Monday, 21 November 2011

I Dream of Dredd

The long running British sci-fi comic 2000AD was a major force in my young life. I started reading the mag in the mid-80's when I was 7 or 8, introducing me to an extraordinary world of fantasy and imagination. 2012 sees the release of Dredd, the second pass at 2000AD's most famous character, the fascist, futuristic Dirty Harry, Judge Dredd. The crusty old cynic in me doesn't hold out much hope that this will be any better than the Stallone film, but we shall see. In the meantime, I was flicking thru the 1989 Judge Dredd annual yesterday and came across a readers competition to design a poster for a Judge Dredd film (which had been percolating for some years, eventually arriving in 1995). The following are some of the winning entries and are interesting for what readers chose as their dream cast and crew.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

One Million Years B.C.

Next time you're feeling overburdened by this soulless technological society we live in, spare a thought for the cave people in Hammer's 1966 film One Millions Years B.C, having to deal with Ray Harryhausen's marauding prehistoric creatures and a primordial world going through some violent growing pains. The film became Hammer's most successful film, a huge hit world wide and made Raquel Welsh into an international sex symbol courtesy of a fur bikini and that iconic pose.

In the film, a caveman named Tumak is exiled from his feral tribe and journeys far beyond the blackened volcanic slopes of his home to the coast where he encounters a peaceful tribe, picking up some pointers on civilisation and a beautiful blonde maiden to boot... It's not made for professors, as Ray Harryhausen described One Millions Years B.C, and it's bedtime for hard factual science, what with primitive man rubbing shoulders with dinosaurs, but there is an undeniable giddy thrill from watching a pterodactyl sweeping Raquel Welsh up in its talons to feed to its hungry nestlings. Hammer did take the bold move of replacing conventional dialogue with a hodgepodge of invented language. Here it's used sparingly, with dialogue kept at arms length, unlike Hammer's 1970 prehistoric epic When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth which has the cast endlessly spouting words like "akeeta" to irritating effect.

For One Millions Years B.C, Hammer returned to the formula of their previous adventure film She, reworking an old Hollywood fantasy extravaganza (the 1940 Victor Mature film One Million B.C), adding a gorgeous glamour girl and some state of the art special effects. In many ways, the film is one Hammer's most anonymous looking films but there's much to enjoy like the charming stop-motion monsters, which may lack the seamlessness of modern CGI wonders like Jurassic Park or King Kong, but have a wonderful sensuality to their movements. Director Don Chafney was a good choice having previously worked with Harryhausen on Jason And The Argonauts, and while his direction is pedestrian at best, he simply has to point the camera at the stunning, otherworldly volcanic landscapes of Lanzorote (which gave the 20th century film makers their own share of problems with unseasonably cold weather).

For the most part, a solid, even compelling film, One Million Years B.C. ultimately runs out of steam for the final act of the film as the two tribes go to war only to be interrupted by a cataclysmic volcanic eruption. The sequence lacks focus and like many Hammer films of this era, there's a sense of getting the damn thing over with as soon as possible. Originally the film was to end with a battle with a lumbering brontosaurus but was scrapped for budget reason, the brontosaurus reduced to a short walk-on cameo in an early part of the film. But hang on in there for the film's strange and haunting epilogue, shot with a sombre sepia tint and surprisingly downbeat. Hard to gage performances with the absence of real dialogue and most of the cast hiding behind some unruly wigs and beards. Raquel Welsh has little to do except show a little cleavage, but she's a good physical actress, and Hammer girl Martine Beswick, is memorable as a feisty cave-babe. The film has become a much loved minor classic of Fantasy Cinema, and is something of a cultural export too, with a scene from the film colonising Alex deLarge's feverish imagination in A Clockwork Orange (seen during the montage of scenes scored to Beethoven's 9th Symphony) and the film's famous publicity shot of the lovely Raquel, became an integral part of Andy Dufresne's escape plan in The Shawshank Redemption.

Previously released in the UK in 2002 by Warners in a non-anamorphic edition, the Optimum DVD of One Million Years B.C. is an improvement, with a nice sharp 1.85 anamorphic transfer taken from a mostly clean print. Detail is good, but the flesh tones seem a little too hot - a few minor tweaks with your settings should be restore the balance. Audio is fine with Mario Nascimbene's excellent score, which takes in orchestral bombast, eerie choral music and avant-garde soundscapes, is well represented here. Two extras from the Warners DVD are carried over - a 12min interview with Ray Harryhausen, and an 8min talk with Raquel Welsh, both produced by Blue Underground, and are a worthwhile and interesting listen. The disc is rounded out with a trailer.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

The Witches

Grow me a gown with golden down,
Cut me a robe from toe to lobe,
Give me a skin for dancing in
This 1966 Hammer chiller has slipped into obscurity over the years, elbowed out of the reference books by Nicholas Roeg's popular children's film of the same name, and among European Cult Cinema fans, it's often confused with a 1966 Italian film called The Witch, and a 1967 Italian anthology film called The Witches (notable among trivia nuts for an early Clint Eastwood appearance). Even Johnathon Rigby's otherwise comprehensive study of British Horror films, English Gothic ignores the film, a shame considering it's one of Hammer's more underappreciated films of the '60's, and for the studio, a rare contemporary-set Horror.

