Mario Bava Season at Castle Bleasdale (Part Two)

black sabbath
Black Sabbath

The second part of a diary of watching Mario Bava films over a week.

It was January, cold, and everyone was dying. I chopped enough wood for the week and stored it against the wall with the kindling. There were frosts every night at Castle Bleasdale – my current residence, a shuddering pile located on the River Piave where the plains meet the first mountains of the Dolomites – but while my wife and children slept fitfully upstairs, I would get the fire roaring, turn out all the lights and watch a film by Italian horror director Mario Bava. Prior to this week, I’d never seen any of his 30-odd films. This is the second part of my scientific record of the Mario Bava season at Castle Bleasdale.

Read part one of watching Mario Bava films over a week.

Friday, 15th of January, 2016

The funeral took place in the local cathedral and outside the sun was strangely, unseasonably warm. I know I’m not going to stir up controversy on my next assertion but I don’t like going to funerals. This one was not the worst. My student, although not old-old, was not young either. He filled a cathedral with family and friends and because of my damned atheism I stood outside and listened to singing of the choir of Alpine soldiers coming from the church. Afterwards they brought out the coffin and people tried not to be too loud when they met friends they hadn’t seen for months, years in some cases. Funerals have this strange social substratum. I wandered home depressed, stopping at the supermarket to stock up on firelighters and food for the weekend. I was going to stay inside and watch as many Mario Bava films as I could. I wanted nothing to do with the sunshine and blue skies. I would close the shutters and keep going. The film I took to next was Black Sabbath – from whence the name of Ozzy Osborne’s heavy metal band – an anthology that is a little too in awe of its Hollywood legend Boris Karloff and young American star Mark Damon. The first film is about a beautiful woman who is bothered by a telephone call from a stalker – possibly her ex who has escaped from prison. It’s a Tale of the Unexpected and highly effective in a sinister voyeuristic way. The second is a classic tale of vampirism and possession but it is fairly rudimentary. The colours are excellent. Mario Bava colours everything with the vividness of boiled sweets. Reds and greens, blues and vermillion. The last story is the one that is really creepy as a nurse (Jacqueline Pierreux) is called to a house to prepare the body of a dead medium for burial. The rictus grin of the freshly dead is off-putting enough to ward anyone off but our nurse spies a ring that she would like to steal.

Saturday, 16th of January, 2016

It has just occurred to me that I haven’t seen my wife or my children since the end of last week. Could it be they aren’t upstairs after all? I’ve been eating alone. Bowls of boiled potatoes sprinkled with vinegar and black bread with white butter. The same meal again and again. Hatchet for the Honeymoon does away with any vestige of mystery and takes on the murderer’s point of view. Blessed with the kind of Crystal Ken handsomeness that only existed in 1970, Stephen Forsyth plays John Harrington, the owner of a haute couture house that specializes in bridal wear. Unhappily married to Laura Betti, Harrington is also a self-aware psychopath who kills brides-to-be with a cleaver – not, note, a hatchet. Bava takes a slender plot with many familiar genre elements – a suspicious police detective circulates, Mrs Harrington has a séance – and makes it into something stylish and weird. Harrington’s objectification of women, his impotence and his mania are coolly represented. His charisma and his honesty make him a proto-Patrick Bateman. He watches his prey with a set of binoculars and then, sitting with his wife, reverses them so she is far away. This kind of visual originality is something I’ve come to expect from Bava and the murders are all used as moments of striking invention, each one vaguely trippy as the screen dissolves into a liquid state, colours explode and the soundtrack lays it down heavily. Each murder also brings about a further flashback, a little like Sergio Leone’s Once upon a Time in the West (1968), to the kind of Freudian backstory that Hitchcock loved. At the end of Black Sabbath, Bava pulled his camera back to reveal that Karloff was in a studio riding a fake horse and surrounded by stage hands moving the scenery about him. Bava likes to show that he’s not taking everything seriously, and here again he uses one of his own films on television as an excuse for the screams the policemen heard. Does watching horror films cause violence? No. But they can be handy in getting away with it. I also watched The Evil Eye, an early film about an American woman visiting Rome and witnessing a murder. It was black and white and John Saxon was in it, the way he pops up in films all over the place. He stars in a Dario Argento movie but I’m too tired to type his name into IMDb tonight. The fire died and the room is full of smoke.

Sunday, 17th of January, 2016

The bells in the village toll for another death. This time the 90-year-old mother of a friend. I can tell that it is her. She’s been at death’s door since Christmas. The bells toll once for a man, twice for a woman, and they toll twice so it must be her. It can’t be anyone else. They bury the dead quick in Italy so the funeral will be tomorrow or Tuesday at the latest. Today is the last day of my Mario Bava season and I still have many films to get through. I begin with Rabid Dogs. Completed in 1974, the incomplete film was seized following a bankruptcy wrangle and didn’t get cut and released until the late 90s. Bava is trying his hand at the Polizia genre, which exploded in the mid-70s in Italy and told brutal, violent stories of cops and robbers. Following a heist gone wrong, three bandits grab a hostage and carjack an unsuspecting father who is taking his son to the hospital. The atmosphere is laden with tension and the claustrophobia of a sizzling car in the middle of a Roman summer gets progressively more uncomfortable. The bandits are a psychopath, a leering, sweating rapist and one icy professional. A fantastic twist elevates the film. The same is true for Bay of Blood, a slasher often cited as a primary inspiration for all the Friday the 13th style movies that were to follow. A complex legal case regarding a piece of property on a bay is the MacGuffin, but essentially Bava produces a daisy chain of stylish, elaborate and occasionally ridiculous kills with a variety of weapons and murderers capped off with one of the funniest and most daring twists of any of his films.

