Archive for Jenny Runacre

Dracula Schmacula

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 25, 2012 by dcairns

SON OF DRACULA, “starring” Harry Nilsson, “directed” by Freddie Francis and “produced” by Ringo Starr, seems to have been brought into being solely to disabuse me, decades after its creation, of several of my most long-cherished beliefs. These are ~

(1) The 1970s were cool (THE GODFATHER and PULP can be seen advertised in the background of a couple of shots, but they can’t compete with the awful guff going on in the foreground).

(2) The presence of Dennis Price in a vampire film is always a good sign (VAMPYROS LESBOS).

(3) Ringo Starr is a fundamentally well-meaning man who wants me to have a good time (HELP!, CANDY).

(4) Rock musicals with Frankenstein elements are the key to human happiness  (ROCKY HORROR, LISZTOMANIA)

(5) Keith Moon was exclusively in very great films (TOMMY, SEXTETTE)

(6) T Rex had alchemical powers which transmuted everything they touched into gold.

(7) Jenny Runacre can make anything cool (THE FINAL PROGRAMME).

(8) Dracula films with motorbikes are cool (THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA).

(9) Freddie Jones is the kind of guy you can depend on to learn his lines.

(10)  Shakira Caine was only ever in THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING and never made any films where she turned into a housecat.

All of these self-evident truths, previously held to be inviolate, are thrown into question by this shambling travesty — how shall I go on in a world where NOTHING is certain?

Harry Nilsson is a new kind of Dracula — quiet, authoritative, ginger. He plays the whole thing straight, which might have worked if everybody had gone along with it. After all, the script, by actress Jennifer Jayne working under a pseudonym (wisely), doesn’t actually provide any gags — apart from Dracula Jnr being called Count Down, for no reason. Ringo, as Merlin (what’s Merlin doing in this???), is Ringo. The rest of the rock stars just play music, which is a bit of a waste. The way to redeem this farrago would have been to play it absolutely straight, cutting all the “comedy” which would have taken about three minutes of script revision, and casting inappropriate musicians in all roles. THEN it might have been funny. Freddie Jones as Baron Frankenstein tries, apart from the aforementioned difficulty with the lines (which are often unspeakable sci-fi gibberish, to be fair), but think what Keith Moon could have done! Seized the role by the throat and worried it to death, I should think. And Dennis Price as Van Helsing? Sure, he seems to have sobered up for the day’s work, and Francis shoots him as if he was actually there, in the scene with the other players, which must have been a bewildering change for Price, who was usually filmed to  look as much like stock footage as possible (see HORROR HOSPITAL if you don’t believe me), but this has the effect of depriving Peter Frampton of the opportunity to wear a goatee and operate lab equipment. It’s a terrible injustice.

I was slightly surprised that this seriously obscure film, lost in the mists of time and hard drugs, features songs I recognized — that echoing yelling number (Jump into the Fire) that plays during Ray Liotta’s last day as a goodfella in GOODFELLAS, and this

Extra points for recognizing the space footage swiped from A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH. At least Freddie Francis worked on AMOLAD. Did David Niven feel raped? Probably not — he was too busy making VAMPIRA.

Francis apparently had a horrible time on this film — not the world’s greatest director (but one of the greatest cinematographers, as THE INNOCENTS and THE ELEPHANT MAN testify), he found himself employed on a rock folly tax dodge, where the professionalism which was his main attribute as director was not respected or required. He says it led him to give up directing, although one notes that he had not hit bottom yet — he made CRAZE the same year, with Satanist Jack Palance trolling for sacrificial victims in the Raymond Revuebar. The following year’s THE GHOUL and LEGEND OF THE WEREWOLF are shoddy, but mark a slight step up.

The Revuebar is glimpsed here too, in a Swinging London travelogue which actually contains the film’s only moments of visual felicity — a girl walks past and a neon light flicks on offscreen just as she catches the vampire’s eye, causing her to flare red — and the Coke sign’s red wave lights up from top to bottom EXACTLY like a pool of blood flowing downhill.

One odd thing among many — SON OF DRACULA is actually set in the future. An opening title gives the date of Dracula’s staking as “the 1880s” — which is strangely vague, as if the writer is unsure of her facts — and Count Down’s coronation, which takes up most of the plot, is set “a hundred years later” — also, he gets from Transylvania to London via the Channel Tunnel, which did not yet exist in 1974 (it’s represented by an underground car park — this is, after all, a film which boasts of being made “entirely on location”). Yet despite all this, Piccadilly Circus still boasts ads for THE GODFATHER.

