Thursday, 31 October 2013

Happy Halloween!

Collected Ghost Stories by MR James – review
These spooky tales from a 'weird fictionist of the very first rank' are released just in time for the darker months

Nicholas Lezard
The Guardian
Tuesday 1 October 2013

Here is an entry from the diary of the archdeacon of Barchester Cathedral, for October 11, 1816 (or 197 years ago next week): "Candles lit in the choir for the first time at evening prayers. It came as a shock: I find that I absolutely shrink from the dark season." And well may Archdeacon Haynes shrink from the dark season; for he has a dark secret himself, and the prayer desk at his stall is decorated with carvings of a cat, crouching as if to strike, a prick-eared and horned figure, "invested with the attributes of royalty", and a cowled figure who, on close inspection, is revealed to be "the King of Terrors" (I presume this means Death).

Collected Ghost Stories (Oxford World's Classics)
by M. R. James

To cap it all, the wood from which they have been carved has come from a tree once known locally as "the Hanging Oak". You, gentle reader, who have not, I presume, been implicated in the unfortunate demise of a prelate of the church, and who are far from sinister carvings made from accursed wood, need not tremble; but note the season, the drawing in of the evenings, the increasing darkness and the chill of the wind.

So it's appropriate that Oxford is publishing this collection at this time of year. There is an enormous pleasure to be had reading James's ghost stories, and even if you do not have a decanter and a log fire, you can readily imagine that you do, as his stories are more, perhaps, about atmosphere than about actual horror (for that, I recommend the stories of his contemporary and, I'm fairly sure, friend, EF Benson).

The typical James ghost story kicks off when someone discovers an old manuscript or a valuable or rare book, often with a religious connection or theme. Having seemingly set up a scene of remarkable dustiness, it turns out that evil resides in the pages, or lurking behind a dark corner of a church, waiting to manifest itself and reduce the unfortunate antiquarian to a wreck. ("Canon Alberic's ScrapBook", the first story in the collection, in which a drawing of a demon comes to life, is a good example of this, and an early collection of James's stories was called Ghost Stories of an Antiquary.) You have to wonder what it was in James that inspired him to do this. He knew what he was talking about when he described the business of going through ancient collections, and he grew up in an ecclesiastical environment, so knew an apse from a chasuble; but why he found fear in these elements is something of a mystery in itself. It certainly adds to the plausibility of the stories, however, and their wide and enduring popularity. It also takes quite a talent to get a shiver from, say, an unconventional dating of a prayer-book, as he does in "The Uncommon Prayer-Book". HP Lovecraft, who was probably about as far in temperament as you could get from James, wrote a long essay on supernatural fiction in which he described James as "a literary weird fictionist of the very first rank", and in Darryl Jones's introduction toCollected Ghost Stories we are given a vignette of how James came to sharpen his craft – by telling his stories after the Christmas service at King's College, Cambridge (where he was provost) to an audience of uneasy fellows. Who might also, I was surprised to learn, have been uneasy at James's fondness for the card game "animal grab", which descended into impromptu wrestling bouts that would leave his opponents with "torn clothes" and "nailscored hands".

James saw himself as something of a Dickensian (and a Trollopian, as the reference to "Barchester Cathedral" shows; James, who died in 1936, was very much a Victorian, and a Victorian of a very particular kind at that), and so quite often the stories feature cockney or rustic accents that, after a while, become rather irritating. All I can say is that you should just put up with them and wait for the story to resume.

Halloween reading: Joseph D'Lacey's top 10 horror books

It's not only Stephen King and James Herbert, you should be afraid of Cormac McCarthy and Kafka, explains the horror novelist

Joseph D'Lacey
Wednesday 30 October 2013 

When people discover I write horror, they usually take a nervous step backwards. Maybe they think I'm going to bury a cleaver in their skull. Maybe they think they'll catch Weirdofreakosis. They'll often say something like: "So, is your head full of sick, horrible ideas all the time?"

Actually, it's not. I'm calm, I'm happy and I hardly ever have nightmares. All my darkness is on the page – where it belongs. In fact, I'm convinced that people who write and read horror are saner and better-adjusted than those who casually dismiss the genre.

By engaging with horror, we take a journey into every possible fear. We open the closet door, rip the mask from the psycho's face, embrace ghosts and demons, cast ourselves into the hellish chasm of the imagination. We return, not polluted but cleansed and set free.

This Halloween, I urge you to peel your fingers from your eyes and face your greatest dread. If you can survive these books, I promise you'll live happily (and sanely) ever after…

1. Let's Go Play at the Adams' by Mendal Johnson

In 1974, Stephen King released his smash hit debut Carrie. The same year, Johnson's far more challenging, non-supernatural horror novel was also published. It's an exploration of the behaviour of children left to their own devices and is utterly harrowing. I've known people weep towards the end of the book. King went on to monumental success and fame, but within two years Johnson was dead.

2. The Long Walk by Stephen King (as Richard Bachman)

King's early works – written under the Bachman pseudonym – are my favourites, and this short novel is a classic of that period. Although not published until 1979, it appears King began it long before Carrie. Whatever the case, I was there with the boys of this dystopian tale for every agonising step of their journey.

3. The Road by Cormac McCarthy

You might want to call this post-apocalyptic fantasy, but The Road is stacked with enough bleak terror to sit proudly in the horror section of any bookshop. It's a simple story of a father and son making a perilous journey in the aftermath of a global cataclysm. But it's really about keeping the light of the world aflicker, even in the darkest times. And, whilst it's disturbing as hell, it's also incredibly beautiful.

4. The Ritual by Adam Nevill

Nevill is arguably the best British horror author writing today. The Ritual takes us into the wild boreal forests of northern Sweden where four university friends reunite to go hiking. They soon find themselves lost and terrified, stalked by an unknown but malevolent entity. Riveting storytelling that barely lets you catch your breath.

5. One by Conrad Williams

Published in 2009, this earned Williams a British Fantasy award for best novel. It charts the journey of Richard Jane, who walks from Aberdeen to London searching for his son after a cataclysmic cosmic event. Like Nevill, Williams's command of language and use of imagery lifts this novel into the realms of literary fiction. Another example of the sheer joy of terror.

6. The Function Room: The Kollection by Matt Leyshon

It may not be that big but there's still a market for short horror fiction. Many of the genre's brightest stars began their writer's journey by submitting tales to the small presses. This debut collection, published by indie magazine Morpheus Tales, showcases a talented newcomer with a firm grasp of all things weird and grim. Accompany Leyshon to Leddenton for a double-handful of the bleakest horrors imaginable. Be warned, though; he might not let you come back.

7. The Rats by James Herbert

I was 10 when I read this; a portal to a new world of shock and gore. I forget how many times I've read it but several of its scenes linger even now, as though they were my own memories. I think it's safe to say that the late James Herbert is responsible for my chosen career. Wherever you are now, Mr H, I salute you.

8. Metamorphosis and other stories by Franz Kafka

Born in 1883 and largely unpublished in his own lifetime, Kafka became and remains incredibly influential. This collection contains one of the most brutal and disturbing stories I've ever read: In the Penal Colony. If you haven't read Kafka yet, you're missing an astonishing talent.

9. Under the Skin by Michel Faber

Canongate have a knack for picking unusual but brilliant writing. Marketed without the merest mention of the word horror, this novel packs in one terrifying surprise after another. The wonderful thing is that so many people bought and read this incredibly speculative work, probably thinking it was literary fiction. An engaging but utterly creepy book – now set to be adapted for screen – and another coup for Canongate.

10. American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis

A meticulous study in sociopathy and a satirical critique of ladder-climbing, materialist culture. It's also cold, grim and nausea-inducing. I read it on a sunny tropical island but never have the grasping fingers of a serial killer felt so close to my throat. A landmark novel encapsulating the madness of late Twentieth Century society.

