Tuesday, 30 March 2010


Right now, the world can be divided into those who know about Kick-Ass and those who do not. If you are one of the geek cognoscenti, you will already know the tale - not just of the comic book but its unusual development. But for everyone else, who doesn’t have a line into the world of comics, prepare to meet the hottest new heroes, who true to the name of their book, will kick your ass.

However, if you are one of those benighted souls who are unaware there’s recently been a civil war in America or completely oblivious of the various continuity warping crises - i.e. most ordinary movie goers – then step this way true believer!

Mark Millar is one of the biggest names in the world of comics, and is part of that pantheon of British writers, which includes Neil Gaiman, Warren Ellis, Garth Ennis and Grant Morrison, who have followed in the footsteps of the hallowed Alan Moore in producing truly ground breaking comics, reinventing old favourites and unleashing new creations in equal measure. A common feature of the work of these gentlemen is putting a new spin on the classic superhero tropes, bringing in a greater sense of reality to the usual four colour adventures and investing their costumed denizens with a deeper humanity.

Way back in the 1980s, in the pages of the seminal Warrior magazine. The young Moore made a big splash with the strip Miracleman– then called Marvelman until legal issues forced a name change – which took an old comics character, the British incarnation of Captain Marvel, and took the then radical approach of asking what would happen if he existed in a realer world than the ones normally depicted in comics. Moore explored such questions as how does one cope with super powers, maintaining a secret identity and how will the government and media react to the emergence of a superhero.

This new direction has proved to be very fertile ground, widening the scope of superhero stories considerably. It has opened up doors to psychodrama, social comment, political satire and post modern deconstructions and given us genre bending new titles like Watchmen, Preacher and The Authority and completely redefined failing characters like Swamp Thing, Animal Man and the Sandman.

And Kick-Ass is the latest descendent from Moore’s Miracleman and takes the next logical step. We have had heroes aplenty wrestling with deep and dark personality problems in stories reflecting contemporary social issues but Kick-Ass is a comic that is set in our world, and explores what would happen if you decided to don a costume and fight crime, powered up with just a love of comic books rather than the usual radioactive mutation or alien super-technology.

It's a fantastically clever concept and Millar’s tale has struck a real chord with comic lovers everywhere, with the first issue of Kick-Ass selling out almost instantly. Yes, there was a viral campaign to promote the book, but it must be noted that it is very rare for any comic to fly off the shelves so fast – usually it’s only when of the big names like Superman or Batman that reap such sales, and even then only when Marvel or DC have cooked up a really big story line killing off one of the leads, such as the Death of Superman story arc or the Joker murdering Robin (A Death in the Family).

For the first issue of a book featuring an all new character and not emblazoned the logo of a big name publisher to sell so fast is truly remarkable. But reading the book – the first eight issues are now collected in graphic novel - you can understand why. Kick-Ass is intelligent, violent and funny all at the same time; Millar’s writing is his sharpest date and envisioned beautifully by John Romita Jnr’s art. But the real key to its success is the story’s concept – after all, anyone who has ever enjoyed a superhero adventure or two has fantasised about donning a costume and fighting crime. Indeed the genesis of Kick-Ass is autobiographical: in an interview with Techland Millar reveals that in his youth he and a friend did plan on doing exactly what Dave Lizewski does – work out, design a costume and bring super heroics into the real world.

However Kick-Ass is also notable for more than taking the comics world by storm. A chance meeting brought Millar together with director Matthew Vaughan and the pair hit it off immediately. Vaughan, then just having wrapped up Stardust asked Millar if he had any properties he could direct and received then still unpublished scripts for the first two issues of Kick-Ass. And being a comics fan, Vaughan instantly began developing a movie with Millar and Romita.

Now what’s interesting here, is that the comic series and the film script were being written at the same time, with filming going ahead while the comics were still being created. Kick-ass The Movie is not so much an adaption of a comic series but a parallel version of the same story. All of which means we can dispense with all the usual nitpicking over differences in the texts, as the creators of the comic themselves plotted out how the story would mutate in it’s journey to the alternative earth of the movies. And with Millar and Romita shaping the screenplay with Vaughan, we can also totally ignore the frothing of rabid fanboys over how Hollywood has ‘ruined’ the comic.

And while there are some differences between the movie and the comic, including several major changes in the plotting, in the main the story retains the same essential shape. Without shining the Spoiler Signal into the night sky, the upshot of the differences between the two versions of Kick-Ass comes down to this - the comic version is a darker, spikier telling of the story, whereas the movie has a bigger heart and goes for bigger rather than bloodier action scenes.

Plus as they were developed in tandem, the question of which Kick-Ass you should experience first is a moot point - what we have hear is two cuts of the same story with their strengths weighed to their respective media.

Now I loved the comic, and I had high hopes for the movie. Matthew Vaughan had previously impressed me with his debut Layer Cake which managed to outshine his mentor Guy Ritchie in the British gangster stakes. And then rather than fall into the more of the same tar pit as the ex Mr Madonna, he did something completely different - a wonderful adaption of Neil Gaiman’s graphic and proper novel Stardust. And the screenwriter who had done such a brilliant job in adapting Gaiman for the screen, Jane Goldman was onboard to create the final script for Kick-Ass too.

So this was a movie with a great pedigree coming out of the gate – a hit hip comic adaption with the creators involved in the production, a director who has proved himself to be possessing great flair and very versatile, and a writer who understands how to translate comics to the screen successfully. But surprisingly, when they took the script around the studios they all passed on it and in the end, Vaughan raised the millions needed to make the picture himself. And having seen the movie, all I can say is that The Golden Jackass Club founded by Dick Rowe – the man who refused to sign the Beatles as guitar groups were “on the way out” - will see a record intake in its membership this spring. And when the box office figures land, there’ll be blood on the carpet quicker than you can say *snikt* and so many heads rolling you’ll think Madame Guillotine has gone in partnership with the Red Queen.

