spacial weirdness as Suspiria and Inferno - the funhouse itself with its irrational topography of upper and lower levels, blind alleys, air ducts and infernal engine room, is not so much a house of fun, but a house of the damned... And look out actor Kevin Conway who plays the sinister barker, playing two additional carny barkers seen plying their trade early in the film.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

In Praise of the Grotesque: Metal Machine Music

I've just spent a very nice hour or so listening to Metal Machine Music, Lou Reed's "Electronic Instrumental Composition" from 1975, or for the uninitiated a 64min double-album of densely layered, heavily processed guitar feedback. Forty years on, it remains the most fiercely debated album in Lou Reed's long and eclectic career, conservative listeners swept along by the likes of Transformer, Coney Island Baby and New York will inevitably hate it, dismissing it as either a career suicide note, or a cynical record-contract breaker; while the more progressively-minded will recognize the pivotal influence of Metal Machine Music on the Industrial scene, and the avant-rock and power electronics movements that followed. It's one of my three favourite Lou Reed albums, jostling for pole position alongside Lou's 1971's doom cycle Berlin, and a more recent arrival, 2007's Hudson River Meditations, a collection of soothing tones and drones which was to be Lou's curtain call. The first time I heard any music from Metal Machine Music was back in the mid-90's, not from the album itself but on Sonic Youth's 1985 record Bad Moon Rising - a few seconds of music from Side 4 was looped for the segue way from Brave Men Run into Society Is A Hole (track 2, 3:22min). Around this time Metal Machine Music was not easy to hear, copies of the original double LP had long since dried up and the first CD edition which arrived courtesy of the Great Expectations label in 1991 was difficult to get hold of. For ages I combed through the pages of Record Collector magazine looking for an affordable vinyl copy and as luck would have it I found an original RCA pressing in a steep-stair-cased basement record store in Dublin (on Wicklow St). Finally, after an exchange of 30 pounds (a fortune for this teenager in 1997) Metal Machine Music was mine.

My Metal Machine Music collection: top - the original gatefold RCA double album
bottom left - 2000 Buddha remastered CD edition, bottom right - 1991 Great Expectations CD edition

In the years of writing about Metal Machine Music, it's become a well worn cliche to award the listener some sort of citation for making it to the end of the album. Reed himself who famously blew hot and cold about his creation once remarked "Anyone who gets to side four is dumber than I am". I began this post after listening to the complete album and in the time it's taken me to marshal my thoughts to get to this point, I'm well into my second pass of the album. The music is so staggeringly pyschedelic I find my mind straying from the task at hand to ride in Metal Machine Music's whirlwind of sound, its mad chorus of voices, each one trying to get its spoke in before being shouted down by another. And in that sense I think the music is closer to the volcanic free jazz of Coltrane's Ascension and Peter Brötzmann's Machine Gun than the electronic soundscapes of Stockhausen or Xenakis. Unfortunately I no longer own a record player so nowadays my weapon of choice is the Buddha CD from 2000, and despite it sounding less spikier, less grainier than the vinyl edition, it's still the best CD version of the album and contains about 30secs of the famous locked groove at the climax of Side 4 which resulted in the last few seconds of the album looping ad infinitum until the listener manually lifts the needle off the groove.

Monday, 17 March 2014

In Ruins: The Once Great Houses of Ireland

I believe that another dimension, a spirit world, runs parallel to our own so-called 'real' world, and that sometimes, when the conditions are right, we can see into and become part of this supernatural domain - Simon Marsden
In Ruins: The Once Great Houses of Ireland is one of the great treasures of my library. This pictorial book, first published in 1980 collects together a number of photographs taken by Simon Marsden of large country estates, mansions and castles that have fallen in disrepair, and ruin. The book also includes scene-setting liner notes by art expert Duncan McClaren, revealing the history behind each property and how these once great houses met their demise - in many cases, they were willfully destroyed during Ireland's Civil War, while other houses were simply abandoned by their owners. Simon Marsden who passed away in 2012 had a lifelong fascination for ghosts and haunted spaces, and it powerfully resonates in his photography. Much of his work was achieved using infra-red film which gave his photographs an instantly unique, surreality and when applied to gloomy landscapes and dilapidated buildings, the results were often stunning. The images found in the pages of In Ruins, lean heavily towards the Gothic and one can imagine one of MR James' gentleman-scholars exploring these spectral vestiges in search of ancient manuscripts. The following images and captions are taken from the book:

