The Horror of Isolation (& Pulse)

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Pulse 2001
For a metropolis, the highways and roads are peculiarly empty. So are the streets, factories and shops. A sense of existential dread oozes over the inhabitants of this deserted cityscape.

No, not my recent trip to London as COVID-19 was starting to strike panic into the nation but a description of the Tokyo of the second half of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse.

Strangely enough, it wasn’t the corona virus that made me think of Pulse, rather it was reviewing the 1964 Japanese horror classic Kwaidan for Louder Than War.

Watching that striking anthology movie inevitably made me think of some of the J-Horror successes of more recent years like Ring, Ju-on: The Grudge and Pulse. That latter movie although released in 2001 seems strangely relevant in the world of the corona virus.


Pulse – or Kairo to give it its Japanese title – was made at a time when Japan was experiencing what became known as Hikikomori, an extreme form of social withdrawal. In the run-up to the Millennium, this phenomenon was proving an increasing concern in Japan with maybe a million or so young people shutting themselves off from the outside world, sometimes for very extended periods of time, decades even. Doctors and psychologists struggle to precisely understand why and after being pretty much cooped up for a couple of weeks now I have even less idea why anybody would choose to live in this way.

What is clear is that technology has played a big part in the problem. Often those affected spend long hours wired up to an internet connection with mobile phones and video games also taking the place of real social interaction. It’s appropriate that Pulse opens to the sound of the stuttering screech and crackle of a dial-up modem.

Like Ring, this is a technology based chiller. In a 2016 interview included in the Arrow dual format release of Pulse, Kurosawa even claimed that it was ‘totally a copy of Ring.’ I think he was joking as he smiled while saying: ‘In Ring, the ghost came out of the television set. So we thought, “What else could be similar but different to that?”‘

His answer was the internet with ghosts somehow entering via the world wide web.

Pulse 2

Pulse runs two parallel storylines which eventually converge. The first concerns some co-workers at a rooftop plant nursery who are worried about their colleague Taguchi. He’s been doing some unspecified work for a computer disc but even with a deadline looming, he has stopped coming into work and hasn’t been answering his phone.

Michi (Kumiko Aso) feels the need to investigate. Taguchi won’t even answer his door. But he has hidden a key on his doorstep so Michi enters using that. She calls out his name, but he doesn’t answer. When she sees him, he is emotionless. He points her in the direction of the disc and steps into an adjacent room. The next time she sees him he’s hanging from a noose, dead.

When the disc is retrieved and viewed, it reveals an unsettling image of a spectral Taguchi staring blankly into his own computer monitor. Soon his friend Yabe is ignoring his co-workers. He hides in a storage room, repeating the reclusiveness of his dead friend.

Meanwhile economics student Ryosuke Kawashima (Haruhiko Katô) is beginning to take an interest in the internet. He signs up to a service provider and immeditely encounters some eerie images online. When a mysterious website asks ‘Do you want to meet a ghost?’, he shuts down his computer and goes to bed. But as he sleeps, it connects itself to the web and displays some more alarming imagery.

The next day he hotfoots it to the computer room of his university and makes enquiries. Computer science major Harue takes an interest and they strike up what looks likely to blossom into something more than just a friendship.

Don’t look for any romance here, though. Harue soon begins to display a severe streak of pessimism and becomes steadily more detached. ‘I’ve always wondered what it’s like to die,’ she admits and talks about her childhood where she was often left alone. ‘You might be all alone after death, too.’

She might just have a point. ‘Death is eternal loneliness,’ one otherworldly apparition later tells Kawashima.

Pulse 3

Dialogue is sparse in Pulse. The score is unnerving. The colour palette is greyish and seldom does any colour make an impact, one exception being the red tape used to seal shut the windows and doors of ‘forbidden rooms’. Why is the tape always red? Sorry, no idea. Kiyoshi Kurosawa isn’t a director who likes to spell everything out to audiences.

Is Pulse scary? I wouldn’t say so. A couple of scenes are undoubtedly creepy, especially one where a female phantom moves slowly towards Yabe with a highly erratic gait. Faces and bodies merge into shadows in darkened rooms and sometimes bodies transmute into smudged stains on walls. There’s also a spate of suicides that might be disturbing for some viewers to watch.

It’s a slow-burner but mesmerizing. It’s thought provoking too – predicting a world where new technologies which promised to connect people paradoxically instead only create more isolation.

It might be a little too long and some of the special effects look fairly primitive by today’s CGI standards but I’d take it any time over your average gorefest, slasher or found footage horror.

Pulse was shot in 2000, a time when the internet for me meant Netscape Navigator, Altavista and free web hosts like Tripod. The world wide web was booming but my time online up to about 2000 was spent out and about in cybercafes like the Java at the end of Park Road in Glasgow. No shutting myself away for years on end for me.

I’ve been online for 25 years now, but it’s only been very recently that for the first time I’m relying on the internet as my chief form of entertainment and contact with others.

Despite many reservations about social media, I’ve never been so glad that it exists.


The Squeeze: British Movie Night #2

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The Squeeze Original Quad Poster
This week, a 1977 crime drama set in London starring Stacy Keach, David Hemmings and Edward Fox along with Carol White (see my previous post).

