strange_complex: (Vampira)
Yesterday I travelled all the way down to London Town to see a play - or, more precisely an immersive theatre experience - in the company of Andrew Hickey, [twitter.com profile] Extinction65mya and [twitter.com profile] karohemd. While my book and film reviews are both backed up to the tune of at least a year each, which is incredibly frustrating, no such self-imposed tedium applies here, so for once I can have the job of writing about something I have experienced fresh from the delights of the thing itself. Hooray!

So basically The Soulless Ones is the latest venture from the new(ish)ly revived Hammer company, and consists of a play about vampires which takes place across multiple rooms in a mid-Victorian music hall. Opening and closing scenes book-end the story, and are played out to the full audience in the main music-hall space, but for most of the evening different actors play out their own story-lines in an extensive series of parallel scenes, all happening simultaneously in different parts of the building, and moving around from one to the other. It is up to the audience to follow the actors according to personal preference, or simply wander around the building at will, meaning that each individual audience member will see and experience different things depending on where they went.

Given this expectation, of course, the story is deliberately constructed to ensure that no one scene (apart perhaps from the opening and closing ones) is utterly crucial to the production. So the experience is more about seeing the different characters unfold than about a plot in the traditional sense; and indeed about exploring the richly-dressed settings and soaking in the atmospheric sounds and smells. It's also important to understand the difference between immersive and interactive theatre in this context: this was the former, rather than the latter, meaning that the audience occupied the same spaces as the actors but were 'invisible' to them and instructed at the start to take it all in silently. No-one watching was going to find themselves a victim of the vampires, and nor were we to try to speak to them or join in on the story.

There is various documentation of the play around the web, of course. The official production page is here, and I also found useful reviews from Den of Geek, The Guardian and The Telegraph. I've used those, along with my own experience and what my friends reported having seen after we came out, to compile the following overview of the story, characters and settings as I experienced them. I'll also be sharing this with said friends, and would very much love them, and anyone else who has seen it, to comment with anything extra that I didn't catch (I know there were some characters I barely saw all evening), or correct anything I've misremembered or misunderstood (hey, there were cocktails...). Obviously, it will contain spoilers, so I have used cut-tags with a view to both that and length.

The opening scene )

The characters and scenarios which unfolded from there )

The various settings )

The closing scene )


What I actually thought of it all

In essence, I absolutely loved it. A huge amount of thought must have gone into constructing it all so that the different scenes fitted together effectively, with characters coming in and out of each other's storylines at the right times, even from completely different ends of the building, and all of the disparate parts adding up to a coherent whole no matter how the audience experienced it. The set-dressing was particularly wonderful. I wish I could have had the chance to walk around it all without the story unfolding at the same time, so that I could scrutinise every single detail at my leisure, but then again I certainly had more control over what I was looking at than is the case when watching a film or play, in that I could go into any room I chose, stand wherever I liked it in and look at whatever I liked while the action went on. I could sit on one divan while Mara was bewitching St Clair on another, feeling the tickly softness of the white animal fur draped over it between my fingers, or peer closely at the satyr-herm in the graveyard which made me think a lot of The Marble Faun. It was very exciting.

Layering the story on top of all of that really did feel immersive, as though I were standing inside the world of a Hammer film. I'm sure regular readers will realise how amazing that was for me! The story really did feel Hammer-ish, too - suitably gothic in content and atmosphere, and with nice little nods to their back-catalogue such as Carmilla being the last of the Karnsteins. The characters themselves seemed well-defined, with just the right amount of back-story and conflict between them for the audience to take in across the two hours of the show, and the acting solid throughout: sometimes (necessarily) a bit projecty and theatrical, especially in the larger scenes, but impressively naturalistic and intimate when the smaller scenes allowed the scope for it as well. I think a lot of credit also belongs to the behind-the-scenes team handling the music, lighting etc. in each room, and indeed quietly staffing the corridors to make sure people did not get too lost or confused or wander into places they weren't supposed to go.

It looks like the production has been a success: it's certainly garnered lots of media coverage, the performance we attended looked to be sold out, and the official production page is currently bearing a banner proclaiming that the initial run has been extended for an extra week. The fact that it is presented not just as a play called The Soulless Ones, but as an individual production by 'Hammer House Of Horror Live' also rather strongly suggests that they are hoping they will be in a position to do more. Certainly, I will be keeping my eye out for further productions, and strongly urge any fans of Hammer, gothic horror or immersive theatre experiences to catch this one while you still can.
strange_complex: (Dracula Risen hearse smile)
I am very happy indeed a) that this book exists and b) that I managed to bag one of the original print run of a mere 600 copies for only £35 last year. It now goes for upward of £150 on eBay... The publishers' page is still up, though, and includes several page images which indicate what the book is like: basically a pictorial record of the seven Hammer Dracula films which have Christopher Lee in them (so not Brides or Legend), covering cast pictures, production documentation, behind-the-scenes pictures and publicity material. As such it is of course an absolute treasure-trove.

I'm fairly familiar with the publicity photos and posters, but even they are wonderful to have in high-quality printed form. Meanwhile, the really exciting content was the production documentation, including letters, set designs, pages from shooting scripts etc. From these I learnt several things which I had not known before, such as how the various sets for Dracula fitted together. I had long realised that Harker's bedroom and Dracula's crypt in this film must be essentially the same set re-dressed, because they share the same curved, pointed arches along one wall. However, I never realised before I saw the set drawings in this book that this is actally because they both make use of the area glimpsed between the very same curved, pointed arches in the dining room after they had been blocked off by book-cases to create the library set. (I.e. they are slotted into the shadowy space from which Valerie Gaunt's vampire woman first appears when Harker is in the dining room.) Nor did I know, as correspondence with the censor for Risen reveals, that the name of the Monsignor's niece in this film was originally to have been Gisela. The switch to Maria in the final film was of course a sound move, since it is more familiar to Anglophone audiences, as well as accentuating her virginal purity and connection with a Catholic clergyman. Meanwhile, Gisela did not go to waste: the name was repurposed for the unfortunate girl found in the bell at the beginning of the film, whose coffin Dracula goes on to steal once he has been reawakened from the icy stream.

vlcsnap-00015.png

Also very illuminating were Terence Fisher's hand-written notes on Jimmy Sangster's original script for Dracula 1958. They're written on plain pages, rather than on the script itself, so you can't see what Sangster actually wrote - only Fisher's reactions. But that is enough to make it very clear that Sangster's first draft must have included far more scenes from the original novel than ever made it into even the shooting script, never mind the film. Scenes or characters which Fisher is reacting to include for example Harker in an inn before he ever reaches the castle, the three vampire brides, the 'child in a sack' scene, Harker gashing Dracula in the head, the Demeter, Renfield and Quincy Morris. And what Fisher is saying about them includes things like "cut", "keep till later?", "new character unexplained and uninteresting", "make it a pre-title sequence?" etc. This is absolutely revelatory, because the standard line until now has always been about how the efficiency of the script reflects Sangster's instinct for what could be achieved on a small budget. But I now see that his original draft must actually have followed Stoker's novel fairly closely, while most of the credit for that ruthless efficiency really belongs to Fisher.

In between the images runs a concise and generally useful supporting text from Kinsey, but I was struck by the fact that he doesn't always seem to recognise the full value of the material he himself is presenting. So, in spite of having treated us to Fisher's observations on Sangster's first draft, he still reports the usual story about how Sangster "was given Bram Stoker's novel to adapt, which he achieved again within Hammer's modest budget" only a few pages later. I spotted a couple of mistakes, too. The double-page spread on Francis Matthews in Prince calls his character Alan (rather than Charles), while a similar spread about Patrick Troughton as Klove in Scars claims that he passed on the mantle of Doctor Who to Tom Baker (not directly!).

That is to quibble, though. On the whole this is an absolutely superb collection which huge amounts of work must have gone into, and which I am certain I will keep returning to over the years. Three thousand cheers that my favourite films in all the world have received this splendid tribute.
strange_complex: (Dracula 1958 cloak)
Tom Holland is best known to me for writing utterly conventional popular history books away from which I periodically have to steer my students, and nowadays also for behaving as though this somehow makes him a uniquely insightful commentator on world affairs on Twitter. (It doesn't.) But it turns out that in the mid-'90s he wrote a really rather splendid book about Lord Byron becoming a vampire. I only found out about it after the DracSoc Diodati summer bicentenary trip to Lake Geneva (LJ / DW), so missed out on reading it as part of my pre-trip prep, but probably reading it afterwards steeped in everything else I had read and seen was the best way anyway.

The start feels very, very mid-'90s, in a way that I never realised while living through it at the time that that decade could. I don't think Holland actually says that Rebecca, his wordly and professional yet nervous red-headed heroine, is wearing a scrunchie, but, metaphorically, she is. By chapter 2, though, we have moved on to a vampire Lord Byron telling her the story of how he became what he is, and that is where things really take off. Holland had obviously researched Byron's real life history very thoroughly, and blends that together with the gothic motifs of his own literature, eastern Mediterranean history and vampire lore to create something absolutely magical. We have storms and bandits in the mountains, disturbing local superstitions, a beautiful young person of ambiguous gender… and then we meet the Pasha. Vakhel Pasha, whose huge castle in the mountains stands over an ancient temple to Hades, deep beneath Byzantine, Venetian and Islamic superstructures; who has read and mastered all the teachings humanity has to offer; who can walk among the stars and call to Byron in his dreams; and whose castle and its village are peopled with dead-eyed ghoulish disciples. He is essentially Dracula with a little more historical and cultural depth, and I absolutely loved him – so ancient, so powerful, so loathsome, so malignant!

Byron's time with the Pasha, (involuntary) transformation into a vampire by him and eventual escape take up almost half the novel, and had me absolutely captivated. I really felt like Holland had seen the full potential implications of the Romantic tradition and vampire lore, and brought them to their beautiful apogee. After that, though, I found the rest of the novel a little disappointing. The fundamental problem which Holland faces is, having transformed Byron into a vampire c. 1810, how does he then carry him through the remaining fourteen years of his well-documented human lifetime while maintaining that conceit?

Now, in fairness, if you are going to do this, Holland has approached it quite cleverly. His vampires can walk around in the sunshine, eat food and father children, so Byron can pass for human without difficulty: he just has some special powers, thirsts for blood, and will burn up in the sun if he doesn't get it. Holland also draws on Byron's own vision in The Giaour of a vampire fatefully driven to drink the blood of its own family to create a tragic secret for Byron and explain much of his real-life behaviour: that he particularly craves the blood of his own descendants, and now also needs it in the present day to restore his beloved yet shriveled and ancient vampire bride to youth and beauty. This is fine and makes for a pretty decent second half of the novel, but the obligation to chug through all the main known events of Byron's lifetime alongside it does lead to rather a lot of scenes which don't serve the vampire story-line very effectively, and certainly wouldn't be in there if Holland weren't constrained by his historical framework.

Still, as I say, I think Holland handled the basic conceit of Byron-as-a-vampire about as well as he possibly could have done, and the first half of the novel in particular very much justifies the whole. It's one I will almost certainly read again at some point in the future, and would highly recommend.
strange_complex: (Wicker Man sunset)
Still working my way through 2016 book reviews... I wouldn't even call these reviews, really - more just notes on my personal reading experience. Anyway, here they are.


5. Terry Pratchett (2010), I Shall Wear Midnight

This is the book I was reading when Mum died. I mean, not at that literal moment (I believe I was actually scrolling through Facebook when the phonecall came), but I was gradually working my way through it at the time. It, and The Shepherd's Crown had been lent to me by a local friend who knew about the situation, and thought some nice Terry Pratchett would be just what I needed t take my head out of it, and he was right on the whole. I knew of course that The Shepherd's Crown contained Major Character Death, so remember consciously thinking that that one might be best avoided right while I was experiencing the death of a close loved one for myself. But of course I Shall Wear Midnight also covers the death of the elderly Baron, including scenes of Tiffany providing (magical) palliative care for him beforehand, and pre-empting the decay of his body by pulling all of the heat out of a stone slab so that acts like a refrigerator afterwards. So that was all a little surreal to read while my Mum lay in a hospice and then a funeral parlour, although overall the effect was more comforting than upsetting. Death is a major recurring character in the Discworld stories precisely because he is unavoidable and universal, and it was not the worst thing to be reminded that my experiences were far from unique at that time. As for the rest of the story, it was enjoyable and non-demanding, which is exactly what I wanted from it, and I particularly liked meeting Eskarina Smith again, and seeing how awesome and accomplished she had gone on to become since we last saw her in Equal Rites.


6. Terry Pratchett (2015), The Shepherd's Crown

So yeah, then I went straight on to read this, knowing of course about Granny Weatherwax. Being forewarned meant I didn't find it particularly upsetting, and indeed the way Pratchett has always set up the relationship between witches and death meant that it was very matter-of-fact and unsentimentalised. She knew it was coming, she accepted it, she planned for it, and so it went. I was slighly surprised that it came so early in the story, but again that fitted Pratchett's deliberately unsentimentalising approach – it was never meant to be a dramatic and terrible death which came in the midst of a fight against evil (like, say, Fred Weasley's death in Harry Potter), but an ordinary everyday death, of the kind which is just part of life. Meanwhile, I was pleased for Tiffany that she inherited Granny Weatherwax's patch, which seemed a fitting honour, and liked the storyline about her struggling to cover both that and the Chalk, as well as the eventual resolution where she decides that she needs to concentrate on the Chalk after all. And I loved having the elves back, who are just so beautifully evil – absolutely my kind of malignant magical creatures. Generally a very good read.
strange_complex: (Dracula Scars wine)
I got back on Monday night from a long weekend in Whitby spent in the company of around 40 Dracula Society members: including [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313 whom I have now dragooned into joining! I went there with a smaller group of them two years ago, and managed a decent write-up of it afterwards too (LJ / DW), but this was a more formal gathering designed to mark the fortieth anniversary of the Society's first official visit there in 1977.

[personal profile] lady_lugosi1313 and I got there shortly before lunch on the Friday, but the official business didn't begin until that evening, so we spent the afternoon enjoying Gothic seaside fun in the sunshine. We pottered around the shops buying various treasures, and then headed down to the harbour front where she introduced me to Goth Blood milkshakes - basically ordinary milkshakes with bucket-loads of food colouring in them which turn your tongue blood-red after a single sip:

2017-09-08 16.42.27.jpg

I also went through the Dracula Experience: a once-in-a-lifetime audio-visual presentation of the Dracula story. I say 'once-in-a-lifetime' because it is so rubbish that it is hard to imagine anyone voluntarily going twice (for all the reasons aptly articulated in these TripAdvisor reviews). They have a cloak at the beginning of the exhibition which they claim is one of Christopher Lee's Dracula capes, but I'm afraid it clearly isn't: it has a strong diagonal ridged texture which none of Lee's capes in any of the Hammer Dracula films ever did. Still, though, the whole thing only cost three quid, and I did chuckle most of the way through at how inept it was, so I guess it wasn't the worst thing I've ever spent money on. Afterwards, we spent one whole pound each on the tuppenny falls, where [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313, who is an experienced competitive player, completely wiped the floor with me, winning more than double the amount of tuppences I had managed to score every time we compared our takings.

The evening began with the traditional gathering around the bench which the Society donated in 1980 (I suppose we'll celebrate the 40th anniversary of that in three years too!), where [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313 encountered most of the Society's members for the first time, and was also introduced to tuica: Romanian plum brandy, and of course our preferred toast. The rest of the evening was informal, but Julia (the Society's very energetic chair) had laid on a wonderful programme of events for us at the Royal Hotel the following day.

We began with a screening of 27. Holy Terrors (2017), dir. Julian Butler and Mark Goodall )

We also had two talks given by members of the Society: Gail-Nina Anderson on werewolves and Barry McCann on Jekyll and Hyde. Both traced the evolution of their creatures and their stories through time, looking at how and why they have been treated differently in different circumstances, and what aspects of the human experience they have been used to explore. And although this wasn't particularly planned, both actually informed the other very neatly, and indeed made me realise something I had never really noticed before: that Jekyll and Hyde is essentially a werewolf story. As Gail had already shown us, werewolf stories have never actually been that prescriptive about the matter of how a person becomes a werewolf: many just take it for granted that they exist, and those which do try to explain how it happens offer a much wider range of possibilities than the now common idea of being bitten by an existing werewolf. Nor is the moon particularly consistently required to prompt transformations. So a story about a man who brings out his inner beast voluntarily through a potion of his own making fits right into the canon.

After lunch (roast pork baps from the Greedy Pig GET IN MY FACE!), it was time for a quiz. Given that this consisted of a ten-point round on Stoker's Dracula (which I have read multiple times and am reading right now), a ten-point round on Whitby (where I was sat while taking the quiz), and a twenty-point round on film adaptations of Dracula (which are basically the heart of [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313's and my co-conspiratorial film watching), you would have thought I might manage to do quite well on this, but no! Somehow Julia managed to make it really hard. The winner, Kate, scored a fairly modest 26.5 points out of 40, while I scraped along with 14.5 and [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313 bagged a mere 11.5. It's almost like we've been wasting our lives!

Oh well, at least we had plenty of opportunity to buy up books and DVDs which might help us to do better next time in the society auction - not to mention all sorts of other goodies, from the utterly tat-tastic to the actually very tasteful. This was my personal haul, including a notebook in the shape of Christopher Lee as Dracula )

That evening was the Society's formal dinner, so I grabbed the rare opportunity to dress up in full Gothic finery with both hands. We had allowed plenty of time to walk down from our guest-house and ended up arriving ridiculously early, so, as it was still light and I don't look like this very often, [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313 indulged me with a little photo-shoot.

Vanity, vanity, all is vanity )

Much wine was drunk, merriment had and patrons on a ghost walk of Whitby outside the window trolled by means of a green Frankenstein torch shone at them through a white napkin (though irritatingly they didn't seem to notice). None of this, though, stopped a hardy band of us from getting up the next morning bright and early to do the six-and-a-half-mile cliff walk from Whitby to Robin Hood's Bay. This of course was all in honour of Mina and Lucy, who do just this walk in Stoker's novel straight after the funeral of the Demeter's captain: a plan concocted by Mina with a view to tiring Lucy out and stopping her from fretting about the funeral and sleep-walking that night. She records her plan in an entry on the morning of 10 August thus:
She will be dreaming of this tonight, I am sure. The whole agglomeration of things, the ship steered into port by a dead man, his attitude, tied to the wheel with a crucifix and beads, the touching funeral, the dog, now furious and now in terror, will all afford material for her dreams. I think it will be best for her to go to bed tired out physically, so I shall take her for a long walk by the cliffs to Robin Hood's Bay and back. She ought not to have much inclination for sleep-walking then.
And you can read her post-factum report of the walk itself that evening here.

We grabbed a couple of group pictures before we set off, which I hope Michael won't mind too much that I have stolen from his FB page:

Cliff walk party selfie Michael Borio.jpg

Cliff walk photo Dutch angle Michael Borio.jpg


Then off we went, past many picturesque delights )

The conversation as we walked unfolded much as you would expect in the circumstances. I can't remember exactly who said what now, but the gist of it all went more or less like this:

"Presumably Mina and Lucy can't actually have walked to Robins Hood's Bay. They must have taken a horse and cart or something."
"Oh no, it says quite clearly in the novel that they walked."
"Yes, that's right - they're obviously going across the fields because some cows come up and give them a fright."
"Can you imagine doing this in heels and a corset, though?"
"Well, Victorian women did have sensible walking boots and country clothing."
"Yes, absolutely - the Victorians were very much into their physical exercise and fresh air."
"They would still definitely have been wearing corsets, though."
"Oh yes. Mind you, the whalebone corsets had quite a lot of give in them. You would only wear the steel ones in the evening."
"Well, my respect for Mina and Lucy is increasing with every step."
"You've got to wonder if Bram ever actually thought about the implications of doing all this in a corset, though."
"Hmm, yes - good point. Well, unless he dressed up in the full regalia himself and did the whole walk that way. You know, just to really get into the heads of his characters."
"Well, given that he was 6'4", that would have been quite a sight!"

In the end, we were not as hardcore as Mina and Lucy ourselves, though. They walked both ways, and had to suffer an unwanted visit from a curate in the evening. We got the bus back, before enjoying another final dinner together ahead of our general dispersal on the Monday morning. Not that [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313 and I were in a rush to get home that morning, though - not least because she didn't have any house-keys, so couldn't get into the house until [livejournal.com profile] planet_andy got home with his set anyway, and furthermore because their boiler had broken so the house would be freezing. Instead we spent most of the day in Filey, which I have never visited before, but which proved to be a charming seaside town with a lovely museum, some great charity shops, some excellent cafes, and a fountain with a surround designed like a compass showing the directions of all the locations mentioned in the shipping forecast )

They also had a crazy golf course, where [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313 and I played a game so utterly inept that it more than once reduced us to tears of laughter; but I feel duty bound to note that she did beat me, with a score of 37 shots for 9 holes to my 40. Finally it was time to head home, playing games of "I Spy" and "I am a Hammer film: which one am I?" as we drove. All in all a very enjoyable and much-needed final summer jolly before term hits with a vengeance next week...
strange_complex: (Leeds owl)
3. Mary Shelley (1818), Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus

I read this in preparation for a trip to Geneva with the Dracula Society, organised to mark the bicentenary of the famous wet weekend in the Villa Diodati which gave rise to it (and to Polidori's 'The Vampyre'). I never wrote about the trip here in any detail, because it came half way through my Mum's final illness, and just at the point when we were really starting to realise that it was final. I spent a lot of the time while I was there worrying and checking my phone for updates, and then all the time after I got back just trying to cope while also carrying a pretty heavy load of work commitments. So the trip itself was a rather strained experience; but what I did get out of it was very much enhanced by my pre-holiday reading. I believe in the case of the novel it was my third time reading it, the first and second times being once in my mid-to-late-teens and another in my mid-twenties. Both well pre-date my habit of book-blogging here anyway, so as far as LJ / DW is concerned this is the first time. That makes it a pity that I didn't manage to do so while it was all fresh in my mind, but I did actually make a few notes about this one while reading it at the time, so I can do a slightly better job than with most of these catch-up reviews.

Obviously, it is a great novel. That isn't to say it's perfect. My mental red pen was particularly exercised by the way Justine was introduced: in the middle of a letter from Elizabeth to Victor, where she takes it upon herself to recount the entire story of how Justine came to be part of their household, even though Victor would of course already know all of this. I could see him as he read it turning over the pages in bafflement thinking "Why the hell is she telling me all this? Get onto something I don't know!" But hey, Mary was only 18 when she began writing the thing, and did it all in longhand while on the road through Switzerland and Italy. Let's cut her some slack. What she created here was innovative, genre-defining, gripping and incredibly cleverly put together.

Reading it now, I'm much more aware of its literary and historical context than I think I've been on previous encounters. Previously I think I have just accepted it as a gothic novel because that it how it is usually marketed, and also viewed it through the filters of its many film adaptations. It certainly is in the gothic arena, as you would expect given that Mary started writing the novel as an entry in a ghost story competition. It draws on established gothic tropes like descriptions of wild landscapes and huge, powerful storms; Victor's great moment of inspiration for how to build his creature happens in a charnel-house (what more gothic?); and he later uses a vampire metaphor to describe the effects of the creature on his family, saying that it is as though he himself had risen from the grave to murder them (exactly what Byron's vampire in The Giaour is condemned to do, as Mary must have known). But I think I understand the Romantic movement better now than I did when I first encountered Frankenstein, and I see now that its central themes of man's hubris, the rejection of technology and the nostalgic glorification of nature make it a Romantic novel more than anything else: again, totally unsurprisingly given who Mary was hanging out with while she wrote it. It's also frequently touted as the 'first Sci-Fi' novel, which of course isn't in the least bit incompatible with the other genres: it can be a Romantic novel which draws on gothic tropes while also sowing the seeds of something new. On the SF front, I was struck in particular coming to the book after many years of film adaptations by how very little scientific detail Mary provides about the creation of the creature. All those big set-pieces with sawing-and-stitching montages, lighting storms and of course bubbling equipment are entirely a product of the movie industry; Mary in fact skims very lightly over the creation process and gets on to its consequences instead. But SF-ness doesn't just lie in sciencey-science and techno-babble. I felt that her use of the creature's perspective to consider what our world might look like to an adult intelligence dropped into it without prior knowledge did justify describing it as an SF novel. In any case, certainly speculative fiction.

I think I was also alert to issues around social class this time in a way I haven't been on previous readings. For all Mary's radical family background, she certainly believes in a strong overlap between high social status and inherent worth. It's noticeable that her idealised family in the cottage turn out to be from a fallen 'good' family, rather than just being normal working people, and her account of how the Frankenstein family 'rescue' blonde aristocratic Elizabeth from the dark Italian peasant family who have taken her in practically slides into eugenics. More interestingly, though, there is a lot of anxiety detectable here. The narratives of the cottage family, Elizabeth and Victor's mother are all about people of once-high status who have fallen on hard times; a theme which must have felt potent for Mary after having thrown in her lot with Shelley at the cost of her father's disapproval and constant financial instability.

As for the characters, have I realised on previous readings what self-absorbed whiny little fuck Victor is? I'm not sure, but I found him almost unbearable this time around. He actually claims his suffering is worse than Justine's when she is about to be executed for a murder she didn't commit, on the grounds that at least she knows she's innocent. Fuck off! I've always known the novel was written to explore both sides of the creator / created relationship, inviting our sympathy for the creature as much as Victor, but on this read I massively preferred the creature, in spite of his cottage-burning anger management issues. I'm sure Mary intended us to find them both flawed, but at least the creature seems to start off with basically decent instincts, only to be drive to murderous extremes by the way other people treat him. Victor has no such excuse that I can see, creating his own woes, exacerbating them by behaving like an absolute wanker to everyone who tries to help him, and crying about how hard-done-by he is all the while. No to that, thank you very much.


4. Andrew McConnell Stott (2014), The Poet and the Vampyre: the curse of Byron and the birth of literature's greatest monsters / 4.5. parts of Daisy Hay (2010), Young Romantics: the Shelleys, Byron and other tangled lives

This was the other side of my pre-holiday reading: historical background about the famous Diodati weekend and the authoring of Frankenstein and 'The Vampyre'. The book by McConnell Stott I bought myself after Googling for something to help me understand the context for our holiday, and I definitely chose well. It is very much focused on the Diodati weekend and what came out of it, but includes plenty on the run-up and aftermath as well. The one by Hay was lent to me by the lovely [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313 and offers a broader general take on the Byron / Shelley phenomenon, so I just read one chapter and a few other snippets which dealt with the relevant material.

I hadn't realised before starting on either just how well-documented the movements of the people concerned actually were. More or less everyone involved was busy writing diaries or letters about what they did, which is why such detailed accounts of the events of the Geneva trip are possible. Stott made really good use of these, quoting from them at length and providing proper scholarly notes at the back of the book which I appreciated. His style is far from dry and academic, though – often his book reads almost like a novel in its own right, and I felt very engrossed and involved with all the characters. I won't try to recount everything I learnt from it, but I will note down the one thing which struck me most powerfully: viz. that Claire Clairmont is an absolute bad-ass! She is so often either left out of accounts of the Villa Diodati weekend altogether, or portrayed as the ditzy one who was just there to fuck Byron and wasn't on the same intellectual level as the others. But her surviving letters and memoirs make it very clear indeed that this was far from the case. Yes, she did want to fuck Byron, but for a girl of her age in the early 19th century to conceive of that goal and travel half-way across Europe to make good on it frankly isn't to be sniffed at. As for her intellect, she was brought up alongside Mary in the same radical intellectual household, and she clearly benefitted from it. Just because she didn't become a published poet or novelist doesn't mean she was thick.

Anyway, Mary and Claire got the last laugh in the end, outliving all the ridiculous, self-obsessed men in their lives by several decades each. Claire even wrote a set of memoirs in her old age hauling both Byron and Shelley over the coals, and not without cause. She was absolutely part of it all, and I'll never stand by and let her be erased from the Diodati story again.


That trip to Geneva

As already mentioned above, I never did write this trip up at the time and I can't now in detail, but I may as well include a few notes about it while I am looking back over the relevant reading material. We were there from the 3rd to 5th of June, c. ten days before the 1816 night of the ghost story competition (16th June), and at a time when the full party had all already arrived in the Geneva area. On the first day we went to the Villa Diodati itself, of course, followed by a bicentennial exhibition about its occupants at the nearby Bibliotheca Bodmeriana which was absolutely amazing: they had portraits of all five of the Diodati contingent, practically the whole of Mary Shelley's manuscript for Frankenstein, absolutely loads of other personal documents and effect of those concerned, and tons of fascinating material about the later impact of Frankenstein - e.g. play-bills for early theatrical versions of it. Then on the following days we went to Chillon Castle at the other end of Lake Geneva, which Byron visited and wrote a poem about, and which had its own bicentennial exhibition focused primarily on him, and then to Gruyères, of cheese fame, which also had a very nice castle as well as a festival going on in the medieval village and cows lounging about on the hillside just outside. These are a few pictures, showing all of us at the Villa Diodati, the boat arriving to take us home from Chillon, and me in the castle at Gruyères with a huge downpour bucketing down behind me.

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strange_complex: (Lee as M.R. James)
More book reviews. At least we have made it into 2016 now.


1. S.T. Joshi, ed. (2005), M.R. James: Count Magnus and Other Ghost Stories

M.R. James! I like him enough that he has his own tag (LJ / DW). I have been to live readings of his stories, I own the DVD box set of most of their TV adaptations, and I even went to a conference about him in 2016 (LJ / DW). However, until I acquired this Penguin two-volume collection of his ghost stories, I hadn't actually systematically read them all: only those in his first published collection, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary and a few others at random in collected volumes or online. Reading the whole lot is of course a great pleasure, and these two volumes are good, with helpful introductions, suggestions for further reading (on James generally and on individual stories), and well-chosen appendices of related material: e.g. James' introductions to the various collected volumes of stories published during his lifetime and his rare (and brief!) published reflections on the genre of the ghost story. The only omission I regretted is his supernatural story for children, 'The Five Jars', but then again it is a) quite long and b) not really a ghost story in the same sense as the other material in these books, so I entirely understand why the editor left it out. (Anyway, writing this has prompted me to see if it's available for Kindle: it is, and for zero pence too, so now I have that lined up as a future pleasure.)

This first volume is basically his first two published collections: Ghost Stories of an Antiquary and More Ghost Stories. That meant I'd read all of the first half and most of the second, but I re-read them anyway because a) they're great and b) it helped me to see how his style had evolved over time. Fairly unsurprisingly, all of the stories in this volume are extremely strong, and I knew most of the ones I hadn't read before from various dramatic adaptations. In fact, I think I'm right in saying the only two I didn't know were the last two: 'Martin's Close', in which the central motif of a wronged girl emerging out of a pond to avenge herself reminded me strongly of The Ring, and 'Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance', which I felt was a bit weaker but still made good use of the potential creepiness of 18th-century landscape gardens; topiary, mazes, funerary monuments and all. Best rediscoveries: 'Lost Hearts' (I don't usually get actually scared by tales of the supernatural, but the boy in the bath-tub does elicit a 'pleasing terror'), 'The Mezzotint' (some of the dialogue is absolutely hilarious, especially if you've been to Oxbridge), 'The Ash-Tree' ("something drops off the bed with a soft plump, like a kitten…"), 'Number 13' (really love the interplay between the supernatural goings-on and the protagonist's historical research) and 'The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral' ("There is no kitchen cat"). I also don’t think I had realised before that the opening words of 'Count Magnus', which is essentially a vampire story (though James keeps the details subtle and ambiguous) operate as a direct intertext to Dracula:
Dracula: How these papers have been placed in sequence will be made manifest in the reading of them.
Count Magnus: By what means the papers out of which I have made a connected story came into my hands is the last point which the reader will learn from these pages.

Obviously James makes quite frequent use of the device of 'found papers' presented by an authorial voice, which must have worked particularly well for his original audience of fellow Kings College scholars. But I think the specific wording there, in a vampire story with the word 'Count' in the title, is close enough and obvious enough to be a nod we are invited to notice. As one of the speakers at the conference I went to (I'm 95% sure Ramsey Campbell) noted, 'Count Magnus' has since returned the favour, lending its motif of closed padlocks mysteriously falling from a coffin, whose lid then hinges upwards, to Hammer's The Brides of Dracula (1960).


2. S.T. Joshi, ed. (2006), M.R. James: The Hanted Dolls' House and Other Ghost Stories

This second volume basically contains everything else: the contents of two further volumes published during James' lifetime (A Thin Ghost and Others and A Warning to the Curious) and whatever further stories appeared in magazines etc. towards the end of his life or posthumously. Collectively and on average, they aren't quite on the same level as those in volume 1, but they are all still very much worth reading, and some are very strong: e.g. 'The Residence at Whitminster' (the one about the saw-flies), 'The Diary of Mr. Poynter' ("no feature was discernible, only hair") 'An Episode of Cathedral History' (another vampire story!), 'A View from a Hill' (necromantic binoculars), and of course 'A Warning to the Curious' (aka the Three Crowns). I was perhaps most fascinated by the very last entry, though, 'Twelve Medieval Ghost Stories', which aren't actually by James at all, but are collected in a manuscript originally written at Byland Abbey, Yorkshire. James' role was to notice their existence, transcribe them from the original manuscript, and publish them in The English Historical Review complete with a introduction and annotations. In other words, this is where his lives as a scholar used to working with medieval manuscripts and as an author of ghost stories of his own met. He didn't translate the Latin text himself, but others have since. A class of Latin students have put their translation online along with lots of contextual detail including a picture of the manuscript, and another is provided in this volume. The content of the stories is very different from James'. They are typically about unquiet spirits who appear to ordinary people in ordinary country settings, sometimes changing shape as they do so, and who need to be helped into the afterlife by being absolved of some past sin. James' ghosts are usually far less concrete but far more malevolent, and their appearances far more targeted: generally at people whose past crimes or indecent curiosity need punishing. But still the Yorkshire tales have a very distinct charm all of their own, especially when read in Leeds. I am very grateful to M. R. James for bringing them to the public attention.
strange_complex: (Chrestomanci slacking in style)
In this post I am reviewing three books which I actually read in 2015. I'm aware of how utterly ludicrous that is; just humour me. It's a thing I feel I need to do.


6. Conrad Russell (1999), An Intelligent Person's Guide to Liberalism

After the 2015 General Election, various Lib Dems shared lists of reading recommendations in the spirit of fuelling a #LibDemFightback. This one seemed the most universally-recommended, so I got it out of the University library and read it. It is indeed a very good articulation of what liberalism is about today (or was at the time of publication), and how it has evolved from its earliest recognisable origins in Whig opposition to James II’s interference in parliamentary autonomy through a series of different issues (religion, economics, personal freedoms, the environment etc.) as UK politics has changed over the centuries. I found the chapter on economics the most interesting and helpful for clarifying my own understanding of liberalism. Broadly, it points out that liberalism does not really have a clear default economic position in the way that (say) socialism does, because it initially evolved in a context where the main dividing lines in politics were not economic ones, but others – primarily religion. But because liberalism is essentially about the redistribution of power from those who are hoarding big chunks of it to those who don’t have any, it isn’t too hard to translate this to economic forms of power, and indeed there are plenty of early examples of liberals siding with the economically-exploited over their exploiters – e.g. Whig involvement in passing laws for the ten-hour working day in the mid-19th century. This in turn opens the door for a vision of liberal economics which is much more about cooperatives, mutuals, trade unions, breaking up monopolies and cartels, encouraging entrepreneurialism and ensuring level playing fields than the laissez faire approach often described as ‘classical liberalism’. I would love that vision to be more deeply embedded and widely understood in the Liberal Democrats today, never mind in wider politics – but unfortunately it is not. Meanwhile, back to the book, its big flaw is that it is unlikely to be at all accessible to anyone not already interested in liberalism and familiar with UK politics. Fair enough, it bills itself as being for the ‘intelligent person’, but that in itself is not very liberal really – hardly in keeping with the Liberal Democrats’ consitutional pledge (adopted verbatim from the Liberals before them) to ensure that no-one is enslaved by ignorance. And, as is often the case with similar riders, ‘intelligent’ is really just a synonym for ‘educated’ or ‘pre-informed’. So Russell will refer in passing to something François Mitterrand said in 1989 (I’m inventing the example, as I no longer have the text in front of me to provide a real one), without actually saying what it was or how it relates to the issue under discussion. A more accessible introduction to liberalism could certainly be written, then, and could do a lot of good by helping to ensure a broader understanding of what it actually is. As my friend Andrew Hickey, who also recently reviewed Russell's book points out, an awful lot of the people who are currently convinced that liberalism is a terrible scourge on society are actually working with a heavily distorted understanding of it, and would probably quite like the sort of thinking which Russell outlines if they knew about it. Attempting to communicate it is, of course, on us liberals, and clearly that is what Russell was trying to do. Until anyone can achieve a more accessible articulation of the same thinking, his book will probably remain the best introduction to liberalism we have.


7. Andrew Hickey (2015), Head of State

Talking of Andrew, he wrote a book of his own, and it's great! It is a novel, technically belonging to the Faction Paradox series, but I can personally attest that you do not need to have read any prior Faction Paradox stories, or really know anything about them, to enjoy it. It helps in particular that the story is very much set on Earth; though I don't know how much that is or isn't true for other FP stories – maybe they all are? Anyway, this one follows a surprise outsider's US presidential election campaign, which is clearly being manipulated by the Faction Paradox in some way, and which relates to traces of their activities also identifiable in the historical and mythic past. In order to tell this story, Andrew has used multiple interweaving narratives: different present-day perspectives on the presidential campaign, Victorian explorer Richard Burton, the 2002nd story of Scheherazade and various interpolations from non-human dimensions. This is not easy, but I thought he did it exceptionally well, capturing the various voices of his different characters distinctly and recognisably without making any of them seem over-mannered or cariacatured. For those reasons alone I enjoyed reading the novel and would recommend it to anyone. But there is of course an extra dimension of pleasure to reading a novel by a friend whose view on the world over-laps closely with your own. I recognised a lot of both the political and the online culture described, for example: in particular a female journalist blogging on a platform called 'dreamjournal', whom Andrew confirmed when I asked him was indeed based on the journalist I thought she was. He is even sweet enough to have included me in his acknowledgements at the end, although literally all I did was lend him a book of commonly-used Latin phrases with which he could pepper Richard Burton's prose. As for that presidential candidate – he's a Bernie Sanders, not a Donald Trump, but an awful lot about the campaign sections of this book did resurface in my mind during the latter part of 2016: high-level corruption and manipulation, people gradually realising that the 'no-hope' candidate is going to win, and a load of right-wing nutjobbery to boot. It's a pity real life has managed to turn out even more horrendous than what happens at the end of this book, but that's another matter. I'm really proud to know the author of such a great read.


8. John Buchan (1927), Witch Wood

I learnt of this book from the British Library's exibition, Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination in autumn 2014, where it was presented as an example of folk horror and likened to Witchfinder General in particular. It's a reasonable comparison. This story deploys the classic folk horror motif of an educated outsider coming into a small, traditional village community: in this case a newly-ordained priest, David Sempill, assigned to a parish named Woodilee. It's also set during the Civil Wars, though in Scotland rather than in England, and involves accusations of witchcraft. After those face-value similarities, though, it's a pretty different kind of narrative: essentially a historical novel concerned with how the ideological conflicts of 17th-century Scotland translate into personal struggles for its main character. On the one side, Sempill owes loyalty to the Kirk and, through its Solemn League and Covenant, the parliamentary side of the Civil War. On the other, he increasingly finds that his efforts to help the sick and the needy put him at odds with his parish leaders and church elders, who are more concerned with personal reputation and formal doctrine than actual morals or spirituality, and that his sympathies are drawn instead towards royalists and aristocrats. Witches and indeed fairies are overlain onto this, in ways which allow Buchan to highlight the hypocrisies of the parishioners and tangle up Sempill's political leanings with romantic attraction. But there is nothing overtly supernatural in the book: only a bit of paganism-cum-Devil-worshippery and Sempill's hyper-romanticisation of his girlfriend. Most of the politics and religion I could take or leave to be honest, not having any great investment in either, but the novel does contain some very engrossing sequences: Sempill's terror journeying through the dark wood at night, the utter devastation of his village by the plague, or the tormenting of an obviously-vulnerable old woman by a witch-pricker. Those are what have stayed with me, and what made it worth reading.

