The Wicker Man: a satire on religious bigotry and fanaticism, in whichever religion these are found

Robin Hardy “The Wicker Man” (1973)

In spite of a small budget and the set-backs it suffered during filming and the post-production process, this short movie quickly achieved cult status and has become a much-loved British classic in satirising religious fanaticism and control. Police sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward), a devout Christian, comes to the Scottish West Highland island of Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. He is astonished to find vegetation and fruits not native to the island growing in apparent abundance. He is even more horrified to discover that the islanders practise nature-based rituals and customs with clear sexual undertones that offend his Christian religious sensibilities. In his investigation of the girl’s disappearance, Howie comes to learn more about the island’s religious rituals and in particular its May Day ceremony, which the islanders are about to celebrate very soon. He also learns something of the island’s history from Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) who tells him that the adoption of pagan religious elements and rituals was a brainwave of his Victorian-era ancestor to motivate the local people to work at growing food in the island’s volcanic soils under temperate year-round weather influenced by the Gulf Stream.

Howie soon becomes convinced that the girl is not dead and that the islanders have hidden her and plan to sacrifice her during May Day celebrations. He infiltrates the May Day parade dressed as a foolish clown figure and gives himself away to the islanders when he spies the girl on a hillside apparently dressed up as a sacrificial lamb and tries to save her. Too late he realises that the girl was part of an entrapment scheme, the result of which seals his own fate …

As a religious bigot, unable to appreciate the folkways of what turns out to be a very different culture in spite of the islanders wearing Western dress and leading a way of life not very different from other rural Scottish villages of their time, Howie should have been a very unlikable man who deserves what’s coming to him. Woodward’s excellent performance as the police officer grappling with his beliefs, his conscience and his uncertainty, however manages to elicit some audience sympathy for his fate. Increasingly confused by the islanders’ antics, the tricks they play on him (including sabotaging his seaplane) and their indifference to his orders and pleas, Howie resorts to spouting religious dogma in such a way that one wonders if his own faith is wavering and his courage is failing him. In this, for all his faults Howie becomes as much a victim of his own faith as he will be of other people’s beliefs. No less inflexible is Lord Summerisle, whose own fanaticism soon becomes apparent beneath the urbane exterior. Lee delivers a performance that ranges from friendly warmth and sophistication to cold, grim religious zeal in leading a group of people who initially seem New Age hippie-ish in their ideas and beliefs but turn out to be rigidly superstitious and lacking in genuine spirituality and compassion.

The supporting cast ranges from good to mediocre; Britt Ekland as the innkeeper’s comely daughter should never have been advised to give up her day job, whatever it was in the early 1970s. The cinematography captures perfectly the strange atmosphere surrounding the lush vegetation on farmland, the wild green plains and the mighty waves lashing the rocky coastlines. The pacing can be a bit slow for a police action thriller and perhaps some of the folk songs featured in the film could have been pruned back or even left out once viewers accept the pagan character of Summerisle. The film’s horror, at once astounding and horrifying, is revealed close to its end; but plenty of dread and unsettling strangeness was cultivated throughout the film, leading up to its unforgettable climax.

Significantly Howie warns Lord Summerisle that if the island’s crops fail again as they did the previous year – because they really are not suited to the island’s physical environment – then the Lord himself may be subjected to the same fate as Howie. Here is a lesson in having humility and accepting that your own religious system has its limitations and cannot be applied to all possible situations.

There are many ambiguities in the film due to its tight budget and corresponding tight production schedule. The pacing can be a bit slow, at least until the film’s climax. Apart from these details, the film does well in slowly revealing the full Gothic horror behind what would have been a normal police procedural drama.

Equus: a psychodrama of outstanding performances and troubling philosophical questions about individuality and creativity

Sidney Lumet, “Equus” (1977)

He never won an individual Academy Award for Best Movie or Best Director but surely Sidney Lumet is one of the greatest film directors – in particular of films focusing on anti-hero characters battling with obsessions or guilt, or finding themselves at odds with social expectations and the pressure to conform, with the result that they end up cut off from their true aspirations and become hollow robots – ever to grace this undeserving planet. Unafraid to tackle issues of social justice, and using a classic realistic style of telling his story, Lumet attracted fine actors and drew strong, complex performances from them. His film adaptation of Peter Schaffer’s play “Equus”, for which Schaffer himself modified his play, is an excellent example of Lumet’s oeuvre: an excellent cast featuring Richard Burton, Peter Firth and Joan Plowright among others; themes of religious obsession and of a man wrestling with his conscience over remolding young mentally disturbed and troubled people into robots like himself acceptable to society; and a straightforward realist approach that forces audiences to confront the issues raised by the original play about psychoanalysis and its uses.

