Sooner than you think….The Year of the Sex Olympics

The Year of the Sex Olympics Titles

Although Nigel Kneale is best remembered for penning the ground-breaking science fiction series Quatermass, he enjoyed a long and diverse career that produced a number of successful and provocative pieces of writing for both film and television. Despite working as effectively outside genre fiction, there is no doubt that Kneale’s most lasting legacy is within the field of science fiction, influencing directors like John Carpenter and shows like The X-Files. In developing his science fiction stories, Kneale displayed an uncanny knack in predicting many ideas and issues that played out in reality over the subsequent years and this ability is nowhere more apparent than in his 1968 television play The Year of the Sex Olympics. Kneale’s playful but ultimately downbeat satire on the future of television stands out as one of the most provocative and prescient works of fiction dealing with the negative effects of mass media on wider culture and society and seems as relevant today as when it was first broadcast.

The play was written during a particularly difficult time for Nigel Kneale as the souring of the relationship between the writer and the BBC reached a toxic and eventually terminal stage. Kneale was increasingly dissatisfied with the treatment of his work on the corporation (such as the updated version of his script for Nineteen Eighty-Four broadcast in 1965) and harbouring a long-held resentment over the BBC’s sale of the rights for his Quatermass series to Hammer Films. Given the success of Quatermass both in its film and TV versions (the latter particularly important in giving the BBC its first original serial with mass appeal) it does seem somewhat dismissive that Kneale was granted a mere £80 bonus for his work on the series. The writer has described this latter period of working for the BBC as ‘a bad and bitter time’, so much so that when he was originally asked to contribute a script to BBC2’s Theatre 625 strand, he declined the offer. It was only after the intervention of the BBC controller general, Hugh Carlton Greene, who managed to arrange a one-off payment of £3000 pounds for Kneale in recognition of his work on Quatermass that the writer was persuaded to write for Theatre 625. Ultimately this arrangement was not enough to repair the relationship between the writer and the corporation, with Kneale going over to ‘the other side’ (ITV) a few years later.

Vickery Turner as Misch in The Year of the Sex Olympics

It is somewhat fitting, given the nature of Kneale’s deteriorating relationship with the BBC that The Year of the Sex Olympics was to suffer the fate of many other landmark pieces of television by being wiped from the archive in order to save on the cost of tape stock. After the original broadcast in 1968, the play was repeated once two years later before being wiped and it was not until a black and white tele-recording was discovered in the 1980s that The Year of the Sex Olympics was able to reach a wider audience. Theatre 625 had originally been commissioned in 1964 to showcase the new high definition broadcast format pioneered on the corporation’s second channel BBC2 and by 1968 was a key part in the corporation’s promotion of the new ability to broadcast in colour. The futuristic set designs, psychedelic clothing and body paint featured in the production all served to showcase the possibilities of colour broadcasting, so much so that Nancy Banks-Smith’s review in The Sun newspaper claimed that “If you didn’t see it in colour, you didn’t really see it”.

Brian Cox and Vickery Turner in The Year of the Sex Olympics

The Year of the Sex Olympics is set in an unspecified future (one that is ‘sooner than you think…’ according to the opening credits) and charts the experiences of a small group of ‘high-drive’ producers who use television as ‘apathy control’ in order to keep the ‘low-drive’ masses calm and complacent. This idea of mass media as a means of controlling the population is one that has a long history within twentieth century writing and Kneale was undoubtedly influenced by authors like Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. One of Kneale’s early triumphs as a television writer was his adaptation of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954) and he also developed a script of Huxley’s Brave New World although this was sadly never produced. This strand of writing is often valorised for its predictive insight, Kneale always claimed that he had little interest in predictive fiction, instead preferring to write about his experiences of the present and extrapolating on contemporary trends and ideas.

Competitors on The Year of the Sex Olympics

The Year of the Sex Olympics develops two broad themes that Kneale found particularly fascinating and also dangerous at the time. The first was the trend towards what we might now call the ‘dumbing down’ of television as a media form. The drift towards increasingly sensationalist and ‘base’ elements of sex and violence that Kneale had witnessed first-hand as British TV moved towards an ever more commercialised model, combined with the writer’s growing dissatisfaction at the BBC, help lend a biting satirical edge to the drama. In Kneale’s vision, this shift towards lowest common denominator entertainment is taken to its ultimate conclusion in a world where pornography has become the commonplace staple of television scheduling. In this future world, pornography is not intended to excite or incite the viewer but to pacify them in order to enact the abiding principle of  ‘watch not do’. This pacifying effect serves to keep the masses of ‘low-drive’ people calm and controlled as well as suppressing the potential of undesirable population growth.  The focus on sex and pornography as a means of pacifying a population is drawn from another of the themes of Kneale’s work which characterised his work during the late 1960s and early 70s – his increasing concern over the growing permissiveness of youth culture. The breakdown of existing structures of morality and hierarchy that youth culture represented was something that Kneale saw as heralding an uncertain future, claiming that;  “Inhibitions are like the bones in a creature. You pull all the bones out and you get a floppy jelly”.  This unease formed the basis of much of Kneale’s writing at this time with a number of other plays like Bam! Pow! Zap (1969) and The Chopper (1971) as well as resurfacing in the final Quatermass (1979) series produced by Thames Television following his move to ITV.

 

It is in developing these themes emerging from Kneale’s contemporary experiences that the writer uncannily seems to predict a number of more recent developments and debates surrounding television. This ability to predict has led a number of critics (such as Kim Newman and Mark Gatiss) to suggest that above all other writers, Kneale was the one who at the end of his life could claim ‘I was right!’ and it is no accident that one of the most commonly used to words to describe The Year of the Sex Olympics is ‘prescient’. The audience sampler from The Year of the Sex OlympicsAlthough some of the futuristic detail – auto-chess machines  and garish psychedelic clothing  seem dated and somewhat comical (an established occupational hazard for those writing future fiction) – the themes that Kneale uses to develop the drama both anticipate and extrapolate on many contemporary issues. His development of ideas relating to the effects ‘dumbing down’ of television is not limited merely to the move towards more sexualised modes of entertainment but also astutely highlights the growing reliance on the focus group as a means of gauging notions of what a ‘successful’ programme might be. olympicsThe producers in Kneale’s future world pay attention to two vital studio monitors; one depicting the non-stop pornography of  programmes like Artsex and Sportsex, the other – labelled ‘Audience Sampler – showing a group of ‘low-drive’ viewers whose apathy and emotional responses are constantly monitored and analysed in order to make sure programming is having the necessary calming effect on the viewing public. The dialogue of the play is delivered as a honed down and jargon heavy patois, reflecting the degradation of the English language.  The corrupting influence of advertising and media-speak has ensured that speech has become simplified; now devoid of any ‘oldstyle’ words that might evoke feelings of discontent or ‘tension’ in the mind of the public.

There is no doubt however, that it is the way that Kneale anticipates the invention of reality television midway through the drama – some thirty years before producers actually began making such programmes – that is most startling. When producer Nat Meander (Tony Vogel) pitches his idea for a new type of television programme based on ‘olddays’ reality it is hard not to be impressed with the almost fully rounded description of more contemporary shows like Big Brother and most notably the BBC’s Castaway. What makes Kneale’s writing and imagination even more incisive is that he immediately recognises the potential for the manipulation of events in such programming in a way that maximises the suffering and discomfort of the participants. The Live Life Show from 'Artsex' from The Year of the Sex OlympicsThe accidental death of a would be artist broadcast live on air produces cathartic laughter from the sample audience – in the words of co-ordinater Ugo Priest (Leonard Rossiter) ‘jumbo laughs from all over!” –  and acts as a spur to cynically manipulate the subsequent narrative of The Live Life Show. The principle of ‘watch not do’ is extended to recognise the entertaining and purgative pleasure of watching the suffering of others – the producers realising that the depiction of ‘tension’ (in this case physical and spiritual suffering) can aid the process of apathy control. As ambitious producer Lasar Opie (Brian Cox) realises, the audience enjoy pain and suffering because ‘it not happen to them’. Armed with this chilling principle, Kneale develops the idea to develop an increasingly human drama, driving The Year of the Sex Olympics towards a bleak and horrifying conclusion. What starts as a somewhat stagey looking and curious piece of future fiction develops gradually into one of the most challenging pieces of landmark television which still has the power to chill our blood and raise pertinent questions about our media culture today. As the final credits roll viewers may find themselves haunted by the opening line that introduces the play, “sooner than you think”…

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All aboard for the Horror Express!

