Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Franco Files:
She Killed in Ecstasy

VIEWING NOTE: As per my review of ‘Vampyros Lesbos’, the screenshots above originate not from the blu-ray edition mentioned in the text, but from the 2000 Second Sight DVD.

AKAs: Crimes dans l'extase [France & Belgium], Misdaad in Extase [‘Crime in Ecstasy’ / Belgium (Flemish title)], Lubriques dans l'extase [‘Lewd in Ecstasy’/ French poster title], Mrs. Hyde / Dr Jekyll & Miss Hyde [German working titles].

Like its companion piece Vampyros Lesbos, ‘She Killed in Ecstasy’ is a film that didn’t impress me much on first viewing. I chiefly recalled it as being sleazy, sloppy, ugly and implausible, but, revisiting it via Severin’s recent blu-ray edition, I found a lot more to enjoy here than I had anticipated.

Though still a poor sister in comparison to the simultaneously shot ‘Vampyros..’, with an under-cooked narrative and abrupt conclusion that betray the haste with which it was produced, SKIE (if you will) is nonetheless a fine slice of vintage Franco, incorporating a swathe of florid and unforgettable imagery, great performances from several of Franco’s best-loved cast members and – believe it or not – some quite good writing in its first half.

Basically a simplified rehash of The Diabolical Dr. Z (itself heavily indebted to Cornell Woolrich’s perennial ‘The Bride Wore Black’), ‘She Killed in Ecstasy’ begins with rugged young research scientist Dr Johnson (Fred Williams) receiving the academic equivalent of a right kicking, as the boorish and self-righteous members of the ‘medical council’ not only reject his requests for further funding, but proceed to lay into the methodology and morality of his work (which from what little we see of it comprises some Frankensteinian business involving pickled embryos and brightly-coloured test tubes) with a vengeance.

So virulent is the council’s hostility that Johnson (who seems just a *bit* thin-skinned, to be perfectly honest) is reduced to a state of catatonic depression. Seeing no way forward for his work – and apparently oblivious to the restorative charms of his beautiful island villa and devoted and no less beautiful wife (Soledad Miranda) – Johnson eventually takes his own life.

Devastated by her loss, Mrs Johnson (her character is never gifted with a first name at any point in the film, unbelievably) becomes a single-minded instrument of her dead husband’s vengeance. At you might well anticipate at this point, the life expectancy of the members of the aforementioned medical council (comprising a Franco dream-team of Howard Vernon, Paul Muller, the director himself and Ewa Stromberg from ‘Vampyros..’) just took a turn for the worse, and a synopsis of what happens during the remainder of the film is largely surplus to requirements.

From the perspective of a first world democracy, the manner in which Dr Johnson’s treatment by the medical council is played out in SKIE seems exaggerated to an almost comical extent, and indeed, that was certainly my impression when I first viewed the film. Rather than simply rejecting his request for funding on ethical grounds and calmly moving on to their next item of business, the learned gentlemen (and lady) of the council are apparently so outraged by Johnson that it is implied they break into his home, and, “raging like madmen” according to the English sub-titles, proceed to destroy his laboratory and rough up his wife, before calling a press conference specifically in order to denounce him as a monstrous charlatan.

And for Dr Johnson’s part meanwhile, rather than shrugging off this shabby treatment and making efforts to find support for his research elsewhere, he immediately seems to collapse into a state of complete despair, as if the possibility of his continuing his work through channels other than those overseen by this conclave of grumpy old naysayers is completely inconceivable.

Admittedly, a minor disagreement over professional ethics in medical research wouldn’t have provided much meat for a decent exploitation movie, but still, the hysterical over-reaction of both parties as we approach the tragedy that catapults Miranda’s character onto a path of obsessive vengeance initially seems absolutely ridiculous - until that is, we remember that Franco did *not* make this film in the context of a first world democracy.

Although it was financed internationally (as were just about all of his films from the mid ‘60s onwards), ‘She Killed in Ecstasy’ was still conceived and shot within a totalitarian state, in which the excessive treatment meted out to Dr Johnson by the medical council more than likely *did* reflect the attitude of the regime toward outbursts of progressive or controversial thought, whether in the fields of science, culture, or indeed cinema.

Viewed within this context, the portrayal of Johnson’s destruction by the establishment – though still painted with what might generously be termed ‘broad brushstrokes’ – actually becomes quite harrowing, and, if the circumstances that led to his suicide are still somewhat unconvincing (hey dude, it sucks that The Man’s put a nix on yr research, but you’re still living in a space-age bachelor pad with Soledad Miranda and some of grooviest shirts ever created – there’s a lot to live for), the anger that lies behind this tale of a man’s dreams being senselessly crushed by vindictive bureaucracy was no doubt still something that Franco and his fellow countrymen could feel very keenly whilst Spain was still under the thumb of his namesake’s corrupt and hateful regime.

Key to selling us on the more familiar revenge movie tropes of the movie’s second half meanwhile is a characteristically excellent performance from Miranda – surely the best of her tragically brief career, alongside ‘Vampyros Lesbos’. Whilst, as noted, the circumstances of her husband’s death still seem slightly contrived, her portrayal of the loss and desolation that consume his wife is entirely convincing, whilst her mental disintegration as she transforms herself into a single-minded instrument of vengeance is definitely one of the better realisations of this over-familiar motif in the annals of b-cinema.

