The Price is right

 

© American International Pictures

 

Today, October 25th 2018, is an exact quarter-century since the death of Vincent Price – distinguished actor and voice-over artist, gourmet cook and cookbook writer, knowledgeable art collector and art consultant, high-profile liberal and political activist, all-round media personality and legendary star of horror movies.  For that last reason, it seems appropriate that Price expired just a few days short of Halloween, the creepy highpoint of the year.

 

Price was a hero of mine.  He had a remarkable voice, smooth, sonorous and sinister, seeming to come at you through a curtain of glossy black velvet.  And though the movies he appeared in were sometimes less than great, thanks to him they were rarely less than enjoyable.  A good actor will always look and sound good in a good film, obviously.  But it’s the sign of a great actor to feature in a bad film and make it seem much better than it actually is.

 

Price’s acting career began in 1935 when he found work with Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre.  He made his film debut three years later and during the 1940s and early 1950s the cinema employed him as a character actor and, frequently, a villain.  Then, having appeared in House of Wax in 1953, The Fly in 1958 and a couple of schlocky late-1950s classics made by the horror-movie mogul and showman William Castle, he became associated with macabre roles.  This was cemented by his appearances in a run of critically-acclaimed films from 1960 to 1964 directed by Roger Corman, produced by American International Pictures and based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe.  The early 1970s saw him at his horror-icon zenith, appearing in stylish and tongue-in-cheek movies like the Dr Phibes ones (1971 and 1972) and Theatre of Blood (1973) that seemed tailor-made for him.

 

Price’s film workload lightened thereafter because the gothic horror movies he’d specialised in fell out of fashion.  But still, up until the last few years of his life, he  seemed ubiquitous thanks to his copious appearances on TV, radio, stage and vinyl – he not only rapped at the end of Michael Jackson’s Thriller (1983), but featured in Alice Cooper’s Black Widow (1975) and recorded story and poetry readings.

 

Here are my favourite Vincent Price movies.  And fittingly, with Halloween six days away, they’re all horror ones.

 

© 20th Century Fox

 

The Fly (1958)

Price plays the brother of a doomed scientist (Al Hedison) who builds a teleportation device and unwisely tries it out on himself without checking first that nothing has climbed into the transmitter chamber with him.  Something has, a housefly, and Hedison and the pesky insect re-materialise with mixed-up body parts.  It falls on Price to work out what the hell has happened.

 

I saw The Fly on TV when I was in my twenties and found it hilarious.  Somehow, the fly’s head becomes human-sized when it’s planted on Hedison’s shoulders, while a tiny Hedison-head ends up attached to the fly’s body.  Hedison’s miniaturised head still retains his human brain – he shrieks, “Help me!  Help me!” when he gets trapped in a spider’s web at the movie’s climax – but the giant fly’s head also seems to have Hedison’s brain inside it because the mutant creature is smart enough to hide away and leave written instructions for Hedison’s puzzled wife.  These absurdities were apparent to the cast, including Price, who had a hard time filming a scene with Herbert Marshall (in the role of an investigating policeman).  Their conversation gets interrupted by a little voice squeaking “Help me!” out of a spider’s web – at which point both actors kept exploding with laughter.  It required some 20 takes before the scene was finally in the can.

 

That said, I watched The Fly again recently and reacted to it differently.   The image of the fly with Hedison’s puny head grafted onto it, shrieking in terror while a monstrous spider approaches, strikes me now as piteous, grotesque and disturbing.

 

The Raven (1963)

I loved this Roger Corman-directed movie as a kid.  The tale of a trio of feuding magicians played by Price, Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre, it’s more fantasy than horror – but spiced with delightfully ghoulish moments, such as when a torturer checks the temperature of a red-hot poker by pressing it into his own arm, or when Price opens a little casket and is discombobulated to find it full of human eyeballs.  (“I’d rather not say,” he croaks when Lorre asks him what’s inside.)  It’s like a version of Walt Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971) for morbid children.

 

Incidentally, Karloff turns Lorre into a raven twice during the film, which allows Corman to tack the title of Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous poem onto it and have Price recite the poem mellifluously during its opening scene.  And in the role of Lorre’s son, we get a 26-year-old and amusingly wooden Jack Nicholson.

 

© American International Pictures

 

The Masque of the Red Death (1964)

Corman’s majestic adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death, scripted by Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell (with a second Poe story, Hop Frog, stitched into the plot for good measure) and beautifully shot by the great Nicolas Roeg, showcases Price at his sumptuously evil best.  He’s Prince Prospero, who’s holed up in his castle with an entourage of loathsome aristocrats while a plague, the Red Death, decimates the countryside outside.  Price and friends happily live a life of decadence, fuelled by drink, drugs, sex, partying and diabolism, and refuse to help the neighbourhood’s terrified peasants.  However, when they decide to enliven their social calendar with a fancy-dress masque, the masque is gate-crashed by a mysterious, Ingmar Bergman-esque figure swathed in a red robe.  Guess who that is.

 

Tomb of Ligeia (1964)

Made the same year as Masque, Corman’s Ligeia has Price in a more sympathetic role, playing a haunted and reclusive man who tries to put his troubles behind him and find happiness with a new wife (Elizabeth Shepherd).  Unfortunately, his former wife, though dead, is still around in spirit form and won’t leave him in peace.  Tomb of Ligeia has a slightly over-the-top ending, but the build-up to it, involving black cats, flag-stoned passageways, cobwebs, candlelight, hypnosis, Egyptology and some imposing monasterial ruins filmed at Castle Acre Priory in the East Anglia region of England, is spookily wonderful.

 

© Tigon British Productions / American International Pictures

 

Witchfinder General (1968)

Directed by Michael Reeves (who died soon after at the age of 25), the uncompromising Witchfinder General sees Price back in East Anglia, playing a real-life figure from local history – the notorious 17th century ‘witch-finder’ Matthew Hopkins.  Among the East Anglian locations are Brandeston Village, St John’s Church near Thetford and the coastal settlements of Dunwich and Orford, and they form a paradoxically gorgeous backdrop to Hopkins’ ugly, brutal activities.  Orford Castle, which belongs to English Heritage, is the setting for the movie’s climax, which was supposed to feature a deadly conflagration.  However, when Reeves realised he couldn’t set fire to an English Heritage property, he changed the script and used a less spectacular but more gruelling ending whereby hero Ian Ogilvy seizes an axe and bloodily hacks Price to death.

 

Price and Reeves didn’t get on during Witchfinder General’s production.  Reeves considered Price too showy an actor for the role, but the star had been forced on him by the movie’s producers.  Nonetheless, Price ended up giving a low-key but chilling portrayal of evil, which is now considered one of his best performances.

 

Dr Phibes Rises Again (1972)

In 1971, Price starred in Robert Fuest’s baroque comedy-horror film The Abominable Dr Phibes.  He played the demented and disfigured genius Anton Phibes, who murders the surgeons he holds responsible for his wife’s death one-by-one whilst using the ten Old Testament plagues inflicted upon the Ancient Egyptians as inspiration for each killing.  I find the film a bit too pleased with itself and prefer the following year’s sequel, Dr Phibes Rises Again, which was also directed by Fuest.   This has Phibes heading for Egypt to find an ancient temple containing the fabled River of Life, which he believes will resurrect his dead wife.  When he discovers that a rival expedition is also searching for the temple, Phibes lays waste to them using another inventive array of killing methods: hawks, scorpions, a giant screw-press, a sand-blaster, etc.

 

Dr Phibes Rises Again is scrappier but funnier than its predecessor and has a great cast – Price, Robert Quarry, John Cater, Peter Jeffrey, Hugh Griffith, Gerald Sim, Lewis Fiander, John Thaw, Beryl Reid, Terry-Thomas and Peter Cushing.  Cater and Jeffrey are particularly good value as the hapless coppers who pursue Phibes to Egypt and they get the best lines, for example: “I don’t think.  I know!”  “I don’t think you know either, sir.”

 

© United Artists / Harbour Productions Limited / Cineman Productions

 

Theatre of Blood (1973)

Douglas Hickox’s brilliant Theatre of Blood is another comedy-horror movie, this time featuring Price as an insane and hammily over-the-top Shakespearean actor who starts killing the snobbish London theatre critics who’ve bad-mouthed his performances, using murders methods borrowed from the Bard’s plays.  “They’re not going to start killing critics for giving bad notices, are they?” exclaims the campest critic Meredith Merridew, played by Robert Morley, who soon meets a grisly fate modelled on events in Titus Andronicus.  A very distinguished cast of English character actors goes the same way as Morley: Michael Hordern (suffering a demise similar to that of Julius Caesar), Dennis Price (Troilus and Cressida), Arthur Lowe (Cymbeline), Robert Coote (Richard III) and Coral Browne (Henry VI: Part One).  Price even rewrites The Merchant of Venice so that a pound of flesh can be extracted from Harry Andrews.

 

Ian Hendry plays the youngest and least obnoxious critic, who at the movie’s climax is rescued by the police before he gets his eyes put out as the Earl of Gloucester did in King Lear.  Hendry’s on hand to pronounce judgement on Price when he finally plunges to his death through the roof of a burning theatre-building: “Yes it was a remarkable performance… he was madly overacting as usual, but you must admit he did know how to make an exit.”

 

Edward Scissorhands (1990)

Price’s participation in Edward Scissorhands, written and directed by his then-youthful admirer Tim Burton, was reduced by ill health – he’d die from lung cancer a few years later – but his small role here remains charming.  He plays the kindly, eccentric old inventor who puts together Edward Scissorhands (Johnny Depp) but expires before he can fit his creation with proper hands.  This leaves poor Edward stuck with the temporary hands he’d been given, which are composed of long sharp scissor-blades.  (Price’s character was kindly and eccentric, yes, but not exactly practical.)

 

Price has been dead for 25 years now but it often feels like he never departed.  His films are still shown regularly on TV and people still imitate his velvety tones.  And though I don’t care for the music of Michael Jackson, I like the fact that I’ve been sitting in pubs in different and far-flung parts of the world, in Sri Lanka and Tunisia and Ethiopia, when someone behind the counter has started playing Thriller on the places’ sound-systems; meaning that a few minutes later the pubs have filled with Price’s glorious voice, intoning:

 

Darkness falls across the land / The midnight hour is close at hand / Creatures crawl in search of blood / To terrorise your neighbourhood…

 

And finally, of course, that laugh: “AH-HA-HA-HA-HA-HAAAAA!

 

© 20th Century Fox

 

Crazy evil

 

© SpectreVision / Umedia / Legion M / XYZ Films / RLJE Films

 

Wow.  What a movie Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy (2018) is.  Possibly the most deliriously cinematic film I’ve seen since Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), it ticks all the desired boxes: mayhem, violence, histrionics, revenge, weirdness, warped humour, 1980s-style pulp horror, crazed cultists, psychotic bikers, chainsaws, a doomy score by the late Johann Johannsson and…  Nicolas Cage.

