Spaghetti Western meets Holocaust in the remarkable 1945

1945,
Directed by Ferenc Török,
Starring Péter Rudolf, Bence Tasnádi, Tamás Szabó Kimmel, Dóra Sztarenki, Iván Angelus, Marcell Nagy

If someone had told me that there existed a Hungarian film in black and white which draws heavily on the style of Sergio Leone’s Westerns to create a different angle on the Holocaust, I think I would have been scornful, and yet that’s essentially what Ferenc Török has done with this astonishing film.

In a railway halt by a tiny Hungarian village, still transitioning from Nazi to Soviet occupation, the station master sweats in the summer heat, then sweats more from nerves as he observes to Orthodox Jewish men, a father an son (Iván Angelus and Marcell Nagy), disembarking the train, with two large chests which they have loaded onto a waiting horse and cart. As the pair walk slowly behind the cart towards the village, the station master cycles hurriedly ahead to warn the locals. What exactly do they have to fear from a middle aged man and his son? It isn’t clear at first (although if you know your history you may well guess).

Péter Rudolf’s town clerk is especially worried by this arrival a small, rotund, bald man who clearly enjoys having power and status in the village (and is worried about the changes the Soviet occupation may bring), and word soon spreads throughout the village about the imminent arrivals. Adding to this stew, this is the day of the clerk’s son’s wedding, and the entire village is involved – a chance for him to peacock his way around town and appear benevolent while really reinforcing his authority. And suddenly his little kingdom is falling apart as these two men approach, and his family and neighbours whisper about them, which family they are from, what they will demand when they arrive in town.

It’s soon apparent that most of the town fears the arrivals of these two Jewish men – as happened in many small towns across Europe the local Jews were rounded up by the Nazis, deported to the camps, and few lived to return. Meanwhile some of their former friends and neighbours made out rather well, taking their belongings, businesses and homes (Spiegelman included a section on this in his masterpiece, Maus). Safe to say they did not anticipate any of their Hebrew neighbours returning from that deportation. Some feel renewed guilt over what they did, how they profited, others hide their guilt with anger – how dare they try to take back these homes!

One of the most remarkable aspects of 1945 is that the Jewish father and son whose arrival precipitates this tsunami of guilt and soul-searching do very little in this narrative – they are glimpsed time and again, slowly walking through the heat-haze of the summer day, behind the wagon with their long trunks on the back, like a slow, dignified funeral procession. Their approaching presence is sufficient drive as the camera moves around the village, shots seen through twitching net curtains, guilty glances exchanged in the heat, recriminations start to mount, past sins surface, “foul deed will rise”.

Török allows all of this to stir and simmer, the villagers creating their own downfalls from their own past sins, their own darkness eating their souls. His director of photography Elemér Ragályi can’t be praised highly enough for his work lensing 1945 – his lighting and camera work allows Török to let the camera linger over the faces of the villagers, much the way Leone does with many of his (often unusual looking) subjects, in long, slow close-ups, taking time to build it all up. The white-washed village buildings glow in the strong sunlight, like the Mexican towns of an old Western, the black and white creating delicious, sharp contrasts with the shadows indoors, or low angles across the stubble of freshly harvested fields, through the heat haze towards the approaching father and son walking slowly, oh so slowly, towards the village.

It’s gorgeous-looking cinematography, and the use of numerous Western tropes fits this narrative of sin and guilt remarkably well, the father and son seen from one angle resemble mourners walking behind a hearse, from another angle they look like avenging gunfighters coming into a wicked town for some violent redemption (you could almost imagine the pocket watch music from For a Few Dollars More playing over these scenes).

The film is littered with other symbols the viewer can interpret (is the smoke from the steam train just smoke, or a metaphor for the smoke that bellowed from the chimneys of the death camps? The harvesting of the summer fields shorthand for the lives mown down? You’re free to interpret). 1945 is a stunning-looking piece of cinema that simmers slowly through deep emotions of guilt, anger and grief, and hints that the worst monster isn’t the spectre of eventual revenge for one’s sins but the poison those sins spill within our souls. I’m very glad my local Filmhouse picked this as one of their best 2018 films deserving re-screening. This would make an interesting double screening with Der Haputmann, which I reviewed a few months ago.

It’s not over till the fat lady screams: Opera

Opera,
Directed by Dario Argento,
Starring Cristina Marsillach, Urbano Barberini, Ian Charleson, Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni, William McNamara,
CultFilms

A young understudy, Betty (Cristina Marsillach), gets her big break when the temperamental diva storms out of a rehearsal of the opera of Macbeth, slap into an oncoming car outside the opera house. In a bizarre mixture of elements of Phantom of the Opera with the Giallo serial killer sub-genre, this accidental promotion to leading lady on a major production proves to be more of a curse than a blessing, as attacks and bodies start to mount rapidly, all happening around Betty in a deliberate and sadistic campaign of terror.

So much for the plot: this is, after all, a Dario Argento film, and as such the narrative is neither the strongest or most important element for the most part. And I don’t mean that in a snarky way; like many of my fellow horror-hounds I have long loved Argento’s films, but most really are frequently bonkers on the logical story front. Not that it matters, as, in my opinion anyway, Argento horrors are far more about the experience, the dream (or nightmare) imagery and sounds, the emotional reactions these draw, and it is part of what makes his body of work so distinctive and visceral.

Opera is one of Argento’s more lavish works, making great use of the grand opera house location, but doing so in a very Argento manner. The opening scenes of the rehearsal give us great views of the interior of this grand theatre, but from perspectives that are unusual, even distorted, while the collection of ravens being used in the production caw ominously, followed by a long reverse tracking shot, all seen from the diva’s perspective, as she storms out. Another (handheld this time?) tracking shot takes us through young Betty’s apartment in an almost Sam Raimi-esque fashion, intimating an immediate threat to her, only for the tension to dissipate when we see it is just her friend visiting.

The film is replete with clever camera moves like these, or shots which go through the claustrophobia of a ventilation duct out into the vast, baroque space of the opera house interior and swings around the stage, creating not only some stunning visuals but also generating a disturbing sense of dislocation, of things being out of kilter, of someone or something watching, just out of sight. When not indulging in some skilfully mobile camera moves Argento also creates some more close-up, intimate moments of tension and horror, such as the killer’s point of view perspective (just those iconic Giallo killer’s leather gloves visible).

And then there is that scene – many of you will know the one I mean, it has passed into horror movie history as an incredibly inventive, disturbing and iconic shots. Betty, tied up by the killer (again only glimpses of his leather gloves), but she is not the main target, rather she is the sadistic victim, restrained, needles taped to her cheeks below her eyes so she dare not blink, forcing her to watch as the killer waits for her boyfriend to enter and be slaughtered.

From Un Chien Andalou onwards film horror has often had a fascination with the eye – even for those of us brought up on the body horror of Cronenberg and others, there remains something compelling and sickening about a threat to the eyeball. And of course it isn’t just about the Giallo killer’s desire to torture Betty by making her watch him kill the victims before her helpless, captive gaze, it is, by extension including the audience, our perverse thrill at watching such scenes, a feeling reinforced by often shooting from the killer’s perspective, placing the audience in his shoes (or in this case his leather gloves), giving us both the thrill while also disturbing us with the thought we are virtually complicit in these horrors.

CultFilm’s loving 2K restoration gives these astonishing, bravura locations and inventively shot scenes the lustre and beauty they richly deserve, allowing the viewer to glory in that partly-insane, dream/nightmare trip that is Argento’s mind.

