Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Ghoul Assembly: Part 5 - Terrier from Beyond the Grave

We’re ending on a high note - a good Tim Burton film (no, really)


Ah, Tim Burton… I must really like you because the three or four films you’ve made which I actually like outweigh the decades of, umm, lesser output I’ve sat through.  But I’ll probably forgive you anything because of your tributes to the two greatest Horror film studios in history - 1999’s love letter to Hammer: Sleepy Hollow, and an animated feature about a boy and his dog called Frankenweenie.


Created in beautiful black and white, this is an unlikely homage to the Universal horror films, almost every single one, in fact.  There are analogues for every famous creature and stock character from that studio’s chillers, and even appearances from ‘Godzilla’ and Christopher Lee as Dracula. 

Monster gallery: Victor's revived dog Sparky; the vampire cat; were-rat;
Colossus the mummy-hamster; Shelly the tortoise(-zilla) and a Sea Monkey.
There’s immense fun to be had in spotting all the references, but best of all is that at a mere 87 minutes Burton doesn’t have time to go of the rails and tells a tight and entertaining, funny, moving and ultimately exciting story for all ages.  Being a painstakingly crafted stop motion film probably also persuaded the Director to stay to adhere to the essence of the story.
In fact this is a remake of a 1984 live action film which the then-young director made for Disney.

The original, live action Frankenweenie from 1984
A young Boy with the very unassuming name Victor Frankenstein finds a away to bring his recently deceased dog back to life with the power of an electrical storm.  His various classmates discover his secret and set about reviving their own past pets. This mad science even extends to a swimming pool full of mutated sea monkeys who are finally look like the advertisement always said they would.
The revived creatures, including a mummified hamster, a vampiric bat-cat, a hulking Were-Rat and a titanic bipedal tortoise converge on the town festivities to wreak havoc in the ultimate monster mash-up..
Naturally, the thrilling climax involves a flaming windmill and torch-wielding villagers.

Sparky bravely faces the vampire cat in the fiery climax
This film is a delight , boasting the voice talent of past Burton collaborators Martin Landau, Winona Ryder and Martin Short. And certainly Jack Skellington and the Corpse Bride have already shown how brilliant Burton-designed stop motion can be.

Martin Landau as Vincent Price.  I mean, Victor's Science teacher

And so ends Ghoul Assembly, my look at ‘monster mash-ups’ - at least for this year.  Winter is over and we are now into the truly bad weather - Spring in New Zealand.  So maybe it’s not time to put those horror films away just yet…

Monday, 12 September 2016

Caster's first stand

I’ve listened to other people’s for years, but finally had my own first (and near-disastrous) attempt at podcasting.


37 years, 500 issues, untold amounts of pocket money...
There’s an incredible world of entertainment available on the internet, where people pour their knowledge and enthusiasm of almost any topic into an audio file which others can download and listen to for free.

My own podcast listening unsurprisingly spreads across a range of fantastical film and TV, from the slick, professional Empire film podcast, to the meticulous research of avuncular Jim Moon's Hypnogoria, to the riotous and irreverent Hammered Horror. I’ve caught up on decades of comics lore thanks to the expertise and generosity of others, and followed up films and books recommended by podcasters who know what they’re talking about.

I’ve also occasionally strayed into 'bad podcast land', where people on the other side of the microphone eventually seem more interested in themselves, or their lady partners (TM), than the subjects they discuss, and unchecked enthusiasm turns to alienating immaturity.
I might swiftly delete them from my playlist, but at least these people were making the effort, which is more than I was doing.

So when my friend Peter finally convinced me to download skype and a sound editing programme and join him in a recorded conversation, I really had no excuse not to.


He and another friend Dave, launched Beyond the Sofa, a Doctor Who podcast, last year. It's a sharply-observant sideways look into unexplored corners off the programme, disguised as an amicable chat between two friends and an occasional guest.

However, in a perfect example of bad timing, 2016 became the year of no new Doctor Who on TV. Along with many other similarly-themed podcasts worldwide, the availability of previously unexplored subject matter for BTS to discuss suddenly diminished alarmingly.
Fortunately 2016 also marked a record breaking landmark - the 500th issue of Doctor Who Magazine, a publication which Peter and I have both collected for most of our lives - around three and a half decades worth of reading.

