Saturday, 20 November 2010

(Larry Cohen, 1970)

This review forms part of this week’s tribute to the work of Yaphet Kotto – many thanks to Seth at Lost Video Archive for putting in the organisational work and for picking such a good subject! See the bottom of this post for a complete list of weblogs taking part.

Beverley Hills used car salesman Bill Lennik (Andrew Duggan) begins "Bone" as a post-counter-culture whipping boy. A personification of square, capitalist values, he is already seething with hatred as undesirable elements seek to ‘invade’ his all-American home, whether in the form of a rat in his swimming pool filter, “that damned Jap gardener”, or a poor Asian cleaning lady gesturing forlornly outside the front gates. Bill is materialistic, intolerant, frustrated by everything – a recognisable ‘type’, ready to be flattened by our hip, young New American filmmakers.

Have we ever stopped to wonder though, how deep this character’s dedication to his allotted role in the forthcoming drama really goes? How would we feel if, say, we left him midway through a nail-biting race against time to save his wife and home from the privations of psychotic criminal… and when we return, he’s knocking back scotch in a dubious-looking singles bar, exchanging surrealistic banter with an alcoholic widow who claims her husband was murdered by a sinister cabal of dentists subjecting him to excessive levels of x-ray radiation?

back at the scene of the crime meanwhile, how do we feel when our vicious face of black, urban crime (Yaphet Kotto as the titular ‘Bone’) drops his façade of implacable menace, accepts a drink from wouldbe victim Bernadette (Joyce Van Patten), and reluctantly admits that he just plain doesn’t have the where-with-all to carry out the threats he made to her husband and go through all the raping and throat-slitting yet again. (“This is a rotten day for both of us” he snaps as he dutifully tears her clothes off.)

To go into a movie with simple, genre-based expectations and see them wholly overturned as our characters rebel against their programming, developing an unexpected third dimension and following weird, aimless story arcs of their own devising, is always great fun. But, released into the world at a very strange moment in American cinema when genre pigeon-holing still ruled supreme, the games “Bone” plays with its audience seem to have alienated rather than attracted potential viewers, while its black-in-the-other-sense humour, wringing laughs from rape, racism and child abuse, sent major studios, potential distributors and certain influential critics running for the hills, resulting in a film that was maligned, misunderstood, ignored and almost lost to the world forever.

As extensively chronicled in Stephen Thrower’s book Nightmare USA, the early ‘70s was a period that saw a scattered legion of ambitious, independent young filmmakers emerging around the country, fired up by the European New Wave and the possibilities of a post-Easy Rider, post-Cassevettes ‘New American Cinema’, discovering the hard way that if you didn’t have Jack Nicholson’s number, the only up was through the grindhouse. This was an era in which 21 year old director Jeffrey Friedel could see his Bergman-inspired existential thrillers sold to the drive-in circuit by Harry Novak as “Axe” and “Kidnapped Co-Ed”, and where David Durston could follow up his quintessential gore flick “I Drink Your Blood” with a brooding treatise on racial tension and venereal disease. An era in which seemingly any whacked out, regional movie could be left to fend for itself in a marketplace where the art/gore/WTF shocks of “Night of the Living Dead” and “Last House On the Left” were seen as benchmarks of success, where unscrupulous distributors might as well have played frisbee with the negative of some poor guy’s masterpiece at weekends, and where nobody EVER seemed to get paid.

Into this arena steps our hero, Larry Cohen, with his self-financed directorial debut, “Bone”. A vicious and highly original black comedy with a great cast, beautiful photography and a subversive agenda a mile wide, it’s hard to imagine that the many industry bods Cohen screened the film for weren’t on some level impressed with the writer/director/producer’s talent and audacity. Great movie Larry, I can imagine them saying, GREAT movie, but….

Yeah -- BUT. Even circa 1970, it’s difficult to conceive a movie less sellable than “Bone”. Hopper and Nicholson and the Hollywood-hippie crew might have gotten away with freaking out the squares on the big screen, but in the independent sector, things were different.

Clearly not a film that intends to fuck about with disguising its underlying intent, “Bone” opens with a caption card;

Whoa. That’s half your audience gone right there. When the picture proceeds to open with the Godard-via-The Monkees sight of Bill Lennik delivering his TV ad pitch whilst standing in a junkyard, intercut with bloody stills of road accident victims, I’m guessing you could say goodbye to a few more.

And as for whoever was left when the plot-line kicks in – well, I don’t think there’s any reason why a straight-up home invasion thriller about a Beverly Hills couple being menaced by a criminally-minded black man couldn’t have been fairly successful with an American audience in 1970, even with a good dose of liberal social conscience attached. After all, AIP quickies and ‘progressive’ directors had been knocking about with stuff like that for ages, and it was only a year or two later that audiences were thrilling to the black bad-ass stereotypes of the blaxploitation craze. It coulda worked.

As the commie-art-fag shock opening so clearly implies though, “Bone” is very much not that film, however much the people writing plot synopses and DVD back copy might want it to be, even today.

