Sunday, 31 October 2010

What Katy did...

The Sarah Jane Adventures
Season 4 Episodes 5 & 6:
The Death of the Doctor
Airdate: October 25th and 26th 2010. UK. BBC1

Woohoo! And now I get to review a kinda historical event because these two episodes of the show features two different Doctor Who companions (gosh... I really miss the days when we used to refer to them as assistants) who have never met each other in the history of the show before and, to top it off, they both get to meet an incarnation of The Doctor they’ve never met before. How cool is that?

Ok... so this episode started off with a bang right from the start with a load of military U.N.I.T types led by Colonel Karim converging on Sarah Jane’s house to inform her that The Doctor has been found dead and that there will be a funeral held for him at a secret U.N.I.T base at the foot of Mount Snowdon... Now before I go any further I just want to have a bit of a rant here!

When the hell will these people stop getting U.N.I.Ts abbreviations all wrong? U.N.I.T has stood for, since the sixties and until recent years, the following: United Nations Intelligence Taskforce! What the hell is all this UNified Intelligence Taskforce? It doesn’t even make sense properly as an acronym! When are the modern writers going to admit they’ve got it all wrong, stop fooling with a bedrock term of Doctor Who history which has been around since Patrick Troughton’s time and get the damn thing right!

OK. I feel so much better now. Vented.

Anyway, Sarah Jane obviously doesn’t believe in The Doctor’s death but she attends the funeral with the kids anyway and, of course, one of the guests who turns up at the funeral is none other than... the incredible and fabulous Jo Grant! Yes people, Katy Manning is back. Remember her from her white suits, fur waistcoats and thigh high boots? Of course, she’s Jo Jones now... remember when she went off to be with Professor Jones at the end of The Green Death back in 1973? Anyway, she’s back and, woohoo, Russel Davies who wrote these two episodes (good thing too, it needed a defter touch than the regular series of Doctor Who has been giving us just recently methinks... but don’t get me started... we just need to give Moffet a bit more time) has written her like the throwback to the hippy she always was. Thank goodness some things never change.

The funeral is being held by the Shansheeth, a race of Undertaker Vultures (which is a neat way of reinforcing the death motif) and it doesn’t take long for Sarah Jane and the kids to realise that The Doctor is still very much alive and that Sarah Jane and Jo have been targeted so that their memories of The Doctor can be harvested and harnessed to make a new key to gain access to the T.A.R.D.I.S which the Shansheeth have stolen from The Doctor... That’d be Time And Relative Dimensions In Space, by the way. Does any writer feel the need to have a go and alter that particular acronym while they’re at it? Oops. Sorry. Forgot I wasn’t supposed to be ranting anymore. :-) They want to use the T.A.R.D.I.S to travel around the history of the universe obliterating death... which is a fairly bird-brained scheme if you ask me... but they are giant vultures so I suppose that’s acceptable.

And then, of course, who should pop up but Who himself... err... that is to say The Doctor, played by Matt Smith himself as his 11th incarnation. The lack of companions is quickly explained away with the explanation that he’d left Amy Pond and Rory on their honeymoon before getting his T.A.R.D.I.S nicked. After The Doctor arrives, of course, the pacing of the episode gets even more frenetic (which is playing to Matt Smith’s strengths) but, you know what? For a little while there everyone pauses to take a few minutes and we have an absolutely beautiful scene played between Matt Smith and Katy Manning which is somewhat similar to the one between David Tennant and Elisabeth Sladen in Tennant’s second season where The Doctor explains to Jo how things are when he leaves a companion behind. It’s played very movingly and it continues to maintain the slightly darker edge The Doctor seems to have these days. Matt Smith gets much more of a chance to shine here when he’s not being too overshadowed by the ever brilliant Karen Gillan. Really great stuff and Katy Manning more than holds her own in contrast to him... as does Elisabeth Sladen of course.

There’s some nice stuff in this story. The plot concerning the harvesting of memories allows for a few fair flashbacks of old Doctors and their enemies. David Tennant, Tom Baker, Jon Pertwee, Patrick Troughton and William Hartnell (the last two from the Jo Grant story The Three Doctors) all get a look in although I didn’t spot Peter Davison... who Sarah Jane would have met in The Five Doctors.

The only real let down in this episode (and thanks to Gullane 2 for the reminder), is that the character of Colonel Karim (who is in league with the Shansheeth) seems to hint at a deeper connection to the Doctor Who universe via a previous untold tragedy and with her (seeming?) death at the end of the story, it looks like it was a bit if an unnecessary throwaway for someone who is actually a quite good character.

Anyway, what does it matter? Jo Grant is back. Rejoice and let’s hope that they give her some future appearances on either Doctor Who, Torchwood or The Sarah Jane Adventures at some point in the future... preferably all three!

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Omen Holiday

The Omen Pentology Box

666 Warning of the Beast: This article contains devilish spoilers.

Ok... It’s been literally decades since I saw the original Omen trilogy and I’d never seen Omen 4 or the remake released on the 6th day of the 6th month of 2006... and what with every horror movie blogger on twitter going nuts about Halloween I thought I might as well jump on the rickety band-hearse and have a go at a horror movie blog too. Although I do feel it a bit strange doing something for such a dubious occasion because the truth is, when I was a child growing up in the late 60s/early 70s, Halloween was never really an event over here in the UK... in fact it barely got a mention and certainly we weren’t plagued by trick or treaters or encouraged to watch various horror movies to celebrate said non-event. I wasn’t even allowed to frolic naked in the woods and plunge my dagger bloodthirstily into an undefiled virgin as a sign of my willingness to sacrifice the pure in heart for a prosperous and everlasting life... let alone dress up in a dodgy costume and threaten people for sweets in a kind of ritualistic, monster endorsed protection scam. In fact, the only real reference I saw to Halloween each year was when the Sunday edition of The Observer would drop through our door and I would turn to that “special” page near the back and read about Linus and Sally waiting in the pumpkin patch all night, looking out for The Great Pumpkin.

But as usual, I digress.

So anyway... I racked my brains with what to watch and I remembered I’d not seen all The Omen movies and figured out, as an extra special treat, I’d watch them all back to back on the weekend before Halloween so I can write some kind of long and winding and hopefully, at least, marginally entertaining review of them which I can try to complete so people can read it in time for Halloween if they so desire. But the real clincher for this deal, the real deciding factor on this was... oh, bugger it. Alright, here’s what happened. I went to the Camden Film Fair and saw a copy of the 6 disc set of the five Omen films (The Omen Pentology) going for a measly five quid... so I bought the darn things and figured they’d be good blog material for this bizarre Halloween thingy everybody seems to be making a fuss about again this year... okay? You dragged it out of me.

But just so you don’t feel irritated about my incredible cheapness at having purchased all these films for just a miserable £5, please realise that I stuck through watching all five of these movies as the quality of them deteriorated exponentially as the series progressed. Back-to-back with an overnight sleep after three of them for the pretension of preserving my own sanity. So it’s not like I didn’t do some work here! Anyone who’s seen Omen 4 will probably know what I’m talking about here and hopefully sympathise. Anyway, on with the show...

The Omen 1976 US
Directed by Richard Donner
20th Century Fox DVD Region 2

I remember seeing this on TV when I was 10 or 11 and absolutely loving it. 30 or more years later... I still think this is a great movie and I can see why it had such an impact and garnered such box office success on its release. Mind you, if it hadn’t been a hit, we’d have never have had to sit through Omen 4... um... no, still glad they made the first one, regardless of the consequences of their success.

If you don’t know the story of The Omen then you probably aren’t into horror films and you should probably be reading one of my other blogposts instead of this lengthy piece. Let me just do a quick run down of major iconic elements for those of you who haven’t indulged... just the basics... killed and swapped for Jackal’s spawn born at time of baby’s death. Son of the devil goes home with new British ambassador and called Damian. He has a 666 birthmark on his head. People know son of satan is around and want him dead. People die in devilish and cunning ways. British ambassador realises truth and goes to kill son but is shot dead by police instead. Damian is adopted and rises to power to be Devil born from politics to destroy the world... yada, yada, yada.

Okay, I’ve been trying to pick apart some of the reasons why the very first Omen movie worked so well whereas the sequels... really didn’t, and I’ve come up with the fact that The Omen has a kind of mystery element to it. The great actor David Warner plays a photo-journalist and his snaps of people show distortions on the prints which predict their violent deaths. Gregory Peck plays Ambassador Thorn and when he teams up with David Warner to find out just what the heck the violently deceased priest played by Doctor Who legend Patrick Troughton has been going on about, you are really rooting for the characters and willing them to put all the supernatural jigsaw puzzle pieces together in their heads. I remember as a child being absolutely on the edge of my seat when each new photograph and clue was followed up. This is a dimension the sequels are sadly lacking but, to be fair to them, you already know all the answers by the end of the first movie so you really can’t introduce much of a mystery element into the material after that point.

