Horror Marathon: The Halloween film series

To celebrate 40 years since the release of influential horror film Halloween, I recently rewatched it… and then delved into all the sequels, spin-offs and reboots. It was often fun. It was often dispiriting. And that was just trying to keep track of all the times films ignore previous entries in the series. Here’s my journey into darkness…

Spoiler warning: Minor plot points may be revealed.

1. Halloween (1978, John Carpenter)
Fifteen years after he murdered his sister, psychiatric patient Michael Myers escapes hospital, returns to his home town and targets a group of young friends…

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It’s a staggeringly simple story – a ruthless, seemingly unstoppable killer picks off victims one by one – and has been copied endlessly ever since. But the first modern slasher film is still the best. Made for just $325,000, it’s a stripped-down, economical movie: trim, taut and terrifically constructed. Carpenter’s script has no flab on it and his shooting style is a masterclass in how to create mood and suspense. The widescreen anamorphic format keeps you looking for threats and danger in every corner of the frame, while long Panaglide shots give scenes a formal, elegant beauty. (The latter also sometimes act as Michael’s point of view, such as in the film’s bravura opening: a four-minute long take as he stalks and murders his sister.) But for a film about a violent killer, there’s actually little gore on display; Halloween is more about tension and scares. In her first ever movie, Jamie Lee Curtis is very good as virginal lead character Laurie Strode, one of the horror genre’s definitive final girls. Donald Pleasance adds a bit of class as Michael’s manic psychiatrist, Dr Loomis. And the excellent incidental music (written by the director) is both creepy and catchy.
Nine jack-o’-lanterns out of 10.

2. Halloween II (1981, Rick Rosenthal)
Later that same night, Michael Myers continues to terrorise teenagers in the town of Haddonfield…

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This direct follow-on picks up at the very moment that film one finished. John Carpenter co-wrote the script and produced, but later said he didn’t think he did a very good job. An injured and shaken Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis again, though given far less to do this time) spends most of the film in the world’s quietest hospital as Michael’s killing spree continues. Meanwhile, Dr Loomis continues trying to hunt Michael down. It’s a shlockier film than the original: there’s deliberately more gore, because the horror genre had moved on swiftly in the three years since the original, and more nudity too. But it’s still tense and scary enough to be basely entertaining. The imaginatively staged deaths are far more interesting than the new sacrificial characters, while the incidental music is again fantastic.
Retcon alert! In the first film, Michael targeted Laurie simply because he happened to see her near his childhood home. But we’re now told that they’re siblings: Laurie was adopted at a young age by the Strode family after older brother Michael went loopy. Not even Dr Loomis, Michael’s long-time psychiatrist, knew about the link until this film.
Six hydrothermal baths out of 10.

3. Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982, Tommy Lee Wallace)
A doctor and a grieving daughter investigate a mysterious toy company… 

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The oddity of the Halloween series: a self-contained horror story that has nothing to do with Michael Myers, Laurie Strode or the town of Haddonfield. In fact, it’s not even a slasher film. Season of the Witch is more like the kind of plot later seen in The X-Files – there’s horror and there are deaths, but it’s a conspiracy thriller about a spooky business run by a man with a secret, and the film is more about computers and CCTV cameras than a crank with a carving knife. It’s *wonderful*, a real gem that deserves a much better reputation. There’s a fantastic oddball tone to the whole thing (while still being scary), as well as an amazing score by producer John Carpenter and some very classy camerawork by cinematographer Dean Cundey (Halloween, the Back to the Future series, Jurassic Park).
Retcon alert! The original Halloween film actually exists in this story’s fiction – characters watch a TV advert for an upcoming screening.
Eight Shamrock Novelties masks out of 10

4. Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988, Dwight H Little)
On the tenth anniversary of his killing spree, Michael Myers escapes once again and returns to Haddonfield to target his seven-year-old niece…

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He’s back. After Season of the Witch’s attempt to morph the series into an anthology of different threats, Michael Myers was resurrected and wheeled out for a third iteration of the same basic slasher storyline. It’s 1988, 10 years on from the events of the first two films, and Michael learns that his sister Laurie has died in a car crash. (Jamie Lee Curtis, by now a huge star thanks to world-class comedy turns in Trading Places and A Fish Called Wanda, didn’t want to come back.) So instead Michael goes after her young daughter, the aptly named Jamie played a not-bad Danielle Harris. Meanwhile, poor old Dr Loomis gives chase again, this time with a scarred face and a walking stick after the trauma he suffered in film two. Original co-writer/director John Carpenter had left the series after Season of the Witch, which may explain why this film is so plodding and why most of the deaths lack the shock factor of the original or the flamboyance of Halloween II. But let’s give the movie an extra mark for its unsettling – and genuinely unexpected – ending.
Retcon alert! Both Michael and Loomis were patently killed in Halloween II, but now we’re told that they were ‘nearly’ burnt to death.
Five roofs out of 10

5. Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (1989, Dominque Othenin-Girard)
A year later: the presumed-dead Michael Myers returns to Haddonfield (again) to continue his persecution of his niece…

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After a recap of film four, which has some new footage to explain that Michael actually survived a hail of bullets and crawled away into the woods, we cut to a year later. It’s Halloween again and the town of Haddonfield is tempting fate again by celebrating it. After her trauma in the last movie, young Jamie (Danielle Harris, impressively intense throughout) is now in a children’s hospital. She’s troubled, mute and scared, while Dr Loomis (a frail-sounding Donald Pleasance) is still keeping a watch over her. And we meet a whole new gang of kids for Michael to kill: a desperately drab gang, one of whom is a prick who dresses up as Michael Myers *as a prank*. This film was directed by Dominique Othenin-Girard, who later made the appalling Omen IV. He does a terrible job. It’s shot and cut like a TV movie; many scenes feel rushed or abrupt; Michael’s first kill is confusing because the camera ‘crosses the line’; there’s precious little tension; the story is forgettable; and the deaths lack theatricality. The script is atrocious too.
Retcon alert! Not so much a contradiction, more a confirmation, but Michael’s supernatural quality is finally made explicit in this film. In earlier films we’ve been invited to question whether he’s something more than a man – he’s repeatedly survived being shot and burnt, for example. But now we learn that he has a psychic connection with his niece.
Three comedy cops (scored by cartoon incidental music) out of 10

6. Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995, Joe Chappelle)
Michael escapes from a secretive cult who have been holding him prisoner for six years and continues his quest to murder his family…

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Decidedly unscary and exceedingly boring, this film sees the series sink lower than ever before. Jamie (recast with JC Brandy) is now a teenager and has been held captive by ritual-loving weirdos for six years. She gives birth, then escapes with her baby. So uncle Michael gives chase – back to Haddonfield (again)… A lost-looking Paul Rudd (Clueless, Friends, Ant-Man) plays Tommy Doyle, a character who was a child in the original film; he’s now an adult with a Michael Myers obsession who pervs at his next-door neighbour who just happens to be related to Laurie Strode and lives in Michael’s childhood home. A visibly unwell Donald Pleasance returns for a final time as Dr Loomis (the actor died before the film was released), and the plot picks up hints from Halloween II that there’s a supernatural reason why Michael always strikes on 31 October. But this is a truly abysmal film. The script is half-arsed horseshit, and it’s directed with the nuance of a wrecking ball. There’s an obsession with empty, artificial, horror-movie clichés, for example, while none of the characters feels even remotely real.
Retcon alert! At the end of Halloween 5, we saw a mysterious ‘man in black’ character take Michael away but leave Jamie behind. Now, we’re told that he kidnapped Jamie too – and both have been locked away in an underground bunker ever since.
Two radio phone-ins out of 10

7. Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later (1998, Steve Miner)
Having faked her death, Laurie Strode is living under an assumed name and working as a school headmistress. But then, two decades after her encounter with brother Michael Myers, he returns…

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Laurie Strode is living under a new identity, having gone into hiding after the events of Halloween II. She has a 17-year-old son, who goes to the secluded private school where she works, but she’s dogged by nightmares and has a drink problem. On the 20th anniversary of her encounter with Michael, her brother shows up again intent on killing her, so Laurie decides to fight back… A *galactic* leap up in quality from the previous few movies, this project was instigated by Jamie Lee Curtis. The script has life and bounce to it, while there’s a confidence and a competency to the staging. Because it’s the postmodern 1990s, we also get plenty of knowing references to other horror films – the Friday the 13th series, Scream 2, Frankenstein, Psycho… (Among several nods to the granddaddy of slasher films is the casting of Jamie Lee Curtis’s mother, Psycho star Janet Leigh, in a small role.) The school setting, teenage characters and funny dialogue are also reminiscent of TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, while a more-interesting-than-usual guest cast (Adam Arkin, Michelle Williams, LL Cool J) only add to what is a very enjoyable slasher movie.
Retcon alert! The last three films are wiped from the narrative slate completely. Laurie’s off-screen death, Laurie’s daughter, Michael’s extra killing sprees – all are now ignored. This presents the oddity that Michael and Dr Loomis’s deaths in Halloween II are being retconned for a second time.
Eight ice skates out of 10

8. Halloween: Resurrection (2002, Rick Rosenthal)
A group of kids take part in a reality show filmed inside Michael Myers’s childhood home. But they don’t know he’s in the house too…

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After an opening 15-minute sequence that’s basically an extended Jamie Lee Curtis cameo so she can be on the poster, we cut to Haddonfield University. A gang of students (all thoroughly dull except for Katie Sackhoff’s spirited Jen) win places on an internet reality show called Dangertainment. The plan is for them to spend the night in Michael Myers’s long-abandoned house and for people to watch them online. In other words, the postmodern pep of Halloween H20 has given way to noughties narcissism. Unfortunately for the contestants, Michael has sneaked into the house and rather slowly bumps them off one by one… It’s rarely tense or scary and you never really care what’s happening. But in the film’s favour, there’s some satire of reality shows – the producers have salted the house with artificial scares, for example, while viewers assume the murders are staged. There’s also a neat bit of writing when the murders kick off: a friend of a contestant is watching online, so texts her with guidance (‘He’s climbing up the stairs,’ etc). Meanwhile, Busta Rhymes plays Dangertainment’s producer and almost keeps a straight face when he confronts Michael: ‘Trick or treat, motherfucker!’ It’s not a great movie, but it’s not as awful as some of the previous ones.
Retcon alert! Halloween H20 ended with Laurie decapitating Michael Myers, but we’re now told that it wasn’t Michael. He’d earlier switched places with an unfortunate paramedic who was unable to tell Laurie who he was because his larynx had been crushed. (Why he didn’t remove the mask, though, is another matter.)
Five internet Emmys out of 10

9. Halloween (2007, Rob Zombie)
After a killing spree, a young boy called Michael Myers is committed to a psychiatric hospital. But 15 years later he escapes to go after his surviving sister…

