Category: Film

Motion pictures from high art to schlock…

“Words that stay” – Celebrating The Dark Crystal

Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal Bowie Skeksis Gelfling

Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal Bowie Skeksis Gelfling

It’s Twelfth Night, so just time for some festive favourites. Well, Festive Muppetry.

This time, Jokerside takes a double-headed look at Jim Henson’s finest and most ambitious hours on the big screen. Modern fairy tales, all vision and little compromise, that bestrode children fantasy cinema in the 1980s… An astonishing three decades ago… Tomorrow, an Epiphany as Jokerside visits Labyrinth, but first 1982’s The Dark Crystal

AT A CASUAL GLANCE, IT’S EASY TO SLOT THE DARK CRYSTAL AND LABYRINTH INTO THAT PARTICULARLY OVERARCHING SET OF 80S FAMILY FANTASY FILMS. From Willow to Ladyhawke, films that still stretch across Western culture like The NeverEnding Story’s Nothing. While Jim Henson’s big screen masterpieces are separated by four years it’s also hard to avoid seeing The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth as two fantasy classics on one natural line of development, although there are no links in terms of story or myth. Following the human-free, straight and ominous myth creation of The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth mixed Henson magic with humans and made the most of David Bowie to construct a musical around its fantastic story. Or the other way round, depending on the paving slab sliding goblin you talk to.

Undeniably, both films contribute some of the most stunning visuals of 1980s cinema, with almost every frame struggling to contain the ambition. While both are very different films, the most striking link between the two is the difficulty both experienced on release. But while one emerged belatedly to marked success, the other demoralised Henson with the result that he never directed a film again.

Off to the alternate dimension of the Goblin Kingdom tomorrow. But first the planet Thra, fittingly a planet of two sides…

The Dark Crystal (1982)

A myth forms

“He didn’t think it was healthy for children to always feel safe.”

So said co-director Frank Oz about Jim Henson. And there’s no doubt about it, The Dark Crystal is a rather sombre affair. As Oz continued, Henson’s intent was to return to the darkness of Grimms’ Fairy Tales. Building the concept from the mid- to late-1970s, the end result is an hour and a half of stunning scenery and stupendous scope, quite jaw-dropping in its realisation and (freed of humanity) timelessness. But in stretching the darkness of the material, or returning it, The Dark Crystal sometimes feels scenes were cut short to stop jokes naturally rolling out and ruining that Grimm intent.

“Another age, another time”

What’s more impressive than the impassioned darkness is how confidently The Dark Crystal throws itself into a mythology, heavily interpreting New Age philosophy and particularly Jane Roberts The Seth Material (still being produced at the time of the film’s release). Lining the crystal are astrological signs and throughout the film ensures the magick is linked to the heavens.

Unlike some other prominent fantasy films of the time, The Dark Crystal doesn’t paint a reality threatened with an impending threat so much as propel alien characters directly into a terrible situation. Not only must disbelief must be suspended for the meek protagonist to quickly embark on his crucial quest, but there is little to relate to. The tone and immense background is immediately set by an omniscient voice, the owner of which we don’t see until the end.

Those weighty words are brilliantly intoned and enunciated in a weighted British tone by Joseph O’Conor. He tells us of the cruel and gentle races, the Mystics and Skeksis, both whittled down to 10 in number. It’s the Skeksis we see first, during the opening titles, the reptilian, birdlike horrors – fixed unmoving in the light of the Dark Crystal. Continue reading ““Words that stay” – Celebrating The Dark Crystal”

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed – A Canon Divided

Star Wars Force Unleashed Deathstar

Star Wars Force Unleashed Stormtrooper

As Star Wars The Force Awakens bursts the Big Screen, a look at one of Star Wars greatest moments that’s been force pushed out of history… The Force Unleashed.

* Includes spoilers for The Force Unleashed, not so much The Force Awakens *

IT WAS JUST BEFORE HALLOWEEN 2012 THAT STAR WARS PHASE TWO STARTED. Disney had seized control of the Senate, undermined the Jedi order and taken control of Lucasfilm and Star Wars. With the ominous suggestion that the franchise was underexploited, plans were sown for a future that few had suspected. And frankly, many who had, dreaded.

