Archive for Richard Matheson

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…

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Beyond that which is known to man…

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 13, 2017 by dcairns

The Twilight Zone episode Nightmare at 20,000 Feet is one I felt I knew really well, except I don’t know that I’d ever watched it all — I’d seen clips and I’d seen George Miller’s reworking of it in TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE, but had I actually watched the whole thing?

Putting the two versions side by side is instructive — for once, two versions of the same story make radically different choices and both are successful. Or maybe that’s NOT instructive, maybe that sets up a false idea that you can do whatever you like in TV/movies, it’s all good. It clearly ISN’T all good, but these two episodes are.

Leaving aside the contrast in directorial technique between the hyperkinetic Miller and the more sober Richard Donner (plus whoever replaced him after he was fired for falling behind schedule), it’s fascinating how different the main character is in each story, even though Richard Matheson scripted both.

In both versions, a passenger on a plane sees a demonic figure on the wing of a plane, tampering with the engine, and can’t get anyone else to believe him.

In the original, the hero is fresh from a six-month stay in a sanatorium after a nervous breakdown that struck during a plane flight. Now his wife is taking him home.

In the Miller film version, the lead character an apparently stable and sober professor, but he’s travelling alone.

The first version benefits from the suspicion that our man may be losing his marbles all over again — how else to explain the fact that nobody else ever sees the “gremlin” (styled by make-up maestro William Tuttle very much along the lines of his DR LAO yeti)? I don’t know how many 1963 audiences thought that way, though — after all, WE see the creature. The hero’s past instability is probably more a device to make us sympathetic, and to account for his wife not believing him.

(One thing where the remake is measurably superior is the creature, created, if I read the credits aright, by Craig Reardon and Michael McCracken. By not being in a kind of furry romper suit, it’s allowed to look properly WET, which adds lustre and ick to its rubbery visage. Maybe the artist’s personality always comes through in monsters: Tuttle beasts always have a tragic look, whereas Reardon’s look… naughty?)

In the remake, the hero starts stable but rapidly and amusingly unravels, and the fact that he’s alone means he can only turn to strangers for support.

Man 1 is William Shatner, man 2 is John Lithgow. One thing that works is that both are sort of cast against type — Shatner being less associated with neurotic parts, Lithgow never being cast as ordinary Joes. A more obvious and less interesting approach would be to time-travel Lithgow back to ’63 and rejuvenate Shatner in ’83.

Shatner’s leading man attributes really work in his favour, since he LOOKS manly and self-reliant. Shatner really conveys his humiliation at having shown weakness. Of course, he gets his manhood back by firing a gun in the end, which seems quite 1963. The remake takes a more ironic view of everything, and though the gun is instrumental in stopping the gremlin, it takes the time to grab our hero’s face and wag a finger at him (while Jerry Goldsmith’s score riffs on Danse Macabre).

But though the Donner-Shatner episode may be less progressive, what bowled me over is its sheer effectiveness — right from the start I felt strong tension, the combination of my own slight fear of flying, the excitement of the building storm, Shatner’s nervy, sweaty perf. The casual sauntering gait of the ludicrous shaggy beast on the left wing of the jet is amusing but just right, somehow — the important quality is not a convincing mime of clinging on in spite of the impossible air currents, but a sense that the nameless thingy feels it has a perfect right to be there.

(The wing man is played by Burt Lancaster’s former wingman, in THE CRIMSON PIRATE and THE FLAME AND THE ARROW, diminutive acrobat Nick Cravat, who didn’t really need a full mask…)

Having creeped us out with the slow approach, the gremlin is then well-placed — after a prolonged, hammy but genuinely tense build-up by Shatner, steeling himself endlessly — to make a shock appearance in close-up, nose pressed against the glass. And he has the kind of nose that always looks as if it’s pressed against glass anyway.

The wrap-up is more satisfying (and benign) in the TV version, and really, after being put through the ringer like that, we deserve a happy ending, don’t we?

On a related note ~

 

Stalk Press

Posted in Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 11, 2016 by dcairns

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Even though I grew up watching old movies and seventies US TV, I was too young to appreciate what slightly older Americans were getting. On prime-time, they could watch (mostly dreadful) TV shows in which the aging guest stars were decrepit versions of the same actors in the late night movies. Like depressives with diurnal variation, or like vampires, or like, well, actual astronomical stars, the stars came to life at night.

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Telemovies The Night Stalker, The Night Strangler and follow-up series Kolchak: The Night Stalker display this phenom beautifully, though we were watching for other reasons. We got the familiar faces as a bonus. Here’s Charles McGraw, his once-chiseled features, his lightning-bolt profile, all turned to melting waxwork folds and softness, as he reads his lines off a sheet of paper. Beside him is a crusty Kent Smith, playing a horrible politician, the kind of interesting part he never got when he was young and smooth as an apple. Here’s Elisha Cook Jnr, who spent the seventies battling the undead, it seems, whether it be Janos Skorzeny, Kurt Barlow or Blacula. Here’s Claude Akins, looking more and more like General Aldo from BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES, the first role I saw him in, and here’s Ralph Meeker. Ralph has still got it, it just takes him longer to find it.

I had seen a little of this series and hadn’t been impressed, but then everybody had a great time with the original movie at the Edinburgh International Film Festival when Niall Fulton programmed it in his TV movie season, and I missed out. And the first two are written by Richard Matheson (story by Jeff Rice).

The Night Stalker is fairly dumb for a modern-day vampire story. It doesn’t gain much by transplanting an old-time horror character into the modern age. Maybe if he’d been played by one of the aging hams, that would have granted some pathos. But I will say that Barry Atwater, the guy they chose, has a great face. The main innovation is seventies-style cynicism about authority figures — it’s hard to believe this is pre-JAWS, since it anticipates the head-in-the-sand “don’t panic the tourists” official stance, and adds a big cover-up at the end for good measure. THAT I liked. It’s surprisingly bleak.

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What’s also impressive is the sheer pace, especially the opening. Matheson crams his set-up into brisk, violent scenes with Darren McGavin’s snappy narration propelling it along. John Llewellyn Moxy brings plenty of his namesake quality to the staging. There are occasional good lines.

Then comes the sequel, in which Jack the Ripper is stalking Seattle, and one realizes that it’s EXACTLY the same as the first movie. Strippers get murdered. McGavin shouts at and is shouted at by his boss. Crepuscular hams of the week: John Carradine (impressively restrained!), Scott Brady, Margaret Hamilton, Al Lewis, Wally Cox (wonderful – television cannot contain him). The only development is that we get to meet and talk to the monster, nicely played by Richard Anderson (“Steve Austin’s boss!” exclaims Fiona) in his lair of dry-ice and mummified family. The floor-hugging disco mist is exactly the reason these things struggle to scare: the accumulation of thoughtless visual clichés.

The other thing that becomes apparent is the misogyny, which lies low but creeps into everything, like dry ice. In the second film, there is no compelling reason why all the victims have to be female. Women are just assumed to be natural murderees. Why kill a guy when you can kill a woman, which would be more heterosexual and therefore normal? McGavin’s commentary is an anthology of shocking victim-blaming (woman out at night: “She wanted to get ahead. She should have settled for staying alive.”) and salaciousness (a corpse is “luscious”). This kind of thing carries on into the series, where Kolchak is more than once paired with fat chicks, who are there to be patronized and abused. Of course it was slightly forward-thinking at the time for an American TV show to even admit the existence of women not shaped like Carol Lynley (girlfriend, first film) or Jo-Ann Pflug (girlfriend, second film).

This stuff is all on YouTube, by the way. Have only dipped into the series itself, but it does benefit from the involvement of David Chase on script. The Sopranos creator has been around a long time! When a zombie terrorizes Chicago gangsters, it becomes apparent that the writer has researched the mob and is able to supply convincing detail about how they operate. It’s the first sign that Kolchak, purportedly a modern character in the modern world but really lifted from 20s newspaper movies (“If you see a guy who looks like he stepped out of a road company production of The Front Page…”) is actually operating in contemporary reality.

The series seems to alternate between the unwatchably hackneyed and the possessed-of-an-occasional edge, so we may dip into more. Jimmy Sangster wrote one! Phil Silvers is in it! Some of these might surface during The Late Show: the Late Movies Blogathon (early December — please contribute!)