It’s a really well written (by David Seltzer) little horror movie and the performances are, quite frankly, all superb and you’ve got a brilliant cast so it’s really not surprising. In addition to the three acting legends I mentioned in my last paragraph, you also have Lee Remick, Billie Whitelaw and Leo McKern added to the mix. Seriously folks, on an acting level this film cannot fail.

So good script, good acting. What else?

Well, something I never noticed the last time I watched it (probably because in the late 70s they would have been showing it in ‘orrible pan and scan on TV) is the composition of the shots in this first one. Donner’s a great director but I don’t know much about his key visual signatures... but what I did notice in this one is that nearly all the shot compositions in this film (apart from one where Damian runs into Lee Remick on his bike and terminates her pregnancy by knocking her to a long fall from a flight or two up) are pitched to the right of the screen. Almost everything runs in perspective to the right of the shot... an effect which works consistently and well throughout the running time. I’d be really interested, time permitting, in going back to some other Donner films to see if they’re put together in the same way. Because this one just works so well.

And then of course there’s the music! The late, great Jerry Goldsmith composed a lot of movie scores in his long career and received his fair share of Oscar nominations over the years... and rightly so. His score for The Omen is phenomenal and influential (in the worst way) and it’s the one time in his entire career that he actually won that Oscar. There’s a great and sweeping Hollywood love theme but the most remembered sequences are those where he’s got a choir chanting latin lyrics, often set to a jaunty rhythm which maybe shouldn’t quite work... but actually does work really well. It’s unsettling and breeds anxiety in the viewer and really serves the film well. It’s not non-stop like scores these days... in fact it’s quite a short score. Jerry Goldsmith was a master of spotting soundtracks (spotting is the art of choosing which sequences of a film to write a musical cue for and which to leave unscored) and it really shows in this film with great, long sequences left unscored, allowing for the dread filled sequences to carry a greater impact on the viewer.

I said Jerry’s score was influential in the worst way and that’s because, every time now somebody want’s to do a parody of The Omen they use Orff’s O Fortuna from Carmina Burana... and the reason they do this is, for some reason, people think this is the music used in The Omen. No... it’s not even close in structure, melody or tempo and I’m always left wondering who it is that thinks Jerry’s score is even remotely similar to Orff’s signature piece. I’ve even seen Classics meet the Movies style albums include the Orff piece and claim it’s from The Omen on the track listings... madness!

Goldsmith’s score would exert a very long reaching influence on all of the subsequent movies in the series, even the ones he didn’t score, as you will see later.

Okay... so if you’re a fan of horror movies, The Omen is a great movie to sink your Halloween fangs into. Which brings us to...

Damien: Omen 2 1978 US
Directed by Don Taylor and Mike Hodges
20th Century Fox DVD Region 2

The one really good thing about Damien: Omen 2 hits you like a ton of bricks as soon as the movie starts... and that is Mr. Goldsmiths follow up score. If The Omen score got him the Oscar, this movie should have got him a knighthood. It’s even better than the score to the first movie... it’s like The Omen on viagra. Fast syncopated rhythms mixed with haunting and often aggressive vocal chanting... it pounds your musical soul like a strong tide pounds away at a cliffs edge. Truly beautiful and sometimes disturbing music. The vocal motif for the “crow” which is one of Damian’s familiars, is true genius.

That being said... there’s a lot not to like about this movie. As that pounding masterpiece seduces it’s way into your eardrums, we join Leo McKern as he races to join Ian Hendry to get the seven daggers which will kill Damien. These are the daggers that he gave good ol’ Gregory Peck to do the deed with and it was established in the first film that you need all seven to kill off Damian... the first to extinguish the life and then the other six radiating out from the first piercing to destroy the soul... take note of that because they really screw that up in the next movie. My whole problem with this opening sequence where McKern and Hendry get buried alive in sand is that this little prologue to the main narrative is supposed to take place only about 8 weeks after the end of the first movie... but Leo McKerns hair and make up look very little like they did in the first one. Seriously, the continuity between how he looked in the first one and how he looks in the second one is seriously screwed.

After this sequence the film jumps several years in time... Damian is in Military Academy and is now living with Gregory Peck's brother as his new father figure, played by William Hurt. This film is all about Damian discovering his demonic inheritance and killing all those who get in the way of his family fortune of wealth and political power. Where he had Billie Whitelaw playing his “devil’s protector” figure Mrs. Blaylock in the first one... and a really big dog, here we have a young Lance Henricksen (Yay! Frank Black’s in an Omen movie) playing a similar role along with a crow and... you know... a really big dog. Unfortunately, having Lance Henrickson in this movie really does nothing to save it.

The first film is notable for it’s violent deaths presented as gory set pieces... but they were well paced and made sense and held interest in the context of the growing mystery of the photographs. Unfortunately, this film seems to be trying to give you even gorier or nasty deaths (woman with eyes pecked out and run over by truck, guy cut in half by lift cable etc.) without really having any need or emotional context to them. It really does seem to be a few set pieces hung together for the sake of having them in there and this really doesn’t serve the film very well... which is appropriate because there is no real story, the shot set-ups are fairly run of the mill (to these tired old eyes anyway) and it’s just, plainly speaking, an uninteresting watch.

Which is a shame but, seriously, other than the music it’s a dull watch... just not as dull as...

The Final Conflict: Omen 3 1981 US
Directed by Graham Baker
20th Century Fox DVD Region 2

Yeah this one’s terrible. Damian is all grown up now and, like his pseudo-father, becomes the British Ambassador based in London. He manages this by using his demonic ways to influence the death of the current Brit Ambassador who sets a press conference so that when the door to his office is opened, a shotgun blows his head off. I was quite surprised to see that his secretary was played by a young, uncredited Ruby Wax and it is she, herself, who inadvertently pulls the trigger on her boss.

Actually this movie could have done with a few more sequences like this in it. You remember I said the last film seemed like gory set pieces written in and glued together for the sake of having them? Well this film has hardly any of those kinds of scenes and you really do miss them. The Final Conflict: Omen 3 is a dull plod of a movie which deals with Damien’s King Herrod-like reaction to stop the son of God being born into the world... but the pay off to that... the scene where you want to see the Devil and God battling in evil confrontation... a final conflict, if you will, just doesn’t happen. At the end of the movie Damien just gets stabbed with one of those knives and dies. Good triumphs over evil and the credits roll.

And about those daggers people. A sect of good guys (one played by Tony Vogel of Dick Barton fame) who are there to make sure the son of God is born and Damian fails are each given one of the daggers so each can make their own assassination attempt on Damien... but we know from the previous two films that this just isn’t going to work, right? You need all seven to get the job done, remember? This just best serves to demonstrate just how poor the writing has gotten by the time of the third movie... which is a shame because that very first movie was really something special.

By this time, the familiar trap of recurring horror films with lengthy character arcs has happened and a lesson could be learned from watching Universal’s old Mummy series in regards to this. If these first three films are supposed to take place over the space of, say, 20 years... how come they are always set in the time contemporary to their release? What’s up with that?

And I’ll bet you can guess what the one good thing about this movie was now. Yep! Goldsmith’s score is a far cry from his scores to the previous two pictures in tone and style but it’s still a corker of a score. I think it’s on a level with some of his work on Poltergeist and maybe the Vger music from his Star Trek: The Motion Picture score. Whatever the style is though... it’s another winner and I think the differences occur because there is a sense of hope and lightness all the way through this one which wasn’t really prevalent in the first two movies. This was the last Omen film Goldsmith specifically scored but... well hold on, let’s not get ahead of myself...

The Omen 4: Awakenings 1991 US
Directed by Jorge Montesi, Dominique Othenin-Girard
20th Century Fox DVD Region 2

Omen 4: Awakenings is a made-for-TV movie which had limited success and was, I believe, released theatrically in some countries... although I don’t remember it ever getting any kind of broadcast or screening over here in this country.

Or, to put it another way...

Omen 4 is a preposterous movie which really tries hard in places and attempts to establish a bond with the audience through some of the characters but ultimately fails on many levels.

The Devil’s son is replaced in this one with the Devil’s daughter and the main female protagonist who plays the mother who adopts this child at birth, is played by none other than Faye Grant, who older readers may remember played the charismatic resistance leader in the original miniseries and follow up series of V on TV. But even she cannot save this awful excuse for an entry into the Omen series.

