Category Archives: Mad Science

I, Madman 1989

i-madman-still-11_388a23af-8214-e511-9d76-d4ae527c3b65_lg

 

As oddball eighties horror movies go I, Madman certainly is mad. It is like a bizarre nerdy version of The Phantom of The Opera although I suspect it was pitched as like A Nightmare on Elm Street but with books instead of dreams. What’s not to like?

 

Near Dark’s Jenny Wright stars as wannabe actress who works in a book shop on Sunset Boulevard. She comes across some pulpy old book written by a Malcom Brand which deals with monsters in chests and crazy old scientists. Acknowledging that it is hokey nonsense Wright still wants to read Brand’s other book I, Madman. Once she starts reading that,  events start happening in real life that reflect what is on the written page. These events, and when I say events I mean brutal murders, are caused by a faceless killer in a big cloak and fancy beret. And when I say faceless I mean he literally has no face, as he cut it off in some previous crazed moment. Don’t worry he is using bits of his victims to rebuild his image, mostly to impress Wright. Needless to say she is not impressed. Even less impressed is her police detective boyfriend who thinks she’s making the whole thing up.

 

So that’s the basics of the film. What doesn’t come across is how I, Madman is cleanly shot like a lush mainstream Hollywood movie with some lovely nods to film noir. It has moody lighting with great use of dark spaces and silhouette to hide Brand (but also to show him off). Clayton Rohner as her boyfriend may be a modern policeman but he dresses and acts like he’s stumbled out of a Raymond Chandler novel. Then there’s lovely long shots out of Wright’s apartment window viewing her neighbour playing piano, a touch of light in a sea of darkness.

 

i-madman-still-10_c1cc01a6-8214-e511-9d76-d4ae527c3b65_lg

 

Wright is also a great noir-like heroine. Berated by her boyfriend for being crazy and Brand for being the object of his desire, Wright is an old fashioned character who might not have the more modern fight back of a final girl but is willing to put herself in harm’s way to solve the mystery and stop the monster. Jenny Wright is an alluring screen presence. It’s a shame she she quit acting a few years after this but then maybe she wasn’t utilized as well as she is here. There are a number of flashback scenes where she plays other characters and dips in and out of madness herself occasionally, all with a great commitment to her role. Her main character, Virginia, is both brave and frightened at the same time, never an easy thing to pull off, but she’s also bookish and nerdy and really likeable. It’s no wonder Brand wants her heart… literally.

 

Malcolm Brand himself is also a throwback to older movie monsters. When we first meet him he’s a weird old mad professor type, but he also has a sharp long nose and pointy teeth like Nosferatu. Brand could have been a tragic figure, especially the way he swoops around in the darkness like a Phantom pining after Virginia, but instead Randall William Cook plays him like a horrible, demented person, a madman if you will, and he’s all the better for it.

 

The film certainly looks good enough to have been at some point someone’s idea as a contender to knock Freddy Kruger off his crown. Clearly a decent amount if money has been spent on it. But I, Madman is playing to the beat of its own drum. It doesn’t care about teens in peril, it wants to focus on just one interesting woman with an obsession with pulp fiction. Books were never going to get that young demographic down to the multiplexes the way Freddy and his nightmares did, they’re just not “cool” enough. But director Tibor Takacs obviously doesn’t care about any of that. He clearly loves this world he has created: there is literally a scene where Virginia tries to escape from brand by running up a mountain of novels.

 

And I love the world of I, Madman too. Its slick enough to be an easy watch but it’s also interested in how literature can spill into real life, and how real life can look like a detective novel. Like the heroine, I, Madman might just be crazy but what’s so wrong with crazy?

 

mpw-39202

The Kindred 1987

image

Before the advent of CGi in cinema, special make up effects were the stars of what the imagination could do on screen. Up until the end of the seventies they would be there just to compliment a story but would rarely rise above a rubber monster or some too-bright red blood. There were exceptions of course, Planet of the Apes with its expressive simian faces and Karloff’s monster are famous ones, but it wasn’t until the eighties when technology and years of know how resulted in both more realistic effects and the ability to do more far fetched imagery. Although never the mainstream box office draw that cgi was to become it still created stars of the industry: Rick Baker, Stan Winston and Tom Savini were all legends (in my life anyway). And of course Screaming Mad George.