Child psychiatrist / psychoanalyst Martin Dysart (Burton) has reached a crisis of burnout, disillusionment and uncertainty after a long career treating adolescent and young adult patients with mental health issues and disturbances. A new patient, Alan Strang (Firth), is referred to him, Strang having entered the mental health facility where Dysart works after committing a bizarre crime. Initially Alan resists Dysart’s probing questioning but after the two agree on a bartering system where Dysart must respond to a question from Alan when Alan answers his question, Alan begins to open up about his family background: his mother Dora (Plowright), a fanatical fundamentalist Christian believer, and his father (Colin Blakely), a determined atheist, have improbably combined to impose a highly restrictive and repressive family life, complete with a rigid religious tradition heavy on ritual, upon their only son. Imagination, fun and laughter, and genuine love, freely and unconditionally given, are absent from the boy’s life and in their place are religious obsession bordering on the fanatical and a fear of sexuality combined with hypocrisy and furtive voyeurism on the father’s part.

A childhood incident directs Alan’s focus of worship of the divine and channels the creative and sexual urges he is forced by his parents to suppress into idealising horses. A young woman Jill (Jenny Agutter) helps him get a job as a stable-hand caring for six horses but the constant physical contact with the animals brings out Alan’s obsessions which he acts upon. Jill is attracted to Alan and attempts to have sexual intercourse with him but Alan’s failure brings intense anguish which results in extreme violence to his beloved animals.

Alan’s opening up unexpectedly forces Dysart to admit to his own sterile personal life and confront the paradox in his own life, in which to deal with young people’s mental health issues and return them to normal (dysfunctional) society he must destroy their natural creative urge and zest for living. After hearing Alan’s admission of his crime, Dysart once again faces what he most dreads doing: to “heal” Alan and return him to his dysfunctional family, he must rob the boy of that which gives him his individuality, creative being and reason for living and turn the boy into an emotionally hollow robot … just like himself.

Both Burton and Firth give impassioned and intense performances as the doctor who envies Alan for his vitality and the troubled boy himself, beset by obsessions he barely understands. Through these two actors and their dialogue, the issues of how an individual must suppress his/her creative being, to the point of suffocating it altogether, in order to fit into and function within a rigid, repressive society. Plowright and Blakely acquit themselves well as the parents who confuse their son and set him on the path of idealising and worshipping the Dionysian (chaotic) elements within and without him. Agutter has very little to do but makes her character real enough.

While Lumet is a straight-out realist director, and a number of scenes in the film may be over-dramatised and horrific for most audiences, his direction allows the narrative to flow fairly easily and Burton’s monologues, in which he envies Alan as the personification of that which is dead within him and agonises over the treatment that he must give to Alan that will kill the boy inwardly and turn him into an “adult”, sit easily with the action in the film. The dream-like scenes in which Alan rides naked on his favourite horse can be confrontational and intense but they are done fairly tastefully; less so the scenes in which Alan mutilates the horses in his care, which (to me) show far too much and don’t seem very realistic.

The film raises important questions about human freedom and individuality, and how the individual yearning for freedom, creative being and fulfilling one’s potential can be accommodated in a society that prizes conformity and fears the passion and intensity required to achieve full freedom and creativity. Religious obsession, and how it combines with sexual suppression and directs it into channels that fling both religiosity and sexuality into people’s faces in the most confronting ways – Plowright as the fanatical mother fails to make the connection between the way she has brought up her son and his obsession with horses – is dealt with less successfully and Alan’s self-flagellation may come across to audiences as rather bizarre and theatrical, rather than as something to be pitied. While perhaps Lumet’s realist approach does not suit “Equus” very well – it originated as a stylised play after all – it does a great job delineating its psychological themes and portraying one of the most important philosophical questions about how far individuality and freedom can thrive in society.

Innocent Prey: lightweight slasher film with an improbable soap opera plot and hammy acting

Colin Eggleston, “Innocent Prey” (1983)

Maybe the problem is her southern Texan drawl or the overly bouffant permed hair but Cathy (P J Soles) does seem to attract weird men who want to kill her rather than get down on bended knee, put a ring on her finger and pledge to protect her. Well, one fellow, Joe (Kit Taylor) actually did go through that routine but only to get his hands on the insurance money paid to Cathy after her parents died in an accident. Accosted by two businessmen who warn him that they know of his fraudulent activity and are on his trail, Joe goes out after work, picks up a prostitute (Deborah Voorhees) and takes her to a motel where they have sex. Joe then proceeds to kill her in the bathroom. Unbeknownst to Joe though, wife Cathy has seen his car (after dropping her Australian friend Gwen off at the airport) at the motel and spies on him through – as it turns out – the bathroom window while he was killing the prostitute. Cathy calls the police and they come to the couple’s house to set a trap for Joe – but not before he threatens to kill Cathy herself.

The police bundle Joe off into prison but in the great tradition of Australian horror exploitation flicks, Joe promptly escapes and goes back home to finish off Cathy. Again, the police arrest Joe (but not before three of their finest meet their maker) and put him into an asylum. On the advice of a fatherly senior police officer (Martin Balsam), Cathy escapes to Australia to stay with friend Gwen in rented digs near Sydney Harbour. She comes under the attention of young millionaire landlord Phillip (John Warnock) who is a social misfit and spends all his time in his apartment voyeuristically watching his tenants on TV through security cameras hidden throughout his family mansion. Phillip observes Cathy befriending a divorced man, Rick (Grigor Taylor), and his estimation of Cathy as initially a pure and wronged woman quickly falls to that of a slut who must be punished for her sins – just as he punished his mother for being a loose woman by sending her to the grave.

