Great unappreciated films: Breakfast on Pluto


© Sony Classic Pictures / Pathé 


A few months ago I posted something on this blog about The Company of Wolves, the classic 1984 gothic fantasy movie directed by the Irish filmmaker Neil Jordan.  I thought it was time to pen a few words in praise of a more recent and less well-known Jordan movie, 2005’s Breakfast on Pluto, which was based on a 1998 novel of the same name by Jordan’s fellow Irishman, the County Monaghan author Patrick McCabe.


Both film and novel recount the adventures in early 1970s Ireland and London of the transgendered and cheerfully outrageous Patrick, later ‘Kitten’ Braden (Cillian Murphy).  (In McCabe’s book she’s given the more sexually charged name of ‘Pussy’.)  These adventures are overshadowed by the Troubles that at the time were erupting bloodily in Northern Ireland and were making their presence felt in London too, thanks to pub-bombings carried out there by the IRA.


The movie incarnation of Breakfast on Pluto didn’t set the box office alight.  With its mix of transgender comedy, camp-ness and kitsch-ness on one hand and Irish terrorism, religious intolerance and violence on the other, it’s perhaps not hard to see why.  Indeed, after I acquired a DVD of Breakfast on Pluto in the noughties, I lent it to a conservative-minded Irish friend, who later returned it saying she enjoyed the Irish stuff but couldn’t relate to the camp stuff.  I then lent it to a gay friend, who told me he quite enjoyed the camp stuff but found the Irish stuff deeply depressing.


It wasn’t until I lent it to a third friend, another lady, that I found someone who enjoyed Breakfast on Pluto as much as I had.  Mind you, she confessed to feeling slightly put-out because she thought Cillian Murphy “looked better as a woman” than she did.


Kitten starts life as Patrick Braden, a foundling reared by an unsympathetic foster mother in a village called Tyrellin just south of the Republic of Ireland / Northern Ireland border.  Despite some behaviour that’s out-of-kilter with the local Catholic culture, like wearing make-up and asking the school priest for advice on how to get a sex change, young Patrick seems popular enough and has a gang of friends including Charlie (Ruth Negga), Irwin (Laurence Kinlan) and Lawrence (Seamus Reilly).  Then just as Patrick is reinventing himself – herself – as Kitten, the Troubles kick off.  Tyrellin experiences tragedy early on when Lawrence is killed by a car bomb.  (Poor Lawrence, who has Down’s Syndrome, is a Doctor Who fan and likes trundling around the village inside a homemade Dalek, sees the bomb-disposal robot at the car and runs towards it thinking it’s another Dalek.)


© Sony Classic Pictures / Pathé 


Meanwhile, Kitten is having a romance with Billy, the impressively sideburn-ed singer of a glam-rock band called Billy Hatchet and the Mohawks (played by Gavin Friday, real-life singer with post-punk / Goth band The Virgin Prunes).  Their romance ends when Kitten discovers that Billy is smuggling guns for the IRA.  After destroying Billy’s weapons-stash, Kitten heads for London, resolving to track down her long-lost mother.  It transpires that Mum was impregnated by Tyrellin’s randy priest, Father Liam (Liam Neeson), and disappeared off to England after giving birth.


In London, Kitten falls in with a fellow Irish person called John Joe (Brendan Gleason) and they work as children’s entertainers, members of a troop cavorting around Wimbledon Common dressed as the Wombles.  The job falls through when John Joe loses his temper and batters a snooty park official whilst in a Great Uncle Bulgaria costume.  Kitten then embarks on a career as a prostitute, which almost ends fatally when she’s picked up by a murderous customer (Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry giving a truly nasty performance).  From there, she becomes the assistant of a lugubrious but kindly magician called Bertie Vaughan (Stephen Rea), but things take another turn for the worse when she finds herself in a London pub one night when an IRA bomb goes off.


Kitten survives the carnage but, shell-shocked, is incarcerated in a London police cell by two hard-nut detectives (Ian Hart and Steven Waddington) who suspect her of planting the bomb and are ready to beat a confession out of her.  Once they realise Kitten’s innocence, however, they show her some unexpected sympathy and entrust her to the care of the female staff at a Soho peepshow.


Late on, Kitten’s biological parents reappear.  The repentant Father Liam visits the peepshow and is reconciled with Kitten and they end up living together back in Ireland – along with Charlie, now pregnant with Irwin’s baby.  (Irwin is no longer around, having joined the IRA, turned informer and been executed by his comrades.)  The idyll doesn’t last.  The parochial house is firebombed by Father Liam’s parishioners, outraged that he’s living with an unmarried mum and a transgendered woman.  Kitten and Charlie return to London, where Kitten finally manages to meet her mother, now happily married and with a new family.  She fails to recognise Kitten as the baby boy she left behind in Ireland and Kitten chooses not to reveal her identity.


Breakfast on Pluto was a second instance of Jordan adapting a Patrick McCabe novel.  Eight years earlier he’d filmed McCabe’s 1992 work The Butcher Boy, a gruelling tragi-comic horror story about a young man’s descent into madness in 1960s rural Ireland.  Both the book and film of Breakfast on Pluto are more upbeat than The Butcher Boy, though Jordan’s film version is lighter than McCabe’s literary version.  The film makes a few changes to give the story a breezier feel, for example, by making Kitten’s first lover a singer in a rock band.  In the book, he’s a crooked Irish politician in the mould of Charles Haughey.  Also, Jordan adds some enjoyably goofy references to early-1970s popular culture – I don’t recall any Wombles or Daleks in McCabe’s novel.


