Happy Halloween!

I like to give some warning on here if I have any public appearances upcoming, but have been somewhat remiss this year. So I thought I’d use the opportunity of giving out seasonal greetings to outline some of my activities this Halloween and announce a forthcoming talk. In conjunction with York Explore, last Saturday we celebrated the 200th anniversary of the publication of FRANKENSTEIN with an immersive screening of the 1935 classic BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. In the ruins of a medieval hospital no less! And as my next trick I delivered a talk on The Unnatural History of the English Vampire. Both events, I am proud to say, were sold out well ahead of time. Obviously, even if there were tickets, it would be impossible to attend either event without a time machine. But for those curious about the FRANKENSTEIN event, I wrote a supplementary article, that you can read here.

Meanwhile, it is still possible to attend my next talk, which will at the Abertoir film festival in Wales on Wednesday the 14th of November at 2pm. As some of you may be aware, Abertoir is an annual pilgrimage for me, and this year I’ll be asking Do Serial Killers Really Exist? If this odd query intrigues you – or you just like wonderful genre cinema – then check out the festival website here

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Magic, Morality, and the Macabre – An Interview with Andy Nyman, Creator of GHOST STORIES


By the end of the 1950s, Britain had become the home of horror, with world-beating Gothic melodramas from Hammer Films, supplemented come the 60s with movies from rival studios like Amicus and Tigon. As the 70s progressed, however, British genre cinema fell victim to its own success, oversaturating the market with product, while systemic problems in the film industry began to bite. Brit horror took a further hammer blow in the 80s, when a tabloid-led moral panic triggered the draconian ‘Video Nasties’ legislation, effectively criminalising the distribution and possession of many genre films on the vital new home video format.

UK horror cinema then languished in the doldrums for decades, with few truly British horror films being made, and even fewer worth watching. Happily, the genre has subsequently enjoyed a creative and commercial renaissance in the UK in the 21st Century. For me the landmark movie was Neil Marshall’s minor masterpiece of 2002, DOG SOLDIERS. I went to the opening fully prepared to be disappointed by another homegrown failure, only to be delighted by a film that was witty, well-paced and actually pretty scary in parts.

If future film scholars write a history of this 21st century British horror renaissance, there will undoubtedly be numerous index entries for the multi-talented Andy Nyman. While he hasn’t yet collaborated with Neil Marshall, Andy’s appeared in two horror films for the underrated director and screenwriter Christopher Smith (the 2006 gory satire of office politics SEVERANCE and the 2010 medieval folk horror nasty BLACK DEATH). He’s also enjoyed plum roles in some of the best small screen Brit horror mini-series, including Charlie Brooker’s zombie-BIG BROTHER mash-up DEAD SET, and Mark Gattis’s haunted manor anthology CROOKED HOUSE (both 2008).

But Mr Nyman is a true renaissance man, having performed in numerous other theatre, film and TV productions, including providing voices for the popular MINIONS animated movie (2015) and appearing in the hit PEAKY BLINDERS TV series (2013). He’s also an accomplished magician, and has collaborated with the celebrated psychological illusionist Derren Brown, co-writing many of Brown’s award-winning magic specials, starting with the 2000-03 TV series MIND CONTROL. Nyman was originally expected to front the show, but deferred in order to concentrate on other projects.

Projects like creating the 2010 stage play GHOST STORIES, co-written and co-directed with Jeremy Dyson, best known as the silent partner on the cult BBC black comedy series LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN (another key component in British horror’s 21st Century revival). Their theatrical chiller proved a big hit, breaking box office records, and running for over 1,000 performances, including shows in Moscow and Toronto. Nyman and Dyson decided to adapt their play to the big screen, with Andy now also taking the lead role of Professor Phillip Goodman, the arch-sceptic whose determination to debunk the supernatural leads him into nightmare realms his academic background had not prepared him for.

There are obvious autobiographical connections between Andy and the professor – they share a Jewish background and both have been involved in debunking psychic fraud. When I had an opportunity to talk to Andy recently, I wanted to unpick a few of the ideas behind the densely-layered film, which is a lot more thoughtful than many of the Hollywood haunted house films that have been popular in recent years. Some critics have compared Nyman’s GHOST STORIES (2017) to the gleefully ghoulish Amicus anthology films of the 1970s, and there’s something to that (in one of many in-jokes, a tin of cat food in the film is named after the Tigon studio). Yet in many respects, GHOST STORIES is more akin to the psychological dread of DEAD OF NIGHT, the 1945 anthology film that is arguably the first true classic of British horror cinema. So I began by trying to establish how Andy had become associated with the genre…

GB: To go back to the start of your screen career, I didn’t realise you were in the original 1989 TV version of THE WOMAN IN BLACK…
AN: It was my first TV role. It’s been amazing happenstance really that I’ve ended up in a few of these things. It wasn’t like I wanted to be a horror actor – it just happened. I’ve done so much varied and interesting work, and it just so happened that that was there, and then DEAD SET happened and then SEVERANCE. I’ve always played extreme roles – I enjoy playing extreme characters whether it’s Patrick in DEAD SET or Churchill in PEAKY BLINDERS. There’s something about playing larger than life people that I enjoy.

I was trying to thinking of a unifying factor in some of the roles you played, in horror at least. I came up with the word ‘hapless’. Just like Sean Bean supposedly always dies in everything he’s in, your characters seem to get the shitty end of the stick a lot…
AN: That’s a fun observation, but that’s actually not really the case. It’s only been a few of my roles. There’s Gordon in SEVERANCE. In DEATH AT A FUNERAL the character that I play literally gets the shitty end of things. But then you look at Patrick in DEAD SET and it’s the polar opposite of that. I mean, yes he ends up getting ripped apart, but he’s a fighter, not a weak man. I think extremity’s the thing that’s always appealed to me. If I’ve just played a character who’s hapless, the next part I play won’t be, because I like always doing different things.


