It’s not just a movie: The Thing (1982)

thethingfg2The Thing (1982), Dir. John Carpenter, 109 mins, VHS/DVD/Blu-ray/4K UHD

Some films get in your blood, which is perhaps a particularly unwise turn of phrase when in reference to John Carpenter’s The Thing. I first saw this horror classic in the late Autumn of 1982; a lad in the art class a year above mine had a Dad who could get hold of pirate videos from a neighbour, and one night several of us from the art class/RPG crowd got together over his house while his folks were out, to watch The Thing. I know, I know, piracy is the great evil, but in my defence, I was a very young-looking sixteen at the time and thus clearly unable to go see it at the cinema due to its ‘X’ certificate- something that had similarly stopped me from seeing Alien three years before in 1979. I can distinctly recall my crushing disappointment in August of 1979 when I read in my local newspaper that Alien had been given the dreaded ‘X’ certificate by the BBFC, instantly realising that I wouldn’t be seeing Ridley Scott’s movie at all – somehow I’d expected I’d be able to go see it, such is the naivete of thirteen-year old geeks still high from Star Wars.

But back to 1982, and the arrival of VHS and Betamax video recorders in homes was changing everything. I wouldn’t be waiting for years to finally see some censored TV version of The Thing, instead here was the Real Deal, the uncensored film the same as everyone had been watching in cinemas. Sitting on the floor near that television set, I remember giggling through some of the more extreme moments, such as when Nauls suffers an heart attack and his chest opens up to bite off Copper’s arms. Even now when I type that out and look at it, is it any wonder, I mean, think about it- a guy has an heart attack and his chest opens up and bites someone’s arms off. My giggling was a nervous (almost hysterical, I suppose) reaction to seeing something I could never have imagined. It was just crazy, the whole film like nothing any of us had ever seen. So there I was, giggling like an idiot. Better than screaming I suppose.

In retrospect, its clear that 1982 was a year of films firsts like that. In The Thing‘s case, the film was so off-the-wall extreme, even the critics were caught off-guard, one famously comparing it to pornography. That grainy VHS copy no doubt lent the film a certain verisimilitude, such as how a pirate copy of Blade Runner I watched the following year added a certain quality to Jordan Cronenweth’s cinematography that no 4K UHD edition could ever match. People these days would be horrified at how bad VHS could often be, the vagaries of tracking dials and rich colours -particularly reds- blooming monstrously. To us back then, it was miraculous, really.

It was a different world back then. There was no internet to spoil things (sic) or hype things (again, sic). You could go into films totally cold, without even a clue who starred in it or what it was like, and back then I wasn’t so versed in how films were made or box-office or anything. We got information from film magazines like Starburst but they too could be as ‘behind the curve’ as we were (and by that time I’d stopped buying that mag every month). At any rate,  I had no idea that The Thing had been critically savaged or that it had flopped spectacularly, even though it had come out months before in America. On that cold night, it was one of the greatest films I had ever seen- John Carpenter would likely not at all approve of a pirate VHS copy of his film doing the rounds, but I think he might have had a blast watching our reactions to his film. We ‘got’ it in ways that the critics hadn’t (they’d catch up eventually).

thethingfg5A few years later, I was at college doing my Degree course, and one winter night I was travelling home on the bus; we’d had some heavy snow and the sodium streetlights were casting the world in a yellow/orange cast not totally unlike the flares that Mac used in The Thing. Back in those distant days, Sony Walkman’s were all the rage- at the time they were considered the cutting-edge of listening on the move. In a few years they would be considered quaintly obsolete compared to nifty little mp3 players, but those audio-cassette players like the Walkman were so cool. I loved mine, I used to put mix-tapes together to listen to on my commutes or walking around town and sometimes in quiet periods at college, I remember having rechargeable AA batteries and plugging them into a charger most every night so I could spend the next day listening to soundtracks, Vangelis or Jean Michel Jarre.

So anyway, that night no doubt influenced by the wintry weather, I had Ennio Morricone’s score music for The Thing playing on my Walkman, the cassette recorded off the vinyl album complete with scratchy hissing and clicking that seemed to just intensify the music’s atmosphere. As I disembarked at the bus stop nearest home, my Walkman was playing the Humanity track, one of the most definitive lonely pieces of forlorn music I’d ever heard.  The snow was deep, my feet crunching in it as I crossed the road and tried to discern where exactly the footpath should be. Morricone’s beautiful music was in my ears, and my breath was a steam in the sodium streetlights. I stopped and considered staying there for awhile. Its one of those perfect moments that stay with you forever- you don’t know at the time, when its actually happening, you obviously lack the clarity that you’ll live that moment in your head for years, but I knew it was pretty special. I remember being so tempted to just hang around there listening to that music while the chill air bit at my cheeks and the snow crunched beneath my unsteady feet. But I was hungry and late for tea, so I resumed my trek through the snow to home, not realising I was leaving a tiny little part of me on that street corner for decades: not a time has gone by, whenever listening to that music again and again as I have over the years, that I don’t think back to those few minutes standing in the snow, listening to that music.

