Friday, April 18, 2014

The Jekyll and Hyde Portfolio / A Clockwork Blue

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Notes on Recent Viewings

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

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

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

Saturday, March 22, 2014

In Praise of the Grotesque: Metal Machine Music

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

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

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

Monday, March 17, 2014

In Ruins: The Once Great Houses of Ireland

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Doctors of Distress

Over at the excellent Behind the Couch blog, James Gracey has been tinkering with a Lemarchand’s box and is currently journeying through the netherworld of all 9 (?) Hellraiser films. He’s currently up to the fourth film in the series, Bloodline, so why not pop over, and join him on his exploration of the labyrinth - hopefully after Hellraiser: Revelations, he'll find his way back. For this post my thoughts turn to the flawed but fantastic Hellbound and from that film, the legendary still of Pinhead and the Female Cenobite dressed in surgeon attire. In the pre-Internet days, when movie myths flourished unchecked (remember reports of a ghostly apparition seen in Three Men and a Baby?), one of the more tantalizing stories to grease the rumor mill was of a sequence in Hellbound so unspeakably graphic and disturbing it had to be left on the cutting room floor.

The truth of the matter fell well short of what was depicted in the feverish imaginations of Hellraiser fans (me included!). Hellbound's writer Peter Atkins wrote a sketchy sequence where Kirsty and Tiffany chance upon two innocuous looking doctors in the corridor of the Channard Institute. Moments later the doctors transform into Pinhead and the Female Cenobite. Speaking on the Hellbound DVD featurette Under The Skin, (2004) Doug Bradley, clearly at pains to retell this story (a favourite question among fans on the convention circuit), reveals that Atkins' imagination finally outran Bob Keen and his special effects crew, the metamorphoses of the doctors into the Cenobites was too complicated a set piece to realize and the scene was abandoned. However, the set photographer, much to Bradley's regret, took some stills of the actors in costume, which in turn ended up on various VHS editions of the film (it featured on the back of the UK rental/sell-thru tapes, while the image was given centre stage on the Japanese Dentsu VHS and Pony Canyon laserdisc)

UK VCI budget sell-thru tape - the image of Pinhead in surgical garb is reversed

Japanese Pony Canyon laserdisc sleeve - note the pre-Photoshop composite

Despite Doug Bradley thoroughly exploding the myth of Hellbound's lost scene, the image still seems to crave for a life of its own, and it's a shame the scene was never filmed, even in a less ambitious guise. The image of Pinhead in a bloodstained surgical gown powerfully echoes the film's darkly visceral bloodshed, and nicely dovetails the unseen surgeons flaying a man in Clive Barker's late 70's short film The Forbidden, the man at the end of the scalpel rather appropriately played by Peter Atkins...

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Subversive Horror Cinema: Countercultural Messages of Films from Frankenstein to the Present

Just a quick post to plug my good friend, Starburst scribe and fellow blogger Jon Towlson's new book, Subversive Horror Cinema: Countercultural Messages of Films from Frankenstein to the Present. I first met Jon on a film board back in 2011 and since then we've become regular commentators on each other's blogs. I can safely say I've had the better end of the bargain, Jon's brilliant, stimulating writing about how Horror Cinema has reflected the stresses, strains and anxieties of the age has sent me back to many well-worn classics with fresh insights and perspectives. Subversive Horror Cinema is due for release on paperback in the Spring/Summer of this year, but if you cannot wait until then, the book is now available to buy for Kindle from Amazon UK and Amazon US. To read more about Jon's book please visit this page at Jon's blog, and be sure to download a free sample of the book to your Kindle. The sample includes a forward by Squirm and Blue Sunshine director Jeff Lieberman.

