Friday, December 31, 2010
The Company He Kept
Mr. James, considerate of my great-grandfather’s anonymity, referred to him as Dennistoun. But his name was Barnes. Warrington Barnes. His monograph on the history and archaeology of St Bertrand de Comminges drew no public demand in his lifetime beyond its initial printing. But it has changed hands recently for respectable sums, the buyers invariably those in the know. That I successfully managed to capitalise on his small claim to fame a hundred years later has doubtless helped bump up the asking price.
It certainly brought Claire Bannoc to me. I remember that her hair was long, falling almost halfway down her back, and she wore a blouse and ankle-length skirt of the most unsullied white. I bit back the smart-arse observation that her ensemble matched her name (bannoc, Gaelic for ‘white’; yes, I was studying languages). Not that she gave me the opportunity to voice more than the first syllable of ‘hello’.
“You wrote this,” she said, eyes and voice filled with purpose. “Didn’t you?” She thrust at me the latest edition of The Ephemeral, opened to my article, ‘Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook: the Story Behind the Story’: fifteen hundred words, including citations; a straightforward account, with a few textual references to James’s tale, of my great-grandfather’s experiences. One of the national dailies had picked up on it, and I was in the process of expanding the piece. This less academic, and considerably more adjective-heavy, second incarnation finally appeared under the banner ‘Fear in a French church: true terror behind literary legend’s sinister story’. They love their alliteration, the tabloids.
“There’s something I need to show you,” she continued, apparently satisfied as to my authorship. “Can I come in?”
Before I could nod assent, she had breezed into my glum bedsit and tugged open the curtains. I winced at the light: it was ten in the morning and I was nursing a hangover. She was lucky I was dressed.
She cleared a pile of books off the room’s only chair and sat down. “Your article,” she said; “it quotes heavily from the story. I need you to tell me, in your own words, what happened to Warrington Barnes at Comminges.”
I sat down on the edge of my bed and frowned. “Mind if I ask why? You said you had something to show me.”
“Yes, I have. But first, please, just humour me.” She smiled. “I’ll buy you breakfast afterwards.”
My stomach lurched at the prospect. “Maybe just a cup of coffee,” I said. I rubbed my eyes. “Okay. It would have been 1892—”
“The same year James wrote the story.”
“—and he visited Comminges to do some research. He was particularly interested in the architecture and history of St Bertrand’s Church. He spent a full day making notes and taking photographs. They’re his own plates in the monograph.”
“Do you have a copy?”
I took it from the lockable drawer of the battered old writing desk that took up most of the bedsit’s floor space. I was about to make an admonition, as I passed it to her, that she handle it with extreme care – more than one page was already loose and there was a brittleness to the covers – but the reverence with which she accepted it told me I needn’t bother. She turned the pages the way a museum attendant approaches the moving of a Ming vase. Without looking up, she told me to continue.
“While he was there, he was attended by the verger. Nervous type. Fretting, jumping at shadows. Warrington tried to send him away, but he wouldn’t have it. Said nobody should be left alone in the church. At the end of the day, the verger said he had a book that might be of interest, and Warrington went with him back to his house. The book was basically a journal belonging to—”
“Alberic de Mauléon.”
“—Canon Alberic, yes, and he’d fastened pages from other books into his own journal. There was a lot of rare and valuable stuff in there, going back to the thirteenth century. He asked if he could buy the book, and the verger seemed so glad to get rid of it, that all he asked for was a couple of hundred francs – not even a fraction of what it was worth. A few years later, Warrington sold one set of illustrations from the book – just one page’s worth – for five thousand … that was in 1900!”
Claire closed the monograph and laid it carefully on the desk. “Go on.”
“Before Warrington left the verger’s house, the man’s daughter pressed into his hands a necklace with a crucifix on it. The verger told two of his friends to make sure Warrington got back to his hotel safely, and to stay there overnight. This creeped him out a bit, but he was too excited at acquiring the book to worry about it that much.
“I guess the strange thing about the journal – or scrapbook, as M.R. James called it – was that it only contained two entries by Canon Alberic himself. One was a ground plan with a Latin annotation that suggested something was buried beneath the church. There was also a drawing – the Latin underneath it was in the same hand and identified Alberic as the artist – of a Biblical figure smiting a deformed, spider-like creature. The title was The Dispute of Solomon with a Creature of the Night. Alberic wrote that he had seen the creature in the picture and would see it again before he died.”
“And when your great-grandfather got back to his hotel room?”
“You’ve read the story,” I said, “you know how it ends.” The hangover was going to work on the inside of my skull. I was getting tired of her questions. I wanted to crawl under the duvet and not have to deal with things like daylight and conversation.
“He encountered something in his room,” she said blandly. “Something that looked a lot like the creature in the drawing.”
I nodded. “He panicked, grabbed the crucifix, screamed at it. The verger’s friends heard the noise and went to investigate. Neither of them saw anything, but they felt themselves pushed aside as some kind of—” I shrugged, stuck for the right word “—thing came hurtling out of his room. He left Comminges that day.”
“What happened to the book?” she asked. “M.R. James says it ended up in the Wentworth Collection, but that’s not the case, is it?”
I shook my head. I was beginning to see where she was going with this. “Warrington sold it piecemeal. Got every page authenticated before he put it up for auction. He bided his time, as well. Dropped hints, gave the odd private viewing, waited for the rumour mill to get going. Every bit he sold was calculated to achieve the highest bids. He made a fortune.”
I stopped talking then, conscious that there was too much approbation in my voice. I didn’t want her thinking I was shallow. I was conscious, also, that my grubby bedsit stood as witness to how little of that fortune was left.
“And the picture?” Claire asked. “I know James said your great-grandfather burned it, that only a photograph he took of it remained, but I reckon that’s not quite true, either.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “My dad told me the story, the way he’d heard it from granddad, the way—”
“—he’d heard it from his father. Yes, I get the chronology. You’ve had the story third hand, and augmented it by reading James’s version.” She ran a hand through her long fair hair. Gradually a smile worked its way back across her face. When she spoke again, the testy tone of voice was gone. “I bet we could find out what happened to it, though. Me and you. If we worked together.”
My hangover was starting to recede. For the last few minutes, it had been battling it out with my curiosity. Curiosity won. “What’s all this about, Claire?” I asked, trying out her name, the sound of it aloud, the hard consonants balanced by the softer vowels. Claire.
“I said I had something to show you. Tell me if this means anything to you.” She delved into her bag. Withdrew a short cylindrical object, rusted with age. It was only the powdery brown of the dust that coated it that indicated it was metallic. A few specks flaked off it as I took it from her. It was a few inches in length. There were markings on it. I squinted to read them. A Latin inscription. Qui …I brushed it at, revealed more letters. Quis est …
“Quis est iste que uenit,” Claire said. “Who is this—”
“—who is coming?” I finished. I sat very still, holding my hand away from me, as if the small piece of tubular metal had suddenly transmuted into the tiniest and most venomous of snakes.
“The Colonel threw into the sea.”
“At …” I paused. Now I knew exactly where she was going with this. “At the end of the story.”
She stood up. Slung her bag over her shoulder. “Come on. I have other things to show you.”
A nod. “Artefacts.”
And with that she headed for the door. I sat there a moment longer then, curiosity giving me another prod, I hurried after her. The whistle felt uncomfortable in my hand, so I tucked it in my jacket pocket and, for the next hour or two at least, its heaviness was out of proportion to its negligible weight.
“Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” she said, earning an obtuse glance from the assistant. He probably thought there was something salacious in the phrase.
“I’ve read the story,” I said.
“Of course you have. You took it at face value. A story. The Colonel intervenes at the end, disposes of the haunted artefact, normality is restored.”
We followed the assistant down into the vaults.
“Tell me,” she said, “what do most – if not all – of M.R. James’s stories have in common?”
“Be more specific.”
“I don’t know. He wrote them as entertainments. Firelight tales at Christmas for friends and students. They’re all creepy, more so for being understated. There’s always a haunting and – usually – a reason for the haunting. Mostly, the reason is darker than the ghostly stuff.”
“Close,” she said. “What the stories have in common is twofold: one, they’re all narrated as if James were simply recounting a story he’d heard from a third party; and two, for the most part, they involve a historical artefact which, as soon as it’s unearthed, unleashes a supernatural force. That’s what makes the stories so great. They’re not gothic fantasias, they don’t conjure up huge otherworldly visions. They’re rooted in the academic, the historic, the antiquarian.”