 

Director Cosmatos knows exactly what you want from a Nicolas Cage movie.  You want to see the great man performing with his brakes off and hurtling through proceedings at full throttle.  Cosmatos treats you to this sublime spectacle about an hour into the film’s running time, after Cage has seen his home invaded by murderous villains – a pack of religious cultists and their deranged Hells Angels allies – and seen all the things he holds dear destroyed by them.

 

Left crucified and bound up with barbed wire, he manages to free himself and wanders shell-shocked into his living room, where a TV set is showing a commercial for a brand of cheese that features a hideous-looking puppet / company mascot called the Cheddar Goblin.  “Cheddar Goblin,” squeals a little girl in the commercial just before the goblin does his party piece, which involves vomiting cheese all over the place.  “Did you eat all the macaroni and chee-eese?”

 

Staring at this as if it was some apocalyptic portent displayed in the heavens, Cage intones: “Cheddar Goblin!”  Then, bloodied and clad only in a T-shirt, Y-fronts and some unappealingly mud-soiled tennis socks, he shambles into his bathroom, finds a bottle of vodka in a cupboard, swigs from it heavily whilst sitting on the toilet and bellows, “AAAAAAARGH!” a number of times.  Nicolas Cage-ery doesn’t get any better than this.

 

This is followed by a scene where Cage pays a visit to a trailer-living buddy played by Bill Duke – a welcome appearance by the actor best remembered as a member of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s commando team in Predator (1987) – in order to gather information and procure some lethal weaponry.  When Duke asks him what’s going on, Cage raves: “Jesus freaks…!  They were weirdo, hippie-types…  Whole bunch of ’em.  And then there was some muscle…  It didn’t make any sense.  There were bikers, and gnarly psychos, and…  CRAZY EVIL!”

 

And the rest of the movie is a revenge mission: Nicolas Cage versus Crazy Evil.

 

But to backtrack a little.  The year is 1983 and Cage is a logger with soon-to-be-useful chainsaw skills who lives in a house in the forest – a part of it he’s not cutting down – with his girlfriend, the titular Mandy (Andrea Riseborough).  Mandy is a kooky, slightly-out-of-it chick who’s a heavy metal fan, a fantasy artist and a reader of sword-and-sorcery novels.  In other words, Cage is living the dream of every 1980s adolescent male.  Their idyll doesn’t last, though.  One day, Mandy attracts the attention of a loopy Charles Manson-esque cult leader called Jeremiah (Linus Roache), who’s passing through the area with the half-dozen adherents that make up his sect, the Children of the New Dawn.  Like Manson did in real life, Jeremiah fancies himself as a musician, singer-songwriter and rock star and he likes to subject potential recruits to his music, which is twiddly, folk-inflected, prog-rock, Jethro Tull-type shite.  Presumably, if you can listen to it without collapsing in fits of laughter, you’re in.  I’m surprised there’s as many as six of them.

 

Jeremiah determines to kidnap Mandy but figures his followers are too wimpy to break into her house and take out her lumberjack boyfriend themselves.  So he calls on the services of the Black Skulls.  These are a fearsome chapter of Hells Angels, maddened by bad LSD, active only at night, clad in monstrous amounts of black leather, spikes and chains and responsible for the murders of truckers and prostitutes on the remoter highways.  The Skulls and the Children of the New Dawn make their move and Cage ends up in the bad place he’s in at the film’s midpoint.

 

© SpectreVision / Umedia / Legion M / XYZ Films / RLJE Films

 

To be honest, I think Mandy has a structural problem during its second half when Cage sets out to wreak his vengeance.  Because the Black Skulls are the subsidiary villains and Jeremiah is the Big Bad, he goes after the Skulls first and the Children of the New Dawn second.  However, it’s the Skulls who present the more formidable challenge, whereas the New Dawn members are comparatively easy to take out (a few thrilling minutes of chainsaw-duelling excepted).  As a result, the build-up in the second hour feels back to front because Cage’s confrontation with the Black Skulls should really be the film’s climax.

 

Still, Mandy is a splendid creation.  With its pulpy plot and 1980s setting, it resembles a Quentin Tarantino retro-exploitation epic – some dream sequences done in the style of a Japanese anime are reminiscent of Kill Bill Volume 1 (2003) – but Cosmatos makes it distinctive by giving its cinematography, lighting, soundtrack and general staging a stylised, almost arthouse-movie-like look, sound and feel.  Indeed, by the film’s later stages, the landscapes and skies are so surreally shot that the action seems to no longer take place on earth.  Rather, it’s shifted into the weird and wonderful worlds of Mandy’s fantasy paintings and novels.

 

At the same time, the film pays tribute to 1980s popular cinema in a hundred different ways.  Admittedly, the basic plot seems to be lifted from various 1970s grindhouse classics such as The Last House on the Left (1972) and I Drink Your Blood (1970), but you could argue that for many kids these were part of the 1980s too because it was through the advent of that 1980s institution, the video rental store, that they were introduced to the movies and their unsavoury pleasures.  The blood-soaked, chainsaw-wielding Cage is an even more harassed version of Bruce Campbell’s Ash character in The Evil Dead II (1987), the Cheddar Goblin resembles an inbred member of the title characters in Gremlins (1983) and the Black Skulls are so like the Cenobites in Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (1987) that I’m surprised Barker hasn’t sued.  There’s even a reference to the most famous joke in Crocodile Dundee (1986), though in the context of chainsaws.

 

Meanwhile, connoisseurs of more highbrow 1980s fare will appreciate a death scene that resembles one in the 1980s’ greatest sci-fi movie, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), and the glossy sheen of the visuals and music had me thinking at times of certain Michael Mann movies like The Keep (1983) and Manhunter (1986).  At one point, Mandy even evoked the memory of British cinema’s barmiest visionary, Ken Russell – a hallucinogenic scene where a fire-consumed body, like a post-volcanic-eruption ash statue, slowly breaks apart and blows away in the wind reminded me of similar imagery in Russell’s Altered States (1980).

 

But even if 1980s filmic references aren’t your thing, you’ll surely enjoy Mandy for the barnstorming, no-holds-barred performance of its star.  Yes, strap yourselves in, folks.  This is Nicolas Uncaged.

 

Or as the Cheddar Goblin would say: “It’s gobblin’ good.”

 

© SpectreVision / Umedia / Legion M / XYZ Films / RLJE Films

 

The return of Rab Foster

 

© Columbia Pictures

 

I’ve always loved the idea of high fantasy and heroic fantasy fiction.  The two are slightly different, though overlapping, things – for the former, think Lord of the Rings (1954-55), for the latter, think the Conan the Barbarian stories (1932-36).

 

Therefore, I’m talking about literature set in imaginary kingdoms in medieval worlds with a total absence of modern science and technology.  Its pages are populated by kings, queens, princes, princesses, warriors, knights, witches, warlocks, elves, goblins, trolls, dragons and any number of other supernatural and mythical creatures and monsters.  Its landscapes are dotted with castles, fortresses, palaces, citadels, gladiatorial arenas, walled towns, thatched cottages, riotous taverns, mysterious forests, mist-shrouded lakes and foreboding mountain passes.  And its plots are animated by the casting of spells, the summoning of demons and suchlike magical shenanigans, by epic quests to locate mystical objects with fantastical powers, by Machiavellian court intrigue set against backgrounds of rebellions, invasions, sieges and battles, and generally by non-stop swordplay, chases, rescues, derring-do and bloodshed.

 

Oh, and maps.  The opening pages of any high or heroic fantasy book have got to contain a map:

 

© Gnome Press / David Kyle

 

The trouble is, there hasn’t been a great deal of this literature that I’ve read and actually liked.  Much of it I’ve found either drearily pompous (e.g. J.R.R. Tolkien, Stephen Donaldson) or badly written (e.g. Lin Carter).  I quite like some of the Conan the Barbarian tales written by Robert E. Howard, somebody who knew how to tell a proper story.  But it’s difficult to read the average Conan story without wincing at least half-a-dozen times at the titular barbarian’s swaggering sexism and the undercurrents of racism and ableism.

 

But there are a few items that I’ve unreservedly liked.  There’s the Jirel of Joiry stories, a heroic fantasy series written both about a woman (Jirel) and by a woman (C. L. Moore), which appeared in the 1930s at the same time as their polar opposite in the sex-war stakes, Howard’s Conan stories.  There’s the Earthsea books (1968-2001) by another woman, Ursula K. Le Guin.  There’s Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series (1958-1988), which wittily rips the piss out of the genre.  And there’s the Kane novels and short stories (1970-1985) written by the underrated Karl Edward Wagner, which feature an immortal and immoral swordsman roaming a fantasy world, selling his fighting services to mortal but equally-immoral humans and getting involved in all sorts of violent skulduggery.

 

I haven’t read the Game of Thrones books (1996-present) by George R. R. Martin or watched the TV show based on them, but from what I’ve heard about their cynical and nihilistic tone I wouldn’t be surprised if Martin had been influenced by Karl Edward Wagner’s work in his younger days.

 

Over the years I’ve tried my hand at writing high and heroic fantasy short stories, but there never seemed to be many outlets for getting them published.  I got one into the pages of a hard-copy British magazine called Legend in the early 2000s, but that publication, alas, was short-lived; and later another of my stories appeared in an American webzine called Sorcerous Signals, which is no longer on the go, either.  Meanwhile, a folder on my computer hard-drive titled ‘Fantasy Stories’ gradually turned into the literary equivalent of a breaker’s yard, filled with unpublished stories rather than decommissioned ships.

 

Happily, I have managed to dust down one of those fantasy stories, The Trap Master, and get it published this month in the webzine Aphelion.  Although this year already Aphelion has published two stories that I wrote under the pseudonym Jim Mountfield, The Trap Master sports a different pen-name: Rab Foster, the name I’ve put on my published fantasy output, meagre though it is.  For the next few weeks, the October 2018 edition of Aphelion should be accessible here and the story itself accessible here.

 

© Aphelion Webzine

 

Although it belongs to the tradition of high and heroic fantasy, don’t expect The Trap Master to be about royalty or members of the nobility, or indeed, about muscular superhuman swordsmen.  I’ve always enjoyed imagining what it would be like to be an ordinary, unremarkable blue-collar worker in one of these fantasy worlds, and the characters in The Trap Master are representative of that economic sector.

 

Incidentally, the story is inspired too by my interest in mythological and folkloric creatures, something I suspect comes from the Sinbad-the-Sailor movies I watched as an impressionable kid: The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958), The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977).  These films were devised as unashamed showcases for legendary special-effects man Ray Harryhausen and his artistry with stop-motion-animation puppets, which still looks impressive today and, unlike slick modern CGI technology, possesses a dreamy unreal charm.

 

Cheerfully ignoring the fact that the literary Sinbad came from Bagdad during the reign of the 8th / 9th century AD Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid, Harryhausen had the movie version of him dodging creatures drawn from Greek mythology, prehistory and elsewhere: cyclopes, centaurs, dragons, homunculi, minotaurs, sabre-tooth tigers, troglodytes and even a six-armed statue of the Hindu Goddess Kali that’d come to life.

