Monthly Archives: September 2012

Screamers (1995)

Written by: Dan O’Bannon and Miguel Tejada-Flores
Directed by: Christian Duguay

A second Underrated Thing, here, following on from Blair Witch 2. Seeing as 1995 was 16 years ago, and this (“Third Revision”) version of the screenplay, credited to legendary sf screenwriter O’Bannon alone, from the days when the project was still called CLAW1

is dated “October 1981”, and, seeing further, that the Philip K. Dick short-story, Second Variety, upon which both of these are based, first appeared nearly sixty years ago in 1953, I don’t think we need worry too much about warning that COLOSSAL SPOILERS will ensue.

That said, I do think all these version of the story (particularly Dick’s original) are Very Good Things, and the film version we finally got with Screamers remains, despite the fact that its long, many-handed gestation period partially (though by no means completely) weakened the ending, my favourite of the billions2 of Dick screen adaptations. Well worth going and reading/watching any or all of these first, in other words.

Anyhoo. The plot involves a war between The UN and the Soviet Union (“Second Variety”) The UN and the New Ecomomic Group (CLAW), or The Alliance and the New Economic Block (Screamers), and the questions of who is human or who only appears as human3, encountered by Joe Hendriksson (the legendary Peter Weller — the characeter is named “Hendricks” in Second Variety and CLAW), as he embarks on a doomed peace mission.

The self-replicating, evolving CLAW/Screamer robots, you see, have learned how to imitate humans, and evade the jamming devices the UN/Alliance soldiers who initially deployed them use to protect themselves. Several varieties of these are discovered, from the basic churning, flying buzzsaws, to cyborgs disguised as a lost child carrying a teddy bear (the genuinely creepy Davids), to wounded soldiers crying for help; and their type, or model number, is discovered from chips retrieved from destroyed models…But what is the second variety?

In Dick’s original story, the first development from the psychotic flymo parts (the wounded soldier) is the First Variety, the Davids are the Third, and the supposed Second Variety (the soldier Klaus) turns out to be the Fourth; the Second turning out to be the story’s female charactor, Tasso. At the tale’s end, the doomed Hendricks, having sent Tasso (whom he believed to be human) away on a single-seat evacuation rocket, reflects that at least Tasso’s previous actions had showed that the CLAWS were developing the technology to destroy each other, and not just humans.

Although O’Bannon’s CLAW script heeds to this numbering, the ending involves Hendricks escaping away from various Tasso robots; but then the script ends with a final scene of an ageless CLAW version of himself piloting ships full of Tassos to the stars…

This is where Screamers nearly blows it. It fudges the numbers issue a bit, and, though Tasso (by now, rather wetly, renamed “Jessica”), still turns out to be a CLAW, the first (?) version of her that Hendricksson meets, and who has fallen in love with him, turns out to have a “heart” (*vomits*), and fights off a version of herself to enable Hendricksson to escape on the evac-rocket4. Right at the death though, the film is saved5 by a teddy bear, of the sort carried by the Davids, and which is lying in the evacuation rocket, starting, in a brilliantly Dickian fashion, to twitch…

So, Screamers is a film that covers Dick’s grand theme, in a relatively low-budget, not-scarred by fatuous CGI way that feels more like Dick’s writing than things like Total Recall (still great fun, given O’Bannon’s input and P. Verhoeven’s usual barking turned-up-to-11 performance as director) or Blade Runner (a couple of genuinely excellent moments, but still, I can’t help but find, personally, not something I ever want to watch again) managed.

A genuinely UNDERRATED THING

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1 Cybernetic Lurking Antipersonnel Weapon.

2 Slight exaggeration.

3 “My grand theme” — Philip K. Dick

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4 This sort of robots with a heart of gold bollockosity still occurs, sometimes, even here in the 21st Century. See, e.g. Victory of the Daleks, in, to be fair, the excellent Matt Smith’s mostly splendidly enjoyable first series of Doctor Who.


5
Rather like the superb Bernard Cribbens turned up at the end to save the last couple of finales of the previous Tennant of the Tardis’s tenure on Doctor Who…

Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000)

Written by: Dick Beebe and Joe Berlinger
Directed by: Joe Berlinger

The first in an occasional series on UNDERRATED THINGS.

In the April 2011 issue of bestselling UK film magazine Empire, there is a review of Paranormal Activity 2, the DVD of that sequel being a new release of the time. It begins in thus wise:

The 2000 sequel to The Blair Witch Project (Book of Shadows) still stands as a lesson in how not to turn your surprise-hit, no-budget found-footage horror into a megabucks franchise: by ditching the format entirely and attempting straight scares. It was, and is, a failure. [p142, Issue 262.]

Now, this is a view (and the most common one I’ve encountered over the past decade, let’s be fair), and I only differ in as much as I think the opposite to pretty much everthing in those two sentences.1

The original Blair Witch Project, which appeared just a year before this sequel, was, let’s be honest, a not especially scary film about three tiresome, not to say incompetent and useless hikers, redeemed, just at the death2, by a memorable “stay-with-you” final scene. By far the most interesting thing about it was the guerilla internet marketing and the way that combined with the (less original) faux-documentary ‘found footage’ set up of the film itself.

In this regard, hiring noted documentarian Joe Berlinger to direct the second film, and having him make a sequel, not to the first film itself, but rather to the effect the film had (both on Burkittsville and audience) and the whole idea of the blurring of fact of fiction in the digital age, and the way that can be manipulated, and the implications for the words “truth” and “documentary” that this entails, seems to me to be an original and splendid move rather than a failure.

Neither does Berlinger disappoint. His intention3 was to make a film that blurred the lines between fact and fiction and meditates on the distiction between fiction and documentary (or “documentary”, if you will). It’s not perfect — as Berlinger notes in his commentary, the studio-demanded gore inserts do make the line between ‘are these kids the perpetrators of an atrocity or the victims of evil?” less blurred than would be ideal (and make planted lines like Jeff’s about how video never lies although film does more (perhaps) of a giveaway than originally intended): although I think the intercutting of the final interrogations throughout the film, rather than having them all together at the end is less harmful than Berlinger thinks.

Partly this is because the cast is uniformly splendid, and partly because there are still enough curveballs (particularly re. the consistency of the filmed portions regarding the editing of the videotapes of the missing hours; the real state of the truck; the appearance of the police files etc. etc.) to ensure the true state of affairs does remain genuinely ambiguous; and partly because this is just a better film than the first Blair Witch.

Let’s start with the “straight scares”. These are much better done, and much more scary in this film than the first one (e.g. the girl on the bridge, the heard sounds from dreams, the extent and nature of what, if anything, is missing from the protagonist’s memories etc.) and (which is always a consideration in horror films) the funny lines of dialogue are genuinely funny. (“Oh my God, who made that?!?!?! Oh, I did earlier!” and the light bulb joke: “How many Heather Donohues does it take to screw in a light bulb? *tearfully bellows* JUST ONE!!! JUST THE ONE OF THEM!!!”)

Too, the final scenes, containing the refrains, as various video (rather than film) footage plays, of “I didn’t do that!!” and Stephen’s stressed, uncontrollable, yet determined (or is it?) cries of, “Somebody fucked with that tape!!!” are just as much ‘keepers’ as the final act of the first film.

So. Not just an UNDERRATED THING, but better than its predecessor, and, indeed, one of the best horror films of the noughties.

Fact!!

🙂

1 I’ll certainly give them that Book of Shadows didn’t turn Blair Witch into a “megabucks franchise” though. This is far from the least of the film’s achievements.

2 As it were…

3 One of the many great things about Book of Shadows is that the DVD contains perhaps the most honest and enlightening director’s commentary ever. I’m one of those fellows that if I buy a DVD I inevitably find time to listen to the commentaries, but even I’d be hard pressed to describe them as essential. Two I genuinely think are though, are Berlinger’s on this film, and that on the first Spinal Tap film, which, brilliantly, functions as it’s own sequel…

R. Goscinny and A. Uderzo, Asterix In Britain (1966)

1966?  That’s about a quarter to eight, isn’t it?  Gosh, I so sorry…

Recently, in a fit of nostalgia, I’ve been re-reading a load of Asterix books, including this one, wherein Asterix and Obelix travel to Britain and (marvellously) encounter boiled food, rugby, and warm beer. I first read these, erm, sometime in the latter stages of the previous century when I was still at school, and they’ve long been the source of two of my favourite ever punning jokes. (The first is part of one of my favourite running gags in the series: Asterix and Obelix destroying the ships of assorted pirates, Romans etc. on their way to wherever the current book might be set. This particular iteration involved a furious Roman ordering his men to get their ships out of the way and not stop to “contemplate any navals!” The second was a play on Wellington’s famous quote about the playing fields of Eton, and involved a character saying “We’ll meet you on the playing fields, after we’ve eaten.”1)

The main delight in the British editions of these books, of course, is the superb example of the translator’s art carried out by Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge. It was therefore rather alarming, on arriving home with a pile of library copies of these books, to discover on the copyright page the dread words “Revised edition and English translation (c) 2004…” Happily, from what I can find on the interwebs, it seems as if the translations are the same, although the books have been re-lettered. 2

I do take gentle gentle issue with the words “leaving the original joke incomplete” on wikipedia’s page on the translations of Asterix linked to above, though. In the section on that page headed “Lost in Translation” the following appears in relation to Asterix in Britain:

In Asterix in Britain, there is a scene in Londinium where a greengrocer argues with a buyer — in the next panel, Obelix says (in French) “Why is that man wearing a melon?” This relies on the fact that the French word for melon is also the name for the iconic British bowler hat; with no way to convey this in English translation, in the British edition Obelix says, “I say Asterix, I think this bridge is falling down” referring to the children’s rhyme “London Bridge is Falling Down”, leaving the original joke incomplete. In the panel shown, the reply of the reply of the British man on the right was, “Rather, old fruit!”, in some publications of the book; a good pun and typical of the way the British address each other in Asterix in Britain.

Well, yes, but the argument with the greengrocer in the English translation in that panel goes thusly:

GREENGROCER: “Oh, so this melon’s bad, is it?”
CUSTOMER: “Rather, old fruit!”

The melon’s bad because it’s a rather old fruit, do you see? In other words it’s not a case of the original joke being left incomplete, but the translators substituting one that makes sense in English (and is a good pun itself, as wiki says!), and changing Obelix’s next words from something that calls back to the previous panel to another reference that will stand alone for British readers.

Anyway, I was pleased to find the Asterix books still rock like a menhir, so there’s still no need for me to ever see the films…

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1 To be honest, I haven’t found this one again yet, and am not entirely certain that I actually got this from Asterix, but it certainly sounds as if I ought to have done…

2 Certainly I don’t remember from my first readings the irritating tic of the letter “I” always appearing as “i” rather than “I”, when all the other letters are rendered in upper case. That’s not to say my memory isn’t faulty, of course; this may always have been the case in the Asterix books, but still: why would anyone do this?

Rambo, (2008)

Written by: Art Monterastelli and Sylvester Stallone (with, natch, due credit acknowledgements to David Morrell).

Directed by: Sylvester Stallone

A fair old while ago, while (whilst?) attempting to justify my fondness for The Brotherhood of The Wolf to a friend of mine, I wrote the following words:

Firstly, it’s because I think bits of this are the best Sword and Sorcery film, ever.

[…]

(Parenthetically, the other best serious Sword and Sorcery film of recent times, I think, is the fourth Rambo film.)

Was I pissed, I wonder, or had I simply run mad? Well, quite possibly; but I still agree with myself, to be fair…

The lengthy (and excellent) entry on ‘Sword and Sorcery’ in the John Clute and John Grant edited The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, [1997, and henceforth EoF] (the S & S entry was written by Clute and contributing editors Dave Langford and Roz Kaveney) begins thusly (words in CAPS, here and afterwards, are EoF cross-references):

In 1961, Michael MOORCOCK requested a term to describe the the fantasy subgenre featuring muscular HEROES in violent conflict with a variety of VILLAINS, chiefly WIZARDS, WITCHES, evil SPIRITS and other creatures whose powers are — unlike the hero’s — supernatural in origin [915]

Now, it seems we might have struck a problem straight away here with the requirement of the villains’ powers to be “supernatural in origin”, but, I’d aver, by choosing as the story’s backdrop the the horrifying and ongoing conflict in Burma, the scenes where the soldiers of the military regime prey on villagers with mines, sub-machine guns, etc. have the same effect (in literary terms) as the destruction of peasant villages with magic and supernatural weapons in a more “traditional” S&S tale. [1]

Too, setting the film in the jungles of the Thailand/Burma border make it easier to imagine the tale taking place in the WATER MARGINS of a LAND OF FABLE, particularly as the EoF entry continues:

The geography of S&S is designed as an arena for heroes and heroines who awake each morning at the beginning of their lives; it is designed for more to happen [915].

This is certainly true here.

So, Rambo. By presenting him here as a virtually elemental force of nature (EoF: “the hero (and from an early stage the heroine) of S&S does not age in the mind’s eye; he or she fights on for ever, in the dawn of the day we do not wish to end.” [915]) the portrayal of Rambo here is, in fact, the best screen version of Conan yet filmed (and the eternally buff Stallone, in his Rambo mode, even looks more like Conan than anyone else ever has. Too, in Rambo, before travelling down the heart-of-darkness river to the main action of film, he doesn’t tool up with hi-tech weaponry in the modern action film mode, but, rather, forges a sword…)

Ah, Conan, and Robert E. Howard.

Penguin Modern Classics in the UK recently (2009) issued an edition of Howard’s stories, selected and with an introduction by John Clute. In this piece, Clute says, of Howard:

here is a young man in rural Texas, late at night in his bedroom, typing a story. So caught up is he in the thrust of creation, that (as his neighbours have attested) he is shouting the tale aloud into the night…[x]

And in his review of a collection of Conan stories from 2001 (collected in Scores: Reviews 1993-2003), Clute says of Howard’s writing:

It does not stop for a second. It is full-blown with the hard clarity and momentum of some rare dream not subject to paraphrase, as though Conan and story that tells him were coterminous [328].

This is why Rambo is a great Sword and Sorcery film. Stallone actually says in one of the featurettes on the DVD that his directorial idea was that the film was “directed by Rambo”; and the (admittedly, by some standards at any rate, barkingly OTT) violence recalls nothing so much as the delirious, frenzied, unstoppable intensity of the action scenes of Howard’s best fantasy stories. If Howard had lived long enough to write screenplays for the films we have now, surely this would have been one of them…

And finally, measured against today’s bloated running-times, Rambo’s 92 minutes or so renders it virtually a short story, just like Howards 70-80 year-old yarns for Weird Tales….

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[1] In purely structural terms, at least. I’m conscious here of the potential to appear extremely insensitive and oavish. Rambo is set against a real, and desperate and heartbreaking situation, of course, but (for reasons of utter unqualification) I’m not commenting on that, or the film’s presentation of it, here — merely its (genuine, I think) merit as a work of fiction…

Asylum of the Daleks, (2012)

And the answer is, “None more iconic…” (Wallpaper from the Beeb’s Who site.)

Written by: Steven Moffat

Directed by: Nick Hurran

Oh, and spoilers.  SPOILERS! By no means read this (at all, really, it’s not especially edifying) but especially if you’ve not yet seen the episode and care about watching these things unspoilerised…

So.  The new series of Who begins, with this year’s random changing of the schedule being an autumn start with a break, then Christmas, then more next year.  What wasn’t new, and is becoming usual with Who, were the usual pre-airdate entreaties to those who’d seen the previews to keep silent on the ‘surprises’.  I must admit, as I get older and grumpier, I get less worried by spoilers. If something depends on a reveal or twist, it increasingly seems to me, then it’s not going to stand up to re-watching. 1

Jenna-Louise Coleman as Oswin

In this case, though, the surprise was rather cunning.  The usual fan-person viewer (by which I mean, well, me), upon seeing the early scenes with Oswin, would naturally and immediately deduce that she was a Dalek, remembering similar multiple-level realities/dreams from previous Moffat episodes, in particular the girl/CAL from Silence in the Libary. Usual me was then distracted, though, by thinking: “Hang on, that’s the new companion, she can’t be a Dalek!”; and, thusly, tiresome old men like me were a still a bit surprised when it turned out she was a Dalek after all!  (Although: shouldn’t her voice have sounded like a Dalek? Perhaps it should. OR SHOULD IT? To be fair, I didn’t even consider this on first viewing, so it probably doesn’t matter…)

Is it a good episode though?  I enjoyed it, as I always have and always will Doctor Who, and yet:

a] Personally, I don’t think Daleks scale very well.  The gazillions of Daleks in the Parliament were far less scary or threatening than the single one in the brilliant Dalek, and the new thing of them being disguised as humans that then grow eye-stalks just made me think, “Oh no, they’re not going to do the tiresome “Who’s a Cylon” thing all series, are they?

b] I don’t want to sound like I’m trying to claim a set of new-man cufflinks or anything, but a lot of Amy’s character and plot points recently have been about whether or not she is, or will be, pregnant, which seems a shame, given the character’s beginnings in Series 5.  (Especially as Amy’s emotional reactions to tall of this last year were largely skipped over for getting on with the adventure reasons. Which is fine, although did make think, last year, at times, a bit: “Just do one thing or the other!”)  Aho! I yield to no chap in my love of Amy and Rory as companions, and Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill’s portrayals of same, but the whole, “I let you go!” business seemed (to me  a catastrophically unbeliavable failure of communication for characters that have known each other (virtually) all their lives. (And yes, I am one of these people that perhaps prefer Who not to overdo the emotional and soapy side of things, but I’m quite capable, still, of having something in my eye whenever I re-watch the end of Family of Blood, or more or less any of the Bernard Cribbens episodes. There are other examples.) The, “Things happened, we split up,” seemed much more believable.

c] I quite liked the Dalek reboot, “Doctor Who?!?!?!?!” business, although if it just gives the Doctor another huge advantage over them I’ll probably go off it.  (Then again, he can’t use the “Do You Know Who I Am?!” tactic on them from now on, which is a Good Thing.  Aho! Now to watch it again on iPlayer and the repeat on Friday….

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1 The classic example of this, is, of course, The Sixth Sense;.  In my experience, people who’ve seen this divide exactly in to two types.  Those who didn’t see the twist coming and therefore (it seemed to me) thought the film marvellous; and those who saw the twist almost immediately, and therefore (it seemed to me) thought the film rather a waste of time. Tellingly, I don’t know anyone, from either group, who has watched it more than once.