Monday, 31 October 2011

Forties Fear Mongering

Based on a short story by Pushkin, The Queen of Spades is an exquisite fable about the consequences of avarice. An impoverished Russian officer buys a book which reveals the occult secret behind an aging Countess' wealth and embarks on a convoluted plan to gain the power for himself and unsurprisingly things don't go smoothly. Lavishly staged, beautifully shot and with a carefully paced script the film's success is sealed by an impressively intense central performance by Anton Walbrook whose portrayal of the character's descent from desperation to obsession and finally into madness give the film it's emotional punch.

The Beast with Five Fingers is not quite as successful as Spades but is still an entertaining slice of vintage horror. A famous pianist, retired in a plush Italian villa, carks it and strange, ghostly antics follow and soon enough his house guests, hanging around for the will to be read, start turning up dead too. When the local policeman rolls up his investigation leads him to conclude the pianist's paw, now missing from the corpse, is the only possible culprit. Though it's a bit creaky on the script front and the cinematography is a workmanlike it does have a brilliantly demented performance by Peter Lorre as an astrology researcher at it's core and it's more than enough to keep things ticking along.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Dark Dreams

A Lizard in a Women's Skin is a psychedelic horror/thriller giallo from Lucio Fulci. The daughter of a powerful politician finds herself plagued with disturbing, sexy hallucinations about her partying neighbour but the waters and her sanity are further muddied when the neighbour turns up stabbed to death. Quite barmy throughout and filled with lovely psychedelic imagery as well as cliche this rumbles along quite enjoyably, building an atmosphere of ambiguity that only really becomes resolved in the final scene. Though the script and acting are pretty ropey it's the startling cinematography and visual, er, decadence that make this worth watching.

The Paranormal Activity franchise rolls on with the release of a prequel feature designed to add more meat to the bones of the original story. Set in the 80's the film shows the sisters' first encounter with the evil presence that later claims their lives and provides a semi-coherent narrative to it's purpose. Despite it's tawdry, low budget shocks I found it moderately entertaining and somewhat chilling however I can't imagine the camera-trickery trope can take much more mileage. If you enjoyed the previous films you'll probably get something out of this but it'll be a guilty, low brow pleasure, the equivalent of haunted house fairground ride.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Some Things Wicked

Hammer Time

Hammer's House of Horror magazine ran a series of excellent comic-book adaptations of the studio's movies. Here's a little selection....Cinebeats provide The Curse of The Werewolf and
Hairy Green Eyeball has a stunning Brian Bolland penned Vampire Circus and The Reptile.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Psycho Pulps

The Killer Inside Me is surely as dark as noir can get, author Jim Thompson throws us headlong into the mind of a psychotic sex killer in this chilling thriller set in small town Texas. Deputy Lou Ford struggles to keep his 'sickness' at bay as he pootles about town spouting cliches and lending a friendly hand to the locals, succumbing finally to his instincts for murder and violence after meeting a beuatiful whore. This is a brutally effective novel and Thompson's cold, disturbing protagonist is carefully, cleverly drawn and his journey from plain mad to full blown psychosis is quite terrifying - think Highsmith's Ripley on PCP and you might get the idea. Thompson's writing and pacing are excellent and it's a deeply disturbing but brilliant work that burns towards it's incendiary finale. I must start digging around for more of his Thompson's work, especially after finding out he'd written on of my favourite Kubrick films The Killing as well as Frears' The Grifters.

Ira Levin's novel The Boys From Brazil is a fine thriller about Nazis and mad genetic experiments. It doesn't quite match A Kiss Before Dying in drama and plot twists but then it's not terribly long ago that I rewatched the film. Anyways an aging Nazi hunter is tipped off about an enclave of Nazi's hiding out in South America and their plans to assassinate 80 or so fathers and despite his ailing health he's soon hot on their heels and heading towards a confrontation with medical monster Josef Mengele. Dunno it's an easy read, well written but not quite as taut as it shouldn't have been and it's simplicity means the original novel didn't have much more to offer than the film but that's hardly Levin's fault.

The Great Antidote

4 moons of Saturn caught in this very lovely image by Cassini. APOD

Evidence for the link between DNA activity & early childhood environmental conditions. Scienceblog.

