Friday, 30 September 2011

Flying Post Fables

If you live in Exeter or its surrounds, make sure you pick up your copy of the Exeter Flying Post, which includes a story by our very own Mr Snowdon, founder and christener of this blog. It's available for nowt in The Phoenix Arts Centre, the library, the Old Firehouse pub and probably many more places. Neil's story shows that whilst, as Oscar observed, we are indeed all in the gutter, there is sometimes a brief, miraculous moment when our attention is collectively drawn to the stars. One from the heart.

Radical Bloomsbury: The Art of Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, 1905-1925

The exhibition Radical Bloomsbury at the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery focuses on the two most prominent visual artists from that much documented (not least by themselves) cultural clique. The art of the Bloomsbury set has gone in and out of fashion over the years (it’s probably safe to say it’s spent more time on the out side) and it is often dismissed as being a pallid attempt to import continental, and particularly French styles into polite English upper middle class society. The harsh absoluteness with which the Bloomsbury critics and tastemakers Roger Fry and Clive Bell delivered their disdainful judgements, declaring whole areas of artistic endeavour aesthetically void and worthy of their withering contempt invites a similarly merciless appraisal of the efforts of those in their own circle whom they favoured. It should be said that neither Duncan Grant or Vanessa Bell (who was married to Clive Bell) indulged in such over-assured partisanship. They knew what they liked and tried to incorporate it into work which reflected something of their own experience and way of seeing the world.

Robert Hughes and Andrew Graham-Dixon both cleave to the art historical orthodoxy and give the Bloomsbury artists short shrift. Hughes, in his 1987 review of the RA show British Art in the Twentieth Century, included in his collection Nothing if Not Critical, refers to ‘the weak pastiches of Matisse by Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell and other Bloomsbury-approved painters’, all of which exhibit ‘a cozy provincialism’. Andrew Graham-Dixon, in his A History of British Art, also accuses Grant and Bell of producing a form of pastiche which diminished the original model; ‘Homages to Matisse and to the ideals of Fauvism which distorted and emasculated precisely what they set out to elevate’. Both go on to praise the daring and radicalism of Wyndham Lewis and the Vorticists (so named by Ezra Pound), who were roundly dismissed by Roger Fry and Clive Bell. Graham-Dixon describes the movement as ‘strong and vital’ and ‘explosive’, whilst Hughes praises its ‘formidable energy’. Wyndham Lewis and his acolytes are perhaps the kind of artists which art historians favour because they engage explicitly and vocally with the political, historical and social currents of their time. Wyndham Lewis was also one of those artists who produced manifestos which belligerently asserted his likes and dislikes and turned them into doctrine. BLAST set about damning a wide range of targets in an artfully arranged and typographically adventurous rant. Like Marinetti and the Futurists, from whom he drew but also distanced himself, Wyndham Lewis was blusteringly masculine. He seemed to welcome the approach of war, in which he willingly participated, sending back tall tales from the front. Whilst anchored in his individualist, Nietzschean philosophy of self-declared genius, he drifted far enough to the right to embrace fascism and for a brief time express his admiration for Hitler in a book length study. Vorticism is similarly aggressive and forthright in its embrace of a modernity which is expressed in monumental and powerfully mechanistic form, dwarfing or absorbing the human figure and incorporating it into its own design.

Wyndham Lewis - self portrait from a CD of spoken word recordings
Bell and Grant’s art is a great deal more feminine, hence Graham-Dixon’s comment about its emasculating qualities and his and Hughes’ emphasis on the masculine virility of Wyndham Lewis’ work. They both took steps towards abstraction but never wholly abandoned recognisable human, still life or landscape forms. Theirs is an art of quiet interiors and private arcadia, personal worlds at a deliberate distance from the chaotic flux and violent progress of the early decades of the twentieth century. The Bloomsbury Set of which they were a central part was indeed a cliquish and elitist circle of men and women from privileged and moneyed backgrounds. But they made strenuous efforts to break free from the social expectations and assumed attitudes attached to such a birthright. They cultivated a worldview which encompass sexual tolerance and openness, an abhorrence of violence on a personal and national level, the valuation of strong and lasting friendships, critical honesty (even when assessing those close to them), a spirit of artistic experiment, and (by and large) socially progressive politics. Whereas Wyndham Lewis gladly and even eagerly went to war, Duncan Grant showed a different sort of bravery and stood up for his beliefs by becoming a conscientious objector, working on the land instead of fighting. If Vorticism was a resolutely masculine movement (Wyndham Lewis apparently failed to publicly recognise that he even had a wife, who remained firmly in the background), then the Bloomsbury set included many strong women alongside gay and bisexual men such as Grant, David Garnett and John Maynard Keynes. There is a certain tranquil repose and domesticity to Bloomsbury art which critics tend to deride as conservatism. It’s a commonplace view that the twentieth century was marked by a steady accumulation of horrors and anxieties, a series of shocks of the new. Any art which isn’t violent, tormented or disruptive is thus failing to live up to the spirit of the age. But there’s a place for an art which stands outside of the political and social trends of the time, which is detached, self-contained and inward-looking. The fierce modernity of Vorticism and the gentler experimentalism of the Bloomsbury artists don’t need to be mutually exclusive, even if the louder contemporary proponents of both were all too ready to declare hostilities. There often seems to be a strange form of aesthetic Darwinism at play in artistic circles, either at the time or retrospectively, which deems that only one strand can become dominant and survive to propagate further offshoots. This would seem to benefit those tracing neatly linear art histories or seeking were the market value lies more than it encourages the healthy flourishing of manifold approaches to art itself (and by extension, to the world).

The exhibition begins with a number of photographs from India and Burma in the late Victorian era which reflect Duncan Grant’s colonial childhood as the son of a Major in the Hussars. There is also a photograph of an assembled group dressed in turbans and robes. This is in fact a shot taken of Grant and his co-conspirators, who included Vanessa Bell’s sister Virginia Stephens (later to become Woolf) and her brother Adrian. They posed, somewhat implausibly but nevertheless successfully, as the Emperor of Abyssinia and his entourage and gained access to one of the new ironclad battleships moored in Weymouth harbour. They were entertained onboard for several hours by the captain and shown sensitive new military equipment. The so-called Dreadnought hoax of 1910 caused a nationwide stir, and were it not for the connections enjoyed by Grant and his fellow pranksters, they could have been in serious trouble. It’s an indication of the privileged and protected world in which they lived that they should have got away with it, and set out with the expectation that they would suffer nothing but a superficial rebuke. Their infiltration was put down to mere high spirits, with no real subversive or treasonous intent, which was no doubt an accurate conclusion. This privileged background is also evident in the picture of Grant at Rugby school, a child immaculately turned out in his young gent’s uniform of tailcoat and shiny top hat. This background could work against them, too. Just as it was assumed that their posing as colonial royalty could have no political or satirical element, so it was all too easy to dismiss their artistic efforts as the work of idle dilettantes.

Vanessa Bell - Byzantine Lady
The early work is screened off on the left hand side of the exhibition rooms, as if it is a little shameful and needs to be hidden away from the main body of the exhibition. Nevertheless, it is interesting to see them both (Grant in particular) trying out different imitative styles, wearing their primary influences openly. Vanessa Bell’s Iceland Poppies (1910-11) lays the flowers’ long, limp stems out on the cool, cream surface of the table before an urn and a medical phial, as if they are being displayed on a mortuary slab. Grant’s early enthusiasm for Aubrey Beardsley is apparent in his drawings. His Dancers from 1910 puts what he learned from his earlier copies of Masaccio’s Expulsion of Adam and Eve to use. Its sturdy, sculptural figures and air of ritual anticipate the earth mothers and goddesses he would go on to create. Grant and Bell had met each other at the Friday Club, which Bell (then Vanessa Stephens) had set up to discuss art and put on an annual exhibition. They were both hugely inspired by the Manet and the Post-Impressionists exhibition mounted at the Grafton Galleries in 1910 by Roger Fry. This introduced to a wide English audience the likes of Gauguin, Picasso and Derain, and above all, Cezanne, whom Fry considered ‘the great genius’. All of these were to exert a strong influence. By the time of the second Post-Impressionist exhibition (for which Grant produced the poster, included here) in 1912, the work of English artists was also included alongside the likes of Picasso, Cezanne and Matisse (with cubism getting a first look in). Matisse was also a great inspiration, and Bell’s Byzantine Lady of 1912 (now in the Government Art Collection and recently also on display at the Whitechapel Art Gallery) shows the impact of his colour palette whilst retaining an individual sensibility in its profile portrait of a woman with eyes closed, who looks half like a painted puppet, half like a dreaming priestess. Both Bell and Grant had paintings displayed at the second exhibition. Their intimacy with Fry, who was once again the curator, and with whom Bell had recently had an affair, points to the rather nepotistic nature of the Bloomsbury set. Then again, most self-organising artistic movements come together partly to promote each other’s work by gathering it under a common banner.