Opera is released by CultFilms on dual-format Blu-Ray and DVD on January 21st, and includes several tasty extras such as an interview with Argento himself

Stan and Ollie

Stan and Ollie,
Directed by Jon S Baird,
Starring John C. Reilly, Shirley Henderson, Steve Coogan, Nina Arianda, Danny Huston

This is one of 2019’s films which I have been eagerly awaiting. I should explain that my father ensured as a youngster that I was brought up in The Faith: Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Tom’n’Jerry and of course, Laurel and Hardy. We still watch their films together today. So you will understand that while in some ways I may be predisposed towards a film about one of the greatest filmic double acts of all time, my lifelong love of Stan and Ollie also means I could be more critical of how anyone portrays them. I imagine that for many of us that will be the case, L&H have engendered life-long love in us, it’s not easy to see someone else portray them. Well, friends and Sons of the Desert, you can breathe easy, for Coogan and Reilly are clearly like us, in love with Stan and Ollie, and it is obvious this is a great labour of love for both of those actors, determined to do justice to their cinematic heroes.

While the film mostly circles around the events during Stan and Ollie’s final tour, through post-war Britain (their final performances together), it opens in 1937 in the legendary Hal Roach Studios, with the pair getting ready to film the dance scene from the brilliant Way Out West, while arguing with Roach (the always excellent Huston) about money and control of their films, hinting at the break which will come soon when Stan, his contract finishing before Ollie’s, tries to break out and set up in control of their own films, but Babe doesn’t follow for various reasons, causing a personal as well as professional rift just as the pair are at the peak of their global stardom.

Moving forward to the post-war era we find the pair being dropped off at their hotel in Newcastle for the start of their UK and Irish tour (the one which would finally prove to be their last). It is clear from the start that their star has fallen – the hotel is just a general inn, not one of the fancier, big hotels you’d expect Hollywood royalty to be staying in, and then they find that the smooth stage impressario arranging their UK tour has them booked to play small venues, not the big theatres. And even those smaller venues are not exactly packed. While they are still a beloved act, it has been many years since they performed in a film together, and it seems the fickle public demand and attention has slipped away from the duo. Fortunately some PR stunts (you can see many of those in newsreel footage on YouTube) helps to whip up interest and leads to a boom in ticket sales.

The film, however, isn’t really about a pair of stars trying to continue years after their heyday, however, that is just the backdrop; the real story here is about friendship and love, the stresses and strains of a long relationship. We all know from our own personal experiences that even our oldest friends can sometimes drive us crazy or upset us (and we them), and how much harder are those strains when you add global fame to the mix? There are sparks of the old magic, laughter mixed with a tinge of melancholy, moments of bitter recrimination and regrets voiced to hurt, but most of all there’s a feeling of two men who for all of that remain closer than close, their personal timing (that hallmark of all great comedians) so beautifully attuned to one another’s rhythms. “I love him,” Stan tells his wife, simply. In another scene after Ollie falls ill Stan lies down next to him in the bed, like one of the film scenes, comforting his old pal, his other half, arguments forgotten.

Coogan and Reilly’s performances are simply outstanding. It isn’t just that they re-create the look and mannerisms (even the expressions) of Stan and Ollie, it’s deeper than that. This was a partnership that flourishes for years, the two perfectly attuned to each other’s beats, the sort of partnership that comes out of years of being together, and somehow Reilly and Coogan summon up that feeling here, they really come across as if they are a couple of pals who have known each other for decades, their timing and interaction is that convincing. The film itself made me both cry and laugh, it is touching, in places reflective, but it also celebrates one of the great filmic partnerships, it celebrates their work, work which has lasted it through the test of time, it celebrates the pure joy that Laurel and Hardy brought to millions.

The recreations of some of their classic scenes in the film still reduced the audience I was with to gales of laughter, they still worked, they still made the audience roar. There are so many hard trials in life, but there are also those moments of delight and joy, and for many of us Laurel and Hardy were there to be one of those sources of joy the world needs. They still are, and this film celebrates that legacy.

Best of the Year 2018

Time for my annual Best of the Year 2018 selection where I traditionally pick out some of my favourite books, comics/graphic novels and films of the year. I suspect they will not generate the interest they garnered back when I was posting them on the now sadly vanished Forbidden Planet Blog, but it’s something I’ve done for years so I thought why not continue?

Books

The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs,
Steve Brusatte,
Macmillan

I’ve been fascinated by these magnificent creatures from millions of years ago since I was a very small boy, and I’ve never grown out of that fascination. Edinburgh University professor Brusatte gives a great overview of some of the amazing research and discoveries from the last few decades which have vastly increased out understanding of how these animals developed, how different types coped with changing environments and climates (of great interest to our own species given the climate change we’re causing), through to their decline and the legacy they left behind. This is all delivered in a wonderfully enthusiastic and open manner, and with Brusatte also including descriptions of his own personal expeditions and the others he has worked with it has a nice, warm, personal aspect to it too.

Arm of the Sphinx,
Josiah Bancroft,
Orbit Books

I thought Bancroft’s Senlin Ascends, the first of the Books of Babel was ““An engrossing, intoxicating delight – I can’t wait to climb higher.” In fact that quote from my review of the first book is on the back cover of this second volume, and it applies equally to this impressive sequel. The innocent abroad Senlin has been rapidly having to learn his way through the ringdoms of the tower as he is exposed to new challenges well beyond what he has been used to. Taking the moniker Tom Mudd he has commandeered an airship and with a small crew carries out some peculiar piracy to keep themselves going as he plans new – an increasingly dangerous and desperate – ways to ascend further and seek his missing wife. While the tensions are increased here and we see the toll they take on the characters, we also get to learn far more about the fascinating Tower and the multiple societies which inhabit it, all wrapped up in Bancroft’s utterly gorgeous prose. The full review can be read here.

The Labyrinth Index,
Charles Stross,
Orbit

The ninth entry in the excellent Laundry Files series, which sees an especially secret part of the Intelligence Services that deals with the unusual threats, from things that go bump in the night right up to incursions from adjacent dimensions of awakening, Lovecraftian dark gods. The last couple of volumes have changed the game for this series, with the service outed to the public (and government scrutiny) after a disaster that couldn’t be concealed, and a desperate better-the-devil-you-know move at the end of the last volume which saw a conspiracy to bring in a dark elder god which could lead to the end of humanity thwarted by making a deal with another – slightly more reasonable – dark god, who has now taken on a human mask and become the prime minister…

Just as it seems our real world is spiraling into ever great darkness and mad governments, so too here, as strange things are afoot in the USA, where the president hasn’t been seen for months, and most people don’t even remember the word “president”, while the Laundry’s counterparts in the US – the Nazgul, as they are termed, not affectionately – seem deeply involved, leading the new PM to dispatch a secret Laundry team to America. Part political satire, part spy thriller, part fantasy, laced with dark humour, the Laundry Files simply keeps becoming better and better. I am amazed Netflix hasn’t tried to make a series from these books yet.

Red Moon,
Kim Stanley Robinson,
Orbit

Robinson has been one of the most outstanding and thoughtful SF writers of the last couple of decades – his Mars trilogy is pretty much required reading at NASA. In this near future book we move back and forth from China to the Moon, now home to bases by many nations and freelance prospectors too, but mostly dominated by China which invests in the Moon the way they have invested in massive infrastructure projects back home.

A conspiracy between factions in China vying for leadership of the party coincides with a rising people power movement and international problems, with an American man and a Chinese woman thrown together as an odd couple buffeted by these titanic forces, and also sees the return of the wonderful Ta Shu from Robinson’s Antarctica novel. As with all of his books it is well researched (both the science and the possible government and economic models) but retains a warm interest in the people involved. Thoughtful and compelling.

Thin Air,
Richard Morgan,
Gollancz

I’ve been a huge fan of Morgan’s since I was sent an advanced copy of his debut Altered Carbon years ago, it was also the first book my long-running SF Book Group ever discussed. After a series of fantasy novels Morgan is back in hard-boiled SF with Thin Air, and Hakan Veil, a former corporate mercenary now eking out a living in Bradbury, the main Martian city. With the arrival of an Earth oversight committee politics, policing and the criminal network on Mars is put into a turmoil, with Hak hired by the police to supposedly babysit a junior member of the oversight team.

Of course nothing is as it seems here, and there are plans and counterplans from Earth, Mars and corporations which dominate the solar system, as well as more local-level shenanigans between police, crime gangs and politicians (the three are often closely connected). This is all driver by Morgan’s very Noir style, like a science fiction Raymond Chandler, with powerful action sequences and a labyrinth of conspiracies to navigate, layered with social commentary on the failure of politics, the inequality of wealth and the reach of giant corporations.

