Lesser-Known Kings: Maximum Overdrive/Silver Bullet/Cat’s Eye, and “Chinga”

For a while I’ve wanted to write a series of articles about the now legendary writer, Stephen King, but instead of his more famous and critically-acclaimed stories, the films and lesser-known pieces that he had some hand in producing, some based on his many books, some not. We’re all somewhat familiar with the more famous and, crucially, renowned King adaptations – The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, Stand by Me – but what may be telling is that these films tend to be a width outside the novelist’s usual horror remit. (Stand by Me began life as a horror novella: The Body, one quarter of the Different Seasons anthology which also contains Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption. Director Rob Reiner, however, removed the horror and focused more on the coming-of-age, old-timey Americana elements.)

Even those adaptations which are based on horror novels often deviate wildly from their source materials. Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is a cold and cynical film about cabin fever, a world away from the fiery Gothic chiller King envisaged (King himself, who to this day dislikes the film – for the record, I enjoyed it – noted that the book ends in fire and the film ends in ice). To my mind, the best and most faithful of the lauded King horror adaptations is Brian de Palma’s Carrie, though even that veers away from the excesses of the novel in its climax. As for the rest, the horror adaptations which aren’t particularly famous or renowned, which lurk in the ether recognised mostly by fans (like myself) and B-movie buffs, are the lesser-known Kings with whom I will be grappling.

I may also branch out into some of the lesser-known stories and novellas, like the uniquely disquieting “It Grows on You” – the last of the stories set in the fictional township of Castle Rock, Maine (other notables: Cujo, Needful Things, and The Body) – and King’s bleak reflection on pornographic pulp magazines, Apt Pupil. For this inaugural article, however, I’ll tackle some easy targets: first, three slightly sludgy, dime-a-dozen, almost painfully 80s suspense movies, which typify how long and arduous the road from page to screen can be for a Stephen King story.

Part of the problem, I think, is that where on paper King’s work is compelling and suspenseful, when translated for the screen it often just comes across as ridiculous. But a much larger and more pressing issue, in the 90s-and-previous moves that King himself had a hand in, is that when it comes to adapting his own material, he can’t seem to resist the urge to kid it, to dip down into camp. This is probably due to the fact that, let’s be honest, Stephen King was born to be an author, not a filmmaker. He even said once, I’m sure of it, that he ultimately prefers books to films, but I can’t for the life of me find the exact quote on Google, so you’ll have to take my word for it (or not). In the end, he’s a film fan and even a buff, but he just wasn’t built to support the silver screen. That’s not to say that a large chunk of the films he’s handled aren’t worth-watching and entertaining, though. Three great examples are collected in this box set:

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The DVDs are bare of features besides scene indexes and, for Overdrive and Bullet, trailers, which is probably why I got it cheap. (It’s been a few years, but I got it on Amazon.co.uk and it’s currently listed at under ten pounds, used and new, minus postage and packaging.) But these three films exemplify King’s filmmaking style. As of the time of writing King hasn’t actually directed a film since Overdrive, the only one for which he has directing credit. He readily admitted that he got the job because of his name and not his directing skills, and that the film was made during a phase in his life when he was doing, like, all the cocaine.

King cokeArtist’s representation.

He’s called 1986’s Maximum Overdrive a “moron movie”, and when asked why he doesn’t direct films tells the interviewer to watch it, and they’ll know. It was even nominated for two Golden Raspberry awards: Worst Director and, for star Emilio Estevez, Worst Actor. (It lost both to Prince for Under the Cherry Moon.) I still think King’s a little hard on himself, however. While Maximum Overdrive doesn’t reach anywhere near the scary experience its Hitchcockian trailer promised*, it is a thoroughly amusing, well, moron movie.

What’s hilarious about that trailer, by the way, is that King promises to “scare the Hell out of you”, and says that so many people have made films based on Stephen King stories that he finally decided, if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. Well, people have been more respectful and made better films of your genuinely brilliant stories, King, though I think you realise that. Overdrive was very loosely based on the short story “Trucks”, collected in the still great début anthology Night Shift. “Trucks” was a crisp and serious, apocalypse tale which didn’t try to explain why the eponymous vehicles suddenly gained sentience, then turned on their masters. It also didn’t attempt big set-pieces. It was set almost entirely within a gas station diner where the cast of strangers, from a young couple to a trucker and a Bible-salesman, are trapped by the circling, gas-guzzling behemoths. It starts long after the trucks have begun their rampage, and ends on a distinctly nihilistic note.

Alternately, Maximum Overdrive begins in the middle of a hot summer day to the tune of a thumping AC/DC song, “Who Made Who”, after King himself, in a cameo, tries to withdraw money from an ATM and is called an asshole by the digital readout. You see the territory we’re in. King’s always had a dark sense of humour, but this leaps overboard into John Pink Flamingos Waters… erm, waters. Estevez plays a kind-hearted ex-con trying to make a living as a truck-stop fry-cook, beneath odious, cigar-chomping boss Pat Hingle (better known as Commissioner Gordon in the Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher Batman films). In this version of the story all mechanical appliances are going beserk, not just trucks, so a waitress is assaulted by an electric meat-cleaver, and in my favourite scene a Little Leage baseball team is mown down by a coke machine. The only other actor of note is Yeardley Smith, who went on to voice Lisa Simpson in The Simpsons. Here she plays a screeching harridan whose shrill, nasal voice makes Janice from Friends sound like Queen Elizabeth.

queenelizabethcrown (1)Seen here looking like Pope Benedict in drag.

1985’s Silver Bullet is based on Cycle of the Werewolf, the only King book I’ve read that I didn’t care for. It’s a strange comic-book/novella hybrid; great illustrations by Bernie Wrightson are dotted throughout. They’re vivid and lurid with strong, pungent colouring. The story, however, feels like a lot of King cliches and stock scenes loosely tied together to form a narrative. It comes across to me as the first draft of a short story, and the film isn’t much better in terms of plot, but unlike the book it has an entertaining self-parodic edge. The late critic Roger Ebert gave Silver Bullet three stars on the tentative theory that it was made as a comedy: “Stephen King’s “Silver Bullet” is either the worst movie ever made from a Stephen King story, or the funniest.”** I can certainly understand the thinking there.

If you watch Bullet as a serious attempt at a horror film it’s beyond embarrassing. Not only is the werewolf, which stalks a small town and is investigated by a wheelchair-bound little boy (Corey Haim) and his sister (Megan Follows), ridiculously fake and overexposed when viewed today, but the acting is histrionic (surprisingly, Gary Busey gives the sanest performance as the boy’s drunk-but-lovable uncle), and the “scary” set-pieces enough to make the cheesiest Hammer-horror crapfest blush. (A dream sequence in a church*** is fleetingly effective, in its contrast between a cosy lighted sermon and a dark mass-metamorphoses, but even that is punctuated by shots hammier than a ham sandwich. Where the bread is actually gammon steaks.)

why_gary_busey_sucksAgain, Gary Busey gives the sanest performance.

Silver Bullet is ultimately an improvement on its source material, just because, if you view it from the right angle, it has a self-aware edge which the novella lacked. (Though it’s worth noting that even “bad King” is leagues better than, say, “good James Patterson”. Or am I just a King fanboy? I’m sure Patterson fanboys, if such peculiar creatures exist, will be able to tell me.) Also, the film contains the immortal line, quoted in the Ebert review, “Are you going to make lemonade in your pants?” You have to love a horror film brave enough to use a line like that.

Also in 1985 came Cat’s Eye, an anthology film comprised of three loosely interlocking stories, the first two based on ones from Night Shift, “Quitters, Inc.” and “The Ledge”, and the third, “General”, written fresh for the film. The eponymous eyes belong to the so-called General, a stray cat which looks in the window of a New York City shopfront, and receives a telepathic message from a little girl (Drew Barrymore) in danger. The cat then wanders into “Quitters, Inc.”, a story about a smoker (James Woods) trying to quit who happens across the titular establishment, which promises total freedom from his habit, not through a program of medications or exercises, but threats. If one of the organisation’s many agents catch him smoking, his loved ones will be subjected to increasing torments.

Following this, “The Ledge” observes a sick bet dreamed up by a sadistic gangster (Kenneth McMillan) whose wife has been having an affair with a tennis pro (Robert Hays): Hays must feel his way around the outside of a high hotel-storey with only a thin ledge to stand on. If he survives, he gets the gangster’s wife. Finally, the poor bedraggled tabby arrives at the home of little Drew Barrymore, which is frequented by a tiny troll who lives in the wainscoting.

