It’s Hammer time

 

From www.horrorpedia.com

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

From www.dezskinn.com

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

From www.comicbookbrain.com

From www.kidr77.blogspot.co.uk

 

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

 

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

 

From www.britishcomicart.blogspot.com

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

From www.alistasi.com

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

(c) Hammer Films

 

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

 

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

 

From www.tor.com

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

From www.tainted-archive.blogspot.com

 

Welcome to Cronenbergia

 

(c) The Times

 

The other evening I watched Maps to the Stars, the latest offering from Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg.  And it occurred to me that the grisly and disturbing things that 30 or 40 years ago were safely locked inside Cronenberg’s head, and only appeared outside that head whenever he made a movie, are today loose in the world.  They now walk among us.  Even worse, they’re now regarded as normal.

 

Following his takes on corporate power (2012’s Cosmopolis) and psychiatry (2011’s A Dangerous Method), Maps to the Stars sees Cronenberg turn his baleful and probing eye on Hollywood.  It’s the tale of a psychotherapist, played by John Cusack, who treats his wealthy actor and actress clients to a no-holds-barred and barking-mad form of self-help therapy; the psychotherapist’s wife, played by Olivia Williams, who manages the career of their movie-star son; the son himself, played by Evan Bird, who’s a ghastly pubescent Justin Bieber clone; and a fading and deranged Hollywood star, played by Julianne Moore, who when she isn’t receiving treatment from Cusack is being tormented by memories of her deceased, abusive Joan Crawford / Mommie Dearest-style mother.

 

The lives of all four are turned inside-out and upside-down when Mia Wasikowska arrives in town one morning on the Greyhound bus from Florida.  I won’t describe what Wasikowska, playing an enigmatic young lady who conceals extensive burn-scars beneath her long black gloves, eventually does to the four other protagonists.  I’ll just say that most of what follows can blamed on Carrie Fisher.

 

The horribleness of Hollywood has long been a popular topic, both in novels like Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust (1939) and Norman Mailer’s The Deer Park (1955) and in movies from Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950) up to David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001).  Nonetheless, there’s something fresh in seeing Cronenberg take a scalpel to it with his customary clinicalness.  But what I found most interesting, and more than a little disturbing, was seeing how elements that once seemed to belong only in his grotesque ‘body-horror’ movies of the 1970s and 1980s have now crossed not just into mainstream culture, but into mainstream reality.

 

There’s the fruitcake psychotherapy peddled by Cusack – and it’s surely no more fruitcake than the self-help that’s extolled in every second book now on sale in W.H. Smith’s – that brings to mind the ‘psychoplasmics’ treatment practised by Oliver Reed in The Brood (1980).  Admittedly, Cusack’s method is probably a little less severe than Dr Ollie’s one, which induced Samantha Eggar to spawn a squad of homicidal mutant toddlers who then set about attacking and murdering anyone who’d caused her mental anguish: her parents, her daughter, her ex-husband, her ex-husband’s potential new girlfriend.  Meanwhile, the ghastly child-star played by Bird and his equally-ghastly friends – who’re too young to know what a ‘yuppie’ is but are sexualised far beyond their years – call to mind the infected humans, including children and adolescents, in Shivers (1974); turned into slavering sex maniacs by artificially-created parasites.

 

Even the luxury home of Cusack and Williams – which we learn has been drooled over by various feature writers from various expensive and pretentious home-interiors magazines – is a fearsomely bare and oppressive structure of glass and concrete, calling to mind the cavernous, soulless clinics, condominiums and headquarters where Cronenberg’s mad-scientist villains used to do their dirty work: Reed’s Somafree Institute in The Brood, Starliner Towers in Shivers, the Keloid Institute in Rabid (1977) and ConSec HQ in Scanners (1981).

 

And early on, there’s a black joke about AIDS – a disease that, had it appeared in a Cronenberg movie in the 1970s, would have been dismissed by the critics as yet another of his distasteful, sex-obsessed, science-fictional gimmicks.