Subversive Horror Cinema: Countercultural Messages of Films from Frankenstein to the Present
on my Kindle Paperwhite

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

He Loved Him Madly

After months of will-they or won't-they speculation it looks like Don Cheadle will make his directorial debut later this year with his long planned Miles Davis film. The film entitled Kill the Trumpet Player is currently in pre-production and from the sketchy details that have emerged the film looks to dispense with the traditional biopic framework in favor of something more unconventional, the story apparently taking place over a day and half sometime during Miles' so called retirement between 1975 and 1979. Ewan McGregor has been cast as a fictional Rolling Stone reporter who lands an interview with Miles and gets "a wild and dangerous ride-along with a recording artist living at his edge, rife with shootouts, car-chases, and a tale of lost love to the sensual singer Frances"1. Hmm...

On one hand I'm thrilled to see Cheadle taking on the role of Miles Davis - for years he's been the only actor I ever had in mind to play Miles, but at the risk of rushing to judgement on a film where no footage has actually been shot, this is not the Miles Davis film I have long hoped for. It was following his 2004 film Collateral that I first imagined Michael Mann doing a Miles film, with Don Cheadle playing the Dark Magus. Mann included a significant homage to Miles in the film when Barry Shabaka Henley's jazz club owner (first seen playing Spanish Key from Bitches Brew) relates a great Miles Davis anecdote to Tom Cruise's cold clinical hitman:
I mean, everybody and their momma knew you don't just come up and talk to Miles Davis. I mean, he may have looked like he was chilling, but he was absorbed. This one hip couple, one of them tried to shake his hand one day. And the guy says, "Hi, my name is..." Miles said, "Get the fuck outta my face, you jive motherfucker, and take your silly bitch with you.
Michael Mann certainly knew Miles Davis - during the 80's, Miles played a pimp in an episode of Miami Vice (Junk Love, S2/Ep6, 1985) and he cameod as a musician in Crime Story (The War S1/Ep6, 1986).

Miles Davis as Ivory Jones in Miami Vice episode Junk Love

With Ali, Michael Mann made arguably the finest biopic in 20 years, and Mann and his writers neatly sidestepped the womb-to-tomb format of the biopic by concentrating on just 10 years of Muhammad Ali's life. My own idea for a Miles Davis film would begin on August 25th 1959, when Miles was beaten up and arrested by cops outside NYC's Birdland club, and from there would take in various stages of his life and music up to his comeback in 1979 when he reined in his self-destructive lifestyle and began recording again. It's a jazz fan's idea of a film to be sure, more Bird than Notorious, but if you've seen footage of Miles at the Isle of Wight in 1970, you might agree this film doesn't need a car chase. lncidentally, the title of this post relates to Miles' side-long tip of the hat to Duke Ellington, recorded in 1974 and found on the Get Up With album. He Loved Him Madly has always been a key Miles Davis piece for me - it was one of the first things that got me curious about Miles' music, after Brian Eno cited Teo Macero's spacey production in the liner notes of his 1982 album On Land. But more than that, the brooding, mysterious, melancholic music of He Loved Him Madly always seemed to me to perfectly encapsulate Miles' dark, complex, uncompromising personality. I hope Don Cheadle's film will capture some of that.

1. Plot soucred from here

Friday, March 7, 2014

Jeff Lieberman on Squirm

Continuing a series recalling little nuggets heard on film maker commentaries... In this instalment Jeff Lieberman remembers seeing an alternative version of his 1976 film Squirm...
One time Channel 11 WPIX in New York showed by mistake Squirm in black & white... I dunno if you can do this on your TV - tweak it, take the color out and watch this whole sequence with no colors and I'm telling you it's 10 times better. I called the station. Far from complaining I said that was the most amazing thing seeing Squirm in black & white... A thing like this in black & white looks great. Maybe we should put that on the (DVD) menu -  a choice to watch Squirm in black & white...
Jeff Lieberman, Squirm (MGM DVD, commentary index point 80:30)

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Last 5 Films Watched...

