Dracula II: Ascension (2003, Patrick Lussier)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: After a prologue in the Czech Republic, the main action takes place in New Orleans (the same location as the first movie). It’s the present day – Dracula is resurrected on 10 March.

Faithful to the novel? This is a straight-to-DVD sequel to Dracula 2000, but title character aside it’s a whole new story. Dracula’s burnt corpse from film one is taken to a morgue, where a drop of blood from the cut finger of attendant Elizabeth (Diane Neal) begins a resurrection process. A guy called Eric (John Light) then offers Elizabeth and her colleague Luke (Jason London) $30 million for the body, so they realise they have a money-spinner on their hands. Elizabeth, Luke and two sidekicks (Blonde With Big Tits and Token Black Guy) take the body to an empty house. They start to experiment on it because Elizabeth’s paraplegic boyfriend, Lowell (Craig Sheffer), wants to see if they can use vampire blood to cure ailments. Dracula soon comes back to life, now played by Stephen Billington (Coronation Street, Hollyoaks). To explain the recasting, vampires are said to have Doctor Who-style regenerations. (Not coincidentally, writer/director Patrick Lussier edited a Doctor Who TV movie in 1996. On this film’s DVD commentary he admits to stealing a distinctive mirror shot from it.) Dracula soon kills Blonde With Big Tits, while Token Black Guy gets turned after injecting himself with vampire blood. When Lowell’s palsy is cured by a similar process, he reveals that he engineered the whole situation in order to get access to vampire blood; Eric is in on the scam too, and possibly Lowell’s lover. Meanwhile, a vampire hunter called Father Uffizi (Jason Scott Lee) is on the team’s trail. We see flashbacks to him being given his mission by his boss (Roy Scheider, who gets a high billing for 60 seconds on screen). They know that Dracula can only die once he’s been given absolution by a Christian priest. But before Uffizi can destroy Dracula, Elizabeth – who has slowly been turning thanks to that early finger injury – helps the vampire escape. It’s a deliberate cliffhanger. The next film in the series, Dracula III: Legacy, was filmed concurrently with this one.

Best performance: Diane Neal is reasonably good. She’s a believable human being.

Best bit: Dracula *bites someone’s face off*.

Review: It’s pacey and lasts just 80 minutes. Maybe it’s too pacey. There are a few jarring leaps forward in the plot. But like the first film in the trilogy there’s also a self-aware B-movie vibe about this. A mixed cast and a dull middle act are problems, while Dracula himself is essentially just a talking MacGuffin. But on the whole it’s shallow fun.

Six abandoned swimming pools out of 10

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Fawlty Towers: The Builders (BBC2, 26 September 1975, John Howard Davies)

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These reviews reveal plot twists.

The hotel needs some minor construction work, but Basil has hired a no-hope builder on the cheap…

Hotel sign: FAWLTY TOWER, with a wonky L.

STAFF:

* Polly’s left in charge of the hotel while Basil and Sybil have a weekend in Paignton. Before he heads off, Basil complains that Polly has left one of her sketches lying around – he describes it as a junkyard with a tie and collar underneath, but Manuel accurately spots that it’s a caricature of Basil. She also sketches Manuel in a bullfighter pose, but is tetchy because she’s not been sleeping well. She then tells Manuel that she’s going to have a siesta. (“Siesta?” he says. “Little sleep? Ah, same in Spanish!”) She therefore naps through the building work she should be overseeing… She later colludes with Basil in a failed lie: she pretends to be builder Mr Stubbs on the phone, but Sybil rumbles her.

* Basil has secretly hired Mr O’Reilly – who was mentioned in episode one – to add a new door and close up another. Sybil thinks they’re using the more trustworthy but more expensive Mr Stubbs, and reckons O’Reilly is a “cut-price cock-up artist”. When Sybil later finds out O’Reilly’s men have fucked up, she’s furious and asks Stubbs to come round to give a quote – so Basil demands O’Reilly put everything right before Stubbs arrives. Their superficially sound work, however, does not stand up to scrutiny…

* Sybil doesn’t seem to be looking forward to her and Basil’s trip (their first weekend off since friend Audrey’s hysterectomy). When she pops back early and discovers what O’Reilly’s men have done, she physically attacks the builder – but she’s later embarrassed when Basil seemingly rectifies the mess before Mr Stubbs comes in to give his opinion.

* Manuel is still slowly learning English (he’s proud that he’s very nearly mastered the phrase “I will get your bill!”). Basil tasks him with cleaning all the windows over the weekend, but when Basil and Sybil go away and Polly has a nap, Manuel revels in being in charge. He preens behind the reception desk and pretends to take important phone calls. However, he makes a royal mess of things when O’Reilly’s men show up.

NOTABLE GUESTS:

* The Major is befuddled when the doorway to the dining room is closed off. “Now, I wonder where it’s got to?”

* Miss Tibbs and Miss Gatsby (now played by Gilly Flower and Renée Roberts) admonish Basil for having a dirty weekend away with his wife. They’re told that, because of the building work, they have to have their dinner at another hotel – Gleneagles, which is a sneaky reference to the real hotel that inspired the series.

