Category Archives: Film

Peter Cushing used to live in Whitstable

download (3)So goes the song by The Jellybottys, and that’s exactly where he lived – when not hammering stakes into vampires, travelling through time and space, journeying to the centre of the earth or ensuring a certain Death Star was fully operational.

Hammer and all round film and horror buff, Alex Norman, stumbles across the village that never forgot Peter Cushing.

Who knew that a day trip to the south east coast could end up as a walk in the footsteps of a celebrated legendary British actor?

Located on the north coast of Kent in south-east England, Whitstable has a population of roughly 32,000 and is famous for its oysters and historical landmarks such as the castle and Black Mill.

Its coast is lined with a mixture of shingle and sandy beaches and the scorching hot day sees many sunbathers, swimmers and water sports enthusiasts taking advantage. A jet ski has just arrived and is being carefully released into the water.

If you look out to sea, off the coast, you can see a windfarm consisting of 30 wind turbines which power 70,000 households and even further out, roughly nine miles, you can make out small black forms of the Maunsell Sea FortMaunsell sea-fort, armed towers built during the Second World War to help defend UK shores. A close-up photo of them is being sold in the marina market and, to me, they resemble the AT-AT combat walkers first seen The Empire Strikes Back (1980).

download (2)Little was I to know that it was the home of Grand Moff Tarkin, and no doubt his slippers. As we walk along the seafront promenade past the Neptune Pub where Peter O’Toole filmed scenes for Venus (2006), for which he received an Academy Award nomination, and past the stylish holiday cottages and terraced townhouses, we find ourselves on a pathway called Cushing’s Walk, a highly sought-after stretch of real estate offering perfect sea views with the beach literally on the doorstep.

What’s this we see? One of the houses has an English Heritage blue plaque and a tingle of excitement ripples through me – who could have lived here? As I move closer and my eyes refocus, I see that it reads:

PETER CUSHING O.B.E.
1913-1994
ACTOR
lived here
1959-1994

‘Cushing’s Walk’ is named after THE Peter Cushing, star of Hammer Horror, Sherlock Holmes, Dr Who and, of course, Star Wars.

My tenuous Star Wars analogy now seems quite fitting. He only appeared in the original 1977 classic but was somewhat controversially resurrected For the 2016 prequel, Rogue One.

homeCushing first visited Whitstable a long time ago…in the 1940s, and in 1958, bought this very house, initially for weekend use, and then as a retirement home, until his death in 1994. Cushing and his wife, Helen, loved Whitstable and the townspeople clearly took to them.

Cushing is probably best known his prolific work during the 50s, 60s and 70s in the Hammer horror films, alongside good friend (or should that be fiend?) Christopher Lee, particularly his portrayals of Baron Victor Frankenstein and Professor Van Helsing.

He also played Sherlock Holmes many times, originally in Hammer’s The Hound of the Baskerville’s (1959). This was followed by 16 episodes of the BBC series of which only six episodes have survived.

Cushing even played Dr Who in two films (Dr. Who and the Daleks – alongside Roy Castle – and Daleks – Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D. – this time with Bernard Cribbins) based on the BBC science-fiction TV series Doctor Who, although the films are not considered part of the show’s official canon. And he’d end his film career dabbling with time travel in his final screen performance in Biggles (1986).

The plan for the rest of the day was decided – to find out as much about Cushing and his time here in Whitstable before we head back home to the opposite side of the Estuary.

Museum

The Whitstable Museum (quite rightly) has a section dedicated to the actor and although it’s a little tired and features a skew-whiff portrait of Cushing as Sherlock, there’s no doubting the high regard Whitstable has for this man. The remains of a half-smoked cigarette sits in a glass cabinet, supposedly Cushing’s final smoke – apparently he would wear a white smoking glove so he didn’t stain his fingers.

A volunteer at the museum was genuinely delighted that we were so interested in Cushing, having gotten so used to the younger generation’s complete lack of knowledge as to who he was! She tells us she used to go swimming at the local pool and would often see Cushing doing his laps. She also said that Cushing was a very quiet and gentle man who fitted right in with the locals, no ego or pretence. She then mentions the pub across the road, a must-see for fans of the great man.

The pub

pub3A black plaque out front says the building is the former Oxford cinema which first opened its doors on 27 July 1936. It was built around the Oxford Picture Hall, which itself, opened in 1912 in what had been the Oxford ‘concert and music hall’.

J.D. Wetherspoon took over the building in 2011 and transformed it into an art deco palace whilst retaining the essence of the original incarnation. The foyer is wonderfully preserved and its centrepiece is an original cinema projector. The walls are adorned with film posters and film cans of many of Cushing’s films such as Dracula, The Hound of the Baskervilles as well as other British favourites such as Carry on Sergeant, Hitchcock’s Stage Fright and Carry on Cruising.

