Monday, February 19, 2018

Graeme Miller and Steve Shill "The Moomins" (2016/1982)

This is music from the soundtrack of the British television version of the Polish animation of the Tove Jansson books (the fuzzy felt stop motion Moomins, as opposed to the cell animations of the more recent Japanese cartoon adaptation). The Polish studio worked closely with Tove Jansson and produced visual material faithful to the vision of the books. When the programme was licensed for British television the producers went down the Magic Roundabout route, junking the original audio and creating their own. Richard Murdoch narrated and voiced all the characters while Graeme Miller and Steve Shill somehow got the gig of providing music to the series. With roots in the Leeds post-punk scene they produced music on synthesisers that sill manages to echo the strange folky origins of the Moomins, with the main theme in particular being a classic of hurdy gurdy and flute sounds.

People who have heard of the Moomins but are unfamiliar with them might think of them as just a cute story for kids, with main Moomins looking distinctly like cuddly hippopotamuses. The Moomins themselves are pretty cute but their world can be surprisingly dark, with stories featuring the existential dread of the Groke, the bleakness of separation from loved ones or the prospect of the world's annihilation. The music is good at capturing the juxtaposition, being at times cheerful and folky and then edgy and suggestive of things lurking at the edge of consciousness. This Finders Keepers record might not be for everyone but I think those of more advanced tastes will find it to be at the very least a fascinating curio.

The record just has the music, with none of Richard Murdoch's vocals. This is perhaps a shame, as apart from a couple of videos on YouTube the 1980s Moomin cartoon is completely unavailable. The accompanying booklet with the Finders Keepers release is a good reminder of what the programme looked like.

image source:

The Moomins (Finders Keepers)

Saturday, February 17, 2018

"Lost in France" (2016)

Some time ago, unknown to each other, two men with respectable white collar jobs went to a concert by Luke Haines. Both of them enjoyed the concert but one of them decided to jack in his job and become a documentary filmmaker who would start his career with a film about Luke Haines. That man was not me; rather it was Niall McCann and his Luke Haines film was called Art Will Save The World. More recently he made a another music-themed film, called Lost in France, which is about the Glasgow record label Chemikal Underground and acts that have appeared on it (Mogwai, Arab Strap, The Delgados, etc.). The film kind of takes its title from the time a load of Chemikal Underground acts played a small music festival in Mauron, France back in the 1990s and then brings some of these artists back to play gigs in the same place again. Several of the artists and label organisers (overlapping categories) say in the film that the French music festival was not a particularly seminal experience in the label's life but the device still works as frame on which to hang things.

For all my interest in the music of Glasgow, my focus has been more on Belle & Sebastian, their friends and relations and older acts like Teenage Fanclub, the Vaselines, and the Jesus and Mary Chain etc., who might be seen by some as more "indie" than the Chemikal Underground acts. I do not know The Delgados at all, I know Arab Strap almost as a caricature (the joke among some of our friends was that they were basically a band fronted by the Ewan Bremner character from Mike Leigh's Naked) but I have at least seen Mogwai a few times at All Tomorrow's Parties even if I have never fully surrendered to them. The film therefore was an interesting window into a mysterious and half-glimpsed world.

The film also works as a meditation on the nature of the music industry generally. There are the usual discussions of why some artists become successful and others less so. The film features Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand, who apparently had some links to Chemikal Underground in days of yore, and he himself notes how the fates made his band successful while others failed to attract a wide popular audience (though he does say "I mean, I'm not saying 'why were we successful?', because I know why we were successful: we wrote a lot of catchy songs that people liked"; it would be a strange universe if the popularities of Arab Strap and Franz Ferdinand were reversed). The more general point is made that Chemikal Underground started at a time when people still bought records rather than streaming or downloading music for free. Stewart Henderson of The Delgados and Chemikal Underground itself notes that in days of yore the income from record sales meant that the label was able to support small-scale bands playing gigs in relatively out of the way places in the USA (in expectation of further record sales); that will not be happening any more. So the film ends up being a bit elegiac for a now vanished era, with an accompanying sense that perhaps music is something that is coming to an end.

