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 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).

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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