Stuart Gordon’s Dreams in the Witch House

gordon_witchhouseThe Dreams in the Witch House has never been, for me, one of Lovecraft’s better stories, though more because it reads like a first draft, with no attempt to bring the story alive for the reader. Its main idea, that the dark powers of witchcraft can be linked with the then-cutting-edge mathematics of non-Euclidean geometry, is the bit that lingers in the memory (that and the creepy witch-familiar Brown Jenkin). Stuart Gordon’s adaptation updates the science (non-Euclidean geometry becomes String Theory — to which Brian Greene’s book, The Fabric of the Cosmos, is an excellent introduction), and of course can’t help but make the story more accessible in this, his contribution to the Masters of Horror series.

Gordon’s previous Lovecraft adaptations include ReanimatorFrom Beyond and Dagon (actually The Shadow Over Innsmouth). Although he could be described as the most faithful adaptor of Lovecraft’s work in terms of sticking to the events described in the text, he can’t exactly be said to be the most Lovecraftian in tone. You couldn’t, for instance, imagine him adapting The Colour Out Of Space, which is the real essence of Lovecraft’s bleak cosmic horror. But Gordon obviously has fun. The camp and humorous aspects of horror are never too far away, as he himself points out in the commentary for one scene where the protagonist wakes up to find himself in Arkham University’s Restricted Reading Room with a skin-bound copy of the Necronomicon on the table in front of him… in nothing but his underwear.

It’s interesting, actually, to see how the emphasis in a horror story changes when it’s adapted to film. Some ideas that read as horrific on the page (Brown Jenkin, a rat with a human face), come out as more humorous when actually seen. (Gordon’s Brown Jenkin works for me, but more in a dream-like than scary way.) Others, though, are suddenly more horrific. The aspect of child sacrifice comes across as pretty conventional in Lovecraft’s story, but here, where we actually get to see it, is almost unbearable. Gordon says, jokingly or not, that his wife threatened to divorce him because of this aspect of his 50-minute film, and I can quite believe it.

Godzilla

godzillaI can’t remember why I put the original Japanese version of Godzilla on my Amazon list — it was a recommendation from either Ramsey Campbell or Mark Kermode — but I’m glad I got to see it. As ever with a cult film like this, you can think you know what it’s about without seeing it, but usually you’re wrong.

For instance, it’s generally accepted that Godzilla’s levelling of Tokyo is all about the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but what actually sparked the film off, and what resonates more with the plot, was an incident in March 1954, when the supposedly safe test of a 15-megaton bomb on Bikini Island resulted in a Japanese tuna-fishing boat being showered in radioactive dust (eventually killing one of the crew), as well as having a serious effect on the fishing industry, with whole shoals of fish being found to be highly radioactive. (There’s a contemporary 10-minute documentary about the incident on this BFI DVD.) The Japanese attitude to the bombs dropped during the war was along the lines of “let it stop with us”, and Godzilla is all about the unlooked-for effects of continued experimentation with A- and H-bombs rather than their initial use.

Compared to the US monster movies of the period, Godzilla presents a far darker and more thoughtful exploration of its themes. Of the two scientists in the film, Doctor Yamane (played by Takashi Shimura, direct from finishing Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai) represents the old world of science-for-science’s sake, and although this blinds him to the danger they’re in (he wants the monster to be studied, not killed), Shimura’s acting keeps you sympathetic with the role, as he goes around shellshocked and depressed by, but unable to face, the horror that has been unleashed. The younger Doctor Serizawa, meanwhile, has in his researches discovered how to create an Oxygen Destroyer — the perfect weapon to use against the amphibious Godzilla — but at first hides it away, afraid that once it is known about, it will be used on people next.

Despite Godzilla’s (apparent) death, the film ends on a gloomy note. As pointed out in the interesting commentary, Doctor Yamane’s final remark, that if atomic testing continues there could well be more Godzillas, would be interpreted nowadays as simply leaving the door ajar for a sequel, but at the time was meant seriously as the film’s warning of very real dangers to come should the world continue to play with such powerful but little-understood forces.

The Arctic Monkeys — Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not

arcticmonkeys_wpsiatwinI avoided paying any attention to the Arctic Monkeys at first because of all the media hype. No sooner had the Kaiser Chiefs come along than everyone was looking for the next big thing, and they were all saying it was the Arctic Monkeys. But after I’d heard their single When The Sun Goes Down a few times and liked the fact it actually seemed to have lyrics, and some good guitar playing, I thought I’d give their album a go. I’m really glad I did.

Every so often I find myself wondering if there can ever be anything new in music. The history of the sort of music I’m into is the result of a series of nuclear reactions as different cultures and technologies collide, fusing into something new. The Blues had a baby and they named it Rock’n’Roll. But surely there’s a limit to all this? The world’s only got so many oppressed minorities whose authentic forms of musical expression we can absorb into the workings of the Great Western Pop Machine. (Good name for a band, that.)

Now, the Arctic Monkeys aren’t anything new, really. They play rock. (Or Alternative & Punk as iTunes would have it, but I always change that to Rock, which is what it is.) But they’re fresh and vital. They’re doing things their own way. This is particularly noticeable in the lyrics, which are about the world as they see it, not some regurgitation of the standard pop cliches. There’s a real feeling of breaking out against the old order, particularly in Fake Tales of San Francisco and Perhaps Vampires Is A Bit Strong But… (They have great song titles, too). Basically, they come across as a band with a strong belief in what they do, and it’s only when you hear it that you realise how rare something like that is, even among the big successes of the industry

The first time that ever I saw your face… hugger

alienThe first 18-rated film I saw was Alien. I’d been dying to see it ever since seeing its poster on display at the old East Grinstead cinema. A glowing green egg, and the words “In space no one can hear you scream”. It seemed like the perfect recipe for an SF movie, and the fact that they didn’t show the alien on the poster just made me all the more keen to see it. (I have a real hunger for monsters.)

Unfortunately, I was only 8 years old at the time. I couldn’t believe I had 10 years to wait. At one point it came on TV. I savoured reading the article in the TV Times that said even the film’s writer had nightmares about his creation, but my Mum wouldn’t let me watch it for that very reason. Another time, I walked into a model shop in Croydon and was amazed to see they had an action figure of the alien. How could that be? Surely the appearance of the alien ought to be some closely-guarded secret? I was disappointed to find the alien had a basically human shape, but managed to convince myself they’d altered it for the action figure; the real alien in the film would be something much stranger, less human…

And then finally I got my chance to see it. My brother and I were on holiday with my Dad in Scotland. We were visiting some people Dad knew who lived in a large country house (which I for some reason insist on remembering as being a castle, but that can’t be right). Someone there had a video of Alien. My chance to see it at last.

One thing marred that first viewing. Halfway through, the VCR was commandeered by a mum whose young boy just wouldn’t go to bed without watching his favourite video. So, shortly after the alien actually got on board Nostromo, we had an intermission of The Little Donkey, which sort of broke the mood a bit. Then it was back to the film. I can’t remember if I was disappointed to finally see the alien itself, but having subsequently watched the film countless times, I can’t believe I was. What I do remember is, having watched what must be the scariest film I’ve ever seen (bar The Sixth Sense, I suppose), was that we then had to go to bed, and our beds were not in the large country house itself, but in a building a short walk away. Nothing to worry about, surely. We said our goodnights, then left the building… And found ourselves in absolute darkness. That must have been the first time I realised that out in the country, when it’s dark, it’s dark.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans

ishiguro_wwwoIn his first two novels, A Pale View of Hills (1982) and An Artist of the Floating World (1986), Kazuo Ishiguro carried off some real storytelling magic, through the way his narrators’ subtle, and often unconscious self-revelations would turn the story totally on its head. His third, The Remains of the Day (1989), I found less effective in this respect, but it still managed to tell a compelling tale full of subtlety, understatement and implication. Perhaps, then, I had too-high hopes for his 2000 novel, When We Were Orphans.

Its narrator is Christopher Banks, a private detective who was born and spent his early childhood with his parents in pre-war Shanghai, until they disappeared (presumed kidnapped) and he was shipped off to England. Ishiguro has him come across as being straight out of a cliched detective novel. He carries a large magnifying glass, is known for his success with ‘the Mannering case’, is deferred to by the police even in murder investigations, and is internationally regarded as a celebrity. Right from the start, I thought this was either a jokey pastiche of some sort of sub-Agatha Christie pulp detective novel, or (more likely, I thought) Banks is a self-deluding fantasist.

The latter became more likely as, when he returns to Shanghai to try to track down his parents, he seems to (a) think they will still be in the same place (and alive) after eighteen years, and (b) considers the solution of this case as an important part of staving off the encroaching world war. What makes it all even more bizarre is that everyone else treats his case with the same importance. Some Chinese soldiers, for instance, are prepared to give up defending the front in the middle of a war to escort him to the (ruined) house where he assumes his parents are being held!

I was, at every moment, expecting some hint from Ishiguro that his narrator was either insane or still a child, daydreaming the whole novel. But it appears he was quite serious throughout. In fact, there were no revelations at all. Was the novel a satire of detective fiction, then? If so, it’s not a very good one, as the only thing it satirises is a very outdated idea of the consulting detective as superhero, something that doesn’t exist in modern detective fiction at all, where the flawed hero is de rigeur. But also the novel seems to be trying to make a serious emotional or thematic point, which it couldn’t hope to succeed if it was nothing but a light-hearted fun-poking exercise.

As I say, perhaps it was my expectations of the novel, coming from my real enjoyment of Ishiguro’s first two, which made it such a disappointment? I don’t think so. Anything genuinely worthwhile about the novel would still come through, even if I was expecting it to be something else.

Broken Flowers

Bill Murray stares into space in Broken FlowersLost in Translation. Bill Murray stares into space.

Broken Flowers. Bill Murray stares into space. For even longer.

But he does it so well! The criticism I heard for Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers was that it was “more of Bill Murray doing what Bill Murray does”. And there are certainly a lot of long, actionless sequences in which he does nothing but sit there, staring into space. But for some reason it’s extremely funny. (Albeit in a quietly despairing kind of way).

The plot is that Don Johnston (Bill Murray), a successful businessman with a long line of women in his life, receives an anonymous letter telling him that he has a 20-year-old son he never knew about, and that the son is coming looking for him. Don’s neighbour, Winston, a detective-story fan (excellently played by Jeffrey Wright — just the way he handles the letter speaks oodles about his character), badgers him into setting out to find which of the five exes from that time is the mother.

Watching Broken Flowers is all about adjusting to the film’s pace and paying attention to its subtle nuances of character. Much of the humour comes from the mini character-studies of the women Don visits, as it is revealed how they have changed in the two decades since he knew them. Seeing them through Don’s eyes, as we do, they seem bizarre. But the main character study, of course, is that of Don himself, who is left, each time, seeming emptier and emptier.

Something best characterised by staring blank-faced into space, I think.