Francis would show this blithe disregard for setting again in THE DOCTOR AND THE DEVILS, Dylan Thomas’ Burke and Hare script, belatedly filmed in 1985. Relocating the story to London would have been a perfectly reasonable action, since the characters are all re-named anyway, but Francis inexplicably keeps the Edinburgh locale (with a single location shot of Arthur’s Seat) but has everybody talk in cockney accents. I can understand him not wanting to give himself a migraine by reading the SON OF DRACULA script too closely, but when Dylan Thomas is involved, I think a little more care would be welcome.

I am indebted to Shadowplay informant Danny Carr for reminding me that S.O.D. (“an Apple Production”) existed, thus prompting me to obtain a copy. Remind me to stab him in the forehead next time I see him.

Lulled and dumbfound

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 16, 2008 by dcairns

“I love Irish writers… like Dylan Thomas,” Sharon Stone once famously blurted. Now THE EDGE OF LOVE, John Maybury’s non-biopic of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, opens the Edinburgh Film Festival. Collecting my press pass, I hurry along the sunbaked streets to see it.

I’m wary of films about writers, so I should confess to going in with trepidation, but (a) it’s the start of the Fest and there was nothing else on and (b) the sun was shining and I needed to gain the shade of an auditorium before my pale Scottish skin acquired the hue of scalded pork. The Cineworld nestles in the heart of Edinburgh’s Fountainbridge area, once home to Sean Connery’s milk round, but the milk float doesn’t stop here anymore. If they’d screened the movie at the Dominion Cinema in Morningside I could have called this piece “Death shall have no Dominion,” but reality is an imperfect form of poetry.

Why this phobia about writer-films? I *AM* a writer, for starters, and I can’t think of anything less interesting to watch than me, sitting here, typing this and cooking spaghetti at the same time. Can you?

Writer-films tend to boil down into two categories: those that try to capture the white heat of the creative experience (and fail) and those that turn out to be only incidentally about writers. IRIS was a love story with Altzheimer’s as antagonist. SYLVIA was a love story with depression as antagonist. TOM AND VIV (does anybody even remember that one?) was a love story with P.M.T. as antagonist. Really! I’m not joking.

The third category is occupied mainly by Paul Schrader’s MISHIMA which boldly tries to recreate the writer’s fictional worlds in cinematic form. This is risky, in that the filmed versions may not really give a true impression of what is important in a writer’s work (the specific formal qualities of WRITING), but it is probably the only plausible approach that could make filming a writer’s life worthwhile. Cronenberg’s NAKED LUNCH and Soderbergh’s KAFKA take a fourth route, injecting the author into his own fictional world (or a version of it), which seems like an interesting approach even if it fails.

A recent car advert — wait — yes, here we go: THIS recent car advert–

– used Dylan Thomas’ UNDER MILK WOOD, spoken by Richard Burton, as backdrop to some attractive images, attempting to sell you something. Maybury’s film uses the poetry in exactly the same fashion, and what is being sold is a concept of British “heritage cinema”, the kind of stuff The Film Council and BBC Films, in this case, like to make so they can feel culturally responsible. The movie is actually less successful than the car ad, since in the ad we can actually focus on what’s being said. The Maybury drowns out the whispered verse with Angelo Badalamenti’s typically lustrous score and with an overactive effects track.

Yeah, about that… There’s an undeclared war between composers and foley artists which is highly detrimental to any poetic effect in cinema. What’s the point in paying top dollar for Badalamenti’s services if you’re going to let some effects man with a sheet of sandpaper and some loose change widdle all over the soundtrack? Sound effects work can be a tremendous boon, anchoring picture to sound with deftly chosen, unobtrusive little connections, or it can be creative and miraculous in itself, as in the films of Jacques Tati. But there’s a fashion for sticking an effect on EVERY TINY MOVEMENT, and it hacks me off. Sometimes the audio track should be simple.

The other aspect of film fashion that’s tripping this film up is fast cutting. This movie isn’t even a serious offender, but it’s anxious to serve up a new image or angle every few seconds, no matter how sumptuous the current one is (the photography, by Jonathan Freeman, is always very attractive, although the constant smoky shafts of light feel more ’80s than ’40s). When Maybury produces one of his striking visual tropes, like an overhead view of Sienna Miller and Keira Knightley lying head to head on the floor, with Knightley appearing upside-down, which cuts to an inverted version of the same shot so that it’s now Miller upside-down, the effect is diffused, rendered less consequential, by the gratuitous insertion of a side-on wide-shot, providing context, sure, but MEANINGLESS, UNNECESSARY context.

This anxiety about keeping our interest also perhaps explains the superimposed titles announcing that we are in the London underground during the blitz, or in Greece. Of course the first fact is utterly obvious to anybody with knowledge of British wartime history and the ability to see that the shot is of an underground station crowded with sheltering people in ’40s dress, and the second fact doesn’t particularly matter. But the Film Council really wants us to understand what the Film Council wants us to understand.

