Mad Mitra: Beyond Hadrian’s Wall

In 2008 the Reaper Virus struck in Glasgow, unleashing a pandemic of unmatched lethality. A desperate British government resorts to erecting an enormous barricade in the vicinity of Hadrian’s Wall and a sea blockade around the Scottish coast. These harsh measures outrage international sensibilities, turning Britain into a dystopian pariah state. 27 years later and somehow the Reaper Virus breaks out in London. (How it is remotely possible for the virus to teleport some 400 miles south is never explained.)

Prime Minister John Hatcher (Alexander Siddig) and his Gordon Brown-esque deputy Michael Canaris (David O’Hara) are faced with various unpalatable alternative course of action to contain it – but there is one desperate roll of the dice they can try. Satellite images reveal the existence of a survivor population in Scotland; it’s possible that the enigmatic Dr Marcus Kane (Malcolm McDowell), who stayed north of the border even after it was sealed, was somehow able to develop a cure. Hatcher and Canaris ask Department of Domestic Security director Bill Nelson (Bob Hoskins in full Long Good Friday hardcase mode) to select his best agent to lead a small team north of the wall to track down Kane and retrieve the cure.

Nelson’s best agent is Major Eden Sinclair (Rhona Mitra), who along with her plucky party discovers that the survivors have turned into Mad Max gangs of fetish punks – as you do – and their mission ends up radically more violent than they ever dreamed it would be. With society disintegrated and primal brutality unleashed, their trip to find Kane will be a true journey into the heart of Scottish darkness – if this is Doomsday, does that mean it’s the apocalypse now?

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The First and Last Horrors of Amicus

Though Hammer Studios were the champions of British horror cinema for much of the 1960s (and were still able to make a good showing from time to time in the 1970s), Amicus Productions also deserved to be in the conversation. Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg’s production house, like Hammer, didn’t exclusively focus on horror – they got up and running by turning out some low-budget teen musicals like It’s Trad, Dad, they did the Dr. Who movie adaptations with Peter Cushing as the Doctor, they did a number of Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptations (one of which, The Land That Time Forgot, had script contributions by Michael Moorcock).

They’re primarily remembered for their horror output, mind. Many of their releases were portmanteau horror films – the sort of thing which Games Workshop recently imitated with The Wicked and the Damned, where rather than having a single full-length story you have a group of shorter pieces (usually three or so) with a thin framing device connecting them all. I find the subgenre kind of mediocre a lot of the time, to be honest – it all too often seems to be an excuse to fob off onto audiences stories which are too weak to be standalone movies or TV episodes by themselves and pass off quantity as quality.

However, Rosenberg and Subotsky did also produce a number of more conventional single-story horror movies, like The Skull which I’ve previously enthused about. Here Amicus often managed a similar tone to Hammer without coming across as imitators; many Hammer talents like Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee also did work for Amicus, but whilst Hammer focused on historical settings for most of their golden age, Amicus’s horror was usually set in the modern day, often giving it a bit more of a contemporary feel.

For this article, I’m going to tip my hat to Subotsky and Rosenberg by taking a look at the first and last horror movies the two would co-produce.

City of the Dead

Strictly speaking, this 1960 release isn’t an Amicus movie – it’s credited to Britannia Films. However, there’s reasonable arguments for considering it a secondary member of the Amicus canon, or a prelude to it, since its producers included Subotsky and an uncredited Rosenberg and the approach is very much in keeping with that of the horror works Max and Milton would put out under the Amicus banner.

The story is based around the town of Whitewood in Massachusetts. During a witch-burning fad in 1692, actual Elizabeth Selwyn (Patricia Jessel) and her accomplice Jethrow Keane (Valentine Dyall) sell their souls to Lucifer; for the low, low subscription cost of two virgin sacrifices a year, they get immortality and power over the town. In the modern day, Professor Alan Driscoll (Christopher Lee) narrates this story to his class of students, to a mixed reception. Nan Barlow (Venetia Stephenson) is one of the more receptive students, and wants to do more research on the subject; Driscoll can hook her up with a lovely hotel in Whitewood, and suggests she visit on a research trip. In the US market, this movie was called Horror Hotel, so you can probably guess where this is going.