That said it is not a mopey film. The musicians have a lot of roffles on their second trip to France and with their reminiscences about the first. One my favourite possibly unintentionally hilarious moments was when they arrive once more in Mauron and are greeted by some French bloke who was involved in organising the original festival. He shakes the men's hands and then gives a monster hug to Emma Pollock (solo artist and member of The Delgados) that perhaps over-lingers, while her husband/partner (another Delgado) stands around awkwardly.

Less appealingly this did come across as a pretty blokey scene and it would have been a total sausagefest if it had not been for Emma Pollock. She also seemed to be slightly flying the flag for the more "indie" Glasgow, with her nice coat being in striking contrast to the more non-descript outfits of the blokes.

Anyway, as mentioned above, this whole scene is one I am relatively unfamiliar with and after seeing the film I was struck by the idea of purchasing a representative record by each of the key acts referenced in it. So to what extent can readers recommend to me albums by the following artists: Mogwai, The Delgados, RM Hubbert, Emma Pollock and Arab Strap?

Readers may also be interested to hear that Niall McCann has now made another music-themed film, The Science of Ghosts, which deals with the musician Adrian Crowley and which will be shown at the Audi Dublin International Film Festival on 26 February 2018.

image source (The Quietus: Interview with Lost In France Director Niall McCann)

Monday, January 01, 2018

1/1/1818 "Frankenstein": the dawn of science fiction

Two hundred years ago today the novel Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus was published. Its author was the 20 year old Mary Shelley. The novel's strange gestation is well-known. Shelley and others, including her lover Percy Shelley and Lord Byron, were staying in the Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva in Switzerland. Seeking to amuse themselves, they endeavoured to create ghost stories. In a dream Shelley imagined a scientist engaged in the process of creating life; the thought horrified her and from the dream came the novel.

Frankenstein is sometimes hailed as the first science fiction novel. The eponymous scientist creates his Creature not through magic but through science, though the exact processes by which he does so are not described (supposedly to prevent readers from replicating his obscene experiments). Nowadays most people know Frankenstein through its many film adaptations but the novel has its charms and is worth exploring. Much of the book deals with Shelley's progressive social and political ideas, with a recurring question being whether the Creature is an evil monster or an unfortunate driven to terrible acts by the rejection of its creator.

Shelley's later writings may well have produced better books than her first novel. Nevertheless, in Frankenstein she created stories and characters that have become modern myths, cautionary tales for us of the dangers of unfettered science.

image sources:

Title page of Frankenstein first edition (Wikipedia: Frankenstein)

Frankenstein's Creature, by Marek Oleksicki, from the comic Frankenstein's Womb, by Warren Ellis & Marek Oleksicki (Marek Oleksicki on Behance)

Saturday, December 16, 2017

What comics to read after "Watchmen"?

With friends I have been in a group reading Watchmen, the popular comic by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons. We have been reading it a chapter a month, to recreate the original experience of reading it issue by issue. While some of us have been re-reading Watchmen, others are reading it for the first time, and of these some are people with little or no experience of reading comics. This is my attempt at producing a list of comics that someone who liked Watchmen might want to have a look at if they wanted to further explore the world of graphic fiction.

These are not exactly my own favourite comics (there is no Marshal Law, Skreemer, Claremont-Byrne run of X-Men, Seaguy, Flaming Carrot or any of the comics I grew up reading in 2000 AD). Rather these are books that I think have the kind of crossover appeal that would make them interesting to someone who has not been reading comics for decades.

Batman: the Dark Knight Returns, by Frank Miller, Klaus Jansen & Lynn Varley
The story is about an old Bruce Wayne coming out of retirement to put on the Batsuit once more. And like Bagpuss, when Batman wakes up, all his friends wake up too, except Batman's friends are psychopaths like Two-Face and the Joker. It is an obvious companion piece to Watchmen, as it was published at more or less the same time and also features a revisionist take on superheroes. It also played a large part in making the Batman character interesting to grown-ups; without this book none of the Batman films that appeared since the late 1980s would have been made. It is however a very different book to Watchmen. They share a 1980s Cold War paranoia theme, but where Watchmen critiques the fascistic elements implicit in the superhero, The Dark Knight Returns embraces them.

Frank Miller has written and drawn a lot of comics and many of them are dreadful, though some of his Daredevil and Sin City comics might be worth your while.

