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Warning – contains spoilers!

With the advent of All Hallows Eve last weekend, my better half and I settled down in front of the box for our traditional scary movie night. This year’s choice was low budget little Australian flick The Babadook, (hat tip to Mr Bligh yet again, for the recommendation).

The story centres around six year old Samuel who lives with his frazzled and sleep deprived single mum Amelia. We are shown in flashbacks how Samuel’s dad Oskar died in a car accident while driving the pregnant Amelia to hospital to give birth to him. Forward to the present, and Samuel is convinced that an imaginary monster inhabits the house and builds a variety of makeshift weapons to defend himself and Amelia against ‘it’. Her son’s night terrors and increasingly erratic behaviour have caused the sleep deprived Amelia to reach breaking point.

After one of Samuel’s weapons is discovered in his possession at school, Amelia removes him rather than have the boy put under special measures. That evening Samuel selects a bedtime story book called ‘Mr Babadook’ that Amelia is unfamiliar with. At this point the fun kicks in. Mister Babadook turns out to be possibly the most splendidly inappropriate children’s pop up book of all time, its sinister charcoal drawings accompanied by a rhyme that reads like it was written by a particularly vengeful Spike Milligan on a bad acid trip.

As things start to go bump in the night, an increasingly terrified Amelia begins to suspect that Samuel’s insistent warnings about ‘the Babadook’ may well be founded in reality. Or is it all in her head, a twisted hallucination borne of past trauma and too little pillow time?

Well, glad to say it certainly isn’t, and I was cheered that the film didn’t end up going down the route of that well roasted old chestnut of a plot twist. At its core The Babadook is a film about repressed grief; a theme that runs through the film and forms its inner core. Amelia refuses to have Oskar’s name mentioned in her presence, and cuts a rather wan and fragile figure, listlessly moving from one day to the next, feeling increasingly isolated due to her son’s behaviour. It’s almost painful to watch Essie Davies’ nuanced portrayal of a single parent laden down by grief, confronting the seemingly unsympathetic world around her. Amelia’s mental and emotional state is deftly evoked in the films cinematography, all washed out greys punctuated by harsh lighting.

Is the Babadook itself is a manifestation of Amelia’s repressed grief for Oskar, (the Babadook appears to Amelia as her dead husband at one point) brought to the surface by Samuel’s fear of ‘monsters under the bed’ and her subsequent lack of shut eye? The Babadook certainly ends up acting as a catalyst in shaking Amelia out of her moribund state, forcing her to confront her fears (of grieving for Oskar?)

The monster (poltergeist would be more fitting) is a suitably ambiguous presence. Although we are left in no doubt of its malign intent, the spirit’s personality is childlike, if nasty and unpleasant; it hides in dark shadows (Amelia and Samuel’s home is a gloriously lit sound stage steeped in sharp and oppressive shadow of which F W Murnau would have been proud), and delights in mischief like bobbyknocking. In fact, the spirit seems to be capable of being frightened itself as when an enraged Amelia confronts it at the film’s climax forcing it to retreat into the cellar and perceived safety away from a mother’s wrath (in the final scene we see Amelia and Samuel collecting earth worms from the garden which Amelia then takes to feed the Babadook who has taken to living in the cellar, thus representing Amelia coming to terms with her fears and living with the loss of Oskar).

The aspect I loved most about The Babadook (apart from the fantastic, intentionally lo-fi appearance of the Babadook itself, you’ll see what I mean if you watch the film) was the ambiguous nature of the eponymous spirit. It is left unclear as to the provenance of the storybook that unleashes the entity into the lives of Amelia and Samuel, leading one to suspect that both book and spirit are manifestations of either mother or son’s ids, manifesting physically in order to force Amelia to confront her demons. Horror, I think, is the genre that does this sort of ‘show, don’t tell’ approach the best when handled skilfully as I believe it is done here.

But don’t take my word for it. Take a look, ‘cos you can’t escape the Babadook.

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A couple of weeks ago I popped along to the annual Mayhem film festival held at Nottingham’s Broadway cinema for a pre certificate screening of The Witch, an atmospheric little folk horror movie recommended by my esteemed work colleagues Alan and Holly, with whom I share a love of horror cinema, and who tagged in for a very enjoyable post film session of tea, cake and film geek chat.

The trailer had promised what looked to be a bleak and oppressive tale, and the finished article doesn’t disappoint on either score. Coming across like Ken Loach channelling Dario Argento, director Robert Eggers spins us the tale of a puritan family in 17th century New England, cast out of their settlement for being too, er… puritan. No sooner has patriarch William and his nervy wife Katherine set up home in the wild, than their infant son mysteriously disappears while in the care of eldest daughter Thomasin. Cue the family’s descent into paranoia and fear as one event after another seems to conspire against them. The crops fail and Thomasin falls under suspicion of witchcraft, but are the family’s travails a manifestation of religious hysteria or does an evil presence truly lurk in the woods that loom against their small holding?