Menlough Castle Gates, Near Galway, County Galway
Built in the 17th century. Burnt in 1910

Thomastown Castle. Near Golden, County Tipperary
Built in 1670. Fell into disrepair after 1872

Moydrum Castle. Near Athlone, County Westmeath.
Built in 1812. Burnt in 1912 during the Troubles

Old Castle Hackett. Near Headford, County Galway
Built in the 13th century. Abandoned in 1705

Fans of U2 might recognize the photograph of Moydrum Castle from the cover of the band's 1984 album The Unforgettable Fire. The photo on the record sleeve was not in fact a Marsden shot, but rather an excellent facsimile by Anton Corbijn. However the framing and style of Corbijn's shot bore such a resemblance to Marsden's own work that the band were compelled to pay Marsden compensation. When Marsden passed away he left behind 13 books of photography, some of which are still in print. Sadly In Ruins is now out of print but copies might still be found in second-hand stores. (the book was revised and expanded in 1997). In the meantime, Marsden's official website is a good place to begin...

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Doctors of Distress

Over at the excellent Behind the Couch blog, James Gracey has been tinkering with a Lemarchand’s box and is currently journeying through the netherworld of all 9 (?) Hellraiser films. He’s currently up to the fourth film in the series, Bloodline, so why not pop over, and join him on his exploration of the labyrinth - hopefully after Hellraiser: Revelations, he'll find his way back. For this post my thoughts turn to the flawed but fantastic Hellbound and from that film, the legendary still of Pinhead and the Female Cenobite dressed in surgeon attire. In the pre-Internet days, when movie myths flourished unchecked (remember reports of a ghostly apparition seen in Three Men and a Baby?), one of the more tantalizing stories to grease the rumor mill was of a sequence in Hellbound so unspeakably graphic and disturbing it had to be left on the cutting room floor.

The truth of the matter fell well short of what was depicted in the feverish imaginations of Hellraiser fans (me included!). Hellbound's writer Peter Atkins wrote a sketchy sequence where Kirsty and Tiffany chance upon two innocuous looking doctors in the corridor of the Channard Institute. Moments later the doctors transform into Pinhead and the Female Cenobite. Speaking on the Hellbound DVD featurette Under The Skin, (2004) Doug Bradley, clearly at pains to retell this story (a favourite question among fans on the convention circuit), reveals that Atkins' imagination finally outran Bob Keen and his special effects crew, the metamorphoses of the doctors into the Cenobites was too complicated a set piece to realize and the scene was abandoned. However, the set photographer, much to Bradley's regret, took some stills of the actors in costume, which in turn ended up on various VHS editions of the film (it featured on the back of the UK rental/sell-thru tapes, while the image was given centre stage on the Japanese Dentsu VHS and Pony Canyon laserdisc)

UK VCI budget sell-thru tape - the image of Pinhead in surgical garb is reversed

Japanese Pony Canyon laserdisc sleeve - note the pre-Photoshop composite

Despite Doug Bradley thoroughly exploding the myth of Hellbound's lost scene, the image still seems to crave for a life of its own, and it's a shame the scene was never filmed, even in a less ambitious guise. The image of Pinhead in a bloodstained surgical gown powerfully echoes the film's darkly visceral bloodshed, and nicely dovetails the unseen surgeons flaying a man in Clive Barker's late 70's short film The Forbidden, the man at the end of the scalpel rather appropriately played by Peter Atkins...

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Subversive Horror Cinema: Countercultural Messages of Films from Frankenstein to the Present

Just a quick post to plug my good friend, Starburst scribe and fellow blogger Jon Towlson's new book, Subversive Horror Cinema: Countercultural Messages of Films from Frankenstein to the Present. I first met Jon on a film board back in 2011 and since then we've become regular commentators on each other's blogs. I can safely say I've had the better end of the bargain, Jon's brilliant, stimulating writing about how Horror Cinema has reflected the stresses, strains and anxieties of the age has sent me back to many well-worn classics with fresh insights and perspectives. Subversive Horror Cinema is due for release on paperback in the Spring/Summer of this year, but if you cannot wait until then, the book is now available to buy for Kindle from Amazon UK and Amazon US. To read more about Jon's book please visit this page at Jon's blog, and be sure to download a free sample of the book to your Kindle. The sample includes a forward by Squirm and Blue Sunshine director Jeff Lieberman.

