Monthly Archives: July 2012

The Horror! The Horror! – Part 1

I was asked by some readers to write about favourite horror films –  so here goes; Just what is a horror film is difficult to define as there are several sub-genres I was able to identify: The Undead – vampires, werewolves, mummies laboratory made monsters and zombies; Post-Apocalypse – nuclear wasteland, mutants; Supernatural – the Devil, ghosts and spirits, possession; Sci-fi – aliens, creatures and doomsday; Slasher – teen murders, revenge and psychopaths; Psychological – inner demons, the unexplained and metaphysics. There are also the franchises, such as Hammer, Roger Corman, Dario Argento and so on – and these often contain several elements of these sub-genres.

There are probably other examples, but these will do for now. The point is that one woman’s horror movie may well be another man’s comedy – Nicholas Cage’s Vampire’s Kiss,  for example, could be either – or both. So, here’s the first batch of sphinctre-expanding shockers.

Seconds (1966) is director John Frankenheimer’s take on David Ely’s novel of identity crisis. A shadowy organisation known only as ‘The Company’ arranges for the bored and wealthy not only to assume new identities – but new bodies and minds.

Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson) is the product of one such exchange – and what happens to him when he wants out is a salutary and horrifying commentary on materialism and the quest for eternal beauty. The film provided Hudson with an opportunity to use his screen idol image to savage effect. An opportunity that produced, I believe, the performance of his career.

Near Dark (1987) is my favourite vampire movie. Director, Kathryn Bigelow  has taken the traditional genre and fused it with elements of the Western and Road movie genres to achieve a gripping and satisfying account of terror and mayhem in the mid-west of America. The film stars Adrian Pasdar, Jenny Wright –  and Lance Henricksen as the head of the nomadic vampire family. (Interestingly, Bigelow went on to direct Strange Days (1995) which gives more than a nod in the direction of Peeping Tom – of which, more later)

Repulsion (1965) is Roman Polanski’s first English language film and stars the extraordinary Catherine Deneuve as Carol, a manicurist, living in west London with her sister, Helen (Yvonne Furneaux).

When Helen takes a holiday with her boyfriend, Carol is left alone in the flat and , already deeply neurotic, her anxieties and inner demons, now unchecked,  rapidly plunge her into a living nightmare of hallucinations and paranoia. Repulsion is a truly unsettling film whose menace will sit on your shoulder for many hours after the final frame has flickered into nothing.

Se7en (1995) is undoubtedly a horror film. Following a serial murderer whose theme is the seven deadly sins, the audience is left to surmise about how each murder is achieved, rather than why. The ceaseless rain and urban decay that provide the backdrop for Detectives Mills (Brad Pitt) and Somerset (Morgan Freeman) to hunt down the killer, create a similar atmosphere to Blade Runner. But director David Fincher is not about to let any light into Se7en’s world and that refusal is the film’s triumph. There are no easy outs and all that remains is the horror.

Psycho (1960 Alfred Hitchcock)

One of the most famous films in the history of cinema and the most frightening film I’ve ever seen. To put that into context, I was 14 when it turned up at the Ritz, Stockwell in Southwest London. I ‘bunked in’ to see it at a mid-week afternoon session when I should have been at school. I say ‘bunked in’, first because it was an X-rated film (16 and over) and second, because I was broke.

Even though I fancied myself as the toughest kid on the block, the truth is the combination of the shower scene and the cellar scene – Tony Perkins in drag, a skyline knife and those bloody violins screeching like demented harpies – served to give me nightmares for weeks. I was well into my 30s before I was game to assay the film again. (There is a pointless 1998 frame-for-frame remake which I do not recommend, unless you’re a completist)

Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

Roman Polanski’s second entry on this page is based on Ira Levin’s novel and stars Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes as Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse. Rosemary becomes pregnant as actor husband, Guy, finds sudden success which is somehow tied to eccentric neighbours Roman and Minnie Castavet (Sidney Blackmer –  and Ruth Gordon in a small miracle of a performance) Rosemary soon suspects that they are Satanists and have designs on her unborn child.

