Beckett’s belle and the Antichrist’s nanny




The names Samuel Beckett and The Omen don’t normally crop up together in the same sentence.  However, they have certainly done so over the past few days as tributes have been paid to actress Billie Whitelaw, who unfortunately passed away on December 21st.  Whitelaw was a close collaborator with legendary Irish playwright Beckett from their first meeting in 1963 until his death in 1989; and she was also a considerable film presence whose most noticeable (if not subtlest) role was as Mrs Baylock, the demonic and psychotic nanny of the equally demonic and psychotic Damien Thorn, son of the Devil, in the first of The Omen movies in 1976.


Whitelaw’s association with Beckett saw her appearing in such works as Play, Eh Joe, Not I, Footfalls and Rockaby.  The one I’ll always remember her in, though, is Happy Days, a TV version of which I saw back in the 1980s.  Its central metaphor is no more subtle than the character of Mrs Baylock in The Omen: a prattling woman of some maturity disappears piece by piece into a mass of sand.  In the first act, she’s buried to her waist in the stuff, while by the second act she’s up to her neck in it.  But it’s also a hard-to-forget metaphor and it definitely sums up Beckett’s bleak view of life, the universe and everything.  (When trying to account for Beckett’s unrelentingly grim outlook, I’ve always liked the theory forwarded by Irish singer, musician, boozer and raconteur Shane McGowan.  He attributed Beckett’s gloom to the fact that he was the only man in Ireland who’d ever wanted to play cricket for Ireland.)


Hard-to-forget too is Whitelaw’s turn in The Omen.  After arriving in the Thorn household, her first salutation to Damien is, “Have no fear, little one.  I am here to protect thee!”  And she certainly shows her devotion to the Satanic little tyke when she disposes of his hapless mother, played by Lee Remick, by shoving her out of a hospital window with the result that she crashes through the roof of an ambulance passing below.  Her final hissing, spitting, downright-animalistic confrontation with Damien’s ‘official’ father, Gregory Peck, is memorable too.  In fact, Whitelaw’s Mrs Baylock is one of the great evil minions in horror-movie history.  (Incidentally, in 2006’s nondescript remake of The Omen, the one thing the filmmakers got right was the recasting of Mrs Baylock.  For the remake, they hired Mia Farrow – who of course had past form with Satanic children, having played Rosemary in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby in 1968.)


The Omen aside, Whitelaw’s movie CV was pleasingly varied.  In 1960’s The Flesh and the Fiends, directed by John Gilling and the best cinematic telling of the story of notorious Edinburgh body-snatchers-cum-serial-killers Burke and Hare, she played the luckless Mary Paterson – a prostitute whose body turned up on the dissecting table at the Edinburgh Medical School under the nose of a horrified medical student who’d only very recently spent an evening with her.  The same year, she appeared in Val Guest’s Hell is a City, the grittiest and hardest-boiled British crime drama before Mike Hodge’s Get Carter in 1970; while in 1967 she played Hayley Mills’ mum in Roy Boulting’s Twisted Nerve, one of those warped, sleazy psychological thrillers that British cinema was adept at turning out at the time.  Another warped and sleazy piece she appeared in was 1972’s strangler-on-the-loose thriller Frenzy, the nastiest film in Alfred Hitchcock’s oeuvre.  And 1990 saw her play Violet Kray, mother of the London East End’s favourite homicidal gangster siblings, in Peter Medak’s The Krays.


She also turned up on television.  Back in the 1950s she played the daughter of Jack Warner’s title character in Dixon of Dock Green, the first British TV cop-show of any note.  In 1980, she provided Michael Elphick’s romantic interest in the BBC’s morally-dodgy but entertaining Nazi comedy, Private Schulz.  My favourite TV memory of her, though, dates to 1977 when she appeared in Supernatural, a stagey but atmospheric Gothic-horror anthology show that was scripted by her husband, the dramatist Robert Mueller.  In the two-part Supernatural story Countess Iliona / The Werewolf Reunion, she played a woman who during her youth had been used and abused by a series of powerful men and eventually, to spare them embarrassment, ‘married off’ to a brutal aristocrat living in a remote mountain castle.  After the aristocrat dies mysteriously, she invites those former beaus who’d mistreated her – played by Ian Hendry, Edward Hardwicke, John Fraser and Charles Kay – to her castle.  What they don’t know is that the aristocratic husband didn’t really die, but got infected with something that leaves him hairy and bloodthirsty when there’s a full moon.  And Whitelaw intends to use him, like a monstrous attack dog, to right a few wrongs.


I last saw Billie Whitelaw when she was playing a villainess in 2007’s Hot Fuzz, the second of the ‘Cornetto’ trilogy directed by Edgar Wright and starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.  At the movie’s climax we see her blazing determinedly at Pegg and Frost with an AK47.  Which I think was as good a way to bow out as any.


(c) Working Title


Thai spirit houses


One detail of everyday life in Thailand that I find fascinating is the ubiquity of san phra phum, i.e. spirit houses.  These are something that every Thai home and business (no matter how big or corporate) seems to have – a miniature house or temple that provides shelter for the spirits resident on the premises.  It keeps those spirits happy and presumably dissuades them from causing mischief.  Here are some pictures of spirit houses that I took during a recent visit to Bangkok, starting with the one serving the spirits in the bank that was next door to my hotel.



I don’t know why on earth this particular spirit house had to be equipped with a herd of zebra.  But it was.



Meanwhile, for the ghostly inhabitants of this spirit house, a crisis was clearly in progress.  They had an intruder to deal with.



Favourite TV comedy songs


(c) Channel 4


With The Thick of It finished and Peep Show on a long hiatus, I’d assumed there was no decent comedy on British television at the moment.  Yes, I know some people like Miranda Hart’s sitcom Miranda but any time I’ve encountered it, I’m afraid, my facial muscles haven’t come remotely close to forming a smile.  And yes, the BBC4 comedy The Detectorists, written and directed by Mackenzie Crook and starring Crook and the excellent Toby Jones, won acclaim a little while ago.  But though I liked Crook’s show, about a pair of hopeless metal-detecting enthusiasts whose love-lives are even more hopeless than their metal detecting, I didn’t find it particularly comic.  Rather, it seemed to me a gentle, melancholy drama with a streak of wry humour.


And as for asking me if I like watching Citizen Khan or Mrs Brown’s Boys…  Well, you might as well as ask me if I like eating dumplings that have been fashioned out of dried vomit and then deep-fried in manure.


However, over the last month, my negativity about the state of British TV comedy has been proven wrong.  For I have greatly enjoyed the latest season of Toast of London, the Channel 4 sitcom starring Matt Berry as a middle-aged actor struggling to make ends meet in the recording studios, on the film sets and on the theatre stages of showbiz London.  Among other things, Toast has to endure the belligerence of his agent Jane Plough (Doon Mackichan), who comes across as half-Mary Poppins and half-dominatrix; and various nefarious plots hatched against him by his acting rival and arch-enemy Ray Purchase (Harry Peacock).  At the same time, Toast takes every opportunity going to shag Purchase’s desperate-housewife missus (Tracy-Ann Oberman).  In fact, the mellifluous, baritone-voiced and altogether hammy Toast is a splendid comic creation.  He’s a variation on those barnstorming over-the-top actors that in real life the British drama world has churned out by the dozen: Todd Slaughter, Donald Wolfit, Graham Crowden, Steven Berkoff and Brian Blessed.


The show’s style complements its main character.  An endearing mixture of absurdity, stupidity, surrealism, catchphrases (“Yes, I can hear you, Clem Fandango!”) and occasional showbiz satire, it also contains enough good-natured smut to float a fleet of Carry On films.  If its whimsical nature feels familiar, that’s probably because it’s co-written (with Berry) by Arthur Matthews, who co-wrote the legendary Irish-priest sitcom Father Ted back in the 1990s.


One thing I particularly like about Toast of London is its musical interludes.  Berry and Matthews know the value of slipping an occasional, good comic song in among the humorous scenes.  This is to be expected because, in addition to acting and comedy, Berry has an excellent track record in making music – serious music as well as silly stuff.  His albums Witchazel and Kill the Wolf are laudable confections of non-cheesy pop, non-pompous progressive rock and slightly-spooky Wicker Man-y folk music and can be listened to at YouTube, here:


Anyway, Toast of London has set me thinking.  What are the best comic songs to have appeared on TV comedy shows over the years?  By ‘comic song’, I don’t mean a simple parody of a ‘serious’ song or musical genre (which is what Not the Nine o’Clock News used to do in the early 1980s).  No, I mean a song that holds up as a song in its own right, with a proper tune and lyrics, whilst also managing to be funny.  Here are my favourites.


In the world of TV comedy songs, one name that looms large is Monty Python – and for this we should thank the musical and lyrical talents of the Python team’s second-youngest member, Eric Idle.  It’s fashionable nowadays to knock Idle for being a sell-out, because he was the one who transformed the second Python movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail into Spamalot!, a money-making juggernaut of a stage musical.  And apparently he was the driving force behind the team getting back together this year and mounting some indifferently-reviewed (but, again, massively lucrative) farewell shows at London’s O2 Arena.


But at least Idle was the man who put the music into Monty Python.  Because of him, you can rarely utter the show’s name in a British pub without middle-aged men around you bursting into lusty renditions of The Lumberjack Song.  My favourite Idle-penned Python song, though, is Bruce’s Philosophers’ Song, in which some Australian philosophy lecturers sing about the drinking prowess of history’s greatest abstract thinkers.  I probably like it because I studied philosophy at college and, after a gruelling lecture where I’d squirmed and sweated and tried to get my head around the basics of classical Greek philosophy, it was nice to hear this song and have Idle assure me that “Aristotle was a bugger for the bottle” and “Socrates himself was permanently pissed.”


It’s just a shame that Idle’s most famous song is the dirge-like Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.  It was funny enough when it was sung during the crucifixion sequence in the third Python move, Life of Brian, but over the years, irritatingly, it’s become a ubiquitous anthem extolling the supposed British virtue of keeping calm and carrying on.  And I have to confess I cringed when Idle turned up and sang it during the closing ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics.  (Although he was still better than the Spice Girls.)


One man who shouldn’t be forgotten when talking about Monty Python music is the idiosyncratic singer-songwriter and pianist Neil Innes, whose CV includes stints in The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, GRIMMS, Beatles piss-take The Rutles and The Idiot Bastard Band, as well as an association with Python that started in 1974 (after John Cleese, temporarily, left the troupe).  In addition to Python song-writing duties, which included penning the tunes for Holy Grail, Innes has the distinction of being one of only two people who wrote sketches for Python who weren’t in the core team of six – the other person, coincidentally, was Douglas Adams.   I thought it was a bit off of the Python gang not to invite Innes back to participate in the O2 Arena concerts – an invitation that they did extend to the show’s resident female performer, Carol Cleveland.  But Innes himself didn’t seem that bothered.  In an interview for, he said: “…Eric Idle is in charge.  And he’s got Arlene Philips, and boy and girl dancers, and a band.  You don’t really need an idiot with a duck on his head and a piano.  Now Eric’s gone all show business, he sees it as he sees it.  It fills me with horror to be honest.”  And no, he didn’t like Idle’s performance at the Olympics closing ceremony, either.


(c) BBC


Moving from the 1970s to the 1990s, no round-up of great TV comedy songs would be complete without a mention of one of Arthur Matthews’ previous credits, the much-loved Father Ted.  Responsible for the musical component of Father Ted was Neil Hannon, the Northern Irish frontman with the celebrated ‘chamber pop group’ The Divine Comedy.  After the theme music (which was reworked as Songs of Love on The Divine Comedy album Casanova), Hannon’s best-known work on the show is surely My Lovely Horse, the song sung by Ted and his gormless side-kick Father Dougal in the episode A Song for Europe when they were bidding to become Ireland’s entry for the 1996 Eurovision Song Contest.  Incidentally, Hannon also wrote the overwrought anthem The Miracle is Mine, sung by Ted’s nemesis Father Dick Byrne, who wanted to be Ireland’s entry too.


My Lovely Horse is ghastly, in a uniquely Eurovision way, but it’s brilliantly ghastly.  It’s no surprise that, recently, life tried to imitate art and a petition was launched in Ireland demanding that My Lovely Horse really be Ireland’s entry for the next Eurovision Song Contest.


Incidentally, Hannon made a guest appearance in the latest episode of Toast of London, performing half of the vocals on a duet that Toast sings with his old friend, the debauched Soho-loving artist Francis Bacon.  Yes, I know Francis Bacon died in 1992.  But Berry and Matthews cunningly get around this in their script by stating that no, Bacon didn’t actually die.


Moving from the British Isles to America, and from live action to animation, we inevitably come to The Simpsons.  The show’s head honcho Matt Groening is a big music buff – he’s curated two of the All Tomorrow’s Parties music festivals, one in the US in 2003 and the other in England in 2010, and performed in the ‘literary’ rock band The Rock Bottom Remainders alongside Scott Turow, Amy Tan and Stephen King.  So it’s no surprise that The Simpsons has always been choc-a-bloc with songs and music.


My favourite Simpsons’ comedy song is probably Dr Zaius, performed in the episode where Troy McClure wins a role in Planet of the Apes: The Musical.  However, because it’s really a spoof of an existing song – Rock Me, Amadeus by the Austrian musician Falco – I can’t nominate it here as a bona-fide comedy song.  Instead, I’ll opt for Your Wife Don’t Understand You, But I Do, that brief but glorious encapsulation of everything that’s bad (and good) about country-and-western music, sung to Homer by Lurleen the Waitress when he retreats to her honky-tonk bar to drown his sorrows following a particularly bitter bust-up with Marge.


(c) South Park Studios


But when it comes to funny music, The Simpsons is outdone by its more scatological cartoon rival South Park.  From the beginning, South Park wore its musical interests on its sleeve – the theme tune was performed by Primus, The Cure’s Robert Smith made a guest appearance in an early episode, and of course its Chef character was voiced by the late, great soul-funk-jazz legend Isaac Hayes.  However, it wasn’t until the release of the South Park movie in 1999, South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, that the show’s creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker unleashed their inner Stephen Sondheims – they packed the movie with spiffy song-and-dance numbers like Blame Canada, Uncle-F*cka and Kyle’s Mom is a Big, Fat Bitch.  (Curiously, Eric Idle made a guest vocal appearance in the film too.)


Since then, the show has been a parade of musical delights.  I particularly liked Butters’ version of What, What (in the Butt) and Cartman’s swashbuckling song, Somalian Pirates, We (which includes the jolly lines, “We’ll shoot you in the face with glee / We’ll cut off your cock / And feed it to a croc / Somalian pirates, we!”).  But at the end of the day I guess my favourite South Park song is a typically salacious, but nonetheless funky number sung by Chef, Simultaneous.




One live-action American comedy show that should be saluted for its musical greatness, meanwhile, is the HBO sitcom Flight of the Conchords, about a hapless singing duo from New Zealand trying, wholly unsuccessfully, to make a name for themselves in New York.  Written and performed by the show’s two Kiwi stars, Jermaine Clement and Brett McKenzie, the songs in Flight of the Conchords are guaranteed to raise a smile; but the one that made me laugh out loud was their attempted debut in the rap world, Hiphopopotamus Vs Rhymenocerus.  Actually, lyrics like “They call me the hiphopopotamus / Flows that glow like phosphorus / Poppin’ off the top of this oesophagus / Rockin’ this metropolis” are better than what you’d get in 95 percent of serious rap songs.


Incidentally, I can’t wait to see Clement’s new mockumentary-vampire movie We Live in the Shadows.


Finally, and especially because I mentioned him at the start of this post, I should add something by Matt Berry to my list of favourite TV comedy songs.  Not, however, from Toast of London.  Rather, I think his funniest musical moment came when he sang One Track Lover during the 2004 spoof horror show Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place.  The song is a piss-take of those toe-curlingly rubbish 1980s soft-rock power ballads.  However, when Richard Ayoade suddenly breaks in with his attempted rap, it becomes a thing of genius.


(c) Channel 4


Qutab Minar



Various people had assured me that Delhi’s Qutab Minar was the tallest minaret in all of India, so I was slightly disappointed when I did some research and discovered that it was only the second tallest, after Fateh Burj in Punjab.  But Qutab Minar, which towers above the Delhi neighbourhood served by the Metro station of the same name, is still pretty impressive.  Started in 1192 but not completed until 1368, the minaret soars up from the middle of a site of ruins, courtyards, pillars, pavilions, lawns, hedgerows and trees called the Qutab Complex, which has been designated a UN World Heritage Site.


The 73-metre-tall Qutab Minar consists of five segments of grooved, pale-reddish sandstone and marble.  It’s crowned by a circular viewing platform, although the public no longer have access to the stairs that climb up to this.  Somebody told me that people aren’t allowed to ascend the minaret because, in the past, an occasional visitor would commit suicide by jumping off the top.  Again, though, when I did some research, I was told something different.  According to Qutab Minar’s Wikipedia entry, those stairs are out-of-bounds because 45 people, most of them children on a school excursion, died there in 1981.  A power cut plunged the minaret’s interior into darkness and, in the ensuing panic, the stairs became the scene of a devastating stampede.



The Qutab Complex stands below the flight-paths of nearby Delhi Airport, and every five minutes or so while I was there an airplane would seem to narrowly buzz past its summit like a giant, fixed-in-its-course wasp.


Once you manage to stop admiring the minaret itself, there’s much more to see in the complex around it, including the remains of the Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque, various tombs and a massive stump of packed rubble called Alai Minar that, during an audacious but never-realised building project in the early 14th century, was intended to form the core of a new tower that would have been twice the height of Qutab Minar.



Actually, you could spend a whole day just looking at the patterns engraved on the slabs of stone standing amid the ruins.  These are astonishingly intricate – latticed, spiralling, gridded, knotted, whorled, weaving and petalled.  As your eyes follow them up the stonework, however, you eventually reach a point where the patterns give way to broken, misshapen summits that are now the domain of pigeons, squirrels and occasional green-coloured parrots.



