Archive for the Film Category

INFLUENCES: David Lynch’s Dune

Posted in Film, General Musings with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 14, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Attempting to bring Frank Herbert’s mighty mystico-socio-political series of Dune novels to the big screen has had a somewhat fraught history, to say the least. Back in the seventies, for instance, when I was a teen obsessed with sci-fi literature and art, I was highly intrigued by artist Chris Foss’ conceptual drawings (seen in his Dragon’s Dream book 21st Century Foss) created for Chilean film-maker Alejandro Jodorowsky’s proposed adaptation of the first book in the series, Dune. Bizarrely, he cast Salvador Dali as Emperor Shaddam Corrino IV and also asked Orson Welles to play Baron Harkonnen. As well as Foss, he also brought on board the comics illustrator Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud and HR Giger (one can only wonder what the film would have ended up being like with people like that involved). Needless to say, the whole thing collapsed due to extravagance.

Other attempts have also been made by producer Arthur P Jacobs, who asked David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia, A Passage to India) to take on directorial duties; and also the late Dino De Laurentiis bought the film rights and hired Ridley Scott (Alien) to direct a version as well, but after just seven months he walked out due to personal reasons and also a realisation that the film would be a massive and lengthy undertaking, something he felt he couldn’t commit to.

In the present, efforts are once more being made to bring it to a cinema screen near you. However, just as in Jodorowsky and Scott’s day, the production appears to be plagued with problems. This time it’s Paramount Pictures who are trying their best to get it made, but already it appears that directors have come and gone even before a single frame has been shot (Pierre Morel and Peter Berg, both named as directors, have both left the production). Pre-production has already begun, with a release date slated for sometime in 2012 (according to IMDb), but it’s now increasingly looking likely that it’ll never see the light of day – with more pressure being piled on Paramount because the option they have will expire relatively soon.

Despite all the difficulties, one director did manage to film Frank Herbert’s novel – David Lynch. However even this version carried on the tradition of having less than a smooth journey from script to screen. Lynch himself has stated that pressure from financiers and producers curtailed his artistic freedom and vision, meaning that when it was eventually released in 1985 he distanced himself from the project. The compromises he would presumably have had to make in order to satisfy the various camps necessarily resulted in a diluted film, a fact that was reflected in the lukewarm critical reception it received.

Since then, like so many other films that were panned on their initial cinema showings, Dune has built up a cult following, of which I proudly consider myself a member. I saw the film before I read the novels and, even though the film was in some respects confusing, I absolutely loved it. I locked into the arabic-influenced mysticism immediately – and the scene where Paul Atreides (played by Lynch mainstay Kyle MacLachlan) is standing in the desert, waiting for the sandworms to appear, and played out against Brian Eno’s haunting Prophecy Theme, positively sent shudders through me.

Even on a superficial level, however, it had everything that would instantly draw me into both Lynch’s vision and the world of Arrakis, politically and socially, that it portrayed. You have internecine intrigue, political and familial struggle between the warring houses of Harkonnen and Atreides, the promise of an all-powerful saviour (the Kwisatz Haderach) who would set things right, linked to the efforts of a religious order of nuns to prevent the birth and maturation of that saviour. Plus it took place within star-spanning societies and hierarchies, worlds very much different from our own. On top of that it starred many well-known names of the time: Kyle McLachlan, Francesca Annis, Brad Dourif, José Ferrer, Freddie Jones, Everett McGill, Jürgen Prochnow, Patrick Stewart and Dean Stockwell amongst many others. Each of the actors instilled their performances with an authenticity that brought great depth and complexity to the film.

I have often felt that Lynch’s version has been much-maligned, both then and now. Having subsequently read the novels, I can see how difficult it must have been for the scriptwriter to condense all that convoluted plotting and subtext into a comprehensible screenplay. Even just that first instalment in the six novel series is pretty daunting reading – inter-relationships, personal and political, are extremely complex and weave a tangled web, indeed. Added to that are deeply abstruse philosophical and socio-political themes that are integral to the narrative – is it any wonder, then, that it’s had such a chequered cinematic history.

Forget what the critics at the time said about it – I suggest you hire it out or buy it, watch it, and just let the atmospheres and intrigues seep into the pores of your skin, and enjoy a celluloid spectacle that was both forward-looking for its time and yet redolent of the era when it was made. It’s definitely nowhere near as bad as it’s made out to be.

Old vs New

Posted in Books, Film, General Musings with tags , , , , , , , on October 28, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

A couple of blogs back, in my review of the final episode of BBC4’s A History of Horror with Mark Gatiss, I intimated at the end of the first paragraph that my tastes in horror have changed over the years. Thinking about it since, I have come to realise just how much they’ve actually changed, more so than I thought. Which, I happen to think, is a very good thing.

Wind back about 20 – 25 years ago. Then, I wasn’t much of a horror film fan, although I loved reading horror – Brian Lumley, Ramsey Campbell, TED Klein, HP Lovecraft, and Clive Barker were amongst my favourite authors. I absolutely revelled in the verbal bloodshed. Films, however, were a different matter. I was incredibly squeamish, and always had been. I remember a particular event, when I was around nine or ten, when one of the Sunday colour supplements ran a feature on open-heart surgery, accompanied by photographs of the operation. I distinctly remember feeling dizzy and nauseous after reading it, almost fainting in the process. My parents laughed, obviously thinking it was highly amusing.

