Lanka Comic-Con 2017

 

 

The annual Lanka Comic-Con convention was held on the weekend of August 26th and 27th at the Exhibition and Conference Centre by Lake Beira in downtown Colombo.  I slouched in late in the afternoon of the 26th, mainly because a live-music session had been organised from five to seven o’clock to round off the convention’s first day.  One of the three bands lined up to perform was the Sri Lankan heavy metal outfit Stigmata, whom I’d heard a lot about and was keen to hear.

 

I felt less interested in Comic-Con’s main focus, i.e. comic-books and other popular media of the science-fiction and fantasy variety.  I like comics, but I’ve become jaded at how so many of them have metamorphised lately – like Bruce Banner swelling up into the Incredible Hulk – into lumbering multi-media franchises whose main strands are blockbuster movies: movies that I find simplistic and unsatisfying compared to the comic-book originals.  And neither am I a massive fan of most of the non-comics sci-fi / fantasy franchises that feature heavily at such conventions the world over, like Star Wars, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, etc.

 

 

That said, I was glad I arrived a while before the music kicked off because it was worth taking in the event’s atmosphere.  The Conference and Exhibition Centre isn’t the most prepossessing of venues, consisting of a long room with a low ceiling, bunker-like slits of windows at the tops of its walls and worn blue matting on the floor, but the organisers did their best with it.  One thoroughfare of stalls was called ‘Artists’ Alley’ and featured a number of local artists selling samples of their work.  Most of them, it must be said, were depictions of Western popular-culture icons like Darth Vader, the Joker and Jon Snow from Game of Thrones.   I hope those artists draw the Western stuff to pay their rents whilst getting a chance in their free time to work on their own, possibly more Sri Lanka-centric material.

 

And I had to applaud the many Sri Lankan attendees who arrived in intricately, and ingeniously, devised costumes to cosplay their favourite comic-book, TV and movie characters.  In fact, at about half-past-four, a stage at the end of the hall hosted a weird and wonderful cosplayer fashion show.  We got a guy dressed as Jason Voorhees from the Friday the 13th movies who turned up with a skateboard and insisted on skateboarding across the stage; a hulking and credible-looking portrayal of the red-skinned Ron Perlman character from the Hellboy movies; a World of Warcraft character so heavily armoured and spiked he resembled a humanoid horned-lizard-cum-armadillo; a young lady dressed (or bandaged) as the French-Algerian actress Sofia Boutella in this year’s Tom Cruise film remake of The Mummy – from all accounts a terrible movie, but this cosplay mummy looked really good; and a familiar-looking piratical character whom the cosplay-show compere welcomed onstage with the declaration, “And now the hero of every tuk-tuk driver in Sri Lanka…  Captain Jack Sparrow!”  Actually, Captain Jack got the biggest cheer of the afternoon.   Maybe there were a lot of off-duty tuk-tuk drivers among the audience.

 

The oddest moment came when no fewer than seven cosplayers beetled onstage dressed as the title-character of the comic-book and 2016 movie Deadpool.  The bemused compere suggested that the seven of them perform a dance, which they did.  Disconcertingly, the one at the end wore a black-and-red-striped sweater and a fedora and was apparently a Deadpool-Freddy Krueger hybrid.   Meanwhile, the moment I found most depressing was when a Sri Lankan guy marched onstage dressed as ‘Old Logan’ from this year’s final instalment in the X-Men movies and I realised that Old Logan looked young enough for me to qualify as Old Logan’s dad.  (If I ever had to cosplay myself, I guess the only options open to me would either be Saruman from the Lord of the Rings movies or Stan Lee as he is now, all 94 years of him.)

 

 

A lovely moment occurred when a Sri Lankan lady came on as Wonder Woman – one of two Wonder Women present at the convention – and someone informed the crowd that it was her birthday.  Immediately, everybody started singing, “Happy birthday to you…  Happy birthday to you…  Happy birthday, dear Wonder Woman…”  There was a major sequel to this, which I’ll talk about in a moment.

 

 

And finally, on to the live music, which took place on a different stage along one of the room’s sidewalls.  A sudden rash of Iron Maiden, Motorhead, Scorpions and AC/DC T-shirts had appeared among the crowd there, suggesting I wasn’t the only person turning up for the music rather than the standard Comic-Con stuff.  However, before Stigmata, two other bands performed.  Number one was an outfit called Ursula and the Odyssey, blessed with two excellent singers – a lady (Ursula, presumably) and a bloke.  They did a splendid version of Where did you Sleep Last Night, the old Leadbelly song that Nirvana covered memorably on their 1994 Unplugged album.  The second band was a young, brisk, poppy-punk one called the Fallen boys who sounded fine but suffered a painful indignity.  Just as they came onstage, someone announced over the PA system that prizes were being given out to the best cosplayers at the other stage, at the top end of the hall.  And suddenly, about two-thirds of the Fallen Boys’ audience evaporated.

 

 

I had no complaints about the music of Stigmata, when they did their set.  They generated a pleasing noise that combined the best of Iron Maiden and Sepultura.  However, between songs, their vocalist Suresh De Silva did tend to talk… and talk… and talk.  Now I realise Sri Lankans enjoy a good natter (totally unlike the Irish), but seeing as there wasn’t a lot of time allotted to their slot I would have liked fewer anecdotes and jokes and less mucking around; and more in the way of actual songs.   Then again, admission to Comic-Con that day was only a hundred rupees and that included the live-music session.  Which meant I was seeing one of the country’s top metal bands for the equivalent of about 50 pence…  So I can’t really complain.

 

I said there was a sequel to Wonder Woman’s appearance at the convention.  A week later, international news and cultural outlets like the BBC and the New Musical Express were reporting how the birthday girl who attended the convention cosplaying Wonder Woman, Amaya Suriyapperuma, and her friend Seshani Cooray, who’d also turned up dressed as Wonder Woman, had been subjected to masses of abuse, insults and trolling from online scumbags after they’d posted photos of themselves in costume on Facebook.

 

From Mathisha‏ @Pasan_Mathisha

 

Happily though, Amaya and Seshani subsequently received backing from some unexpected and powerful quarters.  Word of the abuse they’d received reached Hollywood; and both the star and director of this year’s Wonder Woman movie, actress Gal Gadot and director Patty Jenkins, were moved to tweet their support to the Sri Lankan duo.

 

I shall briefly add Blood and Porridge’s tuppence-worth to the incident.  Amaya and Sesahani, pay no attention to those online dickheads.  The pair of you looked great.   And any Internet wanker who claims otherwise isn’t fit to kiss your stripy Wonder Woman boots.

 

The Bash Street King

 

© DC Thomson

 

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the passing of the American comic-book artist Bernie Wrightson.  Most famously, Wrightson was the creator of the DC Comics strip Swamp Thing, about a mutant superhero who was half-human and half-vegetable and who inspired my twelve-year-old self when I was “drawing monsters on the covers of my school jotters – the more shambling, squishy and barnacled the better.”  Sadly, another comic-book artist who had a big impact on me has just died too, though one from a different time and place and one who appealed to me when I was a different age, a kid of seven or eight years old: the Lancastrian artist Leo Baxendale.

 

Actually, by the time I got around to reading Baxendale’s most famous creations, he’d already stopped drawing them.  But even though they were being drawn by other artists, Baxendale’s style endured, as did the spirit he’d originally invested in them.  And it was that spirit – in equal parts surreal and anarchic – that was his biggest contribution to British comics, which’d tended to be conservative and staid.  Baxendale helped to blow the cobwebs off them.

 

Hired at the age of 22 by DC Thomson (as opposed to DC Comics), the publisher based in the Scottish city of Dundee, Baxendale spent the 1950s working on one of the company’s two most famous comics – the Beano, which, like its stablemate the Dandy, attracted a weekly readership of two million children in the immediate post-war era.  In February 1954, he launched a strip about some riotous schoolchildren called When the Bell Rings, which two years later was retitled The Bash Street Kids and which still appears in the Beano today.  When I started reading comics at the start of the 1970s, The Bash Street Kids became my favourite strip for a good few years.

 

One nice thing about The Bash Street Kids was that unlike other groups of youngsters in popular British culture up to that point, such as those in Ronald Searle’ St Trinian’s cartoons or Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings books, both of which were set in boarding schools, these ones were unmistakably working class and received their schooling in an urban environment – similar to the experiences of most kids reading the Beano at the time.  Baxendale drew the characters in an eccentric, even slightly grotesque fashion, whilst imbuing them with a refreshing, forward-looking rebelliousness.  The result is somewhere between Charles Dickens and Roald Dahl.

 

When I started reading the strip, the clothes and facilities already seemed old-fashioned: the teacher’s cane and mortar board, the wooden desks with their inkwells, etc.  But the irreverent, at times anti-authoritarian mentality of the kids seemed bang up-to-date.  I could imagine at least three of them, the skull-and-crossbones-wearing Danny, the silent and oddball Wilfred (whose habit of always wearing his sweater right up to his nose can’t have been hygienic) and the aesthetically-challenged but sensitive Plug, getting seriously into punk rock when they were older.

 

© DC Thomson

 

Baxendale devised other enduring strips for the Beano, including Minnie the Minx, a female version of the Beano’s most celebrated strip, Dennis the Menace.  First appearing in 1953, a year before The Bash Street Kids, the eternally Tomboy-ish Minnie was once admiringly described by her creator as ‘Amazonian’.

 

He also masterminded two strips set in the American Wild West – despite its location in the un-Western setting of Dundee, DC Thomson had something of an obsession with the Wild West and the most famous strip in the Dandy was the one about the strapping cowboy Desperate Dan.  These were Little Plum, which also made its debut in 1953, and The Three Bears, which became a spin-off from Little Plum in 1959.  Probably not anthropologically accurate, Little Plum was (and still is) a sweet and eccentric strip detailing life among a decidedly suburban Red Indian tribe, whose tepees come equipped with televisions sets and refrigerators.  It was somehow inevitable that in the 1980s, ‘Little Plum’ was the nickname that Britain’s music critics sneeringly gave to Ian Astbury, singer with rock / goth band The Cult, who had an embarrassing obsession with Native American mysticism.

 

The Three Bears featured a family of three anthropomorphic and rather pudgy grizzly bears who spend their time trying to steal food from the local retail outlet, Hank’s Store.  The stories frequently ended with Hank chasing the pesky bears and peppering their butts with shot from a blunderbuss.  The Three Bears appeared in a Beano annual as late as 2015, but in an era more attuned to concerns about animal cruelty, I doubt if Hank was still using his blunderbuss on them.

 

Throughout its history, DC Thomson had been famous, if not notorious, for its conservatism.  This included an aversion to its employees being in trade unions and it can’t have been a relaxing or sympathetic environment to work in with weekly deadlines hovering like vultures.  In 1962, a stressed-out and physically-ailing Baxendale quit – “I just blew up like an old boiler and left” – and during the 1960s and 1970s he worked for other publishers like Oldhams Press, Fleetway and IPC on comics like Wham!, Smash!, Buster, Valiant, Lion, Whizzer and Chips, Knockout, Shiver & Shake and Monster Fun.

 

Possibly his most famous creation from this period was Grimly Feendish, a comic villain billed as ‘the rottenest crook in the world’ who bears a slight resemblance to Uncle Fester in The Addams Family.  This inspired the song Grimly Fiendish by the punk / goth band The Damned, which got to number 21 in the UK singles chart in 1985.  As late as 2005, Feendish popped up among a plethora of other characters from 1960s / 1970s British comics in the six-issue Albion series, Alan Moore’s curious tribute to the comics of that era.

 

From kazoop.blogspot.com

 

In the 1980s, Baxendale waged a lengthy legal battle against DC Thomson over the rights to the characters he’d created for the Beano, a battle that ended finally with an out-of-court settlement.  He used the proceeds from that to set up a publishing house called Reaper Books.  Incidentally, two decades earlier, at the time of the Vietnam War, Baxendale had published (and ultimately lost a lot of money on) an anti-war newspaper called the Strategic Commentary – one of whose subscribers was none other than the celebrated linguist and activist Noam Chomsky.

 

As I’ve said, Baxendale’s creations were joyfully anarchic and surreal.  It’s telling that in the 1980s when four young artist-writers in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Chris Donald, Simon Donald, Graham Dury and Simon Thorp, devised the anarchic, scatological and massively popular adult comic Viz and started satirising the famous British children’s comics that’d gone before them, there wasn’t much they could do when satirising Baxendale’s famous Beano strips other than make them even more surreal.  Little Plum became Little Plumber and The Bash Street Kids became The Posh Street Kids.  Meanwhile, The Three Bears were parodied as The Three Blairs (with Tony, Cherie and Leo Blair trying to steal from Gordon Brown’s store) and as the ultra-weird The Three Chairs.

 

Compare that with the brutal treatment that Viz meted out to the strips in the more cautious and traditional Dandy, like Desperate Dan (parodied as Desperately Unfunny Dan), Winker Watson (Wanker Watson), Korky the Cat (Corky the Twat), Black Bob the faithful Border Collie (Black Bag the Faithful Border Binliner) and Bully Beef (Biffa Bacon, with the Dandy’s schoolboy bully replaced by a Geordie psychopath who butts head, busts noses and breaks teeth).  Brilliantly, when DC Thomson threatened legal action in the 1990s, Viz retaliated by printing a strip called DC Thomson – the Humourless Scottish Git.

 

I suspect that the leading lights in the ‘British invasion’, i.e. those comic-book artists and writers like Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Dave Gibbons, Steven Dillon and Grant Morrison, who crossed the Atlantic in the 1980s and helped revitalise the comics scene in the States, were greatly inspired in their early youth if not by Baxendale himself then by the characters he created.  Indeed, Moore said as much in 2013: “We started out ingesting the genuine anarchy of the Beano, when Baxendale was doing all that wonderful stuff, and then we moved on to American comics.”

 

© Rex Features

 

The Wrightson stuff

 

© Bernie Wrightson / Christopher Enterprises

 

My last entry on this blog was epically long – well, I was epically pissed off when I wrote it – so I will keep this entry brief.  Last month saw the death of the great American illustrator and comic-book artist Bernie Wrightson.  He grew up during the 1950s and as a kid, inevitably, was exposed to the artwork in the pulpy and notoriously gruesome horror titles published at the time by EC Comics: Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror and The Haunt of Fear.  In particular, Wrightson was influenced by the eldritch visuals of legendary EC Comics artist Graham Ingels, who rather than sign his own name on his work preferred to leave the nom de plume ‘Ghastly’.

 

You could see the Ingels / EC Comics influence on Wrightson’s most famous comic-book creation – Swamp Thing, drawn by him, written by Len Wein and unveiled in 1971.  The titular thing was once a scientist working in a laboratory in the middle of a swamp, initially called Alex Olsen although later the character was reworked as Alec Holland.  Thanks to human skulduggery, Olsen / Holland sees his lab destroyed and he gets contaminated with mysterious chemicals that cause him to be fused with the plant-life of the surrounding bayou.  The resulting mutant creature resembles a cross between the Incredible Hulk and a piece of broccoli.  Needless to say, as a weird kid who spent his time in the classroom drawing monsters on the covers of his school jotters – the more shambling, squishy and barnacled the better – rather than listening to the teacher, I thought Swamp Thing was the bees’ knees.

 

© DC Comics

© DC Comics

 

As well as working for DC Comics and Warren Publishing, Wrightson was involved in literary and cinematic projects.  In 1976, for example, he produced the Edgar Allan Poe Portfolio, a series of beautiful prints depicting moments in some of Poe’s most famous stories.  The prints capture the atmosphere of Poe’s work whilst giving the characters a comic-book intensity – if they haven’t already exploded into action, you get the impression that they’re simmering with fear or passion and are about to explode.  Wrightson also collaborated with Stephen King.  In 1983 he drew the comic-book adaptation of the King-scripted, George Romero-directed movie Creepshow, which was very obviously influenced by the old EC Comics too.  And he provided illustrations for King’s books Cycle of the Werewolf (1983), the ‘complete and uncut edition’ of The Stand (1990) and Wolves of the Calla (2003).

 

As the co-creator of Swamp Thing, a story informed by the ‘lonely, misunderstood monster’ theme that makes Mary Shelley’s landmark gothic novel Frankenstein (1818) so powerful, it was fitting that Bernie Wrightson should contribute fifty illustrations to a new edition of Frankenstein published in 1983.  These were clearly a labour of love – Wrightson said later that he’d spent seven years drawing them in his unpaid spare time.  Unsurprising, his work on the 1983 Frankenstein is often cited as his finest hour.  You only have to look at this picture of Frankenstein’s laboratory to see how the level of detail is mind-blowing.

 

© Plume (Penguin Books)

 

Bill Paxton too? That’s just f***ing great, man…

 

© F/M Entertainment / DeLaurentiis Entertainment Group

 

Despite my best efforts, this blog in the last couple of years has tended to resemble a series of obituaries.  I’m afraid this tendency must continue today as I’ve just heard the news that the American actor Bill Paxton has died at the age of 61 from complications following surgery.

 

In American movies of the 1980s and 1990s Paxton seemed ubiquitous.  He turned up in the populist likes of Stripes (1981), Weird Science (1985), Commando (1985), Navy Seals (1990), Predator 2 (1990), Tombstone (1993), Apollo 13 (1995), Twister (1996) and Mighty Joe Young (1998).  Though not all his films could be described as ‘populist’.  I suspect I’m the only person in the world who remembers he was in Jennifer Lynch’s arthouse misfire Boxing Helena (1993) with Sherilyn Fenn and Julian Sands.

 

From all accounts an affable and good-humoured Texan, he probably had the right temperament to get on with certain directors who had the reputation of being hard-asses.  He worked with Walter Hill in Streets of Fire (1984) and Trespass (1992) – the latter movie I like to think of as ‘the Bills versus the Ices’, since it’s about a pair of treasure-hunting firemen played by Paxton and Bill Sadler falling foul of a pair of gangsters played by Ice Cube and Ice T.  He worked too with the no-nonsense Katherine Bigelow in the haunting horror-western Near Dark (1987), playing one of a band of vampires who roam the dusty prairies and prey on unsuspecting cowboys.

 

© Universal Pictures

 

But it was with Bigelow’s former beau, the single-minded James Cameron, that Paxton got some of his most famous roles: as a punk clobbered by a naked and just-arrived-from-the future Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator (1984) (“I think this guy’s a couple of cans short of a six-pack!”), the alternatively bragging and blubbering man-child Private Hudson in Aliens (1986) and the sleazeball car salesman Simon who pretends to be a secret agent in order to get into Jamie Lee Curtis’s pants in True Lies (1994).  He was also in one other movie Cameron made in the late 1990s – I can’t remember its name but Leonardo DiCaprio was in it.  Whatever happened to him?

 

The great thing about Paxton was that though he frequently performed in a supporting role, he was often the most memorable thing in the movie.  His characters were commonly loud and obnoxious and had an inflated sense of their abilities, but they were very funny as a result.  This was never more so than with the motor-mouthed Private Hudson in Aliens, who despite everything else that’s going on in that movie manages, just about, to steal the show.  Before the aliens show up, he’s a swaggering, show-offy git – “Hey Ripley, don’t worry.  Me and my squad of ultimate badasses will protect you…  We got nukes, we got knives, we got sharp sticks!”  And after they show up, he’s a quivering, whiny git – “Hey, maybe you haven’t been keeping up on current events but we just got our asses kicked!”  Inevitably, many of the people paying homage to Paxton on Twitter last night were tweeting another of his Aliens quotes, the brief but legendary “Game over!”

 

© I.R.S. Releasing

 

Occasionally, he got a chance to step forward into the shoes of leading man and the results were excellent.  He was tremendous in Carl Franklin’s One False Move as Dale ‘Hurricane’ Dixon, the good-natured but naïve hick sheriff who’s doesn’t seem to know what’s coming when a trio of murderous psychos (including one played by the movie’s co-writer, Billy Bob Thornton) flee the law in Los Angeles and head for his town.  You find yourself seriously fearing for him as the movie nears its end.  He also impressed in Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan (1998) about three people in a wintry mid-western town – Paxton’s blue-collar plodder, his wife (Bridget Fonda) and his slow-witted brother (Billy Bob Thornton again) – whose lives are drastically changed, seemingly for the better but in reality much for the worse, when a mysterious crashed plane sets a huge cache of money in their laps.  Also worth checking out is the horror film Frailty (2001), which Paxton directed as well as starred in, alongside Matthew McConaughey and Powers Boothe.

