Reviews: Asylum and The House That Dripped Blood

Asylum,
Directed by Roy Ward Baker,
Starring Robert Powell, Barbara Perkins, Peter Cushing, Charlotte Rampling, Britt Ekland, Herbert Lom, Barry Morse, Patrick Magee, Richard Todd

Second Sight are bringing us two very welcome limited edition Blu-Ray discs featuring some classic Brit-horror from Hammer’s arch-rival Amicus, famous for their “portmanteau” films which would offer up several short stories, tied together by a framing narrative. Despite their quick turnaround times and relatively low budgets, Amicus never skimped on paying for top thespian talent for these films, which many horror fans have tremendous affection for, and both films here – 1971’s The House That Dripped Blood, and 1972’s Asylum – boast some terrific names here, from Herbert Lom to Robert Powell, the great Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, Ingrid Pitt (surely one of the all-time iconic Horror Queens?) and the one and only Jon Pertwee, while the stories and scripts come from the legendary Robert Bloch (Psycho). What a wonderful smorgasbord! Let’s start with Asylum.

Asylum’s framing device features a young Robert Powell, well before his international stardom with Jesus of Nazareth and The Thirty Nine Steps. Powell plays Doctor Martin, arriving at a remote former country house now housing the criminally insane, where the the head of the asylum, Doctor Rutherford (the velvet-voiced Patrick Magee) has offered him a job, if he can pass his test. One of the inmates is in fact Doctor Starr, the former head of the asylum before his own incident drove him into madness. Martin is to interview each of the inmates to see if he can discern which one is the former doctor, leading us into the four short films within the film.

Frozen Fear sees unfaithful husband Walter (D-Day veteran and Dambusters star Richard Todd) plotting with his lover to dispose of his rich wife Bonnie (Barbara Parkins), who holds the purse strings and the whip hand in their strained relationship, and doesn’t he just know it, his frustration evident in every syllable he utters to his wife. It’s no spoiler with this kind of story to tell you that he follows through on his plan to murder his wife, but the pleasure here is in seeing what happens next – Bonnie, you see, was a follower of a Voodoo priest, and killing her off is just the start of Walter’s nightmare…

The Weird Tailor has a pre-Space 1999 Barry Morse as a tailor, Bruno, now down on his luck, behind with the rent, engaged for a handsome fee by Mr Smith (Peter Cushing), for a very peculiar suit. He provides Bruno not only with some very unusual material (which has a very 1970s special effect changing-colour glow to it, perhaps a bit cheesy but quite fun and suitable for the era) but very specific instructions requiring him to work only at certain nocturnal hours. The suit is for a very unusual customer and purpose, that will enmesh the two – both desperate men, but for different reasons – into a strange, tragic tale.

In Lucy Comes to Stay, Martin interviews Charlotte Rampling’s Barbara. Barbara was released from some sort of unspecified care regime to return to the home she shares with her brother George (James Villiers), with Megs Jenkins’ Nurse Higgins in attendance to take care – an almost smothering care – of the troubled Barbara. It soon transpires that Barbara has an imaginary friend, the eponymous Lucy (Wicker Man’s Britt Ekland), who tries to persuade her to escape this care regime and sow dissension between her and her brother (reminding her that their parents left the home to her, not him). But is Lucy just a figment of Barbara’s imagination, of her illness, or something more?

The final vignette, Mannikins of Horror, is, for my money, the strongest of the suite and the most memorable, largely due to the presence of Herbert Lom as Doctor Byron. Byron is proud of his many doctorates and talks to Martin as a fellow professional at first, revealing his new interest, creating tiny toy robot-like figures with sculpted human heads on them – heads Martin recognises as people in the asylum. Byron, seems quite coherent and sensible as he talks to Martin, but he soon starts to expound on how he can project his astral body from his physical body, placing it into these small figures and controlling them to do his will, with one made with his own likeness and supposedly containing miniature organs and brain. Nonsense, of course, and he becomes agitated as Martin clearly doesn’t believe him. But what if this is no mere boast of a deluded mind? This story makes much of Lom, with numerous close-ups of his face that exert a real sense of the disturbingly weird, and builds to a very satisfying climax, which also serves to bring the short tales back into the closing part of the framing narrative.

The House That Dripped Blood,
Directed by Peter Duffell,
Starring Denholm Elliott, Joanna Dunham, Peter Cushing, Joss Ackland, Nyree Dawn Porter, Christopher Lee, Jon Pertwee, Ingrid Pitt

Bloch also performed writing and script duties for The House That Dripped Blood, again a set of four short tales, linked by a framing narrative, in this case Inspector Holloway (John Bennet), investigating the mysterious disappearance of a famous actor, Paul Henderson (the great Jon Pertwee), from the old country home he had rented while shooting a film nearby. Holloway, as he investigates, discovers the same house has been home to more than just this one mystery, almost as if it is cursed…

Method For Murder opens this collection of tales, with Denholm Elliott’s horror author Charles Hillyer and his wife Alice (Joanna Dunham), renting the house as an ideal spot for him to deal with some writer’s block and get on with a new book. But as Charles rediscovers his writing mojo and gets into his new book project, he is disturbed by hallucinations in which he glimpses Dominic (Tom Adams), the grotesque, psychotic central character of his new tale, a figure only he sees, in glimpses at first, through a window or the corner of his eye, but then closer and more threatening. Only Charles can see him, though, leading him to confide in his wife and his therapist that he fears he is losing his mind. But what if these are not just hallucinations? I was reminded a little of the much, much later Secret Window with Johnny Depp and John Turturo – perhaps these two tales would make a decent evening’s horror viewing!

