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

Saturday schedule.jpg


And here's what I did:

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

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

Met Caroline Munro and got her autograph )

Doctor Who season 22 show-makers' interview )

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

Live commentary on New Who 2.3 School Reunion )

Live commentary on New Who 2.13 Doomsday )

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

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

2016-08-26 20.27.12.jpg


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Full view of cast and eye by Ashley Bird.jpg

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

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

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

So, having talked about the performance at the Mayhem Film Festival, I'm now going to review this story qua story, in the way that I have every other Hammer Dracula story on this blog. The obvious difference of course is that you, dear reader, are almost infinitesimally unlikely to have 'seen' it. That means we need to start with a brief plot summary. It is utterly spoilerific, as is everything I say from this point onwards in the review. But given that as far as we know at the moment, this story will never be released in any other format, you may as well read on and at least find out what happens in it. )
strange_complex: (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: (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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strange_complex: (Dracula 1958 cloak)
This is a Romanian film about the historical Dracula, which tells the story of his main reign from taking the Wallachian throne in 1456 to his arrest on the orders of Matthias Corvinus in 1462. It isn't legally available to buy in the UK, so I watched it on Youtube (complete with English subtitles), partly to see if it would help me in my current efforts to learn Romanian, and partly of course for its own sake as a portrayal of Dracula.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Helmet Intense With torch Enthroned

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Films watched 2014 round-up )

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

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strange_complex: (Dracula 1958 cloak)
I saw this on Tuesday evening with notorious Dracula-enabler [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan, and it was absolutely captivating. I'm not a big ballet-goer - in fact, I think the last live ballet I went to was a performance of The Nutcracker at the Birmingham Hippodrome with my mother during my mid- to late-teens. But when [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan pointed out that this was on, recommended it highly based on having seen it previously, and suggested that we go along, I didn't take much persuading. Well, let's be honest, I'll find time for pretty much anything with 'Dracula' in the title right now. But I could see straight away how a ballet version of the story would have the potential to really bring out its fantasy, romance and visual spectacle - and I was not disappointed.

Ballet dancers, of course, can move in ways which most human beings cannot, and this is a great boon when playing supernatural characters. You can take for granted incredible feats of strength and agility and suitably animalistic movements on the part of all the vampire characters - Dracula, his three brides, and a transformed Lucy. More deliberately supernatural, and different from the human characters in this ballet or the supernatural ones in other dramatic performances, were two particular feats performed by Dracula himself - gliding side-ways, almost as though floating, and literally crawling out of a window head-first, exactly as described in the book. The latter can briefly be seen in this trailer video (at 0:25), which indeed is worth watching in full (it's only 1m15s long) for a good sense of the general splendour of the performance:


It was perfectly clear how both were done - the former by using the tight scuttling movement that ballet-dancers do (I don't know the technical term) while his feet were hidden below the length of his cloak, and the latter by supporting himself with powerful arm-muscles on two vertical bars running down either side of the 'window', while hooking onto the horizontal dividers of the frame with his feet. But still! I couldn't dream of doing either, and seeing another human being right in front of my eyes deploying what (to me) were effectively supernatural powers was an amazing experience. In these days of CGI special effects, it's easy to become blasé about seeing human beings doing apparently-impossible things, so that it becomes hard to relate to the combined fascination and repulsion which Stoker's characters experience on encounters with vampires. But seeing such physical feats being performed live gave a much more powerful sense of the strangeness of difference than I think any screen-trickery could ever quite manage.

Those weren't the only places where the strengths of ballet as a medium for story-telling were well-deployed, either. Other simple yet clever examples included the scenes where Dracula physically manipulated human characters like marionettes to represent hypnotically bending them to his will, or where Renfield's mental torment was conveyed through powerful contortions - not a case of supernatural movement this time, but another good use of a ballet dancer's exceptional physical capabilities to convey difference. And in a context where all of the characters were flowing and floating around the stage in a rather surreal fashion all the time anyway, and there was no dialogue, it also seemed very natural to convey one character's thoughts about another by having them appear at a slight distance. This was how we first met Mina, for example - as a 'vision' in a white dress dancing lightly across a corner of the stage, prompted by Jonathan's longing for her while he is imprisoned in Dracula's castle.