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Bars of Social Allegory, Walls of Psychological Realism

In the half-century since it first aired, The Prisoner has become a televisual touchstone, as great a leap forward when it came to the artistic potential of television as the original Twin Peaks was several decades later. It also has one of the classic television intro sequences – a condensed version of the first act of debut episode Arrival which gets all we need to know about Patrick McGoohan’s character’s backstory across without dialogue, and provides a classic dialogue running down the basics of the setting that he finds himself in.

That premise, in summary: Patrick McGoohan’s character (who might be secret agent John Drake, his character from the early 1960s espionage show Danger Man) has angrily resigned from his job in a sensitive position within the British establishment. Packing his things – to go into holiday, or exile, or to flee the consequences of something he’s done? – he is knocked out by gas administered by mysterious agents, who transport his unconscious body away in a hearse.

He wakes up in the Village (the role played by the strange little mock-Mediterranean village of Portmeirion in Wales), a community where everyone is assigned a number – he is Number 6 – along with charming little cottages, delightfully hip fashions, and generally all they need to live a happy little life there. It is a facade, of course – the Village is operated by someone, who might be the British government, or one of their enemies, or one of their allies, or some unknown faction altogether, and is used as a controlled environment for advanced psychological interrogation techniques, and its population consists of a wide range of nationalities. The powers that be here are clearly international in scope, and also maintain careful ambiguity for the most part as to who is a prisoner and who is part of the staff, with some exceptions.

Whoever is behind the Village wants the information inside Number 6’s head, which is immensely valuable, but he doesn’t intend to give it up easily – and because they want to use him as an agent after they debrief him, the Village functionaries are forbidden from using some of the more destructive techniques available to them. Carefully-assembled files on Number 6 suggest that if he could be prevailed upon to answer the simple question “Why did you resign?”, that would open the psychological floodgates and the rest will be plain sailing.

Tasked with getting the answer to that question is the most visible authority figure in the Village, Number 2 – played by a range of different actors, many for only a single episode, as different Number 2s are deployed and then flushed (sometimes being replaced mid-episode, as in Arrival or Free For All). This device serves two purposes: narratively, it’s yet another disorientation tactic used by the Village, and prevents Number 6 from developing a deep understanding of any particular Number 2’s particular personality and style, and of course it also means that there’s a nice juicy role that could be offered to potential guest stars. The existence of Number 2s implies a Number 1 controlling everything, and the question of “Who is Number 1?” becomes the vital information which Number 6 himself wants to answer.

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Butterflies and Monsters – Two Unusual Italian Horror Movies

Italian genre cinema is largely known for particular genre features – spaghetti Westerns, the proto-slashers of the giallo genre, microgenres like the fads for zombie movies or cannibal movies, and rip-offs of more successful Hollywood releases – and I think it’s easy to assume it’s all rather samey. In the interests of this, today’s backlog clearance job is me putting a spotlight of a couple of more unusual Italian horror/crime pieces.

Caltiki – The Immortal Monster

It’s the 1950s, and a team of scientists are investigating the ruins of Tikal – an ancient Mayan city which was abandoned for reasons not known to modern historians. Folklore hints at the rise of a goddess known as Caltiki, a malevolent deity; a subterranean temple, its entrance exposed after a recent volcanic eruption, is discovered by the party and seems to be dedicated to her. Within it is a deep pool – they infer that it’s a sacrificial pool, into which human victims would be tossed to drown bedecked in jewellery as gifts to the goddess, and a quick scuba jaunt into the pool seems to prove this hypothesis. The entity in the lake is no anthropomorphic goddess, though – it’s an ancient, blob-like creature, some 20 million years old, awoken by the fumbling explorers…

This kicks off an old-timey SF-horror adventure that’s massively influenced by Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness – the ancient blob creature is extremely shoggoth-like – as well as the likes of Clark Ashton Smith. (A decidedly shoggoth-like spawn of Tsathoggua is found guarding a temple in one of Smith’s stories of long-ago Hyperborea, The Tale of Satampra Zeiros.) There’s also a certain Quatermass angle to proceedings – the centrality of the scientific enigma to the story, for instance, and the increasing audacity of its revelations. (Just wait until you get to the comet angle…)

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Four Sides of the 1980s

As my backlog clearance continues, I am resorting to this: giving you a clutch of reviews of movies from the 1980s held together by the tenuous common theme of “all these movies represent a particular type of person you would have met in the 1980s”. Here goes.