 

Six years ago, I unexpectedly found myself present at the making of history – and I unexpectedly found myself thinking of Bill Paxton too.  I was living in Tunis at the time and one January morning I wandered down to the centre of the Tunisian capital to find out why a huge crowd of protestors had gathered in front of the Ministry of the Interior building.  This would have been unthinkable just 24 hours earlier – Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s security goons would have dragged any protestors away, thrown them into a cell and beaten the shit out of them.  This mass protest, it transpired, was the tipping point of the Arab Spring.  Ben Ali fled the country that same day and other Arab dictators started toppling like dominoes soon after.  Anyway, I noticed how some protestors were holding signs towards the ministry building that bore the message GAME OVER! – Private Hudson’s famous line from Aliens.

 

I know it’s improbable, but I’d like to think this showed that even the murky and complicated world of North African Arab politics had been affected by the acting talent and sheer entertainment value of the great, but now unfortunately late, Bill Paxton.

 

© Times of Malta

© Brandywine Productions / 20th Century Fox

 

Death log 2016 – part 2

 

© Hat Trick Productions

 

Just before I bid adieu to 2016, here’s a second posting paying tribute to those people whom I liked and admired who passed away during the year.

 

Firstly, two people who died in the first half of 2016 but whom I forgot to mention in my previous posting.  American author Harper Lee left us on February 19th.  Her classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) was both an indictment of racial injustice in 1930s Alabama and an affirmation of human goodness, as epitomised in the characters of upstanding lawyer Atticus Finch and the scary-but-good-hearted Boo Radley.  Rather less wholesome was the character played by Irish actor Frank Kelly, who died on February 28th, in the classic 1990s TV comedy Father Ted.  Kelly’s Father Jack Hackett was a man reduced by a lifetime of hard (and un-priestly) living to a sedentary existence in the world’s grottiest-looking armchair, from which he would occasionally bellow, “Feck!  Arse!  Drink!  Girls!”  Father Jack couldn’t have been further from the charismatic, cerebral and articulate person that Kelly was in real life.

 

© Richmond Film Productions / Rank

 

TV comedy lost another talent on July 2nd with the death of British comedienne, actress and writer Caroline Aherne, famous for acting in and co-writing the sitcom The Royle Family (1998-2012) and for playing the titular host in spoof chat-show The Mrs Merton Show (1995-98).  July 2nd was also a day when cinema took a double hit, seeing the deaths of filmmakers Michael Cimino, co-writer of Silent Running (1972) and Magnum Force (1973) and director of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), The Deer Hunter (1978) and ruinously expensive western Heaven’s Gate (1980); and Euan Lloyd, producer of the not-to-taken-seriously mercenary epic The Wild Geese (1978) with Richard Burton, Richard Harris and Roger Moore, its demented sequel The Wild Geese II (1985) and laughably right-wing SAS thriller Who Dares Wins (1982).

 

Meanwhile, record producer Sandy Pearlman died on July 26th.  He’d worked on classic albums by two bands who, while they were equally loved at Blood and Porridge, were wildly different in their styles: the Blue Oyster Cult’s Agents of Fortune (1976) and The Clash’s Give ’Em Enough Rope (1978).

 

© CBS / Epic

 

A number of veteran character actors died around the middle of the year.  William Lucas, star of such fascinatingly oddball British movies as X the Unknown (1956), The Shadow of the Cat (1961), Night of the Big Heat (1967) and Tower of Evil (1972) died on July 8th.   The New Zealand actor Terence Baylor, who died on August 2nd, will be remembered for uttering the most quotable line in Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979).  After Graham Chapman’s reluctant messiah Brian pleads with a crowd of followers to leave him alone because they’re “all individuals” and the crowd mindlessly chants back at him, “We are all individuals!”, Baylor pipes up: “I’m not.”  He also appeared in Terry Gilliam’s The Time Bandits (1981), which lost another cast-member in August – the excellent Kenny Baker, who died on August 13th.  Baker was best-known for being the man inside R2D2 in the Star Wars movies and he was honoured at Blood and Porridge in this entry:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6802

 

There were also many deaths among the American acting fraternity.  Comic actor and writer Gene Wilder died on August 29th.  Though Wilder was best-remembered for playing the title character in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), for me his finest hours came in two Mel Brooks movies made in 1974 – playing the Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles and Dr Frederick Frankenstein (“Pronounced ‘steen’”) in Young Frankenstein.  Two days later the hard-working character actor Jon Polito passed away.  Polito was a regular in the films of Joel and Ethan Cohen, appearing in Barton Fink (1991), The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), The Big Lebowski (1998), The Man Who wasn’t There (2001) and most memorably Miller’s Crossing (1990) where he played the mobster Johnny Caspar.  And on September 5th Hugh O’Brian, veteran of many a western movie and TV show, rode off into the sunset.  As the villainous Jack Pulford, he had the distinction of being the last person to be shot dead onscreen by John Wayne, in Wayne’s swansong The Shootist (1976).

 

© 20th Century Fox

 

September 16th saw the departure of Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning American playwright Edward Albee, whose work included The Zoo Story (1958), The Sandbox (1959), A Delicate Balance (1966) and most famously Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), made into a movie four years later and distinguished by splendidly unhinged performances by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor as a booze-sodden university couple from hell.  Filmmaker Curtis Hanson, who started off writing interesting little movies like The Dunwich Horror (1969), The Silent Partner (1978) and White Dog (1982) and ended up directing the brilliant L.A. Confidential (1997), died on September 20th.  A somewhat less reputable filmmaker died on September 26th: Herschell Gordon Lewis, whose ultra-cheap but sensationally gory horror movies like Blood Feast (1963) and 2000 Maniacs (1964) were by no stretch of the imagination good, but left enough of an impression on Blood and Porridge to warrant this entry:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6940

 

Another American purveyor of low-budget celluloid sensationalism, Ted V. Mikels – of The Astro-Zombies (1968), Corpse Grinders (1971) and Blood Orgy of the She-Devils (1973) fame – died on October 16th.  October 13th saw the death of multi-tasking Italian Dario Fo, described on his Wikipedia page as an “actor-playwright, comedian, singer, theatre director, stage designer, songwriter, painter, political campaigner for the Italian left-wing and the recipient of the 1997 Nobel Prize in Literature”, whose dramatical works made him “arguably the most widely performed contemporary playwright in world theatre.”  Ten days later, the comic-book world said farewell to artist Steve Dillon, who cut his teeth on British comics like Doctor Who Magazine (Abslom Daak), 2000 AD (Judge Dredd, Rogue Troopers, ABC Warriors) and Warrior (Marvelman, Laser Eraser and Pressbutton) in the 1980s and ended up working on acclaimed American titles such as DC Comics’ Hellblazer and Preacher in the 1990s and Marvel Comics’ Punisher in the noughties.  And on the same day, Jimmy Perry, who scripted the much-loved TV comedy Dad’s Army (1968-1977) with David Croft, died at the age of 93.

 

© Arena Productions / MGM Television

 

On November 5th, the English actor John Carson died.  As well as being a regular face on British television, he appeared in three memorable Hammer horror movies: Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970), Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter (1974) and best of all Plague of the Zombies (1966), where he played a voodoo-practising Cornish squire saving on labour costs by using reanimated corpses to work in his tin mine.  Passing away on November 11th was actor Robert Vaughn, famous on television for playing Napoleon Solo in The Man from UNCLE (1964-68) and equally famous in the cinema for being the longest-lasting member of the titular septet of gunslingers in John Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven (1960).  Between those two dates, on November 7th, the great Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen expired, having delivered one final album, You Want It Darker, just the previous month.  Here’s what Blood and Porridge said about Cohen at the time of his death:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=7111

 

The great Irish novelist, short story writer and playwright William Trevor died on November 20th, while actor Andrew Sachs passed away three days later.  Most famous for playing the Barcelonan waiter Manuel in John Cleese’s classic sitcom Fawlty Towers (1975-79), Sachs was the son of a German Jew who fled to Britain to escape Nazi persecution in 1938 – an irony missed by right-wing British tabloid the Daily Mail, which printed the refugee-scare headline MIGRANT NUMBERS HIT NEW RECORDS next to the news of Sachs’ death on its front page.

 

© Hammer Films

 

Valerie Gaunt, who died on November 27th, made only two movies in the late 1950s before leaving the acting profession, but she made a big impression in them; playing Justine, the fickle maid who tries to blackmail Peter Cushing’s Baron Frankenstein in the 1956 horror classic The Curse of Frankenstein, and playing Christopher Lee’s vampire bride in 1958’s equally classic Dracula.  And the venerable character actor Peter Vaughan, who played Grouty in the sitcom Porridge (1974-77), played Maester Aemon in blood-tits-and-dragons saga Game of Thrones (2011-2015) and gave many memorable performances besides in films and TV, died on December 6th.  Here’s Blood and Porridge’s tribute to the great man:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=7196

 

© Spitting Image Productions / ITV Studios

 

Astronaut John Glenn, the fifth person to travel in space in 1962, and also the oldest person to travel there as a crewmember of the Discovery space shuttle in 1998, died on December 8th.  Two day later saw the death of the avuncular Scottish weatherman Ian McCaskill, who presented forecasts on the BBC from the late 1970s to the late 1990s and was regularly lampooned on TV puppet show Spitting image (1984-96).  On December 18th, the world said goodbye to actress and all-round personality Zsa Zsa Gabor, who could appear in a masterpiece like Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil and a camp Grade-Z pudding like Queen of Outer Space in the same year (1958) and be inimitably Zsa Zsa-esque in both.  Distinguished British TV director Philip Saville died on December 22nd.  His career highlights included 1977’s Count Dracula, probably the most faithful adaptation ever of Bram Stoker’s seminal vampire novel; 1982’s condemnation of Thatcherism, Boys from the Blackstuff; and 1986’s gaudy and saucy TV version of Fay Weldon’s Life and Loves of a She-Devil.