The assistant interrupted her at this point, and the two of them entered into a short ritual. Finally we were conducted into a cramped room, panelled in dark wood, and left with the contents of a small coffin-like box.
“In virtually every story,” Claire went on, “the supernatural is quite literally unearthed. Usually by a well-meaning but naïve protagonist. If not for their meddling, it would have lain dormant. And this is the thing.” She opened the box. “None of it was fiction.”
Artefacts, she said. Other things to show me. I’d imagined a long, narrow room, parquet floors, exhibits under glass. Instead, she’d taken me to a high street bank; produced the key and confirmed the password to a safety deposit box.
A safety deposit box that mostly contained old papers, one a folded sheet of vellum which Claire spread out on the table to reveal twenty or so lines of writing in what didn’t look like any known language. There was a thin strip of parchment with runic characters in red and black ink. There were two old leather-bound books, their titles no doubt once prominently etched in filigree but now worn away. I made out enough of the letters to identify them as the Sertum Steinfeldense Norbertinum and the Tractate Middoth. I’d only recently reread the Collected Ghost Stories, whilst writing my paper, and I could place every item. Artefacts, Claire called them.
“Where did you get all this?”
“My dad found most of them. He collected antiquarian books. Came across the Tractate Middoth by accident. After that, he dedicated his life to tracking them down. He was working on a book about M.R. James when he died. Not just a biography, though. More like an academic detective story. You see, he realised straightaway that the stories were true. But he knew he couldn’t prove it until he’d assembled all the artefacts. Then he’d be able to publish the greatest academic work on any writer in the English language.” Her eyes were shining. She was staring at me with absolute intensity. Then something occurred to her and her eyes became two pinpoints of accusation. “Of course, I’ll never find Canon Alberic’s scrapbook. Not since your great-grandfather took it apart and sold it.”
The pedant in me reflected that “not since” was a rather inaccurate turn of phrase, given that Warrington had flogged every last page of it a good few decades before Claire’s father was even born. Worse: he’d have been well on his way to wasting it on horses and disreputable company by then.
“Unless—” Claire was standing right in front of me, hand clutching my arm; I was barely aware she’d moved “—he left some record of who he sold them to.”
“He sold them at auction.”
I shrugged. “Either. Both.”
She released my arm. “They’ll have records. There’s ways of finding out. But if we could find the drawing!” Her hand found my arm again, but gently this time. A caress, almost. “He left so much of the book written. He found so many of the artefacts. I came across the whistle a few years ago.”
My hand closed around it. If you asked me now, even with hindsight of what was to come, I couldn’t say why I didn’t give it back to her.
“It didn’t take me long to collect the other artefacts.” She started replacing them in the safety deposit box, as precisely as a lepidopterist pins a butterfly in display case. “Some of the larger pieces are on loan to various museums. I’ve mislead the curators as to the provenance. I want them all back before I publish.” That light in her eyes again. “I’m finishing his book. It was what he lived for, and I want to see his work recognised.”
I thought of my father, embittered at the fortune that was wasted two generations before he could have benefited from it, counting off the nine to five at the insurance company and not a penny put aside for my education, and I couldn’t quite empathise with the whole paternal veneration thing.
“There’s two more things I need.” She straightened up from the deposit box. “The scrapbook … well, maybe I can piece it back together. Or there’s your great-grandfather’s monograph for context. But it’s the drawing that’s the important thing.” Then she was before me again, her hand cupped against my cheek. “Please, help me find it. I’m so close to finishing my dad’s work.”
My grandfather was edging towards his nineties but there was still enough life in him that he could bawl my father out as a cold-hearted bastard for leaving him to rot in a retirement home. Which explains why dad didn’t visit him much anymore. Fortunately, I was spared similar treatment. Probably because Claire was with me.
“Nice girl,” he said. No preamble. “How did you get so lucky?”
“Granddad, this is Claire. She’s—”
“On the rebound?”
Claire’s expression was somewhere between amused and embarrassed. The more my grandfather talked, the higher the chance of embarrassment winning out. I came straight to the point:
“Claire’s writing a book about M.R. James. How everything he wrote about has a basis in fact.”
Granddad was slouched in an easy chair. He straightened himself up as best he could and beamed at Claire. “That right, my dear? Oh, then I’ve got a story for you.”
“Yes, your grandson’s told me—”
“Not the way I can tell it, he hasn’t.”
Which accounted for the next hour.
The walls of the retirement home were a despondent mauve, a half-hearted orange or a queasy magnolia, depending if you were in the TV lounge, the dining hall or your own room (or cell, as granddad put it). The staff eyed him cautiously whenever they passed, as if he routinely threatened or ogled them, pertinent to their sex. Outside, the afternoon sun threaded strands of hazy light through the trees lining the stretch of parkland that bordered the premises. I watched kids playing football, couples smooching, some oiks in hoodies conducting what looked suspiciously like a drug deal. Thirteen if they were a day.
The drive from Eton to Nottingham had taken over two and a half hours. Claire didn’t have a car; she’d sold it, she told me, to fund the acquisition of more artefacts. We’d used my third-hand VW Jetta and when Claire had enquired about air-conditioning I’d referred her to the handle that wound the window down. Lunch was a cob and a bottle of mineral water from a filling station. The mineral water had more substance. I yawned and rubbed my eyes. Trace elements of the hangover lingered.
Granddad’s narrative ended and I turned back from the window.
“But what about the drawing? The one that Canon Alberic made of Solomon vanquishing the demon? Surely your father didn’t sell that?”
“No, no. That would have been too much for the genteel academics and collectors who bought the other pages. No, my father didn’t sell the drawing. But he didn’t keep it, either. He photographed it, just so that there was a record of it, but he couldn’t stand to have the drawing under his roof. It wasn’t long before he threw the photograph away, either. Said even that was too lifelike.”
“But in the story, M.R. James intimates that he has the photograph, whereas your father burned the drawing.”
“No, no. My father destroyed the photograph. But the original drawing—”
Claire leaned forward. “Yes?”
“He gave that to M.R. James.”
The look Claire gave me was exultant.
“When was this?”
“Soon after he got back from France.”
“How did he know M.R. James? Through the college? Your father was a university man, wasn’t he?”
“Oh yes, but not at James’s college. Oxford man, my father.”
“They came from the same village. M.R. James often went back to the Rectory. Where he grew up, you know. My father grew up a few streets away.” Granddad laughed. “A place that small, everywhere is a few streets away.”
He frowned. “You’re writing a book and you don’t know where he was born?”
“Somewhere near Bury St Edmunds,” Claire said.
“Great Livermere,” I said.
“Nice place,” granddad added. “Off the beaten track. Bit of peace and quiet.” He yawned, eyes drooping. “Good of you to drop by.”
“But—” Claire began.
I shook my head and took her arm and steered towards the door.
“Give my regards that cold-hearted bastard father of yours,” granddad murmured. “You know, the one who left me to rot in this dump.” A passing orderly glowered. “Ask him for the diary while you’re at it.”
“What diary?” Claire asked.
But I already knew.
“I didn’t know you were up for the weekend.” He glanced over my shoulder. “Oh, hello. And you are …?”
“Dad, this is Claire.”
“Please to meet you. So, how long have you two been—?”
“We’re, er, working together on a research project.”
“Of course.” His tone implied that he hadn’t really expected anything else.
Although she was champing at the bit to get the niceties out of the way, I have to give Claire her due: she knew how to play it with my father. Turning on the charm doesn’t even begin to cover it. She even called him ‘sir’ a couple of times. Ten minutes and he couldn’t do enough to help, retrieving Warrington’s diary and leaving us alone in the sitting room to examine it. Claire speed read, flipping from page to page. She found the entry in no time.
Dined with Montague at the Rectory. At his behest, described the events at St Bertrand de Comminges in some detail. He asked if I had brought Canon A.’s drawing. I told him I had, but had left it on the occasional table in the hallway. Even now, weeks after leaving France behind me, I don’t care to have it in the same room.
He went out to fetch it, tearing open the envelope in which I had sealed it with great eagerness, like a youngster on Christmas morning. I took my glass of port and sat the at opposite end of the room while he stood by the window with it, holding the abhorrent thing up to the light for all the world as if he intended to hang it and were pondering which type of frame would flatter it best.
