Thursday, 19 July 2012



In a week that sees Batman casting his capitalist cape over the whole damned country, here at Grimm Up North we’ll be offering an opportunity to spend some quality time with bats of a far more sanguinary persuasion, at our special VAMPIRE SUNDAY screening.

First up, we’ve an exclusive preview of gritty new British indie THE HARSH LIGHT OF DAY, followed by a Q&A with cast and crew. Check out this for a synopsis: When the wife of a successful occult writer is brutally murdered, and police fail to find the culprits, he is offered a chance to mete out a very different, far more brutal kind of justice… Combining vampires and vigilantism, this is Death Wish with fangs: a smart, fast, brutal new take on the undead that is light years away from the current deluge of dreary “dark romances”. 

Hammer Horror always contained a frisson of eroticism amid the thrills and chills; bodice-ripping and heaving bosoms being a staple from the start. But THE VAMPIRE LOVERS is usually viewed as the film that introduced more sexually explicit content into the movies. This is appropriate enough, since it is an adaptation of J. Sheridan Le Fanu‘s classic 1872 novella CARMILLA, which itself was the first vampire tale in English to explore sex and sexuality, as well as being a major influence on Bram Stoker in the creation of DRACULA. In Le Fanu’s predatory lesbian vampire, Mircalla, Countess Karnstein, Hammer found an iconic character to rival the Count, and they found the perfect person to - quite literally - flesh out the role, in the form of the extraordinary Ingrid Pitt. A concentration camp survivor, a trained pilot, and a karate black belt, the Polish-born actress brought earthy sexuality, dark wit, and forceful intelligence to her portrayal. The film was directed with characteristic no-nonsense pace and panache by prolific veteran director Roy Ward Baker, who over the course of his lengthy career was responsible for everything from the archetypal sinking of the Titanic film A NIGHT TO REMEMBER,  to the Marilyn Monroe classic DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK, to episodes of pretty much every single cult TV show made in the 60s, 70s and 80s, as well as a whole string of Hammer classics. Filled with such archetypal 70s faces as Kate O’Mara and Madeline Smith and Pippa Steele, the film features 

Hammer’s regular Van Helsing, the inimitable Peter Cushing, very appropriately cast as General Von Spielsdorf, the character who had inspired Stoker’s implacable vampire hunter and features Arthur Daley himself, George Cole providing local colour - most of it blood red. Ironically, in later life, Baker would find himself a regular director on Minder. The film’s deft and dizzying combination of Hammer’s regular mix of blood, boobs and bodices with some very 70s lesbian sex and sadism made the film an instant success, inspiring two sequels, LUST FOR A VAMPIRE (Which we might just sneak into the line up on Sunday 22nd July) and TWINS OF EVIL in what became known as the Karnstein Trilogy. Sadly, neither ex- au pair and model Yutte Stensgaard nor former Playboy Pin-Ups Mary and Madeleine Collinson were any substitute for the late, great Ingrid Pitt.
Just as LeFanu preceded Stoker, so an appearance by the infamous Mircalla Karnstein can only lead in to one by the Count himself. DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS, was the second of Hammer’s series featuring Christopher Lee as Bram Stoker’s classic creation. Directed by Hammer maestro Terence Fisher, it is notable for the fact that Dracula himself never actually speaks a word. Lee claims that there was dialogue written, but it was so bad that he refused to say it, though screenwriter Jimmy Sangster (quite understandably!) disputes this. The film is also notable for the introduction of the character of Father Sandor, played by Andrew Reid, a substitute for the series’ regular Abraham Van Helsing, Peter Cushing, who was unavailable. Sandor later enjoyed an unexpected secondary career, when he was resurrected, as “Father Shandor, Demon Stalker” in a series of comic strips by writer Steve Moore and artist John Bolton (and later David Jackson), which first appeared in the 1970s House of Hammer comic magazine, and later in Warrior Magazine, where Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s V FOR VENDETTA made its debut.

