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Horror exhibitions road-trip

The other cool Dracula-related thing I did recently was to go on a little road-trip with the lovely ms_siobhan to see two exhibitions dedicated to our favourite kind of horror films: British productions from the 1950s to '70s, and especially those made by Hammer. As luck would have it, the exhibitions we were interested in overlapped by about a week (over Halloween, natch) and were both located in the east Midlands area. So although each was quite small and it would have seemed a bit of an endeavour to go to either one from Leeds on its own, between the two they made for a very agreeable day out.

Our first port of call was Northampton, where the city's Museum and Art Gallery was hosting an exhibition of film posters entitled 'Scream And Scream Again: The Golden Age Of British Horror'. It's actually a touring exhibition, put together by an organisation called Abertoir who run a horror festival in Aberystwyth, so although the Northampton showing has finished now, it's worth looking out for it at a museum near you in the future if you like the sound of it. It wasn't huge, consisting of probably about 25-30 posters plus some collected front-of-house publicity stills in a gallery about the size of a typical village hall, but it provided a very well-selected cross-section of some of the best films of the era.

2016-11-02 12.31.24.jpg

More pictures under hereCollapse )

We also both really liked Northampton as a whole. Neither of us could remember having been there before, and we did see it at its best in lovely sunshine and still-mild weather, but it certainly struck us as worth visiting. In fact, a lot of people I know would enjoy the regular collections of museum itself, because Northampton has a proud history as a major cobbling centre, so basically the whole ground floor of the museum (apart from the temporary exhibitions gallery where the horror posters were) is entirely devoted to SHOES! Victorian lace-up boots, clompy glittery platforms, fancy stilettos, you name it. You can get a taste of the sort of thing they have from their Shoe of the Month blog feature.

We found lots of interesting architecture in the town centre, of which I made a particular point of capturing some of the Art Deco highlightsCollapse )

Our next destination was De Montfort University, Leicester for The Monsters of Hammer: A Screen Bestiary. This is the work of the University's Cinema and Television History research centre (CATH), who now hold Hammer's scripts archive (as well as a growing collection of other Hammer-related material), and were also responsible for the unique staged reading of a never-produced Dracula script, The Unquenchable Thirst of Dracula which I enjoyed SO MUCH last year. Needless to say, I've been following their activities very closely ever since (and indeed before), so I was very excited for this.

The exhibition had been set up in the University's Heritage Centre, and was physically even smaller than the Northampton one, but they had packed a lot in! We spent a good hour-and-a-half there, compared to about 30-45 minutes in Northampton, and although that's probably more than most normal human beings because we are so geeky about Hammer films and needed to examine each item in detail, discuss it at length and take loads of photos, it is still probably good for almost an hour's interest even if you just look at each item and read through the text once. First, some general pictures to show the overall layout, size and feel of it all:

2016-11-02 16.28.13.jpg

Again more under hereCollapse )

What I'd really like is for them to start publishing some of this material. I see in my mind's eye The Ultimate Hammer Dracula Script Collection, including a) the shooting scripts from the movies that were actually made, b) any earlier variant versions of those and most importantly c) all the ones which weren't produced at all. I don't even know if that is possible - presumably even the unmade scripts are still in copyright, so I can certainly see that it would be complicated. But I think publication has to be the ultimate end-goal of the whole project. Otherwise, for the vast majority of the public the difference between the scripts just not existing at all and lots of time and money being spent looking after, researching and cataloguing them will remain barely detectable.

Anyway, for now I would definitely encourage everyone who loves Hammer films to get along to DMU's Heritage Centre, enjoy their amazing exhibition, and fill in enthusiastic feedback forms to help support CATH's work and enable them to secure more research funding. It's open until next May, so you have plenty of time. :-)

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World Dracula Congress, Dublin

I have been doing lots of cool Dracula-related things lately, but until now haven't had the chance to write them up. They really need it though, as I will definitely want to remember them. So for today this is what I did two weeks ago at the Fourth World Dracula Congress - the latest in a series of ad hoc academic conferences on Dracula which began in Bucharest in 1995.

I wasn't actually sure I would be able to go to this until quite late in the day, as it was scheduled for a Thursday and Friday during term-time, but Friday is our regular research day anyway, and as luck would have it a lecture which I deliver fortnightly on Thursdays did not fall in that week. So off I went! Obviously the choice of Dublin for the venue reflected its status as Bram Stoker's birthplace, and indeed I had already made sure to visit his houses on my previous visits to the city: one of which in 2014 I managed to write up on LJ, and the other of which in 2015 I don't seem to have done, but involved visiting his childhood house on the edge of the city. Indeed, the whole conference actually took place in the same venue as the Augustan poetry conference which was the reason for me going over in 2014: the Long Room Hub on Trinity College campus. It was quite strange operating in the same venue but in a rather different capacity: last time academic, this time fannish. But that distinction only held true for me personally. The conference as a whole was very much an academic event, and indeed more so than I'd expected really. Every paper I heard was strong, and some represented really significant steps forward in our knowledge of Dracula: the novel, its author and the rich mythos behind it all. I'll highlight the two which that most held true for first, and then sketch out the others a little more briefly and by theme.

The first highlight paper was by Hans de Roos on Makt Myrkranna, the Icelandic "translation" of DraculaCollapse )

My second highlight paper was by Paul Murray, author of "From the Shadow of Dracula: A Life of Bram Stoker", which was initially published in 2004 but released in an updated edition in 2016Collapse )

So those two papers between them were worth the price of admission alone. But then there were lots of other awesome papers! I have grouped them into themes, which in some cases reflect the way they were grouped for the conference, but in others do not. This is just how they come together for me.

Biographical papersCollapse )

Literary papersCollapse )

Papers on placeCollapse )

Papers on Dracula from a Romanian perspectiveCollapse )

Papers on historically-attested "vampire epidemics" in eastern EuropeCollapse )

And then of course as if the conference were not enough, I also thoroughly enjoyed my third visit to Dublin in as many years. My main companion was Julia, chair of the London-based Dracula Society (i.e. the people I went to Romania and Geneva with), with whom I shared a room at Stauntons on the Green, a pleasant autumnal walk across a park from the city centre. We enjoyed several nice meals together, tried various Irish whiskies, met up with Julia's friend Brian Showers of the Swan River Press who organised a Ghost Story Festival in Dublin earlier this year, took a tour of Trinity campus including its splendid Long Room, and popped into Sweny's chemist, a historical pharmacy which features in James Joyce's Ulysses and is now run by volunteers as a literary centre and site of historical interest. Plus, after Julia had departed for her earlier flight, I mooched around Dublin a little more on my own, tracking down Sheridan le Fanu's house and buying a jolly nice new pair of flares. I close with a few photos of the sights of DublinCollapse )

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Start of term = busy = also tired when not actually busy = still haven't finished writing up the Starburst Film Festival I attended in late August. Friday and Saturday are covered at the links; the schedule for Sunday is here, with what I did below.

Sunday schedule.jpg

Space-flight and puzzle gamesCollapse )

Interview with Toby WhithouseCollapse )

22. Aliens (1986), dir. James CameronCollapse )

Red Dwarf series XI: exclusive first episode preview and interview with Doug NaylorCollapse )

Finally, it was time to depart, sad that it had already all come to an end, but already making plans for future fantastic film-related adventures as we bid one another goodbye. I'll certainly come back for another Starburst festival if they do it again next year.

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Eruditorum Press Doctor Who Poll

Still with the muscle aches and general tiredness. I do think it is starting to get better at base level now, but between the approach of term and me wanting to go off a lot at weekends and Do Things, I suspect I am also cancelling out a lot of the gains. So this morning, the first time for three weeks that I haven't had to set an alarm, my eyes gradually opened at around 11:30am. Which is fine, because my whole plan for today was to Do Nothing, but I clearly need a few more of those.

Anyway, by around 13:30 I had eaten some breakfast and read the internet, and was looking for something nothingy to do, when I came across the Eruditorum Press Doctor Who Poll. Perfect! I have now voted, and since I started out by writing up a short-list of stories and ranking them, I have a record of what I chose which I may as well preserve here. Votes in different categories, including brief recaps of the poll rules, under the cuts.

