Saturday, 26 December 2015

Review - "Doctor Who: The Husbands of River Song"

The annual Doctor Who Christmas special changes its tone with incredible rapidity, more often than not settling somewhere on either extreme of the tonal spectrum. On one end, the Christmas episode can be frivolous, light, and fun (see The Runaway Bride, A Christmas Carol, and The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe), and on the other it can be dark, serious, and with more at stake (see Voyage of the Damned, The Snowmen, and Last Christmas). This year’s Christmas special, The Husbands of River Song certainly falls into that former camp as it is a light-hearted, comedic romp across space.

As I have remarked elsewhere, Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor seems far less comfortable in a lighter, frothier storyline which led me to believe that last year’s comedic effort, The Caretaker, fell a bit flat. However, this special which positively percolates with one-liners from the Doctor seemed to work a lot better. I chalk this up to Capaldi’s comfort in the role and with a firmer grasp on the character we see what is perhaps Capaldi’s most relaxed performance as the Time Lord. But something also has be said for Steven Moffat’s script. Showrunner Moffat’s story never denies its lighthearted tone and runs with it from start to finish playing up the farcical nonsense for all it’s worth.

It cannot be denied that Moffat has an uncanny ability for writing fun dialogue between characters and much of The Husbands of River Song is built upon these dialogue exchanges. In fact, the special was at its best when it afforded Peter Capaldi and Alex Kingston the ability to talk to each other. However, when it came time to introduce a plot into the special and then resolve that plot, the story felt a little less interesting. There was nothing wrong with the central idea – River’s attempt to steal a diamond and sell it – in fact, I quite liked the very simple concept at the special’s heart. But, because the plot didn’t truly factor into the story until it was nearly over, the problem and solution was too rushed and felt unsatisfactory. Perhaps the biggest crime which the special could commit is how it evolves into a retread of the 2007 Christmas special Voyage of the Damned which found the Doctor aboard a doomed, luxury spaceship which runs afoul of some asteroids. It cannot be possible that Doctor Who has run out of ideas, so it is sad to think that the show has somehow become a pastiche of itself.

River Song (Alex Kingston) and the Doctor (Peter Capaldi)
But, it shouldn’t sound like The Husbands of River Song was a bad episode. As noted, when the story was at its most frivolous and light, it was a lot of fun and, to be honest, it was something of a welcome change following the solemn, character-driven finale which ended Series 9 a few weeks ago. Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor was a lot of fun in this story and he (rather surprisingly) had excellent on-screen chemistry with Alex Kingston’s River Song. As to River herself, I believe that she has rather overstayed her welcome continually popping up when it’s obvious that her storyline has run its course, but it cannot be denied that Kingston did a fantastic job in the role and, I think that this special is the perfect way to wrap up River’s convoluted existence.

The Husbands of River Song was a fun diversion for an hour or so, but it cannot really be much more than that. While there is nothing wrong with an hour of frivolity, I personally find more to enjoy in a Christmas episode which has a little bit more to offer. Chalking that up to personal taste, I cannot deny, however, the clever writing and fun performances from both Peter Capaldi and Alex Kingston. This is an episode which is not meant to be taken entirely seriously – when the planets in the episode’s intro sequence are replaced by Christmas ornaments you know at once you’re in for a tongue-in-cheek experience. Therefore, I give The Husbands of River Song 3.5 out of 5 stars.

On a tangentially related note, the finest Doctor Who-related Christmas offering in existence is Big Finish Production’s audio drama, The Chimes of Midnight which finds Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor and his companion Charley (India Fisher) arriving in the basement of an Edwardian mansion on Christmas Eve. It soon becomes apparent that someone’s picking off the household staff one-by-one and it’s up to the Doctor to solve the case. Simply put, The Chimes of Midnight is a brilliant offering and for any Big Finish novice it’s a great gateway into the audio adventures.  

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Review(s) - "Doctor Who: Season 9"

It had been my hope to review each of the stories in Season 9 of Doctor Who individually. However, life got in the way (as it so often does), and I found it almost impossible to get a review in time. So, here I am playing catch-up as I react to each of the stories which made up the rest of Season 9. I shall pick up where I left off following on from the series opener, The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar.

Under the Lake/Before the Flood – Ostensibly a “base-under-siege” story (a standard in Doctor Who which finds the TARDIS arriving on some research/naval base only to be confronted by monsters), Toby Whithouse’s two-parter features an interesting twist on the concept. While the first half of the story follows the traditional elements of the base-under-siege story, the cliffhanger ending and subsequent second episode introduce a timey-wimey twist which separates it from the myriad of other Doctor Who stories written in this style.

The best thing which can be said for this story though is the atmosphere. The idea of ghosts on an underwater research base is a fascinatingly unusual concept, and director Daniel O’Hara stages the ghosts scenes for all that they are worth making this two-parter one of the most atmospheric in all of Doctor Who. Stand-out moments include the scene in which the deaf captain, Cass, is pursued by an ax-wielding ghost, and the Doctor’s explanation of a Bootstrap Paradox which he does by breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience directly. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that Under the Lake/Before the Flood may be the most memorable episodes from the series in my opinion and both receive 4 stars.

