Tuesday, 23 February 2010

(Peter Watkins, 1967)

It must be said that when the BFI launched their ‘Flipside’ cult/underground DVD imprint last year, their initial batch of releases left me less enthused than one might imagine. An applaudable venture, for sure, but selections such as Richard Lester’s grimly unfunny black comedy ‘The Bed Sitting Room’ and mondo stripper flicks like ‘London In The Raw’ seemed like strange initial choices for high profile restoration and reconsideration.

Not that I’d wish to see these films UNavailable to the curious viewer you understand, but giving priority to such historical curios when there are so many straight-up masterpieces of British weirdness languishing in the vaults seemed a pretty frustrating use of resources. Obviously my own tastes veer toward the kind of horror and sci-fi that Flipside’s overlords seem to be deliberately avoiding thus far, but nonetheless, wouldn’t the label provide a great opportunity to finally give A-grade cult oddities like John Gilling’s “The Night Caller”, Michael Reeves’ “The Sorcerers” or Don Sharp’s incredible “Psychomania” the proper DVD releases they deserve? Or how about such potent, currently-unavailable pop cultural smash-ups as Robert Freeman and Donald Cammell’s “The Touchables”, or what about “Smashing Time” for that matter?

Well needless to say, the above have all yet to (re)appear on our shelves, but Flipside’s subsequent releases have still succeeded in bringing me back to the fold. In fact in view of some of the singular items they now have in their catalogue, it is easier to see those odd initial releases as part of a deliberate and brave policy of avoiding more obvious film-nerd favourites and instead seeking out a variety of largely unclassifiable ‘misfit’ films of the kind that not only found themselves ignored, misunderstood or reviled on initial release, but which have subsequently proved too idiosyncratic, flawed or difficult to have enjoyed much of a revival on the nostalgia-driven cult film circuit.

Rather than giving us ‘the hits’ off our must-see lists so to speak, Flipside seem to be more concerned with seeking to rehabilitate the reputations of some of the legions of glorious, audacious, semi-lunatic failures hidden out there in the Out Of Circulation zone, and, for better or worse, it’s certainly proving fascinating to see what they come up with every few months.

And few films could be said to hit that ‘idiosyncratic/audacious/misunderstood’ sweet spot better than Peter Watkins ‘Privilege’, a movie I’ve been desperate to see for so long I’ve almost forgotten why it caught my attention in the first place, goaded into considering it a forever unobtainable treasure as copies traded hands for triple figures on ebay, and now BANG, suddenly, thanks to Flipside, it’s in my hands in a beautiful no-expense-spared package with flawless picture quality and crammed with extras, essays and associated blather. Thanks guys!

Peter Watkins has always stood out as the very archetype of the difficult, uncompromising filmmaker, but having found himself more or less completely ostracised by the film industry for decades for precisely those reasons, the DVD era has seen a slow but steady revival in his fortunes, with ‘Privilege’ representing - I think - the last of his major works from the ‘60s and early ‘70s to gain a high profile re-release. Not that it would appear the man himself could care less, as he continues to communicate with the world via his personal website in the form of lengthy broadsides directed against what he deems the malevolent ‘MONOFORM’ of contemporary audio-visual entertainment.

So, yeah, let us make no mistake – Watkins is and has always been what those back in the day may have termed a ‘heavy cat’. Although possessed of a frankly astonishing level of formal innovation, fierce intelligence and visceral power, his films are equally subject to a sense of unfocused rage and paranoid political extremism that has served to alienate him as much from would-be allies as it has from his hated establishment. ‘Privilege’, his only excursion into the realm of commercial studio filmmaking, is no exception.

Ostensibly telling the story of Steven Shorter, a phenomenally successful pop star played by former Manfred Mann singer Paul Jones, ‘Privilege’ seems to have been marketed at the time as a conventional rags-to-riches rock star flick, although the film itself swiftly ditches all semblance of that traditional narrative. Instead, ‘Privilege’ takes the form of a blunt Orwellian social satire, portraying Shorter as the tool of an increasingly totalitarian British state, who, in direct collusion with Shorter’s corporate backers, use his bland good looks and undirected charisma as a white wall onto which the desires and behaviour of the country’s youth can be projected, and subsequently controlled.

Norman Bogner’s screenplay sets out to business as a Terry Southern style absurdist comedy, but Watkins, one suspects, had little time for chuckles, and the comedy elements that remain in the film – in the form of the various grotesques who make up Steven’s immediate circle, the filming of an absurdly pretentious ‘existentialist’ apple commercial etc. – fall rather flat, or else are steamrolled into Watkins’ political agenda.