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The main drinking hall is majestically presided over at the bar end by a huge black and white print of Cushing and Robert Urquhart in Hammer’s 1957 production of The Curse of Frankenstein. Some of Cushing’s original paintings also grace the walls, celebrating another of his talents.

Antique shop

Geoff Lauren antiquesWe were hoping to meet some local elders who may have met the great man and it was then that we spotted, on Harbour Street, the quirky yet enticing Geoff Laurens Antiques. Inside there’s barely room to swing a cat (perhaps one from The Uncanny) and Mr Laurens himself sits in his favourite chair deep inside his store and greets us with a warm welcome.

Geoff-LaurensGeoff has been trading in Whitstable since 1970, the same year as Scream and Scream Again, and whereas others antique stores have come and gone, Geoff continues do business.  If anyone crossed paths with Cushing, then surely it was Geoff? So I asked him and was pleased when Geoff said: “Oh yes, of course. He used to come in here all the time.  On some days when it rained, I would drive him back home. You know, just up the street is his favourite tea rooms.”

Tea room

Tudor Tea RoomsIndeed, we pop into the Tudor Tea Rooms and Cushing’s favourite table now features a touching tribute alongside a photo of him in his later years.  The message reads: ‘In loving memory of our dear Peter Cushing. A sadly missed family friend’. The shop was closing up for the day so we didn’t have time for a cuppa.

We decided to finish our tour by going back to Cushing’s Walk on the seafront promenade.  With the sun sizzling, the Neptune Pub beer garden heaving and the oyster bars packed – it was clear to see why Cushing decided to retire in this town as opposed to his previous address in London. It has a real timeless feel about it, just like the man and his movies. So it is fitting that he is remembered so vividly and prominently, almost 20 years since he died.

Tudor Tea Rooms1They don’t make actors like Peter Cushing anymore, so it is great to see Whitstable continue to honour its adopted son, an acting legend. But then actors like Peter Cushing never really die…

Scarred For Life Vol 1 – the 1970s

Life means life, so when you read Scarred for Life volume one: the 1970s – Growing up in the dark side of the decade, a celebration of everything that scared you rigid in the 70s, from public information films (PFI) to TV programmes, that’s exactly what you get…scarred.

Over the years those scars may have become feint distant memories but they come screaming back to haunt you as you eagerly explore its 740 pages.

Like secondary schools at the time it’s comprehensive, not in the Grange Hill way you understand – which is also featured in the book along with its still nightmare inducing swimming pool incident – no wonder its authors, Stephen Brotherstone and Dave Lawrence admit ‘it is fairly huge.’

final cover front and back1

Exhaustive is putting it mildly as chapters wise it covers everything from the afore-mentioned TV to PIF to board games and ice-lollies to comics, all in glorious detail with numerous images to help return the things that you spent the last 30-40 years trying to forget.

It really is a delicious dystopian sweetshop of the 1970s, with it hard to know what section to consume next. Answer, all of them.

Engrossing, informative and entertaining beyond belief it successfully wrestles the 70s away from those programmes that just take the piss with inserts of ‘comedians’ doing vox pops and showing how the 70s was oh so un pc.

Just scrolling through the content is enough to whet your appetite and demonstrates their true love for the cultural touch points this decade produced, whether it be TV show, advert or toy. It really is all here. Even down to the Fleetway Annual homage on the front cover, what’s not to love.

I’ve not felt this excitement and giddiness about devouring the contents page(s) – all five, count ‘em – since reading Kim Newman’s Nightmare Movies when it was first released in 1987. The book sets the scene perfectly, it may as well be me laid on the carpet, head propped in my hands. The Amityville Horror, Bigfoot, The Bermuda Triangle, Watership Down, The Pan Book of Horror and the Usborne Book of the Unexplained – that IS my childhood and it is all gloriously revisited.

You are hooked from the off. Obviously if you were born in that decade, felt its cultural ripples or grew up in the 70s you’ll get the most out of with instant recollections of I remember that, I had that and remembering moments from childhood that were long forgotten but smash back into your conscience as if they never left.

That intro is so evocative at transporting you back to that time in your house, it’s almost like time travel itself, regressing like Christopher Reeve in Somewhere in Time as the words wash over you or seeing the decades and décor roll back like Rod Taylor in The Time Machine watch the constantly changing shop window.

Each entry even provides suggested viewing and suggested further reading; this is very clearly written by fans for fans. I’ve had to keep a note book alongside me as a read it so that I can just keep track of my future viewings and reads.  My Amazon account is going to take something of a bashing.

We also get regular appearances by ‘the art of the title sequence’ breaking down some of TVs greatest every opening credits. These are the shows we want on our Netflix, Amazon Prime, ITV Player and BBC iPlayer, or even BFI player.

Essential, it’s damn near perfection. The ‘I did not know that’ facts come thick and fast as well, such as the creator of Shadows, a supernatural anthology series for children was from the same person that created Rainbow.