CAPTAIN KRONOS - VAMPIRE HUNTER was a radical re-working of the vampire myth, Kronos is now considered one of Hammer’s best works,  having the foresight to let Avengers duo Albert Fennell and Brian Clemens bring their surreal creativity to the genre. Apparently it was supposed to lead to a TV series with Kronos travelling all over time doing battle with all manner of dodgy monsters. What a shame it didn’t happen.
‘Surprisingly brutal – there’s a lot of blood spurting from assorted necks and mouths, and the almost Airplane-like protracted despatching of poor old Doctor Marcus has to be seen to be believed’. British Horror Films

GOD OF VAMPIRES is a new UK release about a professional killer contracted to murder a Chinese crime lord. But the routine hit goes awry when Frank discovers his mark is actually an horrific Chinese vampire."God of vampires is like no vampire film you are likely to have ever seen before! It is what a vampire film should be! Blood sprays, bodies are torn asunder, Intestines spill, chainsaws rev, bullets fly, acrobatic martial arts ensue and it is all accomplished with a delightfully gruesome sense of humour!
"Full of action, gunplay, geysers of blood, chainsaw deaths and some truly creepy looking vampires."
"Blade meets Mr. Vampire...An action-packed, gore-fest that is both a fun and thrilling ride that doesn't let up till the very end."

CRONOS, Guillermo del Toro’s remarkable dark fairytale re-imagining of the vampire legend might seem the odd one out in what has been thus far a very British programme of cinematic chills. And yet there is a connection. Del Toro claims that one of the primary influences on his career as a filmmaker was Gary Sherman’s classic 1973 shocker, DEATH LINE. Sherman’s depiction of the pitiful, strangely sympathetic inbred cannibal troglodyte that stalks the London Underground was apparently a huge influence on the depiction of the increasingly wretched, reluctant vampire, Jesus Gris in CRONOS. (The name actually means “Grey Jesus”)

 BLOOD AND BONE CHINA is a blood-soaked, bodice-ripping slice of Victorian Gothic, crammed with evil industrialists, crusading female journalists, wise orphans, sinister foreigners, literary in-jokes and more vampires than you can shake a crucifix at, Chris Stones award-winning cliff-hanger chapter-play for the 21st Century fuses the aesthetics of classic Hammer with the lurid, fast-paced melodramatics of Penny Dreadful serial novels such as James Rymers VARNEY THE VAMPIRE. Steve Balshaw - Grimmfest Film Programmer.
More on the history of Vampires and Bram Stoker, Here. More on Vampire Sunday Here

Tuesday, 24 April 2012


Steve Balshaw looks at the ever growing popularity of Zombie fiction.

As Grimm Up North prepares for its Zombie Triple Bill this Friday (27th April 2012), and I finish reading Wayne Simmons’ breakneck, bloody and rather brilliant take on the zombie apocalypse, FEVER, I find myself reflecting on the current popularity of the undead. Not just a new influx of films every year, but TV shows, novels, comics, computer games, citywide “Zombie Walks”, even a charity - our old friend Carl Whiteley’s Zombie Aid.

Let’s face it, Grimmlins, Zombies have gone mainstream. The undead are everywhere; shambling across our screens, leering at us from the pages of comics, being pulverised on our Playstations, and wandering our shopping malls every Halloween. So familiar as to seem almost, well… cosy.

When did this happen? When did Zombies go from being the much-reviled subject of banned video nasties to the increasingly ubiquitous pop culture phenomenon they are today? When did brain-eating and entrail chewing cease to shock us? And why did it happen?

Roll back to the early days of popular horror, and Zombies were conspicuous largely by their absence. There were a few classic early films - the Halperins’ seminal WHITE ZOMBIE (1932), of course, and Val Lewton and Jaques Tourneur’s I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943) - but for the most part, the screens of the 30s and 40s were dominated by other horrors: Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster, the Werewolf, the Mummy, Jekyll and Hyde, the Phantom of the Opera and the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Even Hammer, during its golden era only managed one, solitary Zombie film, the eerie and undervalued THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES (1966).
Bearing in mind how effective all of these classic Zombie films are, how much each is now regarded as a genre classic, it seems strange that the walking dead should initially have been such a rare subject for horror cinema. But perhaps our perspective is unduly coloured by the benefit of hindsight. Back then, Zombies were an unknown quantity.  The other monsters were all tried and tested. They had literary origins, they had precedent and provenance. The mythologies surrounding them were already familiar from books and theatre and myths and fairytales. But if TIME magazine is to be believed, the word “zombie” first found its way into the English language in 1929, in William Seabrook’s book THE MAGIC ISLAND, which means the Halperins were really on the cutting edge of horror when they made WHITE ZOMBIE only three years later. The early Zombies, however, both in the Halperins’ film, and in I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, were very much tied to the superstitions of Haiti, as were those afflicting Cornwall in Hammer’s PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES, where the local squire responsible for the zombies just happens to have spent time Haiti, learning the necessary rituals.

