Archive for Stephen Murphy

My City 4: The Brodie-Snatcher

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 25, 2010 by dcairns

THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE.

Miss Jean Brodie and her girls are spied upon by Robert Stephens from his artist’s garrett as they walk through Greyfriars Churchyard. This is a key location in all versions of GREYFRIARS BOBBY (where the wee dug sits by his master’s grave) and also in Val Lewton and Robert Wise’s film THE BODY SNATCHER, which conflates the Burke and Hare story (as filtered through Robert Louis Stevenson’s fictionalization) with that of Bobby, who is disguised under the stage name Robbie. The low-budget Lewton makes do with an establishing shot of some other church and then plunges into the studio.

The real churchyard (or kirkyard, if you want to be sectarian about it) is quite a place, although difficult to capture on film — the real frissons come from extreme details of the weathered stonework, angels and deathsheads with their features eaten away by wind and rain. But it’s also a useful place because you can look in all directions without much chance of seeing anything too modern.

Fiona and I used to live on Forrest Road, overlooking the cemetery just like Robert Stephens, although I starved one flight up, rather than in a garrett. Trilby, Fiona’s then cat, and my current avatar, once escaped out the window, over another rooftop, and into the hallowed grounds. She returned unharmed the next day, which was a relief, since she was a housecat unused to the ways of the exterior. I don’t know what she’d have done if she’d met Greyfriars Bobby’s ghost — and remember, according to the ancient Egyptians (generally reliable) cats can see the spirits of the departed. You know when you catch your cat staring fixedly at nothing…?

A strange feature of the place, just about visible above, is the way some of the grave markers are actually built into the walls of residences surrounding the graveyard. Also, many of the graves are enclosed in little stone buildings with gates that lock, which is largely a protection against body-snatchers. St John’s Churchyard, a short distance away on the corner of Princes Street and Lothian Road, even has a watch-tower to allow a guard to keep an eye out for nocturnal speculators armed with shovels.

The cemetery was used again in BURKE AND HARE: THE MUSICAL, a film I wrote sometime in the last century. Had Burke and Hare ever actually engaged in graverobbing (which is unknown — they were arrested for mass murder, having followed the simpler practice of generating fresh corpses rather than harvesting them from the earth), Greyfriars would probably have been their local place of work.

We were allowed to plant little wooden crosses so we could pretend to dig up a fresh grave. The cemetery is apparently full of unmarked graves, including that of William McGonagall, the world’s worst poet (an influence on both WC Fields and Spike Milligan). It seems likely the grounds may have once been peppered with pauper’s markers. To fake the grave-robbery, a fake mound of earth was erected — no hole was actually dug. The corpse here is played by Simon Vickery, a talented cameraman.

A prostitute who winds up on a slab is played by genius director Morag McKinnon, whose feature debut may be getting released this year (I hope so!). And the director of B&H, Stephen Murphy, now earns a living in special makeup effects, notably on the HARRY POTTER films. Meanwhile, I have a screenplay to write, so –

[sound of echoing footsteps diminishing in the distance]

Eyes in their Stars

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 18, 2009 by dcairns

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Stephen Murphy (makeup effects); Morag McKinnon (director); Kiyoyuki Murakami (translator/sound recordist); some pie (comestible). 

So, my friend Kiyo, visiting from Japan, left on Wednesday. Last time he visited and left I got bushwhacked by sudden emotion, which would probably have happened again, except for the comedy relief he thoughtfully supplied. “Thank you for your hospitality, and… thank you for everything you did to me,” he said, as he got into the cab, then sat down, missing the seat and landing on his arse on the floor. “That was a good one, wasn’t it?” he remarked, cheerfully.

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I always found these space aliens, from the Japanese WARNING FROM SPACE, completely adorable in the movie stills I saw. With Kiyo departed and myself in nostalgic mood, I shoved the disc, a gift from composer Matt Wand, into the Panasonic and let ‘er rip. 

A ready-made Fever Dream Double Feature, the disc consists of both WARNING FROM SPACE and the uncannily similar THEY CAME FROM BEYOND SPACE, an Amicus production that likewise features astronomer heroes, meteors that land in formation, extraterrestrials that take human form, and plot twists that shift the invaders from hostile to sympathetic and (sometimes) back again.