Event Horizon needs a reboot

EventIn an effort to shake things up from the relentless noir-watching of late, I watched Event Horizon again (well hey, a film in COLOUR!), albeit this time the recent 4K UHD release, which while hardly a revelation is nonetheless a big improvement on the old Blu-ray and the DVD before that.

I usually enjoy watching the film, but this time it didn’t feel the same. Its not as if I was expecting anything great. It’s just Event Horizon, after all, but I’ve always considered it a guilty favourite, much like Tobe Hooper’s Life Force. Event Horizon is cheesy with some stiff acting and terribly dodgy dialogue and is massively derivative of so many other, better films but usually I can ignore/put up with all that and enjoy it for what it is. But what exactly is it? What exactly has brought me back to it over the years?

Maybe its the mood, the ‘look’ of the film. I think I’ve noted before how much it feels a part of the Alien universe, if only because its at such pains to mimic Ridley Scott’s film. If the Alien franchise had gone another way, less about Giger’s xenomorph or Ripley and more about seperate horror films set in space, then yeah, this film could have been titled Alien: Event Horizon and nobody would have batted an eyelid. I think every time I watch the film I half-expect to spot the Weyland-Yutani logo somewhere, and I guess one could argue it looks part of the Alien franchise more than Prometheus did, so one could argue it succeeded where even Ridley Scott failed.

But of course, its not just Alien that the film cribs from. There’s a lot of The Shining in it. I could imagine a commentary track in which the voices say “hey look, here’s a bit of The Black Hole” or “this here’s a nod to Outland” or “here’s the fifteenth thing it’s nicked from Alien” or “yeah there’s that decompression gag  from Total Recall” etc. Its almost a wonder this film got released without any resulting litigation at all, its so blatantly cobbled together from other films.

Maybe its time that everything went full circle, and somebody made a reboot of Event Horizon, you know, rehash the film that was itself a rehash of so many other films. There’d be a certain logic or poetic justice to it.

In short: Men

Men (2022), Dir. Alex Garland, 100 mins, HD Amazon Prime

I’m a keen follower of anything Alex Garland does- he has written and directed two of the best genre films of the past few decades, Ex Machina and the utterly brilliant Annihilation, but Men, his third directorial effort, proves to be a profound disappointment. It starts so well; it has an intriguing premise, a wonderful cast on top form and beautiful cinematography, but goes totally off the rails in the last half, degenerating into an absurdly disgusting body-horror, as if its the bastard child of Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible (2002) and John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982). I note with some curiosity that each film came out in twenty year increments (1982/2002/2022) suggesting there is some cinematic sorcery at play here worthy of an episode of Guillermo del Toro’s Netflix show Cabinet of Curiosities.

The two leads, Jessie Buckley and Rory Kinnear are excellent and deserve so much better, I think; they are clearly all-in on what Garland was trying for and sure, I admit I may have totally missed that intention but after the last twenty-minute assault on both my senses and the contents of my stomach, I was left utterly perplexed. To reiterate, the first half of the film is SO GOOD, the cinematography, the use of sound effects and music, its all quite sublime and suggesting I was in for a great folk-horror story in the tradition of The Wicker Man, but instead…

I remarked to Claire when it finished that one of the issues with streaming is that, were this a Blu-ray we’d been watching there would be reasonable chance there would be a director commentary to listen to afterwards, to glean some idea of  Garland’s intentions or a rough explanation of what was going on, what the ‘message’ or point of the film was. Of course there’s a valid school of thought that if you can’t ascertain that from the film itself then there’s something wrong with the film anyway, but I don’t mind putting my hand up to admit the failing might be in my own ignorance. In any case, this was a stream on Amazon Prime so without a search on the Internet there’s no revelation, no redemptive sense of reason from the madness this film descends into. I can admire the nerve in making something as obtuse and unique as this, if only as an exercise in Pure Cinema, but have to question the storytelling, the futility of creating a puzzle without any kind of solution. Is there a validity to this if Garland claimed that what it means is wholly up to the viewer, or is that just a cop-out? I don’t know, but it does feel like Men got away from him and I can’t say I enjoyed my time with this film.

An interesting failure, then.

Ho, Ho, Ho, my Axe

silentnightSilent Night, Deadly Night, 1984, 79 mins, HD (Amazon Prime)

This Christmas, I have watched just one festive movie (alas, not even Die Hard) and it was Silent Night, Deadly Night, a 1980s slasher flick that  apparently caused quite a stir back in the day. It’s not particularly well made and the acting has the feel of an amateur production- its a fairly nasty piece of work, really, but I suppose that’s the entire point. Its definitely of its time, that era of horror series like Halloween, Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street. There’s lots of nudity and that old horror trope of sex = death, the ‘twist’ of this film is that this film’s axe-wielding maniac is dressed as Santa. Its gory, but so absurd its not really at all scary, instead almost feeling like a parody of those other, more serious/cynical slasher series. This is something only accentuated by this ‘uncut’ version featuring scenes dropping from HD to a grainy second or third-generation SD whenever the goriest bits are put back in; really quite surreal whenever that happens.