GB: I think what I was trying to get at is that your characters always seem to end up being punished. Obviously in DEAD SET your character is a villain – he’s a bad man – everyone’s rooting for the zombies to tear him apart. But the scene where he craps in a bin takes it further somehow. I don’t know why, but it is a particularly memorable scene.
AN: Yes, that’s right it is. I don’t know really. I just like taking roles that interest me and they often involve extreme scenes like that, which was just a joy as an actor. I’ve never been an actor who has played roles that are charming – where he wanders into the room and everyone swoons – though there’ll be characters that need charm to achieve an end.


GB: Getting onto GHOST STORIES, the punishment your character goes through seems wholly disproportionate to what he’s done.
AN: That’s a really interesting point. And I’ll tell you about that because we’ve wrestled with that a lot, me and Jeremy. When we were writing the film, an early version of it went to a producer, and we ended up parting company with them. One of the things these producers really felt, was that it was too brutal, that they wanted conclusion that was slightly neater and slightly more comfortable, because it does feel so disproportionate. So we went down that route and we rewrote it, and after about three versions of that we realised this is not our thing anymore. So we went back and looked at the play, and what’s interesting about having the play is that you already have a product with a version that has worked and worked very successfully, so you can analyse the thing. What is it that worked about that, that isn’t working about this? We realised one of the things that’s very key is that the punishment is disproportionate. It’s biblical. It’s blood and thunder, that says if you sin – even if that is a sin of omission – you will be punished. You can’t bleat about that. You can’t complain that it’s too harsh. You wronged. And there is a consequence to that. It is harsh for sure, and it’s bleak, and not terribly nice. But what’s interesting within that, is at times it seems that we live in a world where actions often don’t have consequences. You look at how politicians behave and think how is this happening? Or why am I paying more tax than Google? Where is the right and wrong here? Where is the simple humanity and morality? And so there’s something very interesting to us about the unapologetic biblical nature of your demons. You’ll pay you pay for your crimes, pay for your sins.

GB: The film’s called GHOST STORIES. But you could argue that there are few if any traditional ghosts in it. It’s almost begging the question what is a ghost? If you look at the work of the most famous ghost story writer of all time, M.R. James, surprisingly few of his tales feature classic ghosts. Do you believe in ghosts in any shape or form? And what do you mean by ghosts in this film?
AN: I don’t believe in ghosts. What do we mean by ghosts? Well, Martin Freeman’s character Mike Priddle identifies it when he says that every action we’ve ever done, ever word we’ve ever uttered, has a consequence – a little ghost of itself, a trace. He says to my character Goodman “That’s true isn’t it?” And that is true. Every single conversation you have, every single thing you do or say, has a consequence that can be both positive and negative. The way you treat people, the way you conduct your life, the emails you send, the tweets you make – every single thing that you do has a ripple effect, and can’t really begin to imagine where that ends. So what’s scary is… Both Jeremy and I aren’t religious, but we’re both quite spiritual and think that there’s certainly a lot of power in religious teachings and in religion itself. One of those things that is a scary consequence is that it’s really easy to live in a secular society where you’re not answering to a higher power. This is Goodman’s thing. You’re not answering to anyone, it’s great – let yourself off the fucking hook mate! Do whatever you want – there’s only the here and now. But that’s not true. It’s not true if you’ve got kids. It’s not true if you’re in a relationship. Every time you roll your eyes when you partner says something. Every time you huff and puff. It has an impact. It has an impact on you, on their health, on my health, on everything, let alone how they then conduct themselves in their life and how that goes on. Well there’s a big difference between that and following a teaching, believing in a higher power – which I don’t – believing in that. And the danger with where we are – Jeremy and I believe – is that you end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater. You end up saying “There is no God – it’s all bullshit – it’s not true. I believe in Dawkins – Dawkins is right. Religion’s all just a convenient set of nonsensical rules.” And what you end up doing is just throwing away all of that wisdom and power and truth and construct that makes living life – which is hard, and throws up challenges you can never imagine – harder.

GB: That leads onto one of the things I was wanting to talk about briefly – about how I was surprised that GHOST STORIES felt almost anti-rationalist. The film opens up with this fraudulent psychic – and this scene links to a lot of your other work with Derren Brown – but from thereon in your character is sort of crucified by his own scepticism.
AN: The film is anti-rationalist. It is. And we could sort of skirt around that, but it is. Equally I am a rationalist. But that’s what’s interesting about working in the way we do, is it does throw up challenges that make me think about the way I think or believe or not believe, which I also wrestle with. I was never religious. But I like being Jewish. I like the trappings of it and I like the philosophies of it, and I grew up going to the synagogue, being bar mitzvahed and all that stuff. As I got older, I started working with Derren Brown, and then my dad died, and I thought fuck all that shit. I started looking at it all, started pulling it apart, and decided it’s all nonsense. Sure enough though, the older I get the more I wrestle with it a bit more. Because it isn’t nonsense. The notion of God may be nonsense. Our notion of God as an omniscient higher power may be nonsense. But you know there is a God. Look at the NHS. That is the most brilliant embodiment of God on earth, where everybody in our country pays into something, gives of themselves to help whoever. You go to a space where people are not paid well, where miracles happen. Literally miracles happen.

GB: I seem to recall a politician described the NHS as the closest the UK gets to a true religion…
AN: Which is why where we are right now is so painful. It’s profound where we are at the moment politically. It isn’t just about whether we want immigrants or not. It’s profoundly disturbing to think that selfishness and greed can beat selflessness. It’s just staggering and it feels irreligious – it feels sacrilegious – to neglect this incredible thing that’s still so relatively young, but is amazing. Something that has literally worked miracles in my immediate family. I’m talking about me my wife my two kids. Let alone what it’s done for your life or for our parents’ lives. It has worked miracles for everyone. So that to me is an example of an interesting crossover. You can just say that that’s not God. But the question then is what is God? If you don’t believe in that, in the notion of giving of yourself, and kindness, and treating others well, and all of those things that are easy to just throw away. To think that’s not true – it’s rubbish. But it isn’t rubbish. It isn’t. It’s massive, massive, massive stuff.

