Archive for Julian Sands

Nights at the Villa Deodati #2: Phantasmagoria

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 13, 2016 by dcairns


I saw GOTHIC at the Cameo Cinema on its first release in 1986. I went alone. I watched alone — I don’t remember another soul being there, though I suppose there must have been somebody else in the audience. If Messrs. Golan & Globus had witnessed that matinée, they might have thought twice about bankrolling Ivan Passer’s HAUNTED SUMMER, which violated the law discovered by his fellow Czech filmmaker Milos Forman on VALMONT: “Never make a movie that somebody else has just made.”

In HAUNTED SUMMER, screenwriter Lewis John Carlino “solved” the problem of the fact that nothing much is known to have actually happened during the summer when Mary Shelley hatched the idea for Frankenstein by writing a historically faithful script in which nothing much happens. In GOTHIC, Stephen Volk, a writer who has shown an admirable devotion to the fantastique throughout his distinguished career, tackles the same problem in a number of ways —

  1. He folds into the story the characters’ backstories, so that dramatic events from their pasts can inform the action. Byron’s incestuous love for his sister and, crucially, the death of Mary’s first baby, are introduced via dialogue, some of it a bit awkwardly expository, and then can be played out in the ensuing psychodrama. Whatever the merits of the execution, the idea is a masterstroke, creating a human drama behind the authorial act which is our prime reason for being here — it’s unbelievable that the other movies on the subject neglect to do this.
  2. He also incorporates glimpses of the characters’ tragic futures, seen in psychedelic visions. This is also much more satisfying than HAUNTED SUMMER’s wrap-up, where a flurry of tragic deaths is dispensed with in a few titles at the end, leaving the odd impression that we’ve been watching the wrong scenes from the protagonists’ lives.
  3. By plunging the audience into the drug-induced paranoia of a frenzied laudanum party, Volk concocts a supernatural plotline in which a kind of séance seemingly unleashes all manner of hellspawn. I don’t think this is fully developed in narrative terms, perhaps because the barely-glimpsed monster is given short shrift compared to all the onscreen psychotronics, but it certainly gives rise to lots of good images.


Russell was returning to British cinema after an interesting American adventure which self-destructed with the barely-released CRIMES OF PASSION, from which the MPPAA cut around 40 mins (“They cut everything to do with art,” observed Ken.) I now look rather affectionately upon this penultimate phase of his career — I still can’t get on with the home video works that followed it, but I’ll speak up on behalf of LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM, SALOME’S LAST DANCE, and GOTHIC. Not so keen on THE RAINBOW, alas.

Russell was also giving interviews in which he extolled the virtues of the fast forward, saying he’d enjoyed RUMBLE FISH but that he’d watched it at double speed, which improved it. GOTHIC feels a bit like the script is on fast-forward, as if Russell couldn’t wait to get to the leaches and severed heads, and couldn’t be bothered allowing any of the characters to start breathing as human beings. A talented cast, plus Julian Sands, are left gasping for air with unformed lungs like poor Mary’s premature baby. They are ~

  1. The late, lamented Natasha Richardson. Her decision to give Mary a Scottish accent is surprising — Mary spent maybe a year and a half in Scotland, max. But alone among the cast she establishes a baseline of credibility — she doesn’t get space to develop it, but she’s always believable, even when required to disgorge implausible amounts of exposition.
  2. Julian Sands. Sands is good in some stuff. Not here. His Percy Bysshe Shelley alternates between acting as if he’s SHOUTING, while speaking at normal volume, and drawing the edges of his mouth as far back as possible, like a monkey in a wind tunnel, or a man attempting to eat a Wagon Wheel biscuit in one go. He’s supposed to become hysterical, but he’s already hysterical, and in the wrong sense of the word. Bysshe Bash Bosh.
  3. Gabriel Byrne. Naturally Byronic, but unimpressive stripped to the waist, incipient moobs aquiver. Suffers a bit from having Every Famous Thing Byron Ever Said as dialogue. Next to Sands he sounds like a genius though.
  4. Timothy Spall. Knows he’s in a Ken Russell film, so is playing it like Murray Melvin in THE DEVILS, but an MM who has been mysteriously inflated with methane.
  5. Myriam Cyr. The least-known one, and the most memorable, with her huge eyeballs. One of a harem of Russell lovelies who only made one indelible impression (Alita Naughton, Imogen Millais-Scott). Her sparse other credits include FRANKENSTEIN UNBOUND and FRANKENSTEIN AND ME. The woman’s clearly obsessed.


Every version of this story seems to feature one surprise unknown. In HAUNTED SUMMER it was Philip Anglim, whom we’d never seen before. At his first closeup, Fiona cruelly and hilariously remarked “No.” She was already smitten with Stoltz as Shelley. Later she admitted Anglim was pretty damn good. The best of the Byronic batch, actually.

“You’re not allowed to criticise the score,” said Fiona, a Thomas Dolby fan from way back. After five minutes, she was criticising it, or at any rate saying “The score is a disaster.” When the movie is prematurely hysterical, the score is a particular problem. Russell has lost his patience as a filmmaker, and patience is a form of courage — believing you can make the audience wait for something. So the movie isn’t scary, despite throwing everything at us. It’s frequently freaky, though.


The last act is where it all kicks in and starts working. Since the visual stuff works better than the talking headcases, it would be easy to give Russell all the credit, but he was careful to praise Volk’s script for the fact that it served up delicious images, more valuable than words. So Russell’s hectic tempo is responsible for some of the apparent writing flaws, and Volk’s visceral writing deserves some of the credit for the film’s feast of imagery. Mary Shelley in a timewarp, glimpsing the future, encapsulates the premise of FRANKENSTEIN UNBOUND in five minutes better than that movie manages in its whole runtime.

My favourite images —


Ken recreates his beloved Busby Berkeley’s Lullaby of Broadway sequence, only with a skull instead of Wini Shaw.

A bit of T & eye. Not frightening. But bizarre. (see top)

A simple closeup, utterly beautiful and more haunting than anything else we’ve seen.


To Russell, the cardinal sin was to bore, and on that basis, GOTHIC wins the Battle of the Byrons. But read on…

Film is a Battlefield

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 5, 2016 by dcairns


Enjoyed very much the TV play We’re Doomed! The Dad’s Army Story, in which the origins of the beloved sitcom Dad’s Army are explored. John Sessions absolutely CHANNELS the spirit of the late Arthur Lowe, with sterling lookalike and soundalike work from Ralph Riach as dour Scotsman John Laurie, a Shadowplay favourite, Shane Ritchie as Bill Pertwee, and Roy Hudd as Ray Flanagan, the thirties comedy star who sang the theme tune.


NOT so successful, though fascinating as a piece of casting, is Julian Sands as John Le Mesurier. Le Mez was almost a special effect as much as an actor, a persona so unique and indefinable as to possibly defy impersonation. Sands’ best work in my view was THE KILLING FIELDS, where the man he was playing stuck around on set out of sheer vanity to see himself played by an actor, providing a handy reference point for the star into the bargain. Here, he doesn’t have the real man to refer to, and who among us can imagine Le Mez NOT acting? I’d like to think he was exactly the same in civilian life, but I have no idea.


Another Dad’s Army star is Arnold Ridley, author of The Ghost Train, the theatrical comedy warhorse filmed multiple times, as silent, talkie, British, German, Hungarian, Romanian and Japanese. “I’d like to have your royalties,” someone says to him in We’re All Doomed! “So would I,” says Arnold, ruefully.


This led me to look at THE WAY AHEAD, Carol Reed’s celebrated propaganda flick, written by Eric Ambler & Peter Ustinov (who also appears, along with most of British equity). The movie formed the basis for satirical treatments in HOW I WON THE WAR, CARRY ON SERGEANT and Dad’s Army itself, and in fact William Hartnell plays the sergeant-major in this and in the CARRY ON, with Laurie as a dour Scotsman in this and Dad’s Army. The Dad’s Army end credits, showing the aged cast trooping across a battlefield in a series of tracking shots, seems to deliberately reprise the climax of Reed’s film.

When Powell & Pressburger made propaganda, their essential eccentricity always led them madly off-message and resulted in art rather than message-mongering. Reed’s film is more disciplined, therefore less artistic, and even though Ustinov hated the idiocy he was surrounded with in the armed forces, his script does an excellent job of celebrating the way the bickering, petty civilian raw material is shaped into a disciplined fighting unit by loveable David Niven and gruff-but-also-loveable Hartnell.


Sudden Trevor Howard!

There are only a few actual SHOTS in the first half, with a good deal of effective but perfunctory coverage, but at sea there’s a dramatic sequence, all staged full-scale, in which Reed finds that a sinking ship provides the ideal justification for his patented Deutsch tilts.

Raymond Durgnat, our most imaginative critic, proposed that the true meaning of the climax, in which the heroes advance through concealing swathes of smoke, was this: “It can be read as saying, They’re all dead. Reed’s brief was to warn us, This is going to be worse than we can imagine.” The final shot, showing the old guard smiling at news in the papers, seems to quash this gloomy notion and compel us to presume the attack was a success, but those moments in the billowing whiteness do have an eerie uncertainty to them which defies the triumphal music.


