Archive for Nigel Green

Red or Dead

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 29, 2010 by dcairns

“It was night, and the rain fell: and, falling, it was rain, but, having fallen, it was blood.” ~ Edgar Allan Poe.

I like the way Poe films always try to shoehorn in a few direct quotations. I offer the neglected, but excellent, phrase above to anyone who can find a good home for it. Griffith’s THE AVENGING CONSCIENCE stuffs quite a few quotes into its intertitles, and Corman’s Poe films very often end with a printed quote. The idea is the same in both cases: shore up the impression of classical authority and fidelity by inserting bits of actual Poe in, like mortar between bricks which very likely owe nothing whatsoever to the source text.

Poe’s Masque of the Red Death is only about five pages long in my edition, so it’s surprising (but delightful) that the resultant movie is possibly Corman’s masterpiece. Twilight Zone scribe Charles Beaumont deserves the lion’s share, not so much fleshing out a skeleton as assembling a whole new structure extrapolated from a few intriguing metatarsals. There’s no satanism in the Poe story, so Prince Prospero is essentially Beaumont’s man, and apart from the figure of Death, there’s no supporting cast either. Corman reports that he put the script aside while he shot THE SECRET INVASION, and when he came back to it he felt it was a little slight, and so with R. Wright Campbell he expanded it by folding in the plot of Hop-Frog, another Poe story which happens to feature a masque, and is likewise set in a vaguely medieval European court. Even though it’s buried within another picture, Hop-Frog probably qualifies as the Poe story most faithfully treated by Corman, the only major change being the substitution of eight fat men in ourang-outang costumes, for one Patrick Magee in a gorilla suit.

Few Corman productions can have offered such time for reflection, and it clearly helped here. Among other things, the movie can be considered simply as a series of very good scenes. No bad ones, few average ones, lots and lots of really good ones. Admittedly the “good” characters, apart from Hop Toad (the excellent, understated Skip Martin), are a little dull — even Nigel Green can’t make much out of his staunch dad role — but they’re decently cast and played. The Sadeian Prince Prospero makes a splendid role for Uncle Winnie, who dials the fruitiness down, having indulged in the more comical horrors of TALES OF TERROR and THE RAVEN. Prince Prospero has all the best arguments, and although his obeisance to Satan certainly isn’t endorsed by the film, all his arguments against the existence of a benign god are basically allowed to stand. It’s Death, a force of nature, who does him in in the end.

Poe strikes me as something of an atheist — even if his stories are rich in supernatural phenomena, he’s more inclined to use them for obvious allegorical purposes, and he’s the father of the Scooby Doo explanation for Impossible Crimes. His rationalist side is countered by his deep devotion to dark psychological depths, with his characters yanked about like puppets by emotions buried too deep to be recognised — it’s a guilty conscience that speaks through The Tell-Tale Heart and The Imp of the Perverse. And though characters may rise from the grave in Poe, he seems highly doubtful of any final resurrection — the whole message of The Raven is that the dead are permanently taken from us, to be met with nevermore.

All good heavy stuff, to be danced around as playfully as possible by Price, Magee, Hazel Court and the rest. Fiona and I are big fans of the monochrome rooms: Prince Pros tells us that his father imprisoned “a friend” in the Yellow Chamber for some years, after which the man was unable to look upon the sun, or even a daffodil. We wondered what the effects of the purple room and the white room would be? Perhaps an aversion, in the first case, to Ribena blackcurrant juice and the Artist Formerly Known as Prince, and in the second case, to snows and sea-birds of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, and to the face of Bebe Neuwirth.

Colours are important in this film! See how many of them you can spot. At the end, the Cavalcade of Eastmancolor Deaths, the Red Death, White Death, Green Death, Yellow Death… so many potential sequels! Come on, Roger, Poe only gave you five pages to get you started on this one — how about a sequel that’s all your own? It can be five pages shorter than this one, if that helps?

“What is terror? Come. Silence. Listen. Is it to awaken and hear the passing of time? Or is it the failing beat of your own heart? Or the footsteps of someone who, just a moment before, was in your room? But let us not dwell on terror. The knowledge of terror is vouchsafed… only to the previous few.”

Bad to the Bone

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 10, 2009 by dcairns

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THE SKULL, directed by ace cinematographer (and not-quite-so-ace director) Freddie Francis, will live in infamy as the film in which Peter Cushing plays Christopher Maitland and Christopher Lee plays Sir Matthew Phillips. The lovely, unusual, imaginative names (sarcasm alert) indicate precisely the kind of plywood bore Milton Subotsky’s script, from a story by Robert Bloch, is.

(That “is” doesn’t look right, all at the end there, does it?)

Through involved circumstances, Peter Cushing acquires the skull of the Marquis de Sade, which is apparently still animated by a malign intelligence. Cushing’s friendly rival, Lee, believes that the Marquis was “something worse than mad.” Hmm, worse than mad, you say? What would that be, Sir Matthew Phillips? Sane?

