Sunday 30 January 2011

Destroy All Movies:
The Complete Guide to Punks on Film
edited by Zack Carlson & Bryan Connolly

Much as I love banging through a good, easy-going music or film book when I should be reading something, y’know, proper (a love reflected in a fact that I’ve got almost a whole bookcase full of the bloody things), it is rare indeed for the publishing industry to cough up a book quite so uncannily specific to the crossover zone between my cultural interests as this one. Issued in a handsomely appointed and competitively priced large format edition by venerable indie comic book magnates Fantagraphics, an immediate purchase was, needless to say, mandatory.

To get straight to the point: this book is brilliant. Everyone I’ve shown it to so far has said “um.. great” and sort of looked around nervously waiting for me to change the subject, but I don’t care – this tome’s authors and publisher have taken a risk in betting that there is an audience out there for this sort of thing, and I am proud to raise my hand and say I am it. “Destroy All Movies” is is a near-inexhaustible well-spring of obsessive pop cultural nerdery, brain-eating trash satori and immaculately hip film writing. It has been my number # 1 favourite thing ever since I acquired a copy and it is unlikely to leave by bedside table any time soon.

To my knowledge, the phenomenon of ‘punks’ in the cinema of the 1980s and 90s has never really been given much attention, serious or otherwise, despite being one of the most ubiquitous inclusions in the era’s cultural short-hand, not to mention one of the most consistently hilarious and ridiculous misappropriations of a genuine youth movement ever undertaken by popular culture.

You may think that beatniks or hippies had it bad in their day, but, as is exhaustively chronicled here, their gradual transformation into drive-in caricature pales into insignificance compared to the veritable tidal wave of leather-clad, mohawked ‘goonbags’, ‘wastoids’ and ‘manimals’ (all valuable additions to the ‘80s/’90s film crit lexicon inaugurated by this book) that exploded from video store shelves, capering across screens in every genre under the sun, perpetrating multi-coloured mayhem, either comedic or tragic, as and when required. Whether invoked as anarchic party animals, villainous sub-human scum, post-apocalyptic warriors, all-purpose barometers of urban decay or simply as wacky ‘all walks of life represented’ crowd extras, these inexplicable lunatics (together with their attendant legions of new wave harpies, vampiric leather-goths and other mixed up trendsetters) cut a bloody swathe through the era’s cinema, usually exhibiting precious little resemblance to any creature actually found on earth.

(Intrepidos Punks)

Frankly, any book on this subject would have been a home run for me. Carlson & Connelly could easily have just thrown together a few humourous essays on the subject, write-ups and interviews concerning films of major punk significance and called it a day, and I would have been perfectly happy. But no – “Destroy All Movies” is so much more than that. It is a project whose scope is little short of insane, executed with an uber-geek attention to detail that should see movie and music obsessives alike bowing in praise before the monolith of the finished work for years to come.

Basically: “Destroy All Movies” is an A to Z compendium of reviews of (to the best of the authors’ knowledge) every single film that has ever featured a punk.

No, really - Carlson in his introduction talks about how he and Connolly began their quest by visiting their (apparently quite vast) local video library and compiling a master-list of every film released between about 1977 and 1999 “that wasn’t an opera or a western” (and indeed, they found punks in one western), initiating a programme of screening all of them, in search of punks.

The results speak for themselves – over 400 wide format pages, and over 1,000 movie reviews, tracing the complete history of the cinematic punk. The small cadre of fictional films that have treated punk with any kind of authenticity or intelligence (“Repo Man”, “Suburbia”, “Ladies & Gentlemen The Fabulous Stains” etc.) are of course allotted plentiful attention, with additional cast & crew interviews slotted in as appropriate, whilst much space is also given over to the surprisingly large number of punk documentaries, underground films that emerged from punk scenes and the like, again with much interesting interview/archive material thrown in. But the real meat of the book is coverage of the innumerable bizarre representations of punk culture found within production line exploitation and studio films. Knuckleheaded sex comedies, action flicks, teen dramas and family films, horror, sci-fi and hardcore porn – all are exhaustively mined for punk content, their worth as art and entertainment assessed along the way.

This chasm between these two branches of investigation is acknowledged by the fact the book is jointly dedicated to Penelope Spheeris (director of “Suburbia” and “The Decline of Western Civilisation”) and actor John Gries (who played goof-punk overlord King Vidiot in the ’83 arcade comedy “Joysticks”), and if there is a certain awkwardness in seeing serious-ish interviews with Ian Mackaye and Richard Hell juxtaposed with capsule reviews of “Earnest Saves Christmas” and Sergio Martino’s “The Fishmen and their Queen”, well, let’s just say that’s the kind of awkwardness I can get down with.


At first I was a little sceptical regarding the book’s implied function as a Maltin-esque movie guide. I mean, it’s hard to imagine many people scanning the TV listings, thinking “I say, I think there is a slight chance that movie might have a punk in it, I’ll see when Carlson & Connolly have to say on the matter” any time soon right? But as I work my way through “Destroy All Movies” (I’ve been at it a month and I’m currently on ‘R’, not counting occasional flips ahead), the real intention behind the book becomes clear.

Beyond the punk-based conceit, what we have here is a gargantuan, heartfelt tribute to the popular cinema of the 1980s, as filtered through two guys’ obsessive trek through the VHS wastelands. What Michael Weldon’s “Psychotronic Film Guide” did for the drive-in/grindhouse golden age of the ‘50s-‘70s, “Destroy All Movies” effectively accomplishes for the video era. Appropriately, it is Weldon’s dry wit and hipster suss that helps set the tone for the writing in “Destroy All Movies”, even if Carlson and Connolly choose not to replicate the vicious concision of Weldon’s three sentence critical KOs, instead letting their bottomless enthusiasm get the better of them, routinely dedicating several lengthy paragraphs to even the most wretched hunk of cinematic driftwood. Which needless to say is fine by me – by and large, the writing in DAM is really great – the reviews flow beautifully, are packed with info, and rarely less than laugh out loud funny.

You’ll note I said “the 1980s” rather than “the 1980s and 90s” preceding paragraph, and that’s simply because, whilst the latter decade is extensively covered, the authors’ true preference and spiritual home is made abundantly clear from the outset. Rarely has the low budget / low brain cinema of the ‘80s been so lovingly hymned in print, with Carlson’s reviews in particular communicating an infectious enthusiasm for the chaos and buffoonery of the ‘80s comedy, delivering unexpected raves to “Kindergarten Cop” and “Police Academy III” whilst striving to rescue such lost party-hard masterpieces(?) as “Surf II”, “Oddballs” and “The Last American Virgin” from the jaws of landfill oblivion. And indeed, he is pretty convincing – reading these joyous descriptions of motion pictures powered entirely of foodfights, aimless nudity, drunken property damage, kamikaze fashion statements, toxic sludge and monkeys dressed in human clothing makes me wonder why I don’t have a whole bookcase full of ‘80s boner comedies to stick next to my bookcase of music/movie nerd books, further endangering whatever vestiges of meaningful human interaction remain in my life.

(Rock n' Roll High School)

By contrast, the ‘90s are routinely denounced by DAM’s authors, lamented as an era of darkness in which the magic died, the music sucked and everything started to go wrong. The death-of-our-way-of-life despair that can be glimpsed in their review of 1990’s sub-culturally confused “Pump Up the Volume” is pretty heart-rending, and the self-aware slacker comedies and limp indie dramas of the decade that followed are tirelessly savaged at every opportunity, whilst instances of mall-punk or alterna-grunge fashion are set upon with unprecedented venom.

And, hey, fair enough - at the time of writing, I can’t deny that this approach suits my own prejudices pretty well. I’m fascinated by the ‘80s, and the dire banality injected into American pop culture by the Hollywood/MTV/record industry during their post-Nirvana/Kevin Smith feeding frenzy should never be forgotten. But at the same time, I can’t help thinking that this generational schism is sadly going to date the book pretty quickly.

For guys whose cultural knowledge is evidently so sharp, Carlson and Connolly seem to have failed to take account of the way this kinda stuff changes over time. I mean, I remember a time maybe ten years so when myself and my friends treated fashion and mainstream culture of the ‘80s as an almost unspeakable anathema, a fortress of everything inauthentic and hateful in which (ironically) only punk and the nascent indie rock scene flew the flag for the stuff we cared about through our upbringing in the benighted ‘90s. And going back further, I recall the now-canonical golden age of the ‘70s being soundly ridiculed by people slightly older than me, and so on. Tricky though it may be, I think such notions need to be borne in mind if a volume like “Destroy All Movies” is to take its deserved position as a timeless, essential and regularly updated reference work. I dunno quite how you’d achieve that, other than pumping current teenagers for their views on ‘90s movies or something, but, er, yeah – whatever. It’s only a minor reservation. Minor.

Above all, I repeat: this book is incredible. Buy it, read it, love it, and long may boggle-eyed, mohawked VHS-fogged crazies rampage through our dreams.

Wednesday 26 January 2011

Jazzman in Nudetown
by Bob Tralins

(Gaslight Books, 1964)

Well, vis a vis my previous post on the subject – I gave in. I went back for it. And furthermore, I’ve read it. Another legend lies dead at my feet, slain by nerdly curiosity and the willingness to spend money on weird junk.

Although I very much enjoyed the book, I’m gonna come right out and say that, sadly, I don’t think that Big Bob Tralins is really the smart, self-aware yukk-meister that various of his titles and cover copy might suggest. The bulk of the prose and plotting in “Jazzman..” is standard issue pulp doggerel, full of long stretches of the kind of autopilot writing that quickly turns to mush on the journey between eyes and brain. I've encountered far worse, but I've certainly read better.

Sadly, the approach to hip culture taken by the book is flat and off-message enough to convey the impression that Big Bob had never actually been without spitting distance of a real life representative of the counterculture. His arsenal of 1964 jazz reference points seems limited to the strictly trad likes of Louis Armstrong and Leadbelly, and in one chapter our beatnik narrator repeatedly refers to a bunch of aggressive rednecks lounging outside a small-town barbers shop as “hep cats” – a glaring error bespeaking a woeful failure to grok the hip vernacular.

BUT, what “Jazzman in Nudetown” may lack in authenticity, it more than makes up for in lively, if sporadic, imagination. The book’s saving grace, the thing that truly raises it to a kind of cracked, outsider poetry, is Tralins’ gloriously unhinged attempt at first person beat narration.

What Bob really seems to have taken on board here is the multitude of possibilities offered to the bored hack writer through the introduction of a free n’ easy beatnik writing style. After all, laying down some sub-Kerouac blather is easy AND fun, and Tralins seizes the opportunity with both hands here, happily throwing out whatever instinctive/alliterative crap boiled up from his noggin with gleeful abandon. Why have your hero drink whisky when he can ‘suck down on woozle juice’? Why have girls when you can have ‘wiggle witches’? And if, like Tralins, you start occasionally producing sentences that just plain make no sense whatsoever, well – cool it pops, this just ain’t your square ‘makes sense’ kinda read, you dig? Big Bob is busting out some first-thought best-thought, and it’s beautiful, man. No redrafting needed.

These outbursts of good-humoured beatitude seem to explode from the book every couple of pages like a transition from black & white into Technicolor, but sadly they become fewer and further between as the novel proceeds, with the good ol’ ‘workmanlike slog’ approach predominating from the halfway point onward. Nevertheless though, some of the best passages in ‘..Nudetown’ are timelessly demented, rendering it essentially reading for any connoisseur of beatsploitation.

So, for the record, “Jazzman in Nudetown” tells the tale of Jock Midnight, erstwhile leader of Jive Midnight and his Jive Cats, a somewhat unconventional clarinet, trombone and hambone percussion trio whose popularity has made Jock a hep-cat supreme back home in California, or so he tells us. But Jock is a long way from home as the book opens, on the lam from a Georgia correctional facility, having been framed by some racist cops who didn’t look kindly on his investigations into the disappearance of his trombone player and best buddy Fat Joe Bullets.

As he stumbles out of the woods, Jock is immediately picked up by one Lilly Mae Tinch, a gigantic, high maintenance nymphomaniac, and her accomplice Phoebe, who offer him a job, prompting the following exchange, which surely deserves a place in the history of spectacularly ill-advised chat-up lines;

“How’d you like a job?”
“For money?”
Both girls laughed at my expression. “What else?”
“What kind of job,” I said, locking my gaze with the big blonde’s. “You both look like a couple of sex jobs to me”.
I got away with it. They were swingers, just like I’d figured. Groovy enough to collar the jive without blinking their eyes into question marks.


This being a pulp smut novel, Jock’s bold approach to seduction pays swift dividends, and the extraordinary opening to the next chapter bears quoting in full;

“I kept feeling the empty giggle bottle under my pillow. That’s what finally woke me up. It wasn’t made to sleep on. It was dawn and the faint rays of the sun were streaming down upon the bed from between the drawn slats of the venetian blinds. I started to get up, but a heavy thigh over my hip held me fast. Lily Mae’s big arms were entwined around my chest from the back, I could feel her breath on the top of my head, and the delicious warmth of those huge breasts against my shoulders. Man! What a way to wake up!

Phoebe was on the other side of me, lying on her stomach, the pillow over her head. The creased and wrinkled sheet covered half of her lush body, exposing flesh from the center of her back in one sweep all the way down to her sleek, rounded hocks. Even in the fresh wash of morning sun she was grooby. Beautifully grooby. A ginch with a figure like a Greek cat in the Louvre with the delicate complexion of bare marble. Feeling no pain.

I never did get around to finding out if Lilly Mae was the fairy lady though. The lack of sleep, the booze, the weariness and fatigue that had been ragtiming after me finally cornered the market on my energy and swamped me. Zazzle! Did I pass out before – or after? No. I smiled at myself, remembering. Old Jock Midnight hadn’t let the girls down. Neither wiggle witch had been disappointed.

Untangling myself from the sleeping blonde boa, I eased myself down to the foot of the bed and got to my feet. I was wobbly, but I made it to the bath. Closing the door, after sloshing cold water on my face I greeted my reflection in the mirror. I looked good, real good. My complexion was as ruddy as a piece of mouldy swiss cheese that had been left in the pantry of an abandoned summer camp for girls. After the mice finished with it. Only difference was, I’d been gadzooked by two swinging cats!”


It is Lilly-Mae who leads Jock to ‘Nudetown’, which, disappointingly, is not some chaotic paradise of lecherous vice, but simply our freewheelin’ protagonist’s pet name for ‘Newton’, a depressingly fully-clothed redneck shithole in and around which the rest of our story takes place.

In one of the pleasantly eccentric plot twists that render this book worth reading, it turns out that Lilly Mae is a distant descendent of Blackbeard the pirate, and is seeking to retrieve his long-lost treasure from its hiding place in the Georgia swamplands. What follows is about one hundred pages-worth of crossings and double-crossings and characters being menaced with shotguns, sapped on the head and dumped in swamps, seemingly endless chase scenes and confrontations with redneck cops. Eventually, the whole thing turns into a kind of ham-fisted civil rights-era protest story, as Jock Midnight finds himself incarcerated in Nudetown jail on the basis of his being an obvious “negra-lover”, yelling beatnik-tinged obscenities from his cell window at the villainous pigs who are squaring up against the town’s peace-loving black community in the street outside.

I realise I’m making “Jazzman in Nudetown” sound pretty fantastic here, but really, it isn’t. If Bob Tralins had been able to keep up the pace of the extract quoted above, it would be a stone-cold classic, but as is I think I’d merely deem it a moderately grooby waste of a few hours.


In one of Bob Tralins’ flights of beatnik fancy, he makes metaphorical reference to a “jinky board”, whatever that is. This immediately reminded me of the fictional pulp writer Jack Steinblatt featured in the Daniel Clowes comic “MCMLXVI” (which you can find in the excellent “Caricature” anthology);

Could Steinblatt be directly based on Tralins? Did Clowes actually plough his way through “Jazzman in Nudetown” at some point? Or were these mysterious “jinky boards” in fact a common element of smut-pulp vocabulary?

If you know the answers to these questions, well… probably best seek help. But let me know first.

Monday 24 January 2011

Mopping Up # 2

As regular readers will probably note, I've mucked about with the sidebar you see to your right a bit, swapping things around and adding a few quick, clickable logos in an attempt to highlight some of the different strands I've got running here and perhaps make navigating this place a bit easier.

So just to clarify: henceforth, clicking the "Two Fisted Tales" button will take you straight to all the posts I've done about pulp book covers and related matters. Just calling it 'Pulp Fiction' or something would have been clearer, but doesn't sound as nifty. The other categories should hopefully be self-explanatory.

