Archive for Richard Matheson

The Legend of the Haunting of Hill House on Haunted Hill

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , on November 9, 2018 by dcairns

Binge-watch! Fiona got a migraine devouring six (or was it seven?) episodes of the new Haunting of Hill House series on Netflix. But it was very more-ish.

It reminds me of when we got into True Crime, which also featured an epic long take and built up accretions of horror and misery before attempting, less convincingly, to end in sweetness and light.

Good jump-scares. Arguably too many of them. But impressive the way the thing keeps the creepy scenes coming, even if a lot of them are dreams. They managed to make me not resent that too much, perhaps because the narrative structure is so ingenious. We have two timelines unfolding, but not altogether chronologically, and from various points of view so that some scenes get replayed in new contexts, with extra background. Add to this the facts that the entire cast of the earlier timeline, except someone who dies then, get replaced by adult/older surrogates, and that the central family have five damn kids, and it should be confusing (every woman on this show seems to have long brunette hair; every man talks in a throaty, husky voice) but it very rarely is.

Not only is the show out of sequence, so are the characters’ lives, with ghostliness used for a kind of time travel. Too complicated to explain but impressive to see play out in gruesome/tragic ah-hah moments of revelation.

And match-cuts! Many many match-cuts, which suggest the whole project has been PLANNED, which is a nice feeling to get.

I will say the thing began unpromisingly, with the amazing opening passages of Shirley Jackson’s book crudely doctored for length and… for no reason, sometimes. With a real brute insensitivity, as of someone who has no idea the clumsy violence he’s doing. Mind you, even the excellent 1960 film is guilty of a bit of that.

The series includes many nods to the book and film, and a couple to Richard Matheson’s rather close homage, The Legend of Hell House, book and film. But it’s a whole different animal. The movie remake Spielberg produced, apart from being lame and stupid, suffered horribly by comparison with the original because every point of comparison was proof of inferiority. The new series benefits from striking out on its own, so I didn’t like the way it appropriated character names and a few characteristics (a lesbian called Theo, an anxious Nell) from its esteemed forbear. But it’s always nice to see Russ Tamblyn.

Not Russ Tamblyn! A much, much taller man.

One thing still bothers us, like Columbo. Were the parents meant to be so incompetent? It arguably makes sense. This show is about a traumatised family, and families often get that way in part due to parental mistakes. But these people make unending screw-ups  with their kids, and while we hear a lot of complaints from the offspring when they grow up, it’s not entirely clear showrunner Mike Flanagan is aware how bumbling his character are. And how did Timothy Hutton get to be so wise in the final episode when he was such an idiot when he was Henry Thomas? Years bring wisdom, I guess. Apparently I’m still in my Henry Thomas phase.

Featuring Elliot, the Silk Spectre, George Stark, Daario Naharis and Tom Thumb.

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Tomorrowsday #2: Incredible Shrinking Man, I Love You

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 19, 2018 by dcairns

 

Title suggested by the great Tom Lehrer, who listed several possible movie themes before actually singing a suggested love song for Pasolini’s OEDIPUS REX.

In fact, writer Richard Matheson and director Jack Arnold’s 1957 B-classic already has a swooning romantic theme, performed by Ray Anthony on his trumpet as part of music supervisor Joseph Gershenson’s score, economically compounded from the work of four different composers. Despite their varied attributions, Universal’s fifties sci-fi horror ouput have a highly distinctive and consistent musical style, maybe because Gershenson (whose name sounds like a drunkard’s slur) compiled most of them — lots of musical SHRIEKS OF ALARM, like the CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON’s motif of alarm…

Ahah! The Chiseler has the explanation: uncredited Herman Stein is the musical link, the man with the shrieks.

The music accompanies a really enjoyable title sequence, though one might argue that the little outline of a diminishing human figure is unnecessarily literal. The big white encroaching cloud looks to be the same element used later for the radioactive fogbank, before it was optically inserted into an ocean background. By itself, it’s scarily abstract.

“I’m telling you, this movie is a goddamn masterpiece!” Fiona would declare several times during our recent viewing of it. It starts gently — all the non-shrinking scenes are done very straightforwardly, following Sidney Pollock’s sage dictum, “Let the boring crap be boring crap.” Jack Arnold could be quite prosaic in his shooting, but he knew how to make the most of a strange set-piece. The opening scene is just relaxed banter on a yacht with our two likeable leads — until that weird cloud descends, missing minor Hawksian Woman Randy Stuart as she goes to get the beer, but dropping glittering particles on Grant Williams.