© Sony Classic Pictures / Pathé 


Parts of the film are hilarious, often when we see Kitten nonchalantly thumbing her nose at the macho, patriarchal, Catholic Irish culture around her: like, for instance, fantasising about playing Gaelic football in a frock, or having another fantasy about infiltrating the London HQ of the IRA where, like a cross between Diana Rigg from The Avengers and Stephanie Powers from The Girl from UNCLE, she shimmies around in a slinky outfit and overpowers the terrorists by spraying them with knock-out gas from a perfume bottle.  Meanwhile, the film manages to be inspiring too, in that no matter how rough things get for Kitten – and they get pretty rough – her cheery, romantic indefatigability carries her on.  When the happy(-ish) ending finally comes, you feel she’s earned it.


At times, Breakfast on Pluto resembles a package of Neil Jordan’s greatest hits.  Not only do we get an eccentric Irish village like the one in The Butcher Boy, but we see a sordid, sleazy side of London just as we did in Mona Lisa (1986).  And of course, there’s the strange combination of gender confusion and Irish terrorism that also featured in The Crying Game (1992) – the twist being that in The Crying Game Stephen Rea (Jordan’s most regular actor) didn’t realise until late on that the woman he was in love with was biologically male, whereas here, as Bertie Vaughan, he spots Kitten’s male origins immediately and isn’t bothered that he still fancies her.


Maybe it’s just me, but I also found Breakfast on Pluto reminiscent of the work of Scottish filmmaker Bill Forsyth, even though its subject matter is light-years removed from Forsyth’s family-friendly movies like Gregory’s Girl (1981) and Local Hero (1983).  For one thing, as in Forsyth’s films, the (biologically) male characters such as Patrick, Irwin, Lawrence, Billy, John Joe, Bertie and Father Liam are impractical and distracted, some of them inhabiting their own little fantasy worlds.  It’s the female characters who are grounded in reality.  These include the level-headed Charlie, played by the excellent Ethiopian-Irish actress Ruth Negga; the women in the Soho peepshow who become Kitten’s guardians; and a female official whom Kitten encounters in the Central Records Office at the start of her sojourn in London – the quiet concern in the woman’s face and voice shows her awareness that Kitten is ill-equipped to survive on London’s streets.


Also Forsyth-esque is the fact that, apart from the psychopath played by Bryan Ferry, nobody in Breakfast on Pluto actually seems like a bad person.  The fickle Father Liam has redeemed himself by the end and even the film’s terrorists don’t appear as out-and-out villains.  While they bumble around comically, you get the impression that any threat they pose is mostly due to their incompetence.


To be honest, I wouldn’t say Breakfast on Pluto is a great movie.  As with most episodic films, some parts of it work better than others, and at 129 minutes long it does outstay its welcome slightly.  Kitten, you feel, could be a little quicker in catching up with her parents.  Still, if you’re open to some unconventional entertainment that combines the gloriously camp with the bleakly tragic, that gives you Wombles and IRA bomb atrocities, Breakfast on Pluto is worth checking out.


© Sony Classic Pictures / Pathé 


In good company


© Palace Productions / ITC / Cannon


I read recently that a new academic study has been published about The Company of Wolves, the 1984 movie directed by Neil Jordan, based on fiction by Angela Carter and co-scripted by Jordan and Carter.  The study is the latest in a series of academic film-books called Devil’s Advocates, dedicated to classic horror movies and put into print by Auteur Publishing.  Devil’s Advocates: The Company of Wolves is the work of Northern Irishman James Gracey, who describes himself in his Twitter profile as a ‘library assistant’ and ‘occasional author of books about horror films’.  Its appearance has reminded me that The Company of Wolves is one of my favourite movies of the 1980s – of any genre, not just horror.


No doubt part of my fondness for the film stems from its source material, because I’m a big fan of the late Angela Carter and her sumptuous gothic prose.  (While I was doing an MA in 2008-2009 at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, where Carter had once taught creative writing, I was delighted one day when I got chatting with an elderly assistant at the campus bookshop and she reminisced about Carter and how she used to wander around “in a big billowy dress.”)  The Company of Wolves began life as a short story featured in her masterly 1979 collection The Bloody Chamber.  Considering how other stories in the book are adult, gothic reworkings of such fairy tales and myths as Beauty and the Beast (The Courtship of Mr Lyon), Snow White (The Snow Child) and Bluebeard (the title story), it’s no surprise that The Company of Wolves is a version of Little Red Riding Hood with, as its villain, not a big bad wolf but an even bigger and badder werewolf.


© ullstein bild / Getty Images


Carter’s Company of Wolves takes its time getting to its main plotline, though.  It begins by recounting several shorter tales and anecdotes that explore wolf and werewolf lore, and the Red Riding Hood character doesn’t set off into the forest to visit Grandmother’s house until halfway through its ten pages.  Additionally, The Company of Wolves is part of a triptych of werewolf-related stories in The Bloody Chamber – it’s sandwiched between ones called The Werewolf and Wolf-Alice (which as well as being an Angela Carter story is the name of a not-bad alternative rock / indie band).  Not only does Jordan’s movie copy the rambling, episodic and anecdotal structure of the fictional Company of Wolves, but it also borrows elements from its two hairy neighbours.


Translating into celluloid Carter’s ornate prose style – which, for example, has a midwinter forest containing “huddled mounds of birds, succumbed to the lethargy of the season, heaped on the creaking boughs and too forlorn to sing” and “bright frills of the winter fungi on the blotched trunks of the trees” and “a hare as lean as a rasher of bacon streaking across the path where the thin sunlight dapples the russet brakes of last year’s bracken” – was a job to which the Irish director and writer Neil Jordan was well suited.   His CV includes atmospheric and flamboyant supernatural movies like Interview with the Vampire (1994) and Byzantium (2012), plus the dark, twisted tragic-comic drama The Butcher Boy (1997); and many of his supposedly more realistic films like Angel (1982), Mona Lisa (1986) and The Crying Game (1992) are imbued with a strange, phantasmagorical quality too.