I’ll give away no spoilers here, suffice to say this has to be one of my favourite films of the year. Like all great horror, The Witch conjures up an unsettling atmosphere right from the start, aided by a superbly minimalist score and shot in a relentlessly desaturated palette of browns and greys (no hope, or colour here). In its atmosphere and setting the film evoked, for me at least, comparisons with the excellent Witchfinder General and the less well known Blood on Satan’s Claw (you don’t get films with titles like that nowadays, more’s the pity).

The Witch then, is my kind of horror movie; a much needed change from the numerous’ jump scare’ nonsense that currently infests the supermarket DVD shelves and streaming services. The script has the self-confidence to focus more on the unseen, psychological aspect of the situation the protagonists find themselves in, and director Eggers has the presence of mind to leave the audience’s imagination do its worst (although the film is no slacker in the ketchup stakes either).

A word of caution; The Witch is not forgiving of those with a deficit of patience when it comes to viewing habits. The characters dialogue is in the form of 17th century English vernacular, (no RSC vowels here), and though beautifully acted by the cast, demands the viewers full attention. For me though, details like this put the cherry on the cake that is the production’s splendidly realised period setting, and made me love this movie all the more.

And you’ll never look at a goat the same way again.

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An affectionate homage to seventies Italian giallo movies, Berberian Sound Studio stars the always dependable Toby Jones in diffident Englishman mode as Gilderoy, a sound engineer hired by the eponymous film studio to create the sound design for their latest feature The Equestrian Vortex, which the slightly unworldly Gilderoy naively assumes to concern our equine friends, but which, of course, turns out to be exploitation schlock horror of the kind that got the British tabloids all worked up at the dawn of the VHS era in the early 80’s.

This being a film primarily about sound as its title suggests, we get to see nothing of the visual aspects of the fictional movie within a movie, bar its grotesquely lurid title sequence which is cleverly substituted for the credits sequence of the ‘real’ film the audience is watching. Instead we get glimpses of its narrative through the characters dialogue and sound effects (most Italian movies of this kind were usually shot cheaply, without sound, with the dialogue dubbed over the top in several languages, enabling the studios to distribute their productions into numerous European and overseas markets).

Gilderoy, belatedly realising he isn’t making a documentary on equestrian pursuits, but a horror film about undead witches laced with healthy dollops of misogyny and sadistic violence, starts to become ever more estranged from the rest of the production staff, most of whom consist of surly engineers, an ice maiden secretary and a production head with the sexual morals of Attila the Hun. Right from the start we get a feel for the englishman’s sense of alienation and displacement in a foreign clime, exemplified first by the language barrier, then by the byzantine office politics, and treatment of actresses that would make the Taliban blush.

Up to this point, at about two thirds in, I’ll admit I wasn’t sure where the film was heading, and the last third veers off into Lynchian surrealism, which judging from a lot of reviews I’ve read definitely isn’t a lot of people’s cup of tea. My own reaction was one of slight frustration, as it seemed the film lacked the courage of its convictions (is Gilderoy suffering hallucinations due to his isolation, is he going mad?) in taking the story to its ambiguous conclusion. That said, Berberian Sound Studio is perhaps best viewed as an experience, rather than a strict piece of narrative. The last act certainly has the quality of a nightmare, in keeping with a lot of Italian horror movies and giallo of this period (check out Lamberto Bava’s Demons, if you haven’t already, for a great example of this).

Certainly recommended for those with an appreciation of the oevres of Dario Argento and Mario Bava, and the underbelly of Italian seventies cinema in general. An interesting curio.

NB -For those interested Berberian Sound Studio’s director Peter Strickland (great name, but sadly no relation) has recently directed a reimagining of Nigel Kneale’s classic 70’s chiller The Stone Tape for Radio 4. At the time of writing, it’s still got a week to go on iPlayer, and is well worth an hour of your time.

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Okay, I know it’s perhaps a bit mainstream for this blog, but to hell with it, the Star Wars movies are an indelible part of my cultural hinterland. Besides which every other Tom, Dick and Harry has thrown their two’pennorth in, and the Star Wars universe has cool spaceships, droids, lightsabres, walking carpets and oh god, will someone deliver us from the leaden prequels…

Well, say what you like about JJ Abrams, but the bloke knows how to spin a yarn, and on this showing he might just have saved the Star Wars IP from disappearing up the Trade Federation’s backside. There isn’t an inch of expository lard to be trimmed from the first outing since Disney paid the equivalent of Africa’s GDP to get their hands on the property. You can almost hear the sound of Mickey Mouse mopping his brow with relief.

I have to admit, I went in with low to zero expectations. Perhaps that helped, but my initial reaction is that the galaxy far, far away has got its mojo back. Perhaps the lack of blue screen helped, the deliberate scaling back, less is more approach to the CGI, Abrams decision to film in real locations, making the Star Wars universe feel like a real place again. All these factors edged me towards giving The Force Awakens a favourable nod, yet there is something intangible about Episode VII that makes it feel like a Star Wars movie, a spirit that the prequels failed to capture (although I should add that I think the Clone Wars animated series does).

It’s this impossible to put your finger on ‘x factor’ that swung the movie in a favourable direction for me. Inevitably it already has its detractors, but people my age just need to get over the fact that it’s not going to be like it was when you first watched A New Hope or Empire or Jedi when you were six or seven years old. The cruel world of death and taxes inevitably soils your sense of wonder to some degree. Such is life.

I won’t bother to blather on about the plot here, there are plenty places you can go to for a full throated review of the narrative, spoilers and all. What then does the movie have going for it, I hear you cry? First, the two leads; Daisy Ridley does a hugely impressive job of carrying the weight of the movie on young untested shoulders, with John Boyega putting in a grand turn as comic foil playing a deserting stormtrooper (specialisation – sanitation. Can’t they get droids the clean the traps?) Harrison Ford pretty much phones in his performance, but you get the sense that playing Solo again feels like putting on a comfy old jacket for him. His scenes with Carrie Fisher carry an emotional depth that betrays thirty years of their characters unseen travails with a glance and gesture almost sans dialogue, a masterpiece of small acting and ‘show, don’t tell’ direction. Abrams understands that stories are ultimately, all about characters.

New droid BB8 is endearing rather than irritating, and the already much maligned by fandom Kylo Ren is pitch perfect as the wannabe dark jedi with anger management issues. Yes you want to give him a hiding, but surely that’s a tribute to the Adam Driver’s portrayal of who Ren is as a character. A dislikable sulky little wretch who didn’t get enough cuddles off his mum and now wants to go round blowing up planets because of it.

Plenty of questions are raised along the way, neatly setting up the story arc for episodes VIII and IX, and the ending is a classic cliffhanger; Abrams knows to always leave ‘em wanting more. On this showing I await the next instalment with renewed excitement.

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Kurt Russell? Check. Old West setting? Check. Cannibal troglodyte mountain men? Check.

Well, you had me at hello. A Sunday afternoon trip to favoured cinephile haunt the Broadway with my old partner in crime Alan saw pair of us spend an enjoyable couple of hours viewing this under the radar mash up of two of our favourite genres, namely the western and horror. As you might have guessed from my opener, I’m a bit of a sucker for anything with Kurt in (Overboard and Captain Ron are great films, and I’ll take issue with any man who says otherwise.) Apart from that other little Tarantino flick he’s just knocked out, the last film where The Russell has sported such impressive facial hair was the stone cold 90’s classic Tombstone. Clearly I was in for a treat.

I wasn’t disappointed. Okay, the film does have some flaws (a bit more tension in places wouldn’t have gone amiss, along with a ramping up of the grand guignol splatter element), but these are minor quibbles in what turns out to be a solid and respectable, if not quite a classic effort from director S. Craig Zyler.

The opening prologue sees a welcome cameo by genre stalwart Sid Haig, playing drifter Buddy, cutting throats and stealing from a bunch of napping cowhands along with his ne’er do well partner Purvis (a seedy David Arquette). Sure enough they soon stumble into a weird burial ground where natural justice is inevitably soon dispensed, with Buddy quickly dispatched with an arrow to the throat followed by disembowelling by a shadowy assailant, and the terrified Purvis making a desperate run for it.

Cut to the frontier town of Bright Hope where a drunken and nervy Purvis is confronted by Sherriff Hunt (Russell) and town troubleshooter and ladies man Brooder (Lost’s Matthew Fox). Shot in the leg trying to escape, Purvis is quickly thrown into jail where Hunt calls on the services of town doctor Samantha O’Dwyer (True Detective’s Lili Simmons) to patch up the miscreant.

Sure enough Buddy’s mysterious killers have followed Purvis to Bright Hope where they wreak some bloody mayhem before abducting Samantha, Purvis and Deputy Sheriff Nick (Evan Jonigkeit). Examining an arrow left behind by the attackers, token Native American Chief Ominous Exposition informs Hunt and Samantha’s distraught husband Arthur O’Dwyer (the excellent Patrick Wilson) that it belongs to a band of ‘trogodytes’, a tribe of devolved cannibal savages, who dwell in the ‘Valley of the Starving Men’ (how did the US Cavalry miss this lot?). Sheriff Hunt and O’Dwyer decide to form a posse with Brooder and back up deputy and comic relief Chicory (Richard Jenkins) to rescue the captives.

From this point the film enters into The Searchers meets The Hills Have Eyes territory where the macho men of the old west most definitely meet their match in the troglodytes (interestingly, their look evokes that of the cannibals in Ruggero Deodato’s infamous 1980 splatter Cannibal Holocaust and its many imitators) and the wilderness itself begins to take on an ever more threatening mileau.

As with a lot of horror flicks, the theme of masculinity in crisis looms large. Arthur O’Dwyer has been rendered lame, his leg broken in the course of a roof repair, and both Hunt and Brooder mine the classic western trope of violent men outliving their time (The Wild Bunch, The Shootist, Unforgiven.) While this serves to give their characters a certain mythic air, this is splendidly punctured later on when the captive Samantha berates Hunt and Chicory on the ‘stupidity of frontier life’ in them allowing her lame husband to accompany them on the rescue mission against a tribe of bloodthirsty cannibals. There’s just no helping some people. One scene of (literally) gut wrenching violence later, and it seems as if the posse’s emasculation is complete (where is Snake Plissken when you need him?).

I won’t give anything more away though, suffice to say it’s not for the squeamish (but then why ever would you come to this blog? Stumbled upon by accident you say? You’ll never leave…), but an interesting and solid attempt to marry together two iconic film genres.

Just a quick drive by blog entry tonight people! As promised in my last post, I’ve managed to track down this all time VHS classic from the 80’s. God bless Youtube is all I can say. I’ll post a more lengthy retrospective on this splendid slice of big haired heavy metal horror when I get chance. In the meantime, enjoy this belated Halloween treat, and if you haven’t witnessed its complete awesomeness, then rectify the situation now!

Over and out.

The occasion of All Hallows’ Eve saw yours truly sifting through the Amazon and Netflix listings for some macabre themed entertainment to wile away the evening, once the local gangs of trick or treaters had been bought off by with the stack of Haribo bought in for the occasion. Never get high on your own supply and all that.

With the pizza ordered and the evening stretching before me, it seemed rude not to have a double bill. First up was 1922, a recommendation thrown up by Netflix. Based on a Stephen King story from his anthology Full Dark, No Stars, it stars an unrecognisable Thomas Jane as Wilfred James, a down at heel farmer who plots to kill his wife Arlette over her wish to sell land that she has inherited and move to the city taking their son Henry with her.

Wilfred manipulates Henry into helping commit the murder using the boy’s budding romance with their neighbours daughter as a bargaining chip.

After almost bungling the killing, the pair hide Arlette’s body in the farm’s well, but this being a King adaptation, things begin to go south very quickly for Wilf and Henry from here on in.

At its heart, 1922 is an old fashioned morality tale, but although the protagonists end is never in doubt, there is enough narrative skill employed to keep the viewer hooked on what their ultimate fate might actually be.

Next I flipped to Amazon for Orphan, a glossy Hollywood evil kid/family in peril bit of highly polished schlock. I confess to having had half an eye on this one for a while, being a big fan of the evil child horror sub genre ever since scaring myself witless watching The Omen (1976) as a kid.

Scream Queen Vera Farmiga of The Conjuring fame takes the lead as Kate, a recovering alcoholic traumatised by the stillbirth of their third child. Deciding to adopt, Kate and hubby John come across mysterious 9 year old Russian girl Esther at the local orphanage. Soon enough, bad things begin to happen around Esther, and the demands of the plot see that John, a successful self made architect, sees fit to suspend his critical faculties with regards to his newly adopted daughter.

Orphan is trash, but it’s well made trash, with a decent cast and production values and a stand out performance from Isabelle Fuhrmann as the malevolent Esther. A decent twist too. Worth checking out if you’re a fan of psycho kid films.

As I’m sitting here spilling metaphorical keyboard ink, the joyous memory of the 80’s straight to video heavy metal horror classic Trick or Treat has popped into my head and I’m kicking myself for not thinking of it on Halloween itself. Better late than never, I shall scrape the Amazon barrel tonight, and get some kind of retrospective/review put on the blog. Watch this space.

Or should that be Marvel vs DC? It’s the question that divides geekdom, our version of the Elvis or the Beatles conundrum. Well the answer is of course, that it’s okay like both (I know, I know, it will come as a revelation to some. Make yourself a cuppa and have a sit down before you carry on reading if you need to).

In this post I’ll be deconstructing the rivalry between the two US comic book giants, and exploring the differences between their two superhero universes, with a bit of a potted history of the American comic scene as we go.

Regular visitors to this august blog will doubtless be aware of my love of the comic book  medium, both as a vehicle  for storytelling and for showcasing some great art (yes, art teachers, comics are art). Being first and foremost a fan of British comics, starting with the war comics popular in the 70’s and early 80’s before progressing on to the delights of 2000AD, I never had a particular preference between either of the American giants, having been exposed to only  a handful of imports stocked in my grandparents newsagents. It was mostly through film and TV that I got into the Marvel and DC stuff with the the fondly remembered Christopher Reeve Superman films (the first two at least) and a bit later on the early Marvel animations shown infrequently on British TV in the 80’s. I also have memories of the late 70’s live action Spiderman series starring Nicholas Hammond that showcased some hilariously inept blue screen work (and his webslingers shot out rope! ROPE!). I distinctly remember waiting for the Green Goblin to make an appearance. The first of many youthful disappointments.

Despite Marvel getting in the act of exploiting its intellectual property early by sending Stan Lee of to Hollywood in the early seventies, they were gazumped by Warner Brothers acquisition of DC. With some serious financial muscle behind them, DC’s heroes made the leap to the silver screen first with Richard Donner’s Superman (1978), followed swiftly by its sequel in 1980. Batman’s journey to the big screen was somewhat more tortuous, finally culminating in Tim Burton’s splendidly gothic noir vision in 1989 (still the best of the Dark Knight’s live action outings for my money, but still outclassed by the superlative early 90’s Bruce Timm animations – check out his Green Lantern series on Amazon Prime).

All of which left Marvel with its metaphorical pants around its ankles. Apart from the aforementioned Spiderman TV show, Lee had scored some success with syndicated animations and a hit with the live action Incredible Hulk show (’you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry’). But transferring the Marvel universe to the silver screen would prove elusive, particularly without the backing of a major Hollywood studio that allowed DC to steal a march on its rival. It’s true that to do justice to many of Marvel’s creations would have required a prohibitively expensive (at the time) effects budget, and truth be told, the technology probably just wasn’t there at the time. You only have to witness the abomination of Albert Pyun’s Captain America (1989) and the thankfully unreleased Roger Corman version of The Fantastic Four  to witness the cold hard truth of this. Not that money was enough to save any version of the Richard’s family’s adventures as it turns out. And why Marvel ever let an inept schlock peddler alike Pyun anywhere near any of its properties, one can only guess. Be careful with your intellectual property rights, creatives!  In any case it seemed that the famously short attention span of Tinseltown quickly moved on from adapting superheroes for the screen, and for the time being the exploits of costumed heroes and villains remained in the realm of four colour ink. Marvel continued to sell film rights off to different parties (later resulting in a decades long court battle over bringing Spiderman to the screen, with Sony retaining those along with the X-Men film rights, resulting in their non appearance in the MCU when it came around, Homecoming notwithstanding).

Which brings us right up to the present day, with Marvel Studios owned lock, stock by the Disney behemoth, pumping out noisy high definition exploits of its pantheon seemingly at ten to the dozen while DC plays catch up with a, so far, uneven clutch of films kicking of its ‘extended universe’ or DCEU. And it’s the differing approaches each studio has taken with their universes which highlights their contrasting natures. Marvel favours a very clean, bright look to the MCU, one film seemingly blending into the next installment to such an extent that it’s difficult to tell the difference between directors, no matter how talented or high profile. If this sausage factory approach has led to a very tight cohesion in look and feel, then the downside is that creativity is sometimes sacrificed in order to maintain the format. Amid all the CGI and explosions, it’s difficult to feel connected to any of the heroes (or villains), something that the first two of Sony’s X-Men films (unconnected to the MCU – those pesky rights issues again), skilfully managed to avoid.

And is it me or do some of these films seem to have an unnecessarily long running time? Overplotting seems to be becoming a recurrent problem for me with some of the Marvel pictures, I’m thinking of Age of Ultron and Thor: the Dark World in particular here. I remember starting to lose interest halfway through with these two, in a way that I didn’t with say, Iron Man.

DC on the other hand seem happy to let directors take more creative decisions, which has led to rather uneven results, perhaps best exemplified by the mish-mash of Dawn of Justice, and the triumph of the long gestating Wonder Woman project.. The DCEU certainly seems to spend more time on characterisation, and is noticeably darker in look and tone. In retrospect, it’s not a great surprise that DC made it to the movies first, regardless of being bought by Warners, as it’s most famous creations (Supes, the Bat, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern and the Flash) all emerged during the Golden Age of the 30’s and 40’s and were well embedded in popular culture by the late 70’s. Even your mum could tell you what planet the son of Jor-El came from. Marvel’s glory years were predominantly in the Silver Age of the 60s-70’s when the golden duo of Stan Lee and Jack ‘King’ Kirby along with the now legendary Bullpen, virtually created the foundations of the Marvel Universe as we know it today. This meant that it had a way to go before gaining the sort of cultural traction enjoyed by DC.

The other major difference between the two is that Marvel’s Silver Age heroes were conceptualised as deliberately flawed human beings who just happened to have superpowers whether through accident, experiment or mutation. If anything these all too human flaws are magnified  by their acquisition of superpowers (‘with great power, comes great responsibility’) Their surroundings were self consciously contemporary, and grounded in the real world, being centred in and around New York City. In contrast DC’S pantheon inhabit imaginary stylised urban sprawls like Gotham and Metropolis or lands like Themyscira and Atlantis, giving the universe a semi-mythical ‘nowhere-time’ milieu. Sure Clark Kent and Diana Prince may appear flawed like you and I, but it’s all just an act, a mask to be discarded when the call to action inevitably comes. These contrasting approaches to the staple of American culture that is the superhero comic book, whether consciously planned or organic in execution (I suspect a bit of both) define the look and feel of the two most valuable and well known comic book universes today.

If I had to make a choice, I’d probably come down just on the side of DC, as I personally prefer the slightly darker feel, and I’m a big Batman fan. As with the DCEU, they seem to be more prepared to get creative, as exemplified in the ‘Elseworlds’ series. My all time favourite Superman book has to be Red Son, for instance, the self contained tale of a communist Superman arising from his spacecraft crashing on a collective farm in 1930’s Ukraine is one of the all time greats of the modern era in comics. If you haven’t read it, go do so. Immediately. Marvel’s recent questionable decision to out Captain America as a secret Hydra agent, just doesn’t cut it, and has only succeeded in dividing fandom. Perhaps if they’d done it as a stand alone alternative universe story?

On the other hand I’m really into Marvel’s Netflix originals series at the moment. Daredevil is another favourite character of mine, and the two series so far have been nothing short of excellent so far, with the showrunners riffing off Frank Miller’s 80’s and 90’s run on the character. Currently I’m bingeing on Jessica Jones, a lesser known character brilliantly brought to neurotic, cynical life by Krysten Ritter, that continues the dark look and themes of Daredevil. What stands out most in this series is that all the protagonists are actually really, really terrified of the baddie, an on form David Tennant, knocking it out of the park. When Hollywood needs a great baddie, always hire a Brit.

While the Netflix shows have gone for darker, more adult  themes than their cinematic cousins, they are still bound up in the wider MCU, with plenty of references to the films and characters to set geekdom all aquiver, unlike DC who have intentionally kept their TV and film universes separate from each other.

Back in the DCEU, the helmer of both Avengers flicks, Joss Whedon was hired in to finish the Justice League movie after Zack Snyder’s family tragedy, and word around the campfire is that Warners have retained his services for their planned Batgirl feature. Advance trailers for JL look promising, and it’ll be interesting to see what Whedon brings to the party.

A lot to look forward to then. DC have stand alone films slated all the way to 2020, with Aquaman, Flash, Cyborg and Green Lantern Corps (I liked the Ryan Reynolds movie. There. I’ve said it). And that’s before I’ve scratched the surface of reading any of the Rebirth stuff, in the comic universe’s latest reboot/universe/whatever – currently I’m ploughing through Aquaman: The Drowning, by the always reliable Dan Abnett..

On the Marvel side, there’s the mooted Punisher stand alone series, more Daredevil (yay!), Doctor Strange still to watch, the second book of Brian Michael Bendis’ Iron Man reboot comic series to read…

Really, it’s okay to like both.

 

And on an unrelated note, I’ll be taking a sabbatical from the Book of Face shortly, so if you’d like to continue reading my irregular missives, then may I suggest subscribing in order to receive them straight into your inbox? Any suggestions/comments/constructive criticisms are of course welcome in the comments, and if you like what you read, feel free, in the words of the ABC Warriors, to Spread the Word!

 

PS – for anyone interested in the history and background of American comics, I suggest picking up a copy of Marvel Comics: The Untold Story by Sean Howe. It’s a fascinating read if you are at all interested in this corner of popular culture, and is also available as an audiobook on Audible.

 

See you on the other side.

My friend and colleague Alan Bligh passed away on Friday 26th May.

Obviously it is difficult to sit here and write these words, trying to marshal my thoughts as a blank screen stares back at me, willing me to type something, anything. It seems appropriate to begin when I first became acquainted with Alan, which as a lot of my friendships have done, came through my employment at Games Workshop.

In the summer of 2010 I began working as a Graphic Designer in Forge World, where the Dark Lord, as he was affectionately known from time to time, served as the lead writer on the Imperial Armour series of books. Being a tight knit team, I worked closely with him and struck up a rapport with him based on our mutual love of sci-fi/horror/fantasy b-movies, history, politics and general culture, both low, high and pop. In fact there was barely a rare factoid or piece of useless, but always interesting trivia that Alan couldn’t summon up from his vast well of esoteric knowledge.

We discovered that we both shared a great fondness for Nottingham’s Broadway arts cinema, due to its habit of occasionally showing our favourite genre pictures and hosting the annual Mayhem horror film festival, the various offerings of which spurred on several reviews on this very blog.

Alan was a man big in both spirit and generosity as well as intellect. He was always ready to give his time, his talent and his thoughts to anyone who had need of them whether in the office or outside of it. Our many long chats over countless cups of tea (always tea!) about films, literature and toy soldiers provided the major inspiration and impetus for me to start this blog, so in a small way I hope that its existence serves as a tribute to him.

There have already been several heartfelt, and doubtless more eloquent eulogies to Alan’s memory than what I have put down here, written by those who were closer to him than I. In particular those published on the blogs of messrs John French and Aaron Dembski-Bowden, both very close friends to Alan, give a true measure of his character in a way that my humble prose can in no way hope to evoke.

His passing leaves a gaping hole, not only in the lives of his family and friends, but also in the Games Workshop hobby that he loved so much, and the invaluable contribution that he made to its fictional lore through his prose.

For those who knew Alan well, and those who enjoyed only a cursory acquaintance with him, down to those countless individuals across the world who never had to chance to meet Alan, but continue to be immersed and fascinated by the work that he has left behind, the news of his passing has been met with obvious shock, sadness, but also many beautiful words. Which is more than fitting for a man who loved the written word so much.

I miss you already my friend.

Rest easy.

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This one is going to be a bit longer than my usual posts, but it’s a subject I’ve been mulling over writing about for a while now, and I’ve built up a head of steam in anticipation of committing my thoughts to paper (sic). I refer to the oft maligned 1984 film adaptation of  Frank Herbert’s seminal science fiction novel Dune. Although fans of the novel remain divided over the film’s merits, personally I consider it to be the most successful attempt to capture the spirit of Herbert’s multi-layered universe on screen. And from the point of view of a film buff, I’m an unapologetic fan of Lynch’s version due to its sheer uniqueness in terms of its visual texture and otherworldly atmosphere.

First then a bit of background. It was either the fag end of 1984 or the beginning of ‘85 when I was taken to see Dune as an excitable sci-fi and fantasy obsessed nine year old. As I sat shrouded in the darkness of the ABC picture house in Leeds, what unfolded on the big screen was  the strangest big screen feature that I’d yet experienced. My vague and fragmentary memories of this time recall that the marketing of the film made it out to be the next Star Wars or Star Trek, so I’d been led to expect  a slew of the usual fast paced space battles and alien menageries. Although I remember feeling much disappointment when this turned out not to be the case, the film did leave a deep impression on me, perhaps because I found the narrative so incomprehensible, but also because the look and feel of the whole thing was so distinctive and esoteric. I’d never really seen anything quite like it, and the experience lodged itself firmly in my youthful memory.

Fast forward a few years, and age, along with several repeat screenings on late night Channel 4 (for any non British readers, this is the UK’s channel for more niche and left field material. Perfect for Dune then!) had caused me to reappraise the film. It’s disappointing box office and portentous tone had relegated it to bargain bin status and critical ridicule by the this point, and opinion among fans of the book still remained divided. Around this time, I got the urge to read the novel, in large part in order to try and fill in the gaps in the film. This happily connected all the dots and made the film adaptation a lot more comprehensible, while also having the fortuitous side effect of introducing me to the literary wonders of the Dune mythos. I’m guessing most readers of this blog are familiar with the novel; a sprawling science fiction epic encompassing themes of politics, religion, ecology and humanity’s evolutionary potential. If not,then a browse on Wikipedia will bring you up to speed, or better still grab a copy and enjoy. It’s the biggest selling science fiction novel ever for a reason (and it’s in my my top five favourite books of all time, but that’s for another blog).

I really did start to reappraise the film at this time and I still think that nothing like it has really been attempted before or since. Dune was a brave attempt to put a fictional universe of astonishing complexity on screen, and attempt to tell the story in just over two hours (Lynch’s original cut was just over three hours, but the studio demanded a shorter running time to make it more commercially viable). This was always going to be an unenviable task, and it’s a tribute to the skills of everyone involved in its production that it happened at all. So yes, Dune was a failure in many ways, but what a glorious failure! For anyone who has not yet seen it (cheap as chips on Amazon Prime), the most succinct way to describe it is as a historical epic set with science fiction trappings with a great dollop of drug induced mysticism thrown in. But given the complexity of the source material, how did the project get to the big screen at all?

The journey of Dune from page to screen was certainly a chequered one. The book’s author Frank Herbert had originally had it published in serial form in Analog magazine in the early sixties and had been turned down by numerous publishers before finally being picked up by Chilton, a publisher of car manuals, in 1965. Like Tolkien’s The Lord of The Rings, Herbert’s novel  benefitted greatly from the advent of the sixties counter culture, whose adherents identified with the elements of mysticism, environmentalism and trippy space drugs prevalent in the story. Publishing rights in the UK were snapped up by the left wing publisher Gollancz, and Herbert’s achievement was recognised by his peers when Dune won the coveted Hugo award.

The novel’s success inevitably attracted Hollywood, and the rights were optioned by 20th Century Fox producer Arthur P. Jacobs, fresh from his success with Planet of the Apes (1968). The project was still in development by the time of Jacob’s untimely death in 1973, and Fox let the rights lapse.They were picked up by a French business consortium that proceeded to hire the avant garde Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky to  direct a feature length adaptation of Dune.

The saga of Jodorowsky’s attempt to bring his vision of Dune to the screen is worth a blog all of its own, and is covered in great detail in the excellent documentary film Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013). I highly recommend it, and also his later graphic novel series The Metabarons, for anyone searching for visual clues as to how this version might have looked.

After Jodorowsky’s project collapsed due to burgeoning costs, a few years elapsed before the project was handed to the British director Ridley Scott, then enjoying the success of his second feature Alien in 1979. The massive box office returns of Star Wars in 1977 had signalled to the studios that science fiction was a potential goldmine. Paramount studios had been encouraged to reignite its moribund Star Trek property, and the hunt was on for the next big thing. The Dune project was thus resurrected, however Frank Herbert was reportedly unhappy with Scott’s treatment of his novel (several major changes to the story in the script reportedly included an incestuous relationship between the central protagonist Paul Atreides and his mother the Lady Jessica) and Scott struggled to come up with a satisfying adaptation, quickly moving on to the project that would result in Blade Runner (1982).

By this time the rights  to Dune had been acquired by the Italian born movie mogul Dino De Laurentiis, a producer of several hits and just as many misses at the box office including a number of collaborations with the director auteur Federico Fellini. De Laurentiis and his daughter Rafaella chose the young American experimental filmmaker David Lynch to adapt a screenplay of Dune with Lynch also attached to direct.

Lynch had previously directed the surrealist nightmare Eraserhead (1977), and his first major studio feature The Elephant Man (1980) had gotten him noticed.  George Lucas had offered Lynch the opportunity to direct Return of the Jedi (1983), but the director had turned it down in favour of Dune. On December 14th 1984 Dune was released theatrically in the US. It’s budget was $40million, and the North American box office took $30million. The film was considered a massive flop, and Lynch, who had not had final cut stated that the experience nearly caused him to walk away from the film industry. Unsurprisingly Lynch rarely mentions Dune in interviews, but stated years afterwards –

I started selling out on Dune. Looking back, it’s no one’s fault but my own. I probably shouldn’t have done that picture, but I saw tons and tons of possibilities for things I loved, and this was the structure to do them in, there was so much room to create a world. But I got strong indications from [producers] Raffaella and Dino De Laurentiis of what kind of film they expected, and I knew I didn’t have final cut. And little by little – and this is the danger, because it doesn’t happen in chunks, it happens in the tiniest little shavings, little sandings – little by little every decision was always made with them in mind and their sort of film. Things I felt I could get away with within their framework. So it was destined to be a failure, to me.

Despite Lynch’s unhappy experience, I genuinely think that he managed to craft the best adaptation of Dune that was possible at the time, given the twin constraints of technology and interference from above. Frank Herbert was on record at the time as being generally happy with the film, with a few quibbles (the film implies that Paul has developed the powers of a god by the end, whereas in the novel, he is merely a man playing god, still at the mercy of events over which he has little or no control over). One gets the impression that Herbert was just happy to get a half decent version of his story on the silver screen given the amount of development wrangles it had been through since the early seventies, and who could have blamed him?

So why do I love Dune? I‘ve already stated that the film has a unique look to it, a visual texture that evokes the interplanetary feudal society and its fear of technology (specifically artificial intelligence, or ‘thinking machines’ as they are referred to in the narrative.) The production design by Anthony Masters (2001: A Space Odyssey) is superb, and does so much to immerse the viewer in the Dune universe. Whenever I read any of the Dune novels, the look of the setting in my mind’s eye is that of the 1984 film.

Likewise with the cast. Every actor and actress is perfectly suited to their role. Even the Harkonnen’s, who are transformed into true Lynchian grotesques in the film as opposed to their more one dimensional baddie personas in the novel don’t feel too out of place, given the sheer weird inventiveness of Lynch’s visuals in the rest of the film.

The synthesiser score by Toto perhaps dates the film for some people, but again, for me it just seems to suit the otherworldliness of the material so well, especially when accompanied by Brian Eno’s ‘Prophecy’ theme. Although Dune is a human-centric universe, these are humans with very different attitudes and outlooks to our own, so different in fact, that they may as well be aliens from another planet.

In our current world of Netflix and Amazon Originals along with sci-fi and fantasy extravaganzas like The Lord of The Rings and Hobbit trilogy’s, not the mention the penchant for ‘extended universe’ franchises, perhaps the tragedy of Lynch’s Dune is that it arrived way ahead of its time. In 2000, the Sci-Fi Channel produced a three part mini-series adaptation of Dune, which, while a fair effort, and also being a more faithful adaptation of Herbert’s novel, lacked the visual majesty and atmosphere displayed in Lynch’s version.

The mini-series was generally well received though, and at the time, was Sci-Fi’s most profitable production, spawning a sequel;  Children of Dune (2003), that adapted both Dune Messiah, and the eponymously titled story.

With modern audiences now a lot more sophisticated and arguably open to more challenging material, rumours of a Dune remake have been doing the rounds for years on the internet. The project seems to have been stuck in development hell (a familiar story!), but the word around the campfire is that Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Arrival) is attached as director. Given that Villeneuve has helmed the upcoming Blade Runner 2049, this bodes well if the footage released of this film is anything to go by. Time will tell if the French Canadian director can deliver a version of Dune that can exceed David Lynch’s quirky eighties masterpiece.