Death log 2016 – part 1

 

© American International Pictures

 

You may have noticed that one or two people died in 2016.  Here are some folk who passed away this year who’ll be particularly missed at Blood and Porridge.

 

January 10th saw the departure of musical legend and stylistic chameleon David Bowie, who was commemorated in no fewer than three postings on this blog:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6104

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6114

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6130

 

Die Hard (1988)
Directed by John McTiernan
Shown: Alan Rickman

© Silver Pictures / 20th Century Fox

 

The British actor Alan Rickman died four days later.  Rickman’s career, and especially his talent for playing delightfully fiendish villains in movies like Die Hard (1988) and Robin Hood Prince of Thieves (1991), was also celebrated at Blood and Porridge:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6183

 

January 9th saw the passing of American actor Angus Scrimm, who’ll be fondly remembered by horror-film fans for playing the Tall Man in Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm movies.  And Scottish writer Robert Banks Stewart died on January 15th.  Banks Stewart was well-known for creating the TV detective shows Shoestring (1979-80) and Bergerac (1981-91) and he also scripted two of the scariest stories of Tom Baker-era Doctor Who, 1975’s Terror of the Zygons and 1976’s The Seeds of Doom.  The alien monsters in the former adventure, the repulsively slimy and sucker-covered Zygons, proved so popular that forty years later they’re still menacing Peter Capaldi in the revived Doctor Who.

 

© BBC

 

Another British actor to depart in January 2016 was actor Frank Finlay, who passed away on the 30th.  Finlay played Porthos in the classic trilogy of Musketeers films directed by Richard Lester in 1973, 1974 and 1989; Van Helsing in the BBC’s stately adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1977; and Dr Fallada in a less reputable vampire epic, Tobe Hooper’s hilarious Lifeforce (1985).  He also had the curious distinction of playing Inspector Lestrade in two different films where Sherlock Holmes investigates the Jack the Ripper killings, 1965’s A Study in Terror and 1979’s Murder by Decree.  The final day of January saw the death of Irish broadcaster Terry Wogan, whose twinkly-eyed, possibly toupee-bearing visage seemed to symbolise the BBC during the 1980s as much as Ronald McDonald did McDonald’s or Colonel Sanders did the KFC.  Equipped with a soft brogue, gentle wit and inability to take himself or anyone else too seriously, the ubiquitous Wogan could host any ropey old chat-show or game-show and make it entertaining.

 

Italian author Umberto Eco died on February 19th.  I always thought his acclaimed novel The Name of the Rose (1980) was overrated, but at least the film version six years later gave Sean Connery one of his last good film roles.  On February 22nd, the British cinematographer Douglas Slocombe passed away at the venerable age of 103.  Slocombe’s half-century career included such highlights as Dead of Night (1945), Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), The Servant (1963), The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), The Lion in Winter (1968), The Italian Job (1969), The Great Gatsby (1974) and the first three Indiana Jones movies (1981, 84 and 89).  Another great behind-the-scenes man of British cinema, production designer Ken Adam, died on March 10th.  Not only was Adam responsible for the spectacular and now iconic sets of seven James Bond movies between Dr No (1961) and Moonraker (1979), but he designed the War Room in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove (1964), reckoned by Steven Spielberg to be the greatest movie-set ever.

 

© Hawk Films / Columbia Pictures

 

Another Kubrick veteran, the actress Adrienne Corri who appeared in 1971’s A Clockwork Orange, died on March 13th.  Among her other credits was a role in the bloody but fairy tale-like Hammer horror movie Vampire Circus (1972).  Two days later saw the death of Sylvia Anderson, the one-time Mrs Gerry Anderson, co-producer of such classic kid’s puppet TV shows as Stingray (1964-65), Thunderbirds (1965-66), Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (1967-68) and Joe 90 (1968-69) and such adult sci-fi TV shows as UFO (1970)  and Space 1999 (1975-77).  In Thunderbirds, she also provided the voice for the gorgeous and glamorous, though frankly plastic, Lady Penelope.  Author Barry Hines died on March 18th.  His most famous work was A Kestrel for a Knave (1968), which a year after its publication was filmed as Kes by mighty British director Ken Loach.