On top of this malarkey, which owes more than just a debt to Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” in characters, plotting, the prominence of the bathroom and the shower, and a theme of escape to a new life (only to have one’s old life intrude and force one to face consequences), Joe escapes the asylum, covers his tracks and flies to Australia to … well, finish an uncompleted job.

While the action is based in Dallas, “Innocent Prey” is creepy and seriously gory enough, with real tension in a modern 1970s house made sinister by good use of lighting and shadows; but once the action flies out to Phillip’s mansion in Sydney, the plot becomes more hokey and improbable with most murders occurring off-screen. Viewers are left to guess as to how Phillip takes care of Gwen (Susan Stenmark) and Joe. Several scenes (notably the climactic one where Phillip threatens Cathy) could have been lifted right out of “Psycho” – after all, Balsam himself was lifted out of that film (he played the detective Arbuckle) and into this Psycho-wannabe number. The action seems to slow down as well. At least Phillip’s mansion is a very spacious and attractive house, full of light and featuring doors with stained glass patterns.

At least Eggleston furnishes his male characters with motives for wanting or wanting to kill Cathy – even Rick may be a closet psycho-killer in the making – but viewers never find out why Cathy attracts such men: Soles can’t seem to make Cathy a character for viewers to sympathise with though she does try hard. Part of the problem is the film’s dialogue which makes Cathy appear stupid, even callous; surely she should know that the police protecting her from Joe would never play jokes on her? – and her conversations with Rick, which Phillip listens in on, can easily be construed as nasty towards people who are different from others because of some disability. Unfortunately for Soles, Kit Taylor and John Warnock easily steal the film as the respective unhinged psycho-killers: once killing women gets into his head, Joe just can’t seem to stop; and Phillip (in a performance of virtuoso hammy acting by Warnock) smoothly transforms from gauche social misfit into a velvet-tongued psychopath capable of electrifying murder.

With a lead female character who is very much helpless throughout and completely reliant on men who turn out to be dangerous, often in outrageously silly ways, in an improbable story-line straight out of soap opera universe with too many unbelievable twists and turns, “Innocent Prey” remains firmly in lightweight slasher genre territory. The film refers rather too much to character stereotypes and plot tropes from “Psycho” to stand on its own. After the tight scenes set in Dallas, the film becomes more distracted and loses momentum in parts. After the last scene, which suggests that poor old Cathy is locked into a vicious cosmic cycle, viewers really don’t care what happens next to Cathy or who she latches onto next.

Kadaicha: a forgettable teen horror flick from the late 1980s

James Bogle, “Kadaicha” (1988)

From the early 1970s to the late 1980s, thanks to increased Federal government investment in the Australian film industry, there was truly a Golden Age of Australian Film at both the high-brow art-house level and the low-brow, low-budget level of genre exploitation films. While many of the latter category of films have now been forgotten, a few have acquired cult glory and some have even been elevated to national icon status. One Ozploitation film not likely ever to attain such an elevation is the silly teen horror flick “Kadaicha”. The film does have an interesting theme which saves it from complete wastepaper basket oblivion.

Set in Sydney, the film revolves around a group of high school students (all of whom look at least 10 years older than they should be as secondary school students) who discover that they have similar nightmarish dreams in which each and every one of them goes into a cave behind a stormwater drain on the local beach and sees a skeleton of a long-dead Aboriginal shaman come alive and dance around the fire. The shaman turns to face the youngster and hands him or her a stone and the kid wakes up screaming in fright. A mysterious stone, looking exactly like the stone in the dream, is usually found on the pillow beside the teen. Later in the day, the teenager dies a violent and bloody death.

Two teenage girls and a library worker at the school die after having the same dream. The girls’ friend Gayle (Zoe Carides) and her boyfriend do what research they can on this phenomenon and discover that all victims live in the same street as she does. Further digging for information reveals that the  street and the residential development around it lie on top of a sacred Aboriginal burial ground. It was here that, during the colonial period, a group of teenage Aboriginal youngsters was massacred by white people. Now a mystery force that can only be understood by local Aboriginal people who remember their religion is taking its revenge on white teenagers living in the street. Gayle confronts her father (a property developer) for going ahead with building the residential development when it had been opposed by Aboriginal and other protesters and for walling up the cave with the skeleton of a kadaicha man (the shamat who appears in the kids’ dreams). Needless to say, one night Gayle has the same dream that her friends had and wakes up in terror to find a kadaicha stone on her pillow. She realises she has very little time left as she and her boyfriend try to find the Aboriginal elder living in the neighbourhood who knows the old stories and beliefs, and who may be able to help save her life.

