Archive for January, 2009

‘To a new world of gods and monsters!’

WARNING - THIS ARTICLE PRETTY MUCH GIVES AWAY THE ENTIRE PLOT OF THE MOVIES!

One of the many Bride postersIronically, I bought The Bride of Frankenstein in a DVD pack alongside Frankenstein for £4.99, as a promotional effort geared towards Van Helsing. With the latter serving as an homage to the classic Universal monster movies, rereleasing the old things in cheap, accessible double bills was a great thing to do, only they happen to be far superior to the Hugh Jackman affair, which by most standards was somewhat underwhelming. Not only could Helsing’s director, Stephen Sommers, have learned something from watching these movies again, but their budget price availability brought them home to a new generation of viewers. Whether you find the horror flicks of the 1930s to be defined by their tameness or their contemporary power, you can’t really call yourselves fans of the genre if you haven’t soaked them up at some point. Alongside the likes of Dracula, the Mummy, the Wolfman and their mates, ‘Franky’ stands as a template for most horror movies that have followed. You can see its influence in nearly everything, from the cheapest nasty through to £100m blockbusters. And of those classic monsters, Frankenstein’s monster remains the most powerful.

Both movies were based on Mary Shelley’s novel, the gothic bestseller that has its mythical roots in a contest between Lord Byron, Percy Shelley and herself whilst holidaying, an attempt to see who could come up with the scariest yarn. Mary’s tale, about the moral horrors of dabbling with creation, effortlessly beat the lads, and went on to become a favourite not only of readers, but also those looking for a good story to be adapted for the theatre. By the time James Whale made the now definitive 1931 version, it had been doing its rounds on the stage for some years, and various silent efforts for the screen were already gathering dust.

Yet for all that, Frankenstein the novel is hardly an obvious source for all this attention. It’s a good read, but the scares take some time to arrive, and in fact it works much better as a philosophical poser than as straight horror. In the book, the creature is most certainly not the real monster. Reviled by its maker almost as soon as he brings it to life, the luckless thing finds itself shunned and wandering the local forests, scaring everyone who comes across its path until by chance it is taken in by a blind hermit desperate for company. As a result, it learns to speak, and eventually confronts Frankenstein to demand from him a mate. With the threat of danger to his own fiance hanging over him, the scientist returns to his research and indeed creates a woman, only the thought of these creatures propagating detests him to the extent that he destroys it before it gets a chance to live. The fiance then dies at the hands of the creature, exactly as he grimly promised. What follows is a spiral of self-destruction as both creator and creation dance around each other, one demanding the other’s obliteration, the second unable to understand its own existence.

The immediate loathing that strikes every character who sees the monster seems to have been the reason for all the plays and films. Everyone loves a good scare and make-up maestros worked their socks off to knock out creations that could inspire ever greater degrees of revulsion. Quite often however, the aim of the producers was simply to frighten their audiences, to turn the monster into a mindless killing machine. Whale’s film was the first to take a different approach.

The big man himselfIt was released in 1931, on the back of the box office winner, Dracula. That movie’s star, Bela Lugosi, was originally scheduled to play the monster, but turned down the role because of the lashings of make-up involved. It instead went to little-known English actor, Boris Karloff, whose gaunt, angular features were perfect for bringing out the deathly, pallid visage of the monster. In the movie, he doesn’t put in an appearance for thirty minutes or so. Until that point, the narrative concerns itself with Henry (Victor in the novel - no idea why it’s changed) Frankenstein, a brilliant young scientist who has been shunned by the community for his blasphemous belief in the ability to produce artificial life. Played by stage star Colin Clive, he’s a study in barely suppressed dementia, a genius who is forced to rob graves to provide body parts for his creation. Eventually, he strikes gold. On a visually stunning stormy night, the monster lies under sheets and bandages, waiting for the final spark of life. A burst of lightning is the key, the sudden electrical energy that is the secret of animation. Amidst Frankenstein’s laboratory, a playground of machinery, flashing lights and crackles and hums, the monster’s fingers move, and with a triumphant cry the doctor declares he knows what it’s like to be God.

