Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Old New Worlds:
Nov-Dec 1964.

 (Cover Design: Robert Tilley)

An unexpected treasure awaited me whilst mooching about in Blackheath’s charity shops last month: a stack of Moorcock-era New Worlds issues. Lacking either the money and storage capacity to pick up the lot, I merely grabbed a selection, which I now intend to present to you in chronological order in a monthly-ish series of posts, thus to give us an insight into the unique position the magazine occupied in the mid/late 1960s, and to help illustrate the process by which it eventually became a prime meeting point between old school SF fandom and the literary counter-culture… or something like that. It’ll pass the time, anyway.

(Illustration: J. Cawthorn)

In April 1964, a letter from 25-year-old Michael Moorcock appeared in issue 141 of New Worlds SF, lamenting both the planned cancellation of the magazine, and the recent departure of its editor, John Carnell. To say that penning this letter was a good career move on Moorcock's part is something of an understatement. Apparently Carnell was impressed with what he had to say, and behind the scenes, things obviously moved quickly. In May 1964, New Worlds # 142 appeared on schedule, now under the auspices of new publishers Roberts & Vinters, with Michael Moorcock installed as editor.

The first issue we’re looking at in this series finds Moorcock only six months into his editorship, and, whilst you wouldn’t know it from the defiantly trad illustrations and cover design accompanying his own ‘The Shores of Death’, the battle lines between the old schoolers and the new wave are already being drawn.

In a rather po-faced editorial, Moorcock laments the poor quality of SF on film, radio and television, directing particular ire in the direction of The First Men in the Moon, a now largely forgotten British adaptation of the HG Wells story of the same name (although he did think George Pal’s ‘The Time Machine' was quite good, “..save that it replaced Wells’ socialistic message with a fuzzy humanistic one”). Point made, he then moves on to recommend the first issue of the SF criticism zine ‘Epilogue’, which amongst other things apparently includes L. Sprague de Camp outlining his belief that too many contemporary writers are simply “re-hashing the work of the old masters” – a pretty ballsy claim if you take a minute or two to google Mr. de Camp’s own literary legacy. Finally, our editor reminds London SF readers that “..many writers and readers meet regularly on the first Thursday of every month at The Globe Tavern, Hatten Garden (near Gamages). The atmosphere is completely informal and all are welcome.” Thanks Mike.

One of the things that has most surprised me whilst perusing these old New Worlds is the sheer amount of venom included in the magazine’s critical writing. I’m not sure whether this was simply representative of the discourse in SF fandom at the time, or whether Moorcock and his pals (assistant editor Langdon Jones and staff writer James Colvin) are deliberately trying to take their elders down a peg or two, but either way, though it seems somewhat at odds with a culture built entirely on fan-boy enthusiasm, it certainly makes for more lively reading than a bunch of back-slapping.

In his book review column, Colvin bestows some reluctant praise upon Robert Heinlein’s ‘The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag’, before, predictably, tearing him a new one for the majority of his other recent output (“Here we get a good glimpse of Heinlein in his cosy reactionary mood (just as insidious as his more often noted violent reactionary mood.)”). Colvin’s writing style here is concise, acidic and often very funny, as is aptly demonstrated by the following page, which I thought I’d scan in its entirety for the purposes of Strong Truth:

On the letters page meanwhile, Mrs Ellen Channon of Nettleham, Lincoln declares New Worlds a “..jolly good magazine, once you get past the covers!”, and demands to see more Moorcock in its pages (I’m not even going to go there).

Elsewhere, Mr. Arthur Selling of Uckfield, Sussex expresses his reluctance to get behind new up-and-comer J.G. Ballard:

“I don't know who acclaimed Ballard the ‘finest modern SF writer’ but his ideas are too thin – like those other admirable lads Sturgeon and Aldiss. Give him the title of the best writer writing SF, which is a bit different. It’s probably the main problem today. Critics both in and out of SF plead for better writing and characterisation in SF, but they carp when, as it inevitably must, it crowds out the old SF elements.”