Advise and Consent (Warners DVD)
If you're not well versed in the complex workings of American Government you might feel a little disorientated during the first 20mins of Otto Preminger's superb 1962 political drama in which an ailing President appoints Henry Fonda as his secretary of state (read successor) and causes ructions in the corridors of power. Fonda brings his customary brilliance to the film but he's given a good run for his money by Charles Laughton (in his final film), and Walter Pidgeon (best known as Morbius from Forbidden Planet), and there's a memorable bit of work from a nervy Burgess Meredith playing a "friendly witness". With its large ensemble cast and deep-focus 'scope photography, the film now stands as a key influence on the likes of All the President's Men and JFK, and like the director's earlier film, Anatomy of a Murder, Preminger used the film to further needle away at the MPAA's sensibilities, when a senator is forced to confront his shadowy former life as a homosexual.

Meridith vs Fonda in Advise and Consent

The Notorious Bettie Page (TV, BBC2HD)
Mary Harron's 2006 biopic of America's most famous bondage star is less sleazy than you might imagine, in fact it's a rather sweet story of a good girl gone bad. Smart, witty and gorgeous to look at with noir-ish black & white photography for the New York sequences and garish Eastmancolor for the beaches of Miami, the film breezes by on a medley of Peggy Lee tunes, cool jazz and Latin exotica. Lili Taylor and David Strathairn head up a fine supporting cast but it's Gretchen Mol's career-defining turn that really makes the film cook, and she's astonishing beautiful in and out of tight fitting leather corsets and knee high booths. The re-enacted Bettie Page one-reelers are great too.

"God gave me the talent to pose for pictures and it seems to make people happy. That can't be a bad thing, can it?"

The Order of Death (download)
aka Copkiller, aka Corrupt, this Italian police thriller shot in New York is best remembered as the screen debut of John Lydon playing a disturbed young man who's wangled his way into the life of Harvey Keitel's corrupt detective living the good life in an expensive apartment paid for by filthy lucre. To say anymore would spoil this genuinely eccentric thriller which recalls the abrasive confessional relationship in Sidney Lumet's The Offence and the strange domesticity of Pasolini's Theorem. Aside from a few awkward moments, Lydon equips himself surprisingly well, and Keitel, clearly relishing his proto-Bad Lieutenant role is suitably intense and menacing. This film is well worth seeking out but be warned, it seems to have fallen into the public domain abyss and currently available DVDs are reportedly atrocious.

The public image... John Lydon in the Order of Death

Crystal Lake Memories: The Complete History of Friday the 13th (1428, Blu)
A gargantuan dollop of Friday the 13th business, this six hour plus (?) documentary (narrated by Corey Feldman) gathers together a near definitive list of cast, crew members and victims for a thoroughly detailed film-by-film overview of the series. Occasionally the participants get a little too chummy, ("Derek Mears was soooo great to work with") but for the most part the conversations are honest and candid - stuntman Ted White who played Jason on The Final Chapter remembers threatening to down machete when a young actress was pushed beyond endurance on a freezing cold night shoot; and no it seems has anything nice to say about A New Beginning director Danny Steinmann. The shortcomings of the films are not glossed over either with Jason Goes to Hell and Jason X in particular singled out as the worst offenders of the series. Elsewhere there's a good account of the battles fought and lost with the MPAA, and there's enough splatter footage scooped up off the cutting room floor to really make you lament Paramount's acquiescence to the ratings board. Given the sheer scale of the documentary, it might be best experienced in two or three sittings but be sure to stick around for the final credits which are overlaid with cast members reciting their most memorable dialogue ("Why, I'm Mrs. Voorhees, an old friend of the Christy's.")

Unmasked: A rare shot of Jason actor Ted White from the set of The Final Chapter

The Beast (TV, TCM)
Proof enough that every film maker is entitled to one masterpiece, this 1988 film might well be director Kevin Reynolds'. Set during the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, the beast of the title is a Soviet tank which has strayed off course and is pursued by vengeful Mujaheddin into the labyrinthine Valley of the Jackal. Jason Patric plays the tank crew's conscientious objector, banging heads with his commander, a surprising trim George Dzundza, unraveling at the seams from a life spent waging war for his country. Fascinating now to compare the film with Rambo III from the same year, both films very much a product of the Reagan-era Cold War, but Reynolds' film is a far more intelligent and disquieting work - a scene where an Afghan is executed under the tracks of a tank is more gut-wrenching than all of Rambo's hollow repetitive ultra-violence. A stylish film too, with fine location photography and Mark Isham's memorable electronic score.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Galaxy's Greatest Top 10 Lists...