At the least the film has a message about the consequences of greed and self-interest, and how innocent lives can be lost as a result. Lack of respect for Aboriginal lore and sacred territory, the history of past conflicts between white colonialists and Aboriginal people, and the generation gap between parents and their teenage children buoy up a forgettable film that lacks suspense and substitutes cheap laughs in the place of growing horror. The scene in which the library worker is killed by a funnel web spider leaping into his eye is more hilarious than frightening. If the acting overall is unconvincing, the direction by Bogle and the cinematography look very amateurish. The result is a rather flat film that does very little to explore and investigate Aboriginal culture and beliefs about the dead or the place of the kadaicha man and his stones in their Dreaming, and what value indigenous stories might still have for Western society and culture in Australia.

The music is creepy in parts, with didgeridoo-playing a significant element within the music, though it could have been better used during moments of high tension when the monsters preying on the teenagers would have struck. Some plot strands (such as a young teenage boy aspiring to become a rock musician) remain undeveloped. The plot overall barely sustains a full-length film of some 75 minutes plus.

Over Your Dead Body: an extreme, almost cartoon-ish horror ghost film homage where life imitates art

Takashi Miike, “Over Your Dead  Body” (2014)

From the incredibly prolific director Takashi Miike, who never met a film genre he couldn’t make an insanely extreme film for (and with the body count to prove its perversity), comes this homage of sorts to the famous Japanese ghost story “Yotsuya Kaidan”, horror films featuring vengeful or hateful female ghosts generally and the theatre. Toss in a love triangle involving three actors appearing in a drama production and we have a recipe for an almost Shakespearean work in which vengeance, the quest for happiness in a sterile world and life that imitates art revolve around each other as surely as the circular stage set on which the theatre troupe presents its interpretation of “Yotsuya Kaidan” rotates to emphasise the dark, disturbing atmosphere and the intensity of the emotions and actions of the characters in the play.

Star Miyuki Goto (Ko Shibasaki) is cast as the tragic heroine Oiwa in a new production of “Yotsuya Kaidan” and schemes to get her lover Kosuke (Ebizo Ichikawa XI) cast as Iemon, the unfaithful ronin husband of Oiwa. Other actors in the cast soon lust after Miyuki and Iemon, who themselves are having difficulties in their relationship, both of them emotionally remote from one another in spite of their love-making. The actors’ obsessions with one another and the love affairs that develop and which are conducted secretly lead to a situation in which the murder and mayhem rehearsed continuously on the stage spill over into the cast’s lives offstage.

The film begins ordinarily enough and the first half-hour is a character study in which we come to see how distant Miyuki and Iemon are, and how their emotional remoteness is reflected in the elegantly and minimally furnished modern apartment where Miyuki lives. Much attention is given over to the elaborate stage set-ups, the care with which the cast of actors act out their roles in the play, the costumes and hair fashions of mediaeval Japan, and their rather stylised actions. Curiously the director of the play is a very minor character indeed and one gets no sense of when rehearsals for the play started, when they will finish and when the play itself will have its opening night. Once there is a hint that a doll used as a prop is possessed by a demon, the pace quickens, the action becomes brisk and the film detours from delineating ordinary everyday scenes (albeit with some eccentricities on the part of Miyuki: she boils several saucepans of pasta all at once in one scene, for example) into a wacky direction in which nightmare dreams that afflict people spill out into their waking lives, a woman mutilates herself to find her unborn child and actors start disappearing from the production as they fall victim to the ghosts of the play.

The extreme and intense violence contrasts strongly with the minimal style of various background sets, with the suggestion that beneath the po-faced facades that people present to the outside world lurks roiling emotions that they have difficulty accepting and which they cannot name, yet which eventually must have their outlet. Shibasaki, Ichikawa and the rest of the film’s cast perform their roles capably as people more or less divorced from their emotions and feelings which erupt through the medium of the ghost play and play havoc with their lives, to say nothing of the play itself as the most significant cast member disappears. Audiences may breathe a huge sigh of relief when Kosuke gets his just desserts both in the play and outside the play but horror fans might feel a little cheated at what “horror” has actually emerged and that Kosuke’s executioner literally gets away with murder.

The film closes off in its own hermetic world and seems much smaller than it ought to have been.

 

Kuroneko: an ordinary ghost horror story saved by expressionist cinematography and social commentary

Kaneto Shindo, “Kuroneko” (1968)

A companion piece to his earlier classic “Onibaba”, Shindo’s “Kuroneko” explores vengeance and human desires for love in the setting of a typically Japanese ghost horror story. The film also expresses an anti-war theme by concentrating on the disruptions and changes war brings to poor people and to poor women in particular. Two farm women, Yone (Nobuko Otawa, who also appeared in “Onibaba”) and her daughter-in-law Oshige (Kiwako Taichi), are attacked in their home by a group of rough samurai led by Raiko Minamoto (Kei Sato) who rape and murder them, and who try to cover up their crime by burning down the farm-house with the dead women inside. The women’s spirits then inhabit the bodies of black cats and acquire the ability to change into aristocratic women in order to attack travelling samurai and drain them of their blood in their ghost mansion set up in the bamboo grove where their farmhouse used to be.