The cast also includes Freddie Starr, one of Britain’s most popular and highest paid TV stars of the era, a man who’d also been a part of the Merseybeat boom as singer with The Midnighters. But he ate one hamster and that’s what he’ll always be remembered for.*

You also might just be able to glimpse Sex Pistols’ guitarist Steve Jones, who was an extra in the film – this being before his band had imprinted themselves on the consciousness of the nation. In his autobiography Lonely Boy, Jones recalled: ‘You can see me walking through Portobello Market wearing a Hawaiian shirt. Cookie saw it by chance on late-night TV once and nearly fell off his fucking sofa.’

Paul Cook must blink less than I do.

Jim Naboth (Stacy Keach) has been a Scotland Yard detective superintendent and a good one too by all accounts. As the film kicks off, though, he’s steaming drunk on the London Underground. The sort of guy you hope doesn’t get talking to you, if you’re sitting in his vicinity.

Ciggy in mouth, collar and tie undone, and with a bottle of VAT 69 in his pocket, he sways from side to side as he exits the tube train. It’s no big surprise when he collapses down an escalator and ends up in hospital.

When he’s judged fit enough to leave, he heads straight to the nearest boozer. It’s four years since he investigated anything. He is no longer part of the police force and is now on Social Security. His one-time wife Jill (Carol White) has left him to look after their two kids even though he can hardly look after himself.

Stacy Keach in The Squeeze

She has married a wealthy businessman called Foreman (Edward Fox). When their daughter Christine is kidnapped, Jim feels the need to become involved.

Stephen Boyd plays Vic, the man who has planned the kidnap. He’s a devoted father, a Rotarian and utterly ruthless. He’s also well read and chides one of his gang Keith (David Hemmings) for not reading more. ‘Instead of all that poncing about at disco clubs.’ Vic has read Arthur Koestler’s 1972 book The Roots of Coincidence but he’d have been better poncing about at disco clubs himself as he maybe shouldn’t put quite so much faith in Koestler’s ideas on the subject.

When he catches Jim sniffing around in his home, he threatens him with a shotgun and instructs a henchman to repeatedly batter him with a baseball bat.

Vic pours him a ‘lying bastard cocktail’, whose ingredients remain a mystery but which judging from Jim’s reaction must be potent. Very potent, although Jim continues to lie. Vic judges him to be too much of a mess to be any kind of threat but makes him strip because he’s ‘stinking the fucking place out,’ and drops him off naked outside his house. It won’t be the last time a character is humiliated in The Squeeze.

Jim enlists the help of Ted (Freddie Starr), a thief who he once arrested. Although still thieving, the two have somehow formed a bond and Ted now spends chunks of his time trying to persuade Jim to pack in the booze, and making sure he’s eating properly.

Luckily, Jim’s cop instincts haven’t deserted him completely, but he’s hardly the ideal person to pursue a callous gang of criminals. There’s almost as much tension created around the idea that he might relapse into some serious boozing while he attempts to rescue his ex.

In the world of Jim Naboth, dry sherry is nothing but an aperitif. ‘It’s not even drinking in my book.’ Brandy isn’t drinking either although I’m pretty sure the Department of Health might disagree with him.

The Squeeze 1977 lobby card

It’s been said that the producers persuaded a former local gangster to help out so that shooting in some dodgy locations would go smoothly. And on the subject of locations, Jim lives in a shabby pad in Notting Hill – a very different Notting Hill to the gentrified area of the cosy romcom with Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant.

Seeing Ind Coope pubs on the streets of West London, I was instantly reminded me of my first visit to the capital as a teenager in the late 1970s. Jim also visits a pre-santised, spectacularly sleazy Soho, where Ted treats him to a – ahem – massage after Jim has spent an evening in Cardboard City under the Westway. The pair also visit Oxford Street, where Debenhams employs a top hatted doorman to keep out riff-raff. Like Jim.

Directed by Michael Apted, The Squeeze is pretty much forgotten today despite its notable cast. It’s no Long Good Friday but I liked it even though it does come over like a TV drama at times (I’m thinking particularly of The Sweeney). Leon Griffiths, who adapted the screenplay from David Craig’s novel Whose Little Girl Are You?, went on to devise Minder, one of Britain’s most popular shows of the 1980s.

David Hentschel’s first day of paid employment was spent making the tea for the participants of a session at Trident Studios in London where David Bowie’s Space Oddity was being recorded. He went on to bigger things including composing scores for a number of films. His work here is pretty effective and definitely ahead of its time. There’s some other music utilised too such as The Stylistics’ romantic ballad You Make Me Feel Brand New.

This accompanies a sequence that is excruciating to watch, when Keith and the gang force Jill to strip naked in front of them. Carol White excels here portraying a scared woman doing anything she can to help the chances of survival for herself and stepdaughter. I’d like to know what The Stylistics thought of the song’s use here.

Although Jill might do anything to protect Christine, she isn’t an entirely sympathetic character here. Not only has she has abandoned two of her children but she visits them infrequently. She also arguably left Jim when needed her most. As the man himself puts it bluntly: ‘[She] ran out on me the first time I got so drunk I pissed the bed.’

By this point, White herself was abusing drink and drugs and you could have forgiven her if she had turned down the role of the ex-wife of an alcoholic. It’s another brave performance from her and one of her final appearances on the big screen.

