Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Haunted House of Horror

The room spreads out from the seated individual at its core. Sandwiched between walls wrapped in a coat of books, the body hunches over a desk. Pens, pencils and other assorted paraphernalia of the literary kind lie scattered over the hardwood desert. The torso of flesh stirs from its stillness and tilts its head. It’s a man. His eyes, crinkled by years of straining to peruse miniscule footnotes, and the dry skin ruffled on the back of his hands speak of month-long sojourns locked within the ambit of this room. With the feathers of his grand mutton-chops motioning back and forth to the tune of a nearby window ajar, a wad of papers reside clenched in his mitts. Tears well as memories of adjectives looked-up and lacklustre ‘classics’ read front to back are mentally spun into existence. In his hands, the sweat-drenched manuscript. One of those terror tales, the sort that scream at every page-turn, that was the target, and here it is, finished. Dashed with portions exhumed from Balzac and stylistic fervour borrowed from Joyce, wearing the inspiring prose of Rimbaud, Shakespeare and Wilde on its sleeve, the novel rests gently on the quivering knees of its author, the former to be canonised as soon as it hits the shelves, the latter to be elevated to the highest of high culture literary circles. And what is the title to this tender tribute to language, this transcendent masterpiece, this artefact of artistic desire? It went by the profound, engaging and sorrowful name of The Haunted House of Horror.

Right, ok, so I’m speculating as to how the creation of such a succinct and weighty title occurred, one can only assume it was the work of a tortured genius, incarcerated in a tiny writing-room, surrounded by more books than oxygen, fighting his way through years of regimes of constant oscillation between reading and scribbling. Only the finest master of prosody could have the cerebral powers to allow for the gestation of that level of aptness.

It’s not actually the loving title assigned to an epic tome, but the name of a cinematic fragment born on the tip of the sixties. The concision of those words is of such grandeur that one need not even view the film to fully comprehend its trials and tribulations. Alas, I watched it anyway.

Opening with promising aural melodies that draw parallels to its Tigon cousin, the enjoyable Blood on Satan’s Claw, The Haunted House of Horror concerns a group of twenty-somethings who like nothing better than to swing their sideburns and suggestive hips amid the roundels of London circa 1969. During a particularly fashionable party, jam-packed with copious quantities of melotrons and yellow, alongside a few triangular sandwiches for the older denizens, the congregation decide to ditch the West End studio in favour of a stroll around an anonymous bourgeois purlieu, wherein dwells a large house that may or may not be haunted, and may or may not be full of horror. In the course of the visit, a fatal knifing befalls one of the swingers, and the rest of the film is given over to repressing anxieties about the uninformed police and the possibility of some homicidal crazy inhabiting the group.

Horror houses have a long and illustrious history, the question undoubtedly is: how does this one compare with some of the others we’ve had cascade across our screens in the past?

Well, first of all, in contradistinction to Clownhouse, this house has a noticeable absence of clowns, unless one were inclined to throw into that melting pot of red noses and big shoes the personage of Frankie Avalon, leader of the youthful rogues. Unlike the aforementioned film, this one seems to foreground its most clownish of tropes: rather than relegating them to the position of villains perpetually attempting to get to a few adolescents locked in a suburban house, here it’s the protagonists themselves that are afflicted with the caricatured mannerisms of a clown, with IQs suitably lingering amidst single figures. Just watch as they wander the corridors of the house, swathed in candlelight, evaluating the pros and cons of a proposition the like of which would have sent Wittgenstein into spasms: Orgy or Séance?

After much deliberation, they opt for the second option, but not before partaking in the activity of ghost-hunting. What hideous phantasms might they stumble upon whilst doing this? Perhaps that tall fellow from Phantasm and his flying mirror-ball? How about the Vietnam War zombie from House? The pointless, dumb creature that cheapens the finale of House by the Cemetery? The flying vampire thespian, with all his campy goodness, from The House That Dripped Blood? Ghostly effigies of the flies from The Amityville Horror?

Not even a bootlegged DVD! Nothing terrifying is unearthed from their trawl save for a few lusty glances at the legs of the group’s nymph population. It’s like a slightly more energetic episode of The Liver Birds, that is to say of course, up until when the murdering happens. But the shoddy ghost-hunting is inexcusable – when one can nowadays gawk at Michael Parkinson leading us on a startling journey in Ghostwatch, I can think of no reason why one would invest any ghost-related enthusiasms into The Haunted House of Horror.

Despite the intimations of manslaughter at the opaque hands of an apparition, the truth is that this nasty business is orchestrated by the tangible hands of a real person. In this respect, the film is like Scooby-Doo meets the sleaze of Porky's meets the milieu of Blow-Up, only with more titbits of insightful wisdom. While ruminating about the horrors the house has instigated, following the shocking extermination of their buddy, one astute observer notes that: “any psychopath can have superhuman strength when aroused.”

Lacking a degree in criminology, I was unaware of this fact. However, I was not unaware that great caverns of knowledge await the intrepid explorer of the motion picture. This is evidence to that.

So, what started as a potential excursion into waters frequently charted by Lucio Fulci ends up morphing into a fairly banal Hitchcockian thriller, siphoning nuggets of talent from the footsteps of Psycho, as well as the magnificent Peeping Tom. Ghoulish vagaries change into comprehendible motives, entities straddling the boundary between life and death – thus igniting a plethora of ontological problems – transform into human passions distorted by psychological instability.

It’s a shame, you might say. But no, forgiveness is at hand. For a site of wonder is excavated for the concluding confrontation, when an event transpires of such inspirational and uplifting joy that it fully vindicates all that has come before it. This miraculous event is homologous to Lyotard’s theorisation of The Sublime, where he defines the concept as: “it happens.” It surely does happen, and is wholly stunning when it does, by fuck!

The event takes place in the eponymous house after some thirty-odd minutes of procrastination. With his lady-friend checking out the blackened catacombs below, Avalon is hard on the case, investigating with deep rigour some tricky epistemological questions. Then he’s served a hot dish of The Truth, with a side-order of eschatological tension, as it comes out that the pal he’s having assist him in his efforts is, in fact, a very bad man (I won’t spoil the revelation by naming the killer, but watch the strange guy). Facing each other in, it must be admitted, a nicely composed shot, the killer whips out a knife and the two have a moment’s standoff. Sane and insane eyes each cast determined looks at the sharp slice of weaponry clutched by the volatile hands of the newly-unveiled maniac. A pouncing gone wrong later and Avalon finds himself stabbed in the crotch!

In his Ethics, Spinoza remarks that: “pain is man’s transition from a greater state of perfection to a lesser.” Old Frankie had little screen-time post-crotch stabbing, but I feel it safe to presuppose that he had indeed switched to a lesser state of perfection. Perhaps that truncated perfection was tapped off into the form of the film itself, therefore giving us a reason for such a dazzling ending to what had been a plodding preceding runtime. Whatever the phenomenological significance, I thank thee Haunted House of Horror for giving us the most sublime knife-thrust into the crotch in the history of cinema.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

James Woods, London

Soho, London. A dank alley, flanks enveloped in neon red, sweet melodies of voyeuristic pleasure sing in the shadows. Bow of the alley populated by solicitors of the night, offering shirted gentlemen an evening of jouissance with the nymph of their choice. Exit darkness, enter Piccadilly. Legions of tourists wander idly, local commuters push past with indignation, quasi-sober rugby fans march beckoned by the allure of the public house. Roads crisscross, frustrated drivers roam over bitumen, swarms of cyclists inhabit the traffic fissures. A bus rockets past, muttering figures cloaked in fatigue, face of James Woods blazoned across the exterior.

Wait a minute. Cease this sub-Burroughsian collage of cryptic nonsense. Lash on a full-stop and let’s get to a new paragraph immediately.

No, it wasn’t some sort of mobile mirage or cinephilic mental disorder. It’s nothing less than the truth to say that there is currently a bus meandering around London with the grin of one Mr James Woods sutured onto its side. Or rather, it should be stated, at least one bus, for who knows how many crimson double-deckers are flowing through the cracks of this metropolitan topography. I caught sight of one, but it could be merely the tip of the vehicular iceberg. The vision of thousands of buses wandering over the Thames, all replete with a smiling James Woods face, sends shivers deep into the pineal.

Alas, this isn’t just Transport for London’s love-filled tribute to one of Hollywood’s most esteemed of thespians. Nor is this TfL’s attempt to create an omnipresent altar to the mores of a dimpled-chin countenance. Nothing quite so altruistic and worthy of celebration. Unsurprisingly the banner carries with it ulterior motives, sinister intentions hidden behind the joy of a familiar face. For the poster is an advertisement for the latest audiovisual feast to have Woods’ name cast over it – a television program by the name of Shark.

From what I’ve been told by digital words, the show concerns an attorney by the name of Sebastian Shark (Woods), who balances having such a wonderful name with his day-job of being a defence lawyer. After an incident causes him to question his current vocation and position in the juridical system, he decides to jump ship and join the stiff-collars over at the DA’s office. And chaos ensues as his hardball ways clash with the practices of his young associates – or so I assume.

Lacking a television set, I have not seen the show. I guess that it has just ventured over to the shores of the United Kingdom, and that its premiere is coming very soon or has just passed, thus the promotion. Also, lacking an interest in the televisual arts, I have not heard any sort of opinionated whispers regarding quality. I guess that featuring the presence of James Woods, as it does, would result in a mighty fine forty-odd minutes of blissful sneers and verbal belittling.

It doesn’t need to be said, but allow me to say it nonetheless, people love truisms anyway: James Woods is a paragon of brilliance. Woods makes it worth keeping an eye on the American film industry, that is to say, the horribly producer-determined wares tossed out from the Hollywood factory. He stands proud alongside such luminaries as Jeff Goldblum, Willem Dafoe, Christian Bale and Edward Norton, all individuals who straddle the beast of the mainstream but nevertheless always merit viewing. It is consistently enjoyable to see Woods dancing on the celluloid.

Woods also garners respect as he’s an incredibly intelligent fellow, a member of MENSA in fact, and a former student at MIT. But there is a shady underside to this coin of hyperbole: he seems to be a Republican, and is on record as a supporter of George W. Bush. To me this seems like a contradiction: smart and knowledgeable, and a patron of the Right. One would hasten to think that his erudite talents would elevate him to a position whereupon he could point out the porous nature of such an administration, where he could discern contradictions, absurdities and mistakes. Seemingly not, it seems.