Finding Baba Yaga,
Jane Yolen,
Tor Books

The prolific Jane Yolen returns with an unusual entry in Tor’s very welcome series of SF&F short novellas, this time giving us a reworking of the ancient folklore of the Baba Yaga, told in poetical form in this brief but magical book. Natasha is a young girl fleeing a broken home; like many lost souls before her she enters the Deep Dark Woods, and there she encounters the chicken-legged house of the famous witch, the Baba Yaga.

Where a young boy might have been gobbled up by the Baba Yaga, the house seems to welcome the young girl, as it it had been waiting for her, the old witch herself, grumpy and yet seemingly accepting of Natasha. This is one of those stories that welcomes re-readings as there are multiple layers and possible meanings to be teased from it, from a parable about growing up, finding your way, being different to ruminating on the power of myth and folklore, this is one to get lost in. You can read my full review here.

Rosewater,
Tade Thompson,
Orbit

There are times when I get sent a book, the author is new to me and I know nothing of it other than what the blurb says on the press sheet, but I somehow just know it is going to be good, and I’ve learned to trust that instinct over the years. I got that vibe with Thompson’s Rosewater, winner of the first Nommo Award for speculative fiction in Africa. Set in a strange, circular town in a future Nigeria, which has sprung up around what seems to be an alien structure it follows a decidedly non-heroic (and yet very still likeable) lead character, a “sensitive” with psi powers who has a day job as part of a psionic firewall for a bank, but is really a reluctant member of the intelligence services.

The story weaves his tale of growing up with the increase in such sensitives and his own awareness of his growing ability, the alien artefact and combines them with elements of Nigerian social and folkloric norms and a beautifully described setting that practically has you tasting and smelling this strange African city. It’s refreshing to have Africa so beautifully used and described, and the setting and culture add hugely to the pleasure of reading Rosewater. A stunning debut, I can’t wait for the second book in 2019…

Dreadful Company,
Vivian Shaw,
Orbit Books

I loved the first of Shaw’s Greta Helsing books last year (in fact there’s a quote from my review of that on the cover of this volume), introducing the GP who ministers to an unusual patient group, the supernatural creatures of London, from pregnant ghouls to depressed vampires. This time Greta is taking a break to attend a conference in Paris, in the company of her elegant friend, the vampire Lord Ruthven, when she is kidnapped.

There follows a delightfully tense story as her friends attempt to find and rescue her, while the resourceful Greta makes her own attempts to rescue herself. Along the way the world of Greta is expanded, with new characters and creatures, and the book is layered with multiple references to earlier fiction from Anne Rice’s Vampire Lestat to Leroux’s classic Phantom of the Opera, and even manages to reference The Prisoner! Compelling story, wonderful characters and a delightful sense of fun, this is a total pleasure to read. You can read the full review here.

Comics/Graphic Novels

The Best of Enemies:a History of US & Middle East Relations Volume 3,
Jean-Pierre Filiu, David B,
SelfMadeHero

Back in the summer of 2015 I heard Jean-Pierre Filiu, former French diplomat turned history lecturer, discuss the first two volumes of his collaboration with the brilliant David B (Epileptic) with their graphic history Best of Enemies. You could be forgiven for thinking three volumes of a history of the relationship between the America (right from early days of the Republic) and the Middle East may be dry, but this is anything but. Instead driven by Filiu’s extensive research, and in later sections drawing on his own experiences, and with David B’s astonishing artwork, this is a remarkable way to explore some of the pivotal events and relationships which have influenced the region, and in return, the politics of the entire globe; essential reading for trying to understand something of how our world has become the way it is. The full review is here

Out in the Open,
Javi Rey, adapted from the novel by Jesús Carrasco,
SelfMadeHero

I had the pleasure of chairing Javi at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in the summer, where he explained that the Spanish publisher of Jesús Carrasco’s acclaimed Out in the Open approached him to adapt it into graphic novel form. Where Carrasco’s novel is noted for its beautiful prose, Javi takes a different approach, using very few works, making the artwork carry the story, and it does so quite magnificently, from vast, open desert landscapes (you can almost imagine an Ennio Morricone soundtrack to it) to more intimate scenes as we see a terrified young boy who has fled a useless, violent father and an abusive local sheriff. So much emotion is conveyed through the almost silent art panels, it is a truly remarkable read, powerful and emotional.

Tumult,
John Harris Dunning, Michael Kennedy,
SelfMadeHero

This was another book festival event for me, in fact John and Mikey were sharing the stage with Javi Rey and myself as we discussed their very fine graphic novels at the festival. Tumult is a gorgeous-looking work, which deftly mixes various elements – midlife crisis, the self-destructive urge, romance (of an unusual form), and the thriller, dealing with a film-maker dealing with where his life has gone to so far encountering an enigmatic woman who he has an affair with, but the next time he sees her she says she doesn’t know who he is.

Slowly we begin to realise that her body is home to several distinct personalities, and the woman he made love to was just one of them. There are hints of the old-school spy thriller too here – her multiple personality disorder may be in part due to a shadowy and supposedly defunct secret programme, and we can’t always be sure quite what is true and what is not. Dunning’s script and Kennedy’s art work perfectly together, using expression, inflection and colour to help give the impression of the distinctly different personalities manifesting themselves. A gripping, superb book and one of the best comics I’ve read all year.

The Inking Woman,
Edited by Nicola Streeten and Cath Tate,
Myriad Editions

In the year of #MeToo and a very welcome strong surge in artistic projects of all sorts by and about women, The Inking Woman made its bow from Myriad Editions (a treasure of an Indy publisher, one which really encourages and fosters new talent and celebrates different voices). Comics and cartooning have often, with some justification, been labelled a boy’s club, but The Inking Woman shines a light on and celebrates some 250 years of British women cartoonists, from Mary Darly in the late 1700s or Marie Duval in the Victorian era through to the Underground Comix of the 60s, the women of the 70s and 80s growing up in the era of Women’s Lib and powerful feminist voices, right through to the contemporary crop of exceptionally fine female creators we have in the UK right now (especially in the Indy comics scene). This is a reference work that should be read by anyone with an interest in UK comics and cartooning. It’s also often very funny, a celebration of some creators that will already be familiar to you and a good pointer to others whose work will be new to you.

The full review is here

It Don’t Come Easy,
Philippe Dupuy, Charles Berberian,
Drawn & Quarterly

I’m a long-time admirer of the Angouleme-winning Dupuy and Berberian (even reading some of their works in the original French, no meant feat given how rusty my French language skills are), and this volume collects several of the later Monsieur Jean albums into one large collection. The usual gang is all here but much older, and with the Real Life thing getting in the way just as it does for all of us – from living in each other’s pockets they are all still friends but with jobs, families of their own and even living in different cities, they don’t see each other as much as they did before.

The author Jean is still a ball of neuroses (as in earlier volumes still often illustrated in his unusual and often amusing dreams), despite having has success as a writer, a wife and a child (and old Felix who is almost a surrogate child as much as friend, and his son). The story moves from Paris to New York and takes in a lot of the ups and downs of life that we can all empathise with as we rejoin our old (and getting older!) friends, mixed with the trademark flights of fancy that have figured throughout the series. The full review is here

My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies,
Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips, Jacob Phillips,
Image

When a new Brubaker and Phillips collaboration is announced I know I am going to be reading it – personally it doesn’t matter the subject, I’ll read anything Ed and Phillip create. This starts off seeming like a cross between Romeo and Juliet (the star-crossed lovers) and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as we meet Ellie and Skip in the group therapy room of a rehab clinic, both clearly more interested in flirting with one another than the supposed remedy of the therapy.