 

Pop star George Michael died on Christmas Day.  I wasn’t a fan of his music, but from his philanthropic work (which included donating the royalties of his ever-popular festive anthem Last Christmas to the Band Aid charity) and from the fact that he lived his life with a healthy disregard for the strictures of Britain’s prurient tabloid press, I’d say he was a thoroughly good bloke.  And finally, the lovely and witty Carrie Fisher, aka Princess Leia in the Star Wars films, died on December 27th.  (Even more tragically, her mother Debbie Fisher passed away the following day.)  A depressing indication that in the shithole year that was 2016, you weren’t safe even if you were a fairy-tale princess.

 

© Lucasfilm Ltd / 20th Century Fox

 

Stand by for Action

 

© IPC Magazines / Rebellion

 

For me, 1976 was a transitory period when I finished with primary school and started attending high school.  It was also a period when I remember one topic regularly dominating the conversations I had with my mates in the playground and on the school-bus: what was happening in that week’s edition of Action comic.

 

We’d read comics before, of course.  We’d read kids’ ones like the Beano, Dandy, Sparky, Topper and Beezer.  And we’d read slightly more mature ones that were labelled ‘boys’ comics’, like the Hotspur, Battle, Warlord, Valiant and Victor.  But Action was different.

 

Those other comics provided entertainment that, no matter how kid-centric or boy-centric it was and no matter how much we enjoyed it, had a vibe that suggested it’d been devised by adults and it’d been passed down to us through a filter of what adults believed was acceptable for children.  The stories in Action, though, had a different vibe.  They felt like they’d actually been devised by twelve-year-old boys – or at least, by someone who knew exactly what twelve-year-old boys wanted and were only too happy to serve the stories up that way.

 

And what do twelve-year-old boys want?  Mayhem, basically.  Blood and guts.  Violence.  Nastiness.  No wonder William Golding’s Lord of the Flies still resonates – once those schoolboys had been stranded on the desert island, what else could they become but savages?  Or as Roald Dahl once mused, kids are bloodthirsty monsters because they haven’t been trained to be civilised yet.

 

I was in the Boy Scouts, which meant I was supposed to be a nice, mannerly boy, doing a good deed every day and all that.  Yet I doubt if I’ve heard anything more appallingly gruesome than the horror stories my fellow scouts and I would tell each other around the campfire.  At least, after the adult Scoutmaster had called it a night and retired to his tent.

 

© IPC Magazines / Rebellion

 

The comic-strip stories in Action were certainly gruesome.  They weren’t, however, original.   Death Game 1999 was clearly a rip-off of the recent science-fiction movie Rollerball (1974).  Hellman of Hammer Force, about a tough but noble German Panzer commander on the Russian Front, owed a lot to the vicious World War II novels of Sven Hassel, which in the 1970s were avidly read by young males who’d otherwise never consider looking at a book.  Hellman had the distinction of being the first-ever German hero of a British World War II comic strip; though he despised the SS and the Nazi Party and regularly reminded the readers, “I am a soldier, not a butcher!”

 

Dredger was about a secret agent who plays dirty – ultra-dirty – and its title character was often likened to the one played by Clint Eastwood in the Dirty Harry movies, though I always thought he was more like a psychotic version of Jack Regan, the tough, craggy police officer played by John Thaw in the popular TV crime show The Sweeney (1975-1978).  And unless your IQ was below room temperature, you’d have no difficulty linking the killer-shark story Hook Jaw to a certain movie directed by a young Steven Spielberg, also about a killer shark, that was doing rather well at the box office at the time.

 

Looking back, I can see how Action had more social comment than was the norm for 1970s British comics.  Dredger contained class tension – Dredger was rough, down-and-dirty working class whereas his sidekick, Simon Breed, was a posh ex-boarding-school type who’d have been the hero in a traditional British spy story (with the oik-ish Dredger as his sidekick).  Ironically, no matter how much Breed disapproved of Dredger’s ungentlemanly way of doing things, it was Dredger who saved the day and saved Breed’s neck at the end of each story.

 

© IPC Magazines / Rebellion

 

Hook Jaw, meanwhile, had an environmental theme.  The humans whom the killer shark confronted and, inevitably, ate from week to week were scumbags despoiling his marine habitat – the roughnecks on an oilrig in the original set of Hook Jaw stories, the shysters running a ghastly-looking island holiday resort in the next set of stories.

 

But obviously, what impressed me back in 1976 was the comic’s in-your-face violence.  It had panels that, 40 years later, I can recall more vividly than anything else I’ve ever seen in a comic-book.  For example, a colour panel in Hook Jaw – much of that strip was depicted in colour, for obvious reasons – where Hook Jaw and his toothy pack of fellow sharks devour the survivors (no longer surviving) of a ditched-in-the-sea airliner.  Or a climactic panel in Dredger where the agent, flying a helicopter, takes out a whole rampart of villains by swooping at them, shredding them with the rotors and turning them into a shower of bloody body parts.  (When I saw a scene in the 2007 horror sequel 28 Weeks Later where a helicopter reduces a bunch of zombies to chop-suey, that Dredger image was the first thing I thought of.)

 

Predictably, almost from when Action debuted in February 1976, the comic was under attack for its content.  Within months, an unholy alliance that included Mary Whitehouse’s sanctimonious Viewers and Listeners’ Association, excitable tabloids like The Sun and the junk newsagent chain W.H. Smith were pressuring its publisher, IPC Magazines, to censor or withdraw it.

 

Two strips that appeared a little later in Action poured fuel on the fire.  Look Out for Lefty was an example of that staple of British boys’ comics, the soccer story; but unlike previous soccer stories, it took as much interest in hooligan activities on the terraces as it did in footballing activities on the pitch.  A scene where Lefty’s skinhead girlfriend ‘takes out’ an opposition player by chucking a bottle at him from the crowd sparked an outcry.  What sort of example was this comic setting our children?  Britain’s Football League secretary Alan Hardaker raged that the writer responsible “ought to be hit over the head with a bottle himself.”

 

Even more inflammatory was Kids Rule OK which, seemingly taking its cue from the nascent – and to the British establishment, terrifying – punk rock movement, posited a near-future Britain where a plague has killed everyone over the age of 20 and gangs of teenagers battle to the death on the nation’s ravaged streets.  An Action cover in September 1976 showing a Kids Rules OK teenager using a chain to attack a man who appeared to be a police constable didn’t go down well with the country’s self-appointed moral guardians either.

 

© IPC Magazines / Rebellion

 

Issue 36 of Action appeared dated October 16th, 1976.  But its 37th issue, dated October 23rd, never went on sale.  IPC Magazines surrendered to the comic’s many critics and pulped almost all 200,000 copies that’d been printed of issue 37.  (Only about thirty copies of it survived and they’re worth a fortune today.)

 

After a six-week hiatus, Action reappeared at the end of November, but in the meantime IPC Magazines had replaced its editor, John Sanders, and drastically toned down its content to make it as innocuous as every other British comic on the market.  I remember buying a few copies of the revamped Action and being dismayed by the fact that (a) Hook Jaw was no longer in colour, (b) the shark now only ate about one person each week, and (c) the eating now mostly occurred ‘off-panel’.

 

Without the blood, gore and anarchy that’d made the original Action so thrilling, sales of the comic fell.   It limped on until November of the following year, when it was merged with and subsumed into another comic, Battle.  I didn’t even notice its disappearance.  By then I’d stopped reading it.

 

Still, Action’s legacy endures.  In 1977 much of its creative team – particularly the brilliant Pat Mills and John Wagner – were responsible for the launch of the immensely influential 2000 AD, the self-styled Greatest Comic in the Galaxy, which today is one of the very last survivors from Britain’s once huge and lucrative comics industry.

 

Pat Mills, 2000 AD’s first editor, had clearly learnt lessons from the Action debacle.  2000 AD was violent too, but because its violence took place in unreal, science-fictional settings, it was deemed less offensive.  It also helped that much of 2000 AD’s violence was wreaked by that fascistic lawman of the future, Judge Dredd, a policeman – so that was okay, then.  Actually, some of 2000 AD’s early stories had Action connections.  Shako, about a murderous polar bear, was basically Hook Jaw with fur and claws; whereas Flesh, a time-travelling story about cowboys trying to harvest dinosaurs, was originally planned as an Action strip.

 

In 2016, the 40th anniversary of both its appearance and disappearance, Action is recognised as a ground-breaker in British comic history – basically because it attempted to give kids, or at least boys, what they really wanted.  It seems fitting that filmmaker Ben Wheatley should grant Action a cameo appearance in this year’s High Rise, his kaleidoscopic adaptation of the novel by J.G. Ballard.  From the doghouse in 1976 to the arthouse in 2016.  How times change.

 

© IPC Magazines / Rebellion

 

For further Action, check out:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/oct/21/action-70s-kids-comics-violence-magazine-publishing

http://lewstringer.blogspot.com/2016/10/this-week-in-1976-action-is-suspended.html

 

In-flight movies

 

(c) Marvel Studios / Walt Disney Studios

 

I’ve done a lot of flying recently, mostly with Qatar Airways.  And when I’m on a long-haul flight with an airline that’s sufficiently in-the-money to have a big entertainment system embedded in the seat-back a few inches from my nose, there’s only one thing I can do.  I can only dig into that system’s movie-selection and find a few big-budget summer blockbusters – movies I’d never proactively go and seek out at a cinema, but which are sufficiently easy on the brain for me to watch when I’m knackered and strapped into a cramped airplane seat for seven or eight hours.

 

The first thing I watched was the Marvel Comics superhero adaptation Avengers: Age of Ultron, which was released six months ago.

 

Being old, I can remember a time when the Avengers really were comic-book characters and the prospects of them ever appearing in a movie seemed remote.  But my experiences reading the Avengers comic as a kid in the 1970s were frustrating, because the newsagents closest to where I lived in Northern Ireland didn’t stock anything by Marvel.  I had to wait till my family made one of their occasional visits to the nearest town, Enniskillen, where I could buy such comics at Veitch’s newspaper shop.  The infrequency with which I read the Avengers meant that each time I did so, disconcertingly, the team of superheroes featured in the comic had changed their line-up. There were always newcomers who’d seemingly popped up out of nowhere, while previous members I’d become used to had disappeared.

 

(c) Marvel Worldwide Inc.

 

However, the team’s core was fairly solid: Captain America, Thor and Iron Man.  All three appear in Age of Ultron, respectively played by Chris Evans, Chris Helmsdale and Robert Downey Jr.  Also in the movie are the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner).  And we get War Machine (Don Cheadle), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and the Vision (Paul Bettany) too.  And halfway through the movie, in struts Samuel L. Jackson playing the one-eyed Nick Fury, director of the espionage, law-enforcement and counter-terrorism organisation S.H.I.E.L.D.