… Having picked this top 10, I realise there isn't a single female author among them. The reason is that I simply haven't read enough dark fiction by women. I'm now on the lookout for hard-hitting full length horror from women for my TBR pile. If you have suggestions, please post them here. I'm starting off with Poppy Z Brite's Exquisite Corpse …

A short horror movie for Halloween...

Frederick Sandys - Medea (1868)

Witches and Wicked Bodies – review
Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh
Wizened or suspiciously beautiful, the witch in art has proved a scarily compelling muse
Witches & Wicked Bodies
Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art,
Starts 27 July
Until 3 November

Laura Cumming
The Observer
Sunday 11 August 2013

Albrecht Dürer’s ‘shrieking siren’ of a witch riding backwards on a goat, c1500, with Dürer’s AD monogram reversed. Photograph: © Trustees of the British Museum

What do witches look like? Ferocious old dames with pointy hats and whiskered chins, repulsive warts and green skin: we would recognise one anywhere, even without the soaring broomstick. A child can draw one in seconds – black hat and broom (the cat and cauldron are rare, not to say superfluous, these days). Witches are so generic they have turned into logos.

But they had to be dreamed up by artists in the first place, and the revelation of this startling exhibition is that they had such a vivid career in art from the 15th century right up to the 20th – roughly the show's span – before descending into Halloween cliché.

Dürer's witch is a shrieking siren, lithe and naked, her beautiful hair streaming forwards as she rides backwards on a cloven-hoofed goat. Witchcraft is abnormal, it reverses all human order; Dürer even signed his drawing with a reversed AD monogram.

Goya's trainee witch (on a broom) is young but already weary, learning the ropes from the old lady flying the stick; the sense is of a madam kidnapping a hapless new protege: prostitution as witchcraft by other means.

And Fuseli's deathless trio of Weird Sisters from Macbeth, their heads arrayed in profile like the open blades of a Swiss Army knife, have prominent noses, strong throats and craggy chins. They do not look like women, young or old; they are quite simply men.
Three Weird Sisters from Macbeth, 1783 (detail) by Henry Fuseli: ‘They are quite simply men.’ Photograph: © British Museum

Had these male artists ever met a woman who looked anything like such visions in reality? Not one of these figures is the classic old hag of medieval literature, the reclusive village spinster forced to endure the ducking stool or the stake because she was thought too weird in her ways, too sharp in her observations, too active with the herbs, or simply because she muttered to herself.

This "witch" has been the subject of copious writing, from fairytales to scholarship; what makes this show – and its excellent catalogue by Deanna Petherbridge – unique is that it shows the evolution of the witch in art.

In the centuries when people still believed in witches, they were often shown bare – naked and flying by moonlight, attending black Sabbaths, sleeping with the devil; they had a busy and lascivious schedule. Their wickedness was written on the body, which was either wizened and deformed or suspiciously beautiful.

In the Romantic era, witches turned into theatrical grotesques – the limelit gargoyles in Delacroix's illustrations to Goethe's Faust; John Martin's sensational witches lifting into the night sky in a flash of lightning before Macbeth, tiny and terrified on the top of a crag. Daniel Gardner's bizarre version of the same subject casts three society beauties as the witches in diaphanous frocks – including Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. You'd think it was a hideous and possibly misogynist satire, except that one of these women apparently commissioned the picture herself.
The Three Witches from Shakespeares Macbeth by Daniel Gardner, 1775

The Victorian painter Frederick Sandys cast his own Romany mistress Keomi Gray in the role of Medea, giving the sorceress an alarming reality in the querulously defensive expression on her face. But the dread Medea ought to inspire is completely undermined by those gaudy pre-Raphaelite colours.

One sure lesson is that black and white, and graphic night, really set off a witch to best advantage. The true frighteners of this show are all prints – particularly by Dürer, Goya and Fuseli – that can be held in the hand and closely examined for nasty details. Winged fish, carriages made out of skeletons, dear old ladies sprouting devilish horns like Charles Saatchi on the cover of his latest book: these prints don't waste an inch in the effort to induce a shudder.

And the same is true of the most recent work in the show, a black and white photograph taken in 2000 by Markéta Luskacová in her native Bohemia. It shows a female figure in a feral mask, holding what seems to be the head of a bird, moving enigmatically through a forest, and through the shadowy image. The figure is eerie enough, but so is the photograph.

But the most terrible visions in the show, inevitably, come from the mind of Goya and include a gathering of witches whose wickedness has an appalling resonance to modern eyes. One witch is using a child as a pair of bellows to fan up the fire by which another can see what she's munching – namely a basket of battered babies. The infants are starving as she eats. As so often with this darkest of artists, the vision is both allegorical and surpassingly real – human beings become monstrous, a crime beyond crimes, a wickedness beyond all explanation.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Ten Best War Movies...

Top 10 war movies

War is hell, for sure, but war can make for undeniably brilliant movie-making. Here, the Guardian and Observer's critics pick the ten best

10. Where Eagles Dare

As the second world war thriller became bogged down during the mid-60s in plodding epics like Operation Crossbow and The Heroes of Telemark, someone was needed to reintroduce a little sang-froid, some post-Le Carré espionage, and for heaven's sake, some proper macho thrills into the genre. Alistair Maclean stepped up, writing the screenplay and the novel of Where Eagles Dare simultaneously, and Brian G Hutton summoned up a better than usual cast headed by Richard Burton (Major Jonathan Smith), a still fresh-faced Clint Eastwood (Lieutenant Morris Schaffer), and the late Mary Ure (Mary Elison).

Parachuted into the German Alps, they have one day to rescue an American general held in an apparently impregnable mountaintop fortress. As it turns out, there are about 40 more twists before the story resolves itself, adding some clever spy mechanics to a story that is otherwise an ecstatic, guilt-free orgy of Kraut-killing (Schaffer just loves mowing them down in their dozens). Every chase and gun battle is a classic, and the climactic fight on top of the cable cars remains etched in the memory of a generation. And yes, that is Burton, having the time of his life for a change. 
John Patterson

9. Rome, Open City

There is perhaps no film to rival the humanism and clarity of purpose of Roberto Rossellini's neorealist masterpiece, which documents the Nazi occupation of Rome and the bravery of the Italian resistance. It scarcely matters how many times you watch it, the image of a woman shot in the back as she runs through the street is astonishing in its barbarism.

Open City's great power is its immediacy. Rossellini started work as soon as allied tanks rolled into war-destroyed Rome in June 1944 (writing the script with Fellini), and by January he was shooting. Making a virtue of meagre resources, film was scavenged and Rossellini took his camera on to the streets (Rome's film studio Cinecittà was serving as a refugee camp). Parts look like newsreel footage: during filming of one scene involving Nazi officers (acted by grips) arresting a group of men, a passerby actually pulled out his revolver to stop them. But the story plays like a gripping thriller: a cat-and-mouse game between Gestapo and resistance cell.

Aldo Fabrizi stars as Don Pietro, a portly priest based on real-life underground hero Don Morosini. Anna Magnani is magnificent as the young widow protecting her lover, who is in hiding from the Germans. Fabrizi was known as a comic actor and Magnani had cut her teeth in cabaret; together they give the film tremendous warmth and heart. So while it is a great war film, Open City is filled with snapshots of daily life, family spats and love affairs, which become unbelievably moving in the context. Martin Scorsese said it is "the most precious moment of film history". Godard concurred, saying: "All roads lead to Rome, Open City."
Cath Clarke

8. La Grande Illusion

It takes some doing to make a first world war film that transcends the war itself, but that's what Jean Renoir achieved with this authoritative but compassionate movie – to the extent that it was still dangerous by the time of the second. In addition, it's the wellspring of so many war-movie cliches: the seditious singing of the Marseillaise by French prisoners of war (later borrowed by Casablanca); the mechanics of tunnel-digging (as aped by The Great Escape). And it provided an enduring archetype of German officer-class stiffness in the form of Erich Von Stroheim's monocled, neck-braced Von Rauffenstein.

The principal "Illusion" that Renoir's film tackles is that of European aristocracy, and their belief that their class position superseded (and would survive) the inconvenient conflict they presently found themselves in – whichever side they were on. That notion is still desperately clung to by Von Rauffenstein, who thinks nothing of inviting the captive French pilots he's just shot down to lunch "if they're officers", and indeed, turns out to have moved in similar social circles to Pierre Fresnay's upper-crust de Boeldieu.

But there's no concealing where Renoir's real sympathies lie: with heroic commoner Marechal (Jean Gabin) and Jewish merchant Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio). Stronger affinities than class will hold the future Europe together, the film suggests – though there will be those who don't accept it. The film's foreshadowing of rising anti-semitism was certainly unacceptable to the Nazis. They confiscated the movie when they invaded France three years later, as a matter of priority.

On top of Renoir's political and humanist perceptions, La Grande Illusion is equally modern in its execution. The fluid camera moves feel ahead of their time and despite some theatrical acting, the characters are drawn with great credibility and compassion, and the prisoner-of-war life feels utterly authentic. Renoir had experience in these matters. He was a pilot during the first world war. His passion and anger were borne of first-hand experience, not just intellectual conviction. No wonder this feels more like a text than something simply made up. 
Steve Rose

7. The Deer Hunter
Writer-director Michael Cimino had but one feature under his belt – the spirited caper movie Thunderbolt and Lightfoot – before he found himself at the helm of the first epic studio movie directly about the lately concluded Vietnam war that had traumatised his country. Taking a leaf from Coppola's Godfather, Cimino opens his story slowly, with an extended working-class Russian-Orthodox wedding sequence in the three lead characters' Pennsylvania mining hometown, followed by a hunting trip to the nearby mountains.

He then plunges us directly – that is, in a single, brutal cut – into the flaming maelstrom of the war itself. Michael, Steven and Nick (Robert De Niro, John Savage and an epicene young Christopher Walken, respectively) find themselves trapped and captured after a vicious firefight, and forced by their Vietcong captors to play a nightmare version of Russian roulette. They manage to escape, though only Michael and Steven find their way back to the US. More or less destroyed inside, they find no place for themselves or their experiences at home and Michael returns to Saigon to rescue Nick. The Russian roulette aspect was widely criticised, and almost certainly never happened but, as a metaphor for America's suicidal intervention in south-east Asia, it cannot be beaten.

6. Three Kings

When he came to make his third film, David O Russell already had behind him an abrasive indie debut (Spanking the Monkey) and an accomplished modern screwball (Flirting with Disaster). But that could hardly prepare audiences for the ambition and reach of his black-comedy-with-a-conscience, Three Kings, about a gold heist that takes place at the end of the 1991 Gulf war. The movie came to be known briefly for starting a war of its own — between Russell and his star,George Clooney, who had dust-ups on set over the director's apparent volatility (the pair have only recently enjoyed a rapprochement). The film endures, though, as one of the great modern examples not only of the rhetorical weight of the best war movies but of the miracles that can occur when mavericks work in Hollywood.

It begins in the Iraqi desert. In a moment of confusion, Sgt Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg) shoots a surrendering enemy officer. It hardly matters since no one knows what's going on anyway. "This war is over and I don't even know what it was about," complains a reporter. Sometimes, chaos and misconception can be an advantage. Storming into an Iraqi bunker to steal gold bullion that had itself been stolen by Saddam Hussein, Troy and his colleagues Sgt Major Archie Gates (Clooney) and Sgt Chief Elgin (Ice Cube) are assumed by terrified villagers to have arrived hotfoot from the latest massacre. But those army fatigues are not decorated with human flesh – the soldiers just happen to have been standing too close to a cow when it stepped on a cluster-bomb.

Although it has its roots in fact, the gold bullion is really just a plot device stolen from Kelly's Heroes long before Saddam Hussein seized it from Kuwait. What Three Kings is really concerned with is challenging some of the bogus US triumphalism that clung to the war at the time. Even more so than MASH or Catch-22, this is a war film in which comedy and visceral horror intensify one another. In one of the most striking moments, a bullet is traced as it carves into a man's chest in a lurid cross-section shot that will thrill anyone who owns a Visible Man model. In this movie more than any other since The Battle of Algiers, every bullet — and every human life — counts. 
Ryan Gilbey

5. Come and See
Taking its title from a verse from the Book of Revelation that describes the coming of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Elem Klimov's 1985 depiction of the German occupation of Belarus is both as brutal and lyrical as that foundation suggests. It perhaps lacks the technical sophistication of the European cinema of its time, but Klimov's raw and urgent film is not interested in being like others. Its closest peer is Volker Schlöndorff's The Tin Drum, in that it the story of a young boy during wartime; but this is a child whose innocence is much more quickly lost, starting as a sheltered adventurer but soon traumatised by the violent maelstrom of Adolf Hitler's war.

The film stars the then-unknown Aleksei Kravchenko as Flyora, who joins the resistance and is left behind by movement's concerned commander, Kosach (Liubomiras Lauciavicius). Although Kosach means to protect the boy, the opposite happens. Along with with local girl Glasha (Olga Mironova), Flyora faces the traumas of conflict alone, which Klimov underscores with frequent close-ups of the boy's horrified face, a deliberate homage to the silent epics of Russian master Sergei Eisenstein.

This is a film that shows the second world war in rural microcosm and is shocking in its artless savagery. Key is a sequence that shows the burning of civilians in a village church, the use of non-professionals as Nazis and victims only adding to its grotesque matter-of-factness. That it ends with a nod to Dziga Vertov's surreal Soviet classic Man With a Movie Camera, by running actual war footage back to the birth of Hitler, shows Klimov's poetic intent; though its people and landscapes are Russian, Come and See is not bound or defined by those things, rather it is a profound, universal and deeply subjective film whose only purpose is to bear witness to war as a form of collective insanity. 
Damon Wise

4. Ran

Kurosawa's last great film was made after many years in the wilderness. His star had fallen in Japan after a period of extraordinary artistic fertility ended in the mid-60s. His eyesight was failing; he'd attempted suicide. In 1980, he returned to favour with Kagemusha, which was seen as a rehearsal for his long-planned adaptation of King Lear. Ran finally appeared in 1985, and in its portrait of a great man who has lost control of his offices of power, critics were quick to read the experiences of the director himself.

Appropriating Lear gave Kurosawa scope to meditate on man's diminishing through age, but, in so doing, he produced, at 75, a film of breath­taking power and scale, and one of the most visually arresting war films ever made. The title translates as "chaos", and this is what erupts when Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai), the patriarch of the Ichimonji clan, attempts to divide his kingdom between his three sons. The youngest son, like Cordelia, alerts the father to his folly and is banished. Accompanied by his fool Kyoami (played by the Japanese pop star Pita), Hidetora stumbles from one catastrophe to the next, watching powerlessly as his realm burns around him. The silent battle scene at the centre of the film, set to Toru Takemitsu's funereal score, has to be seen to be believed. 
Killian Fox

3. The Thin Red Line
In the 1962 James Jones novel on which it is based, this is a story about the Guadalcanal campaign, fought in the Solomon Islands in 1942-3. And while The Thin Red Line holds a deserved place in the annals of war movies it is rather more a war dreamed of by Terrence Malick than the one actually fought for in reality. For Jones, the "thin red line" came from Kipling and stood for the infantry, but it was also the line that separated the sane from the mad. The author of From Here to Eternity, Jones had actually served at Guadalcanal, but in the preface to his novel he admits he had created a place of the imagination. In truth, that is the key to Malick's film which, filmed in Queensland and in the Solomon Islands, is as interested in the flora and fauna of the Pacific as it is in the outcome of the combat. So we see American soldiers trying to take a hill, but we see more of the long grass in the wind than we do of the enemy. Beneath it all – the shooting and the talk – there is a sense of the island having been there long before and long after the battle.