I believe he may even do that. The man is a collector of arcana. Much of what adorns the walls presents a strange taste in art for one who keeps house at a Rectory. One picture in particular: a mezzotint, badly done apart from its decent evocation of moonlight; the dullest of scenes, a pathway leading to a manor house, with just the hint of a figure entering or departing the frame. Dull, but something about it compelled me to look away before I began to examine it too intently.
I told him the drawing was his, and welcome to it. I finished my port hurriedly and made my excuses.
Nottingham to Great Livermere: another two and a half hour drive. I gave up trying to reason with her after the first twenty minutes. It made sense, to me, to approach the current occupants of the Rectory in writing or by phone and ascertain how much – if any – of James’s particulars were still there. He’d grown up in the Rectory and it had been his home until 1907. A lot of redecoration could happen in a century. One man’s collection of the arcana was another man’s car boot sale.
“It’s probably,” I added, somewhere around Junction 23, “been cleared out and flogged on eBay by now.”
“I told you,” she said frostily: “there are only two more things I need. The mezzotint is the other. We have to go to the Rectory. Please, help me with this. I promise I’ll make it worth your while.”
We drove in silence for a while. I considered the various permutations by which ‘I’ll make it worth your while’ could be defined. Paying for the fuel, plus a couple of notes for my time. A solid meal and a good bottle of wine once the trip was done. A room at a Holiday Inn on the way back, a couple drinks, then maybe … I shook my head. I popped a cigarette into my mouth – amazingly, my first of the day – and took one hand off the wheel to interrogate my pockets for my lighter.
“Could you please not smoke?” Claire asked. “I’m asthmatic.”
I snapped the lighter closed with an ungracious sigh, and tucked the cigarette behind my ear.
Claire tuned the radio into a classical music broadcast. The announcer identified the piece as Webern’s Passacaglia. It was music for nightmares. The fact that it was so often quiet in its menace only made it more effective. If M.R. James’s stories had been written with a soundtrack in mind, I thought, this would be it.
We left the M1 and joined the A14, a tedious expanse of road that cut blandly through miles of unchanging scenery. Claire turned the radio down and started talking about the preface to The Collected Ghost Stories, published in 1931, five years before he died in which James addressed two questions: whether he believed in ghosts (he cagily states that he is prepared to consider evidence and accept it if found satisfactory); and whether he intended to write more ghost stories.
“He wrote ‘I fear I must answer, Probably not.’ Interesting turn of phrase, don’t you think? ‘I fear’.”
“But he did write more stories, though, didn’t he?”
“Mostly fragments, unfinished works. Although there are a couple of complete pieces. But I have an idea why he was reticent about further stories in the preface.”
But she wouldn’t say more until we reached Great Livermere. And by then I had other things to worry about. The Jetta made it to the outskirts of the village. The engine started spluttering. Steam hissed from under the bonnet. I pulled over, turned the engine off.
“What’s wrong?” Claire asked.
“It’s just overheated,” I said, hoping desperately that was all it was. In my non-comprehension of anything mechanical, I worried it was something serious and costly, probably more so than the car was worth.
“Well, it gives us a way in at the Rectory,” she said breezily. “Excuse me, our car’s broken down, can we use your phone.”
Oh, Christ. A 140-mile drive and her only follow-up to a knock on a door that might, for all we knew, go unanswered was a suddenly extemporised cliché occasioned by the passing of my VW. I felt like thumping the steering wheel in frustration. Work, you frigging teutonic hippie-mobile, let me turn round and go back to my digs and my hangover.
“Why don’t you head into the village,” I suggested, “find out where the Rectory is. I’ll give it a few minutes, see if the car starts.”
“Okay,” she said, and I almost sighed with relief. I’d be spared the embarrassment of witnessing her overtures at the Rectory. She took her bag from back seat and slung it over her shoulder, then pushed the passenger side door open and got out. “Head for the church. That’ll be the easiest place to find. I’ll meet you there.”
She darted a smiling glance back at me, then set off towards Great Livermere as purposefully as she’d walked into my bedsit – I checked my watch: eight PM – ten hours ago. Ten hours. Disappearing into the distance, she still looked as fresh, her white blouse and long white skirt unblemished, uncreased. My reflection, squashed into the rearview mirror, told a completely different story. As shoddy as I felt, I looked worse.
I gave it ten minutes. Retrieved the cigarette from behind my ear. Smoked it unhurriedly.
Then I tried the engine again.
It caught, rumbled, shuddered, died. I listened to the radio for another few minutes. One more try, then I’d walk into the village and hope nobody came tearing down the narrow B-road too fast and smashed into the Jetta and finished the job.
Second time lucky. The engine turned over, caught. The needle on the temperature gauge was nudging the red. Unbelievable: my rationale had been right. The coolant must have low when we set off – I hadn’t checked the levels for a while. Still, I could get water somewhere in the village. I put it in first, dropped the handbrake and drove slowly and cautiously into Great Livermere.
I parked near the war memorial and wandered down a single track road lined with the overhanging branches of trees gnarled with age. Few of the houses showed lighted windows. The church came looming at me out of the dusk. A metal gate opened into the graveyard, its once-white paint crumbling. I closed it behind me, then stopped sharply, convinced I’d seen someone standing close by one of the larger monuments. I looked again and there were only shadows.
The graveyard was overgrown, long grasses caressing the tombstones. There was another gate to the left, the only other opening in the low stone wall. It gave onto nothing; dead land. Everything about the place seemed wrong. The church itself was too large for the plot of land it stood in; the graves around it seemed squashed together. Its walls were yellow-white, as if the building were jaundiced. The spire was truncated; instead of the traditional bell-tower, it was topped by a curious wooden structure that made me think of a sniper’s nest.
Movement alerted me. The church door was opening – although heavy and of a roughly finished wooden construction, it swung open without a sound – and a pallid figure emerged into what faint light was left. I gasped and stepped back involuntarily, almost immediately feeling stupid as I realised it was Claire.
“Come here, I’ve got something to show you.”
I followed her into the church. She pushed the door closed (again, not even a creak of timber; it settled into its frame noiselessly). There had been little sound in the graveyard – no birdsong or traffic noise, only the vaguest whisper of wind through the trees. Inside the church, there was a total absence of sound. The interior was cold, austere. Comfortless.
“Is the car working again?”
I nodded. “I’ll need water from somewhere, though.”
“We can get that anywhere.” She’d slung her bag on a pew and was taking something from it.
“How did you get on at the Rectory?” I asked.
“Take a look.” She handed me a small picture in a simple frame. “Oh ye of little faith,” she said.
I squinted to make it out. It was a detailed if frantically rendered sketch of …
“Oh Christ,” I muttered.
… a spider-like figure …
“That’s not all.”
She took Canon Alberic’s sketch from my hands, slid it back into her bag, then produced another picture; this one slightly larger and, when I held it, heavier. A mezzotint.
I started to phrase a question but the words were a muddle.
“They were both in the Rectory,” she explained. “Hanging in the hallway.” She grinned triumphantly. “A lot can stay the same in a hundred years.”
“And they just let you have them?”
Claire tilted her head to one, half pouting, half smirking. “I’ve been a bad girl.”
“You didn’t …?”
“They’re so trusting around here,” she said, tucking the pictures back into her bag, “leaving their doors unlocked.”
I shook my head. Started to turn away. She said my name, her tongue licking honey around its syllables. Against my better judgement, I turned back to her.
“I need these. The book’s worth nothing unless I can prove all the artefacts exist. All my father’s work: nothing unless I can prove everything.”
Exhaling, I shook my head. “You’d best publish it under a pseudonym, then.”
“Otherwise you might have to explain how you came by them.”
“Oh, that’s easy.” Her manner was airy and carefree again. “Who’s to say I didn’t acquire them through an unscrupulous dealer?” She shrugged. “By the time I realised his credentials were false, he’d disappeared. Even the name he gave me was phoney. By the time the book’s published, I can be perfectly magnanimous and offer to restore them to the rightful owner. It’ll be a nice bit of extra publicity. By then, I’ll have proved my case; I’ll have completed my father’s work.”