Hong Kong researchers Kwok & Zhang have discovered complex organic compounds in space created without the presence of "life". Reddit.

The long disputed reality of hypnosis may be finally coming to an end with some interesting eye-movement research which seems to support the existence of a distinct hypnotic modality of consciousness. MedicalXpress.

New evidence shows there's little between ourselves and chimps but our so called "junk", DNA that is. DailyG.

Another study, this time of Orangutan societies, demonstrates that "culture" isn't exclusive to humans. SciDaily.

Linguists have cracked the Copiale code - turns out the mysterious manuscript details the rituals of a German ophthalmology cult. NYT

Has the worm finally turned? Psychologists line up to object to the forthcoming publication of DSM5, which is bound to be another example of idiocy and psychiatric propaganda. PsychToday.

Evidence has been uncovered for the earliest oxygen breathing lifeform - a mineral chomping bacteria about 2.5 billion years old. LiveSci.

Stunning pic of a N Atlantic giant Octopus. Via NS

DC Double Downer

Bruce Wayne & Jim Gordon forge their reputations in Batman Year One, the latest DC animated feature, and it's a remarkably faithful adaptation of Frank Miller's original graphic novel. Remarkable in the sense that what worked so well on the page has been recreated here for better or worse - the pacing seems a little off for the format and the "realism" of Bat's & Gordon's trajectories seem a little odd and underwhelming for an animated movie, worst of all however is the insipid voice work with almost all the main characters miscast. Still the quality of Miller's work shines through and it's still a reasonably entertaining watch - I'm just kinda glad the didn't decide to my favourite The Killing Joke.

Green Lantern: Emerald Knights is a portmanteau collection of tales fleshing out the GL universe of extra terrestrial alien police. Framed by Hal Jordan's narration to a student there area five stories told to explain the history and diversity of the corp and it's not too shabby. The animation is decent enough and there's no shortage of action but the scattershot approach means there's no real substance to the 80 mins and it feels more like a bunch of Saturday morning toons stitched together than a coherent film. Sadly it seems DC are still way behind Marvel in milking their respective franchises.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

1984 Futuristics

The Philadelphia Experiment is a seriously hokey slice of 80's nonsense based around the urban legend about the USS Eldridge that gets pushed out of normal time/space during an anti-radar experiment during WW2. Our two protagonists are sailors on the Eldridge who, after throwing themselves overboard during the calamitous experiment, land on terra firma circa 1984. After stumbling about for a bit they eventually hook up with Nancy Allen and dodge the authorities on their road trip to their home town in a haze of inarticulate future shock unaware their arrival has caused a seemingly unstoppable vortex to appear. With a shoddy script, wooden acting and some cheapo fx there's little here to recommend to anyone.

Psychic Dennis Quaid is hired by Christopher Plummer and Max Von Sydow in 80's scifi-romp Dreamscape. Quaid has been drifting about using his skills for gambling and seduction but after falling foul of some race track buddies he signs up for a government programme involving projecting his consciousness into the troubled minds of test sleepers, things go well but it appears Plummer has nefarious plans for his chum the President. It's not bad I guess, the fx are certainly better than P Experiment's (still look amatuerish by today's standards) and has at least half a decent plot, competent script/actoring and has Quaid's easy charm to keep things from becoming too po-faced as it romps along to it's obvious conclusion. Definitely the better of the two if you're after a bit of retro scifi

Nihon Novelties

Monday, 24 October 2011

Island Incidents

The fictional Hebridean Isle of Fara is experiencing an unprecedented heatwave in The Night of the Big Heat. Thankfully the island includes Cushing and Lee as residents and their separate, respective investigations as local GP and roving scientists leads them to the conclusion that the extreme heat may be caused by visitors from another planet. This isn't the finest film I've ever seen with some weak effects, lame day-as-night cinematography and a rudimentary script but it has a certain charm whether that's from the tawdry love triangle plot or the alien as glowing poached egg I can't say.

Retreat stars Cillian M & Thandie N as a traumatised couple who return to an isolated island to repair their relationship but their tentative peace is disrupted when a soldier, played by Jamie Bell, washes ashore claiming a flu virus is ravaging the world and they must all seal themselves in to survive. What follows is a tense, psychological thriller about trust with 3 solid performances and a bevy of plot twists. There's nothing particularly special here but it's surprisingly effective.