In fact, it’s hardly surprising the film bombed on initial release, as, on a pure popular cinema level, it’s not very entertaining at all. Capers, antics and action are all in pitifully short supply, as are sympathetic characters or central narrative drive. Even the kind of requisite Swinging London awesomeness you might reasonably expect of a 1966 pop culture movie is largely AWOL, with crowd/party scenes generally looking pretty set-bound, with costume design and incidental detail mostly dedicated to the realisation of Watkins’ nightmare vision of a pop-fascist dystopia, rather than to sharing any groovy mod-era thrills.

That said, it is undoubtedly the concert sequences and other mass gatherings in which Watkins really excels as a filmmaker. Like other Watkins films, ‘Privilege’ is constructed as a faux-documentary, and, as usual, the director’s greatest strength lays in his ability to actually CREATE the battles, conflicts and spectacles the film calls for, and to get down on the ground with his handheld camera and just plain film shit as it ‘happens’, lending his work a startling and often terrifying sense of immediacy and realism.

The opening of ‘Privilege’ sees Stephen Shorter making his first appearance in the UK after returning from a grueling American tour. Only, a Stephen Shorter appearance is apparently no ordinary ‘concert’ - it is a choreographed ritual by which teenagers are allowed to express their anger and frustration in an officially-sanctioned, controlled environment. To the accompaniment of Beatlemania screams, Shorter is dragged on-stage by uniformed officers, handcuffed and thrown into a cage, from behind the bars of which he begins to sing a bombastic rock ode, demanding his freedom (it’s pretty awesome actually – sounds like something The Who might have done on ‘Tommy’), looking every bit the swoonsome, tormented innocent as he implores the crowd to release him. In performance style and appearance, Shorter/Jones is a dead ringer for stormy solo era Scott Walker, and it’s all pretty intense stuff to be honest, as he tears his shirt, strains against the cuffs until his wrists bleed etc.

The audience becomes more frenzied as the guards taunt and beat the singer and as he subsequently fights back and tires to escape, and by the time Shorter is finally dragged off the stage in silence at the (extremely long) song’s conclusion, the crowd is ready to erupt on cue into a bloody riot which presumably provides the rest of the evening’s entertainment, as a battalion of baton-wielding police try valiantly to control a frenzied mass of howling teenage girls.

Captured with Watkins’ verite-styled photography and jolting, fingers-on-the-blackboard editing, and throwing in a mixed up palette of freedom/confinement imagery that requires no explanation, the entire sequence is jawdropping. The unusual nature of Shorter’s performance sorta comes out of the blue with no prior warning, and initially the whole thing seems crazily unlikely. I mean, why would so many teenagers fall for such a bizarre and violent bit of performance art shtick? Doesn’t seem much like my idea of fun. That changes though when you think on and recall David Bowie acting out similar theatre-of-cruelty psychodramas to a similar screaming teen crowd in his Ziggy Stardust period a few years later, at which point ‘Privilege’ temporarily achieves its objective of becoming eerily prescient.

Altogether less convincing, although just as impressive visually, is the film’s centerpiece, a vast Nuremberg style rally in a football stadium, organised by Shorter’s organization in collaboration with the Church of England and Britain’s one-party government (about the funniest moment in the film for modern viewers is when the narrator casually announces that the Labour and Conservative parties recently decided to merge, having discovered an essential lack of difference between their policies and seen no reason why they should subject the public to ‘disruptive expressions of political difference’).

The gimmick this time is that, having earlier lent his endorsement to all manner of commercial products, Shorter’s services have been bought wholesale by the C of E, for whom he will become a mouthpiece, appearing for the first time without handcuffs and announcing that he was been freed by the power of faith. As I say, the whole event is staged like the British equivalent of a Nazi rally, with legions of boy scouts and Salvation Army bands trooping around, blaring music, gigantic banners and a huge, neon crucifix being carried to the stage. Appropriate to the occasion, Watkins’ camera here departs from his usual close-to-the-ground approach, instead documenting things from an expressionistic ‘eyes of god’ point of view that seems to take direct inspiration from Leni Riefenstahl’s ‘Triumph of the Will’ (know your enemy and all that).

It may have worked ok for Riefenstahl I guess, but shackled here to an alternate history which is, let’s face it, pretty wacky, I found all the interminable saluting and stomping about quickly became a bore, conveying all too well the kind of stuffy school assembly atmosphere that inevitably accompanies this kind of militaristic hoo-hah. I found myself instinctively waiting for Mick Travis and his gang to set off their smoke bombs, but it never happened, with the leaden bombast only easing briefly into unsettling comedy as a rock band in blackshirt outfits with Union Jack armbands play a jangling Byrds-esque rendition of ‘Jerusalem’ (we saw them earlier in an entertaining studio sequence, playing a freakbeat infused ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ and wearing monastic robes). The fact that the music’s pretty good and I’m tapping my toes probably says more for the chilling validity of the film’s central premise than any amount of sound and fury, to be honest.