Oshige’s husband Hachi (Kichiemon Nakamura) returns from northern Japan with the head of an enemy general which he presents to his local governor who turns out to be Raiko Minamoto. Believing Hachi’s lie that he fought the general under the name Gintoki, Minamoto makes him samurai and then orders him to find and destroy the ghosts at Rajo Gate that are preying on samurai. Oshige finds the ghosts and realises they are the ghosts of his dead mother and wife. Oshige is torn between the pact she and Yone have made with underworld demons to destroy samurai and her love and desire for Hachi / Gintoki. Her choice condemns her but saves Hachi / Gintoki’s life. Forced by the governor on pain of death to get rid of Yone, Hachi / Gintoki tries to manoeuvre his way out of his dilemma of having to kill his mother’s ghost but finds himself outwitted.

The story is fairly and straightforward and trots along at a steady pace until its last few scenes when it speeds up and becomes unhinged when Hachi / Gintoki desperately fights his mother’s ghost. It is repetitive, even ritualistically so, for much of its running time and Western audiences may find its repetitive nature tedious. What elevates this ghost story into an eerie investigation of the supernatural woven through with social commentary is artful cinematography in which the natural world, populated by bamboo forests, and a minimalist style, from the furnishings to the dialogue and the costumes, are dominant. White mists swirl through the sparsely furnished rural mansion where the ghost women live. The use of light and darkness to create the world of the ghosts as opposed to the world of humans, and to highlight the desire Oshige and Hachi / Gintoki feel for each other is notable.

The transformation of two human farm women into ghostly aristocrats through a brutal incident clearly establishes Shindo as a director concerned for the well-being of the underclasses; the transformation also suggests that ordinary people who are close to nature and who create are the pawns and playthings of the nobility and warrior classes who, removed from the natural world, can only exploit and destroy what others create. While Hachi the farm-boy is raised to the level of samurai by killing someone, his lack of preparedness for the role he is required to play as samurai – that is, to kill – becomes his undoing. Governor Minamoto who elevates Hachi to the level of samuari and thus sends the young man on his way to karma remains unaffected by the events as they unfold.

The soundtrack is significant in its own right as a character – the film’s opening scenes are done entirely without dialogue and all we hear are the sounds of people drinking and eating, and later the sounds of violence, followed by the sounds of forest insects – and features a range of music from experimental folk using taiko drums to more conventional Western popular styles.

For all the tension created by the revenge plot and the dilemmas and conflicts faced by the main characters as they must navigate their changed status, whether socially in the world of humans or morally among the demons, the film seems quite ordinary compared to “Onibaba”. The acting is not nearly so good and the plot and sub-plots seem disjointed and do not flow well. Compared to other ghost story horror films being put out by other Japanese directors – the brilliant “Kwaidan” comes to mind – “Kuroneko” is redeemed mainly by its expressionist cinematography and must be regarded as a minor classic.

Real-life horror movie treatment of patients in “Brainwashed: The Secret CIA Experiments in Canada” which the Canadian government refuses to acknowledge and apologise for

Harvey Cashore, “Brainwashed: The Secret CIA Experiments in Canada” (The Fifth Estate, December 2017)

As The Fifth Estate’s website post on this documentary says, the scenario might be straight out of a Hollywood B-grade horror movie plot: patients in a psychiatric hospital subjected to electro-shock treatment, rounds of drug treatment including hallucinatory drugs like LSD to induce comas lasting weeks, even months on end, hypnotic suggestion and sensory deprivation, all supposedly to cure them of mental conditions like anxiety, depression and paranoia. Yet these patients end up behaving like infants and their memories are almost destroyed. Incredibly this scene was the reality for hundreds of Canadians being treated by medical personnel under the supervision of Dr Donald Ewen Cameron at the Allen Memorial Institute in the 1950s and 60s as part of the notorious MK ULTRA project directed by the CIA and supported by the Canadian government. These experiments, aimed at breaking down people’s negative mental structures and patterns causing their problems, were ultimately recognised as failures and the program at the institute was shut down in 1965, yet the demands by patients and their families for compensation from Ottawa went ignored or were obfuscated for years. The Canadian government has never apologised for supporting and funding Dr Cameron’s experiments which caused such suffering and injury to patients and which affected their families as well, and continues to deny responsibility for its part in the experiments despite grudgingly paying compensation to some (but not all) patients who brought law suits against it.

Using a mix of archived materials, dramatisations and interviews with former patients of Dr Cameron, narrator and writer Bob McKeown builds a compelling story of how the experiments began as a response to the return of US and Canadian soldiers from the Korean War who had been held as POWs by the North Korean government and who supported its Communist ideology. Determining without apparent evidence that the North Koreans, Russians and Chinese were using mind-altering methods on prisoners, the CIA decided to research the use of drugs that could counter such brain-washing and influence captives from Communist nations to support capitalist ideology. At the same time, at the Allens Memorial Institute in McGill University in Montreal, Dr Cameron was investigating ways of treating and curing schizophrenia by erasing memories and deprogramming then reprogramming the brain and psyche. The CIA recruited Cameron into its MK ULTRA and related projects and paid him through a front organisation called the Society for the Investigation of Human Ecology. From there the documentary follows the paths of two former patients and what they suffered, and it details the profound effects of Cameron’s experiments on these patients and their families, and on other families.