The Ass (1913) - Duncan Grant
One of the pictures Grant displayed was The Queen of Sheba (1912), which once more displays the ancient figures and scenes which exercised his vivid imagination. The style shows the influence of Seurat and pointillism, although the brush dabs are broad and suggestive of mosaic tiles, in keeping with the biblical subject matter. The clearly defined blocks of colour contained within heavily outlined areas are a step towards the formalism (the primacy of colour, shape and outline and their arrangement over directly representative subject matter) for which Fry and Clive Bell argued. This also anticipates the decorative work which Bell and Grant would carry out at various houses including, eventually, their own. There is humour here, too. Solomon’s face seems to slump down into the supporting architrave of his cupped hand, suggesting that he is not entirely engaged by what Sheba has to say. Meanwhile, a rather supercilious camel drifts by outside, feigning an aloof indifference to the rider upon its back. The whole subtly undermines the grandiose self-importance of the pictorial tradition of historical or classical scenes. Grant would portray further exotic or eccentric animals in his work, perhaps drawing on memories of his Indian childhood. There’s a marquetry tray with an elephant and rider, all sharp angles, like a flattened version of a Gaudier-Brzeska sculpture. The Ass (1913) is a playful and characterful animal portrait which looks like it could be taken from a children’s book. In its goofy grotesqueness, it resembles one of Mervyn Peake’s illustrations for his nonsense poems. The background landscape has the angular planes of a Cezanne painting, whilst the heavy lines of broadly spaced hatching point to a decorative sensibility. They also resemble stitches, making the ass resemble some sewn-together, patchwork creature.

Venus and Adonis (1919) - Duncan Grant
Grant also continued to show an interest in primal, ancient subject matter. His Head of Eve (1913), with its mask-like face and exaggerated bodily outline, could be an object excavated from some long-forgotten downland tumulus. There used to be more of her, with a tumbling Adam at her side, but somehow, the isolated head and bust is more impressive, the design more concentrated and thus making a greater immediate impact. Venus and Adonis (1919) foregrounds the reclining Goddess in a hot Mediterranean landscape, her bed composed of glowing reds, oranges and yellows, like scarcely solidified magma. Her body has the overemphasised breasts and hips of ancient Goddess figures and is rooted to (or contiguous with) the earth. Her head, which seems almost detached from the body, tethered only by the broad anchor of a great hand, floats amongst the clouds, whose billowing form and sun-blushed colour is echoed by the waves of her hair and the flush of her cheek and lips. Adonis is a tiny figure running freely through the landscape. But he is positioned so that he seems to be traversing the expanse of her thigh, his further progress constrained by the upraised pillar of her calf. The sculptural form of Grant’s earth mother certainly seems to anticipate the work of Henry Moore, for whom it might well have provided a grain of inspiration.

Studland Beach (1912) - Vanessa Bell
Roger Fry and Clive Bell’s emphasis on the formal aspects of a painting as providing the most important aesthetic element had a definite effect on both Grant and Bell, who no doubt heard the critics’ theories at persuasive length. This led to them both experimenting with varying degrees of abstraction and general reduction of detail, although both tended to return to representational subject matter. Total abstraction was not, in the end, something which expressed their character or interests. A mixture of the formal and representational can be seen in careful balance in Vanessa Bell’s Studland Beach (1912). Areas of bold and clearly distinguished colour are contained with heavily outlined and simplified shapes. There is a very mysterious and almost ritualistic atmosphere to this painting, which makes it much more than a simple beachside holiday scene. All the figures are facing away from us. The two in the foreground, sitting in the dune area, are distinguished by their dark reddish dresses (the red of life?) and the straw coloured hats which take the place of heads and further set them apart from the beach area. A clear expanse of bone-white sand separates them from the other group, who cluster around the bathing tent which breaks the transverse sweep of the lines of dune, beach and sea. Four figures huddle as if in obeisance around a fifth, who stands in front of the tent as if on the threshold of some portal. She wears a simple blue dress, the blue of the ocean into which she is just about to plunge. But there is a sense of finality to the scene, as if she is not likely to return once she has passed through the white doorway. This is a scene of farewell and departure. The whole picture is suffused with an air of dream and memory, landscapes and people recollected and used as the stage for an interior psychodrama, a sense enhanced by the formal simplification of the composition. In this sense, the beach looks forward to the flat, desert-like planes and city squares populated with dream objects by Dali, de Chirico and Tanguy. The picture is filled with a quiet sense of loss, unsurprisingly so given that Bell had lost her mother when she was six, her half-sister Stella Hills when she was 18, and her father when she was 25. Her sister Virginia would make her first suicide attempt a year later. All of which makes the picture hugely affecting and filled with a premonitory mystery, presaging a passage into the great blue beyond which has swallowed the sky and now forms a universal and all-embracing element. Bell’s The Tub (1917) is another painting in which formal design is to the fore, the whole centring around the compressed oval of the tub itself. The picture also has a religious quality. The woman, to the right of the picture, with her primitive, mask-like face taken from African art via Picasso, toys with her braid (perhaps undoing it), but her clasped hands and downturned head give her a prayerful aspect. The tub, just to the left of centre, looks like a heavily lidded eye, awaiting the right words and gestures to slowly blink open and deliver whatever oracular vision it has to offer. The arched, sky-blue space at the back, with the ochre vase containing splayed yellow and red bulbs balanced on the straight deep blue line, has the feel of an altar. The bathroom is thus turned into a sacred space, a place of solemn ritual and contemplation.

Bell did briefly venture into the realm of complete abstraction in 1914, but soon turned back. The most remarkable abstract work here is Duncan Grant’s Abstract Kinetic Collage Painting with sound. This is a long strip of canvas with arrangements of coloured rectangles, some given stippled ‘shadows’, perhaps to give an impression of depth, which proceed in more or less discrete clusters along its length. This was designed to effectively act in a manner akin to a spooled loop of film, to be viewed through a viewing screen in a box. Grant’s sketched designs for the proposed mechanism are displayed alongside the strip itself. When the Tate Gallery purchased the work in 1973, they made a film of it in motion (or perhaps merely tracked along its length). Grant chose the slow movement of Bach’s first Brandenberg Concerto to accompany the images, and the film plays adjacent to the original work, displayed in all its elongated, horizontal glory. I imagine this is a piece which the gallery staff will not want to hear again for a long time after the exhibition closes. This is art as synaesthetic experience, aspiring to the condition of music, the procession of rectangular forms tumbling and righting themselves in a stately, shuffling dance. Where the more action-oriented of the abstract expressionists would use huge canvasses to create a sense of motion through space across which the spectator’s eye roved, Grant kept things compact by making the canvas itself move, doing the viewer’s work for them. Although you can create your own loop, of course, by walking along the length of the strip, trying out different speeds (and different pieces of accompanying music if you happen to have a portable music device handy) or maybe seeing what it’s like in reverse.