GB: I think there’s a danger here of spinning off into a deep theological debate about here. This is a three hour conversation and I know our time is limited. So I’d like to finish on an aspect of horror history that still fascinates many genre fans – the Video Nasties panic of the 1980s. It’s interesting how many of the films they banned weren’t much good, but because kids were watching these fuzzy, third generation copies on video, they took on this almost totemic status…
AN: What goes hand in hand with that is you’re also having an almost mythological experience because you’re watching these things where the graininess tells you that it has been watched a thousand times. It’s a shared experience strangely. Also it’s playing the brilliant part of adding another layer of intrigue and mystery onto the experience. What am I looking at through this fog and fuzz? Trying to get to the bottom of it. It was so exciting that stuff. It’s so important to have that kind of thing.

For more on Andy’s many endeavours, check out his website here.

With special thanks to the lovely Natalie Boyd, for arranging this interview.

The Sun Has Got His Baseball Cap On…


Sweltering here in another heatwave, there’s no denying that s
he summer isn’t my favourite time of year. All of those relentless rays are fine if all you have to do is sit in a pub garden by the river and while away the day in good company. But if you have things to do, shit to think about, places to go, it can wear thin fast.

You can tell when the thermometer has hit critical when the chavs start taking their tops off, to reveal the kind of physique only achievable by a programme of stealing bikes on a diet of cheap speed and Smirnoff Ice. They don’t have torsos so much as thoraxes covered in sickly off-white chitin.

And heat seems to have the same effect on them as kicking over a lukewarm can of lemonade has on wasps at a picnic. Usually, you could go weeks without enjoying a live Jeremy Kyle performance. Once the summer kicks in, angry morons in baseball caps seem to be everywhere, shrieking threats into mobile phones, gibbering at each other across busy streets, falling over tables in pub yards.

It is now officially impossible to find anywhere peaceful and secluded to relax in the sun which will not be invaded by noisy shitheads within thirty minutes. Contrary to the myth spread in the Bible, our distant ancestors weren’t driven from the Garden of Eden by the temptations of a serpent or archangels with flaming swords, but the arrival of a posse of cunts in trackie-bottoms with a pallet of Kestrel Super and a deafening sound system loaded with shitty hip hop…

Publishing Untamed

apocalypse-culture I was sad to learn of the recent death of the publisher Adam Parfrey. He is perhaps best known for editing APOCALYPSE CULTURE, the highly controversial compilation of essays, interviews and articles that documented the extremes of human behaviour as the millennium approached. Originally published in 1987 by Amok, the distribution company he co-founded that year, it was subsequently reissued as the flagship for his infamous publishing house Feral House.

APOCALYPSE CULTURE was an iconic volume. If you saw it on somebody’s bookshelf you likely had at least something in common.

My personal interactions with Mr Parfrey varied between the refreshingly cordial and the absurdly cantankerous. But he was someone who’d earned the right to more than a little cantankerousness.

ParfreySeattle Because, like most people aware of Adam, I really knew him via his work as a publisher, and in these realms he was a legitimate original who made a profound, if subtle impact on the modern world.

Feral House belonged to the twilight of popular publishing, before the internet ripped up the rulebook. Finding subversive literature then meant a trip to the likes of Compendium Books in Camden, or ordering from a crazy American catalogue like the Amok Dispatch, published by Parfrey’s former colleagues.

compendium Compendium was unusual. While there was no shortage of ‘alternative’ bookshops in the UK, it was almost invariably the same ‘alternative’. I remember asking the hippie behind the counter in Atlantis Books in Bloomsbury if they had anything on Satanism, while researching my first book. “I don’t believe in Satanism” she spat with a withering glare. I endeavoured to acquaint her with the irony of not believing in something that certainly existed while running a shop named after a mythical island. To little avail.

Amok dispatch Compendium had a whole section dedicated to Satanism, much of it from Feral House. While Amok’s Dispatch was technically merely a book catalogue, in practice it was much more. In place of the regular categories, were headings like Sleaze, Mayhem and Orgone. Like Compendium it was a gateway into a forbidden world beyond good and evil, before the internet made extremism almost banal.

If I learnt one important thing from Adam Parfrey and his work, it was the value of ignoring boundaries. Of refusing to be funneled into the orthodox underground – the ‘approved alternative’ which is every bit as prescriptive and regimented as the mainstream it pretends to subvert. Go your own way.

And he did. Parfrey was a contrarian by nature. Someone who managed to turn their instinctive drive to be awkward, to ask uncomfortable questions, into something constructive. I only hope that some day people can say the same thing about me.

[I interviewed Adam Parfrey for HEADPRESS MAGAZINE some years back, and an expurgated, virtual version of the piece can be found here.]

Frankenstein and the Factoids From Hell…

Beware mobs of angry pedants brandishing burning torches!

frankcrux

Some people like correcting people. I like correcting people who correct people. Which probably makes me even worse.

This year’s the 200th anniversary of the publication of FRANKENSTEIN and I hope to be involved in at least one project commemorating this. So I’ve been digging into all things Frankenstein. Where I’ve been reminded how fond ‘experts’ are of correcting anyone who refers to the Monster as Frankenstein.

Want to know a secret?

bride-of-frankenstein-movie-poster-1935They’re wrong. While Mary Shelley never really names the creature, when people talk about the story today, they’re almost invariably thinking about the cinematic FRANKENSTEIN, not Shelley’s literary one. Specifically the Universal version brought to life by director James Whale, actor Boris Karloff, and makeup artist Jack Pierce in the 1930s, which diverges wildly from the novel, while establishing pretty much every FRANKENSTEIN cliche we’re all familiar with, from the Monster’s bolts to the huge, buzzing electrical machinery required to bring him to life.

