Archive for the 'Horror' Category

‘Good evening’ - Dracula (1979)

In an unfortunate coincidence of release dates, John Badham’s take on Dracula hit USA theatres three months after Love at First Bite. The George Hamilton romp, a playful yarn about the Count finding love in modern New York, was a box office hit, grossing more than $43m in 1979 and placing vampire comedies very much in vogue. What the world didn’t demand was a sober adaptation of material from both the book and the Broadway stage show, which starred Frank Langella as Dracula, but that’s what it got when the Badham movie premiered in July 1979. While it didn’t exactly bomb, the film took around half the gross of Love at First Bite and was considered a commercial failure. Dracula gained ground during the following decade, becoming a massive hit in the VHS rentals market. It remained the most recent screen version of Bram Stoker’s novel until Francis Ford Coppola’s lavish adaptation, which came out in 1992.

'Good evening'Badham’s edition broke with the tradition of Dracula films by concentrating far more on the Count’s sensual qualities. Up to that point, most releases suggested he had a hold over women, but the emphasis had been on his evil, his ability to draw female victims towards him via an ill-defined supernatural hypnosis. Not here. Langella, reprising his stage role for the film, is a highly sexual being. Charismatic and charming, he steals away with the fiance of Jonathan Harker (Trevor Eve), who never stands a chance. Once the Count takes an interest in her, Lucy (Kate Nelligan) doesn’t look back. The virtuous Jonathan has lost any allure. The film spends some time dwelling on their courtship, one where Dracula is established as being in a league above those around him. You understand why he captivates Lucy. Various perfectly intoned ‘Good evening’s from him and she’s lost to Jonathan for good. Even when the Count dies and Harker believes his power over Lucy has ended, it’s clear from the look in her eyes that the truth is quite different. She’s Dracula’s, and not through the process of turning her into a vampire but via sex. In the film’s solitary sex scene, an abstract, suggestive piece of swirling reds and silhouetted lovers that’s dated rather badly, it’s made clear that he has shown her a good time. How can Jonathan, a slightly ridiculous figure in his Toad-esque Hispano-Suiza, possibly compare?

As with Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a great deal of money was invested in this version, disconnecting it from the TV adaptations and Hammer’s cost-cutting offerings that came earlier. Dracula might have lost its Transylvanian opening, but little expense has been spared in recreating pre-World War One England. The production values are from the top drawer, as is the pedigree cast, and the film is topped off with a lustrous score from John Williams. The composer clearly enjoyed providing the music for Dracula, taking as his inspiration Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and riffing on the theme of everlasting love.

The story is rooted in Whitby, North Yorkshire, though the filming was all done in various locations around Cornwall. St Austell doubled as the coastline where the doomed ship carrying Dracula to England is beached. Camelot Castle in Tintagel serves as the Seward residence and mental hospital. Carfax Abbey is in fact the beautiful St Michael’s Mount. The Count gets to work as soon as he’s set foot in England. First, he bewitches the wan and sickly Mina Van Helsing (Jan Francis) seemingly because he can, before quickly seeing her off and moving onto Lucy. Poor Mina is little more than starters. In this version, she’s the daughter of Abraham Van Helsing (Laurence Olivier, complete with a thick Dutch accent - Francis’s comes and goes, presumably to give the impression of her settling into English society), who arrives at the scene after her death and is the only one with any real inkling of what really befell her.

Van Helsing and Harker wield the crossIn the film’s best scene, and by some distance its scariest, Van Helsing ventures to Mina’s grave to dispatch his daughter, who is now terrorising the community as a vampire. And what a vampire she makes! The Professor comes across an empty coffin, but one that has been ripped apart from within, leading to the labyrinth of mining tunnels below. Van Helsing descends, and in the cramped darkness drops his crucifix in a puddle. As he ferrets for the cross, the waters clear and reveal a nightmare vision of white looking down on him. It’s Mina, returning to her resting place and still wearing the tattered funereal dress she was buried in. He looks up, the full horror of what has become of her dawning on him, and the camera similarly tilts, gradually revealing a putrid, broken skinned demon with black eyes, matted hair, reddened mouth and bloodlust. Between them, Dr Seward (Donald Pleasance) and the Professor put Mina out of her misery, but the pain has told on her father. By all accounts, Olivier was a fan of Peter Cushing’s work in the Hammer Dracula franchise, and the emotional investment his tortured character puts in here gives him the advantage. It’s in his dealings with Langella where the ‘Cushing’ in his performance shines through. These are clever men, natural adversaries, and whilst you get the impression Dracula has some respect for the cross-wielding Professor all he gets in return is academic revulsion.

For audiences, the fate of Mina is proof of Dracula’s evil. He may be a good looking bloke with great hair who wears a cape well, but that’s where his lovemaking gets you, wandering the lonely night as a repellent living corpse. The race is now on to save Lucy from the same end, even as Miss Seward is succumbing to the Count’s seduction. His is a different vampire from the doomed hero played by Gary Oldman. Less openly demonic than Christopher Lee’s Dracula, Langella is nevertheless an empty individual, boasting to Van Helsing and Harker of his power and heritage whilst murdering the unfortunate Renfield (a superb Tony Haygarth) with a contemptuous neck break.

Papa...If there is a fault with Dracula, it is that there are few frights to be had. Apart from the scene detailed above (one I could barely watch when I first saw the film as a child), and the moment where he appears at Mina’s window (upside down, eyes glowing, after crawling down the wall outside), the scariest bits are those depicting Seward’s chaotic hospital, a real home for the mentally broken where screams are commonplace and inmates wander the stairways wearing pigs’ heads and wailing pitifully. I read a comment that Langella was just too handsome to make for an effectively creepy Dracula, and in fairness it wasn’t his brief to terrify the viewers. Though he takes Lucy and Mina, this vampire never bares his teeth, instead upping the smoulder value and leaving it to his brides to do the rest.

Is it even supposed to be scary? What we now savour is the brilliant cast, led by Olivier’s pained Van Helsing and the suffering etched on Eve’s face as he appreciates both what he’s up against and what he’s lost. This is an underrated adaptation, even in the colour-saturated version that has been ubiquitous since the film’s release on laserdisc in 1991. Apparently, Badham had initially intended his movie to be in black and white, in honour of the Universal classic from 1931, and it was only here that he had an opportunity to produce an edition that came close to his vision. Those who recall the warm colours of Dracula’s theatrical release and appearances in the 1980s - the studio (Universal again) deliberately overruling Badham in an attempt to showcase the film’s production values - demand a return to its original form, though there are no plans for a restored version and indeed my copy - the R2/4 DVD produced without a lot of love in 2006 - is as desaturated as they come. But does that really matter, as long as I still have visions of the undead Mina approaching, arms outstretched and the words ‘Papa, komme mit mir’ escaping her broken lips in that little, lost girl’s voice..?