The modern Zombie is an entirely different breed of creature. While traditional zombies do still shamble onto our screens from time to time, in Fulci’s Caribbean-based ZOMBIE FLESHEATERS, for example, or Wes Craven’s extraordinary THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW, for the most part the depiction of the walking dead in contemporary popular culture has its origin in, you guessed it, George A. Romero’s seminal NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968).

Here is where we first find the first version of the Zombie Apocalypse scenario. Here is where we first see the zombie being used as a metaphor for social change and social unrest. Voodoo is no longer to blame, but Bad Science / the Military Industrial Complex / the Government / the Man. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is  very much a product of its era. This was an age of apocalyptic visions. The late 60s and early 70s were rife with such stuff, from films such as SOYLENT GREEN and THE OMEGA MAN (based, of course on Richard Matheson’s I AM LEGEND, which had been an inspiration for Romero), in which paranoid gun nut Charlton Heston lived out his worst fears of black people and hippies taking over everything, to the nihilistic New English Library novels I devoured as a kid, where Hell’s Angels, mutant rats, giant crabs, or whatever, preyed on the population of an increasingly damaged and dystopian Britain.

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was at the forefront of this trend, and it is Romero we have to thank for both the modern version of the zombie, and also for the ambivalence with which it is viewed. In Romero’s films, Zombies are both a marauding, flesh-eating horde - the threat, the monster - but also victims. They represent a debased, damaged, helpless humanity. In NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, the military kill everyone at the end, zombies and the uninfected alike; in DAWN OF THE DEAD, the zombies wander around the shopping mall, pitifully staring at the consumer goods they once valued. As Romero’s zombie cycle progresses, the battle lines are drawn. Zombies on one side, the military industrial complex on the other, and the rest of humanity caught in the crossfire, likely to fall victim to either side.

And this is where things get confusing, or interesting, or both. Because suddenly the metaphor gets a bit… blurred. The zombies are a threat to society, but they are also victims, creatures created by that society. Depending on the politics of the individual filmmaker, they might represent the media-numbed, consumer-goods-oversaturated suburban populace,  Nazis, hippies, civil rights activists, the so-called underclass,  the Anarcho-Crusties, The Occupy Movement. Or none of the above. In short, they are a threat to social stability, but they are one that comes from within, and as such can be endlessly reinterpreted for each new age, each set of social values.  Their metaphoric meaning is not fixed, it can shift, even within the same narrative. I am reminded again of the fact that Romero was inspired originally by Richard Matheson’s I AM LEGEND, written at the height of the McCarthy witch hunts in the USA, which ends with the bone-chilling realisation that while the novel’s protagonist has been massacring the infected “vampires”, they have actually been (re)building a society, in which he, not they, is the real monster.

But while a horde of zombies might be a threat, an individual zombie is rather pitiful, and might even be sympathetic. Bub in DAY OF THE DEAD, for example, or Cheese, in the more recent DEADHEADS, one of last year’s festival hits, whose final destruction brought a big groan of dismay from our Grimmlins, of the kind a mainstream audience would reserve for the death of a cute puppy. DEADHEADS is also a manifestation of a recent trend for zombie slacker films (another such would be THE REVENANT, screened at the very first Grimm Up North), in which the undead might be a bit decayed around the edges and have somewhat unpleasant eating habits, but are otherwise affable, easygoing dudes, whom it is all too easy to empathise with.

The zombies, then, in short, are us. All of us. Which might explain the rise of phenomena such as the Zombie Walk, which seem to have acquired a popularity far beyond their original horror fanbase. They have become days out for the whole family; a chance for the general populace to embrace and to celebrate their “inner zombie”.

