Death log 2016 – part 2


© Hat Trick Productions


Just before I bid adieu to 2016, here’s a second posting paying tribute to those people whom I liked and admired who passed away during the year.


Firstly, two people who died in the first half of 2016 but whom I forgot to mention in my previous posting.  American author Harper Lee left us on February 19th.  Her classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) was both an indictment of racial injustice in 1930s Alabama and an affirmation of human goodness, as epitomised in the characters of upstanding lawyer Atticus Finch and the scary-but-good-hearted Boo Radley.  Rather less wholesome was the character played by Irish actor Frank Kelly, who died on February 28th, in the classic 1990s TV comedy Father Ted.  Kelly’s Father Jack Hackett was a man reduced by a lifetime of hard (and un-priestly) living to a sedentary existence in the world’s grottiest-looking armchair, from which he would occasionally bellow, “Feck!  Arse!  Drink!  Girls!”  Father Jack couldn’t have been further from the charismatic, cerebral and articulate person that Kelly was in real life.


© Richmond Film Productions / Rank


TV comedy lost another talent on July 2nd with the death of British comedienne, actress and writer Caroline Aherne, famous for acting in and co-writing the sitcom The Royle Family (1998-2012) and for playing the titular host in spoof chat-show The Mrs Merton Show (1995-98).  July 2nd was also a day when cinema took a double hit, seeing the deaths of filmmakers Michael Cimino, co-writer of Silent Running (1972) and Magnum Force (1973) and director of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), The Deer Hunter (1978) and ruinously expensive western Heaven’s Gate (1980); and Euan Lloyd, producer of the not-to-taken-seriously mercenary epic The Wild Geese (1978) with Richard Burton, Richard Harris and Roger Moore, its demented sequel The Wild Geese II (1985) and laughably right-wing SAS thriller Who Dares Wins (1982).


Meanwhile, record producer Sandy Pearlman died on July 26th.  He’d worked on classic albums by two bands who, while they were equally loved at Blood and Porridge, were wildly different in their styles: the Blue Oyster Cult’s Agents of Fortune (1976) and The Clash’s Give ’Em Enough Rope (1978).


© CBS / Epic


A number of veteran character actors died around the middle of the year.  William Lucas, star of such fascinatingly oddball British movies as X the Unknown (1956), The Shadow of the Cat (1961), Night of the Big Heat (1967) and Tower of Evil (1972) died on July 8th.   The New Zealand actor Terence Baylor, who died on August 2nd, will be remembered for uttering the most quotable line in Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979).  After Graham Chapman’s reluctant messiah Brian pleads with a crowd of followers to leave him alone because they’re “all individuals” and the crowd mindlessly chants back at him, “We are all individuals!”, Baylor pipes up: “I’m not.”  He also appeared in Terry Gilliam’s The Time Bandits (1981), which lost another cast-member in August – the excellent Kenny Baker, who died on August 13th.  Baker was best-known for being the man inside R2D2 in the Star Wars movies and he was honoured at Blood and Porridge in this entry:


There were also many deaths among the American acting fraternity.  Comic actor and writer Gene Wilder died on August 29th.  Though Wilder was best-remembered for playing the title character in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), for me his finest hours came in two Mel Brooks movies made in 1974 – playing the Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles and Dr Frederick Frankenstein (“Pronounced ‘steen’”) in Young Frankenstein.  Two days later the hard-working character actor Jon Polito passed away.  Polito was a regular in the films of Joel and Ethan Cohen, appearing in Barton Fink (1991), The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), The Big Lebowski (1998), The Man Who wasn’t There (2001) and most memorably Miller’s Crossing (1990) where he played the mobster Johnny Caspar.  And on September 5th Hugh O’Brian, veteran of many a western movie and TV show, rode off into the sunset.  As the villainous Jack Pulford, he had the distinction of being the last person to be shot dead onscreen by John Wayne, in Wayne’s swansong The Shootist (1976).


© 20th Century Fox


September 16th saw the departure of Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning American playwright Edward Albee, whose work included The Zoo Story (1958), The Sandbox (1959), A Delicate Balance (1966) and most famously Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), made into a movie four years later and distinguished by splendidly unhinged performances by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor as a booze-sodden university couple from hell.  Filmmaker Curtis Hanson, who started off writing interesting little movies like The Dunwich Horror (1969), The Silent Partner (1978) and White Dog (1982) and ended up directing the brilliant L.A. Confidential (1997), died on September 20th.  A somewhat less reputable filmmaker died on September 26th: Herschell Gordon Lewis, whose ultra-cheap but sensationally gory horror movies like Blood Feast (1963) and 2000 Maniacs (1964) were by no stretch of the imagination good, but left enough of an impression on Blood and Porridge to warrant this entry:


Another American purveyor of low-budget celluloid sensationalism, Ted V. Mikels – of The Astro-Zombies (1968), Corpse Grinders (1971) and Blood Orgy of the She-Devils (1973) fame – died on October 16th.  October 13th saw the death of multi-tasking Italian Dario Fo, described on his Wikipedia page as an “actor-playwright, comedian, singer, theatre director, stage designer, songwriter, painter, political campaigner for the Italian left-wing and the recipient of the 1997 Nobel Prize in Literature”, whose dramatical works made him “arguably the most widely performed contemporary playwright in world theatre.”  Ten days later, the comic-book world said farewell to artist Steve Dillon, who cut his teeth on British comics like Doctor Who Magazine (Abslom Daak), 2000 AD (Judge Dredd, Rogue Troopers, ABC Warriors) and Warrior (Marvelman, Laser Eraser and Pressbutton) in the 1980s and ended up working on acclaimed American titles such as DC Comics’ Hellblazer and Preacher in the 1990s and Marvel Comics’ Punisher in the noughties.  And on the same day, Jimmy Perry, who scripted the much-loved TV comedy Dad’s Army (1968-1977) with David Croft, died at the age of 93.


© Arena Productions / MGM Television


On November 5th, the English actor John Carson died.  As well as being a regular face on British television, he appeared in three memorable Hammer horror movies: Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970), Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter (1974) and best of all Plague of the Zombies (1966), where he played a voodoo-practising Cornish squire saving on labour costs by using reanimated corpses to work in his tin mine.  Passing away on November 11th was actor Robert Vaughn, famous on television for playing Napoleon Solo in The Man from UNCLE (1964-68) and equally famous in the cinema for being the longest-lasting member of the titular septet of gunslingers in John Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven (1960).  Between those two dates, on November 7th, the great Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen expired, having delivered one final album, You Want It Darker, just the previous month.  Here’s what Blood and Porridge said about Cohen at the time of his death:


The great Irish novelist, short story writer and playwright William Trevor died on November 20th, while actor Andrew Sachs passed away three days later.  Most famous for playing the Barcelonan waiter Manuel in John Cleese’s classic sitcom Fawlty Towers (1975-79), Sachs was the son of a German Jew who fled to Britain to escape Nazi persecution in 1938 – an irony missed by right-wing British tabloid the Daily Mail, which printed the refugee-scare headline MIGRANT NUMBERS HIT NEW RECORDS next to the news of Sachs’ death on its front page.


© Hammer Films


Valerie Gaunt, who died on November 27th, made only two movies in the late 1950s before leaving the acting profession, but she made a big impression in them; playing Justine, the fickle maid who tries to blackmail Peter Cushing’s Baron Frankenstein in the 1956 horror classic The Curse of Frankenstein, and playing Christopher Lee’s vampire bride in 1958’s equally classic Dracula.  And the venerable character actor Peter Vaughan, who played Grouty in the sitcom Porridge (1974-77), played Maester Aemon in blood-tits-and-dragons saga Game of Thrones (2011-2015) and gave many memorable performances besides in films and TV, died on December 6th.  Here’s Blood and Porridge’s tribute to the great man:


© Spitting Image Productions / ITV Studios


Astronaut John Glenn, the fifth person to travel in space in 1962, and also the oldest person to travel there as a crewmember of the Discovery space shuttle in 1998, died on December 8th.  Two day later saw the death of the avuncular Scottish weatherman Ian McCaskill, who presented forecasts on the BBC from the late 1970s to the late 1990s and was regularly lampooned on TV puppet show Spitting image (1984-96).  On December 18th, the world said goodbye to actress and all-round personality Zsa Zsa Gabor, who could appear in a masterpiece like Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil and a camp Grade-Z pudding like Queen of Outer Space in the same year (1958) and be inimitably Zsa Zsa-esque in both.  Distinguished British TV director Philip Saville died on December 22nd.  His career highlights included 1977’s Count Dracula, probably the most faithful adaptation ever of Bram Stoker’s seminal vampire novel; 1982’s condemnation of Thatcherism, Boys from the Blackstuff; and 1986’s gaudy and saucy TV version of Fay Weldon’s Life and Loves of a She-Devil.


Pop star George Michael died on Christmas Day.  I wasn’t a fan of his music, but from his philanthropic work (which included donating the royalties of his ever-popular festive anthem Last Christmas to the Band Aid charity) and from the fact that he lived his life with a healthy disregard for the strictures of Britain’s prurient tabloid press, I’d say he was a thoroughly good bloke.  And finally, the lovely and witty Carrie Fisher, aka Princess Leia in the Star Wars films, died on December 27th.  (Even more tragically, her mother Debbie Fisher passed away the following day.)  A depressing indication that in the shithole year that was 2016, you weren’t safe even if you were a fairy-tale princess.


© Lucasfilm Ltd / 20th Century Fox


The Godfather of Gore is no more




I didn’t particularly care for the films of American director and producer Herschell Gordon Lewis, who was nicknamed ‘the Godfather of Gore’ and who passed away on September 26th.  That said, I certainly liked the idea of Lewis.


Lewis’s exploitation movies spanned a variety of genres – softcore erotica (usually set in nudist colonies and including the likes of 1963’s Goldilocks and the Three Bares), comedies, children’s movies and at least  one feminist biker flick, 1968’s splendidly titled She-Devils on Wheels.  However, it’s for his horror films that he’ll be remembered, and for the simple but at the time innovative approach that he brought to the horror-film genre.  He made the first horror movies that were truly horrible, i.e. loaded with bloodletting, dismemberment, disembowelment, scalping, eye-gouging, tongue-ripping and so on: Blood Feast (1963), 2000 Maniacs (1964), Colour Me Blood Red (1965), Taste of Blood (1967), The Gruesome Twosome (1967), The Wizard of Gore (1970) and The Gore Gore Girls (1972).


Not unexpectedly, Lewis’s approach did not go down well with mainstream movie critics – “Thoroughly revolting Z-grade garbage” was a typical assessment of Blood Feast – and his horror films were hardly the stuff that mainstream movie audiences flocked to.  But they still packed enough folk into America’s drive-ins for them to turn a tidy profit and, over the years, he found a number of admirers among left-field film fans, filmmakers and commentators.


Needless to say, his work didn’t make its way to Britain anytime soon.  I remember reading about Blood Feast and 2000 Maniacs in film books and magazines when I was a kid and thinking, “Wow, these must be the most hideous and terrifying films ever made!”  But at the same time I knew the chances of me seeing them in the censorious UK were non-existent.  The chances became less than non-existent during the 1980s when politicians, tabloid newspapers and moral campaigners worked themselves into a lather over the ‘video nasties’ scare.


In fact, it wasn’t until the end of the 1980s that I finally laid eyes on some footage from his movies.  This was courtesy of Jonathan Ross’s offbeat TV series The Incredibly Strange Film Show, which devoted a whole episode to Lewis.


© The Jacqueline Kay Inc. / Friedman-Lewis Productions 


How different it is today.  We live in an era when Britain’s Horror Channel – available for all to watch on Freeview – airs Herschell Gordon Lewis double-bills regularly and quite a few of his movies are up on the Internet.  And with modern films featuring high-tech animatronic and computer-generated effects, Lewis’s movie gore – basically all the offal he could find at the local butcher’s shop and lots of bright red paint – looks so primitive it almost has a retro charm.


Blood Feast was the film that made Lewis’s name and it remains his most famous, or infamous, effort.  I have to say it’s a very bad film.  The acting is atrocious, the budget is visibly tiny and the general level of professionalism is not much higher than Ed Wood standards.  And yet…  It might be one of the worst films I’ve seen, but I’ve never been able to forget it.  Somehow, it still creeps me out.  Maybe it’s the stark, single-minded way it goes about its bloody business – something reinforced by the score, a slow, thudding, doom-laden thing that’s little more than a funereal drumbeat.  It’s so minimalist it makes the synth scores that John Carpenter did for his movies sound like Vivaldi.


Among the rest of Lewis’s oeuvre, I’ll admit to liking (a little bit) 2000 Maniacs, possibly because it’s an insolent remake of Brigadoon, the cheesy 1954 MGM musical about a phantom Scottish Highland village that appears out of the mist for one day every century.  But while the village in Brigadoon appears so that Gene Kelly and Van Johnson can use it as a backdrop for song-and-dance numbers like The Heather on the Hill and I’ll Go Home with Bonnie Jean, the phantom village in 2000 Maniacs has a darker purpose.  It’s a southern USA village whose inhabitants were slaughtered by Northern forces during the Civil War and now, as ghosts, they reappear every so often to take bloody revenge on any hapless Yankee travellers who come their way.  As a commentary on the horrors of the Civil War, it’s hardly in the class of, say, the fiction of Ambrose Bierce; but in its crude, tacky way it’s effective.


I also have to confess to liking, again a little bit, 1970’s The Wizard of Gore, which is about a stage magician who uses power tools to perform mind-bogglingly gruesome tricks on volunteers from the audience.  When the tricks are over, the volunteers seem to be alive, well and in one piece.  But later, after the show, they revert to the grisly state they were in onstage and, obviously, die.  Again, it’s cheap and ineptly made, but the film has a weirdness that’s difficult to forget.  The Wizard of Gore also won Lewis one of his very few acknowledgements from mainstream cinema.  In 2007’s acclaimed comedy-drama Juno, Jason Bateman’s music / comic-book / movie nerd convinces Ellen Page’s Juno that The Wizard of Gore is a better horror movie than Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977).  I have to say that if they honestly believe Lewis’s schlocky little opus to be superior to Argento’s masterpiece, Bateman and Page must be really thick.


© Mayflower Pictures


What I love about Lewis, though, is that in the early 1970s he packed in filmmaking and turned to something very different – advertising!  He established himself as a guru on the subject and made a fortune writing books about it, including 1974’s The Businessman’s Guide to Advertising and Sales Promotion and 1977’s How to Handle your own Public Relations.  His speciality was direct marketing, the practice of blitzing large numbers of people with word of your product via phone calls, texts, emails, leaflets and so on.  While this usually results in the majority of those people ignoring you or getting pissed off at you, it should hook a sufficient minority of them to make the exercise worthwhile.  In a way, that’s the effect Lewis’s horror movies had on the public too.


So Lewis ended up a very wealthy man – an exemplification of the American Dream.  The fact that he achieved that dream on the back of direct marketing and excessive bloodletting seems odd but, also, appropriately American.