Waxworks have always carried something of the Uncanny Valley about them, equally fascinating and somehow discomfiting at the same time, so it is no surprise to see a tale entitled Waxworks here. The wonderful Peter Cushing’s retiree Philip Grayson rents the house, looking for a bit of peace and quiet, and when he wants anything he drives into the nearby town, where he discovers the titular Waxworks. Drawn to it he finds himself in the Chamber of Horrors (of course, don’t we all when we visit a waxworks?), where he sees a figure of a woman who reminds him all too much of his own lost love. The owner – Wolfe Morris, exuding a deliciously creep air – tells Philip that visitors all appear to see in this figure’s face what they want to see, usually someone they have known. When Philip’s friend Neville (Joss Ackland) comes to visit his new home, he insists on patronising the waxworks in the town too, where he too is taken by the figure of the woman in the chamber of horrors, but what is it that draws them to it?

In Sweets to the Sweet we’re treated to another great – Christopher Lee – moving into the house with his young daughter, Jane Reid (Chloe Franks). Nyree Dawn Porter’s governess Ann Norton is less than impressed with Lee’s widower John Reid and the distant and seemingly puritan manner in which he treats the small girl. She is forbidden from going to school, only to be educated by Ann in the seclusion of the home, restricted from playing with other children, he even reacts furiously when Ann, growing close to the child, buys her some toys, including a doll. He maintains he has his reasons and it is hinted that they are linked to his deceased wife, but what could drive a father to be this way with his only child?

Closing out these short stories we have the great Jon Pertwee, partnered up with Brit-horror icon Ingrid Pitt. Pertwee is playing a famous actor, Paul Henderson (the one whose disappearance the inspector is investigating in the framing narrative), the classic, over-bearing, “I’m the Star” type of egotistical, “do you know who I am?” kind of actor, renting the house while shooting a horror film at a nearby studio. Paul is to play a vampire in the film, but he is contemptuous of the young director, of the quality of the set and his costume. He declares he will find something better himself and in visiting a peculiar old shop and explaining he requires the sort of cape that a “Transylvanian Vampire might wear” gets much more than he ever bargained for… This one really relied on Pertwee using his booming voice and his remarkable range of expressions, and the inclusion of Ingrid Pitt (Carmilla/Countess Dracula herself!) is the icing on the cake for any old-school horror fans.

Like many horror fans I have long had a tremendous affection for these portmanteau films – they are, in many ways, the cinematic equivalent of reading the old Weird Tales, Uncanny or Eerie comics, or the collections like the Pan Best Horror series of books, short, juicy hits with a twist in the tail (or tale). The fact you can often see the twists coming doesn’t matter in the slightest, in fact I think for some of us it is part of the fun with these films, as with the aforementioned comics and books, and of course there’s much to be enjoyed simply in the great cast assembled for these shorts, boasting a Who’s Who of Brit thespians of the period, with a number of Hammer regulars moonlighting here for Amicus (including behind the scenes talent too, such as Asylum’s Roy Ward Backer directing)

Asylum and The House That Dripped blood are both being released on special Limited Edition Blu-Ray by Second Sight Films from July 29th, with a host of extras, including Director’s Commentary, interviews, features (including vintage pieces with some of the cast who are no longer with us), a rigid slipcase with new artwork by Graham Humphreys, a reversible poster and forty-page booklet)

“We came in peace for all mankind”

I’m a child of the Space Age, an infant when humans first walked on a surface that was not of our world for the first time in all of the history of our species. While school chums had posters of football players on their bedroom walls, my walls sported posters of Neil Armstrong and Yuri Gagarin. I remember being lucky enough to have some fabulous toys to play with as a small child, but my earliest memories of any plaything is my little silver spacesuit and helmet. Wearing my toy spacesuit and sitting in a cardboard box for my spaceship with my imagination taking me to infinity and beyond.

I wanted to be an astronaut.

I still do.

When I was just an infant human beings, for the first time in the history of our entire homo sapiens species walked on the surface of another world. Since hunter-gatherer times, long before the dawn of civilisation, human beings had dreamed of the moon, worshipped her as a goddess, called on her power over human affairs, and dreamed of what it was like to be there. But for tens of thousands of years nobody could be there – you could be an emperor or a peasant, it didn’t matter, the moon was forever there in the sky but out of reach. A pleace dreams are made of.