Horror Express poster

This is one of those films I first came across on late Friday night TV when I was an impressionable pre-teen lad searching for nocturnal movie thrills. This late night schedule-filling role reflects the poor treatment that this film was afforded over many years. For a long time Horror Express was treated by television and video companies alike as a piece of throwaway public domain tat before eventually attaining the honourable status it holds today, as one of the best cult-horror movies of the 1970s.

Monster in the ice from Horror Express

This lurid tale of terror on the Trans-Siberian railway (the Spanish title of the film is the wonderful Panico en el Transiberiano) packs a lot of thrills into its modest 87 minute running time. The combination of horror, sci-fi and adventure incorporates an exotic setting, mysterious European beauties, gory murders, an impressive body count and a stellar international cast. It even has a slightly cheesy (but somewhat haunting) musical score (courtesy of John Cacavas) based around a mournful whistling motif that wouldn’t be out of place in a spaghetti western. In many ways Horror Express ticks many familiar boxes but thanks to a slightly unhinged but inventive story, innovative (albeit cheap) special effects and the calibre of the star turns, the film elevates itself into something that amounts to much more than the sum of its parts.

The film tells the story of the ill-fated journey of a range of colourful Edwardian characters aboard the Trans-Siberian express. Christopher Lee in Horror ExpressUnbeknownst to the rest of the passengers, Professor Sir Alexander Saxon (Christopher Lee) is shipping his latest archaeological find across continent, not realising the havoc his find will unleash. Before long the hairy beast emerges from the lump of Manchurian ice from whence it came to begin a rampage of murder and mayhem that leaves a trail of destruction in its wake. As the train thunders along the snowy plains of central Asia, the death toll mounts to engulf the increasingly terrified passengers and ultimately the whole thing spirals towards a tumultuous and destructive climax.

This promising storyline is not particularly novel in itself but the material is skilfully developed by director Eugenio Martin (billed on initial release – in true Euro-pudding-co-production style – as ‘Gene Martin’) who expertly blends a number of key elements to create the perfect beast of a horror movie. As the story becomes ever more fantastic, the film manages to successfully combine  a range of genres and ideas that are ably harnessed in order  to keep the action moving along at breakneck speed. The beast attacks in Horror ExpressAlthough most elements of the story are somewhat derivative, the sheer range of ideas combine to give the film a welcome verve and energy. The idea of an ancient creature pulled from the ice and inhabited by an alien intelligence that is able to pass undetected from successive human hosts is clearly inspired by John W. Campbell’s 1938 short story Who Goes There? or the two versions of the tale filmed as The Thing in 1951 and 1982. This mixture of science-fiction ideas with elements of Edwardian boy’s own adventure provides a refreshing backdrop for the murderous horror that follows. Horror-Express-bleeding-eyesThe ensuing scenes of beastly murder are confidently staged as the alien intelligence sucks out the life-force from each unfortunate victim. The simple effects of blood oozing from the nose and eyes (even as they turn to a fishy white) are queasily effective and one of the elements of the film that set it apart from its more mundane counterparts.

There is little doubt however, that it is the wonderful cast of Horror Express that gives the film its particular classy take on the Euro-exploitation film. The familiar pairing of Hammer stalwarts Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing (as the rival archaeologist Dr. Wells) inevitably adds gravitas to the fantastic proceedings. Their ability to convincingly deliver the most incredulous dialogue is aptly demonstrated in Horror Express (as shown in the trailer below) and the pair provide an element of stability to counter the rapidly unfolding and increasingly outrageous storyline. lee-cushing-in-horror-express1This is one of Cushing and Lee’s best non-Hammer outings and although the two actors play characters initially at odds with each other (in some ways mirroring their roles in another of their notable non-Hammer films; The Creeping Flesh [1973] where they also play rival scientists) they quickly fall in together creating a formidable stiff-upper lip alliance. There is a real warmth in their on-screen relationship which reflected their real-life friendship – here most poignantly manifest as it is reported that Lee gently encouraged his colleague to take up his first role following the recent death of his beloved wife Helen (which had earlier forced him to pull out of filming Hammer’s Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb [1971]).

The enjoyment gleaned from watching one of the cinema’s greatest horror pairings is enhanced somewhat later on the film as a third ‘guest star’ bursts onto the train. Not usually known for his horror roles, Telly Savalas nevertheless makes the most of his brief role as the Cossack Captain Kazan. Telly Savalas in Horror ExpressResplendent in his red Cossack jacket and chewing up the scenery with some gusto, Savalas adds even more impetus to the film’s rapidly approaching climax. The rest of the mainly Spanish supporting cast are also  excellent, particularly Alberto de Mendoza as the crazed monk Father Pujardov.Alberto de Mendoza in Horror Express Clearly inspired by the real-life Rasputin, de Mendoza invests his character with a wild intensity that provides the film with yet another bizarre but essential ingredient.

By the time the film reaches its inevitable explosive finale, the audience have been besieged with images of red-eyed murder, monstrous hairy hands, alien intelligences, grisly brain operations and legions of bloody-eyed zombie Cossacks. As the train plummets into oblivion (taking the monstrous alien with it) it is guaranteed to leave viewers feeling breathless and yet somehow invigorated, although it may cause some to seriously rethink those ambitious European inter-railing activities they had planned for their winter vacation…

‘Have a drink mate?’ Wake in Fright

WakeInFright

Whilst visiting Sydney a few years back I decided to take in a movie and cast my eye over the local cinema ads to try and find an Australian-made film to see. I was lucky enough to spot a screening of a recently restored obscure classic and despite being only of a handful of patrons at the Chauvel Cinema that night I was blown away by the unique and singularly disturbing Wake in Fright (originally released in the US as Outback). Now on selected release in the UK, this dark gem of a film defies simple categorisation and even now I can’t think of another film quite like it.

Directed by the Canadian director Ted Kotcheff (whose somewhat eclectic career takes in 70s suburban comedies like Fun with Dick and Jane, the first Rambo film First Blood & 80s cult comedy Weekend at Bernie’s) and released in 1971 (the same year as Nic Roeg’s Walkabout), Wake in Fright is nowadays cited as one of the first works in the so-called ‘Australian New Wave’ but for many years was a forgotten and seemingly ‘lost’ film. In fact Kotcheff’s film sits somewhat uncomfortably between refined arthouse classics like Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock and the altogether more down-to-earth ‘Ozploitation’ movies churned out by low-rent auteurs such as Robert Franklin and Brian Trenchard-Smith.

Faithfully adapted from Kenneth Cook’s 1961 novel, the film follows the progress of the seemingly urbane school teacher John Grant (Gary Bond) as he attempts to briefly escape from his stultifying existence in the outback. Wake In FrightBound into service as the sole teacher in the stifling no-horse town of Tiboonda (unforgettably evoked as a dusty panoramic in the film’s opening shot) Grant yearns for the more sophisticated pleasures of the coast and heads for Sydney as soon as the school year comes to an end. Immaculately clothed in his big-city suit and barely restraining his disdain for his workaday surroundings, Grant heads determinedly for the coast only to find himself becalmed and trapped in an obscure mining town where he spirals into a bewildering dark weekend of the soul.