When Watkins was making his film, I suppose the post-Beatles mass popularity of pop music was a relatively recent phenomenon, leading, I'm sure, to much chin-stroking from conservatives and radicals alike re: where things could be heading. To certain extent, 'Privilege' was probably just throwing its own pessimistic view of things into the ring. For those of us raised on rock n' roll as an established way of life though, it's hard to think of anything more disturbing and jarring than the sight of a Fender Jaguar and a fascist salute in the same shot. Point made, job done.

With a slightly more restrained approach, Watkins could have hit home with a far more convincing political message, but here things are undercut from the start by the fact the scene he’s painting for us is so patently absurd. Essentially it’s the same problem that sinks his later almost-masterpiece ‘Punishment Park’ (1971). On the level of pure cinema, ‘Punishment Park’ is an astonishingly powerful work of anti-establishment propaganda, enough to make you feel like loading up your AK-47 and going underground after viewing. Only you don’t, because the film’s central conceit – that hippies en masse constitute enough of a threat to the status quo for the American government to set up vast desert concentration camps to kill them in weird war games – is so utterly fucking ridiculous (and precisely the kind of paranoid, self-involved narrative that helped distract and dissolve the post-hippie counterculture in the ‘70s when it could instead have been doing something genuinely useful, come to that) that the film’s grimly determined ‘realism’ immediately dies a death.

And similarly in ‘Privilege’, I’m sure that British readers will know what I mean when I say that the sight of a sinister Church of England bishop standing atop the podium at a fascist rally/pop concert and leading the nation’s youth in a chant of “WE WILL CONFORM” is just about the stupidest and most ham-fisted attempt at political commentary I’ve ever seen. It could be a Monty Python sketch, only Watkins treats the scenario with such dire and unrelenting seriousness.

Of course, there are innumerable ways in which a democratic state can slowly slip into totalitarianism and we always need to be on our guard etc etc; but the idea of the most polite and parochial religious organisation in the world suddenly leading the British public straight into an exact recreation of a Nuremburg rally only twenty years after the Third Reich got it’s comeuppance and Hitler and fascism forever established as the go-to embodiments of evil the world over..? I don’t want to seem like I’m giving too much credit for political suss to a nation that continues to read The Daily Mail, but c'mon - not bloody likely.

So, top marks perhaps for a subtle and increasingly prophetic presentation of corporate/government/media collusion, but as a conformity vs. individualism parable or a treatise on the roots of totalitarianism, I’m afraid we’re looking at a bit of a wash-out with ‘Privilege’. Leaving Watkins and his polemics aside for the moment though, there is undoubtedly more depth to the film that just this hammer-blow stuff. For one thing, the faux-documentary conceit is carried off beautifully much of the time, with the painstaking level of incidental detail that’s crammed into each frame and some excellent performances from the supporting cast often serving to capture the same kind of backstage banter and shady power-brokering that D.A. Pennebaker immortalised in ‘Don’t Look Back’ (a pretty huge influence on this film, I suspect). But beyond all that, in the sequences when the narrative drifts away from the shaky-cam toward straight fiction, I actually found myself becoming quietly absorbed by a whole other voice that is making itself heard within this film, perhaps even outside the director’s earshot.

Although the performances of both Paul Jones and Jean Shrimpton as the film’s female lead have attracted a certain amount of criticism over the years, the decision to cast them was inspired. At the time, Jones had recently quit Manfred Mann at the height of the band’s popularity, declaring himself exhausted by the pressures of the pop star lifestyle. Shrimpton meanwhile had found herself becoming almost unbelievably famous in the mid-‘60s, as the discovery/muse/fiancée of photographer David Bailey. By the time she turned twenty, her picture had appeared on the front of more magazines than most people read in a lifetime, and her and Bailey’s troubled relationship was daily fodder for the tabloids. By the end of the decade though, the young woman had apparently decided she couldn’t be arsed with the whole thing and retreated from public life entirely to run a hotel in Penzance, where she’s remained ever since.

Both leads bring somewhat limited acting abilities to their roles in ‘Privilege’ (in the booklet accompanying the DVD, Robert Murphy sums up Shrimpton as “stunningly beautiful, but almost inaudible”), and the development of their on-screen relationship could easily be seen as confusing, contrived and uneventful (Shrimpton plays Vanessa Ritchie, a painter who is hired to create portraits of Shorter and who subsequently encourages him to express his individuality and rebel against his handlers). But both are possessed of what I suppose you might call a ‘raw physical charisma’, and whatever finesse their line readings may lack, their presence adds a whole new level of meaning to the film. After all, no amount of ‘method’ can compare with the opportunity to act what you already know, because it’s happening in your life right now.