But when I was a child, human beings made the most extraordinary voyage in the history of humanity. We walked across ancient Africa, we spread out across Europe, Asia, the Americas and colonised the world. Much later we sailed across the vast oceans of our blue world, from those astonishing Polynesian travellers on reed boats sailing the vast oceans of the Pacific (some of the greatest natural navigators of all time) to the early voyages of Magellan and Admiral Zheng He to the great Age of Exploration and James Cook.

And eventually we took to the skies, in hot air balloons, dirigibles, and finally heavier than air craft – aeroplanes.And, astonishingly, only a few decades seperate those first few scant seconds in the air by the Wright Brothers at Kittyhawk and human beings walking on the surface of the moon.

Even as a child, watching and reading everything I could on the space programmes of the USSR and the USA, I wasn’t naive, I understood that the two world wars and the subsequent Cold War had driven this remarkable technological advancement, the kind of progress that took us from Von Braun’s V2 rocket, created as a weapon, in 1944 and 45 to his Saturn V rocket carrying humans to the moon in the late 1960s.

I knew this, but even as a kid I looked at the words on that plaque, on that statement on the first lunar landing on July 20th, 1969, “We came in peace fo all mankind” and I wanted to believe it. And to be fair, for many in the scientific and engineering community that was the case – they knew they were getting funding because of Cold War paranoia, military-industrial scheming and national pride, but they took that money knowing they could use it go push the frontiers of human endeavour, science, exploration and knowledge for the pure joy of knowledge. And some of them believed in that credo of “we came in peace for all mankind”.

And I wanted to believe in that too, and I still do. Because it spoke of something higher than national prestige or technological posuring, it hinted at a better future, where humanity was more advanced, when we were one and striving to be the best we could be. It’s the same reason Star Trek has been such a powerful influence on my life and so many other people’s lives, not just the characters and the stories, but the future it painted, a future where humans strove to be better than they had been, to be one species, regardless of gender, or skin colour, to create a world where we expanded our horizons because we could, for the betterment of all.

Yes, I know that was Cold War propaganda, but I still loved that message, I loved what it hinted we could actually be, beyond our  our divisions and nationalistic, gender, and ethnic arguments, that we could all be humans exploring the great infinity of the universe, just waiting for us. And there we had three men, three men who truly did go where No Man Has Gone Before. And yes, I knew it was part of the nationalistic posturing and Cold War posturing, but by god I wanted it to be more than that, and I think many of us felt the same, because that one moment united humanity for a precious short time. We had done something beyond the realms of the dreams of centuries and the entire globe rejoiced.

It feels to me that too often we have stepped back from that first Giant Leap. Fifty years to this very day and we are still to go further – hell, we haven’t even been back to the moon since Apollo, much less futher. All those childhood comics annuals I read as a kid in the 70s told me we would be on Mars by now and that by the early 21st century we would all have affordable holidays on the Moon.

It’s fifty years on, it is 2019, and I am still waiting on that promised holiday in space. Oh sure, we have private corporations promising imminents low-orbit trips, but only for the super-wealthy. This corporate rather than national space programme has been hailed as “democratising” space, but that is rubbish, this is just for the extremely wealthy, that isn’t democracy, this isn’t for the people, it is the privatisation of the great Final Frontier by the wealthy for the wealthy with not an ounce of actual science involved, unlike the national and trans-national programmes. And my dream of every taking that trip above the clouds is as far away as ever, which breaks my heart, knowing that dream will almost certainly never come to pass.

None of that changes what happened on this day fifty years ago, though. Human beings who had started out in tiny groups of hunter-gatherers had, in the space of around 300 to 200, 000 years, evolved to use fire, the wheel, agriculture, ships, early flight and then slipping the bonds of Earth herself to fly into space and the moon. Think about that – dinosaurs, one of the most successful evolutionary genus to ever walk the Earth ruled the globe for a couple of hundred million years. In a few hundred thousand modern humans went from hunter-gatherers to walking on another world.

Seriously, think about that, think about how amazing that is. Think that within the space of a human lifetime, less some seven decades, we went from a few seconds in the air with the Wright Brothers to flying beyond our world. Our grandmothers lived in a world of horse-drawn milk-carts as girls and saw Armstrong, Aldarin and Collins flying in Apollo in their sunset years. That’s the space of time we’re talking about, it’s mind-blowing to think of how rapidly this took place, this most amazing voyage in the history of a species that has made a success of being natural explorers.

It often feels to me that we have not only stepped back since those heady days of Apollo and Gagarin, but we have become smaller. For all our technological advancements since then (when a mobile phone in our pocket, unthinkable back then, has more computing power than all of NASA had back then) as a species we feel smaller to me, we have lost that magnificence that came with the challenge of exploration. Today is it all about the Me, Me, Me individual The Way You Want It world. Not that I mind that entirely, but it needs to be balanced out against the collective, the Us. And Apollo united that Us for a few precious days, we transcended the everyday, glimpsed a better future where we grew and explored not for riches and honours but because we wanted to, because it was the best thing to do, because we were better than we had been before.