By frustrating genre and plot-based expectations at every turn, by giving us a sociopathic rapist who becomes a sympathetic nice guy and a square, white ‘hero’ who shrugs off his responsibilities halfway through and spends the rest of the movie goofing around, by rejecting three-act scripting conventions and just letting it all hang out, Larry Cohen presented the world with a film guaranteed to wrong-foot pretty much any expectations that press or posters might have created for it – with sadly predictable results.

After failing to secure a distribution deal from the usual suspects, Cohen turned to veteran independent producer Jack H. Harris, and together they tried pushing “Bone” on Cohen’s own terms, as a hip black comedy, placing it in a few theatres in New York and LA. As Cohen tells it, these preview screenings were pretty successful, but the problems began when the film gained its best box office after Harris booked it in an East LA cinema catering to a black audience, double-billed with Fred Williamson’s “The Legend of Nigger Charley”. Subsequently, Harris decided his best bet was to market the film, against Cohen’s wishes, as an action-packed blaxploitation flick (“White Meat, Black Bone”), a tactic that backfired when confused audiences were presented with an action-free, character-driven comedy, and the film tanked.

In an interview included on the DVD, Harris claims he liked Cohen’s film a great deal. But this admiration apparently didn’t stand in the way of his reediting “Bone” to emphasise ‘the romance angle’ and cutting his losses by shopping it around as a cheap second/third feature under the name “Housewife”, with a sexploitation styled poster to match. Over the next few years, it seems like different versions of “Bone” did the rounds in god knows what kind of condition, trading as a sex film, with or without additional porno inserts, and eventually turning up as a supposed horror film under the ludicrous title “Dial Rat For Terror”.

So it goes. We’re lucky enough to live in the DVD era, where we can stick on the reconstructed director’s cut of the film and laugh at such anachronistic craziness. The thing is though, that when I say ‘we’, I essentially mean genre film fans. Horror/sci-fi/exploitation guys. You and I, presumably. I mean, who else is gonna want to spend time tracking down the lost directoral debut of the man who brought us “Q: The Winged Serpent”, “It’s Alive” and “The Stuff”?

The irony is (and obviously I don’t mean this in a snobbish way) - “Bone” is NOT a genre film. As noted, it is a film that laughs in the face of genre convention. Which is extremely curious, given that it is now chiefly notable as the first item on the CV of a director who has spent the rest of his career making unashamed sci-fi and horror movies. But whatever – the fact is, in 1970 Mr. Cohen made a film that finds its true contemporaries not in the drive-in, but among the likes of Hal Ashby’s “Harold & Maude” or Bob Rafelson’s “Five Easy Pieces” – odd, earnest, wilfully unconventional little films about people questioning the paths life has set out for them. Admittedly, “Bone” is a bit more garish than those examples, a bit more brutal with its politics and swinging a bit heavier with the sex and cussing and bad behaviour, but still, at heart it’s a gentle, humane kinda story – more Richard Brautigan than Jim Thompson.

In some ways setting the blueprint for the kind of cerebral alterna-comedies that Spike Jonze and David O. Russell have brought to Hollywood in recent years, Cohen’s script is a riot of non-sequiturs, unexpected left turns and near post-modern diatribes, dealing in race, sex and the general dementia of late capitalist malaise, while “Bone”s improvisational, shot-on-the-run approach to visuals enlivens Andrew Duggan’s odyssey through the streets of Beverley Hills with such intriguing period details as park benches billboards advertising mortuaries, early Scientology pamphlets, gangs of hippies crouching in prayer outside a phonebox and a bus full of old ladies reading porn magazines.

A film created from the screenplay up, Bone is full of the kind of oddball, self-conscious dialogue guaranteed to bum the hell out of any actor not fully committed to the material, and it is amazing to witness how well Cohen’s cast help bring the potentially difficult material to life. It is always difficult to know what to say about acting of this calibre, beyond “it is very good”, so I’ll just observe that all four principals here manage to embody the complicated and unpredictable characters the script has created for them to such an extent that it is impossible to imagine anyone else in their roles, and leave it at that.

Perhaps the key scene in the film comes when Kotto’s character, having pretty much given up on trying to menace the troublesome and assertive Van Patten, sinks into lethargy and delivers an absolutely astounding monologue, riffing on the uncertain future of his career as a ‘violent black criminal’, an occupation Bone treats as seriously as if he were a bank manager or newsreader.

Easing out of his schizo tough guy mannerisms, Kotto begins to open up, discussing the embarrassing failure of his attempted rampage like an athlete talking to his coach after an underwhelming training session (“this is demoralising – I mean what kind of a rapist am I?”, “Well, I don’t know… I’ve never met a rapist before”). Warming to his theme, Bone next starts reminiscing about the days when all he had to do was look at a white woman to inspire terror;

“ you go to a movie house, and it’s right up there on the screen – how about that, mixed couples all over the place! They went and took all the mystery out of it… they’re treating us like people now - you can see what sort of a position that puts a rapist like me in…”

After building up a rhetorical head of steam, cheerfully expounding on the ‘nigger mystique’ that he’d built his career on pre-Civil Rights, Bone abruptly shifts back into a kind of wounded anger, Kotto’s delivery perhaps reflecting the frustrations of a hugely talented black character actor trying to make a name for himself in a culture where African-American performers were given the choice of goofy bit-parts or one-dimensional caricatures;