And the one thing which totally does more to kill it than anything else is Jonathan Sheffer’s unbelievably inappropriate score. Seriously... it needs to be heard in the context of the movie to be believed but I bet it makes a great stand alone listen for fans of Carl Stalling’s work. Almost the entire show is Mickey Mousing it (Mickey Mousing is the term for music which is designed to catch and highlight on-screen action) and the net effect is that you have this seriously comic score playing all over the damned thing and making it sound like a Tom and Jerry cartoon (and I have nothing against Tom and Jerry music, have a CD soundtrack of that stuff myself). It’s like the studio executives just said to the composer, “This stuff is too dark for us. Can you lighten the mood somewhat so we can sell more Hallmark moments during the commercial breaks please?”

And when they’re not playing Mr. Sheffer’s score, they track in a bunch of cues “needledrop” style from Jerry Goldsmith’s first and third Omen scores... sometimes with a little overdub of electronics by Sheffer on top. This method of scoring reaches it’s laugh out loud funniest moment when a private detective is about to be demonically killed and he’s having hallucinations in the street. He looks up to see a group of hooded pseudo monks lip synching the latin chants from Goldsmith’s Omen score and, quite frankly, I was bouncing with laughter at this point. What the f---? Is this supposed to be a comedy?

At the end of this shambling, comic zombie of a movie, Faye Grant is demonically influenced to shoot herself through the head and the devil’s spawn is waiting in the wings to return in a further sequel which, thankfully, the studios never bothered to inflict on us. Good for them... but that wasn’t the end of the Omen’s diabolical grasp for the cinema box office...

The Omen 2006 US
Directed by John Moore
20th Century Fox DVD Region 2

On the sixth day of the sixth month of 2006, Fox released their re-make of the original film. Now I almost went to the cinema to see this because, although I mostly tend to steer away from modern remakes, the initial teaser trailer for this one showing a young Damian playing on the swings who then turns slightly to look dead into camera was quite eerily done and shows a certain cinematic competence (it’s a shame in a way that this little sequence isn’t in the final movie). I can’t quite remember why I never got to get to the last showing before it left my local cinema but I suspect sex was involved somewhere along the line. I could either go to the last screening of The Omen or travel many miles to my (then) girlfriends house and have a weekend full of bizarre, demonic sex... as usual in these things, sex won out on that particular occasion.

Thing is though... it’s not a bad remake now I come to look at it... it’s just completely unnecessary. Here’s the stats on it...

1. David Seltzer, who wrote the original movie back in 1976, is once again credited as being the writer on this one. That’s because the script on this one is almost, word for word with the odd exception here and there (possibly improvised or changed around by an actor) identical to the original one from the first movie. It’s framed from different angles and some of the locales are changed but, ultimately, it’s like watching a new movie run off from the exact same template. One or two differences like a zoo replacing Windsor Safari Park (from the first one) and a slightly different, but no less grim decapitation scene are changes but other than that it’s pretty much a total rerun.

2. The actors in this are major talents and all do a great job except... they are not as great or legendary as the original cast who you are always going to compare them to. You have Liev Schreiber playing Gregory Peck, Julia Stiles playing Lee Remick, Peter Postlethwaite playing Patrick Troughton, David Thewliss (one of my favourite actors) playing David Warner, Mia Farrow playing Billie Whitelaw and Michael Gambon playing Leo McKern. They’re all seriously good too... just not as serious as the originals.

3. Marco Beltrami’s score is excellent but is typical of modern horror scoring. He’s favoured leaving any choral chanting behind and going for sinister and atonal with the odd bit of rhythm and melody... and it works really well. However... why go to that effort when you are going to have six piano notes in one scene, where Liev Shreiber sees the news story of the skewered priest, lifted directly from the sinister lead into Goldsmith’s original main theme, which was a piano rendition of the love theme The Piper Dreams? No other musical reference in there except during the end credits where the original, latin chanting Ave Santani theme is briefly rearranged about halfway through. Why? Do you really want people to compare one of the greatest scores ever written for an American horror movie with a piece of 21st century horror scoring. Jerry always wins... he has the devil on his side.

OK, so it was worth it for me to see this remake to just see what kind of spin David Thewlis was going to give to the David Warner character but ultimately... it really didn’t need to be redone. But I can see why they did it. Releasing it on 6/6/06 was a bit of a marketing opportunity that you can only waste once!

All in all, I quite enjoyed rewatching, in my own perverse way, these movies for my Halloween “celebration”. The first film will get a spin again in a year or two. And the second and third are tolerable for their tap-your-feet-along-video-jukebox-style appeal with Jerry’s golden scores. But ultimately I can’t recommend any of these movies bar that first one... but it’s a strong recommend for that first one if you’ve never scene it before. The way Richard Donner builds up tension and suspense is riveting.

Take a look... but keep one eye out for sharp, spiky, falling objects!

Monday, 25 October 2010

Spare MIBs

The Sarah Jane Adventures Season 4
Episodes 3 & 4: The Vault of Secrets
Airdate: October 18th and 19th 2010.

Ok... second story of Season 4 of Sarah Jane is a solid chase-a-thon... one of those fast moving shows they do so well for kids with lots of action and comedy in equal measure.

It’s a sequel story to one from an earlier season with an alien life-form who jumps into and controls peoples bodies. Said alien is dying from the bite of a swamp snake he got on a prison planet and he has come to free his people who have been “put on ice” by Men In Black... yeah, actual Men In Black (that’s MIBs to you) tying in with all those 50s - 70s sightings but the difference being that they are portrayed here as androids with handy, detachable hands which allows them to turn the dead socket into some kind of laser pistol. Now the trouble with said alien, Androvax, is that he is also a notorious destroyer of worlds (hence the prison thing) and by turning on his ships stardrive, once he has gained access to the underground hanger which houses it and hundreds of other stray vessels, he will be destroying the earth as he rescues his species.

So there you go... a chase story with a handy moral dilemma at the end of it. Do you let him save the last members of his species but destroy earth in the process? Fortunately another, rather obviously set up, solution is found and the earth is saved once again.

Once this episode gets going its a good old rollicking chase story but the episode starts off more settled with a neat little reference to the old Doctor Who adventure Pyramids of Mars (which also starred Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane in it). Also there is an “on screen” video phone call from Luke who left two weeks ago. Hmmm... since I know now he’s supposed to be showing up later in the season, I’m beginning to wonder if the actor didn’t just need some time off to do other things.

That being said, the fast paced episode does well to, mostly, distract you from problems like this as the action really doesn’t let up... although I got a bit worried that the comedy is coming more to the foreground now. If they’re not careful it’s going to end up looking more like Rent-a-ghost than The Sarah Jane Adventures. Hope that trend doesn’t continue too long. Especially when we’ve got an appearance by The Doctor and the return of Katy Manning as Jo Grant to contend with... which airs today as of the time of writing this review (yeah, okay, so I caught up with this one on I-player... it was the first chance I had, give me a break here).

So... a short, sharp blog post for a short, pacey story. Next up... Jo Grant! Yay!

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Womb With A View

Womb 2010 Germany/Hungary/France
Directed by Benedek Fliegauf
Screened at London Film Festival 20th October 2010

Hungarian director Benedek Fliegauf’s new movie Womb is one of those achingly beautiful, visually empowered movies that I rarely get the opportunity to see at my local cinema... but it screened last week at the London Film Festival and, even though it looks like it might (fingers crossed) get a distributor for the English language market sometime in 2011 (which would be only fair since the movie is shot in English), I really don’t hold much enthusiasm that I’ll get the chance to take another look at it in a cinema again anytime soon and am pinning my hopes on a DVD release of this sometime next year!

Womb has a very simple story so I’ll just run through that one before I venture further on why I think the movie works so well.

A young girl staying with her grandfather on the coast of... somewhere... meets a young boy and the two develop an intense emotional bond which is almost certainly love (the location is very remote because this tale is set slightly in the future and the director presumably would not have the kind of budgets for developing a world that looks any different from our own). Then the girl is suddenly whisked away to live in Tokyo. A period of, maybe, 15 years passes and the girl grows up into French actress Eva Green and returns to the coastal location. She seeks out the boy and he has grown up to be Matt Smith (yeah, that Matt Smith... it’s The Doctor). The two fall in love all over again and just as they are about to get into their relationship again properly, poor old Thomas (Matt Smith) is hit by a car and killed. This being “the future”, Rebecca (Eva Green) grows a clone of him in her womb and raises the boy up from childhood as his mother and best friend until he eventually grows back up into Matt Smith again. Things get problematic when Thomas gets a girlfriend and this is like a stab to the heart for Rebecca, who obviously wants to be with him herself... and presumably not in a motherly way (yeah, there’s a pay off). Things get more complicated when Thomas’ original mother comes to get a glimpse of him and it seems some echo of the original Thomas in him sets him off. He wants to know who she is and good old Rebecca has neglected to tell him he’s a clone all these years (there’s been a lot of stigmata attached to "sending in the clones" and he personally has a dislike of them). He finds out... stuff happens... credits roll.