For the first half of the film, Stephen Shorter is very deliberately set up as a cipher. People talk to him, or through him, or about him, but aside from a few mumbled complaints, the man himself is silent – an empty vessel for the ideas of others. When he is introduced to the similarly reserved and awkward Vanessa though, their scenes together become a islands of tranquility amid the garish decadence and cruelty of the rest of the film, and their partnership becomes sad and moving in a weird, wordless way that extends beyond the hackneyed “man meets woman, discovers humanity” device that the script may have intended.

Beautiful and blank, Jones and Shrimpton essentially find themselves standing in for the ACTUAL privileged first world youth of the late 20th century. Confused, inarticulate souls fleetingly trying to anchor some understanding of themselves, and to communicate with each other in the midst of a ceaseless, shrieking tornado of malevolent excess, bad ideas and constant overstimulation, Jones and Shrimpton become the heart and soul of the film, lost forever within Peter Watkins’ brave but self-sabotaging circus of horrors.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Repo Chick Trailer.

In common with many right-thinking people out there, I've long counted Alex Cox's ‘Repo Man’ as one of my favourite films.

In fact, ‘Repo Man’ sits alongside ‘Night of the Living Dead’, ‘Vanishing Point’ and ‘If..’ on the very short list of films that, rather than just watching a coupla times, I could happily run on a loop, forever, and never tire of. Catch me in a particularly exuberant (read: drunken) frame of mind, and I’ll even try to tell you that ‘Repo Man’ is the ‘Citizen Kane’ of the post-punk era – the film upon which all subsequent unconventional/low budget genre movies should be judged.

And I guess Cox has followed a career path of suitably Wellesian capriciousness ever since, but however many times he’s managed to snatch failure from the jaws of victory, he’s nonetheless cemented himself first and foremost as one of the good guys in the world of cinema.

Now in 2010, he’s back with this;

Um…. yeah.

Click here for a link to Cox talking about the reasoning behind the film, his hatred of golf, his realisation of Los Angeles' essentially female nature and much else besides.

Please, please Alex, make this one good.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

No Explanation Necessary.

I'll be honest with you; I paid £5 for this book, but I'll almost certainly never read it.

I just hope the mild-mannered bookshop proprietor didn't hear me when I pulled it off the shelf and exclaimed "fuck me!"

Cover illustration by Jozef Gross, who it seems did a fair bit of book design, although apparently not enough to merit a wikipedia page or an online gallery anywhere.

Oh, and publication date on this one is 1965 by the way, meaning it perhaps rather cooly preempts the adoption of psychedelic imagery into mainstream culture by a coupla years...? Kinda, sorta...?

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Me n' Coffin Joe, Part # 3:
This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse (1967)

Three years after the success of “At Midnight I Will Take Your Soul”, Ze Do Caixao returned to Brazil’s screens in a film that bears all the defining marks of a sequel, essentially revisiting the themes and structure of it’s predecessor, but with more violence, more sleaze, a longer running time and even more ranting, but losing the self-contained charm of the earlier film in the process, replacing it with the first full manifestation of the kind of wildly excessive, oneiric sadism that Jose Marins would make his trademark in the coming years.

Rather than being dispatched for good by the combined forces of supernatural justice at the end of “At Midnight..”, it seems that Coffin Joe was merely… uh, badly burned or something, and “This Night..” begins with him returning to his home town fully recovered after a spell in hospital, and absolved of his crimes by a rather shoddy looking court on the basis of a lack of evidence. And unfortunately for the human race, it seems Joe hasn’t learned a damn thing from his ordeals, as he’s immediately up to his old tricks, harping on endlessly about the sanctity of his bloodline and the foolishness of religious belief and so on. Some bloody use that turned out to be, sigh the wandering ghosts somewhere in the background.

Stretching the shaky continuity further, business at the undertakers must have been booming in Joe’s absence, as his funeral parlor now finds itself equipped with a standard issue hunchback assistant named Bruno (his school play level make-up job somehow makes the poor guy look more repulsive than professional effects ever would have done), and also with a new complex of underground torture dungeons. Convenient!

Marins’ production values seem to have taken a corresponding leap forward too, at least if we can judge by such yardsticks as more sets, more expansive framing, more actors, more special effects, etc. I was disappointed to note though that the claustrophobic, gothic atmospherics that so livened up “At Midnight..” have been misplaced along the way, ironically falling victim to the arrival of more professional lighting, and the decision to shoot most of the external scenes on location. Gone are the restrictive corridors of forest and swathes of shadow that Marins conjured up on his chicken shack soundstage, and instead we get, well… realistic daytime footage of the same fairly boring looking place in Brazil, much of the time.