“..then they changed it, they changed the whole deal and I found myself slipping; there I was, I was holding onto the past, because change is scary, and then they said ‘EDUCATE YOURSELF’, ‘LEARN NEW TRADES’ – what trades? The Pullman porter, the shoeshine boy and ME. What trades? I only know how to do one thing… at least.. I used to know how…”

The whole scene is breathtaking. As with Michael Moriarty’s stunning performance in “Q” a few years later, Larry Cohen seems to get a kick out of working closely with under-valued actors to create characters who achieve an almost fourth wall-breaking intensity, consciously pushing a figure whom lesser films (and complacent audiences) might write off as a ‘low-life’ or ‘villain’ into centre stage and letting him work out his frustrations, daring us to engage with the troubling circumstances that have made him what he is, and to acknowledge that this kind of crippling self-consciousness and neurosis isn’t just the province of comfortable middle-class guys on analyst’s coaches.

A brief look at Yaphet Kotto’s subsequent filmography of bit-parts and straight to video roles, as contrasted with the crazy, Brando-scale charisma he’s throwing around in “Bone”, is all the indictment one needs of the genre codes and social conventions that Cohen was seeking to tear apart here, and of how vital Kotto’s presence was in spearheading the attack.

Whilst he provides the emotional centre of the film though, the character of Bone is also kind of unreal, appearing out of nowhere and then vanishing into thin air at the story’s conclusion like some bizarro world Mary Poppins, leaving the lives of those he has touched transformed. Essentially, both Bill and Bernadette end up using Bone as a prism through which they can realise transgressive desires that they didn’t even know they had until he intervened in their lives.

As Larry Cohen convincingly explains on the Blue Underground DVD’s commentary track, “Bone” essentially operates as a dense network of interlocking fantasies that the characters project onto one another. Bernadette gets to replace her deadbeat husband with a virile black man, whilst Bone gets to enjoy the love of a white woman and the comforts of a rich, white man’s home without having to take them by force. Through Bone, Bill is able to liquidate his responsibility for wife, home and business, and gets to wander around town aimlessly, perhaps for the first time, drinking in the daytime, stealing food from the supermarket and making out with a crazy lady he met in the bank queue. Even Jeannie Berlin’s character gets to project onto Bill her obsession with a childhood memory of being molested in the cinema by a middle-aged man, convincing herself that Bill was the original perpetrator and squaring the circle of her own strange obsessions. For a crazy moment or two it actually looks as if everyone is going to emerge a lot HAPPIER from this unexpected series of events, but, well… y’know, that would just be too easy wouldn’t it? Fantasies never really work out.

Some of “Bone”s damn-the-man Vietnam-era jibes may seem slightly quaint by modern standards, and the free-wheelin’ humour (particularly as embodied by Jeannie Berlin’s nightmare hippy chick character) may cross the line into bloody-minded quirk from time to time. But thanks to the genuinely unusual character dynamics and flick-knife satire of Cohen’s script, and to its flawless realisation by Kotto, Duggan and Van Patten, “Bone” remains a film with big, fuckin’ teeth, one that dares to present a genuinely different approach to American filmmaking, and that succeeds in challenging our boundaries and expectations of such to this day. All high-falutin’ talk aside, it’s a pretty great movie, it’s really funny, and you should do yourself a favour and watch it.


Monday Nov. 15th

Unflinching Eye - Alien
Raculfright 13's Blogo Trasho - Truck Turner

Tuesday Nov. 16th
Lost Video Archive - Raid on Entebbe
Manchester Morgue - Friday Foster

Wednesday Nov. 17th
Booksteve's Library - Live and Let Die

Thursday Nov. 18th
Mondo 70 - Drum
B Movies and Beyond - The Monkey Hu$tle
Cinema Gonzo - Report to the Commissioner

Friday Nov. 19th
Illogical Contraption - Eye of the Tiger
Ninja Dixon - Across 110th St.
Lines That Make Things - The A Team (TV episode)
Things That Don't Suck - Blue Collar

Saturday Nov. 20th
Breakfast In the Ruins - Bone (YER READIN' IT!)
Lost Video Archive - The Park Is Mine

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Castle Freak
(Stuart Gordon, 1995)

“Castle Freak” is the kind of movie only a card-carrying horror fan could love. Comprised of material that breaks down as about one third cruel and depressing, one third stupid and cheap, with a final third of intelligent and well-executed gothic tragedy creeping in around the edges, it will take a… sympathetic viewer to find time to appreciate the latter aspect.

I didn’t much enjoy “Castle Freak” whilst I was actually watching it. My main memory is of finding it a grim and disappointing effort from a creative team whose work I usually enjoy, and of waiting for the damn thing to end so I could do something fun. But the more I think about it, the more vague my reasons for disliking the film become, and the more it begins to stand out in my memory as a pretty decent piece of work, all things considered.

Throughout his career as a horror director, Stuart Gordon has specialised in mixing humour and absurdity with a streak of utter, black-hearted nastiness, usually to great effect. From the the rampant sexual dysfunction of “From Beyond” to the bit where that poor guy gets skinned alive in “Dagon”, his movies seem to thrive on a genuinely unsavoury undercurrent, manifesting itself in at least one sequence in each film that will have even jaded horror-freaks pausing to think “jesus… that was pretty intense”, before returning to the comfort zone of likeable characters, goofy situations and chaotic special effects showcases.

Despite the corny name and the fan-pleasing potential of reuniting Gordon with his “Reanimator”/”From Beyond” team of scriptwriter Dennis Paoli and stars Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton, “Castle Freak” sees this darker aspect of the director’s work taking precedence, as he drops the comedy altogether, instead taking his best shot at an straight-faced, emotionally gruelling horror story, with, well… let’s say mixed results.

Not that “Castle Freak” is an unremitting gorefest or a journey into nihilistic oblivion or anything like that. It’s just sort of, well, miserable really – a film full of deeply unhappy people who would probably be having a pretty bad time of it even if they weren’t being stalked by a once-I-was-human monster whose tale of life-long woe puts them all in the shade. I guess I went in expecting a more light-hearted gothic castle caper, and as such the whole experience left me kinda bummed out.

Things are scarcely helped by the fact the film has a squalid, low rent sort of feel to it – not necessarily a bad thing for a horror movie, but rather a shame for a gothic yarn such as this, which could have been rendered a lot more palatable with the addition of a some of the grand, velvety production design that’s seen us (or seen me, at least) happily through dozens of similarly tragedy-heavy ‘60s Euro-horrors. Financed as an Italian co-production by Charles Band’s Full Moon Productions for straight-to-video release at the nadir of the horror genre’s pre-Scream commercial slump in the mid-‘90s, “Castle Freak” is, needless to say, a fairly plain looking affair, shot predominantly on location in a somewhat drab-looking Italian castle, with cinematography leaning a little toward the TV movie end of things.

(Actually, I shouldn’t call the castle “drab-looking” – I’m sure in real life it’s a smashing old castle, and there are lots of good architectural shots and nifty decorative bits and bobs on display. But in one of those odd cows-don’t-look-like-cows-on-screen type dysfunctions, the way it is filmed here makes the whole place seem a lot less atmospheric than the set-bound castles of a good ‘60s gothic horror.)

An original story cobbled together from echoes of Lovecraft’s “The Outsider”, Derleth’s “The Shuttered Room” and subsequent generations of ‘deformed relative in the attic’ tales with just a hint of “Don’t Look Now” and “Phantom of the Opera” mythos sprinkled in for flavour, “Castle Freak” begins with a lengthy pre-credits sequence introducing us to an old crone who lives in a dusty old castle, alone but for her deformed son. She keeps him chained up in a basement dungeon, subjecting him to sadistic daily beatings with a fearsome-looking medieval cat-o’-nine-tails. Delightful. So what happens when Old Crone eventually kicks the bucket..?

“Boy, who’da thought we’d inherit an old Italian castle?”, grins John Reilly (Combs), as he, his wife Susan (Crampton) and their blind daughter Rebecca (Jessica Dollarhide) are shown to the door by a craven estate agent. Any mainstream viewers will be forgiven for rolling their eyes and giving up right there, but Paoli’s script is at pains (actual, proper pains) to try to shoehorn an extra depth into this rather ponderous creepy castle/meet the monster scenario, investing our American family with a rather harrowing back story that provides the weight of the film’s emotional narrative.

Gradually, we’re filled in on the fact that until recently John and Susan had two children, both of whom were fully-sighted. Then there was a car crash, caused by Dad, who was driving drunk. Ouch. Now John is off the sauce, and trying his best to stay positive and keep the family together as they deal with their grief, but Rebecca is struggling to adapt to a life of blindness, and Susan hasn’t forgiven him by a long shot. Awkward.

So, will John’s new Italian inheritance, and the story of the lonely old widow whose only son “died” in eerily similar circumstances forty years ago help rekindle the family’s relationship, or drive them further over the edge into an abyss of guilt, madness and recrimination? What do you think?

I think it’s interesting to see Jeffrey Combs in a straight role for once. Deprived of his trademark mad scientist tics he makes for a pretty convincing tormented father figure, with his slow descent into guilt-wracked collapse standing up reasonably well to the high standards set for such roles by Donald Sutherland in “Don’t Look Now” or Sam Neill in Zulawski’s “Possession”. Crampton too is a fine and versatile actress, and, as ever, it’s a shame she’s never really been given a shot at movie stardom, beyond the eternal sex symbol status conferred upon her by pervy horror fans of a certain stripe off the back of her memorable turns in “Reanimator” and “From Beyond”. Jessica Dollarhide is, um, I dunno, perfectly acceptable as ‘timid mid-teenage daughter’ I guess, and I don’t know how much acting Jonathan Fuller gets to throw around beneath his grisly full-body make-up job in the role of Giorgio the monster, but either way, he certainly makes for an appropriately frightening and upsetting screen presence.

As befits his background in theatre, good acting and engaging characters have always been central to the success of Stuart Gordon’s films, and everyone in the cast of “Castle Freak” gives a solid, no nonsense performance appropriate to the solid, no nonsense melodrama of Paoli’s script. The overall vibe is akin to that of, say, a committed amateur theatre group working with a harrowing, personal play written by a well-regarded local journalist, and, if perhaps not quite Oscar-worthy, I’ll certainly go out on a limb and say the acting chops on display here are likely to be a damn sight better than anything else put out by Full Moon Productions in 1995.

It is a shame then that for all the film’s laudable attempts to stand alone as a serious drama, the pathos of the tale is undercut by frequent descents into the realm of abject, straight-to-video stupidity – the kind of things you could easily shrug off in a goofier, more fast-moving movie, but that here function a pie to the face of viewers who were just starting to shakily accept “Castle Freak” as a pretty-good-effort-all-things-considered.

In short order, we’re expected to believe that, having been helplessly chained up for decades, the, er, ‘freak’ suddenly wakes up one morning and thinks up a way to escape. Then, when free, this emaciated, deformed fellow, who has never enjoyed the benefits of exercise, sunlight or a decent diet, is apparently capable of near super-human feats of strength and agility. He can evade detection and move around silently as a ninja assassin, in spite of the fact he staggers around with an exaggerated limp, wheezes and groans like an injured bloodhound and is dragging a heavy iron chain around attached to his wrist. The editing in one sequence – which sees the monster practically disappear into thin air, running out of the door of the daughter’s bedroom seconds before her awakened parents run in – is particularly woeful. Subsequently, we see John investigating the creature’s dungeon in search of intruders in the castle, and completely failing to notice either the remains of a recently eviscerated cat in the corner, or, presumably, the telltale signs that some poor dude has been living in there for the past few decades.

Later on, the film takes a somewhat sleazy turn, when Gordon and Paoli suddenly realise they’ve written a horror movie without any sex or easily killable characters, and rope in Raffaella Offidani as a prostitute who John drags back to the castle after a grief-fuelled drunken relapse, and who subsequently finds herself wandering around aimlessly, falling prey to the monster in predictably grisly fashion. As the film’s one go-for-broke gore/sleaze sequence, Offidani’s demise is as horrific as any gore-hounds in the audience could wish for, executed with a streak of sheer nastiness in keeping with the film’s uncomfortable, downbeat tone. What bothered me about this sequence though wasn’t the gratuitous sexualised violence (hey, you watch horror, sometimes you get horror) so much as the fact that the poor lady’s prolonged, bloodcurdling screams were presented as being inaudible the castle’s other occupants, who are separated from the violence only be a flimsy door and a few staircases.

I’m not usually one to make a big deal out logical flaws in low budget horror films (if you want fucking logic, go watch CSI or something), but when a movie like this is trying to build tension and emotional engagement via a small cast stuck in a single location, the flow of cause & effect and the realism of the film-world need to be kept tight, and these goof-ups have a pretty debilitating effect on “Castle Freak”s overall impact, suggesting haste, inconsistency or just plain laziness on the part of the filmmakers. It’s as if one faction of the production team was yelling “fuck it, it’s just a monster movie, who cares”, while the others were striving to make a fairly serious movie. Either of those approaches is just fine, but when they get fouled up together the results are rarely a good time for anyone.

Despite all this though, there’s something itch-you-can’t-scratch compelling about “Castle Freak”s tale of grief and abuse and pointless misery; something about this f-ed up loser of a monster that lives on in the memory after viewing.

Whilst Giorgio’s desire to chain women up in his lair and slobber on them is somewhat less than congenial, Paoli’s script is careful to ensure that each time the monster actually turns violent, it is only because he has been threatened or attacked by one of the other characters. And if he gets a bit carried away in his bloody retaliation and seems to take a sadistic thrill in all the biting and choking and scratching, well, er, yeah, that doesn’t look so good really. But c’mon, give the guy a break – how would you feel if you’d been chained in a darkened basement for forty years and beaten into unconsciousness every day by your crazed mother? (Ok, don’t think to hard about answering that, I’m being rhetorical here for chrissake.)

Various plot elements seem to be converging on the idea of transforming the monster into a sympathetic, misunderstood figure ala Karloff’s Frankenstein monster or Lon Chaney’s Hunchback, but none of it really comes together as would classically be expected. Rebecca’s blindness would seem to be setting the scene for a bond to develop between her and the monster, whose repellent ugliness she cannot see. But as it turns out, she gets the idea pretty quickly from all his slobbering and groping and wants to get away from, and preferably kill, the horrible fucker as soon as possible, as an all-American non-mystical innocent girl rightly should.

Similarly, John’s identification of Giorgio with his dead son, and the shared weight of a parent’s responsibility for destroying their own child, is a big theme throughout the movie, from the moment when John none-too-subtly gazes up at a mural of Cronus devouring his young, to when he weeps over a photograph of the Countess’s “dead” son, and starts to mistake the presence of the monster for the ghost of his own child. As John begins to crack up and act more irresponsibly, implicitly doing further damage to his family in the process, a deeper identification between man and monster seems inevitable, especially when, in the film’s most queasily disturbing moment, Giorgio sets about his attack on the prostitute by mimicking the actions he earlier observed John performing with her. At this point, things seem to be leading towards a moment of pretty dark catharsis for our male lead, but here again, things don’t follow through. When John becomes aware of the monster’s existence, he pulls himself together and sets out to whack it and achieve a happy(ish) ending, weird guilt-tripping temporarily put aside.

You could blame inconsistencies in the script for the failure of these themes to tie themselves up properly, but I’d prefer to think that our eventual view of the monster was deliberately left ambiguous - after all, it is his own grotesque and selfish behaviour that denies him the audience sympathy his sad state deserves. Like the Merrye family in “Spider Baby”, you can shed tears for him all you like, but he’ll still likely gouge yr eye out and eat it, and it is difficult to imagine any future for such a problematic, atavistic creature in our own world, beyond a merciful demise. As a result, Giorgio is a truer and more complex take on what it means to be a ‘monster’ than the amoral killing machines or sentimental tragic figures more commonly encountered in horror cinema.

“Castle Freak” will likely go down in history as shoddy and profoundly unenjoyable film in which a slobbering monster bites a hooker’s tit off. On one level that’s a perfectly accurate summation, and I’ll admit it’s never exactly going to be a good choice for inviting yr pals round and getting the beers in. But at least you and I, my horror-weblog-reading type friend, can perhaps put a few moments aside this winter to appreciate the many finer points of this odd and unsavoury little movie.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Coming Soon...

From the people who brought you Linda Blair Week, get ready for a six day, blog-based celebration of a great, underappreciated actor and all round swell guy, Mr. Yaphet Kotto.

My own contribution isn't due out of the gates until next Saturday, when I'll be yakking at characteristically tiresome length about Larry Cohen's directorial debut "Bone", but until then you can head over to Lost Video Archive and get a load of who's doing what when.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

The Demise of a Louse
by John Shepherd
(Belmont, year unknown?)

[Insert your own wry remark about changing meaning of words here.]

This page heps us to the fact that “Demise of a Louse” was originally published in 1942 under the title “Say Yes To Murder”, and that this edition dates from the mid-‘60s. It was reveals that John Shepherd was a pseudonym of the writer W.T. Ballard, used for reprints of his crime work so as not to confuse the audience of his more popular westerns.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Exit Dying
by Harry Olesker
(Four Square, 1961)

Yes, “Dotty Dawn”. That’s her name.

I thought this one sounded like it might actually be a fun read, but was swiftly put off by some of the most cringeworthy man-writing-from-female-POV prose I’ve ever encountered. I mean, seriously, imagine trying to get through a whole book of this;

More info on Harry Olesker, and some kick ass Robert McGinnis covers for his work, can be found here.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Swamp Brat
by Allen O’Quinn
(Gold Medal, 1958)

Heh heh. SWAMP BRAT! Yeah.

I don’t have much to say about this one, but the front & back covers make for a lovely work of pulp artistry. Appropriately, the interior of my copy looks like it's been stored in a swamp, which accounts for the 50p price-tag and makes me like it all the more.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

The Sweetheart of the Razors
by Peter Cheyney
(Ace Books, 1958)

Do I need to tell you how much I love this cover/title combo? Wow, in short. It’s even got a bit of a Japanese exploitation movie feel to it, don’tcha think?

The artwork is signed in the bottom left, but I can’t read the signature. Any ideas?

It’s not much of a surprise to discover this novel is actually a slightly old-fashioned London-set mystery, seemingly devoid of razor-wielding sweethearts and originally published in 1947 as “The Curiosity of Etienne Macgregor”. (Ace Books editor: “the curiosity of WHO? Screw that!”)

The catchier new title wasn’t plucked entirely from thin air though, as a random visit to page 87 reveals that the stereotypical Chinese villain of the piece, one Suan Chi Leaf, gained notoriety for his performance as a knife-thrower in a play entitled “The Sweetheart of the Razors”. Mystifyingly, it seems this play was staged near my own childhood home in Tenby, South-West Wales.

Peter Cheyney will be best known to fans of European popular cinema as the creator of the wonderfully named Lemmy Caution, the embittered private eye who took on an open-source life of his own in the ‘60s via the auspices of iconic actor Eddie Constantine, who made a career out of playing the character, eventually turning up in everything from Godard’s “Alphaville” to Jess Franco’s “Attack of the Robots”.

When I first opened this book, I was all like, “signed first edition - sweet!” It was only later than my razor-sharp detective instincts recalled the bit on the back cover copy about Peter Cheyney being dead, and I became confused. Any ideas?

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Honey Blood
by Glenn Low
(Novel Books, 1961)

Movie reviews will be returning shortly, as soon as I get a spare five minutes to finish some of ‘em, but in the meantime - I call another paperback week! At least I’ve got some good ammunition at the moment, beginning with this little beauty.

It always creeps me out a bit when the blurb on smut paperbacks addresses the audience as “you guys” or “you men” etc, taking it for granted that their readership are sub-normal brutes, but this one takes things to a whole other level of creepiness - it sounds like a child-molester hassling to a little boy. And then that freakin’ arrow! Jeez! For the record, “Honey Blood” features no, uh, ‘forbidden world’ content, so I don’t know where they were going with that one.

Good grief.

