Deathlog 2018: Part 2

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(c) Smallfilms

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

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

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

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

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(c) British Lion Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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(c) AMC Networks

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

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

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(c) Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

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

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

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

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

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(c) Universal Pictures

Frankenstein – the 200-year-old Prometheus

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(c) Barnes & Noble

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One thing I intended to do this year was read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – to give it its full title, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus.  This was because 2018 marked the 200th anniversary of the novel’s first publication in 1818.  But I almost forgot.  It was only a week ago that I remembered my pledge, hurried out and bought a copy of the book in the ‘classics’ section of a local bookstore and read it in three days.

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Actually, I’ve read Frankenstein before.  During a feverish period when I was 10 or 11 years old and was totally horror-daft and monster-daft, I read Frankenstein, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) and Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886).  I have to confess that Dracula was the only one I enjoyed.  The other two works went over my head.  With Frankenstein, most of Shelley’s prose was like a fog to my 10 or 11-year-old thought processes and I only remembered a few key incidents from the plot.  So when I tackled Frankenstein again last week, reading the book was like a first-time experience.

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Here, then, are my 2018 impressions of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

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It really isn’t like the films.  Well, everyone knew that already.  But the literary version of the monster Victor Frankenstein creates in his laboratory is a million miles removed from most of the versions portrayed on the screen – most famously, Boris Karloff’s lumbering, grunting, inarticulate creature in the first three Frankenstein pictures made by Universal Studios in 1931, 1936 and 1939.  For one thing, Shelley’s creature is relentlessly verbose.  He hardly shuts up when he’s centre-stage.  He rattles on for 50-odd pages at one point. 

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(c) Universal Studios

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He’s also not the hapless, easily-manipulated innocent that Karloff’s monster was.  Whereas the Karloffian creature only killed people in self-defence, or through manipulation by unscrupulous humans (like Bela Lugosi’s Igor in 1939’s Son of Frankenstein), or through tragic misunderstandings (like in the 1931 Frankenstein, when he throws a little girl into a river believing she’ll like float like a flower), Shelley’s creature is focused and calculating.  He’s a bastard, frankly.  He murders Frankenstein’s family and friends one by one, even though they aren’t responsible for his suffering.  His victims include a child – Frankenstein’s six-year-old brother.

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(c) Hammer Films

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Also, it’s interesting how emotional, at times histrionic, Frankenstein is in the book.  Given to alternating fits of passion and despair, feverish action and morose lethargy, he almost resembles the popular images of Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, the two romantic poets with whom Mary Shelley was famously shacked up on the shores of Lake Geneva when she wrote the novel.  Again, the literary character is at odds with the best-known portrayal of him in the cinema, i.e. Peter Cushing in the Frankenstein movies made by Hammer Films in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.  Cushing’s Frankenstein is a driven man of science, fixated on his goal and prepared to be ruthless and callous in order to achieve it – occasionally tipping over into villainy in the process.  It has to be said that if someone was going to rewrite the laws of science by bringing dead matter back to life, it’d more likely be a Frankenstein in the unflinching Cushing mould than the volatile and tormented Frankenstein described by Shelley. Talking of which…

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We never find out how Frankenstein manages to bring dead matter back to life.  Frankenstein movies have used many techniques for reanimating the collection of stitched-together corpse-parts that becomes the creature – a bolt of lightning in the 1931 Universal one, solar power in the Jack Smight-directed, Christopher Isherwood-scripted Frankenstein: The True Story (1973) and, hilariously, a shoal of electric eels in Kenneth Branagh’s operatic (i.e. madly over-the-top) Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994).  But in the book, Frankenstein simply declares: “I see by your eagerness and the wonder and hope which your eyes express, my friend, that you expect to be informed of the secret with which I am acquainted; that cannot be; listen patiently until the end of my story, and you will easily perceive why I am reserved upon that subject.”  And that’s it.

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It’s quite a travelogue.  Events take place in Geneva in Switzerland, Ingolstadt in Bavaria and Chamonix near Mount Blanc in the French Alps.  There’s a lengthy digression involving skulduggery in Paris and a flight across France to Leghorn (Livorno) in Italy, and a boat-trip from Strasbourg to Rotterdam.  Frankenstein goes to England and visits London, Windsor, Oxford, Matlock and the Lake District.  He traverses Scotland, from Edinburgh through Perth to the Orkney Islands and makes an unplanned boat trip to Ireland.  And acting as book-ends to all this are a beginning and ending in the polar wastes north of Archangelsk in Russia, where the story is told in flashback.  So basically, Frankenstein has more locations than four or five James Bond novels put together. 

