Favourite rock biopics

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(c) Momentum Pictures

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Following my previous post about the film Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), which tells the story of the 1970s / 1980s rock band Queen and which I had very mixed feelings about, I thought I’d write about the rock biopics I like best.

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The first one that springs to mind is Control (2007), directed by Dutch photographer Anton Corbijn.  This focuses on Ian Curtis, frontman with the legendary and pioneering post-punk band Joy Division, who committed suicide in 1980.  It has an appealing cast: Sam Riley as Curtis and Samantha Morton as his wife Deborah, plus Joe Anderson as Peter Hook, James Anthony Pearson as Bernard Summer and Harry Treadaway as Stephen Morris, Curtis’s fellow-bandmembers who after his death would regroup as New Order.  But what makes Control special for me is how Corbijn blends the tragedy of Curtis’s life-story, the drabness of 1970s Macclesfield (Curtis’s hometown), the spare, pulsating and somehow beautiful bleakness of Joy Division’s music, and the romanticism that inspired and drove Curtis, and manages to create something that despite the final outcome is actually uplifting.  Corbijn’s decision to film Control in colour but then convert the film-stock into moody black and white helps.

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There’s also humour, a factor that, given the absurdities and excesses of the music industry, needs to be present in every good rock biopic.  This comes largely courtesy of band manager Rob Gretton, played by Toby Kebbell.  “It could be worse,” he tells Curtis in the aftermath of one of his devastating epileptic seizures.  “At least you’re not the lead singer of the Fall.”  Look out too for Salford performance-poet John Cooper Clarke, playing himself as a support act at a Joy Division gig.  Only the enviably pencil-thin Clarke could get away with playing himself when he was thirty years younger.

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(c) PolyGram Filmed Entertainment / Gramercy Pictures

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I’m not a Beatles fan but I really enjoyed Backbeat (1994), the Iain Softley-directed film about the band’s pre-stardom period at the beginning of the 1960s when they spent time in Hamburg performing early rock ‘n’ roll standards.  The Beatles of this era consisted of five members: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, bassist Stuart Sutcliffe and drummer Pete Best, played in Backbeat by Ian Hart, Gary Bakewell, Chris O’Neill, Stephen Dorff and Scot Williams respectively.  The main acting duties fall on Hart – who, incidentally, has also played Lennon in the 1991 movie The Hours and Times and the 2013 Playhouse Presents TV production Snodgrass – and Dorff because the movie focuses on the friendship between Lennon and Sutcliffe.  The latter would die of a cerebral haemorrhage in 1962.

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What sets the film alight is its music.  To recreate the sound of the nascent Beatles kicking ass on stage, the filmmakers smartly gathered together musicians from 1994’s hottest rock bands – Dave Pirner from Soul Asylum, Greg Dulli from the Afghan Whigs, Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth, Don Fleming from Gumball, Mike Mills from REM and Dave Grohl from Nirvana – and got them to knock out renditions of the likes of Long Tall Sally and Good Golly Miss Molly.  Even the muscular Henry Rollins (originally from punk outfit Black Flag but in 1994 doing rather well with his own Rollins Band) got in on in the act, providing the vocals for a sequence when Sutcliffe tries and fails to croon Love Me Tender.  In fact, the film’s only duff note is a brief scene where it gratuitously and unconvincingly grafts Ringo Starr onto the narrative.

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(c) Palace Pictures / The Samuel Goldwyn Company

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The bleakest film on my list is surely Sid and Nancy, Alex Cox’s 1986 re-enactment of the doomed romance between the Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious and American groupie Nancy Spungen.  Telling a love story that begins with boy meeting girl against a background of severe heroin abuse, continues with boy and girl in the grip of severe heroin abuse, and ends with boy stabbing girl to death thanks to severe heroin abuse, Sid and Nancy is a grim and at times difficult watch.  But it has the saving grace of humour, even if it’s humour of the cringeworthy variety, such as when Sid is introduced to Nancy’s respectable, middle-class, all-American family and attempts to entertain them with a display of his ‘musicianship’.  The lead actors are good too: Gary Oldman as Vicious and Chloe Webb as Spungen, although these days it’s weird to see David Hayman, regarded in Scotland now as a national treasure, in the role of Malcolm McLaren.  Famously, Courtney Love lobbied hard, but unsuccessfully, to win the role of Nancy Spungen.  A little too hard, some would say, considering what happened subsequently.

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One person who’s not a fan of Sid and Nancy is John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, Vicious’ friend and fellow Sex Pistol.  Lydon hated the way he was portrayed in the film by actor Andrew Schofield, who isn’t a Londoner like Lydon but is from Kirby, north of Liverpool.  And he detested the film generally and Alex Cox in particular, dismissing it as a fantasy put together by ‘some Oxford graduate who missed the punk rock era’.

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Next up is Oliver Stone’s 1991 dramatisation of the story of late 1960s / early 1970s psychedelic-blues-rock band the Doors, simply called The Doors, which in many ways is a warped mirror image of Bohemian Rhapsody.  Like the Queen biopic, it often veers away from the truth.  Unlike that later film, however, it isn’t afraid to present a warts-and-all picture of its subjects, especially of the band’s frontman Jim Morrison, who’s played by Val Kilmer.  So well does Kilmer do in the role, incidentally, that at times you forget it’s him you’re watching onscreen and not Morrison himself. 

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(c) Bill Graham Films / Tri-Star Pictures

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Stone’s unflattering portrayal of Morrison, during his decline from gorgeous, long-haired, rock-music Dionysus to beastly, babbling, booze-befuddled sociopath and finally to bearded, beer-bellied, bathtub cadaver, greatly upset fellow band-members Ray Manzarek, John Densmore and Robbie Krieger (played in the film by Kyle MacLachlan, Kevin Dillon and Frank Whalley) and his lover Patricia Kennealy (played by Kathleen Quinlan).  Indeed, I suspect Kennealy, who married Morrison in a Celtic pagan ceremony and is a pagan high priestess herself, may have eschewed Celtic paganism’s usual benevolence and fired a few spells in Stone’s direction after she saw the film.

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Well, The Doors probably tells a few porkies but I have to say I really enjoyed it.  It’s over-the-top and out-of-control and Stone goes too far by mixing in some guff about Native American shamanism, but its bacchanalian and hallucinogenic excesses feel exhilaratingly true of the era, if not wholly true of the band.  And taken in the right spirit, the film is very funny.  Comic highlights include Kennealy giving Morrison carnal encouragement with, “Come on, rock god.  F**k me, f**k me good!”  Or John Densmore expressing his reluctance  to take acid and Morrison reassuring him, “Relax – it’s peyote.”  Or Andy Warhol (Crispin Glover) offering Morrison a golden telephone with which to ‘talk to God.’ Andy can’t use it himself because, it transpires, he doesn’t ‘have anything to say.’ 

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Finally, my last pick on this list of rock biopics returns to the era of Joy Division, but isn’t about a band or musician.  It’s about a record executive, Tony Wilson of Factory Records, the independent Manchester-based record label, who signed Joy Division in the late 1970s and struck gold again a decade later when he signed the Happy Mondays.  This is 24 Hour Party People (2002), directed by Michael Winterbottom and starring Steve Coogan as Tony Wilson.  This time Joy Division are played by Sean Harris (Curtis), John Simm (Summer), Ralf Little (Hook) and Tim Horrocks (Morris), while the Happy Mondays are represented by Danny Cunningham and Paul Popplewell as Shaun and Paul Ryder and Chris Coghill as the band’s freaky-dancin’, maracas-shaking figurehead, Bez

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(c) Film 4 / Pathé / United Artists

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Before his musical successes, Wilson was best-known as a TV reporter for Granada Television and with Coogan in the role, it’s impossible not to be reminded of Coogan’s famous alter-ego, Alan Partridge.  This is especially so at the film’s beginning when we see Wilson filming a report where he attempts to go hang-gliding:  “Is it a bird?  Is it a plane?  No, it’s the latest craze sweeping the Pennines.  I’ve got to be honest with you.  Right now, I’d rather be sweeping the Pennines.” 

