Ferretnibbles 6 – Blood and Black Death

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Sometimes you want to jabber about something on Ferretbrain to an extent which would be unwieldy for a Playpen post, but not necessarily make for a full-blooded article. To encourage contributors to offer up shorter pieces when the mood strikes them, here’s another set of Ferretnibbles – pocket-sized articles about all and sundry.

This time around, I’m taking the opportunity to talk a little about a couple of very different horror movies – a Mario Bava giallo from the 1960s and a German-British historical horror feature from 2010.

Blood and Black Lace

Countess Christina Como (Eva Bartok), recently widowed, has converted her expansive mansion into the hub of a high fashion empire, and is holding a grand salon there displaying her designers’ latest creations. Meanwhile, her designers, models, and other employees are embroiled in all sorts of tangled personal affairs, ranging from the deeply embarrassing to the actively illegal. Thus, when a mysterious masked figure begins a campaign of murder and terror against them, they fail spectacularly to co-operate with the police. The confusion allows the killer to keep things going to a terrifying extent, and as individual members of the salon try their own snooping, it’s hard to say who is truly determined to find the murderer, who is just trying to cover their back, and who has far more malevolent ends in mind.

Though Mario Bava’s preceding The Girl Who Knew Too Much is considered the first giallo film, I’d argue that it’s with Blood and Black Lace that Bava both hit on the archetypal giallo formula (right down to the killer’s garb) and, more importantly, the distinctive giallo atmosphere; The Girl Who Knew Too Much is just slightly too jolly and comedic for me to feel like it’s a true giallo – some of the comedy was, of course, added in the American cut of the movie (Evil Eye), but it was still present in the original. Conversely, Blood and Black Lace has the same mix of aesthetic luxury, eroticism, and horror that is distinctive to giallo and which The Girl Who Knew Too Much didn’t quite hit.

Bava shows a talent for directing truly chilling death sequences – low on gore, but the implications of what is happening are ably communicated to prompt the imagination to fill in the terrible blanks. The sheer violence exhibited by the killer is shocking to behold and renders the killings thoroughly untitillating, and like I said above the classic “raincoat, hat, gloves, mask” getup of the killer created a giallo archetype, and Bava has a great eye to throw in a shot here and there which underscores the terrible nature of what is happening. (See, for instance, a shot of a statue of Zeus chasing after some nymph as the killer drags away the corpse of the first victim, or the obscene tableau established by a suit of armour that has fallen on another victim.)

Bava also breaks from the standard whodunnit formula in a major way by revealing the killer’s identity well before the climax, and showing their planning process from the inside for the final go-around. To be honest, I find the movie comes a little unstuck after that, taking a bit took long to work its way through the final stages of the plot, but the movie is nonetheless still a classic of its subgenre. I particularly liked Thomas Ranier in his role as the disapproving police detective whose efforts to solve the case keep being tripped up by the self-serving lies and chicanery of the main characters.

Black Death

It is the 1300s, and as the title implies the Black Death is sweeping Europe. In a monastery struggling to contain the infection, Brother Osmund (Eddie Redmayne), has been kept quarantined, but is let out to join the prayers for one of his fallen comrades when he shows no symptoms of the plague. The next day, though, we see him stealing food and slipping out into the town to rendezvous with Averill (Kimberly Nixon), a woman that he is carrying on a secret affair with. Witnessing the dead piled up in the streets, Osmund tells Averill to take the supplies he’s obtained and go and hide in the forest until the plague passes; she ponders whether God is punishing the two of them for their sin, and whilst Osmund denies this, he also refuses to come with her, being willing to break his vows but not willing to abandon them entirely.

Osmund’s faith and character will soon undergo sterner tests, however, for he soon takes up a challenge his brothers fear to take: to accompany the Bishop’s envoy Ulric (Sean Bean) and his mercenaries on a mission as a guide and as theological counsel. Rumour has it that a certain village in the marshes close to where Osmund was raised is not only completely untouched by the plague, but is home to a necromancer who can return the dead to life. Ulric and Osmund’s task is to establish the truth of these stories; if the village has turned to Godless and sacrilegious ways to protect them, then they must be discredited and punished less others in their desperation abandon the Church.

A German-British coproduction (the story development and ideas came from the British side of the equation, the funding and locations from the Germans), this was directed by Christopher Smith, who made substantial changes to the conclusion of the film, which as originally scripted by Dario Poloni took the movie down an unambiguously supernatural route. In contrast to this, Smith goes for a more subtle, psychological approach, in keeping with his bid to go for a grimly realistic depiction of the time. You could probably characterise this as a full-blown grimdark piece, in fact, though frankly the Black Death was such a nightmarish period of history in Europe that if you don’t go dark with it you aren’t facing up to just how awful it was. Smith even gets minor historical points right, like remembering that the medieval church as an institution was more concerned with heresy than it was with witchcraft, but that the Black Death saw sentiments against witches becoming substantially more prevalent.