Alexander Walker in The Evening Standard considered The Squeeze ‘a British gangland movie determined to be quite as tough, bloody, violent, squalid and ugly as any Hollywood model.’ The Daily Mirror summed it up as ‘a package tour of thuggery’.

Okay. A film called The Squeeze with Carol White, star of 1968 drama Up The Junction. You can likely see where this is leading. From the fine pop year that was 1979, here’s a song that I’ve never heard a single person say anything negative about, although Squeeze’s manager of time Miles Copeland thought it shouldn’t be a single due to the lack of a chorus. This is Squeeze and Up The Junction. Oh the memories!

* One of the most bizarre headlines in British newspaper history and obviously a total invention. Freddie Starr was a vegetarian for starters.


Made (1972): British Movie Night #1


Made (1972)

The name British Movie Night is borrowed from a series of dramas screened on Sunday nights on BBC2 early in 1981. Beforehand, a series called The Great American Picture Show had showcased films like Nashville – which I suspected I wouldn’t like due to its country and western musical background although that turned out to be a fantastic watch.

Made didn’t strike me as very promising either due to the presence of Roy Harper. In an age of New Order, Talking Heads and Grandmaster Flash, Harper struck the young me as a relic of the past, the sort of act that should have been outlawed years beforehand. Okay, I’m exaggerating slightly but I was pretty hardline back then. When an Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease? No thankyou. Even that title was enough to put me off.

Here he plays a singer/songwriter Mike Preston, already successful enough to appear on TV and be interviewed by Bob Harris, stay in swanky hotels and play shows in the States.

Roy Harper in Made

On Brighton beach, Mike meets single parent Valerie Marshall, a Londoner down on a day trip. Valerie is played by Carol White, a woman once dubbed the Battersea Bardot (even if she was from Hammersmith). Valerie’s youngish and good looking – although not as glammy here as she was in Dulcima – another film included in the British Movie Night series. She lives with her bedridden (and needy) mother, who suffers from Multiple Sclerosis. While acting as her part time carer, she also looks after her baby Scott and works as a switchboard operator.

Home is a grim council flat in a part of south-east London that fully embraced the whole brutalist architecture craze. Around the same time as director John Mackenzie was filming in Woolwich and nearby Charlton, Stanley Kubrick was shooting scenes in neighbouring Thamesmead for A Clockwork Orange. Both films represented Britain at the 33rd Venice Film Festival, along with Bill Douglas’s My Childhood, which won the Silver Lion Award for Best First Film. A Clockwork Orange was voted Best Foreign Film. Made won nothing.

John Castle & Carol White in Made

When a new priest in the area Father Dyson knocks on Valerie’s door, she’s glad to have the opportunity to chat with someone her own age and she’s delighted when he offers up the possibility of finding a home help to give her a hand looking after her mum. A friendship develops.

Dyson and Preston appear polar opposites. Dyson is a square. Preston is a rebel. The pair compete for Valerie’s affections. One with a hedonistic and hippyish philosophy, the other with organised religion. Another character Mahdav Gupta also comes into Valerie’s orbit. A fool and a fantasist, he attempts to win her over with a combination of flattery and atrocious poetry.

Of course, the priest and the singer take an instant dislike to each other. These rivals do have their good points. But both share a sense of moral superiority over anybody who dares to disagree with their worldview. Ultimately, Mike is self-obsessed, disguising his selfishness through his ‘alternative’ belief system. Dyson is controlling and insensitive.

They both want to use Valerie in different ways, but I don’t want to tell you too much more or I might ruin your enjoyment of the film if you decide to watch.

Roy Harper and John Castle in Made

Edinburgh born John Mackenzie isn’t into his full stride on directorial duties as yet but he does occasionally experiment with editing in a striking manner likely influenced by Nic Roeg. He certainly did a fantastic job in shooting one of the most disturbing scenes in British cinema as rival football fans fight it out while baby Scott is being taken out in his pram by Valerie’s babysitting pal June. A mini Battleship Potemkin by the Thames.

Made is far from perfect. Mackenzie later dismissed it ‘a bit of a mess’ and screenwriter Howard Barker considered it ‘a disastrous and painful experience’. The idea of reshoots became impossible when, in the wake of filming, Roy Harper was suddenly diagnosed with a rare medical condition known as Hereditary hemorrhagic telangiectasia (HHT), which left him incapacitated for months.

Most books that examine British cinema of the period such as Paul Newland’s Don’t Look Now: British Cinema in the 1970s fail to mention Made, although Simon Matthews devoted a page to it in his highly recommended 2016 book Psychedelic Celluloid. The BBFC foisted an X on the film, and few saw it in cinemas.

Made - Valerie & June

It is one of the most staggeringly bleak British films ever made. But it is also undoubtedly – cliche alert – a fascinating time capsule of early 1970s Britain, an era of power cuts and feather cuts, Ted Heath and T.Rex.

Interestingly, Marc Bolan is said to have turned down the Mike Preston role. He was likely too busy penning three minute pop classics and preparing to appear in Born To Boogie. This was likely a better way to make use of his creativity. It’s hard to imagine the bopping elf doing a better job than Harper and his superstar presence would have surely proved a distraction. Harper is pretty convincing on the whole, although he never acted in another film, concentrating on his music.

