Penda’s Fen: Folk Horror (#3)

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Penda's Fen 1973

When I think about English director Alan Clarke, I think of a young borstal boy clobbering the head of a fellow inmate with a sock filled with pool balls. I think of a bunch of football casuals planning to establish themselves as the most feared firm in the country, or I think of a skinheaded Tim Roth strutting around London on the lookout for some aggro.

His name doesn’t conjure up dramas set in idyllic rural villages overlooking the Malvern Hills, with a central character who is seventeen but does his best to sound like an old, lifelong Conservative, pompously clinging on to the last days of empire. This is Penda’s Fen, though, shot in 1973 by Clarke for the BBC’s Play for Today strand.

The play (or film for television according its author David Rudkin) opens with a shot of a Worcestershire landscape that could almost be a John Constable painting.

Spencer Banks plays the priggish sixth former Stephen. Social skills obviously aren’t his strongpoint, and he is highly unpopular at his posh all-boy’s school. Extemely proud to be English, he is also a devoted Christian (his father is a parson) and he rails against the unions who, he believes, are holding the country to ransom through their industrial actions. I’m guessing he would approve of Mary Whitehouse, Britain’s most high profile killjoy of the era.

Spencer Banks - Penda's Fen

On the week of Penda’s Fen being screened in March 1974, the top 20 of the British singles chart included Queen’s Seven Seas of Rhye, Devil Gate Drive by Suzi Quatro and Bowie’s Rebel Rebel but predictably, Stephen is no glam fan. Instead, he adores Edward Elgar, and the nearest Stephen manages to get to rebel rebelling is when his mother insists he turn the volume on his Bush Dansette as Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius is being blasted out. He glares at her, clearly thinking about disobeying her. But he doesn’t.

The highlight of Stephen’s social life is a night out with his parents to the local parish hall where a debate is taking place between some stuffy locals and Arne, an incomer, who writes controversial TV plays and whose politics are a radical mirror image of Stephen’s. It’s easy to assume that he is a substitute character for Rudkin.

Arne outlines his ideas on how the village and the country as a whole could be improved. He also makes mention of what he sees as a sinister and highly secretive local development with government involvement – later we get a hint of what is happening there with a probable radiation death before this subplot is quietly ditched.

Not surprisingly, Stephen despises Arne. ‘He’s a terrible crank,’ he shrieks to his mother. ‘He’s unnatural.’

‘Stephen,’ she chides him. ‘You can be grotesque.’

Despite his traditional outlook, it’s obvious that he holds some kind of fascination for the local milkman – look that one up if you’re under 30 – a young man who looks like he’s just back from an allnighter at Wigan Casino. Is this sexual?

Strange visions begin to haunt Stephen’s sleep. He sees golden angels and naked schoolboys. A demon visits him, with a face that momentarily morphs into Joel’s. It squats on his bed like the incubus in Henry Fuseli’s painting The Nightmare, its distinctive hooked nose resembling Elgar’s.

Soon, while Stephen shelters from some rain in a barn, he gets to meet the ghost of his favorite composer, and later comes across King Penda, reputedly the last pagan king in England.

Penda's Fen church

As the visions continue, his worldview begins to unravel. He becomes strangely drawn to Arne and his wife and starts visiting them. He even encourages Mrs Arne to adopt children and doesn’t baulk when she mentions that homosexuals ‘make very good fathers I’m told.’

When Stephen asks if his next play will be outrageous, Arne admits that he’ll have to tone it down. ‘The public have lost the imaginative strength they had,’ he explains. ‘Their sight and will to see what’s really going on has been steadily weakened by the entertainment barons for gain, by the yes men for cravenness.’

It wouldn’t be hard to guess what his opinion would be on the dumbed-down television offered up by Britain’s 21st century entertainment barons like X-Factor, Celebrity Big Brother and Love Island.

This complex drama is very 1970s, the pace is slow, its ambitions are high and its author doesn’t feel the need to spell things out, preferring to let the audience work out what is going on for themselves. Don’t expect to see anything like this on TV any time soon.