Cape Trib

Saturday, 26 August 2017 17:13
strange_complex: (Cities Esteban butterfly)
Ah, free weekend! How blessed and rare you are. Time to push on with my Australia posts, then.

After Brisbane, my next stop was Cape Tribulation. My stay here was probably the highlight of my travels, but it was also the least well-represented on Facebook because there is no mobile reception there, and only very slow / limited wifi. So this post will do more than some of the others need to to fill in the gaps.

Cape Trib (as it's called locally) is in Queensland, but a little over 1000 miles north of Brisbane, and I got there by flying to Cairns and then driving another 100 miles north in a hire car. Cape Trib is located in a large region called the Daintree, which bills itself as being 'Where the rainforest meets the reef'. This is the photo I took which best captures that - basically a forested mountain range sloping down to beautiful beaches, and with the reef about 20km off-shore.

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I got myself a good dose of both rainforest and reef by staying for two nights in an absolutely beautiful isolated log-cabin looking right into pristine rainforest, and then another two in a slightly-less-magnificent but still totally adequate beach hut which was part of a larger resort. This was the one single FB post which I managed to make while there, from the bar area of the beach hut resort. I didn't put comment under any of the pictures at the time, because I knew my connection could drop at any minute, but I've added a few in square brackets now.

14th July: rainforest and beach at Cape Tribulation )

The owners of the log cabin had set up a self-guided walk which you could follow through the rainforest, which I did on my first day, and which is where I took the pictures in the FB post above. It is pretty amazing just clambering through the rainforest all alone, and I took a little selfie video which I think captures how ïnto it I was:

[There is a video here in the LJ version of this post, but DW can't host it. Please click through if you'd like to see it.]

I also went swimming in a freshwater creek, which is what you have to do locally if you want to swim. Sadly, all those beautiful beaches aren't actually safe to swim off, because there are marine crocodiles in the area who can lurk unseen in the water, and will attack people paddling or swimming. I did want to take the opportunity to swim while I was there, though, as it was nice weather, with temperatures usually in the low-to-mid twenties, and the creek was quite idyllic, with trees overhanging the water and a shoal of fish swimming around in the swimming-hole. I chatted to a family from Melbourne having a winter holiday there while we lounged around in the water, and picked up a few tips for the next leg of my travels.

The following day, it was time to meet the reef, which I did by booking myself onto a snorkelling tour with these people. I have never snorkelled before, and it was a pretty choppy day to be heading out into the open ocean in not much more than a large motorised dinghy. We certainly got sprayed in the face a lot, although the guy at the wheel made it fun by playing stuff like Queen's Bo Rhap on the ship's stereo as we crashed through the waves. Then when we got there and I actually plunged into the water, I had a minute or two of thinking I wasn't going to be able to do it because I was trying to gasp for air and didn't like the way the snorkel mask blocked off my nose and restricted the amount of air I could pull in. But the lady who was guiding and instructing us all explained that I just needed to relax and breathe deeply and slowly through the snorkel, and after a few minutes I got the hang of that, put my face in the water, and it was all worth it!

Sadly, of course, there aren't any pictures, because I don't have a water-proof camera, so I can ony do my best to convey in words how amazing it was. Where we went, the coral was so close to the surface that you had to be very careful in a lot of places not to accidentally bash it, practically sucking your stomach in as you floated over. So it was an incredibly close-up view of huge amounts of marine life. And it really was teeming. I'd always assumed that documentaries etc about the reef were highly selective, focusing in on isolated highlights, but where we went the whole area was alive with brightly-coloured fish, coral, anemones, sea-cucumbers, starfish etc. It really didn't matter much which direction you looked in - everything was utterly amazing.

My most exciting moment was watching a blue spotted ray glide along the ocean floor and then disappear under a coral over-hang, but I also saw iridescent fish, brightly-coloured stripey fish, royal blue star-fish, fish cleaning each other's gills, plants undulating to trap tiny life-forms, spiky blue-tipped coral and giant clams. I didn't even think giant clams were real - I thought they were a joke from Doctor Who - but nope, they are absolutely real, and live ones have beautiful blue or purple tissues lining their shells. I'm not by nature an active sports person, and suspect I am unlikely ever to snorkel again - but I'm very glad I made the effort to do it, and will definitely remember it all my life.

The day after that I had booked another tour, this time in a small group with a local guy who has a four-wheel drive. The sealed roads up the Queensland coast end at Cape Trib, so if you want to go any further north you need something which can handle rough surface and plunge through creeks. He took us about another 20 miles north to Wujal Wujal, a community belonging to the local Kuku Yalanji people, where one of their number, who told us to call her Kathleen, walked us up to a beautiful waterfall. She explained all about how it is a sacred place for her people, and that there is another waterfall further up the same river which is reserved for women only, and is where previous generations of Aboriginal women went to give birth. (Some still do now, but most opt for the local hospital.) She also told us about how the coming of the seasons has changed over her lifetime due to climate change, including bringing crocodiles up to the waterfall part of the river when they didn't used to be a danger in her childhood. Apparently, her people are able to smell the crocodiles even when they can't see them - they smell of mud and fish, she said.

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Later, we drove along the river which the waterfall feeds, called Bloomfield River, looking for crocs out basking on the banks. It didn't take long for our efforts to be rewarded, although my camera was far from adequate at capturing the results. The first picture is my own, zoomed in as far as it would go; you can just about make out the crocodile about one-third of the way along the bank from the left. The second was taken by the guy doing the driving and emailed to us afterwards. This whole trip really made me realise that while my camera is excellent for taking photographs of buildings, often allowing me to get the whole thing in while people around me are stepping backwards and backwards and cursing that they can't get far enough back to do so, it is dreadful for capturing smaller things like wildlife for the same reasons.

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Anyway, I was very glad after having seen the zoomed-in photo to have been on the other side of the bank from that!

Finally it was time to drive back down to Cairns, but I stopped off half-way down for a couple of hours at the Mossman Gorge Centre. This was still within the Daintree rainforest, in land belonging to the same Kuku Yalanji people as live at Wujal Wujal, and one of the things you can do there is to book a guided walking tour through the forest led by one of them. This time our guide told us the name he goes by amongst his own people, and I tried so hard to remember it, and succeeded for most of the afternoon, but unfortunately it wasn't familiar to me so I have forgotten it again now, and can only record the alternative white-people name he gave us that I already knew: Skip.

