One Last Bite of the Cherry Pie

Twin Peaks co-creator Mark Frost’s tie-in novel, The Secret History of Twin Peaks, had the conceit that it was an in-character mass of documents that FBI Agent Tamara Preston was looking over and annotating after their discovery at a crime scene, thus providing a wealth of new information about the history of the town from before its founding right up to the end of the original series, recontextualising material, rehabilitating some of the dross from the limp end of series two, and acting as a delicious appetiser for the weird banquet that was Season 3. Like I said in my review of the Secret History, it was basically a Twin Peaks take on House of Leaves.

If the Secret History was an appetiser, The Final Dossier is a last cup of coffee and an after-dinner mint. Substantially shorter than The Secret History, it takes a similar premise but has a much more straightforward presentation, being a coda to season 3 assembled once again by Tamara Preston, detailing her various discoveries about what’s been going on with the town and its residents since the end of series 2. However, rather than being a lovingly compiled set of deliciously fabricated documents with Tamara’s commentary, it simply provides Agent Preston’s direct summary of her findings. (The sole exception is an autopsy report on a major character from the original series who was conspicuous by his absence from season 3.)

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The Downward Spiral

Kirie Goshima is an ordinary high school girl in the coastal town of Kurōzu-cho. She’s dating Shuichi Saito, an old friend who used to go to school with her in the town but ended up attending an out-of-town high school. One day, as Shuichi returns home for a visit, Kirie becomes aware that Shuichi’s dad has become obsessed with the symbol of the spiral. This apparently harmless aesthetic obsession runs out of control until Mr. Saito dies in a gruesome and nigh-impossible fashion; as his ashes spiral into the sky from the town crematorium, Mrs. Saito succumbs to a phobia of spirals just as acute as her late husband’s obsession, with equally grim consequences.

Shuichi, perhaps because of the perspective he’s been able to gain from being out of town, believes that there’s more to all this than mere mental aberration. He thinks that Kurōzu-cho as a whole is cursed by spirals – of both a physical and metaphorical nature – and whilst Kirie is at first sceptical, a string of increasingly overt and outlandish incidents makes this all too apparent. And whilst at first the incidents all seem to be isolated cases, they are all connected – like how every point on a spiral is connected as part of a single line. As the spiral corruption extends from the individual to the institutional and structural level, storms lash the town and it becomes isolated from the outside world, as bit by bit it descends into a helical hell…

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The Exact Moment That I Stopped Bothering With Trying To Hateread Necroscope For Your Entertainment

Far and away the most significant work in Brian Lumley’s bibliography is his epic Necroscope series. The title refers to the main character, one Harry Keogh, who has a knack for conversing with the dead. Thanks to this talent he is recruited into E-Branch, a top secret, underfunded UK government spy agency specialising in what it punningly calls ESPionage – intelligence work utilising psychic powers. In the first novel, it becomes apparent that the Soviets have their own Necroscope – the cruel Boris Dragosani, who extracts secrets from the dead through torture and degradation in contrast to Harry’s vastly kinder methods. Dragosani, for his part, is being drawn into the web of Baron Ferenczy – one of the Wamphyri, a type of vampire unique to this series. The Wamphyri are powerful psychics and resemble less a person than a disease which infects people, the quasi-fungal substance of their offspring infiltrating the human body and expressing itself, when wanted, as bizarre transformations. (This is pretty much what the Tzimisce clan in Vampire: the Masquerade were a riff on.)

It all culminates in a big showdown in which Keogh and Dragosani must fight it out using the powers both have gathered over time – Dragosani through his new Wamphyri nature, Keogh through various secrets the dead have taught him over the years. Subsequent books involve return engagements between Keogh and the Wamphyri and related forces (including the Cthulhu Mythos – a certain Baron Ferenczy having played a significant role in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward), Keogh becoming more and more boringly overpowered until at the end of the fifth novel Lumley had to find a loophole to write him out of the cosmos. (The sequel series takes place on the Wamphyri home planet and is basically a very sanguinary take on sword and sorcery. It is imaginatively entitled Vampire World.)

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Turning Dross Into Cat Food

In A Cat In the Brain director Lucio Fulci stars as none other than Fulci himself, with his biography here more or less in line with his biography in real life: he’s an ex-doctor turned movie director, he’s deep enough in a horror rut that if he even tried making more genteel and wholesome material he’s convinced nobody would pay to see it, and even though he’s gained a substantial international reputation his fortunes are a little faded and he’s stuck cranking out material in his standard mode. Even as he lavishes attention on his movies, using his medical knowledge to make the gore look as realistic as possible, Fulci is beginning to feel the strain, with terrible dreams and even waking hallucinations finding the themes of his movies worming their way into his real life – why, it’s even putting him off his steak tartare.

It’s time he talked to someone, and so he decides to talk to Professor Egon Swharz (David L. Thompson). Unfortunately, the professor isn’t an ethical psychiatrist so much as he’s a crazed hypnotist, and far from helping Fulci put his brain in order he sees Fulci’s condition as the perfect cover for his own project. You see, Swharz really wants to get out and do some serial murder of a viciously misogynistic variety, and Fulci is the perfect fall guy – he just has to hypnotise Fulci so that Fulci is caught in a morass of hallucinations, causing him to see himself as the killer, and then Swharz can go as kill-happy as he pleases and Fulci will practically convict himself.

Except, of course, everyone knows that Fulci is a horror director and a weaver of wild fantasies… so even when he tries to confess to the murders, will anyone believe him or will they take it as just a tasteless publicity stunt?

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Piercing the Veil

It’s 1924. Edward Pierce came back from World War I, the last survivor of the Lost Batallion, with a hole in daddy’s arm where the money goes a drinking problem that’s well on the way to destroying him. He’s set himself up as a private detective, since that’s a profession where there’s a certain acceptance that people will get plastered and fall asleep on their office couch from time to time – but that hasn’t stopped him being assailed by bizarre dreams.

Then it comes – the big case. Specifically, it’s the case of one Sarah Hawkins – a gifted artist famous for her macabre, surreal works. Sarah had married Charles Hawkins and moved into his mansion on Darkwater, a lonely island off the coast of Boston, and was apparently happy enough turning out additional work and being a parent to her and Charles’ little boy. Then a terrible fire broke out in the mansion, and all three were reported dead.

Sarah’s dad, however, smells a big fat rat. For one thing, very shortly before the fire Sarah had arranged to send him a painting – one suggesting that she was feeling threatened. And the police report has these odd inconsistencies – like how they go out of their way to insist that Sarah was mentally unbalanced but also that the fire was an accident. (If it were entirely accidental, why would they comment on her mental state at all?) Sarah’s father is convinced that the official report is at best bungled, at worst a cover-up, and hires Pierce to go to Darkwater, uncover the truth, and thereby salvage Sarah’s reputation.

At Darkwater, Pierce finds that Prohibition is being openly flouted, a gang of bootleggers is occupying the main town, and the locals are feeling surly and demoralised. Once upon a time Darkwater was a major whaling centre, but these days it’s slim pickings out there – almost like the whales have been consumed or driven away by some apex predator. It’s not like it was back in 1847, when the celebrated Miraculous Catch saved the island from famine and made the fortunes of the major local families. All interesting, all apparently disconnected from the Hawkins case… but as Pierce investigates, he discovers that Charles Hawkins had a very special interest in the Miraculous Catch legend indeed – and, more particularly, the deity the islanders thank for the Miraculous Catch… whose call resounds in the dreams of Darkwater’s inhabitants, inspired Sarah’s talents, and provides the game with its title.

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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.

The Strange Movie of Mr Martino

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.

Mrs. Wardh (Edwige Fenech) – Julie to her friends – doesn’t really have that strange a vice by modern standards – just a bit of a submissive and masochistic streak. But it’s the 1970s, and people are less clued-in about such things – and standards of consent and ethics in the community of the sexually adventurous are much less developed than they are today. Take, for instance, Jean (Ivan Rassimov) – her former lover whose sadistic streak ultimately went too far for her comfort. To get away from him, she married Neil Wardh (Alberto de Mendoza), the US ambassador to Austria.

When Julie and Neil return after an extended recall to the States, they find Vienna in the grip of terror – for a serial killer has been preying on local sex workers, using a straight razor to slash them terribly. Julie finds herself bored, and takes to attending wild parties thrown by her sexually liberated friend Carol (Cristina Airoldi). It’s at one of those parties that she meets George Corro (George Hilton), a hitherto-unknown cousin of Carol from Australia who recently discovered the family connection thanks to an inheritance – but she’s also spotted again by Jean. As Julie enters into an extramarital affair with George, she finds herself stalked by Jean, who like a classical abuser tries to persuade her that nobody but him can truly please her. (As one of his notes dramatically states, “your vice is a locked room and only I have the key” – a phrase so dramatic that our director, Sergio Martino, would later re-use it as the title of one of his later collaborations with Fenech.)

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