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24 Hour Party People cleverly subverts the issue of factual accuracy in music biopics with much post-modernism and breaking of the 4th wall – for example, when we see the fictional Howard Devoto of the Buzzcocks, played by Martin Hancock, do something and then the real Howard Devoto appears in the frame and tells us that he doesn’t remember this happening back then.  There’s a great supporting cast of character actors, comic performers and comedians, including Shirley Henderson, Andy Serkis, Rob Brydon, Dave Gorman, Peter Kay, Simon Pegg and Christopher Eccleston, while several real-life musicians make cameos including, in addition to Devoto, Mark E. Smith, Clint Boon and the Stone Roses’ Gary ‘Mani’ Mounfield.  And the film has many good lines, my favourite being when Wilson introduces the Ryders to Bez with the comment, “Every band needs its own chemistry.  And Bez is a very good chemist.”

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Finally, which band would I like to see a biopic of in the future?  The answer to that question has got to be Hawkwind, the venerable ‘space rock’ band who’ve been slogging away since 1969 and whose ranks have included over the years such personalities, eccentrics and oddballs as Lemmy, ‘manic depressive hypo-maniac’ poet Robert Calvert, statuesque topless dancer Stacia, Ginger Baker, Arthur Brown, sci-fi / fantasy author Michael Moorcock and Dik Mik, operator of the ‘audio generator’ that provided the band with its distinctive whooshing noises.  Properly done, you could end up with a hilarious comedy-drama that does for the characters of alternative English psychedelic rock music what Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994) did for the characters of low budget 1950s Californian movie-making.  So what do you think?  Anton Corbijn?  Michael Winterbottom?  Oliver Stone, even?  Anyone interested?

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From rateyourmusic.com

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Is this the real life? No, it’s just fantasy…

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(c) 20th Century Fox

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Beelzebub had a devil set aside for me recently while I spent most of 24 hours travelling with a particular airline from Sri Lanka to Scotland.  The set-aside devil was the airline’s in-flight movie service, which was mostly composed of tired old rubbish like Johnny English Strikes Again (2018), while the only decent offerings were stuff like Black Panther (2018) that I’d already seen. 

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Finally, to take my mind off the tedium of the flight, the cramped-ness of my seat and the occasional unnerving shaking that outside air-turbulence would subject the plane to (“Thunderbolts and lightning / Very, very frightening!”), I gave in and watched Bohemian Rhapsody.  This was last year’s biopic of Queen, the 1970s / 1980s rock band who remain fabulously popular today even though they’ve been creatively inert since 1991 when their singer Freddie Mercury passed away.  I watched the film reluctantly, knowing that the critics had been at best lukewarm and at worst scathing about it. 

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I suppose, I thought, I can’t be too picky…  “Because I’m easy come, easy go / A little high, little low / Any way the wind blows, doesn’t really matter to me / To mee-eee….

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Actually, Bohemian Rhapsody has earned (as of a week ago) 861 million dollars around the world, despite the critics turning up their noses at it.  This is in keeping with the great Queen divide.  Back in the days when they were a properly functioning band, people I knew who considered themselves serious and knowledgeable connoisseurs of music would tell me that though they tried to be broad-minded, they just couldn’t stomach bloody Queen, whom they saw as purveyors of bloated, corny, stomp-along, guitar-twiddling shite.  Meanwhile, other folk, who bought at most three CDs a year and barely knew the difference between Elvis Costello, Elvis Presley and Reg Presley – the majority of the British population in other words – believed Queen were the absolute bees knees and anyone voicing a negative opinion of the band was just “a big disgrace / kicking their can all over the place.”  So this chasm between what the cultural intelligentsia thought of Queen and what the ordinary masses thought of them is nothing new.

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Incidentally, I have to say I found it ironic how popular Queen were in the 1970s and 1980s among guys who styled themselves as straightforward, unpretentious, down-to-earth, laddish, maybe a bit unreconstructed and probably a bit homophobic.  They’d punch you in the face if you suggested they might be into anything involving ‘puffs’.  But after a few seconds of hearing the shamelessly camp Freddie Mercury crooning, “Oooh, you make me live… / Oooh, you’re my best friend!”, they’d be hugging each other, be singing along in cracked-with-emotion voices and have tears rolling down their cheeks. 

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It’s telling that in his memoir The Long Hard Road out of Hell (1998), Marilyn Manson recalls how at his Christian school in Ohio, pupils received regular lectures about the evils of heavy metal and hard rock music – and the band those Christian teachers seemed to fear and hate most all was Queen, due to the effect that Freddie’s sexually-ambiguous prancing and preening might be having on the sons of God-fearing America.

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Anyway, watching Bohemian Rhapsody, I certainly felt there was plenty wrong with it.  The problem with building a dramatic narrative out of Queen’s story is that there’s hardly any drama in it.  They got together in 1970, had a monster hit with Bohemian Rhapsody-the-single in 1975 and then stayed at the top for the next 16 years, their popularity seemingly impervious to the coming and going of musical fads like disco, punk, New Romanticism, goth, ska, the Mod revival, the Madchester scene, rap, techno, hair metal and grunge.  No doubt the late 1980s and early 1990s were traumatic for them when Freddie was diagnosed as HIV positive, became sick and died from AIDS in 1991, but the film doesn’t hang around long enough to chart those final years.  Rather, it ends on the high note of Queen’s famously barnstorming performance at the Live Aid concert at Wembley in July 1985.

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Lacking real historical drama, the film tries to generate some by playing fast and loose with the facts.  It depicts the band as having effectively broken up by 1985 thanks to Freddie’s out-of-control ego and the other band-members’ intransigence and lack of adventurousness, with the Live Aid concert being their last chance to pull themselves together and prove to the public that they’re still relevant.  As a plot device this is lame – and, factually, it’s nonsense because no such schism had appeared in the real band.  I remember them being ubiquitous during the year before Live Aid because of the success of their The Works album and singles like Radio Ga Ga and I Want to Break Free.   Another liberty with the truth (and the film has many of these) is a big emotional moment before they take the Wembley stage when Freddie tells the others he’s HIV positive.  In reality, he didn’t know this until 1987.

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From mentalfloss.com

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Conversely, the stuff that might have generated some drama, i.e. the band’s moral warts and carbuncles, are discretely airbrushed away, which probably has something to do with Queen’s lead guitarist and drummer Brian May and Roger Taylor being the film’s ‘creative consultants’.  So we get nothing about, for instance, their decision to play some lucrative gigs at the Sun City complex in Bophuthatswana, South Africa, during the apartheid era, which landed them on a United Nations blacklist; or the fact that in late 1985 they released a supposedly Live Aid-inspired song called One Vision and then kept all the profits for themselves.  No wonder they used to sing, “I want it all / I want it all… / And I want it now.

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Also doused in a tankerload of whitewash is the issue of Freddie’s promiscuity.  In reality, in 1984, Freddie bragged to the DJ Paul Gambaccini with hedonistic and – considering the times – reckless abandon: “Darling, my attitude is ‘f**k it’.  I’m doing everything with everybody.”  (Later, Gambaccini reflected, “I’d seen enough in New York to know that Freddie was going to die.”)  But in Bohemian Rhapsody he’s presented as a victim.  Insecure about his sexuality, he’s led astray by his personal manager Paul Prenter (Allen Leech), who lures him into a world of partying, orgy-ing and general dissolution.  In another clumsy move to tie everything in with Live Aid, the film has Mercury firing Prenter shortly before the concert.  But the real Prenter didn’t get his marching orders until 1986, one year afterwards.

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Despite everything, though…  I did enjoy the film.  Sort of. 