That is all.

Will be back with exciting new posts of one kind or another imminently.

Thursday 20 January 2011

Mopping Up.

Just for my own amusement, some pointless statistical breakdown of my recently completed count-down…


USA – 14
Britain - 5
France – 2
Italy – 1
Japan – 1
Germany/Poland - 1
Czechoslovakia - 1

Hmm… poor showing for Italy. Dunno how that happened.


Satan / Cults / Witches - 8
Zombies and other undead nastiness – 8
Mad Scientists - 4
Inexplicable Cosmic Terror of Some Kind - 4
Miscellaneous Psychos & Degenerates – 3
Vampires – 2
Frankensteinage - 2

What, no werewolves? I thought I really liked werewolf movies. Guess I don’t like any of them *that* much. Truth hurts.


Christopher Lee – 2
Boris Karloff – 2
Denis Gilmore – 2
Everybody else – 1 each

Denis Gilmore is that ugly lookin’ kid with red hair who appeared in “Psychomania”, “Blood on Satan’s Claw” AND Corman’s “Tomb of Ligea”, so I thought I’d give him a shout-out. I hope he bought his agent something real nice to say thanks.

Funnily enough, Christopher Lee is probably my least favourite of all the big name horror stars, but… he sure made a shitload of movies, and in the two I’ve featured here he was indeed very good.


American International Pictures – 3 (4 if you count “Black Sunday”, 5 if you count “The Devil Rides Out”s US release as “Devil’s Bride”)
Hammer – 2
Universal - 2
Others – 1 each

Only four films on the list actually emerged from major Hollywood studio, and two of those were from the ‘30s. Result!


1970s - 10
1960s - 7
1980s - 4
1930s – 2
1950s – 1
2000s - 1


Male – 25
Female – 0

Oh dear. Some stuff about the film industry in the 20th century really sucked, didn’t it?


ROCK N ROLL!!! – 1
Explicit rock n’ roll – 4
Implied rock n’ roll – 9
No rock n’ roll - 11

Wednesday 19 January 2011

Night of the Living Dead
(George A. Romero, 1968)

“They’re dead, they’re… all messed up..”

When I initially scribbled out a top 20 horror films list, I put “Night of the Living Dead” in the top spot without even thinking about it – an instinctive reaction that I’ve just gotta go with.

I wish I could surprise everybody with a passionate essay explaining why “The Navy vs. The Night Monsters” or “The Howling III: The Marsupials” is the greatest horror movie ever made, but I’m afraid that’s not gonna happen. At least not today.

Obviously there are many, many different ways of reading “Night of the Living Dead”. In fact I have a little book sitting right here on the shelf, published by no less an institution than the BFI, which is entirely concerned with setting out the film’s production history, cultural context, historical importance, critical interpretation and yadda yadda yadda. So I could always have a quick flick through and crib some stuff from there, but frankly I can’t be bothered. Right now I’m not really interested in trying to weigh in to the voluminous discourse concerning the film’s racial, political, social, psychological significance. I tend to feel the role of social commentary in Romero’s work is overplayed and overanalysed anyways, often to the detriment of the films’ more immediate virtues as cracking pieces of cinema, so let’s just say that like any truly great text, whatever you’re looking for in “Night..”, you’ll probably find it. Any message you can manage to pull out of the thing is both entirely deliberate and entirely accidental. It’s clear to me that Romero and his gang were channelling contemporary issues and anxieties on an almost unconscious kinda level, so let’s leave the arguments of what is there and what isn’t for another day and move on.

Because frankly, better questions might be how and why “Night of the Living Dead” has managed to attract this level of attention in the first place, and why it continues to fascinate and obsess us nearly fifty years after it crawled out of Pittsburgh. On a personal level, I can only say that NOTLD is one of the small handful of films that I can happily watch again and again and again. Every moment of it is engrained on my mind; watching it is a comforting ritual, a sort of weird catharsis - the cinematic equivalent of sitting in the dark listening to a doom metal album on headphones, or whatever. I can lose myself endlessly in the grainy, toneless black & white, the caverns of weird, echoed library music, the familiar, hopeless brutality, but most of all the creeping sense of entropic doom that obscures all else. (I love the way that film itself moves forward with the same grinding, foreboding pace of the zombies themselves.) It is ‘horror movie’. The effect it has on my lizard brain is as pleasing and inexplicable as that of ‘comic book’ or ‘rock n’ roll’.

Perhaps just due to over-familiarly, every aspect of NOTLD – every facial expression, line of dialogue, weird, blaring noise – seems perfect to me, from the bullet holes on the cemetery sign in the credits sequence (signs of sporadic human/zombie conflict already in progress, or just a happy accident when the crew turned up to shoot the scene?), to the chilling still photos that end the film. Honestly, it’s like some kind of holy scripture – I know that objectively speaking the film is far from flawless, but the idea that even the smallest element of it could be changed seems absurdly offensive to me (I’ll spare you the tale of how I accidentally bought a DVD of the retouched/rescored John Russo version of the film a few years back and was consumed by an unprecedented fit of nerd-rage).

From the disgusted/condescending newspaper critics who marked the film’s initial release through to bold sacred cow killers of the present day, many have railed against NOTLD’s ubiquitous popularity over the years, complaining that the production is amateurish, the acting dreadful, that Romero’s compositions are sluggish and uninspired, and so on. (For a thorough critical beat-down, see the 1968 Variety review, quoted here.) All I can say is, the film’s ‘amateurism’ is very much in the eye of the beholder. I can understand the criticisms, but personally I’ve always seem NOTLD is a truly exceptional piece of filmmaking. Those who predicate quality on the basis of lavish production values and nuanced, brow-furrowing performances may indeed choke on the film’s rough edges and chaotic mise en scene, but to me that choking is precisely the point.

“Night of the Living Dead” is weird, visceral, assaultive and unrelenting – it is punk filmmaking that wears its shoestring, regional production values with pride rather than trying to hide them. As such, it speaks to me far more powerfully than any of rather airless new-Hollywood ‘landmarks’ that followed in the subsequent decade. Along with many other people I suspect, NOTLD really hit me upside the head when I first saw it. More than anything else, it is responsible for helping me define the kind of cinema I really love, for opening the floodgates to a whole new world of incredible stories and images, completely disconnected from the stifling push and pull between arthouse pretention and blockbuster banality.

Getting a bit more abstract, I definitely see NOTLD representing as a kind of defining UR-text for the whole horror genre. Every history of the genre recognises the film as a singular line in the sand, usually either beginning or ending their study with its release - love it or hate it, “Night..”s status as a game-changing event is difficult to deny. More than simply marking ‘the birth of the modern horror film’ though (as suggested by Kim Newman’s great “Midnight Movies” amongst others), NOTLD’s transformative influence can be seen to extend further in both directions: an accidental crossroads of mighty pop cultural power, forever connecting the ‘old’ to the ‘new’ (or maybe the ‘dead’ to the ‘living’ if you want to get completely preposterous about it).

Feeding into “Night of the Living Dead”, we have: the theremin-haunted sci-fi monster movies of the ‘50s, the funereal/gothic tropes and dutch angles of ‘classic’ horror, the shock tactics of HG Lewis, a cynical up-ending of the Howard Hawks small-cast survival drama, and a mammoth dose of the wider ‘cinema of anxiety’ that built slowly through the ‘60s in the form of “Psycho”, “The Birds”, “Repulsion” and so on.

Feeding out from “Night of the Living Dead”, we have: the birth of the ‘midnight movie’ circuit, the industry’s realisation of a potential market for graphic violence and doom-laden pessimism, and a shot in the arm for regional/independent producers everywhere. We have “Last House on the Left”, “I Drink Your Blood” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”.“Eraserhead”, David Cronenberg and Abel Ferrara. Increasingly graphic violence in the ‘70s works of Bava, Argento, Fulci et al. “Cannibal Holocaust” and that whole scene. “Zombi II / Zombie Flesh Eaters”, “Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue”, and every other zombie movie in existence. “The Hills Have Eyes”, “Assault on Precinct 13” and Romero’s own “The Crazies” helping cement the whole formula for ‘survival horror’ narratives. Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson, “Reanimator”, and, well – you get the point.

To take a line from the kind of voodoo hokum that Romero & Russo’s new conception of the zombie forever relegated to horror movie history – whether you’re moving forward or looking backward, you’ve got to pay your respects at the crossroads.

To bookend a whirl through the horror genre with quotations from “Night of the Living Dead” has become just as much of a cornball gesture as the sight of shambling ghouls on the horizon, so….. I won’t if it’s ok by you.

Thanks for reading, and sorry that my big December project has lasted most of the way through January – normal (eg, sporadic and random) service to be resumed shortly!

Tuesday 18 January 2011

Blood On Satan’s Claw
(Piers Haggard, 1971)

“Hail Behemoth, spirit of the dark, take thou my blood, my flesh, my skin and walk; Holy Behemoth, father of my life, speak now, come now, rise now from the forest, from the furrows, from the fields and live…”

Another one of those films whose reputation has slowly grown over the years, recent writings that mention “Blood on Satan’s Claw” (not to mention that recent BBC doc, which gave the film an applaudable amount of screentime) have tended to see the movie as the third side of a triangle of early ‘70s British ‘folk horror’ classics, alongside “The Wicker Man” and Michael Reeves’ “Witchfinder General”.

Whilst it is nice to see “..Satan’s Claw” getting some recognition, I would actually go further and declare it a greater achievement than either of those excellent films. Indeed, my enthusiasm for the movie grows with each viewing, to the extent that it currently gets my vote not only as the best British horror movie ever made, but as the kind of film against which every other horror movie should be judged. Bold claims there I realise, and in truth, each time I return to “..Satan’s Claw” I expect to be disappointed, thinking it can’t possibly live up to the expectations I’ve built around it, but each time my admiration just grows.

As with many of the more eccentric choices on this list, my love of the film probably stems more from the extent to which it appeals to *me*, than from any kind of objective ‘better-ness’, but still, when I watch “..Satan’s Claw”, I can’t help but think that whatever qualities one might be looking for from a horror film, this one ticks the boxes. It is intelligent, well directed, well written and beautifully shot. It is also violent, shocking, erotic and disturbing. It has a haunting atmosphere of heavy cultural/historical resonance, an amazing, unconventional score and a great, memorable cast. It is full of awesome occult imagery and ritualistic/psychedelic freakout potential, but also features engaging and unusual character relationships and plumbs uncomfortable psychological depths. For the less high-minded amongst us, it also features gratuitous naked witches and Patrick Wymark battling the devil with a gigantic claymore. I don’t know about you, but that just about makes a 100% hit rate for me.

Beyond the rather tenuous ‘folk horror’ tag, what Piers Haggard’s film really shares with “Wicker Man” and “Witchfinder..” is a certain seriousness of intent that immediately sets the three films apart from their contemporaries. As much as I love British horror from the ‘50s and ‘60s, it is probably accurate to say that the majority of writers and directors working in the field saw themselves at best as craftsmen delivering solid genre pictures, or at worst considered themselves to be ‘slumming’ in the widely derided horror/exploitation field. Reeves, Hardy and Haggard though were all younger men who, perhaps influenced by the increasing public interest in weird/occult shenanigans sparked off by the ‘60s counter-culture, did the unthinkable and took the subject matter of their horror films seriously, setting out to consciously avoid the gothic cliché and nod/wink good humour of Hammer et al, and investing their respective films with all the thought and earnestness and attention to detail more usually expected of an auteur-led arthouse film.

For all that though, two of those three directors still essentially emerged with a different kind of film, using the foundations of the British horror film industry to turn in a nihilistic historical drama and a strange metaphysical mystery film respectively, leaving Haggard the only contender to really turn his talents to the creation of some straight up supernatural horror.

And indeed, boiled down to a quick plot synopsis, “Blood on Satan’s Claw” is as conservative as “The Devil Rides Out” and as lurid as “Lust for a Vampire”, presenting sex and youthful rebellion as direct manifestations of Satanic evil, threatening a benevolent social status quo that can only be maintained through the intervention of a violently puritanical adult authority figure. There are several elements though that help make “..Satan’s Claw” a far more interesting and subversive work than such a summary would suggest.

Firstly, we have the gleeful pleasure Haggard takes in relentlessly pushing the envelope as regards the connections between sex and violence, and the conflicting reactions that can be generated in the target audience when said connection are taken beyond the realms of the comfortable. The film’s rape scene is of course pretty infamous, and the ghastly fate allotted poor old Wendy Padbury (familiar to 1971 UK viewers from TV soap ‘Crossroads’ and her role in the Patrick Troughton era Dr. Who) is strong medicine indeed for the relatively polite world of British film. The casting of such a recognisable actress, notable for her homely, helpless innocence, is a viciously unsettling decision by the filmmakers, and hard not to read on some level as a kind of cultural attack.

And this attack continues throughout, as the film delights in mixing eroticism with psychosis, never missing an opportunity to fuck with the hetero-male expectations of a ‘sexy horror film’. Perhaps the most astounding moment of such for me is the scene in which the rather furtive village doctor takes it upon himself to ‘cleanse’ Margaret, the captured member of Angel Blake’s cult, by surgically removing the ‘taint of Satan’ from her. Nobody much seems to talk about this scene, but I remember watching in absolute disbelief the sight of two stony-faced middle-aged men holding down a hysterical teenage girl, as the doctor tries to save her immortal soul by taking a straight razor and cutting away a suggestively shaped patch of thick, tumour-like hair and skin from her thigh. Such sickeningly imaginative imagery, carrying such a gruesome and obvious subtext, it seems to cut straight to the heart of the way a repressive religious upbringing can spark truly twisted horrors, making it’s point with a visceral power that would never have been seen in a ‘real world’ story dealing with such issues.

Secondly, and on a slightly more esoteric note, one of the keys to the film’s success I think is its portrayal of the ‘evil’ that overtakes the village’s children not as some simple demonic invasion of a god-fearing community, but rather as a completely natural, atavistic process. In “Blood on Satan’s Claw”, the land itself is evil – whether the mysterious bones lying in wait in a freshly ploughed field, or the verdant promiscuousness of the flowers in the meadows. Christianity is imposed upon this pagan landscape, not vice versa, and it can only be maintained through violence, self-denial and continual vigilance.

The demon, or devil, or whatever it is, literally rises out of the earth beneath the feet of the young people, using their natural energy and rebellious nature (not to mention their skin and hair) to pull itself back into the world and take on new form. On one level, this is a brilliant reflection of the way the fevered imaginings of the actual 17th century witchhunters served to create an incorporeal ‘evil’ in the public mind that proved just as destructive as any cloven hoofed ne’erdowell… but on another level, it can simply be read as the most bloodcurdling metaphor for the perils of puberty ever devised.

Beyond all this though, what you’ll remember about “Blood on Satan’s Claw” are the individual moments and oddly persuasive details that live on in the memory after viewing…

• The indescribable look on Tamara Ustinov’s character’s face when they drag her down from the attic – actually sends a shiver down my spine.

• The attention given to the landscape throughout, and the amazing cinematography of (no sniggering at the back please) Dick Bush - the way the dead, disembodied eye rising from the soil looks no less natural than the foreboding shots of ravens and branches that begin the film.

• The handful strange, older people who appear out of nowhere join the demonic children in their rituals, with no explanation asked or received… they seem to emerge from the woods as some kind of ‘outcasts’ from the regular, Christian community, happy to see the ‘old ways’ revived… a strange and chilling touch.

• Patrick Wymark as the Judge! I love the horror movie stand-by of the learned gentleman who initially scoffs at any suggestion of the supernatural… then sees something that changes his mind and immediately becomes deathly serious and starts busting out the grimoires and holy artefacts. (Also see Peter Cushing in “Dracula”, Andre Morell in “Plague of the Zombies”, etc.) You know that that guy means business, and indeed, Wymark’s Judge can be seen as the horror genre’s pre-eminent exponent of NOT FUCKING AROUND.

• Every single damn thing about Linda Hayden’s portrayal of Angel Blake, even the eye make-up – no explanation needed.

And, well, I could go on…

Appropriate to its theatrical title, “Blood on Satan’s Claw” is a rare kind of horror movie in the fact that all its horrors seem to rise unheeded from nature itself: red in tooth and claw.

Thursday 13 January 2011

(Andrzej Zulawski, 1981)

“There is nothing to fear except God, whatever that means to you.”

There is nothing I can say that could prepare you for Zulawski’s “Possession”. It is to a conventional horror movie what straight scotch is to Bud Lite. The other twenty four films on this list, even in their more disturbing moments, are films I enjoy, films I would watch for comfort and good times. But nobody fucking enjoys an Andrzej Zulawski movie. Even at their most (ha) accessible, this man’s films seek to drag their viewers into a black pit of howling insanity and vicious, hysterical chaos. Characters in a Zulawski film tend to begin proceedings on the verge of complete mental and physical collapse, and quickly go downhill from there, as he coaxes performances from his cast that aren’t so much ‘over the top’ as ‘rampaging through the enemy lines in a fucking gold-plated digger’, if you will.

So when ‘Possession’ finds him presenting the world with a Lovecraft-via-Bataille tale of apocalyptic terror set in Cold War East Berlin…. well I hope you’ve got tranquilizers close at hand and have locked away the sharp objects. God knows, you’ll be wishing the people on the screen had soon enough.

I remember the first time I saw ‘Possession’ a few years back, as part of Leicester’s much missed Far-Out Films festival. I left the screening dazed, not quite believing what I’d just seen, and wandered the streets for hours, eventually realising I should probably go home after I nearly walked in front of a bus. I’m not the kind of person who normally does stuff like that after watching a film, but this was something else.

It’s difficult to write much about “Possession”s plotline without ruining the surprises that await the first time viewer, but let’s just say that one of the things that makes it so effective is that for the first hour or so, there is nothing to clue you in to the fact you are watching a horror film. Instead, it seems like a film that’s just plain horrific – Zulawski showing us Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani’s volatile relationship going south in the most traumatic manner imaginable, with both partners collapsing into a state of violent, neurotic hysteria as their young child looks on and the audience yells PLEASE, WILL SOMEONE CALL SOCIAL SERVICES, FOR CHRISSAKE?

And so, in the second hour, when we first start to catch on to the fact that supernatural elements may be involved in this story, the effect is not much the relief that might come from finding oneself back in the realm of a comfortable, familiar genre film, but more a sense of genuine, pit-of-yr-stomach sickening dread. Kind of like: jesus fucking christ, things were bad enough already, this is the last thing we needed…

Several times in this Top 25 rundown, I’ve discussed the notion of the ‘beyond-the-ken-of-mortal-man’ cosmic horror communicated by H.P. Lovecraft’s best stories being inherently ‘unfilmable’, and indeed, however varied and enjoyable the majority of the films based on the man’s work have been, there has yet to be one that really proves otherwise. ‘Possession’ though, despite rising from a time and place and artistic background completely removed from Lovecraft’s influence, is the only film I’ve seen that not only grasps HPL’s pinnacle of unnameable dread with both hands, but actually surpasses it, amping it up to meet the violence, instability and excess of late 20th century culture and throwing the results straight in our faces, leaving a film that feels like some beserk art/exploitation movie Necronomicon - not an unraped mind left in the house.

And he could have left things there. He could have brought this thing in at, say, 100 minutes, and still left us feeling like we’d been through hell. But Zulawski being Zulawski, he just has NO IDEA when to quit. Machine guns are fired, cars crash and terrifying global conspiracies are implied. The freezing, mazelike derelict apartments of Berlin loom and twist and burn. There is weird, oozing viscera, all over the place. There is an electric carving knife. The closest thing the movie has to a ‘hero’ beats a man’s head against a brick wall and drowns him in a filthy toilet bowl. People scream and stare and contort, and change. A five year old child runs upstairs and drowns himself in the bath in sheer terror. Bombers fly ominously overhead.

For anyone who believes the sole purpose of horror is to horrify and unsettle the viewer to the greatest possible extent, “Possession” is perhaps the most successful horror film ever made.

Here’s how they tried to sell it to people;

Tuesday 11 January 2011

(Don Sharp, 1972)

“The word, mother, is FUZZ..”

‘Psychomania’ first entered my life, as it entered the lives of many people in this country I suspect, through a late night TV screening. Back in the glory days when they used to fill early morning airtime with old horror movies, the BBC used to pull this one out of the hat on a surprisingly regular basis.

For a while a few years back, I remember that I had a VCR on which the ‘record’ function had broken or something, and my brother used to occasionally video stuff I might like off the TV for me. One day he called me up, and said something to the effect of hey, there’s this thing on tonight called ‘Psychomania’ – British movie, 1972, about a gang of bikers who get turned into zombies or something - sounds like your sort of thing, d’you want me to record it for you? Yeah, sounds great, I said, and thought no more about it.

The next day, my brother, not usually a big horror movie enthusiast, called me again. “I’m watching that movie, ‘Psychomania’, right now,” he said “and it’s… extraordinary – seriously, you’ve got see this.” He described it to me as being completely unlike a conventional horror movie, and more like some offbeat comedy/drama in which incredibly bizarre supernatural things keep happening. In retrospect, and with more understanding of the aesthetic landscape of low budget British movies in the early ‘70s, I’m not sure if that’s really an accurate description, but I definitely see where he was coming from. Although the film’s imagery and plot-line, and its sinister opening sequence, immediately mark it out as horror, there is something that from the outset is different about ‘Psychomania’ - something utterly unique and sublimely weird.

For one thing, all of the violence in the film (and it ends up with a pretty high body count) either takes place off screen, or is played for laughs. None of the usual tension and titillation of a violent horror film is even attempted. In fact, there is something almost quaint about the film: along with the lack of explicit bloodshed, absolutely no reference is made to sex or drug use, and there isn’t even any bad language (unless you count the petrol station attendant’s immortal cry of “I’ll teach you a lesson, you long ‘aired git”). For a movie that is ostensibly about anarchic undead bikers unleashing a whirlwind of havoc upon the British countryside, ‘Psychomania’s wholesome and genuinely quite humane approach to the material is as mystifying as it is delightful. Quite why the film was initially released in Britain with an ‘X’ certificate is beyond me – I can only assume it was either self-imposed in an attempt to corner the horror market, or that the BBFC took umbrage with the generally mind-bending tone of proceedings, the comedic suicide montage, or the shocking portrayal middle-class miscreants on two stroke motorbikes knocking workmen off ladders and upsetting trays of buns as they blaze a trail of righteous destruction through the new-build shopping precincts of the home counties.

Attempts at evoking a ‘gothic horror’ atmosphere, or indeed the atmosphere of a biker film, are sporadic at best, but the aesthetic identity that takes their place – that of an otherworldly, almost naive early ‘70s Englishness, is so potent that it practically glows, with an otherworld palette of pale greens and browns. ‘Psychomania’ is, quite simply, one of the most wonderfully strange films I’ve ever seen, and furthermore, one whose cultural concerns mesh with my own so perfectly, it was always going to be love at first sight.

When I saw the opening titles, in which the skull-helmeted Living Dead motorcycle gang ride in slow motion about a green-lit, fog shrouded stone circle as John Cameron’s incredible psyche-fuzz theme plays, I knew this was gonna be good.

When said bikers were revealed to be an unlikely alliance of weedy, plum-voiced English youth with names like Gash, Hinky, Hatchet and Bertram (Bertram?!?) sewn onto the back of their jackets, headed by human dynamo Nicky Henson, doing his best impression of Malcolm McDowell in “If..” in the role of aristocratic gang leader Tom Latham, I knew this was gonna be BRILLIANT.

When Tom winds down by taking his sweetly innocent girlfriend Abby toad-hunting in the local the cemetery and tells her “it’s not me that scares you baby, it’s the world”, before he returns to his gothic/modernist family home and waltzes around the hideously decorated living room with his psychic mother (Beryl Reid!), telling her “you know why the fuzz called, mother? We blew a fellow’s mind tonight; it was beautiful – he went straight through the windscreen”, my jaw had just about hit the floor.

By the time Tom had cornered the family retainer Shadwell (George Sanders) and demanded to know, “..why did my father die in that locked room? Why do you never get any older, Shadwell? And what is the secret of the living dead?” (the last question masterfully delivered just as he takes a bite out of a gigantic sandwich), I was fully converted.

And by the time Tom had entered aforementioned locked room for an astounding psychedelic trip sequence featuring shrieking feedback, menacing toad-god visitations and flashbacks of his parents selling their baby son’s soul to the devil…. well let’s just say I was busy cancelling upcoming appointments in my diary and preparing to dedicate the rest of my natural life to the intensive study and appreciation of this thing known as ‘Psychomania’.

Subsequently, ‘Psychomania’ continues much as it has begun - with a parade of demented highlights that almost never lets up. I could spend thousands of words listing them up for you, but probably best if you just watch the movie. Practically every scene is seared onto my brain indelibly, making me grin and cackle as I walk down the street, over five years and over a dozen viewings later. Still though, I guess there might be those of you reading who are unfamiliar with the film, so… it’s just something that’s got to be done I suppose (deep breath):

After his locked room freakout, Tom commits suicide by driving full speed off a motorway bridge. The grieving gang hold a burial for him amid the standing stones, interring him upright on his bike! Gang member Chopped Meat sits at the graveside with a guitar, and lip-syncs to the timeless ballad ‘Riding Free’ (“he really got it on / he rode that sweet machine just like a bomb..”). Later that day, a man who looks a bit like Mr. Bean takes a shortcut through the standing stones when his car breaks down, and is startled to hear the sound a revving engine emanating from beneath him. He tries to run, but is cruelly mown down by a resurrected Tom, as he explodes out of the earth like a weird biker movie phoenix! After enjoying some “carnage at the pub” (as one of the track titles on the Trunk Records soundtrack CD puts it), Tom returns to the gang and informs them that he has indeed discovered “the secret of the living dead”. Apparently, all you need to do to achieve immortality and superhuman strength is to kill yourself, whilst believing that you will come back. Simple as that! Quoth Living Dead second in command and red leather-clad femme fatale Jane Pettibone; “oh man, what are we waiting for..?”

Cue cinema’s greatest ever comedic suicide montage, some extremely perturbed Morris Minor-driving policemen, and a rampage of bloodless undead biker anarchy that leaves the whole of Walton-on-Thames cowering in terror!

Deepening the glorious mystery that is ‘Psychomania’ are the rather vague circumstances by which the film came into being. Reading the plot synopsis above, you might reasonably expect it to be the work of one maniac auteur, but no, ‘Psychomania’ seems to be a film that forced its way into existence simply through… I dunno, osmosis or something – an accidental masterpiece that no one seems to want to raise their hand and take credit for;

Independent producer Andrew Donally allegedly picked it for production simply because it was the only one of a pile of potential projects that his financiers jumped at. Don Sharp was hired as director simply because he was seen as steady hand with a knack for filming good action scenes. Sharp is still alive, but to my knowledge he has never seen fit to comment on the film (if anyone knows otherwise, please let me know). And, despite their enthusiastic performances, most of the surviving cast now seem either baffled or deeply embarrassed by the film’s cult following.

If authorship of the film can be placed anywhere, it is probably with blacklisted American screenwriters Arnaud d'Usseau and Julian Halevy, who made a brief but highly successful comeback in the realm of early ‘70s Euro-horror, penning both ‘Psychomania’ and the similarly inventive/joyous ‘Horror Express’. Clearly those guys had some pretty singular mojo going on, making me wish Hammer or somebody could have put them on the payroll, but even so – chances are d’Usseau and Halevy didn’t consider themselves to be going much more than cramming together currently sale-able plot elements, hoping to make a quick buck.

Trying to determine quite where the incredibly strange totality of ‘Psychomania’ came from is likely to remain a thankless task. Probably best just see it instead as a confounding, life-affirming oddity that arose fully formed from the freaked out mire of its particular post-‘60s, pre-‘70s cultural moment – the perfect cult film, revved up and ready to go. It’s not ‘Psychomania’ that scares you, baby - it’s the world.

Monday 10 January 2011

Wild Zero
(Tetsuro Takeuchi, 2000)

“ALCOHOL MIXED THROUGH MY BLOOD / BABY IS THE ONLY ONE I SEE! / GOT AWALLET ON MY ASS WITH A ROCK N’ ROLL LICENCE / THIS IS THE ONLY PLACE I’LL EVER DIE!”, sing Guitar Wolf in a deafening concert sequence midway through the endlessly amazing exemplum of punk rock filmmaking that is ‘Wild Zero’. “LIKE ROARING BLOOD, LIKE ROARING BLOOD, EXPLODING BLOOD, LIKE ROARING BLOOD!”, they continue. What can the likes of you and I do, but look on in awe?

You may find it difficult to accept that a shot on video Japanese comedy-gore movie could really hold the power to change people’s lives for the better, but then you presumably weren’t there to see me in 2002, holding my newly-acquired VHS of the movie before me like a holy relic, recent witness to an experience less like a motion picture, more like some deranged dream I might have had after falling asleep drunk listening to Iggy & The Stooges on my headphones.

When you read some posting on the circa-2002 internet about some crazy new movie in which Guitar Wolf fight alien-zombies, it is easy then as now to declare “wow, that sounds amazing – I’m gonna watch that”, knowing that you are setting yourself up for a certain degree of disappointment. So god bless director Tetsuro Takeuchi for delivering not only the anticipated tornado of crazy trash-horror tomfoolery, but something that surpasses even our wildest expectations – a potent and elegiac coming of age tale that exultantly proclaims the gospel of rock n’ roll (sorry, ROCK N’ ROLL!!!), leaving agnostic viewers in little doubt as to its status as the benevolent guiding force of the universe.

Ok, so maybe that last bit was just me projecting a little, the result of too many student days spent drinking too much coffee and listening to too much thundering amphetamine madness, but whatever – fact is, I’ve not been quite the same since.

How could I not take to heart the tale of Ace (Masashi Endô), feckless avatar of all nervous teenage rock n’ roll fanatics, who inadvertently helps to save his favourite band Guitar Wolf during a tense backstage shootout and finds himself initiated into their blood brotherhood by way of thanks, as the band present him with a magic whistle that he may use to summon these nigh-on supernatural rock n’ roll warriors to assist him in his hour of need?

How could I not feel for our hero, as the strange sensations brought on by both a new love and the UFO-birthed flesheating zombies who now roam the Japanese countryside drive him first to euphoria, and then to the point of existential despair, as he finds himself alone and surrounded by the undead, his noble fantasies of romantic intimacy with his new beau Tobio thwarted by unforeseen gender confusion and his own cowardice and self-loathing made cruelly clear?

“THERE IS NO GOD HERE!!” screams Endô at one point, giving the performance of a lifetime as he curses the empty heavens. Ace has all but given up on life, is ready to surrender to the pressures closing in around him, when suddenly, Guitar Wolf himself appears, glorious as an apparition of the Virgin Mary, to point him toward the light: “ACE! - LOVE KNOWS NO BORDERS, NATIONALITIES OR GENDERS! - DO IT!!!” (Never has the maligned art of the multiple punctuation mark been so righteously and unrepentantly employed as by the English sub-titlers of ‘Wild Zero’.)

And DO IT Ace does, crow-bar in hand, rescuing himself and his love from the very brink of oblivion, achieving a state of blood-drenched cosmic transcendence, as Guitar Wolf sets out on his flame-spewing motorcycle, guitar upon his back, beer in his hand, to get this zombie/UFO shit sorted out once and for all. (Bass Wolf and Drum Wolf follow at a respectable distance, in a small car.)

Bullets rain, gore flies, zombies howl, bikes roar, shit blows up, beer is chugged, flying saucers blacken the skies and a selection of odd and engaging secondary characters get busy, as The Oblivians, Bikini Kill and The Zeros blare across the soundtrack, mixed so loudly it makes the speakers on my cheap-ass TV go kaput every time.

Action-packed, hilarious, inept, beautiful and demented, full of love and flames and blood and deafening, holy feedback, “Wild Zero” represents everything that is great about punk rock and everything that is great about trash cinema, combined for all eternity. Hallelujah! ROCK N ROLL!!!

Sunday 9 January 2011

Mythos Mastermind

Discovered via Found Objects this evening:

Predictable responses, in order:

1. Man, I’ve got to sample John Humphrys sayin’ all that stuff for some kind of creepy slowed-down-voices recording.

2. I scored 11! How did you do? (Um, not counting the general knowledge questions, natch.)

3. I think I’m in love.

Spider Baby
(Jack Hill, 1964)

Jack Hill’s “Spider Baby” was one of the first films I ever wrote about for this weblog, back in the halcyon days of May 2009. You can read what I had to say here if you like, although my formative stab at long-form film-writing probably leaves something to be desired.

In particular, I’d like to take back the bit about the straight/normal characters lessening the film’s impact when they turn up halfway through. On the contrary, looking back now, I think they’re all pretty brilliant – some great comic acting and memorable turns from all concerned. Obviously they’re somewhat overshadowed by Lon and Jill and Sid, but who wouldn’t be?