It’s one of those unusual paradoxes that occur every now and again. Just look at Christopher Hitchens. Learned and eloquent, and clasping appropriate criticisms of religion that would have me nodding in agreement. But then there’s his vocal allegiance to contemporary US foreign policy. Admittedly, of all the hacks and drudges who propagate this imperialistic and blood-soaked discourse, he is the one who comes closest to sounding both sane and convincing. Though in a world full of Sean Hannitys and Joe Scarboroughs, it’s not difficult to standout and speak in the key of lucidity. But still, many of his assertions boggle the mind, with only his fine grasp of the English language making him listenable.

Woods is slightly different in that his work is not necessarily imbued with his political disposition, thankfully. Of course, he can hold whatever viewpoints he cares to scoop off the ground – if he wants to approve of dangerously aggressive actions in the opposite corner of the globe, that’s up to him. On the positive side, I think the power of Max Renn in Videodrome, the camaraderie between Woods and Dennehy in Best Seller, the cigarette-fuelled hilarity in Cat’s Eye, the sober exploration in Salvador, the Fox-baiting merriment in The Hard Way, all go some way to negating the more displeasing elements of the Woods persona. Even his performances in such dreck as Vampires and Be Cool can be counted as contributing to some sort of redemption for his character.

In short, ideological disagreements notwithstanding, I will be happy to see my friend James Woods flash past me on a bus again sometime soon.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

And Now the Screaming Starts!

The surface of the blackboard is void of any attempted-scribble. A man motions towards it. He lifts a virile javelin of chalk. He is Martin Amis – and now the screaming starts!

The music store has a new employee. Nonchalant customers meander between shelves. A strain of sound becomes audible. It is Celine Dion – and now the screaming starts!

A man is standing looking at rye bread in a supermarket. A female employee approaches him by the rear. He turns around. He is Eric Roberts – and now the screaming starts!

Those five words are a perfect end to a narrative fragment – not only is it action-packed, but it can be both an end to a fable and a lead-on to something altogether more extraordinary. It’s a phrase that can act as a linguistic alpha and omega, as flexible as it is startling. The requisite exclamation mark gives only added strength to its glow. And it’s also the name of a 1973 British horror film.

And Now the Screaming Starts!, funnily enough, does not start with quite the cacophony of screaming that one might presuppose. There are a few moments when teasing lips part for a fleeting second, only to unify once again in an ungracious snub to the audience. “When will this screaming start?” I yelled repeatedly at the screen. But yet, in fact, the real question was: when will now arrive?

Luckily for my sanity it did eventually get here, and what lung-collapsing screaming ensued! But first, some sort of synoptic disposition is in order.

With the eighteenth century waddling to its demise, a young lady from the haughty cobblestones of London moves out to the country to join her new husband. He’s the latest drip on the stalactite lineage of the Fengriffen dynasty – his embroidered cufflinks speak of centuries pummelling serfs and bathing in swan milk, while his magnificent mansion oppresses just by the very shake of its curtains. The happy couple are eager to procreate, to continue on that family name in all its avaricious swagger. But soon strange occurrences begin to ignite around the lady. First, upon her initial arrival, she stumbles on a sinister-looking portrait of one of her ancestors-in-law – his scornful stare, chagrin radiating from his furrowed brow. Cue dense musical interludes replete with shrieking strings. Then, finally, this preamble of terror is brought to a head when she sees a dismembered hand scuttling across her corset.

And now the screaming starts?

Damn right it does!

In his essay ‘The Grain of the Voice’, Roland Barthes emphasises the materiality of the vocal warble, and the consequent circumvention of the regular gymnastics of signifier-signified to pure significance. As he states, the “voice bears along directly the symbolic, over the intelligible, the expressive.” Admittedly, he was more concerned with the musicological aspects of verbal utterance. But this line of thought is just as pertinent in the context of screaming. What comes through in a trebly scream is the body, the corporeal interface from which the sonorous tumult is emitted. It defies interpretation – the scream is the shrill incantation to the gods of the basest emotions, to an affect deeply-rooted. Beyond all notions of primary reaction and catharsis, the scream is a bodily release, something pent-up and thrown out from the deepest recesses of the gut.

In And Now the Screaming Starts!, the lady protagonist, Catherine, is able to howl all the coarsest and most high-pitched screams that would be necessary in a film with such a title. Her entire Victorian figure is complicit is each and every scream, her complete somatic self is a furnace brewing up the latest outpouring of emotive pandemonium. This voice has so much grain that it’d send Barthes off into a whirlwind of dementia.

If one were feeling particularly negative, maybe after a harsh day down the mines, one might feel the need to also sticky-tape the adjective ‘grating’ on to that summation. I feel obliged to do that very thing. As so unequivocally suggested by the name, the film is loaded with screaming, and it can get slightly tiresome after the fourth or fifth discharge, especially with paranoid neighbours surrounding you, a residential collective already nudged into suspicion-mode by the blaring of sub-par Megadeth albums at three in the morning.

However, it’s not enough simply to examine the intricacies of the screaming. One must delve further into the reasons behind this screaming. What in the name of Michael Biehn’s lack of sitcom cameos can be the cause for all these bellowing tributes to the Slasher genre?

Well, as Peter Cushing’s Dr Pope so eloquently puts it, “sexual relations with demons.” Yes, that’s right, a crime viewed in many parts of the country as even more heinous than necrophilia. But, c’mon, backtrack this damn review a few notches more, and give us the sequential progression we require to fully fathom the film.

