Tuesday, October 30, 2018

The Haunted Palace (1963)

The third and last of our 'Haunted House' themed movie trailers to mark this year's Halloween is Roger Corman's The Haunted Palace.  Don't be fooled by the Edgar Allan Poe title: despite being marketed by AIP as part of Corman's ongoing series of Poe adaptations, The Haunted Palace is actually based upon an H P Lovecraft story - The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.  (AIP would continue to try to mislead US audiences into believing they were watching Poe movies when they retitled Witchfinder General as The Conqueror Worm for its US release in 1968 and slapped the title The Oblong Box on Gordon Hessler's 1969 horror film, despite it having no real connection to the Poe story of that title).  Indeed Corman's film was the first movie adaptation of a Lovecraft story. Strictly speaking, of course, it isn't a conventional 'Haunted House' movie, but it does concern the possession of Price's Charles Dexter Ward by his burned at the stake ancestor, the warlock Joseph Curwen (also Price), when he inherits the latter's house.

Corman expoits the studio bound nature of the production and the limited sets used to represent Arkham to advantage in summoning up claustrophobic atmosphere for the film.  There is an all pervading sense that the characters are trapped in this tiny, self contained world, doomed to repeat past events.  Indeed, the past hangs heavily over the action of The Haunted Palace, with the villagers still forced to suffer the consequences of their ancestors' actions and Dexter/Curwen and his associates literally trying to resurrect the past.  Price gives a typically flamboyant performance in what amounts to a dual role, managing the transitions between Ward and Curwen with aplomb, and is ably assisted by a supporting cast that includes Debra Paget (in her last film performance) and Lon Chaney Jr (replacing Boris Karloff).  Despite a clearly limited budget, both production values and effects are above average, (the four armed thing lurking in the dungeon is particularly well realised on limited resources).

But the big question, obviously, is how does The Haunted Palace stand up as a Lovecraft adaptation?  Well, to be sure, it is only a loose adaptation of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.  Significant differences including shifting the setting back from the present of the original story - the late 1920s - to the late nineteenth century, and changing the motivation of Ward which, in turn, alters the complexion of the subsequent story.  In the original, Ward is well aware of his ancestor's unsavoury activities and actively seeks to resurrect him by alchemical means, whereas in the film he comes to Arkham a relative innocent is possessed by Curwen against his will.  Which is another key difference: in the Lovecraft original Ward is murdered and physically replaced by Curwen (who uses their remarkable resemblance to try and pass as Ward), but the film substitutes a spiritual possession of Ward by his ancestor.  Curwen's ambitions in the film are somewhat more modest than those of his literary counterpart - he is mainly concerned with revenge on the descendants of those who originally burned him as a witch and in resurrecting his dead mistress.  In the original story he is hellbent upon gaining the knowledge he needs to allow himself and his warlock associates to exercise world domination.

In spite of this simplification of the source material, there is still plenty of genuine Lovecraft in evidence in The Haunted Palace. The Necronomicon and the Elder Gods, Cthulu and Yog-Sothoth are all present and correct, as are Curwen's fellow resurrected warlock associates from the story.  There is also mention of Curwen's original scheme (before he was burned by the villagers) to create a race of hybrid creatures by mating humans with the Elder Gods, a recurring theme in Lovecraft's 'Cthulu Mythos'.  Moreover, Corman succeeds in conjuring up some of the fetid atmosphere of a Lovecraft story, conveying the mustiness and claustrophobia which characterises much of his work.  So, all in all, The Haunted Palace represents a fair first attempt to film Lovecraft, retaining much of the themes and mythology of the original stories, despite AIP's attempts (against Corman's wishes) to filter them through the very different world of Edgar Allan Poe.


Monday, October 29, 2018

Last Time for Everything

It's strange the things which affect us.  You can never tell what will, or how much.  My mother is in the process of moving out of her old house to the retirement flat she has bought.  It's absolutely the right thing to do - that old three bedroomed house is too big for her, costs too much to maintain (especially the garden) and isn't particularly conveniently placed if, like my mum, you don't drive.  But it was also the family home for over fifty years, the house I grew up in.  Yesterday marked the last time I visited it.  It really seemed strange wandering around those now nearly empty rooms, voices echoing in all the unfurnished space.  Standing in my old bedroom one last time was especially strange.  For one thing, it seemed much smaller than I remembered.  But then, back in those days, as I was growing up, it encompassed my entire world: just about all of my wordly possessions were packed into that room.  For a while I even shared it with my model railway, (until it moved to the attic).  In fact, when we first moved to the house in the late sixties, I shared that bedroom with my two older brothers.  After a few years they moved to the bedroom next door after my sister got married and moved out.  Later, I shared it with my younger brother, until my older brothers moved out and he took over their old room.  But, throughout my teenaged years, it was undisputedly my bedroom, where everything I loved and cherished was contained.

Now, of course, I have a whole house of my own, crammed full of my stuff.  It seems hard to believe now that I could have contained my whole life in that one room for so many years.  But now it is bare, devoid of any character, just my memories lingering there.  And there are so many memories associated with that room.  I was surprised at just how affecting I found the whole experience.  In fact, I found myself downright upset by it all.  I know that I haven't lived there full time for nigh on thirty years, but a lot of my life was lived there.  Most importantly, most of my childhood was spent in that house and, most specifically, that room.  In all the years I've lived away from the house, I've always had the knowledge that it was still there and still accessible to me.  But now, that chapter of my life is definitively over.  I can't go back.  That was my last look at my old bedroom.  In fact yesterday marked the last time that I would go through that front door, the last time I'd reverse my car off of the driveway and manoeuvre it around all the other badly parked cars in the cul-de-sac as I drove away.  Always, at the back of our minds, I think, we have the knowledge that there will be a last time we do everything, but experiences like yesterday's bring home the reality of this fact.  As I said, I found it all surprisingly upsetting.


