strange_complex: (Rick's Cafe)
This was one of my stock of Christopher Lee films broadcast on TV which I've systematically recorded on my Sky box. I watched it last night because I had had a stressful day at work and needed to wind down - and then today managed to be even more stressful, which wasn't entirely the plan! (The cause of the stress isn't anything long-term or serious - just byzantine nightmares around the catering for an event I'm running tomorrow. But I've swerved wildly over the last two days between fearing I might have no lunch at all for 60 people tomorrow, and fearing I would have to pay for their lunch twice, neither of which were very attractive prospects - so it's been pretty grim for me in the short-term.)

Anyway, the film! It just pre-dates the beginning of Lee's career with Hammer, but in hindsight it almost looks like a road-map for where he was going. Alongside Lee in the cast we find John Van Eyssen, better-known to me as Jonathan Harker in Hammer's Dracula (1958), Anton Diffring, star of The Man Who Could Cheat Death (1959; which I haven't seen and really must) and Rupert Davies, better-known to me as the Monsignor in Dracula has Risen from the Grave (1968). Also, the house at which most of the action takes place is also better-known to me as the country home of the Eatons in Hammer's The Devil Rides Out. Lee himself is not the villain, but the point of the film is that any one of the characters could be the titular Traitor (and hence also a murderer), and he does a good job of being suitably suspicious. There is a lot of clipped impatience, polishing of glasses, and social awkwardness. There's also a case for saying that he over-does some of those things in the performance; but then again he spends the entire film looking extremely pretty in either a black-tie dinner suit or a silk dressing-gown, so I'm willing to forgive him.

The actual plot involves a group of German ex-resistance fighters from a town called Leipzberg (I guess a fictional place invented by giving Leipzig a different ending?), who gather together once a year to remember their former leader, who was executed after being betrayed to the Nazis. This year, though, things are different, because after they have all gathered together, they discover that an extra guest will be joining them - one who knows the identity of the traitor who betrayed their leader. There are various twists, murders, and unexpected extra visitors, as well as a lot of lovely cabin-feverish tensions between the characters, before everything is resolved and we finally discover the truth. There is also some nice music along the way, as one of the characters (Anton Diffring's, in fact), is a pianist, and has written a haunting and beautiful prelude to express the sorrow and loss felt by the whole group, which he plays at every available opportunity.

Besides the pianist, the group is presented as a diverse range of types, all of whom we are introduced to via little vignettes at the beginning of the film. Christopher Lee's character is a doctor; others include a mayor, a business-man and a heavy-drinking play-boy. In true Smurfette tradition, there is also one character who was clearly scribbled down on the first draft of the cast list as 'the woman one' (played by Jane Griffiths). Thank you, 1950s. She herself is great, though - utterly modern and self-assured, and treated by all the others as a full member of the group. She even slips out of the house at one point to determine for herself whether a supposedly broken-down car really is out of order or not - and does so perfectly effectively. So she was fun to have around, but the film as a whole was a very long way away from Bechdel-compliance.

The plot is somewhere between a sadness-of-war film, an Agatha Christie-style country house murder mystery and An Inspector Calls. It's not the sort of thing I would go out of my way to watch if Christopher Lee weren't in it, and I think it possibly suffered from having slightly too many characters, so that several of them were never very fully developed. But it kept my attention throughout, and certainly did the job as far as providing a stress-relieving evening snuggled up on the sofa was concerned. It's black and white, and the print I saw was dreadful quality - so bad that much of the colouring actually looked green where there were a lot of complex different shadings going on at once. But I suspect it would look very beautiful properly remastered and on a large screen. I'll be quite happy to sit through it again if I ever get the chance to see it in those circumstances.

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strange_complex: (Ulysses 31)
As if a genuine Smell-O-Vision film and an unfilmed Hammer Dracula script hadn't been enough, last weekend's journey of cinematic wonders ended on the Sunday evening in Bradford with 2001: A Space Odyssey, seen as it was originally intended to be seen - that is, in the full glory of Cinerama. I watched, rapt, alongside [livejournal.com profile] minnesattva, magister and Andrew Hickey, as the wonders of space opened up before us, and pondered idly what it must have been like to live in those heady days of the late '60s White Hot Technological Revolution, when the world of normalised space travel which it depicted might really have seemed like a plausible likelihood for the far-distant future of 2001.

I have seen the film before, of course, but believe me when I say that seeing it in Cinerama is an entirely different experience. Kubrick designed it specifically to be seen on a curved screen, and once you see it that way it becomes so painfully, searingly obvious that he did that you realise you simply haven't experienced the film he thought he was making until that moment. This was perfectly clear to me already in the first half, when I realised exactly why the location chosen for the ape-creatures drinking from their water-hole was a rounded geographical bowl, and why so many scenes of the lunar landscape are designed the same way - because, of course, in Cinerama they would appear to be actually curving out towards the audience, as though we were sitting ourselves on the far side of that very bowl. In Cinerama, when the idea occurs to one of the ape-creatures for the very first time to pick up a large thigh-bone, and use it to smash up the smaller bones of the animal skeleton lying in front of him, the pieces which fly up into the air appear as though they are coming right out of the screen at you. And as for the space stations and planets which cartwheel by to the music of the Blue Danube - watching them is like looking out from the bridge of your own vessel, as vast bodies thousands of miles away float balletically across your field of vision.

Then in the intermission, Andrew too commented that he had never realised before just how much of a Cinerama film 2001 was. Fresh from having seen The Best of Cinerama that morning, he meant something more than my simple observation of curves, space and quasi-3D. Rather, as he pointed out, Cinerama travelogues of the type he had seen that morning regularly introduced their viewers to a rather surreal combination of the wonders of nature, followed by the wonders of technology - exactly like the early ape-creatures followed by the pirouetting space stations we had just seen. What's more, although 2001 was not shot using the three-strip camera technique which The Best of Cinerama used (and which I have experienced myself for The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962)), he had noticed that some of the shots were composed as though they were going to be - that is, with strong verticals positioned 1/3 and 2/3 of the way across the screen, exactly where the joins between the strips would have been visible. I settled down for the second half with his comment in mind, and he was absolutely right - for example, Kubrick had shot the room on the Discovery One containing the three EVA pods exactly and precisely with its two far corners at the 1/3 and 2/3 positions, just as I remember noticing for every scene which ever featured a room in it during The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm. I wasn't particularly surprised later on, when checking the Wikipedia page for the film, to learn that it was indeed originally planned to be shot in three-strip Cinerama, exactly in line with what Andrew had noticed.

Truly, truly spectacular, then. A film with an almost boundlessly-ambitious vision, making the fullest possible use of the technology available in its day, stretching it to create a cinematic experience which would actually do justice to the nature of the story. In fact, we were lucky enough to enjoy not only the film, but (part of) an after-show chat from Douglas Trumbull, who did the special effects for the film, and who articulated exactly the vision Kubrick was trying to create. He explained that Kubrick wanted to create a film which was less concerned than usual with the characters on screen, or the experiences and dramas they are having. In fact, this was deliberately minimised by pointing the cameras relatively little at the actors, and having only fairly limited and largely banal dialogue. Rather, he wanted to put the audience and their experiences at the forefront. This is particularly clear at the climax of the film when the last surviving crewman of the Discovery One, David Bowman, comes face to face with the monolith in orbit around Jupiter, and falls into the strange and psychedelic star-gate which it opens up. During this whole sequence there is actually very little screen-time devoted to David's reactions, and as Trumbull put it, this was because Kubrick didn't want this sequence to be about David experiencing the star-gate - he wanted it to be about the audience, in the star-gate. And in Cinerama, boy, is it!

Even without the Cinerama, though, the care, detail and ambition put into the model-work and the special effects is so impressive that even now, almost 50 years after its release, the only thing which really gives the film away as not having been made this year are some of the fashions worn by the female members of the cast. I'd love to say the treatment of gender was a give-away too, given that women appeared almost (though not entirely) exclusively in subservient roles (daughter, mother, air-hostess, receptionist), and that by the time you get to the elite crew of the Discovery One, they have (of course!) vanished altogether. But the sad truth is that there are more films which still do exactly that today than don't. Only two years ago, Geena Davis (Thelma of Thelma and Louise fame) suggested that modern Hollywood films consistently depict women to men in supposedly mixed groups at a ratio of 1 to 5 or 17%, and that what's more men perceive this as a 50:50 balance, and anything more as female-dominated. Here, too, I noticed that in the board-room scene where Heywood Floyd explains to the Clavius base personnel why it is so important to maintain secrecy around the monolith found on the moon, there were two women and ten men: exactly the 1 to 5 or 17% (to be precise, 16.67%) ratio which Geena Davis pointed out. So, in other, words, the gender balance of 2001 may be heavily patriarchal, but it certainly isn't dated! We're still doing it, just the same. :-/

That is on us, though. While we're working on it, a late 1960s film which makes you feel as though you are actually floating in space remains very much worth watching, and I am once again awed by the power of Cinerama.

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strange_complex: (Dracula Risen hearse smile)
This was not actually a film in the conventional sense - rather a staged reading of an unproduced film script - but I'm including it in my 'films watched 2015' tag nonetheless, because it was very close, and I know that's where I'll look for this review in the future. The script in question was written by Anthony Hinds, joint architect (along with Michael Carreras) of Hammer's horror heyday, and it was originally intended as the seventh entry in their Dracula franchise, to follow after Scars of Dracula (1970). There's a good blog post here which explains the production context and what happened - basically, Hammer's distributors, Warner Bros., had some assets locked up in rupees in India, and this was intended to be shot on location as a way of unlocking them. In the end, it never came to pass, and the script instead lay forgotten in Hammer's script archive, until the collection was passed to the Cinema And Television History (CATH) Research Centre at De Montfort University, Leicester, and examined properly by some experts. The obvious interest of this one was quickly recognised, and arrangements put in place for its first ever public airing in Nottingham last Saturday evening as part of the Mayhem Film Festival.

The event was billed on the Mayhem website as "Jonathan Rigby to narrate long-lost Dracula script from Hammer archive", with the further information that he would be "accompanied by a group of actors" - and quite honestly, that was more than enough for me and I went on that basis. But in practice it really undersold how much effort they had gone to to bring this script to life. What actually happened was that Rigby read all the scene descriptions and directions from the original script, while a cast of seven voice actors did the dialogue, sound effects were provided by a two-man crew with laptops and a mixer, a live sitar player did his thing at the appropriate moments, and occasional visual effects were projected onto a screen in the middle. These included opening and closing credits, as well as a close-up of Christopher Lee's eyes in full Dracula mode whenever his signature character was required to stare piercingly at a variety of young ladies during the story - which happened quite a lot. I took a few photos myself, but this one, which Jonathan Rigby posted on Facebook after the event, best captures it:

Full view of cast and eye by Ashley Bird.jpg

You can also see thirty more from an enthusiastic audience member here, including perhaps the most touching moment of all - the words ‘In memory of Sir Christopher Lee, 1922-2015’ displayed as part of the closing credits, to great cheers and applause from everyone present.