I opened my mouth to protest, then gave up. Trying to rationalise with her would have had the same effect as stacking up three sandbags against an oncoming tidal wave. I’d have been washed away by the unstoppability – the sheer certainty – of it. “Let’s get out of here,” I said. “We’re close enough to Bury St Edmunds. The car should hold till then. We can get the coolant topped up at a garage or something.”
She brushed past me and walked towards the transept. “I just need to show you one more thing.”
I rolled my eyes and followed her. Behind the pulpit, the church narrowed. There were choir stalls to either side, then the altar. To our right, wall-mounted, was a plaque, white lettering on black, commemorating M.R. James.
No longer a sojourner,
but a fellow citizen of the saints
and of the household of God.
I grabbed Claire’s arm and made to steer her towards the door, but she shook free. “I need a picture.” She was thumbing through the options on her mobile phone, raising it as she selected camera mode. My patience gave out.
“I’ll be at the car,” I said, spinning on my heel. I dug my hands in my coat pockets, groping for the car keys. “I’m parked near the – … oh, Jesus!”
The man was sitting in the foremost pew. His clothes were a century out of date, and dusty – as if he’d just emerged from some tomb beneath the church. There was no colour to his skin. There was no substance to his body.
The fellow citizen of the saints and of the household of God sat glassy eyed and unmoving in the church he’d grown up around.
“He’s been here the whole time,” Claire said. The click and whirr of her camera-phone provided a moment of incongruous counterpoint. “I wondered when you’d see him.” She nodded towards the nave, and I noticed that the door was now standing open. “You’ll probably be able to see them now, as well.”
A spider-like figure, clicking its way slowly down the aisle.
“They were in the churchyard when I came in,” she continued, aiming her mobile at the man in the pew. “Shit! There’s just no resolution when I try to get his picture.” She held the phone up. There was a shapeless haziness in the centre of the screen, while the rest of the shot – aisle, pew, wall – was in perfect focus.
Behind the spider-thing, a few miniature versions of the same. The Ash-Tree, I thought.
Behind that, something hunched and shambolic, a cross outlined on the rags that hung like a winding sheet from its deformed body.
“They were moving forward between the graves when I came in,” Claire offered. “It was like they were advancing on the church.” An air-hostess running robotically through the safety procedures on her thousandth trip couldn’t have aspired to a more bland tone of voice.
Through the door came every child’s approximation of a ghost, a thing of human dimensions but made up of crumpled linen. At half its height – it stood easily six foot, if not more – and if the folds of its attire had been white not grey, and if the shape of a child’s head had been present instead of the hooded aperture that disclosed only darkness where a face should have been, it might have been ridiculous; funny, even.
But I recognised it from the pages of James’s … fiction? God, no. The tales he’d enthralled friends and students with by candlelight had been straightforward reportage: dispatches from a point beyond scientific and academic understanding.
“You see, that’s my theory,” Claire said. “Everything he wrote was true. All of the artefacts exist. And he paid the price for acquiring them. That’s why he said he wouldn’t write anymore ghost stories. He was already being haunted by them.”
The spider-thing and its scions, the deformed hunchback marked with the cross; halfway down the aisle, they scuttled to one side, taking up rustling, sibilant positions in the pews.
The ghost of M.R. James looked helplessly at me as they gathered behind him, the apparitions that had plagued him through life and death for a century.
I couldn’t do or say anything. The crumpled grey creature with a gaping void for a face was … no, it was impossible. How could something without a face look at me? It raised an arm that terminated without a hand. Pointed at me.
Peripherally, I was aware of the other apparitions slithering forward to the next pew, closer to James.
My hands were still in my pockets; one closed round an object I’d forgotten, after the initial discomfit of its presence, was there. The whistle. In a flash of hatred and frustration, I yanked it out and – screaming, my voice ragged, throat hurting – hurled it at the creature confronting me.
A low moan filled the church and it dissipated in a sudden but blinding shimmer. I was conscious of something whipping through the air, then a sharp blow to the cheek. My hand fluttered to the side of my face – my vision was still blurry – and came away hot and warm. Blood. There was a tink, a metallic object impacting on stone. I reached down, my fingers finding it. My eyes focussed. The whistle was bent out of shape, molten at one end, the Latin inscription barely readable.
Realisation snapped into place in my mind.
Claire was still talking as I walked back to her. I didn’t take in a single word. I seized her bag with one hand and used the other to shove her backwards. I upended the bag, shaking the contents out. I dropped to my knees and smashed the frame of Canon Alberic’s sketch against the cold stone floor. Splinters of wood and shards of glass. I snatched up the drawing, flipped open my cigarette lighter and thumbed it into life. Two inches of flame, a wavering frond of yellow over a cone of blue. I touched it to the parchment.
“Nooooooo!” Claire wailed.
I released my grip on the picture, flicking the last burning fragment of it away from me.
The spider-thing disappeared. This time I shielded my eyes.
I reached for the mezzotint next.
It was gone.
I straightened up, but I wasn’t quick enough.
“You bastard, you bastard!”
Claire was standing over me. A sharp corner of the mezzotint caught me above the eye and I fell back. She swung it again and the second blow made patterns of starfire behind my eyes. Then there was the cloying velvet suffocation of blackness.
I woke to early morning light, bruises and an empty church. My wallet and car keys were missing. So was the VW.
I walked the ten miles or so back to the A14 and thumbed a lift into Bury St Edmunds. I found a police station and reported my car stolen, making up a story that I’d pulled in at a parking spot to take a leak, only to trip and knock myself out, my car gone when I came to.
Telling them the real story wasn’t an option. It’s in my best interests to keep Claire Bannoc’s researches quiet. My part in them pretty much fits the definition of aiding and abetting.
I can only assume that she’s found it harder than she expected to complete the book; or, if she has, to secure a publishing deal. Whichever, I think she needs the money.
I think she’s selling the collection off.
The Tractate Middoth surfaced six months ago. It cost me everything I earned from the tabloid publication of my article on Warrington Barnes’s experiences at the church of St Bertrand de Comminges, and then some. I took it to Great Livermere and waited till the apparitions came crawling in. Then, kneeling in the transept, facing them as they approached, I burned it.
Watched another of them disappear.
And I’ll destroy every artefact that Claire Bannoc came into possession of, however long it takes and whatever it costs me.
Thursday, December 30, 2010
I’ve also done a bit of housekeeping on the blog. The link list was getting a tad overgrown and the time had come to get the cyber-secateurs out and cut it back a bit. Problem was: I like all of the blogs on the list. Which didn’t help me with my other problem: I’m discovering new film blogs all the time.
There were some blogs on the link list which have been discontinued but I’d maintained a link to because I was still exploring their archives. There were others who haven’t posted for a while but I was holding out hope that their owners resumed blogging.
Ultimately, I decided to get ruthless. Today I pruned the link list based on the following criteria:
1. The link is dead (ie. “the blog you were looking for has not been found”).
2. The owner has announced closure of the blog.
3. The blog has ceased to be primarily about cinema.
4. No new material has appeared for at least three months.
Here’s the caveat, and the reason that I’m even posting about something as mundane as cleaning up the link list: to err is human and I have a proven track record of fallibility. If you’re the owner of a blog that has suddenly disappeared from my link list and it doesn’t fall into the above delineated categories, please don’t take the hump with me; simply assume that I’ve cocked up, leave a message in the comments box and I’ll happily and apologetically restore the link. Likewise, if you haven’t posted for a while and you resume blogging activities again, please let me know – again, I’ll be more than happy to restore the link.
Monday, December 27, 2010
Sunday, December 26, 2010
Saturday, December 25, 2010
Friday, December 24, 2010
’Twas the night before Christmas and yours truly braved the supermarket crowds to the do the last minute shopping; everywhere, laughing families and excited children carried with them the joy and spirit of Christmas, their delight at this hallowed time of year communicating itself in an outpouring of goodwill.*
The tender and joyful strains of Christmas carols accompanied my drive home and my heart lifted at the soaring melodies. I unlocked the front door and walked into a living room scented with pine and smiled at the eight-foot Christmas tree bedecked with tinsel, its base surrounded by acres of wrapped gifts.**
A sense of peace, goodness and fulfilment settled on me, and I turned my thoughts to my choice of viewing for the day. ‘A Christmas Carol’? ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’. ‘Miracle on 43rd Street’?