The film begins with a lengthy prologue set on Christmas Eve of 1971, in which five-year old Billy is taken by his parents to see his grandpa, who is senile and living in a care home. While Billy’s parents are in another room discussing grandpa’s care situation with a doctor, grandpa suddenly becomes lucid and scares Billy shitless with a tirade about Santa punishing children who have been bad. Then wouldn’t you know it, on the ride back home there is an incident in which Billy sees his parents get pulled up at the roadside and killed by a crook dressed as Santa. That’s Christmas truly ruined for Billy for the rest of his life, which is pretty miserable in general as he’s put in an orphanage governed by a sadistic nun (yeah poor Billy just can’t catch a break) who reinforces the lesson that bad children should be severely punished.

So years later the film picks up with eighteen-year old Billy getting a job in a toy shop, and as Christmas Eve approaches, the store Santa goes sick and Billy is put in the Santa outfit. Yeah, it doesn’t end well for anyone caught being naughty by Santa Billy.

This is exploitation movie with a capital ‘E’ and is really pretty daft from start to finish. It would probably have been largely forgotten (for my part, I’d never heard of it) were it not for the furore it caused on its initial release. Back in 1984 people were just not ready for an axe-wielding Santa chasing women flashing their boobs (who are more common than you’d think, considering its set in chilly December). The bodies pile up, the deaths are fairly imaginative, the gore intensifies, and the soundtrack stays jolly with lots of Seasonal songs. It isn’t as good as its premise possibly sounds though.

Back to Die Hard next year then.

Somebody call Kolchak

sierra3The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre (1964, TV Movie), 80 mins, Talking Pictures TV

A film cobbled together from a rejected TV pilot for a horror anthology series, The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre is a genuinely creepy, spooky horror that on the one hand is much better than its origins suggest, but on the other horribly undermined by underwritten characters and a quite nonsensical plot. Oddly enough, in that respect it feels quite modern- its all about the mood and chills and not at all about any drama or characters. Its really quite frustrating, in that it does most of the horror stuff very well – I’d imagine even  kids of today could be traumatised by some of its spooky moments-  but the rest doesn’t really hold up at all, and the pacing seems all over the place (as I’ll come back to later, I suspect that in its original edit it was intended to run under an hour -even with commercials- but had to be padded out in order to function as a TV movie).

The film was the brainchild of Joseph Stefano (at the time coming off both The Outer Limits tv series and having written the screenplay of Hitchcock’s Psycho) who was originally intending to launch a horror anthology series (The Outer Limits being mostly a science fiction show). I wasn’t aware of its origins when I watched it -I just thought it was one of those indie low-budget 1960s horrors, like Roger Corman’s stuff- but when watching it I felt like something weird was going on with some of the characters, definitely like it was setting up some TV show starring Martin Landau as an architect with a hobby of investigating ghostly goings on, a kind of Kolchak meets Scooby Doo kind of thing. Its funny how we can be tuned to such TV series conventions, and it seems I wasn’t too far off- maybe Landau’s architect wasn’t a series regular, maybe it was intended to be completely seperate stories like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, but it certainly felt like Landau was being set up as a regular.

There was also a distinctly David Lynch, Twin Peaks-vibe to many of the shots, that kind of orchestrated, long-take weirdness that Lynch does, hanging onto shots longer than usual, leaving the viewer feeling uncomfortable just from the editing, and some of it coming out of leftfield like Lynch is so fond of doing. For instance, there’s an early scene when Viva (Diane Baker) has returned to her blind husband Henry Madore (Tom Simcox). He tells her they have a new housekeeper, Paulina (Dame Judith Anderson) who then enters the room, upon which Viva totally freaks out without warning or reason, backing away in utter, unexplained terror. sierra4The film uses Paulina, who in black-draped garb looks totally not normal, for a few tonally unsettling, Twin Peaks-style visuals that linger far too long and serve no story function, such as when she’s standing on a beach looking up at Landau’s home up on the clifftop above. Upon later learning of the film’s genesis, much of this is clearly padding-out the length rather than anything particularly calculated, but it certainly works to the film’s advantage establishing its unsettling mood.