 

At the end of the 1990s, I got a chance to briefly speak to Harryhausen while he was visiting Edinburgh and just after he’d given a talk at the city’s (now sadly defunct) Lumiere Cinema at the back of the National Museum of Scotland.  I mentioned that I was a fan of the Sinbad movies.  He looked me in the eye, chuckled and commented, “You know, son, you look a bit like Sinbad yourself!”

 

Made my year, that did…

 

From godzilla.wiki.com

 

Ghostly, but could be ghostlier

 

© Altitude Film Entertainment / Warp Films / Lionsgate Films

 

I’ve finally had a chance to watch the movie Ghost Stories, which was written and directed by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman, had a cinematic release in the UK in April this year and went on sale last month on DVD.  I don’t think a new British horror film has been unveiled with such fanfare since The Woman in Black in 2012.  In Ghost Stories’ case, the hype came from the fact that it was based on a very successful stage play, also called Ghost Stories and also written by Dyson and Nyman, which ran in London from 2010 to 2011 and 2014 to 2015.   The play earned some breathless reviews from critics who claimed it was terrifying.  (That said, certain people whose opinions I respect, like the novelist Christopher Fowler and the film-writer Ben Bussey, weren’t impressed by it.)

 

I haven’t seen the play, but my expectations for the movie version of Ghost Stories were high because of the talent behind it.  Jeremy Dyson is an accomplished writer as well as a member of black-comedy specialists the League of Gentlemen.  Nyman is both an acclaimed stage magician and an actor who’s appeared in several things I really like: Charlie Brooker’s zombie satire Dead Set (2008) and two films directed by Chris Smith, Severance (2006) and Black Death (2010).

 

I was also interested in seeing Ghost Stories because it continues a long-standing British film tradition, the portmanteau horror movie – one that doesn’t consist of a single long, scary story but of several short, scary ones.  This tradition began in 1945 with Ealing Studios’ classic Dead of Night, consisting of five tales made by four different directors, Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden and Robert Hamer; and it later flourished in the 1960s and 1970s thanks to Amicus Productions, a company that churned out seven horror-anthology films between 1965 and 1974.  The bulk of the 31 tales in those seven Amicus movies were based either on the short fiction of horror writer Robert Bloch or on strips in horror comics like Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror, which were published by EC Comics and had generated much notoriety in the 1950s.

 

To be honest, I’m not a great fan of those Amicus anthology movies.  There’s only one that I think is a bona fide classic, 1974’s From Beyond the Grave, and only two others, Asylum and Tales from the Crypt, both made in 1972, that I’d even put in the category of ‘enjoyable hokum’.  Their problem, apart from the fact that the quality of the stories in them varied wildly, was that the filmmakers were rarely able to tie the stories together with a framing device that made them seem believable.  Usually, that framing device brought together four or five strangers in a situation where they’d recount their pasts or have their futures predicted and it’d turn out that they’d fallen foul, or would fall foul, of some supernatural agency (usually as punishment for wrongdoing).  A typical example of this scenario is 1973’s Vault of Horror, where five men trapped in an underground chamber tell each other about recurrent nightmares they’ve had – nightmares that eventually prove to have really happened.  These involve a restaurant full of vampires, a housewife psychotically obsessed with neatness, a premature burial, some dabbling in voodoo and a deadly variation on the Indian rope trick.

 

In a world where people have spent lifetimes searching unsuccessfully for evidence that the supernatural exists, the idea that a group of strangers who’ve all had devastating supernatural experiences could just turn up together at the same time and place was stretching credibility more than a bit.  Even as a kid, when I saw those movies on late-night TV, I wondered to myself: wow, what are the odds?

 

Ghost Stories has as its linking device a person who’s utterly sceptical about the supernatural.  Nyman plays Phillip Goodman, a paranormal investigator dedicated to exposing frauds who claim to have supernatural powers and prey on gullible people.  Partly, Goodman does this because he was inspired by a debunker called Charles Cameron, whose exposes were shown on TV when he was a boy.  But it’s clear he’s also reacting against the mysticism of religion, which in his boyhood was shoved down his throat by a strict Orthodox Jewish father.  One day Goodman is summoned to meet a now-elderly Cameron, who gives him details of three supposedly supernatural incidents that even he wasn’t able to explain.  He challenges Goodman to investigate and explain them.  This leads us into Ghost Stories’ triptych of creepy tales, which are told to Goodman, as flashbacks, by their three unhappy protagonists.

 

© Altitude Film Entertainment / Warp Films / Lionsgate Films

 

The first case involves a night watchman (Paul Whitehouse) who was tormented by the ghost of a girl whilst doing his rounds in a building that was once a woman’s asylum.  The second involves a youth (Alex Lawther) who had a harrowing experience after running down a mysterious something in his car one night in the middle of some woods.  And the third involves a banker (Martin Freeman) who was troubled by a poltergeist while his wife was in childbirth.

 

Now I really liked the framing device here.  Unlike in those hokey old Amicus movies, the stories’ protagonists don’t just congregate by some mad coincidence in one place but Nyman’s character has to go and actively seek them out.  Also, the fact that he’s portrayed as such a hardened disbeliever at the start suggests that the film will try to make the events that follow appear as credible as possible.  But once the three stories get underway, the film begins to sag.  These aren’t self-contained stories with beginnings, middles and endings so much as brief, unexplained anecdotes.  Some weird stuff happens, it’s creepy, and then… that’s it.  I found this rather thin.

 

Worse, once Whitehouse, Lawther and Freeman’s narratives are finished, the film still has a fair amount of running time left.  It spends this time trying to tie all the strands together.  Everything we’ve seen, it transpires, relates back to Goodman himself, to his own past experiences and current state of mind.  There’s even a section where the film goes off on a tangent and shows a particularly traumatic episode from Goodman’s childhood.  Thus, you start watching Ghost Stories expecting it to be like a triple-decker sandwich with the three stories providing the fillings in the three decks.  But in fact, they’re more like three currants in a big doughy bun – the dough being all the material about Goodman.  Which wasn’t what I’d really wanted to see.

 

The film closes with a twist that I found unsatisfying too.  I don’t want to give anything away, but it reminded me of the ending of another movie on Jeremy Dyson’s CV, the film version of the League of Gentlemen’s TV show, The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse (2005).

 

That said, the film creates a few wonderful frissons.  There’s a sequence where Goodman ascends a dark staircase to meet the Alex Lawther character and glimpses something that leaves the audience wondering, what the hell did we just see?  And a moment where Goodman and Martin Freeman’s character are seen walking along the horizon of a bleak moor, unaware that a spectral figure has loomed into view a little way behind them, calls to mind M.R. James’ chilling story Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad (1904).  But again, the stories are too brief and inconsequential to have much impact.

 

I know Dyson is a fan of and has probably been influenced by the ghost-story writer Robert Aickman, whose fiction was disquieting because it avoided giving explanations or neat denouements – in his writings, uncanny things happened without rhyme and reason and all the characters could do was experience them.  Though I doubt if the prim, conservative Aickman would appreciate the visual treatment that the stories get here, with flashy, modish jump-cuts and nods to contemporary Japanese horror cinema.

 

So I found myself disappointed by Ghost Stories, though that’s not because it’s a bad movie.  It has some memorable moments and it’s been made with considerable thought and skill.  But alas, it feels like a lesser version of the masterly, ultra-frightening horror film that it could have been.

 

© Altitude Film Entertainment / Warp Films / Lionsgate Films

 

Cosplay in Colombo

 

 

It’s a typically hot, humid Sri Lankan afternoon and I’m walking along an avenue in the quaintly-named Trace Expert City, a business park west of Fort Railway Station and Beira Lake in central Colombo.  Ahead of me, beneath the trees that mercifully cast a little shade over the avenue, I spy a gathering of people.  What’s going on?  What are they crowding around to see?  Intrigued, I draw closer…

 

…And discover that everyone’s attention is focused on Spiderman, who’s strutting his funky Spidey-stuff while he engages in a dance-off with his sinister, black-costumed, alien-symbiote nemesis Venom.

 

 

For yes, I have just arrived at Lanka Comic Con 2018, Sri Lanka’s annual convention for enthusiasts of comics, films, TV shows, anime, games and books in the genres of science fiction, fantasy and horror (and anything else that’s suitably weird and quirky).

 

At this year’s Comic Con, which was held on August 25th and 26th, Spiderman and Venom were just the first of many cosplayers I saw, i.e. fans who devise their own costumes, make-up and accessories in order to impersonate their favourite characters from the more fantastical reaches of popular culture.

 

This year the impact of Marvel Comics’ commercially and critically successful superhero movie Black Panther (2018) was evident.  I noticed a couple of folk clad as characters from the film’s fictional African setting of Wakanda, including an effective-looking Okoye, the warrior lady played in the film by Danai Gurira.  And Marvel’s big rival DC Comics had influenced more than a few Sri Lankan cosplayers in 2018 too.  Here’s someone having their picture taken with DC Comics’ nautical superhero Aquaman and his lady pal – what’s her name?  Aqua-Girlfriend?  No, I believe it’s actually Mera, ‘daughter of the king of the Atlantean tribe of Xebel’, who’ll be played by Amber Heard in the new Aquaman movie to be released at the end of this year.

 

 

All right, not all the cosplayers could quite capture the exact look of their characters.  But still, they should be applauded for the work that’s gone into assembling the necessary bits and pieces for their costumes – not always an easy feat when you’re on a budget and you live on the slightly out-of-the-way island nation of Sri Lanka.  It’s fascinating to see their ingenuity – how, for instance, a pair of sawn-off wellie-boots and a lick of paint were used to create footwear for an Elven warrior from the Kingdom of Lothlórien in The Lord of the Rings.

 

For me, this year’s cosplay winner was the bloke in the following photograph.  As I laid eyes on him, I found myself singing to myself, “If there’s something strange… In your neighbourhood…  Who ya gonna call…?  Ghostbusters!”  Because he was dressed in an outfit worn by Bill Murray, Dan Ackroyd, Harold Ramis and Ernie Hudson in the 1984 movie Ghostbusters, complete with a fabulously intricate Ghostbusters backpack.  I’ve also posted a diagram of the original backpack from the original film, so you can compare them.

 

From pinterest

 

You’ll notice in the same photo a sweet little girl who seemed to be having the time of her life while she dashed around waving a wand and wearing a Harry Potter-style Hogwarts scarf and gown.

 

Then I saw this fearsome character.  Who was he?  Was he one of the many scary and grotesque villains who’ve menaced Batman in Gotham City during the last eight decades?  But then I realised he was ambling towards one of the snacks and refreshments tents erected at the head of the avenue and I understood who he really was: Pringles-man.