As both are addicts we often can’t trust what they tell us about themselves – there is no godlike narrator here giving the reader the inside scoop, we pick up bits and pieces and can’t be certain which facts are true. It could have alienated the reader but instead it is used as a way of bringing us deeper into the character’s lives, and then there is the whole youthful rebellion aspect of it, which always has a certain doomed appeal. There’s a lot more going on as we move further into the tale, but to say anymore would be to risk spoilers, suffice to say this is a clever, engrossing and damned stylish tale. The full review is here

Modern Slorance: the Finland Issue,
Neil Slorance

I’m always happy when I have  new Neil Slorance work to read – I’ve been reading and reviewing his work for several years since first coming across some of his self-published works, and have a special fondness for his travel comics. Neil has a lovely knack of showing and exploring the new places he is visiting in a warm, open, often smile-inducing manner. Here he has won a trip to an art colony in Finland where he will be creating new work but also using it as a base to go and explore further afield, the cities, museums and as always in his travel works, the food (quite how Neil lost so much weight when he fills his comics travels with dining, I don’t know!). Unusually this one is in colour and Neil takes advantage of this to give his art an extra layer of expression. Lovely, warm, smile-inducing work.The full review is here

Escaping Wars and Waves: Encounters with Syrian Refugees,
Olivier Kugler,
Myriad Editions / New Internationalist

Like the better-known Joe Sacco, Kugler practices a form of graphic journalism, although in a very different style. The refugee crisis has dominated headlines across Europe and further afield, and for every piece of proper reporting there seems to be ten baseless scare stories motivated purely by bigotry and xenophobia. What Kugler does so well here is to step back, still his own voice and instead do his best to give that voice to the refugees themselves.

What becomes clear in this book is the basic shared humanity of these people in a desperate plight. This isn’t the “horde” of “foreigners” that the likes of the hate-filled Mail shouts about, these are people, many of them had highly respected roles in their society – doctors, lawyers, architects, midwifes – and good homes for their families. All of which were ripped away just like that, home, loved ones, sometimes even most of their town just gone. It shows how horribly easy it is for even what seems like a stable society to be broken and produce refugees who rely on the help of their fellow humans. It puts a very human, individual face on people all too often vilified in the press and by certain politicians for their own ends, and reminds us how we are all of us vulnerable and may at some point rely on the kindness of strangers. The full review is here

Punk’s Not Dead,
David Barnett, Martin Simmonds,
Black Crown/IDW

Music, a supernatural threat and the ghost of Sid Vicious – how could I not read this?!?! Barnett and Simmonds bring us a troubled teen and his huckster single mother (putting on different fake personas to appear for money on reality shows), who encounters the ghost of the punk rocker Sid Vicious in, of all places, the bathroom in the airport (Sid, who no-one else can see, explains his mum dropped his ashes in the airport bringing his remains home from New York). There’s a peculiar, mis-matched buddy story here but allied to a rising tide of unusual, supernatural events happening in the UK and a very odd and possibly mad older woman (who used to have eternal youth until something went wrong) who works for a covert part of British Intelligence which covers the supernatural beat, and who is very interested in the musical spook…

Black Hammer Volume 3: Age of Doom Part One,
Jeff Lemire, Dean Ormston,
Dark Horse

I’ve had Jeff Lemire down as one of the best talents to watch in comics since his early works like Essex County for Top Shelf years back. Since then he’s gone on to write and draw a range of works for both the big publishers and maintaining an impressive output of Indy works. With Black Hammer and the associated spin-off mini-series he and Ormston have created a hugely intriguing tale (a group of heroes who saved the world in one desperate battle but awoke to find themselves stuck in a small farming town they can’t leave and no idea how it happened) and then proceeded to layer this mystery, mining the rich legacy of decades of superhero comics, riffing deliciously on many golden age style heroes and plots but in a very contemporary way. It’s a gripping story with some terrific characters (playing with the older superhero tropes but also showing the human side of their lives) and a deep mystery, an absolutely fabulous series.

Film

The Shape of Water,
Directed by Guillermo Del Toro

Ever since the highly unusual vampire tale Cronos many years back I have been following the work of Guillermo Del Toro and loving it, but with The Shape of Water (which swept many awards) he excelled himself. Del Toro has often mined folklore and the darker side of fairy tales for his stories; here he mixes that dark fairy tale magic with loving homages to earlier movie genres, notably the golden age musicals and a glorious, wonderfully odd romance, powered by the fabulous Sally Hawkins’s mute woman and the amphibian creature played by Del Toro regular, Doug Jones, who again gives an amazing performance, he’s an incredible physical actor. Simply a gorgeous film.

BlackKklansman,
Directed by Spike Lee

Playing with some actual events but highly fictionalised, Lee’s latest takes the highly improbable scenario of a black detective in the 1970s blags his way into joining the KKK over the phone, then has to persuade his white colleagues to back him up, with one having to pretend to be him in real life to join. In a period where most police were more worried about civil rights activists than white supremacist terrorism (still an area much of law enforcement tends to ignore in the US, despite the deaths they have caused).

It gives great scope for comedy and Lee does work in plenty of humour, contrasting with the far heavier subject of bigotry and racism, with a strong feeling of many being “woke” as they say. There are some very cool visuals – faces floating out of the darkness in an auditorium during a talk by an activist, a sense of individuals realising they have some knowledge and power, and a use of recent news footage which hammers the viewer with an inescapable brutality, linking the racism of the 70s to today.

Ghost Stories,
Directed by Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson

Taking the anthology approach as made famous by 70s horrors like the Amicus Productions, Ghost Stories, adapted from Nyman and Dyson’s own stage play, has several supernatural tales linked by a professional debunker who normally disproves cases (such as supposed ghosts or fake psychics conning people), who is challenged by the man who had been his inspiration to try and disprove several cases he couldn’t.

The linked tales are all handled with an elegant less is more simplicity – traditional effects rather than CG (even the old fishing wire to move objects, which the actors said actually helped them on set), this establishes a growing sense of disturbing unease early on (a tale of a night watchmen in an old asylum) and it just gets creepier and creepier. I love a good horror but rarely find any today that genuinely give me chills – Ghost Stories even made the mundane location of a suburban house seem worryingly scary (you really, really don’t want the character to step out into the dark staircase landing). It’s just been added recently to Netflix, so if you missed it you can catch it on there.

Anna and the Apocalypse,
Directed by John McPhail

It’s horror! It’s comedy! It’s romance! It’s a zombie apocalypse! It’s a Christmas movie! It’s a musical! This was my last movie of the 2018 Edinburgh International Film Festival and it was sooo much fun the audience was clapping and joining in. Taking the mickey out of the American teen high school musical (but in a wee west coast Scotland school, complete with dancing dinner ladies) this takes The Usual Suspects like the pretty, talented one, her best friend (who is clearly in love with her), the silly one, the ditzy but lovable one, the jock who hides a better nature, gives them the last Christmas concert of their school life before they have to face the outside world, then drops in the zombie apocalypse. Enormous fun. My full review is here

Charlie and Hannah’s Grand Night Out,
Directed by Bert Scholiers

Another of my film festival screenings from 2018, this was one of those movies I knew nothing about other than the short description in the film fest programme, but I just had a feeling about this Belgian flick, and there’s something great about discovering an unknown gem like this – that’s partly what film festivals are for, after all.

Shot mostly in black and white (apart from some brief, lurid colour) this is a charming, funny, eccentric film as Charlie and Hannah, two best friends, have a big night out and encounter increasingly surreal events, from Catherine the Great bumming a smoke in the garden of a party or a brothel where all the ladies of the night are famous literary figures, to full out fantasy sequences, this has the sort of magical charm of early Jean-Pierre Jeunet or Lisa the Fox Fairy. The full review is here

Saving Brinton,
Directed by Tommy Haines, Andrew Sherburne

Another Edinburgh Film Festival find for me, and in fact my favourite movie of the many I watched in 2018. A documentary about the Brinton Collection, a treasure trove of works from a turn of the 20th century showman and his wife who travelled the US but were based in a tiny Iowa town. Local resident Mike Zahs (looking like a genial cross between Santa Claus and Gandalf) has for decades preserved this material, which includes showbills, magic lantern slides and some incredibly early silent films. How early? Well as Mike himself said at the talk after the screening, the big names we think of as the stars of the silent era, the Chaplins, the Clara Bow’s etc, were children when these films were made.

