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Jake Speed

Jake Speed
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    • Bonjour Tristesse (DVD) / DVD / 40 Readings / 38 Ratings
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      17.03.2014 19:54
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      An underrated Preminger film

      Bonjour Tristesse (Hello Sadness) is a 1958 film directed by Otto Preminger from a screenplay by Arthur Laurents. It was based on the novel by Françoise Sagan. The film met with a muted response upon release but has grown in stature over the years. It was the second collaboration between the tyrannical nutcase Preminger and his gamine doe-eyed muse Jean Seberg, the fleetingly iconic actress he discovered through a talent search and cast in his Joan of Arc misfire Saint Jean. Seberg was widely lampooned for her wooden performance in Saint Joan but there was something unique and captivating about the fledgling actress and Preminger knew this. Her flat emotionless rural American accent (a weakness in Saint Joan but a strength here in a more ambiguous role) and almost perfect beauty is harnessed to unforgettable effect in Bonjour Tristesse and led directly to her inspired casting in Godard's Breathless. Seberg's career was not destined to be long or commercial but she had the last laugh on those who had prematurely written her off after Saint Joan.

      The story is set mostly around the dappled sun glazed seas of the French Riviera (lavish CinemaScope Technicolor) and bookended/interspliced by contrasting scenes in Paris (moody black and white). Paris is the reality hangover. The morning after the night before. Cecile (Jean Seberg) lives a pleasantly carefree but selfish life with her rakish widowed playboy father Raymond (David Niven). They rent a villa on the French Riviera to enjoy an idyllic summer. Languid swims under blue skies, servants, parties, tennis, dancing, scuba diving, fine food, romance, moonlight. Life is superficial but a positive whirl. Raymond has a young mistress named Elsa (Mylene Demongeot) but Cecile is accustomed to her father's endless revolving door of casual girlfriends coming and going and never feels troubled by them. Cecile and Elsa are friends and - if anything - Cecile mimics her father's rather desultory lifestyle of aimless fun with no responsibility or long term commitments.

      However, her apparently perfect life is threatened on what might be a more permanent basis when an old friend of her father, a fashion designer named Anne (Deborah Kerr), arrives on the scene and moves into the villa they have rented. Anne was a friend of Cecile's late mother and is - unlike Raymond's fly by night mistresses - her father's age. She is sensible, mature, cultured, stable, and intelligent. Romance begins to tentatively blossom between Anne and Raymond. Cecile is wracked with jealousy and worried that her spoiled life with her father will come to an end. She may no longer be the centre of his universe if Anne marries him. "Anne is prim and prissy and a prude and a know-it-all, and I hate her!" The sulky Cecile begins to scheme and plot to remove Anne from Raymond's life. But does she really know what she is doing?

      Bonjour Tristesse reminds me a little of Ingmar Bergman's Summer with Monika although that comparison sounds ludicrous at first glance. Bonjour Tristesse has that fluffy fifties widescreen super colour gloss while Bergman's film is stark monochrome. But both films use the tension between reality and fantasy in an interesting way visually. Bonjour Tristesse wallows in sparkling light for the Riviera scenes and then makes Paris drab and black and white to express Cecile's unwelcome confrontation with the real world and the consequences of the decisions she has made in her life. In Summer with Monika, Harriet Andersson plays a bored teenager who escapes stuffy provincial city life to spend the summer by the sea in the remote Stockholm archipelago. Bergman makes the beach an ethereal paradise hermitically sealed from the outside world by stars and waves while city life is presented as claustrophobic and humdrum. The use of both colour and black and white in a single film doesn't seem especially novel today but it was rare in the 1950s and gives Bonjour Tristesse an interesting clash of styles. The colour scenes are pretty like Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief and the Paris sequences go New Wave. The structure uses the summer as the main bulk of the story and the shimmering Technicolor frolics make the black and white sequences feel haunting and stark.

      Cecile and Monika are distant cousins who prefer to run from the real world until it finally catches up with them. Like Monika, Cecile is manipulative and cunning. She latches onto a student named Philippe (Geoffrey Horne) but when Anne says she disapproves of the relationship and tells the flunking Cecile to concentrate on her studies, Cecile uses Phillipe in a plot to make Raymond jealous of piqued mistress Elsa and want her back. Cecile begins the film yearning for the summer she shared with her father and is now suffocated by "an invisible wall of memories". She pines for fleeting days of happiness. Seberg has a lot of narrating to do in the film and her strangely aloof and detached speaking voice and otherworldly aura makes her a perfect Preminger heroine. She is simultaneously amateurish and captivating. Preminger clearly adores Seberg and can barely bring himself to take his camera away from her and focus on anyone else. Everything Seberg does in the film, however mundane and trivial, is completely fascinating. She could sit reading a telephone directory while someone juggled hot coals next to her and you would still be entranced by Seberg and focused only on her.

      Although Seberg was not lauded at all for Bonjour Tristesse at the time her very presence is iconic to modern eyes and she finally earned the artistic respect she craved when she won plaudits for Robert Rossen's Lillith in 1964. François Truffaut wanted to cast her in Day for Night but abandoned the plan when he found it impossible to contact the actress. That was so Jean Seberg. She might not have been the world's greatest actor but she has absolute control of her body language. This feels like Preminger's apology to her for the humiliation of Saint Joan. He knows that if he projects the pure self of Seberg onto the screen it will be impossible not to adore her. The film has some truly iconic Seberg images that stay in the memory. One of her looking over the shoulder of a lover while dancing in a nightclub (the black & white photography is superbly realised by Georges Périnal) and also the famous scene where she takes her make up off while gloomily looking into a mirror.

      Seberg on the Riviera is effortlessly an icon too as she swims, sulks, frolics, and practices yoga with a towel on her head. It doesn't matter if she can act or not. Seberg has star quality in Bonjour Tristesse. This is one of those films that you wouldn't mind magically entering yourself as that villa is amazingly perfect. A game of tennis wih Jean Seberg and then some dinner with David Niven dropping by to banter bons mots. Vanilla ice cream as a hangover cure. I like the use of locations in the film a lot. Scenes where characters take a drive in sports cars or an afternoon swim are very enjoyable and nicely photographed. The story manages not to make anyone a pantomime villain but instead present the characters as fallible and human. Raymond and Cecile are sort of like the hedonistic characters in The Great Gatsby floating through life without much thought. We just know that the crash is coming. Niven gives a fairly conventional performance but he's enjoyably "David Niven" as the shallow fun loving and mildly seedy amoral philanderer Raymond.

      The best pure acting performance comes from Scottish born Deborah Kerr as Anne. Preminger is pretty mean though the way he makes Kerr (who couldn't have been very old at all at the time) look like she was born in the 16th century in scenes she shares with the tomboyish Seberg. The novel was mildly scandalous when it was published in France and Bonjour Tristesse is quite powerful at times despite its outward gloss. There is almost something unhealthy and destructive about the relationship between Cecile and Raymond in the film, the way they greet each other with kisses, embrace, and have Cecile call him by his first name. I don't think anything distasteful was supposed to be implied either in the book or the film but Niven seems to linger a shade too long for some of those embraces. They are so close that they'll never be able to truly love anyone else. This theme gives the film its melancholic underbelly beneath all the surface froth. Cecile is a genuinely confused character who only has her father's example to go by until Anne arrives. She doesn't know if she is a child or an adult. "It's getting out of control. I just wish I were a lot older or a lot younger."

      Bonjour Tristesse is slightly pretentious and very of its time the way we are asked to accept the very Anglo-American cast as wandering French sophisticates but it is a film ripe for re-discovery - especially if you are a fan of the doomed but fleetingly luminous Jean Seberg. At the time of writing you can buy this bare bones (no extras, just scene access) widescreen DVD of Bonjour Tristesse for under five pounds.

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      • The Monster Squad (DVD) / DVD / 64 Readings / 62 Ratings
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        10.03.2014 20:15
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        Cult favourite

        The Monster Squad is a cult 1987 comedy horror adventure film directed by Fred Dekker. Dekker also wrote the screenplay with Shane Black. The story begins with a Transylvania prologue set in 1887. At a spooky castle, Dr Van Helsing (Jack Gwillim) attempts to banish Count Dracula (Duncan Regehr) into limbo on the "day of balance" between good and evil. This is only possible once every century and an indestructible shimmering green amulet of concentrated good must be at hand. Are you following this so far? Anyway, Van Helsing "blew it" (as the irreverent text scroll at the start of the film tells us) and Dracula resurfaces one hundred years later in 1987. The amulet was hidden far away in a small American town by Van Helsing's associates and the Count arrives to claim it and so plunge the world into darkness. To this end he puts together a team of classic Universal studio monsters to help him. Frankenstein's Monster (Tom Noonan), The Mummy (Michael MacKay), The Gill-Man aka Creature from the Black Lagoon (Tom Woodruff Jr), and The Wolf Man (Carl Thibault). The only thing that stands in their way is a bunch of plucky monster obsessed kids with a treehouse who call themselves The Monster Squad. Let battle commence.

        This film seemed to slip through a portal into limbo itself but seems to be getting the love it deserves now. What a fun idea to use the classic Universal monsters and put them into a contemporary setting. Was this the first time they had all appeared together? I think it might have been. Stan Winston's enjoyable reimagining of the iconic monsters (love his Gill-Man, surely the inspiration for his Predator alien?) is wonderful. The Monster Squad takes a while to get going but once it does it's about as much fun as you have any right to expect a film to be. This is often compared to The Goonies but I don't really see a huge comparison myself apart from both pictures revolving around a bunch of kids. The Goonies is Spielberg assembly line stuff for children whereas The Monster Squad has a sharp script by Shane Black that has plenty for adults.

        This is a strange film in many ways as children would clearly get a big kick out of it but it sometimes ventures into areas you wouldn't expect. Dracula calls a little girl a "bitch", the little girl calls her friends "chickens***s", there's a very funny and at times risque subplot about The Monster Squad trying to find a female virgin to read the monster banishing incantation from Van Helsing's diary. The sequence where The Wolf Man transforms in the back of an ambulance is pretty frightening. Note the the scene too where the "Scary Old German Man" (charmingly played by Leonardo Cimino), who the Monster Squad befriend because he can translate Van Helsing's diary for them, is told that he seems to know a lot about monsters by one of the kids. "Now that you mention it, I suppose I do," he reflects and as he closes the door we see a Nazi concentration camp prisoner tattoo on his arm.

        It always helps the film a lot that the children playing The Monster Squad are all likeable and handle the comedy with a decent amount of deftness. Andre Gower (looking uncannily like a young Tom Atkins) is the club leader Sean and Roddy Kiger is his best friend Patrick. Brent Chalem (who sadly died when he was only 22) is the "fat kid" Horace and has a great arc in the film - and also the most famous line in The Monster Squad when he comes up with a unique way to subdue The Wolf Man. Love the bit where Horace improvises and attacks Dracula with a slice of pizza because of the garlic. Ryan Lambert is Rudy, a slightly older kid who joins the team and is sort of like the cool one. He wears a leather jacket and sunglasses. He's the Fonz of the team if you will. Rudy has a memorable scene where he takes on three vampiric schoolgirls that Dracula has taken over. "Where the hell am I supposed to find silver bullets? K-Mart?" snaps Rudy when they discuss how to kill a werewolf.

        By the way, as werewolves can only be killed by silver bullets, ever wondered what would happen if you blew up The Wolf Man with dynamite? There's a fun moment in the film where we find out. Ashley Bank is funny as Sean's younger sister Phoebe and is given some amusing lines by the script. I like the team's dog too and he features in a treehouse joke that made me laugh more than any other single moment in the film. The script is very Shane Black and you find yourself enjoying even the smallest dialogue moments. A bit near the start where Sean and Patrick have been hauled into the headmaster's office at school because they were overheard saying that one of their teachers had a head like a cat. Patrick tries to distance himself from the accusation and declares that he would never compare a teacher's head to that of a cat. "I mean, HOW rude!" he adds by way of an exclamation mark.

        The monsters themselves are well cast with Tom Noonan making the most of the more sympathetic role of Frankenstein's Monster and Canadian actor Duncan Regehr (who I recognised from some episodes of Star Trek) enjoying himself as a suave sneering Dracula. "Meeting adjourned," says Drac when he blows their clubhouse up. The Mummy features in an inventive car chase sequence and I suppose the only complaint one could have with the monsters is that The Gill-Man only has a couple of scenes. He's makes a nice entrance though when Count Dracula summons him from a fog bound lake. This is not one of those films either where the adults are too stupid to notice what is going on for the entire film and Stephen Macht as Sean's police detective dad also becomes mixed up in the mayhem. I like the scenes where Macht and Sean sit on the roof of their house with binoculars to watch a drive-through horror film playing in the valley below.

        Sure, The Monster Squad is contrived and silly but I would defy anyone not to have a good time watching this film. The 'thumbs-up' exchange near the end must surely be one of the greatest moments in cinema history. Even the somewhat dated special effects are a lot of fun. Richard Edlund's spinning limbo vortex. The Two-Disc 20th Anniversary Edition of The Monster Squad is definitely the one to go for and has enough extra features to satisfy any fan. Audio commentaries by Dekker and the easygoing cast and a documentary that is actually longer than the film. This is a fascinating extra as it touches on why the film bombed when it was first released (the studio had no idea how to market it we gather - a kids adventure film with horror and swearing) and also draws some interesting insights from the unfortunate Dekker. Dekker seems to have a bugbear with meddling producer Peter Hyams and believes the failure of The Monster Squad to make any money effectively kyboshed his career even before Robocop 3 really did end it for good.

        The only real shame here with the extras is that Shane Black is strangely absent from the nostalgic memories being ventured forth. There's also a short but amusing feature where Tom Noonan spoofs vacuous celebrity interviews in character and full costume as Frankenstein's Monster, eight minutes of deleted scenes, a storyboard that details how they constructed the car chase with The Mummy, a stills gallery and a trailer and tv-spot. You could probably live without some of these extras but the documentary is certainly welcome and a great addition to the DVD. For some reason The Monster Squad remains elusive to find on DVD at a decent price with a used Region 1 copy currently priced from £20. A new copy is (at the time of writing) a preposterous £80. Hopefully a more sensible deal will surface again soon because The Monster Squad is still great late night fun.

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        • More +
          02.03.2014 20:24
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          The penultimate Marlowe story

          The Long Goodbye is a 1953 novel by Raymond Chandler and the penultimate book featuring his famous and iconic "hardboiled" private detective hero Philip Marlowe. Chandler considered this to be his best work (although critics and fans would probably disagree and favour Farewell, My Lovely and The Big Sleep) - primarily because of the more personal nature of the text. His wife was terminally ill at the time and The Long Goodbye is longer and more heartfelt than previous Marlowe novels with even more of Chandler's own personal thoughts and experiences expressed within the story by proxy characters. Despite his enduring status as one of the great American popular authors, Chandler was actually raised in England where he received a classical education (Philip Marlowe was named after Marlowe House where Chandler studied) and this part of his background gave him something of a sniffy, cynical outsider's view of Los Angeles and Hollywood at times. This quality is more and more apparent in Marlowe as he navigates the corrupt crime strewn neon drizzled city streets once again.

          The story begins in 1949 with Marlowe encountering a drunken man who has collapsed outside a nightclub. The man is named Terry Lennox and his wife has driven off, leaving him - quite literally - in the gutter. Marlowe helps the man and gives him a lift back to town, some strong coffee and money to get home. A week later, a sober and dapper looking Lennox returns to Marlowe's office to pay back the money he owes him and the two become casual friends, occasionally meeting for a drink at a bar they like. However, one morning, Lennox arrives at Marlowe's house looking deeply concerned and very frazzled. "The persistent ringing of the doorbell yanked me out of bed. I plowed down the hall and across the living room and opened up. He stood there looking as if he hadn't slept for a week. He had a light topcoat on with the collar turned up and he seemed to be shivering. A dark felt hat was pulled down over his eyes." Lennox announces that he has to get out of the country as soon as possible and asks Marlowe to drive him to the Mexican border.

          Marlowe does as he says, deliberately trying to keep his nose out of the precise details of this mysterious emergency as much as possible, but on his return is arrested by the police. Lennox's wife was found dead and Marlowe is now a suspect by association. After a brutal interrogation, Marlowe returns to his office and reluctantly takes on a new case when hired by a woman named Eileen Wade who wants to extract her novelist husband Roger out of a dubious sanatorium. But Mrs Wade seems more interested in Terry Lennox than the welfare of her husband. What is going on?

          The Long Goodbye marks a slight direction change for Chandler and even begins in unusual fashion as it is Marlowe himself who goes to aid Terry Lennox and unwittingly embroils himself in a mystery. We are used to the detective being approached by enigmatic clients who he doesn't trust so it's quite surprising to see our distrustful loner hero going out of his way to help a stranger early on. It's an interesting idea to give Marlowe a tarnished soul mate and Roger Wade also functions in this capacity - more or less - when introduced later in the story. The Long Goodbye is not really about the mystery at the heart of the book but still manages to thrive at its best with Chandler's sardonic dialogue and the supporting cast of characters. In a strange way you learn more about Raymond Chandler than Philip Marlowe in the book. Characters speak for Chandler while Marlowe tends to keep his own emotional cards close to his chest. One can see reading these novels how Marlowe influenced Ian Fleming when he wrote his James Bond series. Bond and Marlowe are both heroes who have to teach themselves not to care too much in order to do their jobs properly and Fleming's violent hardboiled pulpy style feels very Chandler at times.

          One thing Chandler and Fleming both had in common was a feeling that they were not taken seriously by their literary peers because of the genres they chose to write in. Crime fiction was not considered to be serious literature (although Chandler is considered to be a great writer today, Ian Fleming probably not so much) and it rankled Chandler to think that people might be snotty about his books because of this. Chandler was pretty snotty about science fiction novels though if memory serves but I digress. In The Long Goodbye, Chandler uses the character of Roger Wade to express his own thoughts about this cultural snobbery. Wade is a writer himself but not taken seriously because he writes romantic fiction. Wade feels like a considerable proxy for Chandler in the book as he's a man with a drink problem who is finding it harder and harder to complete novels as he grows older and also battling self-doubt and personal demons. A description of Wade in the novel feels uncomfortably like Chandler (very) harshly assessing himself. "He was a bit of a bastard and maybe a bit of a genius too. That's over my head. He was an egotistical drunk and he hated his own guts. He made a lot of trouble in the end and a lot of grief."

          Wade writes a suicide note in the book that tries to articulate the feelings a personal breakdown would leave one with and it feels like a complete stylistic departure for the author and is unlike anything else Chandler ever penned. Dark and dreamlike. He even chides himself for stupid similes. Chandler's thoughts about money, wealth and society are interesting in the book although they do unavoidably run the risk of stating the bleeding obvious at times and Chandler was a fairly wealthy man himself - at least by most standards anyway. I think you could argue that The Long Goodbye is longer than it needs to be (knocking on for 400 pages in paperback) but it all depends how connected one is to these books by now. If you are a fan of the Marlowe series you'll be happy to get a longer than usual running time and be rewarded with some memorable moments and lines. There is a great passage in the book where some goons threaten Marlowe and tell him he's an anachronism in the grand scheme of things. It's a nice example of Chandler's ability to create low league criminal characters of the era in reasonably believable fashion. The sense that Marlowe is increasingly a relic of another time is something the author and character are both aware of.

          Chandler's descriptive qualities are still of a high standard and - as ever - it's not so much the mystery that we've come for but rather the sense of time and place that the author creates. "When I got home I mixed one and stood by the open window in the living room and sipped it and listened to the groundswell of traffic on Laurel Canyon Boulevard and looked at the glare of the big angry city hanging over the shoulder of the hills through which the boulevard had been cut. Far off the banshee wail of police or fire sirens rose and fell, never for very long completely silent. Twenty four hours a day somebody is running, somebody else is trying to catch him. Out there in the night of a thousand crimes, people were dying, being maimed, cut by flying glass, crushed against steering wheels or under heavy tires." While The Long Goodbye feels a trifle self-conscious in parts, this is a moving novel that rewards the reader who has been paying attention to the series and is content to slide back into the world of Philip Marlowe through his sarcastic first person narration. I prefer Farewell, My Lovely and The Big Sleep but this is an interesting later addition to the series.