There were always some critics who found this approach arty, and the film vacant of conventional excitement. It is a marvel that it ever got made as an expensive American picture, with a star-studded cast. But unlike Fred Zinnemann's 1953 epic From Here to Eternity, which starred Deborah Kerr and Donna Reed, there are no women as characters – even if we glimpse them as dream figures in the minds of the soldiers. It's a deeply mysterious movie, interested in so many things above and beyond war, and so beautiful that the sudden sight of bodies and damage come as a surprise. Malick wrote the film himself and he shot and edited it according to his own timetable. It's a measure of his reputation that so many big names were willing to be in this half-abstract picture – if only for a few scenes: John Travolta, George Clooney, Sean Penn, John Cusack, Adrien Brody, Elias Koteas, James Caviezel, Woody Harrelson. But the standout performance comes from Nick Nolte as a ranting colonel whose authority has been questioned, and who is the clearest proof of the army that James Jones loved and hated. 
David Thomson

2. Paths of Glory
Paths of Glory Movie Poster
This is one of the darkest anti-war films ever made, in great part because its vision – that of the young director Stanley Kubrick (he was only 29, making his third full-length picture) – is as bleak as the story. The place is the western front of the first world war, in a section manned by the French army. An attack is decreed by General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou), and passed on to General Mireau (George Macready) to execute. Everyone knows the attack is doomed because infantry advancing over open ground torn apart by artillery barrages will be cut down by the machine guns in the secure German lines. But when the plan fails, Broulard determines that there must be scapegoats – alleged cowards or malingerers – who betrayed the national purpose. Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), who led the attack, is charged with picking three victims who will be subject to court martial and firing squad.

The Humphrey Cobb novel on which it is based had been published in 1935. At that time, Sidney Howard made a play out of it, but the play flopped. Kubrick loved the book and he got a script out of Calder Willingham and Jim Thompson (the famous pulp novelist who wrote The Grifters and The Killer Inside Me). The project became viable when Kirk Douglas agreed to play Dax and to produce the film for his own company, Bryna Productions. The trench and attack scenes were all shot for just under $1m. The photography is in glittering black and white, but the pattern of tracking shots is Kubrick's design – and he actually shot some of the attack scene himself with a hand-held camera.

For the rest, there is a stark, sardonic contrast between the splendid chateau where the officers live and the mean barracks for the enlisted men. Douglas is angry but repressed – this is one of his most controlled performances. Menjou and Macready are properly odious. The three scapegoats are Ralph Meeker, Joe Turkel and Timothy Carey, abject or defiant but not sentimentalised. If you expect any kind of mercy or relief, then you are misjudging the misanthropic tone of this movie. But the conclusion is a strange, touching gesture to hope and the future, and it involves a young German actress – Susanne Christian – who would become Kubrick's wife.

1. Apocalyse Now

It was John Milius who first came up with the idea of transposing Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness to a Vietnam war setting. Milius wrote the first drafts of the screenplay; former war correspondent Michael Herr later added narration. George Lucas was down to direct, but it was Francis Ford Coppola who finally set out to make what was intended to be the ultimate statement about the madness of war. It turned out to be equally about the madness of movie-making. Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) hitches a lift on a Navy patrol boat up the Mekong river to Cambodia on a mission to terminate "with extreme prejudice" a certain Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) who is reported to have gone native in rather a nasty way. But it's a long journey, and before he confronts the renegade colonel, Willard must first face all manner of trippy imagery, including the American Air Cavalry strafing a Vietnamese village to the sound of amplified Wagner, Robert Duvall declaring that he loves "the smell of napalm in the morning", a riot triggered by frugging bunny-girls, a Californian surfer on LSD and Dennis Hopper as a madly babbling photojournalist.

After this build-up, it's hard to separate the film from the circumstances of its production. Brando's arrival on set unprepared and overweight, necessitating his being shot only from certain angles in dim lighting, has now been incorporated into film-making legend, described in George Hickenlooper and Fax Bahr's documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Film-maker's Apocalypse. For the opening shot, set to Jim Morrison singing "This is the end", several acres of palm trees in the Philippines were doused with 1,200 gallons of gasoline.

"There aren't too many places in the world you could do it," said Coppola. "They'd never let you in the US; the environmentalists would kill you." Leading actor Martin Sheen (who replaced Harvey Keitel two weeks into the shoot) suffered a heart attack, and a typhoon destroyed the sets. The budget soared from $12m to $30m and shooting dragged on from the scheduled six weeks to 16 months. With the director struggling to edit millions of feet of footage (literally) and come up with an ending, industry wags dubbed the unseen film Apocalypse When? and predicted it would be a disaster.

In the event, though, the finished film was a qualified, critical success and won the Palme d'Or at Cannes. Reviews were mixed, but within a year or so it had established itself as a modern classic, with young adult audiences in particular revelling in the hallucinatory visuals and quotable one-liners such as "Saigon... shit!", "Charlie don't surf!" and "Never get out of the boat!" Hollywood had largely steered clear of the war in Vietnam while it was being fought, but Coppola's film spearheaded a small cluster of attempts during the 80s to revisit it, albeit almost exclusively from the navel-gazing perspective of the Americans. In 2001, Coppola released an extended version called Apocalypse Now Redux which restored 49 minutes of footage cut from the original film, most notably a long sequence featuring Christian Marquand and Aurore Clément representing the legacy of French colonialism. "We had access to too much money, too much equipment, and, little by little, we went insane," said the director. The experience certainly seemed to knock the stuffing out of Coppola, who has since failed to make anything even half as passionate or spectacular. 
Anne Billson

Feel free to disagree - again!
My list would have to include They Were Expendable, Catch 22, The Way to the Stars and A Canterbury Tale...

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Mark Gatiss adapts M. R. James' The Tractate Middoth: BBC Ghost Story for this Christmas

Mark Gatiss
The Tractate Middoth

Sacha Dhawan (Last Tango In Halifax, Being Human; The History Boys), John Castle (I, Claudius), Louise Jameson (Doctor Who, Doc Martin) and Una Stubbs (Sherlock, Til Death Do Us Part) will star in The Tractate Middoth, a brand new drama for BBC Two this Christmas.

They will be joined in the cast by David Ryall (The Village); Eleanor Bron (Bedazzled, Women In Love, Absolutely Fabulous); Nick Burns (Nathan Barley); Roy Barraclough (Coronation Street); and Charlie Clemmow (Doctors).

Written and directed by Mark Gatiss - his directorial debut - this new half-hour drama is a chilling adaptation of MR James's short story and will see a return of the cherished ghost story to BBC Two at Christmas.

In a quiet academic library, John Eldred (Castle) seeks out the help of young Mr Garrett (Dhawan) in his search for a seemingly obscure Hebrew text. But there is something unusual about this book and something not entirely scholarly about Eldred’s intentions. Soon, Garrett's hunt for the Tractate Middoth provokes terrifying apparitions in the library and a vengeful menace from beyond the grave.

Mark Gatiss says: "The wonderful adaptations of MR James's tales that I saw on TV as a child have been a lasting inspiration to me. I'm delighted to restore the tradition of a BBC 'Ghost Story for Christmas' and bring to life a personal favourite - The Tractate Middoth - one of James's most atmospheric, thrilling, and downright scary tales."

Mark Bell, Commissioning Editor for Arts, says: “In his ghost stories MR James displays a beguiling mixture of dry wit, singular erudition and a joyful enthusiasm for the macabre. Mark Gatiss shares the same attributes and it is tremendously exciting to be working on both a new drama and a documentary investigation of what made this great British eccentric tick."

The drama will be complemented by a documentary, MR James: Ghost Writer (w/t) in which Mark Gatiss steps into the mind of MR James, the enigmatic English master of the supernatural story. A long-time admirer of James, Mark will explore how this donnish Victorian bachelor, conservative by nature and a devout Anglican, created tales that continue to chill readers more than a century on.