In short, then, it was a lot like watching a live recording of a radio play, except for the occasional use of the screen. And this was absolutely excellent for me, because I went there knowing that this might be the only time I ever had the chance to hear the contents of this script, but that I was also going to want very badly to be able to revisit and reconsider the story. So I took a note-book, and was able to sit in the second row, right behind the sound crew in the seats of the first row, looking up occasionally but mainly just listening intently and scribbling and scribbling madly across the page, until I had filled up 33 A5 pages in two hours with basically everything that happened in the entire script, including some verbatim dialogue. Meanwhile, as I wrote and listened, an entire film played out, as if by magic, in the inside of my head. I have read a few Hammer scripts before, and their descriptive text usually goes quite well beyond the purely practical. This one was no exception, describing a decaying Maharajah's palace as a ‘gaunt edifice’ whose corridors are lined with faded brocade and crumbling trophies, or speaking of the 'cold light' of the early dawn and someone being 'ground to bone-meal', for instance. So it was very easy to visualise the right sorts of settings from Rigby's narration, while the sound effects gave them the appropriate texture and the voices of the various actors populated them with living characters. Indeed, I am well enough steeped in Hammer's visual style to mean that often I could see in my mind's eye exactly the sorts of sets and costumes they would have used, the camera angles they would have chosen, and the composition of the shots.

All of which was incredible and amazing and breath-taking, because Hammer's Dracula franchise is my favourite film sequence bar none, and yet its last entry appeared in 1974, and I was born in 1976, so I never had the opportunity to see any of its films fresh on first release at the cinema. Indeed, it's some 25 years since I saw a Hammer Dracula film for the first time at all in any context, so I find it difficult now to remember or imagine what devouring one I haven't seen before is actually like. The raw experience of an entirely new Hammer Dracula story, with absolutely no idea what might happen next at any point, was something I never expected to have again - and this performance was the closest I have or will ever come to experiencing that not only on my own at home in front of a video, but live and completely fresh in the cinema with a whole audience around me doing the same. Walking up the cinema aisle at the end of the performance, I found myself overwhelmed almost to the point of tears at the sheer magnitude of what I had just witnessed, coupled of course with the sad knowledge that I may never have such an experience again... Well, that is, unless the same team get themselves together and do a performance of Lord Dracula - the other unmade Hammer Dracula film lying in the CATH archive, which is an 'origins' story linking the Hammer Dracula with the historical Vlad III Dracula. I don't think I have to explain to regular readers of this blog how and why that is basically the story I consider myself to have been put upon this earth to hear.

So, having talked about the performance at the Mayhem Film Festival, I'm now going to review this story qua story, in the way that I have every other Hammer Dracula story on this blog. The obvious difference of course is that you, dear reader, are almost infinitesimally unlikely to have 'seen' it. That means we need to start with a brief plot summary. It is utterly spoilerific, as is everything I say from this point onwards in the review. But given that as far as we know at the moment, this story will never be released in any other format, you may as well read on and at least find out what happens in it. )
strange_complex: (Sherlock Holmes trifles)
I'm spreading myself across the selected highlights of two different film festivals this weekend: the 2015 Widescreen Weekend at the National Media Museum in Bradford, and the Mayhem Horror Film Festival at the Broadway Cinema in Nottingham. This was my first stop, seen in the company of the lovely miss_s_b in Bradford.

2015-10-16 17.04.00.jpg

There's some background information about it on the Widescreen Weekend website, and we got more too in a short introduction to the film by David Strohmaier, the director of the restored version we were seeing. Basically Scent of Mystery was originally intended as a curved-screen Cinerama spectacular with the added attraction of Smell-o-Vision - that is, appropriate scents released from little pipes under every seat in the auditorium at the right time to match up with the images being seen on the screen. But the Smell-o-Vision didn't quite work as intended at the initial screenings (stuff about that here), so it flopped, and was then edited down quite heavily and re-released without the smells as Holiday in Spain. Now, the original film has been restored as fully as possible (from a combination of a negative and a rather faded screen reel), and a new system devised for the smells - numbered vials and fans left on each seat in the auditorium, and illuminated numbered boards held up at the right time by attendants to tell people when to squirt their vial and fan it around to their neighbours.

2015-10-16 20.38.29.jpg

This was fun to do for the interactive aspect of it - I got very excited when my smell (grass) came up! And when it worked it certainly did enhance the film. I think the best smell of all for me was the incense released during a scene of people chasing each other around the columns of a Spanish cathedral, a) because that was a good strong scent which I picked up really easily, b) because that scene went on for quite a long time, so it was appropriate to have the smell of incense lingering in the air throughout it and c) because incense is so utterly characteristic of cathedral interiors that it really did help to deepen the sense of being there. Other good ones were the smell of oil-paints in an artist's studio, wine, coffee, mints and talc.

Quite a lot of thought had evidently gone into how to make the smells really work with the story when the film was originally produced, too, rather than just using them as extra decoration. Two plot points actually hung on them - cheap perfume gives away one imposter, since the person she is impersonating always wears genuine Scent of Mystery, while American pipe tobacco reveals the real identity of the man trying to kill her. However, neither of those worked for me until the characters on screen commented on them, because in practice the vials-and-fans system we were using wasn't perfect.

The biggest and easiest improvement would have been to hold up the numbers directing people to spray their vials about 30 seconds to one minute before the appropriate scene in the film, as it generally took people a good few seconds to fumble about checking what number they had, and then another 20 or 30 before it reached anyone else's noses. Smell is a much slower sense than sound or sight, and it takes time for aromas to spread and for people to breathe them in. Also, I suspect people sitting in the middle of the auditorium got a generally better experience than me, sitting to one side. Where I was, there simply wasn't always the critical mass of people near me with the right numbered vials for me to have access to the smell. (And I'm saying this as someone with a strong enough sense of smell to mean it's not unusual for me to smell things like lavender in people's gardens or particular fruits in the supermarket before I see them.)

Still, all of that pretty accurately replicates the original experience of the people who saw the film back in 1960, as it didn't work properly then either! And like I said, it was fun to be part of the experiment. Also, the film itself was well worth seeing anyway, with or without the smells. It was basically a typical 1960s tongue-in-cheek British adventure comedy, a bit like The Avengers or The Saint and with all the cut-glass accents and snappy dialogue that would imply - but also with a massively larger budget and the spectacular capacities of Cinerama.

Denholm Elliot was the main character - an English mystery novelist on holiday in Spain who becomes embroiled in a real-life adventure trying to prevent a mysterious woman from being murdered, which he narrates in a knowing voice-over as he goes along. He's so English that his hat stays on not only during a fight but also while upside-down in an open-topped aeroplane, and he doggedly carries an umbrella throughout the film (despite the glorious Spanish weather) which is also not just a decoration, but actually comes in extremely handy at the climax. Meanwhile, Peter Lorre is his side-kick - an ordinary taxi-driver with no particular appetite for adventure, but an indulgent streak which means he ends up driving Elliott around Spain in the hunt for the mystery lady. He does an excellent line in long-suffering resignation as he finds himself repeatedly in mortal danger, and makes the best of it all along the way - a pretty girl here, a pouch of tobacco there, and always the prospect of a big fat taxi fare at the end of the journey. There are some great cameos, too - especially from Diana Dors and another female screen icon whom I shan't name, as she genuinely took me by surprise at the end, and I don't want to spoil it for anyone else!

Meanwhile, we got the full Cinerama experience in fly-overs of the Spanish landscape, spectacular buildings like the Alhambra and the cathedral, and spectacular activities like fireworks, bull-running and ladies dancing in Flamenco dresses. It wasn't three-strip Cinerama, like The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm which I saw three years ago, so didn't quite have the almost 3D effect which that can achieve, but it still had a wonderful sweeping, immersive feel to it. Plus a lot of effort had been put into small details of set-up and design. E.g. on the wall in the painter's studio (where we got treated to the scent of oil-paints) I noticed a fragmentary Classical-looking relief of a face, with just the eye and nose preserved - in a film all about smells, geddit??? ;-)

The funniest detail for me, though, was one which the original film-makers couldn't have anticipated. Early on in the story, the mysterious woman cashes a cheque at a local shop, which Denholm Elliott's character then visits later on in order to try to discover her identity. He bullies the proprietor into reading out the names of everyone who has cashed a cheque there in the last hour, one of whom just happens to be a certain George Osborne. Austerity as a cover-up so that he can drain the treasury by cashing himself big fat cheques in Spain? I wouldn't put it past the man...

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strange_complex: (Dracula Risen hearse smile)
20. Night at the Museum 3: Secret of the Tomb (2014), dir. Shawn Levy

I watched this on DVD from Lovefilm in August while writing my half of a co-authored chapter on Augustus on screen, so that I could check a) whether this latest entry in the franchise cast any further light on whether Octavius (Steve Coogan's character) is meant to have anything to do with Octavian / Augustus or not, and b) what exactly was meant by the character listed on the IMDb cast-list as 'Augustus statue'.

In case you too are burning to know the answers to those questions, I can report that Steve Coogan's Octavius still has no connection to the historical Augustus - it's just a classic case of name-borrowing. There were some distinctly slashy moments between him and the cowboy Jedidiah, though, that were just subtle enough to go unnoticed by children and a certain type of adult, but very definitely there for those of us who like to look for that sort of thing. Meanwhile, the Augustus statue turned out to be a bust of Augustus wearing the civic crown, who shouts to Octavius and Jedidiah from inside his glass case to try to warn them that they are standing inside a model of Pompeii, and are about to be killed in the eruption. In fact, the entire scene is on Youtube, so we may as well have it here:


This film is set in the British Museum, but oddly they don't have a head of Augustus anything like the one seen in this clip. In fact, as far as I can tell, the bust in the film is actually modelled after this one in the Glyptothek, Munich, also known as the Bevilacqua Augustus (after an Italian collection it once belonged to). The British Museum does have a very famous head of Augustus - the Meröe head, which was even the subject of its own little exhibition at the end of last year. So you might ask why they didn't use that. But we flip back and forth between careful reconstructions of actual British Museum galleries and completely invented spaces throughout the whole film, and besides it's not like this bust even needs to be Augustus at all anyway. Titus would have been a rather better choice, given that Vesuvius actually erupted during his reign.

