Thursday, 27 February 2014

The House On The Brink
by John Gordon

(Patrick Hardy Books, 1983 /
originally published 1970)

 (Jacket design by Bert Kitchen.)

Yet another choice item rescued from the skip at my place of work, this is one of those old hardbacks with the wrap-around illustrated covers and slightly peeling protective coating that libraries in the UK used to be full of, and that always bring back a lot of peculiar memories for me.

I'm not familiar with the work of John Gordon, but to state the obvious: it looks pretty great, doesn't it?

Quoth Wikipedia:

"Most of John Gordon's novels are in the supernatural fantasy and horror genres and feature teenagers in the central roles. The adventures are often set in The Fens, an environment John found mysterious and inspirational in his own adolescence, and contain elements of East Anglian folklore (such as the doom dog - Black Shuck). His work has been compared to that of the acclaimed ghost novelist M.R. James. Indeed The House on the Brink (1970) is regarded by admirers as one of the greatest novels in the Jamesian Tradition."

The opening chapter certainly does have a strong 'Ghost Stories For Christmas' feel to it:

"He stood up and began to walk. The mud was cold and hugged his feet, reluctant to let him move. It got deeper and he wanted to turn back, but pride made him go on.
The stump was almost black. It lay at an angle, only partly above the mud, and dark weed clung to it like sparse hair. Like hair. But it was still too small for a body.
The mud was up to his knees and he was moving unsteadily. The last few yards were going to be difficult.
'Don't touch it!' Her voice from behind him was as thin as the wind through grass.
Without turning round he waved to reassure her.
Suddenly his raised hand was clenched as if he was fighting to keep his balance. She could not see his face. The corners of his mouth were pulled back in a snarl, his eyes stared, white-rimmed. For the stump was moving, turning like a black finger to point at him. Slowly, slowly, and his feet were trapped.
'Aaaaaah!' The sound in his throat was too small to reach her but she could see the stump. The blunt end of it seemed for another second to seek him and then suddenly it went blind. A slight quiver and it had laid itself down. He looked at it, panting. A waterlogged stump. Since the last tide it had been on the point of overbalancing. He had disturbed the mud and laid it to rest.
'Come back!' She was pleading.
His skin had gone cold. Now he was sweating. He laughed at himself and hauled one of his feet clear to turn towards her.
'Only a bit of wood,' he called. 'Told you!'
As he climbed the bank he said, 'A piece of bog oak isn't a body.'"

If that's only page two, I look forward to digging into the rest. Might give it a miss on those dark and stormy nights, though…

Friday, 21 February 2014

The Songs of Herman Cohen:
Horrors of the Black Museum
(Arthur Crabtree, 1959)

An outsider in the British film industry of the ‘60s and ‘70s, American ex-pat producer Herman Cohen masterminded a series of low budget horror & exploitation films that were, well… terrible, by and large. Thankfully for our purposes in beginning this new review strand though, Cohen’s productions went about being terrible in such a distinctively bizarre fashion that you’d be hard-pressed to find a fan of British horror cinema who doesn’t love them on some level.

Back in the ‘States, Cohen had enjoyed success through the ‘50s working with American International Pictures on the likes of ‘I Was a Teenage Werewolf’ and ‘I Was a Teenage Frankenstein’ (both 1957), taking the then largely moribund American horror genre (which was hardly that sophisticated as it stood at the dawn of the ‘50s, let’s face it), and further boiling it down into a bland, teen-orientated mush. His reputation for selling tickets as a cinema publicity man was already well-established even before that however; legend has it that when James H. Nicolson initially set out to find a partner with whom to establish the company that became AIP, Cohen was first on his list before Sam Arkoff got the call.

For reasons best known to himself, Cohen declined Nicolson’s offer, and, after spending a few years producing pictures for the fledging company on a freelance basis, exercised similarly mysterious logic in deciding to relocate to London. Whether his motivation was personal, financial, or just a wild “what the hell” kind of hunch, I’ve no idea, but following his arrival on British shores, Cohen seems to have picked up exactly where he left off, carving out a new niche for his particular brand of cheap, juvenile horror films in the land whose most recent exports in the genre had so recently started to rejuvenate gothic horror film-making around the world.

Which brings us, finally, to the opening salvo of Cohen’s British campaign, ‘Horrors of the Black-Museum’. Shot in a few weeks at the notoriously cramped Merton Park studios (British cinema’s own ‘poverty row’, more or less), this garish and implausible shocker certainly caused a few raised eye-brows and uncomfortable throat-clearings when it first appeared in 1959 – inspired as much by its sheer ineptitude as its shamelessly prurient approach to screen violence, one suspects.

