Archive for Plan 9 From Outer Space

Please accept my humble Egyptologies

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on August 23, 2013 by dcairns

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Van Beuren was an animation studio in Hollywood in the thirties — Frank Tashlin worked there for a bit (he worked everywhere) and created a comic strip character called Van Boring. Until now, what I’d seen of the studio’s output, which lacked the jazzy energy and character of the Fleischer Bros work, seemed to confirm the implied criticism in Tashlin’s choice of name.

But this one, MAGIC MUMMY, is kind of nice. It begins with two cops in a patrol car — they’re rather bland stick figures with smiley-face heads, their design seemingly based solely on ease of reproduction rather than upon any desire to suggest character or humour. But then things get weird as they listen to a musical number over the radio, and we discover it’s being broadcast from their very gay headquarters. Having just watched Mark Rapport’s entertaining documentary THE SILVER SCREEN: COLOR ME LAVENDER, loaned to us by David WIngrove, I was primed to appreciate this material in all its resplendent campery.

But more weirdness is to follow.

The song is then interrupted by an announcement that another mummy has been stolen from the museum. Another mummy? I’m intrigued. But we’re never going to learn about any of those previous stolen mummies, and the ultimate fate of this one will remain a total mystery too…

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The patrol car now turns into a sniffer dog, because this is a cartoon, and leads the intrepid but unnamed constables (I’m going to call them Larry and Kelton*) into a deserted graveyard overlooked by a ruined building. It’s all very PLAN 9, but twenty-six years earlier. And now we meet the black-robed figure lugging a small sarcophagus. This proves to be a witch, in traditional garb but with the less usual head of a skeletal cow, or possibly dog. I’m picturing Billy Drago for the part in my live action remake. Magicking open a fresh grave, Billy the Dead Cow Witch enters the bowels of the earth — the rest of this cartoon will be a series of descents ever further into Stygian terror, like Lovecraft’s The Color Out Of Space mixed with a Scopitone musical.

In his/her PHANTOM OF THE OPERA style lair, Billy Drago telekinetically extracts a bandaged bundle from the casket, and zaps the bandages off to reveal a shapely female in a VERY low-cut gown. Sitting at a piano which appears by the magic of bad continuity, Billy the Witch commands the somnolent lady to “BREATHE!” and breathe she does, bosoms expanding. It’s interesting to see elements of PHANTOM, THE MUMMY and witchcraft all bundled together like this, as early as this — the Karloff movie was brand new, but already the iconography had been crammed into a trunk marked “spooky Halloween stuff.” And interesting, now that I think of it, that Hollywood in the thirties did very little to do with witchcraft, as if the implications were too upsetting to religious sensibilities, even though the carnivalesque side of sorcery was celebrated every October 31st with little real controversy.

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Larry and Kelton , having crept into the crypt, now decide to bust the witch, but are blasted with a cruciato curse which threatens to pull the ink from their bones. Then they’re knocked through a hatch and the witch and mummy descend still further into the subterranean depths, to what turns out to be a theatre. Excellent image of the witch winding up a disintegrating curtain to reveal an audience of skeletons. At a stroke of his/her baton/wand, a skeletal orchestra rises from the earth like the children of the hydra.

Now Billy Drago’s darker purpose manifests itself, as he compels his mesmerized mummy companion to take part in a Betty Boop style musical number, interrupted by Larry & Kelton again who have extricated themselves from a drain pipe and snuck onstage. Strange image of Kelton raising the witch’s skirt — for why? — and looking aghast at her tibia and fibula.

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The cops announce a raid and the skeleton audience flees as if caught at a speakeasy. Then there’s a chase into still deeper depths of the earth, a place of stalactites and Clangers-type potholes leading, presumably, to Hell itself. One of those scuffles in the dark that’s so cheap to animate follows, and Kelton, alone and apparently unconcerned as to his friend’s fate, emerges from the graveyard entertainment complex clutching the hard-won sarcophagus and speeds back to police headquarters to show his homosexual cartoon policeman friends.

But — oh horror! — when he opens the case it is his buddy Larry who staggers out, his once-circular eyes replaced by the unseeing X’s of Death. Iris in. The End.

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The moral: don’t pursue bovine skeleton witch’s to underground musical theatres no matter what your sniffer dog car suggests.

*But apparently they are called Tom & Jerry. They are the original cartoon T&J, long before that cat and mouse act.