Because Kick-Ass does exactly what it says on the tin and audiences are going to lap this movie up like Garfield in a lasagne factory, which makes passing on this property a quadruple F situation – you fucking fuckers fucking well fucked up. Now Hollywood execs are famously hard of thinking, but not picking up Kick-Ass does take the biscuit as the comic sales alone should have tipped them off to the potential of the this movie. As we saw earlier, its success hinges on the fact that it’s a story the whole of the comic book reading world could relate to, but the power of Kick-Ass is that it’s a story anyone can relate to. Whether you’re male of female, we all grew up on stories of kids fighting crime – it might have been Scooby Doo, Nancy Drew, the Famous Five or any one of the countless variations on this theme - and doubtless at some point in your youth you took the streets looking to a villain to foil or a mystery to solve.

So if you take a superhero tale – a hot ticket in the world of cinema right now – that taps directed into this universal theme that is so prevalent in all forms of children’s fiction, and that has a script that balances its violence with humour, its emotional story with action scenes and slots the whole shebang into a framework that is essential a riff on that other great universal trope, the coming of age story, you’ve got gold.

The meshing of two creative teams, Millar/Romita and Vaughan/Goldman, in Kick-Ass is pure cinematic alchemy that delivers everything you want from a blockbuster – there’s action, adventure, romance and humour wrapped up in an intelligent and stylish package. Of course as good as the script and direction is in many ways a film is as only as strong as its cast, particular in a film with juvenile leads. And thankfully Kick-Ass has a terrific cast – Mark Strong is great fun as head hood Frank D'Amico and even Nicholas Cage puts in a superb performance that is a real return to form.

But the laurels must surely go to Aaron Johnson and Chloe Moretz who play Kick-Ass and Hit Girl. Johnson captures perfectly that screen rarity an ordinary teen – his Dave Lizewski
is pitched exactly right, inhabiting that hinterland between cool kid and nerd that most us fell into. This guy can act the entire cast of Twilight into a cocked hat even when all you can see of him are his eyes and lips. And Chloe Moretz is simply awesome – again without breaking the Sinister Spoiler Spectre from Arkham Asylum, the character of Hit Girl is where this film could have been completely scuppered; it’s a role that requires a very deft touch to pull off, calling for not only some very subtle dramatics but impeccable comic timing too. And Moretz knocks it out of the park.

In short Kick –Ass is more than just a great comic book flick; it’s simply a great movie full stop. It’s tremendous fun from start to finish, throwing shocks, thrills and laugh relentlessly at the audience. It’s a film with guts, brains and heart; a rare combination of elements you only usually see on screen on the floor in a Saw sequel. If you’ve read the comics then you’ll love seeing Millar and Romita brought to life, and there are some fantastic surprises when some of the changes kick in. And if you’ve not read the books, then you’ve got a terrific ride ahead of you! Really the only review you need is the film’s title itself…

Sunday, 14 March 2010


Psychiatrist's notes: Spoiler free and not a danger to the public

The Hollywood big guns has always had a somewhat ambivalent attitude to genre cinema, and to horror in particular - in general, it is seen as something for low budgets and small studios to produce. And for a fan of the macabre this relationship is equally ambiguous; on one hand, you wish there were bigger budgets available and that some of the better film makers currently working would attempt something in the genre, but when they do, you often wish they hadn’t bothered.

A prime example would be Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula; when this was announced we all got excited imagining it was going to be the classic tale of the undead lord told with the artistry and intensity of The Godfather - A Countalypse Now perhaps. But what did we really get? A load of old tat, that’s what. Entertainingly batty old tat, I’ll grant you, but a popcorn flick any journeyman director could have helmed. Coppola clearly didn’t approach the subject matter as one of his ‘proper’ films and I suspect why the movie went out under its mendacious title.

So then when I heard Martin Scorsese was to be helming a psychological gothic horror, I was a little concerned whether we were going see one of the great contemporary American directors deliver a slice of tosh that rather than dousing audiences in terror would splatter his own face with egg. But at the same time, I was very hopeful for the project as Scorsese is a very reliable director who understands the importance of story and has not been content to rest on his laurels and stuff himself up his own overly lauded arse like certain other highly feted auteurs I could mention coughs *Coppola*.

But more importantly, I knew that Scorsese was a huge admirer of Val Lewton. Now for those of you who don’t know, Lewton was a producer of a string of quickie horror features that are now regarded as classics. Although his studio bosses at RKO, would have been more than content with typical B movie fodder full of cardboard castles and knock-off monsters, Lewton had other ideas. He may have been limited by the budgets he was given, but Lewton strongly felt that a lack of time and resources didn’t mean he had to skimp on quality and intelligence as well.

And although Hitchcock has been widely bandied about as an inspiration, and indeed there are many superficial similarities with Hitch’s suspense pictures, the prevailing flavour of Shutter Island is very Lewtonian. While Hitchcock’s work frequently embraced psychological themes, it was often with a criminological emphasis, providing his movies with a gritty true crime edge. However in a Lewton picture, it is the internal conflicts in traumatised psyches that generate atmospheric onscreen terrors; his work is often described as ‘gothic noir’ – a term that fits Shutter Island like a glove.

Based on a novel by respected crime author Dennis Lehane, Shutter Island is a period piece, set in the 1950s, concerning US Marshall Teddy Daniels who is sent to investigate the escape of a prisoner from Ashecliffe Hospital, a high security facility for the criminally insane. It is an age old mystery set up - the missing prisoner, a highly deranged multiple murderess, has vanished from a seemingly locked room. But in a similarly classic plot development, we discover that Teddy has equally enigmatic reasons for accepting this case on the titular isle.