Until I started watching these Herman Cohen productions, it had never before occurred to me that even the very cheapest British films from the black & white era tend to present a base level of professionalism and quote-unquote ‘quality’ that functions as something of a national trademark. That’s not to say that the resulting films are always worth watching - in fact, it’s that very veneer of ‘respectability’ that renders many of them so staggeringly boring. With a canny, low brow-centric American at the helm however, what’s most immediately notable about ‘..Black Museum’ is the way it completely ignores these expectations, instead veering so far in the opposite direction that it must have felt like a slap in the face for viewers raised on Britain’s more genteel approach to cinema.

The ‘Black Museum’ of the film’s title refers of course to the infamous archive of murder weapons and sundry paraphernalia apparently maintained, closed to the public, by Scotland Yard. Say what you like, but it’s a great title, and I’m sure there are a few good horror yarns that could be pulled out of such subject matter, although sad to say, this isn’t really one of them. Indeed, beyond a few lines of establishing dialogue, the nature of the titular museum never really comes into play at all.(1)

Instead, the film primarily concerns itself with the nefarious activities of one Edmund Bancroft (Michael Gough), an arrogant celebrity crime expert who seems to divide his ample free time between gloating over the souvenirs in his own private “black museum”, and swaggering over to Scotland Yard to taunt the officers of the law as they manfully go about the business of investigating as-yet unsolved crimes. (Quite why they continue to let him in is anyone’s guess, as he doesn’t seem to do anything during his visits except insult people and generally get in the way.)

And as it turns out, there quite a few unsolved crimes to command the Yard’s attention during the course of this picture, as London is rocked by a series of apparently motiveless murders, all of them carried out using a range of bizarre and unlikely antique implements. As Michael Gough continues to pranny about wasting police time before heading back to his basement to cackle amid his ghoulish waxworks, it doesn’t exactly take a genius to figure out what’s going on here, and, so, yeah… that’s your plot, more or less.

We should probably also mention that Bancroft commits his crimes with the help of a teenage assistant (Graham Curnow), whom he keeps in a state of hypnosis and routinely injects with some sort of inexplicable turn-into-a-monster serum, and that said assistant’s burgeoning romance with a young Shirley Anne Field (!) leads to the fiend’s eventual downfall, but that just about wraps things up, story-wise.(2)

Basically what little plot there is here simply acts as a wrap-around for a series of spectacularly silly murder scenes, the first and most notorious of which sees a curvaceous young lady meeting a sticky end via a set of binoculars fitted with retractable steel spikes. Splat. As with all of the subsequent ‘set-piece’ sequences in the film, there is an unearthly absurdity to these events that render them kinda wonderful, but… we’ll return to that in a minute.

First, let’s get it out of the way and simply state that, above all else, ‘Horrors of the Black Museum’ is a very poorly made film indeed. One of the cornerstones of the movie’s publicity campaign was the claim that it was shot in “widescreen hypnovista” or somesuch , an innovation that apparently boiled down to the use of Eastman Color and 2.35:1 Cinemascope ratio - still an extremely unusual choice for low budget films at the time, and a striking selling point even without the attendant hyperbole, one imagines.

Unfortunately however, credited director Arthur Crabtree and his crew clearly had no idea of how to effectively use the cinemascope frame. An industry veteran with credits stretching back to the early ‘30s, Crabtree had just finished work on the fantastic US-UK co-production ‘Fiend Without a Face’ (1958), which certainly proved his b-movie chops beyond question, but it’s also worth noting that the director was pushing sixty at the time, and that ‘..Black Museum’ proved to be his final film. Not that I wish to unduly denigrate anyone’s work in these pages, but, with retirement looming, maybe Crabtree simply didn’t give a shit?

‘Horrors of the Black Museum’ certainly gives that impression, relying as it does on dull, fixed camera long-shots that serve to immediately distance the viewer from the on-screen action, taking what could have been an effective shocker in the punchier old 4:3 ratio, and rendering it an instant bore, with actors forced to roam endlessly across a vast wilderness of shabby, poorly dressed sets (a drawback that earlier directors of cheap horror movies had often used the tighter aspect ratio to avoid).

The use of colour proves problematic too, with many scenes blandly overlit in uniform TV sit-com fashion, lacking any of the shadow or atmosphere you’d expect from a ‘50s / ‘60s horror film and instead presenting a world of gaudy puce and magnolia painted walls and rented furniture that helps create one of the ugliest pre-‘70s horror films on record. Oh, for a cobweb or two, or a chance to turn those bloody lights off for a minute…

To the production team’s credit, the set for a cluttered Portobello Road antique shop is very nicely done, some of the night-time interiors are lit in appropriately moody fashion, whilst the framing and general ‘look’ of the film improves dramatically for some (not all) of the scenes set in Bancroft’s museum. But for the most part, you know you’re in trouble when you watch a widescreen film in the correct ratio, and find yourself wishing it was a cropped TV version just so you wouldn’t have to keep looking at all that bloody crap in the corners. And sadly, the film’s problems don’t end there.

Long-time readers will know that I’m not usually one to take issue with, uh, ‘variable’ performances in movies, but seriously, the standard of acting here is simply appalling. Curnow is as wooden as you’d expect in his thankless teenage sidekick role,(3) but it is incredible to think that Field became one of Britain’s most acclaimed young actresses only a year or two after her sub-school play level stumble through this one.(4) Most of the supporting cast are just as rubbish too, often practically staring at the camera in search of direction that clearly wasn’t forthcoming, before shrugging and just setting the controls to “audition for amateur production of ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’” mode.

Under such circumstances, it’s hardly surprising that Michael Gough steals the show, but that doesn’t  mean we should hand him a medal just by default. Gough was a fine actor of course, and very much his own man in many of the better horror films he appeared in over the years, but here, as in his subsequent collaborations with Cohen, he seems dead set on simply trying to establish himself as Britain’s answer to Vincent Price - a notion that’s not quite as entertaining as it sounds, unfortunately.

Shamelessly appropriating the exaggerated mannerisms and camp demeanour of Price in his more light-hearted, ‘theatrical villain’ roles (cf: ‘House of Wax’, ‘The House of Haunted Hill’), Gough doles out the requisite ham with fearsome gusto, but fails to hit the crucial note of restraint and sympathy that Price lent to even his silliest villains, thus rendering Bancroft a thoroughly dislikeable individual, not only for his fellow characters on screen, but for the audience too.

More than any other ‘horror star’ I can think of, Gough always liked to play his villains as pure, black-hearted bastards – which works just fine when he’s a shadowy presence, pitted against some equally compelling good guys, but here, on-screen almost all the time as a Price-esque anti-hero, his constant, cringing bastard-ness basically just makes him a pain in the ass.

As Jonathan Rigby pointed out in his book ‘English Gothic’(5), Bancroft actually has the potential to become a pretty interesting character: a limping egomaniac with a mile-wide sadistic streak, it is implied that he is impotent in his relations with women, yet he uses drugs to keep a teenage boy under his control, then freaks out when said boy breaks up their S&M-inclined ‘private world’ by inviting a girl to visit..? It certainly would have been interesting to see where a director like Pete Walker might have taken such material a few years later, but anyone looking for any deeper psychological insight here will leave disappointed. In keeping with Cohen’s earlier AIP productions, both cast and script seem determined to keep things safely within the realms of conventional pantomime villainy.

And, maybe that’s just as well to be honest. After all, the future of British horror wasn’t exactly lacking in tormented psychopaths (Michael Powell’s ‘Peeping Tom’, released the following year from ‘..Black Museum’s UK distributors Allied-Amalgamated, marked a complete 180 degree reversal of Cohen’s approach to the genre), but rarely did it produce anything as deliciously goofy as this.

Because yes, in spite of all I’ve said above, ‘Horrors in the Black Museum’ remains an absolute hoot, if you’re in the right frame of mind. And, whilst I want to avoid going the “so bad it’s good” route, the film’s very ineptitude plays a big part in its weird appeal.

You know that particular feeling you get from a lot of cheaper American exploitation films, where it seems like no one on either side of the camera really knew what they were doing, and the script seems to have been written in some kind of stoned fugue, resulting in scenes that seem to have fallen out of a parallel universe where everything’s a bit ‘off’..? Well ‘..Black Museum’ is one of the few British films that captures that feel in spades. True, the dialogue scenes and expositional bits are a crushing bore, but when we hit the central murder sequences, and the set-ups that surround them, all bets are off as we lurch full-on into realms of delightfully unintentional surrealism.

The aforementioned binoculars scene is wacky enough – with the victim and her flatmate busy tottering about in high heels and tight-fitting dresses as the morning post arrives – but it’s merely a warm-up for some of the berserk wrong-headedness that follows.

My favourite part of ‘..Black Museum’ is definitely the section of the film featuring pin-up model June Cunningham as Bancroft’s doomed mistress. Beginning with a hilariously camp, crockery-shattering shouting match between the pair (“Without your cane, you’re only half a man; and without your money, you’d be no man at all!”), the whole of the ten-minutes-or-so sequence that follows plays like a parody of a British film, as made by someone who’s never actually seen  one all the way through.