Where it all began for me - issue 50 and that free poster.
Now faded and wrinkled with age, but aren't we all...
So the topic and time was set, and after 20 minutes of technical difficulties we were underway at last.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the itinerary was all but abandoned as we meandered all over the topic. Floundering experience in phone interviewing meant that I failed to be a passive guest and often hosted Peter on his own podcast, which results in a nice two-handed sort of approach with neither of us leading the conversation.  I still sound like a stammering fop, but we all work with what we’re born with, I guess.

Clockwise: The previously unseen Hartnell image, which I used
as reference for this rough visual (top right), and final scraperboard artwork
(bottom right) which  finally appeared in the 1995 Yearbook (bottom left).
But much worse was the fact that I almost unwittingly sabotaged the entire operation, and only the heroic and no doubt lengthy sound-editing surgery of Dave saved the session. As we chatted, I was unaware that both of us were being recorded, so instead of my clean track, a tinny, skyped Peter also featured.

Bad masthead logo and better masthead logo, seen here on the cover of Peter's favourite issue.
Poor Dave had to edit this out and stitch the the resulting tracks together, but has done a brilliant job with only the occasional overlap still apparent.
I’ve learned my lesson, and will hopefully be asked back one day!

Thursday, 8 September 2016

Five decade Mission

Fifty years ago today, an Asian, a Scotsman, a Russian and a Vulcan warped into the stars…


As I’ve mentioned before, my Mum loved Star Trek, so the original enterprise crew became the first family outside my own who I spent time with with. 
In my pre- teens I spent a period in hospital and Mum bought me a book to read, called The World of Star Trek by David Gerrold, the follow-up to his better known ‘Making of…’ book. Reading this marked the point where I left merely being an appreciative viewer behind, and became a fan.  I got to peek behind the ‘Savage Curtain’, and suddenly I knew stuff about the actors and production crew, not just the characters they played and the stories they wrote.  

I didn’t become a Trekker until I went to Nepal many years later, but this is when I became a Trekkie.


With the greatest respect to you children of the 90s, Star Trek is only Kirk and Co for me. 
I’ll always prefer to boldly, not baldly, go and tend to regard the subsequent TV spin-offs as inessential adjuncts.   


It’s been many years since I’ve seen it, but even the animated series felt more like Trek to me than the self-important, emotionally-disconnected procedurals which followed in later decades.  Lets move on before I say anything nasty, though it may already be too late...
I love the first six films, to varying degrees, and honestly believe the second transcends it’s parent franchise to become a true classic in it’s own right. And I’ve yet to see the latest, but have thoroughly enjoyed the first two ‘rebooted’ films.

Almost 40 years of cinematic Trek
So when I got an email two years ago asking if I wanted to contribute to a collection of essays marking the golden anniversary of golden Trek, called Outside In: To Boldly Go, I hesitated for only as long As it took me to push the reply button.


Outside In: To Boldly Go is a collection of essays written by 116 learned, witty people.  And me. Available now for pre-order at ATBpublishing.com

The premise was simple:
With the 50th anniversary of Star Trek on the horizon, it’s time to do something different. Over the decades, we’ve all heard the standard opinions on these episodes. With Outside In: TBG, the aim is simple: say something different. Something interesting. Or something completely gonzo.

My love of Wrath of Khan made me go straight to the story which introduced that character, and incredibly Space Seed was free. But as the editor, Robert, said “loving something too much doesn't always lead to the most innovative article :-)


So I chose a third season episode which has always stayed in my memory.  It’s not generally regarded as one of the best, or most loved, and I doubt it was one of the better budgeted, either. But love is blind and I’ve always loved the Day of the Dove - the one where a disembodied entity smuggles aboard the Enterprise and incites the crew to battle a group of Klingons at liberty on the ship. The creature amplifies and feeds on violent emotions but eventually Kirk and Klingon commander Kang realise they have to overcome their differences to avoid mutually assured destruction.


There’s even a Khan connection - Michael Ansara’s performance as Kirk’s Klingon ‘opposite number’ is so charismatic that he was almost chosen as the returning “Big Bad’ for Star Trek II, before being edged out by Ricardo Montalban’s genetically modified Indian Prince.

From what I’ve gathered from the proof reader’s remarks my contribution has divided opinion, and I certainly didn’t chose an expected route in looking back at The Day of the Dove.  I won’t say anything more about it  until To Boldly Go is officially released, so for now lets raise a glass of Romulan ale and wish the original crew of the Enterprise, and absent friends, a very happy fiftieth anniversary. 

In the (final) words of a certain starship captain, which also define why this is my Star Trek: “It’s been fun.”

