Sunday, August 10, 2014

John Waters on Pink Flamingos

Continuing a series recalling little nuggets heard on film maker commentaries. In this installment John Waters remembers filming the most infamous scene from his most infamous film. Waters once said that even if he had discovered a cure for cancer, he would still be best remembered for the scene where Divine samples a little... present left by Pat Moran's dog...
How can I tell this story in a new way ? We just waited and waited and waited. He wouldn't go. Somebody, I can't remember who gave the dog an enema with a hair applicator and dye bottle...and he did it - once. Later that night they all got together and Divine said "Oh God, am I gonna get sick from this?" They were all smoking pot and hash and they called Hopkins hospital and Divine pretended he was a mother and said "I have a retarded child and he just ate dog shit" And they said, "Well he'll be alrite. He could get the white worm, check for that". And they all howled on in a hashish frenzy !
John Waters, Pink Flamingos (New Line DVD, commentary index point 91:18)

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Ah Bill Was Here...

I can just about fit this in before the day slips away... On this day 17 years ago the great William Burroughs passed away due to complications from a heart attack he sustained the previous day. I've been reading Burroughs since I was a teenager - I can't quite remember if it was Cronenberg's film that led me to Burroughs, but any seeker of strange worlds will inevitably discover his most famous work Naked Lunch. It's a novel I re-read every year and it remains one of the most astonishing works of 20th century literature. For this post I wanted to share one of my most prized possessions, which is a Burroughs autographed copy of his 1977 book The Third Mind written in collaboration with Brion Gysin. The signing of the book comes with an interesting story - in 1979 Michael Butterworth to whom the book is dedicated to was looking to publish Burroughs' next novel Cities of the Red Night in the UK under his Savoy publishing company. Butterworth and his Savoy partner David Britton met with Burroughs at his home at The Bunker on Manhattan's Lower East Side, where the copy of The Third Mind was signed. This story was told to me by Michael Butterworth himself who sold me the book to raise funds for a new Savoy venture. And without further ado, here's one object I would run back into my burning house to save...

Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Art of Talking

This blog passed an invisible milestone this morning with just over 1000 comments racked up among these pages, so if you've ever taken the trouble to leave a comment on anything you've encountered here, I'd like to say thanks very much - even to the guy who left a comment to say I clearly didn't understand the meaning of the word spendthrift. Thanks dude. Comments are the things I prize most on this blog - it means that someone has read something I wrote and is moved enough to write back. Even the spendthrift guy. One of the best things about receiving a comment is how it can kick start a dialogue, which is often more entertaining than the post than precedes it, especially when it zigzags off topic into unexpected zones of discussion. So thanks once again and please keep 'em coming !

Edgar Allen Poe writes a comment: It's plutonian shore you zounderkite !

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

An Echo of Silence

More Nordic Blues.... I remember at the time thinking that was a really clever title... A peculiar set of circumstances today led me back to the review below, which I wrote and posted on Amazon way back in April 2000 for the VHS edition of Ingmar Bergman's The Silence. This was the first film review I ever wrote and I was so sure of its brilliance, a job offer from Empire seemed inevitable. Still, it's not so bad, it's readable, and relatively short and painless. Amusing to see that Amazon's product review editors effectively bleeped out the word masturbation in the line: Made in 1963 The Silence still remains strong, with scenes of sex, nudity, ...and alcoholism - the ellipsis marks should read masturbation. And so without further ado, here's one of my early ejaculations...

Along with Cries and Whispers and The Seventh Seal, Ingmar Bergman's The Silence is his best work, a film mesmerizing in its still potent power to disturb. The film charts the deterioration of the relationship between two sisters who book into a vast hotel in a nameless foreign region. Tensions mount and hostilities soon arise as both sisters can only find futility in their search for a warm, compassionate and tender relationship. Anna (Gunnel Lindblom) has a compulsive sexuality, which prompts her to have sex with strangers, while Ester (Ingrid Thulin), a cold repressed and alcoholic intellectual agonizes over her lesbian feelings for her sister...

The Silence is a strange film fueled by strange passions and emotions. It's rather minimalist in style, for Bergman rarely ventures outside the empty hotel, which is peopled only with a ghostly elderly porter and a troupe of circus dwarfs. With Sven Nykvist's camera exploring the space of the vast hotel corridors, it may for some recall Last Year at Marienbad but I think the film has more significant parallels with David Lynch's enigmatically bleak Eraserhead, both films sharing similar themes and a dark ambiance. Symbolically, the film is not a difficult as other Bergman dramas. The sense of decay is omnipresent throughout the film - the sisters' relationship, Ester who is suffering with a terminal cancer, and the region itself with its streets patrolled by tanks, suggesting the whole damn thing is about to slip into war. And Bergman's superb use of the hotel, which the characters seemingly can't escape from, takes on almost Kafkaesque proportions. Made in 1963 The Silence still remains strong, with scenes of sex, nudity, ...and alcoholism. The film ended an extraordinary trilogy that began with Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Light; a series Bergman made which addressed his evaporating religious faith. Incidentally, look out for the funny scene in Woody Allen's Manhattan where Allen is horrified by Diane Keaton's merciless criticism of the film...

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Crisis In A Hot Zone - Revisiting Black Hawk Down

Just two years after Spielberg forever changed the look of the war film, Ridley Scott's 2001 picture Black Hawk Down borrowed Saving Private Ryan's aggressive visual intensity to portray the devastating power of modern mechanized combat. Some 13 years on, Scott's film takes it's place alongside Alien and Blade Runner as one of director's finest works, with credit due also to producer Jerry Bruckheimer for not diluting this huge 100 million dollar production with his usual commercial excesses, a lesson learned perhaps from the critical mauling of Bruckheimer's previous film Pearl Harbor. Originally Black Hawk Down was to be helmed by Con Air director Simon West who brought Mark Bowden's 1999 account of the battle of Mogadishu to the attention of Bruckheimer. Scheduling conflicts with West's 2001 film Tomb Rider forced him to opt out (he retains an executive producer credit on the finished film) and the film was offered to Ridley Scott who was enjoying something a second wind with Gladiator and Hannibal.

Ridley Scott has long professed to being a fan of James Cameron's Aliens, and one imagines Scott relishing the idea of making his own combat movie. Although Black Hawk Down and Aliens are literally worlds apart, both films deal with marines stranded in hostile territory ill-prepared and ill-equipped for battle. Black Hawk Down is a brutal, exhausting wholly immersive war film, if one wanted to experience the noise, the disorientation and savagery of urban combat this is the film to see. Scott places his cameras right at the centre of combat and never flinches from the gruesome details of warfare, the mangling of bodies by bullets, bombs and shrapnel, including one particularly harrowing moment of improvised field surgery when a medic plunges his hand into a gaping wound to clamp a leaking artery. Scott's visual sensibilities are as sharp as ever and punctuates the ferocious pace with arresting images - a helicopter stirring up a vortex of dust and strewn rubbish, or a shot of a marine carefully placing a comrade's severed hand into his satchel, presumably to return to its owner.