OTHERS:

* A delivery man with a south-west accent (George Lee) brings a garden gnome to the hotel (Sybil’s ordered it). Manuel mistakes first him and then the gnome as a guest.

* O’Reilly’s three workmen (Michael Cronin, Michael Halsey, Barney Dorman) show up when Manuel is in charge and have comical miscommunications with him over their names and what needs doing.

* Mr O’Reilly (David Kelly) isn’t seen until the day after the work has been done. He’s a calm, not-quite-all-there man with a mellifluous Irish accent. Basil bullies him into putting right what his men did wrong.

* Mr Stubbs (James Appleby) arrives after the mess has been ‘corrected’. At first he’s impressed, but when Basil reveals that O’Relly used a wooden lintel in a supporting wall, Stubbs is shocked: the hotel could collapse at any moment. (As a thank you for providing them technical information, John Cleese and Connie Booth named the character after the builder father of their friend Una Stubbs.)

A SELECTION OF THE BEST GAGS:

* “Where’s the real boss? The Generalissimo?” the delivery man asks Manuel. Manuel looks shocked: “In Madrid!” (Franco was still fascist dictator of Spain when this episode was made.)

* Manuel holding out the phone receiver to prove to the caller than Basil isn’t in the hotel. (It’s actually Basil on the phone, but Manuel hasn’t twigged that yet.)

* Basil, over the phone, cons Manuel into calling a burly builder a “hideous orang-utan.”

* Basil walking into the empty hotel lobby to find that the work hasn’t been done… but the dining-room door has been bricked up and an extra door has been added at the foot of the stairs. Cleese does a fantastic slow realisation of the latter.

* Polly: “Don’t panic!” Basil, panicking: “What else is there to do?!”

* Polly slaps a hysterical Basil, who then goes to punch her.

* Basil tripping over the out-of-sight gnome.

* Basil bashing a bemused Manuel’s head against the new wall.

* O’Reilly repeatedly uses the term “If the good Lord…”. On the third occasion, Basil interrupts: “…is mentioned once more I shall move you closer to him.”

* Sybil vs O’Reilly.

Outside? We see Basil driving up to the hotel; Sybil also arrives later on and spots that O’Reilly’s van is parked outside.

Dated: ‘Dago’ is a word that’s thankfully vanished from our popular culture.

Henry Kissinger: Still no mention of HK, but another cricketer is invoked when Basil rages at Polly: “Whose fault is it, you cloth-eared bint? Denis Compton’s?!” Compton (1918-1997) played for Middlesex and England, and also played football for Arsenal.

Review: A beautifully paced farce without a single ounce of fat on it anywhere. The momentum is sometimes at a breath-taking speed, while there’s a relentless rush of jokes. But they’re not ‘gags’ plastered on top of the plot. They’re all borne of the characters and the situation. We also get a supreme burst of Basil anger, during which Cleese shows sensational comic energy and control. Polly plays a nice, big role too, and relative TV novice Connie Booth goes toe-to-toe with comedy giant Cleese. One thought, though: why doesn’t Polly hear the building work going on?

Ten licks of paint out of 10.

 

Fawlty Towers: A Touch of Class (BBC2, 19 September 1975, John Howard Davies)

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These reviews reveal plot twists.

Hotel manager Basil Fawlty is overjoyed when a member of the aristocracy comes to stay at his Torquay establishment. However, Lord Melbury is hiding a secret…

Hotel sign: FAWLTY TOWERS, with a wonky S.

STAFF:

* Basil (John Cleese) is teaching new waiter/dogsbody Manuel how to speak English, which is a problem because Basil can’t speak Spanish. Well, he claims he knows classical Spanish, not the “strange dialect” Manuel has picked up from somewhere. Basil has also put an advert in Country Week, which cost a whopping £40 (not the £15 he initially claims). He likes listening to Brahms, and he has a phone conversation with a builder called O’Reilly who has failed to assemble some bricks into the desired wall shape. While fawning over aristocratic guest Lord Melbury, Basil asks a family to move tables in the dining room (he’s pretending that Melbury has a usual, favoured spot). However, when he later learns that Melbury is a conman, Basil goes loopy – and we get blasts of confusion, sarcasm, anger and violence.

* Sybil (Prunella Scales) has been nagging Basil about hanging a picture in the hotel lobby, a task he still hasn’t completed by the end of the episode. Basil is clearly scared of her, but she takes charge when they learn of Melbury’s lies. Despite Basil’s attempt to forbid it, she opens the case of ‘valuables’ that Melbury’s left in the hotel safe – and discovers simply a pair of bricks.

* Manuel (Andrew Sachs) is struggling with his English, though is a well-intentioned soul. He’s over the moon when a guest speaks to him in fluent Spanish (Basil is not impressed at being upstaged), while he later takes Basil’s order to throw away a bruised grapefruit rather literally.

* Polly (Connie Booth) is an art student as well as a Fawlty Towers employee. She earns enough from selling her sketches, she says, to keep her in waitressing. Basil asks her to pop to the bank to get some cash for Lord Melbury, who’s given Basil a cheque (which unknown to Basil will bounce). While there, Polly spots a hotel guest, who reveals he’s actually a copper investigating Melbury. (When this episode was filmed as a pilot, Polly was a philosophy student. Reshoots once the show was picked up changed it to art.)