 

 

While I wandered around Lanka Comic Con, two things occurred to me.  Firstly, I loved the idea that Sri Lankan kids wanted to dress up as characters who’d originated in a wide spectrum of cultures – from Black Panther, Marvel Comics’ pioneering attempt to create a superhero who’d appeal to an African-American readership, to a plethora of characters rooted in the manga and anime cultures of Japan.  It’s cultural exploration, the very opposite of cultural appropriation.  And it nicely illustrates how far science fiction, fantasy and comic books have travelled since the days when they were seen as the preserve of nerdy middle-class white kids – white boys – in the USA and Britain.

 

But at the same time, I’d like to think that in years to come, as Sri Lankan writers and artists get more opportunities and recognition, there’ll be a big roster of Sri Lankan characters for them to impersonate too.

 

Secondly, I couldn’t help but feel a bit jealous.  These geeky kids today don’t know how lucky they are.  When I was a kid and into geeky stuff, reading geeky Marvel and DC comics, reading geeky fantasy paperbacks by the likes of Michael Moorcock, Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E. Howard and watching geeky TV shows like Doctor Who (1963-present), the original Star Trek series (1966-69) and Gerry Anderson’s UFO (1970), I had to keep extremely quiet about my geeky enthusiasms for fear I’d be ridiculed or even roughed up by the normal, sensible kids around me.  And even when I was older and at college, I felt too embarrassed to advertise my geeky interests in front of cool college-associates who claimed to be into Albert Camus and The Smiths.  (I still remember my horror when a mischievous younger sibling blurted out in front of a couple of my college friends how, when I’d been a wee boy, I’d persuaded my granny to knit me a super-long Tom Baker-era Doctor Who scarf.)  But youngsters nowadays don’t have to be afraid.  It’s quite acceptable for them to gather together and dress up as their (super)heroes in public.  They can wear their geekiness proudly.

 

Alas, it’s too late for me now.  I’m way too old to be part of this cosplay scene.  Pretty much the only character I could cosplay convincingly at my age would be Captain Teague from Pirates of the Caribbean 3: At World’s End (2007) – who was played by Keith Richards.

 

© Walt Disney Pictures / Jerry Bruckheimer Films

 

Great unappreciated films: Breakfast on Pluto

 

© Sony Classic Pictures / Pathé 

 

A few months ago I posted something on this blog about The Company of Wolves, the classic 1984 gothic fantasy movie directed by the Irish filmmaker Neil Jordan.  I thought it was time to pen a few words in praise of a more recent and less well-known Jordan movie, 2005’s Breakfast on Pluto, which was based on a 1998 novel of the same name by Jordan’s fellow Irishman, the County Monaghan author Patrick McCabe.

 

Both film and novel recount the adventures in early 1970s Ireland and London of the transgendered and cheerfully outrageous Patrick, later ‘Kitten’ Braden (Cillian Murphy).  (In McCabe’s book she’s given the more sexually charged name of ‘Pussy’.)  These adventures are overshadowed by the Troubles that at the time were erupting bloodily in Northern Ireland and were making their presence felt in London too, thanks to pub-bombings carried out there by the IRA.

 

The movie incarnation of Breakfast on Pluto didn’t set the box office alight.  With its mix of transgender comedy, camp-ness and kitsch-ness on one hand and Irish terrorism, religious intolerance and violence on the other, it’s perhaps not hard to see why.  Indeed, after I acquired a DVD of Breakfast on Pluto in the noughties, I lent it to a conservative-minded Irish friend, who later returned it saying she enjoyed the Irish stuff but couldn’t relate to the camp stuff.  I then lent it to a gay friend, who told me he quite enjoyed the camp stuff but found the Irish stuff deeply depressing.

 

It wasn’t until I lent it to a third friend, another lady, that I found someone who enjoyed Breakfast on Pluto as much as I had.  Mind you, she confessed to feeling slightly put-out because she thought Cillian Murphy “looked better as a woman” than she did.

 

Kitten starts life as Patrick Braden, a foundling reared by an unsympathetic foster mother in a village called Tyrellin just south of the Republic of Ireland / Northern Ireland border.  Despite some behaviour that’s out-of-kilter with the local Catholic culture, like wearing make-up and asking the school priest for advice on how to get a sex change, young Patrick seems popular enough and has a gang of friends including Charlie (Ruth Negga), Irwin (Laurence Kinlan) and Lawrence (Seamus Reilly).  Then just as Patrick is reinventing himself – herself – as Kitten, the Troubles kick off.  Tyrellin experiences tragedy early on when Lawrence is killed by a car bomb.  (Poor Lawrence, who has Down’s Syndrome, is a Doctor Who fan and likes trundling around the village inside a homemade Dalek, sees the bomb-disposal robot at the car and runs towards it thinking it’s another Dalek.)

 

© Sony Classic Pictures / Pathé 

 

Meanwhile, Kitten is having a romance with Billy, the impressively sideburn-ed singer of a glam-rock band called Billy Hatchet and the Mohawks (played by Gavin Friday, real-life singer with post-punk / Goth band The Virgin Prunes).  Their romance ends when Kitten discovers that Billy is smuggling guns for the IRA.  After destroying Billy’s weapons-stash, Kitten heads for London, resolving to track down her long-lost mother.  It transpires that Mum was impregnated by Tyrellin’s randy priest, Father Liam (Liam Neeson), and disappeared off to England after giving birth.

 

In London, Kitten falls in with a fellow Irish person called John Joe (Brendan Gleason) and they work as children’s entertainers, members of a troop cavorting around Wimbledon Common dressed as the Wombles.  The job falls through when John Joe loses his temper and batters a snooty park official whilst in a Great Uncle Bulgaria costume.  Kitten then embarks on a career as a prostitute, which almost ends fatally when she’s picked up by a murderous customer (Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry giving a truly nasty performance).  From there, she becomes the assistant of a lugubrious but kindly magician called Bertie Vaughan (Stephen Rea), but things take another turn for the worse when she finds herself in a London pub one night when an IRA bomb goes off.

 

Kitten survives the carnage but, shell-shocked, is incarcerated in a London police cell by two hard-nut detectives (Ian Hart and Steven Waddington) who suspect her of planting the bomb and are ready to beat a confession out of her.  Once they realise Kitten’s innocence, however, they show her some unexpected sympathy and entrust her to the care of the female staff at a Soho peepshow.

 

Late on, Kitten’s biological parents reappear.  The repentant Father Liam visits the peepshow and is reconciled with Kitten and they end up living together back in Ireland – along with Charlie, now pregnant with Irwin’s baby.  (Irwin is no longer around, having joined the IRA, turned informer and been executed by his comrades.)  The idyll doesn’t last.  The parochial house is firebombed by Father Liam’s parishioners, outraged that he’s living with an unmarried mum and a transgendered woman.  Kitten and Charlie return to London, where Kitten finally manages to meet her mother, now happily married and with a new family.  She fails to recognise Kitten as the baby boy she left behind in Ireland and Kitten chooses not to reveal her identity.

 

Breakfast on Pluto was a second instance of Jordan adapting a Patrick McCabe novel.  Eight years earlier he’d filmed McCabe’s 1992 work The Butcher Boy, a gruelling tragi-comic horror story about a young man’s descent into madness in 1960s rural Ireland.  Both the book and film of Breakfast on Pluto are more upbeat than The Butcher Boy, though Jordan’s film version is lighter than McCabe’s literary version.  The film makes a few changes to give the story a breezier feel, for example, by making Kitten’s first lover a singer in a rock band.  In the book, he’s a crooked Irish politician in the mould of Charles Haughey.  Also, Jordan adds some enjoyably goofy references to early-1970s popular culture – I don’t recall any Wombles or Daleks in McCabe’s novel.

 

© Sony Classic Pictures / Pathé 

 

Parts of the film are hilarious, often when we see Kitten nonchalantly thumbing her nose at the macho, patriarchal, Catholic Irish culture around her: like, for instance, fantasising about playing Gaelic football in a frock, or having another fantasy about infiltrating the London HQ of the IRA where, like a cross between Diana Rigg from The Avengers and Stephanie Powers from The Girl from UNCLE, she shimmies around in a slinky outfit and overpowers the terrorists by spraying them with knock-out gas from a perfume bottle.  Meanwhile, the film manages to be inspiring too, in that no matter how rough things get for Kitten – and they get pretty rough – her cheery, romantic indefatigability carries her on.  When the happy(-ish) ending finally comes, you feel she’s earned it.

 

At times, Breakfast on Pluto resembles a package of Neil Jordan’s greatest hits.  Not only do we get an eccentric Irish village like the one in The Butcher Boy, but we see a sordid, sleazy side of London just as we did in Mona Lisa (1986).  And of course, there’s the strange combination of gender confusion and Irish terrorism that also featured in The Crying Game (1992) – the twist being that in The Crying Game Stephen Rea (Jordan’s most regular actor) didn’t realise until late on that the woman he was in love with was biologically male, whereas here, as Bertie Vaughan, he spots Kitten’s male origins immediately and isn’t bothered that he still fancies her.

 

Maybe it’s just me, but I also found Breakfast on Pluto reminiscent of the work of Scottish filmmaker Bill Forsyth, even though its subject matter is light-years removed from Forsyth’s family-friendly movies like Gregory’s Girl (1981) and Local Hero (1983).  For one thing, as in Forsyth’s films, the (biologically) male characters such as Patrick, Irwin, Lawrence, Billy, John Joe, Bertie and Father Liam are impractical and distracted, some of them inhabiting their own little fantasy worlds.  It’s the female characters who are grounded in reality.  These include the level-headed Charlie, played by the excellent Ethiopian-Irish actress Ruth Negga; the women in the Soho peepshow who become Kitten’s guardians; and a female official whom Kitten encounters in the Central Records Office at the start of her sojourn in London – the quiet concern in the woman’s face and voice shows her awareness that Kitten is ill-equipped to survive on London’s streets.

 

Also Forsyth-esque is the fact that, apart from the psychopath played by Bryan Ferry, nobody in Breakfast on Pluto actually seems like a bad person.  The fickle Father Liam has redeemed himself by the end and even the film’s terrorists don’t appear as out-and-out villains.  While they bumble around comically, you get the impression that any threat they pose is mostly due to their incompetence.

 

To be honest, I wouldn’t say Breakfast on Pluto is a great movie.  As with most episodic films, some parts of it work better than others, and at 129 minutes long it does outstay its welcome slightly.  Kitten, you feel, could be a little quicker in catching up with her parents.  Still, if you’re open to some unconventional entertainment that combines the gloriously camp with the bleakly tragic, that gives you Wombles and IRA bomb atrocities, Breakfast on Pluto is worth checking out.

 

© Sony Classic Pictures / Pathé 

 

Not a British pub argument, but I’ve settled it anyway

 

© Oxford University Press

 

Previously on this blog I discussed two arguments that I’ve often heard flare up in British pubs.  Well, they’ve often flared up in pubs where I’ve been drinking with my mates.  One of these arguments concerns the question, “Who is the best James Bond?”  (My answer: Sean Connery.)  The other concerns the question, “Who is the best Doctor Who?”  (My answer: Tom Baker.)