The film is fitted out with a fine cast, among them some well known faces which can be hard to spot among the crew cuts and combat gear, (look fast and hard for early appearances by Orlando Bloom and Tom Hardy), and while the rangers have little or no back story screenwriter Ken Nolan (and various uncredited writers) invest the principle players with memorable bits of business to hang to their characters - Eric Bana's delta force loner and self-confessed war-junkie, Tom Sizemore's no-bullshit battalion commander, or Ewan McGregor's wet behind the ears desk clerk plucked from the office as a last minute replacement. The film was criticized for offering little Somali perspective in the film, except for a token dialogue scene between a Black Hawk pilot and his captor, but the film unapologetically sets out its stall as a blue-collar combat movie, pro-military, and light on political analysis. For the definitive account of the events of October 1993, Mark Bowden's book is required reading...

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Taking the Stand for The Walking Dead

All you have to do is stay on the pedestrian catwalk and in no time at all you'll be... strangled by the walking dead. 
Larry Underwood, The Stand
I've just spent a very pleasant few hours catching up with Season 4 of The Walking Dead, which for reasons unclear to me now, I'd been putting off seeing for months. I'm about half way through at this point and I can safely say this has been the strongest series so far as Southern cop Rick Grimes and a rag-tag band of survivors desperately cling onto the last vestiges of civilization in the increasingly eroding world of the living. Despite the show's somewhat listless narrative drift and the endless scenes of people aiming guns at one another, I find it all compulsively watchable, whether it be the astonishingly gory head trauma inflicted on the zombies, or the unrelenting bleakness of it all as the fortunes of the survivors wax and wane, but mostly wane given the show's eagerness to kill off cast members at any given moment.

Post-apocalypse Atlanta in The Walking Dead series

I'm not sure why it hadn't occurred to me before now but The Walking Dead satisfies one major itch I've been wanting to scratch for years now and that is to see a worthy adaptation of Stephen King's end-of-the-world saga The Stand, or at least the novel's first and most powerful section Captain Trips, in which a killer flu virus destroys 99% of mankind, and in turn transforms America into a post-apocalyptic wilderness very much in the vein of The Walking Dead. The scenes in the series of people probing dimly lit corridors where something is inevitably shifting in the darkness seem like they could have been ripped from the pages of The Stand, like the scene in the book where Larry Underwood gropes his way through a darkened Lincoln Tunnel strewn with decomposing bodies and automobile wreckage. The character of Rick Grimes feels like he's cut from the same cloth as The Stand's Stuart Redman who emerges from the Disease Prevention Center in much the same way as Grimes leaves the hospital in the first episode of The Walking Dead, both men discovering the extent of the catastrophe that has befallen their world. Similar too are the characters of The Walking Dead's Hershel Greene and The Stand's Glen Bateman - both wiser, older, men who offer advice to their younger counterparts.

Post-Apocalypse New York in the 5-part comic The Stand: Captain Trips

The idea for a film of The Stand was first mooted in the early 80's when Stephen King entrusted George Romero with the daunting task of bringing his 900-page epic to the screen. Ultimately the sheer size of The Stand ruled out a 140min film (or two films, which was considered at one point), and King's screenplay passed from Romero to Mick Garris who turned in a very pedestrian 8 hour television film in 1994. I suspect The Stand in its entirety might be best left read rather than seen, the book suffers from far too much mythologizing, degenerating into a banal clash between the forces of Good and Evil leading to an insufferable corny climax when the hand of God Himself descends upon the Babylonian city of Las Vegas to detonate a nuclear missile. When Kim Newman reviewed the DVD edition of the mini-series for DVD Delirium, he wryly observed that this divine ending looked laughably similar to the then UK National Lottery advert depicting a huge hand pointing at one lucky lottery winner, announcing "It's you!"1 Perhaps Frank Darabont felt likewise and saw in Robert Kirkman's Walking Dead comic, a proxy version of The Stand which dispensed with the Tolkien nonsense and focused on characters whose colors weren't necessarily fixed to the mast. Whatever the case may be The Walking Dead series has most likely put paid to any future adaptations of The Stand film, TV series or otherwise, and that I must concede, is probably a good thing...


1. "On its first UK appearance the show was hobbled in its big finish because God manifests in exactly the same way as in a series of TV ads for the then new National Lottery"
Kim Newman, The Stand DVD review, DVD Delirium Volume 3

This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang, but with a.... large animated hand - The Stand series climax vs. National Lottory ad

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Section 3 List

July sees the release of Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide Part 2, the sequel to Jake West and Marc Morris’ critically acclaimed 2010 documentary which explored the Video Nasties phenomenon and more. Part 2 which comes as a generous 3-disc set follows closely the format of the first film, with the first disc containing a new documentary entitled Draconian Days, which picks up the story in the aftermath of the Video Recordings Act in 1984, right through to the end of James Ferman’s tenure at the BBFC in 1999 which ushered in a more liberal policy at the British Censors office. Spread over discs 2 and 3 is perhaps the real jewel of the set, a huge trailer reel of films which appeared on the Director of Public Prosecutions' Section 3 list (below), films "deemed liable for seizure and forfeiture under Section 3 of the Obscene Publications Act, 1959, but not prosecution". As with the previous Video Nasties set, all trailers are preceded by context-setting introductions from among others Alan Jones, Kim Newman, Stephen Thrower and Patricia MacCormack, and given the eclectic range of Section 3 titles, should make for a fascinating couple of hours...

Black Room, The
Blood Lust
Blood Song
Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll, The
Brutes and Savages
Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, The
Child, The
Christmas Evil
Dawn of the Mummy
Dead Kids
Death Weekend
Deep Red
Demons, The
Don't Answer the Phone!
Enter the Devil
Erotic Rites of Frankenstein, The
Evil, The
Executioner, The
Final Exam
Foxy Brown
Friday the 13th
Friday the 13th Part 2
GBH (Grievous Bodily Harm)
Graduation Day
Happy Birthday to Me
Headless Eyes
Hell Prison
Hills Have Eyes, The
Home Sweet Home
Invasion of the Blood Farmers
Killing Hour, The
Last Horror Film, The
Last Hunter, The
Love Butcher, The
Mad Foxes, The
Mark of the Devil
Massacre Mansion
Naked Fist
Nesting, The
New Adventures of Snow White, The
Night Beast
Night of the Living Dead
Nightmare City
Oasis of the Zombies
Prom Night
Rosemary's Killer
Savage Terror
Scream for Vengeance!
Shogun Assassin
Street Killers
Suicide Cult
Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The
Thing, The
Tomb of the Living Dead
Toy Box, The
Werewolf Woman
Wrong Way
Zombie Holocaust
Zombies: Dawn of the Dead
Zombies Lake

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Disintegration Loops Film

I've just spent a very pleasant hour immersed in the film which accompanies music from sound-artist William Basinski's acclaimed The Disintegration Loops recordings. The film consists of a single continuous video camera shot of the Manhattan skyline on the evening of September 11th 2001. The footage was captured from the rooftop of Basinski's apartment block following the collapse of the second World Trade Center and shows huge plumes of smoke drifting across the city... In the weeks before the disaster, Basinski set to work digitizing an archive of old tape recordings he made in the early 80's, mostly bits of classical music sourced from local radio station transmissions which in turn were manipulated and looped to create new ambient soundscapes. As the years wore on, these tape recordings were packed away and forgotten about until Basinski re-discovered them in July 2001 and intrigued by these long lost works began transferring the tapes to CD. After setting up the recording of the first loop, Basinski noticed the music had become increasingly distorted and distressed, and upon inspecting the playback device noticed the magnetic tape was literally crumbling apart as it was being recorded. Basinski's initial dismay at the condition of the tapes now irrevocably beyond repair, soon gave way to delight as this unexpectedly haunted, terminally ill music began to emerge. Basinski quickly recorded the rest of the ailing tapes resulting in the four volumes of music we now know as The Disintegration Loops.

On a crisp, clear, blue skied September morning, Basinski watched from his Brooklyn rooftop, the second World Trade Center building collapse in a 47-story cascade of dust, smoke, steel and rubble. As these extraordinary events unfolded, Basinski played the disintegrated recordings from the sound system in his apartment, the deeply melancholic dying music resonating with the terrible visions unfolding before his eyes, intrinsically linking the music with the events of 9/11. The following morning Basinski recovered the video tape recording from the rooftop and cued the footage up with the first the disintegration loop piece, dlp 1.1. Running just under an hour, the video recording captures the immensity of the disaster with wave after wave of monstrous hot black clouds of concrete dust billowing out of the crash zone and across the Manhattan skyline. In a sense the film is an apocalyptic re-write of Brian Eno's Mistaken Memories of Mediaeval Manhattan, a 47min installation piece composed of footage Eno shot in and around 1980 of the Manhattan skyline with clouds, birds, and aircraft, serenely drifting across the camera's field of vision. Soundtracking the images is Basinski's music which begins with a simple pastoral melody and gradually with each successive pass of the loop makes its inexorable journey to oblivion, and as evening gives way to night, the image of Manhattan becomes like the music, more abstract and nondescript. The followings screen caps and timings are taken from the DVD of the film included in The Disintegration Loops boxset. The film is available for viewing on youtube

dlp 1.1 - 00.49

dlp 1.1 - 11.22

dlp 1.1 - 28.46

dlp 1.1 - 39.08

dlp 1.1 - 58.33


Thursday, June 5, 2014

Jodorowsky's Dune (2013)

There's a heart-stopping moment near the beginning of Frank Pavich's 2013 documentary, courtesy of Nicolas Winding Refn, who is recalling a memorable dinner he attended at the home of Alejandro Jodorowsky in Paris. Very late in the night, Jodorowsky asked the Danish director if he would be interested in seeing his film of Dune, which left Winding Refn momentarily stunned and bewildered. Had Jodorowsky somehow filmed Dune, the film famously abandoned in the late 70's ? What Winding Refn was actually invited to look at was the so-called Dune Book, a huge weighty tome produced for potential financiers, containing the mass of pre-production ideas, sketches, designs, storyboards, and shooting plans for Jodorowsky's projected film. Despite the fact that not a single frame of footage was shot for the film, Winding Ref was clearly awestruck: "Sitting there, 2am, at his house, seeing the book, looking at the images, and hearing Jodorowsky telling me what was gonna happen in every scene....I'm gonna tell you something - it's awesome". Watching Pavich's wonderful account of this legendary lost classic of Cinema, you might well agree.

Like the light from a dead star, Jodorowsky's Dune still shines brightly long after its collapse. Paul Sammon wrote about Jodorowsky's proposed film as early as 1984 in a Cinefantastique article entitled Versions of Arrakis You'll Never See. HR Giger's account of the film has appeared in several of his art books in conjunction with his paintings for the film, as have Chris Foss' conceptual art and Jean "Moebius" Giraud's storyboards and character sketches, which have been published or made available online.  Pavich's film brings all these strands together for what is the most fully rounded account of Dune to date, inching the viewer ever closer to what the film might have been. The heart of the documentary is Jodorowsky himself, at 84 years old discussing in Spanish and his own idiosyncratic take on English, the plans he had for Dune with an enthusiasm and energy of a man half his age. Jodorowsky is one of the great poet-philosophers of Cinema - when El Topo emerged in the early 70's, Jodorowsky declared: "I ask of film what most North Americans ask of psychedelic drugs". Speaking about Dune in 2013 Jodorowsky recalled an even greater ambition, referring to his film in hallowed terms as "an artistical, cinematographical God"

Alejandro Jodorowsky: "I wanted to make something sacred"

Jodorowsky has spoken on camera about Dune before, in the 1995 documentary La Constellation Jodorowsky, and the 2007 biography Moebius Redux: A Life In Pictures. What's significant about his turn here is the passion with which he recalls the doomed project, the sense of awe he had for the team of collaborators he gathered around him - Moebius, Dan O'Bannon, Chris Foss and HR Giger, his spiritual warriors whom he intrinsically trusted to bring his dream of Dune to life. There's a wonderful moment in the film when Jodorowsky appears upset yet composed when talk turns to the demise of the film, only to have his mood re-invigorated at the failure of David Lynch's Dune, a film maker Jodorowsky evidently has huge respect for, but cheerfully admits his relief that Lynch's film did not scale his own grand ambitions. Listening to Jodorowsky, there's a sense that the Chilean director is taking the opportunity afforded by Pavich's film to settle his affairs - at least in terms of Dune and at the finale of the documentary he sounds a clarion call for film makers to take all the material created for Dune and make their own film of it.

The colossal Dune Book, and a page of Moebius' storyboards inside

Elsewhere Jodorowsky spins marvelous yarns and delights in the serendipitous way the film came together. No sooner had Jodorowsky decided to seek out Moebius as his major collaborator on the film ("my camera" as he describes the French illustrator), both men soon met by pure chance. After an ill-fated meeting with Douglas Trumbull who was first considered to create Dune's special effects, Jodorowsky attended a screening of Dark Star in a nearby theater, and impressed by what he saw, contacted Dan O'Bannon to offer him the job instead. Ever inventive, Jodorowsky explains how he persuaded to Orson Welles to appear as the grotesquely bloated Baron Harkonnen, and his rather ingenious solution for dealing with Salvador Dali's preposterous salary demand for playing the Emperor of the Universe ($100,000 per minute of screen time!). Jodorowsky also recalls with some amusement his first meeting with Pink Floyd (chosen to write part of the score, along with the volcanic free-rock outfit Magma), and his outrage when the band turned up at the meeting in jocular form - "How you don't understand I am to offer you, the most important picture in the history of humanity. We will change the world. And you are eating...big macs!" - the director's fury quickly focusing the Floyd on the matter at hand.

Dune's spiritual warriors:
top: Alejandro Jodorowsky and Moebius (accompanied by a Sardaukar soldier)
middle: futurist designer Chris Foss, bottom: the late HR Giger

Despite the scope of Pavich's film there are some omissions although understandably not the fault of the film makers. Dan O'Bannon passed away in 2009, and Moebius followed in 2012. O'Bannon does make a posthumous appearance in the documentary by way of a voice recording, describing his incredible hallucinatory first meeting with Jodorowsky (who supplied the hallucinogen). O'Bannon's wife Diane is on hand and discusses her husband's happy time working on the film and the emotional turmoil he suffered after the film was abandoned. A key theme in the documentary is Dune's sense of collaboration, with Chris Foss and the late HR Giger remembering the atmosphere of creativity Jodorowsky created for his artists, both men turning in some of the best work of their careers; from Foss' spaceships which look like cosmic tropical fish, to Giger's dark, occult landscapes and citadels of the evil Harkonnen planet.