Losing all of his savings (including his air fare to Sydney) at a boisterous back-room gambling den in the friendly but somehow terrifying transit town of Bundayabba he slowly discovers the fragility of his cultured aspirations and finds himself reduced back to his raw and bestial essence."Wake in Fright" His beer fuelled descent in the brutal world of outback masculinity is horrifyingly evoked and is as terrifying and disorienting a narrative as has ever been captured on film. With its deceptively simple story line and slew of naturalistic performances Wake in Fright is a film that  vividly evokes all of the senses. The audience can taste the bitter, repetitive glasses of beer, feel the greasy sweat and the dirt of Grant’s surroundings and suffer the head-spinning force of the heat and the dust.WakeInFright_0092 These queasy sensations are  most uncomfortably experienced during the film’s most notorious sequence as Grant takes part in a drunken kangaroo hunt (controversially filmed on an actual night hunt) but are equally apparent in the inexorable parade of drunken scuffles, fights and physical entanglements, such as the almost hallucinatory drunken wrestling of Grant with the enigmatic Doc Tydon (Donald Pleasence).

Somehow the surprising appearance of Donald Pleasence as an amoral and alcoholic outback doctor makes perfect sense in Wake in Fright and his quietly demented performance is up there with his very best although the character couldn’t be much different from his tea-sipping Inspector Calhoun in Death Line. Donald-Pleasence-The relationship between the fearfully trapped John Grant and the self-exiled Doc Tydon symbolises the essential dualism at the heart of the film’s narrative. At once reassured and repulsed by Tydon, Grant is forced to question the nature of his desired civility and come to terms with the baser aspects of his identity. In this sense the film appears to reflect the wider growing pains of Australia itself in the latter decades of the twentieth century articulating the tensions between the stark and sometimes brutal realities of working class white settler communities and the tentatively emerging, self-consciously ‘modern’ and cultured urban middle classes. At the heart of this is the horror evoked by raw and ungoverned nature (notably explored in Colin Eggleston’s nightmarish Long Weekend [1978]) and there are certainly parallels between Kotcheff’s film and the American fear and fascination of country folk as evidences in titles like Deliverance and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Whilst such American films redeem their urban characters by making them physically fight back against their rural foes, Wake in Fright explores these tensions by subtly inverting them so that the cocksure and somewhat superior-feeling Grant is forced to re-evaluate his own values and his own humanity. For all the primitive and corporeal excesses displayed by the people of Bundayabba, they are almost uniformly straight-talking and honest, unquestioningly accepting and welcoming the stranger in their midst. 07WAKE1_SPAN-articleLargeTheir openness and lack of guile acts in stark contrast to John Grant’s thinly veiled superiority (often resulting in blackly comic exchanges such as the occasion when Grant finally rejects the offer to ‘have a beer, mate’ with an uncomprehending truck driver who appears to interpret the refusal to share a drink as clear evidence of lunacy) and even in extremis, the often convivial, sometimes terrifyingly amoral Doc Tydon – who has come to represent everything Grant despises about ‘the Yabba’ (and one suspects, about himself) – is there to pick up the shattered pieces of his calamitous misadventures.

Unavailable to see either at the cinema or on home video throughout the 1980s and 90s, the carefully restored print of Wake in Fright is revealing one of Australian film’s lost classics to the wider global audience that it so richly deserves and will perhaps evoke a fearful hint of stark existential angst the next time someone calls over to you….‘Have a drink mate?’

Critics Beware! Theatre of Blood

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I’d never considered myself to be much of a Vincent Price fan although I’ve watched many of his films, and it wasn’t until I saw Theatre of Blood that I was able to finally accept the actor as one of the horror greats. At first glance the provenance of Theatre of Blood is not particularly promising. Both the  director (Douglas Hickox) and writer (Anthony Greville-Bell) enjoyed workmanlike careers and neither of them have established links to the horror genre. Furthermore, a brief consideration of the film’s plot – consisting primarily of a series of revenge-inspired brutal and  bizarre murders – suggests that Theatre of Blood is simply an attempt to extend and mimic the themes and plot of the two Robert Fuest directed Dr.Phibes films that also starred Vincent Price.

Theatre of Blood tells the story of the tragic revenge of the renowned Shakespearean actor Edward Lionheart (Vincent Price) Vincent Price as Edward Lionheart in Theatre of Blood (1973)whose apparent suicide is brought about by his rejection at the hands of the powerful Critic’s Circle who look down upon the actor’s somewhat hammy interpretations of the immortal bard.Theatre-of-Blood After failing to win the coveted Critic’s Circle Award, Price confronts his tormentors before falling to his death, only to return and exact his revenge from beyond the grave. One by one, the critics are cruelly dispatched in the manner of notable deaths lifted from some of Shakespeare’s most memorable plays as the indomitable Lionheart enacts his inexorable revenge.

There is no doubt that one of the chief pleasures in Theatre of Blood is the magnificently staged set-piece murders that punctuate the film’s narrative. Although the film is pitched very much as a horror-comedy, the brutality of some of the murders remains shocking, over 40 years on from the film’s original 1973 release date. The murder of George Maxwell (Michael Hordern) in Theatre of Blood (1973)In the film’s opening scene we are greeted with the graphic multiple stabbing of George Maxwell (Michael Hordern) at the hands of group of down-and-outs – in the style of Julius Caesar – and this affecting scene begins a series of grand-guignol set-pieces that deliver increasingly grim and theatrical guts and gore. Vincent Price and Robert Morley in Theatre of Blood (1973)Other notable deaths include that of Trevor Dickman (Harry Andrews) whose still steaming heart is callously sliced by Lionheart’s Shylock and in the film’s most amusing murder, the calmly suburban surgical beheading of Horace Sprout (Arthur Lowe). Theatre of Blood’s most unsettling and disgusting sequence is undoubtedly the dispatch of Meridith Merridew (Robert Morley) as he is force-fed a pie made from his canine ‘babies’ (a la Titus Andronicus), which is a scene that once seen, will never be forgotten.

The pleasure derived from these gruesome murders is underlined by a wonderful supporting cast that is made up of a slew of familiar British thesps drawn from both film and television. The doomed critics circle from Theatre of Blood (1973) As well as Arthur Lowe, Michael Hordern and Robert Morley, the critics circle includes such numinaries as Jack Hawkins, Dennis Price, Ian Hendry and Coral Browne, who later became Vincent Price’s third and final wife. They met for the first time on the set of Theatre of Blood (whilst Price was still married to his second wife) and were wed a year later. The rather splendid collection of character actors that make up the Circle combine to create the most convincingly self-satisfied and pompous set of critics to ever grace the silver screen.Vincent Price and Diana Rigg in Theatre of Blood (1973) In addition to the actors featured in the Critics’ Circle, the film is also scattered with even more memorable faces, from Eric Sykes as an avuncular police detective, Diana Dors as a seductive and wayward wife and Diana Rigg as Lionheart’s dedicated daughter, Edwina. It is rather surprising to find the rather sophisticated Diana Rigg in amongst such graphic murder and mayhem but she obviously enjoyed the experience; eventually passing on her role to daughter Rachel Stirling who played Edwina in the 2005 London stage adaptation alongside Jim Broadbent as Lionheart.

As delightful as the deliciously gruesome murders and wonderful supporting cast are, it is however, the central performance of Vincent Price as the monstrous Lionheart that makes Theatre of Blood so memorable. Edward Lionheart (Vincent Price) as Mark Anthony in Theatre of Blood (1973)As the supreme egotist and meglomaniacal  Edward Kendal Sheridan Lionheart, Price draws on a long career of B-movie monsters and villains to create a character that is at once hilarious and horrible. Employing and heightening his somewhat overcooked acting method to flesh out the vengeful thespian, Price manages to evoke both sympathy and revulsion as he works his way through the critics that have ruined Lionheart’s career. Price clearly relishes the opportunity to get to grips with some of Shakespeare’s greatest works and it is all but impossible to tell whether he is playing these scenes straight or hamming them up for the part of Lionheart. Whatever his intentions, he plays Lionheart with an abandonment and gusto that supports the grim humour and gory deaths with equal aplomb. Vincent Price as Edward Lionheart in Theatre of Blood (1973)His rendering of the ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy from Hamlet as he staggers around a penthouse balcony clutching the Critics’ Circle Award so cruelly denied him by the callous critics gathered inside, is given a mournful gravitas that one would not expect in such a horror romp. It is a testament to Price’s over the top but well judged performance that he is able to garner the sympathy of the audience even as he slaughters his foes, easily elbowing aside the film’s nominal point of identification, Peregrine Devlin (Ian Hendry).

