Double Bill: Quatermass and the Pit (1967 – Roy Ward Baker) + Prince of Darkness (1987 – John Carpenter)

There’s a powerful idea of personal mythology that runs through my appetite for pop culture.  There are some movies and television shows that are engrained into my mind.  Cut me open, and I will bleed them.  Our vicarious thrill of horror movies – the desire to experience the terror of experiences that would traumatise us in the real world within the ‘safe’ setting of the cinema – seems burned into us from an early age.  It becomes an addiction; a thrill we hunger for again and again.

Nigel Kneale seems to have been the fix John Carpenter craved.  There was a constant thread of creeping dread that ran through his work that is reminiscent of Kneale’s own occupations.  Prince of Darkness seems to be the fulfilment of this obsession, such is its thematic bonds it shares with the adventures of Kneale’s most successful creation – Professor Bernard Quatermass.  Carpenter underlined this by naming one of his characters after that eponymous hero.  For whatever reason – and it’s quite likely that Kneale was still sulking after the Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982 – Tommy Lee Wallace) fiasco (Kneale was always a petulant artist) – it was a tribute rejected by the British writer.  But the horrible repercussions for humanity for meddling with an outside force (perhaps ‘demonic’) that has interfered in human evolution, and an exploration of the intertwined spheres of science and superstition, seem integral to both auteurs.

(Kneale himself had blended scientific enquiry with phantasmagoria in his acclaimed television play The Stone Tape (1972 – Peter Sasdy).  Whilst it is a masterpiece within its own form and builds to an eerily unpleasant ending, it never quite manages to escape the boundaries of seventies British television, all three-walled sets, multi camera set-ups and primitive video special effects.  It’s haunting in its own right, and powerfully evocative of the creepy British horror of M. R. James and old Doctor Who, but inherently anti-cinematic.  Which is not an implicit criticism – I preferred television when it was a distinct art-form in itself, rather than the indifferently filmed medium we endure nowadays.)

Despite the two films attempting to reconcile the separate spheres of faith and reason, they both admit the absolute existence of evil.  Now, whilst a rational explanation for its existence is presented (even if it is a hobgoblin from Mars), little consideration of the consequences of its existence are dealt with.  Modern aggressive rationalism (often as blind as faith can be) denies a reality of evil in the world, largely because operates from a westernised, privileged perspective.  Curiously, as we move further down the path of all-encompassing individualism, we often deny our responsibility for cruelty and ignorance, choosing to attribute it to social or personal dynamics beyond our control.  The existence of a real ‘demonic’ force could be seen to be the pinnacle of that instinct – an evil beyond our control.  In the worlds presented on the screen, we would be able to neglect any culpability in a malicious act.  Does that matter?  Emotionally, would a rational explanation for an evil act affect how we would respond to such cruelty?  Or would we feel the same?  It’s tempting to suggest that both universes would see an eventual dominance of faith-based belief systems, given the confidence with which they assert that good has ultimate dominion over bad.

(Despite my best efforts at rationality I remain convinced that ‘evil’ remains a useful word to use when discussing the world.  Too many children have been exposed to a darkness that causes them to lose a little of themselves.  Equally, our wilful neglect of animals – creatures, just like us that experience distress and agony – in order to satisfy our greed and ceaseless appetites, seems a distinctly evil act.)

There’s a generational shift between the two films.  Quatermass and the Pit is very much based on a wartime experience, whereas Prince of Darkness populates its cast with members of the successive generation.  These are the children who rejected the sacrifices of their parents in order to indulge in a more material world.  John Carpenter was firmly in this generation, though he (and amongst his contemporaries only George Romero shared in his convictions) was a genuine progressive.  His consistent approach to colourblind casting set him apart from, well let’s be honest, most of the filmmaking community till the present day.  Whilst Kneale was less able to present a varied range of experiences on screen, his consistently showed women to be the most industrious and imaginative members of his cast; women who often achieved this, despite the difficulties they faced in the workplace.  There is an empathy to both men’s writing that sets them apart from their contemporaries.

Watching Quatermass and the Pit is a more unnerving experience that watching the television serial upon which it is based.  Ultimately, the most chilling aspect of the cinema is the walk home at the end of the night.  In the shadows alongside the pavement, our minds cast fantasies that expand and enhance the myths we just saw on the screen.  It is the ability to scare ourselves through our own imaginations that demonstrates the utter effectiveness of storytelling.  Whilst John Carpenter wrote his script as a thematic exploration of Kneale’s concerns, it has always occurred to me that Prince of Darkness is in many ways a retread of his earlier work, The Fog (1980).  Both feature a large cast being threatened by a malevolent force that has been awakened in a traditional sanctuary.  However, Prince of Darkness has always been a more effective film in that it placed its plot in a single confined location, rather than the sprawling townscape of the earlier film (and it is to Carpenter’s great credit that he manages to balance narrative strands and define each member of his extensive cast within their placement in the building.)

For both films end with an act of hopelessness.  Like all discoveries, from the atom bomb to the death of god, the reality of the malicious force is something we can’t unlearn.  Its ultimate dominance of mankind is inevitable.  They speak to humankind’s enormous appetite for destruction.  Whilst Quatermass and the Pit seems initially to dwell within a more hopeful sixties, such was its vision of a successful space faring species, it seems to anticipate a more achievable reality.  That we, as species, are ultimately destined to destroy ourselves.  Either through our waste of the Earth’s natural resources, or the creation of our own redundancy through building a superior artificial intelligence, the reality appears to be that we as a species will never escape the confines of this planet.  Both films end with a defeat of the immediate threat, but accept that it is only a temporary respite.  Similarly, our destruction seems mutually assured.  Our complacency in the face of such certainty, speaks to our capacity for evil.

The ASIDESTEPS Canon – b-sides vol. V

The Canon.  One hundred films with nothing from the top 250 Sight & Sound poll.  These are the b-sides; un-canonised, free from decades of perception and discussion, but great films in their own right.  No apologies, no pretensions.

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  1. Husbands and Wives (1992 – Woody Allen)

 

Because this is what men are like.

 

In a substantial and celebrated career, it’s hard to identify the true moments of glory.  But here, Woody Allen accurately portrays the control men attempt to have over women, particularly if the women are younger.  It’s all about power.  Choosing a freer style of shooting, with misframes, empty spaces and openings and endings of scenes allowed to continue beyond their natural cutting points, Allen creates a vibrant piece of mature filmmaking that he has been unable to top now for twenty-five years.

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  1. Fish Tank (2009 – Andrea Arnold)

 

Because this is reality.

 

Shot in academy ratio, Arnold’s touching account of a young girl’s desires never fails to provoke an audience.  It presents a reality of neglect, dreams and survival that is deeply moving.  Interestingly, no one ever seems to agree on Michael Fassbender’s intentions in this film; is he grooming the daughter, is he a good man who makes a mistake, is he the only decent thing in her life – it presents a situation more complex than real life.

 

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  1. AntiChrist (2009 – Lars Von Trier)

Because maybe the world is evil.

Willingly provocative, AntiChrist is explores what happens when a man tries to fix a woman.  From the opening moments, when Von Trier seeks to make something beautiful out of explicit sex and the death of a child, the film is full of moments designed to shock an audience.  Yet, amidst the ejaculating cocks and talking foxes, there are moments of subliminal and explicit beauty – where faces are glimpsed in the reflection of train windows, and bodies writhe in and out of the roots of a tree.

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  1. Assault on Precinct 13 (1976 – John Carpenter)

Because movies blow your mind.

So much of my formative cinephilia came from scanning the TV listings and finding classic movies shown late at night.  Despite a wall of DVDs, I long for those days.  I came in halfway through Assault on Precinct 13… and sat, a few inches from the screen, with the sound turned down and light flickering across my face until the early hours of the next day.  I had never seen anything like it.  Brutally compelling, it has the directness of intention that is a tremendous strength of Carpenter’s work.  It marks the start of one of the greatest runs of good movies in cinema.

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  1. Point Blank (1967 – John Boorman)

 

Because there are great adaptations.

 

The first in a long line of unrelated adaptations of Richard Stark’s Parker series of fictions, Point Blank predicates a wave of modern films that took the stripped, direct approach of noir cinema and transported it to the modern world.  Filmed in bright colour and deep shadows, with flash cuts, and a monolithically unstoppable performance from Lee Marvin (a man out of time – whose very presence disrupts the very structure of the celluloid.) It would later be readapted as a more conventional film by Brian Helgelend in 1999, of which the director’s cut (Payback: Straight Up) is a pale, but watchable, imitation of this film.

 

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  1. Frances Ha (2012 – Noah Baumbach)

 

Because it’s right to stay to the end of the credits.

 

I went to the cinema expecting, at best, to tolerate this film.  And I sat, leaning forward, enthralled to very closing moment of the credits.  It is a sweetly touching film, its authenticity coming from the hand of Greta Gerwig.  It is the most perfect film to watch at any moment when you are trying to make changes to your life on your own.  It’s for those moments when failure feels close and it is only hope that keeps you moving forward.

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  1. F for Fake (1974 – Orson Welles)

 

FAKE.

 

For me the second half of Orson Welles career is the most appealing.  When he’s desperate and overweight and taking roles in anything to make money just to fund his project.  When there are these half-finished, stolen projects scattered all over Europe.  When our imaginings of what he was capable of achieving are as vivid as the final products we possess.  A living expression of the power of editing, of the ability of directors to manipulate the viewer, of the joy of performance.  It is a testament to the openness of cinema – of how it involves us in temporal moments and engages us to feel something quite extraordinary.

 

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  1. Suspiria (1977 – Dario Argento)

Because movies are better at nightmares than dreams.

 

From the very first frames of the film, you know this has been a mistake.  You know that there are images in this movie that will haunt you forever.  Argento’s whirlwind of anxiety (even the wallpaper in the sets are designed to induce feelings of discomfort in the audience) features some of the most extraordinary colour design that cinema has ever seen.  The Goblin soundtrack is designed to both perfectly catchy, and utterly unplayable due to its inclusion of grunts and yells and demonic chants.

 

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  1. Bande à Part (1964 – Jean-Luc Godard)

Because this is what I’d want to be.

In a decade of riding the zeitgeist, this remains Godard’s most agreeable movie.  With a fertile imagination of form and a casualness of performance, it represents a world in which we’d want to live.  There is a freedom to existence; this is a life without fear, regret or anxiety.  By breaking plot to its thinnest edge, Godard demonstrating that the appeal of movie lay in the exhilaration of watching figures move through a frame, and subliminally seeing a direct transpose these figures and their environments against each other.

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  1. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956 – Alfred Hitchcock)

Because Hollywood isn’t always right.

 

Often neglected in favour of Hitchcock’s own fifties remake, (as indeed is all of his British work – not unjustly, but it does deny many of the pleasures to be found in his British movies.)  The English version is messier and nastier and loses some of the gloss that can smother Hitchcock’s Hollywood work (I’m not saying this as a rule – I love To Catch a Thief (1955) as much as anyone else.)  It also features a compellingly disgusting villainous role from Peter Lorre that is a delight to watch.

The ASIDESTEPS Canon – b-sides vol. IV

The Canon.  One hundred films with nothing from the top 250 Sight & Sound poll.  These are the b-sides; un-canonised, free from decades of perception and discussion, but great films in their own right.  No apologies, no pretensions.

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  1. Repulsion (1965 – Roman Polanski)

 

Because movies help you understand other souls.

Because movies are littered with beautiful people, and they involve us actively watching them, part of our viewing experience involves fantasising about their precious existence.  So Polanski takes that, takes a stunning icon of the sixties, and puts her through true terror.  The mind is a fragile thing when you are left to your own devices.  Even the bright and beautiful struggle to stay alive.  It speaks to the daily horror that women are subjected to – their bodies objectified, their minds denied, their friendship perverted into attraction.

 

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  1. Prince of Darkness (1987 – John Carpenter)

 

Because the second draft is better than the first.

 

In John Carpenter’s great run of movies, The Fog (1980) is a picture that I have always struggled with.  I like the creeping horror, but the fact that it attacks on so many fronts leads to a splintered viewing process, with multiple cliffhangers occurring at once.  Prince of Darkness refines the scenario, causing multiple threats to strike, but within a contained environment.  A cinematic exploration of the supposedly ‘separate spheres’ of science and religion.

 

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  1. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974 – Sam Peckinpah)

 

Because all films end.

 

Sometimes you’re just watching the running time, mentally calculating how much longer there is to go.  Some great films adopt that into their text, where the ending is inevitable, and the plot of the film is a desperate attempt to avoid it.  And with Peckinpah, the ending would always be an explosion of violence.  A sleazy, shameless delight of a film, you feel the sweat and dirt dripping off the celluloid.  And it has the greatest title given to a film ever.

 

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  1. Possession (1981 – Andrzej Zulawski)

 

Because this is true horror.

 

The history of horror movies is one of men doing horrible things to women (as the real world is too.)  Within these narratives, women have been able to escape these misogynistic structures, or turn violence against their oppressors.  Actors can escape by producing performances of strength and charm that endear them to the audience.  Or they can do what Isabelle Adjani does, and give a performance of such extraordinary terror and conviction, that you never feel safe.  You cannot grasp what she is achieving, performing multiple roles and exposing her body to such possession.  The greatest special effects are performances and this is one of the greatest of all.

 

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  1. Opening Night (1977 – John Cassavetes)

 

Because I still have nightmares about not knowing my lines.

 

Acting is such a peculiar profession – pretending to be someone else for entertainment – that we forget the craft involved when it is done well.  Opening Night features some extraordinary moments of performances (staged?  Improvised? Rehearsed?) that are beguiling and shattering and electric.  It is acting at its most vulnerable and most intriguing.

 

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  1. Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957 – Frank Tashlin)

 

Because sometimes movies see the future.

 

It’s easy to contain films – to limit them to times and nationalities.  To judge them on their superficial qualities.  To focus on troublesome qualities and deny the remaining pleasures.  But films breakout from these constrictions, and sometimes present intriguing glimpses into the world ahead of them.  Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? anticipates our obsession with celebrity, our reliance on advertising to feel good, and the rise of corporations in limiting our abilities to change our lives.  And it features some of the greatest trolling of television ever.  TV sucks.  Long live movies!

 

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  1. McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971 – Robert Altman)

 

Because movies are the great American artform.

 

Here Altman plots the birth of commercialism in America and indicates how it will dominate everything, including the individual (and even religion – see how the church burns down in the final reel of the film.)  It features some delirious cinematography from Vilmos Zsigmond, who almost ‘washed out’ the film to ensure that every moment was heavy with a sense of history, despite the multi-levelled soundtrack work that was occurring onscreen

 

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  1. Schizopolis (1996 – Steven Soderbergh)

 

Idea missing.

 

(Soderbergh begins his career with a bang, and then spends years trying to figure out what he is.  Ultimately he realises he is not a writer, and spends a decade or so attempting a wide variety of projects that amount to a great deal as a whole, and more often than not, not very much on their own.  Schizopolis is his palate-cleanser, his self-starring, frenetic surreal piece of comedy filmmaking.)

 

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  1. The Color Wheel (2011 – Alex Ross Perry)

 

Because movies are horrendously surprising.

 

Filmed in high contrast, high grain black-and-white, The Color Wheel features about eighty minutes of some highly repellent individuals being toxic to those around them and deluded about themselves.  As we all are.  And then comes an ending which is so surprising, so compelling and so perfect that you never quite believe it happened.  Extraordinary.

 

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  1. Strange Days (1995 – Kathryn Bigelow)

Because you need to see things in a different light.

Bigelow takes the very idea of cinema – the experience of watching another perspective – and incorporates it into the narrative of a science-fiction thriller.  Featuring moments of extraordinary spectacle, she confronts us with our complicity in watching horrible things happen to other people, and the delight we so often feel when we do so.