With The Company of Wolves, Jordan and his production team – take a bow, cinematographer Bryan Loftus, production designer Anton Furst and art director Stuart Rose – excel themselves in crafting a physical setting for Carter’s stories.  The movie mostly takes place in a pre-industrial village and a surrounding, huge Ruritanian forest.  It’s an environment that’s both quaint with thatched cottages, cobbled streets, mossy churchyards and humped stone bridges and lush with bright-coloured flowers, shaggy trees, trailing vines,  beds of fallen leaves and nests of speckled eggs (which, disconcertingly, hatch and release tiny homunculi).  Yet it’s also a claustrophobic place of misshapen branches, drifting fogs, deep snowbanks and, obviously, wolf-howls that pierce out of the dark recesses of the forest.  In other words, it’s part Romantic poem, part fevered dream and part Hammer horror.


© Palace Productions / ITC / Cannon


If anything, the plotting in the film of The Company of Wolves is more disorientating than that in the original story.  The central structure is similar: we get a clutch of little stories about werewolves – here told to teenage heroine Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson) by her grandmother (Angela Lansbury) and then, later, told by Rosaleen herself – before the film settles down to its main narrative, which is what happens one day when Rosaleen dons a red woollen shawl, leaves her village and takes a walk through the forest to her grandmother’s secluded cottage.


However, the film places this within a framing device that has Rosaleen as a modern-day girl who dreams about being in a fairy-tale village, in a fairy-tale forest, while she takes an afternoon nap in her bedroom.  (As we descend through Rosaleen’s subconscious to the main part of the dream, we also pass through a creepy transitional zone populated by human-sized versions of the dolls and toys in her bedroom, which calls to mind another Angela Carter work, the 1967 novel The Magic Toyshop.)  At the film’s end, this stories-told-within-a-dream framework collapses, for poor modern-day Rosaleen wakes from her dream to find real wolves crashing through the walls of her room.  None of which matters, of course.  The Company of Wolves isn’t a film to be processed logically.  It’s one to be simply experienced.


It hasn’t much character development, since the characters are archetypes rather than proper human beings, but it’s still well acted by a first-rate cast.  Sarah Patterson does what’s required of her as Rosaleen and German actor, dancer and choreographer Micha Bergese is appropriately lithe, flirtatious and, yes, predatory as the young hunstsman whom Rosaleen encounters on the way to her grandmother’s house.  (His eyebrows meet above his nose, which is a dead giveaway.)  Angela Lansbury makes a wonderfully spry and wily grandmother, so much so that I can forgive her for the subsequent dozen years that she spent clogging up my television screen with her dreary TV series Murder, She Wrote (1984-96).  The film also features the excellent trio of David Warner as Rosaleen’s father in both the dream world and the real one, Graham Crowden as the village’s amiable priest, and Brian Glover as the village’s resident Yorkshireman.  (At one point, Glover pontificates, “If you think wolves are big now, you should have seen them when I were a lad!”)


© Palace Productions / ITC / Cannon


In the cast too are Terence Stamp and Jordan’s long-time collaborator Stephen Rea, both of whom appear in the first two stories narrated by Lansbury.  Stamp has a cameo as the Devil, selling a youth a magical balm that, once applied, has lycanthropic consequences.  Rea plays a man who mysteriously disappears on his wedding night and then equally mysteriously reappears seven years later, to discover that his wife has since remarried and sired a brood of children with her new husband.  In the film’s most gruesome sequence, Rea shows his displeasure by becoming a werewolf – a painful process because, to facilitate the transformation, he has to tear his own skin off.


With the young, virginal Rosaleen setting out on a journey and being waylaid by a literally beastly male, but then taking control of the situation and resolving it in her own unexpected fashion, there’s obviously a lot happening beneath the film’s surface.  However, I like the fact that while The Company of Wolves is concerned with themes of female empowerment and sexuality, it isn’t a polemic.  Yes, one of Lansbury’s tales ends with an instance of domestic violence, and one of Rosaleen’s tales deals with a wronged woman getting her revenge on the cad responsible.  But Rosaleen’s parents are depicted as having a loving and sharing relationship.  Despite coming to this film after villainous roles in Time After Time (1979), The Time Bandits (1981) and Tron (1982), Warner plays a gentle soul here; and Rosaleen’s mother (Tusse Silberg) points out to her that “if there’s a beast in man, it meets its match in women too.”  Meanwhile, a village boy (Shane Johnstone) who takes a shine to Rosaleen, while evidently a lustful scamp, seems good-hearted enough and demonstrates concern for her safety.


© Palace Productions / ITC / Cannon


This nuance extends to the film’s portrayal of the church.  It’s hardly an institution of oppressive patriarchy.  Rosaleen’s final tale has Graham Crowden’s priest showing kindness to a feral wolf-girl (played by experimental 1980s singer-musician Danielle Dax).  “Are you God’s work or the Devil’s?” he asks her.  “Oh, what do I care whose work you are.  You poor, silent creature…”


You appreciate Jordan and Carter’s achievement with The Company of Wolves when you consider how many filmmakers since then have tried, and failed, to convert children’s fairy stories into darker, more adult and more gothic movies.  I’m thinking of Terry Gilliam’s disappointingly uneven Brothers Grimm (2005) or the blah Kristen Stewart vehicle Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) or crud like Red Riding Hood (2011) and Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013).