The Girl Who Died/The Woman Who Lived – Arguably the most highly publicized episodes of the season, this two-parter was written by two different writers and, though telling one story, is spread across a number of centuries. The first half, The Girl Who Died finds the Doctor and Clara embroiled in the activities of Vikings and alien warriors as they meet a young Viking girl, Ashildr (Maisie Williams) who shall figure quite prominently in stories to come. Penned by showrunner Steven Moffat and Jamie Mathieson (who made a very positive impression on me and other Who fans with last season’s Mummy on the Orient Express and Flatline), The Girl Who Died can really only be described as underwhelming. Buoyed by comic relief which falls flat and a warrior race of aliens who never really do anything, the script just feels under-baked. Moffat and Mathieson’s efforts are not totally for naught; scenes of the Doctor continually referring to a Viking as ZZ Top are funny indeed, but this episode didn’t really deserve the media attention that it got. It’s the definition of a mediocre episode and I give it 3 out of 5 stars.

The Woman Who Lived, by comparison, does do better. Set in the 1600s, the Doctor runs across the now immortal Ashildr (again called by Maisie Williams) who has tuned to a life of crime as the mysterious highwayman, “The Knightmare.” Part slapstick comedy, part morality play, this episode was penned by newcomer Catherine Tregenna (though Tregenna is no stranger to the science fiction world having written four scripts for Torchwood). Maisie Williams (star of Game of Thrones) is given more to do here, and she does shine as the hardened Ashildr. Her repartee with Peter Capaldi are, without doubt, the highlights of the episode. When the episode is playing it serious, it’s a standout, but its moments of lighthearted comedy don’t mix well, especially for an episode which touches on such dark themes. The Woman Who Lived is a missed opportunity to present a straight historical episode as the aliens who figure into this plot are also underwhelming and feel tacked on in the extreme. While not a disappointment, the episode felt off to me, but I am still willing to give it 3.5 out of 5 stars.

The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion – Season 9 of Doctor Who has arguably been the most experimental season of the show (more on that to come) as the show explored new subgenres adding its customary sci-fi twist. This two-parter saw Doctor Who take on the political thriller genre in a follow-up to the 50th anniversary special, The Day of the Doctor. That special’s subplot involving the alien race, the Zygons, felt like it fizzled out and had no satisfactory ending. These two episodes rectified that problem in, what tuned out to be two of the series’ most memorable stories. Writer Peter Harness (who wrote last year’s controversial Kill the Moon) likened the scripts to Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the comparison is certainly justified. The two stories are creepy, and dark, and the political machinations (which coincidentally mirrored real-life incidents as the episodes aired) add an extra layer of gravitas to the story. There’s also someone of an epic feeling to the two-parter as the plot spans from the United States, to England, to Azerbaijan!

Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman really upped their games with these stories. Coleman, a gifted actress, had the added challenge of playing two characters in these stories and her maleficent portrayal of Bonnie, Clara’s Zygon double, was intense. Capaldi certainly walked away with top honors, his speech in The Zygon Inversion being one of the season’s high points. The other character worthy of note is Ingrid Oliver as Osgood who (though killed in Death in Heaven) makes an appearance as the Doctor’s fill-in companion. The explanation for Osgood’s presence is never labored and, though I usually have a problem with letting characters return from the dead (more to come), it was well-handled in these two stories. It certainly helps that Oliver has good chemistry with Capaldi. The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion were two well-done, unique episodes of the show fully deserving of 4 stars each.

Sleep No More – The only true standalone episode of the season, Mark Gatiss’ outer space horror story has received almost unanimous negative reception from fans – some even going so far as to call it the worst episode in Doctor Who’s history. Another experimental turn, this one saw the show taking on the found footage sub-genre – a sub-genre for which I have little more than contempt. However, Sleep No More actually managed to pull it off pretty well. An explanation was given to the episode’s found footage format and actually managed to work his into an interesting twist ending.

There is, unfortunately not much to say about the episode. It was nicely acted (especially by guest star Reece Shearsmith), and the editing was excellently done in keeping with the found footage format. The twist ending was also wonderfully executed and nicely hinted at throughout the episode. Sleep No More is the definition of an episode which requires more than one viewing to appreciate, though it’s unfortunate to think that a majority of fans will not give it that second chance. The episode was, on a whole, a successful experiment and is left open for a sequel or follow-up (which Gatiss has alluded to in recent interviews). In my own humble opinion, Mark Gatiss is a writer who receives far too much criticism. Gatiss’ episodes are all entertaining fare which is exactly what I’m looking for in a show like Doctor Who. I give Sleep No More 4 out of 5 stars.

Face the Raven – The beginning of the end for Clara Oswald, Face the Raven was written by another newcomer to the series, Sarah Dollard. At its heart, Face the Raven explored some interesting concepts; the trapped streets plotline was an especially original and unique angle for a story. The promise of a murder mystery-esque plot also whetted the appetite of a voracious whodunit fan like myself, but these elements were trapped half way through the episode. Though an important moment in the show, Clara’s departure was hastily done and really low key. I cannot help but feel that the premise of this episode would have worked better if they were separated from the overarching plotline regarding Clara’s death and given room for expand and breathe.

In spite of all of this, Face the Raven did present Clara’s death well. It’s not often that companions die and it was nice to see that the series had enough guts to kill off a character (well, at least for the moment). The acting was well done – Jenna Coleman continued to impress and Capaldi’s threatening words to the returning Ashildr were spine-chilling in their intensity. Production design was also brilliantly done and the trapped street was one of the most striking and coolest-looking sets in the show’s recent history. But, Face the Raven is really just a prelude to bigger things and, sadly, the episode really does reflect this. It’s not bad but, aside from Clara’s departure, much of it is quite forgettable. I give it 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Heaven Sent – Another experimental one, Heaven Sent is a tour de force of writing and acting for Steven Moffat and Peter Capaldi. All alone, the Doctor is being pursued through a mysterious castle by an equally mysterious monster. A study of existential angst, Heaven Sent is a powerful and moving episode, surely one of the best in the season and the series’ revival.