Viewers will join Mark on an atmospheric journey from James's childhood home in Suffolk to Eton College and on to King’s College, Cambridge, the two institutions where James spent most of his life, venturing into ancient churches, dark cloisters and echoing libraries along the way. By following in James’s footsteps, Mark will attempt to uncover the secrets of his inspiration.

Monday, 28 October 2013

Lou Reed RIP

Lou Reed
Lou Reed, lead singer of Velvet Underground, dies aged 71
Musician and his New York group influenced generations of bands with mixture of European and US styles of sound and art

Sam Jones and Shiv Malik
The Guardian
Sunday 27 October 2013

Lou Reed, lead singer of the Velvet Underground, veteran chronicler of life's wilder, seamier and more desperate side and one of the most influential and distinctive songwriters of his generation, has died at the age of 71.

He had been suffering from liver failure and received a transplant earlier this year.

Reed's literary agent, Andrew Wylie, said the musician died on Sunday morning in Southampton, New York, of an illness related to the transplant. His UK music agent, Andy Woolliscroft, confirmed the news to the Guardian earlier on Sunday night, saying: "Yes I'm afraid it's true. I'm very upset."

John Cale, his longtime friend and a founding member of the Velvet Underground, said: "The world has lost a fine songwriter and poet … I've lost my school-yard buddy."

Tributes from musicians and writers were quick to appear on social media.

David Bowie said on his Facebook page: "He was a master." Iggy Pop called it "devastating news". Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth wrote: "So sorry to hear of Lou Reed's passing this is a huge shock!" The chef and author Anthony Bourdain quoted the Velvet Underground's song Sweet Jane: "'Heavenly wine and roses … seem to whisper to me … when you smile' … RIP Lou Reed." Lloyd Cole wrote: "Without Lou there is no Bowie as we know him. Me? I'd probably be a maths teacher." Ryan Adams said only: "Lou Reed."

Nile Rodgers of the funk band Chic tweeted: "Lou Reed, RIP I did the Jools Holland show with him last year and we yucked it up. I didn't know he was ill."

The writer Salman Rushdie opted to commemorate the singer in a message heavy with references to his songs: "My friend Lou Reed came to the end of his song. So very sad. But hey, Lou, you'll always take a walk on the wild side. Always a perfect day."

Fans also piled on to Reed's Facebook page to leave tributes. "One of the greatest men I ever met and one of the kindest and most loving – and that's from someone who worked with him and knew him since the 1960s," wrote one.

Another said: "A sad day, not a perfect day at all. RIP., Lou. You'll never know what your words and music did for me and what an influence you had on the way I think."

Although the Velvet Underground never achieved great commercial success, their idiosyncratic mixture of harsh guitars and smooth melodies sung by Reed or model Nico proved enduring.

The band's influence on rock, art rock and punk was memorably summed up by Brian Eno's observation that although the first Velvet Underground album may have sold only 30,000 copies in its first few years, "everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band".

After making his name with the Velvet Underground and forming part of Andy Warhol's Factory scene in New York, Reed entered the similarly decadent orbit of David Bowie and Iggy Pop in the early 1970s and recorded a series of seminal and sometimes challenging solo albums including Transformer, Berlin and Metal Machine Music.

A heavy drinker and drug user for many years, Reed had a liver transplant this year at the Cleveland Clinic.Lou Reed's experimental nature influenced several musical genres from punk to electronica.

In June, his wife, Laurie Anderson, revealed just how ill he had been. "It's as serious as it gets," she told the Times. "He was dying. You don't get it for fun."

Despite his illness, however, Reed had appeared to make a rapid recovery. "I am a triumph of modern medicine, physics and chemistry," Reed wrote on his website a few weeks after his surgery. "I am bigger and stronger than ever. My chen tai chi and health regimen has served me well all of these years … I look forward to being on stage performing, and writing more songs to connect with your hearts and spirits and the universe well into the future."

But he also admitted that old age was taking its toll on his body. Appearing at the Cannes Lions international festival of creativity four months ago, Reed remarked on his increasing frailty. "How could time go that quickly? It never ceases to amaze me," he said. "The other day I was 19, I could fall down and get back up. Now if I fall down you are talking about nine months of physical therapy."

However, he also found time to rail against the quality of digital music – which he said sounded "like shit" – and at the amount of money artists received for music downloads.

Neither age nor illness ever succeeded in blunting Reed's confrontational edge. Reacting to details of the NSA surveillance programme revealed by the whistleblower Edward Snowden, he said it was "beyond belief" that the then 29-year-old could access the data and was able to release it.

"Wow. Does that speak well for our security or what?" he said. "It's so shocking. Obama of all people having that thing going on … A lot of the things [George W] Bush would have done, Obama has continued. How did that happen?"

Reed, whose lack of patience with the press was legendary, could not resist laying into the "parasitical side" of journalists. What they really want is something controversial."Asked by one reporter how he managed to stayed creative, he shot back: "How do I stay creative? I masturbate every day. OK?"

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Gothic Cinema...

The 10 best Gothic films: gothic films
The devil's work: gothic films at the BFI
From Nosferatu to Twilight, gothic films have explored what frightens us – and why we are willing victims of our fear. A few days before Halloween, and as the BFI begins a nationwide season, Michael Newton is seduced by horror, sex and satanism

Michael Newton
The Guardian
Saturday 26 October 2013

Beyond high castle walls, the wolves howl. The Count intones: "Listen to them! The children of the night! What music they make!" And those words usher you into a faintly ludicrous cosiness, the comfortable darkness of gothic. For gothic properties are altogether snug, as familiar as Halloween costumes – a Boris Karloff mask, the Bela Lugosi cape, an Elsa Lanchester wig. So it is that many of us first come to the form through its parodies; I knew Carry On Screaming! by heart before I saw my first Hammer film. And yet, within the homely restfulness, something genuinely disturbing lurks; an authentic dread. And watching these films again, we find behind both the security and the horror something we perhaps did not expect – a visionary poetry motivating it all.
The 10 best Gothic films: gothic films frankenstein 1931
Gothic is one of Britain's greatest cultural exports, moving quickly to Germany, then Ireland, then America, and then much of the world. The form originated in the 18th-century novels of Horace Walpole and Ann Radcliffe, set far from England in a historically remote, dream version of Catholic Europe. Then came the 19th century's series of gloomy fables:Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, James Hogg's Confessions of a Justified Sinner, Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, Bram Stoker's Dracula, and the marvellous ghost stories of Charles Dickens, Sheridan Le Fanu, Henry James and MR James. Over the last 100 years, gothic film has meant first of all the screening of these archetypal tales, and then the adaptation of their mythic spirit to modern life's still darker rigours.

A suspicion lingers among some that gothic answers only to the teenager's melodramatic instincts (TS Eliot diagnosed a taste for Edgar Allan Poe as fatally adolescent*), its terrors as ultimately unserious as saying "Boo!".
Yet gothic remains one of the best ways to explore what frightens us – our large undeniable experiences of loneliness, death, and personal or collective guilt. This apparently tawdry and peripheral form contains a hallucinatory history of the modern self. It brings to mind the fears we know, those we suppress and those we ought to have. Gothic performs this work through returning us to other, less palpable fears, the atavistic mind caught by images of dread or doom: a shadowy staircase; the playing fields at dusk; a discarded doll; the silence in an attic room.
The 10 best Gothic films: gothic films THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM
The gothic is only one kind of fantasy film, close to fairytale, and (though they share a border) distinct from the horror movie that it may be said to have spawned. (It is surprising how little actual violence there is in the best gothic films.) It presents an infected realism, one where the everyday facts of life are unhinged by an intervention from elsewhere. Through such disturbance, anything can come to seem gothic, though the more intimate and ordinary the better.