Chris Foss' design of the stricken Pirate spaceship, with the cargo of spice leaking out of the ruptured hull

For all its lofty ambition there is the inevitable question of whether Jodorowsky could have pulled it off. Pavich's film admirably attempts to answer the unanswerable by using some very tasteful 3D animation to bring to life Moebius' storyboards - the opening sequence alone was conceived as an immense long shot which would travel across the luminous wastes of the galaxy, eventually zeroing in on a pirate spaceship engaged in battle with a convoy of transports carrying the precious Dune spice. Jodorowsky later switches from outer space to inner space in a pivotal scene where Dune's hero Paul Atreides is conceived when a drop of his father's blood is seen travelling through his mother's uterus, the blood then fusing with the ovum in a spectacular explosion of fertilization. Considering Jodorowsky reenacted the conquest of Mexico in an extraordinary sequence in Holy Mountain using costumed frogs, one suspects his Dune could have been very special indeed. Despite the providence the film enjoyed as it took shape, Dune's collapse was swift and brutal. The production was financially secure with enough French money, but the film needed a large American distribution deal to recoup its budget. When producer Michel Seydoux shopped the film around to the major studios there was little appetite to deal with a maverick director and a film which might have ran anywhere between 12 and 20 hours. Speaking about the film's reception in Hollywood, Star Wars producer Gary Kurtz recalled "The worry was it would go way over budget...and it wouldn't have an audience because no one would want to sit through that long a film".

Jodorowsky’s Dune may have ended in failure but Pavich steers his own film towards a positive ending of sorts by celebrating the legacy of the film. With Dune Books deposited at all the various studios, the bones of the film were picked clean in the years that followed. Pavich borrows judicious clips from such disparate sci-fare as Star Wars, Flash Gordon, Masters of the Universe, Contact, Prometheus to illustrate the influence of Dune. Dan O’Bannon in the fallout from the film poured his energies into a screenplay entitled Star Beast which incorporated ideas from Dune, and later became Alien. Jodorowsky himself was still working out elements of Dune with his next film, the underappreciated Tusk, which he opened with a spectacular long shot. More significantly Jodorowsky and Moebius went on to collaborate on a series of graphic novels which were steeped in Dune mythology. The final word goes to Richard Stanley who makes a welcome appearance here, best sums up the film’s enigma: “Dune is probably the great movie never made. It continues to influence us and will go on influencing generations to come, despite the fact that it doesn’t exist, we cannot rent it, we cannot watch it…”

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Fear of the Flesh: The Making Of The Fly

When the book is written about DVD there should be a chapter devoted to "false starts", and in it perhaps a note on David Cronenberg's masterpiece The Fly which Fox dumped on DVD in 2000 devoid of extras and perhaps most disingenuously paired with Chris Walas' utterly dismal sequel. Cronenberg fans had to wait five years for The Fly to be released in a stand-alone special edition but their patience was rewarded with a fine, nuanced transfer, a typically erudite director's commentary, plus a second disc of worthwhile extras. The centerpiece of the supplements is the 2005 documentary Fear of the Flesh, a superb 2 hour 41 minute making-of documentary which rounds up most of the major cast and crew members to share their memories of making the film.

Geena Davis and David Cronenberg on the set of The Fly

It’s almost expected these days that films produced under trying circumstances result in the most compelling retrospectives, watching the film-making process come off the rails in Burden of Dream or Hearts of Darkness can make for utterly compulsive viewing. The production of The Fly by contrast was relatively harmonious, but Fear of the Flesh is no less fascinating for it. While the film wasn't beset by a megalomaniac director or an out-of-control budget, the documentary reveals how two unforeseen crises fundamentally shaped the film into what we know today – the exit from the project of the original director (following the tragic, sudden death of his daughter), and the collapse of Cronenberg’s Total Recall adaptation for which the director had invested 12 months of pre-production work only to find himself effectively in search of work. Cronenberg himself is absent among the talking heads, which is a shame (perhaps he was busy making A History of Violence), but a younger, bespectacled Cronenberg is present in the wealth of video footage that was shot on set, showing the director quiet and relaxed, discussing set-ups with his actors or cheerfully directing the special effects crew to pump more blood and gloop. Despite the lo-fi fuzzy quality of the video footage, much of it is remarkable – we see the Chris Walas’ crew skillfully working the animatronic puppets (which netted the film’s only Academy Award), or Cronenberg himself wearing some bug-eyed glasses and dime-store fly wings, trying out the rotating room set which allowed Jeff Goldblum to crawl seamlessly up the walls of his laboratory. In addition there are outtakes of shots where optical effects didn't quite come off, and there’s some wonderful test film of Goldblum wearing the Brundlefly costume accompanied by a beautiful, fresh-faced Geena Davis.

Beauty and the Beast - Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis pose for test footage of the Brundlefly suit

As for the cast and crew interviewees, all bring vivid, fascinating recollections to the documentary. Jeff Goldblum, who seems as nervy as the characters he plays, remembers some last minute dialogue he added to his adrenalized monologue in the cafe scene; art designer Carol Spier reveals her inspiration for the design of the telepods, while cameraman Mark Irwin tells a hilarious story about Typhoon the Baboon's scandalous behavior on set. One of the more interesting subjects covered in the documentary are the two legendary cut scenes from The Fly – the infamous Monkey-Cat sequence and the Butterfly Baby dream sequence. In the Monkey-Cat sequence Brundlefly splices the baboon with a cat creating a grotesque, agonized hybrid of the two which Brundlefly quickly batters to death. In the second half of the sequence Brundlefly goes to the roof of his warehouse to vent his rage when a piece of fly appendage bursts forth from his body – which Brundlefly appears to eat away in utter frustration. The sequence was of course cut from the final film, which producer Stuart Cornfield admits was done in fear of the audience losing sympathy with Goldblum’s character. I personally don’t lament the loss of this sequence in the film, the actual monkey-cat puppet looks less impressive than Chris Walas’ other designs, which Walas readily admits was quickly prepped and shot right at the end of a hectic shooting day. Less contentious perhaps is the animated Butterfly Baby sequence which was conceived as one possible coda to the film. In the scene Geena Davis is lying on a bed and dreams of her unborn baby hatching from a larvae and flying off into a celestial light. It’s quite a lovely sequence in itself but absolutely belongs in another film. Wisely the sequence was dropped with little regret. Incidentally, both sequences can be found elsewhere on the DVD’s extras disc, and have been cleaned up and complimented with Howard Shore’s music to present them as they might have played in the final film. A very nice touch.

You are what you eat - from the Monkey-Cat sequence

Butterfly Baby takes flight (to the cutting room floor)

All told, Fear of the Flesh: The Making Of The Fly is an essential, near exhaustive chronicle of one of the great classics of 80’s Cinema, and establishes a marker for how a long-form biography of a film should be done. If, like me, you have missed this documentary, it comes highly recommended in conjunction with David Cronenberg’s commentary track. Be very impressed indeed.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Extra ! Extras !!

One of the problems of owning a substantial (read: bloated) DVD collection is finding the time to balance screenings of new acquisitions with old favorites. I must admit this is a skill I have yet to master, and I still have far too many films yet to be torn from their shrink wrap. Lately though I'm becoming more conscious of how far I've fallen behind on extras. When I first began collecting DVD in 1999 it was easy to watch everything - I must have seen Terror Takes Shape, the superb 82min making-of documentary found on the DVD of The Thing two or three times, and I really did sit through 49mins of Blood Feast out takes generously provided on the Something Weird disc. The documentary extra has become my weapon of choice over the years, this is the supplement I prize above all else, and the film collector has been treated to many incredible retrospectives - The Making of Close Encounters of The 3rd Kind (100mins), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Shocking Truth (75mins), Dangerous Days: Making Blade Runner (211mins), Fear of God: The Making of The Exorcist (77mins), Under Pressure: Making the Abyss (60mins), The Shark is Still Working: The Impact and Legacy of Jaws (101mins), Universal Horror (95mins), Behind the Planet of the Apes (126mins) - all of which are highly recommended...