Determined to embark on a big night out in search of a new sugar-daddy, Cunningham (whose characterisation basically doesn’t extend much beyond a Diana Dors-esque caricature of a brainless-hussy-with-a-heart-of-gold) bravely sets sail for her local “pub” – an establishment whose location-shot exterior resembles a grand, Edwardian hotel, whilst the set-bound interior looks more like a windowless portacabin furnished with a bar-counter and a few tables. Here, she heads to the jukebox and puts on a swing record that sounds at least ten years older than this movie, then proceeds to perform a ludicrous, elephant-footed bump n’ grind dance routine in the middle of the floor, whilst the handful of down-at-heel extras lurking at the tables look on with what I can only read as either embarrassment or blank disinterest.

Somehow, the film fails to acknowledge the inherent comedy (and accompanying tragedy) of this Monroe-wannabe show-girl seeking romance and adventure in what appears to be the least glamorous drinking establishment on earth, and plays this scenario entirely straight, as if it were an everyday occurrence in the silent, bare-walled drinking halls of olde England.

After exchanging some toe-curling flirtatious ‘banter’ with the pub’s least mildewed looking inhabitant, and receiving a strangely touching tribute from the barman (“you really livened my place up tonight – you certainly made it a lot of fun”), June staggers off into the night after few too many flagons of Blue Nun (or whatever), and is escorted home by two courteous policemen who apparently have nothing better to do on a Saturday night than stroll around quiet residential streets, making idle conversation with passersby.

Fascinatingly off-key as all this is however, it’s basically just all padding leading up to what happens next, as Cunningham, safely back in her flat, strips down to her lacy underclothes (pretty saucy stuff for a 1959 British film), lies down drunk and happy on her bed, and….

- To be honest, I think we need a paragraph break / SPOILER WARNING to really prepare us for what happens next -

…screams, as she looks up and sees that a makeshift, portable guillotine has been attached to the top of her bed, apparently operated by a leering, oatmeal-faced zombie!

Before we can even begin to make sense of this insane turn of events, zombie-guy pulls the lever, off comes June’s noggin, and he picks up his guillotine and flees straight through the front door!

I mean… what can you possibly say to a film that suddenly throws something like that at you, in complete defiance of all notions of sanity, logic and physical possibility..? The whole guillotine bit probably doesn’t last much longer than twenty seconds, but the sheer, overwhelming joy of the “WHAT THE HELL?!” reaction it’s likely to inspire in every single conscious viewer makes sitting through the remaining hour or so of trudging, poorly shot rubbish that comprises the rest of ‘..Black Museum’ instantly worthwhile, at least according to my own strange system of values.

Those few seconds might represent my overall favourite moment of the film, but the remaining run-time has plenty of other lunatic fun to enjoy: from Bancroft’s unveiling of a room-sized 1950s computer system that seems to exist for the sole purpose of electrifying people, to his cackling removal of a fresh laboratory skeleton from a vat of acid, to the threadbare monster transformation / chase / shoot-out finale filmed on the cheap at Battersea funfair – it’s all the kind of wondrous, brain-damaged b-movie nonsense that later, more self-conscious practitioners of the form could never hope to rival, and, having rambled on here for long enough all ready, I’ll leave adventurous viewers to discover the rest of the film’s exquisite pleasures for themselves.

Whilst I certainly wouldn’t recommend Herman Cohen’s British films to casual viewers or well-adjusted human beings in general, what makes them so fascinating for weirdos like me is the shotgun wedding they represent between two otherwise incompatible modes of filmmaking.

If Cohen had continued to produce movies in the ‘States rather than moving to the UK, I think it’s likely that they would have been pretty unremarkable: more of the same sub-William Castle shenanigans and teens n’ hotrods double-bill fillers (not that there’s anything wrong with that, but y’know..). And conversely, if the mainstays of low budget British filmmaking in the late ‘50s had gone to work on the kind of material Cohen brought to the table, there’s a fair chance the results would have been equally forgettable: more dour and low-key quota-fillers, better written and performed perhaps, but too cowed by fear of negative press attention and the ever-present shadow of the censor to really go all-out with their grotesque or fantastical elements, and probably quite yawn-some as a result.

But somehow, when the oil of “make ‘em cheap, sell ‘em big” American drive-in hucksterism met the murky water of lower tier British exploitation, something extraordinary emerged. Certainly not something *good* by any stretch of the imagination, but then or now, the results remain a bit of an eye-opener.

And, believe it or not, ‘...Black Museum’ was just the beginning. Fuelled by the film’s modest success, Cohen and Gough were soon back at work, cooking a project that was in all senses bigger, stupider and even more astoundingly ridiculous than its predecessor. What are those booming footsteps we hear approaching..? Yes friends, KONGA was just around the corner. You have been warned.

