strange_complex: (Cyberman from beneath)
My final film watched of 2015, I recorded this one off the Horror Channel a while ago, and watched it on New Year's Eve. It's a Hammer horror classic, right from their glorious hey-day, in which the Germanic village of Vandorf is troubled by the spirit of a millennia-old Gorgon who comes out when the moon is full and turns people to stone. It is also one of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing's twenty-odd screen collaborations. I have seen it before, but a looong time ago - probably a good 20 years, I reckon.

It is almost really brilliant. Much of the usual reliable production team is here - James Bernard doing the music, Bernard Robinson the sets, Michael Reed the photography, Rosemary Burrows the costumes and Terence Fisher the direction. Quite apart from Lee and Cushing, the cast is great too. Richard Pasco, Michael Goodliffe and Patrick Troughton are all worth the entrance fee alone, but Barbara Shelley particularly shines in a role which really shows her range: kind, gentle and loving, strong-willed yet afraid and internally conflicted, while always remaining entirely convincing as a single, coherent character. I already loved her from Dracula Prince of Darkness (in which she is similarly wide-ranging), Rasputin the Mad Monk and Quatermass and the Pit, but she really excelled herself in this one, and I'm now thinking I should make a point of seeking out some of her other appearances.

What lets it down, though, is a story-line which doesn't fully work through its potential. There's a good idea on the table. But discussing it involves spoilers, and it is best to see this film unspoilt if you can )

I am also going to come right out and say that I don't think Christopher Lee is particularly good in this film either. His character is actually the good guy, who arrives half-way through the story, applies an open-minded rationalism to what is going on, figures out what the villagers are hiding and eventually dispatches the Gorgon. And this is something he is definitely perfectly capable of doing well, as his performance as the Duc de Richleau in The Devil Rides Out shows. But for some reason he evidently decided to give his character in this film a sort of brusque gruffness which just didn't work for me. This isn't to say he's abysmal. He has some good confrontation scenes with Peter Cushing, where there is a lot going on emotionally on both sides of the equation. But of the two, Cushing's depiction of a man who, while rather unlikable overall, elicits our sympathy through the obvious mental anguish caused by his attempts to cover up spoiler's ) crimes, is distinctly more compelling and interesting to watch.

Finally, what can we make of the use of a Greek mythological creature in this film? It's only to be expected, really. Hammer in this period were clearly working their way through every monster they could think of in their search for suitable new material, and they were bound to turn to Greek mythology at some point. It also happens to make the middle entry in a nice trio with The Mummy (1959) and The Viking Queen (1967): Egypt ✓, Greece ✓, Rome ✓ - and I think there is clear hierarchy of priorities at work in the order they went about them, basically working from the culture with the most potential for macabre fantasy stories to the one with the least. The particular choice of a Gorgon I would guess probably springs from a fairly simple pragmatic equation - another spoilery bit here ), and her only non-humanoid attribute is the snakes, making the special effects relatively manageable too. (This film pre-dates Clash of the Titans (1981), so its Gorgon does not have a snaky tail - Ray Harryhausen invented that.) The effects are still pretty poor, and this is a major flaw in the film - but imagine how much more trouble they would have had trying to do the sphinx, harpies, Echidna or similar.

Meanwhile, Bernard Robinson took up the Greek cue in his set design, making a nice replica centrepiece of the Belvedere Torso for the entrance-hall of the castle where the Gorgon likes to lurk, which was used to good effect in turn by Michael Reed's photography:

The Gorgon castle.jpg

On one level, this was a reasonably obvious creative touch for a film about people being turned to stone by a monster from Greek mythology. And the particular choice of the Belvedere Torso is not difficult to explain. It's an extremely famous piece of Greek sculpture (technically a Roman copy of a Hellenistic original, but that is true of most surviving 'Greek' art), of the type which you would come across pretty quickly if you picked up any book on the topic. But then again, there would have been lots of other options in the same book too, and homing in on one which expresses anguish and tragedy so eloquently through its twisted pose and fragmentary state deserves credit; as does the fact that its missing limbs and head both resonate rather nicely with what happens to some of the Gorgon's victims, and eventually also the Gorgon herself, over the course of the film. Possibly the Laocoön, with its snaky theme, would have been an even better choice - but then again I see why a replica of that statue would be considerably more time-consuming and expensive to make. Also, it left the stage clear for 28 Days Later to use the Laocoön statue in a very similar way many decades later - maybe even inspired by Bernard Robinson's set designs, who knows?

Overall, worth watching for Barbara Shelley, the Lee-Cushing pairing and the general Hammery goodness, but not in the first rank.

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strange_complex: (Invader Zim globe)
Watched because shingles, and because magister noticed I had not seen it, and therefore lent me the DVD. It is a pastiche story about a washed-up super-hero, who was America's golden boy in the 1940s, but then fell foul of McCarthyism and ended up drinking meths in the gutter. When his arch-nemesis, Mr. Midnight, makes a re-appearance, steals a government-developed hypno-ray and uses it to gather all of New York's ethnic minorities into a new housing project so that he can blow them up, Captain Invincible has to be brought back into shape to save the day.