The central performances give the film its strength and allow the viewer to buy the contract. Farrow is achingly vulnerable whilst fighting for her sanity in an insane situation. Cassavetes is all smiling, venal assurances as he honours his pact and is cuckolded by the horned one. The film also sports a brilliant score by Polish jazz pianist Krzystzof Komeda and you also get to see Ms Farrow’s famous Vidal Sasoon hairdo.

Well, that’s it for now. I’ll return with another six movies very soon. In the meantime, you might try and identify the movie that the still above comes from.

Let The Games Begin – Blood Pressure No. 5

As Day One of the first Political Olympiad draws to a close, Political Editor, Bendon Spanner, reports that New Zealand’s Prymister, Jun Ki, is leading the field in the Dreckathlon with Great Britain’s John Macaroon a distant second. Mr. Ki, in search of the inaugural trotie‘, is favoured by the reverse scoring system which subtracts penalty points. The judging panel agreed, that at the halfway stage, everything Mr. Ki had done was pointless and he was a clear leader. Ki’s supremacy was underscored in the day’s final event, the Poll Vault, sponsored by Fear Facts Exposed, which was unable to identify any opposition at all.

Not so successful however, was Minister for Jacobean Hairstyles, Peter Dunne. Mr. Dunne had entered in the Coalition Hurdles but failed to realise that the objective was to clear the hurdles rather than sit on them and he was disqualified.

Meeting with more success was Minister for Perfect Teeth and Coiffure, Hekia Parata, gaining a silver medal in the Flip, Flop and Dump. Despite a valiant effort and showing extreme flexibility in her policy stance, Hekia came a distant second to Australian, Julia Gillard, who won the gold medal easily despite several about-turns and changes of direction.

Other first day casualties were Maggie Barry – who was unable to start the Mother and Child 3-legged race due to her foot being permanently stuck in her mouth; John Banks in the weightlifting, who got 3 red lights when he fell over trying to lift his wallet; Bill English disqualified for double-dipping in the pool and Paula Bennett also d/q’d in the Beneficiaries Handicap Race because she broke the scales at the weigh-in.

Better things are expected tomorrow when a multi-party team compete in Passing The Buck; David Shearer hopes to make up some ground in the Individual Pursuit; Tariana Turea and Hone Harawira appear in the Canoe Jumping and Judith Collins will tackle Serving the Writ.

The highlight of the day, though, should be the 4 x $500,000 donation relay featuring John Banks again and surprise starter Kim Dotbra.

Manufacturing Dissent: The Modern Apocrypha

Things have gone too far and I don’t know if I can get them back to where they should be. But I’m going to try because there’s an awful lot at stake. We all know about ‘the elephant in the living room’ and the desire not to disrupt the status quo, however gross the anomaly may be –  sat there –  right in front of us. We don’t want to be ‘conspiracy theorists’ or ‘idealists’ either but we do so want to be ‘realists’ and ‘toe the party line’. Right?

No. Wrong. It’s got to stop. The falsifications, fabrications, outright lies – right down to the shaded nuance that undermines us and leaves us on uncertain ground. Calumny and manipulation of information have become institutional sacraments. It all has to stop now before we become characters in a Kafka novel. But where to start?

Thomas Alva Edison is where I’ll start.

Thomas Edison invented the short wave sausage. It was a close-run thing – but he beat Norwegian entrepreneur explorer, Roald Amundsen,  in the race to the sausage because his team of husky dogs had a lower resting heart rate than Amundsen’s. You will find this documented in both The British Museum and in the American Library of Congress. You will not find anything to support the current orthodoxy that Aristotle invented the cocktail sausage so that slaves had something to give to theatre-goers during the interval of plays by the likes of Euripides and Aristophanes.