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It has an endearing cast: not just Rami Malek as Freddie – who, in a crowd-pleasing move by the Academy, picked up the Oscar for Best Actor the other day – but also Gwilym Lee as May, Ben Hardy as Taylor and Joe Mazello as the band’s quiet but affable bassist John Deacon.  It helps that these young actors actually resemble the band members they’re playing and the physical quirks that made Queen seem a little more human, like Freddie’s oversized incisors and May’s bombed-out buzzard’s nest of a hairdo, are lovingly recreated. 

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Also, Mike Myers has a neat supporting role as a record executive called Ray Foster, who apparently wasn’t a real person but a composite of various real-life executives who tried to put a stick in the band’s creative spokes.  Equipped with frizzy hair, sunglasses, a hideous woollen tank top and yet another provincial accent from the Mike Myers version of Britain, Foster gruffly objects to the idea that Bohemian Rhapsody-the-song be released as a single: “It goes on forever.  Six bloody minutes!”  To which Freddie retorts: “I pity your wife if you think six minutes is forever.”

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(c) 20th Century Fox

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The most enjoyable parts for me, however, were the script’s clunking attempts to foreshadow some of the band’s biggest hits.  It was fun to see how many micro-seconds it took me to work out which song they were talking about.  For example, when Freddie starts rabbiting on about how he wants to do a rock song with opera in it…  It’s Bohemian Rhapsody!  Or when May says he wants to write a song where the crowd can join in by clapping their hands and stamping their feet…  It’s We Will Rock You!  Or when John Deacon horrifies the others by proposing they do a disco tune…  It’s Another One Bites the Dust

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This foreshadowing got to the point where I expected to hear an exchange like: “What, David Bowie wants to record with us?  That makes me nervous.  I feel under pressure already!”  “Wait, I have an idea for a title…”  Or: “Writing film scores can’t be too difficult. In fact, I bet I could write one in a flash.” “Well, funny you should say that, because Dino De Laurentiis happens to be producing a new movie…”     

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To sum up: I found Bohemian Rhapsody dumb, superficial, bombastic and somewhat problematic, but also fun and entertaining and even uplifting in a slightly tacky way.  Which is appropriate, because that’s very much how I find Queen.

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An Albert memorial

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(c) 20th Century Fox

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The death of Albert Finney 12 days ago felt like it marked the end of an era – one whose heyday ran from the late 1950s to the 1970s, when British cinema was heavily populated with brash, brooding leading men largely from working-class backgrounds and often showing disdain for the pretentions and affectations traditionally associated with the acting profession: the likes of Stanley Baker, Alan Bates, Richard Burton, Richard Harris, David Hemmings, Peter O’Toole and Oliver Reed, all now deceased.  Compare them with the current crop of young British movie stars, who seem to have got where they are today by dint of being posh and / or having longstanding family connections with the stage and screen.  (Reed, the member of that old guard from the wealthiest background, had a family connection – but he made a point of waiting until he’d succeeded on his own before he worked with his famous uncle, the director Sir Carol Reed, in 1968’s Oliver!)

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It feels like the end of an era, but it isn’t quite – for a few actors of Finney’s generation, background and disposition remain on the go, like Sean Connery (now retired), Michael Caine and Anthony Hopkins (both still active, happily).

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By way of paying tribute to Albert Finney, I thought I’d list my favourite cinematic memories of him.  So here, in no particular order, are the Finney performances I’ve enjoyed most.

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Leo O’Bannon in Miller’s Crossing (1990)

Blood Simple (1984) and Raising Arizona (1987) put writing-directing duo Ethan and Joel Coen on the map, but Miller’s Crossing was surely the film that proved they were a moviemaking force to be reckoned with.  As Irish mobster Leo O’Bannon, a character who’s rock-hard yet cursed with a naivete that threatens to provoke a gang-war, Finney is the film’s lynchpin.  It says a lot that he effortlessly holds his own in Miller’s Crossing even though he’s surrounded by actors threatening to steal the show (but never quite doing so): Gabriel Byrne, John Turturro, Jon Polito and J.E. Freeman, all playing the various unscrupulous characters who plot and machinate around O’Bannon. Meanwhile, the Danny Boy sequence, where Finney demonstrates his cigar-chomping, bullet-spraying lethality, is simply a great piece of cinema.

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(c) Woodfall Film Productions / Bryanston Films

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Arthur Seaton in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)

The Karl Reisz-directed, Alan Sillitoe-scripted Saturday Night and Sunday Morning helped usher in the ‘kitchen-sink’ and later the ‘social realism’ school of British filmmaking that – with a few honourable exceptions like Ken Loach’s Kes (1969), Chris Bernard’s Letter to Brezhnev (1985) and Mike Leigh’s Naked (1993) – is far from my favourite genre.  But I like this movie because of Finney’s ferocious performance.  As Arthur Seaton, the defiant young Nottingham factory worker whose motto is “Don’t let the bastards grind you down,” and who damns his family and co-workers as “dead from the neck up” because they’ve succumbed to domestic dreariness and nine-to-five wage-slavery, he’s too blinkered to realise he’s heading that way himself.  Largely responsible for his downfall is his rampant libido, which works several hours ahead of his brain and has him lusting after Rachel Roberts and Shirley Anne Field, the second of whom he ends up marrying.  The final scene, with Field and a sullen Finney approaching a new suburban housing scheme that threatens to be the place of his incarceration, comes as no great surprise. 

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Maurice Allington in The Green Man (1990)

Maurice Allington, the middle-aged bon viveur, raconteur and proprietor of a country restaurant called the Green Man, is a far more refined character than Arthur Seaton.  But he’s no more able to rein in his lechery, here directed at Linda Marlowe (playing his wife) and at Sarah Berger (playing his doctor’s wife) whom he fancies involving in a ménage à trois.  Meanwhile, Allington faces complications on another front besides the domestic one – for the Green Man, it quickly becomes clear, is also a hotbed of paranormal activity.  An offbeat ghostly-comic TV series with an impressive pedigree – it’s scripted by Malcolm Bradbury, based on a novel by Kingsley Amis and directed by Elijah Moshinsky, better known as a director of operas and Shakespearean drama – The Green Man’s strongest point is probably Finney’s splendid performance as Allington, who comes across as an oddly sympathetic cross between Alan Clark and Keith Floyd.

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(c) BBC

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Dewey Wilson in Wolfen (1981)

Unfairly maligned by New York Times critic Vincent Canby as ‘platitudinous mumbo-jumbo’, Wolfen is actually a rare beast (and ‘beast’ is the word), a 1980s horror movie that tries to say intelligent things about ecology, social inequality and urban deprivation and renewal.  Finney’s New York accent, big hair and 1980s-style jogging gear take a little getting used to, but he gives an enjoyable turn as a policeman investigating the brutal and mysterious murder of a property developer.  The culprits, it transpires, are a pack of deadly, super-powerful and super-intelligent wolves lurking in the Big Apple’s more rundown areas, their existence known only to a tribe of Native Americans who now work on the city’s high-rise construction projects but who once existed alongside the creatures in the wilderness.  Finney’s supporting cast here – Gregory Hines, Edward James Olmos and Tom Noonan – is excellent too.

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(c) Orion Pictures / Warner Bros.

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Kincade in Skyfall (2012)

In the 23rd James Bond movie Skyfall, Finney plays Kincade, the elderly gamekeeper at Bond’s ancestral estate in the Scottish Highlands who helps him (Daniel Craig) and M (Judi Dench) when villainous Javier Bardem and his goons lay siege to the place.  Finney’s gruff Lancashire tones, admittedly, aren’t what you’d expect to hear emanating from a bearded ghillie who’s spent a lifetime tramping around the heathery Caledonian mountains.  But it’s gratifying to see him in a Bond movie at last.  His rapport with Dench is particularly good. 

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Skyfall also proved, alas, to be his final cinematic appearance.  But there are definitely worse ways to bow out than standing alongside 007 with all guns blazing – and I love how when Bond tells him, “This isn’t your fight,” Kincade replies with typical Finney-esque defiance, “Try and stop me, you jumped-up little shit.”      

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(c) Eon Productions

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Where’s Walter?