Of the three films in the collection, Cat’s Eye comes closest to genuine, edge-of-your seat suspense. The anthology style has a Twilight Zone appeal, and you get the sense that screenwriter King is trying, if not to scare, then at least keep us guessing. As is the way with much of King’s 80s/90s cinematic output, however, a lot of the characterisations are broader than they were in the source material. Kenneth McMillan’s gangster is particularly one-dimensional; all he needs is a top hat and a swirlier moustache. Funnily enough, the third story captures the original spirit of King a little better than its predecessors, despite having the seeming disadvantage of not being based on a short story. The troll is an amusing little fellow, and the final fight scene between it and the cat is very entertaining. Also, “The Ledge” was well-staged enough to excite my vertigo and make me nauseous.

catseye_07Pictured: The vivid epitome of “Nope.”

Lastly, I’d like to briefly talk about “Chinga” (1998), a fifth-season episode of the paranormal TV-series The X-Files, of which King was a fan and requested to write an episode for. It’s your standard “scary doll” story, and it’s been said that King’s original script was revised beyond recognition, though personally I see his fingerprints all over it, not just in the more obvious fan service (like the opening shot of a Maine licence-plate), but the more subtle imagery and tropes.

I have mixed feelings about the “scary doll” trope. Undoubtedly, my favourite such story is Susan The Woman in Black Hill’s Dolly, a novella in which the doll was more the tool than the bringer of evil (the story hints at voodoo practices in 19th-century-England). In recent years, however, the trope hasn’t been overused so much as used lamely. The 2014 horror film Annabelle, for instance, whose titular doll is so obviously designed to be frightening that it’s anything but. The reason Victorian dolls are creepy is because their affected innocence is at odds with the notion of a never-blinking, china-white, perfectly groomed child. If you remove those affectations, instead giving your doll garish make-up and split-ends, you get something distinctly non-threatening.

THE CONJURINGShe looks less likely to kill you than attend a hentai Sailor Moon convention.

The doll in “Chinga” captures the unsettling faux-innocence of Victorian dollies pretty well. It’s creepiest in the scenes where, through what I imagine is some kind of astral projection (the precise nature of the episode’s threat is never strongly explained), the doll appears before a victim and psychically forces them to commit suicide. A blurred reflection of the doll in the door of a supermarket freezer, as it utters the catchphrase “I want to play”, is especially good. The King influences are clear in the discussions of such topics as the Salem witch trials, and the use of popular music to haunting effect, which culminates with a scene at a nursery where a woman finds that her vinyl records have been strewn about the playroom. This image may well be a conscious nod to the novel The Shining, which also uses the image of scattered and broken records to convey destructive, paranoid fear.

All in all, “Chinga” is a relatively shallow “Monster-of-the-Week” X-Files story. It’s driven by gore, New England comedy-of-manners, and trope-ish horror scenes. But it’s a fun and suspenseful little thriller, pitched somewhere between the unadulterated cornball of early King cinema, and the more faithful attempts to adapt his thrillers. In conclusion, then, all of the works I’ve reviewed here are worth a watch, but moreso if you’re looking for trashy escapism, as opposed to the rich seam of terror King’s literature mines.

Maximum-Overdrive-Stephen-KingBelieve it or not, this goober can be really fucking frightening.

*Maximum Overdrive trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ggWS4tTzs60
**Roger Ebert’s review of Silver Bullet: http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/silver-bullet-1985
***Silver Bullet scenes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zzNPeHQCwEQ

Film review: The Hateful 8 (2016)

Rating: 4 stars out of 4

I know I’m in the minuscule minority here, but I’ve always preferred Quentin Tarantino’s post- to pre-Jackie Brown movies. Jackie Brown, you may recall, was a late-90s tribute to 70s blaxploitation films, adapted from an Elmore Leonard novel, which was the most uncomplicated and grounded of Tarantino’s films (seemingly focused as much on hard realism as stylistic tricks), and also a turning point in the filmmaker’s style. Before Jackie Brown he was making cool, contemporary post-modern thrillers, time-displaced and pure style. (Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction don’t seem to take place in any particular time beyond “post-WWII”, and in fact seem to exist in a static parallel universe without a weight of history or future; the neo-noir universe, if you will.)

After Jackie Brown he moved beyond both hard realism and neo-noir to make Kill Bill, set in a universe not only time-displaced but place-displaced. It has shades of the universe we recognise, but is cobbled together entirely from places in the collective imagination, especially as relating to kung-fu flicks and westerns.

After Kill Bill we got a pseudo-slasher grindhouse tribute in Death Proof (Tarantino’s weakest film, though a passable romp with one or two interesting ideas in itself), and from there the revisionist histories, so far comprising Inglorious Basterds, Django Unchained, and now The Hateful 8, my favourite of the three. I like the post-Jackie Browns more than the pre- because the latter have always struck me as essentially cold movies. Packed with bucket-loads of tricks and winks and costumes and puns and moments, but not really having any soul. In fact, if you removed all the narrative tricks and played the events of both Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction in chronological order, I’d wager that they’d be a lot less interesting.

The Hateful 8, however, goes some way to fixing a problem with its two immediate predecessors. Basterds and Unchained were great movies, but they suffered a little from black-and-white moralising. These people are unquestionably good, those people are unquestionably bad. (Especially problematic in Basterds, where the heroes were shown torturing and killing everyday German soldiers, distinct from card-carrying Nazis.) In Unchained‘s case, this brought it a little way down from the Sergio Leone spaghetti-westerns it sought to emulate.

The Hateful 8, by dint of its mystery-story structure, doesn’t allow for that kind of moral certainty, because in a mystery everyone except the detective is suspect. Tarantino even goes one further and removes the detective. The film’s basic plot was pioneered by Agatha Christie in her novel And Then There Were None… (originally sporting the more Tarantino-esque title Ten Little Niggers): a group of strangers arrive at an isolated location, each with a dread secret, and as the night draws in, those secrets erupt into violence, as it becomes clear that at least one of them plans to do away with the others… In the Christie story, the locale was an island manor off the English coast. In Hateful 8 it’s a haberdashery in the Appalachian wastes, where a blizzard traps the cast together (Christie also used a snowy setting in another version of this story, The Mousetrap).

In a film where every performance is grand, Kurt Russell and Jennifer Jason Leigh stand out alongside Samuel L. Jackson. Kurt Russell plays roughneck bounty hunter John Ruth, almost buried behind fur coats, waistcoats, and moustaches. Despite his ability and willingness to floor anyone who looks at him askew, there’s something strangely naive about him, such as when he reads a letter from Abraham Lincoln to Jackson’s character, a fellow bounty hunter. After playing a non-role in Kingsman: The Secret Service (let’s be honest, his character was just a nonsensical string of mannerisms), Jackson is on top-form as the closest thing this film has to a protagonist, the ex-Union major Marquis Warren, reduced to collecting bounties.

Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Daisy Domergue, John Ruth’s bounty. I won’t call her a femme fatale because, though she is female and fatal, that archetype is for women with seductive appeal, and as written by Tarantino, dressed by the wardrobe department, and played by Leigh, she’s anything but seductive. Sporting bruises (courtesy of Ruth) and with a hillbilly’s dental-work, she spits blood at anyone in range, talks trash, and is openly hostile to all. (Though she does give Confederate renegade Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) a little grudging respect, after he cadges a lift in Ruth’s stagecoach, due to their shared racism.) Leigh’s was probably my favourite performance if only because it reaches new heights of evil and downright ugliness in a female character.

Normally, villainesses are written to fit the mould set out in Solomon the Bible-book, where we meet deceptively beautiful wenches who drag righteous men down to Hell with their wiles. Daisy Domergue has no wiles, and no interest in acquiring them. She lets it be known at every turn that she’s out to destroy her fellow prisoners at the haberdashery. Goggins, as Mannix the dim-witted hillbilly, is the film’s comic relief, and Tim Roth does a good turn as a well-dressed Englishman prone to philosophising, while Michael Madsen is, well, Michael Madsen (if you’ve seen him in the other Tarantinos, you won’t have any trouble recognising him here). Beyond that, I’ll let you discover the characters for yourselves.