Nah, fuck that. ‘Baise-Moi’.
The title, depending on dialect or colloquial usage, can be read as ‘Kiss Me’, ‘Fuck Me’ or ‘Rape Me’. A controversy magnet in its native France (its certification was infamously repealed effectively placing a ban on the film, a decision vociferously protested by such no-stranger-to-controversy types as Gaspar Noe and Catherine Breillat), ‘Baise-Moi’ is low-budget production co-directed by Virginia Despentes (on whose novel it is based) and Coralie Trinh Thi. The latter acted in porn movies before turning her efforts to directing, a line of work also pursued by stars Karen Bach and Raffaella Anderson.
Made around the same time as Patrice Chereau’s ‘Intimacy’, Michael Haneke’s ‘The Piano Teacher’ and Breillat’s ‘Romance’, it’s tempting to file away ‘Baise-Moi’ as the backwards and slightly embarrassing sibling of these better realized works. It lacks the gender politics focus of ‘Romance’, the frosty intellectualism of ‘The Piano Teacher’ or the social realism of ‘Intimacy’.
Despentes and Thi do, however, make a stab at social realism during the first half hour as Nadine (Bach) and Manu (Anderson) are introduced in grubbily believable milieus. Nadine turns tricks and uses booze, dope and music as palliatives. Manu acts occasionally in hardcore features and sponges off her well-meaning but volatile brother. They’re thrown together when two separate arguments – Manu and her brother; Nadine and her prissy flatmate – spiral out of control and the girls find themselves on the run.
What follows is akin to ‘Thelma and Louise’, ‘Ms 45’ and your average Nina Hartley bump ‘n’ grind opus being thrown together in a blender. Along with a large helping of bile and the contents of Hannibal Lecter’s lower intestine. Clocking in at just 73 minutes, ‘Baise-Moi’ fills just about every second of them with hardcore imagery – fellatio, penetration, anal – acts of violence (and, in one sickening protracted scene, rape), and general venality.
Despentes has said in interviews that the original novel challenges the various forms and aspects of femininity The film, as much as it can be said to have an agenda (for the most part it’s too sloppily constructed and arbitrary in its narrative approach to ever achieve something as focused and considered as having an agenda), demonstrates how shittily women are treated by men and tests the viewer’s limits in terms of what is acceptable and/or palatable when Nadine and Manu are empowered (for want of a better word) to behave with a more nakedly and unapologetically masculine impulse.
Which is all well and good, but ‘Baise-Moi’ achieves neither a pro-feminist catharsis or an incisive enough commentary on gender politics to establish itself as a film as profound as it is provocative. Between the graphic content and production values that make ‘The Blair Witch Project’ look like ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, ‘Baise-Moi’ is essentially a cheap and nasty piece of work which wears both attributes almost as a badge of honour.
‘Baise-Moi’ flawed in that it doesn’t function on the intellectual level Despentes and Thi evidently wanted it to, and it left me feeling like a long hot shower would perhaps get the surface grime off me but the deep, soul-staining filth it smeared me would still be there after, I don’t know, an acid bath. But it exerts a perverse power. At one point, Manu tells Nadine “we’ll follow our star and let rip the motherfucker side of our soul”. Which is a good description of ‘Baise-Moi’ itself: it’s nihilistic, undoubtedly, but it exists on its own terms.
*Warning: paragraph may contain poetic licence.
**Warning: paragraph may contain total bullshit.
Thursday, December 23, 2010
After the soul-destroying experience of ‘Bulletface’ I was giving careful thought to my choices for the penultimate day of Winter of Discontent when I heard, belatedly, that Jean Rollin passed away last week. I’d seen ‘Requiem for a Vampire’ years ago while severely under the influence and had never quite managed to separate out how much of the general fucked-up-ness of it was Rollin’s doing and how much owed to the various substances floating around in my endocrine system. I’m sure I’ve seen a couple of others, but they get confused in my mind with ‘Requiem for a Vampire’. I can only be sure of castles, fields, topless women emerging from grandfather clocks and candlelit rituals.
Apart from these misremembered images, and what I’d read about his work on various blogs, my knowledge of the Rollin oeuvre was sketchy at best. And all I knew of ‘Fascination’ – tonight’s slice of the bizarre – was that it boasted this iconic image:
… and promised this kind of behaviour:
Either of which would have provided justification enough for watching it. What I didn’t expect was for Rollin’s direction to be so sanguine and his visuals so starkly poetic. I may be going out on a limb here (either that, or I really need to stop watching movies stupidly late at night with a bottle of Bargain Booze’s finest inside me) but ‘Fascination’ is kind of what you’d get if Werner Herzog, halfway through shooting ‘Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht’, decided to replace Klaus Kinski with Brigitte Lahaie and shoot a couple of girl-girl scenes.
Okay, turn the outrage up to eleven. Clog the comments section with vehemence. Spark up those burning torches. I’m kind of outraged at myself for even thinking of invoking Herzog’s name in a Jean Rollin review let alone typing it up and posting it on the blogosphere for all to see. And to be perfectly honest, I’m still having some difficulty rationalizing it.
But I can’t shake the feeling that a touch of Herzog hovers over some – only some, mind you – of ‘Fascination’. It’s in the extended takes, the languorous pacing, the sense of otherworldliness in the visuals. The use of found locations that look like the director found them on another planet:
The differences, however, are just as distinct. The characters are paper-thin whereas Herzog’s are enigmatic and memorable. The mysterious and compelling spectacle of nature so probingly explored by Herzog are replaced in ‘Fascination’ by a probing exploration of the mysterious and compelling spectacle of female nudity. The driven, doomed and often maniacal anti-heroes of Herzog’s highest drama – the Kinskis and Cages and Bruno S’s – are notable only by their absence; Rollin’s protagonist is a ponce in a natty red jacket.
The less said about this individual the better. In fact, the less said about most of the cast … well, you get the picture. Let’s just say that Brigitte Lahaie – a woman whose filmography mainly consists of knuckle-shuffle fare (both soft and hard) and the occasional mainstream title such as ‘Henry and June’ – delivers the only real acting chops on display.
The plot is marginal: a bandit rips off his cohorts, goes on the lam and ends up at a castle occupied by two strange and seductive women who tease, tantalize and take the piss out of him in roughly equal measures; while he hides out, waiting for nightfall and the chance to make his getaway, they await the arrival of some equally strange and seductive guests. Nonetheless, Rollin quickly establishes a pressure-cooker atmosphere of sexual power games and troilism reminiscent of early Polanksi (think ‘Knife in the Water’ but with soft-focus lesbian scenes). Also, he keeps the threat/promise of what the guests are converging for bubbling away in the background; an effective, simmering tension.
‘Fascination’ is aptly titled. It occupies an intriguing middle ground between art and exploitation. Between a genuine aesthetic imperative and a commercial awareness of low-brow panderings. Between extended takes that Tarkovsky or Bela Tarr would give the thumbs up to and copious nudity that dirty old men would have a hand-shandy over. The fascination of ‘Fascination’ is that it never comes down in favour of one over the other. It holds its dichotomies in dreamy equilibrium. Exists on its own terms.
Let me repeat: I’m still having some difficulty rationalizing it. But one thing I know: I need to see more Rollin.
Wednesday, December 22, 2010
Then I heard tell of Albert Pyun. A laugh out loud funny and yet somehow queasily worrying article on The Inferior 4 pegged him as “the new Ed Wood”. This, apparently, is a man who served his apprenticeship working with Kurosawa, Mifune and cinematographer Takao Saito in Japan, and then hooked up with Golan-Globus to make the Kathy Ireland vehicle ‘Alien from LA’. Which is kind of like taking a creative writing course with Neal Stephenson, William Gibson and Iain Banks then publishing a short story on a Guy N. Smith fan fiction site. A man who, astoundingly, had a box office hit in 1989 with the Jean-Claude van Damme starrer ‘Cyborg’ and rode the crest of this mainstream success with the ill-fated ‘Captain America’ (a film he made for essentially nothing after the financing fell through) and then went to work for Full Moon Productions on ‘Dollman’ just two years later. This is kind of like making something for Merchant Ivory then, 24 months down the line, calling “action” on an ‘Anthropophagus’ remake for Platinum Dunes. Except that the Platinum Dunes gig would stand a better chance of seeing the inside of a movie theatre.