What really makes the episode is Peter Capaldi. Though the Twelfth Doctor may not be my favorite incarnation of the rebel Time Lord, Capaldi is probably the best actor to play the role. Thinking back over the other actors who have played the role, I’m not sure if any of the others could have handled an episode quite like Heaven Sent. All on his own, the Doctor realizes his own weaknesses and must struggle in order to overcome the challenge which he is faced with, but also overcome his own demons. Like Face the Raven, Heaven Sent is a prelude (a means to an end), but it never plays out like one. It’s gripping and exciting, but also manages to be analytical and thought-provoking. Steven Moffat’s script is filled with exciting moments: the highlight for me was the scene which found the Doctor jumping out of a castle window and thinking through his means of escape. The sequence was almost a duplicate of a similar scene in Sherlock: His Last Vow, but it was engaging viewing nonetheless. A truly unique episode, Heaven Sent receives a 4.5 out of 5.

Hell Bent – The task of following up Heaven Sent was a difficult one. With the Doctor (finally) back on his home planet of Gallifrey, the questions about what the rebel Time Lord would do had to be answered. To put it simply, some of those questions were answered, and others were not. The season-long arc regarding the mysterious Hybrid which was prophesized to destroy Gallifrey was dealt with almost with a seeming wave of the hand as was the return of the planet itself. It’s almost as if the moment which so many Who fans have been waiting for was just another means to an end. There was another plotline which had to be addressed instead.

That is without doubt the biggest fault of Hell Bent as it chose to ignore the return of Gallifrey completely and instead focus on the Doctor’s quest to save Clara. Though she had been killed off, once more it seems that there cannot be any definite endings for characters in Doctor Who. While I should have been infuriated by this, the episode threw me for a loop. Yes, Clara may have survived her death, but in an extra bid to save her, the Doctor has his memory of her wiped completely. He knows that she once existed, but he cannot remember who she was or what she did. And this was simply brilliant. Not only was Peter Capaldi given yet another chance to shine as the morose, bluegrass playing Doctor, but it helped alleviate some of the problems I had regarding Clara’s character. I had always been of the opinion that she became too important a person in the Doctor’s life (saving him throughout his timeline as we learned in Season 7 and then instilling in him the desire to face his fears in Season 8), but now her accomplishments have been erased the Doctor’s mind altogether. It’s a very sad path to go, but it worked really well here.

Hell Bent also proved to be the most low-key and character-driven finale in Doctor Who’s recent history. References to the universe ending notwithstanding, the finale is really about the Doctor and Clara. It was an interesting reversal of standards as most season finales wish to present the biggest and most bombastic story possible. Hell Bent succeeded in presenting this character-driven drama convincingly and I am willing to give it – despite its faults – 4 out of 5 stars.

In all, Season 9 of Doctor Who has been a very positive one. There were mediocre episodes, but these few rotten apples did not spoil the whole bunch. Season 9 proved to be twelve weeks of exciting, entertaining episodes boosted by fine performances. It would not be wrong to place Season 9 near the top of Doctor Who’s seasons. Also, for those who may be curious I have ranked the stories of Season 9 below as they currently stand in my mind.

Under the Lake/Before the Flood
Heaven Sent
The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion
Hell Bent
Sleep No More
The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar
The Woman Who Lived
Face the Raven
The Girl Who Died

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Review - "Doctor Who: The Magician's Apprentice/The Witch's Familiar"

Warning: Here be spoilers. Proceed with caution

I have been, of course, anticipating the return of Doctor Who since the conclusion of Season 8 last fall. I couldn’t help but agree with a lot of people at the conclusion of last year’s series that Season 8 was fairly hit-and-miss. While episodes like Mummy on the Orient Express and Time Heist were excellent, installments the likes of Dark Water/Death in Heaven and In the Forest of the Night bordered on the mediocre or just dull. So, what would Season 9 bring? Well, for one a season two-part opener written by showrunner Steven Moffat which saw the return of the Doctor’s arch enemy the Master (now known as the Mistress or Missy) and, of course, the most famous Doctor Who monster of them all…the Daleks. So, let’s dive in right in with The Magician’s Apprentice and The Witch’s Familiar.

What I loved about the two-parter was its tone. From the start of The Magician’s Apprentice, we could tell that this was going to be a darker story. Even before the opening credits run, we’ve been introduced to the story’s central moral dilemma with the Doctor wrestling with his conscious concerning the young Davros. The hand mines which were introduced herein, reaching through the mud of a battlefield with eyeballs affixed to their palms is a nightmarish vision. I also really liked how this dark tone was carried through The Witch’s Familiar. All too often Doctor Who two-parters switch their tone from episode-to-episode, but this two-parter actually felt like one continuous entity. The only difference between part one and part two is the fact that The Witch’s Familiar is far more character driven than the first. The central points of the second episode are the scenes between the Doctor and Davros.

I think that it would be safe to say that the story is far more slowly paced in its second half than it is in the first. The Magician’s Apprentice is one of the most jammed-pack Doctor Who scripts ever written and I think it’s safe to say that if one more element had been thrown into the mix, the script for The Magician’s Apprentice would have been dangerously close to being overstuffed.
Carrying the script, the principle cast did an excellent job, so let us tackle the Twelfth Doctor right away. Peter Capaldi is excellent – as always. The scene in The Magician’s Apprentice which finds the Doctor riding into a medieval arena atop a tank playing a guitar is without doubt one of the greatest scene in Doctor Who’s history. Go ahead, accuse me of hyperbole, but I loved it. Later, Capaldi handled the Doctor’s darker scenes too and I loved how he interacted with Julian Bleach’s Davros during the second part. I think it’s safe to say that Capaldi is one of the finest actors to play the Doctor and his emotional line readings are brilliant. As the companion, Clara, Jenna Coleman was rather more sidelined than usual in these two stories. I like Clara – she has garnered a lot of negative attention from Doctor Who fans, but Jenna’s a great actor and she does a great job with what she is given. However, I am sort of happy that Clara isn’t as prominent this season so far. If anything, Clara took center stage far too often last season when Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor should have given more prominence.  

The villains of the piece are just as interesting. Julian Bleach is by far the best of the actors in the episodes and every time Bleach’s Davros was on screen he was simply brilliant. I was gullible enough to fall for Davros’ plan believing him to actually be reconsidering his life as an old, dying man. When the truth came flowing forth I was utterly taken aback and loved it. Just when I thought that Moffat had overstepped his boundaries (once more) and made one of the Doctor’s oldest enemies an old softy, I saw that I had become completely shammed. The other villain of the piece is Michelle Gomez’s Missy and…well…what do I say? I really go back and forth about Missy. At times Gomez is great and she really exudes a really evil vibe. The scene where she tries to convince the Doctor to kill Clara trapped inside a Dalek casing is amazing, and it’s during times like these when I’m reminded of my initial reaction to the character when I likened her to Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter. But, at the same time there were times when Missy was simply too over-the-top and it felt really out of character especially for a character who is, at heart(s) the Master.

While the performances and tone were great, the script was curious. Looking back on it, The Magician’s Apprentice, despite its abundance of plot points, was pretty light on plot, and quite a bit of the second half felt light on plot too. And that is without doubt the weakest element of the story on a whole. The character driven moments were great, but at the end of the day I wonder if there wasn’t too much padding throughout this two-parter.

But in all, The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar was a strong opening to a new series of Doctor Who. Despite the two parts were low on plot, the character moments were great. The performances were excellent and I loved the look of the two-parter. I give the two-parter 4 out of 5 possible stars. 

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Alternate History: Peter Cushing in "Halloween" (1978)

Halloween may be one of the finest horror films ever made. It is, without doubt one of the most influential, more-or-less defining the slasher film which (for better or for worse) has dominated the horror genre ever since. It is a film which I truly appreciate for its atmosphere and intensity, and I find it fascinating as a genuine turning point in horror movie history. But, while it is a very interesting transition point in horror movie history, it is interesting to think that one of the defining stars of an older breed of horror films was originally connected to the film.

I have heard from other reviewers who have looked at the Halloween series that the later films in the franchise are lacking due to the absence of Donald Pleasence as Dr. Samuel Loomis. Masked serial killer Michael Myers, they say, is only as good as his antagonist; the doctor who watched over him for so many years and now will do anything to prevent him from killing again. Pleasence would ultimately play Dr. Loomis in five of the Halloween films and he is one of the best things about the series. Pleasence’s performance in the first Halloween is brilliant – he conveys the frightened nature of the doctor so effectively. Watching Pleasence in a genuine state of fear seems to intensify the horror film all the more. And, while I love Pleasence’s performance as the doctor, it is fascinating to consider that someone else was John Carpenter’s original choice for the role of Dr. Sam Loomis. Carpenter’s original choice was a seasoned horror actor named Peter Cushing.

Being the enormous Peter Cushing fan I am, I cannot help but wonder what Cushing’s performance as Dr. Loomis may have been like. And that is what this post (hopefully the first of a semi-regular feature on this blog) shall contemplate.

Please excuse the bad Photoshop
So, where was Peter Cushing in 1978 when Halloween had been in production? It may be a fair assessment to say that Cushing’s glory days were rather behind him by the late ‘70s, but that in no way meant that he was a forgotten figure. Despite the fact that Hammer, the studio who had more-or-less provided Cushing’s bread and butter in the ‘60s, was no longing producing films, Cushing was still a prominent figure in the film world. He had appeared in the science fiction adventure At the Earth’s Core in 1976 and he contributed to a couple of low-budget, independently-produced horror films in the form of The Devil’s Men and Shock Waves. Of course, no one could forget the fact that Cushing appeared as the first bona fide villain of the Star Wars franchise in Star Wars: A New Hope (1977). To call Star Wars a commercial success would, of course, be a grave understatement. In that way, Cushing would have been just as familiar a face to movie audiences as a character actor as Donald Pleasence was.

But, horror was quite different in the late ‘70s as John Carpenter went to bring his low-budget horror film to life. Films such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Exorcist had been released earlier in the decade and, to some extent, made the Gothic horrors of Hammer and Amicus – the films in which Cushing became such a familiar face – obsolete. Hammer and Amicus simply could not compete with the graphic depictions of violence in those aforementioned films. It would be pretty difficult to imagine the gentlemanly Cushing in either Texas Chain Saw or The Exorcist (though he may have been pretty good in place of Max von Sydow as Father Merrin but that is complete speculation).

As Peter Cushing biographer David Miller pointed out in his excellent book Peter Cushing: A Life in Film, Cushing may have dipped his toe into this new, more violent horror film pool with Shock Waves and The Devil’s Men, but one can tell that this new breed of horror film was very different from what Cushing was accustomed to. And, to be fair, a film like The Curse of Frankenstein is worlds away from Halloween.

