strange_complex: (Me Huginn beak kiss)
A couple of weeks ago, [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan and I spent a very enjoyable evening at the Howard Assembly Rooms in the Grand Theatre building, Leeds. The first half of the evening consisted of a lecture by Christopher Frayling, roaming around the various topics of a book he has recently published, which takes his friendship with the author, Angela Carter, as a spring-board for a miscellany of broadly Gothic topics. I must admit to not having a terribly deep knowledge of Angela Carter's work before we went. I have heard a radio adaptation of her short story, 'The Lady of the House of Love', which I thought was amazing; the film version of The Company of Wolves has been waiting patiently on my Lovefilm list for several years now; and that's about all I got. I definitely came away wanting to get to know her work better, though.

Frayling spoke mainly about their friendship and shared interest in the strange, the fantastic and the Gothic while they were both living in Bath in the 1970s. This was a world in which he had tried to get the local council to extend its series of plaques commemorating the visits of Charles Dickens, William Wordsworth and Jane Austen to include Mary Shelley, who spent six months living there in late 1816 while working on Frankenstein, only to receive a snobbish and bureaucratic reply indicating that the author of such a sensationalist novel was hardly worthy of the honour. Yet there, in a pokey little house which she could barely afford to heat, lived Angela Carter, busily redefining both feminism and the Gothic on her own terms. She and Frayling geeked out together over vampire books, screenings of classic films (e.g. Nosferatu (1922)), the ballet and much more, while she kept notebooks of their conversations and used snippets of them years later in her work.

In between the bits on Carter herself, Frayling scattered snippets of his thoughts and experiences on related topics, showing us for example pictures of his visit to Romania in the mid-1970s (most of which looked more or less identical to my own from two years ago) or talking about the film we were about to see: its 18th-century origins, Cocteau's particular take, and how it had directly inspired much of Disney's animated version (e.g. the anthropmorphic household objects). He concluded with some thoughts on how the status of Gothic literature (and, implicitly, film) as a subject of study has changed since his days in Bath with Angela Carter, from the radical and innovative to the new mainstream.

Then, after a short break, it was on to the film itself. It is visually beautiful in a way I can't really do justice to simply by describing it. To 21st-century eyes used to watching a lot of fantastical screen drama, it may only appear averagely creative and opulent, but I'm quite sure it must have seemed incredible in a France only just emerging from the end of a devastating war, and it remains entrancing and engrossing today. The story itself is told fairly straightforwardly, but actually it was the first time I've really sat through a full telling of it in any form, and I spent quite a lot of the time, especially during the early stages of Belle's time in the palace, thinking "Gosh, this is basically Cupid and Psyche, isn't it?" You know - one of three daughters ends up living in a magical palace far removed from normal humanity with a husband who has strange powers, only appears at night and begs his wife not to look at him directly. Indeed, it turns out from the Wikipedia page on the original fairy tale that I was not the only person to have noticed that.

That page doesn't make any mention of Diana in the original fairy tale, however (although I wouldn't take that as proof that she isn't in it!), whereas she is an important element in Cocteau's film. His Beast explains to Belle that Diana's Pavilion in his palace grounds contains the true source of his riches, and entrusts her with a golden key to it which she conscientiously does not use. Her greedy human sort-of-boyfriend, though, has different moral standards, and breaks into it to try to steal the Beast's riches, only to be shot by Diana and transformed into a beast himself. So this looks to me like Cocteau going back past the fairy tale to draw on its Classical antecedents - not straightforwardly or directly, since it is Venus as Cupid's mother who is the source of his power, but rather by choosing an appropriate equivalent figure for the rather different character of the Beast, whose animalistic nature as a hunter is indeed Diana's domain. Besides, Diana had form for turning people into beasts as punishment: ask Actaeon.

There are fairly obvious metaphors going on here about sexual restraint as well, given that Diana-the-huntress is famously virginal. Cocteau makes a big point of the Beast respecting Belle's personal agency and autonomy, for all that she is his prisoner - itself a role she has chosen voluntarily to pay off her father's unwitting crime of cutting a rose for her. He tells her that he will ask her each evening to be his wife, but accepts her repeated refusals with grace and humility, treating her with nothing but kindness and devotion. When the Beast gives her the key to the temple of Diana, asks her not to use it, and she respects that wish, she too is choosing not to violate this potent symbol of his chastity. This is also a shift in their relationship, as he grants her a form of power over him, and she repays his behaviour by respecting him in return. Set alongside all this, though, her left-behind boyfriend, Avenant, stands as a contrasting example, quite happy to break into the virgin goddess' temple and plunder its treasures, and reaping the punishment for doing so.

I have no idea how this sits along the typical themes and concerns of Cocteau's work, because I just don't know enough about him, but anyway, that is how this one seemed to me. I'm certainly up for a bit more of his stuff, should the occasion arise.

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strange_complex: (Dracula 1958 cloak)
This is a Pakistani version of Dracula, based very heavily on Hammer's Dracula (1958). If that sounds like a tricky thing to imagine, this trailer may help a little:


I watched it with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan a couple of weeks ago, and it took us a while to get the measure of it. Neither of us had ever seen a Pakistani horror movie before, so we had no knowledge of the genre's standard motifs and expectations. A lot of the pleasure of watching low-budget horror movies for us lies in laughing at the obvious wig glue, day-for-night filming, wooden / hammy acting, etc. But because we didn't know what was 'normal' for this kind of film, we also didn't know what was relatively successfully or unsuccessfully done in this particular example. And the fact that it was an adaptation of a British film we know extremely well exacerbated the problem. When the Pakistani film-makers interpreted aspects of that film in ways that to our eyes seemed inept, was it OK to laugh at that (in the way we would at a British cheap Hammer rip-off), or was that just incredibly racist?

After watching the film itself, we then also watched two documentaries on the DVD, one interviewing the makers of this particular film and one about Indian and Pakistani horror films in general, which between them gave us a better picture of the industry, the people involved in it, where they were starting from and what they were trying to achieve. In essence, much like Hammer in the first place, Pakistani film-makers basically churned out stuff they thought would be fun without taking it too seriously, especially during the 1980s. But this particular film seems to have been an early attempt to take on the western Gothic horror genre, so of course it was produced by people who were not hugely familiar with its tropes and motifs. In some places that meant lots of creativity and vitality, but in others it just missed the mark - at least for us. I'm sure Pakistani viewers feel the same when they see westerners trying to take on their stories.

The plot for this film is very close to Hammer's Dracula, although an opening sequence sees the 'Dracula' character (here initially a human being called Professor Tabani) using classic movie 'sciencey-science' equipment (bunsen burners, conical flasks, long distillation tubes, etc.) to make an elixir of life. By implication, he expects to remain human but become immortal when he drinks it, but instead he dies and becomes an undead vampire! This of course picks up on the scientific feel of Hammer's own take on the vampire myth (at least in the first film), where Dracula cannot turn into a bat or wolf, and vampirism is presented as a contagion with symptoms similar to addiction. In fact, for all we know, Hammer's Dracula could originally have become a vampire in the same way - the issue is never explicitly addressed in their films. In Zinda Laash, though, it does get them into a bit of trouble later on in the story. The professor is supposed to be the first ever to have produced the elixir of life, and yet it turns him into a known creature called a vampire with known weaknesses (particularly sunlight). So the plot and dialogue vacillate a little between whether the characters involved understand the nature of what they are dealing with or not.

There is also a bit of a muddle around what the Jonathan Harker character (Dr. Aqil) and Van Helsing character (here, his brother) know or are motivated by in the early stages of the story. When Dr. Aqil arrives at Professor Tabani's house, he claims that he has just turned up on spec for no particular reason, and indeed Pakistani hospitality culture probably means he doesn't need to use any subterfuge to get in there in the way that Harker does by pretending to be a librarian in the Hammer film. Aqil then proceeds to take notes on odd aspects of the Professor's behaviour, and apparently knows enough about vampires to dispatch the Professor's female companion, while his brother later confidently explains to his fiancée's family that Aqil was turned into a vampire while at the Professor's house. So far, so in line with the Hammer film - we are meant to understand that they are vampire-hunters, and know the Professor's true nature from the start. Except that towards the end of the film, when they return to the area to try to rescue the Mina-character, they seem to need the man who runs the local bar to explain to them how the Professor became a vampire and how to destroy him. It is actually this bar-keeper who comes closest of all to playing the traditional expository Van Helsing role within the story, leaving me puzzled as to what Aqil and his brother actually did know at the beginning.

Anyway, things basically settle down to the understanding that the Professor is a vampire in the broadly normal sense of that term. But many of the usual western motifs of vampirism are missing, not least of course because the cultural context is non-Christian. Crosses are never used or mentioned, and nor in fact are garlic and wooden stakes. Instead, the Professor and his minions can be killed by stabbing them with a knife, shooting them with a gun or exposing them to sunlight. (This last of course provides the exciting climax, much as in the Hammer film, except that the Van Helsing character knocks the shutter off a window accidentally, rather than pulling down curtains deliberately). Hammer's comic relief characters (the undertaker, the frontier guard) are also utterly gone, but in their place we get lots of song-and/or-dance sequences, along the lines most of us are familiar with from Bollywood films (except of course that this isn't a Bollywood film, as it is Pakistani not Indian). These were incongruous on one level, as sequences like that amongst what is otherwise ordinary acting and dialogue almost always feel quite shoe-horned in, but also amazing and awesome in their own way, and in their very incongruity - especially the first one, which was the Professor's vampirised assistant doing a drapery-flouncing dance in order to seduce and bite the unfortunate Dr. Aqil. Very different from Valerie Gaunt's exceptionally English pretence at helpless victimhood in Hammer's equivalent scene.

