The Dark Masters Trilogy by Stephen Volk

For aficionados of the macabre, this is industrial-strength catnip — a truly beguiling trilogy of novellas by a writer who has long been a master of the genre. What’s more, the sequence of three books — as well as functioning as atmospheric pieces in their own right — also serve as affectionate tributes from Stephen Volk to three British masters of the art of chilling the blood: Netherwood creates an adventure for the now-neglected black magic novelist Dennis Wheatley, while Whitstable is set in the town of the actor Peter Cushing, and Leytonstone is where Britain’s greatest film director, Alfred Hitchcock, grew up.

As a writer with a penchant for the uncanny, Volk’s considerable skills have occasionally been utilised in re-energising notions initially created by other hands, and finding new and fascinating territory to explore in previously explored paths (it’s a welcome and serendipitous predilection that the writer shares with Kim Newman, with whom Volk collaborated – along with other writers — on the portmanteau horror play The Hallowe’en Sessions, directed by Sean Hogan). Whitstable is a quirky novella that explores two of Volk’s favourite subjects, the great British Hammer Films and the latter’s most reliable actor, the late Peter Cushing (the title refers to the actor’s much-loved seaside home). The conceit here is to place the actor’s screen personality in a contemporary setting where the kind of supernatural evil he routinely battled is given a modern equivalent. The book works both as a tip of the hat to one of the British screen’s most imperishable icons and as a piece of utterly engrossing narrative of the kind that we customarily expect from this writer.

After his ingenious and winning homage to Peter Cushing, Volk turns his attentions to another much-esteemed Englishman who specialised in menace, the filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock. Throughout his lengthy career in Hollywood, Hitchcock assiduously maintained his English identity, formed in the streets of his native Leytonstone — and it is this period in which Volk sets his elegantly written, always fascinating narrative. The author is one of the most ingenious practitioners of the horrific at work today, but this new speciality — inventing well-crafted narratives concocted around familiar British figures in the film world – has proving to be one of his most rewarding areas yet. This one is a piece to relish – even if you’re not an Alfred Hitchcock aficionado (although that certainly helps). The Dennis Wheatley section is equally winning in its off-kilter fashion, and admirers of all three subjects need not hesitate.

The Dark Masters Trilogy by Stephen Volk is published by PS Publishing

 