Maybury, whose experimental films win plaudits and whose LOVE IS THE DEVIL was an art film about an artist that genuinely did justice to the art and the person, while using cinematic language to capture the feeling of Francis Bacon from the inside, seems to be under the close supervision of the Style Police. The Heritage Cinema Goon Squad have their eye on him, and they whisper darkly that he may, of course, use stylised effects, odd angles and CG manipulations of the imagery, as long as –

1) He uses them VERY BRIEFLY.

2) He spreads them thin so that the overall surface of the film is totally conventional.

3) He uses them in a purely gestural way so that they DON’T MAKE ANY DIFFERENCE.

So much for style. The film-making is perfectly inoffensive and just interesting enough so that we know a director turned up each day.

The script takes the traditional approach to a writer’s life, ignoring the work and concentrating on the important business of showing that artists are generally shits. One thing that stops this rather traditional approach from seeming immediately boring is a certain lack of focus in the writing — there are four main characters, and absolutely no effort has been made to select from their various stories and relationships a central thread upon which to hang the film. The coda strongly suggests that this is that rarity, a love story between two heterosexual women — but this won’t do at all, since the climax doesn’t actually offer an active role for one of them. But as I say, the confusion works in the film’s favour to some extent, preventing it from becoming a banal piece of poet-bashing.

Dialogue is generally good, avoiding obvious period mannerisms but equally steering clear of anachronism. The film deserves credit for mapping a splendidly twisted set of emotional knots. None of it exercises any real pull on the emotions (I’m a sucker for WWII British stuff, a screen brimming with stiff upper lips will usually have me blubbering, but this movie is all about Celts emoting at each other, so there was no room for me to weep). Acting was first-rate though, and each of the thesps deserves special consideration.

Matthew Rhys, by rights the star, is credited fourth, presumably because he’s less famous than the others. I bet Keira Knightley’s agent bullies Matthew Rhys’s agent, flicking his ears and pulling his tie tight. But this obscurity can’t last, as he’s endearing, gorgeous and interesting (can any other Brit prettyboy tick all those boxes?). His smile has the same repulsive allure as Richard Burton’s, a comparison he’ll probably be bludgeoned with until he takes to drink, but he’s way cuter than Burton.

Sienna Miller, often dismissed in the past, is lusty and sympathetic here. (Odd, with the script being fairly brimming with passions consummated, that the film is so squeamish about the human body. A paroxysm of editing prevents us catching more than a glimpse of Miller climbing into a bath, lest we be turned to stone by presumably the Medusa-like gaze of her backside, and the men remain chastely covered at all times. A needle stitching a wound is the fleshiest image on display. Even the Thomas’ baby son appears to be devoid of genitals.)

Cillian Murphy presents his usual smooth marble countenance and steely blue eyes, and rivets the attention, but his character’s post-traumatic stress disorder is chucked in as an afterthought and never acquires the necessary dramatic force. What should have been a central plank of the drama is reduced to a couple of bits of “avant-garde” doodling from Maybury. You can’t really bring this stuff alive without choosing a P.O.V. character and sticking with him (as in Henry Jaglom’s disturbing TRACKS) or at least showing the disturbed behaviour develop over time, but the film is two-thirds over by the time the script gets around to Murphy’s plight.

Keira Knightley. All too often something of a stick, that girl. A wooden stick. A wooden stick, exquisitely whittled into the shape of another, thinner wooden stick. Here and there have been signs of improvement, and now, like many dedicated pretty girls before her, she has evolved into a proper actress. The difficult Welsh accent (one false step and you’re in Pakistan) is grasped firmly, but even more impressive are the Welsh facial expressions. I, like you, dear reader, was unaware such expressions existed, but they do, and K.K. has mastered all seven of them. For a moment it looks like at least three of them are going to be intensely annoying, but that soon passes as you get to know the character.

Two cameos deserve mention: Jenny Runacre is glimpsed as “Woman in Yellow Dress”, the kind of walk-on that actually makes me slightly cross. Runacre was part of ’70s Britain’s greatest screen couple with Jon Finch in THE FINAL PROGRAMME, and she’s the only woman to have won the Alternative Miss World Competition, an event generally favouring the drag queen. She deserves starring parts. I’m reminded of Kathleen Byron standing mutely in a graveyard in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. Of course it’s nice to see her again, but it’s a terrible insult to use her as an extra. That’s like hiring Maggie Smith to tend the honeywagon.

Secondly there’s Suggs, in the important minor role of “Crooner”, a slightly distracting presence for those of us who grew up with Madness on the radio, and one that immediately suggests a double-bill of this movie with THE TALL GUY. An air-raid! I immediately fear for Suggs’ safety. A flurry of frantic frames, lit by flailing flashlights, finishes with a frightful fact — Suggs is slain.

Suggs is slain.

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