The assistant is the first of three women to be attacked or pursued by the Professor, and I felt we learnt quite a lot about 1960s Pakistani fears around female transgression from all of them. Certainly, Omar Khan, himself a horror film director, explained in the documentary on the DVD that female victims in Pakistani horror films are always coded as transgressive - e.g. they have blonde hair or smoke cigarettes. In this film, the assistant's fate was pretty much sealed from the moment she entered the Professor's laboratory, found him absent, and immediately made a beeline for the drinks tray on the side to pour herself a glass. This didn't directly kill her, but it did come immediately before her discovering the Professor's prone body behind the sofa (and dropping the glass in shock), and then as soon as he had been buried and come back to life, she was the first one he went for. Later on, the Lucy character (Shabnam) dies not because she persuades the maid to get rid of the garlic keeping Dracula away (as per Hammer), but because she persuades the maid, who has been sitting watching over her in person, to leave the room altogether - i.e. she is left unchaperoned. And the Mina character (Shirin) gets into trouble because she goes off on her own and gets into a taxi, which of course turns out to be being driven by the Professor himself. So, yes, there are some pretty direct messages there.

The acting seemed strangely variable to my eye. Sometimes, it was very stagey and melodramatic, but sometimes characters showed no signs of the emotional responses I would have expected given the circumstances - e.g. people staking vampires like it was utterly routine and no biggy, or simply standing stock-still on their last mark while another character did or said something dramatic. I would need to watch it again to check whether this was a case of the same actors behaving differently in different scenes, or rather a matter of clashing acting styles. The soundtrack music was also very varied, ranging from traditional-sounding Pakistani music during the song-and-dance routines, to cheerful popular music in exterior travel scenes and lots of ripped-off cues from James Bernard's original Hammer Dracula soundtrack during the most Gothic scenes. Lovely though this was to hear, it sometimes missed the mark for me by using the music 'inappropriately' - e.g. using slow, creepy music for chase scenes, or dramatic action music for seduction scenes. But that's what is bound to happen when you are not deeply familiar with a musical genre and it all sounds generally western and Gothic to you. Again, I'm sure westerners would make the same sorts of mistakes with what they perceived simply as 'Bollywood music'.

The cinematography was generally pretty impressive, with some nicely-composed shots and effective chase sequences, as well as particularly good use of a crumbling old-fashioned building for the exterior shots of the Professor's house. The main action of the film is set in the 1960s (another departure from Hammer), but this building looked like it might be a left-over relic of the colonial era. I'm not well-enough versed in Pakistani architecture of any kind to be sure, but if so that added some excellent resonances to the motif of vampirism. The Professor himself was Pakistani, rather than white British, which would have ramped the symbolism up all the higher, giving us the vampire as an undead remnant of the former colonial power, still haunting the land a generation after the Raj itself had been expelled. But still, just situating him within that setting hinted at the issues without overdoing it, while affording us some nice shots of crumbling brick-work in the process.

Overall verdict - a fascinating watch, for which I'm grateful to DracSoc chair Julia Kruk for the recommendation, and which has made me curious to explore the world of Pakistani horror and fantasy a little further.

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strange_complex: (Vampira)
Seen on Thursday night round at [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan's place after nourishing bowls of home-made minestrone soup... the healthy effects of which we then trashed by eating half a packed of chocolate-coated ginger biscuits each while watching the film.

I had never seen an Abbott and Costello film before, but [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan grew up on them, and indeed she reckons they were the first context in which she encountered the classic gothic horror icons. Despite the '... meet Frankenstein' of the title, this one doesn't actually feature Frankenstein himself, but rather his creation (played by Glenn Strange), whom they correctly refer to as 'Frankenstein's monster' at first, but later slip into calling 'Frankie'. But much more significantly as far as I'm concerned, it also features Bela Lugosi in the only time other than the original 1931 film that he explicitly played Dracula on screen. (BTW, [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan, the not-technically-Dracula Lugosi role which I keep trying to tell you about but forgetting the name of, where he played alongside a woman who was a huge fan of his, is Mark of the Vampire. We should definitely see that some time.)

Inevitably, in a comic context and 20 years later, Lugosi plays the role as a bit of a parody of himself. His cloak is too shiny and looks like he got it from a fancy dress shop, there's rather too much in the way of mesmeric finger movements, and we couldn't really understand why he needed to keep pulling his cloak up over his face so much. But, on the other hand, it is very definitely his Dracula, and the role also gave him lots of scope to pretend to be human and be all duplicitous while he was about it, which was fun to see. He gets a bit of that in the original 1931 film, conversing with people at the opera and in Dr. Seward's drawing-room, but there seemed to be more of it here, plus some rather more full-on neck-biting action than he ever got back in 1931.

Also on board are Lon Chaney Jr. as the Wolf-Man, and a lovely voice-cameo from Vincent Price at the end as the Invisible Man, so it is quite the monster-fest overall. Add to that some absolutely beautiful frocks on some strikingly self-possessed - nay, sassy - female characters, and some very impressive sets (castles, cellars, laboratories) and it is definitely worth watching. I don't know that I'll rush to see more Abbott and Costello films - it's not really my style of humour, and is difficult for a 21st-century British woman to relate very deeply to. But I'm certainly open to more of their Universal Monsters cross-over flicks, should they happen to cross my path.

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strange_complex: (Fred Astaire flying)
My first film of 2017, seen this afternoon with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan and [livejournal.com profile] planet_andy at the Hyde Park Picture House. They were, of course, showing it in tribute to the late Debbie Reynolds, and I'm pleased to say that she got a healthy audience and a round of applause at the end.

Ironically, having made a point of clearing my review backlog so that I could start my 2017 film reviewing with a blank slate, I find I don't have a huge amount to say about the actual film which I didn't already say four years ago when we saw it at the Cottage Road cinema. I can certainly say that I came out of the second viewing feeling just as enthusiastic about it as after the first, though. It is a bit bare-faced about crow-barring the song and dance numbers into the plot, but you forgive it anyway for doing so with a nod and a wink, and for being so consistently funny and beautiful the whole way through. And I think it's probably humanly impossible not to be just a little bit in love with Gene Kelly by the end of it all.

One thing I see I didn't mention in my last review (but [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan did in a comment!), and which deserves due tribute, is this wonderful Silent Movie Vamp Lady in her spider-web dress:

Singin spider web dress.png

Singin spider web dress 2.JPG Singin spider web dress 3.JPG

Simply, wow!

One more thing which should be noted here, and which I've only just realised while filling in the tags for this entry: I have now been reviewing all the films I see here on LJ consistently for ten whole years. Here's where it all began, with Metropolis in January of 2007. I have sometimes got behind on my reviews, and felt burdened-down as a result, but overall I am heartily glad that I have done it. It has definitely helped me to get an enormous amount more out of what I see, both at the time of viewing and while writing about it afterwards. I think it has also enabled me to home in more efficiently on films I will actually like. Whether I will keep it up for another ten years from now remains to be seen, but I certainly don't intend to stop any time soon.

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strange_complex: (Vampira)
I'm off to the cinema with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan tomorrow, so that's a good incentive to finish off this film review catch-up project first so that I have a clean slate for tomorrow's new entry. The first three of these should always have been reviewed together in the same post anyway, as they were part of a series of Universal Monster Movies which the National Media Museum mounted on Monday nights during October and November.

27. Dracula (1931), dir. Tod Browning
I've reviewed this in excessive detail before, while for us this particular screening came fairly hot on the heels of our own viewing of the parallel Spanish version. But this was my first experience of it on the big screen, and it certainly deserves the detail and grandeur which that ensures - especially for the scenes set in Transylvania, in the darkened garden of Seward's asylum where Dracula lurks, and in his lair in Carfax Abbey. Everything is just beautiful, from the Art Deco bat which supplies the background for the opening credits to the gentle toll of the church bells at the end as Mina and Jon(athan) walk up the curving staircase out of Dracula's crypt. I will never quite be able to come to terms with the opossums running around in Dracula's castle, the piece of paper stuck to Lucy's bedside lamp which was obviously meant to improve the lighting for shots from one angle but was left very obviously in place for shots from the other, or the utter cardboard-cutoutness of Jon(athan) Harker, though.