Now although I am keeping this review spoiler free, I will say that if you are a fan of mysteries, familiar with horror, or are even just a tad movie literate, you will probably figure out where the mystery is leading by the halfway mark. In fact, from a quick sampling of other reviews, there is one scene in particular where the penny drops for most people. But Shutter Island is so densely layered, although you may guess the general shape of the ending, I’ll bet there will a great many of the specifics you won’t deduce before the denouement.

And I would stress that this is not a film that lives or dies on the strength of a twist ending – you know, the kind of film whose plotting is purely a game of bluff and counter bluff until it reveals its hand in the last five minutes and it turns out that *gasp!* it was all in the future on a spaceship or some such nonsense. It’s Scorsese we are talking about here after all, not M Night Bloody Shyamalan!

For all the mysteries and riddles Shutter Island presents you with, Scorsese is also giving you an absorbing narrative with real characterisations, some honest-to-god real intellectual themes throughout and most importantly genuine emotional weight. And because of this, unlike many flicks with twist, Shutter Island will repay repeated visits.

Shutter Island is quite simply beautifully crafted on every level. Aside from its masterful plotting, the performances are second to none. Old hands Max von Sydow and Ben Kingsley actually put in some proper performances, rather the retirement fund coasting old thesps are prone to when appearing in a movie that has a whiff of genre about it, while Mark Ruffalo and Michelle Williams showcase their acting chops in roles that require some very carefully measured performances. And there is excellent support throughout from a cast that includes the likes of Emily Mortimer, Ted Levine, Jackie Earl Hayley and Elias Koteas.

However despite the very tough competition, Leonardo DiCaprio owns this flick. His recent other collaborations with Scorsese have seen him stretching his wings as an actor, to soar above those Peter Pan pin-up good looks, and in Shutter Island he really inhabits the role of Teddy Daniels, delivering an astonishing performance that is quite possibly his best to date.

And Scorsese himself is on top form. He ensuring there is real dramatic meat on the bones of the plot; which might sound like business as usual but in the case of Shutter Island this is no mean feat. This is a script which many directors would flounder with, and make the mistake of focusing on building a twist in the tail ending. He masterfully orchestrates the complexities of the storyline and reinforces the plot developments with excellent performances from his gifted cast.

The original novel was written in part as a tribute to both the gothics and the pulps, and the movie honours this completely. Scorsese weaves a powerful and evocative atmosphere, one that is as drenched in hardboiled sweat as it is uncanny mists and midnight tempests. And they blend beautifully on the titular island, with Scorsese building up a believable yet eerie unique location for the story.

Best of all though, he isn’t content to just raid the cliché box and wheel out the standard spooky movie tropes – a recurring problem when Hollywood ventures into genre territory with a big budget or big talent. Though they are entertaining flicks, both Bram Coppola’s Dracula and the recent Wolf Man remake were very lazy directorially, pulling out stereotypical horror movie set ups and shots pioneered by Universal and Hammer. And while you expect this from a journeyman like Joe Johnston, it’s very galling when a supposed auteur like Coppola is displaying such visionary bankruptcy.

So it was a real delight to see Scorsese pulling out all the stops, crafting a film brimming with astounding and inventive cinematography, and creating not only vivid and startling imagery but also taking a refreshingly novel approach to visual story telling. Like Lewton’s pictures, Scorsese grasps the potential in playing with the audience’s expectations of how they expect a film to be shot; subverting the clichés and inventing new approaches on the fly to catch them off guard.

It’s often said that the mark of a good score is that you don’t notice the music in the film, and I often think the same is true of good direction. However I’d contend that the exception to this rule is that truly exceptional direction should leap out and blow you away. And in Shutter Island Scorsese’s direction does just this. The execution flashback and Daniels exploring with matches, to highlight just a couple of examples, are scenes so creatively executed you want to fall to your knees and give tearful thanks to the gods of the silver screen.

Shutter Island’s real strength is that it works on so many different levels. And although there are some critics who have already sniffily dismissed it as a high gloss B-picture, they should really be brained with their own keyboards because Shutter Island is not just first class narratively but a tremendous artistic achievement too. Scorsese at the top of his game, with Marty showing an old dog can not only learn new tricks but actually invent them.

When once asked why the horror film was so lowly regarded by the movie industry, Val Lewton said it was because “it has dealt so childishly with such childishly unreal material. Too many camera tricks were used to show men turning into beasts and so on, and too little trouble to make the horror psychological” with the final result being “mostly tawdry, unreal, and cheap uninteresting movie entertainment”. And these words ring as true today as back then, as the most recent big budget resurrections of both the Count, Frankenstein and Larry Talbot bear witness.

But Scorsese succeeds where the likes of Coppola, Johnston and Branagh failed because he understands that the key to really getting under the audience’s skin is to deliver a cinematic experience that speaks to us on an emotional level. You may entertain your viewers by rounding up the expected elements of blood, thunder storms, heaving cleavage and shouting boo now and then, but if you want ensure your imagery and story will linger long after the popcorn is finished, you have to tap into the fragilities and insecurities of their psyches. You need to provoke thought as well as thrills, and deliver the humanity along with the horror.

And I’m sure Lewton would have applauded a film like Shutter Island that treats both its audience and its material with intelligence. And we should all be applauding Scorsese too for bringing us a perfectly rounded film balances riveting entertainment with artistic and creative depth.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

THE UNIVERSAL WEREWOLF Part I - The Werewolf of London

Even a critic who is pure in heart,
And watches films at night,
May let some spoilers slip,
While penning spurious shite!

The movies hold an enormous power to influence the popular imagination. For example, one of the classic tenets of vampirism, that sunlight destroys the undead monsters, come not from centuries old folklore but 1922 when FW Murnau had the very cinematic mechanism of the rays of dawn vanquish Graf Orlock in Nosferatu. Similarly Browning’s Dracula created an image of the Count that has brushed away the moustachioed and varyingly aged vampire Stoker created. And James Whale had an even bigger influence when he made the 1931 Frankenstein; such a successful reimagining of the classic novel that it is has supplanted Mary Shelley’s vision in the public imagination as the ‘proper’ version.