So, the hand – that human paw missing a bodily accomplice – starts to terrorise poor Catherine. She sits minding her business, fumbling through the latest issue of The Nation, intermittently scratching a garter or two, when suddenly, from behind a window cobweb, out springs that dastardly hand. To underscore her growing feelings of panic and dread, the cursed portrait would also ceaselessly throw dirty looks at her fragile countenance.

What was the reaction of her husband Charles? Did he do away with that hand? Did he quote the analogous histrionics in Evil Dead 2? Surely he at least re-enacted that scene from Aliens blindfolded?

None of the above. He accused her of acting like her namesake Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion – it’s a case of externalising the insanity latched onto the lead character’s cerebellum, that is, neurosis projected outward into the film world. She catches sight of a man with eyes plucked from his skull – so do we. Yet, each time something or other happens, someone runs up to her with a plate of “ain’t nothing there, ‘tis all in your head, love.” The bulbous tentacles of mania have wrapped around her head, suffocating good sense and extinguishing clarity – or so the general consensus pronounces.

But Charles isn’t all that inept. After a while – I assume spurred on by annoyance at the amount of screaming reverberating around his house – he confers with the family doctor, Dr Whittle. Sadly, this obsequious idler is inept. However, he is played by Patrick Magee, best known for portraying the wheelchair-bound writer who gives Malcolm McDowell a whole heap of shit in A Clockwork Orange. Alas, in this film, even with full-mobility, he’s fairly passive. Things don’t get righteously shook up until the arrival of the benevolent spirit of Peter Cushing as the aforementioned Dr Pope. Up to that point, not simply had Catherine’s own encounters with spectral forces been brushed off as residue from her lunacy, but an array of deaths had been disregarded as nothing more than “an accident”, or as a result of the foul pranks of “natural causes.”

Dr Pope, rather than carelessly embracing the easy options, decides to give this unusual situation the intense critical examination for which it cries out. Putting on his analyst hat, he interrogates Catherine’s dreams, pondering on what repressed urges lie awaiting-discovery underneath the sheen of manifest dream-content. He lounges on a divan, flicking through a copy of Malleus Maleficarum, that legendary textbook for would-be witch-hunters. Finally, he demands answers that will tie-up all the loose-ends in the plot, and allow him to move on to his next schlocky horror picture. Nervous under the glare from Cushing’s menacing cummerbund, Truth’s dictatorial custodian Charles relents and spills all the words of resolution we’ve been waiting over an hour for.

The legend goes back to the time of Charles’ grandfather Henry, that same grimace graffitied inside a frame on the stairway, who led the good name of Fengriffen into disrepute during his time as head of the family. Cue flashback. Henry didn’t simply shirk an social commitment here and there, or use his cutlery in a fashion offensive to the Nazis of etiquette. No, he was a full-on debauchee. There was nothing he liked more than revelling in some Sadean pleasures, especially if it was whilst flanked by a troop of peasants rejected from The Decameron for being too sleazy.

Looking like Herbert Lom from The Dead Zone, old Henry decided to prematurely end a drinking/sexing session in order to visit his woodsman, the newly-married Silas. Unlike Kevin Bacon, this woodsman preferred the company of adult women. Anyway, off march Henry and his entourage, heaving ales and merriment with them. Embarrassingly they arrive just as Silas and his good lady wife are preparing to reap the benefits of a church blessing. Unluckily for Silas, Henry takes a shine to Mrs Silas, and, with his cohorts reprimanding the spouse, the scene descends into a poor man’s Straw Dogs, with some split-second raping and a faint groan from the arbiters of good taste.

After this, in a blur of anger, Silas proclaims a curse on Henry and his kin, whereupon the next virgin-lovely to live in the Fengriffen castle will be raped either by him or his ghost, depending on life expectancy statistics from 1795.

That there, my friends, is the cause of all that fuss, all that terrorising of hapless Catherine, all those silly contorted faces, all those period-setting tracking shots, all those dull methods of accentuating tension, all those soft-focus bosom shots, all those week-long pregnancies, all that stalling in hackneyed dialogue, all those allusions to better films, all that screen time without Cushing, all those purposeless digressions, all those repetitive plot-points, all those paltry effects, all those strolls through the woods, all that sense of anti-climax, and all that damn screaming!

Sunday, March 11, 2007

The Beast Must Die

Since humankind crawled out from the liquidly shores of the sea, the social gathering has been a staple of the household mores of the bourgeoisie. The wail of invitation, the echo of RSVP, the congregation of like-minded people intent on passing an evening in the pursuit of small talk and trivial toasts, all enclosed within the most ornamented of cages. What could go wrong? Well plenty, if cinema’s anything to go by.

Renoir suffered a quandary or two when surveying the Rules of the Game, with cordiality rapidly evaporating in the midst of a plethora of misunderstanding. Festen’s family reunion wasted little time turning sour as truths were unveiled and vexation became sutured to the grimace of just about everyone. The Exterminating Angel’s dinner party descended into savagery when hosts and guests alike became mysteriously incarcerated in the dining room. Hell, look what happened when the good-natured Han invited folks around his pad in Enter the Dragon – some little sprite from Hong Kong wrecked the furniture, broke the toilet and ended up killing the host!