As I said I am not naive, even as a kid I knew the political and national and economic imperatives that drove the space programmes of both the US and USSR back then. But I chose to believe in the higher ideals behind it, because those are beautiful ideals, ideals of us being better as a species, of us striving as one to be better than we are, to push the boundaries, to further ourselves for the collective good of all humanity. Yes, I know, you may say I’m a dreamer. But I’m not the only one. And isn’t that a dream worth chasing…

Reviews: Sensible Footwear – a Girl’s Guide

Sensible Footwear – a Girl’s Guide,
Kate Charlesworth,
Myriad Editions

Now this, my friends, has been one of the Brit comics works on my Must Read Radar for 2019; I know Kate has been working on it for a long time, a labour of love in many respects. Kate has been contributing to the Brit comics and cartooning scene for many years, from her Auntie Studs character to the critically acclaimed (and quite brilliant) Sally Heathcote, Suffragette with Mary and Bryan Talbot (reviewed here). Kate was also generous enough to create artwork for my short story Memorial to the Mothers which closed out the double Eisner-nominated WWI comics anthology To End All Wars (thanks, Kate! You can read that story in full here on the Woolamaloo). So it is more than fair to say I have heard snippets about this work in production for quite a while and now, finally, thanks to the nice people at Myriad (surely one of our most creator-supportive UK Indy publishers?) I had the chance to read it.

And then re-read it.

Short version: it’s brilliant – it’s a wonderfully warm, often very smile-inducing and laughter-creating, emotionally engaging tour through the last few decades of Queer life and culture in the UK and further afield, intertwining both Kate’s own life experiences as she grows up with the wider cultural and historical changes taking place, which gives Sensible Footwear both an over-arching, wide-ranging historical arc but at the same time maintaining a close, personal aspect to it that allows the reader to experience this as more than historical events or social-cultural changes, we can feel the impact on a more individual, emotional level.

From the hidden gay (predominantly male homosexual) subculture of the 50s and 60s (yes, including the delightfully cheeky and risqué Round the Horne) to the heady days of Stonewall and beyond, the Women’s Liberation Movement gaining ground in the 70s, the increasingly visible presence of LGBT people and the push for more tolerance for all, the horrible early years of the AIDS outbreak and more, along the way taking in lovely little asides on a myriad (no pun intended) of gay icons, from Dusty Springfield to characters from Coronation Street.

Woven through all of this socio-cultural history we also have Kate’s own story, from childhood through to that great rite of passage so many of us go through, the first move away from home to go to college, to adult life, to exploring what her own sexuality and romantic inclinations are, the friends and lovers she meets, the people who inspire her, the intolerant elements she and friends band together to stand against. It’s all laced with a lovely, warm humour throughout – right from the start, after an introductory scene of Kate and her partner Diane on holiday with friends, discussing the old days (a framing device used through much of the book, linking past and present nicely), we go to Barnsley in 1950 and Kate’s birth, which includes a cheeky moment of baby Kate seeing the ward sister and being somewhat smitten.

There is more of that kind of scene as we see her growing up – as a family wedding approaches the young girl wonders what the husband is actually for. And she is less than impressed at being dolled-up in a fancy, very girly dress to be a maid of honour, not her kind of thing at all, oh no. Mind you, she is rather taken with the bride. There are a lot of gentle intimations here that Kate is not going to grow up to be the “regular” young girl then young woman that her family expects (thank goodness!). Balancing this out, later sections in the book hark back to those earlier days, of getting older, starting to realise she is a lesbian and not knowing how to tell her family, how they will react, but we find out as we go on that actually there were more secrets in the family cupboard she simply knew nothing of when growing up and questioning her own feelings and inclinations, because those were generations that simply didn’t share certain things, not even among their nearest and dearest.

Even today coming out is often not an easy thing for anyone – growing up is rarely simple, we’re all trying to figure out who we are, what we want to be, looking for role models and inspiration and supportive friends who will help us. How much harder when society was so horribly bigoted and intolerant? Yes, we have plenty of bigots today – sadly they seem to be on the rise again, racism, sexism, homophobia – but it is still very different, both society’s general attitude and also the law’s stance (where LGBT people are recognised and afforded the same rights and protections any of us should have).

And here we get to see where some of those changing attitudes – and political and legal changes – came from, with groups inspired by Stonewall, the first gay rights movements, the increasingly important woman’s rights movements, the push for greater racial tolerance. I was reminded a little of Sally Heathcote, where Kate and the Talbots made it abundantly clear that the Women’s Suffrage movement was never just about the vote, it was about a whole range of important social issues, including healthcare and educational opportunities. Similarly here, we can see how the fight for tolerance, understanding and equality for any one group is, in reality, always about tolerance and understanding and equality for all. Or as congressman John Lewis, Civil Rights veteran and one of the original Freedom Riders, put it when equal rights for gay marriage was proposed in the US:

I fought too long and too hard against discrimination based on race and colour, not to fight against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.”