But, let’s say that Cushing had accepted the role of Dr. Loomis in Halloween. How would that have turned out? Well, like all of Cushing’s roles I’m sure that he would have given one-hundred and ten percent. Given Cushing’s track record for contributing an ultra-serious performance, one can only think how much gravitas Cushing would have brought to the doctor’s scared edge and his speeches. It is not difficult for me to hear Cushing’s cultured voice reciting such lines as: “He came home,” “Death has come to your little town sheriff”, and Loomis’ greatest speech:

“I met him fifteen years ago; I was told there was nothing left; no reason, no conscience, no understanding; and even the most rudimentary sense of life or death, of good or evil, right or wrong. I met this six-year-old child, with this blank, pale, emotionless face, and the blackest eyes…the devil’s eyes. I spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up because I realized that what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply…evil.”
Cushing wears a very Loomis-like trench coat
(The Skull - 1965)
 And, while I’m certain that Cushing would have been absolutely brilliant in the film (as he was in just about every role), I cannot help but think that Cushing would have been out of place. While Dr. Loomis may be one of the most important characters in Halloween, the true central figures are a group of promiscuous teenagers. The closest that Cushing ever came to being in a film with a similar cast demographic was 1972’s Dracula A.D. 1972 a film which I love, but is looked down on by most. David Miller described Cushing’s Van Helsing character therein as a man who is trying to keep up with the times and one truly has to wonder how much of the performance was scripted and how much of the performance was naturally Cushing. (That’s pure speculation and not a knock on Cushing at all.)

Peter Cushing would have been a very interesting casting choice for the part of Dr. Loomis in Halloween and, while I think that Cushing may have been excellent, I cannot help but feel that Donald Pleasence was the better choice in the long run. While Pleasence did have a history in British horror, I think it’s fair to say that he was not one of the faces of the genre in the way that Cushing was in the late 1960s. He therefore had less baggage going into the role and could create an entirely original character – one who he would play until the end of his life. In fact, Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995) was released in his honor.

As I noted at the top of this post I would really like to make this a semi-regular feature on this blog. While I know of a number of interesting alternate filmmaking decisions which could have drastically changed a film, I’d welcome any suggestions. So, feel free to comment below. 

Saturday, 15 August 2015

The Anti Damsel Blogathon - "The Vampire Lovers" (1970) & Women inHorror

Today’s post I submit as part of the Anti-Damsel Blogathon hosted by Movies Silently and The Last Drive In.


Classic horror films are filled with tropes and clich├ęs. They’re positively brimming with castles, rumbles of thunder, noblemen leering in darkened doorways, and a third act featuring the film’s leading lady being carried off by some monster (werewolves, mummies, and zombies are only the tip of the iceberg). Now, I love classic horror films, but over time even the tried-and-true formula which they followed could get a little repetitive. And by the 1970s, it was time for a change to occur. Interestingly enough, that’s just what happened.

1970 was a pretty good year for cinematic vampires. American International Pictures (AIP) made something of a star of actor Robert Quarry as the titular bloodsucker Count Yorga Vampire. AIP also co-produced Hammer’s 1970 vampire flick, The Vampire Lovers which was based on the novella, Carmilla, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. For those unaware, Hammer revolutionized the Gothic horror film in the late 1950s. Their output continued into the late ‘60s, but with the emergence of such gore-fests as George R. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, Hammer had to bring something new to the table. With a relaxed policy in place from the British censors, Hammer could get away with much more on screen. So, there was a little bit more flesh on display in The Vampire Lovers than usual, but the film did something unique for the time: it featured a central female character who was not a damsel. In fact, she was anything but.

At its heart, The Vampire Lovers is a fairly simple story. Age-old vampire Carmilla Karnstein (Ingrid Pitt) infiltrates the houses of nobility in nineteenth-century Austria. One such victim is the niece of the General von Spielsdorf (Peter Cushing), and following the young woman’s death, Carmilla moves onto victimizing Emma Morton (Madeline Smith). With Emma’s life hanging in the balance, the General will team up with his friend, Baron Hartog (Douglas Wilmer), something of an amateur vampire hunter, to learn the truth about the mysterious Carmilla, and exact revenge…

To be brutally honest, when I first saw The Vampire Lovers, I wasn’t overly enthused. As I just noted, the film is incredibly simplistic and much of the action is more-or-less repeated. What’s more, the film is fairly cheap-looking – the Morton’s home looks rather small and cramped for the home of an Austrian noble. But, what is important about the movie is its characters. Of course central to the film is the role of Carmilla Karnstein played by Ingrid Pitt. While Carmilla may not transform into a bat like her fellow vampires she is able to transform into a cat, and that rather nicely sums up the characterization of Carmilla. Her feline, quiet demeanor is intensely creepy, especially when she’s seducing all in her path to quench her thirst for blood. Pitt is not as bombastic as Christopher Lee’s Dracula, but her skulking, outwardly calm vampire is something of a triumph. Her role in The Vampire Lovers cemented her status as something of a cult figure. For Hammer she played another vampire (well, sort of) in Countess Dracula (1971) and for Hammer’s rival, Amicus, she appeared opposite Jon Pertwee as a bona fide creature of the night in The House that Dripped Blood (also ’71).

Carmilla is, naturally, the centerpiece of the film which – in 1971 – was something of a scandal. The Vampire Lovers more-or-less created the lesbian vampire sub-genre, a topic which was rather taboo in early ‘70s cinema. But, this aspect of Carmilla's character managed to make her a far more complex, and separated her from the traditional female lead of the era's horror films (more on women in later horrors in a minute). 