Basically, the sheer force of Soledad’s presence in this role is quite a thing to behold. A brief scene in which she stands alone, staring out to sea after her husband’s death and reciting a strange litany of romantic desolation (“I am searching for you my love, even if it is only your dream caressing me..”), is extremely affecting, distantly recalling the breathtaking beachside excelsis of Francoise Pascal in Jean Rollin’s La Rose de Fer, whilst the sheer depths of burning contempt in her coal-black eyes as she subsequently contemplates her vengeance rivals that of the great Meiko Kaji in her numerous similar roles.

Also worthy of praise here is Howard Vernon, whose terrifically hateful characterisation renders him the most fleshed out and genuinely dislikeable of Soledad’s victims. Though still anchored firmly in comic book villain territory, it’s great to see Vernon taking the opportunity to essay a role with a little more nuance than the mad doctors and vampire overlords he more frequently provided for Franco.

A delightfully hypocritical and smarmy, yet still somehow charming, creation, your blood will fairly boil as Vernon’s Professor Walker sits at a hotel bar feeding a credulous young female journalist some fatuous rubbish about the morality of young people being warped by mind-bending drugs and sexual license, before he immediately sidles over to Soledad’s table following the journalist’s departure, his cocktail-boosted ego blinding him to both to the obvious hatred in her eyes, and to her identity as the widow of the man whose career he so recently ruined, as he sets in on what is obviously his favourite pre-scripted playboy seduction routine (“excuse me, but have we met somewhere before? Buenos Aires? Montevideo?”).

I bet the dusty old goat can’t believe his luck when his tired lines actually appear to work, and, presently, his self-deluding insistence upon saying his prayers before letting his casual pick-up get into bed with him adds the perfect crowning note to this most craven and despicable of characters. Played out by performers of the caliber of Miranda and Vernon, Walker’s subsequent bloody demise is both the most satisfying and most violent of Mrs Johnson’s assorted acts of vengeance. (1)

Though it doesn’t quite reach the same grisly heights, our heroine’s lesbian seduction of Ewa Stromberg’s Dr. Crawford is nonetheless a masterpiece of kitsch. Bonding over a copy of John LeCarre’s ‘A Small Town in Germany’, the pair’s feigned jetsetter ennui is almost comical, whilst their awkward slide into Sapphic groping within the stark, mod interior of the Bofill buildings reaches a climax of grotesque hilarity as Soledad (wearing an unflattering blonde wig for the occasion) suffocates Ewa with a transparent op-art plastic cushion. (2)

It’s difficult to imagine a more exquisite ‘euro-trash’ moment, and indeed Franco plays up the camp for all it’s worth. Nonetheless though, he still somehow manages to unexpectedly crow-bar in a curious exchange of dialogue between the two women that, whether consciously or otherwise, seems to function as a perfect vindication of the director’s particular approach to cinema; “What does it mean?” asks Stromberg, discussing one of the paintings that adorn the walls. “Whatever you see in it”, Miranda replies. “It’s just a composition, a play of colours, nothing more. But I love it.” (3)

Whilst I don’t want to go entirely against the spirit of the point being made here by over-thinking things, the placement of these statements is curious, thrown randomly into the middle of what is arguably one of Franco’s more thematically engaged works.(4) Likewise, it is interesting that, assuming Franco can actually claim responsibility for the dialogue that ended up in the most widely seen German language versions of the films, both ‘Vampyros Lesbos’ and ‘She Killed in Ecstasy’ contain brief passages of considerably more heart-felt and accomplished dialogue than is usually encountered in Jess Franco films (control of the precise words spoken by his characters being an element of filmmaking that was pretty much precluded by the sketchy and dilettante-ish working methods that the director began to embrace shortly after these films were completed).

In terms of additional attractions, Hübler and Schwab’s delirious psyche-rock lounge act is still in full effect on the soundtrack (the fact that its sunny disposition is entirely out of keeping with the maudlin storyline is outweighed for me personally by the fact that it’s just so damn fun to listen to), and I’m pretty sure there’s some distinctive Bruno Nicolai sitar twanging and choral melancholy creeping in here and there too.

Meanwhile, the astonishing La Manzanera buildings near Calpe in Southern Spain, designed by experimental architect Ricardo Bofill, are exploited to their full potential by Franco, beautifully framed in queasy, wide-angle compositions that lend much of the film a beautifully way-out, modernist vibe, similar to that provided by the La Grande-Motte complex in Lorna the Exorcist, whilst that big rock near Alicante (now finally identified thanks to Stephen Thrower’s Murderous Passions as the Penon de Ifach, also in Calpe) makes yet another prominent appearance too. (5)

With all this to play for, it is a shame that SKIE’s potential is to some extent squandered by the obvious haste with which it was produced. Even by Franco standards, the plotting here is wafer-thin, with all attempts to develop (or in some case even name) the characters left entirely to the cast, whilst the film’s ending – in which Mrs Johnson, her mission of revenge completed, apparently decides to immolate herself in a car crash – is so rushed that it gives the impression the movie simply ground to a halt when the final reel of film fell out of the camera; an unsatisfying conclusion to the personal journey that Miranda’s excellent performance has drawn us into over the preceding 70-something minutes, to say the least.

