Teach Yourself Terror!

A rhyme for Halloween…

Teach Yourself Terror! the book’s cover said:
“How to be frightened of things not-quite-dead!”
“How to be scared of the creatures of the night!”
“How to see things that aren’t there, and take fright!”
“How to imagine weird shapes in the dark!”
“How to hear werewolves at night in the park!”
“How to feel creepy things creep up your back!”
“How to know your mind is starting to crack!”
The table of contents was equally scary
With chapters on “Fear” and “Fright” and “Being Wary”
And “Tingling Sensations of the Lower Back and Spine”
And “Paranoid Psychosis — Know the First Signs!”
While one spoke of “How to be Mortified at a Glance”
Another was “Gut-Wrenching Terror (Advanced)”
The index alone could have given you chills
With its alphabetical listing of all sorts of thrills
From “Anxiety attacks” to “Zoomorphophobia”
Everything that was likely to shock, shake or scare ya!
The acknowledgements listed all the experts in fear
Most of whom, it turned out, had been dead many a year
While the author himself, to judge by his photo
Was a living wreck, and hadn’t much longer to go
What a book! What a fine work of scholarship it was!
Yet I left the shop without it, and did so because
A handsome, heavy volume, a deluxe slipcased edition —
The price alone was enough to scare me to perdition!

(And a previous one.)

Dean Spanley

Who would have thought Lord Dunsany would get a film adaptation in 2010? Even in these post-Potter, post-Jackson-LOTR days when fantasy is enjoying a filmic boom, he’s hardly the author you’d expect to be the beneficiary of a decent film budget. And even then, would his short 1936 novel, My Talks with Dean Spanley, be the one to choose over something more flashy and Hollywood-friendly, like, say, The Sword of Welleran or The King of Elfland’s Daughter? As fantasy goes, Spanley is really quite mild, being about a dean who, under the influence of his favourite wine, Tokay (which has something of a fantasy pedigree, as it appears in the first chapter of Pullman’s Northern Lights, too), falls into reminiscences of his previous life as a dog. No car chases, no fights, no massive effects sequences — no effects sequences at all, as far as I could tell. No romance, either. The cast is all male, apart from one ageing housekeeper.

But what a charming film!

Partly this is down to the excellent cast. Peter O’Toole is the frankly frightening Horatio Fisk, an unforgiving, staunchly unemotional old man, teetering on the awkward edge between wilful rudeness and outright dementia. Jeremy Northam is his son, painfully trying to get his father to open up just a little bit about the deaths of Northam’s brother (during the war) and his mother (afterwards, from grief). Sam Neill is the rather unsociable Dean Spanley whose Tokay-induced reminiscences have to be coaxed out of him, but who, once going, provides a wonderful insight into the life and worldview of a dog, and his relationship to “the master”.

But also, the film’s particular charm comes down to that rare thing in films these days, particularly fantasy ones (he says, having recently reviewed the Clash of the Titans remake) — a story that’s not only good, but which is allowed time to breathe, to develop, to gather momentum, to bring out its subtle emotional undercurrents and let them build into full-size waves. At first, I must admit, the story was so slight I wasn’t sure there was even going to be one. Just how much, after all, can you get from the reminiscences of a closemouthed dean about a previous canine incarnation? But before I knew it, the gentle pace, mild manners and the sheer, quiet, confidence of the film won me over, and suddenly I found it was packing a real emotional punch. In one scene near the end, Peter O’Toole’s face, so impassive, not to say death-like at the beginning, suddenly — and so subtly — thaws, with just the tiniest of shifts in expression, and suddenly the whole tone of the film is changed.

Really a lovely film.

The Clash of the Clash of the Titans

It’s difficult for me to compare the 2010 version of Clash of the Titans with the 1981 Harryhausen version because I love the 1981 film so much. I watched it at the cinema when it first came out, watched it again when it came out on video, watched it some more whenever it was shown on TV, and bought it on DVD as soon as it came out. I’ve watched that a few times, too. So, when I heard they were remaking it, I couldn’t quite stifle a groan that summed up a whole set of grumpy-old-man-type feelings, including my weariness with the idea that digital effects are necessarily better than other (older) types of effects, or that a modern take on a story will necessarily be a better one. All the same, I knew had to watch it, if only to get in 106 minutes of tutting and eye-rolling.

In the end, I didn’t hate it. I didn’t actually feel sufficiently moved to feel much about it all. There was a certain amount of puzzlement at the changes they’d made to the story — incomprehensible, to me, in the main, but then again, so was remaking the film in the first place. It’s quite likely that a new audience coming to the film without having seen the Harryhausen original will love the 2010 Clash, and that any criticisms I have may be all down to my being so familiar with the old one. If so, I can’t get sufficient perspective to see it. I think there are a few points to be made.

In the 1981 Clash, the gods (in particular Laurence Olivier’s Zeus) were vain, petty, scheming, cheating, irascible, vindictive and self-interested — basically, larger-than-life humans who happened to have divine powers. The film’s story grows out of the tensions between them, and the way the mortals are caught up in their game. In the 2010 version, suddenly we have Hades (not present at all in the 1981 version), who seems to have been introduced simply so as to have one god to blame all the evil on. So, Hades creates the Kraken, Hades kills Perseus’s family, Hades wants to destroy all the other gods, and so on. This might seem like a minor change, but it annoyed me because one of the attractions of Greek mythology — which I first encountered, I suspect, through this and Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts — is that the Olympian gods encapsulate a quite different view of the world to the reductive, good-versus-evil, God-versus-Satan, version in which there is a definite right (as represented by the goodies) and a definite wrong (the baddies). The Greek gods were both remotely divine and all-too-human; they were mercurial, prone to vanity and vindictiveness, squabbling amongst themselves, using humans as pawns in their game (a point made literal, in the Harryhausen film, by the clay figures the gods use to control mortals). Zeus, noble father of the Gods, is in fact a dirty old man, always on the look out for another nubile young maiden to seduce, usually with the aid of a bit of divine showing off, such as appearing as a transplendent shower of gold or (for some reason) a swan. Thetis is vain and petty, revenging herself when her beauty is compared to that of the mortal Andromeda and found wanting. Basically, the Ancient Greek gods represented life as it was perceived by the Ancient Greeks: loaded with fatality, tragedy, and the sheer incomprehensibility of the wilfulness of these inscrutable divine powers who were at once both remote and (nicking Ambrose Bierce’s definition of the police) a “force for protection and participation”. The story of the 1981 film was a web of different strands caused by the gods’ competing aims and loyalties, with the mortals helplessly caught up in it all. By the mere introduction of a single evil character, the 2010 version loses all that richness, and just becomes another good-versus-evil smash-em-up. That, I think is the greatest loss in the remake.

The other main point is the effects. I’m not biased against digital effects at all. It’s just that I’ve seen rather too many fantasy films of late which, perhaps because digital effects have opened up the possibilities for what can be realised on-screen, seem to feel they have to realise every idea they can possibly have. The effects expand to occupy all the space that previously (perhaps due to limited effects budgets, but also perhaps due to the taste of the filmmakers) was left for the storylines to simmer a bit and develop. It used to be that an effects-centred fantasy film might be, say, 15% effects scenes at most; but now, with effects so seemingly cheap, it’s 85% effects, if not more — just because it can be done. Ray Harryhausen’s monster scenes in the 1981 film were few, but were handled with taste, and had the benefit of a build-up, and some breathing space in between. When they appeared, the monsters weren’t just monsters, they were acted. They were lit, they were half-hidden in shadows, they were directed — they seemed to think. They had mood, they had imaginative weight. The 2010 Clash has wall-to-wall monster scenes, so visually overwhelming with in-your-face detail that I ended up just not caring. And all the monsters do is fight.

Is this just me? Could be. But I long for the days when — yes, perhaps because of limitations in the budget and technology — effects were (not always, but sometimes) treated with that magic that made them come alive. Even though I can look at the 1981 film and know Harryhausen’s Medusa is a model made of foam rubber and a wire skeleton, there’s a magic to it all the same. The super-detailed, brightly-lit Medusa of the 2010 film just seems to have no character, by comparison. Perhaps because the visual wow of what she can be made to do so far outweighs the work required to make her truly come alive on-screen.

The worst thing is, the 2010 film seems to have a sort of contempt for its predecessor. In one scene, when they’re preparing to set forth on their quest, someone finds the mechanical owl from the 1981 film. They make some condescending remark and toss it aside. Now, I’m not going to say that Bubo the mechanical owl is a vital part of the 1981 film, or that he’s a brilliant comic invention. Thinking about it, he’s a mini-C3PO/R2D2 combo, and just as annoying. But I don’t hate him. For a fantasy film, which relies on its audience having absolute belief in it in order to work, bringing in humour can be quite a risk. If it’s done wrong, the audience can just end up laughing at the whole film. The 1981 Clash carries off its minor moments of humour without a dent; the 2010 film, supposedly showing its superiority to the 1981 original by making fun of its mechanical owl, is in fact showing how defensive it has to be towards a predecessor that, with more primitive technology and a lower budget, could nevertheless carry off that little bit of humour and still work as a fantasy film.

Happy birthday, Oscar Wilde

Fantasy Music

After writing about The Roar of Love and The King of Elfland’s Daughter in the last couple of blog posts (which adapt C S Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter), I was going to finish off this trilogy of mewsings with a look at a piece based on The Lord of the Rings. There are certainly plenty to choose from — see the Tolkien Music List for a comprehensive, not to say mind-boggling, index — but I chose something different from my usual musical tastes, Johan de Meij’s “Lord of the Rings” symphony, a classical piece in five movements inspired by Tolkien’s trilogy. The trouble was, it didn’t quite do it for me. That may be down to the fact that I don’t listen to a lot of classical music (though I do have my favourites). I’ve been listening to it this week (particularly the fourth movement, “Journey in the Dark”, which I keep wanting to like, as it’s my favourite part of the trilogy), but although it works as music, and is pleasant enough to listen to (and has won awards — the Sudler International Wind Band Composition competition in 1989), it isn’t quite what I was looking for in a piece of fantasy-themed music. Which got me thinking about what I was looking for.

In short, something that evokes the fantastic through music. Something that creates that peculiar sense of both otherness and long-lost familiarity, of weirdness and never-never once-upon-a-time-ness, of what the Romantics used to call “the Sublime”, that you get from great fantasy in any form, whether it be fiction, art, games, or anything else.

So here’s a test. Rather like Ursula Le Guin’s “Poughkeepsie” test for fantasy fiction (where you replace all the fantastic names with mundane ones, and see if the result still has something of Elfland in it), the “Poughkeepsie” test for music would be to ignore the names given to the tracks and ask if they still evoke a feeling of fantasy.

This might be a bit unfair on de Meij’s symphony, as it’s the first wholly instrumental piece of music I’ve looked at for its fantasy content. After all, songs can evoke a feeling of fantasy through their lyrics. But it’s also true that instrumental music can create that fantasy feel. In classical music, the prelude to Vaughan Williams’s Sinfonia Antarctica is perfect fantasy music — in fact, I think it would make an excellent soundtrack to the opening chapters of Dracula, with its bleak wind effects and the weird, wordless singing of three female voices evoking the Count’s trio of undead brides. Similarly, Ligeti’s “Lux Aeterna” (which is used at the end of Kubrick’s 2001), uses wordless, microtonal singing to get a really unearthly effect. (Strange how the human voice can be the weirdest of all instruments.) Also, of the albums I’ve looked at so far, both in the previous two posts and in my top five fantasy concept albums a while back, it’s tended to be the music, rather than the lyrics, that really makes them work in evoking that fantasy feel.

I think it comes down to a bringing together of the strange and the familiar. In music, this can just mean the use of exotic instruments alongside more familiar ones, as in Jon Anderson’s Olias of Sunhillow, using “World” percussion and electronic synths, or Queen using a harpsichord alongside piano, guitars and layered vocals in “The Fairy Feller’s Masterstroke“. The Romantic idea of “the Sublime” was exactly this: a longing for a thing that is at once far removed and deeply familiar, a sense of the weird, even the frightening, alongside a recognition so deep it transcends mundanity, forging a connection with the deepest levels of your unconscious, to those most submerged parts that just don’t fit into the everyday world yet are still very much a part of you. That reconnection with the deeply familiar yet strange could well be the main function of fantasy. Certainly, it could be what I’m looking for in my quest to find fantasy in music; if so, it might seem a bit harsh to judge pieces that don’t quite attain it — it’s a tall order, after all — and which may, after all, not be trying to achieve it. (As I said, de Meij’s symphony works quite well as music, it just doesn’t quite seem to be fantasy music, to me.)

Anyway, I’m going to keep looking. Onward, to the inward!