The next we see of Henry, he’s having a satisfied smoke and looking decidedly pleased with himself. Confronted with his former University professor, he reveals his creation for the very first time. Painfully slowly, wringing out every last knot of tension, the monster enters the room, shuffling in backwards, so that the camera can linger on him as it turns around to face us. We all know what we’re going to see, but imagine it’s 1931 and you don’t have all those other horror movie precedents to cushion the shock. Lifeless eyes stare out from a heavy brow, thin lips stark against pale, alabaster skin, and above the scar running along its forehead is the flat head, mottled with limp black hair that barely covers the stitches. It’s a horrific sight, designed to repulse, and later the monster’s attitude seems to match its cruel visage by killing Frankenstein’s assistant and going on the rampage. It turns out the same assistant had been teasing it with fire before it turned on him. And then we see Frankenstein’s look of terror as he is informed the prized brain he stole for the monster is that of a sub-intelligent criminal. Oh dear…

But the monster itself is an innocent. It plays with a little girl for a moment, tossing flowers into a lake with her, before it unwittingly throws her in after them, not knowing what’s going on as she drowns. The scene was considered so hard going by the censors of the time that it was cut out, only being restored much later. In the original edit, we see the monster and girl larking around in one scene; the next shows her father carrying her dead body through the streets. It’s enough to assemble an angry mob of villagers, wielding the vintage pitchforks and torches and determined for retribution. It’s joined by Frankenstein himself, who’s just as keen to destroy his creation. He has seen the monster almost kill his own bride, Elizabeth, and is thus persuaded it has to go. The crowds pursue it to an old mill, but not before it captures the doctor himself. In a final act of pathos, as the mill is being burned to the ground it throws Frankenstein to a fiery death and then falls itself, presumably gone for good.

Or has it? The success of Frankenstein brought demands for a sequel, though Whale himself was far from enthusiastic to be involved again. The same was true for Karloff, who didn’t miss the hours of preparation before each day’s filming. His was a painful experience, partly from having to act in weighed down boots to give him a lumbering gait, also after a scene in which he had to carry Frankenstein and damaged his back. Money however talked the loudest. The production team were handed a considerably larger budget to come up with the follow-up, a sequel that would fly in the face of conventional wisdom by being far superior to its predecessor.

The 1931 original remains a true classic, and much imitated in later years, but it’s by no means perfect. For one thing, it moves slowly, taking as much time as possible before revealing the monster, which increased the anticipation at the time, but surely has current viewers watching the clock. It’s clear also that the first sight of the monster - artfully done, with successive shots moving in closer to Karloff’s dead face - is its biggest treat. Once that’s out of the way, the narrative moves to a quite obvious conclusion, whilst it’s never fully clear why the doctor doesn’t take a more protective role over his creation. He’s persuaded quickly enough that it’s a bad thing and that he must abandon it, despite all that work putting it together in the first place. Like everyone else, by the end he wants nothing more than its destruction.

All the same, it’s a masterly work in terms of technical production. The lighting is superb, the acting consistently good. Frankenstein’s laboratory looks great, and of course the amazing make-up work done to create the monster itself is the stuff of legend. What Bride does is take these elements, throws in a gripping story and adds humour to produce what may be the great horror film of them all.

It opens by taking us back to the moment after the novel was first written. Byron and Shelley are both spellbound by Mary’s work, and make a big fuss over the fact that - in their terms - such a pretty thing can conjure up a book as frightful as Frankenstein. She explains that the story doesn’t end with the twin deaths of creator and creation. Taking us through a brief recap of earlier events, she begins the story at the very point the last one ended. Frankenstein’s supposedly dead body is pulled from the wreckage and carted off to his stately home. In the meantime, the parents of the first movie’s murdered girl determine to ensure the monster is gone. It hasn’t. As luck would have it, the creature dropped into an underground cavern, and makes short work of both mother and father before shuffling off into the wild once again.

Pretorius's little freakshowWe don’t see much of the monster for a while. The story picks up with Henry, who recovers from his near death experience, and nobly vows to Elizabeth that this is the end of all his experiments. He should be so lucky. Enter Doctor Pretorios, played with a unique combination of sinister campness by Ernest Thesiger. Pretorios has been working along similar lines to Frankenstein, and now wants to collaborate with him on creating a mate for the monster. At first, the Baron wants nothing to do with it, but Pretorios persuades him with a mixture of threats and tapping into his desires to improve on his work. There’s a comic moment where Pretorios demonstrates the results of his own science, as a number of miniature humans are revealed, living in jars and dressed up as kings, queens and wizards. At one point, the king escapes from his bottle and attempts to woo the queen, before he’s picked up and dumped unceremoniously back.