The rest of the cast is also worthy of note. They, like Pitt, elevate the material which is light on plot. Peter Cushing, my favorite, is rather underused, but the prospect of seeing Cushing share the screen with Douglas Wilmer is, I think, worth the price of admission. The two men both played Sherlock Holmes for the BBC, so seeing two different Holmeses match wits to destroy a vampire is simply too much for my Sherlockian-crazed mind to digest. Madeline Smith who co-stars as Emma Morton almost steals the show. Her deterioration at Carmilla’s hands is genuinely moving and rather painful to watch (I mean that in a good way). Smith would make the rounds in British cinema in the coming years: she turned up sharing a bed with Roger Moore’s James Bond in Live and Let Die and appeared in Hammer’s Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, the studio’s final Frankenstein film. Also worthy of note is Jon Finch who, later in 1970, would star in Roman Polanski’s Macbeth, and later in Alfred Hitchcock’s underrated gem, Frenzy.  

Carmilla Karnstein would turn up two more times for Hammer. Their second film in their loose trilogy, was Lust for a Vampire, a dull and lifeless film often regarded as one of Hammer’s weakest efforts. However, the studio’s final film to feature the character is, perhaps, one of their finest: Twins of Evil. Peter Cushing is back in an out-of-character, but brilliant, cold-hearted role.

Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode in Halloween (1978)
As I noted at the start of this post, horror films don’t always portray women in the most positive light. However, in an article written for The Telegraph, Anne Billson, makes the assertion that horror roles can, in fact, empower females. That is not to say that there isn’t (as Billson calls it) “blonde fodder” in horror films, but when one takes a minute to realize that a number of horror films feature better female characters than male characters, one begins to think that we have been misjudging the genre for a while. Who is the only survivor of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre? It’s Marilyn Burns’ Sally Hardesty. How about in John Carpenter’s brilliant Halloween? Laurie Strode is the only central teenage character to walk away alive. And, perhaps most famously, it is Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling who saves the day in The Silence of the Lambs. (When I first heard about the anti-damsel blogathon, Clarice came to my mind first.)

Horror films do give women interesting opportunities on film and though The Vampire Lovers didn’t begin that tradition, it was one of the first to present a women in a horror movie not a damsel. Carmilla is anything but a damsel. She’s a sly, cunning, and manipulative character; something which was pretty uncommon in 1970. It’s not be the best Hammer horror, but its originality, and boldness to portray characters who were not born from the stock, makes it an important milestone in the history of horror cinema. 

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon - "The Invisible Woman" (1940)

Today’s post I submit as part of the Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.
James Whale’s 1933 horror film, The Invisible Man, based on the novel by H.G. Wells is memorable for a number of reasons. Not only did it feature a fine central performance by Claude Rains as the title character and brilliant special effects by Universal Studios’ in-house special effects wizard, John P. Fulton, but its script was witty and darkly comedic. One of my favorite parts finds the Invisible Man wearing only a pair of trousers skipping down a country lane as he recites the nursery rhyme “Nuts in May” much to the terror of an elderly woman.

Despite the popularity of the film, it wasn’t for another seven years before Universal decided to film a sequel. Entitled The Invisible Man Returns, the film found Vincent Price turning invisible in order to elude the police after he’s been convicted of murder. It is a good film but it does lack the sense of humor which made the original so much fun. However, humor could be found front and center in Universal’s follow-up, a screwball comedy called The Invisible Woman. In the title role was Virginia Bruce and in the part of the batty scientist responsible for Bruce’s transparency was the great John Barrymore in one of his final roles.

Professor Gibbs (Barrymore), the very definition of dotty scientists, has perfected a machine which will turn its occupant invisible. Placing an ad in the paper, Gibbs is surprised to find that the only willing subject is Kitty Carroll (Virginia Bruce), a put-upon model who, once invisible, uses her new ability to exact revenge on her tyrannical boss. However, things are soon complicated when gangster Blackie Cole (Oskar Homolka) steals the machine in an effort to successfully make it across the border back into the United States. Kidnapping Gibbs, it is up to Kitty and Gibb’s financer, wealthy playboy Dick Russell (John Howard) to save the day.

A rather saucy (by 1940s standards) publicity shot
of Barrymore and Virginia Bruce
The Invisible Woman could be viewed by the Universal horror fanatic as something of a disappoint. Its opening credits, featuring what begins as a pretty creepy theme, seems like it’s trying to lure its viewer into quite a different direction. However, once the action gets going, it is clear that The Invisible Woman will not keep anyone up at night. It is an all-out comedy rather cleverly sending up the conventions of the Invisible Man series up to that point. Due to its screwball style, the comedy of the film can at times be rather dated; Oskar Homolka’s gangster is conspicuously unfunny, but there are some scenes which are liable to tickle the ribs of a modern viewer. I suppose it comes down to what you think is funny but I found myself chuckling at quite a few bits of business in the film.

Despite the fact that Virginia Bruce is the central figure in the film (interestingly Universal had originally wanted Margaret Sullivan for the role), it is John Barrymore who is without doubt the most memorable part. The film was one of Barrymore’s last – he appeared in only two other features before his death. As noted, Barrymore’s Professor Gibbs is the archetypal dotty old professor who spends his days knee-deep in his experiments. The absent-minded, intolerant Professor is one of the film’s greatest characters and it is hard not to like him. According to co-star John Howard, the production of The Invisible Woman shows just how professional the great Barrymore was. By the time he filmed the movie, Barrymore was having tremendous trouble remembering his lines and according to Howard: “He developed, with my help, a system of cutting up the script and putting it down on the set: Behind vases, behind phones, on the backs of other actors, whatever. This way he could just look around and find the lines. And of course he was such a superlative actor, it looked as though this was an inspirational way to say the lines!”

Without knowing about Barrymore’s personal woes, I’d be inclined to say that a viewer wouldn’t be able to notice it on film. Barrymore is a lot of fun to watch and he makes the most out of tiny bits of business such as talking to his cat (and reciting Shakespeare) or stammering wildly when he learns that the only person who has answered his advertisement is a woman. Barrymore has great comedic timing in the film and has great on-screen chemistry with the other actors.