From Hell, by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell
This is Alan Moore's other masterpiece. but very different to Watchmen. Instead of the 1980s superhero costumes and clean lines of Dave Gibbons' art, here we find ourselves back in 1888, with Victorian London rendered in gloriously scratchy art by Eddie Campbell. The book is not for the faint-hearted, as it deals with the Whitechapel murders of that year and is largely told from the point of view of the murderer. For me a big part of its appeal lies in its exposition of Moore's strange occult ideas.

I myself have attempted to re-enact chapter 4 of From Hell (which does not feature any murders, I hasten to add).
Other Alan Moore titles that might be worth your while include Swamp Thing (various volumes of weird horror), Captain Britain (superhero stuff), Batman: the Killing Joke (problematic), & Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? (two brilliant Superman stories in one volume). Lots of people also like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (steampunk capers featuring every fictional character ever; I particularly recommend the second volume, a retelling of the War of the Worlds, and suggest not bothering with the rest). His non-comics novel Voice of the Fire is also a stunning piece of work.

Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi
Memoir comics became a bit thing. This is Satrapi's memoir of her time growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution and then during her time outside the country, all drawn in a faux naive childlike style of blocky art with thick lines and large areas of black ink. One thing that is intriguing about this book is how unsparing Satrapi is about the more unsavoury aspects of her own past actions.

Maus, by Art Spiegelman
One narrative strange of this book tells the story of Spiegelman's father in the 1940s, a Polish Jew who found himself being herded first into a ghetto and then to Auschwitz. The other follows Spiegelman's difficult relationship with his father at the time he was writing the book in later 1980s. The title comes from the Jewish characters all being drawn as mice, with the Germans as cats and members of other nationalities being various other types of animal. As a Holocaust narrative Maus will always have readers but when I finally got round to reading it myself I was stunned by how good it is and how far removed from the worthy but dull tome I had expected.

Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes, by Neil Gaiman, Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg and Malcolm Jones
Neil Gaiman made his name writing Sandman, the goth-friendly comic about Morpheus, Lord of the Dreamworld. It was big in the early 1990s and while I have not read it in years I remember it fondly for its cleverness, wry humour, and embrace of every strange mythological thing Gaiman could lay his hands on. Preludes and Nocturnes is the first book in the series; if you like it there are plenty more to follow.

Locas: The Girl from H.O.P.P.E.R.S., by Jaime Hernandez
Originally appearing in the pages of the magazine Love & Rockets, this comic tells the story of two Latina women in some American town, as they fall in love, play in punk bands and hang out with friends. The Girl from H.O.P.P.E.R.S. is the second book in the series but it is probably the best one to start with as the first is famously a bit hard to get into. FULL DISCLOSURE: I am not mad on comics by Jaime Hernandez myself but loads of people love them, so you might too.

Palomar & Luba: Heartbreak Soup, by Gilbert Hernandez
This also appeared originally in the magazine Love & Rockets. Where his brother's stories are set among the Latino community in the United States, Gilbert Hernandez deals with people who are still living in Central America, in this case the fictional backwater town of Palomar (though later volumes follow characters who have emigrated to Los Angeles). For me there is an incredible richness to the Palomar narrative and a depth of characterisation seldom seen in comics, like his brother's work very focussed on women characters, though not exclusively so. Heartbreak Soup is the first of the Palomar collections; if you like it then you will love Human Disastrophism, the second volume.

A comic by Joe Sacco
Joe Sacco has written and drawn a number of books of what are basically comics journalism, mostly focused on the Palestinian issue or the war of the early 1990s in the former Yugoslavia. All of his books are worth reading but I particularly recommend The Fixer, which deals with Neven, a fixer character he encountered in Sarajevo when he was researching his book Safe Area Gorazde. Neven is a larger than life character with a questionable relationship to the truth, someone who has both done astonishing things in the course of the war and a bullshitter who shamelessly exaggerates his exploits to impress the gullible.

FULL EMBARRASSING DISCLOSURE: I have never actually read a Joe Sacco book all the way through from cover to cover but I have greatly enjoyed skimming the various copies in Panda Mansions.