(1)For anyone who’s interested, the Black Museum does indeed exist, and, whilst it is still not open to public, occasional one-off tours and open-days have taken place in recent years; further details to be found here.

(2)“I always try to put in the young teen, so the teenagers can identify with someone in the film”, Cohen helpfully explained to ‘Scarlet Street’ fanzine [#17-18, Winder/Spring 1995, as quoted in ‘English Gothic’ (see reference below)].

(3)According to a trivia entry on IMDB, Curnow was in a relationship with popular Welsh/Italian screen comic Victor Spinetti at the time, and used his fee from this film to buy a flat for the couple in Marylebone. So that’s nice, although to be honest I’m kind of astonished that the fee for appearing as the juvenile lead in ‘Horrors of the Black Museum’ was enough to put anyone on the property ladder, even in 1959.

(4)I can only assume that, like Crabtree perhaps, Field’s disdain for the project had her roboting through the role in pure “I don’t want to be here, and I hope everyone realises that” fashion. ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ put her on the map a year later of course, but we’ll always love her around her for appearing in ‘The Damned’.

(5)Jonhathan Rigby, ‘English Gothic: A Century of Horror Cinema’ (Reynolds & Hearn, 2000), pp. 58-59

Monday, 17 February 2014

Five Years.
(My Brain Hurts a Lot.)

So you know what the date was, when I hit that “create new weblog” button and made my first post here?

February 9th 2009.

Yes, to save you counting on your fingers, that's FIVE YEARS, as of last week.

I'll try to keep the self-indulgent self-reflection to a minimum, but basically I think things have developed pretty well since then. Certainly my knowledge and appreciation of cinema and pulp culture has increased massively since I first started trying to write about it, if nothing else. (I'm none too proud of some of the earlier posts on this blog, and there are some more recent ones that are full of inaccuracies and mistaken assumptions that are slightly embarrassing too, but hey, it’s all a learning process, right?)

Early in this site’s life, we were lucky enough to be picked out for a mention on Blogger's daily 'blogs of note' index, which caused a pretty huge spike in interest and seemed to put us on the map, readership-wise. Since then, ‘Breakfast in the Ruins’ has accumulated over 500 blogger 'followers', at least some of whom hopefully aren’t dead accounts or robots of some kind, and nearly half a million individual page-views, only about two thirds of which have been people searching for "nude vampires" or "[name of actress] + naked".

So, basically: I’m incredibly happy that at least some people seem to read this thing and appreciate what I’m doing with it. Thank you readers.

Anyway, by way of celebrating this chronological landmark, here’s something everyone’s sure to enjoy: a COMPETITION!

Yes, that’s right, a competition! Here’s how things are going to work:

Below are eight mysterious screengrabs, all culled from the vast collection of images I’ve amassed whilst working on this blog over the years, each of them taken from a film listed in the side-bar to your right.

If you think you can figure out where at least some of these images originated, you can email your entry to me at breakfastintheruins ( at ), and if you do good, I will put some slightly shabby prizes in the post to you.

Yes, that’s right, I will actually put some things in an envelope, take it down to the post office and pay for the stamps, even if you live far away in a foreign country! That’s how much I love you all.

Details of prizes, deadline etc. are to be found below, but first let’s get on with the guessing. Here are images 1 to 8:









So there ya go. Best guesses please!

Not-so-glittering prizes potentially up for grabs are as follows:

1. A copy of Anchor Bay’s 2004 Jess Franco Collection box set (8 Discs, PAL Region 2, details here.)

2. A copy of the UK version of Anchor Bay’s 2007 Mario Bava Collection Volume # 1 box set (5 discs, PAL Region 2, details here.)

3. A random grab-bag of ‘70s pulp sci-fi paperbacks (exact contents yet to be confirmed, but there’ll definitely be some Moorcock, E.R. Burroughs and Robert E. Howard in there!)

4. A random grab-bag of DVDs (again, contents yet to be confirmed, but I can guarantee some plenty weird stuff that sticks within the kinda remit covered here, with quality ranging from recently released Blu-ray/DVD combos through to ancient, grungy bootlegs… can also throw in some VHS too if you want some.)

To be honest, I’m not sure whether the task I have set above will prove to be infernally difficult or foolishly simple, or whether anyone will even care enough to enter, so how’s this for a prize distribution scheme:

If I only receive one decent entry, the winner can take their pick or have the lot. If I get two decent entries, winners can choose two each with the highest scorer picking first. If I get three or four good entries, you get one each, with winners picking in order of highest score, and so on. I hope that sounds fair.