The group’s journey through the plague-ravaged landscape early on not only helps to establish the distinct characters of the various mercenaries, but also helps to drive home just how apocalyptic the Black Death was. Remember, this was a disease where if you say it decimated the population, pedants will point out that if anything you are underplaying just how awful it was, with recent research suggesting that about half the population of medieval Europe died of it. Panicing mobs burning a witch or turning to murderous banditry because they can’t think of anything else to do, entire depopulated villages, the discovery of plague within the party itself – all these incidents play out on the journey and make it obvious that the Bishop’s worries about people turning away from the Church are not mere control freakery. We are watching these people work their way through a disaster of such a magnitude that every certainty in their life has been brushed aside and the entire social order is disintegrating not because of any great revolutionary impulse on the part of anyone but simply because people are dying at too great a pace to keep it together.

The attention to detail extends to the costuming and sets; of the latter, the finely reproduced marshland village that is the destination of Ulric and Osmund’s mission is magnificently realised. As far as the acting goes, everyone does a smashing job; Sean Bean is at his Sean Beaniest and gets an appropriately Sean Beany death, Carice van Houten is great as the villagers’ spooky overlord, and Tim “Lord Percy” McInnerny has a great turn as Hob, the creepily welcoming village spokesman. (In fact, I wouldn’t have believed he could have pulled off such a sinister role had I not previously seen his appearance in Edge of Darkness.)

The ending, in which Osmund finds himself becoming a killer as brutal and merciless as any in Ulric’s band (and he’s murdered at least one person for absolutely no good reason, though he is more than capable of denying this), and in which it becomes apparent that the entire mission has done no good at all beyond murdering a village full of people who just wanted to be left alone, is the final touch of bleakness on what is a decidedly bleak prospect. Although it is possible to see the film as a slam on organised religion in general, to me it comes across more as a condemnation of what happens when religion or irreligion alike take to violence to serve their ends.

Gull’s From Hell and John’s From Glasgow

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

It’s the late 1880s, and royal party boy Prince Albert “Eddy” Victor – grandson of Queen Victoria and second in line to the throne – has been having all manner of fun. Encountering Annie Clark, a Catholic woman who works behind the till at a sweet shop just across the road from Eddy’s favourite rent boy brothel, he begins an affair with her which culminates in an ill-advised secret marriage and the birth of a child – one who, strictly speaking, would then be in line for the throne.

Queen Victoria will not stand for this, and she uses all the covert influence available to her to make sure that Eddy and Annie are forcibly separated. Among the resources available to her is the power structure of British Freemasonry. With members riddled throughout the British aristocracy and respectable professions, the Masons were a microcosm of the establishment of the time, and a large cross-section of Victoria’s male family members were Masons. Between that and a perennial desire for Royal patronage, it was no surprise that the Brotherhood was willing to do favours for Victoria. In this case, this included enlisting Dr William Henry Gull – Freemason, physician, and mystic – to the task of performing an operation on Annie to profoundly damage her mental capabilities. Even if she could get someone to listen to her story and she were able to coherently tell it through the cognitive fog imposed on her, nobody would give it any credence.

However, Annie’s fate wasn’t unknown to all. Marie Kelly, an East End prostitute and friend of Annie’s, is aware of what happened, and also knows that painter Walter Sickert – who had accompanied Eddy on his visits to the seedier side of town – is aware of what’s happened. When she and a group of her fellow prostitutes are shaken down for protection money they don’t have by a local gang, they hit on a plan of blackmailing Sickert for cash. Alas, they get greedy, ask for more money than Sickert has available, and when he turns to his Royal connections for help word of the matter gets back to Victoria, who dispatches Gull to silence the women, permanent-style.

Alas, Gull’s work is no clean, surgical strike this time around. Having suffered a stroke, Gull has become prone to mystic visions and occult obsessions, and he regards the work to be done in averting Royal embarrassment as a mere pretext for his true goal. The 20th Century is looming, and Gull believes that by conducting the murders in a particular manner and pattern, aligned with the occult geometry of London, he can turn them into a ritual act which will shape the very nature of the coming century. His intention is to make it safe from the rising tide of feminist and other progressive challenges to the status quo, winning the day for what he sees as the inherently masculine force of Apollonian rationality. The actual outcome is, well, the history we got…

Continue reading “Gull’s From Hell and John’s From Glasgow”

Kickstopper: Back Book 2

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Webcomics are great when they’re not terrible, and two of the most consistently not-terrible webcomic creators of recent years have been Andrew Clark of Nedroid Picture Gallery fame and the much-memed K.C. Green, creator of series like Gunshow and He Is a Good Boy, with breakout hits including that doggo who doesn’t think things are all that bad, Anime Club and the comic which inspired the “magical realm” meme.

But do these two great tastes taste great together? Luckily, a recent Kickstarter of theirs lets me offer the answer in Kickstopper form.

Usual Note On Methodology

Just in case this is the first Kickstopper article you’ve read, there’s a few things I should establish first. As always, different backers on a Kickstarter will often have very different experiences and I make no guarantee that my experience with this Kickstarter is representative of everyone else’s. In particular, I’m only able to review these things based on the tier I actually backed at, and I can’t review rewards I didn’t actually receive.

The format of a Kickstopper goes like this: first, I talk about the crowdfunding campaign period itself, then I note what level I backed at and give the lowdown on how the actual delivery process went. Then, I review what I’ve received as a result of the Kickstarter and see if I like what my money has enabled. Lots of Kickstarters present a list of backers as part of the final product; where this is the case, the “Name, DNA and Fingerprints” section notes whether I’m embarrassed by my association with the product.

Towards the end of the review, I’ll be giving a judgement based on my personal rating system for Kickstarters. Higher means that I wish I’d bid at a higher reward level, a sign that I loved more or less everything I got from the campaign and regret not getting more stuff. Lower means that whilst I did get stuff that I liked out of the campaign, I would have probably been satisfied with one of the lower reward levels. Just Right means I feel that I backed at just the right level to get everything I wanted, whilst Just Wrong means that I regret being entangled in this mess and wish I’d never backed the project in the first place. After that, I give my judgement on whether I’d back another project run by the same parties involved, and give final thoughts on the whole deal.

Continue reading “Kickstopper: Back Book 2”

Jim Jarmusch Via Germany, Part 1

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

If you like arthouse cinema – or even cinema which veers fashionably close to arthouse but which scratches the sides of the mainstream here and there – you probably run into Jim Jarmusch at some point, the man having more or less never released a film which wasn’t at least interestingly ambitious.

At the same time, getting a high-quality collection of his work can, depending on what market you’re in, be a pain. For instance, one of my favourite films of his is Dead Man, and – at least the last time I looked – you just couldn’t get a blu-ray of it in the UK.

After some poking about, however, I found Jim Jarmusch: the Complete Collection, a German release of all his movies from his debut, Permanent Vacation, to 2013’s Only Lovers Left Alive, on blu-ray (with the exception of Year of the Horse, which is provided on DVD). What I didn’t account for was the fact that the German blu-rays would not necessarily have the full range of subtitles on; sure, the actual original English-language soundtracks were all present and correct, but Jarmusch’s movies are often multi-lingual, and the absence of English subtitles for segments of non-English dialogue could sometimes be a problem.

On the whole, I think the set was still worth the money – for most of the movies, the subtitle issue is not too bad, especially if you understand a few scraps of German. And there’s few other ways to get a really complete overview of the man’s work.

Continue reading “Jim Jarmusch Via Germany, Part 1”

Paradys: Nice Town, Wouldn’t Want To Live There

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Tanith Lee’s epic bibliography is a daunting prospect for anyone daring to attempt explore it, but at least some effort here and there has gone into producing omnibus editions of significant works by her. Overlook Duckworth have produced The Secret Books of Paradys, a fat compilation of the series of books Lee penned set in the titular city. Paradys (or Par Dis, or Paradis, or Paradise – its name varies between tales and sometimes within them) is a sort of gothic funhouse mirror take on Paris, and Lee’s Paradys tomes tend to be divided into notional colour-coded books which each offer a different story of the city. Originally published in the late 1980s and early 1990s, these are stories of horror, fantasy, and eroticism unfolding in a setting close enough to the real world to feel historical but counterfactual enough to feel fantastic. That all sounds like great fun in principle, but how’s the execution?

The Book of the Damned

This comprises the first three colour books of Paradys – each a separate novella with some themes in common with the others. Our introduction to Paradys comes in the novella Stained With Crimson, constituting Le Livre Cramoisi, narrated by Andre St Jean, a struggling writer who maintains a foothold in high society thanks to his friend and occasional lover Philippe. One day, returning home from a seance at Philippe’s mansion, Andre is accosted by a tattered man in the street, who gives him a ring with a magnificent red gemstone set in it, carved with the likeness of a scarab. Before Andre can enquire too deeply about it, the man flees, pursued by a horseback rider chasing him with dogs.