Towards the end of his career, the excellent late-Victorian gothic writer, Arthur Machen looked back on his work. He saw that he had been trying to capture the revelation of spiritual beauty he had found as a child in the physical landscape of Wales. And he regretted that in attempting to write something of that wonder, he had recast the numinous as dark and malevolent. Gothic had presented a way to express his sense of wonder, but had perversely manifested that wonder as wickedness. So it is that all gothic films – some of the finest movies ever made – raise the question as to whether dread can contain a form of visionary beauty. For gothic is one of the few places where our culture allows for the ineffable, for that which does not fit our reasonable schemes. Yet it does so by finding pleasure in the apparently unpleasurable, attraction in disgust and beguilement in fear. Part of the meaning of a film such as The Curse of Frankenstein is that the villain doesn't feel things as a sane, thoughtful person should, but resembles instead a cool surgeon, a scientist, a hardened killer. The irony is that we are invited to share these responses, not to feel too much disgust – to look, and not turn away.

To 19th-century writers, a fiction of supernatural terror was a "German tale", and so it is entirely appropriate that the first great wave of gothic classic films were, likewise, German: Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919), Paul Wegener's The Golem (1920), FW Murnau's astonishing Nosferatu (1921) and Faust (1926), and Danish director's Carl Theodor Dreyer's superb German-French production, Vampyr (1932). These are old movies, but they are far from naive; even the makeshift quality of their special effects adds to their uncanniness, like a haunted doll's house, or, as in Faust, an atmosphere of some mechanical skeleton-riddled Renaissance Rathaus clock. People looking for slick shock will be disappointed; the virtue of these films lies in the "streamy", associative way in which they tell their tales, communicating strangeness through a succession of irrationally interconnected images. It was this mode – in which film could come to seem a form of trance – that the Germans bequeathed to all the best of their gothic successors.

After the great silent gothic films, the baton passed to Hollywood and Universal Studios, as the meeting point for a number of European talents: Brits in exile such as Karloff and James Whale, and German migrants such as the German cinematographer, Karl Freund. Whale's two Frankenstein films and Tod Browning's Dracula (1931) play out in an imagined Mitteleuropa, replete with moustachioed landlords and peasants in lederhosen or dirndls. In Dracula, an insipidly urbane modernity is seduced by the over-acting that signals the lost past. In the chaos on set during the making of that film, Freund took over, and he is certainly responsible for its wistful, faded charm, best glimpsed in the mysterious fleeting shots of Dracula's white-clad brides. But Universal's tour de force, and one of the greatest films of the 1930s, is Whale's Bride of Frankenstein (1935), a movie that begins with Lord Byron declaring his delight in Mary Shelley's "pretty chills", and that explicitly sets out to expose the darkness in such prettiness. It is both the most vicious of the Universal horrors and, not coincidentally, the campest and funniest. A vein of ironic and grotesque fancy runs through it, tinged with Wildean subversions. Karloff's Monster is alternately childlike in his curiosity and bestial in his rage; he lurches between being a source of terror and an object of pity.

Gothic began with exotic locales set in the distant past; one of the Victorian period's innovations was to draw this alien otherness back to Britain itself, to the here and now. This discovered gothic quality within everyday life found one of its finest expressions in the American work of French-born director Jacques Tourneur, especially the brilliant Cat People (1943), Curse of the Cat People (1944)** and Night of the Demon(1957). All three films present a character unable to credit the supernatural, or even suspicious of the imagination as such. In Cat People, our hero Ollie (Kent Smith) is an apple-pie-eating, all-American, chisel-jawed guy. His unreflecting faith in enlightenment, progress and psychiatry contends with the archetypal, the superstitious, the fact of human evil. European heaviness in the shape of Irena (Simone Simon), his Serbian cat-woman wife, drags this chipper American down; for the first time in his life, Ollie is unhappy. "I love silence. I love loneliness," purrs Simone Simon. There is no pursuit of happiness for her. Irena believes her trouble is one of the soul, an unfortunate property that no American in this movie would want the inconvenience of possessing. (The idea of the soul captivates gothic films from Dracula to The Devil Rides Out, though most tend to express that fascination through ssaults on the body, achieving carnality in sexual desire or in gore.) Troubled by Irena's Balkan heaviness, tempted by normality, Ollie strays romantically; this must be one of the few films of marital infidelity where the other woman is a breezy, swell type of home-making gal, and the wife seems an unreadable.

There have always been good British supernatural films – Ealing Studios' Dead of Night (1945) and Thorold Dickinson's The Queen of Spades (1949) are particularly impressive. Yet for most people, British horror means Hammer. When Hammer Studios turned to the horror movie in the late 1950s, to distinguish themselves from their Universal forebears they presented not black and white darkness, but brightness. Shot in Eastmancolor, the first batch of Hammer Horror movies – Terence Fisher's The Curse of Frankenstein(1957), Dracula (1958) and The Mummy (1959) – are among the loveliest-looking British films of the decade. If this is horror, it's one closer to Poe's decadence than to Saw IV. The early Hammer films offer a last gasp of British romanticism, the solid sets drenched in a soft brilliance of shadows, of greys, reds and blues; when these films stray into the far woods, it's always autumn there, never spring. The leaves fall, and the light shines golden and clear; compared with the well-lit contemporary look of the "angry young men" films, Hammer's mournful sumptuousness must have been even more striking. They play out a 1950s reverie of contagion, lust and post-Suez anxiety. 
Questions of guilt circulate in these films, where the virtuous can be transformed into vampires through one moment of sexual weakness; Profumo and Dirk Bogarde in Victim (1961) are waiting at the next corner. The great Hammer films (and to me, they do seem great) are not terrifying, they're melancholy. They're in a low shared by many realist British films of the time, dejected by a wistful sense of life's limited possibilities. Although in Hammer the constraints of ordinary life are off, the dejection lingers.

Roger Corman's 1960s American gothic films – especially his stylish series of very loose Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, blessed by the presence of the wonderful Vincent Price – have more lurid vitality than their British rivals. Yet even here we may detect a shade of Ingmar Bergman, another sign that through that decade, European existential downheartedness would win out over American gusto. 

Arguably, the best American gothic film of the period was directed by a Pole – Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (1968). The great gothic fear is helplessness, that we might be victimised and dominated; for young Rosemary, this is a matter of being bullied and cajoled, her pregnancy taken from her and her body alienated from herself, and turned into the victim of a witches' conspiracy by her husband and elderly neighbours.

That same year, here in Britain, Terence Fisher's The Devil Rides Out portrayed comparable fears, the young becoming the hypnotised prey of a warlock of a certain age. The satanic rite at this film's centre is pretty much how Ronald Reagan imagined one of Ken Kesey's Acid Tests. However, the Dionysiac celebrants at this orgiastic 60s happening aren't beautiful hippies, but late-middle-aged suburbanites. The stockbroker belt turns out to be holding in a lot of disruptive desires.

In the era of The Manchurian Candidate, the anxieties expressed in Rosemary are found everywhere; with the similarly pregnant heroine of John Bowen's interesting BBC play, Robin Redbreast (1970), just as with Edward Woodward's entrapped puritan policeman in the Anthony Shaffer-scripted The Wicker Man (1973). Gothic requires victims, and, above all, inexplicably semi-willing ones; it is not just being taken over that provides the terror, but our knowledge of our collsion in the process, our inner compulsion to give ourselves over to desire, to death. Gothic tenders us a porous self, susceptible to invasion, where our subconscious mind is our private Fifth Column. In vampire films, the "victim" is a kind of addict, consciously repelled, unconsciously attracted. Through the best gothic stories, sleepwalkers, the mesmerised, the entranced and enchanted, stalk. The 60s and 70s could connect their radical absence of will to mind control, propaganda and the hidden persuasion of advertising; with brainwashing, the world had gone gothic. And with some of the advances in brain-scanning and nanotechnology, it looks set to stay that way.