Judge’s discretion applies with regards to what constitutes a “decent entry”, but definitely don’t be discouraged from entering if you don’t have an answer for all eight images, because I’m guessing very few people will get them all right.

Deadline for entries will be… oh, I dunno – how does Monday 17th March strike you? Alright with everyone? Good.

(Oh, and one final note: please be a sport and DON’T enter if you happen to be under 18 years of age. No offense intended you understand, and I'm sure you possess perfectly grown up sensibilities, but some of the DVDs offered as prizes contain strong adult content, and getting busted for posting dirty movies to minors is something I can probably live without, y’know what I mean?)

Right! So good luck, and let the best man win. Or best woman, or whatever. Um… I’ve never done one of these before, can you tell?

Anyway, even if you don’t give a damn, thanks again for sticking with me readers, and I hope I will continue to meet whatever twisted expectations bring you to this weblog long into the future.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Old New Worlds:
April 1965.

The next instalment in our chronological journey through a pile of ‘New Worlds’ back issue I found in Oxfam last year sees us jumping to April 1965, and issue # 149.

Though no doubt packed with as much top-flight speculative fiction as ever, the sad truth is that this particular issue doesn’t offer us a great deal to work with in terms of scanning and commentary, with far less space than usual devoted to either illustrations or ‘editorial’ content.

Under the heading ‘BROADENING THE SCOPE’, Moorcock offers a ‘briefing from the Brigadier’ style editorial, noting that “the times they are a-changing” (perhaps the first time Bob Dylan ever got a nod in a science fiction magazine editorial?), and reasserting his belief that “..SF is changing to speak with the times”, becoming “..a vehicle for serious and entertaining literary expression”. Calling upon NW’s readership to join him in this bold journey and re-examine their definitions of what constitutes SF, he concludes that “..while our motto won’t exactly be ‘Anything Goes!’, we should very much like it to be ‘Almost Anything Goes!’”

A rather ripe comical tale that appears fifth in this issue’s story line-up, Edward Mackin’s ‘What Next?’ doesn’t appear to have made much of a mark on history, but flicking through it, I couldn’t help but notice one of the more directly prophetic moments I’ve encountered in New Worlds thus far:

“He was holding a bright blue, pea-sized object in his extended fingers. It appeared to be made of plastic.
‘Marvellous,’ I said, snapping my teeth at him. ‘You’ve invented the bead.’
‘Not just a bead,’ he said gently. It’s really the answer to the pophead’s prayers. It provides continuous jazzola around the clock. You could, of course, put one in each ear and enjoy two programmes at once.’
I looked at him in astonishment. This, surely, was the ultimate in horror. ‘You devil!’ I said, simply; but with great feeling.”

Elsewhere, a brief review column from Langdon Jones offers faint praise and constructive criticism in response Arthur Sellings’ ‘The Silent Speakers’ and his editor’s new one ‘The Sundered Worlds’, and a somewhat compromised letters page carries a single lengthy missive from Dr. Malcolm Burgess of Queens Parade, Bristol, praising New Worlds’ move toward a ‘magazine function’ – a bit of an irony given the almost total lack of magazine-style content on show this month.(1)

We’re reminded several times to watch out for the big blow-out coming in next month’s jam-packed, all-star 150th edition (Aldiss! Ballard! Brunner!), and the remaining points of minor interest are provided by miscellaneous ads, announcements etc:

And now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to pop my beads in and relax with a bit of jazzola…


(1) Presumably this Malcolm Burgess is not the editor & comic writer currently working under that name - or at least, Google leads me to believe that that Malcolm Burgess was born in 1952, making it somewhat unlikely that he was a doctor and refined man of letters circa 1965.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

This Month’s Zatoichi:
Tale of Zatoichi
(Kenji Misumi, 1962)

Like many other lucky boys of a movie nerd type persuasion I assume, I was overjoyed to find Criterion’s massive Zatoichi Box Set waiting under the Christmas tree back in December. And so, with something like 40 combined hours of blind swordman type action awaiting my attention, the least I can do to make such a grand investment worthwhile is to flex my (metaphorical) muscles and give the world a film-by-film run-down of this epic pop-cinema saga.

I first considered doing an update weekly, but, given the obvious limitations of my usual viewing / writing timeline, I thought that seemed a bit too ambitious, so a monthly post it is. If I stick to schedule, we should finish up some time around March 2016. Here goes…

The character of Zatoichi – a blind masseur of low social standing who achieved legendary status in the yakuza underworld of late Edo period Japan through his super-human skill as a swordsman – was initially sketched out by author Kan Shimozawa in a short story, dryly narrated in the manner of a historical chronicle, and first published in 1949.