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(c) American International Pictures

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January 2019 ended on a sad note with the announcement that prolific and much-loved American character actor Dick Miller had passed away at the age of 90.  Though nearly all of Miller’s film work consisted of supporting roles and cameo appearances and only rarely was he a leading man, his compact and craggy presence was a welcome addition to countless movies – highbrow ones, cult ones and good, old-fashioned, unrepentant exploitation ones.

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A native of the Bronx who’d served in the Navy and attended New York University, Miller arrived in 1950s California intending to make it as a writer.  However, during an encounter with a young aspiring filmmaker (and future human B-movie factory) called Roger Corman, he suddenly became an actor: “…He (Corman) said, ‘Ah, I don’t need writers, I need actors.’  I said, ‘I’m an actor!’  Just blurted it out like that…” 

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Corman began by casting him in Westerns like Apache Woman (1955), The Oklahoma Woman (1956) and Gunslinger (1956), which were made with Corman’s soon-to-be-legendary thrift – in Apache Woman, Miller not only plays an Apache but also the settler who shoots him. He continued employing him when he came to specialise in sci-fi and horror movies, like It Conquered the World (1956), Not of this Earth (1957), The Undead (1957), War of the Satellites (1958) and the unexpectedly influential Little Shop of Horrors (1960), which was done on a tight schedule even by Corman’s standards – he filmed it in two days, supposedly in response to a bet that he couldn’t make a movie in two days.  In Shop, Miller plays a character called Mr Fouch, who has an eccentric predilection for eating flowers.  During filming, Miller did this for real: “I gave them a try and I ate them, and I said, ‘That’s not too bad,’ and then I dug into ’em…  I didn’t stop to think they may have been sprayed or something.”   

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Miller’s biggest role for Corman was in a movie that’s also Corman’s best 1950s work, A Bucket of Blood (1959).  In this, he plays a hapless schmuck called Walter Paisley whose dream of becoming an avant-garde sculptor is thwarted by his total lack of talent – “Be a nose!  Be a nose!” he cries while he tries and fails to fashion a recognisable human visage out of a lump of clay.  Worse, to make ends meet, he has to work as a busboy at the local Beatnik café, which is full of pretentious tossers bragging about what creative geniuses they are.  After accidentally killing his landlady’s cat and then killing an undercover cop who tried to implicate him in some drug-dealing taking place at the café (Paisley memorably cleaves his head with a skillet), he hits on a way of producing perfectly proportioned statues: by committing murder and coating the bodies in clay.  It has to be said that Paisley’s resulting corpse-centred statues look hideous, but that doesn’t stop the Beatniks at the café proclaiming them as works of art.  Evidently, their lack of taste in sculpture matches their lack of taste in poetry, for at the beginning of the movie we hear Beatnik bard Maxwell Brock (Julian Burton) reading out one of his poetic gems, called Life is a Bum:

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Life is an obscure hobo bumming a ride on the omnibus of art…  The artist is, all others are not…  Where are John, Joe, Jake, Jim, Jerk?  Dead, dead, dead!  They were not born before they were born, they were not born…  Where are Leonardo, Rembrandt, Ludwig?  Alive, alive, alive!  They were born…!

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(c) American International Pictures

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In the 1960s, Miller kept appearing in films directed by Corman, like The Premature Burial (1962), X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963), The Wild Angels (1966), The St Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967) and The Trip (1967).  Corman, however, was increasingly moving into producing and encouraging young, up-and-coming talents to do the directing for him – on low salaries, low budgets and tight schedules, obviously.  (These constraints didn’t stop some of Corman’s protégées becoming big names indeed.)

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A movie symbolic of this transition is 1963’s The Terror, which came about because Corman wanted to make further use of sets and a star (Boris Karloff) he’d just used on a previous movie.  Without much idea of a story, he filmed some scenes with Karloff before the star went away, and then left it to various associates to come up with a script and a film incorporating the Karloff scenes.  The result is a weird hodgepodge that likely contains input from half-a-dozen directors: not only Corman but also Jack Hill, Dennis Jakob, Monte Hellman, Jack Nicholson (who starred in it alongside Karloff) and a young Francis Ford Coppola – ‘what’s-his-name, who makes the wine,’ as Miller referred to him once in an interview.  Late on in the production, when a script had finally evolved, it fell on Miller’s character to spout a load of exposition and enlighten the audience about what the hell was going on: “(Corman) said, “All right, this is what we’re going to do.  In this scene, you’re going to explain everything that happened in the picture…  ‘No, it wasn’t me, it was him, and he did that and they did it, and we did it to each other!’  And I was like, ‘Okay, that explains it.’”

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Thereafter, Miller became the cinematic equivalent of a family heirloom, passed down from Corman to younger generations, i.e. his many protégées.  Miller was particulary busy with Jonathan Kaplan, who directed him in 1972’s Night Call Nurses, 1973’s Student Teachers and The Slams, 1974’s Truck Turner, 1975’s White Line Fever, 1977’s Mr Billion, 1979’s 11th Victim, 1987’s Project X and 1992’s Unlawful Entry, but he also worked with Jonathan Demme (in 1975’s Crazy Mama), Paul Bartel (in 1975’s Death Race 2000 and 1976’s Carquake) and Allan Arkush (in 1979’s Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, 1981’s Heartbeeps and 1994’s Shake, Rattle and Rock).  In Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, Miller appeared alongside fellow New Yorkers and celebrated punk band the Ramones.  Playing a disgusted police chief, he says of them: “They’re ugly…  Ugly, ugly people!”

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Martin Scorsese, whose second full-length feature Boxcar Bertha had been produced by Corman in 1972, cast Miller in New York, New York (1977) and After Hours (1985); while James Cameron, who’d started his career working as a special effects man and art director for Corman, had him appear briefly but memorably in 1984’s The Terminator – he plays the unfortunate gun-shop owner who supplies Arnie with his firepower.  (“The Uzi nine millimetre.”  “You know your weapons, buddy!”)  Meanwhile, Quentin Tarantino, whom I suppose could be described as a second-generation Corman protégée – Monte Hellman helped him get his first film Reservoir Dogs to the screen in 1992 – gave Miller a small role in 1994’s Pulp Fiction.  He’s Monster Joe, owner of a dodgy junkyard called Monster Joe’s Truck and Tow where Harvey Keitel’s Mr Wolf character gets rid of the dead bodies he accrues during his work.  “If you ever need it,” he generously tells Wolf, “I’ll dispose of a body part for free.”  Alas, Tarantino decided to remove the scene from Pulp Fiction’s final cut to prevent the film getting too long and cluttered.   But you can see it on Youtube here.

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(c) Amblin Entertainment / Warner Bros

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Miller’s longest and most famous partnership with a graduate from the Roger Corman School of Film-making, though, was with Joe Dante.  When Dante and co-director Allan Arkush cast him in 1976’s Hollywood Boulevard, the pair hit it off so well that Miller appeared in (by my calculations) 13 more of Dante’s movies: Piranha (1978), The Howling (1981), the It’s a Good Life segment of The Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), Gremlins (1984), Explorers (1985), Innerspace (1987), The Burbs (1989), Gremlins II (1990), Matinee (1994), Small Soldiers (1998), Loony Tunes: Back in Action (2003), The Hole (2009) and Burying the Ex (2014). 

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Dante usually put Miller in blue-collar roles: security guard, pizza delivery guy, garbage collector, truck driver, taxi driver and in the case of Murray Futterman, his harassed character in Gremlins and Gremlins II, snowplough driver.  In the first Gremlins movie, Futterman and his wife Sheila (played by Jackie Joseph) are supposedly killed when a couple of the diabolical title creatures drive Futterman’s snowplough into their living room.  Happily, in Gremlins II, it transpires that they weren’t killed, just traumatised.  And there’s a marvellously cathartic scene where a gremlin with wings (which it acquired during some genetic tampering in a laboratory run by Christopher Lee) swoops down and attacks Futterman on a New York street.  This time, rather than cringing, Futterman mans up and sorts the little bastard out.   