At first, Frankenstein is willing to share his knowledge, and the pair work together on a new creation. They’re assisted by two grisly heavies (as opposed to hunchback Fritz who worked alone in part one), whose duties consist of finding bodies to be used. This mainly involves robbing graves, but they’re not averse to killing the odd citizen themselves if needs be.

We then cut back to the monster, who is wandering through a lush forest. The music joining it is light and cheery, like it’s the start of a new and better chapter for the misunderstood creature. In a marked contrast to the first episode, the monster discovers a young woman drowning, and pulls her out of the water to safety. Her reaction? The usual abject horror. Her cries bring the mob back, and this time they catch the monster, tying it to a stake and later locking it up in a prison cell. But normal bars can’t hold a monster such as this. Within moments, it has broken free, torn through the village and returns to the wild.

Is there any hope for the monster, who by now could be forgiven for developing a complex? Clearly, it’s a ‘he’ by now, as it takes on greater human attributes, and at one point comes close to knowing happiness. Chancing across a house in the thick of the forest, the monster learns it belongs to a blind old man living by himself. By chance, the man wants exactly the same things as the creature - companionship, and pretty soon, they’re shacked up together, enjoying food, wine, and what looks to me like a decent-sized spliff. The reaction to smoking on the monster’s face suggests as much, in any case. Most importantly, ‘he’ learns speech, something Karloff was quite opposed to, though he was wrong - the monster is suddenly even more human, an important element to his character as he remains a fugitive. His bliss can’t last. Hunters arrive at the cottage, and upon sight of the monster chase him back into the woods. Alone again, he stumbles through what else but a graveyard shrouded in mist. One gravestone is a crucifix, which carries enough obvious images for the viewer, but the more revealing one is a grim figure of Death. However much the creature wants peace and friendship, he will always be associated with death, and we see him disappear in a catacomb.

But he isn’t alone. Pretorios and the henchmen are removing corpses, and as the latter take their coffins away, the doctor remains, enjoying lunch on top of a sarcophagus. Enticed by the sight of wine and the smell of cigar smoke, the monster is lured out. Pretorios doesn’t shrink. He shows not the mildest concern as he shares his table. These unlikely allies are about to learn that working together is very good for them, as meanwhile Frankenstein is having big doubts. His initial enthusiasm for the scheme has passed, and his own morals are telling him that once is enough, twice quite ridiculous. Unfortunately, he isn’t given the chance to turn aside. Pretorios kidnaps Elizabeth with the monster’s help, and they both force Frankenstein to complete his work… or else.

Don't fancy yours muchWe then move back to the laboratory. As before, everything happens in a Gothic tower, somewhere on a remote hilltop. In a mirror of the first movie, the doctors go through the routine of bringing the bride to life, amidst equipment that is spectacular enough to suggest the process of doing so is well beyond the average human mind. And give her life they do. Frankenstein and Pretorios prepare the bride, fitting a white dress around her, letting her totter around a little. Unlike the monster, she actually looks like a piece of work. Elsa Lanchester played her, in a curious parallel to her other role in the film, that of Mary Shelley herself. Despite her now famous jerky head movements and wild black hair pouring from her head, complete with white streak, she’s very nearly a vision, and a clear inspiration for Marge Simpson. She makes a step towards Frankenstein, as though he’s the one she’s intended for, but life isn’t that perfect. The monster comes into view. He’s attracted. She, like nearly everyone else he’s come across, is revolted, letting out a clipped cry of horror as he approaches. In one of the film’s best moments, he tries to sit with her, and stroke her hand. It’s not going to happen. The bride stares at what is holding her, lets out another wail and at that point the monster seems to know that whatever else might happen, he isn’t going to find a female companion. In his eyes, it’s better to die than live alone, hunted and despised. He allows Frankenstein to escape, but sends Pretorios and his bride - who hisses at him, catlike, as though he hasn’t endured enough of her disgust - to hell by destroying the laboratory. The last we see is Henry and Elizabeth running away as the tower collapses in on itself.