Don’t get me wrong – I did watch horror films occasionally, but they were mostly the Universal/RKO Pictures ones. I loved all those oldies, principally because I owned all of the Aurora ‘Monsters’ model kits, with their glow-in-the-dark hands and faces. I was an avid collector of those things, much to the dismay of my parents, I should imagine. Even in my early twenties, my preferred horror-fare was print based, along with those fairly ‘safe’ b&w films.

Then, sometime in my mid-20s, a friend introduced me to Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead film, championed by no less a figure than Stephen King himself. That first time I barely made it though the first twenty minutes, in part because of the expectations I’d gained from reading the video cover hyperbole. A couple of months later, I rented it out, and got a little further in this time, but still bailed out way before the end. Third time, some months later still, and I got through it all, and you know what? I loved it.

Then, of course, I wanted more – much more. And the more horror films I saw, the more horror I wanted to see. After a time, simple scares were no longer enough. I started buying Fangoria magazine on a regular basis, and I learnt about all these films that were available over in the US, the stills of which seemed to imply that much bloodiness abounded in them. Some of these films, I discovered, were almost impossible to get over here because of censorship issues, or those that were available were heavily cut. I was adamant that I would only see the uncut versions. Eventually I found a video search service that not only found them for me, but also supplied me with many of the banned films (including the so-called ‘video nasties’).

And so, that was the pattern of my film viewing for years thereafter. I went looking for more and more extreme films, just to push my boundaries. Then, no more than a couple of years ago, I started to tire of it all – in fact, I got to the point where I could barely watch any kind of film ( something which occasionally still happens today). Over the last year especially, my horror reading tastes have also changed – mainly, I think, after having become a book-reviewer, where I’ve come across the more subtle and imaginative takes on what horror can be. Additionally, I’ve started reading older authors (older as in beginning of last century rather than anything to do with a writer’s age) and reading them has given me a greater appreciation of how they were able to imply horror effectively, without recourse to gory pyrotechnics.

I think it’s got something to do with age and growing up, this whole shifting of tastes thing. Don’t get me wrong, I still think there’s a place for the Saw-type films of this world, but I have to say that such things no longer have quite the same appeal for me as they once did. Certainly, in the wake of Mark Gatiss’s recent series, I am inclined to go back to all those old films and watch them again. I think it’s also got a lot to do with the peculiar atmosphere and ambience, qualities that appear to be better created through b&w films than colour (that’s not always the case , of course, and is an entirely subjective opinion). Plus, the cut-away at the very last second in some scenes suggests something more horrific than that which was probably intended. I like having to use my imagination, rather than having it served up on a platter to me.

I’ve no doubt a certain amount of nostalgia for the old-style of film-making plays its part, too. In these days of CGI and ultra-realistic effects, it’s far too easy to make things look so real that it could be a documentary. You know, however, that it’s all done very cleverly with computer trickery, and that knowledge often blunts the enjoyment. It takes the fun out of it. Those b&w films can be genuinely creepy and horrific in a way that’s missing from modern horror.

I realise that today’s horror films reflect current concerns and are extrapolations of them, and therefore most definitely have a place. But I can’t help thinking that, even given that, I get far more enjoyment and a lot more spooky thrills from the old ones. Plus, in some ways, the lack of ‘sophistication’  in those oldies (but only in comparison with modern films – many b&w films of yesteryear were very sophisticated in their own way) lends them a certain charm. Some of them worked very cleverly within the range of the restrictions placed on film studios back then, bypassing them in surprising and innovative ways. I sometimes feel that present-day audiences dismiss them too readily out of hand, simply because a) they’re old, b) they’re shot in b&w and c) they don’t show things explicitly enough. Perhaps modern horror films (or maybe cinema in general) has taken the edge off of our ability to bring something to the viewing experience.

This new-found appreciation of more subtle horror will manifest in ways other than just in my film-watching and reading tastes – I’ll be doing much more than that. If things go to plan, then I’ll be more than just reacting, I’ll be returning the pleasure that stories and films like those old b&w ones have given me. Keep your eye out on this blog for more information as and when it becomes available – good times are ahead….

GUEST REVIEWER: John Llewellyn Probert

Posted in Film, Guest-blog on September 28, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

MGM’s Legends of Horror DVD boxset

Firstly, my thanks to Mr Marshall-Jones for offering me the opportunity to wax lyrical about anything I fancy on his blog. Recently at Probert Towers we’ve been having fun with the Hays Code. Or rather, we’ve been having fun watching movies made before and just after this compromising, restricting, subjective set of rules was brought in to govern the content of Hollywood movies in the mid nineteen thirties to “protect” audiences from scenes of excessive violence, sexuality and good old Deviant Behaviour.

If you want to see for yourself what kind of effect this censorship had on films of the time then you need go no further than the MGM Legends of Horror DVD boxset. For your money you get the pre-code horrors of Karl Freund’s Mad Love, Boris Karloff in The Mask of Fu Manchu, and Michael Curtiz’s Doctor X, as well as post-code movies The Devil Doll and Mark of the Vampire from Tod Browning, and The Return of Dr X starring Humphrey Bogart.

The precode movies range from the excellent (Mad Love) through to the more ordinary (Doctor X) but are never less than interesting. The sight of Peter Lorre pretending to be the Rollo the guillotined knife thrower with his head strapped back on is still pretty unsettling, and the tortures devised by Boris Karloff as Fu Manchu suggest that left unchecked Hollywood may have ended up making the Saw movies in the forties rather than the noughties. As examples of their type they’re not bad at all, and if you like these then you should certainly check out the nasty and naughty Murders in the Zoo (1933) and the Boris Karloff-Bela Lugosi double-headers The Raven and The Black Cat (both 1935), all of which contain nastiness that Hollywood wouldn’t be allowed to include in its product for many years following.