 

I’ve never, though, been in a pub when an argument has broken out about which actor has been most successful at portraying a third icon of British popular culture: Sherlock Holmes, the pipe-smoking, cocaine-and-morphine-sampling, deductive-reasoning (though actually it was abductive reasoning) Victorian detective created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  Still, I thought I’d devote a blog-post to the topic and list my seven best cinematic and TV Sherlock Holmes-es.

 

Incidentally, I’ve been thinking about Sherlock Holmes a lot lately.  Last year I bought a weighty volume containing all of Conan Doyle’s writings about him and I’ve been gradually working my way through it.  I’ve read the novels A Study in Scarlet (1887), The Sign of the Four (1890) and The Valley of Fear (1915) and the short-story collections The Adventures (1892), The Memoirs (1893) and The Return (1905) of Sherlock Holmes.  I just have to read His Last Bow (1917) and The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes (1927) and I’ll have finished the lot.  (1902’s The Hound of the Baskervilles was sorted out long ago because I read it twice when I was a kid.)

 

© Compton-Tekli Film Productions / Colombia Pictures

 

Anyway, seventh in my list is a lesser-known Sherlock Holmes.  John Neville, who’s perhaps best known for two roles he played later in his career, as the title character in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) and as the ‘elegantly manicured man’ in eight episodes and a movie version of The X-Files (1995-98), played Holmes in a 1965 movie called A Study in Terror.  The terror of the title comes from the film’s premise that Holmes investigated the most gruesome real-life crimes of the 19th century, the murders committed by Jack the Ripper in Whitechapel in 1888.

 

Given the subject matter and the fact that A Study in Terror’s producers included Tony Tenser and Herman Cohen, two men better known for their horror movies, it’s unsurprising that as the movie progresses, the plot fills with macabre and sensational incidents and Neville’s Holmes becomes less a cerebral problem-solver and more a man of action.  Not that that’s bad, because in the original stories Holmes was a skilled boxer and a practitioner of the 19th-century martial art of bartitsu; but it’s a little surprising to see the thin, slightly fragile-looking Neville explode into fisticuffs when a gang of toughs attack him in Whitechapel’s backstreets.  Still, I find his performance in this film agreeably good-natured and sparky.  There’s also strong support from the Welsh actor Donald Houston as a doughty (if slightly slow-on-the-uptake) Doctor Watson and the delightful Robert Morley as Holmes’ older and supposedly smarter brother Mycroft.

 

© BBC

 

Occupying number six is the actor who’s most famously played Holmes in the modern era – yes, it’s Benedict Cumberbatch from the Steven Moffat / Mark Gatiss-masterminded BBC TV show Sherlock (2010-present).  I respect Cumberbatch for taking risks and making Holmes an aloof, awkward and oddball character, possibly lodged on the milder end of the autism scale.  Nonetheless, I think Cumberbatch is lucky to have such a likeable supporting cast, including Martin Freeman as Watson, Rupert Graves as Inspector Lestrade, Una Stubbs as Mrs Hudson and Gatiss as Mycroft, who help to soften his sharp edges.  Without them around, giving the show some humanity, I suspect the Cumberbatch Holmes would be hard work.

 

At number five is an actor who played Holmes in another movie involving Jack the Ripper.  This is the great Canadian performer Christopher Plummer, who donned the deerstalker for 1979’s Murder by Decree (and who’d already played him in a 1977 TV film called Silver Blaze).  Murder by Decree has no connection with A Study in Terror, save for the curious coincidence that in both movies Inspector Lestrade is played by Frank Finlay.  Inspiring the film is Stephen Knight’s book Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution (1976), which postulated that the Ripper killings were the result of a conspiracy involving the Freemasons and the Royal Family – a theory also informing Alan Moore’s celebrated graphic novel From Hell (1989-98) and its subsequent 2001 movie adaptation.

 

© AVCO Embassy Pictures

 

Murder by Decree is a classy movie with handsome production values and a big-name cast and Plummer essays a correspondingly classy and cultivated Sherlock Holmes.  Also deserving praise is James Mason as Doctor Watson.  Despite a jarring disparity in their ages – Plummer was around 50 at the time, Mason around 70 – the pair make a charming double-act.  They’re clearly bound by great affection and loyalty for one another, even if there are occasional moments of irritation and sulkiness, and they go about their business like a long-term and mostly-loving married couple.

 

There’s a similar married-couple vibe in the film featuring my fourth-favourite Sherlock Holmes.  The movie is The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) and it’s possibly the first to suggest that something homoerotic is going on between Holmes and Watson, who are respectively and splendidly played by Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely.  Incidentally, this is an idea that Sherlock-the-TV-show has had a lot of fun playing with and its makers have freely admitted that The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes has been a big influence on them.  (Mark Gatiss has said of the movie’s director Billy Wilder and scriptwriter I.A.L. Diamond that they “gently take the mickey out of Sherlock Holmes in the way that you can only do with something that you really adore.”)

 

© The Mirisch Corporation / United Artists / MGM

 

Despite the are-they-or-aren’t-they jokes about Holmes and Watson and some gloriously far-fetched steampunk nonsense about a Victorian submarine disguised as the Loch Ness Monster, there’s a melancholic aspect to the film and to Stephens’ performance.  It shows him falling in love with a woman called Gabrielle Valladon, played by Geneviève Page, who turns out to be a German spy, and it ends on a mournful note when Holmes receives a letter from Mycroft (Christopher Lee) informing him that Gabrielle has been executed by a firing squad.

 

Third in my list is Peter Cushing, who played Holmes on three occasions in three different decades: in a celluloid version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, filmed in a typically gothic fashion by horror-movie specialists Hammer Films in 1959 (in fact, I think of it as Holmes Under the Hammer); in a 16-episode BBC TV series in 1968; and in a rather lame but amiable TV film in 1984.  His Watsons were, respectively, André Morell, Nigel Stock and Sir John Mills – all of whom gave solid performances.  The gentlemanly Cushing misses some of the arrogance of the literary character, but he invests him with a dynamism and intensity true to Conan Doyle’s stories.  (When Watson first meets him in A Study in Scarlet, Holmes is running around with a test tube exclaiming, “I’ve found it!  I’ve found it!”)  Cushing’s sharp, angular features also match Conan Doyle’s description of Holmes as having a ‘thin, hawk-like nose’ that ‘gave his whole expression an air of alertness and decision’.  Incidentally, Cushing once played Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself, in a 1976 TV film called The Great Houdini.

 

© Hammer Films

 

Second place goes to an actor who, like Cushing, was often known for villainous and macabre roles – Basil Rathbone, who played Holmes in 14 films between 1939 and 1946.  The first two were big-budget affairs made by 20th Century Fox and set in Victorian times.  The remaining dozen were cheaper ones made by Universal Pictures and they cheekily updated Holmes to the then-present-day (so that he could devote a lot of time to fighting Nazis).

 

Rathbone’s appearance, bearing and voice are perfect for the role, but for me his films are slightly tarnished by Nigel Bruce’s performance as Dr Watson, which reduces the sensible and dependable narrator of the original stories to a bumbling comedy side-kick.  Yes, Bruce’s ineptitude generates some entertaining moments, but it’s unlikely that someone as smart as Holmes would tolerate having someone as slow-witted as Bruce’s Watson around him all the time.  I particularly cringe at the climax of The Spider Woman (1944), which has Holmes tied up by the villains behind a moving target in a fairground shooting gallery – and Watson at the front of the gallery, obliviously blasting at the target with a rifle.  (To be fair, the not-much-brighter Inspector Lestrade, played by Dennis Hoey, is shooting at it too.)

 

© Universal Pictures

 

And in first place is Jeremy Brett, who played Holmes from 1984 to 1994 in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, a series of dramas made by Granada Television that adapted 42 of Conan Doyle’s 60 Holmes stories.  It’s a tragedy that Brett’s declining health prevented him from completing the full set.  Brett was a perfectionist and went to the extent of compiling a dossier on Holmes, nearly 80 pages long, about all the characteristics, mannerisms and habits attributed to him in the stories and he’d constantly refer to this on the set.  The production team displayed a similar, exacting attention to detail, with the result that most Sherlockians – Holmes fans – regard both Brett as the apogee of Sherlock Holmes portrayals and the series as the apogee of Sherlock Holmes adaptations.

 

A great many other actors have played Holmes over the years, of course.  Among those deserving mention are: William Gillette (who played him on stage, radio and the silent screen), Christopher Lee (who also played Mycroft Holmes and Sir Henry Baskerville), Douglas Wilmer, Stewart Granger, Nicol Williamson, Ian Richardson, Nicholas Rowe, Charlton Heston, Matt Frewer, Rupert Everett and Ian McKellen.  And let’s not forget the Russian actor Vasily Livanov, who played Holmes for seven years in a Soviet-era TV series and now has a statue of him as the character standing outside the UK embassy in Moscow.  By the way, I haven’t seen two Holmes performances that have attracted much attention in recent years – those of Jonny Lee Miller in the US TV show Elementary (2012-present) and Robert Downey Jr in two films in 2009 and 2011 directed by Guy Ritchie (which to be honest, not being a Guy Ritchie fan, I don’t really want to see).

 

Finally, has there been any overlap with the two other British cultural icons mentioned at the start of this post?   Yes, there has.  The fourth Doctor Who, Tom Baker, played Sherlock Holmes in a 1982 BBC TV adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles.  His performance has its admirers, though Baker himself wasn’t too happy about it.  Also, the above-mentioned Holmes Peter Cushing played the Doctor in two non-canonical movies Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965) and Daleks – Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D. (1966).  And in 1976, in between his appearances in the James Bond franchise, Roger Moore swapped his safari suit for a deerstalker and played the title role in an American TV movie called Sherlock Holmes in New York.  It’s on Youtube here.  Watch it if you dare.

 

Anyway, that’s settled it.  Best Sherlock Holmes?  Jeremy Brett, surely.

 

© Granada Television

 

The hunt is on

 

© 20th Century Fox / Silver Pictures

 

I don’t know which work of short fiction has impacted most on the cinema.  However, I’d bet that Richard Connell’s 8400-word opus The Most Dangerous Game (1924), also known as The Hounds of Zaroff, ranks at least in the top ten short stories that have influenced filmmakers.

 

The Most Dangerous Game is about a big game hunter called Rainsford who falls off a yacht in the Caribbean.  He gets washed ashore on an island belonging to General Zaroff, a Russian exile and another hunting enthusiast.  Zaroff, it transpires, has grown bored of hunting animals and graduated to hunting bigger game, i.e. human beings.  So he dedicates himself to tracking down and killing the poor sailors who frequently get shipwrecked in the treacherous waters around his island.  Zaroff is delighted by Rainsford’s arrival because now he has a quarry he can really pit his wits against.