The film’s production is superb. With his lavish budget, Whale was able to create a much larger world for his story than in the first movie, and we never see where the money goes better than in the climax, in Pretorios’s funfair of a laboratory. In terms of effects, it’s a world away from the rest of the era. The scene with the miniatures is smooth, beautifully conceived and doesn’t clash too jarringly when superimposed against the lifesize actors. However, it’s the story and the acting that really sell it. Compared with Frankenstein, Bride is a real thriller, peeling back its revelations with every scene. If the mere sight of the monster did the business earlier, the need for upping the ante this time around is felt clearly. Giving us a second manmade creature isn’t enough. There are subplots running throughout, from the occasional focus on Frankenstein’s maid, played with hammy hysteria by Una O’Connor, to the more important bit about Elizabeth being kidnapped. It’s worth remembering that this is a 75-minute film - so much is crammed into it that there’s no chance of flabbiness. At no point does it feel ponderous and worthy.

As far as the acting is concerned, it’s difficult to see past Boris Karloff, who is billed simply as KARLOFF in the credits. That’s an improvement on part one, where a stark question mark sits in the ‘Players’ column next to the Monster, as if we may believe for a moment it really might have been created from spare parts. Here, Karloff rules. He fills every scene with a combination of pathos and menace. It’s a tough job to do, but despite the 40-odd pounds of make-up, prosthetics and weights, he pulls it off, making us both fear and feel sympathy for his creature. The scenes in which he is supposed to provide the laughs work equally well. The expression on the monster’s face as he tries cigarettes and alcohol for the first time is a picture - we’ve all been there, mate. Ernest Thesiger as Pretorios provides fine support, turning out to be one of the campest villians in horror movie history, a bit like watching a malevolent Charles Hawtrey. Thesiger can silence his opponents with a stare; he can also reduce us to hysterics with his pithy asides and black comedy. As in the first film, Colin Clive walks the line between sanity and madness suitably well, and there’s also great support from Valerie Hobson as Elizabeth. She was 17 when she appeared in this picture, but you wouldn’t know it. Franz Waxman’s luxurious score is a real thing of beauty, the music accompanying both the monster and his mate a sublime mixture of strangeness and doomed romance.

The Bride of Frankenstein does what every really good sequel ought to - it expands its own universe, offering something new in the spirit of the original, whilst not being a simple retread. It’s also a subversive film, in the sense that lashings of camp humour are allowed to float past the censors and onto the screen, hidden within the plot but noticeable to the modern viewer. This may be the best horror film of all time though like most movies from the 1930s it has inevitably dated. Scenes that might have put contemporary audiences in shock are so mimicked and parodied to our well trained eyes that its effects have no chance of remaining as powerful. But then, true horror is about more than being simply scary. When done properly, it should force us to run a gamut of emotions, particularly empathy for the monsters therein so that unlike, say Freddy Krueger, we can appreciate why they’re the twisted things they are, why they are a menace. Bride achieves that perfectly. From the opening through to Frankenstein’s ‘She’s alive! Alive!’ cry, Karloff makes us see what being a monster is all about, and indeed is the most human of all the characters by the end.

Posted on 29th January 2009
Under: Uncategorized, Horror, Classics | 8 Comments »

‘I wish we could stay here forever… and ever… and ever’

Over the weekend, I watched Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures, the biographical documentary that was packaged with the ‘Stanley Kubrick: Collection’ set. How it made me want to catch up with some of the old master’s work, not least the series of earlier works (Killer’s Kiss, The Killing, Paths of Glory) I bought recently and is now sat on a shelf begging ‘Play me… play me…’

It also got me thinking about The Shining, the only Kubrick I ever felt able to comment on and did so in an article I wrote several years ago. The trouble with The Shining, let alone the trouble with Kubrick generally, is that with each viewing of the movie I have very different reactions and feelings to what’s happening. Sometimes I think it’s all in crazy Jack’s head. On other occasions I watch it as a straightforward ghost story. Both interpretations work, as do various alternatives - is it all in Danny’s head?

Ultimately all that really matters is The Shining’s status as a great movie. It’s very scary, particularly in a creepy, unsettling way, and it leaves more questions than answers, which all good horror movies should. To date I am yet to see anyone look more frightened in a film than Shelley Duvall, and hopefully that wasn’t the culmination of regular bollockings from Kubrick. It contains many memorable scenes. Among the best has Wendy reading through Jack’s ‘writing,’ a bit of movie magic so potent that plans are afoot to publish a Torrance manuscript. But there are so many, from the camera tracking Danny Big Wheeling along the endless hotel corridors through to Jack standing over a replica of the maze before it becomes the maze itself, complete with Wendy and Danny trying it out. And what about Jack’s conversation with Lloyd, the demon bartender of the Overlook? Or his chat with Grady, the tension heightened by the fact both protagonists are almost perfectly still while delivering their lines?