Rather than admit its role in financing and encouraging the brain-washing experiments, Ottawa persecutes the victims of the experiments by denying compensation, subjecting former patients to eligibility requirements for compensation, placing gag orders on people and forcing people to pursue justice through the legal system.

Although the two female patients interviewed by McKeown were fortunate indeed to survive their treatments, the documentary makes no mention of those not so lucky and who continue to suffer long-term ill health (or have even died) as a result of the experiments. The documentary’s narrow focus on selected Canadian victims means that the wider ramifications of the experiments, especially for the CIA renditioning programs in the Middle East and western Asia which often involved torture and the use of mind-altering drugs on prisoners, must go ignored.

The Quatermass Xperiment: an outdated science fiction / horror film that still has the power to terrify

Val Guest, “The Quatermass Xperiment” (1955)

Filmed well over 60 years ago (at this time of writing), this film of alien-human possession remains a timeless inspiration in its not unsympathetic portrayal of a helpless astronaut overcome  by an extraterrestrial infection that turns him into a monster. While we modern Western audiences might laugh at the crude special effects and the naif plot, “The Quatermass Xperiment” was something of a revolution in fusing together genuine Gothic horror and science fiction, and demonstrated that the film-going public had an appetite for science horror films with often morbid themes and plots. Apart from its more dated and hokey sections, the film rockets along at a brisk pace with a tight plot and a brusque set of scientist and police characters working against time to determine the nature of the danger they have to tackle and how to get rid of it.

Professor Quatermass (Brian Donlevy), an irascible and obsessively driven rocket scientist, is conducting an experiment that involved sending three men into outer space some months ago. The rocket crashes back on Earth and Quatermass and his team discover that two of the crew have either died or disappeared, and the third man, Victor Caroon (Richard Wordsworth), is seriously ill. Caroon is whisked into the care of Quatermass’s colleague Dr Gordon Briscoe (David King-Wood) who is puzzled by the various changes in Caroon’s biochemistry from the blood samples he takes. Caroon’s wife Judith (Margia Dean) decides to sneak her husband out of Briscoe’s office and sets off a chain of horrifying incidents culminating in the wipe-out of all animals in a city zoo overnight. Reports of strange sightings in inner London convince Quatermass and the police, led by Inspector Lomax (Jack Warner), that Caroon is rapidly changing into a more monstrous life-form.

The science is very dodgy indeed – if the film were to be remade, Caroon would be subjected to very strict quarantine procedures undertaken by the military, and enormous secrecy would surround the quarantine, such that it would be done either in an underground laboratory or a facility located on a remote island – and the monster’s nature is deliberately so protean, taking on characteristics of all its victims as it changes and matures, that its transformation (while highly inspirational for later films like John Carpenter’s notorious 1982 flick “The Thing”) stretches plausibility. A monster that feeds on familiar Earth life-forms must not be all that alien after all and the creature conceivably could have hitch-hiked a ride on Caroon’s rocket from Earth before being blasted by bursts of radiation that allowed it to enter the rocket and destroy the crew. The film shows very little of the monster until the very end, using suggestion and artful cinematography, such as portraying night-time scenes from the monster’s point of view, to suggest a horror far beyond what one’s own nightmares can conjure.

While most of the acting, including Donlevy’s performance as Professor Quatermass, is workman-like, Richard Wordsworth’s performance as the doomed Caroon, wracked with physical and mental pain at the transformation he surely knows he is undergoing, is heart-wrenching and elicits much sympathy from this viewer. London in the 1950s – a poor city, post-industrial in parts, with a very socially conservative culture not much changed from Victorian times – is a significant character in its own right in giving the monster plenty of hiding places to fool Quatermass and the police while it grows and changes form. The showdown between Quatermass and the monster at Westminster Abbey is less spectacular than it should be in such a venue, though perhaps having the monster shimmy up Big Ben to bat off RAF planes was considered too derivative of Hollywood sci-fi stereotypes.

Despite having saved planet Earth from a plague of similar gargantuan slime-mould critters, and presumably having been presented with the bill to clean up the snail trail slime left around London, Quatermass vows to continue with his experiments and sends a second rocket into outer space. This attitude may reflects the view, widespread around the world during the 1950s, of scientists as being rather remote from the concerns of the world and obsessed with pursuing their studies and experiments without thought for the consequences of their work. Quatermass’s determination can also be interpreted as defiance in the face of the fear and possible threat of unknown alien forces; after all, the only way one can deal with such forces is to confront them directly. Apart from this, Donlevy’s Quatermass seems a hard-bitten man, more gangster than scientist, and this unsympathetic portrayal contrasts well with Wordsworth’s Caroon who inspires pity.

