Thursday, 27 March 2014

Ragnarok

Writer: Alan Moore
Cast: Jon Glover, David Tate, Norma Ronald
Country: UK
Year of release: 1983
Reviewed from: UK video (Nutland)

Okay, sports fans. How many films can you name based on stories by Alan Moore? Well, there’s V for Vendetta and From Hell and The League of Explain to Me Again Why I’m Watching This Crap. And if you’re reading this in 2008 or later you can probably add Watchmen to that list.

What has been entirely forgotten is that Alan Moore’s first screen credit was produced as far back as 1982. It’s 70 minutes long (though the packaging claims “approximately 90 minutes”), it’s British and it’s a (just about) animated sci-fi adventure with ray guns, spaceships, aliens and a talking dinosaur. It’s called Ragnarok and it’s extraordinary.

Calling this production ‘animated’ is stretching the definition of the term because it is told through a series of still drawings, rostrum-filmed in varying degrees of close-up and edited together to tell a story. There is the occasional addition of a death-ray, an explosion or a flashing light but in the animation stakes this falls somewhere between Bleep and Booster and Mr Ben.

Ragnarok himself is a sort of space-roving law enforcement character or ‘Regulator’ who seems to be judge, jury and executioner, somewhat in the manner of Judge Dredd. He has a spaceship called the Sunscreamer, equipped with a computer named VOICE, represented by a digitised image of a woman with long hair. Our hero has a variety of large guns and grenades as well as body armour and a helmet.

His companion is Smith, a flying (well, floating) blue alien who looks like a cross between a manta ray and a jellyfish. Smith communicates through a sort of electrical crackle, Ragnarok speaks English, but they seem to understand each other. Smith can also fire some sort of energy ray from his pointy tail.

The ‘film’ is divided into three parts, the first running about half an hour and the others about twenty minutes apiece - and there are clear differences in the drawing style between all three. In ‘The Shattered World’, a grizzly space prospector named Weegee is collecting minerals from an asteroid, accompanied by his talking cyber-mule Sparkplug (who dreams of transferring his electronic brain into a pleasure droid - and yes, he does make ‘hee-haw’ noises). Weegee’s partner Charlie is messily gunned down in cold blood by the villainous Daddy Bonus and his two henchmen, Razormouth (who has a metal jaw) and Jittercat (who has a head like a leopard).

Alerted by VOICE, Ragnarok comes to the rescue, first killing seven of Daddy Bonus’ other henchmen elsewhere on the asteroid. Most he guns down but two of them drift off into space when Ragnarok switches off their gravity boots. The bad guy has hung Weegee upside-down without functioning life-support on his space-suit in an attempt to get him to reveal where the logbook is, which is what Bonus needs to jump the claim. Our somewhat amoral hero despatches Jittercat and Razormouth and rescues Weegee, leaving Bonus in a similar predicament. The ‘twist’ (which is given away in the sleeve blurb!) is that the asteroids are the remnants of humanity’s original home-world, which was destroyed by war a million years ago. It had a strange name like Dirt or Mud... you can see where this is going.

‘Gates of Hell’ finds the Sunscreamer answering an automatic distress call on the planet Yatan where an interdimensional gateway has gone wrong. Ragnarok and Smith find the world in ruins with only one living being - a sentient Tyrannosaurus named Arang or Hran or somesuch. Hran has a little jacket, a plumed helmet and a refined English accent - and he can throw things around and blow them up using only the power of his mind. It seems that he came through the gateway from a universe where dinosaurs didn’t die out but became the dominant species on Earth and subsequently throughout the galaxy. He has killed and destroyed everything on Yatan and now seeks no less than complete control of the universe, but first he has to get off the planet so he needs Ragnarok’s spaceship.

Guns and grenades have no effect on Hran and even Smith’s energy ray only irritates him. When our heroes think they have finally killed the beast, they race back to the Sunscreamer which takes off, blasting Hran with its engines as he tries to stop them. An epilogue shows two salvage men picking up the same distress signal from Yatan and deciding to head down to the planet, despite a recent official announcement that no-one must land there. This leads into...

...the third part ‘Sacrifice’ which is set on the Regulators’ homeworld of Kobar. We get to see other Regulators although the only ones given names are John Brittlemask (who gets killed) and a young woman named Slow Jane who serves no narrative purpose whatsoever. In charge of them all is a large, elderly woman named Mother Blood who has a grey bun, a permanent snarl and a scar across her eye which switches sides between drawings.

Hran has escaped Yatan and made his way to Kobar where, once again, no-one and nothing can stop him. Ragnarok lures the dinosaur onto a spaceship called the Void Angel with the intention of piloting it into a black hole, thereby ending the unstoppable threat of the loquacious, telekinetic tyrannosaur. But Smith stows away aboard the vessel, knocks out Ragnarok and puts him into an escape pod before piloting the ship to destruction himself.

“Why did he do that?” Ragnarok asks Mother Blood later. “He wasn’t even human.” “Perhaps he loved you,” suggests the matriarch. “Perhaps aliens can love after all.”

It should be evident from these plot synopses that the stories are extremely simplistic pulp sci-fi with no real character development or thought-provoking concepts. None of these would pass muster as a 2000AD ‘Future Shock’, that’s for sure. The final musings on platonic cross-species love seem completely out-of-place after seventy minutes of shooting first and asking questions later.

All the voices for these three adventures - which don’t have separate opening and closing title sequences - are supplied by Jon Glover, David Tate and Norma Ronald. Glover and Tate were both regulars on Week Ending and the former also did a lot of voices for Spitting Image while the latter is probably best known to sci-fi fans as Eddie the Computer in the radio and TV versions of Hitchhiker’s Guide. Ronald was in The Men from the Ministry and had a semi-regular role as Straker’s secretary in UFO.

There is no director listed and Moore is credited only with ‘stories’ not script so it’s not clear whether he wrote this or just came up with the ideas. As he was very much at the start of his career, just a jobbing writer, I suspect he wrote all the dialogue himself. The character was designed by no less a personage than Bryan Talbot, who also drew the cool image on the video sleeve. The actual illustrations on screen are by Dave Williams, Raz and Ham Khan (who I believe are Argentinean), Don Wazejewski, Mark Farmer and Mike Collins - some of whom went on to become big names in the comics field, working for DC, Marvel and of course 2000AD. The only other person credited is David King, who wrote the music (Alan Moore knows the score!).

This bizarre video - essentially an on-screen comic - was produced and released (in March 1983) by Nutland Video Ltd, a company based in Southend-on-Sea. The film has a 1982 copyright date on screen but a 1983 date on the box. The company also produced two rather more genteel videos along similar lines. The Adventures of Gumdrop was based on a series of children’s books by Val Biro about a vintage car and was narrated by Peter Hawkins. Tales of Bobby Brewster was based on a series of books by HE Todd about a young boy and his oddball adventures. There is an advert at the end of Ragnarok for these two videos along with two completely incompatible titles also released by Nutland: Seven X Dead, a retitling of the 1974 US horror film The House of Seven Corpses starring Faith Domergue and John Carradine; and a 1981 US football comedy with the jaw-droppingly awful title The Kinky Coaches and the Pom Pom Pussycats.

A hilariously bland voice - presumably the owner of Nutland Video, whoever he was - reads out the details of all four videos in a monotone that applies the same level of excitement to the phrase ‘When they play... everybody scores’ as it does to describing a vintage car. Seven X Dead is pronounced ‘Seven Times Dead’ and Faith Domergue is pronounced ‘Faith Domergoo’. Nutland’s slim catalogue of titles also included Claude Mulot’s Franco-Italian thriller The Contract, a collection of four cartoons called Zilch! (which may have been more of the rostrum drawings subgenre) and a single episode of Spectreman, the packaging for which included a free Spectreman mask!

Despite its importance as an early work by one of the world’s top comic writers, Ragnarok seems to be completely unknown. The only reference to it anywhere on the web is on Bryan Talbot’s own site where he says: “I met the Nutland Video guys when they did a presentation at a Society of Strip Illustration meeting and I proposed they do a Science Fiction animated feature. I recommended Alan Moore as writer (he was relatively unknown then and looking for work) and he created the character Ragnarok and wrote the script. I designed the character and did the cover illo and logo.”

I picked up this tape from a dealer at the Festival of Fantastic Films in 2007, proving that however dead VHS may seem there are always discoveries to be made. I wonder who owns the rights to this now. It would be an interesting item for some enterprising DVD label to release on the back of the publicity for Watchmen.

MJS rating: B+

8 comments:

  1. Any chance you're willing to sell this VHS or make a copy of it? I am an animation collector/historian, and always on the lookout for obscurities/curiosities. I am especially intrigued by fantasy and sci-fi animations. I'd love to view this film but cannot seem to locate more copies online. Thank you.

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  2. Any luck? I'd also like to watch this movie.

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  3. Thanks for your comment, Jian. It seems this remains unavailable. I'm genuinely surprised no-one has tried to release it.

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  4. Nope, no luck. I assume MJ is uncomfortable with or unwilling to help make this available over the internet since my comment went unanswered last year.

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  5. Somebody somewhere owns the rights to this, so I'm not putting it on the web. I respect other people's copyright as I expect them to respect mine. Plus I wouldn't know how to do it if I wanted to!

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  6. I understand your wish to respect copyright on one hand, but on the other hand... when something is THIS obscure, I doubt the rights holders... whoever that may be — Nutland Video Limited, Mike Collins, Mark Farmer, Bryan Talbot, Alan Moore —would really care if this was reproduced among a small group of interested fans of Moore's works. If anyone was wishing to profit from this 'semi-animated' film, it wouldn't be so difficult to find information about or locate. Your blog is one of the only detailed references to this film on the internet. There's virtually no information out there on this film. There's no video clips, and there's no still frames. Just this scan of the VHS' cover art is all that exists to provide insight to the look/design of the film.

    I run an obsure animated film blog, and wanted to write a post about this movie. However, I don't write about films unless I have a video clip/trailer/teaser and if I have a handful of screenshots/still frames.

    Unfortunately I cannot find either for this film, and thus do not have enough media to produce a compelling/worthwhile blog post on this film. Just posting about the film with this VHS cover isn't going to be consistent with the posts for other films on the blog, so I'm waiting until I have video and stills from this film to share.

    That's why I asked if I could buy the VHS from you, borrow yours to make a copy and return it to you, or if you had the means to copy it on my behalf. It was to spread awareness of this virtually unknown film on my blog.

    I don't believe that goes against copyright. Typically if you are advertising/marketing an intellectual property, it is fair use. So I think sharing 2 to 3 minutes of the footage, and like 10 still frames would not break copyright if they are part of a blog post bringing attention to the film.

    But since you said you don't know how to capture video/image from this VHS, it's a moot point.

    I just haven't been able to find another copy of this tape online and the only references are your blog, a Bryan Talbot fan page, and a couple of books (through Google Books) about Alan Moore. This film practically doesn't exist as far as Google search results are concerned.

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    1. Aldebaran, how can I contact you?

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    2. the@animationactivist.com is my email for animation research. Thank you.

      I just figure with it having been 33 or 34 years since this film was released on VHS format, but has never since been re-released on another format, the rights holders aren't too concerned about copyright.

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