A Definitive Night of the Demon from Powerhouse

Night of the Demon, Jacques Tourneur, director/Powerhouse Indicator Blu-Ray box set   In a deluxe Blu-ray package with copious extras, Powerhouse Indicator have given us the definitive version of Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon (1957), the finest supernatural film ever made in the United Kingdom. There is a debate that rages about the film to this day – even among those who would place the film securely in the pantheon. The famous image of the gigantic eponymous demon itself (much reproduced, as here) has made it well known even to those who have never seen the film: a hideous bestial visage with flaring nostrils, horns, pointed ears and basilisk eyes, open maw crammed with vicious fangs. And this monstrosity was a problem – not just for the critical establishment (who saw it as an emblematic, debased example of a certain kind of popular culture), but for the auteur director on whose film this iconically unpleasant image was imposed (and who was keen to keep his film’s supernatural manifestations off-screen). The film’s producer Hal Chester was certainly no Val Lewton in terms of taste and influence (Chester was undoubtedly closer to such fairground hucksters as Herman Cohen, of Horrors of the Black Museum fame), but the director’s loathing of the tampering he felt that Chester subjected the film to needs to be examined (and certainly not taken at face value). Tourneur was wrong (as this discussion will attempt to prove) to suggest that his producer’s crassness in adding explicit shots of the gigantic, horned demon discussed above (that the director was reluctant to show) had ruined his film. Traditionally, the serious press (both in broadsheets and magazines) has treated films utilising Gothic horror themes with an aloof combination of derision and distaste. The critical climate has changed recently (with more iconoclastic writers casting their nets wider than the standard literary or filmic canon), and become less allergic to genre. It might be said that there is a more serious attempt to examine such subjects on their own merits – even though there is still a basic assumption that this material is automatically suspect and has to establish its worth in a way that more respectable subjects are not obliged to do. The heavyweight literary antecedents cut no ice here, as it is considered that the popular cinema has often cheapened and tarnished such legacies. The corollary of this is the fact that the ‘quality’ bar for genre product is set much higher, and horror films, which may offer considerable rewards but are still perceived as endemically-flawed works, invariably judged from a jaundiced viewpoint. This negative perception kicks in before any secondary attempt is made to perceive the virtues of such films – and it frequently occasions a simple dismissal of the Gothic as a now-debased genre. Certainly many horror films which appeared as a corollary of Britain’s long fascination with the macabre are obliged to suffer from a variety of compromises (mostly because of commercial imperatives), even though the actual level of accomplishment is often considerably greater than that of more mainstream establishment fare. A good example of this qualified response is that accorded to the film which is generally considered to be the gold standard for supernatural work ever made in the UK (and the one referenced in the paragraph above), Jacques Tourneur’s astonishing Night of the Demon (1957). As a work of art, it undoubtedly has its flaws – and many viewers (even admirers of the film) might consider the imported American actor Dana Andrews to be one of these. But a lively defence might be made of his work in Tourneur’s adaptation of MR James’ story ‘The Casting of the Runes’. Film aficionados might be aware of the actor’s well-known alcoholism, fully developed by 1957, which often compromised his work and dulled the sharp edge that his performances had sported in his younger days (notably as the obsessed detective in Otto Preminger’s definitive film noir Laura (1944)), but such problems are not really evident in his performance in the Tourneur film. Admittedly, it is hard to accept him in the profession he is given the film – the academic Dr John Holden – as the actor was far more at ease playing tough guy heroes or no-nonsense reporters. But Andrews is always professional (if limited), and fulfils the function that is required of him in the film (not least being an American name utilised in order to sell a British film such as is the United States, where it was re-titled Curse of the Demon) and the virtues of the film lie elsewhere than in its slightly dull hero. There are so many aspects of Night of the Demon which are simply nonpareil (not least the most fully-rounded, nuanced villain in any British horror film) that its cult status is unchallenged – and Tourneur, very much a genre filmmaker, is undoubtedly a better director than many contemporaries who specialised in more ostensibly serious subjects. The director (the son of celebrated filmmaker Maurice Tourneur) had made his mark in the subtle, intelligent supernatural films produced by the urbane and civilised Val Lewton in the 1940s, and Tourneur’s oblique and subtle approach to eldritch subjects chimed with his producer in such poetic pieces as Cat People (1942) and, a year later, I Walked with a Zombie; the famous description of the latter film as ‘Jane Eyre in the West Indies’ is not a wry dismissal (as it might sound) but the suggestion of the level of ambition for producer and director.

Made a decade or so later in Britain, Night of the Demon is a valedictory work for the director in the Gothic genre, and one wonders if he was aware of this fact that he would not work in this field again. Certainly, this would account for the rigorous effort on his part to make this his Magnum opus and fill it with every facet of his considerable skills. In this endeavour, he accomplished his goal triumphantly. Even though he regarded the film as irredeemably compromised the unique status of the film is assured.

LUCKY, John Carroll Lynch, director/ Eureka Blu-ray  For the modern viewer, it’s fascinating to catch early glimpses of one of America’s great screen character actors, Harry Dean Stanton, in his first films. But now we can see what is, sadly, his swansong – and thankfully it’s an excellent grace note on which to end a distinguished career. John Carroll Lynch’s well crafted film (his debut) follows the journey of the curmudgeonly title character who has somehow outlived all his contemporaries but finds himself obliged to come to an accomodation with the life he’s lived. Stanton, as throughout his career, is matchless in this final curtain call role.

MARVEL STUDIOS RELEASE “ANT-MAN AND THE WASP”

 

 

Marvel Studios are issuing Ant-Man and the Wasp in digital (November) and Blu-Ray (December) format. Exclusive extras include an up-close look at the making of the film, the tiniest Super Heroes in the world’s biggest film franchise, commentary, deleted scenes and more. Moviegoers are still buzzing about Marvel Studios’ “Ant-Man and The Wasp,” the follow-up to 2015’s “Ant-Man” and the 20th consecutive Marvel Cinematic Universe film to debut at No. 1 opening weekend and ranked in the box office top 10 for six consecutive weeks this summer. On Nov 25, fans can instantly watch the laugh-out-loud super hero adventure Digitally in HD; and on Dec. 3, take it home on 3D Blu-ray™, Blu-ray™ and DVD.