The authorities’ reaction to news that a fast-growing and changing monster is on the rampage in the British capital can be quite chilling, with London put into lockdown, all electricity cut off in its metropolitan area and information about the monster deliberately withheld from the public. Britain even then was much closer to becoming a police state than many people supposed.

The film offers plenty of tension and terror in the way it builds up to the confrontation between scientist and giant slime-mould with a plot that plays out like a documentary rather than drama. While it surely needs a remake with more credible science, I fear something of the terror and paranoia of the original film will be lost.

 

The Andromeda Strain: a lesson in how situations and the clash of characters generate drama and tension

Robert Wise, “The Andromeda Strain” (1971)

Although made over 45 years ago, this science fiction film about a team of scientists battling to identify and contain an extraterrestrial microscopic life-form before it brings death and destruction across Earth can still teach modern movie-makers a lesson or two (or even more) about how to draw out drama, tension and pace from situations and the clash of characters and personalities without resorting to contrived or stereotyped plots, sub-plots, or character types. There are no preachy messages or big-name actors playing themselves in roles tailored to their limitations. While there’s a huge emphasis on special effects and modern technology, these aspects are appropriate and subordinate to the narrative. The minimalist style of the film throws viewer attention onto the plot and its cast of characters. The plot may be mundane but the care given to plot details and how a group of people with particular personality quirks and weaknesses work together in a situation they cannot control and which quickly becomes urgent and life-threatening flesh out the thin plot and manage to make it absorbing. The film’s ultimate message – that humans have less control over nature and the Earth’s systems than they realise – is very humbling indeed.

A satellite crashes to Earth near a small town in Arizona and the town inhabitants promptly drop dead from a mysterious disease that turns their blood into powder. Only a drunken old man and a bawling baby survive the infection. The two are brought to a secret underground laboratory called Wildfire where a team of four scientists drawn from different scientific and medical disciplines study them and the remains of the satellite to learn more about the xeno-organism. The scientists themselves have undergone an elaborate series of decontamination procedures through four floor levels to reach the fifth and lowest level where the actual laboratory is located. This level also contains an automatic nuclear-powered self-destruction mechanism to stop all infectious organisms from escaping. One of the four scientists, Dr Mark Hall (James Olson), is given the key to turn off this mechanism.

The scientists identify the xeno-organism, which they dub the Andromeda strain, and discover its unique properties that enable it to grow and mutate rapidly. The xeno-organism quickly changes into a form that eats through the laboratory’s plastic and rubber seals, setting off the facility’s self-destruction mechanism. Dr Hall has only minutes to turn off the mechanism when the scientists realise that the organism can absorb the energy of a nuclear explosion and turn into a super-colony that might wipe out all life on Earth.

Some of the hard science and medicine can be implausible and if the original novel were to be written now rather than nearly 50 years ago, its writer Michael Crichton (of “Jurassic Park” fame) would incorporate current scientific and medical advances to make the novel more realistic: for example, the baby and the old man’s survival would now be attributed to their having vulnerable or weakened immune systems that did not over-react to the organism. This reasoning would be consistent with the hidden message in the film which is that the elaborate procedures that safeguard the people working in Wildfire from virulent microorganisms turn out to be their potential doom when an alien organism escapes their control. Wherever possible, computer and other technologies in the film are used to their utmost potentials: computers are not just used to crunch out data and statistics, they are also incorporated in scientific analysis and to describe (in text and animations) the nature of the alien organism under study.

The cast of actors is credible in the level of restraint they exercise and in the way they flesh out their characters. All the scientists are ordinary people with easily bruised egos, prejudices and weaknesses which they try to hide. One of the scientists, the cantankerous Dr Ruth Leavitt (Kate Reid), has an epilepsy problem which threatens the safety of the Wildfire laboratory when she experiences an epileptic fit caused by flashing red lights while performing an experiment on the alien organism. Dr Mark Hall displays quiet and unexpected heroism in his quest to shut down the self-destruct mechanism in spite of tremendous obstacles in his path from the fifth level to the third level of Wildfire.

At one point in the film, Leavitt and fellow scientist Dr Charles Dutton (David Wayne) accuse team leader Dr Jeremy Stone (Arthur Hill) of wanting to use the team’s findings about the Andromeda strain to develop bio-weapons. Indeed, the whole Wildfire laboratory itself seems to be under the control of the US military which says something profound about how the United States perceives its role in guarding or protecting Earth from possible alien contact: aliens are to be regarded as potentially threatening rather than as possible partners in exploring and understanding space, and perhaps understanding our place and purpose in the universe.

The film is noteworthy for its restrained use of special effects that emphasise the virulent nature of the alien organism and how colour is used to define the different levels of the Wildfire laboratory. Special mention should be made of the use of an electronic avant-garde music soundtrack to emphasise the film’s technical approach to its plot and themes. Funnily, while much of the film is drawn out and devoted to detailing the elaborate procedures the scientists follow to observe the laboratory’s hermetic nature and in the way they conduct their experiments, the way in which the alien pathogen is brought under control seems hastily written and not very well explained.

