Tv review: Payne (1999)

PaynePayne (1999)

[Published on IMDb, 2005)

The US has a history of lifting successful comedy formats from the UK, some of which have proved as successful – and occasional more so – than the original templates. Steptoe and Son became Sanford and Son, Till Death Us Do Part begat All in the Family, Man About the House mutated into Three’s Company. Payne is not one of those shows.

Much as the US version of Coupling appears to have surgically sliced out the sex and sarcasm which made the original so funny, the team behind Payne seems unable to grasp that none of the characters in Fawlty Towers are meant to be likable, with the possible exception of Polly. Basil acts superior but has deep insecurities, Sybil is a self-centred bitch, Manuel is an idiot, even the guests are barely coherent.

But that’s what makes them human. And funny. And whilst we bemoan the fact that Cleese & Booth produced only a dozen episodes of Fawlty Towers, we can sit agog that Payne made it as far as nine.

DVD review: Lover’s Concerto (1995)

BallerinaLover’s Concerto (aka The Ballerina, 1995)

[Published on IMDb, 2005]

This film was released as a UK DVD release in 2001 by Prism Leisure, under the title The Ballerina; as an indication of the company’s shoddy handling, Shelley Michelle and Lisa Marie Alach are credited on the sleeve as Sally Michelle and Lisa Marie Alachi.

Much of Ms Michelle’s screen time is taken up by her dancing, accompanied by what appears to be her personal quartet; the supporting cast-members are only slightly less convincing as musicians than she is as a prima ballerina. When not providing background classics (wouldn’t a decent CD player have been cheaper?), the quartet hang around the pool and sauna, swapping partners and bodily fluids, whilst ‘Katya’ (Michelle) gazes from afar and longs to join in. The ambiance is very much of late-night tv erotica, but paced more slowly: Red Shoe Diaries after a large mug of Horlicks.

New horror group rises from the slab

A new monthly gathering for horror and dark fantasy fans in Solihull and Birmingham will be launched next month at the Spread Eagle pub in Acocks Green. British horror author Ramsey Campbell has agreed to be the group’s honorary president, and plans to attend the inaugural meeting via videolink. For full details, please contact me via steve.green@ghostwords.co.uk.

Edit 1/12: The initial gathering will be held from 7pm on Saturday, 5 December. The group’s website will be launched very shortly.

The past is a different country

XeroxferoxIt’s hard to believe now, but there was a time, just a couple of decades ago, when British horror fans risked criminal prosecution simply for possessing videotapes of movies which are now readily available on Blu-ray from reputable high street retailers. The sheer absurdity of this draconian clamp-down helped fuel an explosion in the number of small press magazines devoted to the genre, many of which crossed my desk during the years I produced my monthly ‘Fanzine Focus’ column for The Dark Side.

One of the other magazines I wrote for back then was Headpress (“The Journal of Sex Religion Death”), whose publishing wing eventually grew to incorporate a range of film guides and cultural analyses. Among 2013’s releases was John Szpunar’s Xeroxferox: The Wild World of the Horror Film Fanzine, a selection of interviews with key players on both sides of the Atlantic — myself included, although that hasn’t biased my favourable opinion of its value as a revelatory window into social attitudes during a particularly oppressive period in this country’s cultural history.

DVD review: Dark Matter, Season One (2015)

Dark Matter, Season One (2015)Dark Matter

[First aired on Syfy, the opening season of Dark Matter is currently available from Acorn DVD. This review appeared in The Dark Side #171, December 2015.]

 

A dysfunctional ragtag band of interplanetary mercenaries and political exiles, forced to scratch a shadowy existence on the fringes of known space, continually facing conflict both within and outside their no-frills starship… No, Joss Whedon hasn’t quit the Marvel sausage factory in order to reboot the Firefly franchise, despite that show’s clear similarities with the Syfy Channel’s homegrown thriller Dark Matter, which has just been renewed for a second season and is now available on DVD for those who missed its inaugural 13-episode run.