Now if you’ve been paying attention to the way I just wrote that plot run-down, you’ll notice that I’ve used a lot of phrases and words like “presumably” and “it seems”. There’s a reason for this. This is one of those rare movies, and by rare I mean non-Hollywood, that makes it very easy to bring your own spin to the events on screen as, thankfully, nothing is spelt out or needlessly clarified. A fair amount of the emotion and weight of the characters is performed without dialogue... at least more so than in a standard and more mainstream movie. The performances are all top notch and are very reliant on facial expression, pauses etc... what’s left unsaid is where the drama kinda resonates (I hope that makes sense... kinda like a slowed down version of Pinter’s pauses perhaps where the weight and intent of those words find a home between the dialogue).

It’s been said, and admitted by the director in the Q&A after the screening that it’s a very static film. It makes great use of it’s locations which are often photographed when at their bleakest (he really didn’t want to catch the light here... waiting for the weather in this case meant waiting for the sun to go away) and while these landscapes and locations might seem to exude a quiet stillness I’d have to go on record here and now and say that I disagree with the directors summary a little and say that, far from being a static movie, it’s a film where a lot of stuff is going on. True there is a certain stillness to the shot but I noticed on more than one occasion that what I at first perceived as “still” shot set ups were quite often very slow zooms or dollys which gave an almost subconsciously perceived sense of movement to the shots (think of the first tracking shot of A Clockwork Orange but slowed down really a lot).

And then, as I said, the acting is as much about the physicality as it is about dialogue on this one. Now Eva Green has one of those faces which is almost always perpetually smiling, even when she’s expressing sorrow or, in the case of this movie, a long, slow malaise of darkness in the soul... so you have that kind of inner conflict as a point of interest to what’s on screen anyway... but then you have Matt Smith who is, quite obviously, a hugely physical actor (when he wants to be is my guess/hope). He kinda explodes on the screen and his performance here is very much a similar one to the one he does in Doctor Who, although I understand that this was shot sometime before he started playing The Doctor... it would be interesting to find out just how the style of acting he employed on this film informed his turn as Britain’s favourite timelord because it seemed to me that a lot of the mannerisms and sudden exploding contrasts in intensity of character were identical.

And I’m not knocking him here people... he’s great in this, it’s the best thing I’ve seen him in. And there’s one great piece where he lets the anger build and just explode involving a dinner scene and a salt shaker which is absolutely intense and amazing and has to be seen to be believed. If you saw this scene divorced from the rest of the narrative as a clip on TV you’d think this was a dynamic, fast paced, anger fest!

It’s not. It’s one of those movies blessed with a kind of lumbering pacing which allows you to study the situations as they unfold before you and make up your mind as to what’s going on in the heads of the characters. It doesn’t provide easy answers and even though I completely didn’t understand what the clone/robot/toy dinosaur (or whatever it is) was... I was at least aware of what it was meant to represent and the statement it was making to inform the narrative. I’d much rather that kind of movie than something that crossed the t’s and dotted the i’s in your face for two hours. This movie really gives you Womb to breathe on that side of things.

Womb is definitely worth a watch if it manages to get some kind of cinematic or home video release next year. Do yourself a favour and give it a watch!

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Whose hand was I holding?

A History of Horror
with Mark Gatiss
Episode 2
Airdate: October 18th 2010.

Ok, that wasn’t so bad. As I’d suspected in my review of episode one (right here), the second episode of Mark Gatiss’ love letter to horror movies was a little more informative to me in places... quite simply because I don’t know the period and examples of horror highlighted in this episode as well as I do the stuff in the first.

The show opened, again, with another movie parody and I think (although please correct me if I’m wrong) that the Hammer film scene being referenced in this sequence was, in fact, the pre-credits sequence from Dracula A.D 1972... a Hammer film I like particularly well because I remember growing up in that period, love the flared trousers and funky music and... well... it’s got Caroline Munro in it.

After this Mr. Gatiss did some stuff on Hammer and it surprised me that I knew pretty much all the info in this sequence... I must be more into Hammer than I thought. There were two glaring ommisions that I can see, however... at least in terms of what I personally would consider to be the two Hammer films which most reflect how great the studio could be... Quatermass And The Pit and The Devil Rides Out were not included in this show.

But I soon cheered up when Mario Bava popped up in relation to his first commercially acknowledged feature film as director, Black Sunday and parts of the pre-credits sequence were shown. Barbara Steele was being interviewed by Gatiss and she still comes across as beautiful and “dramatic” now as she always did in interviews. Very over the top but charming with it.

Again though, I was a trifle disappointed when the enormous contribution to the genre by Bava was dropped after a few minutes and we moved on to somebody else. After the show had spent a fair bit of time building up the inestimable talents of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, I would have thought they would have at least mentioned one of Mr. Lee’s Bava movies, The Whip And The Body.

There were some other great horrors featured. Roger Corman was interviewed although, again, nothing here we haven’t heard before. And also, my favourite number one scary movie of all time, Robert Wise’s 1963 adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, titled merely The Haunting. This is a truly terrifying movie and Mr. Gatiss was quick to talk about it’s fine details... like the fact that you don’t really see anything and that the house is the dominant character itself, which when you think about it is no mean feat when you have actors like Richard Johnson, Claire Bloom and Russ Tamblyn running around inside. It would have been nice to have heard Mr. Wise tell the story of how he shot it using a new widescreen lense which was still in the experimental stage because it gave the image the kind of unsettling distortion he wanted... but like I intimated in my first review, there probably wasn’t enough money in the pot to do 100 episodes of the series... gotta keep things moving along there.

And after that Mr. Gatiss took me into territory I was really unfamiliar with, I’m pleased to say. The Home Counties Horror angle he’d so cleverly worked up as a sub-genre I wasn’t even aware of was quite interesting to me... as were the portmanteu films he mentioned too.

Now I tend to steer clear of movies comprised of short stories because, well hit and miss is an understatement as far as I’m concerned. These movies never have the time to work up the characters to the point where you can actually sympathise with them and usually end up being much more miss than hit (the one notable exception I can think of, Dead of Night, was briefly mentioned by Mr. Gatiss). But to be honest... he’s piqued my interest. Wouldn’t mind seeing a couple of the anthology movies he covered because some of the imagery looked quite interesting. I’ll have to try to get hold of a couple of those... so that’s one good thing come out of this series already for me. I’m going to explore a little more outside my box on that one.

As for the distinctly British, pagan/folklore movies highlighted in the last segment of the show, well - I’ve never really been the biggest fan of either the Wichfinder General or The Wicker Man, even though both movies feature scenes of amply endowed young ladies running rampant and even though the latter movie features one of the most brilliant and unexpected endings in movie history (right up there with spaghetti western The Great Silence). There’s just something about these two that I’ve always found to be a big turn off... maybe it’s the emphasis on physical horror as opposed to supernatural scares which dampens my enthusiasm for these kinds of movies... but whatever it is, I’ve always given these one short shrift.

That being said, I now have Mr. Gatiss to thank for getting me interested in a movie called Blood On Satan’s Claw which I have never seen but seem to remember having some tie-in novel/adaptation of it in paperback when I was a kid. The film looked kind of interesting and my curiosity is now even more piqued since I’ve found out that Wendy Padbury, who played one of my favourite Doctor Who assistants Zoe Herriot, is in the movie. Will have to take a serious look at this one.

So there you go... a good second episode hitting similar kinds of marks as the first. The one big weakness for this one was, of course, no Caroline Munro interview... which I see very much as a missed opportunity.

Now the third episode looks like it’s going to be dealing with horrors of the 70s and 80s... my least favourite period of movie horror, at least as far as the US movies go with their hack and slash fodder which seem more like dumbed down and less well made copies of the stylish Italian gialli which I suspect must have heavily influenced them. I can only hope that Mr. Gatiss spares some time for some of the Spanish and Italian horror movies which were being made at the time!

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Good Phibes Rations

The Abominable Dr. Phibes 1971 UK/US
Directed by Robert Fuest
MGM Midnight Movies DVD Region 1

Abominable spoilers included.

There were three reasons why I finally broke down and bought myself the Midnight Movies double bill DVD of the Dr. Phibes movies...

1. I’m how old? 42 and still never seen those damned, well loved Phibes movies! Get a life... or more pertinently... get a DVD copy and watch it!

