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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

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.

 

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.

Best Films of 2019 (Part One)

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Goodbye 2010s, a cinematic decade where the conveyor belt of superheroes and sequels have clogged up multiplexes like never before.

Anyone who is naive enough to think that cinema audiences have not grown more conservative over recent decades, should have a look at IMDb’s Highest Grossing Films of the Decade List.

Here’s the top ten worldwide: Avengers: Endgame; Star Wars: The Force Awakens; Avengers: Infinity War; Jurassic World; The Lion King; The Avengers; Furious 7; Avengers: Age of Ultron; Black Panther and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2.

Disney produced seven of those ten and only two other companies (Universal and Warner Bros.) are represented. By my counting, of the top 50 highest grossing films, only four were not remakes, sequels or parts of a franchise.Frozen, Zootopia, The Secret Life of Pets and Bohemian Rhapsody being the exceptions.

Frozen and The Secret Life of Pets have since become franchises and a Zootopia sequel will appear next year. No surprises there. Such is the lack of originality in Hollywood that it wasn’t even much of a surprise when rumours emerged last spring about a Bohemian Rhapsody 2.

Luckily, plenty of very good films are still being made and 2019 saw its fair share of triumphs (including one from the decade’s 50 highest grossing list). Here are the first ten of my twenty favourites.

Best Films of the Year - Part One

20. The Souvenir
Honor Swinton Byrne made her acting debut in Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir and Honor Swinton Byrne is a name you’ll be hearing a lot more of in the future. The daughter of Tilda Swinton (who also plays her mother here) and playwright and artist John Byrne, she plays Julie, a posho film school student who wants to make a film about a working-class boy in Sunderland obsessed with the idea of his mum dying. It’s likely a misjudged idea but not as misjudged as her relationship with Anthony (an equally excellent Tom Burke).

19. Samurai Marathon
A highlight of this year’s Edinburgh Film Festival, Samurai Marathon is inspired by a real-life race that continues in Japan to this day. There’s fantastic action, humour, and Philip Glass supplies one of the year’s finest scores.

18. Crawl
Haley Kelley (played by Kaya Scodelario) is a competitive swimmer, a very good one, and her skills will prove very handy during the course of Crawl, a movie that Quentin Tarantino touted as one of his favourites of 2019.

Set in Florida during a Category 5 hurricane, Haley goes in search of her missing father. She finds him in the giant basement of their former family home, which has become the residence of some very unwelcome guests in the shape of a congregation of alligators. He’s trapped and one or more of the ‘gators have dined on a chunk of his leg.

Don’t ask why they didn’t finish him off. Crawl veers towards the daft regularly but it is a film that grips right up to its climax. Great B-movie viewing.

17. Lords of Chaos
A film about Scandi black metal band Mayhem starring the younger brother of Macaulay Culkin might not sound very promising but this is a blast from start to finish. Mayhem by name, mayhem by nature. Expect murder, devil worship, suicide, cannibalism and church burnings.

16. Hail Satan?
Keeping up the Satanic panic here. This documentary proved that Satanists appear to have a better sense of humour than the members of any mainstream religions. Many appear to be pranksters. Some are maybe more accurately described as attention seekers, and a small minority take it far too seriously.

15. Her Smell

The band Something She opens Her Smell with a version of The Only Ones’ Another Girl, Another Planet that fails in every way to match the sheer brio of the original. Luckily, the music here isn’t the movie’s strongpoint.

That’ll be Elisabeth Moss. Her turn as Becky Something, a batshit crazy, manipulating and ultimately tragic egomaniac who wrecks emotional havoc wherever she goes is up there with the best of the year.

14. Marriage Story
You’ve likely already read about the superlative performances of Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson but Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, and Alan Alda are all very deserving of praise too as the three lawyers they employ.

A suggestion, if you liked this then go seek out Baumbach’s earlier The Squid and the Whale, another tale that deals with divorce, albeit from a different perspective. I’ll be in a minority, but I reckon it’s the better film of the two.

13. Monos
If asked to conjure up atmosphere and essence of Monos, I could only point you in the ballpark direction of Werner Herzog directing Lord of the Flies or Alejandro Jodorowsky remaking Apocalypse Now. Mica Lev­i’s inventive percus­sive score is the perfect accompaniment to this visually striking film by Alejandro Landes.

Premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, where it lifted the World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award, Monos has since been selected as the official Colombian entry for the Best International Feature Film at the 92nd Academy Awards.

12. Pain and Glory
A semi-autobiographical work, this tells the story of a gay Spanish filmmaker with a long list of health issues, who has stopped working and begun thinking more and more about his past. It may lack the flamboyance of Pedro Almodóvar’s earlier work but it lures you in slowly, then won’t let you go until the very last frame.