Listening Listings

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Aliens & Alienation

His Master's Voice is definitely one of Stanislaw Lem's tougher, deeply philosophical books but nonetheless it's still a nourishing read. A mathematician is asked to join an elite group of braniacs gathered in a secret desert enclave to decipher an impossibly complex alien signal. What follows is 200 pages of dense deliberation, discussion and theorising about the nature of first contact, imaginings about alien motivations, possible civilisations, our own perceptual filterings scientific and otherwise and the preening short sightedness of the military/industrial complex which governs and funds our scientific endeavours. There no hint of the lightness to be found in Lem's Tichy memoirs or Cyberiad but it's weighty, dialogue heavy pace means there's few other scifi books that can match Lem's virtuosity in delineating the problems surrounding other worldly communications, far surpassing his own similarly themed novels Solaris and Fiasco. Brilliant but not for Lem novices.

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman is a brilliant militaristic scifi novel about a far flung war with an enigmatic alien race that's fought by soldiers whose deep space tours mean their eventual return to earth is centuries in the future. Haldeman's vision, clearly designed to echo his own experiences in the Vietnam conflict, nonetheless portrays the idiocy of all wars and nicely handles the indoctrination of draftees, the cold military machine and the agonising waiting before the inevitable bursts of combat. The protagonist William Mandella is involved in the initial phase of the conflict but after a troubled period back on a debilitated, war worn Earth where life, language and society are vastly different he returns to the conflict an officer and leads a squadron in a number of crucial encounters. Haldeman keeps things rocking along and packs in plenty of ideas and though the characters are a little underwritten it's still a classic of 70's scifi.

Cinema Succulents

Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive is a stunning, dreamlike thriller about a movie stuntman with a nice sideline as a getaway driver. His modest, quiet life is overturned once he befriends his attractive neighbour & young son but after her husband is released from prison things get complicated and startlingly violent. Beautifully shot, with excellent performances and some brilliant retro styling this is probably my favourite film of the year so far. Refn's meditative Valhalla Rising showed the director could generate plenty of atmosphere on a tiny budget but this feature is a much more complete effort and should deservedly catapult him into the big league.

Given most prequels are usually a pile of crap I was pleasantly surprised by the competence of Rise of the Planet of Apes. James Franco stars as a scientist tampering with simian intelligence in an effort to cure Alzheimers but after his project is shut down he continues his research at home with an infant chimp and his Pa, John Lithgow as test subject. With plenty of nods to the Heston original this romps along as the chimp's intelligence grows and along with some chums from local sanctuary he incites sedition and it all barrels along to a climatic battle for freedom. Sure it's fairly ridiculous but with jaw dropping SFX and some tight pacing I was gripped - let's hope The Thing prequel is as faithful to the original material.

Undergound Overground

An intact Viking burial ship, complete with grave goods, has been discovered near Ardnamurchan. BBC

NASA software has enabled archaeologists to reveal the sophisticated Lunar calendar surrounding a Black Forest Royal Tomb. Past Horizons.

Seems someone was treating his dog to a juicy Mammoth bone 25,000 years ago, after a find in the Czech Republic. Reddit.

Melting Norwegian glaciers are exposing Roman era garments & textiles. Reddit.

Chinese Archaeologists are digging into the society that flourished along the Silk Road. Reddit.

Remote sensing appears to have found a submerged henge near the edge of the Loch of Stenness in Orkney. Past Horizons.

An Aztec cremation platform has been unearthed at the Templo Mayor r uins near Mexico City.

The mysteries surrounding Gobekli Tepe, one of the oldest temples ever found, are slowly being unraveled. Reddit.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Monday, 10 October 2011

The Horror of Shatner

Paunchy William Shatner plays a suave-ish veterinarian who's cool under pressure in the terrible/tremendous Kingdom of the Spiders. A small Texan town is besieged by tarantulas and while The Shat seduces the investigating academic hottie, bodies start piling up but no fear he soon, er, gets his finger out and saves a few lives. Despite or maybe because of the crappy script, acting and sfx I quite enjoyed this B movie chiller - some care was taken over the cinematography and the plot isn't terrible with a decent climatic battle but I'd only really recommend this if you enjoy The Shat's particular, um, acting "style" and have a penchant for crap films. Be warned though if you're a fan of arachnids as a surprising number of the cute little critters were clearly burned, stomped, chomped & run over in the making of this film.

