Saturday, 25 March 2017

Getting Hammered

Hammer horror, Hammer horror,
Won't leave it alone.
I don't know,
Is this the right thing to do?”

(Kate Bush)

Warning: spending too much time in your room could leave you looking like this...
(from Infogothic: A graphic guide to Hammer horror)

In my pre-teens I didn’t go out much. I spent too much time in my room and didn’t interact nearly enough with the real world. I didn’t do anything physically active, and if the very thought was not ridiculous to someone who still names his blog after a stick insect, I would almost certainly have been overweight and unhealthy. Instead I was immersed in a fantasy world of my favourite films and TV, pouring over books and magazines and writing and drawing pictures about them. It’s little wonder I had the social skills and physical coordination of a baby giraffe when hormones finally propelled me out of my bedroom.

Sometimes it feels as if I’ve lived my life trying to make up for this ever since - forcing myself outside in all hours and weathers for physical pursuits I might not even be very good at, pushing myself into social situations I’m probably equally ill-suited to.

So how utterly bizarre it is to come full circle all these decades later.

Instead of my bedroom, I now spend all my time at a keyboard in our office, and as much as I miss regular exercise, I’m still a stick insect. I’m even secretly glad we’ve just had the worst summer in living memory because I wouldn’t have been able to spend much time out in it. Much else has been neglected - needless to say this blog has been one of them. My wonderful wife has been incredibly patient and tolerant, only making occasional remarks about the anatomically-impossible position she believes my head to be lodged in, most of the time.

And I’m (only just) getting away with this blindingly anti-social and monstrously selfish behaviour because I’m writing a book, with a signed publisher’s contract and everything.

Coming soon...
I can’t remember the first Hammer film I actually saw, but do recall seeing a couple of seconds of a fanged, hissing Christopher Lee in an episode of Some mothers Do ‘Ave em when I was very young. Always like Frank Spencer in so many ways, this made an instant impression on me.

It’s taken forty-something years, but I’m now researching, designing, writing and illustrating a 94 page soft cover book about the horror films of Hammer Studios.
Very aware these productions have already been analysed, dissected and evaluated in molecular detail by authors all across the world (I was reading some of their books in my bedroom all those many years ago), I pitched a very different approach which astonishingly attracted some interest from a british publisher.

Over the last decade my day job has required me to produce infographics (information graphics) - visual representations of information which can be absorbed quickly by a reader, rather than having to be excavated from large bodies of text. These can be charts, diagrams, maps, graphs, schematics, illustrations - any visual device which analyses and informs.

Apart from the fact that successive generations of film fans are now delving deeper and deeper into the backgrounds and minutae of their favourite films, the perennially popular output of Hammer studios lends itself perfectly to this treatment. As with so many of their decisions, Hammer’s body of work was driven by cost considerations. Sequels were an efficient way to reuse props and costumes and calling upon the same actors familiar with the Hammer method of working saved time, as did reusing directors, writers and technicians.

The result of this ‘business model’ is a vast, interconnected world stretching across two decades of film-making. Sometimes it’s the fictional characters and settings which form the connective tissue, and sometimes it’s real-world factors. Either way, this gives me plentiful data which can be sifted and arranged into (hopefully) attractive and engaging infographics.

Will Infogothic - A graphic guide to Hammer horror sell? Will it actually see the light of day - will I even make my deadline? Even I’ve learned that many uncertainties lie between a project and a product in this industry.
The single best thing which has come out of this incarceration is the incredible generosity of fans and authors all over the world which I’ve encountered. They have been unfailingly encouraging and helpful with my every request and enquiry. I’m still reeling from the incredible kindness of one author who sent me a PDF of his entire out-of-print book for my own reference. Like Hammer films themselves, although the subject matter itself was often sensationalist or even tawdry - it was always executed with pure class.

This post is already longer than I intended, so it’s back to work. I’m not sure when I’ll return to this blog, but I definitely will - there’s been so much else to write about this year.
In the meantime; I’m learning a lot - not just about Hammer itself, but history, geography, languages and literally, rocket science. And I’m currently working on a fashion spread, charting the costumes of Hammer heroines from Raquel Welch’s doe-skin bikini in One Million Years BC to the PVC futurism of Moon Zero Two. So don’t feel sorry for me - and if you like what you hear - buy my book!

Friday, 23 December 2016

Tarkin it to the limit

This year has brought disbelief in many ways - but I never thought we’d reach Christmas 2016 with Peter Cushing trending on social media.