And the humble werewolf, although he has haunted our stories since the dawn of time, has not been immune to the influence of Hollywood. Indeed as we shall see, Universal’s films of the ‘30s and 40s have had a profound effect on the legend and lore of the werewolf …

The earliest screen lycanthrope I can find is a 1913 feature called The Werewolf. This silent short featured a Navajo witch who gained the power to transform into a wolf, and subsequently her daughter, whom she passes the power onto, uses it to take revenge on the invading white settlers. The film is now lost sadly but it’s worth noting that it was a very early foray into the macabre from Universal Studios, a field they would later make their own.

Next came another silent feature Wolf Blood in 1925, which though not technically a horror film, does feature some werewolf action in the last quarter. In this feature, a logger receives a blood transfusion from a wolf and shortly afterwards his fellow loggers begin dying. Here the lycanthropy is a hallucinatory phenomena rather than a physical transformation but it’s worth mentioning as it’s the first of many films that will bring psychological theme into a werewolf narrative.

It was not until 1935, when Universal unleashed The Werewolf of London that we get a proper full length werewolf feature. Often wrongly credited as the first werewolf film, but it is the earliest surviving horror picture dealing with lycanthropy. Like 1932’s The Mummy, this first werewolf talkie was an attempt to create an original screen monster, one not drawn from the pages of literature. But for a variety of reasons, this film somehow failed to capture the public’s imagination and didn’t recreate the successes of Dracula and Frankenstein for Universal. And also like the Mummy, the werewolf would have to wait until the ‘40s for silver nitrate and celluloid to do their alchemical magic and conjure forth creatures to haunt the 20th century imagination.

But The Werewolf of London does lay the foundations for the cinematic reinvention of werewolvery. To begin, this Henry Hull vehicle also brings us the hugely important idea that lycanthropy is an infectious condition, for this is a marked break with the original folklore.

Anyone studying the traditions, legends and lore of the werewolf will be somewhat surprised to discover that it is actually extremely rare to find lycanthropy being passed on through receiving a wound from a werewolf. Generally speaking, historical werebeasts are created most often by two means. Firstly the condition was a curse – sometimes from a witch or sorcerer as revenge, sometimes by the gods as a punishment, and occasionally as a trait passed down through families - and this method tends to be prevalent in the earlier tales of shape shifters. Secondly, and certainly the more frequent in later times, one became a werewolf deliberately through the use of magic. There’s a host of different methods documented - strange ritual acts like drinking water from a wolf’s paw print or consuming wolf brains, and a host of disgusting recipes for potions and elixirs – but a perennial element of the magical process is the wearing of clothes or a belt made from the skin of a wolf.

And this choosing to become a monster for one’s own purposes, usually for evil (but interestingly not exclusively), was particularly common in Europe. Most people are aware of the infamous witch trials that pepper Western history, but what is less well known is that there were similar outbreaks of public hysteria surrounding werewolves with waves of cases being brought to the courts, particularly in France and Germany in the Middle Ages. The trial of Jean Grenier is fairly typical – click here for a splendidly lurid retelling of the tale.

(Though it should be noted, Grenier was far more fortunate than many accused of shape shifting. A common belief, dating back at least as far as the Roman era, was that werewolves possessed a double skin – human on the outside and lupine within – and that they literally turned their hides inside out to change. Hence the Latin term for the creatures is versipellis, which translates as ‘turn skin’, and a standard test for werewolvery was to be flayed to see if the accused was furry on the inside. Grenier was lucky on two counts; firstly not to be subjected to this often fatal procedure, and secondly to have a judge who considered that there was more madness than black magic at the heart of his crimes.)

This kind of magically created werewolf dominated the stories and legends for centuries, and in the main was seen as an agent of evil. When gothic fiction arrived, some like Captain Frederick Marryat in The White Wolf of the Hartz Mountains (1839) continued the satanic tradition with werewolves that were clearly allied with the powers of darkness, but other works such as Wagner the Werewolf (1847) revived lycanthropy as a curse and introduced the now familiar trope of the decent man doomed to change into an evil beast. Gothic fiction was often as concerned with questions of theology and morality as it was crumbling castles and clanking chains, and hence the concept of the werewolf offered an arena to explore the dividing lines between man and animal and good and evil.

And perhaps the most enduring expedition into this territory, is Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), which while not technically a werewolf tale, certainly borrows heavily from both mythological and gothic lycanthropy. The smoking potion clearly is the scientific descendant of the medieval elixirs, and created from similar drives alter individual morality in a physical fashion. Yet the results of Jekyll’s experiments are clearly the same tortured moral dilemmas of a gothic hero. And there is more than touch of Stevenson’s good doctor in the character of Dr Glendon in The Werewolf of London.

However it is in The Werewolf of London that establishes the idea that lycanthropy is transmissible like vampirism. And as far as I can tell, this is possibly the first instance of becoming a werewolf by infection in fiction. Marryat’s lupine femme fatale is diabolic creation, Wagner’s condition is the catch in a deal with Dr Faustus and Bertrand in Guy Endore’s The Werewolf of Paris has lycanthropy as a hereditary curse.

Now down the centuries in European folklore, vampires and werewolves have been closely aligned in the legends of many different regions. Some traditions hold that a slain werewolf rises again as a vampire, some that the reverse is true, and yet others have the werewolf as a supernatural guardian that protects people and crops from vampires and witches*. To further confuse the issue, in Southern Europe, particularly in the Balkans, the same terms have been used to describe both creatures – vrykolaka and vurdulak.