The rest of the film was much as we've all come to expect from Night at the Museum films - fun, but not exactly life-changing. But there was one other scene which deserves noting down here for its Classical receptions relevance. The premise of the film is that Larry (Ben Stiller's character) brings the magic tablet which has been bringing museum exhibits in America to life to the British Museum, where obviously it has the same effect on the exhibits there. So as he and the pals he has brought over from America explore the galleries of the British Museum for the first time on the night of their arrival, all the exhibits around them are also coming to life for the first time - and behaving rather confusedly and erratically as a result. Put that idea together with probably the most famous of all the British Museum's galleries - the one containing the Parthenon sculptures - and what you get is the strange spectacle of figures from the relief friezes groping and leaning outwards, while half-broken marble bodies from the pediments limp and writhe weirdly across the floor.

It's good as an early scene in the film for building up creepy tension before the later and more threatening exhibits, but I also liked the angle it cast on the sculptures themselves. Art historians wax lyrical about how 'mobile' these sculptures are, but seeing them literally trying to move in a fantasy film throws into sharp relief what a rather silly thing that is to say about a solid stone statue. And then we get all caught up in stuff about Greek ideals of bodily beauty, including this recent exhibition which was actually at the British Museum (though after this film came out), which rest very heavily on looking straight past the badly damaged condition of a lot of surviving Greek art to a perfect original which now exists only in our imaginations. So, similarly, seeing these statues as broken bodies moving with a far-from-ideal grace rather punctures all that stuff too, and perhaps allows the statues to be the rather fragile artefacts they actually are, rather than the icons of something else which they are often treated as. So, in short, I came to this film for Augustus, but stayed for the Parthenon marbles.


21. The Wicker Man (1973), dir. Robin Hardy

We've reached late August now, when I went to see this with the lovely Andrew Hickey, miss_s_b and magister at the Hyde Park Picture House. We were so convinced it was going to be the (so-called) final cut which came out two years ago that we got ourselves all confused when it wasn't, and couldn't work out what version we had seen. But I think on sober reflection that it must just have been the short version - i.e. the film as it was originally released in cinemas in 1973. It's just that who ever watches that when you have longer versions available? So to us it seemed strange and unusual - hence our confusion.

It was a really nice, sharp clear print, though, with full rich colours and every tiny detail standing out in bold, eye-catching fashion, so I spend most of the film just wrapped up in small points of set-dressing and the behaviour of extras. I have seen it a lot of times, so as with the Dracula films, it doesn't take me long to tread the familiar paths of thought which the film provokes, and after that I am at my leisure to go off the regular pistes and into strange territories of my own. This time for some reason (perhaps because I was watching it in a gas-lit cinema), I became fascinated with the question of whether or not Summerisle has its own electricity supply. The answer is that although you see plenty of oil-lamps in interior scenes, so the islanders clearly aren't solely dependent on electricity for their lighting at least, Summerisle definitely does have an electricity supply as Howie switches on an electric light using a pull-cord when he breaks into the chemist's dark-room. So we must then ask how it is produced, because I can't somehow see Lord Summerisle entering into any kind of contract with a mainland electricity supplier. I think something like the hydroelectric power system at Cragside in Northumberland provides a suitably independent and Victorian solution, though, except that of course on Summerisle the source of the power would probably be tidal instead.


22. Tempi duri per i vampiri (aka Uncle was a Vampire, 1959), dir. Steno (aka Stefano Vanzina)

Finally, while I was in Whitby with DracSoc only three weeks ago, we had an early dinner on the Sunday evening, and then all piled into one couple's hotel room to watch this. Like so many of Christopher Lee's films, and especially the ones in which he plays vampires, I have wanted to see this for literally decades, so it was very exciting indeed to be hanging out with people who felt the same way. OK, so it is a '50s Italian comedy, with lots of jokes about put-upon men and busty ladies, which I probably wouldn't find interesting in the normal course of things. But what makes it so fascinating is that it features Lee playing Dracula-by-any-other-name (he's actually called Baron Rodrigo), only one year after his first iconic appearance for Hammer, and years before he would play the role again for anybody else. Well done to the Italian director for spotting the commercial potential of Lee in that role so early, and for helping Lee to establish himself as a European, as well as British, film star along the way.

Irritatingly, the English-language version of the film uses someone other than Christopher Lee to speak his lines, so you don't get his trade-mark voice. But the way he plays the ancient and noble Rodrigo is very much in line with his performance as Dracula in the Hammer films - demonic outbursts, anguished looks and all. Indeed, it would I think be possible to slot this film into the Hammer Dracula canon, since it is set at the time of its release, and no other Hammer story occupies that time-period. So this could be a little Italian vacation which the Hammer Dracula enjoys before turning up in London in 1972 to be 'resurrected' by Johnny Alucard. Certainly, he talks of having to move from tomb to tomb and castle to castle (presumably in order to keep his identity a secret), so we only have to add that 'Rodrigo' is an assumed name, and he can easily be Dracula in disguise.

The direction is quite different from the Hammer films, though, and doesn't always lend Lee quite the same gravitas as they managed. I felt the lack of shots allowing him to loom over the viewer, or close-ups of his blazing eyes. In fact, this director just didn't really seem to do close-ups at all. His characters were consistently shot at most from the waist up, and often in full length, almost like an early film. And actually the take on vampirism is pretty different, too. Lee's Baron Rodrigo is tired of his life as a vampire, and half-way through the film manages to pass the curse onto his nephew, meanwhile allowing him to retire to his tomb for uninterrupted eternal rest. I'd reconciled myself to that being it for Lee's appearance in the film, but about half an hour later he reappeared, thanks to a Buffy-like scene in which the nephew shook the curse back off again after a moment of true love, and eventually managed to end the film in happy comedic style, walking off set with an attractive young lady on each arm.

Quite an oddity, then, but I'm very pleased to have seen it, especially in company with fellow aficionados. And actually it turns out the whole thing is on Youtube, so I can give it another look whenever I feel like it. Meanwhile, there's just One More Time and The Magic Christian to go, and I will have seen every Lee-as-basically-Dracula appearance there is. A sad thought. :-(


And for now - that's me up to date! On films, at least. Books are a whole nother matter...

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strange_complex: (ITV digital Monkey popcorn)
I'm woefully behind with both film and book blogging, and it's really weighing on me and stopping me from getting on with other things I want to do. So I'm determined today to get caught up, at least on the films. I'm sure at one point I could have said more on all which follow below, but since we are literally going back to July for these ones, I have inevitably forgotten much of my initial reaction - which for catch-up purposes is probably a good thing. The watch-words here are key points and light touch - not exhaustive detail.


17. Qu'est-ce qu'on a fait au Bon Dieu? (2014), dir. Philippe de Chauveron

I saw this on DVD with my sister and Nicolas while I was in the Midlands for Christophe's first birthday. It's a French comedy about families, religion and racism - quite a cocktail of topics to take on, but it does work really well.

The basic set-up is that a traditional wealthy Catholic family in possession of a moderately-sized château has four daughters, three of whom have already married husbands of varied religious and ethnic backgrounds - specifically, a Muslim, a Jew and a Chinese man. The parents have stoically accepted their choices so far, but have pinned their hopes on their fourth and final daughter choosing a Catholic husband. Great news! She does. The only problem is that he's a black immigrant from the Ivory Coast. Inevitably, the rest of the film from the moment when they find this out follows their journey (and that of the husband-to-be's family too) from initial shock and horror, through a fragile attempt to behave reasonably about it, a dramatic blow-up and finally discovering that they all had more in common than they had ever realised and becoming bosom buddies.

While checking that I had remembered the title of the film correctly, I came across this article in the Telegraph, claiming that it didn't get a release here as distributors judged it was too racist for British viewers. But in my view this entirely misses the point of the film. All of the racism expressed in it is the butt of a joke, and very explicitly coded as a bad and problematic thing which needs to be dealt with so that everyone can be happier - which is exactly what happens at the end of the film. In fact, it seems to me that the judgement made by the distributors here is a sad reflection of a fear culture which we've managed to create around potentially-controversial material. Rather than attempt to distinguish between helpful and unhelpful portrayals of racism, cautious distributors just Won't Go There at all - which of course only leads to silence and erasure and lots of stories which act like racism doesn't exist. It does, and I think it's better to acknowledge that up-front than pretend otherwise. So well done France for that.

There is more of a case for saying that a film which shows, as this one does, that racism can easily be overcome by just getting drunk together and bonding trivialises the structural and pervasive nature of actual racism. But this is a comedy. Its treatment of racism is pretty far-reaching in spite of that, but the genre does ultimately depend on light-hearted simplicity. Besides, any film with a happy ending gives a rather false impression of how easily life's many complexities and problems can be solved. So I'm happy with this one as an enjoyable watch and a very human story, and am only sorry it won't be widely seen outside of France.


18. Scream Blacula, Scream! (1973), dir. Bob Kelljan

Watched with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan in July, this is a sequel to Blacula, which was rushed out the following year to capitalise on its success after it proved so popular. It's very much what you would expect given those circumstances - definitely enjoyable in many of the same ways as the first one, but also feelings like a re-tread of the same ground with a lower budget and generally more limited horizons.

William Marshall returns as Mamuwalde, having been resurrected in a voodoo ritual, but while he puts in a strong performance, there's a sense that his characterisation hasn't entirely been thought through at script level. On the one hand, he wants to be freed of his vampire curse and asks a voodoo practitioner to conduct a ritual which will exorcise him - but on the other, he doesn't actually seem to show any real conflict or anguish about going round biting people the rest of the time. Elsewhere, we have some good characters, including plenty of strong and self-assured women, some excellent funky party scenes and some truly enormous shirt-collars. But the plot never achieves very much sense of momentum, and overall, it feels like a classic case of attempting to replicate a successful movie without quite understanding what it was that made the first one so good.

There's still a bit of conscious social commentary in this one - particularly when Mamuwalde encounters a black prostitute, and upbraids the also-black pimps who are controlling her for making a slave of their sister in that way. [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan also very rightly noted a careful coding in the characters' hair-styles - that the good guys (and gals) all had more 'natural' Afros, and could thus be read as at ease with their Afro-Caribbean heritage, whereas the power-hungry or selfish characters (again both male and female) generally had straightened hair or weaves, signalling a greater adherence to western ideals of beauty. So, like the first film, there is plenty in this too which boils down to black producers, writers, directors and actors articulating their own realities of being black in 1970s America, and that makes for interesting viewing. But it was all just embedded in a stronger drama the first time around.