Gwen Mayfield, a shy retiring middle-aged woman retreats to a sleepy postcard English village to recover from a nervous breakdown following a traumatic incident at an African mission. Taking up the post of headmistress, Mayfield's respite is short lived when the strange behavior she observes in the villagers leads to the discovery of occult practices and black magic... The Witches didn't originate with Hammer but was passed to the studio by Seven Arts when the film's lead actress and star, Joan Fontaine bought the rights to the novel The Devil's Own. Hammer commissioned Nigel Kneale to write the screenplay and the Quatermass creator turned in a typically intelligent and tasteful script, which was careful not to antagonize the BBFC, who were less than enthused about devil-worship and child sacrifice. In fact, the film rarely references satanism at all, the high priestess' magical dabbling is all about extending her life rather than being an Omen-style lap-dog for the Devil.

Kneale's screenplay is perhaps a little too pastoral for most people's tastes, the pace is leisurely and the film looks positively quaint in comparison with similar rural occult films like The Wicker Man and Blood on Satan's Claw. But perseverance is rewarded with a rousing climax when Mayfield finds herself an unwilling participant at the sacrifice of a teenage girl, surrounded by trance-induced villagers who debase themselves with an infernal sticky concoction (which could be mistaken for excrement), and there's a wonderfully eerie moment when Mayfieled is confronted by a child's doll wriggling into life. Joan Fontaine was 49 when she made the film and still retains some of the ethereal beauty seen in Hitchcock's Rebecca and Suspicion. She's quite fine in her role, but is overshadowed by Kay Walsh as the grand-Witch, utterly charming and ruthless in equal measure. Of the supporting players, look out for two future stars of British sit-com - Michele Dotrice, the long suffering Betty from Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em, and Leonard Rossiter, from Rising Damp and Reginald Perrin fame (or the inquisitive Russian scientist Dr. Smyslov from 2001: A Space Odyssey). Interestingly the film was directed by Cyril Frankel whose previous Hammer outing Never Take Sweets From A Stranger also featured children in peril from adults.

The Witches is one of Hammer's most exquisite looking films, beautifully shot and thankfully Optimum's DVD features an excellent 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, the print used in great shape. A few scenes exhibit some softness, but this is mostly during some process shots. The audio is fine, no issues here. Extras include a trailer. All told, The Witches is no long lost Hammer masterpiece, but anyone who likes their films cut from the same cloth as the Pan Book of Horror Stories will find this is a treat.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Dear Censor: The Secret Archive of the British Board of Film Classification

This new documentary screened on BBC4 in September was a welcome look into the notoriously clandestine British Board of Film Classification and the business of film censorship, but I couldn't quite escape the nagging feeling that it was a calculated PR stunt by an ever sensitive BBFC, weary of being seen as overbearing buttoned-down nanny staters after the recent high profile rejections by the Board of The Bunny Game, and The Human Centipede II (now passed with cuts).

Dear Censor focuses on the Board's most controversial epochs beginning with John Trevelyan's reign from 1958 to 1971 which coincided with the emergence of Exploitation Cinema and a number of edgy, confrontational art films from Europe. After Trevelyan stepped down to write his memoirs, Stephen Murphy took up the post of chief censor from '71 to '75 and was often at the receiving end of public fury over the new wave of violent and sexually explicit films like A Clockwork Orange, Straw Dogs, Death Wish, The Devils, and Last Tango In Paris. Finally and perhaps most notoriously of all, James Ferman's tenure as head censor from 1975 to 1999, saw the Board emerge into the era of home video and the moral panics of the Video Nasties controversy of 1984, and the Hungerford Massacre and James Bulger murder, two tragedies which the media blamed on violent videos.