But when George Lucas said at the time, “It’s now time for me to pass Star Wars on to a new generation of film-makers,” he really meant it. Three years on, the first Star Wars film in ten years ready and poised to break records as it kicks off a new trilogy sparked by three different hot property directors. And filming is already under way on the first Star Wars anthology film, Rogue One, taking a punt at providing a proper prequel to the original Episode 4. But it wasn’t all positive for creativity as far reaching surgical cuts were made to give the future of the franchise absolute freedom. It took just over a year for Disney to issue their own Order 66 against Star War’s expanded universe and wipe the canon clean.

The search for canonicity

The strained emergence of what one of entertainment’s largest brands led to confusion from the outset…

Canonicity is a hotly disputed topic in fan bases, especially around genre properties. Even under strict control, the issue can get murky across divergent media. The rule of all official material being canonical quickly gives way to caveats that it’s only canonical if it doesn’t contradict a more important and compelling part of the canon.

As it stands, the current core of canonical Star Wars is formed by the six film sequence, with the notable addition of the well regarded Clone Wars cartoon series joining new animated series Rebels as part of lore. The expanded universe of novels comics, videogames and animated series is now branded (relegated) under Star Wars Legends. The decks cleared, all future created content across multi-media will be officially canonical forming Disney’s next great shared universe. And on the basis of Star Wars The Force Awakens, signs are very good indeed.

But now there’s no room on the timeline for Star Wars Holiday Special or Droids. No imperial cargo decks reserved for Knights of the Old Republic or shooting galleries where Shadows of the Empire or Dark Forces can hang out.

Disney’s move was a shrewd, ruthless and necessary one. After all, the strained emergence of what would become one of entertainment’s largest brands led to confusion from the outset. Alan Dean Foster’s 1978 Star Wars: Splinter of the Mind’s Eye was a prose sequel to the original Star Wars film, intended to be filmed as a low budget follow-on should the original film’s box office not have come up to scratch. History records that Star Wars set the box office alight, instantly enabling a high budget sequel in The Empire Strikes Back and the writing off of Mind’s Eye. But still, it lingered until it met Disney’s scythe. While not contradictory, there’s an uneasy link between those duelling sequels, even considering Mind Eye’s distinctive and iconic front cover. Disney has now shredded this very early tension, along with the vast majority of expanded universe stories that followed. Those books and storylines that followed the original trilogy, many of which spun out to explain the events that took place after Return of the Jedi were complicated and mainly the preserve of completists rather than the ticket buying mainstream that inspired Disney’s purchase. Although all were signed off by Lucasfilm, that didn’t guarantee their canonicity for what will always primarily be a film based franchise and Disney have proved it. The instant impact of this decision has been thousands of column inches dredging the irony that some elements of the ever-tweaked film run remain canon. Yes, gungans, Darth Vader being called “Ani”… But aside from reducing the many volumes of Star Wars universe encyclopaedia, the real cost has been the relegation of some of the franchise’s greatest moments. In particular The Force Unleashed – quite possibly the highlight of 21st century Star Wars.
Continue reading “Star Wars: The Force Unleashed – A Canon Divided”

Halloween III: Difficult Middle Children

Halloween III Season of the Witch

Halloween III Season of the Witch - the Difficult Middle Child

The third of Jokerside’s surveys of the Halloween franchise. All hopes of an anthology series had gone and the franchise was set on building a new continuity that paid close attention to the past. As it stretched into the late 1980s and mid-1990s, Halloween struggled to keep the Shape in his favourite pastime in a changing world of horror.

MICHAEL MYERS’ THIRD APPEARANCE IN HALLOWEEN 4 HAD ACHIEVED SOMETHING INCREDIBLE. A NEW BLOODLINE AND THE SERIES’ GREATEST TWIST. Spurred on by the return of buoyant box office, there was little chance the Shape could stay off the screen. A fifth instalment was quickly pushed into pre-production. But Myers was rivalled in threat by events away from the camera as the franchise strolled on. It’s impressive that a constantly the revolving teams of talent behind each instalment stuck to Halloween’s important continuity. It’s not surprising that the Shape couldn’t stave off the horror of diminishing returns.