The chapters are like longer versions of features from TV Zone, SFX or the – all too short lived – Cult TV magazines, a spin off from SFX. It’s refreshing long form writing that never out stays it’s welcome.

It’s absorbing and makes you want to consume it in one, or certainly as few sittings as possible, but is also designed as such that you can easily dip in out of chapters or subjects that interest you. I guess the only shame is a lack of an index, but minor quibbles aside the contents pages are in plenty of detail in that regard.

Brimming with programmes I’d seen (Grange Hill, Blake’s 7, Worzel Gummidge), those I knew of and had read about (The Tomorrow People, Doomwatch, The Stone Tapes) and those I’d not (Beasts and 1990) it’s an interesting and a great package bursting with familiar, heard of and new delights aplenty. You can’t help but read it (crossed legged on the floor of course) and smile.

As well as all the television moments, the highlights for me were evoking vivid memories of The Doctor Who Exhibition in Blackpool; I never even met anyone else who went! The still-scare-the- bejusus-out-of-you public information films, particularly the Lonely Water, which, complete with full horror tropes, plays out like a 70s version of It Follows, and the escalators one with the red wellies ripped to shreds. Shudder!

It gives you one of those joyous crick necks where you’ve just been staring down for such a long period of time, like when you just read through The Guinness Book of Records. You could easily lose yourself in it pages for days on end.

A celebration of the odd, strange and macabre that hit our screens, shops, book shelves and magazine racks.  And even if you didn’t it effortlessly captures that period’s output and shows us that it wasn’t just as is oft portrayed, as just about wearing flares and disco dancing.

Today is often referred to as a golden period of television and writing for television, something which is said to only recently herald from the States, but this volume clearly shows that writing and content was king not just in dramatic output but children’s dramatic output. Windy Miller, we aren’t in Camberwick Green anymore. And everything else, from 2000AD to Roy of the Rovers tackling hooligans, is just as rich.

Doctor Who and hiding behind the sofa is just the tip of the ice-berg. An assault on the senses, it doesn’t just capture my childhood, it is it. Observations are just so spot-on, it’s a landmark dissection of this period and all the great and frankly demented things it had to offer.

If volume two, which focuses on the 80s – my mouth is watering already – is of the same standard, length an fun to read – and with the likes of Blake’s 7’s ending, Adric dying in Doctor Who, The Adventure Game and Mr Noseybonk to name but four things I’m expecting to make an appearance – these two encyclopaedic volumes could well be The Godfather Parts 1 and 2 of books about popular culture. If you were a child of the seventies or grew up in that decade it is an offer you can’t refuse. A definite a must buy.

Available soon from Lulu.com for £16.99, that’s great value at just over £1.69 a year!

John Carpenter: The night HE played Halloween

Guest blogger Alex Norman hitched a ride on The Pork Chop Express to the Troxy in London on Halloween night, which was not dark and stormy and had no rain coming down in sheets thick as lead. He did however get to see the horror master, John Carpenter, play live. Like old Jack Burton he stood in the crowd and looked Carpenter square in the eye and says, “Give me your best shot, pal. I can take it.”

Check out his review…

When horror icon John Carpenter announced a European tour in support of his two Lost Themes albums, original music created with his son and godson, it was a dream come true to finally see one of my idols in person performing his iconic synth music.

30617424621_10dd694cfb_kThings got even better when it was announced he was doing a meet and greet before the event. I didn’t even question the £135 cost; it was more a case of where’s my credit card! Opportunities like this – meeting JC on Halloween in London – won’t come along too often.

With the Art Deco Troxy filling up, anticipation was building and it was bizarre surveying the mosh pit which consisted of Michael Myers, ghosts, They Live zombies, Gracie Law, Jack Burton, even the axe wielding crazy dude from In the Mouth of Madness (“do you read Sutter Cane?”). You get the picture – Carpenter even announced the winner of the best costume.

MacReady – “Why don’t we just wait here for a little while, see what happens?” The Thing

When the lights finally went out, the crowd roared in anticipation and out came the ‘bats’ – Carpenter was pointing out faces in the crowd, doing the sign of the horns, reverently chewing gum and even doing grandad shimmies.

30705801585_1fc90fec21_kThen it began… Carpenter’s boney finger pressed down on the keys to signal the opening of the main theme to Escape From New York. Yes! Here we go.  There’s was a real lack of Snake Plissskens in attendance tonight which was a shame.

With the backing of his full band of men half his age, Carpenter’s music is injected with some rock power and his music explodes out of the amps. His iconic music still sounds as good as it ever has but it’s more ferocious, louder and, just, in your face.

As the exultant crowd scream their appreciation of the opener, Carpenter yells: “Hello London!”. Judging by the look on his face, his choice to go down this rock rabbit hole odyssey as he approaches his 69th birthday, you can’t help but think he is ticking off a dream he never really believed would happen. Next up is the driving and moody Assault on Precinct 13 theme.