A few days ago I was flicking thru my 2000AD collection and inside the 1989 Judge Dredd annual I was pleasantly surprised to come across a set of Top 10 Lists put together by the 2000AD staff - top ten films, books, albums and so on. I'm a bit of a list junkie so I thought these might be interesting to share, especially the selection of favourite films. I would have been about 11 years old when my Mom bought me this annual, so I can't imagine something like Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and Vanishing Point making a big impression on me, but I'd like to think I was filing these titles away in the back of my mind for later...

The lists also feature a roll-call of favourite records and it would be nice to imagine the 2000AD staff knuckling down to fulfill a deadline while The Stooges and The Fall were belting out of the office hi-fi. Interestingly, Crisis, a 2000AD spin off which emerged in 1988 for more mature readers, featured a number of music references throughout its run, from Dead Kennedys to Napalm Death, but two of my favorites include a nod to Throbbing Gristle in Crisis #1 ("Hamburger Lady"), while in Crisis #6 a character is seen reciting the words to a Coil song playing of a nearby stereo ("See the black sun rise from the solar lodge").

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Pigs Might Fly: The Inside Story of Pink Floyd

I've spent a pleasant few days reading Mark Blake's 2013-revised biography of Pink Floyd, which had me scrambling back to the albums with fresh ears. I must confess, I'm not a huge Pink Floyd fan, or at least I haven't been for years. I picked up my first Floyd album in my teens, jumping in, some might say at the deep end with the band's double live/studio album Ummagumma which I still love to this day. But over the years, I've grown increasingly dissatisfied with the band, the albums began to reveal themselves as rather patchy affairs, with almost every record having something throwaway on it, like the intensely annoying Seamus on Meddle, or the embarrassing Several Species of Small Furry Animals... on Ummagumma. Fortunately Mark Blake doesn't soft-pedal the band's shortcomings (I might have flung the book across the room had he defended the idea to put a yelping dog on the aforementioned Seamus), and it's a credit to the author that he manages to keep the book compelling and engaging throughout a rather depressing second half, as the story slides into the post-Wall years which produced a stream of bland group and solo albums, bitter relations between band members, the firing of key personnel and the hiring of forgettable session musicians, divorces, breakdowns, and the untimely deaths of Richard Wright and Syd Barrett, who haunts the book like a ghost unable to find a place to rest. Blake reveals that in 1992, some 18 years after he withdrew from the music business, Atlantic Records shamefully offered Barratt's family £75,000 for any new recordings that might be made of the Floyd's founding member. Perhaps my favourite anecdote from the book concerns Stanley Kubrick and his request to use a portion of the music from the side-long Atom Heart Mother suite for use in A Clockwork Orange, a request flatly refused by Roger Waters. This alone inspired me to revisit the track which I had tended to skip over in the past and I must say I rather like it now, with its orchestration and choir, it feels like the perfect soundtrack for an early seventies British Horror film.

My Perfect Pink Playlist:

A Saucerful of Secrets - Live at Pompei version, 1971
Fat Old Sun, from Atom Heart Mother, 1970
Flaming, mono version from Piper at the Gates of Dawn, 1967
The Narrow Way, from Ummagumma, 1969
Heart Beat Pig Meat from Zabriskie Point OST, 1969
Cymbaline, from More, 1969
Careful with That Axe, Eugene, from Ummagumma, 1969
On the Run, from Dark Side of the Moon, 1973

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Stormy Weather

Weather has always been something of a national obsession for Irish people, and while we're accustomed to long wet winters, the country seems thoroughly fed up with the current prolonged spell of Atlantic storms battering the west coast of the country, effectively washing away whole tracts of land, and leaving coastal towns and cities at the mercy of surging flood waters.