“On the other hand,” Selling concludes following his assessment of the magazine’s new approach, “it’ll have me developing some of the ideas that I’ve kept in a drawer this many years for the knowledge that none of the other editors would smile on them.”

"We look forward to seeing them!" the NW editors respond, and, in a turnaround that makes even Moorcock’s assumption of editorship seem slow, the following page announces that New Worlds # 146 will lead with “the first part of Arthur Selling’s new satirical novel ‘The Power of Y’”, with supporting stories from Ballard, Brunner and E.C. Tubb amongst others – and that indeed is the issue we’ll be looking at in the next thrilling instalment of this series. Bet you can’t wait.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Sub-Machine Gun Hall of Fame.

As some of you will hopefully be aware, the estimable Unmann-Wittering and myself have, for the past twelve months, been polluting the interweb with a daily dose of subtitle-related ribaldry on the Sub-Machine Gun blog.

To celebrate our dubious achievement in keeping the damn this going for a year, I thought I’d mark the occasion by posting a gallery of my personal favourite entries below, and also formally announce that, as of the start of this month, the decision was taken for us to undertake a bit of a hiatus whilst we rebuild our stockpiles of screen-grabs, perhaps reopening proceedings in the new year with a slightly more manageable posting schedule.

To aid us in this goal, and to generally widen the scope of our endeavour, I would also like to call upon you (yes, YOU, etc) to help out.

So basically, if you think you can come up with some sub-titled screenshots – whether funny, surreal, baffling or strangely moving – to compete with those displayed below, let us have ‘em. A .jpg, .png or whatever, sent straight to me at breakfastintheruins ( a ) googlemail.com, will do the trick.

If used, we’ll credit you under whatever name you please, and will provide a link to a site of your choice. Alternatively, recommendations for sub-title rich films we should check out, including time codes or individual scenes, are welcome, and on the off chance that you’d like to consider becoming a regular contributor to the site, well.. drop me a line and we’ll talk.

In the meantime, for no reason other than that I enjoy compiling pointless statistics, here are some quick stats for our first year of operation.


Norifumi Suzuki – 24 posts
Jess Franco – 20 posts
Jean Rollin – 14 posts
Jose Mojica Marins – 14 posts
Ishiro Honda – 10 posts


Japan – 121 posts
Italy – 48 posts
France – 47 posts
Spain – 19 posts
Hong Kong – 17 posts

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Nippon Horrors:
The Living Skeleton
(Hiroshi Matsuno, 1968)

All four of the films included in Criterion Eclipse’s recent When Horror Came To Shochiku collection are pretty interesting and enjoyable in their own right, but for me the pick of the litter was definitely Hiroshi Matsuno’s ‘The Living Skeleton’ – noteworthy not just as the sole black & white film in the set, but also as the only one that veers closer to a Western-style supernatural horror than to an Ishirô Honda-influenced sci-fi/monster flick.

Well… to a certain extent, anyway. A delirious mixture of ‘60s gothic, ghoulish mad science, psychic turbulence and macabre aquatic psychedelia, one of the things that helps make ‘The Living Skeleton’ so unique is its refusal to tie itself down to any easily definable set of genre conventions, or to really go where you’d expect it to; Weirdo Horror in excelsis, basically.

Case in point is the startlingly brutal opening sequence, which doesn’t exactly scream “gothic horror”, instead throwing us straight into a nightmare scenario of an entirely different order, as the occupants of a modern day passenger ferry – the ‘Dragon King’ - are imprisoned and coldly massacred by a gang of machine gun-wielding pirates.

The most memorable shot here (an optical FX job, presumably) features the screaming face of a doomed woman reflected in the lenses of the sun-glasses worn by the scarred, bald-headed leader of the attackers – an image whose central significance to the story that’s about to unfold will gradually become clear, but which for now merely serves to highlight the surprising level of stylistic ambition exhibited by Matsuno and his collaborators. Certainly, in comparison to the rather workmanlike fimmaking seen in Shochiku’s other horror/SF titles, the quality of the direction and cinematography here is excellent, and remains so throughout, with rich black & white photography and some beautiful, deep focus compositions really setting the film apart, leaving only some shaky nautical model shots and lovably dodgy special effects (bats on strings, rubber skeleton attacks, that sort of thing) to reveal it’s poverty row origins.

Once this out-of-leftfield prologue is taken care of, a dreamy, gothic atmosphere increasingly begins to take hold, as the story (such as it is) proceeds with a heavy, doom-laden feel that recalls nothing so much as Jess Franco’s ‘Nightmares Come At Night’ or ‘A Virgin Among The Living Dead’, presenting a vague and uncertain tale of interchangeable identical twins, ghostly manifestations and fantasy/reality disjuncture that proves is just as difficult to summarise in concrete terms as the aforementioned Franco films, however much sense it might make on an emotional level.

With her porcelain features, big, sad eyes and sombre, elegant movements, leading lady Kikko Matsuoka is certainly every bit the Japanese answer to Soledad Miranda or Diana Lorys, and makes a perfect casting choice for this rare example of a fully-fledged Nippon Gothic, here assuming the role of Saeko, identical twin sister of the girl we saw being killed on the ship, who now lives in a remote cliff top church, ward of a benevolent Christian priest.(1)

Out of sight of her benefactor, Saeko also enjoys a healthy romantic relationship with Mochizuki, a young fisherman, and generally seems to be enjoying a happy and relaxed existence. But when the wind blows in from the sea, she hears her sister’s voice calling her, and when she and Mochizuki go snorkelling, she experiences a vision of weird fake skeletons, looking look like something out of a Mexican day of the dead parade, dancing before her eyes. Soon, a thick fog rolls into the harbour, bringing with it the empty hulk of the ‘Dragon King’, and any hope we may have had of separating linear reality from Saeko’s subjective descent into vengeful, identity-shifting craziness goes entirely up the spout, in best Euro-horror tradition.

As things proceed, the bare bones of a good ol’ supernatural bride-wore-black vengeance narrative take shape, with Saeko and/or her ghostly sister tracking down and dispatching the venal pirates in short order. It’s all very much the kind of thing Franco might have come up with between courses at some local eatery, and is detourned in some equally interesting directions as well, taking in noir-ish segments, pulpy mad science and some shock reveals in the final half hour, building up to a hellzapoppin’ Laboratory-based climax that plays like something out of ‘40s Monogram b-picture amped up with ‘60s drive-in gore.

And in case you were worried things weren’t QUITE Jess Franco-like enough already, the 25 minute mark also brings forth a totally gratuitous nightclub striptease sequence, in which two stocking-clad dancers shake their stuff to languorous dinner club jazz! Heavens be praised.

(If anyone’s keeping track out there in Film Studies-land, it occurs to me that the opening shot of the dance routine, which features the two symmetrically posed dancers picked out by spot-lights, is a deliberate echo of the sunglasses reflection shot mentioned earlier, with both images serving to remind us of the film’s central tale of psychically conjoined twins. He was no slouch, this Matsuno-san.)

Even more so than Michio Yamamoto’s vampire films, ‘The Living Skeleton’ is full of explicit references to Western horror, many of them rendered inherently surreal by their placement in a Japanese setting. The dual role played by Matsuoka seems a direct nod to the traditions of ‘60s gothic horror, and, whilst steeples, crucifixes and Christian funeral services may go hand in hand with church setting, the endless swarms of bats, diaphanous night-gowns, stone dungeons and wrought-iron candelabras definitely seem a little too way out for any sense of realism to be maintained for long. (The priest’s study even boasts a medieval suit of armour amongst its accoutrements, ferchrissake!)

