What If Henson Called Some Other Artist?

A big part of the appeal of The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth – aside from the fact that they’re genuinely creative fantasy movies which cut the bullshit and just get on  with their plots and demonstrate the genius of Jim Henson and his workshop collaborators in their capacity to make puppets and costumes which seem genuinely alive – is their aesthetic. In both cases, the movies have a cohesive look which is clearly the work of a singular vision and in The Dark Crystal in particular gives the impression of a world with a deep history and ecosystem which we only brush the surface of.

Brian Froud is, famously, the man we have to thank for that, which makes me wonder: what would Jim Henson have produced had he instead decided to call on the talents of some other in-vogue British fantasy artist of the era? Let’s have a play and find out, for each artist proposing one movie in the Dark Crystal slot, one in the Labyrinth slot. The Dark Crystal slot is for a movie steeped in a well-realised secondary world with no apparent connection to Earth after all and a deep lore and backstory implied; the Labyrinth slot is for a movie about someone from our world having a little adventure in a world inspired by the artist in question’s work in which they come away with an appreciation of both the power of imagination and the necessity to harness it purposefully rather than wallowing in daydream or something like that, with a musical score provided by a musician popular in the 1980s who also plays a role in the film.

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3 Alternative Takes On Alternative 3

One of the more interesting categories of conspiracy theory that circulate these days is the set which deal with the concept of “Breakaway Civilisations” – the idea that the conspiratorial elite have access to a bunch of technologies and scientific knowledge which they haven’t shared with us proles, to an extent that our civilisation has essentially bifurcated, with the privileged few living a sci-fi life of leisure – often swanning about in outer space – whilst the less unfortunate don’t get any of the benefit of these technologies. (People who promote these theories seem prone to not noticing that this is actually more or less true of life on Earth, save for the space travel stuff.)

One of the things which is interesting about such theories, aside from the sheer sci-fi imagination involved with them (if you listen to them you could imagine that the action of Star Trek is already unfolding somewhere out in deep space, with crews of humans from Earth having adventures as part of the Illuminati’s space force), is the fact that they’re largely riffs on one iconic conspiracy theory, a shaggy dog story that’s some four decades old but which still manages to fool some credulous folk into thinking there’s something to it. Let’s jump in and explore the strange universe of Alternative 3…

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Highly Strung Musicians

In the 1980s the sleazier end of the Italian movie industry – especially when it came to genre movies – became known for its rip-offs of much more successful movies. Great White – AKA The Last Shark – ripped off Jaws, and Alien was ripped off by Alien 2: On Earth and Contamination (AKA Alien Contamination). The latter was the responsibility of Luigi Cozzi – famed mainly for Starcrash, a bizarre movie which somehow manages to rip off every single SF adventure movie of the late 1970s at once – who is also the director responsible for Paganini Horror, working from a script he cowrote with veteran Italian horror actress Daria Nicolodi.

Note: neither of the two character designs in the foreground are in the movie, nor is the house in the background, and undead-Paganini back there isn’t the character design they use for killer Paganini in the film.

The movie is another attempt at a ripoff, though the logic behind this one is bizarre. Rather than riffing on a Hollywood blockbuster – in retrospect, fucking with the intellectual property of the wealthiest movie studios with the biggest legal departments was a silly idea – he’d try and predict and jump on the bandwagon of the next big arthouse craze. Klaus Kinski was, at the time, infamously obsessed with completing a vanity project of his – Paganini, AKA Kinski Paganini, in which he would play the famous violinist. Cozzi was convinced that Kinski’s movie would be a monster hit, or at least stir up enough controversy to generate a brief flurry of interest in Paganini – so he decided to make a horror movie with a Paganini theme. Hence: Paganini Horror.

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Surprisingly Far From Greenwich

Content warning: this movie drops some rape at you from more or less out of nowhere.

Catherine Bomarzini (Sherilyn Fenn) has inherited a magnificent Italian castle with enormous statues in its gardens and interiors that seem to be constructed from second-hand sets from Labyrinth. Having lived there in early childhood before moving to America, she’s thrilled to return and catch up with Martha (Hilary Mason), the castle caretaker and her childhood nurse, as well as her old friend from art school Gina (Charlie Spalding) who moved to Italy a while back to work in painting restoration. As Gina visits, the two of them catch a travelling circus act, led by smouldering magician Lawrence (Malcolm Jamieson), and Gina is so taken with the act she gets Catherine to invite the performers over to the castle for dinner.