What I love about this movie is how much of a talkie it is. Tarantino is often criticised for the length and self-indulgence of his later films, but I like a film which will set an entire chapter in a stagecoach while people are talking, discussing motives, histories, and possibilities. I like dialogue, and sometimes I don’t want to see it pared down to the requisite information. The Hateful 8 is almost three hours long, and though at times I could feel my backside getting tired, I was never really bored.

Of course, one can’t review a Tarantino movie without mentioning the score, and the Ennio Morricone soundtrack is superb, conveying the
mystery, suspense, and barbarism bound up in the film. This is a score I’d be inclined to buy on CD. (Me being the sort of chump who still buys CDs.) It goes without saying that the film is stunningly violent in Tarantino’s usual corn-syrup-soaked way. In fact, so many bullets are fired by the hateful eight, you’d think that the haberdashery came with its own military supplies.

hateful-8-poster-2-600x939

Book review: Make Death Love Me by Ruth Rendell (1979)

rendell - make death love me250

Rating: 4 out of 4 stars

The title of what may be Ruth Rendell’s saddest novel, Make Death Love Me, is a snippet of dialogue from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, where Antony declares his resolve to face the grim reaper bravely and bullishly. The story and characters bring to my mind a different quote, from Philip Larkin’s poem “Faith Healing”:

In everyone there sleeps

A sense of life lived according to love.

To some it means the difference they could make

By loving others, but across most it sweeps

As all they might have done had they been loved.

That nothing cures.

Larkin was writing about the desperate faithful in American revival tents, hoping that the con will work for them. But the words also apply to Rendell’s criminals, who in this novel from 1979 run the gamut from the psychopathic, and just pathetic, to the sadly identifiable.

Every great genre writer brings something fresh to the genre, in this case crime. For Agatha Christie it was the idea that the protagonist could, at the end of the story, be unmasked as the antagonist. (A trope which has since been used in everything from pulp sci-fi to Martin Scorcese films.) For Patricia Highsmith it was that a crime series could be about the killer rather than the detective. And for Ruth Rendell it was that the killer could inspire as much sympathy as his victim. (Though Highsmith developed the psychopathic anti-hero trope, her psychopaths were more likeable than pitiable. In other words they were good company, but you wouldn’t be inclined to give them a hug.)

Sympathy for the devil was Rendell’s driving force in her psychological fiction. Rarely in her work is a person evil so much as fallen. They exist in a post-Original Sin world, apart from and always seeking grace, but in the worst places. Make Death Love Me features one of her most unlikeable psychopaths, a snobbish cretin called Nigel Thaxby who fancies himself as Friedrich Nietzche’s Superman – blond, muscular, tyrannical – yet even he is exposed to us in such a way that he’s made available for our pity as much as our hate. He, however, is just one part of the increasingly complex plot.

The novel opens with Alan Groombridge, a bank manager, guiltily caressing a wad of money. Trapped in what amounted to a shotgun marriage – to a woman he knocked up as a teenager and never loved – the father of two children he dislikes, and the son-in-law of an odious armchair fascist who lives in his house, Groombridge dreams of freedom more than the hero of The Shawshank Redemption.

A passionate reader, he came to literature relatively late in life and, through it, discovered a world beyond the depressing middle-class inanity he’s always been chained to. This leads him to fantasising about stealing just enough money from his employers to afford his freedom – only for a year; he’s a realist as well as a fantasist – so when the bank is robbed by Nigel and his accomplice, Marty, he sees his chance…

The notion that literature can be a balm to the imprisoned was explored by Rendell two years prior to Make Death, in A Judgement in Stone. (Which had this still notorious first line: “Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write”; never before had a crime novel given away crime, motive, and killer in its first sentence.) One of the greatest joys of Rendell is her literary and historical frame-of-reference. Quotes from and allusions to great novels, plays, and even the Bible lend her work a deeper spiritual reality, anchored to the whole of humanity, its qualities and flaws.

Rendell even satirises the question of literature’s impact on the individual and society, introducing a character who’s a Neo-Empiricist philosopher, and believes firmly that only a complete acceptance of reality can bring one to a healthy emotional state. Fiction, he believes, is the path to delusion, and he traces all human dissatisfaction to the invention of the novel. Was literature the beginning of Groombridge’s downfall? Methinks if he was totally satisfied with reality in the first place he wouldn’t have become so dependant on escape.

Rendell’s novels, both her standalone thrillers and more traditional murder mysteries, are famous for their almost relentless cynicism about love, marriage, and modern life. (If, in the Frank Sinatra song, love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage, in Rendell’s novels they go together like a hammer and skull.) There’s virtually no such thing as a happy marriage in her universe. Everyone marries for money, security, and status, like a Jane Austen story without the happy ending where love wins out after all.

The particular brunt of her scorn are middle-class marriages like Groombridge’s, which don’t even have love to spare for their children. In fact, the effects of lovelessness on children is a major Rendell theme. The families of her psychopaths are almost uniformly cold and distant. Though relating no abuse, exactly, Nigel Thaxby’s recollections of childhood are heartbreaking because they subtly illustrate that his parents always saw him as an object, putty to be moulded into a pre-arranged image of perfection.

His accomplice Marty, on the other hand, is merely pathetic, one of those people who’s not really bad and not really good, and given half a chance would happily drink himself to death on his own dime, harming no-one else. The crime he and Nigel commit in robbing the bank, and kidnapping a clerk, is pitiable. Neither know anything about crime, but then again, Marty and the clerk don’t really know anything about Nigel, so when Nigel’s sanity begins to crumble they react like frightened children. Groombridge has a little more success in his criminal misadventure, probably because his is driven by sadness rather than greed. All he wants is to be free, and to live the young adulthood his shotgun marriage denied him.

Rendell pioneered something else in crime fiction: the realisation that a female mystery writer could be more than just a naive oddity, writing about tarts and vicars in staid country towns. Her prose is as tough as anything by Mickey Spillane or James Ellroy, and for the time that she was writing, her vicious approach to middle-class English life was quite revolutionary. One of her inspirations seemed to be Victorian literature, which she had a strong passion for and frequently referred to in her fiction. The influence is clear: like her Victorian forebears, Rendell places a heavy focus on history, emotion, and suspense. The reader always knows more than the characters, and any twist on the circumstances is possible.

As I said earlier, Make Death Love Me may be her saddest novel. None of the major players in the story are necessarily bad to the bone. They just never learned how to live “according to love”.

Short story: After What Happened

It really was a lovely tea party, until all the murders. That sounds like I’m trying to be flippant, but really it’s the most coherent thing I can say about what happened. I was six years old and my family and I were staying at a cottage in the Lake District, borrowed from friends of my dad. Dad was one of those working-class men who become rich as adults, move to the suburbs, enrol their kids in good schools, but never truly enter the middle-class. His cockney accent would not be subdued, and his beginnings as a tea-and-tobacco merchant at the East End stalls had earned him the nickname Smoky Rose (“Smoky” for cigarettes, “Rose” for “Rosy Lee”, or tea). ‘Better than Tokyo Rose, I suppose’ he once joked.

That day we all sat around a wrought-iron table, dressed with a plain cream cloth, in wrought-iron chairs. The centrepiece was a large teapot bought from a tearoom in the nearby town, and surrounding it like little courtiers were many-flavoured sandwiches. Mum, an anorexic in her youth, had that thin woman’s habit of preparing too much food for everyone else. Dad, who stayed just on the right side of fat by playing a little tennis here and there, didn’t seem to mind. He was already on his fourth tuna-paste when, mum having refreshed the pot from dad’s flask, he said ‘I’ll be mother’ and poured for the last time.

I have a powerful memory, possibly imagined much later, of tea pouring, a great holy flood from the spout, light brown like a watery sand dune, into perfect china cups. Filling, filling, filling. Dad’s smile like that of a dad in a tea commercial, wide and handsome and a little lined. Mum as well: joyous, red-lipped. As white as the china. This is what makes me think that the memory is my imagination. People traumatised by sudden horror often idealise their pre-event memories, hence why every dead victim on the news was the kindest, happiest boy or girl around. It’s not just because fate and murderers hate nice guys. My dad I don’t have too many memories of, but mum survived and in the post-event memories she is what she was (at least after what happened): meek and lined, like a once-desired girl reduced to a life of toiling peasantry.