Posted on 30th November 2009
Under: Uncategorized, Horror | 2 Comments »

‘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 »

Wanna see something really scary?

Recently, I have been catching up with old episodes of The Twilight Zone. Fascinated and occasionally rapt, exactly as I was when I first saw the show many moons ago (and stunned at the sight of Lord Rodney of Serling introducing episodes with - gasp! - a lit cigarette in his hand, the sort of thing you just don’t see these days), my viewing has naturally led to a rented copy of 1983’s Twilight Zone: The Movie. It’s a film I haven’t watched in some years, and now - as then - it remains an uneven experience. Some segments in this portmanteau piece are better than others, and oddly enough it’s the lesser known directors who pull out the gems.

Even though Burgess Meredith replaces Serling (who died of a heart attack in 1975) on narration duties the movie is undeniably Zonesque in tone. There are several reasons for this, the first being that three of the four segments are adapted from original series episodes. They might not tell exactly the same story, but the spirit of the source is definitely present. Second, the movie is produced by Steven Spielberg, and isn’t it easy to imagine the legendary film maker as an adolescent, perched before the television and sucked in hopelessly by Serling’s yarns? Some real love has gone into the project, evidenced by the proliferation of inside references, cameos from cast members and other bits of trivia littered throughout the action. For instance, Bill Mumy, one of the actors from the series, shows up in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it guest appearance within the segment that draws on an episode he starred in years before. Meredith’s turn as the substitute Serling is wholly appropriate, given he was in some of the series’ most famous stories and is closely associated with it.

Twilight Zone logoThough The Twilight Zone holds a great deal of cult value in Britain, it obviously means a lot more to Americans, who continually try to revive it. The concept’s revered status meant that despite the movie’s mixed success, its formula was strong enough to inspire a new series in 1985 and a further run in 2002. Rumours of yet another stab at the Zone are making the rounds, with Leonardo Di Caprio cited as a major influence in the mooted production of a new, big budget movie adaptation. In the meantime, you can catch radio episodes on the web, with Stacy Keach narrating and a well known cast taking part.

It’s easy to suggest they don’t know when to let go, but there’s actually a simple reason why it’s the original series that sticks in the mind. It isn’t the regular appearance of Serling, who looked - and apparently was - nervous at facing the camera, but rather the attitude of the audiences who watched those classic shows from 1959 to 1964. If one mood prevails throughout the run, it’s paranoia, a feeling that was rife in a contemporary USA that was experiencing the Cold War at its height. Just as an Iron Curtain had descended over Eastern Europe, thus cutting the west off from having any real knowledge of what was happening on the other side, so the Zone reflects that fear of the unknown, what it represents and what it might do. Serling tapped into that chilling mood superbly, with iconic movies of the period such as 1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers paving the way.

In spite of President Reagan’s best efforts to reignite that feeling, the Cold War didn’t have the same grip in the post-Vietnam 1980s, and as such the movie version of the Zone loses much of its power. We enjoy its tall tales, but we see that’s all they are, flights of fantasy that might have some morality to them but essentially work as a slice of nostalgia. Older viewers might enjoy the simple-minded yearning for youth that lies at the heart of the second segment. The fourth, which was one of the very best episodes from the original series and a pure durge of adrenalin, still works as a taut, knife-edge thriller, but the third has changed completely, now introducing a more human element to a story that was originally about people being scared by something they couldn’t stop.

None of it is dreadful, but the film’s four distinct tales have no connection and can be viewed distinctly. Starting with the loosely linking prologue, here’s a glance at each, accessed as you may well suppose with the key of imagination. Beyond is another dimension…

Prologue (directed by John Landis)

The perils of casette technologyDan Ackroyd has hitched a lift with Albert Brooks, and they’re driving along a deserted road late at night. The casette player has chewed up Brooks’s tape, and they resort to talking, settling on the subject of guessing each other’s TV theme tunes. Ultimately, they get on to The Twilight Zone, discussing their favourite episodes, before Ackroyd asks Brooks if he wants to see something really scary.

As a five-minute introduction, it’s fine, though how ‘Zone’ it is remains a different subject entirely. Rather, the sequence plays more like a scene from Creepshow, a random slice of jump cut horror that sits at odds with much of the following material. Ackroyd and Brooks are never less than watchable, but mercifully they  don’t outlive their welcome, well one of them doesn’t at any rate.

Segment One (dir. John Landis)

Bill Connor (Vic Morrow) is angry. He’s lost his chance of promotion to a colleague who happens to be Jewish, and over a few drinks with his buddies he lays into Semites, black people and the Vietnamese. The Zone isn’t going to like that, and Bill gets to experience exactly what it’s like to be amongst the minorities he has just abused. After a chase through the streets of Nazi-occupied Poland, he winds up being lynched by the Ku Klux Clan and is then pursued by American GIs in North Vietnam. Clearly, as Bill learns you don’t want to be a bigot whilst crossing over into the Twilight Zone.

As you might expect with Landis at the helm, the segment looks great. Particularly during the scenes where the Auschwitz-destined train collides with 1980s America, the cinematography is excellent. Where it falls down is in its lack of moral centre. Bill is so odious that without ever wishing his fate on anyone, you’re left thinking he may just deserve it. Then again, there’s no chance of redemption. Once Bill enters the Zone, he’s on a roller-coaster nightmare before his extremely bleak end, which amounts to torture. It’s hopeless, grim and then it just sort of finishes without any glimmer of hope.

This segment lent a degree of notoriety that palled over the entire project. Morrow and two young extras were killed during a tragic accident that took place whilst shooting a scene. Though the star of the piece initially attracted the headlines, attention soon turned to the children, who it emerged had been paid in cash for their services due to the fact that it was illegal for them to be working at the time of the filming (2.30 am). It took five years for Landis and the crew involved to be cleared of charges of involuntary manslaughter, but the damage to the movie’s reputation never really went away.

Segment Two (dir. Steven Spielberg)

And then I say 'Heeeeeeeenriffic!'In the original Zone episode, ‘Kick the Can,’ the ageing resident of an old peoples’ home finds a link to his youth in the shape of an old tin can that has been booted around by some kids. Clearly, it was felt that the 1980s alternatives wouldn’t be able to work this out for themselves, so Scatman Crowthers was introduced as a kind of saintly savant who explains the magic to the coffin dodgers. Crowthers is always good value, but the story transforms him into a wise sage, gently linking the residents’ memories to their childhood and ultimately reacquanting them with it.