Anyway, the 200 odd words of the above paragraph were (a) a brief introduction to the work of Albert Pyun and (b) an attempt to avoid writing about ‘Bulletface’, a film that I’d heard all manner of controversial and challenging things about but which turned out to be just plain depressing.
Here’s a synopsis: DEA agent Dara Marren (Victoria Maurette) is playing both ends against the middle to try to keep her gang-related brother Bruno (Michael Esparza) out of trouble. When a bit of human trafficking goes tits up and Bruno is injured by a rival gang member during a shoot-out at the US/Mexican border, Dara is hauled up in court. Plea bargaining so that Bruno gets sent back to the States, Dara accepts a 25 year sentence in a Mexican prison where violence and rape are a daily occurrence. In the meantime, Bruno’s safety proves short-lived and a bullet negates his sister’s act of self-sacrifice.
During a transfer from the prison to hospital, Dara’s former DEA buddy Ned Walker (Steven Bauer) intercedes to smuggle Dara back into America where she has a single weekend to track down her brother’s killers and take revenge before surrendering herself back into captivity.
All of which sounds very dramatic and promising. Unfortunately, just that plot synopsis was dependent on two excruciating viewings and a couple of online reviews. Randall Fontana’s script subjects narrative coherence, exposition and characterization to the same kind of undignified humiliation that Dara endures in prison. Pyun interminably hits the freeze frame button and overlays moody close-ups with character names and still manages to render huge tranches of the film’s scant 78-minute running time incomprehensible.
Maurette’s performance is okay, Bauer’s too, but everyone else runs the gamut from wooden to stilted. In addition to the freeze frames, Pyun throws in all manner of wonky camera work, jerky editing and split screen montages without demonstrating the most basic understanding of how and why these techniques should be used. ‘Bulletface’ comes across as the work of a film school drop out desperately trying to be Tarantino, not that of a man in his mid-50s who once had features released theatrically.
Worse, Pyun punctuates virtually stage of Dara’s trail of revenge with flashbacks to the prison gang rapes. He not only uses an incredibly unconvincing body double – someone with the physique of a Playboy model where Maurette’s figure is more compact and athletic – but manages to eroticize these scenes even as he’s emphasizing the brutality. Classy, Albert, reeeeal classy.
With the plot little more than a mish-mash of unthought-out ideas, the sexual content venal and the revenge element singularly lacking in catharsis, ‘Bulletface’ is a drab, pedestrian and derivative piece of work.
It would take a braver, stupider or more masochist reviewer than me to stage an Albert Pyun retrospective.
Tuesday, December 21, 2010
"Just weeks away from completing her court-ordered stay at the Betty Ford Center, Lindsay Lohan is being investigated by police after allegedly assaulting a female employee at the clinic.
Palm Desert police conducted a battery investigation at the scene at about 1 a.m. on Dec. 12. "The victim desired prosecution," says Sgt. Joe Borja of the Riverside County Sheriff's Department. "The incident is being investigated as a misdemeanor."
A source close to Lohan, 24, says the actress denies pushing the woman first. The staffer scolded Lohan for allegedly returning past curfew after spending the evening at a local bar, TMZ reports.
It isn't known whether she had been drinking; the Betty Ford Center regularly tests patients for alcohol and drugs."
Three things spring to mind:
1. During a "court-ordered stay at the Betty Ford Center", she spends the evening at a local bar. This is kind of like saying someone going cold turkey hung out backstage with Keith Richards for a while.
2. The writer of the article reports that Lindsay Lohan - Lindsay fuckin' Lohan - spent an evening at a bar, then adds "it isn't known whether she had been drinking". This is kind of like saying Casanova kept the company of several women during the course of an evening but it isn't know whether intercourse took place.
3. Her gun-toting, nun-impersonating, coked-up, hot-tub-occupying socialite from 'Machete' needs her own spin-off movie.
Lindsay: in a Pepsi-and-pizza generation of cardboard cut out, non-threatening, toothpaste commercial non-entity pin-ups like Zac Efron, Robert Pattison and Vanessa Hudgens (the only woman to be at the centre of a topless photos on the internet furore and still emerge as puke-makingly wholesome), you're the magnificent, unapologetic, boozing, brawling, controversy-magnet exception to the rule.
In bad behaviour heaven, Oliver Reed, Richard Harris and Richard Burton are raising a glass to you. Here at chez Agitation, I'm doing exactly the same.
Ripley's prize (no monetary equivalent offered) was the choice, from a shortlist of six titles, of which film I review as the grand finale to Winter of Discontent.
Tune in on Christmas Eve for said review. I'm remaining tight-lipped, but 'Holiday Inn' it most certainly is not.
Monday, December 20, 2010
Paul Maslansky’s 1974 blaxploitation opus effectively provides an answer to the age-old question “Yeah – you and whose army?”
The answer it provides is: “Me and Baron Samedi’s army of the undead, that’s who! So kiss my ass, you honky motherfucker.” (Before you jam up the comments section with reprimands for racism, it should be noted that I’m a honky motherfucker myself and therefore allowed to use the term.)
As with, say, the Pam Grier classic ‘Foxy Brown’, the narrative is an exercise in what happens when a bunch of gangster types make the mistake of fucking with the boyfriend of a kick-ass vengeful take-no-shit action-heroine chick with an afro as big as her attitude and a killer 70s wardrobe. Here, the luckless boyfriend in question is Langston (Larry D. Johnson), who gets kicked to death in the car park of his own nightclub when he refuses to sell said establishment to honky motherfucker gang boss Morgan (Robert Quarry).
This incites the wrath of Diana “Sugar” Hill (Marki Bey), a photographer who just happens to know centenarian voodoo practitioner Mama Maitresse (Zara Cully). Sugar asks a favour and Mama Maitresse obligingly summons up Baron Samedi (Don Pedro Colley). For those not in the know, Baron Samedi is basically the big cheese in the voodoo world. He’s to voodoo what God is to Christianity. Or Justin Bieber to mediocrity.
Now, I don’t know what kind of favours you guys might have asked your friends, but I kind of draw the line at a loan of £20 to see me through to payday. Summoning the big dude of the voodoo world to assist in a systematic decimation of the ranks of a crime organization mixed up in crooked union business, extortion, loan sharking and
God Samedi knows what else is pretty fucking big on the sliding scale of favours. This is the kind of thing that takes balls.
Sugar Hill has balls. Metaphorically, of course. But fucking big ones.
The Baron, in exchange for the promise of a soul, agrees to provide an army of zombies and even appoints himself Sugar’s right-hand man for the duration of the campaign, popping up under the guise of a cab driver or a bartender that better to bamboozle Morgan’s crew and laughing raucously and maniacally every time one of them is dragged to their doom by a phalanx of the undead or manhandled into a coffin full of snakes.
But will the combined forces of Sugar and Samedi be enough to triumph over an increasingly desperate and vicious Morgan, particularly with Sugar’s ex-boyfriend Valentine (Richard Lawson) – a police inspector with a stubborn and tenacious streak – joining the dots as the bodies pile up and finding himself drawn inexorably into Sugar’s orbit.
I don’t know at what stage in development the makers of ‘Sugar Hill’ decided to pitch it as both a revenge movie and a zombie flick, but it was both a stroke of genius and utterly silly.
It’s a stroke of genius because otherwise ‘Sugar Hill’ would have been the poor man’s ‘Foxy Brown’; indeed, Marki Bey, who is statuesque and can scowl with the best of them and that’s about it, is not so much the poor man’s Pam Grier as the bankrupt man’s Pam Grier. Or at the very least the man on an IVA’s Pam Grier. It would have been a boilerplate entry in the blaxploitation cycle; easily forgettable. Throw in the Baron and the zombie bunch, however, and ‘Sugar Hill’ becomes magnificently, dementedly memorable.
And it’s utterly silly because Colley’s Baron Samedi is less a snake-wreathed nightmare born of primal terror and bad acid than an opening act at Jongleurs. He’s a comedy demon, eyes glinting and toothy smile widening as he laughs at his own jokes while a small spatter of applause rings out, more in sympathy than anything else. In the hands of Mel Brooks, he might have been a defining satirical creation, flinging out his arms as smoke drifts around him and light flashes and he prepares to go do that voodoo that he do(es) so well.