And oh, how well ballet conveys longing and yearning of all kinds! The absolute high-light of the piece was a love-duet between Dracula and Mina in the second half, which seemed to go on for ever, yet which I still wanted never to stop at all. But the early scenes in Dracula's castle of course offer lots of scope for homoerotic longing, too - "This man belongs to me!" and so on. There was some great business between Dracula and Jonathan Harker, where Jonathan would be sitting at a desk studying legal documents, with Dracula hanging over his shoulder on the brink of succumbing to the urge to bite him - but then Jonathan would notice and Dracula would shift smoothly into pointing out something on the page in front of him. Indeed, they had a proper male-male duet too, with Dracula guiding and steering Jonathan's movements in one of his mind-control sequences. That's something which ballet as a format, with all those finely-toned male bodies, has the potential to do incredibly well, and yet of course isn't common in classical ballet AT ALL because of the prevalent social mores at the time when most of it was developed. And much the same could be said for the vampire brides, where the strength of the dancers was used to show them as casually powerful, in complete command of their own bodies, and enjoying the hell out of playing around with a helpless Jonathan Harker. Sure, OK, so Dracula was always going to turn up at the end and tell them to quit it, but they got an extended scene of potent, jubilant femininity before that - a world away from the fragile characters female ballet-dancers are usually asked to play, and quite the most exuberant vampire brides I think I've ever seen.

As for how this ballet related to other tellings of the Dracula story, it largely follows the contours of the book, although it is inevitably impressionistic given the relatively short running-time (c. 1h 45m of stage time), emphasis on character moments and dramatic confrontations, and absence of dialogue. The perpetual dilemmas about where Lucy, Mina, Seward, Holmwood etc all live in relation to Dracula's castle become largely irrelevant when no-one in the story is speaking words like 'Whitby', 'London', 'Carlstadt' or whatever. Possibly Dracula travels to wherever-it-is by ship - but equally, the lashing wind and water which we hear may just be a storm outside Lucy's drawing-room window. It doesn't really matter. On this impressionistic level, the only identifiable 'departure' from the book was a party held to celebrate Lucy's engagement to Arthur Holmwood (at which she shockingly turns up on Dracula's arm!), but since that allowed for some very nice formal dancing scenes which gave roles to members of the company who otherwise wouldn't have been in the production at all, it seemed like a good inclusion.

The sets were probably closest to the 1931 Universal Dracula, in that they were neither realistic nor entirely abstract, so matched its expressionistic spirit. They were certainly really good, anyway - lots of broken castles and abbeys, but also lavish ballrooms and bedrooms, and an excellent carriage pulled through clouds of dry ice by burning-eyed horses. There are quite a few traceable footprints of Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) here too - e.g. in Dracula's shoulder-length hair, the very Elizabethan-looking collar worn by Lucy after her transformation, the fact that Dracula and Mina's story is cast as a romance (though thankfully without any hints at reincarnation), and the portrayal of Seward as morphine addict ([livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan - I checked that one, and this is indeed where it comes from). But there was a touch of the rattish Nosferatu to Dracula's look as well, and of course the absence of spoken dialogue inevitably recalls the format of the 1922 movie.

Because nothing is perfect, I do have to note here that after the highlight which was Dracula and Mina's love-duet, the dancing did seem to fall into a bit of an anti-climax, especially as the team of vampire hunters dashed around the stage in search of Dracula with no obvious sense of purpose to their movements. And while the costumes were generally amazing (especially a long beaded frock-coat worn by Dracula to Lucy's engagement party), his standard attire of a long high-collared crushed-velvet cloak unfortunately looked very much like it had come from a cheap fancy-dress shop. But all in all, this really was a fantastic performance and a great night out. If you ever get the chance to see it, grab it with both hands.

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strange_complex: (Dracula Risen hearse smile)
(Also known as Die Schlangengrube und das Pendel, The Snake Pit and the Pendulum,The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism and about a zillion other alternative titles. Not to be confused with Castle of the Living Dead, which is completely different. Obviously!)

Another entry here in the series 'Other Gothic Horrors Starring Christopher Lee Which I Haven't Seen, And Which Ideally Feature Him Playing A Character As Similar To Dracula As Possible, And / Or Also Star Peter Cushing And / Or Vincent Price', and this one was a corker! Well, at least, it is a corker by 1960s Euro-horror standards. Here are three reasons why it is worth watching:

1. It is visually splendid. This is mainly thanks to being filmed in Bavaria, and making exceptionally good use of the setting. I was particularly charmed to recognise Rothenburg ob der Tauber, which does a huge amount to create the appropriate fairy-tale atmosphere for The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, and is such a perfect gingerbread town that it is a struggle to believe it can possibly be real. But in all fairness, the set, prop, make-up and costume departments are all performing at a very high level too. It isn't exactly an expressionist film in the full-blown sense of German cinema from the inter-war period, but it definitely has many of the same sorts of visual design touches, and these are some of its biggest strengths. See, however, point 3 on my 'downsides' list, below, which alas means that a film which must have looked absolutely bloody fantastic when it first came out is now difficult to discern through all the dust and scratch-lines.