I won't forget what I learned from him about his people and their relationship with the rainforest, though. This included things like how he learnt as a child which 40 or so out of the c. 150 fruits in the rainforest were OK to eat; how his people recognise six different seasons of the year, defined by things like hot, cold, wind, rain, dry etc., each with their own different plants and fruits; how in the past they lived in huts in the forest, but would only ever stay in one place for a maximum of three years to allow the ground around them to recover; how they interacted with the plains people and picked up the use of boomerangs from them, but of course couldn't throw them in the middle of the rainforest so just used them to bang for music instead; how they make body-paints from ochre and clay and what the various patterns and symbols mean (e.g. rain-drops, family groupings); and how they collected sasparilla from the forest edge and scrunched it up in water to get a form of natural soap.

The whole picture of a people living in symbiosis with the land until (implicitly - he didn't say this, but didn't need to) white settlers came along and ruined it all was incredibly humbling, particularly coming on top of having gaped in awe at the teeming life of the reef in full awareness of how much of it has already been destroyed by pollution and climate change. Australia is certainly a stark lesson in the impact of British colonialism if you're willing to take it. Anyway, I didn't take a photo of Skip himself, but these are his paints. I just hope there will even be anyone around with the cultural knowledge he has another generation from now.

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Feet-folks

Tuesday, 22 August 2017 10:24
strange_complex: (Dracula Risen hearse smile)
I am communing with the ur-text at the moment (i.e. reading Dracula), and was tickled to notice last night that it contains a reference to Leeds - though not a very complimentary one! It's no great surprise, of course, given that a substantial chunk of the novel is set in Whitby, and indeed it is in the mouth of old Whitby fisherman Mr Swales that the reference comes. He is complaining about people being altogether too credulous about legends of bells ringing out at sea and White Ladies and such like:
Them feet-folks from York and Leeds that be always eatin' cured herrin's and drinkin' tea an' lookin' out to buy cheap jet would creed aught. I wonder masel' who'd be bothered tellin' lies to them, even the newspapers, which is full of fool-talk.
I'm not terribly sure what 'feet' means in this context, and Google isn't helping, even when I put the phrase in quotation marks to rule out ordinary references to feet. Maybe it just means foot-passengers who have come to Whitby on the train? Or might it be Bram's attempt at spelling a local pronunciation of 'fit', and perhaps means something more like 'fine folk' (in a sort of 'fit to be Queen' kind of sense)? If any genuine Yorkshire-born chums have a clue, let me know. If it's a proper dialect word, it will have been something Bram got out of a book on Whitby dialect which we know he used in his research.

[ETA: apparently I wasn't Googling very effectively before. I've found the answer now and my first guess was right: feet-folks are foot-passengers.]

Anyway, I will be going to Whitby myself in just over a fortnight, along with the lovely [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313, to join a long weekend event marking the 40th anniversary of the Dracula Society's first official trip to that location. I don't have any particular plans to eat cured herring or drink tea (which I hate), but I won't turn down any nice cheap jet, and I will make a particular point of believing any and all legends of the macabre and supernatural which anyone tells me for the entire weekend - just to annoy Mr Swales.

Thailand

Wednesday, 9 August 2017 17:48
strange_complex: (One walking)
As explained in an earlier post, I am trying to capture my recent trip to Forn Parts here on DW / LJ by replicating and linking to the FB posts I made at the time, but also adding supplementary photos and text for anything I feel deserves better documentation. BTW, if you are reading this on DW / LJ and we're not already FB friends, I'm very happy for that to change. Here's my profile; please leave a note saying who you are on DW / LJ if you think I'm unlikely to recognise the name you go by on FB. Stuff about Thailand follows below, with material already posted on FB under the cu-tags, and additional DW / LJ-only material at the bottom.

29th June: first evening's impressions )

30th June: a day in Bangkok )

1st July: summer palace, Ayutthaya, river cruise )

1st July: anniversary of Mum's death )

That covers the main outlines pretty well, but I tended to use my Proper Camera when going round the temples and palaces, and photos from that aren't so easy to upload instantly to FB. Now that I've downloaded and sorted them all, here are a few for the record, under headings naming the locations:

Grand Palace, Bangkok )

Wat Pho temple, Bangkok )

Bang Pa-In Summer Palace, near Ayutthaya )

Temples of Ayutthaya )

Tributes to the deceased king )
strange_complex: (Me Mithraeum)
I am now back from Cyprus (which I'll post about separately later), and have spent this afternoon setting up a Dreamwidth account. I no longer trust LJ not to delete my account unexpectedly, or indeed disappear altogether, so I want the security of a backup. And, since I'm setting it up anyway, I may as well use the new account properly and interact with people there.

You can find me at strange_complex. There aren't any entries on the new account yet, as the import is still running. I am also currently fiddling about with different display options - especially trying to figure out how to make it render nicely on both my gigantic home desktop PC and my smartphone.

I have systematically gone through my LJ friends list, looking for accounts with the same name on DW and granting access / subscribing to them if I was confident that they were the same person. I've also granted access / subscribed to everyone I knew about who is there under a different username. But obviously people whose (former) LJ and DW names are different are harder to find, so if I haven't found you yet, please let me know who you are there.

I think my long-term plan is to continue reading my friends pages on both sites, cross-posting my own entries on both, and allowing comments on both. That means nothing much should change from the point of view of people who want to remain LJ-only and continue interacting with me here. Eventually, I will identify all the people who are cross-posting to DW and filter them off my LJ friends page so that I don't have to see their entries twice. But even then I won't be defriending them on LJ, as I still want everyone to have the same access to my journal whichever site they are coming from. It's just that I will be working across the two sites, seeing all the same content as before but spread across two reading pages.

I don't have any plans to delete my LJ. I don't think that would achieve anything, while it would cut me off from people who prefer to stay LJ-only themselves. I'm sad, though, that after almost 14 years I no longer feel like I can trust what was once the most important site on the internet for me.
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: (Penny coin)
I cannot remember the last time I did this, but allow me to recommend to my readers the journal of [livejournal.com profile] maryanndimand.

The author is a US-based former economics professor, and she has set up the account specifically in order to deliver regular bite-sized chunks on basic economic principles over the course of this calendar year. Her rationale is that most people claim to vote on the basis of economic issues, but don't in practice have the understanding of economic principles and reasoning which they need to evaluate politicians' claims in this area critically. She'd like to help with that and I think she's doing a good job.

Obviously if you're reading this, you can simply follow her account here on LJ, but she is also posting the same content to Facebook in public posts marked with the hashtag #2017econ.

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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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