The titular head-bone has turned up in the possession of shady curio-hawker Patrick Wymark, an ambulatory Toby jug who guested in a number of ’60s horrorshows — REPULSION, BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW, WITCHFINDER GENERAL — and he would have undoubtedly done more save for his tragic implosion in 1970.  Wymark narrates the cranium’s tragic history, which allows the canny producer (Subotsky again) to slip in another guest star, George Coulouris. It becomes clear that Subotsky has written this thing with the sole purpose of shoehorning in as many guest stars as the screen’s fabric can contain without splitting like P.J. Proby’s trousers.

Soon, swivel-eyed detective Nigel Green and police surgeon Patrick Magee are on hand, Jill Bennett is wasted as Cushing’s dull wife (her impressive scream of horror is the only moment when the film reaps any benefit from her unique gifts) and the guy who did the voice of Pigsy in the dubbed Japanese TV show Monkeyturns up. Fiona felt this was the film’s only interest — “Seeing Pigsy’s body at last… perambulating about under its own will.”

I admired the way Francis generated visual interest even when there was zero dramatic interest. He’s aided by rich set decoration, which he foregrounds at every opportunity, padding out the film’s slender running time by filming Cushing as he reads a bio of Sade (bound in human skin, naturally) from every conceivable angle and from behind every bit of bric-a-brac in the room, sneaking from one occluding prop to another like a cautious Rodent Of Unusual Size.

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Having narcolysed the audience with this display of silent book-reading (although the attractive visuals prevent total somnolence), Francis then delivers a pointless-but-wonderful dream sequence in which Cushing is taken away by sinister “policemen” and driven towards an unknown destination.

Anxiously, Pete looks out the car window.

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Shops.

He tries the other side.

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Shops.

“We’ve had props, now we’re having shops,” observed Fiona.

“Next it’ll be cops,” I hazarded.

It was.

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The car stopped.

“And stops,” I concluded.

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Handsome in its widescreen colour cinematographer, and graced with the screwy “skull-cam” POV shots, the film nevertheless struggles to create any interest in any of its sluggish meanderings, and made us both nostalgic for Larry Blamire’s spoof THE LOST SKELETON OF CADAVRA, which has better, badder bad dialogue, and a talking skeleton. If Sade’s skull had spoken like the one in Blamire’s film, we might have had something. “Hi, Betty, it’s me — the skeleton!”

However, a lot of people enjoy this film, for its bountiful cast of supporting players (Subotsky often made compendium films, because with five or six stories there was more opportunity to grab a movie star like Chris Lee or Sylvia Sims or Herbert Lom for a day or two and bolster the marquee value — THE SKULL is like a compendium film with no story instead of five) and sumptuous visuals. The lack of forward momentum forces Francis to noodle inventively, coming up with crazy angles, sinuous camera moves, and lurid colours. Even at 82 minutes, the film feels heavily padded, but the padding is quality stuff.

(When Richard Lester accepted the job of directing his first feature, IT’S TRAD, DAD, for Subotsky, he was handed 23 typed pages, which he took to be a synopsis. It was the final draft script. Those were the days!)

Finally seeing this allowed me to tick off another film illustrated in Denis Gifford’s seminal A Pictorial History of Horror Movies. I’ve vowed to see every film depicted in this book before the end of the century.

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This is the still Gifford uses, although his is b&w. I think Cushing actually spent more time behind a magnifying glass than any other thespian — his various appearances as Sherlock Holmes aren’t the half of it. The gag in TOP SECRET! where he removes the magnifying glass to reveal that he really has one enormous eye makes more sense (although it’s still vaguely upsetting) when one bears this in mind.

Puny Humans

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 4, 2008 by dcairns

Danger Island

It’s a real problem, the human characters in giant monster movies. They’re nearly always boring. KING KONG is the exception, as with so many things — in all three versions of KK, the humans are a bit more interesting than they absolutely need to be. The less-is-more economy and pace of the first film make it the winner, of course. Quasi-sequel MIGHTY JOE YOUNG also does OK — Robert Armstrong is even more ebullient and explosive than he is in KK. A shame he never played anything Shakespearian on screen. What do you think: Lear? Macbeth?

The ’70s KONG has Jeff Bridges as a sort of more passionate and committed version of the Dude from THE BIG LEBOWSKI, and Jessica Lange playing the character who’s most like herself (slightly dippy blonde actress). The Jackson version has lots of “characterisation”, but doesn’t really understand the basic principle of characterisation through action, which is a bit of a shame since it’s an action film. For example, Adrien Brody is a writer. Yet, once the drama starts (an hour in) he acts exactly like Indiana Jones. I accept that we might need him to be slightly more physical than, say, Truman Capote, but what’s the point of all that set-up if you’re just going to forget it once the running and jumping starts?

Similarly, Jamie Bell is established as a kid who’s never fired a gun in his life, yet soon he’s shooting insects off Adrien Brody’s privates with the skill of a veritable Lee Harvey Oswald (ah, if only L.H.O. had confined his marksmanship to shooting insects off Adrien Brody’s privates, how different the political scene might be today).

(I remember seeing the DJ-musician Moby introduce a GODZILLA movie on TV, with the words, “As kids, we were very keen on monster movies, because the alternative seemed to be movies without monsters, and who would want that?”)

I love Ray Harryhausen’s work (he’s coming to the Edinburgh Film Festival — we’ve bought our tickets), but few of his films manage to create endearing human characters to compare to the little rubber guys. The great Lionel Jeffries in THE FIRST MEN IN THE MOON is one (and that film is probably the best film qua filmof Harryhausen’s oevre) and Raquel Welch certainly makes her presence felt in ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. but I’m not sure that’s anything to do with characterisation. I think she’s there to make the dinosaurs look more life-like by comparison. JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS is jam-packed with fascinating thesps, from Nigel Green to Niall McGinnis, and they’re always welcome, but they don’t make much impact as human beings, since their dialogue is a bit stiff and their scenes feel like between-monster padding. Harryhausen’s last opus, CLASH OF THE TITANS, populates Olympus with an improbable throng of thesps (Olivier & Andress! Maggie Smith and Pat Roach!) but they have little of the snazziness James Woods brings to the role of Hades in the Disney HERCULES — the high-water mark of Greek god impersonation in Hollywood cinema.

In a lot of monster attack films, like WAR OF THE WORLDS, the heroes, being unable to do meaningful battle with an enemy so much bigger than themselves, are reduced to running around helplessly and speculating about what might be going on. Spielberg’s version actually gets around this for most of its running time by putting the protagonist and his family in a lot of very dangerous situations, but he comes a cropper on the ending, in which the Earth is saved no thanks to Tom Cruise.

Actually, if we accept JAWS as a monster movie, which I suggest we have to, Spielberg and his writers deserve a bit of credit for serving up engaging, if 2D, characters who actually occupy far more screen time than the sea beast. Of course, his three leading men are very watchable anyway.

I’m going to throw in a mention of TREMORS as well, since that has enjoyable, affable lead characters also. Why is this so hard as soon as a monster rears its head? I suppose these films typically didn’t attract the best actors, as much of the budget went on special effects. And the directors were usually ex-designers, photographers and special effects men themselves, rather than “actors’ directors”. And the writers? Science fiction is full of authors whose ability to deal with wild ideas outstrips their ability to deal with human conversation, so that could be part of it. KRONOS has some decent ideas, but flat characterisation. Imagine a giant monster movie written by Harold Pinter. That would be GREAT. Giant lizard feet could trample Buckingham Palace during the pauses.

THE GIANT BEHEMOTH, A.K.A. BEHEMOTH, A.K.A. BEHEMOTH THE SEA MONSTER, which we watched recently, suffers the same problems of boring scientists and passive protagonists. The film is the work of art director Eugene Lourie, who turned director and gave the world this thing and also GORGO, a man-in-a-suit monster movie much loved for its plot twist of the even larger mummy monster coming to rescue the baby. It’s the DUMBO of kaiju films. Oh, and he did Harryhausen’s THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, “suggested by” Ray Bradbury’s great pulp-poetry story The Fog Horn, which my mum told me about when I was little, sparking my imagination wonderfully (thanks mum!) and THE COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK, which to my regret I haven’t seen.

The monster in BEHEMOTH is another of those radioactive dinosaurs, whose sinister emanations have the effect of turning bystanders into drawings of skeletons. Nasty stuff, that radiation.

The only human element in the film is Jack MacGowran, an actor incapable of being uninteresting for a second or of underplaying for a frame. Here he’s on good form, having not yet succumbed to the bottle altogether. By the time of Peter Brook’s glum and fusty KING LEAR, MacGowran, though still somehow able to remember his lines, was quite unable to remember what they meant. Some how he still compels attention in that film and in THE EXORCIST (that “cursed movie” which supposedly claimed his life), but he’s much better when he actually knows what he’s doing. It’s such a relief when he ambles into BEHEMOTH halfway through – an eccentric showstopper, a smirking onrush of tics and mannerisms — and such a shame when he and his helicopter are subsumed by a hungry saurian just minutes later. It’s arguable that MacGowran’s thespian rampage is far more damaging to the film than the monster is to London — he makes everything seem so dull by comparison.

The behemoth is played by a glove puppet for most of the film, turning into an animated Willis H. O’Brien creation in the last ten minutes. Too little too late, though all the rampaging provides the usual fun (only kids and monsters actually rampage. Native people go on the rampage, which seems to be subtly different). And we do get a few underwater shots, which for some reason is rare in these movies.

But apart from MacGowran and the above examples, human characters in monster films still seem like an endangered species.

I guess there’s always the Peanut Sisters from GODZILLA VERSUS MOTHRA. Their characterisation consisted of (a) the fact that they were very small, and (b) the fact that they were called the Peanut Sisters. Oh, and I think they sang a song.

That’s more than can be said for Tom Cruise.

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