Bathers by the Pond (1920-1) - Duncan Grant
There’s a strong arcadian element to Bell and Grant’s work, too; a search for a changeless Edenic polder walled off from the frenzied progress of the unfolding century. A place of stillness where they and their friends could live freely beyond the bounds of conventional society. Both Grant and Bell painted scenes of their camping holiday with Clive Bell, Roger Fry, John Maynard Keynes, Adrian Stephens and others. Grant’s Tents (1913) sees him evidently in thrall to Cezanne, with the angular lines of the tents reflected in the intersecting planes of the trees, and the palette constrained within a narrow range of olives, yellows, and bluey greys. Bell’s Summer Camp (1913), owned, along with Grant's picture, by Bloomsbury enthusiast Bryan Ferry, has more of a sketch-like quality, with broad black outlines and single strokes of paint, with the whole composition anchored by the yellow tent poles and sloping lavender and olive canvas. Arcs and blocks of green, blue and ochre paint in the background give the merest, notional hint of a surrounding, verdant woodland which is more fully represented in Grant’s painting. Grant also turned on several occasions to the subject of male bathers, most strikingly in his 1911 design for the students’ dining room in Borough Polytechnic, South London. This is a study in waved and arcing lines. The three planes of the sea (or is it a lake?), intersecting at different angles and seemingly layered atop one another, resemble batik bedspreads with their gradations of watery colour contained within brown outlines. The bathers are composed of curves of shallow convexity joining at sharp angles. There’s something a bit Blakean about them. The pope being cast into the fiery pit in Blake’s illustrations to Dante’s Inferno could be transposed to take a less agonising dive here. The figures in the foreground look as if they’re drowning as much as they’re swimming. The wavering lines of the water’s surface are traced over their limbs, whereas those of the swimmers in the second plane of water, who are either diving in or climbing out, are obscured, suggesting these may be deeper currents. Their hair follows the undulation and curve of wave and muscle. The only straight lines here are those of the horizon and the block on the lower right hand side from which two figures are diving, one immediately after the other. The later Bathers by the Pond (from about 1920-1) returns to a form of paint-dabbed pointillism for the watery background and shore foreground, which gives the impression of hazy summer shimmer despite the somewhat drab, Sickert-like colours. The dazzling white and orange-red of the bathers’ trunks and the towel really stand out against the muddy greens, browns and yellows. The figures are more individuated than those of the 1911 mural, with facial features delineated and bodies more naturalistically portrayed. The small dash of brown representing the pubic hair of the reclining foreground figure goes against the smoothly unnatural conventions of the classical nude, and there is an air of languid homoeroticism about the whole picture.

Interiors and thresholds granting views out into gardens or arcadian landscapes were also a common theme of Grant and Bell’s work. Bell’s Interior With A Table (1921) sets the brown of the table, with the sinuous curve of its legs resembling the twining spiral of a vine and giving it an organic look, and the cool whites of the curtains and window frame against the warm colours of the St Tropez landscape beyond. The discs of the four flowerheads in the vase provide an intermediary balance between the separate spaces, the colours of the bright burning world brought into the subdued shadows of the interior. Grant and Bell’s concern for domestic spaces was also manifested in the interior decorations which they carried out in various houses, including John Maynard Keynes’ place in 1910-11. They produced a number of objects for the Omega Workshop, a William Morris-style enterprise set up by Roger Fry in 1913 to encourage artists to direct their talents towards the applied arts and improve the standard of home decoration. These works included Grant’s elephant tray and several screens, two of which are placed back to back in the centre of the first gallery. Bell’s screen returns to the camping theme, with the central pyramid of tent and pole orbited by four green women disporting themselves in various languorous poses. The one in the centre, with her back to us, is seated within a dark red triangle which echoes the shape of the tent above. The simplified and sharply angular forms and mask like faces, rendered with a minimal series of slashes, recall the contemporary sculptures of the likes of Gaudier-Brzeska and Constantin Brancusi, as well as Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon. The colours are rather drab, verdigris greens and mustard yellows. The same cannot be said for Grant’s screen, which features more playfully drawn animals, this time bright blue sheep grazing on pink hills in an eye dazzling riot of fauvist exuberance. This is certainly no English farm I’ve ever seen. Bell and Grant eventually discovered their own arcadia at Charleston, a farmhouse at Firle, just east of Lewes in Sussex, which Bell first rented in 1916. They both lived here on and off until the end of their days, their closeness reflected in the shared styles and subject matter of much of their painting. They even had a child together, Angelica, in 1918. The writer David Garnett, a fellow conscientious objector, also lived at Charleston during the war years, at which time he was having an affair with Grant. He was present at the birth of Angelica and some years later, in 1942, ended up marrying her. With such a dedicated determination to circumvent social conventions, life was certainly never dull in Bloomsbury circles. Bell and Grant set to decorating their own home over the years, and you can see the results for yourself, as Charleston and its surrounds have been open to the public since 1985. Bell and Grant (who died 7 years earlier in 1978) are both buried in the nearby churchyard at Firle, which suggests that Charleston was a spiritual home to the both of them.

Vanessa Bell at Charleston (1917) - Duncan Grant
Grant portrays Bell in the early days at their home in Vanessa Bell at Charleston (1917). She is relaxed, sprawled at nonchalant full length across the sofa, shelves bowing under the weight of the books against the wall behind her. The window is open to the left (although we don’t see through it) with its brightly patterned red curtain hanging still to the side, and the room appears light and airy. It feels like the room of one’s own which Vanessa’s sister Virginia sought. Bell and Grant both painted a series of portraits of friends and acquaintances seated and, to varying degrees, at their ease in domestic interiors, usually in bright and occasionally hallucinatory fauvist colours. Bell’s portrait of Virginia Woolf (1912) finds her cradled in the winged arms of a warmly orange chair. Although her hands seem to be engaged in knitting or crocheting, the blurred features of her face subjectively suggest a state of light sleep. As with the Studland picture, the simplified formalism of the painting gives it a hazy, dreamlike quality. Duncan Grant’s portrait of the mountaineer George Mallory (1912), another of his boyfriends, is a full and shirtless head and torso composition, radiating frank desire. It shows him as a heroic and monumental figure, gazing off into the distance with arms around drawn up knees, as if dreaming of his next adventure. The portrait is partially painted pointillistically to give the effect of a mosaic - a depiction of a notable ancient about whom tales will long be told. Vanessa Bell’s portrait of Mrs St John Hutchinson (born simple Mary Barnes) of 1915 has, on the other hand, a rather shifty quality. This is partly due to the primly pouting lips, partly to the blue eyes looking warily or distractedly off to the side. She is set against an abstract formal design, perhaps one of Bell’s 1914 efforts, which hints at an element of cool calculation in her character. Mrs Hutchinson was the open mistress of Clive Bell, Vanessa’s husband, and whilst such arrangements were par for the course in Bloomsbury circles and didn’t necessarily present a problem, she and Vanessa never got along. The distrust between them seems apparent in this portrait. Nevertheless, with her form filling the space between narrow framing blocks of blue colour and making a striking impact in the pulsating yellow-green of her dress, she has a definite, commanding presence.

Virginia Woolf (1911-12) - Vanessa Bell
This exhibition brings together the diverse works of Bell and Grant’s experimental years, the period in which they were searching for their own individual means of expression. If nothing else, it shows how assiduously they pursued a series of attempts to transpose the various new styles of art from the continent into a personal and particularly English context. The degree to which they succeeded is up to you to decide, but it’s well worth following their progress whether or not it ended up marking a significant moment in the story of British art, or a mere notable footnote. This was the perfect summer exhibition for the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery. Grant’s bathers looked splendid on the advertising hoardings facing the sea, although it has to be said that while we were there a fierce gale was whipping the waves up into a dramatic surge which would have made any attempt at swimming a foolhardy exercise. But Radical Bloomsbury remains here until 9th October, so there’s still time to see it whilst the brief late bloom of our Indian summer draws on.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

The Plague of Zombies

The Plague of the Zombies was made at a time when Hammer was basking in the success of their prestige production She, which had been released with great fanfare in 1965. Quick to seize on their enhanced profile, they sealed an 11 picture deal with 20th Century Fox and Seven Arts, later absorbed into Warner, which meant that the American money would be coming in. Bear in mind, though, that this was a schedule which meant making and releasing those films in a little under two years. She had been a big budget affair by Hammer standards, and they had even travelled to Israel for some location shooting, but now it was back to the trusty studios at Bray. These were based around the old mansion at Down Place in Windsor, and Hammer had been transforming the gentile middle England milieu of rural Berkshire into a landscape of gothic terror since Dracula’s castle was erected in its grounds in 1957. The readily identifiable nature of the surrounding countryside, with its beech woodlands, bracken speckled heathland, and much-used lake, which always provides a richly atmospheric backdrop, is one of the things which gives Hammer’s gothic films their unmistakably British feel, whatever the supposedly remote European setting. Nearby Oakley Court could serve as a convenient manor house façade, as it does here, and, after Hammer had moved elsewhere, for 70s films such as Vampyres and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It is now a hotel, ideal for a gothic weekend getaway. If She had seen Hammer being uncharacteristically lavish with the spending (if hardly on a Cleopatra scale), their subsequent output saw them resort to more penurious ways. Films were shot back to back on the same sets, the art directors ringing cunning variations with a bit of creative redressing. The first films to be shot thus were Dracula: Prince of Darkness and Rasputin: The Mad Monk, the titles revelling in the emphatic assertion of the central characters’ authoritatively sinister nature. Christopher Lee fully returned to the Hammer fold to finally reprise his signature role, alongside his gleeful if historically dubious portrayal of the Russian royal confidante, and perhaps as a consequence, these films were given the greatest priority and cash. Made under rather more straitened circumstances were the following back to back productions, The Plague of Zombies and The Reptile, shooting on the former getting under way after a breather following the completion of Rasputin – of a week!