Additionally, viewers unaccustomed to Franco’s, shall we say, ‘emblematic’ approach to special effects may find themselves feeling cheated by the laughable shoddiness of the film’s ‘gore’ effects, in which a thin sliver of stage blood across Vernon’s neck is used to represent a sliced jugular, whilst other acts of violence conveniently take place off-screen. Filming mostly in hotel rooms and borrowed apartments, it’s easy to believe that Franco and his crew were simply worried about making too much of a mess if they started throwing blood around, but, regardless of how indulgent us fans may be of such shortcomings, it’s hard to deny that this approach does put a bit of a damper on the visceral pleasures of Soledad’s murderous rampage.

For all these reasons and more, ‘She Killed in Ecstasy’ is too slap-dash and under-developed to really make the grade as one of Franco’s best films, but I have to admit upon that upon re-visiting it for the first time in a while, nuggets of the director’s personality and unique vision nonetheless shine strongly through its ragged surface. Wedged in between the film’s more obvious failings are passages of meditative reflection, self-conscious pop art excelsis and primal catharsis that, like the more fully formed ‘Vampyros Lesbos’, make it absolutely essential viewing for Francophiles, and a curiously compelling item for anyone with an open-minded interest in marginal and, in its own way, challenging cinema.


Kink: 4/5
Creepitude: 2/5
Pulp Thrills: 3/5
Altered States: 2/5
Sight Seeing: 4/5


(1) Vernon gains even more respect for the extent to which he was obviously willing to commit to the warped vision of his good pal Jess. Not only does the venerable actor briefly go full frontal here, he also subsequently appears as a corpse, stretched out naked with an unconvincing gore effect covering his ‘castrated’ genitals – not an indignity many middle-aged veterans of films by Melville and Truffaut would have consented to, one supposes. [Vernon’s admirer’s should note that whilst it appears on the Severin blu-ray edition, this grisly shot appears to have been trimmed from the older UK DVD from which I took my screen-grabs.]

(2) The appearance of the LeCarre book (in English, no less) is a good example of what I take to be Franco’s occasional habit of throwing whatever paperback he happened to be reading at the time into a movie; also see Barbed Wire Dolls and Mil Sexos Tiene La Noche.

(3)If the extent to which Mrs Johnson seems to have prepared for her seduction of Dr Crawford – renting a spacious apartment and developing an elaborate back story as a jet-setting itinerant artist – seems unlikely, well… it is, I suppose. Don’t look at me, I didn’t write the bloody thing.

(4) It addition to SKIE’s possible political dimension, it’s also worth noting in passing that it is the only Franco film I can think of to include a significant amount religious imagery. In addition to the black humor of Professor Walker’s pre-adultery prayers, Franco’s camera lingers extensively over ornate Catholic iconography, both in the flashback to the Johnsons’ wedding, and also during the scene in which she hooks up with Muller’s character during a service at the same church. Barbed commentary on the Church’s collusion with the Generalissimo’s regime, or just a way to make some potentially boring scenes is bit more visually interesting? Your call.

(5) One of the most distinctive locations used in Franco’s ‘70s films, the unmistakable La Manzanera went on to provide the primary location for ‘Countess Perverse’ (1973), along with fleeting appearances elsewhere through the early ‘70s and beyond. Interestingly, both ‘Countess Perverse’ and ‘She Killed in Ecstasy’ go to great lengths to create the illusion that the buildings are located on an island, rather than on the coast of the mainland. For fans out there who enjoying pondering the theory of different Franco films taking place within the same fictional universe, it is fun to speculate that perhaps the villainous Count and Countess Zaroff in the later film moved into the house previously occupied by the Johnsons…?

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Japan Photo Spectacular:
Inside the Japanese Ghost House.

I wish I was able to tell you precisely when and how the tradition of the Obake Yashiki, or Ghost House, entered Japanese culture, but sadly such historical detail is not really forthcoming to us lazy English language googlers, and no one I’ve discussed the matter with is really familiar with the origins of the tradition. 19th century travelling carnivals would be my best guess, but I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of them being either a more recent, or indeed much older, form of public entertainment.

Initially seen as summer-time attractions, to be enjoyed during the Obon period in August during which Japanese Buddhism teaches that the spirits of the departed roam free on earth, purpose-built Ghost Houses are now operated all year round, and can be found throughout Japan – appended to funfairs, theme parks, local attractions, and even in shopping malls and some Tokyo department stores.

The concept of the Ghost House is pretty self-explanatory; basically, after buying their ticket, punters navigate a small labyrinth of cramped, darkened (or intermittently lit) corridors decked out in traditional ryokan style, wherein the House’s designers utilise everything in their power to scare them senseless.

More adult-oriented (well, teen-orientated, at least) than their Western counterparts, comfy nostalgia and campy cartoon monsterism are emphatically NOT on the menu for most Obake Yashiki, and indeed, the best Ghost Houses are genuinely unnerving and immersive experiences, whilst I think I’m probably safe in claiming that even the most mediocre examples of the form make yr average gaijin Ghost Train look pretty shabby in comparison.