This is Spielberg at his most syrupy. The centre of the story sounds a little too close to Peter Pan for comfort, and it’s worth bearing in mind that the auteur always wanted to make something along these lines (until he actually did, with Hook, only to find it wasn’t very good and he needed to up his game). Cue inevitable scenes with cute kids wearing old peoples’ outsized clothes and saying big words in munchkin voices. It’s all a bit shit, bathed in soft focus and pastel and with its heart ever close to breaking. The ‘Take me with you’ speech is retained, however, and achieves some emotional resonance.

Segment Three (dir. Joe Dante)

Wanna see something really scary?Gremlins director Joe Dante was relatively new on the scene at this stage, and it’s perhaps for this reason that he pulls out a strong, energetic episode that’s full of menace. Helen Foley (Kathleen Quinlan) is a teacher who comes across a small boy called Anthony (Jeremy Licht) in a diner. She drives him home after accidentally knocking him down, but soon learns that his home life isn’t quite as easy going and jocular as it appears. Anthony’s family seem a little too eager to please his every whim, to watch endless cartoons, to treat every incident with a strained smile. The reason is that Anthony can make anything happen just by thinking about it. He can rob people of their mouths, inject them into nightmarish cartoons and even make them disappear entirely. Everyone is terrified of him, everyone that is apart from Helen…

The segment is based on a celebrated episode called ‘It’s a Good Life,’ in which Bill Mumy played the six-year old monster as a scary-eyed kid who sent anyone with unhappy thoughts to the ‘cornfield’*. There’s nothing quite so abstract in the update. Clearly, the writers approached the material from a child’s perspective - what inspires kids? The answer is cartoons. As a consequence, that’s all his family get to watch on TV, and even his house is built according to animated specifications, all weird angles and exaggerated arches. Dante realises that whilst cartoons can be cute and funny, they can also be terrifying, as one of the characters learns when she is summarily dumped into a show that quickly turns horrific. Also worthy of note is the magic trick performed by Uncle Walt (Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ Kevin McCarthy, a marvellous piece of casting), made all the more horrible because the thing that comes out of the hat is something that has obviously emerged on previous occasions, scaring the audience again and again and again.

Unlike the original story, which didn’t bother to do much more than offer us a glimpse into Anthony’s weird life, here the tale ends on a note of hope. we don’t know if things really will turn out all right for Helen and her new charge, but the optimisic climax suggests that even the worst children aren’t beyond all reach.

* In the 2002 series of The Twilight Zone, Bill Mumy returns as Anthony, showing us his adult life in ‘It’s Still a Good Life.’ Needless to say, none of it ends well. Anthony is as terrible as ever, even with the measuring influence of his daughter.

Segment Four (dir. George Miller)

Insert 'Is this the right way to...' joke hereThe Twilight Zone saves the best until last, and this reworking of the famous ‘Nightmare at 20,000 Feet’ retains all the power of its source material. Indeed, apart from the omission of a wife for the beleagured hero, the remake is extremely similar to the original episode and at times virtually identical. William Shatner did a very good job of playing the disturbed air passenger in the 1963 version, recovering from a breakdown and convinced that a monster is on the wing of his plane whilst in flight. In the update, an inspired instance of casting has John Lithgow in the role. Adept as the sweaty, saucer-eyed nervous wreck who hates flying and is forced to see a gremlin that no one else notices, Lithgow is simply superb. He wreaks every last drop of tension from his character, and from the agonising situation he is placed in.

When we first meet him, Lithgow is locked in the plane’s restroom, already mentally in pieces at being in flight. He’s guided back to his seat by the stewardess, but then a glance out of the window reveals an impossibility - someone, or something, is on the wing, and it’s ripping out the wires from one of the engines. But nobody else can see it. Whenever he tries to get someone to take a look, nothing is there, which entertains a neat possibility - maybe nothing is there. What’s more likely? That a monster is really taking chunks out of the plane, or that a disturbed passenger with an evident fear of flying is filling in the blanks with his imagination, personifying his fears in the shape of a malevolent, fantastical creature?

Until the close of the episode, this isn’t made at all clear. What we get are moments of mounting horror for Lithgow, his eyes literally popping from their sockets in one delicious scene where he opens his blind to see if the monster is still outside, only to find it pressed against the window and staring right back at him. The segment is helped along by a rather convincing creature. Though the suspense of the original episode holds even when it’s viewed today, its gremlin has dated horribly and now looks just like a bloke in a bear suit, perhaps the irate cousin of Bungle from Rainbow. The movie never makes the mistake of revealing its creature fully, giving us glimpses of a stick-limbed figure with bug eyes that flits far too lightly through the high altitude storm.

As an exercise in pure terror, the final segment is terrific. It very nearly makes the lacklustre first half of the movie worthwhile, and proves that The Twilight Zone, just like any other classic series, had its good and bad weeks. I’m sure we all have our favourite episodes, those we might like to have seen remade for the movie. I hold a great deal of affection for ‘Will the real Martian please stand up?’, about a group of diners who come to realise an alien is amongst them. Another favourite is ‘The Eye of the Beholder,’ with its marvellous twist in a tale of vanity and wanting to belong. And there are many others, as I’m sure there are for you, as witnessed on each occasion when you find yourself travelling through another dimension… a dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind… a journey into a wondrous land of imagination. Next stop, the Twilight Zone…

Posted on 29th July 2008
Under: Horror | No Comments »

Ruined

I know this question has been asked countless times before, but The Ruins begs it again. Why (oh why oh why) do characters in horror movies walk willingly into the jaws of death? From the moment the film starts, it’s absolutely clear what’s going to happen. Here’s a checklist of the elements needed to spell out the rest of the plot:

  • Four young, good looking Americans on holiday.
  • A mysterious, ancient building in the middle of nowhere.
  • A rough map to its location.
  • Locals who want nothing to do with the place.
  • Someone who has previously ‘disappeared’ whilst researching said building.
  • One of the Americans isn’t very keen on going.

'Is this the way out of this mess?'Honestly, it’s like Scream never happened, though of course with something as uninspired as The Ruins, there’s barely room for any of that postmodern, ironic nonsense. I like to imagine the conversation between Pete and his unwilling girlfriend, Amy, going as follows:

‘Pete, I don’t want to go.’