Monday, 18th of January, 2016

I woke up early this morning. I just lay in bed and listened to the sound of the wind that always blows strongly in the valley in the morning following the river down from the mountains. I wonder about the morality of what I’ve done. Mario Bava took time to make those films. A lot of time. Poured a lot of effort into them. But I just watched them in a week. Half a lifetime’s work probably. And I watched it in a week. It seems unfair, disproportionate somehow: the asymmetrical warfare that criticism wages against art. I can’t help but hope that people stop dying now. January has been so fatal. I don’t want to get out of bed. I don’t have the strength to lift myself, like the corpse in the ‘Drop of Water’ sequence of Black Sabbath. Maybe I too wear a horrid grin. I wonder if the wind blowing outside is the same Italian wind that blew in Mario Bava’s imagination. It is blowing so strong that it almost takes away the sound of the bells tolling. This time they only toll once.

Mario Bava’s Five Dolls for an August Moon (1970) is out now on Dual Format (Blu-Ray + DVD) released by Arrow Video.

John Bleasdale

Mario Bava Season at Castle Bleasdale (Part One)

Blood and Black Lace 1
Blood and Black Lace

A diary of watching Mario Bava films over a week.

It was January, cold, and everyone was dying. I chopped enough wood for the week and stored it against the wall with the kindling. There were frosts every night at Castle Bleasdale – my current residence, a shuddering pile located on the River Piave where the plains meet the first mountains of the Dolomites – but while my wife and children slept fitfully upstairs, I would get the fire roaring, turn out all the lights and watch a film by Italian horror director Mario Bava. Prior to this week, I’d never seen any of his 30-odd films. This is a scientific record of the Mario Bava Season at Castle Bleasdale.

Monday, 11th of January, 2016

David Bowie died last night. An inauspicious beginning to the week, to the year in fact. I resist the temptation to watch The Man Who Fell to Earth – there’ll be time enough for that later – because tonight I must begin my journey into the cinema of Mario Bava. I’ve put it off too long and now it calls to me. All the wonderful titles: lots of blood, lots of black, covens of witches and parties of demons. I eschew the synopsis and trailers and pick Blood and Black Lace from 1964. In Italian (and I watch it in Italian) the title is Six Women for the Murderer. The first thing I notice is the wind. A wind blows through the film as a series of murders are committed around a fashion house. The models and the owners are somehow involved. Throughout there is an air of scandal and the diary of a victim becomes a focal point for many of the characters. There is a widespread guilt. The women fear exposure as much as they do the murderer who stalks them with his strange cloth mask, as if he (or she) were fashion itself. The murders are brutal and the sadism of the killer mixes with obvious misogyny, as the fear of the women is accentuated and one of the women has her face thrust against a red hot stove. Everyone is trapped in or about the creepy villa and Bava is obviously attuned to the Gothic. The wind slams windows and billows curtains. Mannequins stand frozen waiting to come to life. There is drapery and blood and the grotesque comedy of death which leaves the women in poses without poise, eyes bulging, faces ruined, mere things to be carted around. This is the very beginning of the giallo, a whole genre dedicated to the fascination of what beautiful women look like when they’re frightened, and later when they’re dead.

Tuesday, 12th of January, 2016

Last night I tweeted about my first Mario Bava film and Massimo B. sent me a message from Amsterdam. They’re making a horror movie: would I submit a treatment? I base it on Blood and Black Lace and send it off. He gets back to me. Read it, liked it, will be in touch. Heartened, I build the fire up. It’s almost too hot. Outside there is a full moon casting sharp shadows. The cold is so intense, it’s like you’re immersed in freezing water. My daughters and wife sleep upstairs. I have chosen Kill Baby Kill (1966). A title that Roger Corman might have been proud of. Operazione Paura in Italian! But the film opens like something out of Hammer. A village is approached. There’s a terrible secret. The young doctor arrives to assist with the investigation of a grisly death. The local villa houses a Miss Haversham of sorts, who in the ruins of her former glory, surrounded by the dolls of her lost child, leaks a malign influence onto the village. The corruption of the locals see them hounded to death if they spill the secret. Inside the corpse of the young girl – an apparent suicide – a coin is found. The investigating policeman is found killed and the coroner, played by the impossibly square-jawed Giacomo Rossi Stuart, teams up with a local girl (Erica Blank), who has returned after a long sojourn away to find out what is going on. Bava is extremely good at the traditional elements of the horror story. As with Blood and Black Lace, the wind moans and shutters slam. A little girl wanders the film, a terrifying precursor to the little red riding hood of Don’t Look Now and a ball bounces down a spiral staircase and we could be forgiven for thinking it settles in a corridor of the Overlook Hotel. As the film slides effortlessly into the surreal, the haunted house becomes increasingly psychotic and beguiling. As I turn off the lights and lock all the doors before going to bed, I catch sight of my own reflection and recoil at the lurid grin that contorts my face.

Wednesday, 13th of January, 2016

One of my students died. Death comes by email these days, or worse still, Facebook. I learned of a suicide via Facebook two years ago. Last year Twitter alerted me to the massacre in the offices of Charlie Hebdo. The world we live in death comes tweeting. The fire is lit early this evening. The Planet of the Vampires (1965) was Bava’s foray into science fiction. He also directed comedies and Spaghetti Westerns. Two space ships land on a mysterious planet after they pick up an SOS message. As they land, the crew are gripped by a mass psychosis and set about trying to kill each other. Once recovered they find that the crew members on the other ship were similarly affected but had gone the whole hog and murdered each other. The film was made on the cheap with only a couple of rocks, some slow motion and a wind machine with which to make an alien planet. The wind blows again and seems to be a crucial element to the Bava universe, that invisible force that we all take for granted but which moves and affects the world. Likewise there are invisible beings on the planet that can only be perceived by their effects on others as they reanimate the corpses of the dead crew and attack the living. Bava regular Barbara Steele joins US TV actor Barry Sullivan in trying to make the sets and the situation credible. The creepiness is well done and although everyone involved denies it, there is more than a germ of Alien here, though Bava’s film borrows liberally from Forbidden Planet (1956) as well it must be noted.