Penda's Fen March 1974

As noted by the TV correspondent of my local newspaper, the Glasgow Herald, an arts show Real Time felt that the play was important enough to discuss later that same evening over on BBC 2. Rudkin was invited on to have his say and this show lasted 45 minutes, roughly half the length of the play. Sadly, I’d guess that any tape of this held by the BBC would have disappeared long ago.

Penda’s Fen split opinions. While many critics praised it – including, surprisingly enough, the Daily Mail – it wasn’t to be shown again on British television for over fifteen years.

Should it be classified as a folk horror?

Author David Rudkin doesn’t believe so, although as Rob Young pointed out in Electric Eden, his book on visionary British folk music: ‘It was created at exactly the same time as The Wicker Man, and deals with a similar theme: the lingering pagan presence in the British landscape, and by extension, in the soul of the nation.’

Rudkin himself considers it a ‘political work’. It also examines religion, myth, the family, repression, nationhood, and history.

Penda's Fen still

Clarke excels, and some of the phantasmagorical imagery he presents us with is as disturbing as it is startling, especially one involving a truly bizarre series of atrocities in a gorgeous picture book setting, which I won’t ruin for anyone who hasn’t already seen the play.

Some might find criticism with the special effects on display, and although these look outdated today, they must have appeared rather impressive for British television of the era.

Penda’s Fen is far from perfect. There’s little real drama and much of the conflict is interior. The theology debates failed to arouse much interest in me and surely more could have been made of the radiation death, but it is such a thought-provoking piece of drama that I have a hunch it won’t be too long before I’ll want to see it again. Rudkin is a highly individual voice and I’ll be seeking out more of his work in the forthcoming weeks and months.

For more on the play click here, and for David Rudkin’s official site, here you go.

The Last Picture Show & The City of the Dead

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No, not Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 classic film, this Last Picture Show is a track on the newly released album Diabolique by L’Épée, a band comprising Emmaunelle Seigner (Ultra Orange), Anton Newcombe (The Brian Jonestown Massacre) and Lionel & Marie Limiñana (The Limiñanas).

If you were putting together names beforehand for a band that could make uber-cool droney hypnotic pop and somehow make it all sound effortless, then those four names are the kind that might very possibly have sprung to mind.

Together, according to the Guardian‘s Paul Moody, they’re ‘as seductive as Serge Gainsbourg and as druggily alluring as the Velvet Underground’.

Their album’s title may allude to Mario Bava’s 1968 action movie Diabolik, but I have no idea why this track is called The Last Picture Show, deciphering lyrics not being a strongpoint for this tinnitus sufferer.

If anybody’s wondering about that atmospheric looking old black and white movie featured throughout the promo, you’ve come to the right place. These clips are taken from The City of the Dead, a gothic thriller that inspired the name of the B-side of The Clash’s 1977 single Complete Control.

The City of the Dead (1960)

Scenes from the film were also utilised in Iron Maiden’s Bring Your Daughter… to the Slaughter video, while he Misfits wrote a song about it called Horror Hotel, this being the name forced on the film by its American distributor for a time. One of the most stupid re-titlings I can think of, albeit you could argue that the film’s setting of Whitewood, Massachusetts, couldn’t really be described as a city.

There’s also a music connection in the actual film. 1957’s top male vocalist as voted by Melody Maker readers appears in a leading role.

That’ll be Dennis Lotis, and no, I have never heard him singing either.

Also starring Venetia Stevenson and Christopher Lee, I’d always assumed this was an American movie but Lee put me right on his commentary on the Arrow blu-ray. It was completely shot in England with mostly British actors. Lee, incidentally, is predictably impressive here as Professor Driscoll, albeit he is absent for a large chunk of proceedings but as he says: ‘There are no small parts. Only small actors.’


Shot in a silvery black and white, The City of the Dead opens as a witch is being burned at the stake in New England – although that’s not how they were executed in reality in that part of the world. As the pyre’s flames draw ever nearer, Elizabeth Selwyn spits at the jeering onlookers and places a curse on the town and its inhabitants.