Best televised Doctor Who story - five pointsCollapse )

Nineteen other top televised Doctor Who stories - one point eachCollapse )

Twenty also-rans - nul pointsCollapse )

Top five non-televised storiesCollapse )

Five hate votesCollapse )

Best People etc.Collapse )

Polls close at the end of September, and the results will be on the Eruditorum blog over the course of October, apparently.

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So! Film festival, day two. Here is the overall schedule for the day:

Saturday schedule.jpg


And here's what I did:

21. The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973), dir. Gordon Hessler / interview with Caroline Munro / Ray Harryhausen"s Lost TreasuresCollapse )

Interview with Katy Manning (aka Jo Grant from Doctor Who)Collapse )

Met Caroline Munro and got her autographCollapse )

Doctor Who season 22 show-makers" interviewCollapse )

Afterwards, I joined newandrewhickey, minnesattva and innerbrat for the first 45 minutes or so of The Rocketeer (1991), a sort of larger-than-life SF comedy about a US stunt pilot in the 1940s who finds a jet-pack, with Jennifer Connelly as his under-impressed girlfriend. I could see it was good and would have stayed to watch the whole thing if there weren't competing features on the schedule, but there were: two live commentaries from the Tenth Doctor era, marking the fact that his first full season screened ten years ago now. Ten is much more my thing than Six, so off I slipped...

Live commentary on New Who 2.3 School ReunionCollapse )

Live commentary on New Who 2.13 DoomsdayCollapse )

All this time, Galaxy Quest had been playing in another room, which is a pity, because once the Doctor Who stuff was over and I went to join innerbrat, minnesattva and newandrewhickey in the screening, I realised what bloody good fun it was to watch at an actual con. But then again I have seen it multiple times before, and those live Doctor Who commentaries really were great, so I think I made the right choice.

After the film had finished, we went for food at a seriously good pizza / pasta place just down the road. It was nominally just a take-away / sit-in at fixed tables place, but the quality of the food was way better than you'd normally expect for a place like that, and along with the cute student room I was staying in and the well-appointed Co-op just below it, this was one of a number of things that really made me fall for the area where we were staying. Like, on one level, it was just edge-of-city-centre ring-roadish urban redevelopment, with a lot of medium-rise new-builds, but on another it did actually feel somehow quite modern and dynamic and nice to be in. In fact, hell, let's have a picture of it which fails to do justice to the intensity of the sunset on the Friday evening:

2016-08-26 20.27.12.jpg


22. Blood of the Tribades (2016), dir. Sophia Cacciola and Michael J. EpsteinCollapse )

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A friend calls to set me up on a website for a Thing I'm doing. We agree on a temporary password which I can use.

"So where do I need to go to login?" I ask. He tells me the URL.

"Just go there and enter your username," he says. "It's [redacted]."

"OK, is that upper-case or lower-case?"

He checks. "It's lower-case."

There's a pregnant pause. Suddenly I realise what he's waiting for.

"I'm not in front of a computer now," I explain.

"Oh, right, of course!" he replies, embarrassed to have forgotten for a moment that sometimes, yes, that does still happen.

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Tags:

The tl;dr version of this film festival is that the content was awesome, but the organisation was really pretty poor. It was a first-time event, so didn't have an established loyal customer base, and it hadn't been advertised anything like as effectively as it could have been, so that I know a lot of people who might have wanted to go to it didn't know about it until very late in the day, and in fact it is quite possible that the organisers and guests outnumbered the paying customers. The timing was also frequently off-schedule, leaving us either waiting up to an hour for something to start, or rushing from one thing to another without a chance to get the dinner we'd planned for in between. Thankfully, it was never quite so bad as to mean that I missed anything I'd been looking forward to as a result, but I really hope they get better at both advertising and timing if they run this festival again, as otherwise it is doomed to failure.

Anyway! I'm going to write it up day by day, to keep the entries manageable. This is the overall schedule for the Friday, which true to the organisational spirit mentioned above was released at around 8pm on the evening before the festival was due to begin, i.e. way too late for most people to make sensible arrival plans in advance.

Friday schedule.jpg


Getting there and settling inCollapse )

Scream Queens: Caroline Munro and Martine BeswickCollapse )

19. Gothic (1986), dir. Ken Russell with intro by Stephen VolkCollapse )

20. Dracula A.D. 1972, dir. Alan GibsonCollapse )

Thus our first day ended, and it was back off to my snuggly student nest-bed for a rather short night's sleep ahead of day two...

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After the referendum

Well then. For what it's worth, after the initial disbelief and disappointment, my basic response to the referendum result is the 'rolling up my sleeves and getting on with it' one. I won't be at all sorry if for one reason or another we never actually do end up leaving the EU - e.g. if the country ends up in such a deep economic, political and / or constitutional mess that Article 50 is never invoked. But I'm not pinning my hopes on that, and I'm certainly not signing any petitions calling for a new referendum under different rules (though I don't at all mind other people signing that petition as a way of registering the extent of disappointment and anger in the country). Rather, I now want to focus on trying to make this country the best place it can possibly be, given the hand we are now holding.

[That said, I think I will have a go at claiming the Irish (and therefore EU) citizenship to which I am perfectly entitled by dint of having an Irish grandmother - though it won't be a trivial process. As far as I can tell, I'll need no less than nine original copies of birth / marriage / death certificates and certified passports, including one (the original birth certificate on which the whole thing rests) which would have been issued in County Sligo in (I think) 1912. Yikes!]

Anyway, going back to making this country the best place it can possibly be, living through the entire referendum process has certainly done a lot to reaffirm my liberalism. Two main issues stand out, both connected, and both of which strongly reinforce (for me) the essential core of liberalism - a concern with excessive concentrations of power, and a desire to break them down and redistribute it.

Firstly, the power concentrated into the hands of people like Paul Dacre and Richard Desmond. For decades now, newspapers like the Daily Mail and Daily Express have been publishing front-page lies and hatred about both immigrants and the EU, while inadequate bodies for press regulation have failed to challenge them, and, on the rare occasions when they were were successfully challenged, they have only needed to publish retractions in tiny print on the inside pages of the papers. Meanwhile, the requirement on the broadcast media to provide balanced political coverage is interpreted as an instruction to give equal air-time to voices on either side, rather than to challenge lies themselves or identify any kind of prevailing consensus. This approach has been characterised by some as "Shape of the Earth: views differ".

At first sight, it may seem illiberal to restrict the freedom of the press, but the press is in any case not currently free from powerful individuals seeking to propagate lies for their own financial or political gain. More fundamentally, a democracy (which is a tool for distributing political freedom) cannot function properly if the people who live in it do not have access to accurate and impartial information on which to base their voting decisions. See e.g. Russia or North Korea for details. And it is very clear indeed that in this referendum (as also in the AV referendum five years ago), people voted on the basis of claims which were untrue, while any attempts by moderate people to counter those claims, or the decades worth of misinformation and bigotry which they tapped into, were hopelessly drowned out by the power of the tabloid press. If that press had been properly regulated years ago, this might not have happened.

Secondly, the power concentrated into the hands of the 'big two' political parties by our First Past The Post voting system. One of the most common arguments against proportional political systems is that they allow members of extremist parties to win seats at elections. But in my view, this is a good thing. Once a party's representatives have been elected to office, they are subject to the white light of accountability. If they implement policies which turn out to be disastrous, or fail to deliver on their promises, they will lose their popularity and be voted out again. In my view, we would be much better off today if UKIP had started winning council seats and parliamentary seats in serious numbers twenty years ago. Then, people might have had the chance to discover that they are a bunch of self-interested con-merchants while the damage they could inflict was still relatively limited, and before we arrived at the almighty mess we are in now.