Where the documentary really scores is the extraordinary correspondence collected in the Board's somewhat elaborate and impenetrable vaults between the Board and film distributors and directors, such as Columbia's cringe-worthy letters to censor Arthur Watkins pleading with the Board not to ban The Wild One (which fell on deaf ears), or Warners' lobbying for the lower certificate for Rebel Without A Cause, the Board seemingly unmoved, awarding the film a restrictive adult X certificate. Some film makers fostered a relationship with the Board, like Ken Russell who submitted the screenplay for Women In Love to John Trevelyan and sought advice before production began, later reaching an agreeable compromise over the famous homoerotic nude wrestling scene by darkening the negative. Russell was not so successful however with his 1971 film The Devils which deeply troubled the Board with it's depiction of sexuallly crazed possessed nuns. Despite Russell's best efforts to appease the Board - "I have cleared up the shit on the altar, slashed the whipping and cut the orgy" wrote Russell in a letter to Trevelyan, the Board insisted that the so called Rape of Christ sequence had to be removed.

If film makers like Ken Russell thought it better to have the Board onside, others were less inclined. Michael Winner who had something of a censor-baiting reputation from his early nudie film Some Like it Cool and the explicit bad language of I'll Never Forget What's 'Isname, brazenly refused to accept cuts to Death Wish. Interviewed for the documentary Winner remained unapologetic - "He was crazy this idiot... crazy", referring to Stephen Murphy. "He doesn't represent society, he's some individual moron who happened to get a job". Winner held fast in the face of Murphy's list of proposed cuts and won the battle, securing an uncut release for Death Wish - "Well he didn't stand on any of this, he collapsed on all of it", Winner defiantly declared. Ultimately, Murphy resigned from the Board after much criticism for passing a number of contentious films, his short-lived career at the Board summed up by Christopher Frayling as being "the right man at the wrong time"

Following Stephen Murphy's departure in 1975, James Ferman, a soft-spoken New York born television film maker became the BBFC's next head censor, and contrary to his own belief that he would remain with the Board a mere 5 years, Ferman remained in the job until 1999, becoming one of the most dominant forces in British film censorship. Ferman's early defense of Pasolini's Salo might have marked him as a liberal but Ferman became increasingly conservative, preoccupied by various cinematic trends like violence against women and weapons fetishism. Ferman also introduced a more stringent code of silence regarding cuts and decisions the Board applied to films that passed through their offices in Soho square. In this final section of Dear Censor, the documentary is less satisfying, focusing on Ferman's predicament with what he perceived as the weapons worship of Rambo III, and instead skipping over Ferman's more notorious decisions, like his refusal to grant a video certificate to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre - even after the distributor had submitted a cut version of what is essentially a bloodless film, Ferman decided that it had not reduced the psychological torture of the film and declared the film "censor-proof". Texas Chainsaw Massacre would remain unavailable in Britain until Ferman's departure.

Probably Ferman's most well known bête noire is The Exorcist. The film had been available on VHS in stores across Britain up until the BBFC began classifying tapes. Warners eventually submitted the film for video certification some years after the Video Nasties furore died down but Ferman refused to pass The Exorcist, one of Warners' biggest selling titles, explaining that the film had the potential to disturb and even damage younger viewers. Legend has it, Warners would contact Ferman annually to inquire about The Exorcist but Ferman time and time again would tell Warners that the time just wasn't right. Another significant film that goes unmentioned in the documentary is John McNaughton's powerful drama Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, a bleak look at a sociopath which was so troubling to the BBFC that the film languished with the Board for quite some time before it was passed with cuts. What was noteworthy about Henry was that Ferman not only cut the film in accordance with his wishes but made quite a deliberate modification to one sequence in the film where Henry and his sidekick Otis are seen watching a VHS recording of their latest murder. McNaughton has quite brilliantly structured the scene so that VHS tape plays out without any cutaways, but Ferman, worried that the scene would be used as a masturbatory aid, inserted a shot of the Henry and Otis seen watching the tape, in the middle of the sequence, thus diminishing the power of McNaughton's original intention. This modification was done without McNaughton's permission, Ferman himself felt he was the better film maker.

Omissions aside Dear Censor is a worthwhile whistle-stop tour through almost 50 years of BBFC history, the record of cuts and rejections reveal a fascinating index of the shifting moods, attitudes and opinions of the day. It's a shame that the documentary was only granted access to files over 20 years - a senior examiner at the Board teasingly mentions some very interesting correspondence between Oliver Stone and James Ferman regarding Natural Born Killers, but this remains closely guarded such is the Board's strict policy. In 1999, a definite line in the sand was drawn when James Ferman left the Board, and an unprecedented period of liberalization followed in his wake. Much of the power of the BBFC has been diluted since the advent of DVD, films that have been cut by the Board are relatively easy to get hold of in their original versions, and perhaps it’s a sign of the times that film critic Kim Newman had this to say about the late James Ferman, "Now I have actually a great deal of sympathy with James Ferman, I think that at least he was trying to do an extremely difficult job".