Archive for Prince of Darkness

The Sunday Intertitle: Your sins shall find you out

Posted in FILM, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 28, 2018 by dcairns

The reassuring smile of Boris Karloff

Weird coincidences. We have a great view of the moon from our front window, in the early evening. During the full moon, we had a double bill of John Carpenter’s THE FOG, which turned out to take place during the full moon, a fact we had forgotten (fun, and I hadn’t seen it since the days of my school film society) and PRINCE OF DARKNESS (not so hot), whose very first shot is the full moon.

Last night, looking for a spooky silent film to cull an intertitle from, I plumped for THE BELLS (James Young, 1926). Which turned out to have a much more disturbing contemporary relevance. I sort of thought I knew the story from having watched Bill Morrison’s THE MESMERIST, which is based around decayed fragments of the movie, but I’d forgotten, if I ever knew, that the plot (by fantasy writers Erckman-Chatrian, a sort of second-string ETA Hoffmann), centres on the murder of a Jewish traveler. The film’s attempt to find sympathy for the guilt-tormented murderer played by Lionel Barrymore fell on somewhat deaf ears, since I was preoccupied with thoughts of the anti-semitic terror attack in Pittsburgh.

The film attempts to enlist compassion for Barrymore from the start, even though he’s attempting to ingratiate his way into political office by giving away free beer. When this leads his finances to a desperate state, he murders the traveler on New Year’s Eve in order to steal the money belt full of gold the guy rather injudiciously shows off. Now, Barrymore has been depicted explicitly as NOT anti-semitic, as he welcomes the traveler at his inn when others are more hostile. But that sort of kindness only goes so far. With my sensibilities perhaps heightened by the day’s tragic and horrible news story, I couldn’t escape feeling that while Barrymore doesn’t hate the Polish Jew for who he is, he is able to see his way to murdering the guy because he’s Not One Of Us.

So I’m afraid I couldn’t really get behind his quest for redemption.

But my, it’s a beautifully made movie. And features an early exploitation of Boris Karloff’s unique physiognomy. And Barrymore is good. There’s also an early iteration of that trick with filters made famous by Mamoulian in DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (and also used in SHIT! THE OCTOPUS!), where Lady Macbeth-style phantom bloodstains appear and disappear on Lionel’s hands, all in one shot (revealed and concealed by a red filter. If you ever carried a Coke can into a dark room and watched half the design disappear when the red light made the red and white parts of the can look the same, you’ve seen this rather uncanny effect in action).

 

But a creeping discomfort about the film’s attitudes remains, and the intercession of a plaster Virgin doesn’t alleviate it.

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Sham Rock

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Mythology, Television, They Live with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 7, 2017 by dcairns

Fiona’s been researching the works of legendary TV/movie screenwriter Nigel Kneale, so she got me to run HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH, which I believe I saw at my school film society when it was about a year old, and which I dismissed as tosh at the time. I learned at some point that Kneale had been involved — he wrote a draft but then took his name off the film — and sympathised with him. John Carpenter, apparently, is a big Quatermass fan, but the film got compromised, by Dino De Laurentiis and others, and director Tommy Lee Wallace, who reckoned that “60%” of Kneale’s script remained, ended up with sole writing credit (which seems a bit shifty of him, though if the sometimes irascible Kneale was unwilling to even touch the film with a nom de plume, what else could they do?).

Well, I was definitely right about the film back in 1983 or so. The lead roles are colossally underwritten — surely the unconvincing way they fall into bed together is part of Wallace’s 40% — in a film featuring robots, it’s even more of a problem than it normally would be when your main characters behave like automata programmed with a pianola roll of clichéd genre behaviour. The villain’s plan is completely absurd and worse, not scary. The only actor having fun is Dan “Nice shootin’ son” O’Herlihy, but his eccentric monologuing seems to have been cut to the bare bones, which is tragic since it robs us of additional lipsmacking and leaves the motivation for his elaborate scheme largely unexplained.

Of course, Kneale’s raison d’être as a fantasy writer was his ability to invest absolute conviction in potentially absurd ideas, but something is way off here. Fiona learned that the bit of stolen Stonehenge used as MacGuffin was not part of Kneale’s putative 60% contribution, but an addition by the production, who felt it was in the spirit of Kneale’s work since he had just used stone circles in the final Quatermass series. In the movie, Irish novelty mask manufacturer O’Herlihy (see also the unpleasant but offscreen Irish industrialist in Kneale’s The Stone Tape) is planning to reestablish the pagan roots of Halloween by implanting microchips with bits of henge silica, fit them to rubber masks, and send out some kind of subliminal signal in his TV commercials which will cause the wearers’ heads to erupt with cockroaches and snakes. Well, if Kneale was responsible for 60% of that guff, I can only assume we’re talking about a percentage of the letters of the alphabet, suitably rearranged.

Indeed, this site informs me helpfully that Kneale was thriftily repurposing an old TV script of his, The Big, Big Giggle, in which a TV signal causes teen suicides, rejected by a BBC in fear of imitative behaviour issues (not altogether unreasonably, though holding television responsible for the actions of people with mental health issues is always slippery and unsafe). Already it looks like Kneale’s idea is more disturbing, shorn of the ridiculous bug-head stuff, and convincing enough to cause TV execs to actually worry that it might, in a way, come true. It’s still voodoo television, and the henge-chips don’t really make it sillier, so I’d even allow that aspect of it, but the bugs are a step too far.