As you might expect, some of the more modern, hi-tech Ghost Houses have gone all-out to establish themselves as record-breaking, stand-alone attractions with an accompanying modern horror aesthetic (think a cross between Laserquest and a ‘Silent Hill’ video game maybe?), but you’ll be unsurprised to learn that I have little interest in these, and instead find myself drawn to older, stranger, more low-key examples of the tradition.

The first Ghost House I experienced first hand – whilst visiting Japan in January 2014 – was located in the loveably decrepit Hanayashiki amusement park in Asakusa, Tokyo. Though probably not an outstanding Ghost House by any means, as a novice I thoroughly enjoyed it, as did Satori, who alarmed those queuing up by exiting mid-way through a blood-curdling scream, I seem to recall.

According to the evidence of my camera (randomly snapping, largely sans flash, as we stumbled through), it looked a bit like this;

Three months later, another visit, and the peculiar museum of vintage pop culture lurking quietly on the roadside near the coast on the Izu peninsula in Kanto is well worth a post in its own right. (Since I’m already going through the photos, hopefully said post will be forthcoming soon.)

I was already pretty bowled over that we’d somehow managed to book accommodation within walking distance of such an extraordinary establishment, which catered to my interests so well that I was already overwhelmed by the time we reached the building’s back door, only to discover that, lurking out back by the bins and cleaning cupboard, they also had their very own Ghost House.

Shall we take a look? OF COURSE WE SHALL.

Well, that will take some beating. Needless to say, these photos can’t get anywhere near to capturing the full effect of the staccato flashing gel lighting, motion triggered sound effects, home-made blasts of hot and cold air (several strategically placed hairdryers were involved) or any of the other myriad effects that make up the Ghost House experience, so you’ll just have to take my word for it that this one was extraordinary.

We’ll be back in Japan again next month, visiting places new and old, so let’s hope some contenders to the strange Izu museum emerge; sooner or later, I’ll let you know.

Update: If you've enjoyed this post, why not try Ceiling Gallery's visit to the 'Witche's Cave' in the abandoned 'Nara Dreamland' theme-park?

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Two-Fisted Tales:
The Time of the Hawklords
by Michael Butterworth
& Michael Moorcock
(Star Books, 1976)

In view of my nationality, cultural interests and taste in music, it should come as no surprise that I greatly enjoy the work of Hawkwind. Perhaps only marginally less predictable is the fact that a special corner has formed within my ever-growing hoard of paperback fiction specifically devoted to literature inspired by, or to some degree relevant to, the ‘70s UK free festival rock milieu from which Hawkwind emerged. Within that corner, my recently acquired copy of ‘The Time of the Hawklords’ naturally now takes pride of place.

Given that Michael Moorcock knocked about with Hawkwind quite a bit on the Ladbroke Grove freak-scene of the early ‘70s (contributing spoken word recitations and slightly more nebulous ‘concepts’ to their ‘Space Ritual’ and ‘Warrior At The Edge of Time’ albums, amongst other things), it must have seemed splendidly inevitable that the prolific scribe should choose to immortalise his rock n’ roll mates in fiction at some point. However, the co-billing here of Michael Butterworth (a latter-day New Worlds contributor who went on to co-found the controversial Manchester imprint Savoy Books), together with the book’s absence from most Moorcock bibliographies, tells a slightly different story.

Indeed, a meager quantity of googling turns up the following quote from Moorcock, writing on the messageboards of his Multiverse website in 2004:

“I think I wrote the opening paragraph of the first book.
The publisher insisted on putting my name on it bigger than Mike's and that annoyed me, since one of the objects was to promote Mike's own work. That's since been rectified.
But I never had any intention of writing the books and essentially see the entire project as being between Mike Butterworth and Hawkwind.”

So, there we go. Given that ‘Time of the Hawklords’ was Butterworth’s first novel, it may seem cruel to characterise it as a rather blunt and hastily bashed out pastiche of various aspects of Moorcock’s style, executed with little of the wit and lightness of touch that the more experienced of the two Michaels might have brought to proceedings, but, under the circumstances, I’m just going to have to live with being cruel I suppose.

Which is not to say that ‘Time of the Hawklords’ is really *bad* as such. Taken on a pure comic book level, it’s thoroughly readable – think a feature length version of a text story from a 2000AD annual or something - and, if we take it that it’s primary purpose was to provide a good laugh for Hawkwind fans and maybe introduce a few curious outsiders to the band’s legend, I’d say it succeeds admirably, presenting a motherlode of chest-beating myth-making and galactic-scale in-jokery purpose-built to flesh out the evocative liner notes and album artwork of its subject into a cohesive, if somewhat ham-fisted, pulp fiction narrative.

Basically, open to any random page, and the chances are you’ll find something a bit like this;

“Simultaneously there stepped from behind the vast mixer unit the powerful figure of that brave and sagacious champion who, with Thunder Rider, had first conceived, with noble ideals, the Company of the Hawk, Baron Brock, Lord of the Westland. He held a jackplug in one hand, trailing yards of coiled black flex behind it. He walked, keeping his own counsel, towards his stacks, the sleek and tawny guitar Godblaster held at his side. As he reached his stacks, he swung Godblaster lazily over his powerful shoulders and the light flashed on his muscular, tattooed arms, his pale gold hair. He plugged in his jack and began, instinctively to play a short A minor progression.

Then came Lemmy, Count Motorhead, almost slipping down the front of the high stage, but regaining his jack-booted footing at the last moment and hauling himself up. He arose and looked around him, apparently dazed by the spectacle of the yelling, sheering biomass plastered against the skyline. With a grin of self-mockery he drew his heels together soundlessly and raised his arm in a salute, turning the shrieks to the friendly jeers he seemed to find more tolerable. But the enthusiastic roar returned as he bent down to retrieve his trusty Rickenbacker bass, Gutsplitter, from the blood-red paneling.

In the electric silence that followed, Thunder Rider’s free-form sax burst out once more, almost inaudibly at first, but gradually rising in volume, climbing up and down in the air. When the squealing noise reached an unbearable pitch, he allowed it to fade away. Before it could vanish altogether, the rest of the group let out a sudden, frightening crash of blurred notes and drum rolls from which snaked low, vibrant synth sounds prolonging the roll and the ethereal high pitch of the melatron. Just as suddenly, these sounds too faded away – this time into the echoing, clipped voice of Lemmy, who started to chant the old Calvert number ‘Welcome to the Future’.

‘Welcome to the dehydrated land,
Welcome to the south police parade,
Welcome to the neo-golden age,
Welcome to the days you’ve made you

You are welcome
You are welcome
You are Welcome
Welcome to the future’

The introductory poem ended in a mighty, rising din of drum, gongs and synth that strained the stacks and almost rent the five thousand shuddering rib cages. Then, after a full, torturous minute the sound gradually subsided and the group began playing their first, mind-blasting number, ‘Psychedelic Warlords’.”

Great stuff, needless to say.

Despite the pomp and circumstance of the novel’s presentation of Hawkwind as mighty cosmic music lords and planetary saviours though, it’s hard to overlook the fact that the band were actually heading into a pretty shaky transitional period by the time ‘Time of the Hawklords’ saw publication in 1976.

For one thing, the primitive ‘sonic generators’ of resident mad scientists Del Dettmar and Dik Mik – a key component of the band’s ‘classic’ sound - were already long out of the picture by this point, with the rather more refined sound of ‘Sonic Prince’ Simon House’s mellotron instead predominating on the divisive ‘Warrior on the Edge of Time’ album. For another, despite having assumed the somewhat grander title of ‘Count Motorhead’ since his listing as “Lemmy the Lurch” on the sleevenotes to 1972’s ‘Doremi Fasol Latido’ album, bassist Lemmy was also ancient history by the time ‘Time of the Hawklords’ hit shelves, having been unceremoniously sacked in ’75.

Apparently no one mentioned this to Butterworth though, as, in one of ‘Time of the Hawklords’ more curious anomalies, Lemmy here stands shoulder to shoulder with his replacement, Paul Rudolph of The Pink Fairies (described by Butterworth as wielding “..his great bass, Boneshaker, which all men feared and all women loved”), in a line-up of Hawkwind that never actually existed, insofar as I can tell.

In view of this, indomitable drummer Simon King – rechristened ‘Hound Master’ for reasons that continue to elude to me – might well have felt pretty wary pounding the skins alongside recently appointed second drummer ‘Astral’ Alan Powell (his “white cotton suit, dark hat and shades” contrasting somewhat with the Hound Master’s “stick-quiver [and] bare, tattooed back”), but as it turned out, Powell was actually the first to get the boot in this case, his services being deemed “surplus to requirements” by the all-powerful Baron Brock before the year was out, in a cull that also saw Rudolph leaving the group, and founding member Nik ‘Thunder Rider’ Turner following shortly thereafter.

Given this internal discord, the all-for-one-and-one-for-all cosmic unity with which Butterworth portrays the band must have struck an odd note, to say the least. I’m not sure how much time Butterworth actually spent with Hawkwind, but despite the endless cavalcade of in-jokes and extended tributes to just about every member of their touring retinue, it is disappointing to note that, despite the lively range of personalities within the group, most of the time the members and their entourage behave like one undifferentiated hive-mind, with bland lines of expository dialogue being placed in the mouths of different characters seemingly by rota, and little attempt to build individual personas.

Admittedly, this was perhaps a necessary courtesy when placing a large number of real people into a fictional story, but for better or worse, the overall effect is far more Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park than ‘A Hard Day’s Night’.

In an attempt to counteract this problem, many band members are given their own mini-adventures and points of interest in the second half of the book, which helps to make things at least a bit more interesting – Sonic Prince takes the lead on building the ‘Deltron’ devices that help the Hawklords fight back against the ‘death music’ of their enemies, Baron Brock gets the disembodied consciousness of a dead scientist downloaded in his head, and Captain Calvert returns from afar in his ‘silver machine’, to much rejoicing. Meanwhile, poor old Stacia, in her role as the sole ‘Hawklady’ (yes, they call her that), is lumbered with responsibility for cooking all the food, caring for the sick and undertaking a mission of sexual blackmail – which perhaps tells us all we need to know about the true nature of Butterworth and Hawkwind’s vision for a free and idyllic new society.

