Spring Breakers: surprisingly well-made and sarcastic film about the search for a meaningful life

Harmony Korine, “Spring Breakers” (2012)

Contrary to most reports I’ve seen or heard about this film, “Spring Breakers” is actually a very well-made piece with a strong if sarcastic plot and a universal theme that is very moving. Four young college-age girls, fed up with their boring lives swotting at school and yearning for something different, exciting and above all fun, scrape together money obtained in an unusual way – well, all right, three of them robbed a diner – and take the long-distance bus down to Florida where together with all the other bored college-age kids from across America party-party-party, do drugs, flirt with horny guys, crash out in hotel rooms and leave trash wherever they go. The law catches up with them for being under-age and doing things they shouldn’t, and the frisky fillies end up in county jail. A hiphop DJ gangster called Alien (James Franco) is impressed with the girls in their court-room appearances, so much so he bails them out to use them for his own ends.

Two of the girls, Faith (Selena Gomez) and Cotty (Rachel Korine, Harmony’s wife), bail out for reasons of their own, leaving their friends Brit (Ashley Benson) and Candy (Vanessa Hudgens) to assist Alien when he is threatened by his arch-rival Big Arch (Gucci Mane). At this point the film becomes very surrealistic and the question for audiences to ponder is whether what they see in the rest of the film is for real or is the girls’ fantasy. The end when it comes is very surprising and one questions whether, beneath the girls’ apparent dumbness, there lurks more animal cunning in their little fingers than there is in most men’s heads.

The film is very artfully made: it has the look of a home movie with the use of different film-stock, crazy camera angles and lots of deliberate repetition. The music soundtrack is an integral part of the film: the different songs appear to be just another soundtrack collation of dance tracks to look cool but sound effects are inserted into the songs to emphasise darker, more sinister subterranean suggestions that foretell doom. The music and effects complement the film’s plot perfectly and play up the girls’ apparent innocence as they stumble into one situation after another that would seem to be more than they can handle either as individuals or as a group.

The acting is adequate for the film but special mention should be made of Franco’s performance in giving his narcissistic character Alien more depth and nuance than it deserves. One starts to feel some sympathy for Alien, where he has come from, why he collects so much firepower machinery and Oriental weapons, and his collection, kitschy though it may be, of what passes for culture in the shallow and materialist world that is mainstream USA. Likewise, Big Arch becomes concerned that with Brit and Candy, Alien is making more inroads into his territory than he should be allowed to; we see him at home with his baby girl and his family, and we start to see him more as a family man than as the drug king-pin gangster he is. The girls themselves are very one-dimensional with Faith, the most “developed” character, being not much more than a pretty girl with a conscience and a conservative Christian background that isn’t of any help to her.

Repetition of scenes, the girls’ basic hedonistic and yearning character, and plot points serves to point up the banal and kitsch nature of US culture and society. The girls, brought up on Barbie dolls and Disney princesses, are bored with the shallow life they have led so far and the shallow life they see ahead of them, and spring break represents all that they yearn for: a break from conformity, a chance to experiment with a new life and outlook, the desire to be individuals, the opportunity for personal expression. Unfortunately spring break turns out to be just as empty and hollow as the life they left behind: other kids are just interested in exploiting one another or escaping from life through chemical means. The police intrude on their fun and the girls are forced to face, temporarily at least, the consequences of their self-absorbed and selfish hedonism.

The film’s theme of the search for happiness and fulfillment is a dark and troubling one: four youngsters, ill-prepared by their sheltered upbringing (sheltered in the sense that watching too much bad TV, spending all your time on social networks and exposure to feel-good fundamentalist Christianity together teach a false view of human nature and society), go on a journey to find the meaning of life, which they believe revolves around being happy and rich and enjoying material pleasures. Their adventures turn out to be empty and unfulfilling, and the girls become corrupted by their experiences. Though the film ends well for the four girls and all survive physically, spiritually they are dead inside: ironically, the right preparation they need to be Stepford wives – but that of course is another story …


Murdoch (Part 1): the rise and rise of outsider newspaper owner turned media empire king-maker

Janice Sutherland, “Murdoch (Part 1)” (2013)

Here be the story of the rise and rise of the global media mogul Rupert Murdoch and his empire News Corporation as told by this 2-part bare-bones documentary in conventional voice-over chronological narrative enlivened with interviews with notable reporters, media personalities, politicians and others who knew or worked with him. It’s a fascinating story of an outsider, starting off as a metaphorical kid in the playground with nearly all the disadvantages of a bullied victim who turns the tables on his oppressors and beats them all. The sting though is that the victim internalises the tactics of the bullies and in the quest to defeat them at their own game, becomes a bully himself to the detriment of all.