Pre Trek Shatner appeared in the horror film Incubus, one of a handful of movies idiotically filmed in Esperanto. A bored Succubus decides The Shat will be her next victim when he rolls into town looking to cure his war wounds in the towns magical waters and finds herself falling for his charms. Nicely shot in black and white and generating a few wisps of atmos along the way this at least has some ambition but with The Shat's stilted, confused performance and a brief 75 min runtime this plays out more like a TV special than the Bergman-esque supernatural fable it aspires to be. An half decent effort so maybe give it a go but it lacks the fun and so-bad-it's good quality of Spiders.

If you've still not had you're fill of Bill Shatner's unique artistic endeavours here's his latest musical effort - a cover version of Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody. Enjoy or not.

Wishy Washy Wyndhams

I've potent memories of the TV version of Chocky, which aired when I was a kid, but found Wyndham's original novel a little underwhelming. A young boy acquires an imaginary friend who appears to be a little more advanced than the norm and his parents are at a loss to explain the new perspective this friend gives their child. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given it was written (I think) for young adults, it's Wyndham's most simplistic tale with a lightness to the narrative, little time given to the characterisation and a fairly anodyne plot. Just for Wyndham fans and 80's throwbacks like myself I'd say.

Trouble with Lichen, on the other hand, is a satirical tale about a revolutionary discovery which has the potential to retard human aging indefinitely and the media frenzy and. general mayhem that ensues on it's release. Wyndham's young female biochemist plays the long game in this simple tale but her character isn't given much development and feels little more than a cypher at times. Wyndham does however pack in plenty of swipes at the beauty industry, academic churlishness and the role of women in modern society but it's not enough to lift it above the plodding pace and spartan plot. I dunno it's still a decent read, just not in the league as Kraken, Chysalids or Triffids.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Jazz Wives, Juju & Vibes

Monster Mash & Muddled Hash

When a farmer yanks a megalith from one of his fields he unwittingly unleashes a pagan monster into the Irish countryside in the B-movie Rawhead Rex. Based on a Clive Barker short this low budget horror has a modest helping of arterial spray, dismemberment and rampaging but the acting is awful and the SFX is dire even for the mid eighties however on the plus side there's plenty of unintentional laughs and Rex romps around ripping the locals in half with a certain brio. Barker wasn't too chuffed with the adaptation but hey I doubt it would've worked as a serious chiller anyways and I found surprisingly entertaining in a so bad it's good sort of way.

The Sentinel sports a fairly amazing cast but reeks of tripe, cheese and bags and bags of batshit. A highly strung, attractive model moves into an apartment block with a peculiar set of neighbours including a cat mad loner, predatory lesbians, dotty old ladies and a blind priest who sits looking out the window all day, strange given the landlady claims the latter is the only other tenant. With a cast that includes Meredith, Walken, Balsam, Gardner, Wallach, Carradine and Sarandon this could have been decent but I'll happily lay the blame at chubster-director Michael Winner's feet, edited badly, poorly scripted, full of plot holes and sadly neither scary or funny enough to make it worth watching. Rare for a reason.

People of the Book

Iris Murdoch's The Bell examines the foibles and frustrations of the inhabitants of a lay religious community that's still in it's infancy but hopes to make a splash with the presentation of a new bell to the nearby Nunnery. There's a swath of unusual, nicely drawn characters but the novel focuses in the main on two very different characters: Dora, an immature young bride who after a brief separation from her possessive academic husband reconciles with him but finds the community's pious atmosphere stultifying and restrictive and Michael, the group's "leader" who struggles with the interpersonal relationships and conflicts involved in the communal effort as well as his own repressed homosexuality. Murdoch's impeccable writing slowly, inevitably, marches these nuanced characters towards a bittersweet end that's maybe a little telegraphed, a little too predictable. It's a good read but it's dated a fair bit - written in 1958, the portrayal and development of Michael seems clumsy and a little simplistic by today's standards.

Michel Faber's The Fire Gospel is one of Canongate's somewhat patchy series The Myths and Faber chooses to use, vaguely, the tale of Prometheus to satirize the world of publishing and biblical scholarship. A consulting academic finds a lost, heretical Gospel while visiting a Iraqi museum and his subsequent translation propels him into wealth, celebrity and jeopardy as the impact of this new retelling of Christ's life reverberates around the world. I dunno, Faber, like Murdoch, is an exceptional writer, with a clear, clean prose but this novella was a quite disappointing; the main character is crudely drawn and mostly unlikeable, there's a tenuous similarity to the myth it's supposed to reflect and the interspersion of Malchus' revelatory testimony is a little underwhelming. Though it has it's moments and is occasionally quite funny this feels unfinished and seriously underdeveloped - a shame and quite surprising given the complexity and careful plotting of Under The Skin and Crimson Petal.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Shadow Lives

Ganja & Hess is an arty vampire-ish thriller directed and starring Bill Gunn. Presumably the producers had expected something along the lines of Blacula but instead they got a moody, dreamlike fable about an affluent anthropology Professor stabbed by his assistant with an ancient dagger who awakes with thirst for blood and is seemingly immortal. Though it struggles with it's low budget and patchy improvised script this is an ambitious, intelligent horror about power, money and social roles. I could grumble on about the sound design, some sequences are barely tolerable, but they're offset by the choice gospel music peppered throughout. There's plenty of chin stroking analyses online and I could argue against the most prevalent one but I'd rather not waste your time. Just watch it if you can and enjoy a stunning, atmospheric feature that's a sorely neglected keystone in black film history.
Guillermo Del Toro produced and scripted the remake of Don't Be Afraid of the Dark which fleshes out the spartan 1973 TV movie into something more contemporary with predictably mixed results. While renovating an old house with a new Mrs and his kid, Guy Pearce uncovers a secret basement with a curious locked grate that, unbeknownst to him, holds some child hungry critters at bay. The acting is alright I suppose, there's a few mild scares along the way and the little devils are nicely designed but it's far too brightly shot for a film about things lurking in the dark and never really conjures even the modest gloom of the original. Meh.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

The Great Antidote

This isn't some scifi critter from a pulpy novel but an actual insect, the Brazillian Treehopper. DarkRoasted.

Is Alzheimer's transmissible? ScienceDaily.

Unravelling the myth of the male mid-life crisis. ScientificAmerican

Amazing 3D printer that constructs glass objects using only sand and the power of the Sun. Popsci.

The discovery of a quasicrystalline structure has won an Israeli scientist the Nobel prize for Chemistry.

We're a step closer to detecting gravitational waves apparently. Impactlab.

The Bolshoi simulation of dark matter in our universe took one of the world's largest supercomputer 6 million CPU hours to create. APOD.

Photographic evidence of the triple rainbows. ScienceDaily.

The molecular interaction between air and water is finally being explained. ScienceDaily.

Nikon's annual Small World contest coughs up some amazing snaps, my favourite but not the winner, below, is of a blade of grass.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Speaker Business

Heritage Homicides

Ira Lewin's taut novel A Kiss Before Dying got a technicolour adaptation in '56 and in the main follows the plot quite closely - man gets girl preggers, shoves her off a rooftop and moves onto find another rich girl to get his teeth into. The acting is fine and it's beautifully shot but the lurid colouring & ill judged soundtrack soften the tension all too often, combine that with the excision of the final murder and the books brutal denouement and it's fails to even generate a fraction of the intensity or darkness of Lewin's novel. Maybe it was a conscious effort to make proceedings a little more palatable to the audience of the day? dunno, anyways its still a good watch and no doubt better than the 1991 version.

Despite turning up almost half way through Green for Danger Alistair Sim shines brightly in this WW2 whodunit. A couple of murders in a small country hospital harried by German bombs prompt the appearance of Sim's sarcastic detective who ambles into town intent on poking at the pre existing tensions of the small group of suspects in an effort to uncover the truth. It's a thoroughly enjoyable, beautifully constructed, scripted and shot and featuring some excellent performances especially by Sim who perforates the seriousness of proceedings with his whimsical, light hearted portrayal of the no nonsense investigator.