Sadly, many of the interior sets follow suit. That said, Joe’s dungeon/laboratory/whatever set up is lovably goofy - real mad scientist 101, straight of an Al Adamson or Ted V. Mikels flick, with weird, seemingly gas-powered machinery, the good ol’ strap-down gurney and parrots (?!) flying around for some reason. Quite what the machinery is for is anyone’s guess, although Joe does proclaim “not sadism – science!” at one point in the film, so maybe he’s got something on the backburner a bit more methodical than just throwing snakes at ladies and hoping for the best. Anyway, with this notable exception, most of the other interiors just have a lot of brick and white walls standing in for the delightfully cluttered compositions of the earlier film, unfortunately. Ho hum.

“At Midnight..” also features a whole ton of padding and subplots which were absent from the one-track-mind narrative of the first film – in fact the damn thing’s jam-packed with wild and wooly antics involving local politics, a kind-hearted wrestler, fixed poker games, tavern brawls and all manner of scheming and duplicity which I won’t try and run down for you in this review or we’ll be here all day.

One of the film’s most surprising scenes comes early on, when Joe saves a young boy from being run down by a careless soldier on a motorbike. Given his batshit philosophies and general disdain for humanity, one would assume that Joe only seeks a child of his own for purely utilitarian ends, to act as a miniature continuation of himself. But here, as he plays with the kid at the side of the road and curses the cyclist for his lack of attention, we start to realise that Joe just really digs kids, and hates the way that social and religious forces compel them to grow up into adults that he deems weak and ignorant. This one brief scene, in which Joe is framed as the protective force standing between the children and the hapless, accident-prone grown ups, is (to my knowledge) the only moment in Jose Marins’ entire filmography in which the director’s alter-ego is made to seem even remotely sympathetic. That it is never elaborated upon or followed up as the film proceeds full steam ahead in the direction of seedy, misanthropic carnage, simply makes it all the more curious.

Anyway, fathering a son is still Coffin Joe’s foremost objective in life, only now he seems to be framing this desire in even more deranged and fascistic terms, declaring that his first born will be the leader of a new race of supermen, free from human weakness. Ever the man of action, Joe decides that the first step is to find a mother befitting of his high standards, and as such he immediately sets about kidnapping the town’s six most desirable women. This quickly accomplished, he deposits them in a purpose-built ladies’ dormitory that he seems to have stashed away in his tardis-like lair, and prepares to instigate the first of film’s two extended sequences of horrifying shenanigans, as he subjects his potential brides to a series of ‘ordeals’ to determine which of them is most worthy of his seed.

Admittedly, women weren’t given a great deal to do in the first Coffin Joe film prior to becoming victims, but it soon becomes clear in “This Night..” that the level of Jose Marins’ misogyny, or, at best, his lack of empathy toward the opposite sex, was absolutely staggering when he was making these films. Kidnapped by a freak, these six able-bodied women just sit there impassively in their nightgowns, failing to display any emotion or resistance whatsoever, as their captor rants away, explaining in his characteristically roundabout fashion that he basically intends to kill five of them, and to rape the lucky survivor.

Upping the ante on the spider-based murder of his wife from the first film, Joe waits until the girls are soundly asleep (cos hey, what else are they gonna do after the man’s left the room?), and unleashes a box full of tarantulas upon them in a queasy sequence that goes on far, far longer than is strictly necessary (“necessary” being a pretty redundant term with Marins at the controls), cutting between close-ups of giant spiders crawling across the bodies of writhing, terrified girls and Joe’s staring eyes and belly-laughing chops, his pet creatures clearly presented as a direct extension of his body, and of the camera’s gaze. Somewhere, there’s a psychoanalyst hitting the big red button under his/her desk, and we haven’t even got to the snakes yet.

Ah yes, the snakes. When Joe deems one of the girls worthy of survival because she wasn’t too bothered by the spiders, she gets to watch as her companions are locked in a narrow underground chamber and left to the mercy of a bunch of venomous vipers and boa constrictors. Shots of the snake attack are intercut with equally icky footage of Coffin Joe trying to force himself upon the surviving lady. When she breaks down and admits that she is less than enthused by this whole turn of events, Joe decides she is not free from ‘weakness’ after all and thus can never be the mother of his child. Oh well, ya win some, ya lose some.

What I found most bizarre in this sequence though is what happens when Joe shrugs off his disappointment and tells her she is free to go. “Aren’t you afraid I’ll report all this to the authorities?”, she asks. No, Joe tells her, for I can tell that you have fallen hopelessly in love with me and will henceforth do my bidding. And she does.

What the EEEnfernoo is going on here? I thought I was at least getting used to the fuzzy logic with which Jose Marins conducts his movies, but once again his cracked-in-the-head approach to human behaviour has left me speechless.

Later in the film, Coffin Joe meets another girl, the daughter of a wealthy local dignitary, and things become even more confoundingly ridiculous when she immediately attaches herself to Joe and begins parroting his patriarchal, survival-of-the-strong philosophies back to him without even being prompted and doesn’t seem to mind when he slaps her around, causing our man to take a drag on his pipe and look on contentedly, as if to say “well, I knew the gal for me would come along eventually”.