30073808054_96eec03315_kA couple of tracks from Lost Themes follow, Vortex and Mystery, before the mood shifts… in between songs, Carpenter acts as a story teller, bordering on melodramatic, as he introduces The Fog.  It felt almost as if you could be in Antonio Bay as the stage is layered with thick fog and clips from the film are played on a giant projection at the back of the stage.  All of his film scores are accompanied by clips from the films and it really does enhance the performance.  After all, Carpenter is stationed behind a keyboard chewing gum and kicking ass musically, so it provides something else to enhance the performance.

30073834074_76764e4817_kNext, as Carpenter and the band donned sunglasses, the crowd knew what was coming and the projection screen was filled with bold statements such as ‘obey’ and ‘money is your god’. Enter the main theme from They Live. As images of the late ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper and Keith David are beamed up on the screen, the crowd whoops and hollers.

Carpenter then introduces the next song in honor of one of the greatest film composer of all time, Ennio Morricone. The studio drafted Morricone in to score The Thing and reports of tension surfaced.  John even telling the great composer to play ‘less’ notes.  But Carpenter is a much more relaxed man these days and the past is blood under the bridge.  The Thing’s main theme literally shudders the rib cage as the thunderous bass pounds out of the giant speaker stacks.

Next up is Distant Dream from Lost Themes II – a driving, rocking track that sounds like a lost track from Big Trouble in Little China, and lo (pan) and behold, the next track is from that very movie – seeing Lo Pan emit his blue mouth beam on the big screen and various action packed clips from the film as the band are rocking out is very cool indeed.

30405769400_c19171fc03_kNext up are a couple more tracks from Lost Themes – Wraith and Night. The former is a slow burner that sounds enriched and far more sonically powerful than the album cut. It’s at this point that Carpenter confesses tonight’s show has been uncharacteristically upbeat and that it was time to dour things down. This is where Night comes in – a dark slice of bass synth that broods along relentlessly.  This sets the mood and tone of the venue perfectly as Carpenter wishes everyone ‘Happy Halloween’ before keying the iconic opening notes to Halloween to the delight of everyone.

The main set is wrapped up with the hard rock main theme from In the Mouth of Madness which starts off sounding like Metallica’s Enter Sandman before it transforms into a balls-out rocker Carpenter-style, leaving those bad Metallica’s thoughts far behind.

Tonight’s encore kicks off with Darkness Begins from the Prince of Darkness score, followed by Virtual Survivor from Lost Themes II, one of the best tracks of the night that trudges along to a big finish.  Purgatory slows things down and provides the most emotive point before the second half of the track kicks in with marching rhythmic intensity.

Before the final song of the evening, our ringmaster and storyteller for the evening offers us some final words of caution: ‘travel home safely tonight, because Christine is out there somewhere’. Carpenter of course is talking about the sentient and violent Plymouth Fury that wins the heart of Keith Gordon before destroying everything that threatens their romance. There’s clearly a lot of love for this film and score.

30588852102_b870ba77c3_kWith the final beat of the drum and as Carpenter’s last note fades out, he thanks the crowd, the band take a bow and leave to rapturous applause. Sure, it was a short gig clocking in at just 80 minutes but what a great 80 minutes they were. Whether this will ever happen again in London, who knows, but tonight, the Master of Horror channeled the youth and vitality so desired by Lo Pan and lived the rock star dream and added a whole new chapter and level of cool for his fans to cherish forever.

30071736283_2e300b71e7_kAs Sheriff Leigh Brackett says in Halloween: “It’s Halloween, everyone’s entitled to one good scare.” Everyone who attended the Troxy certainly had one good evening. After all you can’t kill the boogie man!

 

Pictures: Stephen Watts

The Dead Zone #30DaysOfFright

English teacher Johnny Smith (an electric Christopher Walken) is involved in a car accident that puts him in a coma. He awakes five years later to a changed world, he’s lost his job and the woman he loves, but he also has changed gifts. He can now see into the future (and past) of individuals he comes into contact with and touches, using it for good he can make a difference but can he change the course of history that has yet to be written?

dead5Less horror and more tragi-supernatural thriller, The Dead Zone, for me, is my favourite Stephen King adaptation. I loved the poster and VHS box for it as well, it always intrigued me, both design and title. It’s a firm favourite.

The restrained direction of David Cronenberg plays a huge part in that, as does the script by the late Jeffrey Boam (who also penned The Lost Boys, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Lethal Weapon 2) and the score by Michael Kamen.

dead4It never fails to hook you and Christopher Walken, in my favourite screen role of his, is utterly compelling and heartbreaking. I’m surprised that there wasn’t an Oscar nomination in the offing for his portrayal, perhaps it is more to do with the genre he was acting in? In many ways he is as cursed as David Kessler in An American Werewolf on London, an ordinary man changed by circumstances not of his choosing, then put in an extraordinary situation and having to make a choice.

dead2The Dead Zone has always been gripping, full of one man’s sadness and of intrigue with flashes of horror. That horror and sadness is perfectly etched on Walken’s face and delivery. When we see his visions we feel his pain, the fire, the fall under the ice – “the ice is gonna break” scene is a powerhouse delivery – and the serial killer.