It’s an old idea that all little boys fall in love with their mummies and all little girls with their daddies. Whether I was in love with my daddy I don’t recall, but I seem to recall reacting to his death the way a lover might: ignoring the kindnesses of all other men – granddads, teachers, doctors, and vicars alike – until I was at least eighteen, lest I love again and be destroyed. When I came out as gay to my surviving sister, Emma, she laughed and said ‘well, you always did hate blokes’. Our not-surviving sister, Elise, may have been in love with him. She was nine at the time and mimicked the way he drank his tea, making sure to sip exactly when he did. I have long since locked any memory I might have of her dying deep enough that I won’t find it again. It’s at the bottom of the sea, waiting for a lifeboat on the Titanic.

What I remember is dad’s sweet and careless face suddenly changing. His eyebrows creased, his lips twisted and puckered, as if he’d sucked one of those joke sweets which taste like sweaty cheese. Then he started choking. Mum slapped him on the back and he dropped the cup he held in one hand, scalding his lap. He fell from his chair and I could see one of his hands on the table, the back of the wrist on the edge and the palm open, fingers spread, the gesture you make when warming a glass of brandy. Mum ran for the house, Elise in her arms. I think I saw her lay Elise sideways on a sofa in the conservatory. She screamed when she entered the kitchen and saw her parents, who’d drunk from the flask earlier. I definitely heard the scream.

***

‘How many words a minute can you type?’

This was the first question asked when I went to the job centre and was appointed an advisor. I was eighteen and had a sixth-form woodwork qualification. I’ve been sculpting wood since I was a teenager, and my room at the time was filled with little pagan gods in oak and birch. ‘I, err, don’t really know. I’ve only typed at school, and that was for Life Skills. I guess if I -‘

‘Are you married, engaged, or living with a partner?’

I blanched a tad and stared at my knotted hands. ‘No’ I said. The advisor sighed. She was a plump woman in her mid-fifties, with thick plastic-framed spectacles and curled white hair touched with purple, so her head looked like a decayed rose-bush. ‘I doubt that a girl with your looks will be living on the dole very long’ she said. I don’t think that she said it kindly. Nor was I especially good-looking for my age, just young and untouched, though I suppose any such girl looked pretty to her. She fiddled with her typewriter, snatched the sheet from the roller, rang the buzzer for an underling, and handed it to her when she came, giving instructions for it to be delivered “upstairs”.

She folded her hands together on the table, bracing herself for a lecture she was about to give, when a sun rose behind her eyes and she looked at me anew. ‘My goodness!’ she cried, ‘you’re the tea girl!’ The tea girl. I had to stop myself laughing.

***

Not long after that fruitful interview I got a job as a teacher’s aide in a nursery school. (Back then we weren’t vetted like immigrants with suspected terrorist associations, so no-one called me “the tea girl”. Few child-carers were big readers of true crime, it seemed.) Since I was a teenager I’d always wanted just one child – not two, not three, not seven – just one to call my own and shower with love. I didn’t even see another parent in the picture, until Julie came along when I was thirty-five, and we adopted a two-year-old African boy through a charity Julie fundraised for. Like true godless liberals we’re a gay, multi-racial family with a parent (me) who practices Wicca. If we’d lived in the eighteenth century, I like to say, we would have been hung, drawn, quartered, then hung again for Christmas.

I learned of mum’s death while I was working at the nursery. I was rocking a weepy four-year-old in my arms while trying to convince another to not pull my skirt when I saw Emma through the window. I think I knew what she was going to say before she even said it. Not because of her manner or appearance – if a little subdued she was as calm as ever – but because she’d come here in the middle of my work day, which meant she must have bad news. There was a piece of bad news we had both been expecting for a long time. She let her eyes meet mine only when she was through the door. ‘It’s mum’ she said, while I rocked the little boy. I gave her a ‘what will be will be’ smile, and she smiled back.  ‘Meet me at JoJo’s?’ I said. JoJo’s was a cafe.

The priest said that she died of a broken heart, but I was more practical (for a woolly-headed pagan, anyway). She died because her constant terror, only abated, never vanquished, stopped her eating. At one point she lived on milk and a couple of dry slices of bread a day, until my grandmother, whom we lived with after what happened, threatened to have her committed unless she started eating again. Mum adored her mother-in-law, who’d sheltered her with her home and strong parental warmth, and didn’t take the threat sourly. The two slices of bread progressed to two or three cheese or ham sandwiches. It was because of my grandmother, too, that mum didn’t coddle Emma and me to a psychotic extent, allowing us room for friendships, if not boyfriends. ‘You’ll have them, of course’ Nana said, ‘but don’t bring them home and don’t mention them. I don’t mind, but you know how your mother is. She loves you both so much that she barely has space for anyone else.’

Nana died when I was 17, mum when I was 20. Without Nana to police her she dwindled down to nothing again. We made the old threat of committal, but it wasn’t the same coming from us, her daughters, and we’d frequently find bits of food stashed about the house. A chicken leg here, tomato slices there. She became an artist at it. Like a psychic seeming to bend spoons, while secretly manipulating them with his thumbs, she could seem to eat a drumstick, tearing the flesh away with her teeth. She’d then move the morsel around her mouth, swallow some spit, and in the act of wiping her mouth with her hand secret the food, then stick it behind her ear or in her hair. She fell asleep on the sofa one afternoon and never woke up.

Later that year I took a week and a bit off work and made a pilgrimage with friends to the Hill of Tara in Ireland, where we discreetly performed some pagan rituals dreamed up by an Irish mystic, Nora Murphy, in the nineteenth century. Any passing tourists or locals probably assumed we were hippies, and perhaps we were. The unofficial leader of our group was a short, curvaceous woman in her early thirties. Her name was Sally Graves and we slept together a few times. We sat in a circle about twenty feet from the Stone of Destiny, an upright cylindrical rock which served as the coronation stone for the old kings of Ireland. We didn’t hold hands, but folded them together in our laps while Sally intoned the words of the mystic.

‘The mysteries of gods and men, their beginnings and their ends, like huge and holy trees, are sometimes better left unbent. We yearn, we dream, we pray, but sometimes silence is the way.’ My love of learning rebelled against this thought, though when the time for questioning came (each of the mystic’s lessons were followed by an invitation to rebuttal, like the “speak now or forever hold your peace” line at weddings) I stayed silent.

‘Edie?’ said Sally after the circle broke up. I was stood with my back to the Stone of Destiny, watching that day’s sun sink below the trees. I turned my face to her and smiled. ‘Yes?’

‘Are you okay? You didn’t seem at ease in the circle.’

I turned back to the sun and the trees. ‘I was mulling over what you said about things better left unspoken. Do you really believe that?’ Sally laughed and put an arm around me. ‘Oh, Edie’ she said, ‘those are the words of a batty old bitch from 1842. Nora Murphy may have been a great mystic, but think of what she said like hail Marys: just something to focus the mind.’ I kissed her then, and felt the urge to make love.

***

We’d been at the cottage three days when mum first brought Fletcher Rooney (Fletch for short), a local boy whose dad was a chemist. He was fifteen and had helped her carry groceries, taking on most of the seven bags. He laid them on the table in the kitchen, where I sat by the stove reading a children’s book about ancient Egypt. I’d read the same chapter about the gods and goddesses of the age several times, and was secretly delighted when Fletch leaned over my shoulder and said ‘what’s all this, then?’ He behaved like that, like he wanted to be a man in his early 50s. He’d even ruffle my hair and talk about “old times”. ‘Old times for you must be pre-natal!’ dad once joked at the dinner table, when he and his dad were our guests.

‘They’re magic!’ I said, ‘this one has a dog’s head because he likes to scare people, and this one…’

‘I see’ he said, and I knew I was being dismissed, so turned sulkily back to my book. Mum had just walked in with the last two bags, which he ran to help her take the last two inches to the table. I was five at the time and it was a year before what happened. I guessed that Fletch had a crush on her, as any heterosexual teenage boy might. She was slender but her breasts were full and her skin flawless, which made her lips stand out sharply even when she wore no lipstick. Fletch’s mother had died when he was ten. ‘You’ve been a life-saver, young master Fletcher!’ she said, slapping a hand on his shoulder. He grinned at her. ‘Won’t you stay for dinner, or will your father be expecting you?’

‘Oh no, Mrs. Phillips, he’s gone to the city, for a conference or something.’