28. Frankenstein (1931), dir. James Whale
This was the next in Universal's series, and in the National Media Museum's screening schedule. I've seen it before, but a long time ago and never on the big screen. Two main things to say. One, Boris as the creature is amazing. There is a real sensitivity in his performance, successfully conveying a living being with an agency and agenda of its own. His make-up is incredible as well. Forget all the clunky rip-offs and parodies of it you've seen. The original is actually exceptionally detailed and carefully-designed, with the hands and arms to me looking especially convincing as those of a reanimated corpse. Two, the way the human characters treat the creature is downright distressing, and indeed I found the whole moral compass of the film shockingly off-kilter. The biggest problem for me was that the in-story explanation offered for why the creature turns bad is that when Fritz (Frankenstein's assistant) goes to steal a brain for it, he comes back with what is literally labelled on the jar an 'abnormal brain', and which we have heard a medical scientist explaining accounts for the 'brutal and criminal life' which its owner had lived. I know this sort of thinking was rife in the early 20th century, and used to justify a lot of shitty oppression too, but it makes me so angry that I would struggle to overlook it in any circumstances, while in this particular film it anyway utterly destroys the potential moral nuances of the story it is trying to tell. Labelling the creature as an irredeemable criminal before it has even been brought to life quashes all chance of exploring the impact of Frankenstein's thoughtless act on his own creation, and also pre-excuses the appalling behaviour of the humans towards it once it has come to life. In fact, it means there's no real point portraying that behaviour anyway, as the motif of the brain means the creature was always going to 'go bad', however it was treated. So there are half-hearted nods towards exploring the creature's perspective, identifiable in Boris Karloff's performance and the scenes in which the creature is ill-treated, but in the end they have no moral weight because of the pre-destination symbolised by the brain. Meanwhile, the much louder message is the depressingly-simplistic one - "Look, you shouldn't try to play God because your creations will inevitably just be bad and go bad!" At the end, the poor creature dies screaming in agony in a burning mill (again played very affectingly by Boris), and we then just switch straight to the human characters unproblematically celebrating it all with a wedding party. Horrifying, but not in the way intended.

29. The Mummy (1932), dir. Karl Freund
The following week we had The Mummy, which I found much more satisfying. This time, its moral dimension is pretty sound, with some interesting commentary on the ethics of colonial archaeology in particular, and indeed a good understanding of how archaeology works in general (e.g. why simple bits of pottery are often much more important than golden treasures). Just one small complaint on the antiquities front - a priestess of Isis really cannot be described as a Vestal Virgin. 'Vestal' doesn't just mean generically sacred or holy - it means specifically consecrated to Vesta (the clue is in the name). This film boasts an unusually (for the time) autonomous female main character, Helen Grosvenor, who is the daughter of the governor of Sudan but has chosen to live quite independently from her parents in Cairo, expresses disdain for the various men who attempt to court or control her, and indeed ends up destroying the mummy at the end of the film in spite of the fact that she is his reincarnated lover. I've often complained about that particular trope (e.g. here re Blacula 1972), since it consistently strips women of their agency, but here far from it - instead, she actively decides that she doesn't want to be with Imhotep, and uses the resources which are her equivalent to his own magical powers (her connection to Isis, whose priestess she once was) to defeat him. All of this, of course, is pretty easily explained by the fact that story's original author was a woman. Visually, the film keeps up and indeed excels the standards of sets, make-up and costumes from the previous two films, including the wise / clever decision to show Boris in his full mummy make-up only on his first appearance, and after that have him looking more or less like a normal human being, but with a serious skin condition. He gets to speak properly in this film too, using the dialogue to infuse his character with a malevolent charm that I know well from Christopher Lee's roles. His performance is also ably supported by an adorable fluffy white cat - I wonder if he was the first film villain to have one? Finally, I was fascinated to note that in a flash-back sequence where Imhotep shows Helen scenes of their past together in a pool, the images are shot like a silent movie: less crisp than the surrounding footage, no use of close-ups, and the overlay of classic silent-movie style music (in contrast with almost no soundtrack music in main film). Like the white cat, I can't help but feel this must be a cinematic first, as the medium of film was still so new at this time that there can't have been many earlier opportunities to deliberately use the conventions of out-dated film technology to signify 'the past'. Very clever, and very creative.

30. Fear In The Night (1972), dir. Jimmy Sangster
Watched with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan round at her place. It's a Hammer production with Peter Cushing, Ralph Bates and Joan Collins in it, but not one of their horror films - rather, a thriller. That said, it does play heavily on the possibility that there might be something supernatural going on for a long time, which of course Hammer's reputation put them in an excellent position to do. The story is set in the time when it was made, which meant lots of very enjoyable Seventies clothes, cars and street scenes, and revolves around a young woman who is experiencing repeated and very unsettling nocturnal physical attacks. The male characters around her dismiss her experiences as symptomatic of an over-wrought imagination, and for quite a long time it looked like the grain of the story might be leaning in that direction too. I began to get fractious, and [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan had to convince me to stick it out. But then the real truth began to emerge, her experiences were entirely vindicated, and indeed the film proved to be very sympathetic towards those affected by mental health issues - not only the heroine but Peter Cushing's character as well. So a very satisfying watch after all, and I'll definitely want to see it again some time now that I know the 'twist'.

31. Night of the Demon (1957), dir. Jacques Tourneur
Seen with [livejournal.com profile] minnesattva, magister and Andrew Hickey at the National Media Museum as part of a series of ghostly stories screened in the run-up to Christmas. I've seen it on the big screen before, and reviewed the experience. Indeed, I see that I spent a lot of that review discussing how it sits alongside Hammer's horror films, and I had similar responses this time. The importance of the deceased Professor Harrington's diary account in helping the characters figure out what Karswell is up to reminded me a great deal of how Jonathan Harker's diary functions in Hammer's Dracula (and in neither case comes from the source text), while the way Karswell turns on and mocks his own mother also reminded me of the relationship between the Baron Meinster and his mother in Brides of Dracula. Since both of those films were made after this (though only just in the case of Dracula), the direction of influence would go from here to Hammer, but that's entirely typical of how they worked - soaking up contemporary stories and conventions and building them into their own productions. Meanwhile, Andrew noted that by making John Holden a sceptical outsider literally flying into an island full of superstitious believers in the supernatural, the story also had quite a Wicker Mannish feel. It is, of course, all quite a long way from M.R. James' original, but I am reconciled to that, especially on a second viewing. In and of itself it is a great movie which deserves to be regularly rescreened.

32. Rogue One (2016), dir. Gareth Edwards
And my last film of 2016, which I saw with Mr. and Mrs. [twitter.com profile] ZeitgeistZero. It was in fact my first experience of seeing a film on an IMAX screen, as well as being a 3D screening, so it was all pretty impressive and mind-blowing both visually and aurally. The story was great, and I've enjoyed all the fantastically detailed articles about its world which have appeared since, like this one about data storage standards and this one about archaeology. Three cheers for stories which inspire that kind of fan-work! It's true that it could have had more women in it, and let's keep demanding the best on that front, but it was certainly epically better for women than any of episodes I-VI, as well as being impressive on ethnicity and disability, so let's also cheer the direction of travel. Much discussion has also been prompted by its use of CGI to recreate characters from the original trilogy, but I'm afraid I found this only technically impressive. Peter Cushing's recreated face was pretty good, but of course CGI cannot capture the unique humanness of a real person's performance - indeed, even a very convincing impression will only ever be a pastiche, missing the unpredictability of the original person. Most strikingly, the voice wasn't his at all, and since that was always such a central part of what Peter Cushing had to offer, its absence was bound to disappoint. Leia I found less problematic, partly because her face was only on-screen for a few seconds, and partly because they had been able to use an old clip of Carrie Fisher's voice from the time - but of course it was also rather heart-breaking to see her at all so soon after Carrie's sad death. Meanwhile, Darth Vader of course did not need CGI to return to our screens, and it was fabulous fun to see him in full-on evil action again. That said though, part of the power and fascination of Darth Vader in the original films is discovering slowly and with increasing horror just what he is willing and capable of doing. (Even if you have seen the films before, the reactions of the characters within the story lead you through the process of discovering this all over again.) Here, he pretty much launched straight into evil machinations and force-choking, leaving no room for the suspenseful frisson of gradual discovery from the earlier films. Still, I guess that reflects the reality of a modern audience's expectations - you simply can't keep redoing the suspense if they're just going to be sitting their with their pop-corn going "Yeah, we know he's evil - cut to the chase!" It's just a pity Darth's character-development won't ever really work now if the films are viewed in story order - but then I guess that was already ruined fifteen years ago by the whole prequel sequence giving away his relationship to Luke.

OK, I am up to date on my film reviews! Now just gotta do the same for books... and Doctor Who... :-(

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strange_complex: (ITV digital Monkey popcorn)
Another little blast of these ahead of the new Sherlock at 8:30.

13. Jane Eyre (1943), dir. Robert Stevenson
Seen with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan at the National Media Museum in Bradford. It has fantastic sets, plenty of nice Gothic bleakness, some lovely frocks, and Orson Welles doing an excellent line in demonstrating exactly why Mr. Rochester is a complete and utter twat.

14. City of the Dead aka Horror Hotel (1960), dir. John Llewellyn Moxey
Also seen with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan, round at her place I believe. I've seen it before, and indeed own the DVD, but had not watched it for at least 10 years, probably a fair bit more. It features Christopher Lee and a folk-horrorish plot involving a small American town with a history of witch-craft that turns out to be not so very confined to the past as the young female protagonist might hope. In fact, now I come to think about it, there is a lot here in common with The Curse of the Crimson Altar, watched not long before this and reviewed here. For a while, it looks like it might be quite committed to female emancipation, as Nan Barlow (the main character) sets out on an original academic research project despite her boyfriend and brother advising against it, but of course she then dies as a result, so it is just good old-fashioned Stay In The Kitchen after all.