It debuted at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, where it competed for the Palme d’Or, while Banderas won the festival’s award for Best Actor. Pain and Glory was chosen by a poll of Time magazine critics as the best film of the year.

11. The Lighthouse
I’d always assumed that living and working in a lighthouse might be an ideal job. Fantastic views, crisp sea air and likely not too much hard graft.

Not if your boss is Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe). Here a day’s work is back-breaking. The food is rank. Gulls squawk incessantly. Wake farts pretty much incessantly. It would be enough to drive you crazy.

Last year a Dafoe film, At Eternity’s Gate featured on my Best Of list, while in 2017, The Florida Project also put in an appearance. Is Dafoe America’s most under-rated actor. He might just be.

Best Film Reissues 2019

Here’s some 2019 reissues I’d like to recommend too:

Stranger Than Paradise (Criterion); Three Films with Sammo Hung (Eureka); Coming Home (Eureka); The Protector (88 Films); The African Queen (Eureka); Legend of the Witches (BFI); The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire (Arrow) and That’ll Be The Day / Stardust (Studio Canal).

The Return of Tracy Hyde: The Orchard End Murder

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Tracy Hyde in Orchard End Murder 1980

Previously on For Malcontents Only, I featured the movie Melody (alternatively known as S.W.A.L.K), a British film from 1971 that Wes Anderson took as inspiration for Moonrise Kingdom. The titular Melody was played by Tracy Hyde and the post gave me the chance to reference The Wondermints’ gorgeous tribute track Tracy Hide (yes, that’s the correct spelling), more on which later. In the course of the post, I mentioned that I hadn’t yet seen 1981’s The Orchard End Murder which Tracy starred in, but intended to seek it out.

And now I have.

This is a drama that clocks in at an awkward length, too long to be a short and too short to be a feature. It lasts just under fifty minutes and so the best it could hope for was to find distribution as a B-film in Britain.

GTO Films, an offshoot of GTO Records, which started out by financing a couple of glam rock related cheapies, Never Too Young to Rock and Side by Side picked up on it. They successfully managed to place it on the bill with several longer movies, namely Dead and Buried, a 1981 chiller, crime film The Hit and even Nightmare on Elm Street.

The film kicks off with a crane shot of a cricket match being played on an idyllic village green bordered by an apple orchard. The camera slowly drifts across a road towards a zippy wee red sports car parked in the middle of the orchard and onto a young couple kissing on the grass. And then onto a creep spying on them.

This was shot by Peter Jessop, who collaborated frequently with Pete Walker on movies like Frightmare and House of Whipcord, and also even joined the crew of Jamaica’s first ever full length film in 1972, midnight movie favourite The Harder They Come.

His camerawork is very impressive throughout The Orchard End Murder and might just be the best thing about it.

It definitely isn’t the script.

The Orchard End Murder X

Okay, Pauline Cox (Tracy Hyde) is a 22 year old from Sidcup who takes up the offer of watching her potential new boyfriend Michael (Mark Hardy) play cricket in the Kent countryside. Believe me, I would have definitely have suggested something more exciting myself.

It’s 1966, though apart from Pauline’s leyline dress and Mary Quant hair, director Christian Marnham does little to evoke the period.

Unlike Ray Davies, Pauline doesn’t remotely love the village green. Bored senseless with men aiming balls at wickets – and I can relate to that – she wanders off, coming across the cottage of an eccentric stationmaster (Bill Wallis) whose garden is decorated by garden gnomes, one of which bears a striking resemblance to him.

He invites her in for some tea, and she agrees to join him.

Tracy_Hyde_Orchard_End_Murder_still

The garden gnome lookalike talks in cliches and the pair engage in some small talk. Their little tête-à-tête comes to an abrupt end with the arrival of hulking and dim-witted Ewen (played by Clive Mantle in his first screen role). He certainly knows how to make an entrance. With a manic glint in his eyes, he stands holding a large white rabbit, which Pauline takes a fancy to.

Suddenly, he slams the poor creature’s head down onto the table, killing it in an instant. He produces a scary looking knife. Outside he skins the dead animal and Pauline finally shows some sense by making her excuses and leaving. Maybe watching cricket wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

And wasn’t Ewen the one spying on Pauline and Mark earlier?

Distraught, she rushes through the orchard, comes across an unseen angry dog, and then bumps into an apologetic Ewen, who in the meantime has filled a fancy basket with apples for her. Quick work.

Clive Mantle and Tracy Hyde

The pair begin picking more apples and soon they’re kissing, a scenario that is just plain dumb to the point of absolute unbelievability. This is a shame as before too long there’s a very disturbing scene set against piles of rotting apples with both actors performing admirably.

In an accompanying feature on the BFI release, Marnham claims the film is a black comedy. ‘It’s intended to be amusing.’

I can’t say I thought of it in this way as I watched. At no time did I remotely feel like laughing. Yes, the station master’s character could be seen as having something in common with some of the League of Gentlemen regulars but the whole harrowing murder sequence was filmed too realistically for the rest of the story to hold any comedic value for me.

As the credits roll, the usual disclaimer proclaims ‘The story, events and persons portrayed in this production are fictitious, and any similarity between anyone living or dead is purely coincidental’. Yeah sure, the characters may be invented, but the story is based on a real-life murder of a young woman in the South of England some years earlier. A fact that makes the idea of comedy in connection with it even more distasteful.

In conclusion, this isn’t one that I’d recommend, albeit it’s an interesting enough watch if you’re keen on obscure British dramas of the time.

As for Tracy Hyde, I get the feeling she never desperately attempted to pursue a long and sustained career in acting. She did appear in a number of TV series in the 1980s like Dempsey and Makepeace and The Bill, but she dropped out of acting before the dawn of the 1990s and apparently now runs her own business.

She’s interviewed in the BFI Orchard End Murder release but the only time in recent years that she has appeared publically – as far as I can tell – was at a celebrity autograph convention in Blackpool in 2015.

Tracy Hyde Orchard End Murder photo

For more on the film click here.

I’ve only belatedly found out about the death of Nicky Wonder (Nick Walusko), a founding member of The Wondermints, an act who also frequently acted as part of Brian Wilson’s backing band. Wonder died on the sixth of August and Wilson praised him as ‘my favourite guitar player ever’.

He formed The Wondermints with Darian Sahanaja in 1992, after they’d bonded over their love of Smile and Brian Wilson in general. As John M. Borack puts it in his book Shake Some Action: ‘The [Wondermints’] Beach Boys influence is particularly up-front on Tracy Hide, a comely, almost ethereal ballad whose evocative lyrics and sweet, sweet melody are both kissed with longing; it’s sure to make any fan of wispy ’60s pop smiley smile.’

The song first appeared on their eponymous debut album of 1996 although I reckon this (cover) version – which appears on Wonderful World of The Wondermints – is even more hauntingly beautiful. See what you think.

Finally, a recent release from Japanese band For Tracy Hyde, who claim to have taken their name from The Wondermints’ song rather then the actress, despite the spelling of their name.

This is 櫻の園, and just as Tracy Hide evokes The Beach Boys at their baroque best, this recently released song displays a distinct late period Cocteau Twins feel.

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.’

Christopher_Lee_The_City_of_the_Dead.png

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.

Isaac Hayes: Theme From Shaft (Soundtrack Sundays)

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Shaft (1971)

Who’s the cat that won’t cop out when there’s danger all about?

John Shaft? Damn right.

Gordon Parks’ Shaft was a very important movie. A game changer even.

In an era of Black Panther and when 007 is supposedly about to morph into a black woman, it might be difficult to appreciate the impact that Shaft made on popular culture in 1971. Here was the first American action film from a major studio with a black man in the lead role. It received some great reviews and proved to be box-office gold. According to Time, it was made on a budget of only $500,000 but grossed $13 million.

This success encouraged other big studios, and independent production companies to grab their own slice of blaxploitation action.

Some have claimed that Shaft isn’t strictly blaxploitation as the Shaft novel that it is based on was written by a white man Ernest Tidyman with the character of Shaft in that being white too. The film’s director, though, was black. Its lead actor was black, and the man who composed its legendary score was also black. Not only that but the man who helped Tidyman write the screenplay was John D.F. Black.

Okay, he was white.

In Britain, cop and detective films and shows tend to kick off with some awful aural wallpaper that almost seems to tell us not to get our hopes up too high, nothing very exciting is gonna happen here.

Shaft opens in the middle of NYC. Skyscrapers. Bustling streets. Noise. One man emerges from the subway. This is, of course, Shaft and within seconds we realise that he’s a superfly guy, strutting between cars on 42nd Street as if fear was a concept that was alien to him.

Richard Roundtree as Shaft

Even better is the music accompanying this with Bar-Kay Willie Hall’s distinctive hi-hats and Charles Pitt’s chikka-chikka-wacka wah-wah, maybe the funkiest little riff ever recorded. And then those swirling symphonic soul strings!

Isaac Hayes’ Theme From Shaft is a masterpiece. The sound of an American metropolis, bursting with vitality and modernity. Danger lies ahead and plenty of thrills are surely guaranteed.

Arguably this is the finest theme song of the 1970s, and also arguably the best track Stax ever released. It reached number one in America for a couple of weeks at the tail end of 1971 and won the 1972 Academy Award for Best Original Song.

Shaft without the theme tune just wouldn’t be as good. The plot is a fairly standard hardboiled detective story involving a turf war between some black criminals based in Harlem and the Italian Mafia, which results in a kidnapping of one crime lord’s daughter and Shaft being tasked to find her.

Too black for the force, too blue for his brothers, Shaft operates between both sides of the law. He’s highly likeable, but he also has his faults. Despite having a girlfriend, he picks up and sleeps with a woman who he meets in a Greenwich Village bar. As she later puts it: ‘You’re pretty good in the sack, but you’re pretty shitty afterwards. You know that?’

Shaft with Gun

Shaft is also a fascinating time capsule of New York as the 1970s are getting underway – from the cinema billboard advertising Get Carter (another film with a cracking theme song) and a poster announcing a Four Tops concert to those sharp sideburns, moustache, and tan leather coat worn by Shaft. And Richard Roundtree is just about perfect as the eponymous hero.

Its success persuaded ailing studio MGM to knock out a couple of quick sequels, Shaft’s Big Score! (1972), and Shaft in Africa (1973). By the time the latter was released, the blaxploitation floodgates had truly opened, with a raft of movies playing theatres, drive-ins and grindhouses across America every night of every week.

Some of these movies like Superfly and Coffy were terrific watches. Others like Blackenstein and Disco Godfather were rank rotten with 1974’s Three Tough Guys and Truck Turner (both scored and starring Isaac Hayes) somewhere in between.

In October 1973, Shaft became a CBS TV series. Compared to the movies, this was a toned down Shaft. No longer any kind of renegade, Shaft was now happily co-operating with cops. The violence was toned down and the bad language disappeared. Predictably, with nearly all the things that fans liked about the films gone, the series didn’t last long. And that looked to be the end of Shaft.

On paper, Shaft 2000 must have looked like a wonderful idea. Name of a fondly remembered, iconic film? Tick. Classic theme tune? Tick. Box office actor that could have been born to play the lead? Make that another tick.

In reality, there’s little reason for this using the Shaft name for this John Singleton directed movie, other than to trade in on the brand and re-use the music. Okay, Richard Roundtree notches up a few minute’s screentime to provide some continuity, the idea being that he is the uncle and mentor of sorts to Samuel L’s Shaft II, a NYPD detective. Uncle Shaft is hardly essential to the plot, though, albeit it’s always nice to see Roundtree onscreen.

I’m guessing that if, a poll was conducted at the start of our new century to find out who the public considered the coolest man alive, then Sam L might well have topped that poll. He demonstrates his charisma here, but the dialogue is never Tarantino sharp and he struggles to match the magnetism of his persona in Pulp Fiction. Not only that, but he just isn’t as cool as Richard Roundtree in the original.

Roundtree & Jackson

The plot tries to be ultra-smart but is often pretty dumb. It revolves around racist rich kid Walter Wade (Christian Bale channeling some of the obnoxiousness of American Psycho‘s Patrick Bateman) killing a young black man and Diane Palmieri (Toni Collette), who witnesses the murder but denies having done so. She really should have checked the giant mirror in the bar where she works to see if she had wiped all the blood from her face, or Shaft might not have known she was lying about not seeing anything.

Soon any traces of believability vanish as we’re introduced to Latino crime boss Peeples, a caricature bad guy, surrounded by cartoonish idiots.

By the hour mark, I was growing bored. There are few things more tedious than gun fight after gun fight unless someone as gifted as John Woo is choreographing the shootouts and Singleton is no Woo. Even worse are the ‘twists’, such as when female cop Vanessa Williams reappears after being seemingly shot dead. Did anyone in any audience in the world not see that coming?

Don’t expect subtlety and definitely don’t expect character arcs. Like his uncle, this John Shaft is a sex machine with all the chicks: smart, charismatic, heroic with badass patter that no criminal can compete with. He’s flawless when we first see him and flawless when we’re again treated to some of Isaac Hayes’ classic (and re-recorded) theme as the closing credits kick in. Followed by some R. Kelly dirge.

This is a dumbed down Shaft, made for the wrong reasons and lacking the grit and the charm of the original.

Shaft 2000

My original plan for this post had been to go and see the latest instalment of the franchise which features John Shaft, John Shaft II and his son John ‘JJ’ Shaft Jr, an FBI agent. On finding out that this was even more comedic in tone than the 2000 version, I couldn’t muster up the necessary enthusiasm to go see it.

Why reward Hollywood for lazily dishing up stale reboots and uninspired remakes and sequels? And while I’m not very interested in James Bond – the last time I paid into to see 007, Roger Moore was jumping over crocodiles – maybe the producers of Bond 25 should ask themselves what are the benefits for fans of that franchise in taking out what the character has always been about?

Getting back to Isaac Hayes and that 1971 soundtrack, here’s the Black Moses live at 1972’s Wattstax Festival. Dig that psychedelic pimp cape and chain mail vest!

For more on the recently released deluxe Shaft soundtrack, click here.

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