Sunday, 23 December 2018

2018: BEST READS.
(Part # 2)

The Virgin of the Seven Daggers: 
Excursions into Fantasy
by Vernon Lee
(Penguin Red Classics, 2008 /
collection originally compiled in 1962)

I think this was from the remaindered bookshop in East Dulwich? Price sticker on the back says £3.


Vernon Lee was the pen name of writer and art historian Violet Paget (1856-1935), and funnily enough, a very strange hardback compiling some of her work was one of the first books I ever scanned and posted on this weblog, way back in 2010. The best part of a decade later, I’ve finally found time to read some more of her work, courtesy of this recent Penguin edition, reprinting a ‘60s anthology of a set of stories originally published between about 1890 and 1910, I believe.

A remarkable personage by any yardstick, Paget/Lee may have been ostensibly English, but she was born in Boulogne and spent the vast majority of her adult life on the continent, eventually settling in Florence. In addition to her fiction, she wrote extensively on European travel, history and culture, and in her day she was considered a leading authority on the Italian Renaissance, as well as an enthusiastic advocate of the Aesthetics movement pioneered by Walter Pater in the late 19th century.

All of this comes across very strongly indeed in her ghost stories, which – in stark contrast to the Anglican parochialism favoured by her near-contemporary M.R. James – are all set in Southern Europe (Italy, and sometimes Spain or Greece), and are chiefly notable for their dense and intoxicating tapestry of esoteric historical detail, blending references to art, architecture, music, geography, aristocratic lineage, religious traditions, local legends and sundry other oddities into such a rich, brooding atmosphere of quasi-fantastical grandeur that it is difficult for an ignoramus such as myself to ascertain where her reportage of authentic period detail ends and her imagination begins.

The opening tale, ‘Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady’, concerns the illegitimate son of one Prince Balthasar Maria of the Red Palace at Luna, who, after incurring the Prince’s disfavour, finds himself exiled to a remote outpost of the kingdom, where he falls victim to the charms of the same predatory female snake spirit who did a number on one of his illustrious ancestors. (Mixing a decadent, fantastical atmosphere with a sardonic sense of humour, this miniature masterpiece was originally published in an 1895 issue of the notorious Yellow Book.)

‘Amour Dure’ meanwhile concerns a highly-strung young Austrian scholar who, whilst undertaking historical research in a mountainous Italian town, develops an unhealthy obsession with a notorious, Lucretia Borgia-like femme fatale who features prominently in the area’s folklore, and – in classic Jamesian fashion – pays dearly for his temporally unsound ardour.

‘A Wicked Voice’ – in which a similarly self-absorbed young composer working in Venice becomes haunted by the voice of an 18th century singer credited with uncannily abilities – has a disturbingly unglued, dream-like feel to it, culminating in a set-piece that feels as if it could have been shot by Dario Argento or Pupi Avati.

Most memorable of all though is probably this collection’s title story, a Spanish number in which the notorious sinner and womaniser Don Juan Gusman del Pulgar, Count of Mirador, uses fiendish necromancy to gain access to a secret subterranean world concealed beneath a tower of the Alhambra at Grenada, there to take possession of the ‘Moorish Infanta’, a Princess Bride who has lain there through the centuries in unholy, magical slumber. It’s quite something.

Needless to say, Vernon Lee’s fiction remains unfairly overlooked, and ripe for rediscovery. Although she began publishing these stories some years before James, they nonetheless represent a series of head-spinning twists on the same basic formula, so, if you’re in search of something a bit different for your Christmas ghost stories this year, look no further.

Maigret Travels South by Georges Simenon
(Penguin Crime, 1963 / 
originally published 1940)

No idea where this one came from. All those Penguin crime purchases blur into one, especially the Maigrets. I’d buy ‘em by the kilogram if I could. (The cover shows Rupert Davies as Maigret, from the BBC TV series.)


For some reason, my favourite Maigrets always seem to be the ones that take him outside of Paris. With typical Simenon wit, this particular short novel sees the Chief Inspector “travelling south” in more ways than one as he arrives in Cannes to investigate the case of a dilettante Australian wool millionaire found stabbed to death on his own doorstep.

Routine sleuthing soon leads Maigret to the backroom of the ‘Liberty Bar’, a commercially redundant, essentially closed establishment where the food is good and the landlady accomodating, but where the air is also heavy, with a persistent atmosphere of fated, self-indulgent melancholy hanging over the handful of down at heel, demi-monde denizens who congregate there.

Like all of the best Simenon stories, this is one in which Maigret’s personal inclinations and human sympathies find themselves directly at odds with his obligations as a detective, and in which he thus finds himself weighed down by the guilt of knowing that his intrusion into the small, self-contained world of the story’s characters – so beautifully drawn by Simenon – has led, inevitably, to its destruction.

Though perhaps no great shakes as a mystery, these hundred-and-something pages pack a considerable emotional punch, knotting up some of the same bits of your insides as the best literary noir. Highly recommended.


MW by Osamu Tezuka
(Vertical Inc hardback, translated by Camillia Nieh, 2007 /
originally serialised in Biggu Komikku manga, 1976-78)

This was a birthday present – thank you Satori.

Osamu Tezuka (1928-89) exercised such a profound influence over the development of Japanese manga as we know it today that some subsequent fans and creators have gone so far as to treat him as an actual, literal God – a claim that begins to make a certain amount of sense when one considers both his staggeringly prolific work-rate and the consistently high quality of his precise, impactful artwork and conceptually innovative storytelling.

Although Tezuka remains best known in the West as the creator of the iconic Astro-Boy, and for his epic, multi-volume biography of the Buddha, his later years saw him expanding into darker, more adult-orientated territory, drawing somewhat on the Taisho-era Ero-Guro tradition of writers like Edogawa Rampo, but blending this influence with his own stark, modernist aesthetic, pushing the limits of his imagination in ever more extreme directions.

Sprawling across over 500 densely-packed pages, ‘MW’ arguably represents the culmination of this particular strain of Tezuka’s work, and describing its contents as “dark” feels woefully inadequate.

Though impossible to summarise in full, the story here centres on the intertwined fate of a grown man and a young boy who – for reasons too convoluted to go into here – find themselves spending the night in a cave on the coast of a remote island. Venturing out the following morning, they discover that the entire population of the island has been exterminated by what is later revealed to have been a deadly experimental nerve gas named MW, stored there by the American military.

Years later, the older man has become a Catholic priest, but he is still driven to tormented, soul-endangering distraction by his continued association with the young boy, who – after nearly dying from his exposure to MW on the island - has rather inconveniently grown up to become an androgynous, Fantomas-style super-criminal and master of disguise. Seemingly devoid of human empathy, as if his “soul” had been surgically removed, he commits all manner of terrible and perverse outrages, seemingly for no reason other than his own cruel enjoyment.

In the course of the story that follows, Tezuka pulls no punches in depicting a range of subject matter that takes in genocide, paedophilia, serial murder, rape, bestiality, torture and familial suicide, but does so with a sense of carefully honed, story-driven artistry that pushes the work way beyond the level of mere “transgressive” button-pushing.

Indeed, the obsessive precision of Tezuka’s artwork provides an unsettling contrast to the outrageous, frequently melodramatic, nature of the events he depicts, adding a genuinely psychopathic edge to proceedings that leaves the author’s actual intentions feeling strangely ambiguous.

Should we read ‘MW’ as a meditation on Catholic guilt and the essential nature of evil, or as a bitter commentary (both allegorical and literal) on the malign effects of America’s post-war dominance of Japan? Was Tezuka deliberately setting out to shock and appall his readers, perhaps using extreme imagery to detract attention from the tale’s uncomfortable political sub-text? Or was he simply concocting a vast ‘shaggy dog story’; a needlessly convoluted saga whose pleasures arise simply from the wickedly unlikely contrivances of its surface level story-telling..?

Somewhat inevitably, the best answer is probably “all of the above and much more besides”, but, whatever you end up taking from it, ‘MW’ remains a dangerous, multi-faceted hydra of words and pictures in which we see a master craftsman pushing the metaphorical envelope about as far as it can possibly go, making for an experience not easily forgotten.


UFO Drawings from the National Archives 
by David Clarke
(Four Corners Irregulars hardback, 2017)

I bought this directly from Four Corners.

Between 1952 (when Winston Churchill demanded to know “..what all this flying saucer stuff amounts to”) and 2009 (when its operations were quietly shut down, having been deemed to have collected absolutely no useful intelligence whatsoever), The Ministry of Defense’s UFO Desk diligently collected and assessed untold thousands of reported UFO sightings across the British Isles.

Since 2007, when the desk’s files began to be declassified and incorporated into the National Archives, writer and academic David Clarke has been going through them with equal diligence, and as a result has compiled this attractive book, presenting a carefully curated selection of the drawings of alien spacecraft submitted to the MOD by members of the public during the years of the UFO desk’s operation.

As well as providing a wealth of rather splendid examples of quote-unquote ‘outsider art’, these drawings, accompanied by Clarke’s concise and non-judgemental summaries of circumstances surrounding their creation, provide an intriguing insight, not only into some very obscure corners of the 20th century British psyche, but also into what I have always considered to be the essential paradox underlying the UFO phenomenon.

Namely, the fact that, on the one hand, the vast majority of UFO reports are absolutely ludicrous - clearly beholden to the whims of popular culture and so completely lacking in plausibility, consistency or verifiable evidence that the possibility of their literal truth seems extremely unlikely.