Memorably, Stephen King disliked Kubrick’s interpretation of his novel, disagreeing entirely with the choice of acting personnel. Had the author been given his own way, Jon Voight might have been cast as Jack, the logic being that - as in the book - the character would experience a descent into madness, whereas Nicholson plays him as already being at least halfway there. King also saw Duvall as the wrong choice for Wendy. In his eyes, she looked too emotionally damaged already, before having to deal with Jack’s antics in the Overlook. Needless to say, King was wrong. Nicholson and Duvall are superb in The Shining, giving definitive performances, whilst the casting of Steven Weber and Rebecca de Mornay in the King-approved, 1997 mini-series led to an unmemorable experience and a largely forgotten production.

Anyway, what follows is my rather lengthy review from 2004, written for a long-dead website. This is kind of a Director’s Cut, tidied up with bits cropped and added here and there. I really like this film and intend to follow publishing this piece with another viewing, lights off and surround sound on for that supremely unsettling score and disturbing sense of claustrophobia. All work and no play…

There was once this haunted house in the middle of nowhere. During the summer, it was a hotel, and lots of people stayed there, never seeing the ghosts. But later, when the snow fell and the house was cut off from the outside world, and only the caretaker and his family remained, the ghosts came out…

Here's Johnny!The Shining is about more than that, of course. ‘Haunted house’ stories are ten a penny, and most of them follow the same sort of path. Where The Shining differs is in its subtlety, the inference that maybe, just maybe, there are no ghosts at all, and that what you’re seeing is a family breaking through the strain of being locked up in a building together with no realistic route of escape. There’s plenty in the movie to suggest this isn’t the case, that what we’re watching is indeed the classic tale of a man falling under the presence of malevolent spirits, but I don’t think things are ever that easy.

I read the book long before seeing the film. Back in my early teens, Stephen King was more or less the gateway into adult literature yet in the specific case of this book, I didn’t think it was one of his best. All the ingredients were there, but it just didn’t appear to deliver a spooky whammy in the way Salem’s Lot did, nor did it have the emotional core of Pet Sematary. It fell way behind Misery in terms of sheer suspense, the latter being a tome I read in several breathless hours. The novel of The Shining had a greater sense of fantasy, of being a tale of the supernatural, than the picture - there aren’t, for instance, any shrubberies that come alive in the celluloid version, and a good thing too.

King’s novels were great because they could be genuinely scary, believed in the power of building up tension (this is his secret; not that it’s really a secret at all, but you have to appreciate his ability to mount the suspense until it hangs by the very last thread) and the characters swore occasionally. That was something you didn’t get in Fighting Fantasy. But unlike many of the movie adaptations based on his work, Stanley Kubrick’s take on The Shining blew the book away.

On with the plot, which starts with Jack Torrance visiting the Overlook Hotel in the Rockies. He’s applying for the job of winter caretaker, a position that will see him more or less incarcerated in the place because of the harsh winter. Quite brusquely, he waves off any suggestion that life will be difficult for his wife and child, explaining they’ll love it, whilst it’ll give him a chance to crack on undisturbed with some writing. Does the implicitly creepy note that the hotel is built on an ancient Indian burial ground (quite a common theme in King’s work this) deter him? Course not. What about the fact that a previous caretaker, Grady, ran amok and killed his family? Not a problem.

Thus armed with this information, Jack gets the job and shows up at the appointed time with his wife, Wendy, and little boy, Danny. We soon learn that the latter is a bit special. He has a gift that is outlined to him as ’shining’, an ability to see into the future, know things that are happening far away, etc. It’s a form of telepathy, in other words, only here it’s used more abstractly, and because Danny’s a child it is personified in an immature way. During a quick chat with the hotel’s chef, Dick Halloran (played by Scatman ‘Heeeenrific!’ Crothers), the boy learns he isn’t the only one with this talent, and is warned that some of the memories left in the hotel aren’t all good. You can say that again. Within minutes of walking over the threshold, Danny is visited by the spirits of twin girls, shades of Grady’s murdered daughters, and will do so again before the end.