The tale begins with RM’s childhood, part of which he spent at boarding school where he was shunned by fellow students because of his relatively lowly background as a child of a newspaper proprietor compared to their grazier aristocracy origins. His self-concept of himself as an outsider, reinforced by attending Oxford University which was his boarding school writ larger, together with a desire to avenge himself and his father, Sir Keith Murdoch., on fuddy-duddy establishment bullies must have been forged during this time. RM inherits “The Adelaide News”, a small newspaper, on his father’s death in 1952 and begins his domination of the print news media almost immediately, starting with Sydney in the late 1950s, locking horns with the influential Fairfax and Packer media families; going national with “The Australian” in 1964; and infiltrating the UK media scene through a backdoor ruse concocted with the Carr family, owners of “News of the World”, to stop UK media-man Robert Maxwell from buying that paper in 1968. Outfoxing the Carr family by buying the paper’s shares and owning “News of the World” outright, our man becomes unstoppable, gobbling newspapers across Australia, the UK and the US, and later creating an all-embracing media entertainment empire by buying TV stations, movie studios, music recording and publishing labels, and book publishers.

With his voracious appetite for news, news and more news – though not in the way I understand such an appetite – RM introduces his formula of success based on sex, sensational crime stories and political scandal together with an egotistical and authoritarian style of leadership that brings with it an organisational culture of self-censorship, people competing to please the boss, and outright and unabashed support and promotion of political regressive and undemocratic ideologies, values and policies with an expectation of reciprocation of favours from the politicians so promoted. Beginning in 1972 with his support for – and later vilification of – Gough Whitlam as Prime Minister of Australia (1972 – 1975), RM begins to intrude into politics in the countries where his newspapers are operating, seeing himself as a king-maker to the extent of sending PR men over to Margaret Thatcher in the late 1970s with the aim of making her over as a future British PM. In the process the print news media is moulded into a propaganda arm of undemocratic corporate political forces.

The low point of the documentary surely comes with RM’s building of a new newspaper office in Wapping, London, equipped with new printing technology which the wily proprietor uses to break the power of print labour unions over the British news media. Especially insidious here is the British government’s role in assisting RM in busting the voices of newspaper workers, akin to Thatcher’s earlier crushing of coal mining unions, by providing huge numbers of police to break up union protests and picketing.

The documentary’s style is fairly basic and looks a bit slap-dash in the manner of a TV current affairs article. It does feature interesting archival news reels that give some idea of what the Australian newspaper business was like in the mid-twentieth century: robust, competitive, racy and reflective of Australian society’s interests and insecurities at the time. Public interest in crime, gangsters and scandals may have influenced RM to run with the mix of salacious and sensational news reporting in his early acquisitions and stick with it long after its expiry date. In the 1950s, such a template was a cheeky schoolboy’s one-fingered salute to the musty elites of the time; by the 1970s this formula is looking very tarnished; and by the 2010s  the formula has wrought enormous damage to Western cultural discourse and society by emphasising hysterical emotion, shock, fear and insecurity and using those reactions to influence public opinion and direct it to support regressive, violent and tyrannous politics. Of course, this all gives RM even more power over politicians and the public alike.

I’m hoping that Part 2 of this series will devote some time to evaluating RM’s legacy to news reporting, his harmful influence on media, culture and politics in the Anglosphere, and above all his personality and ethics (whatever those are) but I’m not holding my breath. Although I have only seen half the documentary, already I have a sense of the underlying tragedy of the Murdoch story: that a man who must surely understand what it is like to be spurned, mistreated and made to feel inferior does not use his power and talent to crusade on behalf of others similarly oppressed but instead uses what he has to avenge himself for purely egotistical reasons, concentrate power in and around himself, and impose a new and more sinister form of oppression on society and culture.

Night Fishing: delving into the world of Korean shamanism and spirituality with an Apple iPhone 4

Park Chan-kyong, Park Chan-wook, “Night Fishing / Paranmanjang” (2011)

Filmed using an Apple iPhone4, this fantasy-horror film delves into the little understood world of Korean shamanism and spirituality, and the role they still have in modern Korean society. A fisherman (Oh Kwang-rok) working in a swampy area at night (a strange time to be out fishing) throws a line out into the water and almost immediately snags a good trout. He rushes over and next thing you know, he’s entangled in the line and falling on top of a drowned woman (Lee Jeong-hyeon). The woman gradually comes alive in a fairly comic scene and initially viewers think the man has choked and suffocated on all the water she threw up. The two recover and have a conversation, during which the woman starts rattling some bells on a staff (in Korean films, an indication that something isn’t quite what we expect it is) and begins to wail …

The version of the film I saw had no English-language sub-titles and was dubbed in Russian instead so I flat-out had no idea what the main characters plus the rest of the cast were talking about. However Western viewers will quickly work out that the young woman is an intermediary between the world of the living and the world of the dead. The scenes that take place in the world of the dead are filmed in black and white and those in the land of the living are in colour. A mother (Lee Yong-nyeo) and her wheelchair-bound daughter consult the young shaman as to why and how their husband / father died tragically. The shaman, after visiting the land of the dead, asks for forgiveness from the mother and child on behalf of the dead man.