2. The Dr. Phibes movies are directed by a person who made one of my all-time favourite sci-fi movies, The Final Programme. I really ought to watch some more of this guys work.

3. And then, of course, there was the clincher. This was the one really big reason that made me want to see these two movies... Caroline Munro is in them.

And therein lies my only real problem with the first Dr. Phibes (and is probably true for the second movie too) on my initial viewing. A day or so before I watched it, one of the people I follow on Twitter, BlackHoleDVDs, pointed out to me that the lovely lady in question is not really in them as such... and this is quite true. She actually plays the titular character’s already dead wife and is therefore only seen in a few still photos and briefly at the end of the movie, looking lovely as ever, lying in her coffin. And adding insult to injury... she doesn’t even have a screen credit in the film.

So okay, that major disappointment aside... how did I like the movie?

Well it was great. All the spectacular and off-beat quirks which made The Final Programme the film it is are in evidence to some extent in The Abominable Dr. Phibes. Vincent Price plays a Phantom of the Opera-like serial killer who is killing off the doctors who were unable to save his wife’s life after a fatal accident. Phibes himself is hideously burned but talks through a microphone pressed to his throat, sounding extraordinarily good and Price-like for a person of his misfortunes. The mask and accoutrements which he wears over his grotesquely burned features makes him look exactly like, well... Vincent Price.

He rarely says much and just goes around with his beautiful and silent female assistant, Vulnavia, to commit inventive and sometimes bizarre executions of the aforementioned doctors... when he’s not playing the organ in a clearly unfeasible manner or conducting his brilliant clockwork band on giant and unusual sets which seem to be something of a stock-in-trade for this particular director.

Some of the deaths are wonderful... hands up who else in the history of cinema has despatched his victim by spearing him with a catapulted unicorn? And the giant frog’s head fancy dress mask which keeps tightening as it slowly crushes the wearer’s head was, in the context of when this film was first released, a bit of a novelty death too. Other deaths are more questionable than elaborate. Why, for instance, does Terry Thomas just sit there timidly while Dr. Phibes slowly drains his blood. Did I miss something? Were drugs involved.

And talking of Terry Thomas, the cast is full of little cameos by various well known English character actors and this also includes a brief appearance by writer and one time Doctor Who companion Ian Marter. And in a little bit more than a cameo appearance is actor Joseph Cotton... having a lot more to do in this movie than in the last film I saw him in (Island of the Fishmen)... thankfully. He really is on top form in this one and it’s really nice to see him making the effort.

There is no real story development in this movie. The action keeps flip flopping between Phibes going for a kill and the two policemen who are trying to track him down with Joseph Cotton’s help, Cotton being the last of the doctors that Phibes has set his sights on. Everything is kept very simple and I get the feeling that this is how the director liked it. Frankly the exquisite frame compositions, Dutch angles and suggestively twisted imagery is enough for the eye to concentrate on in the first viewing without adding the extra encumbrance of a slowly developing plot line you really have to concentrate on.

Everything proceeds to its inevitable final scenes where the police rush in and assist Joseph Cotton who has been forced to operate on his son to find a key to remove him from an acid trap (Hmmm... crushing face masks, keys hidden in live people... I only ever saw the first Saw movie but... homage much?) which ends up with Vulvania on the receiving end of the acid instead while Dr. Phibes lies down in a double coffin with his beloved dead wife (did I mention she’s played by the glorious Caroline Munro) and embalms himself as his final trap plays out and he “brings the darkness”... which we don’t get to see because, well, you know, it’s all dark... roll credits.

Despite the lack of “the first lady of fantasy” for the majority of the film, I still really enjoyed Phibes and look forward to seeing the second part soonest... I understand Caroline Munro might be in it.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Spud Wiser?

Hot Potato 1976 US
Directed by
Oscar Williams
Warner Brothers
DVD Region 1

Ok... when I first sat down to watch Hot Potato I sat down thinking... this is going to be one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. But you know what... it wasn’t. There are worse movies around than this mess of a movie... but this one is still pretty terrible, all the same.

Hot Potato is a sequel, of sorts, using the title character from Black Belt Jones. I wasn’t 100% sure of that at first because it seems to bear no relation to the previous film (to the point where Jim Kelly’s character is only referred to as Jones in this movie) and it makes absolutely no mention of the “previous adventure” in the main text of the film that I can see... but credit is given to the creators in a “based on a character created by” card which sites two of the original movie’s writers so it’s pretty much a sure thing.

Now I didn’t really like Black Belt Jones in all honesty (see my review here) and it didn’t really measure up to some of the other blaxploitation and kung-fu-sploitation movies I’ve seen... so it would be fair to say that Hot Potato isn’t a whole lot more dreadful than the first film... but it is certainly quite dreadful.

The plot involves Jones and some “colleagues” he picks up on the way, snatching back a kidnapped VIPs daughter from a group of fighty, chasey, bad people (you can tell I was really paying attention here by this point can’t you). There is a bit of an attempt at a twist with the heroes snatching a fake double of said daughter to throw them off the scent but, honestly, we really didn’t need this bit of fakery because there’s no real payoff or consequence to this... it all seems merely padding.

I’m guessing that this movie had a troubled production. Sound dubs are quite bad in some places. In other places, like the opening credit sequence, the soundtrack deliberately swamps the dialogue... presumably because the dialogue was so terrible and boring that they needed to distract you from it. It’s like some bizarre Altmanesque sound experiment gone wrong. There are shots in there with Jones and one of his buddies walking through hundreds of extras with lips moving and no sound coming out that I swear must be stolen shots. They probably weren’t dubbed back in because nobody could remember what was being said on the day.

This really is a bit of a train wreck. Just a string of fights with occasional really monotonous cuts back to the villain of the piece being quite boring and “you-have-failed-me” shouty with his henchmen! And the sensibilities of the movie seem to me to be like a film which has been put together in a rush because somebody in production really liked watching Terence Hill/Bud Spencer movies (that’s okay, they can be fun) and tried to tap into that without understanding anything about the character chemistry and how a fight should best be staged and edited. All of Jones mates act crazy and one of them, Rhino, is definitely supposed to be the Bud Spencer part of the equation. But with a little less charm.

Added to this is an unsatisfying score which is an absolute rip-off of the main theme from Kelley’s breakout movie Enter The Dragon, (augmented very occasionally by the base line of Monty Norman’s James Bond Theme). Seriously, I’m amazed that Lalo Schifrin didn’t sue the producers of this movie... it’s that close... but a bit hollow sounding.

I know this is a short blog again but there’s probably not much more I can say about this one. I think I’ll just add one more comment which should sum up nicely how bad this movie is. In 1978 there was a third film in the series made called... Black Belt Jones 2. Yep. Hot Potato is so bad that it seems they wanted people to forget that it was the “original” follow up to Black Belt Jones.

That just says it all about these three... the hard way.

Monday, 18 October 2010

The Last Tolercoaster Ride

The Trap 1946 US
Directed by Howard Bretherton
Monogram DVD Region 1

And so we come to the last of the Charlie Chan films starring Sydney Toler in the role (although the Chan films would continue with Roland Winters). By this time Toler had been dying from intestinal cancer for a while and could barely walk some days and the last few films do kinda show a lack of energy from the title character. But the Chan films have always had a good supporting cast to share the action with... they’ve never really been completely Chancentric... even in the films when he was without the aid of number 1, 2 or 3 son. And by this time the Toler movies had not only one of his famous sons, Victor Sen Young back as Jimmy Chan, but also the regular presence of Mantan Moreland doing his regular Birmingham Brown routine. So the running around doing legwork scenes could be easily handled by two competent foils.

Even so, though, this is not exactly a great Chan film. It’s a bit slow and plodding and really just not as pacey as some of the others in the series. The cinematography isn’t bad though... but not as brilliant as it had been slightly earlier in the series. Most of the action takes place in sets of a house with a few small scenes on a highway and on a beach. There’s a really terrible beach set which looks really claustrophobic with a load of people grouped in it and which really draws attention to itself when it’s cut against some location shots of an actual beach. But this may have been written as having less locations due to the deteriorating state of the lead actor for all I know.

There are some great little character actors in this piece and... wait for it... Kirk Alyn turns up playing the usual policeman-who-needs-Charlies-help-with-the-case role. It was great to see him in this but, honestly, what a come down for the Man of Steel. When you think that this guy, just a few years earlier, had been the star of the two Superman serials! This guy is easily my favourite Superman (and a solid, no nonsense Clerk Kent for that matter)... why was he relegated to these kinds of roles? Oh well... at least they didn’t make him the “bumbling, comic relief” version of the policeman in this one... they save those kinds of scenes for Mantan Moreland... still he doesn’t exactly get a chance to shine either. Poor Kirk.

The acting in this one is a bit hit and miss. There are some irritating “screamers” in this house! But the saddest thing is when Charlie Chan goes off in hot pursuit of a suspect. How he caught him in his car is anybody’s guess because instead of walking to the vehicle in question, he slowly shuffles towards the vehicle aided by Jimmy and Birmingham and it really hits home that this guy can’t be playing Chan for much longer... he was dead within a year.

The revelation of the murderer actually was a revelation to me (I was hedging for Kirk Alyn’s policeman being behind the murders) but I barely recognised the character and her identity didn’t mean much to me. Just a quick pay-off to signal that the end of the movie is approaching, and with it the end of a second great era fr the Charlie Chan films. Warner Oland was always my favourite Chan but Toler also had a certain charm about him. Never seen a Roland Winters Chan movie but I have, "just one", on ice so I’ll uncork that dubious but hopeful pleasure in a week or two.

I really love the Charlie Chan movies but I’d have to say, if you’ve never seen a Charlie Chan movie before... don’t put this one anywhere near the top of your “to see” list.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Of Mars and Men

Mars 2010 US
Directed by Geoff Marslett
Screened at London Film Festival
16th October 2010

I didn’t know what to expect when I sat down to watch Mars yesterday at the London Film Festival. I’d like to say that was because of a lack of information on the movie through the usual research channels but, to be honest, I like to go into these things with a certain sense of blindness to what’s coming. Consequently my sole guiding factor I use these days when picking out which films in a festival to take a chance on is pretty much not far removed from that whole “judging a book by it’s cover” kinda thing. So this is how I do it when the latest edition of the London Film Festival programme arrives through my letterbox these days...

1. Look for films by Hal Hartley, Whit Stillman, JIm Jarmusch, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Pedro Almadover, Wim Wenders, Wes Anderson, Peter Greenaway or someone similarly cool.

2. Since these rarely come up, look for movies that have Caroline Munro in them (this is admittedly not very likely).

3. Barring that, look for movies with the most bizarrely twisted or possibly x-rated plots (hey, I’m a red blooded male and apparently, if statistics are to be believed, I think of the act of copulation every seven sexonds... err... seconds... err, sorry I was writing something wasn’t I?).

4. Ok. If nothing’s standing out to grab me then look at all the pictures and see what has the most provocative imagery... preferably with a young lady exposing some rarely glimpsed part of her anatomy because... oh, see point number 3 above...

Which is why I ended up seeing Mars. That all important picture of what looked like a man dropped into an animated background (I was sorta half right... oh, alright then I was technically completely wrong on this count) with a definite sci-fi edge to it. That and the fact that I couldn’t find any pictures of provocatively unclothed females (I’m such a philistine!).

So there I am sitting in the audience waiting for this movie to start and actually feeling kinda tired, when the director comes on the stage by way of giving us a little introduction to the movie... which was nice of him (he also stayed around for a little Q & A at the end) and he tells us that Mars is more of a date movie than a fighting big monsters with explosions on an alien landscape kind of picture. And this is not so bad because, while I do like monsters and explosions and ray guns and robots, I am also quite happy to watch date movies too... and it was at that point that I spent less time concentrating on the director in front of me and more time bemoaning the fact that I was dateless in an audience half comprised of film literate females and I got kinda depressed for a short while there until the movie itself came on and was brilliant enough to distract me.

Mars is a great little film. It looks rotoscoped or something like it. Basically the actors are all shot doing the film against a green screen and then a team (small team in this case I believe) of animators draw back over them and then add all of the backgrounds, props etc themselves so it takes on the look of a marvellous blend of photorealistic animation and sci-fi which lends a certain amount of credence to the fantastical elements of the story... although to be fair the film doesn’t venture out too far in the fantasy stakes... and by that I mean it doesn’t get in any way really surreal (except in maybe some of the humour and timing of the dialogue) so it’s more focussed on what it’s trying to say as a story rather than looking extra beautiful.

Although saying that, the film does look really beautiful and maybe, dare I say it, a bit comic-book like? Certainly, when foreign languages are spoken on screen the two characters who do this are framed like a comic-strip panel with the translation of their dialogue appearing in a box at the bottom of the frame. Nice touch. It definitely feels like it’s been ripped out of an old Heavy Metal comic from the 1980s.

I hope the writer/director wouldn’t mind me saying that it does, in a couple of ways (which may seem superficial to some), beg comparison with some of the work of the great Richard Linklater. Certainly the technique (or at least the final result of it on screen) bears more than a passing resemblance to Linklater’s unbelievably cool Waking Life (check that one out if you have an opportunity to do so) which was more popularly used in his adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly. The writing of the characters and the delivery and timing of those characters, along with their whole attitude to life in general also seems to somewhat resemble Mr. Linklater’s work but I’m not saying this is a deliberate move by Mr. Marslett... I just think it’s a serendipitous (for those of us who like Linklater) symptom of having a movie directed by someone who seems to have similar concerns/writing style... although I presume Geoff Marslett is quite aware of Linklater.

And I’d have to say that I hope Linklater is equally aware of Geoff Marslett because Mars is a great watch! It has a real deadpan sensibility to it and a giant shot of humour running all the way through it which some people may not tag straight away but... well, this movies definitely a comedy with a strong thread of humanity pulling all the characters together and it will probably cause you to laugh out loud once you let the movie under your skin a little. The whole thing smacks of John Carpenter’s Dark Star but with characters who are less aggressive and more... “oh, yeah, whatever, what’s going on”... if you know what I mean.

It has a really different kind of score than you may at first expect from a “sci-fi” movie, by Howe Gelb, with some guitar pieces driving the movie along it’s way... a very nice mix of visuals and music which really fits the film like a glove.

At the end of the movie the director mentioned in response to a question that the film has not, as yet, picked up a European distributor (I have no idea if this movie has ben released stateside as yet)... which is a shame because it’s a movie that deserves to be seen by people who will appreciate it for the achievement it is. I really hope it gets picked up soon because... a) it’s such a gem and b) more selfishly because I want to buy the DVD so I can watch it a few more times.

If you like low-tech sci-fi with underplayed characters who move the film along at it’s own leisurely pace... and you like movies that will make you smile a lot... then try to see this movie.

Friday, 15 October 2010

We Belong Dead...

A History of Horror
with Mark Gatiss Episode 1
Airdate: October 11th 2010. UK. BBC4

I have really mixed feelings about the first episode of Mark Gatiss’ A History of Horror, currently airing on BBC4. I’ve got lots of grumbles sure (haven’t I always) but the whole thing was so well put together and showed the genre in such a positive light that I’d have a hard time condemning it on just one episode.

It had me hooked right from the first moment so I really shouldn’t complain. It starts off with what I first thought (for a few seconds) was the original pre-credits, Edward Van Sloan introduction to the 1931 version of Frankenstein and I was all ready to throw up my hands in outrage because they were screening the clip in the wrong aspect ratio when I realised that it wasn’t actually the original version but a really well done parody of it. Some of the words were changed but a lot of the key expressions from the original were used and the guy they got standing in for Edward Van Sloan was so absolutely brilliant at mimicking the mannerisms, intonation and timing of Van Sloan’s original performance that I couldn’t help but be impressed. This was an amazingly well done parody.

Now I don’t know much about the writer/host of this show other than he’s done some stuff with Doctor Who and he was in the recent Sherlock mini-series as Mycroft Holmes so I can’t really comment on the job he’s done here compared to much of his other work. What I can say is that I suspect that a lot of the problems I had with the rest of the episode feel like they are just due to budgetary restrictions and so are therefore probably not Mr. Gatiss’ fault... and to be fair to him, he did start off with a disclaimer stating that he was only covering the bits he was interested in and not giving a full history of horror cinema (like that was ever really going to happen anyway... I wish).

Also, to be fair to him, my only real problem was with the lack of detail and, basically, a lack of any new or revelatory material dealing with the time period he was talking about... in other words, there was nothing we didn’t already know at the end of the programme that we’d not heard before since it was all stuff that has been put in various books over the years (notably by universal Horror scholar David J. Skaal whom I’m surprised Mr. Gatiss didn’t interview or at least acknowledge in the credits of this episode. But then again, Gatiss did happen to pick on my personal favourite period of movie horror for his first episode... the early 30s to the late 40s... when the Universal Monster was King of the Horror Hill and RKO was distributing those fantastic but more subtle alternatives to them, produced by Val Lewton. Quite frankly I could have watched an entire ten hours straight just on the first few Universal movies alone so I guess I was never going to get enough detail to satisfy my own cravings for this particular period.