When Daiei studios optioned the story for a film, assigning screenwriter Minoru Inuzuka and veteran director Kenji Misumi(1) to develop the property and casting regular contract player Shintaro Katsu in the title role, it is safe to say they had no inkling of the extent to which this character (and more specifically, Katsu’s personification of him) would strike a chord with viewers, turning Zatoichi into a bone fide pop culture folk hero who proceeded to bestride the big screen for a further fourteen years and twenty five films, before extending his adventures even further following a move to TV in the mid ‘70s. (Inevitably, the character has enjoyed intermittent spin-offs and revivals ever since, including Takeshi Kitano’s divisive reinvention of the franchise in 2003. He was last seen on-screen in 2010, in the reportedly disappointing ‘Zatoichi: The Last’, directed by Junji Sakamoto.)

Here is where it all began though, in a medium-budgeted period action programmer that initially seems very much influenced by Akira Kurosawa’s game-changing ‘Yojimbo’ (released the previous year), boasting a very similar plot set-up, in which an itinerant outsider of uncanny martial skill wanders into a rural area blighted by the conflict between two rival yakuza clans. Although Katsu’s Ichi quickly establishes himself as a more even-tempered and generally likeable protagonist than Toshirô Mifune’s gruff Sanjuro, the motivations of both films’ protagonists remain similarly opaque, with their acquisitive pursuit of money in both cases appearing to be a mere front for some unspoken moral imperative.

Unlike ‘Yojimbo’ though, ‘Tale of Zatoichi’ is content to function merely as a reassuring popular entertainment, rather than as a self-aware, apple-cart upsetting critique of the form. The film’s opening scenes – full of blossoming trees, bountiful harvests and honest rural craftsmanship - create an intoxicatingly bucolic picture of feudal Japan that could scarcely be more different from the mud-choked hellhole of Kurosawa’s vision, and ‘Yojimbo’s bitter cynicism is in turn replaced here with the framework of a well-crafted genre potboiler – low on dirt and realism, even as its unconventional hero, whose very existence seems to stand in opposition to the authority invested in the Japanese caste system, seems to come straight from the more critical era that Kurosawa’s work helped usher in.

In many ways in fact, ‘Tale of Zatoichi’ could almost be mistaken for one of the overly romantic, conformist period movies that Kurosawa conceived ‘Yojimbo’ as an enraged response to. But, crucially, it can’t quite be dismissed so easily. Kurosawa, as I understand it, was angered by the tendency of such films to irresponsibly glamourise the lifestyle of the 19th century yakuza, even as their modern day equivalents were busy wreaking havoc on the moral & social underpinnings of post-war Japanese society.(2) Whatever else you may say about it, that is certainly not a charge that could be levelled at ‘Tale of Zatoichi’.

In fact, the portrayal of the yakuza here is entirely in accord with that seen in ‘Yojimbo’, as both films present the prototype gangsters as deceitful, ugly, near sub-human figures, worthy of nothing but contempt as they exhibit constant stupidity and cruelty, basically carrying on like Orcs in a fantasy movie.

The difference though is that, whilst ‘Yojimbo’ often seems like a work of pure misanthropy, the strict good / evil dynamics of the formula world in which ‘Zatoichi’ takes place calls for a more balanced approach - a requirement the film deals with by establishing a clear ‘two tier’ system within the film’s cast, as characters are strictly divided between cowardly, self-serving blaggards (all of the yakuza), and decent, principled individuals whom Ichi can talk to and feel comfortable around – here represented by the consumptive Edo samurai Hirate (Shigeru Amachi), and Otane (Masayo Banri), the estranged wife & sister of a pair of particularly reprehensible yakuza rotters.(3)

The sharp division between these two ‘levels’ of characters, and the different ways in which Ichi deals with them (threatening and deceiving the yakuza, whilst approaching the ‘decent folk’ with an openness that encourages immediate friendship) actually becomes pretty amusing after a while, and soon causes us to realise that the to-ing and fro-ing between the rival clans (in theory the main dramatic arc of the story) is basically completely irrelevant – an ugly distraction from the more meaningful interactions between Ichi, Hirate and Otane, all of whom conduct themselves with great, tragic elegance, whilst the yakuza fall into the background behind them like squawking, squabbling children.(4)

The inclusion of these more admirable characters – each of them bearing a tale of woe worthy of an enka ballad – may be a clear melodramatic contrivance, but it nonetheless lends ‘Tale of Zatoichi’ a strong humanistic aspect that is decidedly lacking in ‘Yojimbo’s bleak milieu, making Misumi’s film, for my money, a more engaging and sympathetic viewing experience than Kurosawa’s, irrespective of its populist form.

Shintaro Katsu, for his part, adds greatly to the film’s up-with-people atmosphere, appearing to have stepped fully formed into his most famous role, immediately establishing Ichi (the ‘Zato’ part of his name is a prefix establishing the character’s blindness by the way - his name as used in the film is merely Ichi) as an extremely likable and implicitly trustworthy protagonist – the kind of guy you feel could happily steer an audience through twenty five subsequent movies, even if that wasn’t the plan at this early stage.

Katsu’s trump card is a kind of quiet charisma that establishes his authority by means of almost zen-like inaction. Though Ichi occasionally delivers heart-felt speeches outlining his outlook on life (the movie’s original title translates as “The Life and Opinions of Masseur Ichi”), such outbursts can’t help but strike me as slightly out of character, and it will interesting to chart the extent to which these ‘opinions’ continue to be an element of the series as it progresses.

The ‘blind man with preternatural senses’ shtick has of course been done to death, and chances are it was pretty stale even in 1962, but Katsu’s natural charisma helps render it both convincing and charming, as he not only sells us on his Daredevil-meets-Sherlock Holmes level of perceptive intuition, but also somehow succeeds in expressing all of the thoughts & opinions assigned to him by the script solely through his physical presence and body language. A pretty remarkable achievement for a performer who doesn’t even open his eyes until the movie’s last reel, and a quality that weirdly puts me in mind of John Wayne, even if the calming influence of Ichi is the polar opposite of the antagonism generally embodied by The Duke.

Basically, like so many other iconic cinema heroes, I think Ichi works best as a guy who only speaks when he needs to, and who ensures that we remain in awe of his deadly skills by demonstrating them only in the briefest and most concentrated bursts. (For instance, few of the characters here are inclined to mess with him after he demonstrates his ability to slice an air-borne candle in two with such accuracy that both sides continue burning – a good, non-lethal way for him to keep his life sedate for a fairly lengthy chunk of screen-time.)

Such an approach does render the first hour of ‘Tale of Zatoichi’ conspicuously low on action for what is ostensibly an action film, but when Ichi’s first sword battle does eventually occur, his confrontation with two assassins in a darkened forest is such a beautiful and brutal dramatic moment that it scarcely matters – a few seconds of choreographed slaughter that serve to put the preceding fifty minutes of build-up completely out of the mind of any over-anxious action fans in the audience.

In fact, the tone of the whole film seems informed by Ichi’s quiet humour and the contradictions that his way of life represents. Like it’s protagonist, ‘Tale..’ is fast-moving yet calm, funny without being whimsical, emotionally involving but rarely overwrought… and just a lot of fun to watch, basically.

Lent a further touch of class by Chishi Makiura’s often masterful black & white photography, ‘Tale of Zatoichi’ stands as a fine example of the romantic period yakuza film. Above all, it is a movie that is comfortable in its own skin, never seeking to challenge or upturn the conventions of its genre, but nonetheless doing all it can to create an impressive and memorable motion picture within those conventions. Even taken as a stand-alone item rather than as the genesis of long-running series, it is a great little movie, and it’s easy to see why it proved such a phenomenal success with audiences.


(1) Beginning his career as a director in 1956, some of Misumi’s more interesting credits include the kaidan item ‘Ghost Cat: Cursed Wall’ (1958) and four of the six entries in Toho’s famed ‘Lone Wolf & Cub’ series (1972-74). Inuzuka meanwhile has a set of directorial credits stretching back to the silent era, but seems to have largely retired by the time he went to work on Zatoichi. He contributed scripts to a number of subsequent entries in the series, but aside from that has no post-1960 credits on IMDB.

(2) Much can be said about the way that endemic corruption within Japanese institutions allowed the spheres of organised crime and legitimate business to cross over to an alarming and damaging extent in the post-war era. Speaking from a movie fan POV, many of Kinji Fukasaku’s ‘70s yakuza epics examine these issues in a way that Kurosawa might well have appreciated, if he hadn't become so sniffy about the violence & ‘negative influence’ of popular cinema by that point.

(3) Amachi is a familiar face to Japanese movie fans, having punched the clock for more awesome genre movies than we could possibly list here. Banri meanwhile went on to reprise her character in several subsequent ‘Zatoichi’ entries, so we can look forward to seeing more of her in future too.

(4) This demonstration of the futility of inter-gang conflict is of course an element that is carried across into any modern day yakuza movie worth watching (and indeed, any gangster-based crime story worth paying attention to anywhere in the world, more or less), but it is expressed with a particular directness and clarity here.