2. It is utterly unashamed to ramp the Gothic horror clichés up to the absolute max. The basic approach is quite similar to Castle of the Living Dead, in that this film is essentially a pastiche made up of scenes and motifs drawn from successful previous horror titles. This time, the two chief source texts that I could recognise are Edgar Allan Poe's 'Pit and the Pendulum' (very obviously mediated through Roger Corman's 1961 film) and Dracula, Prince of Darkness, which had come out only the previous year. Poe / Corman contribute a castle full of dungeons and torture chambers, where a group of travellers experience new and more inventive horrors at every turn, while Prince contributes an evil Count who is supposed to be dead, but gets resurrected by a creepy and incredibly loyal servant. According to Jonathan Rigby, Mario Bava's La maschera del demonio is a big influence too, and while I haven't seen it myself the Wikipedia description certainly backs him up. Rather than merely repeating or mimicking its predecessors, though, the watchword for this film seems to have been to make everything about them MORE - more blood, more dungeons, more dark and scary forests, more unsettling interior décor, more bubbling potions, more mad villains, more distressed damsels. That's not always a good thing in horror films, because often all the subtlety of the earlier takes on the story dies a horrible death in the process, but somehow here it just came across as really joyous and exuberant and fun. It's like they said to themselves, "Let's not muck about! This is a Gothic horror film. We know what our audience wants, and so do they, so let's do it properly!" And they did.

3. It has Christopher Lee in it, playing a character very similar to Dracula. This is of course a subset of point 2, but it is a very important subset! His character is called Count Regula, which clearly (as for Count Drago in Castle of the Living Dead) was the closest name they could think of to Count Dracula without attracting a law-suit. The film opens with a flash-back of him being executed in the town square 35 years before the main story begins for drinking the blood of 12 women in an attempt to secure immortality. He didn't quite manage it, needing 13, but thanks to some hand-waving and some kind of elixir of life, his servant is able to resurrect him for the main story anyway, so that he can chow down on his final victim and seal the deal. He looks a bit grey about the face, wears a floor-length black coat, and suffers from an aversion to crosses, while his first words to the travellers who have been unfortunate enough to end up in his dungeons are "Welcome to my house". All in all then, he is set up as a first-rate Dracula-substitute, and he utterly delivers the goods in his performance, too - lots of good icy aristocratic vengeance-fixated evil, some nice bursts of anger when he is thwarted, and some fine anguish when everything starts going horribly wrong for him at the end. In short, this film is even better than Castle of the Living Dead if you're after a cheap Lee-as-Dracula fix and have run out of actual Dracula films to watch - which is, of course, exactly my position.

On the down side:

1. The dialogue is all dubbed in post-production. Although Christopher Lee definitely speaks his own lines in the English-language version, and I'm pretty sure most of the other actors do too, still actors recording their lines in a studio almost always come across as wooden by comparison with in-context performances recorded on set. Also, I'm not sure all the actors were of a terribly high calibre in the first place anyway - particularly someone called Vladimir Medar, who plays a highwayman-disguised-as-a-priest comic relief character.

2. The gender politics of it are utterly Victorian. The main female character, Baroness Lilian von Brabant, is actually quite well played by Karin Dor, especially in a scene where she has been drugged and convinced that she is someone else, but gradually comes to realise that something isn't quite right and she can't be who she thinks she is. Nonetheless, the character clearly exists purely to function as a victim and / or sexual object. At one point, I thought she might experience a bit of character growth by having to face up to her fears in order to rescue her male companion (much as Willie does in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom), but no - she just ended up fainting with terror instead, while he got on and rescued himself. In fact, at the end of the entire experience, she begs him to tell her that it was all just a dream - and he reassures her that it was. Bah! This sort of stuff is, of course, characteristic of both the genre and the period, but it's not inevitable. Compare, for example, Diana in Dracula, Prince of Darkness (one of this film's sources), who is full of the spirit of adventure from the start, and even grabs a gun and has a good old shoot at Dracula at the climax of the film. Strong women could exist in horror, even in the 1960s - but this film does not have any.

3. The visual quality of the DVD transfer is absolutely appalling, especially at the beginning. I don't normally get particularly exercised by this sort of thing, but what you get if you borrow this movie from Lovefilm is basically an utterly unrestored film projection, complete with visual noise, distorted colours and massive streaks running down the screen, all simply transferred to a digital disc. I don't mind any of those features on an actual original film reel which I'm viewing in the cinema, as there it is all part of the experience of engaging with a vintage print. But I kind of expect a DVD print to have undergone at least some very basic clean-up in the process of being transferred to a digital format, and this just really hadn't.