Friday, October 26, 2018

Some More from Our Sponsors

Another commercial break while I try and come up with some proper posts.  I'm all over the place right now, with all manner of stuff going on which is distracting me from my usual writing duties here.  So, instead of me rambling on about something or other, here are some TV commercials from 1977 that somebody has kindly posted on You Tube.  Once again, we find ourselves back in an era when VHS recorders were a novelty and pretty much the cutting edge of home entertainment.  Not only are they now obsolete, but John Lewis have now stopped selling one of its successors, the DVD player, because of falling demand as people increasingly turn to streaming services for watching films and TV at home.  (Mind you, I think the media are being premature by announcing the death of the DVD based on a decision by John Lewis, whose customers aren't exactly representative of the population at large and their home entertainment preferences).  But who knew that there was ever a time when Cadbury's Caramel bar was new?  Or that it's conception was a s recent as 1977?  It's one of those things you just assume has always been around.  Unlike Cadbury's Pint Size, which I don't even remember from 1977 and have never seen or heard of subsequently.  Hopefully, somebody strangled that bloody puppet to death.

Even in 1977 adverts boasted a smattering of celebrities - I don't mean the obvious ones like Twiggy and Petula Clark, but rather Micheal Robbins of On The Buses fame, who wishes that he'd rented that TV set, and Melvyn Hayes, who is selling fruit from his barrow to passing blondes.  Interestingly, the company Robbins apparently should have rented from - British Relay - is one that I've never heard of.  As my father worked at this time for Radio Rentals - the UK's biggest TV rental company - I was familiar with most of their sister companies and rivals.  DER and Rumbelows were part of the same group as Radio Rentals, whilst Vision Hire and Granada were their arch rivals.  I never recall having seen British Relay on the High Street. Yet they were apparently big enough to be mounting a TV ad campaign fronted by a recognisable actor.  It is also sobering to be reminded that Chrysler UK were still producing cars at this time - the successor to the Rootes Group were subsequently bailed out by the British government in order to safeguard UK jobs, becoming Talbot in the process, before being bought by Peugeot.  As for Matey bath foam - I'm not sure that having sailors advertising a children's bath time product with a sea shanty would be allowed these days.  (Allegedly, all that foam was designed to hide the fact that you were wanking in the bath - or so it was rumoured when I was at school).  I seem to remember that Matey was replaced by Super Matey a few years later, although I'm not sure exactly what made this incarnation 'super' - perhaps it could conceal farting in the bath as well as wanking.


Thursday, October 25, 2018

The Old Dark House (1963)

Back on the 'haunted house' Halloween theme - the latest trailer is for The Old Dark House.  Not the celebrated 1932 James Whale film, which starred Boris Karloff, but the lesser known sixties remake.  Not. strictly speaking, a haunted house movie, but rather a 'spooky old house' horror movie, the 1963 Old Dark House was the result of a somewhat bizarre cinematic marriage: a co-production between the UK's premier purveyors of Gothic horror, Hammer Films, and US independent producer/director William Castle, who had a string of gimmicky low budget horror hits, including The Tingler, House on Haunted Hill, Thirteen Ghosts and Homicidal, under his belt.  On the face of it, they made strange bed fellows, Hammer, with its deadly serious and relentlessly bleak Gothic tales, frequently streaked with sex, cruelty and sadism, and master showman Castle, whose films were usually characterised by outlandish publicity stunts, such as insuring audiences against dying of fright .

The resulting film, however, is characterised less by a clash of styles, than by a general feeling of flatness.  Advertised as some kind of blackly comic thriller, it is none of these things, lacking wit, suspense or atmosphere.  It badly needs either a dose of Hammer blood and gore or a  patent William Castle stunt like a skeleton emerging from the screen or a 'Fear Break' to allow audience members too cowardly to endure the climax to escape.  The film is packed full of well known British characters, but none can make any headway with a weak, plot-heavy script which reduces J B Priestly's satirical source novel ('Benighted') to a creaky Cat and the Canary-style 'killer on the loose in a scary house' mystery.  Even down to the fact that the killer's motivation has to do with eliminating rival heirs to a family fortune.  All of which puts it a long way from the original film version of the novel, which has only the slightest of plots, instead concentrating on the bizarre characters making up the Femm household and their blackly comic antics, and in creating lots of atmosphere. Also, whereas the closest thing to sympathetic characters in the original come upon the titular house by happenstance, in this version the 'hero', is invited there to deliver a car.  Which immediately changes the whole dynamic of the film.

Bearing in mind the two main creative forces involved - Hammer and Castle - the resulting film is very disappointing, failing to exhibit any of the qualities which make their individual films so enjoyable.  Quite why anybody thought that a remake of The Old Dark House was needed presents a bigger mystery than that presented in the film itself.  Indeed, nobody seemed entirely enamoured of the movie, with the US release shorn of colour, while its UK release was delayed until 1966 and was missing some seven minutes of footage. All in all an horrific experience, but not for the reasons intended.


Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Driving Ambition

It's no good.  I've got to do something to change my life as I feel completely becalmed right now.  I'm most definitely in the doldrums, (to continue the maritime analogies).  The real problem, as ever, is that I seem utterly incapable of taking decisive action with regard to my employment situation.  My detestation and disillusion with the job continues unabated.  Much of the time I genuinely fear for my safety, quite apart from my ongoing health situation.  (Today Occupational Health decided, on the basis of a phone interview that I was fully fit for duty, despite being under strong medical advice to avoid stress, yet being asked to perform duties which are extremely stressful and have resulted in me suffering severe symptoms of stress.  The ridiculous thing is that if I applied for this job now, I would undoubtedly be ruled out of it on health grounds.  But hey, what do I know?  These are health professionals at work - probably the same ones who, on the behalf of DWP, pass cancer sufferers and other extremely ill people people as being fit for work, despite it being obvious that they aren't).   Anyway, the other day I checked my pension status on the relevant government website.  After having to negotiate a logging on process so tedious I thought I was going to lose the will to live, I was finally able to confirm that my estimate was right and that I only had five more years of National Insurance contributions to go before being sure of receiving a full state pension.  (Annoyingly, under the old scheme, I would already have qualified for a full pension, but under the new scheme introduced a couple of years ago, I have these extra five years tacked on).

