Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Good, The Bad and The Portmanteau

I was glad to see the release on DVD of the film V/H/S as it sees a return to one of my favourite sub-genres of film - the portmanteau horror. Portmanteaus (or anthologies) are like a (comic-)book of short stories rather than a full novel, although there is a central conceit or thread which binds together the individual tales. This often involved a group of strangers thrown or trapped together with each recounting a strange dream or fear they'd had, with the resulting "twist" being that they are all turn out to be dead.

One of my favourite conceits is the antique shop run by Peter Cushing in From Beyond The Grave - all the customers come in and attempt to swindle him in order to get hold of some knick-knack or other - but more fool them, because that mirror they got for half price is actually haunted and contains the trapped spirit of a very persuasive mass murderer!

The conceit for V/H/S involves a group of petty criminals who have been paid to break into a house and retrieve a video tape. They find a dead man sitting in a chair, surrounded by tapes, and each member of the gang vanishes after watching a tape. It's nice to see the moral certainties of the genre continuing as baddies get their come-uppances.

Despite the purposefully grainy, "amateur" nature of the film, the stories are certainly passable, with the first one (about a group of obnoxious frat boys who have the tables turned on them when they set out to illicitly make a sex tape) and the last one (about another group of slightly less obnoxious guys who accidentally gate-crash and mess up an exorcism, thinking it's a Halloween party) being the best.

Portmanteaus hit their heyday in the 60s and 70s, with British film Amicus producing about a half dozen of them, including Dr Terror's House of Horrors, The House that Dripped Blood and Tales from the Crypt. As well as the horror stalwarts like Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Britt Ekland, it's always fun to see well-known British faces like Tom Baker, Roy Castle, Alan "Fluff" Freeman, Diana Dors and Joan Collins cropping up - there's a nice pairing for example of Jon Pertwee and Geoffrey Bayldon in The House That Dripped Blood (where Pertwee is a horror film actor who buys a haunted cloak from strange shop-keeper Bayldon). The two had a long standing tv relationship as Wurzel Gummidge and the Crow Man.

Amicus produced its last portmanteau in 1980, The Monster Club, which was also the first one I saw, and aged around 9, it did manage to terrify me, despite probably being one of the least scary of the lot - and having some pretty unconvincing monsters! The Monster Club is set in a nightclub (for monsters naturally) and the stories are interspersed with musical numbers which take up quite a bit of time (although I do have a soft spot for The Stripper, which is belted out by Stevie Lange). The stories are based around a poster of the monster family tree which is derived from the writing of R. Chetwynd Hayes who came up with the idea (and is also a character in the film). The vampire Vincent Price, who befriends him and introduces him to the club, explains:

First we have the primate monsters, vampires, werewolves and ghouls – but everyone knows about those. Now pay attention: A vampire and a werewolf would produce a werevamp. A werewolf and a ghoul would produce a weregoo. A vampire and a ghoul would produce a vamgoo. A weregoo and a werevamp would produce a shaddy. A weregoo and a vamgoo would produce a maddy. A werevamp and a vamgoo would produce a raddy. If a shaddy were to mate with a raddy or a maddy, it would result in a mock (which frankly, is just a polite name for a mongrel).

The first story is about a shadmock which can cause all your skin to melt off - very messy - by whistling - so do try not to make one fall in love with you just so you can run off with his family silver. The poor shadmock lives a lonely life in a gorgeous country house which most of us will only ever get to see if we hold National Trust cards. He is supposed to be vile to look upon, although I think all he needs really is a bit of fake tan and a better haircut. In fact, when my poor fella (trying to be affectionate), stroked my hair the other day, I shouted "Don't! You've made me look like a shadmock!"

For me, the scariest story in The Monster Club was the last one about a film director who, while out scouting for new locations, gets trapped in the isolated village of Loughville. Surrounded by dry ice - it clearly has its own microclimate - it appears full of interbred drooling locals, but in fact they're ghouls who intend to eat him. Only the inn-keeper's daughter Luna, a "humghoul" (a cross between a human and a ghoul) who speaks in a debilitating Norfolk dialect, offers a chance of survival. Sam, the movie director is swash-bucklingly played by Stuart Whitman, who is a long way from the 50s beefcake roles he used to have.

And there's a wonderful "oh no, we're back at the chateau!" moment as the final twist, which to someone who had only ever seen children's films with happy endings, felt awfully unfair and stayed with me for YEARS afterwards. The middle one is about a vampire Dad and is the "comedy" story - there's usually a bit of comedy hiding in one of the segments, particularly cases where someone is trying to exorcise a rambunctious poltergeist. You just have to grit your teeth and see it through, because at least there'll be another story along in 15 minutes or so. That's the beauty of the format.

1980 probably marks the point where it was impossible to produce any more authentic Amicus portmanteaus, as audiences were becoming too sophisticated by then - and anyway, the age of the proper video nasty was underway, and there's an innocence to those portmanteaus that can quickly become kitsch if not done properly.

The series was parodied by Steve Coogan's Dr Terrible's House of Horrible in 2001, with one episode "And Now the Fearing" being a proper homage to the portmanteau involving 3 characters trapped in a lift, and with some wonderfully kitsch 1970s sets. My favourite involves Julia Davies from Nighty Night who is tormented by a murderous coffee table (this actually wasn't that far from the killer piano in an Amicus portmanteau called Torture Garden).

So seeing V/S/H inspired me to do some Amazon searching and I've managed to get hold of all of Amicus' back catalogue. I only have one left to watch - Asylum - which unfortunately I could only get a copy with German subtitles on, but never mind. I hear that V/H/S 2 is coming out soon, so maybe this is the start of new era of portmanteau awfulness!

Saturday, April 13, 2013

I'm ready for my cavity search Mr De Mille

I have been watching Prisoners Wives, an austere, relentlessly nihilistic (it's set in Sheffield) BBC drama that's just finished its second series and feels awfully right for the Narnian times we are currently living in - always recession and never summer.

Our last decade had Footballers Wive$ - a campy soap for the gaudier good times. It reflected the consumerist nonsense of New Labour gurus hanging out on celebrity yachts and was as bubbly and vacuous as a glass of warm Chardonnay (which was what one of the characters was actually called). It was blingtastic nonsense - although I watched every episode all I can remember about it is Tanya Turner's talon-like painted nails scraping down the back of her latest man, possibly on a private jet. Oh, and Joan Collins was wheeled out towards the end, threatening to send someone old enough to be her great-great-great grandson back to the favelas. The title always irritated me due to its lack of apostrophes - even one in the wrong place would have at least shown they'd tried, and the awful American dollar sign that they replaced the final s with. I guess Footballers Wive£ wouldn't have worked.

I don't like the title of Prisoners Wives either - what it is with these shows that position women as appendages to men? Can you imagine Footballers Husbands or Prisoners Husbands or even Ballerinas Husbands - not on prime time at least, although I may have just invented a niche market.

So despite my mother urging me to watch PW, I refused until one of those evenings when I forgot to turn the tv off and it kind of just took over my evening. And it is strangely compelling, drawing you in with its bleak morality tales of fallen men and the women who love them. It is pure Dickens in other words.

The Queen of Prisoners Wives is brassy Franny, played by Polly Walker (who has previously done wicked women in Rome and Caprica). At the start of the series she is a ghastly nouveau riche, living in an enormous McMansion, and whiling away the lonely hours with pilates and spinning classes. Pedalling on a bike that's going nowhere - it's a METAPHOR you see. Except all the money is from her husband's gangster activities and bailiffs soon banish her back to the council estate from whence she came. She manages to keep up a tempestuous relationship with her awful husband Paul (one of those names that only men in their 40s now have). One minute she's flashing her lack of knickers at him, the next they're on the verge of breaking up. Or else he's arranging to use her as the blood-spattered pawn when assassinating one of his rival gang bosses. Franny feels like a reject from Footballers Wives - I suspect her and Tanya Turner went to the same tanning salon, although Franny has depths and her zingers are defence mechanisms to obscure the emptiness of her life and her disappointment at all the bad choices she's made.

On the other hand, class-wise, Harriet is the real deal - a proper dotty upper-middle, incredibly nervy and awkward and well-meaning and what Americans think of when they think of British people. She shopped her son to the police and the idea of visiting him in prison is so awful that she can't even get out of the car in the first episode but just sits there babbling to her faithful dog Basil. Her ungrateful, not-all-there son has a tough time in prison, and there is a brutally hilarious episode where Harriet has to smuggle drugs in so he won't get beaten up. Every stage of this insane journey is filled with crushing embarrassment - from Harriet unsuccessfully trying to score at the local rough council estate (the yobs just laugh at her and steal her money), to researching how to smuggle drugs inside her own body (opening a condom on a banana and then throwing the banana in the bin in disgust), to her frenzied panic with the sniffer dog and the inevitable strip search when it all goes horribly, horribly wrong.

And there is underclass Louisa, who deals drugs so she can get her family out of the ghetto, and keeps all the drug money inside a hole in the settee in her council flat. Her husband kindly took the rap for her and they're lying to their young son and pretending that Daddy's doing top secret work during the prison visits. You know the little boy's going to end up in care before the end. Natalie Gavin, the young actress who plays Louisa is amazing, and in every scene that she is in I end up crying like a baby.

There is a fourth character, Gemma (all Bambi-eyes and pregnancy bump) who comes to realise that her lovely husband isn't actually innocent at all, but in fact is running an illegal sweat shop full of Chinese illegal immigrants out of a shipping container, and has a side-interest in murdering people. During increasingly fraught prison visits, the couple trade bluffs and lies, until I'm completely confused about who believes who anymore. I haven't seen the last episode yet, but I suspect the prison will explode and everyone will die. I can't wait to watch series 2.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope

I turned on the news halfway through yesterday and there was footage of some striking miners in 80s haircuts so I knew Margaret Thatcher had died. As someone who grew up in County Durham, and had several members of my family who worked in the mining industry, I can't say I'm sorry to see the back of her. I would rather she had lived and her ideology died but instead it's the other way round.

She was a cold bird. Perhaps the country needed a dose of her in 1979, after a winter when bins and bodies didn't get collected. But she went on for too long, much too long. Lucky too, the country was ready to vote her out after one term, with her approval rating being only 23% at the end of 1980. But in 1982 Argentina did her a huge favour and invaded the Falklands. The win, along with an economic recovery helped to swing it for her, and she got in again in 1983. If only she had lost it.

Over the 1980s, the refrain from my parents was "The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer". As "respectable" working class, my Dad worked overtime, ferrying drunks home who refused to pay up, on the late night bus shifts. My mother seemed to spend the whole decade wiping down work surfaces and taking college courses in evenings so she could eventually get a job. Because for families like us where mother stayed at home, the only route was underclass. My father's lone wage got so low in real terms that we had to have government assistance. Meanwhile, in our street, more and more families were placed on incapacity benefit.

After my mother got a job things improved, and you could probably view our family as a Thatcher success story - we even bought our council house, the children got to go to University and none of us have any County Court Judgements. But we were exceptions - and the rule was unemployment, crime, breakdown of families and pound shops. When Charles and Di visited my home town in 1983 to open a factory, the council painted the sides of bus stops on their route so they wouldn't have to see all the graffiti.

So I won't weep for Mrs Thatcher, who died after a several-month long stay at the Ritz - the loveliest old people's home in the country. And on the day she died, the ConDem Alliance started key changes to benefits for disabled people which Scope says will result in 600,000 people losing their financial support. Which her death pushed off the news headlines of course. How deliciously appropriate.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

The First Coup Coup of Spring

Just back from a lovely week in Sorrento, Italy, where the temperatures approached scorchio 20 degrees, and my pasty skin, not having seen an sunlight in months, instantly frizzled and fell off, like a vampire.

I brought along Coup, a very simple but addictive card game for 3-6 players which involves trying to wipe out everyone by amassing money in order to have them assassinated or "couped". Each player takes the role of a rich Italian family, so it seemed appropriate. Some cards allow you to accelerate the amount of money you can get or allow you to steal it from other players. There's a lot of bluffing - you can lie and pretend you have an Assassin card to kill off someone else's card. But that person can then lie and say they're holding the Contessa, which blocks Assassins. If you're challenged and found out to be lying, you automatically lose a card. I played with my fella and his sister, who are both master strategists and tend to send each other birthday cards that say things like "Power is Everything" on them. As expected, I didn't do too well. My sister-in-law tended to continuously claim she had the Ambassador, which allowed her to switch cards. I couldn't work out my fella's strategy but it involved a lot of him being very silent and thinking hard. I suspect both my opponents were lying most of the time, except for the rare times when I challenged them about lying. Then they always revealed they were telling the truth. Being a risk-avoidant sort of person, I tended to play an honest game, not claiming to have any cards in my hand that I didn't have. Once or twice, this resulted in me winning, as my opponents weren't able to conceive of someone telling the truth ALL the time. And once I won because I didn't understand the rules properly, causing my opponents to incorrectly think I was playing out some huge bluff, whereas in fact I was ignorant. I suspect I am the Kim Jong-Un of Coup.