Subversive Horror Cinema: Countercultural Messages of Films from Frankenstein to the Present
on my Kindle Paperwhite

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

He Loved Him Madly

After months of will-they or won't-they speculation it looks like Don Cheadle will make his directorial debut later this year with his long planned Miles Davis film. The film entitled Kill the Trumpet Player is currently in pre-production and from the sketchy details that have emerged the film looks to dispense with the traditional biopic framework in favor of something more unconventional, the story apparently taking place over a day and half sometime during Miles' so called retirement between 1975 and 1979. Ewan McGregor has been cast as a fictional Rolling Stone reporter who lands an interview with Miles and gets "a wild and dangerous ride-along with a recording artist living at his edge, rife with shootouts, car-chases, and a tale of lost love to the sensual singer Frances"1. Hmm...

On one hand I'm thrilled to see Cheadle taking on the role of Miles Davis - for years he's been the only actor I ever had in mind to play Miles, but at the risk of rushing to judgement on a film where no footage has actually been shot, this is not the Miles Davis film I have long hoped for. It was following his 2004 film Collateral that I first imagined Michael Mann doing a Miles film, with Don Cheadle playing the Dark Magus. Mann included a significant homage to Miles in the film when Barry Shabaka Henley's jazz club owner (first seen playing Spanish Key from Bitches Brew) relates a great Miles Davis anecdote to Tom Cruise's cold clinical hitman:
I mean, everybody and their momma knew you don't just come up and talk to Miles Davis. I mean, he may have looked like he was chilling, but he was absorbed. This one hip couple, one of them tried to shake his hand one day. And the guy says, "Hi, my name is..." Miles said, "Get the fuck outta my face, you jive motherfucker, and take your silly bitch with you.
Michael Mann certainly knew Miles Davis - during the 80's, Miles played a pimp in an episode of Miami Vice (Junk Love, S2/Ep6, 1985) and he cameod as a musician in Crime Story (The War S1/Ep6, 1986).

Miles Davis as Ivory Jones in Miami Vice episode Junk Love

With Ali, Michael Mann made arguably the finest biopic in 20 years, and Mann and his writers neatly sidestepped the womb-to-tomb format of the biopic by concentrating on just 10 years of Muhammad Ali's life. My own idea for a Miles Davis film would begin on August 25th 1959, when Miles was beaten up and arrested by cops outside NYC's Birdland club, and from there would take in various stages of his life and music up to his comeback in 1979 when he reined in his self-destructive lifestyle and began recording again. It's a jazz fan's idea of a film to be sure, more Bird than Notorious, but if you've seen footage of Miles at the Isle of Wight in 1970, you might agree this film doesn't need a car chase. lncidentally, the title of this post relates to Miles' side-long tip of the hat to Duke Ellington, recorded in 1974 and found on the Get Up With album. He Loved Him Madly has always been a key Miles Davis piece for me - it was one of the first things that got me curious about Miles' music, after Brian Eno cited Teo Macero's spacey production in the liner notes of his 1982 album On Land. But more than that, the brooding, mysterious, melancholic music of He Loved Him Madly always seemed to me to perfectly encapsulate Miles' dark, complex, uncompromising personality. I hope Don Cheadle's film will capture some of that.

1. Plot sourced from here

Friday, 7 March 2014

Jeff Lieberman on Squirm

Continuing a series recalling little nuggets heard on film maker commentaries... In this instalment Jeff Lieberman remembers seeing an alternative version of his 1976 film Squirm...
One time Channel 11 WPIX in New York showed by mistake Squirm in black & white... I dunno if you can do this on your TV - tweak it, take the color out and watch this whole sequence with no colors and I'm telling you it's 10 times better. I called the station. Far from complaining I said that was the most amazing thing seeing Squirm in black & white... A thing like this in black & white looks great. Maybe we should put that on the (DVD) menu -  a choice to watch Squirm in black & white...
Jeff Lieberman, Squirm (MGM DVD, commentary index point 80:30)