Cosplay in Colombo

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

From pinterest

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

© Walt Disney Pictures / Jerry Bruckheimer Films

 

Great unappreciated films: Breakfast on Pluto

 

© Sony Classic Pictures / Pathé 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

© Sony Classic Pictures / Pathé 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

© Sony Classic Pictures / Pathé 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

© Sony Classic Pictures / Pathé 

 

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

 

© Oxford University Press

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

© Compton-Tekli Film Productions / Colombia Pictures

 

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

 

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

 

© BBC

 

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

 

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

 

© AVCO Embassy Pictures

 

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

 

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

 

© The Mirisch Corporation / United Artists / MGM

 

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

 

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

 

© Hammer Films

 

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

 

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

 

© Universal Pictures

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

© Granada Television

 

The hunt is on

 

© 20th Century Fox / Silver Pictures

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

“But no animal can reason,” objected Rainsford.

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

 

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

 

© RKO Radio Pictures

 

The Most Dangerous Game (1932)

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

 

The Naked Prey (1965)

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

 

© United Artists

 

The Hunting Party (1971)

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

 

Punishment Park (1971)

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

 

© Chartwell Francoise / Project X Distribution

 

The Beast Must Die (1974)

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

 

Southern Comfort (1981)

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

 

© 20th Century Fox / Cinema Group Ventures

 

Predator (1987)

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

 

Surviving the Game (1994)

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

 

© Carnaby Film Productions / Kaleidoscope Film Distribution

 

A Lonely Place to Die (2011)

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

 

Revenge (2017)

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

 

© Rezo Films / MES Productions / Monkey Pack Films

 

Enter the dragon

 

© Dino de Laurentiis Company / NBC

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

© Arrow Books

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

© De Laurentiis Entertainment Group / Red Dragon Productions

© De Laurentiis Entertainment Group / Red Dragon Productions

© De Laurentiis Entertainment Group / Red Dragon Productions

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

© Universal Productions / Imagine Corporation

© Universal Productions / Imagine Corporation

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

© Dino de Laurentiis Company / NBC

© Dino de Laurentiis Company / NBC

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

From fineartamerica.com

 

Cinematic heroes 12: Freddie Jones

 

© Associated British Picture Company / Warner Pathé

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

© MGM

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

© Hammer Studios / Warner Bros – Seven Arts

 

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

 

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

 

© Brooksfilms / Paramount Pictures

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

© HTV West

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

© ITV Studios

 

In good company

 

© Palace Productions / ITC / Cannon

 

I read recently that a new academic study has been published about The Company of Wolves, the 1984 movie directed by Neil Jordan, based on fiction by Angela Carter and co-scripted by Jordan and Carter.  The study is the latest in a series of academic film-books called Devil’s Advocates, dedicated to classic horror movies and put into print by Auteur Publishing.  Devil’s Advocates: The Company of Wolves is the work of Northern Irishman James Gracey, who describes himself in his Twitter profile as a ‘library assistant’ and ‘occasional author of books about horror films’.  Its appearance has reminded me that The Company of Wolves is one of my favourite movies of the 1980s – of any genre, not just horror.

 

No doubt part of my fondness for the film stems from its source material, because I’m a big fan of the late Angela Carter and her sumptuous gothic prose.  (While I was doing an MA in 2008-2009 at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, where Carter had once taught creative writing, I was delighted one day when I got chatting with an elderly assistant at the campus bookshop and she reminisced about Carter and how she used to wander around “in a big billowy dress.”)  The Company of Wolves began life as a short story featured in her masterly 1979 collection The Bloody Chamber.  Considering how other stories in the book are adult, gothic reworkings of such fairy tales and myths as Beauty and the Beast (The Courtship of Mr Lyon), Snow White (The Snow Child) and Bluebeard (the title story), it’s no surprise that The Company of Wolves is a version of Little Red Riding Hood with, as its villain, not a big bad wolf but an even bigger and badder werewolf.

 

© ullstein bild / Getty Images

 

Carter’s Company of Wolves takes its time getting to its main plotline, though.  It begins by recounting several shorter tales and anecdotes that explore wolf and werewolf lore, and the Red Riding Hood character doesn’t set off into the forest to visit Grandmother’s house until halfway through its ten pages.  Additionally, The Company of Wolves is part of a triptych of werewolf-related stories in The Bloody Chamber – it’s sandwiched between ones called The Werewolf and Wolf-Alice (which as well as being an Angela Carter story is the name of a not-bad alternative rock / indie band).  Not only does Jordan’s movie copy the rambling, episodic and anecdotal structure of the fictional Company of Wolves, but it also borrows elements from its two hairy neighbours.