Jack and Danny try to get alongThe Torrances start life on their own. Pretty soon, the storms are rolling in, cutting telephone communications and making them rely on a radio to the nearest police station (which, we assume, is miles away). Danny and Wendy explore the hotel, in particular its magnificent maze, and Jack writes. Or does he? Shorn of inspiration, we see him aimlessly bouncing a ball against the wall. Later, he’s doing nothing at all, simply staring out of the window. The ideas aren’t coming, he tells Wendy, and a note of irritative sarcasm enters his voice more and more. This threatens to spill over into violence later when Wendy happens to disturb him at his typewriter. But then Danny enters an open bedroom during one of his frequent Big Wheels trips around the floors, and things get worse very quickly.

During these early scenes, the slow breakdown is taking place before our very eyes. Not only is Jack struggling to work, but he’s also experiencing some weird feelings about the hotel. He senses he might have been there before, and in a chat with Danny declares he wishes he could stay there ‘forever and ever’, which for the boy is an echo of something the ghost twins said to him previously. After Danny goes into the bedroom, he emerges with marks around his neck and tells Wendy a ‘crazy woman’ tried to strangle him. It’s now time for Jack’s visions to take over. Having been blamed by Wendy for attacking their son, he tiredly makes his way to one of the opulent bars. And he isn’t alone. In my personal favourite scene from the picture, Jack finds that Lloyd the barman is waiting and ready to serve him whiskey, which naturally is on the house. On the subject of Lloyd, have there been many more demonic characters than him in the movies? I don’t mean in the Al Pacino shouting his head off as Satan, but for sheer creepiness and quiet malevolence. I’m not sure what it is - the lighting that brings out all the lines in his face, his deep, serpent-pleasant voice or the easy vice he allows, but there’s something purely evil about him.

Is The Shining a horror film? It certainly is, and an extremely atmospheric one at that. Kubrick pushed all the right buttons in delivering frights by putting everything into the build-up to the moment rather than the moment itself. As is often the case in such fare, the music often gives a clue as to what is about to happen, and here it’s absolutely spooky, barely music at all when it comes down to it, but instead the sounds of nerves audibly jangling. The Shing is no ‘traditional’ horror. There’s no hand reaching out of the earth to clutch the heroine’s wrist as in Carrie. Kids don’t see their dead kin floating outside their bedroom windows, eyes burning white, as happens in Salem’s Lot. In fact, you see very little that’s deliberately scary. Ninety per cent of the frights come from the actors themselves. You see it in Jack Nicholson’s deranged performance as Torrance, in the looks of abject terror on Wendy’s face. Most haunted of all is Danny, who does so well in portraying childlike fear. The bit where he sees the dead girls and covers his eyes with his fingers, only later removing them slowly to let one eye peek out, is exactly what a small kid would do.

The movie relies on Nicholson, however. In 1980, he was one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, an Oscar winner thanks to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and a veteran of Chinatown and Five Easy Pieces. In his early scenes, such as his job interview, he talks quite deliberately, almost forced, as though the madness is never that far away. Indeed, later we learn that he’s cracking up before he even goes to the hotel, a victim of his recovery from alcoholism, writing failures and domestic problems. All this spills over into his experiences whilst being the caretaker. When he speaks to Wendy, his dialogue is punctuated by slow, eyebrow-jerking nastiness, a man on the very edge. It’s only with his ghosts that he becomes more natural, and even here there’s a twist in store. Notice the times he banters with Lloyd and Grady, supposed spirits from the building’s past. He’s actually looking at himself in the mirror, speaking to himself. In other words, all the ghosts are in his head.

Hello, LloydThat isn’t to say The Shining doesn’t contain spectres. Explaining away Wendy’s visitations in the last act are more difficult, though how much reason does anyone have when they’re running around in terror? What she glimpses are instances from the past, memories of parties that took place long ago. Finally, there’s the elevator doors gushing out blood. I have an explanation for this, which readers may or may not choose to accept. Always an image I had difficulty in taking on board, it’s only when I revisited the film and recalled the bit about it being built on your Indian burial ground that it made any kind of sense. We all know about the ‘pioneering spirit’ in the USA that led to thousands of native Americans being slaughtered, captured and having their heritage demolished. The Overlook Hotel is a symbol of this very act. Its erection shows a casual disregard for the native population, and its grandeur a poke in the eye - what could be worse than having a graveyard where your parents lie being torn down in favour of a hotel for the rich? So is the place representative of a society built on blood, on the destruction of one group of people by another? Maybe…

And that’s only one theory behind the hidden meanings of The Shining. One of Kubrick’s typically ambiguous works, it defies easy explanation and I ought to know. In preparation for this review, I’ve read a vast array of comments and there’s only one certainty - nobody agrees on it. One suggestion was that it was a satire on modern television, that Jack’s uttering of TV lines at the climax are the end product of a clever criticism of the goggle box. Or is it a rumination on depression? Is it about a failed marriage, or the projections of a child with powerful telepathic capabilities? Or, as the most astute comments suggest, does this matter at all? Can’t we just see it as a great ghost story and have done with it? Of course we can, and that’s what’s so good about it. You can delve into the potential allegory, or you can sit down, turn the lights off and prepare to be afraid. And I think you will be.

Kubrick himself remained oblique about his intentions, which is really what we want. His job was to throw together the elements of gothic horror, sublime camerawork (e.g. following Danny as he races headlong through the maze; tracking back from Wendy while she reads the ‘All work and no play’ papers and Jack, unnoticed, is creeping up on her), mounting suspense and Jack Nicholson’s mesmerising performance, and leave the interpretations to us. One more point I’ll make before I leave you to rush off to your beloved shelf of films and dust off your DVD copy. The majority of us enjoy being with our families. I like living with mine wife and The Boy. No problems there. But if we were placed in a similar situation, how long would it take before I became irritated to the point of insanity by their foibles, to have the things they say and do become magnified because I had no counterpoint, no balance in my life to play against their annoying nuances? At what point would I lose it? And when I did start to ‘kick off’, what would I do about it?

Posted on 25th January 2009
Under: Horror, Classics | 4 Comments »

Star Trekking: The Motion Picture (1979)

While it’s possible to look upon such films as City of Ember and The Dark is Rising as rather cynical attempts to cash in on the success of Harry Potter, it would take some effort to beat the desperate gold rush that took place in the wake of Star Wars. Movie after movie was churned out, the majority of them hopeless dreck (seriously, can anyone watch Battle Beyond the Stars without cringing?) that proved science fiction done on the cheap just does not work.

Original movie posterOne decidedly lucrative alternative to the Imperial Wars, however, was Star Trek: The Motion Picture, released in 1979 at considerable expense and with a fair amount of hype behind it. At the time, the original series was being repeated on BBC2, no doubt a further consequence of the Wars bandwagon. Considering how shabbily the show was treated, particularly towards its premature end, the fact Paramount plunged a hefty $35m into a spin-off feature film ought to have come as something of a surprise. Even more amazing was the sheer talent drafted in to get the thing made. Two-time Academy Award winner, Robert Wise (this site gushed over The Day the Earth Stood Still several weeks ago) was hired to direct. Jerry Goldsmith (who had clinched an Oscar for The Omen) provided the score. Richard Kline (two previous nominations) was the cinematographer, and the film also had the considerable likes of Douglas Trumbull - who produced the groundbreaking special effects for 2001: A Space Odyssey - to call upon. A more marquee crew you can barely imagine, though it was only with the reassembling of the original cast that the production really gelled. The hardest of these to entice back into his unflatteringly tight-fitting uniform was Leonard Nimoy, who was involved in a legal dispute with Paramount at the time and had to have this settled out of court in order to don the ears once more.

The story, originally conceived by Gene Roddenberry and written by science fiction novelist Alan Dean Foster before Harold Livingston polished it off, was intended to form the pilot of a new Star Trek TV series. For various reasons, the show never came close to being made, but the film was. In a pre-release marketing bonanza that was reminiscent of a certain other science fiction epic, we could buy all sorts of Trek related goodies, including Klingon action figures that seemed a bit redundant considering they hardly feature in the movie at all. Indeed, the rather solemn picture that finally hit the screens bore little resemblance to the ripping action adventure promised in the trailers and publicity. The Motion Picture was far from a blockbuster of Wars proportions. It did all right commercially, but to younger viewers expecting another special effects driven boys’ own story it must have been a great disappointment to come across this stately epic, the ‘action’ rarely leaving the bridge of the Enterprise.