In The Beast Must Die, a wealthy hunting-enthusiastic by the name of Tom Newcliffe invites six individuals to his grand country mansion. Expecting a relaxing couple of days gazing at the finest green pastures the British landscape has to offer, and maybe taking the time to peruse that Chekhov that’s been gathering dust for a while, the sextet are alarmed to learn that Newcliffe has other motives in amassing their bodies in his abode. His moustache quivering, he announces that he reckons one of them to be a werewolf – and not only that, for he has arranged this shindig with the express purpose of kindling a transformation in order that he may exercise his skills in the hunting arts. With an estate overflowing with CCTV, sound transmitters and motion sensors, and a full moon hovering into position above, he’s primed to gun-down one of nature’s most elusive shaggy-haired canines.

And thus begins a crazy game of Guess the Werewolf – a game not simply played out in the film world. The Beast Must Die opens with a call directly to the audience to participate in this sport of elimination. Against a murky black, a croaking voice spits out a challenge to eager would-be detectives to test out all those supposedly-dormant abilities, talents hitherto suppressed by 9 to 5 and income tax. But now, go ahead, be Sherlock, be Kojak, be Marlowe, be Burt Reynolds in Cop and a Half, all your dreams can now be realised, and minus the risk of having your throat jettisoned to the opposite side of the room. The narrative even ceases for a moment towards the denouement so that a reminder can be issued from the off-screen voice, a teasing slice of “have you worked it out yet”, followed by a thirty-second countdown in which each possibility is flashed into the frame for a few seconds. Sure, it’s slightly naff, but you have to admire the filmmakers for shaking it up a tad and having fun.

Aside from these extradiegetic sequences, much playful frolicking is done in the film as Newcliffe runs around causing his guests a mixture of irritation and unease. His favourite games for the dinner-table revolve around having his unassuming company clench a silver candlestick in their hands, then producing a large wolfsbane plant, making sure its spores thoroughly infest the air (apparently this herb induces a panoply of subconscious urges in the psyche of a werewolf), and finally forcing his visitors to place a silver bullet in their mouths (this is as a consequence of vicious hearsay that in the previous silver-related test possible hand-protection could have slyly been applied destroying any validity the test would otherwise have had – somewhere a biomedical scientist intoxicated on the double blind test is crying). If you were expecting an ounce of the wondrous tension generated by the blood-test in The Thing, then you’d be in for a smack of disappointment across the jowls. Clearly the silver motif is overused. Surely something less trite could have replaced one of those tests, perhaps a group screening of Underworld and Van Helsing – the first to explode in a cataclysmic rage of teeth and snarls, drool and ferocity, will be the…ah no, actually, on second thoughts they might not be the best products of cinematic lycanthropy to try and expose potential wolf-men or -women.

Anyway, what about those potential werewolves? Who are the residents of this affluent gunslinger’s elaborate hunt?

Frankly, a bunch of anons and Peter Cushing. Well alright, that’s unfair. There is Michael Gambon, who in recent years has been spotted in various films of varying success, and Charles Gray. But it is Cushing’s charisma that obscures all else. He plays an anthropologist called Dr Lundgren – who as well as being an expert in werewolves, is a wizard on the chess board. His helpful titbits of knowledge are always forthcoming; he’s what Claude Levi-Strauss could have been had the Frenchman redirected his analyses to the savage minds of werewolves and other assorted anthropo-hairballs. The way in which Dr Lundgren explicates the biological processes that occur when the change from human to werewolf commences is one of the highlights of this film, his charming oration both soothing and educating, his careful pronunciation of each syllable in the word “Transmogrification” the typification of preciseness. His inquisitive glances and gentle demeanour are perfectly homologous to his namesake’s own tender manoeuvres in Universal Soldier – only the latter had more ears slung around his neck.

However, a few words of praise need to be siphoned off in the direction of Calvin Lockhart, whose hyperbolic performance as Newcliffe is on a level of light-hearted jollity similar to that of the film as a whole. He jogs through the film like a quasi-Shaft, paranoid and athirst for some rifle action. Lockhart would later go on to play King Willie in Predator 2, that dreadlocked Rasta who donates his head to the predator’s skull collection. He didn’t get much action in that film – probably still shattered after all the running he did in The Beast Must Die. Soon as news came that someone wasn’t in their room, or a sensor in the grounds picked up some activity, he’d burst out the patio and hit the woods for some exploration in the shadows, some slithering over and under branches in the unadulterated black of night. It’s possible that had he received help from the inept crew feasting on his hospitality, or even had a few lights shone on the scene, he might have been able to mount some sort of defence against Danny Glover’s foe.

A number of tropes thrust the film away from its natural home of horror. It’s not only Lockhart’s afro and badass attitude that hint at blaxploitation, but the electro-jazz-funk soundtrack also makes one envision snappy, multicoloured suits, slick lines of dialogue and more reams of cool than could possibly be signified by a mere four-letter word. Shots from a helicopter as it zooms over the rural scenery underlie the opening credits, whilst a thundering spasm of wah-wah bumps and jerks its way into our auditory fields, like some sort of anglified Starsky and Hutch. It’s the type of rhythmic shuffle that would nowadays have cheques brandishing several zeroes dedicated to their recreation.

The Beast Must Die might not be up to the quality of Amicus’ portmanteau flicks (Dr Terror’s House of Horrors being a case in point), but it is nevertheless enjoyable, and does continue on the lineage of that fine production house. The contemporary setting, the self-aware daftness, the campy absurdity, all factors that distinguished Amicus from its more straight-faced rival Hammer. The interstitial turmoil is given a splendid sheen of car chases and exaggerated mannerisms, never allowing the narrative to travel over to the foreign territory of seriousness – and all the better for it, last thing we want to see is a mid-70s British horror going all solemn and falling into laments of sincerity.

Since then, director Paul Annett has went on to direct a number of episodes of BBC’s number one soap, Eastenders. Surely it’s only a matter of time before Phil Mitchell sprouts hair on the back of his knuckles and goes on a carnivorous rampage down at The Arches. What a joyous plot twist that would be!

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The Killer Shrews

In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt wrote that with “the introduction of the experiment…we prescribed man-thought conditions to natural processes and forced them to fall into man-made patterns,” developing “sciences of potentially irreversible, irremediable processes of no return.” A prophesy cloaked in dark, pessimistic overtones, with gaunt eyes that radiate forewarning, and a sly finger that points at the things with which no meddling should be done.

But did those white-coated, PHD-holding minions of scientific reason in The Killer Shrews listen? Were their ears puckered up in the direction of good ol’ Hannah when she scribbled those words (as vociferous as her pen was)? Did instruments drop to the floor in a startling outburst of realisation, clipboards and microscopes cast-off to dark corners in a fit of revolt?

Quite obviously not, but had they in fact done so, I’d happily suppose that they wouldn’t have engineered a pack of vicious, marauding giant shrews, desperate to consume ninety-times their own body-weight in succulent human meat. But at the same time, and here’s the paradoxical moment, if they had succumb to sensible rationales and ceased their heinous experimentation, the world would not have been gifted a fine film by the name of The Killer Shrews.

You could say that if it never exists, no one would be able to miss it – but my life would still somehow feel empty, there’d be a huge gap deep down in my sternum, one that pines for colossal rodents.

Spat out Hollywood’s B-movie latrine back in 1959, The Killer Shrews is about a guy – the awesomely named Thorne Sherman – who arrives on a small island carrying a shipment of supplies for the sole residents: head scientist Dr Craigis, his young lady daughter Ann, assistant scientist Dr Baines, quasi-scientist Jerry Farrell (not Falwell) and servant Mario. With a storm drifting towards the island, he must spend the night with these hermits. Soon any sort of façade concerning things not going on becomes translucent and Thorne learns that not only is he on the receiving end of ballistic missiles of seduction fired off from The People’s Republic of Ann, but also that those darn scientists have created mutant shrews, massive and hungry, who are now roaming the island somewhere in search of a bite to eat.

It’s difficult not to love a good science-gone-wrong story. Scientists with a tint of dementia are frequently wonderful to witness on-screen, and although these guys aren’t quite up to the level of Seth Brundle or Vincent Price’s brother, or even William Hurt’s devolving lunatic in Altered States, they still provide a fair bit of fun.

Turns out that a core of altruism prompts Craigis and co. to carry out their experiments. “Overpopulation,” the man says – that’s the underlying ethical issue. This dalliance in genetic mapping and all those double helixes is in order to control metabolism, or, to be more precise, to slow it down, decreasing the size of the organism and thus extending life-expectancy. “What?” you may say. Let Craigis explain it himself: “If we were half as big as we are now, we could live twice as long on our natural resources.”

It’s genius really. Forget Al Gore telling his truths. The Killer Shrews conveys a much more profound and inspirational message, and over forty years earlier too!

Just a shame it never quite worked out in the end. The shrews grow to gargantuan proportions and escape the confines of the laboratory, and, after eating everything reeking of flesh on the island, try to get into the house for the main course. And not only are they shrews magnified to the size of dogs, but their bite is also poisonous, “more poisonous than snakes!”

But, luckily for the residents, Thorne Sherman is here, and he’s “not concerned with all that theory.” Fuck your DNA, kicking ass is his job. Well, being a captain on a boat that delivers miscellanea to obscure islands off the US coast is his real job – but he kicks ass part-time!

It isn’t just the shrew-serpents circulating outside that breeds suspense, for Ann’s amorous advances and Thorne’s own innate sleaze-senses produce tension between he and Jerry, the latter being her former-fiancé. And so many dirty stares are exchanged, some fisticuffs ignite, lots of “well he’s coming into the room, so I’m going to leave”-type of action. This strained domestic setting, plus the wider house-on-an-island locale, bring to mind Key Largo, with its fun and games in the Florida Keys. Except Thorne, played by James Best, isn’t fit to lacquer even the scrotal hair of Bogart. But he does make an interesting antecedent for Bruce Campbell, with his initial attitude of selfishness and open hostility to others whilst gripping a shotgun. However, again the comparison is crippled by the most benign chin I’ve seen this side of Jude Law.

The ensemble being trapped inside the house, being assailed by a malevolent outside force, does tempt one to thrown in a reference to the Evil Dead trilogy, but also such fare as Night of the Living Dead and Tremors. Sadly this film has a lack of both intriguing sociological subtext and huge worms. To hell with shrews, give me some subterranean invertebrates any day.

Criticisms notwithstanding, there’s something wonderful about a film set entirely in one small location and featuring the leftovers of renegade-science and the renegade-scientists who effectuate it. It’s what makes films like Terror from the Year 5000 such classics. The Killer Shrews may not be up to that magnificent standard, but it is nevertheless an enjoyable sixty-nine minutes of sky-bound cutaways and stilted glances.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Wake Up And Smell The Dalton

Outside: Tottenham Court Road with its infestation of electronics shops – a large fellow from Croydon telling passersby about his Irish cousins – the mutterings of the Chip Nazi down towards Centre Point – a spattering of rain and bad breath – half-chewed cigarettes and empty lager cans.