Thursday, 14th of January, 2016

I’m rehearsing a play to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday when I get the news that Alan Rickman has died. I saw Rickman in St. George’s Hall in Liverpool perform Hamlet in the mid-90s. He was a wonderful Dane and I walked back to my student digs blathering fake Shakespearean verse. I take the rest of the day off and decide tonight I will double bill Mario Bava. The fire is lit and the wood is consumed, the flames, reaching high into the chimney as if they’re trying to grab something. Just as Dario Argento – influenced by Bava’s Blood and Black Lace is claiming the giallo for his own, Bava lurches back towards the Gothic, which lies at the heart of his concept of horror. Baron Blood has the Italian title Gli orrori del castello di Norimberga. Peter Kliest (Antonio Cantafora) visits the castle of his ancestors where he meets Eva (Elke Sommer), a student who is studying the ancestral pile, which is due to be sold. A series of murders coincide with the arrival of the wheelchair-bound Alfred Becker (played by an ageing Joseph Cotten), the new owner of the castle. There is gruesome murder, an Iron Maiden gets some use and a wonderful foggy chase. Joseph Cotten can’t really compete with the grisly make-up of his un-rejuvenated Baron, but it doesn’t really matter as it is the Austrian castle that is the true star of the film. Released the same year – 1972 – Lisa and the Devil also starred Elke Sommer, this time as Lisa, an American tourist in Spain. Here she meets a strange man (Telly Savalas) in a mannequin shop. He bears a striking resemblance to a fresco depicting the devil on the wall of the local church. Lisa loses her group and is given a lift by a rich couple and their chauffeur, who in turn find themselves stranded near a fog-shrouded villa, the butler of which is the mannequin-lugging devil. Invited in, the travellers find themselves part of a weird role-playing game as a mother and son see in Lisa a resemblance to a sweetheart long dead. There is necrophilia, sadism and black magic at play as Leandro (Savalas) manipulates everyone in the house like the mannequins he positions, which come to life. Leandro could be seen as a stand-in for the director himself, manipulating pain and grief and exhuming memories in order to make his own entertainment. Savalas sucks on a lollipop throughout the movie, a detail that he liked so much he used it for his iconic TV detective Kojak, which he filmed the following year.

Friday, 15th of January, 2016

The funeral took place in the local cathedral and outside the sun was strangely, unseasonably warm.

John Bleasdale

Casting Sound: Interview with Johnny Marshall

Upstream Colour1
Upstream Colour

Format: Cinema

Release date: 30 August 2013

Distributor: Metrodome

Director: Shane Carruth

Writer: Shane Carruth

Cast: Amy Seimetz, Shane Carruth, Andrew Sensenig

USA 2013

93 mins

Johnny Marshall is an awarding-winning, Texas-based sound designer with a background in music, who has worked in the industry for over three decades. His work on Upstream Colour won him the Special Jury Award for Sound Design at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. The latest film from the director, actor and composer Shane Carruth, Upstream Colour joins Berberian Sound Studio as an ambitiously cinematic exploration of sound and vision with sound taking on a role as both an on-screen character and off-screen protagonist. The sense of a noise drawing characters on, sounds both heard and unheard and a beautifully hypnotic – and never has hypnotic been more literally applied – score make Upstream Colour one of the richest cinema experiences you’re likely to see this year.

John Bleasdale spoke with Johnny Marshall about what it was like to audition for Shane Carruth, and the process behind the creation of the film’s unique and remarkable sound design.

John Bleasdale: How did you first get involved in the project?

Johnny Marshall: The process of being hired for Upstream Colour was unlike any other project I had ever been involved with. I received a call from producer Casey Gooden who told me about a film he was producing with Shane Carruth. Although Shane and I had never met, I did know him by reputation and was very interested in the possibility of working with him on his second film. Casey proceeded to tell me they were looking for a sound designer for the film as well as a place for Shane to do some ADR, and were considering a number of sound designers and facilities. The unusual part of the process was, for lack of a better term, ’auditioning’ for the role. Casey asked if I’d be willing to take one scene from the film and sound design it in whatever way I deemed appropriate, non gratis. The scene that was shot had no dialogue, so it was wide open for a complete sound design treatment, including atmospheres, full foley coverage, hard effects, etc., as well as some sonic texture beds to underscore the scene. In addition he asked if I’d be willing to let Shane come by and ADR one scene to get a feel for working with me in my facility. I agreed and was told that once they had compiled the scene treatments from all those being considered they would make a decision. A week or so later I received another call from Casey with the news that they wanted me to be the sound designer. The ’audition’ scene treatments for the sound design and the ADR ended up being the actual elements used in the final mix of the film.

Read the review of Upstream Colour here.

Sound is a protagonist in the movie. Did it change your approach knowing that sound was going to be so foregrounded?

That’s a great question. When I began working on the film everyone involved was moving fast to complete a final picture lock, sound design, and temp mix for a Cannes submission. Since the final editing and the sound design were being done simultaneously at separate locations, I was receiving one reel at a time in sequence as each reel was locked. I never read a script and didn’t really know where the film was going when I first started working on it, but I knew there was something very special about Upstream Colour in that not only was the film very ’outside the box’, but also unlike any film I’d ever seen. Consequently I approached the sound design with that in mind. It was more like sound designing from an audience perspective, in that I would receive a reel and emotionally react to it with sound design, not knowing where the next reel would take me. I remember getting occasional calls from Casey saying a new reel was ready and words to the effect of ‘You won’t believe where this one goes!’ Perhaps it was one of those ‘can’t see the forest for the trees’ but I don’t think I was ever really cognizant of the foregrounding of the sound until I sat in the Eccles Theatre and watched the film at the Sundance 2013 world premiere.

How did you work with the music? Was this something you had discussions about?

As a whole there were very few discussions about anything during the post audio process. As Shane was concentrating on the final edit and the score, I was left to my own devices to do my work. Although the score was ever evolving during post, I would always receive OMFs with Shane’s music cues, so I always had a sense of the sonic emotional content of each scene. I am very proud of Shane’s musical work on Upstream and think the score is not only phenomenal but proved to be very conducive to the style of sound design I brought to the table.

Did you use much live sound?

As far as location audio I’d say considerably less than in most films. There’s not a great deal of dialogue and a good amount of it was ADR. There were scenes in the hotel and on the trains that were just way too noisy to be cleaned up and used. From a sound design perspective we were able to utilize some great wild audio from the pig farm and the trains.

