Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Carnival of Souls

Just seeing some news that Criterion UK are releasing their Blu-Ray of Carnival of Souls just in time for Halloween, and while I warmly welcome this release, it’s probably best to say nothing about the hideous artwork. With that in mind, I’ve been looking at artwork and designs used for theatrical and home video editions of the film over the years. It’s frustrating that very few of the designs do justice to Herk Harvey and John Clifford’s evocative film, perhaps it was simply too difficult to market. I’ve never been fond of the film’s original poster (which fronted Criterion’s terrific 2001 DVD), the credited artist F. Germain includes all the familiar elements of the film, but unwisely imagines Candace Hilligoss’ character as some sort of 19th century saloon girl. The woman-in-peril theme reoccurs thru most subsequent US video releases, usually the shot of Hilligoss emerging from the car accident looking dazed and distressed, but it’s two British releases that have come up with something different. From 1991, Graham Humphreys’ exquisite b/w design for Palace Video, taps into the film’s nightmarish expressionism, and I love the inclusion of the keyboard of the organ, an integral element of the film.

Carnival of Souls Palace VHS Graham Humphreys

The other design created for the film’s original theatrical run in the UK is also very striking, quite unlike any other design I’ve seen, looking more akin to one of Hammer’s psychological thrillers made in the wake of Psycho. Interestingly, this was a Tony Tenser release my initial thought was that it was marketed with Repulsion in mind but after consulting with John Hamilton’s Tenser/Tigon book Beasts In The Cellar it seems this was not the case. Information about the film's UK exhibition is rather sketchy. BBFC records list the film's submission for examination as June 1964, but Hamilton's book suggests the film was not publicly unveiled until May 1967 when it supported Tigon's debut film, a sexploitation item called Mini Weekend at the Jacey Cinema in London. And furthermore no evidence suggests the film had any additional playdates, it was not covered in the usually reliable Monthly Film Bulletin, and I have not seen any additional advertising material for the film. All very mysterious !

Carnival of Souls, British quad poster

Monday, 17 July 2017

George A. Romero (1940 – 2017)

Waking up to very sad news this morning that George Romero has passed away at 77 after a short battle with lung cancer. This is hard news to take, Night of the Living Dead, Martin, Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead are four sturdy pillars that my love of Horror Cinema rests upon. I haven’t been keeping up with Romero in recent times, every now and then I would hear speculation that a new Living Dead film was emerging but after half-hearted engagements with Land of the Dead and Diary of the Dead, I figured Romero had followed the terminal decline of Dario Argento and John Carpenter. Better to bask in the warmth of the classics than suffer the diminishing returns of Bruiser or Survival of the Dead (both of which I still haven’t seen). But all that fades from view now, Romero leaves behind a tremendous body of work. That would be true had he simply made the four films mentioned above, but Romero also gave us The Crazies, Creepshow and Knightriders, and there are films that I’m eager to go back and revisit – Jack’s Wife, Monkey Shines, and Romero’s half of Two Evil Eyes. Jack’s Wife is an especially intriguing prospect – I saw the film back in the 90’s when it screened on Channel 4 and strongly disliked it. But this was long before my tastes developed matured (and before I discovered Ingmar Bergman!) and now that I’m roughly the same age as the titular character, I feel much better placed to appreciate what Romero was trying to do.

I’ve only mentioned Romero’s films up to this point, and rightly so – I hate it when people sentimentalize the passing of remote, unknowable public figures, but in Romero’s case, I think I can grieve for the man he was. By all accounts he was an absolute gentleman, listening to his commentary tracks one gets a measure of his kindness, warmth, humor, the way he remembers his films like they were extended family outings. He remains always a joy to listen to. In Martin, I see Romero’s tenderness and humanity towards a character struggling with mental health issues. I look at Romero’s courageous casting of Duane Jones in Night of the Living Dead, a black actor given the role of a strong, resourceful and defiant man (and defiantly smacking a bothersome white man), at a time when Civil Rights was still a tinderbox within American society. When asked about it, Romero would always shrug it off and insist that Duane Jones was simply the best actor for the job, but it’s hard to believe that Romero and his partners at The Latent Image didn’t discuss the political ramifications of their decision. For me George Romero’s greatest legacy was perfectly encapsulated by my friend and film-maker John Mulvaney earlier today: "Watching the likes of Night of the Living Dead, Martin and Dawn of the Dead still gives me urge to want to just go out there and make art, irregardless of budget, or what popular culture dictates."

Filming Night of the Living Dead, 1968

With Stephen King and Richard Rubinstein on the set of Creepshow, 1982

Playing an FBI agent alongside Charles Napier and Jodie Foster in Silence of the Lambs,1991

Filming The Dark Half, 1993

Filming Land of the Dead, 2005

Thursday, 13 July 2017

A scare at bedtime

A marauding, enraged giant, a child-snatching goblin, a nana-eating wolf and an unstoppable pot of oozing porridge - the stuff that nightmares are made of... My 20-month daughter tends to dictate most of my reading these days – her current faves are Daisy Duck, Little Lamb and the unputdownable Puppy Dog, and it has me reflecting on Ladybird’s Well Loved Tales series which I loved as a child. I haven’t thought about these books in well over 30 years so it was a treat to discover a page containing scans of the various covers. Ladybird have re-issued the series many times over the years but the original artwork courtesy of Eric Winter and Robert Lumley has rarely been bettered. I’ve always cited 2000AD as the origins of my love of Fantasy and Horror, but I wonder was something already stirring in those early years with the help of those Ladybirds ? Even now, looking at the cover for The Magic Porridge Pot, I can feel a little frisson of panic, perhaps an ancient buried memory of fooling around with a sink and gushing taps beyond my control… Check out the Well-Loved Tales series here

Ladybird books

As I was putting this post together, I was reminded of Cinema's first adaptation of Jack and the Beanstalk made by Edwin S. Porter in 1902. Over a century later, it looks undeniably stagey and primitive - the camera is locked down and distant, and the special effects, rudimentary, but this 10min film is remarkable in two respects. Firstly, the concept of a narrative cinema can be seen slowly emerging from the film - unlike many silent films from the era which were little more than brief sketches of everyday life, Porter's film has a definite story structure. The film has no intertitles and was most likely made before intertitles were introduced (Porter's own film Uncle Tom's Cabin is said to be one of the earliest uses of intertitles, in 1903) but Porter sticks closely to the folktale so audiences could follow the story. The second important aspect of the film was that it showed how Cinema could transcend theatre. Porter was able to bend space and time with a simple edit, and the film's optical effects, create a kind of magic that could not be replicated on the stage. This charming film can be viewed here