A word of warning is in order, though.  If you want to study those amazing carvings, you’ll likely be exasperated by the never-ending stream of tourists who get in the way of your view.  Countless folk will insist on posing for Smartphone pictures in front of the stonework, making peace signs and striking cutesy poses.  Not for the first time – this thought has occurred to me too in Angkor Wat, Tunis and Rome, where my attempts to study some beautiful old ruins were similarly hampered by thousands of posing, self-obsessed ninnies with an insatiable hunger for having their photographs taken – I reflected darkly that in all probability the stonework will still be there, as gorgeous-looking as ever, long after those preening humans have aged, withered, died, rotted and crumbled into nothing.


Thankfully, the Qutab Complex is big enough to let visitors have some private, peaceful space away from the crowds.  A trip there won’t necessarily unleash your inner sociopath.  In fact, even if I hadn’t been interested in its historical side, the grounds – crisscrossed with long dark tree-shadows while the green spaces between them bake in the afternoon sunshine – would have made it a perfectly acceptable place to spend an hour in.  Also, I couldn’t help noticing the cacophony of birdsong there.  In becoming a UN World Heritage Site, the complex evidently turned into something of a wildlife sanctuary too.



Hey, Lucio!




Nowadays, satellite television can beam any subject matter, however graphic, into our living rooms.  Thanks to this, the whole family – mum and dad, grandma and grandpa, the teenagers, the primary school-kids and the pre-school little’uns – can now sit together in front of the TV and enjoy, communally, such splendid sights as the bit in season three of The Walking Dead where Danai Gurira grabs a big jaggy chunk of glass and rams it in extreme close-up into David Morrisey’s eyeball.


Even better, a few minutes later, they can enjoy the sight of David Morrisey, again in extreme close-up, pulling the jaggy glass out of his eyeball.  Hurrah for modern tele-viewing!


This wasn’t always the case.  Audiences didn’t always have easy access to images of extreme eyeball abuse.  Indeed, three decades ago, a scene where a person got a humongous wooden splint stuck in her eye while a mouldering zombie grabbed her by the hair and dragged her through a hole it’d just smashed in her bathroom door was enough to cause outrage amongst the powers who decided what British film-fans could and couldn’t watch.  The scene belonged to the 1979 Italian horror movie Zombie Flesh Eaters, directed by the inimitable Italian filmmaker Lucio Fulci.  And it was the gory content of this and movies like it that led to Britain’s Video Nasties scare of the early 1980s.


By 1983, the Department of Public Prosecutions – cheered on by the likes of public-morality campaigner Mary Whitehouse, various flatulent back-bench Conservative MPs and the right-wing British tabloid press – had drawn up a list of 72 films deemed liable to ‘deprave and corrupt’ and thus were open to prosecution under the Obscene Publications Act.  39 of the 72 were successfully prosecuted.  The remaining 33 weren’t prosecuted or were subject to unsuccessful prosecutions, but at the time you had little chance of seeing them through legitimate means.


Now that the hysteria has long since passed, the majority of these films are available in uncut versions in Britain.  A couple of them – like Don’t Go into the Woods and Contamination – have even suffered the ultimate humiliation: they’ve been awarded wussy ‘15’ certificates.


Among the movies Lucio Fulci directed, two, Zombie Flesh Eaters and 1981’s The House by the Cemetery ended up on the list of 39 prosecuted titles; while a third, 1981’s The Beyond, was on the list of 33 that escaped successful prosecution.  A fourth, 1980’s City of the Living Dead, didn’t make the Nasties list at all, but British police seized videos of it nonetheless.  And a fifth, 1982’s The New York Ripper, wasn’t classified as a Nasty either, but it still got banned from British cinemas.  For this achievement alone, I think Lucio deserves respect.


(c) Variety Film Productions


I have a complicated relationship with Lucio Fulci.  While it’s debateable if I’ve ever watched anything he’s directed that I’d classify as a good film, I have to admit that when I encounter a new Fulci title in a DVD store or see one scheduled for broadcast on the Horror Channel, my pulse speeds up.  I get a prickly, sweaty sense of excitement.  I tell myself, I have to see this.  Although the end result is usually the same.  After the damned thing has finished, I sit back and feel a strange combination of bemusement, queasiness and disappointment, while a voice nags at me: “What the hell was that about?”  Although to be fair to Lucio, there’s usually been at least one sequence in the film that’s made me think: “Wow!”


Lucio Fulci didn’t find fame, or infamy, in the English-speaking world until the late 1970s, but he’d been a staple of Italian cinema for a long time beforehand.  He started as a scriptwriter, first of all working on the 1954 comedy Un Giorna in Pretura.  In 1959, a dozen film-scripts later, he began directing – one of his earliest directorial efforts was Ragazzi del Juke-Box, a musical starring none other than the soon-to-be 1960s pin-up Elke Sommer.  During the 1960s and 1970s, Lucio beavered away making comedies and spaghetti westerns.  He also tried his hand at directing giallo movies, those particularly twisted, kinky, violent and macabre Italian variations on the thriller genre: 1969’s Unna Sull’atra, 1971’s A Woman in a Lizard’s Skin and 1972’s Don’t Torture a Duckling.


Some have noted that his sudden interest in giallo movies – and hence in darker, bloodier material – coincided with the death of his wife, Maria Fulci, who in 1969 committed suicide after discovering she had cancer.  But the director himself never mentioned a connection between this personal tragedy and the darkening tone of his films.


The release of Zombie Flesh Eaters in 1979 saw Lucio plant his flag both in horror-movie territory and in the consciousness of impressionable, sensation-hungry teenagers, as I was then.  The film was a success despite English-speaking critics slamming it as an inferior Italian cash-in on George A. Romeo’s seminal zombie movie from the previous year, Dawn of the Dead. 


Well, Zombie Flesh Eaters is nowhere near as good as Dawn of the Dead, but it has an undeniable something about it.  The story kicks off with a seemingly un-crewed boat drifting towards New York Harbour (while a ravenous zombie lurks in its hold).  Then it shifts to the Caribbean island from which the boat originated, where a full-scale zombie epidemic – possibly scientifically induced, possibly supernatural – is underway.  And at the very end it returns to New York, which has now succumbed to a zombie onslaught too.  The stuff in New York is pretty ropey but the scenes on the Caribbean island, which is depicted as a cursed, pestilent and windswept hellhole, are wonderfully atmospheric.  A particularly hard-to-forget sequence is one where the protagonists stumble into a ‘conquistadors’ cemetery’ while some very old corpses indeed start wriggling their way out of the graves there.


But even that scene is surpassed by an earlier one where a female scuba diver flees from the predations of a large shark and hides behind a coral reef; only to discover that on the other side of the reef there lurks – eek! – a soggy and bedraggled-looking zombie.  The shark and the zombie then proceed to fight, in a slow, balletic, underwater way.  It’s typical of Lucio’s best sequences in that it manages to be simultaneously bizarre, haunting and totally bonkers.


The film is helped by the presence of two British performers, Ian McCulloch and Richard Johnson, who just ignore the absurdities of the situations and dialogue and get on with some proper acting.  I read an interview with McCulloch a while back and he professed himself bemused by Lucio’s filming techniques in New York – which involved the cast and crew turning up at a spot, filming without any licence, and then clearing off as soon as the police appeared.  This might explain the film’s curiously disjointed final image, which shows an army of zombies shuffling along an elevated bridge whilst below the New York rush-hour traffic trundles back and forth as if it’s just a normal evening.


The female lead, played by Tisa Farrow, is bloody awful, though.  Tisa is the younger sister of the more famous Mia Farrow, and I’ve often wondered what the pair of them talked about when they met up during this period.  “Oh hi, Tisa.  I’m busy making A Wedding with Robert Altman and Death on the Nile with Peter Ustinov.  What are you up to?”  “Well, I’m fighting off a horde of flesh-eating zombies in a conquistadors’ cemetery, courtesy of Lucio Fulci.”  Mind you, considering what Mia had to endure with Frank Sinatra and Woody Allen, maybe she thought her kid sister had the better deal.


(c) Dania Film / Medusa Distribuzione / National Cinematografica


Zombie Flesh Eaters is my favourite Lucio Fulci movie because it has a story – one where things move from A to B and then to C.  Unfortunately, for his next horror movies, Lucio decided that there’d be a common theme.  Each would take place in a locality that, unknown to the inhabitants, rests on top of a portal to hell.  And if you’re on top of a portal to hell, the laws of physics, of cause and effect, of A leading to B and then to C, will be suspended.  All sorts of crazy things will happen.  The dead will rise, furniture will levitate, dogs will go mad, eyeballs will bleed, the sky will rain maggots, demonic winds will blow in your windows and satanic spiders will chew your face off.  But there won’t be anything like a logically sequenced plot.  No, sir!


Many film fans have applauded Lucio for doing away with such outdated, bourgeoisie concepts as ‘plots’ in his films, but I have to say I find it a cop-out.  This ‘portal to hell’ stuff was just an excuse for Lucio to make things up as he went along.


First in this series was 1980’s City of the Living Dead, which centres on strange goings-on in a remote American town that, by bad luck, is built on one of those afore-mentioned portals to hell.  The townspeople are soon falling victim to various forms of supernatural mayhem, which are orchestrated by a ghostly priest and a clutch of zombies who apparently have the power to teleport from one place to another.  The film is a shambles – what else can you expect when there’s teleporting zombies in it? – but as usual with Lucio there are scenes that really stick in the memory.  I particularly like one where the protagonists explore some catacombs under the local graveyard, unaware that the cobwebby old cadavers there are stirring into life the moment they pass by.


A sequence that all viewers of City of the Living Dead remember is one where a girl sits paralysed in a car while the ghostly priest leers in at her and, under his malevolent influence, she starts to vomit up her own entrails.  Lovingly captured on Lucio’s camera, those entrails ooze from her mouth in a slow, slimy, stringy mass.  The actress who had the honour of playing this scene was starlet Daniella Doria.  She had to sit before the camera with her mouth crammed full of sheep’s offal, which then she slobbered down her front.  People go on about the pain that Christian Bale inflicts upon himself in his quest for cinematic perfection, starving himself to a skeletal husk for The Machinist (2004) or making his weight balloon to play the slobby hero of American Hustle (2013); but I bet even Bale would draw the line at regurgitating mouthfuls of cold sheep-guts over himself in a Lucio Fulci movie.


Daniella Doria made three subsequent films with Lucio and she died horribly in all of them – via asphyxiation, stabbing and slashing.  “She was one of my favourite actresses,” Lucio reminisced later.  “I killed her so many times.”


(c) Fulvia Films


Many rate the following year’s The Beyond as Lucio’s masterpiece – its champions include Quentin Tarantino – but I have the same problems with it that I have with City of the Living Dead.  There’s no rhyme or reason to it, because the action takes place on top of another of those pesky portals to hell.  Again, though, there are some striking scenes – notably, one where heroine Catriona McColl encounters a spectral female figure standing in the middle of a straight, seemingly endless causeway.  The figure is that of a blind woman, Emily, who turns out to be a ghost.  Later, though, Emily dies when her throat is torn out.  How you can kill a ghost, someone who’s already dead, is never explained.


The Beyond also contains the barmy ‘spiders from hell’ scene, during which a lightning bolt knocks a character off a ladder.  He breaks his back and then lies helpless while giant spiders emerge from the ether around him, converge on him and start munching on his face.  The spiders – real tarantulas – look creepy enough as they approach during the long shots; but for the face-nibbling close-ups they become highly fake-looking bundles of pipe cleaners that Lucio’s special-effects team probably threw together during the mid-morning tea-break.


Another problem is the ending.  It seems that Lucio had intended The Beyond, which takes place in a dilapidated Louisiana hotel, to be a haunted-house movie.  However, his financial backers expected him to make them another money-spinning zombie movie.  I can imagine Lucio’s producer grabbing him one day on the set, after looking at what was already in the can, and waving his arms and ranting in a stereotypical Italian way: “Lucio!  Hey Lucio!  Where-za hell-za zombies?!”  So, although he didn’t want to, poor Lucio had to insert an incongruous climax into the film where McColl and hero David Warbeck have a shoot-out with a sudden and unexpected bunch of, yes, zombies.


(Warbeck was a New Zealand actor whose CV included Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dynamite and Hammer’s Twins of Evil, both made in 1971.  He also appeared in Britain’s famous Milk Tray Chocolates advertisements and for a while he was in with a shout of becoming the next James Bond.  Alas, he died from cancer in 1997.)


The final instalment in Lucio’s ‘portals to hell’ series was 1982’s The House by the Cemetery, which has a young family moving into the titular house by the titular cemetery and discovering that they’re sharing it with, down in the basement, something very horrible indeed.  But sadly, the film lacks those moments of demented flamboyance that distinguished its two predecessors.


Meanwhile, between City of the Living Dead and The Beyond, Lucio also tried to do something different – filming a contemporary update of the Edgar Allan Poe story The Black Cat and setting it in England.  Inevitably, the resulting film is very loosely based on Poe’s story.  I’d hoped that the subject matter would reign in the director’s excesses and impose a little discipline on him.  The focus, after all, isn’t on a portal to hell that makes all things possible, but on a cat.  A pretty evil cat, right enough, but at the end of the day just a cat.


Unfortunately, the feline in Lucio’s The Black Cat (1981) is something else.  Somehow, it’s picked up psychic subconscious emanations from its owner, who’s a paranormal investigator obsessed with contacting the dead and who’s played by the distinguished Irish actor Patrick Magee.  Absorbing the hatred Magee feels deep down for the untrustworthy yokels who live around him in a rural English village, the cat starts acting out Magee’s supressed fantasies and starts killing the villagers.  But this cat seems to have picked up some other things too, including super-intelligence and super-strength; for it can hypnotise its victims, sabotage ventilation systems, set furniture on fire, come back from the dead and even, like those silly zombies in City of the Living Dead, teleport.  In fact, this darned cat can do so many things that you wonder why it ever bothers to scratch people.  But it scratches people too.


Once again, there are wonderfully eerie sequences, such as when Magee heads down to the village graveyard after dark and tests out his new contacting-the-dead wireless equipment.  But the film suffers from having everything thrown into it bar the kitchen sink, the same as Lucio’s other films from this period.


(c) Italian International Film / Selenia Cinematografica 


Lucio is remembered for one more ‘major’ horror film, 1982’s serial-killer / slasher epic The New York Ripper, which was controversial to say the least.  Even if Britain hadn’t been so jittery at the time about Video Nasties, the fact that it appeared soon after the real-life Yorkshire Ripper killings in northern England probably meant it was never going to get a British cinematic release.  It also led to Lucio being accused of misogyny.  I haven’t seen The New York Ripper, except for a few clips on YouTube, and it does look pretty gruelling.  The fact that the killer likes to perform Donald Duck impersonations during the murders is something viewers will find either deeply disturbing or deeply stupid; or possibly both.


Thereafter, due to various misfortunes – he fell out with his long-term scriptwriting collaborator Dardano Sacchetti and suffered a series of health problems, such as hepatitis, cirrhosis and diabetes – Lucio’s output tailed off in terms of both prominence and quality.  Although ‘quality’ is a subjective concept when you’re discussing his movies anyway.  He soldiered on into the early 1990s, with his last directorial effort being the poorly received psychological thriller Door to Silence in 1991.


I’ve seen one movie from his later years, a 1987 teen-orientated horror film called Aenigma that was apparently filmed in Yugoslavia.  It’s a weak rip-off of Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976) and Richard Franklin’s telekinesis thriller Patrick (1978) and is about a schoolgirl who’s on the receiving end of a malicious prank by her classmates.  The prank goes wrong and she ends up comatose on a hospital life-support system.  But, possessing telekinetic powers, she’s able to wreak revenge from her hospital bed on those cruel schoolmate pranksters.  As usual, Lucio is all over the place when depicting the carnage.  People get strangled by their own reflections, get crushed by statues that come to life, get beheaded by falling window-blinds…  It seems the schoolgirl has the power to do everything except revive herself from her own coma.  Incidentally, the death-by-snails sequence in Aenigma has to be seen to be believed.


Lucio Fulci died alone, impoverished and sick in Rome in 1996.  At least he had the satisfaction of attending, two months prior to his death, a convention in New York organised by the American horror-movie magazine Fangoria.  Much to his astonishment, he was mobbed at the convention by thousands of American fans.  He’d had no idea that his name was known beyond the shores of Italy.


Funnily enough, Lucio’s films make me think of Gerry Anderson’s sci-fi-puppet TV show from 1964, Stingray.  Each episode of Stingray would open with a voice intoning, “Anything can happen in the next half-hour!”  That line would make a suitable opening for a typical Lucio Fulci movie too: “Anything can happen in the next hour-and-a-half!”  Especially if the film takes place on top of a portal to hell.


(c) Fulvia Films


Hobbit hatred


(c) New Line Cinema / MGM / Wingnut Films


Wow.  These days a lot of people hate hobbits.  I base this statement on the comments posted below a movie review on the Guardian website yesterday.  The review was of the third and final instalment of director Peter Jackson’s trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s book The Hobbit, which is set in Tolkien’s imaginary realm of Middle Earth and is about to be released under the title of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.


“Jackson’s just Tolkien the piss!” exclaimed one poster, inventively.  “That’s right, Jackson,” cried another, “your films are of lesser creative merit than a computer game.  How do you sleep, multi-quadrillionaire Peter Jackson, how do you sleep?”  A third lamented, “How does anyone sit through these awful, awful films?”  A fourth, concerned about the fact that there’s still one major item in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth oeuvre that hasn’t yet received the Jackson treatment, pleaded, “Please no Silmarillion, enough is enough!  I can’t stand any more hobbits, elves or orcs.”


All right, I suspect that at least some of those critics of Peter Jackson and his Hobbit movies do actually like hobbits.  In fact, they probably love hobbits – at least, they love the way Tolkien portrayed the hairy-footed little fellows in his book and in its follow-ups, the three volumes that make up the Lord of the Rings saga.  However, they hate what Jackson has done to Tolkien’s books while translating them from page to screen: first with his three Lord of the Rings adaptations, released in 2001, 2002 and 2003; and then with The Hobbit, which he managed somehow to transform from a slim children’s book into three lengthy films that’ve appeared in 2012, 2013 and – just in time for Christmas! – 2014.


The disdain that many fans of Tolkien’s fiction feel for the films was summed up by the author’s son Christopher, who in 2012 informed Le Monde of his low opinion of the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy: “They gutted the book, making an action movie for 15-to-25-year-olds.”


Well, I have to say that I was never a fan of Tolkien’s work.  Even when I tackled Lord of the Rings as a teenager I found his prose turgid and his goody-two-shoes characters deeply uninteresting.  His books had nothing that compared with the moral complexity, imaginative detail and genuine out-and-out weirdness of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast books, a fantasy series published around the same era.


And I find it ironic that Tolkien Junior accuses Jackson of cheapening the stories by aiming them at ’15-to-25-year-olds’.  I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who raved about how good the Lord of the Rings books were who wasn’t older than 15.  Indeed, the only period of my life when I regularly bumped into Lord of the Rings enthusiasts was when I was attending Peebles High School.  Okay, I do remember talking to a thirty-something science teacher one day and he suddenly started gushing too about the greatness of Tolkien.  But you could argue that, being a teacher, he was also still at school.  And mentally, that particular teacher didn’t seem to be older than 15 anyway.


However, I consider literature to be a more complicated and more profound medium than cinema.  And although a story may seem shallow and perfunctory when it’s told in written language, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll be ineffective when it’s retold in the less demanding medium of sound and images that greets you every time you enter a cinema or sit down in front of a DVD.  And for me, Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit work perfectly well as movies.  They’re no more works of art than the books on which they’re based, but they’re quite palatable as two-to-three-hour viewing experiences where you can enjoy the performances of some great actors and actresses, the stunning New Zealand scenery and the obvious flair Peter Jackson has for orchestrating action and spectacle.  There’s too much CGI in them, of course, but that goes without saying these days.


New Line Cinema / MGM / Wingnut Films 


That said, I wasn’t a big fan of the third Lord of the Rings movie, The Return of the King – mainly because it was ruined by a tedious final half-hour that consisted of a parade of characters saying farewell to one another or marrying one another.  When Aragorn tied the knot with Arwen, and Arwen appeared in her bridal costume, somebody sitting close to me in the cinema exclaimed, “Liv Tyler looks just like a gerbil!”  And do you know what?  She did.


The Hobbit movies in particular have had brickbats hurled at them because of the accusation that Jackson has unnecessarily padded out a short book to make three big, and presumably money-spinning, movies out of it.  No doubt this is true – The Hobbit trilogy could easily have been condensed into two films, or even into one – but I’m not particularly bothered.  I find the films entertaining and I’m not going to condemn something for having the temerity to entertain me.


As I said above, I particularly like the films’ casts.  Tolkien’s characters may seem leaden on the page but distinguished performers like Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Ian Holm, Andy Serkis, Benedict Cumberbatch and Christopher Lee have managed to breathe some proper life into them.  It’s particularly gratifying to see the 92-year-old Lee get another opportunity to display his acting chops – even if he was too frail to make the journey to the film-shoot in New Zealand and had to be filmed in Britain instead, with his image being digitally woven into the action later on.


One thing I find interesting about the Hobbit movies is the hierarchy of accents that the filmmakers have bestowed upon the inhabitants of Middle Earth.  The more superior beings in Tolkien’s milieu – i.e. the wizards and the elves – seem to make their proclamations in an imperious Received Pronunciation.  The hobbits sound less posh but they communicate in a reasonably well-spoken Standard English.  That doesn’t surprise me really, as the Shire has always struck me as a ghastly, nicey-nice middle-class ghetto in the suburbs of Middle Earth where the main reading matter is probably the Daily Mail and the Daily Express.


New Line Cinema / MGM / Wingnut Films 

 New Line Cinema / MGM / Wingnut Films 


However, the dwarves – at least, the more prominent ones – seem to be mostly Scottish or Irish, with actors from north of the border and from across the Irish Sea like Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, James Nesbitt and Aidan Turner talking in the films in the way they’d talk in real life.  I’m told that Billy Connolly will pop up in The Battle of the Five Armies playing, yes, another dwarf.  (On the other hand, the dwarf king, Thorin Oakenshield – or as he’s described by my girlfriend, ‘the hot dwarf’ – is played by Richard Armitage, who’s from Leicester in England.)


Now is this not a little prejudiced?  Isn’t it a little off to assume that if you’re a dwarf, a non-royal dwarf anyway, with a big nose, a gi-normous beard and a fondness for working deep down in the mines, you ought to sound Celtic?  I admit that one of the wizards, Radogast the Brown, is played by another Scottish actor, Sylvester McCoy.  But it was made plain in the first Hobbit movie that Radogast eats magic mushrooms and is permanently covered in bird-shit.


Having lived for many years in Ireland and Scotland, I can safely say that I’ve met hardly anyone in either country who has a big nose, a gi-normus beard, an appetite for magic mushrooms and a disdain for personal hygiene that makes them neglect to rub bird-shit off themselves.  Well, I’ve met a few people like that, but not many.  Well, not that many.


On the other hand, while Jackson seems happy to let Stott, McTavish, Nesbitt and co. blether away in their native accents, I think it’s sad that he won’t let the leading elf actors – i.e. Cate Blanchett as Galadriel and Hugo Weaving as Elrond – speak in their native accent, which is Australian.  Maybe Jackson does this out of spite.  I know how New Zealanders feel about Australians.


Frankly, I’d love it if, in the midst of some Middle-Earth excitement, Cate Blanchett turned around to Ian McKellen and exclaimed: “Strewth, Gandalf, you ol’ baaastard!  Those blaady orc bogans from beyond the back stump are givin’ us a gobful.  Do we bail out or stay ‘n’ give ’em a rip-snorter of a battle?”


(c) New Line Cinema / MGM / Wingnut Films


He marched Scotland up to the top of the hill (of beans)… and marched it down again


(c) The Guardian


The Smith Commission, the cross-party entity convened by the UK government shortly after the Scottish independence referendum to discuss and recommend what further powers could be devolved from London to the Scottish Parliament, has just delivered its verdict.  In the mainstream press there’s been much trumpeting about the new powers being recommended.  SCOTLAND TO CONTROL £14 BILLION OF INCOME TAX AND WELFARE BENEFITS IN CROSS-PARTY DEAL squawked a Guardian headline on November 27th.  14 billion pounds?  Wow.  That’s a lot.


However, back in September, nearly all the mainstream newspapers urged their Scottish readers to vote ‘no’ to independence.  And as the commission is widely viewed as a face-saving measure for the majority of Scottish voters (55%) who did just that and voted ‘no’ to independence – okay, they’ve been told, you’ve rejected outright independence for your country but, don’t feel bad, Scotland will still get more independence, within the framework of the UK – I think the newspapers’ grand claims for it can be taken with a wee pinch of salt.


The response to the Smith Commission’s recommendations from independence supporters has, predictably, been less positive.  Indeed, the Reverend Stuart Campbell at the website Wings over Scotland took issue with the above-mentioned Guardian story and pointed out that the Scottish Parliament has always had control of 14 billion pounds of income tax and welfare cash, in the form of the block-grant system – the money was collected by HM Revenue and Customs, given to the British Treasury, earmarked for and finally delivered to Scotland.  “Post-Smith Commission (assuming the recommendations are implemented in full), it’ll still be collected by HMRC, it’ll still be given to the Treasury, and it’ll still be passed to Scotland as a lump sum.  It’ll just have a different badge on it.”  I know Wings over Scotland is pretty partisan and Campbell can go over the top with his rhetoric.  But he’s forensic in his research and is good at sniffing out the inconsistencies between what politicians and journalists have claimed at one place and time and what they’ve claimed at another.


Meanwhile, Iain MacWhirter, political columnist with the Herald and Sunday Herald, has argued that going with the commission’s recommendations and giving the Scottish Parliament power over income tax but precious little else is “an exercise in control-freak minimalism that will serve to lock Scotland in economic decline.  The proposals to hand control of income taxes to Scotland, but not the full range of taxes like national insurance, wealth taxes, oil and gas revenues and so on, is a transparent fiscal trap.”


I’ll limit my comments to three areas here.  Firstly, despite the hullabaloo generated in the British media about all of this, I think we can all accept that there are a few things that still won’t be devolved to Scotland.  Actually, there are an awful lot of things that won’t be devolved to Scotland.  These are the items that’ll remain in the control of Westminster:


The state pension; Universal Credit; bereavement allowance and payment; child benefit; guardian’s allowance; maternity allowance, statutory maternity pay; sick pay; widowed parent’s allowance; the National Minimum Wage; the Equality Act (2010); all benefits related to the Department of Work and Pensions’ Jobcentre Plus; setting the way money is raised to deal with Energy Efficiency and Fuel Poverty; all aspects of Income Tax apart from rates and thresholds; all aspects of VAT apart from “the VAT receipts raised in Scotland by the first ten percentage points of the standard rate of VAT which will be assigned to the Scottish government’s budget”; the licensing of offshore oil and gas extractions; Fuel Duty and Excise Duty; “the power to levy an additional UK-wide tax in the UK national interest”; the health and safety legislative framework; Corporation Tax; Inheritance Tax and Capital Gains Tax; National Insurance Contributions; and the taxation of oil and gas receipts; the Block Grant to Scotland operated through the Barnett Formula; and decisions about xenotransplantation, embryology, surrogacy and genetics.


I suspect more than a few Scots voted ‘no’ in the referendum believing they’d been promised ‘devo-max’ if they stayed in the UK.  In other words, they’d get a Scotland where everything relating to domestic matters was dealt with by Scottish politicians in Edinburgh; while politicians in London only took care of the really big things relating to Britain’s interests on the world stage, like defence matters and foreign policy.  But don’t worry, Scotland.  You’re not getting any say in defence or foreign policy either.


You can read more about these many omissions here, at the website Bella Caledonia:


My second point is that what the commission recommends being devolved to Scottish control is just that at the moment – a set of recommendations.  It’ll be fascinating – though very likely depressing – to see what actually gets turned into devolved powers in the long run.  I certainly can’t see many of these recommendations being enacted by a Conservative government in Westminster, with a horde of English Conservative backbenchers braying about what they see as the Scots being unfairly favoured at the expense of the English.


Nor do I see the prospect of many of them being enacted by a Labour government, which will have its own back-bench interests to placate.  For example, the much-vaunted recommendation that the Scottish parliament has control over air passenger duty, charged on passengers flying from Scottish airports, is likely to be challenged by Labour MPs representing constituencies with or served by airports in northern England.  And incidentally, Labour’s coven of backbench Scottish MPs are probably the most fervently anti-devolution lot around.  They’re terrified by the thought that, as more power devolves to Edinburgh, they’ll lose the perks and privileges that they enjoy as Scotland’s supposed representatives in London.


Finally, I find it telling that the main proponent of the message to Scottish voters that “you’ll get more power over your own affairs if you actually vote ‘no’ to having more power over your own affairs”, was Gordon Brown — the MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath and the not-much-missed Prime Minister of the UK from 2007 to 2010.  The other day, Brown announced that, come next May, he’ll be stepping down as an MP.


During the later stages of the referendum campaign – with the mainstream media acting as his cheerleaders – Brown stressed his determination to see Scotland accrue more powers while it continued as a part of the UK.  So I assumed that he’d stay active in politics until he was sure that all the things he’d promised Scots would come their way in the event of a ‘no’ vote really were coming their way.  But no, Brown got the referendum-result he wanted and he won breathless plaudits from a right-wing media that, when he was PM, had liked to portray him as a turnip-headed nincompoop with tyrannical tendencies and a severe personality disorder.


And now he’s buggering off.  What a big tube.