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          • Planet of the Vampires (DVD) / DVD / 60 Readings / 59 Ratings
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            27.02.2014 20:41
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            A minor cult classic

            Planet of the Vampires (Terrore nello spazio) is a cult 1965 pulp gothic horror space opera by Italian maestro Mario Bava. This amazingly atmospheric and visually inventive film is a lot of fun to discover for the first time and remains highly influential. If you want to know where the main inspiration for Ridley Scott's Alien came from then look no further than Planet of the Vampires. It's the near future year of something or other and twin starships Galliott and Argos are in uncharted space when they receive a distress signal from an unexplored world named Aura. The interstellar explorers (who wear camp black leather uniforms with yellow trim - Bryan Singer's X-Men by way of Luigi Cozzi's Starcrash) have their curiosity piqued by the transmission and are plunged into danger when the ships become dragged into the atmosphere of Aura and must land on the surface. As if that wasn't bad enough a mysterious force emanating from the planet has driven them temporarily insane and made everyone turn on one another.

            Captain Markary (Barry Sullivan) manages to restore order and set the Argos down but when he organises a search party to look for their downed sister vessel everyone on the Galliott is dead from the inexplicable outbreak of murderous self-inflicted violence. Aura is an unsettling nightmare world of dense billowing fog, desolate rocks and strange eerie pulsating lights and Markary wants to depart as swiftly as possible. However, repairs have to be made to the ship first and the crew of the Argos are threatened by mysterious forces bent on disrupting the evacuation mission. Will they ever escape from this mysterious and hellish fog shrouded planet?

            The scenario of a small group of characters fighting for their lives in a claustrophobic/hostile environment is fairly well worn in horror science fiction films but the dreamlike Planet of the Vampires is certainly one of the better examples and overcomes its very modest budget with the invention and style you'd expect with Bava. I love the use of colour in this film, those phosphorescent mists and strange flashing lights in the distance. The film washes the backdrops and characters with primary colours and gives Planet of the Vampires a wonderful pulpy comic page come to life design. More than anything though it's the sense of dread and atmosphere that's the real star of the film and something that the people behind Alien clearly sought to mimic when planning their own picture a decade later. The spare, ominous, industrial sounding music that plays over the titles is pure Alien and the rock strewn desolate vaguely volcanic and dimly lit Aura is quite obviously the same sort of planet that Tom Skerritt, Sigourney Weaver and company land on in Scott's film. Both Planet of the Vampires and Alien are somewhat Lovecraftian. The cosmic unknown and man's insignificance in the wider universe.

            The narrative similarities between the two films are very striking too - most notably a sequence where Markary and Sanya (Norma Bengell) find the ruins of an alien spaceship and skeletal remains of a creature three or four times larger than humans. It's the Space Jockey (let's pretend Prometheus was a bad dream and ban talk of engineers) scene from Alien in Mario Bava style fourteen years before Alien was made. The eerie super slow booming alien voice that activates when they discover a recording device is undoubtedly one of the creepiest moments in the film. Notice too (before I finally wrap up my Planet of the Vampires/Alien similarities theme) how the horseshoe shape of the ships here was half-inched by Alien for the crashed extraterrestrial craft in that later film. Planet of the Vampires was an Italian/Spanish/American co-production and apparently the international cast all just spoke in their own languages with no idea what anyone else was saying to them - before being appropriately dubbed (or otherwise) for different markets. It would be fair to say then that the acting here is fairly standard and sometimes a trifle wooden but it never becomes a huge issue for a film that thrives on its compelling premise and sense of wonder and dread.

            Barry Sullivan is a solid enough lead as Captain Markary and while a lot of characters are bumped off before you've got to know them very well they pull a sensible trick in giving Aura a breathable atmosphere so the yellow motorcycle crash helmets they deploy at one point as astronaut garb are dispensed with and we can see everyone's face all the time. Evi Marandi adds some glamour as Tiona and it's nice to see that even in this intense crisis she managed to get to the hairdressers a few times and maintain her blonde coiffure. A year before the original Star Trek series went to air, one is struck too by how Planet of the Vampires seems to foreshadow Gene Roddenberry's show. Planet of the Vampires is sort of like a horror episode of Star Trek directed by Mario Bava. The craggy planet surface sets with bright red and green hues, the starships, the uniformed human crew who are all obviously part of a spacefaring empire or federation. The crew of the Argos have nifty ray guns too not a million miles away from the phasers of Star Trek and just like Star Trek the cast even get some completely made-up pseudo science gobbledy-gook to dispense when they are navigating the ship at the start.

            Weaknesses of the film? Well, despite the influence it has wielded on everything from Alien to Galaxy of Terror to Event Horizon to Prometheus, Planet of the Vampires does owe a lot to fifties paranoia films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the fact that the screenplay was sometimes written on the hoof with pages being delivered as they were shooting does bog the film down once or twice with a sense of treading water and reduce it to people running up and down corridors a bit too much at times. The strong sense of atmosphere generally wins though and you always feel a sense of fear for the characters, marooned on this weird planet with strange lights flashing past and who knows what waiting for them in the mist. There are always some great images in the film - like the three astronaut corpses rising from the grave and ripping off the polythene they'd been wrapped in. The Twilight Zone style ending is a trifle cheesy but fun all the same and although Planet of the Vampires is not a truly great film it does illustrate how you can make something into a small work of art even if you don't have any money at your disposal.

            This film essentially deploys two main and fairly modest sets and yet still transports you to a hostile alien world with some style. The interiors of the Argos are a bit spare (basically large mainly empty metallic rooms) but the Hellscape of Aura remains vivid and vibrant. By the way, I should point out that there are no vampires whatsoever in this film. I suppose they just wanted an alluring English language title. I think the Italian title translates as Dead Space or something and that certainly feels more appropriate. Planet of Vampires seems to fluctuate in price somewhat and be rather on the expensive side with MGM's widescreen DVD of this (with only a trailer by way of extras - shame perhaps that you don't get an option of watching the Italian version but this DVD looks pretty good and also restores the original music cues) currently £14 for a used copy and double that for a new one. Hopefully a better deal will surface again because Planet of the Vampires is still a lot of fun and well worth seeking out.

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            • Saint Joan (DVD) / DVD / 67 Readings / 64 Ratings
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              23.02.2014 20:24
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              Probably one for Seberg fans only

              Saint Joan is a 1957 film directed by Otto Preminger and adapted from the George Bernard Shaw play by Graham Greene. In 1456, Charles VII (Richard Widmark) dreams of Joan of Arc (Jean Seberg), the folk heroine who battled English domination of France and was burned at the stake. Twenty-five years after her death she was declared a martyr (and later became a Roman Catholic saint). We flashback to witness the extraordinary effect she had on the Dauphin's life as a mere peasant farm girl of 17 who claimed she was guided by the voice of God and the Saints Catherine and Margaret. The siege of Orléans was ended in nine days by her arrival but after capture by an English faction she is handed over to the Catholic Church to be tried for heresy. The church denounces her apparent supernatural guidance as demonic and Joan must face the most severe test imaginable of both her fortitude and her beliefs.

              There is something apt about Jean Seberg playing Joan of Arc although it probably wasn't an experience the fledgling actress wanted to remember much at the time. Saint Joan was - famously - a critical and commercial disaster despite the publicity and expectation it generated. Most of the brickbats zeroed in on Seberg, an unknown teenager from a rural American town who beat twenty thousand hopefuls when Preminger conducted an exhaustive talent search to find the perfect "uncorrupted" and "pure" Joan. Seberg is simultaneously the worst thing about the film and the best thing about the film. She is plainly out of her depth trying to bring emotional heft to the endless reams of dialogue but her fragile beauty in Saint Joan remains captivating in black and white. The most salient structural dilemma facing Saint Joan was how to condense Shaw's play for the screen and Preminger was never going to please everyone (or practically anyone in this case). A three hour plus stage play had to be shortened to something more palatable for cinema audiences and there is a strong argument for concluding that this really doesn't translate very well. Saint Joan also flips the epilogue of the play and uses it as a prologue - and also as a recurring device.

              The dreamlike quality this was (presumably) groping for never quite transpires the way you want it to. The lack of historical context is also slightly jarring. There is no text scroll at the start and we are not told that Joan of Arc was later beatified and canonised. There's no getting around the constrictive nature of the film and the fact that it never opens up beyond the trial and Machievellian court scheming. Anyone expecting pomp and battle scenes is going to be disappointed. The film also irritated critics by eschewing the play's focus on the church and making Joan a more general victim of different factions. Preminger surrounds his unknown lead with a battery of veteran actors and they are desperately needed at times to bring some projection and weight to the dialogue although their appearances are sometimes fleeting to the point of making the film seem unnecessarily episodic. Richard Widmark (probably best known for film noir and many westerns) is interestingly cast against type as a weak jittery foppish Dauphin who is more of a jester than anything and John Gielgud effortlessly thesps away as as the Earl of Warwick. The angels may be on the side of the church but he has soldiers. Gielgud said he felt sorry for Seberg and the way she was thrown in at the deep end but thought her plucky performance and doe-eyed screen presence hinted that better days were to come. In that he was right.

              It has been argued that Preminger's eccentricity (sadism?) and control robbed Seberg's performance of a natural quality. Preminger's idea I think was that casting an inexperienced (and that's putting it mildly) unknown newcomer and setting her alongside "proper" actors would make Joan appear otherworldly and as a pure creature of instinct. He didn't even want Seberg to have acting lessons and interact or rehearse with the rest of cast. Seberg does appear to have wandered in from a different universe from the rest of the cast so perhaps part of the tactic worked but unfortunately her line reading is flat and wooden at times and we can see she is nervous and struggling to keep up with actors who can do this sort of stuff in their sleep. "I thought I would have friends in the court of France, and I find only wolves fighting for pieces of her poor torn body. I believed that you, who now cast me out, would be like strong towers to keep harm from me. But I'm wiser now and nobody is any the worse for being wiser. Don't think you can frighten me by telling me that I'm alone. France is alone... and God is alone..." When Seberg has to thump out speeches like this we can see the cracks starting to appear in her performance.

              As a drama, Saint Joan only truly comes to life in the third act, Seberg's passion all too convincing in Joan's final moments. Legend has it that Preminger (the fruitcake) was somewhat haphazard with the pyrotechnics and actually began to engulf Seberg in flame and smoke for real until she made it apparent that she was in danger and getting burned at the stake was probably taking the expression to suffer for one's art a little too far. It's certainly an arresting sequence though. Seberg still has much to learn about acting but she is adorable with her cropped hair and the film looks pretty in black and white. The cinematographer Georges Perinal worked with Rene Clair and the artful music cues by Mischa Spoliansky work well with the mood of the film. The office of the clergy who try Joan is led by Pierre Cauchon and Anton Walbrook always feels like perfect casting. Also worth a mention is British actor Richard Todd, star of far too many films to mention, who deploys his deep theatrical voice to good effect as the kindly Dunois, Bastard of Orleans. Joan refers to him as Jack in the film and there is a paternal quality to their scenes together.

              One interesting feature of Saint Joan (especially from the perspective of a time when attention spans run to about 3 seconds) is the way Preminger uses long unhurried takes to give us the atmosphere of the court and also a sense of the claustrophobia of Joan, rabbit punched from all sides as she is. You get a stylish Saul Bass title sequence too. Time has been kinder to Saint Joan than critics were in 1957 but I think you probably still need to be a fan of Jean Seberg to have the patience to notice all the good stuff. Her cultish appeal and the story behind the film and her casting are unavoidably the main reason why anyone would be curious. At the time of writing you can buy this bare bones (no extras) widescreen copy of Saint Joan for about ten pounds.

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                11.02.2014 20:09
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                A patchy fourth year but still a lot to enjoy

                Lightning crackles, rusty gates open, a mist shrouded house, cobwebbed chandeliers, whimsical music by Danny Elfman. It can only be a Tales from the Crypt marathon. The fourth series was produced in 1992 and although largely enjoyable this collection doesn't quite match the standard set by the first three years. Based (rather loosely at times) on the cult 1950s horror comics by William Gaines (which were responsible for the comics code authority symbol on American comics) this HBO series is enjoyably lurid, colourful and tongue-in-cheek and remains a lot of fun. This is though the first season of the show where one has to start navigating a few duds (which is really an unavoidable anthology tradition) to get to the good episodes and some of that I think probably has to do with them cherry picking the best horror comics for the first three years and then having to delve deeper and deeper into the EC vault for some crime and suspense stories.

                There are a couple of episodes here too shorn from a pilot for an aborted spin-off show called Two-Fisted Tales that really don't belong. Series four feels a trifle light on classic episodes but much of it is solid and as usual you get a host of familiar faces. Christopher Reeve, Joe Pesci, Mimi Rogers, Brad Pitt, Beverly D'Angelo, Margot Kidder, Timothy Dalton, Kevin McCarthy, Cleavon Little, Twiggy, David Warner, Tia Carrere, Tom Hanks and, er, Judd Nelson. Notable directors for this fourth year include Richard Donner, Stephen Hopkins, John Frankenheimer and William Friedkin. There are thirteen half-hour episodes spread over three discs so without further delay let's dim the lights and enter the Crypt Keeper's lair for some more spooky shenanigans.

                "I hope you're hungry for tonight's murderous menu. It concerns a man who discovered that the fastest way to a woman's heart is with a pickaxe. I call this tasty little hoarder, None but the Lonely Heart..." None but the Lonely Heart was directed by Tom Hanks and written by Donald Longtooth. This story is rather obvious and hardly original but very EC in spirit. Howard Prince (enjoyably played by a scenary chewing Treat Williams) is a suave but utterly heartless Lothario who has carved a very lucrative career out of marrying wealthy lonely old widows and then bumping them off for the inheritance. Howard wants one last big score and targets the rich Effie Gluckman (Frances Sternhagen). Can he ward off the suspicions of her butler Stanhope (Henry Gibson) long enough to fleece his last victim? This episode has a great neon drenched look and the payoff is a lot of fun even if you do always know where we are probably going to be heading. Treat Williams makes a good stock Crypt villain and Frances Sternhagen has a nice supporting role. Sternhagen was most famously Cliff Claven's mother in Cheers. The director Tom Hanks has a cameo as the manager of the video dating agency which Howard uses to introduce himself to these lonely widows and meets a memorable end. Look out too for a cameo by boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard as a gravedigger. All in all, None but the Lonely Heart is a solid start to the new series.

                "And here's something else I've been working on. It's a nasty nugget about an unpleasant young man in the medicine biz, who is about to get a dose of his own. I call tonight's tale, This'll Kill Ya..." This'll Kill Ya was directed by Robert Longo and written by AL Katz. An average episode. The story begins with George Gatlin (Dylan McDermott) dragging a dead body into a police station. George says he's dying too (he's been poisoned apparently) but knows who did it. We flashback to see how he ended up in this predicament. George was the boss of a medical research centre but his staff despised him because he was an obnoxious and cold character. When researchers Pack (Cleavon Little) and Sophia (Sonia Braga) were close to a medical breakthrough, George jumped the gun and announced it to the press just to spur his team on. Pack and Sophia play a revenge trick on the diabetic George by implying they've swapped his insulin for an experimental virus and that he now has exactly two hours to live. Are they bluffing? What was the name of that film. DOA? The premise here feels somewhat similar. This episode is not exactly boring and directed in a deliberately over the top fashion (with delirious frazzled surreal interludes designed to express George's point of view as he staggers around trying to make sense of the awful situation he has been thrust into) but I don't think it ever works terribly well. The square-jawed Dylan McDermott is ok and the two cultish guest stars make the cast something of a novelty. Vanishing Point and Blazing Saddles star Cleavon Little (in what was his last ever role) and Sonia Braga - famously the exotic film within a film heroine of Hector Babenco's Kiss of the Spider Woman. Braga's English isn't great but nice to see her anyway.

                "Greetings, boys and girls. Are you ready to rock n' roll? Good. Can't carry a tomb? That's okay. I'm just playing by ear myself. Tonight's terror tune concerns a young head banger who lets a woman get a little too far under his skin. I call this decomposition, On a Deadman's Chest..." On a Deadman's Chest was directed by William Friedkin and written by Larry Wilson. One of the more obstreperous episodes in series four, this is set in the music world and revolves around Danny Darwin (Yul Vazquez), the lead singer of a rock band named "Exorcist" (a not so subtle in-joke from director Friedkin). The hard living Danny becomes paranoid that Scarlett (Tia Carrere) - the new wife of their guitarist Nick Bosch (Paul Hipp) - is planning to split the group up. When he is persuaded to have a cathartic tattoo by groupie Vendetta (Sherrie Rose) after witnessing her incredibly lifelike snake tattoo, the mysterious tattoo artist (Heavy D) gives him some body art of a similar vein. Only in this case the tattoo is of his nemesis - Scarlett. Expect lots of loud music, murder and supernatural tattoo shenanigans as this particular yarn plays out. On a Deadman's Chest is not an episode that I feel obliged to return to in the near future. The premise (at least the tattoo part anyway) reminded me of an episode of Hammer House & Suspense starring Dirk Benedict but that story was definitely more fun. Friedkin seems to go way over the top with his direction (maybe he wanted to notify Hollywood that he was still alive) and this is also one of the more sleazy episodes with some gratuitous nudity.

                "So, you say your husband's been cheating on you with another ghoul? That it? Well, I'll be glad to hear your story, but first I've got a tawdry tale of my own to tell. It's about a couple of scam artists who want to make a killing, provided they don't kill each other first. I call it, Seance..." Seance was directed by Gary Fleder and written by Harry Anderson. This is a fun episode and revolves around bickering con artists Alison (Cathy Moriarty) and Benny (Ben Cross). Con artists are of course amongst the most recurring of all EC baddies. Our wicked duo target the wealthy and urbane Prescot Chalmers (John Vernon) but when their blackmail attempt fails to work and Chalmers takes a tumble down a lift shaft in a freak accident they turn their attention to his blind widow Dorothy (Ellen Crawford). Posing as mediums, they arrange a seance to make Dorothy think that her husband has made contact from beyond the grave. Will these diabolical crooks manage to fleece her out of the family fortune? The story here - like None but the Lonely Heart - is rather predictable but still enjoyable. Like many stories in this series it gains a boost from the cast, Cathy Moriarty and Ben Cross both good as the feuding would be swindlers and John Vernon (he was in everything from Animal House to Killer Clowns From Outer Space) perfectly cast as the stubborn Prescot Chalmers. The story breezes along and never threatens to outstay its welcome. This yarn would have been perfect fodder for an Amicus anthology with its hokey seance sequence and ghoulish twist in the tale.

                "Hello, kiddies! What's sinew? I'm getting in shape for tonight's tale. It's about an ambitions young actress who's looking for her big break. Will she make it? Only her scare-dresser knows for sure. I call this dismal drama, Beauty Rest..." Beauty Rest was directed by Stephen Hopkins and written by Donald Longtooth. Helen (Mimi Rogers) is a struggling model who has reached that point where she's too old for most of the work she usually goes for. What really rubs salt into the wound is that her younger model flatmate Joyce (Kathy Ireland) is awash with offers of work because of her tactic of sleeping with prospective employers. When Helen learns that Joyce has an upcoming beauty pageant contest already in the bag because she slept with one of the organisers, she flips her lid and kills Joyce with sleeping pills before passing it off as a suicide. Helen takes her place in the contest but the beauty pageant turns out to be a very strange affair indeed. This story feels like a recycle of the superior third season story Top Billing where Jon Lovitz played a frustrated actor who ends up in a bizarre backstreet production of Hamlet. It's not a total loss though and what a positively macabre shock ending. Mimi Rogers (who starred in Hollywood films like Someone To Watch Over Me) is perfectly game for some Tales from the Crypt capers and throws herself enthusiastically into the role of the manic and desperate Helen. There is quite a good scene near the start where she's auditioning for a fragrance advert and the catty encounters with Kathy Ireland are modestly amusing. I liked the u-turn into the truly bizarre but this would probably be a forgettable episode without the twist at the end.

                "I hope you brought your appetites, kiddies, because tonight's tasteless tidbit is something I'm sure you'll savour. It's a real epi-gorian delight about a nice young couple who find the restaurant business a little hard to swallow. I call this adventure in fine dying, What's Cookin'..." What's Cookin' was directed by Gilbert Adler and written by AL Katz. Fred (Christopher Reeve) and Erma (Bess Armstrong) are a couple with a struggling diner that doesn't make any money as Fred tends to focus on poncy squid themed dishes. No one is interested in his seafood and their horrible landlord Chumley (Meatloaf) threatens eviction if they don't settle their debts. An interested observer is a mysterious young man named Gaston (Judd Nelson) who seems to be a homeless busboy. Gaston provides the diner with some steaks that go down a treat and Fred and Erma's diner is soon doing a roaring trade in its rebranded steakhouse mode. The problem? Gaston's much loved steak is actually human flesh and everyone who frequents the diner is now an unwitting cannibal. This is a decent attempt at a very black comedy and memorable for the outrageous premise if nothing else. Christopher Reeve's slightly bland everyman persona away from the cape and red boots works well here as Fred is just an ordinary well meaning person who somehow ends up in this most grisly and weird state of affairs. Judd Nelson struggles to be menacing and was obviously never going to end up with many awards on his acting mantlepiece but it's fun anyway to have such a bizarre cultish cast in this one. John Bender and Superman. Art LaFleur is decent value too as the policeman who is always propping the diner bar up drinking coffee.