As a horror film it is certainly rewarding viewing and one can forgive its eventual silliness because of just how successful it is evoking its creepy mood of, dare I say it, distinctly ‘old-fashioned’ horror. There’s a delicious sense of Hammer-era fun early on when we are told that blind Henry living in his lonely big gothic mansion thinks he is being haunted by his dead mother who rings him and sobs down the phone at him. We are told that his mother was terrified of being buried alive so when she died she was placed in the family crypt with a phone placed next to her coffin with a direct line to his mansion. I suppose that’s Edgar Allen Poe updated for the 20th Century. Landau’s architect, Nelson Orion -weren’t names brilliant in these old TV shows?- is hired by Henry’s wife to investigate the possible haunting, as the call can only becoming from the crypt, so its either genuinely his mother or its someone orchestrating some elaborate prank to make Henry seem insane. Eventually it transpires that Henry’s mother isn’t the only tyrannical mother with damaged kids, and if there is a ghost its of someone else entirely (hint: Henry’s dear departed mother has no connection with Sierra de Cobre), but by the time we get to that point the plot has collapsed under the weight of its own contrivances and we don’t really care anymore. Which is a shame, because early on its really good indeed. sierra5The cast, certainly, is better than one would expect; I thought Diane Baker, later a frequent face in imported American 1960s/1970s television shows I watched growing up, was excellent, swinging from calm to wild hysterics in a heartbeat. Martin Landau, bless him, is, well, Martin Landau. Actually I think it was because I noticed it was him in the cast that prompted me to watch this at all. I’ve always had an interest in Landau’s work, ever since he starred in Gerry Anderson’s Space:1999 show which was second only to Star Trek in my childhood as far as formative addictions go. I was just the same with Star Trek and watching with due reverence anything starring William Shatner -hey, its Captain Kirk!- and its something I never really grew out of, bless my foolish loyalties to childhood heroes.

In any case, this is well worth a watch. Its just a pity the original, shorter edit doesn’t exist anymore because that would be an interesting alternate and might have proved more effective without the padding- although I have the suspicion its that padding with its longer shots that hang on just too long that make the film as successfully unsettling as it is.

Ladies and gentlemen, please do not panic! But SCREAM! Scream for your lives!

tingleraThe Tingler, 1959, 82 mins

Mr Sardonicus, 1961, 99 mins

Two old b & w horrors courtesy of a Talking Pictures old-fashioned movie double-bill, the kind of deal popular in movie-houses back in the day or late-night tv schedules when films were a treat for us kids growing up (actually, it was a triple-bill, followed by Ida Lupino’s noir The Hitch-Hiker (1953) but more on that one at a later date). These even had video introductions by Caroline Munro, a bit like how horror films used to be presented on television back in the 1970s on Friday nights.

Both The Tingler and Mr Sardonicus are William Castle pictures. Castle was a low-budget b-movie actor, producer and director, working in the horror genre with a reputation for gimmick-laden films and both The Tingler and Mr Sardonicus are typical, featuring introductory cameos by Castle (to which my amused wife commented “who does he think he is, Hitchcock?”) in which he addresses the audience and even, in the case of Mr Sardonicus, interrupting the film near the end and asking the audience to raise cards to let them choose which ending the projectionist should run. It gives the films some camp notoriety all these years after, redolent of carnival entertainments and a feeling they clearly don’t take themselves too seriously as ‘quality pictures’ of any kind: these are clearly intended to be disposable ‘date movies’ and little more. I’d imagine Castle would be amused at people still watching his films all these years later.

Vincent Price, of course, had little concern with being involved in minor entertainments – like Peter Cushing and other horror stalwarts of his generation, a gig was a gig and he’d treat the hookiest horror with sincerity (as opposed to Christopher Lee, who always seemed like he desired a long clean bath after each days filming, lamenting his involvement in another of his regrettable horror b-movies). Mind, while someone like Cushing was always deadly earnest, treating the lousiest Hammer yarn as if it were a lost Shakespeare gem, Price always seemed to have in his manner a knowing wink at the audience, like he was just having fun with it. I suppose him teaming up with a showman like Castle was a match in horror heaven.

That being said, I think Price is very, very good in The Tingler, a performance far better than the material deserves. His character is much more grounded, and Price actually less theatrical, more restrained, than one might expect, which improves the film no end. The film is based upon a typically daft premise – Price plays Dr. Warren Chapin is a pathologist who has a theory that fear is the result of a creature that inhabits all of us: the titular Tingler, which, while usually microscopic and escaping any detection, grows into a fearsome creature during moments of terror. Only our screams of terror suppresses the creature, stopping it from killing us of our own fright (and presumably then crawling out of our cadavers). In a curious way I guess this makes it one of the first body-horror movies, a genre which David Cronenberg made a career of a few decades later. It certainly feels something of a pre-cursor to stuff like Videodrome, when Price does an autopsy on a woman who dies of fright and he extracts a grisly creature from her spinal column: this being 1959, its all tastefully done in silhouette from behind a canvas sheet, but you can only imagine what Cronenberg would do with a sequence like that years later. Alas, the fidgety creature is typically unconvincing, what with wires visible etc but its design is pretty creepy (I suspect Wrath of Khan’s art directors at ILM were indebted to it). Castle of course is having endless fun with it all, addressing the audience (and in one section, Price himself does when warning an in-film theatrical audience) to scream when they are scared in order that the Tingler inside them doesn’t kill them from fright during the film’s scary bits (well, if one could find them).