But, on the other hand (and this in particular is highlighted by Clarke’s book), there is the fact that many of the people who make these reports do not seem to be the fantasists and attention-seekers that determined sceptics tend to assume, but quote-unquote ‘normal’, ‘sensible’ individuals with no prior interest in the subject, who in fact often seem embarrassed and upset by what they have witnessed, and beg the MOD not to publish their names or risk generating any publicity.

(Perhaps reflecting the demographic most likely to report their experiences directly to the government, a curious number of the witnesses featured in the book seem to have had a connection to the military or aerospace industries, and are apt to provide extremely detailed drawings of the craft they claim to have seen, complete with measurements and notes on construction materials, etc.)

Between these two impressions, something clearly doesn’t add up -- and it is this strange disjuncture which continues to fascinate, even as the fact that most first world citizens now essentially carry a HD video camera around in their pocket seems to have largely relegated UFOs to the status of a nostalgic, 20th century phenomenon.


Non-fiction-wise, I also read a great Pelican book about the history of Latin America this year, but I had to get rid of it because it had bookworm and was falling apart as I read it, so no review.

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

2018: BEST READS.
(Part # 1)

Unlike ‘films watched’ (or ‘records purchased’), I’ve never got into the habit of keeping a list of the books I read. Instead, I just tend to pick one that takes my fancy off the pile, read it, stick it in a vaguely sensible place on the shelves (eg, wherever I can make it fit, effectively), and move on to the next one. It’s all pleasantly chaotic.

As such, the following reflections on some books I read during 2018 are borne not from consulting a pre-existing list, or referring to notes or whatever, but simply from the reading experiences that stick most strongly in my memory from roughly this side of January ’18 onwards -- which is perhaps as good a test of worth as any.

In keeping with this approach, they are presented in no order whatsoever.


Fast One by Paul Cain
(No Exit paperback, 1989 / 
originally published 1932)

I’m pretty sure I bought this at the tourist book exchange in Faro, Portugal in 2015.

Somebody’s always got to push things too far, and in terms of the early history of hard-boiled crime fiction, that somebody was Paul Cain (a pseudonym of occasional screenwriter George Carroll Sims, who collaborated with Edgar Ulmer on the script to ‘The Blak Cat’, no less), a man whose entire literary output consists of a fistful of stories and a single serialised novel which appeared in ‘Black Mask’ magazine between 1931 and 1936.

That novel – aptly titled ‘Fast One’ - was put back between paper covers by UK imprint No Exit Press in the late 1980s, and it is nuts.

Though he was writing just a few short years after Dashiell Hammett first defined the parameters of the ‘hard-boiled’ style with ‘Red Harvest’ and ‘The Maltese Falcon’, Cain already seems to have been determined here to drive it to the furthest extremes of self-parody, a thousand miles distant from the comparatively elegant, well-mannered prose of Hammett and Chandler, delivering a yarn that still probably stands as one of the most relentlessly violent, amphetamine-damaged and generally demented stories in the history of the genre.

The carnage begins when Gerry Kells, a former mob triggerman now attempting to enjoy a comparatively relaxed life as a professional gambler, finds himself framed for murder by an LA gangland associate, inspiring him to instigate a revenge scheme that gradually escalates into a full-scale, death-or-glory assault upon the entire infrastructure of the West Coast underworld, all seemingly taking place over the course of a single, blood-and-whisky soaked forty-eight hour rampage.

Gradually pulling together an unlikely assortment of allies – a hard-drinking, dipsomaniac blonde known only as S. Granquist, a taciturn heavy named Borg, an eager young newspaperman – Kells leaves a trail of corpses, flaming gambling boats and bullet-riddled hotel rooms in his wake, acquiring an ever-expanding portfolio of cash, guns, incriminating evidence and debilitating injuries as he goes, all the while emptying whisky bottles at a speed that would make Oliver Reed wince.

Cain’s writing evokes the kind of pitch black, sadistic absurdism that Jim Thompson would later make his trademark, and as events progress, becoming ever more disorientating, it becomes increasingly clear that Kells and his gang of misfits are basically on a collective death-trip – pushing their luck about as far as they possibly can before the asphalt finally comes up to meet them. The scene towards the end in which they sit in an incongruously quiet diner on the outskirts of town, enjoying a hearty cooked breakfast as they shake with exhaustion and nurse their wounds, knowing that just about everyone outside the door wants them dead, is just beautiful.

Knowing Raymond Chandler, he was probably holding his nose when he described this book as “…some kind of high point in the ultra hard-boiled manner”, but for those of us who’d take that as a recommendation, he sure wasn’t kidding.

(For some fascinating insight into Cain/Sims’ life and work, check out this article by Boris Dralyuk in the Los Angeles Review of Books.)


Anno Dracula by Kim Newman
(Pocket Books paperback, 1993)

I found this on bookshelf at DIY Space For London - £3 paid at the bar as requested; the volunteers seemed confused. As did my scanner when I tried to feed this archetypical shiny-lettered '80s/'90s horror cover into it last night - apologies for the dodgy image quality.

 I’ve always enjoyed Kim Newman’s work as a movie buff and all-purpose cultural critic -indeed, between encountering his co-authored pulp SF compendium ‘Ghastly Beyond Belief’ at an early age and subsequently devouring his horror movie overview ‘Nightmare Movies’ shortly before I first launched this blog, it could be said that he played a pretty significant role in launching me upon my current path to perdition, whilst his frequent contributions to DVD extras, documentaries and so forth are always a delight, never failing to push me a step or two further down the aforementioned path. (And, as he must no doubt be fed up of people telling him, he always seems like a lovely bloke whilst he’s at it, so that’s nice.)

So, as such, I thought it was probably about time I gave his fiction a go and, to coin a phrase, I’m very glad I did. ‘Anno Dracula’ is exceptional – in fact it is one of the most engrossing and entertaining pieces of popular fiction I’ve read in years, building up such a head of steam in its best moments that it transcends such boundaries altogether, becoming simply great writing, with no genre caveats required.

Somewhat more serious in tone than I had been anticipating, the book is bit of a tour de force to put it mildly, taking the form of an epic, fact-and-fiction melding alternative history, using the narrative of Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ as its initial launch-pad. The key point of differentiation here though is that, when Van Helsing and his followers first confront Dracula with their crucifixes and holy water in Mina’s bedroom, the arch-fiend laughs in their faces and sends them packing, leaving them fleeing for their lives into the woods surrounding Carfax Abbey, never to darken his undead door again.

A year or two thereafter, and Dracula is comfortably ensconced in Buckingham Palace as the Prince-Consort to Queen Victoria (which isn’t that much of a stretch, when you consider his aristocratic bloodline, his mesmeric powers and the possible reasoning behind his decision to relocate to England), and vampirism has become an accepted part of day-to-day (well, night-to-night) life, sweeping through the monied classes as an exciting new lifestyle trend, and causing predictable carnage lower down the social scale; a problem only exacerbated by a widespread resurgence of medieval barbarism spear-headed by the arrival in the city of Dracula’s hand-picked Carpathian Guard.

Van Helsing’s mouldering skull sits on a spike at Traitor’s Gate, whilst in the East End, Dr Seward, maddened by the loss of his beloved Lucy, takes his scalpel in hand and begins trying to curb the spread of the ‘curse’ by culling the ever-growing number of vampire prostitutes, gaining a nickname you can probably guess in the process. Less predictably however, his crimes also attract the attention of Mycroft Holmes and his fellows in the shadowy Diogenes Club, who dispatch one of their best agents to try to track down the killer…

Of course, vintage pulp fiction character mash-ups like this are ten-a-penny these days in the wake of Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but back in 1992 I suspect that Newman was one of the first to really take this idea and run with it… and for my money he remains the best, on the basis of his achievements here at least.

As you might reasonably expect given the encyclopaedic knowledge of popular and literary culture Newman often displays in his work as a critic, the references he manages to sew into the fabric of ‘Anno Dracula’ are densely-packed and wide-ranging, running the gamut from 19th Century British politicians and socialites to Mario Bava movies,‘70s American TV, shady European folklore and beyond. But, crucially, ticking off the references never becomes the point of the exercise, and rarely distracts from the central thrust of the story.

If you happen to know that Lord Ruthven began life as the protagonist of Polidori’s ‘The Vampyre’ in 1816, well, good for you, but if you don’t, never mind – he exists here as a lively and well-drawn character in his own right, playing the unlikely role of Britain’s louche vampire prime minister. Indeed, it is a testament to Newman’s unique knack for blending his own inventions with those of his predecessors that, on a number of occasions whilst reading ‘Anno Dracula’, I found myself searching the web trying to pin down the origin of a particular character that I was SURE I recognised from somewhere, only to discover that they were Newman originals.

The extent of Newman’s world-building prowess here is little short of awe-inspiring; his take on vampirism and its attendant transformations is convincingly realised, and his prose is fiery, emotive and gripping. As a horror novel, ‘Anno Dracula’ is as blood-thirsty and atmospheric as a fan could wish for, and as an (alternate) historical epic, a Victorian-era conspiracy thriller and an open-ended meditation on the theme of vampirism (both literal and metaphorical) through history, it does the business just as effectively.

Somehow, this book succeeded in completely fusing my grown up, critical faculties. It took me right back to the feeling I used to get reading novels as a teenager, completely enthralled in whatever outrageous saga I was ploughing my way through; experiencing their now-familiar narrative twists and turns and hair-raising climaxes for the very first time, finding them fresh and new and exhilarating.

Naturally, I’m look forward to getting stuck into Newman’s many sequels to ‘Anno Dracula’, and, though I naturally fear diminishing returns, I can for now at least confidently recommend this first instalment to anyone who enjoys the kind of stuff I write about here. It’s quite a read.


Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
(Mellifont Classics hardback w/ dust jacket, 1940s(?) /
originally published 1847)

I bought this proto-paperback, mass market ‘pasteboard hardback’ type effort from a small shop cunningly concealed down an alleyway in Hay On Wye last year. The owner was a very friendly chap, and we chatted for a while about Lionel Fanthrope and British pulp fiction and that sort of thing. Unfortunately, he said he was closing down the shop in a few days because he couldn’t keep up the running costs. I’m sad that I won’t be able to visit his shop again, but I wish him all the best.

It occurred to me a while back that I had never actually read this beloved cornerstone of the English novel. (Sadly, the English Lit ‘classic novel’ options I was subjected to in school skipped over it in favour of wall-to-wall Jane Austen.)

So, two decades down the line, I decided it was probably about time to rectify this oversight, and am happy to report that the second best Brontë sisters joint (because no one fucks with ‘Wuthering Heights’) still holds up as a cracking read nearly two hundred years since its initial publication.

I mean, well -- I suppose I had been expecting a lot of hand-wringing interior monologues and wistful descriptions of the changing seasons and so forth, y’knowwhatImean? But instead I was delighted to discover that ‘Jane Eyre’ is basically written like a thriller. Which is to say, the chapters are short, and each one of them contains some important new narrative information, conveyed in an exciting and intriguing manner.

I hope that the above observation doesn’t make me sound like too much of an idiot. I mean, I’ve certainly read plenty of 19th century fiction over the years, but, whereas the era’s prose is normally something I need to make an effort to persevere with to a greater or lesser extent, I instead found myself banging through this one as if it were a Elmore Leonard book or something.

As far as the story itself goes, it is difficult to find much to say about a narrative whose assorted episodes have each become such indelible cultural touchstones -- something that is perhaps more evident to me for coming to the book so late in life.

The early Lowood school stuff. is the archetypical “boarding school hell” narrative, cribbed time and time again by subsequent iterations of the perennial “girls school” genre and what we’d now no doubt call Young Adult novels, whilst the subsequent stuff at Mr Rochester’s pad – though far from the first gothic mystery, of course – is nonetheless clearly the definitive “dark, handsome stranger with an unspeakable family secret” yarn, exerting an overbearing influence not only upon later gothic writers, but upon successive generations of horror screenwriters too.

Certainly, there are scenes of initially mystifying horror-ish surrealism here that could fit straight into a ‘60s Bava or Freda movie, and – uh, 170 YEAR OLD SPOILER ALERT? – how many bloody “mad relative in the attic” stories has each of us sat through over the years? It all begins here folks, and I’d contest that Brontë handles this aspect of things better than any of her successors in this particular, highly specialised idiom.

It helps of course that the sheer vividness of Brontë’s blunt, almost naively emotive, prose helps to push things over the line from the specific to the archetypical oh so easily.

There is a kind of quasi-fantastical, ‘children’s book illustration’ quality to many of the story’s images (loved all the stuff with Jane hunkering beneath the big road sign in the middle of nowhere and subsequently suffering such terrible, penniless deprivations after she flees from Rochester’s improper love), and the novel’s recurring pattern of collapse and redemption feels childlike in the best possible way; kind of melodramatic, but seemingly without awareness of the cynical audience manipulations required of true melodrama..?

By repeatedly taking the reader through this “everything’s terrible!”, “everything’s ok!” spin cycle, Brontë revels in the simple pleasures of letting our emotions run loose and then reeling them back in with a nice feeling of relief, yet it feels as if she’s doing so more for her own enjoyment than to impress a potential audience.

Admittedly, all the stuff in the closing third where Jane’s knocking about with that sanctimonious priest bloke and suddenly discovers she’s massively wealthy and has a bunch of lovely, friendly cousins whom she just happened to run into one winter’s night etc etc is a bit of a drag, but by that point the book has built up such a reserve of good will that we can see it through – and anyway, we know old Mr R is going to be striding manfully over the hill to take her in his sinful arms any minute, so it’s all good.

Actually, it just occurred to me that perhaps one of the fact I found ‘Jane Eyre’ such a pacey read might have something to do with the fact that the dust jacket blurb on this Mellifont Classics edition quietly states that the text has been “delicately edited”; I’ll have to get back to you on how “delicately”, but to be honest I fear the worst.

Never mind though, I think I get the gist well enough to bullshit people re: my ardent appreciation of this great work (see above), and hey, isn’t it pretty…?



Ambient by Jack Womack
(Unwin paperback, 1989)

No idea where I bought this – I think it’s probably been on the ‘unread’ pile for the better part of a decade. Cover illustration by Peter Andrew Jones.


I read a number of Jack Womack’s books back in my teens and early twenties, and even at that point had him down as being one of the best pulp sci-fi authors of his era – that unfortunately being an era that didn’t offer a great deal of leeway for pulp sci-fi authors to do their own thing, lurking conspicuously in the garish gutter separating the ‘proper’, critically acclaimed SF from the routine space operas.

Essentially working in the tradition of writers like Dick and Spinrad, Womack used (and possibly still does use – I’m not sure what he’s up to these days) hard-boiled, comic book style prose to explore loudly subversive ideas about corporate and political responsibility, the inherent violence of post-industrial society and assorted forms of alternate reality-hopping metaphysical hoo-hah, all whilst keeping his foot down sufficiently hard on the exploitation pedal that no one was ever going to mistake his nasty little weirdo thrillers for anything “literary”.

Books such as ‘Random Acts of Senseless Violence’ (a sort of “Diary of Anne Frank” for a dystopian, near-future New York) and ‘Let’s Put The Future Behind Us’ (which predicts an organised crime takeover of post-Communist Russia, would you believe) greatly impressed me as a youngster, so, for no particular reason, I thought I’d go back to Womack’s first published novel to see how his work stands up to my slightly more, uh, ‘mature’ sensibilities.

Pretty well, as it turns out. Though I may have some reservations about how well ‘Ambient’ holds together as first novel, it’s difficult to deny that it packs a punch. Essentially painting a hysterically exaggerated picture of the damage that that excesses of unchecked free market capitalism have wrought upon an early 21st century world (fancy that), Womack welcomes us to a vision of New York in which corporate CEOs roar through Manhattan in heavily-armoured, battle-ready limousines, thoughtlessly blasting and crushing any poor unfortunates who get in their way on suspicion of wink-nod ‘criminal intent’ whilst the ‘pay-cops’ keep their distance, preferring to occupy their time with random beatings and gang rape.

In the boardroom, corporate takeovers are carried out by means of a Rollerball-is-for-pussies style blood-sport in which near-naked female gladiators vie for dominance with spiked steel baseball bats and super-powered tasers, taking the heads of terrified enemy accountants as trophies. Back on their fortified New England estates meanwhile, the High & Mighty indulge in unspeakable, Caligula-style outrages against human decency whilst plotting and scheming amongst themselves as per the usual tradition of such things, but with a lot more explosions.

As you will have gathered, ‘Ambient’ ain’t exactly subtle. By the half-way point, I was hoping the inevitable barbarians-at-the-gate would turn up just for the sake of light relief.

The book’s title refers to the tribe of telepathic, physically deformed young mutants who form a growing subculture beneath the surface of this terrible world (characterised by their punkoid fashion sense and celebration of non-hetero sexual identities, curiously enough), but nonetheless it feels deeply ironic, given that, in the colloquial sense of the word at least, this is about the least “ambient” book imaginable.

Indeed, it is a relentlessly assaultive, near-headache inducing reading experience, defined throughout by an ultra-cynical, inhuman cruelty and obsessive wallowing in fetishistic sex and violence, often giving the impression that the author’s presumably satirical intent has been strangled by his own demented blood-lust. Sadly, Womack feeds this impression somewhat by fumbling much of the novel’s characterisation, failing to really connect too deeply on a human level, and by falling into rote routine thriller territory in the closing act – but hey, what do you expect? After all, the guy’s just a PULP writer, right (nod, wink)? As a sheer assault on the senses, ‘Ambient’ remains an astonishing statement of intent – perhaps more so now even than in 1989.

---

To be continued...

Thursday, 6 December 2018

Ah, The Internet.

I’m sorry folks – just a quick “house-keeping” post to formally apologise to any readers of this blog who have been kind enough to post comments on this blog over the past couple of years and have not seen them subsequently approved or responded to.

Basically - I've always relied on email notifications to alert me to new comments, but last week I just happened to check the “comments” tab on the Blogger dashboard and discovered a large backlog of comments awaiting approval that I was previously unaware of, having apparently not received the aforementioned notifications. How embarrassing!

Even worse is that this problem seems to have affected the same few people on multiple occasions, so if you are one of them, I hope you don't think I've been deliberately ignoring/deleting your contributions… my sincere apologies!

Rest assured, I am always grateful and happy to know that actual, real life people are engaging with what I write here (on what is basically an obsolete platform with no promotion whatsoever and an annoying ‘content warning’ affixed to the front), and it makes me even happier to reflect that this blog has always received such thoughtful and good-natured feedback. (In fact we’ve pretty much never had any troll-ish or offensive comments – a few pretty weird ones now and then, but hey, that’s cool.)

So… long may this situation continue, and I hope that the missed approvals etc issue will not recur in future. Actually, I’ve just disabled the moderation/approval stage for comments, so they should now appear straight away and I’ll keep an eye on them manually from now on. (I initially had the approval option turned on to avoid spam, but to be honest there have been very few spam comments popping up in recent years, so it shouldn’t be too hard to weed them out by hand, as it were.)

Meanwhile, I’m hard at work on a few big End-of-Year type posts, so will have them up here as soon as they’re ready – sorry again for the sporadic updates of recent.

Monday, 26 November 2018

Deathblog:
Nicolas Roeg
(1928-2018)


At the present moment, I’m not sure have a lot to say about Nicolas Roeg that can’t be easily gleaned from the numerous, no doubt heart-felt, obits that are circulating online and in print, but nonetheless, it wouldn’t be right to let his passing go un-noted here.

Back in the non-linear, flashback past however, my younger self probably had quite a lot to say about him. Having grown up at around the time Roeg’s cult/critical reputation was really starting to glow, ‘Walkabout’, ‘Don’t Look Now’, ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’, and, once I scored a copy, ‘Performance’ were all regular fixtures back in the late VHS era, just as they must have been for many others, screened in student bedrooms or on commandeered parental TVs, held up as peerless exemplars of “intelligent”, “risk-taking” cinema, smuggling full-on, perception-warping weirdness into ostensibly popular narrative modes.

Roeg’s famously fragmented editing and eye for powerful imagery always seemed to add a frisson of occult conjuration to proceedings back in the day, as we stared at distant, square screens, doggedly trying to follow the flow of the washed out, tape-fuzzed presentations that, in retrospect, must have made these grandly photographed, visually nuanced ventures seem almost incomprehensible.

Indeed, for his achievements as a cinematographer alone, Roeg could be considered a legend. Who else can you imagine helping to define the aesthetic of movies as diverse as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, ‘The Servant’ and ‘The Masque of the Red Death’..? More-so than many other household name directors in fact, it strikes me that it was his sheer technical prowess that played a significant role in establishing the cult that has grown around him.

Whereas his never-quite-as-widely-acclaimed contemporaries in what I suppose you might call the more fantastique / out-there wing of post-1960 British cinema (Russell, Boorman, Anderson, and indeed Donald Cammell) have all been defined by the strength of their personalities, leaving their personal obsessions clearly stamped on just about everything they shot, Roeg by contrast was a more subtle, more low key brand of auteur, his vision defined more through form and technique than repeated imagery or subject matter.

Unlike the aforementioned directors, I have very little idea what kind of person Nicolas Roeg was, or of what he believed in. His work, on the surface at least, gives us few clues. At the risk of drifting into pretention, his films feel like exercises in letting cinema speak to itself, rather than of a filmmaker speaking down to his/her audience from on-high.

As such, they are exploratory (rather than didactic) works, in which on-screen characters have an independent life of their own, impossible to reduce to mere symbols or archetypes, even as the jarring, discontinuous editing similtaneously draws our attention to the artifice of the medium.

Having ‘done’ the greatest hits of all of the filmmakers referenced above at an early age, revisiting and reappraising their work has been on my long list of ‘things to do’ for some time. In Roeg’s case, the process has already begun, in that last month I watched ‘Don’t Look Now’ for the first time in years, and appreciated it more than ever.

Rather than all the clever-clever stuff about fragmented timelines and premonitions that used to fixate me as a teenager/student, I can now follow the film more as the purely emotional narrative that Roeg presumably intended, seeing how instinctively his outré technique serves to enhance the rather more prosaic, but no less horrifying, story Sutherland and Christie are telling through their remarkable performances.

(Having become an aficionado of giallo cinema since my last viewing, I also enjoyed exploring the strange notion that Donald and Julie’s story seems to be taking place in parallel with some sort of Umberto Lenzi movie about a killer dwarf, in which they appear as mere cannon fodder/supporting characters.)

The film still has that intangible air of magic(k) about it, that Kenneth Anger-esque sense of the editor’s scissors casting some dark spell, placing a curse as tangible as anything in M.R. James upon the characters (and, consequently, upon the audience)… but now perhaps, I’m old and boring enough to understand that that is not really the point.

I can only hope that revisiting Roeg’s other key works over the next few years might prove similarly rewarding, and rest assured, I also have both ‘Bad Timing’ and ‘Eureka’ sitting unwatched on the shelf, awaiting some quiet evening when I’ve got both the time and energy required to take on such (presumably fairly challenging) viewing experiences.

Perhaps at that point, I’ll have something a bit more insightful to say about Mr. Roeg, but for now, I’m simply happy just to have turned in what I’m fairly certain must be the only obituary to have name-checked Umberto Lenzi.

Wednesday, 21 November 2018

Further thoughts on…
Train to Busan & Seoul Station
(Sang-ho Yeon, 2016)


 For a film that initially seems such an exercise in conceptual simplicity, there certainly seems to be a lot to say about Sang-ho Yeon’s South Korean zombie hit ‘Train to Busan’.

My initial review of the film, which I posted here last month, was bashed out in note form almost immediately after my first viewing, and I have subsequently grown to feel that the criticisms I expressed therein were quite unfair, and that I failed to really get to grips with what the film is trying to say – hence the necessity of a revisit.

A repeat viewing (paying closer attention, in different company) left me considerably more impressed by the scope of the film’s socio-political message, and by its (perhaps deliberate?) rejection of the cynical individualism that has come to define post-Romero zombie films.

Additionally, correspondence with the estimable Grant Balfour drew my attention to his thoughts on the film, posted a while back on his equally estimable zombie-theory blog Brian Tasting. As part of a wider exploratory work of (if you will) ‘zombie theory’, this piece is naturally framed in rather different terms to the kind of excitable blather we specialise in here, but it is thought-provoking reading nonetheless, and helped spark a few synapses with regard to the interpretation of the film which follows.

And finally, on the recommendation of reader Ian Smith (who commented on my first review), I have also recently purchased and watched ‘Train To Busan’s prequel / companion piece, the animated feature ‘Seoul Station’, and I am very glad I did so.

Not only is ‘Seoul Station’ excellent (one of the most impressive exemplars of “realistic” animation I’ve seen to date, it is very nearly the match of its live action counterpart in terms of action, scripting, human drama etc), but I was also startled by how pointedly different it is to ‘Train To Busan’ – so much so in fact that it almost feels as if it could have been produced to specifically address the kind of concerns I raised in my initial review of the latter.

I realise that this is a slightly disingenuous way of looking at things, given that the two projects were clearly produced in parallel (IMDB suggests that ‘..Station’ actually premiered two months before ‘Train..’), but the extent to which they function as “two sides of the same coin”, each seeming to address potential issues that an audience may have with the other, is remarkable.

In an attempt to convey my thoughts on all this is a coherent fashion, I’m going to split what follows into two parts – firstly, a new take on ‘Train To Busan’, specifically aiming to look at it in the context of the post-Romero zombie tradition, and secondly, a consideration of ‘Seoul Station’, and the way in which it’s drastically different approach moderates the ideas put forward in ‘Train..’.


1. TRAIN (AGAIN).


As you may recall, one of my initial arguments re: ‘Train to Busan’ was that the film essentially removes the zombie sub-genre from the horror genre that gave birth to it, replacing the always somewhat existential terrors of a horror film with a more uplifting, “survival against the odds” narrative reminiscent of a disaster movies in the ‘70s ‘Poseidon Adventure’ / ‘Towering Inferno’ tradition. (1)

Although as a horror fan I initially had mixed feelings about this change of emphasis, I now tend to believe that it actually represents a refreshing step forward for the sub-genre in some ways, allowing ‘..Busan’ to mount a more significant challenge to our expectations of zombie cinema than its no frills plot may initially suggest.

Tracing this way back, I suppose you could say that the horror film has always basically been predicated upon ideas of sadism and voyeurism, and upon the violent disruption of quote-unquote “normal” human relationships - transgressive monsters-from-the-id running rampant, Freudian nightmares and all of that sort of thing.

Being horror films first and foremost, zombie films have naturally tended to reflect this, and their destructive/transgressive themes have become particularly amplified with regard to family relationships, partly at least I think because prime instigator George Romero had a real bee in his bonnet about family stuff. (Look at Romero’s non-zombie films for instance, and you’ll note that there are very few which do not use people having a bad time with their relatives as a central plot point.)

As a result, the ‘heroes’ of Romero's zombie films are pretty much always loners or loose groups of free-ranging individuals, whilst family responsibilities are conversely seen as a burden - as something which will drag people down and destroy them - and most subsequent zombie films have been happy to follow this lead. (2)

‘Train to Busan’ will probably be criticised by horror fans (including myself) as a kind a “zombie-lite” confection - with mainstream popular appeal and little in the way of gory or upsetting content – but I am now more inclined to argue that this perceived lack of “guts” (whether figurative or literal) should not be confused with an attempt on the part of the filmmakers to side-step the thematic complexity and serious dramatic intent necessary to sincerely convey this harrowing tale of unimaginable awfulness.

As Grant concisely states in his Tractatus (linked above):
“The site of difference for Train to Busan is located in the thematic zone of family.”

Indeed, ‘..Busan’ is perhaps the only canonical post-Romero zombie film I am familiar with in which familial relationships are seen as a source of strength and inspiration for the able-bodied, adult characters, rather than one of constriction, vulnerability and, ultimately, doom.

Upon repeat viewing, it becomes clear that the film’s occasionally soap opera-ish ‘family stuff’ is not mere the kind of space-filling, set up stuff we expect from a horror movie. Rather than simply existing in order to ensure our emotions are appropriately manipulated alongside our jangled nerves once the monsters are on the rampage, it is instead the very heart of the thing, just as much as it is in, say, ‘Don’t Look Now’ [to remain in-horror, but non-zombie].

Once this is established furthermore, ‘..Busan’ proceeds to follow an admittedly familiar disaster movie / survival horror pattern in demonstrating the way in which flesh-and-blood family relationships can become easily mutable, their accompanying responsibilities transferable, during times of crisis.

Whereas many filmmakers may be have been apt to present Seok-woo (Yoo Gong)’s determination to protect his daughter at all costs during the early part of the film in an uncritical, positive light, director Sang-ho Yeon instead goes to great lengths to ensure that his protagonist’s decision to prioritise the safety of his own father/daughter unit at the expense of helping others is repeatedly shown up as both selfish, and, more to the point, ineffectual. (Slight cognitive dissonance may result here for viewers used to accepting Hollywood’s traditional doctrine of unearned exceptionalism.)

Through his interactions with the film’s other survivors (most particularly, with the parallel two-person family unit represented by Dong-seok Ma and his pregnant wife Yu-mi Jung) Seok-woo gradually learns how easily protective family can be transferred and reshaped for the benefit of all, whenever survival is threatened.

Given that Seok-woo’s most pointed critic on this matter is his own daughter, and that subsequent events lead him to what (avoiding spoilers) can only be described as a full-scale Damascene conversion, the film could scarcely have made its point re: the benefits of collective rather than unilateral action any more clearly.

Through this collective redistribution of responsibility, it is shown that those traditionally seen as a survival-threatening ‘burden’ in zombie cinema (children, the elderly, pregnant women) can be whisked forward toward safety with comparative ease, bypassing the inevitable path toward grim, basement apocalypse that ‘Night of the Living Dead’ has forever etched in our mind as the natural fate of the rigidly inflexible family unit. (3)

By completely overturning this Romero / horror film paradigm, by portraying love and family responsibility - and beyond them, simply fellow humanity - as something that actually drives people to greater feats of survival and self-sacrifice, ‘Train to Busan’ can actually thus be seen as a very brave and innovative addition to what is traditionally an extremely cynical and misanthropic sub-genre.

If ‘Night of the Living Dead’ provided a kind of ultimate “fuck you” to the nuclear family values and perceived social conformity of the 1950s, fifty years of subsequent zombie movies have hammered that point home so thoroughly that Romero’s proto-survivalist notions of pragmatic individualism, so shocking in their day, have now more or less become the norm across a whole swathe of popular genres. (4)

By pulling a complete 180 on this, at a time when the mainstream of culture and politics is arguably becoming more systematically cynical and hyper-individualistic than ever before, could ‘Train to Busan’ in some sense feel just as radical in 2018 as NOTLD did in 1968..?

Well, maybe I'm taking all this a bit too far, but, whichever way you look at it, my second viewing of ‘Train..’ makes clear that the film’s central message is a practical rather than sentimental one, and it is hammered home so relentlessly, so clearly, by the on-screen action that I feel like absolute blockhead for failing to accord it due prominence in my first review.

Refuting not just Romero but the all-too-common misinterpretation of that old chestnut about the plank from Matthew’s gospel, ‘Train to Busan’s message is: help others before you help yourself, otherwise all will perish.

It is not exactly a subtle message, or a new one, or one that is terribly difficult to grasp, but if we expand it beyond its immediate context and apply it to the perilous global situation we currently find ourselves in, it certainly makes a mockery of my earlier assertion that ‘Train to Busan’ lacks political clout.


2. STATION.


Moving on to ‘Seoul Station’, the differences between ‘Train to Busan’ and its animated “prequel” are so self-evident they barely need to be stated. Developed in parallel by the same writer-director and producers, the two projects are clearly designed to function as thematic opposites in just about every respect, from the train / station dichotomy evident in the films’ titles right through to their underlying moral philosophy, and the vision they present of life in present day South Korea.

Whereas ‘Train..’s titular journey takes place in daylight, commencing in the early morning, the events of ‘..Station’ occur at night, allegedly beginning during the previous evening. (5)

Whereas the vast majority of the characters aboard the ‘Train..’ belong to the mainstream of society – predominantly middle-class, with recognisably ‘normal’ interpersonal relationships and at least enough money to travel between cities on a high speed train – those left back at the ‘..Station’ are, without exception, rejects from that society - the homeless, the destitute, runaways, criminals and lowly service sector employees, all essentially friendless and alone in the world. (6)

Whereas the filmmakers’ depiction of the reaction of the authorities to the zombie threat remains ambiguous (or rather, irrelevant) in ‘Train..’, the attempts of state security forces to respond to the outbreak in ‘..Station’ are shown to be as incompetent, inhumane and catastrophic as anything in Romero’s filmography.

Whereas family relationships sit at the heart of the drama in ‘Train..’, imbuing its characters with strength and heroism, the few interpersonal relationships depicted in ‘..Station’ are sketchy, abusive or transient arrangements which tend to conclude in the most horribly upsetting manner imaginable.

In fact, whereas ‘Train..’ could be accused by horror fans of soft-pedalling on both the social criticism and transgressive violence stipulated by the Romero zombie film blueprint, ‘..Station’ presents us not only with an excess of repellent imagery but also a plotline which more or less consists entirely of social criticism, much of it expressed in bitterly angry, unflinching terms.

Whereas the dramatic high notes in ‘Train..’ are provided by scenes of noble, heroic self-sacrifice, the emotional core of ‘..Station’ is instead represented by a scene in which an elderly homeless man and a teenage runaway weep uncontrollably in an empty subway tunnel, each lamenting their inability to return to a home that no longer exists. (A circumstance which, crucially, could have played out in exactly the same manner even without the intervention of flash-eating zombies.)

Indeed, in terms of the kind of grand metaphors that inevitably accompany post-Romero zombie films, ‘Seoul Station’ most directly addresses the theme of homelessness (in both the literal and archetypical senses of the word).

We spend a great deal of time during the early part of the film in the company of the homeless population who subsist in and around the station. It is grim, cheerless stuff, and, presumably, one of the main reasons why ‘..Station’ seems to have failed to match the commercial momentum of ‘Train..’, as Yeon captures that dull ache of guilt that always accompanies first-hand encounters with homelessness all too well.

As we experience the faceless coldness with which the entreaties of the homeless are dismissed by the harried security guards and cleaners who represent the only fellow humans who are actually obliged to deal with them, and, subsequently, the way in which their increasingly urgent concerns re: the imminent zombie apocalypse are ignored and belittled, we begin to understand that, for these homeless characters, the moneyed commuters who more-or-less step over their bodies on a daily basis have become so distant and unrelatable that the transition to dealing with flesh-eating zombies is only further degree or two down the ladder from their usual day-to-day.

And, conversely, when the over-worked and underpaid station staff eventually figure out what’s going on, they can’t help but see the zombie onslaught as an (admittedly alarming) escalation of the problem represented by the homeless hordes who are usually banging on their perplex doors day and night with complaints and requests for help.

If all this sounds as if it could be adding up to a pretty preachy zombie movie, well, let’s just say that ‘Seoul Station’ benefits – fairly remarkably, given its status as an animation - from some instances of carefully nuanced characterisation that help the film to engage with the complexity of the issues it is addressing, preventing it from becoming a mere exercise in hand-wringing guilt.

Far from the down-on-his-luck saint of Hollywood hobo tradition, the (nameless?) homeless man whom we follow through the early portion of the film, as he attempts to alert the authorities to the fact that his “buddy” is in the process of contracting the zombie virus, is a painfully damaged and clueless individual. Precisely the kind of irresolvable, walking problem that anyone who has ever worked behind a counter or helped out at a chairty will instinctively dread the approach of, the personal failings that have led him to his lowly position in life are, sadly, just as clear as the societal ones.

Given that this man is one of the few characters in the film who is sufficiently good-natured to actually try to help others before himself moreover, the fact that his efforts are so completely ineffectual feels like a pointedly cynical rejoinder to the humanitarian message of ‘Train to Busan’.

Likewise, I was impressed by the brief scene in which several characters get into an altercation with the commanding officer of a police unit busy confining civilian survivors to a kind of perilous no man’s land between their riot shields and the zombie hordes. Far from the kind of doltish, authoritarian strawmen whose thoughtless actions serve to rouse our anger in Romero’s films, the guy who is reluctantly calling the shots in this particular clusterfuck is actually very relatable.

A tired, worried man doggedly obliged to pursue the strategy decided upon by his superiors against what we assume to be his own gut feeling, he takes off his glasses and rubs his eyes as our protagonists berate him, momentarily defusing the situation by quietly talking to them on the level, more or less telling them that there is no chance of a good resolution here, so they might as well just beat it and forget about their friends behind the barricade.

With an admirable lack of subtlety that yet again puts me in mind of Romero, ‘Seoul Station’s conclusion sees the film’s few exhausted survivors limping their way into an actual complex of newly built, “dream home” demo apartments, there to enact a shocking, plot twist-driven conclusion that seems more like the kind of thing that might have played out in an early Takashi Miike yakuza movie than something we’d expect from the director of ‘Train to Busan’ – a conclusion furthermore in which, once again, the close proximity of flesh-eating zombies is largely incidental.

If ‘Seoul Station’ and ‘Train to Busan’ have anything in common in fact, it is the use of the zombies as an impersonal force of nature, rather than as a gothic horror-derived atavistic / existential menace. (The conclusion to ‘..Station’ may admittedly have a certain gothic kick to it, but it is one delivered solely by the human characters.)

In both films, the zombies essentially function as a mechanism for accelerating pre-existing tensions and relationships between human beings, taking them straight to their natural conclusion, stripping away the months, years or decades it may have taken for the characters to reach this point of mutual understanding or closure in zombie-free circumstances; a conclusion which the filmmakers’ manage to frame in euphoric, ultimately uplifting terms in ‘Train..’, and, well… quite the opposite in ‘..Station’.

It will be up to the viewer, I suppose, to decide which is the more impressive of the two achievements, but more impressive than either is the realisation that it is not really a choice. Taken together, ‘Seoul Station’ and ‘Train to Busan’ comprise a more cohesive cinematic Yin-Yang than I can recall ever previously seeing from two parallel / sequential films by the same director. Just as there can be no good in life without the bad, either half of this two-film equation feels slightly empty without the other; as in life itself, you’ve got to take ‘em both, or let them go.

----

(1) Echoing my own observation about the zombies in the film functioning like a tidal wave, my wife’s immediate reaction to watching the film for the first time was to insist that it must have been intended as a fictional response to the East Asian tsunami of 2011, giving voice to the filmmakers’ belief that people need to work together for their mutual benefit in such situations, rather than prioritising individual safety. 

The likelihood of this may be slightly undermined by the fact that the Korean peninsula was largely unaffected by the 2011 tsunami, and indeed has suffered mercifully little damage from major natural disasters during the 21st century thus far, but I definitely take her point re: the film’s likely real world inspirations and wider narrative intent.

(In a horrible irony meanwhile, my brief research on this point revealed that the city of Busan was actually hit by a typhoon in the same month ‘Train to Busan’ premiered.) 

(2) The only exception to this I can think of is the pregnant woman who makes a getaway in the helicopter at the end of ‘Dawn of the Dead’... something that is perhaps being vaguely referenced by the ending to ‘..Busan’, now that I think about it, even as it simultaneously throws a humanist raspberry towards the more famous ending of ‘Night of the Living Dead’.

(3) For an even more potent demonstration of the way in which ‘Train to Busan’ upturns the universe according to Romero, contrast the portrayal of the parallel male/female couple and father/daughter units in ‘..Busan’ with the singularly horrible fates suffered by their direct counterparts in what is arguably Romero’s most powerful (certainly most under-rated) apocalyptic film, 1973’s ‘The Crazies’.

(4) There is probably a wider point to be navel-gazed here re: the notion that the primary legacy of the beat / hippie counter-culture that crested at around the same time NOTLD saw release actually had nothing to do with greater social freedoms or the expansion of pacifist/humanist causes, but was instead centred around the widespread celebration of *individuality*, as contrasted with the perceived consensus conformity of earlier generations. The very same celebration of individual agency, which, in its nefarious alignment with the machinations of advanced capitalism, many would claim is now slowly killing us all fifty years down the line, perhaps…? (2,000 words on this on my desk in time for next week’s lesson, please class!)

(5) Whilst I don’t want to interrupt the main text with such nit-picking, I’ve nonetheless got to take some time to address the fact that the time-frame within which these two films co-exist really doesn’t seem to make a great deal of sense, whichever way you look at it.

During the night in which ‘Seoul Station’ takes place, the zombie outbreak is seen to reach fairly apocalyptic severity long before the sun rises, with the area around the station entirely abandoned to the zombie hordes. As such, the idea that a full compliment of passengers gathered to board a train there the following morning without noticing anything is amiss until after they have departed is, frankly, impossible to accept. (I mean, I’m not going to let this spoil my enjoyment of two very good films or anything, but, y’know – just sayin’.)

(6) As Ian Smith points out in his comment on my original post, the traumatised homeless man who sneaks aboard the train in ‘Train to Busan’ seems to represents the only “crossover” between the worlds of the two films.

Thursday, 1 November 2018

Belated Happy Halloween Everybody.

Well, phew – that was a lot of fun. My productivity both in work and day-to-day life may have suffered, but knocking out over 28,000 words of horror movie reviewin’ in the space of a month proved very enjoyable. Although I’ve fallen one short of last year’s total of fifteen reviews, I’ve still just about managed to meet my self-imposed ‘post every two days’ deadline, despite being derailed both by extra-curricular ‘Train To Busan’ re-evaluation [watch this space], and by the need to bang on for absolutely ages about Mandy. My review of The Monster Club just about made it under the wire at 11pm on Tuesday night… and we’re done.

Huge thanks to everyone who took the time to leave comments, or simply to read these posts – I really appreciate it, and I’m sorry I haven’t had a chance to reply to some of them yet; all have been most apposite and welcome.

I hope that your own October was just as full of gratuitous and irresponsible wallowing in horror movies as mine has been. To finish things off nicely, here are a few brief-as-possible run-downs of some other movies I’ve managed to fit in this month, but have lacked either the time or inclination to write up in full.

All The Colors of The Dark 
(Sergio Martino, 1972)

Making Martino’s other gialli look like light-weight trifles in comparison, ‘All The Colors Of The Dark’ (which I returned to for the first time in a few years late weekend) makes for an oppressively heavy and intoxicating viewing experience. The film’s Polanski-esque immersion into the increasingly unreliable perceptions on a woman on the verge of complete nervous collapse leads to an airless and claustrophobic feel, and, unusually, Edwige Fenech makes for a fairly inscrutable and unsympathetic heroine on this occasion, meaning that the ninety plus minutes we spend following her every move are rather less pleasant than her fans may have anticipated.

The non-supernatural elements of Gastaldi’s script are likewise fairly tedious and over-familiar (a fact not helped by the film’s infuriating habit of introducing characters who look almost exactly like other characters), and Martino seems to struggle at times with extracting his preferred level of stylistic grandeur from the unusually drab British locations.

When he does get his mojo on though, the film crashes into heady, oneiric territory with almost frightening glee. Susan Scott / Nieves Navarro is great as the spaced out, witchy neighbour character, and the castle-bound Sabbath / orgy sequences she leads Edwige to are far stronger and more rapey than I remember from previous viewings - both totally freaked out and genuinely rather upsetting. (My wife was absolutely mortified by the bit where a cute little doggie gets sacrificed. Oops - I’d have held this one back for solo viewing if I’d remembered.)

Meanwhile, Ivan Rassimov drips menace as only he can, glowering mightily in his distinctive fashion, and, as fans will be well aware, Bruno Nicolai’s music is absolutely off-the-hook. One of the most raging, psychedelic Euro-cult scores of all-time, it adds hugely to the film’s overall impact.

Indeed, ‘All the Colors..’ remains an essential slice of full strength giallo / euro-horror business – the cinematic equivalent of being force-fed claret and sleeping pills, more or less – even if it falls to some extent into the “easier to admire than to love” basket.

Black Moon
(Roy William Neill, 1934)

Despite a wonderfully alluring poster and the always welcome presence of Fay Wray, this voodoo / plantation island tale from Neill (who went on to become the regular director for Universal’s Sherlock Holmes series) has never really gained much traction amongst vintage horror fans – probably due to the fact that it is both profoundly mediocre and very, very racist.

Lacking either the dream-like atmospherics of ‘White Zombie’ or the intelligence and subtlety of ‘I Walked With a Zombie’ (and, indeed, lacking any zombies), I suppose you could at least make a case for this one as the go-to template for all subsequent undistinguished voodoo b-movies, but that aside, it has very little going for it – unless you’re scared of black people I suppose, in which case… well, I suggest seeking psychiatric help rather than wasting your time watching old movies.

Actually, my one pertinent observation here is that this film represents an example of prevailing social attitudes having changed so profoundly in the eight decades since it was made that (child sacrifice notwithstanding), the supposed “bad guys” (ie, the black islanders and the white lady who grew up with them and digs their culture) now seem vastly more sympathetic than the stuck-up, slave-owning “good guys”. So, that’s quite interesting, I suppose?

Meanwhile, the staged voodoo rituals are filmed with a sweaty, feverish intensity, and the manipulative imperilment of a white child within them would almost certainly not have been allowed once the Production Code kicked in a year or two later…. but, beyond that, nothing much to see here folks – please move along.

In fact, I’d go as far as to say that, unless you’re working on a biography of one of the principal cast members or carrying out a study of colonialist attitudes in 1930s horror films, there is very little reason to watch this in the 21st century.

Dr Phibes Rises Again!
(Robert Fuest, 1972)

It recently occured to me that, although I have naturally seen Robert Fuest’s ‘The Abominable Dr Phibes’ (1971) many times over many years, as is only right and proper, I’d never actually got around to watching the sequel.

With this oversight duly corrected, I can immediately understand why this one is somewhat less well-regarded than its predecessor. Whereas the first Dr Phibes film feels like a perfectly formed cinematic creation, with every detail carefully planned out in advance, ‘..Rises Again’ by contrast is absolutely all over the place, feeling very much like a series of random incidents strung together with little rhyme or reason, leaving all kinds of incongruous bits and pieces flapping inelegantly in the breeze.

This is especially unfortunate given that Fuest’s plan for this film seems to have been even more extravagantly ambitious than the first one, with Dr Phibes’ decision to decamp to a network of cyclopean ancient Egyptian ruins allowing the director to indulge in some of the most wildly imaginative (and, no doubt, expensive) sets and props of a career spent more or less specialising in such things. (Caroline Munro’s Rolls Royce coffin is a definite highlight.)

I’ve not yet had a chance to dig into the various extras on the blu-ray, but one suspects that a perfect storm of budgetary and scheduling problems, studio interference and unsympathetic editing may well have led Fuest to crash and burn here.

No one could accuse him of not giving it his best shot however, and whilst ‘..Rises Again’ is objectively a far poorer film than its predecessor, that thankfully doesn’t prevent it from being an absolute hoot from start to finish – a raving mad car crash of fiendish weirdness, the like of which has rarely been seen before or since, with an extraordinary cast and some murder set-pieces so grandiose and surreal they even eclipse those of the first film.

I mean, really, what can you really say to the sight of Milton Reid getting a golden snake rammed through his brain (I think that might actually be my favourite scene from either film), Hugh Griffith being cast out to sea in a giant gin bottle (rather cruel I thought, given his well-known drinking problem), John Thaw getting his face chewed off by an Andean Condor, and the likes of Terry Thomas, Peter Cushing and Beryl Reid all turning up for no apparent reason to take a bite out of the scenery before disappearing again..?

It would take a hard-hearted movie fan indeed to witness such wonders and still emerge complaining that the script doesn’t make much sense, the humour is puerile and the make-up effects are a bit iffy. Highest possible recommendation.

Zombie Creeping Flesh
(Bruno Mattei, 1980)


AKA ‘Hell of the Living Dead’ and probably about a dozen other things.

Claiming that this is the best film ever realised by the dynamic duo of Mattei and Fragrasso may not sound like much of a compliment, but… there ya go, make of it what you will.

Unfortunately, ‘Zombie Creeping Flesh’ is marred by a veritable avalanche of poorly matched stock footage during its ill-advised cannibal movie-style middle section (not only do we get to see grey elephants stampeding across the majestic plains of Papua New Guinea but I think they cram in enough National Geographic ‘native tribal customs’ clips to cover about three continents) -- but, if we can leave all that aside, I’d argue that all of the legit, men-on-the-scene type stuff with our team of hard-boiled commandos tangling with the zombies is actually pretty damn boss.

The mad laughing, Klaus Kinski-type dude is great; the business with the zombified kid is brutal (but great), the Baader-Meinhof style terrorist siege that introduces us to the commandos is, uh, *kinda* great, the stolen Goblin music on the soundtrack is great, and the whole opening section with the zombie outbreak in the power plant is awesome.

And, nearly forty years down the line, dare I even suggest that the film’s once laughably heavy-handed political sub-text actually now seems pretty on-point, vis-à-vis the developed world inflicting plague and environmental devastation upon poor island communities..? Not least in the eerie (and weirdly audacious) scene that sees New Guinea’s representative at the U.N. angrily pleading his nation’s case to a near-empty chamber.

Well, anyhow - it may not be as funny as Zombi Holocaust, as icky and dream-like as ‘Burial Ground’ or as brilliantly mental as Cannibal Apocalypse, but if the clock strikes midnight and you find yourself in the mood for some rock solid Italio-action-horror goodness, this one won’t let you down.

Salem’s Lot
(Tobe Hooper, 1979)

I’ve never been much of a Stephen King fan, so I’ve not read the novel, but I can easily believe that this leisurely three hour TV-mini-series-converted-into-theatrical-feature type effort gives a pretty good impression of what the experience of reading it might be like, complete with reams of extraneous sub-plots and secondary characters, heavy small-American-town-gone-to-seed vibes, and a brave, easy-lovin’ novelist with big glasses turning up to save the day.

Overall, this isn’t a bad vampire story – nothing too earth-shattering, but there are plenty of effective moments; it’s interesting to see James Mason of all people popping up as the sinister, vamp-enabling antique dealer, Elisha Cook seems to have wondered straight in off the set of ‘Messiah of Evil’ six years earlier, the circa ’73 fashions everyone wears already seem to be gathering dust, I loved that little jeep with the canvas door that the playboy writer guy zooms around in, and there’s some choice stuff with the pre-‘Lost Boys’ vampire hunting monster kid character. (DAD: “magic, monsters – what do you see in all this?”, KID: “I dunno, I just like it I suppose – the same way you liked numbers, so you became an accountant”.)

Things take a startlingly apocalyptic turn towards the end (I could have done with a bit more of that), and the eventual revelation that the head vampire is none other than motherfucking Graf Orlok himself is absolutely brilliant – like his silent-era predecessor, he’s a pure monster-vampire who doesn’t mess around, and a truly terrifying figure.

So that’s good, but, ah, I dunno – unless you watched this on TV at an impressionable age or you’re a big King fan, I don’t think ‘Salem’s Lot’ will really knock your block off. *SHRUG* It passes the time well enough, I suppose, but I wouldn’t really recommend prioritising it unless you’ve got a lot of time on your hands.

Actually, perhaps the most surprising thing here is the revelation that cantankerous wild man of genre cinema Tobe Hooper once managed to direct over 180 minutes-worth of blandly proficient TV movie story-telling without freaking out or doing anything crazy (well, not on-screen, at least). I’ve not read up on the background, but I’m guessing that perhaps it was this uncharacteristic fit of good behaviour that got him the gig on ‘Poltergeist’..?


And finally….

Halloween
(David Gordon Green, 2018)


Well, this was a bit of a mixed bag. As is outlined at length by Robert Skvaria’s review at Diabolique, this “forget all the other sequels” sequel to Carpenter’s original faces serious problems with regard to its scripting, its attempts to tell a character-based story and its questionable approach to mental illness. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the opening twenty or thirty minutes are flat-out dreadful.

Some plummy-voiced true crime podcasters go to visit Michael Myers in a Bedlam-style loony bin where the inmates stand in the yard chained to lead weights and howl like dogs. Some doctor is like, “Donald Pleasence is dead now, so I’m here – any questions?”, and everyone goes on and on about the “legend” of Myers, unveiling artefacts and reminders from the original film as if they were The Holy Grail and…. please god, make it stop.

Well, thankfully, it does more or less stop, and from the moment Myers is on the loose, things improve considerably. The strongest element of H-2018 comes via the fact that director Green understands The Shape, and how best to use it – ie, as a purely cinematic conceit, rather than as a flesh & blood “character” (god forbid).

He realises that when the on-screen characters struggle for survival, they are not battling against some guy in a mask, but against the fiendish ingenuity of the filmmakers themselves, and his film proceeds to exploit this forty year old revelation extremely well.

I’ll say straight out that I do not really give a damn about Michael Myers’ psychiatric diagnosis, or about Laurie Strode’s troubled family history, or about her granddaughter’s poorly realised (and ultimately pointless) high school shenanigans – and, more to the point, this film does very little to make me care about them, despite exerting great effort in trying to do so.

But, each time the switch flicks into “horror mode” (and thankfully it stays there for the entirety of the second half), the game is on, The Shape is in play, and the pay-offs are extremely satisfying. Forget all that script stuff, revert to your lizard/survival brain, and enjoy, because as well-crafted stalk n’ slash hokum, mixing wink-nod references to the original with some new surprises, H-2018 really does the business.

(It’s nice to hear Carpenter and his boys back on soundtrack duty too. I wouldn’t say that their re-working of the original score is exactly a knock-out, but I appreciated the way they held back the main theme for so long – just dropping it when it really counts – and the addition of some squelchy, doom metal guitar chords sounded nice through the cinema’s sound system.)

Oh, and the eventual message of all that Strode family hand-wringing by the way? Seems to be that becoming a paranoid, survivalist prepper may alienate you from wider society, harm your children and destroy your family relationships in the short term – but they’ll all come running back to you in tears as soon as a monster shows up, so it’ll all turn out good in the end. Hey, I can dig it. Sure makes a change from “love conquers all”.

Happy post-Halloween November drudgery, everybody!

Tuesday, 30 October 2018

October Horrors # 14:
The Monster Club
(Roy Ward Baker, 1981)


Yet another British horror film that I’ve put off watching for a long, long time, ‘The Monster Club’ sounds on paper like a uniquely unappealing prospect.

The very last gasp of Milton Subotsky’s Amicus productions, it saw the company considerably toning down the more violent elements of their long-running horror anthology series, going instead for a family friendly, tongue-in-cheek approach, whilst simultaneously making a desperately misguided attempt to court a youth audience more interested in slasher and zombie flicks by adding a pop music / variety show aspect to proceedings.

Clearly smelling embarrassment a mile off, both Cushing and Lee declined to participate, and I wonder to what extent they regretted their decision in subsequent years, given that, against all the odds, ‘The Monster Club’ somehow turned out to be an absolute delight.

Vincent Price, always game for this sort of caper, conversely described it prior to shooting as “..the best script I’ve been offered in years”, and indeed he anchors the anthology’s extensive framing sequences with gusto, playing an urbane vampire who takes a midnight snifter from the neck of the miraculously-still-alive John Carradine, portraying these stories’ real life author, R. Chetwynd-Hayes.

I confess, I’m not familiar with the work of Mr Chetwynd-Hayes (despite having spent much of my life skulking around second hand bookshops, I don’t recall ever actually seeing one of his books), but, based on the version of stuff that made it to the screen here, I think Price had a point.

Although each of the three stories presented here (four if you count the framing narrative) sounds pretty twee on paper, they all manage to temper their Halloween party silliness with a reassuring edge of pitch-black nastiness that causes them to linger longer in the memory than they really should.

The “monster genealogical chart” – tracing the complicated results of inter-breeding between vampires, werewolves, ghouls and humans – which provides a jumping off point for the three segment is a strange and imaginative conceit that I’ve never really seen explored elsewhere, and most people’s pick for the best of the stories will probably be the tale of James Laurenson’s lovelorn ‘shadmock’ (a creature who makes up for his position as the lowest and most diluted form of monster with his uniquely destructive whistle).

Aside from the fact that everyone treats Laurenson as if he is hideously deformed when clearly he’s just a fairly normal looking fella with heavy make-up and a bad haircut, this tale is really beautifully done, mixing some doomed, fairy tale-style emotional yearning with some proper, EC Comics style poetic justice and a cat-incinerating gimmick reminiscent of Jerzy Skolimowski’s then recent ‘The Shout’ (1978).

Furthering the spirit of the in-jokery introduced by featuring Chetwynd-Hayes as a character, the stakes are upped when the movie’s second story is introduced by a much-loved movie producer named, uh, “Lintom Busotsky”(!), who introduces what is purportedly a preview of a film he has made based upon his own childhood.

You see, Lintom’s dad (Richard Johnson) was a vampire – an exiled Count who now has to “work nights”, commuting from the suburbs to the West End for his nocturnal fix, leaving the youngster in the care of his adoring mother (Britt Ekland!). Admittedly, this business skims pretty close to the realms of tweeness, but the stuff about the exiled aristocratic vamps having to slum it as down-at-heel refugees, bullied and feared by their neighbours, adds a nice bit of verisimilitude, and things get considerably more interesting once Donald Pleasence is introduced as the chief of “The Bleeney”, a sinister, black bowler-hatted police division charged with the investigation of “blood crimes”(!).

Splendidly enjoyable stuff, this segment ends up toying with our sympathies in an uncomfortably ambiguous fashion; where do we stand, between the cheerily blood-thirsty, family-man vampire, and the cold, pinched-lipped cops who want to make poor Britt a widow..?

Somewhat surprisingly, both of these first two stories boast pretty solid production values, with some impressive set design, striking compositions and beautiful photography. (The vampire story even achieves some Bava-esque moments, with saturated gel-lights blurring into deep shadow.) Having presumably put the ignominy of Scars of Dracula far behind him, the sixty-four year old Roy Ward Baker proves here that he was still capable of knocking out of the park when circumstances allowed.

The third story, it must be said, looks considerably more poverty-stricken, but its tale of a ghoul-haunted village lurking just off the M4 nonetheless delivers the film’s most sustained dose of fetid, horror-ish atmosphere. As several commentators have noted, the fog-shrouded village with a graveyard at its centre seems like a deliberate call back to Amicus’s very first horror film, 1960’s ‘City of the Dead’, and the self-aware vibe continues as we’re introduced to a film director - a brash, Porsche-driving American played by the perpetually hungover-looking Stuart Whitman. (Named “Sam”, and notable for his cantankerous attitude and insistence upon realism, I briefly wondered whether this character was intended as a kind of vague skit on Sam Peckinpah.)

After he finds himself imprisoned in the village inn whilst in the process of scouting locations for his latest horror movie, Sam befriends a sympathetic young “humegoo” (human / ghoul hybrid), and also enjoys a few run-ins with the one and only Patrick Magee. It must be said, Magee doesn’t really seem to be putting a lot of effort into his role as the inn-keeper here (perhaps he was miffed at the absurd make-up he had to wear?), but it’s nice to have him around nonetheless.

Sadly this segment is regrettably over-lit (nixing the fancy lighting seems to have been a common Baker move when pressed for time), which serves to draw attention to the iffy sets and abysmal ghoul make-up (green faces all round), but things are once again saved by the strength of the writing, including some grisly details of the ghouls’ corpse-chomping lifestyle, and some interesting reflections on the torn loyalties of the unfortunate Humegoo.

A strong as these stories are however, I think it’s fair to say that ‘The Monster Club’ will always be chiefly remembered for what goes on in-between them, as Price introduces Carradine to the pleasures offered by the titular club, including performances from a selection of the very finest rock n’ roll acts that a bunch of elderly men working for a small film company on the verge of bankruptcy could persuade to record vaguely monster-themed songs for them during the uncertain, transitional year of 1980.

First, we get a sort of tough, new wave-aspirant pub rock band called The Viewers, whose members are probably still lurking in various North London pubs bitterly complaining about the fact that the only thing anyone remembers them for is this stupid bloody film. Though blighted by a truly dreadful set of lyrics, their song ‘Monsters Rule OK’ has a good, Stiff Records style power-pop chug on the verse and an affirmative, sing-along chorus that you’ll find impossible to shake after hearing the track twice during the movie.

Next up, the bitter ending to the Shadmock story is swiftly forgotten as we head straight into a performance by some character named B.A. Robertson. I confess, I’d never heard of this guy before, but according to Wikipedia he recorded for the Asylum label through the late ‘70s and early ‘80s with a certain amount of success, before becoming a bit of a minor celeb on UK TV.

‘Sucker For Your Love’, Robertson's contribution to ‘The Monster Club’, is actually a bit of a banger - in fact it’s easily my favourite song in the film, and I’d definitely commend it to any contemporary garage / punk band in search of a good, off-beat song to cover.

Filmed entirely in sweaty close-up (we never get to see his band members – maybe they didn’t make it to the shoot?), Robertson works through some fairly bizarre shtick here, alternatively rolling his eyes and staring at the ground whilst delivering extraordinary lines about “making love to a colander” and such like. Wild stuff indeed.

Probably the most awkward segment in a film that often seems entirely predicated on awkwardness comes from a band named Night, who deliver the next musical performance. The musicians here resemble a Rorschach test of guys who all got kicked out of different bands for being too sleazy and/or thuggish, whilst out-front a Bonnie Tyler styled female vocalist belts out a tune entitled ‘I’m a Stripper’, which I refuse to describe further, simply on the basis that I don’t even want to think about it anymore.

After this traumatic experience, our septuagenarian protagonists enjoy The Monster Club’s own strip routine. Filmed in silhouette, this is actually a quite inventive bit of animation in which – surprise, surprise - the performer strips right down to her skeleton! (“What a glorious set of bones,” exclaims Price).

In what seems to be a bit of an R. Chetwynd-Hayes trademark, all of this jolly business suddently takes a darker turn than expected, as Price instigates a debate with the “club secretary” (who resembles a member of The Goodies dressed as a werewolf) over whether or not the author’s fictional analogue should be allowed to become the first human to attain membership of The Monster Club.

“Can we truly call this a monster club if we do not boast amongst our membership a single member of the human race?” Price asks, before running through a quick list of humanity’s more monstrous achievements before an audience of startled-looking extras in Halloween masks. The death camps, the trenches of WWI, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the witch trials and the horrors of the inquisition all get a look-in – oh, such laffs.

A celebratory closing number was clearly needed after that jarring bit of heavy-handed moralising, and who better to provide it than pioneering ‘60s/’70s psyche-rock wildmen The Pretty Things? As a fan of the band, I was very much looking forward to seeing them close the show, but - oh boy.

I know it has often been said that most survivors of the ‘60s found themselves in a pretty dark place at the dawn of the ‘80s, and, on the evidence of this footage, it seems as if the Prettys were feeling the pain more than most. I’ll spare you the sartorial details (although vocalist Phil May’s short-sleeved shirt must be singled out for its sheer awfulness), but, far more onerously, the band seem to have been taking some tips at this point from the cod-reggae sound of UB40 (who also contributed something or other to ‘The Monster Club’s soundtrack, although mercifully they declined to appear on-screen) and the results are… not good, to put it mildly.

The Pretty Things’ Wikipedia page notes that “the new wave sound did not improve their sales figures,” and that they split up shortly after filming their appearance for the film, but their gently skanking, prog-funk direction nonetheless apparently held enough appeal to get Price and Carradine out on the dance floor, where they proceed to boogie away unsteadily for a few minutes, Vincent dancing hand in hand with a young lady in an alien mask and a fat suit. It is not a sight easily forgotten.

Despite the evident silliness of these Monster Club segments, it’s still a shame I think that Cushing and Lee turned this one down. In spite of everything, the evident good feeling and ‘anything goes’ attitude that characterised the making of this film could have make it a delightfully irreverent farewell for the old gang.

I know that the wizards at Cannon deigned to bring us ‘House of Long Shadows’ a few years later, but, aside from the wonderful performances from all the horror stars, I’ve always found that film to be a rather dour, poorly conceived mess, in which director Pete Walker’s darker sensibility mitigated against the gentler, more whimsical take on gothic tropes that his stars (and their fans) might have preferred for their final curtain call.

If they’d all decided to call it a day with ‘The Monster Club’ though, well, just imagine – Vince, and John, and Peter all arthritically jiving to the last, spluttering gasps of The Pretty Things’ career, as Sir Chris sits glowering at a table in the corner, spluttering at the indignity of it all. Never fear though, I’m sure Vincent could have had a quick word in his ear, promising to insert some high-falutin’ reference to The Seal of Solomon into the script or something, at which point he’d have perked up a bit, and perhaps even smiled and snapped his fingers. Ah, it would have been lovely.

But -- he have what we have, and happily ‘The Monster Club’ is still far better than it really has any right to be. More than anything, it feels akin to watching a top quality Amicus anthology movie interspersed with a particularly barrel-scraping instalment of Top Of The Pops 2 - and what better entertainment could we in the British public possibly ask for than that? Why this hasn’t become a much-loved Christmas TV fixture, I can’t possibly imagine. I almost felt like swapping my usual hard liquor for a box of Quality Street and a milky cup of tea whilst watching it. Perfect comfort viewing for all the monster-lovin’ family.