At this point the circus performers drug Catherine and Gina and rape them; specifically, Lawrence assaults Catherine but then switches places with his twin brother Oliver (also Malcolm Jamieson) to complete the act, and whilst Oliver is busy with Catherine, Lawrence rapes Gina for good measure. (It is also strongly implied that whilst Lawrence is busy preparing Catherine for Oliver’s attention, Gina is being gang-raped by most of the rest of the cast.)

Gina and Catherine aren’t thrilled by what happened but decide to not call the police and just deal with it themselves, and go their separate ways. However, Catherine soon finds herself adrift in waves of ghostly visions, as she tries to discern the difference between Lawrence, who looks like a gentleman but behaves like a beast, and Oliver, who behaves like a gentleman but sometimes turns into a terrifying monster. Meanwhile, when Gina gets back to work she sets to restoring an ancient painting donated to the local church that seems to depict an ancient scene that might shed some light on the tragedy of Lawrence and Oliver.

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“Death Wish” Turned Up To 11

The Death Wish movies have a lot to answer for. Brian Garfield, author of the original novel, was aghast at the extent to which the original 1974 movie seemed to endorse the sort of vigilantism his story was intended to criticise. Revisiting it later, it’s at best a movie in two minds as to whether the sort of campaign of premeditated killing on the part of Charles Bronson’s revenge-obsessed protagonist is justified.

The sequels, though… the sequels were made in the 1980s; a brighter era, an era of more simplistic moral messages, altogether a more Reagan-y era than 1974. They are vastly less ambiguous than the original; they embrace vigilantism as a 100% perfectly OK thing and are only too glad to depict Bronson slaying absurd numbers of criminals – and if those criminals happen to tend to be of particular ethnicities, all the better.

The series was much-imitated at the time, but in the long gap between 1974’s Death Wish and 1982’s Death Wish II you could see the cultural shift that made Death Wish II a viable commercial prospect happening in the public’s appetite for material like 1980’s The Exterminator, which is basically Death Wish with a flamethrower-touting Vietnam veteran protagonist for an extra dose of uncomfortable badassery.

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Having a Peep At Tom

Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom out in 1960, but aesthetically and thematically feels like it could have emerged 5-10 years later and still been ahead of its time. Mark Lewis – he isn’t specified as being German in the script but actor Karlheinz Boehm doesn’t exactly go all out to disguise his accent – is a quiet, withdrawn young man who lives in the upper floors of the family home he inherited from his late father. Lewis Senior was a brilliant scientist who conducted a range of experiments of a dubious ethical nature on Mark from birth onwards, recording almost all of them on film. Having caught the shutterbug fever himself after receiving a handheld film camera from dad – a princely gift for a child of his age – Mark has grown to structure his life around the camera, converting dad’s old laboratory into his own personal darkroom. He’s landed a day job as a cameraman in a respectable movie studio and dreams of one day being a director; until that day, he earns a bit of extra scratch shooting pornography for sleazy newsagents to sell under the counter.

But that’s not all that he’s up to. Lewis’ father experiments revolved around the biological basis of fear. His textbooks line the walls of Mark’s study – and Mark himself is conducting his own investigations into fear, not on a scientific basis but on an artistic, aesthetic basis. You see, what gets Mark’s blood moving of an evening is stalking, trapping, and murdering women – and recording the process. Meanwhile, his young downstairs lodger Helen Stephens (Anna Massey), on discovering that her landlord is this handsome young gentleman, is quite keen to get to know him better – even though she spots the occasional red flag in his behaviour, and in the curious home movie he shows her of his father’s fear experiments on him. As Mark works to complete his personal documentary on fear, will Helen find herself in a starring role?

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Digging Up Spooky Roots

“Folk horror” as a subgenre has gained increasing recognition of late, in part because of the efforts of Facebook groups like Folk Horror Revival. The major players in that community operate, among various other projects, Wyrd Harvest Press, a self-publishing umbrella for various folk horror-relevant materials; Wyrd Harvest’s repertoire includes the Folk Horror Revival journal series, of which Field Studies represents the first entry.

Now in its second edition and edited by a cross-section of members of the Facebook group, Field Studies offers a range of essays, interviews, and other snippets on the general subject of the folk horror subgenre, coming across much like a genre-specific take on Strange Attractor.

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