Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Tribute to Ken Russell

I was sad to hear about the death of Ken Russell.  He was one of my tutors when I studied in Southampton. ‘Tommy’ was a film that had inspired me to make some short films of my own so I remember being incredibly excited the first time he came in to take a film production workshop. I couldn’t stop talking – until he told me off!
It was fascinating to see him work, blocking out the scenes and correcting the line readings. People think of him primarily as a visual film-maker and forget that he worked with some of the finest actors, Glenda Jackson, Alan Bates, Oliver Reed, Michael Caine, Vanessa Redgrave.  He had enormous skills as a director,  so he was rightly pissed off that no-one would fund his films any more or employ him to direct (this was in 1999). I remember him telling us that he had bought a Canon DV camera and set up a studio in his house. He made a film called ‘Fall of the Louse of Usher’ which is Ken Russell at his most eccentric.

When I was teaching at the Bournemouth film school I took a group of students to the Cherbourg film festival where Ken was the head of the jury. The highlight of the trip for me was a screening of ‘Tommy’ followed by a Q&A with Ken, and then later a private screening of student work with him and Hettie McDonald in attendance. He was very gracious in his feedback and encouraging to the students and afterwards we all got pissed on red wine. It was one of those things that you never forget – getting pissed with Ken Russell!
One thing he said was ‘Just keep making films, buy your own camera – fuck the studios’.  This is what he did.

A couple of years ago I went to an exhibition of his 1950s photography. He started off as a photographer and this exhibition in London was one of the last things he did, so I thought I would put up some of his photos as a tribute.

Thanks, Ken. You will be missed.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Notes on 'The Nanny' (1965)

Wes at Plutonium Shores put me on to this one in his excellent REVIEW. I hadn’t heard of the film but I watched it the other night and what a good film it is. It is impressed me so much that I wanted to add some thoughts of my own.

The Nanny is last of a series of ‘psycho-thrillers’ made by Hammer in the early 1960s (Fanatic, Maniac etc.) written by Jimmy Sangster. The interesting thing about it is that it isn’t really a thriller, more of a psychological drama about class in the style of Losey’s ‘The Servant’; a film with which (along with ‘Repulsion) it shares some striking similarities but actually pre-dates by a couple of years.

The Nanny opens with a young boy, Joey, returning home after being institutionalised for a breakdown following the death of his three-year-old sister. He has developed a pathological hatred for his nanny, played Bette Davies, whom he believes killed his sister and is now plotting to kill him.

Like ‘The Servant’, The Nanny concerns itself with the power struggle between an emotionally fragile upper-middle class family and the loyal (but as it turns out equally fragile) 'help' who is the bedrock of the household and has been for many years. What really impressed me about this film, though, is its tremendous compassion for the characters: all are victims of social conventions – even the father, who responds to family tensions by absenting himself, warrants sympathy.

The Nanny was made in 1965, a time when parenting-styles were changing. People were beginning to reject the doctrines of Frederick Truby King, who advocated a tough-love approach to child rearing, in favour of the ‘hugs-and-kisses’ ideas of Dr Benjamin Spock (no relation to Leonard Nimoy). The upper-middle class, were, however, still bound by the conventions of wet nurses, nannies and private boarding schools which inhibited a closer relationship between parents and children.

As Wes notes, ‘The Nanny’ is concerned with the dangers of the dysfunctional family unit. The mother in the film, played with extraordinary rawness by Wendy Craig, has been usurped by the Nanny as Joey’s primary carer and has fallen into a state of hysterical collapse because she feels she has no purpose within the family. This manifests itself in her psychological dependence on the nanny. Joey, on the other hand, resents the nanny because she is his main carer rather than his mother. For the nanny too, the situation is unhealthy; she has neglected her own daughter for sake of her adoptive family and has become equally dependent emotionally on providing them with the care that she has not been able to give her own flesh-and-blood.

Similar to ‘The Servant’ are the class anxieties that this situation throws up: reliance on the nanny conveys power to her, and the nanny exercises this power over Joey and Virginia when her position within the family is threatened.

It is at this point in the film that things threaten to spill into the territory of ‘Gothic Melodrama’ in the vein of Bette Davies’ previous films, ‘Whatever Happened to Baby Jane’ and ‘Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte’. It is to Sangster’s great credit that he manages not to do that. Instead he shows that it is overwhelming love and need for the children of her employees, who have taken the place of her own children, that has created an emotional ‘schizm’ in the nanny – she, too, is a victim of class social conventions and realises that the only solution is to leave the family.

Jimmy Sangster has reservations about the final scene of the film – which shows Joey and Virginia reunited following the nanny’s departure – but I felt that this gave the film a genuine progressive quality. It is only by breaking those social conventions that we can go on to have genuine ‘caring’ relationships.

No discussion of 'The Nanny' should fail to mention Seth Holt’s intelligent direction. The film is incredibly well made by Holt and his cameraman, Harry Waxman. Again, it pre-dates 'The Servant' in its use of deep focus photography to emphasise the power relationships within the family, which, together with Waxman’s low-key lighting, gives the film a claustrophobic feel at times. The performances are all excellent, particularly from Davies who imbues the film with emotional honesty in showing the part (that exists in all of us) that needs to give care to others.

So thanks to Wes for recommending this great film.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Vampire's Kiss (1989)

With anti-capitalist protestors in New York and London haranguing the poor old bankers I thought it was a good time to take a retrospective look at that short-lived subgenre of the 1980s – the ‘yuppy nightmare’ film and, in particular, the toothsome satire from 1989, Vampire’s Kiss.

What a feeling: Nick Cage is bitten by Jennifer Beales ...

Vampire’s Kiss was written by Joseph Minion, whose first screenplay, After Hours (1986) pretty much set the template for the ‘yuppy nightmare’: a young upwardly mobile city dweller falls foul of a dark criminal underworld after being lured in by the promise of a woman. As a kind of Dante’s Inferno for the Reagan era, it gave rise to some of the decade’s most interesting films, including Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild (1987), and perhaps most notably, Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986).

The yuppy nightmare played on the white middle class guilt of the affluent new breed of city professional profiting from short-term economic policies (the so-called Reaganomics) that led to stockmarket bubbles and a boom in consumer credit, but also widened the gap between the rich and poor, creating (particularly in the United States) a burgeoning underclass.

In Vampire’s Kiss, Nicolas Cage plays a young upwardly Manhattan publisher who spends his evenings picking up woman in nightclubs and taking them back to his gothic-looking brownstone apartment for casual sex. One night he meets a seductive vamp (Jennifer Beales) with a taste for blood and a nice pair (of fangs). Before he is knows it, Cage is spiralling into madness, believing himself infected with the ‘curse’ of the undead and finding himself compelled (as Jack Nicholson says in The Departed) to ‘act accordingly’.

...which makes him buy cheap plastic snappers...

Like Romero’s ‘Martin’ we never really believe that Cage is truly joining the ranks of the undead  - he just thinks he is - therein lies the satire of the film, and the basis of some deliciously dark humour. Lacking the traditional vampire accoutrements, Cage is forced to sleep under his upturned sofa in lieu of a coffin and to don a cheap pair of plastic fangs – the kind you might find in a joke shop - because he only has five dollars on him at the time of purchase. Also like Martin, Cage’s image of what it is to be a vampire is entirely shaped by his exposure to popular media, in this case a late night viewing of Murnau’s Nosferatu. Therefore Cage gradually transforms into Max Shreck, until he is stalking nightclubs in his fangs leering crazily at the women, in search of a victim. They think his vampire stance is an act, that he is joking around, but we know it isn’t.

...turn slowly in to Max Shreck from Nosferatu...

With it pretty much a given that Cage isn’t becoming a real vampire (the film hints heavily that Jennifer Beales is a figment of his imagination – a guilt-projection from his womanising past), Vampire’s Kiss digs deep into the aforementioned white male middle class guilt in showing Cage’s pathology. His main victim is his Latino secretary (Maria Conchito Alonso) whom he bullies mercilessly. When she has to take time off sick due to the stress, Cage - in a particularly uncomfortable-to-watch scene - takes a cab to her house so that he can continue the harassment there.  The film spends some time showing the lives of the poor working immigrant through Alonso’s character, in contrast to Cage’s privileged Manhattanite lifestyle. This gives some context to Cage’s peculiar guilt-based love-hate fixation on his secretary, whom he eventually attempts to rape: white middle class guilt sublimated into victimising the ‘despicable’ immigrant.

...sleep under his upturned couch in lieu of a coffin...

One of the criticisms of the 'yuppy nightmare' movie is that the audience is encouraged to wallow in the grimy world of the criminal underclass (almost like they did back in the Victorian age) before being allowed to denounce it.  In Blue Velvet, Jeffrey is recuperated into his white middle class world of picket fences and ‘healthy’ sex, ‘cured’ of his fascination with the seedy underworld of Frank Booth and Dorothy Vallens. To its credit, Vampire’s Kiss doesn’t do that. Cage’s character is not redeemed, nor does he ever regain our sympathy. Instead, as 'nosferatu', he has to suffer the inevitable (as Martin had to) in punishment for his excesses and those of his brethren. And it serves him right too. 

..and stalk nightclubs in search of victims.

Monday, 7 November 2011


I am launching a new page on the blog, which I am calling the  'Gallery'

This is a collection of images, photographs, news footage and videos showing horror films as reflecting events in British and American history.

As George A. Romero said: "what's happening in the world creeps into any work - it just fits right in - because that's where it comes from, where you get the idea from in the first place."

The gallery will draw visual parallels between horror film images and contemporary history. 

The idea is also to showcase some of the images and captions that will illustrate my book Shocks to The System

The gallery will be an on-going project that I will update regularly. If you have any suggestions for images to include in the gallery I'd love to hear from you - please contact me here

Please do visit the Gallery (top right tab)  - warning: contains graphic images.