‘Are you still not feeling well?’

‘No, it’s just obvious we’re walking towards our doom.’

‘Yes but Amy if we don’t go there, what’s the rest of the movie going to be about? Why would anyone care about a story in which four glamorous, vapid tourists are invited to a mysterious monument and decide not to visit it?’

One of the film’s biggest problems is its main characters. It’s not that they aren’t very likeable, as such, more that they aren’t really developed. The Ruins isn’t really about them. They’re pawns, cyphers that are required for no other reason than to give us a reason to go to the ruins, which turns out to be an ancient Mayan temple covered with carniverous vegetation. It’s as though writer Scott B Smith and director Carter Smith know we are never really going to connect with the cardboard cut-out leads, so they don’t bother to make us try, instead shuffling them from A to B as quickly as possible in order to let the horror take over.

Worse still than the Americans is Joe Anderson, who plays Mathias. Mathias holds the map that leads them all to the ruins. His reason for going is that his girlfriend was carrying out excavations, but he hasn’t heard from her in some weeks and foolishly naturally resolves to find out what’s happened. As suggested by the name, Mathias is German, yet instead of hiring a German actor we have Anderson, whose comedy accent would guarantee him work on a remake of Allo Allo. He’s even more thinly drawn than the Americans, the most interesting of whom is Amy, played by Jena Malone. Best known as Gretchen in Donnie Darko, Malone is better than this kind of stuff, and tries gamely to invest her character with a little humanity. Otherwise, I don’t remember a thing about her friends - who they are, why they’re there, why I should give a stuff about whether they make it out of the ruins alive.

'No, you aren't leaving! We're trapped in this crap together! Ha ha ha!'The Ruins fairly shamelessly rips off a number of other movies. Links with The Beach are obvious, though I was also struck with its similarities to The Descent, Neil Marshall’s superior fright flick about a bunch of women who go potholing into one hell of a mess. What it loses is all sense of The Descent’s subtlety. Whereas much of Marshall’s film took place in the dark, meaning its shocks and nastiness were at best half-lit and implied much of the gore and violence, thereby leaving our imagination to fill in the blanks, there’s no such luck here. In The Ruins’ most infamous scene, our heroes decide to amputate another character’s legs, using whatever tools they have at their disposal - tequila, a rock and a blade of dubious sharpness and zero sterility. As the grisly operation takes place, the camera doesn’t flinch. There’s no cut away, no reprieve. And it’s here that the obvious third inspiration appears. The Ruins is a by-product of the horror environment established by Hostel, and all its ‘torture porn’ spin-offs. And like the majority of those films, it tries to substitute unpleasantness for anything very frightening, and of course just ends up leaving a bad taste in the mouth.

My real problem with The Ruins, however, is that it’s derivative of much earlier works. As the characters worked their inevitable way towards the temple, the thought kept striking me that this was just like Dracula: Prince of Darkness. Exactly like in the 42-year old Hammer movie, our heroes travel towards their doom, ignore the concerns of the one who has a bad feeling about it (Barbara Shelley in Drac; Malone here) and brush off any warnings along the way. In D:PoD, it became utterly clear the heroes were in trouble once their coach driver refused to take them anywhere near Castle Dracula. It’s a cab driver in The Ruins. ‘Eees bad place,’ he warns in a tourist-friendly Mexican drawl, until the sight of some dollars changes his mind. Presumably in the twenty first century, moral scruples are wiped out by the acquisition of wealth, though any allegorical message the film might have had starts and ends here.

Despite obviously costing a lot more money to make than Teeth, The Ruins made me miss Mitchell Lichtenstein’s wittier and far cleverer little film. It’s utter pulp, told without guile or any degree of sympathy for its characters. It doesn’t even have the morally bankrupt undertone of Hostel. The message of the movie appears to be this - if you are thinking of going to an ancient temple in the middle of nowhere, then don’t. And that’s it. The Ruins isn’t recommended to anyone save those people who want to know how to perform amateur amputative surgery under extreme pressure.

Posted on 14th July 2008
Under: Horror, Bobbins, Recent Releases | 3 Comments »

Hammer Time! Plague of the Zombies (1966)

Plague of the Zombies was, even by Hammer’s thrifty standards, made on the cheap. Filmed back to back with The Reptile (to be reviewed later) and making use of the same sets, along with a cast that slipped from one production to the next, it was intended to be released as a B-movie partner for Dracula Prince of Darkness (the Ultimate Hammer disc contains a cheesy trailer for the double bill). Though its low overheads are occasionally shown up in the final movie, Plague naturally turns out to be a much better and more interesting affair than the illustrious vampfest. According to the various fansites and reviews I have read, it is much loved. The reason for this is simple. Plague is nothing more or less than pure entertainment. It has the usual Hammer staples - creepy atmosphere, ‘ye olde worlde’ setting - and attaches these to a plot that never lets up, making full use of the limited running time and some very good performances.

The film is set in a tin mining community of Cornwall, sometime during the nineteenth century. People are dying at an epidemic rate, and bemused doctor Peter Thompson (Brook Williams) is at a loss to explain the causes. When his young wife, Alice (Jacqueline Pearce) also begins to express the fatigue and listlessness that are the typical early warning signs, he writes to his old mentor, Sir James Forbes (Andre Morell) to lend a hand. Sir James agrees, taking his daughter, Sylvia (Diane Clare) with him.

Behind you!The pair’s first encounter with the community is with its upper class. They comes across a fox hunt, led by the retainers of local Squire, Clive Hamilton (John Carson). Hamilton clearly has the town in the palm of his hand. His henchmen have no regard for the people, demonstrated to ghoulish effect when they pass a funeral and force the coffin to crash into a ravine, revealing its occupant. Peter explains to Sir James that he’s unable to carry out autopsies on any of the corpses at Hamilton’s behest, who along with his other duties is the closest they have to a coroner. Without proper research, there’s no way he can work out what’s happened to these people. The more pragmatic Sir James offers a solution - they’ll simply have to dig one up for themselves.