 

Phew.  That’s a lot of Marvel characters in one movie.  I found it hard to keep up with them all.  I was particularly puzzled by the presence of the brother-and-sister superheroes Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, because I remember them from a different comic, the X-Men – in which they worked for the bad guy, Magneto.  (Indeed, Quicksilver also appeared in the last X-Men movie, Days of Future Past.  There, however, he was an easy-going dude played by Evan Peters, whereas in Age of Ultron Taylor-Johnson portrays him as an altogether more intense and serious character.)

 

(c) Marvel Worldwide Inc.

 

Incidentally, I was pleased to see Iron Man take centre-stage in this film.  I always felt sorry for him in the comics because frankly, compared to the more dramatically attired Captain America and Thor, he seemed like a dork in a boring tin suit.  But played by Robert Downey Jr, he’s more interesting and glamorous.  Mind you, the fact that his human alter-ego, Tony Stark, is a billionaire playboy who’s built his business empire on selling weapons – he’s basically Donald Trump without the crap wig but with a dossier of dodgy arms deals with the Saudis – has made him the subject of some disapproval, including in this recent article in the New Statesman:

 

http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2015/04/politics-iron-man-how-marvel-sold-arms-dealing-billionaire-liberal-america.

 

Actually, Iron Man’s moral ambiguity is what gives him depth – depth that’s lacking in some of the other characters.  And it’s Stark’s overconfident meddling with forces he doesn’t understand that creates and unleashes the movie’s big baddie, Ultron, a global computer system powered by a gemstone from Loki’s sceptre – you need to have watched the previous Avengers movie to know what I’m talking about – that becomes sentient and later incarnates itself in a robot body.

 

Among the other characters I remember from the 1970s is the Vision, the ghostly green-skinned synthesised android who was one of my favourite Avengers.   I’m glad that he’s played here by an actor as good as Paul Bettany.  I also recall Nick Fury, whom I thought was a dullard in his comic-book days.  He seemed a slab-headed, gung-ho, ex-marine type who really belonged in a war comic like Sergeant Rock.  But casting Samuel L. Jackson in the role hasn’t only given Fury a change of skin-colour – personality-wise he’s more appealing now.

 

(c) Marvel Worldwide Inc.

 

By the way, Fury has been played in the past by a white actor, in the 1998 TV movie Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.  In that, he was played by, ahem, David Hasselhoff.

 

With multiple characters, multiple sub-plots, multiple incidents and multiple back-story references, I should have liked Age of Ultron more than I did.  After all, this was how the superheroes’ stories were told in the comics.  And over the years, comic fans have complained about how these superheroes have been treated by filmmakers, with the complex comics storylines – developed over scores and finally hundreds of issues – simplified and pared to the bone to suit the demands of a stand-alone film, with a linear narrative, little room for back-story and a running time of two or so hours.

 

Age of Ultron should have been a happy reminder to me of how the comics were, but I found it too distractingly busy.  It even made me nostalgic for the best superhero movies of old – Sam Raimi’s first two Spiderman films, Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy and Zack Snyder’s underrated take on Superman, 2013’s Man of Steel – where the superhero and supervillains were confined to two or three characters and the stories were reasonably self-contained.  Yes, I love the old comic-book approach to story-telling, but I don’t think it works in the medium of film.

 

Age of Ultron would probably have been more palatable as a TV series, where its twists and turns could have been spun out over a number of episodes.  The irony is that the movie was masterminded by Joss Whedon, whose best-known work is a TV series: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which ran from 1997 to 2003.

 

(c) Marvel Studios / Walt Disney Studios

 

I thought I’d enjoy another Marvel adaptation, one of the sci-fi / space-opera comic Guardians of the Galaxy, which was released last year.  This was because it got many good reviews that praised its irreverent tone and described it as unpretentious fun.  Also, science fiction fans saw fit to give it this year’s Hugo Award for best dramatic presentation (long form).

 

It’s about a group of buccaneering, spacefaring misfits who get caught up in a feud between two intergalactic factions, the Nova Empire and the Kree.  The group consists of a human (Chris Pratt) whom aliens abducted from Earth in the 1980s, when he was eight years old; a hard-assed extra-terrestrial lady with a green skin played by Zoe Saldana, who’s best known for her performance as an extra-terrestrial and blue-skinned lady in James Cameron’s Avatar (2009); a hulking warrior whose body is a circuit-board-like mass of scar patterns (David Bautista); a genetically engineered, talking space raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper); and a walking alien tree called Groot, who only communicates with the words “I am Groot” (voiced by Vin Diesel).

 

Unfortunately, I didn’t much enjoy Guardians of the Galaxy because I didn’t think the film was as smart, funny or cool as it thought it was.  A particular annoyance was Rocket, the talking space raccoon, who’s meant to be its main source of humour but whose incessant, cynical wisecracking just bugged me.  After a few minutes in his company, I was longing for a giant spaceship to run over the top of him and reduce him to a smear of interstellar roadkill.

 

(c) Marvel Studios / Walt Disney Studios 

 

The film has a smug knowingness that’s embodied in the fact that it has Vin Diesel playing a tree.  Yes, that’s Vin Diesel, who’s often mocked for his wooden acting style, playing a mass of wood.  Get it?  Come to think of it, the joke would have been funnier if they’d hired Roger Moore.

 

I found the film’s soundtrack problematic too.  It features a host of songs that were supposedly on a cassette tape in Pratt’s Walkman when he was abducted and now constitute his only link with Earth.  The issue is that Pratt was supposedly abducted in the late 1980s and all these songs – which get played out over the movie’s swashbuckling space action – come from the 1970s or late 1960s: I’m not in Love by 10cc, Spirit in the Sky by Norman Greenbaum, Hooked on a Feeling by Blue Swede (which also saw movie-soundtrack duty in 1992’s Reservoir Dogs), etc.  You’d expect something from the late 1980s to be on that cassette tape, although it’d probably be a shit song like Faith by George Michael or Wishing Well by Terence Trent D’Arby.

 

A properly cool late-1980s kid, of course, would have had the likes of the Jesus and Mary Chain, Killing Joke, the Cramps, the Pixies, the Sisters of Mercy and the Stone Roses on his or her Walkman.  Wow – imagine that lot being played out over scenes of epic space battles!

 

One compensation is the supporting cast.  Keep your eyes and ears open during Guardians of the Galaxy and you’ll spot Glenn Close, John C. Reilly, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Peter Serafinowicz and Christopher Fairbank, who once upon a time played Moxey, the Scouse plasterer in the much-loved British TV comedy-drama Auf Wiedersehen, Pet.  And playing a shaven-headed, blue-skinned villainess is the Scottish actress Karen Gillan, who occupies a fond place in my heart for essaying the no-nonsense Amy Pond in Doctor Who.

 

(c) Skydance Productions / Paramount Pictures

 

Matt Smith, the actor who played the Doctor to Gillan’s Amy Pond, turned up in another blockbuster I watched during my Qatar Airways flights: this summer’s Terminator Genisys, the fifth in the franchise of sci-fi movies that began with James Cameron’s The Terminator back in 1984.  I can imagine Smith’s excitement at being offered a role in a big-budget Hollywood movie turning to disappointment when he saw its final cut and realised he was barely in it.  Mind you, he should be relieved that he’s barely onscreen because the finished film isn’t very good.

 

It begins with a reworking of events at the start of the 1984 Terminator.  John Connor (Jason Clarke), human resistance leader in a dystopian future where the machines have taken over and nearly extirpated mankind, discovers that the machines have sent a terminator – i.e. a hulking but human-like killer robot – back in time to the early 1980s to execute his mother, prevent him from being born and prevent the human resistance from ever existing too.  So he sends his friend Kyle Reece (Jai Courtney) back in time to the 1980s to stop the terminator and save his mother, Sarah (Emilia Clarke).

 

The twist is that Reece arrives in a different version of the past.  This is because someone, mysteriously, has sent another terminator – a reprogrammed, nice terminator, similar to the ones Arnold Schwarzenegger played in the second and third Terminator movies in 1991 and 2003 and also played by Schwarzenegger here – to the 1970s to protect Sarah Connor as a girl.  And this has changed the timeline since then.  Therefore, you get incidents similar to ones in the first two Terminator movies happening again, but differently – mainly because nice-Arnold-from-the-1970s and a now-weaponised Sarah Connor keep turning up to kick the asses of various bad-guys-from-the-future.  These bad-guys-from-the-future include the creepy, cat-like, shape-shifting T-1000, who in Terminator II was played by Robert Patrick but is played here by the Korean actor Lee Byun-hun.

 

Meanwhile, Sarah and Arnold have somehow managed to build a time machine similar to the one used by the machines.  With this, Sarah and Reece travel forward in time to 2017, by which time the takeover by the machines hasn’t yet happened – it’s been delayed, apparently – but it will happen soon unless the sneakily-becoming-sentient machines are stopped.  If that doesn’t make sense to you, don’t worry.  By this point it’d stopped making sense to me too.  And thereafter the film flails around with an increasing number of chases, explosions and bursts of illogical plot exposition.  There’s one plot-twist that would have been chilling if it hadn’t, unfortunately, been given away in the movie’s promotional trailers.

 

Just as the plot gets lost in a mess of time-travelling inconsistencies, so the audience’s appreciation of Terminator Genisys gets stuck in its own self-defeating loop.  To understand what’s going on, you need to have seen Cameron’s original two movies.  But if you’ve seen those, you’ll probably be annoyed to watch their best ideas and scenes pilfered by this brasher and shallower re-tread.

 

Any entertainment value in the film comes from a couple of the performances: namely, the great character actor J.K. Simmons in a supporting role and the now-pushing-seventy Schwarzenegger as yours truly.  To explain Arnold’s decrepitude – I use the word ‘decrepitude’ in a relative sense: it’s not like I’d fancy my chances in a fight with him or anything – we learn that the synthetic flesh coating the terminators’ robotic skeletons grows old, just as real flesh does on real humans.  Thus, by 2017, Arnold (who hasn’t travelled forward in time with Sarah and Reece, but has just hung around since 1984 waiting for them to show up) is looking quite pensionable.  The filmmakers have even given him a catchphrase to reflect his aging: “Old, not obsolete.”