After decades of struggling to interest a wider audience Mike finally gets local, then national, then international academics interested, and the collection gets the attention it requires and deserves, with excited scholars finding Mike has preserved works thought lost for a century. But it isn’t just about preserving this treasure of early cinema, the film is as much about the local community – Mike has shown some of these treasure for years in the local cinema (which, by the way, is now Guinness certified as the oldest continually running cinema in the world – not a cinema in Paris or London or New York but a wee farm town in Iowa, there is something pleasing about that). This is utterly charming and wonderful, a must-see for any of us who love cinema. My full review is here

The Favourite

The Favourite,
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos,
Starring Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone

My first film of the New Year and, oh boy, it was a damned good one too! You wait ages for a good historical, period film with strong female leads to come along, then January delivers us two, Mary Queen of Scots and this, Lanthinos’ rather excellent The Favourite. I’ve been itching to see this since I first saw the trailer a while back – Olivia Colman, here playing Queen Anne in the early 1700s (just before the Act of Union) is, for my money, one of our best UK thesps. Colman can play anything, from broad comedy to tragedy to kitchen-sink, emotional heavy drama, and here she uses her formidable acting skills to craft a layered performance where some others may have settled for something less complex, and it plays remarkably in the favour of The Favourite.

A synopsis of the plot makes it all sound rather straightforward and predictable: Sarah, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), the powerful and influential wife of the war hero the Duke of Marlborough (Mark Gatis) has made herself the favourite of the often emotionally vulnerable and fragile Queen Anne, becoming so beloved by the Queen and so indispensable that her “advice” is often little more than her pushing her own agenda on the Queen and getting it through Parliament, while continually conspiring and scheming to ensure her own place.

Enter Emma Stone’s Abigail Hill, a cousin of Sarah’s fallen on hard times (the family fortune gone). Abigail appears sweet and innocent, but it is soon clear she is anything but, and she is determined to use her cunning to learn from her cousin and work her way up from lowly servant back to being a lady of society. Sarah, of course, is unlikely to simply let anything threaten her position with the Queen, leading to a battle of wits and changing conspiracies and alliances made in dark rooms, all concealed behind courtly protocol and polite masks, as we watch to see which can manipulate their way to a winning hand.

Except that really, really doesn’t do The Favourite justice. The complex webs of plans and blatant emotional manipulation practised by both Sarah and Abigail, and the way they dance around each other is a delicious delight to watch, and avoids the simplistic approach of one being good, one bad, both are conniving, ruthless, determined and others, including nobles, MPs, the Prime Minister and even Queen Anne herself are simply part of their Machiavellian scheming. The interplay between the two is just fabulous to watch.

Colman’s Queen Anne, a woman marked by loss (seventeen pregnancies, seventeen lost children, stillbirths or miscarriages, quite terrible) starts off like a moody child, Weisz’s Sarah knowing how to cajole, persuade (or even slightly threaten) her to get her to behave, but as the film goes on Colman’s superb acting gives glimpses of far more emotional complexity, of a real person with real emotional and health problems, and, quite possibly, one who is not the innocent victim in this tug of war between the other two, but is perhaps well aware of their goings-on and maybe even secretly encouraging it and enjoying it…

The interplay between these three women is wonderful to watch, and the ridiculously complex court protocols and life are humorously undercut by humour, often quite bawdy (the C word features more than a few times and I was reminded of the poetry of Lord Rochester from that period several times). And how refreshing to watch a film not just with three very powerful and nuanced female leads, but females leads who totally (and rightly) dominate this story – the men, even historical heavyweights like Gatis’s Duke of Marlborough, are very secondary, there to move parts of the plot along but always behind these three formidable women characters.

Aardman: An Epic Journey

Aardman, An Epic Journey, Taken One Frame at a Time,
Peter Lord and David Sproxton, with David Gritten
Simon & Schuster

Aardman Animation has, rightly in my opinion, become a national, and indeed international, treasure, a bastion of quality animation – most especially the fine art of stop-motion animation – all the while maintaining their warm, Indy, quirky, lovably eccentric British humour and sensibilities. Aardman, An Epic Journey follows the two founders, Peter Lord and David Sproxton, across more than forty years of history, and what a story it is – from schoolboy chums playing with a parent’s old cine camera, making simple animations on an old kitchen table to first early forays into television in the 1970s through to Creature Comforts, award-winning adverts that helped the young company thrive with a decent income through to BAFTA and Oscar glory and beyond to the contemporary internet era. All this from two young friends playing with an old camera and cut-out animation on a kitchen table…

The book is chronological, essentially a biography of David and Peter and Aardman itself, starting with their school friendship, a new hobby using an old camera, a home-made rostrum mount for it on a venerable kitchen table that was now surplus to requirements. What started as fun and experimentation rapidly becomes something more as the young lads find they can create their own animated shorts. In this they are hugely encouraged by their parents and others – encouragement and nurturing of talent will be a theme throughout this book, right from the start – and they are also inspired by various art books and some of those unusual children’s programmes of the early 70s, such as Vision On (a very visually-rich series aimed to cater for hearing-impaired kids).

(above and below, the book also comes with several pages of photos and illustrations from throughout Aardman’s forty-plus year history)

A family connection to the BBC and their home-made experiments gets them their first paying work with some brief animated snippets for Vision On, and then the follow-up, Take Hart. For the latter they would move away from their 2-D basic animations and start using a substance found in most children’s toy boxes, Plasticine. This time the idea wasn’t just for animated interludes but to have a character who could riff off the iconic Tony Hart, a foil to the much beloved art presenter. That wee Plasticine creation was, of course, Morph, and it would change not only the direction of their animation style but their entire career, the first of a number of Aardman characters who would become embedded in and beloved by popular culture.

The 1980s sees growth and the arrival of a young Nick Park, the arrival of Channel 4 (with a budget and remit to include more unusual works, including animation aimed at older viewers and not just for kids) and the huge expansion of well-funded advertising. Aardman had already crafted some interesting animation based around some free-range dialogue recorded by simply leaving a microphone at a homeless shelter, then working around the real-life dialogue, and this approach of using real-world, everyday people’s dialogue then building the animation around it found expression in Creature Comforts, the humans’ words now put into the mouths of animated zoo animals, to huge effect. Not only did this go down well and remain warmly regarded by many animation fans and inspire more advertisers to use Aardman (the ads being a great bread and butter income source for animators and artists between their film projects), it lead to an Academy Award nomination – and a win (amazingly A Grand Day Out was also in contention, so Nick both won and lost the same Oscar!). Aardman’s first Oscar and not their last…

As the 80s and 90s roll on Wallace and Gromit make their bow and soon become one of the studio’s most recognised and most adored set of characters (come one, who among us doesn’t love the humour, the craft that goes into those W&G films, the beautiful attention to detail, the multiple references to classic Brit films? How many of you are hearing the W&G theme music in your head just thinking about them?), feature films and co-operation with major US Hollywood studios like Dreamworks. This doesn’t always go smoothly – the smalller-scale, eccentric, people-driven Aardman style is very different from the big Hollywood system, and the book explores the ups and downs, although refreshingly there is no back-biting or snarky gossip here, just acknowledgement that the Hollywood studios and their approach didn’t really mesh with Aardman’s way of doing things, but also that those joint adventures taught them a lot about the business and helped Aardman.

Given the huge range of famous thesps who have lined up to voice an Aardman character it will not surprise you to learn the book also contains quotes from a number of famous actors about their time working with Aardman. Most, as Peter and David acknowledge freely (and almost gleefully) say their painstaking attention to details can drive actors up the wall and across the ceiling, requiring endless re-takes and re-recordings of slightly different voice techniques as the animators have a particular idea in mind to fit their characters, and they have to work the actors until they strike that note (also, as the duo admit, at first they simply were not used to directing actors). However this is all tongue in cheek – while I’m sure the endless re-takes for the voice talent does drive the actors mad, they all seem to understand that it is because of the perfectionism of the animators, and that the actual animation itself requires even more time and more excruciatingly painstaking work. And clearly they still all want to be a part of it.