However in the case of this Universal film, it’s a good bet that the writers were actually cribbing the plot dynamics from Dracula; something also seen, but more overtly, in The Mummy which appears to be using the 1931 Browning adaption of Dracula as a plot template. However Stoker, having studied Southern and Eastern European folklore, noted the blurring of the lines between the vampire and the werewolf and hence his immortal Count has more than a touch of the lycanthrope about him. Aside from the obvious shape shifting into what witnesses describe as a large black hound, Dracula is not dissimilar to the willing werewolves of the Middle Ages. What many people don’t realise is that the Count has an origin story of sorts, outlined by Van Helsing in Chapter 18. His vampirism is linked to the practice of the dark arts learned at the legendary Scholomanse, a secret school presided over by the Devil himself.

So this borrowing back of elements from Dracula is fair trade. And this new idea of lycanthropy as an occult kind of transmissible disease was to be hugely influential. However this is not the only addition the mythos presented in The Werewolf of London.

Although the medieval writer Gervase of Tilbury associates the full moon with werewolf transformations and a handful of rituals to become lycanthropic that either specify performing the rites under the full moon or utilise its rays, mainly this phase of our planet’s satellite does not figure much in lycanthropy through the ages. After all, curses could be a permanent change of shape or be tied to a variety of different significant times, while the career werewolf could change whenever they chanted the spell, quaffed the potion or donned the wolf skins. However The Werewolf of London has the full moon as a key part of the transformation process, and so far my researches into werewolf fiction have yet to uncover a literary precedent, so it is possible that this is the first instance of the full moon lore (if you know any different leave a comment or drop me a line).

So, although it is often glossed over in horror movie history, this movie deserves a good deal more attention than the usual write-off as a botched dry run for The Wolf Man. Admittedly, Universal’s second treatment of the creature is a much superior film, but it draws a great deal more from its predecessor than merely learning from its mistakes.

While searching in the wilds of Tibet for the exceedingly rare plant, the Mariphasa Lumina Lupina, noted botanist Dr Glendon (Henry Hull) is attacked and wounded by a strange man beast. On returning to London with the plant, he encounters the mysterious Dr Yogami (Warner Oland) who reveals that the flowers of the Mariphasa may be a cure for lycanthropy and hints heavily that it was he who attacked Glendon and now he bears the same condition as a result. Naturally as a man of science, Glendon does not believe in werewolves until while using a special lamp that simulates moonlight on the night blooming Mariphasa his hand begins to change…

…And you can probably guess the rest – Glendon struggles to contain his feral alter ego and fails to find a cure before he is killed menacing his loved ones - the typical werewolf movie plot in other words. But it must be remembered that for the time, this was anything but standard werewolf fare, indeed it’s from this film we derive a lot of the familiar elements of modern werewolf stories. However, there is also a good deal in The Werewolf of London which is quite novel in the lycanthrope canon.

To begin with placing the genesis of the lycanthropy in Tibet is an interesting alternative to the usual Old World werewolf stylings, giving the movie the exotic oriental flavour that was popular in works as diverse as the Fu Manchu saga and the National Geographic reports of Dr Joseph Rock. Rock was an explorer and botanist, and his accounts of his travels in Tibet are said to have inspired the best selling 1993 novel Lost Horizon which established Tibet as a mystical milieu in fiction and the parallels between Glendon and Rock are obvious.

However The Werewolf of London does not draw upon the magical potential of its Far East opening locale, as it is science rather than folklore that will dominate the movie. The MacGuffin of the movie, the Mariphasa plant, is presented as a possible source for a biological treatment for werewolvery rather than an occult cure. And there is more than a touch of science fiction in the film: Dr Glendon has a hot house filled with bizarre carnivorous plants, his own hi tech secure laboratory with a futuristic looking lamp that produces artificial moonlight and a proto CCTV array so he can see anyone approaching the locked door.

However, all the scientific stylings do not preclude the supernatural and the film wisely doesn’t offer us some cod scientific explanation of lycanthropy. What we do get however is the birth of the familiar full moon mythos. But in The Werewolf of London, the full moon is somewhat more significant than usual, as according to an ancient tome of werewolvery Glendon consults, a werewolf must kill on the nights when the moon is full in order to stave off becoming a beast permanently.

Although The Wolf Man would later elaborate on the full moon’s role and fix it forever in the minds of the public, so far no subsequent werewolf stories have picked up on the intriguing concept. The idea that the lycanthrope must kill in order to retain its dual form is a great plot twist, and it’s a shame no one has thought to resurrect it.

However, the Werewolf of London doesn’t exactly capitalise on the concept either. On the third night of the full moon Glendon is thwarted in his attempt to kill, yet the script seems to have forgotten the rule it introduced earlier and the next morning the good doctor has transformed back into an English gent again. Instead the film seems to switch focus onto another piece of lore - this time delivered to Glendon by Dr Yogami - that the werewolf will always seek out and kill that which they love most. But considering what a staple of the lycanthrope stories this plot has become, I’m inclined to forgive the movie for ignoring the old tome’s lore.

Certainly concentrating on Yogami’s warning meshes better with the overall plot. The key relationship in The Werewolf of London is between Glendon and his wife Lisa, whose marriage is showing the strain Glendon being tied to his work and researches. At the same time he is infected with lycanthropy, Lisa has encountered her childhood beau, Paul, who soon notices her dissatisfaction with her forever working husband. Naturally an intelligent fellow like Doc Glendon also spots her unhappiness and the temptation posed by Paul but as the moon grows full, he has no choice but to sequester himself further. And aside from imbuing the werewolf myth with a psycho-sexual subtext, it also introduces another classic lycanthrope plot device - in order to prevent himself killing, Glendon attempts to cage himself prior to moon rise.

So then, here we have a movie that is brimming with imagination, coupled with a fascinating plot and is breaking new ground left, right and centre for the werewolf mythos. And yet despite all these strengths, the movie flopped and its critical reputation hasn’t exactly blossomed over the subsequent decades either. So what went wrong?

Over the years, the main contender for the fatal flaw has been the titular werewolf himself. Many have fingered the make up as being insufficiently wolfish – and certainly looking at the make up job with post Wolf Man eyes he certainly looks insufficiently hairy to be a lycanthrope. In a quick straw poll, I showed several friends who are unfamiliar with early horror movie history, a still of Doc Glendon and asked them to identify the monster...

And all bar one (a spoilt ballot that read 'is this Ron Pearlman's dad?') guessed it was an early Mr Hyde as I suspected would be the case.

Now, the standard story behind the effects goes something like this – legendary make-up man Jack Pierce originally devised a far more hirsute werewolf – and according to some the very combination of appliances and yak hair Lon Chaney would don several years later. However Henry Hull was not keen on being subjected to the long hours in the make-up chair and hence Pierce created a simpler look for the beast which was quicker to apply and consequently a lot less furry.

However, personally I tend to think that Jeremy Dyson is quite right to wonder if this piece of movie lore is apocryphal. As the paperwork shunted between the studio execs and the film makers are now sadly destroyed, there is now no evidence to consult to discover the truth. But I think Dyson’s view, found in his excellent book Bright Darkness, that it is exceedingly unlikely that Universal would bow to pressure from an actor of Hull’s status is nearer the mark. Although he had been appearing in films since 1917, it was only the previous year he had transcended bit part work and garnered the attention of the studio bosses with his portrayal of Magwitch in Great Expectations. So he certainly didn’t have the star clout to veto a make up job.

And considering how important and influential Jack Pierce was at the time, and indeed knowing how much of a prima donna Pierce could be, it’s very unlikely he would have allowed an actor getting his first top billing in a major feature to dictate terms in this fashion. More likely I think, is that after the film failed to ignite the box office or make Hull an icon like Karloff and Lugosi, the reasoning behind the make-up was reconned by Universal or possibly Pierce himself.

But despite looking a little bald to modern viewers, Pierce’s make up work is still top notch. And it’s important to remember that we are seeing the first screen wolf man. Although folklore and legend occasionally has depicted the lycanthrope as a bipedal wolf, in the main the old tales usually maintain that the werewolf transforms completely into an animal. Now such a transmutation brings a whole mess of problems for a film maker and so The Werewolf of London cannily has Dr Yogami tell Glendon and the audience, that contrary to legend, the werewolf does not change into a wolf but a hybrid creature that combines the worst features of both species.

And this is a salient point as the altered Glendon behaves in a fashion somewhat different from other fictional werewolves. While he is still a raging beast most of the time, he does display unusual characteristics informed by the twist to the mythos in the script. He appears to retain a high degree of intelligence – for example, when venturing out to hunt the shadowed London streets he dons a voluminous overcoat and a large cap to disguise his monstrous form.

But while this is an interesting idea, the script never develops it sufficient to work properly. As the Glendon-wolf never comes across as having a distinct and separate personality of its own but retains a very human-like intelligence, this ultimately serves to undercut the savagery of the werewolf itself. Furthermore, the audience is left in something of a muddle as to how much control Glendon has in his shifted form, and this becomes a major factor in the effectiveness of the grand finale.

At the film’s close, when Glendon is finally gunned down, we get another familiar werewolf trope making an early outing – the dying speech forgiving his slayers and the now cliché ‘you killed me but you’ve saved my soul” routine. But the problem is that in this movie, the speech is delivered BEFORE Glendon transforms back into his human form. Now this breaks all the rules of dying transformed man-monsters for the modern viewer, but I think it also struck all the wrong dramatic notes for audiences back in the day. As Glendon’s final words are delivered while he still in beast form, instead of feeling pathos for the doomed doc, the audience is left rather surprised werewolves are so loquacious.

Another reason often trotted out for The Werewolf of London flopping with audiences over the years is that Glendon as played by Hull is too cold a character for audiences to sympathise with. But I’d contend that the role is written to be cool and scientific – the focus of the script isn’t to invoke sympathy for the lead character as The Wolf Man does, rather the key dynamic is that Glendon is so driven by his researches that he is already losing touch with his humanity before he’s bitten by Yogami. In fact, the script actually presents Doctor Yogami as the sympathetic character; he is far more the usual tortured lycanthrope than Glendon is – a very interesting twist for a character that in a less imaginative script would have been written as a conventional villain.

The tragedy of Dr Glendon isn’t that he suffers the torment of lycanthropy like Larry Talbot, but that his commitment to science is destroying his marriage and makes him ignore the warnings of Yogami. And the cruel irony is that he must isolate himself further to continue the very research that is wrecking his relationship with Lisa in order to cure his condition, and more importantly, save her life. His lycanthropy can be seen as an outburst of his repressed emotions, and it’s no coincidence that in the final act he breaks free from the ancient hermit’s cell when he spots Lisa out walking with Paul through the bars. His predicament echoes both the ancient myths and fables that preceded it where a divine punishment mirrors the sinner’s crime, and the myriad mad scientist yarns that would follow where the pursuit of knowledge comes at a high personal cost.

But at the ending of tale, where such ironies of fate should resonate, is botched by having Glendon deliver his final oratory in monster form. This robs the film of a satisfying symbolic close; the proper order of events in such a tale should be that the transforming spell is broken, he regains his rightful shape and then his humanity is reasserted leaving the viewer with a sense that good has triumphed, albeit at great cost, over evil and normalcy has been restored. Instead the close of The Werewolf of London has you almost wondering if Glendon’s human side was not quite as in thrall to the wolf as they’ve made out.

And I strongly feel that it is this botching of the conclusion that has damaged the film far more than a furless werewolf or an unsympathetic hero. Now the film has other flaws; for example the script has Yogami referring to werewolvery as ‘lycanthrophobia’ rather than ‘lycanthropy’, a trio of tipsy old ladies for comic relief, and director Stuart Walker seems unsure whether to emphasise the gothic or the contemporary, but it is the simple misplacement of Glendon’s last words is what effectively stops the film from becoming the properly rounded mythic tale it should be.

But folks, I come not to bury this film but to resurrect it. In all fairness, Universal’s Dracula is as equally hampered by Todd Browning’s static direction as The Werewolf of London is by its slightly uneven scripting. Yet the former is regarded as a classic while the latter is often relegated to footnote status. And while it is perfectly true that The Wolf Man would bring werewolvery to the screen in a far more accomplished manner, as we have seen The Werewolf of London establishes a huge part of the modern werewolf mythos. And for these innovations alone, the film deserves a better reputation than it currently enjoys.

But aside from meriting a place both in movie history and modern myth making, The Werewolf of London has much to recommend it. Once you separate the film from the shadow of The Wolf Man, you discover a very unique take on the werewolf, bursting with imagination. Admittedly it never generates the atmosphere of either Dracula or Frankenstein but it is still very entertaining, with solid performances from the leads and some memorable visuals. And whether loping about in tweedy impertinence or prefiguring the beatniks with his choice of groovy head gear, Doc Glendon must surely be the best dressed werewolf of all time.

The original audiences may have been nonplussed by its blend of the gothic and sci-fi, but after decades of werewolf flicks that are virtually unofficial remakes of The Wolf Man, The Werewolf of London now feels remarkably fresh and original. It may have laid the foundations for the modern fictional lycanthrope but it also has a great many elements that have not been picked up in subsequent lycanthrope tales. And there is so much that is unique in the plotting and concepts of The Werewolf of London that this film is surely as deserving of a modern remake as its better known sibling.

* - For those you intrigued by this little known good side to the werewolf, may I direct you to Paul Devereux’s Haunted Land (Piatkus Books 2001) which has a fascinating section on this subject.

Saturday, 6 March 2010


There will be blood and there will be spoilers

When we last left Jason he was mouldering at the bottom of Crystal Lake, supposedly now at rest having being returned to his original watery grave - although judging from the finale of the last flick being chained to a rock and receiving an outboard motor in the brain seems to have helped more…

Now the ending of Friday 13th Part VI – Jason Lives was one of the better finishes in the series. The supernatural element of laying his murderous spirit to rest by returning his body to the lake establishes a bona fide means of defeating Jason, making him more of a mythic monster like Dracula or the Wolf Man than the average slasher. But of course, part of the elegance of introducing this rule governing Jason’s powers is that there is an easy way to raise him again for another outing – just as the Count may be revived by removing the stake from his mouldering ribcage or by sprinkling fresh blood on his sun-struck ashes, so now Jason is ready to go as soon as something or some one frees his corpse from the water weeds…

So that’s where everyone’s favourite serial slaying slaphead was circa 1988, but what of the franchise itself. Jason Lives had gone down well with the faithful, and although some had a problem with the introduction of humour into the format – still a divisive point today among fans – generally everyone was happy to see the real Jason back and in good killing form. However at the box office, ticket sales had dropped with Jason Lives seeing a notable drop in profits. Undoubtedly the fake Jason shtick of A New Beginning had annoyed many, prompting them to jump ship but there were other factors in play.

By 1987, the slasher genre was in terminal decline as the hundreds of Friday and Halloween clones produced throughout the ‘80s were taking their toll on audience interest levels. The preceding year had seen the release of April Fools Day a horror comedy that sent up the genre and which some credit as ending the slasher gold rush. But more importantly, compared to the visceral imagination and energy of horror trailblazers like Evil Dead 2 and Hellraiser, masked men dicing up cardboard teens looked tedious, cliché bound and, worst of all, safe.

It’s often said that the most frightening films are those whose events could happen – many assert that a human psychopath is scarier than a tana leaf powered mummy, as you could conceivably encounter the former in real life whereas the latter exists only in the imagination. However by the closing years of the ‘80s, cinema audiences had been reminded that plausible does not necessarily equal convincing, never mind frightening, by countless witless teen carve ups. The gritty realism of the early films that form the roots of the slasher genre had ossified into overly familiar tropes; formula had swallowed up the fear.

And worst still for Jason, by 1988 he had some heavy weight rivals. Michael Myers was returning to the screen after a six year vacation in Halloween IV, Leatherface and co and returned after an even longer absence (Texas Chainsaw Masacre 2)1986), The Tall Man was flashing his silver balls again (Phantasm II), and Jim Cameron had unleashed the xenomorphs again (Aliens 1986). Not to mention new kids on the block, the Terminator, Pinhead and the Predator were all encroaching on the killing-everyone-in-your-path territory Jason had dominated for so long. And then there was Freddy…

Making his debut in 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, Wes Craven’s Fred Krueger was a real machete in the guts for slasher films; here was a villain who didn’t just mutely kill, he mocked and taunted. Krueger had not only personality but far more terrifying means of dispatching his prey through reality bending dreams. Tellingly, when he returned for the first sequel Freddy’s Revenge in 1985, audiences and critics alike responded badly to what was commonly seen as turning the character into a run-of-the-mill slasher. Hence when he returned in 1987 for Dream Warriors, the emphasis was back on the dreams, the mythology and the characters rather than just serving up the splatter.

As I remarked in my discussion of Jason Lives, the shadow of Freddy was looming large over the Friday 13th franchise and the introduction of the supernatural elements and an attempt to construct a mythology for Jason as a character can be seen as a direct response to the success of the Nightmare On Elm Street series. Furthermore, some one somewhere having noted all the who would win speculation in fanboy land, decided pitting Freddy versus Jason would be box office gold. And it’s here that we first get the rumblings about this legendary modern monster rally. Yes folks, The New Blood was originally slated to be this epic rumble. But as every horror head knows, an agreement between Paramount and New Line failed to coalesce at this time, and Jason ended up taking a break in ’87 while the studios threw papers back and forth.