Speaking of which, another unfortunate drawback of ‘Time of the Hawklords’ is Butterworth’s insistence on propagating a brand of garrulous hippie idealism must have seemed an embarrassing throwback to readers in 1976.

Indeed, with the remnants of the ‘60s counter-culture that birthed Hawkwind shattered into a thousand pieces and the new Year Zero of punk just around the corner, the book’s simplistic, Manichean vision of an eternal conflict between peaceful ‘freaks’ and blood-thirsty ‘straights’ must have seemed excruciatingly tiresome. By the time Butterworth brings in some mind-bending Scientology-esque bullshit about the human race being seeded from two opposing alien races whose descendants can apparently be identified according to whether they are soothed or sickened by Hawkwind’s music, even the most ardent peaceniks must have been choking on their [insert your own cheap hippie joke here to complete the sentence].

Despite the author’s determination to fly his freak-flag for all it’s worth, another irksome element of the book is it’s tendency to get stuff *just a little bit wrong*, in a manner that suggests that, whilst Butterworth is working hard to appear hip to the demands of both the underground rock world and to that of esoteric science fiction, he is only a hairs-breadth away from revealing a chronic unfamiliarity with either.

One element of the book for instance concerns Hawkwind undertaking a kind of ‘music battle’, in which the positive force of their own recordings and live performances is pitted against the ‘death music’ broadcast by their militaristic / authoritarian enemies, with the latter allowing Butterworth the opportunity to humorously mock various more mainstream songs and artists, encouraging his readers to join him in deriding their squareness.

Whilst it will no doubt stick in the craw of us modern, open-minded listeners to see such varied performers as Frank Sinatra, 10cc, The Carpenters and Ray Charles (on the basis of his later, more schmaltzy stuff, presumably) casually dismissed as ‘Death Music’, I suppose it is at least understandable that the kind of audience who followed Hawkwind in 1976 may not have thought highly of them. However, one addition to the list that struck me as being entirely off-message is that of Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, which at one point is broadcast by the villains to their zombie soldiers to shield them from the benevolent effects of the Hawk-music.

Now, it’s not a personal favourite of mine by any means, but surely by anyone’s estimation, Dylan’s song is closer to the hippie/idealist spirit that Hawkwind stand for than it is to authoritarian blandness of their opponents? In fact, I’m sure there are many who would make the argument that this very song, with its questioning lyrics and pleas for freedom, actually represents the very genesis of the kind of independently minded musical culture that gave birth to Hawkwind a decade later. To push the point further, couldn’t you go so far as to say that Dave Brock’s acoustic songs, as heard regularly on early Hawkwind records, betray a distinctly Dylan-ish influence here and there..?

I’m not sure whether Dylan’s inclusion amid the musical baddies represents a personal dislike or instance of cultural ignorance on Butterworth’s part, or whether it is systematic of the wider forgetfulness and prejudice of ‘70s heavy rock fans in general, but either way, it strikes me as a pretty definitive blunder.

Equally unfortunate is the book’s claim that the departed Del Dettmar took inspiration for the transformative ‘Deltron’ devices he gifted to Hawkwind from ancient techno-occult secrets gleaned from studying the Malleus Maleficarum – clearly an utter absurdity to anyone who has so much as glanced at a synopsis of Kramer & Sprenger’s puritanical 15th century witch-hunting manual.

Meanwhile, another reason I’m glad to discover Michael Moorcock didn’t write ‘The Time of the Hawklords’ is that he actually appears as a character in the book, celebrated rather broadly in the guise of ‘The Moorlock’, Acid Sorcerer of Blenheim Crescent, who lurks, garbed in silks of Eastern finery, in his impenetrable, electronically customised townhouse, from whence he offers psychic and spiritual guidance to the Hawklords, and apparently enjoys a curious sexual relationship with a computer named ‘Victoria’.

“Long before the final collapse, the Moorlock had known what could happen to humanity. His peculiar sensitivity had seen in advance the outcome of the recklessness and the greed. He had seen the cities collapsing, and the men running like frightened ants across the wasted deserts. He had seen the bombs dropping. He had seen the children of the future lying battered and dead in their cots. He had tried to warn of the silent holocaust, and the bitter fighting and rioting, as the saviors fought for control of the last remaining pieces of greenery. He had written books about it. He had spoken on television about it. Finally, he had sung about it. He had formed his own group, The Deep Fix, and played at concerts and outdoor festivals. But no-one had listened. The game of death had blindly continued. Gradually, the prophecies had come true. Prophesies that not only he predicted, but also the ancient books of law.

Disillusioned, and scornful of his selfish fellow men, he had decided that the outside world and all it contained was no more than a grisly cosmic joke perpetrated by sick-minded Gods. He built a thick, protective shell about him, and locked himself away.