You could almost say that Walken is something of a superhero, a mutant, think of M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable with Bruce Willis and Samuel L Jackson as something of a distant cousin.

dead7With his pale granite white face, Walken is a picture of loss and sadness, still carrying a limp from his accident its a physical echo of his continual mental pain and suffering ultimately knows his own destiny and cuts a pained figure of sadness, lost love and genuinely heartbreaking. You really feel for him and want to save him like he saves others, in many ways his disability is akin to say the film version of The Elephant Man and so is the rapport he has with Herbert Lom, like Hurt did with Hopkins.

Walkman may chew the scenery but it is with real vigour and senselessness, he is a man who can see into the future and past yet not change either his past or future. And that scenery of snow and bleakness and of dark tunnels only adds to the feeling of loneliness.

It’s a powerful film that long lingers after the credits have rolled and although some at the time claimed Cronenberg had deserted the strangeness of Scanners and Videodrome and gone mainstream. In his other mainstream horror, The Fly, that was also very much a tragic love story as well.

The Dead Zone still packs a memorable, powerful punch, especially when it comes to the visions. If you are going to watch this ensure it is the unedited version and the special edition DVD has a great commentary by Kim Newman.

dead3Some would call his second sight as blessing, others a curse. It’s a great moral tale of a man who once had everything but lost it now has the power to forte the future even though he does not have one. He and his ‘gift’ is given purpose however when he discovers he must stop Presidential Candidate Gregg Stillson, played with great zeal by Martin Sheen.

He had of course previously played Kennedy so had presidential down to pay, and would of course go onto hold office in The West Wing. You can’t help thinking he’s a little too Donald Trump though – talk about eerie premonitions. His vision sees Stillson flying the nukes, a madman in the Whitehouse.

As well as Sheen there is excellent support from Brooke Adams, the former girlfriend, Tom Skerritt as a local sheriff investigating a murder, Anthony Zerbe and the fine Herbert Lom as Smith’s Doctor.

dead10If you haven’t seen The Dead Zone, or only the TV series with Anthony Michael Hall, make sure you catch this classic, still one of the top Steven King adaptations and certainly an interesting and absorbing take from Director David Cronenberg. I predict you’ll love it.

Of course it does also have one other curious foretelling of the future, at the start of the film Christopher Walken is taking his English class and asks them to read ‘The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow’. Perhaps he knew he would go onto to play the Headless Horseman in Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An American Werewolf in London #30DaysOfFright

A unique beast of a movie, An American Werewolf In London is something of a hybrid of a film. One moment it is laugh out loud funny and the next it is shriek out loud scary.

It’s hard to think of a film that has melded horror and comedy to better effect, although at the time of release apparently people didn’t really understand the shifts in tone.

london1

The film charts the journey of two American friends, David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne), who are backpacking across the Yorkshire Moors. It’s a memorable trip for all the wrong reasons as one is killed and the other is savaged by a werewolf. David lives but keeps seeing Jack, in various states of decomposition, warning him that on the next full moon he too shall become a rampaging werewolf. David’s visions get weirder until, finally, he transforms in the middle of London.

london6Jack’s scenes are even harder to watch knowing that the year after this film was released Dunne’s sister was murdered by her boyfriend, she had just completed work as the older sister in Poltergeist.

In many ways this is a love letter to classic Universal horror, Director John Landis is certainly a fan, even though – pulling something of a Jaws – we don’t get our transformation scene until an hour into the film.

london3That Universal-feel is perhaps best felt when our two wandering Americans stumble upon The Slaughtered Lamb pub and it falls silent. It’s a classic moment in a classic film with its pentagrams, missed dart boards, an on the money Brian Glover and a young Rik Mayall.

The lack of a lycanthrope for that first 60 minutes doesn’t mean we don’t get plenty of scares that still leave scars. The initial attack on the Moors – if only they had stuck to the road as warned – is swift but shocking, especially as moments earlier they were laughing and joking.

london2Then we have the dream sequences, particularly the – never explained but no need to as everyone was too busy being scared – vampiric David in his hospital bed, looking like an extra from Salem’s Lot.