Price is supported by a surprisingly good cast. Philip Coolidge is brilliant as Oliver ‘Ollie’ Higgins, a silent-movie house owner who befriends Chaplin and initially acts as a proxy for the audience; through Ollie we learn who Chaplin is, his field of research and then later it is Ollies mute wife who provides the revelatory moment in Chaplin’s project. Coolidge is far more important to the plot than we initially think, a later twist compounded by him quietly playing what seems to be a minor supporting character, not drawing attention to himself at all. The scenery-chewing is left to Chaplin’s bitter wife, Isabelle, played by Patricia Cutts (at times during the film I was struck by her facial similarity to Nicole Kidman) who is brazenly unfaithful, and deliberately thwarting her own sister’s happiness. The fact that its intimated that Isabelle murdered her own father for her inheritance is thrown in almost as an aside: this is decidedly campy horror-fun. Cutts is great value in a fairly one-dimensional role, I was expecting her to run foul of the Tingler once it breaks out to terrorise innocents but she’s there only to compound Chaplin’s marital misery. I was rather disappointed the film didn’t take a moral stand and subject her to a grisly end.

sardonicusaRather better than The Tingler is Mr Sardonicus, from a few years later, and which also sees a welcome starring role for the great Ronald Lewis, an actor who remains something of a fascination of mine. Lewis is great in this gothic chiller that turns out to be much better than one possibly expects from its William Castle introduction, and doesn’t need the Castle gimmick at the end in which the audience is addressed to choose the ending, which just proves a distraction that breaks up the narrative (the choice is a con, as only one ending was ever filmed and intended, the audience expected to demand the come-uppance of the films villain).

Mr Sardonicus is gothic with a capital ‘G’- its got estranged lovers, grave-robbing, hysterical paralysis, torture, a remote ghostly castle, ghouls, pseudo-science… its a great yarn, based upon a short story by Ray Russell who wrote the screenplay. Lewis plays Sir Robert Cargrave, an esteemed doctor in fog-enshrouded 19th-Century London who receives a plea for help from an ex-lover who is now married to Baron Sardonicus of distant Transylvania Gorslava and is desperate for Sir Robert’s help. Obviously still holding a torch for Maude (Audrey Dalton) Sir Robert instructs his assistant to cancel all his future appointments and he rushes away to the remote East European country and the Baron’s menacingly gothic estate.

The stationmaster of the station nearest to the castle infers that there is something unwholesome regards the Baron Sardonicus, something not dispelled by the Baron’s one-eyed creepy manservant, Krull (Oscar Homolka) who picks up Sir Robert and in typical Hammer tradition drives a horse-drawn carriage through desolate moody woods to the castle. The hokey fun is immediately intensified within the castle when Sir Robert sees Krull torturing a maid with leeches in a strange experiment, and finally when Sir Robert meets Maude and her husband the Baron Sardonicus (Guy Rolfe), Sir Robert is shocked to learn that the Baron wears a mask covering his face and hiding some horror beneath.

The next morning Sir Robert meets with the masked Baron who explains that he was once a poor peasant named Marek, married to  Elenka (a feisty Erika Peters), whose father Henryk with fading health gave Elenka a lottery ticket which the frustrated Elenka dismissed as an old man’s foolish waste of money. Henryk soon after died and was buried in his best suit, which, yes, also contained the dismissed lottery ticket in a pocket. Inevitably, time passed, and then Marek and Elenka learned that they had indeed won the lottery. Marek had to return to the cemetery and, like a ghoul dig up his fathers grave to retrieve the lottery ticket. The horror of seeing his father’s twisted decomposed face startled Marek, permanently freezing his own face into a grimace of horror so terrible it drove Elenka to suicide, and which he has hidden from sight. Claiming the lottery he used his newfound wealth to become the Baron and buy this remote castle, and now threatens Sir Robert that he will destroy Maude’s face if Sir Robert cannot repair the Baron’s twisted visage- Sardonicus reveals that it was he that disfigured Krull’s face, taking out the manservant’s eye when the servant disappointed him.

Its all daft fun, but its quite earnest in its approach, more like a 1930s Universal horror or a Hammer  gothic horror, lacking the more tongue-in-cheek sensitivities of The Tingler, certainly. The cast are all very good, particularly Lewis, who takes it all very seriously, as, say, Peter Cushing would were he in the role, whereas someone like Vincent Price would clearly have more fun with it. Indeed, its almost a pity Price wasn’t cast as the Baron, he’d have had huge fun emoting with his wonderful voice behind the mask that the Baron hides behind for most of the film. But perhaps enjoyable as that would have been to watch, that would have worked against the film; instead, Guy Rolfe as the masked Baron is as deliberately earnest as Lewis is, and this enables the film to shake at the shackles of being just a just silly horror. There is this sense of the film struggling against its horror tropes (one-eyed creepy hunched-up manservant etc) and becoming more than, well, a trashy William Castle picture. I actually felt it an unfortunate interruption, once we have seen Sir Robert and Maude escape to a new life together, when Castle comes onscreen to address the audience and offer up either a happy or unhappy end for the Baron.

I really rather enjoyed Mr Sardonicus; its gothic horrors as successful as many Hammer films, with a pretty great cast and a fine script. I bet it scared kids witless on television showings over the years since. How strange that I never even knew of its existence until now (Indicator released it as part of a William Castle Blu-ray boxset a few years back, but I didn’t pay enough attention to note Lewis’ presence in the cast). The film is limited by its evidently low budget and no doubt tight production schedule, as all such horror b-movies were; elevated to a A-list budget with more care and attention (as, say, Alien was a decade or so later) it might have been a very notable film. There is the germ of a disturbing horror here, belied by its association with lesser William Castle productions.

The one in which Titanic is sunk by disc rot

greenmanRaise the Titanic, 1980, 115mins

The Skull, 1965, 83 mins, Blu-ray

The Green Man, 1956, 80 mins

Last night for some unfathomable reason (as such whims usually are when choosing to watch a film) I decided to watch Raise the Titanic, a Blu-ray which has been waiting to be watched for more than seven years. Unfortunately it became abundantly clear I wouldn’t be watching it- loading up the disc, the tv screen showed a broken-up image, heavily pixelated, without any sound, the playback so fractured that it took minutes to display what I assume is a looping video sequence running behind menu options which didn’t display at  all. Indeed, after a few minutes the sequence repeated, the imagery not quite as pixelated and snippets of John Barry’s sublime soundtrack starting to be heard: still no menu options though, so the video loop repeated, occasionally broken up with bright garish pixels dancing around. Another case of disc rot? Ejecting the disc it didn’t appear to show any signs of clouding on the disc surface or indeed any marks at all; it looked perfectly fine, albeit it patently wasn’t.

Some people may feel I got off lightly and was spared a terrible movie. I have watched Raise the Titanic before, back when it was shown on television, and it is indeed pretty poor. I recall buying the disc out of curiosity really, and indeed did start watching it back when I first received the disc in 2015, but had to stop it twenty minutes in because Real Life stepped in, and I never returned to it. So here I was last night, scuppered again. I’m just not meant to watch this film; it was quite frustrating, its a pretty bad film, and not really in the ‘so bad its good’ territory but it has a lovely John Barry score, some good actors and I’ve never seen it in widescreen.  Beginning to look like I never will.

Just as an aside, I noticed a few weeks back that someone has written a two-volume ‘making of’ the film, devoting over 1,000 pages to it, incredibly (and laboriously, by the look of it) spread over two hardbacks: its like the very definition of overkill. I found it curious that this film even has a fan devoted enough to write something like this, never mind sufficient other fans to make publishing it viable. Its this that got me thinking about watching the film again, finally getting that Blu-ray disc out – the film must have something going for it if its subject to such attention. Just goes to show, EVERY film has its fans, somewhere.

Anyway, our planned viewing sunk just like the titular ocean liner, we had to look for another film to watch. Since its October it seemed apt to pick a horror movie (I guess Raise the Titanic qualifies for that too…) so we picked an old favourite- The Skull, a 1965 Amicus production starring Peter Cushing, Patrick Wymark and Christopher Lee that scared both Claire and I witless when kids watching this film on late night television. Its not really THAT scary or successful a horror, but it remains effective; the cast is great, the story interesting in an old-fashioned, pulp-horror kind of way and the atmosphere quite wonderful. Its always a pleasure revisiting it, and hurrah for a film that doesn’t suffer the dreaded disc rot or other problem. Peter Cushing is always on some other level above the material he’s in. Watching this again got me thinking about the (fairly recent) Indicator release, Corruption, likely Cushing’s nastiest film and one I’d like to give another re-watch. Its curious how we watch films if only because it features a particular actor.

Which brings me to The Green Man, a film I’d never heard of before, but earlier that same Sunday afternoon, after Claire and I had dinner over my moms, while the girls were washing-up I was flicking through the Freeview channels and came across this old British comedy about to start on the Talking Pictures channel.  During the titles I spotted it credited Terry-Thomas, an actor who, like Cushing, I never tire of seeing in movies. He stars in one of my favourite comedies, How to Murder Your Wife as Jack Lemmon’s man-servant, a role played as if only Terry-Thomas could ever play him.

Anyway, I watched The Green Man… an enjoyable, very black comedy of errors starring Alastair Sim as an eccentric, very English assassin repeatedly thwarted by a vacuum cleaner salesman played by George Cole (later of Minder fame here in the UK). Its all decidedly British- murders and laughs, fruity asides to sex, its all very dated and almost like from some other world: indeed I suppose the 1950s were another world, its all part of this films charm, and of other similar films like The Ladykillers. In fact, I mistakenly remembered that Sim also starred in The Ladykillers but I was getting mixed up; it was Alec Guinness playing Professor Marcus in that film (so like Sim that Guinness was possibly actually mimicking him for all I know).

The thing is, I watched the film… and watched the film… all in anticipation of Terry-Thomas turning up in each new scene but he didn’t turn up until the final act. There I was, tricked by top-billing into thinking he’d have a major part in the proceedings… which I suppose he does but screen time wise, he’s almost like a cameo. I guess he was a sufficient enough star at the time to ensure such top billing, but it certainly threw me for a curve, getting to the point that it actually distracted me somewhat: I actually got to the point at which I was doubting my senses; had I REALLY seen his name in the credits?