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This remake of the 1978 original also acts as a prequel. It begins with more than half an hour focusing on Michael Myers as a child – a topic covered in less than five minutes by John Carpenter. We see him kill his elder sister, his stepfather and a school bully – all of whom have it coming because they’re so obnoxious – then his sessions with psychiatrist Dr Loomis (Malcolm McDowell). So rather than Michael being a character-less, motiveless ‘Shape’, we see events from his point of view and understand why he is how he is. All this means it’s nearly the halfway point before we meet teenager Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton) and enter a dreary retelling of the 1978 plot. The grown-up Michael is played by the 6’9″ Tyler Mane, while Danielle Harris (Jamie in Halloweens 4 and 5) plays Laurie’s pal Annie and has to suffer the indignity of acting topless for several scenes after Michael attacks Annie while she’s having sex. That coarseness sums the whole movie up, really. This is the kind of horror film that’s all about a sustained tone of unpleasantness, a focus on suffering and pain, and characters who are pricks for no reason. It’s a dreadful, depressing couple of hours, full of caked blood and sharp edges and gore and rape and a grimy colour palette.
Retcon alert! Obviously, being a reboot, all the previous movies are ignored. In a change from the 1978 original, Michael and Laurie are siblings straight away here.
One taco deluxe supreme out of 10

10. Halloween II (2009, Rob Zombie)
A year later: Michael Myers returns to Haddonfield…

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Just like Rob Zombie’s first Halloween movie, this sequel has a fetishist fascination with gore, blood, suffering and general unpleasantness. The film goes intense and graphic early on, which means there’s never any chance of suspense or dynamic storytelling: if it’ll show *that* early on, you think, then it’ll do anything. After a looooong opening sequence which is then revealed to be a nightmare, the body of the film takes place a year after the events of the previous film. Laurie (Scout Taylor-Compton) has PTSD: she’s now a wild child and says fuck a lot. Meanwhile, Dr Loomis (Malcolm McDowell) is living off the fame of the Myers case, while the not-dead-after-all Michael Myers has been having Freudian dreams about his mother. (Soon, for some reason, Laurie’s having dreams about her too – a woman she hasn’t seen since being a baby.) Michael then heads back to Haddonfield and begins killing again… This dreadful, ham-fisted, charmless travesty has two light-hearted things of note. It’s the first Halloween film to mention Mike Myers, the Austin Powers actor. And, because she’s been to a fancy-dress party, Laurie spends the last third of the story dressed as Magenta from The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Retcon alert! Michael Myers was shot in the face in the previous film, but now we’re told that no body was found.
One shaggin’ wagon out of 10

11. Halloween (2018, David Gordon Green)
Forty years after his killing spree, Michael Myers escapes custody and heads for the victim that got away: Laurie Strode…

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Thankfully, the latest entry in this up-and-doooooooown series is a really entertaining slasher film made with thought and craft and decent storytelling. Wisely turning its back on the humourless, hackneyed tone of the Rob Zombie reboots, this sequel to the 1978 original may be yet another Halloween film that pretends previous films don’t exist – but it’s so entertaining that doesn’t really matter… Forty years after Michael Myers tormented her, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is a hardened, embittered and lonely women. She’s kept at a distance by her grown-up daughter (Judy Greer) and has spent four decades preparing for Michael’s return. (In promotional interviews, Curtis likened this version of Laurie to doomsday preppers.) When Myers (inevitably) escapes and goes on another murderous rampage, Laurie’s granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) gets in the way… This is a horror film that never forgets that horror only works in relation to other stuff: we need to know and care for the characters; the darkness must contrast with the light. So we get plenty of moments of humanity and humour, and a well-cast and interesting group of characters. As well as Laurie and her family (all very good), Allyson’s babysitting mate Vicky and the young lad she’s looking after are especially fun. All that means that when the tension builds, it’s effective. And when the violence comes it’s savage. Add in some clever callbacks to John Carpenter’s original and you have a terrific way to cap forty years of carnage.
Retcon alert! Yet again, lots of previous sequels are ignored… including the last time Laurie Strode returned to the series and ignored previous sequels! Also, the fact Michael and Laurie are siblings is now downgraded to a rumour.
Eight basements out of 10

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Blake’s 7: Stardrive (1981)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When Avon learns about a new, super-fast propulsion system, he insists the crew track down its creator…

Series D, episode 4. Written by: James Follett. Directed by: David Sullivan Proudfoot. Originally broadcast: 19 October 1981, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Tarrant (17) and the team have found an asteroid that, if they shadow it, will allow them sneak into the Altern system and acquire some much-needed fuel for the Scoprio. Later, though, the craft is damaged and Tarrant and Avon have to set about fixing the problems – they work with only a force field shielding them from the vacuum of space.
* Avon (42) advocated the mission to Altern 5 to get some selsium ore, but then takes the risky decision to fly within just 50 yards of the asteroid. After the plan goes wrong and Scorpio is badly struck, his colleagues quickly turn on him. A new mission then presents itself when Avon learns about a high-tech stardrive – can they steal one for the Scorpio? Their quest leads them to the planet Caspar, home of the vicious Space Rats. (Vila explains that they’re ‘maniacs, psychopaths; all they live for is sex and violence, booze and speed.’) Avon callously sends Vila and Dayna on as a distraction, then teleports to the Rats’ base with Tarrant and Soolin. They manage to nab a stardrive and also rescue a scientist called Plaxton (Barbara Shelley, trying gamely to add some dignity to proceedings).
* Soolin (4), Dayna and Vila spot three pursuit ships while Avon and Tarrant are repairing Scorpio, but then the ships mysteriously explode. Later, Soolin watches a recording of the disaster and realises that there was another craft nearby – one so fast it must have a new type of engine.
* When the explosions are still a mystery, Dayna (17) is given the first shift of analysing the 10,000 frames per second of the recording. Later, she and Vila are sent on a mission to negotiate with the infamous Space Rats. But the Rats turn on them and kidnap them. Dayna then attempts, unsuccessfully, to pretend that she knows Dr Plaxton, the Federation scientist who developed the new drive and who has been working with the Space Rats.
* Vila (43) isn’t happy with Avon’s asteroid plan. Then, after it’s gone awry, he quickly gets drunk and leary. (Or so it seems. He actually fakes it so Avon won’t ask for his help in fixing the Scorpio.) When the team watch back the footage of the explosions, Vila recognises that the killer craft belongs to a Space Rat.
* Slave (4) does some more answering-questions-and-sounding-like-Parker-from-Thunderbirds.
* Orac (26) watches the recording of the explosions but refuses to tell the others what caused them. He does later reveal that Dr Plaxton has perfected a photonic drive that uses light to exert thrust. It’s nicknamed the ‘stardrive’.

Best bit: With the Scorpio damaged and drifting in space, Slave reports that the life-support system will last a further 151 hours. ‘By the time the oxygen runs out we’ll be bored as well as dead,’ quips Soolin. (The episode’s Star Wars-style screenwipes for passages of time are quite fun too.)

Worst bit: The Space Rats. They should be violent, threatening, sneering, dangerous Hell’s Angel punks – like something out of Mad Max. But they just come across as silly with their Day-Glo costumes and love of words like zap and splat.

Review: It takes around 20 minutes for the Space Rats to show up, and this is emblematic of episode as a whole. It wants to be an urgent, visceral, life-on-the-edge thriller, but there’s no drive, no momentum. The Scorpio crew don’t actually affect what’s happening on Caspar until the last few minutes of the story.

Six gooks of 10

Next episode: Animals

Stan Helsing (2009, Bo Zenga)

Stan Helsing

An occasional series where I watch and review works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting? Small-town America, the modern day.

Faithful to the novel? This lame comedy film’s link to Dracula is lead character Stan Helsing (Steve Howey), who is the great-grandson of the Abraham Van Helsing from Stoker’s book. Stan is a slacker who works at a video store (did we still have those in 2009?!). He’s given the task of delivering some tapes, which he attempts to do while on his way to a Halloween party with his friend Teddy (Kenan Thompson), his ex-girlfriend Nadine (Diora Baird) and Teddy’s date Mia (Desi Lydic). They get lost in the countryside and end up in a gated community where various monsters from other movies are causing some rather tame havoc. So we therefore get spoofy – and unnamed for legal reasons – equivalents of Leatherface (from 1974’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre), Michael Myers (from 1978’s Halloween), Jason Voorhees (from the Friday the 13th series), Freddy Krueger (from 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street), Pinhead (from 1987’s Hellraiser) and Chucky (from 1988’s Child’s Play). Various other horror movies are referenced too, including an oh-so-topical joke about the snotty nose of the girl from The Blair Witch Project (1999). An additional connection to Dracula comes from an appearance from his Brides, here repurposed as a trio of slutty strippers.

Best performance: The whole film is pathetic, lazily sexist trash. Many moments feel specifically designed to amuse idiotic, immature frat boys – hence the obsession with boobs, upskirts, porn, masturbation, strippers, hookers and perverts. One of the main characters, Mia, is even a ditzy blonde who works as a massage therapist (‘Someone who whacks people off…’), dresses in a succession of kinky outfits, asks whether her vagina makes her look fat, and looks happy when someone accidentally penetrates her. Having said all that, actress Desi Lydic manages to land her crummy jokes and is – by some distance – the funniest performance in the movie.

Best moment: The four friends enter an unwelcoming, redneck bar. Dressed in their Halloween fancy-dress costumes, they nervously walk across the room to a vacant table. As they pass by the bar, we see three men reading newspapers. The respective headlines read: ’10th anniversary of tragic fire’, ‘Town fears Halloween horrors’, and ‘Cowboy, Indian, superhero and stripper headed for table 9.’

Review: This boring and witless mess is one of the many, many genre-spoof comedies that looked at 1980’s Airplane! and thought it was a really easy film is make. There are tits gags, lots of toilet humour, a bit of homophobia, a tired Leslie Neilsen cameo, and a plot that isn’t even trying to make sense. The script reeks of being tossed off without any thought at all, then filmed by people who are far too in love with themselves.

Three rats out of 10

Blake’s 7: Traitor (1981)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The Scorpio crew investigate why the Federation is rebuilding so quickly and encounter a mysterious figure called Commissioner Sleer…

Series D, episode 3. Written by: Robert Holmes. Directed by: David Sullivan Proudfoot. Originally broadcast: 12 October 1981, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Avon (41) hears that the expanding Federation has annexed another planet, and wants to know why they’re making so many gains all of a sudden. So he sets course for Helotrix, one of the oldest Earth colonies. Despite his burning curiosity, however, Avon is happy to stay aboard Scorpio while his colleagues teleport down and investigate. Later, he’s stunned when Dayna and Tarrant return and tell him that while on the planet they encountered Servalan…
* Orac (25) is working on a redesign of the Scorpio that will increase its speed – and rather naively hacks into the local Federation network to glean some information. Prat.
* Dayna (16) is also concerned by how many worlds are being brought under the fascistic wing of the Federation. Once at Helotrix, she and Tarrant beam down and do some snooping. They find a population who have been pacified by drugs, allowing the Federation to take over with ease, then hook up with local resistant leader Hunda. (For the second episode running, there’s also a reference to Dayna’s skin colour – which was never an issue in the third season.)
* Vila (42) moans about the Federation expansion, fears the gang will soon be caught, laments that they no longer have a ship as fast as the Liberator, advocates fleeing, and generally spends the episode being a whiny little bitch.
* Soolin (3) is now part of the gang but spends the whole episode sitting around, occasionally saying something disposable and not actually doing anything. (The story goes that Glynis Barber is saying lines written for Cally before Jan Chappell quit the show. No wonder the latter left.)
* On Helotrix, Tarrant (16) and Dayna also meet a Federation officer who’s supplying information to the resistance and learn that the pacifying drug is being synthesised nearby. (They don’t know, however, that Officer Leitz is a double agent working for a shadowy Federation figure called Sleer.) The pair head for the refinery and find a blind man in a wheelchair. He invented the drug that ‘adapts’ people, but only did it under duress from Sleer, who’s been torturing him. Before they escape the planet, Tarrant and Dayna catch a glimpse of the elusive Sleer…
* Slave (3).
* At first, Federation bigwig Sleer is only discussed – and anyone who’s ever paid attention to how dialogue works will spot that every character refers to Sleer in an unusual way. Whenever mentioning Sleer, the person will call Sleer by Sleer’s name, pointedly avoiding any personal pronouns that would give the game away that Sleer might possible be – how’s this for a monumental plot twist? –  a *woman*. A woman in a position of authority and power? Imagine! Later, someone sneaks into a local politician’s office and kills him, but the scene is shot in such a way that we don’t get a good look at the assassin. Then we hear Sleer’s voice over a radio and it’s been artificially disguised. Even though we’re told by a Federation character that Servalan (22) was killed recently, it’s not a huge surprise when it’s revealed that she’s on the planet, bumped off the politician, and is now going by the name Sleer.

Best bit: Christopher Neame’s performance as a calculating Federation officer called Colonel Quute. He obsequiously goes along with what his superior says, but you can see the snarl and sneer behind his eyes.

Worst bit: Poor Soolin. She was a secondary character in the season opener, and then crowbarred into a perfunctory scene in episode two. Now, she’s seemingly been accepted by the regular team… but between episodes. So there’s no getting-to-know-you scenes, no focus on her as a character. Surely she could have taken Tarrant or Dayna’s role in this story, which would have given more screentime, more dialogue and a chance to interact with someone meaningfully.

Review: This is a typical Robert Holmes script, in that the dialogue is peppered with telling references to unseen locations, events and people that imply a larger world without us having to know the context. The incidental music, meanwhile, often makes you think of a stiring, stiff-upper-lip war movie. Enjoyable enough stuff.

Seven red-hot filaments through his nerve centres out of 10

Next episode: Stardrive

Ten Things I Love About North by Northwest (1959)

NBNW

An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When advertising executive Roger Thornhill is mistaken for a spy, it leads to a cross-country game of cat-and-mouse…

In a specially shot trailer to promote his new movie. Alfred Hitchcock stands behind a travel agent’s desk. He tells us that his latest film will cover many miles across America and take viewers on a thrilling adventure. ‘A vacation from all your problems,’ the master promises. He’s not wrong. North by Northwest is escapism of the highest order – breezy, confident, witty and a huge amount of fun. Here are 10 reasons why it’s one of Hitch’s best and most entertaining films…

1. The title sequence… North by Northwest’s credits play over a slick, modernist masterpiece of graphic design by Saul Bass. Kinetic typography moves fluidly, inventively and stylishly across shots of New York skyscrapers, and the music is also out of this world – brassy, bold, memorable. The score is by Bernard Herrmann, an all-time great film composer whose career began with Citizen Kane (1941), ended with Taxi Driver (1976), and took in eight collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock. The movie’s title, by the way, is a deliberate piece of nonsense. Borrowing the phrase from Shakespeare (‘I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw’), Hitchcock and writer Ernest Lehman knew that it had little to do with the story. Events might move in vaguely that direction across America; we might see an airline called Northwest – but the title is more an acknowledgement that the movie isn’t intended to *mean* anything beyond uncomplicated enjoyment.

2. The opening scenes… The body of the film begins so quickly, with so much energy. Madison Avenue advertising executive Roger Thornhill is heading out of his office, to meet some clients at a fancy restaurant, and as he walks he rattles off instructions to his loyal secretary. There’s fast dialogue, dynamic camera moves, and even location filming on a busy New York City street. The sequence sets up the tone and pace of the movie brilliantly: this story will not hang about and, as we watch Roger con a man into giving up his taxi, we also know that it’s not going to be taking itself too seriously either.

3. Cary Grant… In many ways, Roger Thornhill is a Hitchcock standard: he’s the innocent, likeable man accidentally caught up in a dangerous plot that he knows nothing about. (This idea also crops up in The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, Saboteur, The Wrong Man, Frenzy…) Due to a misunderstanding in the restaurant, two heavies wrongly believe that Roger is really a spy called George Kaplan. They kidnap him, bundle him into a car, and take him to see their boss… Cary Grant is perfect casting for the film’s lead character; it’s his final role for Alfred Hitchcock and his most memorable. There was an early idea to cast James Stewart, and he would of course have done an excellent job. But Stewart’s Thornhill would have been more everyman, more full of all-American outrage. Grant, however, knows he’s playing a fantasy: he’s debonair and smooth and can handle light comedy, tough dialogue, action and romance. He knows that, while it must be played straight, North by Northwest is pure adventure. (It was surely this role above all others that put him top of United Artists’ wish list when casting for James Bond in 1962.)

4. The mystery… In truth, the entire plot is one big MacGuffin. Hitchcock defined a MacGuffin as something ultimately uninteresting to the audience but which motivates the characters and drives the action. In North by Northwest, there is a story going on about American spymasters inventing a secret agent as a decoy in order to ensnare a villain. But does anyone care? It’s not important and Hitchcock knows it: the ‘plot’ is simply an excuse for the suspense, the entertaining characters, and the heightened incidents along the way as Roger fumbles around to find out what’s going on.

5. The bad guys… Having been kidnapped, Thornhill is taken to a large house outside the city and introduced to the silky criminal Phillip Vandamm, whose first scene sees him methodically switching lamps on as he circles and studies a confused Thornhill. Vandamm refuses to believe Roger when he protests that he’s not a spy called George Kaplan, but unlike many movie bad guys he never rants or raves or throws tantrums. He simply presses on as if Roger were a CIA agent intent on ruining his nefarious plans. Vandamm is played by James Mason, who purrs through every scene with undimmable assurance, while second-in-command Leonard is played by Martin Landau.

6. Style… In part, North by Northwest feels so fresh because it has had a big influence. Subsequent movies have followed suit to such a degree that it’s never really gone out of fashion. The mix of suspense, comedy, action, sex, theatrical sets and dramatic incidental music was more or less copied wholesale for James Bond when that film series began three years later, while you can also detect the elan and sophisticated humour of North by Northwest – taking things *just* seriously enough – in Steven Spielberg films such as Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jurassic Park.

7. Eva Marie Saint… After escaping and then being framed for the murder of a diplomat, Roger is on the run from both Vandamm and the police. So he sets out to track down the elusive George Kaplan and get some answers. This involves a train journey from New York to Chicago, during which he meets fellow passenger Eve Kendall, played by Eva Marie Saint. The studio had wanted Singin’ in the Rain’s Cyd Charisse for the part, but Hitchcock stood firm. Another example of his obsession with complex blondes, she’s sexually bold and flirtatious… and of course isn’t what she first appears. Saint is terrific, playing the role with just enough guard that you’re initially not sure of her motives. The cross-country train ride also provides us with another James Bond parallel. The second 007 movie, 1963’s From Russia with Love, also features characters with secrets sharing a buffet-car table – just one of several apparent nods towards North by Northwest…

8. The dust-cropping scene… Perhaps the film’s most famous sequence comes when Roger gets off a bus in the middle of nowhere, hoping to rendezvous with Kaplan. Initially all alone at an isolated country bus stop, he then encounters a man who points out that a nearby plane is dusting crops but doing so over fields where they are no crops. After the guy has been picked up and Roger is alone again, he realises the plane is getting closer and closer. And then it attacks, swooping just feet above Roger’s head and forcing him to throw himself to the ground. It circles back and strikes again and again… Roger only escapes its menace when the plane crashes into a passing petrol tanker. From slow build-up to explosive climax, this is nine minutes and 20 seconds of pure cinema. (It’s also another scene later homaged in From Russia With Love, this time with a helicopter.)

9. Mount Rushmore… The trail of breadcrumbs eventually leads Roger to Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, where he encounters the CIA chief (Leo G Carroll) who concocted the idea of George Kaplan as a decoy. And what was Kaplan intended to distract Vandamm from? The real agent… Eve Kendall. But Vandamm is close by too, and has Kendall prisoner. Eventually, Eve and Roger flee and escape up to the top of the famous Mount Rushmore façade, a scene which is as gloriously silly as any in a Hitchcock film. It combines an action-movie chase with the bonkers sight of huge Presidential faces and the very real threat of a fatal fall…

10. The final image… After two hours of excitement and enjoyment, Vandamm is dead, Eve safe, and Roger on his way back to his comfortable life in New York. But Hitchcock has one final cheeky gag. Roger and Eve are in their carriage aboard a sleeper train. As they start to get amorous, Hitchcock cuts to… the train entering a tunnel.

Ten men trying to catch a bus out of 10

Blake’s 7: Power (1981)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Stranded on Xenon, the gang try to gain access to the spaceship Scorpio, but also encounter two warring factions of locals…

Series D, episode 2. Written by: Ben Steed. Directed by: Mary Ridge. Originally broadcast: 5 October 1981, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Vila (41) is under pressure from his colleagues to crack open the door that leads to the Scorpio, the team’s only escape off the planet Xenon. When working on the problem alone, though, he’s surprised to see a woman has somehow entered the base. Pella (Juliet Hammond-Hill from Secret Army) is a local who reveals that the base will blow up if Dorian – a character who inconveniently died in the previous episode – doesn’t reset the security codes.
* Tarrant (15) goes outside with Dayna to look for a missing Avon. Without success. He then tries to work out how Pella entered and left the locked base. Without success.
* Dayna (15) reckons the gang’s food supplies will only last three weeks, so they must have access to the Scorpio. Later, while outside, she and Tarrant are captured by a tribe of local men called Hommicks. (They’re yet another example of Blake’s 7’s obsession with medieval-like natives, though these ones at least know about technology.) Plucky Dayna challenges chieftain Gunn Sar (Dicken Ashworth, playing him working class and northern) to a fight and managed to beat him… with some help from a watching Pella, who has telekinetic powers.
* At the start of the episode, Avon (40) is scouting the local area when he’s attacked and captured by the Hommicks. Gunn Sar tells Avon that he’s killed 26 challengers in ritualistic combat, but an aide corrects him: it’s 25 confirmed kills and one gone missing after he fell off a cliff. After a tiff, Avon challenges him to a fight. Avon has the upper hand, but then one of Gunn Sar’s underlings bashes him on the head. (Referee!) Avon is put in a cell with Pella, who has also been captured and she explains some context for what’s going on: her female friends from the Seska tribe are captured by the male Hommicks, operated on, and then must provide children. (The boys are kept, the girls discarded.) It’s later revealed that Pella has been plotting to get access to the Scorpio for her own ends. When she uses her telekinesis skills to get inside the ship, Avon follows via a new teleport system Orac has been working on… and shoots Pella dead.
* Orac (24) declines to help Tarrant with the puzzle of how Pella got into and out of the base, then later tells him the base will explode in three hours and 24 minutes unless they get to the override switch – which is behind a locked door.
* Slave (2) has some lines when Avon teleports aboard the Scorpio.
* Soolin (2) appears on the scene at the very last minute and asks to join the crew. Where the chuff has she been all episode?!

Best bit: This dramatic composition.

Screenshot 2018-09-23 12.20.50

Worst bit: The two fights we see – Avon and Gunn Sar, Dayna and Gunn Sar – are slow, cumbersome and decidedly unthreatening.

Review: The conflict between Gunn Sar’s all-male Hommicks and Pella’s all-female Seska is a war of the sexes. Is this a searing satire of gender politics, or just an excuse for some more misogyny dressed up as entertainment? Well, perhaps the answer comes in a scene where Avon uses his alpha-male virility to push Pella onto the floor. ‘However you use [your strength], a man’s will always be greater,’ he says. ‘Unfair perhaps, but biologically unavoidable.’ He then kisses her. Times change, of course, and judging previous eras by today’s standards can be troubling. But it’s fair to say that Power has not dated very well. (Elsewhere, in another jarring moment, Dayna is referred to ‘the black woman’ when there’s only one woman the speaker could mean.) There’s also a muddled plot and plenty of hammy staging. It’s a slog to sit through generally.

Five ordinary, domestic heliofusion rods out of 10

Next episode: Traitor

Avengers: Infinity War (2018, Anthony and Joe Russo)

infinity war hd screencaps movie wallpapersrhmoviedeskbackcom batista in

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The Avengers must spring into action when the powerful Thanos begins to acquire the Infinity Stones…

Avengers: Infinity War is the fourth massive, multi-character, multi-plot, multi-focus mash-up movie in the Marvel series – and it’s easily the most successful. A big reason for this is the structure of the plot. Avengers Assemble (2012), Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) and Captain America: Civil War (2016) all feature many, many heroes and sidekicks wanting our attention and yet are built around a single, unifying idea. In the first film, the team must come together to face Loki. In the second, the team must stay together to defeat Ultron. In the latter, the team are split into two camps and face off against each other.

But the script of Infinity Wars is a different kettle of superheroes. There’s still an overarching plot, of course. After several cameo appearances and references in previous films, the all-powerful god Thanos (Josh Brolin) wants to be even more all-powerfuller so is collecting the magical Infinity Stones, ancient totems that will allow him to wipe out half of all life in the universe. The extended Avengers family must work towards stopping him.

But writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely – key players at MCU HQ since 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger – break this storyline down into discrete segments. As the various characters we’ve got know over the last 18 movies react to the Thanos threat, they’re divvied up into separate groups, each one getting its own chance to shine. For example, in one thread, there’s the joy of Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) butting heads and trying to out-Sherlock each other. Peter Parker aka Spider-Man (Tom Holland) also tags along like a fanboy. Elsewhere, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) crash-lands into the sarcasm-and-sassiness world of the Guardians of the Galaxy, while Steve Rogers aka Captain America (Chris Evans) and Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) are living a mean, tough, espionage-y life. With such a big cast – the DVD cover manages to squeeze *24* of them into one collage – it’s admirable that they all feel like they have a role to play in the story. (The only notable absentees from the MCU roster are Ant-Man, being held back for the next movie in the series, and the forgettable Clint ‘Hawkeye’ Barton who’s said to have retired.)

All this makes for a dynamic film that keeps zipping around a huge canvas – from enormous starship battles in deep space to a kebab shop in Edinburgh’s Old Town – and always to characters you’re interested in. Each scene moves the larger plot forward and no section outstays its welcome. There’s the usual helping of action sequences, of course, including an arch moment when Tony walks out of a quiet building, down a street full of fleeing people and turns the corner to see a gigantic space ship hovering above Manhattan – all seemingly done in one uninterrupted take. Meanwhile, the script never loses sight of humour, with Thor and Peters Quill and Parker probably getting the most amount of funny lines. Black Panther sidekick Okoye (Danai Gurira) also wins a big laugh during the obligatory third-act battle. Secondary Avenger Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) had earlier been in the palace looking after an injured Vision, but now joins the fighting and blasts some bad guys with her psychic force powers. ‘Why was she up there all this time?!’ deadpans Okoye, impressed.

This is a big, brash popcorn movie that entertains so successfully that you’re distracted from the flaws. There’s the inherent silliness of the premise, which is a rather unimaginative story about a bad guy wanting to do bad things to innocent people just because he can. There’s the lazy repeat of a third-act battle taking place in Wakada (which also happened in the immediately previous film, Black Panther). And there’s the fact that the Infinity Stones are thunderingly boring and drab plot devices. But little of this matters when a movie is this much *fun*, and when it keeps throwing up telling character moments, enjoyable combinations of characters, and even an apocalyptic, how-will-they-get-out-of-that?! cliffhanger, designed to lead into 2019’s as-yet-unnamed sequel…

Eight bus drivers out of 10

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Blake’s 7: Rescue (1981)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Stranded on Terminal after the loss of the Liberator, Avon, Vila, Tarrant and Dayna encounter a salvager who harbours a dark secret…

Series D, episode 1. Written by: Chris Boucher. Directed by: Mary Ridge. Originally broadcast: 28 September 1981, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Dayna (14) and her friends are still on Terminal, the artificial planet they found in the previous episode, but Servalan has boobytrapped their only means of transport. Dayna spots some aggressive ‘links’ (Terminal’s savage primates), is menaced by a large Venus-fly-trap-style plant, then falls down a ravine. (Bad day!) She’s rescued by an ever-smirking salvager called Dorian, who is then forced by the gang to give them a lift off the planet. He seems to grow tired quickly…
* Scouting the local countryside – it’s snowed since the events of the last episode – Avon (39) realises that Servalan will have set explosives in the underground base as well as the transport ship. And he can’t get back in time to warn the others… Cally is killed, but Avon manages to find and retrieve Orac. After meeting Dorian, Avon leads a hijacking of his ship – but Dorian has set an unchangeable course and our heroes end up at his base on the planet Xenon. Dorian shows off his comfortable living and his technological achievements. ‘What did you do in your spare time?’ quips Avon. Suspicious of Dorian’s evasive answers, Avon then pulls a gun on him – only to find Dorian has surreptitiously removed all the bullets. Dorian reveals that he built his base on top of a cave he found 200 years ago. It cleanses him of all his impurities and vices, and he hasn’t aged a day in two centuries. The cave now contains a creature that was once a man but is now a receptacle for all of Dorian’s negativity. He intends to replace the creature with Avon, Tarrant, Dayna and Soolin, who will be somehow merged into a gestalt entity.
* When the Terminal base explodes, Vila (40) helps an injured Tarrant out through the escape hatch. He then tries to get to Cally, but the smoke and heat hold him back. On Xenon, having resigned himself to the group’s situation, Vila uses his lockpicking skills to open Dorian’s generous stock of booze. But when he overhears Dorian revealing his evil plan, forgotten-about Vila manages to sneak a gun into Avon’s hand.
* Tarrant (14) is injured in the blast on Terminal, then passes out as the gang try to move. On Xenon, Tarrant and Dayna want to know more about Dorian’s setup, so do some furtive exploring. Dayna finds a hatch leading to a staircase down to a cave, where there’s a monster lurking in the dark…
* After the explosion in the base, Cally (37) sends a psychic message to Vila, asking for help. But her friend can’t get to her and she’s killed.
* Slave (1) is the lugubrious artificial intelligence aboard Dorian’s space ship, Scorpio.
* When our characters reach Xenon, they meet Soolin (1), Dorian’s sidekick who is a crack-shot quickdraw. We’re told she killed the men responsible for the deaths of her family. Being so formidable, however, doesn’t help when Dorian unloads her gun without her noticing. After Dorian’s secret is spilled, she feels betrayed… Glynis Barber, who also had a small role in the first season, doesn’t get much chance to shine in her first episode as Soolin. But she certainly knows how to wear a tight jumpsuit.
* Orac (23) is switched on by Dorian, who wants to know how the Liberator’s teleport system worked.

Best bit: There’s a new title sequence with a charmingly blocky 1980s logo…

Screenshot 2018-10-05 19.01.25

Worst bit: …that still has its apostrophe missing!

Review: Another new season, another refreshing of the format: we’ve lost the Liberator, Zen and Cally; we’ve gained a new ship, a new computer, a new character and a new base. Rescue is quite blatantly based on Oscar Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. It passes the time without ever fully gripping the attention.

Seven corruptions of time and appetite out of 10

Next episode: Power

Monty Python’s Flying Circus: You’re No Fun Any More (Ian MacNaughton, BBC1, 30 November 1969)

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An occasional series where I watch and review works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: Various. The Dracula section takes place in a bedroom.

Faithful to the novel? This episode of Monty Python’s fiercely adventurous comedy sketch show merits an inclusion in this blogging project because of a 10-second gag. In the first full sketch of the show, a camel-spotter’s enjoyment is ruined by an interviewer who points out that he’s actually a trainspotter. ‘Oh, you’re no fun any more,’ he laments. We then cut to several short vignettes where someone says the same thing. One of the mini-scenes features Dracula (Graham Chapman in the classic Bela Lugosi get-up) approaching the bed of a woman (Donna Reading). As he gets near, his prominent fangs fall from his mouth into her cleavage. ‘Oh, you’re no fun any more,’ she moans.

Best performance: Elsewhere in the episode, Chapman and Reading also play an earnest scientist and his ditzy assistant – a clear spoof of boffins like Doctor Who or Bernard Quatermass and their attractive female sidekicks.

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Best bit: The bulk of this early episode is made up of Flying Circus’s first ‘feature-length’ sketch. Departing from the usual format of linked but separate ideas, around 23 minutes of the half-hour-long You’re No Fun Any More is one sustained storyline. A race of alien blancmanges invade England and begin to turn the populous into bagpipe-playing, kilt-wearing, ginger-bearded Scotsmen. The Python team would later do more and more of these long stories, but at the time it was an oddity.

Review: A lot of fun. Tremendously silly.

Eight fangs out of 10

Tales of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Crypt of Dracula (Sebastian Montes, 27 September 2017)

 

Dracula

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

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: Transylvania, year 1300. A cliffhanger ending is set near Castle Frankenstein, Germany in 1818.

Faithful to the novel? Originating in a 1984 comic book, the intelligent, man-size, crime-fighting turtles Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael and Michelangelo were soon spun-off into a series of cartoons, a film franchise, computer games and plenty of kiddie-baiting merchandise. The Crypt of Dracula is the 15th instalment from the fifth and final season of the third different animated TV adaptation. At the beginning of the episode, as part of an ongoing storyline, the turtles and their time-travelling friend Renet arrive in Transylvania via a time portal. It’s the year 1300 and they’re on the trail of a bad guy called Savanti Romero who wants to destroy the future. In order to help their quest, Renet uses her magic staff to provide the turtles with new clothes and weapons, which are anachronistically 19th-century-looking and very steampunky. (Leonardo namechecks the 2004 film Van Helsing.) Renet tells them they must find and defeat Count Dracula, lord of the vampires, before Savanti recruits him to his cause. This leads them to Dracula’s castle…

Best performance: Vlad Dracula has a Bela Lugosi accent and cape, and can turn into a flock of bats. He’s voiced by Chris Sarandon who gets into the campy spirit of the thing.

Best bit: All the usual clichés appear: a spooky castle, werewolves, an abandoned village, locals with a cursed secret. There’s also – incongruously – the headless horseman of the Sleepy Hollow story. But, as fun as all the Gothicana is, the best thing about the episode is actually the marvellous, pop-art title sequence.

 

Review: This CGI animation is obviously essentially childish, but there’s also enough spooky and sometimes downright macabre stuff going on to keep the interest. For example, Raphael is bitten by Dracula and starts to turn into a vampire. We see his woozy point of view; we see his fangs grow and his eyes light up.

Seven time sceptres out of 10