In short, not perfect, but one of the downsides isn't the fault of the original film-makers, and the other two are pretty much par for the course in this genre, so it's not like anyone who likes this sort of film won't be expecting them. Meanwhile, the upsides more than compensate. Don't expect it to change your life, but do expect it to make for a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

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strange_complex: (Eleven dude)
This is a BBC Eleventh Doctor plus Amy and Rory spin-off novel, which I read mainly because it was written by LJ's very own [livejournal.com profile] altariel. She has another one out now, but this was her first, and I remember her being pleased as punch when it came out. I've been meaning to read it ever since.

I have read a few of the Virgin New Adventures or Missing Adventures novels in the past (e.g. Lungbarrow, The Well-Mannered War and Human Nature), but this is my first experience of a BBC-branded Doctor Who novel (i.e. one starring the current Doctor and marketed as spin-off merchandising), so I don't have much comparable material to judge it against. But I certainly really enjoyed this book in its own right - which is lucky, really, as it would be a bit embarrassing having to write this review otherwise!

What I liked about it most was the meta-references to story-telling which are woven throughout the narrative - something which always presses my buttons, but I think was done especially well here. The book opens with an evocative snippet of the scary rumours which circulate around (what will turn out to be) the book's main setting, the city of Geath, using the opportunity not only to foreshadow some of the excitement and peril which will come later, but also to establish some important themes - particularly unreliable narration and the way that oral stories become embroidered in the telling, but also the way that they have the strongest power in the half-glimpsed semi-darkness and over people who are on their own.

Later on, as the story unfolds and the characters are getting to know Geath, we also meet a Teller whose stories have an inexplicable and politically revolutionary power over his listeners, and find the Doctor rigging up the alien equivalent of Renaissance technology to project cinematic images of ancient wars, and to beam TV-style communications into homes and public squares all across Geath. I very much liked the way all these different media - oral stories, films, TV - appeared together in a narrative all about the power of story-telling, and one which inherently bridges two different story-telling media in itself by virtue of being a novel about characters from a TV series. It meant that the central theme really was the power of stories writ large, rather than the power of stories told in one particular medium, which in this case I am able to add chimes strongly with what I know of Una as a person.

In much the same vein, I was also pleased but not surprised at the treatment of gender in the novel. Again, I know this is something Una feels strongly about in other people's stories, and it was great to see her getting the opportunity to Do It Right in her own novel. It's not just that as many of the major characters in the novel are female as male, or that the female characters have a strong sense of agency while also steering well clear of being tropish Strong Women without any meaningful flaws or dilemmas. What really told me I was reading a novel by someone who had thought about gender equality while writing it was the way that minor characters who were little more than the equivalent of extras in screen productions, and who so often simply default to being male in novels or on screen, turned out to be female. The example which particularly struck me was a knight who got killed when her horse bolted after being frightened by a hostile alien influence. It wasn't a speaking part, and of course the word 'knight' particularly invites a male-as-default reaction, but this particular character was quietly female. A nice touch, both in terms of portraying gender equality and prodding the reader to question their own assumptions.

I will admit that my attention wandered a while during the middle part of the novel, once the major characters had been established and there was rather a lot of impending war and capture-and-escape business to get through before everything could be resolved. But I get that that stuff is pretty much par for the course in this sort of fiction. Meanwhile, there was a lot more to enjoy than the two major points which I have outlined above - like the pre-industrial city-state setting, the central device of a gold-like substance called Enamour which has a hypnotic influence on those who come into contact with it, the strategies for dealing with a substance like this which are worked through in the story, some explorations of the disjunction between bureaucratic adherence to set rules and actual justice, and the fact that in the end the centuries-old alien conflict which constitutes the main drama of the story is resolved through discussion and negotiation, rather than fighting. I also thought the characterisation of the Doctor, Amy and Rory was very good, which is quite impressive given that I know from Una's LJ posts that she had to be given notes about what they would be like while writing the novel, as they hadn't actually appeared on TV yet at the time.

One slight 'Buh?' moment came from what appeared to be an extremely slashy scene between the Teller and the king whom he served, Beol, containing lines like "He rested his strong hands upon the other man's shoulders and smiled down at him", immediately before the revelation that they were, in fact, brothers. Come on, Una, spill the beans - was this originally straightforward slash which you were asked to tone down into brotherly love by a conservative editor?