 

Translating into celluloid Carter’s ornate prose style – which, for example, has a midwinter forest containing “huddled mounds of birds, succumbed to the lethargy of the season, heaped on the creaking boughs and too forlorn to sing” and “bright frills of the winter fungi on the blotched trunks of the trees” and “a hare as lean as a rasher of bacon streaking across the path where the thin sunlight dapples the russet brakes of last year’s bracken” – was a job to which the Irish director and writer Neil Jordan was well suited.   His CV includes atmospheric and flamboyant supernatural movies like Interview with the Vampire (1994) and Byzantium (2012), plus the dark, twisted tragic-comic drama The Butcher Boy (1997); and many of his supposedly more realistic films like Angel (1982), Mona Lisa (1986) and The Crying Game (1992) are imbued with a strange, phantasmagorical quality too.

 

With The Company of Wolves, Jordan and his production team – take a bow, cinematographer Bryan Loftus, production designer Anton Furst and art director Stuart Rose – excel themselves in crafting a physical setting for Carter’s stories.  The movie mostly takes place in a pre-industrial village and a surrounding, huge Ruritanian forest.  It’s an environment that’s both quaint with thatched cottages, cobbled streets, mossy churchyards and humped stone bridges and lush with bright-coloured flowers, shaggy trees, trailing vines,  beds of fallen leaves and nests of speckled eggs (which, disconcertingly, hatch and release tiny homunculi).  Yet it’s also a claustrophobic place of misshapen branches, drifting fogs, deep snowbanks and, obviously, wolf-howls that pierce out of the dark recesses of the forest.  In other words, it’s part Romantic poem, part fevered dream and part Hammer horror.

 

© Palace Productions / ITC / Cannon

 

If anything, the plotting in the film of The Company of Wolves is more disorientating than that in the original story.  The central structure is similar: we get a clutch of little stories about werewolves – here told to teenage heroine Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson) by her grandmother (Angela Lansbury) and then, later, told by Rosaleen herself – before the film settles down to its main narrative, which is what happens one day when Rosaleen dons a red woollen shawl, leaves her village and takes a walk through the forest to her grandmother’s secluded cottage.

 

However, the film places this within a framing device that has Rosaleen as a modern-day girl who dreams about being in a fairy-tale village, in a fairy-tale forest, while she takes an afternoon nap in her bedroom.  (As we descend through Rosaleen’s subconscious to the main part of the dream, we also pass through a creepy transitional zone populated by human-sized versions of the dolls and toys in her bedroom, which calls to mind another Angela Carter work, the 1967 novel The Magic Toyshop.)  At the film’s end, this stories-told-within-a-dream framework collapses, for poor modern-day Rosaleen wakes from her dream to find real wolves crashing through the walls of her room.  None of which matters, of course.  The Company of Wolves isn’t a film to be processed logically.  It’s one to be simply experienced.

 

It hasn’t much character development, since the characters are archetypes rather than proper human beings, but it’s still well acted by a first-rate cast.  Sarah Patterson does what’s required of her as Rosaleen and German actor, dancer and choreographer Micha Bergese is appropriately lithe, flirtatious and, yes, predatory as the young hunstsman whom Rosaleen encounters on the way to her grandmother’s house.  (His eyebrows meet above his nose, which is a dead giveaway.)  Angela Lansbury makes a wonderfully spry and wily grandmother, so much so that I can forgive her for the subsequent dozen years that she spent clogging up my television screen with her dreary TV series Murder, She Wrote (1984-96).  The film also features the excellent trio of David Warner as Rosaleen’s father in both the dream world and the real one, Graham Crowden as the village’s amiable priest, and Brian Glover as the village’s resident Yorkshireman.  (At one point, Glover pontificates, “If you think wolves are big now, you should have seen them when I were a lad!”)

 

© Palace Productions / ITC / Cannon

 

In the cast too are Terence Stamp and Jordan’s long-time collaborator Stephen Rea, both of whom appear in the first two stories narrated by Lansbury.  Stamp has a cameo as the Devil, selling a youth a magical balm that, once applied, has lycanthropic consequences.  Rea plays a man who mysteriously disappears on his wedding night and then equally mysteriously reappears seven years later, to discover that his wife has since remarried and sired a brood of children with her new husband.  In the film’s most gruesome sequence, Rea shows his displeasure by becoming a werewolf – a painful process because, to facilitate the transformation, he has to tear his own skin off.

 

With the young, virginal Rosaleen setting out on a journey and being waylaid by a literally beastly male, but then taking control of the situation and resolving it in her own unexpected fashion, there’s obviously a lot happening beneath the film’s surface.  However, I like the fact that while The Company of Wolves is concerned with themes of female empowerment and sexuality, it isn’t a polemic.  Yes, one of Lansbury’s tales ends with an instance of domestic violence, and one of Rosaleen’s tales deals with a wronged woman getting her revenge on the cad responsible.  But Rosaleen’s parents are depicted as having a loving and sharing relationship.  Despite coming to this film after villainous roles in Time After Time (1979), The Time Bandits (1981) and Tron (1982), Warner plays a gentle soul here; and Rosaleen’s mother (Tusse Silberg) points out to her that “if there’s a beast in man, it meets its match in women too.”  Meanwhile, a village boy (Shane Johnstone) who takes a shine to Rosaleen, while evidently a lustful scamp, seems good-hearted enough and demonstrates concern for her safety.