If you needed any more reminding of that, just think how the same, vaguely-worded Obscene Publications Act that was used to try and stop some gay publications – state censorship, effectively – was the same Act used to try and shut down counter-culture publications like Oz, or, even in the 80s and 90s Tony Bennett’s Knockabout having to fight the Act and HM Customs over importing underground Comix. Like I said, these rights and tolerances – or lack thereof – affect most, if not all of us in some way or another.

For readers of a certain age there is also a lot of nostalgia and a strong sense of “oh, I remember that” moments throughout Sensible Footwear, from the idolising Honor Blackman and then Diana Rigg in the Avengers (strong women characters that took no nonsense without every losing any sense of the feminine) in the 60s to the hideous Mary Whitehouse and her Festival of Light, using religion as a way to demand that what people watched or read conformed to what they approved of (chilling, and still has echoes today with some (mis)using religion as an excuse to practise bigotry), or “God’s Cop” James Anderton (a favourite of Thatcher), the imposition of the Section 28 whereby the government tried its best to suppress discussion of gay culture, to the emergence of AIDS and the rampant hatred that often followed this in the press of the time, rather than extending sympathy to those suffering illness or losing loved ones.

But through all of this weaves Kate’s own story, or more accurately Kate and all the people she has interacted with, friends, lovers, other creators, support groups, family, beloved icons (Dusty!), a reminder of how what is personal and individual to us or our small circle of friends is also part of the larger picture of our ever-changing society, and this makes the events covered in this history much more accessible, more emotionally personal, regardless of the reader’s own orientation. The artwork moves from cartoon to an almost collage style when incorporating numerous old publications, or flyers or badges or media clippings from the time, with good use of colouring and shading for different aspects of the story or different times being depicted.. The art is also frequently funny – young Kate staring into a mirror after he friend asks if she may be a lesbian, trying to see if it is obvious, is just one of many parts that had me laughing out loud.

Sensible Footwear can’t, of course, be an encyclopedic history of all of LGBT culture in the UK for the last few decades, and Kate notes that herself – there is only so much anyone can cover, and besides, as she also comments, everyone’s experience is a bit different, so you can’t always show what every single person was going through. What it does do though is encapsulate several decades of LGBT history in a very accessible manner, often touching on areas some of us might not even have realised were important to the emerging Queer Culture at the time, and shows how it is part and parcel of the forever changing, diverse nature of our whole society, not apart from it. And most of all that wonderful, warm, personal aspect to the whole book that engages you, like a chat with a dear chum over drinks on a summer afternoon. A book that left me with a very satisfied smile on my face.

Kursk: the Last Mission

Kursk: The Last Mission,
Directed by Thomas Vinterberg,
Starring Matthias Schoenaerts, Léa Seydoux, Peter Simonischek, August Diehl, Colin Firth, Max Von Sydow, Bjarne Henriksen, Magnus Millang

The K-141 nuclear submarine Kursk was laid down in the early 1990s, but by the time she was fully commissioned the former Soviet Union had collapsed. She became part of the Russian navy’s Northern Fleet, a class known to worried NATO observers as the Oscar-II class, larger than her predecessors at some 154 metres, a truly massive beast, stealthy, hard to observe even with NATO’s sophisticated submarine detection equipment, and heavily armed (this class was designed to makes holes in entire enemy battle groups all by herself), with a hull and conning tower reinforced so she could even surface through the Arctic ice. But by the end of the last millennium, with Russia essentially broke, much of this once-huge and impressive fleet is lying at anchor, rusting in the sea air.

For all the power Kursk and her sister ships had, we see a sadly depleted, run-down force – as the film opens we follow a group of shipmates from her crew, lead by Mikhail Averin (Matthias Schoenaerts), desperately trying to raise money for the champagne for one of their fellow’s wedding reception; none of them has been paid in ages, a common occurrence during this part of Russia’s history, wages not being paid by the state, little money even for fuel for regular sailing patrols. They each barter their prized submariner’s watches with the quartermaster to get supplies for the wedding, a warm act of brotherhood for one of their own, an act which leaves the new bride in tears.

And the next day she sails into the frigid northern oceans – for the first time in years the run-down, post-Soviet Russian navy is holding a major exercise, and Kursk is joining it, tasked with launching sneak mock attacks on several of the surface vessels. Despite the lack of pay and resources this crew was still reckoned to be one of the best in the submarine fleet, and their ship a tremendous achievement of engineering and power. As we see her leave her base, watched by their families, the gargantuan scale of this ship is quite clear, and you understand the pride her crew have in sailing on such a vessel. Sadly, of course, for those of us familiar with recent history we know this will be Kursk’s final voyage. On the 12th of August, 2000, an explosion was detected beneath the waves around the exercise fleet. The worst had happened.

You may ask what mileage there is in a disaster film based on real history, when we all know what the outcome is, and it is a legitimate question. I have to say it entered my mind early on, but Thomas Vinterberg crafts his film in such a way that you get to know the men and their families. We see their strong bonds at the start as they try to find supplies for their crewmate’s wedding, we see their families, we see a group of elite sailors who live and work in close quarters at sea and whose families live next to one another on shore, they are all one extended family, and it is clear they would do anything for one another. As we get to know the men on the ship and their families back home we become enmeshed in their lives – I found myself wanting, against the odds, against real history, for some of them to make it, even though I know that all of her crew perished down there, in the deep, cold northern waters, far from the light. But Vinterberg made me want that to happen, his Kursk really does pull you in emotionally to this desperate struggle for survival.

The explosion destroys the forward compartments of the ship – it is generally believed that a badly-made torpedo leaked the unstable hydrogen peroxide fuel (similar to that used in some rockets), causing an explosion, which in turn lead to a bigger explosion as it set off some of the other torpedoes. You can imagine the devastation this wreaks on the stricken ship. The crewmen we follow survive only because they were in the rear section. They are now stuck on the bottom of the sea in the last few sealed compartments, water leaking in, air thinning, waiting, hoping, praying for rescue. But the cutbacks in the Russian fleet have also affected their search and rescue teams – the British Royal Navy (in the shape of Colin Firth’s Commodore David Russell) and Norwegian navies monitor the situation and offer their own far better technical resources to rescue the men they think may be trapped aft, but a proud and suspicious Russia refuses the offers of help, until it is too late.

We’ll never know for sure now if those twenty three men surviving in the aft compartments could have been rescued if Russia had accepted that help more quickly. One officer there made a list of the surviving men, so we know they were there for some time after the explosion, hoping for a rescue that came far too late (Firth has his British officer down perfectly, the obvious despair and resignation mixed with that classic stoic and professional in public persona we expect of an RN officer). The rescue attempts by the Russians, the help offered by the British and Norwegians, the cutting back and forth from the slowly filling compartments of survivors to their frantic families on land, demanding information and being given little by the authorities, all builds to a tremendous if tragic emotional climax. This is all handled in a very realistic, down-to-earth manner, a million miles from the action of the likes of Hunt For Red October, in many ways it has the feeling of one of those classic WWII submarine films, when all the men can do is wait in their ship, deep below the surface and hope.

Yes, we know the outcome here – this event only happened nineteen years ago, we all saw it on the news, we all heard of the Royal Navy’s offer of help, the standard forgetting of enemies when in trouble at sea, because then all sailors are fellow sailors and the code is always to help, and the wait to find out that it was all too late. And yet Vinterberg’s film draws you into the desperate emotions of these men and their families so effectively you find yourself longing for a Hollywood happy ending that you know never happened and cannot be, but he ensures these men are not just some stereotypes, he gives them depth, families, makes us emote with them until we feel their struggle. And he gives them honour, heroism and professionalism as they face their end together.

Kursk: the Last Mission is released by Signature Entertainment in cinemas and on Digital HD from July 12th

EIFF 2018 – The Wind

The Wind,
Directed by Emma Tammi,
Starring Caitlin Gerard, Julia Goldani Telles, Ashley Zukerman, Dylan McTee

I usually always manage to take in a late-night horror screening at the Edinburgh International Film Festival as part of my movie fest mix. This year’s viewing was a very unusual and frankly rather superbly creepy and atmospheric Indy film by Emma Tammi which mixes elements of the Horror and the Western with domestic drama, using a small cast (really only four main and one supporting actor) and a compelling, powerful contrast between the enclosed (tiny frontier cabins) and the vastly open spaces of the great prairie in 1800s America.

The first few moments through the viewer off balance – there is practically no dialogue for the first few scenes, just a view of two men pacing up and down nervously outside the rough, Frontier wooden cabin while the eternal wind howls and blows over the huge, open spaces of the empty prairies (Laura Ingells Wilder this is not!). My first thought was that perhaps the women were inside the cabin, the men waiting outside as the womenfolk tended to a birth, perhaps? And this guess proved correct, but not the way I expected -after several tense moments the door opens and Lizzy Macklin (Caitlin Gerard) stands on the porch, blood smearing her apron, a small bundle in her arms.

Still no dialogue. Instead of the “you have a daughter or son” moment Lizzy just stands there, the men staring at her, at the child in her arms. A child that isn’t making any noises, none of the screaming and crying that accompanies our arrival onto this planet. It is only as the film progresses that, through numerous flashbacks, we will start to understand what just happened, and what lead towards this moment.

Lizzy Macklin and her husband Isaac (Ashley Zukerman) have had their small homestead out on the Plains for several years, all alone since previous neighbours left some time back. It’s a hard life of physical toil and almost constant isolation, until another young couple move in to fix up the cabin and farm half a mile from their home, Emma Harper (Julia Goldani Telles) and her husband Gideon (Dylan McTee). Neither of them seem mentally or physically prepared for the hardships of Frontier-era life – Gideon isn’t very handy (unlike Isaac), something his young wife Emma points out to Lizzy and Isaac, right in front of Gideon.