19. The Third Man (1949), dir. Carol Reed

Still in July here - I watched this one late in that month with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan and [livejournal.com profile] planet_andy at the Hyde Park Picture House. Obviously it is a massive classic, and with extremely good reason. I hadn't seen it before, but am glad now to understand at last the many iconic images and quotable lines from it which I have come across before without ever quite 'getting' them. It's well-plotted, beautifully shot, fantastically well-acted, and captures the fragile world of a Europe just starting to rebuild after the war very powerfully. And it is so very Grahame Greene, especially I think in the essentially isolated nature of the characters. Of course Anna Schmidt and Holly Martins don't get together at the end, because there are unsurmountable barriers between them and Greene has spend the whole film showing us that. No unthinking happy endings here.

I particularly appreciated the huge amounts of effort which had obviously been poured into getting the fine details of every scene just right in order to tell the story being conveyed - like the autumn leaves slowly falling in the last scene, which certainly weren't falling from the trees we can see as they are already bare, and must therefore have been dropped by an unseen stage-crew just above the camera's field of vision. Or the fact that Martins and Lime agree to meet in a cafe called the Marc Aurel, which acknowledges that Marcus Aurelius died in Vienna (then the frontier fortress of Vindobona), and I think actively adds to the story by evoking the wars which dogged Europe during his reign too, as well as perhaps a sense of tragedy around the passing of the last of the Five Good Emperors and the accession of Commodus.

It was nice, too, to see it relatively soon after my own trip to Vienna last September, especially since on the final day of that trip I walked up to the Danube from where we were staying, and as it happened my route took me right past the enormous ferris wheel, properly known as the Wiener Riesenrad in which Holly Martins and Harry Lime first confront one another. I had no idea what it was as I walked past it that day , and certainly no idea that it dates right back to 1897. But I do remember feeling (on what was anyway a rather overcast day with few people around) that the ferris wheel itself and the amusement park it stands in had an air of bleak desolation about them which has now transferred very nicely into my experience of this film.


Right - that's three done out of six which needed it. I'm having a break for dinner now, and hopefully will get the remaining three done this evening.

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strange_complex: (Dracula Risen hearse smile)
Last weekend, the lovely [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan and I set off on a Hammer horror-related adventure, the first leg of which took us to Luton. More or less every person to whom I mentioned the Luton part of this endeavour curled up their lips in disdain, from which I gathered that Luton's public image is more or less equivalent to Birmingham's. But, just like Birmingham, Luton is actually well worth visiting for the under-rated treasures it offers to the intrepid visitor. In our case, the main attraction was the Stockwood Discovery Centre - once the grounds of a stately home; now home to a multiplicity of attractions, including gardens, adventure playgrounds, a local history museum and the the Mossman Carriage Collection.

What was so exciting about the Mossman Carriage Collection? Well, it contains more or less every horse-drawn vehicle ever to appear in a Hammer horror film, not to mention at least 50 other films made between 1937 (Doctor Syn) and 1985 (Out of Africa) besides. Basically, if you have ever watched a British-made film or TV production from that period which featured a carriage, the odds are it came from this collection. The man behind it was George Mossman, a Luton businessman born in 1908, who realised just at the time when horse-drawn transport was passing out of regular use that it would be a) fun and b) a good idea to buy up and restore some of the many carriages which were by then languishing away in barns and coach-houses across the country. Lending them out to film companies was of course one way of helping to make back the cost of buying and restoring them, and on Mossman's death the collection passed to the Luton Museum Service in 1991.

Before we went, I spent the best part of every evening for a week screen-capping every single carriage to feature in a Hammer Dracula film, and combing through the pictures on the Mossman Carriage Collection website to try to identify them. I'm glad to say that on arrival, my identifications proved 100% correct, so below each cut which follows you will find historical information about the carriage in question as taken from the website, pictures of it as it appears today, and screen-caps showing it in use within the Dracula films. Any pictures with me in them were of course taken by my trusty travel companion and acclaimed professional photographer, [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan. Oh, and it's important to note that the paint colours on the carriages today don't always match up with how they look in the films, but as the website notes explain for the Private ‘Favorite’ Omnibus (first entry, immediately below), Mossman himself was quite happy to repaint them as required for film commissions. In most cases, I was able to confirm what previous colours each of the carriages had been painted by simply looking closely at the inevitable scratches in the finish to see the previous layers.

Private ‘Favorite’ Omnibus, about 1880 )

Hearse, about 1860 )

Town Coach, about 1860 )

Victoria, about 1890 )

Brougham, about 1860 )

Round Backed Gig )

So far, so lovely, then. But after this, things got a bit frustrating. Because on arrival, we discovered that a wedding reception was going on inside the largest room of the collection, housing on my estimation at least half of the carriages. And we were not allowed to go in. That's pretty damned annoying when you have travelled all the way from Leeds to get there, I can tell you - especially when there is nothing on their website to warn potential visitors that this might happen. I'm pretty sure that there were at least three more carriages in that room which were used in the Dracula films, but I could only see one of them well enough to get a photograph of. Thankfully, it was the carriage I was second-most excited about seeing after the hearse, but I would really have liked to see it a lot better than I did - to say nothing of the other two which I think were in there.

Travelling Chariot, about 1790 )

There are a number of other carriages in the Hammer Dracula films which I never could identify on the Mossman Collection website, and after having visited as much as I could of the collection and looked through their excellent souvenir brochure as well, I have concluded that this is probably because they never came from it in the first place. From about 1970 onwards, Hammer must have been hiring from somewhere else - or possibly even making their own replicas, which would of course have had the advantage of being able to be bashed about a bit in the course of filming if needed. Certainly, I can't identify the Hargood family coach in Taste, the coach which Paul falls into from the window of Sarah's party in Scars, or the coach from the famous opening chase-through-Hyde-Park sequence at the beginning of Dracula AD 1972.

Meanwhile, the Mossman Collection Carriages of course had a wide and varied film career which went well beyond the world of Hammer. On the whole, I didn't worry about this - indeed, I didn't even worry about Hammer films other than the Dracula cycle. There's only so much film-geekery one brain can manage, after all. But I was excited to stumble across a replica chariot which its information panel informed us had been custom-made by George Mossman for use in Ben Hur (1959):

Replica Roman Chariot )

The fact that I was able to stand in it was in keeping with the collection's general policy, which was that genuine antique carriages had 'do not touch' labels on them, whereas visitors were allowed to sit or stand (as appropriate) in the replicas. This seems reasonable, but on the other hand I'm not sure they have thought hard enough about the heritage value of even some of the replicas, especially where they have appeared in really famous films like Ben Hur. Certainly, they don't draw very much attention to it. Only one small section of the museum mentions it, and this was the only information panel I saw which linked up a specific vehicle with a specific film. Meanwhile, as you can see in the photos, the decorative detail on the chariot is badly degraded. At first we assumed that this was just because it had been made in the first place of materials which had naturally perished over the years, but this is a picture of the same chariot from the collection's souvenir brochure:

Roman chariot from brochure.jpg

And this is it again in a video which was playing in one of the rooms of the museum:

2015-08-15 15.43.44.jpg

Judging by the hair and clothes of the people in the video, it must have been made within the last ten years at most. And meanwhile, when we looked closely at the chariot we realised that all the damage to its decoration is concentrated on the side of it which faces outwards from the arched entrance-way where it stands, and hence towards the elements. So in other words, at some point in the last ten years it has been placed facing into an open courtyard, and the result is that an iconic prop used in one of the biggest block-busters of the 20th century, which was fine ten years ago, has degraded into the state seen in the above pictures.

This makes me feel really sad, not only because it is a neglectful waste, but also because it is surely very short-sighted on the part of the museum management. Film tourism is a real thing, as our own visit proved, and the value of a prop from a film like Ben Hur is only going to grow as time goes by. Imagine being able to say at the time of its centenary in 2059 that you have a chariot used in that film! You know, a film which is famous for its chariot races... Except that a prop which is rotting away in the rain is going to be a lot less of a draw than one which has been kept in good condition.

In fact, I think the Mossman Collection could do with getting some film specialists to collaborate with them asap to draw up a proper and comprehensive list of all the films its vehicles have been used in, complete with screen-caps of the kind I've done here for the Dracula films, which could be displayed on their website and within the museum. They could reach whole new audiences by publicising that information properly - but right now, it is acknowledged only fleetingly and incompletely. It is up to geeks like me to create their own guide to the carriages used in the films they are interested in if that's what they want to see - and while I will do it and enjoyed the results enormously, even I would have been glad of a guide which covered just the other Hammer films at least.

A bit of a sad note there at the end, then, and the wedding reception thing was annoying too. But on the whole I would very much recommend a visit to the Mossman Collection, especially if you are a British film geek. You just might need to be prepared to do your own research in advance...

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strange_complex: (Vampira)
I've known that this exists, and is a 'blaxploitation' film, for a very long time (not least because it is featured in my Horror Bible), but had never tried to track it down until very recently. Without actually having researched what blaxploitation entails, I had assumed it would be all white-perspective exoticising stereotypes about black Americans - especially stuff to do with funk, afros, tight spandex pants, etc. As it turns out, while there are a few scenes set in a disco bar, and that bar has its fair share of customers with afros and tight clothing, actually both this film and blaxploitation as a genre are very different from what I had expected. The genre term 'blaxploitation' as a whole is less about exploiting stereotypes for economic gain (as I'd assumed), and more about exploiting the economic spending power of black audiences by appealing directly to their interests - including, of course, their interest in being portrayed as three-dimensional human beings with agency of their own on screen. In the context of this particular film, that translates into a black director, a cast full of meaningful, positively-drawn black characters, and a script which engages directly with race issues in its plot and dialogue. As such, it's distinctly better in its handling of race issues than most mainstream screen productions manage to be today, including those produced by companies like the BBC which are honestly trying to be diverse and inclusive (see e.g. the Black Dude Dies First trope being rife in Doctor Who).

This particular story kicks off in 1780, when an African prince named Mamuwalde goes to ask the help of a powerful white European aristocrat in suppressing the slave trade and freeing his people. Unfortunately, the particular European aristocrat he picks is Dracula, who is pretty keen on the slave trade, and furthermore conceives a liking for Mamuwalde's (also black African) wife and starts saying incredibly racist / sexist things when Mamuwalde objects about how he should be flattered that a white man thinks his wife attractive. To punish Mamuwalde for his insubordination and his wife for rejecting his advances, Dracula then turns Mamuwalde into a vampire, locks him in a coffin so that he will be tormented by blood-lust forever but unable to get out to slake it, and locks his wife up in the same room so that she will die hearing his cries of thirst from within the coffin. So we have white European treatment of black Africans literally presented as vampirism, and our sympathies are entirely directed towards the black victims.