Sir James approaches Oakley Court
Both films share a setting of nineteenth century Cornwall, The Reptile scattering a few props of a nautical nature and blowing in the dry ice sea mist to convert Plague’s tin mining community into a fishing village. Plague of Zombies opens with the rising hysteria of James Bernard’s theme music, characteristically spelling out the title in a strident sequence of chords. Da-da-DAA-da! The African drumming and miniature totemistic dolls to which we are immediately exposed indicate that these will still be traditional zombies of cinematic voodoo provenance. The shuffling hordes of flesh-eating creatures created by scientific catastrophe or as a symbol of social malaise have yet to become the standard image conjured by the word. The pounding voodoo drums echoing through the cavern and the stark outlines of the African ritual masks, both traditionally seen as signifiers of the ‘primitive’, are contrasted with the stolidly aristocratic setting in which we meet Sir James Forbes and his daughter Sylvia, its Victorian clutter betokening a perhaps excessive accumulation of civility. This also tends to suggest that Cornwall is seen as a new locale for the primitive, a place where such ritualistic conjurations might not seem too out of place. The locals certainly take violent umbrage at the local doctor, all but blaming him for the plague which has cursed their village and which he has failed to diagnose. There is a feeling that he is not too far away from a sacrificial lynching. Native inhabitants may or may not agree with such a portrayal. It allows for Cornwall’s air of mystery and sense of separation from the rest of the United Kingdom, whilst suggesting a degree of superstitious yokeldom and mumbling backwardness of the ‘we don’t like strangers ‘round ‘ere’ variety. Sam Peckinpah was still drawing on this view of the Cornish when he came to make his controversial 1973 picture Straw Dogs. Neither film is likely to be highlighted by the local tourist board.

The beer and whisky divide - a Hammer pub
The primitive characters in Plague of Zombies are from the opposite end of the social spectrum, however. We are soon acquainted with the lofty arrogance of the local aristocracy, as Sir James and Sylvia’s coach is interrupted by the local fox hunt. Writer Peter Bryan and director John Gilling eschew the romanticism often associated with hunting in films such as Powell and Pressburger’s Gone to Earth and even Roger Corman’s last Poe adaptation, The Tomb of Ligeia. Here, the hunters are brutish and animalistic, as much of a pack as the dogs they follow. As the coach pulls into the village, they ride through with a disdainfully proprietorial air, as if they are asserting their authority over the land and all who live in it. In an elevated shot looking down on the village, their bright red coats strikingly mark them out as a disruptive and invasive intrusion into the monochrome surroundings. They callously scatter a funeral cortege which obstructs their path, upsetting the coffin and spilling its cadaverous contents. The face of the corpse which the camera zooms in on seems to be gasping in outraged shock. The dead man’s brother can only pound the stones of the bridge in impotent rage. This powerful scene sets up the central class conflict which drives the plot, ratcheted up and painted in such broad brush strokes that it can be said to amount to class hatred. The red of the huntsmen’s coats is associated with the blood of the villagers, which is used to reduce them to undead slavery. The human victims are essentially regarded as no different to the foxes which they hunt (and yes, this is a good piece of anti-hunt propaganda, too).

Zombie grin
The anti-aristocratic theme is no stranger to gothic fiction, of course. Its villains have always tended towards the titled end of the social spectrum, and partially reflected the indulgence in all manner of excess and taboo-breaking decadence towards which the landed gentry directed their wealth. Lord Byron’s escapades on the continent certainly cemented the bad reputation of the English aristocracy abroad and was a direct influence on the anti-heroes and seductive monsters of subsequent fiction, Bram Stoker’s Dracula included. Hammer had upheld this line of descent; its two most famous characters were a Baron and a Count, after all. But the character of Squire Hamilton and his pack of bloods stand apart from this lineage in that they conspicuously lack any trace of charm or even dark seduction. The scene in which the young thugs draw cards to see who will be the first to ‘take’ Sylvia makes their attitude towards women clear. They are there to be used, a further example of their assumption of universal ownership. Presumably, the attempt to create zombies out of the female characters in the film is not in order to add to the labour force at the tin mine, either, as the ghastly rictus grin of desire and hunger on the resurrected Alice’s face makes all too clear.

An honest copper - Michael Ripper
Few of the regular Hammer repertory company grace the cast of Plague of Zombies, but Michael Ripper is on hand to give his usual redoubtable performance, this time as the village bobby who assists Sir James in his endeavours after initial scepticism. Ripper returns to his civvies for the follow up, The Reptile, and gives perhaps his definitive innkeeper portrayal, a role which he made his own in Hammer world. Ripper is one of the great British character actors, and deserves recognition beyond the cult circles afforded by his genre work. Andre Morell is fine as the aristocratic scientist Sir James, pitting his rational world view against the supernatural forces at work in the village. It’s a part which could almost be seen as a Victorian reprise of his portrayal of Bernard Quatermass in the third BBC serial featuring that arch advocate of scientific rationalism, Quatermass and the Pit (also featuring Michael Ripper as a bobby, incidentally). His moral outrage and open disgust at what he discovers going on is powerfully expressed. Marcus Hammond as the voice of the peasantry, John Martinus, is also splendid, with the convincing air of a Westcountryman about him. He portrays someone whose barely suppressed hatred and rage comes crashing against his sense of complete powerlessness. He largely avoids the pitfalls of playing country as bumpkin and his character is thus genuinely affecting. John Carson is fine as the stiffly formal squire Hamilton, his jaw firmly set in a permanent clench of outrage at the very idea that anyone might oppose his authority. The young leads are, it has to be said, rather uninspiring. But Jacqueline Pearce is superb as the ill-fated Alice, her long, straight black hair yet to be cropped to the severe crew cut she sports as Servalan in Blake’s 7. Her character suffers from a wound which will not heal, a very resonant piece of symbolism which forges a connection, conscious or otherwise, with a recurrent pattern of myth, that of the fisher king. This wound is linked to the desolation of the surrounding land, in this case the mysterious plague which is laying waste to the village population. Pearce imbues Alice with a deeply felt sadness, as well as the feeling that this was a person who had previously been full of vivacity and life. Pearce apparently suffered from claustrophobia at the time, which must have made her confinement to a coffin unbearable. Make-up artist Jack Asher does marvels with limited resources, creating a look of peeling decay for his zombies and dressing them in sackcloth which emphasises their abject nature. This cast off packing material suggests that they are valued less than the products of their labour, little more than ambulatory sacks of potatoes. John Gilling’s direction is fine, particularly in the celebrated fever dream in which the dead come to life, shot with disorientating angles and an expressionistic colour palette. In this scene he is immeasurably helped by the music of James Bernard, who reigns in his customarily forthright style to provide a musical accompaniment full of subtly disconcerting dissonances, all the more powerful for being muted and underplayed.

Zombie dream
Plague of Zombies was released as the lower half of a double-bill with Dracula Prince of Darkness, a classy pairing which would have satisfied any discerning patrons of their local ABC in Streatham or Sidcup or elsewhere in the provinces. This was a time when many small towns or suburbs still had small cinemas which tended to show less prestigious releases, usually in value for money double-bills. With the big studios concentrating on family musicals such as The Sound of Music and widescreen epics of the David Lean school, it’s arguable that smaller budgeted genre pictures appealing to a more everyday local audience give a more accurate insight into the contemporary zeitgeist. There is certainly an undisguised contempt for the upper class on display in Plague of Zombies, a whiff of revolution in the air, which would have been calculated to appeal to the prejudices of the more working class viewers who would have formed Hammer’s core audience. This reflects the shifting social attitudes, the erosion of deference, which characterised Wilson’s Britain. It is still left to Sir James Forbes, the customary Hammer figure of the learned scholar of moral authority and well-bred bearing, to provide the force of opposition, however. His honorific may have been earned rather than inherited, but he is still essentially an Establishment figure. James Carreras, son of Hammer founder Enrique, was on his way to a knighthood (an honour also recently bestowed upon Christopher Lee, of course) and the company would soon be awarded the Queen’s Award to Industry. Hammer was edging towards a certain level of respectability itself. You can only take things so far, after all. This is Britain, you know!