The ceremony in which the shaman contacts the dead man and relays his message to the anxious family is marked by solemn droning music and the entire scene is intense and emotional. The bright colours heighten the drama of the ritual and actors Lee JH and Lee YN demonstrate remarkable restraint as well as almost histrionic emotion together. Lee JH in particular commands the viewer’s attention with her performance in a wooden tub filled with water and immediately afterwards, when she steps out to grab the child, in a highly theatrical act of spirit possession.

The film can be beautiful to watch, especially in its final scenes where there is a tranquil scene shot of a blue lake with a peaceful blue sky above followed by a number of painted scenes of perhaps important historic Korean personalities and saints that perhaps reference Andrei Tarkovsky’s film “Andrei Rublev”. True to form, Park Chan-wook includes macabre humour early on, a twist in the plot and scenes of extreme emotional outpouring. The use of an iPhone 4 for filming gives the short the appearance of cinéma vérité: there is one scene filmed from some distance showing people preparing for a ritual in the shaman ceremony and viewers are given a taste of what it might feel like to be a voyeur spying on other people’s private sorrows.

The plot cannot sustain a length longer than 30 minutes and the fact that the twist is a major part of the film’s narrative and cuts it into two nearly equal halves that mimic eastern Asian philosophical and spiritual ideas of a universe in which polar opposites, represented by the yin-yang principle, govern its structure, means that “Night Fishing” does not bear very many repeated viewings by the general public. The film showcases Park Chan-wook’s  style of fantasy film-making and directing combined with his particular interpretation of how a Korean cultural tradition still grounds modern Korean society and allows people to express their frustrations, grief and troubles in dealing with personal crises.

At the Mountains of Madness: ambitious adaptation of the famous H P Lovecraft story of the Cthulhu mythos

Michele Botticelli, “At the Mountains of Madness” (2011)

With the release of Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus” in 2012 and Guillermo del Toro’s resumption of the movie project “At the Mountains of Madness”, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to look at this Italian animated short film adaptation of the famous H P Lovecraft short story that spawned several generations of short stories, novels, other literary output, songs and entire albums of music based on the Cthulhu mythos. This film by Botticelli is a fairly reliable adaptation, give or take a few detals, of the original story and conveys a strong sense of awe, terror and anguish at the notion that humans were created by superior beings from another planet who might not necessarily regard their children with love, affection or respect but instead might treat us as slaves or toys, and that the universe itself is hostile, even malevolent towards life on Earth.

As in the original story, the story here is told from a first-person POV by a scientist called Dyer. He and another scientist, Frederick Lake, lead an expedition sponsored by Miskatonic University in the northeastern United States to Antarctica where they discover ruins of a civilisation so ancient, that its geological stratum history hints of its existence during the Pre-Cambrian Age before the evolution of insects and most other invertebrates. Professor Lake takes a group of people ahead but soon loses radio contact with Dyer’s group. Dyer and his men search for Lake’s group and stumble upon their camp; there, they find the bodies of Lake and the others, horribly mutilated, plus remains of other life-forms also dissected and not belonging to any known class of multi-cellular life on Earth. Dyer and pilot Danforth take their plane and investigate a range of mysterious mountains where they discover an enormous abandoned city of weird geometric architecture unlike anything built by humans. The two men land the plane and venture into the buildings where they see various hieroglyphic symbols and, having been trained at university to read these ancient writings (don’t ask me how the first human being to learn to read such works did it), read and interpret what is written.

It seems that in the age preceding Snowball Earth, a group of aliens called the Elder Things came to Earth and invented all known life-forms that gave rise to current familiar Earth creatures and vegetation. The Elder Things created a servant class of slug-like beings called shoggoths which then built the city of geometric forms for their masters. Not long after, a race of octopus-like creatures led by a giant boss mollusc called Cthulhu arrived on Earth and both these newcomers and the Elder Things start slugging it out seriously with bouts of green blood and organs hitting the screen. In desperation, the Elder Things invoke their powerful and dangerous gods to help them out and although the deities oblige their worshippers, their intervention comes with a heavy cost for the Elder Things: the gods decide they quite like Earth and make it their home. While the race of Cthulhu is banished beneath the oceans, the shoggoths acquire intelligence and rebel against their masters. Although the Elder Things crush the rebellion, their civilisation is degraded and becomes increasingly primitive and unable to cope with climate change in the form of Snowball Earth. The civilisation retreats to the mystery mountain range in Antarctica where the Elder Things eventually die out.

After learning the history of these alien creatures, Dyer and Danforth venture farther into the city (as you do in spite of the great danger awaiting you) and discover the remains of the last Elder Thing survivors. The two men narrowly escape being crushed by a shoggoth and their expedition flees back to the US. While Danforth suffers a mental breakdown and is committed to Arkham Asylum, Dyer lives in fear that very soon the stars in the sky will align and generate mysterious gravitational and electromagnetic forces that will revive the race of Cthulhu and bring it to the surface of the oceans. Presumably all hell will break loose as the humans don’t have any gods to call on for help, those deities having been silenced forever by Western Christian missionaries.