In the 1970s, the finest purveyor of British gothic was no longer Hammer but the BBC. TV and radio were then, after all, the uncanniest of all the media – the stranger within the home. In a series of fantastic short films for Christmas, as well as in such anthology series as Dead of Night, the BBC (and especially Lawrence Gordon Clark) turned out a number of small masterpieces: Jonathan Miller's Whistle and I'll Come to You (1968), Gordon Clark's The Signalman – Dickens adapted by Andrew Davies – (1976) and Leslie Megahey's Schalcken the Painter (1979) especially stand out. The entrapped self so vital to gothic was everywhere here. Much contemporary horror imposes on the mind; these great ghost stories insinuate themselves into the imagination. The stories proceed by implication, by hints and glimpses; things turn on fractures in perception, on double-takes, on our uncertainty about what we see or hear. The fear comes from images too quick to be taken in, from sounds on the edge of notice, in the strangeness of the natural world.

In the contemporary stories, gothic became a vehicle for social criticism, especially in the admirable Dead of Night. In Don Taylor's "The Exorcism", a spectre is haunting a home counties middle-class Christmas dinner; it's a Marxist Märchen, a gothic Abigail's Party with a leftwing conscience. In John Bowen's "A Woman Sobbing", a great feminist fable, the fear coalesces around the woe that is within marriage.
The 10 best Gothic films: gothic films SUSPIRIA
In the cinema of this era, there are so many great works that it is hard to do more than list some of the very best – The Exorcist, Suspiria or The Shining, all movies that place the gothic at the heart of modern life. Yet, in my view, the finest gothic films of the period were those that most measured up to the power of the past – the place where, after all, ghosts come from. There were spirits abroad too; elemental forces from the dark ages and spooky stone circles on children's TV. Into the electric world intrude elements that displace modernity – ghosts, monsters, devil worship and, for some rationalists, religion itself. The objects of fear prove archetypal; their origins are in eternity. In one of the few cinematic remakes to bear comparison to the original, Werner Herzog's Nosferatu (1979) powerfully engages with the gothic past and with Germany's lost cultural inheritance. David Lynch's The Elephant Man (1980) is a Dickensian fairytale of London, a sombre and beautiful film, one that reminds us that gothic may provoke tears as well as shudders.

These works and others show our continuing need for the Victorians. The people of the 19th century stand both for the repression that we imagine ourselves as having refused, and for the lusts and guilt that we suppose were once repressed. In gothic, the Victorians are our necessary other, embodying all we reject, all that we hope we are not. The place of repression is the place of sex, summoned up by its opposite; as for the Victorians themselves there was medieval Dracula, troglodytic Mr Hyde. One great strength of gothic is its power to merge together the long‑ago and the troubled present. So it is that in the last decades came Buffy, Blair Witch, cool bloodshed and twilight. The form seems as vital as ever. Gothic may be unhappily in love with the past, but it undoubtedly has a rosy future. Its fears are perennial, apt for rediscovery by each generation, both in new works and in the undead images of celluloid.

Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film
BFI Southbank, London, SE1
Starts 22 October
Until 29 November

* He was wrong
** Actually directed by Gunther von Fritsch and Robert Wise...

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Paddy McAloon talks about Crimson/Red - and a review!

Paddy McAloon: My daughter wanted me to be a fireman not a pop star

Graeme Thompson
Sunday 29 September 2103

YOU may remember Paddy McAloon in the video for Prefab Sprout’s hit The King Of Rock ’n’ Roll: lounging beside a swimming pool, hair elegantly bobbed, sunglasses glinting, singing about hot dogs, jumping frogs and Albuquerque.

Twenty-five years later, in a hotel lounge in Durham, he looks less like The King, more like The Wizard.

With long grey hair and extravagant beard, which he tugs contemplatively when he isn’t roaring with laughter, McAloon views his past as a pop star as the work of some fresh-faced imposter.

Not only does it look like someone else “it feels like someone else too”, he says. “I lost interest in all that a long time ago. You realise that the most important thing is ordinary life.”

McAloon long ago swapped Top Of The Pops for the quiet of Consett, near Durham, where he lives with wife Vicki and daughters Georgia, Cecilia and Grace. Yet one thing has not changed: his ability to craft exquisite pop music.

The new Prefab Sprout album, Crimson/Red, the first new songs since 2001, is a beauty, filled with his literate lyricism and gorgeous melodies. Why has it taken so long?

“About 10 years ago it dawned on me that I wasn’t that interested in listening to one of our records,” he says in his soothing north-east lilt. “That bothered me and it put me off the rush to make more. I’m not lazy, I write all the time, but I don’t like to do the legwork.”

At 56 he remains infatuated with the perfect melodic twist. “I have a mystical attachment to songwriting,” he says.

“It’s painful to record them, to come up against a sense of your own inferiority, but the writing is a joy, a magical process. You may have proved yourself able to do it a few times in a row; the question is, can you do it again? That is where the thrill lies.”

Hailed as one of Britain’s most distinctive songwriters, McAloon is modest. Prefab Sprout made great albums, not least 1985’s Steve McQueen, featuring their first hit, When Love Breaks Down. His songs have been recorded by everyone from Kylie to Cher and he wrote the theme to ITV’s Where The Heart Is.

Yet he is self-deprecating (“I just think, well, at least you haven’t shamed yourself!”) and ambivalent about The King Of Rock ’n’ Roll. “I’m reconciled to being remembered for that song,” he says.

“The King Of Rock ’n’ Roll was purpose-built. I can do catchy if I want to! I’m aware that it’s a bit like being known for Yellow Submarine rather than Hey Jude but that’s OK.”

The long hiatus in Prefab Sprout wasn’t spent searching for the magic chord, it was mostly medical problems. Over the past decade acute tinnitus and a detached retina badly affected McAloon’s hearing, eyesight and mood.

I don’t have a modern computer. I can’t get on the internet, I can’t burn a CD, I’ve never texted anyone, I don’t know how you send an email

Paddy McAloon

Now, his health has improved. “I’ve had two cataract operations over the past year, which made a major difference, and my hearing is all right. At its worst it was monstrous. I was not a happy camper. Now, it’s still there but manageable. They can do bugger all medically but it has died off.”

This has ended any notion of Prefab Sprout as a functioning band. The other members, Wendy Smith and Paddy’s older brother Martin, left for families and careers.

The group once recorded in swanky New York studios and could get Stevie Wonder to play harmonica.

McAloon recorded Crimson/Red alone at home, playing everything himself. Prefab Sprout last played together in 2000 and are unlikely to do so again. “Part of me regrets not doing shows,” he says. “We could do justice to the songs but it’s too loud for my hearing. I’m grateful I’m still able to make a record.”

Life now revolves around home and family.

He has “fogeyish” tendencies. “I don’t have a modern computer. I can’t get on the internet, I can’t burn a CD, I’ve never texted anyone, I don’t know how you send an email.”

Are his girls fans? He laughs. “No! They play and love music but not mine.”

When Cecilia was at nursery she had a friend whose father was a fireman.

“She said to me: ‘Why can’t you do a proper job like that?’ My two eldest are at big school now and I think their teachers are more interested than they are. That’s kids, isn’t it?”

One of the best new songs is Adolescence. It reads like a touching note from a father to his children. “Two of them are in that zone and I think: ‘Good luck!’ I remember how it was; the insecurity, the who-am-I-going-to-be feeling. I remember how badly I wanted to be a great songwriter. I really, really, really wanted to do it.”

Crimson/Red provides further evidence that he made the grade.

Prefab Sprout – The Devil Has All The Best Tunes: Protest Songs, Crimson/Red and a Prisoner of the Past

October 18, 2013

It’s big news around these parts that Prefab Sprout, now reduced to main man Paddy McAloon, have just released their first album of new material since 2001’s ‘The Gunman (and Other Stories)’ ( ‘I Trawl the Megahertz’ from 2003 was a McAloon solo record and 2009’s ‘Lets Change the World With Music’ a rejected 1993 demo). Early records ‘Swoon’ and ‘Steve McQueen’ remain much loved benchmarks for quality song writing, the sort of intelligent guitar pop that has largely disappeared from our airwaves in the intervening 25 years or so. While the Sprouts have had the odd slip in quality control along the way (‘Let’s Change the World with Music’’s misconceived attempt at a Balearic house album was understandably rejected by CBS in 1993) each of the other albums has produced enough to hold the interest of the faithful if not the wider public.