                "I can't seem to take a joke anymore. I mean a choke. It's like the man in tonight's tale. He's a head shrinker whose about to undergo a little final analysis of his own, in a paranoid parable I call The New Arrival..." The New Arrival was directed by Peter Medak and written by Ron Finley. This is reminiscent of an earlier Tales from the Crypt episode called Television Terror and one of the strongest entries in series four. Dr Alan Gertz (a perfectly cast David Warner) is a pompous misanthropic radio psychologist who claims to be an expert on deliquent children (his book is called The Art of Ignoring Your Child!) and hears that his prime time show is about to be dumped from the schedule. Gertz comes up with a high concept ruse to boost his ratings and his profile. He's been the recipient of calls on his show from a woman named Nora (Zelda Rubinstein) who is having problems with her daughter Felicity and feels no one can help her. Dr Gertz promises to broadcast from Nora's house and solve any behavioural problems her daughter might have. With producer Bonni (Twiggy) and nagging boss Rona (Joan Severance) he travels to the house to begin work but the house is hiding some dark secrets. I liked this episode a lot. Felicity is kept offscreen for quite a time and we only hear her screaming in eerie fashion and smashing the wall - which of course Dr Gertz uses to put his "tough love" philosophy into action. The off-kilter nature of the house - anachronistic, empty, strange hoardings in the garden - is nicely conveyed with some good direction. David Warner is well versed in anthology nonsense and fantastic in this, especially his parenting debates with the tiny helium voiced Zelda Rubinstein (best known of course for Poltergeist). Rubinstein gets an interesting part here and she's really good as Nora. The New Arrival is one of the more intriguing and intelligent stories in series four.

                "It's die noon, and you know what that means, don't ya? Means it's time for a Gunfright at the OK ghoulral 'cause this tomb ain't big enough for the both of us. Which brings me to tonight's tale. It's about a gunslinger whose about to ride into his last round up. I call this dreary poison, Showdown..." Showdown was directed by Richard Donner and written by Frank Drabont. With that pedigree this should be a classic episode right? Not so fast. Showdown was originally produced as one of three stories in the pilot for the proposed Crypt spin-off series Two-Fisted Tales. Two-Fisted Tales never got off the ground in the end though and so Tales from the Crypt gained three bonus episodes. While the Kirk Douglas led "Yellow" proved to be a superior slab of television when adapted for Tales from the Crypt, the two other orphan offspring of Two-Fisted Tales didn't fare nearly so well. Showdown is a western story and revolves around outlaw and killer William Quintaine (Neil Giuntoli) riding into town for a showdown with Texas Ranger Thomas McMurdo (David Morse). Quintaine is given a tonic in the saloon bar by an eccentric man named Cornelius Bosch (Roderick Cook) and begins to have visions of everyone he has killed. Are they real, has he gone mad, or is he dead? Despite the authentic western setting (the production design is quite impressive) this somehow ends up being one of the most boring Tales from the Crypt episodes because it never really goes anywhere and doesn't conjure with a twist. There is none of the humour one associates with this series and Neil Giuntoli is dull as the lead. What really negates this episode for me personally is that I feel like I've seen this ghostly western karma type of story before in shows like The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery.

                "For tonight's dreary drama, I thought we'd try an experimental piece, about a retired drag racer who's afraid of getting to the finish line a little sooner than he wants. I call this nasty nugget, King of the Road..." King of the Road was directed by Tom Holland and written by Randall Jahnson. Like Showdown, this was originally made for the aborted Two-Fisted Tales series. It's one of the most boring Crypt episodes and adds nothing to series four. King of the Road revolves around a sherriff named Joe Garrett (Raymond J Barry) who had a chequered past as a street drag racer called Iceman. He keeps this secret because of a possible manslaughter charge. A handsome and mysterious young drag racer named Billy (Brad Pitt) rolls into town and begins to try and goad Joe into racing him to the "death" on the street. Putting a tarantula in his mailbox, seducing single-parent Joe's daughter Carey (Michelle Bronson). Will Joe be forced to race this young upstart? Drag racing makes for a deadly dull backdrop to this tale which ambles along with no real rhyme or reason until the anti-climactic showdown at the end. I never really cared an awful lot about these characters or what happened in the story and the sluggish direction of Tom Holland isn't a great help. Two-Fisted Tales was apparently going to be more crime and action oriented (as opposed to the tongue-in-cheek horror of Tales from the Crypt) but one can't imagine the series would have had any cult appeal if King of the Road was representative of the sort of thing they were going for. Mildly interesting to see a baby faced Brad Pitt before he was famous but Raymond J Barry is the best thing here and gives a solid central performance.

                "City life got you down, kiddies? Looking for a home on the derange? Well look no further, because I've got exactly what you want. It's a charming tomb with a view. Think of it as your own little house on the scary. You're not interested?! What's the matter?! Afraid you can't get a morgue-gage? Oh well, that's exactly how the woman in tonight's tortured tale feels. She's upset because there's a killer loose in her neighbourhood in a putrid property I call Maniac At Large..." Maniac at Large was directed by John Frankenheimer and written by Mae Woods. The young Frankenheimer cut his teeth on anthology television and delivers a tight, atmospheric and enjoyable episode that comes as something of a relief after our Two-Fisted Tales double whammy detour. The scene is a city library where librarian Margaret (Blythe Danner) is new in town and even more nervous than usual after seeing a newspaper headline that reads: MANIAC AT LARGE! Yes, a serial killer is at work in the area. In the library there are no shortage of suspects for Margaret's over active imagination to worry about. Some juvenile delinquents, grumpy security guard Grady (Clarence Williams III), the weird serial killer obsessed customer Pipkin (Adam Ant). How about bossy head librarian Mrs Pritchard (Salome Jens)? Are these characters possible killers? The ending is a bit disappointing but this is one of the more inventive episodes in the fourth year. The anachronistic design feels perfect for Tales for the Crypt and Frankenheimer's direction is a cut above many who have graced this series. Look at the early tracking shot of the library and the way it introduces us to all of the characters. Blythe Danner (mother of Gwyneth Paltrow) heads up an enjoyable cast here, the surprising stand-out being pirate themed pop star Adam Ant as the serial killer book fan Pipkin. This is a decent little episode.

                "Oh, hello kiddies. Tonight's coffin caper is so crammed with ghastly greed, sickening sex, and vomitous violence, that parental guidance is advised. So guide your parents out of the room, so we can have some fun! This tale concerns a gambling man with a bad case of double vision who is about to hit the hackpot. I call this twin helping of horror, Split Personality..." Split Personality was directed by Joel Silver and written by Fred Dekker. This episode gains a boost from the presence of Joe Pesci, on good form as a sharp con artist named Vic. The story begins with Vic fleecing a gambler at the casino (a cameo by Burt Young and - as if that wasn't enough - Joe Pantoliano turns up here too) and then swerving in his car to avoid hitting two black cats that have run across the road. Vic's tyre is blown and he ambles to the nearest house for some assistance, this house an exceptionally strange and expensive looking art deco construction. "What the **** is this?" says Pesci. It's greatly to the benefit of the episode that Pesci is allowed to play a stereotypically Pesci character who says things like "What the **** is this?" when confronted with a posh art deco house. The house belongs to striking identical twins - April (Jacqueline Alexandra Citron) and June (Kristen Amber Citron). "The best things in life come in two," says Vic and immediately starts plotting to take their fortune when he learns they received a billion dollar inheritance each. Split Personality - the end aside - doesn't really feel like a horror episode but Pesci is so much fun it doesn't matter an awful lot. Fred Dekker's script is amusing and the Citron twins look like they should have been in a Tim Burton film. A trifle gothic in the sun. An entertaining episode but only really because they cast Pesci.

                "Oh, hello boars and ghouls. I hope you'll excuse me if I don't get up. Actually, I twisted my neck while playing croak-et, but it wasn't hurting the way I thought it should, so I called my chiro-hacktor. Of course, some people look elsewhere for their pain. Like the old man in tonight's terror tale. I call this plasma play, Strung Along..." Strung Along was directed by Kevin Yagher and written by Yale Udoff. Puppeteer capers. What is the premise of Strung Along you ask? Joseph Renfield (Donald O'Connor) is an ageing puppeteer who used to be famous in the 1950s with his puppet Coco the Clown. Now retired, Joseph spends a lot of time down in the basement chatting to Coco and trying to avoid his younger nagging wife Ellen (Patricia Charbonneau). He's jealous because she's a working actress. When asked to appear in a nostalgic television special, Joseph jumps at the chance to get back in the limelight and hires a young animatronics student named David (Zach Galligan) to help him. As they work together, Joseph becomes paranoid about Ellen having an affair and confides in David and, er, Coco the Clown. You can't help experiencing deju vu during Strung Along, the frazzled ventriloquist a staple of these types of shows. One of the problems is that the puppet is not scary despite the presence of Child's Play director Kevin Yagher. An episode of the Tales from the Darkside spin-off show Monsters had a terrifyingly creepy puppet in an episode themed around children's television. Anyway, Coco not so much. I have to give them credit here though for the strange double (triple even) twist ending. Charbonneau is a bit shrill as Ellen and Zach (Gremlins) Galligan is, well, Zach Galligan, but Donald O'Connor gives a fine performance as Joseph. Listen out for some hilariously rubbish nineties music in this episode when Ellen plays her state of the art, uh, boombox.

                "We interrupt your regularly scheduled terrorvision program to bring you a bit of culture. That's right, kiddies. Tonight, instead of rotting your grave matter, I'm going to improve it, with a tasteful tale about someone who just can't fright the feeling. I call it, Werewolf Concerto..." Werewolf Concerto was directed by Steve Perry and written by Scott Nimerfro. This episode is something of a missed opportunity and never quite lives up to the premise. The scene is a swanky mountain resort temporarily cut off from the outside world by a mudslide. No one can get in and no one can get out. A series of grisly murders have led the resort manager Antoine (Dennis Farina) to declare that a werewolf is at large and it just so happens that a suave "werewolf hunter" named Lokai (Timothy Dalton) is one of the trapped guests. Can Lokai mingle and work out who sprouts fur and fangs during the full moon? A werewolf whodunnit sounds like a lot of fun, Tales from the Crypt meets The Beast Must Die. Despite the terrific cast though Werewolf Concerto never really takes advantage of the story in the way you want it to and anyone expecting red herrings and memorable supporting characters to be abounding will probably be disappointed. The double twist is very predictable and partly stolen from a second season Crypt episode and then flipped in reverse. Werewolf Concerto is not a total loss though with good production values and the late Dennis Farina (who usually played mobsters) on fine form and cast against type as the resort manager. Timothy Dalton is all charm in his thespy voice (weird how Dalton was always criticised for lacking humour as James Bond and yet seemed perfectly capable of planting his tongue firmly in his cheek in stuff like this and The Rocketeer) and Mrs Griswold herself, Beverly D'Angelo, is well cast as a vampish guest. On the whole this is definitely an episode that could have been better.

                "So glad you could drop in, kill-seekers. Don't worry about me, it only hearse when I laugh. It's even better than hang-gliding. Of course, some people would rather keep their feet on terror firma, like the people in tonight's putrid piece. They're spending a nice quiet weekend in the woods, giving hack to nature. I call this fetted fable, Curiosity Killed..." Last and possibly least for series four, we have Curiosity Killed - directed by Elliot Silverstein and written by Stanley Ralph Ross. A bunch of elderly folk go on a camping trip together deep in the woods, the group consisting of the ever bickering Jack (Kevin McCarthy) and Cynthia (Margot Kidder) and the more laid-back Harry (JA Preston) and Lucille (Madge Sinclair). It turns out that Lucille has some secret herbs from a family potion that promises eternal youth. These pensioners want to turn back the sands of time and they've every intention of excluding the sarcastic big mouthed Cynthia from the plan. Will the scheme work? Our Tales from the Crypt marathon draws to a close in limp fashion. This is like one of those unfunny comic Tales from the Darkside stories where they have some actor you've never heard of trying to be funny as they eat scenery with a spoon. You've heard of the actors trying to be funny here though but this screenplay doesn't appear to have dripped from the pen of Oscar Wilde like molten chocolate. Margot is a trifle ripe and it doesn't help that she's lumbered with unconvincing old age make-up. This episode is essentially four old people bickering in the woods with a twist that is not exactly impossible to sense looming on the horizon. A ho-hum way to end series four.

                Season four is definitely a step down from the first three but it still stacks up well against similar fare. Even on its worst day you'd much rather watch Tales from the Crypt than something like Masters of Horror. I would certainly recommend this if you liked the early seasons but you should be aware that the quality control is not quite as secure as it has been. Special features with these releases have been rightly criticised for being mean and that tradition sadly continues here. There are just two extras with this and you wouldn't miss either if they hadn't bothered. A commentary for the Christopher Reeve episode What's Cookin'? with writer Alan Katz and series expert Digby Diehl. Katz and Diehl have to share the commentary with John Kassir doing the Crypt Keeper character and it doesn't really work as 25 odd minutes is not really long enough to hear anyone say much of note, especially when Kassir keeps interrupting with those deliberately lame Crypt Keeper puns. The Crypt Keeper is a great character but only in small doses. The other feature is a four minute montage of the season as a whole. Bit pointless really. At the time of writing you can buy the complete third season of Tales from the Crypt on Region 1 for about £15.

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                  10.02.2014 20:11
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                  Not a classic but better than I expected

                  Playback is a 1958 novel by Raymond Chandler and the last featuring his famous and iconic private detective hero Philip Marlowe. Chandler died the following year and wrote Playback in the midst of battles with depression and drunkenness but the dark clouds of Chandler's last years don't infuse the pages here in the same way they did with The Little Sister. Playback is often a surprisingly funny book with Marlowe given some amusingly absurdist lines that sound like they could have been written for Groucho Marx. Chandler even seems to be playing with the conventions of his own genre with no murder until the end and Marlowe actually siding with the person he was asked to trail against the mysterious forces that have hired him and those who encroach on his investigation. Marlowe remains an interesting, complex hero as our window into these stories. He's full of cynical bitterness but has a sense of honour and idealism. A loner and borderline alcoholic who does his best to make the world a slightly better place. The story begins with a groggy Marlowe woken in his Los Angeles apartment at 6:30 am by the telephone ringing next to his bed. Not a great time to be telephoning Marlowe as he's usually only just gone to sleep at this hour and needs three cups of coffee and a shower before he feels awake and human.

                  "Did you hear me? I said I was Clyde Umney, the lawyer." "Clyde Umney, the lawyer. I thought we had several of them," replies the deadpan Marlowe. Umney asks Marlowe to trail a woman named Eleanor King from the train station to wherever she might be going. "I want one thing very clear. The girl is not to know she is being followed. This is very important. I am acting for a very influential firm of Washington attorneys. I expect a high degree of efficiency." Marlowe begins work on the case and discovers that Eleanor is heading for a hotel in a coastal town called Esmeralda. He decides to book into the same hotel but soon realises he is far from the only person trailing the woman. Why all the interest in Eleanor King? As usual in Marlowe's line of work, the case is about to become increasingly complicated and dangerous...

                  This is generally regarded to be perhaps the weakest of the Marlowe novels but despite its modest reputation I actually had quite a lot of fun with this one and found it to be more readable and interesting than I'd expected. It does have the faint whiff of a slightly unfinished work (only about 200 pages) and with the 1960s breathing down everyone's necks and technology laden heroes like Ian Fleming's James Bond now firmly established, Phillip Marlowe is starting to look like a dreadful anachronism but I think Chandler is aware of this and even has some fun with the notion that his hero is starting to step out of his own particular time and needs some sort of farewell. "Guns never settle anything. They are just a fast curtain to a bad second act," says the increasingly self-aware and postmodern Marlowe. Marlowe even jokes to himself that private detectives will probably have cars equipped with radar and rocket launchers soon. He's still Tarzan on a big red scooter. The story was adapted from a (Marlowe free) unused screenplay Chandler had written and while it does have a cut and paste nature there are some memorable scenes and dialogue exchanges in the book. Chandler did pen The Blue Dahlia and work as a writer on Double Indemity and Strangers On A Train so any script he was involved in couldn't fail to have something smart to work from.

                  The screenplay was going to be set in Canada and while Marlowe doesn't go to Canada here he is required to operate away from his familiar milieu of Los Angeles. The main reason for this is that Chandler had been living away from Los Angeles himself and was finding it more and more difficult to describe the city from memory. So Marlowe is sent out to the suburbs of another town and Chandler is able to use his knowledge of places like Palm Springs to describe his surroundings. "Like most small towns, Esmeralda had one main Street from which in both directions its commercial establishments flowed gently for a short block or so and then with hardly a change of mood became streets with houses where people lived. But unlike most small California towns it had no false fronts, no cheesy billboards, no drive-in hamburger joints, no cigar counters or pool-rooms, and no street corner toughs to hang around in front of them." The cast of supporting characters works fairly well here because Marlowe is in the dark as much as the reader at the onset of his investigation and we have to work out who is who as much as he does. There are encounters with gangsters, police, other private detectives, lawyers, killers, and of course the "redhead" Marlowe is trailing and Umney's sassy secretary. The latter inspires some sharp and witty lines and thoughts from our long suffering hero.

                  One of the most famous passages in the book concerns a long philosophical conversation about love, death and religion Marlowe has with a gentleman named Henry Clarendon IV - a wealthy but lonely old man who lives out his final years in expensive hotels. Clarendon is essentially Chandler making a personal cameo in the novel and shares the author's cynical and romantic traits. "Very few things amuse a man of my age. A humming bird, the way a Strelitzia opens. Why at a certain point in its growth does the bud turn at right angles?" Chandler's tangents and navel-gazing somehow feel more appropriate here than they might have done in earlier novels. In many ways the book is about the small encounters and interactions of Marlowe rather than some big central plot thread or villain. Marlowe seems to have his guard down more than usual as if he almost can't be bothered anymore. A wry amused disdain for the mean streets he's been inhabiting for far too long and the games he has to play. He seems to yearn for human contact and is perfectly willing to wisecrack even in the face of potential death. When a goon warns Marlowe that the private detective should not get him annoyed under any circumstances, Marlowe's response is rather Bob Hope/Groucho Marx. "Fine. Let's get you annoyed. What do you do - bite your mustache?"

                  There is more romantic interest for Marlowe than usual although he's still just as likely to be koshed over the back of the head by a heavy than have something nice happen. Will the detective get a happy ending? You'll have to read the book to find out. Chandler is not quite on top form here but it's always quite cosy to slip back into this world and Marlowe's sarcastic narration, even in the simplest of situations. "A waiter came up and started to remove the place setting on the far side of the table. I told him to leave it, a friend might join me. I studied the menu, which was almost as large as the dining room. I could have used a flashlight to read it, if I had been curious. This was about the dimmest joint I was ever in. You could be sitting at the next table from your mother and not recognize her." Playback is not the best example of this series and you really need to have read the other Marlowe novels to get the most out of it but if you like this sort of period crime fiction or just Raymond Chandler in general you should have a decent time with the book and enjoy this last Marlowe adventure.

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                  • Riddick (DVD) / DVD / 71 Readings / 70 Ratings
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                    05.02.2014 20:36
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                    It's decent enough if you like this series

                    Riddick is the third go around for Vin Diesel's monosyllabic galactic night vision anti-hero and like Pitch Black and The Chronicles of Riddick was written and directed by David Twohy. The first film was a likeable low-fi blend of Alien and Starship Troopers with the second a somewhat overblown space opera that tried to expand the Riddick universe. It's back to basics this time, the budget lower but the certificate higher to allow for some salty language and gore, two things conspicuous by their absence in the more mainstream Chronicles of Riddick. The story begins with Riddick (still the only man in the universe who would make tinted swimming goggles look good) double-crossed by the Necromonger Empire he reluctantly ruled over the last time we saw him. He's dumped on a desolate rock strewn alien world full of dangerous creatures and must somehow survive, sharpen his senses and build up his strength again. Not a great start to the morning. "There are bad days, and then there are legendary bad days. Whole planet wanted a piece of me." Riddick picks up a companion in the form of a perky CG alien dog and begins to gradually master his new environment.

                    However, trouble looms when approaching storms threaten to unleash gazillions of dangerous alien predators who have been limited to swamps because they must remain wet. Or something. Riddick needs to get off the planet and so activates a beacon at an abandoned station to deliberately alert his presence to any passing bounty hunter who happens to be after him. Two teams of mercenaries duly arrive. One, led by the oleaginous and bonkers Santana (Jordi Mollà), want Riddick dead, while the other, led by the more professional Boss Johns (Matthew Nable), want to capture him alive. Can our hero survive and escape in the midst of all this trouble?

                    This is a late night B-film series not to be taken too seriously. These are disposable after midnight films and fun for what they are. Of course, it all rests or falls on how much tolerance you have for Diesel's macho yet strangely camp charisma but I've always enjoyed the character of Riddick (Rambo meets Mad Max meets Flash Gordon) and if you feel the same way and don't have your expectations too high you should have a decent time. The biggest problem this third film has is that it essentially consists of three acts and the first is by some considerable distance the strongest and most compelling. It's just Riddick alone with a few gravel voiced narrations by Diesel, trying to recover from his injuries and survive on a hostile barren world. Robinson Crusoe on Mars meets Riddick. David Twohy does some of his best work in the series here, the alien world created with some impressive designs and Riddick training himself to once again become the lethal killing machine of legend. "Somewhere along the way, I lost a step. I got sloppy. Dulled my own edge. Maybe I went and did the worst crime of all. I got civilised." He has to build an immunity to the venom secreted by viper like aliens to reach an oasis and creates homemade weapons from the natural environment. One Million Years BC in space. It would have been a bold move to have the entire film consist of this arc but I think it might just have worked.

                    The film takes a sharp turn towards the familiar when the two bounty hunter teams arrive and Riddick hides in the shadows and tries to play them off against one another. The characters that make up the mercenary teams are largely forgettable and you feel you've seen this all before in numerous other science fiction action films. It doesn't help either that they are saddled with some awful dialogue and Riddick seems to almost disappear for the middle section of the story. The film really sags when Diesel is not front and centre and there were times here when I wished we could have just carried on with Riddick alone wandering the alien landscape. Jordi Mollà hams it up as Santana, the leader of the more ragtag bounty hunters, with what sounds like a French accent. He wants Riddick's head in a box, quite literally as he's brought a special box for this purpose. He features in perhaps the most memorable scene in the picture when he goads a chained Riddick. Matthew Nable as the leader of the more disciplined and high-tech bounty hunters wants to capture Riddick for more personal reasons as he is the father of Johns from Pitch Black. He wants to know what happened to his son. I have to get slightly pedantic now.

                    Pitch Black was supposed to have occurred ten years before the events of Riddick and Noble - jarringly - doesn't really look old enough to be the father of that character from the first film. It's like A Walton Easter where John Boy seems to be in his thirties in 1969 despite the fact that the original series started in the depression before World War 2. Anyway, why am I talking about The Waltons? The cast around Diesel is fairly non-descript and the only female character I can remember is a bounty hunter named Dahl played by Battlestar Galactica's Katee Sackhoff. Sackhoff is pretty wooden. Her character declares herself to a lesbian and a bored Riddick is seen in a flashback showing no interest whatsoever in some Necromonger slavegirls writhing around on his bed. Riddick then aims a few crude sexual comments at Dahl during some of their scenes together. I have no idea what is going on. You'd probably need to talk to Vin Diesel's psychiatrist to work it all out. The third act tries to give you Pitch Black again with the alien creatures besieging Riddick and the bounty hunters.

                    It's all watchable enough but the creatures aren't nearly as memorable as the giant snappy jawed flying bat things in the first film. In fact, off the top of my head, I can't even remember what the aliens in Riddick look like apart from the viper things at the start that Riddick has to draw venom from to build an immunity. Despite my nitpicking, Riddick is decent enough for what it is and if you liked the first two films and have a fondness for this universe you should probably catch up with this one if you missed it at the cinema. It's hard to dislike the film too with the knowledge that it only got made because Vin Diesel gained the rights to the character and put some of his own money into the production. Karl Urban also makes a welcome return in a cameo as Necromonger Commander Vaako to provide an expositional link between this film and The Chronicles of Riddick. I suspect that if a fourth outing for Riddick occurs more Necromonger capers are planned and I hope they get to make that film in the end.

                    The DVD extras with this are nothing to write home about with three modestly interesting featurettes titled Vin's Riddick, Meet the Mercs and Riddick: Blindsided. Vin's Riddick has Diesel talking about his love for the character and the battle to get a third film made. Meet the Mercs is a feature about the bounty hunters in the film with the actors talking about their characters. Riddick: Blindsided is short motion-animated feature which gives you a glimpse of an alternate beginning to the film. If you have Blu-Ray you'll be much better served because you get more extras and a new cut of the film with an expanded and completely different ending that hints at where the character will be heading next if Vin Diesel can mortgage his house again. At the time of writing you can buy Riddick for just under ten pounds.

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                    • More +
                      03.02.2014 19:15
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                      Thundering typhoons etc

                      Hergé, the writer and illustrator of Tintin, was born George Rémi in Brussels in 1907. His famous pen name is a phonetic reversal of the initials of his real name. He worked on the series from 1929 until his death in 1983. Over 200 million books have been sold, the stories translated into more than seventy languages. The character of Tintin made his first appearance in Le Petit Vingtième, children's supplement to the right-wing Belgian Catholic newspaper Le XXe Siècle. "The idea for the character of Tintin and the sort of adventures that would befall him came to me, I believe, in five minutes, the moment I first made a sketch of the figure of this hero." Ligne claire (clear line) was the distinctive style of drawing pioneered by Hergé, the name coined by Joost Swarte. Cartoon characters set against a naturalistically drawn background. Hergé had control over Tintin from beginning to end and left strict instructions that - unlike Asterix - the series would not be continued by others after his death. The series was a chronicle of the 20th century. Tintin and his friends may have remained the same but the world around them constantly changed. European colonies that once stretched across the globe, dark shadows of impending conflict and fascism, cold war intrigue, moon landings. In the last completed book in the series Tintin and the Picaros you can see a CND symbol on Tintin's crash helmet when he rides his bike up to Marlinspike Hall.

                      Accusations of racism towards Hergé have their origin in the first two Tintin books and have to be put into some perspective. Tintin in the Congo was a product of the colonial era and Tintin in the Land of the Soviets was a crude piece of propaganda that Hergé withdrew from publication himself. "For Tintin in the Congo, as with Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, the fact was that I was fed on the prejudices of the bourgeois society in which I moved. It was 1930, I only knew things about these countries that people were relating at the time: Africans were great big children, thank goodness for them that we were there, etc. And I portrayed these Africans according to these criteria, in the purely paternalistic spirit which existed then in Belgium." Key to this early (retrospective) controversy was his boss at Le XXe Siècle, Norbert Wallez. Wallez was a staunchly conservative Catholic priest who was sympathetic to the Italian Fascist cause and a big fan of Mussolini. Hergé was under strict orders to attack communism in Land of the Soviets. Tintin in the Congo was intended to persuade young Belgians to enlist in the colonial civil service.

                      Hergé's most difficult period endured after Belgium was occupied by Germany during World War 2 and he worked for the Nazi controlled French newspaper Le Soir. The Tintin books were more fantastical and escapist during this era (an understandable reaction to the times) but one story, The Shooting Star, became controversial because of its Jewish American villains. There were charges that Hergé was anti-Semitic and a collaborator. He was investigated after the war and only permitted to return to publishing in 1946. The Shooting Star is clearly a problematic book in its original form but we don't know what precise conditions the author was working under. It's a fair point though to argue that perhaps he shouldn't have worked at all during the occupation. Why did he? It has been suggested that he was protecting a brother who worked for the resistance. It would also have been difficult for him to contemplate life without Tintin, especially in such dark days. He was happiest in his studio escaping harsh reality through his hero's adventures. Hergé also needed money and Le Soir's larger circulation was appealing to him. Tintin would now have a wider audience. "He has never been what we call a collaborator," said a biographer. "Hergé was never militant, never involved in any political movement, rightist or leftist."

                      Before the war in 1938, Hergé had satirised Hitler and Mussolini in King Ottokar's Sceptre. He had German villains in the books and was sympathetic to minorities like the Romany traveller community, South American jungle tribes and Native Americans in other stories. The Tintin series is disdainful of brutal totalitarian regimes and the character has fought slavery, Japanese Imperialism, and powerful corporations. While Hergé was sometimes guilty of caricature he clearly had a social conscience. What we can say is that the author was a product of another age who sometimes bent with the wind. He wasn't perfect and regretted some of his decisions. It's difficult to scrutinise him through time and distance. The private Hergé was a vague character and somewhat contradictary. Sometimes he was a loner who wanted the world to leave him alone but he would also speak expansively when interviewed and pose with celebrity fans like Andy Warhol. When dealing with domestic turmoil and depression it was Tintin that gave him a distraction and relief. He famously used Tintin in Tibet, generally acknowledged to be his masterpiece, as a means to cope with nightmares that had plagued him in the midst of a nervous breakdown. Despite the globetrotting adventures of his hero, Hergé never travelled much until late in life and relied on magazines, books and photographs for his research.

                      As he got older, Hergé became more liberal and very disillusioned with the Catholic church. He was fascinated with eastern philosophy and modern art and wanted to deconstruct Tintin and experiment with the stories. Before he died he said he had put his entire life into Tintin and it was true. Even in his last days he was planning new directions for the character, dreaming of fresh adventures for Tintin, Captain Haddock and their friends.


                      Main Characters

                      Tintin is the protagonist and eponymous hero of the series. Tintin is a young man (Hergé suggested seventeen as his age in a later interview) in plus fours, shirt and blue pullover who is forever becoming embroiled in mysteries that take him to the far corners of the world. An important part of Tintin's appeal is that he is something of a blank. He seems to have no family or life beyond the books (Professor Calculus and Captain Haddock will bump into old friends we've never met before but this never happens to Tintin) and is drawn in a minimalist way. He is the everyman in a world full of crooks and eccentrics and so the reader essentially inhabits Tintin when we read the stories. A possible source of inspiration for the character is Paul Hudd, a Danish boy scout who travelled the globe for a newspaper in the 1920s when he was 15 and wrote a book about his adventures called A Boy Scout Around the World. Hudd even seemed to share Tintin's tastes in fashion. Another influence was clearly Totor, Chief Scout of the Hannetons, a comic strip by Hergé that was published from 1926 to 1929 by Le Boy Scout Belge. Hergé eventually moved on from Totor but the character was pivotal in supplying inspiration for what became Tintin. Hergé was of course a boy scout too and it was something that always stayed with him. "It was with scouting that the world really began to open up before me. Even if it all seems a bit old-fashioned today, I still hold dear the values we learned." Tintin is a reporter but we hardly ever see any evidence of this and he never seems to have to report to a boss or a place of work. The sense of freedom this gives the character (how many people in the real world can embark on exotic adventures at the drop of a hat?) is of course appealing. Tintin's main traits are his determination and sense of fairness. We know he will always do the right thing and if villainy or some sort of injustice has occurred then our hero will not rest until all is right again. Tintin is also the underdog, an ordinary slight looking young man who battles criminal masterminds and dangerous organisations. He is handy in a fistfight and seems adept at flying planes and driving vehicles. He is brave, resourceful, level-headed, and thoroughly kind and decent. All in all, the perfect hero for a former boy scout like Hergé.

                      The grumpy but noble Captain Archibald Haddock is Tintin's best friend and a constant if often reluctant companion on his adventures. Haddock usually wants nothing more than peace and quiet in the books but always finds himself dragged along on Tintin's adventures out of a sense of duty. It was the merchant marine veteran Haddock (named after the "sad English fish" and so presumed to be of British origin by some Tintin fans) and not Tintin who ultimately came to be Hergé's avatar the most in the books. Tintin was Hergé when the young artist and former boy scout began writing and illustrating the stories but the increasingly weary Hergé seemed to make Haddock his new alter ego as he grew older. Haddock - a drunken wreck when Tintin first met and rescued him in The Crab with the Golden Claws - injected some flawed humanity into the series to counter balance the pure idealism and straight ahead heroism of Tintin. Haddock is known for his colourful vocabulary when it comes to insults and his love of Loch Lomond brand Scotch whisky. Haddock is a courageous and decent character who is able to accept himself for what he is. One is always aware that Hergé greatly admired this.

                      Professor Cuthbert Calculus (Professeur Tryphon Tournesol) was inspired by the Swiss physicist Auguste Piccard and introduced to the world of Tintin in Red Rackham's Treasure where he had invented a shark-shaped submarine. He became a regular character, eventually moving into Marlinspike Hall with Tintin and Captain Haddock. The very eccentric Calculus has a brilliant scientific mind (he is an expert on nuclear and theoretical physics, planetary astronomy and an experienced engineer, archaeologist, biologist and chemist) and was the genius behind the first moon landing but he is also partially deaf (though he insists he is simply a little hard of hearing) and very accident prone. With his crumpled hat, spectacles, and ever present pendulum for dowsing purposes, Calculus was another loveable and very human character in the Tintin family. Snowy (Milou) is Tintin's loyal white Fox Terrier and constant companion. Snowy and Tintin look out for each other during their often perilous travels and often save one another's lives. We sometimes hear the thoughts of Snowy through text bubbles although Snowy's slightly cynical commentary in the early volumes became less pronounced as Captain Haddock entered the series and took over as the counterweight to Tintin. Snowy's biggest weaknesses are his fondness for sniffing out a bone or some food, his habit of getting drunk when he mistakes alcohol for water, and his fear of spiders.


                      Supporting Characters

                      Thomson and Thompson (Dupond et Dupont) are the bungling bowler-hatted detectives with the discombobulated way of expressing themselves and accident prone nature that is only rivalled by the likes of Inspector Clouseau. The pair were first introduced to the series in Cigars of the Pharaoh as agents X33 and X33bis and would eventually become recurring characters in Tintin's extended family. Although they look identical and have a common way of expressing themselves - with spoonerisms to the fore - they will pedantically note the small but important difference in their surnames. The duo appear in seventeen of the books after Cigars of the Pharaoh and frequently become embroiled in Tintin's adventures, even becoming a part of the moon mission after a timekeeping error. The detectives were inspired by Hergé's father Alexis and uncle Léon, identical twins who often took walks together wearing matching bowler hats while carrying matching walking sticks. Bianco Castafiore is the flamboyant, shrill and formidable Italian opera diva who is the bane of Captain Haddock's life and often seems to end up in the same place as him - however far flung and unlikely. The "Milanese Nightingale" is especially fond of the jewel song from Gounod's Faust although Tintin and Haddock can happily live without her booming (and often impromptu) renditions. "Signora Castafiore! Run for it!" Castafiore was based on the famous American-born Greek soprano Maria Callas and, perhaps, Aino Ackté, a Finnish soprano, but Hergé also drew on a grandmother who could never quite remember his name just as Castafiore can never quite remember Haddock's name. "They were in ecstasies, weren't they Mr Paddock?" Castafiore first appeared in King Ottokar's Sceptre and is also in The Seven Crystal Balls, The Calculus Affair, The Castafiore Emerald, Tintin and the Picaros, and The Red Sea Sharks. Her presence is amusingly conveyed via the radio and nightmares Haddock endures in other adventures.

                      Jolyon Wagg (Séraphin Lampion) is the overbearing insurance salesman who becomes the other bane of Captain Haddock's life (besides Bianca Castafiore) after being introduced in The Calculus Affair. He returned for The Red Sea Sharks, The Castafiore Emerald, Flight 714 and Tintin and the Picaros. Wagg makes his first appearance in the series when his car windows are shattered by the strange events at the start of The Calculus Affair, forcing him to take shelter at Marlinspike Hall. His loud bombastic personality and absolute inability to ever notice when he is irritating someone and being far too familiar with virtual strangers soon make him one of the captain's sworn pains in the neck. "I bet you weren't insured, eh, you old rascal? Well, what a bit of luck that old Jolyon Wagg dropped in: he'll soon fix you up with a neat little policy!" Wagg was based on a real life salesman who invited himself into Hergé's home oblivious to the fact that he wasn't welcome. Wagg's cameo appearances in later Tintin volumes are often very funny. General Alcazar was first encountered by Tintin during the events of The Broken Ear, the character featuring again in The Seven Crystal Balls, The Red Sea Sharks and Tintin and the Picaros. Alcazar is a rebel leader forever fighting for control of his native San Theodoros with his nemesis General Tapioca. General Alcazar is quite a complex supporting character in the extended Tintin family as he has far more shades of grey than the more obviously heroic and decent Haddock, Calculus and Thomson and Thompson. Alcazar is not an obvious hero and he's not an obvious villain but rather something in between. We see that he has to take part in activities like arms trading and Hergé suggests in Tintin and the Picaros that it doesn't really matter if Alcazar or his rival Tapioca runs San Theodoros. Life will not change for the poor and forgotten.

                      Emir Ben Kalish Ezab is the Emir of the fictional Middle East state of Khemed. The character made his first appearance in Land of Black Gold tangling with Dr Müller. He returned for The Red Sea Sharks and also makes an appearance in the unfinished Tintin and Alph-Art. Like General Alcazar, Emir Ben Kalish Ezab has more shades of grey than Tintin's more established friends. He can be either jovial or threatening depending on his mood. His most treasured possession is his unruly son Abdullah. When he is overthrown by Sheikh Bab El Ehr, the Emir sends young Abdullah to stay at Marlinspike for his own safety. Nestor is Captain Haddock's butler at Marlinspike Hall. Nestor was first introduced working for the Bird Brothers in the Secret of the Unicorn but was permitted to continue his duties at Marlinspike by the captain as he regarded Nestor to be a part of the place. Nestor is loyal to his employer and will inevitably find himself mixed up in the mayhem whenever Tintin's knack of attracting trouble reaches his cherished corner of the world at Marlinspike. Oliveira de Figueira was introduced in Cigars of the Pharaoh and returned several times to help his friend Tintin in various adventures. A Portuguese salesman, Oliveira has an uncanny knack of selling superfluous bric a brac to anyone with his fast patter and friendly personality. Chang is a young Chinese orphan who Tintin befriends in The Blue Lotus, the character later playing a pivotal role in Hergé's masterpiece Tintin in Tibet. Chang was inspired by Hergé's friend Zhang Chongren, a Chinese artist he met at the Académie de Bruxelles. Chongren taught Hergé Chinese drawing techniques and encouraged him to do much more research for the Tintin books to present a believable and authentic depiction of foreign countries. Hergé lost touch with him for many decades but they were reunited in old age in a touching meeting captured for posterity by the media.


                      Villains

                      Rastapopoulos is the most famous of the Tintin villains (he is, one could argue, to Tintin what Blofeld is to James Bond or Moriarty is to Sherlock Holmes). Rastapopoulos was first introduced - at least in a striking visual prototype - in a Tintin in America cameo (sitting next to film star Mary Pickford) and then featured in The Cigars of the Pharaoh, The Blue Lotus, The Red Sea Sharks and Flight 714. Rastapopoulos, in the guise of a millionaire film tycoon and "king of Cosmos Pictures" initially gains Tintin's trust but it's all a charade and his true colours are eventually revealed. Rastapopoulos is a criminal mastermind involved in the drug trade, extortion, kidnapping and more besides. The character has sparked a degree of controversy as he is regarded by some Hergé critics to be a Jewish caricature. Hergé denied this and the character is officially supposed to be Italian but with a comic Greek sounding name. "Rastapopoulos, for me is more or less Greek, a shady Levantine character, without a country, that is without faith or ethical code. Another detail, he is not Jewish!" Allan Thompson was first introduced as the scheming and disloyal drug running first mate of a drunken Captain Haddock in The Crab with the Golden Claws. The lantern jawed Allan is always up to his neck in criminal activities and is depicted later on in The Red Sea Sharks and Flight 714 as one of the main henchmen of Rastapopoulos. The English language translations tend to discard his surname to avoid confusion with Thompson and Thomson.

                      General Tapioca is the arch-enemy of Tintin's friend General Alcazar, both forever vying to be the leader of their native San Theodoros. Tapioca is generally depicted as being more urbane and cultured than Alcazar with a more professional network and organisation behind him but his vanity and ambition often makes him a preposterous figure all the same. Tapioca is mentioned in The Broken Ear, The Seven Crystal Balls and The Red Sea Sharks before featuring in Tintin and the Picaros. The Bird Brothers are the greedy and highly dangerous antique dealing villains from The Secret of the Unicorn. They operate from the grand Marlinspike Hall - which of course Captain Haddock inherits in the story arc that concludes with Red Rackham's Treasure. A monocled villain, Colonel Sponsz is the head of the Bordurian Secret Police in The Calculus Affair and later returns for Tintin and the Picaros - where he has now been sent to San Theodoros to be an advisor to General Tapioca. Sponsz develops a particular grudge against Tintin and makes a formidable foe. Colonel Jorgen features most prominently in Explorers on the Moon where he smuggles himself onboard the rocket ship with the help of Frank Wolff. The villain made his first appearance though in King Ottokar's Sceptre as a character named Boris - who is in fact a double-agent for Syldavia's rival Borduria. Dr Müller is a very crafty and recurring villain who appears in The Black Island, Land of Black Gold and The Red Sea Sharks. Müller is suggested to be of Bavarian origin and will change his appearance to achieve his nefarious ends.


                      Subtext

                      Many of the early Tintin volumes reflect what is happening in the world (although Hergé became increasingly wary of too much political subtext after World War 2). For example, when San Theodoros goes to war with the neighbouring state of Nuevo-Rico in The Broken Ear, the author is using these fictional nations to reference the Gran Chaco oil-war between Paraguay and Bolivia in the thirties and comment on the greed and manipulation of oil companies. In King Ottokar's Sceptre there is a very topical plot with a character named Müsstler (Mussolini/Hitler) and schemes involving the annexation of peaceful countries. Many of the volumes are laced with these parallel reference points.

                      Some were more trivial observations related to the francophone world. Paris-Flash, for instance, is a fictional magazine created by Hergé as a spoof of the real life Paris Match (a publication he believed to be somewhat shallow and had some bad experiences with). Paris-Flash features most prominently in The Castafiore Emerald with reporters Christopher Willoughby-Drupe and Marco Rizotto visiting Marlinspike to interview the famed opera star.

                      Is there a gay subtext to Tintin? The evidence goes something like this: (1) Captain Haddock, a middle-aged man (and a sailor to boot), lives with a teenage boy (Tintin - whose only female acquaintance is a flamboyant opera star) in a country mansion. (2) Thomson and Thompson are apparently not related and completely inseparable (it's not difficult to imagine they live together). (3) Professor Calculus is the only character who ever shows any sign of romantic interest in women (he has a fondness for Bianca Castafiore). (4) Female characters are mostly notable by their absence in the series.

                      We must remember that Hergé was writing for children and so probably set out to make his characters asexual. In a few interviews he stated that the series was about male friendship (I suppose you could argue that he was slightly misogynistic then if you want for not having many female characters) and any implied eroticism was not part of his design. Most Tintin fans assume that Thompson and Thomson ARE twins but merely change the spelling of their surname to differentiate one another (which in of itself is quite a good joke as it hardly makes any difference). Haddock lives with Tintin but in separate quarters in a giant country mansion with a butler. If they are gay then that would make Bruce Wayne gay for sharing a house with Dick (Robin) Grayson.

                      Elsewhere, Emir Ben Kalish Ezab has a son while General Alcazar has a wife in Tintin and the Picaros (albeit a nagging harridan - this more for comic purposes than anything, the stubble chinned macho rebel leader now a henpecked husband). So, while I think it's perfectly reasonable to speculate I'm not sure that the author actually intended anything. Besides, does it really matter anyway?


                      Places

                      Marlinspike Hall (Le château de Moulinsart) is the grand country mansion that serves as the home and base of operations for Tintin, Haddock and Calculus. Marlinspike was introduced in The Secret of the Unicorn (as the home of the villain Bird Brothers) and acquired by Captain Haddock (with a little help from Calculus and one of his ancestors) at the conclusion of Red Rackham's Treasure. Marlinspike was inspired by the Château de Cheverny in the département of Loir-et-Cher in the Loire Valley in France. The house became such an established part of the series that a later adventure - The Castafiore Emerald - eschewed the usual globetrotting and was set completely in and around Marlinspike Hall.

                      A fictional eastern European country created by Hergé, Syldavia (TranSYLvania/MolDAVIA) was introduced to the series in King Ottokar's Sceptre and also featured in Destination Moon, Explorers on the Moon, The Calculus Affair and (the non-canon book of the film) Tintin and the Lake of Sharks. Syldavia is depicted by Hergé in King Ottokar's Sceptre as a Balkanesque fairytale land known as 'The Kingdom of the Black Pelican' that embraces both Tradition and Modernity. It's full of enchanted landscapes and woodland, horse drawn carts, ancient castles and soldiers in bright anachronistic uniforms carrying swords. Syldavia is depicted in later adventures as a country with a strong military and spy agency and - of course - the Sprodj Atomic Research Centre where Professor Calculus accepts a request from the Syldavian government to design and build a rocket intended for the first ever manned space mission to the moon.

                      San Theodoros is a fictional South American country that features most saliently in The Broken Ear and Tintin and the Picaros. San Theodoros is home to Tintin's friend General Alcazar. Rebel leader Alcazar is forever wrestling for control of San Theodoros with his rival General Tapioca. The jungled country is Hergé's riff on the stereotypical politically unstable Banana Republic.

                      Khemed is a fictional Arab state near the Red Sea. Khemed featured in Land of Black Gold and The Red Sea Sharks. The older versions of Land of Black Gold were set in the British Mandate of Palestine but - at the request of his British publisher Methuen - Hergé updated the book in the seventies and changed the setting to the fictional Khemed. Khemed is an oil rich country with Tintin's friend Emir Mohammed Ben Kalish Ezab forever struggling for control against his rival Sheikh Bab El Ehr.

                      Borduria is a fictional country in the Balkans that features in King Ottokar's Sceptre and The Calculus Affair. Borduria is the main rival to Hergé's Syldavia and depicted as a totalitarian state with an aggressive spy network and schemes involving the annexation of its neighbour. The parallels with Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union are not difficult to detect when one encounters Borduria in the series.

                      São Rico - in the original version of The Shooting Star the rival expedition and baddies derived from the United States. This was later changed to the fictitious - and therefore less politically loaded - country of São Rico after the war.


                      My Favourite Recurring Joke

                      "No Madam, I am not Mr Cutts the butcher!" Mr Cutts (Boucherie Sanzot) is the owner of a butcher's shop and shares a similar telephone number to Marlinspike Hall, leading to the long suffering Captain Haddock frequently recieving calls at Marlinspike that were meant for Cutts (and vice versa).


                      Books

                      Tintin in the Land of the Soviets - first serialised in 1930/31. Tintin visits Moscow to report on life inside the Soviet Union. He is plunged into a nightmarish adventure involving rigged elections, deserted factories, hunger, and snow. Lots of snow. Hergé did not redraw Tintin in the Land of the Soviets and took it out of circulation until the 1970s. Despite some fun cliffhanger situations, the crude anti-Communist sentiments and depiction of Russians as inherently evil (stipulations of his right-wing boss at Le XXe Siècle) do the book no favours. Not really considered to be an official part of the series.

                      Tintin in the Congo - first serialised in 1930/31. The story is set in the Belgian Congo and reflects both the era it was conceived in and the dubious politics of Abbé Norbert Wallez - Hergé's boss at the time. Like Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, this is not felt to be a true part of the series. Belgian colonial rule in Africa is championed and the natives are childlike and stupid. Despite the growing invention of Hergé's art, this is strictly for completists only.

                      Tintin in America - first serialised in 1931/32. Tintin travels to the United States to investigate the oil industry and soon becomes a target for mobsters. A leap forward for the series after its dodgy inception despite the heavy-handed critique of American capitalism. Hergé is inspired by the Wild West of the silver screen, giving the book an enjoyably anachronistic quality. An America of pulp novels. Skyscrapers, Native American Indians, gangsters. The first adventure in the series that Hergé was happy to licence outside of Le Petit Vingtième magazine.

                      Cigars of the Pharaoh - first serialised in 1932/34. Tintin is on a cruise in the Mediterranean but a chance encounter with nutty Egyptologist Dr Sarcophagus finds him embroiled in a dangerous expedition searching for the lost tomb of the Pharaoh Kih-Oskh. This is an enjoyable caper with Hergé's storytelling showing clear signs of progress. An important early volume as Thompson and Thomson, Rastapopoulos and Senhor Oliviera de Figueira make their first appearances.

                      The Blue Lotus - first serialised 1934/35. Hergé's first true masterpiece. After the events of Cigars of the Pharaoh, Tintin travels to Shanghai and so an adventure begins involving opium dens, espionage, intrigue, and Chinese resistance to the invasion and occupation of Manchuria by the Imperial Japanese Army. Perhaps the first adult graphic novel, Hergé's diligent research (thanks to Zhang Chongren) reaps rich rewards. Lovely art and not only is The Blue Lotus exciting, it's also funny, especially the panels involving Thompson and Thomson.

                      The Broken Ear - first serialised in 1935/37. Our bequiffed hero tackles a puzzling mystery involving a wooden Arumbaya idol stolen from the Museum of Ethnography in Brussels. Not classic Tintin but a solid entry in the series with a plot that seems to pay homage to The Maltese Falcon. This volume is notable for the introduction of San Theodoros and Tintin's friend General Alcazar to the series.

                      The Black Island - first serialised in 1937/1938. A very Hitchcock plot with Tintin in a Richard Hannay style adventure that takes him to the United Kingdom. There are two different versions of The Black Island but both are enjoyable with lovely illustrations of old vehicles and British backdrops. Look out for the introduction of a classic villain.

                      King Ottokar's Sceptre - first serialised in 1938-1939. Tintin finds a briefcase left on a park bench. The owner is Professor Hector Alembick - an expert sigillographer. The professor is about to visit the Kingdom of Syldavia to study their archives but when both he and Tintin come into danger, Tintin investigates and uncovers a plot against the King of Syldavia. A superb thriller with Hergé's fictional world really starting to come into its own. You get some pointed references to real world events, the introduction of Bianca Castfiore, and a wonderfully tense and frantic climax.

                      The Crab with the Golden Claws - first serialised in 1940-1941. Tintin becomes embroiled in a mystery involving counterfeit coins, tins of crab and a drowned sailor, and meets a certain Captain Haddock for the first time. A stirring adventure with some wonderful desert panels and even a few 'splash' pages. The story is essentially about the redemption of Captain Haddock, a broken man when we first meet him. The friendship that Tintin offers him in his greatest hour of need explains why the captain never fails to support Tintin in the adventures that follow.

                      The Shooting Star - first serialised in 1941-1942. Tintin notices an extra star in the constellation of the Great Bear and is puzzled by the intense heat at night. At the Observatory, Professor Decimus Phostle explains that a great meteorite is heading to Earth. It crashes in the Arctic and a race is on to secure the precious "Phostlite". The unsettling era Hergé was living through is apparent in the atmospheric beginning to The Shooting Star. It loses something when the story becomes a more familiar sea bound expedition though. One of the most controversial Tintin volumes. It was produced with Belgium under Nazi occupation and the original baddies were Americans - funded by a Jewish financier.

                      The Secret of the Unicorn - first serialised 1942-1943. Tintin is taken with a model galliard ship in a market and purchases it as a gift for Captain Haddock. Tintin later makes some startling discoveries. The model is a replica of a 17th century ship called The Unicorn which sailed under the command of Sir Francis Haddock. Sir Francis had tangles with pirate Red Rackham over vast treasures. A parchment in the model ship gives a clue to the current whereabouts of Red Rackham's treasure. The Secret of the Unicorn wonderful. Absorbing and clever, the introduction of Nestor and Marlinspike Hall, lots of funny stuff for Thompson and Thomson. Haddock was a drunken wreck when we first met him but he's starting to come into his own now.

                      Red Rackham's Treasure - first serialised 1943-1944. A sequel to The Secret of the Unicorn. Haddock and Tintin search for the lost treasure of Red Rackham in remote seas. They are joined by a certain Professor Cuthbert Calculus, an eccentric scientist and inventor who is partially deaf. Red Rackham's Treasure is a lot of fun. Hergé made the books more fantastical during these dark days and political subtexts were largely discarded. This is most notable for the introduction Professor Calculus and there is gold to be mined from the fact that Calculus drives Captain Haddock barmy with his deafness. Some wonderful underwater panels for the diving scenes.

                      The Seven Crystal Balls - first serialised 1943-196. Tintin reads a newspaper on a train about an archaeological expedition that visited the Inca tomb of Rascar Capac. A fellow passenger warns there is a curse for those that do such things. The Rascar Capac expedition duly fall into a coma one by one. Is there a curse? An atmospheric and inventive riff on the tomb of Tutankhamun mystery with cameos for General Alcazar and opera diva Bianca Castafiore. The country house sequence at the home of Professor Tarragon is wonderful.

                      Prisoners of the Sun - first serialised 1946-1948. A direct sequel to The Seven Crystal Balls. Calculus has been kidnapped for wearing the bracelet of the mummified Inca Rascar Capac and Tintin and Captain Haddock travel deep into the jungles of Peru to search for him. Prisoners of the Sun is one of the very best Tintin books. This is Indiana Jones before Indiana Jones. Waterfalls, crocidles, runaway trains, and a truly epic search for Calculus. Hergé's art is amazing, his research into Peru and South American temples reaping rich dividends. Look for Hergé's love of surreal art too when Tintin has a nightmare sleeping out in a small temple.

                      Land of Black Gold - first serialised 1948-1950. Tintin investigates the oil industry and ends up in Khmed with Thomson and Thompson. Fun but not one of Hergé's greatest efforts. The art in the updated version is lovely with the Middle Eastern setting and desert panels. Detectives Thomson and Thompson becoming lost in the desert is mined to excellent comic effect by Hergé. Captain Haddock is largely absent from the book and Calculus too is missed here. There is a return for the dastardly Dr Müller from The Black Island and we meet the insufferable Prince Abdullah - the obstreperous young son of
                      Emir Ben Kalish Ezab.

                      Destination Moon - first serialised 1950-1952. Tintin and Haddock learn that Professor Calculus has mysteriously left Marlinspike for Syldavia. Once in Syldavia, they are taken to a remote mountain location. It transpires that this is the Sprodj Atomic Research Centre. Calculus has been asked by the Syldavian government to build a rocket ship for the first ever mission to the moon! There is much technical detail in this volume and it might be a trifle dry for younger readers as almost the entire book is set in the research centre. Luckily, the detectives Thomson and Thompson are on hand to supply levity to the story, parachuting in dressed in ridiculous Greek costumes which they have mistaken for Syldavian national dress. Haddock and Calculus are on good form too and frequently at loggerheads. A solid book with some spectacular splash pages.

                      Explorers on the Moon - first serialised 1952-193. Our heroes set off for the moon but sabotage is planned and the oxygen supplies are threatened by the unexpected presence of Thomson and Thompson. A truly wondrous graphic novel with plenty of intrigue and suspense and the fantastic panels set on the moon. The retro futuristic designs of the ship and the space buggy are wonderful. This is a beautifully rendered fantastical adventure for Tintin and friends with lots of laughs and twists. The atmospheric underground caverns and sense of loneliness on the moon actually foreshadow Tintin in Tibet in many ways.

                      The Calculus Affair - first serialised 1954-1956. Tintin and Haddock are back at Marlinspike after their space adventure. The captain wants nothing more now than to be left in peace. As ever, Haddock's luck is out out. A storm breaks out and there is a strange outbreak of glass shattering for no apparent reason. An intruder is found in the grounds and Calculus emerges from his lab with bullet holes in his hat. When Calculus visits Geneva for a conference, Tintin and Haddock decide to look in his lab for clues to all the mysterious events. They disturb a violent intruder and come to the conclusion that Calculus is in great danger in Geneva. A solid spy caper with plenty of intrigue and suspense. Insurance salesman Jolyon Wagg enters the fray as another person to drive Haddock crackers.

                      The Red Sea Sharks - first serialised 1956-58. Emir Ben Kalish from Land of Black Gold has been deposed. Our heroes travel to Khemed to help. A decent if unremarkable caper. Rastapopolous returns as the villain - here posing as the Marquis di Gorgonzola. The author is becoming political and topical again and the story is also about slavery - a very real and harrowing phenomenon, even in the 20th Century. Hergé's depiction of the slaves came in for some criticism but his heart is in the right place. Oliviera da Figueira, Doctor Müller, Bianca Castafiore and Allan all return too, as does insurance salesman Jolyon Wagg. The desert panels are great although Tintin can't help but start to repeat itself by now.

                      Tintin in Tibet - first serialised 1958/59. While on holiday, Tintin learns that his friend Chang (from The Blue Lotus) was on a plane that crashed in the mountains of Tibet with no survivors. Tintin has a premonition that, despite all rational evidence to the contrary, Chang is still alive, and so begins an epic quest to the crash site to search for Chang. This is Hergé's masterpiece, the book awash with beautiful snowbound imagery. What is most remarkable about this volume is that Hergé had been plagued by nightmares dominated by the colour white. He confronted his nightmares head on with this epic graphic novel.

                      The Castafiore Emerald - first serialised 1961-1962. Captain Haddock's worst nightmare occurs. He's confined to Marlinspike Hall in a wheelchair after injuring his foot and the dreaded Bianca Castafiore is coming to stay for a few days. Papparazzi are soon are making up stories about a romantic affair. To make matters worse, her precious prized emerald is stolen. The Castafiore Emerald is an atypical and brilliant Tintin book because they never go anywhere! The whole story is set in Marlinspike. The missing jewel is merely a device to heighten the torture for Haddock as everything he hates descends on Marlinspike. Castafiore, Joylon wagg, the paparazzi, even an annoying parrot. Hergé is experimenting and does something wonderful here. An elegant and amusing country house comedy. It's as if there was nowhere to go after Tintin in Tibet and so he had to do something different.

                      Flight 714 - first serialised 1966-1967. Tintin, Captain Haddock, Professor Calculus and Snowy are on their way to an Astronautical Congress in Sydney. They bump into their friend Piotr Skut from The Red Sea Sharks. Skut is a pilot for grumpy billionaire Laszlo Carreidas, a man who hasn't laughed for decades. When Calculus unwittingly makes Carreidas laugh the millionaire offers them a lift on his private jet. The plane is hijacked though and taken to the deserted volcanic island of Pulau-Pulau Bompa in the Celebes Sea. The culprit? None other than Rastapopoulos. In many ways Flight 714 is too lightweight and obvious after the two previous adventures. Rastapopoulos is played for laughs and has no real sense of menace. The island/jungle setting feels too familiar but Hergé's gambit is to introduce aliens. Almost. We never seen them but they are here. The book is funny but feels like it is going through the motions.

                      Tintin and the Picaros - first serialised 1975-1976. Bianca Castafiore is arrested on a tour of South America and thrown in jail with her maid Irma, pianist Igor Wagner, and detectives Thomson and Thompson. General Tapioca accuses them of plotting to overthrow the government of San Theodoros and then alleges that Tintin and Haddock are part of the plot too. This is ok but not one of Hergé's greatest offerings. The book has a memorably downbeat and blunt assessment of politics and power. It doesn't matter who is in charge of San Theodoros. Nothing changes for ordinary people and power will corrupt in the end. This is the final book completed before Hergé's death.

                      Tintin and Alph-Art - the uncompleted book Hergé was working on when he died in 1983. He left about 150 pages of raw sketches and script notes but the story had yet to be finalised or given an ending. His widow released it in 1986 in this bare bones form. The story is a murder mystery that takes place in the world of modern art. The villain, a cult leader named Endaddine Akass, was apparently going to be revealed as Tintin's old nemesis Rastapopulos. It's a shame Hergé didn't live long enough to complete the book.

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                        23.01.2014 19:40
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                        A decent read

                        The Little Sister is a 1949 novel by Raymond Chandler and the fifth book to revolve around his sardonic and world weary hardboiled private detective hero Philip Marlowe. Chandler was deeply depressed and distracted at the time as his wife was ill and he had great difficulty finishing the novel. It was written on and off during a period that overlapped with him working for Paramount and he uses the story to throw some barbs at Hollywood (a place that he never liked an awful lot and found shallow and tiresome) and also reflect on his general weariness and unhappiness. Marlowe, like Chandler, is an increasingly lost and disillusioned character in the book, almost frozen in places, increasingly prone to introspection as he haunts his familiar gaudy landscape of low-rent post-war Los Angeles. There is always a seedy underbelly lurking beneath the surface and this is where Marlowe's cases inevitably lead him. The story is set in 1947 and begins with Marlowe in his ramshackle office one morning trying to swat a fly as he waits for a client to arrive. He won't have to wait long. A woman named Orfamay Quest asks Marlowe to find her missing brother Orrin. "She didn't have to open her mouth for me to know who she was. And nobody ever looked less like Lady Macbeth. She was a small, neat, rather prissy-looking girl with primly smooth brown hair and rimless glasses." Orrin ran away to Los Angeles from the Midwest and hasn't been heard from for a few months. His letters home just stopped. Marlowe begins his search for Orrin by trawling through cheap tatty boarding houses and as usual what appeared to be a fairly straightforward case at first glance soon becomes incredibly knotty and complicated.

                        It's probably fair to say that The Little Sister feels less essential than earlier Marlowe stories like Farewell, My Lovely and The Big Sleep and doesn't have quite so many memorable supporting characters. Chandler admitted that the book was written in a bad mood and he was happy to be finished with it but the internal dialogue flourishes that he gives Marlowe here are certainly interesting as an insight into how the writer was feeling at this stage of his life and career. "I was a blank man. I had no face, no meaning, no personality, hardly a name. I didn't want to eat. I didn't want to drink. I was a page from yesterday's calendar crumpled at the bottom of the waste basket." Marlowe's increasing sense of loneliness in the story echoes the way Chandler felt with his wife often under the influence of sedatives and asleep for days at a time. Chandler always felt her absence most in the evenings because he no longer had anyone to talk to at night and there is a memorable scene in the book where Marlowe is driving home in the dark and all of a sudden can't face the thought of being alone and turns his car around up to the hills of Los Angeles. "I ate dinner at a place near Thousand Oaks. Bad but quick. Feed 'em and throw 'em out. Lots of business. We can't bother with you sitting over your second cup of coffee, mister. You're using money space. See those people over there behind the rope? They want to eat. Anyway they think they have to. God knows why they want to eat here. They could do better home out of a can. They're just restless. Like you. They have to get the car out and go somewhere. Sucker-bait for the racketeers that have taken over the restaurants. You're not human tonight, Marlowe."

                        Marlowe is older now and more grizzled and cynical than ever but he's still on the side of the angels despite the mean streets he has to navigate. He might not be perfect but he'll never sell his soul to anyone. Marlowe's sarcastic sense of humour is still very much intact though - as is his Ian Fleming's literary James Bond capacity to take a beating and stagger back to his office for strong coffee and eggs at some madly unsocial hour. The wit of the character is more defensive than usual as if it's now used to protect himself. The absurdity and harsh reality of life is always far too apparent to our hard-drinking loner hero. The story is twisty (probably too twisty in this case) in the usual Chandler fashion and although not really his very best the sense of time and place is still vivid and superbly captured. The actual reveal is sort of explained to us at the end rather than presented as an interlocking series of clues that the reader might be able to fathom for themselves and although it seems to slightly contradict some of Chandler's own thoughts on fiction of this type I don't think it's a huge weakness in this context. Marlowe is not Sherlock Holmes and often seems as if he's completely in over his head but it's his dogged persistence rather than his detective skills than will inevitably win through in the end however Pyrrhic the victory might be. What Marlowe has is a certain type of street smarts and the ability to size people up.

                        The key plot element is borrowed from an incident involving a real life gangster (can't say who for fear of spoilers) and The Little Sister notably brings Phillip Marlowe into the orbit of Hollywood. Chandler famously worked as a writer on classic films like Strangers On A Train and Double Indemnity but didn't have much affection for Hollywood. He was removed from Strangers On A Train after loudly referring to Alfred Hitchcock as a "fat bastard" and was highly irritated by Billy Wilder's twirling cane (I'm not making this up) when he had to collaborate with him. When Marlowe comes into contact with an actress or observes the twinkling lights of Hollywood, Chandler lets us know exactly how he (and his sardonic narrator of course) feels about Tinseletown and the people who work there. "Behind Encino an occasional light winked from the hills through thick trees. The homes of screen stars. Screen stars, phooey. The veterans of a thousand beds. Hold it, Marlowe, you're not human tonight." Chandler has Marlowe reciting the last admonishment several times in the novel and it's really the author telling himself to shut up. Marlowe's relationship to the city ("The most of everything and the best of nothing," says Marlowe about California) feels especially jaundiced in the novel and inspires some very Chandler-esque flourishes.

                        Look how he contrasts the natural beauty of the city with the man-made ugliness it contains in his introductory passage. A perfect example of the lyrical slightly soppy and bitter cynical sides of Chandler all in one. "It was one of those clear, bright summer mornings we get in the early spring in California before the high fog sets in. The rains are over. The hills are still green and in the valley across the Hollywood hills you can see snow on the high mountains. The fur stores are advertising their annual sales. The call houses that specialize in sixteen-year-old virgins are doing a land-office business. And in Beverly Hills the jacaranda trees are beginning to bloom." The Little Sister is a very interesting read with some great moments but it does unavoidably suffer a little when judged alongside the Marlowe series as a whole and is a good book but one that feels like a slightly strange later entry in a series that has already peaked. I love some elements of the novel but it feels like Chandler never quite got a handle on the plot in places - frazzled and distracted as he was at the time and less than willing to read the manuscript over as he might usually have done. The Little Sister is over 300 pages long (paperback) and at the time of writing available to buy for as little as £3.

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                          21.01.2014 20:10
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                          More Crypt Keeper capers

                          This is the complete third season of the cult HBO horror anthology series Tales from the Crypt. I have been locked in a ruined gothic mansion watching these and am happy to announce that series three is just as much fun as the first two. Tales from the Crypt was based on the influential EC horror and suspense comics published by William Gaines in the 1950s and remains one of the most beloved and successful of the anthology shows. It ran for seven years and ninety-three episodes until 1996 and was unusual for a series of this type as it had fairly high production values. I love Tales from the Darkside as much as the next person but it did sometimes look like a series shot on location in a broom cupboard. With this third year you can expect more twisted karma and macabre shenanigans in neon splashed primary colours all bookended by the "Crypt Keeper" - a likeable and cheeky animatronic puppet voiced as ever by the enthusiastic John Kassir. There are fourteen episodes in series three and with a single exception they all run to around twenty-five minutes. As one would expect from a series that had Richard Donner, David Giler, Walter Hill, Joel Silver and Robert Zemeckis as executive producers, the third season again has an impressive amount of talent on both sides of the camera. Danny Elfman provides the jaunty Tales from the Crypt theme music and Hill and Zemeckis both direct a story themselves alongside some genre notables like Tobe Hooper. The actors in these stories include Dan Akroyd, Kirk Douglas, Malcolm McDowell, Beau Bridges, Kyle McLachlan, and Tim Roth. In fact, most of the episodes here contain a couple of very familiar faces.

                          "Dying for a date? Aching for passion? Well, be careful what you wish for, or like the young man in tonight's terror tale, you may just get it. I call this nauseating number Loved to Death..." Loved to Death was directed by the famous James Bond screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz and written by Joe Minion. This was adapted from a short story by John Collier that had already appeared on television a few times, most famously as a middling 1960 Twilight Zone episode called The Chaser. The Chaser had George Grizzard as a man madly in love with his indifferent neighbour Patricia Barry. He visits an eccentric professor to get a love potion but in fantasy anthology world you should be very careful about what you most desire. Loved to Death regurgitates the story again with eighties Brat Packer Andrew McCarthy in the Grizzard role. McCarthy is Edward Foster, an aspiring screenwriter with a crush on an actress named Miranda Singer (Mariel Hemingway) who lives in his Hollywood apartment building. Miranda stars in trashy B-films and the meek Edward decides that an affair with her might somehow unlock his latent creative genius. He turns to weird landlord Mr Stronham (David Hemmings) and ends up with a love potion that makes Miranda besotted with him. However, her constant devotion and reluctance to ever be apart soon becomes suffocating and unbearable. Loved to Death is probably not the best place for anyone new to Tales from the Crypt to start but the payoff is just about worth the wait and you do get David Hemmings (amazing eyebrows) making the most of his part as the mysterious landlord. Hemmings is spying on everyone and has a strange control room with intercom. You actually want to know more about his character. Mariel Hemingway (best known for Manhattan) has dual roles in a sense and does quite well as both the shallow would be actress and the love potioned Edward chaser. Andrew McCarthy is more or less the same in anything but decent enough. Nice cinematography in this episode.

                          "Good evening felons. Time to assume the position, if you know what I mean, and prepare for another assault and battery on your senses. Tonight's steamy saga is about a nice young man with a very bad attitude. In fact, it's positively criminal. I call this little game of chops and clobbers Carrion Death..." Carrion Death was written and directed by Steven E de Souza. This is another slightly unusual episode but a strong entry early on for series three. Earl Raymond Diggs (Kyle McLachlan) is the most wanted man in Arizona. He's a vicious killer and thief but Digs has escaped Death Row and is now on the lam (I love how I tried to use crime jargon there) after robbing a bank. His plan? To head for the Mexican border with the money, the dust blown desert outback his last barrier to freedom. The only problem is a lone motorcycle policeman but when Digs takes out the state trooper the resulting carnage leaves him in quite a pesky predicament. His car is wrecked and he's now handcuffed to a dead policeman! Can the exhausted and parched Digs carry and drag the dead body the final six miles across the desert to Mexico? The most interested and persistent observer is a peckish looking vulture who just won't go away. Carrion Death is probably a bit predictable in the end but the situation Digs finds himself in is so desperate you sort of half want him to get away despite knowing he's a convicted serial killer. Every step of his journey is a struggle carrying and dragging the dead body and those handcuffs just don't seem to want to break. This fairly simple set up makes for a gripping story at times and Kyle MacLachlan (who must have been fresh from Twin Peaks) seems to enjoy playing a thoroughly unpleasant character and keeps this one-hander afloat by talking to himself a lot. The desert location is something different from the usual urban city stories.

                          "Greetings, boars and ghouls. Tonight's nasty nugget concerns a man with a problem. He wants to collect on his life insurance without dying in the process. I call this little annuity, The Trap..." The Trap was directed by Michael J Fox (who also has a cameo as a lawyer) and written by Scott Alexander. This is a very broad tongue-in-cheek episode with a plot that feels familiar but it works fairly well thanks to the cast and some amusing dialogue. Lou Paloma (Bruce McGill) is a boorish bad tempered debt ridden husband who has just lost his job yet again. Lou is sick of having no money and not being able to enjoy life as he desires and so ropes his wife Irene (Teri Garr) and mortician brother Billy (Bruno Kirby) into an insurance scam. Lou's plan? To fake his death, have plastic surgery and head for Brazil with the life insurance money. The problem? Unknown to him, his co-conspirators Irene and Billy are starting to become very close. The synopsis doesn't sound that original or exciting but this episode skates along in breezy fashion with plenty of dark humour (look out for the cremation scene) and a decent twist about half-way in. Michael J Fox proves to be a perfectly competent director but it's the cast that really make this worth watching. Bruce McGill is great as the slobbish Lou and Carroll Baker steals the show as his nutty mother. More of a crime episode than a horror one but the tone still feels very Tales from the Crypt.

                          "Ah, a corpse by any other name would smell as sweet. Unless, of course, it isn't dead yet! Tonight's tawdry tale is about a man bravely concerned about matters of life and death. Why he'd care about that remains to be seen. I call this putrid piece Abra Cadaver..." Abra Cadaver was directed by Stephen Hopkins and written by Jim Birge. The story begins with a black and white hospital flashback that introduces us to Dr Carl Fairbanks (Tony Goldwyn) and his older and more gifted brother Dr Martin Fairbanks (Beau Bridges), an expert on human brain functions. As a medical student, Carl played a prank on Martin but it backfired and induced a heart attack and paralysis in one hand, ending Martin's dreams of becoming a great surgeon. Back in the present day, their roles are reversed. Carl is the one with the hotshot medical career while Martin merely works for him and dabbles in research. Martin decides to play a little revenge prank of his own on his brother with a serum he's created. The serum makes Carl appear dead to the world but his brain is still very much alive. He's about to have a very disturbing time indeed. This is a twisty and frightening episode well directed by Stephen (Predator 2) Hopkins. I think Alfred Hitchcock Presents did a similar story once and Stephen King too in one of his recent short story collections. The thought of being alive but unable to move in any way so everyone thinks you are dead - to the point of being shoved in a morgue or an autopsy room - is unsettling and Hopkins presents scenes from the inert Carl's point of view with his frazzled thoughts as voiceover just to amp up the tension. Bridges and Tony Goldwyn are good value and the clever script layers twist upon twist in the third act.

                          "Good evening, culture vultures, and welcome to another installment of Mashed-to-pieces Theater. Tonight we ask the question, 'To be or not to be?' Or in this case, an actor stuck with an average face, who is so sick and tired of auditioning, he's willing to do almost anything. Did I say almost? I call this sickening saga, Top Billing..." Top Billing was directed by Todd Holland and written by Myles Berkowitz. This is a fun episode and one of my favourites from series three. Barry Blye (Jon Lovitz) is an aspiring actor who just can't seem to land any work. People tell him he has talent but that he doesn't quite have the "look" that's required. After his wife leaves him and he's booted out of his flat, Blye becomes a desperate man. When he auditions for an off Broadway backstreet production of Hamlet he is furious that suave rival Winton Robbins (Bruce Boxleitner) is cast in the lead by eccentric director Nelson Halliwell (John Astin). Blye bumps off Robbins and is given the lead role instead. Will he be a star at last? What an enjoyable episode and the macabre payoff is pure Tales from the Crypt. You've got Night Gallery veteran (and the original Gomez from The Addams Family) John Astin camping it up as the director in Vincent Price fashion and Jon Lovitz on fine form as our pretentious and unassuming central character. Bruce Boxleitner has fun with his cameo and Louise Fletcher is wonderfully cold and to the point as Blye's agent. To say what this episode is reminiscent of (and I'm thinking of two seventies films in particular) would completely blow the twist but despite the flamboyant acting (even Sandra Bernhard turns up at some point) and humour it retains an off-kilter atmosphere that always makes you aware that something is not right.

                          "Welcome aboard, fright-seers. Looking for a little hell-iday fun? You've come to the right place! We specialise in all sorts of hack-age tours! So what'll it be? A few days in a scream park? Or would you like me to book you into a nice, quiet dead and breakfast? Or perhaps you'd like to go treasure haunting? Like my friend Red. He wants to steal a priceless black pearl in a tasteless tidbit I call Dead Wait..." Dead Wait was directed by Tobe Hooper and written by Gilbert Adler. Voodoo capers. You didn't think you were going to get through a season of Tales from the Crypt without any voodoo capers did you? The setting is a tropical island somewhere or other and con artist Red Buckley (James Remar) worms his way into the circle of plantation owner Emil Duval (John Rhys-Davies). His aim? To steal a precious black pearl located on the estate. Matters are complicated though by the presence of Duvall's wife Katrine (Vanity) and his spiritual guide Peligre (Whoopi Goldberg). Can he trust either and are they out to stop him or protect him? Meanwhile, the island is in the midst of revolution and rebel soldiers are about to overrun the area. Red will have to move fast if he wants that priceless pearl. Not really my favourite episode here but the plot becomes more interesting if you stick with it and James Remar (best known now for playing Michael C Hall's ghostly imagined dad in Dexter) is great as Red. Nice to see John Rhys-Davies too although I have no idea who Vanity is and couldn't summon the energy to look at Wikipedia. Whoopi Goldberg isn't too annoying here although her wraparound end appearance with the Crypt Keeper on a David Letterman style chat show feels a bit gratuitous. Dead Wait is an ok episode on the whole and becomes more Tales from the Cryptian as it moves towards the last scene.

                          "Oh, hello kiddies. You caught me in the middle of my homework. Your old pal the Crypt Keeper's a real believer in continuing dead-ucation. Which brings us to tonight's murderous morsel. It's a juicy little tale about a real blood sucker who never learned to go for the jugular. I call this plasma play The Reluctant Vampire..." The Reluctant Vampire was directed by Elliot Silverstein and written by Terry Black. More of a comedy episode than a horror one but nicely played by the cast and not bad at all. Donald Longtooth (Malcolm McDowell) is a considerate vampire who is far too kind to satiate his needs in the traditional way and so works as a security guard at a blood bank. But his boss Mr Crosswhite (George Wendt) soon to begins to notice the blood stocks are a bit on the light side and threatens to make some forced redundancies. Donald is worried by this and takes it upon himself to replenish the stocks by taking blood from those who deserve some vampiric justice. Killers, rapists etc. Mr Crosswhite is becoming increasingly suspicious of Donald though and a quirky vampire hunter named Rupert Van Helsing (Michael Berryman) is closing in too. Not exactly scary but The Reluctant Vampire has fun with the synthetic vampire premise and McDowell is good value as the long suffering Donald (he can't even talk to his co-employee Sandra Dickinson without having to hide his fangs). Always great to see George Wendt (aka Norm from Cheers) in anything and Michael Berryman of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and The Hills Have Eyes fame seems to be having a lot of fun as the eccentric vampire hunter. Not really a classic episode but an enjoyable one as far as it goes.

                          "Greetings, art lovers. Vincent Van Ghoul here, with another morbid masterpiece sure to paint you to a coroner. Tonight's tale concerns a painter who's tired of people giving his work the brush. I call this pestilent portrait of the artist as a young mangler, Easel Kill Ya..." Easel Kill Ya was directed by John Harrison and written by Larry Wilson. Jack Craig (Tim Roth) is a struggling painter who hasn't sold anything in yonks. Jack is troubled by dark thoughts (lest we forget this is Tales from the Crypt not Bargain Hunt) and one night when a neighbour dies in an accident he takes some photographs (as you do) and paints some abstract art. Hey, he could have got a job on Night Gallery daubing those paintings that Rod Serling used to unveil. Jack's new line in grisly art attracts the attention of a morbid art collector named Malcolm Mayflower (William Atherton) who offers to buy the painting for twenty thousand dollars. There is plenty more where that came from so Jack needs to get painting pronto. The only problem is that his inspiration now seems to come from dead people. Tales from the Crypt is a really fun tongue-in-cheek show generally and this episode seems to take itself a bit too seriously and lacks that sense of comic mischief you get with the more memorable stories. The coda is not exactly unpredictable and the story always feels derivative and too familiar from other things, half remembered or otherwise. Roth is decent of course but the best thing about this episode is William Atherton as the smug Mayflower. Atherton is great at playing obnoxious self-important characters who are far too full of themselves (Ghostbusters, Die Hard) and is excellent here.

                          "Ah, fond felicitations fiends and welcome to the Crypt. Tonight's sorted saga is about a couple of kids with time to kill. See, they're just dying to get into the horror movie business. And if they're lucky, that's exactly what'll happen to 'em. Lights! Camera! Action!" Undertaking Palor was directed by Michael Thau and written by Ron Finley. This is a fun episode. A bunch of Monster Squad type kids (though their dialogue is distinctly un-PG) are making a horror film with a video camera and for a dare break into the funeral home at night looking for something more authentic to film. However, when the undertaker (John Glover) unexpectedly arrives back they become trapped in the embalming room and have to hide. They secretly observe the undertaker and soon realise that a big conspiracy is afoot in the town. The undertaker is in cahoots with the local pharmacist (Graham Jarvis) to bump off local citizens so they can make money from the funeral costs! Can our plucky kids save the day and give this crooked character his comeuppance? Goonies meets Tales from the Crypt is an apt description for this inventive and enjoyably macabre entry in series three and you even get Jonathan Ke Quan ("Short Round" from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) as one of the kids. The director makes good use of the boys' video camera for some POV shots and the funeral home setting is used to good effect with some decent tension as they all have to hide and conceal their presence. Most of all though it's John Glover as the diabolical undertaker who really makes this episode a lot of fun and darkly amusing. Glover listens to opera and munches on pizza as he goes about his grisly duties in most unorthodox fashion and makes a great villain.

                          "Ah, there you are. You're just in time. I'm trying a few recipes from my new Betty Croaker's cook book. I hope you like shish kabob. Damn! It isn't ready yet! Bob's still moving! Tonight's foul feast will begin with mashed potatoes, then onto some shrieking duck and finished with a nice kill-basa. I call this tasty tidbit, Mournin' Mess..." Mournin' Mess was written and directed by Manny Coto. Another good episode. You may remember that this story was adapted before in the British compendium film Vault of Horror as Midnight Mess where Daniel Massey had a very unfortunate visit to a weird restaurant and Randall and Hopkirk star Mike Pratt had one of the most seventies neck decorations ever created. Have no fear of repetition though if you are an Amicus fan because this version is very different and more faithful to the comic. Dale Sweeney (Steven Weber) is a crooked reporter and all round rake who is a bit down of his luck. He soon becomes drawn into a couple of big stories though and may wish he hadn't in the end. Homeless people are being murdered and a wealthy organisation named the Grateful Homeless Outcasts and Unwanteds Layaway Society (just think about that name) has popped up, offering a dignified and proper burial for deceased homeless people who had no one to arrange a service for them. Sweeney investigates these twin stories and begins to unearth a very big secret. This is well directed with a pulpy feel and an underlying sense of unease and the final reveal is very Tales from the Crypt. The distinctive looking Vincent Schiavelli is great in his scenes as a homeless man who tips Sweeney off about the case and Rita Wilson is well cast too as Jess Gilchrist, the main PR honcho for the mysterious charitable organisation. The last scene is rather scary I think.

                          "Sometimes life can be such a grind, know what I mean? That's why I like to get out every now and then and swing a little. Tonight's tale concerns a young woman who is about to do a little swinging of her own. She wants to prove that a good man is hard to find, but easy to get rid of. I think you'll like this little chopping spree I call Split Second..." Split Second was directed by Russell Mulcahy and written by Richard Christian Matheson. It's lumberback country up in the woods somewhere and ex-hooker waitress Liz Kelly-Dixon (Michelle Johnson) is having a rough time of it working in a bar as the men are rude, boisterous and a bit too free with their hands once they've had a drink. Her knight in shining armour comes in the unlikely form of the imposing Steve Dixon (the late great character heavy Brion James), who defends her honour in the bar and tells the other men to keep their grubby mitts and equally grubby comments to themselves. Liz is rather touched by someone standing up for her and the pair are soon married. Steve is the boss of a logging camp and they live up in the forest close to his work. The only problem is that the violent Steve is consumed by pathological jealousy and anger if Liz so much as looks at anyone else and she's already bored of married life. When handsome young lumberjack Ted (Billy Wirth) turns up at the camp looking for work and the promiscuous Liz takes a shine to him it can only mean big trouble is not too far away. This is a pretty good episode with an enjoyably over the top blood drenched ending that is pure EC horror comics and good direction by Russell (Highlander) Mulcahy with a few noir touches. It's definitely one of the sleazier episodes too with nudity, sex scenes and a lot of sexy Michelle Johnson as Liz-Kelly Dixon. Brion James is on good form here and you can see him practically boiling with anger each time he suspects his wife is up to something.

                          "So, what'll it be stranger? Can I interest you in a my-die? Or would you prefer a rum and choke? Or maybe you'd like something a little stronger? I've got just the thing. It's a nasty little snootful about a news hound named Charlie, who needs a murder story and a drink, but not necessarily in that order. I call this little eye opener, Deadline...." Deadline was directed by Walter Hill and written by Mae Woods. This is one of those Tales from the Crypt episodes that you can never quite remember even after watching it and is more of a crime thriller than a horror story. It revolves around a drunken reporter named Charlie McKenzie (Richard Jordan) who dreams to getting his old status back - that of a hotshot journalist for a big newspaper working on big stories. His boss (Richard Herd) tells him that only murder will do though so find a murder to report and he's back in business. Meanwhile, Charlie decides to clean his act up after meeting mystery woman Vicki (Marg Helgenberger). This is a well acted and interesting episode but maybe not the most memorable or fun entry in what is generally otherwise a very strong year for the series. The late Richard Jordan makes a for an excellent lead and Walter Hill gives everything a good noir look (with a jazzy music score) but it's just that the story is a trifle predictable and never gives you that traditional anthology show payoff/twist and the payoff or twist is a big part of the fun with these shows.

                          "Hello, Golfing creeps, Oh don't mind him. That's just my caddie, Juan. He got me teed off while I was playing around, so I shot a hole in Juan. Which brings to mind the young woman in tonight's tale. She's also playing around, except that her game isn't golf, it's love. I call this disgusting drama, Spoiled...." Spoiled was directed by Andy Wolk and written by Connie Johnson. This is a fairly broad comedy episode that isn't terrible by any means but does pall somewhat compared to some of the other stories here. Janet (Faye Grant) is a bored housewife frustrated by the fact that her medical scientist husband Leon (Alan Rachins) is a workaholic who seems more interested in his research than her. When her television goes on the wonk she calls out for a repair man and the hunky (or so he thinks) swaggering Abel (Anthony LaPaglia) turns up. Janet begins an extramarital affair with Abel but can they keep it a secret from Leon? There are some good actors here but I was never that gripped by this story - which plays like one of those slightly tiresome comedy episodes of Tale from the Darkside. It has a sort of Death Becomes Her atmosphere and uses a fake soap opera for comic effect a bit too much for my tastes. The twist is fairly predictable too. You do wonder why Leon would even be upset that his wife is having an affair seeing as he pays her no attention whatsoever in the establishing portion of the story. Spoiled is watchable but far from the best episode here.

                          "Firing squad, present arms! Hello creeps. I was just about fire off tonight's deadtime story. It's about young soldier who doesn't want to be in the army anymore. I can't imagine why not. I mean, war's a great equal opportunity destroyer. Now, where was I? Oh yes. Ready, Maim, Fire! I call tonight's tale, Yellow..." Yellow was directed by Robert Zemeckis and written by Gilbert Adler. This story (which is longer than the other episodes here) is something of a departure for Tales from the Crypt and a strong closer for series three. Think sixties Twilight Zone when they suddenly slipped An Occurrence At Owl Creek into one later series. Yellow was originally produced for the proposed (and aborted) Crypt spin-off series Two-Fisted Tales but found a home with Tales from the Crypt in the end and that would explain the difference in style and tone. Yellow has no horror or supernatural elements and is played completely straight. It's a superior piece of television that looks like a feature film and is beautifully directed by Zemeckis. The year is 1918 and the first World War wearily drags on. Somewhere in France, Lieutenant Martin Kalthrob (Eric Douglas) is accused of cowardice. The general in charge may be forced to make an example of him by way of firing squad but just happens to be his own father - General Kalthrob (Kirk Douglas). The usually tough, demanding and by the rules General Kalthrob surely wouldn't have the heart to execute his own son would he? This is a surprisingly moving meditation on the madness of war and real life father and son Kirk and Eric Douglas are both excellent - the elder Douglas picking up an Emmy nomination for his work here. Although not a traditional horror episode, Zemeckis conveys the battlefield carnage in unflinching detail and the last ten minutes become very tense and gripping. Lance Henriksen is good as the no nonsense Sergeant Ripper and look out for Dan Aykroyd as the more humane Captain Milligan. A great sense of atmosphere in this episode.

                          At the time of writing you can buy the complete third season of Tales from the Crypt on Region 1 for about £20 new and less than half of that for a used copy. There are a smattering of extras that (frustratingly) don't amount to an awful lot - despite being quite interesting. A Tall Tales Panel is a talking heads Comic Con retrospective but only runs for about ten minutes while A Tales from the Crypt Reunion is a panel discussion but again is disappointingly short at half an hour. It's a shame really that you don't get a more varied and lengthy menu of extras. The only other extra is the throwaway Crypt Jam, a music video cut from clips of the series. Rather pointless. The actual episodes themselves though are for the most part still a lot of fun and the show is very addictive. Certainly recommended for anyone who loves exploring the old anthology shows but has never got around to this. Best of all the atmospheric and breezy title sequence (camera pans through the grounds of a mist shrouded fog gloomed lightning crackled old house before descending the spiral staircase to the Crypt keeper) is finally present and correct here after being annoyingly absent on the first two Tales from the Crypt DVD releases.

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                            Bigmouth strikes again etc

                            "I stumble into my first television interview, which is for breakfast TV. I am rolled out to face an icy grilling from Henry Kelly, a little, pinched Irish madam who has no time for me and cuts me off mid-sentence with neither a thank you or a good luck as he minces frostily into his next major superstardom moment." Who would have thought that Morrissey would ever make good on his occasional threat to write an autobiography? Published as part of the Penguin Classic series (a few people got their knickers in a twist, presumably unaware that it was a joke on Morrissey's part, probably), "Autobiography" reads somewhat like Alan Bennett from the diaries section of Writing Home ghostwritten by a pop music obsessed Quentin Crisp and charts the life of the singer from childhood to the present day over the course of 457 pages. The biggest surprise is that the early section of the book, detailing Morrissey's childhood and teenage years, is the most absorbing. "Birds abstain from song in post-war industrial Manchester, where the 1960s will not swing, and where the locals are the opposite of worldly." I usually find the early chapters (Morrissey, being Morrissey, eschews chapters and his book unfurls in one long undisciplined ramble) of biographies and autobiographies tedious but Morrissey's depiction of his large Irish family (only he and his sister are born in England) is often poignant and beautifully captures a sense of time and place. Who could not enjoy too Morrissey's trawl through his favourite childhood television programmes ("James Darren wears the same sweater in every episode of The Time Tunnel, and it is he I shall be when bedtime casts out all light...") and his dissection of masculinity through the unlikely prism of Lost in Space?

                            A few scores are settled in the book, not least the threadbare working-class Manchester schools Morrissey was subjected to in the seventies where it always seemed to be cold and the teachers were certifiable. One would pick several boys at random during assembly and then belt them vigorously in the privacy of a back room. Naturally, looking back, this is all alarmingly sexual and sinister, but in those days nothing was questioned, however sadistic, creepy and nutty a particular teacher was. Morrissey whirls through the early years in "Victorian knife-plunging Manchester" and beyond with impressive detail, far too many memories to mention. The dark cloud of the Moors Murders. Huddling outside hotels in the drizzle trying to catch the autographs of pop stars he worshipped like Marc Bolan and David Bowie. Meeting James Maker and Linder Sterling. An amusing flourish when Morrissey and a friend take a long walk and end up on the set of Coronation Street where they are taken for extras and the actor playing Stan Ogden is a right miserable git. Morrissey finds that girls like him but the feeling is not mutual. "Girls remained mysteriously attracted to me and I had no idea why. Nothing electrifying took place and I turned a thousand corners without caring. Far more exciting were the array of stylish racing bikes that my father would bring home." A Welsh girl is so irked by Morrissey ignoring her she walks up and punches him in the face. In the dark days before Johnny Marr and the formation of The Smiths, Morrissey is sinking fast. He has no bank account and seven pounds to his name. The job centre offer a position cleaning canal banks. "You are asking me to clean canal banks. As an occupation?"

                            Morrissey was incapable of living in the real world and only wanted to be a singer like the pop stars he adored through vinyl and the cathode ray. The main target audience for this book might be slightly disappointed then by the lack of heft he devotes to his time with The Smiths and although one leaves the book with the impression that he's indifferent to Marr now he is at least generous in appraising the talents of his former songwriting partner. "I am shaken when I hear Johnny play guitar. He is quite obviously gifted and almost unnaturally multitalented. Since he shows exact perspective on all things, I can't help but wonder: What is he doing here with me? Why has Johnny not sprayed his mark - elsewhere, with others less scarred and less complicated than I am?" There is an interesting section where he recalls touring the United States and staying in a cockroach infested New York hotel. The other Smiths are noticeable by their absence. The book could have done with more of this. Morrissey spends far too much time here and elsewhere bemoaning the chart placings of albums and singles. Record label Rough Trade (a ramshackle affair according to the famous author) take a good kicking from Morrissey for never being able to keep up with demand. He believes their inability to manufacture enough cassettes (or something) cost them number ones. It's fun though when Morrissey becomes a celebrity of sorts. "My social status leaps after decades of disqualification on grounds of radiation. The doorbell rings and there stands Vanessa Redgrave. 'Marcie,' she begins, and then goes on about social injustice in Namibia, and how we must all build a raft by late afternoon -- preferably out of coconut matting." He moves to London and as he hardly ever answers his front door celebrities like Sandie Shaw take to climbing through his back window when they want to see him. Surprisingly, Morrissey seems to dislike Sandie Shaw, possibly for the high crime of serving him a piece of cold toast.

                            While petulant at times it is funny when Morrissey bares his claws. "Her naked body prob­ably kills off mar­ine plank­ton in the North Sea," he says of Julie Burchill and Siouxsie is described as a "physical blancmange" and compared to Myra Hindley. Morrissey clearly despised Tony Wilson ("He assumed the cocogniscenti cloak and found himself blessed with the need to assess, judge and grade - like a war general plastered with rows of ribbons but who had never actually seen battle...") and has little time for the late John Peel. Peel is sometimes credited as a big factor in bringing exposure to The Smiths but Morrissey claims that Peel never even turned up for their BBC sessions and it was Peel's producer who liked them and did all the work. Morrissey is at his most acid drenched when memories of the opening of the Hacienda Club are dredged. "Stuffed coaches from Blackburn and Bolton would pull up outside, unloading disfigured disco dancers and goblin-esque pork-pie chubbos." When The Smiths implode for reasons that always remain vague, Morrissey is plunged into despair and depression. He remembers a brief reconciliation with Johnny Marr and a drive they take out to Saddleworth Moor. "Do you really want to know why The Smiths split?" says Marr and that's it. We never learn what Marr said, if he said anything at all. Morrissey is bemused and delighted by his early nineties rebirth, a solo tour of the United States provoking mass hysteria. Morrissey writes about this period in some detail although there is - even from these giddy heights - a sadness that he doesn't seem to be appreciated half as much in his own country. Morrissey's battles with the NME feature too of course. The singer implores us to take magazines and newspapers with a tanker truck of salt. He's lost count of how many times he's given an interview and then been completely misquoted or had the article turn into a maddening work of speculative fiction.

                            If I had one complaint about Autobiography (apart from the American spelling, "center" ect, sigh, can't we have a British version?) it would be that Morrissey spends far too much time on the late nineties court case that saw Smiths drummer Mike Joyce successfully sue Morrissey and Marr for 25% of retrospective earnings. Morrissey would clearly love to strangle Joyce and the judge too (who Morrissey describes as looking like "untouched sandwiches") and goes on and on and on and on about the case. Fifty pages or so. Of course, Joyce wasn't nearly as essential as Morrissey and Marr to The Smiths but maybe they should have just made sure everyone got the same amount of money at the time. It's hard to feel sorry for Morrissey having to cough up a couple of million to Joyce when the next portion of the book has him moving to Los Angeles and living next door to Johnny Depp and we later have El Mozzo spending an entire year camped in a swanky Rome hotel. Unlike Joyce, Morrissey can always do a tour and earn good money. He's not exactly someone who has to brace himself and sit in a comfy chair with strong tea before he opens the gas bill. It's quite a coy autobiography but then, as Morrissey would insist, there isn't an awful lot to reveal in that area. He does though, to my surprise at any rate, write about briefly living with the photographer Jake Walters for a time in the 1990s, thus confirming what everyone had always suspected. "For the first time in my life the eternal I becomes we."

                            Apart from a period in Dublin (which he writes about with enthusiasm) and a later love for Rome and Istanbul, Morrissey seems to be either in London or Los Angeles and the sections where he's in Blighty were much more entertaining for this reader. The Morrissey of Los Angeles is a lot duller, lauding identikit sunny days and writing of meetings with Elaine Stritch, Nancy Sinatra and the geriatric New York Dolls (they feature in recurring fashion although Morrissey's strange obsession with them remains, well, strange). Mozzer even visits the set of Friends for heaven's sake although manages to redeem himself when they ask him to make a cameo as a singer with a "depressing" voice. "Within seconds of the proposal, I wind down the fire-escape like a serpent, and it's goodbye to Hollywood yet again." Morrissey back home is far more entertaining, especially when attempting to make contact with fascinating domestic figures like Charles Hawtrey, Dirk Bogarde and Peter Wyngarde (that's Jason King to you and me). He also writes movingly of his friendship with Kirsty MacColl and how, in a bitter twist of fate, it was he who suggested Mexico when she telephoned him looking for a good place to take her two boys on holiday. The final part of the book is an extended victory lap, Morrissey breathlessly taking in too many countries and cities to remember as he takes to the stage to rapturous receptions, noting that audiences are getting younger and younger while he unfairly gets older and older. Smiths who? is the message. He's still here and lingering reunion whispers are of no consequence as he doesn't need the past, now happily a very distant place.

                            Autobiography could possibly have done with one more edit and an index would have been nice. I'd have liked more about Morrissey's father and there are some frustrating omissions. Nothing on what he thought of Johnny Rogan's The Severed Alliance or why he mysteriously left the Outsiders tour with David Bowie. I'd have loved a few passages on Viv Nicholson. Generally though this is a funny, often moving and very entertaining book. There are a smattering of black and white photographs in the memoir, all nothing to write home about aside from the very rare family ones in the early parts. His mother and relatives, Morrissey and his sister together as children etc. Autobiography is a fascinating read at its best and was just about worth the wait.

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                              01.09.2013 19:36
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                              A great film book

                              The Making of The Living Daylights was written by Charles Helfenstein and published in 2012. This is a fantastic gift for any Classic Bond fan who would happily contribute to a Kickstarter raising funds to blast Daniel Craig, Barbara Broccoli and Sam Mendes into the far reaches of space billions of light years away from Pinewood Studios. Helfenstein was previously responsible for a wonderful book about the making of On Her Majesty's Secret Service and turns his attention here to another pivotal crossroads in the world of, er, Bondage - the 25th anniversary film and the first since 1971 that would not feature Roger Moore. For nearly two decades Moore had been suavely karate chopping villains and venturing forth quips while wearing an assortment of beige jackets, gold buttoned blazers, cream flares and safari suits. As mocked as he still is in retrospectives when a new "Bond" film comes out now, usually by idiot critics with double barrelled names who have probably never even watched half of the James Bond films, Moore did something that was once considered to be impossible. He proved that an actor other than Sean Connery could make the role his own and be popular, ensuring the series could and would continue with different actors. Who else but Roger Moore could keep his head above water in a film like Moonraker? The Living Daylights had a new mission - to prove that James Bond would be viable into the nineties and beyond. But first they needed a story and a James Bond and the new Bond actor they eventually landed would necessitate a major change of direction and tone for the venerable franchise.

                              This is an exhaustive examination of The Living Daylights through screenplays, casting, production, release, and even gives the reader a tantalising look at what they had planned for the aborted third Timothy Dalton Bond, a film that was nixed by tiresome studio litigation and never went into production. Helfenstein's attention to detail is a trifle pedantic at times (I don't think I really desperately needed to know the history of the parrot that features in the Blayden safe house sequence) but the book is packed with details and trivia and any cinephiles interested in the production of films and the James Bond franchise should enjoy reading this a lot. Did you know for example that the original script treatment for what became The Living Daylights featured Bond as a young officer in the Royal Navy? Michael G Wilson was the main driver of this angle, a reboot (I hate that word) that would show us how Bond met M, Q and Moneypenny for the first time. Wilson's bold concept was ultimately rejected but at least one potential Bond was screentested with a view to this brief. British actor Mark Greenstreet was in his mid-twenties and fresh off a successful television mini-series called Brat Farrar. When Greenstreet was doing his Bond audition at Pinewood he took a break to use the toilet and bumped straight into Michael Biehn in his Corporal Hicks colonial space marine outfit. James Cameron was shooting Aliens literally next door.

                              If you do have Helfenstein's book about On Her Majesty's Secret Service you'll be happy to learn that The Making of The Living Daylights is equally crammed with never before seen stills, behind the scenes photographs, publicity shots, memorabilia, deleted scenes and storyboards (where Bond is, perhaps not surprisingly, drawn to look rather like Roger Moore). It has often been suggested that The Living Daylights was originally written for Roger Moore and then changed when it became apparent that the actor (who was pushing 60 at the time) would not be returning again. Helfenstein dismisses this assumption and suggests that if anything the film was developed in a generic way as the identity of the actor who would play Bond was very up in the air for periods of pre-production. Helfenstein's thoroughness provokes a fascinating look too at the Ian Fleming short story from which the title and parts of the story for The Living Daylights were plucked. Published posthumously in 1966 in a short story compendium, The Living Daylights presented a murky look at the shadowy world of "sniper's alley" between East and West Berlin. In the story Bond is on stakeout in a safe house waiting to eliminate a KGB assassin and therefore save the life of a defecting British agent. Helfenstein details the (as usual) incredibly comprehensive research that Fleming threw himself into, visiting locations in Berlin, learning about rifles etc. Fleming's Bond had a distaste for killing (something the filmmakers ignore now) and the agent ruminates on the sometimes macabre nature of his ruthless profession. Dalton's Bond managed to capture some of this.

                              Naturally the casting of the new James Bond is perhaps the most intriguing subplot of the story of The Living Daylights and this particular endevour proved to have as many twists and turns as the final screenplay with its double dealing Cold War themes. The producers thought they had solved the Bond casting riddle fairly on when Pierce Brosnan officially signed on the dotted line to play 007 in The Living Daylights. Cubby Broccoli was always very high on Timothy Dalton, a serious looking and darkly handsome classically trained stage actor who was best known for playing Prince Barin in campy cult classic Flash Gordon. Dalton had turned down the chance to replace Sean Connery in the late sixties because he felt he was far too young but Broccoli kept in touch with the actor and had informal meetings with him in the seventies when Roger Moore would play extra coy with contract negotiations. But when the 25th anniversary film loomed and Roger Moore had finally departed, Dalton already had existing theatrical commitments in the West End so Pierce Brosnan (who Cubby Broccoli had first noticed in 1981 when Brosnan visited his wife Cassandra Harris on the set of For Your Eyes only) had a clear run. Brosnan had begun his 007 costume fittings when fate intervened in cruel fashion. His television show Remington Steele - a piece of eighties fluff that had Brosnan as a suave pseudo private eye - was ailing in the ratings and on the way out but the studio decided to cash in on the publicity surrounding Brosnan and James Bond and optioned a new series just as Brosnan's contract was about to expire. Brosnan was furious and his Bond dream was (until 1994 anyway) shattered.

                              Helfenstein's passages on the search to fill Bond's boots in time for the start of shooting are completely fascinating for those who love what ifs? and alternative casting that never happened. Why wasn't fan favourite Lewis (Bodie) Collins a serious contender? Did the elusive Australian model Finlay Light (who claimed to be close to bagging the part) actually exist? How close did two other Australians - Antony Hamilton and Andrew Clarke - come to being cast? Was Hollywood star Mel Gibson (who at this point in his life had yet to go completely insane) really a contender and would he have done it? Which future star of the television series Cold Feet did they test to prompt Dalton into a decision? Who else was considered? Read the book for details. By the way, Helfenstein makes a slight error when he names Trevor (Shoestring) Eve as one of Eon's official chosen candidates. Eve has denied this was the case and said he never screentested and was merely a friend of the Broccolis. With Brosnan and Dalton apparently out they turned to New Zealand actor Sam Neil, then something of a rising star after Reilly Ace of Spies and The Omen III. Neil was screentested and everyone seemed happy to use him - all that is except for the one person who really mattered. Cubby Broccoli was never sold on Sam Neill and when Timothy Dalton unexpectedly became available again the Bond producer finally managed to sign the man he'd been after for nearly two decades.

                              Dalton flew into London on September the 29th 1986 to begin work on The Living Daylights. Only the previous day he had finished his stint on a Brooke Shields film called Brenda Starr in Florida (he needn't have bothered as Brenda Starr sat on the shelf for two years and bombed when it was released) and with no rehearsal time was now immediately plunged into the biggest role of his career. Although Dalton was something of a reluctant Bond (the actor was a very private person who didn't seem that interested in fame or money) he impressed everyone with his dedication once ensconced in the role. Dalton read all the Fleming novels in preparation and was easily the most intelligent of the men who have played Bond. Dalton would give interviews where he talked about things like Harold Pinter and "accidie" - Fleming's definition of boredom and the deadliest of all sins for James Bond. Ever hear Daniel Craig or George Lazenby waxing lyrical about Pinter's distilled essence of naturalism and how art is not reality but the appearance of whatever reality is appropriate? No. In an age before CGI, Dalton also threw himself into the stuntwork, giving his stunt handlers kittens throughout his tenure. That jeep careening down the Rock of Gibraltar? That's Dalton strapped to the top.

                              More than anything it was Dalton's intensity that impressed the crew after years of jovial Roger Moore extravaganzas. "You really believed he was going to kill him," says director of photography Alec Mills on a scene where Dalton's Bond has to tangle with a villain. Dalton's Byronic good looks and truculent charm in The Living Daylights briefly seemed set to position him as the definitive screen James Bond but for some reason he never really caught on with audiences, perhaps a victim of the lacklustre penny pinching MGM marketing campaigns and summer release dates that were a part of Bond in those days. Look at how Sony endlessly rammed Skyfall down our throats last year in their gargantuan marketing blitz. Dalton never got that fair wind. Dalton's legacy is assessed and there is a chapter on his death knell Licence To Kill. The book is a treasure trove of artwork, stills and imagery and the film is I think a great choice for the author to give this extensive treatment to. Why? In many ways the Dalton era was really the last of Bond. The Living Daylights was the last film that Cubby Broccoli produced hands-on before his age and failing health caught up with him. Dalton's era also marked the last contributions of the great composer John Barry, screenwriter Richard Maibaum, titles designer Maurice Binder, actor Robert Brown as M, and in-house director John Glen to the series. The Living Daylights was also notably the last Cold War James Bond film produced.

                              On the subject of John Glen, I wouldn't have minded more on the relationship between him and Dalton. Did they get on? What did Dalton really think of Glen's directing skills? This book is impressively dense at nearly 300 pages long and will keep you going for a few days and I loved that the author included details about the proposed third Dalton film that would would have arrived circa 1992 had not studio wrangles kyboshed the whole thing and left Dalton as the two Bond actor that no one remembers. The script treatment by Michael G Wilson and Alfonse Ruggiero was a far out gambit set in the Far East with some notable sci-fi trappings. Would it have been the film that finally established Dalton as Bond in the eyes of the public? We'll never know. This is an amazing book and well worth buying but be warned it's still fairly expensive and will cost you about £30 at the time of writing. If you are a fan of the Classic James Bond films and ever see a better deal than that I wouldn't hesitate to get hold of a copy.

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                                25.08.2013 19:25
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                                Well written WW2 volume

                                The Second World War was written by Antony Beevor and published in 2012. There are probably too many of these single volume World War 2 histories by now but if you have read (in particular) Stalingrad and Berlin by this author you'll possibly feel obliged to buy this at some point and shouldn't be too disappointed. Beevor begins the book with the extraordinary story of a soldier captured by the Americans during the invasion of Normandy. The Americans believed him to be Japanese but he was actually a Korean named Yang Kyoungjong who in 1938 had been forced to fight for the Japanese Kwantung Army in Manchuria. He was then captured by the Red Army during the battle of Khalkhin Gol in 1939 and forced to fight for the Soviet Union after spending time in a labour camp. In 1943, Kyoungjong was captured by the Germans during the Battle of Kharkov in the Ukraine and ended up in the Atlantic Wall near "Utah Beach" as a German conscript where his incredible war finally came to an end with D-Day. The amazing story of Yang Kyoungjong highlights a recurring and naturally disturbing theme of the book. "In a war which killed over sixty million people and had stretched around the globe, this reluctant veteran of the Japanese, Soviet and German armies had been comparatively fortunate. Yet Yang remains perhaps the most striking illustration of the helplessness of most ordinary mortals in the face of what appeared to be overwhelming historical forces." Despite being the author of several well received books about the Second World War, Beevor confesses that his own knowledge of the conflict was far from complete and that researching and writing this helped him to plug some of the gaps. He wanted to see how all the parts of the "jigsaw" slotted together, or at least try. To Beevor, the war was the "greatest man-made disaster in history" and something that we are still trying to understand.

                                Beevor writes interestingly about how there are different perceptions of when the war started. For the Americans it was after the rude awakening of Pearl Harbour and for us and France it was much earlier with the invasion of Poland. Beevor looks to the east though with what he believes to be a crucial but often overlooked incident - the Battle of Khalkhin Gol. This battle on the Mongolian frontier coincided with the outbreak of war in Europe and so received scant attention in the west but it had far reaching consequences. There had been several years of jockeying for position in the Soviet Far East after the Japanese occupation of Manchuria in 1931 with Soviet and Japanese soldiers involved in numerous border skirmishes. The Japanese military had long considered a "Strike North" policy that would involve seizing parts of Siberia but when the the vaunted Kwantung Army (which often acted in violation or independence of Tokyo) finally moved against the Soviets on the border in 1939 they were soundly beaten thanks in no small part to the solid leadership of Georgy Zhukov (who would go on to become the most trusted and decorated of Stalin's generals in the war against Germany). The battle had profound strategic consequences for Japan never made a move against the Soviet Union again and decided on a "Strike South" policy, turning its attention to the resource rich and haphazardly defended Far East colonies of the Europeans. Even when the Soviet Union appeared to be on the brink of defeat under the German onslaught, the Japanese had no further interest in engaging the Red Army.

                                A salient theme of the book is this strange lack of co-operation between Japan and Germany despite the fact they were supposed to be allies. The two Axis powers acted independently of each other and in a sense got Stalin off the hook. It was only because of Japan's disinterest after Khalkhin Gol that Stalin was able to use his Far East divisions to help save Moscow and Stalingrad. If Japan had attacked the Soviet Union from the east when Stalin's forces were in their darkest hours fighting the Germans then it's hard to see how the Red Army could have regained its equilibrium. Beevor believes the conflict between China and Japan is fundamental to World War 2 and something that hasn't been written about nearly enough in Europe and the United States. "Historians have usually overlooked the Sino-Japanese War from 1937 to 1945, and the way that it merged into the world war. Some Asian historians, on the other hand, argue that the Second World War began in 1931 with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. Anti-western feeling grew in Japan with the effects of the Wall Street Crash and the worldwide depression. And an increasingly nationalistic officer class viewed Manchuria and China in a similar way to the Nazis' designs on the Soviet Union. The Sino Japanese conflict has long been like a missing section in the jigsaw of the Second World War. Having begun well before the outbreak of fighting in Europe, the conflict in China has often been treated as a completely separate affair, even though it saw the largest deployment of Japanese ground forces in the Far East."

                                Beevor defends Chiang Kai-shek and argues that China was doing the best it could to resist Japan in what was an unbelievably difficult and grim situation. Twenty million Chinese people died during the war and the Japanese atrocities were bestial. I have read books where Chiang Kai-shek and Chinese military resistance to Japan are both dismissed as hopeless but Beevor doesn't believe this to be the case and suggests the Americans and British should have supported him more before the communists took over. There is a clear analogy drawn here between China and the Soviet Union in the way that they both held down vast numbers of enemy troops in their respective theatres and so were crucial to ultimate victory. Clearly, China can't claim to have played nearly as an important a role in the Japanese defeat in the way that the Soviet Union was clearly the main reason why Hitler lost the war, but Beevor makes it clear that he believes the west has often underestimated the role of China in World War 2 and that they should have received more historical credit than they did. Beevor also writes interestingly in the book about the "Winter War" of 1939/40 when the Soviet Union invaded Finland and - despite outnumbering the Fins in terms of soldiers, tanks and aircraft to a preposterous degree - was humiliated before the world. That the Red Army made such heavy weather of an invasion of humble Finland was an important factor in the German decision to invade the Soviet Union.

                                One of the obvious problems for anyone attempting a single volume history of the Second World War is that even if your book is nearly 900 pages long like this one you have to decide what to leave out and how long you should devote to any one area. You could easily write a book of this size about a single battle or incident in World War 2 so it's going to be impossible to please everyone. Beevor chooses to devote much of his narrative to the eastern front where Hitler's dreams of world domination were blunted in the frozen vastness of the Soviet Union and he is also more interested in grand strategy than too many eyewitness accounts (which is something that Max Hastings tended to focus on much more in his single volume history). There is a danger of repetition as Beevor has already covered the Soviet-German war in Stalingrad and Berlin but he does a decent job of not treading on his own toes too much. I find the eastern front morbidly fascinating so it wasn't a huge problem for me. Any British readers expecting to find extensive chapters on British endevours of the war like the Battle of Britain, North Africa etc are likely to be disappointed though. For example, William Slim, generally regarded to have been the best British general of the war and the man who outwitted the Japanese in the jungles of Burma, barely receives a mention.

                                As one would expect, the book is chilling and disturbing, some events and incidents so terrible they stagger belief. Beevor reveals that the Japanese military practiced cannibalism near the end of the war and some POWs were eaten. The Allied authorities knew of this but suppressed the details when the war ended for fear of upsetting relatives of lost soldiers. "Widespread practice of cannibalism by Japanese soldiers in the Asia-Pacific war was something more than merely random incidents perpetrated by individuals or small groups subject to extreme conditions. The testimonies indicate that cannibalism was a systematic and organized military strategy." Beevor writes an absorbing account of the the Wannsee Conference where the "Final Solution" is set in motion. It is truly terrifying to think that this low-key meeting in a Berlin surburb was the genesis of the Holocaust. The use of diaries and letters also brings home the horror of war on the front lines. "One walks on corpses, sits down to rest on corpses," writes a Russian soldier during the battle of Stalingrad. "One has one's meals on corpses. For about 10 kilometres there are two corpses of Fritzes on each square metre." Perhaps more use of personal sources like this might have been a better approach but Beevor is more interested in bringing the broader conflict into focus and emphasising how it was an agglomeration of different conflicts.

                                The author also tries to dismiss romantic notions of the war and the perception that it was a "good" war. It could never be a good war because of the human cost but we should be eternally thankful that the world was not carved up between the Nazis and the Imperial Japanese Army. Beevor reminds us that ultimately the Allies let Stalin have eastern Europe to save the other half of the continent and also of the horrors of the strategic bombing campaign. More familiar material in the book is sometimes welcome in a strange way and there are some amusing vignettes in the midst of this carnage and horror. Montgomery and the hapless American general Mark Clark engaged in a Prima donna contest in Italy for example. Monty is handing out pictures of himself by now as if he's a film star. Clark ups the vanity stakes and issues stern instructions on what side people should photograph him from to get the best profile. Clark even ignored orders from Allied command and therefore completely buggered up a carefully planned operation to trap escaping German troops just so he would have the personal glory of entering Rome first. If Clark had been a Russian general I think Stalin would have had him executed or sent to the Gulag. If you want Beevor's view on all the personalities of the war and their abilities you'll get it again. He has no time for Monty, thinks Rommel was overrated, that the egomaniacal Douglas MacArthur was practically deranged, and so on. The general perception of the war is that the Germans had the most innovative generals but Beevor doesn't seem to share this view much, even people like Guderian eluding much praise.

                                There is far too much in a book of this scope to mention in a review but you'll get the broad canvas of the war even if some events seem to be skirted over much more than others. Beevor can barely be bothered with D-Day here but I suppose he did write a book about it once. I found the slant towards the east in the book interesting personally and found this a much better read than Max Hastings' stodgy All Hell Let Loose. If you are not yet weary of this overcrowded market and have admired some of Beevor's earlier books then this is certainly worth a look as far as recent World War 2 single volume histories go (Andrew Roberts' The Storm of War is not bad either if you want more of an unashamedly British perspective). The book has a number of stills and maps (probably not enough maps though) and runs to well over 800 pages. At the time of writing a hardback copy will cost you around £12.

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                                  18.08.2013 19:30
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                                  One for fans only

                                  Laurel & Hardy Volume 6 (Murder in the Air) gives you three short films featuring the famous duo - The Laurel and Hardy Murder Case, Berth Marks and The Private Life of Oliver the Eighth. This is one of the weaker Laurel & Hardy collections with two of the films rather laboured horror spoofs and the other an early sound caper that plays more like a silent film. The Laurel & Hardy Murder Case was directed by James Parrot in 1930. This is a three-reeler and a strange film that you want to enjoy much more than you do in the end. The premise is fairly simple. Laurel inherits a fortune and (with Hardy in tow) goes to claim it. "Three million dollars!" declares Stan. "Is that as much as a thousand?" However, to get the money they first have to spend the night in a spooky old house where ghosts and murderers seem to abound. Will they survive? The Laurel & Hardy Murder Case is a pastiche of chiller films of the era like The Bat Whispers and The Cat and the Canary and seems too dark and grotesque for its own good at times. The basic production values are a salient weakness (if you are going to do a horror pastiche you might as well make an effort and give it some semblance of style) and there is too a generally grim aura that doesn't really suit Laurel & Hardy here. The jokes revolve around cliched capers like mysterious clutching-hands in the dark and flying pillow cases (courtesy of a pesky bat) that take on the appearance of ghosts. A casual synopsis makes the film sound like it could be a lot of fun but the comic shenanigans are so mechanical and telegraphed, the pacing so sluggish, that The Laurel & Hardy Murder Case often feels tired and uninspired well before we've even got to the final reel.

                                  The deliberate pace may be there to mimic the atmosphere of the straight old-house horror thrillers of the day but the evocative mood, striking sets and photography of those old pictures is completely absent. This is an atypical Laurel & Hardy short that doesn't really work and is only worth the effort for the few bright spots it provides for curious completists. My favourite scene? The bit at the start when Hardy is rude to Laurel in his usual pompous fashion but then suddenly learns about Stan's inheritance and has to speedily re-ingratiate himself with his friend. I quite liked the nonsense with Stan trying to recite the months of the year too. A classic piece of Stanism. "Septober, Octember, No wonder..." Berth Marks was directed by Leo McCarey in 1929. This was only their second talkie (also released in a silent version too of course) and not very memorable. The duo play musicians trying to get from one engagement to another in a gaggle of nowhere towns. Most of this short consists of the pair trying to get undressed for bed and comfortable in their small train compartment. Laurel & Hardy would sometimes mine the comedy of frustration a bit too much for my tastes but the problem with this sequence is not so much that it becomes frustrating or goes on for too long but simply that the set-piece feels as if the timing and execution is somewhat off and not as smooth as it should be. It may possibly have been a consequence of the duo having to record different versions of this with the advent of the "talkie" and one can certainly see that the timing and interplay between the duo was much more natural in subsequent pictures.

                                  While Laurel & Hardy made the transition from silent films to talkies much more smoothly than most of their contemporaries (the reason for this is fairly simple - when Laurel & Hardy spoke onscreen for the first time their voices were perfectly and exactly how audiences imagined those characters would sound), Berth Marks sort of has one foot in either era and can't seem to decide what it wants to be. A large percentage of the film is entirely visual pantomime, to the point where one feels it would have worked better as a silent picture. Are there any funny or memorable scenes in Berth Marks? The only sequence that really springs to life (and unfortunately it comes early on and makes one anticipate a much better picture) is an amusing piece where Laurel & Hardy are utterly bemused by the rapid fire gibberish announcements of the train conductor - complete with bizarre town names that sound like they've been completely made up. Hardy's polite and hesitant attempts to question him provide some funny moments. If only the rest of the film had been this good. The Private Life of Oliver the Eighth (this is the British title and was a pun on the film The Private Life of Henry VIII) was directed by Lloyd French in 1934. Another spooky Laurel & Hardy caper that doesn't quite work as well as you want it to.

                                  In The Private Life of Oliver the Eighth, Stan and Ollie are struggling barbers who notice an advert placed in the newspaper by a rich widow who is after a husband. "It's probably some old crab with a face that would stop a clock!" snorts Hardy but he soon changes his tune when Stan delivers a rare moment of clarity and cunning in the "tell me that again" joke/routine. Stan explains perfectly why marrying the woman would be a great idea because they'd never have to work again and - of course - hopelessly mangles his homespun wisdom and becomes all mixed up when Hardy asks him to repeat it. The idea has been planted though and Hardy declares that he is the man for the job. He'll marry the widow and they'll all be rich. However, when they arrive the widow (played by Mae Busch) turns out to be completely bonkers with an equally bonkers butler (Jack Barty) who serves invisible meals to invisible guests. The butler reveals to Hardy that she has a fondness for marrying men named Oliver and then murdering them by slitting their throats. Yikes. Our heroes decide they should take turns sleeping so the other can keep watch in this nutty house. Will the curse of the widow strike before dawn?

                                  Like The Laurel & Hardy Murder Case, The Private Life of Oliver Eighth is a strange Laurel & Hardy entry and also rather banal at times. The fruitcake butler capers with Jack Barty grow tiresome fairly soon and you sort of end up wishing the whole film had been set in the barber's shop instead. The Private Life of Oliver Eighth also has exactly the same (unsatisfactory) ending as The Laurel & Hardy Murder Case. Laurel & Hardy Volume 6 is part of the great 21 disc Laurel & Hardy Collection (definitely worth buying but not always available at a reasonable price) and at the time of writing can also be picked up individually for a couple of pounds. The only extras are "Noche De Duendes" (a Spanish version of The Laurel and Hardy Murder Case) and the computer coloured viewing option, something which always feels like complete artistic vandalism to me. This is one of the more forgettable Laurel & Hardy compilations on the whole and probably not the best place for any collector to start.

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