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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gorgon castle.jpg

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Let's start with characters )

Then there is plot )

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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strange_complex: (Barbara Susan planning)
OK, so here's me trying to catch up with Doctor Who reviews. I'll aim to keep them short(ish... for me), as there are so many to catch up with. And obviously, I'm now doing this with hindsight, so I'm unlikely to be saying the same things here that I would have said if I'd written about each episode at the time. But I do have the notes I wrote while watching each episode to hand, so can see what I thought about them on initial viewing.

Between its Viking setting and its explicit concern with the consequences of time travellers changing history, the first half of this story reminded me strongly of The Time Meddler, and was clearly supposed to. My own notes for the latter remind me that it was the first Doctor Who story to articulate the idea that time travellers shouldn't change history, as opposed to the idea that they can't (which is what we get the very first time the issue comes up at all in The Aztecs). As the Doctor says to the Monk, "You know as well as I do the golden rule about space and time travelling - never, never interfere with the course of history" - though it's noticeable that this rule has only ever applied to Earth history, as known to a contemporary TV audience. The Doctor can clearly change history on other planets as much as he likes!

This story is all about the Doctor breaking that 'golden rule' and creating a tidal wave where he should leave only ripples. At the time of broadcast, this was clearly signalled as a pivotal moment both emotionally for the Twelfth Doctor, and structurally for New Who as a whole - particularly through the explicit flashbacks to his decision to save the Caecilius family in Fires of Pompeii and his self-identification as someone who 'saves people'. And now in retrospect we can see how much it foreshadowed, too. The first half of this story put a lot of emphasis on how in saving Ashildr by using Mire technology, the Doctor had created a hybrid of the two races, and the second had Ashildr referring to herself simply as 'Me'. To join those dots, the closing words of Heaven Sent:
You got the prophecy wrong. The Hybrid is not half-Dalek. Nothing is half-Dalek; the Daleks would never allow that. The Hybrid destined to conquer Gallifrey and stand in its ruins is me.
Of the two halves, I preferred the second. That's not to say I disliked the first, and especially its core idea of the Mire being defeated with the power of imagination, stories and spin rather than brute force. But the second half appealed more aesthetically, offering a lot that was Hammeresque or generally Gothic, while its explorations of the consequences of immortality were suitably emotionally weighty. I also liked many of the smaller touches in the second episode - like comedy highwayman Sam Swift, Ashildr / Me trying out life as a man for a while (very Orlando), or her use of journals to work around the problem of a limited memory but an unlimited life-span. I'm only 39, but I am beginning to know the feeling!

Meanwhile, I found myself wondering whether both halves of this two-parter could actually have been handled as pure historicals, rather than pseudo-historicals. This takes us back once again to The Time Meddler, which was the first Doctor Who story to insert an alien threat (the Meddling Monk himself) into a story set in Earth's past. Both halves of this story qualify likewise, thanks to the presence of fake-Odin and the Mire in the first and Leandro and his people in the second - but could much the same plots otherwise have unfolded without them? I'm pretty sure it could have done for the first episode, with Ashildr's village simply facing down a more powerful neighbouring warrior tribe instead of the Mire and making them look like fools to be laughed at around camp-fires up and down the land. The only adjustment needed would be to establish that the Doctor carries medical chips of some kind around on the TARDIS which could take the place of the Mire chip - but that wouldn't be hard.

It would perhaps be slightly harder for the second episode, as it's important to Ashildr / Me's emotional arc in this story that she is trying to find a way off the Earth to more exciting prospects beyond - this is what makes her collaborate with Leandro, kill Sam Swift and then realise that she has done something awful in a flawed cause. But I should think a clever story-teller (not me!) could still come up with some way to put her through that arc which didn't involve aliens. Perhaps she could instead have ended up aspiring to some kind of apocalyptic destruction-of-Earth plan, in the hope that it would put paid to her own unwanted and unending life along with everyone else's, but realised once her plan began to unfold that she didn't want this after all, and needed the Doctor's help to stop it? (Though that may be too utterly dark for Doctor Who, even now - defeating an alien-of-the-week is always a much safer bet for a feel-good story.)

But my point is that I felt that we were dancing on the edge of not really needing the alien element in either of these episodes - like it was there because that is simply the accepted Doctor Who format, rather than because it was actually necessary to what the stories were trying to do. Certainly, these weren't celebrity historicals - indeed, they stayed well clear altogether of touching on any specific Earth history as it might be known to a contemporary TV audience, which as I've suggested above is the real 'golden rule' of time travel. The matter of whether or not a particular Viking village was defended successfully against attack, or whether someone called Sam Swift was or wasn't hanged at Tyburn, wouldn't break our suspension of disbelief about these stories (and thus the whole of Doctor Who) taking place within our history, and our universe as we know it. And if we've got to the point where Doctor Who is producing historical stories that barely need aliens in them to work, then could it be possible that some time soon we'll take the next step onwards from there, and get to the stage of having a historical story which doesn't have aliens in it at all? That's something I have to say I'd really like to see after all these years without one.

Finally, I don't really watch Game of Thrones properly, though I've seen enough of it to have been able to recognise some of its musical cues in The Woman Who Lived in particular. But I enjoyed Maisie Williams' performance last year as the central character in the Channel 4 film Cyberbully, and was impressed again across these two stories - and of course Face the Raven, which I've also seen since. She has already appeared in the 'next time' trailer for Hell Bent, and I'm glad that we will be seeing both her and her character again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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strange_complex: (Vampira)
This I saw on Friday, in company with the lovely [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan and [livejournal.com profile] planet_andy. It takes its cue from the 1922 film Nosferatu, but it certainly isn't a straightforward adaptation of it. Rather, it is set entirely on board the ship carrying Count Orlok from Varna to Whitby, and follows the experiences of three surviving ship-mates (one fervently religious, one superstitious, one harshly rationalistic) as they are driven to terrible thoughts and deeds by their dread cargo in a single dark hour before the coming of the dawn.

Those ship-board scenes, of course, are also in Stoker's novel, not to mention many other versions of Dracula. Indeed, this stage play began with the captain scribbling furiously in his log, narrating entries in a broadly Stokerish style (and a beautiful Irish accent, no less!) as he brought it up to date. But what ties it specifically to Nosferatu (1922) is the visual style - partly the set and props, but above all Count Orlok himself. This is in spite of the fact that we never actually see him. Rather, the story is driven by his terrible presence down below in the hold, and after the captain of the ship finally climbs down to investigate what is there, and we hear a scream and see the slap of a single bloody hand on the (translucent) cabin door, he begins to take on the mannerisms and clothing of the count. Even then, it's slightly too simple to say that he becomes possessed by Orlok's evil. There is something much more complex going on about the effects of fear and isolation on the human mind. But his hands increasingly become Orlok's clawed hands, and he abandons the long duster-coat he had been wearing to reveal that Orlok's buttoned jacket had been there all along, just underneath.

This is a perfectly solid set-up, and there are plenty of things about the play I enjoyed. I particularly liked the lady who sat throughout the performance on one side of the stage with a cello and a microphone, providing siren-like singing and eerie music when required. There was also some clever trickery which allowed ship-mates who had just died to be discovered already wrapped up inside tarpaulin body-bags that had been lying on the side of the stage since the story began. But fundamentally, this was the kind of play in which people move around in slow-motion through a series of mannered poses, and one character will say something portentous and rather meaningless like "time is an ocean", after which the other characters pick up and echo the same refrain: "time..." "time is an ocean". I'm afraid I am instantly turned off by that. It is just too difficult to pull it off without sounding like a parody of utterly pretentious avant-garde theatre. In this case, they also made it worse by frequently shifting into song as well - and not always very melodically, or even entirely in tune.

So although I really liked the idea of the absent-yet-present Count, driving everyone mad without ever needing to appear in person, in the end this play was just trying rather too hard for my taste. I don't actually regret the evening spent watching it, but I won't be rushing to see another play by this theatre company again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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strange_complex: (Sherlock Holmes trifles)
I'm spreading myself across the selected highlights of two different film festivals this weekend: the 2015 Widescreen Weekend at the National Media Museum in Bradford, and the Mayhem Horror Film Festival at the Broadway Cinema in Nottingham. This was my first stop, seen in the company of the lovely miss_s_b in Bradford.

2015-10-16 17.04.00.jpg

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

2015-10-16 20.38.29.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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strange_complex: (Jessica rebel)
Right, I'm ready to write about Doctor Who now. So, basically I liked this episode. I liked all these things ) Fundamentally, I feel we've now had four strong episodes in a row - which hasn't happened for a long time.

But!

But.

