Monday, 31 October 2011

The Devil Rides Out

Your Halloween feature

Friday, 28 October 2011

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Review: Man From Earth

Jerome Bixby isn't as well known a science fiction writer as Isaac Asimov or Arthur C Clarke, but he was more influential than most people realise.  If you've ever seen the Twilight Zone, the original Star TrekFantastic Voyage, or even It! The Terror From Beyond Space, then you've seen Bixby's work.  And if you regard someone wearing a goatee as evidence that they are an evil doppelganger from another dimension, then you have Bixby to thank for that.

Man From Earth (2007) was Bixby's last screenplay that he began working on in the early 1960's and completed on his deathbed in 1998.  Shopped around Hollywood by his son Emerson, it was eventually filmed by director Richard Schenkman for a budget of only $200,000.

Not surprisingly, this is not a film of action and special effects.  It's more of an old-fashioned television play that remains mainly on one set and relies heavily on dialogue to move the plot along. In fact, a stage version is available that is, as far as I can tell, nearly identical to the shooting script.

The premise is a simple one.   A group of academics throw a surprise going away party for a young professor named John Oldman who is inexplicably abandoning his career and moving away.  When confronted with this question, Oldman reveals that he is, in fact, a 14,000-year old Cro Magnon who somehow became immortal and who must now move every ten years to keep his secret safe.

Needless to say, Oldman's friends refuse to believe him and he has no proof to support his claim, but against their better judgment they are drawn into Oldman's story.  Soon they are using their specialist knowledge to pick holes in his narrative and find themselves faced with the question of whether he is lying, insane, or really a caveman who has survived into the present day.

Man From Earth is an intriguing story that strives to be one of emotions and ideas.  It tries to deal with the big issues of life, death, and religion to the point where it often lapses into a round-table discussion suitable for late night on Channel 4.  However, Schenkman keeps the emotional ball in play and the plot avoids becoming overly dry.

Where Bixby stumbles is when he falls for the Hollywood cliché of thinking that in order to be serious one must bash religion in general and Christianity in particular. It is at this point that Man From Earth becomes predictable and pedestrian as it trots out anti-Christian arguments that didn't fly in the 2nd century and today seem merely glib.  Apparently, Christ was actually John Oldman trying to introduce Buddhism to the Jews and when he seemingly came back from the dead it caused the Apostles to start running off in a whirlwind of myth making like the cast of Life of Brian.  It's an idea, but the "Jesus survived the Crucifixion" wheeze is so old that it would have made St. Jerome send back a form letter in reply.  It could work as a premise, but Bixby needed to do his homework better.

Personally, I think that if Bixby really wanted people to question their beliefs and start some fresh discussion, he should have had Oldman say, "Yup, I was there.  Saw Him leave the tomb and was at the Ascension.  Good times." And then watch the secularists do a paradigm shift without a clutch.

This isn't helped by the introduction of a "Christian literalist" who doesn't believe in angels or miracles, but can be relied upon to say "sacrilege" and "blasphemy" at the drop of a prayer book.  She comes across as an old-fashioned character as do all the others.  The idea of a group of academics as a serious, enlightened jury to weigh the case of an alleged immortal caveman may have flown in 1960, but today, when the dirty laundry of so-called scholars is on display for all to see, it comes very close to comic.  From my own experience in the faculty common room, I'd say that instead of a heated, yet sympathetic discourse, a real gathering of soft scientists in such circumstances would quickly degenerate into blustering, back biting, territory grabbing, egomania, special pleading, political bigotry, and out and out whining leavened with the intellectual rigour that is normally associated with a nursery school riot.

Overall, Man From Earth is a refreshing film that requires attention and patience, but this is rewarded with a genteel and ultimately entertaining story capped by a twist that neatly resolves the conflict. At 90 minutes, it is too long for it's premise.  I can't help thinking that if Bixby had finished his screenplay in 1960, Rod Serling would have taken it and turned it into a taut classic of 24 minutes with far greater dramatic impact.

An immortal Rod Serling; now there's a premise for a film.