Inside: a parade of trailers – frat-boy nonsense “from the producers of etcetera” – advertising all subtext, no substance – pangs from the realisation that Orange mobile phone commercials are now replete with Michael Madsen (oh Seagal, I miss thee jowls) – and a showing of Hot Fuzz, the latest filmic adventure from those guys who like movies.

But let’s not digress into sarky statements, for the film is a sheer joy, jam-packed with all sorts of references and tributes to cheeseball cop flicks from antiquity, all mixed with some fine English nuance and wit. Making up for that lack of Seagal in the cinematic preface, one scene has Out For Justice exhibited as ingredient on a stack of DVDs; alas, Point Break is the canonical film chosen for extended homage treatment. Also, in-between Jackie Chan idolatry and He-Man nostalgia lies, rather more implicitly, a reference to Jeff Fahey’s epic turn in Corpses, with Simon Peg aping the climatic revelation of MegaFahey in that 2004 tour de force.

My question is: who amongst a stunning cast featuring the likes of Steve Coogan, the glorious Kevin Eldon, our favourite god-fearing policeman Edward Woodward, arch-swearer Paddy Considine, Adam sans Joe, and Bill Bailey, is able to stand-out, is able to exist emphasised as though underlined and emboldened at one and the same time, as if someone knew the keyboard shortcuts on Microsoft Word?

The calzone of inquiry unfolds with ease, spreading its doughy limbs and permitting the aroma of a reply to drift heavenward.

Strutting through the moors of Hot Fuzz, head angled with pride, stares piercing alloys left and right, is none other than one Mr Timothy Dalton.

“Who?” I hear you say, “That guy from The Rocketeer?” Oh, do not tease this old man, your jesting responses only belie the knowledge both of us are well aware you possess. But how does one know anything – is this not the problem? Books, hearsay, the chimes of info virulently disseminated across cultural milieux, notions spat into the ozone then recycled as an afterword, words and guts, preconceptions and prejudices, thought and thoughtless. Where’s the answer? Didn’t Foucault say something or other about it?

“I dunno, t’was a big old archaeology of knowledge.”

Perhaps something to do with those discursive formations he was ever so fond of? Societal institutions and conventions laying a framework for ideas, making a nice little fence around that floating cerebral matter? Is Dalton one of these discursive formations? Is that the deduction being proposed here?

Well, that remains to be seen, but probably. Regardless, he plays a wonderfully sleazy, crinkly-faced supermarket entrepreneur in Hot Fuzz, forever enlightening the mise-en-scene, and radiating UV-rays of charm and charisma.

A perplexed face or two spoke of questions proliferating under the surface of their skin. Unforgivable, but necessary for this narrative, queries concerning the presence of the spectre of Dalton began to run out. “Who is this fine gent? Is that Pierce Brosnan, and if so, what happened his simian complexion? Was he in The Man From UNCLE?”

All good questions, sufficient to keep a chap from lapsing into ennui on a bus late at night. The answers are, in reverse order: no, no, and allow me to blot in those blanks for your good self.

Timothy Dalton, Wales’ all-time most brilliant export, came to fame by playing James Bond in 1987’s Living Daylights, effortlessly making all his precursors look like proscenium hacks. His time in the tux started well enough, but it was his second outing in the franchise that cemented his historical significance: License to Kill.

Without exception, when this film crops up in conversation, my words stutter and congeal into a mass of undifferentiated syllables – that’s its power. The film annihilates all equivocality as to the status of which Bond is the absolute best. License to Kill, with its immense body count and elevated age certificate, simply cannot be touched. Dalton portrays Bond at his most badass: stripped of his secret service homicide-authorisation, and giving M and his old cohorts a deserved mammoth snub, Bond turns rogue, using all his skills to brutal effect under the pretext of revenge. The glowing two hours of the film are the creamy filling of the entire series, unmatched by anything that came before and after its birth. I’ve been called perverse for having this viewpoint in the past, and that may be a fair accusation, but the magnetism of Dalton is overwhelming, so much so that one can barely see what the hell those Dying Tomorrows were all about.

Underscoring humanity’s knack for undervaluing many of its cultural icons, Dalton was ousted not simply from the chain of spy tales, but also from half-decent filmmaking in general. The nineties were submerged in gloom, and the desolate wailings of Dalton became imprisoned within his dimpled somatic shell. Where were the beams of luminance redirected to? Inside Dalton’s own frame I can only suppose. So just imagine upwards of a decade and a half of pent-up wonder, trapped rummaging Dalton’s intestinal tract, suddenly being unleashed in prime cinematic glory. This is akin to the presence of Dalton in Hot Fuzz.

The performance is a mauling to all those naysayers sat in their ivory towers, scribbling notebook-polemics against what they interpreted as a decline in Bond and, in turn, expressing their own inadequacies as patrons satisfactorily-qualified to throw down a few words on the issue. Not even the on-looking posters of Roger Moore glance down at them positively. They usher-in disgrace from a crowd that’s soon to include most of the world’s sane-minded individuals – assuming they watch Hot Fuzz that is.