But perhaps I am reading too much into all of this. A filmmaker friend of mine once admitted that what he liked about zombies was the simple fact that you could destroy them in ever-bloodier, more outrageous ways on film, and the audience wouldn’t mind because zombies are already dead, so it doesn’t matter what you do to them. Basically, zombies are cinematic, simple as that. They offer the opportunity for full-on, guilt-free mayhem.

And of course they allow the sfx guys to have a field day.

Go here for more info on our zombie night:

Monday, 2 April 2012


R.I.P. JEAN GIRAUD, MOEBIUS (1938 - 2012) 
Steve Balshaw looks at the life and work of the genius comic book artist.

March 10th 2012 was a national day of mourning in France. It should be a day of mourning for us all. Jean Henri Gaston Giraud, better known as Moebius, finally lost his long battle with cancer. He was 73.

Giraud was one of the true greats. He revolutionised the comics medium not once, but several times. He won every single industry award there is - again, several times over. His design work was incomparable, his influence wide-reaching and profound. As a concept artist his visual style directly or indirectly influenced STAR WARS, TRON, ALIEN, BLADE RUNNER, THE ABYSS, DUNE, THE FIFTH ELEMENT, while his great friend and fellow visionary Hayo Miyazaki claims to have directed NAUSICAA entirely under his influence. Federico Fellini considered him “as great as Picasso or Matisse”. He was a master of his craft, a true original, oft-imitated, but impossible to equal. A philosopher, a poet, a wit, a master craftsman, a peerless draftsman. An artist in the truest sense of the word. 

You think I’m overstating the case? Then read on…

Jean Giraud began his professional career in 1956, with the solid but somewhat traditional Western strip “Frank and Jeremie”. As his style began to develop, however, moving away from the slick, clean linework favoured by his mentor, Joseph Gillain, towards something looser, scratchier, altogether grittier, so, too, did Giraud’s approach to storytelling. With writer Jean-Michel Charlier, he created his first really enduring creation, Lieutenant Blueberry, a far darker, more sophisticated work, influenced by Sam Peckinpah and the Spaghetti Westerns. With its complex characterisations and motivations, solid grounding of historical research, and sharp, tight, intelligent storytelling, Blueberry revolutionised the Western strip, and generally pushed the art of the bandes desinee in a more adult direction. It was hugely successful and established Giraud as a major talent.

Many artists would have been satisfied with this - creative and financial success, the respect of one’s peers, and a body of work that has caused a revolution within the medium. What makes Jean Giraud so remarkable, so unique, is that he never rested on his laurels for a moment. He kept on progressing, changing, evolving, trying new things.

In 1973, he left Blueberry in the capable hands of Colin Wilson and Michel Blanc and started out in a completely new direction. The result was THE DETOUR, published to great acclaim and no small bewilderment in PILOTE, the magazine that had been home to Lt. Blueberry. Though the strip was signed with the familiar “Gir”, the content was anything but familiar.

Enter Moebius, stage left. The pseudonym first appeared on work Giraud produced for the scurrilous satiric magazine Hari-Kiri in 1963 - 64, about the time he was first developing Lieutenant Blueberry. Intially, perhaps, he opted for a pseudonym to distance this loose, vulgar, throwaway satiric work from his more serious and respectable work. However, Moebius was about to make a spectacular comeback. Initially resurrected for the outrageous, bawdy, surreal fantasy THE HORNY GOOF (again, perhaps initially, to distance this strip from his work on Blueberry) Giraud clearly found the new identity liberating and from that point on it would start to become his dominant creative persona. Far from being a one-off, THE HORNY GOOF proved a springboard for his imagination to run riot. Ideas, concepts and characters introduced here would recur; developed, expanded, reimagined.

And in 1975, Moebius, as he now increasingly styled himself, developed a striking new platform for his increasingly radical visions. Together with fellow artists Philippe Druillet, Jean-Pierre Dionnet and Bernard Farkas, he founded "Les Humanoides Associes", and they launched the glossy magazine METAL HURLANT - literally “Screaming Metal”, though the American version, through which much of the English speaking world would discover their work, opted for the name HEAVY METAL.