If not quite the Russ Meyer-meets-Herschell Gordon Lewis fever dream the cover might imply, “Honey Blood” is still pretty rough stuff for 1961, telling a blunt tale of hillbilly thuggery with admirable brevity. Our protagonist is Coker, who has the hots for an assemblage of throbbing body parts named Honey. Honey’s sole personality trait is her love for Junza. Junza is a crazy, murderin’ psychopath who has just escaped from the big house, chained to Coker’s innocent brother Jamie. The above extract clues you in nicely re: where that’s all heading.

Not exactly a story for the ages, but what a cover, huh?

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Mysterious Britain at the BFI.

BFI Flipside’s “Mysterious Britain” evening last week got off to an odd start in not quite the manner the organisers had anticipated, when Bruce Springsteen apparently announced a surprise public appearance to promote a documentary about himself, and claimed NFT Screen # 1, where the Flipside screening was due to take place, for that purpose.

I would have loved to witness the meeting between The Boss’s people and the soft-spoken British cinema archivist types, but needless to say, we’re now devoid of leg room, crammed into the substantially smaller NFT # 2. I don’t know whether or not late-arriving ticket-holders had to be turned away and given a refund, but I’m glad I got in early.

After a brief apology/explanation from curators Vic Pratt and William Fowler, it’s on with the show, the general gist of which is a collection of brief TV extracts dredged up from the BFI vaults, illustrating the British media’s approach to investigation of ‘strange goings on’ throughout the mid 20th century.

Proceedings begin with a 1973 broadcast on behalf of The Aetherius Society, a supremely weird religious sect based around the “sixty miles of audio tape” recorded by one Dr. George King, who claimed to be channelling the pronouncements of a holy being from Mars, who urged earth’s major religions to combine into some kind of benevolent mind-meld, turning back the tide of evil and atomic destruction. The footage of a young altar boy earnestly charging a battery with ‘prayer power’, backed up by an ethnically diverse congregation of four, was pricelessly eerie, as was the thought of an era in which BBC ‘community outreach’ funding could filter down to letting dubious outfits like this lot spread their message of hope via late night BBC2.

Next up, a 1972 edition of “The Sky At Night” which sees Sir Patrick Moore mixing it up with the druids during their midsummer rituals at Stonehenge. Sir Patrick says he found the druids to be pleasant and genuine bunch, before politely informing them that their veneration of the stones is clearly a load of bunk in the face of new research which reveals the Henge’s true function as a “primitive astral calculator”. “Well, there’s always 1973”, he cheerfully announces as the druids shuffle off at the end of their ceremony, disappointed that the overcast sky denied them a glimpse of the dawn. Words to live by indeed.

Sticking with standing stones and knighthood, Sir John Betjeman turns up next, narrating a short subject on the earthworks and stone circle at Avebury for a 1950s Shell Motor Oil travelogue series. Betjeman’s observations on the subject, though interesting, are strictly by the book, but the film is beautifully photographed. Black & white footage of the mysterious monoliths standing alone in a field of daisies and long grass with the scattered brick cottages on either side, is incredibly evocative, expressing the very heart of ‘weird England’ as it quietly thrived in the days of our parents and grandparents, almost too perfectly for words.

Next we have a full edition of an absolute genius ITV series from the late ‘50s entitled Out of Step, in which Daniel Farson, a sort of bullish proto-Boris Johnson figure, tracks down people who hold unusual views, and proceeds to antagonise and mock them. This week: people who believe in flying saucers! Are they cranks, frauds, or simply misguided? Farson’s first stop is the roof garden of the Rt. Hon. Brindsley Le Poer Trench, whose crumbling UFO paperbacks and inherently hilarious name certainly played a role in my childhood. Lord Trench gets bonus points for beginning his answer to the question ‘why do you believe in flying saucers’ with “well, speaking as the editor of Flying Saucer Review…”, and for repeatedly stressing that his sighting reports come from “serious, highly trained observers”, as opposed to, I dunno, some random bozos who just like wandering around staring at the sky. We get straight to camera statements from various of these observers, my favourite of which was a man who looked like a Dan Clowes caricature come to life, whose evidence of strange lights in the sky is somewhat undermined by the fact that his sightings have all taken place “in the area between two aerodromes”. If the aliens were to set up a base-camp on earth, he reasons, it would probably be in Stafford.

Subsequently, Farson seeks an opposing view from the retired Astronomer Royal, who sits in his drawing room absent-mindedly pondering the weight of the supplies these space-fellows would need to bring them to our solar system, and interviews a dentist who claims he was taken for a ride to Mars and Venus by interplanetary visitors (“if I may say so sir, it certainly sounds like one of us is being taken for a ride..”), and who states that the women on Venus were very beautiful indeed.

Looking back after subsequent decades in which the whole UFO mythos has taken on an increasingly dark and troubling tone, this programme’s light-hearted approach to the subject was a wonderful reminder of how simple and wholesome the whole business seemed prior to the arrival of cattle mutilation, recovered memory syndrome, suicidal cultists and the ever-present intimations of child abuse. I don’t know whether any other episodes of “Out of Step” have survived, but if so I’d love to see them – this one was a hoot.