The 80s Cokehead: Scarface

The movie opens against the backdrop of the Mariel boatlift – Fidel Castro’s surprise decision to allow thousands of emigrants to leave Cuba – resulting in a refugee crisis in Florida. The movie plays on the fact that Castro took the opportunity to send numerous prisoners and mental hospital patients to Florida, divesting the Cuban government of the cost of handling them, by including among the emigrants Tony Montana (Al Pacino), along with a number of his buddies – who, by the evidence of their prison tattoos, are apparently hardened criminals.

Montana and company end up in a makeshift refugee detention centre underneath a motorway flyover. Through the fence, they receive an offer suited to their skills: Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia), a well-connected Cuban-American drug baron, will pull the right strings to allow them to get released and get their green cards in return for assassinating Emilia Rebenga (Roberto Contreras), who’d tortured Frank’s brother to death back in Cuba. This is accomplished in chilling fashion during a riot in the detention centre.

It’s not directly stated whether or not Tony engineered the riot, but it’d be entirely in keeping with his tendency for massive overescalation of violence, which we see plenty of as the movie progresses. As Tony moves his way up the ranks in Frank’s empire, eventually ousting him, a whirlwind of cocaine addiction, Tony’s infatuations with Frank’s ex-girlfriend Elvira Hancock (Michelle Pfeiffer) and his own sister Gina Montana (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), and his entanglements with even more ruthless figures like cocaine manufacturer Alejandro Sosa (Paul Shenar) all contribute to his downfall, which is ultimately spurred by his machismo-driven refusal to compromise with anyone or to back down in any situation.

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Supernatural Slasher Blues

Of all the subgenres of horror, slasher movies have the most conflicted relationship with the supernatural. Some of them make do without any supernatural elements whatsoever; others incorporate it in an ambiguous manner, like how in the original Halloween it isn’t clear whether Michael Myers is truly a supernaturally unstoppable force or merely possesses above average toughness.

And then, just sometimes, a slasher movie will go full supernatural, at which point the usual slasher stalk-and-slay dynamic changes comprehensively. A Nightmare On Elm Street might be the most famous example of that, alongside some of the more offbeat Halloween and Friday the 13th sequels: here’s some more obscure ones.

The Boogeyman

The opening, with the nighttime shot prowling around the exterior of the house set against a very John Carpenter-esque synthesiser soundtrack, is a transparent rip-off of Halloween. We even get a child killing someone in their household, just like Halloween! This time, however, there’s extenuating circumstances; young children Lacey (Natasha Sciano) and Willy (Jay Wright) are peeping on their mother (Gillian Gordon) starting to get it on with her boyfriend, who is never named in the movie and only credited as “the Lover” (Howard Grant). An annoyed Lover decides that an appropriate, proportionate response to this gagging and tying Willy to Willy’s bed. Lacey gets a big ol’ kitchen knife and frees Willy; Willy takes the knife and kills the Lover, which I guess in a way is freeing himself and Lacey.

Years later, and Lacey and Willy – now played by Suzanna Love and Nicholas Love respectively – are all grown up. Willy was traumatised by his childhood deeds, and has never spoken since the killing. Lacey is doing better; she’s married to local cop Jake (Ron James) and the pair have a child of their own, little Kevin (Raymond Boyden). Lacey’s family, along with Willy, live in the sprawling house of Aunt Helen (Felicite Morgan) and Uncle Earnest (Bill Rayburn), who took them in after the killing and have provided them with a loving home.

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Morris Keeping an Eye On Today

Once upon a time a group of British comedy writers and performers – including Four Lions director Chris Morris, Veep/Death of Stalin creator Armando Iannuci, and Steve “Alan Partridge” Coogan – got their big breaks on BBC radio in the form of On the Hour, a comedy program satirising both the news of the day and radio news as a format. Much like The Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy before them and The League of Gentlemen after them, the On the Hour team got the chance to take their concept and unleash it on television.

With Chris Morris himself in the “lead news anchor” role, using his own name in keeping with the series’ love of pranks based on blending reality and fantasy, the show was one of 1994’s critical successes and spawned a substantially more controversial followup on Channel 4 – 1997’s Brass Eye. Let’s take a look back and see how they’ve aged.

The Day Today

The Day Today makes an immediate visual impact, and is a masterpiece of visual presentation even before the actual underlying writing is considered. It makes extensive use of out-of-context clips from the actual news, a visual style for the in-studio segments parodying the worst excesses of TV news of the era (and which remains a solid stab at the style of TV news today), and faked reports and extracts from other shows rounding out the episodes; it’s effectively a sketch comedy show where the sketches are framed as news reports.

The production team show an uncanny knack for mimicing the styles of media of the era, as is evident right from the first episode, which includes an extract from a US news report from “CBN” on a convicted serial killer who elects to be executed in a manner inspired by the death of his hero, Elvis. (He’s sitting on a toilet that’s been converted to an electric chair, which will electrocute him once he’s eaten enough burgers.)

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Arrow’s Lineup of Killer Dames

Emilio Miraglia’s career as a director was a brief one, spanning only from 1967 to 1972. I can find few biographical details on him, but some sources suggest that he died in 1982, so perhaps ill health is to blame for his career being curtailed. Though most of his movies were spy or crime thrillers and he also did a Spaghetti Western (Joe Dakota), he’s mostly known for a pair of early 1970s pieces he did as part of the giallo boom.

Arrow Video’s Killer Dames is a boxed set gathering these two together. In general, I don’t consider either of them keepers, but they’re interesting enough to be worth watching once. Let’s take a look and see what we can get out of them…

The Night Evelyn Came Out of The Grave

Lord Alan Cunningham (Anthony Steffen) is a well-heeled aristocrat with a hip pad in London and a sprawling manor house out int he country. He formerly shared the house with his wife, Evelyn (Paola Natale), but she is dead; her absence weighs on him, as does a certain overpowering guilt. The exact story of what happened to Evelyn is, of course, one of the climactic reveals of the film, but it’s apparent early on that there’s reason to be suspicious. Perhaps it’s the way Alan’s occasional flashbacks of Evelyn are so overpowering they can absolutely knock him out, or maybe it’s his habit of luring sex workers with red hair similar to Evelyn’s to his manor, getting them to wear a distinctive pair of shiny black thigh-high boots, and then flogging them well beyond the point they’d previously consented to and disposing of their bodies and personal effects once the fun is done.

Then again, everyone has their own way of dealing with bereavement, right? After we see him going through his serial killer process a couple of times, Alan meets someone new, the very charming Gladys (Marina Malfatti), who he marries. It seems like Alan has put his grief over Evelyn and his serial murder habit behind him… except not quite. For one thing, there’s Albert (Roberto Maldera), Evelyn’s brother who works as the groundskeeper on the estate and who knows enough to blackmail Alan over his murder hobby. For another, Alan can’t quite bring himself to exile the portrait of Evelyn he keeps in his bedroom to storage, or at least hanging it somewhere it won’t watch him and Gladys while they sleep, whilst he imposes an absolute ban on women with red hair being brought into the house.

And there’s the matter of Susan (Erika Blank), Alan’s most recent victim. Alan had one of his powerful flashbacks in the midst of attacking her in the ruined church in which the Cunningham family line are interred, and seemed to lose consciousness before finishing the job, but she seems well and truly gone by the time he comes around… and yet her golden locket, which Alan makes sure to dispose of down a drain, turns up again on a table indoors. Has Evelyn, roused by a seance conducted early on in the movie, really come out of the grave to take revenge?

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We Can Remake It For You Wholesale

We Can Remember It For You Wholesale has one of the more cumbersome titles of Philip K. Dick’s short stories, but under the much snappier title of Total Recall it ended up being one of the more successful adaptations of his work. Though not given the reverential critical acclaim of Blade Runner, the original movie turned a healthy profit – even when you take into account its status as one of the most expensive movies ever made at the time – and has a decent critical reception among both SF fans and action movie junkies.

Hollywood cannot leave well enough alone and will always remake rather than innovate if it can, so in 2012 Len Wiseman directed a remake, retaining the Total Recall title. How do these two recollections compare? Let’s see…

The Original

It’s 2084 and humanity is in the process of colonising Mars, with a significant population living in environmentally-controlled domed cities there. The governor, Vilos Cohaagen (Ronny Cox) exerts political control over the colony and oppresses the significant mutant population through his control of the oxygen supply. Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger), a construction worker living on Earth, is fascinated with the situation, not least because he’s been having evocative dreams of visiting Mars.

Quaid wants to take a holiday there, but his wife Lori (Sharon Stone) discourages this, pointing out the danger of taking a trip to a conflict zone. Instead, Quaid decides to go visit Rekall, Inc., a service which implants enjoyable memories into the minds of its customers, so he can at least have the recollection of having had an exciting visit to Mars (with an extra twist of memories of being a secret agent for good measure) even if he can’t do it for real. However, when Rekall’s technicians have sedated Quaid and are about to begin the implantation process, they discover that there’s already a pre-existing implant in there.

Cancelling the implant process and bundling Quaid into a cab, Rekall try to pretend he never visited – but when Quaid’s work buddy Harry (Robert Constanzo) pulls a gun on him and attempts to kill him because he went to Rekall, and when Lori tries to kill him when he gets home, he realises that something is up. As it turns out, Quaid wasn’t originally Quaid – in a past life he was Carl Hauser, an important agent for Cohaagen, who after attempting to defect ended up getting his memories wiped and a new life set up for him as Quaid. Now Quaid/Hauser must get his ass to Mars, discover the truth about his past and Cohaagen’s plans, and free the planet’s inhabitants. But Cohaagen’s goons, led by the vicious Richter (Michael Ironside) – Lori’s real husband and Hauser’s former buddy – are one step behind…

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Rambo: From Dissent To Propaganda

The Rambo movies have become regarded as quintessential 1980s action pieces to such an extent that it’s easy to forget that David Morrell’s First Blood – the novel that introduced the character and then killed him off, before the first movie decided it was more interesting to keep him alive to squeeze sequels out of – came out in 1972, when the Vietnam War was still ongoing and its subject of a generation traumatised by the war was a hot topic.

The original novel also puts equal emphasis on two protagonists, not just one: Rambo, a drifter who’s dropped out of society after coming home from Vietnam, is naturally one and the other is Police Chief William Teasle, who in the first movie is given a title change to “Sheriff” and is very much an antagonist, rather than a co-protagonist. The conflict is essentially intergenerational, with Rambo representing the Vietnam generation and Teasle the Korean War generation, and in that way it captures the rift in American society at the time.

In the 1980s, however, mainstream American society didn’t seem to want to hear about division – or at any rate, Hollywood didn’t want to talk about it. This led to a shift in the emphasis for the movie adaptation of First Blood, but that movie still retained something to say about how the traumas of war shapes people and how American society too easily treated people as disposable and abuse of police power and so on.

Increasingly, however, the sequels shifted gear and the tone of the movies became less critical and more propagandistic, until finally they were cheerleading war and bloodshed when they’d started out from a point depicting the dehumanising nature of war. Let’s see how that happened.

First Blood

First Blood‘s story is nice and straightforward: Sylvester Stallone introduces us to John Rambo as a soft-spoken, basically harmless-seeming sort who’s hiked his way to the small town of Hope in Washington, where he was hoping to visit an old friend from his Vietnam days. Alas, he gets the grim news that his buddy died last year of cancer due to Agent Orange exposure. Before he can really process that grief, he’s hassled by Sheriff Teasle (Brian Dennehy), an abrasive asshole who just wants Rambo to fuck off out of his town.

When Rambo decides to walk straight back into town after Teasle drops him off at the edge, he’s promptly arrested and taken in. But as Teasle’s shithead deputies work him over in the cells, Rambo suffers a PTSD flashback to his time as a Viet Cong POW. Soon he’s escaped and fighting a guerilla war in the hills around town against the Sheriff’s Department, and Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna), his old commanding officer, has come down to town to try and urge Teasle to de-escalate the situation and let him try to talk Rambo down.

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