So, as I've said before, it's case of finding a way of ensuring those five years of contributions are paid in the least painful way possible.  I'm still trying to work out what that might be, though.  In the meantime, I still have no mortgage, no dependents and have money in the bank - so why don't I just take some time out to try and decide what to do with the rest of my life?  Answers on a postcard, etc.  On a more positive note, I'm now the proud owner of a 2007 Saab 9-3.  I have to say that it has brought the joy back to my driving.  Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed driving my old Focus for most of the time I owned it, (the last couple of years, it became increasingly troublesome and turned into an expensive chore to drive), but the Saab is in a different class.  It really is a pleasure to drive: smooth, sophisticated and impeccably well behaved.  Which is also how I now feel as a Saab driver.  Apparently the typical Saab driver was likely to be quirky, intellectual and creative.  Unlike a BMW driver who, apparently, is typically an arsehole.  That's the thing about driving a Saab - it gives you all the quality of a German car without the stigma.  It also comes with a driver's manual as thick as a door wedge - I'm still learning about various features of the car as I go through this: I've just discovered the second phone charging point, not to mention the rear seat cup holders, for instance.  Despite vowing, when I set off on my search for a second hand Saab, that I was going to buy a petrol engined automatic, I've ended up with a diesel equipped with a six speed manual transmission, (it was cheaper to tax and insure, as well as being the best one I saw in my price range).   Interestingly, I nearly bought an old style Saab 9-3 the last time I replaced my car, but allowed myself to be persuaded that the Focus was a more 'sensible' choice.  Having driven my second generation 9-3 for a week or so now, I realise that the Saab would have been the 'sensible' choice last time around.


Monday, October 22, 2018

The Legend of Hell House (1973)

As I was saying on Friday, Halloween is approaching and I feel sort of obliged to do something here to mark it.  So, I thought that I'd do some 'Random Movie Trailers' on the theme of haunted/spooky houses.  The 'Haunted House' sub genre of horror movies is one that I've always had a soft spot for - I think that it is something we can all relate to.  We've all encountered, as children, that run down, possibly abandoned, local house which was reputedly haunted - the one that you didn't like walking past, especially after dark.  The ramshackle house where lights sometimes showed at the windows, despite nobody supposedly living there.  We've all also, I suspect, had the experience as children or teenagers, of being left alone in the house, where, despite the familiarity of the setting, every strange sound and creak becomes menacing due to the sudden feeling of isolation.  Anyway, first up in our brief 'Haunted House Movie Trailer' season is 1973's Legend of Hell House.

Based on a Richard Matheson novel and directed by John Hough, who had recently directed Twins of Evil for Hammer, Legend of Hell House is a reasonably effective example of the genre.  Not as intellectual as The Haunting, but nowhere near as schlocky as House on Haunted Hill, delivers some effective shocks in its middle section, but tends to run out of steam a bit before its conclusion.  The set up is familiar from the earlier films mentioned: a small group of people spend time in an isolated property with an evil reputation in order to establish the authenticity or otherwise of its status as a haunted house.  In this instance we have scientist Clive Revill, the rationalist determined to explain all of the phenomena by scientific means, assisted by his wife, played by Gayle Hunnicutt, te token 'normal' person in the party and a pair of psychics: Pamela Franklin and Roddy McDowell.  The latter is the sole survivor of a previous expedition to unlock the secrets of 'Hell House'.

As always in this genre, the house itself is as much a character as any cast member and boasts a complex back story.  In this case, it was once home to a notoriously evil man who presided over all the usual Satanic orgies and rites expected of his sort. All of which has left an indelible psychic 'mark' on the building.  Good production values and brisk direction mean that Legend of Hell House never quite outstays its welcome and provides plenty poltergeist activity, possessions and general supernatural shenanigans to keep the viewer distracted from plot holes and improbabilities.  The whole thing has an agreeably chilly atmosphere, aided by an effective musical score. In essence, Legend of Hell House presents the viewer with a compendium of haunted house movie tropes and cliches.  But it does them all reasonably well and is, by and large, and enjoyable watch.  my main reservation about it is that the script seems to be moving toward some kind of Freudian inspired psycho-sexual explanation for the haunting, building toward a horrific revelation, possibly involving castration, which it ultimately shies away from.  It's as if, at some point, either the writer, producers or distributors lost their nerve and substituted amputation for castration as the ultimate revelation in order to appease the censors.  Oh, and not to forget that the film provides low budget horror icon Michael Gough with possibly his easiest role: playing an embalmed corpse. 


Friday, October 19, 2018

Horror in Season

Halloween is fast coming up and there is a part of me that feels I should be doing something about it.  Not organising the local kids into 'trick or treat' expeditions, hurling eggs at my neighbours' front doors or doing some bobbing for apples, obviously, but rather doing something here, on this blog.  (Although, thinking about it, transforming my house into one of those Haunted Houses they have in the States and charging people to come in be scared shitless, does hold a certain appeal).  Lots of other sites seem to mark this time of year with countdowns throughout October, usually reviewing various horror movies, books or TV series.  There was a time when, every October, I used to run vaguely supernatural or horror themed stories over on The Sleaze.  However, it seemed to do nothing in terms of boosting traffic so, eventually, it came down to just one such themed story every October until, a couple of years ago, I even dropped that. Not only did nobody seem to care, but I was finding it increasingly difficult to come up with new story ideas.  There are only so many obscure horror films you can parody and the trouble is that most are so obscure that nobody realises that you are parodying anything.

But to get back to the point: should I be doing anything here to mark Halloween?  I mean, I don't do anything to mark in real life.  Sure, every time it rolls around again I have some vague idea that I'm going to watch some horror movies, maybe a giallo marathon, or something like that, but inevitably forget.  Which it easy to do when Halloween falls on a week day when you have to be up for work the next morning.  Which, let's face it, is most years.  It's not as if the main TV channels do anything much to mark Halloween these days - they don't even schedule late night horror movies unless it falls over a weekend.  So, what, if anything, should I do here?  I suppose that I could do a week of horror movie reviews, but the problem with that is that I'd have to watch them first and these days I just don't seem to have the time to watch that many movies over such a short period of time.  Perhaps I could confine it to a single review, posted on Halloween itself, which would be more manageable.  If I was really ambitious, I could go ghost hunting in an allegedly haunted house and present it as some kind of live feed.  Except that I don't know of any allegedly haunted houses around here.  Plus, I really can't be arsed to try and set up things like live video or audio feeds.  But the fact is that I'll probably end up forgetting that it is Halloween until it is too late to do anything.  As usual.


Thursday, October 18, 2018

Illiberal Bastards

We haven't had a political rant here of late.  Not this week, certainly.  So, let's not waste any more time.  You know the political creed I hate even more than Tories?  Liberals.  Most specifically, the UK's Liberal Democrats or whatever the fuck they call themselves these days.  At least with Tories you know where you are.  I mean, you expect them to be evil bastards.  But Liberals, they come on as if they are, well, liberal, expressing concern for the poor, being 'right on' when it comes to social issues.  You know what I mean.  They just love to get sanctimonious about how, unlike the Labour Party, they aren't ideologically hidebound.  Indeed, they seem to spend a lot of time berating Labour, trying to establish their moral superiority.  Of late, I've seen various self-identified Liberal supporters online revelling in the whole anti-Semitism shenanigans which has bedevilled Labour over the past few months, pompously declaring how it just goes to show how awful the left is and how morally superior liberals like them are.  Do they honestly think that we're stupid?  Or that we have short memories?  Let's not forget who it was who entered into a coalition with the Tories and enabled a right-wing Tory regime?  A regime which paved the way for Brexit and all the extremism which has accompanied it.  That's right: it was the saintly Liberal Democrats.  Or Tory lickspittles as I prefer to call them.

It really does make me sick to my stomach whenever I see that wizened, doddering old cock Vince Cable fantasising about how he could be Prime Minister, or, at the very least, hold the balance of power in a future parliament.  Let's not forget his role in that coalition government, where his utter incompetence led to the Post Office being sold off for a loss and I seem to recall him spending a lot of time threatening trade unions with dire consequences if they had the audacity to ask for things like pay rises for their members.  He gleefully embraced the Tory austerity policies and the economic falsehoods upon which they were based.  Yet now here he is as Lib Dem leader (elected unopposed because nobody else wanted the poisoned chalice), desperately hoping that we've all forgotten his knee-jerk reactionary tenure as a minister in a Tory government.  Bastard.  But hey, those liberals still like to harp on about how pure and virtuous they are, how, unlike those beastly socialists,they are free from prejudice.  No anti-Semites in the Lib Dems.  Perhaps not, but let's not forget the homophobes, like Cable's predecessor, whose 'Christian principles' meant that he didn't support things like gay marriage and certainly didn't approve of anything as sinful as gay sex. They really are hypocritical bastards these liberals, who have the audacity to continually try and undermine the left and sabotage any chance of a Labour government.  Because that's the truth of them: they are just Tories in disguise. Sanctimonious bigots who don't have the balls to actually join the Tories for fear that people might think they are, well, bastards.  They just want to be loved, you see.  But as far as I'm concerned they are a political scourge who need to be wiped from the face of UK politics - too cowardly to take responsibility for their past evils, they instead spend their time trying to deflect attention by demonising the left.  Shit bags, each and every one of them.

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Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Haunted House of Horror (1969)

I haven't seen Haunted House of Horror for a while now, although it was, for a while, pretty much a fixture in the BBC's late night schedules.  I was reminded of it again recently when I was recording a segment for a podcast about David Bowie.  The Bowie connection lies in the fact that writer/director Michael Armstrong originally wanted to cast the singer in he role of 'Richard', who eventually turns out to be a psychopathic killer.  Armstrong had worked with Bowie before, having cast him in his short film, The Image, and was convinced that he was on the verge of breakthrough in his musical career, which would, potentially, boost the film's popularity.  The film's producers, Tigon and AIP, however, were less than convinced: up to that point Bowie's career had been singularly unsuccessful with a single and album failing to chart.  He was far from being the sort of household name they felt the film needed to secure sales, particularly in the US.  Consequently, AIP imposed Frankie Avalon (who was under contract to them) on the production as a lead actor.  In what was, presumably, a fop to Armstrong, they did cast a British singer in a supporting role: Mark Wynter.

Their choices emphasised the fact that, back then, films were financed and largely produced by middle aged, middle class men whose idea of popular music and youth culture were decidedly middle of the road.  (There are a huge number of low budget movies aimed at a youth audience made in the late sixties and early seventies, for instance, which assume that young people all listened to jazz - a decidedly middle aged genre both then and now).  They just wanted to play safe by featuring performers who represented types of popular music they understood, rather than taking a chance on someone up and coming who represented something new and challenging in pop culture terms.  Ultimately, this attitude seemed to extend to director Michael Armstrong, as well.  A young, up and coming director and writer, Haunted House of Horror (shot under his original title The Dark), was his first feature.  AIP, in particular, didn't like what he delivered and one of the producers, Gerry Levy, re shot parts of the film from his own rewrites, adding some new characters and a new sub plot.

The resulting film is, to say the least, uneven: that more than one director worked on it is painfully obvious, with clear differences in style.  Moreover, some of the locations don't match, the plotting feels disjointed and the pace uneven.  The actor who was eventually cast as the killer, Julian Barnes (not the writer), is largely ineffective in the role and one can only speculate as to the other worldly qualities that Bowie might have brought to the role.  Having said all of that, it remains a reasonably enjoyable film, with its portrait of the fag end of swinging London, full of would be 'groovy cats' desperately seeking new thrills, even staying in allegedly haunted houses for kicks.  Of course Armstrong (who went on to have an interesting and varied career in exploitation films) had the last laugh.  At around the same time as the film's UK release, Bowie scored his first top five hit with 'Space Oddity' and became a household name - his presence in Haunted House of Horror would undoubtedly have guaranteed it lasting cult status.  Instead, its main claim to fame now lies in the fact that it is clearly a proto slasher movie, providing the 'teenagers in peril' template that was to dominate horror films in the eighties.


Monday, October 15, 2018

The Doctor's New Clothes

Do you ever find yourself asking whether you've seen the same thing on TV as everyone else?  For the second week running I've been left feeling that way about the latest iteration of Doctor Who.  Once again, I hadn't planned upon watching it, but I was somewhere that somebody else was so, out of politeness, I watched the second episodes.  Besides, I thought at the time, it will at least give you a chance to see if these is a significant improvement in quality and whether I've warmed any more to the new Doctor.  Now, according to the majority of the press, what I saw was another great episode, full of entertaining action, plot and dialogue with another winning performance from Jodie Whittaker.  Except that it wasn't.  It exhibited all of the same problems as the first episode: paper thin plot, (if, indeed, one could call it a plot), no real conflict, no character development, bland dialogue a flat performance from the lead.  Indeed, if I wasn't a long-term viewer of Doctor Who, I would have been hard pressed to identify the Doctor as the lead character.  I know I came into this new series of Who as a non-believer in gender bending regenerations and with severe doubts as to Chris Chibnall's suitability as a show-runner (let alone a writer of individual episodes), but surely it must be obvious to anyone who has watched them, that these first two episodes simply don't work.

I've done my best to be objective, despite my own preconceptions and prejudices, and there are things I like: the new titles and both the rearranged theme music and the electronic incidental scores are actually pretty good.  And I still, sort of, like the overall look of these new episodes, in that they still remind of  low budget exploitation flicks from the seventies or eighties, (a feeling reinforced by that electronic music).  Although  still think that the BBC should be aiming a bit higher than this in terms of production values.  But the big problem still lies with the central performance, or lack thereof.  Again, there was just no authority, no gravitas to Whittaker's performance as the Doctor.  But the media clearly think I'm wrong and seem to have been watching something other than the entirely superficial episodes I've experienced.  It feels like I'm trapped in the story of the Emeror's New Clothes, cast as that small boy who keeps trying to point out that the aforementioned emperor is stark bollocking naked, but is ignored by everyone else.  Part of the problem is, I'm sure, that too much of the media invested so much in the gender change for the Doctor, trumpeting how great it was and what a triumph for liberalism, gender equality and whatever else it was, that they can't see past it.  All they can see is a woman playing the role and that's enough for them to declare it a roaring success, in spite of the fact that the woman playing the doctor, on the basis of the first two episodes, at least, isn't up to the job.  That said, with scripts this weak, I fear that anyone they cast would labour in trying to breathe life into the character.

(Don't worry, I'm not going to chronicle my reaction to every episode of this series of Doctor Who.  Life's just too short and I really don't want to keep sounding so negative.  But I just felt that the huge divergence between what I've been seeing on screen and the way it has been ecstatically reviewed in many quarters was worth commenting on.  Perhaps if I see an episode which shows signs of improvement, I might return to the subject).


Friday, October 12, 2018

Commercials with Strings Attached

I drove to Slough and back this afternoon.  It was hell.  Nor so much Slough, of which I saw very little as I was actually headed to Burnham, just outside Slough (I was going to look at a second hand car), but the M4,  Especially on the way back home, when all three lanes ground to a halt for a while.  Consequently, I am utterly knackered.  So, rather than a proper post, we're going to that old fall back, a collection of commercials from my childhood.  This time, though, they are a little different, as these were cinema commercials and all feature various Gerry Anderson characters hawking either ice lollies or breakfast cereals.  Of late, I've seen a lot whining about how modern TV commercials often 'debase' cherished childhood characters in order to sell stuff.  Most particularly, the ongoing series of Halifax ads which have featured the likes of Top Cat, the Flinstones and Scooby Doo opening bank accounts at the Halifax, (currently, they feature characters from the 1939 Wizard of Oz and Ghostbusters), have attracted a lot of negative comment from smart arsed journalists in this respect.  But, as these commercials confirm, there really is nothing new in co-opting popular children's TV characters to sell products.  In this case, products aimed squarely at children.

Some things seem odd to modern eyes: why on earth would you have an ice lolly specifically for girls?  Why would anyone think that sprinkling it with hundreds and thousands would make it appeal uniquely to them?  (Actually, I've always maintained that hundreds and thousands are so attractive that you could cover anything with them and people would want to eat it.  I've long wanted to put this theory to the test by sprinkling a dog turd with them, putting it on a plate and placing it in the desserts section at a canteen.  I can guarantee that people will be drawn to it and eagerly consume it.)  It is also slightly worrying that so many of those ice lollies get used as offensive weapons, blowing stuff up. I'm not sure that I would be encouraged to buy an ice lolly I thought might explode.  The cards they were giving away are interesting - you'd have to eat a lot of ice lollies for a complete set, though.  I recall that when i was a kid  PG Tips did a series of similar campaigns of collectible cards - it was easier, not to mention healthier to complete the sets.  I had several of them, all mounted in the special albums you could buy.  As for the cereal - Sugar Smacks had form for using popular TV characters in its advertising: by the early seventies its packets featured Mr Spock from Star Trek.  Those badges they wee giving away take me back to the days when breakfast cereal promotions actually involved having something in the pack, rather than having to collect tokens and send off for them.  I remember collecting all sorts of stuff from them, mainly plastic figures, but also plastic kits of racing cars and a series of plastic kits which built up into circus related figures, like elephants and acrobats.  Bloody brilliant.

Oh yes, that car I went to see - I ended up agreeing to buy it.  I think I got a reasonable deal on it - it isn't perfect, but for its age and mileage, it is in good condition.  Certainly better than most of the other Saab 9-3s of similar age I've seen.  It is being delivered next week. 

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Thursday, October 11, 2018

Off Course

I've never been a fan of Sat Navs in cars.  In the past, when traveling as a passenger in cars where the driver was using one, I wasn't impressed.  One colleague in particular had a Sat Nav which seemed determined to misdirect him at every opportunity.  I remember it once telling us that we had reached our destination when we were in the middle of a busy junction.  We'd passed the turning for our destination about a mile previously.  I had pointed this out at the time but the Sat Nav, apparently, was never wrong.  Except when it was - this one had a habit of telling you to make a turn when you had already passed the turning.   Not terribly helpful.  but that was back in the days when the devices still had novelty value and took the form of those boxes you had to attach to the windscreen with a sucker.  Things have moved on.  Nowadays, just about every smartphone incorporates a similar function.  Something I'd pretty much forgotten until this afternoon when I had to go to an area I wasn't familiar with.  I knew that employing my usual modus operandi of memorising directions from a map, then having to stop frequently to check the map as I started to doubt my memory, it would take me an age to get there and involve several unwelcome detours as I misremembered things and went off course.  So, I used the Sat Nav app on the phone.

To my surprise, it actually worked and got me there without irritating me too much.  I kept having those doubts that I was on course, though and was several times tempted to second guess the phone.  But I didn't and everything was OK.  Coming back, I decided to dispense with its services as I was sure that I could retrace the route in reverse.  I couldn't and ended up taking a detour before stumbling on a different route.  I'm still not sold on Sat Navs, though. They have limited use for me as, like many of us, I tend to drive the same old roads, day in, week out, so that I know them like the back of my hand. But, even more than that, I like maps too much.  When I say map, I don't mean the electronic type, but physical maps, printed on paper.  Most of all, I like map books, the ones designed for motoring.  There's just something about them.  They bring a certain romance and mystery to driving - you can never be entirely sure how their two dimensional representation of any given area will translate into actual three dimensional reality.  Indeed, that's part of the fun of navigating with a map book - seeing how everything really looks as you follow a route.  I remember driving through Ireland navigating from a map book, with the intriguing names and symbols on the maps usually revealed to be something even more marvelous than we could have imagined. And all those odd detours as we misread it or took wrong turnings, often turned into the unexpected highlights of the trip, as we stumbled across some fantastic sights and experiences,  So, long live the physical map!


Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Medically Wasted

So, this business of all that NHS medical waste which wasn't being disposed of properly, not only is it another warning about the perils of public bodies outsourcing vital functions to low-bidding private contractors, but surely it is also the sort of thing you just can't make up.  As the story has unfolded, I've been left musing as to just how the company was planning to dispose of all those body parts that they were apparently unable or unwilling to process normally.  I mean, just why would you stockpile it in the first place?  Could it be that this wholesale storage was part of some sort of retail operation, whereby people could order body parts online, which would be dispatched by mail from the company's warehouses?  A kind of Amazon for illicit organ supplies.  After all, I'm sure there's a market out there for this sort of stuff - mad scientists spring to mind.  Unless countless Frankenstein films have lied to me, budding monster makers traditionally had to resort to digging up freshly buried corpses at dead of night in order to secure the components they needed to assemble their creatures.  And when that failed, they had to resort to murder.  In this modern era of CCTV everywhere, graveyards aren't the easy target they once were.  Besides, people tend to be cremated these days, making those fresh body parts even more difficult to come by.  How much more convenient would it be if you could simply go online and select the arm or leg (perhaps even brain) you need and have it sent to your laboratory?  No more miserable rainy nights stood in graves with hunchback assistants prising coffins open.

Then there are all those shady private clinics which provide multiple organ transplants to the fabulously wealthy in order to rejuvenate them so that they can enjoy another hundred years of exploiting the poor.  Imagine how much easier it would be for them to order up organs in bulk, rather than having to trawl the streets looking for suitable down and outs whose organs they can harvest.  Or lure unsuspecting illegal immigrants into their basements with promises of cash in hand work, before gassing them and stealing their innards.  Moreover, the medical waste disposal guys selling the stuff could probably provide provenance for their products, so that the shady clinics would be able to guarantee their clients that it is all top quality stuff sourced from nice middle class white people.  it could also be a good service for necrophiliacs - after all, most of them wouldn't need a complete body: just a hand would probably be sufficient for most of their needs.  Then there are those people with basements full of ravenous human flesh craving zombies.  A situation which occurs more easily than you might imagine: it only needs some voodoo rituals to go a bit awry and you suddenly find yourself with half the denizens of the local graveyard wandering around, for instance.  Rather than having to lure unsuspecting victims to your house to feed them with, you can simply order up all the human offal they can eat.  The same sort of thing would apply to practicing cannibals, of course - an easy and discreet way to feed your dinner guests next time you host a meeting of the local cannibal association.

It did occur to me that maybe they were 'storing' some of this stuff in their own homes, disguised as ornaments and fittings.  How many of the firm's employees houses boasted lamps fashioned from severed arms, or candle holders made from human hands?  Bike racks made from bums (as in the old Billy Connolly joke)?  In fact, there's probably a commercial market for that sort of thing Ed Gein apparently liked to decorate his house with 'ornaments' fashioned from body parts he had robbed from local graves.  Just imagine if he could have ordered all that stuff online (if they'd had the internet in the fifties which, obviously, they didn't) - he wouldn't have drawn so much attention to himself and might have evaded capture.  There's also the Nazi market - you know the sort of shit they like: books bound in human skin, lampshades likewise made from human skin.  Their warped tastes could be catered for without resort to genocide by recycling some of that hoarded medical waste.  Sadly though, I can guarantee that this medical waste scandal didn't involve anything as imaginative as any of my suggestions,  It will probably all turn out to be about money, as it usually is in these outsourcing failures: the contractors take the public money but, in order to maximise profits, don't actually do the job.  Sad and sordid.

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Monday, October 08, 2018

The Regeneration Game

Reviewing schlocky movies is, I find, relatively straightforward, as I usually approach them with no expectations. After all, we're generally talking here about exploitation films made on shoestring budgets, so if they are anything other than entirely terrible, it is a pleasant surprise.  And many of them are much better than they have any right to be bearing in mind their limited resources.  Sure, I will often have read plenty of other people's opinions about these films before I watch them, but I've never let that sway my own opinions of them: there are some films universally decried by others that I've loved.  Of course, even if we don't have preconceptions of a film's quality, our own prejudices, beliefs and perspectives will inevitably influence how we interpret them.  But there are other forms of media I find it much harder to be objective over television and, most specifically, long running shows I've watched, as a fan, for years, sometimes decades are impossible to approach without expectations and preconceptions.  Which brings me, finally, to the latest episode of Doctor Who, which, last night, kicked off both a new series and a new regeneration.

Yo be honest, I'd had no intention of watching it.  With all long-running series I think that all of us, even the most die hard of fans, come to a point where they feel that the show's evolution has finally reached a point where it is no longer the programme we fell in love with all those years ago.  At this point, some rant and rage and denounce it all as a travesty, others simply quietly disengage from it.  Which is what I had intended to do with Doctor Who. My enjoyment of it had been in decline for several years, as it became bogged down with story arcs which never seemed to be properly resolved, often perfunctory plot resolutions, constant revisionism with regard to established continuity and two seasons of poor scripting for Peter Capaldi.  His third and final series was an improvement, but the announcements of Chris Chibnall as the new showrunner (his scripts were OK but had never really impressed me) and Jodie Whittaker as the new Doctor killed off any lingering interest I had .  And no, I'm not some sort of sexist dinosaur, but I'm afraid that I simply don't see a sudden gender change for an established character a natural evolution.  Rather, it seemed to have been forced upon the show as part of the BBC's peculiar idea that gender and racial imbalances of the past can somehow be rectified by the arbitrary imposition of casting 'quotas' on existing productions.  Surely a better solution would be to develop new programming which features strong female characters in the leading roles?  Even more than that though, I just thought that Whittaker was miscast - she just wasn't up to the role.  If you are to have a female Doctor, than there are many, many far more capable actresses I can think of for the role.

So, for all these reasons I'd decided to simply stop watching.  Certainly, none of the promos for the new series had done anything to enthuse me about it.  But, as it happened, I was somewhere yesterday where the TV was tuned to BBC1 while it was on and, out of politeness to my hosts, I ended up watching the last half.  Having seen it, I thought I might as well jump on the bandwagon and give my impressions of the show along with every other geek.  Out of fairness, I thought that I should watch the whole episode, so I caught up with the first half on iPlayer.  Well, the first thing to say was that it wasn't as bad I had feared it would be.  But that really is damning it with faint praise, because it still wasn't that good.  The script was overly simplistic and shamelessly ripped off Predator, but without the budget.  There was no real sense of menace or threat, no real ideas, no subtlety, no sub-text.  it was entirely superficial. Some viewers have complained that, stylistically, it didn't even feel like Doctor Who.  I'm not sure I agree with them, but it was certainly Who-lite, neatly lobotomised for what its current makers clearly think is a mass audience.  It actually reminded me somewhat of the sort of stuff we were served up in the Sylvester McCoy era.  Which is no good thing - too many weak stories, too much dumbing down in the search for a wider audience.  It is perhaps no coincidence that many of the cheer leaders for this current incarnation of the show are self-professed fans of the McCoy years. 

To be fair, I rather liked the 'look' of last night's episode.  It reminded me of the style used by low budget British exploitation directors like Norman J Warren (whose highly enjoyable Prey, a rather more effective low budget science fiction thriller, I watched the other day) in the seventies.  That said, I rather think that the BBC should be setting its sights a bit higher than that in terms of production values.  There were other things I liked: the new version of the theme music was agreeably retro and the new companions seem quite promising, particularly Bradley Walsh, who is actually a pretty decent dramatic actor.  Which brings us, inevitably, to the matter of the new Doctor.  I'm afraid that Whittaker did nothing to contradict my feelings about her.  I found her performance flat and uninvolving.  There was no nuance to it, no depth, no resonance, no authority, no real presence.  It appeared as if she had no grasp of the character beyond being 'a bit whacky'.  She certainly didn't convey any of the alien-ness of the Doctor.  Now, I know that there are many who will say that you can't judge a Doctor's performance by their first appearances while they are still settling in to the role.  But the fact is that opening episodes for new Doctors are usually filmed part way through the series shooting schedule, so as to ensure a a more assured performance, (certainly, that's how it has worked since Doctor Who was revived in 2005).  So, if that is how she plays the part after having several months filming already in order to establish herself, I'm really not impressed.  There was, for me, a vacuum at the heart of the episode, where there instead should have been a charismatic performance.

The question is, of course, whether I'll be watching it again.  Actually, before we get to that, there is another question: to what extent were my reactions to this episode coloured by my preconceptions and prejudices?  Was I going in determined not to like it, or Whittaker's Doctor no matter what?  A fair question.  I would like to think that I tried to put these aside and judge it as I would any other episode, regardless of the writer or star.  As for watching again - I will probably try at least one more episode, later in the run to if it has improved.  I dearly hope it will.  Even if I'm no longer a regular viewer, I'd hate to see the show cancelled or put on a lengthy hiatus again.


Friday, October 05, 2018

'My Lucky Break'

That's right, I've been reading those old issues of Meccano Magazine again.  As ever, the advertisements fascinate me as much as the articles.  As I've noted before, many of them are for stuff which it would no longer be deemed appropriate to promote in a publication primarily aimed at teenagers.  This army recruitment ad would certainly fall into that category.  Nowadays there are complaints about the army trying to recruit 'underage' soldiers when they are sixteen through its apprentice schemers and here, back in 1963, they are busy recruiting apprentices as young as fifteen.  But back in 1963 the minimum school leaving age was fifteen - what we'd now consider still to be children were going off into paid employment.  Predominantly unskilled employment at that as, if you left school at fifteen, then the odds were that you would do so without qualifications.

So, to be fair, the army apprenticeship scheme was at least offering predominantly working class kids an alternative route into skilled professions.  As the ad proudly says - their apprenticeships led to trades which, in civilian life, were union recognised.  Which was important back in an era when trade unions were much stronger and could effectively guard against the 'dilution' of skilled work through the introduction of less qualified workers by insisting on minimum skill levels for posts. Interestingly, while there is a brief glimpse of a rifle, the emphasis of the ad is firmly focused upon the idea of learning new skills and gaining qualifications.  No mention is made of the fact that you might, eventually, find yourself in a war zone with complete strangers trying to kill you.  But, as I noted earlier, this sort of ad just wouldn't be allowed these days, not least because of the comic strip format, clearly designed to appeal to impressionable adolescents. Lets not forget that British comics of the time were full of similar looking strips glorifying the exploits of heroic British 'Tommies' in World War Two for the edification of their teenage readers.  As we've noted before, the past really is another country...

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Thursday, October 04, 2018

Secrets of Sex (1969)

Time for another quick 'Random Movie Trailer' - and I do mean quick, I'm not going to say a great deal about this because I've not actually seen the full movie.  It's one I've been meaning to obtain for a viewing since it came out on DVD a few years ago.  Perhaps I'll add it to this year's Christmas viewing list.  Anyway, to return to the movie itself, Secrets of Sex is an anthology film, consisting of several vignettes illustrating the eternal battle of the sexes.  Oh, and it is all narrated by a mummy.  The episodes themselves encompass a number of genres, including horror, sex comedy and spy parodies, but all tend toward bizarre, black humour.

Secrets of Sex is one of a handful of features directed by artist, film maker and distributor Anthony Balch.  Perhaps the best known, (in no small part due to several screenings on the BBC in the nineties and noughties), is his highly eccentric, but hugely entertaining, take on horror films: 1973's Horror Hospital.   Secrets of Sex, despite having several minutes cut from it by the censor, was a big hit when originally released in the UK in 1970.  It was initially released uncut in the US as Bizarre, and later, in a cut version, as Tales of the Bizarre.  Balch, a sometime collaborator of William S Burroughs, was a unique voice in British sexploitation cinema, his work well worth seeking out.  Sadly, he died far too young in 1980, at the age of forty two.  If you want to know a bit more about Secrets of Sex, Gavcrimson (who often comments here) gives it a good write up at the IMDB.  In the meantime, enjoy the trailer.


Tuesday, October 02, 2018

Imaginary Bookshop

Stop me if I've already told you this, but amongst the dreams I've had of late, (they are very vivid and apparently linked to some of the medication I take for my blood pressure), the one which has stood out is the one where my best friend is running a bookshop.  Not just any bookshop - the dream was so realistic and memorable that I can even identify the bookshop as a second hand bookseller I've often frequented, (as has my friend).  Anyway, she's running this shop and I'm there with some stock I've acquired for her: a boxful of old paperbacks.  Except that there's something about them that my friend doesn't like - she's giving me that look of slightly exasperated disappointment I know so well.  Quite what the problem was, I don't know.  Perhaps it was because they weren't DIY books - the only other dreams my friend tends to appear in are ones where I'm doing DIY, suffer some appalling mishap, at which point she turns up to laugh.  (I can't help but feel that these dreams are making some profound comment on the nature of our friendship).  I did ask my friend if she'd been buying bookshops without telling me, but she point blank denied it.  Which is a pity, as she could have offered me a job in her imaginary bookshop.

The dream got me thinking, though - is buying a bookshop simply the stuff of dreams?  I actually did a bit of research and discovered that it isn't such a crazy idea.  I found that there were several book selling businesses currently on the market, many at very affordable prices.  OK, there's the question of whether, having bought it, you could actually make a living from it is another question, (presumably the reason that some of them are for sale in the first place is because their current owners can't).  Certainly, the annual turnover figures given for some indicate that profit margins are tight.  But hey, it's another option to think about in terms of my proposed 'reinvention' of myself.  It sits at the extreme end of the possibilities for this - I imagine it could be pretty stressful, which, obviously, is what I'm trying to avoid these days.  But you never know.  So far I haven't seen any bookshops for sale which would be geographically convenient for me, but who knows?  And if it was my bookshop, then I wouldn't have to worry about my friend being disapproving of the stock I buy for it...

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Monday, October 01, 2018

Staying Stoic in the Face of Brexit

"I believe in Brexit!" says Theresa May.  Which is a bit like that time Danny Dyer told us that he believed in UFOs.  Or Arthur Conan Doyle telling us that he believed in fairies on the basis of the Cottingley Fairy photographs - which turned out to be fakes.  I say 'turned out to be', it seemed pretty obvious to me that they were fakes from the first time I saw them reproduced in a book - I could never understand why anybody would ever have been fooled by them.  That's the trouble with the likes of UFOs, fairies, the Yeti and even the Loch Ness Monster - the supposed evidence for them inevitably turns out to be fake.  Just like Brexit.  Which is why the Prime Minister's proclamation has more than a whiff of desperation about it - it sounds like pleading that we all believe in Brexit despite all the evidence for its supposed benefits turning out to be bollocks.  It reduces politics to the level of a pantomime: if only we can all believe in fairies, then Tinkerbell, sorry, Brexit, can be saved.  But hey, that's been the level of the Tory Party conference so far this year.  Apart from May and her pantomime exhortations to the audience to 'believe in Brexit', (perhaps they will reciprocate by shouting 'He's behind you', when Boris Johnson appears on the podium), we've had the Foreign Secretary dredging up the hoariest of old Cold War cliches in the face of the Salisbury novichok business and warning of 'reds under the beds', despite the fact that the Russians are actually right wing capitalists now and in no way friends of Corbyn's Labour, except in Hunt's fevered imagination.  On top of that, we've had the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, seemingly trying to publicly convince himself of the supposed economic benefits of Brexit via a public keynote speech: it was a bit like watching a man have a breakdown - gibbering to himself in public.

The scariest thing is that we are watching the UK's governing party here - they give the impression that, despite being in charge, they actually have no control over events and know it.  In the face of such helplessness on the part of our leaders, is it any wonder that stoicism is gaining in popularity, (or so I read in the papers).  I mean, what other rational response can there be to a world full of Brexit, Donald Trump as US President, (and why aren't all those crazy evangelical Christians who helped put him in the White House now denouncing him as a 'homo' after he admitted being 'in love' with North Korea's Kim Jong Il?), and Putin in the Kremlin, other than to accept that you have no control over external developments so getting angry over them is pointless?  It's like the Stoics say, the only thing you can control is your response to these things - so it is best just to stay calm, (in my case, being on a beta blocker for my blood pressure helps immeasurably).  Let's face it, the only other alternative would be an eruption of incoherent and undirected anger toward the world in general.  I must admit that being stoic has served me well of late in the face of various developments in my personal life.  Where once I would have ranted, raged and made threats, now I just remain serene and accepting of the fact that my ability to influence these events is severely limited, (once again, the aforementioned beta blocker works wonders here, too).   Sometimes you just have to go with the flow - ride the waves and see where they take you.  It certainly keeps my blood pressure down, which, these days, is essential if I'm to avoid a repetition of my health problems from earlier this year.  So, there you have it, some Monday meanderings, from Brexit to stoicism.  Just stay stoic and carry on - it's what the government seem to be doing as they've clearly given up on any notion of actually influencing events.

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