One of the things the sci-fi movies stimulated in me was my Keatsian negative capability — getting pleasure and fascination from things I couldn’t understand. I *think* I picked up on the fact that the eerie cloud is never explained. Fifties audiences would no doubt have read it as fallout from an atomic test, but it gains in power from not having such a standard diagnosis applied. Kind of like the way NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD offers a bogus sci-fi explanation for zombie-ism, but Romero’s sequels gain power by walking it back and leaving the plague a mystery.

The next few brief scenes show Williams very gradually coming to suspect what’s up with him. This is where Matheson worried that the film would be boring, and was annoyed that his idea of presenting the narrative out of chronological order was rejected. I don’t want to say that Matheson was wrong — we don’t have his version of the film to judge, though we do have his novel, which Fiona has read and admired (“There’s much MORE, including sexual stuff.“) — but I think the version we have works like gangbusters, partly BECAUSE of the very linear structure. Though the cloud’s appearance in the titles, and then minutes later in the first scene, suggest a film looping back on itself, the rest of the story has a rare and powerful inexorability, the drip-drip of a problem getting steadily, catastrophically worse. I think it would lose all that, plus the surprise value of discovering each stage of our man’s diminution as it occurs.

(Matheson also objected to the catchpenny title: “They didn’t think a shrinking man was incredible enough.” But I guess a bit of circus barker ballyhoo is not inappropriate here…)

Maybe the filmmakers were worried that the early stages would be slow, though, because they ramp up the pace as best they can, getting to the point where special effects are required ASAP, so that each scene will have some element of the visual uncanny. So that now the eye and mind have plenty to boggle at, be in split-screen effects that show a diminished Williams facing a normal-sized Stuart, or Williams grappling with out-sized props. The early stages of the sickness call to mind Herzog’s “explanation” of EVEN DWARFS STARTED SMALL — imagine the world has grown gigantic overnight so we must clumsily struggle to interact with our once-familiar objects.

Williams is outstanding. Like Arnold’s filming style, his slight blandness is appropriate to this tale of the monstrous-domestic. And he has the acting chops to produce credible angst: Lee Strasberg training and all that. Fiona also remarks on his mellifluous voice, a boon for the film’s last half, when our hero has no dialogue but keeps in touch with us via his philosophical voice-over.

We all know our cats would eat us if they could.

The incremental nature of the plot doesn’t become tiresome, because although it literally is one damn thing after another, we have the false hope of the treatment that briefly halts our hero’s shrinkage, the brief, tentative quasi-romance with the “circus midget” (censorship prevents any hint of dinky hanky-panky, leaving the viewer to make up their own deleted scenes in their own filthy imagination) and two types of terror-suspense. There’s the inexorable existential threat of shrinking to nothingness, which there seems to be no protection from, leaving us to worry about what can possibly resolve this story, apart from DEATH — and there’s the incidental threats encountered along with way, which kick in when the movie’s most distinguished cast member, Orangey the cat (immersing himself in the role of Butch), stops seeing Little Grant as his lord and Kibble-dispenser, and starts seeing him as a potentially tasty snacklet.

Orangey, another Stanislavskian player whose work is always totally real, has major roles in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S (the nameless role of “Cat” is more significant than it sounds), THE COMEDY OF TERRORS (written by Matheson, who must have admired his work here: he provided a drag role, as Cleopatra), and another fifties sci-fi job, THIS ISLAND EARTH (as Neutron — not sure when I saw that one, but probably within a year of my 1974 annus mirabilis). Plus more giantism in Bert I. Gordon’s VILLAGE OF THE GIANTS, in the rather crudely-sketched role of “giant cat.”

Fiona asked me if I’d ever screen this film for students. I might. I did recently recommend it to one, because of its ending. I could certainly see myself screening one of the beautifully designed suspense sequences. Novice screenwriters tend to think in terms of overall story and dialogue, not realising that planning the details of a story’s action is a huge part of the job, more important than mere LINES. The what-happens-ness of a story. How each occurrence can move the dial from Happy to Sad. Breaking down the ISM’s titanic struggle with a mousetrap or a house spider, showing how clarity of action and planning and the interruption of surprise reversals makes an audience emote, would be just as useful as looking at Hitchcock. The fact that we are never quite unaware of the matte lines, process screens, and scaled-up sets, and yet we respond viscerally and emotionally to each victory and defeat, teaches an important lesson, if I could but put it into words.

Maybe it’s Michael Powell’s “There is no such thing as realism in the cinema.” Or maybe it’s that the Brechtian verfremdungseffekt is the bunk — we can be quite aware that we’re watching a film, and still be caught up in the drama. That’s why reminding the audience of the fakery is only worth doing if you can make a good joke of it. Because we always know it’s not real. But for it to work, we have to believe that simultaneously it IS real, somehow.

Down, down, down. Our hero the ISM is banished to the basement by his cat, presumed dead by his wife and brother, the house now a vast wilderness of predators and perils, food scarce and escape impossible. Arnold, director of TARANTULA (NOT such a distinguished movie), trots out his signature arachnid to do battle with our man. I guess we have to admit, one spider was probably harmed during the making of this film. I’d love to believe it was tenderly chloroformed and revived with a cup of tea and a biscuit, but I fear the worst.

And what of the ISM himself? He slays the spider, and finally escapes the basement by dwindling until he can fit through the mesh of the screen window — the first time his tininess has been of benefit to him. Out in the garden, surrounded by more threats, he delivers a beautiful parting VO that totally collapsed my seven-year-old mind to a singularity and then exploded it, a primal atom, into a Universal-International Cloud of Unknowing.

 

“So close… the infinitesimal and the infinite. But suddenly I knew they were really the two ends of the same concept. The unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually meet, like the closing of a gigantic circle. I looked up as if somehow I would grasp the heavens. The universe. Worlds beyond number. God’s silver tapestry spread across the night. And in that moment I knew the answer to the riddle of the infinite. I had thought in terms of man’s own limited dimension. I had presumed upon nature, that existence begins and ends, is man’s conception, not nature’s. And I felt my body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing. My fears melted away, and in their place came… acceptance. All this vast majesty of Creation, it had to mean something… and then I meant something too. Yes, smaller than the smallest, I meant something too. To God, there is no zero. I still exist.

Note the obligatory reference to the deity.

But WHAT DOES IT MEAN? Little Fiona asked her mum, in Dundee. Little Me asked my dad in Edinburgh. Neither parent could really explain it. It was Beyond Mums and Dads. Years later I saw some minor celebrity, I forget who, discussing the impression the film made on them as a kid. “I was terrified. I kept saying, ‘He’s going to die, isn’t he? And in the end he does.” But does he? This was the challenge. He “melts away” to “nothing” but “still exists.” I think my Dad suggested he had become subatomic, although in “reality” it would take him a while to get that small — he looks to be maybe ant-sized when he leaves the house — and it’s not clear that he could ever be that small — what’ he made of, if he becomes smaller than an atom? I don’t know when an ISM would become too small to be complex enough to function as a human being, but part of the beauty of the film’s ABC structure is that the incredible aspect comes on gradually, like a tall tale (ironically enough)… “Do you believe me so far? How about now? How about NOW?”

I get the impression kids are quite literal-minded. I certainly could be. I was a pedantic little swine. But here was an ending that couldn’t be reduced to one literal meaning. Grant Williams was, like Schrodinger’s cat, both dead and alive.

“I still exist.” — and then THE END comes up SO FAST, rushing you out of the movie, back into Life, with so many questions…

We’re gonna need a bigger goat

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 1, 2018 by dcairns

A blogathon! How NICE! The main page is here.

Fiona first saw THE DEVIL RIDES OUT — “From the classic novel by Dennis Wheatley — on TV, while high on magic mushrooms, an experience she does not recommend. When the Duc de Richleau commands “Don’t look at his eyes!” she became entranced, hypnotised, staring at the eyes and trying to work out what was so special about them. “He’s right! They’re TERRIBLE!” she concluded, and never took mushrooms again. The other main effect of the shrooms was that nothing about the story seemed comprehensible, which might be a good thing — Dennis Wheatley’s novels are pretty basic and stodgy in terms of story, character, prose and dialogue. A dash of psychoactive substance might be just what they need.

Mind you, Hammer’s other Wheatley adaptation of 1968, THE LOST CONTINENT, based on the novel Uncharted Seas, caused my friend Danny to think he WAS on drugs, even though he wasn’t. It is completely bananas, and Wheatley’s peculiar Sargasso Sea fantasy is adapted by Hammer boss’s son Michael Carreras, who couldn’t write, didn’t know one end of a story from another, had no concept of structure… (I hate producers who give themselves writing gigs nobody else would ever hire them for.)

DEVIL is adapted by Richard Matheson, an altogether more skilled writer — and ACTUAL writer — who had recently been writing Poe films for Corman. Hammer didn’t have a terribly proactive approach to scooping up outside talent — they should have jumped at Barbara Steele, lured over Vincent Price, recruited Michael Reeves, and acquired better writers than Jimmy Sangster. When they did hire J.G. Ballard, they spelled his name wrong. But they did well to pick up Matheson, and the ever-reliable Terence Fisher.

Though maybe a more eccentric director would have worked here, for the film’s slightly psychedelic sequences. Fisher can be rather stolid, prosaic, and so can some of his actors here. In fact, Fisher does marvelous work here with scenes of waiting and suggestion, but is let down badly by the special effects and make-up and, to a lesser extent, the fight arrangements.

BUT — like Fiona, I knew this film from TV and VHS and seeing it again in the right aspect ratio and a sharper image really made it come alive.

Here’s a limerick — I should have saved it for Limerwrecks, where my doggerel usually appears, but I didn’t think of it.

The Devil Rides Out — best beware

He revels without any care

At midnight black masses

He fiddles with lassies

Disheveled and sprouting with hair.

Despite it being 1968, these are the only bare breasts displayed.

Onto the film! Christopher Lee was very keen on this one, and happy to be playing a hero — a sort of Sherlock Holmes of the supernatural, another of Hammer’s rather harsh authority figures — they idea seems to be, we’re supposed to find Van Helsing and De Richleau unsympathetic, cold and scary, but still prefer them to the licentious evil of the netherworld, which can only be safely enjoyed in movies.

In postmodern terms, the film stars Saruman, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Captain Miles Gloriosus and Prime Minister Jim Hacker.

It’s a very linear, this-follows-that kind of narrative — when the characters branch off in separate directions, we typically stay with only one set, eschewing intercutting. Lee’s Richleau meets up with friend Rex Van Ryn (Leon Greene, but dubbed by Patrick Allen) and they set off to investigate why their friend Simon (Patrick Mower) has dropped out of circulation. Stopping by at Simon’s newly-acquired big country house, they find a gathering — supposedly an “astronomical society” — “My God!” exclaims Greene, using Allen’s voice — apparently it’s the presence of black and asian people in their native garb that shocks him so.

Lee quickly deduces that Mower has fallen into the hands of satanists, just as he would in INCENSE FOR THE DAMNED. Mower is a pushover: anything in a ceremonial robe. In this case, the cult leader is one Mocata, played with fruity relish by Charles Gray, aka The Criminologist from ROCKY HORROR. Also drawn into the madness is young Tanith, Nike Arrighi, who seems dubbed but isn’t. Maybe she had to loop her lines to match Greene/Allen’s post-synched dialogue. (Incidentally, I can’t see why Green had to be dubbed: his voice and delivery was fine in other films — he was an opera singer, in fact.)

Later on, Nike Arrighi’s voice will issue from another character’s mouth, making this a film ABOUT dubbing…

What follows is a fairly relentless series of set-pieces: two hypnotisings, some psychic attacks and summonings, a black mass (starring the Goat of Mendes) and assorted conjurations. The simpler these are, the better they tend to work. The black guy who materialises in the middle of a room, staring and grinning, is scary because he doesn’t move (also: don’t look at his eyes) ~

The Angel of Death, however, is pretty disappointing, with his horse with bat-wings pasted on. Fisher tries to make the thing dramatic by having the horse rear up in close-up, and then some idiot looped the film to make the action repeat. Slow-motion and long-shot and losing the stupid wings would have worked a lot better. Just exploit the uncanny/surreal set-up of a horse indoors: you lose that by going in close. A shame, because the whole magic circle bit was atmospheric, with the camera edging round the chalk outline, causing candles to float through frame. And Lee is marvelously authoritative.

Christopher Neame, in charge of the second unit, reports in his memoir that the Angel of Death’s horse’s wings had a tendency to fall off whenever it reared up. I think the Great God (or Devil) of Cinema was trying to tell him something.

But the melodrama of Lee’s exposition and Gray’s bully-boy sneering is so effective that the main objection to the story — that Richleau has an amulet of incantation for every occasion, and so real menace is absent, a lack disguised by Richleau simply not telling us what he’s got planned — doesn’t occur to one, or didn’t occur to me, until after the film is over. At which point it’s too late to jump into the screen and cry, “Hang on! This is a stitch-up!” The magic spell has already been performed. Time and space have been altered.

Lost in time… and lost in space… and meaning…