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Sunday, 27 October 2013

We Belong Dead, the zine of the classic age of horror

The most excellent cover for Issue 11 of
We belong Dead.
"A long forgotten age when Kong ruled Skull Island and Vincent Price held sway at the Masque of the Red Death. An age when Nosferatu repelled us and the Vampire Lovers attracted us. When the good Dr Jekyll became the evil Mr Hyde; when Karloff became Im-Ho-Tep; when Lee battled the devil as the Duc de Richleau; when Cushing was Dr Terror and Price was abominable as Dr Phibes.

Explore the House that Dripped Blood, the House on Haunted Hill,the House of Dracula and the House of Dark Shadows. Once again marvel as Dracula rises from the grave, Frankenstein creates woman, the devil rides out, the House of Usher falls, the Wolfman meets Frankenstein and the zombies have a plague.......

...Welcome to WE BELONG DEAD!!"

So proclaimed the very first issue of We Belong Dead way back in ye old olden days of 1992...... A group of horror-loving individuals, disillusioned with the then magazine markets obsession mainly with things Gore related while seemingly neglecting the 'classic' horror audience, decided to produce a publication of their own.

Now before I go any further here, I will as usual be completely honest with you( as the judged warned I should always be) - for I would love to say that I've been following the various musings of We Belong Dead ever since it's original incarnation way back then- but I can't. For some reason the first publications back in this pre-internet days seemed to have escaped my attentions at the time - and yes kids, there was a time before the internet and all it's glories was in existence, and somehow we all lived through it. Though I'm not sure how . 

However as I just said, I completely missed WBD in it's original existence, I'm not sure why. For as a fresh face young boy growing up in the 1970's I was already pretty much well on the way to becoming something of a horror and fantasy nerd. Like many boys growing up and heading into early adolescence, many of my friends had their 'thing's ( yes I did have friends, just because one is a nerd one doesn't need to descend into cliched existence). Those 'things' could be varied in their form - football cards, marbles, spiders, collecting the wings of dead Butterflies ...whatever it took to float ones boat. My particular boat from an early age was floated by collecting and reading magazines devoted to science fiction, fantasy or horror (and no, none of it included buying them & hiding them away in plastic cover protection where they would never be read for fear of finger marks etc). 

No, I bought and devoured them all - The House of Horror, the house of Hammer, Monster mag, The World of horror - to name but a few of those magical publications, from the top of my head. In addition to that there were many, many more that were continued to be bought throughout my years, both non-fiction and fictional works regularly floated ones boat - as they still do.

Yet We Belong Dead passed me by.

So when Eric Mcnaughton - El presidente of his team of horror classico writers and artists contacted me suggesting that I might be interested in talking about the return from the dead of his magazine that took place earlier this year, I was naturally interested. Naturally I was completely interested, particularly as he mentioned that I would have free access to the three issues produced this year - not that i'm cheap or anything, but I am rather partial to the term 'free'. Of course, just because something is free doesn't mean to say that my opinion will be positive. I would have to be won over, simple as that.

Now don't get me wrong - I love the modern digital world complete with it's accompaniment of electronic goodies. I am an unashamed Apple fanboy, I make no excuses for that. I love the online world that has been opened up within the past few years and the opportunities for information, entertainment and discourse that it provides (of course I refer only to the legal and clean-living opportunities, not anything else that would mean my over-used legal team being employed..........once again). 

However, I do find it refreshing and gratifying to see that this modern digital world hasn't completely overshadowed the more traditional forms of publications. For against all considered opinion, paper-based genre magazines seem to be enjoying something of a renaissance with sales and interest being nicely complimented and enhanced by the digital medium. Indeed, I was wandering around a certain movie store just a couple of weeks ago with a friend (yes I do still have friends, surprising I know) where I witnessed a veritable plethora of genre magazines which seemingly catered to every taste that we could possible want...... well most, because as in those dim and dark distant days, classic horror still seems to find itself in the lower rankings of publication importance.

It seems that Mr McNaughton and his band of horror classicos have the perfect opportunity, not only to fill that gap, but to take advantage of this healthy market.

So what does this resurrection after 16 long years of We Belong Dead have in store for the discerning lover of classic horror? And perhaps just as importantly (well to me anyway), will there be an inclusion of Madeline Smith?

Issue 9 - The glorious return of WBD
Issue 9 features such tasty morsels as;

* Blood, Boobs & a Good Title
A look at Hammer’s Twins of Evil

* The Ripper on Film
 5 favourite Jack the Ripper movies

* You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down
A controversial look at Hammer’s Dracula series

* Salems Lot
An investigation of the strange goings on in the town of Salems Lot

* Dracula Vs Frankenstein 
A review of a truly appalling film that’s a lot of fun

*First Lady of Terror
An interview with the wonderful Barbara Shelley   * Witchfinder General A delve into the world of Michael Reeves

What immediately appealed to me about this magazine was not the just the scale of the so-called fanzine (because it is more, much more than that) as issue 9 at a whopping 78 pages is appealing in itself for it's ambitious scope. No, it's far more than just the size,  because the writing style is intelligent, witty and full of the charm that I would love to be capable of myself.  

Not only that but the feel of the magazine in the style that it is put together is simply lovely -  a huge collection full of black and and white photographs (some rarely seen before) which accompany the written pieces. For example, the picture on of Barbara Shelley is simply stunning  - easy Tiger....

Not only that but the writing never falls into preaching or talking down to the reader. Yes the articles are written by a group of people who have an obvious love and knowledge of the classic genre, but they never fall into the all too common trap of some magazines of sounding elitist or condescending. Indeed, articles featuring the writer's own guilty horror pleasures speaks for the tone and approach of the magazine completely.

Issue 10 - It's a bit good

Issue 10 features such tasty morsels as;

* Boris Karloff Actor by Stephen Jacobs
* The Soft Side of Boris by Rhonda Steerer 
Two excellent pieces on the gentleman of horror himself.

* Thank you Dennis 
A fine tribute to Denis Gifford’s Pictorial History of Horror Movies book

* The Frankenstein Saga – Hammer Style

* House of Frankenstein
An exploration of a fine body of work.

*  Mexican Horror Movie Lobby Cards
A fascinating look at this weird and wonderful world of the lobby card * 7 Golden Vampires Featuring an interview with Roy Ward Baker  

* Creature Features The wonderful world of nature gone violent and wild.