 

© Palace Productions / ITC / Cannon

 

This nuance extends to the film’s portrayal of the church.  It’s hardly an institution of oppressive patriarchy.  Rosaleen’s final tale has Graham Crowden’s priest showing kindness to a feral wolf-girl (played by experimental 1980s singer-musician Danielle Dax).  “Are you God’s work or the Devil’s?” he asks her.  “Oh, what do I care whose work you are.  You poor, silent creature…”

 

You appreciate Jordan and Carter’s achievement with The Company of Wolves when you consider how many filmmakers since then have tried, and failed, to convert children’s fairy stories into darker, more adult and more gothic movies.  I’m thinking of Terry Gilliam’s disappointingly uneven Brothers Grimm (2005) or the blah Kristen Stewart vehicle Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) or crud like Red Riding Hood (2011) and Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013).

 

Probably the best effort has been Matteo Garrone’s Italian / French / British movie Tale of Tales (2015) which, like The Company of Wolves, isn’t afraid to confound expectations and twist and distort logic.  Which, when you think about it, is what the original fairy and folk tales that inspired both films did anyway.

 

© Nomad Publishing

 

My favourite films of 2017

 

© Universal Pictures

 

Better late than never – well, I’ve been off on holiday for the past fortnight – here’s a round-up of the films I saw in 2017 and liked best.  My definition of a 2017 film is simply one that was released in the UK during the year.  I should say I’ve been extremely lazy about watching movies this last year and there are many I haven’t seen – indeed, I have DVDs of The Killing of a Sacred Dear, It Comes at Night, Toni Erdmann and the remake of The Beguiled sitting on my table at this very moment, waiting to be watched.

 

Baby Driver

Edgar Wright’s sleek, shiny riff on seemingly every bank-heist and car-chase movie made in the 1960s and 1970s – Bullit (1968), The Italian Job (1969), The French Connection (1971), Vanishing Point (1971), The Getaway (1972), The Driver (1978), etc. – is a triumph of style over substance.  But what the hell?  I loved it and I think I’m entitled to one guilty pleasure in 2017.

 

And few things are more pleasurable in this tale of a young getaway-car driver (Ansel Elgort) being forced by his boss (Kevin Spacy) to work with ever-more dysfunctional groups of bank robbers than its use of music.  Edgar Wright’s movies always have great soundtracks, but the songs here – everything from the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s Bellbottoms to Focus’s Hocus Pocus – have never been as seamlessly and exhilaratingly woven into the action.

 

Blade Runner 2049

With Blade Runner 2049 Canadian director Denis Villeneuve achieved the impossible.  He crafted a sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 masterpiece that was as haunting, elegiac, philosophical and visually overwhelming as the original.

 

A Dark Song

Films usually make the practice of magic look easy.  You draw a circle, recite an incantation, perform a sacrifice and – hey presto! – your wish is granted.  The little-seen but fascinating Irish horror movie A Dark Song, directed by newcomer Liam Gavin, takes a different approach, however.  Here, fulfilling your goals with magic requires gruelling effort, endless repetition, numbing attention to detail, painful self-deprivation and much, much time.  A Dark Song has a bereaved mother (Catherine Walker) subjecting herself to months of confinement in a remote house carrying out arcane rituals under the unsympathetic eye of a hired occultist (Steve Oram) in the hope that eventually – eventually – she’ll gain access to a realm of angels and demons where she can communicate with her dead son.  It’s entirely possible, though, that Oram is a charlatan who’s doing this to cheat her out of a lot of money.

 

Inevitably, it’s something of an anti-climax when the angels and demons finally appear – they seem both too generic and too strange.  But the getting-there in A Dark Song is absolutely engrossing.

 

© Syncopy Inc. / Warner Bros

 

Dunkirk

Christopher Nolan’s epic recreation of the evacuation of 340,000 Allied soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk in late May and early June 1940 suffered from unfortunate timing.  It was released a year after the British public, by a small majority, voted to leave the European Union.  Predictably, the film was seized upon by right-wing Brexiters as a timely reminder of what plucky little Britain is capable of when it finds itself in a tight spot – especially when quitting the European mainland is involved – while liberal Remainers lamented about it wallowing in nostalgia.  Well, bollocks to thatDunkirk is just a great film and writer-director Nolan deserves kudos for avoiding the usual war-movie clichés and applying his own special style to it.

 

Dunkirk is refreshingly un-clichéd in its depiction of the ordinary soldiers.  They’re frightened young men, scarcely more than boys, who aren’t being heroic but are simply trying to survive (and who expect to be ‘spat at in the streets’ for failure and cowardice if they do make it back to Britain).  Meanwhile, Nolan indulges his customary fondness for fragmented narratives and cuts between three different storylines that are happening over different time-frames and are Russian-doll-like in their sizes – a week when some soldiers struggle to stay alive on the French beaches, a day when an English yachtsman (a splendidly gallant and focused Mark Rylance) and his teenaged crew cross the channel to do their bit in rescuing the troops, and a few hours when two RAF pilots (Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden) fight off enemy aircraft trying to decimate the men and boats below.  Gradually and satisfyingly, the storylines converge on Rylance’s little boat.  And also deserving praise is the intense and unsettling music by Hans Zimmer, which cranks up the tension to near-unbearable levels.

