Alien: Covenant

Alien: Covenant posterOne of the things that makes the original Alien so effective is how lean and sleek it is, plot-wise — what you might call its structural perfection. You can’t help but admire its purity. It’s a survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality…

The original film’s one allusion to a backstory or mythology, the Space Jockey scene, is so brief yet mind-blowing that all it does is hint at what a vast, scary, and utterly unknowable Lovecraftian universe there is behind the xenomorph’s existence. It’s as if, with the Space Jockey scene, the film is saying, “All this stuff with one killer alien is merely scratching the surface of the horrors that are out there.”

Aliens knew what it was doing when it left any question of mythology alone. Like a need-to-know-only military briefing, it stuck to the xenomorph, and the xenomorph only. Anything beyond that was unnecessary to its story. Prometheus changed all that, but Prometheus was trying to be a different sort of film altogether, only tangentially related to the Alien franchise. That wasn’t what audiences wanted, though, so now, instead of a Prometheus sequel, we have Alien: Covenant, a DNA-fused hybrid that promises a return to the Alien franchise proper, but that also wants to keep things going on the Prometheus front. We know the xenomorph is endlessly adaptable, but I can’t help thinking of that pathetic human/xenomorph thing at the end of Alien: Resurrection, that seemed, to me, more unintentionally comic than evolutionarily impressive.

(And why ‘Covenant’? Aside from it being the name of the ship carrying human colonists to the distant planet Origae-6, there doesn’t seem to be any actual covenant involved.)

Alien: Covenant posterI enjoyed Alien: Covenant, but only in a so-so way. I think the trouble with it is that, by this time, the series has picked up so many story elements it feels the need to give the nod to, none of them can get the attention they deserve. There’s the xenomorphs; there’s the Engineers; there’s the synthetics; there’s David (from Prometheus) in particular; there’s the Weyland-Yutani Corporation; there’s its ageing founder… And somewhere amongst all that, there’s the new characters who must be introduced in each film, if only to give them some sort of story before they’re infected, impregnated, punctured, dissolved, burned, torn apart, experimented on, or whatever other gruesome fate awaits them. In a need to be both a prequel to Alien and a sequel to Prometheus, Alien: Covenant spends all its narrative energy running around ticking boxes, doing its best to add its own particular twists (yet more variations on the xenomorph and its ever-mutating gestation cycle, yet more new ways for characters to die), trying to at least hint it’s going to connect with the original film in a meaningful way, while all the time trying to provide some justification for its existence as a film in its own right.

All the scenes that made Alien and Aliens so great get stuffed into Alien: Covenant and hastily run through, but with none of the necessary build-up in character and tension that made them work in the first place. Who is that getting torn apart by the latest variety of xenomorph (a pale, fleshy creature more than a little resembling Pan’s Labyrinth’s eyeless Pale Man)? I don’t know. Which means I don’t care.

Michael Fassbender as David in PrometheusWhere Alien: Covenant does get to create some sort of unique identity as a film, it actually starts to work. The one thing it’s got going for it is the fact that it has two superficially identical synthetics, David and Walter, both played by Michael Fassbender (who is, I suppose, the prequel series’s Ripley, though an anti-Ripley). This is a new situation for the Alien films, and Alien: Covenant manages to do something with it. The trouble is, it only gets round to doing it in the last few minutes, once the film has finished dealing with all the other Alien/Aliens/Prometheus stuff it feels so contracted to deal with. (Perhaps that’s the covenant in Alien: Covenant? A contract between Ridley Scott and his audience who, he seems to feel, need, not a sleek, tense, killer of a film, but a series of ticks against an ever-increasing list of must-have scenes, twists, and backstory updates, however shoehorned-in.)

Prometheus left me reeling at how nihilistic it was. Alien: Covenant never gets round to making any sort of equivalent statement. And I think this is the curse of backstory, or mythology, or whatever you call it, generally. Backstory works as backstory, not as the main plot of a movie. That’s why the Star Wars prequels could never be as good as the originals. It’s great to have, in the original Star Wars trilogy, references to what went on before — the Clone Wars, the Old Republic, and so on — because those throwaway references gave the story-world a bit more dimension, and uncovering hidden past events and family secrets added some counterpoint to the main action of the plot. When Darth Vader said he was Luke’s father, it was a great, though crude, shock moment. But it certainly wasn’t the justification for three new films. (The Harry Potter books/films did it better, in terms of interweaving discovery of past events with present-time plot advancement.)

Star Wars Rogue One posterI really enjoyed Star Wars: Rogue One, and a good deal of that came from its being so free of the tangles of established backstory — certainly, of the ponderous, melodramatic, Gothic weight of the ‘Saga’ of the (let’s face it, majorly dysfunctional) Skywalker clan. Granted, Rogue One took as its kick-off point a detail from the original story — Rebel spies stealing the Death Star plans — but that, and its being set in the recognisable Star Wars universe, was all it took. And all it needed.

Alien: Covenant doesn’t actually add much to the Prometheus mythology, which makes it all the more annoying how weighed down it is by including so much of it. I don’t think it’s going to happen, but what I think the Alien series needs is to jettison this dead weight of trying to build a mythology, and get back to being the sleek, simple but mind-blowing killer beast it used to be, with only the occasional between-the-fingers glimpse of a wider, even more terrifying, cosmic reality behind it all.

English Gothic by Jonathan Rigby

At the end of this exhaustive (and occasionally exhausting) film-by-film history of English horror cinema, Jonathan Rigby quotes Anne Billson on the special place Gothic has for the English:

‘Horror thrives best when emotions are bottled up, and no one bottles them up quite like us.’

I’m not sure this is true of all horror. I’d say the US horror films, like Night of the Living Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, which put an end to the 20th century’s main British horror boom, are more about political than emotional repression — when they’re not simply about pure, primal terror, that is. Certainly, they don’t work in that stiff-upper lip way Hammer’s fairy-tale Gothics do. Perhaps that’s why the term ‘Gothic’ seems so much more appropriate to English horror cinema. (Though Rigby has also written books on European Gothic and American Gothic.)

Although Rigby mentions a welter of early horror films in his first chapter (covering 1897 to 1953), things (as well as Things) really kick off in 1954, with Hammer’s The Quatermass Xperiment, which made a marketing virtue of its ‘X’ certificate (brought in by the BBFC in 1951, to exclude under-16s). That film’s success led to the ‘First Flood’ of British horror (as Rigby titles the chapter), most of which were science fiction horrors, or the sort of costume-drama Gothics that Hammer were to make so much their own.

Right from the start, British critics and censors did their best to act as the repressing super-ego to these horror films’ blasts of unleashed id, complaining of a surging tide of boundaries-testing ‘sex and sadism’ (that nowadays seems merely quaint), which lead to a slow choking-off of this initial horror boom in the first half of the 1960s, when horror filmmaking in Britain seems to have been dominated by costume Gothics (not just Hammer, but Roger Corman’s Poe films, too), alongside some respectable one-offs like The Innocents, The Haunting, and Repulsion. (Michael Powell, with his 1960 film Peeping Tom, became the sacrificial lamb to the repressive critics’ slaughter.) With the social changes of the 1960s, that critical repression flipped into outright prurience by the early 1970s, when a glut of US investment led to the films Rigby covers in a chapter called ‘Market Saturation’. After Hammer finally went to the Devil (literally — their last film being 1975’s To the Devil a Daughter), Rigby lumps the rest of the 20th century into a single chapter titled ‘British Horror in Retreat’.

Jonathan Rigby

That’s where the first edition of English Gothic ended. In this new (2015) edition, there’s a new chapter, ‘Risen from the Grave: 2000–2015’, covering the period which contains, among other things, Hammer’s own resurrection, its most characteristic film being (again) in period costume (The Lady in Black).

Perhaps it’s notable that Hammer had their success at the same time as the Carry On films. Both relied for their character on British prudishness, and both failed to adapt to the changing mores of the latter half of the 1960s (trying and failing in, for instance, Carry on Loving on the one hand and Dracula 1972 A.D. on the other), finally giving way to pulpier home-grown product which was far less repressed, and less finessed (Prey, Frightmare) — which themselves failed in the face of the fully explicit, overseas-made films of the video-driven 1980s.

I wonder if perhaps the horror genre will always have two opposing strands to it: the shocking, gory, explicitly violent side and the more dreamy, surreal, Gothic side. As people get tired of the excesses — or used to the shocks — of one (too much blood, or too little), the other has a breakout success. Hence, for instance, the boom of ghostly and surreal Asian horror films at the turn of the millennium, which then gave way to the excessively physical terrors of the Saw franchise five years later.

Some of my favourite British horror films have their feet in both camps — Clive Barker’s Hellraiser, or Ken Russell’s Lair of the White Worm, for instance — but I much prefer the dreamy, supernatural, Gothic side: chills rather than shocks, and spooks rather than psychopaths.

Lavondyss by Robert Holdstock

Lavondyss UK HB cover by Alan Lee

UK hardback cover by Alan Lee

Whenever I read Mythago Wood, I vow to work my way through the whole of the Ryhope Wood series. Then I read Lavondyss and stall. This isn’t because Lavondyss is a very different kind of tale from the straightforward fantasy-adventure narrative that drives Mythago Wood — I like the fact Holdstock sets out to do something different in the second book of the series. It’s more to do with a contrast within the book itself. Lavondyss in its second half is a very different book from Lavondyss in its first, and it’s the jarring jump between the two halves that has, until now, always succeeded in putting me off. On this most recent read, though, I finally realised how powerful a novel Lavondyss is, and how it’s actually doing everything Mythago Wood does, only deeper, and weirder, and far more unrelenting in its exploration of what myths are for, and the very human forces that lead to their creation.

Lavondyss is the story of Tallis Keeton, the younger half-sister to Harry Keeton, the airman who accompanied Steven Huxley into Ryhope Wood in the first book, seeking a mythical place he believed could be found deep within the wood, where his facial burns would be healed. The book starts with the disappearance of Tallis’s grandfather, who leaves his baby grandaughter a hastily scrawled and (from the point of view of Tallis’s parents, anyway) rather disturbing letter about stories and myths and the strange powers of nearby Ryhope Wood, before walking out into the snow and dying. Tallis’s later childhood is marked by a second loss when her half-brother Harry’s plane is shot down during the Second World War, and he’s at first believed to be dead. Even when he returns, it’s only briefly, before he sets off on a quest into the depths of Ryhope Wood with Steven Huxley. Lost, then recovered, then lost again.

Lavondyss UK PB, cover by Geoff Taylor

UK paperback, cover by Geoff Taylor

Tallis vows to go into the wood and bring Harry back. Before she can do this, though, she must complete her education in the strange wood and its ways, learning its stories and the secret names of the fields, stones, trees and pathways that she’ll have to use to enter it. Guided by a trio of hooded, masked women who emerge like shadows from the trees to whisper fragmentary tales, Tallis — who in this first half of the book resembles the semi-feral young girl from Arthur Machen’s “The White People” — is basically undergoing a shamanic initiation into the ways of working a mythago-rich world. Under the three women’s guidance, Tallis makes masks and dolls, and learns to use them to open ‘Hollowings’ into the mythago-reality that surrounds Ryhope Wood.

When a book starts with the initiation and education of a young woman into the secret magic world surrounding her, and with her learning to master her own burgeoning power to interact with and control that secret magic, you can’t help but expect a coming-of-age narrative, a sort of twiggy, muddy Harry Potter with masks instead of wands and a vast, stinking, bellowing monster stag called Broken Boy instead of Hedwig the Owl. But once Tallis enters the wood (sooner than she’d hoped for, and breaking a promise to her father as she does), the book jumps ten years, and when we next see her, she’s a grown woman, scarred, lost, and carrying the remains of her dead child.

This is no coming-of-age tale. It’s a book about what (it’s suddenly obvious) Mythago Wood was also about, only, with that book, it was easy not to see it because of the wonder of entering the depths of Ryhope Wood for the first time, and the danger and excitement of that brother-versus-brother adventure story. Both are books about loss, and in its second half Lavondyss is relentless in its exploration of loss, broken promises, and failed intentions. And if you think about it you can see that loss is rooted deep in the very idea of the Ryhope Wood books, in the idea of the mythagos themselves, for mythagos are the ghosts of myths: the lingering never-never remnants of the desperate hopes of past ages. In Lavondyss, mythagos are what remain after the loss of loved ones, or the loss of hope. But mythagos offer no comfort. They’re too brutal and strange. (Still, the humans cling to them as a way to undo loss, by remaking, in mythago-form, what was lost — as with Christian Huxley, in Mythago Wood, journeying into Ryhope in search of a new version of his dead mythago wife Guiwenneth, or, in this book, the half-mythago Morthen saying, after she loses her brother and first love: ‘He’s dead… Now I shall return to my father. From his own first forest I shall find my brother once again…’ But it’s always a forlorn and futile hope.)

Lavondyss is also about art. Tallis’s shamanic initiation can be seen as the birth of an artist. What Tallis-as-artist must understand is that the stories she learns aren’t playthings, but sacred truths which have to be treated with reverence. Speaking of her cache of folklore, she says:

‘It all belongs to me, yes. But it has been passed on to me by someone… Someone else owned the stories first. I mustn’t try to tamper with them. They’re only partly mine, and in any case they are only mine for a while…’

The contrast between art that is treated with reverence — with ‘the unknowing knowing that is at the heart of magic’ — and the latterday remnants that litter the culture with hollow relics of once-true tales, is brought out in the folk rituals of Tallis’s home village:

‘There is no magic left in the festive practices of Oxford, or Grimley, or whatever — the Morrismen and Mummers — no magic unless the mind that enacts the festival has a gate opened to the first forest…’

That ‘first forest’ is Lavondyss, ‘the unknown region’, ‘the place where the spirit of man is no longer tied to the seasons’, ‘the way home’, the depths of the human mind. It is:

‘…both the desired realm, or the most feared realm; the beginning place or the final place; the place of life before birth, or life after death; the place of no hardship, or the place where life is tested and transition from one state of being to another is accomplished. Such a realm would appear to exist in the heartwoods…’

For Harry Keeton, it’s a place of healing, but it’s not going to heal him simply by removing his scars. It’s not a place you come away from without being utterly changed. It’s a place where you must be unmade before you can be remade. It’s where myths are born, and myths aren’t created by human beings when they’re happy. They’re created out of situations of desperation, and it’s just such a situation that we see when Tallis finally finds her way there.

After which she says:

‘I feel violated, consumed; yet I feel loved.’

And it’s far easier to feel that ‘violated’ and ‘consumed’ than it is to feel the ‘loved’.

Lavondyss illustration by Alan Lee

illustration by Alan Lee

Lavondyss is a far more challenging book than I had expected the first few times I read it. The signs for the sort of book it is are certainly there in Mythago Wood, but it wasn’t till now, on what must be my third or fourth read, that I’ve finally been able to see them. Now I can see it’s a book that’s more similar to, say, Alan Garner’s Red Shift, or J G Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, than the sort of fantasy book I was expecting.

And that’s certainly set me up for going ahead with the other books in the series. The question is, having taken his series so quickly to such heights of intensity, where can Holdstock go from here?

Break in the Sun

The Hill and Beyond by McGown and DochertySome time ago I bought Alistair D McGown & Mark J Docherty’s The Hill and Beyond: Children’s Television Drama — An Encyclopedia (published in 2003 by the BFI), and one of the things I was hoping to find out from it, aside from as many obscure telefantasy offerings as I could, was the name of a serial I remembered watching in the early 1980s, about a young girl running away from home, which I remembered as having quite a bleak, realistic feel to it (compared to other kids’ serials of the time, anyway), and which had made enough of an impression that I was still thinking about it more than thirty years later. It turned out to be Break in the Sun, but I had to wait till the BBC Store made it available last year to watch it again.

Based on a 1980 novel by Brian Ashley, and adapted for TV by Alan England, it was shown in six parts between 11th February and 18th March 1981. It starts with Patsy Bligh (played by Nicola Cowper), living with her mother, stepfather and new baby half-brother in a tower block in London somewhere close to the Thames. Patsy, whose terror of her take-no-nonsense stepfather has resulted in a cycle of wetting the bed because of worrying about being hit for wetting the bed, longs for the days when it was just her and her mum living in Margate, in the house of the grandmotherly Mrs Broadley. One day, walking home from school, she gets talking to a young woman on a boat who’s part of a travelling actors’ troupe. They’re in need of a girl to play a minor part, and Patsy tricks her stepfather into writing a letter (she tells him it’s so she can go on a school trip), which she uses to convince the troupe she can spend half-term with them. Her ultimate aim is to get to Margate and live with Mrs Broadley once again.

A Break in the Sun - Eddie and Kenny

Although I mainly remember it being about Patsy, the story actually follows a pair of plot strands. On the one hand, we’ve got Patsy developing as an actor while trying to keep her fellow troupe-members from finding out that she’s run away from home, and on the other we have her stepfather, Eddie Green (played by Brian “My karate means a lot to me, Mr Fawlty” Hall), setting off after her with her schoolfriend Kenny (who’s there because he’s the only one who can recognise the boat Patsy went off on). As they make their way Margate, Eddie reminisces about his own childhood, how he feared and hated his father, and how it led him into playing some pretty dangerous games as a way of either proving to himself he was worth something despite what his father thought of him, or, if nothing else, as a way of ending his childhood misery for good. It still takes, of course, young Kenny to point out the obvious to Eddie right near the end — that he’s been acting towards Patsy exactly as his own father did towards him, and that’s why she’s run away — but at least it means that, rather than simply being the story of a young girl running away from a monstrous, abusive step-parent, it’s about both sides coming to understand each other better, and overcoming the problem together.

A Break in the Sun

It certainly makes for a highly dramatic (Patsy threatens to throw herself off the top of a tall slide in an amusement park when finally cornered by her stepfather) and emotionally satisfying ending, without seeming cloying or unrealistic. Patsy’s frequent lapses into silence are, no doubt, what gave the series its bleak, thoroughly convincing air when I first saw it, but on this second watch, Eddie’s bluff, laddish lack of self-reflection adds a welcome second strand, preparing you for his ultimate rehabilitation.

McGown and Docherty say that “Break in the Sun was almost certainly the toughest serial made for children by the BBC up to that point. What makes it so affecting is that the dramatic threat comes not from a bank robber or smuggler [as was common in kids’ adventure serials of the time] but from within an unstable family unit.” And it certainly feels, apart from being in colour, like a direct descendent of the Kitchen Sink dramas of the 60s, without, at any point, overplaying the misery card.