The animation style is very distinctive: although the backgrounds are beautifully imagined and realised, often in 3D, the characters, dogs, aeroplanes and other moving objects are rendered as two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs, usually moving in the fashion of shadow puppets and their eyes and mouths moving only when absolutely necessary. The aliens are rendered quite faithfully to the original Lovecraftian concept of them, the shoggoths in particular as creepy and terrifying in their amorphous multi-eyed protoplasmic forms as in the literature. Scenes of flying planes across the mountains and into the cities are breath-takingly astounding; the Elder Things’ capital looks weird enough but the city of the Cthulhuan race is positively malevolent, all jagged edges and dark, rough-textured towers radiating fear and terror. The scenes of fighting are the highlight of the film: they are frightful and gory, and the scenes in which the Elder Things’ gods arrive and rip apart the Cthulhuan beings are horrific beyond words.

Where the film departs from the original story is in the denouement of the story: Dyer lives an isolated life, knowing his incredible story will never be believed yet fearful that the Cthulhuans will soon resurrect and restore their rule on Earth. Humans have even fewer defences than the Elder Things did and, thanks to Western civilisation and colonialism having wiped out most other cultures and their traditions, have lost their hot-line to their gods. How will humanity survive?

The film has great suspense, especially in its opening scenes of blizzard and painterly dioramas of the Antarctic wilderness. The music soundtrack can be very eerie and atmospheric in a slight sinister way, and suits the narrative well. Some of the special effects are extremely well done and startling for a film of this modest scale. Botticelli’s ambition to craft an animated version of the H P Lovecraft that respects the original and do it justice can be clearly seen.  Even though the animation often looks primitive, it demonstrates the stark truth, if that’s the right word, that we humans aren’t the only sentient, self-aware critters on this here planet and that we share it with beings far more intelligent and dangerous than we, and who would not hesitate to crush us out of existence.

The film is not very polished and some essential details of the Cthulhu mythos were left out but it’s a very enjoyable short and, until del Toro’s film is completed, it’s the best (if not the only) adaptation of the Cthulhu mythos I’ve seen. The story is taut and filled with tension though, as in Scott’s “Prometheus”, the scientists do some incredibly stupid things just so the plot can advance at a steady trot.


Unearthed: a good-looking pastiche of different Hollywood movie story-lines and plot elements

Lindsay Harris and Stuart Leach, “Unearthed” (2011)

On the edge of the known universe, a mining spacecraft The Ezekiel discovers an uncharted barren planet that may contain a valuable fuel resource. The crew, Mitch and Cadman, are directed to go to the planet and take samples for analysis. While drilling, the men hit an underground air pocket and fall through the ground into a deep cave. Mitch is injured and Cadman calls for a rescue team. While they wait, Cadman starts exploring the labyrinthine passages of the cave (as you do when you’re stranded on an alien planet and your companion is lying near death) and finds some extraordinary objects: twisted metal, a familiar-looking ladder structure and, er … eggs in a floor. (Yikes!) Cadman picks up one egg and turns it over: it’s a human skull, of all things …

The film plods quite a bit and has a very dark look throughout which adds to the stealthily rising tension. One guesses that the barren planet on which The Ezekiel lands might be a familiar one, especially when one sees shadows of familiar metal structures. The gag is that because Mitch and Cadman are clad in space-suits and are never seen in close-up facing the camera until the very end, audiences assume they’re human. Only when Cadman holds up the skull and turns to the camera do we see his face. At this point, audiences have to speculate on how Mitch and Cadman came to be so called, how they speak to each other and with the rest of The Ezekiel crew in American accents. The principle of Occam’s Razor suggests that a scenario akin to Pierre Boulle’s novel “Planet of the Apes” and the films based on it might have taken place; or that while Mitch and Cadman have been gone for what they think has only been a few years, their home planet has whizzed through a hundred thousand years.

The animation looks incredibly realistic and the characters move and speak convincingly as humans. The explorers joke and grizzle about their employment and Mitch even says he wants his fair share if Cadman discovers a rich mineral or energy deposit. True, some images aren’t original – Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” is one major inspiration for the short – and the film-makers must have had plenty of laughs at viewers’ expense with their Alien-meets-Planet-of-the-Apes plot. The characters are as developed as needed for the film short so they strike this viewer as rather stereotyped space miners doing one last job before going on extended holiday leave and talking about hitting the jackpot or whining about working conditions or their boss. The music can be overbearing for a film of its length (just over 22 minutes) and is nothing special to talk about: it’s the usual orchestral space-opera music soundtrack. That Kubrick film sure has a lot to answer for.