 

(c) Skydance Productions / Paramount Pictures

 

This is nowhere near as memorable as “I’ll be back” or “Hasta la vista, baby”, but it does sound poignant when he utters it in 2017, while we see his hand trembling uncontrollably and we realise the circuitry inside it soon will be obsolete.

 

Sadly, a modified version of that catchphrase sums up Terminator Genisys itself.  Old and obsolete.

 

It’s Hammer time

 

From www.horrorpedia.com

 

When I was seventeen years old, I worked for a while as a volunteer assistant teacher and houseparent at a residential school in Lincolnshire, one for teenaged boys who in those un-politically correct times were deemed ‘maladjusted’.  I suppose in the less brutal terminology of today, they’d be described as having ‘behavioural issues’.  One day I was sitting in the deputy headmaster’s office, chatting to him about something or other, when the school secretary stomped in.  She carried in her hand – one corner of it pinched delicately between a thumb and finger, as if it was something filthy and potentially infectious – a magazine that sported on its cover the face of a savage, hairy, fanged monster.

 

Actually, the monstrous face belonged to Oliver Reed – no surprises there.  This was how he’d appeared in the 1961 British horror movie Curse of the Werewolf.  I knew this because I recognised the magazine immediately.  It was issue ten of a horror-film magazine called House of Hammer.  I remembered buying the same issue six years earlier, when I’d been eleven.  The secretary had caught a couple of pupils leafing through a tatty old copy of this magazine and she’d promptly confiscated it.

 

I was about to interject – on the principle that you should be free to read whatever you want to read – with a humorous but pointed comment: “Well, that looks like the sort of magazine I used to read when I was their age!”  But then the secretary wrenched open House of Hammer, issue ten, at a certain page and screeched, “Look at that!  Disgusting!”

 

The page contained a still from another British horror movie called Satan’s Slave, which’d been released around the time of the magazine’s publication in 1977.  The still showed a gruesome close-up of an actor called Martin Potter moments after someone had stuck a metal nail-file into one of his eyeballs.

 

The deputy headmaster gasped, “Oh my God!”  And I decided that to preserve my professional reputation among the school’s staff, I’d better keep my mouth shut about my familiarity with issue ten of House of Hammer.

 

House of Hammer was the brainchild of magazine and comic editor Dez Skinn.  In 1976, Skinn was asked by Warner Brothers Entertainment’s publishing division to come up with a new monthly magazine dedicated to horror films.  While trying to think of a selling point for the new publication, it occurred to him that whilst walking to work every day he passed Hammer House, headquarters for the legendary British horror-movie studio Hammer Films, on London’s Wardour Street.  So he contacted the studio, which was then headed by Michael Carreras, and got it to agree to the publication of a Hammer-themed magazine.  The magazine would deal with all horror films, but part of it would be devoted to Hammer’s output.  Each issue would feature a comic-strip adaptation of a Hammer horror movie and its title would reflect the connection too: House of Hammer.

 

Actually, I suspect that Skinn, who was primarily a comics man, had his own agenda.  Although he’d worked on British children’s comics like Buster and Whizzer and Chips, it must have irked him that Britain – unlike, say, the USA and Japan – regarded comics as being strictly for children.  According to the British view, anyone who read them beyond the age of twelve or thirteen must be a bit soft in the head.  Skinn possibly saw House of Hammer, with its comic-strip adaptations of films that were still regarded in the 1970s as adult viewing, as a Trojan horse – a vehicle by which he could smuggle more adult-orientated comic strips into the British publishing world.

 

From www.dezskinn.com

 

Indeed, he also persuaded Hammer to give him access to two of the more comic-book-like characters in its canon: Captain Kronos, hero of the 1974 horror-swashbuckler, Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter; and Father Shandor, the gruff, bearded, rifle toting (and thanks to his being played by Caledonian actor Andrew Keir, Scottish-accented) Transylvanian monk who’d battled Christopher Lee in 1966’s Dracula Prince of Darkness.  Skinn created spin-off comic-strip adventures for Kronos and Shandor and inserted those in the magazine too.

 

Finally, he rounded off each issue with a three-page strip called Van Helsing’s Terror Tales.  Here, Count Dracula’s arch-enemy Professor Van Helsing, as played by Peter Cushing in the original 1958 Hammer adaptation of Dracula, would narrate a blood-curdling story that was clearly inspired by those in the old American EC Comics of the 1950s like Tales from the Crypt and Haunt of Fear.

 

Though I started buying House of Hammer for its film coverage, the magazine soon opened my eyes to the fact that comics were much more than a juvenile medium.  In their multi-panelled, visually fast-moving way, they could be an art form.  In particular, House of Hammer showcased the work of two superb artists: John Bolton, whose work was beautifully shaded and conjured up oodles of gothic atmosphere; and Brian Lewis, whose work was simpler and more delineated but equally gorgeous.  No wonder Carreras told Skinn that the artwork in the magazine exceeded anything the studio had commissioned for its posters.

 

From www.comicbookbrain.com

From www.kidr77.blogspot.co.uk

 

But the writers dealing with House of Hammer’s film material were impressive too.  They included the learned cinema historian Dennis Gifford, whose book A Pictorial History of Horror Films is regarded today as a milestone in written studies of horror cinema.  There was also John Brosnan, an Australian ex-patriate who was surely a busy man – he wrote several film-related tomes, namely James Bond in the Cinema, Movie Magic, The Horror People, Future Tense and The Primal Screen, and at the same time he penned horror novels under the pseudonym of Harry Adam Knight.  And there was David Pirie, now an acclaimed TV writer, who’d written another seminal cinema-book, A Heritage of Horror, the first critical work to say good things about the British horror films of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.  Plus Alan Frank, who’d written a lavishly illustrated volume called Horror Films and who later became a national newspaper critic.  (All right, the newspaper in question was the cheesy, tit-obsessed tabloid the Daily Star, but it still counts as a national newspaper.  Apparently.)  The shelves in my bedroom, needless to say, were soon groaning under the weight of Gifford’s, Brosnan’s, Pirie’s and Frank’s books.

 

One other House of Hammer writer whom I liked was a bloke called John Fleming.  In one of the first issues I bought, he penned a review of the 1974 Spanish zombie-horror film The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue – which despite being Spanish was set in England, and despite having ‘Manchester’ in its title was set in the Lake District.  The review made me uncomfortable because, as Fleming explained, the film’s plot involved a new agricultural machine that kills crop-pests by emitting low amounts of radiation: this has the unexpected side effect of bringing recently dead humans back to murderous life.  I was living on a farm at the time and employing a machine that destroys crop-damaging bugs, but that accidentally unleashes a plague of killer zombies too, sounded like something my Dad would do.  Fleming had a humorous writing style.  He wryly described the film’s many disembowelments, dismemberments and eye-gougings that, to my eleven-year-old self, didn’t sound like laughing matters.  He concluded with the memorable line: “The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue is no great horror film.  But you certainly won’t sleep through it.”

 

From www.britishcomicart.blogspot.com

 

I would furtively buy House of Hammer at my local newsagent’s and read it well away from the eyes of my parents.  I doubted if the magazine would receive adult approval – rightly, as my experience at the school in Lincolnshire demonstrated years later.  Hammer horror films nowadays are a cherished part of Britain’s film heritage.  People rank them alongside the Gainsborough romances and Ealing comedies and wax nostalgically about how fairy tale-like and relatively un-bloody they were.  But that certainly wasn’t how they were regarded in the past, even as late as the 1970s.  Back then, they had a reputation for being crude, sleazy and violent.  The really subtle and artful horror films, the establishment critics would tell you, were the monochrome ones made by Universal Studios in the 1930s and 1940s.

 

Another reason to keep shtum about reading House of Hammer was the magazine’s coverage of new – well, late-1970s – horror films.  It didn’t flinch from showing graphic scenes from those films.   (Though the pictures were at least in black and white.  The only part of House of Hammer that was in colour was its cover).  As well as the nail-file-in the-eye picture from Satan’s Slave, I remember grisly stills from the 1976 killer-worm film Squirm, including one where a bucketful of crazed worms start burrowing into someone’s face – these special effects were the work of a young make-up man called Rick Baker, who’d later win Oscars for his contributions to more reputable movies.  I was also haunted by pictures from 1977’s The Incredible Melting Man, in which actor Alex Rebar spends 84 minutes dissolving in a gloop of what looks like mouldy pizza topping.  Its special effects were also masterminded by Rick Baker.  Obviously, Rick was a busy lad in those days.

 

In fact, horror movies then were rapidly changing.  The gothic costume-drama horrors of Hammer Films – who managed just one release during House of Hammer’s run, 1976’s To the Devil a Daughter – were on their way out, along with the traditional monsters that they’d featured, like vampires, werewolves and mummies.  In their place appeared angrier, more brutal, contemporary-set horror films.  Whether it was conscious of this or not, the magazine in its later issues devoted increasing space to younger and more nihilistic horror filmmakers like George Romero, Dario Argento and Brian De Palma.

 

Indeed, it was John Fleming in House of Hammer who introduced me to the work of a young Canadian director called David Cronenberg.  He wrote a feature about Cronenberg’s first four movies, the mutation-obsessed, body-horror shockers Stereo (1969), Crimes of the Future (1970), Shivers (1975) and Rabid (1977).  Noting that Rabid, which was about blood-crazed zombies in Montreal who had hypodermic spikes oozing in and out of their orifices, was just a remake of Shivers, which was about sex-crazed zombies in Montreal who had slug-like parasites oozing in and out of their orifices, Fleming expressed concern that Cronenberg might be a one-trick pony who’d spend his career repeating himself.  “In horror films,” wrote Fleming, “I prefer ad nauseum to mean something else.”  Well, John, you obviously didn’t see A History of Violence (2005) coming.  Or Eastern Promises (2007).  Or A Dangerous Method (2011).  Or…

 

House of Hammer folded after 23 issues.  I suppose its demise was inevitable.  By this point in the late 1970s the studio from which it’d taken its name was virtually dead in the water, as was the whole British film industry.

 

From www.alistasi.com

 

But over the past few years what’s been interesting, and gratifying, for me has been the realisation that I wasn’t the only kid in Britain who’d surreptitiously read the magazine.  No, some heavy-hitters of the future had read it too.  The League of Gentlemen’s Mark Gatiss made a documentary about British horror films for BBC4 a couple of years ago and it contained a scene where Gatiss sat down and pored over an old copy of House of Hammer.  Meanwhile, comic actor and writer Mathew Holness (of Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place fame) was clearly a fan too, as this item on his twitter feed indicates:

 

https://twitter.com/mrholness/status/547550929982349313

 

Perhaps most significantly, I’ve read an interview with British filmmaker Julian Richards, whose 1997 movie Darklands is credited with kick-starting the modern boom in British horror movie-making – which has spawned films such as 28 Days Later (2003) and Kill List (2011) and is still going today.  In the interview Richards mentioned that his first attempt at movie-making, at the age of 13, involved filming a version of a Van Helsing’s Terror Tale from a House of Hammer issue.

 

http://mjsimpson-films.blogspot.co.uk/2014/04/interview-julian-richards-1997.html

 

At one point I’d managed to amass all 23 issues of House of Hammer, which today, in mint condition, would probably raise a fortune on eBay.  Unfortunately, each issue had on its back cover the original poster for the Hammer film being told in comic-strip form inside it.  And in my unthinking juvenile enthusiasm, I’d immediately grab a pair of scissors, cut off that poster / back cover and stick it on my bedroom wall.  Oh well.  I still think the Vampire Circus (1972) poster is a thing of beauty that should be on everyone’s bedroom wall.

 

(c) Hammer Films

 

By the time of House of Hammer’s demise, Skinn had launched a sister magazine, Starburst.  This was inspired by the success of Star Wars (1977), dealt with science-fiction films and TV shows and used most of House of Hammer’s writing staff – including John Fleming, who’d get to interview heroes of mine such as Nigel Kneale, creator / writer of Quatermass, and Brian Clemens, key writer on The Avengers.  After about twenty issues Starburst widened its remit to include fantasy and horror films as well and it’s continued to be published, on and off, ever since – the last time I checked, it’d clocked up over 400 issues.

 

In the 1980s, Skinn also launched the influential comic – the influential adult comic – Warrior, which gave the world its first taste of the classic Alan Moore-written, David Lloyd-illustrated dystopian saga V for Vendetta.  At the risk of sounding uncultured, I have to say that what excited me when I read Warrior wasn’t so much V for Vendetta; but the fact that it contained more of the adventures of that demon-fighting Transylvanian / Scottish monk from Dracula Prince of Darkness, Father Shandor.

 

From www.tor.com

 

A while back, whilst Internet-surfing, I stumbled across a blog called So It Goes written by John Fleming, House of Hammer’s old Living Dead at Manchester Morgue reviewer and David Cronenberg expert.  Fleming has been busy since then.  Although he still does some journalism, he’s also been a producer of comedy shows and a consultant for theatres and entertainment companies; he organises the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards that are handed out every year at the Edinburgh Fringe; he sets up websites, usually for comedians; and he records podcasts with the Scottish comedy critic Kate Copstick.  His blog is mainly about comedy and comedians too.

 

I wasn’t surprised that Fleming had turned out to be a comedy specialist.  Back at the beginning of the 1980s, I’d watched Tiswas, the famous ITV Saturday-morning kid’s show that was a glorious mixture of jokes, slapstick, anarchy, stupidity, custard pies, buckets of water and vats of gunge and that helped to launch the careers of Chris Tarrant and Lenny Henry; and I’d noticed the name ‘John Fleming’ among the show’s credits.  I’d always wondered if this was the same John Fleming who’d written for House of Hammer and Starburst.  (Answer: it was.)

 

I sent Fleming an email, in which I threw at him a couple of his old quotes from House of Hammer – God knows how I remembered them after nearly 40 years, but I did – and he responded with a request to interview me for his blog.  He’d had a look at my biography on Blood and Porridge and must’ve decided that I sounded weird enough to make an interesting interview subject.  So we did a half-hour interview via Skype.  The piece that resulted from the interview can be read here.

 

https://thejohnfleming.wordpress.com/2015/07/17/north-korea-manchesters-living-dead-and-the-influence-of-house-of-hammer/

 

I have to say that our half-hour chat was pretty rambling.  It veered from my time in North Korea to my experiences as a writer; from the cinematic oeuvre of Mr Cronenberg to the town of Norwich, where I’d studied for my MA; from my current life in Sri Lanka to the question of why an eleven-year-old kid, as I was in 1977, would want to subject himself to a magazine like House of Hammer, dealing with films that were supposedly the stuff of nightmares.  (Fleming had assumed that the magazine’s readership consisted of geeks in their late teens.)  I was dubious that he’d be able to shape our all-over-the-place conversation into a coherent article, at least one where I didn’t sound like a babbling madman whose brain had been disconnected into a dozen different pieces.

 

But I think he’s managed to do a decent job of it.  I only sound slightly babbling and mad and disconnected.  Cheers, John!

 

From www.tainted-archive.blogspot.com

 

Mountfield, music and revenge from beyond the grave

 

From www.wwcomics.com

 

In the early 1950s American kids didn’t know how lucky they were.  Thanks to the publishing company EC Comics, headed by the visionary William Gaines, they had not one, not two, but three splendidly warped and gruesome horror comics to read, to enjoy, to be inspired by, and to be thoroughly corrupted by.  This trio were Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror and Haunt of Fear.

 

Each comic contained stories of the macabre, morbid and horrible and each had its own sepulchral host to introduce the stories – the Crypt Keeper (Tales), the Vault Keeper (Vault) and the Old Witch (Haunt).  After each story had reached its grisly denouement, the host would invariably reappear and go ‘Heh, heh, heh!” and generally not show much sympathy for the story’s protagonist, who’d just been eaten, dismembered, disembowelled, strangled or drained of blood.  Often populating these tales were weird and eldritch monsters and spectacularly-mouldering zombies, which were drawn with lip-smacking, finger-licking relish by great comic-book artists like Jack Davis and Graham Ingels.

 

Unfortunately, Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror and Haunt of Fear were too good to last.  Uptight and up-his-own-arse psychiatrist Dr Fredric Wertham penned two magazine articles in 1948, Horror in the Nursery and The Psychopathology of Comic Books, and then in 1954 a book called Seduction of the Innocent, which claimed that America’s unruly comic-book industry was turning the younger generation into a rabble of lawless, bloodthirsty and sexually-depraved delinquents.  Despite Wertham’s loopiness – he had a particular beef with Wonder Woman, whom he believed promoted lesbianism because she was independent and powerful and didn’t need a man to cling to – his allegations struck a chord in the US Congress in those paranoid McCarthy-ite times.  A new regulatory code for comics – i.e. censorship – was introduced and Gaines was forced to close his three infamous titles.  Needless to say, they’ve been massively influential ever since.  The work of everyone from Stephen King to Steven Spielberg has, at one time or other, shown a little of that old, nasty EC magic.  And I’m sure that if I possessed a few mint-condition copies of Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror or Haunt of Fear, I could sell them on eBay and retire tomorrow on the proceeds.

 

A common trope in the Tales / Vault / Haunt stories was that of revenge from beyond the grave.  An evil scumbag murders someone in order to claim an inheritance or settle a score.  Then at a later date, the cadaver of the victim comes back to life, scrabbles its way out of the ground and goes shuffling off to find the perpetrator of the crime and punish him or her, horribly.  By this point the victim looks pretty yucky.  Decompositional fluids are oozing out, pieces of rotting flesh are falling off and eyeballs are dangling down.  So the murderer gets a bit of a surprise when that victim turns up on his or her doorstep.

 

I’ve just had a short story published under the pseudonym of Jim Mountfield, which is the name I put on my stories when they fall into the ‘horror’ category.  This story was partly inspired by the old EC comics and their common theme of revenge from beyond the grave.  One day I asked myself a question: what crime could possibly be so vile that it’d induce me to return from the dead and wreak vengeance on the perpetrator?

 

After thinking about it, I identified one such atrocity.  It involved music.

 

I imagined my funeral service.  I imagined that I’d left strict instructions about the music I wanted played at the close of my funeral service – about my remains being carried away to the sound of some old blues song, for instance, or a John Barry composition, or for the sake of irony, Highway to Hell by AC/DC.  But out of malice, someone ignored my instructions and played some really crap music instead.  Something really naff, and crass, and nauseating.

 

Angels, say, by Robbie Williams.  Actually, I once read somewhere that Williams’ saccharine anthem really is the song that gets played most at funerals in Great Britain.  This fact makes me feel embarrassed to British.

 

What a horrible thought.  Then the mourners would leave the church saying to one another, “Well, fancy that!  I never knew he was a Robbie Williams fan!”  And that’s how I’d be remembered.  As a lover of Robbie f***ing Williams.  Yes, I think that colossal indignity would be enough to bring me back in zombie form, seeking retribution.

 

(c) The Daily Telegraph

 

And so I had an idea for the beginning of a story.  The funeral of a man who’d spent his life being a John Peel-type music obsessive is taking place.  He’d owned a record collection that ran to tens of thousands of albums.  And he’d asked his best friend to play a few of his very-most favourite songs at the ceremony’s end.  But a spiteful relative intervenes and plays the ghastly Angels instead.  And then there are consequences – supernatural consequences, and nasty ones.

 

This tale of revenge from beyond the grave, and good and bad music, is called The Groove; and it has just appeared in the kindle magazine Hellfire Crossroads, issue 5.  It can be downloaded here:

 

http://www.amazon.co.uk/HELLFIRE-CROSSROADS-VOLUME-Horror-Stories-ebook/dp/B013EUMPQE

 

From www.amazon.co.uk

 

Days of Godzilla past

 

(c) 20th Century Fox

 

Lately, I found myself on a Qatar Airlines flight – tired, practically brain-dead, but with a neat little inflight entertainment audio / video system installed in the seat-back in front of me.  It seemed a good time to search the system’s cache of recent movie releases and select a couple of big dumb blockbusters that’d pass the time and not tax my weary mind unduly.  I ended up watching X-Men: Days of Future Past, the second prequel to the original trilogy of X-Men movies that appeared between 2000 and 2006 and were based on the Marvel comics; and this year’s remake of Godzilla.  Here’s what I thought of them.

 

When I heard in 2011 that they were filming a first prequel to the X-Men trilogy, entitled X-Men: First Class, set in the 1960s and featuring Scotsman James McAvoy and Irishman Michael Fassbender in the roles of the saintly Professor Xavier and the villainous Magneto (who’d been played in the original series by Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen), I was apprehensive.  I had bad memories of the last time there’d been a prequel to a successful science-fiction movie trilogy starring a Scotsman and an Irishman.  Yes, Ewan McGregor, Liam Neeson and Star Wars 1: The Phantom Menace, I’m looking at you.

 

In fact, I didn’t think X-Men: First Class was bad – it was just slightly disappointing that its story was told in such broad brushstrokes.  Now comes X-Men: Days of Future Past, with a cast that includes McAvoy and Fassbender and Stewart and McKellen.  You see, while most of it is set in 1973, part of it is set in a grim war-torn future, which means we get to see the young non-wrinkly Xavier and Magneto in the 1973 bits and their old wrinkly versions in the future bits.

 

Actually, watching this movie was weird for me because it was around 1973 that I started reading Marvel’s X-Men comic.  In the 1970s comic I remember Professor Xavier already being old, bald and confined to a wheelchair – i.e. he already looked like Patrick Stewart.  He certainly didn’t look young and funky like James MacAvoy in Future Past.  Meanwhile, the comic’s themes of ostracism, exclusion and racism, in a world where humanity co-exists uneasily with mutants who’ve developed superhuman powers, went completely over my juvenile head.

 

The movie starts in the future, with a surviving band of mutant superheroes, including Xavier and Magneto in their Stewart and McKellen incarnations (obliged yet again to join forces), making a final stand against an onslaught of destructive super-robots called Sentinels that’ve been programmed to wipe out mutant life-forms.  Indeed, in this apocalyptic future-world, the robots seemed to have done a good job of wiping out ordinary human beings too.  Desperately, Xavier and Magneto send the soul of the spike-fisted and eternally-youthful Wolverine, played as usual by Hugh Jackman, back in time to 1973.  There, in the body of his earlier self, he’ll try to prevent the incident that causes the creation of the Sentinels and begins the chain of events leading to the future war.

 

Yes, James Cameron ought to have sued the filmmakers for nicking his future-war / time-travel ideas from The Terminator movies.  Then again, Cameron himself was sued by the writer Harlan Ellison, who accused him of nicking his ideas from episodes he’d written for the old Outer Limits TV series.  So who knows where this scenario originally comes from?

 

Once Wolverine is back in 1973 (or in an exaggerated movie version of it, rife with wide lapels, shoulder-length hair, discotheques, mirror-balls, Vietnam Wars and crooked-looking US presidents), he goes off to enlist the help of the James-MacAvoy-version Xavier and Michael-Fassbender-version Magneto.  This isn’t easy, since (1) Xavier / MacAvoy has become a disillusioned junkie and (2) Magneto / Fassbender has been captured and imprisoned in a concrete cell many floors below the Pentagon.  To spring Magneto from his Pentagon cell, Wolverine assembles a mutant team consisting of the reluctant Xavier, the hairy but brainy Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Quicksilver (Evan Peters), a nonchalant teenager in a Pink Floyd T-shirt with the power to move faster than lightning.  And it’s here that the movie enjoys its best stretch.

 

The scenes where the superfast Quicksilver sprints through the Pentagon while bodies, bullets, flying knives and tumbling furniture drift through the air around him in eerie slow-motion are stunning.  Though if everything else is moving so slowly, I can’t figure out why his personal stereo (surely an anachronism in 1973 anyway) continues to play Jim Croce’s Time in a Bottle at normal speed.

 

With Magneto free, Quicksilver disappears from the movie (alas) and the other characters jet off to Paris, where a Vietnam peace summit is about to begin and where the crucial event that’ll lead to the future war is about to happen.  Mystique, the saucy blue-skinned shape-shifting mutant played by Rebecca Romijin in the original trilogy and by Jennifer Lawrence in the prequels, is due to gun down a scientist / business mogul called Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), who’s designed the blueprints for the Sentinels.  Horrified by Trask’s murder, which it interprets as an act of mutant terrorism, the US government will go ahead with Trask’s plans and start manufacturing the Sentinels.

 

Well, Wolverine and co. manage to stop Mystique from doing the deed but – surprise! – back in the future, nothing changes.  Those pesky Sentinels are still there, besieging the fortress where the pension-age Xavier and Magneto are holed up.  The Beast helpfully explains that although you can go back in time and change one event, the overall flow of time may continue in the same direction.  To emphasise the Beast’s theory, the filmmakers show a famous episode of Star Trek based on the same idea, The City on the Edge of Forever, playing on a TV in the background while he’s speaking.  (Curiously, that episode was written by Harlan Ellison too.)

 

What follows, with the government and the still-alive Trask going ahead with the Sentinels’ production, Xavier and Wolverine trying to stop them and the Fassbender-version Magneto deciding, as usual, to jump ship and do his own nefarious thing, is a tad mechanical.  However, the likeability of both the characters and the actors manage to hold one’s interest.  There’s even a moment where, thanks to some mind-transfer jiggery-pokery, the young and old Xaviers are able to communicate across time.  Actually, it’s the young and old Magnetos who really need to hold a conference – so that McKellen can tell Fassbender to stop being a dick, get mucked in and help the others.

 

There’s fun in seeing the retro-looking but unfeasible Sentinels – far beyond the capability of 2014’s technology, let alone 1973’s – being unveiled on the lawn of Richard Nixon’s White House.  If you’ve seen the other X-Men movies, though, it’s best not to think about them too much because there’s a morass of continuity problems.  For instance, I can’t figure out how Patrick Stewart’s Xavier is still alive during the future war, since we saw him vaporised in the third movie, X-Men: Last Stand.  (It was suggested at that movie’s end that he’d transferred his soul into another man’s body, but surely his new body wouldn’t look like Patrick Stewart.)

 

Future Past also has a moment where an X-shaped beam of white light, with blue edges, is projected onto James McAvoy’s face.  The light resembles a Scottish Saltire and the actor had expressed concern about how stills of this might be used before the Scottish independence referendum.  “There’s an image of me…” he groused, “with basically a Saltire on my face, and I’m like, ‘Oh please, don’t use that for the f**king Yes campaign.”  Well, just for you, James, here’s that image with the Saltire on your fizzog.  Vote yes!  (Next time.)

 

(c) 20th Century Fox

 

In 2010, Gareth Edwards directed the low-budget British science-fiction movie Monsters, which was one of the most unexpected cinematic pleasures of recent years.  It’s a ruminative piece wherein two people are forced to traverse an abandoned central-American wilderness that a returning space-probe has inadvertently contaminated with alien life-forms.  In the process, they learn as much about themselves as they do about the weird creatures shimmering through the jungles around them.

 

I had mixed feelings when I heard that Edwards had departed for Hollywood to helm a big-budget remake of Godzilla, the 1954 Japanese movie that made its titular character, a giant, scaly city-demolishing monster, an icon of popular culture.  I thought it a shame that Edwards couldn’t continue to work in the UK, making small, personal and no doubt interesting movies.  On the other hand, if someone had to make a new version of Godzilla, it might as well be him.

 

The 1954 movie, directed by Ishiro Honda, was a gloomy parable about the horrors of the atomic bomb – nine years before Godzilla flattened Tokyo, the Japanese had seen that bomb flatten two more of their cities.  But subsequent Godzilla movies lightened up.  Godzilla became Japan’s unofficial champion, battling against other, nastier monsters like Rodan, Mothra and King Ghidorah whilst wrecking more Japanese cities in the process.  Edwards’ remake tries to have it both ways.  It wants to replicate the sombre tone of the original, but also to have some monstrous adversaries for Godzilla to fight against and more cities – Honolulu, Las Vegas and San Francisco – to level.

 

The film starts with two giant parasitic creatures called MUTOs being found, in larval form, in the fossilised remains of a vast creature that clearly belongs to the same species as Godzilla.  Years later, the MUTOs emerge from their chrysalises, one of which has ended up in Japan and the other has been transported to the USA, and start destroying everything in their paths.  They aim to meet up, breed and unleash hordes of new MUTOs on humanity.  Then, however, Godzilla emerges from the depths of the Pacific.  He’s a last survivor of an age when such gargantuan creatures overran the earth and, occupying the top of the food-chain, he’s programmed to hunt down, fight and destroy those MUTOs.

 

The movie’s best scenes are those where Edwards’ talents are most on display.  An early sequence set in a Japanese city that’s been long abandoned, Chernobyl-like, due to a supposed accident at a nearby nuclear power station – the disaster was actually caused by the arrival of one of the MUTOs, which feed on nuclear energy – evokes the strange, crumbling wilderness of Monsters.  There are memorable images later too, such as one involving a burning train and one where a group of marines jump out of a plane and skydive, trailing coloured streams of smoke, into a giant grey cloud of ash and dust below – the cloud marks the spot where Godzilla is slugging it out with the two MUTOs in the middle of San Francisco.

 

Unfortunately, the film is undone by its disjointed plot.  We have to rely on David Strathairn’s American admiral, whose warships are monitoring the Pacific, to find out what’s going on.  He shouts stuff like, “A MUTO has been spotted here!” and “Godzilla has been sighted heading there!”  And it doesn’t help that the film’s most interesting characters, played by Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche, disappear early on, leaving the less engaging Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the main focus.  Taylor-Johnson’s character displays an unlikely knack for surviving deadly situations.  I counted four seriously life-threatening predicaments that he manages to escape from during the film.  In two of them, he’s the only survivor while everyone else dies.

 

Fascinatingly, one of the movie’s supporting characters, a scientist (who again exists mainly to shout bits of plot exposition), is played by the English actress Sally Hawkins.  She’s best-known for playing the lead character in Mike Leigh’s 2008 comedy-drama movie Happy-Go-Lucky.  Maybe she could persuade Mike Leigh to direct the sequel to Godzilla.  I’d like to see how Leigh’s celebrated improvisational techniques would work with performers like Rodan, Mothra, King Ghidorah and the Big G. himself.

 

Anyway, to sum up.  X-Men: Days of Future Past — 7.5 out of 10.  Godzilla — 6 out of 10.

 

(c) Warner Brothers / Toho