Kirk considers jumping the bonesIt’s only with later viewings that the intelligence of the screenplay, a cast that manages to take it all so seriously, Goldsmith’s beautiful score and some superb special effects work come to the fore. The flagging pace of TMP remains a problem. Much of the film’s first hour is taken up with reuniting the Enterprise’s crew, from McCoy’s unwillingness to step foot on a transporter through to Spock’s spiritual journey back to the ship. The extended scene where Kirk is shuttled to the refitted Enterprise is an exercise in sheer indulgence as we get to see the old thing from almost every conceivable angle. Hardcore ‘Trekkies’ might love this stuff. For the rest of us it’s unforgivably dull, as though the production team insist on their audience sharing with them the experience of putting this much effort into innovative effects.

Eventually, The Motion Picture sets into, er, motion. Suddenly, the serene character setting we’ve been treated to begins making sense. We get the tension between Kirk and Decker quite early. The former, now an Admiral, wants the Enterprise back and uses the threat of a potential alien invasion to gazump the much younger Decker out of the captain’s chair. Once the ship catches up with the approaching cloud of matter that makes up the enemy, Kirk gets niggly with his executive officer, his respect only growing once Decker’s quick thinking and knowledge of the Enterprise gets them out of one or two tight spots. For Decker, the appearance of his old flame, Ilia, on the ship creates yet more tension and leads to the film’s final, decisive twist.

The Enterprise approaches V'gerSpock comes with a fair amount of baggage also. At first he’s at his most imperiously haughty with his comrades, but this is just a facade. Spock’s journey is one of exploration. He’s the first to guess at the entity’s purpose and by this stage his austere, Vulcan front drops entirely. Little wonder that Nimoy agreed to play Spock once more. The character is allowed far more depth than he ever got on the TV series.

As is so often the case, however, it’s James T Kirk who holds the space opera together. William Shatner puts in a performance that’s entirely winning. Slimmed down, effortlessly charismatic and showing few of the mannerisms that give impressionists hours of material, it’s like he has never been away. One of the running issues Kirk experiences during the Trek film series is that of age, of becoming old. It’s present in The Motion Picture, shown most clearly in his spats with the younger Decker, Dr McCoy never far away to administer a summary of the good Captain’s failings.

Shatner and Nimoy are the best things in the movie’s cast, but Stephen Collins is worthy of note as Decker, his latest appearance in a promising career that perhaps didn’t go as far as he would have liked (I, for one, loved Tales of the Gold Monkey). Indian actress Persis Khambatta plays Ilia, beautiful enough to go bald-headed for the role and striking a considerable rare note in Trek by playing a woman who has some significant part to play in the plot i.e. not some cursory love interest or minor character.

Let's make the next one more funThe edition I bought is the Director’s Cut. This doesn’t add anything in terms of deleted scenes that have since been spliced into the main picture. Instead, under the supervision of Wise himself the main difference is in its visual effects, which have come in for a series of CGI enhancements. The fortunate thing is that this doesn’t mean endless Lucas-esque tinkering with backgrounds, digitally inserted characters, etc, though in certain scenes it’s pretty clear that technicians working in 1979 could not have produced the effects we’re watching. For the most part, the enhancements are reasonably subtle, upgrading shots to twenty first century standards quite unobtrusively. They can do this because the original effects were hardly terrible. Money, time and love was invested on this stuff. The shots of the Enterprise passing through the outer layers of the alien entity, V’ger, still make various lists of best special effects, rubbing shoulders with any number of CGI monstrosities.

If the Motion Picture isn’t exactly Star Wars, then it’s obvious inspiration is 2001, and certainly the scenes described above are very reminiscent of the ‘Jupiter journey’ sequences in Kubrick’s masterpiece. It can’t quite manage the profundity of 2001, but at the same time it’s far more accessible. Kirk and Co’s discovery of what V’ger is and what it’s about has emotional resonance and delivers a rather thoughtful payload that wouldn’t have been achieved with a straightforward comic book movie. And if everything happens too slowly, then perhaps that’s not the film’s fault but ours for expecting a different kind of experience, especially after the marketing. In any event, the box office spoke loudest. The Motion Picture’s sequel, though perhaps the best in the run of Star Trek movies, gave audiences what they wanted in terms of action and explosions and shifted the tone away from what this episode tried to produce.

Posted on 18th January 2009
Under: Star Trek | 6 Comments »

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