Zombie zoom

Reposted from From Out of the Shadows

Company of Wolves

The Company of Wolves was a slightly belated addition to a mini-revival of one of the more neglected of the repertory of gothic monsters, the werewolf. Even Hammer, who had done so much to revive the fortunes of Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster and the mummy, only managed one outing for their shape-shifting cousin. Perhaps its power has been diminished as the untamed wilderness of which it was an embodiment has been swallowed up by the spread of urban civilisation. Like so many other species, it is a victim of habitat destruction. The lycanthropic surge at the turn of the 80s saw the release of John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London and Michael Wadleigh’s The Wolfen, both of which stranded the creatures in the modern city, and Joe Dante’s The Howling, in which a new age forest retreat made for a perfect sanctuary and hunting ground of tamed wilderness. The Company of Wolves was released a couple of years after these films, and draws out the werewolf theme from the gothic primer of the fairy tale. In something of a triumph for independent producers Palace Pictures, who operated out of offices above the Scala Cinema in Kings Cross, this modestly budgeted British film received its premiere at the Odeon Leicester Square on September 21st 1984.

Keeping to the path
The film was adapted from her own short stories by Angela Carter, in collaboration with the director Neil Jordan, himself an author turned director. Her collection The Bloody Chamber had explored the thinly concealed substrata of the fairy tale, that relic of the oral tradition of storytelling long since defanged and consigned to the nursery. Carter had also edited and introduced two volumes of fairy stories published by the Virago press, the first of which was retitled The Old Wives’ Fairy Tale Book for its US edition, highlighting the female provenance of the tradition. These children’s tales bore a wealth of secret knowledge, allowing a feminine perspective on life to be voiced, and it is those voices which gives the structure to the film, through a series of nested stories which respond to and unfold from each other. Carter also knew her Freud, and the film is soaked with imagery drawn from his theories on the interpretation of dreams and the nature of the uncanny. But the feminist writer and anarchist spirit begged to differ with the bearded Viennese figure of authority, whose theories didn’t, of course, apply to himself (a cigar is sometimes just a cigar, after all). This story is one in which an adolescent girl interprets her own dreams and finds her own path through the woods, learning to become the author of her own self. She refuses to be subsumed by the stories told by others and the version of the world which they would impose upon her. As such, the film argues for the vital importance of the fairy story and the fiction of the fantastic in general, of the need to re-imagine the limits of the possible. It also challenges the role of fearful victim commonly ascribed to the female characters of gothic fictions, as represented on the cover of the magazine we see lying on the young girl’s bed at the start of the film. Stray from the path, Angela tells us, in contradiction to granny’s aphoristic commands, and explore the dark spaces beyond the village’s safe boundaries. The tales of terror you’ve been fed may well prove illusory when fearlessly faced.

Dream Window
The film opens in the world of external reality, but it already seems at some remove from the everyday. A Volvo drives through an autumnal oak wood, paced by a racing Alsatian, until it reaches the drive of an old Georgian country house and the plunder of a trip to Sainsburys is unloaded. The camera glides into the house and up the staircase, the walls becoming increasingly grimy and dilapidated as we ascend, until finally we discover a young girl locked in the disarrayed sanctuary of her room. This is the place where the mad woman in the attic of gothic fiction would be hidden away, but the girl has exiled herself, locking the door from the inside. Her bedroom mixes the standard paraphernalia of teenage bedrooms with relics of a childhood soon to be left behind. Posters of New Romantic pop stars abut Beatrix Potter and Ladybird fairy tale books, the latter perhaps giving a hint as to how these stories have become neutered over time. The antique toys which perch on the shelves give a glimpse of older childhoods where such expurgations may have originated, staring down with glassy Victorian eyes. The screenplay specifies a poster of Lon Chaney as the Wolfman being on the wall, declaring a direct link with gothic cinematic antecedents, but this is absent from the final film. There are only so many symbols and meaningful objects you can pack into a small span of space and time. On the door, a white, bridal-looking dress hangs and sways back and forth in the breeze blowing through the open window, as if animated with its own inner life, struggling to unhook itself from the clothes hanger and fly free. This may be a homage to a similar symbolic image at the beginning of Powell and Pressburger’s film I Know Where I’m Going, another tale of a woman who decides to stray from the path set out before her, in this case the road which leads to the highlands and islands of Scotland and an opportunistic marriage into wealth and society. In Angela Carter’s published screenplay, the girl in the room is named as Alice, bringing to mind another young adventurer into dreamworlds. She is thus separated from her dream double, Rosaleen. It is Alice rather than her sister who meets her end in the borderlands of dream during the first exploration of the forest’s edge, a graphic enactment of the death of childhood. But in the film, she remains anonymous, unnamed other than by her sister’s hissed ‘pest’, and thus more closely linked with the Rosaleen of her inner world. The womblike inner sanctum of her room is the atrium of the dreamworld, and the camera leads us weightlessly though the window towards the dark forest, the Grimm heart of the primal stories.

The borderlands of dream
This forest is the central gothic locale of the film, and one which indicates a journey into an inner landscape. The village huts, the church and even the gravestones have an amorphous, rounded shapelessness which suggests this interior nature. Insofar as the overarching clusters of soaring columns and the stone-carved foliage of medieval cathedrals seek to emulate the forms and the hushed ambience of the forest, it could indeed be said to be the birthplace of the gothic spirit, the wildwood constantly threatening to encroach upon the narrow compass of civilisation. The borderlands to which the real Rosaleen consigns her sister are still filled with the transformed objects of her room, the personal materials from which her dreamworld will be fashioned. Freud’s theories of the uncanny are realised as the inanimate comes to life, those Victorian toys, creepy enough in themselves, taking on the oversized menace of nightmare avengers. Semi-organic organ pipes blast out gothic chords and enormous mushrooms emphasize the dank darkness of the forest. The tree trunks seem to have the striated, reddish consistency of muscle tissue, an inner world literally built from fleshy matter. But this is only the edge, a territory still connected with the waking world. As with Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood stories, which excavate the strata of the mythical matter of Britain, the heart of the story lies deeper within, and we must venture towards more immaterial, symbolic realms.

Samuel Palmer sets
The forest was built on a couple of sound stages at Shepperton Studios, and it never loses the feel of a stage set, an enclosed environment. This is entirely to its advantage, and in keeping with the notion of an inner landscape. The mixture of props and painted backdrops and the freedom to play with lighting effects creates an artificiality perfect for the telling of a fairy tale. It enhances the enchantment, the feeling of being told a story, of being led through a series of book-plate illustrations in an old Edwardian tome. It is similar to the mood created in The Wizard of Oz, where we are entranced by the painted backdrops of a landscape which takes off where the studio set ends, the yellow brick road winding through fields and up over the hills to the distant horizon. Powell and Pressburger’s recreation of the Himalayas at Shepperton for Black Narcissus exerts a similar spell, with its beautiful glass paintings of lush distant valleys and pastel blue mountains visible beyond the set of the nuns’ missionary school. The forest set of the Woman of the Snow episode of Masaki Kobayashi’s 1964 anthology of Japanese ghost stories Kwaidan also bears a strong resemblance, and similarly creates a self-enclosed atmosphere of the uncanny through lighting and the striking non-naturalistic use of colour. These are atmospheres, relying as they do on the creation of a painterly look by the cinematographer, which the virtual palette of CGI, for all its manifold marvels, cannot hope to recreate. Indeed, the work of artists have a strong influence on the look of designer Anton Furst’s sets. Samuel Palmer, in particular, is a primary source, as a look at paintings such as Coming From An Evening Church and The Magic Apple Tree will affirm.

Samuel Palmer - Coming from an Evening Church
The film is peopled with a solid cast of dependable British character actors. Principle amongst these is Angela Lansbury, who plays Rosaleen’s grandmother, the source of the old wives’ wolves tales of she is told. Lansbury portrays the grandmother as an outwardly comforting figure who betrays steely hints of malevolence in the glints of light which reflect from the lenses of her wire-rimmed glasses. Her stories encourage a fearful and conformist view of the world in which the other, that which is different, is to be shunned. The poisonous core of these tales is like the maggot found wriggling inside the seemingly perfect apple which Rosaleen picks up from the ground of her garden. When Rosaleen starts to formulate her own stories, they are essentially ripostes to her granny’s tales. It is something of a story duel. Rosaleen reshapes the matter of her granny’s stories and uses them to work out her own burgeoning feelings. Tentatively testing her tales on her mother, she challenges the view of the world offered by the received wisdom of the older generation. This is evident in her final story through the inclusion of the vicar, for whom her granny has nothing but open contempt, as a figure with compassion for and acceptance of the other, the wild wolf-child who comes into the village naked and lost. Rosaleen’s empathy for this scorned outsider turns her granny’s stories inside out, and exorcises the fear at their heart. The wounds are now inflicted by the supposedly righteous, driving the despised innocent back into her underground retreat of alienated introversion. The wounds of the wolf-girl will never wholly heal, and her tears will flow forever, filling the well from which she emerged and to which she now returns.

Suave devil - Terry wears his wages well
The vicar is played by the redoubtable Graham Crowden, who reads his passages from the bible with much the same quizzical cadences he used to read passages from history as the eccentric bicycle riding teacher in If… Also on hand are Brian Glover, who plays Brian Glover to a tee, and Terence Stamp as the immaculately tailored devil, holding what apparently is a pygmy skull before him, as if he’s working himself up to a soliloquy. This was Stamp’s first film in some while, having retreated into self-imposed exile for reasons unveiled in his evocatively elegiac autobiography Double Feature. The suit was the price of his appearance, and excellent value it was too. Remarkably, Neil Jordan wanted Andy Warhol for the part, and Andy was indeed interested, but circumstances conspired against the fulfilment of such a startling cameo (gee, what a shame). The gaily attired huntsman who Rosaleen meets towards the end of the film was played by the dancer and choreographer Micha Bergese, who was later to be the artistic director of the Millenium Dome show, for his sins. His performance is archly mannered, every movement carefully considered and balanced, as befits a dancer. He brings a muscular physicality to his transformation scene that lends it an intense immediacy that elaborate effects couldn’t have captured. With his blue brocaded frock coat, tricorne hat and high riding boots, he could be the original model for some of the New Romantic pop stars that deck the real Rosaleen’s walls. Could this in fact be ‘the dandy highwayman who you’re too scared to mention’? Post-punk goth singer Danielle Dax makes an effective silent appearance as the protagonist of Rosaleen’s final story. She plays the pitiful wild child, rejected by the world into which she tentatively emerges, sheltered for a short span by the vicar before crawling back into realms below. Sarah Patterson in the central role of Rosaleen bears much of the weight of the film, and she does so admirably, portraying the innocence and freshness of her character, but also the fortitude and questioning nature which leads her to forge her own path. Patterson didn’t follow up on this initial foray into acting, but has recently appeared in two films by English director Lisa Gornick, ‘Do I Love You’ and ‘Tick Tock Lullaby’. Mention should also be made of the fine score by George Fenton, which incorporates elements of Irish folk music and the impressionism of Ravel and Debussy, the latter rising to lush heights as Rosaleen climbs the largest tree in the forest. Fenton has gone on to be a prolific composer for film and TV, as he already was at the time, and has scored many of Ken Loach’s films as well as providing the sweeping orchestrations which accompany the awe-inspiring photography of the BBC’s Planet Earth series.

Rosaleen and the dandy highwayman
The film is visually ravishing and full of beautiful poetic images. The sensual red of experience mixes with the pure white of innocence as blood in milk, blood on snow and tears staining a white rose red. The latter image brings to mind the drop of menstrual blood staining the white daisy petal in the 1968 Czechoslovakian fairy tale fantasia Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, which could be considered something of a sister film to The Company of Wolves. Both represent, through the forms of the fantastic, the breaching of a young girl’s innocence and the encroachment of the cares and experiences of adulthood, but both show their young protagonists taking control of the symbolic landscapes in which their fables unfold and ultimately embracing the change which has come upon them. The moon occluded by the blinking of a superimposed eye is an image which also appears in the Woman of the Snow episode of Kwaidan mentioned above, and could be seen as representing the ever-watchful gaze of the omniscient overseer of the subconscious. Freudian protuberances are ubiquitous, whether they be the tumescent pump of the well at the centre of the village, rising above the wet, shadowy darkness of the shaft like a westernised Shiva Lingam, or the suggestively gnarled and knobby knot at the base of the tree which Rosaleen climbs. The bright red of Rosaleen’s riding hood shawl makes her stand out vividly against the drab, earthy colours with which the village peasantry are clothed. We also briefly see carts filled with glittering gemstones being pulled along rails emerging from mine shafts, suggesting a new, neighbouring locale for further fairy tales, extending perhaps to a whole continent of contiguous storybook worlds. There is a whole menagerie of symbolic beasts scattered throughout the film. Crows, toads, rats, owls, hedgehogs, storks, lizards, snakes and spiders; All the creatures of fear and magic, looking on with disinterest from branches and rocks, just as they do during the night-river journey in Charles Laughton’s film of Southern fairy tale gothic, Night of the Hunter.

Innocence tames the wolf
The film ends back at the Georgian house, back in Rosaleen’s bedroom. As the magazine cover had foretold, her dream is indeed shattered. Things will never be the same again. For once you have strayed from the path, the complex kaleidoscope of the imagination is shaken from its static pattern and can unfold into an infinite array of possibilities. The only boundaries are those of the mind. And they can be very wide indeed.

Beyond the forest canopy - exploring the boundaries

Reposted from From Out of the Shadows

Dracula AD1972

Hammer tended to locate Christopher Lee’s Dracula in some vaguely defined nineteenth century mittel-Europe, which road signs or directions given to harried coach drivers would place as being near a Germanic sounding town called Karlstadt. Truth to tell, the fearful peasantry tended to sound more West Country than Westphalia, and the heathland and beech woods were hardly the Black Forest, but the notion was there. The Count did make it to Victorian England in Taste the Blood of Dracula, carried in dessicated form by Roy Kinnear’s unwitting salesman and unleashed by Ralph Bates’ fin de siecle seeker after new and undreamed of heights of decadent sensation. But he immediately retreated to the ancestral castle for the woeful Scars of Dracula, a low point in the studio’s output which makes such derided efforts as Prehistoric Women and The Viking Queen seem like minor masterpieces in comparison (they’re certainly a great deal more entertaining). The general weariness displayed by all involved, and the desperate resort to liberal lashings of tawdry gore must have occasioned a rethink, and the obvious way to refresh the Count was to introduce him into a contemporary setting. In the aftermath of the social upheavals of the 60s, the implications of which were working themselves out as the new decade progressed, a rural European setting in thrall to the feudal class divisions of a previous century no longer had much resonance for a popular audience. Michael Reeves’ 1968 film Witchfinder General had set a new standard for the representation of a particularised English past of squalid rural brutality which made Hammer’s fairy tale locales seem even further removed from the times. It was time for Dracula to come down from his castle. This was, after all, what he had done in Bram Stoker’s novel, making arrangements to move to London in order to take full advantage of the steam-driven technologies and gas-lit rookeries of the modern late-Victorian metropolis.

Gothic standoff - Van Helsing and the Count meet again
The title Dracula AD 1972 foregrounds this move to the modern era, but the opening of the film eases us towards such jarring modernity with a fatal struggle to the death between the Count and his arch-nemesis Van Helsing atop a careening carriage a hundred years earlier. This nod towards an Anglicised version of the Western convention of the assault on a speeding stagecoach, an extended version of which was played out towards the climax of Tim Burton’s Hammer homage Sleepy Hollow, is an indication of the generic elements which will be added to the usual gothic mix in this film and its follow up, The Satanic Rites of Dracula. The writer of both, Don Houghton, had already displayed his propensity for such miscegenation with his two Jon Pertwee Doctor Who scripts, Inferno and The Mind of Evil, which used plot structures borrowed from the disaster movie and the Cold War thriller, and he was later to create a self-reflexive country house murder mystery within which to house the strange metaphysics and surreal internal logic of the Sapphire and Steel universe. The Count’s meagre remains, which we have seen in previous films are more than enough to effect a resurrection, are buried beyond the pale of the graveyard where Van Helsing is interred. There is a definite sense that these adversaries need each other. They are the twin poles of a Manichean worldview, each defined by the other’s opposition. The resumption of this eternal struggle will almost be a relief to them as they find themselves adrift in the rapidly shifting social milieu of the 70s.

Gothic script on modern skies
The shock of the new is rather neatly conveyed by a camera pan away from a close-up on Van Helsing’s tombstone, which reveals that it is now surrounded by the encroaching rubble of demolition in preparation for subsequent redevelopment in the 70s style. And that means concrete. From the bird song in the rural Victorian graveyard where we have just witnessed the dual interment, the camera pans upwards to witness a jet plane roar overhead. It is a century-bridging cut which directly echoes a similar effect in Powell and Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale, where the hawk sent gyring into the air by one of Chaucer’s pilgrims is transformed into a spitfire as we are shifted into the modern Kentish countryside of the Second World War. Director Alan Gibson gives us some sweeping wide-angle lens panoramas, a technique of which he seems quite keen, to give an impression of this disorienting new world. Concrete overpasses spanning busy roads (the Westway), the dizzying heights of steel and glass office blocks, and traffic choked London streets. It is little wonder that Dracula, once reincarnated, opts to stay in his small oasis of Victorian gothic revival. Remember, this was the era in which British Rail wanted to demolish the Gothic railway temple of St Pancras, presumably to make way for something along the lines of the brutalist civic centre now facing it in an architectural version of a Sergio Leone standoff. The seeming irony of the Count taking refuge in a church, albeit a deconsecrated one, perhaps taps into a deeper sense that such figures of darkness can only have a meaningful existence in a world in which faith is still central. Van Helsing similarly takes refuge amongst the Victorian furnishings of his book-lined study, a scholar’s retreat which his granddaughter Jessica likens to a mausoleum. So is this really an analysis of the soul’s desolation, the isolation of the individual in the shadow of God’s absence from the world, in the manner of Bergman’s Winter Light? Er, not really, no. But it does reflect the wilful demolition of the past and the values which it embodied which was being carried out at the time. Many have seen the confinement of Dracula within St Botolph’s church as a failure of nerve, but I find it entirely appropriate for the period. A crisis of faith, be it cultural or religious, is a threat to sacred monsters and sacred architecture alike.

Bad boy Johnny
The Count’s servant seems to have changed little over the century, save in his foppish fashions and modish hairstyle, but we must assume that he is a direct descendant in the same way that Peter Cushing’s strangely named Lorrimer Van Helsing is the grandson of the original vampire hunter. The book ‘The House of Horror’, an official version of the Hammer story, was to be issued the following year by Lorrimer Publishing, which explains such peculiar nomenclature. Is there a genetically inherited component to evil henchmanhood being hinted at here? The name Johnny Alucard is a bit of a giveway, and it doesn’t fill us with confidence in his mental acuity that Van Helsing needs to painstakingly doodle an acrostic in order to figure it out. It also reminds us of other ‘hipster’ characters such as John Cassavetes’ jazz playing Private Eye of the nightclub world, Johnny Stacatto. Indeed, the name would seem to be more suggestive of a beatnik milieu, and it seems at times as if Houghton is drawing more on memories of this era (or the films which embodied it) for his view of youth cool. This would explain the inexplicable enthusiasm which Marsha Hunt evinces for a ‘jazz spectacular’ at the Royal Albert Hall. The Mahavishnu Orchestra, maybe? Johnny is at the centre of a ‘hip’ Chelsea set which is first seen ‘freaking out’ the squares in a posh Kensington pad. These unfortunates have their house invaded by the happening sounds of Stoneground, who churn out uninspired grooves of lumpen heaviosity in the backgound. It was to have been The Faces, but alas, the ‘Ground had a pre-existing contract with the distributors, Warner Bros., so the services of Rod and the boys were not called upon.

Johnny with Caroline Munro
The opening party scene demonstrates the level of authenticity we can expect in the depiction of contemporary youth culture; it is more convincing than the hippy festival at the end of Carry on Camping, but only marginally so. The dialogue is the big let down of the film. Its risibility obscures the fact that there are some interesting ideas at play elsewhere. It’s perfectly possible that the whole thing is intended to be satirical, in which case we are laughing along with the script rather than at it. The babbling inanities of the supremely irritating ‘comical’ member of the cool inner circle would certainly mark him out for imminent death in any horror film made ten years on, particularly given his penchant for practical jokes of the leaping out from behind a gravestone variety. Why he chooses to dress in a monk’s robe is anyone’s guess. Caroline Munro’s pogoing dance moves exude an infectious enthusiasm, however. Munro, whose first significant film role this was (playing the exquisite corpse of Vincent Price’s wife in The Abominable Dr Phibes wasn’t much of a stretch) went on to become something of a fantasy film favourite in the 70s, appearing in such timelessly entertaining fare as Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter, At the Earth’s Core and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, becoming a Bond villainess in The Spy Who Loved Me before disappearing along with the rest of the British film industry. It was great to see her lending her support to the Classic Horror Campaign recently. She was always very courteous and considerate to her fans, and is clearly a good egg of the first order. Adam Ant payed tribute to her iconic status (as he had already done with Diana Dors) by casting her in his video for Goody Two Shoes. Stephanie Beacham, as Van Helsing’s granddaughter Jessica, diplays a splendid example of a feathercut hairstyle, bested in 70s film only by Jane Fonda in Klute, and sports a variety of purple clothing on her way to 80s Dynasic soap queendom. She also starred in Hammer rivals Amicus’ period gothic And Now the Screaming Starts, in which she was menaced by an ambulatory disembodied hand which, given its extremely sluggish nature (the mechanics were a bit ropey, apparently) tended to rely on the element of surprise. Marsha Hunt arrives fresh from inspiring The Rolling Stones hit Brown Sugar, having had a daughter with Mick Jagger in 1970. She went on to have a small part in the little-loved (I like it) concluding film of Lindsay Anderson’s Travis trilogy, Britannia Hospital, by which time the planet-sized afro is long gone.

Caroline freaks out to the White Noise
If the execrable dialogue can be enjoyed in its own right, the same can probably not be said for Michael Vickers’ intrusive, heavy-handed score, with its endlessly repeated horn riff and flailing guitar mangling. For this they ditched the reliable services of long-running Hammer composer James Bernard? Much more impressive is the electronic music used to accompany the black mass scene, played by Johnny on his ‘portable’ reel to reel recorder. Appropriately enough it’s a track called Black Mass (subtitled An Electric Storm in Hell) from the 1969 Electric Storm LP by White Noise, which was a rather atypical release for Island Records. White Noise were a temporary studio union of young technical wizard David Vorhaus and Unit Delta Plus, better known as BBC Radiophonic workshop legends Delia Derbyshire, who also provided electronic sounds for the 1973 film The Legend of Hell House, and Brian Hodgson. The music is a genuinely disturbing blend of distorted vocals, musique concrete screams and electronically processed drum sounds, and it builds the ritual to a pitch of hysteria climaxing in Dracula’s resurrection. It demonstrates what a vital role a good soundtrack can be in helping to create an evocative atmosphere. Not even Johnny’s lame invitation to ‘dig the music, kids’ can entirely dispel its power.