In 1969 David Lean stood on the craggy coastline of the Dingle peninsula on the west coast of Ireland, and setting his face to the cold bruising weather of the Atlantic, prayed for a storm. Robert Bolt's screenplay for Ryan's Daughter included a sequence where a shipment of guns and ammunition destined for Irish rebels in their struggle against British occupation, was landed on a beach amid a spectacular storm. The weather in general proved decidedly uncooperative for Lean, the director had great difficulty matching shots from one day to the next and constant drizzle had caused the film to fall behind schedule. And still no storm had arrived that Lean was happy with. With the production at an impasse the director was persuaded to pick up filming in Cape Town, where Lean's location scout Eddie Fowlie found a beach that would seamlessly match the location in Dingle. In a cruel twist of fate, the Atlantic offered up a suitably ferocious storm while Lean was in South Africa, so the filming was left to second unit director Roy Stevens, a camera crew, special effects team, and a few hardy stuntmen. The footage captured over the course of five days on Couminoole Beach in Kerry was spectacular. That it plays so well in the film is due in part to Lean who expertly cut the footage together for the sequence, but Stevens' work was so good, it soured his relationship with Lean and both men did not speak for many years. The screen grabs below can only give a slight approximation of the storm sequence, seeing it in motion is still hugely thrilling, with its smashing waves, and huge vortices of spray scaling the heights of the cliff walls. Today a studio would insist, not unreasonably so, that such a sequence be augmented with CGI, and while the cast members in the scene were doused with water from a 500-gallon drum (rather than being exposed to the storm force waves), the sequence retains a genuine sense of peril, with extras scurrying around across slippery rocks and being routinely knocked off their feet. Footage from the storm sequence can be viewed here



Friday, February 7, 2014

A Mars for Performance

Performance: The Biography of a 60's Masterpiece, Paul Buck's excellent study of Cammell and Roeg's seminal film was the first book I read this year, and I enjoyed it so much I gulped it down in four short sittings. I must admit I initially approached the book with some trepidation - the film had already been extensively written about by Colin McCabe as part of the BFI Film Classics line, and Mick Brown for the Bloomsbury Movie Guide series, and the film was given considerable coverage in Rebecca and Sam Umland's excellent 2006 book Donald Cammell: A Life on the Wild Side. Was there anything left to say about Performance ? Well, yes as it happens. Paul Buck's overview of the film from a sketchy storyline written in 1967 entitled The Liars through to the film's final edit in late 1969, is fresh and exciting, the author evidently well placed to discuss the film - he's been watching Performance for the past 40 odd years and witnessed a pre-release version of the film which included a scene where Chas (James Fox), ambushed in his flat savors a masochistic moment when a dying Joey Maddock's draws a straight razor across Chas' shoe, a scene Buck reveals was a reference to the eye-slitting shot in Un Chien Andalou

A treasure trove of information for Performance fans, the real jewel of the book is Buck's scene by scene examination of the film in which he decodes the myriad of obscure references Cammell injected into the film. I'll leave it for interested readers to discover them for themselves, but I'll mention one memorable revelation, which is virtually impossible to spot on home video. At the 36.24 mark there's a point of view shot of Chas looking down at the doorway of 81 Powis Square, and among the items placed in the shot are some milk bottles, a carton of cream and four Mars bars - the Mars bars being a subliminal reference to the Redlands drug bust in February '67 and the apocryphal story that when the police entered Keith Richards' home, the arresting officers found Marianne Faithful with a mars bar inserted in her vagina. By the time Performance was released this ludicrous and thoroughly untrue story had been well planted in the public consciousness as the kind of routine hedonism the Stones and their entourage engaged in. Still, the story caused Marianne Faithful much distress at the time and the placing of the mars bar in the shot was rather cruel. Of course no one actually knows who was responsible for this, whether it was Cammell or a mischievous set dresser, so this is one secret it seems Performance is not willing to give up...

Final word on the film: I can't match Paul Bucks' long association with the film but I've been obsessed with Performance for 20 years now. I can actually point to the exact date, day, even hour when I first saw the film. On October 2nd, 1993 BBC2 screened the film in a late night slot (11:35pm) as part of a season of films entitled Hollywood UK. The BBC2 screening I subsequently discovered was slightly cut, with some violence trimmed from the sequence where Chas is attacked in his flat. Later I found the film as a sell-through Warners VHS tape (packaged as part of a generic line of gangster films), but sadly the film was even more cut than the BBC2 screening. Worse still, some of the cast members had their lines poorly dubbed. Performance then returned to BBC2 on May 28th 1995 as part the Forbidden Weekend, a program of censor-baiting films, and this edition of the film restored the violence removed from the previous BBC2 screening, making it the longest Performance seen since the film's initial release. Warners issued this version on VHS in 1997 as part of their Mavericks line, and while the film was now essentially uncut, the irritating dub job remained. Thankfully, when Warners rolled out the film for DVD in 2008, the film played uncut and with all the original cast members voices re-instated. At the time of writing, this is still the best version of Performance available although it comes with a caveat - during Memo From Turner, Mick Jagger's line "Here's to old England" is inexplicably missing from the soundtrack (the line can be heard in this lo-fi clip, at the 2.47 mark.) 

Sunday, February 2, 2014

New Wave Vinyls : Du Post Punk à la New Pop

I'm spending a pleasant Sunday morning leafing thru a book I found washed up on a French beach last summer... well not exactly washed up - I found this book, a coffee-tabled sized tome which collects together a couple of hundred album covers from the post-punk, new wave years, on the shelf of a discount book store located by the French seaside. Quite a find considering the store was teeming with the worst kind of bargain-bin books, but near the rear of the shop, my eye was drawn to a book sporting the unmistakable sleeve art from Unknown Pleasures

Like similar graphics collections, this one has contextual notes running throughout the book and while I can't comment on that given it's entirely in French, the choice of album covers reproduced in the book is surprisingly comprehensive, from UK post-punk, (Gang of Four, Magazine) US art-rock (Pere Ubu, The Residents) new wave electro-pop (Depeche Mode, New Order), Industrial (Throbbing Gristle, Current 93) and various pop and rock artifacts from the 80's. More than anything else this book makes me miss my years of collecting vinyl when album art came in 12 inches and albums had two distinct sides. I got my first record player in 1989 and quickly amassed a pretty decent collection of death metal LPs, which I later sold off when I fell out of love with the metal scene (every metaller eventially does). My second great record collection thankfully had more longevity and to this day I still have most of those records bought in my late-teens/early twenties - I say most, because I seem to have lost a few items over the years, like my vinyl copy of My Life In the Bush of Ghosts, bought at a car booth sale one drizzly Sunday afternoon in the car park of a church in Greystones, Wicklow. Where is it now I wonder ? But back to the book and I'll round out this post with some favourite album covers featured among the pages...

Saturday, December 14, 2013


Last night I grabbed a screening of Robert Altman's 1979 film Quintet, which may well be the least seen and most misunderstood film in the director's eclectic cannon of work. The story set during a severe ice age, concerns a seal trapper named Essex (Paul Newman) who along with his wife travels to a dilapidated frozen city to find Essex's long lost brother. Whilst there, Essex unwittingly becomes involved with a community engaged with a mysterious board game know as "quintet", for which the stakes for the players are literally life and death...

One of the bleakest films of the 70's, if not the entire sci-fi genre, Quintet's failure to connect with audiences is hardly surprising given the film's slow pace and doggedly anti-commercial concerns which seem intent on alienating viewers from the outset. Even the conventions of the post-apocalyptic sci-fi genre - radiation-scarred mutants, urban ruins, the emergence of a hero, are mostly swept aside as Altman and his 3 writers tease out a sort of strange cerebral detective story which must have left audiences confused and frustrated. Although not known as a director of speculative science fiction, Altman suggested the film might well be taking place not just in some future time, but on another planet. Rather than have his cast speak in an alien language, Altman cleverly cast some well known European actors, among them, Fernando Ray, Vittorio Gassman, Bibi Andersson and Nina van Pallandt (in her 3rd of 4 films she made for the director), and each of their own distinct accents bring a certain otherworldliness to the dialogue. Even Paul Newman turns in what is perhaps the most low-key performance of his long career, his character has few dramatic moments and his dialogue is pared down to a minimum.