Anyway, I don't know if I'm likely to read more Doctor Who spin-off stories for their own sake, but I'm definitely open to more by this author. ;-)

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strange_complex: (Lee as M.R. James)
I've run out of Hammer Dracula films to re-watch, so am now exploring a category of films which can best be described as 'Other Gothic Horrors Starring Christopher Lee Which I Haven't Seen, And Which Ideally Feature Him Playing A Character As Similar To Dracula As Possible, And / Or Also Star Peter Cushing And / Or Vincent Price.' There are actually a quite considerable number of films which meet these criteria, even including the 'which I haven't seen' clause, and now is a good time in human history to be watching them.

See, last time I had a really big 'thing' on Christopher Lee, which was about ten years ago now, Lovefilm and Netflix did not exist, my local video shop had a limited range, I had a limited income so that although Amazon existed I could not simply buy anything I felt like from it, and many of the films I wanted to see were not available to purchase in any format anyway. Now, the range of availability is greater (though still nothing like comprehensive), and so are both my disposable income and the channels available to buy or hire through. So films which I have long read about in books but been unable to watch are actually available at long last via the click of a few buttons. Hooray for exponential steps forward in technology and communications!

Actually, I probably could have got hold of this particular film ten years ago - it would have been more a case of limited income stopping me than limited availability. But there are other films lined up on my Lovefilm list, or already in my possession, which I know I couldn't have done, because I tried at the time and was frustrated. More of those in later reviews.

For now, this one is an AIP film which borrows the title of an Edgar Allan Poe story, but discards the story itself in favour of a new one drawing on some of his classic tropes (e.g. burial alive, insanity, unavenged crimes from the past), and mashing them together with others such as body-snatching and deformed horrors in the attic. For AIP, it was a continuation of the Poe / Price films which Roger Corman did in the early '60s, but by this stage other directors were being used. In fact, this one was supposed to have been directed by Michael Reeves (of The Sorcerors and Witchfinder General fame), but he was unable to start it - not, as is often reported, due to his death, as filming had already been completed before that, but more due to the depression and substance abuse problems which shortly afterwards caused his death.

It features the coveted Price / Lee combination (actually it was the first time they worked together and the beginning of their friendship), and involves Christopher Lee playing Dr. Neuhartt, a rather sour Victorian medic who is keeping the local body-snatchers in business. Price, meanwhile, plays Lord Markham, a troubled colonialist aristocrat with plantations in Africa, a trusting and innocent fiancée, and a dread family secret in the attic. Alas, they barely interact on screen, appearing together only very briefly in a scene where Christopher Lee's character is already lying half-dead on the floor, having had his throat cut. But that is only one of many alases which affect this film.

Other flaws include:
  • The dialogue, much of which is banal or lacklustre.
  • The performances, most of which lack any real spark.
  • Vincent Price's performance in particular, which (I'm sorry Vincent) really does feel dialled in. I know his USP as an actor was to play characters who are troubled to the point of being largely divorced from humanity, but here he just seems kind of wooden, and there are scenes in which his character definitely should show more emotion than he does - as for example, when he discovers that his brother (the dread family secret in the attic) is (apparently) dead.
  • The conveyance of characters' motivations, which is often left completely obscure or revealed too late (with no particular advantage arising from the delay). The best example here is the lawyer, Trench, who takes extensive personal risks in order to help the brother in the attic, in spite of the fact that the only time he visits him there, the brother tries to strangle him. We learn some stuff about how he has been embezzling money from the family estate by forging documents, and he's also quite willing to accept 1000 guineas from Lord Markham to furnish a corpse to lie in state in the place of the brother. But this isn't an adequate explanation for why he takes the trouble to help the brother himself in the first place, especially because everything else he does gives the impression of an entirely selfish and cold-hearted man.
  • The fact that every character is either unlikeable or under-developed, so that there is no-one we can really cheer for or hope will escape all the blood-shed. Lord Markham's fiancée / wife (from part-way through the film) is the closest we get, but she is a pretty bland character, and never in any serious danger, so it doesn't really work.
  • The effects used to represent throat-cutting. I can forgive a lot where special effects are concerned for the sake of a good story, but this isn't a terribly good story anyway, and the cut throats are basically represented by a painted line of extremely unconvincing blood across the victim's neck. Since this happens several times during the story, they really could have done with putting more effort into making it look like an actual injury.