It's quite funny, and a perfectly acceptable way to spend an hour and a half, but I think there's a sort of cap on how funny feature-length pastiches can be - generally the joke tends to wear thin after a while, and this is no exception. There are hints also that the script aspired to being more bitingly satirical than it actually is, but that the ideas weren't followed through. This applies especially to the notion of the US government developing a hypno-ray, and Mr. Midnight's declared belief that the 'pure genetic Americans' will applaud his ethnic cleansing of New York and carry him into the White House as a result. Obviously both of those ideas are scathingly critical of America's government and its voting public (the film is Australian, BTW), but they aren't really worked through properly, so that the critique fizzles out rather than hitting home, and the eugenics project in particular just feels weirdly distasteful. In the end, the plot boils down to a standard good vs. evil story, with Captain Invincible saving the day and getting the girl.

Lee plays Mr. Midnight, of course, doing exactly what he normally does best in this sort of role - playing the villain with deadly serious professionalism, yet with a little twinkle in his eye that lets us know how much he is enjoying pushing the performance just as notch or two over the top. He also gets to sing, as the film is a musical comedy. On the whole, the songs aren't up to much, and have that quality of feeling like they are just interrupting the story which is the hall-mark of a weak musical. But Lee's turn close to the end in the alcoholic pun-based 'Name Your Poison' is justly famous, and this Youtube video (which also includes a minute or so of confrontational dialogue between Mr. Midnight and Captain Invincible) captures pretty much everything which is worth seeing about his part in this film:


In short, once you've seen that video, you can safely skip the rest of the movie.

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strange_complex: (Darth compels you!)
Seen last Thursday evening at the Cottage Road cinema with the lovely Mr. and Mrs. Zeitgeist Zero. As more or less everyone has said, it is great, basically because it is much the same as the original three films, except that the characters now have new names and faces. There's just the right mix of big plot business, epic battles and explosions, cute robots, soaring music, snarky humour and the personal journeys of the main characters - with the emotional emphasis very much on the latter. And everything else I say about this film is bound to be spoilerific.

Let's start with characters )

Then there is plot )

In short, then, jolly good. I'm certainly looking forward to the next one, and may well go back for another big-screen viewing of this before it finishes its cinema-run.

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strange_complex: (Dracula Risen hearse smile)
I didn't actually plan it this way. Before I started watching the first of these two films, Dawn Addams was nothing more than a half-known name to me, and I also didn't even realise she was in the second until her character appeared on the screen. But that's how it worked out, and having noticed her properly across these two films I'm pretty sure I will remember her again in the future, as she has a lot of screen presence and is great to watch. Checking out her filmography now, I realise that I actually saw her earlier this year in Amicus' The Vault of Horror too (though I didn't comment on her character in that review), and I must have seen her in The Robe when I watched it many years ago, though her role there is minor.

28. The Treasure of San Teresa (aka Hot Money Girl, 1959), dir. Alvin Rakoff

Anyway, the first is a black and white adventure film, involving an everyman hero, a lawyer and a fallen woman (Dawn Addams) who together attempt to recover a box-full of jewels belonging to the woman's father which had been placed for safe-keeping by the hero in a nunnery in Czechoslovakia during the war. There is various double-crossing and sadness for lost opportunities, and even sometimes a sense of aspiring to the same niche as The Third Man - but in practice, it isn't really on that level.

Christopher Lee is not part of the core trio, and indeed doesn't appear until at least half-way through the film. He had made his name in Dracula by this time, but it feels more like a pre-Dracula film for him, in that he's a reasonably important member of the supporting cast, but not even really the main antagonist, let alone the star. It is a typically villainous role, though. He plays a gangster posing as a cop who appears after our gang have recovered the jewels and tries to appropriate them. This involves wearing a leather trench-coat, pointing guns at people, being sharp and authoritative and of course eventually dying (in this case as a result of being strangled by the everyman hero). All things which he is very good at, and does perfectly.

I don't think I otherwise have a huge amount to say about this one, but I did notice that the direction was very accomplished, with a lot of really eye-catching shots from interesting angles which made the most of various locations and sets. And when I looked up the director, Alvin Rakoff, I discovered that there is a Whovian connection there, as he was married to Jacqueline Hill, well known to all Doctor Who fans as the lady who played much-beloved original companion Barbara Wright. I'm very glad to know she had such a worthy husband!

29. The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960), dir. Terence Fisher

The second was a loose Hammer adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Unfortunately, it isn't that great. I think I can see what the central conceit was meant to be - namely that while Dr. Jekyll is busy trying to separate out the two halves of his personality through science, his apparently perfect Victorian wife (played by Dawn Addams) is already leading a double life as she conducts a secret affair with his best friend (played by Christopher Lee). But the whole effort is badly hampered by the casting of Paul Massie in the title role, who somehow manages to be utterly dull as both Jekyll and Hyde (quite a feat!). All I could really think while watching him was how infinitely much better Peter Cushing would have been in the role - indeed, some of his lines as the obsessively-scientific Jekyll could have come right out of the mouth of Cushing's Frankenstein. In spite of that, though, the script as a whole also seemed rather clunky to me. It's by someone called Wolf Mankowitz whom I've never heard of before, and who wasn't a regular Hammer writer - though apparently he had written a novel and a successful West End musical before this film.