Rarely in any sphere of creative endeavor – even the most bone-headed of superhero comics or fan fiction – have I encountered such a complete inability on the part of a male writer to conceive of women as independent, decision-making beings.

Not that I’d wish to really launch a defense of Mojica Marins, whose filmmaking ethics are clearly about as questionable as the Shell answer-man, but what I think we have to realise when dealing with Marins’ movies is that once they’ve got their initial plot set-ups and exposition out of the way and allowed him to get his horror on, all semblance of human characterisation and real world cause & effect are totally outta the window. In some quarters, Marins is often compared to Bunuel and Jean Cocteau, and, whilst that’s a comparison we should be wary of taking too far, “This Night..”s relentless concentration on personal dream logic and unforgettably intense imagery certainly speaks of such.

To put it bluntly, when Coffin Joe is ‘in the zone’, all other characters in the film are reduced to little more than bodies that do what they’re told. All through the film, things either happen comically slowly or appear sped up with no apparent logic, people say things that make almost no sense whatsoever, and a discordant mixture of music cues and random noises blare away with little relation to the action onscreen. Basically, the whole thing is freaked out on a level that only the very strangest of global filmmakers are able to compete with, and if things end up being almost unbelievably offensive too, well hey, that’s all just grist to the big WTF mill as far as Mr Marins is concerned. For every viewer left un-appalled by one of his films, Ze Do Caixao must shed a tear of failure.

What he is essentially going for here is Hitchcockian “shock cinema” on a cruelly primitive level. He doesn’t give a damn whether or not the audience expect these girls (or any of the characters other than Coffin Joe for that matter) to be recognisable, sympathetic humans – hell, he’d probably have used mannequins instead, except they don’t scream or wriggle so well. The reaction he’s going for is simply to make us squirm in our seats and go ICK ICK ICK, GIANT HAIRY SPIDERS! and AAARGH, SNAKES! and OH MY GOD THAT’S HORRIBLE, and JESUS CHRIST, I’VE NEVER SEEN ANYTHING LIKE THAT IN MY LIFE BEFORE! And it is his overwhelming success in obtaining these reactions where so many other horror directors have failed that continues to make his work so unique, regardless of the fact that on a personal level he seems to dwell somewhere on the slippery slope between “socially maladjusted” and “out of his freakin’ mind”.

This can all be clearly seen in the sequence that viewers will remember most vividly from this film – Coffin Joe’s descent into Technicolor hell! Although in some ways a mere warm up for the utter mind-flaying Marins would inflect on the world a few years later in “Awakening Of The Beast” (which recycles the B&W to colour gimmick), “This Night..”s vision of hell is in some ways even more brutally extraordinary.

Put it this way: think about every film you’ve seen over the years that has portrayed a visit to hell. It’s usually pretty metaphorical, right? In the name of sanity and good taste, filmmakers will usually find some smart or abstracted means by which to portray the infernal regions, be it the bureaucratic hell of ‘The Screwtape Letters’, the hallucinatory hell-on-earth of ‘Jacob’s Ladder’, the dopey S&M fantasies of ‘Hellraiser’ or the desert wasteland of Fulci’s ‘The Beyond’. Even the towering ode to literalism that is ‘Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey’ has the decency to present hell as a kind of stylized labyrinth in which we’re pursued by childhood fears.

But as we have surely gathered by now, sanity and good taste are not virtues held in high esteem by Jose Mojica Marins. If he’s going to take us to hell, he’s going to round up all the colour film stock, polystyrene, greasepaint and out of work actors his remaining budget can muster and take us to motherfucking HELL. And so, when Coffin Joe discovers that one of the women he murdered was pregnant, this sets him off on a predictably severe existential crisis which, combined with another one of those pesky peasant curses, sees him literally dragged through the ground, emerging in a garishly lit underground realm in which the legions of the semi-naked damned writhe in agony, being stabbed with pitchforks by red-skinned, loin-cloth clad demons!

Satan, also played by Marins (hey, why not?), sits upon his bloody throne, laughing uproariously as he zaps unfortunate sinners with lightning bolts, causing severed limbs to fly across the screen in a vision straight from the mind of a rabid eight year old boy. Rivers of stage-blood run through channels crudely hacked into the sets; naked women are bloodily crucified as boa constrictors crawl around their necks; floors and walls that looks like regurgitated pizza throb and moan with the torments of the damned; disconnected heads and body parts wave frantically through gaps in the ceiling. And meanwhile, cult film fans the world over proceed to foam at the mouth, fall off their chairs or manifest other suitably extreme reactions in sheer disbelief that their was some deranged guy with no money in the middle of Brazil actually MAKING THIS CRAP HAPPEN, AND FILMING IT.