Peter and Sir James go about their grisly business, and sure enough the grave they exhume is empty. Worse still, their antics have spiked the attention of the local bobby (Michael Ripper), who turns out to be on their side once the doughty Sir James explains their intentions. In the meantime, Alice slips out of the house, and starts making for the woodlands that surround their community. Sylvia shouts after her, but Alice doesn’t appear to hear. When the former resolves to pursue, she runs afoul of Squire Clive’s malevolent retainers who summarily whisk her off to the big house. Alice, in some sort of trance makes for an old tin mine, where she’s about to come a cropper at the hands of a monster, but is the ashen-faced zombie the real creature, or are both victim and attacker being manipulated by something much worse? The goodly Squire, perhaps? Back at his house, Sylvia is in some trouble. Teased by a gang of toffish rakes, all Sylvia’s high-minded confidence seems to vanish until she is rescued by none other than Clive Hamilton himself. The Squire is mortified at her treatment - he can’t be bad, can he? Maybe not, but the sliver of blood he collects from her during a later meeting tells an altogether different story…

And that’s just the first half of the movie, breathless swathes of story hurtling past whilst its horrors are introduced at a masterfully gradual rate. The suspense builds steadily. By the time the zombie makes its first appearance - actually quite a scary sight - we already know roughly what’s going on. We have a pretty good idea who the baddies are, what’s happening to the dying folk and it remains to see how Sir James will resolve all this. As a result, much lies on the shoulders of Andre Morell, a veteran actor who chews up the scenery to delicious effect. Check out the bit where his character is trapped in a room that’s on fire - as he tries to find a way out, Sir James grows more desperate and almost feral. It’s a classy moment, the camera simply pointing in the right direction and following his movements.

Talking of cinematography, Plague is another example of the crew effectively making much from a small budget. Though the Bray Studios sets ought to be familiar to any seasoned Hammer viewer, they’re used exceptionally well, never more so than in the little graveyard that features prominently in a number of scenes, each one nudging up the horror a little further. The village is nothing more than a studio backlot, but it looks authentic enough, and with scenes set in the local pub and police station it develops a real sense of small town community. Better still are the moments of claustrophobia that are captured during the film’s more frightening sequences. The bit where one of the main characters comes to undead life is creepily effective, the camera jumping from the face of the reanimating corpse to close-ups of Sir James and Peter, filming them from a slightly askew angle to unbalance the viewer. Simple stuff, but played brilliantly.

Plague of the Zombies, yesterdayUsual props go to the crew responsible for creating a late nineteenth century backdrop to the action. The costumes add to a detail of authenticity, and the film’s largely rural setting means much of the shooting can take place in the wild and makes Plague appear to have a much broader setting than it actually does. Compare this for a moment with The Reptile, its companion in thrifty filmmaking. By no means a bad movie, The Reptile can’t help but seem slim and cheap, a slight bit of diversionary fluff before the main feature. But then it was never meant to be anything more; director John Gilling - at the helm for both features - seems to know this, whilst Plague somehow manages a wider canvas.

Not that Plague is perfect. In terms of its acting personnel, the film gives us a mixed bag. Carson is fine as Hamilton, and makes his character more three-dimensional than you might expect for a B-movie baddie. Check out his wooing of Sylvia. It’s almost possible to believe he has some genuine affection for her, but of course he wrong foots both her and the audience. Pearce is great as the dying Alice. She’s given some stock ‘waking up screaming from a bad dream’ bits to do, yet shows sufficient vulnerability during her early scenes to show why Sir James invests so much of his time and energy into getting involved, and later in the film puts in one of the sexier undead performances to be committed to celluloid. Weaker are Williams and Clare. The former should aim for an air of exhausted frustration, which would happen if you’re the local doctor working in a village where death after unexplained death is taking place, yet he never pulls it off, instead maintaining an expression of vague concern throughout. As Sylvia, Clare looks suitably scared when the scene calls for it, though otherwise she’s monotonous and rather blank-faced, her lines spoken like blank, wooden readings.

Thankfully, Morell holds it together. Not only does he manage to dish out some of the fairly silly dialogue with a straight face - ‘I find all kinds of witchcraft slightly nauseating and this I find absolutely disgusting’ - but he exerts a degree of elder statesman authority from the moment he steps foot into the village. It’s his turn that really elevates this stuff, and perhaps it’s the fact he was cast in this rather than The Reptile that makes Plague the more memorable piece of work.

The zombies look great, mainly because they’re genuinely scary. With their ashen faces, bulging white eyes and staggering gait, they set a template for much of zombiekind - you can see their performance in the recent, postmodern Shaun of the Dead, for example. Plague was released two years before George A Romero’s seminal Night of the Living Dead, a similar instance of a director putting his tiny budget to good use. And though it isn’t quite up to the standard of Romero’s subversive, politically-charged shocker, which took the genre on an entirely new tangent, it’s possible to see Gilling’s shuffling automatons as benchmarks for every walking dead that followed.

Posted on 4th July 2008
Under: Horror, Hammer | 4 Comments »

Pork Chop

In Clerks II, Elias tells us about Pillow Pants, a troll that lives inside his girlfriend’s vagina. ‘Myra says that if I put my thing in her, Pillow Pants will bite it off,’ he explains, to Randal’s consternation. In Teeth, directed by Mitchell Lichtenstein, Pillow Pants is real, or at least its gnashers are, bringing a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘man eater.’

Vagina dentata is a real life condition. One in twelve million women possess a vagina that’s lined with teeth, just as we’re told teeth can grow potentially on any part of the human body. But don’t worry. The website Understanding Vagina Dentata decodes many of the myths surrounding it, advising that it doesn’t really lead to castration. That the site happily links to the film’s UK domain should say something about how seriously it treats the movie, which is a horror-comedy covering the subject in the only way it probably could without lapsing into ridiculousness.

Teeth starts by introducing its female lead, Dawn (Jess Weixler) as a high school student in Texas who leads the local chastity group. It soon becomes apparent that this is a front, masking the real reason for suppressing her developing sexuality, and we learn exactly why when one of her male friends attempts to take advantage of her. At first, Dawn is scared of her condition. The school’s sex education classes are depicted as a joke. Whereas teachers discuss the make-up of the penis in lurid detail, the page in the textbook that offers a drawing of the vagina has been covered. When students try to peel off the gold sticker shielding the offending image, it tears away the entire page. Clearly in this repressive society, Dawn doesn’t have a chance to find out for herself what’s down there, and what shouldn’t be down there, until it’s too late for a would-be suitor.

Dawn realises how cold medical instruments can beWhether sex education in Bush’s conservative America is really like this remains to be seen. In the UK, we generally get the impression there are regressive sectors of the United States that have a ‘Mr Cholmondley-Warner‘ attitude to such matters, though it would be unwise to view Teeth purely as a withering denouncement. That it’s there as part of the subtext is definite, but just as likely to add to Dawn’s misery is her family life. Under the belching cooling stacks of the local industrial plant, Dawn shares her house with a dying mother, weakling step-father and his odious son, Brad (John Hensley), a slacker who plays heavy rock at top volume as the soundtrack to taking his girlfriend up the arse. ‘I have a perfectly good pussy,’ she moans, but Brad’s subconsciousness takes him back to a time when he was a kid, and young Dawn showed him hers…

At school, Dawn’s circle of friends hails from her chastity group. Bad boy Ryan (Ashley Springer) admires her. She has eyes for Tobey (Hale Appleman), who at first seems to be equally committed to celibacy before marriage, but this isn’t the case. After an innocent swim in the local pool, Tobey tries it on, and is the first to experience the eye-watering crunch that defines the title.

So much for Tobey. Teeth doesn’t spare us any detail. As the screaming boy catches sight of his mangled stump and flees, Dawn shrinks from the mess that remains, the helmet and what’s left of the shaft swimming in its own pool of blood. Nor is this the last such scene. When Dawn volunteers to be examined by a doctor, he loses several of his fingers when his work starts taking on less professional dimensions. And it’s here that Teeth starts taking on a blackly comic edge. Deflowered and growing in confidence, Dawn starts to realise that she has power, that she can literally use sex as a weapon.

'Pillow Pants is real?'Teeth never seems entirely sure about what it’s trying to say. Part social commentary, part comedy and (especially to male viewers) a good deal of horror, the middle section in particular stops being about a girl struggling to come to terms with her uniqueness, and takes on the energy of a revenge thriller, albeit one with dark comic moments. Yet this is also its strength. Teeth confronts an allegory-riddled and difficult subject, and thanks mainly to its strong lead character offers some light at the end of the tunnel. Its morality is ambiguous. Dawn quickly sheds her chaste veneer and goes from the most blushing of virgins to an outright fox in less than 90 minutes, but then by the close of play she’s also in control and stronger for her experiences. Is that the point? Is the film trying to tell us that being a teenager is indeed to be confused, and good luck to anybody who comes out unscathed at the other end? If so, then Teeth has a lot to say about growing pains that is true, albeit taking the point to extremes.

A bigger problem comes in the movie’s depiction of men. According to Teeth, the male of the species is a creep and borderline rapist, from the pervy gynaecologist through to the lad who tries to lay Dawn for a dare. In fact, these duplicitous characterisations are there simply to move along the plot. What Teeth focuses on is Dawn’s progress. Its men line up to be emasculated; each of them deserves the loss of a penis that is their just dessert. A withering comment if ever there was one, and one that isn’t entirely accurate

Yet neither is it completely invalid. Teeth is a good, well made movie that survives its groin-clutching sequences. It is one of the odder attempts at a tale about female empowerment, and in Jess Weixler it has an actress who, er, sinks her teeth into the role to celebratory effect. The film closes with a fully sexualised Dawn, wearing an ironically virginal white dress and setting out into the great unknown. She’s beautiful, confident and happy, and the last scene, which is left teasingly open, demonstrates that she won’t let anything stand in her way. As heroines for the twenty first century go, we could do a lot worse.

Posted on 27th June 2008
Under: Horror, Comedy, Recent Releases | No Comments »

‘Nazarene, you have won nothing’

The law of diminishing returns would suggest that in the Omen Quadrilogy, the quality drops with each instalment. Certainly, the original chapter is the best, and by some distance, and public opinion has it that the virtue of the movies goes into a tailpsin subsequently. I’m no stranger to producing charts, and based on IMDb user ratings, the score for each film produces a line that looks like this:

Chart showing the diminshing returns of the franchise (according to IMDb user ratings)

Damning (pun not intended) evidence if ever it existed, and far from a glowing recommendation for Omen IV, a flick upon which I am yet to inflict my eyes. Yet I really like The Final Conflict, the film that ended the original cycle of Omen titles. Admittedly, I write that with my tongue lodged firmly inside a cheek. It isn’t a particularly good piece of work; at times, its silliness reaches laughable proportions. However, certain aspects save it from being the utter tosh it so easily could have been, and I do not at this point refer to the extracts from Biblical texts that appear on the screen at the climax, as though this lends it any degree of profundity.

First, the plot, and fortunately this is something TFC possesses (and yes, that is a catty reference to the killfest that is Damien Omen II). Damien Thorn (Sam Neill) is by now an adult. At 32, his ownership of Thorn Industries has developed the company into a bastion of capitalism, with its unethical exploitation of Third World misery brushed under the carpet somewhat. Say what you like about the film’s commentary on western values, but as far as the American President is concerned Thorn is a rising star. It isn’t long before he’s installed as Ambassador to the UK, ostensibly the legacy to his father’s work. But of course, Damien being Damien, there’s an ulterior motive, and it is that he believes the second coming of Christ will take place in Britain - from the Book of Revelations the ‘Angel Isle,’ which thanks to the sort of logic that wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of Treasure Hunt means these very shores.

Damo commands the animalsAs usual, Damien has friends and enemies, and the latter make up a sect of monks from the monastery of Subiaco in Italy. Led by Father DeCarlo (Rossano Brazzi), each Brother is given one of the sacred knives, the only weapon that can vanquish the Antichrist. The order moves to London, and then sets about co-ordinating their attacks. Needless to say, these start going horribly wrong, though the death scenes are generally not in the same league as the imaginative endings dreamed up for DOII - that said, the bloke who is set on fire after being wrapped in plastic enjoys a horrifically sticky finish. Father DeCarlo is on hand to witness the Second Coming take place. It’s foretold by the convergence of three stars. Their line-up will pinpoint the exact position that Christ will return, but Damien doesn’t get this and subsequently orders the death of all male children born in Britain on the day of the second coming. He can do this thanks to a growing sect of followers, which is made up of people from all walks of life, including children and even the clergy. In one of the film’s best staged scenes, Damien addresses a vast audience of worshippers and at this point looks entirely unstoppable.

If Damien’s diabolical doings are the high points of TFC, then its lows are the romantic interludes. Everyone’s favourite spawn of Satan meets a journalist for ‘British television,’ Kate Reynolds (Lisa Harrow), along with her impressionable son, Peter (Barnaby Holm). As his unlikely affair with Kate grows more intimate, it’s his relationship with Peter that really counts. The boy is simply no match for the charming wiles of the Antichrist. By the movie’s end, Peter’s devotion to Damien far greater than his love for his mother, a development that will have tragic consequences. Worse is to come for Harvey Dean (Don Gordon), his devoted PA. Dean is unlucky enough to have a baby who was born within the exact timeframe that Damien ordered all newborns to be destroyed. Anyone who has followed the series of films up to now will know that he doesn’t stand a cat in hell’s chance.

TFC’s producers deliberately went for a talented unknown to play Damien. Their choice was young Kiwi actor, Sam Neill, an almost perfect piece of casting as it turned out. Neill has always been a reliable star, but he’s at his best when in the role of a baddie - few do ‘reptilian’ better, and what makes him ideal for this is his subtlety. Damien isn’t a shouter. He can do with a malevolent glare what it would most take most actors several lines of dialogue to convey. Witness his supposedly metaphysical relationship with animals, and you can see why Neill raises several extremely silly scenes to almost believable levels.

Almost. But not quite. The film might have lucked out in scooping Sam Neill, but even he has a job on his hands to save the daft plot. How on earth, for instance, does he manage to co-ordinate the slaying of the first born? It’s suggested that everyone is in such thrall to him that there’s no possibility of this being investigated to any serious degree i.e. at no point are any of the ‘killers’ discovered, and then the murders traced back to their source. Then there’s the dispatching of his own would-be slayers. Damien’s mind control over the hounds might just about get away with it - the series’ ‘rules’ have already established that animals obey the Antichrist - but the bit where he dupes two of the priests into stabbing one of their own stretches credibility still further.

The apocalypse wasn't the best time to be a babyWorst of all though is his relationship with Kate. According to Lisa Harrow, she and Neill enjoyed more than a little chemistry off the set, but it isn’t translated on to the screen. Despite Damien exerting a smug presence with her at all times, gaining control over her son and treating her to a bout of rough sex, Kate comes back for more, which doesn’t make an awful lot of sense, let alone the statement it makes about women in general. When it comes down to it, the character doesn’t even need to be there in the first place. You get the impression she’s been added in at a later date, the producers feeling the need for some love interest for their lonely Antichrist.

It’s directed by Graham Baker, whose pedestrian approach to the material means the film is never more than competently told. All the subtlety of Richard Donner’s original is by now long gone, making for a straightforward battle between Damien and his assassins. There are good moments - the aforementioned address, which comes across a little like a perverse pastiche of the mass gatherings listening to Billy Graham, is one; another comes with the depictions of Damien’s followers doing away with babies. Seasoned viewers will, however, spot the plot developments coming from a mile away. You know as soon as you see the Subiaco monks that they’ll be handed their cards before too long. The same fate is obviously going to befall anyone who shows the merest hint of getting in Damien’s way, which makes for a depressing lack of tension.

Things reach a nadir with the climax. This promises much with its Fountains Abbey setting and the portent of Damien clashing with a post-Second Coming Christ. Yet, and without wanting to give away the ending, nothing much happens. It’s an unforgivable anti-climax, made worse because the movie has been working up to this point all along and then wimps out at the point of closure. The filming adds a bizarre dimension by half of the scenes being shot at dusk whilst others take place during the night; then rather randomly it’s all spliced together to leave the audience perplexed - just what sort of time is it when this happens?

That the film survives with some sort of coherency is a virtual miracle, and those rather jarring issues apart, it’s pretty good fun. Viewers expecting an instalment that retains the spirit of Donner’s offering will disappointed. The Final Conflict isn’t in the same class. Its insertion of verses from Revelations at the end hint at the kind of quality that is never really in evidence. But its borrowing from Jerry Goldsmith’s original score provide some continuity, whilst Neill and Brazzi lend it a touch of class. There are some lovely, flowery monologues from Damien to chuckle over (’Nazarene, charlatan, what can you offer humanity? Since the hour you vomited forth from the gaping wound of a woman, you have done nothing but drown man’s soaring desires in a deluge of sanctimonious morality‘ - who talks like that?) and a sense of earnestness that keeps things moving. The sum total isn’t anyone’s idea of a good film, or even a truly frightening one, yet it provides a pulpy, entertaining end to a trilogy that, in all truth, was fairly silly to begin with.

Posted on 20th June 2008
Under: Horror | No Comments »

Don’t believe your eyes

Confession time - I haven’t seen Gin gwai, the original version of The Eye, the Hong Kong horror classic that continued the tradition of the Far East being the place for fright flicks. It was the same with The Grudge; the first I knew of Takazi Shimizu’s endless cycle of strangely similar shockers was the Sarah Michelle Gellar update. Critically it was reviled; personally, I have never been so terrified by a simple piece of celluloid.

Perhaps I was hoping for more of the same with the American remake of The Eye. Its publicity, which promises a ‘Grudge-like’ experience was promising, and let’s face it watching Jessica Alba for 90 minutes isn’t the worst hardship one might come across. Of course it turned out to be clueless bobbins. For some reason, English language versions of Eastern horror films seem to believe that such elements as atmosphere are totally unnecessary, and as anyone who has seen Ringu or Dark Water knows (I at least caught the Japanese versions of these movies first) take that away and there’s next to nothing left.

What we get instead is CGI, and lots of it. ‘Throw money at the screen!’ the producers cry, forgetting conveniently that the 1999 remake of 1960s classic, The Haunting, fell on its expensive backside precisely because it showed us exactly the images we should have painted in our minds. Even the most gifted special effects experts appreciate that there is absolutely nothing they can conjure to match the power of the human imagination. That’s why a slow-burning, spooky atmosphere makes for great horror, and millions of dollars’ worth of computer generated animation looks like a dog’s dinner.

'What are we doing in this cack?'Then there’s the plot, which doesn’t end up making any sense. Things start well enough. Alba is Sydney, a young woman who’s been blind since a childhood accident robbed her of her sight. Having long since adjusted to her lot, Sydney has a life and is an accomplished concert violinist. It’s only at the insistence of her sister that she decides to undergo vision-restoring surgery, a process that involves using the corneas of a deceased donor. Following the operation, Sydney’s world is a blur initially, and though she sees things that shouldn’t be there, we get the sense that this might be a result of her eyes adjusting.

It isn’t, and what Sydney sees is dead people. Not only dead people, but the demons that guide them to the afterlife also. Back at her flat, she comes across a small child, who asks her if she has seen his report card. The kid’s dead, murdered by his father, meaning that Sydney witnesses ghosts from the distant past along with those who have only just demised. Alongside this are the disturbing dreams from someone else’s evidently tragic life, and the moments where a room from somewhere else melts into her own bedroom’s surroundings. Later still, Sydney finds that she can even see death before it strikes, and if that’s the case then she might also prevent it.

Confused? I know I was, and ultimately it seemed that there was very little logic to The Eye. If it was frightening, it went in, and that was about the extent of its rules. The ‘I see dead people’ shtick has been done elsewhere, and much better than this. A rehash of The Sixth Sense might not have been so bad, but then the movie changes tack entirely, suddenly reminding me of Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder with its scary things that might just be okay once you get to understand them a little better. More than anything, though, its template is the aforementioned Grudge. Its aim is to strike fear into us, and everything is sacrificed to the God that is shock tactics. Forget things like narrative and atmosphere. All elements are subservient to the effort to slap as many scares on the screen as possible, and though you may have it that ultimately this is what horror is all about, the loser is the whole. Without any real structure or meaning, The Eye fails to possess any real worth. The first viewing might be a bit like a roller coaster ride. It’s fun. But when it comes to the second time, you know what’s coming, and the sudden lack of edge exposes its shallowness.

In the thick of it all is Alba, who does her best with the material. She isn’t helped by a terrible, nonsensical script, and the the dubbing of music over her violin playing - clearly all those lessons were for naught, Jessica - looks out of joint and frankly amateurish. A lack of confidence in the leading lady, perhaps, but Alba is some distance from being the worst thing on show here. Support is offered by Alessandro Nivola, playing an eye specialist who is naturally sceptical of Sydney’s supernatural peepers, until he, er, suddenly isn’t anymore. Neither sinks entirely under the weight of the bad material. Alba might be dismissed as a cutie, as too lightweight when it comes to taking the lead, but the more likely truth is that it’s simply a poor movie. She really isn’t bad, and neither are the jump cutting and sound work, which try to build some semblance of atmosphere. They need to, because it’s a quality that seems to have been omitted when it came to writing the screenplay.

Posted on 3rd May 2008
Under: Horror, Bobbins, Recent Releases | No Comments »

Hammer Time! Paranoiac (1963)

Was Hammer a production company that tried to create quality movies, or was it a purveyor of penny dreadfuls, churning out cheaply made rip-offs of classic stories in search of a quick buck? Paranoiac wants to be Psycho. The name - which, contrary to my expectations, isn’t made up at all - is a clue, as is the fact it’s in black and white, not the usual lurid colour associated with Hammer. There are a number of ’shock’ scenes, and an attempt to pass off the main villain’s behaviour in psychological terms.

Obviously, in comparison Paranoiac pales next to one of Hitchcock’s highest regarded works. Yet it’s far from rubbish. On its own merits, this brief family drama is a neat little potboiler and well worth anyone’s spare 80 minutes. The Jimmy Sangster screenplay is a sign of quality, and this was the first feature directed by Freddie Francis, already an Oscar winner for his cinematography work on Sons and Lovers, and years later to receive a second for Glory.

Janette ScottParanoiac has a lot of plot to cram into its economical running time. Twists and revelations rush by at breakneck speed, as the story of the troubled Ashby family hurtles towards its grisly denouement. The real horror that comes with being an Ashby is the family inheritance. Each member stands to gain a great deal of money, which is asking for trouble when one of the brood is boorish, boozy, dangerous and potentially psychotic.

None of the Ashbys are especially well hinged, but it’s Simon (Oliver Reed) who tops the nutty stakes. When not driving his car through flowerbeds or quaffing an annual salary’s worth of brandy, he’s plotting to tip younger sister Eleanor (Janette Scott) over the edge by reviving memories of their brother, Anthony, who died aged 15. Only his plan is foiled when ‘Tony’ abruptly reappears, older and apparently unhurt. Simon can’t believe it. Eleanor is overjoyed, more so when she finds Tony to be pleasant company who even saves her life when her car’s brakes ‘accidentally’ fail (thanks to Simon’s sabotage) and nearly topples her over a cliff edge. Nothing is as it appears in the Ashby household. Tony passes various tests and questions about his identity with flying colours, only later revealing that he is in fact an imposter, assuming the guise after being hired by a family attorney who’s on the take from the Ashby trust fund. Will he get away with it? His growing feelings for Eleanor suggest otherwise, as does the singing voice coming from the family chapel, one that belongs quite clearly to the teenage Anthony…

It’s good stuff, if told rather episodically and with an eye on the clock. Scenes never linger, which means the characters don’t take on any kind of depth and are fairly stereotypical. For instance, it takes very little time to establish that Simon is one penny short of the full guinea, or that Eleanor is a paragon of virtue who deserves better. Aunt Harriet (Sheila Burrell) is the more complicated figure, her stolid veneer masking a fragile core that has obviously been rattled by Simon’s excesses. Enough is going on to leave crucial questions unanswered until the end - where is (young) Tony’s voice coming from? Why does Simon play the organ late at night? And who is the grotesque, masked figure who stands behind him, the one dressed as a choirboy and ready to wield a knife at the merest hint of disturbance?

Clowning aroundWhat saves Paranoiac to a large degree is its cast, and in particular Oliver Reed. Quite possibly the Russell Crowe of his day, the young Reed is beautiful, crazy, and fills the screen whenever he occupies it. The narrative of his descent into madness isn’t exactly clearly told - we can’t believe he was ever entirely all there - but the shot of him gazing into a pool after committing murder is a sheer glimpse of lunacy surfacing. Reed is excellent value, and he’s supported by a fine ensemble who rarely put a foot wrong. Alexander Davion as Tony is only slightly less wooden than the house’s oak panelling, but the camera loves Janette Scott and so did I. She’s simply gorgeous as Eleanor. The scene where her sisterly kiss with Tony turns into something altogether more passionate is one of the film’s finest. For a stunned moment, Eleanor looks horrified at what she’s done, even though both Tony and the viewer know she has actually committed no wrong.

As a Hammer classic, Paranoiac doesn’t really hold its own. It’s a good tale that’s told in a functional manner, and it’s efforts to attribute the actions of its characters to abnormal psychological behaviour lead to muddy results. Hold on to the easy melodrama, Hammer - you aren’t Hitchcock, and this isn’t in the same league as Psycho. One saving grace in this regard is that a psychiatrist isn’t wheeled on at the film’s close to explain Simon’s actions - we’re left to contemplate his craziness for ourselves, which is just as it should be. Instead, watch this for its racing, convoluted plot, for Janette Scott, and for Oliver Reed at his crackers best. I’ve seen it suggested that Reed’s turn as Simon was inspired by his own private life; if that’s true, then the ‘Wild Thing’ was very aptly named.

Posted on 22nd April 2008
Under: Horror, Hammer | 11 Comments »

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