 

One echo of Cronenberg’s earlier work that’s slightly unfortunate, though, is the weakness of the leading male characters in Maps to the Stars.  Back in the day, Cronenberg rarely allowed actors like Frank Read in Rabid, Art Hindle in The Brood or Stephen Lack in Scanners, or indeed, Jude Law in the more recent eXistenZ (1999), to exhibit much depth.  Compared to a barnstorming performance by Julianne Moore and a hypnotic one by Wasikowska, Cusack’s turn as the film’s villain is fairly two-dimensional.  He’s entertaining enough in a pantomime way, but he’s two-dimensional nonetheless.

 

Meanwhile, Robert Pattinson drifts in and out of the film as an aspiring actor / writer who has to chauffeur his more successful peers around in a black limousine as a way of making ends meet; and with his distant tone and manner, he fails to make much of an impression.  In fact, other than provide a rather half-hearted love interest for Wasikowska, it’s difficult to see what Pattinson’s doing in the film at all.  Perhaps Cronenberg wanted to slip in a statement about the fickleness of the big-business world.  Pattinson, of course, played the mega-wealthy mogul in Cosmopolis, who ran his global corporation from the back of a massive and extravagantly high-tech limousine.  In Maps to the Stars, he’s been reduced in status and fortune to the point where he has to earn a living by driving one.

 

That said, I have to admit that there’s one impressive male performance in Maps to the Stars, which is given by Evan Bird as the evil-little-bastard child star.  What’s galling about this character is that by the end of the film Bird, and Cronenberg, have actually managed to make us feel a smidgeon of sympathy for the diminutive shit.

 

Yes, I still expect Cronenberg’s films to be perverse.  However, feeling sorry for Justin Bieber was one perversion I just didn’t expect.

 

Twilight of capitalism: film review / Cosmopolis

 

(c) Alfama Films

 

Anybody who remembers what Canadian director David Cronenberg got up to in the 1970s and 1980s will find it ironic that, nowadays, he’s regarded as a rather sober and cerebral filmmaker.  Indeed, he has a reputation for being restrained – at least, restrained in a technical sense for, unlike many younger directors, he doesn’t go in for frantic running around with hand-held cameras and frenzied chop-chop-chop editing.  Rather, he has an old-fashioned but admirable tendency to park his camera in one place, point it in the direction of his actors and actresses and let them get on with things.  Also, he’s viewed these days as a director whom it’s okay for Serious Movie Critics to like.

 

Wow, how times change.

 

Once upon a time, Cronenberg made films like 1977’s Rabid (accident survivor Marilyn Chambers grows on her body a slimy phallic stinger, which infects half the population of Montreal and transforms them into slavering blood-crazed zombies); 1979’s The Brood (mad scientist Oliver Reed induces a psychotic Samantha Eggar to ‘externalise’ her rage by growing an outside womb, which in turn produces a horde of dwarf-child monsters with a fondness for bludgeoning their victims to death); Scanners (misguided scientist Patrick McGoohan sires a race of super-humans with telepathic and telekinetic powers whose party-piece is to make people’s heads explode); 1983’s Videodrome (TV station president James Woods becomes obsessed with a mysterious snuff / torture-porn pirate channel and hallucinates about having a gash down his abdomen into which he can insert video cassettes); and of course 1986’s The Fly (loopy but nice scientist Jeff Goldblum encounters a spot of bother with his matter-teleportation device and ends up metamorphosing into an acid-slobbering insectoid mutant whose human bits drop off one by one).