Furthermore, most proportional voting systems, but especially the Single Transferable Vote, make politicians much more accountable to the electorate than FPTP. Safe seats largely disappear, parties campaign meaningfully against one another in all parts of the country, and voters can choose between individual members of the same party, based on nuanced preferences (e.g. liking Blairite Labour candidates but not Corbynistas), without harming that party's overall political prospects. I believe that if we had been using STV already for decades, the main parties would not have been able to get away with parachuting their favoured candidates into seats where voters were not being presented with any meaningful alternative option. Then, we would not have the huge yawning gap between the electorate and their supposed representatives which seems to have contributed to enough of that electorate deciding to use the EU referendum to deliver them a kicking in return for years of neglect and dismissal. Under STV, parties would have had an incentive to develop real solutions to the problems which older working-class voters are trying to express, rather than just telling them it's all the fault of immigrants and the EU. Even UKIP would probably have evolved into a more responsive, solution-focused party, rather than the fantasists they are.

If you've been nodding along while reading the above, and would like to help solve these problems for the future, here are some things you could do (if you haven't already):

1. Join Hacked Off, who are campaigning for a free and accountable press. It's free to sign their declaration or sign up for campaign bulletins, though of course they would love donations too.

2. Join the Electoral Reform Society, Unlock Democracy and / or Make Votes Matter, all of which are campaigning in different ways and with different emphases to improve our political system. It's £24 p.a. (or less for concessions) to join the ERS and Unlock Democracy, and free (though again donations welcome) to join Make Votes Matter.

3. Join the Liberal Democrats. I know we're far from perfect. We too have floundered in the white light of accountability. But we are the only political party in the UK which stands fundamentally and explicitly for the liberal principles I have discussed above. If you'd like to know more about what we think we stand for, read the preamble to our constitution. The final paragraph (beginning "Our responsibility for justice and liberty cannot be confined by national boundaries...") explains why we have always been, and will always remain, committed to collaborative international organisations like the EU.

4. Join any other political party. Yes, even UKIP (though I hope you'll prefer not to). Because the more people in this country are members of political parties, the smaller the gulf and the better the dialogue between politicians and the electorate.

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(Still working through my 2015 reading, here...)

This is the first ever self-declared Gothic novel, in that from at least the second edition onwards it bore the subtitle 'a Gothic story'. But we are at the birth of a genre here, and the meaning of the word 'Gothic' has changed a great deal since. By it, Walpole meant primarily 'medieval' and 'Romantic' - not dark, anguished or (obviously, as they were yet in the future) Victorian. The castle of the title is not remote, storm-battered or half-ruined, but the living seat of a southern-Italian nobleman and his family, inhabited by princesses and visited by knights trailing pennants behind them. And while there are supernatural goings-on, they are more in the vein of the fantastical elements in medieval stories like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight than the lurking, horrible Things from the Other Side which the word 'Gothic' tends to evoke now. Indeed, Walpole presented it on first publication as a translation of exactly such a newly-discovered medieval Romance - not as his own work at all. (Wikipedia has reasonable background details.)

All of this means there are quite a few assumptions to unpick for the 21st-century reader who approaches this book through the filter of later Gothic literature. Is it worth it? I think yes, but more for the sake of understanding the history of the novel and the Romance generally than the genre of Gothic specifically. There are Generational Feuds, Terrible Tyrants, Lost Heirs, Mistaken Identities, Tragic Misunderstandings, Unrequited Loves, Forbidden Loves, Crossed Loves, Wronged Women and Pious Heroes. Probably most 18th-century novels are much the same, but I think this may actually the earliest English novel I have ever read right through, so I am mostly familiar with these tropes and devices through later works, where they are usually being subverted, given new twists or knowingly satirised. Indeed, even here Walpole is doing something quite new by introducing fantastical and supernatural elements into the mix. And it would be unfair to suggest that the work is stuffily self-important - there are touches of humour, too, particularly (à la Shakespeare) revolving around the lower-class characters. But the melodrama setting is definitely higher, and more in earnest, than I am used to. As such, I found it a fascinating insight into the world of the 18th-century novel - and particularly the reasons why young ladies were so often forbidden to read them!

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This is a British SF comedy, which a neighbour of mine lent to me when I had shingles, on the grounds that he knew I liked Doctor Who and guessed I might need things to watch from my sick-bed. Which was very sweet of him, although in practice it took me until this weekend to get round to watching it. (I'm an academic, so the main thing I actually did on my sick-bed was read a PhD thesis and write up comments on how it could be turned into a successful monograph.)

The main character is Neil (played by Simon Pegg), a school-teacher who is randomly selected by a council of aliens to be granted absolute power for a period of ten days. All he has to do is wave his hand, vocalise his wish (e.g. 'Let me be holding a bunch of flowers') and bingo! The thing happens. Except that the aliens don't tell him they've done this, so that he only figures it out slowly over a couple of days, and they also don't tell him that it's all a big test of humanity, with them sitting in judgement over him the whole time to see whether he uses his powers for good or ill. And if it's ill, they are going to destroy the entire human race.

So it's fine, and sometimes quite funny, with plenty of situational social comedy and lots of stuff about Neil phrasing his wishes poorly and them being interpreted utterly literally. E.g. one of the ways he discovers his powers is that when he wishes for his entire class of delinquent kids to be wiped out by aliens, it actually happens. The reality of this is obviously awful and traumatic, so he tries to undo it by wishing for everyone who was dead to come back to life, but this is interpreted as meaning absolutely everyone, not just his class. Cue some nice scenes of zombies rising from the dead. Also, Eddie Izzard is very good in it as the headmaster in Neil's school, who is normally an utter dragon, but turns into a gushing, fawning sycophant as the result of one of Neil's wishes.

But is is also Terry Jonesish. He co-wrote this film as well as directing it, and my response was distinctly similar to how I felt about his writing when I read Starship Titanic a couple of years ago. This film was similarly not as funny or clever as it seemed to think it was, with a lot of cheap, predictable gags and some pretty two-dimensional women. In fairness, you could feel this film trying harder than Starship Titanic to portray its women as real human beings and grapple with the realities of modern life. There are four meaningful female characters in it, three of whom have conversations with each other, and Kate Beckinsale's character is shown struggling with unwanted and entitled advances from two different male characters in a reasonably sympathetic manner. But ultimately it is still all about Neil and male wish-fulfilment, with the women primarily on screen to serve that agenda.

I thought for a moment that it passed the Bechdel test, because of a conversation between Kate Beckinsale's character and her boss (Joanna Lumley) about their work, until I realised that they were discussing strategies for interviewing a male author. Otherwise, all conversations are of course about the women's various exes, boyfriends or love-interests. And guess what happens in a film where a male character is granted absolute power? Yes, there is self-awareness in the script about the rapiness of using magical powers to make someone fall in love with you - for example, Simon Pegg's character thinks he has done this to Kate Beckinsale's character for a while, but the script carefully dodges the full implications by showing that the alien technology providing his powers breaks down at the crucial moment, so that in fact she 'really' decided she was into him at that exact same moment. But he doesn't know that and isn't troubled by it. Meanwhile, he makes a whole bunch of women worship his friend Ray as a god, but all we see of the consequences of this are his friend Ray finding it annoying - nothing at all about the trespass on their free will.

So, yeah - sort of OK, but fundamentally not funny, uplifting or interesting enough to be worth sitting through the cis, het, white, middle-class blokeishness of it all. (It's just as bad on the rest of those, too, though at least trying a bit on race.) Oh well, at least it's a useful reminder of why I don't normally watch 'zany' modern comedies, and that even aliens and magical powers are unlikely to save them.

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This was the first of Amicus' famous portmanteau horror films, and is also one of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee's many joint credits. I've seen it before, but a long time ago now, and it was on the Horror Channel on Friday, so I settled down with a nice glass of whisky.

