10 scary pictures for Halloween 2019

 

From craftshub.com

 

Today is October 31stSamhain as it’s known in Ireland and Halloween as it’s known elsewhere.  As is my annual custom, I will celebrate the occasion by putting on this blog ten of the creepiest or most disturbing pieces of artwork that I’ve come across during the past year.

 

To start this year’s round-up, here’s a haunting picture by American artist Aron Wiesenfeld, who seems to specialise in depicting frail, vulnerable-looking figures stuck in the middle of bleak, supernaturally threatening landscapes.  This one evokes the ‘trapped in the woods’ trope that’s been common in modern American horror films from The Evil Dead (1981) to The Blair Witch Project (1999), and to The Cabin in the Woods (2012).  It also gets power from its ambiguity.  We don’t know if there’s something lurking in that dark gap between the trees, but we certainly don’t want the lady to venture in and find out.

 

© Aron Wiesenfeld

 

Next, I’d like to pay tribute to an artist who passed away earlier this year.  David Palladini was well known for his ornate, colourful and imaginative versions of the Tarot cards and Zodiac figures, but the work that I’m most familiar with is this poster he designed for Werner Herzog’s stylish 1979 gothic horror movie Nosferatu the Vampyre, featuring Klaus Kinski in the role of a bald-headed and be-clawed Count Dracula.  The look of the poster is decidedly Art Nouveau, which nicely captures the sense of tragic and doomed romanticism underlying Kinski’s physical grotesqueness.

 

© Werner Herzog Filmproduktion / 20th Century Fox

 

From vampires to werewolves – and I was delighted to discover this image recently because I remember it vividly from my boyhood.  The picture, by prolific British horror / fantasy artist Les Edwards, once adorned the cover of a paperback novelisation of the 1975 British horror movie The Legend of the Werewolf.  I read the novelisation when I was 11 and too young to see the film itself in the cinema.  Three years later, I caught up with the film on TV, and even at the age of 14 I found it pretty unremarkable.  (Though it benefited from having a good cast, including Peter Cushing, Ron Moody and, in the role of the werewolf, Scottish actor David Rintoul.)  The novelisation was actually much better than the film deserved.  Not only was Edwards’ cover art memorable, but it was written by the distinguished British fantasy author Robert Holdstock under the pseudonym Robert Black.

 

© Les Daniels / Sphere Books

 

Here’s an illustration from another book, though one whose contents are rather more acclaimed than the storyline of The Legend of the Werewolf.  It’s from the 1912 Hodder and Stoughton edition of The Bells and Other Poems by Edgar Allan Poe.  The illustrator is French-British artist Edmund Dulac, who also applied his talents in less fantastical, more everyday areas, for example, by designing banknotes and postage stamps.  Dulac even created a stamp to commemorate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, although by a cruel irony he died just one week before the coronation took place in 1953.

 

© Hodder and Stoughton

 

I find skulls creepy, especially when juxtaposed with the living, so I have included this item by the Japanese artist Takato Yamamoto.  The positioning of the skull and the adjacent face, and the amorphous background that seems to swallow the bodies of the subjects, makes it resemble a dark and grim version of the famously spangly works of Gustav Klimt.  (Klimt actually did once produce a sinister painting featuring a skull.)  What gets me is the black, shaggy material surrounding the skull.  Is it a hairy coat?  A hairy blanket?  Is it fur covering a body and pair of arms?  Are we looking at a skull-faced, black-pelted demon from Japanese folklore?  (Yamamoto comes from Japan’s Akita prefecture, home of the famous Namahage ogres.  So I wonder if this is meant to be a zombie Namahage.)

 

© Takato Yamamoto

 

Also shaggy in places is this demonic creature beautifully drawn in black and white by Hannes Bok who, like the better-known and more prolific Virgil Finlay, illustrated the contents of American pulp-fiction sci-fi, horror and detective magazines in the 1930s and 1940s.  Obsessed with the occult, Bok became increasingly reclusive in later life and died in poverty in 1964.  But he at least had the honour of winning one of the first Hugo Awards (for best cover art) when those now-venerable awards were inaugurated in 1953.

 

From monsterbrains.blogspot.com

 

What next?  I like this detail taken from the bottom right-hand corner of The Last Judgement, painted between 1525 and 1530 by Lucas Cranach the Elder.  Cranach was apparently a mate of Martin Luther, which may explain the baleful relish with which he depicts sinners being stuffed by vile demons into a pit populated by even viler demons.

 

From grecosghosts.com

 

Here’s something I found on a now-defunct website called Tomb of Insomnia.  I have no idea what its title is, or who the artist is, or what it’s meant to represent.  But it looks hideous.

 

From Tomb of Insomnia

 

I started this blog entry with a picture of a female figure eerily contrasted with a dark space and here’s another one, courtesy of the South Korean illustrator Yoonji Lee – although there’s less ambiguity about what’s occupying that dark space.  The piece’s title, With Her Demon, gives some clue as to what we’re looking at.  I haven’t been able to find much information about Yoonji Lee and only discovered this picture on the Twitter account 41 Strange.  She’s not to be confused with wholesome-looking Korean TV actress Lee Yoon-ji, whose name kept cropping up when I tried to Google her.

 

© Yoonji Lee

 

Finally, here’s a picture to connect Halloween with the next big festival on the calendar, which is of course Christmas.  The caption, if you can’t read it, says: “Bring in another!”  It’s the work of the celebrated cartoonist, artist and author Gahan Wilson.  To me, Wilson always seemed like the missing link in the cartoon world between purveyors of classic gothic macabre-ness like Charles Adams and Edward Gorey, and the more modern oddness of Gary (The Far Side) Larson.  Sadly, Wilson is not in good health these days and his stepson recently launched a fundraiser to help pay for his care and medical bills.  Donations can be made here.

 

© Gahan Wilson

 

And that’s my ten for October 31st this year.  Happy Halloween!

 

The essence of Pleasence

 

© NLT Productions / Group W Films / United Artists

 

Today is October 5th, 2019.  Donald Pleasence, one of my all-time favourite actors, was born on this day exactly 100 years ago

 

The distinctive Pleasence, with his domed and usually hairless head, his popping eyes and unsettling stare, and his alternatively smooth and sepulchral voice, was a peerless character actor.  Though he’s mainly remembered for his sinister roles, he could effortlessly inhabit a range of personas – characters who were pathetic, tragic, eccentric, obsequious and, occasionally, virtuous.

 

In celebration of the great man’s 100th birthday, here are 15 of the performances that for me most memorably capture the essence of Pleasence.

 

1984 (1954)

Controversial in its day, with questions raised about it in Parliament, the BBC’s mid-1950s version of George Orwell’s 1984 still has impact.  That’s largely due to its performances, most notably that of Peter Cushing playing Winston Smith.  But Pleasence is good too as Syme, the lexicographer enthusiastically working on Newspeak.  (“I’ve reached the adjectives at last!”)  Despite – or perhaps because of – his zeal for the Party, Syme ends up becoming an ‘unperson’.

 

The Flesh and the Fiends (1960)

John Gilling’s The Flesh and the Fiends is the cinema’s best take on the notorious Edinburgh duo of Burke and Hare, who in the early 19th century started selling cadavers to the dissection rooms of Edinburgh Medical School.  The problem was, Burke and Hare’s cadavers had had some assistance in dying.  Pleasence is loathsome as Hare, with atypically long, lank tresses, a battered stovepipe hat, a smirk and a maniacal gleam that shows he gets a perverse thrill out of murdering people.  As with the real-life Hare, following his arrest, he turns King’s evidence against his partner and gets released, though director Gilling adds an apocryphal scene where he’s blinded by torch-wielding vigilantes the moment he leaves the jail.

 

© Triad Productions

 

Hell is a City (1960)

For someone who made a lot of horror movies, Pleasence had surprisingly little to do with Britain’s Hammer Films, the studio most associated with the horror genre at the time.  Hell is a City is a Hammer movie, but ironically isn’t a horror one but a crime one – and by the standards of British cinema then, is surprisingly gritty.  Pleasence plays Gus Hawkins, a shady but sympathetic bookmaker whose wife gives him the run-around while she attends to the spiritual and physical needs of the film’s villain, a murderous criminal fleeing the law.  In the role of the duplicitous Mrs Hawkins is Billie Whitelaw, whom Pleasence killed in The Flesh and the Fiends, so I suppose there’s justice in that.

 

The Great Escape (1963)

Pleasence’s performance in The Great Escape culminates in one of the saddest scenes in cinema history.  He plays Colin Blythe, a genteel but unfortunate prisoner-of-war in the high-security Stalag Luft III who goes blind just before the inmates stage the mass break-out of the title.  However, Blythe has been befriended by an American pilot called Hendley, played by James Garner, who agrees to take him along when it’s his turn to escape from the camp.  All goes well and Hendley and Blythe manage to steal a German airplane and fly it towards Switzerland and freedom.  They get to within yards of the Swiss border when the plane suffers engine trouble and crashes.  Then, while the bloodied Hendley tries to gather his wits amid the plane wreckage, the sightless and disorientated Blythe stumbles off in the direction of an approaching German patrol.  One of the German soldiers raises his rifle…  I get a tear in my eye even thinking about what happens next.

 

Cul-de-sac (1966)

The Roman Polanski-directed Cul-de-sac has a surprisingly svelte Pleasance playing an artist shacked up with his gorgeous young wife (Francoise Dorleac, who was the sister of Catherine Deneuve and who died in a car accident in 1967) on an island off the English coast, which is actually Lindisfarne off Northumbria.  Their idyll ends one day when two criminals-on-the-run (Lionel Stander and Jack MacGowran) show up.  Things then become positively Beckettian as the villains wait, futilely, for their superiors to appear and rescue them.  Cul-de-sac is overlong, but is a haunting experience thanks to the gorgeous bleakness of its location and its black-and-white photography.  It also contains the bloodcurdling sight of Pleasence, whilst involved in some kinky horseplay with Dorleac, hurtling around in lipstick and a frock.

 

© Compton Films / Tekli British Productions

 

Fantastic Voyage (1966)

Your IQ must be lower than your shoe-size if you haven’t worked out within ten minutes that Pleasence is the foreign-agent saboteur among the crew in this colourful sci-fi epic about a submarine of medical experts being miniaturised and injected into the body of a dying scientist so that they can perform internal surgery on him.  Still it features a delightful scene near the end where Pleasence is devoured by a hungry white blood cell.  (Other great Donald death-scenes: getting mauled to death by a bear that’s obviously a stuntman wrapped up in a shaggy rug in 1960’s Circus of Horrors, and being ingested by a monster that’s half-human and half-Venus flytrap in 1974’s startlingly tacky The Mutations.)

 

You Only Live Twice (1967)

The James Bond film where we get to see Bond’s arch-nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld for the first time, You Only Live Twice has Pleasence playing him with all the accoutrements that popular culture associates with Blofeld – bald head, white jumpsuit, white cat, pool of piranhas for dropping incompetent minions into.  Mind you, the filmmakers immediately abandoned the template and cast two actors with very different appearances and personas, Telly Savalas and Charles Gray, as Blofeld in the next two Bond movies.  That, of course, didn’t stop Mike Myers from using the original Pleasence / Blofeld blueprint for his Dr Evil character in the later Austen Powers movies (1997-2002).

 

Wake in Fright (1971)

Nick Cave reckons Wake in Fright is the greatest Australian movie ever and I wholeheartedly agree.  It’s the tale of a young, bright and ambitious teacher (Gary Bond) who becomes increasingly desensitised and degenerate the longer he’s stranded in the macho outback town of Bundanyabba.  Pleasence plays Doc Tydon, an educated man who’s already plumbed the depths of ‘the Yabba’ and who becomes Virgil to Bond’s Dante, guiding him through the town’s various levels of hell.  The scene where a drunken Tydon sits on the porch of an outback pub and raves about “Socrates, affectability, progress” being “vanities spawned by fear”, before going berserk and smashing up the place, shows the mighty Donald at his most unhinged.

 

© American International Pictures

 

Deathline (1972)

Gary Sherman’s grisly and ahead-of-its-time horror movie Deathline has Pleasence playing Inspector Calhoun, a working-class copper investigating the disappearances of late-night travellers on the London Underground.  (Clue: it’s something to do with the last-surviving, cannibalistic descendent of a group of workers who were entombed by a cave-in while the Underground was being built in the 19th century.)  Calhoun isn’t really a nice character.  He’s sly, cynical, irascible and, as a boozy scene involving his only friend (Norman Rossington) shows, a nightmare to get out of the pub at closing time.  However, when he finally discovers the cannibal’s hideous subterranean lair, his exclamation – “What a way to live!” – suggests a feeling of empathy, even of kinship with the lonely creature.

 

The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water (1973)

1970s children’s television in Britain featured many short public-information films that used harrowing and graphic images to convince kids that it was not a good idea to play on railway tracks, inside electrical sub-stations, next to farm slurry pits, etc.  Pleasence lent his doomy tones to The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water, which warns the little ‘uns to keep away from rivers, canals and ponds and is the most harrowing film of the lot.  He voices the titular spirit, a black, cowled figure who lurks in the misty background while a succession of stupid children – “the unwary, the show-off, the fool” – are lured to watery graves.  So memorably ghoulish is Pleasence’s narration that, 45 years on, I can still recite every word of it.  (“Sensible children!” he spits.  “I have no power over them!”)  And to make it even creepier, when he dematerialises at the end and leaves his cowl floating on some murky water, we hear his voice echoing out of the cowl: “I’ll be back… back… back!”

 

© Amicus Productions / Warner Bros.

 

From Beyond the Grave (1974)

The best of the horror anthology movies produced by Amicus Films, Hammer’s biggest rival during the 1960s and 1970s, this features Pleasence in one story as an old soldier called Underwood, reduced to selling matchsticks and shoelaces on the street.  Underwood is adopted by a mediocre, frustrated man called Lowe (Ian Bannon), who’s trying to win respect for himself by lying about imaginary heroics he performed during the war.  Despite having a wife and child, Lowe gradually becomes enamoured with Underwood’s weird daughter – and we realise that it’s Underwood, not Lowe, who’s doing the manipulating.  In a neat piece of stunt casting, the daughter is played by Pleasence’s real-life daughter, Angela.  Meanwhile, wonderfully, in the role of Lowe’s ten-year-old son is the future comic writer and Labour Party activist John O’Farrell.

 

Telefon (1977)

Pleasence plays a Soviet scientist who, during the darkest days of the Cold War, helped to ‘seed’ the USA with deep-cover Soviet agents.  These brainwashed agents don’t know they’re agents, but when they hear a ‘trigger’, which is a stanza by poet Robert Frost, they become zombie-like, grab some explosives and carry out kamikaze-style attacks on nearby military installations.  Pleasence goes rogue and travels to America, where he tries to start World War III singlehandedly by activating the brainwashed agents.  Thereafter, there are many explosions and much reciting of poetry by Pleasance: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep / But I have promises to keep / And miles to go before I sleep…”

 

© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer / United Artists

 

Halloween (1978)

In 1978, planning a horror movie called Halloween about a murderous psychopath on the loose on October 31st, director John Carpenter decided he wanted ‘an old British horror guy’ to play Dr Sam Loomis, head of the psychiatric hospital from which the psychopath escapes.  After offering the part of Loomis to Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, without success, Carpenter approached Pleasence and the great man bagged his second most-famous role (after Blofeld).  I have mixed feelings about the massively influential Halloween.  It has a hackneyed script, but benefits from Carpenter’s masterly direction, an endearing turn by Jamie Lee Curtis as the resourceful ‘last girl’ and, obviously, Pleasence’s gravitas.  That said, I’m sure when Pleasence signed up for this, he didn’t expect to appear in four of the film’s five, increasingly ropy, direct sequels.

 

Blade on the Feather (1980)

A TV movie written by the brilliant Dennis Potter, Blade on the Feather has Pleasance playing a wealthy and stuck-up novelist who’s discombobulated when a young stranger, played by Tom Conti, arrives one day, ingratiates himself into his household and starts asking awkward questions – questions to do with some long-ago espionage skulduggery, which resulted in the death of Conti’s secret-agent father.  Stylishly directed by Richard Loncraine and excellently acted by Pleasence, Conti and Denholm Elliot, Blade on the Feather was no doubt Potter’s disgruntled response to events of the previous year – when Anthony Blunt had finally been unmasked as the ‘fourth man’ in the Guy Burgess / Donald Maclean / Kim Philby spy scandal that rocked Britain in the 1950s and 1960s.  Despite confessing to treason in 1964, Blunt’s crime was kept secret for the next 15 years and he was allowed to enjoy a respectable and privileged life at the heart of the British establishment, working as curator of the Queen’s art collection.

 

Escape from New York (1981)

Working again with director John Carpenter, Pleasence plays in Escape from New York a future US president who’s trapped in a hellish version of New York after his plane crashes there.  The city has become so anarchically crime-ridden that the authorities have simply sealed it off, left it to its own devices and turned it into a huge, unstaffed prison into which they dump all their felons.  An ultra-violent, dystopian United States with a president called Donald?  Thank heavens that prediction didn’t come true.

 

Anyway, a century on…  Happy birthday, Mr P.

 

© Central Office of Information

 

10 scary pictures for Halloween 2018

 

From craftshub.com

 

Every year on October 31st I like to celebrate the macabre spirit of Halloween by sharing on this blog ten scary, gruesome and / or disturbing paintings and illustrations that I’ve discovered during my recent wanderings on the Internet.  I have to admit, though, that in the putrid sewer of a year that’s been 2018, no deliberately-frightening picture from an artist’s imagination has been as stomach-churningly frightening as the real-life images I’ve seen on the news: accompanying stories about murderous hatred, and fascists taking control of countries, and plain old human ignorance, vileness and cruelty.

 

But anyway, let’s forget the horrors of reality for a few hours and get down to Halloween business.

 

Firstly, an eye-catching – and head-popping – cover illustration from a 1981 Fontana edition of Agatha Christie’s Appointment with Death (1938) by American-born, UK-based artist Tom Adams, whose cover-artwork also includes books by John Fowles and Raymond Chandler.  It’s for his Agatha Christie covers that he’s probably best-known; though while Christie’s work was frequently dark, it was never quite as nightmarish as this image of a cranium-dwelling trapdoor spider.

 

© Fontana / Tom Adams

 

Another artist known for illustrating book-covers and book-pages is Angela Barrett, who, I’ve read, learnt her craft at one point from the legendary Quentin Blake.  A 2006 profile of her in the Guardian praised her work for its ‘stillness’ and ‘quiet atmospheric intensity’ and ‘poetic sense of melancholy’: qualities that are all present in this impressively fog-shrouded piece of Victoriana that’s an illustration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.  It comes from a limited (200-copy) edition of Jekyll and Hyde produced by Hand and Eye Editions in 2010.

 

© Hand and Eye Editions / Angela Barrett

 

And so onto another 19th century horror icon.  This year has marked the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s massively popular and influential Frankenstein.  I’d thought about including here the famous frontispiece of the 1831 edition, which apparently was the first visual representation of the creature.  But actually, I’ll leap forward a century in time to a 1934 edition of Frankenstein that’s graced by the woodcut illustrations of the American artist and engraver Lynd Ward.  His depictions of the creature are memorably paradoxical, combining the majestic and monstrous, the muscular and malformed.  Here’s an example.

 

© New York: Harrison Smith and Robert Haas

 

Frankenstein has also been a theme for the modern-day Canadian / French illustrator Nicolas Delort, though for this entry I’ve chosen a picture of his based on a different but also influential work of literature.  Horror tales are often described as ‘dark fairy stories’ and so it’s fascinating to see Delort’s intensely gothic take on Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz (1900).  The Wicked Witch of the West has virtually become a Goth priestess while her flying monkeys look indistinguishable from bats.  Meanwhile, the gaudy colours we usually associate with the story are confined to a crystal ball in the foreground.

 

© Nicolas Delort

 

From witches and wizards to devils and demons.  Here is a grotesque but strangely jolly – well, at least the little demon looks like he’s enjoying himself – illustration from Le Livre de la Vigne Nostre Seigneur, a medieval book produced in the mid-to-late 15th century.  Among the Biblical events and places it depicts are the coming of the Antichrist, the Day of Judgement and Hell.  Although French in origin, it resides now in the Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford.  The entirety of the book can be viewed digitally here, while for some larger-sized highlights check out the macabre art website Monster Brains, here.

 

From the Bodleian Libraries

 

Here’s another demon, courtesy of Rosaleen Norton, the remarkable Australian artist, practitioner of the occult and worshipper of Pan who, by the time she died in 1979 at the age of 62, had become known as the Witch of Kings Cross – that’s Kings Cross in Sydney, not Kings Cross in London.  This picture, titled Fohat, pushed the envelope in conservative Australia, where practising witchcraft ceased to be a crime only in 1971; especially with how the goat-headed demon’s phallus is shown metamorphosising into a snake.  The goat-head, according to Ms Norton, symbolised ‘energy and creativity’, whereas the snake lurking lower down symbolised ‘elemental force and eternity’.  So this picture was wholly allegorical and not naughty at all, in other words.

 

From zeroequalstwo.net

 

I don’t know if the Russian artist Nikolai Kalmakoff was an active occultist like Rosaleen Norton, but he was certainly fascinated by the strange and esoteric.  That the next painting, by Kalmakoff, is entitled Death and was painted in 1913 might make you expect something dark, muddy and bloody, prescient of the four years of carnage that were shortly to engulf Europe.  Instead, however, Kalmakoff creates a work of art that’s baroque, Asian in tone and autumnally colourful.  It’s only as you study it and take in its details, like the caterpillar-like sleeping old man and, stalking up on him almost playfully, the black shadow-figure with feathered angel’s wings, that it becomes sinister.  I’m not sure what to make of the Angel of Death’s polka-dotted grey socks, though.

 

From peacocksgarden.blogspot.com

 

And now something else that’s Asian in tone – some ‘J-horror’courtesy of prolific Japanese cartoonist and illustrator Katsuya Terada.  I believe this comes from the cover of the novel Psyche Diver: The Darkness written by Baku Yumemakura.  The picture is a flesh-crawling combination of the sensuous and the hideous.  Indeed, the contrast between the alluring feminine face above water and the fanged maw beneath it puts me in mind of Kuchisake Onna, that celebrated and nightmarish female character from Japanese urban myth.

 

© Bikoo / Katsuya Terada

 

More subtle is this striking picture by Massachusetts artist, print-maker and musician Daniel Danger, whose spindly black trees and dark sumptuous-blue sky evoke the creepy atmospheric phenomenon known as the Brocken Spectre, whereby a combination of clouds’ water droplets and backscatter sunlight turns an observer’s shadow into something gigantic and monstrous.  I’m pretty certain, for example, that the Brocken Spectre phenomenon is responsible for the fearsome stories of the Big Grey Man of Ben MacDhui, said to haunt the highest summit in Scotland’s Cairngorm Mountains.

 

© Daniel Danger

 

Finally, although Halloween is limited to the evening of October 31st, the final day of October is also the starting point for the three-day-long and skeleton-crazy festival that is Mexico’s Dia de Muertos, i.e. Day of the Dead.  So here’s a skeleton-themed picture by the versatile American artist Bill Mayer that neatly ties together the gruesomeness of Halloween with the skeletal exuberance of Day of the Dead.  However, its title, Fragile Planet, suggests that the artist’s intention is really to give an environmental warning – a sadly topical warning, come to think of it, given that Brazil’s new fascist leader Bolsonaro looks set to declare open season on the Amazon.

 

© Bill Mayer

 

But never mind my gloom.  Have a happy Halloween!

 

10 scary pictures for Halloween 2017

 

From crafthubs.com

 

Continuing Blood and Porridge’s celebration of Halloween – yesterday I listed my favourite collections of short horror stories – this post is about ten of the creepiest pictures I’ve come across in the past year.  (I constantly scour the Internet for interesting paintings and illustrations and have a folder on my computer with nearly 2000 images in it, starting with work by Abanindranath Tagore, Adolf Hoffmeister and Afewerk Tekle and ending with work by Yayoi Kusama, Yoshihisa Sadamatsu and Yoshu Chikanobu.)

 

First, a tribute.  September 2017 saw the death of Greek-Egyptian, later American artist Basil Gogos, who was best known for providing covers for the juvenile horror-movie magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.  He invariably depicted classic movie monsters like Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Wolfman and the Creature from the Black Lagoon and / or classic horror-movie actors like Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee and Vincent Price in impressively lurid and vivid colours.  Gratifyingly, years later, the elderly Gogos got more work painting album covers for disreputable rock stars like Rob Zombie and the Misfits, who’d read Famous Monsters and loved his work when they were kids.  Here’s a Gogos portrait of the silent film star Lon Chaney – ‘Man of a Thousand Faces’ – playing a vampire in the lost 1927 horror film London After Midnight.  (Knowing Chaney’s penchant for contorting, warping and punishing his body in order to play extreme roles, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d filed his own teeth to points to create those piranha-like fangs.)

 

© Famous Monsters of Filmland / Warren Publishing 

 

Another talent we said goodbye to this year was comic-book artist and illustrator Bernie Wrightson, who passed away in March.  Although Wrightson provided breath-taking illustrations for editions of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and stories by Edgar Allan Poe, I thought I’d represent him with this item, which is definitely more in keeping with the horror comic-strips (like Swamp Thing) with which he originally made his name.  It also embodies a certain type of hospitality that’s commonly extended to visitors in the American south – and particularly in Texas.  In horror films, anyway.

 

From stevedoescomics.blogspot.com

 

Talking of Edgar Allan Poe, I often include in these Halloween posts something by Poe’s most famous illustrator, the Irishman Harry Clarke.  However, this year, I thought I’d provide a Poe illustration by the German-American illustrator and wood-engraver Fritz Eichenberg instead.  This shows the monstrous ape from Murders in the Rue Morgue.  Its use of lines, whilst softer and more flowing, and less stark and angular than in Clarke’s work, is equally memorable.

 

© Random House

 

And here’s another fearsome beastie, courtesy of Oregon painter Adam Burke.  The image of a wolf – or is it a werewolf? – stalking towards a human victim is an archetypal one in horror stories and, indeed, in fairy tales.  But what I like about this picture is the macabre touch that Burke adds to the would-be victim’s features, suggesting that the wolf is in for a shock.

 

© Adam Burke

 

A lupine theme features prominently in the work of Polish artist Jakub Rozalski, many of whose paintings take place in an extraordinary parallel universe where Eastern European peasants trudge about their fields, forests and hillsides while a truly strange occupying regime watches over them: a regime consisting of legions of Prussian-like soldiers, and huge clanking steampunk robot-tanks and robot-tractors, and… packs of werewolves.  This is the most werewolfish picture I could find in Rozalski’s portfolio and it even has a hint – a saucy hint, it must be said – of Little Red Riding Hood.

 

© Jakub Rozalski

 

From the werewolf to another archetypal figure of Halloween, the witch.  In the past year I’ve discovered the enchanting work of the Ukrainian, now Israel-based children’s illustrator Sveta Dorosheva.  This decorative picture of a witch is at the macabre end of her range.  It has a sly, humorous sense of the grotesque that Roald Dahl, author of the best children’s witch story ever, would have approved of.

 

© Sveta Dorosheva 

 

Another female artist I’ve come across lately is Laurie Lipton.  Though she’s a New Yorker, her haunting black-and-white pictures featuring skulls and skeletons seem to evoke Mexico and the great Latin rival to Halloween, Day of the Dead.  Here’s an example of her work depicting a ladies’ tea party that’s mannered but mouldering, refined but rotting, decorous but decomposed.

 

© Laurie Lipton

 

A skeleton plays a big part in 1972’s The Creeping Flesh, one of the last great gothic movies produced during Britain’s horror-movie boom of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.  It begins with the inmate of an asylum painting a disturbing picture in his cell.  The man, played by Peter Cushing, was once a palaeontologist who dug up a monstrous humanoid skeleton during an expedition.  Back in his laboratory, and after one of its finger-bones got wet, the skeleton showed the alarming characteristic of being able to regrow its flesh when exposed to water.  And predictably, Cushing’s unscrupulous scientific rival, played by Christopher Lee – who else? –  soon broke into his lab, stole the whole skeleton and whisked it out into the night while a thunderstorm was drenching the countryside in rain.  Cushing’s painting depicts the hideous, reconstituted creature that later that same night came clumping back to his house and drove him insane.  I’ve no idea who was really responsible for the painting we see in The Creeping Flesh, but I was pleased to discover this still of it a few weeks ago.

 

© Tigon Films

 

From film-art to book-art now.  This cover for the recent Penguin Classics edition of the Ray Russell novel The Case Against Satan is just wonderful.  It was created by collage artist Lola Dupre, who takes different-sized versions of the same image and painstakingly assembles pieces of them to create a hallucinogenically fragmented and mutant master-image.  In fact, from what I’ve seen of her work, I think the Russell cover is her finest effort to date.

 

© Penguin

 

And lastly, it’s about time I included in these Halloween posts something by the late, great Edward Gorey – who in terms of morbid Gothic humour was second only to Charles Addams in the world of American drawing and illustrating.  Looking at this sublime Gorey picture called Donald Imagined Things, I find myself imagining things too.  I find myself imagining that little Donald in the picture was actually little Donald Trump, and the big scary snake-thing had swallowed him whole.  That would have spared us all a lot of stress six decades later.

 

© Pomegranate

 

10 scary pictures for Halloween 2016

 

From crafthub.com

 

Once again it’s the final day of October – which was known to Irish pagans as Samhain, was known to medieval Christians as All Hallow’s Eve and is known to pretty much the whole world now as Halloween.  As is my custom at this time of year, I will showcase ten paintings and illustrations that I feel convey the creepy, sometimes downright macabre, vibe of the season.

 

Firstly, here’s something memorably eerie by American Bill Crisafi, whose Facebook page describes him as a ‘multidisciplinary artist roaming the fog-drenched New England forests’.  (His website, meanwhile, is here: http://billcrisafi.bigcartel.com/.)  At first glance, the figures in the picture, Keepers of the Moon, suggested to me the three witches or ‘weird sisters’ of Macbeth.  At second glance, somehow, they suggested a dark version of the Magi, the Three Kings or Wise Men, who arrived in Bethlehem to pay homage to the infant Jesus.  It’s as if they’ve popped out of an evil mirror-image universe where Halloween has usurped Christmas and taken over the Nativity.

 

 

Also American, but tackling an Italian subject, is the Milwaukee-based artist Jessica Seamans, whose work can be viewed at http://landland.net.  As its title suggests, her picture here is inspired by the masterful 1976 Italian horror film Suspiria, which was directed by Dario Argento.  In fact, she created it for a Halloween screening of the movie in London back in 2012.  Suspiria was memorable not only for its scariness but also for its baroque, at times quite barmy, set design, something that Seamans captures nicely here.  She also captures the film’s level of bloodletting with a colour scheme that’s suitably red.  Suspiria, incidentally, isn’t the only movie that’s received the Jessica Seamans treatement.  Her take on Gremlins (1984) is pretty good as well: https://mondotees.com/products/gremlins-poster?variant=12664541507.

 

 

Suspiria was a film about witches and a witch features at the centre of the tumultuous supernatural mayhem depicted in The Sorceress, which is now housed at the RISD Museum in New England (http://risdmuseum.org).  This engraving is the work of the 17th century Dutch painter Jan van de Velde II, who was also well-known as a landscape artist and who has been cited as an influence on Rembrandt.  The text accompanying The Sorceress on the RISD website identifies in the foreground some cards, die and tobacco, which serve “to warn that life is fleeting and that temporal pleasures should be avoided.”

 

 

In these Halloween entries I commonly feature something by the Irish artist Harry Clarke, largely on the strength of his acclaimed black-and-white illustrations for an early 20th-century edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination.  However, Clarke also made a name for himself by working in stained glass – he was responsible for the stained-glass windows in the famous Bewley’s Café on Grafton Street in Dublin.  So this year I thought it would be good to celebrate Clarke’s stained-glass art.  Here is a detail from the Dempsey Memorial Lancet Window of St Maculind, which Clark crafted for St MacCullin’s Church in Lusk – and yes, the nearer face looks worryingly zombie-like.  The detail was photographed by Kelly Sullivan and used for an illustration for the following online article: https://publicdomainreview.org/2016/10/12/harry-clarkes-looking-glass/.  

 

 

From Ireland to Norway now.  In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the Norwegian artist Theodor Kittelsen was one of his country’s most celebrated painters.  His specialities included illustrations for legends and fairy stories and he had a particular affinity for drawing that most Scandinavian of mythological creatures, the troll.  No wonder his work has been much in demand as sleeve art by Norwegian heavy metal bands like Burzum and Empyrium.  His foglight-eyed Water Spirit, though, has something of the panels that used to be found in 1950s American horror comics like Vault of Horror and Tales from the Crypt.  This image comes from Kittelsen’s entry on Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theodor_Kittelsen).

 

 

Someone else from the non-English-speaking world who liked to use local folklore as an inspiration for his pictures was the 19th century Japanese artist Kawanabe Kyosai, who was responsible for the following depiction of a sleeping red-robed lady surrounded by hordes of rather jolly-looking animated skeletons.  It’s known as Hell Courtesan no 9 of the Kyosai Rakuga Series.  Although Kyosai’s folkloric art often had a macabre tone, it was probably less stressful for him than his main line of work, which was as a caricaturist.  In fiercely hierarchical Japan, his political caricatures didn’t always go down well and got him arrested on several occasions.  To view more of Kyosai’s work, check out this webpage: http://wsimag.com/art/16772-from-mad-to-dawn.

 

 

Not many Halloween pictures make me think of Britain’s eternally young, wholesome, Christian and Daily Mail-approved pop singer Cliff Richard, but I can’t look at this next item without thinking of Cliff’s 1976 hit Devil Woman.  (“She’s just a devil woman / With evil on her mind / Beware the devil woman / She’s gonna get you…” etc.)  Even the picture’s title, La Femme de Satan, sounds like a very loose French translation of the name of Cliff’s song.  Actually, Devil Woman was covered in 2004 by County Suffolk’s Goth / black metal band Cradle of Filth and I suspect La Femme de Satan is closer in spirit to that particular rendition of the song.  It was painted by the Russian Nikolai Kalmakoff who, it’s said, got heavily into the occult whilst living in Paris in the mid-1930s.  It’s also said that later he became a recluse and then a pitiful inmate of an indigents’ hospital, so if he made any deals with the devil he clearly got a bum deal.  The macabre art blog Monster Brains devoted an entry to Kalmakoff’s works a little while ago: http://monsterbrains.blogspot.com/2015/01/nikolai-kalmakoff.html.

 

 

Mainly associated with sensual imagery that manages to be both brightly shiny and droopingly languid, the Austrian artist Gustav Klimt nevertheless produced the occasional bit of dark stuff.  I like this one, Life and Death, which on one side has some of Klimt’s usual figures rippling and billowing down the canvas in the usual patchwork of summery colours; but has a rather different figure looking on, and grinning starkly, from the other side.  It now resides in the Leopold Museum in Vienna: http://www.leopoldmuseum.org/en/leopoldcollection/masterpieces/41.

 

 

A skull also plays a prominent part in this composition which I found on a site called Tomb of Insomnia.  Alas, the site no longer seems to exist and I’m afraid I don’t know who the artist is.  It does, though, look like a still from the most terrifying possessed-devil-child movie never made.

 

 

And finally, here’s an illustration from Virgil Finlay, best known for his work in the American pulp-fiction magazines of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, where his handsome and atmospheric pictures accompanied many a tale of horror, fantasy and science fiction.  However, this item – which I found at http://www.munchkinpress.com – was drawn for a poem by H.P. Lovecraft called Halloween in the Suburbs.  And thus it brings this entry to an appropriate close.

 

 

Happy Halloween!

 

Yet more scary pictures for Halloween

 

Today is October 31st – or as it’s known in the Christian calendar, All Hallow’s Eve.  Or in the ancient Celtic calendar, Samhain  Or to pretty much everyone on the planet these days, Halloween.

 

Halloween is the time of year when, to quote Vincent Price in the Michael Jackson song Thriller, “darkness falls across the land… creatures crawl in search of blood… demons squeal in sheer delight…” and – yikes! – “grizzly ghouls from every tomb are closing in to seal your doom”.  And it’s also the time of year when, on this blog, I like to present a selection of creepy paintings and illustrations that, during the previous year, have caught my fancy.

 

To set the scene this Halloween is an etching called The Lonely Tower by the 19th-century artist Samuel Palmer (www.vam.ac.uk/users/node/1506), which can be seen at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.  It’s a wonderfully atmospheric piece that conveys both the bleakness and the mystery of the nocturnal world.

 

 

On to a picture of a terrifying monster – one of the most ancient and awe-inspiring monsters in English-speaking culture.  It’s Grendel in Beowulf.  However, painted by the Italian twins Anna and Elena Balbusso (http://www.balbusso.com/), it mixes to disconcerting effect the simplicity of a children’s-book illustration with the gory savagery of the oldest surviving poem in the English language.

 

 

Meanwhile, here’s a spooky item from the Scottish artist Fiona Michie, whose work can be viewed at http://www.fionamichie.com/.  It reminds me very much of the short story The Company of Wolves by one of my all-time favourite authors, Angela Carter – which in 1984 was made into one of British cinema’s most phantasmagorical movies by writer-director Neil Jordan.

 

 

Halloween wouldn’t be Halloween without mention of horror fiction’s supreme writer, Edgar Allan Poe.  And if you’re talking about Poe, you can’t ignore the great Irish stained-glass and literary artist Harry Clarke, who was surely Poe’s greatest illustrator (http://50watts.com/Harry-Clarke-Illustrations-for-E-A-Poe).  Here’s one of his most chilling pictures, a depiction of the luckless Madeline Usher after she’s escaped from her entombment in The Fall of the House of Usher.

 

 

If Poe was the horror-fiction king of the 19th century, then his equivalent in the 20th century was the retiring Rhode Island writer H.P. Lovecraft, whose tales of cosmic and existentialist horror also inspired an array of artists.  For instance, here’s a work by the English artist Ian Miller (http://www.ian-miller.org/).  It adorned the cover of a cheap paperback edition of Lovecraft’s fiction many years ago, but it perfectly conveys Lovecraft’s obsession with the idea of horrid and nightmarishly-incomprehensible things lurking just beyond the parameters of human experience.

 

 

And here’s another Lovecraft-inspired picture from the great French artist Philippe Druillet (http://www.druillet.com/).  Druillet is better known as a science-fiction artist, but when his sci-fi sensibilities combine with the macabre, the results are impressively creepy — in a colourful, comic-book way.

 

 

Moving on, this stark statement about the biggest horror we face during our existences – that of the passing of time, and aging, and decay – has always chilled my blood.  Thank you for that, Mr Francisco Goya.  Very recently, I reached my half-century, so your cosy and charming little painting Time has really made me feel good about myself (http://www.eeweems.com/goya/viejas.html).

 

 

And once you reach old age and decrepitude, there’s only one thing more to look forward to — death itself.  I feel this illustration by the 19th century German artist Alfred Rethel captures the omnipresence of death when you’re in your twilight years very nicely.  Well, not nicely – depressingly.  Rethel had more than his share of depressing experiences himself.  He was believed to have been stricken with insanity following an an accident he had during his childhood.  Also, he passed away at the early age of 42 (http://www.artcyclopedia.com/artists/rethel_alfred.html).

 

 

Meanwhile, for an eastern meditation on the topics of death and decay, you need look no further than this painting by the distinguished Indian artist Ganesh Pyne: http://www.contemporaryindianart.com/ganesh_pyne.htm.

 

 

A more up-to-date item now – an diabolic but sexy painting by the modern-day artist John Coulthart, done for the cover of an album by the greatest Goth / black metal band to ever emerge from County Suffolk, Cradle of Filth.  The album is called Bitter Suites to Succubi — I’ll leave you to figure out the pun.  Coulthart, incidentally, writes an eclectic and informative blog (http://www.johncoulthart.com/feuilleton/) and I never miss his daily postings.

 

 

Having started with an eerie and evocative picture by Samuel Palmer, here is something similarly eerie and evocative to end on.  It’s an illustration by the French 19th-century artist Gustave Dore for one of the most famously unsettling poems in English literature, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.  Sinister, desolate and downright weird, it sums up the spirit of the poem perfectly (https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/coleridge/samuel_taylor/rime/).

 

 

And finally on Halloween night…  Here, courtesy of the San Francisco writer and artist Dan Brereton (www.nocturnals.com), is one dedicated to the ladies out there.  Happy Halloween!

 

 

Cinematic heroes 9: Donald Pleasence

 

(c) Eon Films

 

Like every other James Bond fan in the universe, I was awfully excited last month when the title of the next Bond movie was announced: SPECTRE.

 

SPECTRE is the name of the secret criminal organisation that featured in a couple of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels and in several of the earliest, 1960s-vintage Bond movies.  Thus, long-term fans have speculated excitedly that the new movie’s title indicates that SPECTRE-the-organisation will return to the Bond franchise in 2015.  Who knows?  Perhaps even Ernst Stavros Blofeld, SPECTRE’s super-intelligent and super-nasty leader, will return to the franchise too.  And as anyone steeped in the Bond books and / or films will tell you, Blofeld is the greatest Bond villain of all.

 

However, if Blofeld does turn up in the new Bond movie, it’s unlikely in these more realistic, less fantastical times that we’ll see him depicted the way that he’s remembered in the public’s imagination – i.e. as he appeared in the 1967 film You Only Live Twice, sporting a shaven head, wearing a white jumpsuit, stroking a white cat, planning world domination from inside a converted volcano and dunking hapless minions into a pool of piranha fish when they fail to successfully carry out his orders.  For one thing, the bald-headed / white-cat / converted-volcano / piranha-fish version of Blofeld was so thoroughly parodied by Mike Myers’ Doctor Evil character in the Austin Powers movies that it would be unwise to stick it in a serious film now.

 

However, this seems a good time to pay tribute to the man who played Blofeld in his most memorable incarnation in You Only Live Twice; the man who still, in many people’s minds, is Blofeld.  I’m talking, of course, about the great screen villain and character actor Donald Pleasence.

 

Born in 1919, the son of a Nottinghamshire railway stationmaster, Pleasence set his sights on being an actor at a young age but had a few setbacks to endure before fulfilling his ambitions.  The young Pleasance was offered a place in the Royal Academy of the Dramatic Arts but passed on the opportunity because of a lack of money – he failed to win a scholarship that would have covered his living expenses and living fees.  For a while it looked like he’d be following in his father’s footsteps with a career in railway management – he was posted to a station in Yorkshire – but then he managed to get a foothold in the theatrical world with a job as an assistant stage manager in the Channel Islands.  This also enabled him to do some acting and by 1942 he was performing in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in London.

 

Then Pleasence experienced his next acting setback – World War II.  Initially, he was a pacifist, which meant his first contribution to Britain’s war effort was to work in forestry in the Lake District.  Later, he abandoned his pacifism and joined 166 Squadron in the Royal Air Force’s Bomber Command.  The consequence of this was that in 1944 he was on board a Lancaster NE112 that was shot down over Nazi-occupied Europe and he spent the remainder of the war banged up in a German prisoner-of-war camp.  This experience would be useful two decades later when he appeared in legendary war movie The Great Escape (1963) and was able to advise director John Sturges on what POW life was really like.

 

Post-war, Pleasance’s acting career took off.  He made his first film appearance in 1954’s The Beachcomber, but by then he’d already established himself as a presence in the theatre and on TV.  In 1951, he appeared alongside Sir Laurence Olivier and Vivian Leigh in stage productions of Caesar and Cleopatra and Antony and Cleopatra; and soon after he won acclaim for performances in plays like Harold Brighouse’s Hobson’s Choice, Jean Anouilh’s The Lark, Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker and Ebb Tide, a stage version of the Robert Louis Stevenson short story that Pleasence himself adapted and starred in.

 

Meanwhile, Pleasence had dabbled in the fledgling medium of television as early as 1946.  His best-remembered TV work from the early years of his acting career are probably his turns as Prince John in the much-loved Adventures of Robin Hood (1956-58); and as Syme in the BBC’s controversial 1954 adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984.  Playing Winston Smith in that adaptation was Peter Cushing who, like Pleasence, would feature prominently in the weird and wonderful world of British horror movies in the decades that followed.  (Two years later in 1956, Pleasence would also pop up in an inferior film version of 1984 directed by Michael Anderson.)

 

Although with his domed and shiny pate, bug-like eyes, penetrating stare and often-sepulchral voice Pleasence is remembered nowadays for being supremely sinister, he was adept at playing a range of types – not only the sinister, but also the pathetic, tragic, furtive, oddball and very occasionally, noble.

 

Two early examples of Pleasence in ‘pathetic’ mode that I’m fond of come from 1960.  That year, he played the shifty but kindly bookmaker Gus Hawkins in Val Guest’s gritty – surprisingly gritty by the standards of British films at the time – crime saga Hell is a City.  Poor Hawkins’ wife, played by Billie Whitelaw, is giving him the run-around because she’s busy attending to the spiritual and physical needs of the film’s villain, a gangster-on-the-run played by John Crawford.  Meanwhile, the same year saw him in a supporting role in Sidney Hayers’ cheap and grotesque crime-horror melodrama Circus of Horrors.  In this he plays a circus owner who generously offers shelter to Anton Diffring, playing a dodgy plastic surgeon fleeing the attention of the police.  After Pleasence’s death, Diffring takes over the circus and uses it as cover for further, nefarious plastic-surgery activities.  Pleasence isn’t murdered by Diffring, as you might expect.  Rather, he expires during a hilarious sequence when, drunk, he attempts to dance with his circus’s resident bear, which is apparently played by a stuntman draped in a large shaggy rug.  This bear is not one for dancing and reacts by mauling Pleasence to death.

 

(c) United Artists

 

Hovering somewhere between the ‘pathetic’ and ‘noble’ categories is Pleasance’s performance in 1963’s World War II / prisoner-of-war epic The Great Escape.  He plays Colin Blythe, a genteel inmate of the high-security Stalag Luft III who has the misfortune to go blind on the eve of the titular mass break-out.   Luckily (or arguably unluckily, from the way things eventually go) the ailing Blythe has been befriended by a captured American pilot called Hendley, played by James Garner, and Hendley selflessly takes him along when he makes his escape-attempt from the camp.

 

Well, Pleasence and Garner do get out of the camp and they almost make it to freedom.  In fact, they get to within yards of the Swiss border when the German airplane they’ve commandeered develops engine trouble and crashes.  Then, while a bloodied Garner tries to gather his wits amid the plane wreckage, the sightless Pleasence stumbles off in the direction of an approaching German patrol.  One of the German soldiers raises his rifle…  Only a heartless brute would fail to have a tear in his or her eye at what happens next.  It is, as I argued in a blog-post last year, the Saddest Movie Scene Ever.

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=4129

 

Incidentally, the recently-finished 2014 was not a good year for the acting alumni of The Great Escape.  Not only did James Garner die in July 2014, but the year also saw the passing of Sir Richard Attenborough, who played Roger Bartlett, the escape-plan’s mastermind; and of Angus Lennie, who played the diminutive and highly-strung Scottish prisoner Archibald Ives.  Actually, Lennie’s death halfway through the movie (he cracks up and gets riddled with machine gun bullets whilst trying to scramble over a camp-fence) provides The Great Escape with its second saddest scene.

 

By the time of The Great Escape, however, filmmakers had cottoned onto Donald Pleasence’s flair at playing psychotic bastards.  For example, 1960 saw him play Hare in John Gilling’s The Flesh and the Fiends, cinema’s best-ever telling of the Burke-and-Hare story – he’s one half of the notorious duo who resort to serial-killing to keep the dissection tables of Edinburgh Medical School supplied with cadavers in the early 19th century.  In 1963 he played another famous historical murderer, the title character of the movie Doctor Crippen.  And it was hardly surprising that in 1965’s Biblical epic The Greatest Story Ever Told, he played history’s biggest villain, the Devil.  Pleasence’s casting in this film was certainly cannier than the casting of John Wayne as a Roman centurion who, during Christ’s crucifixion, gets to say in his inimitable drawl: “Truly this man was the son of Gawd!”

 

(c) Triad Productions

 

Thus, in 1966’s science-fiction epic Fantastic Voyage, about a medical crew who are miniaturised in a submarine and injected into the bloodstream of an injured scientist to remove a blood clot lodged in an inoperable part of his brain, it’s not a great shock at the end when the secret agent who’s been trying to sabotage the mission is revealed as Pleasance.  Actually, his death-scene in this film is as entertaining as the one he had in Circus of Horrors – he gets devoured by a hungry white blood-cell.

 

The following year saw You Only Live Twice and Pleasence’s famous performance as Ernst Stavros Blofeld.  It’s interesting that the Bond filmmakers chose not to continue with Pleasance’s take on the character as a feline-loving homunculi with one foot on the pedal controlling the trapdoor to his piranha-fish pool.  When Blofeld reappeared in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in 1968, he was played by Telly Savalas, who interpreted the character very differently – his Blofeld is physical, macho and brutishly charming.  And two years later, in Diamonds Are Forever, Charles Gray played him as a suave, snobby and acerbic effete that made one critic liken him to “the president of a local golf club.”

 

During the 1960s and 1970s Pleasence seemed ubiquitous on cinema and TV screens.  His output was remarkable not just for its volume but for its variety.  Although he was typecast as a villain, Pleasance managed to work at half-a-dozen levels of cinematic respectability and in half-a-dozen genres at the same time.

 

He was in highbrow pieces like Roman Polanski’s Cul-de-sac (1966); Elia Kazan’s The Last Tycoon (1976); Ted Kotcheff’s neglected (but now rediscovered and reappraised) tale of human savagery in the Australian outback, Wake in Fright (1971); and a bleak slice of dystopian science fiction THX1138 (1971), directed by a young American filmmaker called George Lucas – whatever happened to him?  He appeared in comedies like Watch Out, We’re Mad (1974), Barry Mackenzie Holds His Own (1974) and 1977’s popular Oh God!  He made war movies like Night of the Generals (1967) and John Sturges’ The Eagle Has Landed (1976), in which he played Heinrich Himmler.  (By way of balance, he played Winston Churchill too in the 1990 French TV movie Moi, Général de Gaulle.)  He turned up in a couple of Westerns like Will Penny (1968) and 1970’s notorious bloodbath Soldier Blue.  And he was featured in espionage thrillers like Peter Collinson’s Innocent Bystanders (1972) and two Don Siegel-directed pictures, The Black Windmill (1974) and Telefon (1977).

 

Actually, Telefon showcases Pleasence at his most barking mad.  He plays a deranged Soviet scientist who, during the tensest days of the Cold War, worked on a project wherein the USA was ‘seeded’ with deep-cover Soviet agents.  Brainwashed, these agents don’t even know they’re agents.  But when they hear a ‘trigger’, which is a stanza by poet Robert Frost (“The woods are lovely, dark and deep / But I have promises to keep / And miles to go before I sleep”), they acquire a zombie-like gait and expression, grab some explosives and carry out a kamikaze-style attack on the nearest military installation.  Pleasence absconds from the USSR and arrives in America, where he tries to start World War III singlehandedly by activating the brainwashed agents in his old project – so he spends much of the ensuing film reciting poetry.  (To stop Pleasence and avert Armageddon, the Soviet authorities send in their least expressive secret agent, Charles Bronson.)  If the film’s premise sounds familiar, that’s probably because it was used again in the recent espionage thriller Salt (2010) with Angelina Jolie.

 

Meanwhile, in the then-prolific British film industry, Pleasence was as busy as a butcher making horror movies.  As well as the aforementioned The Flesh and the Fiends and Circus of Horrors, he appeared in No Place Like Homicidal (1961), Tales that Witness Madness (1973), Deathline (1973), From Beyond the Grave (1974), The Mutations (1974), I Don’t Want to be Born (1975), The Devil’s Men (1976), The Uncanny (1977), Dracula (1979) and The Monster Club (1980).

 

(c) American International Productions

 

Pleasence gives one of his best performances in Gary Sherman’s Deathline.  He plays Inspector Calhoun, a policeman investigating the disappearances of late-night travellers on a stretch of the London Underground.  (Responsible for these disappearances are some subterranean-living, inbred, degenerate and cannibalistic descendants of a group of workers who were entombed by a cave-in while the Underground was being built in the 19th century.)  Sly, cynical and irascible, Calhoun is hardly a sympathetic character.  But Pleasence gives him an engaging impishness and he makes an amusing and entertaining contrast to the horror that’s unfolding in the subway tunnels below.

 

Deserving a dishonourable mention, meanwhile, is Jack Cardiff’s The Mutations, which stars Pleasence as a mad scientist intent on splicing together human and vegetable life.  Not only does he use the unsuspecting students who attend his university lectures for his experiments, but he also has a deal going with a circus owner played by the soon-to-be-DoctorWho Tom Baker.  When the experiments go wrong, which they inevitably do, Baker gets to display the horribly-deformed results in his circus sideshow.  This gradually raises the suspicions of the sideshow’s ordinary residents, in whose roles the filmmakers opportunistically cast the denizens of some real-life circus side-shows: dwarves, midgets, bearded ladies, human skeletons and a once-seen, never-forgotten chap called Popeye who can make his eyeballs shoot out of their sockets.  Eventually, the sideshow performers turn on Baker, who gets ripped apart by a pack of mad guard-dogs, while Pleasance is ingested by his latest experiment, a student whom he’s managed to turn into a human Venus flytrap.  The Mutations is possibly the barmiest and sleaziest thing that mainstream British cinema has ever produced.  Indeed, it surprises me that Quentin Tarantino hasn’t got around to championing it.

 

Pleasence didn’t relent in his TV work, either.  In Britain, he appeared in Lord Lew Grade’s epic series Jesus of Nazareth, in an adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Chronicles and in the BBC’s influential Play for Today.  In the States, he turned up in countless TV movies, mini-series and guest-slots in shows like The Fugitive, Hawaii Five-O and Colombo.  In Colombo, a show famous for having its dishevelled, blue-collar detective-hero track down and arrest rich, snobbish and pretentious big-shots who believed they’d committed the perfect murder, Pleasence was unusually sympathetic.  He played a meek, gentlemanly wine-lover who kills his dastardly half-brother when that half-brother threatens his beloved winery.

 

It was some British TV work in 1973 that introduced my eight-year-old self to Pleasence.  The actor lent his voice to a short public-information film broadcast during commercial breaks in children’s TV programming, warning kids about the dangers of playing near rivers, canals and ponds.  The film features a black, cowled figure called the Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water who, in Pleasence’s doomiest tones, explains that his mission is to lure to a watery grave “the unwary, the show-off, the fool.”  We then see a shouty kid trying to retrieve a football from a quarry-pool in front of his mates.  “That boy is showing off,” observes Pleasance.  “The bank is slippery…”  Splash!  Exit one shouty, show-offy kid.  “The show-offs are easy,” he comments.  “But the unwary ones are easier still…”  We see another kid dangling from a tree over a deep stretch of river.  “This branch is weak, rotten.  It’ll never take his weight…”  Splash!  Exit one dangly, unwary kid too.

 

(c) Central Office of Information

 

It isn’t until some sensible kids – “Sensible children!  I have no power over them!” – turn up and rescue a third, foolish kid from drowning that the Spirit’s spell is broken and he dematerialises, leaving his cowl floating on top of some murky water.  Just to make the film even creepier, though, we hear Pleasance’s voice echoing through the cowl: “I’ll be back… back… back!”  So memorably sepulchral was Pleasance’s narration that, 40 years later, I can still recite every word of it.  And not only is the film accessible on YouTube, but someone has even uploaded a drums-and-bass version of it there too.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6NY5cX0d4_g

 

In 1979 a young American director called John Carpenter planning a low-budget shocker called Halloween decided he wanted ‘an old British horror guy’ to play Dr Sam Loomis, head of the psychiatric hospital containing one Michael Myers, a psychopath entirely dedicated to killing anyone who wanders within stabbing range.  Myers escapes from the institution on October 31st – Halloween – and a frantic Loomis has to hunt him down.  After Carpenter had offered the part of Loomis, without any luck, to Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, he approached Pleasence.  And so Pleasence landed his second most-famous role.

 

I have mixed feelings about Halloween.  On the plus side, it has Pleasence and Jamie Lee Curtis, and Carpenter’s direction and music are great.  On the negative side, it has a hackneyed plot and it doesn’t actually attempt to explore the innate, mystical creepiness of Halloween.  The festival is just an orangey, pumpkin-illuminated backdrop for the carnage and the film could have as easily taken place at Christmas or Easter or on St Valentine’s Day or the Fourth of July.  Also – something that wasn’t Carpenter’s fault – it inspired a million cheap imitators during the 1980s wherein nondescript teenagers were stalked and stabbed by nondescript maniacs, most famously the drearily robotic Friday the 13th movies.

 

Halloween and its sequels kept Pleasence busy.  He reprised his role in Halloween II (1982) and although both Myers and Loomis were comprehensively killed off at the end of that film, they were back again in Halloween IV: The Return of Michael Myers (1988), Halloween V: The Revenge of Michael Myers (1989) and Halloween VI: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995).  The quality, needless to say, went down with each new sequel.  Meanwhile, Pleasence got more gigs with John Carpenter.  He appeared in his sci-fi horror movie Prince of Darkness (1987) and played the US president in his dystopian sci-fi actioner Escape from New York (1981).  Come to think of it, future America must be dystopian indeed if it has Ernst Stavros Blofeld in the White House.

 

Pleasence’s work with Carpenter kept his profile high among younger filmgoers but much of his output during his later years was, putting it bluntly, crud.  He ended up making many low-budget, low-quality horror movies in Italy and America – by this point Britain had stopped making horror movies and practically stopped making movies, full-stop – like The Demonsville Terror (1983), Phantom of Death (1988), Vampire in Venice (1988), The House of Usher (1989), Paganini Horror (1989) and Buried Alive (1990).  In 1985 he worked with legendary Italian horror director Dario Argento, but by this time Argento was well past his prime.  The best that can be said about the resulting film, Phenomena – which has Pleasance as a phony-sounding Scotsman and Jennifer Connolly as a schoolgirl who can communicate telepathically with insects, and which also features a mutant killer and a cutthroat-razor-wielding chimpanzee – is that it occasionally brings a bemused smile to the viewer’s face.

 

No doubt he got more satisfaction appearing in Woody Allen’s star-studded Shadows and Fog (1991) and in Leslie Megahy’s medieval-set curiosity Hour of the Pig (1994), in which he acted alongside Colin Firth.  Incidentally, in 1991, Firth would co-star with him in a London-stage revival of Pinter’s The Caretaker, a play that Pleasence had originally appeared in in 1960 (with Alan Bates and Robert Shaw).

 

In 1995, when Pleasence died from heart failure at his home in France, he could boast 227 film and TV credits.  He was 75 years old at the time of his demise, although when I read about it in the newspapers I was surprised that he wasn’t at least ten years older – during the preceding decades I’d seen him in so much stuff.

 

And Donald Pleasence wasn’t just impressive because of his prolific-ness.  When it came to portraying goggle-eyed, sinister-voiced, cat-stroking evil, he was peerless.  Indeed, if world-class screen villainy was the same thing as world-class football, Donaldo would definitely have been Ronaldo.

 

(c) Dino De Laurentiis Corporation

 

10 more scary paintings for Halloween

 

It’s Halloween and, as I did a year ago, I thought I’d showcase ten more paintings and illustrations that I feel capture some of the spookiness of the season.

 

First up is Sangre Virgen, a blood-curdling offering from artist Ismael Alvarez, about whom I know nothing other than that he’s Spanish and commonly produces gay erotica.  No doubt this explains why when I tried to track him down on Google I either stumbled across Spanish-language sites that I didn’t understand or was blocked by anti-pornography filters.  However, artist John Coulthart has written about him on his website at http://www.johncoulthart.com/feuilleton/2012/08/11/the-art-of-ismael-alvarez/.  It was on Coulthart’s site, in fact, that I discovered this image of a blonde, rabid-eyed and possibly baby-munching youth who resembles one of the kids in Village of the Damned – after about a century in hell, that is.

 

 

Next is a more mannerly item from Virgil Finlay, best remembered as an illustrator of horror, fantasy and science-fiction stories that appeared in American pulp-fiction magazines during the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.  Indeed, between 1937 and 1953, he supplied 19 colour covers for the greatest of the pulp magazines, Weird Tales.  During the war years, Finlay also served in the US military and saw action in the Battle of Okinawa, where no doubt he witnessed things that were far more horrifying than anything he’d drawn pictures for back home in the States.  I particularly like this Finlay illustration for a story entitled And not in Peace.   Like the best of Finlay’s work it manages to be spooky and atmospheric, yet weirdly sensual as well.  (And yes, I’ve noticed where the end of the guy’s stake is pointing.)

 

 

A week or two ago I was in the National Gallery of Scotland, in whose basement hangs The Spell, painted by the 19th-century Scottish artist Sir William Fettes Douglas.  Douglas, who actually became director of the National Gallery in 1877, had a fascination for the occult and this is evident in The Spell’s depiction of a sorcerer in his laboratory attempting to summon a dead spirit from the skull that’d housed it when it was alive.   As the blurb accompanying the painting explains: “The superstition was common in many countries that it was possible, by words of power and magic, to force the dead to reveal the secrets of the unseen world.  The Rosicrucians and Illuminati of the Middle Ages being especially accused of violating the tombs for this unholy purpose.”

 

 

Magician’s laboratories, laden with potions, alchemic instruments, occult symbols and books of arcane knowledge, have been a popular subject for artists.  Equally popular have been depictions of witches’ sabbats, those gatherings where women who’d given themselves to worship of the devil were supposed to indulge in all manner of depravity and debauchery, usually including the kissing of their master’s buttocks and worse.  This painting, The Witches’ Kitchen, was produced by a member of the Francken dynasty who painted in Antwerp during the 16th and 17th centuries.  (I think it may be the work of Frans Francken II, but I could be wrong.)  I saw it hanging in the Hermitage Museum in Amsterdam a few years back.  It doesn’t show a sabbat itself, but the departure lounge for one – a kitchen where some outwardly-respectable ladies are stripping down in preparation for their flight to the sabbat.  You can see the witches taking off from the kitchen’s fireplace and shooting up its chimney.  I know this manoeuvre appears in the Harry Potter books and movies too, but in those it isn’t usually accompanied by the flash of bare bottoms.

 

 

Francisco Goya was also fond of painting witches’ sabbats, for example, in The Great Goat and – that name again – The Spell.  However, for this Halloween selection, I have chosen The Old Ones, sometimes known as Time and the Old Women, whose figures are so ravaged that the viewer isn’t sure if they are human beings suffering the extremes of decrepitude, or supernatural beings symbolising the horrors of it.  I will leave it to the late Robert Hughes, author and art critic, to summarise the painting: “The old bat on the right, a chapfallen dame in a beautifully light-struck muslin robe of pale blue and yellow, fiddles with what appears to be a powder compact…  Artifacts last; their owners decay. Her companion is a horror, a death’s head, her nose eaten away by the pox, her hands like claws, her lips and eyes raddled with caked incrustations of lipstick and kohl, her teeth discolored. Rising behind them, also peering at their reflected images, is the ultimate victor of this colloquy: Father Time, with his shag of gray hair and extended wings, grasping not a scythe but a broom with which he will sweep the crones away like the dust they are so nearly are.”

 

 

Next is a black-and-white illustration for an early 20th-century edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination by the Irish artist Harry Clarke.  (Much of Clarke’s work wasn’t in ink but in stained glass, including the stained-glass windows in the famous Bewley’s Café on Grafton Street in Dublin.)  Over the years I’ve come across various pictures that Clarke did for Poe’s short stories, including The Black Cat, William Wilson and Descent into the Maelstrom.  However, for sheer claustrophobic horror, this one for The Premature Burial – starkly showing the narrator’s deepest (literally deepest) fears – can’t be beaten.

 


I find something especially grotesque and sinister about horse-skeletons.  Maybe it’s their long toothy skulls that, in their fleshless state, look more crocodile-like than equine.  I’m a fan of the apocalyptic oil paintings of the Polish artist Zdzislaw Beksinski, who met a particularly tragic end in 2005 – after a traumatic few years during which he’d seen the death of his wife and the suicide of his son, he was murdered in a dispute over a small sum of money.  This is perhaps the Beksinksi picture I find most disturbing, thanks no doubt to that spectral horse, whose bones are visible through gossamers of decayed hide and tissue and which has a wraith-like rider planted on its back.  (I’ve hunted around on the Internet but haven’t been able to find a title for this one.)

 

 

Human skeletons, meanwhile, commonly appear in the work of the 16th / 17th-century Italian painter Jacopo Ligozzi.  One example is the skeletal figure wielding a symbolic sword in this luridly yellow-hued painting from 1625, whose title says it all: Death Exterminating Mankind.

 

 

More skeletons now, courtesy of the 20th-century English artist Edward Burra – though its bony figures, white, blue and pink, dancing a jig and wearing some natty hats, are far removed from the apocalyptic characters of the previous two pictures.  (The face on the glowing full moon, meanwhile, looks like something out of a Tim Burton animated movie.)  I saw Burra’s Dancing Skeletons recently at the Witches and Wicked Bodies exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Contemporary Art and thought it evoked Mexico’s Day of the Dead, the skeleton-obsessed festival that kicks off south of the border just as American children are packing away their Halloween masks, costumes and pumpkins lanterns for another year.  However, notes I’ve read about Dancing Skeletons online suggest that the well-travelled Burra drew his inspiration for this from the sight of hanged rebels in Belgian-controlled Africa.

 

 

Finally, I thought I’d leave the worst for the end.  For a glimpse of pure evil, here’s Old Nick himself – peering primordially and malevolently out of the painting Lucifer by German artist Thomas Hafner.

 

 

Ten scary paintings

 

Less than a fortnight after apologising for writing a blog entry that was simply a list of things – as I said then, I hate it when music and film magazines publish ‘best of’ and ‘worst of’ lists as a lazy substitute for imaginative features – I have decided to be even more of a hypocrite and compile another list.  The Review section in last weekend’s Observer newspaper had the bright idea of marking Halloween by nominating the ten scariest artworks ever painted, a list that included works by Caravaggio, Rubens, Titian, Bosch, Gericault and Warhol.  In fact, so appealing was this idea that I have decided to rip off the Observer and do the same thing myself.  Although I’ve missed Halloween by one day, here are my choices for the ten most frightening paintings in the history of fine art.

 

First of all, however, here’s a link to the original Observer feature: http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2012/oct/28/10-best-scary-paintings-halloween

 

There are two paintings on the Observer’s list that are also on mine.  One, inevitably, is The Nightmare, by the Anglo-Swiss artist Henry Fuseli.  Its hideous incubus, squatting on the bosom of a sleeping maiden, is disturbing enough – but what really spooks me about this painting is the goggle-eyed and deranged-looking horse whose head protrudes into the action.  That horse is worthy of David Lynch, in fact.  Such was the excitement generated by The Nightmare when first exhibited in 1782 that Fuseli painted several variations on it.  The original, however, now resides in the Detroit Institute of Arts.

 

http://www.dia.org/object-info/f222b80e-c3ba-4dd0-a705-4b14cb4f5ad6.aspx

 

The second painting about which I agree with the Observer is The Ghost of a Flea, a miniature work by William Blake that is now in the Tate Gallery in London.  The image of this muscular, mutant and malevolent thing supposedly came to Blake while he was participating in a séance in 1819.  Nearly 200 years have passed since then — and the last 100 or so have seen the flourishing of cinematic culture, wherein make-up artists and special-effects technicians have worked hard at populating horror movies with all manner of scary and loathsome monsters.  Yet Blake’s humanoid-flea creature still manages to be more repulsive than 90% of the monsters that have lurched across cinema screens in the 20th and 21st centuries.

 

http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/blake-the-ghost-of-a-flea-n05889

 

Moving on to my own choices – I’d like to mention the Australian painter Peter Booth, whose bizarre, apocalyptic-feeling work I first encountered during a trip Down Under 14 years ago.  Particularly unsettling is his untitled 1977 painting, now in the National Gallery of Victoria.  Why is that nocturnal sky dominated by a blood-red sun?  What does that big albino bull terrier got to do with anything?  And why does that white-haired central figure remind me so much of Rutger Hauer in The Hitcher, a horror movie that wasn’t made until nine years later?

 

http://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/col/work/2839

 

And now onto to Gustav Klimt.  Yes, I know in the public mind he’s now almost entirely associated with glittery, glossy and sensual paintings like The Kiss – but the dark side of me rather likes these depictions he did of some monstrous females from Greek mythology (whom many artists have been drawn to over the centuries).  His The Gorgons and Typhon, which I believe is a much reproduced detail of his Beethoven Frieze at the Secession Building in Vienna, still has a Klimt-esque ornateness and sensuality about it.  But at the same time, his gorgons look vicious, rancid and decidedly unwholesome.

 

http://www.secession.at/beethovenfries/geschichte_e.html

 

Edward Hopper also isn’t a name one normally associates with macabre art, but I feel he deserves inclusion here on the strength of his 1925 painting The House by the Railroad, which now hangs in New York’s Museum of Modern Art.  Although the house is depicted in daylight, it is eerily lonely and still-looking and its gaunt façade even has a hint of a skull about it.  And if the house touches a deeper nerve in you, it’s perhaps because it was the inspiration for the look of the Bates Motel in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

 

http://www.moma.org/collection/object.php?object_id=78330

 

For something gruesomely and apocalyptically medieval, I will pass over Hieronymus Bosch, genius though he was, and opt instead for Pieter Bruegel the Elder.  His 1562 painting The Triumph of Death does what it says on the tin – death has indeed triumphed, as evidenced by the fires burning across a razed wasteland, the leafless trees, the shipwrecks, the rotting fish, the panic-stricken crowds and the many gleeful and malevolent skeletons.  The detail that kills me (sorry) is the skeleton riding on a horse-drawn cart, who merrily plays a hurdy-gurdy whilst people disappear under his hooves and wheels.  This painting has hung in Madrid’s Museo del Prado for nearly two centuries.

 

http://www.museodelprado.es/en/the-collection/online-gallery/on-line-gallery/obra/the-triumph-of-death/

 

For my next choice, I’ll cheat a little – for it isn’t a painting but an engraving that I’ve seen reproduced in a many books and on many websites.  Representing John Dee, the legendary 16th century magician, astronomer, astrologer, mathematician and advisor to Queen Elizabeth I (needless to say, Dee fell from royal favour when the deeply witch-fearing James VI of Scotland claimed the English throne), and fellow magician Edward Kelley conjuring up a spirit in a nocturnal churchyard, the engraving isn’t particularly frightening.  But there’s a great charm in the way it depicts the traditional paraphernalia of the occult – the magic circle, the book of spells and rituals, the sword-wand, the headstones and the heaped bones and skulls.

 

http://pinterest.com/lienatik/world-of-john-dee/

 

I’m a sucker for ukiyo-e – the art of Japanese woodblock prints – so I’ll include here Takiyashi the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, who, until his death in 1862, was one of the last great masters of the form.  Now to be found in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, this triptych is a gloriously ghoulish and cartoonish work, and the oversized skeleton spectre in it would not look out of place in a fairground haunted house or ghost-train ride.

 

http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O73119/takiyasha-the-witch-and-the-triptych-kuniyoshi-utagawa/

 

Next up is perhaps the nastiest piece in my top ten.  It’s surely the Texas Chainsaw Massacre of scary art. Yes, it’s Figure with Meat by – who else? – Francis Bacon.  Supposedly based on Diego Velazquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X, this 1954 painting unflatteringly transforms the poor old pope into a grotesque, dribbly-faced gargoyle with two halves of a cow-carcass hanging behind him.  The rows of ribs in the carcass correspond unpleasantly to the rows of teeth in the figure’s maw.  Kept in the Art Institute of Chicago, this painting appeared in a scene in Tim Burton’s 1989 version of Batman – it was the only painting that the similarly rictus-faced Joker instructed his henchmen not to vandalise, because he ‘kinda liked’ it.

 

http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/4884

 

And finally, this painting has certainly lost some of its impact due to over-exposure in popular culture – blame Wes Craven, for one.  But nonetheless, I was surprised that the Observer article didn’t mention the most famous work of Edvard Munch.

 

http://totallyhistory.com/the-scream/