Seasons greetings, and apologies to anyone who actually does look in on this blog. I have been criminally neglectful of poor Phasmatodea, (3 years old this past October) in recent months.
Apart from ever-increasing work commitments (which is never an excuse) I have been commissioned to write a book.  Or more accurately, write, research, design, illustrate and lay out a book, which is obviously going to absorb my spare time until delivery date mid-next year.

I will post about it in more detail later, but in many ways it’s a culmination of what keeping this blog has prepared me for - trying to find new ways to discuss and analyse genre films which I’m passionate about. For now, I’ll simply state that the subject ties-in peripherally with the main topic of this entry. Let’s just say it’s going to be 'Hammer Time'...

Now back to this post. Since the ‘House of Mouse’’s acquisition of Star Wars in 2012 we’ve been promised a visit to a galaxy far, far away every year. And this December we got a ‘side-ways’ addition to the saga which I have to confess I never had high hopes for.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’s trailers seemed to offer a collection of cold and unappealing characters, and Director Gareth Edward’s last big budget film, Godzilla, actually made me think more fondly of the 1998 Roland Emmerich version.

I reluctantly predicted Rogue One would be an unsuccessful experiment in offering something new, outside the main Star Wars storyline., News of extensive studio-instigated reshoots made me think this might even damage the brand more than the prequels did.
The one thing which did keep my interest was the possibility of seeing one of my favourite characters, and actors, return to the screen - the late Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin.

"...and I want proper images, instead of these screen caps, released immediately!"
Although initial, and to me very exciting, talk of a computer generated Peter Cushing seemed to go quiet, I kept hoping. Given the film’s setting immediately prior to Star Wars episode 4: A New Hope, I couldn’t see how Tarkin couldn’t be at least referenced. I cautiously expected that we might see a cutaway shot, (maybe manipulated unused footage from 1977), and perhaps a significant sound-alike line delivered. Glimpsed on a view screen or as a flickering hologram, something like that. Then no matter how bad the film was, I’d be happy.
The one thing I had never expected was that Tarkin would get more screen time and lines in Rogue One than when Cushing was alive…

The character has been posthumously represented for many years...
I’d never gone to a Star Wars film with low expectations before, and I left with my face aching from continuously grinning like a loon through most of the final hour. Let’s be clear, the first half is a little turgid and choppy, but the second is sheer TIE Fighter fuel. In its final act Rogue One felt to me like the most 'Star Wars-y' film since 1977, and unlike last year’s the The Force Awakens, the audience applauded at the end.

As far as Tarkin is concerned, it seems that those in the audience not in the know either don’t notice or wonder why this character was computer generated, while OCD Star Wars nerds either applaud the technical advancement or moan about video game rendering. And although some Cushing fans question the morality of digital resurrection, most seem rapturous over this respectful interpretation.

(Left to right) Tarkin from the Rebels animated series, Guy Henry, Tarkin from Rogue One and Peter Cushing from Star Wars: A New Hope.
My own expectations for the appearance of Tarkin were tempered - I knew it could never be perfect. Cushing was a tall man for his times but the actor who performed the role and wore later ‘wore’ the pixels; Guy Henry, is a good 3-4 inches taller. Cushing was also a master of ‘eye acting’, knowing how to use available light to make his pale blue gaze steely or compassionate where required - whereas in Rogue One the environment dictates that the Grand Moff’s eyes are more often in shadow.
But the biggest adjustment for me was not the visual, but the audio - because nobody else sounds like Peter Cushing.

It’s been said that in casting he and Alec Guinness in Star Wars, George Lucas inadvertently brought the best diction in the acting profession to his galaxy far, far away.  
Peter Cushing overcame a serious dental issue and his south counties accent to develop a cut glass voice which somehow found more syllables in words than anyone else suspected ever existed, decisively clipping them only after every vowel and consonant had been properly honoured. And he could roll those r-r-r-rs like no-one else not from Scotland can.
That being said, Tarkin’s most famous line, (beautifully honoured in Rogue One) urbanely draws the first word out without finishing it: “You may fa-h-h when ready.”
As far as Henry’s delivery is concerned, in fairness perhaps a slavish impersonation of Cushing would only sound like mimicry rather than a performance.

Wayne Pygram's makeup as a younger Tarkin in the closing moments of
Revenge of the Sith, (2005), was best seen from a distance.
Personally, I am delighted with the result and find it mind-boggling that when a digital recreation was finally attempted as a significant and sustained performance in a major film, it was done so with my favourite actor.

Last years The Force Awakens felt like an early Christmas present, But the last act of Rogue One makes you feel like a Star Wars fan finding everything you’ve ever wanted under the tree.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

"I cast him the first moment I met him.
There was no doubt in my mind that Peter Cushing was perfect for the role of the
sinister Grand Moff Tarkin... he was not only a very talented actor, but he even
looked the role – exactly what I imagined Tarkin to be."

George Lucas

Friday, 11 November 2016

Flying Sorcerers

The real world has let us all down very badly this past week.  So I was very happy to visit the mind-bending alternative realities of my favourite Marvel character, instead.

Doctor Strange has always been my favourite Marvel character, for a number of reasons.
Firstly, he always reminded me strongly of Vincent Price, and I believe that is who the look of the character was derived from.

Secondly, I’ve always preferred my heroes to think, not punch their way out of crises - hence my favourite characters tend to be Doctors and Professors, rather than Captains, commanders and mopey Dark Knights.
And thirdly: you never forget your first time. I was twelve and spending a period in hospital, flying full of pain killers and other drugs. My Mum visited gave me another mind-altering substance to help pass the time - a Doctor Strange comic. Very soon my own astral form was well-and-truly tripping through Steve Ditko’s psychedelic realms with the Sorcerer Supreme.

"They'll never get this stuff on screen", thought the Sorceror Supreme

Yes, this natty chap with the cloak and a severe deficit of modesty was the superhero for me, but never in the most skewed of cosmic states of existence would I have thought I’d see him on the big screen.  
By all accounts this somewhat risky investment in a little-known supporting character has magically transformed into yet another Box Office triumph for Marvel Studios.

The fact that they will stumble one day is surely inevitable, but to my great relief not with this particular title.  
In fact, Doctor Strange brings much that is new to the Marvel cinematic Universe - an altogether more cerebral approach to protecting our puny planet, culminating in a genuinely clever resolution.

Impressive visuals are a given. But speaking of becoming jaded, at this point I’d invite anyone likely to whine that they’ve seen it all before in Inception to stick their head in a bucket.
I love Inception as much as anyone, but what we saw there was a mere starting point to the truly astonishing vistas we see Cumberbatch, Ejiofor and Mikklesen tumbling through.  This is one of those rare films which demands you see it in 3-D.

And what a cast.  In Price’s absence I literally can’t imagine anyone but Cumberbatch in the role, and no doubt his star power is responsible for much of the film’s success. Mads Mikklesen has the thankless task of bringing a fairly stock-standard villain to life, but his talent for exquisitely-timed, dry-as-dust humour (see also Wilbur wants to kill Himself, 2003) create some of the film’s best scenes.

If I’m to be completely honest there seems to be a slight coldness about Doctor Strange which ultimately makes it less than the sum of its parts (the exhilaration and warmth of Civil War and The Avengers keep those two at the top for me). But its parts are utterly amazing - and I haven’t even mentioned Tilda Swinton or many people’s favourite character - the Cloak of Levitation.

If this studio can succeed so well with a relatively little-known, high-concept character like this, then I’m fast reaching a heretical conclusion.  If DC fail with their big-screen Wonder Woman next year (and I desperately hope they don’t), then perhaps they should just carry on churning out Batman films and hand everything else over to Marvel.

Saturday, 5 November 2016


To celebrate our anniversary we usually visit glamorous destinations to eat, drink and spend too much money.  This year we dragged ourselves to physical exhaustion and beyond…

Team OrangeCat give the competition paws for thought...

I run and cycle fairly regularly because I enjoy it - and need to spend time away from a computer screen for my health and sanity’s sake. (I have already failed in at least one of those categories).

But it’s always better to to have an event to aim for, and when Rose told me about the Big Bang Adventure little did she know what she was letting herself in for.
Their website told me that you could only enter in teams of at least two, and somehow catching Rose at a weak moment, she agreed to join me - Team ‘OrangeCat’ was born!

Mountain biking - how hard can it be?

This all day multi-disciplinary event has a strong map reading and orienteering angle, and so exact details were shrouded in mystery right up until the actual date. All we knew for now was there would be running, mountain biking and a mystery aquatic event.
Rose arranged mountain bike hire for the date and I drafted my ever-dependable Dad as our support crew, another stipulation of entry.

Fast forward the inevitable training montage (alright, a little bit of running and stuff) to the big day. But first, there’s something you need to know about Rose. Although a brown belt in two martial arts styles and constantly active, she also suffers from a mysterious muscular ailment which has shortened her right leg and made even walking painful at times.  But paradoxically, our running seemed to help and Rose gradually became fitter and more pain-free than she had been in years.

This was hugely encouraging, but I also knew we would never be serious contenders - our goal was to do as much as possible without causing lasting harm.

Leaving at 5.30am with me crammed in the back of our car around two huge mountain bikes and a sack of scroggin we headed for the Kapiti coast, and the recently disclosed race location. On hilly private land just east of Raumati we were to throw ourselves into four cross country events. Alternating between running/orienteering and mountain biking, before ending up at Queen Elizabeth Park for the water challenge.

A always, a lot of anxiety dissipates once you’ve actually made it and know what’s expected of you, but the difficulty level was extreme. Finding  a variety of electronic check points up and down the hillside was made slightly easier in that we were able to stay with ‘the pack’ to some extent, although the steepness and altitude of the terrain was extremely daunting.

The first orienteering stage. We go up, and up...and up.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t worry about my staunch OrangeCat team mate at points throughout the day.  Mobility pain aside, in the darkest moments a history of heart problems in Rose’s family made me question the sense of this foolhardy venture.  Just when I thought she might do the sensible thing and give up, Rose rallied every single time and willingly stepped back into her world of pain. She probably showed more courage and determination than anyone else on the course, certainly me.

And down - I'm holding the map which was our life-line.

I worried a little about my father as well, left for hours on his own waiting for us to finally reappear and driving our gear from one transition point to the next.  But true to form he was totally dependable, always smiling and encouraging - making the best of a day anyone else would find a chore.
He even had a selfie taken with one of the top managers of the organisation I work for, just by falling into conversation with her.  Couldn’t have done it without you, Dad!

Emerging after getting lost in the bush - still smiling...

We struggled up endless bush-clad inclines, hurtled down logging roads on our hired bikes, got seriously lost when we fell behind anyone who could actually orienteer - but found our way out again. 
Ending with a punishing motor boat ride through the pounding surf to a marker buoy, we crossed the finishing line, intact, alive, still friends - and not even last.

Surf's up - time to get very wet...

I know I’m married to an incredible woman, but 27 years on she continues to surprise me still.
Next year - shopping and eating in Melbourne!

(and here is a video of the day - watch out for those OrangeCat hats at 0:25 and 1:09)

Monday, 31 October 2016

Hammer for Halloween

I’ve got the remote and it’s All Hallows’ Eve -
time for a creature double feature

It’s been a funny old month: extra work commitments and other projects resulted in this blog almost dying from neglect, and myself scaling new heights in obnoxiousness due to sleep hours being purloined to meet deadlines.
But right at the very end of October my work/life balance has almost levelled out again - just in time for Halloween.

I’ve had most of a weekend to myself, and an opportunity to finally watch a couple of blu-rays which I bought months ago.  Happily, they are early Hammer Horror classics, both from 1959 and featuring Sir Chris and ‘The Cush’ at the their very finest.

Canine Doyle

You can keep your Cumberbatch and Brett - if there was ever an actor born to play the World’s first consulting detective, it was Peter Cushing. And he grabs this role as only a life-long Holmes fanboy and perfectly cast leading man could.
Dying his hair, raising the timbre of his voice and embracing all the higher functioning autism traits of the character, his Holmes crackles with nervous energy. He’s a man out of step with the rest of humanity, always several steps ahead of anyone he encounters and not slow to display the inevitable impatience.

"Come on Cumberbatch and Brett, I'll take you both on ..."
Cushing’s performance is so startling that it makes you forget there’s a dog in this. And that’s just as well because no-one has ever been able to do the Baskerville Hound justice, not even Sherlock’s most recent dodgy CGI attempt.

Having said this, anyone familiar with the works of Conan Doyle will tell you that there’s a problem with this particular story. Bringing his most famous creation back ten years after the great detective’s assumed demise at Reichenbach, Conan Doyle did not originally intend The Hound of the Baskervilles to be a Sherlock Holmes adventure.

And this might help explain why Holmes himself is absent for the middle portion of the tale, which, along with having to eventually depict the Hound, brings down most adaptations of this novel.
As Cumberbatch’s Holmes recently remarked in a beautifully meta-textual moment: “I’m hardly in the one with the dog!”

Hammer’s secret weapon is the wonderful Andre Morell as a capable and quietly intelligent Watson, and his scenes with Christopher Lee’s Sir Henry Baskerville carry the story on nicely until Cushing’s dramatic reappearance.

"Steady Holmes, I think he's got Kryptonite..."
Beautifully directed by Terence Fisher, this is an expensive -looking production, with first rate performances all-round, including New Zealander Ewen Solon. Hammer’s inevitable tweaks to the story result in a thrilling prologue sequence and a progressive substantial female role.