* Would Have Been Horror Kings  After Karloff et al, came Bates et al as the new kings of horror

The intention of Eric McNaughton and his team from the very beginning was to produce a magazine made by fans FOR fans - this can often be something of a tricky venture that in truth for some works ( be they paper-based, websites or indie-films) I must admit in my experience don't always come off. For it can be hard to resist the tendency to venture off into self-indulgence and produce something containing more than it's fair share of in-jokes and references that may well amuse the makers but can result in marginalising the general audience. It would be unfair to name said publications or productions, but since starting this blog I've been lucky enough to be in contact with a huge amount of of talented and ambitious people whose work can occasionally be let down by self-indulgence.  

We Belong Dead does not do this. It is an intelligent and well thought out magazine that is clearly made by people who are clearly passionate and knowledgeable about their particular loves within the genre. This passion doesn't ever become over self-obsessed or preaching. 

The currently available issue 11 perfectly exemplifies this. This is the publication that is freshest in my mind after reading it this morning with my requisite 3 cups of Sunday morning coffee. The issue includes a detailed write-up of the Universal classic The Black Cat , a look back at Roman Polanski’s simply incredible and criminally underrated production of Macbeth, a We Belong Dead tribute to the late Richard Matheson and his genre films, a female perspective on Hammer’s Karnstein trilogy. If that wasn't enough there are lovely overviews of Hammer’s Mummy films, interviews with the late Ray Harryhausen, Caroline Munro and Madeleine (delicious) Smith, and nostalgia pieces on House of Hammer magazine and collecting horror film books.

The interview with Maddie (delicious) Smith will come as no surprise to those who know me well was something that particularly piked my interest, with not a small amount of jealousy that Mr Richard Gladman (and a so-called Facebook friend of mine) got to interview her deliciousness himself without even the hint of mention to me. It's even more annoying that its a bloody good interview with intelligent questions equally intelligently answered by her deliciousness.  
I mean this completely sincerely - I cannot recommend the the three editions that I have enough. We Belong Dead passed my by on its original incarnation - I won't be making that same mistake again.

Fearbook - The best of the first 8 editions of WBD
A 120 page Fearbook, featuring the best from the first 8 long out of print issues will be launched November 9th at the Westminster Hammer and Horror Day in London. This particular gathering is threatening to be THE event of the year for we lovers of classic horror. It’s the Hammer & Horror Film Day at Central Hall Westminster, London on Saturday 9th November. The event includes guest line up of actors and directors that will look like a who’s who in the world of classic horror, including such luminaries as David Warner, Kate O'Mara and her deliciousness herself - Madeline Smith. If that wasn't enough there will be a veritable plethora of Q &A sessions and special film screenings. It will be a veritable  treasure trove of rare and original film memorabilia with a vast array of dealers from all over the UK, Europe and the US. Oh, and the team of We Belong Dead will have a presence there too - which is not as threatening or foreboding as it sounds. It will be a chance to meet some of the team and buy some rather excellent stuff.

Sadly, I cannot make the event myself as my 'day job' in the North of Scotland means travel is impossible. However, I will me throwing myself at the feet of Mr McNaughton et al ( & other acquaintances) to provide me with a wealth of material from the event. The rumour that I will do most about anything for a signed personal photo from Maddie Smith are most likely perfectly true......

For anybody wanting to order issues of We Belong Dead can be ordered AT THIS ADDRESS. Believe me, you will not regret it.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

The BFI Gothic: The Dark Heart Of Film (Part 2) - Dead of Night (1972) & Classic Ghost Stories of M R James (1986)


DVD Release Date: 28 Oct 2013

Featuring: Anna Cropper, Clive Swift, Edward Petherbridge, Peter Barkworth, Anna Massey, Sylvia Kay, Jaqueline Pearce, Julian Holloway and Katya Wyeth.

Directed by: Don Taylor, Rodney Bennett and Paul Ciappessoni.

After bathing in the rather splendid Gothic waters of Robin Redbreast (see my previous blog entry of peril) it was time to for me move onto the 2nd preview delicacy that the marvellous people at the BFI had forwarded my way as part of their magnificent Gothic:The Dark Heart of Film season.  Once again my not so onerous task was to sit through another highly sought after classic of television and British Horror from the 1970's. It's a dirty job, but someone has got to do it - and I'm just the man for a dirty job.

Ahh, the 1970's, a much maligned and much celebrated decade in equal measures. I was a child of the seventies and therefore many of my personal memories are seen through my own personal (& much used) pair of rose-tinted glasses. As a consequence, my recollections of being a very young kid growing up through those years are mostly positive. The seventies was a decade of contractions here in the UK- on the debit side it was a time of political and social upheaval, the weekly strikes, power cuts, terrible fashions and IRA bombings. Oh yes, there was also Margaret bloody Thatcher coming to power…..maybe my rose-tinted glasses need cleaning. However, on the plus side the seventies also gave us David Bowie, Punk Rock, Star Wars and space hoppers….so it wasn't all bad.

What certainly cannot be denied about the 1970's was the quality of television production. It was a different world than the controlled and often insipid programming that was to come afterwards. The Seventies were a true golden period for dark and sinister drama, with the Christmas periods benefiting greatly with an abundance of horror fare. A Ghost Story for Christmas which ran through most of the decade, The Stone Tape (1972) An atmospheric modern ghost story, and Count Dracula (1977) all telling well crafted tales of horror and dread. More importantly, there was no dumbing down of the material to meet the lowest common audience denominator, nor was there much practice of exaggerating the horror genre into becoming cliched and predictable.

The 1972 series Dead of Night is a legendary horror anthology series released in November of that year. The bad news is that four out of the five episodes have not survived their dispatch to the BBC archives after the cost-cutting wiping of used tapes to record new programmes.

The good news is that the three episodes that do survive are perfect examples of the quality and themes that heightened the reputation of the series, both when it was first broadcast and subsequently in the years afterwards. Apart from the quality of the chills and thrills that the series offered, what resonates with the collection of episodes was the ability to adapt traditional Gothic themes such as emotional repression, supernatural visitations and voluptuous bosoms heaving in the midst of stressful romantic obsessions. The skill of the programme makers was the ability to transfer these traditional Gothic elements to a contemporary middle-class suburban setting with all it's political and social complexities.