NOTABLE GUESTS:

* Miss Gatsby and Miss Tibbs (played by uncredited extras) are two of the hotel’s permanent residents. We see them only briefly: Basil and Sybil both go faux polite as they pass.

* A couple didn’t get their alarm call, as the man (David Simeon) keeps jovially emphasising. Basil forgot to wake them, claiming that he’s not perfect.

* The Major (Ballard Berkeley) is another full-time guest. He’s an absentminded old duffer who moans about news of strikes in the paper. He later bores Basil by telling him about a nature documentary he’s been watching.

* Danny Brown (Robin Ellis) appears first as a leather-jacket-wearing wideboy who flirts with Polly and rubs Basil up the wrong way. He has a white sportscar and is the guest who can parlay español. But he’s actually an undercover policeman tracking Lord Melbury.

* Lord Melbury (Michael Gwynn) – as mentioned – is a conman who easily convinces Basil that he’s a genuine posho. He deposits a case of valuable (ie, bricks) in the hotel’s safe as a way of selling the lie that he’s loaded, then tricks Basil into giving him £200 cash. He also plots to swipe Basil’s collection of antique coins before being rumbled by the cops.

* Mr Waring (Terence Conoley) and his family are staying at the hotel but are not likely to give a favourable write-up on TripAdvisor. They get a grapefruit thrown at them, have to move tables mid-meal because Basil’s sucking up to Melbury, and have their drinks order repeatedly ignored.

A SELECTION OF THE BEST GAGS:

* Basil spots Manuel carrying three breakfast trays. “There is too much butter on those trays,” he admonishes. Manuel doesn’t understand, so Basil repeats: “There is too much butter *on* *those* *trays*.” Manuel misunderstands: “No, no, señor. Not ‘on… those… trays’. Uno, dos, tres. Uno, dos, tres.” (See the clip at the foot of this blog post.)

* Mr Brown reading from Basil’s hastily written menu, which contains such typos as ‘gralefrit’ (grapefruit) and ‘carousel’ (casserole).

* Basil ending his phonecall to O’Reilly by telling him to “Go away” after a delicious pregnant pause.

* The phone rings while Basil is hanging the picture. He calls for someone to come and answer it, but snaps “Not you!” when Manuel runs in.

* A nonplussed Basil clanking the bricks together.

* Basil shouting “YOU BASTARD!” at Lord Melbury, then both kicking and asking to punch him once he’s arrested.

* “A gin and orange… a lemon squash… and a Scotch and water please!”

Outside? There’s a fair amount of location filming. We see the steps outside the hotel a few times, most notably at the end when Melbury is being taken away. Polly is also seen in Torquay, coming out of the bank and then spotting Brown on his stakeout.

Dated: Basil’s reverence to the aristocracy is something that maybe wouldn’t fly as well in a modern sitcom.

Henry Kissinger: The former US Secretary of State is not mentioned in this episode, but cricketer Basil D’Oliveira (1931-2011) gets a namecheck – the Major is cheered when he reads that Dolly’s scored a century.

Review: What a brilliant scene-setter. It might have a simple plot when compared with what’s to follow – the twist is hardly unpredictable – but the characters and situation are set up with panache and confidence. The themes of class and social etiquette are the basis of this episode, and they’ll recur as the series progresses. Basil gets into these messes because he’s terrified of being embarrassed. The writing is so impressive, packing a huge amount into a half-hour. And it’s sheer poetry how well the script manoeuvres the pieces around the chessboard – just check out how Basil’s mood is artfully shifted, balanced and prodded so each subsequent scene gets funnier and funnier.

Nine singles (no, make it a double: I feel lucky tonight) out of 10.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003, Stephen Norrington)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: 1899 – London in April, Berlin in May, Kenya in June, and London, Paris, Venice, the open seas and Mongolia in July.

Faithful to the novel? This steampunk-influenced mash-up movie, which throws together various icons of 19th-century fiction, was based on a comic-book series by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill. The film’s connection to Bram Stoker’s novel is the use of Mina Harker (played here by Peta Wilson), who joins the eponymous team of heroes. Her husband, Jonathan, has died and she’s now a vampire who can turn into a colony of bats yet seems okay with sunlight and can control her bloodlust. She also knows fellow League member Dorian Gray, with whom she shares a snog at one point; she feels betrayed when he’s revealed to be a baddie. Away from Stoker, the other key fictional creations being plundered are:

* Allan Quatermain (Sean Connery), the hero of H. Rider Haggard’s 1885 novel King Soloman’s Mines and its sequels.

* M (Richard Roxburgh), who at first is presented as a Victorian equivalent of James Bond’s boss from Ian Fleming’s novels (1953 onwards) and their movie adaptations (1962 onwards). The character is later revealed to actually be Professor James Moriarty, Sherlock Holmes’s arch-nemesis from Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story The Final Problem (1893).

* Captain Nemo (Naseeruddin Shah) from Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea (1870) and The Mysterious Island (1874), two novels by Jules Verne.

* Rodney Skinner (Tony Curran), a character created for the film who’s said to have stolen the invisibility formula from the guy in HG Wells’s 1987 novella The Invisible Man.

* Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend) from Oscar Wilde’s 1890 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray.