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Dial “H” for Hubbard

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 7, 2013 by dcairns

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To Filmhouse to catch the last 3D screening of DIAL “M” FOR MURDER. I’d seen the film before, and written it up for Hitchcock Year, and seen it again in 3D on video with Japanese subtitles and red-green glasses which mess up the colour cinematography, but this was my first ever big screen 3D screening. Most satisfactory.

John Williams as Chief Inspector Hubbard is the chief source of pleasure, with Anthony Dawson’s vulpine assassin a strong runner-up (curiously, both men have more famous name-sakes).

Hitch’s restrained use of the stereoscopic process to chart the dimensions of a room is beautiful, but I also found myself enjoying the worst aspects of the film — the grainy London location shots. Warners refused to pay for Hitchcock to shoot 3D in London, so the street scenes and dock scene were filmed flat. Hitchcock sticks a few foreground objects in to try to add a bit of depth, but the fantastically grainy rear-projection is distracting, and in at least one place surreal —

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Robert Cummings, the Butcher of Strasbourg, approaches his friends’ flat in a taxi — the view through the windscreen shows a flat street scene gradually enlarging — no sense of it getting closer, it just looks like it’s being blown up. We’re inside a 3D taxi driving up a flat street. It’s quite boggling. It’s like this London cab has it’s one zoom lens at the front. That’d be quite a good scam: you get in, pay for your journey, and instead of taking you there, they just zoom in. Then you pay up, get out, and find you’re still where you started from. Only then does the cab roar off, taking your money before you can protest. I’m surprised they haven;t attempted to rip the tourists off that way.

Since Hitch and the 3D camera and his stars never went to London, I got very interested in a scene late on where Grace Kelly is driven up to her flat, gets out the car, and approaches the door. How could this be achieved without Grace going to London?

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Close, skeptical viewing provides the answer. The woman getting out the car is NOT Grace, but a reasonably similar stand-in. Hitchcock follows the dictum laid down by Michael Powell, who had to shoot many of Roger Livesey’s scenes in I KNOW WHERE I’M GOING! with a double. Don’t have your lookalike skulk around behind a cape like that dentist pretending to be Bela Lugosi in PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE. Simply have the phony stride boldly up to the camera in full view. The audience is expecting to see an expensive movie star, and that’s just what they will see if you give them no reason to doubt it.

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Hitch then cuts quickly to Chief Inspector Hubbard watching from the window. When he cuts back, the stand-in is gone and Grace Kelly is there, standing in a Hollywood studio in front of the rear-projection screen showing a London street (and which formerly also showed her double). Deuced clever, these movie johnnies.

“Isn’t it a bit old-hat?”

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 7, 2008 by dcairns

Kenneth Branagh usually comes up with some interesting directorial strategies. The trouble is, they usually don’t work, and neither do the films. He’s inventive, ambitious, and courageous, but I somehow never feel he’s a natural film-maker.

Nevertheless, some critics were perhaps too nasty about SLEUTH. The film unites an interesting bunch of people, looks very handsome, and is easy enough to watch. There are good bits. Harold Pinter’s reworking of Anthony Shaffer’s play is often amusing.

JL: “Maggie never told me you were… such a manipulator. She told me you were no good in bed, but she never told me you were such a manipulator.”
MC: “She told you I was no good in bed?”
JL: “Oh, yes.”
MC: “She was joking. I’m wonderful in bed.”
JL: “I must tell her.”

As in the original, a successful thriller writer confronts the much younger man who has made off with his wife, and a variety of vicious mind-games are played. Pinter dispenses with Shaffer’s critique of the English mystery novel tradition, leaving the piece as simply another Pinter power-play of pauses. Even the title becomes irrelevant.

One can’t escape the fact that the gimmick casting — Michael Caine returns from the original Joe Mankiewicz version, but playing the other part, Jude Law, who’s already played a Caine role in the ALFIE remake, plays Caine’s part from the original —  is a titillating concept, but not necessarily the best way to fill the parts. Olivier, in the original film, stood boldly for the English establishment, and Caine was the working-class upstart — it was almost too perfect. With cockney Caine as the rich author and the vaguely classless Law as his romantic rival, the distinction is lost. But more important is what Branagh can get out of these actors in the way of acting.

Caine starts off like he’s trying for poshness, perhaps imitating Alan Bates (a fine interpreter of Pinter), which is a bit queasy. The it starts to feel like he doesn’t know his lines well enough — little hesitations and bodging of the difficult bits are either methody additions or genuine screw-ups, and either way they’re harmful to Pinter’s rhythms. But gradually Caine’s undiminished charm and inexplicable authority work their spell, and he becomes enjoyable.

Law is fine when he underplays, and rather embarassing when he tries too hard. He’s a star when he just holds the camera’s gaze. Some insecurity forces him to spoil it by doing stuff, and the effort shows. He’s probably most useful when he’s being tormented by Caine, since some evil part of this viewer derives some pleasure from seeing Law having a hard time. Later, he will do foolish things with a loaded pistol, much like the detective in PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE.

Nobody would call this prime Pinter. Although the Great Man has written screen thrillers successfully in the past (THE QUILLER MEMORANDUM, under-valued) here there are odd, damaging implausibilities. Why does Caine have an automated rope ladder in his stately home? Why does Law take his gun from his holster for no reason, lay it on the bed for no reason, thus allowing Caine to grab it at the climax? That’s quite bad playwriting, or direction.

What makes the film watchable? The set, designed by Branagh’s regular collaborator Tim Harvey, is very nice, all shiny surfaces and disco lighting, and the photography of Haris Zambarloukos serves up innumerable great widescreen close-ups. But the James Bond lair doesn’t make much sense, and is part of the overall watering-down of Shaffer’s original concept, the conflict between tradition and progress. The Bond vibe is both apt and ironic, since original Bond designer Ken Adam created the look of the original SLEUTH,

The stylised environment is doubtless meant to provide a comfortable setting for the stylised talk, but Pinter’s verbal gymnastics are defiantly archaic, and sound more so amid these glossy surfaces and pointless hi-tech appurtenances. I’m reminded of the grand staircase in FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA’S KENNETH BRANAGH’S MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN (I think that’s the full title), which has no bannister and makes you nervous to look at it. It’s quite an interesting effect, but you can’t help wonder WHY would anybody have a stair like that in their house?

This next is a bit spoilerific — if you’ve read the above and still plan on seeing SLEUTH, skip this last stuff.

Full disclosure — Stephen Murphy, prosthetic makeup artist for Jude Law, did the make-up on my clown film and is a good friend. He’s been working on HARRY POTTERS and stuff, turning ex-porn dwarfs into goblins, working his way up, and this is is his biggest job yet. Oddly, the transformation reminds me of another make-up creation, even though Stephen didn’t design the Law job.

It’s the Ringo Starr/Mexican bandit look Stephen created for Alice Bicknell in my film CLARIMONDE using mainly liquid latex and wet tissue paper. I’m also reminded of another makeup creation, Reece Shearsmith as Geoff Tipps in THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN:

I am a man

Even the voice is the same! The transformation works OK until Law starts overdoing it again, which makes him more recognisable. Stephen reports that Law was a very nice chap to work with, which is about what I’d expect, actually. Hitting the odd paparazzo doesn’t make him a bad guy, in fact I give him points for it, even though I’m anti-violence.

In the original SLEUTH, make-up artist Tom Smith, required to transform Michael Caine completely, executed a self-portrait, changing Caine into a Smith clone. I asked Stephen if he’d been tempted to do the same, but alas, he hadn’t known. What might have been REALLY interesting would have been if the remake’s make-up DESIGNER, Eileen Kastner-Delago, had given Law a sex change and made him over in her own image.

Made Up

Sexual ambiguity does enter the picture in the last act, with both Caine and Law suggesting bisexual sides, a motif borrowed from Sidney Lumet and Ira levin’s DEATHTRAP, the low-rent version of SLEUTH — Caine, having kissed Christopher “Superman” Reeve, now kisses “Sky Captain”. But this additional twist leads to no new dramatic suspense, and certainly doesn’t carry the mild shock value it did in 1982 (“But it’s so juicy,” Lumet pleaded, when Reeve objected to the kiss). As with the despised DIABOLIQUE, the re-makers try to preserve the twist surprise by adding a further wrinkle to the already-creased story, but it does nothing but drag the film long past its emotional climax… which is about half an hour in.

For all that, the film is diverting, short, and at least it has a different set of flaws from the ones we’re used to seeing all the time. Any bets on what the next Michael Caine remake will be?