15. The Man With The Golden Gun (1974), dir. Guy Hamilton
Watched because it was on TV and I needed distraction. I think I may still have been on bereavement leave at this point, or else technically out of it but still treating myself very gently as much as possible. Anyway, obviously again the main attraction was Christopher Lee and he delivers in very fine form in this one! Scaramanga's combination of malevolence, sexual potency, superficial charm and brute violence suit him very, very well indeed. It is a very episodic film, which could almost have worked nicely as a TV mini-series, with distinct events taking place on Scaramanga's island, in Beirut, Macau, Hong Kong, and Bangkok and finally back on the island again. I suppose most Bond stories are to some degree, but this more than most, I think.

16. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013), dir. Peter Jackson
I started 2016 with the first of these films, and later followed up with the second, even though this time Christopher Lee is not featured. I enjoyed the elf-orc battle as Bilbo and his friends escaped in wine-barrels down the river, the icy goings-on in Laketown, and the confrontation between Bilbo and Smaug inside the latter's enormous treasure-trove. I have the final film on DVD from Lovefilm, but seem to be taking a while to get round to actually watching it.

17. Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie (2016), dir. Mandie Fletcher
Seen with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan at the Cottage Road cinema. It was good fun and kept us entertained throughout, although I'm afraid I probably only recognised about half of the cameo roles which I was obviously supposed to recognise. Joanna Lumley's body-language as Patsy is just splendid, and she was definitely the highlight of the film for me.

18. Ghostbusters (2016), dir. Paul Feig
Also seen with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan (I think?), probably at the Cottage too. Splendid fun, and great to see both an all-female lead cast and lots of slashy potential between almost all of the main characters. The one thing I could have wished to make it better was that Erin Gilbert (the academic one played by Kristen Wiig) had been fully self-confident in her job at the beginning, and actually delivering a huge and important lecture to a crowded room, rather than practising for doing so, when she is approached by the guy with a copy of her unwittingly-published book about ghosts. That would have made her a full-on identification character for me, as well as giving her a much stronger character narrative for the movie - the woman who was not only a fully-functioning successful academic but also a believer in the paranormal. But no.

Here we get to films 19-23, which I already wrote up as part of my review of the Starburst Film Festival, which is frankly pretty good going. I still have an hour before Sherlock starts as well! Let's see how many more I can do...

24. Beat Girl (1960), dir. Edmond T. Gréville
Taped off the telly and watched chez moi for the usual reason - viz, it has Christopher Lee in it. I've seen it before, but years ago, and never reviewed it here. It's a youth culture film, but rather unsure about whether youth culture is something to be celebrated and glorified or indulged in moral panic over - primarily the latter, though. The main character, Jennifer, is resentful of her father's new not-much-older-than-her wife, and pruriently fascinated when she discovers the wife's past as a stripper. Soon, looking for teenage rebellious kicks, she begins flirting with the world of shady underground strip clubs herself - and Christopher Lee is the sleazy strip-club manager who is there to greet her when she does. It's not a particularly great film on the whole, and the teen characters' dialogue is seriously cringe-worthy, but I do love the music in the climactic scene when Jennifer strips at a house-party. No need to worry about what you might see if you click on that link, BTW - it's from the early '60s, so she doesn't get any further than a cast-iron bra and some knickers your gran would probably think were a bit frumpy.

25. Madhouse (1974), dir. Jim Clark
Seen with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan round at her place, this is an absolutely cracking Vincent Price film which I can hardly believe I hadn't seen before. As in Theatre of Death, he is basically playing himself ('Dr. Death', a type-cast film-star), to the extent that clips from his character's supposed past performances were taken from footage of the real Vincent Price performing in Roger Corman's Edgar Allan Poe films. Around the story of his declining stardom, a murder-mystery unfolds, featuring Peter Cushing, lots of lovely Seventies clothes, and even some charming Seventies children. Just marvellous, and I will gladly watch it again any time.

26. The Wicker Tree (2011), dir. Robin Hardy
This is the film version of Hardy's novel, Cowboys for Christ, which I read and reviewed some years ago. Having read the novel, I had very low expectations for the film, with the result that I actually quite enjoyed it. It is pretty straightforwardly the same story, but probably a better film than the novel is a book - unsurprisingly, really, since that was how Hardy always intended it, and the novel was only what he did to get the story out while attempting to secure backing for the film. Christopher Lee appears, but only fairly briefly in a flashback, and that's probably for the best. Not as awful as it could have been, but a very poor shadow indeed of The Wicker Man. It's unwise to even think of the two as being in any way connected, really.

OK, just six more reviews to do in order to get up to date now - on films at least! But I think that's enough for one evening. Time to tag, format and heat up the last portion of the Christmas pudding ready for tonight's televisual treat...

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strange_complex: (Me Mithraeum)
Another little blast of these, this time spanning the dark middle part of the year when my mother died - probably a reason in itself why I haven't exactly rushed to revisit all this and catch up on the reviews before now.

9. The Innocents (1961), dir. Jack Clayton
Another one watched with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan, I think at her house on DVD. It's probably the best-known screen adaptation of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, with Deborah Kerr as the governess, and is very effective indeed. The cinematography is the work of Freddie Francis, who went on to direct Dracula Has Risen From the Grave for Hammer - one of my favourites in that series, and in no small part because of how stylish and innovative its camerawork is. Certainly, this film makes the most of its locations and employs clever lighting in a similar style, so I think his touch is identifiable in both.

10. Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968), dir. Vernon Sewell
Taped off the telly, and watched chez moi. This one constitutes another tick on my list of Christopher Lee films I have seen, and also features Boris Karloff, Michael Gough and Barbara Steele for good measure. It is not actually that great, but it does have what would now be described as a 'Folk Horror'ish feel to it, by dint of a story-line involving three-hundred-year-old witches, Satanic sacrificial rituals and people wearing animal masks. Lee is fine in it as ever, and it's nice to see him interacting with chum and neighbour Boris Karloff, who is nearing the end of both his career and his life, but does a nice turn in twinkly naughtiness.

11. Sing Street (2016), dir. John Carney
Seen with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan and [livejournal.com profile] planet_andy at the Hyde Park Picture House. It's a very good film, featuring a teenaged boy in 1980s Ireland who is sent to a rough local school so that his parents can save money, and finds meaning, identity and romance in setting up a band with some of the other kids he meets there. It was compellingly characterised, with a lot of really good stuff about adolescent struggles, and I particularly liked the older brother who has already more or less given up on his own dreams, but helps the younger one to sharpen up his musical sound and take the risks he needs to take to make it all work out. But by the time we saw this my own mother was in hospital and I knew she was probably dying, and I found one moment of it very hard watching: the teenaged central character sneaking into his parents' bedroom at night to steal the money he needs to get away to London and make his fortune, looking down at his sleeping mother and saying (something like) "So long, Mom. I'll be seeing you." Different circumstances, but the motif of saying goodbye like that seriously choked me up, leaving me wanting to sob helplessly in a way that's not really acceptable in the cinema. So. Not nice to be trapped with that kind of feeling in public when you can't do anything about it.

12. Carry on Behind (1975), dir. Gerald Thomas
And this one I watched the day after Mum had died. It was a Saturday, and we had already done everything we needed to or could do for the time being regarding funeral directors etc the previous day, so I told my Dad I wasn't going to do anything at all that day, and made myself a nest on the sofa in the lounge of the family home. This is what was on TV that afternoon, and as it was a Carry On film I hadn't seen, and set in the 1970s, it seemed like a very good choice - and indeed it was. It's absolutely rubbish as actual Carry On films go, coming not long before they called it a day, and featuring hilarious jokes along the lines of people sitting down on chairs which have just been painted and not being able to get off again without ripping the seats of their trousers. But it was cheerful and nostalgic and undemanding, had some vague plot-line about archaeologists finding a Roman encampment just next to a caravan park, and included some lovely flares. So it was actually just what I needed on that day, and in fact really helped me to just calm down, concentrate on something else, and escape from everything that had just happened. I am eternally grateful to the television scheduling gods for serving it up just when I needed it.

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strange_complex: (Vampira)
As noted in September, there is a big gap in my film review write-ups for this year. And indeed book reviews stretching back into last year. All sorts of things have got in the way - illness, elections, death, work - and I'm never going to be able to review things I watched or read several months ago as fully now as I might once have done. However, it is weighing on me and I do want to catch up. So here begins an attempt to do so, even if only briefly for each item.

5. Casablanca (1942), dir. Michael Curtiz
A Cottage Road Classic, seen with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan. We came out marvelling at how beautifully-crafted it is, in spite of the world being in such turmoil while it was made, and how every single word and image in the film is so rich with meaning. We also reminded ourselves that part of the reason it is so powerful is that almost every person in the film was a real-world refugee. Indeed when I Googled to refresh my memory of the details, I realised that half the reason I know this is because of an LJ post by [livejournal.com profile] nwhyte from 2014 cataloguing the cast's backgrounds. Thanks for that!

6. Jaguar Lives (1979), dir. Ernest Pintoff
Lent to me by magister because it has Christopher Lee in it and I hadn't seen it. It's basically an absolutely dreadful martial arts action film, which gives away its own supposed twist both in the title and in an opening scene featuring one character assuming that another had died, while it was all too obvious to the audience that he could easily have escaped alive. Lee's performance is perfectly solid of course, as they always are, in a role clearly based on his portrayal of Scaramanga in The Man With the Golden Gun, and Donald Pleasance puts in a good turn being utterly deranged as well. But there will be no need for me to watch this film ever again. I can now tick it off on my list of Lee's performances, and let it rest unmolested.