Harry Potter and the Mother of Tears

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 24, 2009 by dcairns


Imagine it: you are horror maestro Dario Argento (this might be a stretch of your empathic faculties, but try to imagine it anyway). Everybody agrees that your violent set-pieces are zesty, cinematic and imaginative. They also agree that your scripts are embarrassing and your direction of actors pitiable. It takes a rare kind of anti-talent to make even a suave devil like Tony Franciosa look uncomfortable onscreen. What do you do?

Well, oddly enough, you don’t seek out talented script collaborators (apart from a one-off pairing with Polanski’s agoraphobic pal Gerard Brach, who was never going to crack your dialogue problems), you settle for the kind of lame hacks who have a sorceress offer her assistance with the words, “Call me anytime. It’s no bother.”

No bother.

Also, you dismiss complaints that your stories don’t make sense with claims that they are “non-Cartesian,” and invoke Poe. True, Poe could single-handedly keep every university English department running for years with the crazy ambiguities of his involuted yarns. But then, he didn’t specialise in dagger-wielding psychos in black gloves in every damn story. And that “logic of nightmares” rigmarole barely washes either, Dario — your films aren’t dreamlike, they’re just lurid. Operatic (although Verdi wasn’t quite as dependent on Satanists and disemboweling), maybe, but pretty much lacking in the uncanny qualities to be found in David Lynch, who can be genuinely scary in a way you can only, well, dream of.

And you don’t seek out the best actors, either. Bridget Fonda, a fan, practically begs to act for you, but you replace her with your daughter, because actors ask too many questions. For some reason you prefer to film your own daughter in the nude, shagging Julian Sands or getting raped by psychopaths. I know you kind of cultivate the “weird” thing, but really…


MOTHER OF TEARS, we can probably say, is a return to form, but unfortunately it’s a return to the dreadful form of PHENOMENA, rather than the sort-of great form of SUSPIRIA (whose appalling dubbing and glazed perfs does actually unwittingly evoke the oneiric, or the badly concussed) — it’s good enough to watch, but only barely. The luminous greens and reds and blues (a palette supposedly leeched from Disney’s SNOW WHITE) are back, Asia Argento’s hungover pre-Raphaelite glamour still radiates a seedy allure, and her mum Daria Nicolodi is back for old time’s sakes. Udo Kier appears, hams endearingly, dies.

vlcsnap-1434717The ghost of Nicolodi past.

Here’s another thing, Dario, my cadaverous chum — this misogyny rap. If I were you, I might still shoot a murder scene in which a lesbian witch has a pike shoved up her tuppence until it bursts from her mouth (after all, I’d have a reputation for ground-breaking splatter to maintain), but I’d be sure to frame it in some kind of meaningful context, to express some kind of idea with it. What’s odd about you, Dario, is that you started as a critic but seem painfully uncomfortable with thought of any kind. Explaining that, since you really love women, you’d rather see a beautiful woman killed than an ugly man, might just be a perverse joke, but everything else in your work is on a similarly dumb level. I’m beginning to think you really are that stupid.


Our subject is witches. Unlike in legend, these witches are all female. They provoke civil unrest, dress like Goths, are loud and rude in public places. Are you becoming a grumpy old man, Dario? Do you worry that society is going to wrack and ruin? I’m not sure that’s really a tenable position for the king of slasher gore. The witch-plague is really an excuse for lots of protracted violence, and the beauty of it is that you can film women being killed by witches, and when the witches are killed, well, they are women too. It’s win-win. I notice too that in Italian horror films, whenever women suffer horrific sexual assault with bladed weapons, it’s always performed or instigated by other women (in WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE? or that real piece of trash, THE NIGHT TRAIN MURDERS). I even saw this device in an episode of Cracker on TV. This has nothing whatsoever to do with real psychopathic practice, but instead seems to be a kind of alibi-ing: the unacceptable act is attributed to the other gender so that the guilty male filmmaker can escape censure. Not that this actually works.

Anyhow, we need some light relief amidst all this recrimination, so it’s pleasing to point out that in THE MOTHER OF TEARS, the third film in a trilogy-of-sorts begun by SUSPIRIA and INFERNO, Asia Argento plays the daughter of a white witch who gave her life fighting the terrible Mater Lacrimosae, injuring that demoness in the process. Perhaps only Asia can defeat the returning witch-queen. In other words, Dario has basically nicked the plot of Harry Potter and thrown in some tits and gore.