If you can understand the truth about an everyday item such as the sausage, then you will quickly learn to challenge the many other falsehoods and revisions of history that are etched into the fabric of our culture. Careful and persistent research will reveal that Napoleon Bonaparte and The Duke of Wellington were nowhere near Waterloo when a group of British holidaymakers were attacked by Belgian gypsies, incensed by the tourists’ failure to pay for their ploughman’s lunches and ‘doing a runner’.(On that fateful day, The Emperor – who was not Corsican but Swiss – and the Duke – who was best known for his ability to channel his persistent flatulence into a stirring rendition of the National Anthem – were at a celebrity opening of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Gastropub and Brasserie)

Of course, the schools and universities perpetuate these myths so that we accept them without question and never challenge the dictum that science is superior to instinct or folklore. In an earlier post, I talked about Flann O’Brien and his ‘novel’, The Third Policeman. The book is not a novel but an autobiography. The ‘scientist’, de Selby, is not a fanciful creation but a real person whose theories were at odds with conventional wisdom. The only way O’Brien could get these ideas aired was to publish a so-called ‘surreal’ or ‘absurd’ account. For instance, it must be abundantly clear to anyone with an inquisitive mind, that de Selby is correct when he asserts that ‘night’ has absolutely nothing to do with the relative position of your part of the Earth to the Sun. But, rather, that it has everything to do with the arrival, in late afternoon of ‘black air’ – an accretion of microscopic black particles that are the residue of countless volcanic eruptions and other airborne detritus of our planet’s erosion.

In much the same way, the movies ‘Capricorn One’ and ‘The Truman Show’ were actually docudramas – marketed as fiction in order to gain exposure.

That’s right. There is no ‘space’ – never has been. There is no universe; there are no planets. We all live inside an enormous diorama, constructed and maintained by a race of immortal comedians. And when you think about that for a while, doesn’t that explanation have considerably more force and credibility than the fantastical accounts of the theologians and astrophysicists? You know it makes sense.

Reductio ad Absurdum

The Dirty Dozen – Part Deux

Okay. Now for the remaining half-dozen movies that lend themselves to Sunday afternoon viewing, curled up on the sofa with the one you love –  before you go home;

The Man Who Would Be King

Legend has it that director, John Huston, had Kipling’s story in mind for a film treatment for many years before finally fulfilling his wish in 1975. His original pairing was Gable and Bogart; then Lancaster and Douglas; then Redford and Newman –  before settling on Sean Connery and Michael Caine.

Whatever the delays in coming to the screen, the movie proved to be extremely popular with audiences once it did –  and ensured Huston’s return to the director’s A-List. Connery and Caine are two former, somewhat roguish, British Army officers in late-Victorian India who set off in search of adventure and fortune in Kafiristan. Huston’s approach, too, is roguish and there is scant regard for political correctness in the portrayal of colonialist attitudes. Great fun and Connery’s favourite role!

Planes, Trains & Automobiles

I think that this odd couple movie is the high point in the careers of director John Hughes and stars, Steve Martin and John Candy. Hughes brings us not just a road movie, a buddy movie or a family movie – but a poignant, comedic synthesis of several tones that enables Martin and Candy to deliver well-rounded characters and robust performances. These elements, I should add, serve to strongly mitigate the obligatory schmaltzy final scenes – although an earlier, now legendary, airport scene with Martin dropping the f-bomb 18 times in a minute – has probably already allowed us to gladly pardon the ending.

Mona Lisa

Neil Jordan’s tale of a none-too-bright petty criminal and his relationship with a high-class prostitute that he minds, oozes seedy assignations and dubious pleasures. Bob Hoskins and Cathy Tyson play the oddest of odd couples, each trying to retain some vestige of honour in a broken, venal world.

The revelation, though, is Michael Caine’s Denny Mortwell, a gangland boss who has long since abandoned any contact with honour or decency. Caine is utterly convincing in his role and,  as the narrative unfolds, reveals the full extent of his corrupt and corrupting occupation. A dark, but satisfying, movie.

Being There

Evidently, Peter Sellers tried to obtain the rights to Jerzy Kosinski’s novel of the same name and pestered director Hal Ashby to make the movie with him in it. His persistence paid off and Sellers delivers what many, including me, believe to be his finest screen performance.

Chance the gardener (Sellers) is an innocent abroad. A simple being, bereft of any of the layers or devices that we have accumulated, historically, to survive. His knowledge of the world is limited only to what he knows of tending a garden and watching television. But the world he encounters, when his benefactor dies, is so jaded, so weighed down with artifice and egoism, that his naivety is mistaken for profound wisdom and his words for illuminating prophecy. The final scene, I believe, stands as one of the great moments in cinema.