 

Cronenberg’s choice of subject matter didn’t endear him to mainstream film critics at the time.  He especially didn’t win himself many fans among those folk reviewing films in the British media in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a priggish bunch who didn’t understand why every new film made couldn’t be as uplifting and wholesome as Chariots of Fire.  I remember hearing on the BBC’s Film 79 programme a vitriolic review of The Brood by Barry Norman (back then the most famous film critic in Britain), who described Cronenberg as “the guru of the mentally insane”.  And even as late as 1996, the Daily Mail’s Christopher Tookey and the Evening Standard’s Alexander Walker were campaigning for a UK ban on the showing of Crash, Cronenberg’s adaptation of the J.G. Ballard novel of the same name.  “A movie beyond the bounds of depravity,” thundered the bilious Walker.

 

Unpleasantness still occasionally rears its head in Cronenberg’s movies – most notably in 2005’s A History of Violence and 2007’s Eastern Promises, although what gives the violent sequences in those films such explosive impact is the fact that, elsewhere, Cronenberg orchestrates proceedings in a relatively quiet and un-sensational manner, focusing on character rather than on action.  Generally, though, nobody who’s been following his career over the past four decades can disagree with the claim that Cronenberg the Elder is a less excitable beast than Cronenberg the Younger.

 

Indeed, it must be galling for long-term horror buffs with fond memories of the gruesome Cronenberg of yore, who believe their man has now sold out and become mainstream, safe and respectable.  (Perhaps in 2011 they got excited when they heard that he was making a Freudian movie called A Dangerous Method.  “At last!” they might’ve exclaimed.  “He’s gone back to making films about phallic sex parasites that slither out of vaginal orifices in people’s armpits!”  But no, Cronenberg’s Freudian film was actually a period drama set in central Europe before World War I and featured Sigmund Freud as a character.)

 

 

Age mellows most people, of course, but it’s worth noting that in the old days Cronenberg was a true auteur.  Like a punk Orson Welles, he dreamt up the original ideas for his films, then scripted them and directed them.  However, in the last 20 years, nearly all of his films have originated in places other than his own imagination.  They’ve been adapted from novels (Ballard’s Crash, William S. Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch filmed in 1991, and Patrick McGrath’s Spider filmed in 2002), adapted from plays (David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly filmed in 1993, and Christopher Hampton’s The Talking Cure, which was filmed as A Dangerous Method), adapted from graphic novels (John Wagner and Vincent Locke’s A History of Violence), and based on other people’s screenplays (Eastern Promises was written by Stephen Knight).  Maybe this distance from the source material has exerted a calming influence over the former guru of the mentally insane.

 

Only with 1999’s eXistenZ, a neglected science fiction thriller set in a future where gamers use synthetic umbilical cords and surgically-created sockets to attach the consoles to their own bodies and play the games whilst wandering across various planes of hallucinogenic virtual reality, did Cronenberg write a script from an original idea.  And actually, eXistenZ deserved more acclaim than it got because, in its low-budget way, it was very much a prototype for Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster Inception.

 

Cosmopolis, Cronenberg’s latest, is again an adaptation of a novel, one authored by Don DeLillo, and again it won’t please those who hanker after the gory sci-fi horrors he made in his youth.  Tapping into a fashionable post-economic-meltdown / end-of-capitalism zeitgeist, it deals with events in one day in the life of a multi-billionaire mogul called Eric Packard, who is played by Robert Pattinson, best known for being Edward the vampire in the Twilight movies.  Packard is journeying across New York in a stretch limo that’s so massive it doubles as a hi-tech office.  Although he and his business subordinates talk and seemingly think in a machine-like language of corporate data – figures, trends, currencies, percentages, exchange rates – he is motivated today by an unusually human desire to visit and get a haircut at the old-fashioned barber shop that he went to as a kid, on the city’s far side.  However, the traffic in the streets is paralysed for various reasons – the US president is making a visit, a massive funeral is taking place and some Occupy-style protestors have kick-started an anti-corporate, anti-globalisation, anti-everything riot.  Thus, the road to Packard’s barber is strewn with obstacles that even his behemoth of a limousine will have trouble negotiating.

 

Meanwhile, there are suggestions that the writing is on the wall for Packard and his hugely lucrative company.  His business is suddenly haemorrhaging money at a terrifying rate, which has something to do with fluctuations in the value of the Chinese yuan.  And his security team have heard rumours that somebody, somewhere, is out to assassinate him.

 

Unlike James Joyce’s Ulysses, whose story also took place within a single day and whose setting was also the streets of a single, well-known city – but which gave its characters a heroic aura and invested its incidents with a mythic quality, thanks to its manifold references to The Odyssey – Packard’s quest in Cosmopolis feels low-key and claustrophobic.  Mainly this is because much of the film’s action takes place within that impressive but restrictive limousine.  During the day-long ride, it picks up a succession of employees and associates and, as each conducts his or her business with Packard, the film becomes a series of acting set-pieces staged within a very big car.

 

The scenes involving the female cast-members work well.  The episode with Emily Hampshire, who plays Packard’s chief of finance, gives the film some welcome humour.  (She visits the car at the same time as Packard’s doctor, and the billionaire insists on combining her briefing with his daily medical inspection.  Subsequently, he tries, and fails, to maintain a business-like demeanour with her whilst receiving a vigorous rectal examination.)  Meanwhile, a scene involving another advisor, played by Samantha Morton, where the two of them talk business inside the limo whilst seemingly oblivious to an anarchist riot raging on all sides of it, with one protestor even self-immolating, is perhaps the closest the film gets to old-school Cronenberg – in terms of bleak, apocalyptic atmosphere, if not visceral graphicness.  Juliette Binoche also turns up in the vehicle as Packard’s art advisor and, well, it’s just nice to see Juliette Binoche in anything.

 

Unfortunately, dramatically, the film is hit-and-miss.  A scene in which Packard discovers the identity of the person in the casket in the funeral cortege – a scene designed to reveal his emotional side – is strangely uninvolving.  Meanwhile, two key encounters that he has towards the end of the film don’t work either, largely because Cronenberg allows both scenes to go on too long.  Indeed, the scenes seem to stretch longer than Packard’s favoured mode of transport.  He may increasingly be an actors’ director these days, but Cronenberg really needed to show some ruthlessness with his cast here.  In the editing room, at least, he could have trimmed a few minutes off their performances to the film’s benefit.

 

One other criticism – Cosmopolis has a feeling of being set in a slightly different universe from our own one, a slightly more futuristic and cyberpunk universe, but that doesn’t give it carte blanche to make up its own laws of probability and coincidence.  On three different occasions during the marathon car journey across New York, Packard manages to bump into his recently-wed spouse (Sarah Gadon, who played Emma Jung in A Dangerous Method).  These three chance meetings bend credibility to snapping point.  Also, it seems ridiculous that the two locations necessary for tying up the plot at the film’s conclusion should turn out to be on the same street, facing one another.

 

Of Robert Pattinson’s performance, the best that can be said is that he is adequate for the requirements of the role.  That doesn’t mean, however, that he has to show much acting prowess.  Rather, he merely has to inhabit a blank and self-absorbed character whose default setting seems to be indifference – for a man suddenly being stalked by a potential killer and suddenly hurtling from obscene wealth to bankruptcy, Packard might be expected to display a little more anguish at the turn of events.  Also, it isn’t a role that requires much interaction with one’s fellow actors.  Clearly lacking in social skills, Packard spouts a steady stream of banalities / profundities without being much aware if his listeners are interested or not.

 

Packard, in fact, hardly seems to be of this world.  He skulks inside his limo like a vampire holed up during the hours of daylight inside its crypt.  Which, given his acting CV, may well be why Pattinson got the gig.

 

The best thing that can be said about Cosmopolis, then, is that it’s an interesting failure – and at least when Cronenberg fails, he usually does manage to remain interesting.  However, with this one, I find myself in agreement with those traditional horror-movie fans who wish the great man would go back to his old ways.  Yes, Cosmopolis would’ve been more fun if Cronenberg had thrown a few sex parasites, a few exploding heads and some acidic masticating fluid into the mix.