Halloween 5: The Return of Michael Myers (1989)

“In my heart I knew that Hell would not have him”

Donald Pleasance rightly gets top billing at the start of the fifth Halloween film, before an effective if inexplicable pumpkin slashing exercise backs the main credits. After part four jumped straight into the action, Halloween 5 takes time to recap the ending of that previous film and show an unlikely escape for the masked killer; to the bottom of the mine shaft and then a fast running river. Who knew? Of course Myers survived, and with the slightest of nods to Frankenstein finds some respite at the house of an old man he dispatches… When he emerges from his coma a year later. It’s the same kind of continuation that the first two films relied on, so perhaps it’s not surprising that the following 97 minutes always seems to have keep an eye on Halloween 2. Here more than ever we’re watching this silent, homicidal anti-hero survive rather than his victims.

One year on

“She has something to tell us”

Moving on one calendar year has mixed results. The idea that Myers wakes up on Halloween may be a growing and compelling element, but loses a bit of power when the film flits through the year he spent undisturbed and physically unaffected in someone’s house. It’s more important that this missing year allows his bloodline to move on. After the twist of the last film, Jamie’s year in hell has left her mute like her uncle, under constant supervision in Haddonfield Children’s Clinic. It was no dream, but also she’s no murderer. Her foster mother survived and she is being treated rather than pilloried.

The fifth film explores the evident link between niece and uncle that the previous film established. She dreams of Myers as he wakes from his coma and we see a strange Norse symbol tattooed on his inner wrist for the first time. Even before the nod to earlier films, as she sees her uncle standing under a tree in the clinic gardens, she scrawls ‘He’s coming for me” as she assumes her role as a Myers detector and a tool in Loomis’ crusade to locate the murderer he knows is not dead.

“Have you come back home Michael? I know what you want from her…”

The treatment and sympathy of the town sit at odds with Loomis’s usual role as a lunatic outsider. Fortunately this time, although the audience can see the link, the Children’s Clinic is uninterested and the eminent Doctor of Myers is more desperate than ever. But as the killer circles once again, Loomis struggles to pull his plan into gear in a typically uncooperative town. The format needs to stretch around the Jamie developments, but it ensures that he remains the outsider with a view that no one will buy into too much. And his derangement only increases with his conviction. It’s almost a relief when early on he stumbles into the old Myers house, now derelict and overgrown, and manages to smile when he’s surprised by a dead rat. But rather oddly convinced that he has the answer to Myers, Loomis will now take unprecedented risks to stop the killer once and for all, and that early trip just serves to set up the finale. He might not be altogether with it if he thinks the original Halloween events took place “12 years” before but amid this unscrupulous desperation comes the oddest of things. After three films that painted him into a catalogue of errors, the indefatigable doctor actually gets some things right in Halloween 5.

Continuity

“They should ban Halloween in this town”

Banning Halloween. What a good suggestion that is, one of the best Haddonfield’s ever heard. But still, it hasn’t happened. After the misstep of calling a curfew in the fourth film, one thing Loomis does get right is listening to Jamie’s warning and quickly trying to save Jamie’s foster sister Rachel. But for all that warning and the continuity with the previous instalment, she is cruelly dispatched early on after a strangely gratuitous dressing sequence.

“Why, why are your protecting him? …There’s a reason why he has this power over you”

Without Rachel, much sisterly connection falls to Tina Williams, although the connection isn’t drawn out. She’s certainly very close friend of Rachel and particularly fond of Jamie, and a lot hangs on that connection come the mid-point of the film. Continue reading “Halloween III: Difficult Middle Children”

Halloween II: New Masks Please

Halloween Season of the Witch and the Return of Michael Myers

Halloween Season of the Witch and the Return of Michael Myers

The second in Jokerside’s glimpse at the Halloween franchise. The first two Halloween films had not only established a franchise, but created the slasher monster. But the series turned out to lack the method and formula of Michael Myers’ MO as the films stretched to the mid-1990s. But then, he could never have returned on the 10th anniversary if Halloween 3 hadn’t written him off…