I was surprised, however, that classic Universal characters like The Mummy and The Wolfman were relegated to just minor mentions given their importance to those early films. Ditto for Lon Chaney Jr who in his time there played all their main characters - Dracula, the Frankenstein monster, the Mummy and the Wolfman and who was the only person until very recently to play his titular Wolfman character Lawrence Talbot. He was a very important player in those early Universal movies but the documentary was more interested in his dad (another great) than it was his equally iconic son.

Was also surprised that when Mr. Gatiss was detailing the end of Lugosi’s career, he failed to mention his poverty row pictures and his infamous collaboration with Edward D. Wood Jr, which I think just about says it all in terms of the state Lugosi found himself in at the end of his life.

And I also grudgingly admit to possibly being a bit of a movie curmudgeon when it comes to this stuff because I was waiting for my favourite Universal Horror werewolf movie to come up, the 1935 Werewolf of London which was their first stab at it and which pre-dates Chaney Jr’s more famous version by 6 years... and it didn’t get a mention.

So, for me, there were some glaring omissions which I personally would have said were essential moments of celluloid history to cover... but to be fair this was probably pitched at novices to the genre and maybe too much to quickly would have been a bit of an overload. And I have to say my main complaint was not with Gatiss’ writing and delivery, which were both concise, well written and well pitched, but with the revelation that one of my favourite genre directors, John Carpenter, thinks so little of the cycle of movies produced by Val Lewton. That was something of a disappointment to me.

Hmmmm... maybe it’s a cop-out but I can’t really get to grips with this series just based on one episode. I’d say it’s pitched at novices but there were some little in-jokes, such as that Van Sloan parody at the start, which were not made apparent within the main text of the show and which seemed pitched squarely at viewers a little more familiar with the material. Plus it had a nice “needle-drop” soundtrack on it too, with cues from the period under scrutiny like Franz Waxman’s gorgeous Creation music from Whale's The Bride of Frankenstein juxtaposed with equally beautiful cues from 30 years or more later like the use of Pino Donnagio’s museum music from De Palma's Dressed To Kill.

So it was all a bit of a mixed bag for me on the first episode I’m afraid but that’s not a bad thing... I’ll definitely watch the next one to see what that’s like. And that Gatiss character seems an amiable enough chap and seems quite photogenic... what with all that gingery-red hair contrasting nicely with blueish lighting schemes. It looks like he’ll be covering the Hammer Horror movies for his next show. Now this is good news for me since I know relatively little about the Hammer films... I’ve literally only seen around maybe fifty of their horror movies and only read two books about them so I’m quite eager to learn about this little unexplored niche of traditionally British horror movie making. So I have to say... I am quite looking forward to seeing the second episode now.

Hopefully it will give me something to get my teeth into. :-)

Thursday, 14 October 2010

'sarah Doctor in the house?

The Sarah Jane Adventures Season 4
Episodes 1 & 2: The Nightmare Man
Airdate: October 11th and 12th 2010. UK. BBC1

Okay. So the successful Doctor Who spin-off featuring one of his most popular companions, Sarah Jane-Smith, who has been in shows with quite a few of the Doctors now but was primarily a companion to the third and fourth incarnations, returned to our screens this week with the first of a series of two-part episodes.

Now I have to say that I always liked Elisabeth Sladen’s character. I was always a Katy Manning guy and would have happily spent an eternity watching her Jo Grant character but Sarah Jane was no let down in the hard transition period between companions and then between Doctors back in the 70s. I even liked the failed pilot film for the proposed K9 and Company show teaming K9 and Sarah Jane which was shown in 1981 and would have gladly watched more of them if they’d made them (although I suspect it must look pretty creaky nowadays... will have to investigate the DVD). I suspect that one of the reasons The Sarah Jane Adventures has garnered the huge viewing figures it currently has for a children’s programme is because there are also a lot of people my age who grew up with the character in the 70s watching it too... probably watching it with kids of their own but I’ve unfortunately not been blessed with that opportunity.

Another reason why I think the show works really well is because the episodic nature of some of the stories coupled with some genuinely frightening stories give it a much closer feel to the old Doctor Who shows of the 60s, 70s and 80s than the new Doctor Who shows have (and I’m not knocking those because I really like them for the most part... the last season could have done with a little more oomph perhaps). It’s certainly a lot more terrifying at times than the new Doctor Who.

The first story of Season 4 is quite a dark one as it mostly takes place in the nightmares of the alien born Luke (Sarah Jane’s adopted alien son) and so the spook element is fairly present but perhaps just a little dulled down on this one. For a while now the writers have been using the stories as a backdrop to play out teenage social issues and this story is no exception as Sarah Jane, Clive and Rani have to come to terms with the fact that the extra clever Luke is leaving school early and going to Oxford University instead. And since he’s given K9 to take away with him, the writers have managed to get rid of both their “crutch” characters in one hit by stories end. They’ve obviously decided that having a robot dog that can do pretty much anything and a smarter than average teenager who is also alien and therefore not susceptible to the same diabolical plot devices as his human companions is too much fro them to write around and have presumably gotten rid of these characters in an effort to be more creative in the way they get their characters out of jams. This has been an age old problem for characters like DC comics Superman... as his powers grew in number and strength over the years he’s become something of a weak character to write for because, well... how do you place him in jeopardy?

The writers of Doctor Who tried to do a similar thing in the Peter Davison era by destroying the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver but I can’t say the stories at the time got any better as a result. Luke I could probably live without (and I say that with no disrespect to the young actor who plays him as the cast in this show are all actually really good) but I think getting rid of K9 is a bit of a stupid idea since he’s such an iconic character. I think it would have been better if the writers had just gotten better at coming up with cleverer problems for “our heroes” to solve rather than take away the characters who are more likely to solve them quicker... but we’ll have to see how it plays out.

This episode starts with the recurring Slitheen exploding and covering the cast with its internal organs joke which seems to have been going on for a while now. I was already sick of the Slitheen since their first appearance on The Sarah Jane Adventures so I really hope we won’t be seeing them again for a while now.

The lead villain in this one is the surprisingly dark Nightmare Man and his make up and general over-the-top behaviour make him seem like a not too dumbed down version of Heath Ledger’s excellent take on The Joker in the last Batman movie... I guess kids these days are less scared by stuff like that than they used to be.

Not the greatest story we’ve had in the show so far but not exactly one of the best either. Am looking forward to the much promoted Death of the Doctor story in a few weeks time with Matt Smith as the Doctor and the long awaited return of Katy Manning as Jo Grant. The next story looks like it could be a good one too... with some Men In Black looking robots of death in it.

Will let you know how that one works out.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Feline Groovy

The Black Cat
1981 Italy
Directed by
Lucio Fulci
Shameless Screen Entertainment
DVD Region 0

I always have mixed feelings about Lucio Fulci. Sure Zombie Flesh Eaters (aka Zombi aka Zombi 2 depending on which country’s print you happen to be viewing at the time) was an okay movie in that some of the shot compositions are nice (visually it’s like the spiritual cousin of Breakfast At Tiffanys) and in that it never really takes you out of your comfort zone so it’s one of those films you can just relax to. But he also did what I consider to be the truly dullest and most unwatchable spaghetti western ever (and I’ve seen a fair few), Four of the Apocalypse.

On the other hand, he also directed Lizard In A Woman’s Skin which is easily one of the finest giallo movies ever committed to the screen.

So I’m never really sure whether a new Fulci movie is going to bring me something really great, something totally dreadful or something in between the two. But I picked up a DVD copy of his Poe “adaptation” The Black Cat and decided to settle down and watch it because I’ve not seen a great deal of his work.

Now Poe is a hard deal when it comes to adaptation because, frankly, he wrote mostly short stories which, if they were done faithfully on screen, would leave you with movies which are only ten minutes long at most... so most movies which “say” they are adapted from his work use that term very loosely. Most of the plot lines to Poe movies are created from air by scriptwriters in an anemic attempt to give a narrative structure to whatever key moments happen in the original short (if you’re lucky and they bother to even read the original Poe before embarking on the script... for example Roger Corman’s movie Edgar Allan Poe’s The Haunted Palace is actually an uncredited adaptation of H. P. Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward).

I’ve now seen at least five different adaptations of Poe’s The Black Cat and I have to say that this version is no exception to the above rule. Fulci’s version certainly goes off on it’s own tangents throughout the course of the movie but I also have to say, in all fairness to him, that he manages to hit more of those elements which were part and parcel of the original story than most versions I’ve watched.

This is basically how the Poe version goes...