 

© ITC Entertainment

 

The comedy world took a treble hit in spring 2016.  The English comedienne, actress, writer and director Victoria Wood died on March 24th; the Scottish comedian and comic performer Ronnie Corbett on March 31st; and the great American stand-up, actor, writer and producer Gary Shandling on April 20th.  The passing of the impish and fruity-toned Corbett prompted this tribute from Blood and Porridge:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6367

 

© BBC

 

Welsh actor Gareth Thomas, who played intergalactic freedom-fighter Roj Blake in the BBC’s downbeat 1970s space opera Blake’s Seven, died on April 13th.  Surely the most traumatic TV moment ever came at the end of Blake’s Seven’s final episode, which sees Blake bloodily gunned down by his second-in-command Kerr Avon (Paul Darrow) who wrongly suspects him of treachery.  (“Have you betrayed us?  Have you betrayed… me?!”)  A week later, on April 20th, film director Guy Hamilton passed away.  Hamilton was another James Bond alumni with four 007 movies under his belt, most notably 1964’s Goldfinger.  And April 21st was a day when another great musical talent was snuffed out: Prince.  Blood and Porridge paid its respects to the saucy purple one here:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6441

 

On April 24th we bid adieu to two character actors who’d enlivened many an old British B-movie: Australian Lewis Fiander, who’d had supporting roles in the horror movies Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971) and Dr Phibes Rises Again (1972) and was the leading man in Narciso Ibanez Serrador’s splendidly creepy Spanish film Who Can Kill a Child? (1976); and British-Chinese actor Burt Kwouk, who was best known for playing Inspector Clouseau’s manservant Cato in the Pink Panther movies, though he’d appeared in a lot of movies and TV shows besides.  Kwouk was a big favourite at Blood and Porridge, which published this tribute to him a year ago:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=5707

 

By June, the month when the United Kingdom voted for Brexit, it was clear that 2016 was going to be remembered as a monumentally shite year.  This unhappy fact seemed to be reinforced by the passing of the great Muhammad Ali on June 3rd, which was recorded on this blog here:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6607

 

From www.wantedinrome.com

 

June 12th saw the death of one of Scotland’s more outré eccentrics, Tom Leppard, aka the Leopard Man, who was reckoned by the Guinness Book of Records to be the world’s most tattooed man.  A former soldier, Leppard had his body covered in a leopard-skin pattern of spots and spent much of his later life living in a remote bothy on the Isle of Skye.  On June 19th, the American-Russian actor Anton Yelchin died in a tragic freak accident.  Aged just 27 at the time of his death, Yelchin had made a name for himself in impressive movies like Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) and Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room (2015), as well as in the rebooted Star Trek movies where he played Chekov.  And Bud Spencer, the burly Italian Olympian swimmer and comic actor, died on June 27th.  In partnership with Terence Hill, Spencer made 20 movies of rumbustious and destructive slapstick that regularly turned up as supporting features in British cinemas during the 1970s.  Watch Out, We’re Mad (1974) and Crime Busters (1977) are particularly fondly remembered at Blood and Porridge.

 

Finally, June ended and July began with what Blood and Porridge dubbed ‘the curse of the Radiohead video.’  No sooner had the avant-garde British rock band released a video for their new song Burn the Witch, which combined the look and the Claymation animation style of the classic British TV children’s shows Camberwick Green (1966), Trumpton (1967) and Chigley (1969) with the plot of the classic British folk-horror movie The Wicker Man (1974), than: (1) Gordon Murray, producer and animator of those children’s shows died on June 30th; and (2) The Wicker Man’s director Robin Hardy died on July 1st.  Here’s what Blood and Porridge had to say about Hardy:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6706

 

© XL

 

To be continued…  Unfortunately.

 

Robin Hardy 1929 – 2016

 

From www.rue-morgue.com

 

The director and writer Robin Hardy, who passed away earlier this week, made only a handful of movies.  And only one of those movies had any influence – but what an influential movie it was.  He was the director of the 1973 horror film The Wicker Man, which regular readers of this blog will know is a big favourite of mine.  It might not be quite the greatest horror movie ever made, but it’s surely the greatest one ever made in the United Kingdom.