7. Dracula (1931), dir. George Melford
Watched with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan, this is the Spanish-language version of the Universal Dracula starring Bela Lugosi, filmed with a different cast at night on the same sets. The performances of the women in particular are more passionate than in the English-language version, but the main thing that struck us was that much of the action just took longer to get through, as is reflected by the respective running-times of the two films: 1h25 for the English-language version and 1h44 for the Spanish one. It's certainly worth watching for afficionados, but we did feel it start to drag a bit at times.

8. A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014), dir. Ana Lily Amirpour
The celebrated recent Iranian vampire film - well, sort of, in that it is set in Iran and deeply engaged with Iranian culture, but was actually filmed in California by a second-generation Iranian immigrant. Again I watched this with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan, I think in the same evening as Dracula, and we were very impressed with the beautiful black-and-white photography and somewhat surreal atmosphere. Actually, the whole thing reminded me quite strongly of Martin, both in its portrayal of small-town life and its problems, and in the way it plays around with the established convention of the vampire genre. The girl of the title is a vampire, but she also protects the human women in her town, saving them from predatory men by killing them herself, and eventually offering a form of escape for the main character from the hopeless world he had been trapped in.

OK, that's a start. There will need to be a lot more of these entries. Sorry in advance if they get boring!

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strange_complex: (Claudia Cardinale car)
The other cool Dracula-related thing I did recently was to go on a little road-trip with the lovely [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan to see two exhibitions dedicated to our favourite kind of horror films: British productions from the 1950s to '70s, and especially those made by Hammer. As luck would have it, the exhibitions we were interested in overlapped by about a week (over Halloween, natch) and were both located in the east Midlands area. So although each was quite small and it would have seemed a bit of an endeavour to go to either one from Leeds on its own, between the two they made for a very agreeable day out.

Our first port of call was Northampton, where the city's Museum and Art Gallery was hosting an exhibition of film posters entitled 'Scream And Scream Again: The Golden Age Of British Horror'. It's actually a touring exhibition, put together by an organisation called Abertoir who run a horror festival in Aberystwyth, so although the Northampton showing has finished now, it's worth looking out for it at a museum near you in the future if you like the sound of it. It wasn't huge, consisting of probably about 25-30 posters plus some collected front-of-house publicity stills in a gallery about the size of a typical village hall, but it provided a very well-selected cross-section of some of the best films of the era.

2016-11-02 12.31.24.jpg

More pictures under here )

We also both really liked Northampton as a whole. Neither of us could remember having been there before, and we did see it at its best in lovely sunshine and still-mild weather, but it certainly struck us as worth visiting. In fact, a lot of people I know would enjoy the regular collections of museum itself, because Northampton has a proud history as a major cobbling centre, so basically the whole ground floor of the museum (apart from the temporary exhibitions gallery where the horror posters were) is entirely devoted to SHOES! Victorian lace-up boots, clompy glittery platforms, fancy stilettos, you name it. You can get a taste of the sort of thing they have from their Shoe of the Month blog feature.

We found lots of interesting architecture in the town centre, of which I made a particular point of capturing some of the Art Deco highlights )

Our next destination was De Montfort University, Leicester for The Monsters of Hammer: A Screen Bestiary. This is the work of the University's Cinema and Television History research centre (CATH), who now hold Hammer's scripts archive (as well as a growing collection of other Hammer-related material), and were also responsible for the unique staged reading of a never-produced Dracula script, The Unquenchable Thirst of Dracula which I enjoyed SO MUCH last year. Needless to say, I've been following their activities very closely ever since (and indeed before), so I was very excited for this.

The exhibition had been set up in the University's Heritage Centre, and was physically even smaller than the Northampton one, but they had packed a lot in! We spent a good hour-and-a-half there, compared to about 30-45 minutes in Northampton, and although that's probably more than most normal human beings because we are so geeky about Hammer films and needed to examine each item in detail, discuss it at length and take loads of photos, it is still probably good for almost an hour's interest even if you just look at each item and read through the text once. First, some general pictures to show the overall layout, size and feel of it all:

2016-11-02 16.28.13.jpg

Again more under here )

What I'd really like is for them to start publishing some of this material. I see in my mind's eye The Ultimate Hammer Dracula Script Collection, including a) the shooting scripts from the movies that were actually made, b) any earlier variant versions of those and most importantly c) all the ones which weren't produced at all. I don't even know if that is possible - presumably even the unmade scripts are still in copyright, so I can certainly see that it would be complicated. But I think publication has to be the ultimate end-goal of the whole project. Otherwise, for the vast majority of the public the difference between the scripts just not existing at all and lots of time and money being spent looking after, researching and cataloguing them will remain barely detectable.

Anyway, for now I would definitely encourage everyone who loves Hammer films to get along to DMU's Heritage Centre, enjoy their amazing exhibition, and fill in enthusiastic feedback forms to help support CATH's work and enable them to secure more research funding. It's open until next May, so you have plenty of time. :-)

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strange_complex: (Doctor Caecilius hands)
So! Film festival, day two. Here is the overall schedule for the day:

Saturday schedule.jpg


And here's what I did:

21. The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973), dir. Gordon Hessler / interview with Caroline Munro / Ray Harryhausen's Lost Treasures )

Interview with Katy Manning (aka Jo Grant from Doctor Who) )

Met Caroline Munro and got her autograph )

Doctor Who season 22 show-makers' interview )

Afterwards, I joined [livejournal.com profile] newandrewhickey, [livejournal.com profile] minnesattva and [livejournal.com profile] innerbrat for the first 45 minutes or so of The Rocketeer (1991), a sort of larger-than-life SF comedy about a US stunt pilot in the 1940s who finds a jet-pack, with Jennifer Connelly as his under-impressed girlfriend. I could see it was good and would have stayed to watch the whole thing if there weren't competing features on the schedule, but there were: two live commentaries from the Tenth Doctor era, marking the fact that his first full season screened ten years ago now. Ten is much more my thing than Six, so off I slipped...

Live commentary on New Who 2.3 School Reunion )

Live commentary on New Who 2.13 Doomsday )

All this time, Galaxy Quest had been playing in another room, which is a pity, because once the Doctor Who stuff was over and I went to join [livejournal.com profile] innerbrat, [livejournal.com profile] minnesattva and [livejournal.com profile] newandrewhickey in the screening, I realised what bloody good fun it was to watch at an actual con. But then again I have seen it multiple times before, and those live Doctor Who commentaries really were great, so I think I made the right choice.

After the film had finished, we went for food at a seriously good pizza / pasta place just down the road. It was nominally just a take-away / sit-in at fixed tables place, but the quality of the food was way better than you'd normally expect for a place like that, and along with the cute student room I was staying in and the well-appointed Co-op just below it, this was one of a number of things that really made me fall for the area where we were staying. Like, on one level, it was just edge-of-city-centre ring-roadish urban redevelopment, with a lot of medium-rise new-builds, but on another it did actually feel somehow quite modern and dynamic and nice to be in. In fact, hell, let's have a picture of it which fails to do justice to the intensity of the sunset on the Friday evening:

2016-08-26 20.27.12.jpg


22. Blood of the Tribades (2016), dir. Sophia Cacciola and Michael J. Epstein )

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strange_complex: (Dracula Risen hearse smile)
The tl;dr version of this film festival is that the content was awesome, but the organisation was really pretty poor. It was a first-time event, so didn't have an established loyal customer base, and it hadn't been advertised anything like as effectively as it could have been, so that I know a lot of people who might have wanted to go to it didn't know about it until very late in the day, and in fact it is quite possible that the organisers and guests outnumbered the paying customers. The timing was also frequently off-schedule, leaving us either waiting up to an hour for something to start, or rushing from one thing to another without a chance to get the dinner we'd planned for in between. Thankfully, it was never quite so bad as to mean that I missed anything I'd been looking forward to as a result, but I really hope they get better at both advertising and timing if they run this festival again, as otherwise it is doomed to failure.

Anyway! I'm going to write it up day by day, to keep the entries manageable. This is the overall schedule for the Friday, which true to the organisational spirit mentioned above was released at around 8pm on the evening before the festival was due to begin, i.e. way too late for most people to make sensible arrival plans in advance.

Friday schedule.jpg


Getting there and settling in )

Scream Queens: Caroline Munro and Martine Beswick )

19. Gothic (1986), dir. Ken Russell with intro by Stephen Volk )

20. Dracula A.D. 1972, dir. Alan Gibson )

Thus our first day ended, and it was back off to my snuggly student nest-bed for a rather short night's sleep ahead of day two...

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strange_complex: (Dracula 1958 cloak)
(Still working through my 2015 reading, here...)

This is the first ever self-declared Gothic novel, in that from at least the second edition onwards it bore the subtitle 'a Gothic story'. But we are at the birth of a genre here, and the meaning of the word 'Gothic' has changed a great deal since. By it, Walpole meant primarily 'medieval' and 'Romantic' - not dark, anguished or (obviously, as they were yet in the future) Victorian. The castle of the title is not remote, storm-battered or half-ruined, but the living seat of a southern-Italian nobleman and his family, inhabited by princesses and visited by knights trailing pennants behind them. And while there are supernatural goings-on, they are more in the vein of the fantastical elements in medieval stories like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight than the lurking, horrible Things from the Other Side which the word 'Gothic' tends to evoke now. Indeed, Walpole presented it on first publication as a translation of exactly such a newly-discovered medieval Romance - not as his own work at all. (Wikipedia has reasonable background details.)