Probably the best effort has been Matteo Garrone’s Italian / French / British movie Tale of Tales (2015) which, like The Company of Wolves, isn’t afraid to confound expectations and twist and distort logic.  Which, when you think about it, is what the original fairy and folk tales that inspired both films did anyway.


© Nomad Publishing


You spend years waiting for an arty vampire movie and then three come at once


(c) Universal Studios


I’d practically given up hope of seeing an interesting vampire film again.  This was partly due to the malign influence of those Blade and Underworld movies, which were full of cartoon violence and computer-generated imagery and reduced this once-majestic and haunting sub-genre of the horror film to the level of a computer game.  And it was partly due to another malign influence, that of the Twilight movies, where vampirism became a bland metaphor for the travails and temptations faced by teenagers as they approach adulthood.  From Count Dracula to a bunch of mopey American teenagers.  What an ignominious fall from grace.


And yet recently I happened to view three – yes, three – movies on DVD, Neil Jordan’s Byzantium (2013), Jonathon Glazer’s Under the Skin and Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (both 2014), which featured vampires and tried, mostly successfully, to do things with them that were more interesting than having Wesley Snipes or Kate Beckingsdale crack open heads or having Robert Pattinson and Kirsten Stewart simper love-struck at one another.


Am I going to tell you what I thought of them?  Of course I am.  (Incidentally, for this entry I have to post a warning: PLOT SPOILERS AHEAD!)


(c) Studio Canal


Neil Jordan’s Byzantium stars Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan as mother-and-daughter vampires on the run from other, malevolent vampires, who hide out in a rundown English seaside resort – much of it was filmed in Hastings on the Sussex coast.  It got some frosty reviews on its release.  Certain snooty mainstream critics who regard all horror films as being ridiculous and / or revolting were disdainful of it.  Also, certain online horror-fan critics pooh-poohed it for being a bit uneventful, stuffy and pretentious.  Which is a pity because I found it impressive.  It’s certainly Jordan’s best movie for a while and is very welcome after The Brave One, the misfire of a vigilante movie that he made with Jodie Foster in 2007 – Neil is obviously a lot better with vampires than he is with vigilantes.  He and his cinematographer Sean Bobbitt do great things with the film’s seaside setting and, despite the place’s decrepitude, it looks admirably dream-like and phantasmagorical.  And incidentally, Byzantium breaks the first rule of Neil Jordan movies, which is if Stephen Rea isn’t in it, it’s no good.  Rea isn’t in this one but it is good.


And Jordan gets good performances from Arterton and Ronan: the former playing the hardboiled mother vampire who behaves as ruthlessly and murderously as she thinks necessary to ensure her and her offspring’s safety; and the latter playing the less jaded and more humane daughter who tries to restrict her blood-drinking to victims who want to die.  (At the movie’s start, we see a sick old man learning what she really is and inviting her to finish him off.)


Once upon a time, vampire literature and cinema had reactionary and sexist tendencies.  Women would be infected by vampire-bites and become sensual, libidinous creatures freed from the restraints of the staid Christian society around them; but then, inevitably, they’d be punished and neutralised by staid Christian men who’d drive alarmingly phallic-looking stakes into their bodies.  (Bram Stoker’s original Dracula novel helped set the template.)  Because its main characters are female, Byzantium predictably has a revisionist and feminist take on this.  At one point we even see Arterton and Ronan sitting in front of the TV and watching, without much enthusiasm, the famous Spanish-Inquisition-like scene in the 1966 movie Dracula, Prince of Darkness wherein a pointy-toothed Barbara Shelley is held down and staked by a group of monks.


But this is actually a red herring.  The male-chauvinistic villains persecuting our two heroines in Byzantium aren’t vampire-hunting mortals but other vampires.  We gradually learn that the film’s vampire society is a Freemason-like one where weird initiation rituals take place in a temple on an uncharted island.  (For an island that’s so remote and mysterious, I have to say that nobody seems to have any trouble finding it.  Throughout the film it receives a stream of visitors, all keen to change into vampires.)  This society’s membership is jealously guarded and exclusively male – and, like the Freemasons, they seem to have an unhealthy influence over the police force.  So they aren’t best pleased when a pair of upstart females sneak in when nobody’s looking and join their immortal, blood-drinking club.


While Arterton and Ronan potter around modern-day Hastings – Arterton taking over a disused hotel, the Byzantium of the title, and Ronan getting involved with a sickly youth played by Caled Landry Jones (Banshee in the first X-Men prequel) – there are multiple flashbacks to the time of the Napoleonic Wars showing how they became vampires and earned the other vampires’ wrath.  Arterton was originally a young innocent who ended up as a prostitute after being used and abused by a nasty naval officer, played by Johnny Lee Miller, who essays the same sort of arrogant prick he essayed in Trainspotting.  Later, one of Miller’s friends and comrades who was supposed to have died in battle, a kinder character played by Sam Riley, reappeared and offered Miller the secret of eternal life and youth, i.e. vampirism.  But Arterton overheard them, and not only did she steal the vampires’ secret but she later shared it with her born-out-of-wedlock daughter.


And if the film has a problem, it’s the amount of backstory involved.  There’s a lot of it and sometimes it makes the narrative a little tangled and cumbersome.