As to the actual Invisible Woman herself, Virginia Bruce brings an interesting and rather ahead of her time spunkiness to her role. John Howard is charisma personified as playboy Dick Russell. Howard had, in 1937, appeared opposite Barrymore in Bulldog Drummond’s Revenge, and earlier in 1940, he co-starred in The Philadelphia Story. Also of interest is Margaret Hamilton as Gibbs’ housekeeper, Mrs. Jackson. It is a small role but Hamilton is fun to watch and the actress surely needs little introduction as she played the Wicked Witch of the West in 1939’s The Wizard of Oz. But, for me, the other standout performance is by Charles Ruggles as George, Dick’s neurotic servant. His sarcasm and scared shtick were very funny and he enhanced the film in no small capacity.

The Invisible Woman is a fun little picture spoofing the tropes of Universal’s horror films. It hasn’t stood the test of time in the way the original Invisible Man film was, but it is without doubt an enjoyable piece of escapist entertainment. And, if nothing else, it features a great performance from John Barrymore who shows that, right to the end, he never lost his touch. 

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

"Love Hurt" Blogathon - "The Day of the Doctor" (2013)

The following I submit as part of the “Love Hurt” Blogathon hosted by Sister Celluloid with the intention of filling the Internet with good wishes and thoughts for John Hurt who, sadly, was recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.


The date: May 18, 2013. The location: my living room. I had just finished watching the final episode of Doctor Who Season 7 entitled The Name of the Doctor and written by the series’ showrunner Steven Moffat. The episode had concluded with the astonishing words: “Introducing John Hurt…as the Doctor.” I simply didn’t understand. “John Hurt is the Doctor,” I said to myself, “where did this come from?” I was even more befuddled when I learned that all the answers to my questions would be answered on November 23. That was a six month wait!

Okay, maybe I should back up a bit. For those who have not taken the plunge and become obsessed with adventures in time and space, here’s a brief overview. Doctor Who is a science fiction television series, which debuted on the BBC in 1963. The show finds an alien, known only as the Doctor, who travels throughout time and space in a 1960s police box. That in the simplest of nutshells has fueled over 50 years of television. In that time, showrunners have added to the show’s mythos – perhaps most notably when Russell T. Davies, who brought the series back to the small screen after a hiatus of sixteen years in 2005. Davies alluded to “The Last Great Time War” which found the Doctor forced to make the decision to annihilate his own race in an effort to destroy the malignant alien race the Daleks (rather accurately described as pepper-pots outfitted with plungers of death – trust me they’re scarier than that description makes them out to be).

The 50th anniversary special entitled The Day of the Doctor premiered on the 23rd of November, 2013 (exactly fifty years to the day the series debuted). Written by current showrunner Steven Moffat, the special starred Matt Smith as the Eleventh Doctor who, with the aid of his companion Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman), is contacted by the secret government agency U.N.I.T. to investigate some mysterious goings-on at the National Gallery in London. A series of events will eventually lead to the Doctor meeting his previous – the Tenth – incarnation (David Tennant) as well as the long-forgotten, and shunned, War Doctor (John Hurt) who was responsible for the genocide which eradicated the Doctor’s people; an act which he says was carried out “in the name of peace and sanity” – but not in the name of the Doctor.

When I first saw the special, I was incredibly enthusiastic about it. (The curious can check out my initial, gut reaction which I posted on my other blog The Consulting Detective by clicking here.) Since then, my opinion of the special has changed. I would like to make it clear right from the start that the special is good. It is beautiful-looking – three cheers for director Nick Hurran – and very nicely acted. However, I do not think that The Day of the Doctor is the greatest thing since sliced bread. From a writing perspective, Steven Moffat’s script is pretty convoluted and the decision to create a previously-unknown Doctor – in the form of Hurt’s War Doctor – is a dramatic wrench in the gears of the show’s continuity. (Moffat has since said that Doctor Who has no continuity which, to me, sounds like a weak excuse to do whatever he wants.)

But, as I noted above the acting in the special is excellent. The triumvirate of Matt Smith, David Tennant, and John Hurt is a force to be reckoned with. Smith is my favorite actor to play the Doctor, and he has excellent screen chemistry with David Tennant (my second favorite Doctor). But, this being a John Hurt blogathon, I should really talk more about the War Doctor. As I noted above, Hurt made his first appearance in the show at the end of The Name of the Doctor; it’s a shock-inducing cameo for the unaware. He also briefly appeared in the much-loved mini-sode The Night of the Doctor which showed how the War Doctor came into being. But, the War Doctor gets his finest moments in The Day of the Doctor. He is completely unlike Doctors Ten and Eleven and the juxtaposition of the younger actors with the seventy-three-year-old Hurt is great fun. Their interaction is made all the better as the characters are incredibly different; the War Doctor is something of an intergalactic grump and he is simply stunned to see the kind of man he becomes.

But, the War Doctor isn’t only there for laughs. The War Doctor has to deal with the weight of destroying his own people, and given the opportunity to save them come the special’s finale, he utters one of the finest lines in Doctor Who’s history: “Great men are forged in fire. It is the privilege of lesser men to light the flame.” The gravitas with which Hurt delivers the line is brilliant; Hurt truly does bring all of his classical training to his performance herein. To some, Doctor Who may just be a science fiction family show, but Hurt never lets that from preventing him from delivering a fine performance. I do feel that Paul McGann and Christopher Eccleston were cheated out of appearing in the special, but that in no way prevents me from greatly appreciating Hurt’s wonderful contribution to the series’ history.