 

And for my money, there’s nothing in the history of the British film industry that compares with its final image.  This shows the head of the burning wicker man – within which luckless virgin / policeman Edward Woodward has just been sacrificed by a community of pagans on a remote Scottish island – collapsing before the Atlantic horizon, which is glowing like a furnace while the white disc of the evening sun sinks behind it.

 

The movie / TV fan website Den of Geek marked Hardy’s passing by providing a link to a 2008 article written about the film by one of its supporting stars, the late Polish actress Ingrid Pitt.  In it Pitt amusingly spills some beans about the making of The Wicker Man: including how Edward Woodward’s biggest irritation about being inside the wicker man was not the flames licking up from below, but the sacrificial animals that were sealed inside the thing in the cages above and were peeing down on his head; or how her co-stars Britt Ekland and Diane Cilento spent the shoot moaning about their troubled marriages to their film-star spouses, Peter Sellers and Sean Connery respectively.

 

http://www.denofgeek.com/movies/13755/the-ingrid-pitt-column-the-making-of-the-wicker-man

 

(c) British Lion Films

 

Hardy’s other films were the 1986 Irish movie The Fantasist, which I haven’t seen – few people have seen it – but which certainly sounds interesting; and 2011’s The Wicker Tree, a spiritual if not a direct sequel to The Wicker Man.  As I wrote about The Wicker Tree in this blog two years ago, the sequel isn’t an outright disaster, but it’s slipshod and uneven in tone and is badly let down by the non-performances of its two American leads.  It shows how unique The Wicker Man was in its perfect balance of horror, humour, music and bawdiness – a balance that you probably couldn’t achieve twice.

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=3915

 

Before his death Hardy was trying to raise funds for a second Wicker Man sequel, provisionally entitled Wrath of the Gods.  But although we’ll never see that film now, The Wicker Man’s DNA is evident in a number of other movies made during the past two decades, most notably Julian Richards’ Darklands (1996), David Mackenzie’s The Last Great Wilderness (2002), Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz (2007), David Keating’s Wake Wood (2009) and Ben Wheatley’s Kill List (2011); and no doubt it’ll influence more movies in the future.

 

And back in May this year, Radiohead paid homage to The Wicker Man in the charming but sinister video for their recent song Burn the Witch, which depicted pagan sacrifice in a stop-motion-animated English village inspired by the 1967 children’s TV show Trumpton.  Spookily, the creator of Trumpton, Gordon Murray, died on June 30th, just two days before Hardy did – a coincidence that suggests there exists a deadly Radiohead Video Curse.  (Perhaps for their next release, Thom Yorke and the gang might want to make a video about Tony Blair, filmed in the style of a Michael Bay movie.)

 

(c) XL Recordings

 

Barking up the wrong tree

 

(c) British Lion Films

 

I’m a big fan of 1973’s classic British horror film The Wicker Man, directed by Robin Hardy, scripted by Anthony Shaffer, and about paganism on a remote (and fictional) Scottish island called Summerisle.  Indeed, I’ve posted about it several times.  For the sake of completeness, I feel I should write something too about its semi-sequel The Wicker Tree, which was also directed by Hardy and appeared two years ago.

 

I don’t particularly want to, but I feel I should.

 

For a decade The Wicker Tree was a movie that you occasionally heard rumours about but you wondered if you’d ever actually see.  The film was originally mooted in 2002, with the curious title of The Riding of the Laddie and with Hardy doing both directing and writing duties.  Acting names linked with the project then included Sean Astin, Ewan McGregor, LeAnne Rimes, Vanessa Redgrave and Christopher Lee – Lee, of course, had appeared in The Wicker Man as Lord Summerisle, the charismatic, crafty and decadent aristocrat who orchestrated all those pagan practices on Summerisle, and he’d more recently appeared with Astin and McGregor in the Lord of the Rings and second-cycle Star Wars movies.  No film appeared, but Hardy turned his screenplay into a novel with a different but equally curious title, Cowboys for Christ.