(c) Film 4 / BFI


Backstory is not a problem with Under the Skin, in which scriptwriters Walter Campbell and Jonathon Glazer (also the director) are impressively determined not to tell, only to show.  It features an unnamed and, it becomes clear, artificial woman played by Scarlett Johansson who drives a big white van around Glasgow, picking up men with the promise of sex back at her place.  But when they get back to her place…  Well, things don’t end well for those lustful blokes.  Johannsson functions as bait, luring them there so that a mysterious alien force can use them for protein.


Also in the frame are some leather-clad, motorbike-riding alien minders.  At first, we think there’s just one of them, but later it becomes apparent there are several.  They clean away traces of Johannsson’s victims, tidy up loose ends and generally display Terminator-type levels of ruthless efficiency.


And that’s all the information we get.  It’s enough to get the plot moving, which picks up momentum when the blank, machine-like Johannsson nets a victim who’s disfigured by neurofibromatosis.  His sad plight causes something unexpected – a stirring of conscience inside her.  Thereafter, she rebels against her programming, abandons her mission and flees into the Scottish Highlands with those alien-motorbike-terminators in pursuit.  But it transpires that the biggest threat to her isn’t her former alien colleagues but the human males who’d previously been her prey.  Now that she’s no longer doing what she was programmed to do, she’s become confused and defenceless; and those men have suddenly become predators.


Once Johannsson goes on the run, she encounters things that seemingly encourage her to become less alien and more human: a slice of Black Forest gateau in a café (which she immediately spews up, not being designed to eat food); a TV clip of Tommy Cooper failing to do a magic trick with a spoon and a jar (“Spoon… jar!  Jar… spoon!”); and exposure to Real Gone Kid by Deacon Blue on the radio, which prompts her to tap her fingertips in a human, non-alien way.  In fact, if I’d been her, hearing Real Gone Kid by Deacon Blue would’ve persuaded me to give up on becoming human and return to being an alien killing machine – but maybe she hadn’t watched TV during the past year and hadn’t been driven mad by those Boots-the-chemist adverts that use the song as a jingle.


Obviously, Under the Skin isn’t a traditional vampire movie.  But it has similar themes, of sexual attraction and seduction, and of something superhuman sustaining itself by feeding on the merely human, so I’ll classify it as one.


The British film industry has previous form with sci-fi / horror alien vampires, most notably in Tobe Hooper’s barmy 1983 movie Lifeforce, wherein Mathilda May played an extra-terrestrial humanoid parasite who’s brought to earth and spends much of the movie strutting around in a state of nakedness whilst draining the energy out of hapless earthlings.  In Under the Skin, Scarlett Johannsson similarly spends a lot of time being nude in the name of art – though I have to say there’s rather more art in Under the Skin than there was in Lifeforce.


I wasn’t entirely impressed by Under the Skin.  Although I like how Glazer and Campbell leave it to the audience to work things out, there are times when the storyline’s vagueness seems a convenient way to sidestep problems with logic.  The biggest logical failing is a common one in films where aliens arrive on earth and behave in a secretive, low-key (and invariably low-budget) way.  The universe is unimaginably vast and so are the distances between solar systems with habitable planets, but despite all the time, energy, technology and effort these aliens must’ve expended in travelling to our planet, they decide to be as furtive as possible when they finally arrive here.  And if an alien civilisation went to such lengths to get to earth because they wanted a food source, I very much doubt if they’d be content to send Scarlett Johannsson prowling the streets of Glasgow in a white van, picking up the occasional Ned for them to snack on.  Surely they’d be consuming humanity on an industrial scale.


(The premise was treated more believably back in 1980 in the fourth and last of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass TV serials.  This had the world’s youth gripped by a mass psychosis, which made them congregate in certain locations, where they were then harvested by deadly energy beams sent from above by unseen aliens.)


Another inconsistency involves the capabilities of Johannsson’s alien-motorbike-minders.  Early on, they seem omniscient.  They immediately turn up to destroy any last traces of those men whom Johannsson has lured to their doom.  But when Johannsson goes AWOL, they seem clueless about where she’s got to and have to organise a search for her.  Maybe their alien-hive-mind link with her is sundered the moment that she develops a human conscience.  However, the motorbike-aliens still know what’s going on for a good five minutes after she does her first human good deed – for one of them appears dismayingly quickly to sort out the mess created by that.  Glazer and Campbell, we suspect, are happy to sacrifice logic whenever it suits their plot.


That said, though, I found much to admire in Under the Skin.  Despite the way-out-ness of its subject matter, it has a raw, uncomfortably-realistic feel to it that’s different from most other sci-fi or horror films I’ve seen.  This is largely due to Glazer’s unconventional filming methods.  The initial scenes where Johannsson encounters her victims often consist of footage, shot with hidden cameras, of her talking to non-thespians, i.e. real, ordinary blokes, while she trundled around Glasgow in her van.  Once Glazer and his crew had revealed themselves and explained to these men that no, a miracle hadn’t occurred and someone who looked like Scarlett Johannsson wasn’t really trying to chat them up, but their reactions had been secretly filmed for a movie, they were invited to participate further and do the scenes back at Johannsson’s lair.  Meanwhile, for the sequence where Johannsson discovers her human side, Glazer eschewed using an actor wearing prosthetics and employed a genuine neurofibromatosis-sufferer, a non-actor called Adam Pearson.


Incidentally, the film’s atmosphere is complemented by Mica Levi’s excellent music.  There are troubling periods where strings seethe like a pit of angry snakes.  At other times, during the seduction scenes, a slow, languid but suitably-ominous refrain kicks in.  It’s the best musical soundtrack I’ve heard since Clint Mansell’s work on Duncan Jones’s Moon (2009).