So, with that in mind I'm setting myself the challenge of seeing the following 10 documentaries over the next few weeks...

Fear of the Flesh: The Making Of The Fly (136mins)
Billy, How Did You Do It? (documentary about Billy Wilder, 183mins)
Notes on City of Women (60mins)
The Making of Psycho (94mins)
The Dead Will Walk (documentary about Dawn of the Dead, 76mins)
The Beast Within: Making Alien (177mins)
Stories (documentary about Eraserhead, 90min)
RKO Production 601: The Making of Kong, Eighth Wonder of the World (159mins)
The Battle Over Citizen Kane (113mins)
Fear and Loathing on the Road to Hollywood (1979 documentary about Hunter Thompson & Ralph Steadman, 51mins)

We'll see how that goes !

Friday, May 23, 2014

"Tonite's film... "

A tacked on but somewhat necessary Introduction...
The following post began as a diatribe against the current state of television, but quickly changed into a sort of check-list of films discovered in my formative years of becoming a serious film fan. What follows is not a history of 90's television, but rather a spotty but hopefully accurate memoir of what I was watching during these years...

I'm currently reading The Envy of the World: Fifty Years of the Third Programme and Radio Three, Humphrey Carpenter's dense and engrossing 1997 book, charting the long and turbulent history of BBC Radio's intellectual wing, The Third Programme which began broadcasting highbrow culture to the masses in 1946, eventually mutating into BBC Three in 1970. Reading the book I found myself reminiscing about how exciting TV was for this young film enthusiast throughout the 90's. In the years before my family bought a VCR, and even some years later when tapes of widescreen editions and foreign films were still prohibitively expensive to buy, television was a goldmine of film treasure. Sift through the TV listings nowadays and you're likely to find a cadre of bland, familiar, safe film titles recycled among the channels.

James Woods is consumed by television in Videodrome

I suspect the rise of home cinema culture is partly responsible for the current homogenization of film-programming on TV and while the film collector has gained more in the trade-off, I still miss the days of staying up late to catch films like El Topo, screened on BBC2 in 1997 (and introduced by Leone biographer Christopher Frayling), or Channel 4's one-time broadcast in 2002 of The Devils reconstruction and the Hell on Earth documentary which accompanied the film.

Any appraisal of this era of film-programming will inevitably lead to BBC2's Moviedrome, which racked up an incredible 11 seasons worth of cult films between 1988 and 2000. The Moviedrome format – a film preceded by an onscreen host introducing the film and contributing a few interesting factoids had been done previously by the BBC - in 1985 Guardian film critic Derek Malcolm hosted Film Club on BBC2 dedicated mainly art house films. Moviedrome by contrast was less precious about its selection, with producer Nick Jones serving up an eclectic roster of titles from the BBC’s film library, from exploitation horror (Q – The Winged Serpent, Rabid), to Italian imports (The Long Hair of Death, A Bullet For the General), eccentric studio pictures (The Beguiled, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia), independent wildcards (The Honeymoon Killers, Tracks) as well as the odd idiosyncratic variation on a theme (Escape From Alcatraz double-billed with A Man Escaped). Initially Repo Man director Alex Cox was approached to introduce just one series but ended up fronting Moviedrome until 1994 when the program took a three year hiatus, returning in 1997 with Mark Cousins handling the introductions.

The original Moviedrome logo as seen in series' debut

Making its debut in May 1988 with The Wicker Man, Cox set out Moviedrome’s stall – on a set that resembled a cheap room at the Chelsea Hotel, complete with flashing neon sign outside, Cox wearing a Walker t-shirt, intoned: "Welcome to the Moviedrome a season of cult films. What is a cult film ? A cult film is one which has a passionate following (and) does not appeal to everybody. James Bond movies are not cult films, but chainsaw movies are…” As the series gathered momentum, Cox's introductions became more lengthy and elaborate, especially the opening titles - Moviedrome's first season had Cox transplanted Zelig-syle into old black & white clips, the 1994 season saw Cox on the run as an elusive Third Man. But more importantly, Moviedrome's intros served to properly contextualize films that otherwise might have been baffling to the casual viewer. I became a regular taper of Moviedrome from 1993 onward and it led to some memorable discoveries - Weekend, 200 Motels, Django, Andromeda Strain, The Harder They Come, Carny, Blue Collar, Bad Timing, Le Samourai, and Walkabout.

Alex Cox is the Third Man... from the his final year at Moviedrome

Despite Moviedrome taking a sabbatical after the 1994 season, 1995 was also a very good year for films on BBC2, with the Century of Cinema series picking up the slack. Throughout the year, the BBC showed 100 films chosen by editor Steve Jenkins to celebrate the centenary of the medium. The selection process itself was ring-fenced by what films the BBC had license to, so the series could not include the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Seven Samurai – two permanent top 10 fixtures of any film 100 list, but this left Jenkins with some wriggle room to include more imaginative choices like I Walked With A Zombie or Picnic At Hanging Rock; and perhaps the odd maddening selection - an absent Breathless represented by Jim McBride’s 1983 remake. The real value of the list was the extensive coverage it gave to World Cinema with screenings of Andrei Rublev (my first introduction to Tarkovsky), Amarcord, Tokyo Story, Rocco And His Brothers, Sanjuro, Aguirre Wrath of God, The Spider's Stratagem, as well as recent films like Sonatine and Farewell My Concubine.

Walking with Zombies in celebration of 100 years of Cinema

Closer to the Moviedrome spirit was BBC2’s Forbidden Weekend which ran over the weekend of May 27th 1995, and showed a number of censor-baiting films including Bad Taste, The Night Porter, The Silence (my first Bergman film), Performance and The Devils – the final two selections were particularly significant as the versions shown were the longest seen up to that point (the version of The Devils was the original British X-rated cut, which the BFI put out on DVD in 2012). The Forbidden Weekend also featured an excellent, revelatory two-part documentary on the history of British censorship entitled Empire of the Censors which featured contributions from Roman Polanski, Ken Russell, Bernardo Bertolucci, Donald Cammell, as well as ex-BBFC examiners openly critical of James Ferman's draconian stewardship of the board (with a particularly good account of Ferman's handling of the British VHS release of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer). By contrast Doing Rude Things, which followed was an irreverent look back at the halcyon days of the British sex film, based on David McGillivray’s 1992 book of the same name. Interspersed among the films were various personalities waxing lyrical about seeing an X-rated film, among them John Peel fondly remembering an unnerving screening of House of Wax, and Jarvis Cocker defending Borowczyk’s The Beast.

"Dear John, I've cleaned up the shit on the altar..." 
Ken Russell reads his letter to head censor John Trevelyn regarding The Devils in Empire of the Censors

At this point I should say something about film-programming on Channel 4 but my notes are rather sketchy here in terms of transmission dates. In the decade before it was colonized by the reality-TV bug, with 10 solid years of Big Brother, and dreary mondo medical programmes like Embarrassing Bodies, Channel 4 was a tremendous resource for films which leaned towards the independent and the avant-garde. Before my time (and Moviedrome’s), Channel 4 ran a season of films in the winter of 1986 which became known as the Red Triangle films, so-called because the films in the series were prefaced (and discreetly watermarked during the screening) with a warning symbol advising viewer discretion – these were films that were violent and/or sexually explicit but considered culturally important works, like the harrowing 1980 Brazilian street drama Pixote or Shūji Terayama’s mind-bending 1971 film Throw Away Your Books, Let’s Go Into the Streets. Channel 4 were required to make cuts to some of the more salacious films in the series to satisfy the Independent Broadcasting Authority, but nonetheless the Red Triangle season was a provocative, defiant moment in television in an era when the Video Nasties controversy was still raw in the mind of the Establishment.

Hallucination generation in Throw Away Your Books, Let’s Go Into the Streets

Fortunately by the time I began seriously watching films in the early 90’s Channel 4 were still some years away from their current stagnation. 1993 was a particularly great year on Channel 4 for interesting low-budget independent films and avant-garde, experimental work. There was a season of films devoted to American independent Cinema, entitled Made In the USA, with screenings of sex, lies and videotape, Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho, She’s Gotta Have It, Metropolitan, as well as a number films by the scene’s spiritual father John Cassavettes, screened concurrently. Midnight Underground which ran through 1993 rounded up a dazzling array of rare experimental films by the likes of Kenneth Anger (Scorpio Rising), Maya Deren (Meshes of the Afternoon), Stan Brakhage, (Mothlight) Robert Frank (Pull My Daisy), Antony Balch (Towers Open Fire), Jan Svankmayer (Food). Midnight Underground was true to its title and occupied a late night spot on Channel 4 and it’s amusing to think of the pub crowd stumbling home to be confronted with Wojciech Bruszewski’s abrasive 1973 film Yyaa, which consisted of cut-ups of the director primal screaming for the camera.

Allen Ginsberg in Robert Frank's beat happening, Pull My Daisy

Derek Jarman, one of the film makers represented in Midnight Undergound (with his Super8 momento of a Throbbing Gristle concert, T.G. Psychick Rally in Heaven) was a favourite at Channel 4 around this time. In April 1991, two of Jarman's more notorious films Sebastiane and Jubilee were screened as part of the Banned season (which included Scum and Life of Brian). In September 1993, Channel 4 premiered Derek Jarman’s final film Blue, which for the uninitiated consists of a single frame of International Klein Blue color set to the voice of Nigel Terry and others reading extracts from Jarman's diary (later published as Smiling In Slow Motion). Channel 4 was a particularly strong supporter of gay culture during this era and frequently programmed gay-interest films. In December 1993, a whole night of programmes were devoted to The Velvet Underground, which included a very rare screening of the underground classic The Chelsea Girls (which features an appearance by Nico as well as some Velvet Underground music recorded for the film). Some years later Channel 4 secured a very rare (and surely a first for television) screening of James Bidgood's extraordinary 1971 film Pink Narcissus as part of a programme which included Jean Genet's only film, Un Chant d'Amour, as well as a curiously censored version of Scorpio Rising, which had some of the bikers' antics pixellated out as if it was a victim of Japanese film censorship...

Darkness made visible... Derek Jarman's Blue

Fortunately, some of Alex Cox and Mark Cousins' Moviedrome introductions have been saved from oblivion and are available in variable but watchable quality on youtube. All are worth a look... The Empire of the Censors documentary is also available in two parts, in excellent quality and needless to say is highly recommended...

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Mysterians

Over at the mighty Nostalgic Attic blog, all hell has broken loose with monsters of every shape and size (mostly of the thirty storeys kind) marauding across it's pages, so be sure to stop by and lend a hand to the Attic's harassed caretaker John Mulvanetti for the clean-up operation. Inspired by the Nostalgic Attic's monster jamboree, I've been revisiting Godzilla helmer Ishirô Honda's 1957 space invaders epic, The Mysterians. Strictly Saturday morning fare of course but for anyone interested in dipping their toe into the radioactive waters of Japanese Sci-fi, the film makes for a fine introduction.


The Mysterians, Ishirô Honda's fourth special effects extravaganza for Toho sees the director deviate from from the successful Kaiju formula of his previous monster movies for something more akin to HG Wells' War of the Worlds, with planet Earth fending off an invasion force of radiation stricken aliens looking to relocate from the cold wastes of Mars to the more agreeable terrestrial climates and kick-start their civilization using healthy human females... For all the comic book pulpiness of the plot, The Mysterians is a lavish well-mounted production, with bright, garish photography and art direction (as was the Japanese taste), the film notable for being Toho's first feature shot in 'scope. Admittedly the state-of-the-art special effects have greatly diminished over the years, but the film still boasts some fine model work - like the Mysterians' souped-up flying saucers - wonderful to behold in motion as they zip across the sky in attack mode. Although not a monster movie in the strict sense of the genre, there is a little kaiju icing around the sides with an appearance early on in the film of a colossal bird-like robot monster which reduces towns to ash in the firestorm left in its wake.

Flying Atomic Heat Projectors... fire !

But beyond deadly automatons, death rays and melted tanks, the film delivers grave tidings of the hazards of nuclear energy, the itinerant aliens might well be considered tragic, made homeless after their planet was annihilated by nuclear war (and in a nice bit of popular science, the fragments of the destroyed planet have resulted in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter). The film is given considerable weight too by the casting of Takashi Shimura, imparting a sad-eyed melancholic look throughout. Ultimately, the film is most successful for striking the right balance between juvenile and smart clever science fiction and in this regard is far more accomplished than say the Star Wars prequels whose plots are most likely incomprehensible to their intended audience. Incidentally, the film has left its own dent on popular culture, the Mysterians themselves look like a forerunner for the Japanese TV superheroes Super Sentai (or the Power Rangers if you prefer), while the Mysterians name was borrowed by 60's garage rockers Question Mark and The Mysterians. Interestingly, Gerry Anderson's late 60's creation Captain Scarlet battled a deadly foe called The Mysterons, a race of intergalactic aliens who used Mars as base to attack Earth. Perhaps, Anderson had Honda's film in mind when he conceived his models and marionettes series and used a bit of judicious tweaking to avoid the ire of MGM ?

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Uneasy Riders - First look at the Sorcerer Blu

Before getting down to business, I just wanted to preface this post with an admission that this post was originally inspired by Tim Lucas' recent blog post on the new Sorcerer Blu-Ray, which I felt was just a bit too snotty towards one of all-time my favourite films, so now that sides have been chosen...

I'm just fresh from a screening of Warner's new Blu-ray edition of Sorcerer and overall I'm very pleased. Previously my only experience of the film was courtesy of Universal's 1998 DVD, which was little more than a port of the 1990 US laserdisc, with a soft, fuzzy transfer, faded sickly colors, and replicating the disastrous full screen framing found on the laser. Happily the Blu obliterates the DVD in almost every respect, with an astonishingly fresh looking HD transfer framed at 1.78, restoring the cinematic sweep of the film, and sporting wonderful robust colors and incredible detail, lending the jungle sequences in particular, an extraordinary dimentionality. Given Friedkin's propensity for tweaking his films for home video, it would be remiss of me not to mention that the Blu features two revisions, to the video and audio. Picture-wise, the Blu features somewhat different color timing to the DVD. Fortunately it's not quite as radical as the original French Connection Blu, but it's worth mentioning. I've selected two screenshots from DVD Beaver's review of the Blu and placed them alongside some grabs I took from the DVD - the caps are not quite in sync with one another but you might get a sense of what I mean:

 top - Sorcerer DVD 1998 (1.33 framing)
bottom - Sorcerer Blu-Ray 2014 (1.78 framing)

In the first comparison the queasy pink look of the DVD is replaced by a much more naturalistic look on the Blu. The difference in color timing is far more pronounced in the second comparison with the Blu opting for a much darker look for the film's 2nd bridge-crossing sequence. Personally, I like this new look, it adds a grittier contrast to the lush jungle vistas, and the failing light (the sequence is set during a tropical storm) adds more excitement to this great set piece.

The second revision made to the film for the Blu-Ray occurs in the very final moment of the film before the end credits. Without spoiling the ending, Friedkin add two gunshot sounds to the soundtrack where originally there were none. This addition has prompted debate as to whether Friedkin has over-egged the film's finale with this change but I think it matters very little, the original ending remains the same. Elsewhere the audio portion of the Blu does justice to the film's subtle but intricate sound design and the film pulsates with the crack of explosions and violence in the film's first half (strong stuff for a PG, it must be said), while later on the jungle scenes buzz with a powerful insect menace. Incidentally, the film is noteworthy among other things for the soundtrack score by Tangerine Dream (their first film commission in fact), although given Freidkin's sparing use of the music they provided, the album could just as well be counted as one of their great studio albums of the 70's. Finally I mentioned earlier something to the effect that the Blu was superior to the DVD is almost every way - in terms of extras the DVD has the edge containing the hard-working US theatrical trailer ("an unusual adventure into the realm of suspense") and 7 pages of production notes. I suspect any extras are being held back for a future edition, perhaps to mark the film's 40th anniversary in 2017. But don't wait until then, Sorcerer has returned in fine style and is an absolutely essential addition to your film collection.

Further Reading: Toby's Sorcerer Blog is well worth a visit for fans of the film and is teeming with all sorts of interesting articles, links and curios related the film.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Jekyll and Hyde Portfolio / A Clockwork Blue

For passionate, obsessive collectors of Exploitation Cinema, this is truly a decadent age to be living in. This month sees the first ever UK release of Bloodsucking Freaks, uncut and on Blu-Ray no less while on the other side of the Atlantic, Vinegar Syndrome continue to delight and astonish with their latest release, a double-bill of films assumed lost to bootleg oblivion, or in the case of A Clockwork Blue, simply lost. Of the pairing, The Jekyll and Hyde Portfolio is the big ticket item. Made in 1971, this ultra-low budget curio slipped quietly into obscurity until its fortunes were revived in 1982 when British label Intervision announced a VHS release. Intervision subsequently halted production on the tape but not before some copies from the print run were exported to Australia of all places, making it one of the most collectible tapes of the pre-cert era, and one of the most infamous, the VHS sleeve featured a fuzzy lo-fi video capture from the film of a semi-naked blonde tied up, bloody and bruised. The film itself falls well short of the kind of unspeakable sleaze one might imagine, in fact it's a rather lukewarm Horror film but fortunately has enough oddball charm to make this a keeper.

The Jekyll and Hyde Portfolio on Intervision. (Sleeve courtesy of the Pre-Cert Forums)

The film is essentially an old fashioned whodunit with a maniac carving up young women in residence at a nursing school staffed by various eccentrics and would-be suspects - a twitchy neurotic dean, a dyke matron with a penchant for rubbing down new trainees, a doctor who gets his kicks from eviscerating frogs, and a drooling hunchbacked Igor type who prowls around the basement. The denouement is silly enough to deflect the murderer's identity until the finale but by then you'll be hopelessly won over by the hammy acting, tortuous line readings, bad wigs, goofy continuity gaffes and a truly bizarre final shot. The film is set sometime in the 19th century judging by the tawdry period costumes, although that might demand a leap of faith from viewers given the very 1970's hairdos, and bikini tan lines. A good frame of reference for the film would be The Ghastly Ones, and although director Eric Jeffrey Haims just inches past Andy Milligan in terms of technical ability, both films share scrappy photography, queasy soft-core grappling, a scissor and paste library soundtrack which in the case of Haims' film, lifts the same pump organ refrain heard in Deranged. Aside from the shot immortalized on the Intervision tape, the film has little to upset or offend - the nudity is mostly above the waist and the cast is dispatched with no more than a spattering of gaudy stage blood, although brace yourself for the frog dissection scenes in which freshly scooped viscera is endlessly played with before the camera.

Following The Jekyll and Hyde Portfolio, Eric Jeffrey Haims short-lived film making career settled into a run of routine sexploiters, among them the long lost 1972 film A Clockwork Blue. Sadly this is not a porno rewrite of Stanley Kubrick's film but a cringe-worthy unfunny sex comedy in which a frustrated lab assistant travels Quantum Leap-style through various eras of history with the aid of a magical pocket watch, materializing as a dope-smoking George Washington, a scarlet pimpernel seducer during the French Revolution, an early American pilgrim, a portrait painter in the court of Henry VIII, a Viking slave and so on. A Clockwork Blue is not nearly as entertaining as its companion film despite it being the slicker of the two, with something approaching actual production value - it's impressively shot (complimented by some eye-popping, colorful art direction) and well mounted with the same corner of the studio imaginatively redressed for every epoch (and dare I say it includes some unexpected Brechtian set designs in the pilgrim segment). Surprising a modicum of acting talent was rounded up for the film, particularly leading man Joe E. Tata, a highly prolific TV actor who has appeared in everything from Lost In Space, to Magnum P.I. and 90's teen soap Beverly Hills 90210. In this respect the film might be best appreciated on in close succession with The Jekyll and Hyde Portfolio as some of the actors from the earlier film return albeit in more salubrious surroundings.

Where the film really falls flat though is the director's screenplay which can't muster a single funny gag from it's 80-odd minutes, although it's noteworthy for the inclusion of the truly bizarre device of an Uncle Remus type character watching all the action from a celestial plain by way of a watermelon TV (?) A Clockwork Blue was made during a wait-and-see era of American Adult Cinema, the film shot in hard and softcore variants. In fact the sex in the film is all rather half-hearted whichever version you see, and if you feel aggrieved at missing Vinegar Syndrome's limited edition Blu-Ray, exclusively containing the hardcore cut, take some comfort from the fact that the most explicit footage adds up to just less than a minute of screen time and is rather underwhelming - a brief bit of lesbian cunnilingus, a medium shot of penetration and a fleeting blowjob. Ultimately the episodic structure of A Clockwork Blue saves the film from being a complete chore to sit through and despite its shortcomings, it's still a treat to have this nutty movie back in circulation.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Notes on Recent Viewings

Death Line (DVD, MGM)
London Under, Peter Ackroyd's wonderful book on the city's secret subterranean world sent me back to Gary Sherman's classic 1972 Horror about a feral man who forages on the London Underground for food - the food being unsuspecting commuters spirited away to the dark serpentines of an abandoned tube station... Pete Walker's 1974 film Frightmare has often been cited as the Britain's own Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but Death Line actually anticipates Hopper's film in some respects, with both films featuring interesting parallels - families reared on human flesh, a not entirely unsympathetic monster, and a heroine trapped inside a charnel house of decomposing flesh and skeletal leftovers. And if The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has at least one great moment of technical prowess (the low angle traveling shot underneath the swing chair), Death Line actually trumps it with a stunning five minute unbroken tracking shot thru the cannibal's lair, which justifiably earned camera operator Colin Corby a place on the front credits. And there's enormous fun to be had from Donald Pleasance playing an obnoxious cockney cooper. Unmissable.

Holocaust 2000 (TV, Horror Channel)
Alberto De Martino's 1977 film is such a slavish imitator of The Omen, one might be tempted to give it a wide berth, but like Ovidio Assonitis' Exorcist lift, Beyond the DoorHolocaust 2000, a British-Italian production is surprisingly enjoyable. In this one Gregory Peck's American ambassador is replaced by Kirk Douglas' ambitious Industrialist whose plans to solve the world's energy crisis are hijacked to facilitate the arrival of the Anti-Christ. This one ticks all the boxes - strange prophecies, inventive deaths (a helicopter blade lobotomy which predated Dawn of the Dead by nearly 2 years), sinister choral music (phoned in by Ennio Morricone), and plenty of enjoyable weirdness all'Italiana. Douglas was 61 when he made this picture but plays it like a man half his age, at one point shamelessly frolicking around with his topless leading lady (a gorgeous Agostina Belli, looking like she just walked out of an Abba video), and he's ably supported by some familiar British character actors including Simon Ward (Peter Cushing's reluctant collaborator in Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed) and Anthony Quayle (the incognito German officer in Ice Cold In Alex). Recommended.

The Funhouse (Blu, Arrow)
Tobe Hooper's finest studio picture begins like so many Horror films of 1981 with a bare-breasted ingénue threatened by a masked psychopath wielding a sharp knife. Thankfully, the film immediately switches gears and develops into something far more interesting as two courting couples hold up in a funhouse for some after hours kicks but instead witness some very wicked goings-on by a barker and his hideously deformed son... Whether it was conscious or not on the part of Hooper, there's a certain Argentoness to The Funhouse - at least on a visual level, the film's candy-colored lighting and baroque decorated sets recall Suspiria, and actress Elizabeth Berridge reminds me of Jessica Harper (and strangely enough, Berridge's character's name is Amy Harper). The film also has the same kind of spacial weirdness as Suspiria and Inferno - the funhouse itself with its irrational topography of upper and lower levels, blind alleys, air ducts and infernal engine room, is not so much a house of fun, but a house of the damned... And look out actor Kevin Conway who plays the sinister barker, playing two additional carny barkers seen plying their trade early in the film.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

In Praise of the Grotesque: Metal Machine Music

I've just spent a very nice hour or so listening to Metal Machine Music, Lou Reed's "Electronic Instrumental Composition" from 1975, or for the uninitiated a 64min double-album of densely layered, heavily processed guitar feedback. Forty years on, it remains the most fiercely debated album in Lou Reed's long and eclectic career, conservative listeners swept along by the likes of Transformer, Coney Island Baby and New York will inevitably hate it, dismissing it as either a career suicide note, or a cynical record-contract breaker; while the more progressively-minded will recognize the pivotal influence of Metal Machine Music on the Industrial scene, and the avant-rock and power electronics movements that followed. It's one of my three favourite Lou Reed albums, jostling for pole position alongside Lou's 1971's doom cycle Berlin, and a more recent arrival, 2007's Hudson River Meditations, a collection of soothing tones and drones which was to be Lou's curtain call. The first time I heard any music from Metal Machine Music was back in the mid-90's, not from the album itself but on Sonic Youth's 1985 record Bad Moon Rising - a few seconds of music from Side 4 was looped for the segue way from Brave Men Run into Society Is A Hole (track 2, 3:22min). Around this time Metal Machine Music was not easy to hear, copies of the original double LP had long since dried up and the first CD edition which arrived courtesy of the Great Expectations label in 1991 was difficult to get hold of. For ages I combed through the pages of Record Collector magazine looking for an affordable vinyl copy and as luck would have it I found an original RCA pressing in a steep-stair-cased basement record store in Dublin (on Wicklow St). Finally, after an exchange of 30 pounds (a fortune for this teenager in 1997) Metal Machine Music was mine.

My Metal Machine Music collection: top - the original gatefold RCA double album
bottom left - 2000 Buddha remastered CD edition, bottom right - 1991 Great Expectations CD edition

In the years of writing about Metal Machine Music, it's become a well worn cliche to award the listener some sort of citation for making it to the end of the album. Reed himself who famously blew hot and cold about his creation once remarked "Anyone who gets to side four is dumber than I am". I began this post after listening to the complete album and in the time it's taken me to marshal my thoughts to get to this point, I'm well into my second pass of the album. The music is so staggeringly pyschedelic I find my mind straying from the task at hand to ride in Metal Machine Music's whirlwind of sound, its mad chorus of voices, each one trying to get its spoke in before being shouted down by another. And in that sense I think the music is closer to the volcanic free jazz of Coltrane's Ascension and Peter Brötzmann's Machine Gun than the electronic soundscapes of Stockhausen or Xenakis. Unfortunately I no longer own a record player so nowadays my weapon of choice is the Buddha CD from 2000, and despite it sounding less spikier, less grainier than the vinyl edition, it's still the best CD version of the album and contains about 30secs of the famous locked groove at the climax of Side 4 which resulted in the last few seconds of the album looping ad infinitum until the listener manually lifts the needle off the groove.

Monday, March 17, 2014

In Ruins: The Once Great Houses of Ireland

I believe that another dimension, a spirit world, runs parallel to our own so-called 'real' world, and that sometimes, when the conditions are right, we can see into and become part of this supernatural domain - Simon Marsden
In Ruins: The Once Great Houses of Ireland is one of the great treasures of my library. This pictorial book, first published in 1980 collects together a number of photographs taken by Simon Marsden of large country estates, mansions and castles that have fallen in disrepair, and ruin. The book also includes scene-setting liner notes by art expert Duncan McClaren, revealing the history behind each property and how these once great houses met their demise - in many cases, they were willfully destroyed during Ireland's Civil War, while other houses were simply abandoned by their owners. Simon Marsden who passed away in 2012 had a lifelong fascination for ghosts and haunted spaces, and it powerfully resonates in his photography. Much of his work was achieved using infra-red film which gave his photographs an instantly unique, surreality and when applied to gloomy landscapes and dilapidated buildings, the results were often stunning. The images found in the pages of In Ruins, lean heavily towards the Gothic and one can imagine one of MR James' gentleman-scholars exploring these spectral vestiges in search of ancient manuscripts. The following images and captions are taken from the book:

Menlough Castle Gates, Near Galway, County Galway
Built in the 17th century. Burnt in 1910

Thomastown Castle. Near Golden, County Tipperary
Built in 1670. Fell into disrepair after 1872

Moydrum Castle. Near Athlone, County Westmeath.
Built in 1812. Burnt in 1912 during the Troubles

Old Castle Hackett. Near Headford, County Galway
Built in the 13th century. Abandoned in 1705

Fans of U2 might recognize the photograph of Moydrum Castle from the cover of the band's 1984 album The Unforgettable Fire. The photo on the record sleeve was not in fact a Marsden shot, but rather an excellent facsimile by Anton Corbijn. However the framing and style of Corbijn's shot bore such a resemblance to Marsden's own work that the band were compelled to pay Marsden compensation. When Marsden passed away he left behind 13 books of photography, some of which are still in print. Sadly In Ruins is now out of print but copies might still be found in second-hand stores. (the book was revised and expanded in 1997). In the meantime, Marsden's official website is a good place to begin...