Christopher Lee as the anxious Sir Henry Baskerville.
Yes, “Elementary, my dear Watson” is uttered, but the fact that Cushing says it, even if Conan Doyle never wrote it, makes it canon to me.
Best in Show, this Hound is a must see.


Wrap artist

If The Hound of the Baskerville’s was Cushing’s star vehicle, The Mummy (1959) belongs to Christopher Lee. Although he gets to incant a little during  the ancient Egypt flashback sequence, as Kharis the revived Mummy he speaks not single word. 

The high Priest Kharis...
This isn’t his Frankenstein creature in bandages, but a performance which refuses to be smothered by costume, mud and makeup, or silenced by a complete lack of dialogue. I don’t know enough about mime to call this a masterclass in silent acting, but it surely is.

...returned to life four thousand years later.
Only able to emote with his eyes, Lee’s Kharis is an unstoppable juggernaut shrugging off close range shotgun blasts, but also immensely dignified despite his pitiable state. And best if all, tender and sympathetic when moved by millennia-old lost love. The number of close ups Kharis is given indicate the directors confidence in Lee to deliver despite every possible physical restriction to his performance.  Best screen Mummy ever? Absolutely.

Cushing wanted to justify the hole in the Mummy on the film poster,
so suggested putting a harpoon through him.
Cushing as John Banning, the remaining target of the Pharoah’s curse, brings all the urbanity, conviction and energy which he always does (apparently busting out some parkour when Kharis first pays him a visit) but I couldn’t quite shake the suspicion that the character of Banning needed to be played by a younger man, and Cushing would have been better cast as his older friend and advisor.

However - to contradict myself again, it’s also difficult to imagine anyone else in the passive aggressive showdown he shares with the Mummy’s ‘keeper’  - it’s a classic Cushing scene of steely resolve beneath an icily formal veneer.

The spectacular climax sees Kharis undone, not by Cushing’s shotgun-blasting posse, but Yvonne Furneaux as Elizabeth Banning. In the Mummy’s eyes at least, she is the reincarnation of his lost love Ananka. Her gentleness with him at the film’s climax makes you side with Kharis, as you should want to do with all truly great screen monsters.

Yvonne Furneaux did Fellini's La Dolce Vita straight after this...
Perhaps the closest to a straightforward Universal adaptation, Hammer’s The Mummy conflates the plots of three or four of the older studios bandaged horror films, and distils their essence perfectly.  
If you only ever see one Mummy film - make it this one.

Friday, 28 October 2016

“On my world it means hope” Part Two

If someone acts and sounds like Superman, then he probably is,
and two out of three ain’t bad.

Tyler Hoechlin is at least 300 times better looking than I  could ever hope to be.  But, to me at least, he just didn’t quite personify the Superman look - he’s an alternative to the symmetrical, strong jawed features we’re used to. And I still can’t get used to those weird cape brackets on the shoulders.
But he wore it well.

In every other aspect, however, this was the best Superman we’ve had in many many years, with a warmth, charisma and humility which has been especially missing of late. The easy authority and sheer likeability of his performance reminded me most of George Reeves. Even without the costume and superpowers, you’d be drawn to this figure and inspired by him.

It sounds simple when put like this - and makes you wonder why so many have struggled with the concept recently.  Let people be afraid of Batman, but you should want to BE Superman.
And despite achieving all of this, Hoechlin still managed to deliver a portrayal which didn’t eclipse his cousin in her own show. Bravo sir, and I hope you come back, one day.

Which brings me to the Supergirl series itself.  I don’t want to be unkind - as a friend pointed out, this is a family show - but now that Superman has retuned to Metropolis I doubt I’ll be tuning in again.
Perhaps the gritty Netflix Marvel series have just spoilt me for anything less than believable, flawed characters, rather than pretty people delivering Saturday morning cartoon dialogue.

But ultimately, I’m happy that there’s a bright and breezy Kryptonian bearing that shield and fighting for truth and justice, and glad that her viewing figures don’t need me.

Just super - you wait for years, and then two come along at the same time...

Thursday, 29 September 2016

“On my world it means hope.”

He’s been through a lot this year, but it takes more than an unmentionable cinema experience to keep him down

We’ve been told in an earlier film that the shield, above, means ‘hope’ - so here is a much-needed dose. 
It’s far too early to really tell, of course, and this is really his cousin’s show, but these few minutes feel more like the character I’ve always loved than anything else I’ve seen this year.

It’s good to have you back, Superman!