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Some of it is absurd.  It’s customary to marvel at the fact that Mary Shelley was only 18 when she wrote Frankenstein.  That’s all very well and good, but there are moments where you get the impression that, full of teenaged impulsiveness and impatience, she wants to get from one plot development to the next and isn’t worried about the means of doing so.  This results in some mad lapses in logic and believability.  She wants the creature to become expressive and articulate as soon as possible after being brought to life, so she has him spy on a room where, every day, a foreign woman is receiving rudimentary language lessons; so gradually, the creature becomes literate like the woman does.  But it’s pushing credibility, to say the least, that straight after this the creature finds, reads and understands a copy of John Milton’s Paradise Lost

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Credibility takes a pummelling too when Frankenstein agrees to the creature’s demand that he make him a female companion.  He retreats to a distant, tiny Orcadian island to assemble and bring to life a new body, presumably built out of scavenged body-parts like its predecessor.  How Frankenstein gathers these body-parts without being noticed on an island with just five inhabitants is anyone’s guess.  Later, after reneging on his promise and destroying the female body, Frankenstein ends up adrift on a boat that somehow takes him from the Orkneys to the Irish coast in the space of one night.  He arrives in time to be framed for the murder of his friend Henry Clerval, whose body the creature has dumped on the shore nearby.  Since Clerval had been last heard of in Perth, it’s a mystery how the creature found out about Frankenstein’s betrayal in the Orkneys, assassinated Clerval in Perth and then followed Frankenstein from the Orkneys to Ireland with the corpse. 

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Frankenstein is finally cleared and released from incarceration in Ireland when his father, Baron Frankenstein, shows up to collect him.  Previously, it was stated that the old Baron was too infirm to be able to travel from Geneva to Ingolstadt, so how does he withstand the land and sea journey all the way from Geneva to Ireland and back?    

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(c) Oxford World Classics

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But some of it is brilliant too.  The long-awaited scene where, up on the icy, rocky wastes near the summit of Mount Blanc, Frankenstein comes face-to-face with his now articulate and vengeful creation – “’Begone, vile insect!  Or rather, stay, that I may trample you to dust!  And, oh!  That I could, with the extinction of your miserable existence, restore those victims whom you have so diabolically murdered!’  ‘I expected this reception,” said the daemon.  “All men hate the wretched…’” – is wonderfully atmospheric.  So too is the appropriately Godforsaken Arctic setting where the book begins and ends. 

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And you can’t better Chapter 5 when Frankenstein applies the vital spark to his creation and the story really gets going: “It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils…  It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.”  And of course, it gets worse: “Good God!  His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries underneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.”

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Finally, it’s unfair to compare it with Dracula.  It’s fashionable these days to hold up Frankenstein as a literary milestone – it certainly wasn’t the world’s first horror story, but there’s a good case to be made that it was the first work of science fiction – whilst dismissing Dracula as an unambitious potboiler.  However, the books are like chalk and cheese, even if their title characters are inseparably linked in popular culture now. Designed to entertain, Dracula is a classic thriller as memorable as Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) or H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1887).  Frankenstein is less about thrills and more about man’s relation to the universe and, as such, belongs in a higher-brow bracket of literature. I feel, though, that because it rollercoasters between the sublime and the ridiculous, it’s less successful than Dracula in what it sets out to do. 

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But… when Frankenstein hits the peaks, it’s a work of art.

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From Fine Art Images / Heritage Images / Getty Images

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Murakami underground

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(c) Vintage

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Events this year have possibly written the last page in one of the most traumatic and bewildering chapters in modern Japanese history.  The 6th and 26th of July saw the executions of 13 members of Aum Shinrikyo, described in its Wikipedia entry as both a  ‘Buddhist new religious movement’ and a ‘doomsday cult’.  Those executed included Aum’s founder and leader, Shoko Asahara.  They also included Masato Yokoyama, Yasuo Hayashi, Kenichi Hirose and Toru Toyoda, who on March 20th, 1995, released quantities of the exceptionally-toxic nerve agent sarin on Tokyo Underground’s Hibiya and Marunouchi Lines.  A fifth perpetrator, Ikuo Hayashi, released sarin on the Chiyoda Line, but he escaped execution and is under a life sentence because “he helped investigators when he confessed to his role in the gassing and because he showed deep remorse in court.”   

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The five cult-members’ modus operandi was crude – they dumped plastic bags of sarin on the floors of the underground trains and punctured them with the points of the umbrellas they were carrying, before bailing out at the next stops – but the consequences were devastating.  13 people died and at least a thousand other commuters and subway staff were injured.  This came at a time when Japan seemed particularly vulnerable, with the Kobe earthquake already having wreaked havoc in January that year and, more generally, the country undergoing stagnation after the ‘bubble economy’ had burst in the early 1990s.  (I can testify to the attack’s impact on Japan’s self-esteem and sense of order because I was living in the northern Japanese city of Sapporo at the time.  In fact, I’d been riding around those same Tokyo subway lines a week earlier, as I’d come south to attend a Rolling Stones concert at Tokyo Dome.  However, I’d made sure I was back in Sapporo for March 17th because an Irish mate there had invited me to a St Patrick’s Day party.)


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Originally published in 1997 and translated into English in 2000, Underground is an attempt to make sense of what happened in Tokyo that day by Japanese author Haruki Murakami – who in 1995 was seen as something of a wunderkind of modern Japanese literature, but these days is probably treated as a venerable man of letters.  To do this, Murakami interviewed more than thirty victims of the sarin attack – though as one of them gruffly asserts, “I’m not a sarin victim, I’m a survivor” – who were affected directly on the trains and in the stations or affected indirectly through the deaths of or injuries to loved ones. 

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No matter how weird his plots become, Murakami (in the English translations of his work at least) has always been a writer of unshowy and discrete prose.  Here, he reduces his authorial presence even further.  He provides a short biographical sketch of each person at the beginning of the interviews and during the interviews interjects with only very occasional questions.  As a result, the voices of the people who were on the receiving end of Aum Shinrikyo’s actions come through loud and clear.

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Incidentally, Murakami explains in his preface that his reason for conducting and publishing these interviews was because he believed the ordinary people who’d been put through the sarin ordeal had received insufficient attention: “The Japanese media had bombarded us with so many in-depth profiles of the Aum cult perpetrators – the ‘attackers’ – forming such a slick, seductive narrative that the average citizen – the ‘victim’ – was almost an afterthought.”

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From bookriot.com

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Murakami offers no comments, clarifications or interpretations of the stories told here, so that the book sometimes has a Rashomon-type quality in that we get differing, even conflicting accounts of the same incidents.  Occasionally, there’s a stirring and heartening story of someone stepping up to the plate and being heroic – an Average Joe worker in computer software maintenance who goes back to a platform to help a stricken platform attendant (in the process getting a worse dose of sarin poisoning that he would have otherwise), for example, or a PR worker and a young subway staff-member who bully a Tokyo TV camera crew into letting their van be used as an emergency ambulance to get some gravely-ill people to hospital.  (A common grievance heard in these interviews was the slowness of real ambulances in getting to the sites of the attacks.)

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Unsurprisingly, many interviewees express their rage at Aum Shinrikyo.  But there’s plenty of criticism too for the authorities, who were plainly unprepared for an incident of this nature – terrorist attacks were something supposed to happen in other countries, not in stable, peaceful Japan.  Also criticised is the Japanese media, who were often on the scene sticking cameras and microphones into people’s faces before they’d received medical treatment and who went into an unedifying feeding frenzy with their Aum Shinrikyo coverage during the weeks and months afterwards.

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Following Underground’s original publication, Murakami decided it was worth investigating the ‘attackers’ after all and he interviewed eight members and ex-members of Aum Shinrikyo for the Bungei Shunju magazine.  In the edition of Underground that I have, these magazine interviews have been inserted as a 90-page epilogue entitled The Place that was Promised.  The interviewees are varied in their opinions.  They range from those who have had the scales removed from their eyes – one runs a support group for people who have quit Aum, another eventually ‘ran away’ from the cult for fear of his life and a third confesses to having spied on them on behalf of the police – to at least one who still entertains the possibility that Asahara and his cohorts were the innocent victims of a set-up: “I’m not saying there’s no way he did it, but at this stage it’s too early to decide.  I won’t be convinced until all the facts are on the table.” 

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The accounts here have two depressingly common features, though I suspect that they won’t surprise experts who have studied the psychology and behaviour of cult members around the world.  First, if what they tell Murakami is true, they were jaw-droppingly myopic and self-deluding about what was going on around them.  One talks about how Aum members were punished for transgressions by being chained and hung upside-down and left hanging in great pain, but they’d interpret this as a necessary beneficial step in their spiritual development (“They’d suffer, be taken to the edge of death, and then be kindly told, ‘You did well.’  And they’d think, ‘I was able to overcome the trials given to me.  Thank you, O Guru!’”).  Another claimed to have been un-suspicious of the masses of elaborate chemical-plant equipment being installed in the Aum compounds, with their attendant, noxious stench.  (“It didn’t look like weapons.”)

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The other feature that’s depressing is the malaise that most identify in themselves before they got drawn into the world of Asahara’s dark cult: “…something was missing…”  “There always seemed to be a wall separating me from the rest of the world…”  “My lifestyle seemed increasingly pointless…”  “…I felt a deep alienation between my outer and my inner Self.”  This emptiness – which was no doubt exacerbated by the materialistic excesses of Japan’s bubble-economy years – is the common thread in nearly all the interviewees’ accounts of how they ended up in a religious organisation willing to cause the mass-slaughter of its fellow citizens as they innocently headed off to work one morning. 

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At the end of this compelling, exhaustive and emotionally exhausting book, Murakami voices his fear that if this emptiness in modern Japanese society isn’t addressed, horrors of a magnitude perpetrated by the Aum could happen again:  “…we need to realise that most of the people who join cults are not abnormal; they’re not disadvantaged; they’re not eccentrics…  They can’t find a way to express themselves, and bounce back and forth between feelings of pride and inadequacy.  That might very well be me.  It might be you.”

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Deathlog 2018: Part 1

   

     © CKK Corporation / Turtle Releasing Org.

    

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

    

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

    

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

   

                                                                             © ITC Entertainment

         

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

    

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

   

                                                                                                         © BBC

   

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

       

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

    

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

    

                                       From the Khmer Times Daily News Digest

    

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

         

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

      

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

     

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

   

                                                     © Warner Bros.
                                                        © Warner Bros.

    

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

      

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

     

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

    

The weird Greene place

 

© Penguin Books

 

Graham Greene famously divided his novels into two categories: those meant to be seen as works of serious literature and those meant to be seen as simple ‘entertainments’.

 

Therefore, when I recently started reading his 1943 novel The Ministry of Fear and the words ‘An entertainment’ greeted me on its title page, I made a few assumptions.  That I was about to read a linear narrative that travelled from A to B and then to C with a minimum of fuss.  That I’d encounter a tale containing action and adventure that didn’t severely stretch my braincells.  That there’d be some reasonable character development and a plot that perhaps sprung the odd surprise, but no major questions would be asked about the nature of life, the universe and everything.  That when I reached the end of it, I wouldn’t feel I’d been massively intellectually stimulated but I would feel I’d been, yes, entertained.

 

Thus, it was a surprise when I began The Ministry of Fear and found how different it was from what I’d expected – certainly during its first section, which accounts for half the book.

 

Set in London during the worst days of the Blitz, it focuses on a man called Arthur Rowe who can best be described as ‘walking wounded’.  This isn’t because of any war-related physical injury, but because of guilt about his dead wife.  When she was terminally ill and racked with pain, he poisoned her to end her suffering.

 

One day, the unhappy Rowe wanders into a fete where “the inevitable clergyman presided over a rather timid game of chance; an old lady in a print dress that came down to her ankles and floppy garden hat hovered officially, but with excitement, over a treasure-hunt…” and “there in a corner… was “a fortune-teller’s booth – unless it was an impromptu outside lavatory.”  Another feature is a mouth-wateringly big cake on offer to the person who can correctly guess its weight.  Meanwhile, all the money being raised by the fete is going to a wartime charity organisation called the Mothers of the Free Nations.

 

Rowe consults the fortune teller, who for some reason provides him with inside information about the cake: “You must give the weight as four pounds eight and a half ounces”.  Rowe duly repeats this outside, wins the cake, carries it away and clings onto it when the fete’s organisers come after him a few minutes later claiming there’s been a mistake.  Then that evening, back at his house, Rowe finds himself entertaining a strange man who’s “dark and dwarfish and twisted in his enormous shoulders with infantile paralysis”.  The hospitable Rowe offers a slice of his cake to this visitor, who crumbles it apart in his fingers whilst eating it.  A little later, he seems to have slipped something into Rowe’s tea – for Rowe recognizes the scent of the poison that he once administered to his wife.  Before anything else happens, a bomb drops out of the sky, demolishes Rowe’s house and brings the scene to an abrupt end.

 

Things become even stranger the next day.  Rowe has escaped the bombing without serious injury and, convinced that he’s entangled in a plot where the cake he unfairly won was being used to smuggle something, he pays a visit to the offices of the Mothers of the Free Nations.  There, he gets the address of Madame Bellairs, the supposed fortune-teller.  He arrives at her house and finds himself in the company of a group of eccentrics who are about to sit down for a séance.  Rowe takes part in the séance and believes he hears the voice of his dead wife.  This too comes to an abrupt end when one of the party is found murdered – with Rowe’s pocket-knife.

 

Now on the run for a murder he thinks he didn’t commit, Rowe meets – apparently accidentally – an elderly bookseller whose “teeth were in a shocking condition, black stumps like the remains of something destroyed by fire.”  The bookseller persuades Rowe to run an errand for him, which involves delivering a heavy case of books to a client who’s staying in a London hotel.  Rowe finds the hotel-room empty but, increasingly paranoid, believes that he’s been trapped there by unknown and unseen adversaries who’re lurking in the corridor.  And at this point the opening section of The Ministry of Fear reaches its climax.

 

All this is entertaining enough, but it doesn’t feel like the easy-on-the-brain entertainment promised by the title page.  There’s an odd, unsettling blend of humdrum, down-at-heels English melancholia, which calls to mind George Orwell’s 1930s novels like A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935) and Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936); and, as the plot veers from one weird situation to the next with Rowe in ever-less control of things, the positively Kafkaesque.  I haven’t seen the film adaptation of the book directed by Fritz Lang a year after its publication, but visualising the bizarre scene between Rowe and the deformed man in Rowe’s soon-to-be-bombed house, with Greene’s oblique dialogue (“What do you want?”  “Peace.”  “Exactly.  So do we.”  “I don’t suppose I mean your kind of peace.”  “We can give you peace.  We are working for peace.”  “Who are we?”  “My friends and I…”), I ended up with something akin to a scene in a David Lynch movie.

 

© Paramount Pictures

 

Heightening the uneasy mood is the book’s London-Blitz setting.  The story takes place in a blasted, cratered, dusty city with a traumatised and weary populace.  It’s certainly not the noble and romanticised place evoked nowadays by British patriots when they hark back to their country’s ‘finest hour’.

 

And then…  The book drastically shifts gears.  The action jumps to a clinic in the English countryside housing patients with psychiatric disorders.  One of them is a man called Digby, suffering from amnesia and trying to figure out who he is and what events brought him there.  I don’t want to give away much more of the plot but even the dimmest reader will soon cotton on that Rowe and Digby are the same person.  While Digby begins to retrieve his memory – and the reader begins to piece together the jigsaw about what’d happened before and what’s happening now – the book becomes much more the straightforward thriller that’d been promised originally.  Some suspiciously familiar-looking characters start to appear among the clinic’s staff and it transpires that Rowe / Digby has indeed stumbled across a nefarious wartime plot and the clinic is a means of keeping him out of the way.

 

Even so, The Ministry of Fear never quite becomes conventional.  As Digby devotes himself to unravelling the mystery of his situation, the reader is painfully aware that there’s much of his memory that he shouldn’t want to have back.  Indeed, while in his Rowe incarnation he was an emotional cripple, the Digby version of him is braver, bolder and more efficient precisely because he isn’t carrying the traumatising baggage of the past.  And, reading the book’s later pages, I found myself increasingly apprehensive of the moment when he would remember – or when one of the villains would remind him of – his wife’s mercy killing.

 

The Ministry of Fear is entertaining, then.  But it’s considerably more than the humble ‘entertainment’ that Graham Greene would have you believe.

 

Colombo International Book Fair 2018

 

 

Last week, the 2018 Colombo International Book Fair was held at the Sri Lankan capital’s Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall, or the BMICH as it’s known for short – an impressively glassy, airy-looking building whose shape has always reminded me of a graduating student’s mortarboard, although the slab of roofing that extends over it is eight-sided rather than four-sided.

 

 

The avenue that leads from nearby Bauddhaloka Mawatha to the steps of the conference building was picturesquely lined with flags advertising the fair, but the event wasn’t held in the building itself.  Instead, visitors were directed towards a hodgepodge of smaller exhibition buildings and pavilions around to the side of and behind the main structure, paying an entrance fee of 20 rupees along the way.  Crammed into these buildings and pavilions were stalls and compartments representing more than 250 bookshops, booksellers, publishers and book-related institutions (ranging from the British Council to the Iran Cultural Centre), plus stationers, arts-and-crafts suppliers and anyone else who thought they had a product they could profitably sell to Sri Lanka’s reading public.

 

 

My partner and I went on the first day of the fair, a Sunday.  Because many Colombo-ites were unable to make it there on a weekday, the event that day was extremely busy.  The spaces outside the buildings were mobbed.  And the interiors were packed – the many narrow, twisting passageways between the stalls, and the even narrower passageways between the tables and shelves inside the stalls, were jammed with bodies.  A couple of times when the congestion became uncomfortable, we wondered what would happen if a fire alarm suddenly went off.  There’d be carnage, surely.  Western notions of Health and Safety seemed not to apply here.

 

 

Still, in an era when the media never seems to stop peddling horror stories about children not reading books anymore and spending all their leisure time online or playing computer games, it was heartening to see how many kids were in the crowds here (most of them, admittedly, being herded along by their beleaguered-looking parents).

 

 

As we explored the fair, we’d find tucked away among the multitudinous stalls an occasional second-hand bookshop trying to sell some of its yellowy wares.  I was especially happy to discover the Dehiwala-based Priyankara Bookshop, which was flogging hundreds of old, battered, liver-spotted paperbacks from yesteryear.  These included fat bestsellers by the likes of once wildly-popular authors like Arthur Hailey, Hammond Innes, Thomas Tryon, Dick Francis and Wilbur Smith (well, those last two still are popular, I suppose); more so-called ‘literary’ stuff by such scribblers as Anthony Burgess, J.B. Priestly, Patrick Leigh Fermor and Graham Greene; and sci-fi and fantasy novels by the likes of Brian Aldiss, Harry Harrison, Ursula K. Le Guin, Robert Silverberg and William F. Nolan.  I was delighted to pick up a 1974 paperback edition of M. John Harrison’s The Pastel City, which has this wonderfully evocative cover by the artist Bruce Pennington.

 

© New English Library / Bruce Pennington

 

Needless to say, I walked away from the Priyankara Bookshop stall with an armful of stuff.

 

Lastly, I saw these three books, written in Sinhala, on display outside a stall.  One book sported a portrait of Kim Jong-Il, another sported one of Vladimir Putin and a third sported one of Donald Trump.  What were these?  Three political biographies or three horror novels – a Trilogy of Terror?

 

 

The last of Sherlock Holmes

 

© Penguin Books

 

A few posts ago, I mentioned how I was working my way through an 1800-page volume containing all of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels and short-story collections about Sherlock Holmes.  Well, I’ve completed the job.  The other day I finished reading the volume’s final instalment, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, which contains the last 12 Holmes stories Conan Doyle published between 1921 and 1927 and which was itself originally published in 1927.

 

I thought I’d write something here about those dozen stories in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes because, by the normal standards of Conan Doyle and Holmes, they constitute a strange body of work.  I should add that by the same standards they aren’t a terribly good body of work.  Case-Book has often been dismissed as an end-of-the-road raggle-taggle written by Conan Doyle when he’d run out of both ideas and enthusiasm for his most famous creation.  Indeed, when the writer (and later filmmaker) Nicholas Meyer wrote his celebrated Sherlock Holmes pastiche-novel The Seven-Per-Cent Solution in 1974, he had his narrator – Dr Watson – denounce four of CaseBook’s stories, The Adventures of the Creeping Man, the Lion’s Mane, the Mazarin Stone and the Three Gables, as forgeries and ‘drivel’.  Meyer evidently regarded the four as being so substandard that they were unworthy of their places in the canon.

 

Conan Doyle himself seemed relieved that Case-Book marked the end of his association with Holmes.  He furnished the collection with an author’s introduction, something that to the best of my knowledge he didn’t do with the earlier books, and in it he makes some revealing comments.  He opines that Holmes, whose first adventure appeared back in 1887, was by the late 1920s well-and-truly past it, “like one of those popular tenors who, having outlived their time, are still tempted to make repeated farewell bows to their indulgent audiences.”  (No doubt those over-the-hill operatic tenors in the 1920s were the equivalent of the many over-the-hill rock stars still performing in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.)  And Conan Doyle voices his impatience with the reading public and their apparent obsession with the character: “decrepit gentlemen who approach me and declare that his adventures formed the reading of their boyhood do not meet the response from me which they seemed to expect.”

 

While he concedes that writing the Holmes stories didn’t prevent him from devoting time to the sort of writing and research he was genuinely interested in – “history, poetry, historical novels, psychic research, and the drama” – he insinuates that the character had prevented him from being taken as seriously as he would have liked: “Had Holmes never existed I could not have done more, though he may perhaps have a stood a little in the way of the recognition of my more serious literary work.”

 

The ‘psychic research’ he mentions touches on a fascinating conundrum much discussed by Holmes scholars over the years.  Conan Doyle had always been interested in the paranormal and esoteric and after World War One such things greatly preoccupied him.  He was heavily into spiritualism and contacting the dead, no doubt spurred on by the deaths of his son and brother during the 1918-20 Spanish flu epidemic.  Due to their shared interest in this, he befriended Harry Houdini, though their friendship floundered when an increasingly sceptical and disillusioned Houdini started exposing phony mediums and seances.  And he publicly and embarrassingly believed in the veracity of the ‘photographs’ of the Cottingley Fairies in 1920.  Of course, such fanciful notions went against everything that Sherlock Holmes, the great practitioner of deductive reasoning – thought strictly speaking it was abductive reasoning – stood for.  If Holmes had been flesh-and-blood and in Conan Doyle’s company, you could imagine the romantic-minded Conan Doyle really not liking him or his no-nonsense rationalism.

 

You can sense this tension between the imaginative creator and his hard-headed creation in a passage in The Adventure of the Retired Colourman, Case-Book’s final story (actually the third-last one written chronologically).  Holmes sends Watson off on a reconnaissance mission and when the doctor returns he attempts to describe an important building to the detective:

 

“’Right in the middle… lies this old house, surrounded by a high sun-baked wall mottled with lichen and topped with moss, the sort of wall – ’

‘Cut out the poetry, Watson,’ said Holmes severely.  ‘I note that it was a high brick wall.’”

 

From en.wikipedia.org

 

Many stories in Case-Book stray from the template of the earlier Holmes adventures.  One is a rarity in the canon in that it’s not narrated in the first person by Dr Watson but is told in the third person by an omniscient narrator.  (The only other story to share this distinction is the title story of the 1917 collection His Last Bow.)  Two other stories here are even more radical – they dispense with the character of Watson altogether and are narrated by Sherlock Holmes himself.

 

A couple of Case-Book’s stories involve little or no sleuthing.   Indeed, one takes the form of a deathbed confession, wherein somebody who was a participant in a mysterious case that years earlier Holmes hadn’t been able to solve summons him and explains to him what really happened.

 

And then there is Case-Book’s heavy reliance on the macabre.  Three stories have Holmes tackling cases that appear to involve monsters – one monster from the natural world, one the result of scientific meddling and one a fixture of popular supernatural fiction.  In only one of these cases does the monster turn out to be a hoax.  There’s also a troubling focus on facial disfigurement, with two deformed characters in two stories living in hiding like Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera (1910).  A third story culminates with a villain getting disfigured, thanks to a packet of ‘vitriol’ being thrown in his face by a vengeful ex-lover.

 

And the very last Holmes story that Conan Doyle wrote sees Holmes and Watson rooting for clues and signs of skulduggery in a crypt, “dismal and evil-smelling, with ancient crumbling walls of rough-hewn stone, and piles of coffins, some of lead and some of stone, extending upon one side right up to the arched and groined roof which lost itself in the shadows above our heads.”  By now Holmes has stepped out of the pages of detective fiction and into those of gothic fiction.

 

But as I’ve said, this unconventionality doesn’t make Case-Book a particularly good collection.  The pair of stories narrated by Holmes, The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier and The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane, feel unsatisfactory because hearing them told in Holmes’s voice strips the character of his mystique – the distance provided by the mostly-admiring, occasionally-exasperated Watson is sorely missed.  “Ah!  Had he been with me,” says Holmes of Watson, “how much he would have made of so wonderful a happening and my eventual triumph against every difficulty!  As it is, however, I must tell my tale in my own plain way…”  And unhappily, the results are plain rather than wonderful.  The Lion’s Mane also makes a quaint read nowadays because the mystery that propels its narrative is one that in 2018 could be solved in 30 seconds with a search on Google.  .

 

The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone, the story written in the third person, was originally a one-act play called The Crown Diamond, penned by Conan Doyle in 1921.  Because Holmes’s cerebral reasoning was presumably too un-dynamic to portray on a stage, it focuses instead on some shenanigans involving a dummy that are a little more visual.  On the page, though, the result is perfunctory.

 

Elsewhere, a couple of the stories are marred by depictions and sentiments that even by the standards of 1920s Britain are unpleasantly racist.  The Adventures of the Three Gables, which qualifies as one of the collection’s worst stories anyway, is encumbered by a non-funny comedy-relief black character (“Look at that, Masser Holmes!”), while the otherwise reasonable The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place has an in-debt character who, we’re told repeatedly, faces ruin at the hands of ‘the Jews’.

 

Nonetheless, there is some good stuff here.  The conceit behind The Problem of Thor Bridge is quite clever, as is that of the light-hearted The Adventure of the Three Garridebs – even if it’s unlikely that, as happens in the story, a foreign confidence trickster who’s lived in Britain for years would give himself away so readily with a misunderstanding of British English.  And The Adventure of the Creeping Man, about an elderly academic who suddenly starts to behave in a strange, out-of-character, downright frightening manner, conveys a genuine chill.  It’s reminiscent of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) even if the final denouement has more in common with a hoary old 1940s horror movie starring Bela Lugosi as a mad scientist.

 

Interestingly, one of the weakest stories here – The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone – and one of the strongest – The Adventure of the Three Garridebs – were combined for an episode in the final series of TV adaptations featuring the great Jeremy Brett as Holmes, 1994’s The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.  What makes this odd combination even odder is the fact that Holmes hardly appears in the episode – no doubt because Brett was in declining health at the time.  As a result, Dr Watson (Edward Hardwicke) has to solve the Three Garridebs on his own, while Sherlock’s brother Mycroft (played by the wonderfully supercilious Charles Gray) is drafted in to sort out the Mazarin Stone.  And still on the subject of Holmes screen adaptations, The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane provides us with a glimpse at Holmes in his post-Baker Street retirement, living near some cliffs on the Sussex coast with only a housekeeper and some hives of bees for company – which forms the setting for Bill Condon’s melancholy 2015 film Mr Holmes starring Sir Ian McKellen as a 93-year-old Sherlock.

 

© BBC Films / See-Saw Films / FilmNation Entertainment

 

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

 

© Oxford University Press

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

© Compton-Tekli Film Productions / Colombia Pictures

 

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

 

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

 

© BBC

 

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

 

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

 

© AVCO Embassy Pictures

 

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

 

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

 

© The Mirisch Corporation / United Artists / MGM

 

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

 

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

 

© Hammer Films

 

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

 

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

 

© Universal Pictures

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

© Granada Television

 

Martin’s museum

 

 

The novelist, poet, short-story writer, playwright, literary critic, biographer, travel writer, science writer, philosopher, religious scholar and all-round Renaissance man Martin Wickramasinghe was born in 1890 in the village of Koggala on Sri Lanka’s south coast.  By the time of his death in 1976 he’d authored some 85 books.  His Wikipedia entry grandly but uninformatively describes him as ‘the father of modern Sinhala literature’.  This profile in Sri Lanka’s Daily News gives more detail about what to expect from his writing, calling him ‘a liberal intellectual who consistently attacked dogmatism, obscurantism, oppression and elitism from any source, religious, political or social.’

 

As far as I know, not many of his books were written in or translated into English – both Wikipedia and the website dedicated to him list 11 such titles – which makes it difficult for someone like myself, illiterate in Sinhala, to immerse myself in his work.  I have, however, read two of the translations.

 

© Sarasa Publishers

 

His Selected Short Stories (2007) reveal a man who’s unhappily aware of the social divisions in Sri Lankan society and the hardships and indignities that poverty heaps upon those at the bottom of it.  For example, Diversion is a damning account of how some wealthy, Anglicised Sri Lankans amuse themselves whilst waiting for the passengers to disembark from a liner at Colombo harbour.  They start throwing coins over the jetty’s edge, so that they can enjoy the spectacle of the poor local street children diving into the water in a race to retrieve them.  This has tragic consequences for one child: “The little urchin was nowhere to be seen,” recounts the narrator.  “I had myself forgotten him in the excitement surrounding the divers.”

 

Meanwhile, Bondage is the story of a hard-working but ailing carter and his beloved, similarly hard-working and similarly ailing cart-bull, which has the reader wondering which of the two is going to die first.  The Torn Coat features a just-married man dreading having to confess to his wife that the fancy outfit he wore at their wedding was actually borrowed from a richer family in their village.  And Woman compares the situations of two female friends.  One has tried to be virtuous, but thanks to a treacherous husband struggles to make end meet and is prematurely aged.  The other has lived shamelessly and now, as a rich man’s mistress, enjoys wealth and comfort and remains youthful.  “We have to accept that we pay for sins carried over from the past,” the poor decent one tells the rich immoral one, despite the evidence suggesting this isn’t true.  Other stories in the collection explore other themes, but these ones about economic hardship I remember best.

 

I’ve also read Lay Bare the Roots (translated in 1958), Wickramasinghe’s account of his childhood in Koggala.  It lovingly records the characters, stories, flora and fauna, arts and crafts, pageantry, customs and religious rites of a time and place that seem very distant now – especially as that part of Sri Lanka is best-known today for its tourist beaches and hotels.

 

It’s interesting that Wickramasinghe defends the hedonistic, earthy elements that once pervaded the local Buddhist festivals and processions – carnival-style entertainments and stalls, for instance, and folkloric ‘devil dancing’ by non-religious mummers – against the complaints of more earnest Buddhists.  He notes regretfully: “Men’s desire for amusement must be satisfied as well as their religious piety.  The religious festivals held at our village temple once catered for both these needs; but due to a few clamorous and educated busy-bodies they have now turned into dull gatherings for the purpose of austere worship and contemplation which only appeal to hermits.”

 

© Sarasa Publishers

 

Koggala’s most famous son has left the village, which is actually more of a town these days, with an important physical (and no doubt money-spinning) legacy.  Contained there in the writer’s former home is the Martin Wickramasinghe Folk Art Museum.  It displays countless historical and cultural items that he collected over a period of 70 years.  These include religious artefacts like temple lamps, monks’ fans, alms bowls, Buddhist paintings and stone, brass, marble and wooden Buddha statues; old agricultural and fishing implements, such as a lasso for catching buffalo, a fishing-net weaving machine and wooden rattles and stone-firing bows used ‘for scaring away birds’; artistic items like masks, puppets and musical instruments; tools for preparing traditional medicines; pottery; jewellery; weapons; and articles from the traditional textile, leather, carpentry and cane and reed industries.  There’s also a Sri Lankan costume gallery, an exhibition hall full of antique furniture and a shed containing ‘traditional vehicles’, which range from handcarts and ‘temple tricycles’ to tuna-fishing boats and fishing-net barges.

 

A few months ago while we were enjoying a holiday on the south coast, my partner and I visited the museum.  I decided the following things were my favourites in the collection: among the masks, some satirical ones that caricatured red-faced and obviously sunburnt and sweating ‘British officers’; among the puppets, a life-sized marionette show; and a selection of traditional Sri Lankan board games including wadu getage, ‘a carpenter’s puzzle’ that could be likened to a very old Rubic’s cube, magul parakhuwa, which consisted of 11 pieces of wood contained within a square and which challenged you manoeuvre the largest piece out through a side-opening by sliding aside but not lifting out the smaller pieces, and magul getaya, known as ‘the wedding knot mystery’, which was apparently used at wedding parties by the bride’s parents to test their new son-in-law’s brainpower.

 

A sign just past the museum entrance warned visitors to beware of unofficial and duplicitous guides.  Accordingly, when I was in the middle of museum and a small, rather elderly man approached me and attempted to strike up a conversation, I initially tried to shake him off.  It was embarrassing when a little later my better half did start talking to him and we discovered that he was really the institution’s curator.  He’d seen me taking my time looking at the exhibits and writing comments in a notebook and he’d wanted to explain things to me in more detail.  (We must have seemed unique to him because, alas, the local visitors didn’t hang around.  They whooshed through the museum.  For a while I even found myself being propelled along in a fast-moving line of chattering Sri Lankan grannies – whom you might’ve expected to proceed more slowly, given that they were probably old enough to remember a few of those exhibits actually being used.)

 

So, should you ever visit the Martin Wickramasinghe Folk Art Museum, don’t be alarmed if a little old man comes up to you and starts talking.  He’s not some money-grubbing fake guide, but the very informative proprietor of the place.

 

Also, don’t forget that, on your way out, there’s a little shop next to the exit where you can stop and purchase a couple of books by the museum’s distinguished founder.

 

 

The hunt is on

 

© 20th Century Fox / Silver Pictures

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

“But no animal can reason,” objected Rainsford.

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

 

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

 

© RKO Radio Pictures

 

The Most Dangerous Game (1932)

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

 

The Naked Prey (1965)

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

 

© United Artists

 

The Hunting Party (1971)

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

 

Punishment Park (1971)

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

 

© Chartwell Francoise / Project X Distribution

 

The Beast Must Die (1974)

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

 

Southern Comfort (1981)

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

 

© 20th Century Fox / Cinema Group Ventures

 

Predator (1987)

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

 

Surviving the Game (1994)

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

 

© Carnaby Film Productions / Kaleidoscope Film Distribution

 

A Lonely Place to Die (2011)

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

 

Revenge (2017)

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

 

© Rezo Films / MES Productions / Monkey Pack Films