 

Free Fire

I said Baby Driver was my one guilty pleasure of 2017.  Well, I lied.  Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire was my other guilty pleasure of the year.  It doesn’t have a story so much as a situation – a 1970s arms deal goes wrong in a warehouse, so that the IRA men doing the purchasing (Cillian Murphy, Michael Smiley), the intermediaries (Brie Larson, Armie Hammer), the dealer (a marvellously annoying Sharlto Copley) and various associates and henchmen spend most of the film’s 90 minutes pinned down and gradually being shot to shreds in a massive and complicated gun-battle.  Sneakily, this saves Wheatley the bother of having to write a proper script.  But the élan with which he directs the proceedings, the bickering, bitching dialogue (“As gorgeous as ever!” Copley tells Larson.  “Well, you’ve put on a bit of weight.  Did someone impregnate you?”) and the performances by the increasingly bullet-ridden cast make Free Fire a deliriously stylish – if not particularly substantial – experience.

 

© Rook Films / Film 4 Productions

 

Get Out

The classiest horror movie of 2017, Jordan Peele’s Get Out uses as its starting point the uncomfortable experiences of a young black man (Daniel Kaluuya) enduring a weekend at the well-to-do countryside home of his white girlfriend’s family.  Her family and friends are soon making him cringe with their efforts to virtue-signal their liberalism and non-racism, enthusing about Barack Obama, Tiger Woods and the general wonderfulness of all things black, whilst simultaneously turning a blind eye to the fact that black servants are bringing them their food and drinks.  This being a horror film, Get Out reaches a point where it stops being a painful, satirical comedy of manners and starts being something altogether more paranoid and scary.  The result is impressively gripping but Get Out is to be applauded too for its humour.  Particularly funny is the hero’s excitable best mate (Lil Rel Howery), who’s the first person to realise something is seriously wrong: “You gotta get the f**k outta there, man!  You in some Eyes Wide Shut situation!  Leave, mother**ker!”

 

The Handmaiden

For The Handmaiden, South Korean director Park Chan-wook audaciously took Fingersmith, Sarah Waters’ 2002 novel of intrigue, duplicity, kinkiness and illicit (for the time) love, and transplanted its story from Victorian England to early 20th century Korea.  The resulting work is lusciously colourful and exotic.  It benefits too from spirited performances by actresses Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-ri as the identity-swapping heiress and maidservant at the centre of the plot.

 

© Moho Film / Yong Film / CJ Entertainment

 

The Love Witch

If Baby Driver was an aural treat, Anne Biller’s fascinating supernatural / feminist fantasy The Love Witch was 2017’s greatest visual treat.  Its story of a young witch (Samantha Robinson), who’s self-confessedly ‘addicted to love’ and will weave any spell and wreak any havoc in order to get it, is set in a kitsch, retro-1970s California where the frocks, hats, lipstick, nail varnish, eye shadow, sportscars, suitcases, wallpapers, upholstery and candles are a gorgeous rainbow of crimsons, light blues, lavenders, pinks and cherry reds.  The film itself is a tad long, but it’s highly enjoyable, with its sweet-but-sinister script containing plenty of satirical barbs about the lengths a spell-weaving gal has to go to find love in a man’s world.

 

Moonlight

Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, like Dunkirk, features a triptych of narratives – though here the narratives are in chronological order, showing the tribulations of the central character as a child (Alex Hibbert), adolescent (Ashton Sanders) and young man (Trevante Rhodes) while he wrestles with bullies, criminality, an errant mother and a growing awareness (and acceptance) of his homosexuality.  Brilliantly written and beautifully, almost poetically, filmed, Moonlight is a rare beast indeed, a Best Picture winner at the Oscars that actually deserved to win Best Picture.

 

© A24 / Plan B Entertainment

 

Deathlog 2017 – Part 2

 

© Paramount Classics

 

American Renaissance man Sam Shepard died on July 27th.  As a playwright he was responsible for Buried Child (1978), True West (1980), Fool for Love (1983), A Lie of the Mind (1985) and others; he acted in movies as varied as Days of Heaven (1978), The Right Stuff (1983), Black Hawk Down (2001) and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007); he authored two novels and directed two films; and his screenwriting credits included Zabriskie Point (1970), Renaldo and Clara (1978) and of course Paris, Texas (1984), a movie I can’t think of now without hearing Ry Cooder’s elegiac slide-guitar score in my head.