 

Armed only with a knife, Rainsford is soon being pursued across the island’s forests, swamps and clifftops by the crazed Zaroff, who’s equipped with proper firepower and supported by a hulking henchman and a pack of hungry hounds.  A typical hunter, Zaroff makes sure the odds are stacked in his favour.

 

The Most Dangerous Game has been filmed officially several times, most recently in 2017 under the title of Never Leave Alive.  Several loose adaptations of it have appeared too.  But its premise of humans hunting other humans lurks in the DNA of dozens, if not hundreds, of films in the action-adventure, thriller, science fiction and horror genres – including the Hunger Games movies, the Saw ones, the original Rambo one (1982) and that infamous Japanese bloodbath Battle Royale (2000).

 

I recently discovered Connell’s story on the Internet and read it for the first time.  Some of it is surprising if, like me, you’ve already seen many of the films it’s inspired.  For one thing, Connell spends about 6000 of his 8400 words setting up the situation, before the hunt begins.   Admittedly, he squeezes a lot of action into the final quarter.  Rainsford flees through the forests and swamps to the cliffs, tries and fails to kill Zaroff with three hastily-improvised traps – a Malay man-catcher, a Burmese tiger-pit and a Ugandan knife-trap – fakes his own death and returns to Zaroff’s headquarters for a final showdown.

 

Also surprising is Rainsford’s lack of self-awareness.  The irony of his situation is implicit in the story, obviously, but he never recognises that irony himself.  The Most Dangerous Game begins with him sailing for South America with the intention of shooting jaguars and you get the impression that, once he leaves the island, he’ll continue to South America and shoot jaguars.  His experience of being hunted like an animal hasn’t increased his empathy for hunted animals.

 

Still, there’s much to enjoy.  Particularly amusing is the scene where Zaroff describes his modus operandi to a slowly-comprehending Rainsford:

 

“I wanted the ideal animal to hunt,” explained the general.  “So I said, ‘What are the attributes of an ideal quarry?’  And the answer was, of course, ‘It must have courage, cunning, and, above all, it must be able to reason.”

“But no animal can reason,” objected Rainsford.

“My dear fellow,” said the general, “there is one.”

 

So much for the original story, then.  What about the countless humans-hunting-humans movies that have come in its wake?  The following are my favourites.

 

© RKO Radio Pictures

 

The Most Dangerous Game (1932)

This is a direct adaptation of the story by Ernest D. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper, who made it while they were also making King Kong (1933).  They filmed it at night on Kong’s jungle sets, including the famous one depicting a gorge spanned by a fallen tree-trunk.  Connell’s plot is followed closely, though it’s pumped up and made more cinematic – a bigger proportion of the film is devoted to the hunt, Zaroff (Leslie Banks) has more henchmen helping him out and, in another overlap with Kong, Fay Wray is added as a love interest for Rainsford (Joel McCrea).  Also added is a grotesque trophy room where the heads of Zaroff’s victims are displayed – the glimpses we get of those heads wouldn’t have been allowed a few years later, after Hollywood’s censorious Hays Code was imposed in 1934.  Leslie Banks, sporting real facial scars that he acquired whilst fighting in World War I, is entertaining as Zaroff; though by attempting to do a Russian accent by rolling his ‘r’s a lot, he ends up sounding more like a demented Scotsman.

 

The Naked Prey (1965)

Shifting The Most Dangerous Game’s premise to 19th century South Africa, The Naked Prey has a group of white hunters offending and then falling foul of a local tribe.  The last survivor, played by Cornel Wilde (who also directed and produced), is stripped of his clothes and hunted across the veldt by the vengeful tribesmen.  I saw this harsh movie as a kid and was traumatised as much by the horrors inflicted by the hunters – an early scene shows native bearers plodding in and out of the gutted carcasses of slain elephants – as by the horrors inflicted on them by the locals.

 

© United Artists

 

The Hunting Party (1971)

Here, The Most Dangerous Game is reworked in the guise of a Western.  A gang of outlaws led by a thuggish Oliver Reed – while most British actors stick out like sore thumbs when they appear in Westerns, Reed really looks the part – kidnap a woman (Candice Bergman), not knowing that her husband (Gene Hackman) is a wealthy cattle-baron who’s even more psychotic than they are.  He’s currently on a hunting trip with some buddies, using newly-developed long-range rifles with telescopic sights.  When he learns what’s happened, Hackman and his fellow hunters set off in pursuit, picking off the outlaws one by one at their leisure, from a safe distance.  Critics loathed The Hunting Party on account of its level of bloodletting, which was obviously inspired by Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969).  But I find it fascinating just for its single-minded nihilism.  Hackman’s prey get little chance to fight back; and even while his friends abandon him, sickened by his cruelty, Hackman keeps going, determined to kill ’em all.

 

Punishment Park (1971)

The underrated radical filmmaker Peter Watkins was responsible for Punishment Park, a fictional docu-drama  that transposes The Most Dangerous Game to a near-future dystopian USA – one where both the Vietnam War and opposition to it have escalated and Richard Nixon is drafting increasing numbers into the police and National Guard to maintain order at home.  The titular punishment park is a set-up whereby police and Guardsmen hunt down political dissidents (i.e. anti-war protestors, hippies and civil rights activists) while they try to cross an area of desert.  The former get valuable experience and training while the latter, if they can cross the park without being apprehended, supposedly win back their freedom.   Everything is viewed through the neutral eyes of a European film crew who are making a documentary about the process – though as the one-sided nature of things becomes clear to them, they find it harder to maintain that neutrality.  It’s a disorientating and disturbing piece that feels no less relevant today, given the way things are going in Trump-era America.

 

© Chartwell Francoise / Project X Distribution

 

The Beast Must Die (1974)

Strictly speaking, British horror movie The Beast Must Die isn’t about humans hunting humans.  It’s about humans hunting werewolves, though you could argue that werewolves are human for at least part of the time.  Calvin Lockhart – the first black actor to land the leading role in a British horror film – plays a millionaire hunter determined to bag a lycanthrope.  He rigs up his country estate with CCTV cameras and motion sensors, procures a helicopter and invites five unsavoury people to visit for a few days convinced that one of them – he’s not sure which one – is a werewolf.  Even watching this movie as a teenager I knew Lockhart’s logic was barmy.  What if he’s got it wrong and none of them is a werewolf?  He’ll be really disappointed.  Or what if they’re all werewolves?  They’ll surely rip him to pieces.  But nonetheless, The Beast Must Die is good, daft fun.  The sneaky werewolf gradually gets the better of Lockhart and his hi-tech equipment, whilst also bumping off his staff and guests Ten Little Indians-style.  (These include Peter Cushing, Charles Gray, Anton Diffring and a youthful Michael Gambon).

 

Southern Comfort (1981)

Perhaps the most accomplished film on this list, Southern Comfort was made by Walter Hill when he was at the height of his powers.  It tells the tale of a National Guard unit on weekend manoeuvres in the Bayou who unwisely antagonise an unseen group of Cajun hunters.  With its premise of supposedly well-trained, well-equipped American soldiers floundering in unfamiliar terrain, the film is often viewed as an allegory about the Vietnam War; but as the Cajuns prey on their victims using traps, quicksand and savage hunting dogs, the film’s roots in The Most Dangerous Game are plain to see too.

 

© 20th Century Fox / Cinema Group Ventures

 

Predator (1987)

A sci-fi / action highlight of the late 1980s when Arnold Schwarzenegger was King of the Box Office, Predator has clear parallels with The Most Dangerous Game.  Ah-nuld and a team of testosterone-stuffed commandoes (Carl Weathers, Jesse Ventura, etc.) enter the jungle to hunt down some insurgents, only to find themselves being hunted, for sport, by a grotesque-looking alien.  Yes, this is really an alien-hunts-humans movie, but the alien has all the characteristics of a human big game hunter.  It collects trophies (skulls) and, possessing deadly heat-rays, super-powerful sensors and an invisibility device that Harry Potter would be proud of, it hunts secure in the knowledge that it has technological advantages that its prey doesn’t have.

 

Surviving the Game (1994)

A homeless man (Ice-T) thinks his luck is on the up when he’s hired by a group of wealthy men to be their assistant during a hunting holiday in the remote Pacific Northwest.  But – surprise! – it soon turns out that he isn’t assisting them, he’s being shot at by them.  Surviving the Game is silly and predictable but I like it for its spectacular mountain landscapes and its excellent cast.  In addition to the always-endearing Ice-T, it has F. Murray Abraham playing a Wall Street stockbroker who believes that hunting people sharpens his business instincts, Gary Busey playing a deranged psychiatrist who finds hunting people therapeutic, and Rutger Hauer playing the evil scuzz-ball who’s masterminded the operation.  With a trophy room of human heads and a sequence involving a gorge spanned by a fallen tree, the film also makes visual references to the 1932 movie version of The Most Dangerous Game.

 

© Carnaby Film Productions / Kaleidoscope Film Distribution

 

A Lonely Place to Die (2011)

This is a neat little British thriller about a group of mountaineers in the Scottish Highlands who discover a young Eastern European girl, obviously a kidnap victim, locked in an underground vault.  Unfortunately, the kidnappers (chillingly played by Sean Harris and Stephen McCole) are in the area too, with high-powered rifles, and decide to retake the girl and eliminate her would-be rescuers.  As well as featuring some beautiful scenery in Glencoe and Glen Etive and some vertiginous rock-climbing set-pieces, the film has a grimly funny scene where the villains encounter two proper hunters, out shooting deer, who fatally mistake them for animal rights activists.

 

Revenge (2017)

Coralie Fargeat’s stylish exploitation movie gives The Most Dangerous Game a feminist twist.  Millionaire drug-dealer Richard (Kevin Janssens) takes his glamorous mistress Jen (Matilda Lutz) to his luxury hideaway in the desert, where he also intends to meet up with two sleazy buddies for some hunting.  Things don’t go as planned – Jen is sexually assaulted, she threatens to tell everything to Richard’s wife, and Richard tries and fails to kill her.  When Jen flees, wounded, into the desert the three men saddle up with their hunting gear and set off in pursuit.  Jen, who early on looked like she’d go to pieces at the sight of a broken fingernail or a laddered stocking, suddenly develops some outdoor survival skills and begins turning the tables on them.  It’s preposterous stuff but, like all such films, you find yourself cheering when the hunted starts to bite back against the bastard hunters.

 

© Rezo Films / MES Productions / Monkey Pack Films

 

Enter the dragon

 

© Dino de Laurentiis Company / NBC

 

I lately read Red Dragon, the 1981 thriller by Thomas Harris.   It’s the first of Harris’s novels to feature the super-intelligent, polylingual, opera-loving, gourmet-cooking, serial-killing psychiatrist and cannibal Dr Hannibal Lecter.

 

Harris’s second Lecter novel Silence of the Lambs (1988) was the one that turned Lecter into a flesh-munching cultural icon – especially when movie mogul Dino De Laurentiis had it filmed in 1991 with Jonathan Demme directing and Anthony Hopkins giving an Oscar-winning performance as the hungry psychiatrist.  However, though Silence is the best-known of Harris’s titles thanks to the popular and critical success of the 1991 movie version, that’s the only time it’s been filmed.  Red Dragon, on the other hand, has been adapted for the cinema and TV three times.