The upshot of all this was just as there are numerous films nowadays driven by the computer based set pieces so there were movies which seemed to exist purely to contain some gloopy effects. The Kindred was one such film.

Maybe I’m being unfair. Maybe writers/directors Stephen Carpenter and Jeffery Obrow really did want to tell the story of Anthony, a tentacled latex headed monster and his normal human brother and the bond of love they shared, like an average budgeted remake of Basket Case. Actually there’s no love at all between these two, the moment Jonathan finds out about his sticky sibling he wants to kill him, although “Anthony” did kill his dog so I guess all bets are off. Anyway I’m getting a head of myself.

Things start off with a yuppie in a Porsche driving like a dick and having a car crash. The first thing you notice about The Kindred is that they’ve got some money to throw around as this expensive sports car smashes through one of those portable homes that always seem to be broken down across roads in movies. The still alive yuppie gets towed off in an ambulance but then is body snatched from it by a couple of heavies. The yuppie is taken to renowned doctor and all round sleaze bag Doctor Lloyd, played by Rod Steiger and a large slice of ham. The ambulance driver, who was in on the yuppie body theft tries to bribe Lloyd and ends up locked up the doctor’s basement being eaten by the mutants he keeps down there.

I tell you all this because it is vital to know for the plot. Oh no wait, hang on a minute, no it’s not. Apart from introducing us to Lloyd (who isn’t in the film much anyway) this has nothing to do with the rest of the plot at all. Why does he have a bunch of mutants locked up in his basement? Why do they seem so upbeat when their existence consists of living in a wet dark cellar, eating dirty looking ambulance drivers? How come no one else who works in Lloyd’s hospital has ever noticed there’s something strange afoot in the basement? All of these questions and more are never answered.

The actual plot concerns Kim Hunter, well respected actress and exceptional monkey impersonator, as a scientist specialising in haemoglobin research… Is that good? I have no idea. On her death bed (clearly couldn’t wait to get out of here) she tells her son that he has a brother called Anthony and that he must go back to the family home and kill the fucker. This is all a bit of shock to Jonathan, or at least it would be to any normal human being but David Allen Brooks plays Jonathan with such a laid back casualness that I’m not convinced he was really paying attention to what his mum was telling him at all.

So off Jonathan, himself some kind of scientist, goes to the family home with his girlfriend and a bunch of students in tow. Amanda Pays, as the alleged next best expert on haemoglobin technology, comes along for the ride, and maybe a ride on Jonathan if she has her way.

Poor Amanda Pays. She may be a lot of things but a scientist she is not. Nor is she a very good actress. She does her best but the streams of scientific gobbledegook she has to spout out is not in the slightest bit convincing. Not that this really matters though, if anything her rubbishness is rather charming. She’s all very dubious though. One of the students makes a move on her, in a slightly tragic Trumpian lean in, and sticks his tongue down her throat despite only having said one sleezeball thing to her. After the kiss though the student backs away in horror. Later, he tells Jonathan that “there’s something fishy about her”. Can tell you tell where this is going?

Yes, spoilers, later on Amanda Pays turns into a fish woman. No explanation is given for this. Also the process is clearly too much for her as she dies as soon as her gills are up and running. Maybe she needed to be chucked into a bath to breath, I don’t know. I think it’s fair to assume that Pays was one of Rod Steiger’s cellar dwelling mutants but considering how much exposition there is in the film, a little bit of an explanation about Pays wouldn’t have gone amiss.

image

So Jonathan and his gang carry on the search for Anthony or his mother’s journals but to no avail. Where could they be? What about the basement where there are weird noises and horrible smells arising. No, says Jonathan, that’s just the laundry room, couldn’t possibly be there. For days Jonathan continues his hunt. Maybe they don’t exist, there’s no evidence the journals are even here. Oh the dog has gone missing near that hole into the basement. But no, let’s keep on looking. But not in the basement okay? I don’t want to be tricked into some clothes cleaning rouse for my students. Let them stink.

Anthony, the journals and a whole host of other ghoulies in medical jars are in the basement. It’s takes Amanda Pays and her genius, but water logged, mind about two minutes to find them. Jonathon doesn’t even click until the last fifteen minutes of the movie, and that’s probably only because Anrhony, a huge, tentacled alien-y type creature is now sticking out of the hole in the basement trying eat everyone.

