Thursday, 13 July 2017

A nightingale

I'm not quite sure where to begin with this one. But basically it revolves around David Lynch. I've been watching his new, third season of Twin Peaks, and just caught up with episode 9. It was a return to normal, in a way, after the astonishing piece of avant garde art that was episode 8 - one of the strangest and most disturbing hours of television you are ever likely to see. But at the end it played out with one of Lynch's ethereal, synth and female voice kind of bands. They turned out to be Au Revoir Simone, with something called A Violent Yet Flammable World, which was nice, but it set me wondering about Julee Cruise, who was their floaty angelic precursor throughout the whole Twin Peaks season 1 and 2 era. And I discovered something which I found interesting enough to drive me to write this.

Back in 1986, Lynch was writing and directing Blue Velvet, which was, let's face it, the spiritual predecessor of Twin Peaks. It had mobsters and kinky sex behind the facade of a really 'nice' northwestern small town - and Kyle MacLachlan as well. Twin Peaks bears the same relationship to Blue Velvet that Fargo the TV series does to Fargo the movie. Anyway, Lynch had decided that for incidental music he wanted to use Song to the Siren by This Mortal Coil. Or rather, originally by Tim Buckley, but covered in the 80s by This Mortal Coil. I discovered This Mortal Coil in 1984, when I lived next door to a Scots music student at York University. In addition to the Gregorian chant and fucking awful accordion music he subjected me to through the wall between our rooms, he played their first album, It'll End In Tears over and over and over again, and my God, listening to Elizabeth Fraser's haunting voice still sends shivers down my spine, just like it did back then. For the uninitiated, This Mortal Coil were a kind of Scots Indie supergroup, made up of people I'd only ever heard of in passing when occasionally listening to John Peel - Xmal Deutschland, Red Lorry Yellow Lorry, Metal Box, and of course most famously The Cocteau Twins. I'd vaguely noticed The Cocteau Twins, but never been convinced, but Fraser's songs on It'll End In Tears - especially Another Day and Song To The Siren, were like something from another planet, and I was instantly hooked.

Well, clearly David Lynch thought so too, as he wanted to use Song To The Siren on Blue Velvet. Unfortunately, the publishers were asking more than he was prepared to pay, so he got Angelo Badalamenti to write something similar, and Badalamenti roped in a singer from New York he thought could achieve the same purity of note and ethereal quality that Fraser had managed. Enter Julee Cruise, and this ersatz This Mortal Coil song became Mysteries of Love. It's interesting to listen to it now and compare and contrast. The rest is history, as they say. Lynch and Badalamenti wrote Cruise's first album, Floating Into The Night, all of it comprised of songs which had been used as incidental music in Twin Peaks, including the title track, Falling. Julee herself even appeared as a singer at the Bang Bang bar in Season 2 prior to a spooky appearance by The Giant. Apparently she's scheduled to make a reappearance in Season 3, and I'm certainly looking forward to that. In the meantime, she'll always be the nightingale. But it's interesting to me that the whole tenor of the music of Twin Peaks is basically a conscious attempt to reproduce the sound of a band I loved even before I discovered Lynch World.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Aliens on a Train

So apparently there is a Horror Channel on Freeview - channel 70, if you're interested. I'd not encountered it before, and assumed it was one of those 'timeshare' channels, but it turns out they broadcast for almost all of the day. On Saturday night I came across it while channel flipping, just in time to see the start of a movie called 'Horror Express', and once I saw that it starred not only Christopher Lee but also Peter Cushing, I knew that I was on board for the long haul on this one.

Given the presence of Lee and Cushing, I initially assumed that it was a Hammer Films production - it's from 1972 and has that same brightly saturated Technicolor look to it, especially the vivid red substance they used for blood (I believe jokily known as 'Kensington Gore'). But in fact it turns out to be an Anglo-Spanish co-production, filmed in Madrid on a very tight budget with a Spanish director and largely Spanish cast - much cheaper at the time than filming in the UK. Yes, it's in effect a Spaghetti (or Paella) Horror movie.

The film starts with the discovery of a strange humanoid creature frozen in the ice in the Himalaya by a team of western explorers - more on this later - then quickly shifts to 1906 'Peking', where the usual mixed bag of characters are joining the Trans-Siberian Express to Moscow. Among them is Sir Alexander Saxton (Lee), who has a mysterious crate he will not allow inspection of. A thief tries to break into the crate as it sits on the platform, and then is found dead, his eyes completely whited over. Dun-dun-duuuuun! Saxton's fellow travellers include British scientist Dr Wells (Cushing) and his bluestocking assistant Miss Jones; Count Marian Petrovsky and the beautiful Countess Irina - Petrovsky has invented some new kind of steel "harder than diamond"; a Rasputin-like Orthodox priest, Father Pujardov (who pronounces that the crate is 'evil'); and Natasha, a beautiful thief with her eyes on the Countess' jewellery. And so the stage is set for some Orient Express-style shenanigans on a train, but with a horror slant. Once the train is on the move, Cushing is curious about the box, and bribes a porter to break into it, and said man is also found dead with white eyes. The creature inside, bizarrely, picks the lock and gets out (there is a good reason for this - bear with me), and an inspector - who is on the train following thief Natasha - takes charge of the investigation.

And here is where the film segues from horror into science fiction, albeit hokey, bullshit, horror movie SF. An autopsy on the porter reveals his brain is completely smooth. Somehow the creature is draining people's brains (hence it gaining the ability to pick locks from the thief at the start). Also - it leaves somethng imprinted at the back of the eye - the last thing the person saw - this was a popular medieval trope, here there's a sort-of reason for it. When the creature is apparently shot dead by the police inspector, vistas of prehistoric Earth and even the Earth seen from space are seen etched on its retinas - as my companion sagely noted, the latter was something that would very much be in the public eye in the early 70s due to the Apollo moonshots. The old priest of course is convinced that this is Lucifer, not an alien, but that still doesn't quite explain why he throws his lot in with the creature. Meanwhile, after seeming to be dead, the creature swaps bodies - possessing the police inspector, and more running around ensues. The Count, Miss Jones and the beautiful thief all meet their various ends. And more - we come to start to understand the creature. It seems to be just trying to get home - in the guise of the Inspector it quizzes Lee about rocketry, it steals the secret of the hardened steel by absorbing the Count's mind, eventually it even tries to persuade Lee to help it, in return for advanced knowledge it can give him.

And then suddenly, Telly Savalas randomly appears as a comedy Cossack leader, boarding the train with his men, possibly because someone has telegraphed ahead, but the point is not made terribly clear. He drinks, he wenches, he chews the scenery and generally steals his scenes, and then within about five minutes he is swiftly killed by the creature and turned into a zombie (as are all of the other dead people - they really have thrown the kitchen sink at this plot). There's an ending involving decoupling the car with the survivors in and sending the train plummeting over a convenient gorge, but frankly after Telly dies, it's all anti-climax.

So how to sum up this unexpected discovery? It's not that bad - hokey at times but entertainingly watchable in a late night horror movie kind of way - exactly right for the slot the Horror Channel put it in. The beautiful countess and femme fatale are beautiful, Cushing and Lee play it completely straight as always and are their usual impeccable selves, and aside from some bad dubbing over the Spanish extras and the random Telly Savalas cameo, it could basically be any Hammer film of the 60s and 70s. Savalas was here at the height of his bankability; just post- his major film roles like 'Kelly's Heroes' and 'The Dirty Dozen', but just pre-Kojak, so quite a big name to have secured, albeit for a bit part. Both Savalas and the locomotive and train car set were, it seems, borrowed from 'Pancho Villa', which was just about to start shooting at the same studio.

But what really interested me was the whole 'alien dug out of the ice, goes on a rampage but is actually trying to get home' element. This plotline first appeared in 1931 in the pioneering novella by SF-horror maestro H.P. Lovecraft: 'At The Mountains of Madness'. This then led pulp writer John W. Campbell to write his own 'alien spacecraft trapped in the ice' story 'Who Goes There?' in 1938, which became filmed in 1951 at the height of American UFO panic as 'The Thing From Another World', and which itself was then remade in 1982 as 'The Thing', directed by John Carpenter and starring Kurt Russell. Ridley Scott's 2012 Prometheus is also arguably based on the same ur-plotline (it was cited by Spanish director Guillermo del Toro as the reason he abandoned his own simultaneous attempt to film At The Mountains of Madness). That there should have been another movie inspired, albeit obliquely, by the same plot, is a delightful find. The fact that the horror has a scientific element to it in Horror Express makes the film more interesting than just a simple revenant on a train, and that science element is reminiscent of a couple of other Hammer films like the 1967 oddity Night of the Big Heat (also starring Lee and  Cushing). All told, it's an interesting curio, and worth watching if it ever comes by again.