 

Firstly, in 1986, before Hopkins’ portrayal of Lecter caught the public imagination, Michael Mann directed a movie version of Red Dragon for De Laurentiis.  Retitled Manhunter, it didn’t do well at the box office and received mixed reviews, though it’s been reappraised and is regarded now as a 1980s classic.

 

In 2002, De Laurentiis unveiled a new cinematic version of Red Dragon, called Red Dragon this time, directed by the now-disgraced Brett Ratner and with Hopkins again in the role of Lecter.  This came just one year after the indefatigable De Laurentiis had brought Hopkins back for a movie adaptation of Harris’s third Lecter novel Hannibal (1999).  Presumably the haste to film Hannibal and refilm Red Dragon was because by this time Hopkins was in his mid-sixties and De Laurentiis knew that if he wanted to get any more mileage out of him as a credible, non-geriatric cannibal, it was now or never.

 

After 2002, with Hopkins retired from the role, all was quiet on the Lecter front for a while.  Well, apart from a crappy ‘origins’ movie called Hannibal Rising, starring Gaspard Ulliel in the title role, released in 2007 and based on a fourth Lecter novel Harris had published the previous year.

 

Then, from 2013 to 2015, NBC aired three seasons and 39 episodes of a TV show called Hannibal, which was produced in part by De Laurentiis’ production company.  By now old Dino himself had departed for the great studio in the sky, but his wife Martha was still around to act as executive producer.  The show was supposedly based on Red Dragon, though it didn’t cover the main plot of the novel until late in its third and final season.

 

But enough of the movie and TV adaptations.  What did I make of the original 36-year-old novel that started the whole Hannibal hoo-ha in the first place?

 

© Arrow Books

 

Admittedly, Harris’s prose will never win awards for literary stylishness, but it’s impressively terse and efficient and it expertly tells the story.  In fact, I found Red Dragon compelling and finished it in three days – and that’s despite me knowing the plot inside-out, having been exposed to it already in the films and TV show.

 

First, a quick recap of that plot – be warned that from here on there are many spoilers.  Former FBI profiler Will Graham is coaxed out of retirement by his former boss Jack Crawford and sent to investigate a serial killer called the Tooth Fairy, who butchers well-to-do suburban families on nights of the full moon and does unspeakable, ritualistic things with their corpses.

 

Graham is understandably reluctant to return to his old job.  For one thing, he has unnaturally-acute powers of empathy – one symptom being a habit whereby “in intense conversations Graham took on the other person’s speech patterns.”   Such empathy has practical applications in that Graham is very good at projecting himself into the minds of psychopaths: “…you have to take whatever evidence you have and extrapolate,” he explains.  “You try to reconstruct his thinking.  You try to find patterns.”  This helps him to track down serial killers, but the disadvantage is that it seriously f**ks his head.

 

For another thing, the last serial killer he caught was one Dr Hannibal Lecter, who nearly gutted him ‘with a linoleum knife’ before going down.

 

Eleven pages in, Graham sets to work and the rest of the novel details his hunt for the Tooth Fairy.  We’re treated to several sub-plots.  We meet the Tooth Fairy himself, the tormented Francis Dolarhyde, who suffered a brutal and miserable childhood partly on account of his having a cleft lip and palate.  These were later repaired but Dolarhyde still believes himself to be disfigured.  Thanks to an unhealthy obsession with the William Blake painting The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun, Dolarhyde also believes himself to be in the process of ‘becoming’, i.e. metamorphosising from his weak, imperfect human self into a powerful being called the Red Dragon, tattooed images of which he has slathered over his body.  Dolarhyde sees his murders as a way of facilitating this transformation.  Then, however, he unwittingly befriends a blind woman called Reba McClane at his workplace.  He falls in love with Reba, which poses an obstacle to the transformation process and brings the human and dragon sides of his personality into conflict.

 

Another sub-plot involves a scheme by Graham and Crawford to spring a trap for the Tooth Fairy, using Graham as bait.  They get sleazy scumbag tabloid journalist Freddy Lounds to write a newspaper feature about the murders that quotes Graham saying some derogatory things about the Tooth Fairy’s sexuality.  The plan backfires – horribly, as far as Lounds is concerned.

 

And finally, there’s a sub-plot wherein Graham consults an old acquaintance for some insight into the Tooth Fairy’s personality.  He visits Lecter, now incarcerated in a hospital for the criminally insane under the supervision of the amusingly vain and incompetent Dr Frederick Chilton.  Lecter is all too happy to play mind games when he meets his old nemesis (“Do you dream much, Will?”) but agrees to look over the case files.  (“This is a very shy boy, Will.  I’d love to meet him…”)  Later, the resourceful Lecter manages to establish a line of communication with the Tooth Fairy and thoughtfully passes on the address of Graham’s family.

 

One thing that impresses is the detail Harris puts into his accounts of police, FBI and forensic procedures while Graham and Crawford conduct their manhunt.  No wonder there was a six-year gap between Red Dragon and Harris’s previous novel, the terrorist thriller Black Sunday (1975) – the amount of research he did must have been massive.  What makes Red Dragon interesting from a historical point of view is that the forensic science described here doesn’t mention DNA – for DNA profiling only became a thing in 1984, thanks to the work of Sir Alec Jeffreys.  Could you write Red Dragon today and realistically incorporate the same incidents, twists and dynamics into its plot?  I doubt it.

 

© De Laurentiis Entertainment Group / Red Dragon Productions

© De Laurentiis Entertainment Group / Red Dragon Productions

© De Laurentiis Entertainment Group / Red Dragon Productions

 

It’s fascinating to compare the book, its two cinematic incarnations and its one TV incarnation.  Seen now, Manhunter is strikingly different from the full-bloodedly gothic adaptations of Harris’s novels that came later.  Clearly, Michael Mann doesn’t think he’s making a horror film – which is fair enough, considering that in 1986 Hannibal Lecter had yet to find fame as a bite-your-face-off horror icon.  Instead, the story is treated as a police-procedural thriller, albeit a very grim one.

 

Manhunter is also highly stylised and has an icy visual and aural glaze.  The distinctive lighting / colour palette includes blues for Graham (William Petersen) and his family, greens and purples for Dolarhyde (Tom Noonan), and stark, sterile whites for Lecter (Brian Cox) in his cell – which is far from the dark, dungeon-like place it’s depicted as in later movies.  There’s also a synth-dominated soundtrack that depending on your view of 1980s music you’ll either find amazing or deeply annoying.

 

Mann omits a few parts of the novel that, presumably, he found too hokey.  These include a sequence where Dolarhyde bluffs his way into the archives of the Brooklyn Museum, finds the original The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun and eats it – the painting is only 44 x 35 centimetres so yes, eating it is just about possible.  Mann also eschews the novel’s twist ending (which won’t fool anyone who’s ever seen more than three horror films) and finishes things with a straightforward shootout.

 

Fans of the Anthony Hopkins movies may be disappointed to discover that Lecter isn’t in Manhunter that much.  His only scene with Graham is when the latter visits his cell, though there’s a later sequence where they converse by phone.  Mind you, that’s more direct contact than they get in the book, for after their initial meeting Harris restricts Lecter’s communications with Graham to a couple of mocking letters.  Their face-to-face encounter in Manhunter is very effective.  It uses much of Harris’s original dialogue, although it leaves out one amusing line where Lecter describes Chilton’s attempts to psycho-analyse him as fumbling “at your head like a freshman pulling at a panty girdle.”

 

The Dundonian actor Brian Cox makes a down-to-earth but creepily intense Lecter.  There’s little of the knowing, playing-to-the-gallery relish that Hopkins brought later.  Cox is said to have based his portrayal on the Scottish serial killer Peter Manuel, who had such a conceit of himself that he conducted his own defence during his trial in 1958.

 

© Universal Productions / Imagine Corporation

© Universal Productions / Imagine Corporation

 

The makers of the 2002 Red Dragon claimed they’d filmed a more faithful version of Harris’s novel than Mann had.  Accordingly, the scene where Dolarhyde eats the painting and the twist ending are re-instated.  But this Red Dragon actually differs from the book in that – surprise! – we get a lot more of Lecter.  There are additional scenes between him and Graham (Edward Norton), plus ones where he puts the wind up the hapless Chilton (Anthony Heald).  By 2002, Hopkins’ Lecter had become such a fixture of popular culture that all the Welsh actor could do was portray him as a loveable bogeyman – which he does entertainingly enough.  Still, the film’s prologue, another extra scene that shows how Graham caught Lecter in the first place, carries a genuine chill.

 

I recently watched Red Dragon and found it better than I’d expected.  But compared to Manhunter it’s something of a dud.  Certain details annoy me, like how it’s set in 1980 but uses some anachronistic DNA testing to facilitate a sudden plot twist; or how the role of Graham’s wife (Mary-Louise Parker) is reduced during the climax.  In the book, she saves the day.  More importantly, sequences that looked impressively cinematic in Manhunter, such as when Dolarhyde returns Freddie Lounds to the authorities in a grisly fashion or when he treats the blind Reba to a zoo-visit so that she can feel the body of a sedated tiger, are done flatly and disappointingly.  I particularly disliked how director Ratner depicted Graham’s unsettling powers.  We see him contemplating some photos from a crime scene and suddenly – zap! – there’s a cheap horror-movie jump-cut of some creepy dolls.  The first episode of the TV show Hannibal shows how Graham’s mind works in a much more imaginative and disturbing way.

 

Red Dragon has the most prestigious cast of any Lecter movie – Hopkins, Norton, Ralph Fiennes, Harvey Keitel, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Emily Watson – but some performances are problematic.  As Dolarhyde, Fiennes captures the sad, human side of the monster, but despite being a six-footer he doesn’t have the physicality that made the towering Tom Noonan so frightening in the previous adaptation.  Meanwhile, Ed Norton makes a very drab Will Graham.  Beyond the fact that he looks tired all the time, there’s little suggestion of the pressure his empathetic ability / curse puts on his sanity.  William Petersen conveyed this much better in Manhunter.

 

© Dino de Laurentiis Company / NBC

© Dino de Laurentiis Company / NBC

 

Downplaying the fragility of Will Graham is something that the flamboyant and daring TV show Hannibal can’t be accused of.  Indeed, viewers spend its three seasons wondering if the rumpled, tortured Graham (Hugh Dancy) is going to flip and become as evil as the human monsters he’s been tracking.  Pushing him along this road to ruin is his relationship with the suave, sardonic Lecter (Danish heartthrob Mads Mikkelsen), which goes well beyond the adversarial one depicted in the book and movies.  It’s a relationship of dark fascination, crossing over into the homo-erotic.