The silliness extends to the zombies themselves. They’re supposed to be the reanimated corpses of slaves who died badly. What they actually look like is street kids who were paid a few bucks to have grey make-up slapped on and some store-bought cobwebs draped over their afros.
Ultimately, ‘Sugar Hill’ had an almost failsafe capacity to have been fuck-awful. Instead, it’s big cheesy fun. The bad guys suffer mightily, there’s a bitch-fight between two girls in cleavage-accentuating outfits, there’s at least one scene of genuine tension and the whole thing barrels along at a decent pace. Plus, there’s something incredibly enjoyable about watching a kick-ass vengeful take-no-shit action-heroine chick with an afro as big as her attitude and a killer 70s wardrobe righteously whupping some honky motherfucker butt. And I say that as honky motherfucker myself, as well!
Sunday, December 19, 2010
“While there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” – Eugene Victor Debs
“Andrea, baby, we’ve got a great script for you. A giallo. It’s gritty, it’s pacy, it deals with contentious subject matter. It screams you, baby.”
“I’d rather make a porno.”
“But Andrea, this has got huge box office all over it. Edwige’s schedule is good. We’ve got Femi Benussi on board. Hell, this movie is going to be filled with gorgeous women.”
“Cool. Let’s make it a porno.”
“No, no, no. It’s a murder mystery. Hell, we can throw in some nude scenes, but first and foremost it’s a mystery. It starts with a really gritty and controversial scene as an abortion goes wrong and the two men involved conspire to cover up the girl’s death.”
“Guys, why don’t we scrap the abortion and concentrate on how she conceived in the first place? We could do it as a porno.”
“But Andrea, baby, the abortion sets up the rest of the plot. The scene shifts to a health spa where fashion photographer Carlo – we’ve got Nino Castelnuovo lined up for the role – picks up a foxy redhead played by Femi Benussi and they make out in the steam room. Whaddaya think, Andrea? Your kinda thing, baby?”
“Then he takes her back to the studio he works for where there’s jealousy from one of the other models. Also, the predatory lesbian who runs the studio takes an interest in her.”
“Do they make out?”
“Um, I guess we could address that in rewrites. Anyway, it’s at the studio that we meet our other main character, Magda. That’s who Edwige’s playing. Magda’s an up and coming photographer who has a professional relationship with Carlo and they team up when a spate of murders –”
“Hey, how about she’s a photographer but what she really wants is to be a model and she gives Carlo a blow-job in the dark room to convince him to give her a shot. Because, you know, fuck the feminists.”
“Um, yeah, I guess we could do that. So anyway, Carlo and Magda find out that –”
“Does the redhead buy it? ’Cause I was thinking, maybe we could have her walk around a strange house stark naked for five solid minutes before she gets viciously knifed to death.”
“Andrea, baby, that’s why we called you! That’s what we want on this production: creative thinking, dynamic filmmaking, exciting set pieces. And tits.”
“Don’t forget the ass.”
“That’s what you’re here for, baby. You bring the T&A game. How about it, Andrea? Shoot it quick, don’t bother about composition or continuity. Nobody cares about acting performances. Let’s get this fucker in cinemas in two months’ time. Your usual fee and we’ll throw in crate of J&B. Whaddaya say?”
“Guys, I’m on board. What’s this thing going to be called?”
“We’re thinking either ‘Seven Deaths in the Camera’s Lens’ or ‘Death Wears Motorcycle Leathers and a Gender-Disguising Helmet’. Although the pizza delivery boy prefers ‘Six Drops of Blood on a Naked Corpse’.”
“Good call from the pizza dude. But, guys, how about ‘Strip Nude for Your Killer’.”
“Love it, baby. We start shooting in half an hour.”
Saturday, December 18, 2010
Friday, December 17, 2010
Picture the scene: yours truly and his good lady wife enter a fish ‘n’ chip shop, emphatically debating yours truly’s recent film-viewing choices. This is how the conversation must have played out to the very conservative and increasingly disconcerted middle-aged gentleman ahead of us in the queue:
PAULA: … can’t believe you watched a film called ‘The Killer Nun’. I’m starting to worry about you.
ME: I’d never seen a nunsploitation film before.*
PAULA: Did you just say “nunsploitation”?
PAULA: You’re seriously telling me there’s a subgenre of movies called “nunsploitation”?
ME: Yeah. It’s all about nuns doing un-nun-like things.
PAULA: Okay. Let me get this straight. A cheap exploitative movie aimed at a predominantly Africa-American audience is blaxploitation, right?
PAULA: And a cheap exploitative war movie is warsploitation or Nazisploitation depending on the iconography?
ME: Yeah. (To the guy behind the counter) Large chips wrapped and two fishcakes, please mate.
PAULA: And stuff involving car chases and dangerous driving is carsploitation?
PAULA: Right. And if one of your Italian directors made a cheap knock-off of ‘Chicken Run’ but with added nudity and violence, it’d be chickensploitation would it?
ME: Well, there is a giallo called ‘Death Laid an Egg’.
PAULA: Why did I marry you?
Guilio Questi’s 1968 giallo plays out against the glamorous backdrop of, uh, battery farming. An early scene, setting up an accident-or-murder-attempt which provides the film’s major dynamic, features the installation of some new hi-tech equipment therein. A newcomer who threatens capon head honcho Marco (Jean-Louis Trintignant)’s seniority within the umbrella corporation who act as the chicken farm’s backers is an advertising executive obsessed with humanising chickens as part of his publicity campaign.
Folks, we’re a long way from the glitzy fashion house locales of ‘Blood and Black Lace’ or ‘The Red Queen Kills Seven Times’.
Marco owes his professional status to his wife Anna (Gina Lollobrigida) who actually owns the chicken farm. He is equally influenced by the shadowy board of the umbrella corporation (in full-on Mafioso style, they call themselves The Organisation). To make things more complicated, he’s conducting a clandestine affair with his secretary Gabriella (Ewa Aulin), with whom he fantasizes about running away even if it means turning his back on a life of wealth and privilege. Anna also fantasizes about Gabriella in a manner that wouldn’t be out of place in a Sarah Waters novel.
Marco’s world starts coming apart. Gabriella is courted by Modaini (Jean Sobieski), aforementioned ad-man. Marco and Anna are menaced by the workers they laid off as a result of automating the chicken farm. Anna, convinced Marco is tricking with hookers, inveigles Gabriella into posing as a call-girl with her in a clumsy entrapment manoeuvre. This puts both women in a risky position, as it seems that Marco is behind a series of sexually-motivated murders in cheap anonymous hotel rooms.
To anyone who’s rubbing their hands together right now and deciding to add it to their rental list and to hell with the stupid title, pray hold fast for the moment and read the next few paragraphs. You’ll thank me.
‘Death Laid an Egg’ starts ickily but promisingly. Footage of chicken fertilization makes up the credit sequence; Bruno Maderna’s atonal score does to the ears what the imagery does to the eyes. This bit of business out of the way, Questi immediately disorientates the viewer by cutting between at least half a dozen different characters in (possibly) different locations, punctuating the montage with (ostensibly) random exteriors – arterial roads, flyovers, hotels – before full-stopping the sequence with what might be a murder.
It’s one hell of an opening and it promises all manner of head-fuckery. The introduction of Lollobrigida and Aulin – the latter at her most luminous – ups the eye candy quotient to levels that could only be equalled or bettered if Edwige Fenech or Barbara Bouchet were involved. Moreover, it boasts some decent architecture porn …
… and at least one scene of off-the-scale what-the-fuckery:
Unfortunately, it goes downhill veeeeery quickly. Maderna’s jolting music, so effective during the credits, thuds and clunks its way onto the soundtrack at what seems like every five minutes throughout the rest of the movie, usually at the most inappropriate moment. You feel like it’s setting you up for a grand guignol murder or a tense chase scene, but it never comes. Instead, Questi gets it into his head that he’s making a Godard-style bit of pop art, or a Fellini-esque study of the jaded idle classes. Occasionally, maybe because the producers curtly reminded him, he cuts loose with a few mysterious goings on.
I reviewed ‘Black Belly of the Tarantula’ earlier this year and was underwhelmed for the simple reason that it awkwardly straddled the very different disciplines of giallo and art film. The polarities never reconciled. The tonal shifts were too jarring. It wasn’t cerebral enough for an art film, nor were its ostensibly sleazy elements quite sleazy enough to satiate the hardened giallo fan.