Director John Mackenzie went on to add The Long Good Friday and BBC Play For Today Just Another Saturday to his CV.

Carol White moved back to America after the film wrapped. It’s safe to say that Carol possessed more than her fair share of demons. Insecure and depressed, she tried to commit suicide for the second time. Her career never matched the promise of early dramas like Cathy Come Home and Poor Cow, although she is utterly authentic here and turns in a fearless performance. She made only three more films and was dead by 1991.

Four of the Roy Harper songs used during the film later featured in different versions on his 1973 album Lifemask. There’s also music composed by John Cameron who had previously contributed to a score to Kes.

Produced by Peter Jenner, who also has a small role in Made, and with Jimmy Page guesting on electric guitar, this is Harper’s Bank of the Dead (Valerie’s Song), which in Made was titled Social Casualty. Released in October 1972, here it is and I rather like it nowadays:

Sheba, Baby: American Indie #11

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Sheba, Baby

I’d guess that when Pam Grier assesses her long career, Sheba, Baby won’t be seen as a major highlight. She dismisses it in a couple of sentences in her autobiography Foxy: My Life in Three Acts.

So why bother posting about the movie? Well, it is Pam Grier. And it was the first blaxploitation movie I saw on the big screen. Yes, I came a very late to the party. Due to my age I should add.

Made by legendary independent American International Pictures and released in 1975, the film was one of many that Grier made for the company, the best of which were Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974).

But before Pam established herself as the queen of blaxploitation cinema, she had worked at AIP in a different capacity. She was a receptionist.

Pam Grier - Sheba, Baby x3

Here she plays Sheba Shayne, a Chicago based private eye who returns to her hometown of Louisville to help out her father. Andy Shayne is being pressurised by the local black mob into handing over the family’s loans company for a pittance. Or be killed.

And when I say loans company, don’t go thinking of some modern day payday loan rip-off merchants. This is an ethically run business on a quiet street corner with a staff of just two. They provide low-interest loans to ordinary members of the community. A true financial friend as they advertise themselves.

Three henchmen beat the poor fella up badly. Is this enough of a warning? ‘My company is not for sale,’ Andy declares the next day when phoned again by a gangster called Pilot. ‘Not Now. Not ever!’

Pops urges Sheba to leave him to face his own problems but predictably she doesn’t listen to what he has to say.

The local police advise Sheba against seeking retribution but predictably she doesn’t listen to what they have to say.

Her father’s business partner Brick warns Sheba that they’re not equipped to fight a ruthless crime organisation by themselves but guess what? Predictably she doesn’t listen to what he has to say.

After the beating, the hoods decide to escalate the pressure on Andy and in the words of a popular song of the time, you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet. They’re prepared to go to just about any lengths to take over this modest business from car bombings to opening machine gun fire inside the office.

Will Sheba possibly be able to wreak revenge on these lowlife criminals led by one dimensional generic bad guy Shark Merrill?

What do you think?

Pam Grier taking aim in Sheba, Baby

By 1975, when Sheba, Baby first hit cinema screens, blaxploitation was beginning to look a little stale. And Sheba, Baby looked a little tame. One contemporary advert might have claimed that she was hotter than Coffy and meaner than Foxy but the copywriter who came up with that line clearly hadn’t watched the film.

Compared to her two blaxploitation classics, Sheba, Baby can’t help looking like a retread but with more action and less violence – it was even given a PG rating (Parental guidance suggested).

Sometimes for Pam fans, you almost experience deja vu – such as when Coffy – sorry – Sheba infiltrates a party thrown by the crime kingpin by posing as an escort and then starts an attention seeking catfight.

It’s a good enough performance by Pam, displaying her usual charisma but sometimes her takes look a little rushed. On the plus side, unlike many modern-day women who take on action roles, Pam looks like she knew what she was doing. I bet she could kick the butts of all three of the latest batch of Charlie’s Angels without breaking sweat. Even today at 70.

Sheba and Pilot

The film has the feel of a speedily written script. Obviously, director and co-writer William Girdler was no slacker. In total, he chalked up a run of nine movies in six years during the 1970s. These included blaxploitation horror Abby, a blatant Exorcist cash-in and Grizzly, said to be the highest grossing independent film of 1976.

From Louisville himself, Girdler makes a pretty good fist of this, and he certainly knows how to film an explosion. It would have been interesting to see what he was capable of while working on a much bigger budget, but he sadly died in a helicopter accident in The Philippines in 1978, while scouting locations for what was to have been his next movie.

I wanted to like it more, but Sheba, Baby is entertaining though formulaic fun. An action romp with some comedic moments, such as the spectacularly over the top performance of Christopher Jay as a jive-talking, pimp suited hawker, and with a little romance – a subplot involving Sheba and old flame Brick.

Brick? Shark? Pilot? What is it with the names here?

Make sure to swallow your suspension of disbelief tablets beforehand or questions like where did Sheba manage to find a wetsuit at that time of night, might spoil the fun.

Saxophonist Monk Higgins supplies a very decent score and there’s a couple of tunes sung by Philly singer Barbara Mason, although I prefer her more Northern Soul sounding tracks like Keep Him and Don’t Ever Want to Lose Your Love.