Fast forward (almost) two centuries, and the box containing Mamuwalde is transported to 1970s Los Angeles, with predictable results. Here, [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan was absolutely right to point out that Mamuwalde adapts rather too easily to his vampire nature. The whole point at the beginning was that vampirism was meted out to him as a cruel punishment, but that isn't really followed through in the main story. It's not that he becomes completely evil - he remains a sympathetic character, still basically searching for his long-lost wife. But there could have been a lot more pathos and self-loathing about his actual vampirism in the portrayal - as, for example, was done so well in Dracula's Daughter. After all, he is basically condemned to a life where it's now impossible for him not to enslave people himself - and in the light of the opening sequence he should have a bit more emotional conflict about that.

The long-lost wife story also rather stuck in my craw. Inevitably, he very quickly comes across a 20th-century woman who looks exactly like his 18th-century wife, and tells her all the usual sort of stuff about how she is his long-lost wife's reincarnation, they are destined to be together, etc. This is of course a well-worn trope, and I think I have reached the end of my tether with it. It is almost always the female character who is reincarnated, purely so that an immortal male character can still have their designated love interest, so that it reeks of male privilege and women existing only as objects for male attraction. It also completely robs the female character of all agency, as any independent choices which she might have made crumble in the face of her Manifest Destiny. And so it plays out here - and in the process serves up yet another case of characters allegedly falling in love on screen without us as the audience being given any very compelling evidence for why they might have done so, exactly as happens in Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) in the context of the same trope.

In spite of those niggles, though, the film as a whole is ace. Partly that's just because I'm always eager for new takes on vampirism, and partly because I'm a sucker for contemporary-set '70s films full of awesome flares and enormous collars. But on a more universal level, William Marshall in the title role is genuinely compelling, with lots of power and gravitas to his performance, and he is surrounded by loads of really well-developed secondary characters too. Interestingly, these included a gay male couple, and several independently-minded female characters with jobs of their own who were not defined in relation to any man - e.g. a photographer and a taxi cab driver. It would be an exaggeration to claim these characters as paradigms for equality - the gay male couple in particular live up to camp stereotypes in that they are interior designers; their penchant for the aesthetic is to 'blame' for Mamuwalde's resurrection because they buy up his coffin and bring it to LA; and naturally they are punished for this by becoming his first victims. Similarly, both the photographer and the taxi cab driver meet sticky ends. But all four of them are presented as having real agency and meaningful lives of their own in a way that pretty rarely applies to the same sorts of characters in other films of this era - so I think there may be a case for saying that in casting aside mainstream stereotypical treatments of black characters, blaxploitation films also to some extent opened the door to better portrayals of other under-privileged groups at the same time.

In short, I'm glad I watched this, and [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan and I have already devoured the sequel as well. Review of that to follow.

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strange_complex: (Cyberman from beneath)
Believe it or not, I am still catching up with back-logged film reviews from things I saw before I went to Romania. There's just one more to come after this one, but I am not sure I will finish both this evening, so I'm posting this now in order to get at least half the job completed.

Having recently re-watched and enjoyed The Awakening (1984), I sought out this film as Hammer's take on the same source material - Bram Stoker's novel, The Jewel of the Seven Stars. I didn't have hugely high expectations, because even the most ardent Hammer fan will generally admit that they started to go off the boil from about 1970 onwards. Also, it was clear from all the still images I'd seen that it was going to really objectify its star, Valerie Leon. But then again, this particular film does seem to be spoken of quite highly by fans amongst Hammer's later output. So I figured I'd give it a shot.

It does have to be said that I was right about the objectification of Valerie Leon. She plays two characters in the film - the Egyptian queen Tera, and the present-day archaeologist's daughter Margaret Fuchs - and she appears on screen for the first time in her role as Tera, lying dead in her sarcophagus. Unlike most mummies, though, she is perfectly preserved, not wrapped in any bandages, and clad instead in a beaded bikini-top and skimpy skirt. In other words, she is the perfect female body, lying there passive and unconscious. The camera then proceeds to introduce her by panning up her body from her legs to her face, lingering salaciously over every curve and dip - and there are plenty of similar scenes later on in the film. That said, one of the pleasures of vintage horror films is that it is also a standard trope to present women who are both attractive and unusually powerful. For male audiences, this is presumably meant to be a horrifically perverted paradox, but for female viewers it offers entirely different readings - though you do have to reconcile yourself to the fact that these characters always inevitably die. Anyway, as characters both Margaret and Tera are extremely autonomous and self-assured, with Margaret quite explicitly seeing Tera and her ancient powers as her ticket to a world in which she is free to do whatever she likes. Obviously, in the end this is coded as a tragic misjudgement - but it's fun while it lasts.

Meanwhile, the overall storyline, the characterisation, the acting, the set design and the direction are all very impressive - and this is quite an achievement, given that both the film's intended leading man (Peter Cushing) and its director (Seth Holt) were rendered hors de combat (in different ways) during the course of the production. I particularly enjoyed the series of death-scenes visited on those who had dared to open Princess Tera's tomb, all of which were conveyed via tense music and suggestive images, rather than direct on-screen violence. The very best of these was for a character called Berigan, who has already been driven insane and committed to an asylum as a result of his involvement with Princess Tera. Trussed up in a straight-jacket by two malicious hospital orderlies who tell him it'll be no good screaming as no-one will take a blind bit of notice, he is left isolated, terrified and unable to trust the evidence of his own senses, while a snake statuette from Tera's tomb comes to life and kills him. Revolving camera angles, disembodied laughter and close-ups of Berigan's terrified face convey the necessary sense of madness, periodic shots of empty hospital corridors outside his cell remind us of his isolation and helplessness, and extended periods of absolute silence really rack up the tension - all while we remain uncertain how much of what we are seeing is a manifestation of his insanity, and how much the 'real' power of Princess Tera. It really is a tour de force of direction, acting, lighting and sound effects - but also indicative of the quality of the whole film.

If you would like to see this film yourself, it's currently available for free here, and Berigan's death scene starts at exactly 45 minutes in. I can highly recommend it.

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strange_complex: (Lee as M.R. James)
These reviews are out of sequence, in the sense that I watched four other films before them which I haven't posted about on LJ yet. I have started writing about all four, and indeed started my write-up of Romania, too, but I am not doing a great job of actually completing LJ posts right now. So I am going to suspend sequentiality in favour of what I actually feel like writing and might manage to complete.

[livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan and I already had a film-watching session lined up for this Sunday just past anyway, but in the wake of Christopher Lee's death we revised our programme in his honour. Since [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan is a huge Peter Cushing fan, and Lee and Cushing were such great friends, it seemed most appropriate somehow to use the occasion to watch two Lee / Cushing collaborations which neither of us had previously seen. So, I hastily acquired House of the Long Shadows and The Skull and we got stuck in.

14. House of the Long Shadows (1983), dir. Pete Walker )

15. The Skull (1965), dir. Freddie Francis )

This means that I have now seen 21 out of Lee and Cushing's 24 collaborations, and two of the remaining three are pretty spurious (Hamlet 1948 = controversy over whether Lee is actually visible on screen within the final film at all; The Devil's Agent 1961 = Cushing's scenes deleted). As for the experience of watching Lee's films now that he is no longer with us on this Earth - it feels bittersweet. On one level, his very gift was his films, and we still have those. But on another, it is sad to know for sure now that there won't be any more, that he himself can no longer be part of the discourse around the ones he made, and that one more living link with the creative output of the past is gone. It all feels a bit like someone turning up the lights at the end of a really amazing film, and having to face up to the fact that the story is over and the magic has gone. A slightly thinner, greyer world, in other words. I'm just glad he was in it for so long, and did so much while he was here.

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strange_complex: (ITV digital Monkey popcorn)
I'm out campaigning more than ever now, and very much need undemanding downtime when I'm not if I'm to keep on top of my day-job alongside it. Watching films is a good way to achieve that, but reviewing them not so much. So the goal here is to rattle through four film reviews in a hundred words or so each - and I'm not allowed my dinner until it's done. With a bit of luck that will clear the slate for the time being, so that I can watch another one this evening!

7. The Resident (2011), dir. Antti Jokinen )

8. The Vault of Horror (1973), dir. Roy Ward Baker )

9. What We Do In The Shadows (2014), dir. Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement )

10. Nocturna (1979), dir. Harry Hurwitz (as Harry Tampa) )

Well, that'll be a slightly later dinner than I was intending, but hey - I'm up to date, and can happily watch one of the (classic) Hammer horror films I borrowed from [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan last night while I'm eating. :-)

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strange_complex: (Gatto di Roma)
People who don't have much time should probably learn how to write short film reviews. Let's see how I get on with that...

This was a recent purchase of [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan's, which has also been in the 'high priority' section of my Lovefilm list for a while, and which we watched together. It is a Universal picture starring both Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, and is based very, very loosely indeed on Edgar Allan Poe's short story of the same name. When I say loosely, I mean that it contains a black cat, and involves a dead wife, but otherwise it has pretty much nothing to do with the original whatsoever.

Stylistically, it is a Gothic horror, involving such motifs as a dark and stormy night, an innocent young couple finding themselves trapped in a dangerous situation, a hill-top house, an apparently-charming host with malevolent intentions, a decades-old personal feud, the supernaturally-preserved corpses of beautiful women, the afore-mentioned black cat, and some Satanic rituals. Yet at the same time it is more profoundly concerned with the issues of its present day than any other Universal film I have seen. It's often forgotten that Universal tended to translate their Gothic stories to a present-day setting, and it's forgotten for the perfectly good reason that apart from putting the leading ladies in 1930s frocks, this makes almost no difference whatsoever to the setting, action or dialogue. But this film is basically all about the hangover horror of the First World War, and the impact it had on the lives of those who survived it.

Thankfully, this aspect of the film is discussed in detail in this excellent blog post, saving me the trouble! But the executive summary is that Lugosi's character had suffered terrible wrongs at the hands of Karloff's during the war, they are both still psychologically trapped reliving their old feud and the horrors of the war, and the main setting for the film is a luxurious modernist house built directly over a concrete First World War fortress and only thinly veiling the horrors concealed below. It is also one of the first horror films to do any of this so clearly and directly, a full 20 years after the war had broken out, which says quite a lot about how difficult it is for any society to process and assimilate true horror on that sort of scale enough to weave it into its stories. Once it had happened, though, it was very powerful - or so we felt. Had the exact same story of personal feuds, dead wives and Satanic rituals been told in a more traditionally Gothic setting, it probably would have seemed fairly run-of-the-mill and unoriginal, but the engagement with recent history gave it an urgent emotive power which we were really struck by.