It is a strange kind of joy to try to explain, that exquisite “I can’t believe I am actually seeing this” feeling. It’s not big, and it’s not clever, but it’s a form of joy all the same, and probably the reason I keep firing up movies like this when I could be doing something sensible.

Overall, I’m starting to get the impression that the cinema of Jose Marins is rather like being trapped inside the seething, sweaty mind of some leather overcoat-clad, catholic guilt-wracked teenager – you know, the kind you probably knew some variation of in school/college who quotes bowdlerised Nietzsche and seems to have a very high opinion of himself, but is cripplingly terrified/fascinated by the perpetually distant opposite sex.

It is not a place I can really recommend spending time, but on the other hand it does lead us into a hallucinogenic cavalcade of truly horrific horrors, realised with the kind of lingering intensity that makes you suspect Marins never got over his teenage disappointment that when you go to see a movie called, say, ‘Pit of Bloody Horror’, you rarely get to see eighty minutes-worth of pits full of bloody horror, and decided it was his personal destiny to make amends for this failure, in the name of prurient, emotionally-stunted horror fans everywhere. And so, for those of us with a hardy constitution and at least a certain fondness for the prurient, emotionally-stunted horror fan that lurks within us all (ok, some of us more than others), films like “This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse” are irresistible, providing further proof, as if it were needed, that being out of one’s freakin’ mind can often convey just as many advantages upon an intrepid filmmaker as it can problems.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

The Earth Dies Screaming
(Terrence Fisher, 1964)

“The Earth Dies Screaming”. Wow. I mean, what can you say to a title like that? Awareness of the cynical processes by which genre movies are named/marketed or not, I’d defy ANYONE not to want to duck into a theatre with that one on the marquee (or, in a more contemporary setting, buy the DVD-R off the guy in Up The Video Junction in Camden market).

As it happens, the promises of the title are broken right from the outset here, as the chilling opening sequence of this British science fiction quickie portrays the world – or at least, the sections of it surrounding a rural English village – dying rather peacefully in its sleep.

Bodies slump to the ground on the village green. Cars wobble slowly into walls as their occupants suddenly expire. A locomotive crashes off the rails, its crew dead at the controls. What’s going on?

The first living being we see is an American, Major Jeff Nolan, played by Willard Parker. Driving his military landrover into a village square strewn with corpses, he shoulders his rifle and breaks into an electronics shop, where he proceeds to scan the dial on a radio, looking for signals.

He soon has company when another car pulls into town, containing the friendly Peggy, and a shifty, gun-toting Mr Quinn Taggert, who claims to be her husband. Having established that the intruders aren’t actively hostile, a surviving local couple soon emerge from hiding, and, being broadly sensible folk, the small group of survivors decamp to the comfortable bar of the local hotel to take stock of their situation over some scotch and soda.

In a development reminiscent of ‘Day of the Triffids’, it turns out that all of the survivors were in enclosed environments when the catastrophe occurred – Nolan was in the air testing an experimental jet, whilst locals Otis and Violet Had sneaked off from a boring party to spend the night in an airtight laboratory, Peggy was in a hospital oxygen tent, and so on. (Incidentally: Otis? Since when was anyone in the British Isles in 1964 called ‘Otis’?) With the certainty that becomes scientifically-minded folks in movies like this, Nolan reasons that England must have been subject to a deadly gas attack. “This was no accident - whoever did this clearly just won the war,” says the pessimistic Mr. Taggart, “Now they’ve just got to move in and take over – then it’s every man for himself."

It’s not quite as simple as that however, as the occupants of the hotel realise when a pair of spacemen wander into town. Violet makes the rookie mistake of assuming the spacemen are human and marches out to greet her rescuers, while the others are more wary and hang back. And wisely so, as Vi is unceremoniously zapped by the inhuman figures, falling amid the other bodies as the spacemen move on.

Roving spacemen may sound like a pretty goofy addition to the thus far fairly dour story, but in practice they are incredibly unsettling – whirring robot drones controlled by forces unknown, not dissimilar to the Cybermen who were making their debut in Dr. Who at around the same time, impassively hunting down and disposing of any remaining living creatures. Understandably, the film takes a somewhat darker turn from hereon in, evened out by an additional bit of melodrama as a rebellious youth and his heavily pregnant wife-to-be turn up, having recently run away from home, as the bodies of the deceased start returning to life, and Mr Taggart starts to make his sinister intentions clear.

As a film, the main failure of ‘The Earth Dies Screaming’ is also, weirdly, one of its biggest advantages – the fact it is so short it almost seems unfinished. With a running time that only just hits the hour mark, I can only assume the film fell victim to severe budgetary problems, time constraints or was simply kept short in order to make bottom billing on some triple bill line-up. Whatever the case though, the film never really gets the chance to explore its intriguing initial premise in much detail.

Hammer stalwart Terrence Fisher directs as competently as one would expect, and the opening sequence in particular is exquisite, with Elizabeth Lutyens’ brilliantly dissonant score mainlining cold war anxiety as the camera slowly panning up from a corpse-strewn field up into the empty sky as the film’s title descends Star Wars style.

But once things get underway the solid character dynamics that are necessary to keep the survival-horror plotline afloat are so quickly and broadly sketched that they are often flat-out unbelievable. The other characters are universally scornful of Otis’s excess emotion and descent into alcoholism for instance – hey, give the guy a break, his whole world’s collapsed and he just saw his beloved wife zapped to death by spacemen! And the final peril and save-the-day-at-the-last-minute ending the script sets up for our protagonists seems contrived and premature in the extreme.

In spite of all this though, it is the film’s perfunctory nature that also helps it remain so memorable and haunting over forty years later. I’ve been a huge fan of what you might call the ‘polite British apocalypse’ sub-genre ever since I learned to read, when books such as John Wyndham’s ‘Day of the Triffids’ and ‘The Kraken Wakes’ and John Christopher’s ‘The Death of Grass’ were among the first stories to really capture my imagination, with their visions of an eerie, deserted version of normality hiding dark, unseen threats and of the thin veneer of civilization slowly crumbling as hunger and survival instincts take hold. These were sinister ideas of a kind I’d never seen explored on TV or in the family friendly movies I was allowed to watch, but always accompanied by the comforting presence of a rip-roaring adventure yarn, and well-behaved heroes who mean well, believe in the human spirit and treat their people with respect.

In so far as it is able to with it’s compromised run-time, ‘The Earth Dies Screaming’ captures the atmosphere of these books perfectly – all the more so for the perpetual sense of mystery that surrounds the film. I’ve always been a bit scornful of tidy apocalyptic stories (think the American blockbuster variety) that neatly define and rationalize their scenarios from the outset. Personally I prefer the idea that if an unexpected society-shattering series of events took place, the majority of the populace wouldn’t know what the hell was going on, let alone what they should do about it. And by virtue of simply not having any spare screen time to dedicate to the issue, The Earth Dies Screaming remains beautifully abstract and unsettling throughout.

Who DID kill everybody in the first place, and why? Where did the spacemen come from? Who’s controlling them? Why are corpses coming back to life, and accepting that they are, why only CERTAIN ones? – events move so quickly that the characters barely get a chance to consider these questions, and, rushing along with them, neither do we. Essentially, our initial question of “what’s going on?” remains unanswered throughout the film, right up do the unconvincing “why, this child might be the most important thing on Earth right now” conclusion. Much as in real life, shit just HAPPENS, and the fun comes from seeing the people who remain pull up their socks and react as best they can, or else fail to.

Which brings us neatly to another interesting aspect of “The Earth Dies Screaming” – namely, its curious similarity to “Night Of The Living Dead”. Trying to round up all the disparate movies that may or may not have ‘influenced’ Romero’s masterpiece has long been a popular film-geek parlor game of course, but I couldn’t get the thought out my mind when watching TEDS. The dynamic between Nolan (capable pragmatic hero), Taggart (shifty bald jerk) and the young couple who arrive later seems to directly mirror the character dynamics that made their way into the NOTLD script – not to mention the ‘fighting to protect mother & child in the basement’ angle taken by the finale. Stretching things even further, you could even draw comparisons between the eerie stillness of the opening sequence here, and the similar vistas of urban emptiness that Romero threw into the intros of both ‘Dawn..’ and ‘Day..’, or note the similarities between Lutyens’ menacing, modernist score (which seems to utilise morse code bleeps and radio static) and the droning, echoplexed library cues used so masterfully in ‘Night..’.

Not that I’m accusing Romero of sitting at the back of some screening of this one in Pittburgh in 1965 taking notes or anything you understand, but it’s always interesting to ponder these connections, trace the roots of these ideas, dontcha think? If nothing else, it would make for a great excuse to show “The Earth Dies Screaming” alongside Vincent Price in “The Last Man On Earth” and Powell & Pressburger’s “Tales of Hoffman” in a ‘films-that-kinda-maybe-inspired-NOTLD’ triple bill.

Anyway, back to the matter at hand: The Earth Dies Screaming is a simple but effective mid-century nightmare with a welcome does of cold war paranoia and complete weirdness that helps it remains an hour of brilliantly evocative viewing to this very day. I wish I know where it was filmed – does anyone know? The village looks oddly familiar – I feel like I might have been there at some point. Either way, I want to go there again and wander around soaking up the atmosphere and looking out for spacemen. Don’t laugh – I bet you would too.