Sunday, 10 December 2017

The Omen

Although a predominantly American made film the Wyrd Britain credentials of The Omen are impeccable with it boasting a mostly UK setting, a cast consisting of some of Britain's finest character actors and a story with the legacy of the Hammer and Amicus studios right at it's core.

Originally released in the UK, on the 6th day of the 6th month in nineteen seventy 6 which almost manages to be spooky whilst simultaneously failing spectacularly, 'The Omen' went on to be one of the biggest grossing films of the year spawning several sequels of decreasing merit and a remake.

The story tells of the birth and childhood of the Antichrist, Damien Thorn, the 'son' of the US ambassador to the UK (Gregory Peck) and his wife (Lee Remick) and the various incidents and accidents that plague them.

Directed by Richard Donner (who would go on to make Superman two years later) and with a timeless, Academy Award winning score by Jerry Goldsmith (I'm sure most everyone reading this can sing at least a 'do-be, do-be-do' version of  his 'Ave Satani' piece) the movie also features a stunning ensemble of actors including David Warner as doomed photographer Keith Jennings, Patrick Troughton as doomed priest Father Brennan, Leo McKern as the not quite doomed yet but soon archaeologist Carl Bugenhagen, Holly (daughter of Jack) Palance as Damian's doomed nanny and Billie Whitelaw as her evil - and doomed - replacement.

I suspect in many ways 'The Omen' was intended to ride the coat-tails of 'The Exorcist' which, following it's release at the very end of 1973, had gone on to global success and notoriety but the end result is very much a film which has deservedly become a horror classic in it's own right.

Buy it here - The Omen [DVD] [1976] - or watch it below.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

The Small Hand

Susan Hill
Profile Books

Returning home from a client visit late one evening, Adam Snow takes a wrong turn and stumbles across the derelict old White House. Compelled by curiosity he decides to enter, only to be repelled when he feels the unmistakable sensation of a small hand creeping onto his own. This is just the beginning of a series of odd experiences.

This is the third of these lovely little pocket books of Hills that I've read and again it's a solid, if uninspiring, read.

Hill has a very easy style, she constructs her stories with a measured and stealthy pace filled with incidentals and asides that coach you along and draw you into the mundane as the extraordinary builds around you. Her menace, here is the impression of a young child's hand holding that of our protagonist, is subtle and both moving and disquieting and the intensity of the experience builds in a claustrophobic swirl until...well...until it all peters out and you're left wondering if that's all there is.

It isn't, quite, there is a coda to the story that attempts to give the whole thing a tragic 'Woman in Black' style ending but by then it's too late as any feelings of trepidation and discomfort have fallen away and you're merely reading to the end.

Buy it here - The Small Hand (The Susan Hill Collection)

Sunday, 3 December 2017

Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny & Girly

Every now and again a film or a TV show turns up and you wonder how on Earth you've managed to have never even heard of it let alone watched it even though it's got the most eye catching of titles.  Last week when I was writing the blog for 'The Blood Beast Terror' I spotted this curious looking little gem listed on Vanessa Howard's wiki page.  Now, when I see a title like that I've just got to know more which is a habit that's led me down some curious rabbit holes and this is definitely a curious rabbit hole.

Mumsy (Ursula Howells - Dr Terror's House of Horror, Torture Garden), Nanny (Pat Heywood - 10 Rillington Place), Sonny (Howard Trevor) and Girly (Vanessa Howard) are a happy - if slightly bonkers and a little bit murdery - family living in a large old house where they play 'the game' which involves Sonny and Girly going out into the wider world and luring men back to the house so they can play too or be 'sent to the angels'.  When they choose a male prostitute (Michael Bryant - The Stone Tape) to be their 'New Friend'they've possibly bitten off more than they realise as he soon starts to play the game to his own advantage.

Directed by Freddie Francis, who had made his name as a cinematographer on films such as 'The Innocents' (and later on 'The Elephant Man' and 'Dune') and as a director for Hammer and Amicus studios on films such as 'Dracula Has Risen From the Grave', 'Dr Terror's House of Horror' and Tales From the Crypt' what we have here is a beautiful looking piece of cinema.  A wonderfully odd and unsympathetically bleak comedy made with complete artistic control by a director with an eye for the unusual, the visually striking and the beautiful all of which would explain his later working relationship with David Lynch.