In any case, The Green Man is a very good film, a delicious comedy I’d stumbled upon by accident, a happy discovery while visiting my moms on a Sunday afternoon. So good I may even buy the Blu-ray edition someday (yeah, its actually out on disc). The film is funny with a fine cast of British greats of old- Raymond Huntley, Colin Gordon, Dora Bryan, Richard Wattis, even a young slim Arthur Lowe, with a vivacious Jill Adams really impressing as beautiful love interest/heroine Ann. Sadly, Jill Adams didn’t have as long a career in film as one might have expected, quitting the profession ten years later and moving to Portugal to run a hotel with her husband: its such an endlessly curious thing, looking people up on sites like IMDB and seeing lives/careers summarised in a few paragraphs.

Poltergeist 40 years on

Poltergeist1Poltergeist, 1982, 114 mins, 4K UHD

My affection for Poltergeist is deeper than it really deserves- as noted before, it was the first film rental I ever saw, back in 1983 when my parents rented a VHS machine and sent me down to the video store with a membership card. It was tremendously exciting having a genuine film on this weird big plastic cassette and loading it up in the player, watching a film, uncut, with no ad breaks, of our choice when we wanted to watch it. It was a glimpse of the future that at the time could not be guessed at, a future of films on demand and that one can actually own to rewatch time and time again.

I’ve rewatched the film several times over the years since, and I think I’ve bought it on every new format (4K UHD of course just the very latest one). I think its possibly an attempt to relive that original excitement from 1983, because every time I rewatch it, the film disappoints somehow. Its a good film, and also a big reminder of just how varied and largely successful genre releases were in 1982 in particular, something we’ll not see the like of again. But as a horror film, is it really genuinely scary on repeat viewings? Can those child actors really act? Does it rely too much on ILM visual effects that increasingly look dated, big loud sound effects (it gets ridiculously noisy towards the end) and the propulsive qualities of Jerry Goldsmith’s music? Is it too much a Spielberg movie?

You can tell its based on a story by Spielberg. Its got that reliance of showy effects and spectacle, sort of a mix between CE3K and Raiders of the Lost Ark posing as horror movie, largely ignoring the subtlety of genuine quiet, creepy horror that gets under ones skin. And perhaps indicating Spielberg’s youth at the time most of all, it suggests parents who don’t report their missing child to the police, something as ridiculous as a father deserting his children to go fly off in a UFO, dubious plot holes I imagine he’s since regretted with maturity.

The authorship of the film as a whole -particularly who directed it- has been a subject of some contention amongst fans for years. It clearly carries Spielberg’s stamp, including some of his worst habits of the time, like slow camera pull-ins on actors reaction shots that always irritated the hell out of me and still does on repeat viewings (thankfully something Spielberg grew out of, eventually) that suggest he directed some moments at least, or certainly had a big involvement in the editing. I rather think of Poltergeist as I do Return of the Jedi; the latter may credit Richard Marquand as director but its got George Lucas’ hand all over it, unfortunately (a response to Lucas feeling he lost control of The Empire Strikes Back). I suspect Tobe Hooper worked as a director-for-hire and acceded to Spielberg in all creative discussions (other rumours persist that Spielberg actually took over when Hooper lost control/fell ‘ill’, but that being said, I suspect that had Spielberg really directed it as some suspect, the performances of those child actors would have been much better).

There are moments in Poltergeist that are genuinely great; I’ve always loved Goldsmith’s effective score, particularly when we see the ghostly spirits coming down the stairs. It was the moment that truly blew me away back in 1983 and always raises the hairs on the back of my neck. JoBeth Williams is wonderful, the heart and soul of the film that carries all the proceedings once her daughter is abducted by the ghosts haunting the house. The more times I have watched the film, I increasingly wish the script had just had a bit more polish that might have ensured less of a reliance on those effects. Its a film that leans more toward entertainment than genuine scares, I feel; an indication of what Amblin would be all about during the 1980s etc and how mainstream Hollywood was going with its summer blockbusters. Its less an adult horror movie than it is a creepy movie for kids- yeah, a Spielberg horror movie rather than  a Hooper horror movie, clearly (albeit the censors seem to have nixed that intent; Poltergeist is still a 15 over here in the UK).

poltergeist4kOn 4K UHD Poltergeist naturally looks better than it ever has. The HDR allows greater clarity, particularly in daylight, exterior scenes. I don’t think it does the ILM photochemical effects too many favours, really- some of the animation looks a little too painterly… I wonder, had Doug Trumbull had a hand in the effects, if his ‘painting with light’ approach might have been a preferable one. I did notice some banding in a few of the dark skies (pretty nasty in the scene where Steve and Diane knock on their neighbours door and the dark cloudy night sky has ugly banding behind them, but maybe that’s a source issue). On the whole it looks pretty great though.