‘And left you all alone?’ mum replied, pausing as she unloaded the shopping. Fletcher blushed. ‘Well, I am fifteen, and he left me plenty to eat.’

‘Well, that’s all very well, young Fletcher, but now I’m afraid I must insist that you join us for steaks!’ Fletcher smiled as though a rock band’s lead singer had just asked him to come up on stage. I rolled my eyes.

I didn’t see my grandparents’ bodies or the events leading up to their deaths, but years later I tried to imagine the scene. Why did they drink the tea with which dad had filled his flask before taking a walk that morning? I picture granddad saying ‘fancy a brew, love?’

‘There’s a pot made just half an hour ago. Be a lamb and pop it on the stove.’

Granddad obeys, opening a cupboard as he does, then takes down two mugs, a white one with pink spots and another bearing the blue insignia of Tottenham Hotspurs. (In reality, these were the mugs Julie and I drank from the morning after we first made love. She’s the ‘spurs fan, I assure you.) Would re-boiling have nullified whatever poison the tea was tainted with? I don’t know. If it would have, maybe they settled for lukewarm or even cold tea? I don’t really know enough about my dad’s parents to answer that.

I once made a sketch of this daydream in the style of a newspaper cartoon. They’re both sitting at the table, contemplating their drinks, granddad’s open mouth indicating speech, and the caption below says “Blimey! This stuff don’t ‘alf ‘ave a kick to it!”

I started drawing aged four, but back then all I produced were princesses, pharaohs, and Egyptian gods crudely copied from storybooks. I tried to impress Fletcher with my drawings that penultimate summer, and sometimes he feigned interest, always when my mother was in the room.

***

Emma lived in the house where our mother and grandmother died for twenty-three years. She worked as a TV producer and travelled the world, so she only occupied the house between four and six months a year. It amuses me to think that, though she’s straight and I’m gay, I’ve led the more traditional life, Wicca or no Wicca. Married with child, queen of domesticity, making pies and taking names (at the primary school where I teach art).

Emma moved out only because her job was becoming more centralised in London, where she’d earned a job as the full-time lead producer for a daytime magazine show. During her last week at the house I took time off work to help her move. It was early morning when I went into my grandmother’s attic for the first time, I think, in more than two decades. It was an old-fashioned space, which covered the length and breadth of the house beneath a peaked roof, a fanlight window at north and south. Dust coated the beams like a well-loved cardigan.

Looking around, I saw little that I thought would be of interest to Emma, and which had probably stood still since Nana was alive. An umbrella stand with a broken arm, a rusted birdcage (Nana had owned a canary), some ladies’ shoes with mangled lining and loose heels. Below the window at the south end was an old-fashioned toy box, designed to look like a treasure chest. I opened it, expecting to find some old clothes which might be re-used or given to charity shops. There were a couple of faux-fur coats, which nowadays might be worn to a 1940s-themed fancy dress party.

I took them out, and underneath was a large, plastic-ring bound scrapbook with a solid black cover. I don’t know what I expected to find inside when I opened it – baby pictures of dad and his brothers, perhaps, or even of Nana herself – but what I saw were newspaper clippings. It took me a moment to recognise Fletcher Rooney with his dad in one of them; I hadn’t thought about him in years. My family and I were in another, sitting on the porch at the rear of our home in London. I, not yet one year old, was in dad’s arms and we were smiling at each other. Mum had Elise and Emma on each of her knees, and they all smiled at the camera. I had no memory of this picture being taken. Above it was the headline ‘HAPPY FAMILY TORN APART BY SICK MURDERER’.

Sick. Mum would never talk of what happened, only reminisced about what a great man dad was (she talked about Elise when asked, but with reluctance), and all Nana would say was that the killer was a ‘sick young man who’s being punished as we speak’. It may surprise you to know that in those days that was enough for a lot of people. We still considered violent crime mostly in terms of good and evil, sane and insane, not schizophrenic, psychopathic, sadomasochistic etc. The killer was a sick young man. He is being punished. That was all we needed.

I snapped the book shut and almost dropped it. Instead, I placed it in my bag, left the attic, and made small-talk with my sister while helping her move her belongings.

***

When I got home I put the book in my bedside cabinet, the kind of cabinet which locked. Afterwards I put the key on the fob which held my house and car keys. An hour later Julie came home with Abdul, our son. We ate dinner, watched TV, and played a board game. I needed the distraction, and mostly I was distracted, but that night in bed I had a dream. I was back at the Hill of Tara, which I hadn’t patronised in ten years, and the place was dark and deserted. There was heavy wind, and the absence of even a hint of someone unsettled me more than a human presence might have. Where the Stone of Destiny should have stood was a wooden sculpture. I walked towards it, then halted when I saw it was mum. She looked the same as she did in the newspaper clipping, though she stood upright and there were no children at her knees. She didn’t look at me; her eyes seemed fixed on a point in the distance. I asked her wooden face, which reflected great care in its smoothness and shine, to tell me what happened. Who killed dad and sis and Nana and Granddad? Why did they kill dad and sis and Nana and granddad, and almost the rest of us? Mum’s wooden features didn’t move, but I heard a voice, not hers, say ‘only he was meant to die… I’ll tell you everything…’

But then the wood started to sag, as though it were being rotted by a water source inside it, and mum’s features drooped. The watery erosion was incredibly quick, like I was watching a sped-up film of the process. Mum’s smiling eyes and lips sagged, then the sculpture cracked open at the neck. The head fell to my feet, and an unseen force was now tearing the two halves of the sculpture apart. The sound of wood splintering was terrible, and I covered my ears. Tears fell and I wished I could scream. Finally, the splintering and even the heavy wind stopped. By this point my eyes were closed. I opened them to see a stump, terminating just above my mother’s waist, the ragged edges forming a canopy in which lay a male infant. The infant, silent and serene, turned its face to me and then I could scream.

I woke up gradually, the reality of the dream fighting a losing battle with conscious reality. The first object my conscious mind focused on was the alarm clock. It was 2:00am. Without any preamble I got out of bed, took my keys from the shelf above the headboard, opened the drawer, took out the scrapbook, and walked downstairs with it. I left it on the sofa while lighting a fire in the grate. This being the 21st century, we use radiators for heating and I’d never used the antique fireplace before. I only knew how because a neighbour interested in such relics once showed me. When I got it going I stood, looked at the flames for a few seconds, then picked up the book, and without hesitation threw it in. It burned easily enough.

Film review: Perfect Blue (1997)

It begins with a trio of Power-Ranger-esque heroes battling a giant robot in what looks like a stereotype of a Japanese children’s cartoon, and we wonder if this is part of the story. Then the shot pans out to reveal it’s all a stage show. We see a bored-looking audience and media people. This establishes the tone and theme of Perfect Blue, one of the most hypnotic and chilling psycho-thrillers ever made. (I’m including the daddy of the genre, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, in that.) Fantasy and reality, performance and spontenaity, the public and the private, blur to a point where they become indistinguishable, and you’re made to share the psychosis of the characters.

The films Perfect Blue most reminds me of are giallo, an Italian genre which peaked in the 1970s. Giallo, itself inspired by Hitchcock’s work, mixed complex murder mysteries with extreme gore and terror. Their plots depended on some obscure piece of abnormal psychology, while the victims and instigators of the violence were often women. This reflected male anxieties about females, which goes back to Hitchcock’s tortured blondes and brutish men.

Some giallo were masterpieces, equalling Psycho in their artistry (Deep Red, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage), while others were camp grotesqueries (Terror at the Opera, Phenomena). Where Perfect Blue, a Japanese anime, differs from those films is in its telling of the story from a uniquely female perspective, with no objective male observer to filter the plot through. Even Psycho‘s following of Marion Crane ends abruptly just three quarters of an hour in, the perspective shifting to that of her boyfriend, her sister, a private eye, and of course Norman Bates. The giallo that came closest to independent heroines were Terror at the Opera, in which the driver of the plot is ultimately male, and Phenomena, whose male observer leaves halfway through.

It is for this reason that Perfect Blue is as much an exploration of women’s anxieties about themselves as it is men’s, and how they cope with and help create the idealised female images we see in media. The film’s heroine, Mima (Japanese: Junko Iwao; English: Ruby Marlowe), a sweet and naive young starlet of the Britney Spears pre-meltdown variety, is a “pop idol”. Pop idols are big business in Japan, and are expected to not just be good singers, but flawless role models, embodying the traditional feminine virtues of meekness and modesty (which seems to be at odds with the sexy Moulin-Rouge-style outfits Mima and her peers in the real world wear, but there you go).

Mima’s promoter, Tadokoro (J: Shinpachi Tsuji; E: Gil Starberry), pushes her to leave the band in which she’s lead singer, and pursue a career as an actress in a seedy TV drama where she plays a traumatised rape victim. Mima’s motherly and protective agent, Rumi (J: Rica Matsumoto; E: Wendee Lee), is disgusted by this, but Mima plays along because, like her pop idol image, she’s submissive to the wills and needs of others. This submission to the re-moulding of her image has dark consequences, and soon Mima struggles to discern where the image ends and she begins. Meanwhile, a strange man calling himself Me-Mania (J: Masaaki Ōkura; E: Bob Marx) visits a website called “Mima’s Room”, where Mima the pop idol seems to live her own independent existence…

Part of what makes Perfect Blue so compelling and disturbing is its music, specifically its most notable and frequently used instrumental, called “Virtua Mima” on the soundtrack. The song is a mix of what sounds like strange religious chanting and wailing from several voices – sometimes overlapping, sometimes not – combined with a splash of drums and a constant jangling wind-chime effect. It underscores the goriest and most suspenseful scenes, taking us into a world away from the Tokyo of the film’s setting, a world where identity and experiences are always shifting. The hard-rock scores used in giallo have a similarly transcendent effect, though “Virtua Mima” is gentler and more insinuating. I can’t imagine this film without that instrumental.

After Mima becomes an actress and performs her rape scene (a blatant piece of exploitation lovingly concocted by her male handlers, and ignored by her female co-star) the “pop idol” side of her personality splits off to conduct a life of its own. She sees it in mirrors and windows, wearing her pop idol outfit and bemoaning her new actress persona. To me, this alter-ego is the scariest thing in the film, and it illustrates what I think most modern horror films do wrong when it comes to the scary-little-girl trope. Normally when the the trope is used, the little girl is pulling a “scary” face or singing a “creepy” nursery rhyme, and instantly we know she’s trying to scare us. Which isn’t scary.

Even when Darren Aaronofsky essentially remade this story as Black Swan he fell into the same trap: as Natalie Portman’s dancer turns her back to a mirror we see her reflection move of its own volition, but it’s pulling a “sinister” face that (for me, anyway) lessens the mood. The pop idol image in Perfect Blue exists for the purpose of reinforcing that image, and never lets the mask slip. The mask is all that exists. She never sneers, frowns, cries, or spoils her makeup. She’s always giggling and smiling, even while saying dreadful things. A shot of this mirage skipping down a Tokyo street, viewed from an alleyway as she passes, haunts me. She’s both totally unreal and totally unnerving.

The animation, directed by Satoshi Kon, is well-handled, and used to evoke images which just wouldn’t have the same impact in live action. Given the film’s theme – the abstract buying and selling of women’s bodies and personalities – it also provides a further comment on exploitation in pop culture. We’ve all heard the jokes about hentai, Asian schoolgirls, and tentacle-porn. In the aforementioned rape scene Mima shoots, we get a set-piece which wouldn’t seem out of place in 4chan gifs. And here we see yet another blurring of reality. The rape scene is, of course, fiction, performed by actors and controlled by the studio, yet Mima was pressured into it without fully understanding what its emotional impact would be. So where does the line between real and make-believe violence begin? She’s an innocent throughout, even in the midst of the violence that ensues. She’s intelligent and talented, but a wide-eyed girl in her dealings with the world.

Perfect Blue is extremely gory in its slasher scenes, which may have seemed absurd in live-action (the later giallo films tended towards the overwrought), but in animation feel perfectly sensible. Perfect Blue is a beautiful film which reminds me why I fell in love with psychological thrillers.

PerfectBlue

Short story: A Day at Work

The boy wanted a blue straw, but the cafe did not have a blue straw, so he compensated himself for the loss by screaming at his mother. The waitress, being a well-reared girl, reflected that her mother would have whooped these ill-manners straight out of her, not with hands, but a promise that, if she persisted, not only would she not get her straw, she’d have to find her own birthday presents.

Two booths back, a gentleman in a black hat, powder-blue formal shirt, and brown tweeds watched the scene, sipping his Coke through a red straw. His hamburger was eaten before the Madonna and child (he amused himself by calling them) were even visible in the cafe’s forecourt. Since then, he had picked off his chips one by one, bloodying their prostrate bodies with a red blob at plate’s edge.  Two brave little fellows; shards, really; remained.

‘Calm down, Tommy, please, or I’ll, I’ll…’ You’ll what, thought the waitress, discreetly shifting herself away from the scene. Once the pivot was complete, she saw one blue straw in a spray of reds, yellows, and greens, in the cup on the counter where they were kept. The cup she had checked three times for the little brat.

She turned, insanely hoping for an answer among the customers, and caught the creep in the black-hat winking at her. She ignored this, and debated whether to give the brat the straw. She was annoyed by his behaviour and took a sadistic thrill in his impotent rage. She plucked the straw from the cup and presented it to him, not expecting any gratitude, and not surprised when the mother berated her for not finding it the first three times. Dumb bitch, she thought as she walked back to the counter, I bet his daddy doesn’t treat you any better.

Still, it was strange she hadn’t found it before.  The third time she checked she rolled out and lined up the straws, examining each like soldiers at inspection. Maybe the manager, hearing the commotion from his office, took a straw from his glass and put it there. No, she thought, he rarely ventured far from his office, preferring to sit drinking iced tea and watching his portable TV all day.

It was probably the cook, she concluded, picturing the grease-flecked local boy wiping his hands on his apron and taking the straw from a cupboard supply. The brat’s drink was ordered after his ham sandwich and ice-cream. Soon he and his mother would leave, a prospect the waitress enjoyed while leant against the counter, fiddling with her badge. She didn’t look forward to a tip, as tolerant and submissive as she had been. The creep in the black hat, she noticed, was finally gone.

He leant beside the diner’s front door. The Madonna and child left, she trying to grip his rebellious paw while guiding them both down the steps. The man sensed the woman’s rage, bottled up and hidden in a windowless cellar. ‘They are a handful, aren’t they?’ he said when they’d reached the forecourt. The boy glanced at and paid him no more attention. He was just another grown-up spoiling his day.

‘Excuse me?’ said the mother. ‘I said they’re a handful, aren’t they? Children, I mean.’ She wondered if he was a Jehovah’s Witness or some nonsense like that. Didn’t they normally knock on people’s front doors, though? ‘I don’t know about yours, mister, but mine is just fine’ she replied as the boy twisted her wrist, impatient to be home. ‘Oh, I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to offend you or anything. We get very protective of our own, don’t we? I know if some slick fellow said something about my kid, well, I’d be pretty riled too. Honestly, though, I just wanted to express my sympathy, one parent to another…’

‘Mum…’ said the boy, dragging the vowel. The woman sighed and looked at her feet. ‘In fact’ he continued, ignoring the boy, ‘not long ago I wished I could just reach into my kids’ mean little minds and twist. Twist until they learned their manners…’ As he said the last four words the boy stopped protesting and grimaced. He sensed what seemed like the beginnings of a headache. ‘Mum?’ he said, more tentatively. The woman finally made eye contact with the man, letting her son’s hand fall. He was a handsome forty-something, lines etched from the corners of his eyes with delicate precision. In his youth, she supposed, he was a student athlete.

‘Who are you?’ she asked. ‘James McPhee’ he replied, ‘and I wouldn’t be much of a man if I didn’t confess I’m a salesman. Don’t worry, though, I’m not a cowboy. At least not professionally…’ He winked. He pulled what looked like a poker chip from his shirt pocket, took her hand and placed it there. She looked at it. It was leather, brown, somewhat scuffed, and featured a ram’s head etched in black. The boy was now half-consciously rubbing his temples. Normally, he would have screamed and cried, demanding instant relief; he was silent now for a reason he knew but didn’t understand.

‘By gifting you this token I grant you some of my power, but be aware that I can revoke it at any time, from anywhere in the world. The power is in the token, my lady-friend, and whenever you need your little treasure to shine less brightly, wrap your hand around it and think of me. But only until he learns; think too long and his head might explode!’

The boy stared at the man with animal hate, then glanced at his mother with fear. She knew the token’s price without needing to be told; what the salesman wanted was in his eyes.

***

Darkness swept Jerusalem, and the salesman slept well. Some desert church had been violated, its crucifix splintered against the stone altar, the beams tearing like limbs from a body on the rack.

On the salesman’s bedside table a newspaper lay, its front page proclaiming the murder/suicide of a rock musician against his three band-mates, all friends since childhood. He had known the band for a brief period two years ago when, appearing on their tour bus as a manager from their studio, begun to sow the seeds of envy and impatience between their singer/songwriter, Mitchell Harris, and his peers. His most significant conversation with Harris happened behind a curtain at the bus’ rear window, while the others lolled limp and blank in their chairs, as though practicing how they would eventually be found.

‘I don’t like clichés, Mitch, but these wasters really are holding you back.’

‘I don’t know, man, I’ve known most of them since primary school…’

Most of them. What about that loser you’ve got on the drums? Didn’t you meet him later, in high school, and isn’t the only reason his greedy, talentless backside’s here is because he once sold your bass player dope?’ Mitchell, a seemingly skinny but muscular young man with long, curly hair, who now wore a stained sleeveless basketball vest, plucked a guitar string and stared at nothing.

‘I guess.’

‘You guess? Come on, Mitch, we’ve known each other six months now, and in that time I’ve bothered to learn more about you than any of the mugs out there. These guys are your friends, I get that, and you don’t want to be disloyal because you’re a good man. But you’re also an artist, Mitch, and sometimes an artist needs to be ruthless, to choose between his friends and his music. Do you want to be just another dead-eyed waster like the dopes beyond that curtain? Or do you want to be great?’

Harris leaned his guitar against a chest of drawers, gentle as a mother arranging her son in his cot. He looked in the manager’s eyes, seeing a rock music acolyte whose time at the sides of the greats had taught him a lot about the business, who were the winners and who were the losers. ‘So how do I become great?’ he asked. The manager smiled, and took from his jacket what looked like a scuffed leather poker chip…

The salesman smiled in his sleep, snatches of memory from his days on tour as a roadie mingling with the images of destruction in the desert church, like a nightmare-slideshow. Discarding his guitar picks Harris used the chip the manager gave him, enthralling conspiracy theorists whose eyes caught the ram’s head as it dictated the music. The band, initially intent on making a cover album to replenish their bank accounts and give them more free time (time they would otherwise have to spend waiting for Harris’ muse), grew progressively submissive as the tour wore on.

After two years they were slaves as much to the ram’s head pick as they were to the dope, the money, or the women. Occasionally, however, the salesman let Hell boil over, sometimes to claim a few more souls for his quota, sometimes just for his own amusement. The murders happened when Harris locked himself and his band-mates in a sound-room to rehearse. The drummer hadn’t burned out, as the salesman predicted, but persisted long enough to herald his end with this question: ‘can’t we just play some Led Zeppelin and get out of here? I mean, I like your stuff, Mitch, but there’s no way it sounds like “Stairway to Heaven”, and a good cover of that could get us places.’

This rebellion, a momentary lifting of the veil between band and pick, orchestrated by the demon several hundred miles away in yet another hotel room, spurred Harris to take the bassist’s guitar. He fondled it for a moment, then raised and swung it like an axe at the drummer’s crown, splitting the latter like a ripe cantaloupe. Blood divided the dying man’s face like Indian war paint, and he fell to his knees, a child-like protest on his lips. Harris’ two other band-mates, stunned by the violence, signed their warrants with blank stares. As Harris ripped the guitar from the wound, an axe from a felled tree, a passing producer heard him scream: ‘does that sound like “Stairway to Heaven”, you cunt?!’

Not that Mitch ever was very talented. The salesman, a lover of Dante (his poetry, not his liquor-handling, which having drunk with him he considered sub-par), almost cringed when he had to listen to the creative process that produced lines like these:

“I hate mum

And I hate dad,

Society’s what made me mad.

I kill ‘cause love tore me apart,

Now I’ve got no beating heart!

 

I hope I die before I wake,

Not for mine but

FOR GOD’S SAKE!”

The salesman had little concept of what “God” truly was. He called Him Yahweh to mortalise him a little, make him a creature of senses and time. Contemplating what humans called the divine was the only thing which made him even slightly nervous. He didn’t fear Satan, that bumbling micro-manager, carving “targets” in hunks of brimstone like a prisoner calculating his internment, as if things like computers or, Christ, he thought, just notepads and pens, were only for mortals. Those targets were nonsense, anyway. What mattered was the quality of the souls accrued, not the quantity.

Souls like Mitchell Harris’ were just filler, sawdust for stuffing his quota. If Yahweh made him nervous, then that man-child would be made humbler than Ruth and the two Marys combined. The salesman thought this as he stood by the stage at Glastonbury, wearing a faded denim jacket-and-jeans, black-and-white dragon tee, and lank shoulder-length hair, curled and stringy like flaccid dreadlocks.

Once upon a time he had worn a sackcloth robe and stood among the poor of Babylon. His feet were unshod, and so he joined the ranks of those too impoverished to afford even sandals. In return for their company he gave them little stone idols, beyond crude (he was no artist), but just about resembling naked women with pubic hair stylised to seem like goats’ horns, terminating sharply to the left and right of their pelvises. When the time came to kneel before Babylon’s new golden idols, arranged by order of King Nebuchadnezzar, the peasants so gifted clutched their idols, a few with such ferocity the breasts almost caved in. And thus they were led by a false light into a false kingdom, falser even than Babylon. The false light of a shallow charisma guided their feet, though to outside eyes they appeared to be kneeling. Some, not yet arrogant enough to deny their instincts, turned back, dropping their idols onto the sand. Most kept walking.

***

He sat in one of Hell’s many waiting rooms (“sat” is a relative term, given the relative nature of the life beyond life). Sometimes portions of the wall shifted to resemble a human face which appeared to be screaming, though no sound emerged. The light in the room had no discernible source but was weak and flickering, as it was everywhere, like a broken strip-light in an abandoned hospital. Everything about Hell was tidy; organised; clinical. The demons, who perceived each other not as dimensional bodies but as thoughts, floated here and there in an action akin to a human fussing in its seat. When a human face appeared within sight of one it took the form of a half-man, half-goat, with blood-red skin, horns, and hooves. In this way, the demons were like playground bullies, easily and eagerly frightening the younger children.

The salesman avoided the game, not out of mercy but weariness. He’d been waiting six hundred years to be called for by the boss. By the time Satan’s secretary (an attractive thought if ever there was one, the salesman considered) tapped the inverted brimstone cross by her desk three times, Mitchell Harris, his band, and his music had long since vanished from the minds of men. The salesman didn’t recognise him as any of the faces that appeared in the Wailing Walls (so dubbed by the mocking demons). Maybe his soul had finally been cleansed.

The brimstone cross combusted. The salesman had been summoned. He left the thoughts of his fellows like a forgotten chore, and entered those of his boss as a promising idea. Satan presented himself as a fifty foot, anthropomorphic timber-wolf, whose right paw grasped the enlarged decapitated head of Mitchell Harris.

‘Impressed, Venditabant?’ Satan asked.

‘Mightily, my lord’ Venditabant lied.

‘I plan to appear at a moonlight vigil for this rock star of yours, about four-hundred years ago.’

‘Really?’ Venditabant said, ‘I’m surprised he lingered in the mortal eye for two centuries, let alone stayed renowned.’

Satan dropped the veil and appeared as a thought. Venditabant winced. He suddenly had a headache. ‘Oh yes’ Satan said, ‘but only among stupid teenagers and teenagers-at-heart. The disenfranchised are always the most easily led. You know, when I received his soul’ – here the singer’s head appeared again and was rolled towards a pile of human and rat skulls (an abstract sculpture by Satan which he called ‘Man’s Insignificance’; if a thought can roll its eyes, this is what Venditabant did when he first saw it) – ‘I almost reprimanded you for sacrificing quality for quantity, but really I shouldn’t have been pushing you so hard. You can’t always send monks and nuns down the pipeline.’ This is the closest Satan would ever come to an apology for a bad idea. The brimstone scoreboards were gone, Venditabant noticed.

‘And besides, this idiot’s soul has proven itself very useful, so much so I’ve developed quite a fondness for it. Not enough to prevent my inflicting a little recreational torture from time to time, of course, but fondness nonetheless.’

‘It’s still here, then? It wasn’t one of the last batch that was redeemed?’

Satan bristled. He didn’t like being reminded of the redemptions. Every few thousand years Yahweh would send some of his thugs down to perform a harrowing, where the souls considered punished enough were rounded up. Stolen, as Satan put it. ‘Definitely not’, he said. ‘This one’s a real bastard, believe it or not. For all his ignorance, he’s a narcissist at heart. You know what he saw when I showed him the ideal End. He saw what everyone sees: men, women, and children bodily degraded beyond imagination, and like so many he kept walking, expecting a place away from the degradation for his callousness. The soul embodied in that head over there hasn’t changed one iota in six hundred years. The divine compassion will not take root. The soil is too spoiled.’

Venditabant wasn’t surprised. ‘Which leads me nicely onto why I summoned you, Vinny. There’s another soul you tried to accrue for me, a daughter of Eve who couldn’t control her Cain. I remember you dressed yourself as something akin to the Marlboro Man to seduce her.’

‘Has she not succumbed? I haven’t thought about her in centuries.’

‘Evidently. She emerged from her spiritual torpor just as the child was entering its first year of big boy school. She cast her chip into the fire, and now, instead of using our fine services, she’s decided not to spare the rod.’

Good on her, Venditabant thought. ‘You summoned me for the sake of one woman’s soul. Why do you want it so badly?’

‘While I may not be holding you to your targets, Vinny, I do still keep track, and this is the only soul handled by you, in the last millennial quarter, which hasn’t been delivered. Think of your ego, man. Do you really want to be remembering her in eighty years as “the one that got away”?’

Venditabant could see his point. If a thought can sigh, he sighed. If he was the Marlboro Man last time, this time he’d have to be three Casanovas.

Film review: Return to Oz (1985)

(This was going to be a simple 500-word review, but ballooned to essay length.)

Rating: 3.5 out of 4 stars

Many would soak me with a pail of water for saying this, but I prefer director and co-writer Walter Murch’s dark, strange film Return to Oz to the Judy Garland version, The Wizard of Oz. That isn’t necessarily to say that I think it’s a better film. The 1939 musical (which is the third adaptation of Frank L. Baum’s children’s tales, hence why I called it the Judy Garland “version” and not “original”) is a masterpiece of tone, style, and content. It’s a perfect object, every sound, image, and performance finely crafted, and perfectly presented, within a framework of gentle vaudevillian whimsy.

Return, on the other hand, in skewing much closer to Baum’s original vision, is a relatively surreal film which sometimes looks like one of those outrageous 50s horrors, starring someone like Vincent Price as a mad scientist. If Wizard is camp vaudeville, Return is Gothic romance. This tone and style is what attracts me. I’ve always preferred the Gothic to the knowingly camp, which doesn’t mean that I have any problem with the latter, it’s just not as close to my particular tastes.

If I was rating this film in purely emotional terms, I’d give it a 4/4, but I try to be somewhat objective when expressing what I feel are the relative merits of a work, and Return is far from perfect. It’s more a momentary triumph, hurtling you from one great set-piece to the next without a real sense of journey. This may be a result of its narrative base: it moulds the second and third Oz books, The Marvelous Land of Oz (which didn’t star Dorothy) and Ozma of Oz, into one.

Return to Oz was one of the many 80s movies which boasted ground-breaking special effects to mixed reactions from critics and audiences. In its day, Return was a critical and commercial disaster, making less than half of its 28 million dollar budget, though it did get recognition for its Oscar-nominated special effects (the winner that year was Cocoon, another 80s visual extravaganza).

Playing Dorothy in this film is Fairuza Balk, a somewhat lesser-known actress popular among fans of 90s goth culture for her role as Nancy, the tragic, psychotic teen witch in The Craft (1996). Nancy could be viewed as the yang to Dorothy’s yin, but maybe I’m labouring a point just because the actress’ appeal is similar in both roles, even if they are polar opposites. Balk, about 11 when she filmed Oz (her debut), has the same dark eyes and full lips that she did in her early 20s, when she played Nancy, making her seem a little like a Gothic Victorian dress-up doll.

Dorothy, of course, is innocence personified. She’s fine-mannered and aware, at all times, of an absolute distinction between right and wrong. When Judy Garland played her this gave the character a camp aspect, largely because Garland was about 17 when she played the role. Simply by virtue of being pre-pubescent herself, then, Balk’s performance is a lot more natural and child-like. (Garland probably wasn’t trying to be naturally child-like, of course. That film’s vaudeville style lends itself to caricature, and the vivid one she drew for us is rightly among the most renowned in cinema.)

Return to Oz begins with Dorothy suffering insomnia at the isolated Kansas farmhouse of her guardians, Aunt Em (Piper Laurie, in another role that’s yin/yang, with her famous performance as the deranged fundamentalist mother in Carrie) and Uncle Henry (Matt Clark). They blame the trauma of the tornado that took their house in Wizard, and send her to the sanatorium of Dr. Worley (Nicol Williamson), a crackpot Victorian pseudo-scientist touting a form of electroshock therapy. Alone and afraid in her cell, Dorothy is led by the hand by a mysterious little girl into the woods, when a storm occurs…

What may surprise Wizard of Oz fans is how little we see of the Tin-Man, Lion, and Scarecrow, the latter of whom was crowned king of the Emerald City, Oz’s capital, before the land and its good inhabitants were turned to stone by the Nome King (Williamson again, which I didn’t realise until I looked up the film on Wikipedia, I think because we see too little of Dr. Worley in the beginning to establish a great connection).

I’m not even sure if the Tin-Man and Lion have any lines. Replacing them as Dorothy’s companions are Tik-Tok, a small brass robot whose brain and hydraulics have to be wound up by a second party, Billina, a talking chicken whose dry commentary kept me amused, and Jack Pumpkinhead, another scarecrow, who bears a passing resemblance to Jack Skellington in 1993’s The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Return to Oz is a masterpiece visually. It’s packed with stunning sights and effects that are some of the most mesmeric in cinema. In a scene where Dorothy interacts with the Nome King, he propels her through an abstract landscape inside his mountain domain where precious stones are formed, creating a kaleidoscope effect. This rivals the tunnel scene from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and even approaches some of the grand cosmic visuals in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Speaking of the Nome King, he suggests one of many plot holes apparent to those prone to analysing even kiddie films. It’s not a spoiler that Dorothy eventually confronts the king, and instead of neutralising her immediately, he plays a game with her. The film explains this in a bit where the king says that the game is “more fun”, but I didn’t buy that, and the plot hole bothered me.

That is, until I reached a satisfying theory: the Nome King is Satan and Dorothy is Jesus (hear me out). In the famous Bible story, Satan takes Jesus up a mountain and shows him all the kingdoms of the earth, promising him every one if only Jesus will worship him. Jesus, of course, refuses, and in a scene in Return to Oz the Nome King offers Dorothy a way out of the game, if only she will betray her loyalties. On the one hand, the script could have been tighter if it had offered us such an explanation for the Nome King’s actions, but on the other, maybe this is something children understand without needing to articulate. The Nome King is bad, Dorothy is good, and so the Nome King wants Dorothy to be bad.

Allegories aside, there’s another fantastic villain, Princess Mombi (Jean Marsh), an evil witch with a detachable head, whose scenes are truly, wonderfully macabre. Some have described this film as creepy, but for me “creepy” suggests repulsion, and nothing in this film repulsed me. Well, except maybe the Wheelers (all played by John Alexander), Mombi’s slave-race of men with wheels for hands and feet. When one first appears you see a static, metal mask that’s quite intimidating. But then the thing raises its head, you see the face of a middle-aged man with eye shadow and coloured hair, the others arrive, and they just look like backing dancers in a Pet Shop Boys video. Still, they were amusing and didn’t outstay their welcome.

As I’ve said, Return to Oz is far from perfect. Its plot is loosely arranged, without much natural progression or narrative urgency, so what it feels like is a series of colourful set-pieces rather than an epic fantasy. But the set-pieces are so good, the characters so vividly realised, that the film becomes mesmeric. It’s a masterpiece of special effects, and its darker tone allows more intimacy with the world and beings it creates. Again, many would soak me with a pail of water for saying this, but where the cast of Judy Garland’s Wizard of Oz are amusing companions, the heroes of Return to Oz are friends.

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