Cross of Iron

There is a knowingness at the heart of James Coburn’s portrayal of embittered sergeant, Rolf Steiner. Steiner is the universal soldier, wartime’s everyman –  as he leads his men against the irresistible advance of the Red Army as they push the German occupiers out of the Caucasus in late 1943.

The arrival of a new battalion commander, Captain Stransky (Maximilian Schell), a Prussian aristocrat in search of glory and the famed Iron Cross, allows director Sam Peckinpah the opportunity to examine the mores of war and juxtaposition them against traditional peacetime values as the screen crackles with the tension generated by his two fine leads. The film contains Peckinpah’s trademark violent action but the Brechtian narrative allows the viewer a certain, cool distance to engage the mind as well as the heart as the story reaches its acrid, ironic conclusion.

Sexy Beast

First time director Jonathan Glazer has created two of the most evil criminals in the history of the genre. Gangster, Don Logan (Ben Kingsley) has been sent to Spain by crime lord, Teddy Bass (Ian McShane) to recruit retired safe-cracker Gary Dove (Ray Winstone) for a bank job in London. As Gary tries to appease both men whilst holding on to his relationships and enviable life style, the true, vile nature of the underworld is revealed, both literally and figuratively.(Viewers might light like to identify the film’s links to Harvey and Donny Darko)

The Dirty Dozen – Part 1

Now that winter has its icy fingers clasped firmly around your neck, I thought it may be as well to sort out a dozen movies, any one of which might provide an enjoyable way to spend a bleak Sunday afternoon.

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes

Billy Wilder’s affectionate take on the real detective behind the legend. Robert Stephens as Holmes and Colin Blakely as Watson tackle a WWI espionage plot that involves The Loch Ness Monster, circus midgets, spys and Queen Victoria. A curious sub-plot has a Russian ballerina wanting to engage Holmes as the potential father of  their wunderkind child.

My favourite Sherlock movie, beautifully shot with Wilder’s skillful cast perfectly reflecting his playful but fond attitude towards his material.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Based on 3 novels by Patrick O’Brian and set during the Napoleonic Wars,(moved back to 1805 from the novels’ 1813 Anglo-American War setting, so as not to upset US audiences) Capt Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) and Dr Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany) aboard the Surprise pursue the French warship Acheron.

Director, Peter Weir, has an eye for period detail and directs the action with a sure hand. Nominated for 10 Oscars, the movie won 2 only – the execrable Lord of the Rings sweeping the board that year. Nevertheless, a fine, exciting movie that, for me, was top of the class that year.(2003)

Monkey Business (1952)

Howard Hawks’ screwball comedy stars Cary Grant, Ginger Rogers and Marilyn Monroe and revolves around an elixir of youth finding its way into an office water cooler. The impeccable cast delivers the one-liners and mugging with gusto and the movie contains possibly the single funniest scene in the history of cinema –  Grant, having regressed to childhood and dressed as an Indian chief, leads the local kids in the kidnapping of his ‘adult’ rival (Hugh Marlowe) who they tie to a tree and…. well, watch the movie.

Vertigo

Hitchcock’s classic tale of obsession, set in San Francisco and starring James Stewart and Kim Novak –  Vertigo is an intense experience that quickly draws the viewer into its neurotic world. Fine performances by Stewart and Novak assisted by Bernard Hermann’s haunting score contribute to this enduring masterpiece.(Love Theme from Vertigo was used in last year’s The Artist)

La Reine Margot

Set in late 16th century France against the backdrop of religious conflict and the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre, director Patrice Chereau provides a densely textured account of intrigue, ambition and passion in a violent time. The seemingly ageless Isabelle Adjani portrays Margot, a political pawn put into play by her Medici mother (Virna Lisi) to shore up the Catholic hold on a France where the Protestant Huguenots assert a growing influence.

Based on the novel by Alexandre Dumas père, the sumptuous set design and visceral narrative provide the viewer with a darkly entertaining movie that clings to the memory long after it has finished.

Enemy at the Gates

Set during WWII’s Battle of Stalingrad, snipers from the opposing Russian and German armies (Jude Law and Ed Harris) fight a duel to the death that resonates on personal, class, ideological and national levels.