And praise is due for Scarlett Johannsson – though I suspect she wondered what she’d got herself into after she’d signed the contract and found herself in Glasgow for the first day of shooting. She’s believable as the gorgeous but doll-like, affable but not-quite-all-there man-bait roaming the city in the film’s first half.  She’s talkative in a flat, oddly-direct way, her conversation consisting mostly of questions about her passenger’s personal circumstances (to determine if they’ll be missed once they’re eaten) and of startlingly-open invitations back to her place.  She’s equally believable as the confused fugitive later on.  The moment she abandons her function and stops man-hunting, her conversational powers seem to desert her and she becomes mute.


(c) Recorded Picture Company / Pandora Film


The vampires in Byzantium kill with a retractable, talon-like, jugular-slashing fingernail, while Johannsson’s killing method in Under the Skin is appropriately weird and alien; so it’s nice in Only Lovers Left Alive, directed by American indie-cinema legend Jim Jarmusch, to see vampires with properly pointy canines lurking at the corners of their mouths.  Mind you, we only see these pointy teeth when the vampires are luxuriating, and grinning mindlessly, after they’ve had a heroin-like fix of blood.  But they don’t normally use the teeth to procure the blood, by biting people.  No, they try to procure it in a more mundane but civilised fashion, which involves slipping bundles of money to a crooked doctor (played by Jeffrey Wright) at the local blood-bank in return for packages of delicious O negative.


And the vampires in Only Lovers Left Alive are an oh-so-civilised bunch.  We first see the protagonists, Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton), in a series of revolving, overhead shots showing them lying languidly on their respective living-room and bedroom floors, one surrounded by vinyl and pieces of musical equipment and the other surrounded by piles of books.  Actually, as I seem to spend a lot of my life lying on floors surrounded by music and books, I think I’d make a good Jim-Jarmusch vampire too – unfortunately, I’m not immortal and I sometimes have to work for a living.  Apart from making music and reading, these vampires don’t do much else, except for getting off with one another – for Adam and Eve are lovers – and hanging out with similarly-arty fellow-vampires like John Hurt’s Christopher Marlowe, who (surprise!) didn’t really die in 1593 but became a blood-drinking immortal instead.


Needless to say, these vampires take a low view of humanity, regarding them as grubby and stupid creatures and doing their best to avoid them.  Apart from Jeffrey Wight, Hiddleston’s only contact with the human masses seems to be a wheeler-dealer (Anton Yelchin, who plays Chekov in the new Star Trek movies), who keeps him supplied with antique guitars.  Mind you, this disdain for humanity doesn’t stop the vampires from idolising certain individual members of the species.  At one point, Hiddleston, who’s based in Detroit, takes Swinton on a nocturnal drive to show her the house where Jack White used to live; and Hiddleston has stuck to his wall a gallery of pictures showing various humans whom he admires, including Edgar Allan Poe, Oscar Wilde, Franz Kafka, Buster Keaton, Harpo Marx, William Burroughs, Patti Smith and Keith Richards.  (I suppose it’s possible that Jarmusch is implying that these counter-cultural heroes and heroines have become vampires too.  Which is quite believable in Keith Richards’ case.)


Their idyllic, secluded existence comes to an end halfway through the movie when Swinton’s vampire kid sister, an immature, irresponsible brat played by Mia Wasikowska, turns up on their doorstep for a visit.  In David Cronenberg’s 2014 movie Maps to the Stars, Wasikowska plays someone whose arrival on the scene makes everything go pear-shaped, in a few cases fatally, for the other main characters; and she has a similar effect here.


I certainly wouldn’t say Only Lovers Left Alive is among the best of Jarmusch’s films.  It’s a little vexing that a director who’s been famous throughout his career for making unconsciously cool movies should now make a self-consciously cool movie about vampires.  In Jarmusch’s earlier films, the characters were losers and / or misfits (often because they belonged to minority cultures in America’s diverse but Anglo-Saxon-controlled melting pot) who remained themselves, stuck to their guns, got on with things and achieved a certain coolness.  I’m thinking of, say, Eszter Balint’s Hungarian girl in Stranger than Paradise (1984), Roberto Benigni’s manic Italian in Down by Law (1986), the Elvis-worshipping Japanese kids in Mystery Train (1989), Forest Whitaker’s samurai-obsessed hitman in Ghost Dog (1999) and the Ethiopian neighbour played by Jeffrey Wright (again) in Broken Flowers (2006) who loves detective novels and sends Bill Murray on a quest to find his long-lost son.  It now seems a cop-out for Jarmusch to make a movie about vampires, who by their very nature – being immortal, superhuman, elegant, nocturnal and all that – are cool anyway.


That said, the movie has good features.  I enjoyed the performances, even the one by Tilda Swinton, who’s normally an actress I respect rather than actually like.  There are some sly jokes and I love the idea of Detroit – after all its well-publicised economic and social problems – becoming an ideal spot for vampires to hang out.  And as you’d expect from Jarmusch, the music is good.  The soundtrack features artists ranging from established American ones (Zola Jesus, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club) to less well-known ones from elsewhere in the world such as Lebanese singer Yasmin Hamdan and Dutch minimalist composer and lute player Josef van Wissem.


There’s nothing by Tom Waits, though, which is odd considering the association he’s had with Jarmusch in the past, in movies like Down by Law, Night on Earth (1991) and Coffee and Cigarettes (2003).  But perhaps old Tom is more of a zombie man.


Actors and Directors


An exchange between Johnny Depp and Ricky Gervais, from the first series of Gervais’s TV show Life’s Too Short:

“You know, I’m working with a great director just now.  A guy the name of Tim Burton.  You ever heard of him?”

“Of course.”