And it was at this point that I first discovered it. It was 1978. I was thirteen. Reared on Marvel and to a lesser extent DC Comics: cheap paper, shoddy printing, bombastic superheroics. HEAVY METAL blew my adolescent mind. Slickly and stylishly produced in emulation of the French original (which at this stage it was content largely to reprint in translation), filled with outrageous ideas and incredible imagery from cover to cover. It was sexy, yes, and this appealed to my hormonally challenged teenaged self, but it was also STRANGE. It was challenging and thought-provoking. It made me see, for the first time, what the comics medium could really achieve. Here I first discovered Corben, Caza, Crepax and Druillet. But most important of all, I discovered Moebius, at the height of his powers.

In his work for METAL HURLANT / HEAVY METAL, Moebius went into creative overdrive, each new work more startling than the last. In ARZACH, he expanded on the imagery of THE DETOUR, mixing visions of the future and the past, to depict the title character’s wordless, mystical journey, by pterodactyl, across a stark, hostile landscape. He teamed with ALIEN writer Dan O’Bannon for futuristic Private Eye strip “The Long Tomorrow”, acknowledged by William Gibson as an influence on NEUROMANCER and by Ridley Scott as a major inspiration for BLADERUNNER. He offered a cynically minimalist answer to an eternal question in the troubling IS MAN GOOD?, and a disturbing portrait of the attitudes of the Far Right in WHITE NIGHTMARE.

Perhaps most significant of all, he created THE AIRTIGHT GARAGE, which features the efforts of recurring Moebius character Major Grubert to build his own universe on an Asteroid named fleur. Originally titled THE AIRTIGHT GARAGE OF JERRY CORNELIUS, and featuring an idiosyncratic version of Michael Moorcock’s ambiguous assassin in a supporting role, this is nevertheless no work of simple homage. Indeed, Moebius later admitted that he had not actually read Moorcock’s stories at the time. In later versions, he renamed the Cornelius character Lewis Carnelian, describing him as his own “version” of Jerry. This is understandable. 

The world of THE AIRTIGHT GARAGE is entirely sui generis, a unique melange of science fiction, fantasy, absurdity, black humour, and comics iconography. There is a bizarre cameo by Lee Falk’s Phantom, and a page of superheroic action the layouts of which derive from an old George Tuska IRON MAN strip. There are lots of silly jokes, throwaway ideas and narrative dead ends. There is a truly joyous sense of an artist at the top of his game taking a line for a walk, winging it, making it up as he goes along. And yet it all comes together wonderfully. Expanding on characters and situations first introduced in THE HORNY GOOF, Moebius takes his freeform, non-linear, stream of consciousness approach to storytelling to new heights of abstraction and in the process begins to explore increasingly spiritual and philosophical issues.

At which point, another figure enters the mix. A fellow genius. A fellow visionary. Alejandro Jodorowsky, director of EL TOPO, THE HOLY MOUNTAIN and SANTA SANGRE. A man who had tried to do with cinema what Moebius was now doing with the comic strip. No wonder they hit it off so well. Their initial collaboration was on a dark, disturbing, surrealist horror story THE EYES OF THE CAT, which every true Grimmlin should seek out. It will give even the hardiest of you nightmares. But it was with THE INCAL that the Jodorowsky / Moebius collaboration hit its stride. A dense, complex, philosophical science fiction epic, it chronicles the saga of the appropriately named John DiFool - a loser, a bum, a holy fool, whose journey to enlightenment does not end particularly well. It is a masterpiece of the form, filled with startling visuals, complex characters, brilliant, groundbreaking ideas. It couples an epic universe-spanning narrative sweep with an intimate, engaging human story of growth, and (failed) redemption, and has a truly heartbreaking, killer ending. And the art is beautiful.

If Lt. Blueberry is Jean Giraud’s most famous work, THE INCAL is Moebius’s. It is the piece in which all of his relentless experimentation, all of his restless pursuit of new storytelling approaches, his visual poetry and extraordinary design and draftsmanship, all of his philosophical and spiritual questing after truth, and all of his dark, earthy wit found total expression.