 

Other casualties of July 2017 included the masterly horror-movie auteur George A. Romero, who died on July 16th; Welsh actor Hywel Bennett, one-time boyish-faced star of movies like The Family Way (1966), Twisted Nerve (1968) and Loot (1970), who died on July 25th; and Chester Bennington, singer with popular nu-metal band Linkin Park, who died on July 20th – I had little time for nu-metal music generally, but I thought Linkin Park were among the sub-genre’s least offensive practitioners.  Meanwhile, departing on July 15th was distinguished movie and TV actor Martin Landau, who first gained attention as a villain in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest back in 1959.  I’ll always remember Landau for playing Commander Koenig in the TV sci-fi show Space 1999 (1975-77) and playing a washed-up, drug-addled Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton’s delightful Ed Wood (1994).

 

© Toho

 

Where to start in August 2017?  Old Western movie-star Ty Hardin died on August 3rd, as did hard-working British TV and film actor Robert Hardy, who was still going strong in his eighties thanks to the Harry Potter franchise.  August 7th saw the passing of Japanese actor and stuntman Haruo Nakajima, who filled a rubber suit to play Godzilla in many a giant-monster movie for Japan’s Toho Company in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.  Having played Godzilla in 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla, Nakajima changed sides, donned an ape-suit and played King Kong in 1967’s King Kong Escapes.  Passing one day later was American country-and-western singer Glen Campbell, whom I’ll remember best for one of his occasional acting roles – as La Boeuf, the Texas Ranger who joins forces with Rooster Cogburn (John Wayne) and Mattie Ross (Kim Darby) in Henry Hathaway’s 1969 western True Grit.  The last day of August saw the demise of American TV actor Richard Anderson, fondly remembered by 1970s youngsters as Oscar Goldman in The Six Million Dollar Man (1973-78).

 

Another horror-movie auteur, Tobe Hooper – of Texas Chainsaw Massacre infamy – passed away on August 26th.  The great English science-fiction writer Brian Aldiss died on August 19th; while Gordon Williams, Scottish author of The Siege of Trencher’s Farm (1969), the basis for Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 film Straw Dogs, died on August 20th.  And legendary Hollywood funny-man Jerry Lewis left us on August 20th.  To be honest, I found his comedy movies about as amusing as toothache, but I can’t deny an older Lewis was excellent as the cynical comedian / chat-show host Jerry Langford in Martin Scorsese’s twisted showbiz satire The King of Comedy (1982).

 

Bruce Forsyth, English TV gameshow host, entertainer and comedian – and supposedly the last person working on British television who’d first appeared on it prior to World War II – died on August 18th.  I found Forsyth’s all-singing, all-dancing, all-joking showbiz schtick hard to take, but I liked him for the guest appearance he made on The Muppet Show in 1976, when he helped Fozzie Bear stand up to those wizened, mean-spirited hecklers Statler and Waldorf.  That was definitely Bruce’s finest hour.

 

© ITC Entertainment

 

Len Wein, the great comic-book writer whose many achievements included creating the squishy half-man, half-plant Swamp Thing with the late Bernie Wrightson back in 1971, died on September 9th.  The following day saw the death of Irish-American author J.P. Donleavy.  I loved Donleavy’s 1955 novel The Ginger Man as a teenager, though I wonder if I would find it a bit juvenile if I read it again today.  Grant Hart, who manned the drumkit for the brilliant 1980s alterative-punk band Hüsker Dü, died on September 14th, and one day later yet another Twin Peaks (and Paris, Texas) alumni, the marvellous American character actor Harry Dean Stanton, passed away.  Another American actor, Bernie Casey, died on September 19th.  Casey’s roles included that of Felix Leiter in the ‘rogue’ Sean Connery / James Bond movie Never Say Never Again (1982), which made him the cinema’s first black Felix Leiter a quarter-century before Jeffrey Wright landed the part in the Daniel Craig Bond films.

 

Boxer Jake LaMotta, whose chequered career formed the basis for the classic Martin Scorsese / Robert De Niro collaboration Raging Bull (1980), died on September 20th.  A week later saw the death of Hugh Hefner, millionaire founder of Playboy magazine.  With his playmate-filled mansion and penchant for pyjamas, pipes and ship’s-captain hats, Hefner struck me as a sleazy and infantile old letch.  But I can’t belittle his literary taste – in between the nudie pictures, Playboy published work by Margaret Atwood, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Ian Fleming, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Joseph Heller, Shirley Jackson, Ursula Le Guin, Norman Mailer, Haruki Murakami, Joyce Carol Oates, Kurt Vonnegut and many more.

 

September 25th marked the death of English actor Tony Booth, best-known as a cast-member in the controversial but influential BBC sitcom Till Death Us Do Part (1965-75) and for being the real-life father of Cherie Booth, i.e. Mrs Tony Blair.  Here’s a fascinating fact: Booth claimed his great-great-great-uncle’s son was John Wilkes Booth, who was both an actor and the assassin of Abraham Lincoln.  I wonder if the staunchly socialist Booth felt tempted to emulate his ancestor once his son-in-law had been in office for a few years and shown his true colours.