Other than that, the film's main stand-out features include some very beautiful frocks, absolute flying sparks in the confrontations between Lugosi and Karloff (an epic pairing which would make the film worth watching on its own, regardless of anything else), and some completely mad cod-Latin from Karloff in the climactic Satanic ritual, which is basically not a Satanic ritual at all, but a load of proverbs cobbled together with no concern whatsoever for what they might actually mean. This is of course an interesting insight into Universal's estimation of their audiences in the 1930s, who were clearly not expected to notice this. In fact, it reminded me of the All Purpose Latin After-Dinner Speech from Henry Beard's book Latin for Even More Occasions - and as such made the film a lot more fun than it would have been if someone had sat down and written a SRS BSNS ritual for the scene.

Only down side - our sympathies are clearly meant to lie with Lugosi's character rather than Karloff's, since Lugosi has spent 15 years in a Hungarian prison camp during which time Karloff has stolen both his wife and his daughter and built himself the luxury house where the action takes place. But this was scotched for me very early on by a scene set in a train carriage, which sees Lugosi reaching out to stroke the hair of a sleeping woman who is a stranger to him. This transpires to be because she reminds him of his lost wife, and seems to have been intended to convey the tragic suffering of his character - but for me it just set off Extreme Creep Alarms which meant I could never really fall into the role of cheering for and sympathising with him which the rest of the film seemed to expect of me.

Other than that, though, top notch stuff, and very definitely a must-see for anyone interested in the direction which horror films were taking in the mid-1930s.

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strange_complex: (Clone Army)
This is a good, solid Hammer production, shot when they were more or less at the height of their commercial success, and about a year before they moved out of Bray Studios. I'd vaguely seen bits of it before (mainly on the Horror Channel, I think), but decided it was worth watching properly - and [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan was kind enough to lend me the disc.

It has everything you would expect from Hammer in this period1 - ambitious sets, a coherent script, a reliable cast, some heaving bosoms and a few soft shocks. I also remember thinking while watching it that the editing was rather good, with some nice cuts from Scene A featuring one set of characters, to Scene B featuring another set doing something which either cast new light on the actions in Scene A or was thematically linked to it in some way. But that was a couple of weeks ago, I didn't write down any specific examples and I have of course forgotten them now. So we'll have to take that on faith.

Most of the zombie stories I have encountered in my time (some of which are gathered under my 'zombies' tag) have post-dated Night of the Living Dead (1968), and thus presented their zombies as brain-hungry corpses, reanimated by some kind of natural or scientific disaster which lies beyond human control. But this one belongs to an earlier phase in the evolution of zombie mythology, which engages directly with Haitian voodoo tradition. The zombies of this film are reanimated deliberately by a local squire, using voodoo rituals which he learnt during a spell in Haiti, so that he will have mindless slaves to work in his tin-mines.

This set-up actually makes zombies functionally very similar to vampires, and certainly this is how Hammer treats them here. The squire himself is a rather arrogant aristocrat who makes romantic advances towards the heroine, Sylvia, but turns out to have a dangerous and violent dark side. In other words, he is basically Dracula. Even more strikingly, he 'attacks' his victims by engineering situations in which they will cut themselves (e.g. on a piece of broken glass), so that he can steal their blood and use it later on to enslave them via his voodoo rituals. Once this has happened, they become pallid and sick-looking, begin to respond hypnotically to his will, and soon die, only to emerge from their graves again as full-blown, grey-skinned slaves to the squire's command.

Meanwhile, an eminent doctor is summoned to the village where all this is happening by the young male lead, investigates the phenomenon by opening coffins (only to find them empty, of course), and eventually manages to defeat the squire by setting his voodoo dolls on fire, which in turn causes the zombies they control to do the same. The doctor isn't quite the same as the original Van Helsing from the Dracula films, because he doesn't know about zombieism before the film begins, and thus has to find out about it from a book. But he is very definitely a close equivalent to the Van Helsing-type figures of Hammer's later Dracula / vampire films.

So, yes, a tried-and-tested formula is being applied here (Hammer had three Dracula films plus Kiss of the Vampire under their belt by the time they made this, whereas this was their first and only foray into zombieism). In fact, the Cornish setting also functions much like Transylvania - remote, rural and replete with superstitious locals. But at the same time, its tin-mining industrial history also offers the scope for approaching zombieism as an allegory for the aristocratic exploitation of the poor - something which vampirism can also do of course, but which wasn't particularly deeply woven into any of Hammer's Dracula films until The Satanic Rites of Dracula, in which he appears as a property magnate.

But while the squire's industrial slavery was clearly handled critically, no such critique is apparent in the film's treatment of race relations. This, of course, comes up due to the voodoo themes of the story, but all of the black actors who were cast as a result are either scary Others who bang drums and wear grass skirts, or a servant of the squire's who literally calls him 'masser' and tries to impede the good doctor in his quest to Defeat Evil. I'm not sure whether this is better or worse than having no ethnic minority characters at all, which is what most Hammer films do - probably worse on balance. But while I think it's important for 21st-century viewers to call this stuff, I also think it's pointless and blinkered to dismiss films from the 1960s for reflecting the social attitudes of the age. That, in fact, is part of their value.

Overall, then, a cracking little number which is a good example of Hammer's capabilities and very nearly an entry in their vampire canon, even while actually being an interesting mile-post in the history of zombie films.


1. Close chronological siblings include Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966), The Witches (1966) and Quatermass and the Pit (1967).

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strange_complex: (Dracula 1958 cloak)
As mentioned previously on these pages, I have a Horror Bible, which I bought when I was about 11 or 12 years old. In it is a page which looks like this:

Horror Bible Dracula page

I had seen Christopher Lee as Dracula already when I bought the book, of course, and caught up with Bela Lugosi about ten or fifteen years later. But the other two have only become easily available to me now that the Golden Age of Amazon, Lovefilm, YouTube et al. has dawned. I saw and reviewed Louis Jourdan's Count Dracula in October (and am of course very sorry indeed that we lost Louis himself just this weekend). So Langella's performance was the last of the iconic Draculas which I still needed to catch up with. It hardly needs saying that I watched it with fellow horror aficionado [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan, but for once this time I actually have a live witness to her Dracula-enabling tendencies: [livejournal.com profile] rosamicula will testify that while discussing plans for our next film session in front of her, I asked what we should watch, and [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan gleefully replied "Dracula!" So it's totally not my fault.

Alas for us, though, Langella's Dracula is most definitely the weakest of the four. That's not to say it is an utter waste of time. Visually, it was stunning )

I quite liked the broad strokes of how the story was approached, too )

Meanwhile, on the downside, no setting or scenery could possibly have compensated for the fact that Langella himself just was not Dracula )

And then there is the stuff that just leave you asking - WTF? Like the vampire-hunting horse, for example. )

Other points to note include Donald Pleasance as Dr. Seward and Laurence Olivier as Van Helsing, but both of them unfortunately pretty much dialling it in. Also, Unexpected Sylvester McCoy as an unconvincing and inept guard in Seward's asylum. Langella's Dracula, like Jourdan's two years earlier, dutifully scaled the walls of the asylum face-down like a lizard - though he could hardly not have done after such a recent example. And a climactic chase sequence involving Dracula and Lucy (or was it Mina?) heading for the coast to escape their pursuers by ship borrowed heavily from a similar chase at the end of Hammer's Dracula: Prince of Darkness, complete with visuals of a cloth-covered wagon containing a coffin bouncing up and down with the ruts in the road.

But now that I have seen this, noted down its key features, and (above all) ticked it off in my Horror Bible, I do not think I am likely to revisit it again.

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strange_complex: (Dracula 1958 cloak)
This is a Romanian film about the historical Dracula, which tells the story of his main reign from taking the Wallachian throne in 1456 to his arrest on the orders of Matthias Corvinus in 1462. It isn't legally available to buy in the UK, so I watched it on Youtube (complete with English subtitles), partly to see if it would help me in my current efforts to learn Romanian, and partly of course for its own sake as a portrayal of Dracula.

On the language-learning front, it wasn't a great deal of help, mainly because I just haven't learnt enough yet to be able to pick up new words or constructions from context, but perhaps also partly because the sound-quality on the Youtube video is pretty poor, making everything sound a bit distant and unclear. I'd say I was able to recognise something like about one word in a hundred, which obviously wouldn't get me very far in a real-life situation! But hopefully I will at least have tuned in to the rhythms and structures of Romanian just a little bit while watching it, and maybe if I come back to it shortly before actually going there, I will find by then that I can get more out of it.

On the portrayal-of-Dracula front, though, it was absolutely fascinating. It is, of course, a product of Communist Romania, released right in the middle of Ceaușescu's time in power, and needs to be understood in that light )

That's not to say it isn't also deadly serious history )

There was one scene which really jarred for me from a political / moral perspective, though, while not needing to be there at all from a historical one. This concerned the story from the pamphlets about Dracula and the beggars )

I also noticed that there wasn't a single woman in a speaking role throughout the entire 2hr15m film )

Despite such reservations, though, I really liked the film as a piece of drama. The story is dramatically plausible, following a satisfying narrative arc from Dracula's noble aims at the start of the film to his tragic downfall at the end. And its star, Stefan Sileanu in the title role, is absolutely excellent. He really inhabits the part, endowing it with all the intensity, self-belief and sense of purpose which really have to be there for Dracula's actions to come across as convincing, but also showing us the moments of vulnerability and despair which also have to be there for him to appear human. I particularly enjoyed a scene in which some of his enemies fled into an Orthodox church for sanctuary, but Dracula ordered them to be dragged out and punished anyway, leading to a crackling set-piece between him and the priest about the rights and wrongs of what he is doing. Furthermore, he has fantastic eyebrows, wears excellent hats throughout (nicely modelled on the historical portraits), and looks good on a throne or a horse:

Helmet Intense With torch Enthroned

That said, if you weren't super-into the history, I suspect the 2hr15m running time and Romanian-language soundtrack would be off-putting. For me right now, though, it was great!

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strange_complex: (Twiggy)
Seen this afternoon at the Hyde Park Picture House with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan. In one sense, it is another Monsieur Hulot film, and thus follows on from Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot, which we saw at the Cottage Road almost (I am shocked to discover) five years ago now. Certainly, it includes M. Hulot as a character. But he is less prominent this time, and the feel of this film as a whole is quite different.

Les Vacances was already in part about vignettes of everyday life and capturing the character of the location, but Playtime is noticeably more concerned with both of those, and less so with M. Hulot himself and his antics. The farce and comedy also often require a pretty sharp eye to spot. In Les Vacances it would usually be the main focus of the shot, but in Playtime you are often looking at an extensive scenario with a lot of different things going on at once, and while things like chairs coming apart, people using a lamp-stand as a pole on a bus, people sneaking contraband glugs of alcohol etc. are there to see and are intended for comic effect, they aren't as in your face in this film.

In fact, it reminded me this time rather of Fellini's Roma (1972), which is definitely not a comparison Les Vacances would invite. It's the way both lack a traditional plot and instead just follow people around the city, documenting their strange little ways both individually and collectively. And, as I said to [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan, the way Playtime has a brief little scene of nuns with wimples that bounce as they walk, which took me right back to the clerical fashion parade in Roma, where the wimples do just the same - only more so. Now that I know about the similarity, I wouldn't be at all surprised if Fellini was deliberately referencing Tati there, in fact. This certainly seems much the sort of film I can see Fellini liking.

The big difference between Roma and Playtime, though, is that Roma is very much about Rome's many strange juxtapositions, and especially the contrast between different layers of time in the city. But Playtime is all about an ultramodernist Paris, in which the Eiffel Tower and the Sacré-Coeur appear only as reflections in plate-glass windows, and which doesn't actually exist. The Wikipedia article explains all about this - the locations are almost exclusively purpose-built sets full of plate-glass and tower-blocks, including photographic images for some of the buildings and cardboard cut-outs for some of the people (which I certainly noticed, and which adds to the surreal, inhuman feel). So it is not a biography of a real, living city like Roma, but an exploration of a particular kind of urbanism, and what it means to try to be a human being in the midst of it all.

As such, a lot of it feels quite muted, regimented and claustrophobic, because that is what Tati is basically trying to say about ultramodernism. But things become more exuberant towards the end of the film, when we spend a good half hour or more following the goings-on of the opening night at a new restaurant called the Royal Garden. This is full of disasters (lights shorting out, décor falling down, waiters' clothes getting ripped on chair-backs), but it doesn't stop the patrons having a rip-roaring time as the band plays and the alcohol flows. This was lots of fun to watch, and [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan and I agreed that there were some fantastic frocks on the lady patrons, too.

Earlier on, I also absolutely loved the man who is selling doors which close "in golden silence", gets really angry with M. Hulot, and launches into an extensive rant at him which includes several dramatic door-slams - but of course finds that his treasured product does not make the required noise. And, in a different way, the shots of an American tourist, Barbara, looking around at the posters in a tourist agency, and finding that every single one shows a nearly-identical tower-block with a small token image of an actual local feature or landmark shoved into one corner.

All in all, an interesting, enjoyable and often poignant film which is certainly beautifully shot, but is sometimes also a little slow, and definitely wouldn't make a good first introduction to M. Hulot. Stick with Les Vacances for that.

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strange_complex: (Vampira)
I'm starting my films of 2015 as I mean to go on - that is with vintage horror, just like in 2014. [livejournal.com profile] steepholm's post yesterday about an Edwardian horror film reminded me that some time ago I had bookmarked an even earlier one, and the neatness of starting my year with what is widely considered to be the first horror film ever made appealed to me - especially since I knew I would be able to progress onwards to the Edwardian one afterwards. Thus my evening began.

1a. Le Manoir du Diable (1896), dir. Georges Méliès

The history of film begins, as we all know, in Leeds, with 1888's challenging and poignant Roundhay Garden Scene. Given that people had already been using all manner of special-effects technology (still cameras, lights, distorting lenses, paper cut-outs etc.) to create otherworldly vignettes for years, and that the Victorian fascination with the Gothic was at its greatest height yet, it is no surprise that within eight years, somebody had put the new technique to work in creating the world's first horror film. Nonetheless, we shouldn't let that inevitability distract us from how amazing it is that we can actually see this film, just over 118 years later. (I say 'just over', because it was originally released on Christmas Eve 1896, placing it in the fine and time-honoured tradition of Ghost Stories at Christmas.) To be clear about exactly how early we are talking, this film was released the year before Bram Stoker's Dracula was published. You may read more about it at Wikipedia, and indeed watch it for yourself right here.

It isn't exactly horror in the sense of 'intended to scare', of course, as the Wikipedia page rightly says, but then again neither are lots of films, books and plays which end up being placed in the 'horror' category. Like most category descriptors, the 'horror' genre falls down pretty quickly on close analysis, but we still stick with it anyway because it is simple and widely understood - so I'm not going to fret too much about all that. This certainly is the first film with fantastical, diabolical, supernatural, Gothic goings-on - and that's good enough for me. Indeed, it features a quasi-vampiric protagonist, who is presumably the diable of the title, but notably transforms from a bat into a human-like creature at the beginning of the story, and is defeated by a crucifix at the end (sorry if that's a spoiler for anyone ;-) ), which is very exciting.

Everything seems very simple to 21st-century eyes, of course, and yet at the same time it is surprising how much of what film can do has already been recognised and pressed into use only 8 years after its invention. We are basically looking at a theatrical vignette, filmed with a single static camera, but stepping beyond the constraints of live theatre by using the camera's ability to compress and edit time via cuts, so that people and objects can be made to appear and disappear. We also have special effects props hanging from wires (the bat), people appearing in puffs of smoke, and 2D mattes (the cauldron). As yet, though, there are no intertitles (which were invented in 1903, apparently), so the story has to be simple enough to follow without them. And of course Gothic melodrama lends itself well to that situation, since a basic battle of good vs. evil doesn't need to rely on deeply-felt personal emotions of the sort which need articulating via words or close-ups.

In short, a fascinating glimpse into both the early history of film and the evolution of Gothic horror - and since it's only three minutes long, you can be pretty certain that it will reward that small investment of your time.

1b. The Mistletoe Bough (1904), dir. Percy Stow

This is the film which [livejournal.com profile] steepholm posted about. It is a telling of a widely-known ghost story called The Mistletoe Bough, which you can read about here, and was most popularly known at the time when this film was made through a song by Thomas Haynes Bayley published in 1884, which the film seems to follow fairly closely. You can watch it for free on the BFI website, and it is only 5 minutes long - so again, well worth the investment.

We are only eight years beyond the previous film here, but the technological leaps forward are striking (as, of course, they also are between Roundhay Garden Scene and Le Manoir du Diable over the same time-period). Everything is still very theatrical, as cinema would continue to be well into the 1930s (and television the 1960s), right down to being able to see the shadow of the 'stage-front' on the back wall in the opening ball-room scene. But where Le Manoir du Diable had one location, this one has six (ball-room, house exterior, steps to the tower, tower interior, generic black background to seeking scene and house drive-way), and in one of them the camera-person even uses a panning shot to follow the bride as she comes out of the house and looks for a place to hide. Since this film is telling a known story, it is able to convey a slightly more complex narrative than Le Manoir du Diable, but technological innovation helps here too in the form of the newly-invented intertitle; one is employed to signal that thirty years have passed between the mysterious disappearance of the bride and the discovery of her terrible fate.

Even more strikingly, we have the appearance of a new special effect. While Le Manoir du Diable used cuts to signify appearances and disappearances, The Mistletoe Bough gives us the ghost (or a dream?) of the bride, slowly fading in the arms of her husband when he tries to embrace her. This really was interesting, because I have more than once heard it said that the scene of Count Orlok fading in the sun at the end of Nosferatu (1922) is the first use of such an effect in a horror film - which I now know is definitely not the case. I suppose it goes to show the folly of declaring anything the 'first' whatever in cinematic history, given how much of its early output is now lost or little-known. The actual mouldering corpse of the bride, as discovered thirty years later by her husband, is kept off-screen though - we only see his and another man's (the butler? a friend?) horrified reactions as they look into the chest. My guess is that this was done out of concern for what could and couldn't be shown on screen, rather than limited props / effects resources, since a skeleton in some rags isn't too hard to do. But either way it felt like a precursor of the later grand horror tradition of keeping shonky special-effects 'monsters' off-screen as much as possible.

As for the story itself, it is intended as genuinely tragic / horrific this time, and did indeed give me a horrified thrill as the bride met her fate, and again as her husband realised what had happened to her. The theatricality still gives it a strong melodramatic edge, though, which reduces the sense of realism, and the scenes of the wedding party utterly failing to find the bride in spite of there being only one very obvious place where she could possibly have ended up are more comical than I suspect they were meant to be. Meanwhile, the titular mistletoe bough itself doesn't actually seem to play any part in the plot - it is simply there to signify a winter / Christmas setting for the story, apparently matched by the real-world season when the film was made, to judge by the bare branches on the trees and what might be remnants of snow on the ground (or could just be unevenly-worn gravel on the drive). As such, then, this too fits neatly into the Ghost Stories at Christmas tradition, making this a good time of year to have discovered it.

1c. Cross-roads (1955), dir. John Fitchen

Finally, having arrived at the BFI website to see The Mistletoe Bough, I couldn't help but notice that one of the other features offered on the same page was this 20-minute ghost film starring Christopher Lee. This is exactly the sort of early / small-scale work from his filmography which it's generally very hard to get hold of, and I certainly hadn't seen it before. So I snapped up the opportunity to watch it, urged on by the information that it was one of his first forays into Gothic territory, and features what would soon become his signature screen trick of a portentous close-up into his narrowed, piercing eyes. You too may have the pleasure here, though I'm afraid this time you will have to pay one English pound for the privilege.

It's worth it, though - at least if you are a Lee fan, anyway. Because he is the ghost at the centre of the story, and because his purpose is to wreak horrible revenge on the man whom he considers responsible for his sister's death, there really is a great deal here which he would draw on again in his role as Dracula three years later - icy charm, supreme self-assurance, a menacing physical presence, a sudden switch from congenial politeness to cold anger, and of course those piercing eyes. Those are all in his performance, and could equally well occur in a story about an ordinary human being bent on revenge - but it does help, too, that the story imbues him with both supernatural powers (able to cut off a telephone line, prevent an unlocked door from opening and be unaffected by bullets) and limitations (he has only until the same hour as his untimely death to wreak his revenge). All very satisfactory indeed.

Cinematically, we're obviously in an utterly different world with this film from the two above, so I won't try to draw strained comparisons with them. But this one stands as an interesting insight into the nature of the film industry in its own time, all the same. I'm not quite sure what it was originally produced for, as neither my best Christopher Lee book nor the internet is providing any answer to that question, but I do know it came out of a low-budget operation called Bushey Studios, and my guess is that it was a B-feature short to be shown at cinemas before a main movie. The editing is abysmal, with multiple cuts between different camera-angles that don't follow fluently from what was happening before, most of the acting (including Christopher Lee's) is pretty mannered, and some of the dialogue is cringe-inducingly banal. I don't think audiences were willing to accept editing of this quality in particular for much longer, though it's not the only similar example from around this time I have seen (and I suspect the others may have had Christopher Lee in them as well). But the lighting is nice, and there's quite a pacey car-chase scene through central London at the end, too, which is not to be sniffed at.