Meanwhile, on the plus side:
  • The sets are superb, from the inherited Markham family home to the London streets where some of the shadier events of the film take place.
  • So are the costumes - though sadly for Christopher Lee, not the wigs.
  • Some of the camerawork is brilliant, especially during the opening scenes of an African ritual punishment.
  • Lee's character, and his performance of it, are actually both pretty solid. Dr. Neuhartt's involvement in the body-snatching business makes him extremely vulnerable to blackmail, and he ends up embroiled in things he's clearly unhappy with as a result, so there is scope for a kind of suppressed frustration to the character, and Lee makes good use of it. This, of course, one of the reasons why he's worth 'following' as an actor - he's in a lot of great movies, but even in the second-rate ones you can rely on him to be one of the redeeming features.
  • Quite apart from Lee and Price, it furnishes plenty of material for a good game of Spot Your Favourite British Character Actors. I was particularly pleased to see Rupert Davies (best-known to me as the Monsignor in Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, but to others more likely as Maigret) and Colin Jeavons, whom I have loved dearly ever since his stint as Max Quordlepleen in the BBC's TV adaptation of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

But those aren't really enough pluses to significantly outweigh the minuses, especially while the handling of the female and black characters is distinctly of its time (shall we say?). The women, as usual, are all there to be sexual objects and / or victims for the men, and there is one extended tavern / brothel scene about half-way through in which several of the extras are getting up to some pretty rapey things, but it is treated primarily as titillation. As for race, there is an extent to which the film is attempting to offer a ham-fisted critique of British colonial involvement in Africa. Lord Markham himself recognises that the family estate there is exploitative; this is personalised when we learn that one of the Markham brothers knocked down and killed a local child on his horse; and what appeared to be a tropishly barbaric African religious ritual at the start of the film is later revealed to be an enactment of justice for the child's death. This was apparently enough to get the film banned in Texas for appearing to be 'pro-black'. But to 21st-century eyes, the portrayal is less than entirely radical. African local justice is still shown as both brutal and flawed (since they exact vengeance on the first Markham brother they can find without checking whether or not he was actually guilty), while the only black character who gets any serious screen-time or dialogue is an Ethnic Magician, who tells the white characters that he is versed in matters which they do not understand.

So, anyway. That's another film which I can tick off in both my personal filmic and televisual Horror bible and my list of every film Christopher Lee has ever made. But I won't be going out of my way to watch it again.

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strange_complex: (True Blood Eric wink)
Fandom can take you to some terrible places, can't it? Just as every really enthusiastic Doctor Who fan eventually ends up watching stories like The Twin Dilemma or Warriors of the Deep, knowing full well that they are terrible, because they love the series as a whole so much, it seems that sooner or later the avid Hammer Dracula fan finds themselves face to face with The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires. I've gone down this road once before in my life, and had hoped to avoid ever retreading it. But now that I've got the idea in my head of trying to make the entire Hammer Dracula franchise fit together into a single coherent canon, it had to be rewatched. [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan was kind enough to accompany me in the endeavour, fortified in her case by the prospect of some Peter Cushingy goodness. I, alas, had no such comfort, since Christopher Lee was noticeable only by his absence - but even as a massive fan of his Dracula, I have to admit that he called this one right.

The film is a co-production between Hammer and the Hong Kong-based Shaw Studio, filmed entirely on location in Hong Kong, which attempts to marry up the '70s kung-fu craze with the successful Dracula franchise for Much Box Office Win. Apparently (according to this book about Peter Cushing from which [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan emailed me some relevant details), Shaw insisted on the Dracula character appearing within the film, even though Christopher Lee has refused to do it, as they believed it would pull in the audiences. I guess Hammer weren't so convinced, as Dracula isn't actually mentioned in the UK release title (The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires), but he was in some of the foreign release titles (e.g. the USA, Singapore).

In my view, the Hungarian title, Van Helsing és a 7 aranyvámpír, is actually what the film should have been called everywhere (with appropriate translation, obviously), because essentially that's what it is - a Van Helsing adventure which takes our man to China, rather than any kind of Dracula film. I found myself opining in a comment on my Brides of Dracula review that although personally I'm glad that Hammer (mainly) used Dracula as the thread to link their sequels together after the first film, as far as story potential goes it would have been equally valid to do the same with Van Helsing. That's essentially what Brides of Dracula does, in spite of its title, and it's also what The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires does, in spite of including a character called Count Dracula. [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan's book also reports that a further film entitled Kali, Devil Bride of Dracula was planned for after Legend, and presumably this would have been much the same, but this time taking Van Helsing to India. Indeed, Google informed me that Hammer got as far as mocking up promotional posters for this film, and Peter Cushing is certainly on them.