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Furthermore, in honour of his starring role in A Bucket of Blood, three of Dante’s movies – Hollywood Boulevard, The Howling and The Twilight Zone: The Movie – had Miller playing a character called Walter Paisley.  Indeed, other filmmakers were quick to continue the in-joke.  Subsequently, Miller played someone called Walter Paisley in Jim Wynorski’s 1986 horror-comedy Chopping Mall (which was produced by Julie Corman, Roger’s missus); someone called Walter in Fred Decker’s 1986 sci-fi horror Night of the Creeps; and someone called Officer Paisley in Allan Arkush’s 1994 rock ‘n’ roll TV movie Shake, Rattle and Rock

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And according to IMDb there is a just completed, not-yet-released horror movie called Hanukkah wherein Dick Miller plays a Jewish character called ‘Rabbi Walter Paisley’.  So though the great man has left us, we’ll at least get one more opportunity to play ‘Where’s Walter?’    

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The quotes by Dick Miller contained in this post come from an entertaining interview he did in 2012 with the AV Club, which can be accessed here.

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(c) The Geffen Company / Warner Bros

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The things I do for James Bond

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(c) Eon Productions

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Last month in Colombo, I was looking forward to attending my workplace’s end-of-year party.  Then the invitation for it arrived in my work inbox and my enthusiasm suddenly waned.  The party, the invitation informed me, had a theme.  You had to come in a costume appropriate to the theme and the costume judged to be best would win a prize.  And the theme was: carnival.

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Carnival?

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Now do carnivals connect in any way with me?  No.  Carnivals are the products of Latin American cultures where the climate is always warm and the sun always shines; where the faces always smile and the temperament is always joyous; where the inhabitants know how to dress colourfully and exuberantly; and where one can happily and un-self-consciously dance the night away without imbibing even a smidgeon of wine. 

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I, on the other hand, come from a culture where the weather is always dreich and the sun is always wrapped in smirr and haar; where the faces frequently scowl to the point of resembling well-skelpt arses and the temperament is two parts Knox-ism to three parts Calvinism; where daring to wear a pair of patterned socks can earn you condemnation for being a reckless  attention-seeking exhibitionist; and where, after you’ve sunk about 12 pints of beer, you might countenance getting onto the dance-floor to shake your two left legs for a couple of minutes to something like Dogs of War by the Exploited.  Carnival, I thought in my best Rab C. Nesbitt voice.  Carnival my arse.

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But then, looking around my bedroom, I saw evidence that I did like one type of carnival.  I noticed, for example, the presence of these skull-shaped ceramic salt and pepper shakers on top of my bookshelf.

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Also, there was this ornate skull-shaped candle located on a corner of my desk.

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And there was this painted wooden skeleton hanging on a wall.

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And these two skeletal Mexican senoritas stood grinning on top of my wardrobe.

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All these skeleton-themed items come from the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos, known in English as Day of the Dead, which sees folk gather together and celebrate in honour of family members and friends who have passed away.  The reason I have so much Dia de los Muertos memorabilia is because my partner’s family live in San Antonio in Texas, about 150 miles north of the Mexican border, and three years ago we went to visit them in mid-October.  Not only were the local shops then full of merchandising for the upcoming Halloween festivities on October 31st, but they contained an equal amount of stuff for the upcoming Dia de los Muertos festivities on November 2nd.  The latter made excellent souvenirs to bring back from Texas. 

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When I thought about it, it also occurred to me that – as anyone who reads this blog regularly will know – I’m a big James Bond fan.  And didn’t the most recent Bond movie, 2015’s Spectre, begin with a long, tense and stylish chase / action sequence using as a backdrop a Dia de los Muertos parade in Mexico City?  For part of this sequence, Bond, played by Daniel Craig, is attired in a natty-looking outfit of top hat, skull mask and skeleton-patterned white-on-black suit and is accompanied by a glamorous lady in a summer frock and Venetian mask.  Now why couldn’t my partner and I attend our end-of-year work party dressed like that glamorous duo?

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Therefore, Dia de los Muertos was the carnival that provided us with general inspiration, while Daniel Craig and friend became our models.

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I should mention that in reality Mexico City never hosted a Dia de los Muertos parade until after 2015.  The makers of Spectre simply used dramatic licence and invented the occasion.  However, after the film’s release, the Mexico Tourism Board got so many inquiries about the non-existent parade from potential visitors that they decided to initiate one in their capital city to keep everyone happy (and, no doubt, make a bit of cash too).  Proof that life does imitate art.

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Assembling my Daniel Craig / Dia de los Muertos costume proved to be a trickier task than I’d expected.  I knew I was going to have to do much searching in Colombo to locate a top hat, but it was as difficult to find a skull mask.  I traipsed around several fancy-dress and party shops and got the same answer: “Oh, we had lots of skull masks two months ago, at  Halloween, but we don’t have any now!”  Thankfully, we discovered a wonderfully variegated and cluttered little costume store called JoJo’s tucked away in the back streets off Duplication Road where I was able to both rent a top hat and buy a skull mask (and my partner got her Venetian mask too).  The skull mask was actually gunmetal grey and I think it was meant to be the face of a robot skeleton – like the scary, stomping exoskeletons in the Terminator movies – and back at home I had to spray-paint it white.

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But the biggest problem was creating the skeleton-patterned suit.  I bought rolls of double-sided adhesive tape in a stationer’s and I cut the ‘bones’ out of strips of laminated white paper.  When I started to place the bones on the black jacket, the tape did initially make them stick to the fabric – until the moment when I tried to put the jacket on.  At the slightest movement of the fabric, the bones promptly fell off again.  I had to resort to laboriously sewing the bones on with white thread.  (The jacket was an ultra-cheap number I’d originally bought in Primark for twenty pounds, so I wasn’t concerned about disfiguring it.)  This took a lot of time and I only got the jacket finished minutes before the party was scheduled to start.  I hadn’t time to sew the leg bones onto my black trousers, so, reluctantly, I relied on the double-sided adhesive tape to fasten those.

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Incidentally, I managed to incorporate one item from my Dia de los Muertos memorabilia into the costume.  I fashioned a walking stick out of a rod and some kitchen foil and planted the ceramic skull-shaped salt shaker on one end of it as its head.  

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Finally, we were ready and off we headed for the party.  I’d barely got across the venue’s threshold when I began to suffer what are known nowadays as ‘wardrobe malfunctions’.  The adhesive tape continued to be worse than useless and my leg-bones were soon, and repeatedly, dropping off.  In fact, you could track me back and forth through the venue by following the little trail of bones I’d left on the ground behind me.  Trying not to dislodge them, I ended up moving around as slowly and stiffly as possible, and anyone who saw me probably thought I was stricken with severe constipation.

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Still, my Sri Lankan colleagues seemed impressed and kept inviting me to pose for photos with them.  I suspect, though, that they didn’t know about Dia de los Muertos or Spectre and merely thought I’d dressed up as a skeleton with a top hat because I was extremely weird.

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At the end of the evening, when the party organisers were finishing proceedings with a thank-you speech, they announced that the prize for best costume was being awarded to… me.  (Thankfully, the speaker referred to James Bond and Spectre at this point, making it clear to the assembled crowd that there was a method to my skeletal madness.) 

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And the prize was… a Miniso citrus juicer.  It now occupies a proud corner of our kitchen and, because it came as the result of a 007-inspired costume, I think of it as ‘the James Bond juicer’.  Alas, it doesn’t have a secret button on it that you press to make it turn into a speedboat and then into a hovercraft.