Was the Hays Code responsible for a decline in quality? Probably not, in fact I suspect that all it did was prevent ludicrous ‘B’ programmers from adding unpleasant cruelty to their already ludicrous, incomprehensible and badly-researched plotlines. The Return of Dr X (1939) stars Humphrey Bogart as a medic back from the dead after going to the electric chair because he “wanted to see how long a baby could go without eating for”. Hardly the genius surgeon (there must have been far better, exotic and more lurid ways to end up executed, even post-Code, and I bet Lionel Atwill would have known what they were) he comes back to life as a result of blood transfusions. The lecture we get on blood groups is as if Karl Landsteiner, the world-famous scientist who actually discovered this stuff, never existed, and Bogie’s back from the dead just long enough to take a pretty nurse off to his matte painting of an old shack in the swamp where he promptly ends up shot and uttering an ‘important’ last line that’s about as meaningful as the rest of this twaddle.

Certainly the Hays Code didn’t lead to a decrease in daftness or elderly actors dressing up in women’s clothing, as The Devil Doll testifies. Based on Abraham Merritt’s novel Burn Witch Burn (you can read my review of that, along with its precursor Seven Footprints to Satan, on the Vault of Evil website) the film starts off bonkers and gets worse. Lionel ‘I’ve had the bit of my brain removed labelled “restrained acting”‘ Barrymore escapes from Devil’s Island with a friend. Lionel wants revenge on the men who caused him to be unjustly imprisoned. Thankfully his friend has altogether more utterly ludicrous ambitions that involve shrinking the population of the world to the size of little dolls to solve the world’s food problems. He shows Lionel some plastic models of dogs and then, in a bit of fairly ambitious special effects for the time, we get to see the miniaturised dogs walking around. The serving girl gets the treatment next, which as well as shrinking her cures her of her ‘mental retardation’ for no reason that’s explained. Lionel’s friend dies of a heart attack, which is Lionel’s cue to go to Paris, dress up as an old lady, and use the doll-making device to create miniature assassins and in one case at least to presumably assuage his boredom (there’s no other reason for him shrinking a horse and where the hell does he get the room to do that anyway?) Clearly far too comfortable in his old lady getup Lionel finally clears his name and we get a rather odd coda that’s presumably Browning’s nod to the Hays’ Office to let him off the blatant female microphilia we’ve seen in the swampland laboratory scene.

However daft The Devil Doll may be it’s neither as patchy nor as ultimately unsatisfying as Mark of the Vampire, made by Browning a year earlier and featuring another performance from Lionel Barrymore who has obviously been told to forego his usual timidity and really play things up. Bela Lugosi’s in this one too, in all the scenes that get used as stills, and with just one line. The vampire bits are superbly atmospheric but once we get on to plot it’s almost as stagy as Browning’s Dracula and you get the feeling his heart wasn’t in it.

Watching a box set like this makes one wonder what would have happened if a similar code had been brought in for literature. In the UK the main fiction to suffer would probably have been Christine Campbell Thompson’s Not at Night series, Charles Birkin’s ‘Creeps’ and of course the dear old Pan Book of Horror. Some would argue that this might not have been such a bad thing, but on the other hand without those stories I wouldn’t have become the horror fan that I am and consequently you wouldn’t be reading this now. But all of that is quite another story…

—()—

John Llewellyn Probert is a writer and a larger-than-life character. If ever you get the chance to witness him performing (not just reading) one of his stories, then I strongly suggest you do so… excellent entertainment! You can find his website here.

Thanks to John for writing this!

Jeunet & Caro’s CITY OF LOST CHILDREN

Posted in Film, Nostalgia on September 12, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

This 1995 film, by quirky French film-makers Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro, is neither horror nor science fiction nor fantasy nor comedy, but a beautifully realised and seamless combination of all four. It is the stuff of all our dreams and nightmares: it simultaneously beguiles and threatens, invites hope and denies it, it is both technicolour bright and dangerously dark.

The story is, like most good tales, very simple: deranged scientist Krank (Daniel Emilfork) is kidnapping children in order to steal their dreams, simply because he cannot dream himself. Denree, the younger brother of circus strongman One (played by Ron Perlman), is one of the kidnapped children and so, along with a young orphan girl called Miette (Judith Vittet), One sets out to rescue him. And that really is all there is to it.

Stylistically, however, it’s a different story. It’s a bande dessinée made real, a comic-book in the European style brought to three-dimensional life. Everything is exaggerated and over-emphasised, and the sets have been designed in such a way that it is both mittel-Européenne fairytale in character whilst at the same time hugely threatening and unsavoury. The colours in the film are primary yet they are simultaneously deeply muted, and edged with an undercurrent of menace and jeopardy. It isn’t a place where normal, decent people would choose to live. The buildings are tall and narrow, the windows glower down on streets which are twisty and perilous, and the docklands are always fogbound, dark and lit with a weak moon and pale lamplight.

On top of that, Jean-Paul Gaultier is credited with costume design and the French, as we all know, possess a deeply ingrained sense of style and flair. The film, especially the scenes set in Krank’s oil-rig based laboratory, appear to prefigure the current Steampunk fad to some extent. Certainly there’s enough of the rusty, creaky and hastily cobbled-together look about it to point in that direction. Nothing shiny and bleepy in here. In combination, it’s a gorgeous visual feast of a film.