Co-created by Stargate writers Joseph Mallozi and Paul Mullie, who adapted their unsuccessful initial tv pitch into a well-received Dark Horse graphic miniseries before Syfy greenlit a weekly show, Dark Matter adds to its air of mystery by opening with its half-dozen human characters awakening from stasis aboard the freighter Raza to discover their memories have been wiped (the ship’s title is a homophonic in-joke, ‘tabula rasa’ being Latin for ‘blank slate’). Nor has the Raza’s resident android (Zoie Palmer, Bo’s lesbian lover Lauren in Lost Girl) escaped the saboteur’s interference, leaving all but one crew member in the dark as to his or her true identity and motivations.

For convenience, codenames are allocated in the order they left stasis: One (Marc Bendavid) seems to be the nearest to a reluctant hero among them; the feisty Two (Melissa O’Neil) swiftly becomes his second-in-command, taking the teenage Five (Jodelle Ferland, Mary Jensen in Kingdom Hospital) under her wing; Three (Anthony Lemke, another Lost Girl alumni) is the ship’s muscle, a role reminiscent of Firefly’s Jayne; Four (Alex Mallari Jr) and Six (Roger R Cross, Reggie Fitzwilliam in The Strain) are soon unmasked as killers on the run, but nothing in this series is quite as it seems.

Filmed, like Lost Girl and the Stargate conveyor belt, in Canada, Dark Matter has much to recommend it, not least the central story arc which underpins the first season and builds to a terrific reveal in the closing moments (none of the actors was tipped off ahead of the scene being shot). True, certain elements are less than wholly original, but there are plenty of twists along the route, buoyed by excellent performances from the regular cast, and I for one look forward to stepping back aboard the Raza when it relaunches next summer.

 

Extras: In addition to a photo gallery, each of the episodes has its own short featurette, focussing upon the individual characters, clues to their backgrounds and elements of the Dark Matter universe.

Film review: Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988)

MyersHalloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988)

[From Critical Wave #17, 1990. Copies of Platform Entertainment’s 2010 DVD release are currently available via Amazon, as is the 2012 Blu-ray edition.]

 

There are essentially two schools of thought when it comes to horror movies. The first, typified by John Buechler and Clive Barker, holds to the theory that emotional response is directly linked to visual bombardment: the gorier the image, the greater the impact. The other, which informed Robert Wise’s superlative 1963 screen adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, opts instead for intensity and suggestion rather than graphic anatomy lessons, shadows rather than splatterfests.

Regrettably, the latter school has had few graduates in the past decade, the box office success of Freddy Krueger and his rivals too much of a temptation for young film-makers eager to make their mark and all too ready to jump aboard the bloody bandwagon if it seems to be heading in the right direction. That’s not to say I’m not in favour of a little gore once in a while, just that by the time you’ve seen your tenth eye-gouging or your fortieth disemboweling, the entire affair loses its initial shock value, much as a stag night comedian who peppers his routing with “fucks” soon becomes merely tiresome.

So I suppose I should send a note of thanks to Dwight H Little, director of Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, for not only creating (with screenwriter Alan B McElroy) a movie with sequences of real tension, but denting the view that horror sequels are by their very nature a worthless exercise in audience exploitation. The third chapter in the Myers saga (Halloween 3: Season of the Witch having no connection to its predecessors, you will recall) opens a decade after John Carpenter’s original, Jamie Lee Curtis’ character having survived her murderous brother only to die in a traffic accident, the focus shifting to her young daughter, now fostered by one of Curtis’ babysitting clients. Uncle Michael is safely locked up, of course, but (surprise, surprise) escapes to wreak havoc in tranquil Haddonfield yet again.

Several questions arise at this point, such as “How come psychopaths are always relocated in pitch darkness?” and “Why don’t people simply leave town for the Halloween weekend?”, but expecting a sensible answer is as pointless as wondering how Myers and monomaniacal psychiatrist Donald Pleasance survived the fiery finale of the second movie. You simply have to suspend disbelief, set your brain in neutral and go with the flow; gore fans may be disappointed by the conspicuous lack of on-screen carnage (folks get offed, sure, but with a refreshingly economical style), but I actually jolted at one point towards the close, which is quite a change from the usual predictable yawnfest. And make certain you catch the final few minutes, for one of the neatest twist endings in many a moon.

Film review: Edge of Sanity (1989)

Edge2Edge of Sanity (1989)

[From Critical Wave #11, 1989. Twentieth Century Fox released a DVD in 2004, copies of which are currently available via Amazon. Copies are also currently available on eBay.]

 

If Robert Louis Stevenson, awakening from the nightmare which spawned his novel The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, had been granted a vision of the legion of cinematic emetics his book would ‘inspire’, I suspect he’d have thrown his notebook to the floor, slid back under the sheets and vowed to never again eat strong cheddar before retiring.

However, we have Allied Visions’ Edge of Sanity as testament that such was not the case, with Anthony Perkins drafted in to essay the role of the deranged doctor. Intriguingly, the script is credited to J P Felix and Ron Raley, with no mention of the original source, though judging from the final result, this may be out of respect for the dead.

The core of Stevenson’s novel is its anthromorphosis of Victorian society, the Jekyll / Hyde split holding a mirror to the hypocrisy of the privileged few who preached morality in the daytime and spent their nights frequenting music halls and brothels. Its subsequent stage adaptation by the American actor Richard Mansfield struck a deep chord in a community then being terrorised by the Whitechapel murderer immortalised as ‘Jack the Ripper’, a relevance not lost on the makers of this movie.

What Edge of Sanity chooses to do, however, is to forge a direct historical link between the murders of autumn 1888 and the fictional antagonist of a novel published two years earlier. By dubbing the murderous alter-ego ‘Jack Hyde’, it attempts to cash in on the interest rekindled by last year’s centenary and at the same time legitimise its sado-sexual excesses; needless to say, it fails on both counts.

EdgeAnthony Perkins tackles his dual role with only a modicum of make-up (arguably the film’s single merit), playing the Hyde persona as a close relative of the homicidal priest he portrayed in Ken Russell’s excellent Crimes of Passion. This time, unfortunately, Perkins is allowed to go completely over the top and thus disastrously undermines his character’s credibility. His decision to take this course might be a conscious attempt to emphasise the difference between the mild-mannered workaholic Jekyll and his amoral doppelgänger, but it’s just as likely to be another coffin nail in director Gerard Kikoine’s reputation — particularly when Glynis Barber (as Elizabeth Jekyll) is allowed to be just as wooden as Kim Cattrall was in Kikoine’s previous genre effort, the dismal Mannequin.

Even more self-destructive that the erratic performances on screen is the film’s reliance on softcore titilation, underlined by Valerie Lanee’s bizarre costume designs, which totally eschew historical accuracy and opt for a cross between Ann Summers and Cyndi Lauper, decorated with more crucifixes than the Vatican. At some points, it out-Russells Ken himself, no mean feat but no reason for anyone to bother tracking this film down, either, unless you’re an s&m junkie. And if you are, I doubt you’ll find this dressed-up slasher yarn any more to your taste than I did.

Separated at birth?

I’m currently watching Odeon Entertainment’s excellent Blu-ray release of The Blood On Satan’s Claw (1971)*, wherein Linda Hayden’s demonic possession manifests itself in her sprouting bizarre bushy eyebrows. Hold on, I thought, could that mean model / actress Cara Delevingne has struck a similar deal with the Great Beast?

Eyebrows

*(Odeon is currently offering a triple-disc deal for The Blood On Satan’s Skin, Witchfinder General (1968) and The Blood Beast Terror (1968), all three on Blu-ray for £30. Word to the wise: availability is extremely limited.)