Bodged-on Dracula book-ends )

An actually quite decent Van-Helsing-goes-to-China story in the middle )

But with too much chop-socky action, poor treatment of the Chinese characters and even worse treatment of the women )

And some nods to The Seven Samurai (probably), Dracula 1931 and Nosferatu 1922 )

OK then - so I'm properly done with watching and reviewing every possible entry in the Hammer Dracula franchise. Next to ramp up the geekiness yet another notch while I rake over their in-story canon and continuity in immense and obsessive detail.... *rubs hands with anticipation*

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strange_complex: (Dracula Risen hearse smile)
Right then - it's time for some more Draculising! I watched this one a week ago with the ever-patient and accommodating [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan and [livejournal.com profile] planet_andy, after an absolutely delicious dinner of corned beef hash made by the former, and 'poshed up' via the use of sweet potatoes, mustard and sun-dried tomatoes. Yum! We had to watch it on one of my old-school video tapes, because it sadly isn't available at the moment on a region 2 DVD, which is frankly criminal if you ask me. I'm not saying it's the best Dracula film ever made, but if the whole series could be made available on matching video-cassettes in the 1980s, surely it isn't asking too much to expect the same on DVD now? I demand a boxed set, dammit!

Anyway. The series had made the leap to the 1970s with the previous instalment, Dracula AD 1972, which is one of my absolute favourites, and which for that reason I am saving until last in this run of re-watches. This film stays in the same era and indeed carries over not only Dracula himself but three other characters from the previous film (Lorrimer Van Helsing, Jessica Van Helsing and Inspector Murray) in what must be the most concerted attempt at continuity the series had ever made. But at the same time the secondary genre (as in the one being paired with Gothic horror to lend the franchise a fresh edge and appeal to new audiences) has completely changed. Where AD 1972 was a youth-focused comedy with a dark edge, Satanic Rites is a Srs Bsns Crime Thriller )

Character continuity and the possibilities for further unmade sequels )

Jessica Van Helsing - a half-cocked attempt at an empowered woman )

Dracula - hatches epic plans of pure evil, but can't walk round a hawthorn bush )

Rampant over-interpretation of the fact that Dracula has the reclining river-god Ilissos from the west Parthenon pediment on display in the foyer of his London office block )

As I say, I am vastly over-interpreting and I know I am, but that is half the fun of these films for me - the space which they leave for embroidering the stories to suit my own personal taste. I swear that wouldn't be as much fun if the original fabric wasn't so shot full of holes and rife with embarrassing thread-bare patches that simply cry out for my attentions.

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strange_complex: (Wicker Man sunset)
I watched this on the plane on the way to New York, which was nice as I missed it in the cinema. Presumably, I saw a slightly censored version, as the cinema release was a 12A, and as far as I understand all films available on in-flight entertainment systems have to be a PG or below. But basically I've seen it.

Overall verdict - jolly good. I've enjoyed the Judi Dench 'era' of Bond, but I guess nothing can last for ever, and she certainly had a very compelling exit. Playing Bond's character off against a bitter former agent made for some good opportunities to explore the personal cost of serving as a double-0 agent, especially when triangulated against the new Eve Moneypenny's ultimate decision not to go into the field herself. Speaking of Naomie Harris, I have always completely loved her in 28 Days Later, so was very pleased to come across her here again. And it is cool to have a new, minimalist techy Q on board as well. I've only seen the actor who plays him, Ben Whishaw, in Brideshead Revisited (2008), where I was distinctly underwhelmed with his petulant teenage Sebastian, but he seemed to work much better in this role.

The action sequences and dry humour that we all basically watch these films for were well in place, as were some fantastic locations. I especially enjoyed the Scottish highland setting for Skyfall itself, having been to very similar country so recently myself, and also Raoul Silva's abandoned industrial island complex. The best line of the film was easily Kincade's response to Bond asking him whether he was ready to face off their attackers at Skyfall: "I was ready before you were born, son" (the line really being made, of course, by a well-timed re-loading of his shotgun).

On the down-side, the stuff about Bond's parents dying when he was a child, and the link between that and his Freudian relationship with M as his substitute-'mother' sometimes came across as a bit cod-psychological. The return to the old-school set-up of a male M in an oak-panelled office and Miss Moneypenny in the ante-room outside could offer fresh opportunities for re-invention and subversion, but it also risks a return to the more misogynistic scripts which originally came with it (not that this one was exactly a feminist triumph - ask Sévérine, the trafficked sex-slave who ended up as a toy, broken in a fight between two men). And Raoul Silva was blatantly an Evil Gay, which I could really have done without.

