This October the perfect read was Thin Air by Michelle Paver. I have been looking forward to this as Paver’s Dark Matter is my favourite supernatural novel from the last few years. Paver is carving her own genre in tales of isolation, fear and possible madness and Thin Air follows a mountain expedition in 1935 where the altitude has a disturbing effect on the tale’s narrator. Highly recommended.
This October the perfect listen was The No Sleep Podcast. Broadcasting since 2011, and now in season 8, I have slowly been working my way back through this and previous seasons. Each episode typically features one or more stories, all read from a first person perspective. Effects and musical background is low key, and so the listener is treated to a traditional approach to storytelling. Think of campside tales, or radio broadcasts before the genre was swamped by film.
Standout stories for me so far are: Her Last Call written by S.H. Cooper and performed by Jessica McEvoy & Addison Peacock & Nichole Goodnight & Alexis Bristowe. A tale of bullying and featuring a disturbing Lady Gaga ringtone.
YUSDABEE written by Richard Jenkins & Amelia Hammal and performed by Erika Sanderson, concerning a post apocalyptic alternative London. Sanderson is my favourite narrator from the stories I’ve listened to so far.
Video Footage written by A.L. and performed by Alexis Bristowe & Atticus Jackson & Addison Peacock & Nichole Goodnight & Kyle Akers & James Cleveland, a clever narrative take on cinema’s found footage genre. After declaring I wanted no more to do with found footage horror I still lapped up this story.
The particular standout however was Stories for my Daughter written by J.M.Kendrick and performed by Erika Sanderson and David Ault, which is the perfect halloween short story. It is intriguing, chilling and moving.
Tonight I will be listening to The No Sleep Podcast Halloween edition, and reading The Travelling Bag and Other Ghostly Stories by Susan Hill. Happy Halloween.
In 1964 Albert Finney worked again with the director Karel Reisz on Night Must Fall, following their first collaboration four years previously on Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Crucially the films bear no comparison at all, Finney proving his versatility and determination not to be typecast into any particular role or acting style.
The tag line for many of Night Must Fall’s original posters reads “the lusty bawling star of Tom Jones goes psycho”, so while audiences weren’t allowed to forget Finney’s most recent success, they were also enticed into seeing the new movie idol in a more controversial role. Hitchcock’s Psycho obviously still very much in the public consciousness at the time, the film’s marketing must have suggested that Finney was exploring Norman Bates territory.
If Wikipedia is anything to go by, Finney was one of the top ten box office stars at the time, so this film was a bold move for the actor who turned down Lawrence of Arabia. But unfortunately Night Must Fall was not a success and is mostly forgotten, perhaps the least remembered film of an actor who starred in comparatively few films anyway (indeed, Night Must Fall was only his fourth film and he chose to give the cinema a rest for three years after this, returning in 1967 with the equally odd Charlie Bubbles).
Night Must Fall is a remake of an even lesser known 1937 film of the same name, which was in turn based on the 1935 play by Emlyn Williams. With Reisz directing from a script by Clive Exton (who also wrote the screenplay for 10 Rillington Place) and with Finney as producer, it also stars Mona Washbourne, Susan Hampshire and Sheila Hancock. The film was entered into the 14th Berlin International Film Festival. The excellent black and white cinematography is by Freddie Francis, and whilst some of the acting is decidedly (and deliberately) offbeat, if you can find a good print of the film it looks amazing.
Finney is the centrepiece as Danny, an odd young man who charms his way into the house of an apparent invalid Mrs Bramson (Washbourne) and her daughter Olivia (Hampshire) via his girlfriend, their housekeeper Dora (Hancock). Affecting a Welsh accent, Finney is determined to pull out all of the acting stops from the beginning and succeeds in delivering quite a mesmerising performance. He makes it no secret he’s unhinged, and there’s no secret either that the brutal murder that forms the backdrop of the story is his responsibility. Going back to the Psycho comparisons, little is shown in terms of violence or bloodbath and brutal murder wise most is left to the imagination. Worming his way into her affections, Mrs Bramson allows Danny to call her “mother”, which leads to her downfall. So also, like Bates, Danny does appear to have parental issues that have led to his outlook on life, although it’s much more subtle here. And there’s many a quietly handled and telling scene; watch out for the “puzzle hand”.