FOLLOWING THE SUCCESS AND FINITE CONCLUSION OF THAT SINGLE NIGHT STORY OF HALLOWEEN IN THE FILMS OF 1978 AND 1981, JOHN CARPENTER AND PRODUCTION PARTNER DEBRA HILL HAD THE ADMIRABLE INTENTION OF CARVING AN ANTHOLOGY SERIES FROM THAT AUTUMNAL GIFT OF A NAME. It seemed an inexplicable power was determined to keep Michael Myers alive off-screen as much as on. Latching on to an anniversary, as only this franchise can, the fourth film arrived on the tenth anniversary of the first, and started a new cycle of three films, helmed by different directors, each delving into Myers’ origins as much as they nodded their decapitated heads at different parts of the originals. In this spotlight:

Halloween 3: Season of the Witch (1982)

“The night no one came home”

Michael Myers was dead, so where next? The tradition of the ever-returning slasher boogeyman had not yet been set, although there was a fine precedent from gothic godfathers in the Frankenstein and Dracula mould. Still, when it came to this third film, the anthology approach that the producer’s chose was a mighty and noble aim.

And history records that it failed.

Season of the Witch generated far lower box office than its predecessors. But on the way, in its strange position as the only film of the franchise not to follow its defining main character or slasher horror template, the brilliance of the story and approach is clear among the clashing oddity of it all.

The main problem, especially from hindsight gifted by a full nine films featuring Michal Myers, is that Season of the Witch is always going to suffer in comparison. The odds are stacked against it. Instead of a slasher template, the definition of film repetition, comes a mystery packed with psychological shocks. To craft the tale, returning producer John Carpenter turned to legendary British scribe and Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale. Unfortunately, rumour has it that distributor Dino de Laurentiis wasn’t convinced by the sharp move away from gore, which resulted in the shoehorning of grizzly shocks and Kneale requesting the removal of his credit.

That’s a shame for many reasons, not least because Season of the Witch is Neale the core, mashing a somewhat intrinsically British Isles plot with a Californian setting. Yes, we’re not in Ohio anymore and as lead Dr Challis says, “In California… You never know”.

After the slow and strangely digital pumpkin titles, a classic set-up presents a mysterious man escaping pursuers, only to end up in a hospital where his condition and quick end at the hands of an assassin draw others into in a web of curiosity. The film’s definitive moment, the root of the question that irresistibly pushes Challis to join forces with the daughter of the victim, is set when the assassin calmly sets himself alight in a parked car, his mission complete. Director Tommy Lee Wallace makes a good and chilling stab of this – undoubtedly the iconic scene of the film.

The slight meta-lines of the first film are redrawn here, as a disturbed Dr Challis later sees an advert for a Halloween screening of the original Halloween film – perhaps indicative of the franchise’s lofty observation of itself – sponsored by the highly irritating jingle of the Silver Shamrock. That advert counts down to Halloween – with the world’s premier supplier of Halloween masks omnipresent. It’s the dead man’s erratic final journey that draws Challis and Ellie Grimbridge to the small Irish community in California dominated by the Silver Shamrock factory. An eclectic group duly descends on the town motel, to serve up the body count in a classic village of the damned way. The couple swiftly finds themselves in an alien community where somethings is clearly rotten. There’s a dark secret in that place, an old staple in horror and many other genres. Like Summer Isle in The Wicker Man or a softer version of the New England explored by Lovecraft and King.

Horror balance

“It’s the last Halloween for that factory of his”

Season of the Witch is not an unsuccessful film on screen. It provides a haunting force of opposition all the way up to its abrupt ending. It adds and builds on the strong science-fiction conceit that had fuelled many genre plots, such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the Autons serials of Doctor Who. And perhaps most surprisingly, it actually shares a link to the preceding Halloween film it was a deliberate departure from (and entries to come).  The villain’s plot is more than inspired by Samhain festival, the ancient Celtic ritual superseded by Halloween that was previously tacked on as a guiding force behind Myers in Halloween II. It’s a reference that would once again surface like Michael Myers later in the franchise. But first, there was this story that lent itself to creeping realisation, rather than the gore and effects that pushed Kneale away. But while that extreme isn’t necessary, it also isn’t to the detriment of the story. Although the characters remain rather hollow, even the hollow love plot that quickly develops between the two leads serves its purpose in one of the final acts multiple twists. Continue reading “Halloween II: New Masks Please”

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