Hate: Hey Buddy!, by Peter Bagge
Hate is a comic telling the story of Buddy Bradley, a slacker in his early 20s who lives in a flat in Seattle in the early 1990s with his scuzzy friends. If you are or have ever lived a scuzzy young person lifestyle or know people who did then this will strike chords with you. It is funny but also interesting in its portrayal of the characters growing and maturing (though frankly the later volumes where Buddy is properly grown up and living a settled domestic life in New Jersey are a bit boring). It was also a bit zeitgeisty, portraying Seattle during the grunge boom. For me another thing to love about this comic is that the main character is clearly modelled on one of my old friends. Hey Buddy! is the first Hate book.

A comic by Daniel Clowes
Dan Clowes started off creating strips that appeared in Eightball and went on to write and draw comics that appeared in standalone books. He has a singular aesthetic often focussed on people who seem to be drained of emotion and hovering on the brink of a breakdown; if I am feeling depressed I often think of myself as having become an Eightball character. Ghostworld (adapted into a popular film) is probably his best known work though I have always found that one a bit dull. More interesting to me titles include Like A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron, The Death Ray, Ice Haven, Wilson, and David Boring.

Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel
The author looks back on her childhood and adolescence, during which time she comes out as a lesbian. Her father also kills himself and is revealed as a closeted homosexual involved in legally dubious relationships with underage boys. I have not actually read this book myself but it comes highly recommended and is always near the top of comic books I plan on reading in the near future.

Sweet Tooth: Out of the Deep Woods, by Jeff Lemire
This is set in a post-apocalyptic world, where a pandemic has decimated the world's population, with the few scattered survivors waiting for a second round of the disease to finish them off. And since the plague hit babies have started appearing with strange animal characteristics; the eponymous character (also known as Gus) has a set of antlers and deer-like hooves. Although he is a naïve child (and his naivety is mirrored by Lemire's art), his moral sense drives much of the story. The other main character is Jeppard, a morally ambiguous brute of a man who is one of comics' great creations. Out of the Deep Woods is the first book in the series.

So that is my list of comics I am recommending to people who have  read Watchmen and what to further explore the comics world. I am aware that the list of creators is a bit white Anglophone male, which reflects the comics I have been exposed to over the years. They are also mostly from quite a while ago, for similar reasons. I invite readers to recommend their own favourites in the comments.

image sources:

Batman and punk (DC Comics Database)

From Hell pentagram (Den of Geek: 13 Essential Horror Comics)

Marjane Satrapi and Michael Jackson (The Comics Reporter: Bart Beaty On Persepolis)

Maus (Comics Alliance: Examining Art Spiegelman's 'Maus')

Sandman (Bookworm the Hippie: Branching out to Graphic Novels)

The Girl from H.O.P.P.E.R.S. (Fantagraphics: The Girl from H.O.P.P.E.R.S.)

Heartbreak Soup (Fantagraphics: Heartbreak Soup)

The Screening, from Footnotes in Gaza (Art Threat: interview with Joe Sacco)

Buddy Bradley from Hate (Guasíbilis: Buddy Bradley en "Odio los sábados por la noche")

The man who could not digest ketchup, from Like A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron (The Slings and Arrows Graphic Novel Guide: Like A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron)

Panel from Fun Home (Fifty Books Project 2016: Fun Home)

Gus & Jeppard from Sweet Tooth (The Comics Journal - From Essex County to DC: The Transplanting of Jeff Lemire)

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Everything I know about TV series "Game of Thrones" despite never having seen a full episode of it

There is a guy who says nothing but Hodor. It turns out that this is because he once had to tell people to "hold the door".

The Blondie Lady is called Daenerys something-or-other. She is the mother of dragons; this may or may not be literal but she does have pet CGI dragons who burn people up for her. She is known as the Khaleesi. She acquires and then frees a CGI slave army who choose to freely follow her because what else are they going to do?

There is a brother and sister who are shagging each other. They tip a young lad (close relative?) out a window when he catches them at it. The young lad mysteriously survives. Meanwhile the brother and sister have a son (passed off as son of the sister's husband) who becomes the Mad King Joffrey, who is mad and bad. He is eventually killed.

There is a guy called Littlefinger who is very duplicitous but eventually he is found out and killed.

Some people got married but then one lot of the guests killed all the other lot.

Sean Bean plays someone who gets killed unexpectedly at the end of the first season.

There is a guy called Jon Snow who gets killed but then it turns out he wasn't killed after all or something. People tell him he knows nothing.

The brother and sister who are shagging each other have another brother who is very short.

There is a family called the Starks. One of them is called Arya Stark.

There is a big wall that is keeping snow zombies called the white walkers out of the land where the main characters live, which is called Westeros.

There are lots of scenes in which women, especially minor character women, get their kit off.

image source:

Incest sister, the Short Guy, Jon Snow, the Blondie Lady (NME)

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Haunted Landscapes: a Season of Folk Horror: part 3

This is the final part of Irish Film Institute, to see Folk Horror themed films being shown as part of their Haunted Landscapes season. Folk horror is a term coined by Mark Gatiss. You can read my account of the first set of these films here and the second here

There was more black magic action in Night of the Demon (1957), Jacques Tourneur's adaptation of M.R. James's 'Casting the Runes', about a magus who is able to set a malevolent demon on his enemies and a man who finds himself marked for death by the monster. Among other things, it is famous for providing the "It's in the trees! It's coming!" sample for Kate Bush's 'Hounds of Love'. It is also that odd beast, a noir horror film, with much use made of shadow, lots of men in hats and long coats, an opening scene in which a man drives along a darkened road by night, a closing scene in night fog beside a railway track. And yet it is not fully comfortable in its embrace of the uncanny, with the magus a somewhat bumptious type and various interludes with mediums and hypnotists seeming almost like comic relief for all that they are advancing the plot of horror. In that regard it feels less certain of itself as a horror film than Cat People, Tourneur's 1942 classic.

Night of the Demon is famous for the studios insistence that the monster be shown in it ("If people go to film called Night of the Demon then they'll feel ripped off if there is no goddamn Demon!" must have been the logic). Tourneur on the other hand wanted the Demon to be left unseen, more terrifying if the audience's imagination is left to run riot. In truth, the long shot version of the Demon is actually quite scary, reminiscent of the monster in Forbidden Planet in its semi-corporeality. The close-up version is pretty ridiculous though, that classic dud monster who ends up looking a bit cute thanks to its trying too hard to be fierce. And despite its ridiculousness, the close-up view of the monster gets used in all publicity for this film, including by the IFI in the run up to this season.

And how fares this enjoyable film as a member of the folk horror genre? I'm not too sure. All the black magic stuff and people in posh houses again feels like something other than folk horror. On the other hand, there is a bit where the protagonist goes to Stonehenge and looks at some runes carved into the stones, calling to mind the ancient folk ways of England, so maybe we will let them away with it.

And the last film was the most recent, The Blair Witch Project from 1999. You have surely seen that found footage film about the three people who get lost in the woods while trying to make a low budget documentary about a legendary with. Looking back on it now it is striking how none of the people involved in have gone on to do that much. Given how much of a stir the film caused at the time this may be surprising. I am also struck by how short it it is, possibly because a film of people wandering around in the woods and then being woken up by strange noises at night can only go on so long before it gets boring.

It is still a most unnerving. The sense that the characters are doomed comes early to the viewer, and it is their dawning sense of their inescapable fate that gives the film its mounting dread.

Sound design corner: I know people who are into cinema sound design get annoyed when people say "oh, like music?" when the concept of sound design is outlined to them, but in Blair Witch Project it was noticeable that in the very last sequence (when the characters run around through the world's spookiest derelict houses, pretty much knowing they are about to die) the film sneaks some low volume music onto the soundtrack. This should break the illusion that this is unmediated found footage, but the volume is so low and the scene so engaging that most audiences probably do not notice.

Folk horror credentials: well there is a witch in it (or mentioned in it) and there is a fair bit about folk beliefs and folk lore (albeit of the completely made up variety).

So there you go. After reading all this, what do you understand by the term Folk Horror?

For more Folk Horror action, see my account of interesting conference A Fiend in the Furrows here and here.

image sources

Night of the Demon (Verdoux)

The Demon (BFI)

Blair Witch Project: the basement (The Dissolve)

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Haunted Landscapes: a Season of Folk Horror: part 2

I continue my account of trips to the Irish Film Institute, to see Folk Horror themed films being shown as part of their Haunted Landscapes season. Folk horror is a term coined by Mark Gatiss. You can read my account of the first set of these films here.

The second day of the season saw us in the IFI's smaller screen for a showing of Quatermass And The Pit (1967), a Hammer film version of the late 1950s TV series, both scripted by Nigel Kneale. Kim Newman introduced the film, about which he has written a book. Quatermass (a rocket scientist) finds himself investigating strange goings on when workers on an extension to the London Underground discover an unexploded bomb that turns out to be a spaceship older than humanity. There are shocking revelations and the release of long dormant powers.

When things come together in Hammer films they are the best things in the world: not schlocky or camp but genuinely unnerving. Everything comes together in this one, with the design, acting, scripting and direction all making this one of their greatest works. But is it folk horror? One might say no, arguing instead that this is horror science fiction in the Lovecraft mould, yet it still has a folk feel to it. The horror is very much located in a physical place, with the sense that the buried ship has had a malign influence on its surroundings since time immemorial (a trip to the library reveals that the area above it has been regarded as haunted and unhallowed as far back as there are records).

With this film I must particularly sing the praises of Barbara Shelley, a Hammer stalwart, who in this plays one of the archaeologists. She appears in a succession of amazing outfits that appear to have driven the colour coordination of the sets and astutely plays a role a world away from the screaming victim more commonly seen in Hammer films (often played by Ms Shelley). Hers is not the lead role but I did watch this wishing she had been given a fairer crack of the whip by film history.

The next film was the first I had not seen before, it being Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, a Czechoslovak film from 1970. Its Luboš Fišer soundtrack was re-released some years ago by Finders Keepers and became quite popular with people who like that kind of thing. Having listened to the record a good bit made for a strange experience finally seeing the film. It is a somewhat avant-garde work, described by Kim Newman as being exactly like Company of Wolves, except with vampires instead of werewolves. As such it falls into the world of films about teenage girls and their sexual awakenings. Valerie is menaced by shifty characters who try it on with her and who may or may not also be her close blood relatives. A sinister Nosferatu-like figure directs proceedings. Her grandmother may also be one of the vampires. Things happen, but it is not a plotty film. Instead it is a work of great beauty, with a wonderful combination of visual images and music.

But is Valerie and Her Week of Wonders folk horror? I fear not, but it would be churlish to complain about this rare opportunity to see this classic of obscure cinema.

Following that we found ourselves watching the third of the films that Mark Gatiss used to define the folk horror genre. It was The Blood on Satan's Claw, a 1970 film directed by Piers Haggard, made by the same production company as Witchfinder General, seen on the season's first day. This one is also set in days of yore (the 18th century or some such) and begins with a young yokel finding a strange looking hairy skull in a field while ploughing. He brings a grumpy old judge to investigate, but the skull has vanished, yet it soon transpires that Evil has descended upon the locality.

This one was introduced by Donald Clarke, Irish film critic. One of his interesting points was that the film is like a hippy dream gone bad. The servants of Satan in the film are the beautiful flower children, while it is ultimately The Man (the grumpy judge) who puts a stop to their shenanigans. For all that the cultists are murderers and rapists, they look far more like the good guys than Judge Establishment. There is a disturbing brutality to the judge defeating the cultists by laying into them with a big sword at the head of a mob of irate villagers.

This is a great film, managing a more straightforwardly disturbing tone than Witchfinder General and entirely lacking its sense of schlock. For all that the film features a Satanic monster gradually becoming more powerful, the real sense of menace is more psychological, either in the way that the young people are somehow turned by the Dark One or else appear to have their minds destroyed by exposure to the purity of evil. There is also an arbitrariness to the Dark One's ways: why does the lad who finds the skull in the first place remain unaffected by its power?

And is it folk horror? Well, there is not so much about folk practices but it is set in the English countryside and does feature folk, so I suppose it must be. Its eerie soundtrack is also reminiscent of music on the Mount Vernon Art Lab album The Séance at Hobs Lane.

The next film was Hammer classic The Devil Rides Out (1968), a black magic film adapted from the novel by Dennis Wheatley (with Richard Matheson writing the script). It has Christopher Lee playing the Duc de Richelieu, who discovers that a young friend has got mixed up with Satanism. Richelieu turns out to have made an extensive study of the Black Arts (while fortunately remaining resolutely on the side of righteousness), so he and another more square-jawed hero friend battle to save the impressionable young lad before it is too late. It is a film I have seen before and they showed the trailer before everything in the IFI recently, so it felt very familiar when I watched it. It is schlock but it is great schlock, with Lee delivering classic lines like "It's the Goat of Mendes - the Devil Himself!" as though he means them.

It is also striking how the film is pretty much about a battle of poshos against satanists, with most of the satanists also being poshos. Everyone seems to live in mansions and have armies of servants at their disposal. From having read the book the film is based on, this reflects well Wheatley's snobbish world view. Overall the film is an enjoyable romp: a good Hammer film but not necessarily the kind of thing enjoyed by someone not wedded to the Hammer aesthetic.

It is not particularly folk horror; in fact I fear that it is what members of the Folk Horror Revival community on Facebook refer to as "not strictly folk horror". There is nothing really about folk practices or traditional ways, with the film being more straightforwardly an example of gothic horror. So how did it make it into the season? Well, maybe there was a good print available, or maybe it makes for an interesting counterpoint with Blood on Satan's Claw in terms of how satanic forces are represented.

My account of the last films I saw in the Haunted Landscapes season can be read here.

For more on folk horror, see my account of A Fiend in the Furrows here and here.

image sources:

Kim Newman's Quatermass and the Pit book cover (Palgrave Higher Education)

Barbara Shelley (Magazines and Monsters)

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (Wikipedia)

The Blood on Satan's Claw (Ferdy on Films)

The Goat of Mendes (21st Century Wire)

Monday, October 03, 2016

Haunted Landscapes: a Season of Folk Horror

The Irish Film Institute held a season of folk horror films. What the hell, I thought, buying tickets for all of them. For those that do not know of such things, Folk Horror is a term coined by Mark Gatiss in a 2010 BBC documentary about horror cinema. The three films Gatiss proposed as the epitome folk horror are all from the late 1960s or early 1970s. They were included in this season, as were many several others.

I have not seen Gatiss's documentary so I do not know how exactly he defined his genre. I think of it as being a combination of the uncanny with folk beliefs and practices, though the canonical films do not all readily fit such a mould: indeed, it would largely leave us with folk horror being a one-film genre, with that film being The Wicker Man. So instead I will now bomb through the films shown in the season and we can see if any kind of commonality can be seen.

First up there was Witchfinder General (1968), one of Gatiss's trinity. Directed by Michael Reeves, it tells the story of Matthew Hopkins, a real historical figure who hunted and executed large numbers of suspected witches in eastern England during the chaotic Civil War period. The film has a curious relationship with the reality of the Hopkins story. On the one hand outdoor scenes are filmed in places where Mr Hopkins stalked and killed his prey, but the film presents a more lurid version of his activities, throwing in a baroque witch burning at one point (with hanging being the more usual method of executing witches, or so I understand). The film's narrative drive comes from the quest for revenge of a soldier whose betrothed has been abused and debauched by Hopkins & his thuggish assistant, with the grim ending turning the soldier from square-jawed hero into violent maniac.

For all that this is one of the defining films of the folk horror genre I find Witchfinder General's inclusion therein somewhat problematic. There is very little sense in the film of anyone actually believing in witchcraft (either people considering themselves witches or sincerely believing that others are practitioners of the black arts). Accusations of witchcraft appear as a cynical ploy for people who want to punish their enemies or satiate violent urges. Hopkins himself is hard to think of as anything other than a conman using his witch hunts as a way of enriching himself (though his being played by Vincent Price has a lot to do with this). Perhaps what makes this folk horror is its evocation of the latent sadism and malevolence of the common folk, which we see in those scenes where jeering crowds watch the abuse and execution of those accused of witchcraft.

Famously Michael Reeves did not want Vincent Price in the Hopkins role, wishing that he could have Donald Pleasance instead, but the studio insisted. Price and Reeves did not get on, and at one point Price exclaimed to the much younger Reeves, "I've made 80 films! What have you ever done?", to which Reeves replied, "I've made three good ones". Or so it is said.

That same evening I saw The Wicker Man (1973), again introduced by Kim Newman. I have started thinking that this might actually be my favourite film in the world and that I will never turn down a chance to see it. Part of its fun is that it circulates in a multiplicity of versions, so whenever it is shown you never quite know what you are going to get. Newman mentioned that they did not actually know what version they were showing tonight, so he must have been as surprised by me to see an odd two night version that nevertheless leaves out the snails and 'Gently Johnny', felt by many to be the film's best song. Newman also confessed to a sneaking regard for the short version, which was originally shown with no fanfare as a support film for Don't Look Now, with much of its early word-of-mouth power coming from the fact that people were seeing it completely without preconceptions. I know what he means, as I still shudder at the memory of short horror film The Cottage,which I saw unexpectedly before Airplane 2 or similar back in 1982.

The Wicker Man is the folk horror film because the sense of unease and then the horrific climax all derive from the crazy folk customs of the islanders. An odd feature of the film noted by Newman is that it has become very popular with neo-pagans, which he likened to Spotlight becoming a favourite of Catholic priests. The analogy does not quite work, as the priests are a shadowy off screen presence in Spotlight while The Wicker Man is very much about the islanders and their funny ways, but it does bring home how odd it is to have people watching a film about a death cult and saying, "we love those guys".

One other thing occurred to me after an online discussion on the film. In The Wicker Man the pagan islanders are in opposition to the uptight Christian cop Sergeant Howie (played as you know by Edward Woodward). To modern viewers (and I suspect to many in 1973) the two poles of unbending Christianity and pagan fertility cult are both equally strange. It might be that if someone were to try and remake the film now (please don't) or to make something new but similar they would need to replace Howie either with a Dawkins-style scientific rationalist or someone with a more "whatever" approach to religion.

Part two of my write-up of the Haunted Landscapes season is here.

If you want to delve further into this Folk Horror business, see my account of interesting conference A Fiend in the Furrows here and here.

image sources:

Mark Gatiss (Celluloid Wicker Man)

Vincent Price (Guardian)

The Wicker Man poster (Wikipedia)

Friday, September 16, 2016

Film: "Iona" (2015)

This was the last film I saw in the Dublin film festival earlier this year. It set on a Scottish island, but not obviously the island of Iona, with the name of the film coming from the name of the protagonist, played by Ruth Negga. The film begins with her and a teenage boy driving a car, getting a ferry to somewhere, parking the car and setting fire to it, walking on to somewhere else and then getting a boat to the island the film is about. She is returning to the island after leaving it when she was 16 or thereabouts, with her son (who is… about the same age in years as she has been gone from the island dunn dunn dunnnnnn). It is one of those tangled webs and dark secrets revealed films.

I found aspects of the film appealing though I thought some of the roads it chose to go down were a bit distasteful. Ultimately it was only OK but it was great to see Negga in anything as she is one of those actors one could happily watch reading the phone book. Before she went away to seek her fortune in the world of TV and cinema she was the greatest Dublin stage actor of her generation.

Some women sat near me in the cinema tittered all the way through it, like they had been drinking or something.

image source (Up Late At Night Again)

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Film: "Retour de Flamme: The Keaton Project" (1920-1922)

I saw this compilation of remastered Buster Keaton shorts in the Dublin film festival earlier this year. It was introduced by Serge Bromberg, who oversaw the restoration. Buster Keaton is a legendary film figure but I had never seen anything of his before (apart from a short art film he did in later life with Samuel Beckett), so I was keen to see these short films.

Sadly I did not find these films that funny but I very much enjoyed seeing them. Keaton's self-mastery is astonishing to bold, the way his face can communicate depths of expression while maintaining an apparent deadpan demeanour. In that regard the more recent actor he most reminded me of was Leslie Nielsen. Anyways, these included The One Where The House Falls Over On Top Of Him and the One Where He FInds Himself Being Chased By Loads Of Cops, and many more. It is a bit sad that he was unable to successfully make the transition to sound films, but life is hard.

image source (Timeless Hollywood)