Fast forward to a university lecture where Driscoll recounts the details of the witch’s death to a class that includes super keen student, Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson). Before long, she is persuaded to visit Whitewood, the village where Selwyn was burned, to research the subject.

There she meets the proprietor of the Raven’s Inn, Mrs. Newless – who looks suspiciously like a prim and proper modern version of Elizabeth Selwyn. And try saying that surname backwards.

City of the Dead still

The plot resembles that of Psycho in a number of respects, although I’ll spare you from any spoilers. I will mention, though, that shooting started on City of the Dead around six weeks before Hitchcock began work on his chiller. Had the team behind it read Robert Bloch’s novel? Nobody seems to know, but the original treatment for the English film had been penned before Psycho had even been published in America. I’m guessing any similarities were a coincidence.

The City of the Dead has also been compared to another film released in 1960, Mario Bava’s Black Sunday. Yes, that man Bava again. It’s not really in the same league as either Psycho or Black Sunday, but it still makes for a very entertaining watch.

Yes, some of the plot doesn’t quite make sense, though it stands up to far greater scrutiny in that respect than this year’s most successful horror, Us, a film that requires far higher levels of suspension of disbelief than I could muster up.

Despite being made on a budget of £45,000, City of the Dead looks fantastic with cinematographer Desmond Dickinson perfectly evoking the atmosphere of a creepy fog-shrouded village with a very dark secret. Most of the performances are convincing too – although hopefully Lotis was a better singer than an actor – and, even sixty years after it was shot, the film still manages to consistently unsettle.

If you want to hear The Clash song, click here.

Bambi Meets Godzilla: American Indie #6


We all like Bambi, don’t we? And we all like Godzilla too, yeah?

In 1969, a Californian student named Marv Newland came up with the simple but inspired idea of bringing the two of them together in his very first animated short.

He spent two weeks working on the idea and made it for under 300 dollars. That budget, incidentally, didn’t include gaining music clearance from The Beatles for the use of that iconic reverberating piano chord that ends A Day in the Life so stunningly. Newland apparently slowed it down to half its original speed, lending it an even more ominous feel.

Bambi Meets Godzilla would go on to feature on many a supporting bill on the midnight movie/drive-in/university film club circuits back when you didn’t just get awful ads and a bunch of trailers for superhero movies before seeing the film of your choice.

Here it is in full, all one and a half minutes. Enjoy.

Paper Moon (New Waves #12)

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Paper Moon

For a while at the start of the 21st century, Peter Bogdanovich was best known to some as Lorraine Bracco’s shrink Dr Elliot Kupferberg in The Sopranos but in the early 1970s, when he decided to shoot an adaptation of Joe David Brown’s Depression era novel Addie Pray – renamed as Paper Moon – he was a Hollywood A-list director and on a roll.

In 1971, The Last Picture Show received fantastic reviews and gained eight Academy Award nominations, while the following year, he scored a box office smash with his screwball comedy What’s Up, Doc?

Ryan O’Neal, the co-star of the latter film was cast as Moses (Moze) Pray, one of the two central roles in Paper Moon and his real-life daughter Tatum, despite having never acted, was chosen to play nine year old orphan Addie Loggins, who as the film gets underway stands at the graveside of her mother as her funeral draws to a close.

The small gathering of mourners is joined by Moze, who arrives in a noisy jalopy and throws some stolen flowers into the grave. Moses is a low-grade grifter with a certain rascally charm and perhaps a resemblance to the child, although when asked if he is her father, he’s keen to deny it. Despite some major reservations, he agrees to escort Addie to Missouri, so she can go and stay with her aunt, as he is heading in that direction himself.

Paper Moon - Ryan and Tatum O'Neal

And so begins a road movie where you’re never sure if the pair will ever reach their destination. They’re certainly in no real hurry to do so, which is fine as this is a character driven rather than plot driven film and the two leads are both such fun to watch.

First stop on their (mis)adventures is a local grain mill, where Addie overhears Moze threatening the brother of the man who killed her mother in a car accident while drunk with a lawsuit. He accepts $200 to drop the matter.