Thinking about Night Must Fall and the period it was made, I’m inclined to place it somewhere between The Servant (1963) and The Collector (1965). The Servant because there are some similarities visually, there is the depiction of weird childish game playing, and the exploration of a class theme (although Danny’s wish to rise a social class is less explicit than Dirk Bogarde’s Barrett). The Collector because it was another film with American backing that placed a young British star (Terence Stamp) in a very peculiar and shockingly non-starry role. The Collector is a better and more convincing film in my view (and it also features Mona Washbourne) but Night Must Fall is still essential viewing.
Karel Reisz went on to direct Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment in 1966 which (along with Saturday Night and Sunday Morning) is a far more celebrated 60s film. Looking through Finney’s subsequent roles, I can’t really see anything he did that stands out in a way that Danny does. I’m willing to be challenged on this, but mostly he seems to have succeeded in his wish not to be pinned down in any way after his early success, moving between musical (Scrooge in 1970), detective (as the original Poirot in 1974’s Murder on the Orient Express) and horror (Wolfen in 1980) genres. And most recently James Bond: he’s the best thing in 2012’s otherwise dire Skyfall.
Halloween time and so my top 5 horror television of the 21st century.
The Walking Dead (2010 -, currently in 5th season)
The Walking Dead has recently started its fifth season and is attracting groundbreaking viewing figures for cable television. The new series is already living up to the consistent high quality expected, especially with the strong lead performance of Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes, now weary, grey-bearded, greasy and blood-splattered but ever determined to keep his band of survivors, comrades and family, safe.
Carl: Dad, you can’t keep me from it.
Rick: From what?
Carl: From what always happens.
Rick: Yeah. Maybe. But I think it’s my job to try.
But the most satisfying aspect of The Walking Dead is how it uses one of the most well trod genres in horror: zombies.
Essentially, zombies (from here on known as walkers) haven’t changed a great deal since Hammer’s The Plague of the Zombies (1966), but now the advantage of a long running series such as The Walking Dead allows time for them to mature in the walker equivalent of a fine cheese and horribly waste away in front of us. Season 5 has noticeably ramped up the gore with walkers visibly decomposing as they lurch towards their victims. The best scene to illustrate this came in the second episode, with walkers trapped in a flooded basement where Rick and co find themselves fighting off rotting and waterlogged horrors.
Penny Dreadful (2014 -, 2nd season planned)
Watching Hammer’s 1958 Dracula recently, I sadly realised how unsatisfying the film is. It reworks Bram Stoker’s novel for the screen admirably enough but adds little – critically I think it fails to reinvent the Dracula story in an interesting way other than offer a dash of colour and cut-glass English accents. Although Dracula is now regarded as a film classic (being notched up to five stars by the Radio Times for its last terrestrial viewing), I think that Hammer became more inventive when they started to play around a bit more adventurously with the well known stories – Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971), or find new things to do with tired genres, Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter (1974). Of course it didn’t always work so well – see Dracula AD 1972 (1972).
Forty years on, Penny Dreadful still manages to be creative with the same limited source material, mixing together both Dracula and Frankenstein with a dash of Dorian Gray and the Wolfman and a background setting of the Grand Guignol. What works so well is how Penny Dreadful both respects the originals and alters them to introduce unexpected surprises. The scene where Frankenstein’s Creature (Rory Kinnear) murders Van Helsing (David Warner) is one such audacious twist. Like the original 19th century penny dreadfuls, the series honours only the essence of the originals.
Most terrifying though is the presence of Eva Green as the possessed Vanessa Ives:
Hannibal (2013 – , 3rd season planned)
Hannibal recasts a more recent familiar character from horror, Hannibal Lecter, and upends the familiar image of him incarcerated in a dark, gothic dungeon ( The Silence of the Lambs (1991)). This time it is Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) who is usually the prisoner, with Hannibal (Mads Mikkelsen) free to follow his monstrous pursuits. In another alteration, journalist Freddie Lounds, first played by Stephen Lang in Manhunter (1986), is now a woman (Lara Jean Chorostecki).
Hannibal is a slow burner and at times very ponderous and overly talky:
Hannibal: I gave you a rare gift, and you didn’t want it. You would deny me my life.
Will: Not your life.
Hannibal: My freedom then, you would take that from me. Confine me to a prison cell. Did you believe you could change me the way I’ve changed you?
Will: I already did.
But Hannibal is also very, very frightening, particularly with the events that are not directly connected to Lecter, such as the activities of the insane acupuncturist played by Amanda Plummer. He isn’t the only monster on the loose.
The success of Hannibal has started a trend of remaking famous horror films as a tv franchise, for example the story of the young Norman Bates in Bates Motel (2013 – , 3rd season planned), which throws away the Psycho (1960) rulebook to introduce a modern day setting instead of the more logical 50s one. Although I’m not sure if this is down to design or just laziness.
American Horror Story (2011 – , currently in 4th season)
The genius of American Horror Story is how it reboots for each season, with a new theme and cast of characters played by the same repertory company of actors, notably Jessica Lange. The four seasons to date cover a modern day haunted house, a 60s mental asylum, a coven of witches bouncing between 1840 and the present day and a 50s freak show. The first series used music from classic cinema films, notably Bernard Herrmann’s score from Twisted Nerve (1968) and the second started a theme of using recognisable characters from films such as Pinhead from Freaks (1932). More subtly, Stevie Nicks features heavily as things progress.Of all my choices, American Horror Story makes best use of the 13 episode season structure, peppering it with surprises and red herrings.
American Horror Story has zombies too, in the season 3 Halloween episodes, and season 3 also delivers its own take on Frankenstein with Evan Peters as the frustrated creature. The best thing about American Horror Story is that it is at times totally, totally mad. See the Name Game Song from season 2:
If Penny Dreadful resembles the periodicals from the 19th century that it takes its name from, then American Horror Story is the modern day equivalent of the Victorian melodrama.
Game of Thrones (2011 – , 5th season planned)
Despite the White Walkers, dragons, giants and the like which give the appearance of an adult fantasy series, the real moments of horror in Game and Thrones stem from what the very real human characters do to each other. The beheading of Ned Stark (Sean Bean) starts this whole horrible sequence of events, leading to the multiple killings at the red wedding the poisoning of King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) and the shocking death of Prince Oberyn (Pedro Pascal). And this only touches the surface. It’s not just the grisly murders. The fate of Theon Greyjoy, anyone?
If we’re talking horror in its purest sense, the The Walking Dead is probably the best of the bunch. For camp lunacy and inventiveness, American Horror Story wins hands down and is my choice for Halloween viewing this year. But ultimately Game of Thrones comes out tops for acting and overall quality. What’s interesting (although fingers crossed for Penny Dreadful) is that all of the above are long term series – television certainly has a thirst for horror.
Following months of speculation, the BBC have remastered rediscovered episodes of Doctor Who and released them on iTunes to outsell even Breaking Bad. So a Halloween treat to celebrate…
The programme being 50 years old this year, it’s sometimes worth adding context to the various eras of Doctor Who. In December 1967 the television schedules included the premiere of The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour (who were also at number one with Hello Goodbye) and the first episode of the pre Python comedy Do Not Adjust Your Set. The Prisoner was about halfway through its run and Doctor Who was midway in its 1967/68 season. The Patrick Troughton era stories The Enemy of the World and The Web of Fear were aired between 23rd December 1967 and 9th March 1968. Now we can enjoy them again.
Obviously there’s a lot of sentiment around these releases. Patrick Troughton’s era has suffered the most, with a horrifying 53 episodes still missing after being wiped by the BBC with the only hope of survival lying in the hands of private collectors or foreign sales. So any find is worth a celebration. The Web of Fear in particular is a legendary Who adventure, featuring the Yeti and the first appearance of The Brigadier. The Enemy of the World is also a welcome find, even if it isn’t exactly such classic Doctor Who. There are no aliens, monsters, robots or any combinations of the above present, although it is enjoyable camp 60s stuff in The Avengers or Bond mould. It also lacks the usual Who cliffhangers that you might expect, and set in Australia in 2018, much of the budget for the season appears to be blown in the first few scenes with the inclusion of a helicopter and a futuristic hovercraft. Of course we must bear the production values of the day, although they are still way, way below The Prisoner and The Avengers which had the foresight of digging deep into the production pockets and shooting in colour. Still, this restoration does a fine job in polishing up the monochrome.
Key to The Enemy of the World is Patrick Troughton having a free pass to indulge in a spot of outrageous overacting. He’s cast as both the Doctor and his exact double, the evil Salamander. Yes, we’re in evil double territory. What starts as a possibly interesting idea begins to smart quite quickly, especially as Troughton’s wicked accent sounds too much like Papa Lazarou from The League of Gentleman, although much less sinister. Doctor Who explored evil doubles again a few years later when Nicholas Courtenay played an alternative Brigadier in Inferno, complete with an eye patch to help distinguish the good from the bad. It’s a plot device that tv never likes to ignore for too long, and around the same time Star Trek indulged in their own version of the evil double at least once. It’s something the viewer just has to endure from time to time.
Sadly, much of the plot of The Enemy of the World is nonsensical, involving poisonings, shootings, underground imprisoning and the Doctor hiding in a caravan. The episodes follow a pattern of people entering a scene and asking “where is Salamander?” The Doctor also muses once too often “well, I suppose I do look a bit like him”. And this version of 2018 is less futuristic than you might expect, and at one point a character is directed to the nearest public telephone box to make a call. To help things along, companions for both of these stories are Jamie and Victoria, played by Frazer Hines and Deborah Watling. As the longest serving companion, Jamie is synonymous with Troughton’s incarnation of The Doctor, where Victoria is less memorable, coming just before the more interesting Zoe who served to see out the rest of the Troughton era. Victoria is an interesting idea for a character, and plucked from 1867 she may originally served to provide a link to the late 60s Victoriana obsession, although ultimately she does little more than look confused and sound whiny. Other supporting actors include the evergreen Anglophile from the period Bill Kerr, and the great British character actor Milton Johns.
The Web of Fear makes better use of the strict budget of the day, and the London Underground settings are very convincing, creating an oppressive atmosphere where the Yeti can be frightening enough a presence by remaining often unseen as various members of the cast run into each other in grim and claustrophobic tunnels. As an over keen viewer, I tried perhaps too hard to spot tell tale glimpses of 60s London in the sets. There’s not much to see. The one identifiable poster on the Underground platforms is for a Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier film, no doubt In the Heat of the Night although the title is Block-Busters. In the only exterior scene, the army lose a battle with advancing Yeti in deserted streets. Yes, 60s London!
It’s also interesting to note that both stories literally run into one another, with the nasty Salamander being sucked out of the Tardis at the end of The Enemy of the World, we pick up The Doctor, Jamie and Victoria desperately shutting the doors to escape the same fate at the beginning of The Web of Fear. Straight into the next adventure without a pause, although The Doctor finds a moment to make himself a sandwich. Episode three of The Web of Fear is still missing, but as an audio survives this accompanies a montage of images. For one episode it works rather well, in fact less grating than the animations used for the missing parts of 1968’s Cyberman London adventure The Invasion.
Nicholas Courtenay also makes his debut as Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart, later to be promoted to Brigadier when the whole UNIT concept took shape. The Web of Fear starts to form the blueprint for the Doctor Who format in the first part of the 70s, with the dominant military presence and Earth bound stories (Indeed, Troughton’s Doctor remarks knowingly to Jamie and Victoria that they have an increasing habit of landing the Tardis back on Earth). Lethbridge-Stewart is noticeably odd in his first appearance, a more ambiguous character than I remember him being; at first his fellow troops don’t know who he is, and he adds something of a mad-eyed stare and the most unusual of military hats. Perhaps the later promotion made him more relaxed and ironed out, but it’s interesting that he’s portrayed here as very much an outsider as the Doctor. Maybe this is what formed their bond.
Supporting actors include Jack Watling reprising his role from The Abominable Snowmen as Professor Travers, more than 30 years later for him but only several weeks for the time travellers. It’s a timey-wimey thing, although 60s Who wasn’t so dragged down with such trivialities. Tina Packer is quite good as Anne Travers, and a recent Companions magazine adds her to a small list of one-time assistants. Apart from the obvious title music, there’s little additional in the background apart from the eerie use of Music for strings, percussion and Celesta by Béla Bartók. If you recognise this it’s probably because it’s also featured in The Shining.
The Web of Fear was followed by Fury From the Deep in March 1968. Sadly, this story is still completely missing.