Lee's character this time is much more prominent (basically 2nd male lead), but not a villain - rather, a louche gentleman playboy who has an unfortunate gambling habit and relies on Jekyll to service his debts, even while enthusiastically introducing Hyde to the greatest depths of decadence London has to offer. He gets some rather sweet kissing scenes with Dawn Addams, and did 'leglessly drunk but still attempting to be charming and authoritative' almost rather too well for my taste - I saw too much of that behaviour in real life in my late teens / early 20s, and don't really want to be reminded of it, especially through the person of Christopher Lee. He also - of course! - dies horribly, this time at the fangs of a snake, though we only see the aftermath, not the death itself, presumably at the behest of the censors.

This film is also notable for featuring Janina Faye, aka Tania from Dracula, in a brief non-speaking role, and Oliver Reed as a night-club patron who takes exception to Hyde leading on one of the establishment's ladies of negotiable affection and then reneging on the deal. So, worth a watch if you're a Hammer fan and want to trace the evolving fortunes of the studio and its stars. But the contribution which this one makes to the story really is to show that not all of their Gothic horror adaptations were going to be hits.

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strange_complex: (Prisoner information)
So, as established in my WIDAWTW post earlier on, last week was long and busy on the work front for me. I have a huge list of unwritten LJ reviews nagging at my conscience - I'm six Doctor Who episodes behind now, and have also read six books this year that have yet to be mentioned in these pages. But all of those reviews require thinkiness, and the last thing I want to do today is think hard about anything. Meanwhile, fresh from watching Christopher Lee in one film about war-time resistance movements on Thursday evening, I found myself cuing up another this afternoon. These films are very undemanding to me, because I have so little invested in them, so writing up my vague half-formed thoughts afterwards is no great burden. And each one is another tick on my list.

This one was produced about a year after The Traitor (the one I saw on Thursday), but between the two Lee had appeared as the monster in The Curse of Frankenstein, and the change in his status is very clear. His role in The Traitor is far more substantial than his role in Battle of the V-1, but in spite of that by the time the latter was released his name was both higher up the opening credits and in larger type in relation to his co-stars. He plays a Nazi labour-camp guard who mainly shouts at people and points guns at them, which is of course a very typical Lee role, and one which he performs very nicely (not to mention looking hella sexy while he is at it).

The role is small, though, and irritatingly it became clear when I picked up my Christopher Lee filmography reference books that it had been made even smaller by the channel I was watching it on (More Than Movies), because the books all referred to a death scene for his character which I couldn't remember seeing. Had I somehow missed it amidst a confusing action scene, I wondered? Nope - when I went back to the right part of the recording, I could see quite clearly that it had simply been edited out. The same books also revealed that this had happened with the death scene for another character as well, so between the two that becomes a bit of a lesson in trusting TV channels to broadcast films as they were originally released. At the very least, I should clearly be aiming to record post-watershed broadcasts wherever possible.

The plot concerns Polish underground resistance agents finding and reporting information to the British about the German development of V-1 flying bombs - aka Doodlebugs, or early unmanned guided missiles. It's OK, with some decent moments of tension and drama towards the end as our plucky gang take considerable risks in order to send a full, unexploded V-1 to the British so that they can see what they're up against. I enjoyed a scene in which several hundred very ordinary-looking Polish people stood in lines in a field with flaming torches so that a British plane could land and collect the bomb - a great depiction of bravery and resourcefulness in the face of brutal oppression. But for all that the early sections set in the labour-camp were the bits with Christopher Lee in them, they did go on rather long for the sake of the film's overall pacing.

The main star is Michael Rennie, whom you're sure to have seen in something - probably a thriller, possibly a secondary role in one of several Classical or Biblical epics. His character was Polish, but he spoke in his normal English accent, just as his side-kick David Knight similarly used his native American tones, while everyone else had clearly been briefed to put on Polish or German accents as appropriate. I found the American accent particularly difficult to suspend my disbelief about, I suppose because my cultural context makes an English accent easier for me to accept as 'neutral' or default, but both seemed odd, especially when characters who were actually meant to be English showed up as well. I guess that's what you do with your big-name stars, though.

I was also struck by the fact that, just like The Traitor, this film has very few female characters in it (two this time; an advance on one I suppose), but since the ones it does have are underground resistance fighters, they are nonetheless absolutely awesome. One is captured by the Nazis, but basically laughs in the face of their questioning, even when they use water torture on her, while the other successfully removes the detonator from the unexploded V-1, knowing full well that it could explode at any moment. I don't actually think that's typical of 1950s war films, judging from the other ones I have seen - not even of the particular sub-set of war films which deal with underground resistance movements. But it was welcome, all the same.

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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: (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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