The soundtrack album was released on Buddah and here is the title track:

The Wicker Man (1978 Novel): Folk Horror #4

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The Wicker Man novel

Until this week, novelisations of films are something that I’ve managed to avoid since the 1970s. I might have a copy of John Pidgeon’s Slade in Flame lying around somewhere but I’ve never felt the need to re-read it. That was the only one I know that significantly differed from its source material. It was much darker than the film, which was already considered by many too dark for young Slade fans.

As Allan Brown points out in his 2006 introduction to Robin Hardy and Anthony Shaffer’s The Wicker Man novel: ‘More often than not these are hack jobs, souvenirs, vestigial remnants of the days before videotape allowed enthusiasts to possess their own personal copies of films.’

We’re all familiar with comments on adaptations from literary sources along the lines of ‘It wasn’t as good as the book’, but I doubt that anybody has ever claimed a novelisation was better than the film it was based on.

Novelisations tended to come out in time to accompany the release of the film that they are based on, or just afterwards. Never before, as that would have given away too much of the plot. The Wicker Man was exceptional in that it wasn’t published until the summer of 1978, over four years after the initial release of the movie.

This was an ideal time for it to come out, though.

Late in 1977, Cinemafantastique magazine had dedicated the bulk of an entire issue to the film. And as it reported, earlier that year Rod Stewart, by then dating Britt Ekland, had offered a six-figure sum to buy what it called the ‘nudie movie’ and destroy it, in an attempt to keep his girlfriend’s nude scenes from being seen by audiences. This publicity was no doubt welcome for the film, even if the story bore little or no relation to the truth. The National Enquirer has never enjoyed a reputation as a bastion of truth-telling. Stewart totally denied the rumour later.

Around this time, Hardy and Christopher Lee both travelled over to America on a promotional tour . The movie began picking up a number of very good reviews as it made its way across the country. At Boston’s Orson Welles Theater – a cinema renowned for helping break non-mainstream movies – it proved a big box office success. The word was spreading. Deservedly so.

Robin Hardy in 2011

The novel starts with Sergeant Neil Howie of the West Highland Constabulary birdwatching with his schoolteacher fiancée Mary Bannock on the fictional Ben Sluie. Despite their shared passion for ornithology, this is no romantic afternoon for the couple outwith their working hours. He’s on the job, having been tipped off that someone wants to steal some rare golden eagle’s eggs. He catches the thief, rather courageously too.

Afterwards, he’s given a letter from a fellow officer sent from a concerned ‘child lover on Summerisle’ reporting the mysterious disappearance of a twelve year old girl Rowan Morrison, together with a photo of her. He agrees to investigate.

That same night, he spends further time with Mary. We learn about his religious beliefs. He is a strict Episcopalian, with a respect for other (established) faiths. He doesn’t hesitate in going out of his way to help a visiting Jewish couple from America find a good hotel serving as an example of this.

Engaged for three years already, Howie has never yet out any pressure on Mary to have sex. She is Presbyterian but less devout. Although far from any kind of feminist firebrand, she has read authors like Germaine Greer (then considered highly anti-establishment). Whether Howie would approve of this remains unsaid but I’m guessing he’d disapprove. Strongly.

She’s secretly assumed for some time that there will be no marriage between them until she converts to his brand of Christianity but that night he asks her to marry him with no question of any switch of denomination. She says yes and they agree to be wed in two week’s time.

As he walks home from Mary’s place, he decides to enter the Bull’s Head pub in his home town of Portlochie. But not for a celebratory drink. As it’s still open after closing time, the dutiful cop feels the need to make sure no more booze is served. This is a very Howie way to behave.

Summerisle is the ‘most distant isle in his precinct’, a place he has never visited before. Warmed by the Gulf Stream and picturesque, he feels as if ‘he had flown off the edge of his known world to some enchanted Arcadia’ as he gets ready to land in his police seaplane.

Not that he approves of privately owned islands, believing they encourage a laxness in their communities with regard to law abiding. On his arrival, this theory is soon reinforced.

They’re an uncooperative lot. He disapproves of their attitudes too, finding them course and far too fond of revelling in the local bar. As a man who strives to observe what he refers to as ‘God’s good teaching’, he’s shocked to come across a group of a dozen or so young couples having some houghmagandie outside the Green Man.

Howie even imagines that God has possibly led him here and ‘shown him these terrible but exciting images to test him.’ He considers arresting them all and charging them with indecent exposure in a public place but as he watches on, he also fantasises about giving Mary an orgasm like the ones some of the girls are experiencing.

Not surprisingly, once in Summerisle the novel closely follows the plot of Anthony Shaffer’s screenplay. Howie visits May Morrison’s shop with its chocolate hares that he thinks are rabbits. He quizzes the local schoolchildren over the disappearance of Rowan and is met with blank faces. And just like the film, he discovers too late in the day that an appointment with the Wicker Man has been made on his behalf.

The Wicker Man novel 1978

Is it worth a read?

If you’re a fan of the movie, yes, although even then it’s far from essential.

Obviously, it’s impossible for anybody like me – who’s seen the film multiple times – to read this without conjuring up visions of Edward Woodward’s portrayal of Neil Howie throughout. Whenever the name Lord Summerisle appears, I think of Christopher Lee. And when Howie hears Willow thumping the wall that divided her room from his and then slapping her own body as she sings, guess who I’m thinking of?