Sixteen years into a darker future, and a queasy orange glow of deteriorated video tape colour hangs over a short news item about a young Birmingham couple sitting meekly whilst an exorcist (Church of England, apparently !?) banishes a poltergeist from their chilly-looking council house. The ghost has been doing terrible things, like turning the cooker off and hiding the husband’s wallet under the bed. The vicar conducts the ceremony from a little xeroxed booklet entitled “Exorcism”. I don’t know who wrote it, but it all sounds a bit fishy to me. Whilst we may be tempted here to focus our ghoulish retromancy on the kitchen’s lurid bad-trip flock wallpaper or the husband’s Tony Iommi approach to personal grooming, the truly notable thing in this case I feel is the way the parents leave their toddler to play unaccompanied on the front lawn for an extended period of time as they dutifully accompany the priest in his somewhat questionable business.

Back to the comforts of the black & white era, and next we have a delightfully baleful short programme from 1964, in which a BBC reporter recruits a cheerfully imaginative local historian to help interpret the remnants of several apparent folk magic ceremonies conducted in ruined churches in East Anglia. The presenter gives us a right mouthful in his introduction, automatically linking these rather generic magical talismans with a survival of pre-Christian Celtic tradition, which he then defines as “..the worship of Pan, or Lucifer”. Hmm. Anyway, he gets the biggest laugh of the night when he announces “it may be shocking to us to learn of the survival of these dark traditions, over fifteen hundred years since Christianity was accepted as the sole religion of the British Isles. But then… this is Norfolk.”

Perhaps my favourite item of the evening was a contemporary news investigation of the infamous Highgate Vampire flap, a sequence of events sparked by a spate of grave desecrations which took place in Highgate Cemetery through 1970. As The Sun reported on 19 August 1970; “A man armed with a wooden stake and a cross went on a vampire hunt in a cemetery. But all he found was the police. And they arrested him. Alan Farrant, aged 24, told magistrates at Clerkenwell, London yesterday: ‘my intention was to search out the supernatural being and destroy it by plunging the stake in its heart’”.

Farrant, a “former tobacconist of no fixed abode” according to this news item, was subsequently acquitted in court, and when we join him here he’s up to his old tricks again, clambering over the wall of the cemetery after-hours for his regular anti-Vampire patrol. Farrant insists he has seen Satanists at work in the cemetery at night, consorting with the figure of a glowing eight foot high vampire, and that it is up to him to try to stop them.

Meanwhile, the supremely Garth Marenghi-like Mr. Sean Manchester, self-styled president of the British Occult Society, considers Farrant a rank amateur, going about his own unauthorised nocturnal vigils with a more sombre demeanour and an altogether more expensive-looking crucifix and stake combo. The British Occult Society appears to consist largely of Manchester presiding over counterfeit Golden Dawn rituals in his darkened bedsit (WHITE MAGIC, he insists). When he illustrates the best methods of destroying a vampire for our reporter, he speaks with the authority of a man who has seen Peter Cushing’s performance in ‘Dracula’ more than once.

The view of the long-suffering Highgate Cemetery caretaker on the impending occult battle transpiring on his territory? “Well they’re a load of bloody nutcases, aren’t they” he sighs, sweeping up the broken glass of another nocturnal trespasser. It is notable I think that many of the incidents that inspired this vigilante action in the first place (a body dragged from it’s grave and beheaded, another staked with an iron spike, etc) seem perhaps to have been the result of some similarly misguided anti-vampire activity; if not the work of morbid schoolkids, then possibly of Farrant himself, or some other sorry soul who’d taken all those Hammer flicks a bit too much to heart..?

From the ridiculous back to the sublime, the screenings conclude with “The Living Grave”, a half-hour TV drama from 1980, scripted by Penda’s Fen writer David Rudkin, based around the premise that a young woman under hypnosis is channelling the spirit of Kitty Jay, tragic subject of a well known Dartmoor folk tale, whose grave is apparently marked with fresh flowers to this day. Mixing highly convincing hypnosis scenes, in which we witness a psychologist slowly guiding ‘Kitty’ back through the details of her life, with documentary-like footage of a some guys visiting the locations she is describing, “The Living Grave” is an extremely effective work, using its paranormal conceit to draw us completely into the short, sad life of a rural orphan girl in 18th century England.

Although far more straight-forward than “Penda’s Fen”, “The Living Grave” is no less poignant in its forceful demonstration of the way in which the past can live on in the present, not through the contrivances of spooks and hauntings, but through the continuation of stone and wood and landscape, like the oak beam in the barn where Kitty Jay’s tale ends, holding the memory of a disgraced 18th century teenager kicking away a bail of hay and hanging herself, as we see a 20th century farmer beneath it, messing around with some fertilizer sacks. It’s all happening at once, after all. Certainly the most chilling moment I experienced over the course of this 21st century Halloween, and a fitting end to another exquisite evening of retromancy from BFI’s Flipside strand.

Outside the auditorium, it looks like someone has knocked over some of those rope cordon thingys, and torn some posters off the wall. By the back entrance, some heavy looking security types are loading gitar flight-cases into a Transit van, saying stuff like “Ok, we’re all done” and “go, go!” Boy, it sure woulda been cool to see Bruce Springsteen.