More specifically though, Matsuno seems to be most concerned here with plundering the same current of imagery that John Carpenter tapped into a decade or so later for The Fog. You know the score, I’m sure: isolated seaside locale, pirates, churches, priests, vengeful ghosts, staticy radio broadcasts, lighthouses, skeletons and fog – lots and lots of fog. The convenient discovery of a ship’s log divulging the dark secrets of the ghost-ship’s history is particularly synchronicitous in this regard, but I doubt there’s any direct influence going on here (the chances of Carpenter having seen this film back in the day are pretty slim, and even if he did, I’m sure he’s a solid enough guy to have acknowledged his debt). Instead, I feel this is once again just a parallel take on the same nexus of collective unconscious type imagery from filmmakers on opposite sides of the world, and another example of the same watery thread that runs through a whole swathe of my favourite horror films and stories, from Lovecraft’s ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’ to Messiah of Evil, Jean Rollin’s ‘The Demoniacs’, and beyond.

With no production back story or literary/cinematic forebears as such, and with a director and writers who seem to have come out of nowhere and swiftly returned there, (2)  ‘The Living Skeleton’ is a real one-off, difficult to place within any grand narrative of Japanese genre cinema, Asian horror tradition, or much else for that matter.(3) About the nearest I can get to linking it to any of its domestic peers is in vague, thematic terms – there’s the ubiquitous figure of the long-haired avenging female ghost of course, and the overwhelming concern with the ocean and ships as a source of fear – a motif that seems to occurs again and again in post-war Japanese horror (I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions) - plus the psychic vengeance angle, all of which remind me somewhat of Hideo Nakata’s ‘Ring’ (a film that increasingly seems like a sort of rosetta stone for the recurring thematic concerns of Japanese horror, in spite of its time-specific technological aspect).

Like the best under-the-radar Western horror films, there is a real “where the hell did THIS come from?” thrill to the discovery of a movie like ‘The Living Skeleton’; a feeling that any seasoned horror fan should relish. Though rather insubstantial and sluggish of pace here and there (there are a few of those ol’ run-time padding “journey between locations” bits that we could probably have done without), as a piece of film-making it displays a high level of style, visual imagination and atmosphere-building know-how; qualities which are only enhanced by its ‘grab-bag’ approach to genre conventions and plot ideas.

Further increasing our enjoyment, and cutting through the Euro-horror somnambulance somewhat, there are some great turns from a supporting cast packed with capable character actors - Asao Uchida as a crafty, drunken gambler, Nobuo Kaneko as a nefarious club owner and Ko Nishimura as the cadaverous ship’s doctor all provide great value for money. And even the soundtrack is excellent for that matter, with a main theme that mixes up spy movie strings with thin fuzz guitar buzzing like a wasp on the periphery (lest we forget which decade we’re in), with heavily-treated tremolo guitar and eerie, reverbed harmonica reveries elsewhere suggesting that the lessons of Morricone and Nicolai were not lost on composer Noboru Nishiyama.(4)

You’ve probably gathered as much already, but I’ll freely admit that I loved just about everything about ‘The Living Skeleton’, and would highly commend it to anyone who enjoys the kind of stuff I write about on this blog. Sharing some aesthetic choices with the very wooziest end of ‘60s/’70s Euro-horror, it is a thoroughly irrational, oneiric venture that sails closer than any other Japanese film I’ve seen to the kind of territory mapped out by filmmakers like Jean Rollin and Jess Franco at around the same time. Which perhaps isn’t everyone’s idea of a good time, but my own cry of delight at having discovered not just a Japanese Jess Franco film, but a Japanese Jess Franco film that is arguably more accomplished than any actual Jess Franco film, must have been audible from space.

(1) A prolific actress in the late ‘60s, Matsuoka’s more notable credits include roles in Kinji Fukasaku’s two Rampo/Mishima adaptations, ‘Black Lizard’ and ‘Black Rose Mansion’, and an uncredited appearance in ‘You Only Live Twice’.

(2) Well, co-writer Kyûzô Kobayashi also gets a script credit on the same year’s ‘Goke: The Bodysnatcher From Hell’, but aside from that I’m gettin’ nothing.

(3) As previously mentioned, Western-style Japanese gothic horrors are rare as hens teeth; investigations are ongoing, but the only one I’m aware of prior to ‘The Living Skeleton’ is Ghost of the Hunchback aka ‘House of Terrors’, a terminally obscure 1965 Toei film from ‘Goke’ director Hajime Sato. Unsubtitled DVD-R of an Italian TV broadcast anyone..?