For months he brooded, absorbing the knowledge from his books. Even inside his electronic fortress, he was unable to escape the events outside. Man’s follies haunted him – he was of the same race, he could never escape. Many times he had almost given up, and opened the doors to the marauding gangs and self-styled militia. But he had held out, Now, after the final death, they had come in from outside to tell him that a new race of Man was being born out of the ruins.

Now, he stared through the shadows of his cell at the two intent figures sitting on the sofa opposite him. They were man and woman. They were Stacia and Thunder Rider. They were a part of the new men he dared not belong to. Finally he spoke. ‘You came at the right time,’ he told them. ‘I’ll help you.’”

No wonder the real life Moorcock was so pissed off that Star Books had put his name alongside Butterworth on the book’s cover. Imagine his embarrassment at the thought of readers assuming he was writing this rubbish about *himself*!

Amongst other curious detours in ‘Time of the Hawklords’, we are also treated to section in which the band unaccountably go on holiday to Brighton, and subsequently undergo a metaphysical transformation into the super-human “Hawklords” in a haunted pub in Rottingdean in East Sussex (your guess is as good as mine), whilst another interesting sub-plot concerns a tower in North London wherein the disembodied spirits of England’s middle-classes have been uploaded to a vast computer network in which they enjoy a kind of illusory freedom whilst simultaneously being persecuted by a team of tabloid journalists who enter the network via pre-virtual reality headsets to publically shame them should they contemplate having sex.

A further boon for Butterworth meanwhile comes via the convincing characterisation of the book’s villains. A British Army battalion charged before the apocalypse with defending oil reserves in Saudi Arabia, this crew are gradually transformed into a truly nightmarish force of demonic, horror movie fascists whose atrocities, whether by accident or design, seem to preempt the tone of some of the publications that would prove so controversial for Butterworth’s Savoy imprint during the ‘80s and ‘90s.

All of these are good (or at least, strange) ideas that, whilst they inevitably go somewhat underdeveloped amid ‘Time of the Hawklords’ finished-as-fast-as-i-can-type-the-bloody-thing pulp romping, nonetheless suggest that Michael Butterworth had at least a few aces up his sleeve as a producer of satirical sci-fi.

If little of that comes through in this book's muddled trudge to the finish line, I’m nonetheless glad I persevered with it – even as my attention level gradually dropped toward ‘skim’ level, it never failed to provide a good laugh and a bit of random weirdness every few pages, and, if nothing else, a book in which Michael Moorcock stands on stage playing deafening glissandos of slide guitar whilst Lemmy battles zombies with an adjustable spanner certainly deserves a place on my bookshelves.

In 1977, Star Books dutifully published ‘Queens of Deliria’, the second volume in Butterworth’s trilogy (the cover now stating “..based on an idea by Michael Moorcock”), and, according to the synopsis on this page, it sounds absolutely bananas. Presumably these books weren’t as successful as the publisher had hoped though, as the concluding volume – ‘Ledge of Darkness’ – was shelved, eventually seeing publication as a comic adaptation drawn by Bob Walker, which appeared as part of a Hawkwind box set in 1994.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

This Month’s Zatoichi:
Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage
(Kazuo Ikehiro, 1966)

After the promising upswing in quality evidenced by the thoroughly decent Zatoichi’s Vengeance, I’m afraid we’re back on the ropes here with another muddled, underwhelming entry in the Zatoichi franchise, despite the presence of both a talented director and talented writer. (Ikehiro’s Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold was one of the most stylish and ambitious entries in the series to date, whilst screenwriter Kaneto Shindô hopefully needs no introduction as the esteemed director of ‘Onibaba’ (1964) and ‘Kuroneko’ (1968).)

We might speculate that ‘Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage’ perhaps suffers chiefly as a result of Daiei studio’s increasingly obstructive attitude toward their main cash-cow. There’s nothing very solid to go on when making such a claim, but… well, we’ll discuss it a bit later.

In the meantime, Shindô’s script as filmed here is, regrettably, what I believe could be termed “a right dog’s breakfast”. The film’s Japanese title translates roughly as ‘Zatoichi’s Sea Voyage’, and indeed both that and the English language title are at least vaguely accurate, as the story opens with an entertaining vignette in which Ichi tangles with an aggressive pickpocket during a coastal ship journey. Arriving at his destination, he kneels before the altar of a shrine dedicated to the Shintō god Kompira, once again vowing to renounce violence whilst he undertakes a pilgrimage to the 88 temples of Shikoku in penance for the lives he has taken in the past. (“You’re a god, so I hope you’ll understand”, Ichi says, addressing his chosen deity.)

For better or for worse though, the implications of all of this are forgotten almost immediately, as Ichi is forced to take down a would-be assassin he encounters on a bridge, and, following his assailant’s horse back to his home village, subsequently finds himself embroiled in the villagers’ territorial dispute with a tribe of mountain bandits. (Said horse’s ability to answer questions, express human-ish emotions and find its own way home alone perhaps suggests that Shindô wasn’t much of an equestrian).

Ichi soon finds himself doted upon by the dead man’s sister Kichi (Michiyo Ôkusu), leading to a romantic yet chaste flirtation between the two that takes up a great deal of screen time without really ever managing to establish the kind of palpable emotional connection between the two that made such melancholy encounters work so well in previous films.

