Archive for Black Angel

I am a boy

Posted in FILM with tags , on September 28, 2016 by dcairns


I think we all have things like this… here’s mine.

I was talking to students yesterday – and what a relief to be actually talking to students, maybe even TEACHING, as opposed to endless admin…

Anyway, I was talking to students and the conversation triggered a memory…

I think we all have things like this… but I don’t have many because I’ve solved most of mine. We all have memories of things we saw on TV where we didn’t know what they were, maybe because we tuned in late or we were too small. But an image stuck in our minds and haunts us. The mystery is part of it, though the thing would still have resonance anyway. I think mine were pretty mysterious and fantastical — one I recently solved was BLACK ANGEL, which I knew I saw as a supporting short in front of SOMETHING during my dim youth — it turned out to have been screened with THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. Though the short itself is flawed, it does have a lot of the style and atmosphere I remembered…

Anyway, the conversation triggered a memory… There used to be shows on BBC2 “For Schools and Colleges,” and occasionally we got to watch them in school. I think maybe a teacher was sick on this occasion but for some reason we as a class — this was primary school so I was between five and eleven… closer to the latter… so figure mid-to-late seventies. And we saw a short film…

I’d say it was British and probably BBC-made. A boy was wandering on a beach. He considered getting in a barrel or drum and the had a vision of himself drifting helplessly out to sea. Then, even scarier, he explored a sea cave. There was an echo, and he played games with it. At one point he shouted “I – am – a – boy!” and the echo came back: “I – am – a – aaaa!”

I think he ran away at that point and I’m surprised we didn’t also.

I have no idea why I was subjected to this alarming film in school at such an impressionable age. I’m kind of glad I was though. I’ve probably forgotten everything else that happened in school that year. But What Was It?

If you can’t help me, tell me your own mysteries.

Trouble in the Glen

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , on March 5, 2014 by dcairns


I had this distant memory of a film, and I never knew what it was. I suspect everybody has something like that. I actually have fewer than most, having tracked so many down and worked out what they were. But one that stuck in my brain involved a knight fighting a spectral figure who kept vanishing in a cloud of stoor, and then he somehow was underwater, and the whole thing was very spooky.

This was a short film screened as support for a feature, but (a) my family arrived halfway through the film so we never knew what it was called and (b) over the years I forgot which film was the main feature, so it became impossible to research. I asked on the odd message board, describing the short as best I could, but nobody could help.

Well, now the film has turned up, and I was able to see it with Fiona at Edinburgh Filmhouse in the presence of the director, Roger Christian. It’s called BLACK ANGEL.


Christian had been an art director, working on THE FINAL PROGRAMME and ALIEN and MAHLER — good stuff. He would later direct cult film THE SENDER and despised Scientological sci-fi BATTLEFIELD EARTH.

What was exciting was (1) to discover that BLACK ANGEL was shot in Scotland and (2) that it has all the creepy atmosphere I remembered seeing it with THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. Christian had been influenced by Kurosawa and Tarkovsky and myth, and the resulting film is elusive in plot — well, downright messy at times — but extremely stylish and beautifully photographed by newcomer Roger Pratt (BRAZIL) and scored by Trevor Jones with electronic additions by Paddy Kingsland. The acting is mainly adequate, but its the mood that counts. Christian’s lack of experience shows in the writing, but what he writes with the lens is often beautiful. It’s actually really nice to see the zoom lens used subtly but insistently. The slight lack of clarity in the storytelling actually means that the experience of seeing in as a fortysomething was remarkably similar to seeing half of it as a teenager — you can’t quite work out what it’s all about, but it lodges in the mind’s less rational back room.


According to Christian, the film was funded by the old Eady Levy, which took a portion of cinema earnings to support new talent, and got the support of George Lucas, who liked it so much he borrowed the step-printed action sequence technique for a moment in EMPIRE. I always hated step-printing, actually — when not part of the plan, as in Wong Kar-Wei’s FALLEN ANGELS, it tends to come across as a cheap alternative to proper slomo. RC freely admitted that the fight scene wasn’t impactful enough and his film was running a couple of minutes too short, so it was kind of an act of desperation. The epic soundtrack sells it.

I’m interested in hearing about your half-remembered, nameless films. Maybe we can ID them.

Skelton in the Closet

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 21, 2010 by dcairns

I’m very glad I looked more closely at Roy William Neill’s work, because during this last hectic yet sedentary week of marking student’s films (and production files, screenplays etc), I barely had the energy to watch any movies at all. But Neill’s SHERLOCK HOLMES movies (he made eleven of them) are perfect entertainments for the tired academic — short (usually just over an hour), funny, atmospheric, and plotty without being too demanding. And the warmth of entering a cosy B-movie world peopled by familiar and loved character actors is not to be underestimated. Besides these restful merits, the films are stylish and witty, and managed the difficult (and somewhat unwise) task of removing Homes and Watson from their Victorian roots and planting them in WWII era settings, the better to shoehorn in propaganda messages, sometimes as overt as direct quotes from Churchill. Despite this potentially damaging decision, under Neill’s production and direction, the movies are thickly foggy, shadowy and authentic to the spirit of their source material.

Does anybody have a good source of info on Neill? What’s available online is patchy but intriguing. We learn that he was the Holmes expert on-set, deferred to by Basil Rathbone, who called him “dear Mousey.” He was born on a ship off the coast of Ireland. His father was captain. He died while visiting relatives in England, just after finishing the last Rathbone-Bruce Holmes movie, and the excellent Cornell Woolrich adaptation BLACK ANGEL. His was a Hollywood career, but he had returned to the UK to make DOCTOR SYN, with George Arliss, and nearly directed what ended up as Hitchcock’s THE LADY VANISHES. His Holmes films benefit from a strong sense of Britishness, and in particular, oddly enough, Scottishness.


These “English relatives” fascinate me, because Neill is a Celtic name, suggesting Irish or Scottish roots, and Neill’s Holmes movies are peppered with Scottish characters and situations. In PASSAGE TO ALGIERS, Holmes and Watson are planning a Scottish fishing holiday. In THE SPIDER WOMAN they actually manage it, at the start of the movie. TERROR BY NIGHT takes place on the London to Edinburgh train, and HOUSE OF FEAR plays in a remote Scottish village, and amid the extensive cast there isn’t a single embarrassingly fake accent. THE SCARLET CLAW is set in Canada, where we naturally run into a couple of Scotsmen, including David Clyde, brother of silent comedian Andy. And every other film seems peppered with Scots cameos, from reliable bit-player Alec Craig, and series regular Mary Gordon as Mrs Hudson. Nigel Bruce himself, of course, was descended from Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland.

All of this could simply be in homage to Edinburgh-born Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle. But such a tribute seems unlikely unless Doyle’s origins had some personal meaning to Neill, so I’m holding out for a Scottish connection until proven wrong.

Here’s Skelton Knaggs in TERROR BY NIGHT, as a Scottish hitman, a role he luxuriates in obscenely, coming across like a depraved rentboy from Kelvinbridge.