And then there is the scene of David back home with his mum and dad and his younger brother and sister. They are watching The Muppet Show (big at the time and Frank Oz AKA Missy Piggy and Fozzie Bear is also in the film) when the doorbell rings. David’s dad answers the door to be blasted away by Nazi werewolf monster thugs. It’s the scene WTF would perfectly sum up had it existed in 1981.

london12Left field, unexpected and downright disturbing leaving a mark on its viewers – in their pants probably – and mentally for decades to come. What’s great about this though is that when David wakes up his nurse, Jenny Agutter, goes to the window and is promptly stabbed by one of the Nazi beasts. Nearly pulling the Carrie trick midway through the film. Waking up a second time David exclaims ‘holy shit.’ Too right!

london7When the full moon arrives we are instore for a cinematic treat. The transformation scene is still the best committed to film and was all done practically and in camera. No wonder the rumour is that the best make up Oscar category was created specially to honour this film and Rick Baker. And it doesn’t take place in some dark alley, it’s in a fully lit living room.

As well as being a technical marvel it really conveys the painfulness of it all. To all intense and purposes this is David’s death scene.

And there’s something that is still brilliant about the scene knowing that it was all done on set and not one pixel at a time in a computer (take note Van Helsing and An American Werewolf in Paris – lame dogs both).

london8Post transformation we have a flurry of attacks, including one that makes fantastic use of the tube and you can’t fail to think about it next time you find yourself in an empty tube station at night or deserted escalator.

With its similar time-frame, a group of memorable British character actors, its UK. Setting, it’s denial of what is unfolding and its tragic ending I always saw it as something of a companion piece to The Omen in many ways.

london10Agutter is a compelling and a memorable love interest, but it’s Doctor Hirsch who I love most out of the supporting characters. Especially when he is in full investigation mode and travels back to The Slaughtered Lamb. He always seemed a bit like the David Warner character in The Omen to me.

Although David was cursed unlike the supposed curse of the omen this film was not, although it’s dedication in celebrating the marriage of Charles and Diana didn’t do them any favours.

 

Jaws #30DaysOfFright

jawsaTo paraphrase Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) in Jaws, when he is trying to explain why the art work ‘paint happy bastards’ have produced on the Amity Island board is anatomically correct to the Mayor (Murray Hamilton) in the presence of  Chief of Police, Martin Brody (Roy Scheider). Jaws is the perfect eating machine of a movie.

It went over production, over budget and the mechanical shark, fondly nicknamed Bruce after Director Steven Spielberg’s Lawyer, often didn’t work. The film should never have worked, but all of this extra time meant the film matured, like a fine wine (red and white of course), to become the classic that we have today.

Hands down it is my favourite film of all time and without fail I set sail with it – on whatever format – every year on my birthday. So what better time to post this than on my actual birthday.

Over the years I have bought it several times, first as a pan and scan CIC Video VHS copy that I bought in 1987, my widescreen VHS copy and both the 25th and 30th anniversary DVDs, and now the 35th anniversary edition Bluray all cleaned up. Jaws may be 41 but it really has never looked better.

It may be about to sound better those as news has just broke that the Boston Pops Orchestra, once presided over by Jaws composer John Williams, is to perform a live screening of Jaws next summer with full orchestra.

BRITISHQUAD134-2This would follow the pattern of several other Steven Spielberg films, E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jurassic Park, to get the live orchestra treatment. They all came to the UK so it can only be a matter of time before a dorsal fin breaks the water to a live rendition of William’s still astonishing and gripping score. William’s score isn’t a piece of music for the film; it is essentially the ‘voice’ of the shark itself.

The 1975 film is based on the best-selling book by Peter Benchley, he also write a draft of the screenplay and has a cameo as a TV news reporter on the beach.

Amity Island, a seaside town off Long Island is getting ready for the summer season, but it could have never been ready for the murderous shadow of a Great White Shark. As the victims continue to wash up the town hire a grizzled fisherman to catch it and kill it. Joining him at sea are a marine biologist and the town’s chief of police. It’s sink or swim for the thrust together threesome as they fight against the elements, against each other and against the shark.

As a piece of cinema,  Jaws was always the near perfect film and now, cleaned up frame by frame for its 35th anniversary it looks like it was practically shot last week. This lean mean thriller machine became the closest to cinematic perfection it has ever got.

jaws chrissie watkins 1975Jaws still packs a punch (or should that be bite radius) of a juggernaut. The opening night Chrissie attack sequence has never looked so uncomfortably clear, her nakedness making you almost feel voyeur like – making it even closer akin to the shower scene it Psycho in that respect – right up until that moment of impact that’s like a train, when the John Williams score and sound effects really kick into high gear. It’s the perfect opener for a movie (indeed Spielberg even copied it himself of sorts in 1993 in the opening of Jurassic Park).