Peter and Stephanie - the Van Helsings
Whilst no classic, Dracula AD72 is really much better than its lowly reputation would give it credit for. Peter Cushing gives his usual sterling and committed performance, and displays a touching tenderness in his scenes with Beacham. Their relationship, with its inter-generational conflict giving way to genuine affection, feels far more authentic than anything within the groovy swinging set, and the scenes in which the two are together begin to give us the sense that these are real people. Van Helsing doesn’t play the disapproving elder, either, at no point expressing prim disapproval of Jessica’s lifestyle. The contemporary setting allows Cushing to indulge in his chain-smoking habit, and he is able to bring an absolute conviction to such exchanges as: ‘let’s just hope you’re wrong about this whole business’…‘I wish I was, Inspector. I wish to God I was’. Christopher Lee lends his usual looming presence, and although he doesn’t have a lot to do other than smoulder and glower and sweep his cloak (he doesn’t even turn up until about half way through) he does all of these things splendidly. When he does get to engage in a bit of action in the duels with Van Helsing(s) which bracket the film, the scenes have a real, thrilling physicality which harks back to the climax of the original 1958 Hammer Dracula. There is an intriguing homoerotic undertow to the film, as Alucard pleads with his anagrammatic master to be bitten and exposes himself with a look of expectant ecstasy. Lee approaches with a grimace of distaste, and the camera shies away from the actual bite (the vampire’s kiss) but Alucard attains the ‘power’ he craves and proceeds to pass it on to Jessica’s boyfriend, whilst the women are simply led to Dracula to be drained and discarded. The film dwells on the banality of everyday, kitchen sink environs, such as the car wash in which Jessica and her boyfriend talk, and the night-time launderette outside of which Johnny trawls for victims. New gothic locations are also put forward, such as the Cavern, a subterranean club space in which the usual elements connoting neglected antiquity such as cobwebs and cracked stonework are now self-conscious props. This being a late period entry in the Hammer Dracula cycle, the methods of despatching vampires are becoming correspondingly baroque, and there is a nice bit of business in which the elements of a morning wake-up routine, the shaving mirror and the shower, are used to deadly effect. But of course, a film which proudly displays the year of its making in the title will always offer the pleasures of period detail. Look, there’s the number 19 to Finsbury Park, a Routemaster yet! And there’s Battersea Power Station, still belching out smoke and yet to be a Pink Floyd cover! And there’s some vintage Chelsea and West Ham graffiti, although the fact that they are placed neatly one above the other with no sign of erasure, and are daubed in a similar hand suggests that the art department was at work in this case (I hope they had permission). Really, this is just a film to sit back and unashamedly enjoy. So, take Jessica Van Helsing’s advice, relax and indulge in ‘a quiet bit of mindblowing’.

Christopher commands

Reposted from From Out of the Shadows

Friday, 2 September 2011

Folk, Theatre and Electronics

The Decca LP of the cast recording of the 1963 Theatre Workshop production Oh What A Lovely War came into the Exeter Oxfam music shop today, and has found its way online. I’ve written about Joan Littlewood and the Theatre Workshop in in the context of the film Sparrows Can’t Sing. Oh What A Lovely War was one of the most celebrated productions which Littlewood and her partner Gerry Raffles put on at the Theatre Royal in Stratford in the East End of London. Obviously with the record you won’t get the ironic juxtaposition of the back projected photographs from the war and the rolling statistics underlining its terrible cost, but the mixture of music hall numbers, propagandistic crowd pleasers and satirical and political anti-war songs still offers a powerful mixture, and a good example of the workshops blending of performance styles. The record was released in 1969, presumably to coincide with the release of Dickie Attenborough’s film of the show, a pale shadow of the original. Many of the cast of Sparrows Can’t Sing here appear as the pierrot singers, Workshop stalwarts all: Avis Bunnage, Fanny Carby, Griffith Davies, Brian Murphy, George Sewell, Victor Spinetti and, of course, Murray Melvin. There are also guest appearances by a number of theatre worthies, who sing particular songs: Jean Pierre Cassel sings Belgium Put The Kaibosh On The Kaiser, Penny Allen We Don't Want To Lose You (Your King And Country Need You), Maggie Smith the terrifying I'll Make A Man Of You, Corin Redgrave and Joe Melia Good-Bye-Eee, Pia Colomba Adieu La Vie, Maurice Arthur When This Lousy War Is Over, Richard Howard Far, Far From Wipers, and Joanne Brown Keep The Home Fires Burning. Sadly, Barbara Windsor, the co-star of Sparrows Can’t Sing, and who featured in the Broadway run of the play, isn’t present. This is a great record of a truly momentous and groundbreaking theatrical event. I’m really excited to see that Murray Melvin, who is now the official archivist of the Theatre Workshop (all on his own time, mind) will be giving a talk at the Theatre Royal as part of the Open House London weekend at 3.00 on Sunday 18th September. I shall certainly try to get along and hear what he has to say about the history of the remarkable institution (if such it can be called, given its anti-establishment stance) in which he played such a central part.

Some more good folkie stuff has also gone online. On the 1974 Topic LP The Rose of Britain’s Isle accordion, concertina and melodeon player John Kirkpatrick is joined by his other half Sue Harris, who plays oboe and hammered dulcimer, for a series of traditional English folk songs and tunes. Staverton Bridge, whose eponymous 1975 LP was released on Saydisc Records, were a Devon folk band featuring Tish Stubbs, Paul Wilson and Sam Richards. They tended towards the more leftward leaning side of the traditional folk repertoire (including Ewan MacColl's We Don't Want to Live Like That), mixing guitar, lute, banjo and whistle with harmonium, group percussion and medieval vocal harmonies. Staverton is a small and picturesque village just outside Totnes, a town which has a very pronounced alternative culture (it's one of a number in the country which posseses its own local currency) from which the group presumably emerged. The Watersons’ For Pence and Spicy Ale is a 1975 Topic Records LP in which the first family of traditional English folk, Mike, Lal and Norma Waterson, are joined by Martin Carthy for their first record of the 70s, a collection of traditional songs (plus one by the late Mike Waterson) such as the Swinton May Song, the Apple-Tree Wassailing Song, Swarthfell Rocks, the Maplas Wassail Song and The Good Old Way. The sleeve notes on the back cover are written by A.L.Lloyd. The Albion Country Band’s 1976 Island Records LP Battle of the Field features a mid-70s incarnation of ex-Fairport Convention man Ashley Hutching's ever-changing folk rock group The Albion Band. Martin Carthy on guitar and vocals, Sue Harris on vocals, oboe and hammer dulcimer, and John Kirkpatrick on accordions, melodeon and concertina turn up again, along with fellow Fairporter Simon Nicol on guitars and dulcimer and Roger Swallow on drums. This group is enhanced by another Fairport member, Dave Mattacks, on drums on the second side, as well as a bunch of Sackbut players. We also have the 1970 LP Folk on Friday, offering (as you might guess) recordings from the BBC Folk on Friday radio series, presented by future Folk on Two main man Jim Lloyd. Robin and Barry Dransfield feature, as do Dave and Toni Arthur, the latter yet to enter her iconic role as a Play School and Playaway presenter. Dave and Toni remark, on the back cover sleeve notes, that 'when they are not performing they are deeply involved in research and have made a study of seasonal rituals, customs and folklore'. Hear the results of their, and other's esoteric investigations here. Dave and Toni sing The Death of the Earl of Essex and Two Pretty Boys, whilst the Dransfields, by way of contrast, offer Talcahuano Girls and an instrumental medley. There’s a great sleeve by BBC Records graphic designer Roy Curtis-Bramwell, too.

Tolkien has always been a folkie favourite, and we have a fascinating recording here of The Hobbit, a 4 LP boxed set on Argo Records from 1974. This is a 'dramatic reading' of the story which introduces the Middle Earth mythos, made by Nicol Williams. Williams played a very eccentric Merlin in John Boorman's 1979 film Excalibur - hear what he makes of Gandalf here. There is a sparing use of music for dramatic effect and during interludes. This largely derives from medieval sources and is produced by Professor Thurston Dart and Bob Stewart, who plays harp, brass, shawms, flutes and a hurdy-gurdy. The illustration on the cover of the box is by Tolkien himself. At the opposite end of the spectrum, we have the 1965 Turnabout LP, Electronic Music, which gathers together 3 classic pieces of electronic music from the 50s and 60s. Turkish-born composer IlhanMimaroglu's Agony, created in May 1965 at the famous Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Centre, uses purely electronic sound sources in a manner suggesting musique concrete. It is subtitled Visual Study No.4 after Arshile Gorky, taking inspiration from the great Armenian artist's abstract paintings. John Cage's Fontana Mix is an early classic of electronic music, composed at the Studio de Fonologia of Italian Radio in Milan. Existing in several arrangements, this is the one for magnetic tape alone. Luciano Berio's Visage, also produced at the Studio di Fonologia in 1961, is a piece of musique concrete in which the composer manipulates the vocal sounds produced by his wife, the singer Cathy Berberian. All marvellous stuff, whether it be the sound of oscillating electronic tones, the shimmer of hammered dulcimer strings or the haunting echo of popular songs from a previous century with a secret purpose.