The good news though is that McAloon’s commercial fortunes should be about to take a turn for the better – ’Crimson/Red’ is a joy, a simpler, more melodic, work whose songs have been drawn from McAloon’s considerable stockpile of old songs. For instance ‘The Old Magician’ apparently dates back to the late 1990s while ‘List of Impossible Things’ is reportedly 10 years old – and lest we forget this is a trick our Paddy reputedly pulled with 1985’s ‘Steve McQueen’ itself mostly written in the late 70s. As always with the Sprouts the meticulous attention to detail in terms of performance, phrasing and production only reveals itself after multiple listens – give it some time and songs like ‘Billy’, ‘Best Jewel Thief in the World’ and ‘Mysterious’ show a sparkle and charm that will cement them in your sub-conscious. Indeed four or five of the album’s ten tracks could easily make it onto a Sprout ‘best of’ retrospective – not something many acts 30 years into a recording career can boast. 

This need to let a work grow on you is fine for the committed of course, but has doubtless been a problem in gaining McAloon the wider recognition that his talent merits. Interviews for ‘Crimson/Red’ suggest he now feels an understandable distance from those early albums, yet equally trapped by fan expectations wanting him to repeat his past. Talking to Mojo, McAloon reasonably described his dissociation from his early work in terms of representing another, lost, younger self but by talking of the ghosts of his song structures in a way that echoed his own ‘Prisoner of the Past’: ‘I’m a ghost to you now… someone you don’t really wish to see… a shadow since you turned your back on me…’. Hard to say whether this pressure is perceived or real, but he does have a justifiable gripe regarding the indifferent critical and commercial reception to his main attempt to step outside of the ‘Prefab Sprout sound ‘I Trawl the Megahertz’. A recent Guardian interview suggested that this still rankles:

“That record was so important to me,” he sighs. “I was disappointed – extremely – that the Guardian never even reviewed it. That stayed with me. I kept waiting week after week: ‘Come on, if you’re thinking they don’t make records like they used to, if you’re looking for personal vision, something unusual – I’m your guy!’ But it never came.”

Full interview at:

Which brings us to ‘Crimson/Red’’s most intriguing track, the ‘Devil Came A Calling’, originally slated as the album title when it leaked onto a band message board in early summer. In the song the ‘articulate’ and ‘urbane’ devil offers McAloon a deal for his ‘immortal soul’: ’For 50 years I’ll spoil you …with power, wealth, a mansion on ‘Fellatio Drive’’. The narrative ends with the devil producing a signed contract that McAloon is ‘sure that I declined’. The tone is faultless blending the Robert Johnson Crossroads myth, Dennis Potter’s ‘Brimstone and Treacle’ and the camp of the Charlie Daniels Band – wonderful yet slightly troubling if it indicates the writer’s state of mind.

It’s hard to see how McAloon could feel doubt over his engagement with the industry though – there is no conceivable way that Prefab Sprout could be accused of selling out. While it’s true that their records increasingly acquired a more commercial radio-friendly sheen by the time of say ‘Jordan: The Comeback’(1989) and ‘Andromeda Heights’(1997) – they always appeared too eccentric, too music focussed to ‘compete’ in the mostly unpleasant mainstream pop marketplace. The late eighties were full of promising bands who would, you’d think, be much higher on Satan’s ‘to do’ list – the likes of Deacon Blue, for example, gave away so much between the honesty of ‘Raintown’ and the empty fist clenching of ‘When the World Knows Your Name’ that an ‘immortal soul’ would appear but a trifle. McAloon, by contrast, seemed instinctively to know that credibility is easily lost and near impossible to regain, initially at least seeking to take his indie fan base with him as the band got used to better studios, producers and quite possibly mansions…

The best example of this was the lead single of ‘From Langley Park to Memphis’ (2008) – the Springsteen skewering ‘Cars and Girls’. The lyric famously took issue with the then ubiquitous purveyor of stadium rock cliché’s restricted world view, before slightly retreating into the more conciliatory conclusion of ‘maybe life needs its dreamers…’. As the late John Peel once commented the song certainly broke new lyrical ground, being the only rhyme of ‘cool chick’ with ‘car sick’ in recorded history before or since! The sleeve was great too – a matchstick Springsteen in full ‘Born in the USA’ regalia on fire. Arguably Bruce had the last laugh though – ‘Cars and Girls’ was bewilderingly placed by CBS on the 1995 ‘Top Gear 2’ drive time compilation, a mis-hearing as spectacular as calling 10cc’s ‘I’m Not In Love’ a love song! 

Although released in 1988, ‘Cars and Girls’ was actually doing the rounds in 1985 on a Peel session recorded immediately after the issue of Steve McQueen, that also included the otherwise unreleased ‘Rebel Land’. Such was their creativity, and backlog of McAloon originals, at this time that they also recorded the enigmatic collection ‘Protest Songs’, originally intended to be a quick lo-fi follow up to Steve McQueen as a thank you to the fans. The project had no producer simply using noted engineer Richard Digby-Smith, and was explained thus by McAloon to Chris Heath of ‘Jamming!’ in late 1985:

“The original tactic was ‘let’s surprise everybody who’ll be expecting us to go for the big producer and deliver the killer punch, to be like Spandau Ballet’. I just thought ‘let’s go and do a bunch of songs’. Some of them are off-the-wall and recorded cheaply… just me and guitar… banged them down in the spirit of ‘The Basement Tapes’.”

For reasons that are not entirely clear the album wasn’t released as planned, emerging in the summer of 1989 as a 10 track collection with the addition of ‘Life of Surprises’ to the track listing McAloon gave ‘Jamming!’ in 1985. The eventual collection certainly remained stripped down though, a collection of exquisite, thoughtful, concise pop songs that come as close to perfection as anything in the band’s catalogue – bettered only perhaps by the acoustic re-recording of ‘Steve McQueen’ for its 2007 ‘Legacy’ edition. Among the delights are the briefly notorious ‘Diana’ and its rumination on the cult of the late royal celebrity “some calming apparition, you bet she is… creation of the editor…” and, my personal favourite, ‘Dublin’ where poetic lyrics and a breathy vocal combine to juxtapose the gentle beauty of phrases like “Who does not adore the sound, of music in the names of towns…” or “Behind the soft and peachy skin, where DNA or God begin…” with the “myths and less exalted forms” that reinforce the division of Ireland . Other highlights included “’Til the Cows Come Home”’s evocative thoughts on escaping working class roots, or “Pearly Gates”’ near hymnal contemplation of mortality – both wonderful miniatures that rank among their finest work. If there is a criticism it is only that some of the more up-tempo songs like ‘Tiffanys’ or ‘Wicked Things’ could have been improved by a full band treatment, as indeed they later were in concert. Nowadays the internet makes it relatively easy to remedy this and hear what might have been on a number of good quality bootlegs from the period. One such example is this BBC ‘In Concert’ recording from Reading University (which appears to have a slightly different track listing to that originally broadcast, compared with my C60). Particularly splendid are the versions of ‘Cars and Girls’ and debut single ‘Lions in My Own Garden (Exit Someone)’.

So it seems unlikely that Paddy McAloon has much to reproach himself for. Most of his remaining fan base would wish him only the freedom to follow his muse with, perhaps, a slightly more frequent check in with the world outside his studio and, just maybe, putting out some of those unreleased gems too. I fear that, given his perfectionism and poor health of the last ten years, this is all rather unlikely. In the meantime though we have the gift of Crimson/Red and for that much at least let’s be grateful.

Phil Barnes

14 October 2013

Prefab Sprout: The Best Jewel Thief in the World - official video: