Personas: Letting the Evening Go with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – The Beatles Other Egos

Sgt Peppers 50

Sgt Peppers 50

It was 51 years ago… that the Beatles disappeared, shunted to the side by an Edwardian military band. The Lonely Hearts Club Band, taught to play by Sgt. Pepper two decades before. On their golden anniversary, the most famous band in the world’s most famous alter-egos still capture the imagination…

“Sgt. Pepper invented himself, because he had to”

THE ALBUM COVER OF SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND MAY JUST BE THE MOST FAMOUS PIECE OF POP ART EVER PRODUCED. The Peter Blake and Jann Haworth composition is both a perfectly captured instant and a bold attempt to set popular culture in time and space. It’s two, three and four dimensional. Famous faces assembled in the physical montage range from Karl Marx to Max Miller, HG Wells to Oscar Wilde. Objects range from a garden gnome to a Mexican candle stick. From the 19th century, Edgar Allen Poe stands in the middle, Sir Robert Peel to the left and Lewis Carroll to the right. Two faces are painted out, Mahatma Gandhi at the request of EMI; Leo Gorcey because he churlishly, or wisely, requested a fee. From the Beatles early career, Stuart Sutcliffe dolefully stares at the camera from the far left. At the front right, a stone statue belonging to John Lennon became the physiognomy of Sgt. Pepper himself. But what of the band he taught to play, 20 years ago?

“That’s a funny place to put a goldfish bowl” – George Harrison, Yellow Submarine

There they are in the middle. Behind the drum skin carefully, if grammar-challengingly, emblazoned with the band’s logo by fairground artist Joe Ephgrave (that would sell for $670,000 four decades later). Decked in alternate hats, and different, brightly stylised military outfits, the four band members stare mirthlessly from the centre of the assembled great, good and censored. In their hands they carry, from left to right, French horn, trumpet, cor anglais, and flute. This four-piece might look familiar, but they’re not the Beatles. You can tell, because of the instruments. Oh, and because the Fab Four stand just to their left. Frozen in mop-topped Beatlemania – if you think they’re not looking quite themselves you’d have to take that up with their guardians at Madame Tussauds.

Thanks to Lennon, there’s a nod to the rapid ascent of that other band right at the heart. He asked Mona Best, owner of Liverpool’s Casbah Club and mother of Pete, the drummer famously dropped on the cusp of their ascent, if he could borrow her father’s war medals to wear. He later returned them safely along with the cash box trophy, immortalised in the floral ‘L’ of the band’s name on the cover.

Just left of centre, in-between the wax Paul McCartney’s grey suited elbow, and the moustached John Lennon’s day-glo green funny bone, it might as well be New Year’s Eve 1966, a sharp turning point in the perpetually evolving career of the band. Or perhaps a bit earlier…

End of the road

“Cemented those experiments in the cultural bombshell”

The Beatles stopped touring in August 1966 after a difficult Asian tour fed into a tumultuous American one. John Lennon’s comments to The Evening Standard in March 1966, comparing the band rather favourably to Jesus, led to protests and ominous undertones at a nearly cancelled concert in Memphis. But it was in Candlestick Park, San Francisco on 29 August that the Beatles road trip ground to a halt. For safety, Beatles concerts were staged in arenas. But flooded with supernatural screaming from the moment the Fabs appeared to long after they left the stage, the band couldn’t hear each other or their instruments. For a four-piece built on harmony, steadily shrugging off the pop star tag in favour of ground-breaking musicianship, the number was up for live performance that night. And as Ringo later recalled, for no one more than Lennon.

Frustrated, exhausted, and unhappy with their direction after a gruelling but prolific four years in the public eye, the Beatles immediately embarked on their second three-month holiday of 1966. Both breaks proved seminal. The first break prologued the fusing of the Beatles’ pop musicality with experimentation; the second cemented those experiments in the cultural bombshell of Sgt. Pepper.

Somehow, the early break had accelerated the Beatles’ already fast-developing sound, with recording of the extraordinary Tomorrow Never Knows falling at the beginning of the Revolver sessions that April.

During the autumn break, Lennon was drawn to a film role in How I Won the War while furthering his journey to LSD-fuelled mind expansion. At an art launch he met Yoko Ono. Paul McCartney stuck to the studio, developing his knowledge of classical music while working on a soundtrack with producer George Martin. George Harrison headed to India to hone his Sitar skills under Ravi Shankar. Ringo Starr spent some quality time with his family, probably bought a car, and joined Lennon on location in Spain for a holiday where it was “damn hot”.

For the most part then, the defining influences and direction of the Beatles’ latter career were taking shape. Things had changed. Their new album would be the proof. The band’s earlier break led directly to touring and recording of their seventh album. By November 1966, Abbey Road studios had turned from a stop on a conveyor belt to a refuge from the maelstrom. They could focus solely on recording their eighth LP as tours fast retreated to history. With a broad canvas ahead of them instead of a road, an uninterrupted, unprecedented, five months in the studio lay ahead. Their experimentation was primed to reach its next stage.

As George Harrison reminded us, “We were inventing things you know, don’t forget”.

It began with the ground-breaking double A-side of Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane, the perfect balance of Lennon and McCartney across two sides of a disc… or rather it didn’t. As well as being beaten to the number one slot by Engelbert Humperdinck’s Please Release Me, those November and December 1966 recordings never made it onto an album. Blocked by manager Brian Epstein and producer George Martin’s noble if misguided belief that fans shouldn’t have to pay for a song twice. In the middle of the two recordings the whimsical ditty When I’m Sixty Four was laid down, described by McCartney as “Goony”, as in Goon Show, it was a sign that something theatrical, if not tongue-in-cheek, was afoot. 64 was to be the first album track of the sessions and it proved one thing: While Sgt. Pepper challenged, crossed, and smashed musical and production barriers, there was more to it than a technological revolution. As much as the Beatles had won their new ability to concentrate on studio work, they also needed to carve out a new creative space.

Pass the Sergeant

“One of the greatest songs containing multiple “Whoops” of all-time”

In fact, inspiration for the band’s innovative approach came in the same month that recording sessions began, although they would take some time to take form. It was on plane from Kenya to London, and all thanks to a condiment.

As McCartney tells it, he was grabbing a bite with band roadie Mal Evans when he, “mumbled to me, asked me to pass the salt and pepper. And I misheard him. He said ‘saltandpepper’. I go, ‘Sergeant Pepper?’ I thought he said, ‘Sergeant Pepper’. I went, ‘Oh! Wait a minute, that’s a great idea!’ So, we had a laugh about it, then I started thinking about Sergeant Pepper as a character.” (Paul McCartney, 2017)

McCartney developed the concept almost immediately, visualising Pepper as leader of an Edwardian band, attending an award ceremony in a northern English town. Anachronistically, they took their moniker from the trend for long rambling band names and hippy culture that was breaking out across the west coast of America and had fascinated McCartney on the Beatles’ recent tour. His sketches developed the band’s military uniforms alongside a floral clock. That vision resembles the result, but it was to be moulded by necessary and inspirational collaborations over the next six months.

First, there were his band mates. As the zeitgeist unfolded, it was clear that the need to remove themselves from their past was universal. As McCartney put it, “I thought, let’s not be ourselves. Let’s develop alter egos”. They were trying to “get away from ourselves”. In the grip of exploratory mind-opening, Lennon was quietly content to let McCartney take the lead, and Paul threw himself into the concept.

But it was only after the recording of the song Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in the February of the recording sessions that McCartney’s brainwave truly developed, and the first rock concept album sprang to life. Two songs had already been recorded, including 64 and astonishing, iconic album closer A Day in the Life; another of the session’s perfect fusions of McCartney and Lennon in one composition.

The Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band track was an experimental step back from the more rounded, modern songs the Beatles recorded during 1966, but it managed to achieve something quite different. It fused a heritage, variety nostalgia with heavy rock. As a ripping, challenging sound as much as a rhythmic throw-back, it’s timeless. With the segue into With a Little Help from My Friends and McCartney’s introduction of singer Billy Shears, Ringo was the only member of the band’s alter-egos to be named (perhaps purposefully laying hints for emerging Beatles conspiracy theorists), and the concept was set. For a whole two songs.

Almost all the LP’s songs, including Good Morning, Good Morning and Lovely Rita carry the sense of acutely observed British sentiment. There’s a catching and uplifting joyousness in the mixture of dreams, (Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, Fixing a Hole) and mundanity, often in the same number. It’s a step away from the contemporary feel that had characterised the band’s previous albums, but not a step back. Those expecting a uniform concept after the opening two tracks are left wanting. Come the album’s end, it’s only in the title track and its reprise that an attempt at fluid continuation is present. And Billy Shears’ one and only song was a late-recording, written under pressure from the band’s label EMI in March 1967. The reprise followed at the suggestion of the Beatles’ friend and future head of Apple Corp Neil Aspinall. As Lennon wryly told him at the time, “nobody likes a smart arse”. But it was a masterstroke. That euphoric final recording of the session is not only one of the greatest songs containing multiple “Whoops” of all-time, but one of the album’s highlights. It would have taken the final slot had A Day in the Life’s final chord not been so, well, finite.

The classic embrace

“Sgt. Pepper invented himself, because he had to”

It wasn’t surprising that Sgt. Pepper was highly anticipated, it was a Beatles record after all. What was and still is surprising is the euphoria that met the zeitgeist of its release, five days earlier than scheduled, on 26 May. The band was ecstatic with the result, but the society around them also seemed to be waiting with open arms to receive what Times critic Kenneth Tynan would soon call a, “decisive moment in the history of Western civilisation”. It managed to fit 1967 like a key.

It may not be many Beatles fans’ favourite album, but it’s culture’s. It swept the western world, in an instant, dominating the airwaves in the late spring. Few things walk into the status of instant cultural icon, so how did it manage it?

There’s something about the album’s timing, composition, vision, fusion of music, art and theatre, Britishness and sentiment. Although it’s occasionally colder than Revolver, and predicts the aloof dislocation of their later albums, The Beatles crafted an optimistic celebration in what George Martin called the pinnacle of their collaboration. It was both utterly fantastic and entrenched in times past. It’s not a clash of time and culture but a gathering of all times. On the cover, taking vocals in two songs, maybe three, was the Edwardian band that couldn’t possibly celebrate its 20th anniversary in the late 1960s; that couldn’t possibly entertain hard rock with French horn and flute. Sgt. Pepper, for all its darker tones and occasional disconnected hubris – step forward John Lennon – was taken in a big hug by a generation eager to adopt an instant classic. Each song pushed music production, but as an expectation not an aim. Extraordinary flows through every song, but often in a terribly modest way.

Technical limitations were broken while they brought modulation from classical music to popular, expanded horizons from the old English home town to India. New techniques were invented through hard-worked, old school practicality. In a way, Sgt. Pepper invented himself, because he had to. While staring into the kaleidoscope: yes, Sgt. Pepper is where the mundane sits alongside the imaginary, and backed by two sides of roaring tunes, complement each other.

Persona grata

The band concept isn’t strong, soon falling apart on a linear listen. But the creation of a rock concept is another trick Sgt. Pepper slipped easily into culture. In the parenthesis of the first and penultimate track there is enough space for the band to ease out of their natural personas. It’s the apparently lazy pursuit of that persona concept that aids Sgt. Pepper longevity. As the eponymous band dips in and out, most famous for their role on the album’s cover, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band manage to be simultaneously dated, modern and timeless.

And the band’s fans were ready to roll with that. It’s not like the floral signature of “Beatles” isn’t one of the overriding features of the distinctive cover. But the Fab Four had already done more for the concept of personas than the world realised.

Prior to the Beatles, most well-known figures who’d carved a foothold within popular music were solo artists, or an outstanding frontman, guitarist, or both who would emerge from a group to strike out on their own. The Beatles, however, set the template for a four-piece in band lore. So definitively in fact, that none of the many four pieces that have followed in their wake have achieved the balance of the original.

Legacy

None of those considerable four-pieces that inherited the formula in the decades that followed managed to balance such distinct personalities. It was a delicate balance in the Beatles’ case: the quiet one, the funny one, the pretty one… By A Hard Day’s Night (1964), the band was playing with their split personalities across songs, album covers and film. The dissolution of the Beatles in 1970, in a worn acrimony that fate would never reconcile, was there from the start. Those balanced personas could be unbalanced. Sgt. Pepper was the culmination of their optimum balance.

Over the next year the Beatles would adopt other minor personas, including cover star Lewis Carroll’s Walrus (“The Walrus was Paul” as 1968’s Green Onion tells us), and other characters in the extraordinary film and album concept Magical Mystery Tour (following hot on the heels of Sgt. Pepper in 1967, shortly after Epstein’s death).

In Yellow Submarine, the animated band (avatars of a real band uninterested in completing their film deal with United Artists) would set off to rescue their alter-egos and all Pepperland. But after the tumultuous, legacy defining cultural moment of Sgt. Pepper it’s telling that the next time the band recorded an album on this scale (the following year, after the misjudged road trip of Magical Mystery Tour), the album cover would be a simple, reactionary white.

Pepper creates himself

Perhaps the roots of The Lonely Hearts Club Band were stitched into the fabric of 1962’s Beatlemania and destined to burst out at some point. The Beatles inadvertently created the importance of persona in popular music in their rapid ascent. Just half a decade later, Sgt Pepper saw them combine it with the comfortable homogeneity of music past.

Glam bands would later seize the persona and concept that Sgt. Pepper hinted at to attract fans. There’s a marvellous coincidence, no doubt infuriating for one side of the equation at the time, that David Bowie’s debut album was also released on 1 June 1967. But as contrary as some parts of the Sgt. Pepper album is, personas were a natural way for the Beatles to distance themselves from their fan base. Back to McCartney, getting the okay the Beatles way:

“I just talked to all the guys and said, ‘What do you think of this idea?’ They liked it and I said, ‘It will mean, when I approach the mic, it’s not Paul McCartney. I don’t have to think this is a Paul McCartney song’. So, it was freeing. It was quite liberating.”

As manager Brian Epstein was reported as saying at the band’s decision to abandon live touring in 1966, “What am I going to do now?” He didn’t give up trying to convince the band to return to the road, but he never succeeded in his lifetime. Brian Epstein would die almost exactly one year after their final performance at Candlestick Park, having overseen their rise to being the most famous band in the world, and their creation of one, if not the, greatest fictional bands of all time.

And not turning up for most of the album, was one of the Lonely Heart Club Band’s greatest moves. We still enjoy the show.

References:

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, 50th Anniversary reissue

1966: Revolver at 50, Jokerside.com

You Gave Me the Answer Sgt. Pepper special, Paulmccartney.com

The Beatles, Hunter Davies

Revolution in the Head, Ian MacDonald

Sgt. Pepper Forever, BBC Radio 2

Beatles Anthology

First published on Niume on 26 May 2017.

Turn back the clock with our 50th anniversary celebration of Revolver

The Dark Knight at 10: 10 ways it Introduced a Little Anarchy

Dark Knight at 10 - the Joker Card

Batman The Dark Knight at 10

“Why so Serious?”

Heath Ledger’s Joker, disappearing pencils, Harvey’s lucky coin, love triangles, Batpods and a Caped Crusader having to cross the line. Cinema’s greatest comic book adaptation was released 10 years ago.

It’s a decade since the majestic centre point of Chris Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy simultaneously elevated the perception of what comic book films could be on film and set a tone, whether resisted or followed, for a genre making its way to the top of the box office.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the year of The Dark Knight’s release also saw the launch of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, imperceptibly starting on its own journey to redefine Hollywood blockbusters. That behemoth began rather inauspiciously with the double-bill of an unstoppable force of chaos and a super crime fighting multi-millionaire playboy. Although there was little appreciation that the billion dollar box office barrier The Dark Knight smashed through would soon become de rigueur for the flagship films of DC’s great rivals.

Nolan’s vision soon proved to be definitive to the point of irony in the fast-growing comic book genre.

A decade on, The Dark Knight stands tall as Batman’s finest celluloid hour. That’s saying something for a film that’s part of a rigid, isolationist trilogy and for a character whose live action pedigree stretches across multiple iterations and 70 years. Nolan’s vision soon proved to be definitive to the point of irony in the fast-growing comic book genre. The trilogy was an impossible springboard for an expanded film universe, but it set the tone under the light guiding hand of Chris Nolan for the difficult DC Extended Universe that followed in the past decade.

The Dark Knight wasn’t the first comic book film that strove for a level of realism or ‘darkness’, but it’s effect was immediate. Given the successful but unfashionable steps to colour that DC’s big hitters Superman and Batman had taken in the 1960s and 1970s, in the 21st century their incarnations would be set by The Dark Knight. The DCEU that duly emerged half a decade later was dark, gloomy, robust, powerful and hard-hitting. This was the universe of gods, eager to set a strong and lofty tone that comic pages could translate to screen. It now seems odd now that this sprang from the grounded and gritty Dark Knight trilogy as much as Nolan’s film’s became a watchword for darkness (read ‘not kids films’) without being mired in it, unlike Batman versus Superman or Man of Steel.

There have been few disasters in the DC films that followed. 2011’s Green Lantern may be the true exception, although that came mid-Dark Knight trilogy. But there have been plenty of disappointments, a far cry from the heights of The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises. The impact of Nolan’s trilogy on the DCEU is still difficult to call. On the anniversary of The Dark Knight’s release this weekend, Warner Brothers premiered trailers at San Diego Comic Con for two new DC films that broke their so-called dark curse: Shazam and Aquaman. Alongside those was an early glimpse at the New Romantic-set sequel to one of last year’s great comic film successes, Wonder Woman.

Wonder Woman may have felt like a fresh slice of quality amid other major DC output from the last few years, but it’s storytelling style, reach and multiple levels owed much to Nolan’s trilogy, proving that Batman’s greatest celluloid moment, has a legacy as complex as its narrative.

To celebrate the modern comic classic, Jokerside presents 10 ways The Dark Knight broke the mold and unexpectedly gave us one of the most influential films of all time.

Dark Knight at 10 - Batman

1. It’s extraordinarily faithful

“I think you and I are destined to do this forever”

A struggle with origins have long dragged down the comic book medium, and the rot set into Batman’s modern film existence as soon as Tim Burton’s 1989 classic let a rather homicidal Dark Knight avenge his parents’ death. 2005’s Batman Begins made its more mature intent clear: there were no easy answers, and the crux lay in the battered tussle between Bruce Wayne and Batman.

It was a broad canvas ready to be explored in the sequel, but what was extraordinary was Nolan’s faithfulness to the source material. Joker was no stranger to public consciousness, but his film credentials were tied up in Jack Nicholson’s definitive 1980s take. The rather obvious idea of directly translating many great and classic storylines from the pages of comic books has only settled in over the past decade. After Begins Nolan had his sights set on the very beginning of Batman’s much explored and interpreted nemesis, and adapting an origin lost over decades of character development.

In the run-up to the film, eyebrows raised at Nolan’s assertion that his Joker would follow the character’s original 1940 comic book appearance. But there it is. The chillingly cool opening bank robbery, albeit to a different end, shows the same effective big dollar robber. Working alone for the most part, this Joker is quite at home with physical altercation, even if he doesn’t quite match his early comic book counterpart who could best Batman in a scrap. He comes from nowhere, with no identity but an intelligence to match the otherworldly comic horror of his appearance. And just as in Batman #1 the Joker issues warnings before commiting crimes. Now in a different medium, and not so clearly because he’s obsessed with his own brilliance, he still remains a man of his word. Continue reading “The Dark Knight at 10: 10 ways it Introduced a Little Anarchy”

Star Trek Discovery Series 1: Our review of Trek’s new Wagon Train to the Stars

Star Trek Discovery Series 1

Star Trek Discovery Series 1

Jokerside doesn’t often do reviews, but when it does, it’s for something big. When Star Trek returned to its natural small screen home for the first time in 12 years we were there to chart every episode of Discovery‘s first year. You can catch the in-depth reviews over at Jokershorts, but here’s the full season summary and for those rushing to Black Alert!

STAR TREK DISCOVERY SLUNK ONTO SCREENS IN SEPTEMBER 2017, BEHIND A PAYWALL IN THE US, SEVERAL MONTHS BEHIND ITS ORIGINAL SCHEDULE, IN THE WAKE OF RUMOUR AND TROUBLED PRODUCTION. MANY THOUGHT SOMEONE HAD JUMPED INTO A FIREFIGHT WITHOUT CHARGING THEIR PHASER. The full trailer had failed to convince naysayers, who hung onto canon as it crystallised in their grasp as much as it had galvanised those desperate for Trek‘s return.

It was over a year since the last of the current iteration of Star Trek films had been released. Star Trek  Beyond was a brilliant and entertaining film, one of the best reviewed of the season, but had sunk heavily at the box office, bafflingly released months before the franchise’s 50th anniversary.

That Discovery was produced as the flagship show for the streaming network of another company, CBS, said a lot about the fraught rights issues around Star Trek. That CBS hadn’t been the kindest about Star Trek‘s prospects in the years leading up to it said everything else. Bu there were more dramatic and pressing worries. The show’s production was delayed nominally because of the great inticacy of its design (plastic printed Klingon garbs), just one factor that left it vulnerable to being usurped. Seth macfarlane’s Orville duly warped in over on Fox, heavily ‘homaging’ the fan-favourite Star Trek: The Next Generation era in a mix of broad comedy and moral drama that won fair critical approval and audience. The challenge of serving up fresh Trek (having already amassed 725 television hours), set between The Original Series and Enterprise suddenly looked even steeper.

On the way, Discovery had also apparently lost one of its key assets. ’90s Trek veteran, televisual visionary and exactly who everyone wanted to run the new Star Trek show Bryan Fuller… Quit. Fired, pushed, a bit of both, it was a big blow.

Outside America, the rest of us loaded up Discovery on Netflix that autumn not knowing what to expect. But wouldn’t you know, all the above proved a fertile ground for a bold new era of Star Trek. Somehow the combination of concept, a lot carried from Fuller, and logistical need (“alright, let’s veer course and pad things out with the Mirror universe! or something”) set 15 episodes of first rate television, be it genre, science-fiction or plain of Star Trek.

Here’s our summary review of each episode, with our Series average at the end. Oh, and because this was tasty, and twisty throughout, you’ll see our theory-ometer for each episode too – a good indication of where our head’s were at! yIbaH!

1.1 & 1.2: Battle of the Binary Stars

“Discovery strives to set out both sides. And it wins the battle.
The ending’s even more rushed than the disintegration of unity on the USS Shenzhou bridge. But though we don’t see the consequences of big bad T’Kuvma’s mistake, hung on his devotion, the pinch that Burnham has inadvertently created a martyr of this Kahless reborn persists. We lose two compelling characters come the end, in a mess of a fall-out that submerges both sides in shadow and darkness. That’s how strong Discovery is, and the solid set of concepts that can drive missions into its web. We have a strong set of characters, fascinating dynamics and just enough sturdiness about the characters left behind to propel the series on, even if we have little idea how they’ll fit together in the series proper.

It’s bold, and its divisive. But Discovery’s talent prioritised the concept of the show as they saw it, acutely aware that it could never meet every expectations right out of space dock. Creating that potential on the back of so much continuity and such a long break is no mean feat.

CBS, have got a winner, one of the strongest Trek pilots in 51 years, and we haven’t even started the series properly yet. On the strength of this many more people will realise that come the series end.”

Rating: B+

[We also provided a Klingon review of these episodes, as it seemeed only right. the core there? rap je wovbe’!

Where was our theory-ometer? “Prime? this is the Kelvin timeline through and through…” Continue reading “Star Trek Discovery Series 1: Our review of Trek’s new Wagon Train to the Stars”

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

Halloween V: Re-carving the Pumpkin - Michael Myer 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. Continue reading “Halloween V: Re-carving the Pumpkin – Michael Myers Zombie-style”

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