There are lots of fascinating little sidebars to enjoy here too – those of you of a certain age will recognise some of the adverts Aardman made in the 80s and 90s and perhaps never knew it was their work (remember the animated skeleton advertising Scotch Video Tapes, “re-record, not fade away” or Douglas the wee man who came to life from a packet of Lurpak butter? All Aardman works). Or the fact that the Hawes Dairy in Yorkshire was struggling, until in Wallace and Gromit: a A Close Shave Wallace mentions Wensleydale, and the dairy finds demand soaring. Cheese-makers accidentally given a huge boost in sales by animated characters, there is something wonderfully Aardman about that, isn’t there? And I am sure Wallace and Gromit would approve.

(Above, the Aardman-created animated skeleton for Scotch Video Tape’s advert, below, another 80s boom for animators with the arrival of MTV demanding more visually interesting music videos, including the now iconic Peter Gabriel Sledgehammer video, shot in a remarkably short period of intense work and featuring among the crew very young Brothers Quay, now revered as giants of Brit animation)

I mentioned the encouragement very young Peter and David received right at the start of their animation experiments, even before they had made anything actually for sale. That becomes a theme running throughout this book, starting with the nurturing of teenage Peter and David’s interests and talents, then they in turn paying that forward, encouraging new animators like Nick Park and Golly, trying their best to make sure all their staff feel valued, encouraged, running mentoring schemes, becoming heavily involved in charity works, especially in their much-loved home-town of Bristol (even those Bristolians who aren’t animation fans love Aardman because they put back into their city and community).

This continues right up to the design of their latest HQ building and – as many of you may have read in the news just before the book came out – Peter and David, with one eye to how Aardman will run when they choose to retire, have put the shares for the company into a trust, effectively making all the Aardman staff shareholders of their own company, empowering the staff and rewarding them while also heading off any larger media company simply gobbling them up and changing them.

(above and below, the book has some lovely attention to detail, including these gorgeous end-papers, with original Wallace and Gromit sketches at the front and Shaun the Sheep at the back)

That note of encouragement and having fun is perhaps one of the nicest aspects of this book, perhaps even more so than the fascinating history of how this beloved company came into being and grew, of how its characters conquered our hearts. It gives this book a warm, smile-inducing quality, an utter delight, much like Aardman’s films themselves do. A lovely, open, friendly history of a great British film institution.

You can browse Aardman’s own YouTube Channel here.

“I was always a mad comet…”

I was always a mad comet, a dark star...”

Phillip Hoare’s short film about the poet Wilfred Owen has a sad beauty to it:

Owen died on this day, one hundred years ago, killed just days before the 1918 Armistice would silence the guns of the Great War, into whose dark maw so many legions marched, never to return. I think of Owen often at this time of year, not just for his powerful poetry from the trenches, but because of his local connection to me. Recuperating from Shell Shock he was sent to Craiglockhart, just a short walk from my flat in Edinburgh (enlisted men were rarely so fortunate, they were told they were “cowards” if they showed Shell Shock, or if treated were given brutal regimes like ECT. Not so the officers, of course).

It was there Owen was encouraged by a pioneering doctor to use his dreams and nightmares from the trenches in his writing, and meets fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon, both of these changing his writing style, increasing the power he pours into his verse. While recuperating there he would sometimes guest as a literature teacher at the school around the corner from my home; he probably strolled right past my street. Edinburgh is like that, it has as many layers of literary history and connections as it has complex volcanic geology. Here the road Sassoon and Owen walked on their way into town, arm in arm, discussing poetry. There where Stevenson ducked out of university classes in his velvet coat, to head to the pub around the corner from my old work. There where Conan Doyle met Bell, who would become his model for Holmes, here, behind rows of tenements and houses, the school where Muriel Spark studied, where a teacher would become part of her notion for Miss Brodie. Here’s where Robert Burns stayed, there is the grave of his beloved Clarinda, in the same kirkyard as his poetic muse, Fergusson.

Edinburgh it still like that – there’s the literary salon, the regular book clubs, the book festival, there are the cafes Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book in because it was cheaper than trying to heat her home when she had no money, there’s the pub where the fictional Inspector Rebus drinks, and his creator, Ian Rankin too. As a lifelong reader and as a bookseller it’s one of the aspects of Edinburgh that makes me love living here; the written word here is written into the cityscape…

“These are the days of our lives…” – Bohemian Rhapsody

Bohemian Rhapsody,
Directed by Bryan Singer and Dexter Fletcher,
Starring Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Joseph Mazzello, Ben Hardy, Gwilym Lee, Tom Hollander, Aiden Gillen, Allen Leech, Aaron McCusker

Alright, before I start I should hold up my hand and say I am a massive Queen fan. Always have been, so much so that I had to restrain myself from standing up and joining in the actions for some of the musical numbers on offer in Bohemian Rhapsody (nobody needs to see that in public and besides, save it for the special sing-a-long screening). I’m not sure if that means I was likely to be more critical of any film about Freddie and the boys or more easily accepting though. The film, as many of you will know, arrives with a somewhat troubled production history, not least the departure (willing or forced, gossip still circles) of Bryan Singer and a pause on filming, before Dexter Fletcher came on board to finish it. That’s the sort of signs that a movie may be a turkey; I’m glad to say that I didn’t find this the case here.

We open with the band about to get ready to appear on stage at one of the great music events of history – the global-audience of Live Aid, now a legendary gig, with, many would argue, Queen’s electrifying performance being the boost the massive live show needed – before looping back to the early 70s. Young Farrokh Bulsara (Mr Robot’s Rami Malek) is working a low-end job at Heathrow Airport and subject to racial slurs from his colleagues. At home he’s restless, chafing at elements of his Zanzibar and religious upbringing and eager to embrace music culture, escaping at night to watch gigs. It’s there he sees Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) and Bryan May (Gwilym Lee) playing with their three-piece band Smile.

When their singer leaves the band, commenting it is going nowhere, Farrokh – now calling himself Freddie – introduces himself to the band and charms his way into joining them through a mixture of self-confidence and bravado, the embryonic elements that Freddie, when he adopted the Mercury surname, would later channel to such fantastic effect on stage to capture live audiences with some huge success. With bass player John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) joining, and the band changing its name to the grander (and outrageous, as Freddie said) Queen, the classic quartet is set to take on the world, with the film taking in chunks of their career in short bites, recording that first album, the iconic Night at the Opera, the eponymous Bohemian Rhapsody epic track itself, through to the mid 80s and the triumphant Live Aid appearance.

Of course there are flaws, some I would argue are pretty much unavoidable – this is a feature film, not a documentary, so some elements are a little different from parts you may have read in biographies or seen in documentaries, and there is simply no way to do justice to every part of the Queen story, they had a twenty year career at the top of the charts, and you can’t cover everything that happened (for instance we don’t see anything about those post Live Aid albums made as Freddie was dying), you can’t even cover the making of every album and still have a watchable feature film, that’s more for a multi-part documentary. You may argue at some of the moments they decided to include over others, but that would be the case whichever periods of their story they put in or left out.

The film picks out some moments from that career and tries to keep a balance between the show-business moments and the personal lives, including Freddie’s growing realisation that he was gay or bisexual (although it also makes clear how that never changed his lifelong love for Mary Austin, played by Lucy Boynton, including his touching dedication to her of the song “love of my life”), the arguments between the band members, management, labels, the press. But it also includes the good personal moments, most notably the friendship of the four band members that survives fame, success, ego trips, drugs, manipulative hangers-on and more, and remained the core of their identity right to the end of Freddie’s life. We get snapshots of their albums being worked on or their tours, including that amazing moment in Rio (then the largest audience for a live show) where the huge audience sang back to the band, a wonderful moment when they realise how much their fans have taken them to their hearts, with the lion’s share of time given to the Live Aid performance. And it includes nice touches such as Freddie’s beloved cats.

While Hardy, Lee and Mazzello do sterling work essaying Taylor, May and Deacon very well, the film concentrates unashamedly on Freddie, understandably given the wonderfully flamboyant front-man’s theatrical persona and his personal life. And whatever you think of which parts of the band’s career that they chose to show or any other aspects of the film, it is hard to deny just how damned good Rami Malek is as Freddie. It isn’t just the strong physical resemblance (aided by some prosthetics such as the extra teeth Freddie had which gave his mouth that unusual shape), or adopting Freddie’s unique voice, it is right in the core of Malek’s performance, he channels his inner Freddie, the mannerisms, expressions, movements, to a remarkable degree. I’ve read that Malek was determined to do justice to such an amazing performer and was aware how important he was emotionally to a massive number of fans, and by god that determination is there in every frame. It is an astonishing piece of acting, and as with his powerful work in Mr Robot is marks Malek as a young actor we should all be keeping an eye on. He looks as if he could command an audience just like the real Freddie could.

And yes, I did manage to restrain myself to the end, I didn’t stand up and join in the actions for We Will Rock You or Radio Ga Ga. But I think if there is a sing-a-long screening (and I am sure a number of places will do that, somehow!) then I may have to go along and join in unashamedly.

Smile-inducing Brit horror-comedy with The Snarling

The Snarling,
Directed by Pablo Raybould,
Starring Julia Deakin, Joel Beckett, Chris Simmons), Laurence Saunders, Ste Johnson, Albert Moses

Ferocious killings and stroppy actors, who knows which is worse?!? A small village is hosting a movie crew, currently shooting a zombie film, with the star, Greg Lupeen (Laurence Sanders) driving the director and producer mad as they strive to remain calm with a forced “okay, luv at each of his self-obsessed, self-important “I’m the star rants and screaming bouts. Meanwhile in the local pub Mike (Chris Simmons), Bob (Ben Manning) and village idiot Les (Sanders pulling double duty) are discussing the film shoot in their not exactly busy boozer (which is also being used as one of the movie’s locations), and are excited at the thought of playing extras in the film, a wee bit of unusual fun in their quiet small town. And they’re all amused to find that Les looks remarkably like the movie’s star, Greg.

But there’s more going on than the excitement of a movie shoot in a wee village – there’s the little matter of the grisly murders. In fact they don’t look so much like murders as wild animal attacks, the victims ripped apart. Except this is Britain and there aren’t exactly a lot of wolves or bears running around to cause that kind of death, so it must be a murderer, right? And the fact they happened during the full moon and seems similar to other incidents which happened in Wales when the same film crew was working there, that’s just coincidence too, isn’t it?? And the fact the leading man was bitten by a wild animal while filming a scene in a zoo in Wales, and now sufferers strange headaches and more mood swings than usual?

This is an absolute hoot of a Brit comedy-horror, and it clearly knows its audience and plays to it. The puns and jokes are mostly the so-bad-they-are-good variety (deliberately), and like a Carry On movie you can pretty much see the punchline coming, and it doesn’t matter a jot, because you want that punchline, heck you’re probably joining in with it and then laughing happily anyway. The Snarling mines a treasure trove of puns and clichés, such as the hapless, always stuffing his face detective (played by director Raybould) or the lead actor’s name Lupeen (sounding like “lupine”, leading Les to conclude he must be the werewolf, only for his pal to remark yeah, but my dad’s called Leonard, change a letter in his name does that make his a leopard?). This would make a grand night’s fun entertainment as a double bill with Carry On Screaming or Shaun of the Dead.

It’s low-budget and clearly they can’t afford top of the line CG effects for a werewolf, or a Rick Baker practical effects lycanthrope, but they get around, using what they do have, humour, clever editing and cross-cutting, and the dark (one scene involving cyclists being attacked is lit by their bike’s strobing light, which was a clever way to give only glimpses of the monster and also give us another bit of humour at the same time). There’s some really nice attention to detail too, always a good sign of a film crew really trying to go that extra mile – for example, after one of the elderly pub regulars is attacked by the mystery beast you can see a collection tin for him on the bar, and for all the glorying in obvious puns (which I have to say I loved, I mean they had me at that punning title, to be honest) this is also a clever tale, wonderfully threaded with good-natured humour throughout and paying homage to the greats (including American Werewolf) but with its own irreverent yet loving approach. A perfect Saturday night slice of horror-comedy to watch with a bunch of friends.

The Snarling is available on DVD and Digital from November 5th from Left Films

House of Salem

House of Salem,
Directed by James Crow,
Starring Liam Kelly, Jack Brett Anderson, Jessica Arterton, Leslie Mills

First debuting at FrightFest’s New Blood strand in 2016, James Crow’s Brit-horror House of Salem finally gets a DVD release. Josh (Liam Kelly) is a young child with special needs, being left in the care of a teenage babysitter while his parents go for an evening out. As she puts him to bed she teases him that he is getting a bit old for taking a cuddly toy to sleep with – a cuddly lamb – but he is adamant that he needs it and she acquiesces, leaving him to sleep and returning down stairs to indulge in the grand babysitter tradition of chatting on the phone. The peace of a domestic slumbering evening is about to be broken, however, as a group of creepily masked intruders make their way into the home, intent on snatching the boy. So far it’s not that different from any number of other home intrusion thrillers we’ve seen, except Josh hears a spectral warning just before the attack, and attempts to hide and evade his pursuers while his babysitter bravely tries to defend him, but it’s no use, and he is soon in the bag.

Taken to a large but isolated old country house the masked gang, Josh is locked into one of the bedrooms while the gang’s leader Jacob (Leslie Mills) awaits more instructions from their mysterious employers, who will only get in touch via an old, vintage Bakelite landline phone. It is when they settle in for the long wait that the first cracks start to appear, as the different personalities in the gang assert themselves – the belligerent one who thinks nothing of violence or even murder, the cooler headed-one, the solitary women in the group, Nancy (Jessica Arterton), who seems least happy with the whole thing and is clearly protective of the child, despite having taken part in his kidnapping. Mills’ Jacob plays the hard-man leader, the sort who rarely shouts but is all the more threatening and scary for his seeming reserve – you just know this is a man who has done bad things and will do so again in a split second if anyone crosses him, and his authority forces the arguing individuals of his team to try and get along as they wait the night out.

But this is no kidnapping for ransom, this child and this location have been chosen by their mysterious employers quite carefully and carry an awful history of previous, similar events, and it is a history Josh can see and hear. Josh lost a sibling years before and this closeness to death has left him sensitive – he hears noises and voices, then sees figures, usually other children his age, dressed in white sleepwear like him (his hooded onesie recalls Where the Wild Things Are) and bloodied. Are these trapped spirits of other children who had been brought here, and if so, what were they brought for. As with most heist/crime stories they are at their most compelling when it all goes wrong, and between the bickering gang members and then changing plans from their distant employers, then the external threat of someone else being around this supposedly safe house (creepily leaving a dead game animal hanging from a garden tree). No, this is no ransom for money at all, this has a darker – a satanic – element to it and Josh is part of that ritual, and it may be that Jacob knows more about the real reasons behind it all than he is letting on.

While House of Salem has flaws, I’m not going to dwell on them as I think they were mostly down to the perennial problem for all Indy film-makers, lack of budget and shooting time. And while their resources may be slender (Primeval’s Andrew Lee Potts is billed as a star but in truth is only in it for a short time), Crow makes the most of what he has. It’s remarkable how much creepiness you can get just from figures in masks, both the kidnappers, then the Satanic cult members, both groups using very simple masks, nothing elaborate or complex here, but quite chilling in the way they dehumanise the figures and make them quite terrifying.

The mix of 70s style hidden Satanic cult and the crime gone wrong bickering gang works well, and while most of the gang are stereotypes, Arterton’s Nancy is fleshed out more, her backstory slowly emerging (and her relation to leader Jacob, a sort of surrogate father figure), which gives more reason for her defence of Josh. Liam Kelly is quite outstanding as Josh, this young lad gives a superb performance in a complex emotional role as a traumatised child with psychological and emotional problems already, then dealing with the kidnapping, the voices and the visions, it’s quite a performance from one so young.