Remember, this is a time when the audience were often treated with genuine respect and rarely bared witness to any dumbed-down horror during prime time. The Dead of Night series is no different, with a number of episodes containing clever critiques and examinations of the modern suburban lifestyles of middle class families. However, this  doesn't necessarily mean a concerted left-wing diatribe against the excesses of the 'me generation'. There is a genuine sympathy for the predicament for many of the people (particularly the women) in theses dramas - though that doesn't mean that their destinies are any less deadly,

The Exorcism - A film by Don Taylor, is arguably the episode which has gained the highest reputation for being the most frightening and memorable of the entire series. First broadcast on the 5th of November (how very apt) the story examines the clash between modern-day social beliefs and the injustices of the past - all dressed up in a covering of a delicious Gothic horror. It features a sophisticated and wealthy middle-class couple, Edmund and Rachel( Edward Petherbridge and the magnificent Anna Cropper) who have invited their equally sophisticated friends Dan and Margaret (Clive Swift and Sylvia Kay) to their newly refurbished country cottage retreat. This gathering of friends for Christmas dinner begins innocently enough with agreeable conversation around their privileged status and how they can reconcile this to their (long-gone) socialist principles. It is clear which of these considerations are winning out as both couples are the epitome of the new 'habitat generation' as they talk and play their party games.

However it soon becomes clear that the house they have renovated and it's previous owners may have other more horrific frightening prospects in store for the four friends. For soon things begin to take an ever more supernatural tone as Rachel finds herself playing a melody on the piano that she has no recollection of ever knowing, the phone becomes disconnected (oh those days before wi-fi, god love it), and the food and drink starts to have the most interesting of effects.

Once again the acting and writing is of the highest order with all four players in the ensemble convincingly portraying the conflicting pride and guilt they feel about their lives. Anna Cropper, as she was in Robin Redbreast, is especially excellent in the scene where the apparent connection that she has felt with the dead previous occupants sees her become possessed by the said owner, who's lifestyle was far, far less opulent than our present-day foursome. Hers in particular is a truly mesmerising performance.

Yes, The Exorcism may deal in part with commentary on wealth, privilege and political guilt - but do not let that put you off because it is an exemplary example of a wonderful supernatural story of chilling proportions. I don't want to give the ending away, except to say that that it as unsettling and effective as any I can remember.

In Return Flight - A film by Rodney Bennett, we are introduced to Captain Hamish Rolph, (played by the always excellent Peter Barkworth) an experienced airline pilot who has recently returned to his job not long after the death of his wife. The problem is that his professionalism is placed under scrutiny by the airline authorities after he declares a near-miss with another aircraft, however nobody else witnessed this event at the time. His employers and friends are both concerned that outwardly, he seems to have lost his normal sense of focus and discipline. However, we soon discover that inwardly the problems are far more sinister and complex as his bereavement and secret long held feelings of inferiority have resulted in a far more dangerous effect on on his psyche. The Phantoms of his mind, both real and unreal, are playing tricks on his personal view of reality, for which the consequences are that he is flying 'blind'.

This is a production that could have easily have found it's existence in an episode of The Twilight zone, and certainly the some of the issues here such as a man being haunted by the spectres from his own mind and past are familiar to those of us who love the work of Rod Sterling's eponymous series. Return Flight is an excellent character study of a middle-aged man trying to come to terms with both his personal and professional failings. He is someone who up to now who may have had at worse, an inaccurate perception of his life - his marriage for example, which may not been quite as happy as he seems to recollect, His resistance ultimately fragments and lets his mind carry him well and truly away to a place where perception and reality fade away.

Barkworth once again exemplifies the solid acting that you would expect from this series, with the critically acclaimed actor portraying a restrained sorrow and nobleness to his character's existence. 

The third and final instalment is perhaps my personal favourite of the three, possibly because it is a clever modern-day development of a classic Gothic tale of potentially doomed heroine. It is a theme that has been explored in numerous stories by since folk tales began and in numerous film adaptations, noticeably by such luminaries as Alfred Hitchcock. 

In A Woman Sobbing - A film by Paul Clappessoni, Jane a middle-class wife (Anna Massey) and her husband Frank have moved out to the country for the benefit of their children's upbringing. The couple's marriage has clearly reached a point of boredom and frustration for them both as they openly fantasise about relationships with younger partners. Soon  Jane starts to become increasingly paranoid and unstable when her nights are interrupted by the unsettling and unaccountable sound of a woman crying in one of the upstairs rooms of her new house. This sobbing noise is always accompanied by the smell of gas fumes. If that wasn't enough to force the woman into falling further over the edge into loneliness and depression, nobody else can hear the sounds or smell the gas, but her. Is Jane's husband really trying to drive her insane, or even kill her? Are the forces at work supernatural or simply the result of the fragmentation of her mind and sanity?

This episode has some deep and dark undertones in the exploration of the gender roles and mental illness. There are distinct Freudian elements as to whether the voice that Jane hears is actually real, or whether it is actually some long forgotten repressed memory or experience from deep within her unconscious. Both Jane and her husband are clearly unhappy in their respective marriage roles, but it is interesting that even in the more so- called liberated 1970's it is the woman who has no 'vent' for her frustrations having been worn down by her domestic existence. Her growing resentment of her children, her husband and the family Au pair threatens to overwhelm her completely.

The episode is deeply unsettling in its portrayal of Jane's psychological turmoil possibly manifesting itself either into supernatural consequences or deeper mental illness. The representation of the treatment that Jane's husband arranges for Jane is convincing and unsettling, with her treatment of Electro Convulsive Therapy looking clinically authentic. 

Again this is an intelligent and thoughtful approach to examining the human condition without losing the sight of the fact that it is supposed to be chilling and creepy enough to satisfy the horror enthusiasts within us. Because IT IS genuinely claustrophobic and frightening in it's climactic scenes as Jane becomes more and more unbalanced. This is helped in no small measure by the performance of Anna Massey, whose previous roles in Hitchcock's Frenzy and Michael Powell's stunning Peeping Tom receiving much deserved praise from critics and public alike. The increasing desperation and descent into into her own disturbed thoughts is beautifully portrayed by an actress at the height of her powers.