So it is rather surprising that he should opt then to collaborate with Stan “The Man” Lee on Marvel’s Silver Surfer. Perhaps he saw a kindred spirit in the cosmic philosophising of Galactus’s tormented former herald. Perhaps he wanted to try his and at superhero comics for the American market. Perhaps it was simply a way of saying thank you to the publisher who was at the time putting his work out in America. Whatever the reason, the result is, of course, unique. No matter what Denzil Washington might say to the contrary in CRIMSON TIDE, it’s a lovely piece of work. Minor for Moebius, yes, but deserving of the various awards it won.

And yet still Giraud continued to experiment, to try new things, to challenge and provoke with each new work, right till the end. Even in the midst of his final illness, he was creatively unbowed. From 2000 to 2010, he published Inside Moebius, an epic illustrated autobiographical fantasy in six hardcover volumes totalling 700 pages. It was both a reflection on his career and a revisiting of key moments within it. A kind of expanded version of THE DETOUR in which Moebius appears in cartoon form as both creator and protagonist trapped within the story alongside his younger self and several longtime characters such as Blueberry, Arzach, Major Grubert and others.

Perhaps, knowing he was ill, struggling against that illness, he was striving to produce some final testament. Something that would link all of his achievements together, but the result is typically, mischievously, digressive; self-deconstructing and post-modern, mixing autobiography, philosophy and self-analysis with jokes, puns and pratfalls. It looks back over the whole of his art, both as Jean Giraud and as Moebius, because it is only through the totality of what he achieved that we can understand how remarkable he was. And then, only partly.

French Culture Minister Frederic Mitterand said that with the simultaneous deaths of Jean Giraud, France had lost “two great artists”. I would go further. It has lost multitudes. Giraud continually reinvented himself. His twin identities held within them whole worlds, whole universes of creativity. It is impossible to sum up what he was and what he achieved in his career. I cannot begin to even try. All I can do is recommend people unfamiliar with his work to seek it out, and join those who know and love it in raising a sorrowful glass in tribute. RIP, Jean Giraud, RIP Moebius. The world is a darker, sadder, dingier, more miserable place for your passing.

Thursday, 15 March 2012


Steve Balshaw on DEMONS and LAMBERTO BAVA

Lamberto Bava was a man born with very big shoes to fill. He was the third generation of Bavas to enter the Italian film industry. His Grandfather, Eugenio was a pioneering cinematographer and special effects man on such early classics of the silent era as QUO VADIS and  CABIRIA. His father, Mario, invariably referred to as the Maestro, by all of those who worked with him, was a much-respected cinematographer, optical effects wizard, and of course the director of a whole series of seminal and hugely influential Italian genre movies, including BLACK SUNDAY, BLACK SABBATH, KILL BABY KILL, HATCHET FOR A HONEYMOON. PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES, DANGER: DIABOLIK, BAY OF BLOOD, and RABID DOGS. Filmmakers influenced by Mario Bava range from Fellini to Scorcese, from Ridley Scott to Tim Burton. His early giallo, BAY OF BLOOD is generally regarded as the first true Slasher film. His final completed film, RABID DOGS takes place for much of its running time in a car containing five people - a remarkable technical achievement in an era before the tiny digital cameras we now take for granted.

Lamberto Bava started out as an assistant director to his father, on such classics as DANGER DIABOLIK, KILL BABY KILL and LISA AND THE DEVIL. He also carried out a similar role for Ruggero Deodato on ULTIMO MONDO CANNIBALE and the infamous CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST and for Dario Argento on both INFERNO and TENNEBRAE. This, then, is a man with serious genre form, major technical chops, and cinema, as it were, in his blood.  His first film as a director, the eccentric cult giallo MACABRE, paired him with Pupi Avati, Writer / director of the classic HOUSE WITH LAUGHING WINDOWS, and his producer brother Antonio Avati. But it was Argento who would also go on to mentor Lamberto and serve as his producer on the films that would make him famous - or possibly infamous - DEMONS and DEMONS 2.