“And the film itself is really brilliant…  And, um, I’m playing a very interesting character.  Do you have any idea who my leading lady is on this film?”

“In the Tim Burton film?


“Helena Bonham-Carter?”

“How’d you know?”

“Stab in the dark.”

“She thinks you’re an idiot.”


It’s hard to believe now but there was a time when Depp made films for directors who weren’t Tim Burton.  However, of late, his partnership with the tousle-haired, black-clad director of all things gothic has increasingly dominated his career.  Some would say it’s made Depp’s career rather stale.  Yes, he was great in the 1990s when Burton gave him roles in Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood and Sleepy Hollow.  However, having been force-fed Depp-Burton versions of Willie Wonka, Sweeny Todd, the Mad Hatter and Barnabas Collins in quick succession since the mid-noughties, I suspect modern audiences hope that Depp and Burton, like a married couple whose marriage has lost its magic, might want to spend a little time apart from each other.


Anyway, this has made me think about regular collaborations between other actors and directors.  Back in cinematic history, of course, Humphrey Bogart and John Huston were a prominent acting / directing duo, as were John Wayne and John Ford.  More recently, we’ve had Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese and more recently still, Samuel L. Jackson and Quentin Tarantino.  Here are a few of my own favourite actor (or actress) / director team-ups.  Note that I’ve excluded performers who appeared in numerous movies directed by their spouses, which means there’s no mention of Gena Rowlands and John Cassavetes or, for that matter, Mr and Mrs Tim Burton.


Dick Miller and Joe Dante.


Craggy New York character actor and former middle-weight boxer Dick Miller made his name in the 1950s and 60s appearing in films directed by the human B-movie factory that is Roger Corman – for example, It Conquered the World, Little Shop of Horrors, The Premature Burial, X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, The Wild Angels, The St Valentine’s Day Massacre, The Trip and most famously 1959’s A Bucket of Blood (in which he played a very bad avant-garde sculptor called Walter Paisley who starts faking his art by murdering the annoying Beatniks at his local café and covering their bodies in clay).  When Corman moved into producing and encouraged young, up-and-coming talents to do the directing for him (on low salaries and with low budgets), Miller got passed on like a family heirloom to Corman’s prodigies – Jonathan Kaplan (1973’s Student Teachers), Jonathan Demme (1975’s Crazy Mama), Paul Bartel (1976’s Carquake), Allan Arkush (1979’s Rock ‘n’ Roll High School) and James Cameron (1984’s The Terminator – Miller is the hapless shopkeeper who furnishes Arnie with his weaponry).


However, his longest and most prolific partnership has been with Joe Dante, who by my calculations has cast him in 13 movies, from 1976’s Hollywood Boulevard to 2009’s The Hole.  Dante usually puts Miller in blue-collar roles – security guard, pizza delivery guy, garbage collector, truck driver, taxi driver and in the case of Murray Futterman, his memorably harassed character in Gremlins and Gremlins II, snowplough driver.  Furthermore, in honour of his most famous role, three of Dante’s movies – Hollywood Boulevard, The Howling (1981) and the Dante-directed segment of Twilight Zone: the Movie (1983) – see Miller playing a character called Walter Paisley.


Klaus Kinski and Werner Herzog.


Unstoppable sex-crazed schizophrenic German force meets unmoveable insane-dream-obsessed German object?  The relationship between Kinski and Herzog could be euphemistically described as ‘tempestuous’ and it was that way from the very beginning.  Their first collaboration, Aguirre, Wrath of God, saw Kinski lose his cool so spectacularly that he fired a gun at a film-crew tent and blew a fingertip off one of the extras.  Herzog, in turn, was said to have held a gun on Kinski to force him to continue filming, although Herzog denies this.  Meanwhile, 1982’s dragging-a-steamship-through-the-Peruvian-rainforest epic Fitzcarraldo was right up Kinski and Herzog’s street – they eschewed the use of special effects and did it using real steamships in real rainforest.  By this time Kinski was so off his head that supposedly one of the local Indian chiefs approached Herzog and offered to kill him.


(c) Werner Herzog Filmproduktion 


Kinski and Herzog’s other collaborations were Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), in which, miraculously, Kinski managed to keep his cool during the four-hour make-up sessions required to turn him into the bald, toothy, Spock-eared and talon-fingered nosferatu of the title, Wozeck (1979) and Cobra Verde (1987).  Herzog was so unbearable during the filming of that last movie that original cinematographer Thomas Mauch ended up walking off the set and Herzog himself didn’t employ Kinski again.


Shelley Duvall and Robert Altman.


The huge-eyed, gangly and charming Shelley Duvall was rarely absent from Robert Altman’s movies during the 1970s – she was in Brewster McCloud (1970), McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971), Thieves like us (1974), Nashville (1975), Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976) and Three Women (1977).  With her distinctive appearance, it was inevitable when Altman agreed to direct Popeye for Disney Studios in 1980 that he asked Duvall to play Popeye’s girlfriend, Olive Oyl.  (Indeed, Duvall was initially reluctant to accept the role because ‘Olive Oyl’ was the nickname she’d been tormented with at school.)  Afterwards, the actress and the director went their separate ways.  Duvall devoted herself to producing television adaptations of fairy stories and children’s books, though not before she got pursued around the Overlook Hotel by an axe-waving Jack Nicholson in The Shining (1980).


Oliver Reed and Ken Russell.


The pugnacious and permanently-pickled legend that is Oliver Reed had been making swashbucklers and horror movies for Hammer Films and swinging-sixties comedies for Michael Winner when Ken Russell – a director best described by the adjective ‘unrestrained’ – gave him a leg up into arthouse cinema.  Reed had small parts in Russell’s Mahler (1974) and Lisztomania (1975) but it was in Russell’s three best remembered films – Women in Love (1969), The Devils (1971) and Tommy (1975) – that he excelled.