Answer: Britt Ekland and Britt Ekland’s body double.

Just as in the film, it’s easy to find Howie’s puritanism annoying. He’s a virgin and his knowledge of sex has been gained mainly from reading The Young Christian’s Guide to Sanctified Bliss in Marriage. Not a book I’ve
got round to reading yet myself.

He gives off an air of moral superiority but when quizzing Willow about the whereabouts of Rowan, the idea of ‘inflicting pain on her, to gain the information he so desperately needed, crossed his mind.’ The idea excited him.

This isn’t the only time he comes over as a hypocrite but on the page, Howie often comes across more favourably than he does on celluloid, even if he is still a hard man to like.

His love of birds certainly makes him more a more sympathetic character. This is shown from the very beginning with him seeking to protect the eagle and her eggs. And at the climax, while engulfed by flames and knowing he is about to die a painful death, he still manages to free some caged birds imprisoned in the giant wicker structure, ensuring they aren’t sacrificed along with him.

As novelisations go, I’d guess that this is one of the better examples, albeit I should point out that 1973’s The Wicker Man film is arguably a very loose adaptation of David Pinner’s 1967 novel Ritual. Confusingly, the 2006 American remake of The Wicker Man even credited Ritual as the original basis for the Shaffer screenplay on which it was based.

Not that I’ve ever felt the need to watch that one.

To further add to the confusion, Hardy claimed to have started writing the novel before Shaffer had finished his screenplay, although Shaffer always denied this. Whatever the truth of the matter, this is primarily the work of Robin Hardy and the co-authorship is down to him recycling much of Shaffer’s script’s dialogue verbatim.

Cowboys for Christ by Robin Hardy

Hardy returned to similiar territory in 2006 with his novel Cowboys for Christ.

Published by Luath Press, this is a spiritual sequel of The Wicker Man, dealing again with the clash between a pagan community and Christian outsiders – in this case two young fundamentalist Texans on a mission to Scotland to preach the gospel to the unGodly. The novel provided the basis for the 2011 film, The Wicker Tree which Hardy also directed.

For more on Cowboys For Christ, click here.

A New Leaf & The Return of Elaine May

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A New Leaf

In 2020, Elaine May is to direct her first new drama since 1983. Nothing much is yet known about this new project other than it’s called Crackpot and it is to star Dakota Johnson.

Here’s a slightly updated review of her finest work, A New Leaf, which originally mourned the fact that May’s directing career had been cut short. Assumptions. Assumptions.

A New Leaf was one of the most critically acclaimed American comedies of the 1970s, but over the years it mysteriously fell out of favour.

Based on the short story The Green Heart by Jack Ritchie, the film was adapted for the screen and directed by Elaine May, who also gave herself the role of Henrietta Lowell, a complete klutz with owl-like glasses that are almost permanently are on the brink of falling off her face and who needs ‘to be vacuumed every time she eats.’ Despite these eccentricities, she somehow also manages to hold down a job as a professor of botany.

Her co-star here is Walter Matthau, who plays Henry Graham, a dirty rotten scoundrel who has blown his entire inheritance and is desperate to continue in the bone idle yet extravagant manner to which he has become accustomed.

Aloof, irresponsible and filled with self-pity, he has managed to avoid responsibility at all costs throughout his life and with no business acumen, no real skills and a serious aversion to any kind of gainful employment, there seems only one solution to his problems and that is the one suggested by his English butler Harold – marrying an enormously wealthy woman who can subsidise his wasteful ways.

Cap in hand, he visits his Uncle Harry to beg for a $50,000 loan, so he can keep up appearances while he woos the unsuspecting female. Harry realises in all likelihood the money will never be paid back although an agreement is reached to give his nephew the loan for a period of six weeks with Henry forfeiting his home and valuables if he doesn’t repay the cash on the dot, meaning that he’s in danger of losing his swanky city apartment, cool modern art and Ferrari if his plan goes awry.

This looks likely after a series of failures but then he stumbles across the bumbling Henrietta.

A New Leaf (1971)

This becomes a true love–hate relationship. She adores him. He detests everything about her, even her spectacular gullibility which allows him the chance to prey on her. Henry certainly likes her wealth, though, the bulk of which comes from her heiress status.

So, he turns on the charm and makes his move on her. Oh, and I should also probably tell you here that he decides that bumping her off might just be an equally good idea, so screwball comedy moves into the territory of black comedy.

There are some very funny scenes here such as when Henry reads Beginner’s Guide to Toxicology while, in the background, she is on the edge of a cliff, seeking out an as yet unrecognised species of fern leaf, and there’s also a great slapstickish routine where he becomes involved in the epic task of helping a flustered Henrietta fit into her toga-style dress after she inadvertently manages to stick her head through the armhole of the outfit. I did tell you she was a klutz, didn’t I?

As well as being a hoot, the scene is also rather touching and Henry’s patience with her is actually rather admirable. Her ineptitude does somehow bring out the best in him and, of course, this seemingly very odd couple do have more in common with one another than Henry initially suspected. He might find her mightily kooky but he insists on driving his car wearing a motorbike crash helmet, to name only one of his own peculiarities.

With his hangdog expressions and flawless comic timing, Matthau is brilliantly cast here, and May in her only starring role in a film she directed herself is every bit as good and the perfect foil.