All of this means there are quite a few assumptions to unpick for the 21st-century reader who approaches this book through the filter of later Gothic literature. Is it worth it? I think yes, but more for the sake of understanding the history of the novel and the Romance generally than the genre of Gothic specifically. There are Generational Feuds, Terrible Tyrants, Lost Heirs, Mistaken Identities, Tragic Misunderstandings, Unrequited Loves, Forbidden Loves, Crossed Loves, Wronged Women and Pious Heroes. Probably most 18th-century novels are much the same, but I think this may actually the earliest English novel I have ever read right through, so I am mostly familiar with these tropes and devices through later works, where they are usually being subverted, given new twists or knowingly satirised. Indeed, even here Walpole is doing something quite new by introducing fantastical and supernatural elements into the mix. And it would be unfair to suggest that the work is stuffily self-important - there are touches of humour, too, particularly (à la Shakespeare) revolving around the lower-class characters. But the melodrama setting is definitely higher, and more in earnest, than I am used to. As such, I found it a fascinating insight into the world of the 18th-century novel - and particularly the reasons why young ladies were so often forbidden to read them!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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strange_complex: (Dracula Risen hearse smile)
Watched last weekend because it was on and I was both curious and in need of some brain down-time.

Fundamentally, it's a zany kids' comedy, with the central premise being that monsters are more afraid of humans than we are of them (cf. Monsters, Inc., etc.). The reason in this case is that Dracula (their unofficial leader) lost his wife in a fire at the hands of an angry torch-bearing mob, and has never got over the trauma. Instead, he has built a hotel far away from humanity for his monstrous chums, and keeps his daughter there wrapped up in an over-protective bubble, so that she will never go near humans (they drink blood substitutes, of course) and he won't risk losing her. Only then a back-packing human wanders into the hotel by accident, and he and Dracula's daughter fall head-long into teenage love. Awkwardness, hurdles and hilarity ensue, until true love triumphs, everyone learns to get along, and Dracula realises that he needs to let his little girl take control of her own destiny.

So far, so predictable and not really worth watching. But nonetheless it is a mainstream popular reception of my beloved Gothic horror genre, and in that light I found plenty to keep me interested, particularly where the visual design was concerned. Basically, Hotel Transylvania's monsters are Universal monsters.

hotel_transylvania.jpg

You can tell especially from Frankenstein's monster, who boasts the classic Boris Karloff high squared-off forehead design, but also from the white stripe in his bride's hair and the fact that there is an Invisible Man at all (represented, of course, by the floating glasses). There have been many Mummies, Frankensteins and Draculas, but few other film treatments of the Invisible Man besides Universal's. I'm not quite sure how the Mummy ended up looking (to my eyes) like the Oogie-Boogie Man from Nightmare Before Christmas, but I assume there is some sort of missing link of which I am unaware. Please comment if you know what it is!

The castle, though, is quite plausibly Hammeresque, and for me was the highlight of the entire film:

hotel-transylvania-pic05.jpg

As for Dracula, he is almost equal measures Lugosi and Lee. He has inherited Lugosi's turned-up (rather than turned-down) cloak collar, black (not greying) hair and eastern-European (rather than RP British) accent. But he has Lee's black-from-head-to-toe clothing (no white bow-tie or six-pointed medallion), his height and his fluid movements, and most striking of all his moments of SUDDEN RAGE when provoked, complete with burning red eyes and snarling fangs.

Hotel_transylvania_angry_dracula.png

If that's not Christopher Lee, I don't know what is. Certainly, it is lovely to see yet one more testimony to the iconic status of his Dracula.

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strange_complex: (Cities condor in flight)
This was my first film watched of 2016, so naturally I made sure it was one with Christopher Lee in it! I missed these films in the cinema, so have had them on my Lovefilm list for a while in order to catch up, and having now seen this one on DVD I regret not making the effort to see it on the big screen at the time. It was very definitely made with that scale in mind, so that some of the fight scenes in particular were difficult to follow even on my quite substantial TV. This applied especially to the scenes of escape from the goblin mountain, during which our main party were frequently little more than pin-pricks on my screen, while the generally brownish-grey colour-scheme did nothing at all to help me tell who was whom. I might also add that the bumps and falls which our merry band sustain in this scene and indeed throughout the film with no significant ill effect make what Bruce Willis manages to survive in Die Hard look positively realistic.

That aside, though, I enjoyed the film very much. It is a long time since I read the book (at least 24 years, I reckon), so I wasn't in the least bit bothered by any departures from (or more usually additions to) the original narrative - rather, just generally glad that Tolkien bequeathed us with these extraordinary soaring legends in the first place, and that I live in an era when they have been brought to life so magnificently on screen. OK, so there's a slight feeling of 'I Can't Believe It's Not Lord of the Rings' about this trilogy, but that's inevitable really. And besides, there's actually quite a case for saying that The Hobbit gains something for having been told on screen after The Lord of the Rings, and experienced in its wake. I was struck for example by the sense that Gandalf was both written and played as distinctly less wise and experienced than I remembered him being in the LoTR trilogy; while meeting Gollum for the first time and seeing the pivotal moment when he first loses his Precious was just so much more powerful and captivating seen in the light of what will happen later than it could possibly be the other way round.

Christopher Lee's scenes are minimal, of course, partly to allow for his age and partly because Saruman's character is one of Jackson's additions to the original story, so is only inserted as a cameo really. He filmed them against green-screens in the UK, separately from the other actors in the same scene (this YouTube video shows how). Nonetheless, they are well worth watching if you are a fan, mainly for the same reasons as I've given in re Gandalf and Gollum above of getting to see a different take on his character in the light of what you know will come later. Lee puts exactly the right irascibility and dismissiveness of his fellow White Council members into his delivery, without ever tipping the character over the top into anything actively obstructive or power-hungry, to show us how and why Saruman will eventually change his allegiance, but also why Gandalf and the Elves still trust his advice and seek his input at this stage in the story. Just what we might have expected of him, in other words, but I'm glad it's there on screen and that he lived to do it.

I shall definitely be lining up the next two instalments on my Lovefilm list, in spite of the small-screen issue, but also looking out for opportunities to see all three as they were meant to be viewed in the cinema.

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strange_complex: (Dracula 1958 cloak)
This is the second Hammer Dracula novelisation I was able to get hold of, and I read it during my holiday to Romania in May / June. I took copious notes on it at the time, in a notebook which I was also using (in a different part of it) to record my experiences of the holiday as a whole. On the day when we travelled to Actual Dracula's Actual Castle, I got confused about which part of the notebook was supposed to be for which purpose, so that the section which is meant to contain my Prince of Darkness notes now at one point reads like this:
Shandor would normally offer the hospitality of the monastery to everyone, but stops himself and decides to insist the 'wagoner' must stay outside because of the situation with Dracula. Knows nothing from the outside must be carried in.
The mountains are starker now - patches of bare, sheer rock. But still hugging the river.
A simple mistake, obviously, but somehow also a beautiful symptom of exactly what I went on that holiday to achieve - a deliberate blurring of the boundaries between the magical world of Hammer's Dracula and the reality of the Carpathian mountains. Certainly, I couldn't have picked a more perfect setting for reading the novel than my seat on a coach winding its way through the actual Carpathians, or a more perfect mind-set for exploring Actual Dracula's Actual Castle than having just put down the book to get out of the coach.

I haven't been able to check this novel against the film's original shooting script, but I am reasonably sure that, like the Scars of Dracula novelisation, it was written from the script before the film came out, rather than by sitting and watching the film. One of my reasons for thinking this is that the town known as 'Carlsbad' in the film is called 'Josefsbad' in the novel. It seems very unlikely that a writer whose brief was to create a faithful novelisation of the film would make a change of that sort, but details like that quite often were changed during the production of Hammer's films. So it's probable that 'Josefsbad' is the name used in the original script, and thus also the novel. Similarly, some of the details of what the castle looks like are different in the novel from the film - e.g. the travellers pass through a gateway before reaching the main door, and the main hallway contains a curved staircase. Again, it's unlikely that a writer working from the film would change these details, so they must reflect the descriptions in the original script, as opposed to Bernard Robinson's actual sets, which represent a compromise between the script descriptions and what was feasible with the space and budget he had available.

If I'm correct about this, the novel goes some way towards helping to resolve one of the 'controversies' around this film - namely, the issue of whether the original script gave Dracula any dialogue or not. Christopher Lee claimed the script did include dialogue for Dracula, but that he thought it was awful and refused to speak it, whereas Jimmy Sangster (who actually wrote the script) said that he never included any dialogue for Dracula in the first place. Sadly, Christopher Lee was famous for saying things in interviews which were neither plausible nor internally consistent (put less politely: lying), and Sangster's claim is certainly supported by the novel, which indeed does not include any dialogue for Dracula. But only a look at the actual original script could resolve this 100%. If it is held in the archive recently acquired by The Cinema And Television History (CATH) Research Centre at De Montfort University, then checking should be trivially easy now - but I haven't come across anyone saying that they've looked, or what they discovered if so.