There is a trope in SF and horror stories which has annoyed me for a long time, which involves a woman being told to stay somewhere safe by the male characters, her refusing to follow their advice and going off on her own into danger anyway, and then her getting into danger and / or compromising the success of whatever mission they are all involved in as a result. I've complained about it multiple times in reviews of such stories, for example here in relation to Isobel in the Second Doctor story, The Invasion (1968) or here in relation to Jessica Van Helsing in The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973), and it's now occurred to me to check whether or not it has an entry in TV Tropes. Sure enough, it seems to be a sub-type of Stay In The Kitchen, which in its simplest sense just involves men telling women to stay in the (metaphorical) kitchen, but here is extended to 'prove' that such advice should be heeded in the first place by acting out the negative consequences of women ignoring such advice.

The TV Tropes article claims that "Nowadays, when this trope is invoked, this character [i.e. the man telling the woman to Stay In The Kitchen] is unlikely to be treated sympathetically for his opinion." But there seems to be no 'nowadays' about it in Doctor Who. What we saw in this episode was exactly in line with the examples I've mentioned above )

Meanwhile, there were two other crappy discriminatory tropes in play here, despite the obvious current efforts of the production team to acknowledge and represent diversity through their casting ) What's going on, Doctor Who? And when can it stop?

So I feel like this is hardly a 'review' of the story at all, and just a massive rant about diversity and -isms in TV shows instead. Let me go back to the beginning - the story, as a story, was good. I liked it - I really did. Its narrative arc, its characterisation and its ideas were all good. But having tropish fails at work in the same story throws me off what would otherwise have been a very enjoyable experience, and ends up making all the actually-good drama fade away into the background. I'd really like to not have to keep being distracted from a show and character I otherwise love by all this.

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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strange_complex: (Strange complex)
Well, I think we can safely say that Moffat's decision to go heavy on the two-parters this season was a good one. Oh, mid-story cliff-hangers, how we have missed you! Plus the obvious advantages of being able to develop both characters and complex mysteries over a more generous span of time. Not all two-parters are perfect, of course. Mid-season ones in particular have tended to be a noticeable New Who weakness, in fact. But perhaps that was only ever because they were in the middle of the season, rather than because they happened to be two-parters, all along?

I'm also starting to think I like the pitch of the Doctor's character a little bit better this season. He seems less arrogant / grouchy for the sake of it, more at ease with himself and more natural in his exuberance when he shows it. Maybe it is partly to do with how his relationship with Clara has developed? Now that she is stronger too, and we've got past the whole lying-to-each-other theme from last season, he too seems to have become more enjoyable to have around the screen. The business with the cue-cards, with the Doctor needing to make a thing about even a whole dimension (inside the TARDIS) only having room for one him, and Clara being all 'yeah, whatever' in response, was all just lovely for being obviously a performance on both sides, rather than fragile and tense for being a little to close to the truth as it tended to be last season.

It helps, too that I absolutely love cabin-fever stories like this one - and even better when they acknowledge what they are, as this one did when Cass told the Doctor he could "stay and do the whole cabin-in-the-woods thing" if he wanted. In fact, I think this story was actively nodding at some of Doctor Who's very own cabin-fever stories of the past )

Other strong moments which I haven't had occasion to mention yet include spoilers )

Diversity issues also involve spoilers )

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strange_complex: (Doctor Caecilius hands)
So! A new season of Doctor Who, then! I missed the first episode because I was in Bournemouth for Lib Dem Conference, and although I did catch up with it last Saturday (effectively watching both as a two-parter that evening), I haven't had time to write about them until now because I wanted to get conference written up first, and have then had a busy week.

I really liked these two episodes, though. I went into them with fairly low expectations, after a week of reading various comments around the internet to the effect that The Magician's Apprentice was not that great. So it may be that the low expectations in themselves helped me enjoy both episodes more than I might have done otherwise. But certainly, watched together, they seemed pretty strong to me.

The basic set-up and central drama, revisiting the Genesis of the Daleks dilemma by giving the Doctor the power of life and death over a being whom he knows will kill billions but right now is powerless and innocent, is sound enough and professionally handled. OK, you could argue it's a lazy re-hash of Doctor Who's back catalogue, but I liked the structuring principle which meant that we kept getting new takes on how the Doctor had actually responded to that dilemma right up until the end of the two-parter, even while the consequences (and causes) of his actions played out in another time-line.