Still, it was gripping, entertaining and fairly substantial for a Bond film, and I certainly enjoyed its company on a long-haul flight. I will be looking forward to more Naomie Harris in particular in the next instalment.

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strange_complex: (Eleven dude)
I watched this last night with [livejournal.com profile] big_daz, and felt so-soish about it. It had a few neat ideas and surprises - which are themselves spoilery ) - but didn't really wow me. There wasn't much in the way of punchy character moments or intriguing puzzles. I guess in a way that shows how the bar has been raised over the course of New Who, by both Rusty and the Moff. This was a decent enough episode really, but I was somehow expecting more. I've watched it again this morning to see how knowing about Oswin's real situation from the start changes it, and spotted some things which made me slightly more impressed than I was last night. But then again I've also confirmed that some of the things which didn't appear to make sense last night genuinely don't, and also been made angry by a line which I missed the first time round, but which the internet did not. So in the end I feel much the same as after the first viewing - so-soish, but with an extra hint of *growl*.

My obviously very spoilerific thoughts after re-watching are gathered below under a series of headings.

Things which didn't make sense )

Careful structuring and symbolism )

Oswin )

Amy and Rory )

Racist, sexist and biphobic clap-trap )

Things that were fun / cool / scary )

Past continuity )

Future implications )

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strange_complex: (Donald Sutherland Body Snatchers)
The plots of two of the films which I saw on the second day of the Fantastic Films Weekend depended heavily on motifs of disguise, with key characters turning out to be someone other than they had appeared to be. So there are significant spoilers under the cuts for Captain Clegg and The Man in Black.

19. Captain Clegg (1962), dir. Peter Graham Scott

This is a tale of piracy and smuggling )

TV pilot: Tales of Frankenstein: The Face In The Tombstone Mirror (1958), dir. Curt Siodmak

This is exactly the sort of little-known gem I go to the Fantastic Films Weekend to see )

20. The Man in Black (1949), dir. Francis Searle

This was the second part of the double bill opened by Tales of Frankenstein, and is another little-known Hammer gem. It pre-dates their specialisation in the horror genre, and is in fact a murder mystery )

After seeing this double-bill, I could have gone and watched Barbarella, or this year's collection of short films, which multiple people assured me were excellent. But I've learnt in previous years that doing nothing but back-to-back films can be pretty exhausting - and besides I didn't want to miss the chance to view the museum's Hammer horror make-up collection, compiled from archival material left to them by make-up artists Phil Leakey and Roy Ashton. The stuff actually on view wasn't that extensive, although apparently they have a lot more sketches and photographs which you can book an appointment to view in detail at any time. But I did get to see some interesting design sketches, concept models and photographs, as well as some actual latex attachments used to achieve the distinctive looks of the Mummy and Frankenstein's creature. Best of all were Dracula's actual fangs from the original 1958 film, complete with a chamber which allowed blood to drip down them through little wires, and sat in a glass case next to tins with hand-written labels saying things like 'Vampire bites' and 'Nostril enlagers':

Dracula's actual fangs from 1958!


(Sorry about the shadow - I couldn't use a flash as it reflected on the glass, so this was the best I could do). I then wandered round the museum's new exhibition on the history of the internet, which explained the development of ideas like distributed networks very clearly, and included interesting collections of early technology with what now seems like unbelievably limited capacity. But I did find the cabinet which was clearly designed to help children understand what on earth life without the internet might have been like rather disconcerting, what with its record-player to demonstrate life without iTunes, Monopoly board for life without online gaming, letters to represent life without email and so on. It's rather scary at the age of 35 to discover that museums are devoting exhibition space to the strange, alien world of your own teens!


21. I Drink Your Blood (1970), dir. David E. Durston

My final Saturday film was grindhouse classic I Drink Your Blood - a tale of satanist hippies driven (even) mad(der than they already were) by rabies-infected meat pies )

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strange_complex: (Cyberman from beneath)
I spent the weekend just gone having a brilliant time at the National Media Museum's annual Fantastic Films Weekend, along with chums [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan, [livejournal.com profile] planet_andy, miss_s_b, Andrew Hickey and [livejournal.com profile] minnesattva. I played it relatively light this year, missing all of Friday daytime and the Sunday evening too, so that it seemed to be over almost as soon as it had begun. But as every year, I enjoyed the bits I went to immensely.

One of the main themes of the festival this year was Hammer horror, and as part of this they screened The Quatermass Xperiment on the first evening, preceded by a live interview with Renée Glynne, an 85-year-old script supervisor and continuity person who had worked on it )

17. The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), dir. Val Guest )

18. The Casebook of Eddie Brewer (2012), dir. Andrew Spencer )

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