Meanwhile, although this novelisation again follows the story of the film very faithfully, Burke clearly made a conscious decision to structure his telling of it in a slightly different way, and in particular to present each of its nine chapters as much as possible from the viewpoint of a single character. I found this very effective, especially for chapter 4, which presents the ritual resurrection of Dracula entirely from Klove's point of view, and chapter 8, which covers everything from Helen's attack through the monastery window to Dracula's abduction of her from Diana's point of view. The effect is to give us something quite similar to what Angus Hall did with the Scars novelisation - that is, insights into the inner worlds of these characters of the type which can't quite be conveyed on screen - but in a slightly more sustained way. For example, we learn a lot in chapter 4 about Klove's experiences during the many years while he has watched and waited for an opportunity to resurrect his master and the extent to which he really does think of the resurrection itself as a religious ritual, while chapter 8 of course puts us inside Diana's head during Dracula's attempt to make her drink his blood from a wound which he scratches into his chest. This scene actually isn't played quite the same way as in the film - in the novel she eventually finds the will to resist, which she most certainly does not in the film. But in any case, Burke's selection of his point-of-view character for both chapters is extremely effective and adds powerful extra dimensions to the story.

I particularly enjoyed the final, climactic chapter, covering the chase from the monastery to the castle and Dracula's final demise. It had a lot of multi-sensory descriptive detail - the fading light of the sun, the dusty road, the foaming horses, the shriek of wood and iron as the run-away wagon crashes on the castle bridge - and a real sense of action and urgency. Indeed, a lot of the details in this chapter made it much clearer to me than the film has ever managed how much this sequence was supposed to recall the climatic chase at the end of Stoker's novel, with Dracula likewise being carried along in a coffin on a rough wagon through a winter landscape, and the vampire-hunters catching up with him just as the sun is about to set.

Dracula's icy demise made much more sense as described in the novel, too, freed as it was from the budget and special-effects constraints at work on the film. In the film, the final fight takes place on a solid platform of ice, and the audience is asked to accept that Dracula is somehow stupid enough to end up trapped on the only loose chunk of that ice, rather than just running the hell away as soon as the first cracks appear, and climbing up the castle wall to escape. But in the novel, all of the ice breaks up, and very quickly too. Charles just about manages to escape to one side and climb the bank, while on the other Dracula tries to edge along the last pieces of remaining ice towards a protruding buttress of the castle wall, which he could use to climb up off the ice to safety - but is prevented from doing so by a final collapse which plunges him into the water.

In fact, this scene as described in the novel reminds me somewhat of the resurgence of spring and vitality after the winter frosts which happens at the end of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and helps to defeat the White Witch. There is a sense that nature itself - not just Father Shandor's rifle - is playing its part here, throwing off the dark grip of winter to let life through once again and defeat Dracula. I'm sure all of this was lovingly described and envisaged in Sangster's original script, and I entirely understand why realistic breaking ice was rather beyond the effects capability of the production crew. But anyway, it's nice to finally understand what is meant to be happening during an ending which I've always found very frustrating and annoying while watching the film. Perhaps I'll be able to watch it more charitably in future, now that I know what they were trying to convey.

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strange_complex: (Dracula Risen hearse smile)
In 1976, Anne Rice published Interview with the Vampire, a novel presented in the form of a vampire's taped confessional, reporting on his life and experiences from his point of view. One year earlier, Fred Saberhagen had done much the same, except that his vampire was Dracula.

I don't think either can have been aware of the other's work until after they had completed their own. Interview with the Vampire was an intensely personal novel whose gestation period stretched back to a short story written in the late 1960s, and its manuscript was complete by 1974. I haven't been able to find an equivalent project history for The Dracula Tape, but obviously the fact that it was published before Rice's novel means Saberhagen is very unlikely to have had any opportunity to read hers before submitting his. Rather, I think we are seeing the combined effect of a) the explosive potential of taped conversations being rather in the air thanks to the role they had played in the Watergate scandal, and b) the general shift towards sympathetic portrayals of vampires at this time, also visible a year later in the heavily romanticised 1977 Broadway version of Dracula starring Frank Langella (later turned into Dracula 1979). In other words, it's simply two authors responding to the same zeitgeist.

Another bit of zeitgeist which left its mark on Saberhagen's novel (though not Anne Rice's) was the publication of In Search of Dracula by Radu Florescu and Raymond T. McNally in 1972. This was the first publication to argue that Bram Stoker based his Count Dracula directly on the Wallachian Voievod Vlad III Dracula, and to make the real-world history of the latter accessible to Anglophone readers. It inspired a whole wave of creative works fleshing out the connection between the two after its publication, including the BBC radio play 'Lord Dracula' which I listened to recently, this documentary starring Christopher Lee and many others. So it's no big surprise to find that Saberhagen's Dracula explicitly is Vlad - though this doesn't actually have very much impact on the detail of the novel, since its main concern is with the same time-period as is covered in Stoker's novel, several centuries after Vlad's human life-time.

The story which Saberhagen's Dracula relates, at once to a tape recorder and to the frightened great-grandson of Mina Harker and his wife, is simply that of Stoker's novel, but as experienced from his point of view. Saberhagen had obviously read the novel closly, and offers a nice subversive reading of it. We learn that his Dracula was genuinely trying to pass as human at the start of Jonathan Harker's visit to his castle, using the visit as practice in doing so before moving to the busy metropolis of London, but had underestimated how difficult it would be and found to his frustration and consternation that he kept failing at it - as, for example, when Harker cuts himself while shaving. Every ostensibly-damning detail in Stoker's novel is carefully explained - that wasn't a baby in the sack he threw to his three brides but a squealing pig; the wolves which appear at the castle door when Harker tries to leave are there to escort him safely to the main road, not frighten him back into the castle; Lucy dies not because of his blood-drinking but because she is given transfusions from the wrong blood group; etc. etc. Dracula himself only takes human blood with the person's consent (otherwise drinking from animals), he of course truly loves first Lucy and then Mina, and he and Mina eventually enter into a conspiracy to fake his death and thus throw the vampire-hunters off his scent.

As a flipped perspective narrative, it's pretty well done. That said, Saberhagen's prose is nothing like Bram Stoker's, and he does himself no favours by showing this up very starkly in the earlier parts of the story through extensive direct quotations from the novel, which his Dracula then deconstructs and retells. I understand why he felt the need to do this - basically the fear that people might not 'get' his rewritings if they didn't have the original account easily to hand to remind them of the story as Stoker had originally told it. But personally I'd prefer him not to have done it quite so much, even if he had been able to write like Bram Stoker. It felt to me like wasted space which could have been used instead for extra new story, and made the whole narrative feel too closely tied to the structure of Stoker's. I was also unconvinced by the relationship between Dracula and Mina, which seemed to be suddenly announced as a Great Love without any very clear basis that I could see - but this seems to be a common complaint for me with fictional love-affairs, which I have written about in relation to Dracula (1979) and Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) to mention only the Dracula-related instances (it doesn't only annoy me in Dracula stories; it's just that I tend to write more about those than anything else).

Still, I'm glad I read it. I've known that this novel exists since 1994, because it has a detailed entry in a vampire encyclopedia which I bought in that year, and of course have been hungry ever since to hear Dracula's story from his perspective - but it has only been recently in this eBay-enabled age that I've been able to access a copy. It's certainly better than Dacre Stoker and Ian Holt's attempt at a similarly redemptive narrative, and is interesting for the place it holds in the ongoing evolution of Dracula fiction.

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strange_complex: (Dracula Scars wine)
Now I am going to attempt some book reviews. I am seriously behind on these. I read this particular book last February, and while that's not a problem in this case because it is a Hammer Dracula book, so I took detailed and obsessive notes about it at the time, that isn't true of everything I read in 2015. So this particular review will probably be ludicrously long, but others are likely to be rather brief.

Anyway, just as Target Books began producing novelisations of Classic Doctor Who TV stories in the 1970s, usually based on the original script rather than the broadcast version (not least because these weren't always available by the time the novels were written), the same thing happened for quite a number of the Hammer films. Not all were novelised, but of the Dracula series, Brides, Prince and Scars were done in this way; and of those, Scars was the one I managed to pick up for a reasonable price on eBay first. As it happens, I also managed to obtain a copy of the Scars shooting script, written by Anthony Hinds, around the same time, as an optional extra along with a book I bought from Peveril Publishing. So I was able to read the two against one another, as well of course as considering how they compared to the film.

As a result, I can be 100% confident that this novel was indeed written by working directly from the script. The plot and dialogue follow it exactly, and the descriptive passages in the novel often use the exact same wording as the descriptions of actions and locations found in the script (which, of course, unlike the dialogue, could not possibly have been taken from the film). Indeed, some of the location descriptions used in the novel don't match what was eventually shown on the screen (budget restrictions often led to scaling-down), but do match the original script. This isn't to say novel and script are identical, though. Hall was clearly at liberty to embellish, and in this spirit has taken some sequences described in the script in a slightly different direction from what was done in the film. He has also included some scenes that aren't in the version of the script I read at all - though they may have been in earlier drafts. Certainly, the version of the script I read has quite a lot of notes in it stating that scenes had been deleted or omitted, and sometimes that is exactly where the extra scenes appear in the novel. Both novel and script also confirm what I've read about Dracula's opening resurrection scene in various books about Hammer films - that it was added at the last minute at the request of Hammer's distributors at this time, EMI. This matches up with the fact that isn't in the script or the novel.