(4) Another obscure figure, Nishiyama’s four credits on IMDB are rounded out by two little known Daiei films, and Koji Wakamatsu’s ‘Affairs Within Walls’ (1965).

Thursday, 5 September 2013

José Ramón Larraz

Sad to hear today that yet another pivotal figure pivotal figure in the world of ‘70s Euro-horror / artsploitation has passed away.

A Spanish comic book artist who relocated to the UK to begin his filmmaking career away from the eyes of his home country’s stultifying fascist regime, Larraz initially set to work on a pair of violent, horror-ish thrillers, ‘Whirlpool’ (1970) and ‘Deviation’ (1971) (both now very difficult to see, hence no comment from me), before really making a name for himself with his best known work, the ubiquitous lesbian vampire shocker ‘Vampyres’ (1974), whose mixture of bloodthirsty drive-in carnage, feverish eroticism and grim ‘70s kitsch renders it a perennial favourite with just about everyone who enjoys horror films from that era. Though not what you'd call a perfect film by any means, it’s hard to deny that ‘Vampyres’ is an absolute hoot – a ragged art/trash car crash that embodies everything that made low budget exploitation films from that time and place so unique.

Even when working on such flagrantly commercial material though, it seems Larraz saw himself as an artist first and foremost – the recollections of his British collaborators on ‘Vampyres’, talking about their surprise at encountering this fiery and poetic Spanish director overseeing such a sleazy & silly production, are pretty funny – and it was this aspect of his work that came to the fore in his next film, ‘Symptoms’, a surprise choice for the British entry in the 1974 Cannes Film Festival that is often described as the director’s masterpiece.

When I watched the film a while back, I fear much of its power was lost in the midst of the absolutely ravaged, cropped-for-TV tenth-gen bootleg disc I had to contend with, but it was still obviously an impressive work. A tense and oppressive psychological mystery in tradition of 'Repulsion' or Altman's 'Images', led by an astonishing performance from Angela (daughter of Donald) Pleasance, it is a film that manages to wring menace out of almost nothing whatsoever, evoking the same sense of threatening other-ness within British customs and environments that can be felt in the work of other foreign-born directors such as Joseph Losey and Jerzy Skolimowski. Sadly, I recall reading somewhere that ‘Symptoms’ currently resides on the BFI’s “lost list” of films whose original print elements are missing presumed dead – a tragic state of affairs, as a restored (or even watchable) version would surely turn some heads.

As the potential success of ‘Symptoms’ deteriorated in the usual shit-storm of bad feeling, bad marketing and bad distribution, Larraz continued to toil doggedly in the genre mines for the rest of his filmmaking career, returning to Spain in the mid ‘70s and proceeding to direct a substantial number of horror films, sex films and comedies over the next few years, of which ‘The Coming of Sin’ (1978) and ‘Black Candles’ (1982) can both currently be found lurking in my ever-growing “to watch” pile.

At the time of writing, I’ve not really seen enough of the director’s work to provide much in the way of useful comment on his oeuvre as a whole, but my general impression is that of self-professed film artist driven by a singular, if often compromised, vision; a man who recognised no distinction between 'high' and 'low' culture, and whose apparent fixation with lesbianism, bloody murder and psychological turmoil was determined as much by personal obsession as commercial necessity. Following the deaths of Rollin, Franco, Romay, Naschy, Bénazéraf and Lemoine in the past few years, Larraz’ passing sees the ranks of the vital personalities who defined the world of vintage European weirdo-horror filmmaking thinned even further, and is yet another blow for fans of this strange demi-monde.

Hopefully we’ll get the opportunity to return to Larraz’ work on this blog at some point in the future, but in the meantime, let me point you instead toward this excellent tribute, posted today by Pete Tombs.

And with that suitably read and digested, let us simply agree that, all else aside, his movies definitely had some great posters.

(Many of the images above were sourced from here.)