Still, the film-makers know how to draw maximum suspense from a story, throw in manipulative little ploys like Cadman shining his torch over a sheer cliff (so that viewers wonder whether he too will take a fall as Mitch did) and include a twist element that changes viewers’ expectations of the entire story and its characters. For this reason, the film doesn’t bear watching more than once or maybe twice: once you see the climax (if you last that long), then the story loses the elements of surprise and mystery.

Now if Harris and Leach can hire a script-writer with really original ideas on space exploration as opposed to cutting up and pasting together story-lines from past Hollywood movies, they could really go places in the universe …

The Wild, Wild West (Season 2, Episode 17: Night of the Feathered Fury): well balanced between serious drama and tongue-in-cheek fantasy

Robert Sparr, “The Wild, Wild West (Season 2, Episode 17: Night of the Feathered Fury)” (1967)

In this episode, the two US government agents Jim West (Robert Conrad) and Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin) meet the diabolical master-mind magician Count Manzeppi (Victor Buono) who is seeking a toy bird that his assistant Gerda Scharr (Michele Carey) has stolen from him. Gordon has already stashed the bird in a locked safe after finding it abandoned in a building that Gerda had recently fled. Both West and Gordon are puzzled as to why Manzeppi and Gerda want the bird so desperately that they’re prepared to kill for it. West and Gordon subject the toy to various tests and find the name of the toy shop where it was made. West visits there with the toy where he watches an early form of motion picture in a box and is again introduced to Manzeppi who makes a grand entrance down from the ceiling on a crescent-shaped prop. After a fight and a chase, Manzeppi traps West in a bird-cage.

Buono over-acts magnificently as the dastardly devilish Manzeppi, particularly in the scene where he explains that inside the toy bird he seeks is the famed Philosopher’s Stone which also has the Midas touch on nearby objects when exposed to the full moon. Everyone else plays second fiddle to him though Martin’s Gordon almost steals the show in disguise as a Jewish travelling salesman. Minor characters can be quite eccentric and include a deadly Mexican dancer and an equally threatening Japanese fellow with an awfully long and vicious scythe. After a daring rescue and many fights, West and Gordon pursue Gerda who has taken the bird, only to discover that she has exposed herself and the Stone in the bird to the light of the full moon with a dire effect on her that recalls the famous murder scene in the James Bond film “Goldfinger”.

This episode treads an excellent balance between serious drama and tongue-in-cheek fantasy: it’s true that Manzeppi has too many far-out magic tricks up his sleeve that can’t be explained by science or logic to be completely credible but Buono carries off the character’s flamboyance and psychopathic villainy without a care in the world. Viewers can clearly see the actor was enjoying himself immensely in the role.  The sets for the toy shop with its labyrinth of dark passages and dead-end tunnels, and collection of sinister toys make for a magnificent backdrop for the action which ranges from all-out action-thriller Western to comedy to fantasy. There is an air of lushness and decadence to the entire episode: all the actors wear bright and lavishly decorated clothes, even for fighting – and that’s just the men alone! The coda to the story suits it well as West and Gordon voice a hope that one day Gerda could be restored to human form but the toy bird ends up in the ownership of someone who is completely unaware of the bird’s power.

Perhaps the silliest part of the whole episode is that something as mystical and dangerously powerful as the Philosopher’s Stone could be housed in a toy chicken of all things … no wonder in an early scene Martin is struggling not to laugh as Gordon and West face down a couple of villains.

The Wild Wild West (Season 4, Episode 4: The Night of the Sedgewick Curse): clever and intelligent combination of horror and science fiction

Marvin Chomsky, “The Wild Wild West (Season 4, Episode 4: The Night of the Sedgewick Curse)” (1968)

I don’t recall this series from my childhood yet when I heard the theme music in this episode’s opening credits, it seemed very familiar so I assume that it did feature on Australian TV in the late 1960s. Various distinguished gentlemen are disappearing in a hotel in a town and US agents James West (Robert Conrad) and his partner Artemus Ward (Ross Martin) set out to investigate the strange incidents. In the course of his work, West meets a young woman Lavinia Sedgewick (Sharon Acker) who invites him to dinner at the Sedgwick family mansion where he discovers the building is under a mysterious curse that may be linked to the murders and disappearances at the hotel due to its emblem: three knives embedded in a heart.

West is the action-man of the heroic duo while Ward does the brain work, dons the weird disguises and uses his ventriloquist ability to save his skin. Through West’s leg-work which brings him in contact with Lavinia’s grandfather and his spooky physician Dr Maitland (Jay Robinson) and Ward’s own investigation, disguised as a French diplomat staying at the hotel, which puts his life in danger a couple of times, the agents discover a horrible secret: the Sedgewicks suffer from a genetic disease that causes rapid ageing and Dr Maitland is seeking to cure the disease permanently by using the kidnapped men as guinea pigs to test a special serum he has developed. The problem is that while the serum works on animals and stops or slows down the ageing process, it has the opposite effect on humans and when West sees the kidnapped gentlemen in a cell, he is horrified to see they have all been rapidly aged.

This is a clever episode that mixes elements of horror (a haunted house with secret passages and a prison below, an apparently innocent woman harbouring a terrible secret, a bed that impales people dead, a housemaid who seems surly and who might be an ally – or the villain’s assistant) and science fiction (a mad scientist searching for the elixir that gives immortality) in a Western genre and a common TV narrative format: strange things happen to innocent people, two agents are summoned to snoop around and find out what’s going on, one of the agents is captured which leads the other to the villain’s lair, the entire business culminates in and is settled by some punch-ups, the crooks are rounded up and sent to jail and all loose ends are tied satisfactorily. The motivations of the various major characters are explained throughout the episode, the science seems quite plausible (one must remember the action takes place in the nineteenth century when Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution was barely understood, let alone all the sciences that the theory as midwife enabled later) and the horrors that Dr Maitland’s nostrum causes are dramatic enough without appearing overdone and campy.

The acting is excellent, Robinson as the creepy and deranged physician and Acker as the desperate Lavinia probably the most outstanding. One notes that a couple of black actors play hotel clerks; this is credible from a historical viewpoint, black men often having been employed as cowboys, farmers, clerks and workers in the American West, but would come as a surprise to most people raised on old Hollywood Westerns where black people hardly ever featured. The music used is a mixture of the conventional orchestra-based soundtrack music of the period and some analog synthesiser tone melodies. The episode does rely on some cheap effects such as repeating thunder noises when a storm rages during the night. Set design and interior details, including those of objects used, look typical of the style and period of the 1870s.

“The Night of the Sedgewick Curse” shows that you can combine far-out science fiction and horror ideas in a plot-line that doesn’t need to be campy or feature wacky characters. The episode’s coda in which Ward attempts to feed West a healthy vegan lunch to prolong his life is comic without being cartoony, the actors playing their dialogue and actions straight. Characters show some sympathy and concern for others, even those others like Lavinia who turns out to be a femme fatale and who suffers tragically.


The Avengers (Season 5, Episode 17: The Return of the Cybernauts): mind control is the dominant theme

Robert Day, “The Avengers (Season 5, Episode 17: The Return of the Cybernauts)” (1967)

One of the more openly science fiction episodes in this season of the TV show, this mixes comedy, horror, action and even a love rival who not only makes Steed (Patrick Macnee) extremely jealous but also turns out to be his foe. Guest star Peter Cushing plays Paul Beresford who inveigles his way into Peel’s affections in order to draw her and Steed into a situation where he can destroy them as revenge for their role in the death of his robotics scientist brother Clement Armstrong in an earlier Avengers episode. Along the way he and Armstrong’s former assistant scientist Benson (Frederick Jaeger) use their Cybernaut machine to pick up and imprison a few scientific and engineering experts to assist the dastardly duo in their scheme to torment and kill Steed and Peel (Diana Rigg).

The title of the episode is a misnomer as there was only one robot used unless we count the humans enslaved by an ingenious mind control device (that can stop their hearts and kill them if they resist) as Cybernauts as well. As is usual with these Avengers episodes which were filmed on tight budgets, there are plot holes that viewers are expected to gloss over, such as how traces of skin dandruff and DNA can be used in creating a tiny nanochip in short order (say, a day or so working 24/7) that can tap into and control people’s brain functioning and thoughts, and also send an electric shock to the heart that literally stops it dead.

It has to be said that very little is done with the lone Cybernaut as something other than a killing machine: the robot could have been usefully employed serving drinks or assisting the three captured experts in designing a mind control gadget. If the robot could speak, one less character could have been used but that would have been Benson. The gadget itself is of more interest than the Cybernaut: small enough to fit into the palm of an adult hand and never straying from Beresford’s home, it nevertheless has an astonishing range of control, reaching as far as Steed’s country mansion which Peel frequents rather too frequently for someone who’s supposed to be Steed’s assistant. Once Peel places Beresford’s bracelet on her wrist, the receptor in the bracelet receives the remote message from the gadget and controls Peel’s behaviour completely. If this episode were to be shown today, I daresay the US Department of Defense would be very interested in a tiny hand-held device that could control people’s thoughts and actions by remote control, transmitting electromagnetic signals to a microchip embedded in the skin of the neck perhaps rather than through a receiver attached to a body part that can be removed or dislodged, and which could also detect thoughts of resistance and either delete them or kill the person if necessary.

The plot follows the familiar template of disappearing people with something in common and whose manner of disappearing is the same if eccentric and fantastic, the cause of which Steed and Peel must investigate and during which investigation they mess up the crime scene. They follow promising leads that take them into various by-ways, not all of which are successful or open to another lead. One of the two (often Peel) ends up being captured by the villain/s which means the other must race to rescue her/him in the nick of time. The template culminates in an all-out fight which ends only when the villains dies or is trapped by one of his (rarely her) signature devices.

At least the acting in “Return of the Cybernauts” is outstanding and there is some real development in the lead characters: the best scenes are ones where Steed is jealous of Beresford’s attentions toward Peel and makes some cutting remarks to her. Peel brushes them off, regarding them as quite amusing. Beresford plays an evil English gentleman to the hilt. Even the captive scientists distinguish themselves: Chadwick (Fulton Mackay), seduced by the money offered him, eagerly does as he’s told by Beresford and Benson while Neville (Charles Tingwell) acts as Chadwick’s foil and conscience. These characters might have struck a chord with a 1960s audience as their behaviour is reminiscent of the ways scientists in Nazi Germany coped with Adolf Hitler’s government and its control of German science: some scientists supported the Third Reich zealously and offered their services to the Nazis without a second thought; others, like Neville, worked for the government in order to control the direction of their science and ensure it wasn’t degraded by the government; still other scientists resisted and were either punished or managed to flee Germany.

A memorable episode but not in the way the producers had intended it to be.


The Ghoul: upper class comedy masquerading as horror

T Hayes Hunter, “The Ghoul” (1933)

I had never heard of this film before and stumbled on it while looking for something else on Youtube. Boris Karloff plays Professor Morlant, an eccentric Egyptologist who long ago bought a mysterious jewel that bestows the gift of eternal life. Now dying, he gives his staff specific instructions on how he is to be buried and states the jewel must be buried with him. After his staff promise to obey him, Morlant soon carks it and initially he is lain in his coffin with the jewel as per his orders.

A young woman Betty (Dorothy Hyson) inherits Morlant’s property and she and a male cousin Ralph (Anthony Bushell) arrive for the reading of the will. Others arrive too – Betty’s older unmarried friend Kaney (Kathleen Harrison), Morlant’s  Egyptian colleague Ben Dragore (Harold Huth) who plans to steal the jewel, a vicar Nigel Hartley (Ralph Richardson, in his first film role), Morlant’s old butler Laing (Ernest Thesiger) and solicitor (Cedric Hardwicke) – and soon enough they discover Morlant’s mansion is plagued by strange shadows, things going bump in the night and a ghoulish presence. Sure enough, Morlant has revived and discovers the jewel that was supposedly buried with him has been stolen. What happens then is the jewel passes from one person to another as Morlant pursues it.

The film contains as much comedy as it does horror, in which there’s very little of the supernatural: what has happened is that Morlant fell into a coma, was thought to be dead and after a several hours lying in a cool tomb, has recovered his strength if maybe not his wits. An amusing minor sub-plot develops when Kaney falls heavily in love with Ben Dragore, imagining him to be a Valentino-style desert sheikh which Ben Dragore, figuring she might be useful to his thievish scheme, does little to disabuse her of: a number of cultural stereotypes about Arabs then popular in  Britain is skewered neatly during their encounters. The most exciting part of the film happens AFTER Morlant dies for real while worshipping the Egyptian god Anubis: the vicar is revealed as a fake, part of Ben Dragore’s little gang of thieves, and tries to kill Betty and Ralph. The mausoleum where Morlant was interred after his first “death” soon catches fire and Betty and Ralph must fight their way out of the tomb before they are overcome by smoke and heat.

The acting varies from competent to histrionic and the cast behaves as though part of a stage comedy of manners. The characters conform to British stage stereotypes: Ralph as stiff upper-lipped hero, Betty as a sometimes independent and capable young woman eventually reduced to screaming damsel, Kaney as lovelorn spinster, unlucky in love, the vicar as head villain and Ben Dragore as straight man partnered with the pathetic Kaney. Indeed, Huth and Harrison display excellent comic timing in their scenes together and it is a credit to both that their characters are not as one-dimensional as might be assumed from the plot and the minor roles they play in it; Harrison in particular displays some very heroic qualities near the film’s end. Ralph and Betty are rather more conventional characters who quarrel at first, then start to co-operate and finally show romantic interest in each other after surviving some gruelling tests. Much good acting comes from Karloff himself as the “mummy” character and he also provides some comic relief in a memorable scene where he menaces an unwitting Kaney, waving to Ben Dragore through a set of French doors; the ghoul then leaves and shuts the door behind him, and it’s only then that Kaney turns around to see the door shut and begins to panic!

The set designs are astonishing in their clean quality for a 1930s British film (they had been worked on by people with a German Expressionist background) and there is plenty of “haunted house” atmosphere with the filming of shots that emphasise dark shadows and gloomy ambience. Action takes place mostly at night and the grounds of Morlant’s mansion see plenty of creepy occurrences among tall overgrown grass and trees with bushy canopies, lit up in parts by the light of a full moon. Unusual camera angles stress atmosphere and suspense.

For us moderns, the film isn’t really scary and the action only perks up well past the halfway mark; most of the film is actually character-driven with various cast members having their own reasons for turning up at Morlant’s mansion to hear the will being read, and the movie takes its sweet time setting up the characters and providing them with motivation. The film does have the look of having been adapted from a stage play; in fact it was based on a novel. It’s recommended mainly for the technical production aspects (set design, cinematography) which can be very outstanding; as plot and characterisation go, “The Ghoul” isn’t one of the better films of the 1930s.