 

During Hannibal’s run, showrunner Bryan Fuller had great fun tampering with the conventions established by the books and films.  For instance, though in Harris’s chronology the 1999 novel Hannibal comes two books after Red Dragon, by the time the TV show tackled Red Dragon it’d already dramatised most of the events in Hannibal-the-novel.  (For copyright reasons, Fuller was unable to use anything from Silence of the Lambs.)  Still, when it comes, a surprising amount of Red Dragon remains intact in the show – including Dolarhyde’s eating of the painting, his unlikely courtship of Reba McClane (Rutina Wesley) and the failed attempt by Graham and Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) to taunt him into a trap.  This time Dolarhyde’s boots are filled by Richard Armitage, who despite being best-known for playing a dwarf in The Hobbit movies (2012-14) makes an imposing killer.

 

Given the gleefully overwrought nature of the show, though, it’s no surprise that Fuller veers away from the novel for the story’s climax, which also serves as the climax of Hannibal’s last-ever episode.  Here, Lecter’s wish is granted and he gets to meet this ‘very shy boy’.  Fuller has the urbane cannibal escape from captivity and join forces with Graham at a storm-lashed clifftop mansion, where they take on Dolarhyde in a bloody, slow-motion and, yes, homo-erotic battle to the death.  All this while Siouxsie Sioux sings a song called Love Crime on the soundtrack…

 

I don’t know if Thomas Harris ever saw this episode.  I’d like to think that, if he did, he was rolling his eyes and shaking his head – but at the same time grinning with admiration at Bryan Fuller’s audacity.

 

From fineartamerica.com

 

Cinematic heroes 12: Freddie Jones

 

© Associated British Picture Company / Warner Pathé

 

A few nights ago, I discovered the 1970 psychological-horror thriller The Man Who Haunted Himself on YouTube and I persuaded my better half, Mrs Blood and Porridge, who hadn’t seen it before, to watch it with me.

 

The Man Who Haunted Himself offers a rare opportunity to see the late Sir Roger Moore in a non-smooth, non-bemused, non-eyebrow-hoisting role.  In fact, he plays a staid businessman who gradually becomes convinced he has an evil doppelganger, one plotting against him and trying to remove and replace him in his family, job and social circle.  Not surprisingly, poor Roger’s sanity crumbles as a result.

 

Unfortunately for my partner’s enjoyment of the film, the great British character actor Freddie Jones suddenly appears twenty minutes before the end, playing a psychiatrist to whom the unravelling Roger turns in desperation.  That meant that as the film neared its climax, and she was trying to concentrate on what was happening, I kept distracting and annoying her with exclamations of “Oh look, there’s Freddie again!” and “Just look at Freddie’s expression!” and “Ha-ha, Freddie’s putting on a Scottish accent!”  As you can gather, I’m always delighted when Freddie Jones pops up in a film or TV show.

 

Freddie Jones was born in 1927 in Stoke-on-Trent, an English town famous for its potteries.  Actually, Jones worked in this industry for a decade before becoming, in his thirties, a professional actor – he was originally a lab assistant at a ceramics factory, a job that according to his IMDb entry “came close to making him clinically insane”.  His cinematic breakthrough arrived in 1967 with roles in three well-regarded movies: Peter Brook’s Marat / Sade, Joseph Losey’s Accident and John Schlesinger’s Far from the Madding Crowd.  By then, however, he was already established as a familiar face on 1960s British TV, appearing in major shows like Z Cars (1963), The Avengers (1967), The Baron (1967), The Saint (1968) and Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) (1969).

 

© MGM

 

In the early 1970s, Jones became one of the most deliciously eccentric presences in British cinema – by turns quirky, twitchy, sweaty, sinister, off-the-wall, over-the-top, downright bizarre and occasionally (perhaps a legacy of that ceramics-factory job) demented.  For instance, he gives a short but memorable performance in Douglas Hickox’s underrated crime thriller Sitting Target (1972) as McNeil, a creepy convict who allies himself with fellow inmates Oliver Reed and Ian McShane for an escape attempt.  Indeed, the tense sequence where Freddie, Ollie and Lovejoy bust out of prison is one of the movie’s highlights.  He’s also good in another underrated film, Richard Lester’s disaster movie Juggernaut (1974), as the shifty Sidney Buckland.  Buckland’s a bomb expert who falls under suspicion when a shipping company receives an anonymous call to say that six explosive devices have been placed on one of its cruise liners and will be detonated unless a ransom is paid.  Is Freddie really the big villain?  (Is the Pope a Catholic?  Do bears shit in woods?)

 

Jones’s persona made him a natural for horror movies and he worked a couple of times with Hammer Films, then the world’s most famous horror-movie studio.  In 1969’s Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, he plays the creature pieced together by the title character.  Hammer’s Frankenstein movies tend to focus on Baron Frankenstein himself – usually essayed by the impeccable Peter Cushing, and not the hapless character depicted in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel but an obsessed, ruthless scientist who’ll go to any length to realise his ambitions – and they aren’t terribly interested in the monsters produced by the Baron’s experiments.  That’s said, Jones’s creature in Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed is the most melancholic and sympathetic one of the series.  He’s not even very monstrous – he’s just a bloke with a ragged scar around his head, to show where the Baron transplanted his brain from another body.  This causes him much misery when he goes to visit his beloved wife and she doesn’t recognise him, because he looks nothing like the original person his soul had inhabited.

 

Even by his normal standards, Cushing’s Frankenstein is an utter shit in this film – stooping to murder, rape and blackmail to get his way – and there’s a satisfying climax where Jones’s despairing creature sets a trap for him inside a burning mansion.

 

© Hammer Studios / Warner Bros – Seven Arts

 

Less acclaimed, but still enjoyable, is The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973).  Set in present-day London, this has Jones at his most pathetic and unhinged.  He plays Dr Keeley, a scientist forced by a mysterious millionaire businessman – who proves to be, yes, Count Dracula (Christopher Lee) – to develop an apocalyptic strain of plague bacterium.  Confronted by Peter Cushing, playing a modern descendant of Dracula’s old nemesis Van Helsing, Jones gibbers: “Evil rules, you know.  It really does.  Evil and violence are the only two measures that hold any power.  Look at the world.  Chaos.  It is a preordained pattern.  Violence, greed, intolerance, sloth, jealousy…  The supreme being is the devil, Lorimer…   Nothing is too vile.  Nothing is too dreadful, too awful.  You need to know the terror, the horror, Lorimer.  You need to feel the threat of disgust, the beauty of obscenity.”

 

Actually, in the early-to-mid 1970s, Jones made three Dracula movies, though only one of these was produced by Hammer and was any good.  He appeared in the spoof Vampira (1974) with David Niven playing Dracula as an aging playboy; which, though painfully unfunny, looks like Citizen Kane compared to the same year’s Son of Dracula, another spoof but this time with added rock music courtesy of Ringo Starr, Harry Nilsson, Keith Moon, John Bonham and Peter Frampton.  In Son of Dracula, Jones plays Baron Frankenstein to Nilsson’s Dracula Jr and Ringo Starr’s Merlin the Magician – don’t even ask – and Jones’s sonorous performance only highlights the fact that Nilsson and Starr have the acting ability of a pair of talking elevators.  Oh well.  Some of the musical numbers are okay.

 

© Brooksfilms / Paramount Pictures

 

1980 saw Jones appear in the touching David Lynch-directed, Mel Brooks-produced The Elephant Man.  He plays the sadistic freakshow owner Bytes, from whose clutches the saintly Dr Treves (Anthony Hopkins) rescues John Merrick (John Hurt), the tragic Elephant Man of the title.  Jones doesn’t take this lying down and he and Hopkins become almost biblical in their good-versus-evil struggle over the possession of the poor, deformed Merrick.  Later, Jones manages to re-abduct Merrick and reincorporates him into his freakshow, but the show’s other exhibits, led by a kindly dwarf (played by the late Kenny Jones of Star Wars fame), help him to escape again.

 

David Lynch was evidently impressed by Jones for he cast him in two more films, his 1984 sci-fi epic Dune and his 1990 Palme d’Or-winning Wild at Heart.  The 1980s, in fact, saw Jones at the height of his international fame and he featured in several big (or biggish) budgeted movies: Peter Yates’s clodhopping sci-fi fantasy Krull (1983); Mark L. Lester’s 1984 version of Stephen King’s Firestarter, in which Jones plays the scientist responsible for the drug-experiments that give little Drew Barrymore the power to set things alight with her mind; Barry Levinson’s Young Sherlock Holmes (1985); Terry Jones’s Erik the Viking; and Clint Eastwood’s Cold War thriller Firefox (1982).  Alas, although Clint-meets-Freddie sounds like a marriage made in heaven, Firefox was hellishly bad.  In 1983, he even got a leading role – admittedly speaking Italian – in Federico Fellini’s And the Ship Sails On, playing a journalist on a voyage to scatter the ashes of a legendary opera singer.

 

If I tried to recount Jones’s entire TV career, meanwhile, I’d been here all night.  Let’s just say he graced many TV shows I have fond memories of: Jason King (1971), The Goodies (1972), Thriller (1975), Space 1999 (1976), The Ghosts of Motley Hall (1976-78), Just William (1977), Van der Valk (1977), Target (1977) and so on.  He was still busy at the dawn of the new millennium, appearing in things like The League of Gentlemen (2000) and Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer’s reboot of Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) (2001) – supposedly, Jones and fellow character actor Dudley Sutton are the only people to have appeared in both the original and the remake of that last show.  For me, though, his finest TV moment was as Dai, the crazed and doomed poacher in the 1977 kids’ series Children of the Stones, now regarded as one of the scariest programmes British TV ever made for children – though with a story involving a megalithic stone circle, a druidic cult of brainwashed villagers, ‘time rifts’ and an attempt to harness the power of a black hole, Children was as trippy as it was scary.

 

© HTV West

 

In the late noughties, it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen Jones in anything for a while – the last thing I’d spotted him in had been the 2005 Johnny Depp vehicle The Libertine – and I assumed that, now in his eighties, he’d given up acting.  Fair enough, I thought, he’d certainly earned his retirement.  Besides, the family tradition was being continued by his eldest son Toby Jones, who was now playing memorable character roles in films like Finding Neverland (2004), The Mist (2007), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), Berberian Sound Studio (2012), The Girl (2012) and Tale of Tales (2015).

 

Then one evening, while I was back in Scotland and staying at my sister’s house, I happened to notice an elderly and whiskery but very familiar face on the TV screen.  “Wow!” I exclaimed.  “Is that Freddie Jones?”

 

“No,” replied my sister, “that’s Sandy Thomas.  From Emmerdale!”  And I discovered that Jones had been playing widower and ex-sailor Sandy Thomas in the popular, rustic-set ITV soap opera since 2005.  Indeed, it was only in February this year that the now-90-year-old Jones decided to finally call it a day and bow out of Emmerdale.

 

While I’m thankful for the modern career of the very talented Toby Jones, I can’t help but hope we haven’t seen the last of his venerable dad onscreen, either.

 

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