I take it all back. ‘Black Belly of the Tarantula’ is as sleazy and overtly giallo-centric as ‘Strip Nude for Your Killer’ (up next on the review list) compared to ‘Death Laid an Egg’.
With its panoply of sexual and financial power games, hookers, morally comprised protagonists, shadowy antagonists, attempted murders, fetishized violence, abundance of eye candy and performances from established stars Lollobrigida and Trintignant, ‘Death Laid an Egg’ ought to be at the forefront of the top tier gialli, swapping leather-gloved murder techniques and Ennio Morricone soundtrack albums with the likes of Bava, Argento and Fulci. That it isn’t is depressing. So much potential is squandered. When I sat down to watch ‘Death Laid an Egg’, it was with a view to a cheap one-liner. I wanted it to be an undiscovered gem – eggcellent or eggceptional. Or so wonderfully and entertainingly terrible that it was eggcruciating; a bad egg.
Turns out, this was one giallo that was basically yellow; an exploitation film that chickened out.
*That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
Thursday, December 16, 2010
Meet Sister Geraldine (Anita Ekberg). She’s the assistant to patriarchal Dr Poirret (Massimo Serato) at a convent hospital. Poirret has recently removed a benign tumour from Sister Geraldine’s brain, but she is still experiencing symptoms that Poirret is convinced are psychosomatic.
Sister Geraldine has a morphine habit, a guilt complex and the temptation of sharing a room with the nubile Sister Mathilde (Paola Morra); both of them sleep naked in decidedly un-nun-like fashion and Sister Mathilde is sending some fairly heavy Sapphic vibes in Sister Geraldine’s direction.
Sister Geraldine begs Dr Poirret to put her back under observation, but he refuses. She petitions her stony-visaged Mother Superior (Alida Valli) for help, but is curtly told that “a nun’s vocation is to suffer”. Her neuroses spill out into her dealings with the patients. She becomes increasingly domineering in the way she treats them, and hesitates during crucial medical procedures with Poirret, putting lives at risk. Poirret’s frustrations with her behaviour become antagonistic and she responds by scuppering his future at the hospital by blackmailing the Clinical Director (Daniele Dublino) into misrepresenting Poirret before the board.
His replacement, the younger and immediately popular Dr Roland (Joe Dallesandro), begins to have doubts as to the veracity of Poirret’s dismissal. In the meantime, a series of mysterious deaths occur and Sister Geraldine’s behaviour suggests that her mental health is fragmenting.
For all that its title and a couple of almost lesbian scenes between Sister Geraldine and Sister Mathilde (there’s nudity but no sex) scream nunsploitation, Guilio Berruti’s controversy magnet is a giallo from start to finish. Unfortunately, it’s not a particularly inventive one and the killer’s identity is so easily guessable the denouement is an insult.
On the plus side, Ekberg goes at the role full-throttle, and often gives a real sense of someone torn between spiritual piety and the yearning for sexual fulfilment. The whole thing is shot decently enough and the murder scenes are varied, some delivered swiftly for maximum shock value, and one gruesomely protracted. An oblique flashback linking into the killer’s motivation is effectively incorporated into an elliptically edited sequence during one of Sister Geraldine’s morphine fixes, perspective and reality fragmenting as Geraldine’s mind loops the loop.
There’s another great moment where the patients, suspecting that Sister Geraldine has killed at least one of their number, turn a prayer session into an act of rebellion that turns Geraldine into a screaming wreck. The scene is effected as the camera floats slowly back along a corridor (I was reminded of Hitchcock’s ‘Frenzy’) and a chorus of disembodied voices grow louder and louder on the soundtrack.
‘The Killer Nun’ doesn’t work very well as a mystery, and – despite all the boxes it seems to tick based on a cursory synopsis – it’s fairly tame as an example of nunsploitation. It does have enough good moments, however, to make it worthwhile and Ekberg is highly memorable, whether bullying the patients, jacking up (insert ‘Sweet Sister Morphine’ gag) or getting her civvies on and cruising bars for some NSA fun. ‘Inn of the Sixth Happiness’ it most certainly isn’t.
Wednesday, December 15, 2010
In the last month or so, my trawl through exploitation cinema has taken in blaxploitation, Nazisploitation, sexploitation, hicksploitation, gialli, rape/revenge, home invasion, cannibalism, women in prison and Japanese cheapies of the dude-that’s-fucked-up variety. The delightful wrongness of ‘The Candy Snatchers’ has offset the grubby ennui of ‘The House on Straw Hill’. The hymn to the female form that is Laura Gemser and Ely Galleani taking a shower together is something I focus my mind on with the utmost degree of concentration when the mention of the words “black” and “Emanuelle” in the same sentence threatens to conjure up, unbidden, the sight of a woman polishing some equine lighthouse. So to speak.
Now I find myself halfway through December, with a just a week and a half till the grand finale, when the winner of the caption competition (you’ve still got time to enter; just click the pic on the sidebar) gets to pick, from a shortlist of six, the final title in this year’s Winter of Discontent. I say “this year’s” because the list of titles I drew up, based on their availability online or borrowed from friends, was enough to for at least two more Winters of Discontent as well as a little something I’ve got planned for early next year. More on that later.
So there I was trying to whittle down all the possible bits of filth, depravity, violence, sexual licentiousness and profanity the master list presented me with, when I realised that I hadn’t featured any bikersploitation or nunsploitation. Consider that oversight rectified. We’ll be getting into some bad habits (sorry!) tomorrow, but tonight’s film features a bunch of boozing, brawling, bristly-bearded bad-ass bikers.
Ladies and gentlemen: ‘Northville Cemetery Massacre’.
The opening scene has an elderly couple, stranded on the side of the road after a puncture, cowering in their car as a motorcycle gang terrorize them. Then kindly change their tyre and roar off. While not entirely unexpected in its execution, it’s a reasonably cute scene, playfully subverting audience expectations. For the next twenty minutes, sod all happens. Nah, actually things do happen – stoner Chris (David Hyry) hitches a ride with the bikers on the condition that he’ll break out his stash; some white trash cops hassle them; Chris hooks up with his girlfriend Lynn (Jan Sisk); and everyone whoops it up at a biker wedding – but co-writers/co-directors William Dear and Thomas L. Dyke string everything together so arbitrarily, concentrating more on endless scenes of Harley Davidsons roaring up and down country roads than on characterisation (the biker gang was apparently played by an actual biker gang and I got the impression that Dear and Dyke were kind of hesitant to give them much in the way of direction or foist anything as complicated as a script on them). Dialogue is a minimal and a horrible C&W ballad tells the story instead.
At around the one-third mark, there’s an attempt at a story. Chris and Lynn, left behind after a make-out session in a barn when the police move the bikers on, are set on by corrupt cop Puttnam (Craig Collicott), who knocks Chris unconscious and rapes Lynn. He then bullies her into silence and leads her father to believe that the biker gang were responsible. Lynn’s influential father gives Puttnam his by-your-leave to deal with the bikers unofficially.
‘Northville Cemetery Massacre’ is a grindhouse good ole boy flick, with the bikers sanctified as an essentially peace-loving bunch who just want to ride their hogs, chug some JD, throw darts at a pictures of Richard Nixon and smoke a little weed. So what if they hang up a swastika in their clubhouse? In what seems like a feature-length exposition of the last scene of ‘Easy Rider’ – the freedom-loving bikers arbitrarily gunned down (except with the bikers here at least returning a few shots) – ‘Northville Cemetery Massacre’ wears its anti-authoritarian heart on its sleeve. And that’s fine by me. Only it doesn’t quite work. The freewheeling first third – which I’d be tempted to call experimental in its approach if I wasn’t convinced that it’s actually the product of simple ineptitude – gives way to an entirely predictable narrative which nonetheless wants to freight its no-one-here-gets-out-alive final sequence with an almost Shakespearean hint of tragedy (will Lynn tell her father the real story in time to prevent bloodshed?)
Essentially, ‘Northville Cemetery Massacre’ fancies itself as an avante garde message movie which balances exploitation with pathos and plays out to a C&W soundtrack designed to appeal to the backwoods shit-kicker market. Unfortunately, it fails on just about every level.