There are some people for whom the ending is annoyingly ambiguous, the neatly packaged let the ending explain all doesn't happen here - and I love that. I love the fact that I'm asked to think about it and make my own mind up as to the things that have taken place. 

DVD information and Special Features 

  • The video master information were made available by the BBC to the BFI and are presented in their 1.33:1 aspect ratio, in accordance with their original broadcast.
  • Gallery of stills from missing episodes
  • Downloadable PDF scripts from missing episodes
  • Fully illustrated booklet with essays and biographies by Lisa Kerrigan, Oliver Wake, Derek Johnston and Alex Davidson

Classic Ghost Stories by M R James (1986)

DVD Release Date: 28 Oct 2013
  • Featuring: Robert Powell, Michael Bryant 

Before I begin the review of the content of the next DVD sent to me by the BFI, I have something of a confession to make about the actor appearing in it (Yes, once again I unashamedly talk about my personal past... and yes, it involves a relationship). My first true love type individual (who of course shall remain nameless) was very much into me too  - which is always a good thing in regard to relationships, otherwise the Judge tends to take a rather negative view of things.... Anyhoo,  She was also well and truly into a certain actor called Robert Powell whom it is safe to say that she doted upon - so much so that once I could swear that she uttered his name while we were, well, you know. Though I know that she cared for me deeply, if the end of the world had wiped out the rest of humanity, except for the three of us, she and Mr Powell would have walked off into the sunset together faster than I could have said 'Jesus of Nazareth'

Of course I am well and truly past the raging paranoia and slight discomfort that I used to feel whenever old Bob happened to be on screen, and she-who-will-remain-nameless and I have long gone our separate ways. So I can now be completely impartial when considering any works featuring...........him.

The tradition of storytelling by one individual to an enthralled audience is probably as old as humanity itself. The ability to create an exciting and living imaginary universe out of nothing but ones own words and making people WANT to listen is something of a gift that I don't think that I have - it takes a special person to hold and enthral an intimate audience. The ghost stories of M R James were often performed by James himself to his students at Cambridge during the Christmas holidays and by all accounts he was a gifted orator within this intimate atmosphere. 

It was television (arguably more successfully than radio) that managed to convey authentically this intimacy of James' own readings when the much sought-after seasonal slot was given over to a his works in Classic Ghost stories in Christmas 1986.

The presentation for the story is cunningly simple, featuring Robert Powell (him) as the storyteller, resplendent in a master's robe within his college study. The storytelling is predominantly direct to camera with only the briefest of dramatisation and artwork to break up the prose. It is in this cosy setting that the 'Professor' tells his five terrifying tales, all clearly inspired by M R James’ legendary readings of his own works.

In The Mezzotint a haunted picture slowly reveals the terrors of what has gone before but only while there is no around looking at it, whilst The Ash-Tree tells of the execution of a witch and the dreadful curse she places on the Fell family - but beware all arachnophobics of this particular episode! Wailing Well involves a troop of scouts who find that curiosity can be fatal, and Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad concerns itself with an academic who gets more than he bargained for after he finds an enchanted whistle. Finally, in The Rose Garden, disturbing visions upset Mrs Ansthruthers’ gardening plans.

To a modern day audience, the notion of an actor speaking direct to camera for approximately 15 minutes per story may sound dry and simplistic - but this would be a mistake of huge proportions. Powell is a consummate storyteller with his distinctive and soothing voice perfectly embodying a feel for the phrasing and tone of James's Writing. If possessing a hypnotising voice wasn't enough, his delivery is often accompanied a subtle wry grin or noticeable glint in the eye when appropriate. I know I'm not the first person to say this, but the man can act.

Each of the stories may be just 15 minutes or so in length, but they feel much longer than that - and I mean that in a positive way. There is no convoluted introductions or padded out explanations - we are simply thrust headlong into the story, I say 'we', because the skill of Powell reading the stories just as James would have done in the halls of Cambridge, means that we feel he is talking to us, and only us. The nature of this type of storytelling on television when performed as skilfully as this means that we are carried along the tidal waves of each story's building tension.

If that wasn't enough, the DVD also features three episodes of  the series Spine Chiller (1980). 

The series was described at the time as 'storytelling for older children', its origins being found as an off-shoot of the children's programme, Jackanory. Spine chillers features Michael Bryant reading three more James stories (Including another version of The Mezzotint) for our delectation. 

Once again the power of the episodes rely heavily on the the ability of the actor to tell a story  - perhaps more so in this series as the use of any dramatisation or illustration has been completely stripped away. However like Robert Powell, Bryant's delivery is note and pitch perfect perfectly conveying the complexities of emotion an tension for each of the the stories.  

There have been numerous adaptations of M R James's ghost stories but both series here perfectly show that even in this 21st century multi-digital world, there is a place straightforward and intimate storytelling. Watching this DVD, essentially experiencing someone talk through the camera to me, has been one of the most enjoyable horror experiences I've had for some time.

DVD information and Special Features

  • The video master information for the Classic Ghost Stories were made available by the BBC to the BFI and are presented in their 1.33:1 aspect ratio, in accordance with their original broadcast.

  • The episodes from the Spine Chillers were transferred from the original 16mm archive element by BBC studios and post production. Standard Definition video masters were made available to the BFI by the BBC. All episodes are presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratio.

  • Spine Chillers: The Mezzotint, A School Story and The Diary of Mr Poynter (1980, 36 min in total): acclaimed actor Michael Bryant reads three of M R James’ stories adapted for the BBC’s Spine Chillers series – produced by Classic Ghost Stories producer Anglea Beeching and the team behind the BBC children’s series Jackanory.

  • Fully illustrated booklet with a newly commissioned essay by BFI TV Curator Lisa Kerrigan.

I have to give a combined 10 out of 10 for these two DVD sets, they are that good.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Gothic: The Dark Heart Of Film - Tales of classic Gothic Horror from the BFI (Part 1)

There are certain things Horror related that make me happy, very happy. Those horror-related predelictions will often include such terms as: classic, British, rare, long-forgotten and legendary (there are other terms, such as Maddie Smith, Ingrid Pitt and Barbara Steele - but that's a whole different level of happy).

If the terms classic, British and Gothic are mentioned all in the same sentence then I'm as happy as a pig in the proverbial you-know-what. It's been a source of joy to know that since beginning the scribblings on this blog a year ago that I'm not alone in my classic Gothic horror obsessions.  Indeed, a happy by-product of starting my blog has also been the opportunity provided to write for other websites such as the excellent UKHorrorScene. It's been a pleasure to find that there is a whole legion of fellow British horror enthusiasts and supporters out there who not only love the more established horror fare, but who also share the desire to keep in the wider public consciousness the lesser known, under-rated and sometimes criminally forgotten gems of British horror production.

Take the British Film Institute (BFI) for example. When the BFI announced earlier this year its most substantial project to date for the Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film four month-long event, the reaction of many of us was of deliciously delirious anticipation. The ambitious programme was to include the release of 150 titles and around 1,000 screenings across the UK from August 2013 to January 2014  - and every single one of them was to be Gothic related. Not only was the size of the programme seductively enticing, so was the range of the titles that were going to be made available. So apart from the expected and more established offerings going to be made such as the world premiere of the digital re-mastering of Night Of The Demon (1957) and iconic Gothic releases such as Hammer Horror’s Dracula (1958) starring a certain Christopher Lee - In addition there would be cinematic and DVD releases of rare and long forgotten Gothic related productions. Many of these releases were not only being re-mastered, but there would be some titles that would not have seen the light of day in some cases since their original showing in the cinema or transmission on television.

It was quite simply, the most exciting announcement of the year - well that is if you don't count the news of the new supermarket opening on the edge of the nearest town a few miles away (I live in the sticks, you see), and THAT was big news!

As part of the BFI's Gothic:The Dark Art of Film, the 28th October sees the release of a number of rare and long-thought lost examples of British Gothic televisual splendour. Two long-unseen archive TV titles, both of which are guaranteed to scare and delight in equal measure are the 1970 Play for Today entry Robin Redbreast and the few surviving, terrifying episodes of 1972’s Dead of Night television series. 

In addition to those two offerings there is also a release of M R James’ Classic Ghost Stories (1986), narrated by Robert Powell, which include The Mezzotint, The Ash-Tree, Wailing Well, The Rose Garden and O, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad. 

If that wasn't enough to wet the Gothic juices any any self-respecting British horror buff then there is also a highly anticipated release of the BBC TV adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu’s Schalcken the Painter (1979)

Now, like many people, I'm a very busy person with annoyances such as a day-time job, family matters and various other factors that life can invariably throw at me. Thereby impacting on what I love to do most of all i.e. immerse myself in a world of sci-fi, fantasy and horror. So when I received not one, not two, not three, but in fact all four of the preview discs (together with a veritable wealth of accompanying materials) for the titles that I've just mentioned previously, I was in a quandary of sorts. My options were two-fold: Firstly, I could say that I wouldn't have time to watch them all and subsequently review each title to my usual high standard of Pseudo - P.G.Wodehouse levels of genius. Secondly, I could forego such luxuries as sleep and bugger the consequences, thereby immersing myself in a genuine wealth of British televisual Gothic delight.

Of course, there was never a real consideration of the first option.

Robin Redbreast (1970)

It was the spring of 1984, me and my girlfriend of the time were travelling through an area of the New Forest in Dorset. It was an especially warm afternoon and feeling in need of some liquid refreshment we decided to stop off at the first cafe (or preferably) pub that we came across. After a short while we chanced upon a village, it was pretty, quiet and unremarkable in any way. In fact It was your perfectly normal Southern English country village - except for two things. Firstly, we tried two places to find something to eat and drink, a quiet little pub and a (very) small post office/cafe type of establishment. In both cases we both walked in and immediately the talking or whatever had been going on inside, stopped. The people turned to us and stared…….there was no malice or threat, they just silently stared. One shambolic attempt at small talk as we ordered our drink later resulted in a rather quick consumption of said beverage and we high-tailed it out of there. The Post office experience was also identical, having not learnt our lesson the task to get a postcard for our family met with the same silent (almost suspicious) response.

The second thing that happened was our subsequent attempt to get out of the village. It may be the hot sunny day, the all too quickly downed beer or a combination of both - but we couldn't find our way out of the village. There were roadworks and diversions everywhere it seemed, and for every road we travelled down there was a dead end, or another diversion. For 20 minutes we wandered around and around, until we finally found a way back onto the main A-road and for every one of those 20 minutes, each person we passed simply stride at us as if were something from another planet. I don't recall us ever being worried, though I do remember my ill-considered attempts at humour with my girlfriend, likening our experience to something from The Village of The Damned. or The Wicker Man. She failed to see the funny side - which I could tell from the silent reaction from her to me for the next 30 miles or so.

The experience I had (albeit rather tame) of the rather eccentric reactions from a remote country village to outsiders had a somewhat interesting effect on me. The experience that we had in the village (that may have been more in our heads at the time than anything) that could be examples of more extreme cases of a community separated both geographically and socially (and spiritually) has stayed with me for many years. I'm not the only one to have pondered on what consequences could take place when the old world of tradition and folklore collides with the new modern world and it's fancy ideas, as the aforementioned classics of horror will testify.

Consequently, I could barely contain my joy when the BFI let it be known that a television drama that not only dealt with those very issues, but had itself long since become part of entertainment folklore of mythic proportions, was going to be released. Robin Redbreast originally aired part as BBC's long-running Play for today series on 10th December 1970 and originally gained fame, not just for it's electrifying content, but for being the first of the series ever to be repeated on television a year later on 25th February 1971.

Ever since then, the television broadcast has never been seen - and I mean never. The aura that surrounds this sublime piece of folk-horror and the critical and audience reception it received at the time, together with it's possible thematic influence on The Wicker Man means that perhaps of all the re-released classics this is the one that many of us Gothicheads have been anticipating the most.

The plot of Robin Redbreast was inspired in part by a real case of a 1945 murder of a farmer in Warwickshire, who was discovered in a field with a cross carved onto his face and his body impaled into the soil by his pitchfork. Norah Palmer (Anna Cropper) is a successful television script editor who temporarily runs away to the perceived sanctuary of a remote English country village. The outwardly confident and liberated woman is actually rather vulnerable and emotionally drained as she attempts to rebuild her life after breaking up from her long-term boyfriend.  At first, she finds that the villagers are friendly and plainly traditional in their beliefs, if a little eccentric. Soon after arriving in the community Norah strikes up a friendship of sorts with the good-looking young farmer, Edgar, who far some unknown reason, the villages call Rob. When she becomes pregnant to the handsome (but very naive and rather boring) Rob, she begins to suspect the locals of conspiring against her - particularly the strange self-taught village intellectual man called Fisher. Something, or someone in the village is attempting to stop her from leaving the community for her home in London - but what do they want with her?
One cannot escape the comparisons and possible influence on Robin Hardy's truly sublime The Wicker Man which came three years after this production. I really don't know whether Robin Redbreast directly influenced the story of the doomed Sgt Howie on the Hebridean island of Summerisle, so I don't wish to assume either way. However the influence in some form, direct or indirect, is plain to see. 

In both Robin Redbreast and The Wicker Man we witness, a true outsider travelling to remote community where life revolves around the all important bountiful crops and harvest that are seemingly essential for the community's survival. While both characters are similar in some ways - both Norah and Sgt Howie are resolute in their beliefs (she is a liberated & modern woman, he a highly strung Christian ), both characters make the fundamental error of underestimating the locals and failing to see that actually us is not they are in control of their own destiny, until it proves too late. In addition, there is the presence in each community of a key figure who seem to be moving proceedings along, much to the incomprehension of the outsiders. Fisher and Lord Summerisle may be very different personalities - Bernard Hepton may lack the genuine charisma of Christopher Lee but he more than makes up with his cunning and distinctly cold demeanour. Both leaders are at the very centre of the whole proceedings, carefully manoeuvring the outsiders around like human chess pieces.

The writing and acting is without doubt of the class that you would associate with a BBC production from 'the golden age of television'. John Bowen's script is has some delicious passages of word play - particularly from the always excellent Bernard Hepton who is mesmerising and simply steals each scene he is in. Anna Cropper as Norah is a worthy lead who more than holds her own in a part especially written for her by Bowen. Her performance builds upon the  powerfully written character with subtle shifts in emotion ranging from the outward strength of a modern woman from the city to a vulnerable and confused outsider in the village.

In addition, Andrew Bradford provides in incredible performance of the naive and perplexing Rob who (despite of his disastrous attempts at what he naively regards as intelligent conversation) chases and entices Norah. 

Robin Redbreast, with its emphasis on clever and subtle dialogue expertly brought to life by the cream of acting talent is a triumph of Folk-Horror. It simply has to be watched more than once to appreciate the layer upon layer of building tension.

For any of you who may be put-off by the nature of the production - the format of a wordy play taking place predominately in an interior setting - well don't be. There me be little physical action taking pace on screen, but this is intelligent, thought provoking Gothic drama that is both skilfully written and acted. The clever build up of Psychological tension keeps you guessing until the final and somewhat unexpected climax of the story. The final moments of Robin Redbreast are simply stunning. There is no other adjective that I could use.

DVD information and Special Features 

  • The production is presented in its original broadcast aspect ratio of 1.33:1. The original broadcast was in colour, however thanks to the cost of new recording tape hundreds upon hundreds of productions between the 1950's and 1980's were lost forever after the original broadcast reels were wiped in order for them to be re-used. Consequently, all that remains of this production is the black and white 16mm telerecording which was made available especially to the BFI by the BBC. Despite the obvious effect is has on the production, it does little to detract from the experience of watching and enjoying such a legendary piece of work as this.

  • Interview with John Bowen (2013) - The writer talks about the origins and production of the piece and gives a brief insight into his varied career.

  • Short film about village life - Around the Village Green (1937, Evelyn Spice and Marion Grierson). When first seeing the title and basic description of this 11 minute film it seemed nothing more than a quaint, nostalgic piece of what to many is a traditional evocation of traditional English village life. Great pains are made in the film to get across the message that even in fast changing technological and industrial Britain of the early twentieth centre, some traditions remain regardless. On it's own Around the Village Green may serve perfectly as a vehicle to produce a nostalgic picture of a traditional small community existence bravely holding out against the fast encroaching influence of the outside world. However, included in this collection alongside Robin Redbreast it also serves to take on a whole new ominous and seditious undertone in it's message.

  • Booklet with new essays, biographies and credits.

Coming up in part 2 of Gothic: The Dark Heart Of Film

Dead of Night (1972)

Classic Ghost Stories by M R James (1986)

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Lifeforce (1985) - Arrow Films BluRay release.

Director(s): Tobe Hooper
Cast: Steve Railsback, Peter Firth, Frank Finlay, Mathilda (Gorgeous) May, Patrick Stewart
BBFC Certificate: 18
Running Time: 116 (International version)/101 minutes (American Theatrical release)

The simple fact is is that I owe the director, Tobe Hooper an apology for the poor box office performance of his 1985 movie, Lifeforce. I propose this seemingly bold statement because it was partly my fault why the movie wasn't a great success at the time, let me explain. 1985 was a strange old year all round. Bob Geldof was busy feeding the world with his live Aid, I gave money and watched the whole event in a haze of beer. I also spent a great deal of time throughout that year's summer at a variety of open-air Rock gigs , much of it seemingly in perpetual rain, all of it in a haze of beer. It was in truth, my year of hedonistic fun.

There were also parties, plenty of parties - well at least that's what I seem to remember as time has passed. Yes, Lots of parties filled with music, bad food, girls and all in a haze of beer. However, 1985 wasn't just my year of self-indulgence (there are indeed some who know me that would argue that I've had many other years of me, me, me, in addition to just that one), it was also a year of strange contradictions in the science fiction movie world.

It was the year that produced science fiction perfection in the form of Brazil, Back To The Future, The Quiet Earth and O-Bi, O-Ba: The End of Civilisation. However, it was also the year that brought us Morons From Outer Space, Cocoon and Weird Science………

Now it could well be that most years are full of such cinematic contradictions, however this particular year stands out for me for one particular reason. It was during one particular hazy beer episode in June of 1985 when it was suggested by a female friend of mine that we go and see a movie that week. Of course it would have to be sci-fi or horror - she was a major Gothic horror buff herself, which was one reason why we were close. The other was that she was drop-dead delicious. Anyhoo, the choice of movie going came down to two simple choices: the current box office smasher, Cocoon, or a lesser known sci-fi/horror film, Lifeforce, that had been released around the same time, but to less glowing reviews. 

Well, I say it was a simple choice, however it quickly became apparent that it was far more complex than that. The problem was that she wanted to see the aforementioned piece of sentimental syrupy claptrap directed by that guy who used to be Richie Cunningham in 'Happy days' (Cue, my very bad Fonzie impression), whilst I wanted to see the intriguing looking film about space vampires directed by the guy who made a rather good flick about a Leatherfaced, chainsaw-loving guy and his slightly eccentric family in Texas. I would love to say that I held out for days with my side of the argument, citing the quality of director Tobe Hooper's previous work and the profound effect that his work had had on not only within the genre's that we both loved, but on the wider cultural landscape as a whole. However, those who know me well will not be in the least surprised to learn that after a small discussion, I quickly relented and agreed to watch Cocoon. Did I mention that she was drop-dead delicious?………..

The consequence of my not sticking to my movie-going principles and instead thinking with my, er, well you know, was that Lifeforce was released to underwhelming box office returns. It found itself in a disappointing fourth place, losing a head-to-head battle against Cocoon, earning just over $11,000,00 at the US box office. I did manage to see Tobe's movie when it came out a year or so later on video (in which the film was finding something of a new resurgence), but the damage had been done. I'm sorry Tobe, I really am.

So when I found out that the good people at ARROW FILMS were due to release a remastered edition of Lifeforce BluRay, then I thought that possible redemption might finally be mine.

"Follow me lads, what's the worst that could happen?"
Lifeforce is based on Colin Wilson’s novel ‘The Space Vampires’. The screenplay was written by non other than Dan O’Bannon (Alien, Total Recall & Return of the Living Dead) and directed by the aforementioned friend of leather face, Tobe Hooper. So far, so good.

The movie begins with a joint British and American Space shuttle mission researching Halley's Comet when they discover that within the head of the Comet is an enormous alien space ship, seemingly derelict. Naturally, our intrepid Astronauts waste little time in spacewalking from the Churchill (the shuttle) over to the alien vessel where they discover the interior to be more organic in nature rather than mechanical. They soon come across a huge number of alien corpses, who are remarkably bat-like in their appearance. Amidst the floating corpses the crew find what appear to be three naked humanoid bodies in glass boxes, apparently in some kind of suspended animation.

At this stage the wise move would be to leave the alien lifeforms where they are and get assistance, thereby not risking bringing anything harmful back to their ship that could run amok and, well, kill them all……….. So naturally the crew decide to bring the three humanoids back to the ship and return to Earth. The consequences are naturally dire, as contact is lost with the shuttle and a rescue mission is launched, sending the space shuttle Columbia to find out just what the heck is going on. The rescuers soon find that the interior of Churchill has been almost completely decimated by a fire. All that has survived the trip back to Earth are the three glass containers with the humanoids inside, who are immediately transported to the European Space Research Centre in London (yes really, London).

At this point things start to go pear-shaped as the aliens turn out to be anything but nice as they begin to literally suck the life out of their captors and in turn set off a chain event of transforming the populace of London to a fellow life sucking Zombies. The race is on to save humanity from having the life-force sucked out of it by these space vampires.
"Look at me everybody, apparently I'm a bit gorgeous"

Now before I start with such lesser topics as dialogue and plot, I'll get to it straightaway. When I mean 'it', I mean something far more important, and one of the foremost associations that many minds have with this movie (both positive and negative) - her name is Mathilda May. The 18 year old French girl & in only her second acting experience, plays the female vampire completely naked throughout the film (well except for in a couple of brief scenes). I will leave it up to others far more able and qualified to examine whether this is another example of cinematic female exploitation (after all, neither of her fellow male aliens at any time display the 'sexual tackle' bestowed upon them), or if the filmmakers intention it was to exemplify the message of the female empowerment of her sexual irresistibility to all. Whatever the view some may have, the truth that cannot be denied is that her brave and fearless performance has a genuine spectral and supernatural edge about it that perfectly compliments the genuine erotic nature of her appearance and interpretation. I do not wish to dismiss the suggestion that it is exploitation, however it is the stuff of a million male fantasies - now maybe that's the real reason why my girlfriend didn't want me to go and see it……….

Lifeforce it neither a bad film or a great one, however it does have clear examples of both extremes within it. The movie didn't perform at all well on it's initial cinematic release, and while that may be partly my fault, it's safe to say that critics and audiences alike were intrigued and confused in equal measure on it's first viewings. In part this is due to the movie's numerous influences, it's almost as if the homages were fighting to be acknowledged. A prime example are the opening scenes where the astronauts first come across the alien ship and travel through its interior is a clear reference to Ridley Scott's masterpiece, Alien.

"Nothing to see here guys….move along, move along"

The fact that the screenwriter was also responsible for writing that seminal movie is perhaps no coincidence with the slow atmospheric build up as the humans head towards the alien ship and then the journey through a very organic-living spacecraft interior (all accompanied by a majestic musical score by Henry Mancini). 

Another more implicit influence on Lifeforce are the various parallels to the familiar Dracula story with Vampires brought back to our shores only for him/her to escape and wreak havoc upon the people and place it finds itself in. This reference is has been clearly identified by Tobe Hooper himself who says in one of the interview extras that he consciously wanted the alien spacecraft to have an authentic classical Gothic look, or as he puts it “The look of the ship in my head was Dracula's castle…."

Indeed, The whole movie can been seen as a disjointed concoction of of different themes within one movie - we start with a traditional creepy strange alien found in space, then we move onto to an alien invasion of earth with the final third of the film morning into a more modern day obsession of a Zombie apocalypse taking over one of our major cities. 
This very unevenness has confused and distracted critics and audiences alike ever since it's initial release.

Yes, this is something of a mishmash of a concept and film, though that could be explained in part by the films legendary complex and problematic production and post-production history. Not only did the film-shoot quickly fall behind schedule, it soon started to go well over-budget as the film studio, Cannon, began to lose what little control it had over it's films finances (hence one of the many reasons for the demise of one of the last great hopes for the British cinema industry). The result was the non-filming of key scenes and some lingering mechanical issues with the Zombie characters malfunctioning on a regular basis. These were but two problems, there were many, many more.

Things didn't get any better in post-production when it seemed at times that the movie would never see the light of day. The initial cut of the film came out at 128 mins which Tobe Hooper said was needed to fully cater to the ambitious themes, messages and feel of the movie - otherwise, he said, the story just wouldn't make sense. However both the film company and the home distributors practically choked on their prawn sandwiches at the expansive running time and insisted that nearly 30 mins was chopped off, many of them taking place at the beginning of the film on the space shuttle Churchill. Not only that, it was felt that the 'overtly British' feel of the film would put off wider (American) audiences so a number of the British performances (notably that of Nicholas Ball) were not only trimmed, some were cut completely, but also some voices were over-dubbed with American actors - Tobe was not pleased.

Finlay and Finch search frantically
 for their careers
Another uneven quality to the film is the acting and certain plot issues. Lifeforce boasts something of a stellar British cast with the likes of acting stalwarts such as Frank Finlay, Peter Finch, Nicholas Ball and a pre-Star Trek Next Generations Patrick Stewart - to name but a few. Some of the performances, particularly from Finlay are truly excellent and evenly played and only rarely encroaching on the territory of the 'Ham'. However, some of the other performances are less convincing, for example, Steve Railback's performance in the central role being at times somewhat toe-curling and bordering on histrionic. 

The dialogue too at times is hard to believe, with such lines as "Don't worry. A naked girl is not going to get out of this complex."….. which is soon to be followed by the classic "Now she has clothes". Shakespeare this aint.

Oh and yes, there are certain plot issues that I've always had. For instance, just what the hell sort of organisation brings back three potentially threatening aliens back to Earth and puts them in a complex guarded by a few unarmed middle-aged overweight men?

However for all it's faults, and there are quite a few, I truly love this movie. What it occasionally lacks in logic, structure and dialogue, it makes for in spades in other areas. Mathilda May is not only delicious but utterly convincing in her role as the life sucking alien. The special effects provide a knuckle ride of an experience at times from the beginnings of the alien ship exploration through the blue light life forcing sucking visuals and finally right through to London's violent Zombie apocalypse.

Some may call this a so-bad-that-it's-good-guilty-pleasure of a movie experience, but it's far more (and better) than that. It is almost Tobe Hooper's whole career in one single movie - periods of brilliance mixed with moments of ordinaryness and all surrounded with a modicum of chaos. Hooper has not directed a movie of the stature and budget of Lifeforce since, that may be down partly to his own reserved character and well-known shyness or partly due to the politics of contemporary film making. Tobe Hooper deserves much more than that.  

One is for certain is that I love this film. Yes it is unevenly chaotic at times and utterly brilliant at others - it sort of reminds me of myself…….
It is widely considered (well at least between me and a mate after an online discussion yesterday) that in the last year or so, Arrow Films have noticeably raised their game in terms of the quality of their releases. Whatever your opinion on the quality of the movie itself, one cannot deny that once again they have kept up the constantly high standard of treatment and packaging. In terms of the visual treatment, the effect is simply jaw-dropping with the crispness and colour quality that at times overwhelms the visual input - the transfer is simply excellent.

The BluRay release comes on two separate discs - one with the original American theatrical release version and the other is the international version which is the far superior of the two as it is the fuller 116 min cut and resembles far more Hooper's original look for the film rather than the one cut and butchered by the American distributors. 
The restoration in particular highlights the high standard of the original lighting, photography and especially the special effects which were put into the film's production - The scenes of, and inside the alien ship, together with the subsequent 'battle for London' simply take on a further breathtaking quality of clarity and detail. The film is now quite simply a stunning visual feast for the eyes.

The ears don't lose out either as a result of the restoration, the music and sound effect quality means that the restored master audio mix is astonishing in it's clarity, adding tension and fear during the action sequences and providing a genuine level of atmospheric on other set-pieces. All of which serves to envelop and consume you completely as it combines with the visual elements - It is quite possibly the best sound 're-vamp' for a BlueRay release that I have heard for quite some time.

As usual Arrow films provide a genuine profusion of extra special feature goodies to further tempt us.

2-Disc Blu-ray Special Edition Features:

- High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation of both the Theatrical and International Versions, transferred from original elements by MGM with supervision by director Tobe Hooper

- Optional uncompressed 2.0 Stereo PCM and 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio Surround Sound

- Isolated Music and Effects Sound Track

- Optional English SDH subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing

- Audio commentary with Tobe Hooper, moderated by filmmaker Tim Sullivan

- Audio commentary with Academy Award-winning visual effects artist Douglas Smith, moderated by filmmaker and scholar Howard S. Berger 

- Audio commentary with make-up effects artist Nick Maley, moderated by filmmaker Michael Felsher

- Cannon Fodder: The Making of Lifeforce - An epic UK-exclusive look at the genesis, production and release of Lifeforce featuring interviews with Hooper, producer Michael J. Kagan, editor John Grover, actors Aubrey Morris and Nicholas Ball, makeup artist Sandra Exelby, screenwriter Michael Armstrong, sound designer Vernon Messenger, artistic designers Tom Adams and Douglas Smith and effects artist John Schoonraad

- Space Vampires in London: An interview with Tobe Hooper

Blimey, someone still looks a bit hot….
- Dangerous Beauty: An interview with Mathilda May, Lifeforce’s iconic star.

The still remarkably gorgeous French actress talks candidly about the strange experience of being 18 and able to speak virtually no English in London AND spending most of the production naked. Her account of the nerve it took to stand and perform with out any clothes on in front of so many people and her lack of regret of the experience whilst acknowledging that she wouldn't do it again, is refreshing and humorous. She gives a lovely account of her time before and during the movie recounting how all her dialogue was learnt phonetically in her only one previous acting experience. Indeed, she confides that much her English speaking performance was leant from listening to and copying Frank Finlay's magnificent speaking voice.

- Carlsen’s Curse: Star Steve Railsback looks back on Lifeforce and his career

- Original Theatrical Trailer

- Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Gary Pullin

- Collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by science fiction expert Bill Warren, a new interview with Oscar-winning visual effects artist John Dykstra by Calum Waddell, illustrated with original archive stills and posters

This article can also be found on that most excellent of websites UKHorrorScene.