Halloween V: Re-carving the Pumpkin – Michael Myers Zombie-style

Halloween V: Re-carving the Pumpkin - Michael Myer Zombie-style

 

Halloween had tried a partial reboot for its 20th anniversary, but it was Rob Zombie who took the definitive slasher back to basics just before it’s 30th. Are you ready to head further behind the mask of Michael Myers than ever before? It’s brutal and all a little bit like history repeating…

“Sam, it’s a fucking massacre”

NINE TIMES LUCKY. AFTER 2002’s RESURRECTION WRENCHED THE FRANCHISE BACK TO ITS CLUMSY SIXTH INSTALMENT, THERE WAS AN APPETITE FOR THE FIRST FULL-SCALE REBOOT OF THE DEFINITIVE HORROR SLASHER. The leaner world of 21st century horror saw most box-office diverted to the dominant sub-genre of torture porn and graphic bodily violence, increasingly removed from the supernatural-tinged slashers of the ‘80s and ‘90s. 2003’s Freddy Vs Jason had closed the door on the slasher anti-heroes of the 80s, even if Michael Myers’ invite had been lost in the post, so there was only one way to go. Ditch the post-modern; go for a straight bat / carving knife.

It took five years for Rob Zombie’s reimagining to return Myers to the screen, returning to the slasher original, its shape reassembled to contemporary tastes. The new director was successfully hooked by rights holders Dimension Films following the favourable reception to his films, House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects. But before he allowed himself to be loose on the Shape, Zombie sought the sage advice of franchise grandee John Carpenter. Himself a master of the straight bat, Carpenter either advised, or requested, that Zombie, “make it his own”.

The former White Zombie front man was a compelling successor to Carpenter. As well as writing, directing, and producing, the sequel he could also carry heft in the music department (credited as music supervisor), like his illustrious predecessor – even if the ‘best horror film score’ ever had been taken. And the two films that emerged made for a compelling return. A closed chapter in the franchise, capturing a stark flavour and focus of its own, and one indelibly attached to Zombie’s name. His two-film run is a considered success, certainly beating other reimaginations in the genre, including 2009’s Friday the 13th or 2013’s The Evil Dead; although the pickings were slim.

Zombie’s intended to reclaim the original menace, reintroducing cinema goers to Michael Myers while showing them far more of the icon’s back story. That enabled Zombie to address what he perceived, ironically, as an over-familiarity with the slasher. One that had similarly dampened icons like Krueger and Vorhees in their sprawling horror franchises. He intended to stitch a biographical ambiguity into Michael’s famous journey back home. But adding a past and diluting the original purity, comes with consequences. Consequences for retuned characters, a set sequence of events, and the central antagonist’s MO. Tune up the keyboard. Let’s journey back to Haddonfield.

Halloween (2007) and Halloween II (2009)

“Look Miss Myers, I do not enjoy calling you down here every five minutes”

Zombie’s decision to delve into Michael Myers’ backstory has major implications for a film that, when in full slash mode replicates the original quite faithfully. The most notable change in those Haddonfield scenes is the considerable shortening of familiar scenes and relationships. The slow build-up and tension so essential to the emergence of the Shape in 1978 is compacted, affecting his appearance, style and movement as well as the web of characters he disturbs.

Child’s play

Halloween Season of the Witch and the Return of Michael MyersThere’s an uncompromising start, of course focussed on the Myers house. But instead of the tracking shot and reveal, we see the dysfunctional family in full, and barely watchable, swing. For all the attempt to add backstory to the hulking monster at the heart of the story, the film has to acknowledge that we already know who Myers is and what he will become. There was never the chance of a shock reveal, which pushes the weight of the narrative on the boy’s journey animal mutilator to knife-obsessed psychopath, although there’s plenty of the clown suit. We meet the live-in lout of a father figure and night-working mum; we see the horrors domestic abuse, the bullying at school, and the older sister who’s a factor in both. Crucially, we also see the baby at home, nicknamed Boo’ by her older brother – here, Michael’s aged to 10 – and also the child psychologist the school calls in when they find implicating pictures, and souvenirs of animal mutilation in his bag. A certain Dr Samuel Loomis. Read more…

Marvel’s Inhumans: Partial Eclipse of the Big Screen?

Marvel's Inhumans hit the IMAX

There’s no hiding place now. Marvel’s moon dwelling Inhumans have evaded live screen adaptation for years. But now it’s caught up with them. Jokerside visits their comic past and reviews their television future. At the cinema, of course.

It can’t really be that bad, can it? Well… Shh, the King’s about to speak…

It’s no King’s Speech…

The show’s apparent existential crisis couldn’t deter fans from a rarity

PICTURE THE HEART OF A METROPOLIS, WHERE HUGE STACKED BLOCKS AND GEOMETRIC SHAPES LIE SCATTERED ACROSS A BROAD TARMAC BANK LIKE ROLLED DICE. Asymmetric inroads, sheared by irregular narrow alleys and broad lanes that somehow loop to a centre; channels of asphalt that loop and swirl around a central monolith. Underground, a warren of tunnels spiral from that structure’s base, marking each compass point of its rounded walls, providing quiet foundations to the lit, glass and metal column as it soars through and past ground level.

No, not Attilan, the moon surface city and home to Marvel’s Inhumans. This was BFI IMAX in London’s Waterloo, home to a crucial, further step on those same Inhumans’ biggest leap into mainstream pop-culture.

But while seeds of this leap, and their existence in the Marvel Cinematic Universe were laid the franchise’s longest continuing storyline, via Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD, Inhumans’ route to adaptation has been tortuous. In recent months, the mini-series format Marvel settled on for its moon-based regulars has met with mockery. For its posters, promos… And then a legendary screening of a new trailer at this year’s San Diego Comic Con that was met with laughter. And they say, not the good kind. Mockery was becoming the default…

We caught our ticket on the opening night of the Inhumans IMAX outing – the opening two episodes shot especially for the format and edited together for a limited run. Surely a nod to the middle ground of the ever-extending web of the MCU on small and big screens, but risky given the run-up. Notably, the screening wasn’t near selling out earlier in the day, booking only popping up on listings shortly before. But on the night, while not a full-house, the show’s apparent existential crisis couldn’t deter fans from a rarity: An exclusive, cinema-shot limited release Marvel film. Really, that’s what it amounted to.

This was the moment that Inhumans’ journey reached its end. Two weeks before the small screen premiere of the eight-part ABC television series that developed from a once-announced film adaptation, a limited run of the first two episodes at IMAX cinemas across the world. In all, it’s a confusing start, if not inauspicious, for what Marvel’s know is one of their hidden gems.

Enter the Mist

The Inhumans properly appeared in the 45th issue of the Four’s comic in December 1965

There may have been a clue to this adaptation in the Inhumans mid-1960s four-colour introduction. Then, two prominent Inhumans, Medusa and Gorgon found their way in the pages of Fantastic Four in early 1965. Of course, that premier family of the House of Ideas has struggled to make it on the big screen, under Fox’s watch, over two instalments. Following the two heralds, the Inhumans properly appeared in the 45th issue of the Four’s comic in December 1965. But just as they’ve popped up in many off-screen chats since the emergence of the MCU powerhouse, the seeds for this impossibly close-to home new race, was actually sewn two decades before. It was in the pages of Captain America Comics #1 (March 1941), a story penned and drawn by Jack Kirby, that the city of Attilan was first mentioned – populated by a nearby race that had advanced its civilisation while humans floundered in the Stone Age.

Come 1964, was the inkling of a mysterious new super villain named Madame Medusa apparently aided a group of the Fantastic Four’s foes. By 1965, the hoofed powerhouse named Gorgon came into opposition with the Four as he pursued that mysterious Medusa. But the fear not  True Believers! Soon both were revealed to be members of the Royal elite of Attilan, and the wonderfully punctuated tales, Those Who Would Destroy Us! and Beware the Hidden Land! had the Fantastics unite with these freshly revealed Royal Inhumans. Gorgon and Medusa, Queen to the recently dethroned King Black Bolt, working to seize back control from the despotic, and wonderfully named Maximus the Mad – none other than the king’s brother. The readership, along with young Johnny Storm were most taken by Medusa’s sister, Crystal and her gigantic teleporting dog Lockjaw.

Alien interference

So was another example of the great staple of a lost or unknown civilisation unlocked through the adventures Marvel’s premier family, under Stan Lee’s pen. But it was in the pages of Thor #146 to #152, over the winter of 1967 to 1968, that the Inhumans’ origins was revealed. Tying directly into key Marvel-mythos, the moon-dwellers were the result of experiments by the alien Kree, abandoned when a prophecy foresaw the experiments’ role in the destruction of the Kree Empire. The Inhumans evaded death, but in leaving Earth to hide on its satellite, forced an acceleration beyond their human cousins that any reasonable comic book character would anticipate as leading to an inevitable confrontation.

What’s most intriguing is that this society long separated from humans developed strictly imposed societal constraints, quite at odds with those fast-emerging on the less advanced Earth by the time the two cultures came into contact with each other.

Their society is predominantly dictated by power, with the ruling Royal family sitting atop a city where citizens are assigned a specific place, based on their abilities. The meritocratic caste-system is unbreakable: Once assigned, an Inhuman cannot change their place, standing, nor mix with any other species to any great degree. Except, of course for members of the Royal family as Crystal proved by marrying the mutant Quicksilver.

From monarchy to revolution

Elevated by Kree science, Inhumans are well named.

Since their emergence, the Inhumans have had a chequered publication history of cancellation and major arcs. Frequently embroiled in the fate of the Fantastic Four, their soap opera led to a short-lived series of their own in the 1970s, before they went missing in action for much of the 1980s. Later decades saw them back in vogue, with the introduction of many more Inhumans and the complication of NuHumans – an off-shoot among others not helped by things like Terrigan bombs and secondary terrigenesis – and taking point on major maxi-arcs.

Elevated by Kree science, Inhumans are well named. Through exposure to Terrigen Mist Inhuman powers are revealed, select physical, mental or other abilities beyond humans. Depending on your perspective, the process was transformative or unlocked the inner Inhuman that was always there. But most important of all, the Inhumans are downright comic book crazy. They are literally out of this world, their difference exacerbated by the close proximity to humans.

A race apart

The outlandishness that the Inhumans tapped into would precede Kirby’s quest

A genetically enhanced race, rather than the generation X evolution of Earth, when we met these moon-dwellers, the only family association equivocal with Xavier’s school or the X-Men themselves was the ruling elite. It’s a reversal, but one that kept the Inhumans, in spite of their outlandishness, in Marvel’s second tier. In laying the earliest hints of their existence, the legendary Jack Kirby helped shape the Inhumans journey on the page – even though their initial storyline was quickly wrapped up to make way for Kirby’s soon to be seminal Galactus storyline. The outlandishness that the Inhumans tapped into would precede Kirby’s quest to promote the truly, jaw-droppingly, seminally bonkers – from Marvel’s Eternals in the early 1970s to DC’s Fourth World later in that decade.

Leap forward five decades from their advent and the Inhumans arrive on screen at a crucial time. Ahead of the release of back-to-back Avengers films, as Marvel Studio’s switch to a three film per annum release schedule, the MCU’s continued ascendance on the big screen is matched by profligacy on the small screen. Cancellations are to be excepted – poor old Peggy Carter – but their first real misstep came with the fifth Marvel Netflix series Iron Fist. It was all the more apparent as  And there’s a larger concern. The film expansion of the DC Expanded Universe, as ever Marvel’s direct rival, has at its heart the wealth of Kirby’s Fourth World barminess. Those adaptations will face many of the gaping holes that Inhumans does and…  Manages to fall into.

The Series

*And here flow the spoilers for episode one and two thick and fast*

Marvel’s Inhumans may have many precursors in the pages and rushes of Marvel history, recent and old, but the rumours that have hounded the property since a film was first mooted have coalesced like an untypical Terrigen Mist. It has to be noted off the bat that, quite astonishingly, nothing in this adaptation happens for any reason whatsoever. That in itself makes it a bit of an MCU oddity. In fact, reason is willfullyy misunderstood. When events kicks off and Crystal reasonably asks her cousin Karnak why Maximus is taking over Attilan, he replies, “it’s a coup”. It’s happening, because of what it is. And that comes shortly after Karnak’s made an unsubtle speech predicting the very same. Yes, the script struggles, and that doesn’t help a simultaneously simple and  muddled narrative.

There’s a shame and an inevitability in that. Because as much as it follows the Inhumans earliest comic appearance, it makes some changes that at best border on the detrimental and at their worst play up the bland.

The first-misstep reads like a terrible joke: in the opening Earth-bound scene we not only meet a wrong Inhuman, we watch her get slain like a red shirt red herring. Triton’s there, a fleeting, failed appearance for a Marvel mainstay, but before we can marvel at the sense behind immediately killing off a freshly-transformed Inhuman who Triton fails to save (a double-fail), or indeed Triton’s make-up, we’re propelled to the moon and the Inhuman status quo cascading from its Royal Family. Compared to their mystery-packed arrival in the comics of 1965, it manages to make the whole affair a great deal more impenetrable, while diluting the mystery.

Calling the bad guy

The Richard III, conniving underdog, mould

Maximus is the big bad. Well, in a Richard III, conniving underdog, mould. There isn’t enough time in the early scenes to pull much interest from him, despite Karnak’s warnings. On one level Maximus case is helped by the need to right the wrongs of an, on the face of it, imbalanced society, and the fine niggling motivation that terrigenisis failed to affect him, yet has kept him in a privileged position tantalisingly close to the throne. His nominal goal, drawing on the will of the similarly disenfranchised people, is to betray his brother and break what he calls “Black Bolt’s meritocracy” – where generally, the terrigenisis-failed-’humans’ are sent to the mines while Inhumans enjoy the perks. It’s blunt and shallow, as the pilot attempts a short-hand for the rigid caste system that the comics spent years building up. We shouldn’t buy into the lie that lays the blames at his brother’s feet – after all, we first see the regal first couple imagining their life before they were called to the throne – but there’s really very little time to dig into it.

Quite what the non-Royal Inhumans get up to in their lower castle dwellings is unclear, but on screen it amounts to swanning around just above the humans, especially helpful if you’re gifted wings.

The trigger for Maximus’ long-gestating coup, unbelievably isn’t simply that there’s a coup. It’s the very real threat from Earth as humans develop. He plays up this threat as a moon buggy crashes into the invisibility wall that hides the city, although it soon becomes evident that in one of the many wasted twists that he’s pulling strings on two spheres. The Inhumans are not immune to activity on Earth, thanks to their inexplicable regal feeds, to the point that the stranded Queen Medusa later enquires after a Hawaiian bus.

Maximus the not quite mad

Way to endear the main characters to an entirely human audience

We’re left in no doubt that Maximus is evil, if not quite mad as his name suggests in the comics. But the depths of his plotting are left to ferment as he tries the outlandish and obvious move of stealing his brother’s wife at a moment of not-terrible crisis.

But regardless of his actions, it’s difficult to argue for the society that’s presented, as shallow and dull as it is. Crystal, Medusa’s sister is one of the characters of interest, yet plays the spoilt princess, truly living in her ivory tower. And crucially, for all her bouts of bravery and loyalty as she resists the usurper while her family are stranded on earth, she loses a great deal of empathy when she spits at Maximus that he’s human. Way to endear the main characters to an entirely human audience. Even if there’s a slither of intriguing greyness in there, the opening two episodes leave little space to manoeuvre.

Into the Mist

Judged and monitored by the silver cloaked genetic council

Terrigenesis takes the form of a regally sanctioned ritual on the moon, but presented in a  split-broadcast season with Agents of SHIELD, it’s unlikely many of its audience will be unfamiliar with the concept. The comics have presented a mixed history for the brutal terrigenesis cocoons that added an element of tension and surprise to SHIELD, but here they make way for a hideous debutant awkwardness. Like the more familiar structures of Krypton – itself the subject of a brewing eponymous proto-show which will also have to deal with many of the problems Inhumans faces – the subjects (in many ways) are judged and monitored by the silver cloaked genetic council… A council we crucially never get to see.

The dialogues suggest that they will turn up before long. Yet, the ritual is an early example of narrative strain. Maximus, seeking to comfort an apparently failed-Terrigenesis subject, is the only one who notes his emerging prophetic powers. But still, he lets someone who many might consider a very promising apprentice head to the mines, even after he seizes the throne. These niggles are frequent as scene after scene fails to live up to its promise, harshly back-lit against broad sets that betray a disappointing budget. When the Queen is captured, the shaving of Medusa is symbolic, horrifically so given its blatant and layered subtle connotations. Yet, the merest threat the Queen can level against Maximus for his betrayal is that she will never forgive him.

While Medusa’s torture may have some logic it underlines how the needs of the characters override the narrative. Maximus’ coup breaks after the earlier, rather weak, prophecy comes through, while the episode’s greatest twist – that he is linked to Inhuman-hunting death squads on Earth- is held back to throwaway a few scenes later. It’s left to his underlings, descending stairs to greet Karnak and proclaiming themselves envoys of “King Maximus”. It’s weak, and clearly twisted to parallel the responses from two of King Black Bolt’s loyalist lieutenants, Gorgon on Earth and Karnak in Attilan. That we don’t see the issuing of any Order 66 is just one element that, dictated by the need to a twist the dramatic flow of events, is perplexing. No wonder Crystal was confused. It’s a coup! That the series can continue, and Maximus’ coup face any opposition at all is down to the strategy-dissolving fact that Maximus didn’t deal with Crystal’s sweet but under-engineered teleporting dog LockJaw first.

None of the character’s powers are explained. Scenes are heavily chopped, fleeting and a few served up merely for show or to provide a backdrop for some dialogue dripping in exposition. No doubt aided by the budget constraints, it undermines its character’s abilities almost as wilfully, as it lets Hawaii become an increasingly distracting backdrop (“Stupid dog”, as Karnak remarks of Lockjaw when left on cliff peak for half an episode). And the splitting of the party breaks the welcome comic relief of Karnak and Gorgon. It may have sat uneasily with the rest of proceedings, but the close of episode two suggests it won’t be making a comeback for some time.

Aside from the wasted characters littered around the 50th State, Inhumans great mistake is misreading the true heart of the story: the Inhuman leader – absolute ruler though he may be – Black Bolt.

The quietest heartbeat

From Fox letting their hair down… To Marvel fumbling

While character’s powers range from the laboured (Gorgon, Medusa) to the inexplicable (Crystal, and comic-defyingly, Karnak), the flashback to Black Bolt’s evisceration of his parents is notably brief and chilling. But perversely, it can’t shout the trick it misses loud enough. The last full debut of a Marvel property was the willfully obtuse, eccentric and thoroughly brilliant Legion. That was Fox letting their hair down, but this is Marvel fumbling. It’s a huge step back for their small screen properties. The challenge set by a lead who can’t speak is a great opportunity, particularly given his pivotal role in the comic storylines of the past two decades.

While the sign-language invented for his live-action debut is a marvellous balance to the thought bubbles of the comics – neither could work in the other media – the show should have saved the Royal soap of the moon for flashbacks and cantered on his confused arrival on Earth. Imagine the scope of following this mute, alien and noble ruler through our reality… At least then there may have been a notion to expand the Hawaiian adventures of the second episode to something more than arrest for shoplifting (three police cars arrive to deal with that, no less) and being called a “freak”.

In Black Bolt a bold, inventive premise far removed from the staid and poorly sketched betrayal of family members that’s been tackled with far greater success elsewhere. After two episodes, it’s sad to think that wherever the show goes it faces a struggle. And to think it’s cutting the episode count of its parent. The endlessly inventive SHIELD that itself emerged from an ignoble opening half season.

Wasted

An unfair comparison when creating a feuding and fraternal web is Game of Thrones

There’s little mystery to these big or small screen Inhumans, and that’s a travesty for a huge, undiscovered, and fantastic corner of the Marvel universe. An unfair comparison when creating a feuding and fraternal web, as with any new pretenders, is Game of Thrones. That show established an enviable and immersive world for all its stumbles. But any comparison set by Inhumans’ opening forest hunt and Throne’s original and bloody prologue sortie beyond the Wall, ends with the blood.

The concept of Inhumans was shouting out for a local story, told through either a king, or the lowest of the caste, to bridge the inner-Gormenghast with the wider-Marvel universe and set the stage for the wealth of its kingdom. Where Guardians of the Galaxy rooted the fantastic in an ‘80s obsession, it’s proved an anomaly as much as Inhumans reinforces the difficulty of establishing a Marvel universe on screen that can fuse all the facets of its comic properties. The hard, political and solid pinnacle set by Captain America 2: the Winter Soldier (oh gosh, it’s so good), looks harder to breach than ever.

That said, some of the clues to helping the struggling Inhumans have already made it to the screen in the affecting tale of Steve Rogers. He proved more than anyone that the comic drama needs to be character driven. It needs to be personal. As Maximus and Black Bolt respectively, Iwan Rheon and Anson Mount wring phenomenal promise from some narrowly sketched characters. But that’s not enough. What Inhumans really needed was a Jon Snow; apparently they only got the Ramsey Bolton side of the equation.

Read more MARVEL at Jokerside.

Hammer: Baron Frankenstein at 60 – How to build a monster

The Hammer Baron Frankenstein at 70

Last year we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Hammer’s Dracula Prince of Darkness and the Wallachian Count’s glorious powers of resurrection. To complete the double-bill, we toast the 60th anniversary of the release of The Curse of Frankenstein by picking up tips on how to build a monster from the imperious Baron Frankenstein. Or, inevitably, how a bunch of pitchfork wielding villagers might thwart his plans…

*** Spoilers for the classic Frankenstein Hammer series stitched in ***

“Why can’t they leave me alone? Why can’t they ever leave me alone?”

BARON VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN IS 60! OR IS THAT DR STEIN? OR DR CARL VICTOR? YES,THE HAMMER SEQUENCE OF SEVEN FILMS THAT SPUN OUT FROM MARY SHELLEY’S DEFINITIVE NOVEL NEVER REALLY GAVE THE DOCTOR’S FAMOUS CREATIONS A CHANCE. Instead recognising them as the symptoms of a compulsion – following instead the journey of the talented and visionary, yet self-centred, increasingly obsessed, deluded and immoral scientist himself, through a variety of mishaps, aliases and decades. Despite the names that would be stitched into the form of the Baron’s creatures over the franchise, unlike the famous Universal Studios series that preceded it, Hammer’s adaptation insisted on following the scientist himself, played – with only one misguided exception – by the big name the sequence hang off: Peter Cushing.

The Curse begins…

The Curse of Frankenstein premiered on 2 May 2017 and changed everything. The Hammer entity had produced films since the late 1930s with mixed success, but it was in the company’s third incarnation during the mid-1950s that they invested in horror. The phase started with an adaptation of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass, quickly followed by a scrambled pastiche. But it was when their sights fell on direct, period horror and rose to their strengths, without overdoing the funding of course, that they not only returned gothic horror to the cinema for the first time since Universal Studio’s heyday, but crucially, introduced colour. And what glorious colour it was.

Everything synonymous with Hammer Horror is there in that 1957 feature. The opulent cinematography, the period setting, the melodrama. Hammer’s horror output would later deviate from that formula, to mixed success; competitors would have great success aping their formula. But it remains one of the most distinctive studio signatures in cinema history.

Grave digging

Like a reanimated corpse at the hands of the Baron, Hammer’s Frankenstein had a painful root to life, despite Mary Shelley’s book being long in the public domain. Searching for production partners across the Atlantic, a Frankenstein script from two young American scribes landed on the desk of Hammer supremo Michael Carreras, son of the studio’s founder James Carreras. Close to the plot of Universal’s Son of Frankenstein (1939), the idea of filming it cheaply in black and white, and knowingly bringing in horror giant and Frankenstein alumni Boris Karloff as their mad scientist was electrocuted at the bolts when Universal heard of their plans. And with the production firmly on the American studio’s radar, Universal were determined to protect their property. And so did constraints and circumstance become a significant shaper in not only this vision of Frankenstein, but also Hammer’s future.

The original script, eventually titled Frankenstein and the Monster, ran to a shoddy 55 minutes and under heavy threat from Universal it was reluctantly reworked until it fell to a rising star in Hammer’s home, Bray Studios. Jimmy Sangster had risen up the ranks when his script for X – the Unknown dug them out of a difficult hole when a Quatermass sequel fell through in 1956.

Adding colour

Sangster’s Frankenstein script pulled the story back to the 19th century, placing the imperious Baron in a satisfyingly central Europe. Like the Universal adaptations that cut a swath through film a few decades before, this was no faithful interpretation of Mary Shelley’s original. But the treatment was crucially strong enough to boost the production into full -olour production. Hammer engaged Eastman Colour, much to the BBFC’s dismay – horror in colour? – and under the unbelievable eye of cinematographer Jack Asher – who did more than anyone to define the ‘Hammer look’ – prepared to change gothic horror forever.

The distinctive make-up that defined Universal’s most famous version of the Doctor’s creation was out of bounds under scrutiny from across the Atlantic. And so it fell to Phil Leakey to sculpt something entirely different. The disfigured, alarming, brutal result did the job, even though it would never be repeated. That make-up almost transformed Bernard Bresslaw until either his agent’s pay demands or his reputation for comedy found him second best to the two inches shorter Christopher Lee (6’5”). The role didn’t allow Lee the moments that Boris Karloff enjoyed at Universal, but twitchy and child-like he managed two subtly distinct personalities in his few scenes. Karloff’s portrayal was governed by pathos, with Lee’s creature was a cipher for the Baron’s puppet. By sheer force of his creator’s will, Lee monster is half-mimic, half-puppet, walking as if on strings. And before he walks comes the famous, over-cranked reveal, when the score roars back after some purposeful silences during the accidental reanimation. That was the scene where Lee first shared the screen with his friend and long-time on-screen antagonist, Peter Cushing. Legends were set. Read more…

1966: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly at 50

1966 The Good, the Bad and the Ugly turns 50

“Kicking off with a different loner”

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was released in Italy 50 years ago today, completing Sergio Leone’s hugely influential trilogy. The Dollars Trilogy? The Man With No Name trilogy? Whatever it completed, however it fits with the other films, Jokerside salutes the 50th anniversary of a classic that created and consolidated a sub-genre…

IT’S 50 YEARS SINCE ENNIO MORRICONE’S FAMOUS THEME FIRST WHISTLED FROM CINEMA LOUDSPEAKERS, MAKING WAY FOR FIVE DECADES, SO FAR, OF COUNTLESS REINTERPRETATIONS, RECYCLING AND PASTICHE. Although, it’s not really 50 years… True, the final and most famous film of what we’ll call the Dollars Trilogy for ease was released in director Sergio Leone’s native Italy 50 years ago today. But it’s not until next year that The Good, The Bad and the Ugly celebrates its golden anniversary in the country that lent the film its fabric if not its landscapes and behind the camera talent. Oh, nor its predecessor For a Few Dollars more. Nor in fact, that film’s predecessor, A Fistful of Dollars. You see, every film of Leone’s Dollars Trilogy was released in the United States in 1967. That may sound like a heady year for the Western, but each release was met with middling disdain on release. 50 years on, it’s a different story…

Leone’s impact on the rich fabric of world cinema stemmed from the film wealth of his upbringing. The son of cinema pioneer Vincenzo Leone and silent film star Edvige Valcarenghi, by the 1950s the young Leone had worked his way into cinematography and screenwriting in the Italian capital he was a native of. Italian cinema that had blossomed over the previous half century and never shied from borrowing elements from international cinema despite the frequent bright sparks of its own auteurs. It was to be a tradition continued in the Dollars Trilogy opener, A Fistful of Dollars. A deliberately fresh take on the established American Western format, it introduced The Man with No Name. A stranger emerging from the nowhere of the desert, entering a new town, and soon extracting money from two rival gangs by playing them off each other. He’d incur a vicious beating on the way to a bloody victory, but for all the enhanced violence and terror, this mysterious antihero was full of quiet sarcasm, prone to the odd trick alongside his evident gun skills and an odd protagonist to root for in the midst of some kinetic camera work.

Unfortunately Fistful’s debt was worn broadly, prompting Akira Kurosawa, the eminent director of the sublime Yojimbo to send Leone a letter telling him it was “… A very fine film. But it is my film”. The fact that Kurosawa’s 1961 film was itself was quite probably indebted to Dashiell Hammett’s first novel Red Harvest didn’t matter as the suits fell in Yojimbo’s favour. The recognition of similarity in intent would have surely gratified Leone, who towards the end of his career said: “From a project like (Kurosawa’s) Ran or Once Upon a Time in America, you come away dry in the mouth, with your head in flames and your soul in shreds.” But for all the costly sacrifice, in terms of distribution and box office, from this first ‘homage’ Leone had set cardinal rules for what would quickly become known as Spaghetti Westerns. He picked apart the Western genre, defied conventions and infused it with an utterly inappropriate yet tremendously fitting context of other times and cultures. Morricone’s scores was a massive aid in that quirky, healthy, disrespect.

The cunning of Fistful‘s anti-hero would grow with the trilogy and become a defining trope. Unexpected actions played out through partnerships riven by betrayal, always circling and sometimes opposing supreme and callous violence. Leone would later describe the “picaresque” aspirations of the trilogy’s final instalment, the third film that truly fuses the Western to that Spanish and southern European narrative form.

Boiling spaghetti

“I had always thought that the ‘good,’ and the ‘bad’ and the ‘violent’ did not exist in any absolute, essential sense. It seemed to me interesting to demystify these adjectives in the setting of a Western. An assassin can display a sublime altruism while a good man can kill with total indifference.” – Sergio Leone

It turned out that predominantly Italian film-makers working in Spain, funded by from Germany, Italy and Spain, made a fine Western through Leone’s lens. And that was the point. Westerns had dominated American film production for many years, but the industry was grinding down by the mid-1960s. And the genre wasn’t alone, the same was true with that other great fuel of Hollywood, the musical. Within a decade, both would be blown out of the water as the sharks of new wave cinema jumped in. But while Hollywood eased off, as if prescient of its collapse, Leone saw potential.

A Fistful of Dollars was an attempt to re-establish the Western for the Italian market, the director realising that the Wild West still generated considerable interest in Europe. Recognising a crossover appeal, the favourable response of Italian audiences to the contemporary work of his peers and the entropy of a genre that he considered stagnant and unrealistic, Leone sought to make an Italian Western. At the centre he put a trickster in the grand Italian tradition of Commedia dell’arte, an enigma of a man who could act as the pivot between comedy with extreme violence and drag the audience into an unfamiliar stylised world. And to seize that mantle he picked an actor best known for small-screen scale cowboy fare, damning his capacity for facial expressions on the way. The rest, as they say, was and is history.

Per un pugno di dollari (A Fistful of Dollars, 1964)

“Welcome to you stranger”

It’s impossible not to see A Fistful of Dollars as an adaptation of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, but any sacrifice in originality is swamped by the by the celluloid adrenaline it shot into a moribund genre and its overall benefit to a burgeoning sub-genre. A distinctive entry, it remains the most clean-cut of the Dollars Trilogy even as it lays down and explores what would become those oh so crucial crucial Spaghetti tropes. We first meet the Man with No Name, in this film called Joe, as he watches bandits shooting at the feet of a child, shortly after wryly accepting a spurned glance from a woman at a window. That woman is the distracted Marisol and although her story lies at the heart of scuppering Joe’s plans later on, Fistful never threatens a love story. There’s no foreshadowing for that in the considerable, unseen history of this man, nor the masochistic ploys he almost immediately sets in motion. His first, trademark, mono-syllabic greeting of “Hallo” is to Silvanito the innkeeper who tells him as much from the start.

“Eating, drinking and killing, that’s all you can do”

Fistful was shot on a miniscule budget of around $200,000, allowing for a sparse town for The Man to walk into. Often empty, but dominated by the two rival gangs he flits between, there’s no doubt what will unfold in a town where the coffin maker’s so experienced he can measure for a box with a glance. Having felled the gunslingers who humiliated him when he entered the town, crucially proving his prowess to both gangs, the first pang of the Man’s wry humour falls on the coffin maker: “Get three coffins ready… “My mistake, four coffins”. Within minutes Leone’s presented the shape of this character, from skills to hard edge, devilish patience to humour. Read more…

%d bloggers like this: