Archive for Quatermass

Year of the Rat

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 16, 2022 by dcairns

It wasn’t much commented upon back in 1984 but the advent of breakfast television in the UK — incredible to think we were so late in adopting it, but also incredible that anyone would want to watch television while getting ready for work — and if you were going to watch television, why would you watch GARISH and NOISY television full of IDIOTS?

Hang on, I’ve gone off the rails.

Start again: 1984, the year Orwell wrote about, was marked in the UK by the advent of breakfast television, and two of the stars of that new phenomenon were the Green Goddess, an exercise instructor straight out of Orwell’s book, and Roland Rat, a puppet rodent straight out of Orwell’s book. And it was the Chinese year of the rat. Not that Roland R actually ate anyone’s face off. THAT WE KNOW OF. But as O’Brien might have said, it’s the thought that counts.

I was at school. Thatcher was in power. I kept thinking, Why does nobody else see this?

Thirty-eight my god years later, the BFI has a Blu-ray out of Nigel Kneale and Rudolph Cartier’s teleplay NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR (no numerals for the BBC), which should have been out eight years ago but the Orwell estate is rather funny, which is why we never got a Bowie musical version of the book (but we did get Diamond Dogs so on the whole we won that round).

Trailers for this release made it seem like the greatest feat of restoration in human history, but inspection of the actual article clarifies the achievement: the play went out live but bridging sections had been shot on film to enable scene changes. It’s these bits that look as if they could have been shot yesterday. The live portions are your typical kinescope haze, but looking about as good as they ever could. It feels like we’re watching the action from inside Winston Smith’s little snowglobe.

Film and tube camera, side by side.

The double aesthetic is fascinating — both styles work in their distinct ways. The locations for filming are mostly BBC buildings so, like in The Goon Show‘s parody, 1985, Airstrip One and the British Broadcasting Corporation are conflated. The stark lighting of BBC corridors and post-WWII London makes for bold and striking imagery. Only the addition of Orwellian signposts makes it science fiction. Whereas Mike Radford’s film version, made in 1984, strove for the look of 1948, the year the book was written, this version is perfectly clear that 1984 is RIGHT NOW. Mainly I suppose because they couldn’t afford to make it anything fancier.

The one big special effect is an unfortunate affair. The painting — not a matte, not a backdrop, just a static painting — is technically decent enough to pass under the circumstances, but why does the Ministry of Truth have windows the size of office blocks, and why, when we see Winston Smith looking out one of them, is it suddenly a tiny porthole.

But that’s the only stupid bit.

The interior sets are strictly from poverty, and this works nicely. “Despair enacted on cheap sets,” as Errol Morris is always saying. The Ministry of Truth canteen is a bit of backcloth. The walls of Winston’s flat don’t even meet, so that the most felicitous nook in all English literature is compiled of a series of flimsy-looking flats you could post a letter between.

The show is so cheap it had Kneale himself as the voice of the televisor and production designer Roy Oxley is Big Brother. And a very effective BB he is too: he looks stern and noble, rather than shifty and sinister which is the dumb way of portraying him. Obviously BB would be from Central Casting and would look like an inspiring leader. Or, I suppose, like a cuddly clown. That could work…

In the leads we have Peter Cushing and Yvonne Mitchell — a few years later he would inaugurate Hammer Horror while she introduced kitchen sink drama with WOMAN IN A DRESSING GOWN. Cushing is amazing in this — like Karloff, he exploits a physical advantage, removing a dental plate to portray Smith in his final decrepitude.

“So much face-crime!” Fiona enthused. Cushing just can’t help showing us what he’s thinking.

As O’Brien we have the excellent Andre Morell, who was also a Quatermass for Kneale, also a Watson for Cushing’s Holmes, and his tormentor (again) in CASH ON DEMAND. Morell has a bluff, matey quality that works nicely in counterpoint to O’Brien’s more obviously vicious aspect. He’s cold, but superficially clubby, chummy. Affable. When the Thought Police come for us, they will be wreathed in smiles.

Donald Pleasence is Syme, and I don’t have to tell you how much entertainment HE brings — a warm-up for similar turns in the CIA-backed 1956 version (where he plays Parsons) and THX 1138. Parsons is an extraordinary gremlin called Campbell Gray, who looks, sounds and acts just like A CLOCKWORK ORANGE’s P.R. Deltoid, Aubrey Morris, so much so that I thought it could be him under an assumed name. Which would make this some kind of dystopian trifecta.

Also: Wilfred Brambell (in two small roles) and a pre-beard Sydney Bromley.