But patience (and perhaps second or third screening of the film) are rewarded by the director's absolute mastery of mood and atmosphere. The film was shot during a particularly cold winter, in and around the abandoned buildings constructed for Montreal's Expo '67, which by 1979 had sufficiently deteriorated to resemble a destroyed city, here augmented by a thick frosting of ice which covers every surface. Cinematographer Jean Boffety (who had previously shot Altman's Thieves Like Us) gives the film a unique visual texture by fogging the edges of the frame, a strange but effective device to convey the sub-zero temperatures, while Altman's innovative use of sound design extends to the film's soundtrack which employs ominous deep thunderous rumblings regularly heard throughout the film as the doomed city is encroached upon by glaciers churning up what's left of civilisation. Interestingly, the Quintet game, played on a pentagonal board with dice and various trinkets was developed by Kenner but due to the film's unpoparlity, the plan the shelved. As for the film, Quintet has slowly carved out a very minor cult following over the years and fans of contemplative science fiction and admirers of Andrzej Żuławski's The Silver Globe, and Vincent Ward's The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey would do well to seek the film out.

Friday, December 6, 2013

"Look for the name of the rescue station nearest you..."

Last week as part of the TV coverage of the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's death, I watched a fine documentary (narrated by George Clooney) entitled JFK: News of a Shooting, which focused on the reporting of the assassination, the unprecedented challenges for reporters to get the unfolding story out, culminating in that famous moment when Walter Cronkite announced the American president's death on air, ("We just have a report from our correspondent Dan Rather in Dallas, that he has confirmed President Kennedy is dead"), the CBS anchorman visibly trying to maintain his composure (and fidgeting indecisively with his spectacles) while delivering the shocking news.

Watching this footage strongly reminded me of the news bulletins in Night of the Living Dead, which feature an anchorman dryly intoning the extraordinary news of bodies of the dead returning to life to prey on the living. These sequences are key component to the film's much celebrated documentary feel, director George Romero stages them with the raw unpolished look of a breaking news flash, in the background of the newsroom, news personnel can be seen manning teletype machines, taking rushed phone calls adding to the improvised feel of the broadcast.

The final bulletin delivered by a reporter tagging along with a search and destroy militia is perhaps the most incredible, a slyly subversive commentary on the violence encroaching upon American life - the clashes between police and civil rights activists, violent student protests, and the increasingly bitter (and televised) war in Vietnam. In one of the film's most memorable lines of dialogue, the slightly self-congratulatory sheriff co-ordinating the militia, offers some advice in fending off ghouls, with "Beat 'em or burn 'em, they go up pretty easy", which must have had enlightened audiences reflecting on newsreel footage of US infantry torching villages in South East Asia...

For more on Night of the Living Dead and other subversive Horror films, look out for Jon Towlson's forthcoming book Subversive Horror Cinema: Countercultural Messages in Films from Frankenstein to the Present, a study of the "subversive" strain of horror films produced in Britain and America from 1931 to the present day, to be published in early 2014 by McFarland

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Tobe Hooper's Early Works (The Heisters & Eggshells)

Arrow's magnificent 3-disc edition of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 contains the finest supplements of 2013, with the second disc in the set devoted to Tobe Hooper early films, The Heisters and the director's debut feature Eggshells.

The Heisters, made in 1965 is a 10min absurdist slapstick comedy set in medieval times and concerns three thieves in flight from the law, hiding out in a dilapidated cobwebbed castle. Two of the men squabble over the loot they have just stolen and find increasingly ridiculous tortures for each other (an oversized custard pie, a lethal flying girdle) while the other thief more concerned with scientific matters, performs weird experiments on a beetle... Like many short, personal films of the era, The Heisters feels like a series of sketches, the movie is entirely dialogue-free (the three cast members compensate with some wonderful comic performances), and it's all the more remarkable that it looks like it could have been lifted from one of Roger Corman's Edgar Allen Poe adaptations, the film shot in Cinemascope and strongly influenced by Floyd Crosby's lighting for Pit and the Pendulum, explicitly referenced in one particular scene. The film also employs an exaggerated use of sound - at one point, a jawbone falling to the floor registers with a loud metallic crash. The film also contains two elements which would characteristic of Hooper's later work - striking expressionistic editing and camerawork and an imaginative use of props, in particular a bizarre, moldering music box which could have been part of the grotesque bric-à-brac decorating the house in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. All told The Heisters is a brisk, fascinating and enjoyable curio.

Following a few screenings when it first emerged in 1971, Tobe Hooper's debut feature film Eggshells was lost for almost four decades. Rarely mentioned even by the director himself the film became little more than an untidy loose end in Hooper's filmography until Stefan Jaworzyn's 2003 book The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Companion, an oral history of the series, revealed some tantalizing details about the production and its untimely demise. Miraculously, a faded print of the film was unearthed in 2009 and following an extensive restoration and some eagerly anticipated screenings at select film festivals in Austin, Texas and London's Frightfest, Eggshells finally makes its long-awaited debut on home video.

In the film, two hippie couples have moved into an old rambling house, both on different journeys. One couple are preparing to be married while the other couple are just starting out in their relationship. Meanwhile, a fifth occupant of the house who nobody seems to be aware of, has made contact with a strange unearthly presence which has moved into the basement... Once described not inaccurately by Tobe Hooper as a cross between Paul Morrissey's Trash and Fantasia, Eggshells is an incredible document of the counterculture of the late 60's, of peace marches against the Vietnam war and the growing interest in politics, spirituality, alternative lifestyles and philosophies, much of it reflected in the charged semi-improvised dialogue spoken the young twenty-somethings in the film. In this regard the film is very much a companion piece to Zabriskie Point, Michelangelo Antonioni's sad-eyed look at post-60's America, the two films sharing some interesting parallels - the use of documentary footage of student protests, characters searching for their path in life, and an anti-materialist sentiment which leads to scenes in both films where something is spectacularly blown apart. In contrast to Antonioni's film, Eggshell's is a joyous, exuberant celebration of youth and the energy of the times, reflected in the film's dazzling, free-wheeling experimental style, and audacious invention.

Early in the film, the audience is taken on a breathless hyper-speed journey through the house by the mysterious entity, very much like the breakneck trips around the suburbs of Tokyo in Tetsuo The Iron Man. Two people make love and are transformed into abstract blobs of dripping melted wax (a scene reminiscent of Saul Bass' distorted credit sequence for Seconds), there's some Stan Brakhage-like color animation, a 2001 style star-gate sequence through the cosmic avenues of Austin, and in the most extraordinary sequence of all, a man has a swordfight with himself, an effect achieved with some ingenious jump-cutting. Tobe Hooper devotees will look of comparisons between Eggshells and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and while there are some interesting if superficial similarities (Eggshells begins with a shot of a girl in the back of a pickup, Texas Chainsaw Massacre ends with one), the film would be better placed with the likes of the Roger Corman's The Trip, John Carpenter's hippie space oddity Dark Star, and Richard Linklater's experimental 8mm film It's Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books, another film featuring a cast of Austin odd-balls and eccentrics

Arrow's Blu-Ray of Tobe Hooper's Early Works presents The Heisters & Eggshells in fine form. The Heisters looks the better of the two, with eye-popping colors and clarity. Eggshells looks far more grungier, however the Blu-Ray edition looks extremely good considering the rarity of the film (the screenshots above are ripped from the DVD edition). Both Blu-Ray and DVD discs also come with a director's commentary on Eggshells, a 25min interview with Tobe Hooper, and a whistle stop tour through the ups and downs of Hooper's career with trailers for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre through to 2006's Mortuary