It effectively sets the shark up as a Jack the Ripper like monster. The noise, the screams and the music all blend to still create a sense of dread in the pit of your stomach. Also one of the most iconic, and oft-imitated, poster images ever. She was the first…

However, it’s not the 25 foot shark; all three tonnes of it, that dominates the film though, each and every piece of the film he is in is dominated by Robert Shaw as Quint. Scheider and Dreyfuss are no slouches for sure and the way the threesome ping off each other is a joy to behold (the script coupled with the beauty of the extra rehearsal time due to operating problems with the shark et al) but Quint has never been so dominant, so alive.

robert-shaw2He chews scenery like the shark chews his boat, the Orca, at the end of the film and his eyes, his eyes are just so piercing a blue that they make Daniel Craig’s look practically dull in comparison. It confirmed to me that more classic Shaw films should be viewed on the big screen but also left a genuine feeling of loss, for the man, Shaw died only three years after the release of Jaws, and for cinema generally. He carved such an impression up there on the big screen, seen as he should be and not on a box – no matter what its size – in the corner of the room.

Jaws never puts a foot wrong, it still has fantastic pace, still thrills and scares a little in all the right places and also makes people laugh in all the places that it is meant to do. Rubber shark or no rubber shark it, like Alien after it, which after all was pitched as Jaws in Space, still taps into that primeval fear and when each and every person bringing that to life is working at the top of their game you can’t go wrong, critically, commercially or for longevity.

jawsiIt’s hard to think that the then 27 year old Steven Spielberg almost turned down the chance to direct the movie that launched a thousand nightmares. It was the first film to smash the $100 million barrier and upon initial release it is estimated some 67 million Americans went to see it,

At the time the Director felt that the film was too similar to the man versus (mechanical) beast of Duel (1971). He wasn’t too worried about the lorry and shark having the same dinosaur death cry though, one as it lurches over a cliff, the other as its carcass sinks to the bottom of the sea. Spielberg felt both had a kinship of sorts – both leviathans targeting everyman

The original schedule of 52 days tripled due to the problems of filming on location, not so much the filming at Martha’s Vinyard, which doubled as the quaint Amity Island, but more the filming at sea, which almost left the whole production at sea. Previously most movies set at sea were filmed in giant tanks with a pre-filmed backdrop but being on a real sea, on a real boat it made the experience that much more successful.

The 12 hour days were not wholly productive as only four were devoted to actual filming, due to the poor weather and the not wholly co-operative shark (it sank on its first test and practically exploded on its second), but in the end these were the elements that helped make the film the success it was.

Initially the Producers, Richard Zanuck and David Brown, thought(!) that they might be able to hire a man to train a Great White to perform a few simple tricks and do the rest with miniatures. Thankfully this route was not pursued and it soon became very clear that there was only one man who could make this monster fish a reality, the retired Bob Mattey, who created the giant squid for Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea some 20 years earlier.

BN-EU471_jawsph_G_20141001063022Jaws and Christian Bale both might have too many teeth but his strops pale into insignificance next to ‘Bruce’, who was cross-eyed and his jaws would not shut.

This, however, proved to be Spielberg’s masterstroke as he had to be more inventive and hide the shark behind the camera for as long as possible, its presence suggested by twisting camerawork and the now unmistakable primeval music composed by John Williams, thus allowing the audience’s mind to create the horror of the shark, all 20, I mean 25 feet of him. And of course those rather cannily placed yellow barrels!

No matter how well the shark performed or how well it was hidden when it didn’t the filmmakers knew that the audience would need to see real sharks, and that is exactly what they got with amazing footage from Australian husband and wife diving team, Ron and Valerie Taylor.

jaws16Thankfully Great Whites do not grow to 25 feet in length so to make the shark look larger for the Hooper cage dive a smaller cage and midget were used to get some spectacular footage.

But the best was yet to come when the shark destroyed the cage and almost the boat, thankfully the pint size stuntman, Carl Rizzo, was not in it at the time and after seeing the ‘attack’ on the boat promptly locked himself in the toilet. The footage remains in the film, which effectively meant the shark helped rewrite the book and ensure the survival of Richard Dreyfuss’ character.

Peter Benchley, and old pal of Spielberg, Carl Gottlieb, are listed as the screenwriters of the project but beneath the surface of the credits it is revealed that several different people helped stamp their authority on the project.

Benchley had two passes at the script and then the Pulitzer winning playwright (and scuba diver), Howard Sackler, was brought in to beef up the script. One of his greatest additions was the Quint USS Indianapolis monologue, which is now being mooted in various quarters as a prequel. There is a script floating about.

This one moment, more than any other, has been the one that has become fabled in who should take the credit for the powerful moment when Robert Shaw’s character retells his World War 2 shark encounter. Future Apocalypse Now and Conan scribe, John Milius, had a crack at it with Shaw himself, an accomplished playwright, also gave it a polish and honed it to the perfection you see on scream, depending on whose tale you listen to of course.

The great thing about the hours of waiting to film meant that the main actors (Scheider, Dreyfuss and Shaw) all got to hone their characters, got to know each other and also got to rework their dialogue with co-screenwriter, Gottlieb (who also played opposite Mayor of Sharksville, Murray Hamilton) who often updated dialogue only 24 hours before the shoot, which perhaps goes someway to explaining why these three characters and their words – which even Tarantino would be proud of – and every nuance is so spot on and crisp over 40 years later.