Philippe believes the ring belongs to society hostess Antonina Scarabin, and drags Andre along to one of her salons, but she denies that it has anything to do with her. However, the fateful meeting has now happened: Andre has become passionately obsessed with Scarabin, whose motivations and desires are maddeningly obscure. Over the rest of the novella we follow a strange trail of bloody killings, morbid internments, and shifts in identity – including Andre becoming Anna and Antonia becoming Anthony through some curious deaths and rebirths – and strange hints of vampirism creep about the edges, but the full implications of what we are reading are hard to grasp.

Continue reading “Paradys: Nice Town, Wouldn’t Want To Live There”

Arthur Throws a Templar Tantrum

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Some incidents in history seem to attract more than their fair share of legends; for instance, whilst the Crusades in general constituted a massive and pervasive disruption in the histories of Europe and the Middle East alike, people seem to get especially fixated on the Knights Templar, a sect of Christian warrior-monks, and the so-called Assassins, the militant arm of the Nizari sect of Ismailis (the Ismailis themselves being a splinter sect of Shia Islam). The idea that these organisations concealed a secret doctrine that has been transmitted to subsequent secret societies is a godsend when it comes to speculative historical fantasy, or if you want to give your particular occult group a bit of extra gravitas, but it has resulted in the accretion of all sorts bits of questionable scholarship around the subject penned by authors at times more interested in pushing an ideology or promoting a legend than making a credible historical argument.

Take, as an example, The Templars and the Assassins: The Militia of Heaven by James Wasserman. Wasserman is a long-standing member of the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), an initiatory society primarily associated with Aleister Crowley and his Thelemite religious teachings. Wasserman assures the reader that he is going to start off by laying out the facts about the historical background to the Crusades and the development of Islam, and the recorded facts about the Assassins and the Templars, before providing his more opinionated conclusions. However, right out of the gate he ends up promoting a range of personal opinions that became evident to me even though I’m no professional historian myself.

For instance, Wasserman isn’t even able to finish the first chapter without making his particular political stance extremely clear – namely, that he’s a NRA-supporting hardline libertarian prone to spouting hard-right Republican talking points. He talks about “Statism” in a way which fairly clearly indicates his libertarian political outlook (if the citation of Atlas Shrugged as a useful reference on political conspiracies in the bibliography wasn’t enough of a giveaway), and he openly buys into the CFR-Bilderberg-Trilateral Commission conspiracy theories of the John Birch era. (I swear, 700 years from now when those institutions are long dead we’ll have secret societies claiming descent from them). He also seems to be not keen on democracy either, basically equating it with mob rule and lynchings – a position regularly taken by libertarians who resent the ability of a majority-supported government to place restrictions on them.

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Declare, If Thou Hast Understanding

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

In this unexpectedly grimdark cyberpunk future, where a heap of factions ranging from local big boys Iran and Saudi Arabia to fading superpowers and ex-superpowers like the UK, USA, and Russia to freshly minted wildcards like ISIS are busily tearing Syria to bits directly and/or via proxy, it’s a timely moment to remember that fucking about in the general region’s affairs is an old game to some of those involved. The Great Game between Britain and Russia saw the two jockeying for position to be top dog in the region once the low-hanging fruit of the Ottoman regime finally dropped; once World War I finally put paid to the Ottomans, France and Britain grabbed great chunks of the Middle East and had the League of Nations declare it legit, whilst the new Turkish state scrambled to get its house in order and the Soviet Union was momentarily busy putting down the White Russians. World War II found Soviet, French and British interests in the area aligning for once, but the Cold War soon put paid to that, with the Americans and Soviets working to sway governments into one sphere of influence or the other and France and Britain desperately trying to keep some semblance of colonial power there.

The problem with being a waning superpower is that typically your efforts to retain power and participate in massively complex geopolitical games end up making you look silly. The Suez Crisis put paid to Anthony Eden’s time as Prime Minister, for instance, but perhaps the greatest embarrassment to the British establishment during the Cold War era was the scandal of the Cambridge spy ring, who having been recruited as Communist agents during their student days in the 1930s had ended up gaining important government positions and selling a decade’s worth of secrets and services to the Soviets. And out of the three individuals concerned, perhaps the most infamous – for the damage he managed to do, the sensitivity of the position he managed to obtain, and the circumstances of his defection – was Kim Philby.

Continue reading “Declare, If Thou Hast Understanding”