Saturday 20 April 2013

A to Z - Quatermass and the Pit

On Thursday, I visited The Plague of the Zombies for 'P', and today I'm back with Hammer for Quatermass & The Pit. Hammer are probably most associated with horror, despite their forays into other genres, and their 1950s boom of popularity actually came through science fiction, with the triple whammy of The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), X - The Unknown (1956), and Quatermass II (1957). It took ten years for the final Quatermass instalment in 1967, by which point Hammer had switched to Technicolor and become more famous for their Dracula and Frankenstein films.

The film opens with work being done at Hobb's End, a fictional station on the London Underground's Central line. When skulls are uncovered by the workers, Dr Roney (James Donald) is called in to investigate. That's not all they found - an alien spacecraft is found buried beneath the mud, bringing Colonel Breen (Julian Glover) and Professor Quatermass (Andrew Kier) into the story as rocket experts who need to decide exactly what the spacecraft is. Soon Quatermass and Roney's assistant Miss Judd (Barbara Shelley) have uncovered local tales of demons and poltergeists, and the site has a long history of disturbances. When the corpses of giant insects are found inside the craft, Quatermass begins to wonder if these aliens and the skulls found in the pit are connected.

It's an interesting plot, and the hypothesis that alien intervention may explain the sudden evolution of man from apes is more plausible than most. Quatermass goes one step further to guess that maybe the likes of poltergeists and telekinesis can be explained by their alien ancestry - maybe humans were originally part Martian. It all kicks off and soon London is tearing itself apart. One of its attractions is definitely the idea of something buried under London - I know I've always been fascinated as much by what is below London as what is on display at street level. With forgotten or abandoned stations, plague pits and buried Roman amphitheatres, it almost seems plausible that a Martian spaceship could be down there as well.

I know some people have problems with the Quatermass films, and many prefer the BBC TV serial, but I've never seen it so I can't really compare it. All I have to go on is the films, and in a way, it's amazing how much Quatermass & The Pit prefigures more modern cinematic tropes. Quatermass was looking at the links between humans and aliens well before The X Files came along, and the shots of Londoners facing off in the streets recall later zombie films; those Londoners who still possess alien ancestry hunt those who don't, seeking to destroy anything which doesn't belong to the alien colony. Sound familiar?

I can't help thinking that one of Hammer's problems was that by the late 1960s, its period horrors were beginning to look rather quaint and dated compared to the output of other filmmakers. A year after Quatermass & The Pit, both Rosemary's Baby and Night of the Living Dead introduced horror into the modern day, and brought it kicking and screaming into the home. It took Hammer until 1972 to bring Dracula into the present day, and even then, it seemed way out of date. By contrast, Quatermass & The Pit represented a possible direction that would have allowed Hammer to blend science fiction with horror within contemporary settings - and hopefully find audiences.

Anyway, here's the opening scene...

Friday 19 April 2013

#FridayFlash - Abandon Hope

The church bell stopped tolling two days ago. Mother thought it meant that the distemper had left us, and would plague our city no more. Father thought that the churches had become overwhelmed, and we would be left to rot in vast pits sunk into rotten ground. Father was right - even now, I can hear the cries of the infected drifting through my window. Two of the houses in our street have been shut up, their inhabitants dying or dead. Three houses in our street lie empty; two because their owners fled into the country when the sickness approached our parish, and one because the entire family perished. Should ours be next?

My sister fears the cries for help that go unanswered and begs me to close the casement, but I cannot bear the stuffiness of our house. Our two maidservants and my brother have caught the distemper, and lie in their sickbeds. The whole house smells of the preservatives my Father bought from a gentlemen physician in Whitecross Street, and I cannot bear their stench. Yet I may not stir out of doors as we have been shut in to prevent the sickness spreading. My brother begged us to remove him to the attic, along with the maidservants, and none are allowed near them save the nurse. My brother remains thoughtful even in his illness.

Father brings me a preservative and begs me to take it, yet I cannot see what this poultice can do in the face of God's wrath. He tells me that it came highly recommended by the physician, a new arrival from the city of Naples, and I asked if it came also at a high price. He reminds me of the sickness within our house, but I believe that if it is God's will that I be spared, then spared I shall be.

Mother asks that I visit the watchman outside our door, placed there to prevent our escape. We have heard rumours of other houses being shut up to contain the sickness, but the inhabitants have fled under cover of darkness, even with the distemper upon them. We none of us wish to die, or sicken, but Mother refuses to leave her son. "We will leave when he does," she says. "Aye," adds my father, "either on foot or in the dead-cart." Mother asks me to give an errand to the watchman; our supplies of bread run low, and we shall need more.

I run down the stairs and knock three times on the door. After the scraping of bolts, the door is pushed ajar, and the watchman peers inside. He asks if I require the dead-cart, and smiles when I shake my head. The watchman knows my brother, and wishes him well. I ask if I may step outside for air while I relate my errand, and the watchman hesitates but a brief moment before allowing that I may do so.

I step into the street and take in the sight. This thoroughfare should be thronged with people, and children should play between the feet of the crowds, but only hunched figures, their faces shrouded with cloths, venture along our street today. The watchman sees my distress, and engages me in idle conversation, asking after my sister while entertaining me with snippets of gossip from the alehouse, now lying quiet as the distemper grips our parish. Time passes and Mother calls down the stairs. Life returns to me, removing my momentary escape, and I give the watchman the message from Mother. He asks me to return inside the house before he leaves for the market. I turn, and look at the door.

A cross, a foot high at least, is daubed upon the door in red paint. I cry out at the reminder of our plight. The watchman ushers me inside, and bolts the door behind me. I sit on the bottom step of the stairs, and I allow a sob to escape my throat.

Father shouts down to me. My brother's sores have broken, and his fever wanes. He is weak, but awake. I run up the stairs, calling his name.

May God have such mercy on us all.

Inspired by Daniel Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year, which is my current reading material.

Thursday 18 April 2013

A to Z - The Plague of the Zombies

I used to be a fan of zombies until they went mainstream, but I have to admit, I will always have a fondness for the old school 'voodoo' zombies. After all, it's where the sub genre started - long before viruses and radiation from space got blamed, cinema was using voodoo to explain its fascination with the undead. First came White Zombie in 1932, then I Walked With A Zombie in 1943, and then the idea went quiet for a bit, until Hammer decided to have a crack at it in 1966 with The Plague of the Zombies. By this point, Hammer had exhausted its own versions of the 1930s Universal classics, and were trying out new ideas to see what might stick in order to create a new movie monster. They'd had a go in 1964 with The Gorgon, a rare attempt at a female monster, and had another crack at things with the zombie.

The Plague of the Zombies is set in rural Cornwall, where Sir James Forbes (André Morell) and his daughter Sylvia (Diane Clare) go to visit one of James's old schoolfriends, Peter (Brook Williams). Things are badly amiss in Peter's village - young men are dying in their prime, and the people are under the thrall of Squire Hamilton (John Carson). When Peter's wife Alice (Jacqueline Pearce) dies, James sets about uncovering what's really going on. I'm not going to spoil it by telling you that voodoo is to blame, and the young men are disappearing to provide cheap labour.

I was half expecting this to be terrible before I watched it, but I was pleasantly surprised. It's a well-paced little horror film, but I think part of its success lies in its reliance on voodoo as the cause. I don't know how plausible it is but it can't be any worse than a virus caused by monkeys being exposed to violent imagery. There has been a lot written about the mindless zombie horde as being a representation of fears surrounding the working class, but I can't help seeing that as being somewhat derogatory. True, the idea of a sole individual wielding power over a subjugated mass is essentially feudalism, but I think I prefer the concept of that sole individual since they become a very human antagonist to foil the protagonist. With a zombie horde, the protagonists are essentially just running about trying to survive. The conflict is simply "get eaten/don't get eaten". With a voodoo priest, you have someone to defeat. I'm aware that raises questions around a closed or open narrative, as well as the so-called 'secure' or 'paranoid' horror, but that's beyond the scope of this post.

What I like about it is the fact that Hammer took their tried and tested period Gothic setting and tried to inject a different form of horror. Zombies weren't fashionable, and I'm still unsure whose idea the film was, but it's almost an entirely new type of film for Hammer. It's not a remake of a Universal classic, nor is it one of the interminable Dracula or Frankenstein sequels. True, some of their 'stabs in the dark' really don't work (like The Witches) but this one really did - and it's such a shame that they turned their back on the idea, and never did zombies again. Instead, the idea was taken up two years later by an American filmmaker named George Romero...

Anyway, I'll leave you with this particular clip, in which Sir James and Peter go to check on the grave of young Alice...

Wednesday 17 April 2013

A to Z - The Others

I appear to be continuing the horror theme from yesterday's Nosferatu, moving on to a much later horror film from 2001, The Others. Directed by Alejandro Amenábar and starring Nicole Kidman, The Others is an old-fashioned ghost story set in an isolated house in Jersey in the years after the Second World War. Kidman plays Grace, a widow with two children, Anne (Alakina Mann) and Nicholas (James Bentley). The children are photosensitive and they dwell in a perpetual twilight as they contain the darkness within the house. After the previous servants leave, Grace manages to hire three more, who know a lot more than they're telling after strange disturbances begin in the house. Grace can't decide if her children are playing tricks, or if the house is haunted, or if she's going mad. Which is it to be?

I absolutely love this film. I'm refusing to say much more about the plot because I don't want to spoil it, but it's one of the few genuinely chilling films of the last fifteen years or so. Ghost films don't seem to be privvy to the same cycles of popularity that affect other horror films, and they often crop up in ones or twos before disappearing for a few more months. I think 1999 was the last 'big' year for ghosts, with The Sixth Sense, the godawful remake of The Haunting and Stir of Echoes being the biggest names on release, so The Others had a couple of years for paranormal fever to die down.

One of the real draws of the film is its setting. Jersey is trying to reestablish its routine following the Nazi occupation in much the same way that Grace is trying to adjust to life without her husband, presumed killed in action. The costumes are gorgeous, and the constant mist outside the house helps add to the air of enclosure, and entrapment, generated throughout the film. Grace's insistence that one door must always be closed before the next is opened to ensure that no light leaks into the rooms where her children are turns the house into a strange space full of shadows and secrets. Disembodied piano playing becomes threatening, and Grace pursues the intruders with a shotgun.

It's perhaps her relationship with her children that really make the film. Child actors can be a mixed bag, but Mann and Bentley are perfect as Anne and Nicholas, hitting the right balance between sibling bickering and protectiveness to make them plausible as brother and sister. Anne's somewhat strained relationship with Grace reaches breaking point when Grace thinks Anne has been possessed by an old woman, and Nicholas becomes torn between Anne's insistence that something is wrong, and Grace's assurances that everything is fine. This is a family on the brink.

It's a wonderful film, with a delightfully creepy atmosphere, and I highly recommend it if you like things that go bump in the night...

Tuesday 16 April 2013

A to Z - Nosferatu

There were plenty of films I could have chosen for N, and indeed one of the problems I've faced for this A to Z challenge is choosing particular films. Why should I choose one film over another? Well I know a few vampire fans read this blog so I thought that for N, I'd choose one of the classics - Nosferatu.

Directed by F. W. Murnau and released in 1922, Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror (Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie Des Grauen) is a loose adaptation of Dracula - Bram Stoker's widow was notoriously protective of copyright, and as this was an unauthorised adaptation, the names were changed to protect the guilty. So Harker becomes Hutter, Mina becomes Ellen, and London is swapped for Bremen, and Murnau adds a few little touches of his own, casting Nosferatu as the cause of the 1838 outbreak of plague in Bremen.

The plot is essentially a streamlined form of Dracula - an estate agent, Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim), is sent to see Count Orlok (Max Schreck) to help him with a purchase in Bremen. Turns out the Count is buying the dilapidated houses directly opposite where Hutter lives. The Count develops a fancy for Hutter's wife, Ellen (Greta Schröder) and heads to Bremen, bringing with him the plague. Hutter naturally wants to stop the Count, but can he? The likes of Dr Seward, Arthur Holmwood and even Van Helsing are excised from the plot to make room for the larger than life Count Orlok.

Nosferatu is usually figured with Der Golem and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari has being one of the Big Three of German Expressionism (Metropolis sometimes replaces Der Golem), a film movement that grew out of the art movement of the same name after the First World War. These films are sometimes referred to as the first horror films, and they certainly had an effect on later filmmakers, most notably for their use of light and shade, and the manipulation of shadow through careful lighting. One thing that should be noted is the fact that most of the early German Expressionist films were made in studios, so filmmakers could control the filming conditions, but Murnau took Nosferatu outside. The coach trip through the woods as Hutter travels to the castle is filmed in negative, using stop motion animation, to give a jerky, otherworldly feel to the journey. It looks unreal because Hutter is in an unreal space.

Other visual devices have cropped up throughout the years, from Count Orlok's incredibly creepy way of standing up to the distortions caused by projecting his shadow across a wall. Plus, this is not the sexy, romantic vampire of post-Anne Rice fiction - Orlok is an ugly, ratty creature who brings only death and disease. There is no promise of love and everlasting life here. Later portrayals of Dracula show him as being a charismatic figure, if not necessarily physically attractive, but here we really get the sense of the vampire as being something abject and monstrous.

The film is now in the public domain so I've embedded the link to the full film below.

Monday 15 April 2013

A to Z - The Mummy

Well I'm continuing the black and white classic theme from yesterday, which was L for The Lodger, and going onto possibly my favourite horror movie, The Mummy. No, I don't mean the 1999 action adventure starring Brendan Fraser, I mean the original 1932 version, starring Boris Karloff as the Mummy. Set in the 1920s, a decade which saw fevered interest in ancient Egypt following the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb, the film tells the story of Imhotep, an ancient priest who is awoken by the mysterious Scroll of Thoth that has the power to grant life. He encounters Helen (Zita Johann), the woman who was Anck-sa-namun in a previous life - basically, she's the princess he used to love. Helen ends up subject to a tug of war between Imhotep and her 1920s boyfriend, a slightly insipid Frank (David Manners).

What I love about The Mummy is that the monster, here the ambling mummy now posing as an archaeology enthusiast named Addis Bey, essentially becomes the romantic love interest for Helen, and while Frank is the pretty boy son of a sir, she's given the choice between Beauty and the Beast. Trouble is, the Beast is far more interesting. Karloff is positively magnetic in this role, and we're treated to close ups of those mesmerising eyes as he works his magic on various characters. I think I sometimes get a bit cross with the implication that the mummy is a monster when really, he just wants his old girlfriend back. Plus, when he shows Helen a dream sequence of their life together in ancient Egypt, I just wonder how on earth Frank thinks he can possibly compare - Imhotep has had a passionate life with her already, and the best Frank can do is wring his hands with worry.

Karloff and Johann (herself a rather exotic beauty) make a much better couple, and I found myself rooting for them throughout the film. OK, so Imhotep wants to kill Helen so he can resurrect her to the same state of immortality that he himself enjoys, but what's so wrong with that? People always bang on about wanting to spend eternity together - these guys actually have the chance. Frank doesn't even really get to save the day - Helen pretty much has to save herself. Yes, he's that useless.

One of the things I love about the early Universal films is their length. They're quite short (The Mummy runs at 73 minutes) but they tell their story perfectly, without recourse to lengthy padding or pointless dialogue exchanges. I'm no fan of 3D cinema, and films like these just prove that you don't need fireworks and fancy visuals to tell a good story well.

I couldn't find any decent clips, and while I would recommend watching the whole movie, I'll leave you with the trailer...

Sunday 14 April 2013

A to Z - The Lodger

Wow, we're onto 'L' already! I couldn't not choose this 1926 silent classic by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Ivor Novello. The film is based on a 1913 novel by the same name by Marie Adelaide Belloc Lowndes, and concerns a hunt for a Jack the Ripper style serial killer in the London fog. This killer, known as the Avenger, favours blondes (much like Hitchcock himself) although he opts for strangulation as opposed to ripping. The idea for the novel actually concerns that of a landlady who comes to believe one of her tenants is Jack the Ripper - incidentally, the artist Walter Sickert stayed in a room which his landlady believed had been let to the Ripper previously. (There's also a conspiracy theory that he painted the Camden Town Murders paintings about the case, and people think he was the Ripper himself). In the film, Ivor Novello plays the suspected lodger.

I'm being very good to you today because I actually found the full film on YouTube (see below) and I really do recommend watching it. Silent films can be a difficult watch for modern audiences since we're so used to the majority of plot being delivered via dialogue, so strip away the speech and the handful of cue cards aren't enough to convey story. Instead, we have to read the whole film, include facial expression, set design, and even the soundtrack, to get the story. Personally, I love silent films (which is one reason why I almost did The Artist for 'A') and I think there's a lot to be said for them, but I understand why they're not everyone's cup of tea.

Thing is, you really get to see the 'birth' of Hitchcock's creativity in this film. My favourite scene occurs when the landlady and her family are crowded in a downstairs room, listening to Novello pace back and forth upstairs. But how do you convey the sound of pacing footsteps in a silent film? Easy, you employ visual trickery to show it. Hitchcock might have been a rotter towards his leading ladies but the guy was certainly inventive with cinema. It also demonstrates the start of Hitchcock's themes to which he returned throughout his career. The wrong man? Check. The icy blond? Check. Ineffectual police? Check. Violence against women? Check. It's a landmark film for so many reasons.

There have been other adaptations over the years but I highly recommend this one! Sit back, relax, and enjoy an hour and a half of good filmmaking...