Kneale also apparently wrote the automata henchmen (or hengemen, if you will), which somehow fail to be creepy at all in the finished film, and are pretty damn implausible given the state of 1980s cybernetics, or even contemporary cybernetics. In the movie these guys are mainly used to add gory and unnecessary (in plot terms) deaths, which Kneale hated. But the movie was never going to go into production without a bunch of set-piece killings. Film history was not on Kneale’s side, even if the history of Samhain was.

But OK. Dull as the human interactions are, rote as the conspiracy investigation is, ludicrous as the conspiracy itself turns out to be, and entirely empty of meaning as the film itself is, it does have a few pleasures. The attractive widescreen is one of the few connections with Carpenter’s original film (glimpsed on TV sets — also we hear Jamie Lee Curtis’ echoing voice from factory tannoys). There’s one good BOO! moment early on, repeated to lessening effect. Carpenter and Alan Howarth’s electronic drones are lovely: somehow the crudeness forced on Carpenter by early synths enhances his music rather than detracting from it; somehow the marriage of 35mm anamorphic widescreen and pulsing electronic tonalities is just wonderfully RIGHT.

Carpenter, who as co-producer must share some of the blame as well as credit, admires Kneale but has never been very comfortable in the domain of IDEAS, which are what Kneale is all about. PRINCE OF DARKNESS is a beautifully-photographed rendition of what a Kneale concept would be like if it didn’t have a concept. The big exception, of course, is THEY LIVE, a rather wonderful genre mash-up which blends Phildickian paranoia with the establishment dread of Kneale’ Quatermass II. Joe Dante, originally touted to direct, who seems to have suggested Kneale in the first place, thrives on eccentric ideas, the more the better, and often involving TV, the media, toys. Indeed, the conspiracy at the heart of LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION carries an echo of Kneale’s Big, Big Giggle. But even Dante may have struggled to keep Kneale on board — now there was a man used to getting his own way. Or, if he didn’t always get it, he could certainly point to the fact that when he did, the results were usually sensationally effective and successful. And when he didn’t, you got a head full of cockroaches.

The Madness of Crowds

Posted in FILM, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 7, 2015 by dcairns

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Re-watched QUATERMASS AND THE PIT (1967) — not to be confused with family R&B act Quatermass and the Pips — because Fiona was on a Nigel Kneale kick. It stands up very well. I was shocked last time I watched the first Hammer QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT to discover that the studio’s warping of the title character from Kneale’s BBC serial, to make him an arrogant bully, in fact a model for the studio’s vision of Victor Frankenstein, really worked quite well. Of course, Kneale wasn’t an anti-science, pro-church, pro-military conservative, so he was horrified by this, but as a statement of the studio’s philosophy it is coherent and compelling.

Roy Ward Baker’s film, however, restores the sympathetic Quatermass of the original series, embodied here by the feisty Scot Andrew Keir, a Hammer stalwart, who plays him like an angry terrier in tweed. James (“Madness! Madness!”) Donald, another Scot, plays heroic archaeologist Dr Roney. Nothing like Indiana Jones — he’s a heroic intellectual, the one character who seems to have out-evolved our deplorable Martian inheritance (read a plot synopsis elsewhere if I don’t seem to be making sense).

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We were debating whether the Jumping Leaping Man was played by the same actor in both TV and movie version. It turns out he wasn’t, but the performance is quite similar. Remarkable, since Duncan Lamont (ALSO raised in Scotland) would not have been able to refer back to the TV serial, since it went out live and no recording was known to exist. Happily, it’s since been found. (Nigel Kneale complained that the BBC had junked his ground-breaking series while keeping all the Oxford-Cambridge boat races — “They’re all the same!”) Both actors deliver the line “Jumping! Leaping!” with demented brio, but only Richard Shaw in the original supplements this with a creepy, hilarious and bizarre lolloping gait, which Fiona will impersonate at parties for interested parties.

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Very taken with the closing credits, which simply show an exhausted Keir and Barbara Shelley in the burning rubble of Hob’s Lane. Kneale was inspired by racist riots in his depiction of a breakdown of civilisation in which part of society tries to “purge” another. The credits rise somberly as the shot goes on, and on — actually it’s on a loop, with dissolves linking each repeated section, but that doesn’t seem to matter, might even be better. It’s a solution to the possible abruptness of the ending — Kneale doesn’t need to have Quatermass make a speech summing up what we’ve learned, as the unfolding story has already made its points. But simply solving the immediate problem and fading up a THE END title would seem too sudden. This approach suggests lingering unease, trauma and real consequences.

It also reminded Fiona of the ending of John Carpenter’s THE THING, where the face-off has even grimmer implications (or maybe not — the two survivors in the snow are fearful of one another — Keir and Shelley’s characters are alarmed by what they have found within themselves). Carpenter is a huge Kneale fan — an attempted collaboration on HALLOWEEN III rather fell apart, and PRINCE OF DARKNESS is a sort-of tribute, but Carpenter’s emphasis on pure emotion was always slightly at odds with Kneale’s intellectual, even didactic aspect. Two guys who should never approach each other’s material.

Although THEY LIVE is distinctive in Carpenter’s oeuvre, isn’t it? Ideas-led. And the central notion, that the aliens are already among us, quite established and in fact running our society, can be traced back to QUATERMASS II.