What an amazing movie, though. It’s like the weirdo-horror “It’s A Wonderful Life”. Makes me cry every time, seriously.

Friday 7 January 2011

Le Frisson des Vampires
(Jean Rollin, 1971)

“I remember at this hour, at nine, they used to go out. They sent their dog to me, and he took me along. The dog’s name was Anubis. They went hunting, hunting all night, as wolves do. How happy they were. Sometimes I could escape, and went hunting with them. You couldn’t understand. They went after some monstrous prey, with pikes. They wore holy relics, talismans and crucifixes. They resembled the knights of the crusades. When they returned, they were covered with blood, drunk with carnage! But one day, they came back with wounds on their throats, wounds that looked like bites. Out of which their blood was flowing… flowing…”

Variously translated as “Thrill of the Vampire”, “Shiver of the Vampires”, “Sex and the Vampire” (I like that one – it’s got a nice academic ring to it), or retitled with undeniable accuracy as “Strange Things Happen at Night”, “Le Frisson..” by any name is my favourite Jean Rollin movie.

More than that though, it is a huge landmark in my own personal film-watching mythology, a central text in the investigation of precisely what it is I love about ‘60s/’70s European horror movies. It is one of those rare movies that I could happily watch all the time. If my well-worn Redemption tape of the film got terminally stuck in the VCR, well…I guess it would be a shame I wouldn’t be able to check out some of those videos I haven’t watched yet, but basically I would be completely fine with the situation.

More than any other film I can think of, “Le Frisson..” is a litmus test for my own particular branch of cult/euro-horror fandom. If someone were to ask me, “so Ben, all these fucking sleazy-looking old vampire movies you keep watching all the time - what’s the deal?”, a viewing of “Le Frisson..” would be my answer. If they ‘get it’, well, great, they’re in the club. If not, well not to worry, I’m sure I’ve got some ‘normal people’ movies round here somewhere…

It should be noted at this point that “Le Frisson..” is at least a lot more easy-going and conventionally enjoyable than much of the rest of Rollin’s filmography. It’s funny, it’s goofy, it’s fast-moving and it’s full of lively characters. It is also one of the only Rollin films to include a ‘regular joe’ protagonist in the form of Jean-Marie Durand’s Antione, whose bafflement and rage at finding himself stuck in the middle of Jean Rollin-land proves a great source of hilarity throughout. It even has some semblance of a linear storyline.

Well, kinda. I mean, it’s that old story: Antione and his fiancée Isa are speeding across Europe in their swanky motor-car en-route to their wedding when they decide to take a detour to visit Isa’s mysterious ‘cousins’, her only surviving relatives, who live in a dilapidated hilltop chateau. Arriving, the couple are greeted by a pair of nubile servants in diaphanous gowns, who inform them that said cousins have both recently died, but insist they stay anyway to, I dunno, rest after their long journey or something – it’s a bit vague. Anyway, at midnight, a lady called Isolde emerges from the grandfather clock in Isa’s room and initiates her into the ways of vampirism. The next day, Isa’s cousins return in the form of two outrageously camp intellectual dandies and proclaim themselves to be very much alive. Antione swiftly tires of these salty characters and their brain-aching tirade of hippie-occultist babble, and his mood is scarcely improved after he is attacked by a sentient library. That night, our cast march in procession to the eerie, red-lit cemetery where strange and sexy vampiric rites are performed. French psyche/prog band Acanthus rock the fuck out on the soundtrack, as they continue to do to varying degrees through the film’s entire duration. At some point, another lady called Isabelle turns up and, in one of the most beautifully lyrical passages of crazy dialogue ever written by Rollin for one of his films, regales us with evocative tales of her life as companion to the two cousins, whom she claims were daring vampire hunters prior to their untimely demise. Isolde kills Isobelle by means too extraordinary to discuss here, and the cousins subsequently attempt to wrest control of the vampire cult from Isolade, after she accuses them of being “mere peasant vampires”. More rituals in the cemetery follow, and Isa finds herself becoming frightened of daylight and chomps on the neck of a dead pigeon. The nubile servants lounge around naked in the castle’s ivy-covered ruins. Antione gets even more ratty and starts running around with a gun. Then everybody goes to the beach.

I don’t know who won the ‘best screenplay’ Oscar in 1971, but in a fairer world they would’ve done the decent thing and sent it airmail to M. Rollin’s Paris address pronto, that’s all I’m sayin’.

Fun and games aside though, what I love above all about “Le Frisson..” is the absolutely exquisite ritualistic atmosphere, the opiated haze of gothic/psychedelic/surrealist zero budget splendour laid on so thick, you could cut off chunks and eat it on toast.

I know that when I first started getting into ‘60s horror movies, it was this indefinable ‘ritualistic’ quality that drew me to them above all else. I could (and still can) sit through hours of tedious, set-bound time-wasting, just to rejoice in the fleeting sight of some subterranean occult gathering, or an establishing shot of a decrepit, fogbound castle, or some fuzzy footage of mysterious, red-robed figures marching through some distant woodland. Don’t ask me why, because I don’t have an answer, but I just love that shit.

As such, discovering the films of Jean Rollin, and this one in particular, was an absolute revelation – finally, a guy who seemed to be on the same wavelength as me, and who recognised the strange poetry of this mysterioso imagery, cramming as much of it into his films as he possibly could, caring not a damn for the conventional mechanics of plotting and logic and other such jive-ass baloney.

With its extreme red and blue lighting, its candlelit, nocturnal processions, its hypnotic graveyard blood rituals, theatrical vampirism and beautiful, diaphanous gowned maidens, its primitive stop motion special effects and wonky grandfather clock materialisations, all set to the churning pulse of wild psychedelic rock, flapping bat wings and weird, inhuman shrieks… watching “Le Frisson des Vampires” makes me so happy I can barely express it.

Thursday 6 January 2011

Messiah of Evil
(Willard Huyck, 1973)

About twenty minutes into Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz’ much underappreciated weirdo horror masterpiece “Messiah of Evil”, we have a scene which finds our protagonist Arletty Lang knocking on the door of a room in a dilapidated beach-front motel. She is following up a tip off from a blind gallery owner (hang on – blind gallery owner?!?), who told her that some strangers in town have been asking questions about her missing father.

As in just about every scene in this movie, seagulls call in the distance, and the waves of the Pacific crash hypnotically on the soundtrack.

Receiving no answer to her knocking, Arletty pushes the door, which creaks slowly open, revealing the frightened face of Charlie (played by the wonderful character actor Elisha Cook Jr), who is seated inside.


CHARLIE: I’m as old as the hills… mama delivered me herself…. She took me from between her legs… bloody little mess, just about to feed me to the chickens, and Daddy said, ‘maybe we could use a boy, Lottie’, and that’s how I came into the world.

[Arletty’s gaze moves across to the bed, where Tom (tall, dandyish young man with long-ish hair and a white suit) and Laura (bored looking hippy chick) lie. Tom is pointing a microphone at Charlie.]

ARLETTY: Excuse me – they said at the gallery you were looking for Joseph Lang, I’m his daughter and…

TOM: Just come in and close the door.

ARLETTY: All I want to know is if…

TOM: Close the door.

[She closes the door.]

TOM: Go ahead Charlie.

CHARLIE: I can’t always remember back on things, but I remember the red moon my daddy told me about… he only told me once… mamma gave him a bad look when he talked about it… he was only a boy himself then… he called it the ‘blood moon’… he said that was the night when he lost religion…

[A toilet flushes and Toni (a teenage groupie type in a halter-top) emerges from the bathroom and begins applying suntan lotion.]

CHARLIE: He… he learned that men could do horrible things… like animals…

TONI: I’m really hungry - I’ve got the munchies.

TOM: Shut up! Go ahead Charlie. What about the moon?

CHARLIE: One hundred years ago, the moon started turning red up in the sky, and things began to happen. He said it was like… the redder of the moon got up there, the closer the people were being jerked, toward hell… people started bleedin’ out of control… they found children eating raw meat… it was like the town was festering with an open sore, until the night that they… until the night they came down out of the canyon…

TOM: Who came down, Charlie?

[Charlie stands up suddenly.]

CHARLIE: I gotta go!

TOM: Charlie…

[Charlie moves toward the door]

TOM: Take the wine Charlie.

CHARLIE: Thanks for your… kindly hospitality.