The film also works in some nice symbology too, notably the image of the lamb and blood which recurs and becomes increasingly creepy as it builds to a climax in the third reel. An intersting, inventive and frequently creepy Brit-horror, ideal for some late Saturday night viewing.

House of Salem is released on DVD and Digital by Left Films from October 1st

A sad farewell

Only a few weeks ago my Irish chum Stephen – who did his comics and movie work under the pen-name Garth Cremona – told me that a result from a hospital stay had come back. With the worst possible news – a terminal diagnosis. I am a writer, a wordsmith, I, all false modesty aside, can turn a phrase to most occasions when I want to. And so could Stephen. But I was without words at this news, and told him as much, and he replied that so was he.

I couldn’t let that lack of words stand in the way of talking to my friend though, and dropped him a line or two, but didn’t hear back. Given the circumstances I was not surprised. And then this week his other half Tina, who he had told me several times was the total light of his life, took over his Twitter feed to announce that Stephen was gone. It was only a few weeks from the diagnosis and my friend, so much younger than me, was already gone.I’m heartbroken at his sudden passing, and I hate to think how much worse that is for Tina and his family.

I’ve lived through sudden loss of a loved one, and it is horrendous, marks you down to the soul for life ever after. It all but broke me when dad and I lost mum so suddenly. To lose someone even younger like Stephen is just so bloody wrong, and my heart is heavy for his loss and even heavier for the sorrow and grief that Tina and his family must now bear.

Stephen, under his Garth Cremona pen-name volunteered his services as a film reviewer for me on the Forbidden Planet Blog, for no other reason than a desire to promote good works – especially loving the chance to promote Indy works. He was hugely active on the Irish comics scene as a creator and also a supporter of other Indy creators. All of this was done without ego, just for the love of it all, to highlight interesting artistic works. In between reviews we tweeted and emailed each other banter and chatter and bonded over it and other, more personal matters. With FP deleting the blog only a day after I was paid off I can’t even pay tribute to him on there.

I find it hard to believe that I will never again get to tease him over his love of even trashier horror films than even I liked. I’m not going to swap messages with him again, talk about the comics and films we loved or hated. There should have been years of that more to come and suddenly there isn’t. Gone to the great editing suite in the sky and far, far too damned soon. I’ve reached that period of life where losing people becomes sadly more frequent, but Stephen was much younger and should never have been gone early like this. I will miss you, my friend, and I will see you again one day for that great Director’s Cut, in wonderful wide screen.

And damn you cancer, damn you to hell for all the pain you have caused to so may of us, up yours, cancer, up yours with a diamond tipped chainsaw for all the sorrow you have caused.

And on a final, silly note, whenever Stephen sent me in a piece to edit for the FP blog, as I went to schedule it under his nom-de-guerre of Garth Cremona I would find myself singing “Garth Cremona” to the tune of “My Sharona”. I told him this once, and he was mightily amused by the idea.

Der Hauptmann – The Captain

The Captain,
Directed by Robert Schwentke,
Starring Max Hubacher, Milan Peschel , Frederick Lau

Written and directed by Robert Schwentke (The Time Travelers Wife, Flight Plan, Red, Insurgent), The Captain – Der Hauptmann, to give it it’s original title – is a compelling tale of the closing days of the Second World War. Shot in a beautifully crisp, glowing, silvery black and white the elegance of the cinematography is, right from the start, at odds with the brutality at the heart of The Captain, as we see a terrified and oh-so-young German soldier being chased through a winter landscape and woods by his comrades. They are not just hunting him and aiming to kill him, they are clearly enjoying it, especially the officer in charge. Hubacher’s soldier is a creature of pure fear, seeing his violent death just a few footsteps behind him, his uniform and boots torn and ruined, his face so filthy only his astonishingly clear eyes looking out of that mess look human.

It is the final days of the war and German has turned on German, no longer just fighting the invading Allies but devouring their own, all civilised restraints are gone, years of the hard-edged Nazi regime coupled with the grinding brutality of warfare has cracked the veneer of civilisation, even the vicious rules of warfare are disregarded. Schwentke’s film, like Apocalypse Now, shows how that red-toothed animal is set loose by endless brutality, and even more alarmingly, how while some refuse that dark call and others try to turn away, some men are seduced by it. They come to like it, revel in that dark freedom that comes when they think there are no more rules, no more consequences.

Hubacher’s Willi Herold doesn’t quite start this way, he is the terrified soldier – a deserter, perhaps, broken by the relentless enemy attacks – being chased and shot at by his former comrades. After eluding them he trudges across country, finding an abandoned staff car, with a suitcase containing a captain’s uniform. Swiftly removing his own ruined uniform this private gives himself an immeadite promotion by donning this found uniform, but more than that, as he looks at himself in the car’s mirror he starts to assume the pose, the attitude he expects from a Nazi officer. This is a very young man, remember, who has been brought up in Hitler’s Germany, even before the shock of the war; imagine the role models he has had in his youth, those roles he is now assuming.

When Peschel’s Freytag comes stumbling down the road and reacts to him as if he was a real captain, Herold starts to play the role for real. Taking Freytag as his driver they stop at the nearest village, Herold playing the quiet, icy Nazi officer so well that the locals in the inn are soon too scared of him, providing them with food and lodgings. But there is a price – desertion is now rife as it is clear the Third Reich is doomed, and many of those deserters have been looting and raping their way through the countryside. After catching one those same locals he cowed with his act earlier now call on him to walk the walk for real, to “pay for his roast dinner” as one puts it. As the horrified Freytag watches helplessly Herold agrees with the locals, draws his gun and shoots the deserter right in the street. It is the start of a slide into brutality and depravity.

It isn’t long before Herold encounters more men separated from their units like Freytag – or perhaps they have just given up and deserted – and again he uses his newly borrowed authority to overwhelm them, again playing the arrogant, cold Nazi officer to perfection, exactly the sort of officer they expect. Encountering a group of military police rounding up deserters to take to a nearby camp, Herold expands his authority, telling them all he is on a special mission by order of the Furher himself, to investigate the reports of low morale and desertion behind the lines, snowballing his lies and actions into ever greater levels of brutality and atrocity.

This is not an easy watch, despite the quite beautiful black and white photography; The Captain lays bare and ugly fact of human nature – brutality begets brutality, violence more violence, Herold like one abused who then goes on in turn to become an abuser, a chain of vile cause and effect poisoning the soul. And worse still he starts to enjoy it, to relish it even, and so do a number of the men who fall under the spell of the Captain. And this is very much a man’s world, the only women seen briefly here are at a couple of celebrations, companions for the soldiers, the rest of the time it is men and other men committing acts normal society would repudiate, reminiscent of Hemmingway, perhaps.
The fact that the film is apparently based on a real person and events makes the events all the more horrific.

Hubacher as Herold and Peschel as Freytag both give up some incredible, intense performances in what must have been pretty emotionally-draining roles. Herold takes us from frightened, filthy, dishevelled soldier on the run to the overbearing, cold-faced Nazi officer, face impassive, his clear eyes. He falls so easily into this role the young man must have seen acted out before him throughout his youth in Nazi Germany, but Hubacher also throws in subtle changes in expression and body language early on, as Herold is unsure of himself, waiting to be found out and exposed, and you can see him changing as he realises others are following his assumed authority, no matter how vile his orders. It’s a damned fine bit of acting. Similarly Peschel’s Freytag as the everyman, just an ordinary guy who wants the war to be over, to go home, terrified of being shot by his own side, relieved when Herold takes him in, then the mounting horror in his expression as he witnesses the monstrous acts Herold brings the other soldiers to commit, another superb piece of acting , the two men’s performances playing off one another perfectly to bring emotion, sorrow, fear and utter horror to the viewer.

The Captain is released on September 21st