Women in Love is famous for its saucy nude wrestling scene between Reed and Alan Bates – even now you have to ‘sign in to confirm your age’ to view it on youtube.  Of major concern to Reed and Bates before they filmed it, apparently, was the question of whose member would look bigger and whose would look smaller.  (To their relief, when they compared lengths, it was a draw.)  Two years later, Reed played Urbain Grandier in Russell’s hugely controversial The Devils, based on John Whiting’s play of the same name and The Devils of Loudon by Aldous Huxley – such passions did the film arouse that in a TV debate Russell walloped critic Alexander Walker over the head with a rolled-up copy of the Evening Standard (the paper that Walker wrote for) when the latter described the film as ‘monstrously indecent’.  In Tommy, Reed held his own as the title character’s brutal stepfather – holding his own was no mean feat in a movie that included Tina Turner as the Acid Queen, Keith Moon as the detestable child-molesting Uncle Ernie and Ann-Margaret writhing in a morass of baked beans.


(c) Warner Brothers 


Both Reed and Russell’s careers went into freefall in the 1980s and thereafter their paths didn’t cross again.  It might’ve been fun, though, to see Reed in Russell’s Lair of the White Worm (1988) – you could almost imagine him fumbling to open his trousers whilst bellowing, “You call that a giant worm?  This is a giant worm!”


Stephen Rea and Neil Jordan.


Irish director Neil Jordan’s films seem to need the presence of Stephen Rea.  Whether he’s in a main role – Angel (1982), The Crying Game (1992) – or a supporting one – Michael Collins (1996), The Butcher Boy (1997) – or just turning up in a cameo – The Company of Wolves (1984), Breakfast on Pluto (2005) – the lugubrious-faced Belfast actor apparently adds some talismanic luck to the artistic success of Jordan’s work.  The Rea-less Mona Lisa (1986) is an outstanding exception; but, looking at the likes of High Spirits (1988), We’re no Angels (1989) and The Brave One (2007), none of which had him on board, the general rule for Jordan’s films seems to be, no Rea, no good.


Sheila Keith and Pete Walker.


A combination of exploitation cinema and social commentary, British director Peter Walker’s 1970s horror movies were memorably grim – serving up (for the time) disturbingly graphic violence, attacking institutions like the judiciary and the Catholic church, and generally showing how depressingly grotty life was in 1970s Britain.  What helped their impact immeasurably was his repeated casting of Scottish actress Sheila Keith, familiar to several generations of British TV viewers for her appearances as prim ladies of a certain age (often aristocrats or nuns) in cosy situation comedies like The Liver Birds, Some Mothers do ‘Ave ‘Em, Rings on their Fingers, The Other ‘Arf, Bless Me Father, Never The Twain, A Fine Romance and The Brittas Empire.  But there was nothing cosy about the chilling harridans whom Keith played for Walker, in House of Whipcord (1974), in House of Mortal Sin (1975) and most subversively in Frightmare (1974), in which her Dorothy Yates character shifted gears between being a confused, pathetic, middle-aged housewife and a demented brain-eating cannibal.  Apparently, she found these roles liberating compared to her normal acting fare.  And the now-classic stills of Keith in Frighmare, wielding a Black-and-Decker drill, grinning, and splattered with a victim’s cerebral tissue, suggest an actress who enjoyed her work.


(c) Miracle


Walker cast her in two later horror movies, 1978’s The Comeback and 1982’s House of the Long Shadows, but neither was to the standard of their earlier work.  The Comeback at least has an interesting idea – an elderly couple (one of whom is Keith) take gruesome revenge on a faded rock star whom they believe induced their daughter to commit suicide.  Confronting the rocker at the end, Keith admonishes him in a hate-filled voice for his decadence and depravity and even his lewd bodily ‘contortions’ onstage.  This would’ve worked if the rock star had been played by someone properly decadent like Mick Jagger or Iggy Pop but, laughably, he’s played by Jack Jones, housewives’ favourite and singer of the Love Boat theme.  Jones’s performance was likened by one critic to a ‘hibernating bear’.


Roy Kinnear and Richard Lester.


The portly and eternally flustered-looking comic actor Roy Kinnear was a fixture in the films of American-based-in-Britain director Richard Lester during most phases of Lester’s career.  Kinnear turned up in the second of the movies Lester directed with the Beatles, 1965’s Help!, then accompanied Lester when he moved on to directing the surrealist black comedies 1967’s How I Won the War and 1969’s The Bed Sitting Room, and then provided comic relief in Lester’s The Three Musketeers and Four Musketeers in 1973 and 1974.  Around this time too, Lester cast Kinnear in his British disaster movie Juggernaut (1974), giving him a role with more depth than usual – he played Curtain, the luckless entertainments officer who has to keep a cruise-liner-load of passengers amused after it transpires that a terrorist has placed six bombs on board the ship.


Only during Lester’s box-office peak – 1980’s Superman II and 1983’s Superman III – did Kinnear fail to make an appearance in his old friend’s films.  The two were reunited in 1988 for a belated second sequel to The Three Musketeers, The Return of the Musketeers, but tragedy awaited.  During filming in Spain, Kinnear was thrown from a horse and suffered a broken pelvis.  The following day, in hospital, he died of a heart attack.  Lester was so upset by the experience that, apart from a concert film for Paul McCartney, 1991’s Get Back, he hasn’t directed a movie since.


(c) United Artists