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I spent the weekend just gone having a brilliant time at the National Media Museum's annual Fantastic Films Weekend, along with chums ms_siobhan, planet_andy, miss_s_b, Andrew Hickey and minnesattva. I played it relatively light this year, missing all of Friday daytime and the Sunday evening too, so that it seemed to be over almost as soon as it had begun. But as every year, I enjoyed the bits I went to immensely.

One of the main themes of the festival this year was Hammer horror, and as part of this they screened The Quatermass Xperiment on the first evening, preceded by a live interview with Renée Glynne, an 85-year-old script supervisor and continuity person who had worked on it. Renée had also clearly been invited as part of another festival theme - women in horror - since, as Robert Simpson said when introducing her, the FFW has featured plenty of Hammer men in previous years, but never a Hammer woman. The 'women in horror' theme wasn't particularly strongly emphasised - for example, it wasn't signalled as a theme in the festival programme in the way that the Hammer stuff was. But nonetheless it had clearly informed the programme, helping to contribute to a noticeably different flavour to the festival which has come about with the shift in directorship from Tony Earnshaw to new incumbent, Sarah Crowther. I wouldn't say that the way the festival was run was in any way misogynistic before - but the horror film industry is a particularly male-dominated enclave within what is still a generally male-dominated wider film industry, so I do appreciate the fact that the appointment of a woman as the new festival director seems to have meant a little explicit thinking about that, and how to approach it.

Anyway, going back to the interview, Renée began her career in 1943 and is still working - and as anyone who has kept going that long would have to be, she was a very effusive and energetic character. She had clearly enjoyed her career immensely, talking about it with great enthusiasm, although she did have a bit of a tendency to go off into rambling stories which didn't bear terribly much relation to the questions Robert Simpson had asked her. Still, she did say a few interesting things about the inter-personal relationships at play within the Hammer stable, and the practicalities of working closely on set with actors and camera crews. And she was certainly an inspirational person to watch in action. With her oriental-style gold brocade jacket and trousers, matching handbag and scarf, black sequinned baker-boy cap and hand-painted gold and black crocs she could give any of the ladies on the Advanced Style blog a run for their money - and between that and her energy and enthusiasm, I mainly just sat there hoping that I can manage to be like her if I'm lucky enough to live into my mid-80s.

17. The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), dir. Val Guest

So then it was on to the film itself. I think I may have seen the end of this before, but not the whole thing, so I was very glad of the opportunity to experience what was basically Hammer's first foray into fantastic film-making on a big screen. We saw it via a digitally restored print, but although this meant the visuals were pretty good, there was unfortunately something wrong with the set-up which made the sound move increasingly out of synch with them. By the end, sound and vision were running about two seconds apart - enough to mean that you would see one character's mouth moving while hearing a different one speaking during rapid exchanges of dialogue. Annoying!

Making due allowance for that, though, I could see why the film had been such a big success with an SF-hungry audience when it first came out. Obviously Nigel Kneale's story is a cracker, and although I know he wasn't very keen on the film adaptation, I think Hammer knew what they were doing in terms of story pacing, judicious special effects, camerawork and so forth. I particularly liked Inspector Lomax (Jack Warner), who is a lovely early example of a very ordinary, likeable and slightly comic character set amongst a cast of heroes, heroines, intellectuals and monsters - a classic Hammer trope, later often manifested in the person of Michael Ripper. And it was also fun to see Gordon Jackson, better-known to me as Mr. Hudson from Upstairs Downstairs, in an earlier role and with a little more hair.

I did find Margia Dean as Judith Carroon (the infected astronaut's wife) rather wooden - but perhaps female actors are more likely to stand out as poor in a film like this, where they are generally playing the only characters expected to carry much emotional weight. Apart from Inspector Lomax and Carroon himself, all the male roles in this type of film really require is a lot of standing around and Being Scientific, so that it's fairly easy for them to get away with being a bit stiff. But female characters are expected to register concern, fear, grief etc a lot more than their male counterparts, making weak performances rather more noticeable - so I guess it is a bit unfair to pick on her for it.

Meanwhile, it was patently clear that many a Doctor Who script-writer and / or effects artist has seen this film at a formative stage in their creative lives. In particular, the motif of an infected / possessed astronaut whose hand is turning into something alien is pretty central to The Ark in Space, while we also get the Doctor himself turning more literally into a cactus in Meglos. On another level, the Abzorbaloff in Love and Monsters also likes to absorb living creatures - but that is a much later deliberate parody, so we're dealing with a different type of influence there. None of these relationships are any surprise, of course - Doctor Who has always functioned by hoovering up exciting story motifs from an enormous range of sources, and I think that's partly why I like it so much. It offers a great point of entry and cross-reference for vast swathes of western culture, and it was fun to spot a couple of specific ones here.

18. The Casebook of Eddie Brewer (2012), dir. Andrew Spencer

I hadn't originally planned to see this one, but was persuaded to do so by fellow festival-goers, and was glad I agreed. It is an independent film about a paranormal investigator made on an unusually-low 'nano-budget' of £1500, and it has only just started being promoted at festivals, with this showing being its second ever. Three of the people involved in making it, including the director, were there to introduce it, explaining that the actors had taken part on the basis that they would be paid if and when the film made any money, and that their biggest expense had been a gas heater to heat freezing cold wintry rooms in the disused Georgian house which they had used as their main set.

With all that in mind, of course, the film itself could have been absolutely awful - but it really wasn't. The most obvious symptom of the low budget was poor lighting, but even that was partly explained away by the fact that much of the footage you see on screen is supposed to be being taken by an in-story fly-on-the-wall documentary crew, Eddie Brewer's own hand-held video camera or CCTV recorders. Sadly, this very device also had a down-side for me, which was that the wobbly hand-held camera footage made me feel rather queasy by the end of the film. It wasn't as bad as The Blair Witch Project or Cloverfield, both of which I had to 'watch' for the most part with my eyes closed, just taking occasional glimpses when I could tell from the soundtrack that the setting had changed and I needed to re-orient myself. Here at least the characters holding the hand-held cameras were not required to run about quite so much, so that their footage was steadier, while the scenes shot via the video-camera, the CCTV and a non-diegetic film crew were perfectly OK. But it still made viewing the film less enjoyable than it might otherwise have been.

As for the story, though, it was really good. As you would expect from a horror film, it offers plenty of suspense, building up the creepy atmosphere very nicely and delivering some genuine chills by the end. But its main strength is its characterisation, and particularly the central character - the paranormal investigator, Eddie Brewer. As we follow him round for a few days, alongside the in-story documentary crew who are filming him, we build up a compelling picture of a very human character. He's a little reclusive and eccentric, as you would expect from someone who had made paranormal investigations their main pursuit in life, but also endearingly calm and rational about his work, and affected by its ups and downs in a very relatable, human way. The other characters, too, are well-defined, and much of the pleasure of the film really just comes from the way they emerge and interact with one another over the course of the narrative. Perhaps it was a little too cliché to reveal that Eddie had had probably gone into his work as a paranormal investigator partly as a result of losing his wife in a fire shortly after their marriage - but at least the hokiness of that was acknowledged early on through his own dialogue.

The film was made and set in Birmingham, and little details do reflect this - like the Birmingham County Council logos on the notices all over the Georgian house where Eddie hunts ghosts in the cellar, the fact that the house is referred to on-screen via its real-life name of Rookery House, a few Brummie accents amongst the supporting cast, and the name of the (fictional) Central radio station where Eddie appears on a chat show. It's not exactly an in-your-face tribute to the city, and nor would I say that the same story couldn't be told in many another setting, but as a Brummie myself it still pleased me, and certainly makes me hope that the film will go on to do well. It certainly deserves to.

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( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 20th, 2012 07:06 am (UTC)
I think I am still suffering from watching so many films in such a short space of time - though it's also true to say I'm still slightly swoony about the delectable Mr Cushing dressed as a 18th century preacher....so I'd almost forgotten about Eddie Brewer and how good it was :-) it was such a shame about the sound problems on Qutermass though as it got to the point where I just couldn't look at it. Though I did manage to get a good look at the monster made out of tripe and the 'dead' animals which were obviously stuffed ones laid on their sides in the zoo made me chuckle too.

Jun. 20th, 2012 12:34 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I ended up mainly looking at other parts of the screen during Quatermass, rather than the actors' faces, so that the time-difference wasn't so distracting - but it wasn't good.
Jun. 20th, 2012 11:35 pm (UTC)
Parents liking science fiction as much as we do!
Ah Pen, one of my first forays into science fiction was listening to Mum's (Sadie's) recounting of the Quatermass Experiment back when she was a young girl in the mid 1950s. Apparently, she was a big fan!

From what she says, it was the otherness that really scared her back then - growing up in the shadow of World War 2, the world was not as secure and happy as we know it now. My dad also said that he literally "hid under the bed" fearing Russian weapons, and Mum said that the science aspect of Quatermass, made her wary of science as a point of life (did he have a fungus face? This seems to be something Mum has kept in her mind over the years0>

Glad you enjoyed it though!
Jun. 20th, 2012 11:36 pm (UTC)
Re: Parents liking science fiction as much as we do!
Sorry about the 0> stuff - was meant to be a bracket sorry
Jun. 20th, 2012 11:50 pm (UTC)
Re: Parents liking science fiction as much as we do!
Also Pen, do you remember a time way, way back (1979-1980) when you and I used to watch Tom Baker as Dr Who on a Saturday night, either at your home or at mine! I have a distinct memory of us sitting down, watching Tom Baker running around in London, and calculating as to our earliest memories it must have been about then.
Jun. 21st, 2012 08:59 am (UTC)
Re: Parents liking science fiction as much as we do!
Interesting - I've been looking through Tom Baker's stories to try to guess which one this might be, but very few of his were set on Earth around that time. The only one which even nearly fits the bill would be City of Death (autumn 1979), which is actually set in Paris, but does involve a lot of running-around scenes which are clearly designed to show off the setting. At three years old, we might well have got this confused with London - do you think that is what you're remembering?
Jun. 21st, 2012 08:55 am (UTC)
Re: Parents liking science fiction as much as we do!
Yes, my Dad was well into Quatermass, too. I think he had seen it either on TV or in the cinema, and he certainly had some of the books. I remember reading this one in my early teens.

And yes, your Mum's memory about the guy's face in The Quatermass Xperiment is pretty much correct. His skin goes kind of scaly and distorted as you can see reasonably well in this picture. Eventually, he turns into this!
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )

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