Another way in which both script and novel differ from the final film relates to the castle - and now that I've read them I finally understand what the film was trying to get at here in a way I never did before. In the film, we see the main body of the castle being set on fire early in the story, but then soon afterwards Dracula and Tania are living in the very same rooms perfectly happily, without any sign of fire damage. Dracula mentions that the beautiful furniture etc visible in the rooms is 'all that was left - after the fire', but we never see any visible signs of fire-damage. The script and novel both reveal what was meant to be the set-up, though - that the Great Hall of the castle had collapsed in on itself in the fire, leaving only two usable areas: the servants' quarters, where Dracula moves his remaining good furniture, and one bedroom, with the two connected only by slimy / charred / draughty corridors. This would have been really cool and interesting, picking up rather nicely on Stoker's original vision of Dracula living in visibly straightened circumstances, yet with the evidence of once-great wealth all around him, but it just wasn't followed through in the film - probably for the practical reason that the interior sets were reworked from Horror of Frankenstein, made just before this, while the exterior sets and long-distance models were developed separately. The result is that the exteriors and interior don't match up sensibly, and the interiors are all rather too grand to look convincingly like servants' quarters. That's just what they had, so - whaddayagonnado?

Comparing the novel to the film, Hall gives us a slightly more supernatural Dracula than what we see on screen. Right from the start, Hammer had elected to write out Dracula's ability to adopt anything other than human form for budget reasons - Peter Cushing's Van Helsing calls the idea that he can turn into a bat or wolf a 'fallacy' in the first film. With Scars, a sequence in the script describing a sleeping Dracula locking eyes with a bat which flies into his crypt is interpreted in the film as meaning that he has given the bat telepathic instructions, which it then flies off to obey, but in the novel Hall turns this into Dracula himself actually becoming the bat, and flying off to wreak his revenge on the local villagers directly. Similarly, as Paul stumbles through the forest after being kicked out of the village inn, Hall describes the mountain mist crawling down his collar as though it were alive - perhaps just atmospheric embellishment, but perhaps also meant to make us wonder whether it is actually Dracula or one of his vampire hordes who have temporarily adopted a misty form, and are checking him out as a potential victim?

Hall also proves himself good at creating a suitably Gothic atmosphere through his descriptions of rugged, inhospitable landscapes, vegetation and weather. He has to do this to create the right effect in the absence of Gothic-looking visuals, of course, but Hall's writing is successful enough to make some scenes distinctly more chilling than they are in the film. This is true for the afore-mentioned scene of Paul stumbling through the forest through enveloping mists, and for another one of Klove advancing on Sarah with ill intent towards the end of the story, which Hall makes ten times more obviously rapey than it comes across as on screen. (I'm not saying having rapeyness in stories is a great thing, but if you are going to do it, you should convey the horror as clearly as possible, which Hall does.) In short, Hall's novel is overall slightly better qua novel than the film is qua film - though, in fairness, Hall didn't have to come up with the original plot, so could concentrate more on stylistic matters instead when he wrote it up. Also, let's be honest, we are starting from a pretty low bar with this particular film. ;-)

This isn't to say he always had his eye entirely on the ball - after all, we are basically talking about a cheap paperback which was probably knocked out in no more than a month. For example, he gives us a big scene all about how tired Julie is because her last customers have stayed until 2am and she has then had to clear up after them before going to bed, only to be followed by dialogue two pages later about how no-one in her village will open up after dark. He also makes both Paul and then later Simon recognise the name Dracula, and know something of his terrible reputation, before they meet him - something which the film itself steers clear of, and is a mistake in my view. The logic of the films is always that the large towns which people like Paul and Simon come from represent the normal, civilised world, within which horrors such as Dracula are unimaginable, and that he can only flourish in out-of-the way villages where the combination of isolation, ignorance and fear allows him to get away with his terrible acts unchecked. If normal chaps like Paul and Simon know about him all the same, that begins to fall apart, which in turn erodes the very delicate balance of disbeliefs which allow the whole story-world to function.

On the other hand, Hall sometimes strives to smooth over unresolved plot peculiarities from the original script, including one which I hadn't even noticed. This came in chapter 15, when Hall seeks to explain why Simon and Sarah would hitch a ride in a farmer's cart when they go off to look for Paul, when they're clearly both from wealthy families who would have their own carriages. Hall's explanation is they think they'll get more response from the locals if they pretend to be a penniless couple - a nice idea, and it does more or less match up with Simon's attempt in the film to pretend they're students. Another possibility which occurs to me, now that I'm alerted to the issue, is that they are trying to hide what they're doing from both sets of parents, who would naturally worry, and might even insist on involving the police, who would then try to arrest Paul for his alleged assault on the Burgomaster's daughter.

Meanwhile, because he is writing a novel rather than a film script, Hall can offer us some insights into the inner lives of his characters. He does this for most of them, but it is particularly striking and interesting for Dracula, who is usually so aloof and impenetrable. E.g. at the start of chapter 10, when Dracula first sees Paul, we learn that he feels jealous of Paul for being young, human and vital. I'm not sure that's quite how I see Dracula, but it certainly has a basis in Lee's performances, in which he always attempted to convey what he called 'the loneliness of evil'. Hall also gives Dracula some considerable extra dialogue towards the end of the novel, especially when Simon comes face to face with him in his crypt having just discovered Paul's grisly fate. There are no deletions marked in the script I have at this point in the story, and I think it's unlikely that Hinds would have written such a long talky scene into what is more or less the climax of the film, so I think this must be original to Hall. But in a novel its very welcome to have the main protagonist and antagonist confronting one another properly, and of course more than welcome to have some extra lines for Dracula himself, who here shows us his arrogant (or self-confident, depending on your point of view!) faith in his invulnerability just before his fall.

Hall also makes the characters of both Julie and the Priest considerably more plausible than they come across on screen. In the case of the Priest, this isn't entirely Hall's doing - the Priest was already rather more convincing in Anthony Hinds' script than he comes across as in the final film, where he behaves so bizarrely (trying to stop the villagers attacking Dracula, wimping out for no clear reason whenever an attack does take place) that it is possible to read him as being in league with Dracula. In both script and novel it is much clearer that he is supposed to be a re-hash of the Priest from Risen, and as such is simply a weak and scared man with some traumatic memories. But Julie's transition from a plot avatar to a believable character seems to be entirely Hall's doing. Her dialogue and actions are much the same as in both script and film, yet the glimpses into her inner thought-world which Hall adds somehow give them a purpose and meaning which weren't at all obvious before. This is very definitely an improvement.

Finally, here is a list of small points of world-building detail which Hall inserts into the novel, but are not made explicit in the film or the shooting script:
  • Chapter 1 - states explicitly that the story is set in Transylvania, and that Kleinenberg is 10 leagues (i.e. 30 miles) from the village / castle area.
  • Chapter 7 - the border which Paul crashes through in the run-away carriage divides Transylvania into two self-governing states. This means than both Kleinenberg and the castle are in Transylvania, but also helps to explain the unwillingness of the police officers from Kleinenberg to go as far as the castle in their investigations.
  • Chapter 8 - the inn in the village near the castle is called the Castle Arms.
  • Chapter 21 - Dracula's coach is driven back to the castle from the village after Sarah and Simon have used it to escape by 'Klove perhaps - or one of his allies in the village'. Actually it can't be Klove, who was left behind in the castle and wouldn't have had time to catch up with Sarah and Simon and collect the coach. But the passing reference to Klove having allies in the village is interesting. I think he must, as indeed must Dracula, directly or indirectly, in every one of these films to exercise the control he does over the local area. (The film, by contrast, doesn't attempt to explain how the coach gets back to the castle, although from what we see in Prince it's reasonable enough to assume that the horses simply returned home by themselves, responding to Dracula's supernatural influence over animals.)
  • Chapter 22 - this provides more detail about Klove's connections with the local community, specifying that he has a cousin who is an apprentice to a local blacksmith, and who helps return Dracula's coach whenever it gets abandoned, which happens two or three times a year. This in turn suggests that Dracula uses his coach to lure victims to his castle on a regular basis, but that those schemes quite often go awry.
  • Chapter 24 - here we learn that Klove himself used to be an apprentice in Kleinenberg, where he regularly saw Sarah as a child, before being sold into Dracula's service. Also, since going into Dracula's service he has sometimes seen her there again on journeys to Kleinenberg. Backstory FTW! Personally I like the bit about Klove being an apprentice and Dracula regularly visiting Kleinenberg, but not so much the bit about Klove being sold into Dracula's service. Hall has some further dialogue which specifies that he is sold for money, but this is to completely overlook Dracula's supernatural powers, and thus what is distinctive and interesting about him as a character. He shouldn't need to buy servants when he can clearly use his hypnotic powers to compel them into loyal service for nothing, and / or the promise of dark powers to string them along in the hope of some eventual reward.
  • Chapter 26 - this offers a few glimpses into what might happen after the end of the story as filmed, in the form of a flash-forward set during Sarah's journey from the church which she has fled after the bat attack to the castle: "Later, when asked by the police how she had reached the castle, she was unable to give a coherent answer." Her fragmentary memories include trying for help at the inn, being thrown out, and riding a stolen horse up to the castle (as opposed to running / walking there, which is what the script and film have). It is of course perfectly obvious that Sarah and Simon would end up being interviewed by the police after their experiences in the castle, since the police are already in pursuit of Paul over his alleged treatment of the Burgomaster's daughter - but heaven knows what they would make of Simon and Sarah's story!

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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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