Originally posted on Ephemeral Isle.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Review: The Legend of Hell House

The Legend of Hell House (1973)

The Bellasco Mansion, better known as Hell House, is the "Mount Everest of haunted houses" and when an ageing billionaire wants definite answers to the question of life after death, it seems like the place to go.  So, he hires three psychic investigators to spend a week in the house for a fee of  £100,000 each.

Sounds like a pretty sweet deal, except the last team to try it twenty years ago ended up with almost everyone dead, crippled or insane, so when psychic medium Florence Tanner, physicist Lionel Barrett and his wife Ann, and Benjamin Fischer, the sole survivor or the previous attempt, move in, it's hardly for a holiday.

Directed by John Hough with a screenplay by Richard Matheson based on his novel Hell House, The Legend of Hell House is a rarity in haunted house films.  Unlike most, which are either jump-out-of-the-cupboard scream festivals, gross-out teen rubbish and the like, Hell House takes its premise with deadly seriousness and from the first frame to the last maintains an atmosphere of oppressive brooding.  Even when we're in the "real world", the air is kept up.  When Mr Barrett has a meeting with dying billionaire Rudolph Deutsch, it's filmed at Blenheim Palace, probably the most brutal great house in England, on an overcast winter's day.  There are no scenes of ordinary life, no sunny streets travelled through to contrast with the supernatural forebodings to come.  It's all in the same deep-bass notes and shadowed, befogged world.  This is carried over when the team enters Hell House, where the previous owner, depraved millionaire Emerish Bellasco,  blocked up all the windows to prevent outsiders seeing the orgies going on inside and where in 1929 all of his guests died in various ways while Bellasco vanished.  Since then, the house has been notorious for haunting that aren't just terrifying, but murderous.  This is a setting that does not lend itself to inserting wise cracks or comic relief.  Everyone in the cast sells the dead seriousness of the situation and with it neatly suspends disbelief.

It also helps that Matheson provides his characters with a real dramatic arc.  They aren't just victims front loaded for a bit of gore.  They are serious investigators with formidable credentials who should be able to solve the mystery of the house, but can't because they're being manipulated to fight one another.  Miss Tanner believes that Barrett is a soulless materialist who cannot accept the supernatural.  Barrett thinks that Miss Tanner is deluded.  Mrs Barrett grows susceptible to the influence of the house and Fischer seals himself off both psychically and emotionally because he has no desire to repeat what happened in 1953.  Each character has something to prove to him or herself and each ones motive conflicts beautifully with the others.

That being said, this isn't an exercise in character study.  The plot and direction are intense and the horrific bits are remarkably effective because they grow out of the characters and rely as much on the audience's imagination as o0n special effects.  Throw in a neat little mystery and it makes for a jolly little story.

To be watched in the afternoon.  With the lights on.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Specialty of the House

How do you tell a good screen adaptation from a bad one? It isn't that hard, just compare the one to the other and the distinction is evident.

Exhibit A: This is a good adaptation of Stanley Ellin's classic short story.

Exhibit B: This is an adaptation so foul that it exudes badness.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Review: Genevieve

Genevieve (1953)

There are some films that are popular, some that are classics and some that occupy a particularly warm place in the heart.  They're the sort that you catch on television or come across on Youtube and the result is a smile and an intense desire to put on the kettle, slip off the shoes and settle down for a happy hour and a half of cozy pleasure.  Such is Genevieve, which is surprising because the director was apparently a monster and the entire cast hated working with him.  That from such acid soil such a sweet film should emerge is surprising.

Genevieve revolves around one of those marvellous eccentricities of English life; the London to Brighton vintage car rally where motor cars dating from the turn of the 20th century re-enact the first  Emancipation Run in 1896 to celebrate the passage of the Locomotives on Highways Act 1896, which meant that motor cars no longer had to have a man preceding them on foot waving a red flag.  In this case, we follow the adventures of the McKim family: Husband Alan, wife Wendy, and the third member, Genevieve; a 1904 Darraq motor car.  They're joined on the drive down to Brighton by advertising salesman Ambrose Claverhouse, who is sharing his 1904 Spyker with his new girlfriend Rosalind Peters and a very large St Bernard named Suzie.