And then we have a fantastically funny scene in a diner which consists mostly of the precocious and tomboyish Addie asking Moze if he is her father and demanding the two hundred bucks for herself and Moze repeatedly telling her to eat her Coney Island hotdog. He’s evasive as hell and she is one very persistent kid.

Is he her father? Well, that particular question is never answered although I’ve always believed he was, maybe influenced by the fact that he is in real-life. Actually, if Moze isn’t her father then this is one weird movie if you think about it.

Paper Moon - Tatum and Ryan O'Neal

Addie soon discovers and enrols herself into his main scam, which consists of studying obituary pages and then doorstepping the widow of someone recently deceased and claiming their dead husband ordered a ‘deluxe’ edition of the Bible – on which he has already embossed the widow’s name himself – which they are now under no obligation to buy.

Of course, they usually do want to buy it.

Yes, this is highly unethical, but Moze does have a good heart at times. After all he could have refused to help Addie in any way. And those bibles that he sells do appear to provide some comfort to the grieving women.

As for Addie, she might be happy to join in on the scam, but she employs an almost Robin Hood approach, giving away a bible free to a poor looking woman with a gaggle of kids to feed, while doubling the price to an obviously wealthy widow.

Interestingly, she soon proves herself more adept at swindling than Moze and her deviousness also helps engineer a split between Moze and his squeeze, Miss Trixie Delight, an exotic dancer and narcissistic chancer played superbly by Madeline Kahn, who he takes up with briefly around the midpoint of the film.

Paper Moon - Madeline Kahn & Ryan O'Neal

Paper Moon is a joy from beginning to the end and if has any faults then I’ve never noticed them. Okay, it’s not the funniest film ever made but it is maybe the most charming comedy I’ve seen and one of the most consistently amusing.

It’s also beautifully directed by Bogdanovich and with its crisp black and white cinematography it hasn’t seemed to age since the 1970s. The costumes and period detail are always fantastic, but best of all is the acting, although Tatum O’Neal is the one whose performance you will remember long after the end credits have rolled. She absolutely steals the show.

Don’t work with animals or children? Thankfully Bogdanovich never listened to that old show business adage.

Interestingly, the director has spoken about how he would have to bribe her during certain scenes to get her to cooperate with promises of money or new shoes. Apparently she hated the filmmaking process and while I can see how a child really would be bored stupid at times due to the length of setups and number of takes sometimes required on set, I like to think that maybe she was drawing on her onscreen persona at times and practising a little scam on the director herself.

Tatum O’Neal (along with Madeline Kahn) received a Best Supporting Actress nomination at the 46th Academy Awards, and I have no idea why she wasn’t included in the Best Actress category, as she is seldom off the screen. Bogdanovich opens the movie with a close-up of her face for a reason. Happily though she did win the award and is still the youngest actor ever to do so in any competing category.

If you liked Paper Moon, then you might also like Daisy Miller. Then again, you might not.

In Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, the author claimed that Bogdanovich carried around rave reviews of Paper Moon in his pockets.

Life was good. Not only was he one of the most highly regarded young directors in Hollywood but he also was in a relationship with Cybill Shepherd, the radiant star of The Last Picture Show.

He cast her again in his follow-up to Paper Moon, 1974’s Daisy Miller.

Cybill Shepherd - Daisy Miller

Based on Henry James’ novella of the same name, this time round I doubt he would want to carry any reviews on his person, although Vincent Canby in The New York Times was a rare supporter of the film.

Branded a ‘dud’, with Shepherd mercilessly lambasted for her performance, Daisy Miller was also a commercial flop. In a Director’s Guild interview, Bogdanovich later admitted: ‘I remember watching dailies of Daisy Miller in Rome or Switzerland and thinking to myself, saying out loud, “This is beautiful, but I don’t know who’s going to want to see it.” And boy, was I right.’

He would go on to make more very good films such as Saint Jack and Texasville, but never anything as acclaimed as The Last Picture Show or quite as perfect as Paper Moon.


The above piece is a revised and expanded version of a review I wrote for Louder Than War for the Eureka Masters of Cinema dual format release of Paper Moon in 2015.

Sex & Blood & Rock ‘n’ Roll: Suck (Soundtrack Sundays)

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Suck (2009)

I picked up a copy of Suck yesterday in a local charity shop. It’s one of these films that I’ve been afraid to watch up until now – not because vampire movies ever scare me but because I’m an Iggy Pop fan and when critics bothered to review Suck they tended to put the boot in. In short, most of them thought the film sucked. Hopefully, Iggy wasn’t part of a cringeworthy failure.

Time to pour myself a glass of Eldorado and stick the disc in my blu-ray player. Or, to put it another way, it’s time to suck it and see.

First seen at the 2009 at the Toronto International Film Festival, Suck is a Canadian music comedy/vampire/road movie/love story with a little stop motion animation thrown into the mix too. It was written and directed by Rob Stefaniuk, who also stars as Joey, the leader of The Winners, a band who in the ten years or so of their existence have failed to make much of an impact in the world of rock. Yes, their name is ironic.

Now they’re on the verge of splitting up and even their manager advises them to fire him in their best interests. He reckons they’re getting too long in the tooth, geddit?

That same night, bassist Jennifer (Jessica Paré), falls prey to Queeny, a mysterious vampire who looks like a cross between Marilyn Manson and the Mad Hatter. She becomes one of the undead, and acquires an icy and alluring charisma that immediately attracts attention whenever she’s onstage. And not only from newfound fans but also Eddie Van Helsing, a hopeless vampire hunter who’s afraid of the dark, played by Malcolm McDowell.

Could the band be about to finally achieve their dream of stardom?

Jessica Pare - Suck

Suck is maybe most notable for the famous musicians in the cast. In addition to Iggy, there’s roles for Alice Cooper (hooray), Moby (boo), and Henry Rollins (meh).

And if by any chance you’ve been wondering who America’s most gnarled rocker is, after seeing this you’ll likely agree that Iggy just edges it over Alice – and he proves how indestructible he is when, even after he’s had his throat slashed, his veins can still be seen visibly pulsing as he lies on the ground dead. Okay, that is probably just a production gaff.


So, what of the music on the soundtrack?

Well, there’s snippets of David Bowie’s cover of Here Comes the Night, Oh! Sweet Nuthin’ by The Velvet Underground and Iggy’s Success, none of them used very imaginatively. And then there’s plenty of music from The Winners. Most of this is generic fictional movie indie rock band tracks which didn’t leave much of an impression on me, but then something strange happened. I kinda fell in love with one of their songs.

So Close It Hurts is entirely atypical of the kind of thing The Winners generally play and if I’d came across this without knowing anything about it, I’d maybe have imagined some obscure Power Pop act from some place like Providence, Rhode Island, who once supported The Cars in 1978. They would be called something like The Harmonies. Or The Pleasures. Well, Power Pop acts did tend to give themselves the most bog standard of names, didn’t they? Actually The Winners might have been an ideal name.

Written by Rob Stefaniuk and John Kastner and performed by Rob Stefaniuk, John Kastner, Chris Phillips, Mathias Schneeberger, Tomas D’Arcy, this is So Close It Hurts (with added lyrics and other distractions by the uploader):

You may have picked up on the hommage to the cover of Electric Warrior at the end of that video, which is maybe a reference to Marc Bolan who on that album’s best track Jeepster, sang: ‘I’m just a vampire for your love / And I’m gonna suck you.’ It’s not the only hommage to a classic album cover, so if you decide to watch Suck, look out for the others.

The verdict?

Suck doesn’t take itself remotely seriously and doesn’t overstay its welcome either. It’s better than I expected, albeit I obviously had fairly low expectations beforehand and more than one glass of Eldorado during its runtime. Iggy and Alice both give creditable enough performances and I did laugh a couple of times, although some of the comedy fell flat.

A fun watch for a Friday night when you’ve got nothing else on.

Trivia: If you’re wondering how such a low-budget movie managed to de-age Malcolm McDowell so convincingly, then here’s yer answer. Footage of him from Lindsay Anderson’s 1973 film O Lucky Man! was spliced in through the use of CGI.