This fantastically detailed Anniversary poster by artist Dusty Abell
features every single original series episode.

Friday, 2 September 2016

Only Youse


What do Alison Moyet, James Corden, Kylie Minogue and an A cappella group have in common?



The music scene in the early 1980s might always be a source of bewilderment. This period of intense experimentation is easily and lazily mocked, but beneath all that makeup and electronic burbling there were some truly great songs produced.  You know this much is true.

You might remember Alison Moyet, a hugely talented performer whose less than  anorexic figure would have made a successful career so much more difficult in these more superficial times. But do you remember what she did before her solo career?

She placed an advert for a musical partner in a UK music magazine and attracted the attention of former Depeche Mode musician Vince Clarke.  He bought with him his keyboard and a song which his former band had rejected, and they recorded it together as short lived synth-pop duo Yazoo.  It was an instant hit in early 1982, making an impact on both the the UK and US charts.


The extended version can be found here, which might try your patience but does perfectly encapsulate the studied nonchalance and terrifying asymmetrical haircuts of this bygone era.

Only you might seem familiar to you because you’ve most probably heard a version which reached the New Zealand charts in early 1984. Recorded by A cappella group The Flying Pickets, their rendition was a Christmas No1 in Britain before going on to influence other vocal groups like the House Martins. This video has to be seen to be believed.  As wags on You Tube have observed, it appears to feature Wolverine from the X-Men, The Addams Family’s Uncle Fester and the Fourth Doctor Who serenading one another.
Enjoy:


Once again, I’m left with the feeling that this is a very good song which is somehow still waiting for the right interpretation to fully realise it’s potential.  Others have tried, including Spanish singer Julio Iglesias’s son Enrique, but this next one is a version which first made me recoil when I heard about it. Kylie Minogue and friend, comedian James Corden recorded this duet on her 2015 Christmas album.  And believe it or not, it’s rather lovely and certainly the most beautiful way to learn the lyrics.


In closing, I’ll continue the theme of Christmas and comedy.  The cringe humour of The Office is possibly long out-of-date, but we might be forgetting that it ended with a genuinely touching Christmas party resolution to the on-going Dawn and Tim ‘romance’. And the soundtrack to this happy ending?  Have a listen…


Friday, 26 August 2016

Intoxi-kates

The funniest thing ever to come out of Australia is a cookery programme



When someone sitting next to me at work sends me a You Tube link for a video which I HAVE to watch, NOW because it’s the funniest thing EVER, I usually try to surreptitiously kick my computer cord out or remember a fictitious meeting I’m late for.  
It’s not that I’m ungrateful, it’s just the pressure.  Humour is, as they say, a funny thing, and being told I’m going to find something funny gives me performance anxiety.  Maybe I won’t feel like being amused.  I might suffer a sense of humour disfunction - leaving them disappointed and me weakly suggesting that I must be tired. Or maybe I’m just a grumpy old git after all.

But when a workmate who writes actual cuisine columns recommended The Katering Show to me, I couldn’t say no. And neither should you because it is pure, distilled genius.


The premise is simple, Kate McLennan, a self-confessed intolerable foodie, is determined to demonstrate the preparation dishes suitable for her food intolerant friend, Kate McCartney.  With McCartney's reluctant participation.

Kate McCartney's dead-eyed stare is almost as unnerving...
So each episode sees their friendship teeter on the edge and possibly their sanity as well. The dishes prepared are usually inedible, McCartney’s intense disinterest inevitably reasserts itself while McLennan's desperate smile stretches to manic, then crumbles as every session inevitably spirals out of control.

... as Kate McLennan's fixed grin.
It’s the personalities and interaction between the Kates which makes it work so beautifully.  Is it a masterclass in improvisation or is everything meticulously rehearsed?  Or, God forbid, are they really like that?
Decide for yourself.  Here are the links.
Watch it.
NOW.

Episode 1 - Mexicana Festiana

Episode 2 - Ethical Eating

Episode 3 - We Quit Sugar

Episode 4 - Thermomix

Episode 5 - Food Porn

Episode 6 - Christmas

Season 2


Episode 1 - Red Ramen

Episode 2 - Yummy Mummies

Episode 3 - It Gets Feta

Episode 4 - The Body Issue

Episode 5 - The Cook and The Kates

Episode 6 - Tying the Not

Episode 7 - Chienging Flavours

Episode 8 - End of Days

Friday, 12 August 2016

Front Drawer

A touch of gloss can make anything look good!