Even though the technology featured in the film looks very antiquated, the film itself has not dated a great deal and much of it – and the attitudes expressed towards the alien organism – still remain relevant. Microorganisms from outer space are still to be regarded with horror and dread, to be held at bay or wiped out altogether, rather than as life-forms that could enrich Earth’s ecosystems.

“Doctor Who: The Power of the Daleks” – a futuristic setting for a police-state society beset by political rivalries

Charles Norton, “Doctor Who: The Power of the Daleks” (animated version, 2016)

Originally filmed in live action in 1966, this Doctor Who adventure was the first to feature Patrick Troughton as the newly regenerated Time Lord forced to face his most deadly enemies the Daleks not long after he staggers to his feet and strains to recognise his faithful Earthling companions Ben and Polly. The trio lands on the planet Vulcan where already a colony has been established by Ben and Polly’s fellow Earthlings in a future hundreds of years after the duo’s time. Almost as soon as they land and start investigating their surroundings, the Doctor finds a dead man, murdered by another. Not long after, the Doctor and his companions are found by the colonists and herded into their settlement where they meet the Governor and his subordinates, all of whom assume that the Doctor is the examiner come to check and audit their work.

The Doctor takes an interest in chief scientist Lesterson’s work but is horrified to discover that Lesterson and his team are attempting to revive three Daleks found in a capsule that crash-landed on Vulcan a couple of centuries ago. Sure enough, as soon as the Daleks are resurrected against the Doctor’s protests, they set about in their cunning and manipulative way to direct the colony’s resources into maintaining themselves and producing new Daleks. The Daleks quickly realise that the colony is divided among the rulers and a group of rebels who plan to overthrow the Governor and his regime, and aim to exploit the political divisions in the colony.

This story was certainly not written with children in mind as the target audience: the animation is minimal and sparse and the story is driven by character and dialogue. Most of the story is carried by the colonist characters and their interactions with the Daleks: the colonists assume they have full control of the Daleks and the Daleks pretend to be subservient while always on the lookout for an opportunity to usurp those in charge of the colony and enslave the humans. This relationship might be read as a metaphor for the decline of British imperialism in its Asian and African colonies in the period in which this Doctor Who adventure was originally made (1966): the British had always assumed they could maintain their empire but through their arrogant exploitation and impoverishment of their subject peoples, and their attempts to expand their global empire to maintain their political and economic edge against rival powers the US and Germany (leading them to fight two disastrous world wars), ended up losing this empire. In most of their colonies, subject peoples fought hard for self-government and the right to make decisions concerning the use of their lands and natural resources, and then for independence when they discovered the British had no intention of sharing power with them. The difference though in the Doctor Who adventure is that the Daleks are united in their apparent subservience while plotting their own rebellion, and remain united when they seize control of the colony. One unfortunate result though of the story being driven by the colony’s unstable and seething politics is that the Doctor’s companions Ben and Polly are reduced to helpless onlookers unable to do much to help the Doctor or the colonists combat the real danger.

The story is outstanding in delineating the characters of several colonists – the sinister and power-hungry Bragen, his equally conniving No 2 Janley, chief scientist Lesterson who possibly feigns madness when his experiment unravels badly and threatens the colony, the crusty Governor and his hapless deputy Quinn who is constantly being shoved aside in spite of his protests – to the extent that viewers come to identify with them, even though these colonists are mostly greedy people engaged in a grubby power struggle. This establishes a tension – viewers know that some of these characters will be killed by the Daleks, that is a given – so when the Daleks do go on their rampage, the shock of seeing so many colonists being massacred can be overwhelming. The one thing lacking in the story is motivation: why are the colonists so keen in the first place to resurrect the Daleks and use them as robot servants? For that matter, we do not learn much about the human colony on Vulcan and why it was founded there: we have to assume that Vulcan contains minerals and other resources needed for the future human civilisation that set up the colony.

One thing that helps to lighten the seriousness of this adventure and distance viewers a little from the characters is the Doctor’s own wavering character which has yet to establish itself properly. Absent-minded, liable to wander off without warning and whip out a recorder to play during times of stress, the Doctor nevertheless retains a sharp mind and the ability to improvise a strategy to defeat the Daleks. Because the adventure under review is an animated reconstruction of the original live-action story, I cannot really comment much on Troughton’s acting against the rest of the cast; the audio recording suggests Troughton and the actors playing the colonists (Lesterson, Bragen and Janley in particular) do a good job in the parts they play, given that the plot is quite complicated but must fit within the structural parameters of a six-episode adventure where each episode lasts 20 to 25 minutes.

This story is definitely one of the better Doctor Who adventures, even if it seems a bit overcrowded with many good characters: it’s a story that inquires into the nature of politics and finds it cynical, petty and small-minded, and what that small-mindedness might say about the values of the society where such politics exist. While the Daleks use their own cunning and exploit the greed and the rivalries of the humans they seek to conquer, they still end up puzzled by the humans whose psychology they manipulate. Why indeed do humans kill other humans for no other reason than sheer greed for power and influence over their fellow humans?