When I first watched ‘Messiah of Evil’ last year, having heard its praises sung by assorted writers and bloggers whose views I trust, I was pretty blown away. My first thought was that I should write about it for this site *straight away*, but… I just couldn’t. Like many of my favourite things, I found it very difficult to write about, even to think about what I would say. The strange appeal of the film, and the overwhelming effect in has on me, are impossible to put into words without resorting to cliché.

Like several films in this top ten, “Messiah of Evil” adopts a structure and atmosphere which I can only descibe as ‘Lovecraftian’, despite taking no direct inspiration from the works of Lovecraft. Or is there some conscious influence there I wonder? The idea of a stranger investigating family ties in an isolated seaport town whose populance have their own strange rituals and dark secrets is certainly reminiscent of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”, and the character of Charlie is a dead ringer for that story’s Zadok Allen.

Pure conjecture of course, but the film’s convoluted story-telling structure, in which multiple voice-overs (Arletti’s sanitorium ravings in the prologue and epilogue, her sane description of events during the film, her father’s increasingly disturbing letters, and Charlie’s fragmentary narrative as quoted above) weave in and out of each other, perhaps also owes something to HPL’s “The Whisperer in Darkness” and his other ‘pieced together’ narratives. I know some people have criticised this reliance on voice-overs in “Messiah of Evil”, but as a Lovecraft freak, I love it, and appreciate the way that rather than simply providing tedious exposition, these assorted monologues continually offer dark hints, fragments of unguessable truths and the like, in the classic weird tale tradition.

In fact, whilst trying to figure out how to write a review of this film last year, I found myself instead sampling vast quantities of the movie’s audio. Assembling an ‘album’ of sorts from the resulting recordings, I was amazed at how well they functioned without the accompanying visuals – kind of like a really disturbing avant garde radio play or something. I was going to share that ‘album’ here, but sadly I lost the whole thing in a hard drive crash and haven’t had a chance to go through the laborious process of putting it all together again.

In my write-up of The Fog last month, I dropped some hints about the uncanny similarities I find between it and “Messiah..” – the isolated, inward-looking harbour community, the cliffs, the beach houses, weird small businesses and the disused lighthouse. The relentless crashing of the waves. Watching either film, you can almost feel the ocean breeze rolling in off the sea at night. The difference is though, “The Fog” is a straight-up, logical horror movie of the ‘80s (which is awesome, don’t get me wrong), whereas “Messiah..” is something far deeper, darker, stranger – a potent and disorientating cocktail of low budget ’70s USA grindhouse churn and ‘60s-hangover European counter-culture/arthouse decadence, contrasting aesthetics oozing over each other, rich with film school stylistic zaniness and brooding poverty row brutality.

All this of course is one one or two of the hundreds of things you could say abut Huyck & Katz film. If you were so inclined, you could say it was pretentious, slow moving, confusing… well so are a lot of my favourite movies, get used to it.

Horror at it’s best should invoke mysticism. It should defy explanation. As soon as a supposedly far-out story is streamlined to extent that X can be seen to represent Y, and Z stands for X and so on, all in a neat package, well... that’s cool, that’s one kind of story. But the stories that really stick with me are ones like these.

Maybe one day I’ll be able to knuckle down and say all the things that need to be said about “Messiah of Evil”, but for the moment hopefully I may have at least succeeded in sufficiently intriguing a passing reader or two to the extent that they give it a go.

The way that this film has apparently been mistreated in the VHS/bootleg/public domain wilderness over the years could fill an article in itself, but let’s just conclude by saying that Code:Red’s current DVD edition finally does it justice. If you’re not familiar with the film and you’ve put up with my blather thus far, well – you know what to do.

Tuesday 4 January 2011

(Don Coscarelli, 1979)

I knew this would happen: as we get into the top ten, I’m increasingly confronted with films that I dearly love, but whose significance/appeal I’m loathe to try to put into words.

So I’ll go out on a limb here and assume that everyone who has seen Don Coscarelli’s “Phantasm” already knows what it is that makes it one of the best-loved independent American horror movies of all time. Here are merely a few of the things that I like about it.

I realise this is not exactly an original observation, but I love the way that, beyond its primary function as a wildly imaginative sci-fi/horror film, “Phantasm” is really a beautiful meditation on growing up, dealing with death and loss, and the emergence from childhood into life as an independent adult. Please don’t stop reading there though, there are psychotic alien dwarves and graveyard sex-murders too.

The first time I watched the film, I guess I didn’t quite pick up on this, being too taken aback by all the crazy ideas and images. But as I looked back on it, I began to realise that the moments that stuck in my head the most weren’t all the now-famous horror/weirdness set pieces, but, like, the bit where Jody and Reggie sit on their porch playing guitar, or the heart-breaking scene in which young Mike literally runs behind his big brother’s departing car, terrified that he won’t come back.

Coscarelli’s film portrays this strange, sad family of orphaned brothers with a matter-of-fact gentleness and believability that is rare in any kind of movie, and particularly in the kind of middle-brow indie/arthouse fare that strives to wear such virtues on its sleeve. We don’t need any heavy-handed back story or chest-beating ‘blood is thicker than water’ speeches to persuade us that these guys constitute a family who have been through some tough times together: they ARE a family. We see them care for each other, and we in turn care for them.

What is also great is the way that the film’s incredibly imaginative, bizarro-horror plotline actually plays directly into these aforementioned themes, without the film ever feeling the need to signpost the connections for us. In the name of full disclosure, I’ll admit that I owe parts of the following analysis to Stephen Thrower’s review of the film in his (essential, incredible, etc) book Nightmare USA - but once put into words, one realises how implicit a sub-conscious understanding of it is to any viewing of “Phantasm”.

So get this: it is Mike’s attachment to his dead loved ones, and the loss and loneliness he has experienced as a result of their passing (as represented by his obsessive investigation of the Tall Man’s funereal, death-fixated realm) that puts him in danger of being stuck in a perpetual childhood (literally crushed down to a miniature size slave and thrown through the inter-dimensional dwarf-portal). Only by escaping his morbid introspection (overcoming the Tall Man, rescuing his surviving brothers and destroying the mortuary) can he escape the shadow of death that hangs over his family, and emerge from the cocoon of protection that they are no longer able to give him, into adulthood.

From the ‘childish’ nature of Mike’s older brothers’ chosen professions (ice cream vender, rock musician) to the way that his sexual awakening, watching his brother make out with a mysterious girl in the graveyard, is interrupted by supernatural emissaries of death/evil, this struggle to escape the dream that is childhood (or death?) seems to permeate every aspect of the film, inevitably tugging the heart-strings of the overgrown adolescents who lurk not so deep within all us movie/music nerds.

As befits a film that so thoroughly mixes up ideas of fantasy and reality, “Phantasm” is also one of the absolute best examples of the kind of ‘weird world’ aesthetic that I’ve talked in previous reviews about loving so much in low budget horror films. With few concessions to real-life geography, “Phantasm” seems to take place entirely in some anonymous, dreamlike suburb, bordered on all sides by darkened woods and hills. Wherever Mike roams, on his bike, by car or on foot, he seems to return to the same few central locations again and again, with the Tall Man’s hyper-real Victorian mortuary looming large. Even the bar that Jody drives out to to hang out and pick up girls is sublimely weird – a kind of deserted, roadside theme bar based within a heavily decorated porta-cabin, scarcely much bigger that the muscle-car their only customer arrives in.

Everywhere, “Phantasm” is marked with the kind of wonderful, wilful eccentricity that only a regional, independently produced movie can provide. Would a studio-produced film, or the work of some industry guys trying to make a buck, have allowed us the pleasures of the scene where Mike visits the mute fortune-teller and her grand-daughter, and the unexpected tribute to Frank Herbert’s “Dune” that ensues? Or the aforementioned front-porch jam session? If not an out-and-out crazy movie, certainly not an amateurish or illogical one, “Phantasm” nonetheless draws you into the atmosphere of, well, a dream – a place just to the left of conventional filmic reality, where anything could happen next.

“Phantasm” is maybe the most successful example I can think of a filmmaker using the framework of the horror genre to explore – ugh, forgive me – difficult, real life issues, communicating a sense of understanding and compassion that knocks every tedious ‘issue’ movie out there into a cocked hat. I can only speak for myself here, but personally I find an emotional resonance within “Phantasm” that is comparable only to that of François Truffaut’s early films.

And unlike “Jules et Jim”, “Phantasm” has psychotic dwarfs and graveyard sex murders too.

Case closed. I love you, Don Coscarelli.