And by BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN in 1935 – regarded by many as not just the classic Frankenstein film, but the best of the Universal Gothics – Frankenstein is clearly used to designate both the creature and his creator. In the movie’s prologue, Lord Byron is discussing the story with Percy Shelley and Mary, and refers to the Monster as Frankenstein – Mary does not correct him – and in every subsequent Universal classic FRANKENSTEIN film, the name refers to both creator and creature.

prologue

While we’re on the subject of necromantic nit-picking and nomenclature…

Having discussed the correct name for the creature, what might be the proper term of address for the creator? Baron or Doctor Frankenstein? Taking the same principle – that our common understanding of the characters owes almost everything to cinema – we can answer this quite categorically. While his status as the archetypal mad scientist makes the title of doctor seem apt, in almost every version of the story the young Frankenstein either abandons his academic studies in disgust at the ignorance of his professors, or is expelled for conducting unholy experiments. Either way, Frankenstein never graduates, so as a university drop-out is not entitled to employ the title ‘doctor’. His entitlement to the title ‘baron’ is rather tentatively established in the Universal Frankenstein films. But when Britain’s Hammer films adapted the story in 1957 with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, his artistocratic title becomes canon, and is employed in all of the studio’s subsequent Frankenstein pictures.
cushing frank
(I am of course aware of Muphry’s Law, whereby any attempt to correct anyone else invariably contains errors itself – and thus the circle of pedantry continues…)

Anyhow, as I intimated earlier, I have plans to launch some FRANKENSTEIN projects of my own in the forthcoming year. So, if mad science and unholy resurrections are your thing, watch this space…

From Bread and Circuses to Popcorn and Superheroes

blackpantherimportantI’ve been watching the hysteria over populist fantasy cinema with building scepticism and bewilderment. The 21st Century has seen not just the rise of the sci-fi/superhero blockbuster franchise, but also culture wars conducted online and reflected in the media in which these fantasies are weaponised as vehicles for social justice. Hence the handwringing and triumphalism over the gender or racial make-up of the cast in the likes of the THOR or STAR WARS franchises – not films generally regarded as heavy with political subtext.

wonderwomanguardianThe release of WONDER WOMAN and THE BLACK PANTHER have kicked this into high gear, with excitement over the blows they struck for feminism and black rights respectively reaching hysterical proportions.

Hmmm.

I certainly believe that films mean something, and that successful films mean something more. But aren’t they more of a barometer than a catalyst? One thing they tell us is that social justice causes, slickly presented, are very effective marketing tools. That geeks plus liberals equals a very profitable audience demographic. Because, believe it or not, at this level, film studios are thoroughly amoral entities. If the big bucks were in a reboot of BIRTH OF A NATION, that would be the next franchise on the schedules.

star warsOn the surface, a species of entertainment which is intrinsically based upon power fantasies would seem an improbable bedfellow for a social justice movement that fetishises victimhood. Yet it’s actually proven a very happy – and profitable – marriage. For, making the film’s hero a member of a demographic recognised as oppressed, filmmakers are freed of any pressure to justify a plot which hinges on violence as the preferred solution to a challenge. What’s more, nailing your blockbuster to a social issue almost guarantees plentiful free publicity. It only takes a few disgruntled fans to bitch online about the film’s play for social justice credentials, and the publicity department can just sit back and wait for the backlash to consume the liberal web and media.

rambo 2
And is it significant that these films are all unabashed fantasies? Stories where the heroes are all superpowered and the villains vanquished in predictably poetic fashion. There is a long tradition of America using Hollywood to revise things that didn’t play out the way Americans might’ve wished. The Western is an entire genre dedicated to ennobling the nation’s morally problematic nativity. The first RAMBO may have been a broadly anti-war film, but the sequels were all about refighting – and winning – American military humiliations.

Time-Cover-Black-PantherIs there a danger that lightweight fantasies like WONDER WOMAN and THE BLACK PANTHER are not representative of victories for social justice, but substitutes for such victories?

Because it’s easy to fight injustice if all that’s required is enjoying two hours of highly polished, undemanding entertainment while sat on your arse eating nachos.

I’m reminded of the recent campaign at awards ceremonies for glamorous actresses to show their opposition to sexual harassment by wearing black. Which is of course a very flattering shade. Might it have made more of a statement had the requirement have been to wear a shellsuit? And what, if anything, does this statement say? I would imagine most people, if asked, take an unspoken stand against sexual harassment. In practical terms, the stunt seemed more about raising profiles while condemning anyone who refused to play ball than anything more proactive.

Perhaps I’m too much of a cynic. At the very least these films illustrate that most people have no problem with a female hero or a black hero, which is cool. But maybe that’s broadly been the case for a long time, whatever the identity politics firebrands would have us believe.

day of the dead
I rewatched DAY OF THE DEAD recently. It’s my favourite zombie movie, and I’ve seen it numerous times. But this is the first time I’d really clocked that the hero was a tough woman, supported by a black man. Of course the film hadn’t changed, but our points of reference have, to where the race and gender of the characters are reflexively thrust front and centre.

And I’m not convinced that’s progress or even healthy.

Why I Won’t Read Your Damn Film Reviews…

[This is the second of my grave-robbing expeditions, whereby while looking for something else, I’ve stumbled across one of my old blogs, gifted to a site that’s subsequently been revamped – sans my contribution. I thought this one worth resurrecting from the void, if only because the subject remains one dear to my heart…]

critics

I love films – particularly horror films – but I seldom bother with the reviews of upcoming attractions. Indeed, if I see a film coming up that appeals, beyond determining where and when I might be able to see it, I will actively avoid all coverage of the flick in question on page and screen. Why? Simple really: I can’t think of a single film journalist – pro, amateur, or anywhere inbetween – who I trust not to spoil the movie. Spoilers are nothing new – trailers have been giving away plot twists and action highlights for decades – but the Internet has certainly significantly exacerbated the issue in recent years. (In fairness, the web’s also promulgated the civility of the ‘spoiler alert’, though this is hardly a courtesy that can be relied upon.)

Frankly, writing that spoils whatever it purports to cover, is worse than no coverage at all – and what kind of fucking writing is that?

Part of the problem is that, even among those with the basic manners to wish to avoid them, there is little consensus on what constitutes a spoiler. Many writers evidently feel that they only apply in reviews of new films, published before the film is officially released. If it’s a film that’s been out for a while, or even more so a retro release, let alone discussion of the movie in the broader context of an analytic article, then many feel it’s open season in the spoiler department. Nope. You should never assume your reader has seen a film. We all have movies – even vintage classics – we haven’t yet watched but that we still intend to see. I don’t want you spoiling my film, whether it came out a week or a century ago.

Cigarette-Burns kierLet me put it this way. If I don’t want to see a film, I won’t give a shit about what happens. If I haven’t seen it but want to, I don’t want to be told what happens. If I have seen it, what’s the point in telling me what happens?

Something else that causes confusion regarding spoiler conventions is just what constitutes a spoiler in terms of length. Most folk seem to understand that you shouldn’t spoil the climax, but it’s depressingly common for critics to feel fine about detailing the plot development right up to that point. Well, fucking don’t! It goes without saying that you shouldn’t give away the ending, but why give away the middle, or indeed the start? Do you really think there are (sane) film fans out there who only like films where there’s a wild dog attack halfway in? Or will walk out unless it turns out that the relationship between the two lead characters slowly blossoms into an unlikely love affair?

ape spoilerWatching the plot unfold is part of the pleasure of watching a film, and it doesn’t just happen at the end. If there are sensational gore effects, you can say so without fucking explicitly describing each of them. Give the tone and atmosphere of the film – fine – but don’t detail events, the setting, or story. That’s the filmmaker’s job, not yours, and I’d thank you to leave them to it. So, if spoilers are so unpopular, why are they so common? In part because a lot of film writing’s pretty poor, and many hacks don’t know any better. But evidently talented and passionate journalists are also guilty of ruining the viewer’s journey of discovery by leavening their reviews with excess plot reveals, so what gives? I suspect one issue is of tradition…

hoh06Many of us grew up admiring film writers whose work was littered with plot synopses, and there is a temptation to emulate our idols. But that was a different age. When I was young, before the video revolution, the chances of actually seeing many of the films that gripped my morbid young imagination were minimal, so it was entirely legitimate to detail the story while discussing them in print. My favourite monthly magazine, HOUSE OF HAMMER, adapted horror films as comic strips which really only made sense in a world in which you were unlikely to be able to enjoy them in their intended format. In our digital age, when films I could only of dreamt of as a monster kid are now readily available at the touch of a button, there’s no need or excuse for such plot exposition, though I guess a few veteran critics might be forgiven for struggling to shake old habits.

cigarette burnsLess forgivable, but more common, are those who spoiler out of egotism. Sometimes it isn’t possible to discuss the minutiae of a movie without going into them at length. If so, then the correct judgement call is that – if you can’t have the same discussion using allusions – then you drop it, at least in a review. There is a caustic tendency in journalism to assume that the reader is chiefly interested in the writer, and that the piece’s subject is a medium at best, more often a potential distraction or obstacle to the reader’s appreciation of the writer’s wit, charm and erudition. If making some clever point might spoil the viewer’s enjoyment of the film, no matter, for we just want to bask in the reviewer’s genius. Only, take it from this reader, we don’t.

The final – and I suspect commonest – motive for spoilers is that old, demon writer’s block. Faced with a blank page – or screen – and with a deadline for a film review looming, just telling the story is an attractive option, an easy way to generate copy when inspiration stubbornly refuses to strike. After all, it’s tough discussing a film in a way that gives the reader a good idea of whether they’d like it or not, without imparting information that will detract from the elements of surprise and discovery that are integral to an ideal cinema experience. But maybe good film journalism is tough, and perhaps if you can’t write a review without spoilers, then it could be that you’re just not cut out for it.

[N.B. For those of my friends who review please forgive me for entering full rant mode I may have overstated my case somewhat in order to vent – I do read your reviews, though I often tend to wait until after I’ve seen the film!]

theatre-blood farewell

Blood, Thunder and Propaganda, Moscow Style

sophia titleWhile exploring the backwaters of Amazon Prime, I stumbled across the eight-part Russian series SOPHIA, detailing the life of the 15th Century Greek princess who married Ivan III, Grand Duke of Moscow. I’m a sucker for a good historical epic, so got stuck in

IvanpicMy weakness for these has led me to watch a fair bit of Russian TV and cinema in recent years. While nobody else seems to have noticed Vladimir Putin’s government appear to have been financing high budget historical epics as a deliberate policy of nationalist propaganda for some time now, some of which has made it over here in subtitled form, where I’ve been stumbling upon it piecemeal. These films and mini-series have captured my imagination, not just as old school blood and thunder historical epics, but also an insight into what the patriotic Russian thinks. Or, perhaps more accurately, is supposed to think.

TarasOther examples of these patriotic historical extravaganzas from Russia include IRON LORD (2010), 1612 (2007), and TARAS BULBA (2009). The latter’s propaganda credentials are particularly current bearing in mind recent conflicts in the region, as Taras Bulba was originally a 16th Century Ukrainian hero, created by the Russian author Nikolai Gogol in the mid-1800s. Gogol’s first version was criticised by some Russian nationalists at the time as too Ukrainian, and he revised his text to make it more overtly pro-Russian. It was this second version that the 2009 film adapts, its script echoing Putin’s sentiments that the Ukraine was a part of Russia, not a seperate nation. Ukrainian patriots were unsurprisingly seriously unimpressed (Poles weren’t best pleased as being portrayed as war criminals either).

sophiapicBack with SOPHIA, the series recounts the trials and tribulations of the grandmother of Russia’s first Tsar, Ivan the Terrible. (He has a cameo role – typically, while we Westerners characterise Ivan as a savage tyrant, to the Russians he was a formidable leader.) The series announces up front that it’s financed by both the Russian Culture Ministry (who also financed TARAS BULBA) and the Russian Defence Ministry. Official military involvement in a film usually assures impressive battle scenes, but the only major battle depicted in SOPHIA is the Great Stand on the River Ugra, wherein the Muscovites and Tatars face each other, then the Tatars think better of it and fall back, and involves precious little blood or thunder.

NevskyOf course, Russian filmmakers certainly can stage effective battle scenes, as most famously proven in Sergie Eisenstein’s 1938 masterpiece ALEXANDER NEVSKY, which climaxes with the clash between the titular prince and the Teutonic Knights at 1242’s famous Battle on the Ice. Cinema as propaganda is also nothing new, and the Soviet Regime that preceded Putin’s government were pioneers in the area. ALEXANDER NEVSKY came out just as tensions between the USSR and the Third Reich were heating up towards war, and Stalin made sure as many of his people saw the film as possible, with its overt parallels between the victory of the medieval Slavs over the Germanic crusaders and the building conflict on the horizon.

Henry_VRussians certainly aren’t alone in employing historical epics to project patriotic agendas – every country with a film industry has likely at least dabbled in employing popular cinema as propaganda. Laurence Olivier’s 1944 adaptation of Shakespeare’s HENRY V was funded by the British government and dedicated to the ‘Commandos and Airborne Troops of Great Britain the spirit of whose ancestors it has been humbly attempted to recapture’. Netflix is currently screening FIVE CAME BACK, a documentary that skillfully analyses how five of Hollywood’s greatest directors were drafted into the American war effort during the Second World War.

However, it’s difficult to imagine any serious contemporary Hollywood director getting away with the kind of nakedly propagandist films coming out of Putin’s Russia today. The watershed was probably the Vietnam War, and in its traumatic wake an era of cynical, jaded, maverick cinema began to emerge from Hollywood in the 1970s. Even RAMBO, the 1982 film often thought of as emblematic of Reaganite right-wing patriotism, was essentially an anti-war film, though its sequels did embrace macho American nationalism.

courtMeanwhile, back with SOPHIA, even if the battle scenes are somewhat underwhelming, the costumes and sets are commendably colourful and handsome, the intrigue intriguing, and the Russian attitudes and beliefs being promoted in the script fascinating. It being Putin, the series is very pro-Russian Orthodox Church (one of the show’s silliest scenes has Sophia floating about enjoying a vision of the cathedral she plans to build). Latins (Western Europeans) are beardless slimy types, all scheming to convert Russia to Catholicism. Only a few are allowed sympathetic portrayal. The Italian architects of Moscow’s cathedral and her artillery are given some reluctant credit. Plus Sophia herself of course – her value being her bloodline to the last Eastern Orthodox emperors of Byzantium. Even here, her virtues are underlined by her eagerness to adopt Russian ways and contempt for her former customs.

moldovapicThe Tartars are also shown begrudging respect – as hardy, ruthless warriors. Aside from that, foreigners are almost exclusively depicted as untrustworthy and decadent. King Casimir of Poland and Lithuania is a scheming traitor who cannot wait to ally with the heathen Golden Horde. This rather overlooks Ivan’s willingness to ally with the Crimean Khanate and even the Ottoman Turks. The Moldavians – who actually fought the Ottomans – are portrayed as louche and dissolute, their court accompanied by musicians and harlots wherever they go. Heading the court is Stephen the Great, a military hero in his Romanian homeland, but here portrayed as a spineless ditherer. Somewhat ominously, halfway through SOPHIA, the script introduces the Jews!…

Reflex racism aside, SOPHIA also promotes absolutist authority. Much of the plot is about Sophia’s husband the Grand Duke of Moscow imposing totalitarian rule on neighbouring realms, slowly transforming the Russian confederacy of city states into a kingdom under his personal control. In a depressingly familiar scenario, the Jews are introduced to the plot as fiendish conspirators, stirring up the middle classes to agitate for citizens rights. The vaguely Hebrew-inspired conspiracy that threatens Ivan’s court is a motley – and frankly improbable – alliance of the middle classes, witches, heretics, and advocates of modern scientific theory. One of the more strange and troubling undercurrents in SOPHIA is its support for the Orthodox Church, over not just Catholicism, Judaism and local heresies, but also the fledgling European Enlightenment. (By way of contrast Soviet-era Russian historical epics like ALEXANDER NEVSKY routinely portrayed Russian Orthodox clergy as villains.)

horsepicThe other values promoted alongside religion, nationalism and obedience to authority are family, military strength and tradition. In short, all of the authentic values of fascism, as opposed to the comicbook version – all monocles, jackboots and riding crops – of popular modern mythology. It has become a cliche to characterise President Trump as a fascist dictator. But as one perceptive historian observed, Trump is no fascist, because fascists have values, something the President wholly lacks. The kind of values underpinning these Putin-era historical epics, and I find it fascinating…

A Krampus is for Life…

The Alpine tradition of the Krampus – the Christmas devil who punishes naughty children – has been gaining ground internationally in recent years. Recently, I talked to the people responsible for bringing him to British shores, via the Whitby Krampus Run. Read the full feature here…WKR by Simon Blackwood 2

A Long Time Ago – STAR WARS Versus SUPERNATURAL – A Seventies Saga…

The following is something of blast from the past, revisiting something I wrote for a horror site exactly four years ago reviewing an ancient BBC TV series entitled SUPERNATURAL, just then released on DVD for the first time. The site’s rebranded since, and all of my contributions cast into oblivion in the process. But this piece came to mind today, so I excavated the depths of my old hard drives and found a copy. I can’t vouch for its quality – I’m a very poor judge of my own work – but it did seem pertinent again for some odd reasons.

SupernaturalcoverOne reason is that Christmas is almost upon us, and I’m keen to support the Yuletide ghost story tradition. Perhaps my favourite manifestation of this are the BBC’s GHOST STORIES FOR CHRISTMAS. At one point broadcast every year in the seventies, they have become increasingly intermittent. For those who’ve practically worn out their BBC GHOST STORY FOR CHRISTMAS discs, SUPERNATURAL offers a possible alternative, as another Gothic season from the BBC in the same era. But is it a worthy alternative?

force awakensAnother, less obvious, reason for resurrecting my SUPERNATURAL piece is STAR WARS. The new STAR WARS movie, THE LAST JEDI, is currently causing the now obligatory cycle of hype, hysteria, backlash, and backlash to the backlash. I can’t comment on the virtues of the film itself, having not seen it, but was curious enough to watch its predecessor THE FORCE AWAKENS when it surfaced on Netflix a couple of nights back. I think I’d characterise my reaction as underwhelmed. It wasn’t terrible, just seriously cheesy and predictable.

In fairness though, I’m not the target audience – it’s a family-friendly franchise and I’m only a lukewarn sci-fi fan – and am more interested in the fan phenomenon surrounding it. Because nothing about THE FORCE AWAKENS, or indeed any of the other films, seems to me to justify the frenzy of excitement – even obsession – they engender these days. And I don’t just mean among strangers, but friends and acquiantances whose opinions I generally value. But the STAR WARS hysteria genuinely baffles me.

star wars cardsHaving said which, I have very much enjoyed a STAR WARS film. That one being STAR WARS itself. I thought it was great. But I was ten. So this hysteria can’t just be a generational thing. Many of the STAR WARS obsessives weren’t even born when the franchise debuted in 1977. And I don’t remember being that struck by it. A good illustration of this is that I collected the set of STAR WARS bubblegum cards, then sold them to a friend to finance collecting a Hammer horror set instead. I clearly had my priorities right back then.

hammer cards And while STAR WARS faded from my imagination fairly fast, something else I watched that year which left an abiding mark on my young imagination. That was the BBC’s SUPERNATURAL. It probably helped that after being screened once, the series seemed to vanish. Only a tatty copy of the novelisation remained to confirm me to me that I hadn’t simply dreamed it. By comparison, of course, while STAR WARS may have faded from the spotlight for most of the eighties and nineties, it’s become absurdly ubiquitous in the twenty-first century.

But there are parallels between the two beyond the coincidence of first airing on the same year. Specifically, relating to fan reaction. I had been sat in front of THE FORCE AWAKENS a couple of nights ago, one eyebrow raised smugly at its sundry shortcomings. The acting was largely adequate at best, the plot a confection of the absurdly improbable and cheesily predictable, glued together with clumsy winks to the gallery over laboured in-jokes. I just didn’t get it.

But that feeling was not unlike the one I experienced when watching THE SUPERNATURAL for the first time in nearly 40 years. But in this case I was a fan. Looking at it through the reviewer’s eye it was difficult to justify my deep affection for the series. If the script of THE FORCE AWAKENS had a surfeit of cheese, then the acting in THE SUPERNATURAL was a feast of ham. In terms of absurd improbability and predictability SUPERNATURAL certainly gives any of the STAR WARS films a good run for their money. I guess it all comes down to personal proclivities.

Which is hardly an earth-shattering notion, but one which I guess it’s easy for us all to forget. Which is part of what I explored in this fragment from the archives. That and how everyone should like SUPERNATURAL because it’s obviously way better than dreary old STAR WARS. So there!…

THE BBC’S SUPERNATURAL AND THE SIREN SONG OF
NOSTALGIA

Watching the recent BFI release of the vintage BBC series SUPERNATURAL, and seeing
the widely varied reception it experienced from other reviewers, inspired a few
thoughts on broader topics. Hence I beg the indulgence of the Brutal as Hell faithful
as I open my review of this long-lost Gothic TV show with a few thoughts on the way
we all watch the genre screen entertainment we enjoy, and how even the most
scrupulous of reviewers can find their judgement swayed by ineffable bias. In the
noble quest for objectivity, it can be easy to forget how subjective an experience
watching a film or television episode can be.

supernatural_2
We all know, of course, that assessing a film’s value is almost definitively a matter of
opinion. But I’m thinking here of other subtler, more ephemeral factors that can have
a heavy impact on our appreciation of something like a film, without us really
noticing. The mood you’re in, for example. A crabby mood can turn a good movie
into a piece of crap: a sunny demeanour transform a mediocre production into a
personal favourite. I’ve known genre devotees dismiss classics, then fall in love upon
rewatching them, before casting their memory back and recalling unrelated clouds on
their horizon which blighted the experience of viewing the innocent production first
time round.

All sorts of other external factors that have nothing to do with the film per se –
company, health, personal prejudice, etc., etc. – but can play a pivotal role in what
impression the production leaves upon you. The one I’m focusing on here is age.
Somebody once said something along the lines of ‘You never see your favourite film
over the age of 25’. While I fear the exact origin and wording of this quote eludes me,
I think there’s much virtue in the sentiment. That for a movie to really get under your
skin to the point where you adore it with that almost irrational fervour, it pays for it to
hit you young, when you still possess at least a little of that wide-eyed sense of
wonder that life conspires to slowly beat out of us.

supernatural_6
It’s possible to see manifestations of this phenomenon in all manner of media. Only
the rosy-tinted spectacles of cherished childhood memory can explain the hold shows,
films and franchises originally aimed primarily at kids – such as Dr Who, Lego, or
Marvel superheroes – still exert over so many well into middle age. Indeed, if
anything, that grip gets stronger, as fans devote skills and resources accrued in
adulthood to analyse, criticise and obsess over works of fiction only ever designed to
withstand the less rigorous scrutiny of children. Part of the visceral hatred many fans
feel for the incessant stream of Hollywood remakes comes from a wholly reasonable
dismay at the turgid lack of imagination and vision they represent. But it also comes
from a more irrational, ineffable fear that remaking the treasured cultural artefacts of
our youth might somehow dilute or even destroy them.

supernatural-3To return to horror, there’s a monthly genre film night hosted in a nightclub near
where I live. It’s great fun, but I’ve noticed that everything screened has come from
the 1980s. When I drew the organisers’ attention to this and suggested they dig further
into the vaults, or considered more recent favourites, they were unenthusiastic,
explaining that they had to show ‘the classics’ in order to draw a crowd. It dawned on
me that it was a generational thing. They weren’t seriously suggesting that every
classic horror film was made between 1980 and 1990. But as thirty-somethings, never
thought to question the assumption that 80s horror films, as the ones that they grew up
with, were also the ones that automatically commanded the most affection among
fans, the movies which seem most magical, for which they’re most willing to forgive
failings and celebrate clichés.

The reason for this very lengthy, tangential preamble is that, as a somewhat more
vintage genre devotee, I feel much the same about 1970s horror. So, the past few
hundred words are in part my mea culpa, a confession that in reviewing THE SUPERNATURAL I am incapable of giving an opinion devoid of chronological baggage. This bias is further weighted by the obscurity of the series. I saw it as a child when it first
screened way back on BBC1, on eight successive Saturday nights in the summer of
1977. supernatural book SUPERNATURAL then, in true Gothic style, effectively disappeared without
trace. Soon, only the fact that I’d been sufficiently impressed to buy the paperback
novelisation remained as proof that it had been anything more than a childhood
nightmare. That, and a series of potent images that remained seared into my
impressionable imagination thereafter…

SUPERNATURAL was never screened again, didn’t appear on tape with the advent of the
video boom of the 1980s, and with the arrival of the internet revolution in the
following decade, remained elusive, early searches yielding little to confirm its
existence. In TEN YEARS OF TERROR, Harvey Fenton and David Flint’s exemplary and
exhaustive 2001 study of 70s Brit screen horror, SUPERNATURAL enjoys only the briefest
of coverage, illustrated by a scan from the cover of the same paperback tie-in I
possessed. Inevitably, perhaps, the show’s elusiveness leant it an almost mythic aura
among dedicated devotees of vintage horror. Some years back I finally tracked down a
copy of the show via grey dealers on eBay, some three decades after it first frightened
me, but the quality of the recordings were too poor to really give an accurate
assessment of the series.

Supernatural_pic_4Hence, it was with great excitement that I recently received the two SUPERNATURAL
DVDs. So, the big question – was it worth the wait? (Or, indeed, for you patient
reader, worth wading through such a protracted prelude?) The series consists of seven
tales on classic Gothic themes – ghosts, werewolves, doppelgangers, split
personalities, sentient mannequins, Frankenstein, vampires – in eight 50 minute
episodes (one story is in two parts). The cast boasts a cast of distinguished Brit
character actors – Robert Hardy, Billie Whitelaw, Jeremy Brett, Denholm Elliot – who
match the rich material with highly theatrical, even melodramatic performances which
often makes many of the tales feel more like stage plays than TV shows.

The unifying thread that bookends each episode centres on the Club of the Damned,
an exclusive Victorian London gentleman’s institution. Perhaps the most exclusive, as
aspirant candidates must tell a tale of dread to established members – if it should fail
to terrify the assembled company, then they must pay the ultimate penalty, and are
never seen again. It’s an intriguing idea, and little details – such as a Satanic
baphomet symbol on a table – suggest an urbane infernal fellowship along the lines of
a latterday Hellfire Club. But it’s never really explored, the threat of extinction for
failed candidates not delved into, as what we see of the members hardly smacks of the
tension of the omnipresence of death. Indeed the Club members never really seem
frightened at the end of any of the stories, from which the viewer can only conclude
that all of the hopeful candidates got the chop once the final credits had rolled.

Supernatural_pic_5Of course, the Club of the Damned represents only the entrance and exit to the main
event, but the failure to exploit this tantalising angle is somewhat characteristic of
SUPERNATURAL overall, of promising ideas wasted and evocative paths uncovered but
not travelled. This is also, perhaps, the show’s strength. For – from its opening of
eerie organ music and gargoyles, to the peels of maniacal laughter that frequently
presage the final credits – SUPERNATURAL is full-on, industrial-strength Gothic. And
much pure Gothic is about unexplored roads and decayed ideologies, seldom fully
explained or resolved. Connoisseurs of the aesthetic will find a feast to relish in
SUPERNATURAL, from the lushly stifling Victoriana of the sets and costumes, to the florid
dialogue and overwrought acting.

Casual viewers will likely yawn at the verbose scripts and occasionally snigger at
some of the fruitier lines and camper delivery. Jeremy Brett’s descent into madness in
the episode ‘Mr Nightingale’ – complete with gurning at breakfast, black seagull
impersonations, and animated omelette debates – is hard to take seriously. Some DIY
standard visual effects don’t help either, suggesting a budget and level of
sophistication comparable with the less-than-special-effects of DR WHO of the day.
Though, just as some sci-fi devotees can see past the effects to enjoy the substance of
Pertwee/Baker era DR WHO, so aficionados of small screen Gothic should forgive
many of the more dated elements in SUPERNATURAL. In SUPERNATURAL’s stronger episodes, such as in the final part ‘Dorabella’ – a clever amalgam of CARMILLA and DRACULA – the subtler effects can be highly effective.

It was images from ‘Dorabella’ in particular – of a fly-flecked corpse, a monstrous
wedding ring, an eyeless curse – that stuck with me long after I’d watched the series
as a child, its atmosphere of dread and decay lingering strongly enough to keep me
looking for the series decades later. Despite my nostalgic enthusiasm for the show, in
all honesty, in the cold light of day, it’s not too hard to see why the BBC never
repeated or previously released SUPERNATURAL on other formats. It’s short on shocks,
and over-heavy on Freudian overtones, with little to titillate or terrify the typical
modern horror fan. It isn’t as satisfying or accessible as the BBC’s GHOST STORIES FOR CHRISTMAS – rightly still seen as setting the standard for vintage TV horror – but taken on its own merits, as a camp, creepy curio, SUPERNATURAL still has much to offer the authentic gourmet of Gothic entertainment.Supernatural_pic_7