With a script based on a play - 'Happy Family' by Maisie Mosco - it is, at times, a faintly static and talky affair - at one point while watching it my partner who was sat across the room asked me if I was watching a play - and the strong cast have all dialled their performances up to the max but this is Howard's movie and she skips, pouts, gurns, giggles, sings, shrieks, flutters and flounces about the screen, dominating it by playing Girly as a lost child, a coquettish nymphet and as the deranged psychopath she obviously is.

Buy it here - Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly - Digitally Remastered [DVD] [1970] - or watch it below.

Friday, 1 December 2017

The Drought

J.G. Ballard
Triad Granada

The world is threatened by dramatic climate change in this highly acclaimed and influential novel, one of the most important early works by the bestselling author of 'Cocaine Nights' and 'Super-Cannes'. Water. Man's most precious commodity is a luxury of the past. Radioactive waste from years of industrial dumping has caused the sea to form a protective skin strong enough to devastate the Earth it once sustained. And while the remorseless sun beats down on the dying land, civilisation itself begins to crack. Violence erupts and insanity reigns as the remnants of mankind struggle for survival in a worldwide desert of despair.

I've read one and a bit Ballards before this, a novella called 'Running Wild' and an aborted attempt at an audiobook version of 'The Drowned World' which I didn't take to or rather I didn't take to the reader.  Recently though two events coincided, I finally got round to watching 'High Rise' and then two days later I stumbled across a huge stack of his books in a charity shop.  Of them all this is the one that spoke loudest to me and so I dove straight in.

In contrast to that previous novel here it's lack of water that's the problem as the worlds oceans have, as a result of pollution, acquired a 'skin' which retards rainfall and causes an apocalyptic worldwide drought.  Through this increasingly parched world we follow Dr Charles Ransom as he drifts from his home to the coast and back again.  Along the way we meet various eccentrics all of whom adapt to the increasingly brutal world in their own idiosyncratic ways.  In many ways I was reminded of the oddball Spike Milligan movie 'The Bed Sitting Room' as a cast of larger than life characters pantomime the creations of their new, flawed and doomed societies amidst the salty bones of the old one.

It made for a fascinating read.  I found myself losing track of the characters occasionally and the plot is thin to say the least but this is very much a character piece and watching the cold and detached Ransom retain his self in the face of the violent, the venal and the insane in a brutal new world was compelling.

Buy it here -  The Drought

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

The Hanging Tree

Ben Aaronovitch

The Hanging Tree was the Tyburn gallows which stood where Marble Arch stands today. Oxford Street was the last trip of the condemned. Some things don't change. The place has a bloody and haunted legacy and now blood has returned to the empty Mayfair mansions of the world's super-rich. And blood mixed with magic is a job for Peter Grant.
Peter Grant is back as are Nightingale et al. at the Folly and the various river gods, ghosts and spirits who attach themselves to England's last wizard and the Met's reluctant investigator of all things supernatural.

We are well into the story of Peter Grant, magic copper, and his various colleagues, both mundane and magical, and his friends and family, both ditto and ditto, and I find myself enjoying them more and more with each book.

After the previous book's sojourn into the countryside - and other place - we're back in London and hot on the trail of Lesley and the Faceless Man as Peter is called in by Beverley's elder sister, Tyburn, to get her daughter out of a pickle following a death at a party.  Investigations soon expose another aspect of the magical world and lead Peter and Nightingale in a most interesting direction.

As is ever the case with these 'Rivers of London' books Aaronovitch ladles the police procedures on - just cause Peter can conjure a water balloon doesn't excuse him from report writing and the chain of command or Latin homework for that matter.

Within all this the story is tight and fluid.  There is little time for the chilling out at the Folly we often see which is a shame as I really like those bits.  What takes their place though is a fast, fun and often funny read that had me firmly in it's grasp from the get go and long may this series continue.

Buy it here - The Hanging Tree: The Sixth PC Grant Mystery

Sunday, 26 November 2017

The Blood Beast Terror

The majestically named 'The Blood Beast Terror' was made by Tigon-British Film Productions as a deliberate attempt at Hammer's gothic horror audience.  It tells the story of the hunt for a vampiric were-moth that is killing young men on the moors and draining them of all their blood

The film stars Peter Cushing as Inspector Quennell, Vanessa Howard as his daughter Meg, Robert Flemyng as Dr. Mallinger and Wanda Ventham - now far more well known as the mother of both Benedict Cumberbatch and Sherlock - as the slightly mothy Clare Mallinger. 

Few of the actors come out of this experience well, Cushing (obviously), Howard (who only appears in the second half of the film) and British TV regular Glynn Edwards who plays Sgt. Allan being just about the only cast members who don't look like they're hamming it up in an off season end-of-the-pier pantomime.

'The Blood Beast Terror' has not aged particularly well and has been much maligned over the intervening years - Cushing thought it was one of his worst movies - and I'm certainly not going to try and redeem it but the ropey directing, the cack handed editing, the ham acting, the dumb script and the woeful effects all add up to making this movie a bit of a guilty pleasure for me.

Buy it here - The Blood Beast Terror [Blu-ray] [1968] - or watch it in all it's dubious glory below.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Silver on the Tree

Susan Cooper
Puffin Books

The Dark is rising in its last and greatest bid to control the world. And Will Stanton -- last-born of the immortal Old Ones, dedicated to keeping the world free -- must join forces with this ageless master Merriman and Bran, the Welsh boy whose destiny ties him to the Light. Drawn in with them are the three Drew children, who are mortal, but have their own vital part in the story. These six fight fear and death in the darkly brooding Welsh hills, in a quest through time and space that touches the most ancient myths of the British Isles, and that brings Susan Cooper's masterful sequence of novels to a satisfying close.

And so we come to the end of The Dark is Rising sequence and I'm a little bit sad about it.  Now, if you'd told me a few months ago after I'd read the first in the series that I'd be lamenting their passing I'd probably have raised a disbelieving eyebrow at you but four books later here I am doing that very thing.

The first book in the quintet was a competent enough magicky tale on the tried and trusted Famous Five, Secret Seven, Existential Eight formula and felt a little bit old fashioned.  The second raised the bar significantly with the introduction of young Will and his induction as a 'Old One'.  It was still a bit pat and there was little suspense but Cooper had created a world that looked like it would be fun to visit and peopled it with characters that you wanted to watch. 

By the time she got to the third book she was flying; it blew me away!  I was nervous about the reintroduction of the trio from the first book but her depiction of them was much more nuanced and she slotted them seamlessly into the new, more substantial, universe.  The fourth built on this further and added a new element of Welshness into the story of the fight against The Dark that gave the narrative depth, age and a heritage.  Now, finally we are at the end; The Dark is coming and all those we have met have a part to play.

For 'Silver in the Tree' we are back in Wales roaming the mountains of the west and the lost land even further so.  Cooper weaves Welsh and Arthurian folktales into her narrative as Will, Bran and the three Drews explore the landscape and are also thrown both into the past and travel to lost lands of legend.

Reflecting, perhaps, the time it was written the book touches several times on issues of racial and cultural bigotry; explicitly so in the case of Will's elder brothers confrontation of three racist bullies and it's aftermath and later in passing following Bran's first meeting with the English Drew children.  Obviously, within the story these events are intended to show the power the resurgence of The Dark has in the hearts of people but I'd have liked more to have been made of them as they remain an issue that is depressingly current but perhaps in her handling of the topic as the beliefs of venal men that don't deserve to be lingered over she says far more.

At the book's conclusion we see the promised six in their final attempt to turn back The Dark and a seventh find his true nature in the final counting.  It's an ending that's very much in keeping with what has gone before as  - spoilers - you always know they'll win out and there's never been much jeopardy in these stories as it's regularly and specifically stated that The Dark are not allowed to hurt the Old Ones although there is one moment that is staggering in it's cruelty and which makes the injured party's subsequent actions all the more powerful.

The book ends with a nod to (or a lift from - depending on how you feel) Tolkein and the promise that most of the participants will forget the events which is kind of one step away from '...and then they all woke up' but I'll not belabour that point as the journey getting there was certainly worthwhile and I lament the passing of this series.

Buy it here - Silver On The Tree (The Dark Is Rising)

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Doctor Who: Short Trips: Time Signature

Simon Guerrier (ed)
Big Finish

A city destroyed by time itself. A country torn apart by revolution. The Doctor doesn't just change the lives of those around him—his actions echo through history, as shown in these tales exploring the outer reaches of cause and effect. 

This is the second of these BF Who hardbacks I've managed to score in the last little while.  I've tended to avoid them as they're a little pricey for my pocket but happily I've now come across two at vastly reduced prices so I've had the opportunity to sample them which I really wanted to do as the audios are fab - and I don't mean just their Who ones.

The first book I read was a pretty fun ride with mostly strong stories which is a template that's continued here.  Joff Brown's 'Walking City Blues' was a real highlight with the 6th Doctor in full on detective mode as was Eddie Robson's 2nd Doctor Delia Derbyshire homage, 'The Avant Guardian' and also Matthew Sweet's daft as an infested brush 'The Earwig Archipelago'.

As with the other volume there's a new companion that features in many of the stories and a vague narrative that runs through many of them that's set up by the two Simon Guerrier stories that I suppose were meant to bookend the contents but for some reason is continued, pointlessly and confusingly, in Andrew Cartmel's story which closes the book.

Truthfully, this one wasn't as good as the other and the through story was pretty ham-fisted and just got in the way but that aside as a collection of Who stories that I didn't know it was a pleasant way to spend a couple of afternoons.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

The Stone Tape

In 1972 having returned to the BBC after a sojourn as a freelancer with companies such as Hammer Films, Nigel Kneale was offered the chance to write the Xmas play for broadcast on BBC Two.  Following the well trod tradition of a Xmas ghost story Kneale decided to meld his take on the genre with the science fiction with which he made his name.

His story concerns the efforts of a team of researchers attempting to develop a new recording technology in the haunted house in which they have set up shop using the theory that the very stones of the building have become imprinted with a 'recording' of the death of a young woman.

The play stars Michael Bryant and Jane Asher, was produced by former Doctor Who producer Innes Lloyd (the man responsible for the Doctor regenerating) and directed by another former Hammer employee Peter Sasdy (director of Countess Dracula and Taste The Blood of Dracula).  The music and the, desperately unsettling, sounds for the show were created by Desmond Briscoe which marked a rare foray into the studio for the head of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop; Briscoe, incidentally, had in 1958 created the special sound for Kneale's original TV version of Quatermass and the Pit in one of the first projects worked on by the then newly established Workshop.

There are many gems in the Kneale catalogue and we've featured a few of them here on Wyrd Britain in the past and this one is right up there with the best of them.  Like 'Murrain' it concerns itself with those most Kneale of topics the clash between the supernatural and the scientific and like 'Quatermass and the Pit' and the late 70s 'Quatermass Conclusion' with the echoes of history imprinted on a location and it does both in the most terrifying manner.

The Stone Tape was recently revived for radio by the BBC in a production overseen by Peter Strickland (Berberian Sound Studio, The Duke of Burgundy) which we'll return to at a later date.  In the meantime though here's the original.

Buy it here - The Stone Tape [1972] [DVD] - or watch it below.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

The Body in the Library

Agatha Christie
Harper Collins

It's seven in the morning. The Bantrys awake to find the body of a young woman in their library. She is wearing evening dress and heavy make-up. But who is she? How did she get there? And what is the connection with another dead girl?

When the Colonel and Mrs Bantry are awoken to the news that there's a dead young lady in their library there are two calls to make.  For the Colonel it's to the police, for his wife it's to her friend Miss Jane Marple.  Soon the good lady is quietly puzzling her way through a maze of alibis and potential murderers all the time being quietly certain of who did it but not quite knowing the how or the why.

Again this books proves to be an absolute delight.  The tangle of the plot, the wit and the invention of the dialogue and the masterful invention of the author all tied together with a central character who is perfectly realised.

Buy it here - The Body in the Library (Miss Marple)