Sunday, 31 January 2016

strange_complex: (Cyberman from beneath)
This was the first of Amicus' famous portmanteau horror films, and is also one of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee's many joint credits. I've seen it before, but a long time ago now, and it was on the Horror Channel on Friday, so I settled down with a nice glass of whisky.

There are five individual story segments, one for each of five travellers in a railway carriage who successively have gruesome fortunes read for them from Dr. Terror (Peter Cushing)'s tarot pack - or his House of Horrors, as he calls it. Of the five, I had of course vividly remembered Christopher Lee's segment, in which he plays a bombastic and irascible art critic who ends up being pursued by a disembodied hand. It's a decent story, a great role for Lee, and has the bonus of also featuring Michael Gough as a mischievous artist who shows up Lee's character and pays a terrible price for it. I had also remembered fragments of two of the others - one about triffid-like sentient plants and one about voodoo music. But I must confess I had forgotten the first and last (about a werewolf and a vampire respectively) so completely that if I'd seen then in isolation and without the linking narrative in the railway carriage, I would have sworn blind that I'd never seen them before.

I suspect it's probably because they just aren't very good stories. None of them are exactly stellar, to be honest, even Lee's. Their arcs are predictable and their characters do things which don't really make sense as soon as you start thinking about it. But the film as a whole is charming nonetheless. Part of the reason why has to be its utterly unlikely cast, which includes rare film appearances for Alan 'Fluff' Freeman, Roy Castle and Kenny Lynch, as well as a young Donald Sutherland (who had already worked with Lee a year earlier in Il castello dei morti vivi 1964). Not an ensemble you'd readily imagine for a mid-1960s horror film )if, of course, it weren't for the fact that it actually happened), and yet somehow it works. Well, that is, I could do without Roy Castle's goofing around, but even he encapsulates something of the '60s vibe which makes these films so endearing, while I thought Alan Freeman was genuinely good. Meanwhile, the director Freddie Francis (dear to me especially from his work on Dracula Has Risen From the Grave) creates plenty of atmosphere with claustrophobic close-ups and deliberately disorientating action sequences, and Peter Cushing infuses the central narrative with a genuine air of fear and menace - like, of course, the true professional he always was.

The story about the voodoo music probably deserves a bit more comment, too, even if (like the others) it was never going to set the world alight as an example of the story-teller's craft. It involves Roy Castle's character, a jazz musician whose agent gets him a gig in the West Indies, and who hides in the bushes while he is there writing down the tune used in a local voodoo ceremony. Back home in London, he works it into a new jazz composition, but when his band performs it, a terrible wind blows up out of nowhere, and he flees in panic through the streets, only to find himself confronted alone in his apartment by a vengeful voodoo god. At first sight, it looks a bit like a contribution to the kind of debates people have nowadays about cultural appropriation, since several West Indian characters warn Castle's character not to steal the music for himself, or voice dialogue about how what has done is an affront to their god. But it would be quite surprising to find a British film from the mid-'60s genuinely making such a post-colonial case - and especially one which also features Castle putting on a 'comedy' West Indian accent when he first finds out where he is going. In the end, I think the way it is all coded is more like 'white people - don't get mixed up in all that nasty black stuff!', rather than 'white people - show some respect for black culture'. Still, though, it at least shows some awareness of and anxiety about the origins of jazz music, perhaps capturing a small step on the way towards thinking about these things a little more sensitively.

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strange_complex: (Invader Zim globe)
This is a British SF comedy, which a neighbour of mine lent to me when I had shingles, on the grounds that he knew I liked Doctor Who and guessed I might need things to watch from my sick-bed. Which was very sweet of him, although in practice it took me until this weekend to get round to watching it. (I'm an academic, so the main thing I actually did on my sick-bed was read a PhD thesis and write up comments on how it could be turned into a successful monograph.)

The main character is Neil (played by Simon Pegg), a school-teacher who is randomly selected by a council of aliens to be granted absolute power for a period of ten days. All he has to do is wave his hand, vocalise his wish (e.g. 'Let me be holding a bunch of flowers') and bingo! The thing happens. Except that the aliens don't tell him they've done this, so that he only figures it out slowly over a couple of days, and they also don't tell him that it's all a big test of humanity, with them sitting in judgement over him the whole time to see whether he uses his powers for good or ill. And if it's ill, they are going to destroy the entire human race.

So it's fine, and sometimes quite funny, with plenty of situational social comedy and lots of stuff about Neil phrasing his wishes poorly and them being interpreted utterly literally. E.g. one of the ways he discovers his powers is that when he wishes for his entire class of delinquent kids to be wiped out by aliens, it actually happens. The reality of this is obviously awful and traumatic, so he tries to undo it by wishing for everyone who was dead to come back to life, but this is interpreted as meaning absolutely everyone, not just his class. Cue some nice scenes of zombies rising from the dead. Also, Eddie Izzard is very good in it as the headmaster in Neil's school, who is normally an utter dragon, but turns into a gushing, fawning sycophant as the result of one of Neil's wishes.

But is is also Terry Jonesish. He co-wrote this film as well as directing it, and my response was distinctly similar to how I felt about his writing when I read Starship Titanic a couple of years ago. This film was similarly not as funny or clever as it seemed to think it was, with a lot of cheap, predictable gags and some pretty two-dimensional women. In fairness, you could feel this film trying harder than Starship Titanic to portray its women as real human beings and grapple with the realities of modern life. There are four meaningful female characters in it, three of whom have conversations with each other, and Kate Beckinsale's character is shown struggling with unwanted and entitled advances from two different male characters in a reasonably sympathetic manner. But ultimately it is still all about Neil and male wish-fulfilment, with the women primarily on screen to serve that agenda.

I thought for a moment that it passed the Bechdel test, because of a conversation between Kate Beckinsale's character and her boss (Joanna Lumley) about their work, until I realised that they were discussing strategies for interviewing a male author. Otherwise, all conversations are of course about the women's various exes, boyfriends or love-interests. And guess what happens in a film where a male character is granted absolute power? Yes, there is self-awareness in the script about the rapiness of using magical powers to make someone fall in love with you - for example, Simon Pegg's character thinks he has done this to Kate Beckinsale's character for a while, but the script carefully dodges the full implications by showing that the alien technology providing his powers breaks down at the crucial moment, so that in fact she 'really' decided she was into him at that exact same moment. But he doesn't know that and isn't troubled by it. Meanwhile, he makes a whole bunch of women worship his friend Ray as a god, but all we see of the consequences of this are his friend Ray finding it annoying - nothing at all about the trespass on their free will.

So, yeah - sort of OK, but fundamentally not funny, uplifting or interesting enough to be worth sitting through the cis, het, white, middle-class blokeishness of it all. (It's just as bad on the rest of those, too, though at least trying a bit on race.) Oh well, at least it's a useful reminder of why I don't normally watch 'zany' modern comedies, and that even aliens and magical powers are unlikely to save them.

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