Brody shoots the shark in JawsOther unsung heroes of the movie also had to include camera operator, Michael Chapman, who practically filmed the last third of the movie handheld, which helped give it that realistic, fresh look. And he even saved vital film from a sinking Orca, narrowly saving his skin and the dailies.

Finally, there is Editor, Verna Fields, who won one of the three Oscars (it was nominated for four) for the film and edited the movie on location as the footage slowly crept in, not only editing around the underperforming shark but also continuity problems of an ever changing sea and sky, not that you’d notice.

jaws (1)She was also instrumental to adding the ‘head in the boat’ scene that was shot in a swimming pool and added long after filming had wrapped. And that scene gave the extra jump that the film needed, even after all those viewings it is still hard to judge exactly when it will pop out.

By the end of the film the shark may have been dead but the blockbuster as we know it today had been born. The sea (or the bath when I was little as I was convinced he was going to get in there) and cinema would never be the same again.

Jaws

 

 

 

Saw #30DaysOfFright

saw5The Usual Suspects meets Se7en, Saw may be known more for its torture porn tendencies – popped into the same category as the likes of Hostel – but the first is more of a taut serial killer thriller. 

There are of course horrible deaths but most of what happens is in your mind, it’s the suggestion of it that makes you balk. The sequels certainly up the blood and gore quota.

 It’s the story that drives the horror in this and the suggestion, something that has become a staple in James Wan and Leigh Whannell directed and written horror films, from Insidious to The Conjuring. The horror comes from the situation and story.

 sawTwo men who don’t know one another awake in a dark empty room shackled to the wall. In the centre of the room a dead body and a tape recorder. A mysterious voice pits them against one another, will they live or will they die? To survive they are going to have to go out on a limb. If they die they’ll simply become another victim of the twisted Jigsaw killer

 Will they work together or against one another? They are Dr. Lawrence Gordon, who has to kill Adam, or his wife and daughter will die.

 Like all good horror it drags us in and puts us in their shoes, what would we do to escape and save our family? It’s kill or be killed.

 I want to play a game is what the Jigsaw killer tells his victims through the means of his creepy puppet, and that is exactly what this film is a game, a game of wits.

For all its horror tendencies This is a cleverly crafted whodunnit.

saw2What is really interesting about Saw is that the victims aren’t exactly innocent, they may not deserve to die but they aren’t exactly nice people or innocent victims per se. 

And what is clever is that Jigsaw finds ways for victims to essentially kill themselves. Again, it’s about the clever deaths and scenarios.

Perhaps the most memorable is that of the converted bear trap on a woman’s face, obviously there is the fact that if she can’t open the device it goes off ripping her jaw apart.

Added to this the key is hidden inside the body of a man, she must dig it out within 60 seconds. Oh, and the man, whilst inanimate is still very much alive.

This trap is also notable as it was filmed as a short to help get finance for the film by Wan and Whannell. Whannell also playing Adam trapped with the good Doctor.

The only innocent people in the film are the mother and daughter who are kidnapped, for me this whole section is outstanding and where the real mounting tension lies.

Whether it is the girl telling her mummy that there is a monster in her room, which of course there is in the shape of their kidnapper. When we see that figure it is chilling.

And the tension is ramped up again when time has run out for the Doctor to save his family 

saw6They are tied up, the kidnapper takes the daughter’s heartbeat and then again when he points the gun at her mother’s head, this time it beats much faster, just like that of the audience’s.

Style wise, the dizzying edit and speeding up film I’m less of a fan of, even if it is highlighted their confusion, desperation and panic.

What does suit the film, and cunningly the series as a whole, is the non-linear timeline of the film zips about but it works in its favour and keeps us hanging on tenterhooks throughout.

saw4The ramshackle Jigsaw puppet on his bike could have so easily been laughed off the screen, but it’s creepy as hell. And is my Halloween costume of choice, complete with dictaphone as well.

He’s used sparingly in this first outing but has quickly become a horror icon alongside Freddy, Jason, Michael, Pinhead and Ghostface.

For a film set so much in the shadows it’s quite fitting most of the characters have grey areas 

saw8What elevates this from the usual low budget fair is its casting of familiar faces in key roles, such as Cary Elwes as the shackled surgeon, Danny Glover as a detective investigating the murders and Monica Potter as Elwes’s wife.

With Saw being the title the race to the climax is heavily posted, Jigsaw has hidden hacksaw blades not sharp enough to cut through chains but through flesh. What would push you to the limit to lop your own foot off? 

Nothing and no one is as they seem, this is a jigsaw of many pieces and only when the puzzle is complete is the whole picture revealed.

The end? I won’t give it away but It’s less survival of the fittest and more Saw-vival of the cleverest.