 

(c) Luath Press

 

A fresh attempt to get The Riding of the Laddie / Cowboys for Christ before the cameras took place in 2007, but before this, in 2006, there appeared an American remake of the original Wicker Man, directed by Neil LaBute and starring Nicholas Cage and Ellen Burstyn.  Set not on a Scottish island but on an American one, where a matriarchal neo-pagan community keeps its menfolk in shuffling subservience, tends to a giant complex of beehives and will do anything, however horrid, to ensure that its honey-harvest remains healthy, the remake received rotten reviews.  Indeed, it received five nominations at that Oscars-for-terrible-films, the Razzies Awards.

 

I avoided the thing out of principle, until one day I found myself on a long intercontinental flight and noticed it was offered as an inflight movie.  So I decided to give it a try.  Afterwards, I felt like chucking myself out of the nearest emergency hatch.

 

There’s many things to hate about The Wicker Man remake, including its lack of humour and its lack of music – the original was very amusing and had a lovely soundtrack of folk songs, compiled, sung and played by the late Paul Giovanni.  But what I found worst about it was the craven way it ducked the Christian-pagan conflict that was central to Anthony Shaffer’s script in 1973.  The original has an uptight Free Presbyterian police sergeant, played by Edward Woodward, searching for a missing girl on Summerisle and seeing the beliefs he’s held unquestioningly for so long treated by the pagan islanders with a mixture of incomprehension, ignorance and ridicule.  The exchanges between Lee and the increasingly-blustering Woodward mock Christian assumptions in a way that you rarely see in a horror movie.  For example: “We’re a deeply religious people.”  “Religious?  With ruined churches, no ministers, no priests?  And children dancing naked!”  “They do love their divinity lessons.”  “But they are… naked!”  “Naturally!  It’s much too dangerous to jump through the fire with your clothes on!”

 

The 2006 remake avoids all this and blandly keeps shtum about the religious beliefs, if any, of the investigating police officer.  I presume this was to avoid offending cinema audiences in church-going Middle America.

 

Meanwhile The Riding of the Laddie / Cowboys for Christ was scheduled to start shooting in 2007, but didn’t, and then again in 2008, but didn’t again.  It was meant to be shot in Dumfries and Galloway in southwest Scotland, which had provided the original Wicker Man with locations such as Creetown, Anwoth, Port Logan, Castle Kennedy and (scene of the unforgettable climax) Burrow Head.  However, the Dumfries and Galloway plans fell through too.

 

It wasn’t until 2009 that filming actually commenced, close to Edinburgh in the towns of Haddington and Gorebridge and the district of Midlothian.  By this time, the stars originally connected with the film had disappeared, except for Lee, and Lee’s participation in the project was severely curtailed after he hurt himself in a set-accident whilst shooting another film.  For a time, Joan Collins was said to be appearing in the film too, but she didn’t make it into the final cast.

 

Completed at last, the film – now called The Wicker Tree – was unveiled at a movie festival in 2011, got a very limited release in the USA in 2012 and later that year crept out with barely a whisper on DVD in the UK.  What reviews it received were unenthusiastic and I didn’t feel any urge to spend money on it until a month ago, when I saw a copy of the DVD selling at a discount in HMV.  So now that I’ve watched it, what can I say about The Wicker Tree?

 

(c) British Lion Films

 

Well, kudos first of all to Hardy for restoring the Christian-pagan conflict that the re-makers of The Wicker Man brushed under the carpet.  His main characters are a young Texan couple, Beth (Brittania Nichol) and Steve (Henry Garrett), who are serious evangelical Christians.  Not yet married, they wear purity rings, and they perform a gospel / county-and-western singing act.  Hardy tries to make them interesting by giving them backstories – before seeing the light, Beth was a dodgy Lolita-like pop starlet and Steve had a gambling addiction – but both Nichol and Garrett are deficient in acting ability, which creates a vacuum at the film’s core.  (Their inadequacy underlines how great Edward Woodward was when he played the equivalent role in The Wicker Man.)