Elaine May and Walter Matthau in A New Leaf

Matthau made two other films in 1971, Plaza Suite, which was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture, and Kotch, which saw him being nominated for an Oscar as Best Actor but it’s A New Leaf that is the pick of the trio. The whole film from beginning to end really is a lot of fun and ranks up there with Harold and Maude, Annie Hall, Slap Shot and Paper Moon as one of the finest American comedies of the 1970s. All these years later it’s still definitely worth seeking out and with the promise of Crackpot being shot soon, this is the perfect time to see it if you haven’t already.

Why you might ask is the film not better known?

My theory would be the fact that Elaine May was entirely dissatisfied with the version of the film that was released, having been removed from the project by Paramount head honcho Robert Evans, who set about drastically chopping out over an hour of her cut himself, mainly by excising a subplot that involved Henry killing Henrietta’s crooked attorney.

May attempted to have the film shelved, and then when this failed, she also failed to have her name removed from the credits before publicly disowning the film.

Whether her cut would be an improvement on the studio release I have no idea but after watching the movie I’m certainly glad she was unsuccessful in having A New Leaf suppressed.

Like her directorial debut, May’s career seemed to be cut short after the critical and box office failure of her fourth film Ishtar. I haven’t ever seen this one, maybe because critics like to dub it ‘The Heaven’s Gate of comedy’ and ‘One of the grossest miscalculations of the blockbuster era.’

May did continue to work in Hollywood, most significantly penning the screenplays for The Birdcage and Primary Colors but on the evidence of A New Leaf (and to a lesser extent The Heartbreak Kid and Mikey and Nicky), it’s a real pity that she didn’t get the chance to direct more movies.

Hopefully, Crackpot recaptures the form of her first three directorial efforts and let’s face it, you’ve got to root for any 87 year woman given the chance to sit in a director’s chair, haven’t you?

Best Films of 2019 (Part Two)

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Best Films of 2019 pt2

10. The Farewell
Beijing born writer/director Lulu Wang’s film immediately announces that it’s ‘based on an actual lie’. This lie took place when Wang’s own grandmother was dying in China and her family decided not to inform her of her impending death. As we learn during the course of The Farewell, this is commonplace in the Far East and doctors are prepared to go along with it, the lie intended to prevent terminally ill loved ones from living in fear throughout the remaining days of their lives.

How to avoid arousing the dying gran’s suspicions when the whole family want to see her for one last time? Plan a lavish wedding as an excuse for a joyous get together.

Amazingly enough, The Farewell largely avoids mawkishness until veering in that direction right at the end when some of the music verges on boke-inducing. Nevertheless, it’s a triumph.

9. Joker
‘The most disappointing film of the year,’ according to the Guardian and ‘a viewing experience of rare, numbing emptiness,’ if the New York Times is to be believed, negative reviews of Joker weren’t hard to find in the media. Indiewire did say some nice things about it but also branded it ‘a toxic rallying cry for self-pitying incels’.

No, it’s not as good as the two films that influenced it most – Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy but how many films are? And speaking of those two classics, I had long ago given up hope of Bob De Niro ever appearing in two of the best movies of any year, but 2019 proved that just occasionally his performances nowadays aren’t always dialled in. Even better is Joachim Phoenix, who is now American cinema’s nearest equivalent to the 1970s/80s De Niro.

8. Donbass
Named after a region in Eastern Ukraine, Donbass is a film about what is going on there and how it affects the people living on both sides of the divide. The Ukrainian regular army and volunteers fight separatist gangs, supported by Putin’s Russia. Corruption and criminality of all kinds are rife. Humiliation is commonplace. Violence can flare at any moment.

Each of the thirteen segments that make up the film is based on a real event and are loosely linked. It’s like a series of nightmares, which when taken together, offers a damning critique of what is going on in this part of the world.

7. The Favourite
The film premiered at the 2018 Venice International Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Prize. Its release date in Britain was on the very first day of 2019, hence its inclusion on this list.

Yorgos Lanthimos’ love/power triangle tragicomedy featured not one, not two, but three outstanding performances: Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, and Olivia Colman, who deservedly won an Oscar for Best Actress for her portrayal of Queen Anne, a woman who is infantile, idiosyncratic and utterly incompetent. Fantastic bawdy fun.

6. The Third Wife
You might not guess it from the name but Ash Mayfair, the director of The Third Wife, is Vietnamese. Born in Ho Chi Minh City, she is currently based in America. The inspiration for her debut feature comes from real-life stories of her grandparents and great-grandparents and the ordeals they lived through that have been passed down through the generations.

She shows great promise here. Her tale of a girl coerced into a forced marriage is a quiet film – which reflects its late 19th century rural setting. Its dialogue is sparse and its pace meditative. Nguyen Phuong Tra My’s performance as May deserves great credit too. Twelve when cast, she was thirteen during the shoot and is pretty much pitch-perfect throughout.

5. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
I did set out to see the ninth film by Quentin Tarantino without reading any reviews, features or interviews about it. Inevitably I did learn of the criticism of his portrayal of Bruce Lee, in particular the fact that the Hong Kong kung fu legend wasn’t able to get the better of Brad Pitt’s character in one fight scene.