The film was criticised, when released, by army veterans in both Russia and Germany for its inaccuracies and some film critics also disliked the introduction of a love interest in the Russian camp (Rachel Weisz). I beg to differ though and for me, the story succeeds because the action is portrayed closely, intimately. The lethal chess game played by the principals is gut-wrenchingly tense, their need for feral companionship all too credible. Compelling viewing.

A Note from the Author; Part Deux will follow shortly.

Rod Stewart Convicted by War Crimes Tribunal Shock Horror!

Bear with me. Several years ago, I was watching the Michael Aspel TV chat show. Aspel had already interviewed a couple of celebs, one of whom was Clive James, the writer, critic and TV show presenter. He then introduced Oliver Reed, the film actor and self-professed hell raiser.

Now Ollie already had a reputation for leaving no bottle unturned in pre-show hospitality rooms – and this night was no exception. He arrived on camera, dishevelled and wobbly, pitcher of grog in hand, performed a ‘song’ of sorts with the band whilst jerking around like a broken windmill and then staggered to his seat alongside his host. Not what you’d call good form.

Clearly, what had happened was a tad embarrassing to all present – except Ollie of course, who appeared perfectly happy with the way the evening was unfolding. But it was beyond the pale for James.’Why do you drink?’ he demanded of his sanguine co-guest. Ollie replied, somewhat disingenuously I felt, that one had the opportunity to meet the finest people in pubs. There’s a clip below that includes footage from the ‘Aspel Incident’.

What this clip doesn’t show is James subsequently reproving Ollie for his boorish behaviour, exhorting him not to drink – because he was a fine actor and didn’t need the booze yada yada. The sentient Clive was then able to luxuriate in the warmth of the applause that greeted this homily, buoyed by the knowledge that the audience’s good opinion of himself was matched only by his own.

This is, of course, the very same Clive James that appears peripherally in both ‘The Adventures of Barry McKenzie’ and ‘Barry McKenzie Holds His Own’ as a permanently-pissed Aussie, never without a can of Fosters in his hand.

Needless to say, the anguished antipodean’s admonition had not the slightest impact on Ollie, who went on to grace many a chat show, pub lounge bar and occasional movie with his distinctive and bracing style. But for me, in that moment, Clive James was relegated to the role of cloakroom attendant in the hotel of ‘Stars I Hold in High Regard’. His self-serving and patronising treatment of Reed on prime-time television betrayed him as shallow and opportunistic.

So – what’s all this got to do with Rod Stewart? I hear you ask, quite rightly.

Well, just lately I’ve been reading some vehemently expressed opinions about how Rod ‘sold out’ when he finished with The Faces and went to find fame and fortune in the United States. That his recorded output from ‘Atlantic Crossing’ onwards is ‘disappointing’, ‘worthless’ and so on. Of course, the same opinion has been expressed about other artists and performers. The great Peter Cook was vilified for his departure to American sitcom ‘The Two of Us’  and the dissipation of his talent on panel games, chat shows and the like during the 80s. Stevie Wonder appears frequently in the scornful remarks of those who lament his inability to keep on producing albums to the standard of ‘Talking Book’ and ‘Inner Visions’. Then there’s the most talked-about ‘sell-out’ of them all; Elvis Presley – and the time he spent in thrall to ‘Colonel’ Tom Parker making a series of papier-mache albums and films that marked his decline from strutting tom to neutered lap cat. And there are many other such ‘failures’.

Well, the big news is that people are often self-indulgent – or just lazy; that people often display poor judgement; that people can sometimes fall under the influence of a malignant or mediocre force; or just simply – that they use up all of their brilliance and creativity in an intense, short period of activity – and then have nothing left to say. Whatever. It doesn’t really concern me. I am not moved to criticise any of these people for the choices they made. I think the handful of albums Rod Stewart made with The Faces are exemplars of what great rock n roll is about. His move to the States and subsequent stylistic move to crooning were his decisions to make. He couldn’t be – and probably didn’t want to be – Rocking Rod for ever. He’d earned his spurs the hard way with Steampacket and whatever he could find to do in the music business, before joining The Faces. I’m truly grateful that we have those albums, such as ‘Long Player’ to savour. I’m similarly grateful to Peter Cook for Private Eye magazine, ‘Beyond The Fringe’ and ‘Not Only But Also’. To Stevie Wonder for his 70s albums. To Elvis, well, for being Elvis.

Rod didn’t invade Poland you know. He went sailing –  to America.

1966

We have to push our way in. It isn’t yet 9 and the place is packed. Some people I know from the Tottenham Royal and RSG are here. It’s noisy, smoke-filled, lots of guys – musos – and not many chicks at all.  A guy from Decca we know gets some drinks in and tells us about the band playing tonight. He saw them last night at The Scotch of St James and they are a-may-zing ducky. And look! There’s Kit Lambert – manages The Who. I’ve already recognised Chas Chandler, The Animals bass player and Jeff Beck from The Yardbirds, so I know the band must be good

.

These Soho clubs are traps. I’ve been here before to see Georgie Fame and Brian Auger too. A pound for a Double Diamond. Still, the Decca guy looks good for it – drives an MG, British Racing Green ducky. And with overdrive, heart. Come for a spin?  Then, at last, the usual PA screech, some muffled words about success…Paris….Olympia…great to have him back…a roar from the in-crowd nearest the speakers and then……  then?  Like nothing I’ve ever heard before. It wasn’t Chuck Berry but it was ‘Johnny B. Goode’. The opening riff comes screeching, coughing and barking out of the speakers like a banshee on uppers. The grace notes spill off the guitarist’s fingerboard in a torrent. Who? I yell. Hendrix. Jimi Hendrix!  I push forward to get a better look.

The guy, Hendrix, is something out of a book. Like a regency fop who got caught up in Arabian Nights. He seems thin and vulnerable and he struggles with the vocal but when he sings that he could play his guitar just like ringing a bell – and his strat echoes the line –  all of my senses reel and I’m taking a ride. Now he’s taking his solo and the high gain amps give feed back that he controls like a lasso as it curls and shimmies around the audience. Then, oh yes, then – it dawns on me that he’s a lefty and he’s playing the strat upside down. And behind his back. And with his teeth. Another chorus followed by Berry’s riff once more, culminating in what sounds like horses neighing as he reels in the feed-back – and then a huge chord, a thwack on the snares and…..silence. Five or six seconds later a roar around the room that produces a shiver down my spine.

Hendrix introduces The Experience; Mitch Mitchell on drums I know from Georgie Fame’s Blue Flames; Noel Redding I’ve seen before, sitting in at gigs – except he’s not a bass player. No matter, he is now. And now they’re playing Howlin’ Wolf’s ‘Killing Floor’ In double time. Hendrix has no fear of the Gods.

I’m watching the musos and journos in the audience and some of them are looking at their shoes and shaking their heads. The people I’m with look agitated and puzzled. But the people up at the front have been converted. There’s a certainty about the rapture that greets each number in the set. The band plays ‘Rock Me Baby’ and Hendrix has found his performance groove. He gyrates, closes his eyes and the strat becomes a phallus as he thrusts it back and forth, his face a mask. No lewdness, just ecstatic calm as the chops and licks fill the room – and my mind –  with a vision of blues music that I doubt was real.

We talk about that on the way home. We saw the fretwork. We saw that they, the musos, saw it too. We knew we’d seen and heard something. Just not quite sure what.

A note from the Author; I wrote in an earlier blog, 1964, that it was said if you could remember the 60s, then you weren’t there. I have to own that and admit that I’ve had to reconstruct this account the best way I could. A good number of friends have urged me to tell these stories and I’ve done my best to relate facts and describe my feelings at the time of these events. The sources I’ve used to research and verify appear as clickables in the text. I’ve also done my best not to name drop – but to some extent it is inevitable. I played in a band, my cousin played in Brian Auger’s band and the people I hung with were into music. We went to lots of gigs.

I should add that ‘RSG‘ was Ready Steady Go! – ITV’s live music show which went to air on Friday evenings at that time. I’m fairly certain that it was The Bag O’ Nails in Kingly Street, Soho, where The Experience played that night. And ‘that night’, I believe was in November 1966. I seem to remember it was bloody cold that night. But when you’re 20, immortal and in love with the world, none of that matters.