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Deathlog 2018: Part 2

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(c) Smallfilms

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Continuing my tribute to the many people who entertained and inspired me and who passed away in 2018…

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For connoisseurs of a gentle, eccentric and particularly British form of whimsy, July 2018 got off to a sad start when on the first day of the month Peter Firmin died.  A puppeteer, illustrator and engraver, Firmin ran the production company Smallfilms with Oliver Postgate. From the 1950s to 1970s Smallfilms gifted British children’s television with such beguiling programmes as The Saga of Noggin the Nog (1959-65), Ivor the Engine (1959 and 1975-77) and Bagpuss (1974).  Best of all in my opinion was The Clangers (1969-72), the tale of pink-knitted extra-terrestrial rodents who, despite inhabiting a barren asteroid covered with dustbin lids, have established utopia through apparently living on a diet of soup and being nice to each other.

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Also departing in July were…  On the 8th, 1950s and 60s American movie heartthrob Tab Hunter. I liked Hunter best as Todd Tomorrow in John Waters’ scabrous 1981 black comedy Polyester, which was filmed in ‘Odorama’ and enabled you to smell such odours as farts, glue, skunks and old shoes when they occurred in the film…  On the 10th, children’s author Clive King, responsible for the brilliant Stig of the Dump (1963)…  Also on the 10th, fencer and movie fight-choreographer William Hobbs, whose energetic sword-fights were highlights of such films as The Three and Four Musketeers (1973 and 74), Captain KronosVampire Hunter (1974), The Duellists (1977), Flash Gordon (1979), Excalibur (1981) and Ladyhawke (1985)…  And on the 27th, Bernard Hepton, another hardworking character actor who never seemed to be off British TV screens in the 1960s and 1970s.

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August 5th saw the death of Barry Chuckle, one half of slapstick comedy duo the Chuckle Brothers, a staple of British children’s TV entertainment since the 1980s.  In 2007, ‘the Chuckle Brothers’ also became a nickname for the unlikely ruling partnership at Northern Ireland’s devolved assembly, i.e. First Minister Ian Paisley of the Democratic Unionist Party and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein.  August 11th and 12th saw the demise of two writers working in very different fields: firstly, the Trinidadian-British literary heavyweight V.S. Naipaul, knighted in 1990 and recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001; and secondly the Scottish fantasy and science-fiction author Michael Scott Rohan, who claimed the medieval Scottish scholar, mathematician, astrologer and (in legend) sorcerer Michael Scott as an ancestor.

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(c) British Lion Films

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Jill Janus, singer with American heavy-metal band Huntress, took her own life on August 14th, while American soul legend and civil rights activist Aretha Franklin died two days later.  August 25th saw the passing of British dancer, mime artist, choreographer and actor Lindsay Kemp.  Among many other things, Kemp played the sneaky Alder MacGregor, landlord of the Green Man pub and father of Britt Ekland, in the masterly 1973 folk-horror movie The Wicker Man.  Tony Award-winning and much-filmed American playwright Neil Simon died on August 26th.

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September 2018 was a particularly death-filled month.  The Grim Reaper went into full-scale harvesting mode.  Among the victims were…  Conway Savage (September 2nd), the piano and organ-playing member of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds from 1990 onwards…  Carry On movie actress Liz Fraser (September 3rd)…  Frequently moustached and Stetson-wearing Hollywood beefcake Burt Reynolds (September 6th), known for provoking spectacular car chases and winding up redneck law officers in movies like Smokey and the Bandit (1977) and The Cannonball Run (1981), but also a star of John Boorman’s brilliant Deliverance (1972)…  Algerian musical genius Rachid Taha (September 12th)…  Burmese-born British actress Zienia Merton (September 14th), best remembered for playing Sandra Benes in Gerry Anderson’s science-fiction TV series Space: 1999 (1973-76)…  And actor Dudley Sutton (September 15th), popular as Ian McShane’s sidekick Tinker in the light-hearted antiques-themed TV drama Lovejoy (1986-94), although he showed his acting chops in movies as hard-hitting as Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971).

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The carnage continued during the month’s second half…  Multi-instrumentalist Maartin Allcock (September 16th), who played with such folk-rock combos as Fairport Convention and Jethro Tull but also, fascinatingly, with 1980s Goth-rock behemoths the Mission…  British comedy writer, TV presenter and all-round wit Dennis Norden (September 19th)…  Chas Hodges (September 22nd), one half of much-loved, rumbustious Cockney pub-singalong specialists Chas ‘n’ Dave, whose fans included The Libertines’ Pete Docherty…  Actor Al Matthews (September 22nd), whose finest cinematic hour came playing Apone, the rock-solid platoon sergeant in James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) – it was literally an hour, for when the aliens get Apone halfway through the film, it scarily signifies that they’ve gained the upper hand…  Star Wars movies producer Gary Kurtz (September 23rd)…  And Marty Balin (September 27th), singer, songwriter and musician with the mighty Jefferson Airplane and its less mighty 1970s incarnation Jefferson Starship.  At least Balin bailed out before Jefferson Starship morphed again, into those 1980s purveyors of musical ghastliness, Starship.

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(c) BBC
(c) Anglo-Amalgamated / Peter Rogers Productions

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Finally, September 2018 saw the deaths of two sublime British actresses.  On September 3rd, Jacqueline Pearce passed away.  As well as being a fetching starlet for Hammer Films in 1966’s Plague of the Zombies and The Reptile, she played the devastating Supreme Commander Servalan in the BBC’s science-fiction series Blake’s 7 (1978-81) – Servalan ruled the universe with a combination of sociopathy, ruthlessness, murderousness, high heels, flowing white evening gowns, sequins, pearls, fancy hats and general glam-ness.  Eight days later, the seductively husky-voiced actress Fenella Fielding died.  I feel guilty not going into her long, varied and distinguished stage and screen career in detail and merely focusing on the fact that she appeared in a Carry On movie – but as the gloriously vampish Valeria Watt in 1966’s Carry On Screaming, let’s just say she made a big impression on my adolescent self.

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The first day of October marked the deaths of legendary French crooner Charles Aznavour; the legendary (in British comic-book circles) Spanish artist Carlos Ezquerra; and British children’s TV personality Geoffrey Hayes, who gained unlikely cult status as presenter of the camp, puppet-ridden and oddly sinister show Rainbow (1972-97).  Ray Galton, who with the late Alan Simpson scripted such gems as Steptoe and Son (1962-74) and much of Tony Hancock’s TV and radio output, died on September 5th.  And three American actors with horror-genre connections passed away in October: Scott Wilson, who was lately popular as the kindly Herschel in the TV zombie series The Walking Dead (2011-14) but was also a veteran of such movies as In the Heat of the Night (1967), In Cold Blood (1967), The Grissom Gang (1971) and the William Peter Blatty-directed The Ninth Configuration (1980) and The Exorcist III (1980), died on October 6th; Celeste Yarnell, who played the kooky, dune-buggy-driving title character in Stephanie Rothman’s dreamy The Velvet Vampire (1971), died on October 7th; and James Karen, who played the affably hapless Frank in Return of the Living Dead (1985), died on October 23rd.

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(c) AMC Networks

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November saw the departures of two major movie directors, Bernardo Bertolucci of Last Tango in Paris (1971), The Last Emperor (1987) and The Sheltering Sky (1990) fame on the 26th and the fabulous Nicolas Roeg on the 23rd.  Also bowing out this month were another pair of seasoned British TV character actors: John Bluthal, whose work ranged from the low-brow sitcom Never Mind the Quality, Feel the Width (1967-71) to several projects with anarchic comedy genius Spike Milligan, died on November 15th; while George A. Cooper, for many years British television’s go-to man if a grumpy and abrasive Yorkshireman was needed, died one day later. 

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Meanwhile, Hong Kong movie mogul Raymond Chow, who founded Golden Harvest productions and helped turn Bruce Lee into an international star, died on November 2nd; American actress Sondra Locke, partner to and collaborator with Clint Eastwood for a time, died on November 3rd; actor Douglas Rain, who provided the simultaneously emotionless and demented voice of the computer HAL 9000 in Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), died on November 11th; and Marvel Comics supremo Stan Lee died on November 12th.