Highly recommended. I find the desaturated eighties version drab and dull, whereas this one delivers its moments of horror with a lipsmacking relish more in keeping with Orwell’s grand guignol tendencies. Instead of speeding up at the end, it slows down, delivering a series of grisly blackout sketches whose recurrent punchline is the death of hope.

Almost the best thing on the disc, however, is the original continuity announcer, a plummy gent (unidentified) who welcomes the people of Aberdeen to the BBC, regrets that the Scottish comedy they’d hoped to present has been postponed, worries a bit about what they’ll make of this offering, muses aloud that perhaps the people of Aberdeen have never SEEN a play, and sums up the thematic concerns of the work in a remarkably sophisticated manner. There we have it: the Reithian vision of the Beeb, to inform and educate as well as entertain, coupled with a good dose of condescension. It’s real time travel, quite a fitting epitaph for the British Broadcasting Corporation now that the government has finally decided to destroy it.

Meanwhile, actor Dan Stevens has appeared on the BBC’s The One Show (a wonderfully Orwellian name) and shocked the nation by uttering an actual political THOUGHT not sanctioned by universal consensus. The palpable terror in the room!

Monty’s Double C’est Moi

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 7, 2021 by dcairns

A number of good things about I WAS MONTY’S DOUBLE. It never mentions Operation Mincemeat, but the events of the film are happening alongside those of THE MAN WHO NEVER WAS, both plots concerning misleading Hitler about the proposed site of D Day. One worked by floating a dead body with fake documents off the coast of Franco’s Spain, the other by leaking the movements of a lifelike Field Marshal Montgomery impersonator recruited from the acting profession. And, weirdly, Clifton Webb, the star of the big-budget ‘Scope Deluxe Color Fox production, could have made a passable Monty or Monty Double himself. The filmmakers did consider hiring a movie star to play the part, before latching onto the genius idea of letting M.E. Clifton James, Montgomery’s actual real-life double and the author of the source memoir, play himself.

Given that, it’s a terrible shame they didn’t also cast the real intelligence officer who recruited James — David Niven. The idea MUST have been considered. I don’t know whether Niv was unaffordable, unavailable, or didn’t want to take part in a travesty. It would have elevated the film enormously, though his chum John Mills is excellent in the part.

Cecil Parker makes everything good.

Supposedly, the film is fairly true to life, except for the invention out of whole cloth of an action climax where the Nazis try to kidnap the ersatz Monty. This is the sequence where director John Guillermin pulls out all the stops, which mainly involves suspenseful tracking shots depicting POV and reaction of various characters, putting the audience right in there. Too bad none of it happened. It feels stylish yet inauthentic as you watch it, partly because the rest of the movie has yielded to, or embraced, the difficulties of the true-life adventure: moving in fits and starts, introducing and dropping a myriad of characters (where a fictioneer would have combined several into one), which does however allow plenty of room for beloved British character thesps. Also, the rest of the movie is played, and scored (by John Addison), as light comedy.

I don’t know if James’ memoir included all the stuff about stage fright and other bits tending to make fun of the acting profession, or at least having fun with the conjunction of war, espionage and acting. Screenwriter Bryan Forbes might be responsible for some of that.

I’m inclined to credit much of the visual panache of Guillermin’s most striking film, RAPTURE, to its French camera department, just because nothing else in his career seems to account for it. Elsewhere, he alternates weirdly between vigour and flair and living down to Welles’ characterisation of him as “one of the truly great incompetents.” His sadism comes through in a bit where a soldier gets shot and blood splashes the guy’s face — from a completely impossible angle. Guillermin obviously liked this bit so much (wrongly), he recycled it in EL CONDOR.

The next Guillermin film I watch will either be THE BRIDGE AT REMAGEN, because I have it, or THE TOWERING INFERNO, because I haven’t seen it since it’s first UK TV airing and I have next to no memory of it. How bad could it be? Don’t answer that.

Oh — apologies are due to Duncan Lamont — he’s disappointing in this but I was forgetting about his amazing turn in the first TV Quatermass. Unforgiveable.

I WAS MONTY’S DOUBLE stars Monty’s Double; Professor Bernard Quatermass; The Major; Rex Van Ryn (voice, uncredited); The Sorting Hat; Grapple of the Bedou; Conductor 51: Mrs. Terrain; Victor Carroon; Mr. Kipling; Sir Sidney Ruff-Diamond; Buller Bullethead; Midnight; Arnold Bedford; Milchmann; Bryce Mercer; Shagal, the Inn-Keeper; Sgt. Wilson; General Gogol; Jelly Knight; The Malay; Tanya; Victor Maitland; and Turk Thrust.

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.