Theatre of Blood remains one of the few fully realised horror-comedies containing enough visceral thrills to satisfy the most exacting gorehounds supported by a range of belly laughs to ease the nerves of the more sensitive viewers. The lurid and decaying backdrop of 1970s Britain, combined the smug and cosseted setting of the London theatre scene creates a uniquely grim and comic atmosphere that Price exploits to its full potential. His magnificent and monstrous Lionheart is one of cinema’s great vengeful anti-heroes and as such is worthy of any awards that critics might bestow…or else!

Banned in the 30s #2: Island of Lost Souls

Island of Lost Souls PosterBanned for decades and unavailable on DVD for years Island of Lost Souls one of the most controversial pre-code horror films of the early 1930s. With its provocative themes of racial mixing, deformity and sex, Erle. C Kenton’s 1932 film is the perfect companion piece to Tod Browning’s Freaks (1931) and together the two movies stand as a testament to the boldness and originality of Hollywood horror in the early sound period.

Like Freaks at MGM, Kenton’s film was produced by Paramount in response to the huge success of the Universal horror boom. Having already successfully adapted another literary gothic classic in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (Mamoulian 1931) Paramount looked to H.G. Wells’ novella The Island of Dr Moreau (1896) for inspiration for their next foray into horror. Both Paramount films explore Darwinian themes and focus on questions of the physical and moral dimensions of human evolution. In Island of Lost Souls, these ideas are mixed with a range of controversial and censor-baiting issues relating to vivisection, colonialism and miscegenation resulting in a heady mix of drama and horror that still has the ability to unsettle the unsuspecting audience.

The film tells the story of Edward Parker (Richard Arlen), shipwrecked in the South Pacific and picked up by a boozy captain carrying a cargo of exotic animals, finally to be deposited on an unnamed island commanded by the mysterious Dr Moreau (Charles Laughton). Charles Laughton, Arthur Hohl & Richard Arlen in Island of Lost SoulsParker is unsettled by the strange bestial natives that populate the island and soon discovers that Moreau is a brilliant but twisted scientist who has tasked himself with shaping animals into human beings. The brutal vivisection of his subjects in the ‘house of pain’ has created a tribe of man-beast hybrids that he has shaped into the semblance of humanity. His attempt to mate his most successful creation Lota (Kathleen Burke – billed as ‘The Panther Woman’) with Parker sets in motion a series of events that uncover the full horrors of the island and inevitably ends in revolt, death and destruction.

Even viewed today the rich mix of controversial ideas and topics are clear to see and although the film was banned in the UK largely due to the theme and portrayal of vivisection (also a controversial issue during the 1890s when Wells wrote his novella), there are a wealth of other morally dubious and horrific ideas that could be seen to be equally objectionable or problematic. Central to this is the injection of sex into the story by the film’s screenwriters Philip Wylie and Waldemar Young. The introduction of the character of Lota was central to the publicity and marketing of the film, including a nationwide search for ‘The Panther Woman’ across the US. Richard Arlen and Kathleen Burke in Island of Lost SoulsThe part was eventually won by Kathleen Burke after being judged by a panel of Hollywood luminaries including Rouben Mamoulian and Cecil B. DeMille and despite not having featured in the original novella, the part of the Panther Woman has become a staple of subsequent film versions of the story, most notably in the adaptions by Don Taylor (1977 ) and John Frankenheimer (1996) (both entitled The Island of Dr Moreau). The prurient aspects of the story present in Kenton’s film are the most striking similarity with Freaks. Both films set up the promise of a ‘forbidden’ sexual encounter; in Browning’s film it is the proposed union between the diminutive Hans and the statuesque Cleopatra, in Island of Lost Souls the ‘unnatural’ liaison is set up between man and beast-woman, carrying with it the implicit suggestion of inter-racial transgression. This lurid sexual theme within the film is aptly emphasised by Laughton who delivers a brilliant performance in his first starring role in Hollywood. His refined English doctor, resplendent in pristine white suit elevates the role of Moreau beyond the usual histrionics of the familiar mad doctors that featured in a range of Hollywood horrors in the 1930s and 40s. There is an unsettling and indecent relish in Moreau’s plot to mate beast-woman Lota with the shipwrecked Parker and it this moral degeneracy that feeds the horror of the film as much as the implied violence and beastly behaviour.

Charles Laughton in Island of Lost Souls

Although the subsequent banning of the film in the UK by the BBFC (the film was not shown here until 1958; only released then after being subjected to several cuts) was attributed to the horrific scenes of vivisection as well as ‘being against nature’ (Moreau’s line ‘Do you know what it means to feel like God’ seems at least as blasphemous as a similar line excised from Frankenstein in the previous year) the sexual and racial themes of the film certainly did little to endear the film to the censors. Watching the film today, the story seems to work explicitly as colonial allegory with the white-suited colonials (an inspired change from Wells’ novella where the Europeans are garbed in ‘dirty blue flannels’) struggling to control and civilise the beastly natives. It is telling that Wells tends to describe the beast-men as islanders whereas as Kenton’s colonialists explicitly refer to them as ‘natives’. Dr Moreau and his beast men in Island of Lost SoulsThis is also the film that is supposedly the origin of the well-worn phrase ‘the natives are restless tonight’ although these exact words aren’t spoken in the film (when discussing the rising native discontent, Moreau mutters; ‘They are restless tonight’ and later on ‘They are unusually restless tonight’). The idea of racial hierarchy explored in the novella is explicitly developed within the film; Lota may be (almost) human enough to attempt a mating with Parker but the ‘less successful’ offspring of Moreau’s experiments are condemned to drive the treadmill that powers the electricity on the island. The colonial metaphor is further emphasised by the civilising imperative behind Moreau’s set of laws handed down to the beast people, memorably incanted by the ‘sayer of the law’ played by an almost unrecognisably hairy Bela Lugosi in a small but important role. The plaintive chanting of the beast-folk repeated asking ‘Are we not men?’ and Moreau’s attempts to resist the ‘stubborn beast flesh creeping back’ reflects the colonialists central fear of native uprising which inevitably breaks out in the film’s climactic moments. The violent revolt of the ‘natives’ in Island of Lost Souls is an effectively staged piece of theatrical horror as Moreau is overcome by his creations who take their revenge with the very surgical tools that made them. The natives attack in Island of Lost SoulsThe last we hear of Moreau are his desperate screams coming from the ‘house of pain’ and his fate is a powerful metaphor of rightful retribution, as well as a stark warning to would-be empire builders everywhere. This theme of uprising and revolt that permeates much of Island of Lost Souls and shapes the climax of the piece retains its power even today and certainly added to the controversial nature of the film’s original release. In Australia the film was categorised as NEN (i.e: ‘not to be exhibited to natives’) which meant that the film was banned only for aboriginal audiences, reflecting the subversive potential of the revolt of the islanders at the climax of the movie.

The immorality and violence at the heart of the colonial encounter is skilfully evoked by Charles Laughton’s performance as Moreau. His urbane appearance and sardonic delivery evoke a clear sense of moral bankruptcy and above all his callous handling of his vivisected creations is one of the most chilling aspects of the film. Charles Laughton and Kathleen Burke in Island of Lost SoulsMore disturbing than the cruel techniques of his operating theatre or his whip-cracking assertions of ‘the law’, are his intimate and proprietorial handling of the limbs and faces of the beast-people. His examination of Lota midway through the film as she begins to display the return of stubborn beast-flesh is the most unnerving example of this; the scene ending with Moreau’s sadistic promise that ‘this time I’ll burn out all the animal in her!’.