The real star of this story for me, though, was Missy. Looking back at my reviews for the last two stories of last season, I didn't have terribly much to say about her beyond the gender-switch thing, but this story really let her blossom into a fully-developed character, so that she has officially become loads of fun. In particular, she is far more interesting here than she ever was in the last series for the ambiguity around whether she is temporarily collaborating with the Doctor and Clara purely out of expedience, or out of some kind of respect for her history with the Doctor. This really broadened her out from a fairly one-dimensional villain into a fully-fledged incarnation of the Master, whose relationship with the Doctor always was shot through with the ongoing reverberations of their childhood friendship / rivalry. As others have said, Michelle Gomez's performance very much rose to meet the new opportunities, replete with echoes of Masters past along the way. So I am now really looking forward to seeing more of her (and her gorgeous purple Victorian outfit!) in the future, and fervently hope that she will displace River Bloody Song as Doctor Who's resident mysterious recurring female character. I'm also looking forward to meeting her daughter (or son by this time, of course) - though in grand Whovian tradition, it could literally be decades before we do.

Missy wouldn't have worked anything like as well as she did, though, without Clara to play up against - and torment a bit. I thought Clara's side of the dynamic worked particularly well during their first encounter, when she was able to pin Missy down to business and stop her from randomly killing people because she could by insisting that Missy 'make [her] believe' that there really was something serious going on relating to the Doctor. That is the same self-assured, experienced Clara that she had grown into by the end of last season, and whom I like very much.

Clara's moments trapped within the Dalek shell, unable to communicate her human emotions and even frighteningly unable to convey her identity to the Doctor were excellent too. They were stronger for recalling the life of Oswin Oswald her fellow-inmates in Asylum of the Daleks, but would have been good anyway for giving us a new level of insight into the horror of what Daleks are - not to mention an explanation for why they shout 'exterminate' all the time! Fine achievements after over fifty years of them.

Then there were the scenes between the Doctor and Davros - also good, and for much the same reasons of ambiguity as those involving Missy. Probably Davros is just Evil, and tricked the Doctor into coming to Skaro so that he could harness his regeneration energy. And probably the Doctor, for all his compassion, knew full well that he could turn Davros' plans against him by activating the gloopy dead sewer-Daleks, so was never really in Davros' emotional grasp. But maybe, just maybe, on some level they do actually also like and respect one another. Certainly, it was compelling to see these two ancient enemies recognising each other for the two sides of the same coin they have always been, even if it was only a temporary and somewhat illusory truce.

In general, then, excellent character-led drama, with just enough new twists on the familiar staples of the format to make the story seem new. On the other hand, though, I could really have done without yet another fake companion death, and particularly one used so overtly as a fridging device to push the Doctor into doing (plot-necessary) crazy things in the Dalek city. And while I appreciate the attempt at representing racial diversity by putting black faces in the crowd in AD 1138, still in this story a black character (young Davros' companion in the hand-mine field) was the first person to die on screen yet again. Doesn't anybody explicitly double-check scripts for this, given how a) common and b) fucking racist it is?

Finally, two things in this episode reminded me strongly of The Fires of Pompeii - 1) the hand-mines with eyes in the palms of their hands, much like the Soothsayers of the Sibylline Sisterhood, and 2) the Doctor and Clara standing on a hill-side, watching the destruction of the Dalek city. This is what I mean on the latter point - the composition of the shots is never quite the same, but the general feeling is very, very similar:

Pompeii watching destruction.jpg

Dalek city destruction.jpg

So Caecilius in Fires of Pompeii and the Doctor in The Witch's Familiar have now stood in similar settings, watching cities being destroyed, while wearing the same face. And since the Doctor said himself at the beginning of last season that he must have been trying to tell himself something by choosing it, I feel like we should pay attention to that.

A few smaller, random thoughts to finish us off:
  • Missy's static planes reminded me really strongly of the various examples of planes caught mid-flight by Google mapping satellites.
  • Davros being referred to as a Dark Lord and being served by an intelligent snake all seemed very Harry Potter.
  • But there was also something very Darth Vader-ish about Davros having once been a round-faced little boy on a desert planet, becoming dependent on a life-support system later in his life, and wanting to see the Doctor with his own eyes in his final moments.
  • Davros' supposedly-dying speech rang some strong Augustan bells for me. Compare and contrast: "Did I do right? Tell me, was I right? I need to know before the end - was I a good man?" and "Did I play my part well in this comedy called life?" It is classic Great Man / Strong Leader stuff - the iconic historical agent with power over millions revealing his inner humanity just before the end.
  • There was a strong set-up for a scene in which the Doctor would have to pull the Dalek wires out of Clara's head, causing her significant pain in the cause of restoring her humanity, but in the end we didn't get it, and skipped straight to her being fine and running along a corridor again. Looks like shoddy editing, I would guess because the story as initially planned turned out to over-run.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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