The obvious point of interest to come from these bouts of cinematic resurrection is the prognostication accorded to what possible results we might now see. It may not be quite analogous to Fahey in Grindhouse, slight variations in budget, scope and expectation nullify that, but the door has been undoubtedly swung open for Dalton. Lined up for the future could be roles in the latest batch of superhero fare, with Timmy D playing a villain opposite some tights-wearing big name (tagline: Dalton turns into a maniacal ficus who plays the piano). Or a move into the misanthropia of Todd Solondz’s movie worlds (tagline: Dalton touches preteens while flicking through a copy of The New Yorker). Maybe a turn in Chan-wook Park’s latest (tagline: Dalton plans revenge while wearing sublime eye-shadow). Maybe a remake of Peeping Tom with a DV cam (tagline: Dalton kills with FireWire).

One has to envy the sudden outpouring of opportunity to present itself to studio execs in the path of this neo-Daltonian shift, let’s just hope this fine second chance does not drop to the wayside and die before it has even time to learn to walk.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Docklands Light Rumination

Had the Speed franchise ended some two and a half hours earlier, not only would we have been spared the torments of Speed 2: Cruise Control – a film so damned that not even Willem Dafoe’s leech-obsessed terrorist could salvage anything from it – but we’d also have been exempt from witnessing Speed’s senseless postscript. As you’ll remember, following an afternoon driving around in Dennis Hopper’s bomb-bus, Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock find themselves on the subway, nonchalantly gawking at the advertising boards zooming past. Then, the aforementioned villain pops in for a final showdown – a concluding kafuffle that ends up moving to the roof of the train carriage in a spectacular bout of stupidity, fraying the edges of the recollection of the preceding entertainment with its negating odour.

Were Speed to have taken place in London, that superfluous appendix, had it survived the cutting process, would probably not have taken place on the Docklands Light Railway. Hurrying along from The City down to the bourgeois sticks of Lewisham, Hopper would have undoubtedly been flung from its carapace long before the sneers of Tower Hamlets met his jowls – the metropolitan gusts circulating the boxes of transit so strong that not even the archetypal bad guy himself would have been able to withstand its force. As for Keanu: soon as the train exited the burrows of Bank, he would have been a goner, swept away to the spew-laden cobbles of Old Street, never to be seen or heard from again.

A veteran of the DLR, it had become long-shunned by my frequent commutes in favour of the joys of London’s National Rail overground service, with its bookish inhabitants and appealingly brief travel time. But, alas, today was going to provide a chance for a nostalgic journey on that once-cherished transportation.

Cannon Street, residing somewhere east of Fleet Street and, as far as I can make out, fairly bereft of canons, had become the preferred hub of journeys in and out of central London. However, unbeknownst to me, today its tube was in a state of lockdown. When the District Line train came sliding in, the cavity was but drenched in darkness. So on to Monument it was. A short walk through the subterranean tunnels linking Monument with its sister station Bank, and the prospect of being thrust southbound on the DLR presented itself. Potential options involving a trip back along the Thames to eventually hop on the Jubilee Line were discarded and the DLR was embraced.

As I told a friendly chap with an interview pad in his mitts, “well, I don’t tend to come this way all too often these days, infrequently you might say! Were it not for Cannon Street languishing in a state darker than a thousand Crow sequels, I’d be elsewhere right now, by fuck.” But his demeanour truncated the bitterness of my expletives, his gesticulations paving the way for a glimmer of enthusiasm to birth during the minutes I stood waiting for the train to arrive at the platform. Then it bounded in.

The frown of the girl sitting beside me never let-up its disapproval, her brows furrowing unremittingly – the black of night turned the window opposite into a mirror. My cohabitants sat comfortably on the DLR’s budget seating, the covers of which seemed to have been rejects from the latest mid-sized Boeing to get here from Seattle, perhaps purloined from the skips behind British Airways HQ. A good sticky floor, sweaty railings and a Hello Magazine reader led to the conclusion that this was indeed the classic train service that ushered me around London back in my formative days, back when I first began calling this city Domicile.

The DLR floats over the shacks of east London like an overbearing chieftain, stopping intermittently at such dank locales as Shadwell and Westferry, each time defecating some passengers and consuming a few more. Then there’s the slow trawl up to Canary Wharf, home to Britain’s three tallest buildings. The glass perpendicularity of the trio of towers never fails to provoke awe, especially at night. Yet, the aesthetic beauty belies the horrible profit-driven capitalistic enterprises that linger under the surface. But, before one has even time to meditate on how this juxtaposition is so apt for an analogy with capitalism itself, the train has shuttled forth out the mons of Heron Quays and down the trunk of the London Docklands.

Over waterways and sand mounds, through minor station after minor station, tumbling along towards the Thames. The tired fumes of office toil drifted from passenger to passenger, the lady sitting opposite drowsily nodding her head forward, a slight wave of fringe descending down over a partially-closed eye, whilst a suited man armed with a vendetta against temporality stood primed at the double-doors, eagerly awaiting their partition.

A dip in the track and we were rammed under the Thames. Commercial boats and nocturnal windsurfers glided above, their horns and screams inaudible with that river of insulation dwelling in-between. The Cutty Sark came up on the horizon – as did my time to depart. Motioning up the escalator, posters of West End shows and popular cinematic fare braided the walls.

The twosome of escalators over with, one emerges into the centre of Greenwich – unfortunately met with the banality of a Subway and a McDonalds. A rounding of the corner, a shift past a Wetherspoons, and a straight walk on ahead. A five-minute stroll up Creek Road, the whispers of the DLR dispersing amongst the trickles of Deptford Creek, and only the memory, as it were, remains.