How did you deal with the dialogue? It seems to be intentionally behind the sound.

Although that’s more of a question for the re-recording mixer at Skywalker, Pete Horner, who did an incredible job on the mix, I know that the opening lines of dialogue in the film between the boys and the thief were intentionally pulled back in the mix as a creative decision. Shane didn’t feel that those lines needed to be as discernable as other dialogue in the film, and rather be just audible enough to give a sense of what is going on. Aside from that scene I never had a sense the dialogue was intentionally behind the sound per se. That said, I do feel there is a great deal of dynamic range being used in the film, which is one of the many elements of Pete Horner’s mix that I really love.

What was the nature of your collaboration with Shane Carruth?

Interesting that you would ask that, since overall there wasn’t a great deal of actual collaboration between Shane and me during the sound design process. I have a sense that after my ’audition’ scene Shane felt we were both on the same page as to the sonic direction of the film and subsequently left me to do my part unsupervised while he concentrated on his. He did, however, give me a bit of direction on one scene where the Sampler places speakers on the ground and plays a cassette tape to the worms. Shane asked me to create a low frequency, pulsating sound-design treatment that would be playing from the tape, through the speakers, and into the ground. With that I created something I thought worked for the scene, Shane approved it, and I moved on. In the final mix Pete added some reverb and delays into the surround channels which really brought that sound design element to life.

Could you say something about the character of the ‘Sampler’, who is in effect a sound designer? Was his practice informed by your own?

When I tell someone I was the sound designer for Upstream Colour I sometimes get this look like ’Wow, you look a lot taller and thinner on screen’ and I’m like ’No, wait, I’m the sound designer ‘on’ Upstream Colour, not the sound designer ‘in’ Upstream Colour!’

There are many days when what you see the Sampler doing is exactly what I do, that is, walk around with mics and a portable digital recorder to record sounds to use in the films I work on. It’s fun to think that somewhere down the road my grandkids could be watching Upstream Colour and during the scene where Kris (Amy Seimetz) returns to her home after her long ordeal, slowly pushes open the front door, it creaks, hits the wall and their mom or dad could say ’Hey kids, what you just heard was the creaky front door of the house we grew up in!

Interview by John Bleasdale

The Horror of Sociology

The Belko Experiment
The Belko Experiment

John Bleasdale looks at the role of sociologists in modern horror cinema.

Who are the go-to baddies in horror movies today? Dead Korean girls who don’t own hairclips? Nah. Zombies? Per-lease. Paedophile killers with blades for fingers? Nope. So who? And I don’t even necessarily mean the villains you see. I mean the evil that lurks behind the monster, the way the real villain of The Exorcist is not the demonically possessed girl but the Catholic church, which foists such an evil universe on us that makes demonically possessed little girls possible.

So who is it? Who are they? The millennial equivalent of vampires and werewolves.

In a word: sociologists.

Continue reading The Horror of Sociology

Watching Films in the Time of Trump

kissesformypresident
Kisses for My President

John Bleasdale turns to cinema in an attempt to understand the outcome of the American election.

About five months ago I wrote a piece for Electric Sheep about ‘Watching Tarkovsky in a Time of Terror’. The first line was ‘2016 has been one rolling piece of shit’. Well, the shit has rolled on. The scything of musical legends has continued; hospitals have been bombed with nary a word of protest and the human tragedy of the refugees was apparently solved by picking a handful of children and then destroying what was unironically termed the Jungle. Add to this the American election concluding in what can only be thought of as the biggest prat-fall in world history and we have one of those years that would be best described in Latin but with a heavy emphasis on the Anus.

Continue reading Watching Films in the Time of Trump

Watching Tarkovsky in a Time of Terror

Tarkovsky Rublev
Andrei Rublev

The great Russian master’s work offers hope in troubled times.

2016 has been one rolling piece of shit. Imagine the burning things Spartacus’ slave army roll down the hill into the advancing Roman army in Kubrick’s epic film, but imagine that the things on fire are bundles of shit and that will give you some idea of 2016’s unrelenting avalanche of bad, worse and worst news. Already reeling from the Bataclan and San Bernardino massacres from 2015, we’re now seeing people being shot, blown up, hacked with knives and axes and driven over by trucks – a failed coup in Turkey, a wedding party blown to smithereens, the endless horror of Aleppo. The geographical list now associated with individual atrocities is becoming depressingly long, blotting the Google map of our psycho-geography with cigarette burns of destruction. I know we shouldn’t succumb to terrorism; and I understand, statistically, I’m more likely to be killed from a bee sting than a car bomb, but it’s pointless to ignore the fact: the terror is working. The Western mind is closing: a deep Brexit of the soul has begun; the far right is on the rise; racism rears a brutish face and, as Yeats might put it, President Trump shuffles towards Bethlehem to be born.

So why am I watching the films of Andrei Tarkovsky? Why am I doing anything for that matter that doesn’t involve wailing and gnashing and the rending of garments? Well, the mundane reason: I need to review them. It’s summer and nobody else was up for three hours of a Russian monk trying to draw pictures on a church wall in black and white. But as I watched late into the night, each film seemed to echo my own doubts: ‘What’s the point? How can you continue? How can anyone continue?’

Tarkovsky’s first feature Ivan’s Childhood shows us a war child on the Eastern front, whose world is made up of rain-filled craters, nightmare forests and the constant possibility of violent death. For all that Ivan’s no victim. His childhood is more this war-torn present than the dreamlike memories of a time when his family were still unkilled by the Nazis and he is eager to be sent on suicidal missions behind the lines. Life during wartime is going to present its share of horror – as distinct from the terror we live with – but it was with Andrei Rublev that Tarkovsky gave his audiences a portrait of the nightmare of history and how it hammers people into submission, silence or death. Terror is everywhere in his 15th-century Russia. Whether it comes from a group of soldiers beating up a jester, the warring noblemen, two brothers locked in such deadly enmity that they will jealously blind artisans to stop them repeating their work, or invading Tartars: violence can be sudden and brutal and the art of the eponymous artist Andrei – the icon painter – is compromised by the violence of the church of which he is a member and its (and his) official patrons. Horses are often used throughout Tarkovsky’s movies as a symbol of hope, of life itself. In a horrific scene of siege, a horse gets thrown down a flight of stairs, swept into a river and finally stabbed to death in the field. That’s what happens to hope. That’s what happens to life. Following such violence, Andrei gives up. Stops working. There’s nothing to be said; no glory to be celebrated. Only guilt and withdrawal. Fear and loathing.