All the astrological symbols have been customised
 to relate to the satirical predictions in the article

It’s been quite a year for illustration commissions, due in no small part to the fact that I am one of the few illustrators left in our organisation.  I’m possibly also the only one stupid enough to work all hours because I don’t want to turn the opportunities down.

Putting the adverse effects on my health and family life aside, here’s a gallery of covers I’ve illustrated for the Sunday Star Times Sunday magazine this year.  

The SST seem to like me because, rather than ever really establishing a style of my own, I rip real artists off.  Or homage them, if you prefer. And Sunday is a glossy supplement - so the stock quality helps  me look good most of the time…

In the style of: Frankie magazine

In the style of: Roy Litchenstein

In the style of: The New Yorker

In the style of:  hang on, this just might be my own! Fancy that...

Not in the Sunday Star Times magazine section, but in the style of:
Soviet propaganda posters

Sunday, 7 August 2016

Ghoul Assembly: Part five - Spent Penny

You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone…



We watched the last ever episode of Penny Dreadful this week - a wholly unique series which falls perfectly into this series of posts about 'monster mash-ups'. Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster and his intended Bride, a Wolf Man or two, Dorian Gray, Doctor Jekyll and various witches and demons all collided over the three years which this series lasted.

Not all of these people are quite human.  Hardly any, actually...
But none of these figures were mere archetypes, they were all as complex and nuanced as any of the programme’s human characters. To say this was The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen done right is to pay disservice to both works - Penny Dreadful was like nothing else on television, stately in it’s pacing, utterly unpredictable and sometimes infuriating in it’s determination to avoid convention. 
 Oh how I gnashed my teeth in frustration when they introduced the very great David Warner as Van Helsing, no less, only to kill him off in the following episode!

Ethan's real last name is Talbot and he has an affinity with wolves.
Nope, nothing sinister here...
But above all, this was one of the most beautifully shot period drama TV I’ve ever seen - absolutely suited to a huge cinema screen - particularly the wild west vistas of this last season. Pause any frame from any moment of this series and you could frame it to hang it on your wall.

Victorian factories on the Thames - it's like being there
Eva Green’s Vanessa Ives was arguably the central character, initially drawn into events through there friendship with a certain Mina Murray. Mina doesn’t survive her encounter with a particular Transylvanian Count in this story, but her father Sir Malcolm (played impeccably by a grizzled but formidable Timothy Dalton) does. He becomes Vanessa’s protector and they gather an extraordinary league about them, all with their own secrets and dark pasts.

Dark events always centre on Vanessa - she's a spook magnet
To try and prĂ©cis the dark and spiralling twists the series took is a fool’s errand, but moments stand out above the others. The first appearance of the Frankenstein creature and Greys portrait are unforgettable but for me Billie Piper’s Lily has the most startling scene. In the process of leaving her cringing creator Victor Frankenstein after terrorising him into submission, she suddenly turns and retrieves a bouquet of flowers he had naively offered. Her arm darts out like a striking snake, attention utterly focussed on this one action as if he no longer even exists, and then she’s gone. Something about this explosion of animalistic intensity in a harmless, even endearing, act is very unsettling.

Billie Piper as Lily Frankenstein - she's nobody's Bride.
It hasn’t been a flawless ride. Season two took a swerve from the Dracula story to involve us in what seemed to be a very long encounter with a coven of demonic sorceresses. It had it’s moments, but seemed to lose momentum and meander a little, concluding unsatisfactorily in one of those hallucinatory ‘confronting your own guilty past’ sequences.

(A 4:43 effects reel for Penny Dreadful season 3 - well worth a look.)

This final year was an absolute return to form. Every character given more depth, and some welcome new ones added, particularly Victorian adventuress Catriona Hartdegen, played by Perdita Weeks with an unusual delivery which makes it appear as if she’s being dubbed.
A lengthy interlude in the United States provides a fascinating Western adventure with added werewolves and Brian Cox, before returning to London, and Vanessa, both now in the sway of Dracula. The silent, fog-shrouded city, abandoned by the living and haunted by rats and ragged clusters on the undead, has all the elements for a worthy sequel to Bram Stoker’s novel.

The final showdown...
But now Penny Dreadful is gone, the usual masterpiece title sequence replaced with the simple caption ‘The End’. Victorian London will never seem so sumptuous, or foreboding, again - and these familiar characters may not be re-interpreted so memorably for a very long time.