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(c) Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

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On November 16th, we bade adieu to author and screenwriter William Goldman, whose career highlights included Oscar-winning scripts for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and All the President’s Men (1976), as well as scripts for Marathon Man (1976), Magic (1978) and the amusing, charming and influential The Princess Bride (1987), based on his novels published in 1975, 1976 and 1973 respectively.  Goldman also penned Adventures in the Screen Trade (1983), an insider’s guide to Hollywood that butchered more than a few sacred cows and whose pronouncements – most notably, “Nobody knows anything” – still hold true today.

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December got off to a melancholy start with the death on the 6th of Pete Shelley, frontman and guitarist with the Buzzcocks and surely a role model for the young Steven Patrick Morrissey.  Scottish poet Tom Leonard died on December 21st  and the following day saw the death of politician Paddy Ashdown, who led the Liberal Democrats for 11 years until 1999 – back in the days when they had some integrity and credibility, things that were destroyed by Nick Clegg in 2010 when he entered the party into a coalition that facilitated a Conservative government, David Cameron and, indirectly, Brexit. 

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Also passing this month were two film directors who deserve to be better known in the English-speaking world: Spaniard Jorge Grau, who died on the 27th and who made the atmospheric, grisly and laudably environmentally-themed zombie movie, 1974’s The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue (which, despite its title, was set in the Lake District); and Hong Kong director, producer and scriptwriter Ringo Lam, whose hefty filmography includes City on Fire (1987), a clear influence on Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1993).  The venerable English actress and comic performer June Whitfield, whose career stretched some six decades from working with Noel Coward, Tony Hancock and Arthur Askey to starring in the satirical fashion / PR sitcom Absolutely Fabulous (1992-2012) and David Tennant-era Doctor Who (2009-10), died on December 28th.

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And finally, December 20th saw the demise of the excellent character actor Donald Moffat. As the beleaguered Commander Garry in John Carpenter’s classic science-fiction / horror movie The Thing (1982), he spoke the film’s best lines: “I know you gentlemen have been through a lot.  And if you find the time, I’d rather not spend the rest of the winter TIED TO THIS F**KING COUCH!”  Moffat also played two US presidents in his career, Lyndon B. Johnson in 1983’s The Right Stuff and the fictional President Bennet in 1994’s Clear and Present Danger.  I have to say he wasn’t the President Donald I wanted to say goodbye to in 2018.

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(c) Universal Pictures

Deathlog 2018: Part 1

   

     © CKK Corporation / Turtle Releasing Org.

    

As 2018 nears its end, I thought I’d mention those many writers, musicians, performers, artists and personalities who passed away during the first half of the year – folk who’ve inspired, entertained and generally made life a bit more interesting for me.  Links are provided for the people whose deaths were commemorated by entries on this blog. 

    

January 2018 saw a quadruple-whammy of music-related deaths.  On January 10th, we lost Fast Eddie Clarke, last surviving member of the formidable original line-up of Motörhead; on January 15th, Dolores O’Riordan, singer, songwriter and musician with the massively popular (for a time) Irish band the Cranberries; on January 20th, Jim Rodford, bass player with the Zombies, Argent and, for two decades from the 1970s to the 1990s, the Kinks; and on January 24th, the relentlessly experimental, prolific and grumpy Mark E. Smith of the ever shape-shifting post-punk band the Fall.

    

Meanwhile, mid-January witnessed the loss of two actors I remember fondly.  On January 15th, we said goodbye to Peter Wyngarde, suave, stylish and impressively moustached star of TV shows Department S (1969-70) and Jason King (1971-72); though connoisseurs of horror movies would argue his finest hours came with his small but terrifying role in the classic The Innocents (1961) and his lead role in the underrated Night of the Eagle (1962), while connoisseurs of trivia cherish the fact that as a teenager he was interned in the same Japanese prisoner of war camp as author J.G. Ballard.  The next day saw the departure of seemingly indefatigable American actor Bradford Dillman, whose CV included such lovably ropy cinema and TV movies as Fear No Evil (1969), The Mephisto Waltz (1971), Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), Moon of the Wolf (1972), Chosen Survivors (1974), Bug (1975), The Swarm (1978), Sudden Impact (1983) and Lords of the Deep (1988).  Though his best role in my opinion was in the original, Joe Dante-directed, John Sayles-scripted Piranha (1978).

   

                                                                             © ITC Entertainment

         

In the literary world, legendary science fiction and fantasy writer Ursula K. Le Guin died on January 22nd.  Soon after came the deaths of two well-regarded horror writers.  Jack Ketchum, author of 1981’s Off Season and 1989’s The Girl Next Door and co-writer of 2010’s The Woman and its 2011 film adaptation, died on January 24th; while David Case, whose 1971 short story Fengriffin was filmed in 1973 as And Now the Screaming Starts with a top-notch cast of Peter Cushing, Stephanie Beachum, Ian Ogilvy, Patrick Magee and Herbert Lom, died on February 3rd

    

Passing away on February 4th was the actor John Mahoney, much loved as Kelsey Grammar’s blue-collar dad Martin Crane in the sitcom Frasier (1993-2004).  Five days later saw the death of John Gavin, the American actor who was the hero (as opposed to Anthony Perkins’ anti-hero) of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and a credible Julius Caesar in Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus that same year.  Among other things, Gavin came close to playing James Bond in 1970’s Diamonds are Forever, before a hefty wage-offer lured Sean Connery back to the role.  By an unhappy coincidence, Lewis Gilbert, director of old-school Bond epics You Only Live Twice (1967), The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and Moonraker (1978), died the same month, on February 23rd.  And Peter Miles, the prolific British character actor who between the 1960s and 1980s turned up in such TV shows as Z-Cars, Survivors, The Sweeney, Poldark, Blake’s 7 and Bergerac, died on February 26th.  Perhaps best-known for playing Nyder, the conniving, Nazi-esque sidekick to the Daleks’ creator Davros in the classic 1975 Doctor Who adventure Genesis of the Daleks, Miles was the first of several veteran British TV actors to expire in 2018.

   

                                                                                                         © BBC

   

Indeed, a slew of British TV fixtures died the following month.   These were the relentless Liverpudlian comedian Ken Dodd, who was still performing marathon four-hour shows (“You think you can get away but you can’t.  I’ll follow you home and shout jokes through your letterbox!”) almost until his death on March 11th at the age of 90; Jim Bowen, beloved host of 1980s darts-themed quiz-show Bullseye, who died on March 14th; and Bill Maynard, star of 1970s sitcom Oh No, It’s Selwyn Froggitt! (1976-78) and several Carry On movies, who died on March 30th.

       

Meanwhile, a fixture of American TV, David Ogden Stiers, died on March 3rd.  I’ll always remember Stiers from the classic anti-war sitcom M*A*S*H, the last six seasons of which (1978-83) featured him in the role of the amusingly pompous and truculent but essentially good-hearted Charles Emerson Winchester III.  The same day another American actor, Frank Doubleday, passed away – Doubleday was responsible for the most shockingly senseless murder in movie history, playing a gang-member who guns down a little girl at an ice cream van in John Carpenter’s cheap but masterly Assault on Precinct 13 (1976). 

    

Bowing out on March 14th was Stephen Hawking, proof that having Motor Neuron Disease needn’t prevent you from having the finest mind on the planet – or having the ability to poke fun at yourself by making guest appearances in TV shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation and The Simpsons.  Philip Kerr, Edinburgh-born author of the ‘Berlin Noir’ Bernie Gunther crime novels, died on March 23rd.  And on March 20th, at the age of just 38, Kak Channthy, singer with the splendidly offbeat, catchy and trippy band Cambodian Space Project, was killed in a traffic accident in Phnom Penh.

    

                                       From the Khmer Times Daily News Digest

    

April saw the deaths of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Amadeus (1986) director Milos Foreman on April 13th; soldier and actor R. Lee Emery – who started off on Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987) as a technical advisor but proved so hardcore that Kubrick soon cast him in the role of the fearsome Gunnery Sergeant Hartman – on April 15th; actress Pamela Gidley from David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) on April 16th; John Stride, one of those afore-mentioned prolific British TV character actors, on April 20th; and diminutive actor Verne Troyer, who’ll be forever remembered as Mini-Me in the Austin Powers movies, on April 20th.  Personally, I liked Troyer best for his performance in Terry Gilliam’s 2009 film The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.