 

The music world suffered another blow on October 3rd with the death of the agreeable American musician, singer and songwriter Tom Petty, while the comedy world said goodbye to the ground-breaking Irish comedian Sean Hughes on October 16th.  The same day saw the passing of venerable Guernsey actor Roy Dotrice, whose career stretched from The Heroes of Telemark (1965) to Hellboy II (2008), via 1984’s Amadeus where he played the title character’s father.  Like many a veteran British character actor, Doctrice got a late-career boost when he was cast in Game of Thrones (2011-present).  Other actors to die in October included Robert Guillaume – wonderful as Benson, droll butler to the chaotic Tate family in the American TV comedy Soap (1977-81) – and on October 9th the distinguished French actor Jean Rochefort.  Ironically, Rochefort may be best-known to English-speaking audiences for a role he didn’t play.  He was lined up to be Don Quixote in Terry Gilliam’s monumentally ill-fated and eventually-cancelled The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.  In anticipation, Rochefort even learned to speak English.  The 2002 documentary Lost in La Manca tells the story of this epic that never happened.

 

From goseelivemusic.co

 

October 22nd saw the death of Daisy Berkowitz, one-time guitarist to Goth-metaller / shock-rocker Marilyn Manson, and on October 19th the Italian movie director Umberto Lenzi passed away.  Lenzi was prolific in several genres, but I’ll remember him chiefly for his 1974 thriller Spasmo, an elegant if not terribly sensible example of the Italian giallo genre.

 

November brought a rash of music-related deaths – Chuck Mosely, the 1980s frontman for the great American alternative / funk-metal band Faith No More, on November 9th; Michael Davis (nicknamed ‘Dik Mik’), who in the 1970s operated the appropriately futuristic-sounding ‘audio-generator’ for the legendary ‘space-rock’ band Hawkwind, on November 16th; and Australian-born TV composer Dudley Simpson, who died on November 4th.   Simpson’s career-highlights include the incidental music for Doctor Who during its creepiest phase in the 1970s and the unsettling and pulsating theme tune for The Tomorrow People (1973-79).  Saddest of all for me, however, was the passing on November 18th of Australian guitarist Malcolm Young, co-founder of AC / DC and mastermind behind that band’s mightiest guitar riffs.

 

November was also a bad month for British TV sitcom actors, witnessing the deaths of Keith Barron on November 15th and Rodney Bewes on November 21st.  In between television work, both men appeared occasionally in films – I particularly remember Barron in 1974’s movie adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Land That Time Forgot and Bewes (playing James Mason’s son) in the 1970 adaptation of Bill Naughton’s Spring and Port Wine.  Meanwhile, actor John Hillerman died on November 9th.  Hillerman played Higgins, the snotty English concierge of Tom Selleck’s building in Magnum P.I. (1980-88).  So convincing was he in the role that following his death I was surprised to learn he’d actually hailed from Texas.

 

© Universal Television

 

Finally, German actress Karin Dor died on November 9th.  In 1967’s You Only Live Twice, the villainous Dor tried unsuccessfully to kill Sean Connery’s James Bond by trapping him in a plummeting airplane.  Then her boss Ernst Stavros Blofeld (Donald Pleasence) punished her for her failure by dropping her through a trapdoor into a pool of hungry piranha fish – and lo, a cinematic cliché was born.

 

On December 6th, France mourned the death of its very own Elvis Presley, the Gallic rock-and-roller Johnny Hallyday.  I’m unfamiliar with Hallyday’s music, but fondly remember his acting performance in the 2002 movie L’Homme du Train.  In this, he starred alongside Jean Rochefort, who’d died just two months previously.  Indeed, the film’s ending, where both men die simultaneously and wind up standing together in ghost form on an ethereal railway platform, seems sadly and eerily prophetic now.  Five days later saw the death of English entertainer Keith Chegwin, whose relentlessly cheery presence was a staple of British children’s TV during the 1970s and 1980s, especially in Swap Shop (1976-82) and Cheggers Plays Pop (1978-86).  Later, self-deprecatingly and post-modernly, Chegwin played himself in Ricky Gervais’s TV comedy Life’s Too Short (2011-13) and the movie Kill Keith (2011); but I liked him best for his appearance, at the age of 14, as Fleance in Roman Polanski’s ultra-violent version of Macbeth (1971).

 

Bob Givens, the veteran American animator who designed the world’s coolest cartoon rabbit, Bugs Bunny, died on December 14th; while Christmas Eve saw the death of American actress Heather Menzies.  She was best-known for playing one of the Von Trapp children in wholesome musical blockbuster The Sound of Music (1965) but I preferred her for playing the heroine of a less wholesome movie, the Joe Dante-directed / John Sayles-scripted Piranha (1978).  Following her death, Dante called her a“lovely person who was immensely helpful and supportive as the star of Piranha, my first solo directing job.”