Since this is a comedy, things, predictably don't go well for the McKims as Genevieve insists on breaking down regularly in a way that serves as a metaphor for the state of the newlyweds' relationship, which is forever fracturing and mending itself as such things do.  The comic misadventures come to a head when Alan and Ambrose have a falling out the next day in Brighton and decide to settle matters by wagering £100 over who can be the first to drive back to Westminster Bridge in London.  The result is as insanely competitive a race as one can manage in two cars that could muster a dozen horsepower between them.

I can't say when I'd first seen Genevieve.  It's one of those features that always cropped up on rainy Sunday afternoons, but even as a boy I found its light comedy appealing.  But I never knew just how fond people were of the film until I watched a televised tribute back in the '80s to Pinewood Studios where it was produced.  There was a dinner for the various people involved with the studio who gave speeches and what not, and when the topic of a certain film was raised, the entire hall shouted out as one "Genevieve!"

It's a wonderful gem of a film with a cast that fit their roles like gloves and have perfect chemistry–especially between Alan and Wendy, who really do at times seem like a young married couple.  Kenneth More as Ambrose should have patented his brash character and no one can forget Kay Kendall as the tipsy Rosalind staggering up to the band stand, declaring that she'll "show them how to play the plumpet", only to belt out an eye-raising solo of "Genevieve".

And then, of course, there is Genevieve, who has so much personality as a motor car that really is first and last an inanimate object that she makes Herbie the Love Bug look like a pile of scrap for all his magical antics.

Backing up all of this is Larry Adler's inspired harmonica score and director Henry Cornelius's location photography that captures southern England in the 1950s for future generations.

If you haven't seen Genevieve, I envy you because you still have that first experience to look forward to.

And you can find it here.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Review: The Picture of Dorian Gray & Dorian Gray

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), Dorian Gray (2009)

Oscar Wilde's novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray,  is one of those books that is extremely difficult to film.  In many ways a very light book, it also combines some  dark satire with very subtle thoughts on very weighty ideas about morality, decadence, corruption, society, sex, the worship of youth, and the individuality of evil.  So much of the text is internal and so much action occurs offstage that it is one of those books that it so easy to get very wrong indeed.

There have been any number of adaptations over the years, but perhaps the best was the 1945 version from MGM starring Hurd Hatfield.  It's not a perfect version.  There's far too much narration needed to keep up with the exposition and the drama is often bloodless because of the subject.  Dorian Gray is a young man at the peak of his beauty and when a friend paints a full-length portrait of him, the picture takes on the power to absorb all age, corruption and vice that Dorian might suffer so that Dorian always remains young and stainless no matter what horrors he indulges in while his picture grows older and fouler.  What makes the story works is what isn't seen.  First, because decadence unveiled is always tawdry, banal and uninteresting to the onlooker.  Ask any designated driver at a booze up and you'll understand.  It's far better to leave all that to the imagination.  Also, the story is not about Dorian's descent into corruption, but of the flawless mask he presents to the world despite all the evil and destruction he causes around him.  It is the mask that is important, not the vice.

Indeed, Hatfield's performance is mask-like with his carefully controlled expression giving little away.  He's a man who lives in a house as beautiful as a museum and just as uncomfortable and who commutes between gatherings of opulent splendour and dens of utter depravity.  It's a performance that is beautifully complemented by the fragile innocence of Angela Landsbury and George Sanders at his oleaginous best.  It's also telling that the only special effect is both simple and incredibly effective.  The film was shot in that magnificently clean black and white style that MGM excelled at in the 1940s, but when the camera turns on the painted picture, the film turns to full-blown Technicolor.

Not a perfect film, but an excellent embodiment of what Wilde was striving towards.

Dorian Gray, on the other hand, is an utter mess with director Oliver Parker thinking that the book is about a serial killer.  The film is a turgid mish mash of clichés as Parker shoves to timeline of the story around for no good reason.  Instead of beginning as the book and the 1945 film does with the unveiling of the picture, we see Dorian in a preposterous schoolboy getup walking through a London train staion where he is beset by pickpockets, prostitutes, rent boys and pearly kings.  The last one isn't true, but it's the only stereotype left out.  Oh, and we also get absinthe drinking (why?), flogging scars on Dorian (why?) and pointless close ups followed by more pointless close ups that seem to be mandatory.  For Gods sake, man, just show the artist painting and we'll get it.  We don't need an extreme close up of the brush to figure it out!

Worse, Parker is a lazy director, which is not surprising when you see how he butchered The Importance of being Earnest in 2002.  He starts scenes, gets bored with them, and ends them as if they no longer amuse.  He brings in a child abuse subplot that goes nowhere, he inflates and mishandles not one, but two love stories that clunk and clatter to no purpose, and he never develop his characters properly.

Worse, instead of keeping the debauchery in the audience's imagination, Parker jams every drop of blood, every sexual fetish up on the screen that he can get away with and not get an X rating.  It is cynical, nauseating and serves no dramatic purpose.  Even Colin Firth, who must have been blackmailed into doing this abomination, can't save it.

Dorian Gray has a running time of 112 minutes, but it feels more like four hours.  After 45 minutes, the plot begins to drag and by the one hour mark it is torture.  By the point where Parker loses all connection to the novel and turns it into a vampire flick set in the First World War with Dorian dressed as the Shadow, I'd given up on it entirely.  At the climax with Dorian's suffragette girlfriend (cliché overload!) trying to save him from the zombie portrait, I was more interested in whether or not there was any salami left in the fridge.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Javier Bardem is next Bond villain

video platformvideo managementvideo solutionsvideo player

Javier Bardem slated to be the villain in the upcoming James Bond thriller sill titled "Bond 23".

No word about whether or not he'll have a white cat.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Review: Night of the Eagle

Night of the Eagle (1962)

Witchcraft, magic, spells, curses, hexes; these are the stuff of the Dark Ages.  Holdovers from a time of ignorance and superstition.  Science has banished all of these from the world and there is nothing in heaven and earth that is not dreamt of in our philosophy.  Or so thinks Mr Norman Taylor, lecturer in psychology at a provincial English University.  To him, the world is as rational as a slide rule and ordered as a computer programme.  "I do NOT believe"  is his motto.  It comes as a shock, therefore, to discover that his wife Tansy not only believes in magic, but practices it; leaving all manner of talismans and amulets that supposedly protect she and her husband from harm.  In a fit of pique and wounded pride, Norman forces Tansy to destroy all her fetishes in the fireplace.  All very healthy and rational–until the next day when out of the blue a student accuses Norman of rape, another threatens him with a gun, and something comes scratching at the door.

Based on Fritz Leiber's 1943 novel Conjure Wife, The Night of the Eagle is one of those low budget horror films that Britain was so apt at in the 1960s. Taking a page from 1957's Night of the Demon, Twilight Zone veteran writers Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont played up the psychological elements of Leiber's novel to produce a sense of mounting dread and paranoia that is far more effective than any CGI effect because it plays on the audience's imagination for the heavy lifting.  Using only dialogue, character, camera work and sound, director Sidney Hayers soon has us believing that not only is Tansy a witch, but that the campus is rotten with witches and one in particular who wants Norman dead.  Hayers keeps the pressure up and maintains the dramatic pace enough to keep the audeince's disbelief firmly suspended in mid air and the whole plot moving forward until the climax when Norman's scepticism is shattered beyond all hope of restoration.

Though the story was originally set in America, moving the location to England makes sense because it not only produces the proper atmosphere, but it also allowed Hayers to recruit a B-list cast that was still capable of treating the story with the absolute seriousness that such a tale requires if it is to succeed.  Night of the Eagle may not have the polish nor the production values of its more profitable Hammer cousins, but it is an overlooked gem that bears tracking down.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

The Foundation Trilogy heads for the screen

Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy heads for the big screen with screenwriter Dante Harper and director Roland Emmerich.

Will Smith is tipped to play Hari Seldon.  This last bit is a joke.  I hope. Please let this be a joke.  Please.