It’s a classic story, about how we, as adults, have lost our innocence and imagination, our ability to see the world through childlike eyes of wonder. Taking on the responsibilities of adulthood, plus peer and familial pressures, force us to put away or discard altogether the toys of childhood and to walk the path that everyone else is made to walk. We are made to feel that, in clinging on to our childhoods and the dreams we fostered in them, we are somehow remiss as people, and that we are inevitably incomplete and immature.

This is where the horror comes in: the realisation that we have irretrievably lost those dreams and that some people will go to any lengths to find, and relive, them again. Obviously, most of us aren’t going to kidnap children and steal their dreams for real: nevertheless, it would be true to say that society, and the way that it educates our children (or preparing them for adulthood, as they would put it), really does snatch their dreams and wishes away from them. The idea that, as we grow older, the more we’re taught about the world and how it works, the blunter our sense of wonder becomes. That is the nightmare.

Krank steals the dreamlives of children because they don’t have a clue about how reality works. The world is a hard and sometimes cruel place, a place that many of us despise for those very reasons. There is a feeling that Krank’s reasoning is that, by doing what he does, he will blunt the sharp edges. The problem with that is that, if we were all to return to a state of childhood wonder and awe, then nothing would get done. That is why, presumably, Krank is ultimately returned to the state of being a baby. It reminds us that, however idyllic the idea is, in the end it wouldn’t do us any good.

On another level, given the dreadful instances of paedophilia being brought to light that appear to assail us on a regular basis in the news, one wonders whether there’s a reflection of that in City of Lost Children. I don’t think there is, but the stealing of innocence, as portrayed in the film, can certainly be taken as a metaphor for that heinous crime, albeit at a stretch.

The film itself caused a bit of a fuss when first released, because of the nature of the relationship between the characters of One and Miette. Apparently people interpreted it as inappropriately sexual; even Ron Perlman was reportedly uncomfortable at the connotations of the relationship. Jeunet & Caro, when they were interviewed about it, averred that during the making of the film itself they were unaware of the inferences, only realising it could be interpreted as such when they were in the editing phase.

I think that’s stretching it too far – the film itself is very fairtytale-like in treatment and quality, and is all about the loss of innocence through the kidnapping of children and then the stealing of their dreams. We, as western societies, sometimes look far too deeply at these kind of films and assign subtexts to them that simply aren’t there (I’m just as guilty of that as anyone else, however). In more innocent times, such as when fairytales were a means to entertain children as well as educate them, such friendships between an adult and child were less prone to being interpreted in such a manner. City of Lost Children is, in essence, nothing more than an updating of some familiar tropes and themes from such tales, at least in my view.

Regardless, it’s a wonderful film, shot and realised with a typically European flair that somehow Hollywood has yet to emulate properly. It’s inventive, has larger than life archetypal characters peopling its surreal landscape, and is woven around a story that everyone, from children to adults, can find meaning in. It’s funny (especially in those sequences starring Dominique Pinon, star of Jeunet & Caro’s other hit film, Delicatessen), moving and scary all at the same time. If you’ve never seen it, then may I suggest that you rectify that oversight as soon as possible?

HELLRAISER

Posted in Film, Nostalgia on September 8, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

If there is one film that epitomises the ‘perfect’ horror film (for me, that is), then that film is 1987’s Hellraiser. It’s sleazy, it’s extreme in terms of the themes it explores and it positively seethes a hellish, nightmarish atmosphere. Additionally (and most memorably), it gave us probably THE most iconic ‘monster’ of the demonic variety in late 20th century horror cinema in the form of Pinhead. (Yes, I know there’s also Freddy and Jason, both demons in their own right, but in some sense they’re much more recognisably human than Pinhead or his fellow Cenobites).

Its a marvel of effective low-budget film-making at its best. It’s extremely claustrophobic: the close, dark sets and stifling family relationships continually make the viewer gasp for air. And to think it all started with a novella written by Clive Barker, The Hellbound Heart, originally published in the third volume of the Night Visions anthology, published by Dark Harvest in November 1986.

It’s a film that has so many layers to it: the idea that ultimate pleasure can be associated with ultimate pain is transgressive in the extreme, and yet there is an undeniable truth within its dark heart. It has a small cast of characters, around which everything orbits tightly. As it had a miniscule budget, it wasn’t about the effects or the Cenobites, but about the characters and their interactions. Yes, it starts with Frank (Sean Chapman), a man who is something of a hedonist, finding a fabled puzzle-box (The Lament Configuration) that, according to legend and rumour, if solved, will lead to ultimate pleasure. Of course, it’s nothing more than a key, a key that unlocks the dimensional doors to the realm of the Cenobites. Frank is dragged off, to experience unutterable hells of torture and pain.

However, ultimately, it’s about the hells we make for ourselves. The box does indeed open up gates to unknown pleasures, but they are only pleasures as the Cenobites understand the term. To them pain IS pleasure. Frank is inadvertently resurrected, having found a way to escape the confines of Hell, and in the process dragging Julia (Clare Higgins), who once had a fling with him and is now married to his brother Larry (Andrew Chapman), into the dark corridors of madness by persuading her to provide the means by which to bring him back fully.

It is here, of course, that matters spiral out of control – Kirsty (Julia and Larry’s daughter), discovers what’s going on and also figures out that the Lament Configuration is the key to everything. She eventually meets Pinhead and co. after solving the puzzle-box whilst recovering in hospital. Necessarily they want to drag her back with them, but she tells them about Frank’s escape and makes a bargain with them: she’ll give them Frank in return for her freedom.

The film leaves you wondering just who the real monsters are here – the Cenobites or the humans. Pinhead has no illusions about his role, but Frank’s reappearance brings destruction in his wake, destroying not just Julia and Kirtsy’s lives but also those of the lonely men she brings back home so Frank can feed. Frank doesn’t even care when he inadvertently stabs Julia, the woman who aided him in his quest and who once loved him, while going for her daughter. Julia has created her own hell when Frank reappeared by agreeing to nourish him, Kirsty brought about her own nightmare when she solved the puzzle box. And, of course, Frank assured his own place in the darkest circle of the netherworld when his pursuit of that ultimate high led him to acquiring, and solving, the Configuration box in the first place.

The other subtext running underneath is that everything has a consequence, that in the pursuit of pleasure, pain is inevitably a constant bedfellow. That hate is a partner to love. That to know the ultimate highs one has to have experienced the ultimate lows. There is something ultimately bleak and hopeless about the film, too – there is very little of light anywhere in it. Even when everything has been resolved, we come away with the notion that there is still taint. That lives cannot return to any form of normality. There’s the constant awareness that this life is but one dimension of many, and that the wall is perilously thin between this one and that of unspeakable torment and horror. That thin wall also denotes that the differences between here and there aren’t that great. Look at the torture and horror we’ve been inflicting on fellow humans over the millennia. Like I intimated, who are the real monsters here?

The film has spawned more than a few sequels, which have mostly diluted the original intent and atmosphere, although I will say I have a slight soft spot for the fourth film in the franchise, Hellraiser: Bloodline. Two and three weren’t that bad either. However, it’s that very first outing for Pinhead and cronies that will always hold a special place for me – one of those films I always revisit when I get the chance.

Remakes – a necessary evil?

Posted in Film on September 4, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

I don’t know about you, but I am a little wary (and weary) of the current trend in Hollywood for remakes. Why do film studios feel the necessity of going through the vaults, just to dust off some of the oldies (which aren’t necessarily goodies, even when they were released the first time around) and then think,”Hey, we could remake this one – they’ll love it!!”. To me, it’s just another sign of how cynical the industry has become (if it ever was uncynical in the first place).

I could, perhaps, understand it if the studio execs were thinking along the lines of “This was hugely successful back then, so now let’s update it and bring the magic to a new generation”. However, even in that thinking there’s a major flaw – the reason they were highly successful back in the day wasn’t just because of the story and the actors/actresses involved, it was about chemistry. The magic you saw on the screen between the lead characters, and which brought the whole thing to life, was because there was an indefinable and intangible ‘something’ between them that sparked, electrifying their performances. Plus, there’s something to be said for both the millieu in which it was set and the era in which the film was produced. The word glamour, for instance, meant something different then and the stars of the 40s and 50s, for instance, had it in buckets. I’m not so sure about the so-called ‘stars’ of today, but that could just be the cynic in me.

Even in the niche world of horror cinema, remake-itis has broken out. Witness for example the recent remake of Nightmare on Elm Street, directed by Samuel Bayer. According to what I have read of Bayer, he cut his directorial teeth on toothpaste adverts for television. Judging from some of the reviews I have read of the new film, he has brought those slick, quick-cut, MTV-style skills to Freddy’s child-murdering exploits, and generally failed. For me, the reason why A Nightmare on Elm Street worked in the first place was because of its griminess and graininess, plus the special effects were produced mechanically, rather than in the Central Processing Unit of a computer. Even now, there’s something incredibly charming and endearing about the film just BECAUSE those effects are shaky and less-than-realistic.

The same could probably be applied to Clash of the Titans: I’ve seen the original with the Ray Harryhausen-animated stop-motion monsters and I loved it, even with the jerkiness and obviously unrealistic look of the creatures. Now, with the aid of digital effects, things look too realistic, I think, often to the detriment of the film. Okay, I do want it to look as if the hero is actually fighting whatever, but somehow, after seeing so many movies with incredibly lifelike CGI I get bored of the shininess factor. Plus, seeing as how digital has allowed more bang for the buck these days, their inclusion more often than not is there to cover up a distinct lack of story.

So, what prompted me to write this? It was the news that someone is remaking the first Hellraiser film, a favourite of mine (this may be old news to some, for which I crave your momentary indulgence =) ). I now have this distasteful vision of some slickly-produced and CGI-effects-laden monstrosity, completely removed from the sleazy, grimy and blood-soaked conception of the original – the very reasons why I absolutely adore the film in the first place. Pinhead is still one of recent cinema’s most iconic demonic(?) beings and even if Doug Bradley were to reprise his role, I would have to think carefully about whether to go and see it. I, and presumably more than a few others like me, happen to think that it doesn’t require remaking. It’s great enough as it is. It is, after all, about those Cenobite characters and their relationship to this world, and the dynamics involved in that interaction, that form the essential core of the film. The effects are, in some ways, secondary.

My feelings extend to the annoying habit of American studios ‘remaking’ foreign films when they were perfectly good in the first place. I’m specifically thinking about films like The Ringu cycle and Ju-On (The Grudge) – why did they deem it necessary? Part of the horror and shivers we experience come from the fact that the ideas, themes and background are not of our culture and that they’re alien (and I mean this in the positive sense). Because we don’t identify in quite the same way as, say, the Japanese do with the folkloric elements of The Ring, we are therefore positively disturbed all the more effectively. Plus, it has to be said, the Japanese do scary far better and on less money too.

I just think that it’s symptomatic of a dearth of imagination and originality in the mainstream of American cinema. Notice I said mainstream here – I am not talking about indie film-makers and their ilk. My impression, albeit somewhat superficial, is that much of the present output of Hollywood appears  to be geared towards remakes and rom-coms. That’s not to imply that there aren’t new and original films being made there – it’s just that right now very few of the ones I have noticed seem to be anything other than remakes and rom-coms. Yes, I’ve heard about The Last Exorcism, and I am sure that I will get to see it eventually, but that’s the only horror one I have heard about recently (but I am sure that my correspondents will let me know otherwise). I don’t know whether it’s the cynic in me, but it just seems to me that it’s easier for a film executive to handle the idea of a director remaking  a film from yesteryear than it is to listen to a new and original idea. Or, have we actually exhausted all the cinematic possibilities out there, and that we have arrived at the originality and fresh ideas? Heck, they’ve even remade I Spit in Your Grave, that quintessential example of the video nasty – who would have thought that possible twenty-five years ago?

Gaahh! Now they’ve gone and ruined it…

Posted in Film, General Musings on September 2, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

We all have a cherished book, a book that we’ve read and re-read countless times over the years. We practically have it all off by heart, it’s been read so many times. In fact, the current copy is the fourth or fifth we’ve had to buy because all the others have fallen apart into dust particles.

More to the point, we can see everything that’s being narrated and described in minute detail in our heads. We’ve cast the perfect actors for each of the character roles and we have the most amazing locations. The monsters and villains are the scariest imaginable (at least according to ourselves) and the effects are the most whizzbang yet realistic that anyone is ever likely to be able to conjure up.

And then, you often find yourself wishing that someone would make a film of the book because how cool would that be?

Then, wonder of wonders, you hear on the grapevine that someone has optioned the film rights and is busy assembling a team to make it all a reality. You haven’t felt this excited for a long time – at last, you’ll be able to see your favourite book brought to Technicolour life right there on the silver screen. You eagerly listen and look out for any news on the project, hoping that production sketches, cast lists, who’s been chosen as the director and such-like are posted to the web so you can get a feel of which way the film is likely to go

And then information starts trickling through: and now you’re thinking -they’re not seriously asking HIM to be the director, are they? Are they REALLY casting him/her in the lead role? What the hell are they thinking – they’re totally unsuitable for the part. And those monsters are completely wrong – they don’t look anything like how you imagined they would be. And you start getting that sinking feeling that they’re just about to ruin the best book you’ve ever read. Now, you’re undecided as to whether to go and see it at all.

This, of course, is the danger of adapting books to films. Everyone who’s ever read the text currently being turned into blockbuster celluloid has a vision of what it should look like, and every one of those visions is different. So, in a nutshell, there are ALWAYS going to be people who disagree with whatever’s been done with their favourite story. You can never please everybody.

But that’s okay – the one thing that people like this never seem to realise is that they needn’t go and see the film in the first place. When I sat in the cinema to watch Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings I could hear several people around me complaining that certain parts of it weren’t ‘in the book’. Yes, I realised that too, but I also realised that for the sake of dramatic intensity those parts had to be rewritten. I love those books to pieces, inheriting my father’s passion for them, but I am also savvy enough with the way films work to understand that sometimes you have to spice things up in order to make them work better in a cinematic context (with the proviso that said changes enter into the spirit of the author’s work). The bit where Arwen rescues Frodo from the Black Riders? I know that it isn’t in the book, but it was damn well exciting nonetheless!! I knew I was, in essence, enjoying just one man’s vision of how he thought the book should look. So I revelled in the fact that I was able to do that.

I do have some sympathy with those who feel disappointed when the book they’ve spent most time reading is turned into a film which, to them, is completely unwatchable. I was disappointed with both Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch (but have since come to the conclusion that it was possibly the only way to actually film such a difficult, essentially plotless, book and, as such, is actually quite good) and the same director’s take on JG Ballard’s Crash. I also had some reservations about Jackson’s three-parter, but, despite some niggles with some of his decisions, I enjoyed them all immensely.

Simultaneously, I find people who go into excruciatingly minor detail about how this is not right, or that’s not the correct time period, or they have the shade of colour of the main character’s underpants wrong just bloody annoying. I am there to enjoy the action, not nit-pick. More to the point, people whispering to each other in the cinema “that’s not canon” spoil it for everyone else. If you’re that concerned about the lack of authentic detail, make your own version of it for us to see.

So, the next time a director or studio decides to make your cherished book into a film, look at, and enjoy, it as the vision of someone who has had the persistence to bring it to the screen for us all to enjoy. Don’t sit there complaining, spoiling the experience for the rest of us that might like it – for one thing, it’s disrespectful and also it’s rude. If it bothers you that much, just don’t go to see it or wait until it comes out on DVD or Blu-ray. To coin a phrase – simples.

Spielberg’s CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND

Posted in Film, Nostalgia on September 1, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

In 1977 or thereabouts, a film was released that changed the lives of many genre film fans. That film was Star Wars (and the subsequent sequels), and many who saw it that first time around cite it as THE film that launched them on the road to a lifelong love of all things sci-fi and genre. I loved the film too, with its tale of the never-ending fight between good and evil, and the ultimate triumph of good.  However,  there was another film that came out the same year, a film that did the same for me as Star Wars had done for others and changed my life quite profoundly. That film was Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

It was the absolutely perfect cinematic experience for a young boy of 14. I’d been reading a lot of science fiction up to that point – Silverberg, Asimov, Heinlein and others. I had also been brought up on a diet of 50s/60s style sci-fi films, which, although exciting and full of wonder in their own way, were still highly unrealistic, even to my young eyes. Then there was 2001: A Space Odyssey, but I just found that baffling. That’s the way it stayed  until CE3K came out – and then my whole universe suffered a complete seismic shift.

I was interested in UFOs and extraterrestrial life just at that point, and had been for quite some while. I’d amassed a small library of tomes, including the most famous one of all – Chariots of the Gods? by Erich von Daniken. Before the advent of the internet advance publicity for films was solely by word of mouth, or articles in magazines and newspapers, or items on the television. I can’t even remember where I first heard about the film, but I do remember being eager to go and see it. Where I lived, however, even blockbuster films took anything up to six months or a year to finally reach us. Waiting was agony.

However, reach us it did. I went to see it, with my best mate Karl, at the Palace Cinema at the top of Market Street in dear old Haverfordwest in Pembrokeshire, in Wales. The buzz about it was tremendous and I had high hopes for it. I wasn’t disappointed. It was a spectacularly brilliant film, and portrayed family man Roy Neary’s (Richard Dreyfuss) breakdown in the wake of being confronted by an event so momentous and huge that he struggles to cope with its import – the first actual actual encounter with the craft of an advanced alien, technological species. And he isn’t the only one so affected. Slowly and inexorably a privileged group of people, those who have also witnessed the same craft, are being drawn together, driven by purpose and curiosity. Even an unworldly fourteen-year-old like me could understand just how earth-shattering the impact of coming into contact with another civilisation would be on us.

It was not just the story that made an impression – it was the effects as well. Incredibly agile and brightly-lit craft seemingly defying gravity and physics, tumbling effortlessly through the skies of earth. More than that, however, is that the effects were subservient to the story and not the other way around, as is too often the case these days. They were so seamlessly integrated that you were willingly swept up in the necessary ‘suspension of disbelief’ and carried along on the tides of emotion and hope that the film represented. Everybody in the cinema felt the same, it was so palpable.

What really underscored it all, was the one scene which has burned itself into the memory so deeply. Night-time: the secret rendezvous point set up by the US Government and military, right at the foot of Devil’s Mountain, Wyoming. We all knew the mothership was on its way; we could see the roiling cloudbanks forming in the clear skies and we all wondered just what it would look like. And then….

… it rose up from behind the mountain, to a collective exclamation of “FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK!” from the audience.

The hairs stood up on the back of my neck – the sheer SIZE of the mothership took the breath away. It was the last thing anyone expected. It was just the most beautiful moment I’d ever experienced, an experience that thrilled me like nothing had before (or since, for that matter). I felt as if I had been close to a revelation of some kind. I shall never forget that moment, ever.

The other memorable element is that five-note riff that Francois Truffaut’s character comes up with in order to communicate with the aliens. Everytime I hear it I get the shudders and goose pimples – something so simple yet so highly effective. I bought the soundtrack album just so I could hear it over and over. It just telegraphed something mysterious and emotional – and yet, like I say, it only contains five notes.

Since then, of course, I have seen the film numerous times, all on the small screen. Necessarily its impact has been lessened, but I am still reminded of that delicious frisson I got when I first saw it. Apart from blowing my interest in sci-fi (and science and extraterrestrial life) wide open, it left me with a powerful idea of what film could achieve if done right. It was the first time I had been geuinely moved by a piece of celluloid. I can’t think of many films since then that have done the same (maybe the films of Hayao Miyazaki have come closest, as has Tim Burton’s Big Fish – that’s a wonderful film).

One other thing it left me with – possibilities. A feeling that this vast universe of ours hides many wondrous things and that we still have infinite amounts more to discover about it. And that. for me, is an absolutely incredible feeling….

The Terror, by guest reviewer Paul Kane

Posted in Film on August 28, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

As an experiment, and to broaden the scope of Ramblings of a Tattooed Head, please let me introduce the first in what I hope is an occasional series of reviews by guests. To kick things off we have a review of Roger Corman’s 1963 film The Terror, written by author Paul Kane.

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The Terror (1963, Pegasus Entertainment DVD) Out 9 August. £5.99

Not to be confused with Dan Simmons’ masterly novel from a couple of years ago, The Terror is actually one of Roger Corman’s pretty much forgotten early movies –  worthy of note because it features not only Jack Nicholson and Boris Karloff, but also a very young Dick Miller (Gremlins) as a butler. The movie marked Nicholson’s third appearance in a Corman flick, after 1960’s The Little Shop of Horrors and 1963’s The Raven, but also led to the actor going behind the camera – in an uncredited directing capacity (along with Francis Ford Coppola, Monte Hellman and Jack Hill). Ever the opportunist, Corman reportedly shot footage of Karloff and other actors walking across sets (most notably those left over from AIP films like The Haunted Palace) in the hopes some kind of story could be woven around it later. Little wonder then, that the whole thing has a certain disjointed quality to it.

Separated from his regiment on the north German coast, Napoleonic soldier Lt Andre Duvalier (Nicholson) collapses from his horse onto the beach and sees a vision of a beautiful woman. After helping him, the mysterious Helene (Sandra Knight) walks into the water and vanishes. Duvalier follows, but quickly finds himself out of his depth and is this time rescued by a strange old woman, Katrina (Dorothy Neumann): the local peasant witch. Once recovered, his efforts to find out who Helene is take him to the castle of Baron Victor Frederick Von Leppe (Karloff), who is convinced she’s the ghost of his dead wife, Ilsa, coming back to haunt him.

As Duvalier investigates further, he uncovers the truth about what happened the night Ilsa died – and why she might have reason to plague the Baron. But at the same time there seems to be something else going on, a revenge conspiracy that is fated to backfire on the person initiating it. Can Duvalier get to the bottom of who Helene really is, and help save the Baron at the same time?

Though not as slick as Corman’s other offerings in this vein – how could it be when there were five people filming the picture? – and while it doesn’t quite have the charm of the Poe films he’s probably best known for, this is nonetheless an intriguing and hypnotic film. Somehow the filmmakers manage to come up with a genuinely surprising twist at the end, that throws everything we’ve learnt up to then into confusion, and some of the horror set pieces – in particular one where a man gets his eyes pecked out by a bird – still hold up today (although fans of more modern shockers will no doubt snigger at a few of the other, cheaper effects). Nicholson hasn’t really come into his own by this time, though there are hints of the OTT performances to come, but the ever reliable Karloff more than makes up for this: a master of drumming up suspense and tension in a scene. The lack of extras are a pain, but this one’s definitely worth getting your hands on if only for nostalgia value alone.

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Paul Kane is a professional journalist and author of horror/dark fantasy short stories and novels. He is also the author of the critically acclaimed book The Hellraiser Films and their Legacy.

I also encourage others to submit reviews of films, books and other media. Leave a comment on here with your proposal and I will get back to you as soon as I can!

Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead

Posted in Film, Nostalgia on August 19, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

We all have to have things to pin the blame on. The very first Evil Dead film, which was made in 1981 by Sam Raimi on a meagre budget of $375,000, is one of mine. Up until the time I finally got around to seeing it, my horror film fare was restricted to classic black & white Universal and RKO Pictures, and the occasional Hammer Horror. I’d vaguely heard of these video nasties that were doing the rounds at the time, but I had absolutely no interest in them and thought they were pointless – besides, back then, I have to admit I was more than a tad squeamish.

I remember my mate Dan inviting me around his place one evening for a beer ‘n’ film session. There were a couple of movies on offer, all of which (except Evil Dead) I’ve forgotten the titles of. ED was the main attraction, and so I stayed late because Dan told me it was an absolutely brilliant, if brutal, film. I got through about a quarter of it before I made my excuses and bailed out (sad, I know). (One other thing I remember about that night – I had to walk through a dark cemetery on my way home!). Then, some months later, when my parents finally bought a video player (top-loader!), I hired the film and tried again. This time I got to the bit where the newly-demonified young woman starts chewing her hand off – and I bailed again, as it made me feel physically sick. This brand of ‘horror’ film was obviously not for me. Or so I thought.

It wasn’t long after that that the film was classified as one of the notorious ‘video nasties’, alongside the likes of Snuff, Driller Killer, Cannibal Holocaust, Faces of Death and I Spit on Your Grave. In fact, it wasn’t until 2001, a full 17 years after being classified as a ‘nasty’, that it was released uncut. Certainly, it’s a very graphic film, containing lots of bloodshed and a very uncomfortable rape scene perpetrated by a vine tendril (a scene which Raimi himself regrets including). BUT, if you watch the film closely, there’s a great deal of humour in it, which tends to make the bloodletting scenes less horrific. Even so, despite the level of violence contained in the film, I have never thought that it ever deserved being shoved in with the ‘video nasty’ lot, as some of those are quite horrific (although equally, there are more than a few on the list that make you wonder just how utterly squeamish the compilers were – some of these were so laughably made that it was almost painfully obvious they were created using shoddily cheap special effects).

The plot revolves around a group of students staying at an isolated cabin in the woods one summer vacation. While there, they discover The Book of the Dead (as you do) and some tape recordings, the playback of which resurrects a demon. One of the girls gets possessed (which mercifully kills her) and she becomes a deadite (which isn’t so merciful). The only way of getting rid of the demonic infestation is to physically dismember them. Cue axes and chainsaws. And so, quite literally for the students, all hell breaks loose and it become a race for survival.

Although it received mixed reviews at the time of its release, it has since become a firm favourite amongst horror afficianados. More than that, however, is the fact that it gave us one of the more endearing (and enduring) horror characters, Ash Williams (played by the brilliant Bruce Campbell). There were two sequels, each getting sillier than the last, and there are persistent rumours that a fourth film is being worked upon, with Sam Raimi once again directing. There are also rumours that there’ll be a face-off between two other horror franchises in Freddie vs Jason vs Ash, but this appears to be more wishful think than anything else (although, I do have to admit that it’s a delicious-sounding premise).

And yes, I finally got to see it all the way through and, more to the point, loved every second of it. I found that it appealed to my blackly humorous outlook on life after all. But, you may well ask, why do I consider it as one of the things on which to pin blame on? Quite simply, it introduced to me a whole new world of horror, and set me off on a video- and book-collecting frenzy that lasted 20 years or more. Sadly, all the films, on video cassettes as they were, deteriorated in the shocking conditions of some of the domiciles I’ve had to endure over the years. I do have a few on DVD, but I have very little patience to watch films these days – I very rarely watch anything on TV, even when something interesting comes on. The books, too, have mostly all gone, due to me having to sell the majority just to feed myself.

However, all is not lost. Gradually, things are beginning to get better, although there’s still a hell of a long way to go. I still retain my love of the scary and frightening, especially in its literary incarnation, and I am slowly rediscovering books I got rid of, as well as stories and books I should have read years ago. And, to think that, if I hadn’t watched a low-budget horror movie all those years ago, then, in all probability, this blog and my foray into short story writing would never happened. So, if you ever get to meet Sam Raimi, then you can either shake his hand or slap him for that. At the very least, you too will have something to blame it all on. =)