The gloopy effects are variable but effective. The best stuff is when Anthony thrusts his rubber tentacles under a hippy girl with a water melon obsession’s skin. Amanda Pays fish look is also very well done, although as we’ve established already it’s there just for the hell of making Amanda Pays all fishy. Anthony, and his mini-Anthony cohorts are a bit rubbery with not much movement. They look like what the Spitting Image puppet makers would have done if they wanted to take the piss out of aborted foetuses. Anthony also has lots of haemoglobin spurting out of him when he’s hurt. This is all very unfortunate.

I don’t know if haemoglobin is actually meant to be a white sticky material in real life but it certainly is in The Kindred. And there’s a lot of it. The upshot of it is when Rod Steiger turns up at the end in a not very big reveal that he’s the baddy and gets tentacled to death by a dying Anthony, he gets covers in the stuff. The truth is it all looks a bit spunky. So you have Oscar winning Steiger wrapping big wet tentacles around him while a crew member off screen chucks buckets of jizz at him. It’s not exactly dignifying.

Don’t let anything that I’m saying put you off The Kindred though if you haven’t seen it. It’s shot like a good episode of Dallas so is slick but soapy. Not that you can tell by the only DVD available which is clearly a copy of a VHS, even down to tape damage travelling down the image. Its in 4:3 pan-and-scan which is just depressing in this day and age. On the other hand it is enormous fun with a cool monster, lots of silly one liners and buckets and buckets of spunk.

image

The Girl With All The Gifts 2016

image

The undead are dead they keep telling us. Yet every couple of years they rise from the grave to prove them wrong. The last really good zombie movie had to be The Battery and that was done with about two dollars and mostly set in the boot of a car. The Girl With All The Gifts is British so it is fair to assume that director Colm McCarthy didn’t have much more money to play with. But with a combination of big ideas, a great source novel and a terrific cast he’s only gone and made one of the best zombie movies ever and certainly one of the best British horror films of recent years.

Well I say zombie film, mostly because it has zombies in it, but the mood and feel of The Girl With All The Gifts is more like Day of the Triffids or Terry Nation’s Survivors. As in this is a typically British apocalypse and a pretty bleak film.

There aren’t many post apocalypse movies that aren’t bleak really, maybe Night of the Comet with teen heroines able to go shopping without the need for daddy’s credit card. In general, the apocalypse involves the fact that nearly everyone you know is dead, almost certainly horribly so. If you’re really unlucky they’re also trying to eat you. Everyone who isn’t dead has almost certainly turned into an arsehole and is either trying to start a new militaristic style world order or some weird sex haram in order to repopulate the world with more arseholes. The apocalypse is depressing man.

The Girl With All The Gifts at least goes for the former approach, being set in a military base where shady experiments on the undead in the hope of finding a cure are the order of the day. However the focus is not on that old story but on a young girl called Melanie. Upbeat and fiercely intelligent, Melanie lives inside a prison cell, her only relief the pictures of a cat and her lessons with the rest of the children and their teacher Helen Justinaeu, whom she loves deeply. Of course it quickly becomes apparent that all these children are zombie children who will eat Helen and the surrounding soldiers’ faces off if not strapped to their wheel chairs. The only hope for humanity is the work of Doctor Caldwell who is operating on the children to find out why they aren’t mindless cannibals, unlike the adult zombies,in the hope of finding an antidote. Obviously this “happy” life can’t last and soon everything goes to shit in a basket of crap.

What works so well here is that the film manages to capture all the detail of the book but mostly in visual form whilst, and not feeling the needed to be be a three hour behemoth that so many adaptations seem to suffer from nowadays. The entire dynamic between Melanie, Helen and the army sergeant, Parks, is summed up in a moment as Helen strokes the girl’s hair, the two females emotion in the moment and the military man’s horror at the intimacy between a human and what he sees as a monster. The opening section of the book set inside the camp is pretty long but the film wisely trims this down to a fairly short opening act. This is mostly accomplished by keeping the story focused on Melanie’s perspective: there may be terrible events going on outside the camp but we only see what Melanie sees. The upshot of this is when we are suddenly thrown into an epic zombie battle we’re really not expecting it. Add in the fact that most of it is done in one long take and you really get the feeling that McCarthy is just showing off.

image

This visual flair and the tight script are complemented by the superb acting. I’m not sure Paddy Considine has ever given a poor performance in his life and here he adds depth to Parks that I never noticed in the book. Same too as the villainous Doctor Caldwell. She may be the standard crazy scientist but Close makes you feel that her cold approach to child mutulation has a calculated logical reason behind it. She has rejected her own conscience and morality for the survival of humankind. I don’t need to talk about Gemma Arterton by now do I? She’s fantastic as always. The only bum note to her role isn’t even related to what she does. Early on a couple of soldiers are discussing her role as the children’s teacher and on of them says “yeah, but she’s well fit.” Ugh. I guess soldiers may well talk like that but it just seemed to jar with both what everyone is trying to do with the female characters in the film and Arterton’s in particular. The female roles presented here are not defined by their sexuality, their looks or in relation to the male characters. There’s even a scene where four female characters have an angry confrontation, passing the Bechdel test with flying colours, so why we had to have someone pointing out how fit Aterton is is beyond me.

Anyway, none of these great performances would have made the slightest difference if the girl playing Melanie hadn’t been up to scratch. Fortunately newcomer Sennia Nanua makes most experienced actors seems like amateurs with all the screen presence of a season professional whilst, at the same time, still acting like a child. Between moments of horror she has some beautiful quiet moments. For example when she is slumped in ecstasy from consuming flesh, or feelings of wonder like when she is strapped to the top of a tank, staring in slack jawed amazement at the beautiful world around her. You’d think that Nanua probably got a lot of help from the rest of the cast, but Arterton says that she came on set quite capable already. Let’s hope she gets more good roles in the future.

So a really good British zombie movie then. Who’ve thought it. It’s one of a very small exclusive club containing 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead, The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue and Plague of the Zombies… And probably the best of the bunch.

 

image

The Sorcerers 1967

sorc3

Soho is changing so much at the moment, from the cultural heart of London to a playground for the rich with luxury apartments, that in a few years time there won’t be any sign of the film industry left there. Even now it is hard to imagine that fifty years ago Soho thrived on a healthy and successful British cinema scene. From larger prestige David Lean-type projects to the relentless churning out the Carry On movies, Britain made films that the British, and the rest of the world, wanted to see. Okay, maybe no one outside these shores wanted to see the Carry On movies, but then Sid James was never going to translate to an American audience was he?

Within this era was huge scope for the horror film. Of course there was Hammer and its gothic leanings, but there was also lots of room for talented and determined film  makers to breath. One of the most talented was Michael Reeves.

Everyone knows that Witchfinder General is one of the greatest British horror movies ever made. It is with a heavy heart that we must watch it knowing that Reeves was never to make another film. Sometimes I like to think about that parallel universe where Reeves went on to make more pictures, and how exciting they would have been. Whilst the Hammer films were still very much a product of the past, Witchfinder General was doing at about the same time what American movies were starting to do. They might seem so different but Witchfinder shares a strong worldview with films such as Easy Rider and Bonnie and Clyde: that rebellious mood and gritty feel. Although everyone was dressed in 17th century garb, the violence was modern, the anger towards authority real. Reeves was continuing to develop intense, dark horror after his third film and its fascinating to think what he would have done next. Would he have pushed British film towards the realism it needed to survive in the American dominated seventies? Perhaps not, maybe he was never mainstream enough to become widely popular: its hard to believe but the reviews were not kind to Witchfinder General upon its release.  We will never know.

All we are left with are the three films he did make.

The Sorcerers is a weird little movie, as much a time capsule of the thoughts prevalent of the time as it is a picture postcard of swinging sixties London and its dark underbelly. Boris Karloff and Catherine Lacey play a seemingly sweet old couple whiling away their retirement in a shabby London flat. However they have invented some kind of hypnotising machine that only mad professors in films would do. Tracking down a bored young man, Ian Ogilvy, they put him under their machine’s spell. They are able to control him at will without him being aware of it, let alone being able to stop it. They can also feel what he feels. At first this seems harmless enough, getting him to break an egg and feeling the sensation of yolk running down their arms, getting him to go for a swim and loving the water flowing over their frail, old bodies. However, Lacey spots a fur coat she falls in love with and the two of them make Ogilvy break into the shop and steal it. Karloff is horrified when Ogilvy is almost caught but Lacey gets a thrill out of it and her stronger mind soon starts dominating the poor man’s actions with Karloff unable to stop her. Of course all this power corrupts Lacey too much too quickly and she’s soon on a dangerous and bloody rampage using the avatar at her command. In fact its just like Avatar but with old people instead of Sam Worthington, Ogilvy instead of blue cats and 1960’s London instead of an alien world.

And yet London in 1967 IS an alien world. I’ve lived here all my life and I remember the London seen here from my childhood in the seventies but now its a different place altogether. Telephone boxes, underground clubs, dark Victorian passageways… most of them have gone now. Even then the London Reeves filmed wasn’t quite the wild and happy city people like to think it was. Young girls lived in seedy bedsits, easily preyed upon by bad men. There may have been a scene man, but most people still worked in shitty jobs and ate in greasy spoons. Ogilvy is the coolest character in the film, young, handsome, can ride a Triumph Bonneville like there’s no tomorrow, but even he works in what is either the worst antique store in the world or a brick a’ brac shop. Its called The Glory Hole. I think perhaps that meant something else back then, although the only customer who comes in is clearly a homosexual so perhaps not.

sorc1

Then there is our old couple. They are bitter and angry that they have not been successful in their lives, the machine they invent gives them a chance to prove the world wrong and to do good for by it, but instead they squander their discovery. On the one hand they are trying to control the youth, bend them to their ways. But on the other they want to experience what it is like to be young again, or young at all. In their day, The Sorcerers wouldn’t of had a swinging sixties to experience: no free love, experimental drugs or revolutionary music. When they are given the free reign to control the youth all they can do is destroy it. Maybe its having lived as a woman through the violence of two world wars, Lacey’s character only sitting on the benches whilst the men act out their murderous ways. When she is given the chance to do what she wants, she wants to feel what it is like to break another man’s jaw, to take away someone’s life my squeezing it out of them. The older generation who might seem twee and old fashioned but it is them, not the modern and hip youth of London, who have blood on their hands.

The Sorcerers is more dated than Reeves’ classic, maybe partly because it is set firmly at a contemporary time and place, unlike Witchfinder General with its historical context. But it does share similar themes of the old or the establishment corrupting the young or the different through violence. Using horror icons like Vincent Price and here Boris Karloff helps sell this idea. It also gave both men some of their best work. Karloff spends ninety percent of this film in a small flat shouting at an old woman but its a reminder of what a versatile actor the man who brought Frankenstein’s monster to life with barely a word could be.

One of Reeves’ great strengths was in his ability to bring out good performances from his cast, obviously with the old ham Price (if you don’t know THAT story please look it up) but besides Karloff, Lacey brings a demented madness to her role as the quiet mouse of a woman, having spent her life in the shadow of a supposed genius, now in complete control of him and his work. Well at least until the bitter, dark ending that is. Then there’s Ian Ogilvy who was always a bit of an underrated actor, he gives some of his best work here (and in Witchfinder General), a cold remote young man, too cool for his girlfriend or best mate, suddenly finding himself no longer in control of his actions.

The Sorcerers is cheap and yes a bit trashy with nods to Peeping Tom in its violence and London scene, but it was also a huge progression towards making Reeves’ third film, his masterpiece and his last completed work.

Michael Reeves was found dead in his London flat at the age of 25, having done more in his short life than most people have done in three times that. I was always under the impression that he had killed himself, he’s mostly reported as such. But looking back at the original coroner’s report it is clear that he did nothing of the sort. He suffered greatly from insomnia (something I also have and its a hideous infliction to live with unless you battle it head on) and was on barbiturates to help him sleep. He clearly drank too much one night and the combination of the drugs and alcohol killed him. However the coroner said that he had not taken any more barbiturates than normal and it was ruled as death by misadventure. I know that that ruling is sometimes given to suicide victims to protect the family, but that’s usually with children or teenagers not grown men. You can never truly know the mind of another, but it seems that Reeves’ death was  just a terrible, sad accident. A accident that resulted in the loss in one Britain’s greatest talents.

Whether Michael Reeves would have transformed the British film industry or just made a few more good horror films we will never know. What I do know is now, as I walk through the streets of Soho to my place of work (which is also about to move out of the area), Reeves wouldn’t recognise what it has become. But at least, many years ago, he managed to capture what it once was.

sorc1-post

The Lazarus Effect 2015

The-Lazarus-Effect-Olivia-Wilde

In a very short time Blumhouse Productions has become THE producer of modern American horror movies. Okay that’s not strictly true, but it has become the company that makes horror movies people will actually get to see, and more often than not go to see in the cinema. This has come off the back of Paranormal Activity costing the same price as a Ford Fiesta to buy and making, what is known in the trade as, fucking shit loads. On the one hand this is great, if you look at the quantity of films Blumhouse is pumping out and getting decent releases for then its really healthy for the genre. Plus some of the titles you have here include the Insidious films, the Paranormal Activities, Sinister, The Gift, The Visit, The House That Dreaded Sundown and several other films starting with The. Also they produced Whiplash which feels like a horror movie half the time, but with twenty minute drum solos. On the other hand, I suspect that a lot of studios have looked at their business model and decided that there’s no need to make a horror movie on a decent size budget when you get make Insidious for a million of so and make a hundred times that.

Still, are we meant to look at this gift horse in the mouth? I’m not inclined to do so. I adore the Insidious movies and a number other of their films so let’s not blame them for the studios desire to drive down budgets. A side issue is that you could argue that it is their fault that there are an excessive amounts of haunted house/children and found footage movies as they make a lot of these and I am sick to the back teeth of pretty much all them. However, they are also trying to push in different directions within the genre and The Lazarus Effect is definitely Blumhouse trying to push. Not very successfully though…

The movie takes place in the laboratories of some university research centre where, quite frankly, a brilliant cast of great actors are trying to create a drug which will elongate how long a patient can be operated on whilst in an induced coma or some such. Oh, let’s face it they’re trying to bring back the dead, we’ve all done it before, despite all the grounded in realism script and low-key performances it is the same old mad science: mastering death and fucking it up in the process. Basically its Re Animator without the laughs or any one trying to stick a dismembered head into Barbara Crampton’s vagina. More’s the pity.

We do have this great cast though. Olivia Wilde and Mark Duplass are the main doctors working on the experiment with Donald Glover and Evan Peters helping out. Plus the lovely Sarah Bolger videoing it all (don’t worry this isn’t found footage). They all put a right old effort into making this a believable piece and it helps that the bulk of the film takes place just in the lab and over one night, getting everyone in the right intensive mood. Wilde in particular has to do some heavy lifting as it is her who has to come back from the dead and act all evil, quite a change from her usual charming performances. That’s not a spoiler by the way because its on all the posters so you know what’s going to happen.

Unfortunately it takes its sweet time in actually happening. We are just about at the half way mark when Wilde does bite the big one and until then we’ve had some standard stuff with a dog and not a lot else. Its all very well and good having character development and all but sometimes you just want the story to get a move on, especially when you have already been shown what is going to happen before the film has even started in the foyer. Why not skip twenty minutes and get on with it? It makes the first half drag quite a lot, and in a film that is only eighty five minutes long that’s not great. Also when things do finally kick off it all feels a little rushed, which also means that the character beats that were set up in the first half of the movie don’t pay off. For example it is pointed out several times that Donald Glover has a thing for Wilde (as well he might) early on but then when she comes back from the dead (SPOILER here) their soul interaction is her chucking him in a cabinet and crushing him to death. Okay, she gives him a cold kiss before hand but its not exactly a character arc. What is the point in setting something up like that and then ignoring it? Also its a waste of Glover which is a very bad thing.

The worse thing, however, about the rushed second act is that it really does feel like the middle section of a three part story. The really interesting stuff sounds like it would happen once Wilde left the lab and what effect she could have on a wider society. But then that sounds like a bigger film than what we have here, with a bigger budget and that goes against the Blumhouse business model. Maybe if had been a monster hit then we might have found out what happens next but instead it made just enough to turn a profit and not become an annual outing like the Paranormal Activities etc. I don’t think this is a bad thing here though. The film does work outside a lot of the current trends of horror but its really just the same old back-from-the-dead-science-gone-wrong thing which we can date back to Mary Shelly. And The Lazarus Effect, although it attempts some musings on the afterlife and not messing with things we do not understand, doesn’t really bring anything new to the morgue table.

lazarus-effect