It would take a brave man - or a barefaced liar - to describe either film as a masterpiece of cinema, but they are, beyond a doubt genre classics, well-deserving of their huge cult status. With their ad hoc, almost random plotting, absurd dialogue, totally (and quite literally) disposable characters, hideous fashions, bombastic soundtracks featuring such worthies as Billy Idol, Motley Crue and Saxon, and garish gore effects by the legendary Sergio Stivaletti, they could only have been spawned in the mid-80s. 
They have a full-on, throw-in-everything-and-see-what-happens fever-dream craziness that seems in keeping with the excesses of that coke-fuelled, over-lit, over-loud, entirely out of control decade. They are the scabby underbelly of all of those Yuppie Nightmare movies made back then. They are the kinds of films Patrick Bateman would watch. And in their outrageous, high-octane, splattery strangeness, they are genuinely, for good or ill, unlike anything else. No wonder they are so loved by the fans. Little surprise then, that when we asked our Grimmlins which films they would most like to see screened in the opulent Art Deco surroundings of the Dancehouse theatre, there was one request that came in loud and clear: the DEMONS FILMS!

So, Ladies and Gentlemen, for one night only, the Dancehouse will be home to the Metropol Movie Theatre. Collect your tickets at the box office. But be prepared: this is one screening where all Hell might, quite literally, break loose.
DEMONS & DEMONS 2. Remastered. Screening: 29th March. 7.30 pm. The Dancehouse Theatre, MCR. TICKEST AND INFO HERE.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Modern Hollywood really IS Roger Corman’s World

Respectability is overrated, especially in the world of film. It leads to polite cinema, cinema based on books and plays. Cinema that may win the occasion BAFTA or Oscar nod, or pick up some critical attention at Sundance, but cinema that very rarely offers any kind of challenge to the viewer. Truly great filmmakers are rarely respectable. Orson Welles wasn’t. Neither was Fassbinder. And Lars Von Trier certainly isn’t. Great filmmakers are boundary pushers and nose thumbers. They do not pander. Respectable cinema, on the other hand, does precisely that: it appeals, briefly, to the intellectual and moral values of the middlebrow audience of the time, but in retrospect is something of an embarrassment. Does anyone, looking back, truly think DANCES WITH WOLVES deserved any of the critical acclaim it garnered? Is it truly more deserving of awards than GOODFELLAS? Of course not. But it benefited from the zeitgeist. It appealed to the mood of the moment.

The classic example of this phenomenon would be William Wyler’s THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES. At the time of release in 1946, this solidly-crafted, decent, humane study of three US soldiers returning after World War II and attempting to rebuild their lives was critically acclaimed, universally popular, and won every award imaginable. It chimed with the mood of the times. Never mind that legendary film critic Manny Farber later famously dismissed it as "a horse-drawn truckload of liberal schmaltz" - at that moment, the world needed a film about healing and renewal, and this one did the job better than the rest. Of its kind, it’s an excellent film. But filmgoers in search of the darker realities faced by returning soldiers would have to seek them elsewhere, in the tough, shadowy crime dramas that began appearing around the same time; tales of alienated loners, many of them ex-servicemen, who find themselves out of their depth in plots they cannot hope to fathom, in environments where they cannot hope to succeed. These were the films that actually appealed to the returning soldiers themselves. Conceived at the time as potboilers and pulp action movies, they were later championed as offering a far truer portrait of the era, particularly by French critics, who coined the term by which such films are now known: Films Noirs.

These days, whole university media courses are dedicated to the study of Film Noir. Critics have built whole careers writing about it. The films themselves are regarded with the utmost seriousness. But they did not start out that way. They were not respectable at all. They were “B Movies”, designed to play in support to headlining “A Movies” (such as THE BEST DAYS OF OUR LIVES}; humble genre films, often made quickly, and subject to fewer big studio checks and guards. And so they were better able to capture the uneasy atmosphere of the time.

Which brings me, at last, to the subject of this particular blog, the maestro himself, Mr Roger Corman. Roger Corman has never really sought respectability either, though he has attained something like it over time.

Roger Corman has always maintained that he makes B Movies, rather than exploitation films. In doing so, he is not being mealy-mouthed, or disingenuous. He is identifying himself with a noble tradition of maverick, under-the-radar filmmaking. His autobiography, HOW I MADE A HUNDRED MOVIES IN HOLLYWOOD AND NEVER LOST A DIME is no idle boast. Though he might gleefully adopt the role of opportunistic, bandwagon-jumping, penny-pinching movie mogul, famously telling author Brian Aldiss during the shooting of FRANKENSTEIN UNBOUND that his company was “a cheap outfit”, and though no-one could doubt he is a shrewd, hard-headed businessman, Roger Corman is without question one of the most significant influences on American Cinema of the last 50 years.

Had he simply directed his legendary “Poe Cycle” with Vincent Price, Corman would surely earn a place in the pantheon of any genre fans favourite directors. But he was also behind such droll classics as BUCKET OF BLOOD and THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, the visceral anti-racism drama THE INTRUDER, nihilistic biker movie THE WILD ANGELS and the still startlingly experimental THE TRIP. As a filmmaker he is idiosyncratic, even groundbreaking, and was among the first to incorporate experimental filming, lighting and editing techniques pioneered in Underground Cinema into mainstream film.

As a Producer and Talent Scout he was responsible for the discovery and /or encouragement and promotion of such talents as Jack Nicholson, Robert de Niro, Nicolas Roeg, Ron Howard, Joe Dante, Jonathan Demme, Peter Bogdanovich, Martin Scorcese, Francis Ford Coppola, James Cameron, Monte Hellman, Jonathan Kaplan, George Armitage, Richard Rush, Paul Bartel, Lewis Teague, John Sayles, Robert Towne, Charles Beaumont, Chuck Griffith, Lazlo Kovacs, Daniel Haller, Les Baxter, Bruce Dern, Peter Fonda, Jane Asher, Susan Strasberg, Diane Ladd, William Shatner, Luana Anders.

Corman freely admits he worked with young up and coming talent, and aging, no-longer-in-demand talent because they were cheaper to hire and grateful for the work: “I get the ones on the way up, and the ones on the way down.” And yet, far from feeling exploited, filmmakers who worked with Corman at American International Pictures in the Sixties and Seventies describe it as The Corman Film School. Considered objectively, from without, it might look like a sweatshop, a factory farm. 

Yet it was also a place to learn your craft by doing; that encouraged speed and decisiveness and creativity on the wing. AIP films at their best display a unique breed of inventiveness and innovation, born of thrift and limited time and resources. Corman was (in)famous for his ability to recognise talent, and for an almost laissez-faire approach to getting the best from that talent. His method: to re-use EVERYTHING. He was master of economy of scale, of getting the absolute most from his resources. If he had an actor for three days, he would have that actor in as many films as possible during that period. He would shoot several films simultaneously on the same set, or the same location. His crews would be working continually, virtually round the clock, as various directors shot various films in the same space with the same people. The idea was always to get films in under budget and in less time than scheduled - because then an extra film might be squeezed in using the resources. 

If Corman had spare footage, and actors and facilities available, he would sometimes throw together a new film just to use them - THE TERROR, for example was assembled by Corman, Francis Ford Coppola, Monte Hellman, Jack Hill, and Jack Nicholson - who also starred alongside Boris Karloff - from some footage shot but not used in THE RAVEN, and because Corman still had the two lead actors available for another day or two to shoot new scenes, using the same sets. Peter Bogdanovich would later be given Boris Karloff footage shot but not used for THE TERROR, plus a day’s shooting with Karloff, and would make the truly startling TARGETS. Corman’s only proviso to his filmmakers was that the film contain some exploitable elements that he could use to sell it - a (once-) famous face, horror or crime elements, sex / nudity, some counter-cultural element, such as rock and roll, psychedelia,  drug use or beatniks, hippies or bikers (depending on the era).

It ought not to have worked at all. It ought to have produced nothing but cynical, bandwagon-jumping crap, but due to Corman’s own talent, his eye for the talent of others, and, yes, his eye for the market, and above all, perhaps, due to that strange alchemy that occurs when young, talented, eager, hungry, creative people are brought together and given free rein, some remarkable films were made.

Modern Hollywood was born out of the “Corman Film School” - not just in terms of the talent Corman discovered / encouraged, but also the counter-cultural spirit he fostered in the 1960s, which would shape the classic American films of the early 70s, and be an inspiration to independent filmmakers everywhere.

Grimm Up North pays tribute to one of the greats of American Cinema, and one of our own personal heroes, with a screening of the acclaimed documentary CORMAN’S WORLD, alongside the recent cult gem SHARKTOPUS, at the Anthony Burgess Foundation on Friday 16th March, from 7.30pm. No true film buff will want to miss it.

Steve Balshaw