All in all, a very enjoyable little adventurette through early horror film history, and certainly a great start to a new filmic year which I hope will continue in much the same vein.

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strange_complex: (ITV digital Monkey popcorn)
I saw both of these with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan as a New Year's Eve double-bill at the Hyde Park Picture House yesterday, from our favourite seats on the left-hand side of the balcony.


45. Some Like It Hot (1959), dir. Billy Wilder

First of all, it does have to be acknowledged that this one particular film probably bears about 90% of the responsibility for the transphobic myth that trans women are really just straight dudes who want to infiltrate women-only spaces and ogle cis women. It didn't invent that idea, and nor is it now necessarily the direct cause of most people absorbing it, but it is a major theme of the film, and must surely have given it a very big cultural boost. So I think it's important to say that whenever talking about this film, as a small way of helping to chip away at the real-world potency of that very damaging myth. On a similar note, I also found the scenes in which Tony Curtis' character, in persona as Shell Oil Junior, coerces Sugar into sex by pretending to be sexually unresponsive and in need of 'help' to fix him pretty gross as well. I get that disguise and deceit are ancient staples of romantic comedies, and never more so than in this one, but she was totally into his Shell Oil Junior character anyway. She would very obviously have willingly and enthusiastically have had sex with him without that extra layer of lies and manipulation, so to me they broke through the romantic comedy genre conventions and out into some distinctly rapey territory.

But I am perfectly capable of separating out those things from the rest of the film in my mind, and seeing it for the of-its-time romantic musical comedy it is meant to be. As a star vehicle for Monroe it is magnificent, with her performance of "I Wanna Be Loved By You" capturing her appeal perfectly. Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon are perfectly paired as the two protagonists, the Chicago gangsters are brilliant, the music is great, the physical farce fantastic and the witty dialogue to die for. Plus, for all my reservations above, I also think that by showing male characters experiencing male treatment of women at first hand, and by including scenes with strong homosexual overtones (both lesbian ones between Sugar and Curtis-as-Josephine and the famous "Well, nobody's perfect" ending between Osgood and Lemmon-as-Jerry), it probably helped to achieve some social steps forwards as well as backwards. So, if the movie isn't perfect either, that doesn't mean it isn't still a great watch.


46. The Apartment (1960), dir. Billy Wilder

Part two of the double-bill was the next year's follow-up movie from the same production team, which brought back Jack Lemmon as the leading man. It's still a comedy, and starts out looking for all the world like a farce, but it has a dark undertone from the beginning, because of the way it portrays sleazy executives laughing it up together as they coldly conduct affairs in Lemmon's character's apartment, and him conniving in it for the sake of material promotion, while at the same time being very obviously strung along and exploited himself. Then, half-way through, the darkness bursts violently to the surface when one executive's to-him-casual (but to her serious) fling attempts suicide in the apartment. The overall arc is actually very moralistic - Lemmon discovers his moral compass and is rewarded with True Love, the chief sleazy executive gets his come-uppance, and the young lady (Miss Kubelik) rediscovers her sense of self-worth. But gosh, you do get put through the wringer along the way.

This made it a good second film for the double-bill, though. It felt a little more 'cerebral' than Some Like It Hot (if that's quite the right word), which worked well for its early evening slot once you'd been warmed up by the comedy first. It was certainly more moving, anyway - I found myself sniffing back tears as the end credits rolled, which you just wouldn't get from Some Like It Hot (unless, of course, Chicago mobsters had killed your grandmother, you insensitive clod). But it has in common with the other film all those classic qualities of slick pacing, seemingly effortless photography and of course a brilliant cast. Though his character isn't very nice, I actually thought Fred MacMurray was absolutely brilliant as Sleazy Executive Mr. Sheldrake, hitting that perfect note between oiliness and plausible charm which seems to be so characteristic of American Presidents (Nixon and Regan particularly spring to mind). It is essential to the whole plot that we should be able to believe Miss Kubelik might attempt suicide over him while simultaneously being able to see that he's a schmuck, so MacMurray had an important job to do there, and did it really well. I'd like to see more stuff with him in now on that basis. I also loved both the characterisation and the performances for the two Jewish neighbours, Dr. and Mrs. Dreyfuss - relatively small roles (especially hers), but ones which felt very human and three-dimensional al the same.

While Some Like It Hot has fun playing up the glamour of the 1920s jazz age, The Apartment is now just as fascinating for being set in its contemporary present day. I particularly enjoyed seeing how large-scale corporate office culture might have operated in 1960s America, complete with lobbies, elevators, desk diaries, rotary card index files, calculating machines and telephone exchanges. And I liked the insights into Lemmon's bachelor life-style as well, which was so close to and yet not quite the same as its equivalent today - frozen meals for heating up in the oven rather than microwave meals, a TV remote-control unit with a dial on it fixed to his table, and of course the time-honoured pokey apartment for one. In less cheery news from the 1960s, though, I was disquieted to realise that Miss Kubelik is obviously at risk of getting into trouble with the law for having attempted suicide, so that the whole thing has to be hushed up. We have moved beyond that, suicide-wise, in both the US and UK since, but that is still exactly where we are with drugs, leaving addicts unable to seek help for fear of punishment (not to mention at risk from unregulated products), and it's about damned time we sorted that out.

Back to The Apartment(!), it also turned out to be a Christmas / New Year film, which I guess was yet another reason (on top of release-date chronology and the tonal move from pure comedy to black comedy) why it needed to be the second half of the double bill. Miss Kubelik makes her suicide attempt on Christmas Eve, spends a few days recovering at Jack Lemmon's apartment, and then finally dumps her Sleazy Executive in favour of him on New Year's Eve. Not quite the Christmas-to-New-Year experience I would wish on anyone in reality, but still in its own way something to get us in the mood for our own NYE celebrations which followed.

Films watched 2014 round-up )

And now I believe it is time to get started on my films watched in 2015. :-)

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strange_complex: (Janus)
The Year of Augustus is officially over at last, and it's time to wish you all a happy and healthy 2015! May it be full of goodness and satisfaction for you all.

I spent my New Year's Eve this year seeing Some Like It Hot (1959) and The Apartment (1960) at the Hyde Park cinema with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan (both of which I shall write up separately), before returning to my place where we were joined by [livejournal.com profile] planet_andy and Mr. & Mrs. [twitter.com profile] ZeitgeistZero for champagne, canapés, a cosy fire and lots of wicked laughter. It was a lovely evening, and has only left me feeling moderately delicate today, so all in all just right.

Under strict instructions from [livejournal.com profile] glitzfrau, we made sure to compile the annual Death List and Scandal List, which we do most years and which I have occasionally published here (example), but which I don't think we got round to last year. The rules are that if anyone on the list dies or becomes embroiled in a scandal in 2015, we all get 10p, though I'm not sure from whom - ourselves, probably. Also, it's fine for people to be on both lists. Re the Death List, some people are on there in hope, others as a protective charm (since people on the list very rarely actually die), and some out of pure pragmatism, but I will leave it to you to guess which. And re the Scandal List, we have suggested specifics in some cases, in which case we get double points if those come to pass, but we still all get our statutory 10p if those people are involved in any kind of scandal, even if it's not the one we predicted.

So, without further ado, and in the utterly random order we wrote them down last night while drunk, here goes:

2015 Death List
Prince Philip (who has now taken Mrs. Thatcher's traditional place at the head of the list)
John Craven
Ex-Pope Benedict XIV (oops!) XVI (natural causes)
Current Pope Francis (suspicious circumstances)
Elizabeth Butler Sloss
Beryl Bainbridge (ah - actually, just looked her up on Wikipedia now, and it turns out she died in 2010. So nul points for us there I think.)
Katie Hopkins
Michael Heseltine
Kirk Douglas
Terry Pratchett
Alan Bennett
David Hockney
Mark E. Smith
Paul McCartney
Ken Dodd
Rolf Harris (in prison)
Stephen Hawking
Clint Eastwood
President Hassan Rouhani of Iran
President Muhammad Fuad Masum of Iraq
President Assad of Syria
George Bush Snr
Bruce Forsyth
Jimmy Tarbuck
Mickey Rooney
Maggie Smith
Paul Daniels
Any current Blue Peter pets
Mike Lee

2015 Scandal List
Justin Bieber (glue sniffing)
Nigel Farage (auto-erotic asphyxiation and / or found with an orange up his arse)
Boris Johnson
Katie Hopkins
Bono
Gary Barlow
Ed Miliband (turns out to be a LARPer)
Richard Dawkins (converts to Islam)
Jeb Bush
Jedward (it's possible that at this stage we were drifting into playing word association)
Any male BBC news reader
Lorraine Kelly
Neil & Christine Hamilton
Noel Edmonds
George Lucas
Damien Hirst
Paul Daniels
The McCanns
Noddy Holder

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strange_complex: (Saturnalian Santa)
Rewinding a few days here to the pre-Christmas period, I went to see this at Leeds Town Hall with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan, [livejournal.com profile] planet_andy, [livejournal.com profile] nalsa and Mrs. [livejournal.com profile] nalsa in honour of [livejournal.com profile] planet_andy's birthday. I've never been to a film screening at Leeds Town Hall before, so that was fun in itself, and nor had I seen Die Hard in spite of its classic status. It is an action film after all, which is hardly my genre, but going to see it in its reinvented pomo guise as a 'Christmas film' - now that, I could handle.

It is, of course, masses of fun. Indeed, I might well have gone to see it earlier if I'd cottoned on to the fact that it has Alan Rickman in it being deliciously villainous. His character even got in a Classical reference, too:
"And when Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer." Benefits of a classical education. [Source: IMDb]
Obviously, that actually boils down to your standard use of Classics to denote morally-bankrupt posh people, and is thus exactly the sort of thing which puts people off the subject, but never mind! It's still good to hear Alex getting a name-check, and it's not like it was a mainstay of the plot. Other things I particularly liked included McClane's message on the first terrorist victim's shirt: "Now I have a machine gun - ho ho ho!", Johnson & Johnson the ineffective FBI agents and Argyle happily living it up in his limousine while blithely unaware of the major terrorist incident going on in the building above him. I assumed for ages that he would spend literally the entire film like this, and just drive out the next morning wondering what was going on, but it was also cool that he got to play his part in overcoming the bad guys too.

I do realise that this bit is going to make me sound like Noam Chomsky on his day off, but gosh - you really couldn't present a more fully-developed fantasy of hyper-masculinity as a response to male anxieties about successful career-women than this film, could you? That is literally how McClane wins his wife back after their marriage has been broken apart by her promotion to Director of Corporate Affairs at the Nakatomi Corporation. But anyway! Helicopters and explosions and cool one-liners and stuff! Yay.

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