This perplexed me. Tarantino is a big Bruce Lee fan and a highly vocal fan of martial arts movies in general.

I also became aware that this was another Tarantino film that embraced a revisionist-history fantasy. Obviously the fate of Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate would be very different to that of the real-life Tate.

This provided a possible solution as to Quentin’s depiction of Lee. It was surely included to give audiences a little nudge in the direction that they shouldn’t be looking for historical accuracy with regard to the real-life characters on-screen.

But this theory appears to have been wrong. Tarantino based Cliff Booth on a notoriously tough stuntman who had a rumble with Lee on the set of TV show The Green Hornet, which you can read about here.

I still don’t think the scene worked, although the movie as a whole is a great way to spend two and a half hours. I’m even already looking forward to seeing the four hour cut that Tarantino has recently mentioned possibly coming out next year.

4. Shadow
‘Chinese kings have always feared assassination in times of turmoil. To survive, they secretly employed surrogates known as ‘shadows’. Absent from the annals of history, they lived their lives in obscurity and vanished without a trace.’

This is the story of one such shadow, directed by Zhang Yimou, a man with an impeccable wuxia CV. He gave the world Hero, House of Flying Daggers, and Curse of the Golden Flower and this definitely deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as those epics.

Although shot in a metallic greyish pallette, Shadow looks stunning throughout and the action is incredible too. I’ve seen umbrellas utilised as weapons before in Asian movies but never umbrellas as lethal as the ones used here.

3. The Irishman
In the run up to the release of The Irishman, Martin Scorsese kickstarted an almighty media stooshie when asked about Marvel movies.

‘I’ve tried to watch a few of them and they’re not for me,’ the director replied, before going on to explain that: ‘They seem to me to be closer to theme parks than they are to movies as I’ve known and loved them throughout my life.’

As is the norm in the 21st century, a backlash began immediately with Marvel brand loyalists and others deriding America’s greatest living director as old, out of touch and even elitist.

He is certainly old but out of touch? I’d guess some of the most out of touch individuals I’ve come across in recent years have been obsessional Marvel fanboys and fangirls. Some of these Marvelistas have even persuaded themselves that they’re some kind of modern-day rebels, determined to hit out at any old farts who dare to voice any criticism of films made by a company that is owned by the world’s largest media conglomerate.

Yes, Disney – who as the Guardian revealed just over a year ago – employ hundreds of women in sweatshop factories who work in pathetically poor conditions and are forced to work monstrously long shifts and astonishing amounts of overtime while making Disney’s Ariel doll. When the costs of this toy – which retails in Britain at £34.99 – were broken down each of the women on a factory production line in China were receiving just 1p for every one they helped to make.

Presumably virtue signalling Marvel star Brie Larson has no idea that sweatshops like this exist or she would surely speak out strongly against these practices as she jets around the globe talking up her part in the mega success of the MCU. Nevermind, I’m sure these Chinese women will still find Captain Marvel an absolutely empowering watch.

Personally I’d rather go on a theme park ride myself. And I’d rather watch a single minute of Robert De Niro, Al Pacino or Joe Pesci in The Irishman than the entire 2010s output of Disney.

And yes, I did enjoy some of Ricky Gervais’ gags as he hosted his fifth Golden Globes.

2. Parasite
Wonky sci-fi environmental parable Okja made it to #7 in my Best Of List two years ago. Bong Joon-ho’s latest film is even better.

Dazzling, unpredictable and downright funny at times, this takes a look at class and inequality but in the kind of cinematic fashion that Ken Loach couldn’t even begin to imagine. Crucially, Joon-ho’s characters all have their share of good and bad traits and you care for them all.

A wildly inventive satire set in Seoul, this must surely be the strangest upstairs/downstairs movie ever made and with it, Bong Joon-ho has truly established himself as one of the greatest filmmakers working anywhere in the world today.

1. Ash is Purest White
A saga about power and money, love and loyalty set across a China that is modernizing at a truly staggering rate.

This is the story of Qiao (Zhao Tao) and Bin (Liao Fan) a ‘jianghu’ gangster on the rise, which is brought to a sudden end when one of them is imprisoned after using a gun to stop a spectacularly brutal streetside brawl. It’s an action that will not unsurprisingly carry profound consequences for both.

Director Jia Zhangke’s films really are must-see events and his wife and regular leading lady Zhao Tao puts in the best female performance of 2019 here.

Finally, the year’s biggest disappointment. This has to be Danny Boyle’s decision to follow up to T2 Trainspotting by collaborating with Britain’s blandest screenwriter Richard Curtis, whose scripts over the years have displayed as much bite as a cuddly toy dog.

A high-concept romantic comedy with a load of woeful Beatles covers and Ed Sheeran and James Corden playing versions of themselves, the premise behind Yesterday wasn’t even original. A French graphic novel created in 2011 by David Blot and Jérémie Royer, also titled Yesterday, shared a very similar premise. Even Goodnight Sweetheart (a mediocre at best 1990s British sitcom) had an episode that apparently bore strong similarities to the central concept behind Boyle’s film.

There is nothing that I could recommend about Yesterday. It is to Trainspotting, what Paul McCartney’s Mull of Kintyre was to The Beatles’ A Day in the Life.

Choose life, Danny. Choose to direct something that isn’t so completely mind numbing next time around.

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