This is remarkable performance by Laughton which stands out from the film so much so, that it is the actor that has become most associated with Island of Lost Souls at the expense of some of the other key authors of the film. Erle C. Kenton is often considered as a workmanlike director responsible some of the rather gimmicky Universal titles (such as House of Frankenstein [Kenton 1944]) which characterised the second phase of Hollywood horror in the 1940s but with Island of Lost Souls displays a confident grasp of some incendiary material which is handled with an deft mix of restraint and exploitation.

He was also fortunate to be aided by cinematographer Karl Struss (who had shot Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde for Rouben Mamoulian a year earlier) whose use of light and shadow creates a claustrophobic atmosphere of dreamlike isolation. From the early scenes of arrival at the mist shrouded island to the final climax of violence and revolt there is a palpable sense of unease and mystery evoked by the tight composition of each scene. The half-glimpsed shadowy natives are tantalisingly glimpsed throughout much of the film so that their final uprising seems vividly nightmarish. The depiction of the beast-folk is absolutely central to the success and credibility of the story and the balance between mysterious  natives and the details of their deformities is expertly balanced in Island of Lost Souls, particularly when compared to the less convincing creations that have featured in subsequent filmed versions of the story.

Much credit must be given to the film’s make-up artist Wally Westmore for creating a bewildering range of believable human-beast hybrids that populate Moreau’s island and provide a poignant contrast to Laughton’s white-clad master. Beast man by Wally Westmore in Island of Lost SoulsThese effects are presented on the screen sparingly throughout much of the film which makes the film’s final climatic scenes of beast revenge all the more effective. The shots of beast-men emerging from the undergrowth to exact their revenge on Moreau are as affecting and nightmarish as any captured in horror film and evoke clear comparison with the notorious climax of Tod Browning’s Freaks.

Even today the film has the ability to chill and disturb the viewer and the themes of race, colonialism and vivisection are as relevant now as they were back in 1932. Thanks to the recent DVD/BluRay release of the film by Eureka/Criterion, Island of Lost Souls is now freely available and recommended to all…

Night of the British Dead

Shaun of the Dead Poster

These days zombies are everywhere. Despite traditionally being the poor relation of the horror family, the shuffling hoards of the undead have come back to make their mark on a new century and a new generation of cinema-goers. The zombie movie as a distinct genre was initially little more than a b-movie footnote in the history of the horror movie, with its origins in cheapies from the 1930s and 40s, most notably in the case of White Zombie (1932) starring Bela Lugosi and Jacques Tourneur’s elegiac I Walked With a Zombie (1941). Still from I Walked With a ZombieThese colonial horrors tended to rely heavily on melodrama and a vague sense of dread; due to the limited action potential of the mindless members of the undead. Such are the imaginative limits of the Haitian zombie proper that even during the years of the horror revival under Hammer Films, the undead only really resurface on a single occasion, in Plague of the Zombies (1964), shot back-to-back by John Gilling as part of a colonial horror two-hander with The Reptile (1964).

With the zombie film entering something of a blind alley, it was left to low-budget America film maker George Romero to reinvent the genre and it very much his vision of the undead which provides the basis of the recent cinematic revival. In Night of the Living Dead (1968), Romero brings the zombie home; setting his movie in modern-day America but also introducing two influential factors which have continued to shape subsequent attempts to represent the undead. Firstly, he presented the crisis of the zombie invasion as social allegory, perhaps most notably in Dawn of the Dead (1979), a film set largely in the confines of a shopping mall and scathing in its critique of the all-encompassing and suffocating nature of contemporary consumerism. Secondly, and crucially, Romero changed the role and behaviour of the zombie. No longer were the undead under the thrall of a voodoo master, they were now out of control and most worryingly they were hungry. Zombies still shambled and staggered about but when given the chance they now gleefully indulged in cannibalistic flesh-eating frenzies;Still from Return of the Living Dead indeed it is almost unthinkable in the post-Romero era, to walk into a movie theatre showing a zombie movie without witnessing at least the odd bout of cannibalistic gore. Having said this, it was the new realm of home video that gave the new, gore-happy zombie its home and apart from Romero’s Day of the Dead (1985), the undead remained largely buried in the world of cult video appearing in such titles as Lucio Fulci’s ‘video nasty’ Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979) and Dan O’Bannon’s Return of the Living Dead (1985).

The revival of the zombie film at the turn of the century owes much to Romero’s reinvention of the undead. The largely uninspiring Resident Evil franchise is based on a series of hugely popular video games produced by Capcom which draws directly upon Romero’s dystopian vision and he was originally due to oversee the first movie in the franchise but was eventually replaced by Paul Anderson. It was really the trans-Atlantic success of Danny Boyle’s British based thriller 28 Days Later (2002), which put the zombie film back on the map. Despite the director’s assertion that his flesh-eating protagonists were not zombies but unfortunate individuals infected with a virus known as RAGE, the movie puts a contemporary spin on Romero’s version of undead mayhem. The souped-up and fast-moving zombies of Boyle’s film are also present in Zach Snyder’s glossy remake of Romero’s classic Dawn of the Dead (2004), a film which strips away the social commentary of the original in favour of a cruel and bleak MTV style thrill-ride. The real creative and commercial success of the zombie revival however, emerged from the unlikely location of suburban London with Shaun of the Dead which has managed to combine innovation and inventiveness with a real respect for Romero’s vision of the undead.

Billed as; ‘A romantic comedy. With Zombies’, Shaun of the Dead tells the story of 29 year-old loser Shaun (Simon Pegg), who finds himself at a crossroads, torn between the extended adolescent world of his house-mate Ed (Nick Frost) Simon Pegg and Kate Ashfield in Shaun of the Deadand the ‘grown-up’ realm of his girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield). After he is dumped by Liz, Shaun vows to win her back and to generally sort his life out but finds himself in the middle of a full scale zombie crisis. Armed with a trusty cricket bat and accompanied by the suddenly lively and invigorated Ed, Shaun sets out to rescue his Mum (Penelope Wilton), stepfather Phillip (Bill Nighy) as well as Liz and her erstwhile flatmates David and Diane (Dylan Moran and Lucy Davis) and hold up at his trusty local pub; the Winchester.

Writers Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright managed to come up with a screenplay which is a genuinely funny take on early mid-life crisis (familiar to British viewers of the Pegg and Wright sitcom Spaced) and a convincing and valuable addition to the post-Romero zombie film. As the writers have stated on the Raw Meat section of the DVD extras (the subheading borrowed from the US title of the 1972 classic Death Line), the film is not intended as a spoof and the comedy elements of the film sit surprisingly well with the apocalyptic and often visceral depiction of British suburbia blighted by zombie invasion. The film contains a number of affectionate references to Romero’s Dead trilogy (Shaun works as an assistant in ‘Foree Electronics’, named in honour of actor Ken Foree’s SWAT team anti-hero in Dawn of the Dead and at one point Ed declares over the phone ‘We’re coming to get you Barbara!’ paraphrasing some key dialogue from Night of the Living Dead) which are amusing for those in the know but significantly do not lend the proceedings with an air of geeky smugness for the uninitiated. As well as retaining Romero’s original shuffling zombie gait – no athletic and kinetic undead here – and some affecting gore, Shaun of the Dead also manages to reassert some of the elements of social critique that make Romero’s films so memorable.Simon Pegg in Shaun of the Dead Early on in proceedings we are treated to a collage of everyday ‘zombie’ moments; the repetitive rhythms of a supermarket checkout, commuters staring blankly into middle space as they travel to work and a shuffling crew of personal stereo-listening kids precede the opening titles. Director Edgar Wright keeps a tight rein at the helm of the film and makes the most of his downbeat suburban setting; the tracking shot and sequence which follows a bleary, hung-over Shaun as he pops down the local shop for refreshments, not realising that his usual world has been turned upside down by chaos and zombie apocalypse, is memorable both its comic affect and its eerie transformation of a familiar suburban neighbourhood.

The affectionate fun-poking at British suburban sensibilities is supported by some fine performances from the ensemble cast; particularly by Shaun’s parents as played by Penelope Wilton and Bill Nighy. Nighy, as misunderstood stepfather Phillip, delivers a genuinely moving and affecting near-death speech which temporarily lends the proceedings an unexpected sense of gravitas and Penelope Wilton’s performance as Barbara, Shaun’s mother, is equally telling.

Bill Nighy in Shaun of the DeadPenelope Wilton in Shaun of the DeadBarbara’s understated response to the unfolding crisis; – ‘I don’t want to cause  a fuss’ she mutters as it is made clear that she has been bitten by a zombie and prior to her transformation into a particularly frightening member of the undead, she reflects that; ‘It’s been a funny sort of a day!’ – is a wonderful portrait of British reserve which underscores a convincing portrayal of gentile suburbia in crisis.

The performances of the younger members of the cast are equally impressive, particularly the central pairing of Pegg and Frost, whose relationship is the true romance of the piece; as engaging as Kate Ashfield is as girlfriend Liz, she can’t compete with the detail and depth of Shaun and Ed’s platonic bond. Dylan Moran being eaten alive in Shaun of the DeadPerhaps one of the film’s few weaknesses is the characterisation of Liz’s flatmates David and Diane which don’t quite convince. Both Lucy Davis and Dylan Moran seem ill-at-ease in their roles, although the latter does feature in a climatic Romero-esque evisceration scene which incorporates enough explicit gut-fumbling to please even the most die-hard gorehounds.

Shaun of the Dead blends its constituent parts well and sets out to prove that a British film need not pander to the mid-Atlantic fantasy-London world of international successes like Notting Hill and Bridget Jones Diary; and it is somewhat surprising that all three films share an association with Working Title. The more mundane and believable milieu of Shaun of the Dead is not however, in any sense colloquial, as evidenced by the huge success of the film in America where it spent some seven weeks in the US box office top ten.

Simon Pegg zombie from Land of the DeadEdgar Wright zombie from Land of the DeadIn the aftermath of this success, the filmmakers can reflect with some satisfaction that the zombie movie was fully resurrected as reflected in the return of George Romero to the genre that he did so much to shape, with the release of Land of the Dead in 2005. In an appreciative nod to their faithful reworking of his own zombie oeuvre, Romero featured Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright zombie cameo roles in the fourth instalment of his apocalyptic series proving once and for all that it is not the meek but the undead that will ultimately inherit the earth.

Bubba Ho-Tep: Fit For a King

Japanese poster for Bubba Ho-TepThis film has ‘cult movie’ written all over it. Which is just as well, since this is a piece of cinema that almost defies categorisation. This is a film that pitches an ageing Elvis Presley against an ancient soul-sucking mummy and is billed by filmmakers as ‘The King of Rock vs. The King of the Dead’, described by the Hollywood Reporter as ‘A hilarious hybrid horror film’ and by the film’s star, Bruce Campbell as an ‘Elvis redemption movie’. Yet none of these descriptions really does justice to a beautifully performed and melancholic film which manages to blend elements of comedy, fantasy and octogenarian buddy movie.

Writer and director Don Coscarelli has faithfully and carefully adapted Joe R. Lansdale’s short story which takes the popular ‘Elvis lives’ myth and works it into a tale of horror and redemption. In this alternative reality, the King of rock and roll did not die in 1977 but lived on into old age, having switched identities with Elvis impersonator Sebastian Haff some years earlier. At the outset of the film, we find him muddled, decrepit and infirm at the Shady Creek Rest Home in Mud Creek, Texas, reflecting on a life full of regret and worrying morbidly about the growth on the end of his penis. As the mournful voiceover ruefully asks; ‘How could I go from the King of rock and roll to this? An old guy in a rest home in Texas with a growth on his pecker?’ Fearing the onset of cancer and musing bitterly on a life of wasted opportunities and regret, this is a deposed King, befuddled and beaten down by old age. Bruce Campbell as Elvis in Bubba Ho-TepWhat brings him back to some semblance of his former glory, is the realisation that something evil is stalking the corridors of Shady Creek Rest Home and sucking the souls out of the bodies of his fellow residents. Faced with this unspeakable horror, Elvis strikes up an alliance with another cultural icon well past his sell-by date – no other than former president John F. Kennedy – who contrary to popular belief, survived the assassination attempt at Dallas and at the behest of the secret service has now been hidden away in an East Texas retirement home. This JFK claims that his entire body has been dyed black as the ultimate disguise and that his brain currently resides in a jar at the Whitehouse (having been replaced in his head by a ‘bag of sand’) where shadowy forces keep his identity hidden from view. Together, these unlikely allies embark on a dark investigation and mortal battle against the evil of a small-time ancient Egyptian mummy who has somehow found himself emerging from the bottom a river bed in East Texas.

Of course, this all sounds rather weird and wacky and given that the film is written and directed by Don Coscarelli – best known for the Phantasm cult horror series of movies – might suggest a fast-paced comedy-horror romp in the vein of perhaps The Evil Dead franchise. Instead, the viewer is presented with a surprisingly touching and meditative story of ageing, friendship and loss; the film is certainly quirky and often very funny but the narrative is given time to slowly unravel and it is the characterisation of the main protagonists, rather than the elements of horror and suspense that provide the emotional weight of the piece. Bruce Campbell attacked by scarab beetle in Bubba Ho-TepThere is very little of the surreal weirdness of the early Phantasm series, although the King’s battle with an oversized buzzing scarab beetle is clearly reminiscent of the flying finger/bug from the first film in the cycle. Fortunately, Coscarelli’s handling of the material here is much more assured and engaging than his rather anonymous direction of the more recent additions to the Phantasm franchise. The gentle pace and melancholic tone of the film is well backed up by a perceptive soundtrack by Brian Tyler who more than makes up for the lack of any actual Elvis material in the movie (the cost of using copyrighted material was prohibitive to a film with such a small budget) by making the most of some twangy guitar riffs and rousing tremelo organ.

Much of the film’s appeal is undoubtedly due to the casting and central performances which manage to transcend both the unconventional nature of the material and the restrictions of a clearly limited budget. In one of his last acting roles Ossie Davis brings real gravitas to the film with his portrayal of the old black guy who reckons he is the cunningly disguised former president JFK and manages to convey warmth, humour and pathos to a role that might easily have slipped into parody in the hands of a lesser talent. Davis plays the part with such straight-faced conviction and sincerity that the more humorous asides are all the more effective and hilarious; as is typified by his gentlemanly but earthy response to the King’s questions about how good Marilyn Monroe was ‘in the sack’.Bruce Campbell and Ossie Davis in Bubba Ho-Tep It is  a tribute to the energy and conviction of Ossie Davies that it almost appears that he is playing a role beyond his years, when actually the actor was well into his eighties when making the film. The performance that he delivers here is one that does no injustice to a long and distinguished career as actor, writer, director and activist. There is added poignancy to Davis’performance as this was one of his last acting roles before his death in 2005 at the age of 87.

What really lies at the heart of the film however, is a commanding central performance by Bruce Campbell as the ageing king of rock and roll. Bruce Campbell as Elvis in Bubba Ho-TepFrom behind his Elvis shades and a layer of prosthetics, Campbell delivers an intelligent and well judged performance that manages to blend the story’s elements of humour and pathos perfectly and does much to raise the actor above his usual quirky ‘cult’ status. It would be easy for an actor playing such a role to slide easily in camp caricature but Campbell avoids this by emphasising the sense of regret and the search for salvation in the elderly Elvis. Having said this, Campbell manages to draw much humour from his character but this is done by underplaying rather than over-emphasising the ‘Elvisness’ of the role. There are several great laughs to be had from the subtle dropping in of some of the King’s better known catchphrases; particularly fine is Campbell’s deadpan delivery of ‘thank-you-very-much’ which is uttered twice throughout the film; the first to great comic effect and the second is sure to have even the most cynical of viewers choking back the tears.

As for the horror/action elements of the film, the battle between the old, odd couple and the ancient mummy is really secondary to the development of character and the growing friendship between the unlikely pairing. The unfolding of the relationship between Elvis and JFK is one of the chief pleasures of the film and as the companionship and respect between the two characters grows (once that JFK is assured that Elvis had nothing to do with ‘that day in Dallas’) so do the recurring themes of regret, loss and ultimately, redemption. Mummy in Bubba Ho-TepThe ancient protagonist that they face is also a queer old fellow and does not really fit into traditional representations of the mummy in horror cinema; although there is a passing reference to the revitalising ‘tanna leaves’ of the 1940s Universal Studios mummy cycle. This mummy however is no Im-Ho-Tep or Tutankhamun but very much a minor figure who has suffered the indignity of a backwoods US tour as an exotic exhibit and has come to rest in a strange and foreign land. Clad in faded cowboy hat and boots (with not a bandage in sight), this is a dried up husk of undead Egyptian, who rather like Elvis has found himself tired and weary, stalking the corridors of an old people’s home in East Texas. ‘Ole Bubba Ho- Tep’ as Elvis calls him, has no grand plans to take over the world or resurrect his long-lost love but is merely eking out a bare existence, surviving off of the meagre souls of the old and infirm.

The final battle between the aged protagonists at Shady Creek provides a rousing finale to proceedings and is reminiscent of two ancient heavyweights slowly slugging it out, punch-drunk and tired but determined to fight it out to the death. Bruce Campbell as Elvis showing off some kung-fu moves in Bubba Ho-TepTowards the end of the film we see Elvis recovered to a semblance of his former glory, resplendent in white Las Vegas catsuit, throwing some trademark kung-fu moves (at the risk of putting his hip joint out) and even managing to confound his salve-dispensing nurse by coaxing his cancerous pecker back into action. It is a telling tribute to the skills of all concerned in the making of this truly unique piece of filmmaking, that as the final confrontation between good and evil draws towards its conclusion, we are able to finally banish from our minds the memory of that fat guy that died on the toilet in Memphis in ’77 and replace it with an ending that is truly fit for a King.

Dracula Reborn: Vampir, Cuadecuc

Vampir Cuadecuc posterAt the end of last month I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to see a rare screening of Pere Portabella’s avant-garde guerilla reworking of Dracula. On reflection I was fortunate in more ways that one as there were many reasons for not going to see this refreshingly innovative piece of cinema. Firstly I have to confess that until I saw the listing for this screening I had never even heard of Vampir, Cuadecuc (1971), although if I’m honest the discovery of a Christopher Lee version of Dracula that I had never seen or heard of is usually more than enough to get me down to any screening. Having said that there were other barriers to my attendance, most notably the fact that Portabella’s film is in fact a reworking of the material shot by Jess Franco for his 1970 film Count Dracula. The mere mention of Franco’s name (in sharp contrast to that of Christopher Lee) is usually enough to steer well clear of any screening of his work. Despite his established cult status I have always found Franco’s work dull and turgid in the extreme although I had actually seen his version of Count Dracula. This was largely due to the fact that Christopher Lee has often spoke of the film’s accurate portrayal of Stoker’s Count (although he has also pointed out that the film isn’t much good), appearing first as an elderly white-moustachioued man who gradually gets younger as the story progresses. Added to that, the names of Herbert Lom, Soledad Miranda and the always compelling Klaus Kinski on the cast list was enough to overcome my usual misgivings, tempting me into watching Franco’s disappointing take on the vampiric Count. Portabella’s film, shot on black and white stock on and around the sets of Franco’s  production, reworks and reshapes elements of the original movie – combined with images of behind- the-scenes preparation and production – into an eerie silent movie version of the Dracula story.

Christopher Lee as Count Dracula in Vampir, Cuadecuc

I had suspected that this kind of guerilla film-making might at best result in an interesting curio or at worse a self-indulgent piece of would-be avant-garde nonsense but I’m pleased to say that all of my expectations were confounded by this beguiling and challenging piece of film-making. Skillfully piecing together the bare elements of Jess Franco’s film, Portabella produces an elegant and haunting adaptation of Bram Stoker’s original novel. Somehow the stiff and often clunky deliberations of Jess Franco are transformed into a tense and atmospheric retelling of a familiar tale. This familiarity with the much retold story does not serve to make Vampir, Cuadecuc boring or predictable but helps build the mute tension of the narrative, particularly early on as the dark secrets of Castle Dracula are revealed. The sections of overexposed film and the often dissonant noises on the soundtrack (courtesy of long-term collaborator Carles Santos) serve to emphasise the feelings of isolation and disorientation on the screen despite the often incongruous pairing of sound and image. The jarring sounds of the modern world – including traffic, trains and pneumatic drills would seem to be at odds with the languorous images on the screen but somehow they work beautifully together and draw the viewer further into the film’s spell. Even the cheesy Euro lounge music that occasionally rises to the surface is incorporated into the haunting atmosphere of the film and perhaps is also a back-handed jibe at Jess Franco’s oeuvre.

Soledad Miranda as Lucy Westenra in Vampir, Cuadecuc

It is also remarkable that the ‘behind the scenes’ elements included in Vampir, Cuadecuc feel so well-integrated into the film’s narrative. Taken by themselves there are some charming and revealing scenes that expose elements of the film-making process. We see Christopher Lee taking out his blood-shot contact lenses and aiming a playful swipe at the camera before lowering himself into his coffin so that a prop man can waft a strange electric-fan like device over him, setting down gentle layers of artificial cobweb. Later on as the Count strides down a Victorian street the camera pulls back to reveal the arc lights hung on the film set, with the technicians poised beside their equipment. In the scene where Van Helsing (Herbert Lom) repels Dracula by drawing a flaming cross on the floor with hot poker (a rare flourish I’d forgotten about in the Franco version) we see Soledad Miranda floating about in contemporary dress, despite her fictional character having been ceremoniously staked a while earlier. As the action in the scene is completed, the terrified character of Mina (Maria Rohm) looks blankly at the camera, then suddenly aims a saucy wink at the camera that hits the viewer like a small but delicious electric shock. These ‘off camera’ moments provide in themselves fascinating morsels reflecting on the processes of filmmaking but are also expertly woven into the narrative flow of the story that they seem fully integrated into this singular adaptation. The potentially demystifying shots of Christopher Lee applying his make-up or playfully removing his false moustache run the risk of detracting from his sombre portrayal of the Count but in fact the film reveals a performance of great poise and dark beauty. Lee’s performance ably draws out the terrible dignity and tragedy of Dracula in a way that seems so far removed from the stilted storytelling of Franco’s original that it seems impossible that the two could be so closely related.

Christopher Lee with contact lenses in Vampir, Cuadecuc

The scenes where images of the modern world invade the imaginary construction of the fictional past are similarly interwoven into the overall fabric of the piece with shots of commuter trains, traffic and idling labourers feeling continuous with the familiar characters of Stoker’s story. These images of the ‘real’ and the ‘now’,  which serve to link the Victorian past of the novel to the present day, remind us of how the ever resonant tale of Dracula is as much part of the present as it is the past. The various changes, adaptations and allegories of Stoker’s landmark story over the last 100 years or so, reflect the shaping of Dracula across a range of temporal and geographical contexts. I hadn’t expected to be musing on such ideas when watching Vampir, Cuadecuc, and it is a testament to the vision and skill of the film-makers that the film is able to function both as an eerily effective retelling of the Dracula tale and also a provocative reflection on the processes of storytelling and film-making history. It wasn’t until after the screening that I discovered that the character of the Count is interpreted by some as being a sly critique on the enduring Spanish dictator, Generalissimo Francisco Franco, whose decrepit regime was living out its last few years at the time that Vampir, Cuadecuc was made. The figure of the elderly old count, once great but now well past his sell-by date, sucking the life-blood of the young to prolong his evil existence provides an obvious (or so it should have been as I was watching the film; the name of the director really should have helped me make the link…) and rather elegant allegory for the real-life Generalissimo as well as evidence of the enduring appeal and relevance of the Dracula story.

http://www.pereportabella.com/inici

Mind the doors…it’s Death Line!

Death Line Poster

As I intimated in Ghouls Underground, I’ve been meaning to write about Death Line (known charmingly as Raw Meat in the US) for a while now and since 2013 is the 150th anniversary of the opening of the London Underground it seemed like a good idea to revisit one of my favourite cult movies.  Gary Sherman’s 1973 film is one that still stands out as a true original and despite several films that have centred around horrific events in the underground (like Chris Smith’s Creep [2004] and Ryûhei Kitamura’s Midnight Meat Train [2008]) you are unlikely to see anything else that comes close to capturing the unique atmosphere of this largely unheralded addition to 1970s British horror.

The story of strange disappearances, murder and cannibalism on the London Underground is one of horror cinema’s genuine oddities and that such lurid themes are used to shape such a sombre and mournful film is testament to some telling contributions from the actors and filmmakers responsible. Director and co-writer Gary Sherman brings an outsider’s (ie: American) eye to the grubby context of 1970s London but also manages to expertly capture the quirky nuances of the capital’s labouring denizens. James Manfred OBE in Death LineFrom the very outset, as the brassy theme tune is belted out over images of an unsavoury, bowler-hatted civil servant as he emerges from a Soho nightclub, we become immersed in the fractious and class-conscious world of 1970s Britain that some of us remember so well. The subsequent disappearance and murder of James Manfred OBE  – last seen alive slumped on the steps of Russell Square tube station – sparks off a series of investigations that exposes the injustices of a class-ridden culture that permeates both past and present.

The hero of the piece is played beautifully by Donald Pleasence and his performance as the sardonic, tea-swigging Inspector Calhoun is amongst the very best of a quirky and distinguished career. Donald Plesence as Inspector Calhoun in Death LineHis beleaguered and often testy inspector is brought effortlessly to life and this role is the equal of Pleasence’s’ other great cult performances as Doc Tydon in Ted Kotcheff’s outback nightmare Wake in Fright (1971) (a film that like Death Line defies easy categorisation) and his unforgettable Dr. Loomis in John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978). Pleasence is aided immensely by some of the supporting cast, most notably by Norman Rossington as his loyal deputy Sergeant Rogers and memorably (although fleetingly) by special guest star Christopher Lee as MI5 man Stratton-Villiers. Christopher Lee as MI5 man Stratton-VilliersThe short battle of wits between Pleasence and Lee crackles with energy and tension, emphasising the poisonous influence of class and self-interest that shapes much of the message of the film. Inspector Calhoun is told in no uncertain terms to ‘run along’ back to his ‘manor’ with its workaday villains and petty criminals and to forget about the fate of more lofty governmental types, however dubious their nefarious night-time activities may be.

The later discovery of the last remnant of a tribe of abandoned underground workers whose cannibalistic tendencies have done for Manfred and other poor unfortunates pulls together the class crimes of the past to sharp effect in the present. Alongside images of the remnants of decayed swinging London and the sleepy, tea-fuelled procedural work of the metropolitan detectives, the film shows the bleak and mournful existence of ‘the man’, an unnamed subterranean dweller whose tunnelling ancestors were the victims of a tragic cave-in only to be abandoned by the callous disregard of their Victorian corporate masters. Hugh Armstrong as 'the man' in Death LineHugh Armstrong’s portrayal of ‘the man’ is played in heavy disguise (he’s both hairy and covered in unsightly sores) and though he has only one line to deliver,  he manages to use his inarticulate range of moans and grunts to shape a poignant and tragic character. Despite the queasy make-up, drooling inarticulacy and violent behaviour, Armstrong’s performance evokes both pathos and empathy and is the equal of other great tragic mute movie horrors such as those played by Richard Farnsworth in Val Guest’s The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and Boris Karloff in James Whale’s classic Frankenstein (1931). Unlike both these characters however, Armstrong is allowed a single line, as his character attempts to communicate his grief and loneliness to an uncomprehending ‘victim’. His repeated and earnest utterance of ‘Mind the doors…!’ (the only muffled human words he has ever heard through the walls of his cavernous domain) evokes a certain amount of grim humour but also pity and sympathy from this tragically character who finds himself alone and cast outside of human succour.

Apart from some great performances from several of the cast (although the two young student protagonists played by Alex Campbell and Patricia Wilson are unremarkable in their roles) it is worth noting that as well as presenting some visceral scenes of violence and cannibalistic behaviour, the film also includes some wonderful cinematography by Alex Thompson (who later shot Alien 3 [1992]). Death Line benefits too from some convincing make-up by Harry Frampton (whose career encompasses both Kind Hearts and Coronets [1949] and Straw Dogs [1971]) as well as authentic underground locations. Spade attack in Death LineThe night-time attack by ‘the man’ on three unsuspecting tube workers is expertly and shockingly handled, including a convincing spade to the head and a vivid impaling by broom handle which will keep gore-seekers happy but this is balanced with some artful cinematic flourishes which are all the more impressive for having been found within such a nominally grim and gruesome tale.

The bleak and lonely caverns of the abandoned underground tunnels are eerily depicted and the dank atmosphere evoked perfectly by the repetitive and intimate sound of dripping water. Most impressive however is the relentlessly drawn out tracking shot that takes us from the sombre lair of ‘the man’ as he lies keening over the dying body of his female companion, through the dark abandoned tunnels, into a collapsed cavern and finally into the light and sounds of a bustling London Underground station.Subterranean dweller in the London Underground in Death Line There is some appreciable skill and artistry afforded to this masterful sequence in both conception and execution. With only a single transition, zoom and final cut to the station, this shot is spread out over seven minutes of breathless footage (Sherman has claimed the sequence is twelve minutes long but I think he’s included a few static minutes of ‘the man’ ministering to his patient) and wouldn’t be out of place in a more respectful art-house classic. I’ll take this shot over Godard’s traffic jam in Weekend (1967) any day of the working week…

This sequence forms the centre piece of a wonderful use of the London Underground setting which is vividly evoked to pick out daily rituals and starkly bleak contrasts. The depiction of 1970s municipal transport – complete with screeching trains and petty employees – is expertly mirrored with the echoing abandoned tunnels of ‘the man’s’ lonely existence. Hugh Armstrong as 'the man' in the tunnels of the London Underground in Death LineThere have been few filmmakers who have managed to make equally successful use of the grimy setting of the London Underground and it is interesting that the most notable film in this regard was by another American director, John Landis who memorably staged a werewolf attack in Tottenham Court Road tube station in An American Werewolf in London (1981).

Landis dedicated his film to the engagement of Prince Charles to Lady Diana Spencer and it seems appropriate that the celebrations commemorating the 150th anniversary of the opening of the London Underground should be taken as a similar opportunity to remember this strange and unique classic of British horror. If you should be lucky enough to attend any of the anniversary celebrations and find yourself at some unveiling ceremony in a London tube station perhaps you could linger behind after the festivities have completed. Spend a moment to stroll towards the platform edge and see if what you can make out in the shadows of the tunnel. Who knows perhaps you might catch an echo of a warning… or is it a question? Mind the doors!

Video cover art for Death LineSee the trailer here:

Ravi Shankar

My guest blog on Ravi Shankar who sadly died earlier today. Read it at http://culturedarling.com

Culture Darling

Ravi Shankar

Today’s guest post comes from blogger CultHorror.

At the age of 92, the internationally renowned composer and sitar maestro Ravi Shankar died today (12/12/12) in hospital, near to his home in California. Arguably he represents perhaps the most important single figure in the rise of World Music and his association with The Beatles and the hippy movement has ensured his enduring place in cultural and musical history.

Born in Benares in 1920 to a high caste Brahmin family, Ravi Shankar’s life was from the very start closely associated with the performing arts. With an absent father whom he did not meet until he was eight years old, Ravi’s early years were shaped significantly by his older brother Uday who became a feted dance artist in Europe and America during the 1920s following a series of collaborations with Anna Pavlova. In 1930, at the tender age of 10 Ravi travelled to…

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