It’s a radical but not unusual revelation. The Holocaust makes poetry impossible. The rest is silence – but the silence will be broken by a young boy, the only surviving member of a bell-making family (another child Ivan) who supervises the casting of a giant church bell as he’s the only one left with the secret knowledge of how to do it. The Prince threatens death to the workmen if they fail, but miraculously, from earth, water and fire they cast this beautiful industrial machine that rings. It breaks Andrei’s silence as well who, inspired by the boy’s art, returns to the world, so to speak. But the boy is distraught. There was never any secret, he confides. This is the mystery of art for Tarkovsky: there is no mystery. The miracle is we don’t need miracles.

This empty mystery returns throughout Tarkovsky’s films: an enigma wrapped in a puzzle. In Solaris, it’s the sentient planet, trying to communicate via our memories, our love, ghosts and regret. In Stalker, it’s the Room inside the Zone, a room in which whoever enters gets what they always wanted. The catch is they don’t necessarily know what they want until it’s too late. An unhappy party of men journey to the Room, and one of them has a bomb. Can there be no good in the world? Must it always be destroyed? In Sacrifice, it is the end of the world in a nuclear war, played out as the nightmare of an aging theatre director. When history is rewound and war impossibly, magically averted, the director burns down his house as the doctors come to cart him off to the local looney bin, but his insanity is the most rational reaction to the crazier world-wide destruction that is threatened.

Throughout all of his films, Tarkovsky offers love, self-denying, self-sacrificing love as the only answer. For all their highbrow reputation, the films never shy away from raw emotion, just as his raw materials are as elemental as fire, water, earth – often all represented in the same masterfully composed shot: a fire burns, rain pours and a wind wants to tear the trees from the ground. The resilience of his vision and the reason they spoke through the pain of this moment in history, this shitty piece of 2016, is due to their confrontation with the pain and suffering of the world, the mediocre evils as well as the atrocious ones, and to still offer liberating hope. Albeit hope that risks being knocked down the stairs and stabbed with spears.

Andrei Tarkovsky’s films are released in the UK by Curzon Artificial Eye.

John Bleasdale

The Werewolves of the British Isles

The Company of Wolves 2
The Company of Wolves

There are good reasons why Britain is the home of the wolf.

In 1281 King Edward ordered the extermination of all wolves from his kingdom. Organised hunts had been going on for years and bounties had been offered by monarchs in the past for wolf pelts, but this was a full on attempt to wipe the creatures out. From this point on, any reference to wolves are vanishingly rare in the British Isles and any attempt to spot the last wolf or pinpoint the date is silly. A throat was cut, an animal trapped, or a lonely sick old thing died in the depths of the forest and they were gone. But things that we destroy entirely have a tendency to haunt us in our imaginations. Hollywood shoots its Indians throughout the early days of cinema and right into the 70s as a tacit admission of the genocide. They have to be the threat. They have to be an existential threat. After all, there’s no point killing a whole population so entirely if you’re not going to do them the honour of dancing on their graves and pretending they constituted some kind of threat. Like muscle memory we are forced to kill what we have already killed over and over again.

And so the howling of wolves has a peculiar place in the British imagination, wrapped up with guilt and the prevailing westerly wind blowing through the ghosts of forests long since chopped and burnt. It is an atavistic fear, for once upon a time we were torn apart by those teeth, felt those eyes watching us from the dark, detected the movement of the pack out there where the flickering light from the camp fire wouldn’t reach.

The two earliest Universal adaptations of the ‘wolf man’ are both set in the British Isles. Interestingly the first less successful version, Werewolf of London (1935), has the threat come from foreign parts as a kind of revenge of Empire narrative. Wilfred Glendon (Henry Hull) is a botanist hunting an exotic plant in far-flung Tibet when he is bitten by a creature. On returning to England, he is warned by a mysterious stranger that he has been bitten by a werewolf and will ‘attack the thing he loves most’, clumsily tying lycanthropy up as the animal lust that stands in opposition to romantic love. Although the first werewolf in the cinema feels very much like a vampire/Jekyll and Hyde mash-up and was probably influenced by Guy Endore’s novel The Werewolf of Paris, it firmly establishes the werewolf on British soil and will leave a clawed paw print on Warren Zevon’s hit song ‘Werewolves of London’ and John Landis’s 1981 comedy horror An American Werewolf in London.

Watch the trailer to The Wolf Man (1941):

The breakthrough came with Lon Chaney Jr.’s more famous follow-up The Wolf Man (1941). Set this time in Wales, the film sees a distinctly burly Larry Talbot (Chaney Jr.) return to his ancestral home to reconcile with his father, Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains). Larry becomes romantically interested in a local girl named Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers), but following a wolf attack Larry begins to change. The change itself became a moment of cinematic magic as the man transformed before our very eyes and a highpoint in all the subsequent sequels and spin-offs. Unlike Dracula and Frankenstein, the Universal wolf man had no literary precedent – if not the animalistic Mr Hyde or perhaps a hint of the demon dog from The Hound of the Baskervilles. This meant that screenwriters such as Curt Siodmak were free to invent and manipulate the lore as they wished. A popular character, the wolf man would reappear in early mash-ups like Frankenstein Vs The Wolfman, and with She-Wolf of London even get a female make-over in 1946, re-establishing the English location.

Unfortunately, the quintessentially English Hammer production The Curse of the Werewolf (1961), introducing Oliver Reed to cinema audiences for the first time, was set in Spain, somewhat oddly as it was based on Endore’s The Werewolf of Paris mentioned earlier. But An American Werewolf in London (1981) quickly recognised the home of the wolf. Sure, there was The Howling and Albert Finney in Wolfen, all released that same year, but wolfs in the backwoods of California or prowling New York City seem silly and will always seem silly compared to a foggy night on the Yorkshire moors, interrupted only by a brief respite in The Slaughtered Lamb. The Americans are natural innocents abroad, similar to Henry James’s heroines. And it isn’t only in the damp of the English evening that they find the horror, but also in the grimier reaches of Soho.

Watch the trailer to She-Wolf of London:

Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber (1983) took on the grisly adult themes of fairy tales, bringing the sexual, erotic and violent subtexts to the surface. Unfortunately, this idea has curdled into a lumpy mess of origin stories such as Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) and Maleficent (2014), but Neil Jordan’s adaptation of Carter’s story The Company of Wolves (1984) is an imaginative and at times genuinely disturbing take on the wolves that plague the English mind. Beginning in present day, the film frames everything as the nightmare of a pubescent girl, Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson). Her dream begins with the ‘nightmare’ of her sister being hunted and devoured by a pack of wolves, signalling immediately that nightmares – as Freud taught – are nothing more than fantasies we don’t want to admit to ourselves. A series of tales told by her Grandmother (Angela Lansbury) all warn of the wolf as a male threat to a young girl, a husband who might respond to a call of nature at night and come back changed, a travelling man whose eyebrows meet in the middle, an aristocrat with frivolous interest in destroying a girl. Set in the woods of Shepperton Studio, Jordan complained about having to film the same 12 trees on an obvious sound stage, but the sunless dreariness of the woods, the claustrophobia – we are after all in a young girl’s head – all lend themselves to a growing sense of entrapment. In fact, there are animals throughout the film waiting to burst out, under the skin, in dinner parties, eyes shining in the night. And so it is with a dreadful inevitability that, as the film draws to a close, the line between waking and sleeping is also breached and the wolves crash through the windows of our cottages hungry for their ultimate revenge.

John Bleasdale

Cutting the Director’s Cut

tv times
Cover art for Yorkshire TV Times Magazine

The first film I ever saw at the cinema was Star Wars. I was six years old. We queued outside the cinema in northern English cold, and, by the time we made it into the packed auditorium, the front crawl had already crawled and the Storm Troopers were storming the rebel ship. I wouldn’t see the complete film until 24 October, 1983, when it debuted at 7.15 in the evening on ITV, at the time Britain’s only commercial TV channel. Five and a half years had passed and yet Star Wars had been a constant in our games and our toys, as well as listening to the soundtrack and reading and re-reading George Lucas’s first novel with ‘16 pages of color illustrations’.

Today the situation is obviously different with instant downloads, simultaneous DVD releases, or at the longest a wait of a few months before a film can be owned and re-watched over and over again, complete with audio commentary, deleted scenes, and perhaps an alternative ending. And though I don’t want to wax whimsical about the good old days, I do want to emphasize the amount of air that could exist around a film. In this space, there was plenty of room for rumour and speculation, and the legendary director’s cut, the first six-hour version of a film, was a commonly repeated theme: the cut would be butchered and hacked back by an unsympathetic studio and what we saw was only a remnant of the artist’s vision.

An example of this was a film that had been planned as a follow up to Star Wars, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, which had been released in the UK in the autumn of 1982. The rumours of a five-hour version were encouraged by the film’s narrative ambiguity, some apparent inconsistencies (how many replicants?), and later by the occasional surfacing on late-night TV of versions that included bits no one remembered. The rumours were also encouraged once more by the space such thinking had to play in. The lack of internet sites – from encyclopaedic collections such as IMDB to the plethora of geek blogs – meant that such speculation took place in the letters pages of fanzines and on the bus to school, with very little ground for confirmation or decisive rebuttal. It also helped that Blade Runner evoked a world that seemed to stretch far outside the frame of the cinema screen or the VHS pan-and-scan TV screen, the first way I got to see it. The idea of an epic five-hour film was sustained by the idea that Los Angeles in 2019 looked such a big and detailed world. There was room to explore.

Such hopes and illusions came crashing down with the release of Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut in 1992. Although it gave us the opportunity of seeing this film – most of us for the first time – on the big screen, it decidedly was not the five-hour epic of the director’s vision. In fact, it was shorter than the original release. The changes were at once momentous and weirdly inconsequential. The theories about Deckard being a replicant – encouraged by a close reading of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – were rendered explicit: out went the off-cut from The Shining, in went the off-cut from Legend, and banished was the sleepy noir-ish narration (which I guiltily still love: ‘no one advertises for a killer in a newspaper’). With the further release of Blade Runner: The Final Cut, complete with a five-disc edition containing deleted scenes, all the major alternative versions and a documentary about the alternative version, the legend was now the province of purists, pedants and the bird-spotters of cinema, a frame here, a rerecorded line there. Clarity was given not only in the re-mastering of the image but in the elimination of those beguiling inconsistencies (how many replicants?) and, more damagingly, ambiguities: ‘I want more life, FATHER.’

Nowadays, the director’s cut is no longer a mysterious legend but a marketing tool, a way of boosting ancillary sales and a counter in getting directors to compromise on the theatrical release. Watching a Ridley Scott film at the cinema seems almost a waste of time, as we do so knowing full well that the director’s cut will be on the way, with an introduction by Scott at the beginning, grumpily disavowing any compromises made. Robin Hood, Black Hawk Down, American Gangster and most dramatically Kingdom of Heaven all had big director’s cut releases, often with a cynical delay to allow the dedicated the joy of effectively buying the same movie twice. The latter is often cited as a director’s cut that vastly improves on the original, but 1) the increased amount of Orlando Bloom offsets any subplot; and 2) given it is a better version, why didn’t Scott fight for it tooth and nail? I can only watch a film for the first time once, so that experience should be optimal. Directors’ cuts encourage carelessness and compromise even as they pretend to authenticity and definitiveness, sometimes providing opportunities for endless noodling with flawed material. See Francis Ford Coppola’s appalling Apocalypse Now: Redux or Oliver Stone’s Alexander, Alexander: The Director’s Cut and Alexander Revisited: The Final Cut, or better still, don’t.

Then there are the restored classics. Sergio Leone’s Once upon a Time in America was famously butchered by the editor of Police Academy at the behest of the studios. Even though there has been a longer European cut available for some time, a new version was recently released, which restored many missing scenes. But what the film gains in coherence it loses as a watching experience. The film stock has obviously degraded and there is a glaring difference in footage quality with the lost scenes. For a restored version of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, the original cast now in their sixties and seventies overdubbed additional scenes to a similarly jarringly effect. A restored scene in Spartacus between Tony Curtis and Laurence Olivier had Anthony Hopkins doing an impersonation of Olivier in the overdub.

The dream is always that hidden treasure will be found, a lost version restored, the director’s vision finally realised, but time and again films are significantly damaged by these interpolations. Of course these aren’t necessarily directors’ cuts. They are alternate versions and, as with the recent rerelease of The Shining, there is evidence to suggest the directors might well not have wanted their films released in these versions. Sometimes less is more.

Directors’ cuts exist also in the context of ‘Unrated Versions’ of comedies (more tits, less funny), and horror movies (more gore, less scary). Having given you everything so quickly and so completely, there is still the need to shove the idea that you are somehow getting more, quantity though and not necessarily quality. ‘Including 23 minutes of previously unseen footage’ doesn’t promise much except perhaps the studio wanted an R, and the director gave them an NP-17. As a film writer, I can’t bemoan the availability of all these versions (although that is what I’m doing). I just feel disappointed; disappointed that the universe is shrinking. Now we can see the director’s second thoughts and they are rarely as good as their first. Films become flabby with additional scenes, and that sense of unseen possibility is stymied and ultimately destroyed.

The experience I had between 1977 and 1982 of nurturing the memory of a film and reliving it in so many ways can’t ever be regained, but with all our wealth of cinematic accessibility it is worth remembering some of the positives that came in the austere time, when Han Solo shot first and Jabba wasn’t CGI.

John Bleasdale

In ‘A Catholic Childhood of Unwatchable Terror’ John Bleasdale recalls his sinful teenage days watching forbidden films.

Sex, Horror and Custard Pies

Bugsy Malone
Bugsy Malone ©National Film Trustees Corp

In Take the Money and Run (1969), Woody Allen’s small-time thief Virgil Starkwell is asked by his psychiatrist if he thinks sex is dirty. ‘Yes, if you’re doing it right,’ he replies.

Sex has never been dirtier. With the internet taking porn into the mainstream, such delicacies as facials and cream pies have become, if not exactly household words, certainly much more broadly recognised than when filthy magazines were top shelf or delivered to your home in discrete brown paper bags. Seen as the most degrading act of humiliation by anti-porn campaigners such as Gail Dines, bukkake scenes – in which multiple men ejaculate on a woman – have spread. The Japanese word means spillage and the history of the scene itself is a spillage, an unintended consequence of Japanese censorship which pixelates genitalia but not jizz. The spillage has continued into gay porn and some even argue that even in heterosexual porn, the focus on male genitalia is such that it becomes, well, gay. On one thing porn consumers and anti-porn campaigners can agree: it is one of the dirtiest niches in Pornland.

Custard pie fights are dirty as well. You don’t see them as much anymore. There was a time at the beginning of cinema, in fact, where it seemed difficult to walk past an open window or through a restaurant without getting hit in the kisser by a flan. You could be sitting in a dentist’s chair or talking on the phone. No one was safe. It was an essential part of slapstick comedy, coming from vaudeville routines by the likes of Weber and Fields. Fatty Arbuckle hits Nick Cogley in the kisser in Mack Sennett’s A Noise from the Deep in 1913. They became a patented part of the Keystone comedy armoury. Laurel and Hardy threw hundreds of pies in the Battle of the Century (1927).

Watch the pie fight in Battle of the Century:

Later the custard pie fight would be revived. It featured in the 60s films that harked back nostalgically to the beginning of cinema such as the Tony Curtis movies The Great Race (1965) and Beach Party (1963). Alan Parker’s Bugsy Malone (1976) was the last great cinematic custard splurge. The nostalgia was all too obvious in a children’s movie that hailed back to the old-style gangster movies of James Cagney and George Raft. Even as a kid I felt queasy about it. It was basically an adult film with the violence and sex replaced with gunk (though Scott Baio and Jodie Foster have a precocious chemistry).

On British television the joy of getting messy continued with Tiswas and the Phantom Flan Flinger who would attack teachers and parents. The sliming of celebrities during the Kid’s Choice Awards on Nickelodeon continues the Lord of Misrule carnival. Kids have their revenge on parents, idols to whom they are usually beholden and adults generally. These anarchic principles have been channelled into the kidulthood world with the more recent political flannings of such luminaries as Rupert Murdoch and Bill Gates.

The messiness of the custard pie fight has morphed in mainstream cinema into gross-out comedy, and the clean-to-messy trajectory can be traced in the worlds of porn and horror. Let’s be clear here: I’m suggesting they are analogous rather than identical. We begin fully clothed, intact, civilized, social identities secure, hierarchies in place, in a word, ‘clean’. Then progressively the people on screen, the combatants in the pie shop, the teenagers at the slasher-infested summer camp, the guests at the orgy, become dishevelled. Anarchy ensues, hierarchies are dissolved or reversed, confused, inhibitions lost and in another word everybody gets ‘dirty’.

Custard pie fights, splatter and porn movies have a sense of inevitability written into them. What is under the clothes, or under the skin, or under the surface of social order, is lurking there right from the beginning. Rugby matches are like this too. Watch the players in their bright clean shirts and slicked coiffures transform into muddy, bloody Mugwumps.

And this isn’t purely sadism, or ritual humiliation, although there is undoubtedly some of that. Watching others degraded and getting the same kicks as the kids get seeing their elders being deluged in slime is certainly part of it. But there is a liberating joy in getting messy as well, eating with our hands so to speak, throwing stuff about. Food Fight. Torture porn allows us to voyeuristically engage in other people’s suffering, but we also imagine what it would be like to be the victim. How liberating it would be to be tortured, to endure that kind of total and extreme physical experience. Look at how celebrities jump at the chance to perform the Ice Bucket Challenge – even though they’ve donated money, which means they can forgo the dousing. Likewise, top Hollywood stars like Will Smith and Harrison Ford seem to take an indecent joy in being slimed in front of children.

As a kid, I hated custard pie fights in films. Like many children, I was essentially conservative. I fundamentally distrusted custard pie fights. Something else was at play. They frightened me. I found Bugsy Malone almost unwatchable and despised Tiswas. At the same time, I could watch Nightmare on Elm Street, or Evil Dead with relative ease. Perhaps this was because what was hidden and revealed by custard pie fights seemed sneaky. It was the aggression and sex mixed up in all those flying desserts that set my adolescent nerves a-jangling. This wasn’t just a bit of fun. Porn, or the splatter and slasher films told you straight out what they were. Nowadays, I’ve gone full circle, and when I watch horror films, or accidentally glance at porn (obviously I would never purposefully besmirch myself with filth), I detect the custard pie fight that is hidden in them somewhere down there. At least, if you’re doing it right.

In ‘A Catholic Childhood of Unwatchable Terror’ John Bleasdale recalls his sinful teenage days watching forbidden films.

John Bleasdale

A Catholic Childhood of Unwatchable Terror

Driller Killer
Poster art for Driller Killer

Unwatchable terror started in my Roman Catholic school. Horror films of incredible brutality or porn of whispered disgusting degradation. Films so extreme they couldn’t be imagined, only described. They were forbidden and filthy. Sometimes, it would just be a scene without context. A relatively tame example would be The Omen 2 where a man is chopped in half by a cable in an elevator. For some reason – my imagination still informed more by Tom and Jerry than George Romero – I thought ‘chopped in half’ meant bisected cranium to crotch, but such misunderstandings make up a wonderful miasma surrounding the actual mundane irreality of the films themselves.

During the first summer holiday of video recorders, a friend and I would rent out from the nonchalantly permissive petrol station a whole swathe of what would come to be lumped together as ‘video nasties’. We saw The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Exterminator, Evil Dead, Driller Killer, Dawn of the Dead and several films I can’t remember the titles of, but where people died in horrific ways, one involving a helicopter blade and a door.

Watch the trailer to Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide Part Two:

I say I saw these films, but I actually only saw them partway through, three quarters I’d say. The thing was, by the time we’d walked down to the station, made our choice and walked back, we’d start the film and after an hour I’d have to go home for my lunch. Then my friend’s mother would be in from her cleaning job in the afternoon and we’d have to take the videos back to the garage.

Consequently, I grew up dénouement-less. Teenagers got sliced and tortured, innocents despatched, the evil unleashed, then I went for banana sandwiches and crisps. The films swelled in my imagination, and only two things were sure: the killer was still on the loose and no one was safe.

These were sinful films. Films I could not believe people would appear in, or be responsible for. It occurred to me that the people who made these films had to be not merely disreputable but actively evil. There was no other excuse for what they wanted us to watch, for what they thought up. And my watching the films was shameful and sinful too.

But as bad as all these films were, the instant you watched them they obviously ceased to be unwatchable and other films, films I only heard of and hadn’t seen, took their place: Zombie Apocalypse, Cannibal Holocaust and Necromancer. All these movies held the fusty lure of the snuff movie, the hint that what you were watching was somehow actually happening.

Urban legend soon became part of the marketing campaign. The adverse reactions of audience members were written up as good copy, heightening expectation and creating hysteria from Psycho to The Exorcist to The Blair Witch Project, with theatre owners complaining of ruined upholstery and vomit-stained aisles. ‘This Film Could Only Be Made in South America …Where Life Is Cheap’ screams the tagline to the 1976 grindhouse film Snuff. Though Snuff was actually a re-edited, re-titled 1971 film called Slaughter, with an extra murder thrown in to capitalise on a recent media scare about snuff films. The publicity earned the film more money in its opening week than One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest but also managed to cement the idea of real snuff movies firmly in the public subconscious. Sometimes the publicity backfired on the filmmakers. Most famously when Ruggero Deodato ended up in a Milanese courtroom having to prove he could replicate the gory impalements of Cannibal Holocaust without having to off a dollar-a-day native.

What it came down to essentially was wet death, the gory revelation of our physical moistness summed up by that wonderful onomatopoeia-become genre: splatter. The messiness of it always made it seem more authentic to me. It was like that juvenile cousin to horror and porn (another article to follow on this subject) the custard pie fight. You can’t act being hit in the face by a custard pie. You just get hit in the face with a custard pie. And so it seemed with gore. Even if the limbs were fake, you still got covered in all that gunk. This, by the way, is why CGI blood and guts ruin horror. The tactile reality of dampness is gone and unwatchable films become – as the video nasty generation hits adulthood – merely ‘unrated’. From the queasy extremes of Audition to the adolescent relish of Hostel, ‘torture porn’ reveals the dry-wet calculus all too obviously.

Of course being brought up a Catholic brings with it a complicated relationship to sin. I was a devout Catholic, went to Catholic schools, attended mass three times a week as an altar boy and even thought I had a vocation to be a priest at one point. The Catholic Church’s participation in The Exorcist makes perfect sense to me. The film very effectively portrays a world view in which the only salvation is to trust priests to do whatever they like with your little girls. It is a truly terrifying film in that respect. Even with our watching habits.

Watch the trailer to The Exorcist:

Though the headmaster might rail against these films and boys with dirty, grubby minds, the school also invited anti-abortionist group SPUC to come and show us videos of real-life abortions taking place, the gory reality of it. The mortifying of the flesh has a long tradition and gruesome martyrdoms are all part and parcel of the Catholic love-hate, hate, hate relationship with the body. Mel Gibson’s dripping The Passion of the Christ is its cinematic apotheosis, the ultimate wet death. It is the gaping at the unwatchable. I would have happily watched it one summer’s morning, although I would have missed the end and Christ would be chained to the pillar still.

John Bleasdale

A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews