Thursday, 21 February 2013

Audiodrome #14

In this month's edition of Audiodrome: Music in Film, I take a look at Roy Ayer’s astoundingly funky score for Jack Hill’s 1973 blaxploitation classic Coffy. Starring Pam Grier as a nurse who turns vigilante on the inner city drug dealers who get her younger sister hooked on smack, Coffy combines exploitative thrills with sly social commentary and barbed pot-shots at police corruption. The film made Grier into a genre icon, and its psychedelic-funk score brilliantly showcases Ayers signature vibes. Head over to Paracinema to read the full review and treat your ears to a track.

While you’re there, why not pick up a copy of the latest issue of Paracinema Magazine? Inside you’ll find damn fine readin’ in the shape of articles and essays such as The Goriest Film You Never Saw by Jose Cruz, Marriage Bites: Lesbian Vampires and the Failure of Heterosexuality in Daughters of Darkness by Erin Wiegand and “When Single Shines the Triple Sun”: Duality and Self Discovery in The Dark Crystal by Paracinema’s very own editor-extraordinaire, Christine Makepeace. 

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Experiment IV – Kate Bush

A couple of years back I wrote a piece about the influence of horror cinema and literature on the music of Kate Bush. I recently acquired The Whole Story, a ‘best of’ compilation released by Kate in 1986, and have since become rather ‘obsessed’ with one of the tracks featured on it: Experiment IV. Said track was written especially for the compilation and released to promote it. Along with the accompanying video it once again demonstrates Kate Bush’s singular vision as a musician, an artist - and a lover of horror. Taking the ‘storyline’ from the song quite literally, the video tells of a top secret and highly dubious government experiment to create a sound that can kill. That sound is, of course, portrayed by Kate in the video – initially as an alluring siren-like wraith (underpinning the notion of deadly music at the heart of the song; sirens lured seamen to watery graves by bewitching them with their irresistible but deadly voices), and then as a nightmarish spectre reminiscent of a banshee (the wails of which act as a harbinger of doom to those who hear them). Shadowy government activities are also alluded to in other songs by Bush – notably Army Dreamers, Breathing and Cloudbusting, and in Experiment IV, the government is at it again, this time taking music and subverting its associations with pleasure, creativity and beauty, and transforming it into a weapon that can kill.

Throughout the song the listener is fed snippets of exactly what has gone into creating this devastating sound – From the painful cries of mothers, To the terrifying scream... We recorded it and put it into our machine. The dark subject matter of both the lyrics and the video - sinister music that can harm and kill the listener, coupled with the strange technology the scientists use to create it (most hauntingly of all it’s never revealed why) - calls to mind the work of British sci-fi/horror writer Nigel Kneale, who frequently blended science and supernaturalism with anti-authoritarian undertones. In works such as Halloween III and The Woman in Black – and indeed John Carpenter’s homage to the work of Neale, Prince of Darkness – technology is presented as a quasi-magical force with severely sinister connotations.
Dawn French and Hugh Laurie provide a little comic relief as two scientists ensconced in the dubious research, and the reluctant Professor overseeing the research is named Jerry Coe; perhaps a reference to Jericho, the walls of which crumbled at the sound of the Israelites’ trumpets at the end of a war, as described in the biblical book of Joshua.

It was music we were making here until...
They told us all they wanted...
Was a sound that could kill someone from a distance...
The horrific effects of the scientists’ research is featured throughout the video, as various test-subjects are shown writhing around in straitjackets after hearing the sound. Finally, when the sound is 'unveiled', it appears as a spectral siren which suddenly takes on the form of a terrifying winged ghoul, which then proceeds to wreck havoc in the lab, slaughtering the scientists and test-subjects alike. The camera then assumes the role of the creature and pursues various scientists along the starkly lit and increasingly chaotic corridors of the facility, eventually tracking outside to reveal the rather apocalyptic aftermath of the incident – pre-empting ‘contagion horrors’ such as 28 Days Later etc. A cordoned-off vicinity around a music shop (revealed to be a front for the shady government project) – in which the shopkeeper is displaying copies of Experiment IV – is strewn with the bodies of the dead. Lastly, we see Ms Bush hitch-hiking on a nearby stretch of road and clambering into a van, but before she does, she turns to wink at us knowingly, suggesting this is only the beginning of her deadly mission… It could sing you to sleep, But that dream is your enemy! Incidentally, the sound of the helicopter heard at the end of the song as the military make a hasty retreat, is the very same helicopter sound heard in Pink Floyd's The Happiest Days of Our Lives from The Wall. Dave Gilmour and Kate are good friends. 

So we go ahead and the meters are over in the red...
It's a mistake in the making...
A simliar image from Aphex Twin's creepy Come To Daddy video
Experiment IV is also notable for its hauntingly beautiful violin work courtesy of Nigel Kennedy, who at one point replicates Bernard Herrmann's famous stabbing strings from the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. It's a beautiful moment if you're a horror fan. Elsewhere, his string arrangements flit between unearthly beauty and shrill, sinister edginess. The violin solo which opens the 12’ Mix of the song must surely rank amongst Kate Bush’s finest compositions.

Check out the actually-pretty-disturbing video here, and read more about the influence of horror on Kate Bush’s music here. Oh, and don't you think the programmed drum beats and guitar riffs from Experiment IV sound like they could provide the opening music to a gritty Eighties thriller set in New York City? Just me then.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Female Gothic

An artist, gripped by the clutching fingers of a dead past; a scientist, defying nature in the dark realm of the senses; an expectant father, driven mad by creeping shadows… These are the chilling tales relayed by a lone, haunted woman in Dyad Production’s latest show, Female Gothic. A one-woman theatrical production, this dark celebration of female gothic literature is adapted and performed by Rebecca Vaughan, who assumes the role of narrator, as well as frequently channelling the various characters that move throughout the three distinct tales of quiet terror she shares.

Victorian fascination with tales of supernatural mystery and the macabre has created an enduring legacy of Gothic fiction; but, with a mere handful of exceptions, it is often the male writers that are remembered. Many eerie tales of terror from female writers of that era – which subversively articulated and highlighted women's dissatisfaction with patriarchal society - have gathered dust and been forgotten. Vaughan’s show not only casts light on the plight that has befallen many female writers of gothic fiction, but also demonstrates that they had the ability to chill the soul just as powerfully as their male contemporaries. Female Gothic essentially tells four stories: three classic tales of gothic horror, and the narrator’s own autobiographical account; which she deftly weaves in and out of the other narratives, hinting at her tragic denouement. The stories she draws from are Five Senses and The Shadow by Edith Nesbit, and The Cold Embrace by ME Braddon. These are recommended for those still unfamiliar with them.

Scorned spectral lovers, visitations from beyond the grave, premature burials, fractured psyches, malevolently sentient shadows and unavoidable tragedy stalk forth from each of the stories. With the last tale, my personal favourite, Vaughan completely adopts the role of one of the terrified characters – and narrates events from her point of view. Ambiguity takes centre stage in this story, in which an expectant family appear to be haunted by a ‘crouching shadow’ which emerges from a cupboard. Is this some form of poltergeist, or indeed, a manifestation of marital/familial strife and anxiety? The dark beauty is in the haunting ambiguousness of it all.

Aided by atmospheric lighting, moody sound effects and Vaughan’s perfectly nuanced performance, the dark and simply furnished space is transformed from cosy gas-lit parlour to the likes of a creepy crypt, a scientist’s laboratory, a masked ball and a lonely country road. Upon the darkened stage sits a single armchair, a small table atop which rests a candelabrum sporting three candles (one for each spine-chilling tale), and a white curtain draping down from the back – onto which Vaughan’s shadow is cast to eerie effect during several moments. In this minimalist space she is able to create additional pieces of set entirely through mime. Each story relies heavily on suggestion, ensuring all manner of horrific and shiver-some imagery is conjured in the minds of the audience. Familiar gothic archetypes such as the doomed lovers, the fervidly ambitious scientist and the nervous spinster come alive through her words and movements. Her evocative use of language – both spoken and body – heightens tension and the ever increasing atmosphere of dreadful anticipation shared by a group of people huddled together in the dark to listen to ghost stories; to which Vaughan speaks directly, ensuring we’re as much a part of the production as anything else.

The term ‘Female Gothic’ was first used by Ellen Moers in Literary Women (1976) and is defined as "the work that women writers have done in the literary mode that, since the eighteenth century, we have called the Gothic." The Female Gothic expresses criticism of patriarchal, male-dominated social structures and serves as an expression and articulation of female independence. Often focussing upon gender differences and oppression, works typifying this, for want of a better term, sub-genre, usually feature a female protagonist who is hounded (both physically and psychologically) by a Byronic patriarchal figure in unfamiliar spaces and landscapes. The Female Gothic usually shuns blatant scenes of violence and sexual morbidity typical of gothic horror, opting for the ‘explained supernatural.’ The forerunners of the movement, which emerged during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, were the likes Clara Reeve, Sophia Lee, and Anne Radcliffe, and the baton was later picked up by the likes of Mary Shelley and the Brontes.

According to a recent interview conducted by Culture Northern Ireland, Vaughan revealed: 'Famous in their own day, these stories are now largely forgotten. The authors are forgotten also, or, like George Eliot, Edith Wharton and E Nesbit, are known only for their other works. Whereas male writers tended to produce stories with immediate, visceral impact, those written by women concealed the horror, revealing their truths in a more subtle and, I believe, terrifying fashion.'

Gothic fiction was frequently derided, mainly because of its large female readership – but within these texts, the socially excluded and marginalised found escape, hope and credence to their woes of patriarchal oppression, and as a literary genre, women writers left an indelible, important and undeniable mark upon it. Discovering hundreds of stories produced by women, Vaughan began to think they might provide the basis for a new theatrical production. And what a production it is. Go forth and seek it out on a darkened stage near you.

Female Gothic began its Northern Irish tour at the Market Place Theatre, Armagh, on February 6, and concludes at The Playhouse, Derry/Londonderry on February 13. For other tour dates click here; it is highly recommended that you do... 

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

The Bloody Judge

Dir. Jess Franco

17th Century England is in the grip of Satanic Panic, and amongst those seeking to rid the land of traitors to the throne and anyone 'in league with the devil’, is Judge George Jeffreys, whose unreasonable sentences and excessively violent tortures are dished out with puritanical abandon. He soon becomes obsessed with Mary, a young women whose sister he accused of witchcraft and whose lover is a rebel against King James II. When the rebels are defeated, Mary tries to save her beau by surrendering herself to the Judge’s cruel lust. Betrayal, bloody torture and murder ensue.

Believe it or not, The Bloody Judge marks the first time I’ve reviewed a Jess Franco film for this here blog. I know. For shame! Despite his insanely prolific career - spanning decades and genres alike - this humble scribbler has seen but a mere scrap of the kinky-exploitationer’s films, which, not including my recent indulgence in The Bloody Judge, includes his kitsch classic Vampyros Lesbos and his more recent not-classic, Vampire Killer Barbies; both of which I enjoyed immensely and loved for entirely different reasons. With Vampyros Lesbos Franco demonstrated his ability to conjure the most Sadean imagery imaginable, and managed to tread a fine line between trashy exploitation and kitschy art-house. Much like, say, Dario Argento, Jess Franco’s reputation precedes him, and my hopes where high for The Bloody Judge - a film boasting not only the dubious talents of Franco, but the steely gravitas of horror icon Sir Christopher Lee!

Despite this film being touted as Franco’s Sado-erotic take on Witchfinder General - which was released the previous year and spawned myriad imitators seeking to cash in on witchcraft, torture and sadism-oh my; said hopes were sadly dashed. In its attempts to be too many things, The Bloody Judge falls way short of the grandly epic sweep it so desperately strives for; while its more exploitative aspects never plunge the depths of Sadean depravity Franco is revered for - even the inclusion of scantily glad wenches being tortured by a man in a proto-gimp suit is more ‘guffaw’ than ‘ghastly.’ The somewhat stilted pacing is not helped by the uneven tone which shifts epileptically between historical epic, soft core skin-flick, and gratuitous torture romp. Too many characters are all given too little to do, and while their presence initially ups the scope of the film, it soon drags everything down into a mire of awkward plotting and haphazard narrative.

Franco’s admittedly admirable attempts to craft a serious period piece/historical drama include several well-staged battle sequences, dark political shenanigans ever-afoot and snatches of the driest humour. The Bloody Judge also boosts a budget more sizable than most Franco films, and there’s plenty of grim detail to the filthy authenticity of the period, which is handsomely evoked. Also worth mentioning is the beautiful cinematography by Franco regular Manuel Merino, and the emotive score courtesy of Behind the Couch favourite, Bruno Nicolai. Despite these positive aspects, events are too often bogged down in dusty scenes of badly dubbed dialogue that go on a little too long; and regardless of some surprisingly effective performances, none of the characters ever really garner any sympathy. Maria Rohm (who also starred in House of 1,000 Dolls and was married to producer Harry Alan Towers), is rather good as Mary Gray; the damsel in distress who seems prepared to do whatever it takes to protect her lover. Sir Christopher Lee, as usual, delivers the kind of stately performance he is now renowned for as the merciless judge.

Flaws aside, this will no doubt appeal to hardcore admirers of Franco, Lee and Rohm. Though given the chance, I think I’d just prefer to re-watch Witchfinder General and Vampyros Lesbos.

The Bloody Judge was released on DVD - for the first time ever in the UK - in January, by Mediumrare Entertainment. Extras include interviews with Jess Franco and Christopher Lee, deleted scenes, stills gallery and a trailer.

Friday, 1 February 2013

The Shadow of Death

Dir. Gav ‘Chuckie’ Steele

A group of friends head into the local woods to try and score some weed. Unbeknownst to them, a madman has been running amok, bumping off anyone unfortunate enough to cross his path. Their only salvation lies with a local cop-obsessed oddball who soon realises he’s as out of his depth as they are…

What Steele’s debut feature film lacks in budget, it makes up for in outrageous humour, decently developed characters and group dynamics, assured direction and a plethora of increasingly splashy but brilliantly realised effects. Low budget indie horror can often be tedious and flat, but the imagination on display throughout The Shadow of Death demonstrates the considerable talent - and imagination - of its makers, and it unspools as a cheap and cheerful – though thoroughly innovative – throwback to grindhouse splatter flicks of yesteryear. While the scenario may be very familiar – group of friends terrorised in dark woods by rampaging psycho – the likeable cast, ever-absurd deaths and oddball humour ensure events are rarely dull, though at times the pacing is happy to amble along as idly as our stoned slackers.

Obviously a fan of vintage slasher flicks, Steele chucks in an array of gleeful nods to the likes of Evil Dead, Happy Birthday To Me and Friday the 13th, though never in a distracting way. The Shadow of Death is as much an ode to splatter movies of yore (think early Peter Jackson, Evil Dead and Eighties backwoods slashers) as it is a demonstration of Steele’s ability as a director; and one with plenty of fresh ideas of his own. The opening scene - as full of burdensome expository dialogue as it is - still feels fresh because of the odd camera work and a set up that establishes the characters rather effectively. Said characters are more relatable than the usual stock slasher fodder, and the cast display great chemistry. While potentially eye-rolling, the likes of 'Super Special Officer Cop' Craven wins over with great comic timing and many of the films humorous one-liners (‘something really dodgy is going on in these woods – maybe even devil worshipping doggers!’). He feels like a definite nod to more recent flicks such as Hot Fuzz, but, much like the rest of the cast, he never stumbles into cheap parody.

With a little tightening up in the pacing department a greater degree of tension could have been mustered, but when the focus is on comedy and gross-out effects, there’s too much fun to be had to let that put you off. One particularly spooky moment occurs when the friends exchange ghost stories while waiting in the cabin, and one of them recounts a strange recurring dream she’s had since a young girl. A number of other creepy moments come courtesy of throwaway glimpses of the hooded killer skulking in the background as the friends head deeper into the woods oblivious to the danger they’re in.

It should be interesting to see what Steele and co come up with next. They’re obviously rabid admirers of the genre and with a decent budget they could really let their evidently morbid imaginations go wild.