 

Finally, December 2017 saw the departures of two men who, in different ways, were excellent ambassadors for the world of science.  Heinz Wolff, the German-born scientist who appeared on British TV shows like Young Scientist of the Year (1966-81) and The Great Egg Race (1979-86) and who, with his bald, domed head and bowtie, looked splendidly like how you’d imagine a scientist to look, died on December 15th.  Meanwhile, space-shuttle astronaut Bruce McCandless, who in 1984 became the first human being to make an untethered flight in space, died on December 21st.  It seems dishearteningly symbolic that their deaths came at the end of a year when the most powerful man on earth was a nincompoop who didn’t just seem ignorant of science, but actively seemed to despise it.

 

From theinquirer.net

© NASA

 

Deathlog 2017 – Part 1

 

© Eon Productions

 

The Grim Reaper seemed to cull a record number of big-name celebrities in 2016: David Bowie, Prince, Umberto Eco, Muhammed Ali, George Michael, Carrie Fisher.  2017 has seen less carnage, but nonetheless some people I admired have passed away.  Here’s a post about them.  Links are provided to those people whom I’ve already written about on Blood and Porridge.

 

January 19th and 21st saw the deaths of British writers Hilary Bailey and Emma Tennant, who by a sad coincidence were friends and occasional collaborators.  I read some of Bailey’s work in the New Worlds Quarterly paperback series that she’d edited in the 1970s – the series was a reincarnation of the famous science-fiction magazine New Worlds that her one-time husband Michael Moorcock had edited during the previous decade.  I’m unfamiliar with Tennant’s work but have a tenuous link with her.  She belonged to the aristocratic Glenconner family who owned the Glen, a mansion in the hills a few miles southeast of my Scottish hometown of Peebles.  I’ve hiked past the Glen many a time and, according to Tennant’s Wikipedia entry, she lived there as a child and remembered it as “the strangest place possible.”

 

January 27th saw a further literary demise, of novelist and filmmaker William Peter Blatty.  He authored The Exorcist (1971), which was made into the ground-breaking and massively successful horror movie of the same name two years later.  In 1990 Blatty directed the film’s second sequel, Exorcist III, which has its admirers; and in 1980 The Ninth Configuration, a movie ignored on its release but now viewed as an offbeat classic.   Film critic Mark Kermode described Configuration as “a breathtaking cocktail of philosophy, eye-popping visuals, jaw-dropping pretentiousness, rib-tickling humour and heart-stopping action.”

 

© Warner Brothers

 

Also checking out in January were American character actor Miguel Ferrer – Albert Rosenfield in Twin Peaks (1990-91, 2017) – on February 19th; acclaimed English actor John Hurt on January 25th; Scottish politician Tam Dalyell on January 26th; and, on January 25th, the American film and TV actress Mary Tyler Moore.  Through her sitcom The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77), she was instrumental in getting American television to portray women in a more proactive and empowered fashion.

 

January 26th saw the death of a more conventional American TV performer, Mike Connors, who played tough-guy private investigator Mannix from 1967 to 1975.  Mannix fans presumably included a young Quentin Tarantino, who named a character after the P.I. in 2015’s The Hateful Eight.  Two days later saw the passing of keyboardist and guitarist Geoff Nicholls, who played in legendary Brum heavy-metal band Black Sabbath from 1980 to 2004.

 

February was had a relatively low death toll, although on February 17th we said goodbye to another Twin Peaks alumni, Warren Frost, who played the kindly Doc Hayward in its first two series in 1990-91 and briefly in its 2017 revival series.  And the much-loved movie character actor Bill Paxton died on February 26th.

 

March 14th saw the death of veteran American film producer Jack H. Harris, who’ll surely be remembered as ‘Father of the Blob’.  Not only did he produce hoary sci-fi monster movie The Blob in 1958 (starring Steve McQueen as an unfeasibly old teenager) but he masterminded its 1972 sequel Beware! the Blob, which was directed by none other than J.R. Ewing himself Larry Hagman and thus became known as ‘the movie that J.R. shot.’  Furthermore, Harris produced the 1988 remake, directed by Chuck Russell, and at the time of his death was trying to get a second remake off the ground.  On March 18th seminal rock-and-roller Chuck Berry passed away, and the following day the masterly American illustrator and comic-book artist Bernie Wrightson died too.  Checking out on March 26th was actress Darlene Cates, splendid as Johnny Depp and Leonardo Di Caprio’s mother in the 1993 movie What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?

 

© MGM / United Artists

 

American funny man Don Rickles died on April 6th.  I wasn’t a fan of Rickles’ humour (“Who picks your clothes?  Stevie Wonder?”) but as an actor he was memorably nasty in Roger Corman’s X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963) and memorably pathetic in John Landis’s Innocent Blood (1992).  One day later, the English stage, film, TV and radio actor Tim Pigott-Smith passed away.  My juvenile self will always remember Pigott-Smith for playing: (1) Hotspur (to Jon Finch’s Henry IV, David Gwillim’s Hal and Anthony Quayle’s Falstaff) in the 1979 BBC production of Henry IV Part 1, which I was made to watch at school; and (2) Thallo in 1981’s Clash of the Titans.  Meanwhile, bowing out on April 12th was Charlie Murphy, elder brother to Eddie Murphy and a distinguished comic performer in his own right.  His Charlie Murphy’s True Hollywood Stories turn on Comedy Central’s Chapelle’s Show (2003-2006) was hilarious, perhaps most of all when he described an alleged encounter with Prince, where the diminutive funky singer-musician showed an unexpected flair for basketball.