However you can clearly see the legacy of this plan in the bones of The New Blood. Now although many have labelled this entry in the saga as ‘Jason Versus Carrie’, I feel the key inspiration was probably Dream Warriors; it borrows the themes and plot accoutrements of a troubled teen and her therapist and more importantly gives her what Charles Fort would term ‘wild talents’; namely precognition and telekinesis, to combat Jason’s undead fury.

The plot for this one centres on Tina who as a child inadvertently kills her abusive father with an outburst of her psychic abilities. Not an event that’s going to make for a psychological stability in later life, I’m sure you’ll agree. Years later she returns to Crystal Lake, with her mom and slightly sinister psychologist in tow to confront her inner demons and unwittingly resurrects Jason from his watery grave with her latent psychic powers…

Helmed by special effects man turned director John Carl Buechler (neigh!*), The New Blood is a troublesome movie to assess. It’s not outrightly awful but neither does it actually hang together well. And coming between of the fan favourite Jason Lives and the next two sub standard entries doesn’t help its cause either, and has resulted as often being fingered as the point of the series decline.

Now previous to landing this gig, Buechler (whinny!) had previous directed a pair of low budget flicks Troll and Cellar Dweller, both of which have garnered more than a few fans among lovers of schlock cinema – sure, they are cheap and camp but do display some imaginative flair and are more fantastic than anatomical in their horrors. And I’m guessing it was a combination of ambitious special effects on a tight budget and phantasmagoria with a sense of humour that landed him the gig.

But The New Blood fell foul of the MPAA so a lot of the FX work ended up on the cutting room floor. As he remarks ruefully in His Name Was Jason cutting out the climax of the kills in a Friday 13th movie is like trimming the punch lines from a comedy, and the censor snips effective hobbled his movie.

However I really think the problems of The New Blood aren’t rooted in the toned down version we saw. In terms of direction, Buechler (neigh!) acquits himself well in the main, but what scuppers the movie is actually the script. Now whether this is a legacy issue from the mooted team–up or just shoddy screen writing is hard to say, and certainly the six month turn around for the picture doesn’t give a director much leeway for fixing problems.

Part of the trouble is that the film seems to have jettisoned the touches of humour that made the previous entry so much fun and appears to be trying for serious horror. However the plot completely botches it’s handling of all the character driven psycho-drama as it’s mixed in with far too many scenes of the same old two dimensional shreddies wandering about waiting to die. And I can’t help feeling that what would make this flick far more effective isn’t restoring the gore – although admittedly that might have helped - but excising completely a third of the cast.

Now obviously you want a high body count in a Friday 13th movie but The New Blood unfortunately doesn’t follow the example set by its predecessor. Jason Lives ramped up its mayhem by including a lot of folk who just appear then die in quick succession, whereas in The New Blood has far too many teens introduced as proper characters. And while I commend the attempt to put flesh on the bones of these disposable characters the simple fact is that there are far too many of them cluttering up the screen, and ultimately detracts from the plot’s main focal points of Tina, her mother, secondary villain Dr Crews and nice guy Nick.

And aside from painting a very crowded picture, the script also fluffs several key plot points. Firstly it’s not entirely clear what Tina is attempting when she returns to Crystal Lake and exercises her wild talents. Is she trying to just recover her father’s body? (As the fine fellows at the Now Playing podcast’s retrospective have pointed out, in this series if someone disappears under the waters of Crystal Lake no bugger is going to even attempt to dredge it!) Or is she actually trying to resurrect him? Surely a bad idea – hasn’t she read WW Jacob’s The Monkey’s Paw?

Equally at the film’s climax when her father rises from his watery grave, is this Tina resurrecting him, puppeting his corpse in a dues ex marionetta fashion, or is it his ghost returning to aid his daughter? It’s particularly confusing as her no-so dear old dad looks none the worse for his sojourn at the bottom of the lake. Now apparently it was originally intended that the returning father was to be a suitable decayed cadaver but they just couldn’t get the make up right in the time they had. However even if you imagine this scene with a rotted version, there’s still a fuzziness around what is actually being depicted. And I can’t help thinking that these twin lapses in narrative clarity serious undermine what the plot is trying to achieve.

And it’s a shame as this movie does have some good ideas and where they really pay off is in the final act. After a lot of arsing about with the usual run about the woods and kill the teens tomfoolery, the movie finally fires on all cylinders and gives us a thrilling battle where Tina unleashes the full force of her telekinetic powers against Jason. It’s a great slice of psychic carnage and it’s very refreshing to see Jason go up against a foe that is as powerful as he is. It’s so good, it almost redeems the rest of the movie.

Equally noteworthy is the depiction of Jason himself. Firstly this is the first outing for Kane Hodder in the role, who brings the character a great sense of boiling rage with his aggressive body language. And secondly, the Jason make-up is excellent. After several years underwater, the maggoty Jason of Part VI has been replaced with a more decayed appearance, with bones now visible in places. It’s a fantastic job and easily my favourite of all the many different looks the character has had over the years.

So on the plus side, we have a great climax with FX and stunts galore, a great Jason in both looks and performance and some interesting plot ideas. But on the downside, the script just doesn’t make enough of the new concepts it has to play with, and as a result we have a very uneven film. Buechler (whinny!) seems to be trying his best but seems hampered by a combination of legacy issues, studio pressures and good old fashioned lack of time and resources.

It feels like the movie is pulling in two different directions at once – on one hand it’s attempting to move in a new direction and embrace the more fantastical vein of horror that was growing in popularity yet at the same time keeps backsliding into the old tired slasher clichés. When things work in the film, such as the tense exchanges between Tina and Dr Crews, the action packed final showdown or even just the brooding sequences in the forest at night, you can’t help feeling that there’s a better film lost in here struggling to get out.

And certainly it a better waste of an hour and a half than the next entry in the series, the hideous tar pit of a movie that is Part VIII - Jason Takes Manhattan

* Sorry but I’ve seen Young Frankenstein waaaay too many times!