You’d think after years of such isolation Lizzy and Isaac would be happy to have another pair of souls near them, but despite showing neighbourly charity – helping the new couple fix up the old cabin, giving them a start on ploughing to get their crops in the ground – you can feel an awkward tension, especially between the women. At first it seems as if this is because Emma is simply not cut out for this hard life on the Plains, despite any help they give her, but there is also, perhaps a feeling of sexual jealousy, that Lizzy suspects Emma may harbour feelings for her husband, the rugged frontiersman.

There’s more to it than this interpersonal possible rivalry though – Emma starts to talk about seeing something, dark shapes, hearing voices at night. It’s just that constant wind that sweeps those huge, open spaces, Lizzy tells her, it can drive people a bit crazy, make them think they can hear something. But Emma seems to keep getting worse, even when she falls pregnant, the pregnancy that leads to the disturbing tragedy in the opening scenes of the film – is the isolation, the rough, hard life and those vast, empty spaces damaging her fragile psyche?

But then we also have scenes where Lizzy thinks she hears something, sees dark shapes. She’s pursued by wolves in one scene, one even forcing its head right through the door, snarling like a devil, till she shoots right through through the wooden panels. When she ventures out they are gone, but the claw marks on the outside of the door, those marks go up as high as a person, not a four legged wolf would reach… As Isaac has to ride several days to the nearest town she is on her own, and at night she hears things, sees movement outside her windows even though she knows there isn’t another soul in the valley.

Imagine being in this vast wilderness, the only person there, and then, in dark of night, hearing a knock on the door. Imagine fearfully opening it, gun in hand to find… nothing. But later another knock. Or looking out into the black night of the empty valley and observing lanterns flickering into life in what used to be your neighbour’s home half a mile away, even though you know they are long gone and there isn’t another human being around for dozens of miles. It’s a simple device but damned effective at raising the spooky factor.

The Wind is wonderfully creepy and spooky and unsettling – so much is suggested, and it mostly happens around the two women, who both, coincidentally, share the same penny dreadful booklet, The Demons of the Prairies, and neither of their husbands see these things happen when they are around. Is it all in their heads, is it a form of “female hysteria” as 19th century doctors used to (mis)diagnose? Or is it real and only prowls around the women, at night, when they are alone? The film very much revolves around the two women, the men almost secondary to events.

Tammi crafts so much tension and outright fear from suggestion and inference, small glimpses, and a really clever use of the soundscape, which here is really essential in crafting that creeping atmosphere of unease and dread, right from that word-free, disturbing opening. This is a very unusual, highly effective slice of period American Western Gothic and supernatural (or is it???) terror, with a rich aural soundscape and inventive visuals, and a brooding sense of unease that grows throughout the film and the flashbacks into something that frequently spooked even this seasoned old horror hound. Highly recommended.

EIFF 2019 – McLaren Animation

The annual McLaren Animation award screenings at the world’s oldest continually-running film festival have always been a personal favourite part of the festival for me. Named for famed Scottish pioneer Norman McLaren, who would later found the National Film Board of Canada, this 2019 edition was particularly special – this marked the thirtieth anniversary of the McLarens at the EIFF, and the tenth, and as it happens, final year in the tenure of Iain Gardner, who has been in charge of the McLarens. I’ve really enjoyed Iain’s run taking care of the McLarens – it isn’t just the selecting and screening of interesting and diverse material, it’s the sense of encouraging and supporting and fostering new and emerging and existing talent. During the post-screening Q&As with all of the animators there is a real sense of support and encouragement, and that’s a good thing in any artistic medium if you want to have new blood and new ideas.

This year as part of the thirtieth anniversary we were treated to three rather than the usual two McLaren Animation segments, each with ten films, so thirty short works in all, covering all sorts of subjects (autobiography, documentary, politic, humour) and approaches (traditional hand-drawn, CG animation, stop-motion, puppetry and some films mixing methods). In a very welcome touch this year there was parity, a fifty-fifty split between female and male directors. At normal McLaren years there are too many films for me to go into each one individually, and that is more the case this year with the additional screening, so I’ll be sticking to my usual approach of picking out some of the films which I personally enjoyed the most.

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(some of the animators at the post McLaren screening Q&As – pics from my Flickr)
Edinburgh International Film Festival - McLaren Animation 020

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Ainslie Henderson – by now a well-kent face in animation circles and at McLaren – had a very beautiful, very emotional piece with Archie. A lovely stop-motion work, we follow an anthropomorphised dog-man (with his own actual pet dog!), the eponymous Archie, in a largely wordless film. Archie receives bad news and a key in the post – the key to this mother’s wee crofting house on one of the Scottish isles; she’s passed away, the old home is now his. Using only the movement of the figures rather than dialogue Henderson deftly conjures up that sudden, shattering blow of learning a loved one is gone, of the bottom falling out of your world, the sad journey back home to a house that is now empty, except not really, because it is filled with memories. It’s warm and sadly beautiful, with some nice little touches – Archie’s wee dog snuggling up to his master, sensing his pain – and I found myself thinking on loved ones I’ve lost and having to blink away years (I’m sure I wasn’t the only one).