The Day of the Doctor is not perfect, but it does do two things right. Firstly, it looks epic. It is without doubt one of the best-looking episode of Doctor Who. Secondly, it features brilliant performances from its central cast. The regular Doctor Who team do great jobs (as expected), and the choice to bring aboard the great John Hurt was an excellent decision. The special will no doubt linger on the memory for many years to come – that is until the show’s 100th anniversary. 

Saturday, 1 August 2015

2nd Annual British Invaders - "Murder on the Orient Express" (1974)

Today’s post I submit as part of the 2nd Annual British Invaders Blogathon hosted by A Shroud of Thoughts.
I am of the opinion that Agatha Christie is one of the finest writers who ever lived. She is the best-selling author of all time, behind only the Bible and William Shakespeare. Never have her books gone out of print and she remains just as popular today as she ever was – she is the undeniable Queen of Crime.

The interesting thing about Christie’s work though is that it is very difficult to bring to the screen. Some of her whodunits are, at their heart, dialogue-driven books with a detective questioning each of the suspects in turn as he or she searches for means, motive, and opportunity. So, it is not surprising that the earliest adaptations of Christie’s novels didn’t turn out so well – though I am myself rather partial to Rene Clair’s 1945 And Then There Were None and of course the brilliant Witness for the Prosecution (1957). So, it isn’t surprising that Christie was hesitant about seeing an adaptation of one of her most famous novels Murder on the Orient Express when producers John Brabourne and Richard B. Goodwin approached the authoress. However, Christie did give her blessing on the film and the result, the 1974 film of the same name, is a remarkable bit of cinema history, and perhaps the best adaptation of Christie’s work to the big screen.

Murder on the Orient Express finds famed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney) returning to England from Istanbul aboard the Orient Express. Frightened businessman Ratchett (Richard Widmark) is also traveling on the Calais Coach and approaches Poirot for protection fearing his life. The detective turns down the proposition and the following morning Ratchett is found brutally murdered. Anyone traveling in the car is suspect. Who is responsible?

The all-star cast of Murder on the Orient Express
The first thing which anyone watching Murder on the Orient Express is likely to notice about the film is the impressive cast list. Albert Finney is joined by (to name a few): Lauren Bacall, Martin Balsam, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, and Michael York. As I noted above, Christie’s work – this novel in particular – is centralized around interview sessions between detective and suspect. So, it is imperative that the cast make the repetitive actions interesting to watch. And I must say that the distinguished cast exceeds brilliantly. I truly cannot find fault with any of the performers in the film; each of them are cast in roles which play to their strengths. Lauren Bacall is a pleasure to watch as the loud, slightly obnoxious American tourist; Sean Connery has great screen presence as the haughty English colonel; and Anthony Perkins is a bit of a Psycho homage as the neurotic, mother-obsessed secretary. Top honors though must go to Ingrid Bergman who plays against type as a Swedish missionary. Bergman’s performance is, simply put, magnificent, especially since she is able to convey so much in one short, five-minute scene with Albert Finney. She deservedly won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

It has become accepted recently to put down this film especially in light of the recent (and brilliant) television series Agatha Christie’s Poirot starring David Suchet as Poirot. But, frankly, I cannot understand the criticism. Murder on the Orient Express is a handsomely-mounted picture and Albert Finney truly takes center-stage as Christie’s little Belgian detective. Finney’s interpretation of the detective was the first that I saw and I think that I shall forever associate Finney with Poirot. His mannerisms and demeanor are, slightly different than the soft-spoken character of Christie’s novels (by comparison Finney is far more theatrical and he gesticulates wildly at times), but he holds the viewer’s attention with ease. The final summation of the case – which runs nearly half an hour – is placed entirely on Finney’s shoulders and he holds your rapt attention. Finney also has brilliant comedic timing which play up some of the detective’s eccentricities. Bemoaning the poor food at a restaurant, Finney’s Poirot tears up a menu and pours his coffee into a nearby plant and later, after interviewing Jean-Pierre Cassel who has tearfully discussed the death of his wife and child, Poirot suggests moving onto less-distressing matters only to bring up the murder seconds later. Finney was nominated for an Oscar for his performance and the nomination was certainly warranted.

Cast aside, Murder on the Orient Express succeeds in generating atmosphere. The movie is, for the most part, steeped in a world of high society. The recreated Orient Express is opulent in the extreme, but grandeur is not the only feeling which the film can generate. The prologue depicting the media circus which surrounded the kidnapping of the Armstrong baby (which turns out to have a great impact on the case) is quite disquieting; the scenes tinted yellow to mirror the yellow journalism which persisted during the era.

A word must also be said for Richard Rodney Bennett’s original score. His original waltz which plays as the train pulls out of the station is inspired. It is a beautiful and jazzy score (also Oscar-nominated) which really underscores the film in a tremendous way.

Murder on the Orient Express was the first in a series of Agatha Christie adaptations: 1978 saw the release of Death on the Nile starring Peter Ustinov as Poirot. The film also featured an all-star cast with such luminaries as Bette Davis, David Niven, and Angela Lansbury on hand to play suspects. Lansbury returned to play Christie’s detective Miss Marple in 1980’s The Mirror Crack’d featuring Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and Kim Novak. And in 1982, Ustinov played Poirot once more in Evil under the Sun opposite Diana Rigg, Roddy McDowell, and James Mason. But, none of these adaptations could eclipse Murder on the Orient Express. It is a compelling film to watch and is, to this day, one of my favorites. I cannot think of another whodunit which has done better. Even Agatha Christie, notorious for not liking adaptations of her books, acknowledged that the movie was a genuinely fine effort.