The other film BEYOND SPACE (the moon is beyond space? That’s a conservative estimate of the size of the universe, isn’t it?) resembles is another British UFO flick, THE BODY STEALERS. But that one, a Tigon production, is beyond dull. Despite being shot by the talented John Coquillon (WITCHFINDER GENERAL, PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID) it contains only one striking shot:

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A body worth stealing.

The Amicus effort is a lot more interesting, thanks to occasional wisps of inventiveness from director Freddie Francis, and excellent production design in the aliens’ lair, and even in the astronomers’ HQ, where a psychedelic floor painting livens things up. Francis was generally a weak director, at least compared to his brilliance as a cinematographer, but he could rise to the challenge when a film offered him something of visual interest to get his teeth into. Oddly, here and in LEGEND OF THE WEREWOLF, it’s the photography that often lets things down, with awkward transitions from day-for-night to night-for-night, something that NEVER works (honourable exception: THE PROFESSIONALS, shot by Conrad Hall). 

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Robert Hutton is our hero, a stiff bit of imported American timber, whose characterisation consists of (a) driving a vintage car, like Jon Pertwee in Doctor Who, and (b) having a metal plate in his skull, which turns out to protect him against alien possession. This results in an endearing bit where Hutton’s pal, Zia Mohyheddin, must fashion a brain-shield out of golf trophies and spend the rest of the film looking hilarious. Things like this keep the film going: most B-movie scifis are painfully lacking in ideas, seeming to equate creativity with expense. This one throws in a new novelty just often enough. A senior security guy from the secret service suddenly contract freckly plague — apparently by telephone. Staggering from the phone booth, he dies in seconds and immediately infects the doctor who rushes to his side. The delirium of the pace is dreamlike, aided by the surreal intensity of the doctor’s performance: we think of dreams as slow and floaty, but this sequence captures the abruption and ellipsis of dream-narrative very well. 

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The biggest mistake is probably the casting of Michael Gough as “the Master of the Moon”. Stressing every other word and thrusting his head about like a querulous chicken, Gough is very much on form, but when he has to convert back to being the human being possessed by the M of the M, he plays “Arthur Grey” in exactly the same manner, which leaves the ending in a terrifying limbo. Does this mean that all the humans possessed by the invaders are permanently strange? Are we doomed to become a race of Michael Goughs? Look around you! Can you be sure it isn’t already happening?

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WARNING FROM SPACE isn’t quite as full of surprises, but does switch genres in midstream, from invasion film to disaster movie. The starfish eyeball people from beyond infinity turn out to be warning mankind of a terrible threat, a comet (resembling a sun, in fact) on collision course with Earth. Cue lots of shots of screaming civilians evacuating Tokyo, apparently unaware that the surrounding countryside is still technically Earth. 

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It’s all decent entertainment if you’re as mentally twelve as I am, although maybe the film could have actually gotten by with fewer ideas. I would have been quite happy to just watch the starfish guys wandering about Tokyo, trying to buy beer or chat up the locals. When you have aliens as delightful as this, plot just gets in the way. Instead, the alien leader transmogrifies herself into a celebrity lookalike, travels to Earth, is washed up in a lake, and is quickly suspected of being what she is — her tendency to leap six feet in the air while playing tennis, and to teleport through plate glass, as well as the fact that she’s the doppelganger of a famous cabaret performer, tending to promote suspicion.

Also, because of the period it was made in, the colour process and the settings irresistibly recall Ozu’s late work, although director Koji Shima throws in the odd Dutch tilt, which is surely enough to disbar him from the transcendental style lodge.

The film was pan-and-scanned, the colour was faded, and the dialogue was dubbed (English dub by Jay Cipes, who married Edgar Ulmer’s daughter Arianne — and I think that might be Arianne’s voice playing the alien leader). So arguably I haven’t actually seen this film at all. But if I’m about to mutate into Michael Gough I don’t suppose it matters.

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The Woman in Red

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 13, 2009 by dcairns

Light posting this week, since my friend Kiyo from Japan is visiting. Happily, his trip also coincides with a visit from our chum Stephen Murphy, special effects makeup artist extraordinary, so a get-together in grungy local pub The Phoenix was swiftly organised.

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Woman in Red 1.

From left, Stephen Murphy, who transmogrified Jude Law in SLEUTH and decorated the goblins of HARRY POTTER: Kiyoyuki Murakami, who translates STAR WARS literature for Japan (and who was delighted to find that Darth Floyd/Pink Vader T-shirt); lady in red Fiona Watson, screenwriter and muse (“I look like the dwarf in DON’T LOOK NOW!”); Brian Robinson, screenwriter, rodent-frightener and excellent blogger.

When Kiyo’s around, I see the world through fresh eyes: things that seem normal enough, like the information centre for Polish immigrants, of whom there are many hereabouts, suddenly pops out of the landscape because it’s called Planet Poland. And Kiyo’s use of language also makes me hear things differently. He arrived Wednesday evening, having been traveling “for fourteen years”, so he was quite tired. The job was to keep him conscious until nightfall in order to get his body onto British time. I remembered when I first went to New York, and my friend Comrade K blew my frazzled mind by screening Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s CURE (I hadn’t seen any KK at that point), so I whipped out a disc of KKurosawa’s RETRIBUTION which Comrade K had sent me, figuring a tired Kiyo could better follow something in his native language.

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Woman in Red 2.

But as devotees of the mysterious KK know, “following” is perhaps the wrong word for what you do when you join his audience. Or maybe it’s the right word, more right than it usually is: you enter the labyrinth and sift through the traces of the departed auteur, trying to make sense of the spoor and property damage left in his wake, pursuing a filmmaker who often seems far ahead of you. Those who like their films simple, unambiguous and tonally consistent are likely to find KK talented but undisciplined. The truth is, his particular discipline leads him to depart from the traditional templates which allow us to watch without thinking.

RETRIBUTION begins with its title, which is probably the last straightforward thing that happens, but even that straightforwardness is deceptive. “It’s not really called RETRIBUTION,” observed Kiyo, reading the kanji above the English subtitle. “It means MORNING, or THE SHOUT,” he went on. Japanese is an interesting language. “No, not THE SHOUT… THE SCREAM,” he concluded. 

Now, in this Wes Craven-smeared age, I can see why the distributors might shy away from using the S-word, but it’s definitely a shame, since that original title would have provided a clue to one of the film’s visual motifs –

This woman in red is the film’s avenging ghost, who pops up when least expected and causes numerous citizens to meet watery graves. Salt watery graves, to be specific. (“Frolic in brine / Goblins be thine,” as the subtitles of RINGU sought to assure us, in perhaps the most benighted couplet in subtitling history). Her dress, so brilliantly coloured and so flat in its colour, reminded this former art student of something, and the Japanese title was enough to clinch it –

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This is the closest match I could find, but there are other less obvious visual cues in Edvard Munch’s prints and paintings, in the way he uses a brilliant slab of colour to puncture and destroy any sense of perspective. As Riona Hazuki drifts through the frame in her searing red dress, floating as if mounted on a camera dolly, the brightness of her costume cutting her off from the surrounding reality, the creator of that other celebrated Scream is irresistibly brought to mind.

Incidentally, where does that floating on a dolly idea come from? I’ve used it myself, in my short film CLARIMONDE. The earliest dollying ghost I can name is in William Castle’s THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, but in Cocteau’s LA BELLE ET LA BETE he does mount Josette Day on some kind of trolley so he can trundle her through the Beast’s mansion. In this case, the purpose behind the effect is to make the environment strange, rather than the character.

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We all enjoyed RETRIBUTION quite a bit, it’s spooky and disconcertingly funny and very creative. It’s almost a straightforward genre piece  compared to something like CHARISMA, but there are plenty of moments when you feel you might be losing track.  Which is good. And Kurosawa produces humorous effects and almost-humorous effects in surprising ways. My favourite was probably when depressed cop Kôji Yakusho interrogates a female suspect on a patch of waste ground — yanking a dusty, discarded office chair from a heap of rubbish, he sits on it and faces her, transforming the vacant lot into an impromptu interview room.

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