Blonde Nightmare

blonde1Blonde, 2022, 166 mins, Netflix

I must confess, impressed as I was by Ana de Armas in BR2049 and Knives Out, I would never have imagined her ever playing Marilyn Monroe, and when I first heard of her casting for Andrew Dominik’s Blonde I was quite incredulous. Still, what do I know, I thought Ben Affleck was going to be a disaster as Batman and he turned out to be the best incarnation of the caped crusader I’ve yet seen. So it turns out Ana de Armas is the highlight of Blonde, with an absolutely arresting performance which should get attention come awards season unless the films more notorious elements hold it back (I don’t think the Academy appreciates the Hollywood Dream Factory being portrayed in a bad light).

Blonde seems to be getting a mixed response from critics. To say I enjoyed it actually feels wrong, I mean, how can anyone actually enjoy something as dark and unrelenting as this film? But I did, in as much as I thought it was very good indeed, fascinating and unnerving with great performances and lovely art direction and attention to detail. Its powerful and intense stuff. Watching it just a week after seeing Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis felt rather curious though; two biopics of such iconic people in such close succession, and both being so grim. I’ve noticed critic Mark Kermode describe Blonde as a horror film, and he’s absolutely spot-on, but to be honest that was my experience with Elvis too. Baz Luhrmann’s film itself felt like a horror film, it’s Col Tom Parker a predatory character with devilish eyes something like a killer in a 1980s slasher movie. I remember feeling quite down after watching Elvis, it wasn’t as uplifting as I’d expected it to be, instead feeling disturbed by Parker and Tom Hank’s very effective turn, the film felt less of a celebration of Elvis Presley’s life and more a tragedy.

So here comes Blonde and its pulled the same trick, examining the misery and nightmare of Norma Jean/Marilyn Monroe’s life in such an unrelenting way its operating at some other magnitude entirely. The dark side of Hollywood is hardly a surprise to anyone now, surely. We’ve all read revelations of the misdoings of superstars of old that was covered up by the Studios, and the Harvey Weinstein saga depressingly reminded us how little things have changed. Hollywood is a dark place that destroys people just as much as it makes people into superstars. Many of the ‘revelations’ within Blonde are hardly going to be new to anyone familiar with Marilyn Monroe’s life story, and in some respects it actually holds its punches. We don’t see as much as I’d expected regards the Kennedy brothers and the mob and how Marilyn was caught up in that, nor does the film suggest anything about her death: it might have been accidental, it may have been despairing suicide, but there’s no intimation of actual murder.

I’ve seen Blonde come under fire, particularly from her adoring fanbase, for not being more of a celebration of Marilyn’s success, showing what makes her such an icon today, her relationship with the camera in all her movies and photo shoots. There may be something to those criticisms, but in  the films defence, its simply not that movie- it’s like pro-shark activists criticising Jaws for showing sharks in a bad light. Blonde is deliberately and absolutely a cautionary tale. If anything, it makes the good in Marilyn’s life, those performances (in Some Like It Hot, for instance), actually seem even more extraordinary considering what was going on behind the scenes. Considering Norma Jean’s childhood and all that came before Hollywood itself, I think her achievements and the fact she remains such an icon today are something to be marvelled at, no doubt.

I’m not the first or likely the last to have noticed a Lynchian undertone to the film- the excellent soundtrack score by Warren Ellis and Nick Cave sounds like, and functions like, an Angelo Badalamenti score, and of course the storyline mirrors that of Twin Peaks and in particular Fire Walk with Me‘s portrayal of Laura Palmers dark descent. Had Blonde actually been a David Lynch film, would it be getting some of the criticism Andrew Dominik’s film is getting? Possibly not; audiences would perhaps have more of a mindset of what to expect, and Lynch is adored for making films about the dark underbelly of America, he’s practically fireproof. I don’t think Andrew Dominik is as bulletproof as Lynch, but I think its admirable that in today’s Hollywood Dominik got to make the film he wanted to make.

4K Poltergeist

poltergeist4kDon’t look at the cover. Don’t. The real horror is, there have been worse.

First film I ever rented, back in 1983 – Poltergeist will always be something special. It was the first film I ever watched on a VHS tape, when the ‘miracle’ of watching a film at the push of a button, with no censorship or ad-breaks was something to leave you breathless, and incredibly exciting in ways that kids today will never understand. Ah, the pull of nostalgia will never loosen its grip on this movie.

Fantastic Jerry Goldsmith score, a pretty great cast including the beautiful JoBeth Williams and the great, late James Karen whose only better film was The Return of the Living Dead, and ILM bringing the horrors of Raiders to suburbia. 1982 was a great year for movies, and its somehow been 40 years so I guess this release was inevitable- joining quite a few of the Class of 1982 to 4K.  I just want to know where’s Conan The Barbarian in 4K;  you’d think Arrow or someone would give it a go if Universal had zero interest.

Bloody cover does look more like an alternate for CE3K than something for Poltergeist  (“Honey there’s a mothership over the house!”).