(a scene from Ainslie Henderson’s Archie)

Chris and Victoria Watson’s Ladder to You also dealt with grief, in a very different way, with an elderly man, at home, now all alone and missing his wife terribly. He ponders parts of his life and the world, but nothing really works any more, not without her; without her it is meaningless, empty. When his wife’s photograph is blown out the window he follows it with a ladder to try and retrieve this last memento of her, and it takes him somewhere special. Josephine Lohoar Self’s also had that beautifully sad quality to it, a stop-motion piece about a shy young tailor, about a world where everyone wants to conform and be the same while he yearns for difference and encounters love.

Music & Clowns – trailer from Alex Widdowson on Vimeo.

JoAnne Salmon and and Alex Widdowson both impressed me with their biographical films, which were very emotionally warm and honest. Widdowson brought us Music & Clowns, an exploration of caring for a a family member with Down’s Syndrome. The parents talk honestly about the shock and surprise when their boy was born “different”, with his father commenting how as he held his newborn the moment of shock passed and he knew that he loved his boy anyway; he even, as they discuss him, reproaches his other son gently, commenting on how he may not understand everything but he is very empathic to the feelings of others, perhaps more than his brother. They talk about what life has been like, and the concerns of his parents as they get older, wondering how he will cope once they are too old, or passed on, a concern anyone with special needs family members must entertain.

Salmon gave us Chin Up, an autobiographical piece, the title riffing on one of the symptoms of Treacher Collins syndrome, where the bone structure of the face doesn’t form in the regular way, giving her a very unusual appearance (including not having a prominent chin). Again emotional honesty was key here as Salmon used differing artistic style to explore moments of her life – her birth, not being the “normal” little girl they were expecting, of not feeling particularly different until she went to school and having to deal with the unthinking comments of children, of how this affected her sense of self, how art and drawing became an escape for her, which eventually lead her to find animation and encouraged her to apply to study and then eventually create her own works.

Chin Up – Trailer – Animated Documentary from LoveLove Films on Vimeo.

Lauren Orme’s Creepy Pasta Salad was a fun piece, about a werewolf lady with low self-esteem, a man who may (or at least thinks he may be) dead and a ghost (and wondering if he is a ghost does he have to worry about that final electricity bill?), a Goth and the End of the World, and left me with a big smile. Ainslie Henderson, with Will Anderson, had more work in the form of three very brief pieces, My Best Friend (then each segment had a subtitle, such as “explodes”), nice, clean, simple graphics, two friends talking, but they are aware of being in a film, and they ponder the meaning of each title as it appears above them (you can imagine their alarm when it says “explodes”). Matthew Lee’s One Liner used claymation and drawn animation and touches on what used to be a cornerstone of British entertainment culture – the comedy double act, and more specifically who was “the funny one” (that oft-asked question that totally misses the point that these duos really only worked playing off one another).

mad dog trailer from steve boot on Vimeo.

Unsurprisingly given the last couple of years, politics hove into view during some of the films: Steve Boot had Mad Dogs, set in a pub of the same name, the classic British pub, a perfect place for examining what it means to be British in the modern era, using a collection of regulars in the pub who are all dogs, English, Scottish and Welsh (although oddly no Northern Irish), and uses a sprinkling of dialogue from the speeches of famous people among the lines as they all talk about about their sense of identity. Marta Lemos gave us Dear England, which used photo collage and drawn art among other styles, to explore the way British society has been changing, especially since the Brexit referendum, the way some elements now feel they can voice bigotry and hatred openly, the fact that some who came to make a home here, no matter how they fit in, will never be “British enough” for certain types.

I’d love to pick out more of the entries – the styles, the methods and the subjects were all so diverse we really were treated to a smorgasbord of excellent animation talent, quite a few entries being graduate degree films from students, and many of those now out in the world beyond college all still very young. I must mention Fokion Xenos who won the audience vote to scoop this thirtieth anniversary year McLaren Animation Award with Heatwave, which was a wonderful riot of colours and life in plasticine and other materials and depicted, yes a heatwave, on a tiny Greek island, rather timely given the burst of hot weather across the UK and Europe recently! And I have to give a shout out to Samantha Moore’s Bloomers, which documented the people, mostly women, who had worked in a garment design and manufacturing, and the changing fortunes over the years – the film had a very rich texture to the backgrounds, and, astonishingly Moore produced a sheet of silk (one of the fabrics the factory used) on which some of the art had been drawn then animated to give it that remarkable look and feel.

HEATWAVE – Trailer © NFTS 2019 from Fokion Xenos on Vimeo.

As I said, a real diversity of styles, methods and subjects. I’m confident that – as usually happens – we will see some of the McLaren entries crop up in a few months in the BAFTA and Oscar short animation nominee lists.