 

Beth and Steve’s church in Dallas sends them to Scotland on a mission to convert the ‘heathens’ there.  Presumably by ‘heathens’, they mean ‘atheists’ or ‘members of misguided Christian denominations who’ve got it wrong’, rather than ‘pagans’.  In Scotland, the young twosome get invited to the village of Tressock in the Scottish Borders by the local Laird, Sir Lachlan Morrison (Graham McTavish), and his wife Delia (Jacqueline Leonard).  The Morrisons are keen that the duo should participate in Tressock’s May Day celebrations, and…  Well, if you’ve seen The Wicker Man, you’ll know where this is heading.  What bothered me was how upfront the Morrisons are about being pagans – proper pagans, not just atheists or whatever.  I’d have thought their openness about worshipping ancient gods would warn Beth and Steve that this is all very fishy and they should be running 500 miles in the opposite direction, but it doesn’t.  The pair of them, one can only conclude, are really stupid.

 

Also, as Tressock isn’t a distant island like Summerisle, but a village on the Scottish mainland, I’d have expected people in the surrounding, normal villages to start making a connection between Tressock’s odd customs and the way that people are vanishing there every May Day.  Logic, however, is not The Wicker Tree’s strongpoint.

 

Unfortunately, quite a few things are not the film’s strongpoint.  Whereas the humour in the original film was admirably balanced between wit and bawdiness, here the humour is all over the place.  Some of it fails to be funny at all and there’s at least one scene, involving Jacqueline Leonard, her butler (played by Clive Russell) and a dead pet, which feels like it belongs in another pagan-themed British movie, the 1988 meisterwerk that is Ken Russell’s Lair of the White Worm.  Now when I’m in the right mood – i.e. after consuming about ten pints of beer – Lair… seems so deliriously bonkers and camp that it’s rather enjoyable.  But I’d have liked a new instalment in The Wicker Man series to be a bit more… you know, dignified.

 

Elsewhere, things are dropped into the film almost randomly, never developed or never explained.  There’s a nice idea involving a local nuclear power station, run by Morrison, where an accident in the past caused the area to be contaminated and the men to become sterile – hence the community’s interest in those fertility rituals that are part-and-parcel of paganism.  In the original movie, Edward Woodward gradually learns about the parlous state of Summerisle’s agriculture, which explains why the islanders have turned to human sacrifice – desperate situations require desperate remedies.  Indeed, he confronts Christopher Lee with this fact at the film’s climax.  Here though, the nuclear-power-station storyline simply disappears halfway through the film.

 

On the other hand, the wicker tree of the title turns up near the end without any explanation.  The object looks admirably sinister on the movie poster, but what is it actually for?  What does it symbolise?  Why does it have to be a wicker tree?  One gets the impression that Hardy and his producers decided at the last moment that, in order to attract fans of the original movie, they needed a wicker something.  And a tree it was.  But they didn’t have any time to integrate the thing into the script.

 

There’s a final disappointment with The Wicker Tree.  Its predecessor took a real delight in exploring paganism and showing how the belief-system had, subtly, permeated every nook and cranny of the outwardly normal-seeming community on Summerisle – down to the sinister human-shaped and animal-shaped confectionary on sale in the local sweetshop.  (Check out this youtube clip at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cZKd9UbdoJY.)  But The Wicker Tree has no such interest in detail.  Tressock is full of pagans, there’s going to be a sacrifice on May Day, and that’s mostly it.

 

Actually, because Tressock is supposed to be in the Scottish Borders (where I’m based), I assume Hardy drew some inspiration from the ‘common ridings’ festivals held by the Borders towns during the summer.  As well as commemorating historical events like 1513’s Battle of Flodden, they celebrate an old practice whereby townspeople would ride along the boundaries of the local common lands and guard against encroachment, raids and plunder by lawless brigands.  Hence at the festivals you get masses of people on horseback, in riding gear, trotting through the countryside and splashing through the rivers.  Also, in one festival, the Kelso Civic Week, the principal man is known as the ‘Laddie’.  So I’m guessing this is how Hardy got his original title, The Riding of the Laddie.

 

And there’s a sequence near the end of the film where Steve – persuaded to become the principal in the Tressock festival – takes part in a traditional event that sees the Laddie pursued by the villagers, on horseback.  This slightly resembles a scene from a proper Borders riding, but in the real thing, although they may look like they’re on a hunt, the riders aren’t chasing anything.

 

For the record, there’s little, if anything, in the Borders common ridings that can be traced back to paganism.  The equestrian events I’ve just described celebrate a practice that started in the 13th and 14th centuries, long after the worship of Celtic deities had died out.  None of the ridings take place as early as May Day — they only really get going in June.  The Peebles festival, the one I have most experience of, is called the Beltane, which obviously sounds pagan and Celtic, but it was actually inaugurated in 1897 as a way of celebrating Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.  You’ll see a fair number of men dressed up as women — at the Beltane, for example, in the fancy-dress parade and during the Rugby Club show that’s traditionally performed outside Peebles’ Tontine Hotel — which is certainly something of a pagan trope.  But I very much doubt if any of the participants believe they’re acting in imitation of old pagan fertility rituals.  More likely, they’re just having fun with fishnet stockings, mini-skirts and lots of chest and bum-padding.

 

(c) British Lion Films

 

But anyway, back to The Wicker Tree.  For all my criticisms, I did enjoy it considerably more than The Wicker Man remake.  As I said, like the original film, it pitches Christianity against paganism and it attempts to be humorous, though sometimes not successfully.  And like its distinguished predecessor, it draws on folk songs for its musical soundtrack, though inevitably, without Paul Giovanni, the music isn’t quite as good this time around.  And if you can see beyond Nichol and Garrett’s non-acting, the supporting cast is fine.  Graham McTavish is solid as the villainous Lachlan Morrison – McTavish, incidentally, is best known for playing Dwalin, the fearsome Mohican-headed, Glaswegian-accented dwarf in The Hobbit movies – and Clive Russell gives a performance of enjoyable, pantomime-style villainy as Beame, his lumbering manservant.  The injured Christopher Lee, alas, is reduced to a cameo performance.  We catch a glimpse of him in a flashback, appearing to a young Lachlan Morrison and encouraging him to go to the pagan side.  He might be Lord Summerisle but this is never made clear.

 

The best performance, though, comes from the strikingly-named actress Honeysuckle Weeks, who plays the village’s resident nymphomaniac / temptress.  Her role corresponds to that of Britt Ekland in the original Wicker Man, but Hardy’s script makes her a more nuanced and sympathetic character and Weeks tackles the role so whole-heartedly that she totally eclipses the vapid Nichol.  Particularly good is a dreamy scene where Garrett happens across Weeks while she bathes naked in a country stream, hoping that the river deity will impregnate her.  One only wishes that the film had contained more moments like this.

 

Also good – in a chilling way – is a scene near the end where Tressock’s population turns on the Christians, chanting a pagan song with the same lyrics that were in a gospel song that the duo, earlier, had sung to those villagers.  As well as being disturbing, this acts as a subtle reminder of Christianity’s predilection for borrowing things from older religions, to make itself more palatable for converts.  Just as you’ll find in old churches carvings and sculptures of things that are recognisably pagan, so Beth and Steve’s Christian song turns out to have a pagan antecedent.  Actually, this scene should have served as the film’s climax, but Hardy insists on following it with further stuff – and the further stuff isn’t as good.

 

To sum up, then, The Wicker Tree isn’t as bad as The Wicker Man’s American remake, but it’s disappointing nonetheless and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who wants their fond memories of the 1973 classic to stay unsullied.

 

The irony is that the original Wicker Man is now seen as a milestone in a British movie sub-genre that’s been dubbed ‘folk-horror’.  In British folk-horror films, the threat is something that comes from Britain’s own historical or folkloric past – such films don’t rely on monsters imported from continental Europe or from Hollywood, such as vampires, werewolves or zombies.  And just as The Wicker Tree limped out on DVD in 2012, a slew of new British folk-horror movies, made by younger filmmakers and of a higher quality, were also appearing.  I’ll be writing about those films in another post, very soon.