         

On April 29th, versatile screenwriter Trevor Preston died.  Preston’s CV ranged from the gritty TV crime shows Out (1978) and Fox (1980) to the popular kids’ fantasy series Ace of Wands (1970-72) to the fascinatingly oddball snooker / musical / horror film Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire (1987).

      

May got off with a melancholy start with two much-loved performers apparently taking their own lives: Scott Hutchinson, singer-songwriter and guitarist with Scottish Borders indie band Frightened Rabbit, who disappeared at the Firth of Forth on May 9th and whose body was discovered there the following day; and Canadian actress and activist Margot Kidder, Lois Lane to Christopher Reeve’s Clark Kent in the Superman movies of 1978, 80, 83 and 87, who died of an overdose on May 13th.  Heavyweight American writers Tom Wolfe and Philip Roth passed away on May 14th and May 22nd respectively.  And departing on May 21st was the towering (six foot, six inches) American actor Clint Walker, star of the TV western show Cheyenne from 1955 to 1963 and one of the twelve military convicts in Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (1967).  Two decades later, Walker would supply one of the voices for the title characters of Joe Dante’s Small Soldiers (1998) alongside other members of the Dozen like George Kennedy, Ernest Borgnine and Jim Brown.

     

Japanese actress Yuriko Hoshi, whose 90 films included some fun kaiju ones featuring Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah, died on May 17th, while British actor Glynn Edwards, who turned up in such British movie classics as Zulu (1964) and Get Carter (1971) but will be best remembered for playing Dave, the congenial barman at Arthur Daley’s watering hole the Winchester Club in the TV show Minder (1979-94), died on May 23rd.  May 20th saw the death of yet another Stanley Kubrick collaborator, graphic designer and film-poster artist Bill Gold.  Among the hundreds of posters Gold produced, it’s a toss-up between his one for Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) and his one for The Exorcist (1973) about which is the most iconic.

   

                                                     © Warner Bros.
                                                        © Warner Bros.

    

June 8th saw the deaths of globetrotting TV chef Anthony Bourdain, and actress Eunice Gayson, the very first cinematic Bond girl (Sylvia Trench in 1962’s Dr No and 1963’s From Russia With Love), and blues-rock guitarist Danny Kirwan, who played with Fleetwood Mac until 1972 (i.e. back in the days when they were good).  June was also when two notable drummers passed away: Nick Knox, who played for 14 years with psychobilly legends the Cramps, on June 15th and Vinnie Paul of the heavy metal band Pantera on June 22nd.  Actress Maria Rohm, wife of the prolific British film producer Harry Alan Towers and frequent star of movies made by the equally prolific Spanish director Jess Franco, died on June 18th.  One day later, so did the kindly, smart and communicative primate Koko the Gorilla.

      

Science fiction and fantasy author, notorious curmudgeon, all-round personality and a hero of mine (especially during my teens) Harlan Ellison died on June 27th.  Two days later saw the passing of the legendary comic artist and writer Steve Dikto, who co-created Marvel Comics superheroes Spiderman and Dr Strange with Stan Lee.  Later on, of course, Lee would be a casualty of 2018 too.

     

And those were only the deaths during the first half of 2018.  I’ll post an entry about 2018’s second half later this month – and, alas, there are many more still to come.

    

Roeg one

 

From www.filmreference.com

 

Bugger.  Just when I’ve finished penning a tribute to one genius who’s gone and died on us – see my previous entry on Stan Lee – another genius goes and dies too and I find myself in obituary-writing mode yet again.  I’m referring to the legendary director and cinematographer Nicolas Roeg, who passed away on November 23rd at the age of 90.

 

I’m tempted to say that Roeg, with his fondness for hitting filmgoers with random bits of narrative and elegiac but fragmented imagery that, like the pieces of a puzzle, they then had to figure out and stick together themselves, was a rare thing by today’s cinematic standards – a filmmaker who made movies for grown-up, thinking people.  But actually I was hardly into my teens, with my thought processes still maturing, when I experienced his most celebrated films, i.e. those from a purple patch spanning the 1970s from Performance (1970) to Bad Timing (1980).

 

Films like Walkabout (1971) and The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) had started to turn up on TV while I went through my pimply adolescence; and I had the privilege of seeing Don’t Look Now (1973) and Performance on a big screen, courtesy of Peebles High School Film Club (which showed films in the school assembly hall every Monday evening) at the ages of 14 and 16 respectively.  Seeing two 1970s Nicholas Roeg movies uncut at those ages, and on a decent-sized screen.  Wow, those were the days.

 

And what did I make of them?  Well, I found them bafflingly weird, but when I discussed them at school the next day with my mates – as we invariably discussed them – we were able to put forward a theory or two about what’d been going on.  And despite being bewildered by them, we usually enjoyed them and felt that we’d seen something special.  Mind you, being teenagers, we also liked Roeg’s movies because they contained such vital ingredients as violence, sex, drugs and (via the personages of David Bowie and Mick Jagger) rock ‘n’ roll.

 

© British Lion Films

 

Even Don’t Look Now, which my 14-year-old self didn’t initially like because it seemed too disconcertingly removed from how I thought a horror movie should be, remained with me because though I didn’t enjoy the sum of its parts, several of the parts themselves were impossible to forget.  These included the opening sequence, both incredibly painful and creepy, in which Donald Sutherland loses his young daughter to an accident while the tragedy is foreshadowed by an incident involving blood-like red ink leaking across a photographic slide from a strange figure wearing the same red coat that the doomed girl is wearing; the sex scene between Sutherland and Julie Christie (playing his wife and the dead girl’s mother) which, while explicit, offers the viewer no titillation because it’s obviously the act of two damaged people trying desperately to achieve closure on the past and get on with their lives again; the scenes where Sutherland pursues a mysterious little figure in red – his daughter’s spirit? – through the labyrinthine, decaying streets and waterways of Venice; and of course, that ending.  I should say that I’ve seen Don’t Look Now several times since then and now think it’s a masterpiece.

 

Conventional wisdom has it that Roeg lost his mojo somewhat in the 1980s.  But when you consider the reviews (or in some cases reappraisals) that his 1980s films like Eureka (1983), Insignificance (1985), Castaway (1986), Track 29 (1988) and The Witches (1990) have received, they sound like they’d make credible additions to any director’s CV.  I’ve hardly seen any of them, which is a shame since they’re packed with actors and actresses whom I like, such as Rutger Hauer, Joe Pesci, Gene Hackman, Tony Curtis, Ollie Reed, Amanda Donohoe, Gary Oldman, Angelica Huston and Bill Paterson.

 

And let’s not forget that before he became a director, Roeg was a distinguished cinematographer on such movies as Roger Corman’s Masque of the Red Death (1964), Francois Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (1966) and John Schlesinger’s Far from the Madding Crowd (1967).  In fact, Masque, with Roeg’s camera shifting eerily from yellow to purple to white and finally to red as it follows evil Prince Prospero (Vincent Price) through the different-coloured rooms of his plague-besieged castle – in Edgar Allan Poe’s original 1842 short story, there were seven rooms, but obviously Corman’s budget fell three short of that – is one of my all-time favourite movies just to look at.

 

By way of a musical tribute to the late, great Nicolas Roeg, here’s the 1985 song E=MC2 by Mick Jones’s Big Audio Dynamite.  Jones was clearly a fan of Roeg, since the song manages to fit in references to no less than five of his movies.  And here also is Mick Jagger at the end of Performance serenading some hallucinating Cockney gangsters (“It’s Mad Cyril!”) with Memo from Turner, surely the best ever Rolling Stones song that isn’t technically a Rolling Stones song.

 

 

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