The story is about a man who hates a cat so much he gouges out its eye. After a while he kills it by hanging it but after a fire in his house the shape of the hanging cat is etched on the wall in the soot. After being haunted by the presence of an identical, one eyed cat which one is to presume is the original cat reincarnated, he goes to kill it with an axe but accidentally kills his wife instead. He walls her body up in the cellar and nearly gets away with his crime when the police investigate but just as they are about to leave a wailing from behind the wall is heard. The police knock down the wall and find the corpse of the wife with the wailing cat on it. To quote Poe, “I had walled the monster up within the tomb!”

Most of these elements from Poe are in place in the Fulci movie (I was impressed by the inclusion of the spectre of the hanged cat on the wall after a fire) although a lot of other stuff is thrown in to the mix to make it a full length feature. Like the fact that the cat in this one seems to be a killer cat of death and is going around causing the murders with it’s slinky feline antics. And the fact that it somehow seems to be able to control the minds of others, including that of a spiritualist who “owns “the cat, played by Patrick Magee (The Final Programme, A Clockwork Orange) a year before his death, in his own unique manner as always.

The cast is rounded out by some familiar names to people who like to watch gialli and horror films. Such luminaries as Mimsy Farmer (Four Flies on Grey Velvet, Autopsy), David Warbeck (Twins of Evil, Razor Blade Smile) and Dagmer Lassander (Femina Ridens, Werewolf Woman, Forbidden Photos of a Woman Above Suspicion) grace the movie with their presence and their collective presence is one of the main factors in helping to lift the movie above the expectations of a jaded audience.

Another factor is the absolutely superb lighting and framing which one would normally expect to find in a giallo more than a horror movie. There’s some really nice things going on here and, from what I’ve seen of the Shameless label so far, they seem to have a bit of a knack when it comes to picking out films which have a very strong and memorable visual flair. People tend not to think of Fulci in this light but in some of his films he certainly does some groovy things with shape and colour and this is one of the better examples.

The way the whole film is leisurely shot and paced gives a certain sense of atmosphere which is not always easy to credibly create in these kinds of movies but it’s certainly the case here that you get a definite feeling of unease and foreboding from the way certain scenes are handled. The DVD case itself makes a comparison to Hammer in terms of the mood conveyed in this picture but I think, in this particular case (or even on this particular case ;-) they are doing the Fulci movie a disservice since it gives off way more dread than the average Hammer movie (with one notable fumble which I will highlight in a minute).

Also thrown into this artistic stew of a movie is a vibrant and jaunty score by Pino Donnagio which is at times reminiscent of some of his earlier work, notably the score he provided for Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. I say jaunty because there is, perhaps, a certain sense of some scenes being either notably overscored or, perhaps, inappropriately scored. The point of view shots taken from the cat’s perspective are maybe a little bit “over jolly” and are feintly reminiscent of some of his later works, most notably the theme associated with the little boy in Dario Argento’s Trauma. But mostly it’s pretty good Donnagio and he’s always worth a listen and can always be relied upon to bring a Hermmannesque sensibility to proceedings when it is called for.

The only real major fumble in the whole movie (apart from an unexpected “oh-he-wasn’t-killed-after-all” moment with one of the characters) is when the tension is building as Mimsy Farmer explores Patrick Magee’s house and is transfixed by the gaze of the cat... the cat unexpectedly teleports to another place in the room with a Donnagio musical flourish, reminiscent of the way Mr. Benn used to change clothes in the fancy dress shop on children’s TV. This may well kill the atmosphere for you and leave you to erupt in fits of laughter... you’ve been warned on that one!

The transfer and print quality is everything you’ve come to expect form a Shameless release (with the usual choice of a reversible sleeve). It’s worth checking out this and other releases because there are some real gems in their black cat-alogue (err... sorry, I meant back catalogue... getting carried away again).

This is probably not the most enthralling adaptation of Poe’s work that you’ll see but it is unique in some of the elements of the original story it gets up onto the screen and it’s a more atmospheric side of Fulci that you might not have glimpsed before. Definitely one to add to the pile for late night, alcohol fuelled viewing this Halloween. Give it a shot!

Monday, 11 October 2010

Origins of the Specious

X-Men Origins: Wolverine 2009 US
Directed by Gavin Hood
20th Century Fox DVD Region 2
Please note that the following blog post contains big, furry spoilers and that the very first statement contains levels of irony which may just ratchet up into sarcasm.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine is not, I’m sure, a quick attempt to cash in on the commercial and artistic success of the first two X-Men movies and the commercial success of the pretty rubbishy third X-Men movie. I’m sure that the directors and producers were not in any way interested in jumping on a partially successful franchise bandwagon and were only interested in making this movie from a purely artistic perspective.

Right! Having got that out of the way... X-Men Origins: Wolverine is a partially successful prequel to events that were a running thread in the first two X-Men movies. But there are some pretty basic problems with the way this one has turned out which is a shame because it’s actually not a bad movie... quite entertaining, in fact, as a modern, action-exploitation flick.

It opens in the 19th Century with Logan accidentally killing his father with some bone claws which come up from his hand for the first time in his life and his newly discovered brother and he running from their pursuers. This segues into a really quite fresh, narrative credits sequence where the grown up brothers played by Hugh Jackman (reprising his successful Wolverine role) and Liev Schrieber are shown taking part in various violent conflicts over the years (American Civil War, World War 1, World War 2, Vietnam etc) and demonstrating that these characters don’t actually age and leading up to the time frame of the movie, which is presumably 10 or so years before the events of the first X-Men movie.

The movie starts off post credits with Wolverine and his brother being shot by a firing squad and then returning to life to demonstrate their peculiar powers. Schreiber’s character Victor has retractable fingernails reminiscent of Wolvie’s claws. They join up with a group of mutants lead by Stryker, played here by Danny Huston - filling in as a slightly younger version of the character Brian Cox played in X-Men 2. Now Brian Cox is a legend of an actor and Danny Huston is also a really great actor as it happens, but he’s not really playing it like Brian Cox and he’s really no substitute for him. It’s not his fault, he does a really terrific job in this... it’s just that it’s a bit of a tall order for any actor to fill those particular shoes methinks. The mutant team is pretty much a group of mercenaries and after you’ve seen them in action, Wolverine quits and walks out on them and his brother because, basically, he isn’t into killing innocent people.

We then flash to a couple of years later where the team is pretty much disbanded and Wolverine is living with his “one true love” when old team members start getting killed off and Stryker tries to get Logan to find out who’s killing them. Which he almost succeeds in doing when Victor is revealed as the killer and Wolverines partner lies dead and covered in blood. The plot is more twisted than that (which you’ll guess soon enough) but, suffice it to say, Wolvie is conned into having adamantium metal coating his skeleton and the events which are flashbacks in the second X-Men movie play out. Then Wolverine figures out what’s going on and goes rogue... teaming up with mutant Gambit to take out Stryker and rescue a bunch of young mutants who Stryker is using as guinea pigs.

But, like I said, the movie has some problems too.

Like not having any point and not actually being an origin story as the title may suggest? At no point in the narrative do you find out a) Why Wolverine and Victor are suddenly blessed with pretty much immortality or b) why they have retractable claw thing’s hidden beneath their flesh. What’s going on?

And as for the events which take place in flashback in the second movie... well we’ve seen the salient points before. What’s the point in doing a retread? Oh, right... for art. I remember.

There are appearances from younger incarnations from the other X-Men movies in this and an appearance by a badly CGI "younged-up" Patrick Stewart right near the end... but ultimately, it’s not even like the writers of this could give you any real pay off on the villain front. You already know that Stryker goes on to live and prosper and the events which cause Wolverine to lose his memory are, frankly, preposterous.

The nice thing about the direction and the way things are handled on this one, to it’s credit, is that it doesn’t try to be anything other than what it is... which is a nicely crafted but unassuming, modern B-movie. No sense of epicness really attached to it to confuse the issue.

There doesn’t seem to be much scope for a sequel to this one but it made enough money that Hollywood is trying to get a second Wolverine story made. If they’re smart they’ll maybe set it after the events of X-Men 3 rather than try to fill in any imaginary gaps between the first solo Wolvie movie and the first X-Men movie. Wasn’t really looking forward to the prospect of seeing another one of these to be honest but it seems that, as of the time of writing this, one of the greatest living directors - Darren Aronofsky - is in talks to have a go in the next step in the franchise (he’s worked with Jackman before on The Fountain) and it’s suddenly become something I very much want to see happen.

So should you see this one?

I guess the answer lies in what you thought of the first two films! Basically, X-Men Origins: Wolverine is never going to win any awards for being a great movie but it is quite fast paced and well performed. At the end of the day it’s nowhere near as good as the first two X-Men movies... but it’s a whole lot better than the third X-Men movie so if you hated that one as much as me... maybe you’ll get something out of this one.