* Tom Sawyer (Shane West), who appeared in four Mark Twain novels between 1876 and 1896.

* Dr Henry Jekyll (Jason Flemyng) from Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella.

* Phileas Fogg from Verne’s novel Around the World in Eighty Days (1873) is also mentioned.

Best performance: Oh, I don’t know. Tony Curran’s funny, I suppose.

Best bit: An info-dump scene 64 minutes in, which is heard by the characters as a gramophone recording – but which we see as period-quality, black-and-white footage with the baddies talking straight to camera.

Review: At first, you think this is going to be fun. A crack team of famous characters from different fictions is brought together to fight a common enemy in a swashbuckling, derring-do adventure. But the cliché-happy dialogue, affected performances and general lack of both nuance and oomph wear you down very quickly. On the upside, the sets and costumes are gorgeous – especially those connected to Nemo’s submarine – so just watch with the sound turned down.

Four “automobiles” out of 10

Strangeways, Here We Come (1987)

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Title: A reference to what is now called HM Prison Manchester. By the time the album was released in September 1987, the group had actually broken up – prompted by Johnny Marr’s decision to quit.

Cover: A poor-quality image of actor Richard Davalos taken from 1955 movie East of Eden – he’s looking at an out-of-shot James Dean. Morrissey originally wanted Harvey Keitel as the cover star but the actor refused to give his permission.

Best song: Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me is a fucking epic. It has a lengthy prologue of moody piano and sound effects of a baying crowd. Then when the track explodes into life at the 1.53 mark, it’s a glorious switch to blockbusting widescreen. Majestic, theatrical, histrionic, bold, *beautiful*.

Honourable mentions:

* A Rush and a Push and the Land is Ours has a pleasant rolling rhythm with some off-beat keyboard accents. No guitars at all appear on the track – a deliberate move on Marr’s part, given that the group were famed as a guitar band. Its title is a reference to 19th-century Irish nationalism.

* I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish is joyous. It has a stop-start guitar intro, then bursts forth with a catchy and likeable melody. And it’s a full sound of heavy guitar slashes, saxophone blasts created on a synth, and a relentless big snare-drum sound. Morrissey didn’t like the song but nevertheless has great fun with the vocals, even growling the words at times. The lyrics are about making an ill-judged pass on a platonic friend – whether the resulting “18 months hard labour” is meant to be literal or psychological is open to debate.

* Death of a Disco Dancer has a mesmeric cyclical chord sequence driven by a solemn bassline. Marr based it on the Beatles’ Dear Prudence. About halfway through, the song kicks into an even more intense gear – Andy Rourke’s bass jumps up an octave, Marr goes mental on the guitar, Mike Joyce cracks off some drum fills, and Morrissey rather haphazardly bashes at a piano (his only musical contribution to a Smiths song). It’s a genuine disappointment when it ends.

* Girlfriend in a Coma is another hit-and-run track (it’s only just over two minutes). After a seesawing bass intro, it’s superficially similar to The Hand That Rocks The Cradle but is a more upbeat piece of music. Reportedly Marr was so against this being a single that its release contributed to his decision to quit the band. (It got to number 13: not bad for a ditty with such bleak lyrics.) Douglas Coupland, who coined the term ‘Generation X’, later named a novel after this song.

* Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before – Morrissey was enjoying wordy song titles in 1987! – was meant to be the album’s lead single. A music video was even made. However, the line “the pain was enough to make a shy, bald Buddhist reflect and plan a mass murder” meant the BBC refused to play it in the aftermath of the Hungerford shootings. So the 7” was scrapped. The song is terrific.

* Unhappy Birthday pairs a nasty, spiteful lyric with an upbeat tune. It works. Who wouldn’t be charmed by the way Morrissey’s vocal comes in a beat before the music at 1.59?

* Paint a Vulgar Picture is a witty satire of the record industry. It bangs on a bit, though.

* I Won’t Share You was the last track recorded for the album and coincidentally its moody finale. The chords are actually the same as 1986 single Ask, but the tranquil, plaintive mood of the song disguises the similarity. Marr plays an autoharp (a stringed instrument with dampers that mute all the strings not being used); Andy Rourke adds a simple bassline, while Mike Joyce doesn’t feature on the recording at all. Despite the use of the word ‘she’, the lyrics have been interpreted by most as being an open letter from Morrissey to Marr as their creative partnership teetered on the brink.

Worst song: Death At One’s Elbow is going for a 1950s, skiffle vibe. But it’s quite annoying.

Review: Sheen. That’s the word for it. The whole album sounds *superb* – clean, professional, summery and breezy at times, dark and mysterious when necessary. But Paint a Vulgar Picture’s prolixity and Death At One Elbow’s dullness mean it doesn’t quite get a maximum score.

Nine sycophantic slags out of 10.

The World Won’t Listen (1987)

…including a section on Louder Than Bombs (1987)

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Title: The World Won’t Listen’s title is another complaint from Morrissey that the band weren’t getting enough – or the right kind of – attention. This album is a kind of sequel to Hatful of Hollow, mopping up recent non-album singles and B-sides. I’ll restrict myself to discussion of songs not available on albums I’ve already reviewed.

Cover: A photograph by Jürgen Vollmer, a German art student who met the Beatles in the early 60s and took some now-famous pictures of them. Cassette and CD versions crop the original image significantly.

Best song:

* Rubber Ring was a B-side to The Boy With The Thorn in His Side. It begins with a jazzy bass lick, then settles into a vaguely reggae rhythm. The track is soulful and mysterious and enigmatic. An ode to the power of music, the lyrics are really well sung by Morrissey. The song also uses some samples: a snatch of John Gielgud from a 1969 audio recording of The Importance of Being Earnest (“Everybody’s clever nowadays…”), and a 1971 clip of a woman claiming to be reciting messages from the dead (”You are sleeping! You do not want to believe!”). On the 12”, the track cutely segued into fellow B-side Asleep – sadly, although both tracks appear on this album, they’ve been sequenced separately.

Honourable mentions:

* Panic (a single in July 1986) was the first Smiths recording with new fifth member Craig Gannon. He’d been hired to replace bassist Andy Rourke due to the latter’s drug habit; when Rourke was reinstated, Gannon moved to second guitarist but only lasted a few months. A short and punchy guitar song, Panic has lyrics attacking modern music. The refrain “Hang the DJ!” was – maybe apocryphally – inspired by Radio 1’s Steve Wright following a news report about the Chernobyl disaster with Wham!’s upbeat I’m Your Man. Anyone criticising Steve Wright is going to be in my good books.

* Ask was released as an A-side in October 1986, though this version is a slight remix. It’s based on a chord sequence allegedly cooked up by Gannon, who to his chagrin wasn’t credited. Lightweight but likeable.

* London, a B-side on the 12” of Shoplifters of the World Unite, has a terrific urgency about it. The incessant drums dramatise the lyric’s story about a journey to Euston, echoing a train’s buffeting rhythm. An almost punk guitar drives the track along, while the bassline chugs away brilliantly. With 40 seconds to go, the song switches mood and we get arpeggio guitar and madcap drumming.

* Shakespeare’s Sister was single flop in March 1985 (if number 26 can be considered a flop, which a lot of people did at the time). Another Smiths song about suicide, its title alludes to Virginia Woolf’s feminist argument that if Shakespeare had had a talented sister she would never have been given equal credit. It’s maybe an interesting song rather than a purely entertaining one. It’s only 128 seconds, but fits a lot in: a fun intro, changes of rhythm, and more action-packed drumming.

* Shoplifters of the World Unite had been a single in January 1987. It was recorded at Trident Studios in Soho, which the Beatles used in 1968 and which is only a two-minute walk from my office. Obviously punning on Karl Marx, its lyrics are said to be about Morrissey’s habit of cribbing material from other sources. The track has a surprising switch to rock at the 1.41 mark, when Johnny Marr cranks open a very 1980s-sounding guitar solo, his first true solo on a Smiths record.

* Money Changes Everything was only on cassette versions of this album at the time (and then subsequent CD reissues). It had been the B-side to Bigmouth Strikes Again and is a rare Smiths instrumental. Inconsequential fun, the track was later given lyrics and renamed The Right Stuff by Bryan Ferry. Marr himself played on the resulting travesty.

* Half a Person was Shoplifters’ B-side and is thoroughly gorgeous. Full of linguistic oddities, the words swim their way through some delightfully arranged music. A joy.

* Stretch Out and Wait had been a B-side on the Shakespeare’s Sister 12”, but this a slightly different version with some added sound effects. It has a great acoustic feel – check out the soft rattles of snare drum! – while a lyric celebrating sex is not something you hear often in the Smiths’ discography.

* Oscillate Wildly, the band’s first instrumental, had been a B-side to How Soon Is Now? in January 1985. Morrissey seems to have been happy not to feature (though he still insisted a co-writer’s credit). Built around a piano phrase, the track also uses a cello part played by Andy Rourke and some fake woodwind instruments. It’s rather magnificent.

* You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby was recorded in October 1986 as a potential single. But it was shelved in favour of Shoplifters, so is the only exclusive track on this compilation. It’s a jingle-jangle-tastic pop song with a catchy chorus.

Worst song: Golden Lights was originally a B-side to Ask, then added as a bonus track to CD reissues of this album. It’s absolutely *ghastly*.

Review: There’s loads of great stuff here, though obviously most of it would have been familiar to fans at the time.

Eight provincial towns you jog round out of 10.

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Louder Than Bombs: A few weeks after the release of The World Won’t Listen, US label Sire brought out Louder Than Bombs. This American compilation more or less merged The World Won’t Listen with the earlier Hatful of Hollow, but because it also contained three tracks not on any other LP it was soon available in the UK too. Its title is a quotation from Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept, a favourite prose poem of Morrissey’s. The cover is an image of Shelagh Delaney, the writer of A Taste of Honey and one of Mozzer’s heroines. The songs not available on previous albums are…

* Is It Really So Strange? (a B-side on Sheila Take a Bow) is from a December 1986 BBC radio session. An earlier attempt to record it had disappointed the group. It’s a decent track, though perhaps a strange choice for the opener to Louder Than Bombs. Morrissey’s lyrics are funny: “I got confused, I killed a horse/I can’t help the way I feel.”

* Sheila Take A Bow, released as a single in April 1987, is sadly one of the band’s poorest A-sides.

* Sweet and Tender Hooligans, a B-side on Sheila’s 12”, is a blistering burst of guitar rock. A return to the brutal attacking style of Handsome Devil, the song starts with a cunning bit of stereo mixing as the guitar riff flits around the channels. Like Is It Really So Strange?, this version was recorded for the BBC.

* The edit of You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby is a different mix.

* Stretch Out and Wait is the original B-side cut, which has slightly different lyrics.

The Batman vs Dracula (2005, Michael Goguen)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: Gotham City, the present day.

Faithful to the novel? No, it’s using the character of Dracula as a villain. This feature-length animated film was a straight-to-DVD spin-off from The Batman (2004-2008), a 65-episode cartoon series. In it, the coffin of Count Dracula (Peter Stormare) is found in a Gotham cemetery by the Penguin (Tom Kenny), who has recently escaped from Arkham Asylum and is looking for some lost loot. A drop of the Penguin’s blood inadvertently brings the vampire back to life. He initially appears haggard and corpse-like, but grows stronger and more human-looking as he feeds. We see flashbacks to him being staked years earlier in Transylvania; his body was then moved to Gotham for reasons unknown. We also learn that the count was once married to Carmilla Karnstein (from Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1871 novella), who he now wants to resurrect. Dracula hypnotises the Penguin into being his acolyte (he’s this story’s Renfield), and also assembles a gang of followers by turning them (temporarily, as it turns out) into vampires. Meanwhile, millionaire Bruce Wayne (Rino Romano) is dating journalist Vicki Vale (Tara Strong). Dracula meets them both when he gatecrashes a party – using the alias Dr Alucard – and identifies Vicki as a means of helping Carmilla. When his battle of wits with Dracula gets underway, the Batman uses the infected Joker (Kevin Michael Richardson) to research a cure. But it’s by targeting a new solar-energy machine, which was clumsily seeded earlier in the story, that he’s finally able to defeat the vampire.

Best performance: Thomas Chase Jones’s music is superb, especially when using flashes of rock guitar.

Best bit: The Batman and Dracula’s first fight – staged on rooftops, Dracula has the upper hand with ease.

Review: The meeting of Batman and Dracula, two bat-related fictional icons who have had many incarnations, is an interesting one. The Count himself even draws the parallel in this film: “My legacy has been quite influential,” he says. And this animated special makes great play of the characters’ connection. Bruce Wayne even has a psychologically resonant dream in which the Batman and Dracula are merged into one creature. The plot might be simple, but the stylish animation and genuinely scary sequences mean this film is entertaining enough. Although superficially similar, it’s unrelated to Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, which I reviewed elsewhere on this site. It’s a new continuity and a new cast.

Seven lost ones out of 10

The Queen is Dead (1986)

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Title: It’s been 10,675 days since this album was released. And she’s still going.

Cover: An image of actor Alain Delon, taken from 1964 film L’Insoumis. It’s been tinted green to give it a vaguely Victorian-death-chic look.

Best song: It’s impossible to pick just one.

* The title track, which starts the album, is very possibly the band’s greatest achievement. It begins with a cold open: a short clip cribbed from a 1962 film called The L-Shaped Room in which a character sings an old music-hall standard. We’re in the past – the world is black-and-white, there’s Blitz spirit and kitchen-sink drama. Then the switch to Mike Joyce’s tribal-drum patterns is a time-travelling jolt, thrusting us into the *here and fucking now*. Based on an idea Johnny Marr had been working on for years, the music has a ‘garage band’ intensity. There’s feedback, there’s a grungy bass riff, there are wah-wah guitar washes. In the family tree of Manchester indie bands, here’s the link between the dark, hypnotic mood of Joy Division and the sparkling, dance-influenced groove of the Stone Roses. It’s incredibly powerful music that demands to be played loud. And then Morrissey provides probably his strongest ever lyric: an arch mish-mash of monarchy-bashing, secrets in your heritage and disillusionment with society.

* I Know It’s Over is the heartbeat of this album. The Smiths have often been the target of ridicule because of a perceived obsessed with depression, suicide, self-pity and other ‘angsty’ topics. But to paraphrase a character in The West Wing when talking about the use of the word ‘liberal’ as a negative, if you throw these terms at the band’s feet, they’ll pick them up and proudly wear them as a badge. After the song’s backing track had been finished without his input, Morrissey walked into the studios and recorded his vocal. His band mates had no idea what he was going to do, and that day in autumn 1985 they were shocked by his stunning vocal performance. The rest of us still are. This is a *heartbreakingly* tender confession of loneliness and helplessness, which would only fail to move a misanthropic dullard. But it’s far from one-dimensional. There’s a clever switch to a second character’s voice (“And you even spoke to me and said…”), while the lyric also contains some touching altruistic advice to those who *are* happy (“Handsome groom, give her room…”). If anything the song is even more impressive musically. The pulse of the bass guitar, the chiming guitar flourishes, the subtle string effects… It’s a gorgeous, grown-up, complex arrangement that builds in intensity across six minutes. It’s literally perfect.

Honourable mentions:

* Frankly, Mr Shankly starts with comically lumbering bass notes, then we get a lyric about being fame-hungry. It’s said to be a coded dig at the band’s record-label boss, Geoff Travis, specifically in its reference to “bloody awful poetry”.

* Cemetry Gates (the spelling error was made at the time) is a lyrical gymnastics routine. Morrissey uses a day spent gravestone-spotting as a witty metaphor for his own habit of stealing lyrics from other people. He and a friend trade quotations – Keats, Yeats and Wilde are name-checked, Shakespeare alluded to – each claiming poets to be on their team. Morrissey then places his tongue firmly in his cheek and sings, “Don’t plagiarise or take on loan/There’s always someone, somewhere, with a big nose who knows and who trips you up and laughs when you fall.” And the punchline comes when he claims Oscar Wilde is on his side. Wilde, after all, once said, “Talent borrows, genius steals.” Wanting to challenge himself, Johnny Marr set out to write something special for the music. He soon stumbled on a chord change (B minor to G) that, the other way round, had famously excited John Lennon while co-writing I Want To Hold Your Hand. Marr’s resulting melody is upbeat, busy and effortlessly charming, while Andy Rouke’s bass plays a big role in the urgency of the track.

* Bigmouth Strikes Again was Marr consciously trying to ape the Rolling Stones classic Jumpin’ Jack Flash (he wanted “something that was a rush all the way through”). It’s a big song, mixed for a 3D effect. The only flaw is some ill-advised high-pitched backing vocals. Obviously, the title refers to Morrissey himself – specifically, one assumes, the way people often take him too literally. A 7” single in May 1986, this song was the band’s first material released in eight months due to legal problems. The last single before the hiatus had been…

* The Boy With The Thorn in His Side was the first track recorded for the album, based on a musical idea Marr had been busking during recent sound checks. Morrissey’s lyrics are about the music press not appreciating him and the band. He once said it was his favourite Smiths song. It’s absolutely delightful.

* There is a Light That Never Goes Out has an attention-grabbing opening that tells you something important is about to happen. One of the Smiths’ most famous and popular tracks (rightly so), the idea that this should be a single was astonishingly rejected in favour of Bigmouth Strikes Again. This song is actually built on the same chord sequence as Bigmouth, but they’re a world apart tonally. This has an emotive string part and a flute melody, which add extra beauty and sentimentality to Morrissey’s wonderful lyrics. Seemingly about suicide, the words actually have an underlying optimism: the character only wants death because he knows life will never be this good again – he wants to preserve a moment of happiness. Stirring, crafted and catchy, this is a stadium-rock anthem in disguise. The one time I’ve seen Morrissey live, in Manchester on 11 July 2004, he performed this song. There were tens of thousands of us singing along with him:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xXwIOvICyVs

Worst song: Vicar in a Tutu is slightly irritating filler. It also goes out of time.

Review: A glorious kaleidoscope of styles, tones, emotions, musical invention and dazzling wordplay. The Smiths’ masterpiece, and a strong contender for the best album of the 1980s.

Ten dreaded sunny days out of 10.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992, Francis Ford Coppola)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: There’s a prologue set in Transylvania in 1462. We then cut to London, 1897 (‘Four centuries later,’ a caption helpfully tells viewers with poor maths). The film is littered with mentions of dates, a way of echoing the novel’s use of diaries, letters and newspaper articles. Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) is on his way to Castle Dracula on 25 May. On 30 May, diary entries from Harker, Mina (Winona Ryder) and Dr Seward (Richard E Grant) are read out as voiceover. We hear extracts from the log of the Demeter dated 27 June and 3 July. Having arrived in the UK, Dracula (Gary Oldman) rises from his coffin on 7 July. Harker’s finally escaped the castle by 12 August. On 17 September, he returns to London. And Harker’s diary tells us that he and his colleagues are chasing the count across Europe on 28 October.

Faithful to the novel? At the time of the film’s release, much publicity was made of it being an unusually unswerving adaptation of Stoker’s text. It is roughly the same story. However, *lots* of things have been changed, such as:

* Dracula actually is Vlad the Impaler, a 15th-century psychopath who enjoyed torturing his enemies. Stoker certainly took inspiration from the historical figure when researching his novel, and Van Helsing suggests a connection between the two men – but this movie began a vogue for making it much more literal.

* Mina is the reincarnation of Vlad’s lost love, Elisabeta, who committed suicide when she was tricked into thinking Vlad had been killed. When he learns what she’s done, Vlad seemingly just decides to become immortal so he can avenge her death. (He blames God rather than the Turk who lied to her.)

* Once the story moves to the Victorian era, the role of Renfield (Tom Waits) has been changed: in this version he was a solicitor who visited Dracula and came back insane.

* Unlike the novel, the film presents events in chronological order, so Harker’s experiences at the castle are intercut with Mina and others back in Britain.

* Something that *is* faithful to the book is that when Harker first meets Dracula, the vampire appears to be elderly and only becomes visually younger as he feeds. It’s a detail that’s often ignored in adaptations. Oldman’s old-man make-up makes him look like the Emperor from Return of the Jedi.

* Dracula is buying 10 properties in London, not just Carfax Abbey.

* It’s possible Whitby is ignored. The Demeter lands at a seaside town with vertiginous headlands, but the rest of the UK action appears to all take place in London. Lucy’s mother is also absent from this version.

* Mina’s friendship with Lucy (Sadie Frost) is a touch more salacious: they get giggly while looking at sexually explicit drawings in a book, while they share a cheeky kiss at one point.

* Dracula can move around in the daytime.

* Newly arrived in London, Dracula spots Mina and recognises her as the reincarnation of Elisabeta. A newly invented subplot sees them then have an affair of sorts, which runs parallel to his pursuit of Lucy. The story’s chronology is rejigged significantly around this section.

* Dracula is often in the form of a wolf, and even becomes a big human/bat type monster.

* When under Dracula’s influence, Mina seduces Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins). He’s well up for the kiss-kiss, but pulls away when she tries to bite him.

* Mina kills Dracula.

Best performance: Richard E Grant is probably the best of a bad bunch, playing a half-klutzy, half-junkie Seward.

Best bit: Jonathan Harker’s more-sexual-than-usual encounter with the Brides (one of whom is Monica Bellucci).

Review: Francis Ford Coppola had impressive form when it came to making great cinema out of a potboiler novel. But the magic dust he sprinkled over The Godfather got blown away by a stiff breeze here. The movie certainly looks good, especially in inventive sequences such as the puppet-show-like flashbacks. There are plenty of impressively in-camera special effects. And the notion of Dracula’s shadow having a mind of its own is a neat idea that very nearly works. But this is a terrible film. The cast are appalling – most notably the horrendously miscast Keanu Reeves – while it gets thunderingly boring about halfway in. Ideas get set up then abandoned and there are also lots of jarring oddities, such as Victorian gentlemen not spotting that a woman’s breast is exposed, which make you question how firmly focused Coppola’s directorial eye was. The film also loses at least two marks for codifying the dreary cliché that Dracula is Vlad the Impaler.

Three beheadings out of 10

Meat is Murder (1985)

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Title: Eating dead animals is a bad thing.

Cover: A photograph of Marine Corporal Michael Wynn during the Vietnam War, taken from a 1968 documentary called In the Year of the Pig. It appears four times (but only once on the CD version). The original wording on his helmet – ‘Make war not love’ – has been changed to the album’s title. It reflects the more overtly political attitude in Morrissey’s lyrics.

Best song: Barbarism Begins At Home is the band’s longest song (6.57), but could be several hundred times that length before it outstayed its welcome. Like How Soon Is Now?, it’s a bit of an oddity in the discography. At face value, the gloomy, suicidal, flower-waving, Coronation Street-quoting Morrissey shouldn’t be singing on a funk track. But Mozzer seems to be enjoying this impression of Chic – he even yelps with delight at various points. His pithy lyrics are about parental violence, but (again like How Soon Is Now?) he knows when to get out of the way. A bulk of the song is given over to the rhythm section, and the more the song goes on it’s increasingly Andy Rouke who steps into the spotlight. His bassline is out of this world. I want to have its babies.

Honourable mentions:

* The Headmaster Ritual has a sensational staccato intro beat that kick-starts the album. And then we get one of Morrissey’s priceless opening gambits: “Belligerent ghouls run Manchester schools…” It’s an anti-corporal-punishment lyric, and the first of many songs on this LP about violence. Johnny Marr’s George Harrison-influenced riff and Rouke’s bubbling bassline make for a dynamic groove: another theme on this album.

* Rusholme Ruffians has traces of skiffle and rockabilly. The lyrics were partly cribbed from a Victoria Wood comedy song called Fourteen Again (and contain more talk of violence). They fit the circus beat of the music really well.

* What She Said is like a ferocious series of whip-cracks. Basically just a whirling dervish of a guitar riff and a never-ending drum fill, it’s hypnotic stuff. The spell is only broken by a dramatically sudden conclusion. How else could it end?

* That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore is Marr’s favourite Smiths song. It’s easy to see why. It’s big and majestic, but also dark and dangerous. The guitars are icy cool, it has a cheeky fake fade-out, and Mike Joyce’s drumming is terrific.

* How Soon Is Now? was on the US version of the album and some CD reissues in the UK. I banged on about its undimmed glory in the review of Hatful of Hollow. In terms of Meat is Murder’s running order, sadly it sticks out like a sore thumb in sixth place. It’s best to sequence around it.

* Nowhere Fast is a comedy sketch of a song, with a witty lyric about exposing yourself to Elizabeth II. (That’s nothing compared to what’ll happen to her in the next album.) The wordplay alone is worth the price of the album. But the vaudeville storytelling shouldn’t distract from how artful the music is – check out the way the band dramatises Morrissey’s line about “When a train goes by…” There’s even something approaching a guitar solo – a real Smiths rarity.

* Well I Wonder is quietly magnificent with a gorgeous, low-key acoustic arrangement. (It was actually released marginally earlier than the rest of the album, as the B-side to How Soon Is Now?)

Worst song: The title track is sanctimonious drivel. A dull enough song to begin with, it then has mooing cows and machine noises dubbed onto it. Subtle.

Review: Another stunner. It was the band’s only number-one album – not bad for a second studio LP self-produced by 25-year-old Morrissey and 21-year-old Marr.

Nine kitchen aromas out of 10.