Gibel’ Sensatsii / Loss of Feeling: good-looking film about robots and workers versus capitalists

Aleksandr Andriyevsky, “Gibel’ Sensatsii / Loss of Feeling” (1935)

A very handsome-looking film made in 1935, “Gibel’ Sensatsii” is sometimes also known as “The Robots of Ripley”, “Loss of Feeling” or “The Loss of Sensation”. For a long time the film was thought to be based on Karel Capek’s play “R.U.R.” and some websites still repeat this canard. A young idealistic engineer, Jim Ripley, distressed at the suffering of workers on an assembly line in a factory, invents a line of robots to take over the work. The capitalists who own and run the factory hijack his idea and sack all the humans at the factory, replacing them with the robots. Initially the workers welcome the robots but the capitalists controlling the machines use them to attack and oppress the proletariat. The engineer attempts to regain control of his inventions but fails during the attack. A group of workers manages to subvert the capitalists’ control of the robots and in scenes of fire, destruction and outright warfare, workers and robots alike converge on the capitalists’ hide-out and destroy their slave-masters.

I was daft enough to watch the film without English sub-titles so a lot of the humour in the film went right over my head. There are parts of the film that look like parodies of Hollywood film genres like musicals: in one scene, a chorus line of girls is replicated with a Fred Astaire clone who sings in a high-pitched, effeminate voice. A running gag through the film is that Jim controls the robots he creates by playing a whistle or a saxophone, leading to a very surreal scene in which, drunk, he plays a sax and the giant robots around him sway and dance in time to the music! The capitalists are presented as figures to be ridiculed and the workers, however comic some of them might appear, are usually practical, down-to-earth types who mean well.

The pro-Soviet leanings are deliberate and the film hammers home its loyalty to the Soviet Union heavily. Wealthy capitalist society is decadent and parasitic and the workers, hard-working, patient and enduring, strive for honesty and dignity in their lives when and where they can. If there are hidden messages in the film for audiences in the 1930s to take home, one of them must surely be that no matter how different in looks, cultural background, abilities and skills  robots and workers might be, when both are oppressed by the same enemy, both can and should unite and work to defeat the common foe. The pace of the narrative is slow for much of the movie but in the last half hour the story really starts to speed up as the plot becomes an action thriller piece and segues into war movie mode. Other than the idea of robots replacing workers, being enslaved themselves and joining with the humans to rebel against the factory bosses, the film is not very original in its plot and ideas: even the idea of the robots lacking souls (which gives the film its Russian title) and being unthinking, inhumane automatons is an idea that was already frayed and worn around the edges at the time of the film’s making. Some people might catch an extra level of meaning in the title, in that all humans, be they slave-driver or slave, also lose feeling and connection with one another, their environment and nature generally when placed in situations and relationships where one exploits and bullies the other: certainly the capitalists in the film look as likely to cheat and screw one another as they do to a class of human beings they consider beneath them. Our idealistic engineer, symbolic of the chattering classes and the would-be hero trying to connect heart and head as his counterpart in Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” did successfully, is just as brusquely brushed aside as those he tries to help.

Not being able to concentrate on the dialogue and any hidden messages or puns it might contain meant I was free to savour the film’s visual impact which owes something to the art movements of the 1920s and 1930s; there are scenes that look very Expressionistic, especially in the use of shadows to suggest something sinister about the robots. Film sets are staged with dramatic flair: most sets are very minimal in presentation, allowing action, character (or character stereotypes anyway) and dialogue to dominate. Even outdoor scenes, filmed from afar, have drama as robots and workers from over the far horizons advance together towards the camera. There are some stunning scenes, featuring no dialogue or sound but just music, that hark back to the silent film era. The film’s highlights are scenes where the giant robots feature and of these, the ones that stand out the most are the more surreal scenes such as the dancing robots sequence and the scenes of rebellion and war in the last ten minutes of the film.

The acting is not great and some of it is histrionic and staged even by the standards of populist films aimed at the general public. The characters are representative of a particular kind of story-telling narrative aimed at education and inculcating the right values: the idealistic hero who sacrifices himself trying to do good for his people; the hero’s lady-friend who foresees and dreads the inevitable doom that faces him; the stoic workers, filled with heroic revolutionary spirit but also good-humoured, helpful and ready for a celebration; and the capitalists who never miss an opportunity to amass wealth for themselves, especially if that means treading all over the maximum number of workers possible and exploiting an engineer’s original idea for their selfish ends.

For a film that tries to be everything to everyone – there are elements from science fiction, musical comedies, action thriller films and war movies – “Gibel’ Sensatsii” ties its different influences well together. For non-Russian speakers, it’s not difficult to follow and although it is a propaganda piece of its time, its resolution is ambiguous and open-ended.