Mostly then, it’s business as usual here, as things grind through what by now seems a thoroughly over-familiar series of events. In its final act, the film suddenly decides to pay homage to ‘High Noon’, as Ichi and Kichi frantically knock on the doors of the frightened and/or scheming villagers, trying and win their support before the bandits return to claim the village at sunset, but to no avail, leaving our hero to face them alone.

For several reasons, this final confrontation is quite poorly conceived, not least because the emotive idea of a lone man bravely facing down impossible odds is rather undercut by the fact that the man in question is the great Zatoichi, whom we have often seen single-handedly decimate far more powerful forces than that represented by the bandit chief’s few dozen guys, making the film’s attempt to sell us on the idea that they are going to wear him down and eventually defeat him somewhat unconvincing, and rendering Kichi’s desperate entreaties to the villagers both unnecessary and counter-productive.

In fact, when the village’s one able young man eventually comes to Ichi’s aid and dies immediately, his wholly avoidable death is basically Kishi’s fault – a fact the film’s script makes no attempt to address, despite its strict and simplistic moral code.

On the plus side though, Ikehiro once again proves himself a highly accomplished, if somewhat showy, director here, masterminding numerous bold and dramatic Spaghetti Western style shots and deep focus panoramas, some of which – such as the moment in which a horseman pauses on the ridge of a vast wooded canyon and observes Ichi making his way along a path on the valley floor hundreds of feet below - are pretty breathtaking.

The film’s bad guys are good too. Rough-riding cavalry specialists, they make extensive use of bows and crossbows, leading to much seat-of-his-pants arrow-dodging on the part of our hero. A welcome change of pace from the usual legions of yakuza toadies, these somewhat Viking-esque dudes also wear animal skins and enjoy sessions of garrulous boasting, slapping their naked bellies and chomping on chunks of barely cooked barbecued meat. (Upon being invited back to their hideout, Ichi humbly thanks them for “allowing me to experience many dishes with which I am unfamiliar”.)

I’m not sure whether these guys were meant to represent some particular ‘type’ common to the Southern island of Shikoku, but regardless, it certainly does the movie a lot of good to have them around.

As a result of all this, ‘..Pilgrimage’ certainly offers a lot of fun moments and memorable action scenes (especially during its first half), making it all the more disappointing that as it fails to really cohere into anything very satisfying. In fact, taken as a series of stand-alone ‘bits’, Ikehiro’s raw footage is often excellent, but unfortunately, the film bears all the hallmarks of a movie that has been badly abused in the cutting room.

On a number of occasions, scenes seem to end prematurely, awkwardly fading or wipe-cutting before whatever dramatic point they were intending to make has been fully established. In particular, the film’s final battle is sloppily paced, with awkward cross-cutting and at least one glaring continuity error, whilst the connecting tissue between different scenes and character encounters is often pretty ragged to say the least, giving the overall impression of a film whose central kernel has been removed, leaving the remnants feeling rather awkward and aimless.

It doesn’t help that veteran composer Ichirô Saitô’s score – a blaring, brass-heavy cacophony that distorts horribly through my TV speakers, even on this pristine Criterion blu-ray – is often used quite inappropriately, reaching its nadir during a light-hearted scene in which Ichi and Kichi go skinny-dipping together in an idyllic mountain lake; a beautifully photographed and potentially touching scene that is unfortunately rendered unintentionally hilarious through the use of tense music cues that seem more suited to a violent nocturnal ambush.

Writing in his monumental Gun & Sword (I don’t have to go to trouble of telling you to go and buy it by this stage do I?), Chris D. takes a far more positive line on ‘Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage’ than I have here, but, interestingly, he also casts some light on the possible reasons for the film’s deficiencies:

“Director Ikehiro explained in an interview that the big production boss called him and screenwriter Shindo on the carpet after reading the first draft, explaining that it was good, but that it was way too unorthodox for what was Daiei Studios’ main franchise. So they had to rewrite it a bit in a more conventional direction while still trying to take a somewhat different approach.” (p. 790)

From this, we can perhaps further speculate that when we watch ‘Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage’, we could be seeing a very different film from the one Ikehiro and Shindô initially intended to make. Certainly, there is little that strikes me as terribly “unorthodox” going on in the final cut, with the possible exception of the aforementioned editing mishaps.

Basically then, we can perhaps best chalk up ‘...Pilgrimage’ as a troubled production, the results of which poorly serve the ambitions of both scriptwriter and director, whether as a result of studio interference, unworkable time/budget constraints or some other combination of unguessable disasters.

For Shintaro Katsu’s part, he seems more on auto-pilot here than ever; though still a hugely likeable screen presence, he no longer seems even remotely interested in trying to push his character in any new directions. Whatever was going on behind the scenes, it is hardly surprising that Katsu only made one further Zatoichi appearance for Daiei (‘Zatoichi’s Cane Sword’, released in January 1967) before he managed to wrangle the character out of their hands, defying the expectations of Japan’s rigid studio system by taking on production duties himself, ensuring that the remaining films in the series saw the light of day as independent ventures, under the auspices of the star's newly formed Katsu Productions.