There are five individual story segments, one for each of five travellers in a railway carriage who successively have gruesome fortunes read for them from Dr. Terror (Peter Cushing)'s tarot pack - or his House of Horrors, as he calls it. Of the five, I had of course vividly remembered Christopher Lee's segment, in which he plays a bombastic and irascible art critic who ends up being pursued by a disembodied hand. It's a decent story, a great role for Lee, and has the bonus of also featuring Michael Gough as a mischievous artist who shows up Lee's character and pays a terrible price for it. I had also remembered fragments of two of the others - one about triffid-like sentient plants and one about voodoo music. But I must confess I had forgotten the first and last (about a werewolf and a vampire respectively) so completely that if I'd seen then in isolation and without the linking narrative in the railway carriage, I would have sworn blind that I'd never seen them before.

I suspect it's probably because they just aren't very good stories. None of them are exactly stellar, to be honest, even Lee's. Their arcs are predictable and their characters do things which don't really make sense as soon as you start thinking about it. But the film as a whole is charming nonetheless. Part of the reason why has to be its utterly unlikely cast, which includes rare film appearances for Alan 'Fluff' Freeman, Roy Castle and Kenny Lynch, as well as a young Donald Sutherland (who had already worked with Lee a year earlier in Il castello dei morti vivi 1964). Not an ensemble you'd readily imagine for a mid-1960s horror film )if, of course, it weren't for the fact that it actually happened), and yet somehow it works. Well, that is, I could do without Roy Castle's goofing around, but even he encapsulates something of the '60s vibe which makes these films so endearing, while I thought Alan Freeman was genuinely good. Meanwhile, the director Freddie Francis (dear to me especially from his work on Dracula Has Risen From the Grave) creates plenty of atmosphere with claustrophobic close-ups and deliberately disorientating action sequences, and Peter Cushing infuses the central narrative with a genuine air of fear and menace - like, of course, the true professional he always was.

The story about the voodoo music probably deserves a bit more comment, too, even if (like the others) it was never going to set the world alight as an example of the story-teller's craft. It involves Roy Castle's character, a jazz musician whose agent gets him a gig in the West Indies, and who hides in the bushes while he is there writing down the tune used in a local voodoo ceremony. Back home in London, he works it into a new jazz composition, but when his band performs it, a terrible wind blows up out of nowhere, and he flees in panic through the streets, only to find himself confronted alone in his apartment by a vengeful voodoo god. At first sight, it looks a bit like a contribution to the kind of debates people have nowadays about cultural appropriation, since several West Indian characters warn Castle's character not to steal the music for himself, or voice dialogue about how what has done is an affront to their god. But it would be quite surprising to find a British film from the mid-'60s genuinely making such a post-colonial case - and especially one which also features Castle putting on a 'comedy' West Indian accent when he first finds out where he is going. In the end, I think the way it is all coded is more like 'white people - don't get mixed up in all that nasty black stuff!', rather than 'white people - show some respect for black culture'. Still, though, it at least shows some awareness of and anxiety about the origins of jazz music, perhaps capturing a small step on the way towards thinking about these things a little more sensitively.

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Watched last weekend because it was on and I was both curious and in need of some brain down-time.

Fundamentally, it's a zany kids' comedy, with the central premise being that monsters are more afraid of humans than we are of them (cf. Monsters, Inc., etc.). The reason in this case is that Dracula (their unofficial leader) lost his wife in a fire at the hands of an angry torch-bearing mob, and has never got over the trauma. Instead, he has built a hotel far away from humanity for his monstrous chums, and keeps his daughter there wrapped up in an over-protective bubble, so that she will never go near humans (they drink blood substitutes, of course) and he won't risk losing her. Only then a back-packing human wanders into the hotel by accident, and he and Dracula's daughter fall head-long into teenage love. Awkwardness, hurdles and hilarity ensue, until true love triumphs, everyone learns to get along, and Dracula realises that he needs to let his little girl take control of her own destiny.

So far, so predictable and not really worth watching. But nonetheless it is a mainstream popular reception of my beloved Gothic horror genre, and in that light I found plenty to keep me interested, particularly where the visual design was concerned. Basically, Hotel Transylvania's monsters are Universal monsters.

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You can tell especially from Frankenstein's monster, who boasts the classic Boris Karloff high squared-off forehead design, but also from the white stripe in his bride's hair and the fact that there is an Invisible Man at all (represented, of course, by the floating glasses). There have been many Mummies, Frankensteins and Draculas, but few other film treatments of the Invisible Man besides Universal's. I'm not quite sure how the Mummy ended up looking (to my eyes) like the Oogie-Boogie Man from Nightmare Before Christmas, but I assume there is some sort of missing link of which I am unaware. Please comment if you know what it is!

The castle, though, is quite plausibly Hammeresque, and for me was the highlight of the entire film:

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As for Dracula, he is almost equal measures Lugosi and Lee. He has inherited Lugosi's turned-up (rather than turned-down) cloak collar, black (not greying) hair and eastern-European (rather than RP British) accent. But he has Lee's black-from-head-to-toe clothing (no white bow-tie or six-pointed medallion), his height and his fluid movements, and most striking of all his moments of SUDDEN RAGE when provoked, complete with burning red eyes and snarling fangs.

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If that's not Christopher Lee, I don't know what is. Certainly, it is lovely to see yet one more testimony to the iconic status of his Dracula.

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This was my first film watched of 2016, so naturally I made sure it was one with Christopher Lee in it! I missed these films in the cinema, so have had them on my Lovefilm list for a while in order to catch up, and having now seen this one on DVD I regret not making the effort to see it on the big screen at the time. It was very definitely made with that scale in mind, so that some of the fight scenes in particular were difficult to follow even on my quite substantial TV. This applied especially to the scenes of escape from the goblin mountain, during which our main party were frequently little more than pin-pricks on my screen, while the generally brownish-grey colour-scheme did nothing at all to help me tell who was whom. I might also add that the bumps and falls which our merry band sustain in this scene and indeed throughout the film with no significant ill effect make what Bruce Willis manages to survive in Die Hard look positively realistic.

That aside, though, I enjoyed the film very much. It is a long time since I read the book (at least 24 years, I reckon), so I wasn't in the least bit bothered by any departures from (or more usually additions to) the original narrative - rather, just generally glad that Tolkien bequeathed us with these extraordinary soaring legends in the first place, and that I live in an era when they have been brought to life so magnificently on screen. OK, so there's a slight feeling of 'I Can't Believe It's Not Lord of the Rings' about this trilogy, but that's inevitable really. And besides, there's actually quite a case for saying that The Hobbit gains something for having been told on screen after The Lord of the Rings, and experienced in its wake. I was struck for example by the sense that Gandalf was both written and played as distinctly less wise and experienced than I remembered him being in the LoTR trilogy; while meeting Gollum for the first time and seeing the pivotal moment when he first loses his Precious was just so much more powerful and captivating seen in the light of what will happen later than it could possibly be the other way round.

Christopher Lee's scenes are minimal, of course, partly to allow for his age and partly because Saruman's character is one of Jackson's additions to the original story, so is only inserted as a cameo really. He filmed them against green-screens in the UK, separately from the other actors in the same scene (this YouTube video shows how). Nonetheless, they are well worth watching if you are a fan, mainly for the same reasons as I've given in re Gandalf and Gollum above of getting to see a different take on his character in the light of what you know will come later. Lee puts exactly the right irascibility and dismissiveness of his fellow White Council members into his delivery, without ever tipping the character over the top into anything actively obstructive or power-hungry, to show us how and why Saruman will eventually change his allegiance, but also why Gandalf and the Elves still trust his advice and seek his input at this stage in the story. Just what we might have expected of him, in other words, but I'm glad it's there on screen and that he lived to do it.

I shall definitely be lining up the next two instalments on my Lovefilm list, in spite of the small-screen issue, but also looking out for opportunities to see all three as they were meant to be viewed in the cinema.

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Wrong one

At 3:30am last night, I did one of those half-wakes you sometimes do during the night, and the one fragment of the dream from which I had awoken which remained to me was a radio presenter's voice saying "Sir Cliff Richard has died." "Heh!" I thought, "Maybe it's a premonition. Must make a mental note of that and see what happens in the morning."

Apparently I'm pretty good at keeping hold of random thoughts which occur to me in the middle of the night, because when I switched on my radio (permanently tuned to Radio 4) that morning at 7 o'clock, my ears instantly pricked up, eager to discover whether or not I had indeed had a psychic experience. Only then the presenter started talking about David Bowie, and everything was wrong.

I can tell you exactly when I first got into David Bowie. It was when his band, Tin Machine, released the single 'Baby Universal', which Wikipedia tells me was October 1991, i.e. when I was 15. I quickly moved on to exploring his back catalogue, and the following April I was lucky enough to see him live at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert in Wembley Arena, which I attended along with best chum hollyione and her Dad. Obviously, David Bowie wasn't the primary reason for going to a gig like that, but for me seeing him was very much a close secondary draw.

His music and films continued to form the centre of my cultural world for the next year or so, and thus it was that, through his back catalogue, David Bowie was the first person to take my hand and lead me gently into that wonderful decade known as the 1970s. In fairness, I think some of the films I'd already seen had made me receptive - especially Dracula AD 1972. hollyione had also definitely played her role through her enthusiasm for Led Zeppelin - her main reason for wanting to go to the Freddie Mercury tribute gig. But it was David Bowie - his music, his look, his persona - who really carried me over the bridge.

Eventually, of course, I discovered other artists there whose music I liked better, like Marc Bolan, Yes, KISS, and indeed Led Zeppelin (whom hollyione had been quite right about all along). David Bowie faded a little from my radar. But I have always retained a more-than-passing liking for him, followed the trajectory of his career with interest, and been pleased when I came across him unexpectedly - as for example in a short film a few years ago at the Bradford Fantastic Film Weekend. When my sister told me that she liked to sing 'Starman' to a baby Eloise, I smiled and thought, "Parenting - you're doing it right", and I went around singing 'Space Oddity' to myself for several days recently after seeing the film which inspired it in glorious Cinerama.

But now he is gone, which hardly seems possible. Like everyone else, it seems, I'd just assumed he would go on forever - always anticipating the zeitgeist; constantly driven to experiment; and proving over and over again that music need not be formulaic to be popular. But apparently nobody can - not even someone whose persona was so otherworldly and supernatural. We can only be glad that he did so many things during his brief time on Earth, and thus left us much to keep on enjoying - including not only his own work, but all the many bands, films and fashion movements which he inspired. Thank you for that, David.

In light of how it opened, I feel I should end this post by saying that I don't actually wish death on Cliff Richard. He may have spent most of his career deliberately appealing to the socially and musically conservative, and indeed hold those sorts of values so dearly himself that he's capable of saying something like this about the very subject of this post:
But I do have a persistent soft spot for him all the same. Some of his music is great - most of his songs with The Shadows, and occasional later gems like 'Wired for Sound' - and he manages to project a sense of ease with who he is and what he does in interviews which I find endearing. Besides, this doesn't seem the sort of day to wish death on anyone. I of course reserve the right to retract these sentiments if he turns out to have been a predatory paedophile all along. (Which, of course, is a case you could make about David Bowie too, although I do feel it makes some difference when you have an adult woman looking back and saying that she treasures the whole experience. All your faves are problematic.)

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This is the second Hammer Dracula novelisation I was able to get hold of, and I read it during my holiday to Romania in May / June. I took copious notes on it at the time, in a notebook which I was also using (in a different part of it) to record my experiences of the holiday as a whole. On the day when we travelled to Actual Dracula's Actual Castle, I got confused about which part of the notebook was supposed to be for which purpose, so that the section which is meant to contain my Prince of Darkness notes now at one point reads like this:
Shandor would normally offer the hospitality of the monastery to everyone, but stops himself and decides to insist the 'wagoner' must stay outside because of the situation with Dracula. Knows nothing from the outside must be carried in.
The mountains are starker now - patches of bare, sheer rock. But still hugging the river.
A simple mistake, obviously, but somehow also a beautiful symptom of exactly what I went on that holiday to achieve - a deliberate blurring of the boundaries between the magical world of Hammer's Dracula and the reality of the Carpathian mountains. Certainly, I couldn't have picked a more perfect setting for reading the novel than my seat on a coach winding its way through the actual Carpathians, or a more perfect mind-set for exploring Actual Dracula's Actual Castle than having just put down the book to get out of the coach.

I haven't been able to check this novel against the film's original shooting script, but I am reasonably sure that, like the Scars of Dracula novelisation, it was written from the script before the film came out, rather than by sitting and watching the film. One of my reasons for thinking this is that the town known as 'Carlsbad' in the film is called 'Josefsbad' in the novel. It seems very unlikely that a writer whose brief was to create a faithful novelisation of the film would make a change of that sort, but details like that quite often were changed during the production of Hammer's films. So it's probable that 'Josefsbad' is the name used in the original script, and thus also the novel. Similarly, some of the details of what the castle looks like are different in the novel from the film - e.g. the travellers pass through a gateway before reaching the main door, and the main hallway contains a curved staircase. Again, it's unlikely that a writer working from the film would change these details, so they must reflect the descriptions in the original script, as opposed to Bernard Robinson's actual sets, which represent a compromise between the script descriptions and what was feasible with the space and budget he had available.

If I'm correct about this, the novel goes some way towards helping to resolve one of the 'controversies' around this film - namely, the issue of whether the original script gave Dracula any dialogue or not. Christopher Lee claimed the script did include dialogue for Dracula, but that he thought it was awful and refused to speak it, whereas Jimmy Sangster (who actually wrote the script) said that he never included any dialogue for Dracula in the first place. Sadly, Christopher Lee was famous for saying things in interviews which were neither plausible nor internally consistent (put less politely: lying), and Sangster's claim is certainly supported by the novel, which indeed does not include any dialogue for Dracula. But only a look at the actual original script could resolve this 100%. If it is held in the archive recently acquired by The Cinema And Television History (CATH) Research Centre at De Montfort University, then checking should be trivially easy now - but I haven't come across anyone saying that they've looked, or what they discovered if so.

Meanwhile, although this novelisation again follows the story of the film very faithfully, Burke clearly made a conscious decision to structure his telling of it in a slightly different way, and in particular to present each of its nine chapters as much as possible from the viewpoint of a single character. I found this very effective, especially for chapter 4, which presents the ritual resurrection of Dracula entirely from Klove's point of view, and chapter 8, which covers everything from Helen's attack through the monastery window to Dracula's abduction of her from Diana's point of view. The effect is to give us something quite similar to what Angus Hall did with the Scars novelisation - that is, insights into the inner worlds of these characters of the type which can't quite be conveyed on screen - but in a slightly more sustained way. For example, we learn a lot in chapter 4 about Klove's experiences during the many years while he has watched and waited for an opportunity to resurrect his master and the extent to which he really does think of the resurrection itself as a religious ritual, while chapter 8 of course puts us inside Diana's head during Dracula's attempt to make her drink his blood from a wound which he scratches into his chest. This scene actually isn't played quite the same way as in the film - in the novel she eventually finds the will to resist, which she most certainly does not in the film. But in any case, Burke's selection of his point-of-view character for both chapters is extremely effective and adds powerful extra dimensions to the story.

I particularly enjoyed the final, climactic chapter, covering the chase from the monastery to the castle and Dracula's final demise. It had a lot of multi-sensory descriptive detail - the fading light of the sun, the dusty road, the foaming horses, the shriek of wood and iron as the run-away wagon crashes on the castle bridge - and a real sense of action and urgency. Indeed, a lot of the details in this chapter made it much clearer to me than the film has ever managed how much this sequence was supposed to recall the climatic chase at the end of Stoker's novel, with Dracula likewise being carried along in a coffin on a rough wagon through a winter landscape, and the vampire-hunters catching up with him just as the sun is about to set.

Dracula's icy demise made much more sense as described in the novel, too, freed as it was from the budget and special-effects constraints at work on the film. In the film, the final fight takes place on a solid platform of ice, and the audience is asked to accept that Dracula is somehow stupid enough to end up trapped on the only loose chunk of that ice, rather than just running the hell away as soon as the first cracks appear, and climbing up the castle wall to escape. But in the novel, all of the ice breaks up, and very quickly too. Charles just about manages to escape to one side and climb the bank, while on the other Dracula tries to edge along the last pieces of remaining ice towards a protruding buttress of the castle wall, which he could use to climb up off the ice to safety - but is prevented from doing so by a final collapse which plunges him into the water.

In fact, this scene as described in the novel reminds me somewhat of the resurgence of spring and vitality after the winter frosts which happens at the end of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and helps to defeat the White Witch. There is a sense that nature itself - not just Father Shandor's rifle - is playing its part here, throwing off the dark grip of winter to let life through once again and defeat Dracula. I'm sure all of this was lovingly described and envisaged in Sangster's original script, and I entirely understand why realistic breaking ice was rather beyond the effects capability of the production crew. But anyway, it's nice to finally understand what is meant to be happening during an ending which I've always found very frustrating and annoying while watching the film. Perhaps I'll be able to watch it more charitably in future, now that I know what they were trying to convey.

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In 1976, Anne Rice published Interview with the Vampire, a novel presented in the form of a vampire's taped confessional, reporting on his life and experiences from his point of view. One year earlier, Fred Saberhagen had done much the same, except that his vampire was Dracula.

I don't think either can have been aware of the other's work until after they had completed their own. Interview with the Vampire was an intensely personal novel whose gestation period stretched back to a short story written in the late 1960s, and its manuscript was complete by 1974. I haven't been able to find an equivalent project history for The Dracula Tape, but obviously the fact that it was published before Rice's novel means Saberhagen is very unlikely to have had any opportunity to read hers before submitting his. Rather, I think we are seeing the combined effect of a) the explosive potential of taped conversations being rather in the air thanks to the role they had played in the Watergate scandal, and b) the general shift towards sympathetic portrayals of vampires at this time, also visible a year later in the heavily romanticised 1977 Broadway version of Dracula starring Frank Langella (later turned into Dracula 1979). In other words, it's simply two authors responding to the same zeitgeist.

Another bit of zeitgeist which left its mark on Saberhagen's novel (though not Anne Rice's) was the publication of In Search of Dracula by Radu Florescu and Raymond T. McNally in 1972. This was the first publication to argue that Bram Stoker based his Count Dracula directly on the Wallachian Voievod Vlad III Dracula, and to make the real-world history of the latter accessible to Anglophone readers. It inspired a whole wave of creative works fleshing out the connection between the two after its publication, including the BBC radio play 'Lord Dracula' which I listened to recently, this documentary starring Christopher Lee and many others. So it's no big surprise to find that Saberhagen's Dracula explicitly is Vlad - though this doesn't actually have very much impact on the detail of the novel, since its main concern is with the same time-period as is covered in Stoker's novel, several centuries after Vlad's human life-time.

The story which Saberhagen's Dracula relates, at once to a tape recorder and to the frightened great-grandson of Mina Harker and his wife, is simply that of Stoker's novel, but as experienced from his point of view. Saberhagen had obviously read the novel closly, and offers a nice subversive reading of it. We learn that his Dracula was genuinely trying to pass as human at the start of Jonathan Harker's visit to his castle, using the visit as practice in doing so before moving to the busy metropolis of London, but had underestimated how difficult it would be and found to his frustration and consternation that he kept failing at it - as, for example, when Harker cuts himself while shaving. Every ostensibly-damning detail in Stoker's novel is carefully explained - that wasn't a baby in the sack he threw to his three brides but a squealing pig; the wolves which appear at the castle door when Harker tries to leave are there to escort him safely to the main road, not frighten him back into the castle; Lucy dies not because of his blood-drinking but because she is given transfusions from the wrong blood group; etc. etc. Dracula himself only takes human blood with the person's consent (otherwise drinking from animals), he of course truly loves first Lucy and then Mina, and he and Mina eventually enter into a conspiracy to fake his death and thus throw the vampire-hunters off his scent.

As a flipped perspective narrative, it's pretty well done. That said, Saberhagen's prose is nothing like Bram Stoker's, and he does himself no favours by showing this up very starkly in the earlier parts of the story through extensive direct quotations from the novel, which his Dracula then deconstructs and retells. I understand why he felt the need to do this - basically the fear that people might not 'get' his rewritings if they didn't have the original account easily to hand to remind them of the story as Stoker had originally told it. But personally I'd prefer him not to have done it quite so much, even if he had been able to write like Bram Stoker. It felt to me like wasted space which could have been used instead for extra new story, and made the whole narrative feel too closely tied to the structure of Stoker's. I was also unconvinced by the relationship between Dracula and Mina, which seemed to be suddenly announced as a Great Love without any very clear basis that I could see - but this seems to be a common complaint for me with fictional love-affairs, which I have written about in relation to Dracula (1979) and Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) to mention only the Dracula-related instances (it doesn't only annoy me in Dracula stories; it's just that I tend to write more about those than anything else).

Still, I'm glad I read it. I've known that this novel exists since 1994, because it has a detailed entry in a vampire encyclopedia which I bought in that year, and of course have been hungry ever since to hear Dracula's story from his perspective - but it has only been recently in this eBay-enabled age that I've been able to access a copy. It's certainly better than Dacre Stoker and Ian Holt's attempt at a similarly redemptive narrative, and is interesting for the place it holds in the ongoing evolution of Dracula fiction.

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2. Angus Hall (1971), The Scars of Dracula

Now I am going to attempt some book reviews. I am seriously behind on these. I read this particular book last February, and while that's not a problem in this case because it is a Hammer Dracula book, so I took detailed and obsessive notes about it at the time, that isn't true of everything I read in 2015. So this particular review will probably be ludicrously long, but others are likely to be rather brief.

Anyway, just as Target Books began producing novelisations of Classic Doctor Who TV stories in the 1970s, usually based on the original script rather than the broadcast version (not least because these weren't always available by the time the novels were written), the same thing happened for quite a number of the Hammer films. Not all were novelised, but of the Dracula series, Brides, Prince and Scars were done in this way; and of those, Scars was the one I managed to pick up for a reasonable price on eBay first. As it happens, I also managed to obtain a copy of the Scars shooting script, written by Anthony Hinds, around the same time, as an optional extra along with a book I bought from Peveril Publishing. So I was able to read the two against one another, as well of course as considering how they compared to the film.

As a result, I can be 100% confident that this novel was indeed written by working directly from the script. The plot and dialogue follow it exactly, and the descriptive passages in the novel often use the exact same wording as the descriptions of actions and locations found in the script (which, of course, unlike the dialogue, could not possibly have been taken from the film). Indeed, some of the location descriptions used in the novel don't match what was eventually shown on the screen (budget restrictions often led to scaling-down), but do match the original script. This isn't to say novel and script are identical, though. Hall was clearly at liberty to embellish, and in this spirit has taken some sequences described in the script in a slightly different direction from what was done in the film. He has also included some scenes that aren't in the version of the script I read at all - though they may have been in earlier drafts. Certainly, the version of the script I read has quite a lot of notes in it stating that scenes had been deleted or omitted, and sometimes that is exactly where the extra scenes appear in the novel. Both novel and script also confirm what I've read about Dracula's opening resurrection scene in various books about Hammer films - that it was added at the last minute at the request of Hammer's distributors at this time, EMI. This matches up with the fact that isn't in the script or the novel.

Another way in which both script and novel differ from the final film relates to the castle - and now that I've read them I finally understand what the film was trying to get at here in a way I never did before. In the film, we see the main body of the castle being set on fire early in the story, but then soon afterwards Dracula and Tania are living in the very same rooms perfectly happily, without any sign of fire damage. Dracula mentions that the beautiful furniture etc visible in the rooms is 'all that was left - after the fire', but we never see any visible signs of fire-damage. The script and novel both reveal what was meant to be the set-up, though - that the Great Hall of the castle had collapsed in on itself in the fire, leaving only two usable areas: the servants' quarters, where Dracula moves his remaining good furniture, and one bedroom, with the two connected only by slimy / charred / draughty corridors. This would have been really cool and interesting, picking up rather nicely on Stoker's original vision of Dracula living in visibly straightened circumstances, yet with the evidence of once-great wealth all around him, but it just wasn't followed through in the film - probably for the practical reason that the interior sets were reworked from Horror of Frankenstein, made just before this, while the exterior sets and long-distance models were developed separately. The result is that the exteriors and interior don't match up sensibly, and the interiors are all rather too grand to look convincingly like servants' quarters. That's just what they had, so - whaddayagonnado?

Comparing the novel to the film, Hall gives us a slightly more supernatural Dracula than what we see on screen. Right from the start, Hammer had elected to write out Dracula's ability to adopt anything other than human form for budget reasons - Peter Cushing's Van Helsing calls the idea that he can turn into a bat or wolf a 'fallacy' in the first film. With Scars, a sequence in the script describing a sleeping Dracula locking eyes with a bat which flies into his crypt is interpreted in the film as meaning that he has given the bat telepathic instructions, which it then flies off to obey, but in the novel Hall turns this into Dracula himself actually becoming the bat, and flying off to wreak his revenge on the local villagers directly. Similarly, as Paul stumbles through the forest after being kicked out of the village inn, Hall describes the mountain mist crawling down his collar as though it were alive - perhaps just atmospheric embellishment, but perhaps also meant to make us wonder whether it is actually Dracula or one of his vampire hordes who have temporarily adopted a misty form, and are checking him out as a potential victim?

Hall also proves himself good at creating a suitably Gothic atmosphere through his descriptions of rugged, inhospitable landscapes, vegetation and weather. He has to do this to create the right effect in the absence of Gothic-looking visuals, of course, but Hall's writing is successful enough to make some scenes distinctly more chilling than they are in the film. This is true for the afore-mentioned scene of Paul stumbling through the forest through enveloping mists, and for another one of Klove advancing on Sarah with ill intent towards the end of the story, which Hall makes ten times more obviously rapey than it comes across as on screen. (I'm not saying having rapeyness in stories is a great thing, but if you are going to do it, you should convey the horror as clearly as possible, which Hall does.) In short, Hall's novel is overall slightly better qua novel than the film is qua film - though, in fairness, Hall didn't have to come up with the original plot, so could concentrate more on stylistic matters instead when he wrote it up. Also, let's be honest, we are starting from a pretty low bar with this particular film. ;-)

This isn't to say he always had his eye entirely on the ball - after all, we are basically talking about a cheap paperback which was probably knocked out in no more than a month. For example, he gives us a big scene all about how tired Julie is because her last customers have stayed until 2am and she has then had to clear up after them before going to bed, only to be followed by dialogue two pages later about how no-one in her village will open up after dark. He also makes both Paul and then later Simon recognise the name Dracula, and know something of his terrible reputation, before they meet him - something which the film itself steers clear of, and is a mistake in my view. The logic of the films is always that the large towns which people like Paul and Simon come from represent the normal, civilised world, within which horrors such as Dracula are unimaginable, and that he can only flourish in out-of-the way villages where the combination of isolation, ignorance and fear allows him to get away with his terrible acts unchecked. If normal chaps like Paul and Simon know about him all the same, that begins to fall apart, which in turn erodes the very delicate balance of disbeliefs which allow the whole story-world to function.

On the other hand, Hall sometimes strives to smooth over unresolved plot peculiarities from the original script, including one which I hadn't even noticed. This came in chapter 15, when Hall seeks to explain why Simon and Sarah would hitch a ride in a farmer's cart when they go off to look for Paul, when they're clearly both from wealthy families who would have their own carriages. Hall's explanation is they think they'll get more response from the locals if they pretend to be a penniless couple - a nice idea, and it does more or less match up with Simon's attempt in the film to pretend they're students. Another possibility which occurs to me, now that I'm alerted to the issue, is that they are trying to hide what they're doing from both sets of parents, who would naturally worry, and might even insist on involving the police, who would then try to arrest Paul for his alleged assault on the Burgomaster's daughter.

Meanwhile, because he is writing a novel rather than a film script, Hall can offer us some insights into the inner lives of his characters. He does this for most of them, but it is particularly striking and interesting for Dracula, who is usually so aloof and impenetrable. E.g. at the start of chapter 10, when Dracula first sees Paul, we learn that he feels jealous of Paul for being young, human and vital. I'm not sure that's quite how I see Dracula, but it certainly has a basis in Lee's performances, in which he always attempted to convey what he called 'the loneliness of evil'. Hall also gives Dracula some considerable extra dialogue towards the end of the novel, especially when Simon comes face to face with him in his crypt having just discovered Paul's grisly fate. There are no deletions marked in the script I have at this point in the story, and I think it's unlikely that Hinds would have written such a long talky scene into what is more or less the climax of the film, so I think this must be original to Hall. But in a novel its very welcome to have the main protagonist and antagonist confronting one another properly, and of course more than welcome to have some extra lines for Dracula himself, who here shows us his arrogant (or self-confident, depending on your point of view!) faith in his invulnerability just before his fall.

Hall also makes the characters of both Julie and the Priest considerably more plausible than they come across on screen. In the case of the Priest, this isn't entirely Hall's doing - the Priest was already rather more convincing in Anthony Hinds' script than he comes across as in the final film, where he behaves so bizarrely (trying to stop the villagers attacking Dracula, wimping out for no clear reason whenever an attack does take place) that it is possible to read him as being in league with Dracula. In both script and novel it is much clearer that he is supposed to be a re-hash of the Priest from Risen, and as such is simply a weak and scared man with some traumatic memories. But Julie's transition from a plot avatar to a believable character seems to be entirely Hall's doing. Her dialogue and actions are much the same as in both script and film, yet the glimpses into her inner thought-world which Hall adds somehow give them a purpose and meaning which weren't at all obvious before. This is very definitely an improvement.

Finally, here is a list of small points of world-building detail which Hall inserts into the novel, but are not made explicit in the film or the shooting script:
  • Chapter 1 - states explicitly that the story is set in Transylvania, and that Kleinenberg is 10 leagues (i.e. 30 miles) from the village / castle area.
  • Chapter 7 - the border which Paul crashes through in the run-away carriage divides Transylvania into two self-governing states. This means than both Kleinenberg and the castle are in Transylvania, but also helps to explain the unwillingness of the police officers from Kleinenberg to go as far as the castle in their investigations.
  • Chapter 8 - the inn in the village near the castle is called the Castle Arms.
  • Chapter 21 - Dracula's coach is driven back to the castle from the village after Sarah and Simon have used it to escape by 'Klove perhaps - or one of his allies in the village'. Actually it can't be Klove, who was left behind in the castle and wouldn't have had time to catch up with Sarah and Simon and collect the coach. But the passing reference to Klove having allies in the village is interesting. I think he must, as indeed must Dracula, directly or indirectly, in every one of these films to exercise the control he does over the local area. (The film, by contrast, doesn't attempt to explain how the coach gets back to the castle, although from what we see in Prince it's reasonable enough to assume that the horses simply returned home by themselves, responding to Dracula's supernatural influence over animals.)
  • Chapter 22 - this provides more detail about Klove's connections with the local community, specifying that he has a cousin who is an apprentice to a local blacksmith, and who helps return Dracula's coach whenever it gets abandoned, which happens two or three times a year. This in turn suggests that Dracula uses his coach to lure victims to his castle on a regular basis, but that those schemes quite often go awry.
  • Chapter 24 - here we learn that Klove himself used to be an apprentice in Kleinenberg, where he regularly saw Sarah as a child, before being sold into Dracula's service. Also, since going into Dracula's service he has sometimes seen her there again on journeys to Kleinenberg. Backstory FTW! Personally I like the bit about Klove being an apprentice and Dracula regularly visiting Kleinenberg, but not so much the bit about Klove being sold into Dracula's service. Hall has some further dialogue which specifies that he is sold for money, but this is to completely overlook Dracula's supernatural powers, and thus what is distinctive and interesting about him as a character. He shouldn't need to buy servants when he can clearly use his hypnotic powers to compel them into loyal service for nothing, and / or the promise of dark powers to string them along in the hope of some eventual reward.
  • Chapter 26 - this offers a few glimpses into what might happen after the end of the story as filmed, in the form of a flash-forward set during Sarah's journey from the church which she has fled after the bat attack to the castle: "Later, when asked by the police how she had reached the castle, she was unable to give a coherent answer." Her fragmentary memories include trying for help at the inn, being thrown out, and riding a stolen horse up to the castle (as opposed to running / walking there, which is what the script and film have). It is of course perfectly obvious that Sarah and Simon would end up being interviewed by the police after their experiences in the castle, since the police are already in pursuit of Paul over his alleged treatment of the Burgomaster's daughter - but heaven knows what they would make of Simon and Sarah's story!

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32. The Gorgon (1964), dir. Terence Fisher

My final film watched of 2015, I recorded this one off the Horror Channel a while ago, and watched it on New Year's Eve. It's a Hammer horror classic, right from their glorious hey-day, in which the Germanic village of Vandorf is troubled by the spirit of a millennia-old Gorgon who comes out when the moon is full and turns people to stone. It is also one of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing's twenty-odd screen collaborations. I have seen it before, but a looong time ago - probably a good 20 years, I reckon.

It is almost really brilliant. Much of the usual reliable production team is here - James Bernard doing the music, Bernard Robinson the sets, Michael Reed the photography, Rosemary Burrows the costumes and Terence Fisher the direction. Quite apart from Lee and Cushing, the cast is great too. Richard Pasco, Michael Goodliffe and Patrick Troughton are all worth the entrance fee alone, but Barbara Shelley particularly shines in a role which really shows her range: kind, gentle and loving, strong-willed yet afraid and internally conflicted, while always remaining entirely convincing as a single, coherent character. I already loved her from Dracula Prince of Darkness (in which she is similarly wide-ranging), Rasputin the Mad Monk and Quatermass and the Pit, but she really excelled herself in this one, and I'm now thinking I should make a point of seeking out some of her other appearances.

What lets it down, though, is a story-line which doesn't fully work through its potential. There's a good idea on the table. But discussing it involves spoilers, and it is best to see this film unspoilt if you canCollapse )

I am also going to come right out and say that I don't think Christopher Lee is particularly good in this film either. His character is actually the good guy, who arrives half-way through the story, applies an open-minded rationalism to what is going on, figures out what the villagers are hiding and eventually dispatches the Gorgon. And this is something he is definitely perfectly capable of doing well, as his performance as the Duc de Richleau in The Devil Rides Out shows. But for some reason he evidently decided to give his character in this film a sort of brusque gruffness which just didn't work for me. This isn't to say he's abysmal. He has some good confrontation scenes with Peter Cushing, where there is a lot going on emotionally on both sides of the equation. But of the two, Cushing's depiction of a man who, while rather unlikable overall, elicits our sympathy through the obvious mental anguish caused by his attempts to cover up spoiler"sCollapse ) crimes, is distinctly more compelling and interesting to watch.

Finally, what can we make of the use of a Greek mythological creature in this film? It's only to be expected, really. Hammer in this period were clearly working their way through every monster they could think of in their search for suitable new material, and they were bound to turn to Greek mythology at some point. It also happens to make the middle entry in a nice trio with The Mummy (1959) and The Viking Queen (1967): Egypt ✓, Greece ✓, Rome ✓ - and I think there is clear hierarchy of priorities at work in the order they went about them, basically working from the culture with the most potential for macabre fantasy stories to the one with the least. The particular choice of a Gorgon I would guess probably springs from a fairly simple pragmatic equation - another spoilery bit hereCollapse ), and her only non-humanoid attribute is the snakes, making the special effects relatively manageable too. (This film pre-dates Clash of the Titans (1981), so its Gorgon does not have a snaky tail - Ray Harryhausen invented that.) The effects are still pretty poor, and this is a major flaw in the film - but imagine how much more trouble they would have had trying to do the sphinx, harpies, Echidna or similar.

Meanwhile, Bernard Robinson took up the Greek cue in his set design, making a nice replica centrepiece of the Belvedere Torso for the entrance-hall of the castle where the Gorgon likes to lurk, which was used to good effect in turn by Michael Reed's photography:

The Gorgon castle.jpg

On one level, this was a reasonably obvious creative touch for a film about people being turned to stone by a monster from Greek mythology. And the particular choice of the Belvedere Torso is not difficult to explain. It's an extremely famous piece of Greek sculpture (technically a Roman copy of a Hellenistic original, but that is true of most surviving 'Greek' art), of the type which you would come across pretty quickly if you picked up any book on the topic. But then again, there would have been lots of other options in the same book too, and homing in on one which expresses anguish and tragedy so eloquently through its twisted pose and fragmentary state deserves credit; as does the fact that its missing limbs and head both resonate rather nicely with what happens to some of the Gorgon's victims, and eventually also the Gorgon herself, over the course of the film. Possibly the Laocoön, with its snaky theme, would have been an even better choice - but then again I see why a replica of that statue would be considerably more time-consuming and expensive to make. Also, it left the stage clear for 28 Days Later to use the Laocoön statue in a very similar way many decades later - maybe even inspired by Bernard Robinson's set designs, who knows?

Overall, worth watching for Barbara Shelley, the Lee-Cushing pairing and the general Hammery goodness, but not in the first rank.

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Watched because shingles, and because magister noticed I had not seen it, and therefore lent me the DVD. It is a pastiche story about a washed-up super-hero, who was America's golden boy in the 1940s, but then fell foul of McCarthyism and ended up drinking meths in the gutter. When his arch-nemesis, Mr. Midnight, makes a re-appearance, steals a government-developed hypno-ray and uses it to gather all of New York's ethnic minorities into a new housing project so that he can blow them up, Captain Invincible has to be brought back into shape to save the day.

It's quite funny, and a perfectly acceptable way to spend an hour and a half, but I think there's a sort of cap on how funny feature-length pastiches can be - generally the joke tends to wear thin after a while, and this is no exception. There are hints also that the script aspired to being more bitingly satirical than it actually is, but that the ideas weren't followed through. This applies especially to the notion of the US government developing a hypno-ray, and Mr. Midnight's declared belief that the 'pure genetic Americans' will applaud his ethnic cleansing of New York and carry him into the White House as a result. Obviously both of those ideas are scathingly critical of America's government and its voting public (the film is Australian, BTW), but they aren't really worked through properly, so that the critique fizzles out rather than hitting home, and the eugenics project in particular just feels weirdly distasteful. In the end, the plot boils down to a standard good vs. evil story, with Captain Invincible saving the day and getting the girl.

Lee plays Mr. Midnight, of course, doing exactly what he normally does best in this sort of role - playing the villain with deadly serious professionalism, yet with a little twinkle in his eye that lets us know how much he is enjoying pushing the performance just as notch or two over the top. He also gets to sing, as the film is a musical comedy. On the whole, the songs aren't up to much, and have that quality of feeling like they are just interrupting the story which is the hall-mark of a weak musical. But Lee's turn close to the end in the alcoholic pun-based 'Name Your Poison' is justly famous, and this Youtube video (which also includes a minute or so of confrontational dialogue between Mr. Midnight and Captain Invincible) captures pretty much everything which is worth seeing about his part in this film:


In short, once you've seen that video, you can safely skip the rest of the movie.

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Seen last Thursday evening at the Cottage Road cinema with the lovely Mr. and Mrs. Zeitgeist Zero. As more or less everyone has said, it is great, basically because it is much the same as the original three films, except that the characters now have new names and faces. There's just the right mix of big plot business, epic battles and explosions, cute robots, soaring music, snarky humour and the personal journeys of the main characters - with the emotional emphasis very much on the latter. And everything else I say about this film is bound to be spoilerific.

Let's start with charactersCollapse )

Then there is plotCollapse )

In short, then, jolly good. I'm certainly looking forward to the next one, and may well go back for another big-screen viewing of this before it finishes its cinema-run.

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