 

We also saw the departures of American blues singer and guitarist Lonnie Brooks on April 3rd; hugely influential British comics artist Leo Baxendale on April 23rd; and American guitarist John Warren Geils Jnr, mainspring of the J. Geils Band on April 11th – how I loved the Geils song Centerfold when I was a fifteen-year-old.  American director Jonathan Demme, whose CV included Caged Heat (1974), Crazy Mama (1975), Melvin and Howard (1980), Stop Making Sense (1984), Swimming to Cambodia (1987), The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Philadelphia (1993), died on April 26th.

 

And American character actor Clifton James died on April 15th.  James was best-known for playing redneck police officer Sheriff Pepper in two Roger Moore James Bond movies, 1974’s Live and Let Die and 1975’s The Man with the Golden Gun.  (In the latter film, Sheriff Pepper turns out to be less of a redneck than expected.  Holidaying with his wife in East Asia, he refuses to have his photo taken with an elephant: “Elephants!  We’re Demy-crats, Maybelle!”)  For a more nuanced Clifton James performance, however, check out his supporting role in Richard Lester’s Juggernaut (1975).

 

© 20th Century Fox

 

Another notable movie policeman passed away the following month, on May 10th: Michael Parks, who played Texas Ranger Earl McGraw in Robert Rodriguez’s From Dawn to Dust (1996), Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003) and the Rodriguez / Tarantino collaboration Grindhouse (2007).   Parks also played the villainous Jean Renault in the first two series of Twin Peaks (1990-91) – so yes, he was another Twin Peaks casualty of 2017.  Another man who was no stranger to violent action-thrillers, character actor Powers Boothe, died on May 14th.  Boothe’s career saw him perform in such gritty movies as Walter Hill’s Southern Comfort (1981) and Extreme Prejudice (1987), Oliver Stone’s U-Turn (1997) and Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City (2005).

 

Other notable actors departing in May included the cinema’s longest-serving James Bond, Sir Roger Moore, who died on May 23rd; and English character actor Geoffrey Bayldon, who passed away on May 10th.  Bayldon appeared in British horror films like The House That Dripped Blood (1970), Tales from the Crypt and Asylum (both 1972) but will be remembered by British TV viewers my age for playing a medieval wizard transported by magic to the present day in the children’s fantasy show Catweazle (1970-71).  Meanwhile, the musical world took a hit on May 18th with the death of yet another grunge-band frontman, Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell.

 

From Wikipedia

 

Before taking leave of May, we should raise a glass of vodka to the memory of Soviet Air Defence Forces officer Stanislav Petrov, who died on May 19th.  Petrov is credited with saving the world from nuclear destruction in 1983.  Suspicious of an early-warning report about an American missile approaching the USSR, he disobeyed an order to launch a retaliatory strike.  The initial report turned out to be false, the result of a malfunction in the satellite tracking system.  Phew.  Looking at the shitty state of international politics in the early 21st century, I suspect we’ll need a few more people of Stanislav Petrov’s calibre in the years ahead.

 

June 2017 wreaked havoc in the world of children’s TV entertainment.  On June 9th it claimed Adam West, square-jawed star of the campy old Batman TV show (1966-68); on June 19th Brian Cant, narrator of the revered British stop-motion-animation shows Camberwick Green (1966), Trumpton (1967) and Chigley (1969); and on June 5th, the venerable Peter Sallis, who provided the voice for Gromit in Nick Park’s Wallace and Gromit quintet.  Sallis also played Norman Clegg in all 295 episodes of the BBC’s seemingly never-ending sitcom Last of the Summer Wine (1973-2010) and appeared in a couple of Hammer horror movies.  I love the fact that he was in both the Hammer film Curse of the Werewolf (1961) and the Wallace and Gromit epic Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005).

 

© Aardman Animations

 

Anita Pallenberg, 1960s icon, actress and muse to the Rolling Stones died on June 13th and Dave Rosser, guitarist with the reformed American alternative-rock band the Afghan Whigs, died on June 27th.  Finally, June 30th saw the passing of Barry Norman, English movie critic and host of the BBC’s long-running Film… review show from 1972 to 1998.  I disagreed with many of Norman’s opinions – he could be annoyingly conservative and prissy in his tastes – but he performed his duties with undeniable wit, charm and aplomb.  And a long time before the Internet, when the UK media didn’t seem particularly interested in films as an artform, his weekly show was an invaluable lifeline for cinephiles like myself.

 

To be continued…  Alas.

 

© BBC