I'm never really sure precisely what I think of John Carpenter. One of the few directors to be possessed of both a flair for genuinely nightmarish imagery and, when the mood takes him, the rare ability to direct intelligent yet wildly entertaining popcorn capers, Carpenter has made a handful of films for which I and great many other people hold in deep affection – Assault on Precinct 13, Prince of Darkness, In the Mouth of Madness, each a well-constructed jaunt through an entirely sui generis terrain of outlandishness and menace – and one, The Thing, which skirts close to perfection and remains (alongside David Cronenberg’s 1986 The Fly) the gold standard of the horror remake. So it is with no small degree of trepidation, when enthusing with similarly-minded film fans, that I’m required to broach the subject of Halloween – the director’s hugely influential 1978 masked killer pic – and mumblingly reveal that, actually, I slightly prefer Rob Zombie’s maligned 2007 remake.
As I lie here in my own bed in the dead of night, wide awake, writing this on my phone, it occurs to me that it’s no surprise that I and other night-time souls like myself have always been drawn to Frankenstein. It’s easy to forget that the novel is effectively set entirely in the dark, with Victor Frankenstein relaying all he has to tell to the story’s narrator from a schooner stranded in the wastelands of the Canadian Arctic under a polar night sky. But there’s also an elemental simplicity to the story – essentially that of an artist, as Shelley refers to Frankenstein, fearful of what it is he creates – which feels murkily profound, particularly when it’s night and the rest of the world is safely asleep. At times such as these it often seems as though dreaming is mandatory, a nocturnal prerequisite regardless of whether one is sleeping or awake: something in the imaginations of those left behind comes to life and begins to roam, shading in the blankness of the surrounding night, picking out horrors. Just ask Mary Shelley.
I've a new essay up at The Learned Pig. It's titled 'Before the Beginning' and is about insomnia, volcanoes and the origins of Frankenstein.
You can read it here.
The third in a loose trilogy of films from the great Lindsay Anderson which set out to satirise Britain’s dominant institutions – education in If…. (1968), the justice system in O Lucky Man! (1973) – Britannia Hospital’s focal target, as the title implies, would appear to be the NHS. In truth however, Anderson and scriptwriter David Sherwin are very much in scattergun mode here: the plot, such as it is, incorporates workers, unions and protestors, all of whom wander into their crosshairs as much as the establishment, the bureaucrats and the media.
Malcolm McDowell reprises his role of Mick Travis from the previous two films, here an investigative reporter, probing rumours of illicit medical research taking place at the titular hospital. Simultaneously, a new wing of the hospital due to be opened by the Queen Mother has attracted a horde of demonstrators, protesting the VIP treatment of an African dictator who, it’s reported, is also a cannibal. Soon HRH shows up with an entourage which includes a dwarf and a man in drag, the experiments of Professor Millar (Graham Crowden in all his barking, megalomanic glory) begin to go awry, and a reanimated headless corpse is on the loose.
If this sounds like there’s an awful lot going on, that’s because there is. A good deal of the absurdity at play in Britannia Hospital is down to the fact that the film is crowded not just with a Boschian roster of characters and overlapping storylines but also with endless styles and registers, carrying echoes of Fellini and Resnais one moment, a dated Carry On knock-off and a rickety 1970’s Dr Who adventure the next.
Accordingly, Britannia Hospital was panned on release and swiftly forgotten, presumably having failed to live up to the other two ‘Mick Travis’ films, both of which owe their success to the spiky turns from their magnetic star. McDowell’s character is here just one among many, but Britannia Hospital’s chief pleasure is how its comprehensively gloomy (yet entirely bonkers) assessment of British society relies on a formidable comic talent, with reliably elegant performances from Leonard Rossiter, Joan Plowright, Fulton Mackay and Arthur Lowe amongst a great many others from the 70’s sitcom stable. The film’s real knockout moment however is its final scene, one which remains as affecting as it is prescient, with Crowden unveiling to a packed auditorium The Genesis Project the unconscionable fruits of his research and a nightmarish glimpse into a future which now seems uncannily close to our present.
Here, like In the Mouth of Madness, is another film which perhaps doesn’t quite qualify as ‘underrated’ as such. But still, although it has developed something of a lofty film-buff appreciation (I'm not sure 'fondness' is quite the right word), The Postman Always Rings Twice, Bob Rafelson’s grubby 1981 remake of the much loved 1946 noir touchstone, remains a hard sell.
Set amid the torrid rustlands of Depression-era California, Jack Nicholson plays Frank, a drifter who stops at a backwater diner run by the miserable Cora (Jessica Lange) and Nick, her ebullient but controlling older husband (a scenery-chomping John Colicos). Almost immediately Frank and Cora embark on a charged, physical affair which swiftly escalates into a scheme to murder Nick.
Postman is one of those films which is far from perfect but it’s a challenge to find fault with any single aspect of what’s onscreen. As well as beguiling performances from Lange and Nicholson, there is a spare script by David Mamet (his first for the screen), and stifling photography from Ingmar Bergman favourite Sven Nykvist. The film serves as an interesting companion piece to Five Easy Pieces, perhaps the best of Rafelson’s six collaborations with Nicholson, the actor’s first starring role and another examination of the emotional and existential dynamics of blue-collar down-and-outs.
The initial response to Postman was underwhelming. Roger Ebert found the explicitness and sheer abundance of sexual encounters between the two central characters overbearing, draining them of any nuanced interiority, their motives reduced to little beyond the animal. With a degree of hindsight, however, this is precisely what gives Postman its edge, the protagonists’ nihilistic primal urges, played out amid an atmosphere of stifling desperation, as compelling as they are repellent.
Hollywood in the 1980’s and early 90's would come to be littered with erotic thrillers, but few are possessed of the grime, squalour and authenticity which assails the viewer here.
On each date at Tiger Spring I would go through the pretence of reading the menu before selecting the same dish. And I’d give each woman the same spiel about how this place was a hidden gem, how the chef here was a genius, how although it didn’t look much the food was world class. All lies, of course – their food is average, any real culinary quality entirely serendipitous – but most of them couldn’t tell, even after the food arrived.
I have a short story titled ‘Bait’ in the latest issue of Cōnfingō magazine.
You can buy a copy here.
For all the Lovecraftian schlock and rubber monster japery that follows, it’s this self-narrating component which distinguishes In the Mouth of Madness, at times pulling the film into Dennis Potter country. ‘Cane’s writing me,’ Styles tells Trent during a botched getaway. ‘He wants me to kiss you. It’s good for the book.’ This combination of B-movie fun and dizzying meta-fiction makes the film something of a companion piece to Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, another mid-90's tale of lowbrow storytelling intruding onto the everyday. I’d hazard it’s also one of the reasons why the film, although critically panned in the U.S. on its original release (‘a really bad movie’ was how The Washington Post summed it up), was relatively well received in Europe with Cahiers du Cinéma even going so far as to list it as one of 1995’s best films.
I was recently asked by The Quietus to pick a film which I thought underrated and write a short piece about it. You can read the full feature here.
[Minor errata: as you can see, I chose John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness. In hindsight, I’m not sure Mouth is all that underrated per se. It has had its vocal fans, including a number of professional critics, and – as often seems to be the case with once-maligned horror films – has attained a strong cult standing. In other words, it’s a film which has its audience. Prince of Darkness (1987) – a quieter, smaller-budget affair, lost between the action-fantasy bluster of Big Trouble in Little China (1986) and They Live (1988) – would perhaps be a more deserving candidate from Carpenter’s back-catalogue for the title of Most Underrated.]