Talking to Stan Lee

Barry Forshaw writes:

R. I. P., Stan. As the first mega-budget new Spider-Man movie created a white-hot fever of anticipation in cinema audiences, I spoke to Marvel Comics’ Stan Lee (who has died at 95), the creator of such enduring heroes as Iron Man, the Incredible Hulk and (of course) a certain web-slinging New Yorker. He had finally decided to reveal all in a very frank autobiography, Excelsior!

Barry Forshaw: With the new Spider-Man movie imminent, you must be undertaking a mass of appearances to promote this much-anticipated film of your creation. Are you starting to suffer from interview fatigue yet?

Stan Lee: I’m certainly in danger of that. Never in my life have I been called upon to talk to so many newspapers, magazines and TV shows about both my career and, of course, Spider-Man. At the moment it’s a dozen a day!

Barry Forshaw: And the real avalanche no doubt starts when the movie actually opens.

Stan Lee: Oh, I’m not even allowing myself to think about that – that’s too daunting.

Barry Forshaw: Excelsior!, your autobiography, is an absolutely wonderful read. It’s fascinating to learn how both you and your stellar artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko created all these pop culture icons, most of which have either been the subject of recent highly successful movies (such as X-Men) or forthcoming films (such as Ang Lee’s version of the Hulk).

Stan Lee: I’m glad you enjoyed the book. Actually, it’s not really an autobiography. It is, in fact, the world’s first bio-autography: George Mair supplied a lot of the information about my career, and I pick up from his introductions. But it’s 99% me. They wanted me to do an autobiography, but I said I’d never have the time.

Barry Forshaw: The book has a nicely self-deprecating tone; it’s not just a succession of self-aggrandising “and then I created…”

Stan Lee: It was important to me that I did that. For a start, I was keen to acknowledge all the incredible talents I’d worked with over the years. Marvel Comics was not a one-man show.

Barry Forshaw: Another refreshing thing about the book is its frankness: although you can never be accused of score-settling in the book, you pull no punches. Was there ever any pressure on you (even self-applied) to write a more anodyne book?

Stan Lee: There was no pressure in one direction or another. They just said, “Write the thing”. I tried to be frank, without really insulting too many people.

Barry Forshaw: You put the record straight on many issues that have exercised people over the years. The famous conflicts with Steve Ditko (who drew Spider-Man) and Jack Kirby (who drew the Fantastic Four, Thor, and so many other Marvel characters) are handled with disarming honesty. Both men expressed resentment at the media perception of you as the sole creator, but you were always ready to acknowledge their considerable achievements.

Barry Forshaw: I’m so glad that comes across in the book. At first I wasn’t sure whether I should mention this at all, but, as you say, it’s been an issue for many people over the years, and I really did feel it was time to set the record straight.

Barry Forshaw: Both Kirby and Ditko complained that it was always you talking to the media when Marvel Comics became such an astonishing cultural phenomenon. But, as you say, the personalities of both men did not lend themselves to public appearances, and Ditko in particular rarely gave interviews. But you were doing your best to promote the company and the characters.

Stan Lee: Absolutely. In fact, I did a radio show with Jack Kirby years ago when our characters appeared to be achieving an amazing popularity. Jack began to say that we were bigger than DC Comics (who owned Superman and Batman) and that we were going to obliterate them – something along those lines. And I was kicking Jack under the table, trying to signal to him, “Jack, nobody likes to hear people talk that way!”. I said to the interviewer, “We’re like a little puppy dog yapping at the heels of the big guy” – I suppose this ties in with what you said earlier about self-deprecation. But Jack never really understood that there are certain ways you conduct yourself in an interview so that you don’t sound like a conceited braggart. And it’s true that I did get many invitations to do such things. But when I suggested that Jack or Steve come along, most of the time they — Kirby and Ditlko — weren’t interested.

Barry Forshaw: You go on record in the book as unequivocally acknowledging them as the co-creators of these great characters.

Stan Lee: Of course! And so they were. These were tremendously talented men with whom I worked for many years – long before the superhero era in fact.

Barry Forshaw: Of course, your career, as you mention, extends way back beyond super-powered characters in colourful costumes. You created some of the most ingenious comics in all genres in the 1950s: horror, science fiction, war books.

Stan Lee: That was in an era when you really didn’t admit that you wrote for comic books. The respectability and acclaim came much later. But all of us would soft-peddle what we did if we were asked at parties. There was, of course, the hysteria about the horror comics, but the Atlas line – Marvel’s predecessor – was relatively mild compared to the gruesomeness of, say, EC Comics. Certainly when the superhero era really took off, our readers became older, we became phenomenally popular on campuses and we were being profiled in everything from <I>Rolling Stone</I> to <I>Time</I> magazine had many invitations to speak at colleges. We began to be written about overseas: in England, Italy and Japan. Nobody was reading my horror comics around the world.

Barry Forshaw: Actually, you’re wrong about that. English port cities such as Liverpool had masses of American comics such as your work from that period brought over as ballast; many a schoolboy in England read your pre-superhero stories.

Stan Lee: Really? I had no idea. That was before letter columns, so we never heard from any English readers.

Barry Forshaw: Does it not seem strange to you that these characters you created 40 years ago have now taken on a life of their own? Somebody else other than you writes the Spider-Man movie, or the new Daredevil film with Ben Affleck. Do you still regard them as your “babies”?

Barry Forshaw: You know, it’s a funny thing. I never regarded them as my “babies”. When you don’t own something – when somebody else makes the decisions as to what to do with the properties – you lose the feeling that they are your creations. I was just the guy who wrote the stories; they caught on – and I’m glad they did – but I never felt all that possessive about them, because I never really possessed them.

Barry Forshaw: So you were happy to regard yourself as a “pen for hire”? Your book implies that you’ve been treated pretty shabbily at times by the people you’ve worked for.

Stan Lee: Well, I never became wealthy. I was always treated well, and rather respectfully, and I earned a respectable salary. If I made a trip abroad, I could go first class and charge it to the company, and my time was pretty much my own. And I didn’t have to answer too much to any one person, except in a general way. If I decided I wanted to spend time lecturing about Marvel at colleges, I could. I was like the boss, without being the boss. Creatively, I was in charge of everything while I was there, but I wasn’t in charge of the big things, like what we should do with the characters.

Barry Forshaw: After the success of the DC-related Superman and Batman movies, people would often say, “Why did Stan Lee allow that indifferent Captain America movie to be made?”… And why was the first Fantastic Four movie an unreleasable item that nobody’s ever seen?

Stan Lee: Those weren’t my decisions. But I suppose it’s inevitable that people would assume I had something to do with the mishandling of the Marvel legacy in the movies in the past. But, by the same token, it’ll be nice if I get a bit of credit now that the Spider-Man and X-Men movies have comprehensively reversed that trend!

Invention for Destruction from Second Run

Presented from a new 4K restoration, Second Run are following their hugely popular release of the great Czech animator and filmmaker Karel Zeman’s The Fabulous Baron Munchausen, with his greatest and most famous work – Presented from new 4K restoration, Second Run are delighted to follow their hugely popular release of the great Czech animator and filmmaker Karel Zeman’s The Fabulous Baron Munchausen, with his greatest and most famous work – Invention for Destruction.

New Blu-Rays from Powerhouse Indicator, Eureka & Arrow

WILLIAM CASTLE AT COLUMBIA, VOLUME ONE THE TINGLER (1959) 13 GHOSTS (1960) HOMICIDAL (1961) MR SARDONICUS (1961)/William Castle, director/Powerhouse Indicator  The British label Powerhouse Indicator continues its very welcome series of excavations of the byways of popular cinema– and in the process, is producing absolutely definitive packages which have everything (and more) that the collector could wish. Nothing could encapsulate the company’s range of ambition more than this delightful set. William Castle is most celebrated (and most notorious) for his outrageous showmanship and publicity gimmicks which – let’s be frank – are probably better remembered than the films themselves. But that is a real shame, as Castle’s funhouse horror movies are almost invariably lively and entertaining, delivered with an irresistible mix of straightfaced seriousness and tongue-in-cheek hucksterism – qualities perfectly encapsulated in the performances of the matchless Vincent Price, star of two of the best films in this collection, The Tingler and House on Haunted Hill, both of which look better in these new transfers than they ever have before. But perhaps the real revelation in this handsome set is Castle’s Homicidal, which is without doubt the most accomplished of all the homages-cum-ripoffs of Psycho to appear in Hitchcock’s wake. And even something as slight as the kiddie-friendly 13 Ghosts has things to applaud, particularly in a transfer as impressive as this – and the one period-set piece here, Mr Sardonicus, does full justice to Ray Russell’s novel, one of the best modern Gothic exercises in Edgar Allan Poe-style macabre. Of course, with this Blu-ray company, it is the extras that provide unique selling points – and they are very plentiful here. Castle’s famous publicity gimmicks (‘Illusion-O’, ‘Percepto’, the ‘Punishment Poll’, ‘Fright Breaks’, etc.) are celebrated, along with a slew of of new and archival extras: Jeffrey Schwarz’s feature-length documentary Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story, newly filmed introductions and appreciations, exclusive new audio commentaries, interviews with actor Pamela Lincoln and publicists Barry Lorie and Richard Kahn, archival featurettes, and much else.

CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD, Lucio Fulci, director/Arrow Blu-ray  No genre director divides opinions as much as the Italian shockmeister Lucio Fulci – but for those who can find much to admire in his films (with some reservations!), a case can be made for his best work. A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (Una Lucertola nella Pelle di una Donna), while by no means a total success, is a fascinating pointer to later ideas in Fulci’s more blood-splattered epics. Basically a Hitchcock-style crime thriller set in a jaded ‘Swinging London’ milieu, it has several virtuoso set-pieces, Zombie Flesh Eaters (Zombi 2, 1979), Fulci’s calling-card movie, is a grisly Romero-inspired corpse epic in which state-of-the-art special effects of dismemberment and carnage offer a challenge to all but the most stout-hearted. It’s in this film that Fulci’s flat, comic-strip narrative grip flourishes – the plot (Ian McCulloch and Tisa Farrow stumbling through implacable, worm-infested zombie hordes) offers nothing of Romero’s claustrophobic image-making, but is powerful enough in its own way. And then we come to the film under discussion, now in a strikingly detailed Arrow Blu-ray. Despite his statements that he wished to concentrate on generating suspense in City of the Living Dead (Paura nella Città dei Morti Viventi, 1980) while playing down the horror aspects, Fulci provides more than enough graphic gore in his follow-up to Zombie Flesh Eaters. Certainly there is considerably less full-scale mayhem as the revived dead of Dunwich stalk their hapless victims, but the famous sequence of a girl being ‘willed’ to evacuate her entire inner organs through her mouth scores high in what Stephen King describes as the ‘gross-out factor’, and the zombies’ favourite method of dispatching the town’s inhabitants – clutching a handful of hair, scalp and brains from the back of peoples’ heads – was (surprisingly) left untouched by the British censor (while performing excisions elsewhere, restored in this uncut edition). There is an undoubted grand guignol energy tapped at times, with the usual satisfying atmospheric tracking shots down misty, threatening streets. Plentiful extras from Arrow, as ever.

HITLER’S HOLLYWOOD, Rüdiger Suchsland, director/Eureka Blu-ray  If you think that the Nazi period of filmmaking is of limited historical interest, think again — this utterly mesmerising documentary samples and examines one of the most striking and controversial eras in the history of German cinema (and also includes the celebrated documentary From Caligari to Hitler). Nazi cinema was of course state-controlled and the strictest censorship along ideological lines was exercised – but within the confines of these strictures, some remarkably accomplished work was done, as Rüdiger Suchsland’s film amply demonstrates. Along with the original German language version, there is an English language narration by the cult actor Udo Kier. As an examination of Weimar Republic cinema, this will — quite simply — never be bettered.

LONG WEEKEND, Colin Eggleston director/Second Sight Blu-ray  In an age when suspense/horror films are obliged to deliver the goods every 10 minutes or so, it’s really refreshing to see a film that trusts its audience’s patience and delivers its effects steadily but inexorably. On its first appearance, Long Weekend drew many plaudits for the director’s command of the medium, and the steady accretion of eerie elements is adroitly handled as the macabre climax approaches. The Australian-made film is possibly the best example of the revenge-of-nature theme which followed in the wake of Hitchcock’s The Birds (and, as a nod to The Master, there is an avian attack in this film). But director Colin Eggleston has different fish to fry with the troubled relationship between his hapless protagonists at the centre of the narrative here, and the excellent performances by his actors – unfamiliar then and now to British audiences — really pay off. The Guardian got it right: ‘Colin Eggleston’s hybrid horror and relationship drama sets man against nature in a kind of David Attenborough special gone heinously wrong.’ Peter (John Hargreaves) and Marcia’s (Briony Behets) relationship is on the rocks, so they head to the wilderness for an away from it all, make or break long weekend. But in their wake, they leave a trail of destruction – animals run over and tormented, their dog uncared for at home and fires started by their carelessness. They destroy both the countryside around them and any animal or creature that crosses their path…

THE MIRACULOUS VIRGIN, Štefan Uher, director/Second Run Blu-ray  Something of a find: Štefan Uher’s striking and elusive 1966 classic The Miraculous Virgin (Panna zázracnica) is a prime example of Czech avant garde/New Wave inventiveness.  This new issue also includes the director’s 1959 short Marked by Darkness (Poznačení tmou). For those with a taste for more adventurous film fare, this is a journey to take you into unusual realms.

CANDYMAN, Bernard Rose, director/Arrow Blu-ray  The reputation of Candyman has grown steadily over the years, as has that of its director Bernard Rose. And although the latter perhaps did not quite live up to the expectations of his early work, this new issue is a reminder of just how good he was — with a particular skill at finessing the visual aspect of his films. Starring Tony Todd and Virginia Madsen, this brand new 2K restoration (from a 4K scan of the original negative) is eye-popping fare.

THE MUSIC OF SILENCE, Michael Radford, director/4 Digital Media  Whether or not you are an admirer of the internationally acclaimed tenor Andrea Bocelli, this documentary about the blind singer’s life makes for a compelling experience – and that’s even without the copious examples of the singer’s art, recorded in impressively detailed sound.

TWELVE MONKEYS, Terry Gilliam/Arrow Blu-ray  Acquiring cult status almost immediately on its first release, Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys. Is a film that has grown in appeal over the years. Those familiar with Terry Gilliam’s initial impact (even pre-Monty Python) as a protégé of Mad magazine creator Harvey Kurtzman will know that Gilliam’s quirky visual skills were in evidence from the very start of his career. By the time of this SF classic, we knew exactly what to expect him, and this is one of the director’s most fully achieved films.

 

Brian Michael Bendis’ new take on The Man of Steel

The Man of Steel by Brian Michael Bendis et al   In a poll of the best-known fictional characters some years ago, Sherlock Holmes and Tarzan inevitably figured — but it was no surprise that DC Comics’ two heavy hitters, Superman and Batman, were in the upper echelons. The durability of these late Forties creations is attested by the fact that both superheroes are capable of almost endless re-invention, as long as certain basic tenets are maintained. And, in fact, the reappearance of those crucial elements — both Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent are orphans, for instance – is one of the incidental pleasures afforded by the new iterations. When Sigel and Shuster created their ‘strange visitor from another planet’ decades ago, they can have had no idea that it would still be being finessed by other talents in the 21st-century. The latest is in fact the current ruling comics superstar writer, Brian Michael Bendis, whose six-issue run, The Man of Steel, is collected in this handsome volume. Bendis’s approach to the character is not a radical one, but subtly (and cleverly) ringing the changes on certain aspects while touching all the familiar bases. Some may find the world-killing villain Rogol Zaar not notably different from his many predecessors, but the real pleasure here is in the exuberant treatment of Superman himself (and his cousin Supergirl) fighting against the complete annihilation of the Kryptonian race. With several of the current top illustrators (such as Jim Lee and Steve Rude) illuminating the text, this is a truly diverting volume – even for those who feel that this particular Kryptonian well has been sampled too many times. It seems that new versions of the Man of Steel will be possible for decades to come.

The Man of Steel is published by DC comics